A/N- Hah, 'before January'! As I promised, though...this isn't an actual chapter, per say. More of an interlude, in the form of a flashback of sorts- but it's fairly self explanatory, and while my writing seems to have eaten itself I think I might be forgiven- it is, after all, the New Year. Or about to be, since I'd resolved to get this up before then. And now it seems I've fixed it to the best of my current ability- though one person did read it, which I should have expected. -grins- Don't blame me, O reader. I did say not to. I'll probably end up editing it again soon, but. It's at least vaguely legible now. As for chapter 16, it's coming soon.
More Important Notes- In the process of re-writing a number of things, so I'm messing with dates. Thus 'three years' became two, and Harada became Hallard. Please be patient with me... I should have things making a clearer sort of sence before the technical end of winter. Should. This Interlude is not good- it is too short by far, inadequate, and frightfully error-ridden. It's also all I've got at the moment, so pray don't tear me to shreds.
(Horribly unbeta'd, be warned)
-groans- My kingdom for a latte. To my knight of the bunny banner, who is the only reason this didn't come out much, much worse than it is.
It was April, and Aoi was seventeen going determinedly on eighteen when she rounded the corner of her modest house and discovered a girl in the garden. An oddly dressed girl with a belted, cream coloured overshirt that fell to mid-thigh, and pants of an indeterminable variety. Her sleeves were rolled up to her elbows, and one end of a charcoal pencil protruded from her mouth.
Absurdly, Aoi's first thought wasn't of dashing back around the corner and calling for the neighbours, but: That must taste awful. Then it sunk in that there was a girl in the garden, her bare feet resting in the wet grass as she stared fixedly at the orchids. She took a wary step forward, torn between the silly belief that she was about to be set upon, possibly even threatened with a knife, and the sillier; that it would be rude to disturb someone sitting so contemplatively.
Annoyed with herself for acting so childish and spurred by the fact that if she left the girl alone they might end up losing all their valuables by morning, she edged closer. The worst that could happen was that this mysterious presence was an extremely unorthodox burglar, since she couldn't really make herself believe there was a murderer in the garden. Wasn't the fence supposed to keep people out?
The girl's head snapped up, her shocked eyes –a warm, hazely brown– boring into Aoi's as the charcoal fell from the edge of her open mouth. She jumped up with a spryness no high-society girl could ever hope –or wish– to possess, taking a preliminary step back for what Aoi assumed was safety's sake.
"Ah, sorry sorry. I take it these are your flowers?"
And the back of the house I live in, in case you were wondering.
"My- my family's, yes."
Her stutter only angered her further, and she resolved to ward the girl off –with my shoes and a branch? she asked herself, darkly amused– as soon as she was able to ascertain the level of danger.
"Don't be so modest," the maybe-thief retaliated with a wink. It was hot outside, and now suddenly her face was warmer. It might be wise to get inside, but-
All the good silver.
"What are you–" she started, before the dutiful query forced through her unwilling mouth was interrupted.
"Sketching your flowers."
"Why are you–"
"Because they catch the eye."
The dreamlike quality of the experience struck her– here she was exchanging quasi-polite conversation with someone she planned to assault with anything that came to hand, and the soon-to-be-assaulted was bantering with her. Then because it really was too hot outside and ahh the girl was barefoot, she started laughing. It was a lightness to counter the oppressive heat, and soon the potentially dangerous –but she didn't really believe that anymore, did she– person was laughing along with her. Hers was lower in pitch, more of a chuckle that somehow matched the richer colour of her eyes, and the sounds mixed pleasantly.
Suddenly the intruder closed her sketchbook and turned, her shoulders betraying a stiffness hidden by her joviality. And Aoi, who had expected to be relieved, instead felt a spike of upper-class terror as her mouth spoke for her.
The other girl swung around mid-stride, surprise almost comically etched on her face.
"The picture," Aoi elaborated, wishing a limb would fall from one of the trees over them and strike her dead, or at least mercifully unconscious. "It looks very…good."
'Good' was an understatement; even unfinished and all in shades of grey it was close to being worthy of the sitting-room wall, but under the circumstances she felt she'd done quite well.
The grin resurfaced. "I'll treasure the compliment."
It might have been mocking, but with her it sounded natural- careless but not cruel, deliberately casual. When the girl turned to go again, Aoi shocked herself by blurting out a hastily delivered: "What's your name?" Then, to be polite and because she couldn't backtrack, "I'm Aoi Senou."
Confusion and oddly pleased surprise clashed on the other girl's face before she regained her former jauntiness. "Well then, Aoi Senou, I'm Chie Hallard. May the day do you well."
And with that oddity she'd almost certainly picked up from a book, the girl –Chie– left without looking back. It was only afterwards that she realised Chie had never picked up her charcoal, and it took a few days more for her to begin to wonder if it had been left there on purpose.
Two days later, Chie was in the garden again. She sat in the same spot, legs stretched languidly over the dull lime of the grass and one hand spread behind her to support her weight. The feeling of relief –she came back after all– was so disconcertingly strong that she hesitated for one second; two; three; before stepping forward and being nearly overwhelmed be a wave of déjà vu.
Though this time the charcoal wasn't in Chie's mouth but being twirled speculatively between the long fingers of her other hand, and she'd acquired shoes from somewhere. She looked –handsome– far off, only glancing up when Aoi stopped short in front of her.
"Ms. Senou," she corrected immediately, and wanted to withdraw the words the moment she saw something flash across the other girl's face, there and gone but still perfectly identifiable as hurt.
"We've only met once before," she offered, as confused by her sudden need to defend herself as she'd been when she asked Chie's name the time before.
"Fair enough," Chie agreed cheerfully, but was that hurt still there somewhere under the surface? She thought yes. Trying to make up for it without knowing why, she cast around for a change of subject.
"You're back," was all she could come up with, but she was still grateful it hadn't sounded accusing.
The older girl shrugged apologetically. "As it turns out I left my charcoal here, and now it's wet- forgot about dew." She flashed a smile that was at once cheeky and inviting, and Aoi smiled back despite herself. "I was going to leave, but your flowers are, well…"
"Eye-catching," Aoi finished for her. Then, because Aoi was wearing a heavy dress in the heat, because Chie's lightly tanned hands were black where the charcoal had rubbed against them, because this was their second meeting and flowers were eye-catching, they were laughing again. The absolute absurdity of the situation only fuelled her mirth, and before long the laughter had become near hysterical, the almost-painful laugh of the happily surprised.
It was the best she'd felt all spring, which she supposed said a good deal about her social life. Still, the other girls her age were concerned with trivialities and propriety, and there was a maybe-thief with wet charcoal in her garden and wasn't it funny–
She decided to diagnose herself with heatstroke just to be on the safe side. You never knew in this weather, and why else would she be so impossibly giddy? As if reading her mind, Chie stopped laughing long enough to ask her if she wasn't dying of heat in her dress. It was such an unexpected question –a lot of unexpected things seemed to be happening around here lately– that she bristled.
"It's only proper to–"
Good grief, I sound like my mother.
Taking advantage of her minute hesitation, Chie tucked her hands behind her head and regarded her smugly. "Proper's too uncomfortable for my tastes."
The possibility of that being an insult, however bluntly delivered, made her bristle. "Obviously."
There was a flash of surprise –better that than hurt– in those darker eyes before the smugness increased marginally. "Ah, but nothing is what it seems," she retorted mysteriously before scrunching up her face in a parody of deep thought. "Except this."
It was so absolutely silly that Aoi couldn't help volleying back: "Then you admit I'm right?"
Chie sighed dramatically, detaching her hands and spreading them in supplication. "It would seem you've backed me into a corner, milady."
If Aoi had looked –as it was, she only realised it later that evening, when the shadows had covered everything outside and she was neatly tucked in bed– she would have seen nervousness mixed with that good cheer, but it never occurred to her that it might be there. So not stopping to consider the nickname that would become attached to her for the next two years, she felt a smile tugging at her lips.
"You backed yourself into that corner, so I'm afraid I can't take credit."
"Yes," Chie finished proudly, "but didn't I do such a good job of it?"
There it was again, that giddy feeling. To escape it before she could laugh again, she backed up quickly and wrapped her hand around the handle of the back door. To forestall any protest –though why she should assume there was one coming she didn't know– she spoke first.
"I'm sure we have charcoal that can be used for drawing somewhere- I'll get you some."
Before she could receive an affirmation, she closed the door behind her and wondered why she suddenly wished she'd asked the other girl to wait.
Five frantic minutes and one stick of charcoal in the top-right drawer of the desk in her father's study later she rushed for the door, suddenly certain her new acquaintance would be gone. But no, she was still splayed out on the ground with that faraway look in her eyes, and Aoi felt a sudden fearful urge to call her back. She walked over, holding out the black stick and feeling uncharacteristically shy.
"My thanks, milady."
"What are you, a knight?" she fired back, really only half annoyed, and only that because even the gratitude had sounded distant.
"I can be whatever I want if I believe in myself," Chie deadpanned. Because she could find no suitable comeback for that and she was so close to laughing for the third time in as many days, she sat down beside the other girl and stayed there in companiable silence for the next hour, watching as the sketch that mirrored her orchids so well neared completion.
She found her gaze shifting between the strokes of the pencil on paper and the motions of those deft fingers, marvelling that hands could move so quickly. When it was done, Chie stood and presented it to her with a flourish.
"A memento, if you'll have it. Call it thanks for the charcoal."
Her fingers itched to take it, and for that reason she protested. That and–
'Memento' makes it sounds like she won't be coming back-
–it wasn't proper. "But you- the time it–"
The other girl shook her head, shifting her bangs in front of her eyes and giving her an almost scruffy, dishevelled look. "I've got plenty more where that came from. Though this is a nicer place than most…"
She shook her head, brown eyes narrowing in concentration before clearing. "Would you–" The dry cough of a cleared throat. "Would you be opposed to my borrowing your garden from time to time?"
Because of her relief –and the shock that came with it, though she ought to be getting used to this by now– she took the rough sheet of paper, almost cradling it with her hands.
"Please, feel free."
Chie let one eye drop in a lazy wink, as if they shared a secret, before making a short bow and backing up to vault over the fence –so that was how she did it-– disappearing from sight. And after that it turned out they did indeed have a secret, because now it was no longer simply the family's garden or Aoi's garden but their garden, and they shared it all through the spring.
The third time they saw each other she realised Chie smelled like the town: of smoke and salt and fresh air.
The fifth, that whenever the other girl got that far off look in her eye it meant she was debating whether to start 'work' on something else.
The tenth, she asked as politely as possible how her friend got by, since it was clear she was, well, not middle-class, but she looked relatively well-kempt for all that.
"I sell what I draw," Chie answered simply. Then, at Aoi's disbelieving look: "If that's not enough, I take what I need. Never anything more," she added quickly, as if fearing reprimand. Instead, Aoi smiled.
So she was a thief after all.
When they kissed for the first time it was the end of winter, and the last of the snow, no longer powdery, lay under them. The garden was only green in patches, everything else the crystalline white of ice. It was only softly at first, but Aoi pressed harder, feeling the other girl trembling and loving the too-brief contact. The air was cold but Chie was warm, yielding and undemanding but so very warm; her parents were out of the house and therefore out of mind, and she felt like a girl in a romance novel, albeit one taking the lead with her prince.
In the end she wasn't sure who had turned first, only that she was the one who refused to pull away. Chie had said she wanted to sketch –always sketch, never draw– the garden before it thawed, and Aoi came out to keep her company. They'd sat together on a piece of wood they had both dragged over despite Chie's insistence she could manage on her own, only warm where their bodies touched, and someone had leaned in, then–
Then Chie had sprung back, grabbing hold of her materials and fleeing. But she had kissed her back, and so Aoi waited. When she came back three days later, Aoi made the first move so deliberately it was impossible to doubt her intentions. There had been arguing: Chie said she was too poor, too unpredictable, too old –You only have a few months on me! Aoi had shouted, incredulous– but in the end Aoi won, and after that…
Chie somehow managing to climb into her room when temperatures rose and the last of the ice melted, all the whole joking that if Aoi would just grow out her hair everything would be easier; trying to hide the artist from her parents and everyone living within a three-mile radius, because if word got out that the Senou's girl was 'carrying on' with someone from the lowest class it would cause an uproar. Never mind that her family only just managed middle-class themselves; surprising her parents by offering to oil all the windows in the house for the express purpose of solving the problem of squeaking hinges without suspicion.
There had been several near misses that Chie would alternately laugh and grouse about later: the time she was forced to hang outside Aoi's window with the tips of her fingers for nearly five minutes with her shirt held between her feet when Mr. and Mrs. Senou stepped in to wish their daughter a very good night –don't let the roguish artists bite–; when she'd thrown herself under the thankfully tall bed and been crushed under Aoi's weight –Not that you're heavy, she made sure to amend– when the nice boy from down the lane had come a' courting and wanted to sit down so they could talk. How she'd fumed.
But of course nothing had come of that, and aside from those moments of rare panic things carried on as normally as could be expected until a new ship docked at the wharf, and that faraway look in Chie's eyes suddenly had very little to do with sketching.
It was barely a week later when the older girl practically flew over the fence, landing in a tangle of limbs in front of a very startled Aoi before recovering herself and beginning to speak so quickly it was a task to pick individual words out. Many odd hand motions and raised voices later some version of sense was eventually made: the new ship belonged to a woman in her late twenties who was –secretively– recruiting deck-hands to work on what Chie had ascertained was a pirate ship.
No, there weren't that many other members- only two, in fact. Yes, all of them were girls. No, they didn't look like a dangerous lot- the captain was the only one older than her. And, when pressed: yes, she wanted to join them. Then the question so much rested on– would Aoi come with her? They left in a week –such short notice– and if they wanted to be on the ship they should be at the wharf before first light.
It caught her so off guard she nearly reeled, her thoughts refusing to stay in place long enough for her to speak. The elation Chie had initially been brimming with began to dim, as they both began to realise exactly what was being asked. To leave- to board a pirate ship… For the other girl it wasn't so much of a jump, having lived on the streets, but… Middle-class house, middle-class family, middle-class girl. She would eventually marry a middle-class husband, and that was enough, wasn't it?
She argued again- first telling, then asking Chie to stay with her, not to make her choose. The asking turned to begging on both sides, because to both of them it seemed so easy. Why leave when the future was uncertain? and Why stay when nothing would change?
"You wouldn't be happy here," Chie had pled, her voice strained almost to the breaking point. "You say you are, but if you really only wanted this sameness you would have kicked me out the moment you saw me."
"Just because you wouldn't be happy doesn't mean I'm not capable of living a stable life!" she snapped back, angrier still because part of her knew it was a lie.
"Aoi- Aoi, please, why can't you just–"
"Just what? Leave my family behind without a word to get killed on a boat nowhere near home!?" It rose in pitch towards the end, becoming more of a shriek than a shout. "I can't- how can you expect–"
"Because I love you," Chie said just as easily as that first half-compliment, "and if you loved me you wouldn't stay somewhere you know you won't be satisfied with."
The unfairness of that drew such a desperate silence from both of them that nothing more was said until the very end, when the older girl came one last time. "If you're coming," she'd said, meet me there tomorrow morning. If not, I…"
I love you, I'll miss you, I won't stay for you.
Any or all of those could have come next, but what good would it have done? That should have been enough, but it took another five restless hours for Aoi to leap out of bed and start throwing things into a bag before realising the futility of that and simply bolting out the door and down the streets, still in her dress and shoes unfit for running. The noise her feet made on the cobbles was a sharp slapping, only increasing her urgency as she sped towards the dock, hoping, hoping-
And in the end even that wasn't good enough, because the ship left and she wasn't on it. After that, what was there to say? She wasn't the heroine of a novel after all, because her prince had left and now she would have a perfectly normal life with nothing of importance to worry about. Looking at it like that, she cursed her stupidity. And Chie's wanderlust, for not choosing a ship that left at a later date.
There was no one to scream at, no one to run to and ask for forgiveness or an apology or just anything, so when her father asked her a month later if she wanted to join the Naval Academy she agreed. Partially for something with order again, but also, also…
If I could be on the water- if I saw her again-
And while that still wasn't enough, was in fact the most improbable hope she had, it was something. Enough of a something that she was happy to finally get assigned to a ship, because now she could begin her search even if she didn't really believe anything would come of it. Wishing wasn't believing, but…
How large could the ocean be, after all?