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your love is rain, my heart the flower

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When Jusis Albarea wakes up early Sunday morning and slides open the curtains of his bedroom window, the sight of a stranger standing on the other side of the glass staring back at him makes his eyes widen. His initial shock keeps him rooted in place, blinking a few times in disbelief as the other teen with bright, fuchsia eyes and leaves covering his dark navy hair smiles innocently like it is, in fact, not peculiar at all that he is standing in the hydrangea bushes surrounding the mansion of the prestigious Albarea family. As if to accentuate his nonchalance about the situation, the stranger waves enthusiastically at Jusis who cannot hide a momentary gawk before he quickly regains his composure and snatches a handful of the plush velvet curtain to slide it shut.

He continues to grip the fabric in his hand as he runs the fingers of his other through his messy bedhead and takes slow breaths in an attempt to calm his racing heartbeat. A few seconds later Jusis inches his curtain open until he can peer through the small crack, and to his relief the intruder is no longer right in front of his window – instead he is hunched over the potted orchids lining the exterior fence of the courtyard. Jusis is not sure what this ruffian is doing not only trespassing on Albarea property but more importantly startling him most unceremoniously by standing right outside of his window in the dim hours of the morning, but after he changes out of his sleepwear and fetches his sword he storms out of his room with the full intent to give this stranger a piece of his mind.

On his way through the foyer Jusis spots his father emerging from the opposite hall, and when Jusis strides towards him the man does not even look up from the paperwork in his hands. “Father,” Jusis begins as his father silently walks right past him, and he spins around on his heel to follow despite the vague impression of annoyance radiating from the other man. “Father, there is a stranger wandering around the courtyard. I woke up and looked outside of my window to find him trespassing. I am on my way to take care of him, that is, if you agree that is the most appropriate action to take–”

“That is the new gardener,” the man interrupts exasperatedly as he enters his office, and while Jusis processes this unexpected piece of information the door slams shut in his face.

Of course, the new gardener, Jusis thinks to himself after he’s returned to his bedroom with a freshly brewed cup of hibiscus tea. To think that the stranger was a trespasser was clearly outlandish because who would be so boorish and daft as to intrude on, of all places, the Albarea family’s mansion? Such an act might even be fit for punishment as decreed by the hand of the royal family themselves what with the Albareas being one of the most prominent names in Erebonian nobility. No one could possibly be so foolish.

Jusis is not sure why his father hired a gardener. He is sure one of their dozen butlers or ten maids or two chefs or the valet could take care of such menial work in their spare time. He watches through his now open curtains as the so–called new gardener clips at various shrubberies with a pair of shears. Upon closer inspection he seems to be about Jusis’s age, perhaps also seventeen, and there’s nothing special about him – his height is average, his build is average, his strength seems average, everything about him appears to be average. He takes a break every so often to wipe the sweat from his face with the back of his gloves or to munch on something he has in his pockets but quickly returns to whatever he was doing – that’s a virtue, Jusis supposes; such dedication to manual labor is admirable.

He watches the gardener for much longer than intended even though he could be participating in more productive activities such as finishing the novel his brother lent him or practicing his swordsmanship. The dark–haired teen finishes trimming the pegasus shaped topiaries sculpted to match those on the Albarea family crest and moves on to the roses coiling around the wrought iron fence lining the cobblestone pathways, and when he accidentally pricks his finger on their thorns and makes a very visibly pained expression Jusis rolls his eyes – how clumsy. While in the middle of raking leaves on the lawn into piles he spots a rabbit chewing on the blades of grass and tries to sneak up on it to catch it, laughing when it runs away – how juvenile. He’s so carefree and happy even as he is bent over on his hands and knees digging holes in the ground or scraping the cobwebs off of the wooden benches. Jusis does not understand it. How could he possibly be enjoying himself?

When Jusis’s butler arrives to fetch him for lunch the gardener is just beginning to pack up his tools to leave for the day. “Is something the matter, Lord Jusis?” Arnauld asks, and when Jusis glances from the window to his visitor standing in the doorway he raises an eyebrow questioningly. “You appear to be troubled.”

“Troubled?” Jusis echoes. “No, I’m fine.” He sets his empty tea cup onto a nearby table beside his chess set, pieces from a half completed game against his brother still sprawled on its surface. Arnauld hardly seems convinced, but Jusis does not pay his concern any mind as his gaze drifts towards the window again. “The gardener,” he begins and his fingers absentmindedly find the black pawn on the corner of the board, their tips brushing against its round tip, “do you by chance know the details of his employment?”

“From what your father has disclosed, he will be here seven days a week from the hours of breakfast until lunch,” Arnauld replies. “I’m afraid that is all I know.”

“Interesting,” Jusis quips, releasing the chess piece to slide his hands into his pockets on his way out of his bedroom. “My apologies for the delay. Let us go have lunch.”

 

---

 

The next morning Jusis has eggs Florentine, a bowl of sliced fruit, and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice for breakfast before heading outside towards the horse stables to give Strahl his daily brushing. Even though in his thoughts yesterday he had dismissed gardening as something trivial, Jusis cannot help but to notice how clean the pathways are now that they have been swept, how visually appealing the sharp lines of the trimmed bushes and perfectly sculpted topiaries are as he passes them by, and how the flowers blossoming throughout the landscape somehow seem rejuvenated and vivid after a mere single day’s worth of care.

Jusis spots the gardener near the grandiose fountain at the very center of their mansion’s back yard, bent over its ledge as he fishes leaves and other debris from its water with labored grunts, and Jusis slows down as he walks by. The gardener is wearing the same red hoodie beneath the burlap apron making up his work uniform, its surface stained with dirt and its pockets full of trowels and clippers. The bottom edges of his jeans are frayed and their knees are ripped with holes – whether they are recent from yesterday’s work or have been there for a while is unclear – and his red sneakers are caked in mud. Jusis almost wants him to glance over away from his work of cleaning the pond so that he can catch a glimpse of the gardener’s face again, but he pushes any of those desires away as he continues to the stables without saying a single word.

Strahl greets him with an enthusiastic nicker when he enters the white stallion’s stall, and Jusis strokes his neck with a small smile. The assortment of brushes hanging on the back wall with various sized bristles of different materials might seem excessive to an outsider, but throughout their years together Jusis has condensed the detangling of Strahl’s mane to a methodical sequence. Strahl stands perfectly still while Jusis combs the first brush through his mane, thoughts drifting to other subjects amidst the calming motion – should he offer his assistance to his father in the upcoming discussion of reassigning territory with Duke Cayenne knowing he will likely be rejected, why does it seem like his brother is becoming so distant lately, maybe he’ll step out into Bareahard later this afternoon to pay a visit to his uncle’s restaurant, and is that gardener done cleaning out the fountain yet because it appeared to be quite a difficult and strenuous task and the danger of falling into the water and being injured was very real.

After his following stroke through Strahl’s mane Jusis grips the brush in his hand as he pauses in midair. The horse turns to him questioningly before blowing a spurt of air through his nostrils that brings Jusis’s thoughts back from the distance. “My apologies. Would you like a nice snack?” he asks, running his palm across the crest of the stallion’s head, and after Strahl whinnies eagerly Jusis returns the brush to its hanger on the wall and hurries out of the stable.

On his way towards the kitchen’s back entrance Jusis glances around the courtyard, finding the gardener standing atop a ladder beneath the gazebo at its center. His brows are knit and his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth in concentration as he picks the dead, blackened grapes off of the vines curled around its wooden, crosshatched roof. Jusis’s sprint decelerates to a leisurely stroll as he passes by, watching from a distance as the ladder teeters back and forth ever so slightly beneath the gardener’s weight and unsightly floundering as some of his strained grasps sweep through thin air. How dangerous. He would rather not get caught up in that.

Or so he thinks – while Jusis is in the middle of searching through the refrigerator for the perfect carrot to give to Strahl, images of the gardener toppling off of the ladder and lying on the gazebo floor covered in bruises and possibly blood flash through his mind, and he slams the door shut with a scowl before running back outside. When Jusis reaches the courtyard he catches his breath as he glances around, but the gardener is nowhere to be seen – not to mention the gazebo looks completely tended to and flawless. Jusis frowns as he spins around looking for any sign of the other teen, but soon it’s clear that he is alone in the courtyard amidst the flowering magnolia trees raining white petals in the swaying breeze. It seems like there is no longer any reason to remain here; Jusis returns to the stable but when Strahl snorts at him questioningly his eyebrows raise in realization. He slaps his forehead with his palm and grumbles to himself in frustration before once again heading for the kitchen to fetch what he has forgotten.

Jusis takes the long way around, circling the mansion’s exterior as he walks towards the front entrance and keeps a wary eye out for signs of anyone else around him. There is no one and it is somehow disappointing – there is, however, not a single misshapen leaf jutting out of the impeccably sheared hedges lining the mansion walls, and he supposes that is somewhat pleasant. He rummages through the refrigerator once more and exits through the back door with the perfect carrot in hand, and while he’s in the middle of inspecting the carrot for any dirt or other residue he missed while rinsing it off earlier he bumps into someone while lost in his concentration.

“Oof!” a voice grunts while Jusis stumbles backward and regains his own balance, and as he presses his fingertips to his forehead and glances back up with a frown he finds himself staring straight into those fuchsia eyes that greeted him outside of his bedroom window yesterday morning. “Oh, hey there,” the gardener greets and immediately flashes Jusis a smile that somehow makes any irritation he feels about being so brusquely crashed into disappear – it’s gentle and serene and directed straight at him, and Jusis finds himself so captivated that he needs to remind himself to continue the act of breathing. “Sorry about that, I should have been watching where I was going,” he continues before pausing to tilt his head to the side inquisitively while Jusis’s glare recedes. “Huh, I’ve seen you running around a lot this morning,” he muses with a quiet laugh.

“Hmph, is that so strange?” Jusis counters as he very deliberately diverts his stare elsewhere, dusting himself off and straightening out his overcoat before he folds his arms. “I live here.”

“Ah, really?” the gardener exclaims excitedly, pulling one of his gloves off before he offers his hand to Jusis. “Cool, I’m Rean Schwarzer. The new gardener? Since you’re not Duke Albarea you have to be his son, right? …Rufus? Was that it? Sorry, I’m not too good with names sometimes, but I’m working on it.”

Jusis glowers at Rean’s hand at the sound of his words, but he supposes it’s not Rean’s fault that his father probably very deliberately avoided mentioning the existence of his second son. “No. Rufus is my elder brother,” Jusis explains with a deceptive calmness to his voice as he taps the end of the carrot against his arm to keep him occupied from doing anything more drastic. “Jusis Albarea. I’m the duke’s second son,” he concludes as Rean slowly pulls his hand back, understanding that his handshake is not about to be reciprocated.

“Jusis,” Rean echoes carefully, almost tenderly, and something about it makes Jusis’s stomach flutter. It’s very uncomfortable. “Alright! I can remember that. It’s nice to meet you, Jusis,” he concludes while pulling his glove back on, his smile remaining on his face despite Jusis’s less than amiable front. “What’s the carrot for?”

Jusis’s hand freezes with the carrot mid–tap against his arm, and he stares at Rean for a moment in assessment of what he could possibly be thinking. He speaks so casually despite being in the presence of nobility, not to mention nobility that he is currently under the employment of – he is definitely an anomaly. “It’s for my horse,” Jusis replies concisely, brusquely, like this is undeniably the end of their useless little chat, and he raises an eyebrow to accompany his sharp glare that dares Rean to continue.

“Wow, a horse?” Rean asks, doing just that, and Jusis is thoroughly perplexed as to why this conversation is continuing. “Cool, I used to ride horses, too. Can I see him? Um, her? Him?”

“Him,” Jusis grumbles, digging into the carrot’s peel with his nail as he wrestles with his thoughts. “His name is Strahl.” Rean is their gardener, he is currently working, if Jusis takes him to see Strahl he will no longer be working, and if his father finds him distracting their gardener from his job he will not hear the end of it for at least three months. Still, Rean has been putting his full effort into his work so far. The evidence is clear in the perfect landscaping around them, and an extremely short break could not do too much harm – not to mention his father should be busy working on paperwork in his office right now. “Follow me, Schwarzer,” Jusis instructs, but halfway across the courtyard the realization hits him like a train departing from Bareahard station and he spins around to face Rean who is staring back at him innocently.

“What’s up, Jusis?” Rean inquires curiously. “You’re making a face.”

“Schwarzer?” Jusis repeats as he tries to restrain whatever face he’s making, and Rean nods. “You’re related to the baron?”

“Oh,” Rean begins sheepishly, scratching at his cheek with a gloved finger that leaves a smudge on his skin that is already scratched up from the branches and twigs he has been rustling through for the past two days. “Yeah, Baron Schwarzer’s my adoptive father. Um, why is that so shocking?”

“Why is a member of nobility stooping so low as to be working as a common gardener?” Jusis questions. He knows it is rude and does not expect to receive an answer – if someone he just met asked him a private question about his past he would likely respond by showing them the sharp tip of his sword – but Rean just laughs with a shrug.

“We all have our goals in life, yeah?” Rean starts, closing his eyes in thought. “Everyone has their own dreams and wishes for the future. I’ve actually been feeling kinda lost thinking about my own, but after what seems like forever I think I might finally know what I wanna do. But I don’t wanna be a burden to my dad and the rest of my family because they’ve been so kind to me since taking me in, so I’m working here to make the money to do what I want by myself without the need for their help. I mean, I really like being outdoors and this gardening stuff is actually sorta fun! Of course, the pay is also more than I ever could have asked for, so I should be out of here in a couple of months at the most.” He pauses to rub at his nose with his knuckle, glancing at Jusis with a lopsided grin. “Sorry if I’m getting in your way.”

Jusis snorts at his final comment. “Hmph, worry about yourself, Schwarzer.”

Once they reach the stables Strahl looks thrilled to see them, and when Jusis walks over to him with the carrot in his outstretched hand he is shocked to see Strahl’s attention focused instead on Rean. The white horse nuzzles Rean’s face affectionately with his snout in greeting and Rean yelps at the unexpected fervor behind the motion, hands flailing for a moment before they stroke Strahl’s neck to calm him down. “He’s so excited!” Rean exclaims above Strahl’s whinnies, and Jusis cannot bring himself to say he has never seen Strahl so happy to see anyone other than him before – in fact, to see his horse behaving so friendly to someone else is a blow to his ego that makes him fight back a glare.

“I used to ride a lot back home in Ymir,” Rean begins while stroking Strahl’s mane even though Jusis never asked him to begin with – he may not have asked but he still finds himself listening as he heads towards the back wall to grab a brush. “Dad took me out hunting a lot since I was a kid whenever he wasn’t busy doing paperwork or talking to other nobles or everything else he has to do as Baron. Our horse’s name is Arthur. He’s kinda old now so we don’t take him out much anymore. I still remember the first time I went hunting, Arthur and I were almost chased off of a cliff on the Isengard Mountain Range by three moose, and it’s still one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever experienced in my life. You don’t know fear until a family of moose almost run you off a jagged mountain slope and you’re fighting for dear life holding onto your bucking horse’s reins. Sometimes I have nightmares about their beady little eyes staring into my soul. I still can’t believe my dad managed to save me.”

“A skilled rider should be able to recover from any sort of situation with grace and composure,” Jusis states as he pulls a brush off of the wall. The story is outrageous, but the fact that Rean seems so comfortable around him even though they have just met is also outrageous.

“Hey, I was twelve! I panicked like any normal twelve–year–old would have,” Rean counters as he returns. Jusis offers Strahl the carrot again and the stallion finally notices it, chomping down on the vegetable as Jusis continues combing his mane. “Anyways, he’s a beautiful horse,” Rean continues and Strahl bobs his head up and down, seemingly understanding the compliment. “It’s clear that you care a lot about him.”

Jusis says nothing, his grip on the brush falling slack as he pauses mid–brush. Rean says his name once and when Jusis glances at the bright pair of eyes staring back at him questioningly he averts his gaze to the straw–covered ground. “It’s been ten minutes. You had best get back to work.”

Rean gasps. “Whoa, really? You’re right, sorry for wasting your time, it was nice to meet you, thanks for talking with me, Jusis!” he blurts in a single breath before dashing out of the stables.

As Jusis subconsciously continues brushing Strahl’s mane his horse cranes his head back to bite at his hair. Jusis gawks at the prickly feeling of his roots being tugged out of his skin and grumbles angrily to himself as he pushes Strahl’s head away. Strahl snorts loudly at him before shuffling his hooves noisily against the ground, and Jusis backs away with a grunt as he drops the brush to the floor in exasperation. “What?” he huffs as the stallion stares at him with an unnerving silence. “What is it?!” Strahl turns his head to the spot where Rean had been standing before facing Jusis once more to neigh almost complacently. “No,” Jusis states firmly as he bends down to pick up the brush and returns it to the hook on the wall amidst Strahl’s commotion. On his way out of the stall he pauses to point a finger accusingly at the white horse. “I never should have gone to get you that carrot,” he hisses, exiting with a grumble as Strahl nickers in the background.

 

---

 

A few days later Jusis notices through his bedroom window that Rean Schwarzer is packing up his tools to leave early – he is probably running out of tasks to take care of in the Albarea’s landscaping since bushes can only grow to need so much trimming in a mere five days and heavily untrodden pathways hardly have reason to become in need of a most diligent and meticulous sweeping. As Rean takes off his work apron and stretches his arms out with a tired yawn Jusis slides his window open, clearing his throat before he cranes his head outside.

“Schwarzer!” Jusis calls out into the open courtyard and Rean jumps at the abrupt sound, nearly dropping his apron and with it all of his tools. Rean glances around worriedly for the source of the sound and once his eyes land on Jusis his face brightens as he offers a warm smile and wave. Jusis gulps at the sight.

Rean walks over to the window, this time standing before the trimmed hydrangea bushes rather than standing in them. “Hey, Jusis. Nice day outside, isn’t it? What’s up?” Rean asks, fishing into his pocket to pull out a handful of nuts to pop into his mouth. Jusis hopes for his sake that they are not straight from his pocket and that they at least are housed in some sort of bag, but what other people do with their food is none of his business.

“Since you have completed today’s work, would you care to join me for a cup of tea?” Jusis asks, rather proud that he has successfully masked the unease in his voice, or so he is quite sure, as it is a possibility that Rean Schwarzer might actually have the gall to deny him – he has proven to be unpredictable enough so far.

“Sure,” Rean answers immediately, and Jusis exhales deeply while Rean beams up at him through the window. “Let me drop this stuff off in the shed first.”

Soon Rean is standing in Jusis’s bedroom, slowly spinning around as he cannot seem to decide on a single unfamiliar object to focus on. Jusis sits down at the table at the center of the room and carefully pours each of them a cup of freshly brewed tea as Rean transitions from staring at the decorative sword mounted on the wall to running his fingers along the detailed edges of his wardrobe’s ornate carvings. Jusis wonders what sort of ragtag house Baron Schwarzer must live in as Rean gapes at the chandelier overhead cast in gold and strokes the velvet back of the chair opposite of Jusis’s with an enlightened smile before he finally takes a seat, scooting himself closer with a loud squeak that makes Jusis cringe.

“Thanks for inviting me in,” Rean says as Jusis gingerly closes his fingers around the cap of a jar of honey and gently twists it free. “Sorry you had to come and find me after I got lost. I’ve never been inside the mansion before and it’s kinda huge. I should’ve waited for you at the door or something.”

“It’s fine,” Jusis interjects before Rean can continue to babble on. It’s not as if it was a chore to seek Rean out, in fact if anything it was rather amusing to see him dazed in the foyer looking from hallway to hallway with a panicked gawk on his face trying to figure out which one would lead him in the right direction. He made very interesting expressions. “Would you care for some honey?” he asks, holding the jar out to Rean who tilts his head inquisitively to the side. “It’s freshly imported from Armorica Village in Crossbell State. They are renowned throughout Zemuria for the exceptional quality of their produce.”

“Wow, sure,” Rean replies, and after Jusis slides the jar over to him he drizzles some of the honey into his tea as he stirs it. “I’m not gonna lie and act like I’m some kinda tea connoisseur, so can I ask what this is? It smells really nice.”

“It’s a simple blend of tea,” Jusis begins, watching as Rean lowers his head towards the table and pauses with his nose just above the cup, sniffing quietly at its contents. “It contains a mixture of passionflower and hawthorn flower which are commonly used to alleviate restlessness, combat stress, and soothe the mind.”

“Flowers can actually be used to treat things like that?” Rean asks, lifting his cup to his face to gently blow at the surface of his hot tea between his sentences. “I thought they were just there to be pretty and nice to look at. I don’t know much about the health benefits of eating flowers, but my little sister knows a lot about their different meanings. She’s attending St. Astraia Girl’s Academy right now, and they have this huge garden at the center of their campus. I guess girls like that sorta thing. They change the flowers every year, and whenever she comes home for break she tells us all about the choices they picked and what they supposedly mean.”

Jusis runs his thumbs around the perimeter of his tea cup’s rim as he holds it in his hands and raises an inquisitive eyebrow at Rean. “Enlighten me.”

Rean’s gaze transfers from the ripples in his cup to the chandelier above as his eyebrows knit together in thought. “Okay. Hmm, let’s see, if I remember correctly one of the meanings of those hydrangeas that you have growing outside of your window is frigidity and heartlessness. Oh, um, there’s a better meaning other than that one. They could also symbolize gratefulness and heartfelt emotions. Not sure why they’re so radically different… but the color means something, too. They’re purple, which I think represents royalty.”

After taking a sip of his tea and allowing the delicate flavor to settle on his palate Jusis sets his cup back down onto the table and laces his fingers together before resting his hands on his lap. “Interesting. And the magnolia trees? Those were planted at the insistence of my brother.”

“Umm,” Rean mutters quietly as he squints into the distance. “I think magnolias represent dignity, and the color white means purity. I don’t know why he would have wanted them planted here so badly. Hmm, I think the funniest one is the rhododendron. That one apparently means beware.”

Jusis snorts. “Hmph, that’s ridiculous. I would never let a flower tell me what to do.”

“What if it was a sentient flower?” Rean questions with a grin. “A sentient flower that was twice your height that crawls around on its roots and that could crush you under the weight of a single petal if you so much as looked at it the wrong way?”

Jusis stares back at Rean, narrowing his eyes disapprovingly. “I would burn every fiber of its horrific being to the ground before it could lay a single scratch on me and then deliver you its ashes as proof.”

Rean laughs at his response and somehow Jusis is glad even though he does not see what exactly is so hilarious about his gravely serious answer. After he blows once more at his tea Rean takes his first sip but apparently it still is not cool enough yet because he winces and pull the cup from his lips with a tiny yelp. “Still hot,” he mutters, rubbing at his lips with the back of his hand before he puts his tea cup back down onto the table’s surface across from Jusis’s and offers a sheepish smile. “So, uh, there sure are a lot of swords hanging around on your walls.”

It’s an abrupt change of topic, and Jusis isn’t exactly sure why their exchange needs to continue in the first place. He invited Rean inside to have some company while having his morning tea – specifically the presence of the only person around his age he has met in his life who has acknowledged him as a person untied to his family name – not particularly to chat about menial topics that he will never think about again for the rest of his life, but he did this to himself and he supposes there is no other option now than to indulge Rean with actual conversation. “They are all ornamental,” Jusis explains, carefully taking a sip of his own tea. “The sword I actually practice with is stored in my wardrobe.”

“You fence?” Rean asks, his hands instinctively reaching for his own cup at the sight of Jusis drinking his tea, but he stops himself from lifting it, fingers remaining curled around its perimeter.

“The swordsmanship passed down through the Albarea family is not mere fencing,” Jusis replies with a hint of irritation to his tone. “The court style that my brother has taught me is a refined art that I continue to put effort into perfecting each day.”

“Wow, you really make me want to see it in action,” Rean muses thoughtfully as his fingertips grip the rim of his cup and he begins to rotate it in place. “I guess I kinda know my own way around a sword, too. I’ve been studying the republic’s Eight Leaves One Blade style for a while, but I’m not too good. Master Yun Ka–Fai still beats me up whenever we have a friendly spar together.”

“Eight Leaves One Blade?” Jusis echoes quietly with a frown, and Rean nods eagerly in response with a small, confused smile regarding Jusis’s reaction. “I’ve heard it’s an extremely difficult style of swordsmanship to learn, let alone master,” he continues, and when Rean shrugs with a short laugh of agreement Jusis’s frown deepens. “Why in the world is someone like you bothering with this lowly job?” he asks, lifting a hand to gesture at his bedroom window and the countless plants growing outside of it that Rean has been tending to every day this week. “You’re the son of Baron Schwarzer, adopted or not, and thus are a member of nobility. You have other skills available at your disposal that you could be using at an occupation of greater status. Why are you lowering yourself to menial labor?”

“Um… does it matter?” Rean asks, staring down at his cup. “I saw the job offer so I decided to take it to earn some money, that’s it. Whether we’re nobility or commoners, we’re all still people. I don’t consider myself indefinitely tied to my name or anything. I’m just living my life as Rean Schwarzer, is that so weird?”

Yes, Jusis wants to reply, that is most definitely weird. He’s lived the life of a commoner and the life of a noble before and after his mother’s death, and there is a significant distinction as to where the line between the two is drawn as he’s learned through his experiences in the mansion. Those of nobility are expected to behave as such, but Rean is an anomaly, spouting out nonsense about how it doesn’t matter. It certainly does, otherwise Jusis would not have been ignored by everyone except for his brother before he altered his behavior to match the haughty arrogance of the nobles around him, but he can’t help but to ponder that the idea of living without ties and obligations to the Albarea family sounds rather nice. To be free to do whatever he wishes rather than what his father insists upon and to go wherever he wishes rather than living in the mansion for the remainder of his life – yes, that sounds rather nice.

“It is weird,” Jusis finally responds, and Rean looks up at him uneasily from his cup of tea. “Weird,” Jusis continues as he meets Rean’s stare, “but admirable.”

“Um… thanks?” Rean replies confusedly before he finally manages to take a sip of his tea without burning himself. His eyes light up as he sets his cup down and swallows before wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand. “Wow, it tastes really good! The honey is a nice touch. I’d drink it even if I didn’t know it was soothing my mind or whatever. It’s delicious.”

“I’m glad,” Jusis states plainly. “It was my mother’s favorite.”

“Was?” Rean questions, and Jusis’s swallows the dryness in his throat as his fingertips tighten their grasp around his teacup. “What’s her favorite now then? I’d like to try it too, if you’ll let me. Seems like she has good taste.”

“…I assume it would be the same,” Jusis answers calmly, closing his eyes as he takes a deep breath and feels his eyebrow twitch. “She was not one to change her preferences often.”

“…Oh,” Rean blurts out quickly, and when Jusis reopens an eye Rean is running a hand through his hair as he looks away awkwardly. “S–Sorry,” he stammers in a panic, “I should’ve– I didn’t realize– ugh, that was dumb of me. I’m sorry.”

If there’s one thing that Jusis has observed about Rean Schwarzer since meeting him it is that he cares too much for his own good. He cares too much about his family to want to continue being a burden to them so he is here seven days a week exerting himself from the early hours of dawn to noon. He cares so much about doing the best work possible that he double checks every hedge that he’s finished clipping and every flower stem he’s finished trimming; he sweeps every walkway and wipes down every wrought iron bench twice. He even cares about Jusis’s feelings even though they just met earlier this week – about the possibility that he might be hurt by the subject of his mother and about not making this situation between them uncomfortable for him.

Jusis isn’t used to it, the thought of someone else caring – it seems like the only one who willingly acknowledges that he lives in the mansion is his brother; the other workers only tend to his needs and notice his existence per contract so that his father doesn’t need to bother caring himself. Even though the goal of today was not to foster any unwanted attachments, as Jusis watches Rean continue to fumble for the right words to say he hates to admit that it’s happening. From the first time he saw Rean smiling at him from outside of his bedroom window he’s been curious; his curiosity quickly evolved into interest, but after finally coming into contact with a rare glimmer of warmth amidst years of austere loneliness in the Albarea mansion, becoming addicted to Rean’s company is a real danger.

“It’s fine,” Jusis interrupts as Rean is still in the middle of babbling an apology. Rean pauses with his mouth open, staring at Jusis who takes the jar of honey on the table by its neck and pushes it towards him. “She was always much more liberal with how much honey she added than you just were, though. You may add more if you wish.”

“Really?” Rean questions, hand pausing midair as he reaches for the jar. “Is it okay?”

“That’s what it’s there for, Schwarzer,” Jusis replies, folding his arms as he stares at Rean expectantly. Rean laughs sheepishly before he vocalizes his thanks and pours more honey into his tea.

They chat for another hour – rather Rean chats and Jusis listens. He learns that Rean is saving up money to go to military school because he wants to join the Erebonian army and be a member of the forces keeping the empire safe. He learns that Rean began using a sword the exact same year he did and that Rean specializes in the fourth form of the Eight Leaves One Blade style, Autumn Leaf Cutter. He learns that Rean likes to go fishing when he needs to calm down and snowboards down the slopes outside Ymir for fun – honestly it seems more dangerous than fun. He learns that even though Rean is also technically a noble they have lived entirely different lives, and their conversation leaves Jusis with a vague sense of longing.

“You should come to Ymir sometime,” Rean suggests as he finishes his cup of tea with a final gulp. “I know it’s probably really dinky compared to Bareahard, but it’s really pretty when it snows. I can get you a free pass to the hot spring and I’ll show you my favorite fishing spot and you can borrow my spare snowboard so we can go down the slopes together. Oh yeah, you can meet Arthur, too. I don’t know if you remember from when I told you before, but Arthur is–”

“Your horse,” Jusis interjects, and rather than being upset at being interrupted Rean nods enthusiastically.

“Yeah! And you can meet our family dog, too. He’s real big, sorta looks like a wolf. Actually, we’re not sure if he’s a dog or a wolf sometimes. Not that it matters, we love him anyways.”

“I’m not opposed to the idea,” Jusis replies as he lifts his cup to his lips, and after Rean glances at his wristwatch Jusis learns one final fact about him.

“Oh, shoot,” Rean mutters as he stands up. “Sorry, but I gotta get to my other job now.”

“Other job?” Jusis echoes, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, I help out at a stall in Celdic’s market in the afternoon and evening every other weekday,” Rean answers. “Military school costs a lot, so I figured working two jobs at the same time would be best. The stall sells lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, and my job is getting people’s attention in the first place so that they come buy our wares. Depending on the crowd shopping at the time it can be sorta hard, haha.” Jusis fails to see how Rean could have any trouble charming people into buying produce from their stall at the market but keeps his remarks to himself since he knows Rean is too humble to accept credit where it is due. “It takes a bit to get to Celdic from here on my Orbal motorcycle, so I’d better head out,” Rean continues as he pushes his chair in and offers Jusis a final smile. “Thanks for inviting me in for tea. It was great talking with you."

“…Likewise,” Jusis replies, sipping at his tea. “The pleasure was mine.” Rean reaches for his dirty teacup but Jusis dismisses him with a flick of his wrist, and after Rean scurries out of his room Jusis continues drinking his tea as he stares out of his bedroom window. He isn’t sure if Rean Schwarzer is a problem or a blessing.

 

---

 

When Jusis takes Strahl out of his stable for a gallop around the hills stretching at the far edge of the Albarea property he is surprised to find that his horse does not seem to want to follow his instructions. Jusis tugs at the reins in an attempt to guide Strahl away from the mansion, not towards it, but the white stallion has other plans in mind as he trots casually down the cobblestone path leading to the gardens decorating the mansion’s back yard. “Strahl, you can’t run around back there,” Jusis grumbles from the horse’s back, futilely pulling his reins to the side to try to steer him back around to the proper direction, but Strahl continues onward, nibbling at some of the hedges and flowers that he passes by.

It makes no sense for Strahl to be disobeying him. Jusis has been training him since they were both young, and the horse is typically perfectly behaved as is expected of anyone living at the Albarea mansion, be they human or animal. Yet Strahl takes Jusis around the perimeter of the mansion to the front lawn despite his orders and reprimands, and the horse crosses the grass to leave hoof marks on its immaculately mowed surface that make Jusis frown before he stops right in front of a tree, its dark branches dotted with clusters of bright pink flowers and buds. “What are you doing?” Jusis chides as Strahl lifts his head towards one of the low hanging blossoms, and when he reaches a hand out to stop him from biting at it he freezes when he sees Strahl nipping not at the flower but at someone’s shoe.

“Erm, hey,” a voice calls out from above, and Jusis’s gaze snaps up to find Rean sitting on the branch above him, arm wrapped around the tree’s trunk as his legs dangle down. He waves and lifts his red sneakers out of Strahl’s reach just as the horse is about to close his teeth around his shoelaces that are tied into a messy bundle of knots, and Strahl lowers his head, shaking it with a whinny.

“Schwarzer?” Jusis mutters in confusion, staring up at Rean whom he’s surprised not to have noticed sitting up there earlier. “What are you doing?” he repeats, though he supposes it’s more like Rean to be doing something unexpected than his horse.

Rean’s eyes flit nervously to the side as he scratches his cheek with a finger. “Uh, heh, you found me. Not gonna lie, I’m taking a break. I just got done raking the whole yard and a breather seemed like a nice idea.” He pauses to lift his index finger perpendicular to his sheepish smile. “Sorry for slacking off, but can you not tell anyone?”

Jusis glances around at the leaves gathered into neat piles dispersed about the lawn. The hedges are sheared to perfection and the bougainvillea climbing across the pergolas lining the branching walkways are trimmed into sculpted bunches – even if he wanted to complain he couldn’t. “I fail to see any problem here, but your secret is safe with me,” Jusis replies, and when Rean seems relieved he feels a little glad.

“Why are you here?” Rean follows up, and Strahl answers by shuffling his front hooves against the ground, turning his head back to look at Jusis with what he swears is a smug expression – ridiculous.

“If you must know, certain forces brought me here against my will,” Jusis responds as he pushes Strahl’s head away from his own.

“I thought you said a skilled rider should be able to recover from any sort of situation with grace and composure,” Rean teases with a small smile as he reaches down to stroke the crest of Strahl’s head.

“I am composed,” Jusis insists. “There’s no question about that. The unanswered question here is why you’re sitting in a tree.”

“Climbing trees is fun,” Rean answers, pulling his feet up to the branch. Jusis’s eyes widen when he grips the trunk tightly and stands up; the branch buckles beneath his weight yet when he bounces on it, but it doesn’t give way. “This one’s a flowering crabapple tree. The flowers are even prettier when you can see them up close like this, but they turn into crabapples later. Those aren’t like regular apples… I’d suggest you don’t pick and eat them. Didn’t you climb trees as a kid?”

“Do I look like I climbed trees as a child?” Jusis counters with an impassive stare.

“Nah,” Rean replies as he reaches up and grabs onto a branch above his head, gripping it tightly as he lets himself dangle freely from it, swinging his legs back and forth. “You were probably learning how to do your taxes or something. Actually, no, you probably don’t pay taxes. You were probably learning how to collect taxes or something. Maybe walking around with a book on your head to learn how to be prim and proper.”

“I did not walk around with books on my head,” Jusis grumbles as Strahl shifts beneath him with a snort. “I did read, though,” he continues while stroking his horse’s mane, trying to shush him as he frowns. “Quite often.”

“Oh?” Rean questions in interest as he lowers himself back down onto the branch beneath his feet and reaches a hand out toward one of the blossoms dangling in front of his face. “What kind of books? You seem like the stuffy type who’d read the dictionary.”

“Mostly stories,” Jusis answers, utilizing a large amount of self-restraint in ignoring Rean’s last statement. “Legends. Fairy tales. My mother would tell me stories before I would go to bed every night, but after she passed away I had to find an escape from my new life through other means.”

There is a long silence thereafter during which Rean is obviously seeking for a tactful response, but Jusis feels surprisingly at ease in the current atmosphere between them – comfortable, even; Rean seems to have that effect on him. “…What’s your favorite story?” Rean finally asks quietly as he eases back down into a sitting position on the branch, back down closer to Jusis as he leans sideways against the tree’s trunk.

Peter Pan,” Jusis replies simply, almost immediately.

“Huh,” Rean says, cocking his head to the side as he purses his lips. “Why? I didn’t see this one coming. I would have taken you for more of a King Arthur kind of guy.”

“I read to break away from reality, not to immerse myself further into it,” Jusis begins, closing his eyes as a breeze stirs the light fragrance of the garden’s flowers into the air around them. “It’s a story about exploration and adventure, but above all one of freedom. He isn’t tied down by expectation or responsibilities. It seems like a pleasant lifestyle – desirable, even.”

“He also wanted to be a kid forever,” Rean interjects, and Jusis opens his eyes to find Rean staring at him curiously, analytically.

“Certainly not forever, but to someone who as a child has never had the opportunity to behave in a childish manner the notion to act juvenile even for a little while is, I admit, appealing,” Jusis answers, and when Rean stretches his hand out to him for the second time since they’ve met Jusis stares at it incredulously. “What’s this?”

“Here’s your chance,” Rean explains with a smile. “Come on, try climbing the tree!”

“I appreciate the sentiment, Schwarzer, but I’m not looking to injure myself today,” Jusis retorts as he pulls on Strahl’s reins to direct him to turn around, but instead Strahl abruptly rears up onto his hind legs, nearly causing Jusis to topple right off. Strahl whinnies enthusiastically as he twists around violently, and Jusis quickly swings his leg over the horse’s back in a chaotic dismount before he’s thrown off, landing clumsily onto the ground with an unsightly stumble. He acts like nothing strange just happened, running a hand through his hair with a huff, and when he glances up at the sound of Rean stifling a laugh he narrows his eyes. “Fine,” he concludes, ignoring Rean’s still outstretched hand as he walks over to the other side of the tree trunk. “I’ll humor you, but if anything adverse happens you’d best be prepared to take responsibility.”

Rean suddenly leaps down from the branch, landing on his feet with much more grace compared to Jusis’s recent display. “Cool, I’ll show you how to get up there,” he offers, and as Jusis stares blankly up at the tree he sees Strahl wander off to the side from the corner of his eye, contentedly grazing on the nearby grass. He can’t shake the feeling that Strahl is smarter than any horse has a right to be.

Rean demonstrates how to climb the tree, grabbing onto the lowest overhead branch as he plants his feet on the sturdy knots and bark holes spread sporadically around its trunk. Rean eases his arm up onto the branch as he hoists himself up with a grunt; Jusis isn’t exactly sure how it happened, maybe he blinked and missed it, but soon Rean is sitting up on the branch with an inviting grin on his face. Jusis stretches his arms out tentatively and takes a deep breath before he reaches his hands up to a different branch and curls his fingers around it. He attempts to replicate Rean’s actions but as he kicks his feet against the trunk and pulls his upper body closer to the branch above him with a determined desperation he is sure he just looks ridiculous, maybe like a tuna floundering about outside of water as it takes its last breaths.

Jusis isn’t sure how he does it or when it happens but his resolve directed less towards actually successfully climbing the tree and more focused upon not looking like a complete buffoon eventually pays off as he finds himself on top of the branch. Not to say that it is a desirable position, though – whereas Rean is sitting comfortably on the branch beside his, Jusis finds his branch digging into his abdomen, his body bent over it halfway with his arms and legs dangling off opposite sides. He hears Rean laughing to himself and shoots him a glare, but Rean just seems so amused at the sight as he laughs himself to tears that Jusis can’t stay upset for very long.

“Schwarzer,” he calls out, and Rean finally stops laughing to wipe at the tears budding at the corners of his eyes. “I don’t understand how this happened.”

“Hey, don’t look at me,” Rean quips, his voice unsteady as the last remnants of laughter shake his chest. “Want some help getting down?”

“No, I’ll do it myself,” Jusis grumbles stubbornly as he ponders whether flipping himself forwards over the branch or falling backwards off of it is the more satisfactory and less dangerous choice. The tree shakes beneath him as he sees Rean leap off of it from his peripheral, and as he comes to the conclusion that it’s better to slide back off the branch he feels something wrap around his legs. The unexpected touch makes his spine shiver and when he looks to its source to find Rean’s arms locked around his knees dangling down from the tree he barely has time to mutter the first syllable of the myriad of questions swirling in his mind before Rean gives his legs a forceful tug.

After being dragged off of the branch Jusis lands on Rean with a thud that sends a sharp pain up his back and makes his head spin. He lays there dazed for a moment wondering why he ever agreed to this terrible idea before the warmth of Rean’s winded breaths against the back of his ear makes his eyes snap back open. “Ngh, are you okay, Jusis?” Rean groans quietly and no, Jusis isn’t okay, but not for the reason Rean is worrying about.

Jusis quickly climbs back up to his feet and ignores the tinge of pain pricking at the back of his head as he dusts himself off and steadies his breathing. “I’m fine, thank you for the concern,” he replies swiftly, glancing at Rean as he also stands up and rubs at his forehead with a wince – this might explain why the back of Jusis’s head aches as well. “Are you hurt?” Jusis asks, and when he instinctively lifts a hand in Rean’s direction his fingers curl into his palm as he retracts it towards his chest.

“Don’t worry about it,” Rean answers, masking his pained grimace with a smile. “I’ll be fine. I’m just glad you’re okay, too. This was exciting, but I should probably get back to work now.”

“Wait,” Jusis interjects when Rean rolls up the sleeves of his red hoodie and starts to walk off. “You definitely don’t appear to be fine. You should rest–”

“I’ve just been resting,” Rean counters with a soft laugh. “I’m fine, really. I said don’t worry about it. The fountain out back still needs to be cleaned, so I’m gonna go take care of that right now. Thanks for chatting with me. I’ll see you around, yeah?”

After Rean waves at him he whistles to himself as he heads down the path towards the back of the mansion. Jusis is interrupted from the middle of staring at him by the feeling of Strahl nibbling at the hair at the nape of his neck, and he whirls around to brush the stallion away with a frown. “You instigated all of this, and if you think I don’t realize what you’re doing I do,” he hisses, and Strahl nickers affectionately before Jusis grabs onto his reins again and leads him back towards the stables, intending to take him out for a ride tomorrow instead – that is, unless the horse has other plans again.

 

---

 

When Jusis hears the familiar sound of his father’s stern, belligerent voice directed at whomever has the pleasure of standing at the opposite side of his desk this morning he freezes with his knuckles inches away from the door of his father’s office and contemplates leaving. Based solely on the muffled sounds coming from inside it seems like his father is in a bad mood like usual, and even though Jusis would rather not spoil what could prospectively be a splendid day with an early morning familial argument there are some situations such as this where sacrifices must be made. After he takes a deep breath Jusis knocks on the door three times; the commotion inside falls silent after the short, crisp sounds, and once his father vocalizes the command to enter Jusis ignores the discomfort in his gut as he opens the door.

“Oh,” his father states blankly as Jusis stands in the doorway. “It’s just you.”

Even if Jusis had something in mind to retort with he knows he would have to keep it inside but he doesn’t, he’s too busy noting the strange anomaly standing in front of his father’s desk, Rean Schwarzer, glancing straight back at him over his shoulder with his eyebrows raised. Fantastic, this was just the audience he desired to witness him being most likely, inevitably reprimanded by his father. “My apologies for interrupting,” Jusis begins as he folds an arm across his stomach and tips his head downwards in his father’s direction. “There is a matter I would like to discuss with you, if you will permit me the time once you are done with your current affairs.”

As his father stares at him exasperatedly Jusis straightens his posture and prepares himself for rejection, but the first one to speak is Rean. “I’m sorry,” he exclaims, turning around to give Jusis a sheepish grin. “We’re not really talking about anything important, just what kind of work I’m supposed to take care of next week. You guys can go ahead and talk first, just act like I’m not even here–”

“What is it,” Jusis’s father asks, though it sounds more like a statement than a question that he desires to know the answer to. He pulls out a pen and yanks a paper from the top of a pile on the corner of his desk; the silence is soon replaced with the sound of him scribbling lines of ink as he stares down at the paperwork before him rather than his son at the entrance of the room.

Rean stares at Jusis’s father for a moment before directing his confusion in Jusis’s direction, and even though Rean is in his peripheral Jusis focuses his attention on his father as he clears his throat and clasps his hands together behind his back. “Rufus informed me that you are planning to send troops to invade the territory surrounding Legram,” Jusis says as his father snatches another paper from his pile and begins to read the small print covering its surface. “My brother may not be planning to voice his concerns right now, but I am. The Four Great Families are currently in a state of peace. The Arseids may be a lesser group of nobles, but the other families will no doubt see this intent to expand territory as a first sign of aggression. Why are you seeking conflict with them when we are finally in a state of tranquility?”

“It’s because things are peaceful that it’s the perfect time to claim more territory,” his father replies, pausing in his writing despite still staring down at the paper. “We expand now first before any of the other Four Great Families thinks to. Legram is directly below us and has little to no forces to speak of to protect them, and after we take over that region we can proceed to the next before any of the other three have a chance to react. The more land we claim for the Albarea name the better. Soon we will not only be the strongest of the nobles but even rival the king’s family. How do you not see that this is the best course of action? This is why you’ll never be fit to succeed the Albarea name.”

“Why does it matter how powerful the Albarea family is?” Jusis asks, and even after his father slams his pen onto the table and looks up at him with a glare for daring to interrupt he still continues. “We’re nobility already. We rule over the Kreuzen region already. Why do you feel the need to gain more power when the others of the Four Great Families seem content with what they have? Erebonia has seen enough conflict during her years. I don’t see why it’s necessary for you to be so greedy.”

“Greedy?” his father repeats incredulously. “If there is anyone here who is greedy it is you, using the word we to refer to yourself as if you’re some sort of nobility too. Who do you think you are? You don’t even deserve to be living in this mansion let alone be able to speak to me, in such an accusatory and disrespectful manner no less.”

“You’re always just thinking about yourself, Father,” Jusis continues quietly despite his father’s irate expression. “Not about the citizens of Bareahard and sometimes I doubt even about our family, just yourself. I find it unwise to engage in actions that could lead to unnecessary war and casualties, but it’s clear that my suggestions are falling upon deaf ears.”

“Leave,” Jusis’s father states, and by his tone it is obvious that the conversation is over.

“…I apologize for taking up your time,” Jusis states with a short bow, but his father sees none of it, attention already relocated to the paperwork now covering his desk. Jusis looks from his father to the papers back to his father and finally gives up, turning around in the doorway before he closes the door behind him and leaves with a sour taste in the back of his mouth.

Jusis makes it halfway through the hallway before a commotion follows behind him, loud crashes and clattering against the floor as someone bursts out of his father’s office and runs after him. “Jusis,” a familiar voice begins, and not even a second later Jusis feels a hand on his shoulder that makes him freeze and flinch in rapid succession.

“Don’t touch me, Schwarzer,” Jusis snaps as he brushes Rean’s hand off of him and shoots a glare over his shoulder.

“Um, it’s probably not my place to say this,” Rean begins as he stares at his hand for a moment like he’s just been burned, “but I think your words reached your dad. He’ll probably change his mind about the whole invasion of Legram–”

“No,” Jusis interrupts, “he won’t. You’ve only been here for a few weeks. You don’t know anything. My father won’t change any of his actions just because I ask him to. I know this, I’ve known this since coming to the mansion eight years ago, but I still try to convince him anyways time and time again.” Jusis laughs to himself, a derisive and ugly sound as he runs a hand through his hair, and he glances at Rean’s hopeful expression with a deep frown. “I don’t even know why I try.”

“It’s because you’re a kind person,” Rean replies simply without a hint of hesitation, and as Jusis stares incredulously at the genuine smile spread across the other teen’s lips he hears his heartbeat pounding in his ears while Rean’s words echo in his head. If it was anyone else in the entire empire he would question the sincerity of the statement but this is Rean, and when Rean continues beaming at him in the following silence that must only feel awkward to Jusis he turns his back to Rean to hide the disconcerting blush tinting his cheeks.

“Please leave me alone,” he states as he begins walking off down the hallway and it is, of course, no surprise that Rean immediately chases after him.

“Wait, why?” Rean asks, sounding a little alarmed – a little worried – and when he reaches his hand out to curl his fingers around Jusis’s mid swing Jusis whirls around to face him with gritted teeth as he yanks his hand free.

“I just– I just need to be alone right now,” Jusis insists, both surprised and upset at the wavering confidence in his tone, not to mention that he’s just stuttered. “I need time by myself to think about things– about my, my father.” About you, he doesn’t add, and Rean retracts his hand as he begins to step away.

“Oh, right,” Rean says with a light chuckle and smile even though he looks a little hurt at being brushed away so quickly. “Sorry about that. I’ll head back to work.”

When Jusis watches Rean leave he hates how despite the words he’s just said he honestly wants Rean to stay. He’s tired of growing close to people only to watch them leave him. His mother would hold him close and promise to always be there for him even when there was no one else, but he mourned her death eight years ago – alone. His brother took him in, taught him everything he would need to know about transitioning into a life of nobility, and swore to always be around during times of need, but now he’s always gone off to who knows where, doing who knows what, while Jusis and only Jusis has the audacity to question his father’s methods. There’s no point in getting to know the butlers or the maids as his father freely hires and fires them as he pleases, and the last time he thought he made a friend who was near his age the first time Jusis invited him into the Albarea mansion he snuck off, stole some expensive porcelains from the foyer, and was never heard from again.

Jusis thought he was done trying to foster pointless relationships that would always end with the same result – him alone as usual – but somehow he wonders if this time might not be like all of the others. Perhaps this time might end differently. This is Rean Schwarzer after all, and if there’s one thing he’s learned about Rean Schwarzer it is that he is different. He’s never met someone like Rean before – someone who doesn’t care about following the social norms rooted deep into the empire since its founding; someone who can talk happily about everything and nothing but always the honest truth; someone who never fails to acknowledge his presence and greet him enthusiastically, whether with a grin or a wave or a smile that all manage to make Jusis’s heartbeat race.

Rean disappears around the corner. It’s like he was never in the hallway to begin with, and Jusis scowls to himself as he sulks off to his room alone, feeling bitter towards his father and about his life but mostly at himself for feeling like he always needs to be so cold.

 

---

 

There is a quiet knock on Jusis’s bedroom window on Saturday morning, and he looks up from the current paragraph he is reading in An Extensive History of Erebonian Aristocracy to see Rean Schwarzer standing outside of his window and therefore once again right in the middle of the hydrangea bushes. When Rean notices Jusis’s attention on him his face lights up with a smile and a wave, and after Jusis wedges his bookmark between the pages of his book he sets it onto his nightstand and walks over to the window to open it with a creak.

“Um, hey, Jusis,” Rean begins, and when Jusis examines the space that he is standing in he finds a perfect path carved straight through the bushes leading straight to his window. Even though a section of the greenery is missing to create a sudden break in the immaculately trimmed shrubbery lining this particular wall of the mansion Jusis finds himself appreciating the sight.

“Do you need something from me?” Jusis inquires, noting how uneasy Rean looks as his stare lowers to the ground. They haven’t spoken since Jusis cast him away so brusquely earlier in the week, and even though he can understand why Rean is feeling a tad awkward right now he doesn’t see why he should act the same.

“Not really,” Rean responds, and Jusis finds himself a little disappointed because if Rean doesn’t need something the possibility of their chat being cut shorter than he would like is very high. “I hope this isn’t weird but I, uh…” Rean pauses as he bites his lower lip and reaches into his apron’s pocket. Jusis moves closer towards his open window, feeling his legs pressing against the wall as he leans his upper body out curiously to watch what Rean is doing, and a few seconds later Rean carefully pulls a flower out of his pocket, gingerly dusting off its delicate white petals with his fingertips before he holds it out to Jusis. “While I was tending to the garden I trimmed this flower off to give to you,” Rean explains. “It’s a gardenia. It reminded me of you. My little sister told me that it represents joy and, I dunno, I’ve been doing some thinking of my own lately and it kinda seems like you need to remember to feel some joy in your life sometimes, so here.” He laughs sheepishly as he scratches at the back of his head with his other hand. “Sorry that it came from your own garden. I hope that’s okay.”

Jusis plucks the gardenia flower out of Rean’s hand and examines its soft petals curled around its hidden yellow center that taper off into points and the single, clean slice through its stem that Rean snipped so precisely with his shears. As his gaze shifts from the flower to Rean’s hopeful smile back to the flower he considers that it might make sense for it to represent something abstract like joy because he feels a vague sense of what he might be able to call joy budding inside of him as he holds the gardenia in his hand. “Thank you,” Jusis declares, wrapping his fingers close but not too tight around the fragile petals to guarantee what he won’t drop the flower.

“You’re welcome,” Rean replies as he folds his arms across Jusis’s windowsill and bends over slightly to rest his chin on top of them. “Am I bothering you?”

“No,” Jusis answers even though he was actually in the middle of an important chapter of his book. “But–”

“I’m already finished with my work,” Rean interjects, and Jusis wonders how he knew just what he was going to ask. “Um, can I ask how things are going with your dad?” Rean asks tentatively, and Jusis has to restrain himself from crushing the gardenia in his fist.

“He still hates me, if that’s what you’re asking,” Jusis mutters.

“Sorry, Jusis,” Rean says quickly, probably noticing how Jusis’s fingers are twitching around the flower. “That’s not what I meant. I, um, need to work on my tact… What I meant to ask was how things are going with his plans to invade other parts of the empire?”

“He’s changed his mind,” Jusis begins, setting the flower onto the table at the side of the window in case Rean decides to say something outlandish during the course of their conversation. “He now claims that it’s not worth taking over any of the other smaller territories around the Kreutzen region because the benefits from gaining such insignificant land aren’t worth it. I don’t understand him. He was insisting the opposite just a few days earlier. I don’t know what brought it about, but this is not to say I’m upset that he’s settled on the right decision.”

“That’s great!” Rean exclaims but something in his voice makes Jusis raise an eyebrow, and the grin on the Rean’s face slowly fades away as his guilty stare shifts to the side. “Erm, it’s great, really! …Oh, okay, this’ll probably make you upset, but the day after you talked to your dad I went to talk to him about the same thing. I dunno what it was about what I said, but it seems like for whatever reason he decided to listen to some part of it even though he blew up at me after I told him my own thoughts about the matter. I’m glad. I guess we both managed to change his mind together.”

Jusis narrows his eyes at Rean upon hearing his explanation. “I never asked for your help.”

Rean straightens back up and plants a hand onto the windowsill while pointing the other accusingly at Jusis. “There it is! I knew you’d say that. Look, I know that you like to think that you can do everything by yourself, but you can’t. I don’t mean this as a jab at you, personally. There isn’t a single person who exists who is capable of doing everything alone. I’m not expecting your thanks or anything, I just want you to see that there are people out there who are willing to help you, who care about you, so don’t feel like you need to hold every burden on your shoulders alone.”

There’s a determination in Rean’s fuchsia eyes that Jusis has never seen before, and as he stares into them he can feel his resolve breaking as his frown melts away. Somehow he feels like he can understand why Rean was able to change his father’s mind so quickly because it seems like he’s under the same effects of Rean’s smooth talking right now. “Fine,” he sighs in defeat, and he’s glad to see the corners of Rean’s lips perk back up into a familiar smile. “Would you like to come in?” Jusis asks. “I should have enough tea left from my first brewing earlier this morning for us to share.”

“Sure!” Rean accepts with a nod as he unties his work apron from his waist and lets it to fall to the ground between the bushes. Jusis is about to leave his room to fetch Rean from outside, but his eyes widen at the sight of Rean apparently having other plans in mind. He’s glad that he set the gardenia down onto the table because he’s sure he would have dropped it in surprise the moment that Rean latched his hands onto the edge of the windowsill and hoisted his body up onto it with a loud grunt, and when Rean somehow flings himself through the open window and tumbles onto the floor with a twist, roll, and yelp Jusis backs away so that he’s not knocked down. “Ouch,” Rean groans softly as he rubs at the top of his head, and Jusis folds his arms as he shakes his head in disapproval and rolls his eyes.

“You realize there is a door you could have come through instead, right, Schwarzer?” Jusis asks.

“I guess,” Rean answers with a laugh as he looks up at Jusis. “I’d probably get lost again on the way here, though.”

“I’d come to find you,” Jusis proclaims as he crouches down and offers Rean his hand. For once it’s Rean who seems to be struck speechless, but a few moments later he’s grinning again as he reaches out and takes Jusis’s hand. Jusis closes his fingers around Rean’s which he’s satisfied to find are just as warm as his smile always is, and after he helps Rean to his feet his hand feels strangely empty again after Rean’s slips free.

“Is this the same tea from last Saturday?” Rean asks after he’s sat down and Jusis has fetched his teapot and two cups for them.

“Yes,” Jusis replies as he sets down their cups but continues to hold the pot in his hand. “My apologies if you wanted to try something new.”

“No, no! It’s perfectly fine,” Rean insists as he picks up his cup and holds it out eagerly. “Last week’s tea was great, I’d love to have some more. I wouldn’t mind having the same tea every week, I mean, um… if you don’t think it’s weird to do this every week.” As Jusis carefully pours Rean a cup of tea he thinks to himself that no, it’s not weird, and yes, he would like to have tea with Rean every week. After he pours a cup of tea for himself he smiles as he sets down the pot, and the feeling of Rean poking the corner of his lips with a finger makes him blink rapidly in succession as his eyebrows furl together and his attention falls back onto Rean. “You’re smiling,” Rean muses thoughtfully as he lowers his hand back to the table.

“Is that a problem?” Jusis inquires as said smile is quickly replaced with a frown.

“No,” Rean answers and picks up his teacup to blow at its contents without taking his eyes off of Jusis. “I like it when you smile. I don’t know why you don’t do it more often.”

Rean starts to babble about other things like how his second job is going and how he misses practicing his swordplay as Jusis stands there frozen with a hand resting on the back of his chair, struck speechless by Rean’s words that still continue to echo in his head. He’s glad that Rean is filling what would be silence with a story about how he tackled a thief who was trying to steal their stall’s crops earlier in the week because otherwise Jusis isn’t sure what he would say. He quietly sits down and lifts his own teacup to his lips; he listens to every word of Rean’s tale, watches his hands flail around with exaggerated gestures, and smiles to himself contently, glad that Rean seems pleased at the sight.

 

---

 

“What’s this flower called?” Jusis questions as he slips his fingers around the stem of a light pink bud sprouting around the iron fence lining the path he’s standing on.

Rean glances over at him from the topiary he’s trimming, and after he lowers his shears he cranes his neck towards Jusis to gain a closer view of the particular flower he’s cupping in his hand. “Um, hmm, I think that’s an amaryllis flower. They symbolize determination and success after a long struggle because it blossoms for a really long time.”

Jusis brushes his thumb against the smooth petals as he sees Rean return to work from the corner of his eye. “I can’t believe you remember all of them,” he mutters quietly to himself, sliding his hands into his pockets as he turns to face Rean and the nearly perfectly groomed horse shaped topiary towering over the both of them.

“I have a lot of useless information stored inside of my head,” Rean begins as he squints and snips the irregular bumps at the horse’s neck. “I’m not too good at studying or taking tests so I’m glad that I’m aiming for military school and not some place that will grade me based on how smart I am, but if you want someone to tell you trivia then I’m your go–to guy. I can identify and tell you the meanings of flowers and rank the edible parts of a moose from leanest to fattiest and list the top five snowiest days in the entire history of Ymir. I also remember random things that people tell me that they probably think I forgot like, uh… Oh, right, one time while we were talking you mentioned that your uncle runs a restaurant in Bareahard’s central square so a few days ago I stopped by and said hi to him and we talked for a bit, kinda about you, and he seems really nice.”

“You what?” Jusis asks loudly, and his eyebrow twitches.

“Yeah,” Rean continues, taking a step back from the topiary to scan it over with his eyes for any lingering imperfections, and a few seconds later he reaches out and clips at the horse’s lower torso. “He was really welcoming from the moment I walked in. After I told him I knew you he invited me in to have something to eat and served me what he explained to be your favorite creamy chowder. He told me a story about the first time he made it for you when you were six years old and how when you had your first bite your eyes lit up like street lamps in the middle of the night and you were so excited to gobble it up that most of the chowder ended up on your shirt instead of in your mouth–”

“Stop talking,” Jusis interjects lowly with a glare that Rean doesn’t notice since his back is turned. “You’re going to forget that he told you that.”

“So, all of that made me start thinking,” Rean goes on as if Jusis never interrupted him in the first place, and after he concludes that the topiary is trimmed to perfection he slips his shears into his apron pocket and dusts his gloves off while turning to face Jusis. “Your uncle was nice enough to give me a rough copy of the recipe before I left. I have some spare ingredients from the stall that I work at in Celdic’s market, so we should give it a try this afternoon once I’m done working.”

Later that Thursday afternoon Jusis finds himself standing in the mansion’s kitchen next to Rean as he unpacks the bag of ingredients he brought with him since he neither has the heart to deny Rean’s request nor the temptation of his uncle’s creamy chowder. He’s upset that his uncle seems to have no qualms with telling embarrassing stories about him and the precious chowder recipe to anyone who will listen to him, but it’s the truth that the dish is one of the most delicious things Jusis has ever tasted, even compared to the cuisine prepared by the chef of the Albarea mansion, and he can’t help but to hope that they will be able to replicate it now.

Jusis stares blankly at what Rean has laid out onto the counter. He recognizes a few of the items – a bottled jar of milk and a wheel of cheese wrapped in cloth – but one is completely foreign to him. As he takes the bizarre brown lump in his hand and lifts it closer to his face to examine it closely he feels Rean’s eyes shift to him, and after he rotates it around between his fingers and strokes his chin contemplatively he glances at the other teen standing beside him. “What’s this?” Jusis asks, raising an eyebrow in curiosity.

“Uh… that’s a potato,” Rean replies bluntly.

“Really,” Jusis questions though it sounds more like an incredulous statement.

“Yeah, why would I lie about this?” Rean responds as he pulls open a drawer and sifts through it, causing metal to clatter against metal. “Don’t tell me you’ve never seen a potato before?”

“I’ve never seen a potato before,” Jusis states listlessly. “That is, in its most primitive state. What do I do with it?”

“Bite it,” Rean answers, and just seconds before Jusis is about to close his teeth around the strange object in his hand Rean snatches it away. “Joking!” he exclaims with a laugh that Jusis hardly finds amusing. “I’m joking. You can’t eat these raw. They’re sort of toxic. They’ll give you nausea and other nasty things.”

“Well, thank you for stopping me from eating it in such a timely manner,” Jusis comments dryly. “You have my gratitude, Schwarzer. I would truly be lost without you.” Rean continues to chuckle to himself as he pulls some sort of tool out of the drawer that Jusis doesn’t recognize and uses it to strip the skin off of the so–called potato. Jusis glances from it to the other ingredients, to the illegibly scribbled recipe laying on the counter and the pot of water heating on the stove, and finally back to Rean as he knits his eyebrows together and folds his arms. “Is there something I should be doing?” he asks.

Rean peels the last of the skin off the current potato before he sets it onto a cutting board and directs an uneasy gaze at Jusis. “Depends, can I trust you not to hurt yourself with a knife?”

Jusis taps the knuckle of his index finger against his chin in thought before he gives Rean a very serious stare. “If you let me fetch my sword, I shall take care of dicing it posthaste.”

“Never mind,” Rean mutters quickly as he forcibly blocks him from reaching for the potato by shoving his body between Jusis and the countertop. “Can you go watch the water and let me know when it’s boiling?”

As Jusis spends most his time on the sidelines doing menial work he’s surprised at how okay he is with taking care of what seem like pointless tasks while Rean does most of the serious cooking. Jusis is used to being the one in charge with everything under his control, but just for now he’s content relinquishing it, playing the commoner to Rean’s noble as he does whatever Rean asks. He watches the water as it comes to a boil and alerts Rean when waves of bubbles foam up at its surface. He opens the bottle of milk and pours the perfect ration into the measuring cup. He wipes scraps off of the countertop, scrubs the dirty dishes clean, and finally watches over Rean’s shoulder while he hums softly to himself and stirs its contents gently with a wooden spoon. Rean calmly dumps in the pile of ingredients he’s diced into chunks before pouring in the milk that Jusis has measured, and a few minutes later a familiar, comforting smell fills the kitchen.

The silence between them as they both stand there caught up in anticipation waiting for the chowder to be completed is broken when Rean’s stomach gurgles loud enough to make him jump in surprise. “Whoa!” Rean exclaims before he rubs at his abdomen with a hand in an attempt to calm his hunger down. “Sorry. I’m kind of starving. I haven’t had anything to eat since I had breakfast before starting work outside.”

“Go grab a snack to eat,” Jusis says as he reaches for the spoon in Rean’s hand. “I can handle something as simple as stirring.”

Rean somehow twists away from Jusis’s grasp as he worms around, intent on not giving up the wooden utensil, and Jusis soon gives up with a slight glare. “I can wait,” Rean insists. “If I eat something now I’ll get start to get full. It should be done soon anyways.”

Time passes by and soon Rean pulls the spoon from the pot, blowing at the small piece of potato cradled in its curve before he carefully picks it up between his teeth and chews it. As he grinds it between his molars he slowly begins to nod his head in approval. “The potatoes are almost soft enough,” he ponders aloud before swallowing, and at the notion that the potatoes are still slightly raw a flicker of worry sparks at the back of Jusis’s mind as Rean’s words about toxicity replay in his head. “A couple more minutes should be all it’ll take,” Rean concludes before he continues stirring the chowder.

Jusis quickly steps to the side and opens a nearby cabinet before returning to Rean’s side with a small canister of seasoning in his hand. “What’s that?” Rean asks, and Jusis’s initial response is to twist its cap open and dispense a portion of its contents into the pot.

“Pre–minced, fresh herbs,” Jusis replies as Rean’s eyes widen at just how much Jusis is emptying into the chowder. “

“Too much!” Rean cries out as he shoves away Jusis’s hand, but it’s already too late. “That’s way too much!”

“Hmph, nonsense,” Jusis scoffs as he screws the canister shut again and sets it onto the counter with a decisive thud. “Herbs not only provide many health benefits but also enhance a dish’s taste. I always add herbs to a meal before I eat it.”

Rean murmurs something quietly to himself as he gives the chowder a final stir. He sets the wooden spoon to the side before he grabs a smaller soup spoon from the counter and scoops up some of their completed dish, blowing it gently before putting it into his mouth. “Huh,” he mumbles, raising his eyebrows as he licks his lips. “It’s not the same as your uncle’s, of course, but it still tastes surprisingly okay.” He dips the spoon into the chowder again to give it another try, but on the utensil’s return trip to his mouth Jusis reaches out and curls his hand around Rean’s wrist.

“Is that so?” Jusis questions slowly, observing Rean’s vaguely panicked expression as he stares down at the fingers coiled around his wrist with his mouth suddenly clamped shut. “I’ll be the judge of that,” he murmurs before gently tugging at Rean’s wrist, pulling the spoonful of soup closer to his lips. He thinks he hears Rean squeak when he parts and closes them around the spoon, and as Jusis appraises the taste of chowder on his tongue he keeps his hand wrapped around Rean’s wrist, glancing at him with a smile. “Indeed, it tastes fine,” he agrees, feeling the other teen’s racing pulse beating beneath his thumb as Jusis leans towards him in order to gain a better vantage point to peer into the pot and certainly not for any other reasons like Rean seems to suspect. “It’s because of the herbs,” Jusis declares, finally releasing Rean’s wrist, and it limply flops back down to his side from the abrupt lack of support.

“…No, it’s not,” Rean counters as he drops the used spoon to the counter and grabs a nearby bowl to ladle some of the chowder into it. “It’s because we used good ingredients and there wasn’t much we could mess up with the recipe… erm, I mean, outside of errors like you hurting yourself with a knife.” Rean holds the first bowl of soup out to Jusis who accepts it with a nod of thanks before he proceeds to serve himself. “It was fun, though,” he continues, pausing with the ladle dipped into the soup as he stares down wistfully at the floor. “I could get used to this.”

Jusis stirs his spoon through the creamy chowder that he not only used to but also continues to associate only with positive memories. “Me, too.”

 

---

 

“A ball?” Rean asks, glancing back from the dead vines he’s trimming off of the current trellis he is tending to after he hears Jusis’s words, and Jusis nods in response.

“Father will be hosting it in the mansion’s foyer,” Jusis explains as Rean listens and regards him curiously with his head tilted to the side. “He claims it’s to improve social relations with the other members of the Four Great Families, but I personally believe based on scale alone that it’s to demonstrate to them and the rest of the guests that the Albarea family is still one of the most powerful households in the empire. It’s a petty competition, really. He acts like a child sometimes.”

Rean returns his attention to the trellis and continues snipping small coils of dark stems off of its hatched wood. “Well, you can count on me to make sure that the landscaping is in top shape that day,” he says enthusiastically, and even though Jusis can’t see his face he’s sure Rean is smiling. “I’ll work extra hard to guarantee that everything looks beautiful–”

“That’s not why I’m telling you,” Jusis interrupts, and Rean pauses in the middle of his work to look back again in confusion. Jusis unfolds his arms to slip his hands into his pockets as his eyes flit to the clusters of sweet peas crawling up the trellis, and he swallows to try to alleviate the dryness growing at the back of his throat. He can’t believe that he, of all people, is feeling nervous, but there are many events that took place over the past month that he never would have been able to expect. “Will you attend as my guest?” he inquires softly, but before he can be shocked at the vulnerability in his own voice he jumps at the loud sound of Rean’s clippers clattering against the paved pathway beneath them.

“Sorry!” Rean exclaims, quickly bending down to pick them up before he spins around to face Jusis with wide eyes. “Wait, what, what did you– huh?” he stammers as Jusis snatches the clippers from them and closes their parted blades because it looks quite dangerous for Rean to be holding them open considering his current state that his shocked face reveals.

“I’m inviting you to be my guest at the ball,” Jusis proclaims, thrusting the clippers back into Rean’s hands before he folds his arms once more and frowns. “If you’re declining then just say so. There’s no need for you to act like you don’t understand me.”

“I– wait, no!” Rean blurts as he drops the clippers into the right pocket of his apron. “I’m just, just shocked is all? I mean, is that really okay?”

“Probably not,” Jusis replies with a light scoff, “but I don’t care. I can already hear my father demanding to know what the hell I was thinking, inviting not only someone who isn’t truly of noble blood who is also coincidentally working part time as our gardener, but for once I’m going to do what I want to do, Father’s opinion be damned.”

“Are you sure?” Rean asks quietly as he rubs the edge of his hoodie’s sleeve between his fingers and glances to the side. “I don’t want any trouble to be caused because of this–”

“Do you wish to attend?” Jusis interrupts again, and Rean’s troubled expression focuses on him once more.

“I don’t know if I should–”

“That doesn’t answer the question, Schwarzer,” Jusis interjects. “I said, do you wish to attend?”

Rean covers his mouth with his hand in thought, and after a few moments of silence pass them by it lowers once again as he chuckles nervously to himself. “Well, yeah,” he answers.

“Then it’s settled,” Jusis concludes. “I will be seeing you Saturday night.”

The silence returns, permeating the space between them like a thick fog, and Rean blinks a few times before scratching his cheek with a finger. Jusis watches him glance down at the ground as his other hand slides anxiously in and out of his apron’s left pocket, and a couple of seconds later Rean looks back up with his lips curled into the genuine smile that makes Jusis’s heart clench. “Sorry,” he says with a short laugh, “I don’t really know what else to say.” Rean lifts his shoulders into a shrug as he grins. “I’m– I’m happy.”

“The feeling is mutual,” Jusis replies with a smile of his own.

 

---

 

On Saturday night Jusis walks through the chaotic commotion taking over the entire foyer of the mansion as setup for the ball enters its final stages, down the path leading through the front yard which he may add looks more stunning than usual even in the dark, and into the streets of Bareahard where early guests and citizens have already started to bustle among themselves in excitement about the upcoming festivities. Jusis dutifully, automatically reciprocates the waves of anyone who chooses to pay him any mind but quickly continues on with purpose towards his goal of Bareahard Station, and after he arrives at the platform he is not surprised to find it mostly empty. Most of the guests who will be attending the ball will be arriving in their chauffeured cars or limousines, definitely not the lowly train, and Jusis leans against one of the brick pillars as he glances up at a ticking clock overhead – he is early, much too early, but he doesn’t want to risk anything tonight that he hasn’t already committed to risking.

The train arriving from the direction of Celdic pulls in to the station at precisely seven o’clock pm, and Jusis glances at the doors as they slide open. A couple of people file out of the train before Rean bolts out of the doors with his eyes glued to his watch, and as Rean runs right past him Jusis folds his arms. “Schwarzer,” he calls out and Rean halts, whipping around at the sound of his name.

“Jusis!” he exclaims, quickly flattening out the wrinkles in his dress coat before he straightens his tie. It’s strange, seeing Rean dressed so formally when Jusis is used to his hoodie stained with dirt and smudges from his work paired with his ripped jeans. He’s almost unrecognizable in the cleanly tailored waistcoat and red bowtie, like a different person, but the familiar smile on his face is enough to assure Jusis that this is, indeed, Rean Schwarzer. “What are you doing here?” Rean asks, appearing to be fixing his cufflinks though it is not evident in the visible result once he drops his hands back to his sides.

“If you have not gathered yet during our time together, I live here,” Jusis replies dully. “More specifically, I am here to pick you up at the station in person as is not only courteous but also expected of a proper host.”

“You didn’t have to,” Rean says sheepishly. “Sure, I get lost inside pretty easily, but I find my way to the mansion from the station just fine every day.”

“Allow me to rephrase my statement,” Jusis begins with a sigh. “I came to pick you up because I wanted to. I was eager to see you, so I’m here. That’s it, nothing more.”

Rean stares at him for a moment in silence before he laughs. “Should’ve just said so. I’m excited, too. Should we get going then?”

As they walk back through the streets towards the Albarea mansion side by side Jusis hears people starting to talk in hushed whispers. He knew this would happen, but that doesn’t make him any less upset to hear their unnecessary gossip. He doesn’t see why it should matter who he is seen with or who he chooses to associate with. He still remembers Rean’s exact words – whether we’re nobility or commoners we’re all still people – and when a few residents stare suspiciously at Rean who of course does not notice it takes Jusis a great amount of effort to keep himself from barking at them to direct their unsightly glances elsewhere.

The ball has already started by the time they reach the mansion, and as Rean gawks in amazement at everything surrounding him Jusis pulls him to the side away from couples already twirling around on the dance floor, from groups of nobles chatting quite loudly and might he add pretentiously about their recent accomplishments, and regrettably from the tables covered with platters of food prepared specially for tonight that Rean seems particularly enamored with. “You’re not wearing a boutonniere,” Jusis states, and Rean turns his attention from the crystal chandeliers overhead casting a warm glow upon the entire room to him, the sudden confusion on his face making it seem like Jusis just spoke to him in a different tongue.

“Huh? A what?” Rean asks as he stares down at his attire in a panic, sweeping his hands across the front of his dress shirt as he tries to seek out the item he’s missing.

“Boutonniere,” Jusis repeats, pointing to the flower protruding from his lapel’s button hole.

“…Oh. Why can’t you just call it a flower?” Rean sighs exasperatedly, but his fuchsia eyes light up for a moment before he squints at Jusis’s boutonniere. “Is that a gardenia…?” he questions.

“Yes,” Jusis replies. It’s not the same gardenia flower that Rean gave to him – that one is still sitting on his bedside table despite having withered up since he received it – but he sought out the gardenia tree in the back yard amongst all of the other flowering trees and clipped a fresh, new one to fix onto his lapel tonight. “Is that so strange? You said they remind you of me.”

“That’s not what I meant,” Rean clarifies as he shakes his hands in the air between them. “I’m just surprised that you remembered,” he says, and Jusis is sure Rean would be more surprised if he ever realized just how much he remembers.

“I thought you would forget to wear one, so I picked something for your lapel as well,” Jusis declares as he reaches his hand into the inner chest pocket of his dress coat.

“A carnation?” Rean mutters when Jusis steps forward to slide its trimmed stem through the button hole of Rean’s lapel. As Jusis brushes his thumb against it to gently furl its red petals into a more appealing shape Rean’s hands lift slightly, fingers twitching awkwardly as he isn’t sure what to do with them.

“It is a classic selection when choosing a boutonniere, along with a rose,” Jusis explains, and once he is satisfied with how the blossom looks he dusts off the remainder of Rean’s lapel with the back of his hand. “It is simple yet aesthetically pleasing, and unlike other flowers its strong stem and light bud keep it from drooping easily.”

“Um,” Rean begins uneasily, and when Jusis glances up at him he notices Rean’s cheeks tinged with a light pink hue as he stares down at the ground. “Do you know what a red carnation means?” he asks before biting his lower lip.

“Yes,” Jusis replies, raising an eyebrow.

“…Oh,” Rean says before his nervous laughter fills the air between them. “Uh… heh, w–well then.” He glances over Jusis’s shoulder at anything other than Jusis standing in front of him and scratches at the back of his head. “I know it’s a ball and all,” he slurs out quickly, “but do I really have to dance? I’ve never really danced before. I mean, I’ve danced as in to the radio in my room when a song came on that I really liked and I was sure no one was watching me, but never anything formal like this. Whenever the Schwarzer family is invited to attend some party like this that the other noble families are throwing the one who always attends is my sister since she’s actually of noble blood. I don’t even know what they’re doing out there right now, like is that the waltz? Maybe? Oh, but if I have to dance I will! I mean, I’ll do my best to try. I’m not going to go against proper ball etiquette if it means I have to try dancing at least once, because that would be rude of me, and after you’ve been so nice to invite me to attend your family’s ball I would never imagine–”

“You don’t have to dance,” Jusis interjects, breaking Rean out of his hasty attempt to change the subject that’s dissolved into panicked stammering, and he offers a small, reassuring smile. “In fact, I have danced the waltz so many times that I would prefer if we didn’t.”

Rean stares at him for a second before he chuckles awkwardly to himself. “Really? That’s a relief,” he breathes, and Jusis isn’t so sure if his relief is actually about not having to dance or for some other reason.

“Indeed,” Jusis states, and it is his turn to glance over his shoulder when he hears familiar voices in the far distance. “I apologize, but I must leave you for a bit. My brother is no doubt expecting me to assist him with greeting our more important guests tonight, and it seems like they have all arrived.”

“Sure thing,” Rean says, glancing down at the red carnation adorning his lapel before a familiar smile returns to his face as he looks back to Jusis. “I’ll just chill out for a bit, mingle, maybe wander around. Oh, but not wander off too far of course, because I know I won’t be able to find my way back, haha.”

Once Jusis bids Rean goodbye for now he folds his arms behind his back as he walks towards the entrance of the foyer with what he hopes appear like confident strides. Rufus stands to the side of the entrance hall, chatting with Marquis Rogner and Marquis Hyarms, and on the other side of the foyer Jusis already noticed his father having what is most likely a very one sided argument with Duke Cayenne. Not a single member of the Four Great Families is missing, and Jusis is honestly a little surprised that they all showed up despite such short notice just because of his father’s invitations – rather, his father’s demands.

Jusis approaches Rufus while he is in the middle of a conversation with Marquis Hyarms with what has to be a fake smile considering all of Jusis’s previous interactions with the Marquis, and when the group collectively notices the younger Albarea brother approaching them Jusis graciously bows his head. “Good evening,” he greets and hears the faint sound of someone snorting – it must be the Hyarms boy, he’s the only one who is always so persistently insufferable time and time again.

“Ah, if it isn’t my dearest younger brother,” Rufus declares, welcoming Jusis into the conversation by placing a hand on his shoulder. “I was just in the middle of catching up with Marquis Hyarms. Unfortunately, you missed the chat that I had with Marquis Rogner. Did you know that they have big plans currently in place with the Reinfords? Something about acquisition of the Reinford Company? How exciting.”

Marquis Rogner laughs as he dismisses the recount with a flick of his wrist like it is nothing when it is in fact something considering that the Reinford Company is one of the biggest corporations in Erebonia. “Oh, Rufus,” he says. “It’s nothing set in stone. It’s mostly in my brother’s hands, after all. Anyways, you must thank your father for me for hosting such a wonder get–together, but I’ll be off now to chat with the other families.” He walks off after excusing himself, and Jusis wonders where the Marquis’s daughter could be since it’s unlikely that he came alone – knowing her, Angelica Rogner is probably off flirting with as many girls as she possibly can during a single night, and Jusis sighs at the thought.

“Anyways,” Marquis Hyarms continues, and Jusis sees Rufus direct his impressively feigned attention back to the taller man from the corner of his eye, “as I was saying, if you didn’t already know from all the news reports covering the story, my son Patrick here competed in the latest countrywide fencing competition and placed first.”

Jusis glances at Patrick who is standing beside his father with a satisfied, smug smile on his face that makes him narrow his eyes. “Interesting,” Rufus begins, curiously stroking at his chin. “That seems like… quite a feat. I was unaware that Erebonia even had a countrywide fencing competition. Is it well known?”

“O–Of course!” Patrick exclaims, turning his nose up into the air. He never changes.

“If I may ask,” Jusis begins with contrived courtesy to his tone, pausing to smirk slightly before he continues the question he suspects he knows the answer to, “how many participants were there, Hyarms?”

Patrick’s eyelid twitches as he averts his glower away from Jusis’s knowing stare. “Four,” he grumbles quietly, and when he glances back to see Jusis raise his eyebrows in amusement he babbles a few incoherent noises before he manages to succeed at vocalizing actual words. “Hundred!” Patrick yells, and when his father looks down at him with a perplexed frown he doesn’t notice, much too busy watching Jusis continue to stare at him most impassively upon hearing his claim. “Four hundred, Albarea! There were four hundred, and I defeated them all!”

“Incredible,” Jusis states bluntly. Incredibly desperate.

Rufus chuckles quietly to himself, surely making any feelings of animosity from Marquis Hyarms disappear immediately. From the time he’s spend observing his brother’s behavior during social gatherings such as this Jusis knows that Rufus somehow has that effect on the people around him, but judging from the scathing expression lingering on Patrick’s face it must not work on arrogant, pompous fools. “You both must be tired,” Rufus begins amiably as he gestures at the foyer interior with his hand. “Can I interest you in a spot of tea?”

“That sounds lovely,” Marquis Hyarms replies as Patrick continues to grind his teeth together in indignation.

“Wonderful. After you,” Rufus says with a short bow, and after the representatives of the Hyarms family enter the foyer he gives Jusis a smile. “I will be fine entertaining them on my own,” he begins when Jusis stares at him questioningly. “Don’t you have someone to be attending to?”

“Huh?” Jusis utters.

Rufus laughs as he carefully adjusts the cravat tied around Jusis’s neck and smoothens out the creases in his collar. “You can’t hide anything from your brother,” he chides, and Jusis feels himself blushing when Rufus pats the top of his head affectionately. “He’s probably getting lonely right now without you since you’re the only one here he’s truly familiar with. Did you really think it was a good idea to leave someone like him alone in the middle of a room full of haughty nobles? You’d best go find him right now.”

“Y–You’re right,” Jusis stammers as Rufus clasps his hands behind his back. “Thank you, Rufus,” he concludes before quickly returning into the foyer, leaving his smiling brother behind.

Jusis circles around the crowds of people, skimming the perimeter of the foyer as he scans through the people for Rean, but he is nowhere to be found. He passes by the tables of hors d’oeuvres that he was sure Rean would be lingering near but he isn’t there; he searches by the grandiose painting of the capital covering the entire back wall and the ornamental brass sculptures decorating the front of the room thinking that Rean would be curious about the gaudier objects in the foyer but he isn’t there. Jusis pauses in an empty corner of the room to plant a hand on his hips and run the other through his hair with a tired sigh. Other guests had watched him with inquisitive stares as he dashed around the room, and he doesn’t understand how he could have been so worried about finding Rean that he’s run himself out of breath.

The sight of a different but familiar face passing him nearby provides him some sort of relief, and Jusis walks over to one of the family butlers as he is in the middle of carrying a tray of food. “Arnauld,” Jusis calls out, and when the older man notices him approaching he turns to face Jusis proper and offers a bow.

“Good evening, Lord Jusis,” Arnauld says. “I hope you are enjoying your night?”

“For the most part,” Jusis replies quickly as he folds his arms. “Thank you for the sentiment. Tell me, have you seen Schwarzer anywhere?”

“Schwarzer?” Arnauld repeats. “I don’t recall seeing the Baron Schwarzer’s family on the formal guest list. Unless you mean the gardener? Is he perhaps working extra hours in the garden tonight because of the ball?”

“No, I invited him to the ball as my guest,” Jusis clarifies, and Arnauld stares at him in shock as the moments pass them by in silence.

“I–” Arnauld begins before he coughs to clear his throat. “I saw someone who looked like him near the east window. I thought I was seeing things, but now that you say he really is here I am glad to know that I am not going crazy in my old age.”

“Great, thank you,” Jusis declares, and Arnauld excuses himself with another bow.

Jusis finds Rean standing by the window Arnauld mentioned, staring outside of it with his back to the rest of the ball’s guests. Jusis hears the soles of his shoes clacking most loudly against the floor as he approaches, but Rean doesn’t turn to face him at the sound, continuing to lean against the windowsill as he gazes up at the night sky. When Jusis arrives at his side Rean glances at him with a small smile as he opens his mouth to greet Jusis like he always does, but Jusis is the first one to speak. “I apologize for leaving you for so long, Schwarzer,” he states.

“Don’t worry about it. It’s fine,” Rean replies, but something in his voice betrays his words and it’s clear that it wasn’t as fine as he claims. When Jusis stares at him incredulously, Rean closes his eyes and sighs, diverting his melancholic gaze back outside once he reopens them. “Okay, it was sort of fine. When I tried to talk to some of the other guests there were some, um, interesting reactions. Some of them acted like I flat out wasn’t even there, some of them gave me looks of disgust like who are you and why are you talking to me, and some of them just laughed and walked away. The worst were probably the ones who actually went and insulted me.” Rean pauses to laugh halfheartedly as he scratches the back of his neck. “I know that I shouldn’t let it get to me, but somehow it still kinda hurts even when I try to ignore it.” He sighs, turning his attention back to Jusis. “Sorry, I don’t mean to put a damper on things. I’m fine, really–”

“You’re not,” Jusis interjects and Rean freezes with his mouth still hanging open as he stares. “You always do this, saying that you’re fine when you’re not because you don’t want people to worry about you. You have no right to tell me that I’m wrong in trying to shouldering all my responsibilities alone without accepting anyone’s help when you’re doing the exact same thing, just in a different way when you hide your true feelings and act like you’re always fine. You’re not fine, and it’s okay to not be fine, so stop trying to hide behind that smile of yours and tell me when something is wrong so I can do something about it.”

Jusis glances to the side as he lifts a hand to his chin in thought and a frown ultimately settles on his brow. “…Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s anything in my power that I can do this time since no good will come out of me snapping at nobles who are above me in age despite being below me in name. All I can do for now is to tell you that they are insecure bigots who are not worth your precious time to begin with and to offer you a healthy distraction from any hurtful thoughts that are still lingering in your head.” He lowers his hands to his pockets and when he looks back to Rean his eyebrows relax out of their frown. “I’m sure a joke would cheer you up, but I don’t know any. Prepare yourself for next time.”

Rean starts laughing anyways – the sound is real, and Jusis is glad. “…You’re right,” he concludes. “Thanks, Jusis.” Jusis expects him to go on, to talk more about what happened or even about other things, but Rean is surprisingly quiet and seems to be thinking about other matters that are on his mind as his attention once again returns to the stars up in the sky.

“Do you want to leave?” Jusis asks, and Rean inhales sharply as his eyes widen a bit.

“Oh, no!” he exclaims. “No, sorry for spacing out. It’s not like I’m bored or anything. It still feels like I just got here, and the ball won’t be over for a while, right?”

“What I mean is would you like me to take you somewhere else?” Jusis explains, and Rean looks at him inquisitively. “It seems like it was a mistake to invite you to the ball, specifically. My intention was to show my appreciation for the time you’ve chosen to spend with me and the effort it’s taken to put up with my… surely aggressive and demanding personality by inviting you to the ball to relax and enjoy yourself, but I should have known that events such as this are, ah, not your thing. If you’d like, we could leave the mansion and I can give you a short tour of Bareahard. There is a popular fishing location near the city border that may interest you, and some of the shops on the artisan’s street stock parts that may be of use to your Orbal motorcycle.”

“Wow, you remember a lot about the things I like,” Rean comments in amazement.

“Isn’t it normal to remember facts about the people you’re close to?” Jusis asks.

Rean regards him with a stunned silence before he steps back from the window and faces Jusis with a grin. “Yeah,” he answers. “I, uh, wouldn’t mind leaving, too. It’s actually kinda stuffy in here. That’s part of why I came over to the window.”

“It’s because everyone here is full of hot air,” Jusis states apathetically.

“It kinda seems like something in a fairy tale, doesn’t it?” Rean asks, tilting his head to the side. “Two people escaping from a ball together.”

Jusis laughs. “Indeed.”

As the two of them walk side by side through the foyer towards the nearest exit Rean tells Jusis about the letters his parents have been sending him detailing Ymir’s current, biggest snowfall in the past decade and is in the middle of suggesting that they go to visit together sometime when a brash voice screams Jusis’s name. Jusis halts after his next step, and whereas Rean immediately whirls around at the piercing sound Jusis takes a moment to press his lips together into a tight line, trying to steady his clenched fists before he spins around to face his father with a deceptively calm stare.

“Jusis!” his father yells again, and some of the other nobles turn around to stare at the commotion as he stomps over. “Just what do you think you’re doing?!”

“If you must know, Father, we’re in the middle of leaving,” Jusis replies. “I’m sure you will have no qualms with me getting out of your sight.”

“Not until you explain yourself,” Duke Albarea begins with a glare as he points accusingly at Rean. “What is he doing here?”

“You should recognize him,” Jusis says quietly as conversations taking place around them quickly end with more and more people noticing a familial argument taking place. “Rean Schwarzer is currently employed here as our gardener, after all. He’s Baron Schwarzer’s son, and I invited him to the ball as my guest tonight.”

“He’s Baron Schwarzer’s adopted son,” his father clarifies with a venom in his tone that makes Jusis flinch. “He’s just some commoner beneath it all, fit to be working out in our gardens but not to be inside our esteemed residence attending one of our balls. What do you think you’re doing bringing his kind here tonight? Do you know how many people have come up to me to ask me why he’s here and what you’re doing being seen in public beside him, talking and even laughing? Now rumors are going to spread about me as the lunatic who throws balls for petty commoners and intersperses with their kind. How dare you tarnish my reputation like this?”

“It’s always about you, isn’t it, Father?” Jusis snaps resentfully, and even Duke Albarea seems a little taken aback by the tone of his voice. “It’s funny that you’re so worried about your reputation being sullied by commoners now, though. That didn’t seem to stop you from sleeping with my mother and then abandoning her right after. You can’t call these statements right now rumors if you’ve already intermingled with commoners in the past, quite literally at that. I know you tried to hide the evidence by ignoring us completely, but I still can’t believe that you didn’t even have the heart to attend her funeral. I don’t know what Mother ever saw in you and I think I never will, but I do know that despite there being no inherent problems with people of different social standing developing a relationship you have no right to criticize me now considering what you’ve done in the past.”

People start to whisper amongst themselves as Duke Albarea seethes silently in his rage that makes his teeth begin to chatter. Jusis almost wants to smile smugly at the accomplishment of shocking his father, of all people, into complete silence, but his victory – if it can even be called that – is short lived when his father once again explodes. “You dirty ingrate!” he bellows, resorting to insults instead of logic as usual, but Jusis still winces slightly at the harsh sound. “I never should have allowed trash like you into the mansion even after Rufus begged me to! If I didn’t listen to his pleads you would still be out there on the streets of Bareahard right now, starving and freezing after your mother left you all alone, you half–breed. This is the thanks I am repaid with? You constantly running your mouth and talking back to me? You’re just like some commoner scum, not knowing how to show respect to those who deserve it–”

“Um,” Rean interrupts from behind Jusis, and even though he’s surprised to hear Rean cut in his father is at least three times as shocked judging by the expression on his face. He laughs nervously to himself at all the attention that is suddenly on him as he scratches his cheek with a finger. “It’s definitely not my place to be saying this,” he begins, and when he pauses the smile on his face is replaced with a coldness that Jusis has never seen on it before, “but… you’re a jerk. I can’t believe people exist who can say such nasty things with a straight face and mean every word of it. I can’t lie and act like I know everything that’s happened between you two, but I know enough about Jusis to know that even though he’s kinda full of himself sometimes and a little critical about things and feels like he needs to act like he doesn’t care about anything, he’s actually a really good person beneath all of that. So when you go and treat him like he’s the scum of the planet every time I see the two of you talking together I just, I dunno, I feel like you need someone to tell you to go look in a mirror cause the one who’s not showing respect to people who deserve it is actually you."

Duke Albarea clenches his jaw so tightly that Jusis sees it trembling. Even though he knew his father would be upset after tonight, he didn’t expect events to proceed exactly like this. “How dare you speak to me like that,” his father states with a chilling calmness to his voice. “You’re fired,” he continues, and Jusis hears Rean blurt a few inarticulate syllables in shock as his own eyes widen. “I never want to see you here or even in Bareahard ever again. Now get out of here. Both of you. I can’t stand the sight of either of your faces.”

After his father storms off through the crowd of bewildered guests Jusis finally releases the breath he didn’t even realize he was holding in short spurts as he blinks a few times and tries to process what just took place. When people begin to talk around him he glances at them, staring through but not at their faces as he feels like they’re beginning to encroach and suffocate him, and after he swallows the lump in his throat he clenches his fists again and marches off towards the foyer’s back entrance. “Don’t follow me,” Jusis hisses back at Rean upon hearing the sound of him giving chase, and as he exits the mansion into the back yard everything around him is a blur as a mess of thoughts clouds his mind.

He can’t believe he lost his composure and talked back to his father, with such a livid voice and harsh words, no less. Since being taken into the Albarea mansion he’s never brought the subject of his mother up, not once, but even after he’s finally been able to express his lingering resentment Jusis still feels a strange hollowness weighing him down from inside. In the past he would try to speak and reason with his father calmly, but that got him nowhere as he was always pressured into backing out of arguments first regardless by his father’s hollers and screams; when he finally snapped and shouted at his father it still got him nowhere, and if the conclusion is that there doesn’t exist a single method that will convince his father to listen to his words then he isn’t sure how he’s supposed to continue living his life like this.

It’s unclear how long Jusis wanders about but the sound of trickling water brings him back to reality, and as his surroundings return into focus he finds himself standing in front of the fountain at the center of the garden, its stone basin surrounded by the bed of carnations he visited earlier in the day while searching for the perfect one to give Rean. A stream of water shoots up from the center of the fountain, reaching up towards the freedom of the night sky above even though it will never be able to escape from being just a single piece of the machinations of the fountain’s workings. Jusis sighs loudly as he sinks down onto the wrought iron bench behind him sandwiched between two pots of hyacinth flowers, and when he slumps forward to rest his elbows on his knees he buries his head in his hands and wonders how tonight could have gone so extremely wrong.

If only he had been able to show more self–restraint, but ever since Rean showed up at the mansion Jusis has been demonstrating a lack of that particular virtue. He’s been behaving in ways he never would have expected, and if someone told him early last month that soon he’d be a fool in love making terrible decisions he would have laughed most derisively before introducing them to the tip of his sword. It’s ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous, but Rean has somehow endured weeks of interaction with him and emerged as the victor, his perseverance somehow paying off in the end and offering Jusis a new perspective on everything around him. Jusis knew that he changed when he would wake up every morning feeling anticipation rather than tedium and drear, but after hearing his father’s words the threat of regressing is real.

“Um… hey, Jusis,” an instantly recognizable voice calls out from behind him. He almost thought that Rean was actually going to listen to his words and leave him alone – it was a disappointing thought – but he hears Rean approaching him quietly; soon Rean’s shoes are visible before him on the ground he’s still staring at. “I know you said not to follow after you and I didn’t for a while, but after I changed my mind I regretted not following you sooner because after I lost sight of you I knew I would get lost on my way here. And I kinda did. That’s why it took me so long to find you, haha, but after I knocked on your room’s door and you weren’t there I thought you’d be out in the garden somewhere. I’m glad I was right.”

Part of Jusis can’t believe that Rean is still bothering to stay. If he was in Rean’s shoes with the freedom to leave for good he would do just that after witnessing the unsightly display in the foyer and hearing Duke Albarea’s cruel words and never come back, but Rean is still here. If Jusis could bring himself to look up he’s sure he would see a reassuring smile on Rean’s face, but he can’t permit himself the opportunity, not when he’s still feeling so overcome with shame. “I messed up,” he whispers. “I shouldn’t have invited you, Schwarzer. I knew it would make Father upset but I did it anyways because I was thinking about what I wanted to do and not what the consequences would be. It’s my fault that you’re fired now. If you can’t save enough mira to go to military school like you’ve been dreaming to, it’ll be because of me.”

“That’s not something you should be worrying about,” Rean says as he crouches down in front of Jusis who still can’t tear his stare from the ground. “People in cities all over the empire are looking for people to do work for them. I can just get another job, you know?”

“Yes, but it won’t be here,” Jusis cuts in.

“…That’s true,” Rean comments softly before he sighs. “Don’t be upset about anything that you did. Nothing was your fault. I also could have declined your invitation but I came anyways because I was doing what I wanted to do, too. It’s okay, my contract was set to be completed at the end of the month anyways. I knew I wasn’t going to be working here forever and that I’d be leaving eventually–”

“If you knew then how could you do this to me?” Jusis yells as he scowls at the ground and feels his fingers trembling as they clutch his head. “You show up outside of my window and even though you have no idea who I am you wave at me like you even care. You smile when you see me as if you’re happy that I’m here, and when we talk you give me all of your attention as if I deserve it. The sound of your laughter makes my gut flutter and you invade all of my recent thoughts and now you say you’re just planning to leave me, too. If I’d have known this would happen I never would have spoken to you in the first place because feeling this hurt once again in my life is the last thing I want right now.” Jusis fists his hands into his hair as he closes his eyes and wishes he could just disappear right now. “I’m so stupid,” he grumbles. “I know that nothing good ever comes out of getting close to someone but I thought that for once, with you, this time might be different. I’m such an idiot–”

Jusis is cut off by the feeling of something smacking against the side of his head, and when he grunts at the dull pain and looks up with a glare the sight of Rean’s own piercing glare directed back at him alongside his hand clenched into a fist is more intimidating to him than he must seem to Rean right now. “Yeah, sure, you’re an idiot,” Rean retorts, “but not for the reasons you’re thinking of. Do you really think it’s gonna be over just like this? I guess you’re not gonna understand unless I flat out tell you in plain words so I will. I do care about you, and I’m not just gonna up and leave just like that. I can’t lie and act like everything’s going to be perfect because we both have different paths in life set out for us, but we can work hard to make the best out of it. I’m gonna keep saving up and go to school like I’ve been planning to, but after I graduate we can definitely see each other again. Your dad doesn’t scare me, but I guess I can’t come back to Bareahard since I don’t want my presence here to give you any future trouble. We’ll find a way to meet up somewhere else if you want to as much as I do. Things will be fine.”

“How can you possibly be so sure?” Jusis asks, glad that Rean’s abrupt anger has faded away by now even though he can’t say the same about his own insecurities.

“Because I know we’ll make it work out somehow,” Rean answers, and when he reaches out to cup Jusis’s cheeks in his hands Jusis tries to steady his composure by taking deep breaths as he gazes straight into those bright eyes that he’s always found so entrancing. “Honestly,” Rean begins with a smile, “I think you’re really amazing. You always look so calm and confident as you carry yourself with such poise and dignity, and you say exactly what’s on your mind even if it might not be what people want to hear. You’re so strong–willed, standing up for your convictions as you do what you think is right, and I really admire that. You’ll make a great leader someday, I just know it, but for now I’m fine with just knowing you as that guy that I somehow went and fell in love with."

Rean chuckles to himself as Jusis stares at him in astonishment, and after Rean realizes the words that have just come out of his mouth his eyes widen as he pulls his hands back into the space between them. “Eh?” he mutters as he glances to the side. “Th–That was weird, huh? I… I said something weird, huh? Sorry, you know me, always babbling on about every little thing that pops into my mind–”

As Jusis straightens back up on the bench he grabs onto Rean’s wrists, and Rean yelps when Jusis pulls him closer. Jusis releases him abruptly and Rean tips forward until his hands are planted on the back of the bench at either side of Jusis as he hovers over him. “You already asked me this,” Jusis begins as he reaches out to curl his fingers around the back of Rean’s neck, “but do you know what a red carnation means, Schwarzer?”

After his eyes flit down to the flower still protruding from the button hole of his lapel Rean looks back to Jusis before he gulps. “My heart aches for you,” he replies, and Jusis murmurs something quietly in agreement as he eases Rean’s head downwards closer to his own with a small smile. When their foreheads meet he stops, taking a moment to appreciate the chance to finally be as close to Rean as he’s desired to for the past week, and as he brushes his fingertips lightly against Rean’s skin he feels Rean’s nervous breaths on his face after they escape his parted lips. Rean stares into Jusis’s blue eyes for a moment as he bites his lower lip before he quickly glances away at every other possible thing he could possibly look at and ultimately, once all is said and done, returns to Jusis sitting in front of him. “Can I–” he stammers, pitch of his voice an octave higher than usual, “um… is it alright?"

“Go ahead,” Jusis replies before Rean leans in to kiss him, soft and sweet and everything he ever wanted. Rean is gentle, so gentle as if he’s afraid to break Jusis with the force of his lips, and as Jusis inhales and feels Rean’s warm breaths meld together with his own his nails scrape at the back of Rean’s neck as he pulls him closer, desperate for more. The only form of touch he’s experienced for a while are affectionate pats on the head or shoulder from his brother, never anything intimate like this, and when Rean finally presses the entirety of his lips against Jusis’s his fingers tangle into the hair spiking out from the nape of Rean’s neck to continue holding him close. “Rean,” he sighs contentedly into Rean’s mouth, but any further tender interactions between them are cut short when Rean suddenly tugs his head back to stare at Jusis confusedly.

“…What?” Jusis asks.

“That’s my name,” Rean mutters incredulously. “I mean, my first name.”

“Yes,” Jusis agrees with a frown. “What about it?”

“Oh, it’s just,” Rean begins sheepishly as Jusis runs his fingers through the back of his dark hair, “I’ve never heard you say it before. It was always Schwarzer this, Schwarzer that. Sometimes I wondered if you even knew what my full name was.”

“Hmph, who do you take me for? Of course I did,” Jusis declares quietly.

Rean starts to laugh and the sound makes Jusis’s stomach do flips like usual. “Yeah,” he replies wistfully. “Um… even though some parts of tonight sort of crashed and burned, I’m still glad that I came. I’m actually super happy right now. Really. Sure there was some yelling and other rough parts, but if I had a chance to go back and redo things I’d still do it all the same because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to share this moment with you right now.”

“I don’t know how you come up with these lines. You’re like a sappy greeting card, Rean,” Jusis says, and Rean offers an awkward chuckle and shrug in response. “But it’s fine,” Jusis continues as he lifts his lips to once again brush them against Rean’s. “That’s just one of my favorite aspects about you.”

“Oh?” Rean asks, grinning against Jusis’s lips. “You’re not the only who needs a boost to their ego sometimes so tell me, what are the other things?”

“Everything,” Jusis answers without a single moment’s pause, and after Rean comments about how Jusis sure has some lines of his own he leans in for another kiss, taking advantage of the opportunity while he still has the chance to.

 

---

 

“So I guess this is it for now?” Rean asks as he stands across from Jusis on the platform at Bareahard Station with his back to the Celdic–bound train scheduled to leave in five minutes.

Jusis glances at a family to the side currently engaged in a very loud, very tearful, and very obnoxious farewell as he slides his hands into his pockets and looks back to Rean. “Indeed,” he answers. “I regret that I will most likely be unable to gain permission to leave Bareahard to visit Trista, but I will write to you.”

“Eh?” Rean says as he scratches his head. “Don’t you have a phone?”

“Our home has one… in Father’s study,” Jusis replies.

“Oh… never mind then,” Rean mutters, understanding Jusis’s implications with a nervous laugh. “I’ll be back someday,” he continues with a grin that Jusis takes a moment to commit to memory. “I promise. Could you wait for me?”

Even if Rean didn’t ask Jusis is sure he will be spending his next years in the Albarea mansion like usual anyways. The prospect that he will have something look forward to that will make every day a little brighter is something he should be asking Rean to offer him, not the other way around. Jusis nonchalantly lifts his shoulders into a shrug. “Of course,” he says, pulling a hand out of his pocket to hold it out. Rean takes it into his without any hesitation, but whereas he begins to shake it Jusis has other ideas, lifting Rean’s hand up to plant a kiss on the back of it.

Rean splutters at the same time that the train whistle blows, the last signal for any lingering passengers to get on. “St–Stop,” he stutters as he worms his way out of Jusis’s grasp and clutches his hand protectively to his chest while glancing around anxiously at the other people around them. “We’re in public,” he points out, and Jusis is surprised at the fact that Rean Schwarzer, of all people, seems to be embarrassed about public displays of affection. This might be of use later on.

“Well, get on before it leaves without you,” Jusis says as he turns Rean around and pushes him through the train’s waiting doors. “Can’t have you missing another one because you’re so distracted with talking to me.”

After Rean stumbles forwards onto the train with a yelp he turns around to face Jusis who folds his arms and raises an eyebrow. “I’ll…” he begins a little forlornly before he waves a hand with a faint smile. “I’ll see you later, Jusis.”

“Goodbye, Rean,” Jusis replies, and the train’s doors close.

 

---

 

When Jusis Albarea wakes up early Sunday morning to the sound of light tapping against his bedroom window he wonders what kind of lunatic would have the gall to wake him up so rudely so early in the day as he lies in bed, rubbing at his closed eyelids with the backs of his hands. The tapping grows more incessant with each passing second; he grits his teeth as the annoying sound persists and wonders if early morning grogginess is a valid plea to use in court to explain the reason behind a dead body when suddenly his eyes snap open as he realizes. Jusis rolls out of bed with an uncharacteristic tumble before he clumsily staggers over to the window, holding his breath as he grasps a handful of the curtain in his fist and slides it to the side.

The sight of Rean Schwarzer standing outside of his window in that same red hoodie nearly makes Jusis fall over in shock, and as Rean notices him inside his face immediately lights up with a grin. Jusis fumbles for the latch keeping his window closed and frowns when he can’t seem to flip it fast enough, but once he finally manages to fling the two halves of his window open Jusis grips the windowsill tightly beneath him as he leans outside and stares at Rean in disbelief. “Hey, Jusis,” Rean says casually with a small wave. “How’s it going?” he asks but before he can say anything more Jusis lifts himself up onto the windowsill and launches himself outside. Rean screams when Jusis flies towards him but steadies him after he lands and stumbles forward by grabbing onto his shoulders. “What are you doing?!” Rean cries out in a panic but Jusis cuts him off again by reaching out to touch his face with his fingertips.

“Rean,” Jusis murmurs, finally convinced that Rean is actually standing in front of him right now and not just an apparition or a mirage or a dream because he can feel his warmth against his skin right now. “It’s been three years since I’ve last seen you and you still greet me in the same way,” he muses, brushing Rean’s cheeks with his thumbs before running the fingers of his right hand down Rean’s jawline, and Rean laughs sheepishly to himself as he leans into the touch. “I don’t even know why I’m surprised,” Jusis mutters as he glances down at the space carved into the hydrangea bushes that they’re standing in. The familiar path leading to his window had disappeared after the bushes grew back to cover it up, but he knows that the clean cuts sliced through the hedge can only be the handiwork of one person. “It took you long enough, Rean,” Jusis says with a slight frown.

“Excuse me, that’s First Lieutenant Schwarzer to you,” Rean comments as he lifts his hands to fix Jusis’s messy bedhead. “Sorry for making you wait, Jusis, but it takes a bit of time to graduate from military school.”

Jusis snorts. “Pardon me, then, but that’s Duke Albarea to you,” he counters, and when he runs his fingers through Rean’s bangs he comes across a new scar on his forehead just above his eyebrow – he’s sure that Rean will tell him the story later.

“I know,” Rean begins as he gives Jusis’s unruly morning hair one final pat. “I read the newspaper, you know. It was all over the headlines everywhere. Duke Albarea arrested for burning down Celdic! Elder Albarea son gives up title! Younger Albarea son becomes new leader of the Kreutzen region! I wouldn’t have come here in such an obvious way if I knew your dad was still around ready to give me the evil eye and flip out when he saw me. Not gonna lie, I’m sure that some part of you is sad that he’s gone now since when all is said and done he is your dad, but I’m sorta glad that he’s not here right now. Otherwise I’d have had to pull some ninja level witchcraft to get through Bareahard unseen.” Rean pauses to laugh and rest his finger against the skin between Jusis’s eyebrows, pressing it up to rid him of his frown. “Well, Duke Albarea, knowing you I’m sure that you’re doing a great job with your new position.”

“Hmph, of course,” Jusis replies, lowering his hands to plant them on his hips. “It’s just a lot of paper work and social negotiations. Anyone could take care of that. I apologize that I’ve been too busy with my new work to visit you in Trista, but I’m sure that you’ve become a fine and upstanding member of Erebonia’s military force."

“You bet,” Rean says, giving Jusis a salute before he clasps his hands together behind his back, lacing his fingers together. “There’s been a lot of physical training and lots of tears and suffering, but I managed to get through it all at the top of my class. If Erebonia is ever in trouble you can count on me and the rest of the reserves. I’ll protect her and all of her citizens to the best of my ability.”

He stares at Jusis who stares right back. Despite the newly formed creases on Rean’s face reflecting his recent struggles and the weary, dark circles below his eyes suggesting too many sleepless nights for his own good he still looks like the same Rean that Jusis fell for three years ago. “Aren’t you cold in that?” Rean asks, and when Jusis glances at himself he realizes that he’s still in his thin sleepwear as he stands outside early in the morning on a cloudy, late autumn day.

“I suppose,” Jusis answers indifferently with a scoff. If Rean hadn’t said anything he wouldn’t have even noticed the chill creeping across the skin of his bare neck and arms. “It doesn’t matter. Come inside. I’ll prepare some tea–”

Rean closes the space between them in an instant to throw his arms around Jusis and pull him into a hug. Jusis gawks loudly at the abrupt feeling of being squeezed so tightly, but when Rean nestles his head in the gap beneath his chin and exhales a delicate breath against his neck he is instantly, most definitely no longer cold. “I’m back, Jusis,” he whispers.

Jusis wraps his own arms around Rean, curling his fingers into the soft, inviting fabric of his hoodie as he closes his eyes and rests his chin on the top of Rean’s head. “I'm so happy you're here again, Rean,” he replies, and when he feels Rean smiling against his skin he smiles too.