“Why did you say you want to be a monster?”
Kross paused in his work to look up at Raguna. He was used to these sorts of interruptions by now, usually with Raguna offering him a sunny smile and a present fresh from his own fields, but this was different. The normally energetic boy was obviously on his last legs. Just by looking it was plain that he had worked himself so far past the point of exhaustion that he was doing himself injury with every move he made. He had to brace his hands on his knees and pant for breath before forcing himself to straighten up and try to talk to Kross normally.
“What. . . do you mean?” No matter how often Raguna came over just to chat, Kross still faltered over his words. Something in the back of his mind refused to learn how to keep up with the cheerful patter of conversation, convinced that soon Raguna wouldn’t talk to him anymore and the skill would be wasted.
“You said you wanted a tail so you could be more like a monster. Why?”
Raguna had given him the Cat Tail a season ago, and now he wore it on the days when his own mind seemed fit to crush him. He pretended at being like one of the monsters that lived in Raguna’s barn, that there was no yesterday or tomorrow for him. There was only weeding, weeding, he was a weeding monster until there were no more weeds and it was time to become a watering monster.
“Monsters are honest. They don’t have to pretend to be anything.”
“What if that’s not right? What if they’re just as dishonest as. . . as anyone.”
Raguna had doubled over to pant again. When he pushed himself upright there was blood soaked into the knee of his trousers. Kross stared at it. His eyes were normally pointed towards the dirt anyway, so it wasn’t a long trip from there up to the stain at Raguna’s knee.
He shouldn’t be getting involved. Never mind that Raguna was standing in his field, he still shouldn’t be involved. Yet he put his hand out and caught Raguna by the wrist, forcibly turning his hand up to reveal a gash where his work-roughened palm had split. From bloodstain up to his bloody hand, and for once it wasn’t a very long way to lift his eyes to meet eyes the same encompassing blue as the sky.
“There was a tree stump left from the last storm, and I. . . um. . . maybe there were a couple. Dozen,” Raguna tried to explain. “And then I was trying to forge a better axe. . .”
When he went to pull out the tool to show Kross, just that motion was enough to make his knees buckle under him.
Kross caught him as Raguna fell practically into his arms. He thought at first that Raguna had passed out completely and he would have to haul the unconscious boy up to Lara’s infirmary, but then he felt Raguna’s hands raise to clutch at his arms.
“I don’t know who I am,” Raguna gasped.
“I know.” Kross felt a bitter smile tugging at his lips even as he eased to his knees, cradling a body that stank of blood and sweat and desperation. Not the most unpleasant he had held by any stretch. Under the familiar tang of blood Raguna still smelled of good, clean earth and fresh herbs, and he breathed steadily against Kross’s chest. “It must be nice not to remember who you are.”
“It’s not. I’m not. . . I don’t know if I want to know.”
That much Kross understood. He knew the feeling of working ceaselessly to avoid thinking. Maybe he should offer Raguna the Cat Tail. It was Kross’s most precious possession, but it seemed like Raguna needed it.
“I have some food in my bag,” Raguna finally said, shifting uncomfortably. “I should get back to work.”
When Kross moved to help him bring it out, his hand found the pet brush he had given Raguna shortly after they first met. It seemed like a lifetime ago, when Raguna had first brought an unfamiliar glimpse of sky back into Kross’s life by holding it in his eyes.
It was because he was thinking of Raguna that he did it. Kross pulled out the brush, slipped it onto his hand, and ran it tenderly over Raguna’s head.
“There, there,” Kross whispered, “It’s okay.” It had been a long time since he had tamed a monster of his own, but some long-forgotten instinct told him what he was doing was right.
If Raguna had been a monster he could have done a lot of damage while Kross left himself open like this, but he didn’t even struggle. He just stared up at Kross, and made an unconscious little mewling noise when Kross used the brush to scratch gently up and down his back, and finally let his head fall limp against Kross’s shoulder.
“It feels good.” Raguna didn’t look up until Kross put the brush away. “Kross?”
“Any more. . . isn’t good for you.”
Raguna was silent for a minute. Kross was aware of him shifting, trying to test if he had the strength to stand. “Thank you,” he finally whispered. “Somehow I feel a lot more calm.”
It was already dark out, but for the stars and the floating lights of the Runeys, well past the time when Kross would have gone inside to concentrate on his blueprints. Instead of waiting for Raguna to find strength on his own, he lifted Raguna up in his arms and set out to carry him home.
Raguna squeaked in surprise, but still didn’t struggle. Apparently the pet brush had as much of a calming effect on humans as monsters, or maybe he was just that exhausted.
Even when Raguna wriggled around and threw an arm around Kross’s shoulder, he didn’t feel like a burden. After that he was still, half-asleep even before Kross carried him inside and lay him down on the bed.
Raguna shifted and mumbled something about how Kross was his guest and he should cook dinner, so that he had to be pushed down on the bed and forcefully tucked in. Even that amount of exertion would definitely make him faint, and Kross was not going to allow that while he was here. He was not in the mood to let Raguna hurt himself any further, let alone having to carry him up to the infirmary because of his stubborn foolishness.
Even after he was sure Raguna had drifted off to sleep, Kross stood watching over him for several long, silent minutes. Then, unable to do anything else, he slouched over to the storage bin in Raguna’s laboratory and found a some medicine and bandages for his injured hand. Raguna’s pack probably had what he needed, but Kross was reluctant to go digging through it knowing the brush was right on top.
He held Raguna’s hand for a moment after he had finished, looking down at the clean swath of bandage that crossed over his palm, and thinking of the pet brush now tucked away out of sight.
It was strange for Raguna to ask why he wanted to be a monster when he should be the closest to the answer. Kross could think of no clearer vision of paradise than to live with nothing but one clear task ahead of him, and to be granted some scrap of affection every single day.
Kross lifted his hand, hesitated, and decided it would be all right as long as he wasn’t using the pet brush again before stroking Raguna’s hair back from his face.
Even if he wasn’t a monster, he had been tamed a long time ago. But the person who had tamed him never took him home, never thought to keep him.
Deep in his chest there was a dark hole that he might have called loneliness in the time before Raguna, and might have called anger in the time before that, and he now didn’t know what to call it besides wanting. Kross was resigned to it now, the feeling that what he wanted in the world was out of his grasp. He had never fixed anything by fighting, and he had never figured out how to not be alone, even while building other people’s homes and living among them.
Defeated in his own empty heart, Kross finally left Raguna’s hair alone. With one last look over his shoulder, Kross left Raguna sleeping and made his way back home.
There was no way to explain why such a mild summer night felt so cold, why the comfortable house he had built and maintained with his own hands felt so alien and empty, or why even his most recent set of blueprints failed to clear his mind the way the tricks of composing architecture always had.
In the end, Kross put on the Cat Tail Raguna had given him and slipped into his empty bed, head down and knees tucked up to his chest until he was curled almost into a ball.
Now he was a sleeping monster. He couldn’t do anything but sleep, couldn’t think about anything other than sleeping. Monsters didn’t have to remember yesterday or worry about tomorrow, and they definitely never had to think about how no one would ever come to brush their head and love them.