DISCLAIMER: My story, so nothing much to disclaim. Perhaps I should do a "claimer" instead? I claim to have a big lack of imagination when it came to naming this story. There, I said it. ;P
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Like everything else I've written this story is also available at my own fic site, http://ryufic.blogspot.se/
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To rosmari.karlssonfaltin[at]telia.com

House of Dolls
By Carola "Ryûchan" Eriksson


When I was a child it did not seem strange to me that I had no mother or father, nor that I in fact had no-one that tended especially to me the way other children had. It did not seem strange to me that I lived alone in an otherwise abandoned old earth cellar on the master's estate, that I was always alone, shunned and hungry, or that the clothes I wore were tatters. It did not seem strange to me because it was all I knew, and I was not the only one on my master's estate that was so besieged by poverty. For a while children and the elderly died everywhere one looked, and in all the faces I saw a look of the quiet resignation that mirrored my own. It was simply the way things were.

The glory days of the family that owned this land were long gone, but the mistress of the house clung to the old ways for far to long, leaving the servants to starve and suffer as we were far too many for what the household could support at that time. Illness swept the world as well as poverty, and fate cleaned out our numbers in our master's place. I have some faint recollections of a pale woman reaching out for me and I have always assumed that she must have been my mother, leaving me with the conclusion that my mother passed away in the same illness that took so many lives back then.

I was a solitary child and unclaimed by anyone on the grounds, but I survived anyway on the kindness of others. Although there was not much to go around, the women would every so often leave a bit of food and some outgrown piece of worn clothing at a special rock for me to take, and it was enough. This little ritual worked only as long as I kept out of sight while the gifts were delivered; I discovered quickly that if I showed myself while any of the women were still there they would scream and run away, often forgetting to leave their offering in their haste to escape the sight of me. I never understood why, but with a child's view of the world I accepted this without much question soon enough.

I also kept mostly out of sight during the day, not disturbing the work of those around me as I walked around watching them, occasionally playing quietly on my own as I was wont to do. I had no friends as the other children were told not to come near me or acknowledge my existence, much like the adults did. I was not chased away nor spoken to in a harsh manner; I was merely treated as if I was not there. This too did not seem terribly strange to me as I had observed in my endless watching that this was the way children were treated by adults other than their parents, unless of course they caused trouble. I had no desire to cause problems for these people that worked so hard just because I longed for someone to look at me, to speak to me, so I kept silent and merely watched. Watching their lives go on around me made me feel as if I had just a tiny part in it, and I tried to satisfy this nameless longing in my heart with that during long and lonely nights in the dank chill of my cellar.

Time passed, and the situation for my master's family grew better. No-one told me, of course, but I could tell by the change in the servant families, how they grew stronger and healthier, how the clothing they wore grew finer and less worn, and how things that had been left broken for very long were finally repaired or replaced. It made me happy to see, yet of course my smiles were left unanswered as no-one would meet my gaze much less acknowledge that I was there among them.

To my great joy the new prosperity of our home did eventually reflect upon me as well, when the gifts laid at my stone became richer, the clothes I received no longer tatters but whole, almost new in appearance, and the food enough to keep me from being so hungry all the time. The women that left the gifts took to speaking softly something that sounded like a prayer or maybe a benediction and bowed their heads before leaving, and so awed and grateful was I that I began remembering their faces so that I could sneak in before the break of dawn to complete some small tasks that would make their work a little easier that day. It made me feel happy when I saw the surprise on their faces as they discovered the tasks already done, and also I felt useful for probably the first time in my life.

Things continued like this for a while, and in the general change ever so subtly going on at our home something happened that had previously simply been unthinkable... I saw my master.

What he was doing there I do not know, it was not the habit of the masters to personally inspect the grounds yet I could think of no other reason our master was out in the field, appearing to watch the land around him as he leaned on his cane. I myself had been running in the fields, playing among the flowers and tried without success to find early berries to pick when I turned around and almost stumbled upon him. He looked dignified and kind although his eyes held sorrow in their depths, and it was not until this thought crossed my mind that I realised that he was watching me. He said nothing, made no movement of any kind, he merely gazed at me while the corners of his mouth twitched slightly as if he was considering a smile – but he looked at me!

I could not remember when anyone had looked at me before without screaming, and tears of such immense gratitude stung my eyes when he did not scream, run or even look away. After a moment of my heart beating so hard in my tiny chest that I thought he could surely hear it, I couldn't help myself; I smiled at him so widely my cheeks ached with the unfamiliarity of it.

To my amazement, the master smiled back at me.

That is how it began, with a pair of grey eyes that did not look away and a smile returned. It was the greatest gift anyone had ever given me, but it did not end there. I would see him from time to time, and he would always spare a look and a smile for me... eventually I grew daring enough to run up to him if I saw him alone anywhere on the estate, just to receive that kind and gentle smile. Then one day I found him sitting on an old upended tree on the edge of one of the fields far from the house, all alone, and with a peculiar expression on his face. This worried me so much that I forgot myself, ran up to him and, for the first time in so long I could barely remember when it had happened last, I spoke to someone other than the animals of the farm or fields of my home.

In my worry for him I forgot my place completely and addressed him as I had heard so many children address men of his distinguished age as I watched from the shadows "Grandfather, what is wrong?"

I realised the audacity of my actions as soon as the words had left my lips, and I went cold with shame and fear. Yes, fear, but not fear that I would be scolded or punished, my fear was that I would no longer be gifted with those kind smiles that he alone would grant me. Instead he surprised me further by reaching out to take my hand in his and urge me to sit down next to him. He said nothing for a while, merely smiled at me a little while holding my hand.

The feel of his large yet frail-looking hand holding my tiny dirty one was like the spring sun rising over the fields after a long winter; it warmed me and filled me with so much joy I could barely be still, I who had known no human touch for as long as my memory could reach.

He spoke to me then, telling me that this fine day had seen the birth of his only grandchild, a little girl called Arisu. He told me that although he was filled with happiness at the thought of his grandchild he was also sad that his son had not lived to see the birth of his child, and that the feelings had been so overwhelming that he had taken a walk to be alone with his thoughts. When I asked somewhat awkwardly if I should leave him alone, he replied that he was glad to have this opportunity to talk to me instead, and so, quite happily, I stayed by his side as he spoke.

The warmth in his voice as he spoke of his grandchild made me love her as well, even though I had not and did not expect to ever see her myself. A treasure so wonderful as what he described simply had to be cherished and loved, and I felt grateful that he would share those words with me. Little did I know then the importance Arisu would come to have in my life.

We spoke for a long time that day, grandfather – for indeed he gave me permission to address him as such – and I, and from that day onward whenever he and I were alone he would speak to me. We spoke of a great many things, but my favourite subject was when he would speak of Arisu, simply for the warmth and affection that coloured his voice then. I would tell him of the land or the animals, or sometimes of things I had observed while watching the servants, and sometimes he would thank me as if I had given some great advice or brought a problem to his attention. I did not quite understand, but I was pleased with myself nonetheless.

One day I found him waiting for me by the stone where I would receive my occasional gift, and I was too surprised to see him there to realize that he was frowning at the piece of bread and woollen shirt that lay there waiting for me. I offered him some of my bread but he declined, telling me he had just eaten but that I could go right ahead. He also asked if I would mind showing him where I lived, as I had mentioned my tiny home to him before, and I ate as we walked the overgrown path that lead to the old earth cellar I considered mine.

I had never felt ashamed of my little home before he stood there, having walked down the few stone steps only far enough to be able to stick his grey head in through the narrow doorway to look at the interior. But as he stood there, looking at my bed of moss and the shredded remains of clothes that were long since worn asunder as if he did not quite understand what it was, I was overcome by a deep sense of shame that I had let this my only friend see just how dirty and useless I really was. How I really lived in a hole in the ground like just another animal in the forest around me. He was, after all, the master of the house.

Perhaps he sensed my sadness, because he began speaking to me of other things as we made our way back where we had come from, and with a child's fickle attention I soon forgot my shame and just enjoyed our time together as I always did.

The next day when I saw him again he took me by the hand and brought me inside the manor. I had never in all my life set foot inside the house itself, although I knew every nook and cranny of the sheds and stables where grain or animals were kept, and indeed I would never have had the audacity to enter on my own. But he urged me to come with him, and with a mounting sense of awe at all that I saw inside, I followed him as he led me to a part of the basement where it appeared no-one had been for a long time. In one of the small storage rooms there he had placed a rolled-up bedding in one corner, along with a cup, a bowl and a brush, and he showed me where I could find a watertap in the next room and how to turn on the light just outside the door.

He told me he wanted me to stay there instead, that he had forbidden the servants to enter that part of the basement, and that there was even a window hidden behind a small path in the bushes outside that I could use as a secret entryway if I wanted. I was overwhelmed and quite unsure of whether it was truly alright for me to accept, but he soon had me convinced and I moved in.

Oh how I loved my new home. It was neither as dank nor as cold as the earth cellar, and I suddenly had such luxuries as light and water whenever I wanted. My new bedding was so soft that I imagined it was made from spinning clouds like wool, and in the storage rooms next to the room I now considered mine there was some old furniture that he allowed me to use if I wanted. I had not much use for furniture in truth and I never touched most of the things that collected dust down there, but there was one old rocking chair that I would sit in whenever I had the chance. All in all, my new home was heaven to me, and as he had promised, no-one came to chase me out of there. No-one seemed to notice my coming and goings through my hidden window near the ground, in fact nothing seemed to have changed with my move.

He came to visit me often, bringing me food or other little things he thought I might need, and I felt like I imagined the princesses in the stories he told me would. After a while he told me that Arisu's birthday was coming up, and to celebrate that and the fact that she would visit the manor for the very first time, he wanted to make something special for her. He wanted to build a dollhouse for her himself, and as he spoke of his ideas I became eager to help him out.

It became our new favourite thing, building that dollhouse together. I spent far more time than I should have in the evenings or early mornings searching the forest for interesting-looking roots or branches that he could carve into beautiful tiny chairs and beds, and I ran along the brook any number of times until I had collected enough of the rare but beautiful multi-coloured pebbles we then polished together and used to cover the roof of the dollhouse with. It took a long time but eventually the dollhouse was finished, just in time for Arisu's birthday, and I was awed with how beautiful it was. It did not even hit me until many years later that he had made the dollhouse in the image of the manor itself, as I had a rather unique but limited view of this new home of mine.

The day that Arisu would come for a visit came, and I was as nervous as he, even though I knew I probably would not get to see her and that she most certainly would not get to see me. With his blessing I had located a few well-hidden spots where I could watch Arisu arrive and leave, as I was truly terribly eager to have a face to put to the name I heard so often. I never thought it strange that he did not offer me to meet her, instead I thought it kind of him to help me find good hiding places where I could watch them. If his eyes seemed sad when we spoke of these things I never thought it was because of me, nor did I have any thought as to my own complete lack of toys even though I had spent so much time helping make the dollhouse for Arisu. I'm sure he knew this, too.

Still, the morning he took the dollhouse with him upstairs to prepare for Arisu's arrival, he gave me something truly rare in return... he handed me a cloth bundle and explained that it was his gift for me. He left before I had unwrapped my present, but that did not matter, I would thank him when next we met instead, for in that bundle was a wooden doll carved by him just for me. My joy at this gift could not be described, and on the spot I named my doll the prettiest name I knew: Arisu.

With doll-Arisu in my arms I sat at my hiding place as the mistress of the house entered, ushering in the small group of people that were Arisu's family. I spotted her immediately as she was the only child in the group, and I could not stare at her enough, so in awe was I. Her dress was long and layered with frills and bows, her hair neatly curled and framed around her face underneath the bonnet that had been fastened atop the mass of ringlets, and she curtsied elegantly to her grandmother with a grace that suggested a lot of practice. Her hair was what most fascinated me in that first view I had of her tiny self, I had never before seen hair that colour and I found it amazing. It seemed to me like the shade of red-gold the horizon got just before the sky turned red at sunset, and I wished I could get to see it from somewhere closer than my hidden spot.

At that moment I suddenly knew what the princesses in the stories I had been told looked like. I had never been able to imagine them before, but now I knew. Now I had seen one.

When the hall was emptied I made a dash for my second hiding place, risking discovery in my eagerness to get there in time to hide before Arisu and her family would be shown into the room. It was the place where the dollhouse had been hidden, and after a time spent in the dining room this was where the group would go. I could not wait to see Arisu's reaction to the gift we made for her, but I tried to be patient as I waited until my feet tingled uncomfortably in my tiny space.

Finally they did enter, but to my surprise and disappointment as Arisu was led towards her promised present, it was not to the dollhouse hidden beneath a green sheet next to the bookshelves on my side of the room she was led. No, Arisu was guided to a table on the other side, where I could just barely make out large wrapped gift with a red bow before the people surrounding Arisu blocked my view of her completely.

I could not understand what was going on, but I saw grandfather look towards the gift, and me, with such sadness and resignation in his eyes that it hurt to watch. A little later as everyone but Arisu were seated, waiting to be served tea by one of the servants of the manor, I heard the mistress deflect a question regarding what was hidden under the green sheet with a loftily comment about it being "just some old garbage fit to be burned". The commanding look she bestowed upon her husband had grandfather meekly responding with a "yes dear" despite the disappointment he, too, had to feel.

I learned how to dislike someone that day.

Although tears of disappointment stung my eyes and a lingering sense of anger towards the mistress burned an uncomfortable pit in my stomach, I soon forgot all of that for the moment. Arisu had taken her new toy, a pretty porcelain doll with dark curls and as elaborate attire as Arisu's own, over to play quietly with it on the floor where she would be out of the way of the adults, right next to my hiding place. I spent the rest of Arisu's visit admiring the little princess from my hidden vantage point; truly, she was too adorable for words.

Right at the end of her visit when her mother had called to Arisu that it was time to leave, Arisu for some reason looked right in my direction as she stood up. Our eyes met and the tiny face scrunched up in confusion. Her voice rang clear in the room.

"Mother, there is someone sitting in the cupboard."

I did not need to see the mistress' face to know that she must have been dreadfully angry as she realised who the someone must be, and I felt a terrible fear. Thankfully grandfather came to my rescue, scooping little Arisu up in his arms and opening the door enough that the two of them could see me but no-one else in the room could.

"See princess, there is no-one here." He boomed merrily, giving Arisu and myself a hidden wink and squeezing Arisu's hand lightly when it appeared as if she would say something. "It is just grandfather's stuffed old peacock that you saw through the keyhole. I hope it didn't scare you, princess." As he kissed Arisu on the cheek I heard him whisper to her. "Let's keep it our secret that she was hiding in there, Arisu. Don't tell your grandmother."

Arisu looked at me with some confusion for a second before her tiny face cleared and she beamed a smile at me. "Yes grandfather."

"Honestly dear!" The mistress huffed as if displeased, but it was clear to me that she was in fact relieved. "I have told you to throw that bedraggled old thing away I don't know how many times."

"Yes dear." Grandfather agreed mildly, closed the door and walked away with Arisu on his arm. I released the breath I had been holding, and as soon as the room was empty I fled to one of my hiding places in the rose-bushes outside. I promised myself that I would not hide in that cupboard again if I could help it, because I honestly feared what the mistress might do to me if she found me.

Once again I had a bit of waiting to do before Arisu and her family, no longer accompanied by the mistress and grandfather, walked out of the house and past the bushes where I hid. Arisu was once again wearing her overcoat and bonnet, clutching her new doll to her with a still curious expression on her young face. It must have been her tiny size that caused it, because as she passed the bushes in which I hid we came face to face for a brief moment. She saw me and smiled, giving me a small wave in secret before she quickened her step to catch up to her mother.

Stunned beyond thought I waved back, even though she could no longer see me.

Sleep did not come easily to me that night as I had too many things competing for attention in my mind, but once it did it brought with it fragmented dreams of a smiling child waving at me.

The following day grandfather carried the dollhouse back downstairs to me, saying that it was better I had it to play with than having the mistress throw it away. It saddened me as it undoubtedly saddened him that Arisu would not get to play with this dollhouse we had worked so much on for her, but I decided I would love this beautiful toy enough for both of us, and I told grandfather so. He smiled and patted my head, telling me that he thought I was very considerate and that it made him happy to hear.

It had begun to worry me that grandfather would not come to visit me as much now that the dollhouse was finished and Arisu's visit was over, but so was not the case. Instead he brought a book, a writing slate and a small box of writing chalks with him one day and asked me if I wanted to learn how to read and write. As the concept was foreign to me grandfather read out loud a chapter of the book he had brought, and it seemed like magic. Thus he began the slow process of teaching me the alphabet and the sounds certain letters made when put together. In time I learned to read simple sections of text by sounding the letters out like he had taught me, and even how to write simple words on my own. I was quite proud of my achievement, and grandfather seemed pleased, praising me for every bit of progress I made.

So far in my life I had never had any way of measuring the passage of time, in fact that it not only could be done but also that people put value on such things came as a surprise to me, yet I began to notice that my precious grandfather's strength was waning. He would quickly grow tired and his visits were shorter than they had been, not because he did not want to see me, but because he needed more rest than he previously had. Suddenly there was the odd day when he could not come to see me at all because he was too weary to get out of bed, although those days were few and far between. He told me not to worry, that this was just the way things were for men as old as he, yet I could not help to be concerned for him.

Then one day Arisu came for another visit, and excitedly I tried to catch a glimpse of her. I had learned my lesson on the previous visit though, and made sure I did not hide in any place where I might be trapped if found. As Arisu's mother had brought with her a group of people and the man she intended to marry, the adults withdrew to the sitting room for serious, from what I was told, grownup, talk, and Arisu was given permission to explore the mansion on her own.

The truth of it was that Arisu wanted to try and find me, and so I stumbled upon the sight of her sneaking around looking for places where I might be hiding, calling out in a quiet voice for "bird girl" to come out and play.

After some hesitation, I did.

She was happy to see me, and terribly curious. There were so many things she wanted to know about me, things I did not know myself, but after a while she accepted, the way only a child can, that I just did not have the answers and we found ourselves an out-of-the-way place to play. We found a spot where I hoped no adult would stumble upon us, and played as I am sure any small girl anywhere would when given a friend and a couple of dolls.

I found myself strangely embarrassed when I had to tell her that my wooden doll was named after her, but Arisu was delighted. She asked that we would switch dolls while we played, and thus I ended up holding the very porcelain doll she had been given on her previous visit. Arisu was curious why I did not have a name of my own, and she must have seen how it saddened me to admit that I believed that my parents died so long ago that I had forgotten what they called me, and no-one else besides grandfather ever spoke to me. He on the other hand never used a name for me, calling me instead "little one", so I truly had no name to give her. She solved the problem with a child's logic.

"I call her Ukiyo." Arisu pointed to the doll in my arms. "I think that is a very pretty name, don't you? Would you like to be Ukiyo, too? That way you have a doll with my name and I have a doll with yours." Judging by her wide smile it was something she would like very much, and I was so awed just by the concept of having a name that I readily agreed. It felt very nice to have a name, even more that it had been this new and special friend that gave it to me. I matched her smile with one of my own and we giggled as we tried out my new name a few times.

After we had played a while she told me that she had thought I would be bigger. She did not elaborate and seemed to forget whatever succession of thought had made her mention this, but in that moment it hit me that she was indeed taller than I. It confused me, last I saw her she had been much smaller than I, and now she had not only caught up to me but actually outgrown me by a small bit. I did not feel much different than I ever had, and it began to worry me that I did not know how much I had grown, if at all. I wanted to be like her, to grow like her, to match her... to be normal, so badly that I could almost taste my tears of confused desperation. No-one told me about these things, how was I to know them? I clutched doll-Ukiyo closer to my chest and tried not to cry.

Arisu must have seen my sadness because her eyes grew wide and then she put doll-Arisu down to pull me into a hug.

I had never been hugged before. In fact, the only human touch I knew was grandfather's hand holding or patting mine, or on rare occasion when he patted my head affectionately. I was completely unprepared for how warm and nice and safe it felt to be held, even if the body holding me was not much bigger than my own, or how comforting it was when Arisu's small hand rubbed my back as she murmured some awkward sounds of comfort. I hugged her back before realising I did it, and it was wonderful. We parted with friendly smiles, my sadness lifted by her amazing kindness. We talked and played some more for a while, Arisu working up to asking me something about my eyes when voices interrupted us, calling for Arisu.

Absentmindedly I believe Arisu called back "Mother, I am here."

She realized her error and covered her mouth with both hands at the same moment I grew absolutely paralysed with fear. The sound of fast approaching footsteps made Arisu recover more quickly than I, and she made a dash for the door hoping to intercept whoever was searching for her before they found me.

She stopped suddenly, a few steps from the opening, and looked at my wooden doll still clutched in her arms. A glance in my direction showed her that I still held her doll in mine, but there was no time. "Keep her for me! I promise I'll come back someday and trade them back... I promise!" Even if I had been the kind of child to distrust what I was told I would not have doubted the desperate sincerity in her eyes and voice as she said that and turned to run.

She did not get far.

It was the mistress that reached Arisu first, and one glance over Arisu's head revealed me where Arisu had come running from. The mistress' face grew pale with horror, and she pushed Arisu rather roughly into the waiting arms of her mother and step-father who had just reached her as well. They, too, took one look at me and all but whimpered in fear. Arisu's mother picked her up to clutch her protectively as they turned to run away from me.

The mistress was screaming in a high-pitched voice while throwing random things she could reach at me. What had I done that frightened them so?

"Demon!" The mistress shrieked and threw another object that hit me. "Demon! Fox-child! Demon!"

Over her mother's shoulder I could see Arisu reaching for me with tears streaming down her cheeks. I could not hear what she was saying but by some instinct I raised my own small arm as if I could reach her hand that way. Demon?

Suddenly my own trembling arm became the focus of my sight as I noticed something I had never considered before.

Arisu's arm was a rosy glowing pink, the way healthy children are. Mine... was the smooth, featureless pale grey of the clay one could find where the brook met the pond in the forest when a period of rain had soaked the ground.

Grey like soft, wet clay.

With a sob I clutched the doll to my chest and ran blindly for my escape, tears burning tracks down my cheeks, helpless to shut out the sounds that were cutting my ears and my soul as harshly and deeply as knives.

"Demon!" The mistress' shrieks echoed through the halls and paths of the manor until her voice, like my heart, shattered on the final one. "DEMON!"

I ran through the fields and the forest, as far away from the manor as my legs would take me, until at last I could run no more. The sun went down and eventually I found my feet taking me, ever so slowly, on a path back there. Although I feared not the woods or those that moved in it in any way, I found myself longing for the light outside my doorway and the meagre comfort of my soft bedding. I wondered if it would still be there when I returned. I wondered if the mistress would have someone waiting there when I returned, to catch me and hurt me in some way I could not imagine.

But I had nowhere to go. I had gone to my earth cellar while there was still some light left in the sky only to find to my surprise that the door was gone and that creatures of the forest had made it theirs.

I looked at my arms, grateful for the dark that made all colours the same to my eyes so that I did not have to look at the hateful and incomprehensible grey that they were, and at the doll I still held to my chest. I could not run away, no matter how much the mistress frightened me... I had grandfather there, and Arisu would come back for her doll someday. She had promised this.

After all this time I had friends, I could not just run away from them now, even if I was... my mind shied away from the name that the mistress had labelled me. I knew not really what it meant, but I did understand that it was something other than human, and worse, something really bad.

Bad enough to frighten. Bad enough so that it should not be looked at. Bad enough that it should not be spoken to.

Suddenly a part of a conversation I once overheard came back to me, although I did not remember the person that said the words, "Speak to the demon and you invite it in."

My heart felt colder than the night wind around me.

Whatever that meant, if I was a demon then that was what grandfather had done. He had spoken to me and eventually invited me inside the house. Was this a bad thing? If so, why?

The questions were too many and it felt like my head would explode from them. Finally, as I was just too tired to take another step, I reached my secret window and, with my heart pounding in fear, climbed inside as silently as I could.

There was no-one there, no-one waiting to hurt me, no-one at all. All there was that I had not left there that morning was a message on my writing slate, and after a long moment of hesitation I turned on my lamp so that I could try to decipher it.

It took me quite some time as I was still not particularly good at my newly acquired skill, but eventually I figured out that grandfather had written that I was not to worry, no-one would come to there to find me, and if I just tried to stay out of sight for a couple of days he was sure everything would return to normal.

His reassurance only calmed my fears a little, and it made me feel even more sad somehow. I always kept out of sight near the mansion, he had told me to do so himself when I moved in. I never roamed the mansion beyond my section of the basement unless it was something important, like Arisu's visits, or when he took me out into the rest of the manor with him.

I cleaned his message off my slate and pulled out my bedding to spend the rest of the night and following morning staring at the doorway with wide, anxious eyes while clutching Arisu's doll, filled with worry that someone might find me despite grandfather's reassurances. At some point in my sleeplessness I recalled the other name the mistress had given me; fox child.

I was familiar with what a fox was, I had seen many out in the fields and woods, and several of them had been my friends and playmates at times. Their slender red bodies were beautiful, but I could imagine no similarity between them and myself. Unconsciously one of my hands went to my back, even though I already knew for certain I had no tail hidden there, fox-red or otherwise.

Why then such a name? I knew of no fox with the colour of my revoltingly grey skin, and the hair atop my head I knew to be a smooth and shiny inky black that had been kept well groomed ever since grandfather had given me a brush. What else, then?

My hands went to my face, feeling the shapes I had never seen myself. Perhaps that was it. Perhaps that was what, besides the colour of my skin, was so frightening about me.

Something made me pull my hand up higher, beyond my face and into my hair.

Oh. My ears.

It had never before occurred to me that they were so different, that the people I saw did not have these long, pointed ears that stuck out from my hair and moved on their own. Perhaps those did look somewhat fox-like to others, although I knew no more why I had them than I knew why my skin was the colour it was. For a brief moment my hand tightened around the sensitive outer edge of my ear's point, an impulse to pull with all my might to tear it off burning through me. But I came to my senses and let my hand return to its hold around Arisu's doll.

Even if I removed my ears it would not make people fear me or hate me less, I was still to different to be allowed to exist like one of them, and injuring my ears would only mean that I would not hear if someone came for me. I settled down again into my bedding to stare at the doorway until, in the late morning, exhaustion finally caught up with me and I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

When I awoke again it was to a growing sense of unease.

Grandfather appeared shortly after I had awoken, bringing with him a large bundle of food for me and the urgent news that his wife had called in an exorcist. Grandfather wanted me to remain in my room the rest of the day, to hide there while the exorcist did whatever he was supposed to do, while grandfather would try his best to get the man to leave as soon as possible.

I did not know what an exorcist was, but my instinct was that if grandfather thought he was dangerous then I should really run for the forest, not stay in the basement. Grandfather looked so tired and weak though that I could not go against his will, instead I took my food, my writing things and a book, intending to spend my time practicing.

Shortly after grandfather left, the pain began. I do not know what the exorcist was doing, but suddenly there was this sound in my ears, rapidly growing so loud that it started cutting through me. The pain was so immense I crashed to the ground, convulsing and clutching my head, trying to scream through a throat that had closed itself. It felt like I thrashed on the floor for forever until finally, mercifully, darkness took me away.

When next I opened my eyes grandfather was there, washing my face with a wet cloth and peering at me with concern and regret. I felt weak and aching, and I could scent blood on the air, suspecting even before grandfather told me that it was my own.

The exorcist had finally left, telling the mistress at last that the spirits that dwelled in her house were not evil, but would also not be driven out by the likes of him. The mistress had nearly fainted at the news and, as soon as the exorcist had left, ordered the maids to start packing her things. She would not stay in the manor while a demon was on the loose there, she said, and it was only grandfather's pleas that had managed to convince her to stay a while longer. Grandfather had not been able to go check on me until the mistress had taken her calming drops and fallen asleep.

I healed quickly, as I always had done when injuring myself before, but grandfather was not so fortunate. For the duration of the time that the mistress agreed to stay at the manor before finally being so revolted by the place that she took her things and left, forcing grandfather to go with her, grandfather grew steadily more frail, more tired and more weak. His snowy-white hair began receding alarmingly fast, and the already muddled grey eyes took on a whitish sheen as his eyesight began failing him. I got to see him less and less, and for the last short while before the mistress moved them out, I never saw him at all. He just did not have the strength to brave the steps down to my room anymore, and he had made me promise that I would not try to cross the manor to visit him even if he was ill.

My heart was broken once again when I barely made it out to the rose bushes in time to see the servants carry his body outside to be transported away where I would never again lay eyes on him. That last sight of him was a horrible thing, I only caught the smallest glimpse but in that I saw more than I had wanted; hollow cheeks, laboured breath, a body that had sunken in on itself. Fighting against my tears I returned to my room to lie down and rock myself to sleep feeling lonelier than I ever had.

A short while after grandfather's departure from the manor the servants began to leave also, and the animals were taken away as well. Only a small number of servants remained to care for the manor and the immediate grounds, while the fields were largely left to grow fallow and the barns were cleaned out and shut, emptier than I could recall them being during even the worst of the impoverished years.

As much as it saddened me to see the people leave the estate, I quickly realized that less people meant more freedom to move around for me. I would gladly have traded that new-found freedom and more in exchange for grandfather's return, but he never did come back. Instead I tried to do my best to help the people that remained, to care for this place that both he and I loved. I tried to avoid being seen, but it was less a chore now that the servants only entered and stayed inside the mansion for as long as it took to clean and polish and to prepare the food they left for me by grandfather's instructions. I soon learned their routines and walked as freely through the halls of the manor as had I been born there.

Outside I still took care so that I would not be seen by those that worked the grounds, but my help was noticed, and, to my surprise, appreciated. I came to overhear many a quietly murmured thanks to "Miss Fox" for whatever help I rendered, and it made me feel glad that at least I was no longer so feared that the mere acknowledgement of my existence was thought to be a person's undoing.

I discovered one day that my body was changing shape subtly, that there was beginning to be shapes where none had been before. It was not until that point that I realized that I was now quite a bit taller than I had been, and with a quiet amazement I came to the conclusion that I was growing at long last.

Clothes became a problem as no longer did the things I used to wear fit my form, and I did not know what to do. One of the maids came to my rescue unexpectedly, having caught a glimpse of me from the corner of her eye one day and undoubtedly noticed how scarcely I was covered by the children's garb I wore. She pulled out a coffer filled with clothes the next day and placed it in the hallway, speaking in a loud voice as she did so that the master – grandfather – had wanted Miss Fox to use whatever she needed in the manor, and that it was sad to see so many clothes go unworn like this. She then disappeared, leaving me with the open coffer and her words to draw my own conclusions.

I needed the clothes after all, and indeed there were no-one at the manor anymore that would claim them, so I took the entire coffer and pulled it with some difficulty down into the basement and my rooms. I kept an eye on the maid afterwards, but she never mentioned the coffer again, and something about her expression when she came back to find it gone seemed pleased enough to assure me I had not taken anything that was not intended for me.

Then finally one rainy day I looked out to find that all the servants still remaining at the manor had lined up by the road leading up to the house looking sombre. I was left with little time to ponder the meaning of this as a black vehicle stopped right in front of them and the doors opened to emit a group of people, among them the mistress and Arisu, all clad in black. I made sure I was hidden from view as I watched the mistress approach the maid in charge and speak to her at length.

Arisu had grown so much, and if it were not for that she turned her black lace veil away from her face and turned to face the house, and me, I might not have realized it was her. The adorable little princess had grown into a pretty young angel, although it was a sad angel whose paled face turned towards the dark windows of the manor, searching perhaps for me in one of them.

As the servants bowed and curtsied as one to then walk away from the estate in a solemn file I moved carefully from my window to one of the balconies, standing just inside the door but cracking it open so that I might hear something of what was going on. I saw Arisu begin to walk towards the house, but she was pulled back by the mistress' hand on her arm. Arisu gestured towards the house then, but the mistress' reply was clearly not in favour. It appeared that they argued about something, but the light rain blanketed out the sound long before it could reach even my ears.

A man I hesitantly identified as Arisu's stepfather moved up next to her then, grabbing her other arm. He and the mistress struggled to pull Arisu back from the house despite her attempts to shrug them off, and then she called out in a voice so loud and raw that it cut through the rain like it was not even there.

"UKIYO! Ukiyo, show yourself! Let me see you. Ukiyo!" She violently brushed off another attempt to pull her back by her arms. "Grandfather is dead, Ukiyo!"

The despair in her voice had me stepping out on the balcony even before the meaning of her words reached my mind. Dead. Grandfather was dead. I knew what death meant. A dreadful cold seized my heart and I no longer cared if the mistress saw me.

I stepped out to the edge of the balcony where I was in full view of them all, the white dressing gown whipping around me defying the rain, and my hair quickly getting slicked down from the water until my inhuman ears undoubtedly seemed at least twice as protruding as normal. I must have been a frightening sight indeed.

Down on the ground the activity stopped, everyone but Arisu too shocked or perhaps frightened to move. Arisu gave me a teary smile before she continued in a slightly softer voice than before, yet still loud enough to carry to me clearly.

"We attended his funeral. I'm sorry Ukiyo, grandfather is gone." She took a step towards me. "He left the manor to me, and made me promise that you would always be taken care of. So don't worry Ukiyo, although they will not permit me to move here until I am an adult, I will make sure you have everything you need until I can come here myself."

Another step towards me, and this one galvanized Arisu's stepfather into action. He waved one of the other men over to help him as he grabbed Arisu around her waist and lifted her over his shoulder. She tried to kick herself free in obvious outrage, but with the other man's help she just could not escape as they pulled her away.

Arisu reached for me with one arm over her stepfather's shoulder, a gesture painfully reminiscent of our parting last time. Despite myself I found my own hand rising to mirror her, as if this time our hands could somehow meet over the distance.

"I haven't forgotten our promise!" They tried to force Arisu into the vehicle but she resisted long enough to renew her promise to me. "I will come back, I swear! Just wait for me Ukiyo!"

With that she was gone, the door closed behind her and within moments the vehicle left the same way it had come, and I was alone.

Alone in the rain with my grief, and I wept as I never had before. Grandfather was gone, and I was completely alone.

An unknown number of days passed in complete apathy. I lay on the bedding that was now too small and too worn to hold me comfortably, staring out into nothing and trying my best not to think. I ate nothing and I slept only little, too disturbed by my dreams to find refuge in slumber. The house around me felt far too quiet and desolate, feeling more like a tomb than the home it had been for so long.

What finally got me to stand and walk up the stairs to the ground level of the house I do not know, only that as I made my way to exit through the front doors – an audacity I had never attempted before – I discovered that someone had been there to deliver a large box of groceries. On top of the groceries lay an envelope addressed, after a moment of struggle on my part to decipher the writing, to Ukiyo.

I pulled the groceries inside the door but left them there rather than bothering to carry them to the kitchen, instead I opened the letter with hands that shook slightly and sat down to read. There was after all only one person that would write a letter to an Ukiyo at this address.

The letter was indeed from Arisu, and it was lengthy. It took me a long time to read it all, as slow as my reading process was, and sometime during my reading it I found I had without realizing it returned to the box inside the door and begun carrying the groceries into the kitchen, randomly stuffing items into cupboards there. Thinking I might as well finish what I started I allowed myself to continue until the box was empty, while I concentrated on understanding the words Arisu had written to me.

Aside from explaining in more detail about grandfather's death, his last will and how the mistress prevented Arisu from moving in until she had officially come of age, Arisu wrote that the manor was my home and I should treat it as such and do whatever I wanted, and that she would come to make it her home as well as soon as she could. She informed me that she had arranged for groceries to be delivered for me once a week, and if it was not enough or if I wanted something specific delivered I needed but write it down and leave the letter with the box the next time the grocer came by with a delivery. A maid would also come in once a week, along with two gardeners, to keep the manor moderately in order, and that I no longer needed to hide. Arisu considered the mansion and all it contained as much mine as hers, she wrote, and there was no reason to leave things unused while I lived here.

Last in the letter, after another reassurance of her promise, were a few lines that made me blush in pleased if somewhat bewildered surprise. Arisu wrote that when she had seen me on the balcony she had thought I looked so pretty, like a fairy princess.

The comment, written in a letters slightly blurry as if Arisu had begun to erase them before opting to leave them as they were, stunned me beyond even the compliment itself although I would not have thought it possible that such a thing be directed at me. It got me wondering just what it was that Arisu saw when she looked at me, since my face did not appear to fill her with fear. What had grandfather seen, that he would take pity on me? And why were he and Arisu the only two so different somehow that my appearance did not make them turn away from me?

I sat deep in thought for so long that night fell outside, and for some reason as I let my hands slide over the walls in search for any means of turning on the light, the reality of my situation struck me. I was alone here, in the house and on the grounds that I still loved so much, and even though there would be people occasionally coming in to help keep the place neat, I still would be alone for some time. Arisu would come when she was old enough, but I did not know how much time this would mean, and I had seen in the past what time without use or care would do to this estate.

I could not do the work of all the servants that the estate required, so field work and animals were clearly out of the question, but as for the rest... keeping the house and sheds and what they contained from falling into disrepair, perhaps keeping up a part of the vegetable garden as well for my own use, I could do that. It would take a lot of hard work, but I did not want Arisu to have to return to a house that was not even a shadow of its former pride one day.

It occurred to me that I did not know if the items and furniture inside the manor would wither and crumble without regular use the way I had seen many things do while I still lived in the earth cellar, but considering the somewhat frail and unused furniture that were stored down in my basement I thought it might be possible. I would have to try to use the things in the house occasionally then, just so that they would not be broken or no longer functional when Arisu came here.

All in all it meant that I could no longer remain in the basement.

The thought disturbed me as I still did not feel particularly safe anywhere else, even though I knew I was alone. I told myself there was no use hiding in fear of fear, after all, had I not watched this house for so very long? Did I not love these walls, these stones, this land, so very much?

I walked around on the ground level, going from room to room, reacquainting myself with everything like I had not seen them before. There were many things that made me marvel and wonder over their purpose, and many more that brought thoughts of grandfather or Arisu, or even the mistress, as I walked around noting in my mind what had been left behind and what had been removed when the mistress moved out. I finally fell asleep on a couch in the sitting room, as once I had sat down in it to experience what it felt like the soft comfort of it had lured out the weariness that seemed to lurk inside my bones, and I just could not make myself get up.

I woke up in the early morning to a faint scraping sound, and once I had shaken the confusion I felt at not waking in my usual place I followed the noise to the servant entrance in the back of the manor. As I got closer I heard the whining of a dog, and the sensitivity I had always felt towards animals had me hurrying in response to the distress in his pitiful voice.

He was a very large, shaggy black dog that I remembered having seen around on the estate for a while, probably meant as a watchdog for the manor, but days without food and with little water had taken their toll on him. I hurried him inside to make him comfortable while I located water and meat to feed him. Watching him eat with a heartbreaking desperation the way he was made me remember that I too had not eaten for quite some time, and if I was to do the things I had decided upon the previous night I would need to keep my strength. I located bread and cheese and ate watching my new friend, happy for the company.

Why a dog like him had been abandoned was something I could not begin to fathom, but it made me wonder if there was any other animal out there that had been left behind when the last of the servants moved out. If so they would surely be suffering as well.

I left Boy – for I knew not what name his owners had given him, only that he responded well to boy – to rest after his meal and made my way outside. It was another day where rain weighed heavy in the air, but such things did not bother me as I made my rounds, inspecting everything I could think of to make sure everything was empty and shut tight. In my rounds I found that indeed there had been a few more creatures left behind besides myself and Boy, a number of cats that were already wilded to the point where they ran at the sight of me, but also one particular old she-cat whom I well remembered from before. We were on friendly terms, she and I, as we often frequented the same spots and routes in our hidden paths around the house.

Normally my feline friend would have fended for herself just as well as those of her kin that had run from me, the forest would have provided what she needed if she were to run out of mice in the closed-up barns, but at that particular point she needed my help. I found her in the stables, curled up in a nest of old hay with a small litter of newly-born kittens, and the new mother had clearly not been able to leave her young to go hunting for a while. I found a small crate to scoop both mother and children into and carried them back into the house, to rest next to Boy as I located more water and food for the exhausted mother.

As I tended these little ones I found myself smiling. I was not alone, and more, here were several tiny lives that needed me. It seemed I had plenty of reason for living after all.

My life after that point fell into a kind of routine. I would feed myself and my friends and spend a large part of each day either outside or inside the manor working on whatever needed my attention with Boy as my ever-present shadow, and in the evenings I would cuddle with the kittens or practice my reading and writing in the sitting room while Boy and the cat mother mostly lazed away in front of the fireplace. During the days when the maid and the gardeners came I had at first intended to go out to the fields with Boy, to keep out of sight, but my curiosity and yearning for human company got the better of me, and I remained in the manor, watching the maid from just out of sight.

It was just as well that I did, because the maid in question was a very strange woman and I learned a lot from watching her. She was in fact the very same person who had left the clothes coffer open for me that time, and it became clear that she was not particularly afraid of "Miss Fox" the way she would speak out loud to me every so often. I was sure that she did not see me, so how she could know I was nearby was beyond me, but even though I never answered – in fact she never seemed to require that of me – I did enjoy her little one-sided chats.

The very first thing I learned from her was that food is not stored so haphazardly as I had put it away, and while she reorganized my little store she explained why certain things were stored the way they were. Had I been left to my own devices the food would have spoilt long before it had to, the meat especially since I do not eat meat and would not know what to do with it at all. As it were we managed to put most groceries to good use during the weeks, my four-legged friends and I, they consuming my weekly allotment of meat and fish and I most of everything else. There were some things that went to spoil regardless, although I felt bad about it, simply because I did not know what to make of it. I did not, after all, know how to cook.

That maid was truly a remarkable person. The manor itself was too large for one person to manage to clean in just the daylight hours of one day, but as I did my best to keep things neat during the week she managed fairly well. She often explained things to me as she did them even though she never saw me, and she did many thoughtful things for me that was not required of her. The very first day she appeared and noticed Boy and the cats she located proper bedding for them, which I had seen during my inspections but frankly had not realized what they were, and a few toys and other items that would keep them happy. After a few visits it became clear to her that I did not use the kitchen utensils, and apparently she drew the correct conclusion from this; that I just did not know how to. After that she would cook me a simple meal every so often, explaining in detail how it was done as she did so. I began leaving her the odd little note expressing my gratitude in my unfortunately clumsy writing in return, my only human communication apart from two painstakingly scribbled notes that I sent to Arisu by way of the grocery deliverer.

This all managed to get me ever so slowly to learn how to prepare a few very simple meals for myself, and this thrilled me to no end. To eat a warm meal was such a luxury, and my curiosity spurred me onward until I had located a cookbook in the mansion's vast library. Most of the things therein were far too difficult and complicated for me, or simply too focused on the type of food I could not make myself eat such as meat, fish and chicken, so my repertoire in the kitchen was not widened terribly much, but there were a few things I learned to make. I was absurdly pleased once I managed to bake my own bread, even though it was a very failed attempt and it would take a long time before I got it moderately right, and I ate every bit of it.

For a long time I continued to sleep on the couch in the sitting room at night, but as my body grew to the point where the couch was no longer as convenient, I began trying to convince myself that I could use one of the bedrooms on the second level.

It took a lot of self-convincing before I had worked myself up to the point where I after careful consideration picked one room that I might be daring enough to use. It was the smallest of the bedrooms on the second level, just large enough to fit the large canopied bed that filled most of the room, a very comfortable armchair in one corner, and a small drawer at the foot of the bed. There was just enough space to walk around the bed comfortably, and on one side there was a door to a walk-in closet that was nearly as large as the storage room I had been sleeping in before, and on the other side a large, oval lead-tinted window completely framed on the outside by the thick green leaves of the plant that grew up the very stones of the mansion.

I loved the dark colours and heavy drapes of that room, but most of all I loved that window. There was something magical about it, and as I had discovered that there were only two such windows in the mansion – the other situated in what grandfather had always referred to as "the facilities" – I knew this was the room I wanted. I brought Arisu's doll, my cup, my brush and some clothes from the coffer there and tried to make myself at home.

The fact that I had so far in my life at the manor never spent time in front of a mirror might seem strange, but the truth of the matter was that all the mirrors were located in the various dressing-rooms and walk-in closets attached to the bedrooms on the upper floors. As I had never spent time in those before, the existence of mirrors had eluded me.

When I discovered the full-body length mirror under the heavy blue satin drape on the end wall of the closet adjoining my new room it startled me badly, and I ran out the door at once. It did not take me long to peek my head back in to get a closer look at the strange object, as my curiosity as always got the better of me, and I realized its function in fairly short order.

For the first time in my life I finally saw the face that had frightened so many. For the first time in my life I saw myself.

"Demon!" The mistress' voice echoed in my ears as I removed the dress I wore, determined to have a good look at the repulsiveness that was I without any obstructions to my view. "Fox-child!"

Honestly my body in and of itself seemed no different than other women's, at least as far as I knew, if perhaps a bit more narrow in width than most. I had the usual number of appendages without any extra attached, and as far as I could tell it was all in the usual shape and size.

My skin surprised me as I had expected the grey of my childhood years but found instead that somewhere along the line my skin had paled without my notice. What had once been the colour of wet clay was now the uniform and unstained colour of fresh cream. I tried to decide for myself whether this was more or less repulsive than grey, but could only come to the conclusion that it did not matter. It was still a far cry from the rosy pink or the golden browns that humans had.

My hair came as no surprise, it was the same inky black as always, straight, smooth and shiny as it formed a neat line to just below my bottom. It occurred to me briefly that it might be time to find a pair of scissors soon, but as always I decided to wait a while longer before shortening my hair, simply because I found the motions of brushing it to be soothing and less hair would mean less time I could allow myself that particular little indulgence. Briefly I pulled it aside and turned my back towards the mirror, peeking over my shoulder as best I could. No, still no tail there. In fact nothing in particular back there that seemed to be out of place.

Having come that far in my self-inspection I could no longer delay the part I truly dreaded; my face.

The shock that travelled through me as I lifted my gaze to look into my own eyes in the mirror made me whimper out loud. No wonder I was hated. No wonder I was feared. The tears stung my eyes and formed clear yet burning paths down my face as with trembling hands I reached up as if I could deny by touch what my eyes were telling me.

My eyes. They were a large solid black, like indeed those of most animals, and slanted ever so slightly under long black lashes. My face could almost be human were it not just slightly too narrow, the high cheekbones sloping down to end in a narrow chin with an equally slender but still defined nose and highly arched narrow eyebrows. My lips were full and red, looking painted against the paleness of my skin, and the tips of sharp teeth peeked out between my lips just barely. I opened my mouth to find rows of brightly white though slightly translucent predator's teeth, and snapped my mouth shut just as quickly on the sob that wanted to escape.

How truly frightening and horrible I was.

Blinking and straining through the tears I looked at last at my ears, the feature I mistakenly had thought to be the most inhuman about me. They looked in fact more human than I had imagined, merely pulled to long wispy points that split my hair and rose a small ways above my head. They quivered and lowered with my despair, reminding me of Boy's pointed ears and how they moved, and finally they pointed down towards my shoulders as I could take no more and just fell to my knees, sobbing inconsolably.

I wept myself into a fitful slumber there, naked on the floor of the walk-in closet, and awoke at night with a listlessness of spirit that nearly matched my apathy after grandfather's death. I drew the drapes back over the mirror without looking into it again as I had no desire to be further reminded of my hideousness, put my gown back on and went downstairs to lay down beside Boy and the cats, drowning all thoughts and emotions tearing at me with their warm, loving presence.

Days came and went, and in time I learned to ignore my self-discovery, only even more mindful that none of the people that regularly came into my solitary domain should see me. Seasons came and went, the kittens grew to cats and our little family grew smaller as two of them left one day never to return, and I continued my existence the way it was. The manor and grounds around the house were well kept though not immaculate, and my little vegetable garden flourished although beyond that line the forest had reclaimed the fields once painstakingly carved by human hands. Although I missed the unbroken gold of the wheat fields of my childhood sometimes, and certainly the people toiling upon them, the land itself had never looked more beautiful.

Almost every day I walked past the table in the sitting room where I had placed the dollhouse and, eventually, also Arisu's aging doll, brushing away imaginary dust and sending a thought to grandfather or thinking of Arisu. I thought of the child and the young girl, wondering sometimes about the woman she must have become by then, wishing I knew if she was happy and healthy if nothing else.

I never doubted her promise to return, no, never that. I knew that if she could she would come, not for the doll and perhaps not even for the house, just to keep the oath given as a child. But I also knew that a human life is short and wrought with troubles, most of them unforeseen... no matter how true her word there were many things that might keep her from returning.

I found myself wondering if she had married, perhaps borne children of her own into the world outside my home, as I did not know how much time had passed since that rainy day I saw her last. Even the maid whose kindness and cheerful voice had brightened my life had gone by now, replaced by a girl I assumed to be her daughter for the similarities between them. I feared the kind woman had died, but could not bring myself to write such a question down on paper and leave for the new maid to find.

Then one early morning as I sat watching Boy, noting the streaks of grey around his eyes with a sense of sadness knowing that a dog's life is only so long, the sound of a vehicle entering the path up to the house reached both our ears. It was not the day when I expected groceries, nor was it the day when the maid and gardeners came. Suddenly anxious I raced towards the door with Boy at my side.

By the time I was almost there I could hear someone reaching the door, and turned to instead hurry up the stairs as quietly as I could, to hide where I could have a look at whoever it was that were about to enter my home without being seen.

She was less thin than I and shorter, yet still slender by comparison to other women I had seen, her hair a darkened red that sparkled in the light as if a tiny beam of morning sun had tangled itself in its soft elegant waves. She hung her coat on the empty rack and took a few hesitant steps in towards the house only to stop and smooth her hands over her sleek clothing. I could feel her nervousness even from my vantage point at the top of the stairs.

It was then I noticed the wooden object held in her hands.

"U-Ukiyo?" Her voice had a touch of nervousness to it as well, but it was still compellingly warm. I gasped involuntarily at this confirmation, causing her to look my way. "Ukiyo, are you there? It's me, Arisu."

My feet took me down the steps without my permission, ever so slowly. Boy lost patience with me and dashed ahead, greeting the newcomer in his friendly way as I came to a halt a few steps up from them.

Arisu's eyes never left me, not even as she humoured Boy by patting his head, and I thought the sudden vice that gripped my chest would crush me whole as I saw those grey eyes widen more and more as she got a good look at me. Tears of shame and self-loathing stung my eyes and I wanted to look away, to run away, before they could start falling. It never came to that.

"How beautiful..." Arisu breathed as if unaware that she had spoken out loud. The stinging in my eyes disappeared, leaving me with wide-eyed shock instead. Arisu smiled and reached a hand towards me. "Won't you come down, Ukiyo?"

After such a long passage of time our hands finally met as I closed the distance between us in a kind of daze. Arisu's smile grew brighter still, and she, in a move I am sure she had not really intended, drew me in for a warm, joyful hug.

Arisu's cheeks were dusted with a slight blush when, after an unspeakably wonderful moment, she released me and took a tiny step back. Her smile was still warm and happy though, so I felt reassured that I had not done something wrong in responding to her hug.

"Oh Ukiyo..." Arisu wiped at her eyes briefly while her free hand once again sought out mine. "I can't believe I am finally here! It took so long, so many years..." She squeezed my hand a little. "Grandmother fought against my moving in, or even visiting, until the day she died..." Arisu interrupted herself to give me a serious look. "Grandmother passed away a little while ago you see. After she was gone there was no-one that could stop me from coming here."

I listened attentively to every word that spilled from her lips, but in truth I was more spellbound by the warm sweet cadence of her voice than the words themselves as I did not quite follow what she was telling me. It would take me a long time before I finally realized that the person Arisu referred to as grandmother was the mistress.

Arisu reached up to cup my face while she smiled at me fondly, and for some reason this act caused a slight burn to settle on my face as I blinked at her in surprise. Arisu grinned at my reaction.

"You will have to forgive me if my familiarity seems a bit much for the three times we've actually met, but grandfather spoke so much of you, and so fondly, that I feel as if I know you quite a bit better than I would have."

We stood there in the hallway for a long moment, merely looking at one another, before Arisu asked with a somewhat shy expression on her face if she could come in. Then she also remembered the doll she had tucked under her arm, and with a lopsided grin she handed her over to me.

Overcome by emotion I stared at my precious doll before I pulled Arisu with me by the hand to the sitting room where her doll and the dollhouse were placed. I realized only halfway that I was holding her hand in mine and felt at once terribly shy, but she smiled at me and squeezed my hand encouragingly, so I kept my hold until I had steered her to the table where her doll awaited.

Arisu emitted a soft delighted laugh when I gave her the old porcelain doll back, and she seemed somewhat moved just seeing her old toy again. She ran her fingers gingerly across still immaculate curls and cloth made somewhat frail and yellow with age, smiling to herself. "My little Ukiyo..." Arisu murmured fondly and then gave me a strange, sideways look for some reason that made the corners of her mouth quirk even further. "Not so little anymore, I would say."

That look and the fact that we stood so close, side by side, that her shoulder leaned against my upper arm made my face feel slightly warm again, and I distracted myself by studying the wooden features that grandfather had carved for me all those years ago. Lost in a moment of admiration of his handiwork and just plain fondness for the old man that had meant so much, it did not occur to me that lifting the doll to my face to breathe in its scent – finding, as I had more or less expected, Arisu's scent attached to it – was not a normal thing to do. At Arisu's curious look I felt I had to say something, although I did not know what. "She smells of you."

My comment sparked another grin. "Well, she did sleep with me for quite a few years." Arisu tried to catch some scent on the porcelain doll, but judging by the tiny sound she emitted found nothing besides the scent of aging fabric. "I guess my sense of smell isn't anywhere near as sensitive as yours, because I doubt you smell like this."

I smiled and turned to her after putting the wooden doll down carefully to rest next to the dollhouse, extending one arm, palm first, close to her face. Arisu blushed slightly but seemed to understand my meaning as she gently grasped my hand to put my wrist near her nose. I felt the warmth of her breath across my wrist briefly before she let go and turned to face the table with a faintly stronger pink tint to her cheeks. "I see, so that is what you smell like." She cleared her throat and blinked for a moment before her attention focused on the dollhouse.

"How lovely!" She breathed, running her fingers across the faintly gleaming stones that covered the roof of the dollhouse before leaning in to have a closer look at the tiny rooms and furniture. "Is this handmade?"

Eagerly I told her the story of how and why the dollhouse was made, and found to my delight that she loved it. Arisu hugged me in thanks and spoke admiringly of grandfather's woodworking skills, although she also had quite a few choice words to say about the mistress that made me uncomfortable. Even though I had feared and disliked the mistress speaking ill about another was not something that agreed with my nature. Arisu noticed my discomfort and steered our conversation over to my little animal family as the cats entered the room to greet us.

As I sat on the floor next to her, the sound of my own laughter as it joined with hers over the antics of my feline friends sounding strange and unfamiliar to my own ears, I found I could barely make myself look away from her. The sweet child, the adorable little princess, had grown up into something I vaguely wondered if a goddess might look like, but more than that, she was alive, and vibrant, and warm – and she was there! Occasionally as I looked into those sparkling grey eyes and found her looking right back at me I felt curiously breathless, and I knew not why.

Eventually our little carefree moment came to an end, and Arisu asked me to walk with her out to the door. She held my arm as we walked, but she needed have done neither that nor asked me for I would have followed her closely anyway, unwilling to let her out of my sight. Like Boy was to me, from that moment on I, without fully knowing it myself, became Arisu's shadow, following her as faithfully as night follows day and as inevitably.

When we reached the door Arisu again seemed anxious, she who had laughed and played so freely mere moments ago, and it made me pay even more attention, if such a thing was possible. It took her a moment to gather her words and direct them at me, but in the end she asked me quite seriously, hands holding mine and grey eyes searching, what I thought of her moving in.

I did not understand the question at first, it took Arisu several tries and several ways to ask before I grasped that she wanted to know if it was alright with me that she moved in. She was concerned that she would be imposing on me, apparently not grasping the long years of solitary yearning during which the promise of her future presence had been the only light on my horizon. The words escaped me, yet I managed to put her concerns to rest somehow and she smiled. She would come back the next day with the first delivery of her things, she said and reached for her coat, ready to leave.

It dawned on me that she was going to go away, and in mindless desperation I reacted the only way I could... I reached out and latched my trembling hand onto the sleeve of her blouse.

I felt so lost and afraid, my ears pulling down to brush slightly against my shoulders in slightly confused misery. Arisu nearly dropped her coat and stared at me with wide eyes and a strange expression that I did not understand. She stared at me for a long moment while I felt myself tremble and tears begin to sting at my eyes. Finally she reached up to cup my face in one hand.

"Such a sad face... and what a pouty lip." Arisu's voice was soft and affectionate, like her touch. I leaned into the warmth of her hand somewhat unintentionally. "You don't want me to go?" I shook my head no as emphatically as I could without dislodging her hand on my cheek. Arisu smiled warmly.

"I'd love to stay... I don't suppose you would happen to have a spare toothbrush and a sleeping shirt to lend to me?" My even more vigorous nods that yes, I did have a spare toothbrush to give her – indeed I never seemed to use them up quite as quickly as I was given new ones – and heaps of clothing should she need it, made Arisu laugh. That wonderful sound made something shiver inside me, but I soon forgot all about that as she hung her coat back up and smiled brightly at me. Arisu would stay with me.

A lot of things made Arisu smile and laugh that our first evening and night together. Boy for instance, who made sure to remind me that I needed to feed us all, as Arisu found the name I had settled on for him quite amusing. The actual food preparation became an awkward affair for both of us, until Arisu with a gentle smile simply directed me to step back and let her cook. I stared unblinkingly, following every move, every gesture as she performed the magic that would never fail to amaze me, torn between mute admiration and the urge to try to absorb as much of the knowledge she unconsciously offered as I could.

Arisu's face was dusted pink by the time she put a plate down in front of me, and, of course, no words could describe my absolute joy over the meal she had produced for us. I tried to convey my happiness and my gratitude to her, which caused Arisu to blush further but also to smile widely at me.

That evening as dusk crept upon the cloudless skies we walked outside, Arisu and I, through the gardens down to my precious vegetable stands, and into the part of the estate that in other times had housed servants, tools and cattle. For the first time since I had come to be alone in the manor did the walk through that section not seem sad and lonely to me. With Arisu by my side I looked upon the well-kept buildings and neatly trimmed grass, and it was peaceful... as if the buildings, the very land itself, were merely sleeping. Waiting, I imagined, for the day when the wakeup call of worker's feet would stir it once again.

Through it all Arisu walked by my side, her hand in mine or holding my arm, and there was beauty everywhere I looked. I wanted to show her the fields and the forest, the creaks and the pond, and she wanted to see them... but the last rays of the sun were painting the horizon purple by then, and night was nearly upon us. We agreed to take that walk the next day instead, and merely stood a moment, watching the skies.

As Arisu and I watched the last lingering rays of the sun give way for the dark and star-strewn blanket of night I found myself speaking of the fields and forest of my childhood, of fields of golden wheat in the morning sun and of the playful antics of spring brood on late summer grass.

Arisu leaned against me and held my arm a little more tightly, and I worried that the evening air might be cold to her. When she put her head on my shoulder I thought she was tired, and so we began making our way back to the mansion, although in no hurry, while the moon washed our path in its gentle light.

She stayed me for a moment outside, just before we were to enter the manor, one hand lightly urging me to turn towards her. I obliged and waited for her to tell me what was on her mind, but Arisu merely looked at me for a long moment. When she finally spoke it was in a soft voice, barely above a whisper, and slow as if she had to search for the fleeing words in the way I had found myself doing around her.

"As I thought... you look... magical in any light... don't you, Ukiyo?"

The breathless feeling I had experienced before returned with her words, but as soon as they were spoken the grey eyes that had searched my face looked away, in fact Arisu turned from me abruptly to hurry to the door and let Boy enter the mansion before us.

Inside the warmth of the mansion the events of the day caught up to me and I felt a weariness settle in my body that made me long for my soft bed. Remembering that Arisu had seemed tired I asked her if we should go upstairs to prepare a bed for her, and she agreed. However as we walked from room to room, opening them to find that though clean and dust free, there was just a faint smell of something old clinging to beds and bedding not used for years. I felt uncomfortable just being in those rooms and thus never ventured there more than needed, and I would not have wanted to sleep in them the way they were. I could tell that Arisu had problems with this as well, though I knew not how to make things better.

We entered a few more rooms with the same results, and then finally came to my door. We stopped to search for that toothbrush and sleeping shirt Arisu had wanted and so I steered her into my little walk-in closet... although I looked away to find her the items I did notice the strange looks she was dividing between myself and my bed. Finally I asked if there was something wrong.

Blushing she asked me if she could sleep with me that night, and before I had really grasped the question I heard my own voice tell her yes. I considered the smile she gave me in thanks worth far more than any awkwardness I might experience in sharing a bed with someone else for the first time in my life, or at least the first time that I could remember.

Arisu's toiletries were quickly handled, far more so than mine since my teeth takes some time and care to brush, and so a certain situation was avoided that I had no comprehension of at the time. When I returned to my room Arisu had already changed into her shirt and climbed into bed, perfectly covered when I entered. We shared a smile and then I did what I always had done since I had taken to sleeping in that room; I pulled the lacing of my loose-fitting white dress open, let it fall to the floor, and stepped out of it. Naked as the day I was born I walked over and turned off the lamp, then slid into bed and under the covers I shared with Arisu.

Yawning I turned on my side... to face Arisu's bright-red, wide-eyed and open-mouthed face at far closer a range than I had expected. I yelped in surprise. She yelped as well.

"A-are you... I mean... do you usually sleep in the nude?" Until she voiced the question it had not occurred to me that there might be another reason to why Arisu wore a shirt to bed than that she was cold. It also had not occurred to me before that there might be reasons to be reluctant to bare my body in front of her, but at her question it did. I remembered suddenly my own hideousness and felt terrible, wanting nothing more than to just disappear.

Arisu must have sensed my turmoil then, because she pulled me back out of the tiny ball I had rolled myself into in an instinctive attempt not to be seen, and, assuring me that it was alright, pulled me into her embrace. I sobbed apologies for having bared my repulsiveness in front of her, telling her that I knew I was frightening and abhorrent and it had not been my intention to do that to her, I had just forgotten for a moment.

In response Arisu gasped and pulled me even closer and murmured into my ear that she thought I was beautiful, that I had nothing to be ashamed over and nothing to apologise for. "See? It's alright." She whispered and tucked my head under her chin while she stroked my hair soothingly. "You're not repulsive or ugly or evil, you know... and you're not a demon."

She drew her head back a little to peer at me with a lopsided smile on her face. "A fairy perhaps... or an elf..." She tickled the edge of one of my ears, making me giggle a little despite myself. "A forest spirit... something magical, certainly, and very very lovely."

Blushing I hid my face back into her shoulder and put my arms around her, and it was like that I fell asleep that night, with her still running her fingers through my hair and her warmth surrounding me. I woke up nearly the same way the next morning, our bodies nestled together tightly and her beautiful face so close to mine. Instead of getting up to start my day I found myself reluctant to move at all, and after a moment I fell back into a contented sleep, waking again only once Arisu herself stirred from her slumber.

Busy days followed Arisu's arrival, as her own furniture and various things were delivered to the mansion. I kept out of sight for the men that came to carry her belongings into the house, and although Arisu told me I did not need to hide she understood my reluctance and did not pressure me. The sleeping arrangements became more than a temporary solution for one night as Arisu revealed to me that she wanted to renovate the rooms on the second level, remove a wall, change colours of walls that remained, and mostly remove old furniture to replace with those she brought with her or anything we might decide on together. She asked me gravely what I thought of her ideas, but although such a thing would not have occurred to me I found no reason in me to object to changing whatever she wanted. Arisu's suggestions might even make the rooms I had always felt somewhat uncomfortable with into something we could use, not only for the bedroom that we needed for Arisu's sake.

The men that removed the old furniture and took down the wall Arisu wanted worked an entire day once it was decided, during which Arisu and I mostly spent time in the fields and the forest enjoying ourselves. The rest of the work in altering the rooms Arisu and I would do ourselves at our own pace, and I was grateful for that... I had worried that Arisu's new bedroom would be finished swiftly, as already after only a handful of days I had grown curiously and immensely fond of sleeping next to her.

I had learned my lesson and found a soft shirt that matched Arisu's to sleep in, avoiding any unpleasant moments when getting ready for bed, but Arisu still allowed me to sleep curled up against her, our arms wrapped around one another comfortably. I who had always been an early riser found myself more than content to stay in bed and in Arisu's arms in the early hours, even coaxing her to stay a little while longer on the rare day when Arisu woke before I felt ready to leave our warm nest.

Everywhere Arisu went, I would go to. My eyes were fixed to her and never seemed to sway from her for more than just the briefest moment, as if were I to look away or close my eyes she would not be there when I looked for her again. She noticed of course, but never scolded me or seemed bothered by this. She did blush often, and sometimes closed her eyes with a mysterious smile on her lips, or froze mid-movement, blushing, to turn to me with a tiny squealing sound and hug me as much as she could. These surprise hugs filled me with happiness and for some reason made my heart beat faster, just as watching her sometimes gave me a curious yet rather pleasant aching sensation in my chest. I had no idea what was going on, but it was not important... not important the way it was to be near her at all times if I could.

We were always together. Household chores and work, while never something I was adverse to, became a joy to perform at her side, and my days, my senses, were filled with her gentle presence and the tinkling sound of her laughter. We played like the children we once could have been sometimes, running in the fields, soaking one another in water games, or rolling around tickling one another until one of us admitted defeat. For some reason it seemed that whenever we were in a playful mood, Arisu and I, we always ended up rolling around one way or another... in the grass, on the floor, in bed.

More often than not those games would have a moment when we both grew still, closely entangled in one another, eyes locked and neither saying a word. Those moments always made my heart race, and the way she would look at me made my chest ache so strongly for something I could not name. That feeling became so frequent and so strong that I worried what it might be, and tried to ask Arisu if she knew what it was. My explanation was lacking, unfortunately, so Arisu was at a loss to what I was asking. She did manage to reassure me somewhat with a simple logic; if it did not hurt or feel unpleasant it was probably nothing bad.

The day I believe we both began suspecting something of a deeper meaning behind the way we reacted to one another Arisu and I played around in the couch, and I had the upper hand for once. Squealing and squirming the way she did when I got her most ticklish spots Arisu did something I do not think either of us were expecting; with a playful little growl she shot forward and... bit my ear.

It was not that she bit me hard or that it hurt... my ears are very sensitive but it was another kind of sensitivity about them that was sparked that day. We both froze with the unexpected action, but even more with my unexpected reaction.

My face washed with heat as the long, breathy moan forced itself from my throat without my permission.

Arisu released my ear and snapped her head back almost immediately, but the sound seemed to quiver in the air between us even though there was only silence and laboured breathing from both of us. Her face was so close that I was breathing her air.

Her breath was burning hot and I was dizzy and confused. The intense look in her eyes softened as if she sensed this, and Arisu leaned in to press her lips gently to my forehead, holding me for a moment in a calming embrace.

We did not speak about what had happened, although I struggled to make sense of things inside my own mind. Arisu did not pressure me about it, and when restless dreams stirred me from my sleep that night she held me close, whispering words of comfort and stroking my hair.

Although we took our time with the various things that needed done with the rooms on the second level, eventually our work was finished and the room that was supposed to become Arisu's bedroom was ready for her to move in. As if by unspoken agreement, neither of us mentioned this fact and Arisu stayed with me, leaving her newly remade room and the new bed she had installed unused and all but forgotten. I of course had no complaints, I wanted her near me always, and sleeping together was such a treasure.

The routine that had developed for going to bed was that I changed into my sleeping shirt before joining Arisu in the facilities while she would change into hers in the bedroom while waiting for me to return. It was nice and safe, and because of this I had never seen Arisu naked. Until that night.

What exactly got our routine out of phase I cannot say... perhaps Arisu was slower than usual that night, or perhaps I had been faster. It does not really matter. What it led to was that I stepped through the door to our cosy little room just as Arisu stepped out of her undergarments. Surprised to hear my gasp she turned towards me, and we both froze.

Oh she was so beautiful.

I had seen human bodies before, in all manner of shapes and sizes, and they all looked much the same to my eyes. But with Arisu... every dip, every curve, every rounded shape was beauty to me, and I stared, exploring, caressing and memorizing everything with my eyes. My heart was beating faster and my breathing turned shallow, and I was overcome with a kind of burning that was new to me. I ached with need, the need to touch her beautiful skin, the need to take off my own clothing and hold her close so that her heat would burn through me, but most of all the need to...

My mind drew a blank there. I needed something very much, but had no name, no image, to give it came to me. I stared at Arisu helplessly, wishing I understood things better.

Arisu had through my long moments of unabashed staring and mounting frustrated confusion stood still, allowing me to stare at her uninterrupted. When finally I shivered visibly with my conflicting emotions she crossed the small distance and drew me into a firm hug.

"Now you know how I felt that night." Arisu's voice was husky and somewhat shaky when she spoke. I could not help myself, having her that close I put my arms around her and buried my face in her hair, breathing her in. Although we had hugged a great many times by then, there was definitely something very different about holding her like this.

Her skin was so soft under my hands and I wanted to feel much more of it.

"Ukiyo?" The whisper echoed my neediness but it also sounded... upset. "Forgive me." A tiny sob escaped her, which made me tighten my hold on her further. "I love you."

She wept slightly and I stroked her hair, trying to offer comfort. The heat that had suffused me cooled with Arisu's sadness, nothing should make my precious one so sad but it seemed I had somehow.

"Forgive? Love?" That seemed strange. Arisu had nothing to ask forgiveness for, and why would she need to be forgiven for love? "I love you too, Arisu." I stated that quite proudly, of course I loved her. I had loved her for a great many years, although of course I loved her ever so much more now that she was with me, now that she was in fact everything to me.

Arisu made a soft amused sound at that. "Sweetie, we mean different things by that, you and I." She wiped the errant tears away and looked at me.

Then her hands were in my hair and her lips were upon mine.

Her lips were so soft, and the kiss made my toes tingle. I could no longer think anything beyond that as her lips moved against mine, and when, with a small whimper, her tongue pushed past my lips I could think nothing at all.

After long, deliciously sweet moments Arisu released me and drew back slightly, opening her mouth as if to say something. I was faster.

"Don't stop."

The hungry way I reclaimed her lips surprised us both I believe, and what exactly happened after that is somewhat of a blur of sensations. Eventually we ended up on the foot of the bed, my knees resting just at the edge of the mattress and Arisu underneath me, legs spread wide as if to embrace me.

I sat up to remove my shirt. "You should have said that this was about mating." I told her smiling, pleased with my discovery even though the removal of my only clothing brought a stab of insecurity. My body was so ugly after all, why would Arisu want me for her mate? And she was staring at me in a rather odd way.


We were too busy moaning to speak further then, as heated skin met heated skin for the first time this way when I carefully lay down on top of Arisu. She clutched at me and rocked slightly while making such wonderful tiny sounds that I could not help but shiver and let my hands caress her freely. I was completely entranced by the softness of her skin.

When Arisu, with my name turned into a trembling moan upon her lips, grasped one of my hands to guide it to where she needed me most, my last trace of sanity disappeared in the resulting flames. A growl erupted from my chest as I became a creature of instinct, intent upon one thing and one thing only... to claim Arisu as my own.

The day that followed was filled with euphoria for me, the blissfulness of being able to love and to be loved making me giddy and plastering a grin on my face that didn't want to go away. I revelled in my newfound freedom to touch and hold and kiss Arisu whenever I could, unable to stay away from her for long. It made my Arisu giggle and claim that I was even cuddlier than the cats the way I curled around her whether we were sitting or standing, but she certainly did not seem to mind. Nor did she mind the many exchanges of sweet kisses we indulged in, even when it distracted us from other things, almost leaving us with charcoaled food and nearly no chores done as planned.

As evening fell and Arisu and I sat in a couch in front of one of the fireplaces, I with my head in Arisu's lap and she with her fingers running through my hair, a question came to me that I needed to ask her.

"Arisu, are you my wife now?"

The way that Arisu sputtered and turned bright red was quite amusing, but I still wanted an answer. I poked at her a little when I thought she had been silent for too long. "Arisu?"

"I, um, why do you ask Ukiyo?"

"Well..." I played with the ends of her beautiful hair. "I know that when a man and a woman mate for life, marry, it is called that they are husband and wife." I gazed up at her and could not help but smile with all the emotions swirling around in me. "I was just curious if it would be called the same, only wife and wife, since we are both female."

"The women mates I have seen here in the past among the servants were not for life I think." I added as an afterthought. "Or they were and I never really noticed." I tickled Arisu a little with some of her hair. "I noticed couplings around me sometimes when I was small, but I never really paid it much attention. It was not important to me."

I reached up to touch her face. "Now it is."

Arisu took my hand and placed a gentle kiss upon my fingers. Her eyes were shiny, as if she was holding back tears. "You... we, we are for life then, to you?"

My answer was simple, surely she knew this? "Yes, of course! I would not mate for less. You are mine. I am yours." I sat up and bumped her forehead slightly with my own. "Until the day I die."

There really were tears in Arisu's grey eyes. "Thank you love... I feel the same way." She kissed my nose lightly and smiled. "Marriage though, well, that is another matter. There are ceremonies other people, especially appointed people, perform before a couple becomes husband and wife." Arisu hesitated briefly. "You and I would not be allowed that by those that perform such things, but..."

She ran her fingers through my hair, looking at me with a wistful expression on her face. "If it is important to you, if it is something you want, I think... in time, maybe... we could make up our own? Our own kind of ceremony... even if it was not recognised by anyone else, it would be true to us, wouldn't it?"

I smiled and nodded, of course it would be. Of course it was. Arisu was mine and I was hers, that was just how things were. What did I care if someone I did not know did not believe me? I knew it was the truth anyway.

We kissed for a while and cuddled some more, Arisu coming to rest with her head on my shoulder.

"Ukiyo?" Arisu fidgeted with the lacings on the front of my dress. "I love you."

My smile, though unseen by Arisu, was wide and happily content. "I love you too Arisu."

Arisu fidgeted some more, making a small and somewhat unhappy sound at the back of her throat. "I mean, I am in love with you Ukiyo. Completely. Do you know what I mean? Can you say the same for me?"

There was definitely something worried and unhappy colouring her voice by the time she finished speaking. Unfortunately I could not put her fears at ease right away. "In love? I... It is something other than to love someone?" I was unfamiliar with the phrase.

"Yes... no." Arisu sighed. "I... would say it means to love someone in a specific way. A specific kind of love." She faltered slightly. "The kind of love one has for one's wife, I think."

"Oh!" I squeezed Arisu tighter, happy to have understood and even happier to know that it was the way she felt about me. "Absolutely. I am in love with you Arisu."

"How do you know that?" Arisu whispered, not unkindly. "You've had so little love in your life... and a moment ago you did not know what it meant."

I suppose I could have been upset by her words, taken it to mean that she doubted me and my feelings for her, but I could clearly feel Arisu's desperation as if it was falling from her in waves. Arisu wanted me to convince her, she wanted me to love her like she loved me, with a desperation that frightened her. My sweet Arisu was just scared.

"I don't think I have had little love in my life... I have loved a lot of things over time, in my own way." I tried to find the words to explain while stroking her back as comfortingly as I could. "It was just that I waited a long time for love to find me."

"There are many things in this world that I have little understanding of, and I do not always have the words or the experience to show you what is in my heart. But that does not change what I feel." I thought about it. "Arisu?"

"Have you been in love with others before me?" That was not a pleasant thought, not in the slightest. I really, truly did not like that idea – Arisu was mine! – and I hoped the answer would be negative.

With a vigorous shake of her head and a gasped "No!", it was.

"Then... Arisu... how do you know?"

There was a long silence after that, then Arisu laughed softly. "How very true, love. I'm sorry I am so... needy." She pulled at my laces again, but this time there was no apprehension in her, her body relaxed against mine and her grin evident in her voice. "Thank you for putting up with my spell of insecurity."

"I do not know how... normal... people might say things, Arisu..." I whispered to her. "...but... you are my sun. I lived in the dark for so long, and it was all I knew. Then there were you. Your light, your warmth."

"I do not know much but I do know this; you are my sun and I want to stay in your light, forever."

That earned me a succession of heated kisses that soon had us both naked, the couch rocking to our rhythm and the animals fleeing the room, startled by Arisu's wanton cries and my unabashed howling.

Several years later I stand in the same room as then, looking at our old dollhouse as I wait for Arisu to call for me. The dolls are seated in their long-lasting embrace in a tiny chair Arisu bought for that purpose, and I smile at them and at old memories. Inside the dollhouse the occupants make me marvel as always I do when I look at them. Arisu turned out to have inherited grandfather's artistic ability when she one day brought home clay from the creek and from it created tiny dolls in our image that she placed in the dollhouse and then checked to see if I would notice. Which of course I did, and I was suitably impressed by the likeness. Since then a doll grandfather, Boy and several cats have accompanied our tiny doll selves from time to time; in fact the dollhouse has more occupants presently than the manor itself.

I smile at Arisu's playful side, happy with the knowledge that this never changed in either of us. We still play around like children sometimes.

As if summoned by my thoughts Arisu appears in the doorway, a blanket draped over her arm, a basket in her hand, and a smile gracing her lips. I smile in return as I walk towards her to take the basket from her hand, and as she lifts her free hand to caress my face the light glitter for a moment quite brightly on the golden band on her finger.

I wear the matching ring on my own hand.

We will leave the mansion now, to spend a warm summer day on this blanket, out on the particular field where we once swore our own marital vows beneath the sky, in celebration of that day. The sun was our only witness then as it will be now, but that is fine with us. We do not need the confirmation of others to know what we are to one another.

I need nothing and no-one else, for I have everything right here, her hand warm in my own. We have yet to step outside the door yet I am already awash in sunlight.

My own, beloved sun.

My Arisu.

The End

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