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[String of Stardust]

~Suzette~

༻Chapter 39༺

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     {“Sâlêzj, what’s up? Want to come over tonight?

     We haven’t hung out in a little while.”

     I stare at the messages, readying my hands to reply something, anything…but nothing comes. I simply stare, the light singeing my eyes in the darkness.

     “yeah, that’d be fun”

     “pšyku, not feeling well right now”

     It is so simple. I need only a handful of words. It is not remotely difficult.

     Yet even so, it appears I have now become so deeply, terribly useless, I cannot even manage this much. It would appear I have lost the ability to do even the most simple of tasks.

     In frustration, I throw the ♫✧⚜ꕥൾ to the side of me, lay upon my back, and put my arm across my face. I would groan in annoyance, but such a thing would involve hearing my own voice…so I simply bite my lips and remain quiet. In truth, I would love to reply—I would love to see him, it would be much better than rotting within my bed, when it is quite early in the evening…but alas. For whatever reason, saying such feels like pulling teeth…

     So I remain, silently weeping in pathetic self pity.

     Please forgive that I am your friend, you should find someone better than myself…

     Thus I lay, the misery growing ever deeper—until, to my surprise, I hear a faint knock upon the door.}

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     I awake with a deep headache and a large frown on my face, as I attempt to remember the dream…

     My…are the Shadows themselves attempting to tell me something? What is this?

     Slowly I sit up and slump over, not quite ready to face the day yet. Luckily, today is a day of rest…perhaps unluckily, I am sure Alexa shall soon be up—if she is not already—and my peace will be quite short. Even so, I stretch out my limbs, feeling some relief as my body steadily sheds the stiffness of slumber. Suddenly, I notice something different: upon the other side of the bed sits neatly folded, white papers, so thin the phantom of writing can be seen upon the other side. I smile, although it is bittersweet…while I dearly wish to read his writing, his voice, I do not know if I have the heart for it so early in the morning. If his reply to my pleading is negative—no, I am not quite in a position to process such a prospect at the moment…

     I get out of bed and dress for the day and exit to the dining room; to my surprise, all remains perfectly peaceful the entire time. It would appear even Alexa is grateful for the extra rest, and I have no wish to interrupt her.

     So I go about my morning routine, making coffee filled with cocoa powder and cream, and a simple breakfast of bread and honey. Rather than remain in the dining room, I lightly tread through the house, and exit through the door which lies opposite from the front—this one leading to a thin side porch facing nothing but the forest. With a small creek, I gently sit down upon the simple wooden bench, and gaze into the woods…

     The dawn has barely awoken, and so only the faintest rosy rays descend into the forest, as spotted and colorful as a warm-hued quilt. Fog blankets all space left between the trees, and all is silent aside from the merry chirps of the birds. Slowly I take a sip of my coffee, its warmth contrasting starkly with the chilly air…for a precious moment, I feel entirely at peace. And so I continue thus, enjoying my breakfast, and the wonder of the autumn season. Once my breakfast is finished, I merely close my eyes and lay back a little, clasping my hands across my stomach, thinking nothing at all.

     “You awake?”

     Suddenly I scramble, startled by the voice, not expecting—

     “O-Oskar?” I stammer, and walk to the edge of the railing. Surely enough, there he is below, both hands upon his hips and leaning on one leg. He gazes upon me with an odd look, his eyebrow raised.

     “You didn’t sleep there the whole night, did you?”

     “N-No,” I stumble again, squinting my eyes at the sunlight which now assaults them. “What are you doing here, so early in the morning?”

     “It ain’t that early at all; pretty sure it’s later now than when I saw you yesterday,” he grins.

     I frown…I did not believe I had fallen back asleep, but I suppose I must. I hope Alexa is still asleep as well…

     “I see…” I reply softly.

     “So,” he continues on, “We was wondering—want to come spend time with me and Florence? Y’know, since you’re off today, and you ain’t been around too much lately…”

     I blink, and it suddenly feels as though I am swirling like a leaf on the wind.

     Now this is definitely déjà vu…!

     My first instinct is to decline; and yet, I know this is surely what my dream was warning me against. And besides, he is right here, and not through…whatever that strange object was.

     “I would love to,” I reply. It feels like a lie—but, the truth of the matter is…it is true. Of course it is. I do not truly wish to witness my few friendships lapse…although, for some dreadful reason, that seems to be my impulse as of late.

     “Please wait by the front door,” I begin, “While I prepare Alexa, and…”

     And dress!

     Suddenly my face grows hot with horrific embarrassment, as I suddenly realize I have been in my nightclothes this entire time; they are not especially immodest, luckily, yet…how could I be so careless?

     “You sure you’re all right?” Oskar frowns, “Y’seem a little—”

     “I am well,” I grin unconvincingly, “I shall see you in a few moments.”

     I scramble to return indoors, not even bothering to also grab the dishes, I realize too late. I put my hand to my cheek and sigh, feeling ever more horrid by the second.

     I have always been an embarrassing sight, for true—yet have I always been such a mess?

     Now I truly wish to descend under the covers, and not leave the house for the rest of the day. But, I am sure Alexa would enjoy seeing her uncle; as I do as well, in spite of these feelings…

     And those dreams…I do wonder if they are sending me a message after all. At least, it certainly seems so with last evening’s…

     So I take a deep breath and bury my pride, and begin readying myself to leave.

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     Steadily Oskar, Alexa, and myself walk along the forest path in the shimmering sunlight.

     “Excited to see your uncle?” Oskar looks back to Alexa with a smile, attempting to be sociable. In return, she drowsily nods her head…unlike yesterday, where she was full of boundless energy, today she can scarcely keep her eyes open as she far overslept. I simply gaze ahead with a frown. I suppose it is better than her not sleeping enough, but I still know how oversleeping may negatively affect one as well…all I wish is to see her do better than myself, yet if I cannot get even myself in order—

     “Suzette,” Oskar now says, “What’re you thinkin’ about?”

     “Little,” I sigh.

     Little worth discussing.

     “Still a bit tired, I reckon?”

     “Yes,” I reply with a joyless chuckle. “I drank coffee when I had awoken, I have no idea how I once more fell asleep…”

     “Well at least you’re not workin’ today,” Oskar says, “So it ain’t no big deal.”

     “If you so say,” I sigh under my breath to myself.

     “You think so?” he replies regardless, gazing back to me.

     “W-Well, look at Alexa…she appears quite miserable.”

     At the sound of her name, she looks up to me, seemingly a little startled—though she has been dutifully walking beside myself, I wonder how awake she truly is.

     “Will we be there soon?” she frowns. “I’m hungry…”

     Now I truly wish to bash my head into one of the nearby trees.

     How could you be so selfish to make breakfast for yourself, only to let your daughter oversleep?

     “We’re almost there,” Oskar answers for me. “See them houses? It won’t be too long now, then you’ll get more to eat.”

     “All right!” Alexa answers not with her usual level of enthusiasm, but much more than she offered before.

     With this, Oskar slows down, coming to walk beside me instead of ahead.

     “Suzette,” he whispers, “Talk to me.”

     “About?”

     He furrows his brow, and glares down to me with his deep brown eyes.

     “I know you’s pretty stressed,” he says, “But there’s still somethin’ so…off about you lately.”

     “Can this not wait until we reach Florence’s home?” I mutter. I do not wish to sound prickly, yet… “I believe I am…simply hungry as well. It is nothing deeper, truly.”

     He squints his eyes at me, yet says nothing more. And so, we complete our walk to Florence’s home in silence, while numerous thoughts swirl within my mind…

     Why are you being so dreadfully rude, when he is merely attempting to help?

     Yet I did not ask for help—

     We should simply be at home right now…

     Onwards and onwards, they whirl and twirl; and another thought, too, comes within my mind…

     I finally had some peace this morning, and yet with each passing moment I grow ever more irritable… My, I wonder if this is what Hikaru’s thoughts are like. Why he, too, becomes so often gripped by melancholy…

     Luckily, however, before I realize we find ourselves upon the doorstep of Florence’s home, the little tailor shop near the outskirts of Bydlin.

     Oskar walks up first, and raises his fist to knock; but, before he may even touch it—

     “Sâlêzj!” Florence exclaims, swinging open the door bearing a carefree grin.

     “Florence!” Suddenly, Alexa is quite full of life—she runs past me, hopping straight into Florence’s arms. He, meanwhile, lifts her up high into the air, and brings her down in a large embrace.

     “Have I seen you before?”

     “You know it’s me!” she laughs, and he joins along—the sounds of their shared happiness fill the otherwise quiet, peaceful streets. I grin at their joy, as sweet as summer honey…yet even such a saccharine sight stabs as sharply as a honeybee’s stinger.

     I wish I could elicit such joy from her as well…yet, it is quite plain to see why that is not the case. Silently, tears begin to well within my eyes, my emotional fragility becoming ever more cracked and pathetic…

     Soon, however, once they are finished, Florence pulls me into a warm, tight embrace as well.

     Though I have come to avoid others as of late, the touch of another nearly melts me…

     “I can’t believe you’re here!” Florence says with a chuckle. “Did Oskar bribe you or something?”

     “W-What? No, of course n—”

     Before I may finish my sentence, Florence interrupts with an even louder laugh.

     “Oh please, Suzette, you know I’m joking. That said—I am happy you decided to come by,” he adds with a pat on the back.

     “You’s real lucky,” Oskar says, “I found her passed out on the porch.”

     Quickly I glare at Oskar, feeling as though my head will implode from the embarrassment. But to my great relief, Florence does not laugh this time.

     “I don’t blame you!” he says as we begin to walk inside, “I would too if I had one. It was a great morning today.”

     As we talk thus, Alexa wildly scurries past us, through the tailor shop and up the stairs which lead to Florence’s residence proper. Florence ceases speaking as her stomping resounds all around us.

     “Well she’s a little overeager today—even more so than usual.”

     “She is hungry…” I sigh softly.

     “We can fix that right up!” he chimes, and I simply nod in return.

     As we ascend up the stairs, he and Oskar begin to speak with one another; yet what of, I admittedly do not know… I have difficulty following their conversation as my head swarms with empty feelings, and nary a whiff of thought. Though I miss Florence quite a bit—and Oskar too—some sad part of myself wishes to leave Alexa here, allow her to enjoy herself, and for myself to merely return home where I belong…

     As we enter his home, we eat his already prepared lunch, rather bland porridge. I feel horrendously rude, as it is difficult not to grimace a little as I eat; Florence is truly not one for cooking…regardless, it does satiate my hunger, and Alexa devours it eagerly, seemingly without issue. I eat quietly, enjoying their company—and yet, internally, I begin withering…

     Remember when you could converse with them happily? When you were pleasant to be around? What happened to that woman?

     Now you are simply an object of pity! Why else would they lure you from home, do you truly believe they may enjoy your company like this? Of such a feeble, unsightly woman, that spends her days blindly waiting for one who may never return?

     I stay in place, scarcely paying attention to anything around me, quivering at my own thoughts… No, I interject, They do love me, truly; they would not have done so much as they have if it was only for pity…yes?

     “Suzette?” Florence says, piercing through my thoughts and abruptly returning me to the dining room. “Are you all right? You look ill…”

     Now I am at last truly able to gaze at those around me, no longer clouded by my own thoughts. Florence bears quite an upset expression, while Alexa looks rather surprised. Oskar’s expression is much harder to place. I cannot tell if he is upset, or annoyed—which only serves to make me feel worse.

     “I feel unwell,” I reply softly, with a frown. “My stomach is rather upset…”

     …At least the preceding statement is not a lie.

     “Please forgive me,” I continue on, standing up, while my reason assaults me.

     I should not be doing this—I truly do miss them dearly. They are correct, I should not be alone so often…

     “…I believe I would prefer to rest at home. Would you mind bringing Alexa home later, or perhaps tomorrow if she wishes to spend the evening here?”

     “Not at all,” Florence says, getting up and coming around to me. To my surprise, he gives me another hug, although I have been nothing but quiet and distant this entire time…

     Once more, it takes all my strength not to entirely collapse into sobs within his arms.

     “Please get well soon, Suzette,” he says, pulling away from me with a warm, gentle smile. To my surprise, I soon feel Alexa to the side of me, pushing herself into me as she gives the largest hug she can muster.

     “Sâ pšyku, Mama…” Alexa apologizes, “We’ll get you good food next time, then you’ll feel better!”

     I cannot help but gasp a little at her statement—I suppose she enjoyed Florence’s porridge about as much as I, but to say as much—!

     Luckily, now Florence laughs louder than he has during this entire visit—I suppose he too is well aware of his lack of cooking prowess.

     “We’ll get you and your mama good food next time, don’t worry,” Florence grins. “Now you go back and rest up, Suzette. We’ll be back around dinner time, does that work?”

     I nod.

     “Mâzjêr vrémond né, I know this is—”

     “No, no, don’t go apologizing now. It’s okay,” Florence says quite tenderly. “I understand completely.”

     Somehow, I feel he also knows I am not quite being honest about what is bothering me…

     Conspicuously, I notice Oskar says nothing, and indeed it appears he does not react at all this entire time. Rather, his gaze is away from us, looking somewhere in the distance.

     With a few more farewells, I descend down the stairs, into Florence’s tailor shop. For a moment, I pause.

     Do I truly wish to leave them, when they are so kind, when I miss them so dearly…?

     I take a deep breath, and step towards the door.

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     Alone I walk through Bydlin, and down the narrow dirt path which leads to a few scattered homes. And once one goes even further still, to the cusp of human civilization, therein lies my home.

     I take the path slowly, bearing little thought to speed; as I do so, the gentle warmth grows steadily colder, and the once pleasant breeze shifts to chill winds which nip through my clothes, to my skin, and bring smatterings of leaves into my hair. My mood is so dreary, I cannot bring myself to take them out. Instead, I merely gaze up to the gray Sky, the darkened clouds—oh, they truly fit the scene so well…

     The entire time, I scarcely think any thoughts at all. Instead, it is like I am steadily being consumed by a dark aura, some wayward spirit latching to myself, slowly preparing its prey, ready to make my body its own. Yet of course, there are no such spirits here; for that, in truth, would be a relief. For such a spirit would be an outside entity, and may be able to be dealt with—what may one do when the monster is within you, your mind devouring itself whole?

     I attempt to remain steady, all the way until I reach home. Luckily, just barely, I do so…and then I ascend up the porch, and walk into the dark house.

     The door closes. I stand in the doorway, moving not an inch.

     And then, I collapse.

     “Why?!” I cry out, pathetically balled up, my head in my palms, “What is the matter with me, why can I not just remotely be normal?

     “I received a message…and I ignored it! I knew precisely what to do, and yet—!”

     “Hey,” a voice says, and I nearly jump out of my skin. In front of me sits Maiden Moon, also upon the floor.

     “Did you wish to see me sob yet again?” I mutter, “Is it truly that entertaining?”

     At this, she looks rather uncomfortable…

     “Not at all,” she frowns. “It’s terrible seeing you like this.”

     I gaze away and remain silent for a moment, unsure precisely what to say to this.

     “…Truly?”

     “I can assure you I wouldn’t be sitting here on the floor just for the fun of it.”

     Exasperatedly, she blows at the strand of wavy, silvery hair that flows down the front of her face.

     “After all this time, I can’t fathom why you still seem to think I’m out to get you.”

     Once more I stay quiet.

     It is true, she has done so much to help Hikaru and I, now—but she always seems so terribly frustrated…

     “So,” she interrupts my thoughts, “Same as before, I’m assuming?”

     “Yes…” I reply, closing my eyes in a poor attempt to cease the tears from falling. “I do not know what to do anymore…I have never been this way in the whole of my life, even in the deepest depths of my misery—

     “Ah,” I continue on, musing more to myself, “It is odd to think back to how Hikaru was, how baffled and saddened I was that his melancholy clung to him like a specter; yet you were correct, now I am truly the same as he. So much so that now I, too, cannot help but shutter myself away, unable to face the world, face those I love…

     “I do not understand how I have grown ever more weak…why must I rely on another thus? Why can I not be stronger?”

     Maiden Moon says nothing for some time, and I presume she would not answer at all. Yet just as I go to speak once more, she replies.

     “You thought your life was some faerie story, but instead you were forced to face reality. It’s…difficult,” she adds with a pained whisper. “It can break a person.”

     “So…” I gaze up to her, to her pale, delicate face, “Do you believe all would perhaps be better if I at last give up? To truly embrace reality?”

     “Please,” she chuckles and rolls her eyes. “You’re not that far gone, and neither is that faerie story of yours. I would know…you’re far from hopeless yet.”

     I frown and gaze away from her, as I sense a tinge of—something in her voice. It is difficult to precisely place…

     “I am so weary of this,” I whisper, “I wish he would at last just come home; and if he yet refuses, well—I wish I may at last move on from the whole affair so maybe, perhaps, I may find myself yet again…”

     I take a sharp breath and my heart ties in knots, as I truly realize what I am saying.

     Moving on from the whole affair would mean…

     “Did you read the letter?” Maiden Moon abruptly asks.

     “I have not, I do not have the heart to…do you happen to know what it says?”

     “No,” she replies. “But I wouldn’t get so gloomy.”

     She inhales and closes her eyes.

     “You really don’t believe me when I say he’s enamored by you, do you?”

     “How am I supposed to, when he—when he has you?”

     “Me?” Her eyes shoot open, and she furrows her brow in anger, “You truly think he gives a single shit about me?!”

     I blink, taken quite aback by her sudden fury.

     “H-He has always cared so deeply for you, you have known him far longer than I…”

     Although it is subtle, I notice Maiden Moon claw at her dress.

     “Gods, I think you might be even worse than him,” she grumbles. “Don’t make me say it again and again.

     “Just go read that letter,” she says. “If you don’t like what it says…well, I’m sure you can summon me somehow,” she adds with a wave of her hand, and dissolves with a puff of light.

     I take a shaky breath, thinking of our conversation…suddenly, an odd mixture of guilt and relief washes over me. It appears she is still quite taken with him, in spite of her less than kind comments made his way. Yet also, I cannot imagine she would respond to my statements in such a manner, if he returned this sentiment after all…

     But, I truly did not mean to mock her, when it does appear she was simply attempting to help…

     My…I truly cannot interact with anyone, can I?

     With some effort I steadily lift from the floor. Without even caring to dust myself off, I slowly step through the house, towards my bedroom, to the lull of the soft bed which seems to gently call my name—

     And the letter upon it which I cannot avoid any longer.

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     For the rest of the day I lay in bed, staying still for so long, it makes my legs quite sore from the lack of movement. In my hand I hold the letter, reading the words over and over again, until my eyes can scarcely see, and the room becomes a blur.

     So many words wedge themselves within my mind, and do not release for anything.

     I have to be honest with you, Suzette…I’m still terrified. I thought time would assuage my fears—but I couldn’t be more wrong. My fears, and the guilt of being your other Star at all, it’s…

     Well…I’m not sure what I feel really matters at this point. Because regardless…

     Here, the writing ceases being neat and deliberate. Here, the letters nearly become elaborate swirls, written with rapid speed, and little care for their legibility. Yet it feels as though their message is being spoken to me instead, in a soft, deep voice…

     …I will do my best to return home soon. It may take some time, to gather money for the fees, and the normal time it takes to travel such a distance. But I will promise you this—by this season next year, and hopefully far sooner, should I live to then…I’ll be home. On my soul, I promise you, Suzette.

     Though by now I have stared at the letter for what seems to be hours, it feels no more real. And my feelings…ah, as always it seems, they still do not appear to make any sense.

     I should be elated, relieved—and I cannot say I feel none of that. Yet I suppose…perhaps I am too embroiled in shock.

     After all these seasons…could it be true? May I allow myself to believe that it is true, that no ill will befall us—that possibly, somehow, we may return to the future we were always meant to have? Or rather, at least…the one I have been wishing for, at first silently, and then openly, for—if I am being truly honest, nearly a dozen years? As now, with the cursed gift of hindsight, it is embarrassingly obvious how I was smitten nearly from the moment we met…

     Should he truly make the journey well, may we at last know peace? Will the dark spirits infesting our minds, his and mine both, tainting the world with sorrow and emptiness—shall they truly be quelled? Or…will all remain as it is? Will the wounds from this absence be too great?

     Are my dreams, these tender childish dreams, already a rotting corpse, and I am too blinded by love to sincerely face the wretched truth?

     I close my eyes, ignoring the stinging of my tears.

     I sincerely hope you know, Hikaru, that I take you full at your word…

     I understand the terror, the pain…yet I do not know how long I may continue thus either.

     Suddenly, from the other end of the house, I hear a faint knock upon the door. I am taken a little aback, quickly being reminded of this morning’s dream; yet, it is a bit of a silly association. Florence said he was returning Alexa around supper time, after all.

     So I lift myself and wipe my eyes, attempting to look at least marginally presentable. Without too much haste, I exit the bed, taking a moment to let the blood flow through my dormant legs once more. Just before I at last arrive, suddenly I hear furious knocking—and the muffled sound of Florence’s voice. Though I cannot hear the words, his tone is clearly that of scolding; rather gently so, yet scolding nonetheless.

     I open the door, and then—

     “Mama!” Alexa exclaims, and rushes past Florence, roughly engulfing me in a hug. “Are you all right, do you feel better?”

     I blink a little, perhaps a tad more surprised than I should be. Being with Florence, and the joy that always brings her, I suppose I assumed she would forget about my present state… As much as her apparent concern does uplift me, I must admit I would rather not linger upon her questioning.

     “I am,” I lie. “Did you have a nice day with Florence?”

     I gaze up to him, and see now that he is carrying a rather large ceramic pot, covered with a lid. I blink a little in astonishment at the fact that he has carried it all the way here; it appears quite heavy, and his home is still a little distance away.

     “Yeah,” Alexa replies, “We cooked dinner for you!”

     I grin, although it is a little mixed; of course I appreciate the thought, yet—

     “Oskar cooked it,” Florence clarifies. “I just helped get the ingredients, if that’s any comfort.”

     “Oh!” I say with a tad more relief than I wished to portray—I have never eaten Oskar’s cooking, yet he does at least mix drinks quite well. So, though it may be optimistic, perhaps with food he may also have some skill…

     “Where is he, then? Did he not come along?”

     “He seemed a bit worn out,” Florence replies. “He went home for the night.”

     “Ah, I see,” I say, hoping to once more not betray my true feelings.

     How…odd.

     Oskar is perhaps a bit of a unique person in general, for certain—always having this detached, cool air about him; the way his age is so bizarrely difficult to place, being clearly an adult and yet still having an oddly boyish appearance and voice. After these years, I have become quite used to him, and I do believe I know him decently well.

     And yet, very recently, I truly cannot read him at all. He is as inscrutable as a tome written in Asàshían.

     His uncharacteristically impassioned proposition at the bakery, then paired with his pure placidity when I left Florence’s house—that he went through the trouble of cooking supper for me, and yet his avoidance of coming and partaking in it, even though it is truly not terribly late in the evening.

     What are his thoughts, his feelings? Why is he acting so queerly?

     I wish I could ask; yet alas, it seems he is both drawn to me and repelled from me in equal measure. I do not understand it.

     “Do come in!” I abruptly say to Florence, stepping out of the way and halting my ceaseless thoughts. “You shall be staying for dinner, yes?”

     Even if earlier I left of my own accord, now that I am by Florence once more—like a wave, I am reminded of just how much I have missed his company. I see him for at least a few short moments nearly every day, and yet the time we sincerely spend together is so sparse. Though I have lived here for some time now, still there are dreadfully few people I would consider a true friend—and certainly, beyond Alexa of course, Florence is my only family…well, anywhere. None of my relatives beyond these two are deserving of the word.

     Considering this, guilt grips me tighter and tighter, until my chest feels as though it is thoroughly encased by a serpent.

     Florence waits a moment to answer, until he has entered the dining room, and set down the rather heavy looking pot.

     “Well, I was hoping you’d let me!”

     “Let you?” I ask rather incredulously, attempting to ignore my feelings, “You truly give me no credit at all!”

     After a moment of jesting, I call Alexa to the table, and the three of us partake in Oskar’s meal.

     To my surprise, I find it does not merely taste good, but delicious—it is a rich fish stew, filled to the brim with fresh vegetables and a surprising number of herbs and spices, coming together to create a vivid, savory flavor. Though it is perhaps a tad conceited to express it thus, I do not believe I have eaten anything so lovely that was not created by myself since I was a noblewoman.

     The exquisite meal, and Florence’s joyful mood, do much to uplift me, and distract me from my dreadful thoughts; yet of course, it can only do so much. That, and something else gnaws at the recesses of my mind as well: I wonder if Oskar saved any of our supper for himself. It would be a tad sad for him to clearly put in so much effort, only to not benefit at all. And, that is another thing…if he did not, I wonder why he would go to such lengths? Yes, to be kind, yet—my, this seems a little too kind for someone such as myself… I know I am pitiable, but is it truly this much?

     Regardless, the evening truly is joyful, as Florence, Alexa, and myself talk about everything and nothing. Once we have our fill, I prepare to put Alexa to bed; luckily, it seems the meal has made her quite sleepy, and it is easier than usual to put her to sleep.

     I return to the dining room, preparing to say my farewells to Florence; but to my surprise, he speaks first.

     “Are you heading off to bed soon too?”

     “Not immediately—why?”

     “There’s something I’d like to talk with you about.”

     Slowly, I sit down with a frown, already guessing the nature of this conversation before it transpires.

     “You weren’t really sick earlier, were you?” he says quietly, perhaps to make sure Alexa should not hear.

     For a moment, I mull over his words. Yes, my stomach was not upset as I had said; yet, I am not sure I can say I was not unwell…

     “Not in the sense I expressed, no,” I acquiesce softly. “Yet I was feeling poorly, yes…but it is nothing to worry about. Truly.”

     Florence gives me a rather unamused stare.

     “Well, even if you think that, it hasn’t stopped us from worrying.”

     “‘Us?’ You and Oskar?”

     “Yes, why?”

     “You discuss me when I am not around? Am I…truly that worrisome?” I mutter, guilt pouring over me like a frigid winter rain. “You need not pity me so much, please…”

     “I’m not sure I can say I pity you,” he says. “Well, not to be cruel, it’s just—you’re not a pitiable person. You’re quite capable.”

     “That is a lovely thing to say, yet how can it be sincere?”

     He puts his face against his palm, and raises his eyebrow. “You’ve been running a bakery and raising a child largely alone, and are only just recently beginning to show any struggle. That’s pretty remarkable.”

     I gaze into his warm, coffee colored eyes, through the light of the lamp reflecting off of his spectacles.

     I suppose that is true…

     “I think—and I could be wrong, but…I think your heart is too big for your own good, Suzette.”

     “What do you mean?”

     “I can’t say this is all because of him, but…” he frowns, keeping his eyes fixated upon myself, “Much of this is due to Hikaru, isn’t it?”

     I bite my lips, unable—or unwilling—to speak.

     “I might be wrong,” he says after some time, “But…I like to think I know you pretty well, by now.”

     “Why do you think it is due to him?” I say in a deathly quiet, creaky voice. “I hardly speak of him.”

     “But you used to,” he says. “And you wear that ring wherever you go…I don’t think I’ve seen you without it in years.”

     I gaze down upon it, the small, golden posy ring, decorated with spring green leaves and rosy blossoms. I hold in a sigh, remembering the inscription upon the inside, words which have been exchanged far too often; particularly when one considers their meaning, and not merely the words themselves—

     “Yéškâ prêzjên sâze jéitsi”—“until we meet again.”

     “It is a lovely ring; it would be a shame not to wear it.”

     “Suzette…”

     “I know, I am truly ridiculous,” I mutter. “You need not tell me…I know.”

     “I don’t think you’re ridiculous,” Florence replies. “I know you two were close for a long time.”

     Though I attempt not to, I cannot help but softly chuckle at this—even now, he does not know the full extent of the truth of this statement. I know not how to tell him, and not sound entirely mad…

     “We were,” is all I can find myself answering, in a voice that even surprises me with the depth of its weariness.

     “Is he…ever planning on returning to you, Suzette?”

     Now, I smile with a small bit of genuine joy.

     “Actually…” I say, “Earlier, I received a letter from him—he said he is planning on returning by this time next year, or earlier if time permits it.

     “I—I am both relieved and terrified,” I express without a hint of thought. I open my eyes wide, once I realize I have shared it.

     “Why is that?”

     “I cannot help—I cannot help but wonder if we may return to as we were before,” I stutter, attempting to hold these feeble emotions together. “I have awaited so long, and yet—shall it be worth it? Shall he truly come at all?

     “I wish to believe in him so deeply, and yet—”

     Florence sighs, interrupting me. At this, I shrink away, slinking back into the wooden dining chair…

     “You truly do think I am terribly foolish…” I whimper, feeling like a poor creature left alone in a thunderstorm: small, meek…and so very, very cold.

     “Stop that,” Florence snaps, somehow both forcefully and lightly all at once. “I don’t think you’re foolish, or ridiculous, or any of these awful things you keep saying, all right? I just think you deserve someone who will meet your needs—”

     “So…” I say, gazing his way, “You believe I—we should…”

     “I never said that,” he frowns. “Unless this goes on for too much longer, longer than you can handle…”

     I remain dreadfully silent.

     “That…was the plan, yes. If he does not keep his promise…”

     “All right then,” Florence sighs. “That’s good to know.

     “Sâ pšyku,” he apologizes, “I’m not meaning to be pushy, I just…you did tell me what you did before. How you stayed in an arranged marriage for years with a horrific man, just because of our family.”

     Oh yes, I think to myself. Somehow, I scarcely think of that now…

     “I know you can endure a lot if you’re willing,” he continues on. “But you shouldn’t have to. We’ve all noticed how withdrawn you’ve become…the reason it seems all the world must comment on it is because—nobody wishes to see you like this, Suzette. And if he is true, I don't believe he would either.”

     “I will do my best,” I weakly smile, “I will stop being a nuisan—”

     “If you don’t stop that I will get you,” he laughs—although, it is quite clear his words are not at all a joke. “We wouldn’t be so worried if you were so bothersome; we’d be grateful for the relief. And besides—”

     At this, he reaches over the table and grasps my hand tight. “Especially for me—we’re family, Suzette. You and Alexa are the only one I have. So even if you wanted to be a nuisance to me, I expect it at least a little,” he chuckles.

     At this, I smile widely—perhaps the most genuine one I have been able to muster all day. Of all the reassuring words I have received today, for some reason it is these which truly uplift me the most.

     “Mâzjêr vrémond né, Florence,” I reply. “Then, I think I shall try to come around more, and be a bit of a nuisance—just hopefully not too much.”

     “That works!” he replies happily and stands up, stretching his limbs. “Please forgive me for getting so serious right before leaving. I just couldn’t go on without addressing it.”

     Without a word I stand up, and walk over to give him a hug one final time. For a moment, an odd sense of familiarity envelops me, as I am reminded of when we were children—or when I was a child, at least, as even he is still over a decade older than myself. It is a strange feeling, for so much has changed since then, since the time before he first left.

     “Please do not apologize,” I say. “I feel better than I have all day…so thank you, sincerely.”

     “I’m happy to help, then,” he replies with a sunny smile. “Vwârdnie, Suzette.”

     “Vwârdnie, Florence,” I bid farewell in return. And now, that the Sun is well set and the night is fully upon us, Florence returns home. As for myself, I slowly sway to the bedroom, and prepare myself for bed.

     Once more, I slip into the bed, the ethereally soft covers surrounding me in warmth. I stare at the ceiling, into the darkness, attempting to gather my thoughts.

     No matter what may transpire, I truly wish to continue pass this, this horrendous sadness. Even if he shall never return again, I do not wish to let that forever haunt me—it is not as though he is all I have, after all. Florence, Alexa—perhaps Oskar, if he ceases acting so strangely, and Maiden Moon too if she is not too upset with me…

     And, it is as she said…it may not be so hopeless yet. Perhaps I should have more faith…he has given a year. So I shall, too, give him a year. And, if he shall break his promise…

     By the standards of many, especially for women, I am not particularly young. Yet I certainly hope I have much life ahead of me yet; and so, I shall hold on to that hope for certain, if no other. At the very least, I am not alone; that so many concern themselves with me so dearly…it gives me a pang of guilt. Their kindness is more deserving towards others; yet…perhaps I am selfish. I do not wish to always swat it away, condemning them all and forever remaining in my withered, cracked shell. And so…I will welcome their kindness openly. And too, I will attempt to become one more worthy of receiving it…

     Thinking over everything, a lightness fills my chest, a faint, glowing hope for the future. I already have practically all I could ever wish for at the moment…if my mind will at last be well, I will have gained all. I will have found that “happy ending” after all. And so I shall grasp it like a lantern in the darkness, never letting go.

     As I think these thoughts, and my mind steadily becomes overtaken by sleep, for some odd reason it returns to my odd dreams, especially the one of this morning. I have a silly thought—yes, while these dreams do appear to mean something after all, they are mere dreams. And yet…

     In my last conscious moments, I hope somewhere, the “me” of that dream was visited by a friend who uplifted them as much as I have been this evening. That they too may find a moment of peace.

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