The first falling leaves signified the arrival of autumn nearly three weeks after the conclusion of Muruta's case, which was also when Mwu announced that it was time for him and Murrue to go back home and start preparing for their wedding.
It had been a long summer visit—much longer than Mwu's usual ones—and his parents were keen on having him back as soon as possible, especially because he would be bringing back his fiancée, whom they simply could not wait to start introducing to their associates.
When he made the announcement, everyone had naturally assumed that the two guests that came to Dominion Hall with him would also leave with him, but Arnold had—to Mwu's surprise and Fllay's dismay—requested for permission to stay longer, which Natarle had gladly consented; judging from the delighted smile she gave when Arnold made his request, it seemed that she was in fact hoping he would stay behind, and Mwu could not be happier that he had made the right decision to bring his best friend here in the first place.
The day of their departure came sooner than they all would have liked, and before they knew it, they were already at the front entrance, saying their farewells as the servants loaded their belongings into the carriages.
While Murrue was thanking Stellar and Fllay for their hospitality, Mwu took this chance and pulled Natarle aside for a quiet word.
"So…" he began, "I'll see you again at my wedding."
"Yes," she replied with a congratulatory smile.
"You'll… have a great time with Arnold around." He scratched the back of his head as he spoke, a habitual gesture of his whenever he was not sure how to approach a delicate subject, and Natarle raised a suspecting eyebrow.
"Yes…?" She repeated, this time clearly a question rather than an answer.
He sent a fleeting glance towards his friend's direction, making sure the blue-haired man was not watching them—which he was, but had acknowledged that this was a private conversation and decided not to interrupt—and Mwu let out a relieved sigh. Turning back to Natarle, he finally spoke his mind. "I know that he's perfect for you, and you two would be very happy together, but just in case, you know, if he bullies you or anything, let me know and I'll take care of him for you."
Her head tilted slightly in an uncomprehending manner. "I thought you said I could trust him."
"I know," he shrugged a little sheepishly. "I'm just saying 'if'. I'm sure he'll be very good to you. But, you know, I'll be here if you need me."
He did not say it aloud, but Natarle already knew what he wanted her to understand—even though they had found their respective destined ones, he would always be her big brother, and would always keep that promise he made to Mama.
"Thank you, Mwu." She smiled, genuinely appreciative; he had already fulfilled that promise—many times, and in many different ways.
"You're welcome," he replied, beaming with childlike pride, and she wondered whether he was aware of the gravity of her gratitude.
"For everything," she stressed.
"I know." He smiled again, this time with a bit more earnestness. "Anytime, and every time, Natarle."
A comfortable silence fell between them, until he pulled her in for a light embrace, and whispered into her ear his greatest wish for her.
"Live a good, happy life, my dearest cousin."
Around two weeks after Mwu and Murrue's departure, Arnold received a letter from home.
He was having breakfast with Natarle, Stellar, and Fllay, when Lewis brought over to him a small silver tray, with the envelope placed neatly in the middle.
Picking up the envelope, he turned it around, and immediately recognised the sender from the seal on the back. He pulled the letter out, quickly reading through, then slipped the paper back into the envelope and set it down onto the table, his face neutral all the while. From the way the three young women observed him closely, it was clear that they were all curious about the letter's contents, but they did not ask, and it seemed he did not prefer to speak about it either.
As per her usual routine, after finishing breakfast, Natarle had gone to the morning room to settle her daily businesses. It was after an hour or so, just as she was concluding that morning's work with Erica, when they heard a knock on her door.
"Yes?" She answered the knock.
The door glided open, with Arnold standing on the other side, peering into the room and noting Erica's presence. "I'm sorry, am I interrupting?"
"No, it's alright," Natarle replied quickly, "we were just finishing on a few minor things."
Aware of their need for privacy, Erica asked knowingly, "Would you still be needing me, Miss Natarle?"
The dark-haired woman considered briefly before answering, "That will be all, Mrs. Simmons. Thank you."
Taking this as permission to leave, Erica made her way towards the door, and Arnold gave an appreciative nod as she passed by.
"Is something wrong?" Natarle immediately queried with a slight hint of worry, as Arnold knew she preferred to work without distractions and would never come to bother her during these morning hours.
"I would like to speak with you." Judging from the tone of his voice, it seemed it was not a serious matter—only that he sounded somewhat disappointed, but why, she had no idea.
"Sure," she agreed without hesitation.
He gave a faint smile. "Let's talk elsewhere; how about at the garden? Would you like to take a walk with me?"
"Yes, of course."
There was something rather odd about his mood, almost a little dispirited; she couldn't be sure—because he was not one to allow his sentiments show easily, and she was still learning to read between the subtle changes in his emotions—but he was very quiet during the walk to the garden, his mind clearly preoccupied by whatever he wanted to talk to her about, though not very looking forward to it.
They had reached the garden and strolled around for a while longer, and he had yet to tell her the reason he brought her out here. She had an inkling that he was stalling, though from those soft smiles he had for her whenever he looked her way, she knew it was for her sake.
It was probably not particularly good news.
When they came under the shades of a rather large tree, he slipped his hand into hers and pulled her to a stop, and she knew this was the moment. She turned around and looked straight into his face, bracing herself for the impact.
His lips pulled upwards into the most helpless yet tender smile, as though he had recognised her courage and was regretting that he had caused the need for it.
He let out a quiet, restrained sigh before finally telling her the much awaited news. "I need to leave soon."
Her heart fell, and a voice in her head protested vehemently against his plans—it was much too soon, and she was not ready to let him go home.
"The letter I received this morning was from my father," he explained slowly with a clear view that she was not at all pleased with what he had told her. "He needs my help, and asked me to return home as soon as possible. I will have to leave tomorrow."
"Is it very important?" The question shot out before she could consider its appropriateness, and she immediately chastised herself for having asked. "I'm sorry, that's rude of me; it's not my business, I shouldn't be asking such questions. I just… feel that it's rather sudden."
"It's nothing too serious, though it is rather urgent." He spoke with a much lighter tone this time, an attempt to put her at ease, but at the same time he had found pleasure in seeing her fret over his impending departure. "You see, my father is not particularly gifted when it comes to dealing with the affairs of our estate, and I very often have to take care of them on his behalf. It's not a troublesome matter, just one that I have to handle in person."
She stares at him a good long while, her discontent reflected clearly in her beautiful violet eyes, and finally breaks the silence with another hesitation-filled question. "Will you come back afterwards?"
Leaning a little closer, he answers in a sweet whisper, "If that is your wish, I will never think twice."
His words drew a shy smile onto her face, and she asked again, this time much more relaxed, "Will you be away for long?"
"I expect the matter should be concluded within a month, and if things go well, probably a week less than that."
'It's still too long.' Although those words were not spoken, her true thoughts were much too evident in the way she frowned, with her lips pursed almost into a pout, looking very kissable, and her adorable demeanour only made it more difficult for him to resist the temptation.
He settled for a light peck on her forehead, returning the smile to her face. "Perhaps this would be a good chance for you to have some time to yourself and consider my proposal, without my presence here giving you pressure in making a decision."
A pretty pink colour rose to her cheeks as she objected to his notion of her feeling pressured by his presence, but the way she stuttered through her words, sounding not quite convinced by herself, suggested that his proposal was in fact weighing quite heavily in her heart.
He took both of her hands and held them against himself. "I will write to you often, will you write back?"
She nodded keenly, and he beamed in satisfaction, before making one last request. "If you have come to a decision while I am away, please don't tell me your answer in writing. I will return immediately after settling my business, and I want to hear it from you in person," he paused, briefly pondering, and added in a much quieter voice, "even if it is a refusal."
The last few words drew a frown to her face. "It won't be a refusal," she refuted weakly to the fact that he had even deliberated on this in the first place. But she understood why he would worry about this, and bearing in mind what they had went through in the mere span of three months, there was no denying that his concerns were legitimate. It was the first time since they've met that they would be away from each other, and he was afraid that she might have a change of heart during this time apart; what he didn't know was that she was afraid of the exact same thing.
"Come back soon," she urged. She was utterly embarrassed by what she was to say next, but those were her true feelings, and she needed him to know it. She took in a deep breath, and spoke in almost a whisper, "I'm going to miss you very much."
His response was much different from what she was expecting: a few words of comfort, perhaps accompanied with a soothing smile that would help settle the anxiety rising in her stomach, but no, it wasn't that; it was something that made her even more flustered, yet she would prefer this sort of reassurance any given time—his hand reached behind her neck, gently pulling her close to him, and he dipped down, meeting her warm lips with his own.
"I'll miss you most terribly too," he whispers in the brief moment she pulled apart for air, "but this can be something nice to remember me by while I'm away."
And they found themselves both smiling through their kiss.
For the remainder of the time leading up to Arnold's departure, they had all found Natarle quite unlike her usual self. She seemed very distracted from her surroundings, unable to focus on anything else except whatever it was that was on her mind—for example, within the two hours she sat with Arnold in the library, she had barely made it past the first five pages of the new book she had started reading; or when they had tea, Stellar had to ask the same question three times before she was able to decide whether she wanted milk in her tea or not; or when Fllay mentioned offhandedly about Mwu and Murrue's upcoming wedding, and her face flushed a bright shade of red as she muttered something to herself quietly—which Fllay could have sworn she had asked "Is three months too soon?", yet when the girl probed further, Natarle had refused to talk about it and insisted that it was not anything she should be concerned about.
"Should Stellar be worried?" The blonde girl asked Arnold before they were to retire to their own rooms for the night. Arnold was to leave after lunch the next day, so Stellar figured this would be the last chance to ask him for help—if it was needed.
"About what?" He returned the question casually; Stellar had a feeling he knew perfectly well to whom she was referring to, which was why she found it odd that he was pretending otherwise.
"About Natarle," she replied, her eyes glaring in disapproval for playing a joke on her.
His lips turned upward into a mischievous smirk, and he made a half-hearted attempt to hide it by covering his mouth with his hand, feigning to be deep in thought. Stellar's frown deepened—it was clear that he knew what caused Natarle's current situation, because she had learnt from both the times she spent with him and with his two best friends that he had perfected his poker face long ago, and if it was any severe matter, he would not be showing this face right now. "Arnold knows what's happening," she complained, "tell Stellar!"
He let out a low, unreserved laugh—discreet enough to not catch attention, nonetheless still genuine. "I'm afraid I can't tell you, Stellar; it's a secret between Natarle and me, and I'm not at liberty to share with you unless Natarle agrees so. Though I can assure you that it's nothing you should be worried about."
The girl contemplated for a short moment. "But is Arnold sure? How much longer will Natarle be like this? Stellar doesn't want to have to ask three times every day whether Natarle wants milk in her tea."
This time Arnold was almost unable to withhold his laughter, barely catching it in his throat and disguising it as a cough. "Unfortunately I can't say for sure; there's a distinct possibility that her situation will persist until the next time I'm back." He grinned to himself, then added as an afterthought, "Unless she can make her mind up sooner."
Gazing at him with her inquisitive cherry coloured eyes, Stellar asked, "What does Natarle need to make her mind up for?"
He puts a finger against his lips, hushing softly. "Now, be patient, Stellar. You'll find out soon."
Arnold was not particularly looking forward to his departure, so he let the servants go ahead with making the final arrangements with his luggage while he took his sweet time with Natarle in heading to the front entrance.
Fllay and Stellar were already in the vestibule, hiding away from the sun as they waited for him and Natarle to come down. Fllay was particularly impatient, sticking her head out every so often to look into the grand hall and up the main stairs to find out just how much further away the two of them were, and Arnold could not help but find amusement in seeing her trying to hold back her frustration every time she spotted them and noticed that they had hardly made any progress in terms of distance.
They had reached midway down the stairs, and could see already see the door to the vestibule at the end of the hall. Just a few a more steps, and they would be saying their farewells.
He took a sideways glance at Natarle, who seemed to be deep in thought, but as soon as she became aware of his attention she turned to look at him, and there was a bit of hesitation reflected in her violet eyes.
"Is something wrong?" Arnold stopped in his tracks to ask, and she immediately shook her head in silent denial. He allowed his gaze to stay a little longer at her, prompting her to reaffirm him in words that there was nothing wrong. Smiling, he held his hand out. "Come, let's go."
She gladly took his hand, and leaned a little closer to him as they continued down the stairs. When they reached the bottom, she suddenly stopped just on the last step, unwilling to go further. He turned around with a questioning gaze.
"Arnold," she starts tentatively, "I have been thinking about it. A lot; all the time, in fact."
"I know," he laughs lightly at her confession; everyone knew—not the question itself, but definitely that something was keeping her mind occupied.
"Yes," she says out of the blue. "The answer is yes."
It took Arnold only half a thought to realise what she was referring to. "Natarle-"
"I've made my decision, Arnold," she spoke over his voice, as though in a hurry to explain herself, "and I don't want to have to wait another month before I can tell you that I would love to spend the rest of my life with you."
His lips pulled into a wide smile, perhaps the happiest she had ever seen him, which was why she found his next words very puzzling. "Natarle, hold on, I'm afraid it doesn't work that way." Her head tilted in a confused manner, and she was just about to ask him what he meant when he clarified for her, "I hadn't even asked the question."
With her hand already within his grasp, he brought it up and held it in front of him as he knelt down before her.
"Natarle, I swear to you my everlasting love and loyalty, and I promise I will do everything that I can to protect you, from now until the day I die. Will you marry me?"
She smiled with the most beautiful blush on her cheeks. "Yes."
He rose to his feet, and with a gentle tug he had her within his embrace. Behind them, they could hear Stellar's cheers and Fllay's loud complaints, and out of embarrassment she hid her face in his shoulder, away from their sights. His arms around her tighten, and he wishes more than ever that he did not have to leave.
"You're going to be behind schedule if you don't go soon," she reminds him in a soft whisper, though the despondency was clear in her voice. He leaves a kiss on her temple, taking in her sweet scent as he held her closely for one last moment, and committed it all to his memory—her gorgeous face, the beautiful sight of her he would see every night in his dreams; her stunning amethyst eyes, like gemstones; her voice, often low and strong, yet in rare occasions meek and wispy, but every sound that ever came from her like music to his ears; her slim, delicate frame, that he will keep remembering what it felt like to be holding her, because he could not do it while he was away.
And despite having to leave now, he found solace in the fact that he would be returning with the knowledge that all this—all of her—was forever his, for she had promised.
I've just realised that I had never gotten around to completing this story. So here it is—after 3 long years—the end of the story, just right before the end of the year (and nicely timed for Natarle's birthday too). Hope you've all enjoyed it, and thanks very much for reading!