Disclaimer: I own nothing recognizable from Ashita no Nadja.

In Times of Solitude

It had been a full four months since Nadja had last seen Keith. She hadn't really noticed the first month—after all, they were travelers. What was the chance that they would meet so very frequently?

But as the days creeped by, turning into weeks and stretching into months, Nadja grew increasingly aware that Keith had not been absent from her life since...well, since the interval between France and Venice, but even that could not have been more than two months.

It was half way through the fourth month that she became aware that she hadn't seen Francis in all that time either, and she began to wonder if something wasn't wrong. The wait of half a month until they were next in England killed her; but Granny insisted on going directly to the Harcourt Manor (she claimed she had some hats to deliver to Miss Emma), so Nadja was spared the need to sneak away.

Nadja would have been out of the car before it had even stopped, except that Granny asked—and everyone in Troupe Dandelion knew that that translated to "commanded" coming form Granny—that she help her carry the boxes of hats up to the manor.

Nadja, being the gentle-hearted creature that she was, could not refuse, of course. She dutifully carried the things up to the Manor, sat silently by as Miss Emma and Granny chatted up a storm, bearing Miss Emma's glances that were thrown her way every few minutes.

Then the door flew open. "Nadja!"

She looked around, and felt her heart lift a little. "Francis!" She leapt off the couch and rushed over to hug Francis, who returned her hug with no less enthusiasm.

"Francis!" gasped Miss Emma, standing so suddenly that a hat fell from her lap to the floor. Granny was unusually calm as she reached under the coffee table to retrieve the object and dust it off. Nadja would have been appalled at the treatment of the hat if she hadn't been so busy fending off a glare from Miss Emma. Nervously, she attempted to distance herself from Francis, but he tightened his arm around her shoulders. A glance up at him showed her that he was glaring back at his aunt with as much ferocity as he had glared at Keith on that day when they had started a fist fight.

"Why, Aunt? I thought you were going to accept Nadja if she was really the granddaughter of Duke Preminger?" Nadja gulped.

"But she relinquished the position as the Preminger heir!" argued Miss Emma. "She is not officially recognized as a Preminger, of her own will. What reason should she have to cling to you instead? She hasn't even been to see you in months, Francis, dear. Doesn't that show you? She's nothing more than a common-"

"A common what, Aunt?" Francis's voice contained razor-sharp iron.

Miss Emma snapped her mouth shut.

Nadja was beginning to grow nervous. Keith had said that he would be returning to his family to help them escape bankrupcy; but to listen to their conversation, it was as though nothing had changed at all.

"Francis," she muttered under her breath, trying not to attract the attention of Granny and Miss Emma. "Where is-"

A tightening of his hand on her shoulder stopped her. He withdrew his embrace, and stood with a hand still on her shoulder. "Aunt, Miss Petrova—you will have to excuse us for a time." And with a quick bow, he swept her out of the room before either woman could object, though Granny didn't look like she wanted to at all.

"Francis," Nadja started again once they had put a good amount of disntance between themselves and the room. "Where is Keith?"

Francis sighed. "I'm sorry, Nadja—I knew you'd come to ask eventually, but Keith told me not to tell you."

"You- you won't?" Nadja even thought that she sounded feeble to her own ears.

Francis graced her with a grin. "Of course I will. I'm only explaining why I waited to say anything until now." Nadja waited expectantly. "Keith is in hiding."

She blinked. "What? Where? Why?"

"He's in hiding," Francis repeated, smiling, "in some unknown location because it would appear highly suspicious if he reappeared immediately after the Black Rose disappeared."

Nadja's mind processed this for a minute or so, and left her feeling rather silly in its wake. Why hadn't it occurred to her? Of course. But... "When will he be back?"

She had no way of knowing that it was this one question, asked quietly and containing just so much sorrow, that turned Francis' vague suspicion to confirmation: Nadja loved Keith, far more than she ever would Francis.

He gave an internal sigh, and wondered how to reply; just then a maid walked into the room. The maid began dusting the vases along the wall, but it did not escape Francis that she was watching them out of the corner of her eyes. No doubt his aunt wanted them chaperoned.

He turned back to Nadja with a disarming smile. "You're welcome here whenever you want to come, Nadja—anytime at all. I'm not going anywhere for half a year or so at the most"-he pierced her with his eyes as he emphasized the phrase, hoping it would get across to her-"though I'm afraid I have to be going at the moment. I have an important meeting. I'd love to spend more time with you, but..."

"I'll visit whenever I can for the next half year, then?" Nadja suggested with a smile, but there was something dead in her eyes whose brightness Francis had never truly appreciated until it went out. He wished he could help her, but he knew—that was something only Keith could do.

He needed to go have that meeting with the banker, because the least he could do was try to bring his family's economic status a bit back up to par before his brother got back.

"Alright," Nadja sighed. Francis felt a little surge of delight despite himself to see that his own departure saddened her as well.

"See you." He gave her shoulders a little one-armed squeeze.

Nadja returned to Granny, scarcely noticing the suspicious looks from Miss Emma. By the time they left, Nadja was completely oblivious to the the world.

Over the next few months, Nadja met Francis twice. Neither encounter lasted very long, almost as though he were avoiding her. Or maybe she was avoiding him. She couldn't really tell anymore.

She stumbled more and more often, until the Leader finally had to take her out of the acts indefinitely. But Nadja could only think of Keith.

It wasn't like him, to remain so quiet and silent for so long. He was a man of action, who could not go a day without doing something outrageously active that inevitably caught the attention of at least a small number of people.

To think of the places he could be; the things that could have happened to him... It ripped her to pieces inside, and she could not pull herself back together no matter how she tried.

By the time seven months had gone past, everything was blurring together. She was back onstage, but even she knew that her dance lacked the emotion it ought to have. She could not bring it back no matter how she tried. The seven months may as well have been seven days, for all that she knew anymore. She couldn't even explain why it bothered her to the point where it completely consumed her simply because of Keith's absence.

If someone had told Nadja that what she was feeling was simple loneliness, it would have struck a chord somewhere deep inside her. But that chord was buried so deep beneath her loneliness that it wouldn't really have mattered anyway.