Decorations made the former study room nearly unrecognizable. From the main atrium, to two ballrooms and four smaller classrooms, the Elite school had been transformed from a tidy place of education to a mystical wonderland. Ornate lanterns hung throughout, dangling with no ropes from the ceiling and reflecting light off of the varied frilly masks of the Elite men and women attending. Many of the females seemed to float on the ground, adorned in such billowing skirts rarely seen anymore; it was a touch of nostalgia, of history, amongst the revelry, and Professor Rill absorbed all of it with the keen attention of a man with an eye for the flare.
He was decked out no less -- in fact, perhaps more -- than his peers, and he strode from one hall to the next holding wrapped on his arm the cape that likely gave him away. Still, anonymity was not the purpose here. It was fun and he was resolved to have some. Belner had offered his usual eccentric conversation before being pulled away but he hadn't seen Drais yet; he wasn't altogether positive he would see the serious woman at all, festivities considering.
A troop of students, one of whom had already lost half her costume, scampered by on the way to the balcony and Rill grinned behind his gold and white trimmed mask.
When he looked back up, there she was.
Resplendent in the pinks and blues, pale like her, that flattered her hair and put a reflective rosy hue in her frail cheeks, Chwip appeared to have forgotten her mask but she persevered as only the mature young girl could, stepping into the hall with her hands lying politely on either side of her wide-brimmed skirt. His grin gaining a crooked edge, Rill summoned a marvelous jab to tease the girl with as he stepped forward.
Only for a young man to intercept. Smiling beneath his own curving mask's facade, the unidentified boy stepped up to Chwip, handing her off a slim pink mask with a soft veil covering the mouth. She thanked him softly and slipped it on, disguising her features but not herself to Rill, who slunk back a few steps with an overcome feeling in his stomach he couldn't quite explain nor justify.
Of course she was here with a student. A boy student. It made sense. A young girl her age… she should.
Embarrassed by his own strange retreat, Rill spun around on his heels to reveal himself and found he was staring at the young couple's back. The boy had taken Chwip's arm into his and was guiding her towards the ballroom.
So Rill did what any self-respecting, middle-aged man would.
He followed them from behind without being seen.
It's just… I only want to be sure he's treating her right, he resolved in his head, reaffirming it with the pledge that he made to make sure she was always cared for. This was his duty. He took to it with gumption, shouldering past students and fellow professors smaller than he, and ducking aside when one of their gazes strayed too close. After all, wouldn't Chwip be embarrassed to have him stalking her like this.
Of course she would, you're being a fool, said a part of him. He chose to ignore that part.
They reached the beginning of the main ballroom, flush with more lights and, under them, the swirl of dancers, and the boy fumbled through offering to go get them something to drink. When Chwip graciously accepted, the child slithered off, looking too small for his celebratory britches. Such an awkward thing, this teenage courtship, and Rill couldn't help but think that the graceful young woman Chwip was growing up to be deserved more. Deserved someone who could sweep her up, and know what he was doing.
Then again, Rill barely knew what he was doing -- stalking a girl and her date, developing feelings for the first time for his young charge? It all seemed absurd, but in the decorative lighting, and beneath a flashy mask, he felt a rare confidence about the whole ordeal. WIth the unlacing of a few clasps, he swung his cape off his shoulder and laid it across those of a statue nearby, ignoring the looks. Silly to think such a simple thing might identify him, but he was taking no chances. Fixing his mask more firmly, he approached the politely loitering Chwip from behind.
She startled when she felt someone sweep into her personal space and stay, but by the time she turned to address him, she was smiling under the gauze of the mask's veil. "Sir?" She asked and Rill exhaled.
There was no time to talk -- she'd clue in on him anyway, if he did -- so all he did was raise one hand in an open gesture for her to lay hers across. "I have a date…" she protested gently, while looking across the floor to try and spot the ill-suited boy. But when Rill held up a single gloved finger to demonstrate he only needed the one, she pressed her fingers softly against his and acquiesced to the dance.
With a swing of their arms, he led them towards the swaying circles of other dancers, enjoying the brush of her wide princess skirt against his leg as they moved. Into the fray they went, surrounded by shifting fabrics of every color and hidden faces creating swirls behind their eyelids whenever they blinked. He picked a spot inside the first layer of dancers, letting them become enveloped by the movement before he pulled her with a spin towards him. A hand caught her waist. Her smile fluttered. Rill's heart did a somersault that he felt shameful for afterwards, but now it was too late. He raised their clasped hands, tightened his hold on her waist, and swung them around in the first step.
At first it wasn't so perfect: she was nervous, though obliging, and hovered at her arms' length and he, feeding off her nervousness, missed a couple of the steps. Nearly tripping ended up being the balm. When she felt them flagging, Chwip dashed inward to catch herself and squeezed against him in order to apologize for her manner. After a second, he let her back off a step or two and they began again in earnest -- and in sync.
Everything in that moment felt like a magic he could previously never let himself near. The feel of her, moving close to him, while her fingers touched his. A hand fit so smoothly around her waist, it was as though they clicked together. Behind the mask, he could be something besides a father and a clerical figure. Nothing was in their way except two flimsy pieces of frivolous fabric.
He could tell whenever she was right on the verge of asking him a question -- his name, anything -- but she'd always second-guess, choosing a polite silence over bolder curiosity. He played off her shyness, smiling whenever he noticed this tic of hers and he could see her eyes narrowing every time, shining with renewed vigor as she pondered. Once in a while, he thought maybe she knew, but she never gave him up, if she did.
The music drifted on, and so did they, closer and closer entwined as they became increasingly more comfortable with the curl of each other's movements. His fingers had long relaxed at her waist, and her waist eased beneath them; he could feel the curve of her thin little body, so small and as if he could scoop her right up. He felt as powerfully that he could physically overtake her as that he never could: she was the smaller, but the more powerful when it came to everything else; she held him in thrall.
But right now, for this moment, he had her in his. His secret carried her across the floor.
Paying attention to the music and the ease of carrying her through it, Rill nearly startled in surprise at the feel of a tentative touch against his hand at her waist. Rather than hold her skirts, Chwip had slipped her fingers up to brush against his. A warmth carried from that spot straight to his heart and he swallowed, happily that nervousness was hidden behind the frill of his coat's collar. Looking down at their hands, he expressed his inquisitiveness with a tilt of his head when he brought his eyes up to her.
She smiled. Chwip almost always smiled but for Rill, who was so painfully familiar with her face, he knew this was not the ordinary good nature she put on for society. She was genuinely smiling.
He smiled back.
They'd gone on a song… two… three, maybe, when he finally began to stir them towards the outer circle. Through the curtain of fellow dancers; he could feel as her hands twitched with hesitation in his and his heart pang to think she might regret stopping. However, no objection passed her gentle lips and so he directed them to where others stood watching and slowly let their fingers drift apart. Hers fell to the front of her dress, laying there primly, and his he pushed up onto his waist as he graced her with a low bow that she returned with a proper curtesy.
He waited till her head had just lowered enough to change her view to sidle backwards and towards the crowd, so that he'd be gone by the time she'd straightened.
As she did, he was privy to her little gasp, and the soft hand she raised to her veiled lips as she glanced around while trying not to appear obvious about her distress.
Chwip's date was looking around, as well, and he noticed the flash of pink only seconds after Rill had meshed back into the crowd, sloping his shoulders to obscure his height as he tried to blind with a flock of chattering girls. Not his best choice, but the distraction of her date returning managed to get Chwip to stop looking and he ducked around the curve of a pillar to observe. The boy: "I looked all over for you. Where were you?"
She lowered her hand to her lap, crossing it over the other. "I was dancing."
Even with the mask, Rill could sense the slight flush in Chwip's cheeks: from exertion, from mystery. "… A prince."
The young boy's face contorted with a youthful combination of jealousy and amazement; he floundered, uncertain how to proceed with this information. Instead, he thrust out the glass he'd gotten at her and Chwip dipped her head in gratitude as she accepted.
Turning away from the sight, Rill fought between a frown and a smile. What was he playing at? He, himself, wasn't even sure. He went through the motions of sliding through the crowd to retrieve his cape from off of the statue -- miraculously, still there, and not whisked away by some drunken student by now. His distinctive gold and white mask he exchanged by peeling one off of another professor and laughing it away when he gave him back the wrong one. It was a party! No one really noticed.
So long as Chwip didn't notice. Figuring to himself, he decided it was safer to keep his distance for the rest of the evening. What they'd shared, he didn't want the girl to feel conflicted about. Couldn't taint it with unfair complications, no.
This… like her, was something precious. Sidling back over towards the dance floor, he saw that the young boy had managed to maneuver Chwip into agreeing to another dance. Of course he had; she barely had the heart to refuse anything, much less decorum. They swirled awkwardly but efficiently, their arms bracing them politely apart. It wasn't ideal, it wasn't even beautiful… but it was suited. These were children.
Children, yes. Like Chwip was a child.
And what Rill and she had had, well, that would remain a dream behind a mask. And nothing more.
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