Ash enters my room early the next morning even before Jenna arrives.
“How was yesterday?” he asks, not waiting for me to exchange pleasantries.
But, instead of responding, I throw a question at him. “What do you think of the High Oracle’s gift to Kloud?”
“Definitely suspicious. What happened yesterday?”
“Do you think we are ready?”
He tilts his head to the side, his mouth slightly open.
“Answer the question, Ash.”
“Do you think we are ready?”
I didn’t answer. I stretch my arms and swing my feet to the side of the bed. I yawn loudly, toss my sheet aside, and stand up. Ash proceeds to the curtains and opens them and the sun glares into my eyes.
“Ash!” I shriek at him.
He looks at me and laughs before moving toward my closet. He opens the door and examines the clothes hanging inside. He exits the closet with three outfits in his hands and tells me to pick one. I chose the lavender one to match his tie. He realizes that and rolls his eyes at me.
“There’s no reason behind this. I’m not in love with you,” I tell him and he breaks into a fit of laughter.
I pout. I hurl the gown at him and grab the blush pink one from his grasp, shooing him away and telling him that whether he's in the room or not, I'll start stripping naked.
He rushes to the door and bangs it close, the two other gowns still in his hands. He knows that I am serious. That happened once. I didn’t really go naked; I just started removing the shoulder piece of my gown, and he scrambled out of the room with flushed cheeks, yelling profanities at me while Jenna and Nanny chastised me.
“Call for Jenna!” I shout and proceed to go to the bathroom.
The next few days are long and boring.
Ash didn't ask any more questions after he realized I didn't want to talk about the contents of my meeting with Father and my brothers. Kloud became more focused on his sword training and didn't look for me for two weeks. Brother Lothario came to see me one afternoon, and he and Jenna spent the entire time in my study talking. I let them be. That’s the only time the two lovebirds can interact with each other without being judged by others.
A month passes and a letter from Father’s palace arrives at my desk. I call on Ash and he gives me a meaningful look when he sees the envelope.
“This…” His gaze alternates between the letter and my face.
I smile. “I didn’t expect this but shit, it’s nice.”
“I-I… I do not know what to say— I… Congratulations. Congratulations are in order… congratulations.” He looks down at the letter once more and gives me a sad smile, knowing full well the implications of the letter's contents for our goal.
“I know. And I’m not sure now,” I quip, then mouth the words I've been thinking since I received the letter: “I'm sorry.”
Ash exhales and places his hand on my shoulder.
“I’m sorry,” I say, looking down.
“Don’t worry about it, Iris. You have no need to apologize to me.”
“I do. I-I’m sorry I started this and I’m now— I don’t know what to do. I should have told you right away.” I tell him that my resolve is wavering.
“We have done so much. We cannot just stop,” he tells me, giving me a genuine smile and a gentle squeeze of my shoulder.
I look up to meet his eyes, running my fingers through his long hair secured loosely with a tie. “I just… I don’t want to regret anymore,” I confess, a lump forming in my throat. “What if I’m making a mistake all along? What if… I don’t know…” I take a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I just want to know if this is going to work. What if I’m better off here? What if… what if…”
Ash pulls me closer to him and nuzzles my head into his chest, stroking my hair. “Iris, you are not making a mistake. You are doing what you think is right. You are scared, I know, but that is because you want what is best for you,” he says and lifts my chin up, looking into my eyes. “That’s all that should matter right now.”
I run my hand along the material of his dress suit; the movement eliciting a soft chuckle from his lips.
“What do you think of my outfit?” I ask, giving him a soft push.
He smiles and runs a hand through his hair again. “You look—”
“Gorgeous! If you don’t tell me I’m gorgeous, I will end you,” I taunted, holding my breath. He chuckles.
“That you are,” he said with a soft laugh. “You look great,” he admitted.
I smile shyly and slump down in my seat. He returns my smile and takes the seat in front of me. Hiding my face in my hands, I stare at my lap and shake my head.
“Ash,” I say quietly looking at his eyes, feeling the need to talk to someone.
“Yeah?” he breathes out.
“Can you stay with me for a bit?” I plead, breaking eye contact and looking down at my lap.
He contemplates my request for a minute before his eyes soften. “Alright.”
I close my eyes and lean back in my seat, clasping my hands together. Total silence fills the air around us. I peek up to look at Ash and notice that his gaze is fixed on my face. I look away and I hear him stand up. I close my eyes again, knowing full well that he won't leave me here alone with my thoughts.
“Sorry, I didn't mean to keep you.”
“Not at all,” he replies.
His shoes softly clack against the concrete as he walks to the bookshelves in one of the room's corners. I peek up and notice that he's not really looking for anything. He just keeps fiddling with his fingers. I frown as I watch him, wondering what's occupying his mind.
His broad back, tall frame, and mature physique stood in stark contrast to the eleven-year-old boy I had first seen. He is completely solid, devoid of all the soft, seemingly frail flesh he had once had, reflecting his stay in this foreign nation. His accent is no longer the rapid jumble of foreign words and vernacular, he also no longer uses the universal language to communicate, but instead uses the ones we use; he's even more proficient than me. His clothes those of a true Damaris local.
“Do you miss your family? Your mom?”
“Hmm?” he hums, his gaze distracted and not fixed on me. He opens the first book and, without a second thought, starts to skim the pages of it.
“Your mother, do you miss her?” I ask louder and clearer. “You’ve never left the capital since you’ve come here.” He continues to casually flip through the book in front of him, staring at it without expression. “Ash,” I repeat, leaning in closer. “Do you get homesick? You haven’t been home since you’ve come here. Do you get lonely?”
He gives me a half-smile. “And so are you,” he points out. “Do you feel alone?”
“Me?” I ask, genuinely provoking thought. “I don’t know. Do you think I am? Do you think we are? We’re both… alone… together…” I trail off. I can’t quite look at him. I feel self-conscious and insecure.
Ash puts down the book and turns to me. His eyes grow distant as he holds in a sad, longing sigh. I want to ask more, but I just… I can’t. I feel like I should say something, but I just can’t form the words to say it.
“Two less lonely people in the world~~!”
I start singing dramatically at the top of my lungs, not liking the atmosphere I’ve created.
“And it's gonna be fine; out of all the people in the world~~” He sings along and strides back to his seat.
I grin and start singing back at him. We continue to sing at the top of our lungs, neither of us really caring who hears or what they think of us. I begin to feel better after a while, though. Even Ash seems to be lighter for the second.
Finally, after three more encores, we both come back to earth. Our voices are tired and raspy. We stare at each other blankly.
“I’m ready. I’m not gonna waver any longer.”