Disclaimer: I own nothing recognizable from Ashita no Nadja.

Post Mortem

There was only one thing that could have killed off Colette's will to live, and that was having her most dearly beloved snatched away from her. Count Waltmuller knew this well—he hadn't known Colette since childhood for nothing.

Count Waltmuller could still remember the day that he had met young Miss Preminger. He must have been seven or so; Colette had not been that much younger than he. They had been set to play together by their parents, who had hoped for an alliance between their houses. In their young days, they had played together. Both had been well-behaved children, and they had obediently sat in the room designated to them with their nannies, playing word games, puzzles, dolls, or whatever they felt like while their parents attended parties, charity events, and other social gatherings. As they had grown, both grew increasingly aware of their parents' expectations of them.

That was where their paths began to part, though Count Waltmuller didn't realize at the time.

As his parents encouraged him to see Colette in a romantic light, he found himself doing so. When he escorted Colette to her debut ball, he found himself entranced by her: by the roundness of her bosom, the smallness of her waist, the gentle swell of her hips implied beneath her dress...

He himself was shocked by these thoughts, and could not even find it in himself to ask his friend to dance for a time. He watched her, dancing with man after man as though there could be nothing more enjoyable in the world. She looked at each partner in turn as if he was the center of her world, and how he wished he could be one of them!

It was in his hesitation that he lost sight of Colette. He had seen her step out onto the balcony, but by the time he had worked up the nerve to follow her and ask for a dance, she was nowhere to be found. He was puzzled, but figured that she had simply taken a stroll. She would soon be back. He would be the first to ask her to dance when she returned.

Sure enough, Colette returned before long, but she was practically a different person. She accepted his invitation to dance, but didn't seem to even notice that it was him. Her eyes were glazed over and her face was flushed.

The next time he saw her, she was carrying around a music box like it was the greatest treasure in the world, and though she was never straightforward about it, he got the impression that she had fallen for someone at the ball.

Shortly after this, she received her first official marriage proposal. Having had the fortune to be there when it happened, he saw first-hand how she refused the offer without a care for the person's name or family. His own proposal plans would have to wait, he decided.

The years went by, and Colette talked first more and more, than less and less of this mystery man.

And then came the day that she stopped talking about him altogether, but the sparkle in her eye and color in her cheeks revealed that she had not simply gotten over the first man. He speculated that she had found another. She was clearly in love, but why the secrecy? Had she fallen for one of the suitors whom she had rejected, and was simply too embarrassed to say so? He had no way of knowing, and was too afraid to ask.

Mere months later, he learned from his mother that she had eloped—and with her piano teacher, of all people—and knew that there had never been a second man. It had been the first one all along. He let no one know of the pain this knowledge put him through, and bore it on his own. If anyone noticed the circles beneath his eyes and the way his clothing hung more loosely on him than usual that first month, no one mentioned it.

Then life took over. There were parties to attend, people to appease, money and estates to manage... When his father died and left him all the estates, property, and titles, he was not sorrowed so much by the loss of a parent—raised by a nanny, he had scarcely known the man—as he was by the grieving of his mother. Couples in love was quite rare in noble society, he realized anew as he watched his mother grieve. But then, he wondered, had she fallen in love with his father before or after they married?

Two years later, she returned. His gossiping mother delivered him the news, and at once he felt hope well up within him. He didn't even wait to hear why Colette had returned, because it didn't matter. She was back.

He went to the Preminger Manor the first chance he got—and was told that she was not well. No doubt common life had not agreed with her, he heard the maids gossiping, and figured that that must be the case. He spent the rest of the day in a daze, thinking only of his reunion with Colette.

The next day, he was told that she was not yet awake, but it was already the seventh hour, and Colette had always risen with the sun. It was on that day that he finally opened his ears to his mother's gossip and received a better picture of the truth.

Colette had eloped with her piano teacher when her father had refused to allow marriage between her and a mere common pianist. They had gone to downtown Paris, and there they had been found to be living in a rundown apartment downtown ("The nerve of him!" exclaimed his mother, "a daughter of the Premingers in an apartment! And they say she worked as a seamstress for some lowly commoners, can you believe that darling? Lowly commoners, who don't even have titles!" "Yes, of course, Mother," he sighed). There the Duke Preminger had found his daughter, and convinced her to come back—and she had done so quite obediently.

Count Waltmuller felt some small amount of hope grow in his heart. Maybe, if she had tired of the pianist, or he had mistreated her...

But he quickly reprehended himself for such thoughts. Colette would not give away her heart so lightly; nor would she choose a man who would treat her in any manner that was less than what she deserved. Yet he could not help hoping that her husband had finally sent her back home—for her own good, of course.

He visited the Preminger Manor again the next day, and was told that she was out.

It was a full month of daily visits before he saw Colette. He grew increasingly worried, and when he was told that she would see him that day, he could not help the speeding up of his heart.

But the Colette that met his eyes was not the one that he had known and come to expect.

His heart dropped into his stomach at the sight of her. Her eyes were dull and did not hold the slightest light at all; her hair seemed dry and dead; her face was pale and bloodless; her back was straight only by sheer will and practice, and she looked like she just wanted to droop over and wilt.

She smiled and exchanged pleasantries with him like a dead woman.

He could not think what to speak of.

"I...I'm sorry," he said, though he didn't really know what he was sorry for. "You seem to have been through a rough time."

Colette looked up at him, and something seemed to snap inside her. "Did they tell you that they died?" Her voice was soft in the worst way. "Or are they trying to hide that? Are they telling you that Raymond and I were properly married? That we lived well, and that we were happy? Did they tell you that we lived a fairy tale until Raymond was killed in a train crash? Did they tell you that the only reason our daughter died was because I was too ignorant and weak to care for alone, without Raymond beside me?"

Colette stopped, swayed, and almost fell to the floor; the Count stepped forward to catch her without missing a beat. "I'm sorry, Colette," he whispered, though he knew she was dead to the world as the two maids rushed over to her to take their mistress from his arms, murmuring frantic apologies that the Count did not hear. The words of apology that he had uttered were entirely inadequate to describe how he felt just then. He wished that he had been more understanding—that he had not wished the things he had wished.

The Count left for the day, and returned the next; but again Colette had fallen ill and taken to bed.

It was a week before he saw her again, and this time he was careful to avoid the subject of her lost life. Instead, he spoke of their friends, the economy, politics, the latest music, the most popular estates...

Colette sat in silence and listened, and he left after a full hour of talking. That night, he berated himself for speaking far too much. But the next day, Colette received him upon his visit to the Preminger Manor. So the days went by, and he spoke steadily to Colette—of the world, of the trivial little things that he had seen, felt, thought, and liked in his everyday life...

And in turn, to his surprise, Colette began to regain the color in her face and the sparkle in her eyes. Her smile grew more sincere, and by the time a year had passed, she was almost her old self. Count Waltmuller, too, felt far more confident in her presence than he ever had, and he proposed to her on her daughter's second birthday.

Colette accepted. Count Waltmuller didn't think he would ever be happier, and he swore to love and protect her till death parted them and she found her way back to they who held her heart.