Portal 1: Presents and Bereavement

If there was one day she would never forget, it would be the last day of April. Not because it was her birthday—thus, being named after the diamond month, which almost expired and it got her eccentric mother demanding for a Caesarian section eighteen years ago just so she could name her daughter Aipreal—rather, it was also the same day she had the experience she considered her most embarrassing. But with a happy ending, nevertheless.

But that was three years ago, during a town festival. She and some companions had volunteered to take care of the refreshments section in the town square, preparing ice-cold drinks for everyone and making sure they never ran out of any.

She was handing a cup of freshly made strawberry shake to a grumpy-looking old man when her co-worker stationed to her left reached over her stretched out arm to tap the other one to her right.

"Hey, do you see that guy in blue shirt?" she heard left co-worker speak.

"That one with the black hair?" Right co-worker asked for assurance though she had already spotted the said guy.

Aipreal discreetly followed their gaze and true enough, a dark-haired young man in blue shirt stood a few feet away from their booth, chatting merrily with his friends.

"Isn't he cute?" Left co-worker asked in delight.

"He seems nice," Right co-worker agreed, "And he's a newbie. I heard he just moved into town last week."

"Really? Then, let's make friends with him! Or else, he might think this place is filled with a bunch of lowly snobs."

And the two of them unlaced their plaid aprons, placed them on the counter, and took off, leaving Aipreal with additional two mixers in hand.

"H-Hey, you can't just..." she called after them but they had disappeared into the crowd in no time, "...leave me like that. Great!" she sighed in defeat, seeing more dehydrated customers pile up in front of her.

But then, she was smiling to herself. She would always find something to amuse her. And this time, it was that boy in blue shirt.

She decided to simply keep quiet about it when the two girls were gushing over him. For in reality, she already got the chance to talk to him while being temporarily assigned at the registration booth early this morning.

He had given her his name so she could write it down on a tag. After scribbling the letters D-A-N-I-E-L neatly on the card, she peeled the thin transparent film off the back, revealing an adhesive surface, and handed the card-now-turned-sticker to him.

He took a glance at his name on the neon-colored sticker before pasting it gently on his shirt pocket, an amused smile forming on his lips. But even before he could leave the booth, the tag fell off. Apparently, the material of his shirt wasn't that adhesive-friendly.

Then almost instinctively, Aipreal reached for her hairclip and fixed it on the lip of his shirt pocket, holding the nametag in place.

"That should do it," she muttered akimbo and when she looked up at him, a serene smile greeted her, causing a warm feeling to creep up her cheeks.

"Then, remind me to give it back later," he said, patting her on the head and messing up her chestnut hair in the process, "See ya!"

"You didn't have to do that," she frowned, fixing her hair as she watched him walk away from the booth and into the square.

It was already evening when people started to call it a day, as evident by the diminishing crowd. As she cleaned up, she would scan the place once in a while and look for a certain boy in blue shirt. After all, though not stated exactly, he was the one who offered to meet up after the festival. Not that she wanted to see him and so she could also have her clip back, but it was simply out of curiosity that she kept her hopes up. She simply wanted to know if he was kidding or not.

Finally, the refreshments booth and the surrounding area were clear of spills and garbage. Then, the booth owner handed her a small envelope containing some change.

"Thanks for helping out," he said.

"No problem," she smiled in return.

"Then, shall I see you next year?"

"Sure thing!"

She glanced at the now deserted town square one last time, trying her luck. But it looked like she wouldn't be having her clip back anymore. And so she turned on her heel and started to head home, which was the fancy-looking but lonesome mansion at the end of the dark street she was trekking now. She didn't actually feel like going home at the moment for there wouldn't be anyone to greet her, except for Nana, her chubby old nanny since birth.

Her father, being an only son, inherited this house and every ounce of material possession and business her grandfather owned when the old man died ten years ago. So there, she was a filthy rich kid, always getting what she wanted. Pretty spoiled, maybe. But not a lazy brat. She would always come up with something to do to get the boredom off her mind. For she, too, was an only child. And with her parents always on a business trip ever since her grandfather passed away, she had no one to talk to in that huge boring house. Except for Nana, that is.

She was halfway down the dark street when she heard slow footsteps behind her. It wasn't fright she felt but surprise rather. Nobody had walked down this street in a long time except for her and Nana. Unless that person who seemed to be stalking her right now turned out to be Nana. But if it was her trusty nanny, she would have called out to her by now.


That confirmed it, as a male voice broke the now tensed silence. She quickened her pace and looked nowhere but straight ahead. Mr. Favia, her father, had once told her about the harsh reality of this world and the existence of kidnappers. She frowned at the thought. He just told me, but did not warn. And he's supposed to be my father. What a cruel reality! Her house already seemed big though still quite far away. Why had they never installed streetlamps around here, anyway? She found herself complaining now that she realized she was wandering in darkness alone with a stranger.

"Hey, wait up!" the suspicious being called again.

Just leave me alone, will you? Aipreal was now walking faster than ever until finally she broke into a run.

"Happy birthday!" the man finally yelled when he saw her getting away.

This definitely made her stop in her track. A stranger greeting her a happy birthday? She mentally counted the few people who knew today was her birthday. And if she remembered right, all of them had greeted her already. And so she whirled around, only to find herself face-to-face with the boy in blue shirt even though in the darkness, it looked more black than azure.

"Happy birthday?" she asked him, no longer frightened but curious.

"Well, I was running out of words to say," he replied, scratching his head and ruffling his jet-black hair, "I just thought it would catch your attention,"

"Well, it certainly did but how did you..." she trailed off when she saw his nametag still hanging onto his shirt pocket.

"Don't tell me it really is your birthday," he muttered wide-eyed, "It was just a wild guess. Wait, I wasn't even trying to guess to begin with."

"Anyway, thank you, Daniel," she smiled, stressing his name so he would somehow remember the hairclip, "I hope you enjoyed this year's festival. You're new in town, right?"

"It was quite a celebration," he nodded, "And yes, I just got here last Saturday. My dad received a transfer so we had to move."

"So that means you'll have to move again when he gets another transfer, huh, Daniel?" it sounded awkward but she didn't pass the chance to append his name at the end, hoping it would remind him of her hairclip, give it back, and finally go home.

But why was she in a hurry to leave, anyway? He seemed harmless enough to let him know her birthday. And now, he was about to find out where she lived, too.

Perhaps, it was that same uneasy feeling deep within her, which had always told her that something bad was about to happen. And each time, her instincts never failed.

So she decided to simply take the matter into her own hands. She would ask him directly to give her clip back and it would be the end of their conversation.

"By the way, Daniel, can I..." she began but was cut short when he snapped his fingers in realization.

"Oh, yeah! Your hairpin," he reached for his pocket and unfastened the little thing, "Here. That was really clever of you, did you know? Thanks!"

"You're welcome," she nodded and was about to walk away when he called out to her again.

"Why didn't you wait for me? I said I'd give it back after the festival."

"Well, I didn't think you would remember," she replied in all honesty. Even now, it took you long enough.

"How could I forget it? People kept bugging me about it," he looked up at the starry night thoughtfully.

"Huh? Why, is something wrong with a hairclip on your pocket?" she asked, her curiosity building up again. I'd probably find it weird, myself, but it was there on purpose.

"Nothing," he shrugged and his amber eyes moved back down to her, "It was my name they kept noticing."

"Your name? What about it?"

"I'm sorry, but my name's not Daniel," he grinned. "It's Nathaniel."

You're kidding...

Her curious face abruptly shifted into a sheepish one. Now, this was not funny at all. There she was, purposely muttering his name repeatedly, emphasizing it every time as a matter of fact. But all the while, she had actually been making a fool of herself and she had no idea.

I'm completely mortified!

So that was the bad thing her instincts had been telling her. An utter embarrassment. In front of a handsome stranger no less.

"Maybe you didn't hear it right back there," Nathaniel went on, with an emphasis that it was not her fault so there really was no need to fret. "It was pretty noisy."

"Why didn't you tell me right away?" she demanded in annoyance, her cheeks flushing in shame. She so hated it whenever she made a silly mistake. "I could've changed it."

"But you would be wasting paper," he reasoned out, trying to appease the anxiety that had soon surfaced in her voice. "...and ink."

"I am not going to apologize," she snapped rather stubbornly. It might be her fault but she also had to be laughed at, by this man and those people.

"I didn't ask you to," he shrugged, cocking his head to the side. "You really amuse me, you know?" he absently muttered, which earned an incredulous stare from his object of amusement.

"Well, you're freaking me out," she retorted at once for she couldn't think of better words to say. Silence would mean she liked the compliment, which she did and it brought her already tinted cheeks up another shade. She did not expect that by just being her ever boring self could charm someone this gorgeous. It was actually flattering, she had to admit. But she wouldn't forgive him just yet, as if he had truly wronged her. Then, running out of decent remarks to throw at him even before she could think of worth uttering ones, she added in a low voice, "Weird boy."

A boy? Me? At first, he frowned. But then, he chose to simply flash another amused grin at her weird comment. You really are something.

For a while, they stayed, staring at each other, with Aipreal glaring daggers at him while Nathaniel getting entertained by her mood swings. Never had he seen a girl as quick-witted—as proven by the hairclip incident this morning—and as daring—evident by her strolling alone in the dark—as her. She seemed to be timid for she must be the only girl who didn't approach him during the festival and start a trivial conversation. In fact, now that they began their small talk, him moving again to a new home after a couple of years or so was the first thing she brought up. He, himself, had not even thought about that at all. And though she looked coy, she spoke with unmistakable affirmation. So, you're not the apologetic shy type, eh?

Aipreal finally broke the staring contest, "This is really humiliating. I'm going home," and she stomped off towards her mansion.

"Hey, it's okay. It's no big deal, really," Nathaniel followed suit.

"They must be laughing at me."

"No, they were not. I told them I've always liked the name," he finally caught up, "That's why I asked you to put it instead of my real name."

"Well, that was really gay, you know," she made a face that looked she really was freaked out.

With this, he stepped right in front of her, arms crossed, "Care to repeat that?"

Suddenly, she burst into fits, breaking the cold evening silence that had been lingering for a while now. She was giggling so hard she almost fell to the ground.

"Hey, I'm not gay," Nathaniel frowned as he watched her have hysterics.

But she did not seem to have heard him. Today was her birthday and she was simply having the time of her life. Would it kill to let her laugh all she wanted tonight? Besides, considering her boring life in that hopeless mansion of theirs, she never had so much fun in a really long time. Though, she wasn't exactly sure what it was that made it fun.

Perhaps, it was yet to come...

"I said I'm not gay!" Nathaniel repeated himself as he was already starting to feel annoyed by her chuckles, "I'll prove it to you."

In an instant, her laughter hushed down as it got muffled by the sweet sound of two pairs of lips locking.

And on that night, my first kiss was stolen by the most wonderful person in the whole wide world.

The usual gloomy demeanor of the mansion had slowly faded away ever since that fateful day. Nathan could be found in the huge house almost every other day, keeping the princess of the house company—from telling tales, to making his own contributions to her already messy kitchen experiments, to helping her with school homework and projects even though they attended different high schools.

Though he knew all too well that Aipreal was one heck of a dexterous lass, music was one trade he could enthusiastically and indulgently brag about for the girl somewhat lacked the knack for this particular craft. He had wondered why; though he never bothered to ask, dismissing the thought and regarding it as a simple trivial matter, which it was.

At any rate, the ivories in the great hall would always look inviting whenever he visited. And with him posed in front of the ebony grand was one sight that would almost always take Aipreal's breath away, especially on the day he first sat on it.

Lack of skill was one thing. But lack of interest was another. Aipreal knew her weaknesses. That's why she adored people who had them for strengths. And she loved Nathan more because of that. He had never bored her, that's why.

Exactly a year later since that fateful day, after months of endless mirth, occasional bickering, a series of teasing, and everyday banter, Nathan arrived at the mansion porch, a bouquet of white roses in hand. After all, his date was now sweet sixteen.

For weeks, he had wondered what to give her on this special day. There seemed to be no item in the market that could really please her for she had practically got everything in that colossal abode of hers. Indeed, she was a princess, an heiress, which would certainly secure her a bright future. Not that she actually needed this immense wealth to be assured of her future because she alone was a brilliant hard-working student with her own many ambitions.

So what was it that she truly lacked?

Meona was the one who opened the door after a couple of knocks by him. She was old and wrinkly but full of energy. Her blue eyes would dance in excitement whenever Nathan was around. If Aipreal did not know better, she'd say her nanny had fallen head over heels in love with her friend. But such thought was ridiculous though she found it rather amusing, often letting it pass with a giggle.

"But he looks like my grandson," was Meona's forever excuse every time Aipreal would tease her about it.

"Nana, is Aipreal home?" Nathan knew it was a silly question but blurted it out, anyway, due to nervousness. Wait, why am I nervous all of a sudden? Is it because I don't have a decent gift to give her?

"Oh, she's just upstairs with Julienne," Meona cocked her head towards the stairs with a loving smile. "Come in, I'll make some tea for the three of you."

"Who's Julienne?" Nathan asked in curiosity as he was ushered into the foyer. Just then, Aipreal came running down the marble staircase rather hastily. "Watch it!" Nathan exclaimed when the celebrant almost slipped at the bottom steps. The hem of her dress got caught by a sharp protruded carving on the balustrades, that's why.

But Aipreal was able to regain her composure at once. No way was she going to look ridiculous in front of her date. "Julie is my ten-year old cousin. She's going to live with me from now on. I'm really lonely in here, you know."

Lonely? What do you think I come here everyday for? Nathan frowned, not because of what she said, but because of the hurt in her voice. Wait, is she hinting something?

"We both are," Aipreal added instantly, seeing the sudden change in Nathan's expression. Gee, I meant it as a joke. But realizing it was her fault anyway, she went on, "Julie, too, is an only child like me. And a very special one. She needs company. I do, too. So, our parents decided that we should live together."

Or maybe not. Nathan frowned even more, realizing that what he had thought a while ago about her hinting something had been disproved. Well, hinting or not, he now knew the perfect gift to give her.

"What the heck are you scowling for?" Aipreal slapped him on the arm jokingly as she was kind of frustrated with the way his mood seemed to have worsened despite her efforts to cheer him up. "Come on, where are you taking me today?" she grabbed his now swelling arm and dragged him towards the door. "Hey, pretty! Are those mine?" her hazel eyes sparkled upon seeing the white bouquet he was trying his best to conceal behind him with his other arm.

"Yours?" Nathan chortled. "Yeah, for you."

"It's the same thing."

"No, it's not," He shook his head, handing the roses to her. "They're mine. I bought them. And they're for you."

"Fine, I lost," she sighed in defeat. His commonsensical reasoning would often get the better of her for his logic was not in any way pure. There was always a tinge of charm and sugariness mixed in it. And as much as she hated being beaten by this annoyingly unique logic of his, she loved it.

"Hey, before we leave, aren't you going to do something about that rip?" Nathan raised an eyebrow at the hole made on her dress by the little accident at the bottom of the stairs a while back, which now showed a good portion of her thigh, "I don't really appreciate the idea of my girlfriend parading some skin that's not supposed to be seen, you know."

Immediately, he bit his lip upon uttering the last word. It actually hurt it almost bled.

"Hey, that rhymed." Fortunately for him, Aipreal seemed amazed rather than surprised. Then, as if another nose had sprouted on her companion's face, her jaw dropped and her eyes grew big as a realization dawned upon her. "What did you just call me?" her hazel orbs were now sparkling in delight, though, with a hint of mockery. She would never pass the chance to tease him, especially when caught in one of his few goofy moments.

"Uh..." Nathan was once again trying to formulate another logical reason to counter her impending taunt. But it was his fault for letting that word slip out in an untimely manner. "You should change then I'll tell you."

"Agreed," she exclaimed, dashing upstairs and into her bedroom right away.

A fun and memorable day it was. A typical date but Nathan had managed to spice it up a little. They left the house as ordinary acquaintances and they returned as lovers. This morning, his dilemma was what to give Aipreal as birthday present. And at the café where he took her, he had simply let his sweet talk do the trick. Aipreal had to admit, Nathan was a pro in that department.

"The gift I brought, you might not like it," he began with fearful eyes.

His expression was so contagious Aipreal could not help but worry herself. "Why, what is it?"

"I swear, I did my best to make it look great," he continued, raising his hand in pledge.

"You know it's no big deal even if you didn't bring any," Aipreal said in assurance.

"Will a boyfriend do?" Nathan blurted out in an instant, now with childlike innocent pleading eyes.

For a moment, they stared at each other in silence. Aipreal's hand wandered about the table and grabbed the first thing it had touched. It was the menu.

Upon acquisition, the poor thing had graced Nathan's head in a loud smack, courtesy of his adorably violent date. "That's got to be the cheesiest thing I've ever heard in my sixteen years of existence."

For some reason, his sweet talk never worked with her. Well, usually.

"Really? In that case, I'm very proud," Nathan managed a smile, despite his throbbing skull.

"Gee, I didn't know my boyfriend could also talk of cheesy crap, aside from gay ones," she mumbled in sarcasm.

"Still, you just regarded me as your boyfriend," he sneered in triumph, which earned a blush from Aipreal's already rosy cheeks, "Ready for your second kiss?"

As expected, the menu had landed again on his thick skull.

Nothing had changed, except for the intertwined hands. The walk home was like any other. The chosen topic of conversation was even more typical.

"Nana will be surprised when she sees us," Aipreal giggled, remembering her good old nanny's hypothetical crush on Nathan.

"I doubt," Nathan yawned.

"You bet?"

"If I win, you'll get your third kiss," he smirked.

"Pervert," and she smacked him for the fourth time today, "By the way, remind me to introduce you to Julie when we get home. Then, let's all go to the festival together. I got the afternoon shift in the refreshments section."

"Sure," he shrugged, "By the way, you said she was special. In what sense?"

"Ah, that's because she can't see," she replied pitifully.

"She lost her sight?"

"No, since birth. She was born blind," Aipreal clarified.

"Oh, poor kid," Nathan muttered, feeling sorry for the girl's misfortune, "She doesn't even have an idea how herself looks like."

"No, that's what makes her even more special," Aipreal corrected him.

"What do you mean?"

"She knows exactly how she looks like. How a person looks like, features and all," she narrated.

"Well, that's kind of subjective because you don't really know how much she can imagine," Nathan reasoned.

"You have a point there," she mumbled thoughtfully. Now that she considered Nathan's opinion, maybe Julie's parents might have been a little harsh on her. Exiling her in the mansion like that would not help their daughter at all. She then remembered the real reason why her aunt and uncle were forced to send Julie away. The poor girl had been suspected of being possessed by the devil for she suddenly started doing and talking about things she was not supposed to know given her state of disability. "She can play the piano just like you."

Though surprised by the additional information, Nathan simply blinked as he turned to his girlfriend, "Beethoven was deaf."

"That's a different story."

Nathan shrugged, realizing her point, "How well can she play?"

"Really well for someone who never took lessons."

"Maybe that's her true gift, to compensate for her disability," he contributed as he insisted on viewing the issue from a different angle, "How many pieces can she play?"

"Only one," Aipreal replied, remembering what Julie's parents had told her, "She keeps playing that one again and again but never finishes it."

"See? It's not as strange as you think," Nathan smiled, "Be very surprised if suddenly she plays all the masterpieces in the world."

With this, Aipreal managed to stifle a laugh. This was another trait she loved about him. He could always carry out his critical thinking with a straight face. And after a few words of wisdom, she herself would end up holding a straight face as well.

A few more strides and they had reached the mansion porch finally. But even before Aipreal was able to rap a couple of knocks, the front door opened.

"Well, it's about time," Meona greeted the couple on the doorstep, a knowing grin plastered on her always smiling face.

"Told you," Nathan raised an eyebrow at the oblivious girl beside him, catching her off-guard with a quick smack on the lips.

Aipreal's nonchalant voice could be heard amidst the silence reigning over the den of the Favia household. It was a fine morning; she and her cousin were having a sumptuous breakfast when the phone rang. Meona picked it up. It was Aipreal's mother, who was currently in Europe with her father.

"I'll be fine, Mom. Don't worry about me," the bored Favia heiress sighed, "It's not like this is the first time you've left me alone." There was an intended sarcasm in her last statement but just decided not to pursue it. And on my birthday, too.

"We've already sent you your birthday gift. It should be arriving in a week. I'm sure you'll love it!" came the enthralled voice of Mrs. Favia.

"That rhymed, Mom."

"What was that, dear?"

"Never mind. I'm just weird," Aipreal heaved another sigh and simply let her mother do the rest of the talking. Well, I must have inherited my weirdness from you guys. I wonder what kind of bizarre gift you're sending me this time.

An hour or so later, Nathan arrived. This year, since it was Aipreal's eighteenth birthday, he had come prepared. Standing still beside him on the doorstep was a pink parcel—a rectangular box that reached up to his knees, with a yellow ribbon sitting lazily on top. What it contained was for Aipreal to find out, of course.

"Hi, you're early," Aipreal greeted him with a kiss, which surprised him, and ushered him into the den.

"What was that about?" he eyed her suspiciously. Normally, she would give him a high-five for a greeting.

"Well, I'm a woman now."

"Okay..." he looked weirded out but he liked the idea, anyway.

The yellow ribbon stood out in Aipreal's peripheral view and so her eyes immediately darted towards Nathan's lifeless elfin companion.

"I'm claiming this, right here and right now, so don't bother arguing with me," she flashed him a smile that he couldn't resist and gathered the package in her arms. It was rather light for its size and as it was lifted up, a soft crumbling sound was heard from within.

"What's this?" she asked in curiosity and continued shaking the big box, creating noise that sounded like a carton of cereals.

"I thought it's yours so why are you asking me?"

Darn! He had beaten her again. And so without further ado, she ripped the parcel open, revealing a picturesque scene printed on one face of the box. On the upper right hand corner, it said 5000 pieces, which certainly made her gawk in awe.

"It's a jigsaw puzzle," she mumbled agape as she continued to marvel the art. At the bottom, it was labeled Hidden Arbor, signed by the artist, Thomas Kinkade. Still, she couldn't believe her eyes for some reason. She had received quite a number of unusual gifts in the past, no thanks to her parents, and though this one was equally peculiar, she didn't sense the usual nonsensical oddness emanating from the giver. And knowing Nathan, he must have a very good reason for getting her such an ingenious present.

And indeed, he had.

"It was the best gift I could think of that would remind you of me," he smiled sheepishly, "With those many pieces, there's bound to be one that would make you think of me."

What a guy! She thought as she gazed at him, her eyes sparkling with love. If she was her usual self, she'd smack him with the box right then and there. But no, his charming choice of words had touched her deep down, vanquishing the more violent character of hers.

"Liked it?" he asked expectantly.

"Very much!" she nodded, rubbing the impending tears off her eyes.

"Finish it, okay?"

"I definitely will."

He knew she was about to cry and so to preserve her fresh look, he changed the subject right away. "Where's Julie? I thought she's coming with us."

"Are you sure I won't get in the way? I really don't want to be a burden to you guys," came a soft voice, "Trust me, I'll be fine in here on my own."

A timid blonde girl walked into the den, her eyes gracefully shut, revealing long thick lashes.

"But I've already reserved tickets for three," Nathan gestured three fingers. The agenda for today was to attend a concert at the festival, get Aipreal's other gift, and finally plant that long-awaited flag, marking her as his.

"And besides," Aipreal smiled as she leaned forward to whisper something in her cousin's ear, "The more, the merrier."

"Right," Nathan nodded, pointing out his index finger in indication, "The more, the manier."

Okay, so the gig wasn't really that spectacular. Aipreal had to admit, it was the most awful she had seen so far. Therefore, it being the worst could do without elaboration. It would be better to leave it as that to avoid further humiliation. Nathan must have noticed the boredom painted on his girlfriend's face so he decided to might as well leave even before the concert concluded. After all, the rest of the day awaited them with much more interesting events.

A coffee parlor downtown would do the trick. It was a tiny but homey place conveniently located beside a novelty shop. The tables set up outside seemed more inviting in this sunny day than those confined within the fiber glass walling of the parlor.

Nathan did not want to waste any more time so he took this opportunity, while waiting for their orders, to bring Aipreal to the adjoining shop and check out the merchandise. He knew for a fact that Aipreal would love the place. And something in there was going to aid him big time in planting that eminent flag.

"Go ahead, I'll wait here," Julie smiled in assurance. Besides, sitting did not bore her at all. Listening to her surroundings had always amused her.

"Okay, but don't talk to strangers," Aipreal reminded her. And the two set off, leaving the quiet girl alone in their coffee table.

An officer's occasional whistle, a dog barking, an ambulance passing by, flipping of broadsheets at a nearby table, the cries of a little boy because his balloon popped—which caught her in surprise, causing her to jolt in her seat—and then a far off voice calling out her name.

Julie cocked her head as she tried to figure out where the call might have come from.

"Julie, over here!" she heard again. A female voice. Must be Aipreal. Armed with this conclusion, however indefinite it was, she stood up and started to follow in the direction she supposed, completely unaware of the danger she was about to walked herself into.

"Thanks for shopping!" the storeowner waved in appreciation as the couple walked towards the door. Aipreal wore a smile, admiring the way the silver band fitted perfectly around her finger. She simply couldn't explain how great it felt to belong to someone, especially if that person took the ownership as a pleasure and honor.

The shop door's glass window provided a very good view of the coffee tables next door and every now and then, she and Nathan would glance at their table to check up on Julie. But now as they were about to leave, they found the table in question empty and Julie, who seemed oblivious of her current situation, was on her way to cross the street!

"Julie!" the two cried in unison though Nathan's reflexes were far swifter than Aipreal's and he managed to arrive at the forthcoming mishap in no time.

And just in time to be run over by a speeding truck as he shoved Julie to safety.

Aipreal froze in her spot, refusing to believe what had just transpired right before her eyes. His defenseless body was tossed back onto the sidewalk upon impact as crimson spill began to stain the gray pavement underneath. And the next thing she knew, she was crying her heart out, with Nathan's last words confusing her already dazed mind in endless echoes.


And on that day, my only world was gone in a blink.

So, if there was one day she would never forget, it would be the last day of April. Not because it was her birthday. Rather, it was also the same day she had the experience she considered the most heartbreaking. Not quite a happy ending.

The wake lasted a week. And the entire time, Aipreal would simply stand in silence in front of the casket, watching over Nathan's sleeping body, her used-to-be cheerful eyes swollen from crying.

A love lost forever—that's what it was.

Her happiest days with him kept flashing before her with a promising luminance that she thought would glow without end. First love. First heartbreak. And one that seemed incurable. How could she ever recover from this pain when every single dream they had envisioned together haunted her each lonesome moment of her life?

Now, she had been left with no other choice but to return to the monotonous life she once had. And that was what frightened her because at the heart of that simplicity would be an ultimate fear she had hoped to experience never again.

She had almost lost all her tears at the funeral. The past three years had all been nothing but a beautiful dream. And she had never imagined that waking up from such could be this painful.

Despite her hazy vision, she had managed to go home, the gloomy foyer of the mansion greeting her with absolute sympathy. Upon closing the door behind, she looked up and found Julie standing at the bottom of the staircase in wait.

"I'm sorry," the feeble girl managed to mumble in between sobs. It was all her fault, she knew. But how was she supposed to know that there was another Julie in the vicinity? Then again, she should have known better than that. Aipreal would never call out to her like that when she knew all too well what her cousin was incapable of. "I should've stay—"

She was cut off when a trembling hand landed on her cheek in a painful slap that echoed through the hall with hateful reverberation.

Not long after, the sound of angry footsteps could be heard dashing upstairs, concluded by a loud slamming of a door. And downstairs, a pitiful girl filled with a lifelong regret was left in her own agony.

It was never her intention to put the blame on the young girl. But she was also no god who was incapable of hatred and iniquity. A human, after all, no matter how rational he might be, was meant to act beyond reasons as well.

The moment she entered her room, her vision had blurred due to the tears that began to well up in her eyes yet again, giving her a not so vivid view of her surroundings and making her act out of pure instinct. A nice long rest after a week of endless grief, that's what she needed, she thought wearily as she finally succumbed herself into the comforts of her bed.

The bed. She paused for a while. Something about it felt different. The sheets, so soft and fresh. And the mattress, so limp and supple she thought she was going to drown in it. She reached for a pillow and heard a sound of crumpling paper. Opening an eye, she found a card lying on the bed right in front of her face.

Happy birthday, darling! Have fun sleeping. Love, Mom & Dad. She read the card silently. They sent me a bed for my present? She stared blankly at the card for a while. Unbelievable! As much as she wanted to voice out this amazement, she couldn't for she had no more energy to even mutter a whisper of thanks.

And this gift, no matter how enormous it was, did not change the fact that she had just lost the love of her life, never to see him again in this lifetime. With that thought in mind, she couldn't suppress her feelings any longer and bawled like never before till her stingy eyes bled dry with the last teardrop she could yield, dozing her tired self off to a dreamless sleep.

It was early evening when she fell asleep. She had even missed dinner because of it. Meona had knocked several times on her door but the lack of response made the old nanny realize that food would not exactly help an aching heart. So with that, she simply left her be.

For Aipreal, an inevitable derivative of going to bed early was her proneness to waking up in the middle of the night. And tonight was no exception.

Or so she thought.

Perhaps, the one and only thing that would make tonight an exception was the raspy breathing of someone lying next to her, which was in fact the very reason of her awakening. The room had remained unlit from the moment she fell asleep so her vision wouldn't do much in this situation. Strong arms caged her in an embrace that felt dangerous yet protective. Sensing an oddity, which was quite obvious, in the current state she was in, Aipreal was left with no other choice but to defend herself and break free from the intruder's grasp.

But it looked like the sound of her quickening heartbeat did not come unnoticed by the stranger. So even before she was able to push the intruder away, she was pinned down deeper into the sheets while a dark figure of a man loomed over her, trapping her with his arms now placed on either side of her.

"Don't scream," he mumbled in a gruff voice. It was an offhand warning yet Aipreal found herself obeying.

Then, her eyes slowly widened in awe as warm multihued light emanated from beneath them, illuminating her assaulter's princely features of flaxen hair and violet irises. The sight blinded her, with the overwhelming radiance filling every single corner the room, until she could see no more. And the next thing she knew, she was falling deep into whirling oblivion...

With a thump, she was awakened for the second time tonight. But instead of clutching onto silky sheets, her hands brushed against a damp layer of grass that served as her bed at this moment.

Wait a second. Grass? Just what in the world...

Finally, she opened her eyes and found herself underneath a blanket of beautiful emerald sky where there was a surplus of light but no sun at all. In fact, even a thin ray of the fiery sun would not fit in this breezy environment at all. There's just too much green in the place that Aipreal wondered how the people of this world looked like.

And that's when the most absurd thought struck her.

Could it be that there are other worlds above and beyond the place called Earth?