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[String of Stardust]

~Suzette~

༻Chapter 40༺

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     {“Come on!” he exclaims while tugging my arm, attempting to force me to move from the side of the building and into the crowd before us.

     I gaze onward with some awe; this festival, it is truly unlike anything I have ever seen…almost. For some reason it feels faintly familiar, although I cannot parse why—for it is like nothing I have witnessed in the whole of my life.

     Waves of people flood into the barred-off streets, washing the world in their bright, joyous colors, as though begging any and all to gaze upon them alone. All around us they talk, they laugh, and put upon displays I never once thought I may ever see in so public a place as this—nearby, I cannot help but fixate upon the sight of two men intertwined with one another. The taller leans in for a kiss, and the shorter happily obliges, not caring a whit that they are around so many people… Envy smolders in my chest like a raging azure flame.

     I wonder how life would have gone differently if we had lived in an era more like this…

     “You should go on without me,” I mumble, unsure if he is able to hear me through the cacophony of the elated masses. “I—I believe you belong in a place like this more than I.”

     “What?” he laughs, flashing to me his ever sunny smile, “Aren’t you—”

     “W-Well, sure, maybe,” I quickly stutter, cutting him off. Although, do I truly wish for all the world to know this? “It is merely…look at everyone, they are all having a wonderful time. I’m not so…”

     Cheerful. Fun. Pleasant.

     You are like a dark, bulbous cloud on a bright day, bound to downpour upon anyone unlucky enough to be by your side. You should return home, and cease bringing everyone down with you.

     “Sâ pšyku vrémond,” I blurt out my apology, sharply pulling away from him, running away from him as if in a panic. Swiftly I am entirely overcome with embarrassment at my own words.

     Who says “pšyku” like that anymore? Gods, no need to sound as dreadful and ancient as you truly are!

     “Wait—!”}

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     Wildly I flail about in the bed, for a moment having absolutely no awareness of where I am, why the world has suddenly grown so terribly dark and cold. I sigh and lay back down, as I once more get a grasp that this is truly reality. As has become the ritual by now, I gaze over to my alarm clock: almost, yet not quite, five in the morning. Once more I lay upon my back, and frown…if I were to work today, this would be quite all right; and yet, that is not the case at all. Today is the day of the Harvest Festival; and so, to conserve my energy, I wished to sleep in, be well rested…I suppose time will tell if my wish shall come to fruition.

     I close my eyes, and think back to the odd dream. My, it seems they only grow ever more bizarre all the time…

     A massive festival, with hundreds upon hundreds of people—with men embracing, kissing one another, out in the open? I can scarcely believe it! How on Earth did my mind ever concoct such a scenario—?

     Though it was quite overwhelming, it was charming too…I wonder if perhaps, some day, this world truly can become so free. What a lovely, optimistic vision.

     Thinking of that, I now consider something else as well…was I a man in the dream? Yes, thinking upon it—I suppose my voice, in this particular set dreams, has always been masculine… For some reason, I had never considered upon this at all. In all the dreams of this kind, I have felt some degree of uncomfortableness, yet not—not for that reason, I do not believe? It is so very odd to think about…these dreams, I—I am quite certain they are me, yes? It feels like myself, whenever I have them, like any other dream, almost; it is merely the aura about them which is so odd…I had thought. Yet I am not a man, surely…

     Regardless, all of these strange factors…they are irrelevant, I know. The lesson of this dream is quite clear: I had run away from the festival, for I believed I was so dour, it would merely cause everyone around me to become miserable. So I suppose, with today’s festival, I need not do that; I should stay and ignore whatever wretched thoughts may arise. That is what I believe I am being told.

     I open my eyes, and gaze towards the ceiling, so dark that it scarcely makes a difference that my eyes are open at all. I frown, and my head hurts slightly as I consider over my predicament.

     Recently, I have become a little better in regards to not isolating myself so terribly. I spend time with Florence at least a few days each week, and Oskar—well. He has acted quite odd as of late, yet I have attempted to spend time with him as well, when he himself is not being so distant. So surely, today’s festival shall go well, yes?

     Yet somehow, I have a feeling that, like the last time I had a dream this relevant, I shall ignore my divine message, and fail yet again…

     Shedding my thoughts, I lay upon my side, away from the door and towards the window, the barest hint of the Moon’s light glowing through the edges of the curtain. I close my eyes, attempting to sleep for a few hours more.

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     “This need not be so difficult…” I huff under my breath, as I stand over the open drawer of my dresser, gazing over the rows of neatly folded gowns. Recently, I find myself simply wearing and cleaning the same few, rather dull dresses over and over, caring little of my appearance beyond being clean and presentable. Yet, today is a festival, after all—and I do miss wearing clothing that is not so dreadfully utilitarian…

     I hover my fingers over them, frustratingly gripped by indecision. That is, until I come upon one dress, and a gentle, nostalgic vision flutters into my mind. The dress is a dusty pink, much like the one I always wore during that journey that now appears almost as though it is from another lifetime, that feels nearly as distant as Alex’s is to me now. Although this dress is different, as that one had ceased to fit some time ago, and is quite worn besides; now, it merely lies at the end of a different drawer, a small memento of those joyful mornings and evenings spent in the wild places of the world. Jolting myself from my nostalgic reverie, and growing a little annoyed at my own indecisiveness, I roughly pluck the gown and hurriedly put it on.

     After dressing and adjusting the gown, tying together the light rosy sash and ribbons—one for my neck, and another for my hair, I turn to look in the mirror. To my surprise, without even a thought, I grin at the sight, and a surge of confidence bolts through me. Rather than appearing like some austere, amorphous little thing, as joyless on the outside as the inside, today I look quite lovely! Well, if I am not an entirely dreadful sight, perhaps that alone shall help today be a little more pleasant—!

     “Mama!” Alexa bursts in through the bedroom door, startling me severely. I cannot help but gasp, and am suddenly feeling quite grateful I have finished preparing.

     “Are you ready to leave?” I look to her, already wearing her pretty little gown, orange and adorned with soft red ribbons, perfectly befitting of autumn.

     “Yeah, but look!” she says, running up to me excitedly. “We got a letter!”

     My eyes widen—it is certainly not from Hikaru, as those are always delivered directly to my side. As I grasp the letter from her, and read the address, my suspicion—and hope—regarding its sender is confirmed; it is still from a dear friend, the sole one who I have known even longer than Hikaru.

     “Alexa,” I hand the letter back to her, “Can you read to Mama who this is from?”

     She scrunches up her face, clearly struggling to decipher the admittedly rather messy handwriting.

     “Jeanne…Melnuk?”

     “Close, Melnyk!”

     “Oh!” she exclaims, beaming brightly. “Was she that lady you were friends with when you were little?”

     “Yes,” I cannot help but laugh lightly as I reply. No, we were not quite friends when I was “little,” yet…ah, Alexa herself is far too little to know the specifics of everything. Perhaps when she is older.

     I sit upon the side of the bed, and Alexa joins me. I open the light envelope, unable to keep from grinning as I do so. Sadly, with our distance, Jeanne and I may only converse perhaps a couple of times a season—unlike with Hikaru, I cannot quite ask Maiden Moon to yet again be my personal mail carrier…

     As unfortunate as it is that our correspondences are so relatively few, that merely makes each and every one even more precious. I cannot help but read it immediately, although I know Alexa and I should likely be on our way to meet with Florence by now. Her letters, just like Hikaru’s, are always among the highest points of my day. And actually reading her letter, I cannot help but smile ever more widely, to the point it nearly hurts; ah, the happiness she has found nearly brings me to tears.

     After I had left, she soon quit Marc’s service, moving to the city of Brâunevil. From there, she began to work in the university’s library, becoming quite smitten with one of the scholars there—and now, she has been married for roughly a year, and does appear to be quite genuinely happy.

     Apparently, since the last time we had spoken, Jeanne and her husband have since moved into a proper home by the university, near the heart of the city. In this letter, she details to me all the adventures she has since had; adopting yet another stray dog she had found, all the strange instances navigating the world of the university. Most scholars are not nobility, yet even with this, their station is hardly low—many come from families made wealthy through business, and others come from long lines of clergy; which, in all practicality, are more prestigious than even my own family, even if tradition dictates that we should be allowed the title of “aristocrat” and they should not. Sadly, it seems she is still struggling slightly to adjust. While someone of her station wedding a scholar is not nearly as scandalous as what I have done, neither is it particularly looked well upon either. Luckily, it seems, slowly yet surely, they are finding their acceptance…

     As I read through the rather long letter, suddenly I come upon something which I was not expecting: a request.

     And, Suzette…please don’t take this too seriously, for it is a silly request. I understand you are quite far away now, and have your bakery to run besides. But, if you ever get the chance, please do visit! I would love for you to see our home, to meet the puppies—and have you ever visited the university here before? Especially now, it’s lovely! They planted many more trees and flowers upon the grounds recently, so it looks practically like one massive garden. And Alexa—oh, I’d love to meet her, she sounds so fun!

     If you cannot visit, that’s quite all right; then I hope some day, I may come visit you. I’d also love to at last see your bakery in its full glory, see your town which sounds so charming! Flowers painted on the sides of so many of the buildings…it sounds like a faerie tale!

     But, ah, yes, anyways—if you would ever like to visit, please let me know; you are always welcome.

     Of course, I cannot help but grin at her heartfelt request; and indeed, I feel precisely the same. I miss her so dearly. When I was on my journey with Hikaru, I suppose I did not consider deeply enough how permanent our absence had become…though I am used to how all is now, it is still strange never seeing one who was always by your side for so many years. Yet also, her request is a tad problematic as well. And not for distance, nor funds.

     Oh, Brâunevil…the largest city in the province of Justêre, home to the finest university in all of Soléiâ outside the sparkling capital, and numerous other things besides. It is said to mirror Solzédniê in its elegance and refinement, but with a more “delightfully rustic charm”—according to ignorant Solzédniên nobles that traverse outside their gilded cages roughly once a year or so. It also has other, more unfortunate distinctions…the town of my birth, the home of my parents, the home of Elise. Although we lived some dozen miles away from the outskirts, there is always a possibility he has since relocated there, no longer needing to shudder away his dreadfully embarrassing wife in the confines of an unassuming village. Just that thought alone makes my heart race, my stomach churn, my head grow frightfully light.

     Oh, I cannot see him again. I cannot see any of them again. I am not even entirely sure of the legality of my little trick. I presume they would not try to make me his wife yet again, lest they surely would have attempted so by now—yet that does not bar the possibility of any fines, or worse. Ignoring the fact that the sight of him alone, that disgustingly cruel man who clipped my wings, and shackled me to a tiny birdcage for so, so many years…ah, that alone may make me weep. I wish he did not still strike fear into my soul, in the dreadful moments like this when he barges into my thoughts—yet I doubt that shall ever be the case.

     “Are we going to visit her?” Alexa asks after a few minutes, as it appears she was slowly reading on while my head descended to dread.

     I gaze over to her as her large green eyes look to me with a surprising longing.

     “Do you wish to?”

     “Yes!” she answers without an extra thought. “She said I sound fun! I got to show her right!”

     “I am certain you shall,” I laugh, setting aside the letter, and bringing Alexa into my side.

     “When will we go?”

     At this, I sigh.

     “I do not know, dear,” I reply wistfully, stroking her soft rosy hair. “Yet for now, we should be visiting your uncle, yes?”

     She nods; but rather than get up and go to leave, she merely snuggles further into me. I almost go to say something, yet ultimately decide not to, and merely enjoy it. Some day, she shall be too large, too old to openly show such affection. Some day, our lives shall drift apart, just as has so often happened with myself already…

     So I decide to enjoy her company for a moment, before we continue along.

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     With her hand in mine, Alexa and I walk to Bydlin, enjoying the full splendor of autumn. Although we need not traverse very far into town to meet with Florence, I still enjoy the sight of the decorations which adorn the town at this time of year: wreaths of autumn branches upon the doors, little corn poppets dyed lovely colors sitting in the windowsills; some even take to stringing bright colored ribbons around their homes, as though everything is not already cheerful and lovely enough. Though I normally stay home on this day of the festival proper, I simply adore how delightful Bydlin becomes before then…

     However, I notice something rather odd; there are more people about than there is on a normal day, certainly, yet this scarcely seems like a festival…

     Soon, I come upon the tailor shop, with both Florence and Oskar already waiting for us outside.

     “Ašon bon!” Florence greets happily, waving to us as we come down the road. To my—admittedly, mild surprise—even Oskar greets us with a soft, warm smile as we approach.

     “Ašon bon!” Alexa yells back, positively giddy from the excitement.

     “You two look great today,” Florence says as we walk up, and I cannot help but beam a little.

     “Mâzjêr né!” I reply, before then gazing outwards upon the town. “Where is everyone? Is this the festival?”

     “Oh, of course not! It’s a little ways outside of the town,” he replies, and we all begin walking through together. I nod a little in confusion; but, if he says so…

     The four of us stroll through Bydlin. Admittedly, as we walk along, I find myself becoming increasingly nervous, realizing that even after all this time, I have never been to a festival such as this…

     “What is it like?” I ask aloud, to neither Florence nor Oskar in particular.

     “The festival?” Oskar asks in return. “Like any other, I guess; although this one here’s pretty big.”

     I frown…

     How positively unhelpful!

     “I don’t think that’s what she means, Oskar,” Florence sighs. “You haven’t seen too many festivals outside of the city—or at least, whatever sorry excuses for celebrations nobles have, have you?”

     “Y-Yes, that is it,” I stutter, looking to the ground. “I have gone to one small gathering before that I was told is more like—well, something such as this. Yet, I do not quite know how much that is the case…”

     Considering all those participants were faeries…

     “Hmm…” Florence muses as we walk along, “Well, like Oskar said, it’s quite large—the festival is near the end of the valley, between Bydlin and Khrozên. For the large seasonal festivals like this one, they always come together to celebrate them.”

     “I see…” I say, head slightly swarming.

     My…I have lived here for how long, and have yet to have noticed?

     “In the morning, it’s more like what you’d expect, I think—music and dancing, drinking and socializing. Some people even come with some wares to sell, like for festivals in the city. But,” he continues, “Around noon, there’s a large feast; there’s a ritual dedicating the food to Lady Sun, and some food is set out for the faeries of the fields. That’s everything important, I think.”

     I nod silently as we continue along, attempting not to already be overcome with embarrassment. Even now, I still must ask and be explained to as a child…

     “What kind of food?” Alexa suddenly chimes in, walking up closer to Florence.

     “Anything you’d like!” Florence replies joyfully. “Well, maybe—it might not quite be like your mother’s cooking, but there’s still good food there.”

     “Will there be sweets?” she asks, her eyes growing wide.

     “Oh, lots! Carrot cake, pumpkin pie, apple pie—lots of pies, come to think of it—”

     “Why are we going so slow?” Alexa says, gripping his hand, “Come on, come on!”

     Abruptly she begins pulling him nearly like a ragdoll, just as she so often does with me. Though he appears rather startled by it, Florence merely lets himself be drug along with her.

     “Take good care of Florence for me, Alexa!” I laugh has she carries him away from us.

     “Are you coming?” she says, abruptly coming to a stop, causing Florence to slightly stumble on himself.

     “If you wish to go ahead, we shall be there soon!”

     “Oh, all right!” she replies excitedly, and then strings Florence along ferociously.

     “We’ll meet with you later, I guess!” Florence says. And soon, they are off.

     “Damn,” Oskar says after a moment, “That kid never stops, does she?”

     “Not often, no,” I chuckle, finding the whole scene quite amusing. Yet, after a moment, I cannot help but feel some sadness at it too…

     Logically, I know she is likely simply overexcited; it would make more sense for her to bring Florence along as he is the one who knows anything, and thus is the one who may help satiate her sweet tooth. Yet, I cannot help but wonder if she has internalized how dreadfully boring I am, that if she wishes to enjoy herself, she should bring Florence along instead—which is entirely fair, yet…

     “How have you been as of late, Oskar?” I ask gazing up to him, attempting to change the subject from my wretched thoughts. “You confronted me about being so averse to others a couple of weeks ago—yet you yourself have become quite solitary…”

     At this he sighs rather loudly, and begins to rub the back of his neck. “It ain’t nothin’ important,” he replies rather dismissively.

     “You sound roughly as convincing as I…”

     “Just been busy.”

     “With?”

     “Shit.”

     With this, I glare at him so starkly, he shudders a little as he meets my gaze.

     “Just workin’ ‘round the house and the garden,” he says at last.

     “My, why did you not just say such?” I sigh, “Oskar, please…you realize you need not always be so snide, yes?”

     He raises his eyebrow and frowns, looking quite confused.

     “Am I really bein’ that—”

     “Yes!” I say, finally becoming quite aggravated, even though we have not seen one another as much as of late. “I know you do not mean poorly by it—at least, it does not appear you do, and I hope that is true—yet would it be so terrible to be a little straightforward or polite at least occasionally?”

     He gazes away from myself and walks onwards. We traverse out from the outskirts of Bydlin, of the now largely empty fields, towards a path which leads through a large forest on the northern end of the valley.

     “After all this time…I’m still that bad, huh?” he whispers softly.

     “What do you mean?”

     “Mishka used to get onto me for that all the time,” he says with a mirthless chuckle. “Said I shouldn’t try to act like all them other men, I’m fine enough on my own. Even then, I—I never quite listened.”

     I gaze up to him, furrowing my brow…though he has never spoken her name to me, I know precisely who he is speaking of. The white-haired girl who once held his heart long ago, who now he only speaks of in rare, tender moments…

     “Why did you not listen?” I ask softly, perhaps unwisely.

     “Y’know how women are,” he laughs, yet just as soon after it fades to a frown. “‘Oh you don’t got to hide your feelin’s, it’s okay to be open’…yeah, sure, for you.”

     “Well, it is true…” I mutter. “Why, look at Hikaru—”

     “Well I ain’t Hikaru!” he snaps, “I ain’t six feet tall, with a bass voice and arms the size of your god damn head. I ain’t got that kind of luxury, Suzette.”

     “You are still a man though, are you not? Is your body still not that of a man?”

     He crosses his arms, and continues gazing ahead.

     “Yes. It is,” he replies rather firmly.

     “Then all is well,” I sigh. “Being so detached and dismissive all the time shall gain you nothing.

     “And, aside from this,” I add, “For what it is worth, I enjoy it when you are a tad more genuine with your emotions.”

     He turns his head over to me.

     “Do you, now?”

     “Of course; it…” I trail off for a moment, gathering my thoughts as we now enter the forest path. “I dislike worrying everyone, yet—it is comforting to know others care. Such as when you asked me to come today, or when you cooked supper for me…it was quite sweet, although your switching moods has made it dreadfully confusing…”

     “How?”

     “How?” I repeat, a little flabbergasted, “You are quite kind, and then you act as though you do not care at all, and then are quite kind again, and then seem terribly annoyed—how am I meant to interpret this?

     “I know…I have been rather off as late as well,” I sigh, “Yet I do not seem like I am positively annoyed with you whenever I speak to you…do I?”

     “No,” he replies quietly. “Y’just seem sort of sad.”

     “Yes,” I sigh. “This is why I am frustrated, Oskar. You are so often like this, and I…I am truly not in a state, as of late, to well make sense of it.”

     He gazes towards the ground, and sighs.

     “Sa pšyke né, Suzette,” he says far more deferentially than usual. “I don’t know…maybe you’s right.”

     “Perhaps at the festival, you can try to be a little gentler and more open, just as I am attempting to be more sociable and uplifting, yes?” I ask with a soft grin.

     “Yeah…I guess I can try,” he replies, gazing back ahead, not seeming entirely pleased.

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     Oskar and I continue along the winding path. Once we reach the forest, the path soon turns to a—for this region—rather large road, which currently has quite a number of people upon it. Most are merely walking such as ourselves, yet a surprising number are in carts or proceeding aside them.

     After some time of strolling through the colorful woods, we at last reach a large clearing. I cannot help but take a deep breath as I notice the crowd before us—hundreds upon hundreds of people!

     “Oskar, precisely how large is Khrozên…?”

     “I don’t know,” he shrugs, “Twice the size of Bydlin, at least.”

     My head swirls a little as I gaze upon the crowd before me; the faces, the movement, the music, the scents, every sensation becoming a blur.

     Once, I surely would have enjoyed an event of this size—more people to meet, to converse with, more joy filling the air…yet of course, in spite of speaking with dozens of people a day, I suppose the fact that most such conversations are rather terse has utterly decimated my ability to socialize, along with my shifting moods. Now I am once more reminded of Hikaru, and the dreadful irony that the longer he is away, the more alike it appears we become. As these things often are, in theory it sounds quite sweet; in practice, however, it is terribly dreadful…why must it be his most unfortunate of traits that I must align with myself?

     “We should find Florence and Alexa,” I state rather abruptly.

     “You don’t want to do nothin’ else first?”

     I simply shake my head no. At this, he frowns further, yet does not say anything more. From here, I simply follow him through the many pockets of people. Admittedly, even I am surprised at how wretchedly uncomfortable it is… I cannot help but feel engulfed by the crowds, where nearly every adult of either sex is taller than even Oskar—nevermind myself. It has been quite some time since I have been around enough people to truly pay mind to such a thing…

     Images manifest within my mind of a life I lived long ago: a time when I was nobility, thrust into banquets and soirees and what-have-you’s merely for show, although no one wished for my presence—and I well knew this. Perhaps no other time in my life have I ever felt so intimately aware of how truly little I resemble practically anyone else, how I am precisely opposite of what any desired of me…

     When I was by Hikaru’s side, it was much easier to forget, to allow myself to enjoy life without constantly being reminded of my inadequacies. Yet alas, he is not here…

     And, to be truthful…perhaps that would change nothing regardless, as the dreamy, florescent summer has withered and rotted to the dark, icy autumn. Of course such a sparkling reverie could never truly remain reality.

     Thus I trail behind Oskar, my mind entirely elsewhere as always—yet, of course, just present enough to notice the few stares of judgement given our way.

     You do not know that is the case, do not be so dour already…

     After what feels like an excruciatingly long time—although I know it was only mere minutes—Oskar and I at last stumble upon Florence and Alexa. I see Florence first; to his right, he laughs and converses with a pale man with scruffy black hair, draped in a worn, pine-green cloak. To the left of Florence sits Alexa, happily eating some sort of pastry and watching the fire with intense interest.

     “You’re back!” she exclaims as we grow closer, and I feel a little relief at this. At least she is happy to see us…

     “Sâlêzj again!” Florence greets, “We were beginning to wonder if you two would show up after all!”

     “Oh, well…” I begin, seating myself next to Alexa, “We simply did not wish to rush, is all.”

     “Fair enough!” he replies in quite a joyful mood. It is almost infectious…yet unfortunately, not quite enough.

     “Is it as good as you had hoped?” I ask to Alexa, who merely nods eagerly.

     From there…I simply look away, and gaze into the fire before us. The heat sears through my dress, it makes my skin incredibly hot—yet, with the autumn chill in the air, it is indeed quite pleasant. Even so, I frown…at such a large gathering, I should be conversing with someone, anyone, even if merely those I have come with—and yet, I remain fixated upon the flames.

     As they sway and dance, now I cannot help but be reminded of another time when I sat by a bonfire, during another glorious seasonal festival. That was the last "large" festival I have attended…ah, for as frightening as it felt to traverse to a den of faeries, I become gripped with nostalgia at the thought.

     And then…a sound ascends through the talking and laughter and shouts, rising into the air like the smoke of the fire. Immediately I gaze up to its source, a man upon the other side of the fire surrounded by many others here. Other players accompany him; but for now, his sound alone resounds—a loud, low hum, accompanied by buzzing like bees.

     The music is happy, joyous…yet I—I—

     Surely you did not believe Hikaru was the only one in all the world to play a hurdy gurdy, did you? And especially in a place such as this?

     Yes, this is true—but…b-but—

     “Suzette?” Oskar says, shaking me. I did not even realize he had come to sit to the other side of me. “You good?”

     “I—I must leave for a moment,” I blurt out, “I shall return.”

     And slowly I arise, attempting to remain composed, feeling horrid all the while. What a silly, ridiculous thing to become upset at…

     Yet once I am upon my feet, I nearly run away, hoping to escape the deathly familiar sounds.

     Leave my head! I internally, fruitlessly shout; I have come well enough to accept our circumstances, so why is it now that it must feel so terrible?!?

     After a moment I escape as well as I may; I find myself near the edge of the clearing, close to the woods…I lean against a tree, entirely out of breath. For a moment I stay there, trying to replenish my lungs, and sort through my scrambled thoughts…

     As I do this, I close my eyes. Once I open them once more, the first sight I see…it is…

     Many people who pass by stare at me a moment before glancing away. Yet beyond them, I notice a pair of unfamiliar women nearby, whom I presume are from Khrozên, standing by a makeshift stall overflowing with sweets. At first I wonder if I am imagining it, but as our eyes meet I know it is true—they are staring straight at me. Swiftly my eyes dart away, yet slowly I again look to them…still they are looking upon me, both of them—laughing, smirking in a manner that is so very familiar.

     No, stop it! Stop immediately assuming the worst…!

     Still, I bite my lip and close my eyes once more, reprimanding myself yet again.

     They are not Marc, not Elise, not anyone I had known before, anyone who had been so terribly cruel—for what reason would they have to laugh at me?

     What reason did they have?

     I take deep breaths, trying to ignore it all—my mind is merely harassing me, merely harassing me, it is nothing at all…

     Yet, ultimately my mind wins; and rather than return to my loved ones as I had said, I frantically run into the forest, towards the familiar cracking of twigs beneath my feet. After a moment I trip…and entirely begin losing myself in sobs.

     Gods, oh gods—why did I ever think I may be anything resembling “functional,” when I am already such an aberration? No wonder he and I were drawn together, although—he is tall and strong, worldly and knowledgeable…what have I? Nothing! Positively nothing at all!

     All I have is—

     “Suzette?”

     Now I entirely jump, not expecting another soul to have followed me here…but I gaze behind myself and see Oskar staring piteously at me.

     “H-How did you find me?”

     “I saw you standin’ by that tree over there, then you just took off,” he frowns, and then comes to my side, and roughly sits down.

     “R-Return to the festival,” I mutter, hanging my head low in shame. “I shall join you in a little while…”

     “Go while you’s bawlin’ your eyes out?”

     “Leave!” I nearly shout, “Just leave me be, please—!”

     I fold in upon myself, sobbing ever harder…

     I notice he does not appear to move at all.

     After some minutes of crying wretchedly, I lift my head again…my, I can only wonder how terrible I look now. The entire time, Oskar has stayed perfectly in place, doing and saying nothing.

     “How’d you like to go to the tavern?” he says after a bit of silence, with a softness in his voice.

     “Is it even open?”

     “I mean, it is if I say so,” he shrugs. “I got no problem takin’ a few drinks for ourselves.”

     I sigh.

     “That is kind…” I say softly, “Yet I do not wish to always escape from my issues, like I have thus far…I just simply needed a rest.”

     “The whole point of this was to have fun, yeah? If you got to suffer through it, that ain’t havin’ fun, is it?

     “I told Florence and Alexa we might not be comin’ back too, so—”

     “Alexa…” I mutter, “I—I am tired of always departing when we do anything enjoyable; I want her to enjoy my company, to make nice memories with her—”

     “You don’t?”

     “I have not thus far today, or when I was meant to spend the evening with you and Florence, or—”

     “Then why’s she always babblin’ on about you?”

     “…Hmm?”

     I gaze upon him in complete, utter confusion…

     “Half the time she’s all, ‘oh, Mama read me this,’ ‘Mama made that’—don’t get where you got this idea she don’t like you from.”

     I pause for a moment, gathering my thoughts like little specks of dust.

     “Well…” I mutter, “Why would she?”

     Abruptly, Oskar gets up, and looks down to me.

     “All right, let’s go,” he says, “I ain’t takin’ ‘no’ for an answer, and ‘specially not paired with a ‘but.’”

     “Then…why?”

     “We need to talk…and a cozy bar seems a bit more nice than out here in the dirt.”

     “Are you not the one who asked me to come today in the first place?”

     “I thought it’d help.”

     “Then how may you know this shall help?”

     He gazes away from me, bearing a large frown.

     “Well…I guess I don’t.”

     I clasp my hands together and gaze up to the colorful, decaying trees, thinking over everything.

     I am dreadfully tired of always being so pathetic, so dreary…yet in my present state, it is true that I can scarcely imagine being anything more than a burden. I…I am not yet ready for something of this size again. Not until my head is far more peaceful.

     Steadily I stand, wiping away the leaves and patches of dirt.”

     “Well, you have convinced me regardless,” I sigh. “I shall let you lead the way, Oskar.”

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