For the first time since her arrival at Aureolin Castle, Kanami had some peace and quiet. Earlier in the morning after breakfast, she had been abandoned by July. The boy must be up to something because he decided he did not want her company for the morning. Instead, he had chosen to disappear with his father.
When she had glanced at April in surprise, the other lady only shrugged her shoulders in response. She was just as surprised since July usually demanded Kanami's presence regardless of what he did. Even if his father came to tuck him in at night, a task he would occasionally make time for, she was required to stay by his side until he fell asleep.
"What in the world…" she muttered to herself.
Given a break from her only task at the castle, Kanami wasn't sure what she should do with herself. April said she was busy with paperwork and was unable to keep her company. There were no household tasks to complete since she was a guest. All in all, there was nothing for her to do if she was not needed by July.
Upon hearing the news that she was temporarily dismissed, she had made her way to Icterine Gallery. She had never seen it in close detail; only seeing it in passing during April's tour the first time she was here. For the most part, there wasn't anything of interest – at least not to her. It mostly contained paintings, pottery and sculptures.
When she had given up hope of finding anything interesting, she had been pleasantly surprised by something tucked away in the back corner of the gallery. Cautiously making her way towards it, she never imagined that something of that nature would be on display. It was a beautiful ball gown dressed on a headless mannequin, locked inside a glass case.
She gaped at it in breathless wonder as she had never seen anything so exquisite before. Even with all the gowns she had seen inside Mistress Misaki's wardrobe, none of them compared to it. For it to be protected inside a display case, she couldn't help wondering at its significance. Surely it must have one.
At first, she thought the dress was a lilac colour, but its colour seemed to change with every step towards it. When she was finally standing two feet in front of it, it was to discover that it was white, despite it changing into all colours of the rainbow. Something about the fabric gave it this ethereal, luminescent quality.
The top portion of the dress was tight-fitted with a sweetheart neckline, off-shoulder design where it was embellished entirely with shimmery sequins. It explained part of the allure of the dress as they changed colour with each slight movement while viewing it, reflecting the light.
At the waist was a three-inch wide ribbon which tied into a large bow off to the right side with long tails which almost reached the floor, silver-white in colour. Below that, the skirt of the ball gown puffed out on all sides like an upside-down tulip, an underlay peeking out from the opening.
She couldn't even begin to imagine how such a stunning dress was created or how much effort had been put into it. By the size of the puffed skirt, she couldn't imagine it having less than five layers underneath. The handwork involved with the sequins alone, each one individually sewn into place evenly, appeared like it would take ten years to complete.
There was no knowledge of the passage of time as she stared transfixed on it. Yet finally when she was roused from her awestruck wonder, she could only sigh softly. With a quick glance at her own outfit, she knew it paled in comparison by a million times.
Never once had she coveted anything, fully aware of her station in life, but just once… She was envious of the woman for which the dress had been made. Even just one for herself which was a marginal fraction of its beauty… She would be fully satisfied. At least she could be immersed in the possibilities when she dressed her mistress, again reminding her of how much she missed her tasks at home.
With a resigned sigh, she left the gallery and made her way to Sunglow. July still hadn't come to find her yet. What could the boy possibly be up to? He had made no indication that he would make such a decision the evening before and he didn't seem the type prone to spontaneity, rather the opposite.
Half smiling to herself, she sat down on the sofa, glancing out the window to gaze upon the side garden. She was loathed to admit it, but Aureolin Castle was a beautiful place. Then again, that was the way it should be. She couldn't imagine any clan leader living in anything less, though she had only met two out of the nine and been to the equivalent number of castles.
Again wondering what her young charge was up to, her thoughts inadvertently led her to the boy's companion – his father. She knew she shouldn't, an inappropriate reaction, but a blush crept into her cheeks at the memory of one of their encounters, days prior. Something was definitely wrong with her. Despite knowing he was the enemy, the lines easily blurred and even faded as she watched him interacting with July.
In this particular memory, the three of them had been taking a walk outside after July had called it quits on his insect hunting. They were strolling back to the castle where she was walking a few feet in the front, leading the way. Behind her, the two were in animated discussion of their day's finds; more accurately November in animated dialogue with July nodding his head enthusiastically in agreement.
The splendour of the weather had lulled her into a relaxed state and she turned to glance at her companions. Yet with a careless misstep, she ended up twisting her ankle before she stumbled towards the stone pathway… Or she would have if it weren't for November's quick reaction where he easily caught her with an arm around her waist.
"Are you alright?" he asked gently, his breath teasing her hair.
Somehow she managed to reply in the affirmative with a steady voice though she was feeling far from it. Rather, she felt quite breathless at the sensations of his strength and warmth surrounding her. If it weren't for July's presence, she imagined that she would have behaved like a complete fool, melting into a gooey puddle.
He is Master Hei and Mistress Misaki's enemy. He is also a clan leader, so get a grip, she reminded herself.
It was one thing to imagine it between Master Hei and Mistress Misaki – marriage – because she could see that they suited each other perfectly. Yet for herself… She had been ecstatic when she was chosen as Mistress Misaki's personal maid; she didn't have time to think about anything else. But now with too much time on her hands…
Her parents had never mentioned it before though she had long passed the marriageable age of 270 years. Besides, she could only imagine herself married for the purpose of finding a man willing to take over the family farm. Since Arata came to help her parents regularly, there was no need and she was free to enjoy her life as she wished.
Startled from her thoughts by the sound of shouting, she glanced up in surprise. The man who uninvitingly invaded her thoughts seemingly materialized at the door, appearing quite haggard as he chased the boy who was on a direct path to assault her solitude. A small smile touched her lips as she watched his progress.
She couldn't imagine how July could possibly outrun his father, but it seemed to be the case as November was still resting against the doorframe, catching his breath. On the other hand, July was eagerly waving something in his hands as he rushed to her side.
"Hello July," she murmured as he launched himself at her legs.
He grinned up at her before resting his head on her lap. Lightly, she rested her hand on his head. Though she didn't ask what they had done to pass the time, she could see that he enjoyed it. Unfortunately, she didn't know if she could say the same for his father. Despite regaining his composure, he remained by the entryway of the room with an unreadable expression on his face.
"What have you there?" Kanami finally asked as she noticed that he was holding onto something, one in each hand.
Dropping his burdens on her lap, he made his way to climb up next to her. Waiting until he was safely beside her, she glanced down at the items he placed there, astonished to find two squares of fabric. She had no idea what they were for, but it seemed quite ironic since she had spent most of her morning gazing upon that splendid dress in Icterine Gallery.
Slowly picking them up, she rubbed the material between her fingertips. One was a square of soft chiffon in a coral colour while the other was a smooth satin in jewel-tone amethyst. Smiling, enjoying the feel of it, she eventually turned to her companion.
"What is this for?" she questioned, unable to think of any reason why July would have such a thing.
In response, he grinned broadly before making grand gestures of a square. A confused expression must have appeared on her face because he repeated his actions, yet she still didn't understand. For once, she had no idea what he was trying to say. When she shrugged her shoulders, he turned to point at his father who was finally making his way to join them.
As July was pointing at him, he grimaced and Kanami wondered what that was supposed to mean. It seemed even less likely for November to own such things as the colours and materials did not exactly suit a man. Curiosity clawed at her, but she had to temper it as he clearly was not in the mood to answer questions.
"I would appreciate it if you return what is mine," he stated when he was standing in front of her.
Startled by the sternness of his voice, Kanami avoided his gaze as she placed the two squares of fabric on his upturned hand. For reasons unknown to her, he was in a testy mood which was strange since he usually had such fun when he was playing with July.
Next to her, July glared defiantly at November, causing him to cringe. He had sounded much harsher than necessary, a ploy to cover up his embarrassment. Already he wasn't making much progress with her, so this latest blunder was not helping. Even so, he couldn't help it. July had insisted on playing in his room and somehow managed to get his hands on the secret stash of fabrics he had hidden away.
Mindful of her mistress' words, he knew he needed to make his first payment soon. Unfortunately, there were too many opinions when it came to that subject; too many colours and designs that he thought would look fabulous on her – to the point where he was having a hard time choosing. The two fabrics represented his final choice as he had narrowed it down to these ones.
"Ahem. Sorry about that," he said. "July took these from my room without my permission."
She glanced up at him, not speaking. It seemed as if she was searching for the validity of his words in his eyes and he squirmed under the intensity of her gaze. Eventually she relented by giving him a curt nod. Though she accepted his apology, she still did not say anything.
"I would tell you why I have such things since I'm sure you question my tastes," November began rambling, unable to bear the awkward silence, "but I can't tell you since it's a secret. I'm not even sure how July found them before he came rushing down…"
His voice trailed off as she glanced up at him once more; this time with a wide-eyed arrested gaze. Again not speaking, he wondered if he said something wrong. Already he wanted to smack himself in the forehead for speaking too much. What was the point of mentioning the secret when it was supposed to be a secret from her?
"You do not need to explain yourself to me," she stated dismissively. "Let's go for lunch, July. You spent all day playing. You must be hungry by now."
The boy nodded in response and slipped off the sofa. As Kanami began to stand up, November took a step back to give her more room. Without another word to him, she brushed by him before joining up with July who had gone around him on the other side. He was left to dumbly follow along, or be left behind.
Idiot. Idiot. Idiot, Kanami berated herself.
Idiotically, she had completely forgotten about the existence of July's mother, November's wife. Just because he had started spending more time with July, and subsequently her, it did not negate facts. Yet stupidly, she was starting to find herself attracted to the man. That was one more reason not to fall for him. Though interestingly, now that she thought about it, she hadn't seen the other woman lately.
Settled in her room for yet another evening, Misaki sighed softly. She had been hoping she had grown stronger, especially with what she had said to Hei, but she hadn't. She was still just as teary-eyed as she was the day of Yin's passing and it was already two days since. Likewise, Hei was just as composed as he had been all along…
Really, she had no idea how he did it. Whenever she spent time with him while he worked, he was always on task, only stopping to take occasional breaks. It didn't seem like he was pushing himself to work, though she couldn't say with certainty as she had never seen him working prior to this.
Try as she might, she would find herself bursting into tears unexpectedly. Each time, Hei had been there to comfort her; to hold her and gently stroke her hair or rub her back in a soothing manner. It was normal given the situation, but she wished she wouldn't. She didn't want to be a burden to Hei. Though he would never think of her as such, she felt like she was.
Sighing once more, sleep eluded her. She should be in bed, resting, but she couldn't. It wasn't that she wasn't tired, because she was, yet her mind was working overtime – assaulted by thoughts from every direction; thoughts about the afterlife, the differences between demons and humans, Kanami's well being and November's progress in regards to their relationship… The list just went on and on…
Rolling over onto her side, she closed her eyes in attempts to sleep. A minute later, she rolled onto the other side, her eyes still closed. No luck there as she rolled onto her back. Tossing and turning all night wasn't going to help, but she didn't know what to do. She heard drinking warm milk could help. Her choice would have been beer, but she didn't think they had that here.
In order to get warm milk, she would have to make her way downstairs and wake one of the servants… Which meant waking all of them since they shared sleeping quarters. She supposed she could search for Ricardo, but she didn't want to wake him either as he wasn't the most sympathetic of the lot.
Letting out a puff of exasperated air, she didn't know if she should. He already comforted her during the day… Besides, it would make more sense if she sought him out at this time the day of Yin's passing – not for the first time two nights after the fact…
… Maybe just a peek.
If it seemed like he was already asleep, then she would go back to her own room. Yet if it seemed like he was still up, then she could decide what to do from there. Furthermore, it gave her something to do beyond tossing around restlessly. The exercise, however slight, could help to settle her nerves and anxious thoughts.
Crawling out of bed, she made her way to the closet to grab a shawl as it could be quite chilly to make the trek across the castle. She supposed she could light a candle and bring it with her, but that was too cumbersome. She already knew the layout of the castle and Hei's room was easy to find since it was at the end of the other corridor. The moonlight that streamed in through the windows should be enough.
Pulling the shawl more tightly around her shoulders, she quietly slipped out of the room. She had never been alone, so to speak, in the castle at night when things had settled down. Before, Kanami would always stay with her until she slept and she would return before she awoke the next morning. Since her departure, Hei would escort her to her room and she wouldn't emerge until the next morning.
Though she knew there would be no danger, a small part of her brain perked up with excitement – reminded of stakeouts from her previous lifetime. If she was still on Earth, there was a high probability that she would be in the middle of one at this very moment.
At the thought, a miniscule smile tugged at the corner of her lips. Despite all the fast-paced activities of police work she was accustomed to, she had still managed to adapt to the sedentary lifestyle of the Mato world. It would never have been something she imagined possible, but somehow she did without feeling bored.
Sighing softly, she wondered about her parents and her colleagues on the force. Hei never did know what exactly happened after she was snatched – if she just disappeared or if somehow there was a replacement, a fake version of her. That was usually how it worked in alien abduction movies – not that she ever watched any.
Pushing those thoughts from her mind, she knew better than to dwell on that subject. It was disheartening that she wouldn't see any of them again, but there was no point dwelling on the past. Hei would never let her leave and she had already integrated herself into Mato society, even if it hadn't been by choice at the beginning.
Rather, she focused her attention on her surroundings. Midnight Castle had always been quiet, but even more so during the late night. It she wasn't familiar with the place, she would have been spooked. But knowing the man who owned and kept watch of the place, she had absolutely nothing to fear. Hei would never allow any harm to befall her, especially not in his castle.
As she eventually stood outside of Hei's bedroom, she had a moment of doubt. There was no point bothering him in the middle of the night. There was lots of work for him to complete… But she noticed that there was light seeping out into the hall from the crack under the door, which meant he wasn't asleep yet.
With a small sense of trepidation, she reached out towards the doorknob. Before she could retreat, she quietly turned it and pushed open the door. The moment it was completely open, Hei turned to glance at her as he was silently resting on the sofa in his sitting area. Shocked by the sudden encounter, Misaki stood transfixed, unable to move from the doorway.
Unabashedly, tears streamed endless down Hei's cheeks and she didn't have to ask what the cause was. His eyes were red and puffy. In spite of her unannounced intrusion, he made no effort to mask his grief. Rather, he motioned for her to come in and join him. Answering tears welled up in her own eyes as the misery showcased on his face mirrored her exact emotions.
He's not as strong as he seems…
Yin's statement echoed in her mind and she couldn't say that she agreed. In her opinion, he was stronger than he let on because he freely embraced every aspect of his life – his power, his responsibilities, his emotions. He was able to continue with his work because he indulged in his need to grieve, even if he did so away from prying eyes.
But not your eyes, she thought to herself.
How many men would be willing to demonstrate such "weakness" as tears? She couldn't think of anyone she knew who could be comfortable enough to not just cry, but also do so in front of another. That he trusted her to show this aspect of his character….
"Hei," she murmured as she stood in front of him.
Wordlessly, he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her into his embrace. She rested her head against his chest and likewise wrapped her arms tightly around him – seeking his comfort and providing him comfort at the same time. It felt good to share the grief, truly share it, with someone else. Regardless of the varied lengths of time for their relationships with Yin, that fact was irrelevant. Their hearts were the same in how much they cherished and adored her.
Whether they stayed that way for five minutes or five hours, Misaki didn't know, but her tears gradually subsided, as did his. With it, a sense of peace washed over her that she hadn't felt on previous occasions. Yin was still gone, a fact that neither of them could change despite wishing otherwise, yet things didn't seem so bleak and dreary anymore.
"Thank you," Hei eventually whispered.
"For what?" she asked in surprise.
"… You say that like you were expecting me."
"No, never expecting, but hoping," he answered.
"And you didn't say anything to me? Leaving me to think of how strong and capable you are?"
"Is that how you think of me?"
"Even more so than I first understood. I thought you didn't cry at all. Then I found out that you weep your little heart out, just as much as I do," Misaki teased with a gentle smile.
"And that makes me strong and capable how?" Hei inquired with a light chuckle.
"Because you're the only man I know who would not only admit to the need, but also allow me to witness it."
Tilting her head back to glance up at him, Misaki stroked her fingertips over his cheeks, still stained with the wetness of his tears. His gaze locked with hers as he captured her hand and held it in place. A blush coloured her cheeks as she recognized that darkening of his eyes, but he only turned his head slightly to press a lingering kiss to her palm.
"My darling Misaki," he murmured. "I would never purposely hide any part of me from you."
"… I know that."
Hei smiled at her before he tucked her cozily against him, her head once again resting against his chest. Effortlessly, he shifted into a more comfortable position against the sofa while still holding her close. Though he couldn't see it, a smile – a genuine smile – graced her lips for the first time since Yin's passing.
"What is it, darling?"
His fingers stroked down her back in a languid rhythm and Misaki paused to enjoy the experience. The amount of comfort and pleasure she could draw from his presence was amazing and also so perfect at the same time. Not to mention, the tenderness of his voice as he addressed her with endearments…
"Misaki?" he asked when she didn't reply.
"Mm… Do you think she's in a better place now?"
"Yes, of course. She doesn't have to endure the sufferings of her physical body."
"… I'm going to miss her," stated Misaki.
"Me as well, but she'll always be with us in both our hearts and our memories."
Slowly closing her eyes, Misaki snuggled up against him – drawing strength and comfort from his warmth. She felt his arms tighten around her slightly and she sighed softly. For once she could fall asleep without the misery of reality haunting her thoughts. The indulgence in her bout of tears had also helped to wear her out.
As she quieted, her breaths of air eventually coming in evenness brought about by sleep, Hei smiled before pressing a gentle kiss to her hair. He had been startled to see her standing at his doorway, even if it hadn't been obvious to her. Despite her thoughts otherwise, there were times when he wanted to ask her to spend the night with him. Yet she never came the first night, when he hoped she would the most, so he didn't want to create another worry for her.
As a result, he had "wept his little heart out", as she called it, in the solitary stillness of his own room before finally crawling into bed. He didn't have the luxury of crying all the time as life continued and the work continued to come in. Besides, he knew Yin would never want the state to fall into decline due to her passing.
Taking in a deep breath of air and releasing it slowly, his sigh gradually gave way to a yawn. Glancing down at his companion, he smiled and pressed another kiss to her hair before slowly closing his eyes. With Misaki's appearance, he had an inkling that things were going to start out pleasantly the next day.
Happy one-year anniversary for the story! :)
My goodness, it's taking me a long time to write this... Lol. We're about 2/3rds of the way through now.
The story seemed to be doing well when I first posted the prologue, but sadly, it was a bit discouraging to see that the interest slowly declined. Perhaps because of the setting? I know AU stories aren't necessarily popular once you pluck our fave characters out of their natural setting.
Even so, it seems to be picking up some more interest which is really exciting for me. Not that I'm trying to be boastful and bragging, but I really think you'll enjoy the entire thing once we reach the end of the journey. I don't want to say too much about the future chapters in case I give anything away, but all the seemingly insignificant things so far do add up to something at the end... I hope no one thinks that my story is linearly one-dimensional with its current progress XD
Anyways, this chapter is one of my favourites with how it showcases the progress in both spheres of the story - Kanami's growing attraction to November, though she's still quite good at hiding it, and the deeper connection between Hei and Misaki as they face their mutual grief together.