And then there's the case where the love is kept secret till the very end.

A parallel tale to Rakuen.

M/M slash implied.

The Anteros Complex

It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as
"The love that dares not speak its name".

— Oscar Wilde

It was grander than anyone would have ever imagined — a crystal fire of aurulent splendour, spilling and spreading its light to every corner of the vast room, shimmering facets scattered onto the smooth floor like diamonds on water. From hidden corners orchestrated music wafted, soft and slow, rounding up the ambience to near perfection.

Near perfection — until one girl arrives.

Skara could not stop staring at the décor. "This is amazing," she gushed, quite forgetting to be the Renaissance lady she wanted to be for the night. "Who in the world did the — the transmutation for this room? And in only three days?"

He shook his head, smiling and putting on the black harlequin mask as he strolled past the doors with the awed girl. Tonight she was dressed to the nines, in a velveteen gown of a deep silvery blue with black lace trimmings. The entire effect was, however, diminished by a rather contemporary heart-shaped locket, which she insisted on wearing around her neck. A gift from her beau, no doubt.

"You think too much, Ska. The point now is to enjoy ourselves, so get on with it." He watched as Skara hid her upper face behind a sequinned blue mask, and shrugged. "Try finding your darling boyfriend in here, for starters."

The promenade was not yet in full swing, but there was already a reasonable crowd in the gymnasium-turned-ballroom by then. "You talk too much, Relic," Skara countered, and stuck out her tongue at him.

A figure whistled and waved in their direction from a distance, and Skara gave a pleased laugh. Before she flounced over to her boyfriend, however, she eyed at Relic very intently, and said, "I really hope you find her later. Really." She pumped a friendly and unladylike fist at his chest, then went on solemnly, "Till we meet again, my good man."

Relic smiled again, watching the shimmering of her gown in her wake. He then shifted his attention to the throngs of people his age, attempting to send themselves back in time, adjusting themselves to the practices of the Venetian court. "Shall I take your hand, milady," he heard someone say whilst bowing, "and lead you to a dance amongst the blossoms, till we are called in return?" Friends around him burst into frenzied laughter, and the girl in question blushed furiously.

They were all pretending, like he was — unknown and barely recognisable behind all those masks and period costumes, being who they might not be in reality, immersed in song and dance of centuries past, traces of modernity and identity shrouded for that night alone.

It might prove more difficult, but I will know once I see her.

He weaved his way through the dancing couples in royal colours, witnessing more masquerades of varying degrees of convincement. Spurious, perhaps, but extremely memorable for a swansong.

Too bad Dane isn't here to see all this, he thought. Weeks ago his close friend of four years had glumly announced that he would be moving up north with his family, to another city and nearer to the university of his choice — and the plane was scheduled to leave on the morning after the prom.

"But you can still attend," Skara had insisted, "you know, before you go off," but Dane had been reluctant, and largely absent while everyone else in their grade busied themselves for days, with preparation and nerves for the big night. Besides, he had developed a fever just that morning and so would still be giving the dance a miss, after all.

Almost too conveniently.

He would have guessed that Dane was avoiding this night because he did not find anyone to go with him — but neither had Relic, and he was there. What differed his own case from Dane's, however, was that he did not intend to leave the transformed ballroom alone.

Not without her.

– – –

The night during the first-year orientation. Picked from my new class like many others, in another icebreaker contest. Blindfolded, arbitrarily deposited at one corner of the unfamiliar school grounds. Told to work my way around obstacles and back to the rest. With nobody else but the few fellow classmates to guide me along the way.

Arms raised before me, slowly walking. Different voices calling excitedly to me, one at a time. Groaning and sighing as I hit many a wall nearby. "Move to your left," I heard someone say, irriratedly. Past a particular barrier, into another new territory. This time nobody gave me directions, but fingers closed themselves around my wrist. Slowly I was led, around obstructions, off the designated route.

He had kept the incident from anyone all this while — except once, after the theme for their graduation prom was announced, a few weeks back, and off his tongue the elusive encounter had tumbled out. "Maybe if I still haven't found out who she is by then," he had mused aloud — almost revelling, "I'll find out for myself on that final night. Somehow."

"Two years, for goodness sake," Skara had exclaimed. "What makes you think she might even remember it? And how will you know for sure who exactly it is you're looking for?"

Relic had shrugged with a dreamy smile. "I don't know. Fate, perhaps."

Dane, who was with them, had said nothing then, but had looked more disturbed than disinterested. "What, are you jealous?" Relic had jested. "That I have a secret admirer, or that she would soon be an incredibly lucky girl?"

To which Dane had replied, after an extraordinarily long pause, "You're right. I'm jealous of that girl you think you love," and left it at that.

His answer had only made Relic wonder even more about her, a girl whose identity he knew not yet of, but whose existence was enough to induce some unfathomable envy in his friend. He imagined her to be petite — almost elfin, for she came and went like the wind, drifting on her gossamer wings. He imagined her to be reticent — preferring to draw near him only with his eyes covered, and without any subsequent letters of any sort he anticipated from her. He imagined her to be beautiful, in her own way — but even if she was nowhere near his expectations, he did not think he would mind.

And many a time he spent thinking, of what he would say to her, when he met her at long last. That he wished to know her name? That he wanted to hear her reason for the fateful encounter? That he needed to know if her heart was true, if it still would be? That if — heaven forbid — it was all a practical joke, he would barely have the courage to indulge in love again?

For if you truly liked me two years back, I will wish to return your affections come this night.

Half-immersed in imageries and possibilities, Relic slipped through the music and dance, solitary. Nobody else recognised him in his black facial facade, and neither did he them in their own masks. All he saw were eyes, bright and enthusiastic; mouths, curled in amusement and enjoyment; swirling colours of deep purple, red and blue, in a broken sea of black.

All he wanted to see was a pair of eyes, waiting for him.

He went to the edge of the dancing floor, standing alongside a few other weary couples and some blasé individuals, watching the flurry of activity under the grandeur of the crystal chandelier high above. The aurulent light reflected itself off a certain glittering object at the corner of his eye, and he turned towards it.

There a girl stood, clad in a full-skirted satin gown in champagne gold — the colour of fresh morning sunlight falling over a lake undisturbed — that tumbled down to her ankles, and was delicately rimmed by bronze pleating. Her hair was short, ending in a slim French braid to the nape of her neck, and her face half-hidden behind a magnificent mask, a single golden feather extending to just above her head.

Like a dream, calling, waiting to be discovered, to be realised.

In the shadow of his own mask he smiled, and he knew. Striding to before the anonymous girl, he fulfilled his role as a Venetian gentleman, bowing and extending his hand before himself.

"May I?" he asked, raising his eyes to meet hers — a lovely shade of sterling blue. They blinked once, and the hand holding the slim gold stick attached to her mask faltered slightly. But she gave a little curtsey, and her other hand placed itself gently on his.

He led her closer to the heart of the magical ballroom, and placed one hand on her waist, with the other hand still curled around hers. In that proximity he observed her — forever obscured by her mask of gilded gold and black, sparse diamante glinting along its top edges, silken gold and silver ribbon accents running down the length of the golden stick.

In that same proximity she gazed at him too, holding his hand more tightly against her own, in some form of tacit acknowledgement. Almost on cue their feet turned, and they began dancing, in time with the music — an allegory of courtly love.

The brilliant lights shifted, from the rhinestones on her mask, to the faint gloss on her lips, to the fineness of her sandy blond hair, to the sparkling amber crystal at each of her ears — the source of the glitter he had caught earlier, from the sidelines. They were drop earrings, toned in gold, with that tear-shaped gemstone at the end, swaying with her every movement.

He found himself smiling yet again, for he thought her beautiful, almost perfect. Almost. The smooth contour of her cheekbone; the slender arms, half hidden under biased bell sleeves of golden satin. Her modest yet svelte figure, subtly punctuated by the tiny gold trimmings that ran along the length of her neckline, and down her front. The faint, sweet scent on her — indescribable, but reminiscent of the vernal month of March. And the way she was, right next to him — a perfect stranger, yet so strangely right at the same time.

Perhaps he was jumping into conclusions, believing everything he could see to be his ideals, rendering this unknown girl as who he really was looking for. But even if he was wrong, he wished it to be a beautiful mistake before accepting that she was not the one.

Finally tearing himself from his thoughts, he searched for her eyes once more, and spoke to her, for the second time that night.

"May I know your name?"

The girl looked down slightly, then raised her head and smiled sincerely back at him. "Danielle," she said.

Danielle, he chanted it in his mind. Danielle. How apt a name for his golden girl, simple yet elegant. And her voice — slightly low, but round and sweet, as if coated with honey. Exactly as he heard before, exactly as he remembered.

Still, he needed to know.

"Was it you that night, two years back?" he asked, in a softer voice. He twirled Danielle around in a perfect circle — her skirt ballooning out under her like a big top — until she faced him again, her body lightly nudging into his; she lithely resumed her position, but did not answer.

He was afraid she had not understood him, but did not want to frighten her with his insistence, or by revealing too much. His hand slipped from her waist to her elbow instead, where the sleeve caressed his fingers like whispering curtains. She turned away slightly at his touch. "Was it?" he asked once more.

There was a thousand in one chance that he had found the right person, but he had to ask. Too many days and nights he had spent wondering, wondering who the mysterious girl had been, wondering if it was him she really had wanted to approach, wondering if he had just been the oblivious pawn in someone's game of Truth or Dare.

Please let it be you, Danielle.

Her feet slowly ceased its movements, and she raised her eyes to look at him, pools of melancholy blue melting into grey. For several moments there was nothing but faraway melodies filling the space between them, but eventually she smiled, visibly affected.

"You remembered," she said, very quietly.

– – –

"Is the game over?" I asked. Tried to remove my blindfold, but both my wrists were held instead. Rested gently by my sides, then released. "Can I take this off now?" I asked again. Feeling slightly annoyed, yet inquisitive.

"No," my mystery acquaintance whispered. "Not yet." Opened my mouth to inquire once more, but felt a finger press itself against my lips. Then no more, as something else did. Her own.

She kissed me, very gently, very briefly. A coolness playing across my mouth, then hurried, receding footsteps. Tore off the strip of cloth before my eyes, and saw only her disappearing shadow. Distant cheers as another team won. And then nothing more.

They continued dancing into the night, lost amongst the other lively couples, while the moon rose undiscovered outside the curtained windows. Like penfriends of a distant past reunited they revealed, in fragments, of a history incomplete, to each other.

As the time passed Relic found himself drawn, closer and closer, to this long-awaited girl that was Danielle. Somehow he felt at ease with her, and could seem to talk to her more readily than he expected himself to. It was Danielle, however, that was more passive, hanging back as though troubled about having divulged her secret.

"Because I wanted to," was her quiet response, when Relic asked her the reason for the unseen kiss, while they hovered near the sidelines, in the safety of falling shadows. He brushed a stray lock of her hair just then, tucking it behind her ear, hiding his newfound felicity as he did, behind a grateful smile.

The crystal swung gently, shining in its own diminutive brilliance. "Did you love me then, when you did that?" he questioned.

Her blue eyes, almost too familiar, shimmered a fleeting gold, and stared at his with a cryptic sadness. "Was I entitled to?" Danielle asked, her voice wavering, ever so slightly.

Relic carried no answer for that, for he did not know what to say. Instead he pressed a hand against the back of her soft hair, guiding her head to his shoulder, holding her there right beside him. For a long time neither of them said another word, and they merely swayed, gently, her golden mask separating her face from his coat.

He could feel, however, her heart beating close to his own, and her breaths — quivering, concealing further words, further truths she wanted him to know about. Something tugged at him, deep inside, and he realised he did not need to hear those words, especially if they were to shatter the perfection that lay itself before him, right at that moment. Out of that same denial to know any further, he held Danielle closer, but the music drifting in the background began to fade — and as though it were a wake-up call she sought to leave his embrace.

"Danielle?" he called gently. But her hand slid away from his, and her face fell, eyes hidden in the shades of her golden mask.

"I . . . I think you're wonderful, Relic," she said, her voice soft but bitter, "but I really cannot stay."

She turned to leave, but he took her by the wrist and refused to let go, ignoring the tuxedoed emcee that went on stage to announce the unmasking ceremony. "No, Danielle," he insisted. "I think you're wonderful too, and that's why I don't want you to leave."

"But I have to."

He drew in his arm, bringing Danielle closer before him, her hand shaking slightly as it held the golden stick, and he placed his other hand on her shoulder. "I want to know who you really are, Danielle," he told her softly. "I want to see your face without your mask. And . . . I want to return your love for me. I really do."

She was shaking her head, not taking in anything that he said. "You won't like me," he vaguely heard her say, words echoing his thoughts. Of course, there was the possible fact that Relic might not like who she really was, after all, but he wanted to dispel her of that disillusion. Because he knew: he would give themselves a chance, even if he could not promise their future.

"I only know that I won't hate you," he finally answered, quietly. His eyes briefly glanced at the silver of moonlight falling onto the waxy floor from between the curtains on the nearest window, and inside his mind he anticipated the impending first toll of midnight.

He did not want two years of waiting to end in remorse and the reciprocal of a glass slipper.

"Please stay, Danielle."

He waited for her reply, her decision to his request, her agreement to his promise, but all she did was raise her head to look at him again, her eyes momentarily lit with a fading hope.

"Then . . . then do you think you can love me, just for tonight?" she asked, in the smallest voice he had ever heard from her.

His hand drifted to the side of Danielle's face, fingers tenderly grazing the smoothness of her lightly rouged cheek. In the distance a clock tower struck twelve, the first chime reverberating and rolling into the night. As the lights in the entire hall dimmed, he leaned closer to her, closing his eyes, his other hand gently pushing the slim golden stick to their side, removing half the barrier that separated her face from his.

"I think I can," was all that he said, and then no more — for his lips were against hers, in the softest caress he could manage. It was the same, the same lips he had felt on his own, the same surge of unspoken bliss he had felt in his heart, two years ago — but with the addition of a faint presence of cherry blossoms, of the very same ambience of spring that hovered about her.

It was you, Danielle. It really was you.

Heartened, he let his hand slip away, slowly, running his thumb over the side of her head, the softness of her hair, and then her ear; there was a silent click, and then something buried itself into his palm, temporarily forgotten.

By the fifth toll they were apart, foreheads separated merely by his own mask of black, and there they stood — feeling, listening to each other's breaths against their own, their eyes still shut, his fingers still curled around hers, the hand holding the golden stick. All around them were squeals and laughter as people removed their facades and recognised one another — but the duo said nothing, nothing at all.

He thought he heard a soft sob from Danielle, but all he did was tip his head lower, until he was facing down, at the other hand that held the strange object; opening his eyes he realised what it was — the golden earring, citrine teardrop glinting dully, as the crystal chandelier on the ceiling gradually bathed the entire room in its lambent light once more.

A small wetness fell onto his hand, and it occurred to him that Danielle was crying. Somehow both her tear and the earring seemed to indicate something, yet he could not put his finger on what it was. As the twelfth toll died away it finally dawned on him, and fearing what he would find out he slowly drew back — removing his own mask as he did — seeing, for the very first time, who he thought was his golden girl, straight into the sterling blue eyes — which he at last knew why they seemed so familiar to him, all along.

The tears continued falling freely, the golden mask that hid them before no longer serving its purpose, instead hanging forlorn, by the side.

"Would you have loved me if I really were a Danielle?" asked Dane, in a broken whisper.

Relic did not say anything, did not do anything. But the harlequin mask unconsciously slipped from his hand and onto the floor, inaudible, yet resonating in both their hearts, in some sort of dreaded finality.

And they knew.

Before Relic could reply Dane had already turned, pushing himself through the crowd — his golden costume vanishing between the folds of sombre shades — half-running to the side door, pushing it open, and disappearing into the eternal night.

Relic did not follow.

Slowly he bent down and reached for his black mask, slipping it silently into his jacket. There was no need for that anymore, for everyone else's disguises had been equally discarded; for even without the mask he had still been blinded — blinded by his own desires, by his own epitomes of perfection, when all that existed was someone in another masquerade, reflecting merely what truly lay deep within, beneath yet another everyday front.

His eyes were fixed at the open door, and still were when a girl eventually forced her way through their peers, tugging anxiously at his sleeve. "Have you found her, Relic?" Skara asked, hesitantly, looking around for the girl whom she expected to find by his side.

Relic looked down, opening the closed fist at his side, where the amber crystal glistened, in silent lament. In his mind a distant voice echoed: wan, lonely, and — veiled beneath years of friendship — needy.

I'm jealous of that girl you think you love.

"Yes," he said, softly, wistfully. "I have."