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~Suzette~

༻Chapter Eighteen༺

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For the rest of the day, Hikaru and I continue our walk peacefully. Occasionally we must detour when the crowds grow to be a little too much, but overall the journey is pleasant…if a tad lonely. Though he and I often spend long bouts in silence, rarely do we ever go so long without muttering scarcely a word to one another. Although it is unfortunate, being so close to him, holding him…I decide to appreciate that instead.

Although there is still some daylight left, with the Solstice being so recent, all the world still can see the time is growing late. The streets steadily become clearer, with only a few walking down the road.

And at this, at last, Hikaru takes off his hat, and my napkin with it.

“Here you go,” he says while handing it to me.

“Are you sure you shall not need it for the rest of the journey?”

“I’ll ask you if I do...but even just for this, thank you.”

“No need,” I reply. For a moment, he looks around at the buildings, the few crude signs, signifying the entry to the alleyways, the small roads too cramped to put even a moderately sized cart through.

“Are you hungry, Suzette?”

“…Terribly,” I mutter. I did not want to say anything, for I know standing still at a stall, or going into an establishment would surely be uncomfortable for him. But now…

“There is an inn I know nearby, that we can eat at too if you are willing…if it’s still there, at least.”

“I thought you had lived in one of the inner districts?”

“I did, but…” he chuckles, “I suppose it’s me being ‘nostalgic’ again, as you’d say.

“Back when I lived here, I was young enough that my memories of Asashi were still relatively recent…I ended up finding a small inn where they serve their food. I can only vaguely remember it now, but it was almost like being there. Although now even memories of the inn are distant, and everything further…” He sighs, although my eyes grow wide.

“Where is it, I would love to!”

He smiles that same, gentle smile.

“I know it’s in the Asashian district, of course…although we would have to find it. I can’t remember anything more specific.”

“I had not a clue there was such a thing…”

“Well…even if I deal with extra struggles most of them do not, that doesn’t mean they’re particularly accepted either. It’s easier to live by people more like you.”

“Then…why make such a long and arduous journey, to go somewhere where you’re…”

“The same reason my mother came here—pure desperation. Sometimes you don’t get much of a choice.”

“I suppose that is logical,” I sigh. Although it seems confusing at first, perhaps I am not entirely different…leaving luxury and prestige, to travel an immense amount and sleep on the ground, all in want of freedom. Thinking of that however, I do feel rather grateful—I have not needed to flee the continent entirely.

It is not long before we turn into a cramped alley, and the change is noticeable. Although the buildings largely look the same as anywhere else in the city, the signs abruptly switch to that smooth, swirling script. Small details, such as the lanterns nearby the doors, look different also.

Before I have time to truly look, however—

“Why…it really is still here. I can’t believe it.”

“Oh, which is it—?”

“You see that sign, with the sun on it? That one; it’s called First Dawn.”

“Can you read that?”

“Not at all, but I can remember that at least.” I chuckle; not just at this, but the last time we entered an establishment with an affinity for the sun, he was extremely hesitant to go…but now, he is the one taking me.

Once we get closer, I notice something odd…the sign does not lead to a door, at least not in the traditional sense; but rather, it leads to a damp, cramped staircase.

“Is this…correct?”

“Yes…it’s almost like it hasn’t changed at all.” I look up towards him, still smiling…

Thinking up it, it does not appear that much we have done has truly excited him…going to the bakery, the Solstice celebration, all of these he did for my sake. Now, although I am sure he wishes to show me this as well, it also appears this is just as much for him as myself. For a moment, I feel slightly guilty…I hope that we may do things which he enjoys as well.

And so I grin…for this time, that is precisely what we are doing.

We reach the top of the staircase, and a single square, red paper lantern alights the tight doorway, giving it a comforting warm glow. Painted in red on the door once more is, I presume, the name of this inn.

Hikaru grabs the handle, and then…pauses. And stays still.

“Shall we go in?” I say, subtly trying to nudge him along.

“It’s…been a long time. I doubt anybody I knew here is still around. I…I have surely changed a lot too.”

“Are you worried, Hikaru?” I ask softly.

“I remember when I came here, it was the only place in this city I felt I belonged, even if it was only slightly. Even though I don’t quite belong even with Asashians, the family here was always kind to me…I wonder if I want to ruin the remains of those memories.”

“Or, you can create one more comforting memory.” He looks down on me, and I smile.

“Also…I have never eaten Asashian food, nor seen their furniture, or anything of the sort…and it is doubtful I will ever be able to travel there. If anyone shall show that to me, why not yourself?”

His face turns almost as red as the lantern.

“All right then,” he says with a subtle smile, “I suppose it is worth at least seeing.” And slowly, he opens the door.

As we walk in, I am immediately struck by the scent of presumably food, yet it is nothing like what I have ever eaten. The inner atmosphere quite resembles the outer; comforting and warm…

The walls and floor are of a dark wood, white and red lanterns line the wall, giving a gentle light. There are only a few tables in the small space—extremely low tables, and instead of chairs, colorful cushions sit by them instead. At one table seats a handful of people, eating and talking together. And the edge of the room is a staircase leading presumably to the bedrooms, and a doorcase presumably leading to the kitchen.

Almost immediately, a young man with short hair and simple green robes walks out. Although his outfit is rather plain, it is clear it is of the same inspirations as Hikaru’s clothing.

“Hello, please feel free—” Abruptly he stops, and blinks. My muscles swiftly grow tense…

Oh dear, were Hikaru’s fears truly founded?

But instead, the young man smiles.

“It’s…Hikaru, was it? Is that you?” Hikaru stares at him for a moment, with a look that both bears relief and confusion.

“It seems you remember me, but I don’t remember you…”

“I’m Huan, remember?”

“Oh!” he laughs, but simultaneously his face grows quite red once more. “Well…now I feel rather old.”

“Suzette,” Hikaru turns to me, “He’s the child of the owners here. At least…he was a child when I last knew him.”

“Well…” Huan grows a pained expression on his face, “I was the child of the owners…but I’m the owner now. They haven’t been doing great lately…”

“I’m sorry to hear that…”

For a little while longer the two continue speaking, and I look on in amazement. Never have I witnessed Hikaru talk to an actual human with such ease…

I wonder if someday we could always be like this with others, him and I…it is a nice thought.

It is not long, however, before their conversation catches my attention once more.

“You never did bring that friend of yours here…Alex, was it?”

Though I attempt not to be too obvious concerning it, I rapidly turn towards him. His expression remains surprisingly stoic, only merely furrowing his brow slightly.

“I’m surprised you didn’t hear…he passed over twenty years ago.”

“Damn…I remember how close you two were, you used to always talk about him. Sorry to hear that.”

“Well…there’s nothing to do about it now.”

In a way…you truly have brought him here, have you not?

I sigh…of course that is the truth, but I can never reveal it so. At least, not presently.

The two continue conversing for a little while longer, before we are at last seated at a small table in the far corner. Unlike the inn on the outskirts of the city, this one is rather comfortable and quiet…I can see why he enjoyed coming here. This does appear the sort of place he would feel more welcome at.

Once more I allow him to order, for surely he shall know what everything is better than I. Thankfully, this time I feel much more at ease. Even if I do not particularly fit in here either, at least there are not so many here as at the other place.

“Is everything as you recalled?”

“Precisely,” he says wearing a smile.

We sit for a little while longer, although this time he remains terribly quiet, perhaps even more so than usual…

“Is everything truly well?” He ignores me…not a promising sign.

“Hikaru,” I whisper while putting my hand on his, and he jumps slightly.

“Y-Yes?” he mutters.

“You look distant again. Is even here still—”

“No, I’m not overwhelmed or anything,” he sighs. “Just thinking about…some things.”

“A—” I begin, but instantly cease speaking.

“Yeah,” he replies. “I…completely forgot I ever promised to bring him here. It’s strange, I thought I remembered…more than it seems I have.”

“He died over twenty years ago. That is quite a long time…”

Longer than I even know, in my own memories…

“You’re right, just,” he sighs once more. “Never mind, it doesn’t matter now. Regardless…it is nice to return to the one of the few places here I actually enjoyed.”

It is not long before Huan comes out again, bringing with him to large bowls of noodles, steaming and full of various kind of vegetables, and—

“An egg…?” I mumble, once he has left again.

“Oh, I forgot it’s not really common for Soleians to eat eggs with noodles, huh?”

“Do you do that often?”

“I would if I cooked,” he says with a laugh. “So, I suppose I used to.”

“Maybe someday when you have a home again…” I stop realizing what I am saying…

“I probably never will,” he says with a smile, yet by now I have noticed how often he uses this to hide his true feelings… “Being a wanderer isn’t always bad, though.”

“What shall you do once you grow older?” He pauses, and looks down, beginning to eat his dinner. After a moment of eating, he speaks again.

“I try not to think of that.”

“Well, if you ever need a place to stay, you are always welcome to stay with me.”

“Thanks, but you don’t have—”

“You are on a months long journey with me, to give me perhaps most of your wealth…you are always welcome.”

“Thanks,” he says with a smile, and this time it is truly more genuine.

I begin eating and…it is very odd, at first. Nothing here is particularly foreign, as surely most exotic plants may be only accessible to the aristocracy and royalty alone…however, never have I quite had everything prepared in this fashion, an egg and noodles, celery and mint, and other ingredients besides. The more I have, however, the more I find myself enjoying it.

Though it is a pleasant experience overall…unfortunately, his silence is deafening. Occasionally, I sincerely wish I was as ignorant on these matters as he believes me to be…although perhaps it is truly better this way. At least I am certain he is not upset with me; only the path fate has weaved.

“Is there anything you two need?” Huan asks, returning seemingly out of nowhere.

“I am well!” I reply.

“Can we get a room for tonight?”

“A room? My, that’s a first for you!”

“Well, I don’t live here anymore…”

“Yes, yes.”

They continue talking, sorting out our arrangements for the evening. Once we are entirely finished, Huan leads us up the staircase. It is immensely small and cramped, so much so I cannot walk through without grazing the edge of the wall…

Upstairs, there is a small hallway with only a handful of doors, one which Huan leads us to, and gives us the key.

“Do have a good night!”

“You as well!” Hikaru and I both reply in unison. I cannot help but chuckle at it.

As soon as we walk in, Hikaru whispers a short incantation, and the lanterns alight immediately. I suppose even in the largest city in Soleia, and possibly all the world, faeries still live here…

Once everything is illuminated, I notice how…sparse everything is. Another low table, and a dresser. A scroll on the wall bearing text I cannot read, and another image of the sun; I assume something devotional to Lady Sun. And something rather noticeable is missing.

“There is no bed?!”

“It’s in here,” Hikaru says, opening the dresser. Inside is a large mattress and bed folded up.

“I remember this from when I was a child…our beds were also like this.”

“Does everything merely sit on the ground in Asashi…?”

“I think everything sits in the ground everywhere. Well, except the sun and moon, and the clouds and stars, perhaps.”

“You know that is not what I mean—!” I reply, and he laughs.

“In all seriousness,” he says, “I don’t think every place was like this. But it wasn’t uncommon.”

“I see…” I answer, as he lays the bed out.

“Is this the only one?”

He waits a moment, and sighs.

“Unfortunately. But it’s okay, I don’t mind sleeping on the floor. I’ve done it enough over the years.”

“And that is why I shall be sleeping there, you should at least get the bed once.”

“I refuse it,” he says.

“And so do I.” For a moment we stare at each other and he sighs, returning to the dresser.

“Well, it appears there’s two blankets in here, so, would you want…?”

The thought crossed my mind, but I dare not say it; however, shall he offer it—

“I do not mind at all.”

Although it is not as late as we tend to stay awake, the day’s events have entirely depleted my energy, and I know it must be the same for him. I talk off my apron, folding it neatly upon the dresser, and he does likewise with his outer jacket. Myself on one side, and him on the other, we go into the bed…

Although it is of course a bit flat, compared to the ground it is sincerely heavenly. So soft, and warm… The only unfortunate thing is…truthfully, I wish I could come closer to him, and be even warmer…but of course, that would likely be uncomfortable for him, and merely awkward in general.

I lay flat, looking up at the ceiling, losing consciousness…

“Suzette, are you awake?”

“Nnn…yes, yes,” I mumble, turning over to face him, who is still gazing upon the ceiling. I am to the right of him, but none of his hair remains within his face…just like the night of the Solstice, his scar is open for all the world to see.

“Why do you bother with me?”

“Hikaru, is this about this morning?”

“Yes, and no. It’s about more than that as well.”

“I-I quite like you, you are not a bother at all,” I say, carefully attempting to choose my words. But, I am still unsure if they hint to the full extent of their meaning…

“But…even if you know so much about me, there’s still much you don’t know.”

“I could say the same,” I reply. He lifts himself, sitting upwards, and places his hand in his palms.

“Suzette…in some matters I can really only share so much with you, but in others…I can share, but I wonder if you shall come to loathe me then.”

“And why is that?” Now I sit up beside him, and gaze upon him.

“I…I think I must tell you something,” he says, facing me. His face clearly looks distressed. “And if what I tell you is so disagreeable to you…well, perhaps there’s something for you here, in the Capital. It is incredibly difficult, yet perhaps still worth trying, if that’s what you want.”

My heartbeat begins to drum frantically…what is so wretched about him that he feels the need to speak like this with me?

For a moment he looks away from me, but blinks and turns back my way.

“Suzette, I…I think you’ve noticed I’ve been talking more about Alex lately.”

“Yes, a little.”

“He and I…we both moved here together when we were rather young. It was only him and I, facing the world…”

Is-Is he telling me…?

No, no, of course it is not. Seeing how he reacted both as a child, and his conspicuous silence concerning Alex during normal circumstances… With as secretive as he can be, revealing what is surely one of his largest secrets would be—

He looks away from me, and sighs.

“I’m sure it will sound ridiculous to you, or perhaps disgusting…at least some of what you’ve heard about him is a lie,” he whispers.

“That house we’re traveling to,” he continues, “It was never my house. It was his, that he bought when we left the Capital…no, it was ours. That’s why all his belongings are still there; he never visited me, he never had to.”

“Hikaru…”

He turns over, to look at me, eye holding a deep sorrow. Wearing that same sad smile, in an attempt to mask it. Yet out the corner of my eye, I notice it…his hands wound around each other. Shaking terribly.

He truly is—

“Alex was my friend, my dearest one in the world, but also…

“Maybe…we were too young for me to really call him my husband,” he whispers even more softly now, the words scarcely coming out. “But that’s how we viewed one another, without question… I know what the rest of the world believes, that we were disgusting, spitting in the face of the gods. Sometimes even I wonder if they were right…but even still, I don’t know how to look at what we had, and view it as anything other than a ray of shining light.

“O-Of course,” his voice shakes, and he turns away from me, “You don’t have to agree. I don’t expect you to. But I guess…I felt like you should know, if we’re to keep journey together.”

“Hikaru…!” As he turns towards me, his face entirely becomes bathed in confusion.

“Suzette…why are you crying? Well, I suppose it’s fair to find it so wre—”

But before he can finish speaking, I pull him into a tight, tight hug.

You told me…you told me!

Of course, I already knew this secret…but I never imagined…I never imagined you may ever trust me enough to share. Even if you are not “in love” with me, you still love me enough, trust me enough…

I hold him for a moment longer, trying to gather what to say.

“Thank you, Hikaru,” I whisper in his ear.

“W…What?”

“That you trust me enough to share this…”

“I just…think you have a right to know.”

“But, would you share it if you were entirely certain I would reject you, like you appear so convinced all the world has? Would you overcome your fear if there was not at least some chance it may turn out as you wish?”

He does not say anything.

“I struggle to imagine you ever being disgusting, Hikaru.”

“So…you’re not upset?”

“Not even the slightest bit,” I reply. “You are my dearest friend, and if you wish to change that you must try a lot harder than this.”

For a moment, it seems his breathing stops entirely.

“Suzette…” he breathes, and then reciprocates my hug. “Just…thank you. Thank you.”

“But…I have not done anything.” He pulls away from me, and smiles warmly, so warmly…

“You say that as though you have not already done everything.”

I look away as a shiver flows down my spine.

D-Does he know…?

But, I do not say anything. My mind begins racing, all the thoughts utterly trampling upon themselves.

He only prefers men, yes? He cannot be in love with you—yet what if that is not the case, what if it is possible—what if, what if—?

I pause for a moment, attempting to gather my thoughts once more.

“Hikaru, please do not take this badly, but is that why you carry yourself a bit more…womanly than other men?”

He gives me that upset smile again, and suddenly I regret asking…

“Well…I’m not trying to look that way, but I guess I can’t help how it looks that way to others.”

“Even with your hair? I understand your clothing, yet I have always been curious…”

He chuckles.

“You really want to know why?”

“Well, yes…”

“When I first began wandering, I grew very depressed…I didn’t even had the will to cut my own hair, to do much of anything besides walk to nowhere. When that subsided, though, I realized I actually liked my hair being long. So I kept it.”

“T…That is it? No deeper reason?”

“No deeper reason.”

“Even with as long as it is—?!” His only reply is laughter.

“Ah, I suppose it almost seemed as though everything you do has some reasoning behind it…”

“Well, isn’t liking it a reason?”

“I suppose so,” I smile.

For a moment we sit in silence, until he begins speaking again.

“Do you think it looks bad?”

“What does it matter?” I look towards him, but his look towards me says everything.

“So…it does, then.”

“I did not say that, it is just…is it my place to say?”

Why does my opinion matter to him so much?

U-Unless…?

“I was just wondering, is all.”

“When I first realized you are a man,” I begin, “It appeared odd to me…yet now I have grown rather fond of it.”

“Do you just say that to be kind?”

“If I was hoping to be merely kind, I would have never stated my first feelings,” I reply.

“Actually, in truth, it…” I pause, wondering if I should speak my feelings. And yet—

“Before I realized you were a man, my very first impression was that it was stunningly beautiful, so long and shining…I had never seen a woman with hair so lovely. The only reason I ever thought otherwise was…I was simply being prejudiced, I suppose. I am sorry.”

“You don’t need to apologize, Suzette. Thank you.”

“I still do not understand…”

“If you said you always found it lovely, you never thought anything ill of it, then I would question your honesty. Admitting all that…I know you’re telling the truth to me. So thank you.”

“Y-You are welcome,” I reply, stuttering, looking away.

Ask him. Ask him, Suzette.

Ask.

“Hikaru…d-do you only like men?”

“What?”

“I-I do not know how all of that works, so I was j-just curious…” My voice shakes terribly; it is so embarrassing, yet, I am so nervous, I cannot help it…

“Hmm…I thought I did, for a long time.”

“You thought you did…” I repeat under my breath.

“Yeah, I guess because Alex was the only one I ever loved, I assumed I could only love men…although now, I don’t mind either way. Who I love is who I love, regardless.”

“Ah, I had just assumed—well, since I only love men, I did not know if one could truly love both or not…”

“Yeah, I believe it’s different for everyone. Although most like me tend to hide it…”

“Thank you for not hiding it with me, Hikaru.”

“It’s no problem, I suppose,” he says gently. “But…I think it’s getting pretty late now.”

“I believe you are right…sleep well, Hikaru.”

“You too, Suzette.”

The two of us lay back down, on the opposite ends of the bed.

I huddle with the blanket, holding it tightly.

“Who I love is who I love, regardless.”

Who do you love? Who do you love, Hikaru…?

The thoughts swirl and swirl within me, as I drift off to sleep…

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