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~Hikaru~

༻Chapter 29༺

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     {Everywhere, everything is gold and ivory colored, so detailed it gives me a headache trying to look at it all. Luckily the gallery has not been terribly crowded, and there’s barely any noise at all aside from someone playing a cello for some reason. Maybe it’s to ease the anxiety of this place…although I would imagine the only one feeling that is me.

     It’s strange, I know most people would completely lose themselves at the chance to be here, but—I guess there is definitely a strong sense of craftmanship here, yet otherwise everything’s so ostentatious that it feels uncannily unnatural, in spite of the little details of leaves and flowers… Some of the paintings seem beautiful, but everything else drowns them out so much you can barely focus on them.

     But Alex’s golden eyes dazzle at all that match them, and I’m happy that it seems he at least is having maybe the most fun I’ve ever seen from him, going around talking to the nobility, showing the world his artwork. Just as I knew, everyone adores every single painting; although, it’s hard not to be uncomfortable at their veiled insults, as they seem to compulsively add “such exquisite work for a provincial boy, who knew anyone from there could truly know beauty!”

     “Obviously you don’t, to live in such a gaudy place,” is what I want to say, but I know it would upset Alex, so…I stay quiet. Luckily, it seems like he either doesn’t notice their insults, or ignores them completely.

     After a while, I begin shutting out all their comments both kind and snide, and find myself daydreaming that it was just me and Alex here. I don’t like being surrounded by all these people that already can’t help but view us as being beneath them as it is…thinking about how they would react if they truly knew anything about us makes me nauseous. After a little while though, my attention is brought back—at just the right time, it seems.

     “You are the painter of this?” softly asks a small old woman, robed in a light violet gown that is at least a little more modest than those of the younger nobility.

     “I did!” Alex beams, and begins describing the process of his painting, which it seems he has memorized by rote at this point. This particular picture is a portrait of a woman in draping white cloth, surrounded by soft-colored flowers, all framed with small rays of light. He goes on about how he saw her in a dream, and captured the image in his mind, just so he could paint her…

     “Is this…not a true woman?” the woman mutters in awe.

     “If she is, I don’t know her!” Alex laughs, and the woman continues to smile.

     “How marvelous…” she continues under her breath, “To think, such realism, and yet surely you can tell she is of a dream…

     “Alexander Boucher, is it?” she reads from the plaque below the painting, “I am Lady Lipka; my husband is an official here in Solzédniê. I have been in search of an artist to create portraits of our family, and perhaps other works…I do believe yours would frame my family beautifully.”

     My head begins spinning so hard, if I move at all I’ll surely lose my balance.

     I…I must be happy for Alex. This is his dream. It’s my fault for not realizing all that entailed, for being ignorant…

     “T-Truly?!” Alex nearly shouts before composing himself. “I would love too, although—I’m assuming you heard…”

     “Oh yes,” she says, “That is no issue dearie. I too grew up in the provinces…it is dreadful. That is why a talent such as yours must be shared with the world, and I would love to take part in that. I can assure that you shall be paid well enough for an apartment, or even to stay at my estate, if you wish.”

     Seeing Alex’s smile, so large and proud…I can’t help but feel a little more at ease, even if this proposition sounds horrid.

     “Then yes, absolutely!” he replies excitedly, before pausing. “Would that…only include me?”

     “Is there anyone else you wish to bring?”

     “My, uh—my servant here,” he stumbles, and…I must admit, it makes me happy that he doesn’t call me that so readily.

     “You see, he has been with my family since I was small, and…”

     “Of course dearie, it is always more comforting to keep those servants you know, after all. It is quite admirable of you, to take care of one with such a condition as him…you must truly be a generous soul,” she smiles.

     Meanwhile, I just look away and bite my lip.

     I can’t even say she’s wrong, yet…hearing it put that way sounds so much worse. I know I’m not worth even his time, but I’d rather not think about that.

     “Mâzjêr vrémond né!” Alex chirps, positively elated. “Of course I will do it!”

     “Oh, how wonderful!” the old woman replies, and gives Alex her address. “Please visit me once the salon has fully ceased, so we may further discuss your arrangement.”

     “Y-Yes, of course!” Alex says, and the old woman continues on her way.

     “Hikaru!” Alex turns to me, keeping his voice low, but still overflowing with pure excitement.

     “Congratulations, Alex,” I reply softly, trying to sound as genuine as possible. Actually, that’s not entirely true—I am genuinely happy for him. For me…

     Maybe he’s right. Perhaps I can find a place for me here too. I have to believe so.}

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     Sâlêzj, Suzette,” I greet quietly, still holding her in my arms even as we slept.

     “…Ašon bon,” she mumbles while burying her face into my chest.

     “Did you sleep well?” I mutter hoarsely, and she merely mutters something incoherently.

     “Hmm?”

     “I…I am better now,” she replies.

     I sigh, and gently begin stroking her hair…

     “Pšyku, Suzette…”

     “Nn, but…you have not done nothing wrong…”

     “Still…I’m sorry your nights have become less pleasant.”

     “It was not terribly pleasant when they began, regardless…” she whispers, “Unsure at why I was glimpsing into another’s life, and certainly unsure of how I felt towards you…although I suppose that was more confusing than unpleasant, per se.”

     I pull her closer, bringing her soft body into mine.

     “Please don’t keep feeling guilty,” I whisper to her. “Staying here with you…I’ve been happier than I’ve been in years. Truly.”

     “So…you truly do not mind a domestic life?” she asks with a light chuckle.

     “Not at all,” I whisper, closing my eye and thinking of the way things have become lately. “Not in the slightest.”

     Although we haven’t been here long, we have already fallen into a routine: during the day, I go out and explore around Bydlin, seeing what food I can gather so we don’t burden her brother too harshly. Then I come home and clean while Florence works in his tailor shop below, while Suzette is usually preparing the meals.

     It’s hard not to get distracted as she works, although luckily for myself I tend to finish long before her. Even if I saw her bake once before, I’ve never gotten a better look at what she’s like when she bakes…and it’s truly something to behold. She moves around with perfect grace and composure; at once entirely assured in herself, and seemingly transcending herself as she gathers and prepares all the ingredients so smoothly that it seems as though it’s all she knows. Whenever something seems to be going well, a small, sweet smile adorns her face. Whenever something seems to be going wrong, she puts her hand to her face and pouts a little, thinking of a solution—only truly getting frustrated when she finds some type of utensil isn’t there at all, since it seems Florence hardly cooks.

     We’ll definitely need a lot of dishes…although I’m sure she knows exactly what she needs. I’ll just let her choose them—

     She then always continues on somehow, finding solutions even when there seem to be none, although occasionally she has to rework her dishes in the process. And with this she goes on, sometimes for extended periods, and seems to be without the slightest worry in the world. Indeed, I almost wonder if she forgets anything else exists—except for me, when she calls for help to reach the upper cabinets, after she discovered the wobbly chairs were a bit too unstable for comfort.

     Hmm, we probably shouldn’t have upper cabinets at all—maybe the counters should be a bit lower too…

     And then at last she finishes, at least of course until whatever is in the oven is completed. She always dusts herself off a bit, and then returns to the living room, usually plodding herself down beside me. Sometimes she’s a bit exhausted, or even out of breath, yet she always greets me with a warm grin.

     Just that sight alone, so different from the Suzette I knew for years—so full of contentment and joy in herself and in her work, surrounded by people that adore her…any kind of life that can grant her that I don’t mind at all.

     “We should be on our way soon…” Suzette says after a moment, breaking me from my daydreaming. “It has been lovely here, yet…ah, if we do not continue on, I may not wish to leave,” she chuckles.

     “Even without your bakery?”

     “That is why I must not get distracted—!”

     “Nn…well,” I moan while sitting up, freeing her from my grasp, “Let’s get ready, then.”

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     I sit on the bed, gathering my things as Suzette’s already gone downstairs, presumably to see her brother off before we leave. I look up—and I jump as I see another figure in the mirror behind me. I sigh deeply; whether out of relief or worry, I’m not sure yet.

     “So you’re moving on again?” Maiden Moon says, her reflection in the mirror seemingly staring me straight in the eye.

     “We are.”

     Now she sighs and lays down on the bed, and I wince wondering how her wings are not crushed beneath her.

     “So now instead of almost every moment being spent with her, it will just be every moment…”

     “Maiden Moon—”

     “What? Are you going to tell me it’s not true?”

     “…I think I have enough time for more than one person,” I sigh. “I have lately, haven’t I?”

     “Yes, but—will you continue this? Or maybe you’ll just stay enraptured with her alone…”

     I turn around on the bed and look down at her, her eyes once again meeting mine through wavy, silver strands.

     “Maiden Moon,” I say softly, “I thought we were past this.”

     Maiden Moon lifts herself upwards, and sulks over the side of the bed, her hair and veil entirely obscuring her face.

     “I see how you are with her,” she whispers, “I’m not always absent when you do not see me.”

     “I assumed as much.”

     “I do not understand…” she mumbles, “That look in your eye…”

     “Look?”

     “Especially lately, I’ve noticed the way you look at her, it’s…” she shakes her head. “I don’t know how to describe it. I remember she used to look upon that eunuch the same way…

     “Is that what ‘love’ looks like, Hikaru?”

     I merely blink.

     “I…I’m not sure.”

     “You never have told me…you say it’s not a competition, but—”

     “It’s not.”

     “But why do I always, always lose?”

     “You’ve not lost anything.”

     Swiftly she turns to face me, deep fury swelling in those violet eyes.

     “You can know me and still say such a thing?”

     “Maia—”

     “This isn’t just about Maia, dumbass!” she yells, and even I’m taken aback by her sudden shift in tone. “Look around at the world! Everyone used to love me, look to me for guidance, and now apparently I’m some fucking monster—all because I did what you humans do constantly!

     “Even my own mother chose my sister over me, to let her destroy me like this! And of course, that’s not enough, so Maia had to choose that fucking eunuch regardless, and you chose a mere baker over me! So yes, I absolutely have lost everything!” she shrieks shrilly, tears streaming hard down her face.

     I take a sharp breath and hardly one afterwards. Steadily I take her cold hand into my own, and grasp it tight.

     “You don’t deserve everything you’ve been through…and you haven’t lost me.”

     “You don’t love me, Hikaru.”

     “Romantic love isn’t all there is, Maiden Moon. To be honest with you—if I didn’t love you, I would not be here right now.”

     “Oh, of course—”

     “Do you want to know why?”

     “Because I’m damned by all the world? Yes, I know, Hikaru!”

     “You say as though I’m not as well,” I sigh. “No. Never. Sometimes you’re cruel and while I know why…it can be difficult to handle. I want to be respected too.”

     “So if I just act oh-so sweet and gentle like her…”

     “No, I won’t love you the same way as her. Maiden Moon, I already love you, just differently from her…

     “Please…can you understand?”

     She pauses before sighing and shaking her head.

     “Surely with my entire life…is it any wonder why it’s so hard to believe? But…I suppose I’ve no other choice anymore. I’ll do my best…to believe you.”

     “Mâzjêr né,” I say, squeezing her hand. In return, she merely turns her head to the side towards the doorway, and gains an odd expression on her face.

     “Maiden M—” I say after a few moments, but she interrupts before I can finish.

     “Jéyu bon, Hikaru,” she says quietly, furrowing her brow before disappearing. Still not even looking my way.

     I turn around and sigh deeply, closing my bag.

     How much longer can this continue? Even when she seems to be doing better…but, she at least said she’ll try to believe I’m being honest. I guess that’s a start.

     I stand up and turn towards the door—and my heart nearly stops.

     Through the crack in the doorway I see her, green eyes wide and skin unnaturally faded. She blinks a moment before speaking.

     “A-Are you prepared to leave, Hikaru?” Suzette asks very quietly.

     “I am.”

     She doesn’t reply, but merely nods and exits the doorway. I can’t help but stand there a moment, completely dumbfounded. Maybe it’s nothing, but her reaction seems…off.

     Suzette’s seen me speak to the fae, to entities she can’t see, and I don’t think what I said to Maiden Moon was particularly concerning. Certainly it’s impossible she saw her too—right? But, if we truly are of the same Star…

     Regardless, I’m still wearing the necklace, and it would be especially suspicious if I took it off now. I guess all I can do for now is wonder.

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     “How long do you think it’ll take?” I hear Florence say as I begin to head down the stairs into the quiet, not yet opened shop.

     “Perhaps a couple of months, at the very most,” Suzette replies softly, “I do hope we return some time in autumn.”

     “I see,” he sighs, with what seems to be an air of sadness to his voice.

     “Is something the matter, Florence?”

     “It’s just—oh, you’re here,” he stops, and looks up to me as I come down the stairs. “Your timing is good, I suppose.”

     “What do you mean?”

     “There is something I must ask you two—would you like a carriage, to get wherever you’re going?”

     “Florence…” Suzette looks at him with a dejected face, “Can you afford such a thing?”

     “I can try!” he laughs, although it quite reminds me of myself—I can’t help but feel like he’s masking something deeper. “You know, so your journey will not take so long…”

     “We shall still return before Lêsh-Hyvêr, early winter—is that correct, Hikaru?”

     “Yes, it is.”

     “Oh…all right, then! Well…it was so nice seeing you again, Suzette,” he says with a smile, patting her shoulder and bringing her close, “And it was nice meeting you too, Hikaru. I’m happy Suzette has someone like you around.”

     “M-Mâzjêr,” I clumsily mutter, completely taken off guard for a moment.

     Even after all this time, I’m not entirely used to the kind things Suzette says about me, never mind anyone else…

     And before the confusion subsides, Florence ropes us both into a hard hug.

     “Well, if you so insist on walking, be fast, you hear? And don’t be strangers when you return, even if you do have your own place!”

     “Of course not!” Suzette laughs, hugging the both of us tighter. “Thank you so much again for letting us stay with you…”

     “No need for ‘thanks’, you’re welcome here any time,” he says while stepping away from us.

     “Vwâ Suzette, and Hikaru.”

     “Vwârdnie Florence,” Suzette and I both say together, as we at last step out of his shop.

     I’m surprised at how much of a strange feeling this is…

     It feels like I’m leaving home.

     I take a deep breath of the fresh morning air, and look into the distance of the rising dawn, the soft colors of sunlight beginning to pierce the blackness of the night.

     “Are you ready?” I ask, glancing down towards Suzette.

     “Absolutely,” she says with a glowing smile, and quickly takes my hand into hers—another foreign feeling. Even when we were young, Alex and I could obviously never go out in public so openly affectionate as this…I imagine Suzette remembers that too. Maybe that’s why, it seems, she is always so close to me, maybe even more so than you would expect—or maybe she really is just this affectionate regardless of time or place. I guess time will tell for certain.

     I squeeze her hand a little tighter, almost like she’s an apparition that will quickly fade from my grasp. It just feels like she’s too precious to be here at all, never mind with me…

     But here she is.

     “Did you enjoy yourself, Hikaru?” Suzette says looking up to me, still smiling sweetly.

     “I did,” I reply with a smile in return. “It’s…different.”

     “…In a good manner, I hope?”

     “Very much so,” I say, looking out into the distance. “For the first time in a long time, it actually felt like I had a family…”

     “It is certainly an odd feeling…” she adds quietly. “Of course, I was raised with him perpetually nearby, so I suppose I had assumed all would be much the same as when we were young—and yet…” she trails off, and doesn’t add more.

     “And yet?”

     “Having Florence once more, then nearly everyone I encountered in Bydlin appearing to like me, and atop of all this having you…it bears little resemblance to the world of my childhood. When I was so young, I did not realize the world could be so kind…”

     “Now you sound like me…” I chuckle—although the familiarity of her words sting. She shouldn’t be saying things like that…

     “I suppose so,” she laughs gently.

     “If it’s all right to ask, though—why did you think that?”

     “I am not like you…no one has ever merely hated me for simply existing—at least, one has never said someone is damned for having dark hair, I do not believe…” she nearly whispers, “Yet surely through my tales, you have noticed…few have ever been fond of me.”

     “Not just your family?”

     “Why do you believe I was wed to Marc? Ah, perhaps you do not realize…he was not an aristocrat. He was merely wealthy…yet I was married to him, because every nobleman refused. Every other prospective suitor had encountered me at some point; only Marc, who was entirely ignorant of me aside from the fact I am from a ‘notable family,’ agreed to wed me. Rejected by well over a dozen men…”

     “…That many?” I look down at her, not understanding in the slightest.

     Even from the moment I met her, it’s hard for me to imagine no one would want her for a wife—even if I am biased to an extent, that’s still…

     “You always appear to get upset when I speak of it,” she mutters. “I am small, plain, unsightly, embarrassing—as much as you say otherwise, it is merely the truth. I am not the kind of woman most enjoy…

     “I do not let it consume me because my goal is to merely become a baker. As long as others were not so cruel to me as my family, all would be well, so I suppose…not only that Florence still enjoys me, yet that Oskar, someone whom I never met, appeared to genuinely like me even after our first meeting, in addition to you…

     “Ah, forgive me,” she abruptly says, “I am merely prattling on, I suppose it is nothing.”

     “Is it?”

     “Others have been kind to me, along our journey, so I suppose it is nothing. I did not expect it to feel so genuine; not like they are merely being kind to a traveler, yet that perhaps, maybe I am not too sad to be around…

     “Ah, forgive me for doing it again—!”

     I slowly come to a stop, a chill shooting through my spine as memories of us begin to resurface.

     “Sometimes, it almost seems as though you believe you deserve your treatment. You speak of it much, like a mantra—”

     “I wish you would love yourself more, Hikaru. You…You do not deserve to feel so wretched, when there is nothing ill about you.”

     “Hikaru? Is all well?”

     I kneel down on the ground and abruptly pull her into an embrace.

     “I think I do understand you after all,” I whisper.

     “…Hmm?”

     “When we came together, we both said we couldn’t understand each other—but that’s not true, is it?”

     “Is it not?” she replies softly.

     “I don’t think we’re actually very different at all…

     “I’ve always been ostracized for what I am—for being albino, for being a foreigner, for loving men—where they’ve been more cruel to you for who you are; for being ‘small and plain’ as you say, not like the ideal noblewoman…”

     “That is…scarcely comparable,” she mutters unevenly, slightly startling me with how quickly it seems she’s cracking. “Wherever you go, you always worry about others harming you, merely for your very existence…I have never been concerned with such a thing…”

     “But it still hurts, doesn’t it?” I whisper, “You’re still crying.”

     Her body begins to go limp, so I sit down, still holding her gently—but she nearly collapses in my arms.

     “S-Stop it!” she stumbles, “Please cease pointing out…how pathetic I am, that I am so sensitive…that I cry so easily—that at a moment’s notice I…!”

     “Some would say a man is pathetic for crying at all, but even I must occasionally,” I whisper.

     “Yet…how many times have I fell apart in your arms the same as this? Or even more so…wept for little reason at all…?

     “This is why, Hikaru…my entire being is an embarrassment! Of course others would treat me as such…so no, I do not believe we are comparable…!

     “As long as I may survive doing what I enjoy…that does not matter, does it?”

     “If it didn’t matter, you wouldn’t be so happy about others being as kind to you as they should be…”

     “‘As they should be’…no, I believe they are merely as queer as you; it is nice, but…”

     “Now you sound exactly like me,” I say softly.

     “Suzette, you’ve told me before that I’ve taken what others have said about me to heart, but are you really different?”

     She pauses.

     “Yet, they are correct, regarding myself,” she whispers. “I-I am not quite sure what the point of this conversation is…”

     “That you should love yourself too.”

     She buries her face into my shoulder, shivering slightly.

     “It’s not a competition, Suzette…clearly you’re still hurt too—clearly you’re not in a terribly different position from me.”

     “Yet regardless, I may find a place in society; it is not like you, where if you believe what they say, you entirely isolate yourself in the wilderness…”

     “Please be honest with me,” I whisper,  “Are you really happy viewing yourself this way? Is it as all right as you say?”

     And at this…she completely falls into a sobbing fit.

     “Why are you doing this, Hikaru?!” she cries out—and suddenly, it feels like a dagger has been lodged in my chest. “It does not concern you, it does not concern us, therefore—is it truly so terrible…to ignore it as well as I may?”

     “You mean like how I did for years and years? Hiding away from others so I didn’t have to confront how different I was…how much it still hurt me?”

     She continues crying without another word; and all the while, a knot grows in my chest…

     This is what I’m doing to her, then—that “self-evident truth” that I belong nowhere, with no one…a belief that’s as real to me as her beliefs regarding herself. I never understood why she seemed so bothered by it—but, I think I understand now…

     If only I wasn’t so dense to not fully understand how much she was hurting…and how much I put my pain onto her.

     I take a deep breath.

     “Suzette…” I begin stroking her back, “You don’t have to live like this. It’s all right—no…it’s better to love yourself. Regardless of what anyone has ever said to you in the past, I promise you…I’m not the only one who finds you wonderful.”

     “What of you, then…?” she leans back from me and gazes up with bloodshot eyes, “I tell you the same, and you do not believe me, you merely think it is me being kind…”

     “Just like you are now.”

     She gazes away from me with a frown.

     “Maybe…we are quite alike…” she mutters.

     “But…” I begin, and take my hand to turn her face to me, “Maybe that means we can show each other how we look in one another’s eyes. Not everyone that hates us.”

     “…You may become a tad egotistical, then,” she chuckles, and I smile at the beautiful sound of her laughter.

     “That would better suit you,” I laugh in return, pulling her close, “When you’re confident, it’s the most beautiful thing…like when you’re baking, for example, you always look perfectly at home, assured in yourself—gracefully moving around the kitchen, delicately combining everything with a smile on your face.”

     “You describe me more like a dancer or artist…”

     “I guess so, although you’re far more lovely—as is what you make.”

     “Ah, now I know you are merely flattering me…”

     “I’m actually being mild.”

     “You are merely an odd man who loves wildflowers, is all…”

     “…What does that have to do with anything?”

     “Oh…I suppose that applies quite literally to you as well,” she sighs. “Wildflowers grow in unkempt places, plain and overlooked by most; not to be gazed upon and loved like those in a garden…”

     “Look at your own description of them,” I say, “Blooming resiliently, bringing color where there wasn’t any before—and even if others are too pretentious to look at them, would you say they’re any less beautiful? And does any of that diminish how much they help the bees, the Earth, the ways they’re use in medicine…they’re not just beautiful to look at, but in every way, they’re great, wouldn’t you say?”

     For a moment, she stays silent.

     “I suppose that was a foolish analogy to use with you…”

     “No—I really couldn’t think of a better one, to be honest. It even accounts for me,” I say now with a smile, “A strange man that loves them more than most, probably…but do you think I’m the only one that likes them? The only one that knows they have value?”

     I look down to her, and she gazes up at me wide eyed. Although I know she would tell me I’m still being too kind if I told her so…I really do find myself taken aback by her beauty.

     “If only I were as persuasive as you,” she whispers, “I suppose, even in spite of my own feelings…I understand.”

     “You are—you showed me what it’s like when the person you love most believes the worst about themselves…”

     “…You at last understand?”

     “I do. So, I’ll try to be kinder to myself, as you say…as long as you are to yourself too.”

     “Ah—for that,” she whispers, leaning up to me and putting her lips nearly to mine, “If it shall at last show you how marvelous you truly are, Hikaru…than I suppose I shall be gentler to myself as well.”

     I take the step to lean into her, kissing under the sunlight. It’s still a foreign sensation, the lingering sweetness of her lips—although whether it’s real or imagined, I can’t say.

     “Oh,” she mutters, pulling away from me, “I suppose perhaps we should continue on; we have barely left Bydlin…”

     “You’re right,” I sigh, “Pšyku, I guess I couldn’t—”

     “No, no,” she whispers, “Do not apologize for this. Truthfully…mâzjêr né, Hikaru,” she adds with a bright, wide smile.

     And with this she gets up, and I quickly follow suit.

     “It’s no problem at all,” I reach out my hand to her, which she quickly takes into her own.

     “I hope you do not mind if I am a tad slow,” she says, “It has been a little while since we have truly journeyed…”

     “You say that like I won’t be too,” I laugh. “But it is nice getting some real rest for a little while.”

     “Indeed!” she chirps as we begin walking. “Oh, and…I suppose that also applies to our conversation, as well…”

     “I know—if anyone knows how hard it is, I guess it’d be me…”

     “That is true,” she whispers, squeezing my hand a little tighter. “Yet perhaps we may become more kind to ourselves together,” she smiles sweetly, although it still seems to have the slightest hint of doubt.

     “We absolutely will,” I grin in return.

     That sort of doubt, that sort of dismissiveness to herself doesn’t suit her…

     And if it will make her feel better…I guess I can find a way to “love myself” too.

⋅•⋅⊰∙∘☽✧☾∘∙⊱⋅•⋅

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