Chapter 76 - Can You Be A Friend?
Irene sat upright and appeared unchanged, but Kael detected a slight shift in the atmosphere. He flashed a look of concern in her direction, but instead of voicing his thoughts, he simply smiled and scrunched his nose. An unfamiliar expression flashed across Irene’s stiff face, but her eyes looking back at him were lovely. After a pause, he said in a light-hearted tone, “I think I should take my leave now. It appears that I’m in demand with everyone except you.”
“Please go ahead. I should be on my way too,” Irene replied. For some reason, Kael managed to read the most minute of movements and expressions that she made, which would’ve been easy to miss if one wasn’t paying close attention. She got up from her seat and handed his neatly-folded coat. Despite their earlier overlapping movements, it wasn’t until now that their hands brushed against one another, though their hands quickly fell apart.
“It’s very cold outside, so don’t leave the window open even if you feel stuffy. What if you were to catch a cold?”
“It’s not that cold.”
“Every time I look at you, you are wearing thin clothes so I’m worried.”
“There are a lot of people in Theorin who wear thinner clothes.”
Reluctant to leave, Kael attempted to prolong their conversation as much as he could. He wished they had more time to spend together, but eventually he had to start making his way towards the door. As he continued to speak, Irene answered in kind and followed one step behind him out of habit. Noticing this, Kael paused to wait for her to catch up to him. He didn’t want Irene to be someone who trailed behind him and took orders. Irene momentarily halted her steps after noticing his behavior, but after a brief hesitation, she closed the gap until they stood side by side. Then, shoulder to shoulder, the two continued towards the door.
“I’ve heard people say that the thinner a person’s attire is, the higher the status or wealth they possess.”
“Yes, it’s supposed to signify that the house is heated enough that one is still warm while wearing thin clothes.”
“Then, do you wear thick, fine fur coats when you go out?”
“It seems that there will always be people who want to flaunt themselves, regardless of whether it is in Theorin or Perkan.”
As they continued to trade inconsequential stories, they reached the palace entrance. Kael turned to face Irene and reached out to adjust her jacket. He was bothered that she chose not to button up her jacket, insisting that she was fine, but he held his tongue out of fear of being branded as long-winded.
“Are you returning to Isolé?” Irene asked.
“Yes, I think my mother will be arriving soon. It looks like it’ll be noisy for a while.”
“Alright, please go ahead.”
“No, after you. Let me see you off,” Kael said, as he flashed a smile.
“Then, please excuse me,” Irene replied, lowering her head. Contrary to her casual appearance, the fingers she rested against her thighs twitched and she rubbed her index finger with her thumb.
“It’s cold, so hurry inside,” Kael urged. “We’ll see each other again.”
Irene didn’t know how to react to Kael, who smiled brightly and waved at her, so she silently turned and walked in the direction heading back to Atrichen. Up until she disappeared from his line of sight, she remained oddly sensitive to the feeling of his gaze fixed on her receding back.
Eventually, after Irene could no longer be seen, Kael turned to head towards Isolé. During the short walk back, his mind kept replaying the image of her smooth silver hair swaying against her back set against the backdrop of the sunset. Unlike the falling snowflakes that melted and disappeared from his sight, the scene remained deeply imprinted in his memory.
* * *
As soon Atrichen came into sight, Irene felt the strength in her legs leave her and she grabbed a nearby tree to support herself. Unable to take another step, she leaned against it, crouched down to bury her head between her knees, and waited for her heart to settle. A painful sigh slipped through her red lips, as she clasped her arms tightly around herself and hugged her trembling body. “It hurts,” she mumbled quietly, as she recalled Kael’s gaze.
The moment she’d looked into Kael’s eyes, her heart sank. She had gone to meet him because she was scared and afraid, but the confirmation she sought hadn’t given her any certainty. She wondered if his gaze truly contained the same affection and care as that of her family, or if it was simply curiosity disguised as love. If it was the latter, would he then transform into an unrecognizable person once his curiosity was satiated? As her mind spiraled down this train of thought, fear gripped her. She was terrified.
“Oh, if only I hadn’t seen it. Once more, I…” Her muffled voice echoed through her knees. She felt the expectations that she had once killed within herself coming back. She struggled to come to terms with the budding expectation sprouting within her after she’d faced so much disappointment.
She had been naïve in her youth and had hopes and expectations for the people who approached her. When those hopes and expectations were dashed, the disappointment she’d felt had been near fatal. Irene closed her heart and lost all her close connections except for Marie. “Just do it. You can do it. It’ll be fine. And if his gaze were to change just like theirs… If it disappears in an instant…” As her mutterings trailed off, she imagined Kael’s gaze turning cold, like everyone who’d betrayed her hopes before.