Claire felt a cold hand brushing away her fringe, and she opened her eyes. They were still blurry with sleep, but she could dimly make out a pair of blue irises staring down at her. It was not difficult to identify who they belonged to, even when she couldn’t see properly. Or maybe she would still know even with her eyes closed. She knew his presence.
Claire spoke insistently, but a voice dissipated her attempt to persuade him.
“I haven’t asked anything yet.”
She heard a grumble in response, and her vision grew clearer.
“But you were going to ask, weren’t you?”
Dean mumbled, “that’s true,” and didn’t say anything else.
“It’s just a cold.”
“But your forehead is hot.”
“It’s just a symptom of a cold.”
“It’s very hot.”
He turned his warmed palm over. The back of his hand felt like a relief on her hot skin, and Claire closed her eyes for a moment.
“Any other symptoms?”
He was probably going to get her some medicine. He was so mature now, and Claire smiled.
“Just a cough and a fever.”
“What about eating?”
“My throat is too uncomfortable.”
Dean sighed, staring at the blanket that was pulled up to her chin. It too was thin. If anyone slept in this condition, even Louise Sweeney, a human being that seemed to be made of steel, would catch a cold.
“Aren’t you cold under the blanket?”
“Yes, but I’ll be okay.”
One of Claire’s arms peeked out as she adjusted the blanket. Dean tugged her arm and saw that she was wearing a summer nightgown with short sleeves.
“You’re wearing this?”
” …I’ll be okay.”
“Making all these excuses, you!”
Claire wanted to yell “It’s because of you!” but couldn’t summon the energy to. Her mind was in too much of a turmoil to carefully prepare for autumn. And the cause of that was the very same Dean Crissis standing before her.
He tucked her arm back underneath the blanket, then strode over to her closet and opened it. They had frequently gone through each other’s closets since childhood, so Claire didn’t protest. In any case, her body felt so heavy that she couldn’t move at all.
Dean retrieved a thick winter nightgown and fuzzy socks that she only wore in the winter.
“I’ll go get some medicine, so change into these.”
Claire stared at the clothes he placed on the blanket and nodded.
After she slipped into the new clothes and crawled back into bed, Dean came back with the medicine. He was out of breath, as if he had run back, and had various other items tucked in his arms as well.
The first thing that caught her eyes was a thick blanket. He pulled off her thin summer blanket, looked at it as if it were a terrible monster, and threw it on the floor. Then he tucked the thick cozy blanket over Claire’s body.
“It’s yours, isn’t it?”
His ears turned red.
“Yes! Don’t mind it if it’s dirty.”
She didn’t mean to imply it was dirty. He held out something else. It was a hot water bottle that was occasionally used by the caretaker in the winter, and was wrapped in an old cloth. He put the heated bag of water under a thick blanket.
“This is hot, so I’m putting it under the covers.”
“Did you borrow it?”
“You don’t need to know.”
Claire carefully adjusted the hot water bottle with her fingers.
This time, Dean brought her a meal—a vegetable stew prepared at the Academy for patients. It looked delicious, but Claire didn’t feel like eating. The blanket was hot and pleasant, and it was making her drowsy.
“Don’t…don’t wanna eat.”
The stern look returned.
Claire sighed inwardly. If their positions were exchanged, Claire would have looked at Dean with that expression as well.
“I feel a little dizzy…and weak. I’ll sleep and then eat later.”
“I can see why he sometimes forces food onto Louise Sweeney.”
“Well, Louise is good at everything. Even eating.”
Claire’s face lightened as she talked about her friend.
“Do you really like her that much?”
It was enough to annoy him.
“I like her. She’s cute.”
He couldn’t find an answer to that. Claire had said to Dean that “he was losing his cuteness with age.” If he had known this, he would’ve tried to keep a bit of his cuteness.
Claire finally yielded, and groaned as she pushed herself in a sitting position. She turned pale from the effort.
“How long have you been like this?”
He placed the tray on her blanket.
“It’s been chilly since last night. Oh, that food is warm…”
Claire looked thrilled as she took a bite of stew. She thought she was too dizzy and weak to be able to eat, but before she knew it, she had cleaned the bowl. Dean cleared away the dishes and tray without making a noise, and took out a small glass bottle with horrible brown medicine. Claire heard about that medicine. It was supposedly extremely bitter and sticky.
“My goal was not to take that medicine until I graduated.”
“Don’t pick up any weird goals.”
He opened the medicine bottle, then set another goal like Claire.
“Or I will never eat until I graduate.”
Claire knew the medicine would make her better, so she summoned her nerve and drank the liquid. She tried not to let it touch her tongue as much as possible, but its horrible taste clung to her mouth like glue. Claire’s face wrinkled in disgust, and Dean handed her the final item.
“This is from Louise.”
“Did she ask you to give this to me?”
“Well, something like that.”
He held out the pudding with a reluctant face. Claire quickly ate a spoonful and allowed the sweetness to melt away the taste of medicine.
“No need for thanks.”
She soon cleared the pudding cup as well, then set it down on the floor and sank back against her pillows.
“Do you feel alright?”
Dean sat carefully by her side and handed over a glass of water from her bedside table, worry etched on his features. Claire nodded as she accepted the glass from him. It was warmed to her favorite temperature. How did he know it would be difficult for her to drink if it wasn’t prepared like this?
Claire murmured softly. Only she knew that she didn’t mean the water.
“I can’t give you a cold water.”
She was strangely touched by his kindness today. Perhaps it was because she got sick out of the blue. If she were at home, nothing would have changed. She inherited neither title nor business, and her becoming ill would not be much of a topic. From an early age, she only had one friend that cared about her sincerely.
“Are you okay, sister? Does it hurt a lot?”
The blond, round-faced boy who was as pretty as a doll.
“You were so cute back then.”
Sometimes, Claire had even put him in dresses to look like a girl. But this time, Dean didn’t bring up his complaints.
“You were pretty then too.”
“That almost sounds like you’re saying I’m ugly now.”
“Now you understand how I feel.”
Claire smiled bitterly and clenched the warm glass.
” Actually, that’s what I think about me too.”
She always thought of herself as pretty when she was little, but when she got older, she went to a party and found out that there were so many more beauties.
“My hair is dull and dark, and it’s hard to choose a dress to go with it. I went to Madame Emily’s shop once.”
Claire paused and yawned, feeling pleasantly warm and drowsy inside. Perhaps it was the effect of the medicine. Her head felt muffled, as if someone had drawn a curtain over it.
Claire set down the cup and yawned again. The hot water bottle underneath the blanket was warming up her insides.
Claire shook her head. She wanted to finish what she was saying.
“Lie down. I’ll listen to you.”
At his suggestion, Claire snuggled underneath the blanket and smiled.
“So, I went to Emily’s shop, and she’s showing me a hat that’s in fashion these days, and various items as well. But no matter what she gave me, my hair was so big and weird.”
“Why are you dealing with such a bad shop? There are plenty of others in the capital.”
“It’s not bad. Marquis Burgess goes there too.”
Dean said nothing. He loved Claire’s dark hair. During childhood, he told Claire that he wanted to have thick dark hair like hers. His parents weren’t pleased, but he was fascinated by it. He secretly watched Claire when the wind would blow, scattering her locks and revealing her pale neck. In the memories he had of her, he always thought of that color.
It was only when Claire was about to leave him did he quickly realize how special she was to him. If Claire Iris married her fiancé, he would never see that color again. Ever.
He heard the steady sound of breathing. The healer had said that medicine would make Claire sleepy. Dean looked down at her face, which moved in rhythm to her breathing.
His reply to her came belatedly.
“…Of course you’re pretty, idiot.”
He didn’t know why she thought that of herself. She was the most outstanding student in the academy.
“The ugly one is your fiancé.”
He was honest in his disgust. Her fiancé was good-looking, of course, but he was an ugly, despicable man.
“You really can’t pick your men.”
Claire’s mouth twitched at Dean’s mumbling. He was such an idiot.
Dean scratched his head and looked around. It would be strange if he stayed here for too long, so he thought he should head back.
” ….It’s okay.”
Until a soft voice answered. Dean looked down at Claire again in surprise. Her eyes were still closed, but her lips were moving softly.
“I don’t like his face either.”
She could barely make out Dean’s blurred figure through the slits in her eyes.
“I’m pathetic, aren’t I?”
Dean shook her head. The whole thing was not Claire’s fault.
“You’re not pathetic.”
He touched Claire’s forehead, its heat warming his hand again. She was so soft to the touch. Come to think of it, didn’t the hateful Louise Sweeney liken Claire to an eclair?
“Why are you smiling?”
“I just remembered something Louise Sweeney said.”
He smiled dryly, sweeping Claire’s hair off her forehead. As annoying as it was, he agreed with that little tomboy.
“Louise? What did she say?”
“Nothing much. Just that you were soft and sweet.”
He answered with a gentle sweep of Claire’s cheek with his fingertips. Once he started, he didn’t think he could pull his hand away. And Claire wasn’t stopping him, either.
” … Are.”
When his hand came near his lips, Claire softly opened her mouth.
“Aren’t you going to do it? “
That was the only question on her mind. They had already crossed the line of friendship once, and it would be easier to do it the second time. No, things like lines had long been gone.
“I won’t do it if you don’t want me to.”
“It’s not that…”
Claire smiled awkwardly. She wouldn’t have said this under normal circumstances, but her sickness had dissolved the walls she had worked so hard to build up. Maybe she was acting like a spoiled child. Or maybe she was just tired.
“It’s kind of awkward to do that with you…”
“I know. And?”
There was a slight urgency in his voice. Before she knew it, he leaned over her and came close to her face.
“You…you might catch my cold.”
“It doesn’t matter. What else?”
A cold didn’t matter?
“I knew that. Why else?”
“I told you…”
Claire closed her eyes.
“It’s painful to know that it’s something that I can’t do.”
“My D is the only beautiful memory in my mind…”
“My D” was a name only Claire used, back in the days when she was delighted that the first letters of their names were next to each other.
“When sometimes I feel like I’m sinking in the mud…”
In Dean’s eyes, Claire did seem like someone helplessly trapped in mud. She was an adult now, with an arranged marriage and subsequent contracts that dragged her into the mire. The strong Claire Iris was desperately finding a way for air.
“I’ll go in…”
Before he knew it, they could feel each other’s breath.
“I’ll follow you anywhere. I don’t care if it gets messed up.”
“Take hold of me. Claire Iris.”
Their lips met. There was a deep sadness, as if they knew the end wouldn’t be so beautiful.
So for a while they shut down all senses except each other. There were only the two of them left now.