Take This Waltz


DoJ Sidefic: Take This Waltz

A/N: For Leah, who wanted something Duo-centric when I offered her a ficlet for her birthday present. :) ‘Take This Waltz’ is by Leonard Cohen; the words are a translation of a poem by Federico Garcia Lorca. It’s awesome, and is the type of song where you can come up with all sorts of odd meanings to suit your own mood and thoughts at the time. This is set some indeterminate time in the future of DoJ, and it contains one whopping big spoiler… but it's one that all our readers seem to think absolutely HAS to happen, so it's not going to be a big surprise. Enjoy!



The cold, bony grip of her mother-in-law’s hand on her wrist was the only thing that kept Aletha standing through the interminable greetings, congratulations, and condolences. To anyone else it undoubtedly looked as if the young woman was acting as the older dowager’s support – and indeed she was, given that the Dowager Lady Iselia had been half-crippled since an accident in middle age left her unable to ride or even walk without the use of a heavy cane and an attendant’s help – but equally, without her mother-in-law’s quiet support she would have crumpled to the floor weeping hours ago.

The older woman’s strength shamed her. Iselia had survived her injury, her own lord’s death, the premature death in sickness or war of all but one of her children, and maintained control over her lands as her youngest son’s regent despite everything the more traditionally-minded Sothoii lords could do to try to wrest the power out of her hands. She’d raised her surviving son to his majority, trained him to govern well, handed over power to him without a blink on his twenty-fifth birthday, welcomed his young bride without making Aletha feel at all unwanted or overshadowed… and then watched as he died of lockjaw, contracted from a mere scratch. The healing priestess of Lillinara they’d desperately sent for had been delayed by a late blizzard, finally fighting her way to their gates a mere candlemark after Lord Ervon had breathed his last.

At least the priestess had arrived in time to save Ervon and Aletha’s tiny daughter, born nearly two months early as Aletha’s grief and shock drove her into premature labour. Little Kelliah was out of danger now, expected to have as good a chance as any baby could hope for, and acknowledged heir to the Manor of Long Riding… thus the current gathering, a strange mix of wake and celebration.

The scavengers were already circling.

Aletha’s left upper arm was abruptly pinched hard, and she winced. “Stand up straight!” her brother hissed in her ear, smiling fixedly at the passing guests. “You’re drooping again. Show some backbone!”

But not enough to stand up to you, Aletha thought dully, straightening up with an effort. No, you wouldn’t like that. I should, I really should, but…

But it was easier not to. Easier to just mourn, and look after her child, and ignore Bertred as he assumed more and more power, took over more and more of the duties that should be hers… insinuated himself into the space of regent to her daughter even before the Baron had a chance to appoint one. As Kelliah’s sole surviving parent, Aletha was regent by default for now, but that would change.

Iselia would have stopped him. She can’t now, she formally handed governance to Ervon, she can’t just take it back without another formal ruling… and she’s sixty-eight, too old to start a new regency. Baron Mathian won’t appoint her. I could… Iselia set a precedent for this Manor, it was shocking when she took the reins but it would be easier for the other lords to accept me now… but…

But it was too hard to lift herself up out of the fog of grief. But Bertred had always bullied her anyway, and knew just how to reduce her to silence with a word. But, but, but.

“Young man,” Iselia said abruptly, voice quavering more than usual, “be courteous to an old woman and go get me a cool drink, won’t you? And one for your sister while you’re at it. It’s terribly hot in here, and we’ve been standing long enough to melt our feet in our shoes.”

For a moment it looked like Bertred might refuse; then he glanced over to see Sir Karel, one of Iselia’s strongest supporters, glaring at him, and stalked off.

“Are you all right, Aletha?” Iselia said gently, voice back to normal. “Would you like to sit down?”

“I shouldn’t,” she said in a tiny voice, looking away. “It wouldn’t look well.” Bertred wouldn’t like it.

The older woman’s grip tightened for a moment, then she patted Aletha’s wrist and sighed. “Frankly, my dear, I don’t think you need to worry about what ‘looks well’. You’ve greeted everyone, they’ve all seen Kelliah, and nobody expects you to join in the gossip that’s the main source of entertainment at these gatherings. In fact, they’d probably be relieved if we left them alone to gossip about us. Once your obnoxious brother gets back with our drinks, I’ll announce that I’m tired – it won’t be a lie, I’ve had more than enough standing around for one day – and as my beloved daughter by marriage and main prop of my old age, it will be perfectly appropriate for you to accompany me to my rooms and see me settled, after which we can have food sent up and have a nice quiet cry together, hm?”

Tears prickled Aletha’s eyelids and she blinked fiercely, holding them back. “How– why aren’t you mad at me?”

Iselia looked up at her, smiling faintly. “And why would I be mad at you, my dear? You’ve given me no reason. You’ve been as good a daughter to me as any of my own bearing, and you loved and were loved by my son. What’s to be mad about?”

“I haven’t– I can’t– I’m not strong like you,” Aletha whispered, wiping at her eyes. Sir Karel glanced over at the women and then carefully turned away, intercepting a minor knight as he headed towards them and trapping him in conversation. “I know I should– there’s so much I should be doing, but–”

“You’ve time to grieve, love,” Iselia told her, lowering her voice as Bertred headed back towards them, cups in hand. “I needed it when my lord died as surely as you need it now. Mathian’s a good man and sees further than the end of his own nose; he’ll wait a bit for you to get your feet under you before he makes any irrevocable decisions. Take your time.”

Aletha managed a stiff smile for Bertred as he pushed a cup into her free hand, but couldn’t meet Iselia’s gaze as she drank. What if I haven’t got as much time as I need? Bertred won’t wait, even if Mathian does. If I’m going to stand up to him, I need to do it now, and I can’t… I never could.

She’s going to be so disappointed in me.

True to her word, Iselia drained her cup and then turned back to Aletha, speaking loud enough to be heard by half the room. “Well, I’m for bed. Would you help me up the stairs, dear? Bertred, be a good lad and look after your sister’s guests. Make sure everyone has enough to drink, that sort of thing. You’re good at that.” There was a sharp glint in her eyes as she effectively reinforced Aletha’s place as Kelliah’s interim regent and reduced Bertred to little more than a servant with one back-handed compliment, and Bertred glared impotently back, unable to retort in public.

“Of course,” Aletha murmured, handing the cup back to Bertred; he shoved it and Iselia’s cup into a servant’s hands and hastened back to self-importantly usher them along, doing his best to create the impression that he was humouring a senile old woman by smiling and grimacing knowingly at the people they passed. The guests drew back, curtseying and bowing as they left a path clear to the stairs, and–

–there was one figure who didn’t, instead strolling into the open space and grinning at Iselia, ignoring everyone else. A slender young man dressed in black tunic and pants, with the long braid, white collar, and small cross-shaped necklace affected by the most faithful devotees of the new God of Death, very good-looking… and Aletha had never seen him before. Someone’s relative, brought along because he’d been visiting?

“Hey there, beautiful!” he said cheerfully, sweeping into an extravagant bow. “May I have this dance?”

“My sister is in mourning, and in any case there is no dancing tonight,” Bertred snapped, stepping forward before anyone else could react. “I don’t know who you are, but–”

“Not talking to you,” the young man said boredly, waving Bertred off without ever taking his eyes off Iselia. “Not talking to your sister either, though she’s probably a way better conversationalist. Talking to the lovely lady next to her.”

“That– why– that’s even more preposterous! The Dowager is–”

“Perfectly capable of speaking for myself, Bertred,” Iselia said coldly. “Shut up.” Her hand had tightened almost painfully on Aletha’s wrist, and she was staring narrow-eyed at the young man, who was not much taller than she was herself.

“Yeah, Bertred, shut up,” he agreed, grin widening, and to Aletha’s amazement, Bertred did.

“I wasn’t expecting to see you tonight,” Iselia said slowly. “Frankly, I expected you some time ago. What took you so long?”

“Oh, come on!” the young man protested. “That’s a bit much, coming from someone who’s been telling me ‘not yet’ for years! I stayed away because it was what you wanted, and now you tell me I’m late? Be fair!”

“Hm.” One corner of the old woman’s mouth quirked up in a faint smile before she sobered again. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to go away for a few more?”

“Nope. Sorry.” He did seem genuinely sorry, smile softening into something regretful. “Willing or not, I’ve only got so much leeway, and you’ve already had all I can give.”

“I have things to do!” Iselia snapped, rapping her walking stick on the flagstones, and then sighed. “And if that made a difference, you’d be out of a job. Very well. A dance, you say?”

“I would be honoured,” the young man said softly, stretching out one hand. “No other complaints? Nothing you want to yell at me about? I’m used to it,” he added, grin reappearing like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. “Get it all off your chest!”

“Oh, I made my peace with that a long time ago. Before you existed,” Iselia said cryptically. “I’m not about to go back to crying at the unfairness of life just because I’ve got a face to direct my tears to now.” Sighing again, she turned to Aletha and patted her wrist gently, looking searchingly up into her eyes. “I think you’ll do,” she murmured, and handed her the thick cane that she’d been leaning on throughout the whole odd conversation. “Hold this for me, would you dear?”

“Lady Iselia… mother… what’s going on?” Aletha protested, clutching the cane to her chest in bewilderment. Bertred was gaping like a fish, the other guests were just watching silently with blank looks on their faces, and the young man was somehow familiar but she could swear she’d never met him before…

“Nothing I haven’t wanted to do for a long time, though I’ve been putting it off as long as possible,” the old woman said, reaching up to pat her daughter-in-law’s cheek. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe I owe this youngster a dance.”

“But there’s no musicians!”

“That never stopped me when I was a girl.” Reaching out to take the young man’s hand, she released Aletha’s wrist and stepped forward, limp barely noticeable. “Back when my lord was alive, we danced whenever we felt like it, and if there was no music to dance to we just made up our own steps.”

“I brought my own,” he grinned, turning to stand beside her, one hand holding hers, the other behind his back. Iselia matched his pose and nodded to him, chin lifting.

“Your own… musicians?” Bertred stuttered, looking around.

“Nope. Just my own music.” And as he began to sing, there was indeed music, sweet notes swelling up out of nowhere.

Now in Vienna, there’s ten pretty women
There’s a shoulder where Death comes to cry

Iselia chuckled as they stepped forward in the step - pause - step rhythm of a pavane, slightly altered to match the three-beat timing of the odd music. Ervon had once told Aletha that his mother was a beautiful dancer before her fall, though he had been too young to remember it himself, and she accompanied the young man’s movements perfectly, gliding in a stately progression across the floor.

There’s a lobby with nine hundred windows
There’s a tree where the doves go to die
There’s a piece that was torn from the morning
And it hangs in the Gallery of Frost
Ay, ay ay ay,
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz with the clamp on its jaws

They turned before they reached the stairs, but instead of continuing the pavane they faced each other, hands palm-to-palm as they switched to a mirror dance. The song was nonsense, Aletha thought, and at the same time it seemed as if it would make sense if only she knew more. A shoulder where Death comes to cry – they say the God has a mortal lover – and it makes sense that one of his worshippers would sing about that, I suppose, though it’s an odd topic for a dance – but I thought he lived in Refuge? Oh, why can’t I think?! I know who he is, surely I know–

The dancers were smiling like lovers, looking into each others’ eyes and ignoring their surroundings as they dipped and swooped back and forth, and Aletha blushed as she heard the second verse.

Oh I want you, I want you, I want you, the young man sang, singing of love to an old widowed woman, and his voice was heartbreakingly sincere.
On a chair with a dead magazine
In the cave at the tip of the lily
In some hallway where love’s never been
On a bed where the moon has been sweating
In a cry filled with footsteps and sand
Ay, ay ay ay,
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take its broken waist in your hand

The music swelled and he swept Iselia into his grasp, one arm around her waist as they spun.

This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz
With its very own breath of brandy and Death
Dragging its tail in the sea

What’s a waltz? Is that a waltz? It looks very forward… oh, they’re back to a pavane now…

There’s a concert hall in Vienna
Where your mouth had a thousand reviews
There’s a bar where the boys have stopped talking
They’ve been sentenced to death by the blues
Ah, but who is it climbs to your picture
With a garland of freshly cut tears?
Ay, ay ay ay,
Take this waltz, take this waltz
Take this waltz, it’s been dying for years

“Who does he think he is?” Bertred mumbled, shaking his head. He looked almost drunk, or perhaps hung over, blinking and frowning. “Rude– scandalous behaviour– who does he think he is? Coming in here– I’ll show him– when I’m in charge, things will be different around here, put that old woman away somewhere–”

“Shut up, Bertred,” Aletha said without thinking. “I want to listen.”

She’d lost a whole verse to his muttering! He didn’t stop, not even seeming to hear her, so she stepped forward and away from him, straining to hear. Her feet caught on something on the floor, but there was nothing there when she glanced down, and she looked up as the dancers began to spin again, singing together now. Iselia’s voice was rich and full, no quaver left in it at all, and she seemed to know the half-nonsense half-love song by heart.

This waltz, this waltz, this waltz, this waltz
With its very own breath of brandy and Death
Dragging its tail in the sea

And I’ll dance with you in Vienna
I’ll be wearing a river’s disguise
The hyacinth wild on my shoulder
My mouth on the dew of your thighs
And I’ll bury my soul in a scrapbook
With the photographs there, and the moss
And I’ll yield to the flood of your beauty
My cheap violin and my cross
And you’ll carry me down on your dancing
To the pools that you lift on your wrist
Oh my love, oh my love
Take this waltz, take this waltz
It’s yours now, it’s all that there is

The music carried on, quiet notes picking out the three-step rhythm, and Iselia laughed. “That’s a very silly song,” she said clearly, smiling up at the young man as they continued to dance.

“But all true!”

“Oh, I don’t doubt it. Especially not the lewd parts,” she said sharply, poking him in the ribs. “You’re getting as bad a reputation as Hirahim Lightfoot, you know!”

“Ow! Oh come on, really? Everyone needs a lover by them as they step into the dark,” he protested, capturing her hand in his to prevent another poke. “I just stand in for whoever would normally be there for them, that’s all!”

“Well, perhaps not quite as bad,” she admitted. “Still. What does your young man think about it?”

“Heero? He knows he’s got all of my heart, and that’s all he cares about,” he grinned. “That is, he’s got all of Duo’s heart. Shinigami shares it around a bit more.”

“Hmm. Splitting hairs a bit, aren’t you?”

“There is a difference. So… ready to go?”

“It’d be a bit late to say no, wouldn’t it?” she snorted, glancing over at something behind Aletha.

“Yup.” There was an odd shadow gathering behind his back, moving with him as he pulled Iselia into another twirl. “I was thinking, though…”

“Spit it out, young man,” she said acidly, and he laughed in delight.

“Want a job?” She stumbled for the first time, tripping over the hem of her skirt, and he lifted her off her feet for a moment until she recovered. “Wups! Sorry, that was a bit sudden, wasn’t it? You just seem like the type of person who doesn’t want to go sit around for eternity. You’ve earned a rest, but that doesn’t mean you have to take it.”

“I– you–” Iselia sputtered for a moment, leaning back to look sternly up into his face. “I’ll have you know that I have been a devoted worshipper of the Mother of Women my entire life!”

“And? I’d owe her a favour, but I think she’d be fine with it,” he shrugged, shadows shifting and spreading out to the sides as his shoulders flexed.

“…I’ll think about it.”

He grinned and hugged her, laughing again as she smacked him indignantly on the ear. “Good enough for me!” And the shadows shifted again, closing around them both like folding wings, and they were gone.

Aletha blinked, Iselia’s cane cold in her hands. …Oh.

“Lady Iselia! My lady, speak to me!” Sir Karel cried out behind her, and she knew what she’d see before she turned. Her mother-in-law’s body was crumpled on the flagstones, eyes closed, a faint peaceful smile lingering on her face.

“Lady Iselia!” Karel cried again, voice breaking to a sob as he dropped to his knees beside her, and Aletha put one hand on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Karel,” she said softly, and he twisted to look up at her, tears streaking his face. Oh, I am sorry. I wonder if she knew you felt this way about her? “I think… we have been honoured by a Godly visitation,” she went on, finding the right words to say in formal phrases. “Shinigami has gathered the Dowager Lady Iselia to her well-deserved rest.”

“…In person,” he agreed, managing to smile through his tears. “She would expect no less. Though I think perhaps rest isn’t what either of them has in mind.”

“She wouldn’t like to be idle,” she agreed, wiping away a few more tears of her own.

“She’s dead?” Bertred blurted out, staring open-mouthed, and Aletha sighed.

“Yes, Bertred. Lady Iselia is dead. Lords and ladies, if I might beg your indulgence for a moment!”

The rising murmurs stilled as Aletha raised her voice, all the guests turning to look at her, and she stiffened her back, chin lifting into a copy of Iselia’s usual pose.

“Although this house is now doubly in mourning, my mother-in-law would never forgive me if I allowed her passing to inconvenience or discomfort our guests,” she said clearly, voice ringing out to be heard across the entire hall. It was surprisingly easy, and she closed her hands more tightly on Iselia’s cane, imagining a small cold hand still clasping her wrist. “Pray do not feel that you must cut short your visits; many of you travelled a long way to be with us, and the weather is still not the best. I would be most pleased, and I am sure the Lady Iselia would agree, if you would stay to grace her funeral with your presence.”

Various lords and ladies nodded or bowed, drawing back to give a little privacy and turning back to hushed but excited conversations. It’s not every day people get to witness a Godly manifestation, after all, Aletha thought wryly, turning to beckon some servants forward and start the business of caring for her mother-in-law’s body. I rather suspect I’d like to take half a candlemark to have hysterics later…

“You, there, step lively now!” Bertred snapped, stepping forward and gesturing impatiently towards the servants who were already hurrying towards them. “There’s a lot to be done, so listen carefully, I want you to–”

“Actually, Bertred, I think it’s time you went home,” Aletha interrupted him, turning to stare at him and planting Iselia’s cane at her feet, hands folded atop the crook.

“–make sure that– eh? What are you talking about?! You can’t handle things here alone! You’re not fit to run a manor!” he sneered, glaring at her. The tone and look were the same, the ones that had always had her cringing and apologising in the past, but her old habitual response just… wasn’t there any more.

“I am perfectly capable of governing my daughter’s manor, as my mother-in-law and husband did before me,” she said coldly, chin up. “If I require any assistance, I am certain that good Sir Karel and the other knights beholden to this family will supply it, exactly as they have done in the past.”

“Indeed we shall,” Karel said grimly, rising to stand at her shoulder and stare her brother down. Other minor knights were hurrying in from the corners of the room, coming to pay their respects to their old mistress and request instruction from the new, but as they saw the beginning confrontation their jaws set and hands rested on sword hilts. Bertred was abruptly surrounded by a ring of unfriendly eyes, and swallowed hard.

“You are not needed here, Bertred,” or wanted, “though it does you credit that you would like to assist me,” Aletha lied, offering a minor sop to his pride. “However, as you noted, there is a lot to be done, and we will be busy enough with our noble guests without also entertaining family. It would be a favour if you would go home and attend to your own house and family. I believe your lady wife has already sent several letters asking for your advice on how to handle various problems that have arisen in your absence; I’m sure she will appreciate your immediate return.”

As Bertred began to stammer his way through a rather ungracious – but affirmative – response to his sister politely throwing him out, Aletha’s eyes went wide in shock as she felt a cold, bony hand pat her wrist affectionately, and then let go.

Good girl. You’ll do fine.



Gundam Wing



















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