Time passed quickly for Leopold, and happily so. Though everyday was similar to yesterday, he didn’t care; there was joy to be found yesterday, so there was joy today, and there would be joy tomorrow, and so, he was pleased with the monotony of his life. He enjoyed waking up and having breakfast in the garden, the weather permitting – winters in Orpheil sometimes had rain, but at least it never dipped below 55˚. He like recounting his dream from the night before or, if he couldn’t remember, making one up. His mother and Uncle Lelouch – as he eventually began addressing his mother’s friend – were his receptive audience and knew all the right times when to listen quietly and when to ask all the right questions. He liked playing the piano after and going on adventures with Charlie, wherever they may lead, whether it be the pantry or the shadows of the wisteria tree. But none was nearly as fun as what happened after lunchtime, because after lunchtime, he and Uncle Lelouch went to the municipal pool and swam. Sometimes he’d sit on the edge when he was tired and watch as Uncle Lelouch swam a few laps. It never failed to amaze hi how he had once been pushed into a pool and had been afraid of swimming. Uncle was a real merman, he was.
Maman had come with them the first couple of lessons until he had told her that it was okay since he had Uncle. Leopold missed the hurt in her eyes, his attention captivated by her smile and questions of whether he was sure – to which he replied that he was. Not to mention that his thoughts had been wandering to Lulu, the little grey kitten he had met a few weeks ago when he had gone to the market with Sayoko. After swimming, they always stopped by the pet shop and visited Lulu. At one point, the pet’s owner – an elderly grandfather – had invited them in, and much to his glee, allowed for him to play with her until it was fast approaching dinnertime and they would have to leave for home now, lest his mother worry. Leopold had reluctantly left, but the following day, they had returned and he was reunited with Lulu once more. And so, it was in this fashion that an entire month passed by until the pleasant pattern encountered a little hiccup.
One evening when she was tucking him in, she whispered to him if he’d like to help her with a secret mission. Which he, as any four-year-old would, eagerly replied that he would. She smiled in the darkness, and he was pleased. He asked what the secret mission was, but she would say nothing more and simply kissed him on his forehead and tucked him in. He quickly fell asleep after in spite of his burning curiosity; there was little he could do to fight against the demands of his swim lessons and the warmth of his comforter.
His mother told him soon enough. And when she did, he could hardly contain his excitement. He loved birthdays! Of course, his own birthday was the best, but that had been ages ago, so he was more than ready for some cake. He only wondered if he could keep his promise t his mother and remain silent on the surprise party. He nearly blew it once or twice, but finally, the Saturday arrived, and he was no longer burdened by the secret.
Giggling, he helped lead along the blind-folded man out into the courtyard, where he presented the two waiting horses. He had picked them out himself, he boasted. And he had. He had gone with Jeremiah earlier that morning down to the stables, where he had picked out the two dapple-grey horses and had sat on a bale of hay as they were saddled up in handsome, gleaming leather.
Uncle Lelouch had given an appropriately quizzical look until Leopold had stopped giggling enough to cheerfully announce: “We’re going to go on a birthday picnic! Since it’s your birthday today!”
His eyes had widened, and he had sharply looked to his mother, who had merely smiled as if to tell him that it was true and not just some elaborate prank planned between mother and son. Uncle blinked, unsure of what to say, so Leopold said something for him. Already impatient to ride the horses, he tugged the honorable guest toward the horses and pointed to the closest one.
“That’s for you. We’re going to ride that one together.”
Giddiness rushed through him when he was picked up and set on the saddle – only to discover that a horse was much taller than he had thought. Dizzy, he considered backing out, when the man mounted and almost immediately, Leopold’s fears were calmed. He looked at his mother, who too had settled into the saddle before turning to the arms protecting him from the impossible height they were at. And then, without so much as a nod, they were off, through the gates and out into the wild countryside with its green grass, rolling hills, and clear, blue sky.
The lunch that Sayoko and Anya had lay out for them at the top of the hill had been extra delicious, as had the cake, but the highlight of the picnic by far had to be the kite. Anya had brought a kite and had left it behind – whether it had been intentional or not, he did not know but who cared? It was a kite! – when she and Sayoko had returned to the house to enjoy the rest of the day at their leisure.
It was a monarch butterfly, with vibrant wings and ribbons of orange, yellow, and red fluttering in the gentle wind. After lunch, after the presents and cake, he had flown the butterfly. Or at least had tried to, but with nothing more than a sickly whimper of a wind, it only feebly fluttered its beautiful wings as it lay on the thick grass. Upset, he had considered abandoning the kite, when a pair of much larger hands came down from above and gently pried the handle away from him. Looking up, he saw that it was Uncle Lelouch.
Unsure of what was happening, the boy glanced back at his mother, who was watching with an encouraging smile from where she sat on the blanket, before turning back to the kite, only to find that it was soaring high in the sky. Mouth ajar, he watched, stunned, as the butterfly soon became a small speck in the enormous blue sky. He was so distracted that he fumbled with the handle when Uncle Lelouch returned it to him and nearly didn’t notice that he was being lifted up until, voila, there he sat on Uncle Lelouch’s shoulders and the kite climbing ever so higher.
Tickled with a shriek of excited laughter, he jabbed his finger at the kite and twisted around to show off to his mother. Her smile widened, and she clapped, much to his pride. Flushed with excitement, he beamed at her before looking after the fiery speckle in the sky that was his butterfly.
That is, the fiery speckle in the sky that was his and Uncle’s butterfly.
Upon their return, they found a large wicker basket sitting on the piano bench. Which was strange, considering the fact that the picnic basket had bee put away in the kitchen. Leopold knew. He had helped put it away.
Curious, he moved to open the basket and peek inside – maybe it was full of caramels – when he stopped short. Why? Because before he could open the flap, before he could even take a step closer, he had heard a very, very, very familiar mew from the depths of the wicker basket. That was why.
Lulu blinked at him from amid a sea of soft fleece. A pink ribbon was tied around her neck, ending in a pleasantly fat bow. Lulu gaped as she yawned. Why was she in this basket? Why… Why wasn’t she back at the store? What was she doing here on his piano? As all these questions wildly sprouted in his head, he stared with wide eyes at the kitten, as if he were afraid that should he blink, she would vanish. On the second mew, he screamed.
His mother materialized behind him, and he clung to her blue skirt.
“Maman, why is Lulu here?” he whispered.
“I’m…not quite sure.” Frowning, she studied the two charcoal eyes that peered out from the shadows of the basket. Perhaps someone else knew.
The young woman silently stopped on her way to the kitchen, and she asked her if she knew who was responsible for the kitten. She blinked for a moment before quietly replying that the basket had been delivered half an hour ago upon the request of Lelouch Lamperouge.
Leopold’s heart promptly sunk. So… So, Lulu couldn’t be his. Lulu would be someone else’s kitten. He tried his best to swallow, but for some odd reason, there was something in his throat – a lump – that made it extremely difficult to. His eyes stung, and he bit his lip, but all he could think of were the times when he had played with Lulu, and how she’d climb into his lap and purr, or the way she had pounced so excitedly on the toy bird, or the way they’d sometimes just stare at each other and pass the time that way, until she blinked and frisked to the patch of sunlight to curl up in. The memories clouding his vision, he struggled against the disappointment, but soon enough, it grew to be too much for him. He clung to his mother in hopes of seeking any comfort.
He could just barely make out Uncle Lelouch in the doorway; he quickly averted his eyes. He… His heart was broken. He couldn’t bear to— it was just too much for him to face him, the owner of—
He refused to look up. He knew it was rude not to, but even his mother smoothing his hair didn’t help. He had wanted Lulu so badly. And Uncle Lelouch hadn’t even known about her until he had asked to visit the shop. It wasn’t fair; he was the one who had spent all his time with Lulu, and he was the one who had played with her. He was the one that Lulu liked being with, so why was it that Uncle Lelouch got her? Why was it that he was the one who got to have the kitten? Why not the one who really loved her?
He heard Lulu mewling and the rustling of fabric as his mother’s friend bent down before him, but it wasn’t until he tilted his chin up and he offered him a handkerchief that he realized that he was crying. Nose runny, he merely wrung the kerchief in his hands, rigid with heartbreak.
“…You don’t even like her as much as I do.” Stuttering, he choked on his tears as he pleaded, “You don’t like her as much as I do, so why did you take her? Can’t you… Can’t I have her? Please? I’ll do anything if I can just have her.”
“Leopold, Lulu is yours to keep. I had her sent for so that she could be with you.”
With watery eyes, the child balefully blinked at him, unable to register what had just happened. Lulu was…his?
“Monsieur Gaspard told me that another family had taken an interest, so I arranged everything last week. She was to come home later in the evening, but I suppose Monsieur Gaspard sent her earlier. For you. Since we all know how much you love her.”
He stared at the kitten as she peeked out of the basket. Her tiny paws perched onto the rim, she tickled his pinky with her sandpaper tongue as if to comfort him.
“I’m sorry if you misunderstood. I didn’t mean to give a scare like that. I—”
The boy cut him off with a hug. Wrapping his arms around his neck, he tightly hugged him in wordless thanks before turning to the – that is, to his – kitten. He missed the look passing between the two adults, the silent “thank you” his mother gave to his uncle who had bought the kitten just for the child, and the crooked smile given in return. He paid attention only to the puff of fur that he carefully and gently lifted out from the darkness and set on the thick rug of the parlor. Squatting to be closer, he waddled after the kitten, sniffling every now and then, as it cautiously explored its new home. He occasionally giggled at her explorative antics before rubbing his nose or his eyes to rid himself of his fleeting grief.
All Leopold knew was his happiness. Today had been a good day indeed.
Before they let, there were enough hugs and kisses to soothe even Charlie. Asking for the last time if there really was no pizza to be had – not even a crumb? – in the restaurant, he nervously fingered his mother’s pearl necklace as she reassured him that sadly, no, there wasn’t even a crumb to be found. He frowned, disappointed, but shrugged it off. He couldn’t really go anywhere anyway. Lulu needed him just in case she wanted a caramel or wanted to play hide-and-seek in the garden. Or maybe color. Coloring would be good. He liked coloring.
Besides. Uncle Lelouch would be with Maman, so it was okay. It was really okay. He knew how strong Uncle was. If Maman ever fell into a pool at the restaurant, Uncle Lelouch would save her. And Maman had said that Sayoko had prepared dough for him so that he could decorate his own pizza with whatever he wanted – except for caramels, but that was alright. He had tried it once, and it had tasted really yucky. So everything was really going to be okay.
He watched from the doorstep as Uncle closed the door for his mother before walking around the sleek car waiting in the driveway. Leopold waved to him; he smiled and returned his wave before disappearing into the black car.
He watched the them until the taillights vanished around the corner and into the early twilight of the evening. Once they were gone, he peered down at Lulu, who had been busy licking her paw near his feet. Tucking Charlie under his arm, he knelt down besides her. She paused for a moment before returning to her paw. They remained silent for some time, on the doorstep, as he patted her and contemplated. He was surprised he didn’t feel sadder. It was strange – almost as if he was supposed to feel sadder. But things were different this time, weren’t they? Maman was going out with Uncle Lelouch, and he wasn’t alone this time either, was he?
“Come on, Lulu. Want to see my kite?”
No, he wasn’t. He wasn’t alone this time in the slightest.
As they sat together at that white tablecloth, with the soft glow of the lamps shimmering off of the seaside and the plates gleaming by the light of the candles, she thought back on the dinner from all those months ago when they had been reunited by mere fate and coincidence. Things had been so different then. So much so that everything felt surreal. From the sweet smoke of his cigarette to the taste of the wine, the gentle caress of the breeze and his warm hand holding hers, everything felt dream-like.
Dinner was a quiet affair. There was no cake, but it didn’t particularly matter. They hadn’t really come for his birthday. Lelouch had never particularly liked celebrating his birthday and that dislike had probably intensified after the change in his lifestyle. But neither minded, and so all was well. They spoke when they had something to say but otherwise sat in companionable silence. And after, when they sat together and the band started up, he rose and asked her for a dance, and together, they swayed to the music under the string of lights and the stars.
C.C. was content. She would have been content should they have stayed home and done nothing but lay in bed, but she was content. Here was the one who she had always wanted to be with. Here, before her, was the single person in this wretched world that knew her as she was. And she loved that. She loved him.
Time passed all too quickly and they walked along the promenade. All long the sidewalk, even at the late time of the evening, were the lovers that the beachside walkway was so famous for. And it was there that they felt most at home, cloaked in polite anonymity and the freedom from the obligation to hide their hearts. His hand was familiar to her, and her fingers slid perfectly into its grooves. All was good. Not perfect, but good. This was the most she had ever wanted – being with him and free of looking over her should, and all was beautiful.
He stared at his reflection, in wonder at the face that stared back at him. It was just so…strange. It was the same face, and yet, in no way was it the same man that looked at him through the mirror. It was a curious feeling to look at this same face that he had borne for thirty years – now thirty-one – this face that had remained constant, barring the changes that came around in one’s teen years, and to know that he would bear the same visage even when he – the person bearing such a visage – was completely different.
He was different. Not just from before the time when he had had no ties to sin, but also from the time before he had reunited with C.C. He…found it easier to smile. The burden was still there. Not guilt per se, but the pressures of his duty were still there, and by all means, his hands were still tied behind his back, but he didn’t feel quite so…empty anymore. He had never felt as wide awake as now. Given, he was tired, but that was but the limitations of his body. It was not his body that had been awakened, but his mind, and as he stood in front of that mirror in that brightly lit room, he realized how pleased he was by the circumstances of his life.
So absorbed was he in his transformation that he didn’t notice her until she wrapped her arms around him.
“Happy birthday,” she said softly.
“Thank you. It was nice.”
He smiled. It really had been nice being with them. Not just Ceci, but Leopold also, and… It had been nice to be with them, with Leopold and his kite, and Ceci at dinner. It had been a very, very good birthday. His 31st had been, by far, the best he had had ever had.
There was no denying that.
The waiter bowed, and his guest smiled benevolently. As he was left alone, he crossed his legs and breezily perused the menu. Though he didn’t take much to French cuisine, he knew his wife did. She had grown up on such a diet, had she not? His mother-in-law was a native to this country after all. In fact, he suspected that she would take to this establishment immensely. With the shimmering sea and its soft lighting, she would enjoy herself, which was all the more better. The happier she was, the greater his pleasure. And everything had been done to make her happy, had it not? Now if only the show could begin soon. He had traveled this far after all.
And so it did. And my, did they look beautiful, with her pearl earrings and his handsome suit. Quite the picture.
Quite the happy couple indeed.