"I've come with gifts," Nat said right away, because Dan was looking more pale and sickly than he ever had, even in the days when they were both hungry. There was a nasty look to his bandaged foot and Nat saw that when Dan shifted on the bed to sit up better, his wide mouth tightened as if he was trapping some groan inside. This affected Nat greatly, for he could hardly bear to see anybody suffer, much less a friend; he therefore drew forth the great cambric bundle from behind his back and carefully put it in Dan's lap with an eager air.

"Go on, open it," he urged. "They sent me with it, so they ain't gonna be mad if you open it with only me here."

Dan shook his dark hair from his forehead and picked up the bundle, as if weighing it in his hands. "From the other chaps?" he asked, cradling the bag. "They didn't need to feel sorry for me."

"Oh, no, they don't at all," Nat said hurriedly, reaching out to untie the rough twine that held the bundle shut. "Only they all wanted to do something nice, like...like a welcome-back. We're all dreadfully glad you've come back, Dan. We thought you'd be gone forever."

"Didn't half reckon I would," Dan said. His tone was gruff, but the tender way he spread out the handkerchief on his lap told a different story. He regarded the treasures for a moment and then reached out to pick up a turtle shell, buffed to a high polish; "From Demi," he grinned. Nat nodded and Dan identified a string of buttons from Daisy, a painted blown-out eggshell from Tommy, and various other little trinkets and oddities from the rest of the children.

"I didn't have anything to give you, because I'm still saving up my egg money, but —" Nat held up his fiddle, "I thought I could play you some music when we're through talking."

"I'd like that," Dan said. He spoke in a strange, almost halting manner that was quite unlike the bold, brash way he had been before; Nat felt the change and although he didn't quite understand the reasons, it cheered him inside. For his part, Dan was finding it very strange indeed to weigh his words before he said them; for so long he had needed to get by in his often cruel and hard world by speaking quickly and harshly, that the gentle and kind words felt strange in his mouth. But Nat folded his hand over Dan's and gave it a heartfelt squeeze, the points of his thin, clever fingers pressing into Dan's palm.

"Oh! And I brought that book you asked about, let me get it —" Nat rustled about and then dashed out to the schoolroom, where he'd forgotten said book in his desk. Dan leaned his head back and opened and closed his hands into fists, for his poor foot was aching in all its mistreated little bones and although he had done a brave job of being cheerful in front of Nat, he really was in quite a lot of pain. More than many adults would have been able to bear so stoically, as he'd heard Father Bhaer mention, along with that other curious expression; a "Spartan", he and Mother Bhaer had called Dan. It was this he'd mentioned to Nat, who had eagerly promised to find out what a Spartan was and report back to Dan.

Nat came rushing back with a worn reader in his hands, breathlessly declaring, "Here it is!" and sitting down on Dan's bed to flip through the pages. "'The greatest city-states of ancient Greece were Athens and Sparta,'" he read. "'From early childhood, the Spartans trained themselves to become soldiers, and their state was like a military camp.'"

"Soldiers," Dan repeated, faintly unsure as to whether or not this would be considered a good thing by the peaceful, busy Bhaers. Nat blinked prettily at him and bit his lip, scanning the page for something more satisfactory, and finally gave a cry of discovery and continued reading. "'Perhaps one of the most famous stories of the Spartans involves the Spartan boy who, when caught with a stolen fox, hid the creature under his jacket and steadfastly maintained his innocence while the fox gnawed at his innards. This example of strength even under the most excruciating of circumstances is one that was dear to the Spartan way of thinking.'"

Nat looked up from the book, round-eyed. "Mother and Father Bhaer must have been talking about how well you put up with your hurt foot, Dan!" he cried. "And the rest of us think so too — you're absolutely ripping about it, Tommy says, and Demi says that it's like when the saints were tormented and they bore all their suffering without a peep."

"Twaren't nothing," Dan said haplessly, not knowing what else to say at this sudden outpouring of admiration from Nat and the other boys by proxy. He reached out to grasp Nat's shoulder, making his gratitude known by rubbing Nat's collarbone with one broad thumb; Nat shuddered violently and Dan felt the motion tremour down his own arm. "Oh, Dan," Nat breathed, and leaned in close to slip his long cold fingers along the sides of Dan's face, up into his hair. Dan's fevered skin welcomed the touch and he closed his eyes in pleasure; when he opened them, Nat was regarding him with a strange trembling intensity. Dan was reminded forcefully of a trip he'd taken to the woods with Mr. Hyde when all the deer were about; he had turned into a sheltered copse only to come face-to-face with a perfect, sweet little fawn. They had stood there, boy and fawn, regarding each other in the not-quite-silence that the best woods have, until Mr. Hyde had snapped a twig in the distance and the gentle creature had run off.

And now Nat leaned in more, until his mouth could press against Dan's cheek, his chin, and finally moving to Dan's mouth. Dan held himself almost painfully still as Nat breathed and shivered over him, blinking twenty times to the dozen; and then like the twig snapping, the mesmerization was broken and Nat turned away from Dan, sitting huddled on the edge of the bed. The room was silent but for their breathing, Dan's calm and steady and Nat's scattered. Finally, Nat picked up the book again and smoothed a hand over the pages, turning back to Dan with a watery but determined smile.

"Let's see what else the Spartans did," he said brightly. Dan shifted his leg a little and said, "I don't care for any more reading, Nat. Let's hear some music — I'd much rather some of your fiddling than more history."

Nat smiled and picked up his violin; as the first few bars of a tender old hymn began, he closed his eyes with a look of rapture on his thin face. Dan was content to watch his friend play and see the transformation that came over him, the confidence that filled his stance. His foot was still feverish and troubled him, but he could also still feel Nat's fingers and his trembling mouth, and that perhaps made it all a little easier to bear.

mail .. index