The Debacle

The invitation, calligraphied on official imperial letterhead, ran

To the Princess Natalia

You are cordially invited to an event honoring

Gailardia, Count Guardios

to be held at the palace of the Malkuth emperors on 17th Rem.

There was no further explanation given, but just underneath someone had left an unsigned note in handwriting so surgically precise that Natalia was almost certain she knew who'd left it.

Should you live to be a wrinkled, blind hundred, unable to even remember your children's names, every day you would find it within you to rue the day you missed this. It promises to be quite the debacle.

She wasn't entirely sure what that was supposed to mean, but in principle the event sounded like fun, and she was flattered that she'd been written a personal note by someone who, it seemed to her, didn't usually write personal notes. On the day of the event itself, she actually had been scheduled to meet with a delegation from Sheridan to discuss the underwriting of research into the commercial applications of their flight technology - an important meeting, but in the end she rescheduled. The engineers could come back any day. A celebration of all things Guy was rare indeed.

Yet when she arrived at Grand Chokmah the day of, it was the celebrated Guy himself who greeted her at the door with a bow and a soft and chivalrous kiss planted on the back of her hand -

"Guy," she said, unsure how to express her surprise and pleasure at his daring.

He looked up with a grin. "I know, pretty good, right? I've just about worked my way through it. I hardly even get anxious anymore."

His clothes, while quite a bit nicer than what she was used to seeing on Guy-the-servant-not-the-count, were hardly a costume to be feted in. When she commented on that, his eyes rolled so hard she was worried for a moment he might pull a muscle.

"Yeah," he muttered. "See, the invitations were a little misleading. This isn't exactly my ceremony."

She tilted her head to the side. "What do you mean?"

But he just shook his head. "You'll see." Between the kisses on the back of the hand, Natalia decided, and the deliberately frustrating non-answers, Guy had become a true man of Malkuth indeed.

The emperor seemed genuinely pleased to see her. "You're looking prettier every day, Princess," he says, delivering a less deferential version of the very same kiss Guy had given her at the door. "Filling out quite nicely."

"The emperor is bored with the new peace, and wishes to cause an international incident," Jade explained from his friend's elbow. "Please, take offense so that His Majesty might have something to do."

Peony turned to Jade with his hands on his hips. "What, that was a compliment!" He gestured towards Natalia without even looking. "She knows it was a compliment." Turning back: "Right?"

"Ah - " It had been incredibly impertinent, but the emperor was of course a persistently harmless man. "It's all right."

"Look, she is offended," Jade sighed. "Do forgive him, Princess. His Radiance is simply an idiot."

"That's a compliment coming from you."

Jade pursed his lips. Natalia thought that he seemed to be getting genuinely annoyed. "Your Majesty, that was only marginally coherent."

"In any case, we're pleased to receive you, Princess," Peony said hastily before turning back to Jade. "Because you yourself are such an idiot that you're so unable to recognize idiocy that calling me an idiot is like opposite - "

"Jade," Natalia called without really intending to. The emperor broke off and looked back at her first; Jade, languid, followed, and even then only slightly, tilting his head back towards her so that he was watching her only out of the corner of one eye. The scrutiny was unnerving. "Um. Thank you - " For what? How absurd it would sound to thank him for his note, to point out how thoughtless he normally was, so she just stopped there.

Yet he seemed to understand just what she meant, turning to face her just a tiny bit more, and yet even so there was something about his reaction that was off. "Don't thank me yet," he said, his voice low and soft, his angled gaze fixed and unblinking. Yet when he started speaking once again to Peony, there was no trace of whatever it had been; she wondered if she hadn't imagined or just misinterpreted the whole thing.

The group assembled to celebrate Guy was smaller than she had expected. This wasn't one of those events for anyone who was anyone, but rather one, apparently, who was anyone who was Guy's friend. She recognized, mixed amongst the dukes and kings Guy had evidently befriended, engineers, mechanics, even servants who looked a little timid to be the ones served for once. It always took something like this to remind her of just how remarkable her friend was.

When she glanced back, the friend in question was welcoming Anise, who was taller but, from the way she was holding Guy's hand like a treasure and fluttering her eyelashes at him as he looked to be getting progressively more nervous, was otherwise unchanged. As soon as she caught sight of Natalia, she waved furiously, said a few more words to Guy, then bounded up, leaving the man of the hour to greet Florian as well.

"Natalia," Anise laughed, hugging her in greeting. "I'm glad you came. You usually avoid these things."

"I do?" How strange. Natalia wasn't sure what would have given her that impression.

"Maybe you're just busy, dunno. Anyway, where are Luke and Tear?" When Natalia shook her head, Anise put her hands on her hips and leaned forward. "What, you didn't come over with them?" The accusation, though, wasn't what Natalia thought: "Jeez, that's hardly efficient. You know, Florian and I had to share a cabin with two other people, and thatwas on the Order's dime, too. But everybody from Kimlasca gets their own boat. Booo." But then, suddenly, sweeter than honey: "Say, I don't suppose maybe we could take your boat on the way back...? It's probably pretty luxurious, huh?"

"Yes, I suppose," Natalia said, simply talking about the soft beds and good food and unwilling to address Anise's first question, but Anise misinterpreted her response most likely on purpose.

"Oh, Natalia, that's so nice of you! See, this one guy, he snored so bad, and I ended up throwing something at him (for Florian's sake, not for mine, mind you - I'm not so selfish that I'd do something like that). And he was a real jerk about it, and what if we run into him on the way back? Anyway, you're just an absolute saint." Another quick hug, then some skipped steps over to Florian to report to him, and he turned to Natalia and smiled so sweetly that it would probably just be easier to explain to her father why, exactly, the S. S. King Wendell III was making a trip to out-of-the-way Daath.

"Don't you wish you had that energy?" Tear asked from beside her.

Natalia turned to her good friend and smiled, trying to think of a greeting. She hadn't really been expecting to see Tear this early, and wasn't really prepared to see her. Perhaps, though, she was luckier than she thought, for just at that moment the emperor waved to the musicians for silence and the room fell quiet.

"Dear guests," Peony called, "I hope you've been enjoying the fine food and company. I suspect many of you may know each other, if not personally then by reputation - " Which wasn't exactly true, given the chambermaids in their humble best, but that was most likely just the standard line. "But even failing that, know that each of us has a common friend here in Gailardia, Count Guardios.

"The Count has of course had quite an interesting life. After many adventures across every continent in his younger days - " Fascinating, the things the emperor was choosing to omit here. "He has finally decided to settle down here in Malkuth, much to our pleasure and honor." As the emperor listed off Guy's accomplishments, Natalia looked back towards the door. Guy was still greeting the arriving guests, heedless of the emperor's introduction. Natalia tried to catch his eye, but he didn't look up, even when Peony called, "Ladies and gentlemen, Count Gailardia Guardios - "

And then she saw why. A maid was leading a rappig wearing a blond wig and a suit with a toy sword buckled around its middle.

"Oh, no," Tear sighed as the audience burst out into laughter and applause and Guy resolutely pretended he wasn't seeing anything at all.

"Oh, no," Tear repeated when emperor introduced Jade as a famous rappig language and behavior expert. Natalia suspected that they were just making an elaborate joke, though truth be told if Jade had been an expert in that, too, it wouldn't have much surprised her. "The emperor can be kind of mean to his friends," Tear asked, "can't he?"

Natalia looked away and smiled. "I don't think it's meanness, really. I think he just wants to show that he..." It was at that moment that she caught sight in the midst of the crowd of a length of dark red hair, against a lean frame dressed in dark, and she felt that customary shock, the cruel windless feeling before she told herself No.

(Up front, Jade was translating a response to Peony's question of "Well, then, what's your least favorite food?" "Roast rappig, of course," ran Jade's response, and his voice was like a winter stream.)

Tear cleared her throat when Natalia didn't finish the sentence. "Luke seems to be having fun, though," she said, nodding in the very direction Natalia was looking. "That's good."

Because she was obligated to ask, even though she didn't really want to hear the answer: "How is he?"

Tear took a moment to answer. "He's good. He's healthy." Another moment. "He's changed."

("What did it say in your birth score?" "That the emperor wouldn't cook me up for dinner," said Jade, who might as well have had lemons in his mouth.)

Natalia tried to make a joke of it. "Yes, look at those clothes."

"No, not just his clothes," Tear said, all solemnity. "I mean, he's still Luke, but some moments he just seems so much like Asch - "

"I'm thirsty," Natalia announced. "Would you like something to drink? I'm getting tea." She tried to walk off before Tear could even respond, but discovered that Tear was following after. "I can get it."

Tear looked at her, eyes wide and tentative and sickeningly sorry. "I've said something wrong."

"No!" Natalia cried, then laughed. "Goodness, no, of course not. Don't be silly. No. I'm just thirsty. Would you like something?"

(From the audience, someone that sounded suspiciously like Anise bellowed "Take off your clothes!" then collapsed in a fit of naughty giggles. Jade cocked an eyebrow. The emperor playfully began to oblige.)

"No." Tear's brow was still knotted in very sweet but really quite unnecessary concern. "I'm fine."

"Oh, okay, good; just wait here, and I'll - " What Natalia was saying was suddenly drowned out by applause; up on stage, Jade was taking a deep and deeply ironic bow. Tear, ever obliging, ever good-hearted, turned to applaud as well. Natalia, who was not so good, took the opportunity to escape.

She poured herself some tea. She only had a moment of respite before Anise was standing beside her, laughing. "Did you see that?"


"His Majesty was very obliging to my request," Anise said, her voice and eyebrows arch. "And I got a nice view, too. You wouldn't think it, but he has verrry nice shoulders." Then she clasped her hands together before her. "Oh - you don't think he'd be offended by comments like that, do you?"

"He'd be flattered," Natalia said with certainty.

At that moment, Anise started eyeing her as something other than a friend and confidante. "Say, which one of us do you think he'd choose?"


"Sure. I mean, you're pretty, and you're a princess, but let's not kid ourselves here. I'm no slouch myself. And I don't mean to brag, but I think I'd be a little better at fighting for my love than you would - "

The drink of tea in her mouth turned bitter. She set it down, gasped an "Excuse me," and fled once again.

She really didn't know what was wrong with her. She really was being intolerably rude to her friends, to people who certainly didn't warrant any rudeness. Yet she also couldn't help but feel a savage hope that she hurt them terribly.

My, what a monster she was turning out to be.

And while she was thinking about it, she didn't know what was wrong with the emperor, either. Inviting this few people to this damned pointless party. It was utterly impossible not to run into someone you knew.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa, Princess," Guy laughed, catching her by the shoulders. Then he took a look at her face. "Everything all right there?"

"Just fine," she trilled, smiling a smile she knew to be unconvincing. "Absolutely, perfectly - "

But Guy understood. He looked at her, and took a deep breath, and opened his arms (and she was conscious of how much his hands were shaking) folded her against him for no more than a moment - but that was enough. She relaxed, let her tension go in a long sigh into his shoulder. That gesture, that terrified hug, was enough for her. She understood that she was being silly. She understood that her friends weren't trying to hurt her. She understood that there were people that liked her, who would brave the terror of touching a member of the opposite sex to comfort her. Even if there was no one who...But no; this was enough. Guy had become brave for her.

"Thank you," she whispered, and dashed her eyes against her shoulder and tried to laugh. It was weak, but she didn't cry, so it was, again, enough. "Thank you," she said again, stronger.

"You okay there?" he asked, reaching out to grip and press her shoulder.

"I'm fine." She smiled.

"'Cause I know this isn't the best party, so if you have a better place to be - "

This time she did laugh, and this time it wasn't even forced. "No, really. This is a fine place to be."

"Okay then," he said, then looked up at a point just beyond her shoulder. Natalia turned to see Jade there. "Is it time?"

"It is indeed," Jade said. To Natalia: "You'll be surprised by this, but Guy actually gets to make a cameo in this production."

"Oh, my," Natalia replied dutifully as Guy raised his eyebrows.

"By your leave," he said, bowing to her. Then with a grin: "Wish me luck."

"Good luck," she called after him, and he looked over his shoulder to shoot her a look of the most incredible warmth. She looked down and smiled a quickly-smothered smile.

"Your Highness. Do you have a moment?"

A scant minute before, she wouldn't have been able to deal with Jade. Now, she suspected, she could manage him even at his most sarcastic.

"Of course," she said. "You seem much busier than I am."

"Oh, I have my duties," he replied breezily. "Nothing I can't neglect. Anise came to me a moment ago."

Oh. "Oh?"

"She seems to think that's she's offended you in some way. She's asked me to suss out, though subtlety and subterfuge, how she's done so, but to be quite honest my time left on this plane is far too limited to spend on such underhanded measures." He even kept a straight face while he said that. "So please, Princess, in concession to my age and weakening mind: what was it she said?"

Poor Anise. Natalia should have thought of the effect her rudeness would have had on poor Anise. "Don't be silly!" she laughed. "Anise didn't say anything at all. I was just - " Best to spare some feelings. "She had just told a joke while I was drinking my tea, and I'm sure it's happened to you before, where you laugh while you're drinking something and you end up coughing terribly." She looked at Jade, who smiled ever-so-slightly.

"Ah, yes. I believe I am familiar with the phenomenon."

"See? There you are. Nothing more than that."

Jade looked at her a long moment, then nodded. "Well, I'm sure she'll be glad to hear it. No doubt she's concerned that she's jeopardized her luxury cabin aboard your ship."

When he said that, she felt suddenly and strangely like she'd been struck. That was absurd of her, of course. Jade was just being Jade - Anise was concerned about Natalia's feelings, of course, and certainly not only about whether or not Natalia would refuse to let her aboard. (Though then, why would Jade know about Anise's travel plans? Why would Anise have mentioned them at all?)

"Well," Natalia said, managing a smile, "if you see her, tell her that she's perfectly safe."

"Of course." Natalia thought (and, to her shame, rather hoped) that Jade, he of little patience, would move on. Instead, he started making, for lack of a better word, small talk. "I hope the event is to your satisfaction?"

"Oh." She blinked, but again managed to smile. "Oh, yes. It's, ah, very nice to see everyone again."

"Ah. So you've met up with the old crowd, as it were?" When Natalia nodded and mmmed, he looked at her like he might a specimen. "That's good to hear. Always such a pity, falling out of contact with someone. I myself have lost more than a few friends to the ravages of time - " Though the quirk of his lips made her think that he was just being facetious.

"I'm sorry," she said uncertainly.

And he just laughed. "Oh, don't be. I - "

"Jade!" someone hissed. They both looked over. It was the emperor. Jade pinched the bridge of his nose.

"I beg your pardon, Princess," Jade said, and went over to join his friend, whose attempts at hiding behind a pillar did little to help him avoid attention. Peony whispered something in Jade's ear, then yanked him away.

"Oh, my," Natalia said, mostly to herself, though it got an answering chuckle from the man next to her.

Up front, Guy was standing next to rappig-Guy, holding a conversation with him with better grace but fewer laughs than when Jade had played interpreter. That, evidently, had been the emergency Peony had needed Jade for: the emperor ran up, dragging his reluctant sleeper hit by the wrist, and positioned him facing the crowd. Jade closed his eyes. Guy scratched the back of his head.

"Tell jokes," Peony growled at them.

Guy stepped up first: "H-hey, Jade. What's worse than finding a worm in your apple?"

"Finding half a worm," Jade responded without opening his eyes. Guy grinned endearingly at the audience. Jade allowed no such pleasantry.

Guy, again: "Okay. So, a man hears about a contest being held. It's a contest to see who has the shaggiest dog, right? Now, the man himself has a very shaggy dog, so he goes and enters the contest. He makes it to the final round. The first judge says, 'That is a shaggy dog.' The second judge says, 'That is a very shaggy dog.' The third judge says, 'That is the shaggiest dog in the town.'

"So the man hits the road. He takes his dog to the county shaggy dog contest. He makes it to the final round. The first judge says, 'That is a shaggy dog.' The second judge says, 'That is a very shaggy dog.' The third judge says - "


It's the voice she was waiting for without knowing that she was waiting, the voice she was dreading unconsciously. It's a voice she knew so well. (How well?)

"Some moments," Tear had said, "he seems so much like Asch."

So, then. Who was it standing behind her? Which moment was this now?


Heavier than one, kinder than the other. She turned around.

She still didn't know who it was; his face was neither long nor short, his eyes neither hard nor gentle. His hair was neither short nor long. She didn't greet him, because she didn't know what she'd call him; said nothing at all, because she knew the order of things. Speech sent apparitions such as this fleeing.

"How are you?" he asked.

She managed, "I'm fine." It wasn't quite whispered.

"Good." He nodded. "Good." He hesitated. "I just want you to know - "

She still didn't know. She still couldn't tell. Asch, or Luke? Which moment was this?

"That you are forever in my heart, Natalia. I just want you to be happy. But we see you all the time, and you seem so sad - " He seemed a moment as though he might touch her on the cheek. "Please don't be so sad."

Asch or Luke?

"I don't understand," she said, for lack of anything else to say.

"It's all right," he replied. "We're just afraid that you're going to spend your life like this, but you can't. You have to be happy."

"But I - " It took her a moment to realize what she was going to say before her better judgment cut her off. But I love you.

He understood, perhaps. He looked down and said, "I'm sorry." He understood and even so he said, "I'm sorry." But here was the remarkable thing:

Natalia had fantasized for some time about this, and many of her imaginings had ended in that I'm sorry, often punctuated with a passionate kiss on Tear's lips. And each time, her legs had failed her, or she'd run as fast as she could run, bursting into tears so that years afterwards they'd gossip about how silly and emotional Princess Natalia got over some failed love affair. Never once did she imagine that though her lips trembled, she would be able to say, "I understand."

Yet she said, "I understand," and she heard his other few conciliatory words without cracking. She watched him rejoin Tear but kept her feet.

"So the man takes his dog to the inter-dimensional shaggy dog contest. He makes it to the final round. The first judge says, 'That is a shaggy dog. The second judge says, 'That is a very shaggy dog.' The third judge says, 'Eh. He's not so shaggy."

Tear said something into Luke's? Asch's? ear. He nodded, and she kissed him on the side of the face. Natalia just watched.

Guy looked out at the rebellious audience, who'd sat through his entire joke all the way from town to inter-dimensional and only had "He's not so shaggy" as a reward. He started getting nervous, chuckled. "Hey, Jade. What's worse than finding a worm in your apple?"

"The Betrayal of Yulia," Jade replied dryly, then spread his hands when the audience gave a collective gasp. "I shouldn't think that assertion should be up for debate. Perhaps I was wrong." He looked to Guy, but Guy was looking away, at something beyond the crowd.

Natalia turned to follow his gaze. The very delegation from Sheridan with which she'd been scheduled to meet was slipping in, trying to stay discreet, which was difficult when the man of the hour had suddenly left the spotlight to elbow aside kings and geniuses in his desperation to get to them.

And Noelle broke away from the crowd and ran for him with her arms outstretched. They came together with a force that was almost audible: he caught her; she wrapped her arms tightly around his neck; he folded his arms around her waist and leaned back to lift her from her feet; they fit against one another so perfectly, kissed so devotedly, were so in love that Natalia felt it like a blow in the pit of her stomach.

"Excuse me," she said to no one in particular.

So, then. She could manage "I'm sorry," she could manage him walking away, the man with whom she'd shared her childhood, the man whom she'd loved so much for so long, through years of sadness and strangeness - yet this, the sight of a friend's happiness, this rendered her like sugar in water? This made her crumble and dissolve, gasping "Excuse me, excuse me," as she hitched in breaths to control herself as she made her way somewhere quiet and dark and isolated? This made her tip over a table that she caught with her hip. This made her nauseous and trembling. Only this, and nothing more.

It was either sad or pathetic.

She might have attracted attention - the pounding in her ears was too much for her to be able to tell - but by the time she'd found her way into the palace library and wedged herself into a corner between a shelf and a wall and a floor and a table, she was alone. Whether this was good or bad, she didn't know, but she was alone. So she drew her shaking knees up to her chest, buried her face against them, and just sobbed until her head was throbbing and someone pressed a handkerchief against her hand.

Ah, so there was someone to bear witness to her humiliation. Good, good! She took the handkerchief but didn't look up, in the hopes that whoever would then leave discreetly, so that she wouldn't have to know who it was she should avoid for the rest of her life.

But when she pressed the handkerchief against her face, she knew exactly who it was. She recognized the scent.

What was Jade doing, then, sitting there, saying nothing? Was he laughing at her? She wouldn't put it past him. He was the one who'd invited her here personally, after all. Maybe he'd been watching the whole thing. Maybe he'd been responsible for the whole thing, because he wanted to watch her be miserable and make her friends miserable just for his own entertainment. It was exactly the sort of thing he'd do.

She waited for the scrape of the chair that meant he'd left. It didn't come. Nor did he speak.

Indeed, she was the one who spoke first. "Won't the emperor be looking for you?"

"Oh," Jade replied, "I do believe I destroyed my popularity with that last bon mot. It didn't go over very well, for some reason. His Highness will be turning to others to entertain."

"Oh." Well, of course he would. That joke had been in astoundingly poor taste.

More silence. But then Jade spoke, his voice as delicate as she'd ever heard it: "I'm sorry if...I upset you with all of this. I assure you, that was not my intention."

Of course Jade had caused it all. What else could have? Still, the admission, coupled with that delicacy that stopped well short of fragility but which was still on the way, made her lift her face towards him. His pale face reflected the least bit of light in the darkened library, hanging over her like a moon, so that she could read the least bit of emotion in his eyes, his lips. And his eyes were lowered, and his lips were unsmiling.

"Then what was?" she asked.

He seemed to genuinely have to take a moment to think about that. "My intention. Ah. Hmm." A pause. "For a while now, you've been unwilling to see, really, anyone from our - " With self-conscious irony: "Little band. Though I only became aware of it relatively recently, being admittedly something of a recluse myself, I suppose it started when Luke came back."

"I haven't been avoiding anyone," Natalia muttered.

Jade, with the exquisite assuredness only Jade could possess: "Oh, yes, you have. It was my hope in orchestrating this that I might force you back into contact with the others so that you could see for yourself both that they like you and miss you and that Luke isn't going to renounce Tear and run off with you."

Natalia jerked back. It took a moment before she could manage, "That's harsh."

He thought about that. "I suppose so. It is, nevertheless, a truth." Softly, not unkindly: "Of course you don't have any desire to hurt anyone. Indeed, if Luke were to abandon Tear, I think you should be more miserable than anyone, partially out of disappointment but mostly out of simple guilt."

He was probably trying to make the word guilt hang on the air, but she became caught on simple disappointment. She clenched her fists. "Is he...Do you know? Is he...Asch?"

A moment. "I wish I could answer. I truly don't know." Another moment. "Speaking as a person, too, rather than a scientist - I still don't know, but he seems to be more Luke than anyone else."

"I see."

They sat a while in silence. Outside, there was a bout of laughter, but Jade didn't even move. He just sat still, looking down at his hands, clasped together loosely in his lap.

"For years after Nebilim died," he said so suddenly that she almost jumped, "I saw her face on every street corner. I heard her voice constantly. And every day I hated myself, because I wasn't clever enough to bring her back." A pause. "I should have been clever enough to bring her back." His eyes closed a moment, then opened again. "Every day, I thought of her, and I missed her so terribly."

"What did you do?" Natalia whispered.

"What did I do?" Jade repeated. "Nothing. I waited. I found new loves, and eventually I even learned to call them by the right names. I wouldn't say I healed, exactly, because some nights, when the moon is full and the wind's blowing, I just can't shake the ghost of her, and I just want to...Well, never mind. It hurts less with time, or you gain perspective."

Was this Jade? This honest and vulnerable man - was this Jade? Perhaps it wasn't. Perhaps it was simply an illusion. That thought was what gave her the bravery to say, "I just thought that if - there were someone - " She cut herself off, then. How could she say something like that? What, it didn't matter that Asch was gone, just so long as there was someone who loved her? How selfish.

But Jade, selfless for once, sensitive for once, kind for once, dropped down to one knee, covered her hand with his own, leaned in, kissed her. How strange. To have Jade comfort her, that was strange; to have him comfort her in such a way, that was stranger. And to have his hand on the back of her neck, that was strange. And the softness of his lips, that was strange. And the cold of his glasses against her cheek, and the warmth of his cheek beneath it, and the way her hands reached out too, crushing him against her, the way she leaned forward almost against her will, and the way the cold tight skein in the center of her chest unspooled to reveal something hot and molten that filled her with something liquid, a trembling that felt like unshed tears in her fingertips.

Perhaps they were pathetic. She knew that she was imagining what it would be like if the hair beneath her fingers were thick and coarse, if the body were heavier, if the nose weren't so sharp. Perhaps to him, she was someone else, too. Perhaps she was clever and pretty. And perhaps that was pathetic.

Yet it was also Jade beneath her hands, as she was Natalia beneath hers. Perhaps they were each placeholders, but in that moment - she felt beautiful, and she felt a human touch. For so many nights, she had lain awake, clasping her hands together and pretending one or the other wasn't hers. So many times, she'd whispered to the darkness "I love you" just for the way it echoed. But here he was, whispering into her ear,

"Look at you."

Here he was, whispering into her ear,

"He truly was a fool to leave you behind."

And she couldn't think of anything to whisper in return, but she could be the flesh for the ghost of Nebilim.

Perhaps she was pathetic, but even on the way back to Baticul (in those rare moments she could get away from Anise) she was trying to come up with the next time in which she could see him. It seemed improbable that Jade would be ever again as he had been in that moment as he comforted her. Even so she longed for him, through whom she could long for someone else.

So the month before her birthday, she intercepted the invitation sent out to Colonel Jade Curtiss. She wrote below it:

I cannot imagine any situation in which this will be as great a debacle as Gailardia and Noelle's engagement party.

Nevertheless, a lesser debacle is still good for something, isn't it?

A week later, his name was listed on the official guest list. She let herself wonder in that moment: was it pity, or was it affection?

Well. A blessing on whichever.

(Notes: Because when two characters have had roughly two lines of interaction, it's likely - nay, inevitable! - that they're gonna be knockin' boots.)