Shirayuki hummed, sighing happily as she and Zen made their way back to the banquet, relishing the feeling of her hair tickling the sides of her face, free of the pull of the heavy decorative pins that had adorned it. All night, Raji had seemed jumpy and distant, almost like he was trying to avoid speaking with her. But, when she let her hair down, keeping her promise to show him how much it had grown, he finally relaxed and spoke to her with a voice that rang with sincerity and resolve. How hard he was working, how determined he was to do his best—it made her so happy. He could truly be friend now, even after they’d had such a rocky start to their relationship.
Zen’s cape billowed out behind him as they walked, the edge of the soft fabric catching Shirayuki’s eye and eliciting a soft smile. If she was honest, the best part of this whole coronation ceremony was getting to see Zen absolutely glowing after perfectly executing his duties; the subtle pride with which he carried himself since was captivating, and Shirayuki couldn’t help but admire him.
Intrigued by her smile, Zen playfully leaned over to nudge her shoulder. “You sure look happy, Lady Shirayuki,” he lilted mischievously.
Chuckling a little at his formality, she teasingly leaned back into him as they came to a stop at the banquet hall’s doors. “I am, Prince Zen.”
“Mm. I’m glad to hear it,” he hummed, the warmth in his heart mirrored in his gentle blue eyes as he turned to look at her. From their position behind the large doors, the muffled tones of an energizing waltz made it clear that the dinner portion of the banquet had long since come to an end. The noble guests were using the evening party to mingle and network with each other over drinks and dancing. It was one of the things Zen liked least about balls, and why he had been wandering the halls with his guards when he ran into Shirayuki and Raji. Now though, with Shirayuki by his side, he thought he might actually enjoy a little mingling and dancing, as long as it was with her.
He reached out and pressed on one of the heavy doors, holding it open wide enough so that Shirayuki could pass through without the wide billows of her skirts snagging. As the door closed behind them, Shirayuki’s breath caught at the sight in front of her.
Billowing skirts of every color swirled together as couples sailed across the floor, spinning and twirling to the music to create a whirlpool of tulle and silk. Each couple seemed to dance a little differently, some waltzing side-by-side and others creating miniature eddies as they rotated around each other. Turning her attention to focus on the individual couples, Shirayuki noticed that most appeared to be cordially chatting in between turns, smiling and laughing, yet still looking utterly regal and untouchable in their elegance and skill. This kind of dancing was so much different than what she had experienced at Raji’s ball back in Tanbarun.
Murmuring a quiet wow, she looked back toward Zen before her gaze was once again stolen by the pulsing maelstrom of dancers. “I-Is this a different kind of dancing? It seems a little more chaotic than what I remember doing before.”
“Well…” Zen smiled fondly, “It’s a social dance.” He moved to stand by her side; she was utterly taken by the entire scene, and it was adorable, “I guess not all events have them, but the ones for really big celebrations usually do. And today is definitely a big celebration kind of day.”
Bright flutes and romantic strings echoed in Zen’s ears, but their timbre seemed peripheral compared to the view at his side. Her eyes twinkled as her irises flitted from one couple to another, lips parted in awe and curved up ever so slightly, her entire being powerfully pulled in, as if the dizzying rotation of the dancers was producing gravity itself. Zen’s heart tugged him toward her, willing him to touch her, to kiss her, to love and cherish her until he—
A stinging cymbal crash, powerful as a breaking wave, rudely shook Zen back to reality and snapped his gaze away from his lover—the song’s finale was underway. He should definitely ask Shirayuki to dance the next one. That was the whole point of coming back in here, after all. But—at the same time, he didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. What if she didn’t want to dance? Would she tell him, or would she feel too pressured to refuse him? A warm sweat broke out on the back of his neck and his heart began to accelerate as the music careened toward its final measure. Attempting to contain the blush rising toward his cheeks, he placed one of his hands on his neck. His panic was only worsened when he realized just how clammy that hand was. He sighed in frustration.
Two perfect eyes scrutinized him, glimmering verdant like the forests that calmed his soul, like the trees he hid in as a child, like the Earth itself. The world was quiet in those eyes. The world was his in those eyes. All traces of tumultuous thoughts were tenderly erased in this precious refuge because here, there was trust. Trust and love and a loyalty that felt too good to be true.
A hand gently pressed into his shoulder. “I, uh… what?” he blinked.
“Are you okay? It sounded like you were upset about something,” Shirayuki prodded, worry clouding her voice as her eyebrows knitted together. The pressure on his shoulder grew. Right. He was freaking out about asking her to dance. But Shirayuki would never lie to him, and she would certainly never think he was a fool. He reached up to the hand that rested on his shoulder, cradling it in his own and grounding himself in reality. The room was a buzz with small talk and thank-yous, so the song must have just finished. Now or never.
“I’m fine, really,” he assured. “Hey…uh… Would you like to dance this next song with me?”
Her eyes widened at the sudden change in topic and her hand dropped from his. “Um, are you sure that would be okay?” She glanced at the floor, shrinking into herself. “I mean, my title got me into the crowning ceremony, but only because Raji was there. I don’t know if it’s good enough on its own for me to dance with the Prince of Clarines at his brother’s coronation ball,” she emphasized nervously, a hint of red dusting her cheeks.
“Well, it is a social dance,” he replied as his cheeks flushed to match hers, “You’re expected to dance with anyone, it’s like a networking thing.” Realizing how business-like that might have sounded, he looked away and scrambled to recover as the strings softly released the first chord of the piece. “Wha-what I mean is… we can dance without people assuming we have romantic intentions. It’s not a formal kind of dance so… I was just thinking it would be fun to dance with you. As long as you’re comfortable with it.”
Without warning, Shirayuki grabbed his wrist, willing his eyes back to hers. Determination and enthusiasm completely lit up her features as she beamed. “Let’s do it then!”
With renewed confidence, Zen took her arm in his and began to lead her to an empty spot on the floor. As they approached the gleaming marble, Shirayuki felt a few anxious butterflies flutter in the pit of her stomach. She really hadn’t danced much since the ball in Tanbarun, and even though she was excited to finally, finally be able to dance with Zen, the public location made her hyperaware of the strict court etiquette expected of her. Even if it was supposed to be a simple social dance, she was determined to do her best and prove herself worthy of standing by Zen’s side someday.
Suddenly, she noticed the warmth of Zen’s arm had left hers; looking up, she realized they had made it to their place on the floor. And—oh—he was bowing toward her. That was a sight. Realizing she needed to return the gesture, she clasped fistfuls of her skirts and curtsied. Zen stepped forward, shyly gazing at the floor and wrapping one hand around her waist before softly clasping her right palm in the other. Bright blue eyes snapped up to meet her own, and in that moment, both the music and her thoughts fell silent. Rippling rainbow reflections from the guests’ clothing swirled across his irises, evoking the shimmer of northern lights over the pristine glacial ponds of Lyrias. Those eyes were peaceful, despite the fierce confidence and determination contained within them. Those eyes inspired her to work harder, to strive for more, to be the best person she could be. Those eyes lit a fire in her heart. And—were those eyes crinkling with a smirk?
Shirayuki yelped as the music swelled and she was swept straight into a spiraling current. She hadn’t expected the song to be so fast. With her vision blurring and head swirling from the maelstrom of colorful silks and ballroom walls, dizziness quickly overtook her and a warm sweat broke across her skin. Mixed with the timbre of the strings was the sly chuckle of her partner, whose smirk had now become a fully-realized mischievous grin as he looked down at her. Incensed at his stunt, she glared back at him as the raucous energy of the music dimmed and he brought her to his side for a brief dip. She hoped that her disapproval was reflected in her face the same way Kiki’s was when she gave Obi a scolding.
“Sorry,” Zen laughed nervously as he ended their brief break with a turn before reconnecting. “I’ve known this song since I was a toddler. My mom actually used to surprise me just like that when we danced to it at my first couple balls, so I couldn’t resist.”
Shirayuki valiantly tried to maintain her stubborn expression, but the nostalgia in his voice coupled with the thought of little Zen being spun around by his mother chipped away at her resolve. Her lips quirked into a small smile.
“Well, you definitely surprised me…” she admitted, “but at least the music is slower now. You’re a much better dancer than I am!”
“Thanks, but you should give yourself more credit,” Zen smiled and looked over his shoulder to avoid bumping into another couple. “You handled that surprise pretty well!”
As they continued rotating around each other, Zen could feel Shirayuki relaxing in his arms as she settled into the flow of the new tempo. To be honest, he still felt a bit guilty for surprising her. Shirayuki’s yelp had been way too cute, though—and despite knowing how much she would hate him for it, his heart yearned to hear that yelp again.
As if responding to his thoughts, the principal violinist led the rest of the orchestra into a powerful crescendo, and Zen readied himself to follow the cue.
“You know Zen, I think I can handle th—” Shirayuki was promptly cut off as Zen’s smirk returned and he broadened his steps, successfully surprising his partner once again and eliciting another adorable yelp followed by an even more adorable giggle. This time, however, the momentum from the spiraling current swept Shirayuki’s feet out from under her, causing both partners to stumble. Gripping her hand tightly, Zen wrapped his right arm further around her waist and pulled her flush against his chest before righting himself.
“A-are you okay? I’m so sorry, I can’t believe I thought that was a good idea.”
“I—uh—yeah I’m okay,” Shirayuki mumbled, a hot blush pricking her cheeks as she realized Zen was practically hugging her to bring her upright. If she would have looked up to meet his eyes, she would have noticed that a similar red dappled his cheekbones as he also became aware of their shared closeness. He coughed and returned them to a normal waltz posture before resuming their dance, this time with much more leisurely steps.
“I’m sorry I messed that up, Zen,” Shirayuki sighed.
“You shouldn’t be sorry, it was my fault—”
“No, it wasn’t,” Shirayuki shook her head, “I should have expected it, but I’m pretty inexperienced. Sorry I’m not a better partner.”
Zen was taken aback. Shirayuki had seemed so enthusiastic and determined when she’d agreed to dance with him, and she’d even held her own when he surprised her; but now, it seemed the wind had left her sails a little.
“Hey, I think you’re being too hard on yourself,” he dipped his head, pulling her eyes back up to his. “After all,” he smiled sympathetically, “I’m the one being a jerk and throwing you off.” Shirayuki seemed to ease up a little at this, so Zen continued, “Try not to worry so much about whether you’re doing the footwork correctly—just have fun with the music! And I’ll try to be more…consistent.”
Raising an eyebrow, Shirayuki regarded him skeptically. “I’m serious!” he pressed before briefly glancing over his shoulder to avoid what looked to be a slightly inebriated couple. “With social dancing there’s really no right or wrong way to do it. I’m sorry I gave you the wrong impression.”
“But—I’m following your lead, right?” Shirayuki pressed, eyebrows still furrowed, “Doesn’t that mean if I don’t match you, I’ve messed up? I remember the dance teacher telling me something like that when I was training for Raji’s ball.”
“Not at all!” Zen blurted, finally realizing why Shirayuki seemed so dejected. “Social dancing is about being a team. We both get to make suggestions for what we want to do.”
“Hmm. How am I supposed to do that?”
Zen paused and shifted his focus from their conversation to the musicians. The pulse was gentle, each phrase punctuated with the delicate footsteps of an oboe, like a child playfully running to catch up. Perfect.
“Do you hear that oboe?” Zen asked. Shirayuki hesitated for a second, but nodded in response. “Try moving just your body in a way that matches how it feels.”
“That sounds weird, but okay,” Shirayuki shrugged. She didn’t have enough dance experience to feel like she had any sense of musicality, at least not with waltzing. Town festival dancing was more her style. She swallowed hard, hoping her instincts wouldn’t make her look too uncultured.
“Alright then,” Zen started, moving to dance by her side, “I’ll give you a little more room, just try stuff! Don’t worry about making it perfect.”
Shirayuki returned his glowing smile as convincingly as she could. Glancing at the floor, she took a deep breath, forced her shoulders to relax, and softened her gaze to focus on the music. Almost immediately, she noticed the oboe that Zen had been talking about—it was small, almost playful—her mind brought forth an old memory of dancing at the festival in Tanbarun about a year before she left. The music was buoyant and joyous, and the citizens of the town had linked hands to form a circle of dancers. A little girl around four years old gripped Shirayuki’s right hand and bounced excitedly as everyone skipped and tapped their toes in and out of the circle.
With this memory filling her heart, Shirayuki took a sweeping step and delicately presented her toe before hitching it back to point at her ankle. The timing wasn’t quite right, though, and Zen hesitated a little before getting back in step with her.
“Sorry,” she mumbled. Zen turned to look at her reassuringly.
“That was totally fine! I just wasn’t paying close enough attention. Try again!” he encouraged. Shirayuki nervously smiled back at him and exhaled in a puff of air before briefly closing her eyes to find her place in the music. This time, she pointed her toe just a little earlier, and with slightly more gusto. To her surprise, it worked perfectly.
“Zen! I did it!” She beamed, sending his heart racing.
“Yes! That was great! You’re much better at this than you give yourself credit for,” Zen grinned back at her. He swore that smile of hers would be the death of him. Shirayuki was utterly amazing, jumping headfirst into challenges and overcoming them with sheer wit and perseverance. Even after all this time, she still inspired him. He had no idea how he’d gotten so lucky. Wanting to reward her for her effort, Zen urged her to try her little move again. Shirayuki obliged, but this time she was surprised to find her prince mirroring her footwork, exactly in time with hers.
“How did you do that?!” Shirayuki exclaimed, “You just copied me perfectly!”
Zen chuckled before replying with a smirk, “Well, I’ve had a lot of practice following your lead, even if it wasn’t on the dance floor.”
Shirayuki’s cheeks prickled with color and she tried to conceal her smile at his flattery. The music swelled yet again, and Zen reached toward her, grasping her free hand in his and bringing her around to face him once more. As if the musicians had seen their little moment of improvisation, the music changed tone, becoming flirtatious and bursting with lilting, bouncy notes.
Taking a cue from the music, Zen and Shirayuki’s dance quickly devolved into a game of cat and mouse. Both partners tried to outdo the other, coyly punctuating the phrases with whatever over-the-top moves they could conjure. Zen swept Shirayuki into amorous dips and flashy spins, and Shirayuki responded with coquettish skirt swishes and bold brushes of her hand along his arm. More than once, she sent him lingering glances from beneath her lashes, each of which sent his heart into a frenzy. After a few minutes of this, they found themselves nearly doubling over, laughing at their own antics. With her earlier anxiety long forgotten, Shirayuki melted into Zen’s arms, breathless and pink and perfectly comfortable being herself. Feeling emboldened from all the flirting, Zen held her a little closer as they made their way around the ballroom floor, cheeks aching from smiling so much.
Hearts full and beating as one, they were untouchable. Wrapped in each other’s arms, floating with the spiraling currents and navigating the whirlpools, they could almost glimpse their future unfolding. It was reflected in their eyes, as they softly gazed at each other, as if they were the only people in the room. It was reflected in their steps, as they confidently moved forward, each having an equal say in their direction. And it was reflected in their smiles, as they gently inspired each other to work hard and love even harder.
“Zen?” Shirayuki murmured, prompting the prince’s eyebrows to raise before he leaned closer to hear her more clearly. She continued in a hushed tone, careful to keep the words between them, “Thank you for asking me to dance. It seems like every time I take your hand, it leads to something wonderful.”
Zen’s breath caught in his throat, and he looked down to meet her eyes, honestly a little dumbstruck from her declaration. Forcing himself to take a deep breath, he leaned down to whisper in her ear, “I couldn’t have asked for a better partner.”
A wobbly smile graced Shirayuki’s lips as the song swelled into its finale, signaling the end of their dance. Zen spun her once, twice, before bringing her to rest against him in a tender dip. As he returned her upright, she flung her arms around him to hug him tightly, burying her face into his neck. With not a single care for the nobles watching him, Zen returned her embrace, discretely pressing his lips into the soft skin between her neck and shoulder and sighing before pulling back to take her arm and lead her off the dance floor. Although their dance had come to an end, they both knew their future would hold many, many more; and this shared knowledge drove them forward, each step pushing onward to the rest of the night—and the rest of their lives.