The Clownfish

Disclaimer: I don't own DGM or the mermaid stuff.

Warning: You might want to wait until you have a couple of hours of free time to read this…


Chapter 4: Up Where They Stay All Day In The Sun

The morning sun dawned bright and early on a sleeping Allen Walker, sprawled on his back and head tilted into his pillow with silken, silvery strands of hair covering his face. The sight of his calm, relaxed, sleeping face was strangely beautiful; it would have taken all the courage and willpower of even the most cruel person to make it disappear.

Unfortunately, Lenalee Lee's determination and excitement eventually won over her desire to watch that wonderful sight for just a minute more… but she did try to be as gentle as possible in waking him.

"Allen-kun," she murmured, brushing his bangs away from his face gently with one hand. "Allen-kun."

He stirred slightly, but made no further move.

"Allen-kun…" Lenalee placed another hand on his shoulder and shook him slowly, careful to avoid startling him. "Wake up, Allen-kun…"

There was no response except for Allen's mouth falling open a little more.

Well, she'd just have to try harder, then. Lenalee leaned closer to Allen, brushing her lips against his right ear, and breathed, "Allen-kun, wake up…"

The princess was startled by the sudden movement of the now-conscious boy as he bolted upwards into a sitting position, eyes snapping open and staring straight ahead in shock.

"Allen-kun!" Lenalee withdrew, settling herself on the bed by his still-covered legs and placing a hand over her racing heart. "You're awake now…"

The merboy nodded blearily, blinking the remnants of sleep out of his eyes. Lenalee had taken him completely by surprise! Whispering in his ear, her lips so close… that would have caused his heart to race at any time, but of all the days… the morning after he'd nearly…

Lenalee cocked her head curiously, noticing how the faint red pillow marks on Allen's cheek suddenly disappeared as he blushed at the memory. "Are you all right, Allen-kun?" she asked worriedly, cheerful surprise fading into friendly concern. "You haven't gotten sick, have you?! Falling off the boat last night-"

Allen shook his head quickly – is that what Lenalee remembers about that incident?! – although his blush only deepened when Lenalee leaned closer and pressed her palm flat against his head, checking his temperature. Carefully, he wrapped his red fingers around her slim wrist, marvelling at how smooth her skin felt, and gently lifted her hand away… all the while praying for his embarrassment not to show further. Right now, Lenalee was as close as she had been before, when-

"Hmm… are you sure you're okay, Allen-kun?" Lenalee asked, making a move to reach with her other hand before Allen's nervous smile made her pause. "That's good, then," she continued, mimicking his blush to a lesser extent, "because if you weren't, we wouldn't be able to do what I've planned for today…"

Hm? Allen smiled blankly in response, his blush fading.

"Today…" Lenalee was almost shaking with her contained excitement. "I asked the staff about it yesterday, actually, before we left, and I'm so happy the weather is nice today…"

Allen continued to smile, awaiting her response while feeling the wonderful emotions associated with seeing the current object of one's affections be infused with such joy.

"…We're going to have a picnic!"

Pic…nic… PICNIC?! Within the space of a second, Allen's expression faded to confusion and then sudden recognition, eyes falling to the bedsheets before his head snapped up and he stared disbelievingly into Lenalee's excited violet eyes. With food?!

"Lots of food," she confirmed. "That's why I had to ask so early – so they could get it all ready for us, particularly you, and oh, Allen-kun, it's going to be so fun! We'll have to carry the baskets – you don't mind, do you?"

Allen shook his head, brimming with Lenalee's contagious excitement now that food had been mentioned.

"I hope you like where we're going; it's on the way to the city, on one of the hills, but quite far from the sea. It's such a beautiful place! My parents used to bring my brother and I there when we were little, and on warm sunny days like this one, I love going there with everyone! Although these days, it's mostly just my brother, Lavi, Reever… and sometimes Kanda," she admitted.

Reever? Allen momentarily struggled to put a face to that vaguely familiar name, but did not succeed. Well, no matter. A picnic with Lenalee at a beautiful, isolated – so he assumed – spot that had inspired nothing but good memories for her… surely, it would be a wonderful morning!

Perhaps even romantic, too… but Allen refused to think about that for the time being. Liking Lenalee didn't mean he couldn't enjoy friendly interactions with everyone, after all!

"Everything's already packed," Lenalee told him, shifting a bit closer to the edge of the bed as if to tell him she was planning to get up soon. "It's a bit late in the morning, so I didn't think we'd have breakfast, but since you have such a big appetite, Allen-kun… do you want something to eat before we go? I can tell the kitchens so it'll be ready by the time you've gotten ready…"

Allen nodded, gratitude creating a strange feeling of warmth in his empty stomach. Thanks, Lenalee. I'll be fast! As much as he'd have liked to skip breakfast for the sake of arriving at the picnic faster, and making Lenalee happy, hunger pangs were already chewing their way through his abdomen. The thought of combining that with the pain in his feet for an extended period of time was not a pleasant one.

"Then I'll just go so you can… oh." Lenalee gave a start, then laughed nervously. "Allen-kun…"

Hm? He looked at her curiously, wondering what was wrong.

"Your hand…" Lenalee nodded to the red appendage, blushing with embarrassment again.

Eh-! Allen quickly released her wrist, the red flush returning to his face as he did so. He'd forgotten to let go! And for Lenalee to have to point it out… she must feel at least as awkward as he did at that, but…

"So…" Lenalee smiled weakly in an attempt to reassure him that it was all right. "See you in a few minutes, Allen-kun!"

The merboy nodded and waved as Lenalee departed a little quicker than she usually did, then turned to his pillow again. A round, golden object had made a slight indentation in the fluffy expanse, not too far from where his head had been.

Timcanpy, Allen mouthed, reaching out to stroke it with one finger. Tim-

Pain suddenly shot through the appendage as sharp teeth dug into his unprotected skin. Wincing, Allen lifted his arm, the golden golem dangling in the air from his bitten finger.

Timcanpy-!!!

The merboy shook his arm in an attempt to dislodge the source of his injury, yet the golem did not budge. Face contorting in pain, he shook harder and harder until finally, the grip loosened – and the force of Allen's still-moving hand sent it flying over into the nearby wall. Timcanpy hit it with a loud smack and slowly slid down to the carpeted floor.

Allen bit down on his voiceless curse as he hopped up from the bed, gasping as his bare feet hit the ground. He promptly fell to his knees and reached for his friend hesitantly, the open wounds and blood staining his fingers a reminder of what could happen if Timcanpy wasn't in a good mood – or awake.

Timcanpy… Allen mouthed, reaching out with one finger again, although at a much slower pace this time. Tim-

He saw the flash of white just in time to withdraw, jumping back against the bed as those sharp teeth appeared in the spot where his finger had been just moments before.

The merboy's pale eyebrows immediately slanted downwards as he glared at the grinning(?) golem, restraining the urge to shake his finger at it. Timcanpy slunk backwards, looking almost sheepish despite its exposed teeth.

That wasn't very nice. Although he hadn't forgotten about Lenalee, breakfast, and the upcoming picnic, Allen spared a moment to reprimand the golem with a stern look. Timcanpy may have had teeth and wings, and apparent immortality, but he was also eight centimetres in diameter. There was a clear power hierarchy there, and the merboy was on top.

Once the golem's wings had been tucked against his body and the grin had disappeared as it apparently turned towards the ground in recognition of said power hierarchy, Allen was satisfied. He pushed himself to his feet, wincing at the sharp pain whenever his foot made contact with even the soft carpet, and moved over to the wardrobe where Lenalee had put his new outfits from the shopping trip. Immediately, Timcanpy hopped back to his feet and lifted himself off the ground, hovering over to his friend rather cheerfully now that the issue had been resolved.

What should I wear, Allen pondered, sifting through the hanging shirts with his uninjured hand. It was a nice day outside; perhaps one of the shorter-sleeved ones? But then he'd be showing off his left arm to everyone… Lenalee and Lavi had already seen it, but he'd prefer that Kanda didn't get another reason to sneer at him. Perhaps he'd better go for one of the other ones; as it turned out, Lenalee had bought shirts in a variety of styles. Yes, that was probably best. Some of them looked like his old one, too; might as well avoid the obvious comments on wearing his new shirts so soon.

What would they say, though? The only thing he could think of was to go above the obvious gratitude and say Allen had more feelings towards Lenalee than just that

…and they'd be absolutely right…

With a sigh, Allen let his arm fall to his side limply. He liked Lenalee; there was no denying that, and he was sure those feelings would only grow stronger as time passed. Why was he so concerned with what people would think? There was no way he could hide that fact for three months – perhaps from the more oblivious of them, but Lavi already knew, and Lenalee… She had to know, although it would make sense if she didn't, either, considering her recent behaviour. Would she act that way if she knew how he had begun to feel towards her?

So eventually, everyone would find out anyway, if Lavi hadn't told a particularly gossipy maid by now during one of their closet romps. Why should he concern himself with what they thought? Perhaps they'd think it was just gratitude…

And there was the tiny little fact that he didn't have anything else to wear…

He was definitely thinking too much about this, wasn't he? Ah well… he'd heard from some of his older brothers before that such a thing happened when you were in love…

Love… The mere thought of the word caused his cheeks to flush a dark red and his heart to flutter painfully. Shaking his head fiercely, Allen reached out to grab one of the longer-sleeved shirts; he really didn't want to think about love right now! He knew that he liked Lenalee… but it wasn't love yet; it was too soon for that, and, more importantly – breakfast!

No, no use in thinking about love just yet. It would inevitably lead to Allen feeling more emotion in a greater variety than he could ever recall having felt, even when Mana died. Right now, he needed to get changed and leave for breakfast before Lenalee came back upstairs, worried at his lateness.

And if she were lucky, she'd arrive just in time to see him changing his pants-

BREAKFAST. With that thought in mind, and the sudden presence of the teeth-wielding golem hovering over his shoulder, Allen forced all thoughts of love and romance out of his head – for the time being. As the new topic involved food, this was actually a rather easy task. Nodding determinedly, Allen grabbed the first shirt he saw – long-sleeved, to his later relief – and a pair of generic black pants off the closet hangers and retreated to change out of his pajamas.

It was not long before Allen, dressed in his fresh new clothes and enjoying that feeling one gets from wearing such garments, made his way down the stairs to where Lenalee was waiting for him at the bottom.

"You were fast," she commented lightly, a bright smile touching her lips as she walked forward to greet him. Allen felt his heart grow warm as he noticed it. "And you're wearing the things we got from Johnny!"

Yeah… Allen grinned sheepishly, face heating with his embarrassment at being caught. At least his inner reflections hadn't taken very long, or Lenalee had overestimated the amount of time he'd needed. If he had had to explain where that time had gone… They're really nice, Lenalee. I'm very grateful to you for this. And Johnny. Hopefully, she wouldn't notice the late addition by reading his lips and body language instead of hearing the actual words.

And it seemed Lenalee hadn't. She gave a soft, slightly nervous laugh at his comment. "I'm happy you like them, Allen-kun. Um…" Was it just him or was Lenalee blushing ever so slightly? Not that it would mean anything, Allen told himself. Anyone would be flustered when trying to respond to such a statement. "S-shall we go get breakfast, then?"

Allen nodded cheerfully. As Lenalee turned away, just a little too quickly to accurately disguise her awkwardness, the merboy couldn't help but ignore what he'd just thought and indulge in a brief (and very guilty) fantasy that perhaps Lenalee's embarrassment hadn't been purely due to his words…

Even if you like her, his mental voice reprimanded, breaking through his pleasant thought, that doesn't make it all right to misinterpret things like this!

The bubble of happiness had been pricked.

That's true… Allen's too-happy grin faded quickly; fortunately, Lenalee hadn't noticed or he might really have been in trouble. Could she have seen anything innocent in that stereotypically perverted smirk, innocent as his thoughts may really have been? …Innocent in that sense, anyway; he certainly wasn't right. If I keep doing this… it might get harder and harder to remember what's real and what's just in my mind later on…

The prospect of ruining his friendship with Lenalee was a sobering one, and by the time a now-relaxed Lenalee turned around to begin a new conversation, Allen's cheerfulness had dissipated and left him with a somewhat blank, discouraged expression. Naturally, this lack of excitement was one of the last things Lenalee wanted to see on such a day, and, unbeknownst to Allen, his gloom and frustration had spread to the princess through the mere sight of his face.

Had he known, perhaps Allen would have thought it better to risk Lenalee finding out he liked her…

"Allen-kun," she said softly, so quiet that Allen didn't even look up and realise she'd stopped walking until he nearly bumped into her, "If… you don't really want this, I'll understand."

WHAT?! That sudden sentence immediately erased all traces of those guilty thoughts from his mind. What was Lenalee talking about?! What didn't he want?

"I don't mind," she continued, turning around to present him with an obviously fake smile. "If you're not that enthusiastic, I-I… can't do anything about it, so…"

Allen continued to stare at Lenalee with curiosity, not understanding at all. What was he not enthusiastic about? Misinterpreting Lenalee's blush for his own personal pleasure? And if Lenalee was unhappy about that… wait, wouldn't that mean…

The merboy's jaw dropped. You can read minds?!

"What?" Lenalee blinked at the sight of his visible surprise. Wasn't it clear what she meant? "Allen-kun, you don't have to pretend-" she began again, wondering if he was feigning the expression to make her forget the previous disappointment. But his shock had seemed awfully real…

Meanwhile, that sentence had only sent Allen spiralling even deeper into confusion.

Pretend… pretend that I'm not thinking this about Lenalee? Pretend that I don't like her? So she wants me to! Does that mean she likes me? Or do I only wish she liked me? …but that means Lenalee knows, and so… Allen gave a start, his grey eyes peering at Lenalee with a wide-eyed, scared yet almost happy look. Lenalee, can you hear this?

No wonder she'd been so good at understanding what he'd mouthed…

"I…" Lenalee shook her head, puzzled by the pureness of Allen's gaze on her. There was no way he could be pretending there – but what did that mean? She'd better ask him directly: what was he thinking? Or, better yet, did he even understand her question in the first place?! That would explain a lot! "Allen-kun-" she began, shaking her head gently.

You don't want to talk like this?! Allen looked crestfallen. But it would be so convenient…

"…do you want to go to the picnic?" Lenalee blurted out, face flushing as the last word fell off her lips.

Once again, Allen's mind was immediately filled with a single emotion: confusion. The picnic? What did that have to do with Lenalee being able to read minds? White eyebrows furrowed, he nodded twice, his eyes still on the princess as if searching for a clue as to what she was thinking – some form of reciprocation. This sudden jump in conversation topics was a bit disturbing.

"Oh…" The blush deepened, something that made Allen's heart flutter (and he immediately wondered if Lenalee had noticed through their apparent telepathic connection). "W-well then… it must have been… something else…"

Something else? The metaphorical lightbulb went off above Allen's head. No wonder this conversation had been so confusing! Something must have been blocking the connection; perhaps Lenalee could only sense his worry, and assumed it was something else. And if that were the case, Lenalee's discontent was easy to understand, too. Anyone would feel awkward if they were suddenly deprived of a usual way of receiving information.

It's okay, Lenalee, he mouthed, stepping forward with a warm, comforting smile. Don't worry about it. It was probably just a one-time event, anyway. He started to raise his hand, intending to pat her shoulder gently, then decided against it with his hand still in midair.

"Thank you, Allen-kun." Lenalee returned the smile, infused with happiness from her relief at being able to drop the topic. Of course Allen was looking forward to the picnic; hadn't he said so… implied so… back in his bedroom? At the very least, there would be plenty of food, and it was most unlike Allen to not be even the slightest bit excited about that. "I think… the kitchen staff are waiting for us. Breakfast should be ready by now!" she chirped, her previous depression having suddenly disappeared. "Let's go!"

Allen nodded again and followed Lenalee through the hallways to the dining room, still completely convinced that Lenalee could read his mind.

Breakfast was the usual affair, with Allen eating enough to feed the other four teenagers for at least one or two meals; the dining room was also where, upon completion of this meal, Allen and Lenalee met the older three just outside the doors. Lavi had donned long shorts for the occasion, apparently to take advantage of the warm weather. Judging from the look on Kanda's face, Allen assumed Lavi had attempted to start a trend – and failed miserably. He momentarily wondered if Link had received the same treatment, seeing as the trio had apparently arrived together; that stony expression could have meant anything. For all he knew, Lavi could have been this close to being thrown out the nearest window – or the guard had just been too embarrassed to strip down to his undergarments in public and the nearest broom closet was in use.

As soon as Lavi's eyes fell upon Allen, they immediately travelled down to the lower half of his body. The historian immediately became crestfallen.

"You too, Allen?" His lower lip trembled with feigned hurt, as if by wearing long pants Allen had somehow intentionally injured the poor boy's emotional state.

Allen couldn't help but roll his eyes at that. It's not that warm outside.

"Che. See, it was a stupid idea after all." Yet the smug look on Kanda's face was not quite as smug as it could have been, let alone as self-satisfied as anything so much resembling a smile on Kanda usually was. Had that miserable failing not been quite so miserable after all?

"And he's not even wearing short sleeves," Lavi whined, gesturing to the merboy's covered arms with a scowl. "Even that would have been nice! But no! Covered from head to toe!"

"It's not that warm outside," Link muttered, rolling his eyes. Allen was about to nod in agreement, but caught himself – the guard had even used the exact same words he had! Wasn't there a law against that in this kingdom or something?

"I guess," Lenalee interrupted, stepping forward to lock arms with Allen and Kanda, "we'll just have to find out, won't we?"

"I've already been out-" Lavi began, only to be cut off by Lenalee once more.

"We'll find out later," she repeated, her words and smile offset by the forced tone and gritted teeth that accompanied it. Allen automatically gulped nervously at the strength with which she dragged the two princes through the doors and out the hall, leaving Lavi and Link to catch up, nearly running despite their height advantage (although the advantage was much greater in Lavi's case). He quickly made a mental note not to mess with Lenalee, and wondered if it hadn't already been made and forgotten many times before…

It was a very nice day, and even had Allen not been burdened by the rather heavy pack of food he was carrying, he would have regretted not following Lavi's example and at least wearing shorter sleeves. As it was, he'd already stopped to roll his up to the elbows. Link and Kanda remained stoic and fully covered, although the fair-haired man looked even sterner than usual, particularly whenever he happened to glance at the merprince or Lavi. The historian, for his part, was not helping with the annoying smirk that graced his oh so punchable face every time he happened to glance at any of the three boys.

Which was more often than usual, Allen suspected. More often than it should have been, anyway. Or would that have been 'never'…

Then again, Lavi was also glancing at Lenalee too often for Allen's liking, and whenever that happened, the smirk was replaced with something vaguely resembling both a soft, fond gaze and a leer. And given the option, Allen would much rather have Lavi stare smugly at one of the males in the group.

Except perhaps himself. Allen wasn't sure if his jealous fury was quite strong enough to offset the natural feeling of terror at the thought of a man feeling that way towards… towards…

…towards him. As much as the thought scared him, Link and Kanda were definitely better options than Lenalee.

Although… Allen directed a surreptitious glance towards the oblivious guard. With Link being, well… the way he was… and now that he thought about it, he could have sworn there was some hidden sexual tension between Kanda and-

"Allen-kun!"

The white-haired boy gave a start, almost choking when he realised how far ahead everyone else had gotten while he'd been thinking. Which was strange – because hadn't he just been watching Link?

Oh… Link had stayed behind to watch the straggler. With the way Allen's thoughts had been going, that suddenly had a very bad connotation. With a silent yelp, he scrambled up the slight hill the path traversed to Lenalee's side, not even breathing until he felt he was safely by her side and away from any potential threats to his personal space.

How much farther? he mouthed to Lenalee, trying to take his mind off the previous topic. They must have been walking for at least half an hour now, and while the scenery was nice enough, it did get repetitive after a while. This part of the kingdom was a seemingly unpopulated hilly grassland, and the forest and ocean had long since disappeared behind them in a sea of unending green. The sun had almost risen to its highest point, and the heat combined with a lack of shelter had made the trek unbearably warm (Allen was almost pleased to note that Link had followed his example and had begun to tug up the edges of his sleeves). At this rate, the food would go bad!

"Hmm…" Lenalee frowned, her steps momentarily slowing as the calculations distracted her. "About… just another hour, I think."

Another-!

The exasperation must have showed in his expression, for Lenalee gave him a sheepish grin, her white teeth shining in the bright sunlight.

"I'm sorry; it must be really difficult for you… and it is a bit of a long walk."

Diffi- oh, no, not at all! Allen tried to reassure her. Of course his feet hurt, and walking for hours with constant pain was hardly pleasant, but strangely enough that wasn't the worst part. Had it been cooler, or had Allen dressed more appropriately for the unusually warm spring day, he could probably have made the trek with only a little difficulty. And for that smile, he would have happily done so. J-Just another hour, then?

Lenalee nodded, not entirely convinced, but clearly unwilling to press Allen to admit to anything he didn't want to. As she turned back to the path, however, Allen could have sworn that he heard a faint mumble as she ducked her head – and it sounded suspiciously like "men".

His eyes narrowed to a glare at her disappearing back. So she thought it was a gender thing, did she? Men being unable to admit to their weaknesses? Well…

…she was probably right. But still!

For the next hour, Allen struggled through the extreme heat, weight, and magical pain without showing even so much as a grimace as he matched Lenalee's pace. It was, quite possibly, the most difficult thing he had ever done, besides perhaps drinking Cross's potion and surviving five years under the same roof as his family. Yet the struggle only made the feelings of relief and wonder that much more potent as Lenalee finally stopped at the top of one of the hills and motioned for him to hurry and meet her there.

"We're here," she declared proudly, throwing her arms out to emphasize the magnificent scene in front of their eyes.

As he'd suspected, it was a lovely scene. This must have been the highest hill in the region, and from the flattened top Allen could see the faint sparkle of the ocean in the distance. Even the pale spires of the castle were visible, creating a partial break in that endless expanse of blue. A sea of grass surrounded them on all sides, and as he turned to look behind him, it suddenly changed to the darker green texture of forest. Grey rocks were periodically scattered around the landscape, mostly by those two landmarks. The crest itself was nearly perfectly flat and covered in fresh grass, with flat rocks placed in a vaguely circular formation.

That can't be natural, Allen thought, although he wasn't entirely sure of that fact. It could have been the reason this was such a perfect site in the first place. He could instantly see why Lenalee's family had chosen this as a favourite picnic site despite the distance from the castle. In fact, it was almost as if he could see their images, the shadows of the past, as they enjoyed a delightful lunch and-

"Allen-kun?"

Allen's head snapped around at the sound of Lenalee's voice. The transparent images promptly faded.

"How is it?" Lenalee asked, a hint of nervous excitement in her question. "Do you…"

It's incredible! Allen shook his head, as if to convey the inability of words to describe his awe at the perfection he saw (and it wasn't Lenalee he was thinking of… or not only Lenalee, anyway). No wonder you wanted to come here…

"I really wanted to show this to you, Allen-kun," she explained, taking a few steps forward and twirling around in a circle, her feet pattering lightly on the ground as she spun. "I have such good memories of this place, being here with my family and friends… You haven't seen any of these things before, and…"

Thank you, Lenalee. After all, he wouldn't be here forever. Why waste time in creating new memories in the short time he had with her? Or… or it was the other way around for Lenalee, right? Yet Allen could understand her feelings perfectly. No point in delaying fun unnecessarily. I'm really grateful for this!

"I wonder what kind of memories we'll make today," Lenalee murmured softly, so quiet that Allen wondered if he had been meant to hear her at all.

As she spoke, Timcanpy lifted itself from Allen's shoulder and fluttered over to her, the sun glinting off the golden body. The sight of Timcanpy flying playfully around Lenalee's head, combined with Lenalee's words, triggered the memory of the previous evening in Allen's mind. Making memories… A dark blush spread across his cheeks as the memory played itself for him. Timcanpy had interrupted-

There wouldn't be an opportunity to make that sort of memory today, Allen reminded himself as he willed his face to return to a normal colour. Lavi, Kanda, and Link were here today. Unless they somehow managed to disappear and give him a moment alone with Lenalee-

No! No, no, no! He wouldn't give in to such temptation! They'd only known each other for a few days; even if Lenalee would perhaps, somehow, be all right with… with that, things would be moving far too quickly for Allen's comfort. Even if the thought of kissing her seemed nice right now, it just wouldn't be appropriate. He had to move a bit slower. Become a bit closer to her first… maybe hold her hand first… and then he'd have the right to think about moving a little further into the relationship.

Except he had no right at all, being of an entirely different species and destined to separate from her in just three short months.

…A kiss or two probably couldn't hurt, though.

Lenalee turned around to give Allen a curious look – she was surprised at how silent he'd been – and suddenly, another, more recent memory popped into his mind. This one also involved Lenalee, although it was less of pleasant mental time-travel and more of a dangerous fact…

Lenalee can read minds.

And oh dear god, she was looking his way right now. Hadn't she turned around just when… just after…

The blush was back, more furious than ever. Lenalee knew. She had to. Of course, it had probably been obvious yesterday – even more so if she had known what he was thinking… or not thinking, as it was – but there was no mistaking what he'd thought just now. He'd thought of kissing her someday, and now-

"Allen-kun?"

He stiffened at the sound of her voice. Y-yes, Lenalee?!

"Is everything all right? You were awfully quiet just now, and…"

Allen's muscles relaxed by a minute amount. It didn't sound as if she were about to mention what he'd just been thinking, but if she'd heard… E-Everything's fine, yes! J-just… looking around… He turned his head rapidly to either side as an accompanying gesture before facing Lenalee with a tense smile.

"Oh, that's good!" Lenalee breathed a sigh of relief. "For a moment there, I wasn't quite sure… you looked so lost in thought…"

At the scenery! Which just happened to include Lenalee. But she didn't seem to have noticed… maybe that earlier problem hadn't yet been resolved? Which would mean that she hadn't just heard his thoughts about...

"Oiiii! Allen!"

Ah… Lavi. The perfect person to interrupt his thoughts from going back in that embarrassing direction – and, not coincidentally, perhaps the last person Allen wanted to see at that moment.

"What're you doing up here with Lenalee?" The red-haired boy set down the giant pack of food with a grunt and turned to the pair. "Getting some alone time?" he mused in a suggestive tone, waggling his eyebrows at them.

Allen, having just been thinking about that very fact, had to struggle to keep the blush from moving beyond his cheeks.

"Che. You're just slow, Lavi."

And there was Kanda, right behind Lavi. Allen had to revise his earlier thought: this was the last person Allen wanted to see at that moment (and probably ever).

"You were slower than he was, Kanda," Lenalee pointed out, not even attempting to hide her amusement. As she spoke, Link's head appeared from below the edge of the hill, the last to arrive.

"Exactly! Aww, Yuu," Lavi cooed with fake sympathy, "don't feel bad about being slow, all right? You beat Link, after all…"

Link rolled his eyes. "I stayed behind on purpose."

"…Sure ya did, two-spot."

At that moment, Allen wouldn't have blamed Link for wanting to punch Lavi right in that oh-so-familiar smirk. At least it wasn't directed towards him this time.

However, that was no sooner thought than the historian turned back to Allen and Lenalee. "So what were you guys doing while we were catching up, hmm?" he asked, sounding far too innocent for it to be genuine. Behind him, Kanda and Link wore identical expressions of annoyance.

Before Allen had even opened his mouth to respond, Lenalee answered with a perfectly benign activity: "Allen-kun was just admiring the scenery. He hasn't seen it before…" Her cheeks turned faintly pink as her violet eyes darted to the ground, seemingly embarrassed. "I-I didn't actually get an answer, but Allen-kun seemed awestruck…"

So that's what she'd been thinking! Allen nodded furiously; it was true, after all. It's really incredible, he added. I haven't seen anything like it before.

"Yeah, I guess there'd be no small hills like this in the mountains…" Lavi whistled a long note, looking around at the landscape in front of him. "It's pretty neat, that's for sure. I haven't seen this in a while… not since we went with Komui and Yuu, right? How long ago was that?"

"Che. Don't ask me." Kanda didn't take his eyes off the distant ocean scene even once as he spoke.

"When we went with Brother and… oh…" Lenalee gave a nervous laugh. "Since you came along as a playmate… that must have been five or six years ago… wasn't it…"

"I'd forgotten how pretty it was," Lavi muttered appreciatively, leaning on the food case with one arm. Link quickly set his down once he noticed the action. Had the man really forgotten he was carrying it?! "But I didn't really remember coming here in the first place, either."

"I never really thought about that," Lenalee admitted, turning in the direction where everyone but Allen was facing. "Brother and I have come here so many times since, or I've gone alone…"

Allen's grey gaze wandered to the three men standing at the edge of the hill, and then back to Lenalee, softening as it fell upon the princess again. He wasn't sure why the thought of the others being here before made him feel so… uncomfortable. He'd known they had – someone had mentioned it, or… or it had been obvious in some way – but hearing Lavi mention it had created a pit in his stomach that just wouldn't go away. And somehow, the scenery's beauty had faded just a tiny bit as that thought processed in his mind.

It was no one's fault but his own for taking this so seriously, of course. Just like earlier that morning, he'd unconsciously thought, assumed, that he was somehow more special to Lenalee than the others were. The worst part was that his rational mind knew this wasn't the case! Somehow, his new feelings were hijacking his thoughts, his senses, everything he did.

He hated it… and at the same time, Allen couldn't help but wish he could feel the same way he did whenever he looked at Lenalee, spoke to her, thought about her, every moment of the day. Allen had never been in love before, and now he was starting to see what everyone else meant when they spoke of it being the most glorious feeling one could have. This, after just a few days!

It's only going to get worse…

"I don't know why I just thought of it now."

Allen gave a start at the soft words, realising a moment later that Lenalee had spoken so quietly only he had heard, and he was sure he wasn't meant to.

"I really wanted to show Allen-kun…"

Show… me…? Lenalee… does that mean…

"Look what's happened now! …Damnit!"

Allen and Lenalee spun around in unison to find the source of the shout. Link was bent over his opened food pack, fingers clenching the lid tightly. Lavi was standing over him, peering inside with a wary look. Kanda was pointedly not paying attention.

"W-we didn't expect that…" Lavi gulped and took a step back as Link shot a furious glare at the redhead.

"Someone should have," he bit out through clenched teeth. Lavi visibly flinched.

"What happened?" Lenalee mused, walking past Allen to the food case. "Did something happen to the food?"

"What do you expect," Link sniffed, "leaving it unsecured like that in this heat-"

"You had the desserts in there, right?" Lenalee crouched down and reached inside to prod one of the items. "The pies and-"

The desserts?! Allen was at Lenalee's shoulder a split second later. Are they all right?!

"Everything looks fine to me," Lenalee said in an uncertain tone. "They might be a bit warm, but…" She poked one of the pies, wincing as her finger sunk into the soft fruit. "I think… they're edible…"

"The pies are fine," Link said coldly, "but some of those desserts are not meant to be eaten warm."

Allen raised his eyebrows warily at the older man. He really takes dessert seriously, doesn't he?

"The cookies will be fine," Lenalee answered, sounding even less certain than before. "The cakes… and the other desserts…"

"Whipped cream goes bad in the heat," Link reminded her.

"But we've only been outside for an hour! And besides…" Lenalee prodded a dessert apparently containing cream, for it covered her finger in white fluff. "Itsh shtill cool."

Link rolled his eyes at her response. Lenalee immediately popped the finger out of her mouth and went back to examining the food in the basket.

"It's still cool," she repeated. "It was packed in with ice, after all, and that's only just melted."

Allen nodded and made a move to take the lid from Link's hands. We can still eat it!

"Someone's enthusiastic," Lavi muttered, scanning the three at the basket. "Or a few someones…"

Link's glare intensified briefly as he appeared to consider the proper course of action, then promptly slammed the lid down on half the pack, ignoring Allen completely. "If her highness says so, then we shall eat."

"I think he just wants it, too," Lavi muttered to Kanda. As expected, he got no response except a mildly irritated grunt.

"But…" Lenalee withdrew her hands and pulled the lid completely shut. "We'll eat this last. It won't go bad if we eat everything else quickly. Right, Allen-kun?" She turned to him, beaming.

Absolutely! Allen licked his lips in an exaggerated fashion.

"If there's even anything left for the rest of us." Kanda gave his trademark 'che', but made his way over to the middle of the hill regardless. He was followed by Lavi, then the other three, Link picking up both of the packs left behind.

Once everyone stood in the centre of the hill, Lenalee produced a rather large chequered cloth, folded a number of times, from the slightly smaller pack she still carried on her back. She unfolded it as she walked around, handing one edge to everyone except Kanda. As they all walked backwards to the edges of the hill, the cloth spread out, and Lenalee finally gestured for them to lay it on the ground.

"It wouldn't be a picnic without something to sit on, right?" she chirped. "Brother and I have been using this one for years. It's something of a tradition."

Allen patted it gingerly, noting that it still felt thick and comfortable even after all its years of use. The four boys flopped down upon it, and Lenalee sat down a little more carefully, making the blanket ripple with movement.

"And now," Lavi began, reaching over for his pack on Link's shoulders, "we-"

Link slapped the redhead's hand away with a scowl. "Have some manners. Wait."

"But Allen's eating already," Lavi pointed out, whining.

While this was not entirely true, Allen had already begun to rummage through his pack for anything that remotely resembled food. All he found so far, however, were plates, and cutlery, and-

"Ah, we put the food in yours at the bottom," Lenalee suddenly recalled. The merboy looked up at her with shock and disappointment. "But if you could please hand those to me, Allen-kun…"

He eagerly obliged, lifting out the stack of plates to hand to Lenalee. The moment she took them from him, Allen went straight back to digging through the pack for their lunch. An amused Lavi and grumpy Kanda followed suit, and soon the picnic blanket began to be covered with all the kinds of food the kitchens had been able to cook that morning.

To Allen's delight, that was a lot of food, more than would ever be made at once back at the underwater palace. Lavi produced a number of roasted chickens from his pack; Kanda brought out plate upon plate of fish, crustaceans, and a number of meats Allen couldn't identify. Bowls of freshly cooked vegetables were placed side-by-side with newly sliced ones, all surrounded by trays of fruit that looked as if they had just been picked that morning. Warm pasta, steaming rice, and moist potatoes made Allen salivate just from the heat that radiated from their containers as they passed beneath his nose. Lenalee placed a platter of cheeses between them, with crackers and all sorts of condiments arranged neatly between the multitude of dairy products. And of course there was more, most of which Allen had never seen the like of before in his life.

C-can we… he stammered, trembling finger pointing towards an opened container of spaghetti covered in a rich cream sauce.

"One moment…" Lenalee hastily wrapped a fork, knife, and spoon in a napkin, placed the bundle on top of a plate, and held it out to Allen. "The serving utensils should be there already."

Allen actually had to pinch himself on the thigh to make sure it wasn't one of the most realistic fantasies he'd ever had.

Fortunately, it was reality. Even better, the food was more delicious than he could have ever imagined!

It was just ten minutes later when Allen went for his eighth helping of salmon and wild rice with carrots on the side. He'd had a part of it in his mouth when he noticed four wide-eyed stares on him, ranging from affectionately pleased to shocked to almost disgusted. Swallowing the mouthful as quickly as he could, Allen scrambled to put down the plate and hide his suddenly reddened face.

"N-no, Allen-kun," Lenalee stammered, failing at hiding her growing smile, "it's all right! You don't need to…"

"Che. Disgusting." Kanda took a piece of what appeared to be breaded vegetables with a pair of sticks – sticks! Allen wondered how he could possibly eat with just those – and shoved it into his mouth, making a point of glaring at Allen as he chewed.

A flash of white caused the prince to suddenly splutter, then turn his slightly softened glare to the princess beside him. Lenalee was settling her legs back underneath her, eyes fixated on Allen for reasons he was sure related to Kanda's disruption and nothing at all to do with himself.

"I'm happy you're enjoying it," she said cheerfully – a little too cheerfully, as a matter of fact. Allen thought he could even see the vein twitching above her eye, and he silently breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn't directed towards him.

"Che." Kanda lifted another piece of vegetable with a grace Allen was surprised the man could muster in his angry mood.

"So fast," Lavi murmured from across the blanket. Link nodded in agreement, evidently too surprised to keep his usual mask of stern serenity.

None of this diminished Allen's blush, though, which lasted until the rest of the lunch was consumed. With his new, slower pace of eating, this took Allen more than twice the amount of time for half the amount of food.

And finally…

"It had better still be good," Link warned with a scowl as he reluctantly reached into his pack. "After half an hour…"

"We'll eat quickly," Lenalee reassured him. Allen, the embarrassment of his eating habits having faded by now, leaned forward eagerly. If the dessert was anything like their lunch had been…

"Too excited," Link muttered under his breath.

"He just wants it for himself," Lavi joked. It was met with a fierce glare from the older man. "H-hey…" Lavi leaned backwards, slowly edging himself towards Kanda as if the prince's presence provided some sort of protection. If Link was the type to attack and miss, it might very well have been. "You know it was just a joke, r-right?"

Lenalee prodded Allen in the knee. When he looked up, curious, she shook her head.

Oh, so Link likes desserts, too… Allen's expression hardened at the thought. Well, I won't let him eat everything here!

For Lenalee's sake, too, he mentally added, remembering the princess's own sweet tooth. No wonder she was so anxious to inspect and approve it.

With a sigh, Link withdrew his hands from the pack. In them, he held an abnormally large cheesecake that made Allen swallow with anticipation. Subtly decorated with swirls of deep red strawberry sauce and topped with a cluster of fruit, it looked like the perfect thing to cool down with on such a warm spring day.

Or at least… it would have been, had the other desserts not looked just as, if not more, appetizing.

From the rich chocolate cakes – made for Lenalee, he suspected – to the plates of freshly iced cookies, and the cream-filled éclairs to a bowl filled with pudding, there was more than enough dessert to have fed five people for dinner alone. It was all a bit warmer than Lenalee had led them to believe, but still edible - Allen noted the triumphant look Lenalee shot at Link a few minutes into the serving. It took all his energy not to devour the entire plate of mitarashi dango all at once!

Soon, the plates were stripped bare of everything but crumbs and the inedible structures that had held the meats and fruits together. The sun had passed its peak already, and the five of them sat there contentedly, watching it slip between the clouds. Allen was soon startled out of his calm trance by a sudden thump, which, the four others discovered, turned out to be Lavi. He'd fallen onto his back to relax, unfocused eye seeing nothing but the expanse of blue sky above.

"Ahhh, feels good after that dinner!" he exclaimed, patting his stomach.

"Mmm…" Allen didn't notice the mischievous glint in Lenalee's eyes until she'd grabbed his arm, and by then it was too late to avoid the inevitable tug as she pulled him backwards into a similar position.

L-Lenalee?

"Brother and I haven't had the time for this recently."

The sound of two muffled thuds across from him made Allen wonder if Link and Kanda had followed suit, although their falls had certainly been more controlled than the other three.

"I used to do it when I was little… and that's why I brought this blanket along. It's thick, so we don't need to feel all the little lumps on the ground… and soft, so it's comfortable."

Allen turned to face Lenalee, his forearm still enclosed in her grip.

"Although lying on the ground can really feel nice, too…"

Ah… Had he ever done that before? Just taken the time to lie back and enjoy a lazy afternoon, the warm ground under his back as he watched the sun pass overhead? Not that he could really see the sun from underwater… or that the sand would feel quite as nice as Lenalee's chequered blanket… But that wasn't the point, was it?

The five of them here, together, enjoying the simple pleasures of a beautiful day, the wonders of nature, and the subtle joy of one another's presence: Would this ever be something they would get to experience again?

Even before those three months passed…

Allen sat up, suddenly feeling sick as the thought echoed in his mind. Should he really be here right now? If he only had three months to spend with everyone, wouldn't this only make it harder for him to leave when the time came? Besides, could he really afford to waste time lying around when he had a mission to complete, or-

Fingers pressed into the smooth skin of his right arm, and Allen realised that he had forgotten to pull away from Lenalee's grip.

"Where are you going, Allen-kun?" she murmured, so softly that only Kanda, lying to her right, might have heard. "Would you… please… stay a little while longer with us?"

The pleading, vulnerable, lonely look in her violet eyes made Allen's heart squeeze painfully, and he gulped. Here was another reason that he shouldn't be here. Every moment he spent with Lenalee only made him fall faster and deeper, and if it continued this way, he knew he wouldn't be able to leave her at all. And yet, didn't the fact that he couldn't resist it right now mean that he already couldn't?

Slowly, he slumped back to the ground, but the feeling of content was long gone, and for the rest of the afternoon Allen felt a strange sense of discomfort in his stomach that definitely wasn't from the food. Soft snores drifted from other members of the group, but Allen lay awake the entire time. The blue sky above him started to blur in front of his eyes, the haze in the air reminding him strangely of the watery home he'd left just a few days ago. His legs felt heavy, as if they were no longer the mobile appendages that he'd almost become used to but the thick, powerful tail that had been a part of him for fifteen years. Timcanpy's presence, the golden ball curled up by his wrist, only served to remind Allen of his former loneliness, something he'd have to return to eventually whether he wanted to, could return, or not. And-

The feeling of Lenalee's skin against his, even if it was just her hand…

Allen turned his head a little so he could see her; Lenalee had been so still he wondered if she'd fallen asleep, too. Yet her violet eyes were wide open, staring straight upwards with that same lonely look as before. As he watched her, they slid shut momentarily, and when she opened them again they were fixated on him with none of the heartbreaking emotion that had been so clear just a moment before.

But her message was clear: It's all right.

It's all right to forget that for a little while and just enjoy what we have right now.

Then Lenalee smiled at him. Allen smiled back, a little unsure, and a little more hopeful.

And Lenalee let her fingers slide down his arm and entwine with his own.

Allen thought his heart would stop right at that moment even though it was beating faster than it ever had before. Somehow, despite all that, he had never felt so comfortable before in his life.

Lenalee… It's so soon, but… I think… I might already have fallen in love with you…

He almost wished Lenalee could read his mind right at that moment.

The picnic ended soon after, and a gloomy atmosphere descended as the five young people packed up the plates, the remnants of food, and finally, the blanket. Their packs much lighter, they trudged down the hill as the sun matched their descent in the sky, no one saying a word. Throughout the long journey back home, however, Allen's gaze constantly wandered to Lenalee's pale hand that had been clasped in his until just moments before the others awoke from their afternoon daydreams.

It had been an exciting day, one that none of them – particularly Allen – would ever forget.


The heat spell of that spring was not limited to the single day, and it was not long before another journey outside the castle was planned to take advantage of the beautiful weather. Although that wasn't the only reason this time…

Ice cream…

Allen flopped onto one of the cushioned courtyard chairs, gasping as he wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of one hand. Nearby, Lavi was already sprawled out on a bench, and Lenalee's shoulders were slumping as she leaned against a wall. Kanda's scowl was just a little deeper than usual.

Want… ice… cream…

"To think he hadn't had it before a few days ago," Lavi pointed out, groaning at the end of his sentence. "This damn heat…"

"Then…" Lenalee shifted, discomfort evident in her frown. Although she was dressed the most appropriately in this weather, in a light white sundress that left her shoulders mostly bare, the heat had a powerful effect on her, too. She clutched a sweat-soaked handkerchief in one hand, and in patches she hadn't been able to reach, the dress clung to her body quite tightly.

Not that Allen was affected… well, he was – what man wouldn't be? – but he did respect Lenalee enough to keep his eyes averted. Lavi, on the other hand… The merboy's eyes flickered over to the historian. Good, he was giving Kanda a pleading look. Not that Allen hadn't caught that green eye on Lenalee before that day. One more time, and…

The redhead flinched. "Allen, did you just crack your knuckles?" he asked cautiously.

Allen shook his head and gave the most innocent and fake smile he'd ever worn before.

"Then…" Lenalee repeated in the same even tone as before, "why don't we get some?"

Three heads perked up at her suggestion.

"Allen-kun could probably use some new clothes for this weather… and perhaps Kanda could, too…" Lenalee's level of enthusiasm gradually rose as she justified her earlier comment. "And I could use some things as well. It'd be better than sitting around here all day, wouldn't it?"

And we could get ice cream! Allen was convinced: they had to visit the city today. Not that they couldn't have ice cream in the palace, but it would probably be faster to go themselves, even if it meant they had to deal with…

"Though there will be lines," Lenalee pointed out. Three pairs of shoulders slumped in unison, the exception being the sweet-hating human prince. "Of course everyone will be thinking the same thing…"

"Then it's hopeless," Lavi whined.

We should still go! Allen sat up abruptly, sweat-dampened hair flying off his face as he turned to look at the others. It'll be something to do!

"I guess we are doing just as much by waiting here," Lavi admitted. "Can't hurt."

Lenalee and Allen were on their feet before the last word disappeared off his lips.

"I'll get everything ready," Lenalee called as she made her way to the door.

I'll help, Allen mouthed, stumbling over his feet in his haste to follow.

"Wait-"

The door closed behind them, cutting off Lavi's shout of protest. With a sigh, he slumped back over the bench, tilting his head as he looked at Kanda.

"You gonna go too, Yuu?"

"…Che. Who would want something that sweet?"

"Aww… not even for something to do? Standing around all day can't be that fun."

"…Shut up." Kanda snorted and turned away. "I'm not getting any ice cream."

Lavi knew when he'd won. He just didn't know when to stop.

"What if there was soba-flavoured-"

"Che, dumbass. Soba isn't just one flavour."

"…Oh."

"…That's different."

"So you would eat it?" Was it just Lavi's imagination or did Kanda look almost as if he were-

Bang! A door was thrown open and two heads peeked inside cautiously, as if to assess any shock or damage caused by their careless use of strength. Lavi put a hand to his fluttering heart reflexively, hoping no one had seen how high he'd jumped at that moment.

"The carriage will be ready soon," Lenalee said with a sheepish grin. Allen nodded, his expression mimicking hers. "So…"

"Damn, Lenalee…" Lavi gave a low whistle. "You two gave us a shock!"

"Speak for yourself," Kanda muttered, although his usual arrogance was temporarily replaced by an unusual shakiness. It didn't make his comment very convincing.

Lenalee exchanged a questioning glance with Allen. "Did we interrupt something? Sorry…"

"Interrupt…" Now that Lavi thought about it, hadn't Kanda been… Had the pair interrupted something besides his attempt to keep the conversation going? "Huh…"

Allen and Lenalee exchanged another glance, although this one was of shock.

We did?! Allen mouthed.

"I can't believe it," Lenalee murmured. Grey and violet eyes flickered from Kanda to Lavi and back again, narrowing as they moved. Slowly, sly smirks spread across their lips in unison.

"Che." Kanda stalked over to the pair and glared at the two heads, both at his shoulder level. "Move right now or I'll cut you into pieces, beansprout."

Beansprout! Allen's grin was immediately replaced with a scowl, and he had opened his mouth to respond to the insult when Lenalee, her hand around his upper arm, pulled him out of the way. With a choked gasp, Allen could only stare in disbelief as Kanda stepped through the door and, without any further word, made his way down the hall.

"Don't aggravate him today, please," Lenalee murmured. Allen snapped his mouth shut, looking no less sour than before. "He's probably just upset that we interrupted… you know…"

Understanding dawned on Allen's face and he nodded, the frown disappearing. Ah…

"Interrupted what?" Lavi stuck his head through the door at that moment, making the pair flinch with surprise. "Just now?"

Allen and Lenalee nodded. "You know," Lenalee said slowly. "That…"

"That?" In the time it had taken Kanda to storm out, Lavi had decided that no, he didn't really know what had been there to interrupt. Sure, there might have been something, but he hadn't been certain of what he'd seen. Best to ask the two who may also have witnessed the event.

"Well…" Lenalee fidgeted uncomfortably. "When we looked over…"

"Yeah?" Lavi prompted, more than a hint of enthusiasm in his curious tone.

"Kanda was…"

"He was?!" So Lavi had seen it after all! And as this was a rare occurrence, he wouldn't forget it for the next twenty years. It might not even happen again until then!

"B-blushing…"

Allen looked just as awkward as Lenalee did; indeed, an embarrassed flush touched their cheeks just like the one they described on Kanda. Of course, for Kanda, any sort of betrayal of his vulnerability was so rare and so unlike him that it would certainly make any witness feel like a voyeur, seeing the parts of Kanda he never wanted to show. It was strange… but to Lavi, it was almost satisfying to know that he'd gotten the better of Kanda just this once, and caused him to act like a normal human being with weaknesses.

And… and so… Allen inhaled deeply, unable to maintain eye contact with Lavi anymore. Lenalee's gaze was also wandering, mostly towards the floor as Allen raised his to the ceiling. We… thought…

It took Lavi a moment to put the pieces together. He was fairly bright, after all.

"…But how does Kanda's blush mean you interrupted anything?" he asked, a sinking feeling in his stomach. They couldn't possibly believe-

Yet the pair still refused to look him in the eye. Allen swallowed nervously and Lenalee bit her lip (Lavi couldn't help but notice how cute the action was).

"Guys?" he prompted.

"Ah…" Lenalee gave a nervous laugh and her hand slipped down to Allen's forearm, where she tugged gently on his sleeve. "Well, the carriage should be ready, so we'd better go, right… Allen-kun…?"

Allen nodded furiously, still careful to avoid looking at Lavi.

As the pair quickly began their stiff strides away from Lavi, the redhead sighed and shook his head. "You know…"

Lenalee and Allen stopped dead in their tracks, but didn't turn around.

"…Yuu was blushing because I made him admit he'd eat ice cream…"

Lavi didn't have to see their faces to know both teenagers were probably even more red than Kanda in their mutual embarrassment.

So his suspicion had been correct, after all. They'd thought… they'd really thought…

Well, to be fair, he'd probably suspect the same had he returned to find any two of the pair alone, with one of them blushing – particularly if it was such an uncommon occurrence, as with Kanda. Unless it was Kanda and Allen; then the stoic one would have been speaking about another person entirely. That, or it would be a face flushed in anger. With them, it'd be hard to tell.

"O-of course," Lenalee stammered, sounding rather sheepish. "That would embarrass anyone…"

Allen nodded and turned to Lenalee. W-we were going… right?

Lenalee made a sound of agreement and the two nearly ran down the hallway, away from Lavi. The historian stood there for a few more moments, shaking his head, although a small grin had crept across his lips.

Ain't too different, their reactions… They're a pretty good match.

He chuckled softly at the next thought.

But me and Yuu? That's an interesting thought… Ha, if anyone but Lenalee said it, though, he'd kill them for sure.

At least, I think he would…

And with that puzzling thought in his mind, Lavi followed the three members of royalty down the hallways and to the awaiting carriage. As fate would have it, the discussion topic as he arrived was, of all things, ice cream.

Naturally, Kanda was still adamant about not wanting any.

Just as naturally, the prince actually became somewhat panicked when this fact sent Lavi into fits of laughter that neither Allen nor Lenalee could understand. Not that Lavi would ever tell them any more than he already had.

An hour later, the carriage pulled up in front of the ice cream shop and four overheated teenagers stumbled out of the unbearably hot enclosed space of the carriage interior. Unfortunately for them, air conditioning hadn't been invented yet, and there was hardly any room for air circulation. Packed in as close as they were, the body heat couldn't have helped, either.

It was hot, it was sticky, and, as Lenalee should have expected, there was a monstrously long line stretching from the doors of the ice cream shop.

Four pairs of eyes followed it all the way to Johnny's tailor store blocks away.

No way… Allen's knees nearly gave out, although his brain snapped back into action to catch himself before he actually collapsed. No… way…

"You've gotta be kidding," Lavi breathed, his shocked disappointment giving him the look of a kicked puppy.

"Eh?" Lenalee was speechless; her mind still hadn't comprehended the situation. Or perhaps it just hadn't let reality sink in yet to prolong that sense of despair.

Kanda said nothing, but even his normally stony scowl had more than a hint of disbelief and frustration.

"We'll be waiting for at least…" Lavi paused for a moment to make the calculations in his head, but Lenalee, now fully conscious of the reality, was faster.

"Another hour," she said softly. "Maybe two."

Will they even have ice cream left by then? Allen scribbled, his handwriting shakier than usual.

Lavi nearly passed out on the cobblestone streets once he finished reading the comment. Even Lenalee didn't look as steady as she usually did, despite the shaky smile on her face that the three boys couldn't muster up.

She's really good at hiding these things sometimes, Allen mused. She tries really hard, anyway. Even though she must be as miserable as the rest of us, she still puts on a smile and tries to be cheerful.

Lenalee's really amazing…

"Then…" Lenalee scanned the signs of the nearby shops, visibly pretending not to notice the long line. "What if we get something cold to drink for now? There should be a café nearby, and after that long carriage ride…"

Lavi immediately perked up. "Hey, that's a good idea…"

Allen nodded enthusiastically. As long as it's cold!

"Che." Kanda did not, however, refuse or show any sign of disagreement.

"I think there's one around here…" Lenalee started walking back down the street they had arrived from, her head swinging around every few moments as she read the signs. "Brother and I came here once last fall… when we were shopping for some decorations for the palace…"

They decorate it? Somehow, the thought had never occurred to Allen before. Of course someone would have had to obtain all the décor somehow – and, for that matter, the furniture as well. Who better to do it than the royal family themselves? It was their home, after all! Yet he'd never seen anyone acquire anything new for the castle back home… Then again, judging from the distinct lack of friendly and normal-looking things, he'd probably been left out of those shopping trips. And with good reason, too, seeing as Allen's taste was anything and everything once owned by humans.

Oh, and kittens. Can't forget the kittens. Not that they had kittens under the ocean, so perhaps that fell under the Human Things category. But they were awfully cute.

Allen's thoughts about cute baby animals were promptly interrupted as he walked straight into something soft that leaned forward and gave a soft 'oof' at the impact. It took a few moments for Allen to realise that the strange texture and oddly nice smell under his nose was, in fact, Lenalee's hair.

S-Sorry! he mouthed, staggering back in embarrassment. Lenalee merely gave a distracted nod, evidently more bothered by the conundrum in front of them than his daydream-induced accident.

The four had just arrived at an intersection, with another street crossing the one they had been walking along a few metres ahead. Identical green awnings hung above the doors in the equally identical stone buildings, the homogeneity occasionally broken by a regular wooden shop. Lenalee was staring down the central path, frowning.

"Which one," she murmured to herself, taking a few steps forward and looking down another street, uncertain. "I can't remember…"

"It's around here somewhere, though, right?" Lavi crossed his arms behind his head and bounced up onto his toes. "Could we ask someone?"

"Does it look like we could?" Kanda pointed out sarcastically. Indeed, except for the occasional lone pedestrian in the distance down one or two paths, this part of the city was strangely empty.

Although all those people lined up for ice cream had to come from somewhere, so perhaps it wasn't so strange after all. Allen did have to wonder why no one else had thought of a simple cold drink, however. Had it never occurred to any one of the people standing in line?

Granted, he hadn't thought of it either, but at least he had the excuse of being new to the city – to land! - and not knowing that was even an option at all. It made him feel a little better, anyway.

"Maybe we should split up, then," Lavi suggested as his heels touched the stones again. "Maybe one of us'll find the café, or we can find someone to ask."

"Good idea," Lenalee agreed. "Should we each take one path?"

"Che." Kanda began to trudge over to the rightmost one without any further word. "I'm not taking the beansprout with me, though."

"Ah…" The metaphorical lightbulb went off over Lavi's head. "What do we do with Allen?"

"He can come with me." Lenalee turned to Allen. "If that's all right…"

Allen nodded. Why would it not be?

"Since you've become friends with Lavi, too, and we've had lots of time together recently…"

Had he mouthed that last bit or was his confusion just that obvious? Allen nodded again. It's fine. Lavi walks pretty fast and doesn't notice as often as Lenalee does, anyway.

"Hey…" Lavi gave a playful pout. "Yeah, fine by me too. I might see a girl to… to ask about the café… and I don't want him giving me that Link-glare the entire time."

Link-glare? Allen was about to give Lavi a very condescending glower when Lenalee interrupted.

"Then there's no problem, right? Allen and I will continue down this street."

Two nods of agreement and one half-hearted shrug later, everyone went their various ways to continue the quest for the café with the cold drinks.

When Allen looked over his shoulder a few minutes and a number of doorways later, there was no one in sight. This shouldn't have bothered him – after all, Lavi and Kanda had departed down perpendicular avenues, and they were all too far away from the main street by now – and yet, somehow, he felt uneasy. A chill shot down his spine immediately after, and Allen wondered if it was because they were alone.

"Is something wrong?" Lenalee asked softly, her shoulder touching his.

That couldn't be it. They were indeed alone, but he'd never had a problem with being with Lenalee before, even if no one else was around. Sure, it hadn't been on an abandoned street with no chance of arriving undetected, but… no, it had to be something else. This wasn't the good kind of uneasy, and Allen was sure that being with Lenalee wouldn't be anything else.

Unless she suddenly turned into a four-headed monster and devoured him whole… but Allen wouldn't bet on that. Not that he hadn't seen scarier things back home.

As he turned back to give her a negative response, a figure appeared on the horizon ahead, walking towards them. A sharp pain stabbed through Allen's eye, making him stumble on the cobblestone pavement.

"Allen-kun!" Lenalee caught his arm as he tripped, holding his body away from the ground. "Allen-kun, are you all right?"

As much as Allen would have loved to reassure her of his safety, the throbbing in his left eye made it impossible to think of responding, much less do so. Slowly, his grey eyes lifted and focused on the approaching figure. The pain intensified immediately.

I don't think it's because of the movement… Could it be…?

"Allen-kun?" Lenalee prompted again, following his gaze and giving the man a wary look.

You've already got the necessary equipment for that in your eye, don't you?

Allen's gloved fingers unconsciously clenched into a tight fist that Lenalee's eyes darted nervously to.

"Allen-kun?" she asked again, her voice trembling.

If an akuma is there, that eye will monitor it and collect data all on its own.

powerful weapon called akuma

The pain was almost blinding as the man approached. By now, Allen could see the sun glinting off his exposed teeth, the faded hat tilted down over his eyes, and hear the soft tune he whistled as he walked. Could the man see him, too?

Have to do something.

Lenalee…

Without thinking, Allen's hand shot out to grab her wrist, still holding his arm from when he'd fallen. She gave a yelp of surprise as he pulled her to the side and began to run towards the side of the street, to where the stone buildings merged into each other with only the barest of cracks revealing the separation.

"Allen-ku-"

Somewhere… There has to be…

There! A long shadow extending between two buildings – was it an alley? A place where they wouldn't be seen? Anywhere-

Ignoring the sensations in his feet, only intensified by the speed and force at which they hit the ground, Allen pulled Lenalee towards the shadow. He didn't look behind him at the approaching man; he didn't even care what he looked like, running away in such a suspicious manner. All that mattered was that they didn't meet, didn't exchange the slightest acknowledgement of the other's presence – hopefully, that Allen wouldn't even be found at all. He didn't know what was causing this irrational thought process – what if it was just a man, out for his daily stroll, or perhaps going for some ice cream? – but he couldn't stop to think about it now.

The pair ran into the shadows, following the stone walls until the alley was intersected by another avenue, this one darker than the previous street. Allen turned the corner to the right, as if thinking of going back to the original meeting place, but collapsed against the building as soon as Lenalee had left the sight of the main street. Panting heavily, he released his grip on Lenalee's wrist and relaxed, knees sagging and only barely keeping him upright.

We're safe… I hope…

Lenalee pressed the back of her hand to her forehead, as if to cool the heated skin, and made her way over to the wall, pressing her back against it as Allen had done. Letting her hand fall back down, she listlessly turned her head to the side, peeking around the corner.

"There's no one coming," she murmured weakly, taking a deep breath as she finished the sentence. "No one there… either."

Thank goodness… Allen ran one hand down his face, trickles of sweat dampening his glove. Maybe he just thought we were weird kids or something. Nothing to worry about. Not a threat. He hoped that was the case, at least. How could he stand his ground against a weapon, no matter what kind? His life wasn't the only one at risk here, either! He couldn't drag Lenalee into this!

"Allen-kun." Lenalee turned her head to face him, body unmoving except for her heaving chest. Allen tried very hard to keep his eyes on her face once he noticed this fact, and mostly succeeded. Fortunately, Lenalee had other things on her mind besides noticing where his gaze strayed. "What… what was that about?"

Her question made him swallow and immediately tear his eyes off of – I really hope she isn't reading my mind right now. Um. Allen shrugged and gave a sheepish grin, although Lenalee's frown told him it hadn't been convincing enough. No one would have called him a bad liar before he met Lenalee. Somehow, she noticed the tiny little quirks in his body language that told her otherwise.

"That man…?"

Allen broke eye contact. That speck of gravel on the ground looked awfully interesting… although not as much as Lenalee's-

"He… what happened, Allen-kun?" Lenalee reached out to gently stroke the back of his left hand with one finger. "Are you all right?"

Allen nodded, bringing his eyes back up to meet hers. He couldn't possibly tell her about this… could he? On one hand, he didn't want to get her involved; on the other, she might already be…

What if Lenalee ever needed to defend herself? Her kingdom?

Damn that Cross… What has he gotten me into? What has he gotten everyone into?

The merboy was jolted out of his ponderings at Lenalee's intense, worried stare. With a start, he realised he'd been clenching his teeth and fists; he quickly relaxed them, although obviously not in time to escape Lenalee's worry.

He had to tell her…

It's… a bit of a long story…

"What did that man do?" Lenalee murmured. "It has to do with…" She paused, surveying the street behind him carefully for a moment before continuing. "With the merpeople?"

Allen nodded slowly. Yes… and no… I'm not really sure of it myself, but…

"He scares you, doesn't he," Lenalee whispered. "I could see it in your expression…"

He nodded again.

"Do you know him?"

Allen shook his head. Only heard of him. About him. About it.

"It?" Lenalee repeated warily, sounding unsure about reading his lips properly. Allen merely nodded again, and reached for the pad of paper in his pocket with his free hand.

It's the reason why I'm here, he wrote. I came on a mission.

"A mission…" Lenalee read aloud, then inhaled deeply. "That sounds… Is it dangerous, Allen-kun? I don't-"

She was cut off by the sounds of his pen scribbling the answer. It shouldn't be. I'm supposed to find something and observe…

"It's that man, isn't it?" she asked once the pen stopped. "Without being noticed?"

Allen shrugged. I don't know. All I was told was to stay in the city and… He raised the pen to his lips and unconsciously chewed on the tip as he thought about the right words to use. What had Cross told him again? It would just happen.

"How?"

Allen lifted a finger to his left eye, realising as he did so that the pain had ebbed to a light throbbing, and was close to fading altogether. Did that mean the akuma was no longer nearby? This… Somehow.

"But if you were close enough to look at it, you might be- oh!" Lenalee frowned, then raised a finger to his scar. Allen shivered as she traced its path on his cheek and swallowed nervously. At that moment, he really hoped she couldn't tell what he was thinking… or feeling, rather. "Your scar?"

I think so… Allen shrugged again, this time accompanied by a half-smile. I don't really know myself. This is what I was told…

"And that man?" Lenalee withdrew her hand, making Allen mentally sigh in relief. It wasn't that she made him feel uncomfortable in a bad way, but… "Who is he?"

An akuma. I think, Allen added verbally (or silently, as it was).

"Aku… ma?" Lenalee repeated the word slowly, eyebrows knitting in confusion as she did so. "What…"

A weapon created by… What should he say? By the ruler of my kingdom.

Lenalee drew a sharp breath and took a step back. Allen leaned forward, worried, until she spoke again. "For the sake of… because of… us?"

She's worried that he's targeting them?! With the way the Earl feels about humans, I'd be worried, too… Cross didn't mention anything about it, though, yet… Allen shook his head quickly. This one escaped. They were for… rival kingdoms, maybe. Or something.

"And you've been sent to track the rogue." Lenalee looked slightly less tense than a moment ago, yet the revelation still visibly worried her. "For what? T-that is… for what reward? Why…"

Ah… the question Allen was hesitant to answer. For one, he could hardly tell her that he wanted to escape from the very man who had created these machines; somehow, their connection would inevitably surface, and now definitely wasn't the time for Lenalee to find out. For another, as much as Allen might deny it, one of the reasons was undoubtedly her. Even if it was just curiosity, a mild crush, if she knew even the slightest part of feelings that were more than friendly…

Best to go with the modified truth. The very modified truth.

I wanted some time away from my family. An adventure. And… a hobby… I have – he quickly crossed that last word out – had an interest in human things…

"Human things, you say?" Lenalee smiled at that. "Anything in particular, or simply anything made on land?"

The second.

"This must've been a paradise for you, then," Lenalee laughed. "At least, until the novelty wore off… That must be a strange feeling."

It's not that different from home, actually, Allen admitted. Now that I see them all the time… Well, most things…

"I understand…" Lenalee sighed and let her head rest against the wall again, still half-facing Allen. "And your family? It's all right if you don't want to talk about it," she added hastily, eyes a bit wider than usual.

Allen gave a slow nod. They're annoying…

"Brother can be like that too, but it must be more than that for you," Lenalee murmured. "I wouldn't want to leave him for anything."

Allen gave a shaky smile; he remembered how 'annoying' the King had been. Definitely not that kind.

"Your family…" Lenalee hesitated, taking care with choosing her next few words. "When we were last in town, you mentioned travelling with your father… Was he…?"

Allen gave her a puzzled look.

"Him, too?" she asked cautiously.

Ah! Allen waved his hands to convey a negative answer. He died, actually.

"I'm so sorry to hear that," Lenalee said softly, her eyes filling with empathy.

Oh yeah, Allen mused, if Lenalee's brother is the King, wouldn't that mean… Lenalee lost her parents, too? He lifted the paper pad once more. Right now, I'm staying with… cousins, you could say. They're…

"Annoying," Lenalee finished. "I feel so sorry that you've had to live with that, but…" She gave a nervous laugh. "At the same time, if that hadn't been the case… you wouldn't be here right now, would you?"

Yeah… Allen had never thought about it before, but it seemed there actually was some good in having the Noah clan as his family, after all. Well, besides the fact that it meant he was royalty… and Road was cuddly enough most of the time. Most of the time. That's true… I would never have believed it possible before…

Speaking of family… One of Lenalee's earlier comments had made him wonder about something, but he hadn't thought to ask it at the moment she'd made the comment. And right now, he didn't really want to think about the Noah anymore, whether the emotions that remembrance provoked were anger and frustration or care and nostalgia…

Care? He cared for those annoying bullies? That was a scary thought!

You wouldn't want to leave your brother, you said… right, Lenalee?

She nodded, looking slightly confused. "Just now, yes…"

Then… How should he pose the question without sounding nosy? The thought that his curiosity might imply something else never crossed Allen's mind. About marriage…

"Ah, that?" Lenalee didn't sound bothered at all. "We're trying to deal with that. Brother doesn't want me to leave either, so we were hoping to find…" She gave a nervous laugh, cheeks flushing a soft pink. "Princes are rare enough, but… Well, you know about Kanda, right?"

Allen nodded stiffly. He'd been trying to put the thought of Kanda and Lenalee together out of his head for the past few days, and had been mostly successful when not reminded of it. And fortunately, there had been relatively few things that could remind him of that.

Until now, anyway.

"Even though we know each other, he's something of a last resort. It's not just that we don't love each other like that, but…" Lenalee lifted her hands in front of her, unconsciously wringing them as she spoke. "He's the only child, and the designated heir. If I married him, we would have to live in his kingdom. At least, it would be the right thing to do in order to... to produce an heir."

It would be difficult if you were kingdoms apart, Allen commented, keeping a straight face to avoid the satisfied smirk that would otherwise be visible.

"Exactly! But then Brother and I would be separated."

That sounds like a big problem, Allen mused. Of course, the problem of Lenalee marrying anyone at all was a serious issue that needed to be- no, he should definitely not be thinking that. Lenalee's future happiness was what mattered!

"Not really," Lenalee demurred. "It is hard to find a prince of the proper age to marry, but there aren't that many out there at all. Anyone who isn't the heir would do, though. If he wasn't going to inherit the throne, he could come to our kingdom instead."

…and once again, it appeared that he was perfectly capable of bringing about Lenalee's future happiness. It was almost maddening how fate continually reminded Allen of what a perfect match they could be. Not only a prince, but one so far down the list of next-in-line that there was a better chance Kanda would run off with Lavi than him becoming the next monarch! And if those were scarce, wasn't this a rare opportunity for-

But wouldn't you have to worry about them trying to get the throne for themselves? Allen hastily scribbled, trying to redirect his thoughts before Lenalee noticed his dark blush and the daydream-induced softness in his eyes. He was a mermaid! She was a human! Even if the situation was perfect, they were still of different species!

Somehow, though, that mantra was beginning to sound weaker and weaker whenever Allen repeated it in his mind. Perhaps he needed a new reminder of just how wrong an interspecies relationship would be.

(And in finding it, Allen would probably short out his brain entirely. Perfect!)

"Not at all!" Lenalee laughed, making Allen shift nervously on his feet from her confident tone. Had he asked something stupid just now? "If anything were to happen to Brother, I'd take the throne, and the next heir would be my child. That's why the marriage issue has become so important recently. Brother has some dangerous hobbies, and after the recent incident…" Lenalee trailed off, her mirth dissipating at the depressing memory. "If you hadn't saved me then, Allen-kun…"

Allen nodded slowly. I should have done more…

"But you saved the kingdom," Lenalee reminded him. "Brother and I don't have any close relatives, either. If our line ended, all these people here… they could…"

I still could have warned someone, or… He shook his head, surprising Lenalee with the sudden opposite motion. Well, what's done is done, isn't it? he mouthed, attempting a weak smile. If he was going to wallow in regret, he wasn't going to do it where Lenalee might be brought down by it, too. What do we do now?

"Oh…" Lenalee's violet gaze began to wander as her mind adjusted to the sudden change in topic. Allen half-wondered if she'd actually wanted to continue it; he almost did, and would have if not for an inability to think of a different topic to change to. Speaking with her was pleasant and comforting, an experience that the generally unsocial Allen hadn't had very often since Mana's death. "It's getting late, isn't it? Should we go back to find the others?"

Yeah… How much time had passed since they'd split up? With the akuma and this long discussion, Allen had lost track of time. The day was still as hot as ever, with the shadows of the buildings providing only a small comfort, yet Allen had barely noticed his desire for relief from it. The distractions had been a free alternative to the ice-cream, although they'd also provoked some emotions Allen might have been more comfortable without.

But were they worse than the incessant craving for something cold? With the full force of the craving suddenly hitting him after all that time, Allen wasn't so sure of that!

"Let's go," Lenalee piped, strolling past him down the alley and looking back at him once she was about a metre away. "The… akuma… should be gone now, right?"

Allen responded in the affirmative, touching his left eye tenderly. The pain was gone now, but the memory remained. He dearly hoped he would never encounter that weapon again, under any circumstances. Just seeing it had sent a chill down his spine, and a sharp pain through his eye; knowing what it was terrified him so much Allen wasn't sure if he would rather face the akuma or an angry Earl.

No, thinking back on it, he'd probably rather face the akuma. Once, he would have chosen the Earl, but he knew more now. How could he be as scared of a weapon as the one who had created it? Used it? Might use it again?

What if the Earl had used an akuma to kill Mana?

…Probably not, Allen reminded himself. Cross had said that the Earl killed Mana himself, and if akuma looked like living creatures – they might be mermaids, at any rate, but still a conscious entity – it wouldn't be the same thing at all. Besides, the Earl would have wanted to do it himself if Mana had really been as important as Cross had claimed.

Certainly, a family member was important enough to become a personal matter…

Allen's hands unconsciously clenched, his arms swinging stiffly as he walked. How could he even consider returning back home after learning what he now knew? Even if there were some positive emotions associated with his family, that balance had been one reason why he kept returning night after night to the castle. That balance had been disrupted now, leaving him with anger and hurt that he knew would never completely fade with time. The only other reason had been security, knowing there was a place where he could receive shelter, food, and other necessities and comforts of life. There was a chance Cross might provide them, but the thought of staying with Cross was only slightly more pleasant. Besides, assuming they were somehow available to Allen, what would the price be? He wanted to avoid being in debt to that monster at any cost!

Which left him with only one obvious option: to continue life as he was now. Hadn't he just had this internal conversation? This wasn't possible, either!

Sighing to himself, Allen tucked the debate in a far corner of his mind, resolving to find an answer another day. Meeting the akuma had not changed the facts or his options, and there was no point in thinking about it now when he still had three more months of life at the castle. He could decide then.

And above all else, he had to stop thinking about marrying Lenalee. It was as if every single train of thought eventually led towards that desi- er, possibility! He'd only known her for a few days; this was far too soon. If Lenalee could hear this thoughts right now…

What if she's recovered by now!? …I'd be in so much…

Taking a deep breath, Allen looked over at Lenalee-

She had stopped, turned around, and was staring right at him.

Allen bit off a silent curse and managed to form a shaky smile.

H-Hi, Lenalee…

Yet the expression Lenalee wore was not the expected shock, horror, or anger, but one of worry and confusion.

"Is everything all right, Allen-kun?" she asked softly.

Allen nodded mechanically. O-Of course! Why wouldn't… it… be…

"I see," she murmured, not sounding fully convinced. "You've been silent up until now – um, not communicating, or… w-well, you understand," Lenalee said, flustered. He nodded again; being mute did come with its share of awkward moments. "And just now, you stopped walking… Is it your feet?"

Huh? So she hadn't been…? Allen shook his head, grinning sheepishly. No, just thinking. I'm fine. Hadn't he told Lenalee about how the pain never ebbed or intensified as long as his feet were on the ground? Even if they'd been walking all afternoon, they would hurt just as much three hours later as when they'd begun. He made a mental note to explain it later; he didn't want Lenalee worrying over that.

"Okay." Lenalee smiled in response and turned around to continue down the street. Allen followed, noticing how close they were to the meeting point already. Had he really been lost in thought all this time? No wonder Lenalee had been concerned!

As the pair approached the intersection, Allen noticed two humanoid figures in the centre, one moving around the other as if it were a child bothering a parent or sibling (although this was the taller of the two). He didn't even need to see the accompanying flash of red to know the identities of the young men.

By the time Allen was close enough to make out their faces, Lavi had trotted over to the merboy and princess, a weary grin exposing sunlight-reflecting teeth. They couldn't naturally be so white…

"Yo!" he called, despite close enough for the others to have heard a whisper. Allen winced at the loud sound. "Where've you two been? Yuu and I have been waiting for ages!"

"Sorry," Lenalee apologized, with Allen mouthing an equally short one beside her. "We got… distracted, and lost track of time…" Her violet eyes darted to Allen momentarily in a wary glance, as if she were unsure of how to explain the situation properly. He raised his shoulders in the faintest of shrugs; this would probably do. Lavi would likely assume they found a candy shop or something like that, and leave it at that.

Except, judging by the smirk that now crossed Lavi's lips and the satisfied look he was giving the pair, that wasn't what he was thinking at all.

"I see," he said slowly, turning his head lazily towards Kanda without even the slightest change in his expression. "Distracted, they say… What do you think, Yuu?"

"Che." Kanda rolled his eyes.

"Oh, come on, Yuu… you know how much fun it'll be to tease them about this…"

Tease us about what? Allen wondered. When Lenalee turned to look at him, he shot her a confused glance. Lenalee?

"I don't…" Lenalee cut off suddenly, understanding dawning on her face. "Oh no…"

"They must have been doing something awfully fun to lose track of time for so long…"

"Che."

"In a hotel, do you think?" Lavi turned back to Allen and Lenalee, his smirk intensifying at Allen's bemusement and Lenalee's horror. "Or did they just find the nearest back alley and…"

Allen's jaw dropped. How did he know?!

The grin turned triumphant as Lenalee cringed.

Did I say something wrong? Allen added, a little belatedly. It wasn't… No, he couldn't say it wasn't entirely a bad experience. The akuma had been terrifying, true, and some of the topics were ones he'd rather not think about, but it had certainly been nice to spend some time with Lenalee and have a nice conversation with her. Even if was at the expense of a good daily experience…

Lenalee looked as if she were about to cry.

"What about it, Allen?" Lavi leaned in closer, green eye wide with curiosity tainted slightly by a knowing glint.

Shit, I shouldn't have said anything! I can't talk about the akuma without… Lenalee's explanation should have been good enough! Taking a moment to think about a neutral yet accurate summary of events, Allen finally scribbled: There was a bad man, and we had to hide from him.

"Down Lenalee's throat, I'll bet," Lavi murmured as he read. Lenalee put her face in her hands and Kanda began choking on some air particle. "Or up her skirt."

Had Allen been paying attention to Lavi's commentary, the poor historian might have quickly found himself in intense pain. As it was, the bit that did manage to register in Allen's mind caused him to blush darkly as he continued scribbling. And we talked.

"And had a bit of a nap, while you were-"

"Lavi," Lenalee said stiffly, having donned a strained smile that sent shivers down Allen's spine at the sight of it, "did you find an open café in the hours since we separated?"

Evidently, Allen wasn't the only one scared of that smile.

"Ah…" Lavi's smirk disappeared and he blinked, raising one arm to scratch the back of his head sheepishly. "Well, ah, no, but you see…"

"Neither did we! Kanda, what about you?"

Allen thought he heard Lavi breathe a faint sigh of relief as Lenalee turned to the prince.

"Che."

"S-So we'd better be going back," Lavi began, stumbling past the others, before Kanda halted him with the rest of his sentence.

"Down that way."

Three pairs of shocked gazes fell upon him. Kanda had actually found a café? Kanda? Not that he wasn't capable of it, of course… of course… but it wasn't as if he was seen as the most reliable of people. Allen had suspected he'd walked around for a few minutes, scared a passing child or two with his glares, and wandered back to the intersection to steal a nap while the others waited.

The nap was more of Lavi's thing, but he had his suspicions that Kanda somehow knew the trick of sleeping with his eyes open. That stony gaze was sometimes a little too vacant.

"You found it?" Lenalee asked, the tension in her voice immediately transforming into barely hidden excitement. "A little place with a green awning, and-"

"Yeah, sure." Kanda shrugged. "It's a café."

After a few seconds, the trio realised Kanda had no intention of moving at all, let alone showing them the way.

Then… Allen gestured hesitantly to the street Kanda had taken. Shall we go?

The four of them – Kanda had reluctantly followed when the other three departed, constantly remaining a few steps behind – quickly found their destination. It was not the café itself that first caught their attention, however, but the symbol on the menu sign placed just in front of its stone steps.

A white mermaid coiled up into a circle, her torso covered by nothing more than flowing waves of hair.

Lavi gave a low whistle. Allen's face flushed a dark red.

T-That… Why?! Allen managed to gasp in disbelief to Lenalee. Her… her shirt…

"Um…" Lenalee fidgeted nervously. "Allen-kun, you know what a mermaid is…"

He raised one eyebrow, utterly confused. Why would Lenalee ask him, of all people?

"W-Well, maybe they're portrayed differently where… in the mountains, but here…"

"Mountains?" Lavi didn't take his eye off of the image. "I thought all cultures showed mermaids as buxom and topless."

"Apparently, not all," Lenalee murmured, smiling slightly while gesturing towards Allen with a nod of her head.

That's how we're seen? Like… like some sex object?! And female? Naked?!

"Che." For all the attention Kanda paid to the sign, it might have been a stray pigeon feather by the side of the road.

I don't think they'd really look like that, Lavi, Allen finally managed to answer. It would be uncomfortable without… wouldn't it?

"Well, sure…" Lavi shrugged, still staring at the buxom mermaid. "But that's just what the stories say. It'd be pretty nice if there were really mermaids like that out there, you know?" He chuckled softly.

They'd be uncomfortable, Allen pointed out. How difficult could it be to get some sort of covering, anyway?

"Yeah… but it's not like they're real, right? A guy can always dream."

"Mermaids aren't real, you mean?" Lenalee asked hesitantly.

Lavi shrugged again. "Yeah, I guess. Nice story, but they're just mythical creatures. Pity…"

Allen and Lenalee exchanged a wide-eyed look.

"I thought you believed in mermaids, Lavi," Lenalee said. "You used to talk about them all the time, wishing you could meet one…"

He already has, Allen thought, smiling wryly. The slight quirk at the corners of Lenalee's lips indicated she had had the same thought.

"Yeah, but…" Lavi scratched the back of his head, sighing. "Has anyone ever seen one? The records don't have any conclusive proof…"

It's worth believing in, Allen pointed out. Did Lavi's comment about 'the records' indicate that humans and mermaids had interacted before? He decided to ask the older boy later; it would be interesting to hear how humans had reacted upon finding out that (most) mermaids were not, in fact, voluptuous nude females. And how had those interactions been for his people? Was Lenalee unusual for taking it in stride and seeing him as just another person?

He was so grateful for that. After just a few days, Allen had come to realise how similar the two species really were. Why wouldn't the Earl want him to have anything to do with humans? Or was it because of that similarity…

"And besides…" Lavi gave a nervous laugh and eyed Lenalee warily. Despite that, he apparently did not modify his next comment: "Sure, they may be nice on top and all, but… wouldn't they be fishy down there?"

Even Kanda turned bright red at that. Allen wondered how Lavi could say that so unabashedly.

"Like… you couldn't do-"

"Fucking pervert; is that all you think about?" Kanda was visibly making a point of staring at a slightly discoloured piece of cobblestone on the ground.

"They might not…" Lenalee said weakly, her violet eyes darting to Allen with more than a hint of panic in them. "Um…"

Mermaids aren't half fish, Allen pointed out, hoping that the explanation of 'it's different in the mountains' would satisfy any further questions from Lavi. For that matter, he hoped Lavi didn't question it at all. If Lavi remembered his gills and put two and two together, and Allen knew he was smart enough to get four…

"The legends say that," Lavi rebutted. "So what are they?"

"Dolphin?" Lenalee suggested. Allen mentally breathed a sigh of relief. "They've got similar tails, don't they?"

"Hmm…" Lavi's hand trailed down the side of his face to scratch at his chin thoughtfully. "That'd make sense. You know, mammals and all… Similar enough…"

That's probably it. Allen nodded.

"So it wouldn't be a problem, since they'd have-"

Allen and Lenalee each grabbed a bare arm and dragged Lavi towards the door entrance, blushing furiously. While the topic was embarrassing enough, to think about it in the context of Allen's species made it even more awkward, particularly for Allen. He'd been desperately trying to suppress thoughts of his attraction to Lenalee, of a potential marriage to Lenalee… and this was the last thing he needed to think about! If he wasn't careful, unwanted fantasies just might-

The door swung open with a slight tinkle – ah, there was a bell hanging above it, hanging from a string tied to the door. Breathing a real sigh of relief at the distraction, Allen released Lavi's arm simultaneously with Lenalee, and the four teenagers made their way towards the counter.

The first thing Allen noticed was the array of delicious-looking sweets behind a rounded glass pane, covered in fingerprints only visible where the afternoon sunlight glinted off of it. Pastries and cakes, cookies and tarts, all kinds of bakery desserts sat invitingly just a few centimetres away.

The second thing he noticed was the tanned man, pale hair tied in two long braids at the back of his head, looming over the cash register that seemed tiny in comparison. Muscular arms were folded over a large chest, and he peered down at the customers through dark shades. Allen almost wondered if they'd accidentally wandered into the secret base of an organized crime syndicate.

That must be the… enforcer, Allen thought, gulping. This was certainly someone he wouldn't want to run into at night, in a dark alley, alone… He might even take the akuma over this!

The man opened his mouth, and Allen flinched, expecting some sort of threat or failed attempt at a snarky pun.

"Welcooooooome!"

Allen's eyes nearly popped out of his skull, yet the man did not appear to notice the merboy's surprise.

"Oh, it's so wonderful to have guests! What handsome boys you are! And the princess with them! Your Majesty, what an honour to be in the presence of you and such delightful companions; it's simply fabulous…"

Yes, Allen decided, he would not want to meet this man alone, at night, in a dark alley. Some things made even death seem appealing in comparison.

Needless to say, he didn't drop his guard or even stop constantly looking over his shoulder until long after the four had taken their places in the somewhat shorter line for the ice-cream shop two hours later.


"Yuu, I don't believe you."

"What don't you believe." Kanda stared blankly out the window, not even bothering to acknowledge Lavi's disbelief with the merest of glances.

"You know."

"I don't know."

That's not all he doesn't know, Allen thought, snorting at the thought. Lenalee gave him a confused glance, but her attention quickly turned back to the conversation unfolding on the other side of the carriage.

"Would you care to be enlightened?"

"I don't care."

"This afternoon. Café."

"What about it."

Kanda's quite talkative today, isn't he? Allen quickly flashed the note to Lenalee, sitting next to him on the cushioned bench. She gave a brief nod after reading, expression unchanged. Wasn't she curious about this strange behaviour?

"Mocha, Yuu. Mocha."

"So?"

"On a day like this?" Lavi waved one arm in the air; Allen had to press his back flat against the carriage wall to avoid being hit by the careless gesture. "We go out for cold drinks, and you order a goddamned mocha!"

Kanda shrugged nonchalantly.

It's because he's weird, Lavi. Allen shot a glare at Kanda out of the corner of his eye. That explains everything.

Lavi appeared to be pondering Allen's comment for a moment, mouth slightly open. When Kanda twitched, dark eyes sliding surreptitiously over to Lavi as if searching for a reaction, Allen didn't even bother trying to hold back the smirk.

"It was a bit strange," Lenalee muttered, giving a small start when she realised she'd spoken aloud.

"See, Yuu? It's not just a matter of preference."

"Che."

"It's inhuman!"

Allen squirmed uncomfortably at the remark. He's very human, the merboy thought stubbornly. Not inhuman. We're better than that, he added, glaring at the most definitely human prince again.

"But at least Kanda got ice cream with us later," Lenalee pointed out. "It must have been even more satisfying after…"

Who would torture themselves to make the reward better? Allen asked, his expression implying a sarcastic tone that couldn't quite be translated in words alone. Besides Kanda, obviously.

"At least I have self-control, beansprout."

Allen bristled at the nickname. What was that, you girly-haired-

It took the combined strength of Lenalee and Lavi, and the support of the small carriage structure, to keep both boys from killing each other – and potentially cause collateral damage in the narrow enclosure – right then and there.

By the time the carriage pulled up in front of the castle, the red sun had already begun to dip by the horizon. Entranced by the image of the sunset on the distant ocean, Allen stumbled as he exited the carriage and nearly fell flat on his face. Even the relief at avoiding such an embarrassing scene in front of Kanda couldn't pull him away from the scene, however.

"It's really pretty, isn't it?"

Allen jumped and spun around to find Lenalee standing at his shoulder, smiling warmly.

"I've always loved watching the sun rise and set from this position… seeing it over the ocean like that. It makes me really grateful that the castle was built here, even though it's so far away from everything else." Lenalee sighed contentedly, folding her hands behind her back as she viewed the familiar sight.

Maybe that's why they built it here, Allen suggested, tearing his eyes away from the scene to glance at Lenalee's reaction. The dim light of the sunset created a rosy glow to her skin, and made her sparkling violet eyes stand out more than usual. It was an enchanting effect, and Allen had to force himself to pull his gaze away for fear that Lenalee might notice it lingering on her a little too long.

Somehow, though, he suspected that this scene was rarer than the sunset alone, even from this angle. He might be standing here another day, but would Lenalee be by his side?

…Probably, he realised, smiling wryly. Lenalee had been a fairly constant presence throughout the last few days, and if his time on land was to be short, why not spend as much time with his new friends as possible? Besides, he didn't know his way around so well as to not need a constant companion yet. After the incident with the maid, Link had occasionally replaced Lavi as a guide, although it seemed Lenalee preferred to move around the castle in a pack. Rarely did he find himself with only one other person, as he had been that afternoon, much less alone entirely.

For a few minutes, they stood there in silence, basking in the glow of the setting sun and enjoying the beauty of that transient moment. Allen thought he could have waited there forever, or at least until the sun slipped below the horizon entirely, had a loud voice not broken through their mutual trance and shattered it entirely.

"Oi! Lenalee, Allen! You coming?"

Allen gave a weary nod, pouting as Lenalee called back to Lavi to respond in the affirmative. With a sigh, he followed her back to the castle doors, sparing one last glance over his shoulder at the fiery red ball that was slowly disappearing into the night.

Everything ends, he mouthed to himself. Even my time here, one day.

Right now, however, he had nearly three months to look forward to – starting with the next day. Allen could only hope, as he told Lenalee in the hallway on their way to the bedroom corridors, that they wouldn't have to go through this again tomorrow. (Rather, he groaned about it, but Lenalee didn't seem to be at all bothered by it.)

"Maybe it'll be cooler tomorrow," she suggested, sounding as if she didn't believe her own words at all.

Allen awoke the next morning to the crash of thunder outside his window.

"Good morning," Lenalee greeted him in a mild tone when he emerged from his bedroom, bleary and with Timcanpy nestling in his untidy hair.

Lovely weather, isn't it, Allen commented, eyes flickering to the window after a flash of lightning briefly lit the hallway.

"Indeed," she murmured, inhaling sharply through her teeth. "I guess this means we'll have to explore the castle for today…"

Did you have something planned? Allen inquired as they made their way to the spiralling staircase.

Lenalee cocked her head, thinking, then shook her head. "Nothing in particular. We'll just see what happens today, then."

Allen gave a wide smile. Sounds good to me. As long as breakfast came first. He couldn't start off a day – rainy, adventure-filled, or otherwise – without a good morning meal. Preferably with at least five servings of it.

They were just steps away from the dining room door when a new face suddenly appeared from around a corner, scowling. Allen could only stare in surprise as the scruffy-looking man in a rumpled white coat stalked over to Lenalee, ran one hand through his spiky brown hair, and sighed.

"Princess Lenalee, I'm sorry to bother you at this time…"

He doesn't sound all that sorry, Allen noted crossly at the man's exasperated tone. What had Lenalee done to make him sound that way?

"…but have you seen His Majesty…"

Lenalee shook her head wearily. "I'm sorry, Section Chief, but…" She nodded towards Allen. "I haven't seen him all morning."

"Damnit…" The Section Chief, whoever that was, clenched that wandering hand against his forehead into a fist and gritted his teeth. "He's gone again…"

"You just came from the kitchens, then?" Lenalee shrugged weakly. "I can't think of anywhere else he might be that you haven't checked already…"

"I shall continue my search," the man grunted, bobbing his head briefly towards Lenalee. "I appreciate your continued aid on this issue, Princess."

"It's my responsibility too, as his sister," she replied. "Even though he is my older brother…"

The Section Chief gave a nod of acknowledgement towards Allen and thanked Lenalee once more before continuing down the hall in the direction Allen and Lenalee had come from.

Allen immediately turned to Lenalee, momentarily forgetting about their proximity to the dining hall and therefore his breakfast. Who was that just now?

"Ah, that was…" Lenalee frowned, her eyes flickering in the direction the man had departed before she turned back to face Allen. "That was Reever, the Section Chief of the palace scientists."

Scientists? Allen raised an eyebrow at the word. Why… He knew what scientists were, of course, but why were they in the palace? Lenalee had spoken of Reever as if he were a regular inhabitant, and the leader of an organized group; was this another aspect of human culture, having scientists relate to royal duties and palace upkeep somehow? No matter how Allen thought about it, though, it just didn't make sense. What could they possibly do?

"Science is my brother's hobby," Lenalee explained, trotting forward to open the dining-room doors (to Allen's joy). "He's gathered some of the brightest men and women in the world here, and funds their research in a variety of fields."

Allen nodded slowly, consciously trying not to look at the doors to the kitchen as they sat down at the immense table.

"It's really great. I've seen some of the things they're doing right now, and…" Lenalee trailed off, pausing for a moment before snapping her mouth shut and shaking her head. "I can't even describe it. Some of their visions for the future are just so… so amazing."

I'd like to see them some day, Allen mused. If it's all right, that is. With the scientists.

"They might worry that you'd bring their secrets back home, but…" Lenalee smiled wryly at the thought. "I think we can be sure that isn't going to happen. I doubt many of those things could even be used there…"

All the more reason to… Allen's cheeks flushed red and he ducked his head downward, breaking off eye contact. Since I won't… later…

"You did mention being interested in human things, didn't you…" Lenalee nodded thoughtfully. "Perhaps later today? We can't exactly do anything outside… I'll have to ask first, but…"

Allen's head snapped back upwards. That'd be… Thank you, Lenalee!

"Oh!" Lenalee exclaimed, eyes widening with a sudden realisation. "I forgot to add this earlier, but my brother's also involved in some of the work. He actually considers himself to be one of them, even though he's the king. He's something of a boss to the other scientists, guiding them and all that…"

So is that why Reever-san was looking for him? Allen mused.

"Maybe. Brother has assistants, but Reever's the head of the scientists after Brother, and so he's sort of taken all those responsibilities for assigning work and making sure it gets done upon himself. And since Brother has things to do as well…"

But he's the King, Allen pointed out. Isn't that a lot already?

"Well, there's that too," the princess explained. "Brother always tends to run away from his duties, whether they're related to ruling the kingdom, science things, or otherwise… and so the Section Chief has sort of… combined everything into one. If my brother slacks off on anything, it's the Section Chief who chases him."

He can't be getting very much done… Reever-san, I mean. Allen shrugged. Isn't it hard for him?

"We're always telling him to sleep more." Lenalee sighed. "It's true that he really overworks himself for the sake of the kingdom. If only Brother could be more responsible…"

Allen nodded sympathetically. He may not have any siblings who were rulers of their own kingdoms, but they certainly had a long way to go to behave their age, much less their social status.

"He works hard, though," she added, her voice warm with affection, "and I know he cares about everyone, about the kingdom, very much. When it comes to the important work, he gets it done…"

Komui-san sounds like a really great king, Allen agreed. Your country is quite lucky!

"I know." Lenalee blushed at the compliment to her relative. "I wouldn't want to live anywhere else… Ah, I'm sure your home is very nice, Allen-kun, but-"

No, no, Allen interrupted cheerfully, it's really not that great a place at all. Even I'd prefer to stay here, and I'm just a normal- He suddenly gave a start and snapped his mouth shut, realising what he was saying. Telling Lenalee he'd rather live here than back home? What was he going to reveal next, that he just happened to have a rather strong crush on her and had thought of kissing her more than once or twice since-

"Thank you."

Lenalee's bright smile quickly ended Allen's continuous and never-ending line of thought. The arrival of breakfast immediately after would have done the same, although it certainly wouldn't have left Allen with the flutter in his strangely warm heart that lasted throughout the five-course meal.

Allen had just put his fork down on a plate cleaned of all but the tiniest of crumbs when a flash of gold at the entrance caught his eye. A curious glance revealed the familiar disdainful face.

Link? Lacking the ability to grab the young man's attention, Allen turned to Lenalee instead. What's Link doing here?

Lenalee lifted her head to glance at the guard before meeting Allen's curious gaze and shrugging. "Personal initiative? Are Kanda and Lavi here, too?"

Link stepped aside, revealing Lavi's sullen and Kanda's expressionless faces peering out from behind the door.

"How'd you guess?" Lavi pouted.

Those two always seem to end up together, Allen thought, eyeing his empty plate with a hint of disappointment. Perhaps there was one more orange left in the kitchen…

"You're probably bored, and there isn't much else to do around here," Lenalee pointed out. "Why not follow Link down here?"

"Actually…" Link gave the two heads a disdainful look; Allen wondered if it was because they hadn't yet straightened up and fully revealed themselves. The man would be looking upwards otherwise. "The Secretary wishes to see you. Allen Walker, that is," he explained, nodding towards Allen.

"The Secretary…?" Was it just Allen, or did Lenalee look paler than she had a moment ago?

Who… The title sounded awfully familiar, and not just because Lenalee had mentioned Komui's assistants before breakfast. Where had he…

"And of course Link would know," Lavi commented in a suggestive manner, elbowing Link playfully while waggling his eyebrows.

Suddenly, it all came back to Allen. That conversation he'd had with Lavi – That one?!

"Secretary Levellier." Link stared at Allen with a stony expression. "Head of the palace servants. He has heard of the palace newcomer and wishes to meet you, in part for what I believe to be… safety reasons."

"Safety?" Lavi raised an eyebrow at the comment. "Allen's no spy, if that's what he's thinking. Not dangerous, either."

"Except to himself," Kanda muttered, smirking slightly as if he'd made a clever insult no one else would have thought of.

Since last Thursday, Allen thought, rolling his eyes. That was horribly lame, stupid Kanda.

"You say something, beansprout?" Kanda sneered.

Since when can I speak, you-

"…Does he really have to?"

Four heads swivelled to look at a surprisingly agitated Lenalee.

"Does the Secretary really have to speak to Allen?" she repeated, fidgeting in her chair. "Shouldn't it be up to Allen-kun to meet with – he's no danger, just as Lavi said – I'd really prefer that this be saved for another day, maybe next year-"

But I won't be here next year, Allen reminded Lenalee. It was only after he mouthed the words that he realised the true meaning of her comment. Was Lenalee stalling? But why?

"The Secretary," Link added, "has baked a cake for the occasion."

That got Allen's attention.

"He bakes a cake for everything," Lavi groaned, leaning against the doorframe with his hands behind his head. "It's nothing special."

"Che." Kanda looked less than enthusiastic about the cake, too. Allen still couldn't believe how anyone could not like sweet foods, much less actually dislike them. Of course, he also suspected there were many things wrong with Kanda – this was no exception.

There's cake?

Allen tore his eyes away from scowling at Kanda to direct an excited look at Lenalee.

"Allen-kun…" She chewed her lower lip nervously. "Yes, Secretary Levellier bakes cake, and I'm sure it's very good, but…"

It's all right, isn't it, Lenalee? It's for you, too…

"I'd just rather not go," Lenalee murmured, breaking eye contact and dropping her gaze to her lap. In an intentionally cheerful voice, she added, "He's an intelligent man, though, and I'm sure he means no harm. The cake will probably be delicious, too. You should have a nice time."

Allen's expression turned weary. I wouldn't go without you, Lenalee. He didn't go anywhere without her, actually, except to places women couldn't go. Allen wondered if he should think that odd, but somehow – due to his feelings, perhaps, or just the fact that he had fun with her – it seemed quite natural. How would it feel to be with just the others for an afternoon, without Lenalee? Is something wrong? Lenalee, if you feel so strongly about this Secretary, then I don't think I should go-

"It's not like that," Lenalee quickly assured Allen. "He may not give the greatest of first impressions, but there's nothing really wrong with him."

Then why… Allen had to grasp his hands in each other to prevent him from unconsciously reaching out to hold Lenalee's comfortingly. Did something happen?

Lenalee began to nod, but caught herself. "…It's really nothing," she told him, a little too quickly.

A snigger from the doorway made Allen turn his head, curious.

"If it's what I've heard," Lavi managed to say, "then no wonder Lenalee wouldn't want to tell anyone."

Lenalee's cheeks flushed a delicate pink. Even Kanda looked like his scowl was forcefully holding back a smile.

"See, when Lenalee was six, so I've heard-"

"Lavi," Lenalee said in a warning tone, "if you continue with that story-"

"Anyway, Lenalee had a fight with… her brother, maybe, I only heard the story, right-"

"You are really going to regret this, Lavi-"

"So she was upset and threatened to run away, you know, like any other kid-"

Lavi, Allen mouthed, maybe you'd better stop… As curious as he was to hear the story, he didn't want anyone to get hurt for this, and he didn't want Lenalee to be humiliated, either. Unable to hear the merboy, however, and with his attention on something else, Lavi continued blithely.

"Except she really did try. She got to the entrance when the Secretary found her-"

Lenalee's mouth snapped shut, her cheeks a brilliant red. Allen felt strangely tempted to run up to Lavi and forcefully stop him from continuing, for Lenalee's sake, yet for some reason he found he couldn't move a muscle.

Lavi, please… he protested feebly, yet the historian didn't seem to notice.

"The servants heard her crying and wailing, so they rushed over-"

"I was six!" Lenalee burst out. "He had… he had no right to…"

Lenalee? Allen gave her a concerned look. From the tone of her voice, it had been something inappropriate in Lenalee's mind, and the shame and… fear? hate? were so strong even ten years later that she'd do anything to avoid seeing the man. Yet if Lavi and Kanda were amused by it, Lenalee's interpretation must have been entirely subjective. It didn't say anything about the man, did it?

"Ah…" Lavi broke off suddenly, finally noticing Allen's confusion. The faint distress went straight over his head, however. "You listening, Allen? I'm just getting to the good part!"

Uh… Allen's eyes remained on Lenalee for a moment before he turned to Lavi, hesitating to give a response.

The movement was evidently enough for Lavi.

"So you know what they found?" Lavi asked, the excitement from earlier rushing back into his voice.

Allen shook his head.

"He was… he was…" The red-haired boy took a deep breath, wide grin threatening to split his face in two. Was he trying not to laugh?! A scowl flickered across Allen's face; it wasn't so funny to him just yet. "He had Lenalee across his knee, and…"

"To a princess, no less!" Violet eyes filling with tears, Lenalee slammed her palms on the table. "And he would've done it to any of you, too, I bet!"

"And he…" Lavi was almost doubled over now; Lenalee's furious reaction hadn't helped. "He… spanked her!"

Allen's jaw dropped. That was it? Lavi had been in fits of laughter – Kanda had smiled – over that?

Although now that he thought about it, the image of a small Lenalee, kicking and screaming wailing while a secretary – Allen didn't know what the man looked like, but his mind somehow managed to fill it in with someone vaguely resembling a sterner Jeryy – smacked her was just a little amusing…

"You…" Lenalee's fury burst like a pricked bubble when she noticed the corners of Allen's mouth twitched upwards. "You really think it's funny?" she asked, pouting. "But to do that to a six-year-old…"

"That's still pretty little," Lavi pointed out. "Sure, if anyone did it now… actually, that'd be kind of kinky-"

"It was embarrassing," Lenalee murmured, swallowing and refusing to look any higher than the tabletop. "Everyone saw… and now everyone knows… It's bad enough that people still remember, but now Allen-kun does, too!"

"Yeah, it must've been nice to have someone who didn't know your deep, dark secret for…" Lavi pretended to count on his fingers, green eye sparkling with satisfied glee. "…oh, four days?"

Kanda had forced the smile off his face again, although judging from how stiff his scowl seemed to be, it was taking all of his conscious effort to do. Link did not appear amused at all, nor as if he were suppressing it, but Allen supposed that it wouldn't be as funny for someone not so close to Lenalee. Link might not even have known Lenalee when she was young – or, unlike Allen, cared about that fact.

"Now that you've got this out of the way," Link said coldly, "may I request that we avoid leaving the Secretary waiting for too much longer?"

He's actually waiting? Allen gave Link a wary glance, the light-hearted mood quickly fading with the guard's words.

"He has work, I'm sure," Lenalee murmured to the merboy. "Unless the Section Chief took it, for some reason…"

"Oh yeah, you coming, Lenalee?" Lavi called. "Allen knows, now."

"It doesn't matter!" Lenalee hissed, blushing again. "Just because Allen-kun has heard the story doesn't mean I'd want to see the Secretary again!"

"But it was ten years ago! Hey, are you sure that's why? Knowing him, that might've been the first thing out of his mouth once he sees you're not there, and now we've ruined the surprise!"

Link rolled his eyes and muttered something inaudible to Allen under his breath. It made Lavi scowl briefly, though.

"It's not the only reason-"

"Just go, Lenalee."

And with those three words, Kanda somehow managed to shut everyone up. It took a few moments for Lavi's mouth to snap shut, and for the silence to finally be broken by Link.

"If you don't hurry," he said, vaguely threatening, "the cake will cool."

Lavi's jaw dropped again. Everyone else just stared dazedly.

"And it will not be as delicious." Link surveyed the four with a calm stare and promptly turned on one heel, exiting the room.

Well… Allen finally managed to write, hand shaking slightly, we can't let the cake cool…

Lenalee and Lavi gave brief nods, and Lenalee stood up; Allen followed her. In stunned silence, the four teenagers traipsed out of the room and followed the swishing braid of Link to the Secretary's office.

It was not a short trip. After the fifth winding staircase and the seventh empty hallway, Allen figured that they must have been below the ground. His sense of direction may have been horrible, but the only other time he had been in a darkened hallway had been on his way to the baths. The lights were dim, and although it was midmorning, there were no windows to brighten their path. What kind of a person would want to live down here?

"Are we there yet?" came a whine from ahead of Allen. There was a faint scuffling noise, a soft cry, and the same voice added, "That wasn't nice, Yuu!"

"Shut up," Kanda grumbled.

"We're close," Link told them without turning around. Allen directed a curious glance at Lenalee, who nodded.

"We should be almost there," she whispered to him. "I know it's around here somewhere, although I've never been here myself…"

Allen understood; with that sort of trauma, no wonder she'd avoid the Secretary's office. The story seemed much less funny now, after the fact, and Allen had found himself wondering how he would have felt in the same situation. He'd probably be as embarrassed as Lenalee… and ready to leap up and punch Lavi for telling the story. But then, the situation of the story-telling would have been different, too.

And it's not like it hasn't happened to me, either, Allen thought, grimacing as he shoved his hands into his pockets. The Earl… not that he ever did that, but I wouldn't put it past him. And he's fond of physical punishment, anyway. Cross… The grimace turned into a sour expression. If he'd done it… I wouldn't want to see him again, either.

Before the mental video of his interactions with the red-haired man could arise, unbidden, Allen was snapped out of his thoughtful state when Link stopped them in front of a plain, dark, wooden door.

"This is it," he murmured, rapping on the door with his knuckles. "Secretary Levellier, I have brought them."

Allen felt a shiver run down his spine; Link had managed to make it sound as if an unpleasant surprise was awaiting them inside rather than freshly baked cake.

…Although the presence of cake didn't mean something bad couldn't happen…

"Enter," came a muffled bark. Lenalee flinched unconsciously as Link grasped the handle of the door and pushed it open.

The office was dimmer than the hall they had arrived from, and for a moment Allen could see nothing in the murky darkness, not even the silhouettes of the furniture or inhabitant. He took a wary step into the room, hoping not to bump into any of his friends that had disappeared into the shadows while his eyes adjusted.

"Close the door, please," came the voice. Without the door to muffle it, Allen could hear the power and confidence it carried. The man may have been a secretary, but already, he was nothing like Allen had imagined he'd be.

Lenalee suddenly gasped; Allen felt her brush against his arm as she stumbled backwards. When he looked forward again, he was momentarily blinded by a bright light that soon faded to a dim glow. Blinking rapidly, Allen squinted at the source: a dim light on a wooden desk, papers neatly arranged in piles on its surface. The retracting hand belonged to an imposing man with greying hair, moustache unable to disguise a somewhat sharp and angular face. He wore a sly, knowing smile as he surveyed the five teenagers.

Definitely not what I was expecting, Allen thought. No wonder Lenalee had been so terrified… The secretary could have had the warmest, most pleasant personality, and yet that face could still scare small children. Not that he expected the personality to not match the appearance; in Allen's experience, they often matched quite perfectly.

"You," he said slowly, his eyes fixating on Allen, "must be the newcomer. Allen, is it?"

Allen nodded once, muscles tensing under that unsettling gaze.

"From the mountains, they say?" His voice was smooth, holding the same strange quality as his gaze. It was almost as if he knew something Allen didn't know, or that he didn't want to reveal.

Allen nodded again, grey eyes flickering to Lenalee and then Lavi. Both appeared stoic from what he could see out of the corners of his eyes.

"Interesting." There was a moment of uncomfortable silence, yet the secretary did not remove his eyes from Allen. Finally, he broke the stare, reaching calmly for a white mug sitting beside one of the piles of papers and took a sip. Allen suppressed the urge to fidget nervously. The silence was unsettling, almost as much as having the secretary's eyes on him… or perhaps more, with the deliberate action of looking away.

He's not… Allen almost choked at the disturbing thought that had found its way into his mind. He really hoped it wasn't the case. But then, why did he have the strange feeling that Levellier was peering into his soul? Don't they say that when someone hits on you? God… Allen thought he might have been sick right then and there had an unexpected interruption not become his saviour.

"Uh…" The secretary's dark gaze snapped to Lavi, who gave a start as if he wasn't aware he'd even made a sound. The redhead's mouth snapped shut and his eye fell to the floor, but the secretary continued to watch him for another moment before turning back to Allen.

"It is a pleasure to meet you," he said smoothly, making no effort to move. "The palace welcomes any and all friends of her Highness, the Princess."

Thank you, Allen mouthed slowly, repeating the message in writing. It is a pleasure to meet you, too, Secretary. He briefly wondered if there was anything else he should add for the sake of politeness, but finally stepped forward to lay the pad down on the desk. The Secretary's dark eyes scanned the pad, but he said nothing, and made no effort to return it to Allen. The smile did not disappear throughout the exchange.

"Secretary Levellier…"

Five pairs of eyes fell on Link, who appeared just as stony-faced as ever. Of course, Link obviously knew this man quite well; Allen should not have been surprised at the man's composure. Or was that it…

Hadn't Lavi mentioned something about-

Allen's eyes widened at the memory. This was the secretary Lavi had spoken of, wasn't it?! And so did that mean… The grey gaze flickered between Link and Levellier, a sense of panic growing with every movement. He'd almost forgotten after getting to know Link after that one comment, but now…

His eyes suddenly narrowed as another thought hit him. Had Lavi really been telling the truth? As far as Allen could tell, Link appeared to behave no differently around the secretary. If he was truly… interested… wouldn't there be at least some sort of small change in his demeanour? Yet just as he'd noticed before, Link's facial muscles could have been frozen in place permanently; not a single unusual emotion nor any new expression could be seen.

And he's really gay? I should ask Lavi about that…

Although, Allen realised, it might just have been too much to expect Link to show emotions. Irritation, condescension, and reverence (for desserts, oddly enough) were really the only ones he'd ever seen on the man before. Had he imagined that Link would act like a swooning, emotional teenage girl feeling the bliss of first love?

Allen had to forcefully suppress his snort at that image. Evidently, he'd learned all there was to know about Link's range of expressions by this time. He doubted there would be any further surprises from the guard.

"About what you said earlier…" Link's stern gaze did not budge from Levellier, still sitting calmly at his desk.

"Yes, of course." Levellier's sly smile widened slightly, and he reached below his desk. "How rude of me not to remember."

With one hand, he produced a glass container that looked so heavy Allen wondered how he could support it. Inside the misty glass, Allen thought he saw something that vaguely looked like…

"Hazelnut cake." The secretary whipped off the glass top, revealing a cake iced neatly with chocolate swirls. "Regrettably not entirely chocolate; that is the Princess's favourite, correct?"

Lenalee shivered, noticeable only to those in contact with her, and nodded.

"Then I hope this is similar enough. Come, come," he beckoned, smile never changing as he reached into what must have been a drawer to produce a knife, then small, white dessert plates and gleaming forks. The cutlery looked as if it had never been used before. "I shall serve it for you."

Allen turned to Lenalee first, noting how pale she looked even in the dim glare of the lamp. A shaky smile appeared on her lips and she nodded towards the desk.

"Go ahead," she murmured to him. "I'll be right there."

The merboy shrugged and followed Lavi, Kanda, and Link to the desk, where Levellier was cutting perfectly neat slices and transferring them to the plates without leaving so much as a crumb behind.

"Lenalee?" Lavi glanced back over his shoulder at the princess, who had not moved since speaking to Allen. "You want any?"

I'll take some for her, Allen mouthed quickly, gesturing to the cake. He wasn't sure if it was just his imagination that the knowing gleam in Levellier's dark eyes intensified.

"What a kind friend," the man murmured, still staring intently at Allen. With a weak nod, Allen took the two plates and backed away. Link might have been comfortable with this man, and Lavi didn't seem to mind him – Kanda's expression never changed from its sour glare – but despite knowing of a source of her bias, Allen found himself agreeing with Lenalee. This man made him strangely uncomfortable. Why did it feel like Levellier knew a secret that Allen didn't want to be revealed? And what was with that scary-looking moustache?

Allen crept back to his position next to Lenalee and handed her the plate. She muttered a soft thanks, but neither of them made a move to eat, instead watching Lavi stuff his face and Link shoot disgusted looks at the redhead. After a few moments of watching Kanda pick at his cake, sneering, Allen decided to avoid the prince for the sake of his attention span and blood pressure.

"So…" That calm tone holding more than a hint of arrogance brought Allen's attention back to Levellier. "I have hesitated to ask thus far, but…" He waved a gloved hand in the air. "It does tend to be a bit dim in here. I must admit I am curious to know what you four… particularly a newcomer from another country entirely…" That knowing gleam sparkled again; Allen gritted his teeth to suppress a violent shiver. "What you think of my… collection."

Lenalee's hand suddenly shot out and grabbed Allen's wrist.

"Don't look," she hissed without looking at him.

Allen shot a confused glance at her out of the corner of his eye, but kept his gaze firmly fixated on Levellier. Unfortunately, it's a little too dark…

"Oh, is that so?" The man did not appear surprised at all. "Then perhaps I should-"

"What're you talking about, Allen? It's… whoa." Lavi's sudden cut-off momentarily made Allen forget about what Lenalee had told him, and he turned to his friend. His grey eyes were halfway to the shadowed walls before he could jerk them away, fixing his gaze determinedly on the desk.

"Che…" Had he not been focusing all his resolve on not satisfying his curiosity, Allen would certainly have chosen to look at Kanda's face right then. The normally bored-looking prince actually sounded slightly off-guard… disturbed, perhaps? What could shake Kanda like that?

"Impressive, you say? Go on, Allen," Levellier prompted, "it's all right for you to look."

"Secretary Levellier…" Even Link sounded a bit shaken. Allen was puzzled by that; wouldn't he have grown used to whatever it was by this time? Or was something else bothering him? This curiosity was infuriating! "Perhaps it would be best… He's still quite young…"

"Really?" The smile widened. "He seems like quite a responsible young lad to me."

"Allen-kun," Lenalee whispered, fear and concern filling in her voice, "you really don't want to…"

He nodded. I trust you, Lenalee.

But I also want to know what he's hiding… What could disturb even Kanda? And why would Lenalee not want me to see? I don't think it's about age… Lenalee wouldn't do that.

Even if it's the most horrible thing ever – the corpses of my family, or… or torture tools used on kittens – if I don't find out, this will torment me forever. And I don't intend to come back here again to see this.

To Lenalee, he added, I'm sorry.

"Allen-kun-" she hissed, loud enough for Lavi to half-turn his head with a questioning sound, but Allen had already set his plate down on the ground, taken a deep breath and followed Lavi's eyes to the walls.

His grey eyes met with something similar in colour, and of a sickeningly familiar shape, hanging from a wooden plaque set on the wall. For a brief moment, he couldn't tear his eyes away, and they followed the shape until it split in two near the bottom and continued to either side…

Oh god, it isn't… it can't be…

Perhaps his initial guess hadn't been so wild after all…

Th…that's a… dolphin… he managed to stammer, feeling a sinking feeling in his stomach. The tail hadn't been the only thing in his field of vision. …Right?

"Not exactly. But I think you're already aware of that… Allen?"

Allen didn't even have to look at Levellier to know he was still smiling. That sick bastard…

"Allen-kun…" Lenalee was murmuring to herself now; Allen could see movement out of the corner of his eye. Was she wringing her hands? "Allen-kun, no… I'm sorry…"

"Damn," Lavi breathed, staggering backwards, "is that really… are those…"

"Real? Yes, very much so." Levellier adopted a pleased expression. Allen was frozen in place, eyes locked on the tail without really seeing it, but at the moment he wished he had the strength to overcome his daze and punch the man as hard as he could. How could he be pleased about something like this? For that matter, how could he not feel anything but shock and disgusted horror at the scene itself?

"But I thought…" Lavi shook his head, stunned into muteness. "It can't be…"

"Ah, but they do exist," Levellier said softly, "mermaids do."

They did, Allen thought, finally managing to clench his hands into tight fists, until you…

"N-No way…" Lavi gave a nervous laugh. "But they're just the things of stories, right? I-I mean… there's no way something that's half-human and half-fish… could really be out there…"

"Of course not." When Lavi opened his mouth again, Levellier held up one hand. "They're part dolphin. Mammals, you know."

"Ah, yeah… Still…" The historian's breaths sounded almost ragged. Allen felt faintly pleased at knowing everyone else in the room, at least, seemed to share his views to the extent that they could with their limited knowledge. Even Link seemed to be avoiding the walls. "Mermaids don't really… Like… that's just a dolphin tail, right? Dead human? Sewn together?" He gave another nervous chuckle, sounding even less sure of himself. "And if they're mammals, how do they breathe? They'd have to come up for air sometime; we'd know-"

"Ah, well, you see, they're a little different in that regard." Levellier sounded completely unperturbed by Lavi's disbelief. "They have gills, of course. And lungs. It's hardly a perfect system, but it serves them well enough, would you say?"

Allen desperately prayed his own weren't flaring as much as he feared they were. If anyone caught a glimpse of that redness-

"Gills… T-That'd look kind of weird, huh?" Even the weak attempts at laughter were no more. "That's pretty preposterous… isn't it, Yuu? Allen?"

"Che… Stupid." The edge of arrogance in Kanda's tone was conspicuously absent. Allen simply nodded numbly, too full of rage, disgust, and a deep depression to do anything but make numb observations. It didn't take half the effort that moving did.

"But aren't they people too?"

Levellier calmly looked over at Lenalee, trembling from some unknown emotion. Allen briefly wondered if she had gained the courage to meet his eyes or if she could only stare at the floor, unable or unwilling to reveal that weakness.

"These mermaids," she continued, "they're part human, aren't they? They have human brains, right? Feelings? Personalities?"

Lenalee… Despite the negativity in his heart, Allen could feel a small burst of warmth at Lenalee's words. Thank you… for saying what I can't at the moment…

It wasn't just that, though. He knew very well about how she saw him, even through the species divide, but somehow, hearing it still made him feel all that much happier. She couldn't yet break through the icy fury that stirred up horrible feelings in the pit of his stomach, but it made a difference nonetheless.

"You're killing people!" she finally exclaimed.

"Am I?"

Those two words, said with such perfect calm and unquestioned confidence, nearly extinguished that warmth entirely.

"You…" This time, however, Levellier interrupted in that same cool tone.

"Perhaps they may have some of the same faculties. However, Princess, you must remember that as human as they may seem, they are a completely different species. Animals, you might say."

"We're animals too," Lavi pointed out stubbornly.

"But evolved." The Secretary's voice took on simultaneous tones of awe and condescension, as if speaking to a small child about a fascinating, perhaps otherworldly, power. "We humans are the pinnacle of macroevolution, capable of incredible feats of knowledge and power, and with unexplored capacities that have yet to be discovered."

"And mermaids aren't?" Lenalee said bitterly.

"No, Princess," he told her patronisingly, "you can see for yourself, can't you? They are a lower creature than we are."

"But they can-"

"Can they walk on two legs? Have they created the technologies and civilizations that we have? Have they conquered nature and become its protector?" Levellier shook his head. "Above other animals, perhaps, but nevertheless…"

No wonder. The words echoed in Allen's head; his own thoughts, Levellier's words, and those of the Earl all tumbled around and mixed as if to become a single echoing thought. No wonder we're not allowed to see the surface. No wonder we're supposed to hate humans. No wonder we're told humans are bad.

They are.

Humans are DANGEROUS lero! They KILL merpeople lero!

They do, and I had to see it first… oh god…

If one has been properly raised, one would have the instinct to enjoy a human's beautiful death.

I'd give anything to be able to kill a certain one right now…

Animals, you might say.

He's not even killing people; to him, we're just… we're just…

"Allen-kun…"

The soft, worried tone of Lenalee's voice jolted Allen out of his hateful daze, and in his surprise, he tore his eyes away from the tail as he whirled around to face her. Almost immediately, from both the sight of Lenalee's face and the disappearance of such an emotional object from his field of vision, the rage faded, leaving a swelling emptiness behind in his heart.

"Allen-kun," she repeated, looking as if she wanted to say more, but wasn't sure of what would be right. Her expression flickered from questioning and concerned, to sympathetic and caring.

I… I'm sorry, Lenalee. He dropped his gaze to the stone floor, unable to continue looking at her. Right now, the sight of Lenalee's face had added a multitude of other emotions – shame, love, determination, rebellion – that would overwhelm him if combined with the hurt he still felt from Levellier's words and wall coverings.

Across the room, the secretary sighed. "Perhaps you were right, Link. It seems to have been a bit too much for our visitor to handle."

Allen raised his eyes to Levellier, the renewed spark of anger quickly extinguished by a sudden, horrifying thought when he realised that knowing gaze was on him yet again. Could it be that… could Levellier know? All this time, the suspicious behaviour – encouraging him to look at the walls – that feeling that Levellier knew something about him – was it this?

A shiver ran down Allen's spine, eyes wide as his breaths grew shorter. Only Lenalee had known of his secret, unless Levellier had seen him before, perhaps when he had saved Lenalee, or… or had he, with his knowledge of mermaid biology, seen Allen for what he was the moment he walked through the door? Had he heard rumours about Allen's muteness, about how it pained him to walk? It couldn't be; Cross had said those were side-effects of his potion, and not all of them known even to the maker. His gills? Had Lavi spoken about the mysterious cuts on Allen's neck? Or had the secretary just put two and two together upon hearing about Allen's mysterious appearance, washed up on a beach one morning? No family, and no known shipwrecks… it had been a little suspicious, hadn't it?

And if Levellier knew, what did that mean for Allen? To have been found out by a man who had killed mermaids, and possibly with his own hands; to have been discovered by a man who considered them to be little better than animals… His life was in danger! Even his corpse wouldn't retain a shred of dignity if it became a dissection specimen, or worse, displayed on a wall for everyone to see and marvel at.

He'd left the ocean to avoid a potential threat to his life, and now, in the course of two days, he'd stumbled into two more…

Excuse me, Allen managed to form, I must excuse myself. He tried to ignore how the sly smile widened, and the feelings that made his stomach churn at the sight.

"Very well." Levellier gave a faint shrug. "A pity you must leave so soon, Allen… It was a pleasure to meet you."

Likewise, Allen responded, throat tight, before he turned and abruptly strode out of the room. Even when the door shut behind him, he could feel that dark gaze on his back, peering beyond his humanoid appearance as the man smirked at the mermaid below.

He strode down the hall at a fast pace, not knowing where he was or where he was going as long as he was as far away as possible from the secretary and his office. More than once, Allen found himself at a dead end, or in a hallway he was sure he'd never seen before, yet his feet never stopped moving, and the determined, eerily calm expression on his face never wavered. Not a single person crossed his path, yet Allen would not have noticed anyway, just as he did not hear the hum of the heater for the baths nor the soft sound of footsteps on carpet or stone. The only thing on his mind was that he had to keep walking. He couldn't stop, not until he grew weary and could not take another step, and only then as long as he could feel safe.

Hours might have passed when he finally pulled open a pair of carved wooden doors that had caught his eye. The moment Allen stepped inside, he stumbled, only his hand on the doorframe keeping him upright. Grey eyes scanned the expansive interior, wandering over the shelves that covered every vertical surface he could see.

It was a library, different from the one he'd spent hours in less than a week ago, and yet strangely familiar, as if all libraries shared a similar comfortable atmosphere. Here, Allen realised, he could relax.

With all his strength, Allen trudged over to the nearest seat: a pale blue couch nestled in an alcove between three bookshelves. He collapsed onto it with a sigh, exhausted both from the physical strain of his speed-walking, and the emotional toll taken by his stress at recent events. Distanced from the office by time and location, the anger had subsided, and even the emptiness had become replaced by a powerful pain that tightened his chest and made tears prick at the corners of his eyes. He hadn't felt such a strong sadness in years, Allen realised, not since Mana's death. His abuse at the hands of the Earl, that stinging humiliation, didn't even come close to this.

So he pulled his knees up to his chest and cried, sobs echoing among the bookshelves of the empty library. His gloved hands dug into his legs, arms tightening around them, and his tears soaked the thick material of his pants; his nose ran, and his cheeks flushed red, but Allen could focus on nothing but the fear and deep, deep sorrow at what he'd just seen and experienced.

People, his people, had been coldly murdered by someone who didn't even see the worth in their lives. It was them for whom he cried, just as much as for himself, if not more. Those were lives that had been brutally snatched away before their time, and he could have been one of them. He still could become one of them.

He was alone, the only one of his kind, in an unfamiliar and dangerous world where he could be hunted like an animal just as those other mermaids had been.

And he wasn't at all sure how to protect himself.

Some time later, Allen became aware of the presence of another in the room with him, close to him. Raising his reddened eyes, he peered blearily through the remnants of tears at the other, a warm presence on the couch next to him.

Lenalee… He turned away again, throat tightening with embarrassment. How long had she been there? For all the attention he'd been paying to the world, she could have followed him here and been here all along-

"Not long," Lenalee answered in a soft, clipped tone. Allen could hear the lie, but said nothing; she was aware of it, too.

You saw…

She made a soft sound in the back of her throat and nodded.

I see…

"I'm sorry if you wanted to be alone," she murmured, eyes dropping to the ground even as she shifted a little closer to him, their shoulders touching.

Allen shook his head. It's all right. Right now, numb from the crying, he appreciated the warmth of her presence more than anything else. Like the library, it provided a sort of familiar comfort, an atmosphere in which he could relax and feel safe, and not think of anything at all.

Lenalee made that sound again and moved even closer, resting her head on his shoulder. At any other time, Allen might have reacted with a blush, or his heart might have begun to beat faster; now, he only returned the gesture, enjoying the feeling of her hair under his cheek.

"I'm sorry, Allen-kun," Lenalee said again. "That you had to see… that."

He shook his head slightly, fibres of hair moving beneath his skin.

"I should have…" She broke off, shaking her head as best as she could under the weight of his own. "I'm sorry."

Allen suddenly felt movement in her arm, and before he knew it, he could feel warmth radiating through his glove. He turned his hand over, careful not to disturb Lenalee too much, and took her hand in his; her fingers ran through his and locked them together as he did so. Like her presence, the warmth was comforting.

I was wrong, he breathed, to no one in particular. Lenalee certainly couldn't see him speak. Humans aren't all bad.

Lenalee's hand tightened around his. He briefly wondered if she had felt it, after all. Or perhaps she'd read his mind this time. The thought didn't bother him.

"We're human," Lenalee finally said softly.

And Allen understood. Humans and merpeople, no matter what Levellier might have said, were all people. They were imperfect creatures, mostly striving to be good and failing, but rarely giving up. There would always be bad seeds, just as there would be shining examples of goodness, but nothing was, on the whole, black or white. Not him, not Lavi, or Kanda, or Road, not even Lenalee.

He'd been a fool to think so highly of humans once. He'd done so from a lack of experience with them, and too much of it with the darker shades of the merfolk. Yet the other extreme view was equally wrong. Would anyone classify mermaids as purely good or evil? Even Levellier hadn't done that.

Lenalee was definitely a paler shade of grey, though. Perhaps it was only this way to him, but even so, Allen felt justified in believing this. So he returned the gesture, fingers tightening around hers, and let his thoughts and worries momentarily dissipate as he relaxed in the calm mood.

Allen didn't know how much time had passed before the sound of passing footsteps, probably from a librarian or curious castle inhabitant, finally caused them to stir. With more than a hint of regret, Allen lifted his head and faced Lenalee; she yawned once before giving him a warm smile. Together, they stood, hands still interlocked.

"I was thinking," Lenalee began as they made their way through the towering bookshelves towards the other side of the library. "Allen-kun, you mentioned an interest in human-made objects…"

The merboy nodded blankly.

"Well…" Lenalee gave a soft laugh, still looking straight forward. "If there's anything you'd like to see, or have… Just tell me, all right, Allen-kun? We have so many things in the palace, and I'm sure we could find anything that isn't immediately on hand… Is there anything in particular?"

Allen opened his mouth to refuse, but a sudden thought popped into his mind. He didn't want to take advantage of Lenalee's generosity, but this might be his only opportunity to find one, and as long as it wasn't too difficult to find… Perhaps there was even one in the palace!

Actually, there is something… He scratched the back of his head sheepishly with his free hand.

Lenalee's eyes widened excitedly. "There is? What is it?"

Something I once found on the ocean floor, in a shipwreck. If it's too hard to find, he added, then it's all right; I had one once, and so-

"You had one once?" Lenalee frowned. "If you don't mind me asking, what happened… to it?"

Destroyed. Allen shook his head. It's a long story. But it's not like I need to-

"It's all right, Allen-kun!" She squeezed his hand lightly. "Don't worry. Just tell me."

A piano. You know, the musical- He broke off at the sound of Lenalee's musical laughter.

"I know what it is!" Her amused smile – from his explanation, he knew, not the request itself – softened slightly. "A piano, then? I'm quite sure we have one in a music room somewhere, or perhaps two… It shouldn't be difficult to find at all," she reassured him. "I'll keep an eye open, and I'll ask the others, and the servants, to do the same."

No, no, there's no need to go that far! Allen protested, but Lenalee was unaffected.

"It's no trouble at all," she explained, beaming brightly at him. "If everyone just remembers to tell you, or me, when they see a piano here… I'd be happy to start a search, you know!"

It's all right, Allen responded feebly. He'd discovered Lenalee's stubborn side the day he'd arrived at the palace, and the last thing he wanted was an argument with her over this. Besides, if he was able to see a piano again, and play it, even this lost battle would be more than made up for. Thank you, Lenalee.

I think that as long as I'm with you, it'll all be okay.

And so the months passed, the season changing to summer. Through all kinds of weather, moods, and unpredictable adventures, things were indeed okay. That is, until one day in July, as the three-month mark of Allen's presence on land approached…


Authour's Notes: …It's been a while! I'm not dead, of course. Anyone reading my constant profile page updates would know. Wink wink, nudge nudge, subtle prod, etc.

The more astute readers may have noticed that this is not, in fact, the last chapter. I decided about a third of the way through the original chapter 4, now chapter 5, that I needed some more plot filler for character and world development. Hence this chapter and the relative lack of plot. Still, it actually changed some things I'd been planning for the better. So the next chapter will be the last, and then I'm considering an epilogue… so, uh… don't freak out in good or bad ways? Er. Moving on.

About this chapter… From the beginning! Actually, I don't have very much to say except about the third scene and Levellier. Levellier's spanking thing was meant to be reminiscent of any relative/adult who punishes kids as if they're the parent, and it's so annoying. Don't know if that's ever happened to any of you, and I hope not. At any rate, that's what I was trying to convey, and I hope I did that, but just in case it didn't come across… And no, he's not gay or anything, just majorly creepy. I don't want any misunderstandings here.

That scene was also originally supposed to be funny. Obviously, that all changed, but I kind of like how it turned out. Possibly one of my favourites after the Cross scene in chapter 2. I hope the rest was funny enough; chapter 5 will be rather serious and plot-heavy, and I know some authours have been unhappy with a lack of comedy lately, so I really worried about this.

Anyway, as always, please review with your criticism. Any spelling mistakes or errors I might've skipped over (I tried to proofread this, but… fifty-five pages in tiny font/almost twenty-seven thousand words; I wanted this out tonight!), any scenes you didn't like, or problems with my style, or out-of-character things (especially that!), or just anything you're unclear about or didn't like – please tell me! I love reading that sort of thing and I like replying to it, too. Of course, praise is also accepted… :3 Really, reviews are very inspiring. It's not like I, or other authours, write for them… but they do help, and they make us feel good, too. I love knowing that I've written a story that people are enjoying!

Hopefully, you won't have to wait nearly as long for chapter 5, much less any other update. And if you got this far, thank you for reading my long notes! And the fic, of course!

(Yes, that was a Victorian Starbucks.)