A/N: Ok. What to say. This fic was difficult to write on a number of levels. First because, though I do love me some nitty-gritty angst, when push comes to shove I'm almost always a happy-ending kind of girl. This little one-shot doesn't go that way, though. Second, because it's not my ship. I'm totally, completely, 100% a Jane/Gunther girl. This little one-shot doesn't go that way either. And third because it was written sort of as an exploration of grief, intended to be a tribute to Janefan13 who, as some of you know, was a diehard JATD fanficcer who recently passed away at the age of 16. This ficlet was written as a gift from me to her... to her memory. Janefan13, I wish I'd done this for you while you were alive. I hope you would have liked it.
"Oh... hello." The boy in blue stopped in his tracks, panting slightly from his climb, uncertainty clear on his face and in his voice. It was obvious that he had expected this spot to be deserted. And that was not an unreasonable expectation. There had only been one person who'd spent any amount of regular time here, on the windswept top of the castle's highest tower.
And that person was gone.
He'd come up here in an effort to feel close to her, just for a moment or two; to close his eyes and pretend that she was simply off standing sentry duty somewhere, or running errands for Sir Theodore, or stoically enduring one of the princess's interminable tea parties, or... or flying patrol with Dragon. That last was his favorite fantasy, because it had been her favorite activity... and so it was how he most loved to imagine her.
Imagine. Not remember. He wasn't ready to call it remembering yet. That was too painful, that... came too close to admitting that it was all over, that he understood and accepted that those things would never happen again.
He didn't understand it. And he sure as hell couldn't accept it. It was just... God, it was just too unfair. He wasn't a child anymore, he knew that life wasn't always fair... but did it have to be this senseless and cruel?
Maybe he'd come to terms with it someday. But not today. Not tomorrow. Not next week or next month. He wasn't ready yet; he was too full of grief. Full to overflowing. And whatever negligible little space inside of him was not taken up by grief, that was where the anger festered. Anger at himself, anger at her, anger at the world and life and fate. So much had changed in him, since she'd been gone; he thought of himself the way he'd been just a few short days ago... he did not think he would recognize that carefree, happy fool if he met him on the street today. He could hardly remember what life had been like, without the crushing weight of this mingled sorrow and rage that had taken over his heart.
So. Acceptance? No. There was no room in him for acceptance. Acceptance implied calm, it implied peace, it implied a certain... faith in the order of things. And he didn't feel any of that right now. Only a naked, howling sense of loss that he had learned he could dull, if only for a few minutes at a time, by visiting her favorite haunts and closing his eyes and... imagining.
Apparently... apparently he wasn't the only one, either.
The other boy, the one with broad shoulders and dark hair, was seated at the far end of the circular space, his back to the parapet. His shoulders were hunched, knees drawn up and arms crossed over the tops of them. He was staring out over the ramparts... though at what, it was impossible to say.
"What do you want?" His voice, when he spoke, was dull; flat. Dead. And he didn't turn his head to look at the newcomer. Just kept staring off into the middle distance somewhere.
"I just..." Jester mounted the last couple of steps and came out onto the towertop. "She... uhm... this was one of her favorite places." He dropped into a sitting position himself, a few feet away from the dark-haired boy. It was a graceless motion. His usual litheness, fluidity of movement, had utterly deserted him since... well, since. These past several days, it had felt as if all his limbs were made of lead.
Gunther shot him a quick sideways glance, then returned his steel-colored gaze to the horizon. "Yes," he said quietly, "I know."
A long silence spun out. Conversation had never come easily between these two. They had very little in common, after all.
Except her, of course.
They had her in common. Dissimilar as they were from one another, each of them had loved her... demonstrating it in very different ways.
It was Gunther who eventually spoke, still staring across the ramparts at nothing. His voice had lost that wooden dullness that it had held when Jester'd first arrived; now it sounded... tight, somehow. Constricted; brittle; as if there were something inside of him that was dangerously close to breaking. Or, maybe, something that had broken already and that he was trying to press back together again. Trying without success.
"Is it going to hurt like this forever?"
Jester slowly raised his head from where he'd lain it atop his own drawn-up knees. Gave his companion a long, measuring look. Gunther's skin was ashen, his striking, silver-colored eyes sunk in dark hollows of fatigue, his hair stringy and unkempt. He looked, in short, like absolute hell. Jester wondered briefly whether he himself looked any better.
"I -" his voice was a rusty, unlovely croak. He broke off; swallowed hard; cleared his throat. Tried again. "I do not know. I cannot... imagine enduring this forever. It... hurts like... nothing I have ever known."
"Yes," Gunther said again, "I know." He leaned back fully against the parapet then, letting his head tip backward so that it was resting against the stone. His eyes fell shut. He looked utterly exhausted, and both older and younger than he actually was. "Jane." His voice was half-whisper, half-croak. "Oh God, Jane. Jane." He pulled in a deep, heaving breath... then another, and another. He was clearly struggling to maintain control. It looked to be a losing battle.
"She would not want this," Jester said, wondering how it was that he was forming words at all when his lips, his tongue - all of him, really, every inch of his body - felt so overwhelmingly numb. "It would hurt her to see us this way. She would hate it."
"Yes," Gunther replied a third time, his voice now little more than a choked sob, "I know. And yet, it will not hurt her. She will never... feel... any... anything..."
Then he really was sobbing. He well and truly was. Jester thought this might be the first time since... since the unthinkable had happened. He was absolutely floored. He'd never seen Gunther this unguarded, this vulnerable, this raw. He had no idea what to do.
"Gunther... Gunther..." He was just repeating the other boy's name, with no clear concept of what to say even if he managed to get his attention.
At length, Gunther dragged in a long, hitching, scraping sort of breath, his chest heaving with the effort of it. He clenched his jaw, swiping one hand defensively - angrily - across his eyes. Then, a moment later, clenched them both in the dark hair at his temples. Jester noted distantly that Gunther's hands were filthy. There was grime caught beneath his fingernails; nails that were, themselves, jagged and either ripped or bitten down to the quick. It occurred to the boy in blue to wonder whether Gunther had bathed at all since returning from that fatal mission - bathed, or eaten, or even slept.
Gunther's knuckles were split and bloody too. It looked as if he'd been punching a wall. Knowing Gunther, that was a distinct possibility.
"Just leave, Jester," the dark haired boy ground out from between clenched teeth. "Please. I mean, clearly... this place has... meaning for you too but... I really... really... need to be alone right now. So could you... could you..." he broke off, swallowed convulsively, and tipped his head back against the rampart again, with a groan.
Something occurred to Jester then. "But maybe," he said hesitantly, "maybe we can help each other. We do not have to be rivals anymore. There is nothing -" his voice trailed away to a whisper - "nothing left to compete for."
"No, nothing left to compete for," Gunther echoed, now staring sightlessly up at the sky. "Nothing left to compete for, nothing left to hope for, nothing left to get up for, nothing left to live for. Nothing. Nothing at all."
"You were there, though," Jester said, and now he could hear the naked envy that had crept into his own voice; could hear it clearly, and found he really didn't much care. "You were with her, right at the very end. You got to hold her. That is more than I will ever have. Can you not see how lucky that makes you? You have that to hold onto. That has to be a comfort. God, what I would not give... to have had the chance to say goodbye..." Tears were flowing freely down his own cheeks but unlike Gunther, he didn't dash them away. He just let them fall.
"Oh yes," Gunther rejoined, and now there was a depth of bitterness in his voice that Jester had never heard before. And for Gunther, that was saying something. "Lucky indeed. Yes, I have that to hold onto. I can always hold onto the fact that I was right next to her - closer than I am to you now - and never saw the attack coming. I can always hold onto the fact that when I did realize what was happening, I moved to shove her aside and I was just a second - no, not even a second - too late. I can always hold onto the fact that if my reflexes had been just that tiniest bit quicker, the arrow would have found me, not her. I can always hold onto the fact that my ability to... to bend the truth... deserted me as I was holding her on the ground. While the others were fighting all around us, I told her she was going to be fine... but she was watching my face, not listening to my words. She could tell that I was lying. The fear in her eyes at that moment... I can always hold onto that too. And do you know what else I can always hold onto, Jester?"
Jester, who was positively reeling from everything Gunther had just said, barely even registered that the other boy was moving; an instant later he was simply there, directly in front of him, having crossed the towertop in a bare heartbeat's worth of time. They were practically nose to nose now; Jester's eyes wide with fresh shock and pain, and Gunther's dark and stormy with despair.
The young knight reached out and clasped Jester on the shoulder then, his fingers digging in with painful intensity. Jester flinched but didn't pull away.
"Let me tell you what else I can hold onto," Gunther said in a voice of quiet, desperate agony. "Let me tell you what else will stick with me until the day I die. In that very last instant, when I could see the light fading out of her eyes, yes I was the one who was holding her. But mine was not the name she spoke. With the last breath she ever took, yours was the name she spoke."
He gave Jester's shoulder a final squeeze and then was gone, again moving faster than Jester could comprehend in his current state of stupefied misery. He was left alone on the towertop with nothing but the wind and Gunther's tortured words for company.
She asked for me. The last thing she ever did... was ask for me.
"Jane." Her name was wrenched out of him, part whisper, part sob. "Oh Jane."
Just as Gunther had before, he let his head fall back against the parapet, closing his eyes though the hot, slow, stinging tears continued to escape. Gulped in one deep, shaky breath... and then another. Felt his body start to relax. And then he commenced doing exactly what he'd come up here to do in the first place.
He imagined. Not remembered.
A/N: Janefan13 was a hardcore J/J shipper - so this little fic is intended to honor her pairing of choice. As well as express some of the deep grief that results when a bright, vibrant young woman is gone too soon. Only in your honor, Janefan13, would I ever abandon my beloved J/G ship and have Jane choose Jester! I did it for you! Love you - miss you - rest in peace.