Kei brings the dogs to the wheat field because he loves the rustling sound. He loves the soft scrape of dry stems over glossy fur and the swish of fluffy ears of wheat as the dogs barrel through, no sign of the beasts although their trails are apparent, winding through the field with their thick paws packing the loamy dirt.
His father tells him not to bring the dogs to the wheat field because they break the stems. But Kei loves that sound, too. The sun sits high above the city, glimmering proudly. Clouds creep from the west. Some are dark, nasty, bubbling, black and purple, but Kei will be home by the time they bring the rain. The storm will batter the wheat and hide the dogs’ paths, wipe the slate clean. Paw prints will melt into the gummy earth.
Stems snap at the far edge of the field; at Kei’s back. He turns. He turns again.
Rabbit slumps over at his feet, his droopy mouth wet and slobbering. Saliva soaks the black fur of his neck. It drips onto the soil, dyes it dark. He looks up at Kei and pants. Fox is close by. She winds trails in the wheat not three yards in front of them. At Kei’s back, wheat snaps again. Rabbit huffs a yawn.
“Some guard dog you are,” Kei tells him, and turns on his heel.
He sifts through the wheat, rustling, swishing. He approaches the clearing; just a few feet of empty soil where wheat used to be, the sorry stumps of what remains of their stems poking regretfully from the earth. Kei stares down at a mop of chestnut hair. Wheat snaps again.
Yamaguchi whips his head up to look at him. His mouth parts. His lips are red; sunburnt. He pushes a basket behind his back and grins.
“Hey, Tsukki,” he greets.
“Hi. What are you doing out here?”
“I heard the dogs,” Yamaguchi mentions, scratching his ear. “They sound bigger.”
“Yamaguchi, what are you doing out here?”
Kei steps around him and eyes the basket at his back.
“Are you stealing wheat?” Kei asks.
Yamaguchi huffs a sigh. He stands from the dirt and wipes the dirt from the knees of his pants. He’s closer to Kei’s height now.
“Yeah, okay, Tsukki, I am.” He looks somewhere over Kei’s shoulder. “It’s just that our field isn’t—well, I mean—and my mother needs it for the bread, remember, so I’m trying to—sorry, it’s just that—but please don’t tell anyone.”
Kei tilts his head. Something thorny pokes inside his chest.
“Of course I won’t.”
Yamaguchi nods, lets out a breath of relief. The thorn pokes harder. Fox and Rabbit jostle the wheat behind him.
“I should get the dogs back,” Kei says, tossing a glance over his shoulder.
Yamaguchi clutches the wheat stem in his fist, its ear to the ground like the point of a sword. In his other hand, he picks up the basket. The tall plants skim the fabric of his shirt. His grin is brief and familiar.
“It was really good to see you, Tsukki,” he tells Kei.
He skitters from the field like a mouse. Kei is astonished when the dogs don’t go after him.
The wind picks up throughout the afternoon, sneaking through cracks in the stone walls of the castle, creaking wooden doors and slamming shutters. The dogs sit quietly in their pen and wait for the storm. Kei does the very same in his room. It’s dark before he’s summoned downstairs. Loads of candles have been placed in the corridors because the draft keeps blowing them out.
The candelabra in the throne room sways gently where it dangles from the ceiling. An entire loaf of bread sits on the plate in front of Kei’s father, a single bite taken from its heel. Kei eyes the knife by the edge of the plate, unused. It glints dully in the candlelight.
“Sit, sit,” his father insists, and Kei does. “Want some, Kei?” He nudges the plate Kei’s way and pulls it back to himself when Kei shakes his head. “How was your day?”
“Fine. I took a walk,” Kei answers, “in the wheat field.”
“You didn’t bring the dogs, did you?”
“Of course not.”
Servants shuffle through the grand room. They deliver pitchers and platters to the table; vegetables and cheese, more bread, jugs of wine and water. Kei’s father thanks them and they scatter. The room falls quiet again except for the hollow swoop of wine as it fills a cup, the sharp sound as he pushes the drink across to the table to Kei.
“Listen, Kei,” he begins. “I want to propose something to you.”
“I don’t want a title.”
“I know that. Something else—just hear me out.” His father clears his throat. “I’m your father, and I hate you see you wander this castle on your own all the time.”
Kei watches him warily. “I’m not marrying anyone.”
Sitting back in his chair, he brings the cup of wine to his lips. He grimaces. Sour.
“I didn’t say that, I didn’t say you have to marry them—although it did work out perfectly for your brother, as you know, and it was my idea—but Kei, I would just like you to mingle with someone. Now, listen,” his father lectures, a convivial hand on Kei’s shoulder. “I’ve taken your preferences into account this time due to the last fiasco, you remember. But I’m getting away from my point here.”
“Which is?” Kei mutters.
“There is a nice young man whose father runs the province north of here. You may remember him. Short, kind of stocky. Red hair and an affinity for jam. We had the two of them here years back for a festival."
Kei remembers. He called Kei a snob, dropped three rolls of bread into the pot of soup because he insisted he could juggle them, and ruined Kei’s favorite formal shirt.
“I can’t,” Kei says, point-blank.
His father blinks at him. “Why on earth not?
Kei struggles for a lie. One doesn’t come. His father sighs.
“You’ll be nineteen soon. It’ll be good for you.”
“What does my birthday have to do with it?”
“I’ve already all but arranged it, Kei, and I promise it’ll be fruitful,” his father swears.
“Kei, that’s enough. It’s final.”
Kei glances at his father’s head. Even when it’s bare, he still sees the crown.
“But I’m already seeing someone.”
Kei drinks down his wine. His face burns under his father’s wide-eyed stare. His father breaks out into a grin, his palms slapped joyfully to the tabletop. The platters jump. A stick of celery falls onto the table.
“You don’t say?” he gushes. “Who?”
“Kei.” His father looks seriously at him. “I haven’t seen you hang around with anyone for years. Not since the baker’s son.”
The chair creaks as his father sits back in it, his grin unfaltering, and Kei hears all the wrong gears click inside his head.
“Oh? What was his name again, Kei?”
Kei stares hard at the celery stick. “Um. Yamaguchi.”
“That’s it then, son? Are you seeing him? Maybe I can cancel the arrangement after all.”
Kei’s mouth goes dry. His head jerks in a swift nod.
“Yes,” he mumbles. “Maybe you can.”
His father barks a mirthful sound and the wine sloshes around the pitcher as he grabs it to fill his own cup, prompting Kei’s to lift his as well. He looks so happy. But Kei would rather stomach the guilt than marry a juggler, and certainly a juggler he didn't choose himself. He stares into his cup, candlelight bending over the liquid like dull, drowning stars. The wine is bright and red like sunburnt lips.
Kei flinches as his father smacks their cups together in celebration.
Kei finds Yamaguchi in the marketplace. He takes apple after red apple in each of his hands and grips them tight, checking their firmness, wobbling the fruits on each of his palms like a human scale, frowning, and placing them back in the cart when they disappoint him. Kei bites the inside of his cheek.
Truly, some things don’t change.
Yamaguchi turns his way, his eyes wide, his grin wider.
“Tsukki?” he says. “What are you doing here?”
“Do you still do that?”
Kei glances at the apples in his hands, Yamaguchi’s fingers tan against their bright skin.
“You have to check their firmness,” Yamaguchi insists.
“You don’t want a mushy apple.”
Townsfolk chatter on the street around them, filling the lull. The chatter dulls swiftly as heads turn over shoulders toward the marketplace’s center. Horse hooves clip-clop on stone streets. A boisterous laugh bounces off the city walls. Kei swears under his breath.
When Kei reads of kings, he reads of them sitting regally on their thrones and devouring scrumptious meals and delivering powerful speeches in massive rooms—not dawdling through the lower streets and making conversation with potato vendors, haggling playfully with them for sport before granting them twice what they’re owed. But Kei’s father has always defied tradition.
“Put down an apple.”
“What?” Yamaguchi asks, staring quizzically at him.
The fanfare peeks around the corner. Yamaguchi turns over his shoulder like the others.
“Hey,” he chirps. “There’s the king.”
“Yamaguchi,” Kei presses, “put the apple down.”
“Is there a bruise?” Yamaguchi wonders, turning back.
Not a moment after he places the apple back in the cart, Kei scoops Yamaguchi’s hand into his. He fits their palms together and squeezes his fingers between Yamaguchi’s, cool from the apples. Kei spins on his heel to meet his father on horseback.
“Kei!” his father booms.
The knights who flank him stare steadily ahead. Kei clears his throat. His father’s gaze falls to him and Yamaguchi’s hands.
“Oh? Yamaguchi, isn’t it?”
Yamaguchi is dead silent. Kei squeezes his hand.
“Oh! Uh, yes, sire.”
“No need for formalities, and you don’t have to look so red in the face. Kei has filled me in. Don’t you worry.” Restless, Kei’s father’s horse shuffles on the stone. He pats its neck and salutes Kei and Yamaguchi. He flicks the reins and the horses start up again. “I’m off. You all have a nice time.”
Kei waits until they’re around the corner to drop Yamaguchi’s hand. He scrubs his hands over his face, feels it burning hot against his fingers. He doesn’t want to look over. The street gets noisy again, finally, the ebb and flow of voices and wooden wheels on cracked stone.
“What’s wrong with red hair?”
The rock Yamaguchi tosses ker-plunks into the lake, smashing its mirrored surface. Kei watches from where they sit on the grassy bank. He wipes the apple he’d bought against the knee of his pants. Yamaguchi holds his in his hand, a couple bites taken out of it.
“It’s everything put together.”
“That was years ago, though.”
“Yet my hatred burns on. Don’t underestimate me.”
Yamaguchi breathes a laugh. He lobs another stone into the lake and watches the ripples.
“I don’t. I’m only saying he could be a lot different now. Poised. Charming.”
“A juggler,” Kei replies.
“A professional juggler,” Yamaguchi counters, taking another bite of his apple.
Kei hums. He rolls more rocks to Yamaguchi’s side when he runs out of ammunition. An overzealous fish slaps the water near the far bank and the ripples it creates are so different from the ones that follow Yamaguchi’s disruptions; more chaotic and random. The lake just swallows the pebbles obediently and then licks calm, slight waves into its surface as a thank you. Kei looks away. He stares between his feet.
“Yamaguchi,” he mutters, and Yamaguchi stops everything and looks at him. “I’m sorry for folding you into my lie. I spoke without thinking.”
Yamaguchi stares at him for a moment. He rolls a tiny rock around his palm.
“That’s rare for you, Tsukki.” He lets the rock slide off his hand and onto the ground with the others. “Speaking without thinking.”
“Is that sarcasm?”
“No. Why me, though?”
“Why was I your initial thought,” he asks, “for a fake lover?”
Lover. Kei feels warm, sleepy; like he’s woken up between silk sheets on the first day of winter.
“My father cited you as the only person I’d hung around for years.”
Yamaguchi’s face filters through several expressions before it settles on neutral. He nods and plucks another rock from his pile. The water drinks it down dutifully. Kei eyes the scrape on Yamaguchi’s knee just below the seam of his pants, most likely from walking into something he shouldn’t have. Clumsy. Yamaguchi tosses another rock.
“It’s hard to skip them when I’m sitting down,” he insists, lifting himself from the grass.
“Are you trying to skip them?” Kei wonders.
“Tsukki, watch this.”
Yamaguchi sifts through his stash for the flattest rock and sends it skipping atop the lake’s surface, dipping in swiftly before taking off again, one, two, three times before it sinks to the depths. Kei raises an eyebrow. Yamaguchi glances down at him and grins. He chomps a proud bite from the apple Kei got him.
“When did you learn to do that?”
Yamaguchi swallows. “Last year, I think.”
“It’s cool,” Kei tells him.
“Cooler than juggling?”
Kei eyes the dwindling pile of rocks between them. “Way cooler.”
“Cool,” Yamaguchi replies, ducking to grab another.
Kei sees the grin on his face before he turns to face the lake again.
Kei dreams about skipping stones. He dreams that they don’t sink down, down into the water once they still but instead float up, up into the air and away until he can’t see them anymore. He reaches for them, but it’s for naught, and he wakes up furious that his feet won’t leave the ground.
He doesn’t blink the sleep from his eyes before his father hounds him with a jarring proposition.
“I’ve arranged a special dinner, Kei, and I think Yamaguchi should share it with us.”
“You’re doing a lot of arranging,” Kei mutters, flipping his silverware over on the table.
“I’m the king. It’s what I do.”
His father explodes with laughter and for the first time in years, Kei misses his mother. He traces the sunbeam that cuts across the dining table. The wood is smooth beneath his fingertip; worn down from a century of use.
“I’d like to meet him, is all.”
“You know him.”
“As a child, yes. Not as a young man.”
Kei pops a cherry tomato in his mouth. He chews contemplatively.
“Fine,” he agrees. “I’ll ask.”
His father smiles, pleased, and smacks Kei’s shoulder.
“No need. I’ve already sent out the invitation.”
Kei and Yamaguchi’s joined hands fall between their hips as they stand just outside the grand doors of the dining hall. Yamaguchi’s palms are sweaty, but his fingers are cool like last time. Kei takes in a breath. He has apologized a dozen times since the marketplace and frankly, he’s already sick of hearing himself say it.
“Are your hands always cold?”
Yamaguchi looks over. “I don’t know. Are they?”
“I don’t know.”
His shoes scrape the floor as he shuffles around.
“You know what’s weird?” he whispers.
“This place feels even more enormous now. More so than when I was little, I mean.”
“Oh.” Kei fixes the collar of his jacket. “Ready?”
“Yeah.” Yamaguchi heaves a deep breath and shakes out his nerves, their hands jostling between them. He turns on Kei a quick, alarmed look. “Wait, no. How long have we been together at this point?”
“I don’t know,” Kei answers. “A year.”
Yamaguchi gapes. “A year?”
“Is that long?”
“Uh, yeah, Tsukki.”
“A month, then.”
“Okay. Yeah. A month of being with you,” Yamaguchi repeats, logging the new information. A concentrated crease forms between his eyebrows. Kei glances away when Yamaguchi turns to him. He cards his hand through his brown hair, smoother tonight than yesterday; tamer. He drops his arm back to his side and nods. “Ready now.”
The doors open, Kei’s father is loud, eager, and prying, and Yamaguchi still eats enough for two people like he’s done since he was eight years old. Yamaguchi’s hand finds Kei’s shoulder halfway through dessert and doesn’t leave until the plates are cleared. It isn’t cool through the fabric, but warm. Kei’s father’s own hand has slapped Yamaguchi’s back so many times in mirthful conviviality that Kei is sure he will leave a bruise. Just one more thing for Kei to apologize for.
“Less bread than usual, lately,” Yamaguchi’s saying, “because of bad wheat in the lower towns. But she’s as good-natured as ever.”
Yamaguchi’s mother makes the best bread.
“She’s a wonderful lady from what I remember,” Kei’s father recalls. He slaps his palm on the table. “If you need wheat, the fields on the hill are overflowing. Isn’t that right, Kei?”
Kei and Yamaguchi share a look. Kei nods.
“You could pluck yourself as much as your mother needs. Anything to bake that bread of hers.”
“Oh,” Yamaguchi starts, color flooding his cheeks. “No, I didn’t mean—”
“Don’t be shy. Kei can take you up there sometime soon. He adores the wheat fields.”
Yamaguchi turns to Kei. His grin is fond, gentle.
“You do?” he asks.
“Well.” Kei clears his throat. “Adores is a strong word.”
“Taking your adored to your adored fields,” his father enthuses wistfully. “It’s fitting, isn’t it, Kei?”
“Can we excuse ourselves?”
Kei pushes back from the table, his chair squeaking on the floor. He watches his father and Yamaguchi exchange warm farewells. Their smiles are so genuine. Kei deflates with guilt but buries it in time to wish his father a good night. His fingers entwine with Yamaguchi’s when Yamaguchi presses their palms together.
“If you need anything tonight, Yamaguchi, be sure to let the guards know,” Kei’s father calls after them.
In the corridor, Yamaguchi whispers, “What?”
“He thinks you’re staying the night,” says Kei.
“Oh. I am?”
Kei just shrugs.
Kei requests that his favorite dogs be brought to his room because it feels simultaneously too full and too empty with just him and Yamaguchi, and because Yamaguchi likes them. Rabbit slobbers all over his hands and clothes. Kei sits on the edge of his bed and unlaces his shoes.
“Tsukki,” Yamaguchi chirps, “your room is huge. This is—it used to be your brother’s, right? I thought your room before this was huge, and it was, but this is massive. Look at all this stuff. Your bed is big enough for five people. You really upgraded. As much as you can in a giant castle, I mean.”
Rabbit swats Yamaguchi’s arm for attention. Yamaguchi coos and scratches his broad chest. Fox sits a few feet away, more cautious than her brother, her eyes flicking protectively between Yamaguchi and Kei.
“Where do they sleep?” Yamaguchi asks. “The dogs?”
“The floor, in theory.”
“It’s difficult to keep them off the bed.”
“So cute,” Yamaguchi coos again, dragging his hand down Rabbit’s back. He stands and brushes the dog fur from his pants. “So, um, is that where I—I mean, where do you want me to—it’s alright if I stay, right?”
“I already said it was.”
Yamaguchi stays still. “So…the bed?”
“You said yourself it’s big enough for five people.”
“Right. Yeah, I did.”
“Can you blow that candle out?”
The better half of Kei’s room falls to darkness, shadows leaking over the dresser, the wardrobe, the dogs, the foot of the bed. The faint smell of smoke lingers for a moment. Kei leaves his clothes on and shuffles beneath the blanket. The wire temples of his glasses click as he folds them, and then click again when he sets them on the table by the bed. The flame from the adjacent candle dances in their lenses.
Kei has never shared his bed. Only with the dogs. Their claws tap the floor as they find someplace to lie down. There’s the slightest tug on the blankets as Yamaguchi settles in. A soft sound whispers through the room as the pillow compresses under his head. Kei glances over to find Yamaguchi glancing back.
Despite the distance time brings, Yamaguchi is undeniably familiar. Kei feels eight and eighteen all at once. He leans up on his elbow and blows out the candle by the bed. Sparse moonlight scatters through the room because Kei never closes his shutters.
“This bed is so comfortable.”
Kei huffs a tired laugh. He closes his eyes.
“Since we’ve been together for a year,” murmurs Yamaguchi, “maybe I should just move in.”
“I thought we agreed on a month.”
Their soft voices float through the still room. If Kei listens hard enough, he hears Fox breathe where she’s settled herself on the floor by his shoes. Yamaguchi turns onto his side. The blankets tug.
“Tsukki,” he says again, and Kei hums to show he’s listening. “You don’t have to take me to get wheat if you don’t want to. It was really nice of your father to offer and all, but it’s fine. It’ll be fine.”
“You seem to be doing a fine job of acquiring it on your own.”
“Very funny,” Yamaguchi deadpans.
Servants tut around Kei’s room early in the morning, placing fresh clothes in his wardrobe and fresh fruit on his desk. Pale sunlight falls lazily over the trio of bright green apples. Kei blinks at the back of his bedroom door as it clicks shut, leaving the space still again. Fox snores. Kei hears her somewhere behind him. He feels warmth at his back; the vague, hazy kind like when he passes the forge while bladesmiths craft new weapons.
Kei turns onto his side. Yamaguchi lies in the middle of the bed, both dogs dozing at his back.
“Yamaguchi,” Kei mumbles, and Yamaguchi stirs.
His hands are crowded by his face, one curled over the corner of his pillow, the other by his mouth. He puffs soft breaths onto his knuckles. His palm rests on his pillow, making wrinkles in the pillowcase. His fingers curl slightly into the fabric. Freckles splatter his cheeks, dense but faint, unique but familiar, and Kei tries to remember if he’s always had this many. He says his name again.
“What?” Yamaguchi murmurs back, his eyes still closed.
Yamaguchi’s eyes flutter open. Kei stares back at him. His eyes widen. He scrambles back as much as he can, and when it’s not much, he sits up instead. Behind him, Rabbit heaves out a tired breath.
“Sorry,” he apologizes. “I, uh—the dogs—they took my spot.”
“Yeah,” Kei responds, mimicking Rabbit’s sigh. “They do that.”
Kei and Yamaguchi haven’t been together this much since they were thirteen. Kei listens as the dogs mow through the field, shaking the dry stems and compact ears, their busy rummaging filling the lulls in conversation. Yamaguchi doesn’t take a single stalk.
“Do you think you’ll change your mind?” he wonders, walking backward through the wheat to face Kei, the plants flowing around him like a water current.
Kei walks the path he creates. “About?”
“That guy. The red-haired prince.”
“I don’t know.”
Yamaguchi’s grin evens out and he turns over his shoulder, walking forward again. His fingertips sweep the plants on either side of him. Kei watches his steps leave faint imprints in the dry dirt.
“More so than him,” Kei admits carefully, “the problem I have is with the whole idea of it.”
“The idea of what?”
“Being made to fit where I’m not meant to. Being made to love someone I didn’t choose.”
One of the dogs zips in front of them in a beeline toward the scarecrow. Yamaguchi turns over his shoulder.
“But if you did get to choose?” he asks, watching Kei, his sunburnt lips parted. Sunlight shimmers off the lake in the distance. The slight waves catch the shine and twinkle it back. Kei blinks away from the glare and Yamaguchi goes on, “Didn’t your father introduce the prince and his wife to one another? That worked out, didn’t it?”
“Why are you calling him that?”
“Calling who what?”
“Akiteru. The prince.”
“That’s what he is,” Yamaguchi replies unsurely. “You’re a prince, too, aren’t you?”
Yamaguchi watches him for a moment. He slows his pace to walk by Kei’s side. A breeze tugs at their clothes. Kei listens to the whisper of the field and the extension of the soft sound as wheat stalks skim he and Yamaguchi’s pants, their shirts, their arms as they hang at their sides. The next breeze bumps their knuckles together.
A family of ducks glides across the lake and Kei and Yamaguchi sit on its bank again. Yamaguchi searches for a stone but doesn’t throw it when he finds one. He just turns it over and over again in his hand, dirtying his palm. Kei tries to imagine what he would be doing at this moment if he had never lied to his father in the first place.
“I really missed you,” Yamaguchi tells him, the confession carried softly on the wind.
Kei’s guilt pins his tongue. The mother duck honks at her ducklings. She fluffs her feathers.
“Your mother and Akiteru may have left,” Yamaguchi insists, “but I was still here, you know?”
Kei digs the toe of his shoe into the ground and nods. “Are you angry with me?”
“No.” Yamaguchi gives him a sidelong glance. He watches Kei shovel up dirt with his shoe and flips the stone between his fingers. “I just wish you hadn’t thought you should deal with that on your own.”
Kei chews the inside of his cheek. Fox laps at the lake by his side, her tail bowed gracefully. Emerging from the field at their backs, Rabbit takes one look at the ducks and gallops to the water’s edge. He barks at them in vain. The ducks glide toward the center of the lake. Yamaguchi shushes him, beckons him, sets the rock he found on the ground between him and Kei to wave Rabbit over. Kei watches the back of his head. He smoothes his fingertip over the abandoned stone.
“I wish that, too.”
A mess of brown paper rests on the table in Kei’s room. It crinkles as Kei unwraps it, carefully folding the edges back until the mess reveals a ring of gold. The substantial hoop reflects the last wedges of sunlight that squeeze through the windows, pink and orange in the late afternoon. Kei loses his breath at the sight of it.
“How beautiful,” remarks his father when Kei shows him, leaning forward in his chair.
“Didn’t you have it made?” Kei asks him.
“It wasn’t me. Wasn’t there a letter?”
Kei shakes his head. He shuffles through the wrappings again. Carefully, his father plucks the circlet from the table and turns it in his hands. The band is thick, sturdy. Beads of gold erupt from more gold the entire way around and Kei memorizes the weight of it in his hands when Kei’s father gives it back to him. He returns it to its nest of papers, but his eyes hardly leave it.
“Your brother,” his father clarifies. “He sent it for you.”
Kei runs his finger along the circlet’s curve. “Why?”
“Your birthday present, of course.”
“Aren’t you going to try it on?” his father asks, leaning forward again.
“I’m sure it fits.”
“Go on, Kei.”
Kei finds it easy to agree. He lifts the circlet from the table and settles it on his head, shifting its placement when it tugs his hair. Kei lets his arms fall back to his sides. It isn’t the most comfortable, but the weight of it is intriguing. Kei’s father’s eyes are bright. His chair creaks as he stands. He walks to Kei and rests his heavy hands on his shoulders. He grins, so soft and genuine. Kei blinks at him.
“What a handsome young man you are,” his father says finally.
He gives his shoulders a pat. The pride in his tone warms Kei’s face.
“Akiteru wondered between gold and silver. Because of your hair, you know. Wasn’t sure if it’d be too much gold.”
Kei touches his fingertips to the gold. “I think he made the right choice.”
His father nods. He takes his seat again and Kei takes the seat adjacent to him, listening as his father tells him of his own first crown and how it wasn’t a crown, but a circlet like Kei’s, appointed to him by Kei’s grandfather when he was a teenager. Kei lifts the adornment from his head when it gets too heavy. He wraps it safely up again.
“They really did a great job with yours, son,” says his father, watching him. “You should wear it to your celebration dinner.”
“Did you really think I hadn’t planned anything for your birthday?”
His father winks at him. He gives the wrapped circlet a soft pat, the brown paper crinkling under his fingers.
Yamaguchi waits for him in his room; the guards tell Kei so. The jacket his father gifted him hangs over his arm. It’s thin but weighty, gorgeous patterns sewn expertly into its front with yellow thread. His father insisted he be present for every decision regarding color, design, and every aspect in between. Kei has the utmost sympathy for the seamstresses involved.
Yamaguchi leaps from his chair when Kei comes into the room.
“Whoa,” he marvels. “What’s that?”
“A jacket from my father. Hi, by the way.”
“No, not that—hi, Tsukki—that.”
Yamaguchi lifts his gaze. Kei raises his hand to finger the circlet that, at his father’s request, sits proudly on his head.
“Oh. It’s from Akiteru.”
“Whoa,” Yamaguchi breathes again. “You look…”
Kei waits, but Yamaguchi doesn’t finish.
He wonders, “Is it too much? If it’s too much now, it’s definitely going to be too much with the jacket.”
Yamaguchi snaps out of it. He snorts a laugh.
“Stop fretting, Tsukki. It’s going to be fine,” he says. He averts his gaze when Kei slips off his old jacket to slip his new one on, his fingernails tracing the grain of the wooden tabletop at his side. “You should’ve reminded me it was your birthday, you know. I could have brought you something.”
“I don’t want anything.”
“Because you have everything?” he teases.
“Because I’m already forcing you to come to this celebration. That’s your gift to me.”
“Not really.” Yamaguchi shakes his head. “I’d want to be here anyway.”
His eyes shine, the barest blush on his face. Kei’s heart thumps worryingly in his chest.
The castle bustles. Yamaguchi takes his hand as they stand outside the dining hall yet again. Uproar floods straight through the grand doors. Plates and platters click and clack, people laugh, chairs scoot rambunctiously across stone floors. String instruments sing gracefully, elegant yet upbeat. Yamaguchi squeezes Kei’s hand.
“The music sounds nice,” he says.
“Let’s get this over with.”
“I think it’ll be fun. Are these celebrations anything like they were when we were little?”
“No.” Kei turns to him and smirks. “Now we can drink.”
The chaos of the dining hall floods the corridor as the doors swing open, drowning Yamaguchi’s laugh. They wind their way through guests and dancers and servants to the head of the table and Kei’s father is absolutely delighted, setting down his cup and an entire leg of baked chicken to clap them both on their backs. He announces Kei’s presence to the room. Kei flinches as the resulting cheers ricochet off the castle walls, shaking the candelabra, enthusiastic hands thumping the dining room table and rocking the dozens of steaming platters it holds.
They don’t know him—only that he is his father’s son, his brother’s brother, the one who trades princesses for princes—but Yamaguchi is familiar at his side, glowing, graciously taking the cups of wine Kei’s father holds out to him and Kei both. Yamaguchi’s hand finds his back. His palm fits between his shoulder-blades.
“I feel severely underdressed,” he mumbles in Kei’s ear, his eyes scanning the vibrant garments in the room. He tugs at his shirt and frowns.
“Want this?” Kei asks. He touches his circlet.
“What? No,” Yamaguchi frets, his eyes big. “Isn’t that, like, blasphemous?”
“All the more reason.”
He takes Kei’s cup when he asks him to. Kei lifts the band from his head and places it atop Yamaguchi’s, his flyaway hair untamed by the hoop. Light brown against shiny gold. Yamaguchi stares up at him, their faces close. Kei steps back once he’s finished and takes his cup from Yamaguchi’s hand.
“Better,” he notes, and Yamaguchi’s grin nearly splits his face in two.
Kei is glad to be rid of the golden weight and its implication as people greet and congratulate him, friends of his father’s, their wives, their children. Yamaguchi looks lost as he’s introduced, but he hits his stride with the third or fourth group Kei’s father inflicts upon them, caught up in his kind words, his steadfast acceptance. Unfastened by wine, music, and good company, Yamaguchi sways, bringing their shoulders together time and again.
Kei catches a glimpse of red halfway through the night. He tugs his father’s regal sleeve.
“What is he doing here?” he demands.
“His father is one of my dearest friends, Kei. Be nice.”
Kei grumbles. His father slaps him on the back and returns to his conversation with one of the violinists, their instruments now propped against the dining hall’s far wall. Kei wishes they would play again and drown out the duller chitchat. Yamaguchi leans into Kei’s side. His lips are cherry red; dyed by wine. Candlelight flickers in the gold of the circlet he still wears.
“Nothing. That guy is here. The one he tried to set me up with,” Kei answers, gesturing to his father. “The juggler.”
Yamaguchi squints across the room before he tosses a sideways glance at the basket of bread in the center of the grand table.
“Should we hide the rolls?” he asks.
Kei barks a sudden laugh. Yamaguchi beams widely, his cheeks flushed, his eyes sparkly. Kei composes himself just as his father whirls he and Yamaguchi around to meet another group of tipsy guests. They banter and reminisce, their laughter loud, buried under the music as it starts up again. But Yamaguchi doesn’t sway this time; he stays stiff at Kei’s side, his focus pulled across the room. Kei follows his glare.
“What,” Kei asks, “did he ruin your favorite shirt when you were twelve, too?”
“Juggling is pointless, that’s all,” replies Yamaguchi.
A servant slides up to them and his father’s group, swooping the pitcher around to each of them. Red wine tumbles into silver cups. When Kei looks at him, Yamaguchi still glares across the dining hall. Kei glances at his father. He turns back to Yamaguchi.
He whispers, “You don’t have to act so jealous. My father’s not paying that much attention.”
Yamaguchi’s focus snaps to Kei. For a moment, he just stares.
“Oh. Yeah, right,” he says back.
“Sorry you’re bored. I’m sure this will be over soon.”
“I’m not bored,” Yamaguchi insists, his grin returning.
His hand finds Kei’s. Their fingers interlock easily. Kei tries to calculate just how many shades darker Yamaguchi’s lips are than their usual bright red. He flinches when his father’s hands find both him and Yamaguchi’s shoulders, shaking them in his strong grip.
“Look at you!” he bellows. “I picture you more in silver than gold, but the gold does suit you.”
Grinning, Yamaguchi flushes. He presses his fingertips to Kei’s circlet on his head and lifts it off. He holds it with his fingertips, delicate. He holds it between him and Kei’s chests, staring down through the hoop at the stone floor. After a moment, he looks up.
Kei lofts an eyebrow at him. “Aren’t you—”
When Yamaguchi returns the circlet to Kei’s head, he returns it with a kiss. He presses their mouths together, the tips of their noses brushing, Kei’s bottom lip between his. Kei goes still. Yamaguchi pulls back. Kei notes the new weight on his head, in his chest. Golden.
The celebration buzzes on around them. Wine sloshes in cups and goblets, food piles onto messy plates, chairs screech out from the grand dining hall table. Catching their kiss, Kei’s father hollers. He demands a toast. The room raises their cups, chugs them down. Kei burns hot under their scrutiny. When he looks over, Yamaguchi burns, too, lifting his cup to his lips. Rolls of bread soar through the air near the end of the table in a perfect, practiced oval. Kei turns to Yamaguchi.
“We should have hidden them.”
Yamaguchi snorts a laugh into his cup.
“He gave you flowers?”
“Yamaguchi, it’s my birthday.”
Kei shrugs. Yamaguchi hums into the pillow. He flips onto his back.
“Tsukki,” he says, and Kei glances over. “Was it too much,” he asks, “to, uh—to kiss you?”
Kei looks back at the flowers the red-haired prince had given him. The colors are nice; soft and pretty, spanning across wide petals. Kei should request they be put in some water but his feet won't take him to the door. The bed groans when Yamaguchi leans up on his elbows.
“I should have asked you or something. I don’t want you to think I’m a freak.”
“I don’t think you’re a freak.”
On the table, Kei’s circlet glints in the candlelight. Kei holds back a grin when Yamaguchi hiccups. He blows out the candle on his dresser, engulfing half the room in shadow. Yamaguchi collapses back onto the pillow. Kei’s footsteps whisper on the floor and he sits on the edge of the bed to toe his shoes off.
“It’s fine,” he says finally, softly. “My father loved it, so…”
When Yamaguchi says nothing, Kei turns over his shoulder.
“Are you just going to sleep like that? On top of the covers?”
His eyes closed, Yamaguchi nods.
“With your shoes on?”
Yamaguchi nods again. Kei lets him be. He pulls back the blankets and situates himself beneath them, setting his glasses on the table by the bed. He glances once more at Yamaguchi before he blows out the final candle. The cloudy night robs Kei’s room of any moonlight. A dull glow sneaks its way under the doors; ever-present candlelight from the corridor. The glow bobs softly as the flames dance. On the opposite side of the bed, Yamaguchi starts to snore. Kei sighs.
“Yamaguchi. You snore.”
Yamaguchi shifts, presumably rolling onto his side.
“We’ve been together for a year, Tsukki,” he yawns, “and you’re just now finding that out?”
“It’s one month. You can’t get it wrong. If you say that to my father, he’ll think I lied to him.”
“Even more than you already have?”
Kei stiffens. He glares at the inch of light beneath the door. Suddenly, guilt cuts him deep. Blood blots his blankets, drips from the bed frame and onto the floor.
“Hey,” Yamaguchi whispers, shifting again. “Tsukki, I’m sorry, I—I didn’t mean that.”
Kei watches the light beneath the door some more. His tight frown makes his mouth ache.
Yamaguchi shuffles closer. His clothes whisper against the fabric of the blanket. The soft sound pervades the quiet, shadowed room, just small enough that Kei still hears his breath hitch as Yamaguchi lies at his back. Slowly, so slowly, Yamaguchi’s hand inches over his side. Kei feels his forehead press to the back of his shoulder at the same time his palm presses to Kei’s chest. Both touches warm, both touches cautious. Kei draws in a breath. He lets it out.
“You know, Tsukki, even when we weren’t talking all that time,” Yamaguchi murmurs, “you were still my best friend.”
Kei closes his eyes to the sliver of light. His hand finds Yamaguchi’s. His thumb traces the bumps of his knuckles. He hears Yamaguchi breathe. Kei closes his fingers around Yamaguchi’s hand and they stay like that, safe and treacherous, familiar and novel all at once. Through Yamaguchi’s palm, Kei feels his own heartbeat.
A bright yellow sunbeam streams through the dining hall, dyeing the dark wood of the table a rich honey, and Kei sits at the chair in its center to warm up. The extra chairs and tables have been removed, the center table stripped of its cloth and ornaments. The dining hall seems impossibly enormous now, only Kei and his father occupying its space. A lonely platter of fruit rests at the table’s center. Kei takes an apple.
Smoothing his thumb over its bright skin, he asks, “When did everyone leave?”
“Not long after you did. Half of them are still here,” his father enthuses, “in spare rooms and whatnot.”
Kei hums. His father tells him of his friends, how nice it was to see them, how they might stick around for a while.
“Yamaguchi’s welcome here anytime, Kei. I want you to know that. Not that I need to tell you, but he has grown into quite the young man. He couldn’t keep his eyes off you last night,” his father boasts. Kei glances away. Absently, he pulls the stem from his apple. “It reminded me of your mother and I when we first met. Yamaguchi couldn’t say enough about you, Kei. I was afraid he’d turn blue. I’ve never heard someone so besotted.”
“Yes, well,” Kei mumbles, rolling the apple stem between his fingers, “he had quite a bit to drink.”
“No, no. That was this morning. He told me all about how he’s adored you since you were boys.”
He stills. “What?”
“This morning,” his father repeats. “I caught him before he left to help his mother with the baking. We had the nicest talk. That reminds me, Kei, do you think you could get us some of his mother’s famous bread? If you go in my place, we may get the very best batch.”
The final months of the year pull the sun to the horizon line too quickly. Shadows bring the chill, though the days are warm, and Kei swears the wind blows more harshly in the lower town than near the castle. He refuses the night guards his father tries to appoint him. The moon is a beacon, bright and full. White light falls over everything; it pools on rooftops, sneaks between the spokes of wooden wheels, beams over Yamaguchi’s front door.
Yamaguchi’s mother keeps him for a while before she reveals her son isn’t home. Her house is warm and cozy, its clutter comforting. Just like Kei remembered. She sends him off with a basket of fresh bread cocooned in cloth. Kei didn’t even have to ask.
The lake is a different scene at night.
Swallowed by twilight, everything freezes. The surrounding trees shut out any breeze, the grass on the bank soft and still. The birds and animals have gone to sleep and insects hum a lullaby. A flat sheet of water reflects the moon and its light. From the bank, Yamaguchi splinters the sheet more with each toss. Stones sink to the bottom of the lake.
Kei clears his throat and Yamaguchi jumps, the stone he holds fumbling to the ground.
“God, Tsukki, don’t do that. I thought you were a bear or something.”
“There are no bears around here,” says Kei.
Yamaguchi huffs a breath. He sits on the bank when Kei does, tugging at the cloth in the basket.
“Bread,” Kei tells him. “From your mother.”
Yamaguchi’s grin is fond, gentle. “She’s got you running errands now?”
“My father insisted I pick some up for him.” Kei unfurls the cloth and rips the end off a single loaf. He tears it in two. Yamaguchi takes his half and stretches his legs out, his heels nearly reaching the edge of the calm water. Kei eyes the scrape on his knee, not quite healed. “Do you ever feel like you aren’t like your parents at all? Like maybe you were someone else’s, but they didn’t want you, and your parents happened to find you out in the woods and take you home?”
Yamaguchi’s eyes are big, dilated in the darkness; sympathetic.
“Not really,” he answers.
Kei stares at his lap. “You and your mother are very alike.”
“Yeah?” Yamaguchi asks, and Kei nods. “How so?”
Kei plucks a bit of bread from his piece and chews it contemplatively. Above the two of them, moonlight tries to pry itself through the leafy treetops. Small shards of light that manage to break through glow on the dirt all around them. Kei swallows.
“Kind, warm,” he lists, “generous.”
“Generous, Tsukki?” Yamaguchi repeats. He knocks his shoulder against Kei’s and instead of swaying back, he stays, warm against him. “You’re the one who let me practically live in the castle all of last week. With all the good food and stuff.”
“Well, it would be unlikely that we’d been together for more than a month and you never stayed over.”
“Oh. I mean, yeah, I guess.” Crickets hum, filling the lull. Yamaguchi glances at Kei. “Speaking of that,” he says, “I don’t know how much longer I can pretend to be with you. The actual person I’m seeing is going to get upset.”
A pit carves into Kei’s stomach and starts to ache.
“You—you’re seeing someone?” he manages.
“Yeah. We met at your birthday celebration, actually. He’s really sweet. Handsome. But there’s just one thing I can’t really get past.”
“What?” Kei breathes.
He looks over at Yamaguchi and Yamaguchi beams, chirping a laugh and bringing his knees to his chest to hug his arms around them. The gnawing in Kei’s stomach dissipates. He shakes his head and hands the rest of his piece of bread to Yamaguchi, who takes it happily. Kei mirrors him. He rests his chin on his knee and watches the water, the white moon trapped in its surface. Yamaguchi takes up a stone.
“I’ll teach you how to skip rocks,” he mentions. “That can be your birthday present, Tsukki.”
Kei grins. “That’s my birthday present?”
“Yeah. Since you have everything else.”
He huffs. Yamaguchi brings their shoulders together again. A calm breeze slips past the barrier of trees and the lake trembles. Slight waves blur the mirrored surface and the moon’s reflection warps, no longer a perfect disc. If it weren’t for the hum of the crickets, Kei could probably hear the wheat field, the swish of the tall stalks.
Yamaguchi turns to his side and plucks a tiny, lonely flower from the grass. He twirls it once in his fingers before he tucks it in the laces of Kei’s shoe; a shock of bright blue against the shadows, nearly glowing in the moonlight. Kei smoothes his fingertip over its small petals.
“Thought you didn’t like flowers,” he mentions.
“They’re okay when I’m the one giving them.”
In his chest, Kei’s heart stirs. He lifts his hand to skim his fingers over Yamaguchi’s arm and Yamaguchi lets his hand fall to the ground so Kei can find it, grass poking his knuckles. Their palms fit together. The lake goes still. Yamaguchi curls his fingers between Kei’s, so soft and slow that Kei hears the slide of their skin, the rustle of grass beneath their hands. He hears the hitch of Yamaguchi’s breath and the way he tries to even it out, his breathing, his temple coming to rest on his knee.
“This,” he murmurs, “doesn’t feel pretend.”
His eyes flutter shut. Kei stares at the fan of his eyelashes over his tan cheek.
“No,” Kei agrees. “It doesn’t.”
“Is this how your father knights people?” Yamaguchi swings the wheat stalk through the air in a figure eight before he brings it down to tap Kei’s shoulders; first his left, then his right. He turns his nose up at Kei and says, “I now deem you prince of the wheat.”
“You couldn't have possibly made me prince of something more boring.”
The heat of midday dries the dirt, the wheat, the shining sun beaming between tufts of clouds.
“Hey, now. You love the wheat fields. Listen.”
The wind picks up. The gale shuffles through the plants and whips the stalks against their legs, their hands. Yamaguchi drops the stalk he holds and sweeps his hair out of his face. Sighing a yawn into the back of his hand, he squints up at the sun. His lips are still sunburnt. Kei shoves his hands in his pockets.
“Are you tired?” he asks.
“You’ve yawned all day.”
“Oh. Yeah. It’s my fault. I got used to your bed, and now mine’s like sleeping on the ground.”
Yamaguchi grins and Kei’s heart knocks at his chest. A cherry blush floods Yamaguchi’s cheeks. On the other side of the field, Rabbit barks.
“So sleep in mine tonight,” Kei suggests, his eyes trained on the cherry color.
Kei nods. Yamaguchi nods back, his eyes and smile wide, his fingers curling softly around Kei’s forearm.
“Okay,” he answers. “I can—I can do that.”
His hand drops from Kei’s arm to swing merrily through the wheat between them. The ears thwack against his fingers before a breeze swings in and whispers through the field, stirring the fluffy plants, their stems in a harsh lean. The wind tugs at Kei’s shirt. Yamaguchi digs his hand through his hair again and looks over. Kei looks back. On his face, Yamaguchi’s freckles are plentiful, more pigmented in the bright light of the sun. More adorn him than when he was young. Kei is sure of it now.
He turns his back to the wind. The breeze pushes him closer until the toes of his shoes skim Yamaguchi’s. Wide-eyed, Yamaguchi stares up at him, waiting. Kei takes in a breath. He cups Yamaguchi’s warm face in his hands and Yamaguchi’s breath hitches, his eyes fluttering shut for a soft moment before they open again, pupils small in the harsh sunlight over Kei’s shoulder. Wheat rustles around them; yards behind, the dogs tear through the field.
Kei leans in and kisses him. Yamaguchi grins against his mouth, his hands finding Kei’s shoulders, gripping them tight. He slides his palm to the back of Kei’s neck and they stay connected, together, the wheat field and their heartbeats uproarious. Kei’s thumbs brush Yamaguchi’s cheeks. When he pulls back, Kei stays close.
“Tsukki, is, uh,” Yamaguchi pants, red in the face, “is your father behind me or something?”
“So that was—”
“That was real.”
Yamaguchi huffs a pleased sigh. Kei grins to match him. He pulls Yamaguchi’s hand from his shoulder and intertwines their fingers. Yamaguchi’s skin is soft, his grip delicate but certain. Just like it was as they met in the marketplace, as they stood outside the dining hall, as they slept soundly in Kei’s bed.
“I like real,” Yamaguchi insists, and with his hand on his back of his neck, he pulls Kei in again.