THIS IS PURELY A FLIGHT OF FANCY, A THANK YOU TO MY LOYAL READERS. THE EVENTS IN THIS APPENDIX HAVE NO BEARING ON THE ACTUAL OUTCOME OF THE STORY OR ANY OF THE EVENTS IN ITS SEQUEL. EVEN IF SOME OF YOU REALLY, REALLY WANT THEM TO.
The Secret Life of a Girl
Appendix: Girl Gets Her Man
The smoke came first, the messengers later. Merchants who did their trade on the border of Asturia reported an influx of refugees from Fanelia. Their country had been razed. Only a few stone structures remained standing. Their newly coronated king was missing. Many of the country's people were dead. Among the fallen was Balgus Ganesha.
King Aston was impassive to the news. Fanelia was a small, isolated country that kept its business to itself. Asturia, neither needing nor wanting any of that business, had always respected the independence of that nation. Many of the swordsmen of the court expressed awe that the one who had been considered the greatest among of them had been defeated. Again, Aston cared little. Balgus had years ago turned down the king's request to serve Asturia. It was not above Aston to hold grudges.
Balgus' visit also held deep remembrances for Eries. They were not bitter like her fathers, despite all that had passed between her and the blue-eyed boy she had glimpsed for the first time that night. Or perhaps it was because of that. The way things were between them now did not change the way things had been between them for years. Friendship, and love, was not so easily forgotten.
Eries' eyes watered from the smoky air. She had taken to the rooftops to get a better sense of the disaster. It was hard for to believe such a tragedy could occur, that people could be so merciless to others. The haze that hung over
her country disproved that idealistic notion.
A cough from behind her interrupted her solitude. "Eries, your father's calling an emergency meeting," Maerzen said. "You should be in the council chambers in ten minutes."
"That was what I was expecting him to do. He may not care about Fanelia, but Father has to know this is going to effect Asturia eventually."
"It might help if we knew who did it. The reports I've heard keep talking about the attacks coming from literally nowhere. No one saw the attackers."
"Mass hysteria, maybe?" Eries guessed. "The trauma of losing your family, your entire homeland might be enough to induce hallucinations."
"Maybe, but I have to think whatever attacked had some sort of advantage if they were able to take out a Swordsman of Gaea."
"Hmm…Balgus," she sighed. "Another one gone from his life…"
"You're still thinking about him, aren't you?"
Eries considered Maerzen's question. Dwelling overmuch on Allen at the cost of her own contentment was why she had severed contact with him. Thinking of him now was the equivalent of picking at a scab and wondering why the wound never healed. "A bad habit, I suppose," Eries answered.
"He was such a large part of your life for so long," he offered. "It's understandable. It'll take a while to adapt, to learn how to look at him differently."
"I just need to change my perspective then? Instead of feeling sorry for him -- "
"You just say 'Great. Even more crap for him to brood over.' It's easy," Maerzen finished.
She didn't want to laugh. Mocking the genuine tragedies of Allen's life seemed cold, or at the very least, unsporting. But the sheer amount of them, and the way in which Allen almost embraced the burden they brought him, had its ludicrous elements. The precise imitation Maerzen was doing of Allen at his sullen best was making restraint a difficult undertaking.
"You're horrible," she said between giggles that refused to be suppressed.
Her teasing condemnation was put aside. "We'll have to change that perception, too."
Listening to the panicked ranting of her fellow council members became irritating immediately. Eries had barely sat down when she realized nothing was going to be accomplished that day except for a lot of screaming back and forth. The less attention she paid to it, the better off she would be. She settled deep into her chair, which let her be comfortable and gave the appearance that she was absorbed by the discussion. To compliment the illusion, she nodded her head and uttered 'I see' at random intervals.
Meanwhile, her thoughts drifted back to Maerzen's advice. Like the rest that he had given her, it was good, solid advice and unlike some that he had given her, she planned on following it. If only she had done the same when he expressed early concerns about her involvement with Allen. He had never vocalized any outright criticism of that relationship; he had even supported (though reluctantly) her efforts to keep it going. But Eries had always sensed an underlying disapproval that ran deeper than concern over her social status in comparison to Allen's. Now removed from the situation, she understood the source of his misgivings. As Allen's friend and roommate, Maerzen had been able to see him as he was, not how Eries imagined he could be.
So why didn't he point that out sooner?
She had the answer to her own question with just a second's more thought. Because, just like Allen, I wasn't ready to listen.
After being appointed as her private guard, Maerzen's main duties were escorting her to the library and spending the day thumbing through books while Eries devoured the texts in front of her. Once this pattern had continued for a week, he had commented on her independent studies. Proud of her own abilities (and wanting to show off a little in front of the new guy), Eries had proclaimed that she was mostly self-taught. The time she had spent studying under Timzin had been more counterproductive than anything. Eries was now recalling that conversation for the first time in years. Maerzen must have always kept it in mind.
It was his nature, to observe -- mostly quietly, but sometimes quite sarcastically -- and remember. He had known her enough to give her the space to learn for herself, despite how hard it must have been to stand back and watch her flounder. Or worse, how annoying it must have been to listen to her complaints while having a solution to a problem she wouldn't even acknowledge.
It was his role, to protect her above and beyond the call of his duty to safeguard her physically. He had taken that role of his own accord, something for which Eries had grown appreciative of and consoled by. Having only Marlene and Millerna for siblings, the idea of a brother watching over her had an appeal. And since Maerzen was used to being surrounded by sisters, Eries had assumed his adoption of her was a means to make up for the distance from them while stationed in Palas.
But then, she had assumed a lot of things about Allen that hadn't proved true in the end. Eries hated having to doubt things she took for granted about the people close to her, but if she was ever going to grow and learn, reevaluations of old, not-so-certain certainties had to be done. Maerzen had told her to change her perspective; she might as well start with him.
It wasn't like she was going to come up with some evil, ulterior motive on his behalf. Maerzen had been nothing but good to her, even in the early days when she put extra effort into giving him a hard time. He was most definitely not 'horrible', as she had proclaimed him to be on the roof. That was one opinion that would not have to change.
Still though, something about their relationship bothered her. When introducing him, it was always as her guard. When talking to him personally, she referred to him as her guard. It trivialized what he really meant to her. Saying he was like a brother also didn't cover it completely either. It was as if she was forever casting him as her protector rather than an equal and a friend. Didn't it grate on her how Allen wanted to protect women more than actually just letting himself *be* with them? Wanting to save Marlene from the grip of her depression had been the start of that affair. Eries had never needed Allen's protection. She had Maerzen. Not like Marlene had Allen, obviously. It might have made her life easier if she had pursued a similar route, but…
Eries dropped that line of thinking. Comparing Allen and Maerzen wasn't what she had meant to do and the detour her thoughts had come to made continuing seem odd…and pointless, really. Changing perspective didn't require changing the entire view. She had realized a need to quit labeling Maerzen's significance to her and simply accept his friendship. Thinking beyond that was silly.
Silly, odd and pointless.
One of the councilmen threw himself back into his seat and looked about the room with his arms crossed and nose turned upwards. It was an indication that he had just delivered what he perceived to be an important, cogent speech.
"I see," Eries said automatically.
Though she didn't know it, she was beginning to.
The meeting broke up long after nightfall. A starving Eries left the chambers trying to massage her stiff back while figuring out what to do about the dinner she had missed. Her father had given orders for his meal to be sent up to his chambers but had left everyone else on the council to fend for themselves. Eries had no complaints. It had been an arduous task just to pay half-hearted attention to the conspiracy theories and tentative plans for a possible war. She didn't need to add the challenge of keeping food down while all of it went on. It was best to stop by the kitchens and pick up something to tide her over until the very large breakfast she planned on ordering.
If only the cooks would have complied. They had made the king's meal, then left so other members of the staff could clean away the many and varied messes created by cooking enough food to feed the hundreds of people who called the palace home. The handmaidens worked silently, wielding mops and pails of scalding water with precision and speed. They only had a few hours before the morning shift began breakfast preparations. The last thing Eries wanted to do was interrupt them so that the spoiled princess could get a snack because she hadn't sent a servant down to take care of things like her father had earlier.
Feeling good about her class-consciousness did not alleviate her hunger. There were restaurants and pubs all around Palas that could accommodate her needs, but years of Aston's warnings kept her venturing out at night by herself. Revius usually pulled night duty on this day of the week so she headed towards the guard tower. A Caeli was there, slumped forward towards the desk in front of him with his back to her, but his hair was brown, not black. Deep, even breathing suggested he was asleep.
"I THOUGHT YOU WENT HOME," Eries shouted at Maerzen. "PERHAPS YOU SHOULD HAVE IF YOU'RE SO TIRED."
If he had been sleeping, he made a quick recovery. "I did go home, but my stupid roommate requested I cover for him for a couple of hours and I, temporarily being even dumber, agreed to it." The beginnings of a yawn cut off the rest of what he had been about to say. Maerzen caught himself before he could give Eries more material with which to make fun of him. "And since it was such a quiet night, I was resting until Revius comes back."
"Had a tiring day, did you?"
"My duties require me to spend a great deal of time with you. Infer what you will from that."
Eries answered in the voice of a well-heeled princess addressing one of her subjects. "I choose to infer that the vigilance with which you guard the daughter of your king with no less than your life itself is taxing both physically and mentally. Should I infer something else?"
Maerzen knew the dangers of leading questions, particularly when they came from Eries. An Eries using that tone could only be nodded to and told 'yes, your majesty' many, many times. Of course he said, smirking ever so slightly, "Yes, your majesty."
Eries was in a charitable mood towards him, not to mention still hungry. "I don't suppose as part of those duties you could escort me to a nearby tavern so that I could get something to eat? Assuming it's safe to leave your post with all of those responsibilities that you were attending to when I came in."
"It's Revius' post, not mine. He should be back soon. And the locals have been too troubled by what happened to Fanelia to be up to anything. Besides, I missed my own dinner to be here."
"So if an invading fleet, which could only be detected by a man stationed at this exact spot, attacks in the time between our departure and Revius' return, it's really Revius' fault?" Eries asked.
"His and yours," Maerzen responded wryly. "So where would you like to go? I was going to pick up something from Tuvello's before heading up to the flat but I'm sure the nightlife of a common bar would not be appropriate for your sensibilities."
"I think it would be fun."
Maerzen tried to process this. "Fun? You? Tuvello's? You think going to Tuvello's at night would be fun?"
To her earlier resolution of viewing Maerzen as simply her friend rather than a man getting paid a salary to protect her, Eries added a revision -- whenever he was being a difficult ass, she could treat him however she wanted to treat him. "Me. Tuvello's. I've been there before. I think going there at night could be fun. Depending on the company, that is."
Maerzen shook his head. "You'll definitely want to stay close to me then."
It was a loud bar. Eries had been to Tuvello's several times during the daylight hours and had made one memorable trip there in the early evening, but this was the first she had seen the place once the night had taken over. Her previous visits were to a quaint tavern that had its patrons scattered across its numerous tables while being attended to by barmaids whose pride in excellent service was reflected in knowledge of the menu and quick delivery of the food selected. Things were a bit different now. People were everywhere, lining stairwells and packing around tables meant to seat half their number. The barmaids had multiplied too but the ones on duty couldn't recall more than 'ale' and 'vino' as items offered. They smiled and bent over a lot, which was received with additional orders of those beverages and a greater appreciation from the male customers than any recitation of the ingredients in the daily special ever got.
Eries was acutely aware that she was one of only a handful of females in the place that weren't employees. And she had her suspicions about the vocation of those two ladies hanging out by a backroom.
They hadn't been seated yet, and Eries was about to suggest they skip that entirely, when a cluster of men headed past them on their way out of the bar. One of them brushed against Eries in a manner and location that was not accidental. Whatever pleasure the man might have derived from it was cut short by the pain of having his hand crushed in the grip of an irate Caeli. A swift and rambling apology later, the man and his cohorts were speeding out the door.
"Thank you. And you told me so," Eries said contritely.
All business, Maerzen accepted the gratitude without any commentary. "We could go somewhere else or I could have food delivered upstairs. I know how much you like the seasoned potatoes they have here."
"Your apartment? That would probably be best."
Eries made sure to stay very close to Maerzen, at one point latching onto to his arm when another group of men went by them. She let go of it only after they were safely upstairs and the door of the flat was shut behind them.
"I shouldn't have taken you there," Maerzen apologized. "I knew what the place was like, but when you get so insistent like that…"
"You can't help but prove how foolish I'm being," Eries concluded. "But you'd think people would be a little more respectful."
"It's not like anyone there knew you are princess. You need something to identify yourself with, like a crown or a little tiara."
"There is a collection of royal jewelry," she said, recalling the assortment of gems and trinkets locked away in a storeroom deep below the palace. "While there's nothing for the queen or any princes or princesses to wear, there is a crown for the king. It's hideous. Lots of jewels and images of Jichia done in relief around the gold base. Father hates it. It chafes his scalp."
Maerzen nearly choked on the water he had poured for himself. He held another glass out to Eries, but made her promise that she had to start being serious.
"I was serious. That's why he doesn't wear it," she insisted. "He did wear it once to a banquet when I was a child. He kept scratching at it and rubbing his forehead with a napkin until Marlene asked him 'Daddy, why is your head so pink?' He took it off immediately and Mother laughed through the rest of the meal. He never wore it again."
"The burdens of royalty… I never knew." His words were somber. The mischievous glint in his grey eyes was not.
Something about that rubbed Eries the wrong way and she was quick to return to the teasing. "No, I don't suppose a farm boy turned Caeli would know anything about a station so much higher than his own." Seeing that her efforts were achieving the desired effect, she set up the killing blow. "Of course, if a certain Egzardian princess has her way," she said saucily, "You could be in for quite an education."
Her momentum was what was killed. Instead of the expected flustered denial, Maerzen gave her a simple, calm explanation. "Princess Marqesita and I are just acquaintances. She's a charming, intelligent, very beautiful woman, but my interest in her is strictly platonic."
"You're just saying that to throw me off, aren't you? I saw the way she acted around you at Millerna's party. Platonic is not the word I would use to describe it."
"That's just how she is. You're the one who compared her to Revius and he doesn't think about seducing every woman he flirts with." He stopped and considered. "Okay, bad example. She's more like…well, you know…"
"Allen. You can say his name."
"She's more like…Allen." He paused before continuing. Eries had given permission to mention Allen but that didn't mean it wouldn't effect her. The spark that had been in her a few seconds ago had given way to silence, as if she was waiting for Maerzen to decide for her if she wanted to talk about the one she had lost or to forget him entirely. Still concerned that she had feelings to work through, he tested the waters of the former. "You were thinking about him earlier today -- "
"I've thought enough about him," Eries said abruptly. "For today and probably my whole life."
An uneasiness seeped into the room. Its presence most likely would have grown until their dinners were delivered, then expanded around that until their meal was reduced to quiet chewing and gestures to pass the water. But Eries refused. She had meant what she said. She was tired of having Allen Schezar rule her thoughts. Here and now, alone with her friend and in the midst of what could still prove to be the pleasant night she had hoped for, was the perfect place to start. "I think," she began gradually, "That you are trying to change the subject. I believe the real issue at hand was the eldest princess of Egzardia and the knight that caught her generally roving eye."
"But if there's nothing to talk about," Maerzen countered, back in form, "How can it be an issue?"
"Oh, come on! You two get along well. Every man that sees her has a hard time keeping his jaw off the floor. Why aren't you attracted to her?"
"Fine," he relented. "Let's do a feasibility study. I am, to quote you, a 'farm boy turned Caeli'. She is a princess. I think you know how that works. And I'm not sure if geography is one of the subjects that you've studied, but if you've ever seen a map, you should have noticed this giant chunk of space between Asturia and Egzardia. And finally, she's just not the type of woman I want."
"Who is?" The question, which was more of a demand, escaped her lips accidentally. Eries prided herself on being the non-gossiping, non-prying sort, but curiosity was making a convert out of her. "You know, you never tell me anything about any of the women you see."
"That's not something I'm comfortable discussing with you," he said succinctly.
"Why not? You know all the details of my wretched love life. If that's what you can call it."
"Yes. Yes, I do."
Eries almost missed the response because he said it so quietly. Then a knock at the door marked the arrival of the food and Maerzen ran to get it before she could ask him to repeat it. Maerzen tossing the steaming plates of food onto the table and begging off to his room to change out of his uniform prevented her from asking him what he meant by it.
It wasn't the kind of fare served at court functions, but the thickly diced fried potatoes and flank of meat stuffed into a roll were more satisfying than the fancily prepared morsels Eries usually ate. She was less satisfied by her failure to resume the conversation with Maerzen where it had left off, but embarrassing rumblings from her stomach had made ending her hunger a higher priority than digging up dirt on his personal life. Now though, with the grease on the two crumpled up and discarded napkins at the center of the table being the only remains of meal, there was nothing to hold her back.
"That was a good meal," she said. "The only thing missing was the conversation. Before we started, you were saying something about what you want in a woman…"
"No, I wasn't." He noisily cleared away the dishes and set them outside in a bin from which a barmaid would later retrieve them. Back inside, he settled on the battered couch on the other end of the flat and sunk into the cushions. His feet, propped up on one end, were all Eries could see of him.
"I shouldn't expect any dessert conversation either, should I?" Eries barked across the room.
"No dessert period."
"What is with you?!" Eries stomped over to the couch and hovered menacingly above her prone guard. "Normally, it's an effort to get you to shut up."
"You should be grateful then."
"Talk." Eries kicked the couch. "Or the furniture goes. Given its dilapidated state, it won't take long."
"You'll have to reimburse Revius for it. Mind you, he's going to be armed when he comes back from duty and he loooooves this couch."
"All right, I shouldn't punish him because his roommate's being a recalcitrant jerk." Eries glared at Maerzen but he had his eyes closed. Which gave her an idea…
"Hey! I need those!" His protest came too late. Eries had his glasses firmly in hand and was already safely back at the dinner table.
She studied the eyewear, turning them over and wiping the smudges caused by her fingertips off the thick lenses. "Gods, most windows have thinner glass. How did someone so blind get let into a group of elite swordsmen?"
"I'm nearsighted," he explained testily. "And when you're fighting someone with a sword, you're generally not that far away from them."
"So you can see a little bit. How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Well, I'm about to hold up one in particular if you don't give me my glasses back."
"How sweet, Alucier. Do you have any other gestures of affection for your princess?"
He was upright now, peering over the rim of the couch and squinting badly. "If her majesty would so kindly bless me with the return of my glasses, I might escort her home without going through the bad neighborhoods."
"Wouldn't that just be more work for you?"
"Give me back my glasses."
"Why won't you answer my question?"
"You know my terms." Eries dropped out the verbal negotiations. To provide another type of argument, she tried the item of debate on.
"You look ridiculous."
"As if you can even see me." She certainly couldn't see him. Not well, anyway. The flat was blurry. The couch (which hadn't looked that good to begin with) was a brown blob. Maerzen was the slightly lighter brown blob on top of it. The blob that was using her distraction to ooze closer.
He snatched back his glasses with minimal effort.
"They were giving me a headache anyway," Eries claimed. "And if you had been wearing your uniform, you never would have been able to sneak up on me."
"Yeah, that's why I changed out of it. Not to avoid getting dinner all over it, but because I anticipated you stealing my glasses."
"I borrowed them," she sniffed. "And since you do have them back, you owe me an answer to my question."
"Why do you want to know so much?"
"I asked you first!" It wasn't Eries at her most mature. Such a tactic was better suited to Millerna when she was in one of her more huffy moods and Eries didn't know why she was using it. At most, it would delay the need for her to answer. Which, considering that she didn't have an answer, wasn't necessarily a bad thing.
She tried hashing one out. "Because… I've been dumping on you for all these years. I think it's time to return the favor." Eries reclined in her chair and awaited the reward for giving her answer, a good one too. Maerzen didn't need to know about the tiny niggling doubt she had that it didn't feel entirely correct.
With his glasses back in place, Maerzen retreated to the couch again. Eries followed after, plopping down on the other end to appear laid-back while effectively trapping him there.
Finally, she got her way. "Since you've got it in your head that this is so deathly importantly, you're just going to nag me until the end of time until I tell you," Maerzen said. "And if I don't tell you, you're just going to blow everything out of proportion, which will lead to even more nagging."
"The word is stubborn. Don't use euphemisms."
"Don't use cheap postponements." She was aiming for a jovial set-up, but Maerzen was more serious than ever. Abnormally serious. She hadn't really seen him like this before. "I'm not asking for a name, home address and a list of relations. I'm just curious. If Marqesita isn't your kind of woman, who is?"
He started gradually. "She's not entirely not my type. I mean, she's intelligent, which is definitely important. I hate to say this, but some of the women Revius has brought up here had me questioning their sentience. He was showing this one girl a sword he had just bought and she actually reached out and grabbed the edge. She was stunned that it cut her. The entire time he was bandaging her fingers, she kept going on about how swords shouldn't be so sharp -- "
"Um, Alucier," Eries coughed. "You appreciate intelligence. I understand that. Can you move on to something else?"
He glanced at her, then took to playing with the strings at the neck of his tunic. "All right. I like someone dignified. Someone who carries herself with grace and class. But not all the time. Someone who, when you can get her alone, can let herself be free and playful. Someone I can talk to, about culture or politics or just to trade insults with."
Eries sighed and quipped, "Sounds like you're talking about me." She snickered at her own joke and segued into full blown laughter. Then she realized she was the only one making any noise. "Alucier?" she said hesitantly. "Aren't you supposed to laugh and make a disparaging remark now?"
"Oh… yeah… okay… ha ha… you're stupid."
Eries' mouth flew open, hung there with an unspoken reply and promptly snapped shut. He could not be saying what she thought he was saying. "This is the joke, right? You're saying this to completely unsettle me and then you'll start heckling me. Right? Right? I said 'Right?' Right?"
"I know you may find this hard to believe, but you aren't always right."
"But… You never…" Eries sputtered. "Were you ever planning on telling me?"
"I was going to wedge it in between you saying how much you love Allen and how upset you are at Allen because he's not in love with you, but since you got into that fight with him, my plans got all screwed up."
Eries took a small respite in the fact that he had gone back to using sarcasm, but she was still in a state of shock. "How long have you felt this way? Ever since you started being my guard?"
"Yes, Eries. On that very day, I set up a shrine to you in my closet with candles and strands of hair I surreptitiously took off your clothes. I pray to Jichia in front of it every night for an hour before bed in the hopes that someday, the dragon god will make you mine."
So much for respite. The familiar sarcasm used to be a comfort, but now he was using it a defense against her. "Seriously, how long has this been going on?"
Maerzen bunched himself up in the cushions. "I don't know. You were in Allen mode, complaining about the women he consorted with and wondering how he could think they were better than you and I started thinking, 'Yeah, you are better than they are.' And then I started thinking about the women I've dated and… I came to the same conclusion."
"Yeah, 'oh'," he said gloomily. "So I guess this means I'll be looking for a new post tomorrow."
"No! I wouldn't hear of it! Things might be a little awkward…" She paused to reflect for a second how awkward it would really be. Despite her initial reaction, she wasn't feeling particularly ill at ease with him. In fact, with the shock wearing off, she was sort of feeling… flattered. "Maybe not even that bad. I was surprised when you first said it, that's all. I've never thought of you like that."
Except at the council meeting this afternoon,an inner voice chimed in.
No! That was just a stray thought. A completely random, stream of consciousness thought,she argued back.
An excellently timed thought, considering…
"If it's not going to be awkward, why have you stopped talking?" Maerzen was still sandwiched into the cushions, but now he was being bold enough to face her.
"No… I was just thinking…"
He did not look like he wanted to find out what she was thinking about. Eries herself was getting unnerved by the robust internal debate.
A arbitrary thought popping into my head doesn't mean anything. The juxtaposition of an arbitrary thought popping into my head with Alucier's confession doesn't mean anything.
If it's just coincidental, why am I more panicked by the coincidence than by what Alucier actually said?
I'm being stupid. It's not like I knew he had those kind of feelings for me when I thought it.
And then came the last word on the matter.
But I thought it anyway.
"I was just thinking. I'm not sure what I want to do about this now, but I know that I don't want to lose you. You've stood by me for so long. As much misery as I've put myself through with Allen, you were there. You were the constant I could rely on. I can't imagine how maddening it must have been for you to listen to me whine and whine…"
"I don't know. I sort of appreciated the irony of you wondering how Allen could be such a close friend to you and be oblivious to your feelings."
"Hmph. Allen once told me he hated irony. That it was life's way a reminding you of something you'd rather forget." Eries exhaled heavily. "I don't think that's the case here."
"So you're not horrified? You're not going to be worrying when we're together if I'm thinking about you in 'that way'?"
"I guess it depends on what you mean by 'that way'. Are you talking about romantic candlelit dinners or… what would come after the candles were blown out?"
"What?! Do you think I'm Revius?"
"I think you're a male over the age of twelve."
"You won't be content until I've disappeared completely into this couch, will you?"
Eries thought he would be hard pressed to sink further in unless there was a gaping hole underneath the cushions. That was a distinct possibility, but she persisted regardless. "Excuse me if I'm prying. The sum of my romantic experiences with men consists of a unspeakably ill-conceived minute of drunken fumbling with Allen that did nothing for him but sober him up enough to turn me down. Can you understand why I might take a tiny bit of pleasure from knowing that another man finds me desirable?"
"Don't be so self-deprecating. You're everything that you described me as. You're handsome. You're thoughtful. You've handled a difficult personal situation with more sense than I ever did."
"If there's more, you're welcome to continue."
"If you give me time, I'm sure I could fill a book with your virtues. And I probably wouldn't have to write much bigger than twice the size of my normal handwriting."
Maerzen relaxed enough that Eries could see more of him than the pillows again. Shy was never a word she would have used to describe him, but watching him under her gaze, the timid way he looked at her from over the brim of his glasses, a faint trace of pink on his face that had been a full blush moments ago, it came off as an accurate assessment. It was charming. It was, she was forced to admit, adorable. The only problem was the guilt she felt at being the cause. Her stalwart guardian brought down because he had become too endeared of his charge. Eries didn't want that distance between them.
Moreover, she was doubting if there was a need for any distance at all. Everything she had said about was what she truly felt. She had known him for years. And in that time of effortless friendship and candid rapport, she had come to trust him, to care deeply for him. Next to Allen, there was no one closer to her.
She needed to amend that. Allen was gone to her. She had cut him out of her life out a need to grow beyond the shadow he cast over her. Eries had chosen to move on and in front of her now was the first test of her resolution.
It was a leap of faith. Faith in herself to risk opening her heart after years of hiding it away and still exposing enough of it to break. Faith in Maerzen that he would never hurt her in the same way. That part, Eries knew, would be easy.
"Alucier, what you told me this morning… about changing my perspective. I know that you're selfless enough that you weren't speaking with yourself in mind, but… "
"But, what?" Under his wariness was a tinge of hope.
"Well… maybe… this is just an idea… but maybe… we could… try it. I don't want to rush into anything, but… I don't know… Maybe a little step at a time."
His eyes widened, in surprise and expectation. With Eries having given her assent, his timidity faded. "And what would the first step be?" he whispered, offering a barely concealed suggestion.
Eries took it. Nervous, frightened and dizzy with the possibilities that were opening before her, she leaned in to begin the newest stage of her life.
"Forward little minx, aren't you?"
"I'm sorry. I meant bossy little wench."
Eries had no need to repeat herself. Maerzen's lips became much too occupied to form another barb and when Eries withdrew her own, she took whatever words he might have said with her. Eries wasn't as speechless.
"You're not so horrible after all."
Author's Notes -- Whew, that was hard to write. Firstly, because I couldn't get into it. Secondly, because I got too into it. Damn you, Alucier. You're much too loveable.