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After breakfast, Gryphon learned that the repairs to the great room were not the only developments he'd missed in the two nights he'd lain unconscious. Not only had Sakuya and Meiling, working smoothly together in spite of the (now-mended) fracture in their relationship, repaired and reglazed the outside wall and patched up the hole in the inside one, but they'd also done a lot of cleaning and polishing elsewhere—cosmetic tasks he'd had on his own to-do list, but hadn't gotten to yet. Further, the Scarlet sisters themselves had gotten stuck in opening up and clearing out a couple of the upstairs bedrooms in the south wing, all of which apart from Remilia's own had been abandoned for decades, if not centuries.
"We cleaned up Sakuya's old room, and the one next to it for Meiling," Flandre explained cheerfully as she led the way along the corridor, pointing at doors with the hand that wasn't holding one of his. "And today we're going to do this one!" she finished, stopping in front of the door across the hall from Remilia's.
"Who's this one for?" Gryphon asked, playing along with a slight smile on his face.
"It's for you, of course!" Flandre declared. "I mean, the spot you've been in is rightfully mine, don't you think?"
"Ah," he said, trying not to look too crestfallen. She was, after all, perfectly correct, if that were a point she wished to press.
"Flandre..." Remilia mumbled, red face behind hand.
Flandre burst out giggling and gave Gryphon a shove on the shoulder (and he reflected inwardly as she did how nice it was that she no longer broke things with that sort of gesture).
"I'm kidding! I wouldn't do that to you. This one's for me!"
So saying, she turned the doorknob and pushed the door dramatically open... and her face, in turn, fell as the light from the hallway and Sakuya's candlestick revealed a room that looked like the overflow annex of the International Dust and Cobweb Museum. Never mind the paint, the plaster was peeling off the walls, and none of the furniture was really even recognizable any longer.
"Oh," said Flandre.
"Ah, this ain't so bad!" Meiling declared from behind her (their height difference being such that she could easily see right over Flandre). "Little bit of dusting, lick of paint, she'll be good to go." Rolling up her sleeves Rosie the Riveter style, she went on, "Miss Izayoi, a bucket of your finest hot water and some rags, if you please!"
"Coming right up," said Sakuya with an I'm-only-humoring-you-because-I-love-you smile, which made Remilia, her momentary embarrassment already forgotten, snicker.
Flying Yak Studios
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Avalon Broadcasting System
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime
© 2020 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
With the five of them all working on it together, and a few judicious applications of The World, they had Flandre's new room ready for occupancy by daybreak. Along the way, the room's new owner got to see a number of things she found both interesting and pleasing.
Even at breakfast, it was obvious that there had been a certain... warming in the house's atmosphere overday. Not that it had been particularly arctic before, but there had been a coolness in, for instance, the way Sakuya treated Meiling—a stiff formality that went beyond her normal elegant correctness, and the occasional subtly cutting remark that Sakuya probably thought Flandre was too naïve to pick up on.
Flandre didn't know what had changed, but whatever it was, she was glad of it. Toward the end of the previous night, Meiling had seemed edgy, preoccupied, and rather sad about something when they'd played together before bedtime. She'd tried hard to hide it, and probably thought she had succeeded, but Flandre's recent experiences had left her keenly attuned to distress in others.
Now, the big redhead was entirely relaxed, at her ease, as if at last confident that she truly had a home here. She still talked about earning her keep by putting in hard physical labor—"The only kind I'm good for!"—on the vast amount of repair work the house needed, but she no longer said those things with the same slightly desperate edge to them. Now there was nothing in her voice but jolly, self-deprecating whimsy, and the cold stiffness in her relations with Sakuya had entirely disappeared, replaced by a usually-low-key but unmistakable warmth.
Flandre's sister, too, was in a consistently good mood, warm and pleasant to all. Remilia seemed a little distracted, it was true, as if she had something serious and important on her mind, but it didn't stop her from showing plain, unvarnished affection for all those who were, in an old-fashioned sense, in her care—particularly the man from Liberion, whom Flandre already regarded as her brother.
The crowning glory of the evening was the operation to bring Flandre's furniture up from her basement room and install it in the new one. It was fortunate that she had furniture down there, and had somehow refrained from destroying it like almost everything else she'd ever owned, because the stuff that had been left in this former guest bedroom was beyond salvaging.
Of course, moving her existing furniture did mean someone had to get a beyond-king-size fourposter canopy bed up two flights of stairs, and that someone, inevitably, was Hong Meiling. Flandre suspected that either she or her sister could have managed it themselves if they had to, but Meiling's own strength seemed to be just about as prodigious as either of theirs. Flandre had suspected her new friend and playmate wasn't human, based on her prowess at certain games, and here she had confirmation.
Now, with everything shipshape and squared away as only a work gang led by Sakuya Izayoi could make it, the others gone off to make their own preparations for sleep, and her whole being suffused with a happiness that was made all the sweeter by the pleasant fatigue of a good day well-filled, Flandre changed for bed. To cap off her new room, she had a brand new nightdress, personally sewn by Sakuya, and she luxuriated in it as she pulled it on. Down below, with no one to care, she'd usually just slept in her clothes, or a ratty old camisole if she could be bothered to change. Half the time she hadn't known whether it was day or night anyway, but just fell into bed when she'd had enough.
Flandre pushed the thoughts of her old life away, shoving them back into a box she kept in the corner of her mind. That wasn't me, she thought. That was whoever was borrowing my body all that time. I'm me, and I sleep upstairs. In a nightdress made with love.
Emerging from behind her dressing screen, she found her sister standing in the doorway, also dressed for bed, surveying the room with a satisfied look. Remilia thought the bright red walls were a little bit garish, to be honest, but that was the color Flan wanted, so that was the color she got, and it did go nicely with the dark wood of her furniture and the slightly deeper red of her freshly laundered bedclothes.
Remilia was obscurely proud of herself for not tearing up once during the course of this momentous night. She'd shrewdly kept herself too busy to get really emotional about it. Seeing Flandre come out from behind the screen in her new nightdress, though, undid all of that careful work, and within moments she found herself standing there like a dunce with tears streaming down her face.
"Sis! What's wrong?" Flandre said, rushing to her. "Are you OK?"
"I'm fine. I'm fine, little sister," Remilia replied, hugging her tight. "I just... I'm so glad you're here."
"I'm glad I'm here too," said Flandre, and they clung together for a bit, rocking in place.
Presently Flandre, who was facing the door, noticed movement; looking over her sister's shoulder, she saw Gryphon step into the doorway, notice them, and put a finger to his lips. She smiled acknowledgement, then turned her attention back to Remilia.
"Hey... Sis?" she asked quietly.
"Mm?" Remilia replied, her face still buried in Flandre's hair.
"Would you like to sleep here today? With me? Like... like we used to?"
Remilia raised her head to look Flandre in the face. "You... you mean it?"
"Of course I mean it," Flandre replied. "C'mon. Let's go to sleep."
In the doorway, Gryphon gave her a thumbs-up, which she discreetly returned behind Remilia's back, and then absented himself as she led her joy-dazed elder sister to bed.
The next evening, Remilia turned up for her evening bath literally walking on air.
"Someone looks happy," Gryphon remarked, filling a bucket of hot water from the tub.
"I am beyond happy."
"Well, I'm glad."
"I'm serious," Remilia told him, pulling off her nightdress. "When I think of all the nights and days we lost, it seemed like a dream to go to sleep, and wake up, with my baby sister in my arms again, and me in hers. Four hundred and twenty-six years..." She shook her head and said, "I never even dared hope the day would come. And... then it did.
"Flan and I used to sleep together all the time when we were little," she explained. "Less so the last few years before... well, before. But... soap? Thank you... but even then, maybe once or twice a month, before she got sick, she'd find her way to my room, or I'd wander down to hers. I always treasured those times." She paused to work up a lather with the soap, then handed it back and said matter-of-factly, "I hate to sleep alone. Always have. You may have noticed that on your first day here. I was so happy not to be alone that I went to bed with a complete stranger, just to have someone near me again for the first time in so long."
"D'you know, I did suspect something like that might be the case," Gryphon agreed dryly.
"Don't get me wrong, I was fully confident I'd be able to show you the error of your ways if you got any ideas," Remilia said, a trifle smugly. Then, becoming serious, she went on, "But it wasn't long before I was just as confident I'd never have to."
"I appreciate your trust," Gryphon remarked, working lather into her hair. "And really, I'm the same about sleeping alone, so it worked out fine. That said, I gladly make way for Flan. After all, as she pointed out last night, she does have the prior claim."
"Fortunately for you," Remilia said, smiling, "she doesn't mind it as much as I do." She ducked her head so that he could rinse her hair.
"How does this work, anyway?" he wondered, pouring hot water over her head. "Isn't this running water?"
"I'm not crossing it, am I?" she replied with a wry grin.
"I suppose not," Gryphon conceded. "Man, vampire rules are weird."
"That's nothing. I suppose you haven't ever noticed how much garlic I cook with," she said.
"I did wonder about the beurre à la bourguignonne."
"My family line doesn't have a problem with garlic. It's licorice we can't handle. Every bloodline is... or was... a little different."
They steered away from that topic, since it led inevitably to how few vampire bloodlines were left following the revolutions and purges that wracked Europe in the late eighteenth through mid nineteenth centuries, and both were determined to keep the mood cheerful.
The remaining conversation, through a brief but refreshing soak and while dressing, was given over to other, lighter matters, such as the evening's agenda for the ongoing work on the house.
"Well, we don't want to be up on the roof in the dark," Gryphon opined as they stood shoulder to shoulder at the mirror knotting their neckwear. "So we'll probably leave that for tomorrow afternoon and have a look at the conservatory next."
Remilia chuckled, reached over, and tweaked the knot of his tie. "'We'. I like the sound of that. My own little work crew. Why are you putting on a tie, by the way?"
Gryphon shrugged, then tucked the free end of the tie into the front of his shirt between the second and third buttons, Army-fashion. "It's part of the uniform. Mako and Bimmel brought two, I figured I ought to wear one. Besides, I like the way I look in a tie. Makes me almost respectable."
"I should ask Sakuya to get out one of Papa's old cravats. I'm sure you would look fabulous in the style of a gentleman from the 1790s."
He favored her with an arched eyebrow as she settled her cap. "Did you just say you want to dress me up like your father?"
"Only as an experiment," Remilia replied piously. "I don't have an Electra complex, if that's what you're insinuating." Then, with a wicked smile, she went on, "If anything, you're the one with the complex."
"Uh, no, I'm not attracted to my father either," Gryphon replied dryly.
"I didn't say what kind of complex," Remilia said with a wink.
"How dare you, mademoiselle. Another crack like that and I may reconsider my stance on sleeping alone," said Gryphon mock-stuffily. By this point they had completely finished their business, and were just standing there, having a conversation with each other's reflections in the mirror, as if it were a perfectly normal thing to be doing.
"Speaking of sleeping alone, Flandre asked if I'd let her borrow you some day."
Gryphon's eyebrows went up. "Now that's a helluva segue, given what you just accused me of."
Remilia's face went red. "I hadn't thought of that..."
"Out of curiosity, what did you tell her?"
"That she should ask you herself if she likes. I have no objection. I trusted you with her when she was mad, why wouldn't I now that she knows her own mind? Besides—everything I have in the world is Flan's for the asking." Her face now perfectly serious, she went on, "It's been that way since the day she was born, and that's how it will be until I crumble to dust."
"That's very sweet of you," Gryphon observed. "Aside from the part where you implicitly classified me as your possession," he added dryly.
"I didn't mean it like that!" Remilia insisted, flushing to her collarbone again. Then, with a thoughtful frown, she went on, "All right, I suppose I did. But only in the nicest way!" She folded her arms and looked haughtily away. "You should be grateful you're valued!" she declared, then gave his reflection the winking glance that meant she was mostly kidding.
Gryphon turned to face her, breaking the mirror spell, and gathered her into a hug. "Well, if that's what she wants and you don't object, I'm happy to oblige. Although if she decides to invite me, I hope she warns Sakuya before breakfast call. I don't want to get stabbed."
"That may be the price you have to pay," Remilia quipped, then left the room, humming cheerfully. Chuckling, Gryphon followed her out.
Flandre spent the next few nights, leading up to the new moon, observing the new energy in the house with the eager eye of someone who has gone a long time without any meaningful social contact, and now thirsts for it, even vicariously. Since her abrupt and unexpected release from the prison of her own mind, to say nothing of the basement, she had discovered that she enjoyed watching other people interact almost as much as she liked interacting with them herself.
For example, she could happily sit for an hour or more on the settee in the corner of the living room, snuggling with Wolfgang, and watch her sister and Gryphon not speak to each other. Even when they sat across from each other in armchair and Ottomane and read their separate books, they were still sharing that time together, with a rapport that was almost visible. Or she could perch at one end of the counter in the kitchen and watch Sakuya cook, and Meiling try to help but mostly just get in the way, while Sakuya maneuvered effortlessly around her and made her feel like she was actually contributing something to the process. It was all endlessly fascinating. Especially when somebody (usually Meiling) got to the kissy part.
Even the new moon couldn't dampen the spirits of Scarlet Devil Mansion's inhabitants. Naturally, Remilia and Flandre themselves, as the only vampires in the house, were still innately susceptible to the effects of the month's darkest night; but even so, this month they were surrounded by such warmth and conviviality that they barely felt the new moon at all, apart from a certain diminution of physical strength.
At lunch that night, observing still further proofs of affection in the way Sakuya placed Meiling's plate before her, and Gryphon poured Remilia's wine, Flandre sighed and said,
"It's all so unfair."
The rest of the diners halted in their activities, turning to regard her curiously.
"What's unfair, Flan-Flan?" asked Meiling.
Flandre gestured vaguely to the lovely, balmy night in progress outside the great windows and said dramatically, "It's spring, love is in the air, and all I have to keep me warm in the daytime is my extra pillow."
Remilia nearly choked on her wine. "Flandre!" she burst out when she'd stopped sputtering. "Where did you hear that kind of talk?"
Flandre gave her sister a sly smile, which Gryphon realized with an inward grin looked uncannily like Remilia's own sly smile. "You know that huuuuuge library we have?" she asked in return.
Remilia looked puzzled. "Yes..."
"I've read all the books."
The color drained from Remilia's face. "All... of them?"
Flandre nodded firmly. "All. Some of them two or three times!" she added brightly.
Remilia put her face in her hands. "Oh, my poor, sweet, innocent little sister," she moaned. "What has become of you?"
Placing a fingertip to the corner of her mouth, Flandre went on in an exaggeratedly childish tone, "There were a bunch of things I didn't understand, though, big sis. I need to ask you about them."
Remilia's color returned in the form of a flaming blush. Holding up both hands as if warding off an oncoming truck, she blurted, "No no no! Absolutely not! You're not old enough—I'm not ready!"
Flandre grinned. "Gotcha." Then, mock-confidentally to Gryphon, she added cheerfully, "She's so easy to wind up."
Remilia sputtered for another second or so, then seemed to see the funny side and recovered her good humor. Shaking her head and chuckling at her own reaction, she raised her glass to Flandre.
"Well played, little sister," she said, favoring Flandre with a magnanimous smile. "I suppose it's time for me to stop treating you like a child. How I've longed for this night to come, and yet, how hard it is to face now that it's here," she added philosophically, sipping her wine. "Sakuya, we shall have Fusōnese red rice with supper."
"Of course, m'lady, I'll see to it."
After lunch, Gryphon found himself with nothing much to do. Meiling would be busy helping Sakuya prepare the celebratory dinner Remilia had called for, so they'd get nothing further done on the house tonight anyway. The lady of the house was "supervising". Flandre had repaired to the music room to reacquaint herself with her long-ago harpsichord lessons and taken Wolfgang with her. In view of all this, he decided to try out the new gazebo on the west lawn and have himself a nice alfresco nap in one of the chaises longues.
He didn't know how long he'd been asleep before he was gently roused by the unmistakable sensation of someone sitting on him. Half-opening his eyes, he saw a creature of darkness looming over him, perched on his stomach, hands with gleaming talons holding down his shoulders, crimson eyes gazing hypnotically into his.
Gryphon pasted the fakest possible look of horror on his face. "Oh no," he said in a dull monotone. "A vampire."
"That's me!" Flandre agreed, showing her teeth in a broad grin. Then, sobering, she moved back a bit so that she ended up sitting astride his thighs, her skirts arranged demurely about her.
"Sorry to wake you up, but I saw you were out here and... we haven't been alone since before, well, you know. Before. And I need to thank you. I owe you so much."
"Aw, Flan. C'mere." He ratcheted the back of the chaise closer to upright and opened his arms, and she knee-walked forward a couple of steps and let herself be enfolded in them. "You don't owe me anything, sweetheart."
"Yes I do," she objected. "You saved my life."
"That kind of thing doesn't create a debt between friends." He moved her back slightly so as to make eye contact. "We're still friends, right?"
Flandre shook her head. "We're more than friends," she insisted. "I was teasing you and Sis the other night, but I meant what I said to Meiling. What we went through... that created a tie between us that can never be broken."
She paused for a moment to collect her thoughts, then went on, "I only sort of remember things that happened between my last moments as a human and... the other night. Apart from some things I read in books I stole from the library, it's mostly just a blur. I can only remember being spiteful, and angry, and lonely. Mostly lonely. And then... there was you. My life was one long terrible dream, and when you came to see me, it was like I could almost wake up. And then I did wake up. Because of you. You did that."
Gryphon smiled. "Don't give me too much credit. After all," he added with a wink, "I am but a humble horsie."
Flandre giggled at that, but became serious again almost immediately. Her hand stole unconsciously onto her belly, as though it were still full, as she continued, "When you gave me all your blood, you didn't just save my life, you... you made me me again. I'm still sorting out what it means to be me, because I haven't been me for so long, but... I have the power to do that now. And it nearly killed you. So for you to say I don't owe you anything..." She shook her head again. "I can't accept that."
"Hey, now," said Gryphon gently. "I chose to take that risk, for your sake and your sister's. You didn't force it on me. The fact that you're alive would be reward enough. That you're able to be who you are is an amazing bonus." Poking her nose gently in time with each word, he concluded, "You—owe—me—nothing."
Then, grinning, he added as a postscript, "But that doesn't mean I won't always take one more hug."
Tearing up, Flandre leaned back in and hugged him hard—but not too hard. "I love you so much."
Gryphon returned the embrace, rubbing her back comfortingly through her vest and blouse, and replied, "I love you too, kiddo."
After a few seconds of slightly sniffly silence, she asked quietly, "Did my sister make up her mind yet?"
"No. Not yet."
"Well, she better say yes."
"Don't push her. She needs to make this decision for herself."
"I know, I know. I just... you know."
"Yeah. I know."
Flandre gave him one last squeeze, then released him and sat back, wiping at her eyes, but smiling. "Thanks, big bro."
"Any time, Flan. Any time."
She got to her feet and trotted away, pausing at the edge of the gazebo to look back and wave. Gryphon waved back, then lowered the chaise to its couch position and considered the underside of the roof for a while before returning to sleep, lulled by the chirping of crickets somewhere in the surviving patches of grass.
He woke an indeterminate time later to find that he was no longer alone in the gazebo. Remilia was sitting in one of the deck chairs facing the chaise longue he had selected, in much the same pose as she had adopted in her throne-chair at the dining table on his first night in her house: one foot up, elbow on knee, chin in hand, regarding him with a little smile.
"Good evening," she said when she saw he was awake. "Sleep well?"
Gryphon stretched, yawning. "Very well, considering. I don't usually go in for sleeping on patio furniture, but this is really quite nice."
"For all that she claims to be good for no more than brute labor, Meiling has many useful skills," Remilia said. "Wait until you see her contributions to tonight's dinner. Wherever she comes from has some very interesting ideas about food." Her smile broadened slightly. "It appears Sakuya's taste in lovers is as impeccable as her taste in everything else. But don't tell Meiling I said that, it might go to her head."
Gryphon chuckled. "Duly noted."
Rising, Remilia cross to stand beside his chair and held out her hand. "Walk with me."
They strolled for some time around the remains of the west garden, hand in hand, in a pleasant silence, enjoying the night.
"I used to hate new-moon nights," Remilia remarked, looking up. "Bad memories, of course, but besides that, the weakness and lassitude frustrated me. I couldn't wait for the moon to return and bring my strength back with it. But... now that I'm no longer alone with just my own thoughts, I find I can appreciate how beautiful the sky is without it. Look at all those stars." She turned her head to look up at his face. "How many have you been to?"
"Oh. Hundreds," Gryphon replied. "I've spent a lot of my life without a fixed home base, and in that time I've passed through so many star systems, I've lost count."
"Can you show me any of the important ones?" asked Remilia.
"I think so," said Gryphon. "It's been a while since I found them from Earth, but assuming this dimension's sky is more or less the same..." He looked up for a while, getting his bearings, then pointed. "There. That's Zeta Cygni. That's where I live. Will live, I mean. Four hundred sixty years from now, in a universe just down the street. There's B'hava'el, Epsilon Eridani, that's where the school Kaitlyn teaches at is. That one's Salusa, I forget what Earth astronomers used to call it."
"Amazing," Remilia murmured. "My father was an astronomer. You may have noticed his old telescope up in the clock tower. He corresponded with some of the great natural philosophers of his age. I think he may even have been a member of Britannia's Royal Society." Looking downcast, she went on, "I didn't pay much attention to that side of his life at the time. Like I told you before, I stayed childish and irresponsible for a long time. I assumed there would be time for that sort of thing later. After all, Papa and I were both going to live forever... right?"
Silently, Gryphon slipped an arm around her and squeezed her to his side. They kept walking that way, a little awkwardly, until they came to one of the few surviving trees out at the west end of the garden, where Remilia suddenly broke away and turned to face him.
"I want to tell you something," she said. "It make take me a little while to come to the point, so I hope you can bear with me."
"Take as long as you like," Gryphon replied. "I'm right here."
Remilia gazed at his face for a few moments, her own expression hard to read, and then she said,
"I've been thinking a lot, over the last few days, about what you told me. From the start, I wanted to believe you. I ached to believe you, after all we've been through. But... there was a door to doubt in my mind that I could never quite close, because whichever way I looked at it, your story was just so... absurd. Please—don't interrupt," she said, putting up a hand as he drew breath to speak.
"It was absurd," Remilia went on, "but then I realized... is my own story any less absurd? Daughter of an ancient vampire family, orphaned and isolated by the chaos of the Revolution? Living practically alone in this old house for decades, until a perfect stranger happened along and smashed open the shell of my life? My mysterious maid of unknown origin with her pocket watch that can manipulate time and space? My little sister, who has now cheated both madness and death—death twice running?"
She walked a short distance while saying all that, so that when she turned back at the end of it she was a few paces away. Her eyes were luminous in the starlight, her bearing proud and noble, as she went on,
"And I thought—perhaps the secret of the world is that living steeped in such absurdity is a higher state of being, and the people who live out their lives and are never touched by it are to be pitied."
Now she approached him once more, becoming still more animated, and continued, "Besides—would any fantasist construct a tale in which he suffered so? Would not a Baron Münchhausen or a Don Quixote spin a more heroic delusion, in which he always triumphed and never came to harm? And would not such a man have fallen apart when genuine danger showed itself? You certainly didn't. You saved my life and Flandre's, and nearly paid with your own both times. Would a liar or a madman do that?" She shook her head firmly, folding her arms. "No. I think not."
Remilia paused, taking a couple of slow breaths to calm herself down, and then went on in a slightly less declamatory but still quite formal tone, "So. Here is a man who can wield magic. Who doesn't fear monsters. Who dares anything for his friends. What couldn't be true about such a man as that? Nothing, and there's an end on 't. Which only leaves one question."
When she didn't go on after a few seconds, Gryphon replied quietly, "Which is?"
Remilia stepped up to him and took his hands again, hovering to look him in the face. "Without looking for it, you and I have found that we love each other. In the face of all that would divide us... is that enough?"
Gryphon looked her in the eye. "It is to me."
She looked back at him for a long, silent moment, then smiled and embraced him.
"In that case," she said into his ear, "I suppose you had better ask me if I will marry you. I am an old-fashioned maiden at heart, after all."
"Will you marry me, Remilia?" Gryphon asked in response, hugging her as tight as he could.
"Yes, Benjamin," Remilia replied, "I will."
The embrace went on for a long time, and longer still once she adjusted her hold slightly so that she could kiss him. They'd done this a few times, most notably on that peculiar night when she'd first (and so far for the only time) tasted his blood. Invariably warm and affectionate, it was sometimes almost platonic.
Tonight, as on that first occasion, it was certainly still those first two things, but it was anything but platonic.
Eventually, they came to the end of it, separating to regard each other in the nightglow. Even with his ordinary human eyesight, Gryphon could see how flushed Remilia's face was; he had no doubt that she, with her superior night vision, knew exactly the condition of his own.
"It's a shame," Remilia said, slightly out of breath, "that you don't have a ring to give me, but under the circumstances—"
"Who says I don't?" Gryphon replied with a twinkling grin, and the next thing she knew, he was slipping a band of cool metal onto the third finger of her left hand.
"Wh—how?" she wondered, raising her hand to look at it.
She couldn't tell the colors, but she assumed from its lustre that it was gold, a slim band with a single dark gemstone set into it. There had been nothing like it in the house when he arrived. She owned little jewelry herself, and that tended toward brooches and necklaces. Her mother's, which she still had but never wore, was locked in a strongbox, and of a much older, heavier, more baroque style besides. This ring was sleek, modern—very much of the twentieth century... and it fit her perfectly.
Looking up from the ring at her fiancé's mischievously smiling face, Remilia asked, "Where did you get this?"
"I made it," Gryphon replied.
"From what? Where did you find the materials for something like this?"
Gryphon put his head into the kitchen and asked, "Sakuya? Have you got a second?"
Sakuya set aside the pot she'd been about to take into the scullery and scrub, wiped her hands on a tea towel, and said, "Certainly. What do you need, Chief?"
"This is kind of random, but just on the off chance... do you know where I might be able to find some gold?"
Sakuya tilted her head. "Gold? she repeated.
Gryphon nodded. "I don't need very much, but it has to be gold. Enough to make a ring for a very small hand," he elaborated with a little grin.
"Ah, I see," said Sakuya, smiling, and then, to his mild surprise, she went on, "Wait here. I believe I have just the thing."
She disappeared into the china closet; he heard the sound of rummaging, and a moment later, she returned carrying a small, shiny object, which she offered to him across the table.
"There you are. I believe that should suit your needs nicely."
Gryphon took the object and looked at it. It was a twisted slip of gold-colored metal, studded with a few small gemstones. It took him a moment to figure out that it had once been a jeweled spoon, before something geometrically unfortunate had happened to it.
"One of the many casualties of Lady Flandre's... illness," explained Sakuya. "She destroyed most of that set. That was long before my time, of course, but my predecessors hoarded the remains for some reason. I suppose they couldn't bear to throw away anything made of gold."
"She really is perfect," Gryphon observed.
"Yes she is," Remilia agreed.
They started walking back toward the house at a leisurely pace, hand in hand.
"I want it to be clear from the beginning," Remilia said suddenly, "that should Kei ever find her way back to you, of course I will step aside."
"The hell you will," said Gryphon, and his tone of voice was mild, but something in it brought her up short. As she paused and gave him a questioning look, he went on, "I didn't ask you to marry me just until my 'real' wife shows up. I asked you to marry me. Full stop." So saying, he released her hand and swept her up in another bear hug.
"I hope with all my heart that Kei is alive, and either I find her or she finds me some day. But when that day comes, I have no intention of... of casting you aside. I won't do it—and she wouldn't have it. So please... please never say anything like that again. When the time comes that we're all three standing looking at each other... we'll figure it out. OK?"
"OK," Remilia replied quietly. "I'm sorry."
"No need to be sorry. I just... well, like you said, it should be clear from the beginning. I don't want us starting out with you thinking there's any doubt at all about where you stand. You're not a stand-in, or a stopgap, or anything of the sort." He set her down on her feet and smiled at her, cupping her cheek in his hand. "I appreciate the nobility of the gesture... but that's not how I operate. If we do this thing, we're doing it all the way."
Remilia smiled, then kissed the palm of his hand before transferring it back to her own. "D'accord."
Gryphon closed his eyes and shivered theatrically. "I love it when you speak Gallic."
"Dans ce cas, quelle chance pour vous que ce soit ma langue maternelle," she said with an impish grin, and he shivered again. A moment later, she said in a less playful tone, "Speaking of mothers... mine was a proud woman, jealous of her dignity. That's probably where I get it from. She always insisted on being properly addressed, even by close friends. Gods help anyone who presumed to address her by a pet name." She squeezed his hand and went on, "Except my father. He, and he alone, was permitted—if only in private!—to call her Remi.
"No one has ever called me that. While Maman was alive, it would have caused confusion, and afterward... there was no one to do so. But... you may, if you like."
Gryphon smiled. "I do like. I like that a lot. Thank you. And you, Remi, may call me whatever you like."
"Would it bother you if I kept using your full name? Not for formality's sake... I just like the way it rolls off my tongue," she said playfully.
"Not at all. I just said, whatever you like. Besides, not many people do that—practically everyone calls me Gryphon, or Ben—so it kind of has the same effect in reverse."
Remilia chuckled. "I suppose it does at that."
As they entered the torchlit area near the house, Remilia let go of his hand and said, "I'm going to go and change for dinner. You should do the same."
"All of my clothes are identical," Gryphon pointed out wryly.
Remilia's smile twinkled in the torchlight. "Go to the bath chamber and ring for Sakuya. She'll know what to do." She winked. "Sakuya always knows what to do."
Dinnertime already had a festive air about it when the first of the diners arrived. Meiling was slightly hampered by the fact that she had only her old duffel bag's worth of clothes, all of which were basically alike, but she'd spruced up as best she could under the circumstances. Flandre was in much the same boat, since all of the clothing she owned was also effectively the same: white blouses and either red or black jumper dresses or skirt-vest sets. Tonight she'd changed it up a little bit by teaming a black vest with a red skirt instead of matching them, which was about as avant-garde as she could be with her current wardrobe.
Sakuya looked the sharpest of the three, having traded her usual ruffle-shouldered maid's dress and apron for a skirt and waist apron below, vest-and-shirtsleeves look above. Meiling promptly dubbed this look "butler in the streets, maid in the sheets," which didn't make any sense, but made Sakuya swat her blushingly up the back of the head and got a laugh out of Flandre. That was really all she'd been after anyway, and so she was content.
Meanwhile, up on the second floor, the lady and prospective gentleman of the house had just emerged from adjacent doors and were standing regarding one another.
Remilia was wearing the clothes she'd worn on the fateful night of the previous full moon (or, given how thoroughly ruined those clothes had been by the end of the night, a close facsimile), with the fancy embroidery, the black and white lace accents, and the bright red sash. As it had on that night, the outfit made her look somewhat more mature than her normal appearance, and every inch the noble scion of an ancient vampire house.
As for Gryphon, Sakuya had done rather more than the threatened unearthing of one of the late Count Victor Scarlet's old cravats. She had somehow contrived to dress him entirely in the formal evening dress of a late-eighteenth-century Gallian nobleman: long black tailcoat and knee breeches, a waistcoat of the same scarlet silk as Remilia's sash, a spotless white cravat, and tall, perfectly shined black riding boots in lieu of the customary stockings.
On some level he knew he ought to look ridiculous in this getup. With his stocky build, he felt certain he must come across like a lumberjack cosplaying George Washington, except mercifully without the powdered wig. But on the contrary, he felt... dashing, in a way he didn't often feel. Very Sir Percy Blakeney, like he was ready to go out there and swash some bucklers in defense of the fallen Gallian aristocracy.
"Oh my," said Remilia, her cheeks coloring. "I must say, my Sakuya has outdone herself. You look incredible." Then, taking his arm, she added with a cheerful smile, "And you look nothing like my father, just for the record."
"Thank you," Gryphon replied. "And you, for the record, look nothing like a little girl," he added, making her laugh.
They silenced the room when they swept together through the entryway to the great hall. On some level, Gryphon regretted that the double doors were always left open; it seemed like the kind of moment where thrusting them dramatically apart from the middle, preferably without breaking stride, was called for. Even without it, though, they arrested the attention of all four already present in an instant, cutting off the conversation like a closed tap and drawing a short, confused who-the-heck? bay from Wolfgang.
"Wow!" Flandre said, finding her voice first. "Where did you get those clothes, big bro?"
"We have Sakuya to thank for this little miracle," Gryphon replied, grinning. "If I had a hat, I'd tip it to her."
Sakuya smiled. "Alas, that's the one thing I couldn't arrange. I doubt you'd care to wear a tricorne anyway."
"Not unless I'm captaining a pirate ship," Gryphon agreed. "Say, there's an idea."
"So that's what that outfit looks like when you haven't just fought a war in it," Meiling remarked, looking Remilia over. "Very nice! Very queen-of-the-night."
"Thank you, that is the general idea," Remilia said dryly. She and Gryphon crossed to the head of the table, pausing only to perform the ritual scruffling of both Flandre (who giggled) and Wolfgang (who did not), then stood together by the corner instead of separating to take their seats.
"Everyone," said Remilia in her most formal tone of voice, "before we sit down to break bread with you this evening, Benjamin and I have something to tell you. Flandre?"
Flandre gave her a curious look. "Um... yes?"
"You asked a question at this table a few nights ago, to which you did not receive an answer. Tonight, I'm pleased to tell you, and Sakuya, and Meiling, that the answer is yes." With that, she flourished her left hand, the deep-red gem in the ring Gryphon had given her flashing in the candlelight. "Benjamin is, in fact, going to marry your big sister."
While Sakuya and Meiling traded sentimental looks and broke into applause, Flandre bolted out of her seat and lunged to hug the both of them, tears springing to her eyes.
While she clung to them, she leaned close and murmured something in her sister's ear, so low that even Gryphon, caught up in the same embrace, couldn't hear it. Whatever it was, Remilia looked surprised, then pleased, and smilingly nodded. This seemed to double Flandre's delight, and it was at least a minute before she could pull herself away.
"Tch," Remilia teased her little sister gently, producing a handkerchief to dry her tears. "Crying at the dinner table. And here we were about to celebrate your newfound maturity, as well."
"Meanie," Flandre replied, grinning. "You're not calling Sakuya immature."
Remilia glanced at her maid, then smiled. "Sakuya isn't crying, she's shedding elegant tears of joy."
"Thank you, m'lady," said Sakuya wryly, wiping at her own eyes. "And congratulations, both of you. I'm sure you'll be very happy."
"Hear, hear!" Meiling agreed. "When are you planning to do the thing?"
"We haven't discussed that yet," said Remilia, taking her seat. "Vampire engagements can be rather long," she went on, "but on the other hand, this is wartime."
That was as close as anyone came to addressing the other elephant in the room, namely, that Gryphon was a serving airman with the Allied Expeditionary Forces and would have to get back to the war sooner or later. Although Sakuya's access to a fully operational time machine blunted the urgency of that requirement somewhat, since she could conduct him back to the point at which he'd left to resume his service uninterrupted, it was still a bridge they were going to have to cross some day—and the longer he stayed, the more complicated the logistics became.
That was for another time, though. Right now, there was the sumptuous and exotic feast Sakuya and Meiling had prepared to dig into, toasts to drink, and Flandre's half-joking coming-of-age to celebrate with the red rice of Fusō.
It was nearly dawn by the time Gryphon found his way out of the unfamiliar finery of the eighteenth century and into the striped nightshirt he'd found laid out to replace it. He almost wondered where Sakuya had found the time to make all of these clothes, before he caught himself being absurd and switched to wondering how she knew what size his clothes were instead. He supposed she must have looked at one of his uniforms while laundering them, although the quality of her tailoring was significantly above that of the United States Army Quartermaster Corps.
Take this nightshirt, for example. He'd never been much of a nightshirt guy; he usually just threw on a pair of shorts and called it a night, or, lately, a day. This one, though, was so comfortable he might have to rethink that policy. Or possibly just commission a half-dozen more for everynight wear, like jalabiyah. Who needed trousers? All of his comrades back at Saint-Ulrich got by all right without them...
Yawning hugely, he sat down on the edge of the bed and waited for Remilia to finish changing in her turn. She appeared a few moments later, nightdressed and hatless, her aspect transmuted instantly from "sophisticated, formidable vampire countess" to "tousled, adorable vampire countess".
"What?" she asked, blushing slightly at his gaze.
"I was just trying to decide which of you I like better," Gryphon said. "Badass Mode or this."
"I am always in Badass Mode," Remilia objected, fists on hips. Then, grinning, she sat down next to him, leaning against his side. "And did you choose?" she asked.
"Well, Badass Mode is pretty good, don't get me wrong," he said. "But given the choice..." He put his arm around her and drew her closer still. "I'll take this one every time."
"It'll take more than your oily Liberion charm to win the day."
"I thought I already won. You're wearing my ring, after all."
"That was only the first round. Amour, c'est un champ de bataille."
"Now you're cheating."
"The rules of fair play do not apply in certain matters," said Remilia piously. "You only have yourself to blame. You shouldn't have told me how Gallic affects you." Tipping her head back, she smiled lazily up at him. "I hope you know what you're letting yourself in for. I'm told I can be a lot of work."
"I'm not afraid of work," Gryphon replied.
"Bien. Alors soyons stupides ensemble," Remilia murmured, her expression inviting his kiss. (It didn't have to wait long.)
A moment later, there was a knock at the door. This surprised Gryphon, but not Remilia; disengaging with another grin, she hopped down from the bed and trotted over to answer it.
Their caller proved to be Flandre, and after she was hugged and ushered into the room by her sister, he saw that she'd brought a pillow with her. This was so marvelously redundant, given that Remilia's bed already had about ten more than any reasonable number of occupants could use, that its broader implications escaped Gryphon for a moment, if only a moment.
"Hi," she said quietly, her smile almost as beaming as her sister's. "Uh... do you mind? I asked Sis earlier, but..."
"Not at all," said Gryphon, then tilted his head in mock puzzlement and asked, "But where am I going to sleep?"
"Um..." Flandre's face went almost as red as her pillowcase. "I was thinking in the middle?"
"Oh," he said, genuinely surprised. "I thought Remi would be in the middle."
"I think that would get too complicated," Remilia said. "Wings, you know..."
"Ah, good point. Well then, ladies. Pick a side, any side, and let us be unconscious together."
Candles snuffed, fire banked, and with much fiddling around with covers and pillows, the foursome eventually got themselves properly arranged—Gryphon in the middle, Remilia to his right, Flandre on the left, and Wolfgang curled up at their feet.
Ordinarily, after a day (or night, or whatever) this full and momentous, Gryphon would have found it hard to get to sleep. His brain would have been ignoring shutdown orders and continuing to circle all the problems to be solved, matters to be attended to, and complications to prepare for along the path ahead, possibly for hours.
On this occasion, he was the second one out, beaten to the threshold only by Wolfgang (who, as usual, was snoring almost the moment he finished curling up). He only half-heard Flandre mumbling, her own voice already blurring with sleep,
"Mm?" Remilia replied.
"Congratulations. I love you guys."
"And we love you, Flandre. Good day."
At the edge of sleep, Gryphon smiled and settled a little deeper into the mattress, holding both vampires just that tiny bit closer to his heart.
Ball's in your court, Van Helsing, he thought, just a tad smugly, then dropped away into dreams of candlelight and contentment.
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Flying Yak Studios
and Bacon Comics Group
in association with
The International Police Organization
and Avalon Broadcasting System
Undocumented Features Future Imperfect
Lensmen: The Brave and the Bold
Our Witches at War
Gallian Gothic: A Romance in Wartime
written and directed by
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philp Jeremy Moyer
The EPU Usual Suspects
Based on characters from Tōhō Project
by Team Shanghai Alice
Bacon Comics chief
E P U (colour) 2020