Chiffon Kisses and Porcelain Smiles
~ SIX ~
There was a soft knock at the door. Lettuce turned from the mirror at the vanity as Ichigo poked her head in.
"Hello," she greeted softly with a nervous little smile. Ichigo advanced, shutting the door over gently.
"Do try not to fret," she advised, crossing straight to the closet. Lettuce's personal lady's maid had earlier unpacked her trunk and put away all her things, while Lettuce herself had pretended not to hover anxiously, biting back each insistence that she handle the job herself. In spite of her acting role, she simply couldn't bring herself to sit back while someone else – someone she was absolutely no better than – did the hard work for her. Why, it mortified her.
She was acutely conscious, however, that she could not – ever – complete her lady's maid's chores herself. Nor could she give her lady's maid any reason to suspect her for what she truly was. So she was resigned to the awful awkwardness she would have to face each time the servant-girl entered the room.
She felt awfully guilty.
"Enough of that," Ichigo's voice said presently, dragging her out of her thoughts. There was a shrewd expression on her face. "Darling, your worrisome eyes shall give our game away."
"Hush!" Lettuce gasped, aforementioned eyes glancing worriedly at the still-ajar door. "Why, if anybody should overhear…"
"Then we shall talk no more of it," Ichigo said firmly. "And you shall keep in your mind the purpose for which you have come along. Please, Lime–" She emphasised the name with firm distinction "–I have complete faith that you can do this. You simply need to trust yourself. Okay?"
Lettuce nodded bashfully. Ichigo smiled brightly. "Good. Now, come and select a dress."
The pavilion was a vast room of white weatherboards and crystal windows, connected to the main house by a tunnel of wrought-iron archways entwined with ivy and forget-me-nots, and lit by a single, magnificent diamond chandelier. Ladies in glorious gowns swept in fluid circles with their dashing chaperones, the jewels at their throats glinting in the light.
In the corner with Ichigo, Lettuce felt at once as beautiful as a precious gem and horribly underdressed in her blooming mauve silk strapless gown. Its bodice was sewn tightly to her slender waist and sprinkled with tiny diamonds that twinkled whenever she moved. A string of pearls was clasped around her neck – loaned to her from Ichigo – but her ears, having never been pierced, were bare. Several wisps of silky green, come astray from the stylishly loose pile atop her head, toyed with her pale shoulders.
"Stand a little straighter," Ichigo whispered, taking a sip of bubbly champagne. "You look simply stunning, and you must at least pretend to know it."
Lettuce obediently pulled her shoulders back, her eyes fixed on the dancing. How perfectly charming they all were, and so elegant. Lettuce, of course, had never been to a dance in her life, and had never been taught the graceful ways of the waltz. She watched enviously as the young men twirled their partners effortlessly, like swans circuiting a peaceful lake.
Ichigo giggled suddenly into one gloved hand. Startled, Lettuce turned inquisitive blue eyes to her friend. "Whatever is the matter?"
Ichigo gave her a mischievous look. "The Baron is looking your way."
She flicked her brown eyes away, shifting her gaze subtly so Lettuce could look across the room. Baron Kagakusha was standing prim and tall in a chocolate waistcoat, the collar of his white shirt stiff at his neck. From the pocket of his vest hung a golden chain, the pocket-watch attached tucked away from sight. The moment she looked over tentatively, his steely gaze shifted. Heat flushed her cheeks; she shifted her weight nervously.
"Good heavens, darling," Ichigo murmured, delighted. "Do stand still or you might attract attention to yourself."
"But Miss Ichigo–" Ichigo cleared her throat sharply. "Ichigo," Lettuce amended quickly. She glanced fleetingly at the Baron once more, but he was now conversing with somebody she didn't recognise. "However should I face him after–"
"Darling, but it's rather obvious," Ichigo replied, taking another sip of her champagne. Her cheeks were rosy, her smile broad. Her eyes twinkled merrily. She gave a small hiccup. "Why, you must hold his interest!"
"Hush!" Lettuce begged, hoping nobody was listening to this embarrassing conversation. "That would be most inappropriate indeed!"
"Oh, piddle!" Ichigo replied scornfully, waving one gloved hand dismissively. "We are here to have fun, Le-ime! And fun is what we will have. Now, what you must do is– Oh, bother it!" Lettuce blinked, startled, and turned to see what had interrupted Ichigo. Emerging from the ring of dancers was the tall figure of a blonde man, and on his arm, in a breathtaking arrangement of red silk, was Mint.
As if on cue, Mint caught sight of the pair of them and promptly steered her companion over.
"Why, if it isn't my darling friends," she greeted with a great air of pleasant surprise that Lettuce saw straight through. She shifted uncomfortably, her stomach twisting with nerves. "I trust you are enjoying the party?"
"Rather," Ichigo said loudly, and Mint reluctantly tore her serpent-eyes from Lettuce. Letting out a breath she hadn't realised she'd been holding, Lettuce glanced at her brave friend to discover, with astonishment, a glower upon her pretty face. She turned her eyes now to the man Ichigo was levelling the glare at–
–and for the second time in the space of a few moments, felt her breath taken rather forcibly from her lips.
He was without a doubt the most handsome man she'd ever laid eyes upon. Eyes of deep azure beneath steady, refined brows. Locks of golden-blonde that shone under the chandelier, emanating a soft golden glow that reminded her of an angelic halo. A strong jaw and perfect lips, set in a firm line. Beneath his dashing tuxedo, his shoulders were broad, his figure built yet slender.
Voices babbled in a fuzzy, vague hum in the background of her consciousness, but Lettuce found she was so taken by the stranger that she simply couldn't hear anything clearly.
"I have it on good authority," Mint was saying to an irritated Ichigo, "that you've already met the Duke on more than one occasion."
"D-duke–?" Ichigo blurted, taken aback. She stared, wide-eyed, at the blonde man, who, for some reason, was refusing to look at her with admirable determination.
"Why, Ichigo," Mint gasped with a slow smile of deep satisfaction, "You mean you didn't know? The Duke of Gateshead is a most revered individual of the highest esteem, aren't you, Mr. Shirogane?"
She smiled enchantingly up at him from beneath thick black lashes. He glanced at her, and the smallest of smiles tugged at the corner of his otherwise perpetually-frowning lips.
"I should hardly say so myself."
"Oh, but you are modest!" Mint trilled. She turned to Ichigo with a huge, fake smile, and beneath it the redhead glimpsed the winning smile of victorious triumph. "Don't you agree, Ichigo?"
"Yes," Ichigo said, altogether too bluntly. She cleared her throat when Mint's smile sharply faltered. "Rather too modest, if I may be so bold."
When the Duke glanced at her, it was her turn to avoid his eyes. How could she dare to show him such open disregard, now that she knew of his nobility? She flushed hotly with humiliation. Why, he'd played her for a fool all this time!
"But why are you all alone?" Mint asked faux-sympathetically. "You should be dancing!"
"A question I was about to pose to Miss Ichigo myself." A voice abruptly joined their conversation and Ichigo, already smiling radiantly, looked around Mint with childish enthusiasm. Masaya Aoyama, looking handsome in his charcoal-grey suit, smiled back, eyes only for her. He reluctantly tore his gentle gaze away to kiss the hands of Mint and Lettuce, nodding respectfully to the Duke, who nodded rather curtly in return.
"Mr. Aoyama," Mint greeted. "What a pleasant surprise."
She shot a quick, accusing glance at Ichigo, clearly surprised, but Masaya continued speaking. "If you don't mind my whisking her away, I believe it's time Miss Ichigo joined the dancing." He held out one olive-skinned hand, his eyes earnest and unabashed. "Shall we?"
Still beaming radiantly, Ichigo all but threw her hand into his, and had started to be led away when she abruptly remembered Lettuce. "Oh!" Masaya obediently stopped. Ichigo turned back, her big brown eyes full of apologies. Lettuce, whose heart had begun hammering in alarm, smiled weakly.
"Will you be quite all right for a moment, Lime, darling?" Ichigo asked. Lettuce could hear her reluctance, and felt a stab of guilt in her stomach for being such a burden to her.
"Why, Ichigo," Mint interrupted with a little laugh. Her eyes glittered in a most disconcerting fashion. "You doubt your dear friend so? You need not fuss over Lime. Enjoy your dance."
A moment later, Ichigo had disappeared into the circle. Mint turned those glittering snake-eyes back to Lettuce, the tiniest of sneers curling her upper lip. Lettuce felt like cowering, but merely straightened her shoulders and tilted her chin up, as Ichigo had instructed.
"Darling," Mint cooed, and Lettuce felt sure she had never been more terrified of her mistress. "I hate to see you standing all alone. You, too, should dance."
"Oh," Lettuce gasped quickly, blushing furiously. "But M-Mint, d-dear, you know I have little talent for this p-particular style of d-dance." She shifted nervously again. Mint relished in her discomfort. If the little wretch thought she could mosey her way among their elite society without the slightest of hurdles, well, she had another thing coming. Mint was going to play along with Ichigo's little charade in order to protect her name, but she was going to make this as difficult for Lettuce as possible.
She was smiling viciously when the Duke spoke unexpectedly from beside her. "I could teach you, if you wish to learn."
She looked up at him in alarm. He couldn't be serious. Mr. Shirogane glanced impassively at Lettuce, then down at Mint, and gave a little, dismissive shrug.
"Oh," Lettuce murmured, giving the Duke a doe-eyed star-struck look. "I-I couldn't." Mint felt like scoffing. Her little goody-two-shoes act might have everybody else fooled, but if she was the only one who could see the lies and deceit, so be it. Lettuce had her own conscience to live with. She smirked in satisfaction. The Duke was on her arm, and she intended to keep it that way.
"Nonsense," Ryou said shortly, and to her horror, he released his arm from hers. "You certainly won't ever learn by simply watching."
He couldn't explain why he felt the sudden desire to see this miserably shy maiden dancing successfully among the rest. Perhaps it was her vulnerability – the weakness in her soft blue eyes – or the timidness in her uncertain little smile, a modesty that was attempted so often by other young ladies, always in vain, yet so natural in her. Or perhaps it was Mint's obvious victimisation of her. It really didn't matter, for Ryou Shirogane wished to teach her how to dance, and he was rarely denied something he wanted.
And so the painfully awkward girl laid trembling fingers against his arm and he led her confidently into the circle.
"There you are."
Mint pushed her way irritably past a small cluster of socialites, huffing and puffing her way to where Kish lazed casually by one large, arched window. His golden eyes were fixed on the dancing circle, an expression in them that she realised, with unpleasant surprise, she didn't recognise. A small frown was playing about his slender lips.
"Hello, darling," he said without looking at her.
"And whatever has you so sour?" Mint demanded, snatching a flute of champagne from a passing waiter and tossing it against her lips. Kish didn't reply. He knocked back half a flute of champagne and promptly reached for another.
"Good heavens!" Mint commented, one eyebrow kicking. "You are quite upset about something."
"I don't intend to insult you," Kish's warm-honey voice replied sullenly, "But I really rather desire solitude this evening."
Mint's mouth dropped open. "I beg your pardon!"
He glanced at her, and she registered an expression of forlorn in his eyes. "Do forgive my impudence, Mint. I would simply prefer to be alone to-night."
"Well, aren't you a miserable sod!" she snorted. "Very well. I'll leave you to it, then. But before I depart, be so kind as to at least explain the means for such a despondent request."
Kish was quiet for a moment, that strange expression flashing in the depths of his eyes again. Abruptly, he turned to her and said, with surprising irritation, "I am a desirable suitor, am I not?"
Mint blinked, astonished at this odd remark. "Yes, darling, of course you are." A tiny smirk played with her small mouth. "I would have thought the many deflowered ladies of Manhattan should be proof enough for you."
A scowl twisted Kish's lips. He muttered something to himself, then said to her, "And would you entrust yourself to me?"
Mint laughed airily. "Darling, with eyes like yours a girl must keep her wits about her."
"Would you?" he pressed.
"Heavens, no! Kish, darling, I would be willing to bet one of my father's estates that you might go to bed with me at night and wake the following morning in the arms of another!" She laughed jovially again, failing to register the dark expression burning in her companion's eyes. "But, darling, whatever is this about?"
"Pay it no mind," he snapped, then pushed away from the wall and stalked into the crowd, leaving Mint, unpleasantly baffled, in his wake.
"See? It really rather isn't so difficult, once you get the hang of it."
Lettuce was far more interested in the warm hand at her back, and the fingers curled around her own, to really pay close attention to what he was saying. She stumbled every so often, but had surprised herself in managing to follow his lead without making a complete fool of herself. The moment the dancing became progressive, however, she would flee. She didn't think she was brave enough to try and dance with somebody else.
Presently, she glanced up at him, blushing at how close together their bodies were. He was gazing across the circle at something, and when she instinctively following his line of sight she realised it was Ichigo and Masaya, talking and laughing easily as they danced. Ichigo misstepped and stumbled; he steadied her easily in his arms. They practically radiated glowing happiness.
Lettuce bit her lip, wishing she was more confident, like Ichigo, to talk to the beautiful man she was dancing with. As it was, his presence seemed to render her speechless. Whenever she worked up the courage to open her mouth she would find her tongue frozen awkwardly, or the words she had structured so carefully in her mind would dissipate and scatter in her brain. She could only gaze up at him in stunned awe and meek adoration of him.
The Duke glanced at her suddenly and she blushed, quickly looking down. Who was she, anyway, to be so bold as to speak to someone as noble as him?
"Why, Ryou, I do believe you've managed to frighten the poor girl into silence!"
They stopped dancing, and Lettuce looked up into the smiling face of kind Keiichiro Akasaka. Unexplainable relief washed over her, and she found a small smile ghosting her lips. His gentle brown eyes sparkled at her; he winked playfully.
"And where is the lovely bride-to-be?" Ryou asked, carefully impassionate. His polite curiosity was measured.
"Attending to some guests," Keiichiro replied. "I'm afraid one of the ladies seems to have had a little too much champagne. She knocked one of the plants in the hall and the vase broke."
"How unfortunate," Ryou replied, sounding quite uninterested.
"I hope you are enjoying the evening," Keiichiro said, smiling. Ryou gave a sort of half-shrug. Keiichiro turned his gaze to Lettuce. "May I be so impertinent as to cut in? You aren't offended are you, Ryou, my good man?"
"I should say not," the Duke replied, inclining his head. He nodded politely to Lettuce, who experienced a measured dismay as he disappeared into the dancing. Looking up into Keiichiro's gentle face, she felt immediately ashamed of herself for being so ungrateful. Her tall companion took up her arm, sliding his other around her waist, and he led her into the waltz.
"I must admit I'm rather comforted to see you so recovered," Keiichiro commented, his soft brown eyes fixed upon her face. For what felt like the millionth time that evening, Lettuce blushed.
"I do hope I was not a cause for concern," she murmured shyly. "I'm ever so sorry for being such a burden."
"Good lord, my dear, you were no burden," Keiichiro reassured her, gliding her gracefully backwards. "It was no trouble, I assure you. I'm glad you were well enough to attend this evening." His eyes were warm and compassionate as he looked into hers. "It would be such a shame for such a lovely maiden like yourself to miss such an event."
"I-I, uh…" Lettuce stammered into an embarrassed silence, looking anywhere but up at him. The more she was complimented, the worse she felt about lying to them all. Especially the ones like Mr. Akasaka, who were unconditionally charitable toward her.
Keiichiro gave a soft chuckle. "Pardon my boldness, but I believe this society benefits most richly in the glow of such a personality as yours."
"I... I'm quite sure I don't understand what you mean, Mr. Akasaka," Lettuce murmured humbly, blush deepening. "You flatter me too much."
He laughed lightly. "You are delightful, Miss Lime."
She couldn't help but smile up at him, and was reassured by the kind smile he returned.
Again, the waltzing came to an abrupt halt. Lettuce and Keiichiro whirled to find – to Lettuce's amazement – the Baron standing stoically behind them, his hands clasped behind his back, his chin high and proud. He seemed to square his shoulders, barely glancing at Lettuce as he said, with utmost politeness and dignity, "May I cut in?"
Immediately, Keiichiro inclined his head in a respectful bow, and turned to give Lettuce one last gentle smile. "It has been a pleasure." With a twinkle in his eye, he backed away. For a long moment, in which her stomach knotted rather painfully with nerves, Lettuce watched him leave. Eventually, she acknowledged that her inattentiveness to her new companion was becoming quite rude, and she forced herself to turn her head. The Baron was still standing, perfectly poised, his steely eyes expressionless.
Without a word, he unclasped one hand from behind his back, offering it to her. She hesitated, then slipped her trembling hand into his. As much as she would have preferred to escape to safety, she knew she simply couldn't refuse. It wasn't done. His other arm found the small of her back, strong and steady, and they began a waltz that was stiff and meticulously proper. Lettuce stared numbly at the buttons of his waistcoat as they turned in circles, the room around them blurring into a swirl of hazy colour, aware of only his hand against her back and the violent pounding of her heart in her chest.
She said nothing and he offered no conversation, so they twirled in a silence she might have thought companionable if she wasn't feeling so awkward. Surely she should apologise to him for that awful insult on the train. Now was a most suitable time, while she was publically alone with him, and nobody was around to witness her humiliation.
"I…" She trailed off abruptly when he turned his gaze to her. Under the inscrutable expression in his eyes, Lettuce faltered, flushing redder than ever. She flicked her uncertain glance up again, but his gaze remained fixed. Biting her lip, she stared down at his shiny black shoes.
"What is it you are trying to say?" His voice was cool and calm – the waters of a peaceful lake.
Lettuce took a deep breath, and realised she had subconsciously huddled down. She straightened her shoulders reflexively, and the vaguest hint of amusement played in his eyes. Again she took a breath, but stared at him a full second before exhaling in dismay, unable to speak, heat radiating from her face.
"Oh, I'm sorry!" she blurted.
"Whatever for?" he murmured, blinking once, presumably in surprise.
"For… for…" she trailed off, trying to drag the words together in her head. It all came out in one gush. "For not being able to find the words to apologise to you, and for finding it necessary to apologise to you in the first place – oh, for everything! My impertinence was unforgivable and inappropriate. I… I should never have been so insensitively insulting." She broke off abruptly, sucking in a sharp breath, astonished at her own baldness.
He was silent, watching her face intently. She flushed hotly, shifting uncomfortably as she waited for him to say something. It was then, as her fingers twisted together nervously and her heart hammered wildly in her chest, that she realised they had, at some point, stopped dancing; they were simply standing, looking at each other. She couldn't meet his eyes. Her hair was slowly coming loose; several wayward strands of green had strayed into her face and down her back.
Wordless, the Baron reached slowly up, and carefully, with gentle, steady fingers, brushed a few strands back from her cheek, tucking them with delicate precision behind her ear.
Lettuce's breath caught in her throat.
She stared up at him, shock locking her gaze with his, unreadable and intense as ever. For the first time, she wished she could read his expression; know what he was thinking. The fingers that had toyed with her hair lingered now at her chin. In a room full of gossiping socialites, the Baron was standing daringly close to her. But the room had long ceased to exist to Lettuce.
He spoke then, his voice a low, smooth murmur, his eyes unmoving from hers. "You could never offend me."
And Lettuce was overwhelmed with such a force of emotion that her head spun dizzyingly with elation, her knees went weak with relief, and she very nearly toppled in his arms.
"Oh, do excuse me," Ichigo laughed breathlessly. She smiled brilliantly up at Masaya, who was steering her obediently away from the dancing. "I'm afraid I'm rather in need of refreshment."
"Shall I get you some champagne?" he asked immediately. "Or some punch?"
"Oh, no," Ichigo replied, still smiling. "I wouldn't want to bother you with such trivialities! Oh!" She stumbled on her hem and he steadied her elbow. Ichigo giggled and turned adoring eyes to him. "I must thank you. I would fall on my face if you were not here to catch me." She laughed merrily and he smiled down at her.
"I must confess I'm rather glad it is I who may catch you, Miss Ichigo." His expression turned bashful for a moment, as though humbled by his audacity; he gave a nervous laugh, blushing just the faintest beneath his smooth, tanned complexion. "I admit, I wouldn't very much like to see you fall. I suppose I must always be around to catch you then, mustn't I?"
It was Ichigo's turn to blush. Inside, a little voice in her heart squealed excitedly.
"I'll just get that punch, shall I?" she tittered airily, eyes sparkling. "One for you, Mr. Aoyama?"
"That would be lovely."
She did a funny little half-curtsey in her mindless excitement and practically danced away to the punch bowl. She was grinning hugely, ladling fruity red juice into two frosted glasses when a voice spoke from beside her, startling her so that she splashed punch on the tablecloth, "My, aren't we in a charitable mood this evening?"
She bristled all the way down her spine. "Why do you insist on engaging me in conversation, Mr. Ranzatsu, when I must have made it rather abundantly clear that I have no desire to seek your company?"
The teasing smile upon his lips faded just a little. The light in his eyes brightened. "Why, my darling kitten, you are just so very fascinating."
Ichigo finally lost what very little patience she still harboured for him. "And what, may I enquire, is so very fascinating about me?"
He hesitated for a moment; she watched mercilessly as he floundered and quickly recovered. "But you are such a spirited young lady. Your company is quite riveting."
"I see," Ichigo said, intensely detesting the way his smouldering eyes made her stomach feel funny. She swallowed, picking up the two crystal glasses so as not to be distracted into conversing with him for too long. "I have a few questions for you, Mr. Ranzatsu."
"Anything you ask," he replied with a slow smile.
"If I were to join you for lunch, what would you order for me?"
"I'm not sure I understand–"
"And if you were to surprise me with a gift of, say, a new bonnet," Ichigo went on, "what colour would you select for the sash?"
"These questions are rather–"
"And if you were to buy me a bouquet of flowers, would you choose tulips or peonies?"
"I'm afraid I rather am at a loss as to what you're talking about," Kish said, looking at her as though he suspected she might have lost her mind.
"What I am talking about, Mr. Ranzatsu," Ichigo said firmly, "is the very simple fact that you know so painfully little about me. I rather think you know nothing at all. Why, you proved just now that you couldn't answer three very simple questions about me."
Kish paled. "Forgive my audacity, but that was hardly a fair trial."
"There will be no trials!" Ichigo snapped. "For I do not seek your interest! Across the room is a man who knows to order strawberry cheesecake at tea, a pink sash for my bonnet, and peonies for my mantel. I seek only his attention, so please, if you look to please me, leave me alone!"
Seething up at him, Ichigo stormed away, the contents of the glasses splashing most unceremoniously in her hands.
At precisely a quarter-past midnight, the cheerfully-chattering guests began to leave the white-glass pavilion and drift back toward the house. The party was over, though – judging by the numerous drunken giggles – the celebrations looked set to continue in private quarters. Ladies' heels clip-clopped messily against the curved brick path.
Mint trailed her slender, gloved fingers along one of the iron arches, the cool night air whispering about her bare shoulders. Up ahead, she glimpsed Ichigo strolling arm-in-arm with Lettuce, the two of them talking and laughing merrily. A scowl flickered in her dark eyes and she felt, for the briefest of moments, a rare pang of jealousy. Ichigo was, after all, supposed to be her friend and her guest, even if she was intensely irritating at times. If that abominable servant-girl wasn't here, it might have been Mint Ichigo linked arms with. That was how it should have been, at any rate.
Mint glared at the green-haired girl's back, curling her fingers into the intricate iron pattern of the arch. She wasn't yet ready to admit to herself that she missed her Virginian friend's cheerful company, but she could confess that her maid had become something of a wedge driven between them. If it weren't for Ichigo's unfathomable pity for the lesser-off and Lettuce's offensive charade, their friendship might not be so in tatters.
Mint ripped her eyes from the duo and turned to gaze over the dark grounds as a violent pulse of anger surged in her chest. She listened to the breeze in the trees and the laughing voices fading into the night, taking slow, calming breaths and trying to regain her composure. When the last lingering fizzle of irritation was simmering unthreateningly in the pit of her stomach, Mint sighed.
An owl hooted inoffensively, its wistful, gloomy call reminding her of the late hour. She started up the path again, now vacant and almost mysterious in the shadows, making her way slowly back to the house. As she stepped up onto the back porch, resolution settled inside her. There might not be anything she could do right now about Ichigo and Lettuce, but it certainly wasn't the only predicament in which she was helpless. After all, she still had another friend, one who had been acting most obscurely of late, and, if she admitted it to herself, was beginning to worry her – another emotion she was quite unused to.
And so she abruptly changed direction in the hall and set off for a new destination.
There was only reigning silence as answer when she rapped sharply but quietly against Kish's door. She carefully turned the brass knob and noiselessly pushed it open ajar. The room beyond was pitch-black; the faint light from the hall cast a long, pale line against the carpet, illuminating a dark figure lounging in the window-seat.
Mint entered, shutting the door over behind her, and crossed the room to where he sat, staring silently out over the shadow-kissed gardens.
"Whatever has gotten into you?" Mint snapped, her usual brusqueness quite unintended this time. She made a conscious effort to slacken her shoulders and soften her tone a little. "Please tell me you've not been sitting here since you left my side at the party."
Kish was, for once, uncharacteristically unresponsive. She stood, watching his chest rise and fall, his face half obscured by shadow, half lit up ice-blue in the moonlight. Finally, when the silence stretched on and it became clear he wasn't about to speak, Mint sighed through her nose and sank down delicately on the window-seat by his feet. "Give me the glass."
He did so, but not before he'd thrown back the last of its amber contents. Mint sniffed the last few droplets, wrinkling her nose at the overpowering odour that assailed her nostrils and made her head spin for a moment. She frowned heavily at the glass, and then at him, putting it on the dresser.
"Why are you drinking yourself blind, and all alone?" Mint demanded. "Why, Kish, that really is rather pitiful."
"Save your pity," he grumbled.
Mint blinked at him, quite unused to this depressing behaviour. "Darling, whatever is the matter?"
"I am tired, Mint," Kish replied shortly. "Please leave me alone."
"You don't honestly think to turn me out, after I walked all the way here," Mint returned scornfully. "Though I suppose it really is rather scandalous my being here at such a time." She gazed contemplatively around at the dark furniture, wondering whether it would be worth the few days' damage to her reputation to have such an exciting article written in to-morrow's papers.
"And besides," she added as an after-thought, "If you were tired you would already be asleep."
Kish ignored this last comment. "And what exactly are you doing in my room past mid-night, Miss Mint?"
She glanced at him, but he was still gazing, unsmiling, out the window. The faintest of blushes dusted her cheeks warmly as she realised she was going to have to swallow her pride – something she only did on the most extreme of situations. She pursed her lips, then reasoned that she supposed this did rather count as one of those situations. "Well," she began, "if I were to be entirely honest with you, I suppose it might have something to do with your rather alarming behaviour to-night."
"And are you going to be entirely honest?"
Kish gave a short, humourless laugh through his nose. "I doubt I'll live to see the day you show compassion for another human being, Miss Aizawa."
For some unexplainable reason, this burned with more force than Mint expected. She drew herself up straighter, finding herself rather offended, and heat rushed to her cheeks. Quick, hot anger flashed in her eyes. "I beg your pardon?"
Of course she'd always known what she was like – self-centred and quite superficial at times – but it was one thing to quietly accept her own flaws (which she would readily admit had never really seemed such a problem), and quite another to have them pointed out by someone else. Especially someone who quite often shared those flaws, and had never offended her so bluntly in their many years of friendship. She felt quite wounded.
Kish, again, was moodily silent.
And as Mint sat there, pride bruised and irritation simmering once more, running over all the possible catalysts that could have caused him to be so spiteful and childishly sulky, the answer clicked with shocking clarity, surprising her with its simplicity. She sat for a few moments, refusing to believe it truly was the answer but struggling to find any others that made as much sense, then said, fighting to keep the disbelief and amusement from her voice, "Please tell me this has nothing to do with Ichigo."
Kish's heavy silence was all the answer she needed. Mint rose from the window-seat, turning to face him with her hands propped on her hips. "So all these silly tantrums… and this mindless drinking… it's simply because you fail to win her affections."
Kish muttered something incomprehensible, but Mint wasn't listening. The truth was stirring the pot of anger in her chest, and its contents were spilling hot and thick through her veins. "All this time you've been acting like a spoiled child because she refuses to give you her kiss!"
"She will give me her kiss!" Kish declared furiously.
Mint's mouth dropped open, her voice taking on a hard, sharp edge, as cutting as a knife. "What is so heartbreakingly special about her?" She spat the word 'special' like it was something repulsive.
She'd seen the way the Aoyama boy looked at Ichigo, and even caught her own suitor, the richly embellished, implausibly wealthy and dashingly charming Ryou Shirogane, glancing over at her every so often. This pathetic pining of Kish's was simply the final straw. She just couldn't understand why everybody seemed to be so attracted to the girl who, in her eyes, was altogether ungraceful, inexperienced, ill-mannered at the best of times, and decidedly ordinary.
"Kish, countless girls have fallen for you," Mint said, watching him mope with irritation. "One girl resisting your charms should not have you questioning yourself. Wherever has your insufferable confidence disappeared to? This is most unlike you."
"She will not resist me," Kish snapped. "Nobody resists me."
Mint rolled her eyes. "Why should you give her such power to bring you down? Why, you could seduce any woman you so desire. Leave her be and move on."
"I will not give in!" Kish all but bellowed. He shot to his feet unexpectedly, looming over her. "I do not give in. Women give in to me!"
"And now you're simply being unreasonable," Mint said, in her most infuriatingly light tone. "Stop being such a child."
"Don't patronize me so!" Kish growled, grabbing her shoulders and giving them a solid shake.
Momentary alarm shot down Mint's spine, but she quickly recovered. "Let go of me!"
Kish stilled. He'd pulled her close to his chest in his tantrum and she glared up at him. His breath, coming ragged and uneven, brushed against her forehead, toying with several strands of midnight-blue. His eyes, slightly unfocused, shone pale golden in the milky moonlight. As she seethed up at him, Mint saw his expression change; pinpointed the moment the realisation clicked in his mind. Suddenly, he was staring at her with newfound wonder. Already, she knew she didn't like it.
"You say I can make any woman fall for me," he said, a little breathlessly, and tossed his messy jade hair out of his eyes.
"Prove it," he demanded over her attempt at a warning. "Prove it to me right now."
A long time ago, a much younger Mint might have melted to a puddle at his feet if he'd looked at her with the intensity he bestowed upon her now. For old time's sake, her heart gave a feeble little shudder and kicked up a notch in her chest, but she hardened her expression and gave his chest a good shove so that she broke out of his hold.
"I am your friend, Kish," she said in a low, warning voice. "Please do not try to do this. I promise you, nothing good will come of it."
Evidently, he wasn't listening to her. He stepped toward her and reached for her hand. Furious, Mint swatted it sharply. "Are you hard of hearing? Or are you choosing not to listen to me?"
"Do not deny me," he murmured, reaching for her again. Frustration welled in her chest, and she stepped back deliberately, eyes flashing hotly.
"I'm afraid you're rather too late," she snapped. "Whatever I felt for you expired quite some time ago – not that you ever noticed, of course." With an angry little shriek, she slapped his hand away again, but he was persistent this time, and somehow, she ended up quite locked in his arms. His eyes, fierce liquid gold, gazed down into hers, angry and dark and dangerous. He brought his face close, though she strained against him, his breath tickling her lips, stained thickly with bourbon.
"You are drunk," she reminded him furiously, pushing vainly against his chest. "I doubt you hardly know yourself at present, let alone me. For goodness' sake, Kish, release me!"
Instead, he worked one hand to the back of her neck and tilted her head back to kiss her. His mouth was firm and insistent, mashing softly against hers. Electricity sparked from her lips all the way to the tips of her fingers, which had instantly ceased struggling and were now balled in the fabric of his shirt. For a long moment she simply kissed him back, revelling in the realisation of the fantasies of her thirteen-year-old self, marvelling at how astonishingly well their mouths fitted together.
But it took only a moment for her fury to recover, and it returned white-hot and ten-fold. Wrenching her lips away, she raised her hand and brought it across his cheek with as much force as she could muster. The resounding smack rang sharply in the heavy silence, and when he turned to stare at her in shock, she could already see the angry red mark in the shadows of his face.
"H-how dare you?" she whispered, her voice shaking. To her immense irritation, her eyes swam, and two cold, angry tears dripped down her cheeks. Kish blinked, still staring, and seemingly came to, his eyebrows furrowing over golden eyes flickering with confusion.
She broke from his embrace and stumbled to the door, which she threw open carelessly, her gloved fingers wiping hastily at her face as she slipped into the dark corridor.
"Mint!" he called after her, but by now she was gone, and he was left with only the heavy, unforgiving silence for company, and the steady beating of his heart for consolation.
September 23, 2010.
A/N: Guys... guys... ! Oh my goodness, you have no idea how much I loved writing this chapter! And you have no idea how up and down my emotions were as I wrote it. XD This story is probably not having the best effect on me. Getting way too involved. XD;;
Okay, so oh my gosh. Lettuce/Pie anyone? And Mint/Kish! MINT/KISH! (Essie, there it is! :'D) Oh, I just adore them. S2
But poor Lettuce - her emotions were thrown all over the place in this chapter. First Ryou, then Keiichiro, then Pie, all in one evening! The poor thing's probably going to have a heart attack soon, the way it's being stretched all over the place. And who would have thought Mint had once been in love with Kish? (Not me, that's for sure. I just wrote it in on the spot. XD;;) How will this unfortunate evening change things with the elusive Ryou Shirogane (who is actually a duke! Dun-dun-duuun! :D)? What exactly are his thoughts on Miss Mint, anyway? And what of Kish's determined chase after Ichigo - will he continue with such aplomb? And while it may seem like the Baron might have feelings for Lettuce, after all, what will happen when he discovers who she really is? (Because you all know it's bound to happen eventually... ;P)
Want to find out? You know the drill! Next chapter will be posted if we hit 30+ reviews.
Thanks, as always, to my lovely readers:
- LucyShirogane (Ah! You scared me. XD Sorry; couldn't resist. I'm sorry, though; I just couldn't push Masaya under the train. He's imperative to the storyline. XD)
- Kyasarin Freakload (Of course there are going to be pairings! This story IS pairings, and basically nothing else! XD;; But as to Ryou... I can't tell you if he ends up with Ichigo, because I just don't know that yet myself. XD)
- Joy Johnson (Yes, Kish is being rather jerkish, isn't he? Never fear... incoming R/I fluff to compensate :D)
- Ally Marton (I like Keiichiro/Zakuro, too. Especially in this story, for some reason. XD And yes, Kish did try to seduce Ichigo in a train car. You did read that correctly. XD I'm surprised you think Pie is like Mr. Darcy; a lot of other readers relate him to Ryou. XD But high fives for liking Masaya! Join the remote few of us who seem to have formed a Team Masaya club. Woo! XD;;)
- Just Cy (Trust me, there'll be enough drama in these next 5 chapters that you won't want any more after the tenth! XD)
- Zakun-chan (Another newcomer! Welcome! Glad you're enjoying the story :3)
... for all the feedback and comments. As always, your reviews make the story :)
Until the next exciting installment, everybody! Keep well and keep reading!