A/N: Ridiculously short chapter FTW! . . . not really, I know, but I just don't think they'll ever get longer than 1500-1700 words. Short and sweet seems to be the pattern here. This is good, though, because I'll update quicker. Used to be that I wrote 5k chapters and updated maybe once a week. Short helps me get them up faster. Hope that's okay!

:: 5 ::

Ib lifted her fingers to her temples and shook her head slowly. It felt like her thoughts were filled with clouds, and for a moment, she wasn't sure what exactly she'd been doing. Had she spaced into daydreaming? She did that a lot, so it was possible. But even though her eyes focused and her mind cleared, as if she had been tugged out of distant thoughts without warning, she couldn't shake the feeling that something important had occupied her just seconds ago . . . some mental overview she couldn't now remember.

Looking up, Ib stared at the painting she'd been brought to. It had a pretty depiction of a yellow rose garden, with a towering willow tree and stout, unoccupied bench. Footprints laden the dirt path leading up to the bench, but Ib couldn't see anyone in the portrait. She wondered what the empty footprints stood for. They were gloomy, those empty, lonely footprints, and Ib sighed.

"What do you think about the painting, Mary?" Ib asked. "Do you like the yellow roses?" She turned to see Mary staring at her hands – her thin, china-like hands – in serious wonder. Her rosy lips were parted in what looked like surprise, and her blue eyes swam with an undercurrent of private thoughts. "Mary?" She still didn't respond, turning her hands over and flexing them, tracing the pattern of lines in her palms. Ib blinked and stepped in, grabbing her fingers gently. "Mary."

Mary gasped in slight surprise. "Huh? Oh." Her eyes refocused and landed on Ib. "What was the question, Ib? I'm sorry. These paintings inspire too much . . . inner reflection." She straightened and smiled.

"I just wondered if you liked the roses, that's all." Ib slipped her hands away and looked at the painting again. "Especially that one on the dirt, there, by the footprints. Almost as if it were plucked and discarded."

Mary grinned. "Oh, I don't know. Yellow roses are so . . . bland. I like blue ones better, see?" Mary held up a perfect blue rose, the one she'd gotten downstairs from the lady with the flower cart. "Isn't it cute, Ib? The way the petals furl at the center like a round, little button." She lifted the rose and beamed as the petals tickled her nose. "It's so soft, too! And smells like . . . like . . ." Mary inhaled again and giggled. "Heaven."

Ib grinned at Mary's contagious giggles but looked uncertainly back at the painting. Something about it seemed familiar to her, but she couldn't pinpoint what . . .

"The gallery is about to close, Ib," Mary continued, lacing their hands and guiding Ib away from the painting. Ib took one last glance at it before shrugging and following Mary, listening as she talked. "Maybe we could go back to my apartment and put the rose in a vase? Yours too, and then our roses could be together."

"Together?" Ib asked.

"Forever. As is meant to be."

An hour later, Mary's apartment simmered with the smells of Mexican cuisine. Ib sat at the kitchen table and watched Mary read, delighted, from a cookbook laid open on her counter. Spices, sauces, rice, and lentils – things Mary couldn't help but snitch from as she tossed them into the pan – all cooked in a frying pan on the stove that had, originally, been turned on too hot. Ib had helped, though, and set things straight before setting the plates and taking a seat. No use burning food if they wanted dinner. It didn't help that Mary was a little forgetful.

Ib's eyes wandered over Mary's tall, slender form. She had spent a good ten minutes after they got back brushing Mary's golden hair and pulling it back, and now the resulting ponytail was curled over one shoulder and came to rest just above her bottom ribs. The gold matched well with the threads and lace on her slim green dress, and Ib found herself thinking that Mary could be a princess if she wanted.

"Mary, do you want to be a princess?" Ib asked, resting her hands against her chin. "You look like one."

Mary looked over from shoving around the ingredients in the pan and smiled. "Do I? Which one?"

"Rapunzel, maybe, or Cinderella."

Her face brightened. "I know those fairy tales! Do you really think so?"

"Of course."

Mary placed the lid on the pan and lowered the heat – Ib had shown her how to do that earlier, too – then walked over to Ib. "Ib, would you like to play dress-up after dinner? We could put on pretty dresses, paint our nails, do each others' hair, maybe even make paper crowns?"

Ib considered this. She loved to play, of course, and wasn't expected home for a few more hours . . . Besides, they played together all the time. That was one of the reasons she loved Mary. They never ran out of fun things to do, despite Mary being pretty much a grown-up. She was a fun grown-up.

"Yep!" Ib grinned. "I get to wear the purple dress, though. Purple's my favorite color."

Mary clapped her hands and bounced up and down. "Yay! I can't wait. Come, Ib, would you grab the milk from the fridge? Let's eat. The quicker we finish our meal, the quicker we can play, so we shouldn't waste any time."

Ib nodded and ran to fetch the milk and a few, plastic cups from the cupboard. Her eyes fell on the roses now sitting in a vase filled with crystal blue water on the counter – an unnatural color for water, but it was probably just the lighting – and for a moment she felt . . . weird . . . but then she shook the feeling and returned to table to find Mary already serving up the rice and lentils, and soon forgot all about the brief confusion that had curdled in her stomach.

Alone. Very, very alone.

Garry sat on the bench inside a painting that hung within a darkened, lifeless building. Artificial sunlight warmed his back, but it did not matter to him. He felt colder than he ever had, as if blood no longer ran through his veins. Maybe it didn't. His thoughts were there, his emotions were there, but feeling no longer existed.

Even the stem of the paper, yellow rose clutched between his pale fingers seemed like a dream. Like a memory.

Like a curse.

Pain no longer existed. The moment Mary hopped out of the painting with his blue rose, they had switched places. He had healed, healed into a non-existent life. Healed into nothing but the idea of a mad painter.

He was only a dream here. Neither living nor dead. A story, an image.

Garry dropped the rose and buried his face in his hands, raking his fingers through the hair he couldn't completely feel.

He was a forgotten memory.