Actions

Work Header

A Prince for Christmas

Chapter Text

The sound of the tires crunching on the gravel as a sleek black car pulls up to the castle is what catches Goro's attention.

He looks out the window, lifting the velvet curtain aside to get a better view. It's a royal car, the regal crest gleaming on the hood.

"Are we expecting someone today?" Goro asks, turning from the window to face Shido.

Shido, meanwhile, doesn't look up from his paperwork. His pen scribbles away, pressing too hard, almost whistling against the pressure.

"I hired someone new," he explains, but doesn't bother to elaborate further.

"Oh?"

Shido waves a dismissive hand about. "Someone to help out with the horses."

Goro hadn't realized the castle needed more staff to assist with the horses' care. He glances out the window once more. Shido's office is three floors up, affording Goro a prime view of the new arrival. Sakura is getting older—perhaps he requested the extra assistance?

"They're experienced with horses, then?" Goro asks.

When Goro turns to him once more, there's a smirk on Shido's face, vanishing like a secret a moment later. "Not exactly. Don't concern yourself with it, though." Shido finally looks up, seizing a piece of paper atop the mess of the others to thrust out toward Goro. "Your list of duties for today. Don't slack off."

Goro takes it. Meeting with the chancellor before lunch. An interview with a journalist at two. Speaking with the royal artist about the upcoming Christmas portraits directly after.

Goro sighs. It's a tough life, being a beloved prince. Tougher still when he realizes that absolutely nobody would sympathize with him due to his privileged position. He sighs again, the exhale heavier than before, mouth twisting.

"I'll see to it, Your Majesty," Goro murmurs, eyes scanning the schedule before gently folding it into a neat square to slide into his pocket.

Shido grunts, satisfied, before redirecting his attention once more to his work, as if Goro has become little more than a stone statue in the corner of his office.

Goro looks out the window again as Shido's pen resumes its scratching. Someone climbs out of the backseat of the car, flanked by two palace workers and led briskly to the servant's entrance. Even craning his neck, Goro can't get a sufficient look at the new hire other than the back of his head, seeing little more than a mop of black curls and narrow shoulders.

 

&

 

The castle, looming in its opulent stonework against the white sky, would be much more impressive, Akira thinks, if it wasn't the product of dirty money and corrupt leaders.

The guards bringing him in keep aggressively knocking shoulders with him. He can't even say that he's surprised, not really. "Guess you learned what happens if you cross the king," one growls. "You're lucky he's such a forgiving guy."

Akira says nothing. He's learned the value of silence when dealing with men twice his size and doubly as eager to show it off.

They bypass the commanding front door, adorned with eye-catching iron lattice structures and surrounded by majestic statues, and head instead for a wooden, more nondescript door—the servant's entrance.

The door swings open with a creak, revealing a woman with short brown hair and a stern smile. Still, there's kindness behind her rigidity.

"Kurusu-kun, correct? We've been expecting you."

A firm hand on his shoulder pushes him in before the door shuts behind him. The hallway is narrow, lowly lit, and quiet save for the distant murmurings of other employees out of view. Without meaning to, Akira wonders exactly how much any of them are getting paid.

Or if they're like him, and aren't getting paid at all.

"So," the woman says, tucking her hair behind her ears. "I'm Makoto Niijima. I manage the staff, so I'm the best person to come to if you have any questions. Let me show you around a little."

She guides him down the hallway. Many of the doors they pass are ajar, allowing Akira a glimpse into a few rooms: storage closets, pantries, a sparsely-manned kitchen, and what seems to be a shabby dining hall, which also happens to be the source of the chatter.

"This is where the staff eats," Makoto explains, gesturing inward. A few heads stand out—a loud-mouthed blond boy mid-chew being one—along with a few plates of bread and vegetables.

"Seems a bit late for lunch," Akira mentions.

"The staff doesn't eat until after the royal family is finished with their meals," Makoto explains. She looks a bit surprised, like this is a detail that she fully expected Akira to already grasp. "You haven't... worked for royalty before."

"Oh. No." Experience isn't exactly a job requirement when workers are being blackmailed into providing service.

"Oh. Well. I'm sure you'll learn quickly," Makoto assures him. She continues walking, and Akira follows her around the corner into another hallway, somehow slimmer than the last. "Here are your sleeping quarters."

She pushes open the door to a vacant room that Akira nearly mistakes for a cleaning closet. It's certainly as small as one, and definitely smells as disturbingly sterile as one, a better home for a bottle of bleach than a person. The majority of the space is occupied with a single bed and a small cabinet sitting opposite of it meant for Akira's paltry amount of things. It feels eerily like a low-budget boarding school. Or jail.

"...where are the other beds?"

Makoto clears her room, looking somewhat uncomfortable for the first time since his arrival there. "There are no other beds."

"I'm not sleeping with the rest of the staff." It's not a question. He's already caught onto Shido's intended punishment in this action.

"...no." Makoto seems to suddenly find great interest in her shoes. "You were assigned your... own quarters... for some reason."

Considering that they're the size of a matchbox, Akira can figure out the reason fairly easily, he thinks. "Yeah. I got it."

"There probably just weren't any additional beds left," she reasons, seemingly eager to brush this oversight under the rug as rapidly as possible. "And you have to admit that you do get a lot more privacy like this."

If he's honest, Akira's not entirely certain that there will be room enough for his feet in this repurposed broom closet. He might have to settle for sleeping in fetal position.

"You'll get your daily schedule delivered under the door every day," Makoto continues, officially putting a lid on the matter. "And you're free to explore this area during your off time. Just don't roam about the rest of the castle."

If avoiding the rest of the castle—the nice parts, obviously—means avoiding Shido, too, Akira will count the order as a blessing.

"Where will I be helping out? The kitchens?" Akira asks.

"Oh. Actually, you'll be in the stables. Do you know anything about horses?"

Akira shakes his head. "Nothing." He couldn't tell a hoof from a horseshoe. The only saving grace is that he isn't afraid of horses, although exploiting such a fear is something Shido had probably been hoping for.

"That's all right," Makoto says. The more she talks, the more the kindness glimmers out from where she keeps it hidden behind her professionalism. "Sakura-san is the stablemaster, and he'll be able to teach you as you go. He's extremely capable."

 

&

 

"Sojirooooo. Don't smoke next to the horses!"

Sojiro huffs. He looks down at his stub of a cigarette, smoke curling from the tip into tendrils that wither away in the air, far away from any sensitive equine noses.

"I'm all the way over here," he insists, but stubs it out regardless on the nearest beam, leaving behind a tiny black scorch mark. He grinds the ashen butt under his shoe. "Besides, it's too cold to go smoke outside."

"Then don't smoke," Futaba whines. "The horses don't like it."

Sojiro glances at her where she's tucked herself into a bale of hay, thumbs moving lightning-fast on her phone. This is a rough time of year for her, even if she doesn't admit it out loud. It's been hard for both of them since Wakaba died. The only bright spot in Futaba's life these days seems to be horses, the quiet moments she spends stroking their manes, mumbling secrets to them. Sojiro wishes she had more people around her to bring her out of her shell, stimulate her, but—

A gentle knock on the stable door startles him. It slides open a moment later, bringing a biting December chill with it.

"Niijima-san," Sojiro says, straightening up. His eyes fall on the man next to her—hands in his pockets, glasses fogging, unruly hair. A chord is struck within him. "Right. They did say that was today."

The new stablehand. Like Sojiro isn't doing a more than adequate job—and always has—handling the horses himself.

"Sakura-san, this is Akira Kurusu," Makoto says, politely gesturing to him.

The kid's less than enthusiastic expression—along with his naive age—gives Sojiro an idea of just how he came to be here. He grunts in greeting. "I'm Sojiro Sakura." He scrubs a hand over the back of his neck. "They couldn't have stuck him in housekeeping?"

"I'm sure he'll be of use to you here," Makoto says. "The horses need a lot of care."

"Yeah. And teaching it takes time." He sighs. He knows arguing is fruitless; the decision of where to put this kid was the king's, and his mind isn't one Sojiro is interested in trying to bend. He steps aside to make room, beckoning them in. "Come on in. Shut the door behind you, you're letting all the cold in."

Makoto slides the door shut behind them, hay crunching underfoot her prim shoes.

"So," Sojiro says, wheeling on the new boy. "You good with horses?"

Makoto quickly jumps in. "Uh, he's new to, um. Well."

"I see."

Sojiro suddenly wishes he hadn't stubbed that cigarette out so soon. He doesn't have time for this, certainly not when it's so close to the holidays and the palace fills up with every duke or duchess within three hundred miles of the place, and all of them want to go on snowy horse rides at all hours of the day. To now have to teach a newbie the basics of stable care is like some kind of Christmas curse.

He sucks in a deep breath. "You sure picked a busy time to start working." The kid's eyebrow twitches. Sojiro thinks he hit the nail on the head with his hunch about where exactly Akira Kurusu came from. "We got lots to do around here. Over there is my daughter Futaba—she doesn't work here, but..."

Sojiro trails off. The bale of hay she was using as an armchair thirty seconds ago is empty now, all traces of her gone.

"Sorry about that," he says after catching sight of Akira's blank look. "She exists, I promise. She's just... shy."

He looks around, from the stables that need mucking out to the food that needs measuring to the saddles that need polishing. Perhaps splitting the work isn't as much of an inconvenience as expected.

"Anyway," he says. "Ready to get started?"

 

&

 

He's not. Not so much by a long shot. Sojiro is brusque at best, and the amount of things Akira has to learn before the arrival of guests to the palace for the holidays could fill an entire year's worth of schooling, if not more. Which is to say nothing of the stakes associated with some of the tasks. Evidently feeding the horses incorrectly is a matter of life and death, each and every horse requiring a different grain-to-hay ratio with very specific measurements, each wholly dependent on the horse's lifestyle, recent changes in activity, and the season, of all things. The crown prince's horse, he's told, is by far the most active out of any of them, and requires a great deal of grain.

And while all of this information is mostly transcribed on the large chalkboard at the end of the barn, deciphering it is another thing altogether. Sojiro has a very unique method of notation.

It would also require Akira to keep the names of the horses straight, somehow. The only one he's really managed to identify with any sort of consistency is the one belonging to the crown prince—Robin Hood—and that's only because it stands out among the rest with its stark white color and blatantly European name.

Of course, it helps that the horse seems to have taken a liking to him. All of them have, really. It's as though they find his bumbling newness endearing, somehow. But Robin Hood in particular seems especially fond of him.

It makes the work easier, certainly. And while he anticipated—and, by now, perhaps even prefers—to do the work that may have been expected of someone working in a stable—everything from raking up muck to grooming the horses—today's work is mostly a matter of mental math and running about the castle.

They need a new shipment of feed. Knowing that it has to last at least a month, it's a question of factoring in daily rations for each horse, the way the season affects the amount of grazing they'll be doing, and the anticipated riding schedule of not only the currently residing royals, but the guests expected to arrive for the holidays.

Not that there's apparently any way to anticipate the crown prince's riding schedule, considering Sojiro's annoyed grumbling on the topic.

"Your best bet is to factor in at least three to four late-night rides a week for Robin Hood," Sojiro had explained. "More if the staff seem on edge."

All in all, it's a mathematical nightmare, and he's still looking over the proportions and amounts as he lets his steps carry him on a path that he hopes will lead him to the kitchens. The castle is large, to put it mildly, and Akira's still getting used to finding his way around.

At least until he opens a large, imposing door and suddenly finds himself on surprisingly plush carpet, a stark contrast compared to the barren wooden floor of the servants' wing.

Right. Makoto told him not to come here.

"What the hell, man! Watch where you're going!" someone hollers.

A glance down the hallway is telling enough. The young man in servant dress had been carrying so many boxes for them to be piled high enough to cut off his vision, so the impact—and the subsequent clang and clatter—does make sense.

It's just a shame about the boxes of Christmas decorations whose contents are now strewn across the floor… and the formerly glorious-looking golden armor in a similar state.

"Shit, shit, shit!"

Akira should have turned around. He knows this. He knows exactly what he's supposed to do in this instance—that he's already on thin ice with the king as it is.

"This is all your fault, you big dumb hunk of metal!"

But he also knows that, were he to turn around now, he'd never see this guy ever again. He'd get fired, and that would be that. Or… demoted, at least. Punished, somehow.

So he lets his steps carry him to where the young man is before reaching a hand out to him to help him back up to standing.

"Thanks."

"...were you… talking to a suit of armor?"

"Uh," he starts, his hand moving to the back of his neck as he laughs, "yeah, guess so. You're the new guy, right? I'm Ryuji."

Akira is about to answer beyond a simple nod he offers Ryuji when their conversation is unexpectedly interrupted by the hard footfalls of… oh.

It's the first time Akira's seen the king since he earned his spot here as a stablehand. He had been intimidating then, imposing his might on anyone in his eyeline, but here on his own home turf, the intimidation is infinitely harsher.

"What on earth was that infernal racket?!" he yells. "I didn't realize we'd opened a daycare—honestly, I pay all of you entirely too much."

Akira wants to fire back with something about how he isn't getting paid at all, but then catches sight of Ryuji. Never before has he seen someone have all the color drain from their face, but it's certainly what seems to be happening right now as the king sees it fit to start encroaching on his personal space.

"Is this your fault? Because I'll have you know, that suit of armor is worth more than your entire family line combined. I could fire you, but it's not like either you or your family could ever pay me back for this priceless armor that's been in my family—the royal family—for centuries. Maybe indentured servitude—"

"The suit of armor moved, I had nothing to do with it!" Ryuji blurts out, the king's gaze narrowing further as Akira takes a rather decisive step forward, clearing his throat to stop him before he gets the chance to speak again.

"It was my fault."

What's he going to do, fire him? He doesn't want to be working here in the first place.

Shido seems to bristle long before he ever turns to look at him, as though he's building up his rage from his toes on up to prepare to face this little shithead of a teenager. A speck of insignificant, annoying dirt—a potential blemish on his otherwise flawless record.

Akira has the gall to smile.

Shido's eyes are the first to swivel off of Ryuji, abandoning him as his intended punching bag as he finally turns the whole of his body onto Akira.

"So it's you."

"Yeah. Me."

Shido looks at him, his glare like a burning wildfire. Akira can see his punishment come to life in Shido's eyes. "You already work in a pile of horse shit. Might as well sleep there, too, from now on." Turning to Ryuji, he points at the floor, evidently tired of being witnessed. "Clean that up. Now. And don't you dare feel too lucky that this guy picked up your slack."

"Yes, sir."

The air between him and Shido seems to crackle with renewed hatred now that his attention is back upon him, Akira straightening his stance. If he wants him to grovel, he'll have to work harder than that.

"The next time you step so much as a toe out of line, I'm taking him down with you." Akira knows that he means Ryuji, even without the dismissive hand-wave in the direction of his first real friend at the palace. "So be careful around here, new boy. I do not tolerate clumsiness in my palace."

It's all he says before walking past Akira, careful to ensure that he shoulder-clocks him along the way.

By the time Akira gets back to the stable—never did manage to get the order info into the kitchens, after all—Sojiro just sighs. He looks tired.

"The palace called," he says, Akira feeling his stomach lurch. "Something about you being moved out of the palace sleeping quarters?"

"Into the hayloft," he agrees, nodding as if focusing on that detail in particular might make Sojiro ignore everything else.

"Already getting yourself into trouble, huh? What'd you do to get relegated there?" Akira opens his mouth to answer before he's interrupted. "Actually, don't answer that. I don't want to know. Give me those; I'll deliver them. Should've known not to send a newbie to navigate the palace maze."

He sighs again, but he doesn't seem angry. Instead, he tells Akira to get his bedroll and other belongings from his… well, not bedroom, per se. His broom closet. Everything needs to be relocated, evidently.

At least, he supposes, there will be room to stretch out his legs in his sleep.

 

&

 

The first night in the hayloft is fairly restless. Even through the sheets Akira lays out, the hay is sharp, poking through fabric, scratching his skin. It also smells overwhelmingly like a barn, of musty wood and earthy dirt and the odor of horse.

Akira wrinkles his nose, trying to will himself to sleep. It's just not comfortable, and all those splinters on the ceiling are distracting.

How did he manage to get relegated to the time-out corner so fast? He's barely been here, and he's already ruffling Shido's feathers.

Although a part of him wonders if that was inevitable.

He sighs, closing his eyes, trying to find a path to sleep. There's no point regretting it now. Letting Ryuji suffer the brunt of Shido's wrath for a harmless accident wouldn't have left him feeling very good, either, even if he would've been doing it from the warmth and comfort of his room inside the castle walls.

Akira's just about to start unsteadily drifting off when something leaps onto his chest, jerking him back awake, heart hammering.

He fumbles for the lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, tugging on the string that flicks it to life. Akira blinks a few times.

It's a cat. A black cat—mostly, save for a few spots of white—with startlingly blue eyes. Akira looks at it. It looks back.

"Where did you come from?" Akira asks, propping himself up on his elbows to get a better look. He doesn't recall Sojiro mentioning a local barn cat, to say nothing of a cat that belongs to the kingdom. Surely it'd be adorned with a collar if it did.

The cat meows in Akira's face in a way that feels almost irritated, like Akira's intruding on his sacred space. Perhaps it sleeps here in the stables?

"Look," Akira says. "We'll share, all right?"

The cat almost seems to be considering it. Then it hops off the hayloft onto the dark ground below, and is promptly swallowed up by the shadows as it slinks away. Akira watches it go, nearly wishing it had stayed, if only to feel a little less alone.

He tugs the light off again, bathing the barn in a peaceful darkness, interrupted only by dim rays of moonlight.

It can't get any worse, Akira tells himself, and begs the fates not to consider it a challenge.

 

&

 

To say that the castle is vast would be a gross understatement, with almost as many hallways as there are rooms, each one of them seeming more or less identical to the last. It would be hard enough to find one's way around even without the addition of service entrances and employee-designated hallways—not that Akira is always focused on abiding by that rule—but he wasn't even told how to get around the swankier parts of the palace that he's now left to traverse on account of his work in the stables. If anything, he simply wants to complete this task within the time allotted, wishing desperately by now that he'd been given a map.

His gaze moves to the registration papers in his hand—paperwork for the king to sign to confirm the acquisition of a new horse into the royal stable—and wonders why on earth he's been tasked with this, of all things.

Sojiro is treating him rather like a sponge of information, he thinks. There's only so much he can soak up in one week.

He's staring at the word laundry, thinking that he must surely have passed this particular door not too long ago, when he catches sight of someone else coming down the hallway, whose own attention is momentarily focused on a folder neatly perched open in his palm.

"Excuse me," Akira starts, slowing his steps to a stop as he waits for the young man with the folder to notice him before continuing himself. "Could you tell me where the king's office is?"

The sound of the young man's laughter is refreshing, light with surprise—as though he can't believe that he's being asked this at all.

The man looks up, turning to him. Akira's half-expecting a middle-aged member of the staff he hasn't met yet, but this man is young, practically his own age. He's also rather well-groomed, not to mention... handsome.

"I most certainly could," he says, voice pleasant. He looks Akira up and down. "Though I don't recognize you. I don't assume that an intruder would be so bold as to ask for directions. Are you the new hire?"

"Yes."

"You're younger than I thought you'd be. Well, I do suppose that His Majesty's whims have never been too predictable. I certainly know that I have fallen victim to them on more than one occasion."

Who is he? His dress and demeanor are formal enough, even in spite of the icy passive aggression lingering beneath his tone and the brilliant smile to cover for it. Concierge, maybe? It occurs to Akira that, for all of Makoto's best efforts to educate him on the goings-on around the palace, there is little that he really knows about the day-to-day around here—not to mention the who's who of the residents and the staff.

"I can't imagine that most people would talk about the king that way," Akira says.

For a moment, there's a flicker of something—astonishment, perhaps?—that passes across the young man's face before he grins again, evidently delighted by this turn of events. "Few people speak their minds as freely as you do around here. Maybe your presence will serve to brighten up the whole palace."

When he arrived here, the last thing he ever thought he'd be doing would be brightening up anyone's day. So Akira doesn't say anything, not that the other man seems even remotely deterred by his silence.

"I do hope we'll see each other again," he states, his smile still as bright as before. "At any rate. You're headed down the hall and to the left. I do believe it would be difficult for you to miss it."

Akira gives him a nod of thanks before he's off again, a glance at his watch telling him that he's already falling behind. Well. Considering his sleeping situation, he supposes befriending the rest of the staff was always a bit of a pipe dream.

 

&

 

It's several hours later in his office that Goro takes note of the fact that his mind does, in fact, keep gravitating back to the new hire—the help. It's been distracting enough in its own right, but more importantly—

"...then you'll have the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new conservatory at 4 p.m., Lady Ann will be arriving at 6 p.m., and dinner with His Majesty will take place at 8:30 p.m."

—this is the longest he's gone in years without thinking about Shido.

In the background, Makoto clears her throat.

"Your Highness."

Waving a dismissive, non-committal hand, Goro shakes his head. "I have the schedule in front of me, too, you know. I'm not quite so useless yet that I've forgotten how to read."

"If I may speak freely," she starts, Goro turning his gaze up at her as he waits for her to continue, "you have seemed exhausted of late. Perhaps an earlier bedtime would not go remiss."

Restful sleep. What a strange notion. He's not sure he's so much as familiar with the concept.

"I'll take it into consideration, thank you."

 

&

 

One of the first things Sojiro tells Akira during his training is that the members of the royal family are notoriously unpredictable regarding their riding habits.

Well—not all of them. Mainly just the crown prince, apparently. Still, it's enough reason for him and Sojiro to eat dinner in shifts, one person staying behind in case someone does want to ride.

He runs into Sojiro on his way back from dinner, the crunch of fresh snow sounding underfoot as he makes his way through the courtyard to slip into the barn.

A quick scan of the stalls makes the telltale signs of a cold sweat start to run down his back—one of the horses is missing.

And not just any horse, either. Robin Hood.

Twisting his body this way and that, as though he might find Robin Hood behind him, Akira feels himself start to panic. God knows what punishment he'll be in for if a royal horse disappears on Akira's watch. He couldn't have gone far, right? The barn wasn't unsupervised for that long—

His feet run him back out into the courtyard, panicked, just in time for the sound of a horse's footfalls to make itself known, the telltale clip-clop drawing his attention as he skids to a stop.

Well, at least that answers the question of where Robin Hood went. Relief floods his chest.

It's the same attractive young man from before, the one he'd assumed to be the concierge. (Do palaces have concierges? If they did, would they have the permission to be riding the crown prince's horse? Akira can't imagine that being the case.)

"You know," Akira starts, gesturing at the pure white Arabian, "that's the crown prince's horse."

The young man just chuckles, a single gloved hand coming up to cover his laughter even as his shoulders tremble slightly. He looks awfully comfortable atop the horse, like a skilled rider. "So it is. I suppose I won't tell him if you won't."

Akira can't say he's particularly fond of this deal or its implications. There really isn't a way to sink any lower than sleeping in a hayloft… probably. He hopes there isn't.

"...what's in it for me?"

Again, the gentleman starts to laugh, a bright grin forming on his features as he climbs off the horse to take hold of the reins. "Dear me, already resorting to bribery, are we? Most of the staff aren't quite so quick to allow themselves to be corrupted."

"I tend to prefer to do the corrupting."

For a moment—Akira still trying to parse just how flirtatious that must have sounded, and how flirtatiously he meant for it to sound—the man's eyes widen noticeably, his hand moving to his chest as he stares.

Did he go too far this time? The borderline coquettish atmosphere had been chasing them around since their first interaction, hadn't it?

But then, the young man smiles again, every hint of his earlier surprise seeming to have evaporated as he laughs. "My, you certainly are outspoken—not to mention bold. Are you always this forward with all your conquests, or is it just me?"

Well. That didn't go nearly as badly as he thought it might.

So he shakes his head, his bare hand tightening on the edge of the stable door. It occurs to him that he hasn't even noticed that he's half-frozen by this point. "It's just you."

"In that case, I'm flattered. Unfortunately, I really do still have matters to attend to and cannot spend all my time out here cavorting with you."

Akira reaches out for Robin Hood's reins before his brain can think to stop him, and he shakes his head. "I'll take care of him from here. Go take care of your work."

"I'd expected—" The pleasant surprise that crosses his face is replaced with another soft laugh just a moment later, and the other man smiles. "Well, never mind that, I suppose. I do appreciate the help."

"I'll make sure the crown prince won't find out, so you don't have to worry."

Again, that same bright laughter, gentle and shockingly genuine considering his overall demeanor and dress. "Why, thank you. I wouldn't quite know what to do with myself without the help."

Even as the young man makes his way back into the palace, Akira leading Robin Hood into the stable to get him un-saddled and brushed for the night, he still can't quite decipher his own intent from the interaction. He really was flirting, wasn't he? More so now than the last time, even.

Even while working beside Lala at Crossroads, he'd never taken any of the customers up on their flirting, and the same had been true through his time at school, no matter how many girls had confessed to him. And yet, there was something that felt undeniably different about… this guy.

This guy, whose name he still doesn't know.

Next time, he tells himself. Next time, he'll find out for sure.

Chapter Text

It's no surprise that Akira's new room assignment isn't where the comeuppance for making a ruckus in the castle ends. He just didn't expect to see Ryuji at his place of punishment too.

"Yo," Ryuji says, sheepish. "Sorry again, dude. Or, thanks, I guess? I don't know, I feel real shitty about it."

"It's fine," Akira says, even if Sojiro did have to tell him to pick the pieces of straw out of his hair this morning. He looks around the room he was told to head to straight after breakfast, no excuses. It's crammed full of what looks like rejected art pieces and various royal accessories with no significant monetary value: everything from golden scepters to ruddy statue busts to scraped plates of armor, all in need of a good scrubbing. Akira's starting to get an idea what they're meant to be doing here.

"Pain in the ass, right?" Ryuji grumbles. "Nobody uses any of this shit anyway."

"I don't think that matters," Akira says.

"I know. The king prolly just wants us to know our place or something." Ryuji sighs, loud and annoyed. "Whelp. Looks like we're stuck cleaning for the next few hours. This'll be a blast."

Sudsy buckets and polishing rags sit in the corner, waiting. The more Akira thinks about it, the less surprised he is that Ryuji's here—as a matter of a fact, it's something of a miracle that he wasn't sent to sleep with the horses, too. The king isn't exactly a paragon of fairness; Akira knows as much firsthand. If anything, he's a distributor of cruelty like it's birdseed at a park.

The cleaning goes quickly enough, even if Ryuji's constant stream of bitching slows down morale a bit. Akira's stomach is just starting to rumble as he polishes the last of a bronze helmet.

Ryuji's sitting in the corner, playing with a pair of silver gauntlets as entertainment, apparently bored of scrubbing for the time being. "Hey," he says, eyes trained on a sculpture of a woman in repose. "You think any of this stuff is worth anything?"

Have too much of anything—like this palace obviously does—and all of it will lose worth eventually. It definitely loses meaning, considering how many of these pieces are squirreled away as if they're junk.

"Is your plan to smuggle something out?" Akira asks. "To... decorate your sleeping quarters with?"

"Yeah, that's kind of a bad idea." Ryuji gets to his feet. "You almost done over there?"

"Almost," Akira says. He wipes the grime away from one last spot around the visor. His fingers, slick with polish and cramped from holding a sponge for the better part of the day, are aching for relief—and a faucet, for that matter. "There. That wasn't too bad."

"Bro, we ain't done," Ryuji says, eyes grim.

"What?"

"Didn't Makoto tell you? We gotta clean all the armor in the halls, too."

Akira swallows back his groan of frustration. This is going to take all day at this rate, leaving Akira to wonder when on earth he's supposed to complete his daily chores in the stable. If Shido's goal is to overwork him to the point of collapse, he's doing a good job of it so far.

The defeat must show on Akira's face, considering Ryuji steps closer and says, "C'mon, man. It won't take too long since there's two of us." He ruffles the hair on the back of his head, setting the gauntlets down. "Uh, would it help if I said sorry again?"

Akira smiles. "No," he says. "But thanks anyway."

They decide to get started in the entrance hall. The only plus to this entire endeavor is that Shido hasn't seen it worthy to watch them polish the castle like Cinderellas while he looms above them, criticizing, reveling in their servitude. Only a few employees pass by as they work, none of them familiar faces, and none of them interested in bothering him and Ryuji. He supposes it makes sense. Makoto did say that this area was typically meant to be avoided by their ilk.

"So what's your deal, dude?" Ryuji asks as they start on the armor to the left of the grand staircase. "Why are you here anyway?"

Akira shrugs. He's not sure he wants to tell this whole story over a bucket of suds. He's not sure he wants to tell this story at all. The metallic gleam of the armor is starting to sting his eyes.

"I guess I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I made a decision," he says, pausing his work. "I don't think it was the wrong one. But it definitely made things... harder."

Ryuji's fully intrigued now. "What kinda decision?"

"I stopped someone from getting hurt. I just didn't realize that the guy that did it was the king."

"Holy shit!" Ryuji's mouth falls open. "No freaking way. What happened? How did you not recognize him?"

"I didn't expect him to be there." Akira puts the sponge down. His heart in the task is waning as the memory washes over him—the late hour, the pink lights of the club. How quickly it all went wrong. "I was working at a bar in Shinjuku. Not exactly somewhere you'd expect any king to be."

"And Shido was there?"

"He had company, but not the kind that wanted to be around him. I stepped in. He didn't appreciate that." Lala's affronted expression crosses his mind again, her cool disposition interrupted by Shido's drunken threats, the girl he'd tried to take advantage of still held fast in an iron grip. "I couldn't let him shut down the bar. So I made a deal with him."

"And now you're here," Ryuji finishes. He looks disgusted, his volume starting at an acceptable level but rising fast. "The eff, man. I knew the guy was rotten, but seriously?"

Ryuji looks about ready to go off on a diatribe against the crown, face contorted with mercurial rage, but then his eyes catch on something over Akira's shoulder and he quickly clears his throat, doing his best to pretend to be hard at work.

Akira turns around at the sound of smooth shoes clacking down the hall. It's the guy from the stables, the one riding on the crown prince's horse, with the upscale-looking clothes.

And the handsome face.

"Oh. Hello," the young man says, coming to a stop in front of the armor Ryuji's half-hiding behind.

"It's you," Akira says.

"Yes, it is," he replies. His eyes take in the buckets and sponges. "Ah, you're not in trouble, are you?"

"Not as in trouble as I would be if I went around riding the prince's horse."

The man smiles. It comes out of his face like something he didn't expect and couldn't quite stifle either. "I promise you, he didn't mind as much as you think."

"You have special connections or something?"

"Or something," he says, still smiling. "You're an interesting one. I would truly love to stay and chat, but I'm afraid I'm needed elsewhere. Good luck with your work." A curious twitch touches the corner of his lips. "You too, Sakamoto."

He takes off in a brisk walk, Akira following the line of his shoulders as he heads down the hall.

The second he's out of earshot, Ryuji punches Akira in the arm.

"Dude," he hisses, eyebrows pinched together. "Why the hell are you so chummy with that scumbag prince?"

Scumbag... prince?

Akira blinks. "What?"

"Him. The guy you were just talking to," Ryuji says, pointing down the hall with an accusatory finger. "The prince? Shido's son? Hello?"

Akira shakes his head—no, that can't be. Akira hasn't met the prince. He'd know if he'd met the prince. That was—that was—

Was that seriously the prince?

"I didn't know," Akira says. "I ran into him a few times. He looked so... normal."

"What'd you think he was in those expensive clothes? Housekeeping?" Ryuji tuts, incredulous. "He's bad news. He's just a tool in the king's pocket. The entire royal family is so freakin' corrupt."

"Oh."

"Yeah, oh."

"What's his name?"

"Man, you really are out of the loop," Ryuji says. Akira can't really explain it; he just never bothered with any of that stuff before. Politics and royalty never held his attention. "His name is Goro Akechi. But it's Your Highness to all of us lowlifes."

Ryuji says his name like one might speak of a hideous disease. It's a miracle he doesn't stick his tongue out.

"So you've talked to him?" Akira asks.

"Yeah. Not that it's ever been a long conversation. He doesn't have that kind of time for the help."

Ryuji huffs, clearly personally wounded by this entire conversation. He drops his rag in the bucket, water splashing overboard. Akira doesn't feel like arguing with Ryuji—who seems to cling onto his venomous opinions like lifeboats—over someone he barely knows, but still, there seems to be a dissonance between Ryuji's perception of Akechi and Akira's. The man he spoke with on those few occasions seemed... well-mannered, even kind. Certainly not like the cruel, spitting image of Shido that Ryuji is claiming the prince to be.

"Come on," Ryuji says, grabbing the bucket. "Let's hit the East Wing."

 

&

 

The alphabet starts blurring together around ten o'clock in the evening. Goro's been looking at papers all day, mostly invitations for Christmas parties and law proposals Shido sent to him. Goro would feel a lot more flattered if not for the fact that he knows perfectly well that Shido cares less about giving Goro an opinion and more about keeping him occupied with busywork.

Goro rubs a hand over his tired eyes. He's exhausted, but his entire body feels tightly wound, like clockwork with grinding gears. He needs to decompress before he goes to sleep. Perhaps a quick ride with Robin Hood would help.

He doesn't bother with his riding garb this late, just throws on his coat and slips on his boots. Sakura should still be at the stables at this time of night, and if not him, perhaps the new hire.

Akira Kurusu—Goro is fairly certain that's his name. He not only asked Makoto, but checked the files too. The memory of one of their last encounters flutters through him, namely the naked horror on Kurusu's face when he rode up to the stable on Robin Hood, as if he had absconded with Shido's crown.

It's amusing, Kurusu's ignorance of his identity, but more than that, it's refreshing. Too often, he's treated strangely because of his lineage, his title, his role in the kingdom, and not always positively. To be little more than a stranger who just so happens to be in a palace is a new experience.

Although, he supposes, that is likely to change now that Kurusu's started consorting with Sakamoto. 

The iciness in the air urges Goro quickly along his way to the stables. The wind might be almost too sharp when he goes on a ride tonight, but it'll still wake up his muscles, too stiff after spending so long cramped in a chair.

But upon pulling the door to the stables open, he's surprised to find it dark inside, not a single lamp on. Goro steps inside regardless, listening to the horses shift.

It's not the only sound to be heard, however. Something's rustling up in the hayloft, much too high for the horses to reach. Goro reaches for where he knows a light switch is, but he's a step behind, and yellow lamplight floods the stables before he can turn it on himself.

From up on the hayloft, Kurusu's dark head of hair stares down at him.

Goro takes a quick step back. "Pardon me," he says out of reflex. Was Kurusu sleeping up there? Goro can't figure out if he's extraordinarily dedicated to the job or just absurdly lazy. "I didn't realize anyone was in here."

"I sleep here," Kurusu says.

"I can see that. Why, exactly?"

Kurusu gives him a dry smile as he climbs down from above. He's barefoot, in pajamas, and sans glasses, and Goro does his best not to pay attention to such details. "It's where the king told me to," he explains.

Shock startles through Goro. He shouldn't be surprised; such a petty demand is extremely characteristic of Shido's wild temperament. Still, the hayloft? Polishing armor with that hothead Sakamoto wasn't punishment enough?

Still, he keeps any outward reactions safely at bay, eyes downcast. "You'll have to forgive the king for his choice of disciplinary methods," he eventually says. "He's... a complicated man."

"So you couldn't put in a good word for me, Your Highness?"

Goro's eyes snap up to meet Kurusu's probing gaze, not full of indignant confrontation as much as it is quiet curiosity.

Well. He did expect this to happen, sooner rather than later.

"Ah," he says, looking away again. Looking directly at Kurusu is too much right now, only partway because of his current state of dress, his disheveled hair, and that scoop-neck shirt. "You figured out my identity, I suppose?"

"Ryuji told me."

Somehow, Goro has the feeling that isn't the only thing Sakamoto told him. From the few curt encounters they've had, Sakamoto always—for whatever reason—acts like someone who's itching to throw a few punches around, preferably in Goro's vicinity, if not directly at him. What could Kurusu possibly think of him now? Disappointment curdles in his belly.

"Why didn't you tell me you're the prince?" Kurusu asks, voice annoyingly neutral, Goro unable to read a reaction from it.

"To be perfectly honest, it was... unexpectedly pleasant, being so anonymous," he admits. "Not to mention that at the start, I wasn't sure if you were only messing with me."

"Messing with you? Why?"

"Perhaps you would've found it funny," Goro answers, doing his best not to spit out the last word. "Quite frankly, I'm not used to people not knowing who I am. As preposterous and conceited it may sound, being an eligible prince has made me something of a fan club."

Kurusu's slantwise smirk surprises Goro in just how little ridicule is present. No matter how he slices it, magazines hailing him as the "charming bachelor prince of the country" and the "hottest royal on the market" lays nothing but a foundation for sheer humiliation. He never asked for this, never asked for any of all these inconveniences, and yet—

Goro reels his mounting anger back in like a fishing line. He takes in a slow breath. "As you may be able to imagine, going outside is something of a nightmare. I often get swarmed when I'm not in disguise. Some people seem obsessed with me—or at least, their idea of me."

It isn't until silence settles around then, thick and leaden, that Goro feels regret creep in. Why did he share all of that? That's hardly the business of a stablehand, much less one that's been here for less than a week. Goro takes a step back, doing his best to reestablish the broken boundaries between them.

"Sounds rough," Kurusu says before Goro can jump in with an apology for being so maudlin. "I didn't realize it was so demanding."

"Yes, well." Desperate to reroute the conversation somewhere a little more appropriate, a little less personal, Goro turns to Robin Hood, stroking his muzzle. "Anyway, thank you for taking such good care of my horse and protecting him from people like me trying to whisk him away."

His attempt at a distraction works. "He makes it easy," Kurusu says as Robin Hood starts nuzzling Goro's palm. "He's a good horse."

"That he is," Goro agrees, proud. "Arabian horses are incredibly resilient, as a matter of fact. They were often used as war horses because they could endure such harsh conditions."

"I had no idea," Kurusu admits. "I'm new at this."

"I figured as much," Goro says. He does his best at procuring a reassuring smile. "But we all have to start somewhere, don't we?"

"True."

Something about their conversation feels a bit... charged. Goro has the uneasy feeling that his own oversharing is to blame for the change in mood, and decides that perhaps tonight isn't the best day for a fast ride after all—he'll just pop into the kitchen for a warm cup of decaf to wind down instead, no harm done.

He makes a show of checking his wristwatch. "I should be going," he says. "I hadn't realized how late it was. My apologies for disturbing you here, Kurusu-kun."

His hand slips away from Robin Hood. Without missing a beat, Kurusu steps in, rubbing behind the horse's ears. How did he learn about how much Robin Hood appreciates ear scratches?

"Sure. Goodnight, Your Highness."

The words sound much too rigid leaving Kurusu's mouth. Without stopping to think, Goro gently places a hand on Kurusu's forearm.

"Akechi is fine," he says. His heart suddenly feels like a hummingbird in his chest, impossibly fragile. "And if you don't mind, I truly hope we can still be friends, despite our little misunderstanding."

He stops himself before he can add I don't have many of them, rolling his lips into his mouth. The desperation must be rolling off of him in maelstrom waves. He doesn't have time—or the interest—to explain that his role as prince makes it inordinately difficult to trust people, to decipher their true motives. So many just want connections, or fame, or to ogle the royal family lifestyle like a zoo exhibition, turning the masses around him into sycophants, his life a veritable panopticon of misery and glamour. Perhaps worse are those who are the opposite: the people who view him as if he is some untouchable piece of pottery, a precious son of the king and therefore much too different, much too high-class to even be bothered with.

Years of being hoodwinked and manipulated by outsiders has built up Goro's walls—and a moat, and an armed citadel, and a defense of fire-breathing dragons—but something about Kurusu's open, approachable nature seems to bypass Goro's personal security system.

"I'd like that," Kurusu says, the resulting smile on his face frighteningly earnest.

It's infectious, and, before he knows it, Goro is returning the smile. It isn't until Robin Hood chimes in with a needy little nicker that reality elbows its way back in and reminds Goro of the hand he still has on Kurusu's soft arm.

Wait, soft?

Goro whips his hand back, embarrassed by his own thoughts.

"I'm happy to hear that," he says, smile tightening, returning his limbs safely into his own personal space. "For now, have a good night, Kurusu-kun. Sleep well."

"Goodnight, Akechi-kun."

His name sounds nice on Kurusu's tongue: normal, natural. Almost friendly.

What is he doing? Befriending the staff? Is he that desperate for human contact that he's now resorting to hanging out with the stablehands? If he's not careful, he'll be slumming it with Sakamoto soon.

Their goodbyes linger on between them. Goro feels strangely like someone on the end of a phone call who doesn't want to hang up, wavering where he is, but he gives in eventually and leaves Kurusu to his bed of hay and dirt.

Their conversation replays on a loop in his head the entire walk back to the castle.

 

&

 

All of the hours of tedious armor polishing, aside from making Akira's arms painfully sore in the aftermath, turn out to have been for an actual purpose… of sorts, which is far more than he ever expected of Shido. Overnight, the palace seems to have transformed into a veritable Christmas showcase, with servants working at a truly rapid pace to hang up as many garlands, wreaths, and other myriad decorations as quickly as possible. There's a full-sized Christmas tree in seemingly every room of the main wing—the servants' wing was outfitted with a small tree about the size of a garden gnome, meanwhile—and Akira startles at the fact that all of this grandeur is evidently not yet sufficient. 

The court artist is here, a tall man in a button-down, his sense of aesthetics driving him onward in a quest to make the coldest palace in the world feel somehow festive. Maybe that's why they're going overboard. He's delegating tasks here and there, instructing servants on where to put up what, what color ornaments to use and pair together, and what items to shelve permanently, if possible. 

It's among all of this Christmas grandeur that Akira catches sight of some of the items he and Ryuji spent the better half of a day scrubbing. They seem remarkably out of place, as though taken out of storage solely to show them off. 

No—that's not right. 

They're here to be rejected, one by one, by the artist—

"Absolutely not! This is horrifically tacky. Frankly, I question the royal family's sense of aesthetics if they ever had this on display at all."

—the artist, who looks downright affronted to be shown the vast majority of the pieces in the first place.

One of the pieces—not from his and Ryuji's cleaning binge, he notes, but evidently still having been taken out of storage—draws Akira's attention, and he turns to look at the portrait more fully. 

The portrait itself, drawn and rendered absolutely beautifully, is of the crown prince. If the court artist painted it, it's obvious that he must have considerable talent, if only because Akira can't seem to take his eyes off it. 

The painting version Akechi is standing on the ground, his hand loosely on Robin Hood's reins, his gaze somewhat averted from the viewer. It's a strikingly non-confrontational piece—one might even go so far as to call it soft, even with him adorned in his rather restrictive royal garb, regalia and all. 

It's an astonishingly stark contrast to the portrait beside it of Shido. Sitting atop his own horse, Samael, as it rears up, he's shown as staring straight ahead at the viewer. The rendering, while far more traditional, perhaps, likewise looks a great deal more severe, too. Dangerous and imposing. In other words—exactly how he wishes to be viewed. 

His attention returns to Akechi, as if his gaze had been drawn there by a lure at the end of a fishing line. 

He really is attractive. The portraits, from the look of them, were official ones, likely having been up on the wall for a year before being replaced with something more up-to-date. Akechi doesn't look that much younger here than he does now, though the length of his hair seems to be a bit of a dead giveaway in the end.

"Admiring the general splendor?" 

The artist's voice draws Akira's attention from out of his reverie as he realizes that he's been staring for some time now, the papers in his hand temporarily forgotten. The man approaches, regarding his own work with a critical expression. He doesn't seem to be much different in age from Akira. Shido must favor young hires—perhaps they're easier to extort.

"I—suppose. It's all a bit much, isn't it?" Akira asks.

"Is it? The king insists on this every year. There will be a lot of important individuals in attendance for the Christmas ball."

In other words: King Shido is a showoff, more than anything else. Akira wishes he were surprised. Akechi, on the other hand… a part of him wonders if he isn't consistently mortified by all this showboating for—well, whoever important individuals evidently are. 

"Anyone interesting?"

The artist exhales slowly. "Lady Ann Takamaki." 

Akira blinks. The entire tone seems to have shifted with the mention of a single name, and for a moment he just stares up at the artist.

"My apologies—how rude of me. I neglected to introduce myself. I am Yusuke Kitagawa, the court painter and aesthetic design virtuoso of the royal family. You are relatively new around here, correct? Akira Kurusu, if I recall."

"I work in the stables," he says, nodding. "I haven't seen you around yet. Do you eat dinner with the rest of the staff?"  

"I tend to forget to eat at all, actually," Yusuke states, a soft chuckle leaving him. He looks content enough with that fact, Akira deciding not to press on it as his gaze returns to the portrait of Akechi resting on the carpet before him.

"Lady Ann," Yusuke continues, seemingly having taken notice of Akira's own interest, "is the crown prince's cousin. She tends to arrive a bit earlier than the other important visitors, usually to spend the additional time with the prince. They have always been quite close. Not that I could possibly blame him for wishing to spend his time in the company of Lady Ann. She is… truly an exquisite creature."

Akira is starting to catch onto the fact that there's likely more to it than that, though he's not about to voice the thought, not when he seems to be talking about her as though she's an exotic, prize-winning tiger. Not that it matters much-- Yusuke seems somehow entirely unbothered by his silence on the matter. 

"I have tried, time and time again, to capture her beautiful visage on canvas, and have failed. And yet, I feel so impossibly close to the artistic enlightenment which I know she could provide me that I cannot give up now. The many layers of clothes she is always wearing, however, make it almost impossible to render her properly as she is meant to be viewed. The female form of such an angel—"

"You want to draw her naked," Akira finally cuts in, blinking up at Yusuke. 

"I think it may be my life's purpose to attain the creative erudition such an experience would allow me. I have thought of little else since I first met her."

"Oh? When was that?"

"Years ago." His voice takes on a wispy, yearning quality as he says it, his breath seeming to chase the words as they slip free from his throat. 

"Have you told her that you want to draw her naked?"

"Countless times." 

Wow. Akira stares. He does not seem to be kidding. This guy is bold. That would be one seduction technique he wouldn't have ever thought to attempt on anyone, asking to draw them naked. Over and over again.

Someone in particular comes to mind.

Clearly, he needs to step up his game. 

"She always says no," Yusuke continues, undeterred as earlier, unaware of Akira's wandering thoughts. "She even looks insulted that I'm asking her at all. Does she not realize that I would never ask this of anyone else? She is a breathtaking young woman unlike any other. But perhaps she is unaware of her beauty despite the fact that any canvas would weep at the joy of being offered such a gift as her naked form drawn upon it?"

"Maybe," Akira tells him, and wonders if he isn't helping to make something terrible happen here.

"You are right, of course." An unmistakable peace seems to come across his features as Yusuke smiles, his hand reaching out to touch upon Akira's shoulder. "I shall try again this year, until she relents. For all her blushing and posturing, I am certain that it is simply a dreadful combination of courtly decorum and shyness." 

"Right." Akira returns his attention to Akechi's portrait. He gestures to it. "By the way. What can you tell me about the crown prince?"

"Crown Prince Goro? He's quiet—distant, some would say—but he is one of the most well-behaved, pleasant models I have ever had the joy of translating onto canvas. He is the very image of well-mannered decorum. And he has always managed to keep his horse calm through every hour-long painting session. Never once have I heard him complain about his being uncomfortable, hungry, or tired of standing or sitting for too long. He simply endures—rather unlike the king, in that sense. With him, I tend to have to draw a rough sketch of what he wants and do my best to memorize the details of the scene so that I might draw the rest of it later—properly, if not wholly accurately."

Akira nods. He can't help but notice Yusuke's view of Akechi is starkly different from Ryuji's. Then again, it's not that similar to his own either—Akechi may be a bit closed off, but he's certainly never seemed distant to Akira before. That, or he's imagining things, completely misreading his welcoming warmth for a newcomer into something more meaningful.

The thoughts muddle in his brain. Akira knows his personal bias is too strong to come to any real conclusion here. He sighs, reminding himself that he still has things to accomplish before dinner—things that don't involve staring at art of Akechi. 

"Maybe you'll remember to eat dinner tonight," he tells Yusuke, who offers him a curious look, more surprised than he should have been. "I'm sure the rest of the staff would appreciate your company, too." 

"I do appreciate the invitation," he says, and gives him a smile, friendly enough that Akira actually thinks that he might yet show up. Until then, however, they both have more work to do, the papers still in Akira's hand a sobering reminder of how horrifyingly late this particular detour has made him.

 

&

 

It's not reasonable to expect Kurusu to always be in the barn whenever Goro goes to see him. He knows this. The rational part of his brain is fully aware of this fact. 

And yet, now that he's standing in the stables with only Sojiro around, rationality seems to have abandoned him. 

"He's not here, kid," Sojiro tells him, and Goro feels everything inside of him bristle. It's a miracle he doesn't outwardly flinch, honestly. 

Has he truly become so predictable? So utterly intrigued with a stable hand in a matter of mere days? It's so dreadfully clichéd that he's not sure he can allow himself the infraction.

Of course, what does this say about Kurusu, who hasn't been searching the castle to come see him? Kurusu, who hasn't been waiting here only to be found by Goro, knowing fully well that the prince comes around regularly. Kurusu, who probably isn't spending every quiet minute thinking about him and their undeniably flirtatious banter.

The words he's just not that into you rise unbidden in him and refuse to be quelled. He is truly ridiculous. 

"Went to spend time with that one friend of his—Sakamoto, I think?"

Of course he did

"I came to see Robin Hood, of course," he says, and almost manages to convince himself along the way. As though it would make his argument more compelling, his hand reaches up to pet him. 

"Ah," Sojiro says, and Goro feels the knife in his gut twist. 

He considers taking Robin Hood out for a ride on principle, just so Sojiro won't go around telling Kurusu that Goro came, brooding, puttering around waiting for him, but it doesn't feel quite right, and he instead settles on offering his horse an apple as a snack before sullenly heading back to the palace. 

Whatever happened to the days when harems were a commonplace thing? Surely, Shido would appreciate having gaggles of women to sleep with at his leisure, and while Goro may not have cared about that quite as much, it would have allowed him to reassign Kurusu from his position in the stables to something more uniquely self-serving. Not that it wouldn't look suspicious if he only had one individual to his harem—or only spent time with one of them. 

Not to mention that it certainly wouldn't prove a solution to Goro's primary quandary at the moment: ensuring that Kurusu would actually want to spend time with him in the first place, and on a voluntary basis, at that. 

Why is he thinking about this in the first place? 

He ends up taking the servants' entrance—a habit he adopted long ago, whenever he could get away with it, in the hopes of avoiding running into Shido—and finds himself instantly regretting it, as the chances of running into Kurusu do grow considerably this way. 

It's stupid. Just a few moments ago, he was going out of his way in the hopes of seeing Kurusu. And now… now he's throwing an internal temper tantrum worthy of a spoiled crown prince.  

In his infinite self-loathing, he doesn't anticipate the impact before it happens as he might have otherwise, were he less… emotionally compromised on account of a damn stable boy. He simply turns the corner, and—

Kurusu's hands wrap around his shoulders and serve to steady him long before his body so much as has the chance to feel unsteady, let alone fall. 

They are so extraordinarily close like this, and for a solid three heartbeats—loud enough in his head to count—neither of them moves. Goro could say that he's never noticed the way Kurusu's messy mop of hair is long enough to hang somewhat over his glasses, the way his lips part when he flushes, or the steel gray of his eyes, but that would all be a lie. They're just… even more enjoyable to appreciate from up close like this.

He wants to keep lying to himself, though. He certainly wants to pretend that he's not disappointed when Kurusu extends his arms, takes a step back, and establishes a respectable distance between the two of them.

Goro barely knows the man. It's absurd how many of his thoughts revolve around him, twisting, chasing, circling like a satellite. 

"Sorry," Kurusu says, as though it wasn't Goro that ran into him as he turned a corner. "Uh, Your Highness."

The last vestige of their bodily contact disappears as Kurusu allows his hands to drop from his shoulders, his hand coming up to play with one of his curls. 

So much for pretending not to be disappointed.

"I was just at the stables," Goro explains, the second he finds his tongue once more. "You weren't there." 

"You were? Sorry—I was with Ryuji." 

So Sakura was right. A fresh wash of jealousy rises in his chest like bile, Goro feeling gloved fingernails doing their best to dig their way through leather and into his palm. Hasn't Kurusu only been here for a few days at most? How on earth did he manage to make friends so quickly?

The thought forces him to ignore the fact that he's become this attached, this jealous in so little time, Goro's mind trying to turn itself inside out in the name of hypocrisy.

"Right. I heard." 

"Do you want to come by the stables again later?"

"Pardon?"

"If you have time."

Kurusu has the gall to look and sound genuinely hopeful even as Goro's guts twist themselves into a knot. He wants to say yes. But the much larger part of him thinks that this—what he's doing—is nothing more than a pity invitation when he'd much rather be spending time with Sakamoto.

Sakamoto is a joke. It's ludicrous that Goro is even in competition with him.

"Oh, sure," he says, settling on a well-practiced smile, too brilliant to be truly genuine. "I'd like that."

His chest feels uncomfortably warm by the time he swiftly excuses himself from Kurusu's presence, and he squashes the thought that it means anything beyond the fact that he is irritated—mostly with himself, albeit—to have misplaced his trust in someone when he'd thought himself to have long outgrown the foolish desire to get close to anyone. 

At the same time, can he really blame himself? When was the last time someone was kind to him without wanting something from him in return? Ann is an exception, of course. But she's royalty, too—family, at that. 

How is he not supposed to feel overwhelmed by Kurusu's actions toward him—and the way they make him feel?

He doesn't go to the stables that night. On principle. 

 

&

 

Sojiro breaks for a cup of coffee after the prince leaves, holing up in the corner of the kitchens for a bit to read the paper. By the time he comes back to the stables, Akira is there, restless, by the window.

What is this, Romeo and Juliet? Sojiro snorts.

It draws Akira's attention. "Hi," he says.

"Hey," Sojiro grunts. "You had a visitor earlier."

"You mean Akechi?"

Akechi, huh? Looks like a few layers of formality were erased between them since the last time they spoke. Sojiro is almost impressed, considering how few days the kid's been here.

He thinks over if he ought to intervene, perhaps offer up some advice. Sojiro can tell from a mile away that this strange fixation won't end well, so much so that he's amazed Akira doesn't notice himself.

Then again, Akira isn't his kid. It's not his business whatever bad ideas he decides to indulge in. And even without sticking his nose into all this, Sojiro's still stuck in the middle if they're using the stables as their rendezvous point.

Boy, does he already miss the days when his barn was free of all this teenage drama. Then again, Futaba's always been here, and if sitting around with her nose in a screen avoiding the real world isn't teenage drama, he doesn't know what is.

"Akechi, huh?" Sojiro asks through a heavy sigh, reaching around the horse feed buckets to where his pack of cigarettes is sitting. He imagines this conversation will take at least a couple. "You two getting close?"

Akira shrugs. "I'm not sure."

Sojiro lets the conversation drop there, however briefly. He busies himself with shaking a cigarette out of the package and lighting it up. The first drag of it lingers in his chest, relaxing him enough to keep talking.

"Everything okay?" Sojiro asks. Akira snaps away from the window as if caught reading illicit love letters. "You seem kind of... down."

He shrugs his shoulders. At first, Akira says nothing, and if he doesn't want to talk—which, hey, fine with Sojiro—he'd be the last person to really complain. Eventually, however, the words seem to come out of their own accord, as if spurred on by Sojiro's silence. "I sort of had plans, but it looks like they fell through."

"Ah." Sojiro tries to scrounge up the face and name of who Akira might've bonded with by now. Didn't he have cleaning duty with that blond boy? "With Ryuji?"

Akira waits one beat too long to answer. "Uh. No."

At least the kid didn't try to lie. "The prince, then?"

Akira has the audacity to look surprised that Sojiro has caught on to their weird flirting. What is he, blind?

"Come on," he says, gesturing Akira over from the window. He flicks a tower of ash away from the cigarette, stubbing out the last of its dying embers. "I'll show you how to brush the horsehair."

Akira spares the window one last look before taking him up on his offer. Sojiro unlocks the stall for Arsene—he's a better-tempered horse, calmer than most, and won't mind too much if a novice snags a few tangles. Akira steps in beside him as Sojiro grabs a brush from the sill.

"Whose horse is it?" Akira asks, reaching out to slide his knuckles along the ridge of Arsene's nose.

"No one's. Not in particular, anyway. He'll get ridden sometimes when another horse isn't feeling well."

Arsene nuzzles into Akira's touch. For a newbie, he sure does have a way with horses. Sojiro watches, quiet, impressed at how Akira soothes the horse with soft hands.

"Here," Sojiro says, nudging Akira's elbow. "Let me explain." He slides the brush down the hem of Arsene's black mane, working tenderly through the strands. "You always start at the bottom and work your way up. Minimizes catching knots. Makes it easier on the horse."

He hands over the brush after a few more example strokes. Akira follows suit, softly running the bristles down the shiny mane with all the painstakingly slow care of a hesitant fledgling. Arsene barely shifts, silently enjoying the attention.

"You can use your fingers too," Sojiro explains, demonstrating with the smooth hair by the horse's ears. "Helps you feel for the tangles. Not too hard, right?"

Akira shakes his head. He's a quick learner, and maybe even a smart kid in matters outside of provoking ill-tempered kings. Sojiro doesn't know the full story of how he made it here, but it usually starts with not minding your own business.

He watches, hands crossed over his chest, as Akira continues his work, battling between speaking up and staying quiet.

Stupidly, he goes for the former. Fatherly instincts, maybe.

"Don't take offense that he didn't show," Sojiro says. "Akechi's a weird kid."

That definitely gets Akira's attention. "What do you mean?" he asks.

"Just what I said. I've been here for a while and never really known him to have any friends. He's a loner."

"Why?"

Sojiro shrugs. He doesn't make a habit of asking questions he isn't supposed to know the answer to. He learned his place here a long time ago.

But Akira's imploring gaze doesn't waver. Sojiro relents.

"I don't know. Just that he had a rough childhood, losing his mom and all that." He thinks of Futaba, how she hasn't really lit up like she used to ever since—well. "Not that that's something no other kid has ever faced, but." He draws in a long breath, giving himself the chance to articulate himself properly. "Stuff like this is harder when you're the prince. Always in the public eye, expected to not have any wayward emotions, that sort of thing."

"Oh," Akira says. His eyes are unfocused, brush stuttering to a stop where it's in Arsene's mane.

Put a lid on it, Sojiro wants to say. Everybody has their sad stories. Akira's is pretty damn woeful too, what with being sent to work here like some kind of slave. No point in pitying the prince and the satin sheets he rests his head on.

"Being royal doesn't sound so easy," Akira comments.

"Working for royals isn't easy either," Sojiro reminds him. His mouth twists as he thinks of some of the highbrow people who have passed through this castle, all as bad as the last, all as entitled as the king. "Also, not every one of them has some secret heart of gold. Some of them are damn nasty. Don't forget that."

He needs another cigarette. He's dispensed enough wisdom for tonight, not to mention that Futaba's probably going to be whining for food when he gets back.

"All right, kid," he says, patting Arsene goodnight. "I'm out of here for today. Make sure you lock up."

For a moment, Akira looks at him like he has more questions—heaven help him—but then he just puts the boar brush back onto the sill and wipes his hands off on his pants.

"By the way," Akira says. "What's with the cat?"

"Cat?"

"The black one. I saw him the other day."

"Oh, you mean Morgana," Sojiro says. "That's my daughter's. Sort of. She found it one day and decided it was ours." Like he doesn't have enough on his plate. Still, who could say no to that cute face? "Has he been hanging around?"

"He jumped into the hayloft the other day."

"Well, he sort of comes and goes as he pleases. Likes scratches under the chin but pretends he doesn't."

Akira smiles. "Got it."

 

&

 

Akechi doesn't show up that night, most likely because Akira's waiting for him like he's a pot that just won't boil. It's a wake-up call to him that he really might've misread this entire situation, not to mention completely forgotten his class and where he belongs on the food chain of the castle. He's the help, and not just that, but help so lowly he sleeps in the stables with the horses.

And Akechi—Akechi is a prince. An honest-to-goodness, might-sit-on-the-throne-one-day-and-have-his-face-on-a-stamp prince. To assume that a few friendly conversations meant that anything more could come of this—this thing of theirs—

It was disturbingly naive. He was disturbingly naive.

By the time he settles himself into bed, blankets tucked around him, Akira's as angry with himself as he is with his entire situation. He thinks longingly of Crossroads, of Lala, of the usually tipsy but friendly clientele, the regulars and the newcomers, all so eager to open up to him. He was happy where he was before he met Shido.

Maybe he should just take a leaf out of Ryuji's book and avoid cavorting around with nobility altogether.

A sharp meow startles him out of his thoughts.

"You," Akira says as the cat—Morgana, apparently—leaps up onto his sheets. "Back again?"

He reaches out to rub under its chin as Sojiro suggested. The cat seems to indulge for a few seconds—but only for a few, and then it's swatting Akira's hands away with indignant paws.

"You're not an omen of bad luck by any chance, are you?" Akira mumbles, eyeing the cat's puffed out chest, the sleek line of black fur down its back. "Seeing as you're a mostly-black cat."

The cat meows. It feels unnervingly like it understood Akira's indirect jibe and doesn't appreciate his question.

"You can stay if you want," Akira says, pulling the string to turn the overhead light bulb off. "But don't hog the covers."

He gets comfortable against his lumpy pillow, fully expecting the cat to leap away once more. It would fit in with today's theme of no one wanting to spend any quality time with him.

Stop moping, he tells himself, turning on his side. It's not like anything really happened with Akechi, anyway. It should be easy to brush it off and keep moving.

A weight presses carefully against Akira's side, and it takes him a moment to realize it's Morgana, curling up by his leg. Interestingly enough, he's something of a warm, comforting presence.

Akira leans a hand down to pet its soft head. The cat meows in protest, but doesn't leave all night long.

 

&

 

Out of some ridiculous sense of politeness, driven into him after years of smiling and hand-shaking for the crowds, Goro comes to the stables the following morning after spending breakfast deliberating between going and not going.

He feels like a child, plucking petals from a daisy, waiting for it to tell him what decision to make. That very line of thinking, that self-awareness of how utterly juvenile he's being, is what almost urges him toward staying in the castle.

And yet, after breakfast, he's treading through the snow—another light blanket of it fell last night after dark, it seems—toward the stables, praying that Sakura isn't there this time to intercept him.

And judge him. The judgment was written all over his face last night. Goro could've burst into tiny pieces of sawdust out of sheer humiliation alone.

By the time he reaches the doors, he nearly turns right around and loses his nerve. And this is the bravery of a prince? his father's voice hisses in his ear, disgusted, stony face hardening. Then again, he wouldn't exactly be thrilled about Goro hanging out with the staff with this much accelerating regularity, so, really, either way… Goro's going to end up a disappointment.

Nothing new there.

He yanks the stable door open, willing himself to face Sakura's thinly-veiled disdain if worse comes to worst.

But Sakura's not there—Kurusu is, distributing horse feed into buckets. The look of genuine happiness on his face when he sees Goro whirls up a tsunami of undealt-with emotion in his stomach.

"Ah, Kurusu-kun," Goro says with infinitely more nonchalance than he feels. "I'm glad I caught you. I apologize for not coming to see you last night, I—"

"It's fine," Kurusu cuts in. "I get it, I do. You're a prince. You have lots to do."

Kurusu gives him a smile that's almost wistful. Perhaps Goro choosing to stay in and lick over the wounds of his indignance last night affected Kurusu more than Goro expected.

Goro looks down at his shoes, finding it difficult to sustain eye contact for the time being. Compared to Kurusu's, which are the muddy boots of a workman, their difference in backgrounds glares up at him.

"Regardless, I must still apologize. It was rude of me to stand you up as I did, even if I did have work." Especially seeing as he didn't. Nothing pressing, at any rate. Just something that could make for a decent excuse—or would have, anyway, in the eyes of someone less acutely aware of his own faults and shortcomings than he is.

He works up the nerve to look up. Already, Kurusu's eyes are glued to him. "It's not how friends treat each other, and I'd very much like us to be as much."

Kurusu nods. "Then... apology accepted," he says.

He smiles. Goro smiles. For a few petrifying seconds of nothing but uncertain smiling—during which Goro somehow forgets all sense of decorum and feasible conversation topics—Goro feels sharply like coming here was a mistake. Perhaps he'll just gracefully bow out—make up a lie about needing to focus on paperwork—

"Are you here to ride?"

Goro blinks. "Sorry?"

"A horse," Kurusu clarifies. He reaches for a burnished saddle hanging from the wall, hand poised to grab Goro's favorite. "Did you want to go for a ride?"

"Oh. Yes."

Except no, that is not why he came. He tries to salvage the situation as Kurusu starts saddling up Robin Hood, latching straps into place. Goro reaches out, then promptly pulls his hand back into an appropriate place of personal space. He doesn't know what to say, even what it is he wants to ask. He came to spend time with Kurusu, but admitting something like that feels foolish, like he's offering up his heart as a kebab.

Kurusu leads Goro's saddled horse out of the stall, hands on the reins. Robin Hood stands, tall and gleaming, expectant—but another horse catches Goro's attention as he takes the reins from Kurusu's outstretched fingers.

"Aren't you coming?" he asks.

"Me?" The surprise hangs unbidden over Kurusu's face. "You want me to?"

Goro looks away. He's not sure what's happened to his social graces as of late, but suddenly all of his training seems to have flown out the window—the meaningful eye contact, the bright smiles, the general gestures that Shido says make him appealing to the public as a trustworthy prince. Goro can't seem to drum up any of that artificiality right now.

"I would," he says, helplessly honest.

And it'd be nice, not only taking a break from the castle, but also having company in doing so. Out on a long ride, he could even pretend that he and Kurusu aren't so different from each other, just two travelers on horseback, ones without vastly different responsibilities waiting back at home. Responsibilities that, at least, won't matter for a couple of hours.

Kurusu sheepishly laughs. Goro almost thinks he's in for an awkward rejection, until he says, "I haven't really ridden a horse before."

"You haven't?" He knew that Shido hadn't hired Kurusu for his experience, but— "Well, it's truthfully quite easy, especially with the right horse. Why don't you take Arsene? He's very complacent."

Kurusu turns to Arsene. He seems to consider the dark mane of shining black.

"Okay," he says.

Goro turns around to hide his answering smile, focusing on leading Robin Hood out of the stables. It's fresh out, but Goro simply wraps his scarf around his neck a little more snugly and waits for Kurusu to throw his coat on and saddle up Arsene.

Kurusu manages to get onto the horse with little trouble, even if he does try to use the saddle horn as a handhold and fumbles with the stirrups.

"Grab the reins," Goro advises, shaking his own to lead by example. "The horse will do most of the work after that on its own."

"Do you always go somewhere specific during these rides?" Kurusu asks.

"Not always," Goro answers. "But I have a place in mind for today." He clicks his tongue to set Robin Hood off at a trot, throwing a reassuring smile over his shoulder. "Don't worry. It's an easy trail for a beginner."

The crunch of hooves on the snow behind him, slow and careful, is his indication that Kurusu is following. Goro stays true to his word and doesn't gallop off as usual, remaining at a gentle pace so Arsene can keep up without running. Goro guides the horse toward one of his lesser taken paths, if only because this trail isn't very conducive to speed, but perfect for today's purpose.

"It's been a while since I've gone this way," he explains. "But it should be worth the trip." He takes a peek at Kurusu, who doesn't seem to be in danger of falling off his horse anytime soon. "It's a spot I go sometimes to clear my head. Although riding on its own is already a great help with that goal."

It isn't until the words leave his mouth that Goro hopes Kurusu doesn't take his comments as an invitation to ask what it is he needs help clearing his head from. It's definitely much more than just the clutter of a spoiled prince.

Not that Goro could ever tell him the truth.

"Are you still holding up well?" Goro asks quickly, suddenly desperate to keep the conversation moving. "Riding is pretty simple, isn't it?"

"It is," Kurusu agrees. "Although you're definitely better at it than me."

"Robin Hood is the one who deserves that compliment," Goro says. "Come on, this way."

He leads them down a narrow path that's very quickly shrouded in trees, some little more than the skeletal wooden bones of winter, others thick boughs of evergreen that obscure all views of the castle, creating an illusion of seclusion, as though the woods stretch on undisturbed for miles. Last night's snow hasn't been able to penetrate the branches either, instead blanketing the ground in a sheet of fallen pine needles.

"It smells good," Kurusu says. "Like..."

"—Christmas?" Goro finishes for him. "The trees are to thank for that. They make the place look... almost like a fairytale, don't they?"

Kurusu nods, eyes focused on their surroundings—on the tall, overarching nature. The path winds too much for either of their horses to ever speed up too much, opting instead for a leisurely stroll through the forest.

Goro has to wrack his brain when they reach a few forks in the path to remember exactly where his destination lies. He wants to show this spot to Kurusu, to share it—more than he's ever wanted to visit it alone.

He glances behind him. Kurusu is looking more comfortable on his horse by now, less stiff in the spine, but more than either of those things, worryingly attractive—nearly stately. With his coat pulled up to his chin, his pale skin a sharp contrast to the dark woods, his strong stance atop Arsene—he's disconcertingly difficult to look away from. 

It would almost be too easy to picture him in the role of King's Consort.

Goro focuses on the path ahead for the rest of the journey. They travel upslope, the air getting increasingly brisk the higher they go, the sun beginning to shine through the crown-shy ceiling of thick green trees. It doesn't occur to him until they're approaching their destination that this could be misconstrued to an outsider as—romantic, almost. Taking a horse ride through the woods on a cold day to sit together at a scenic lookout? What was Goro even thinking?

"Oh, wow," Kurusu says as the trees give way for a clearing hanging over the side of the hill.

The sight offered by the lookout manages to distract Goro from his own combative thoughts for a few moments. He slides off of Robin Hood, hovering near Arsene just in case Kurusu needs a hand as he dismounts. He doesn't, hopping off with marginally more grace than he got on earlier.

"This is great," Kurusu breathes as he approaches the clearing's cliff. Goro feels some absurd urge to reach out and hold him back from the edge, but he's smart enough to immediately stifle it, instead maintaining a safe distance.

Over the clearing, far past it and underneath a blindingly white sky, sits the castle and all of the land belonging to it. It looks especially impressive now, still covered in a thin layer of snow and ice, the glassiness of the latter making the landscape look less real and more like the inside of a snowglobe.

That's all his own, Goro thinks. At least, it will be, once—

"How does it look during the summer?" Kurusu asks, turning around.

"Uh. Very... green." Goro tries to remember it; the overwhelming white of winter is erasing all memories of summer right now. "The gardens certainly look very different. Colorful. Kitagawa—I believe you've met him, yes?—designs the flower displays."

"I bet it looks amazing."

Off-handedly, Goro can't help but wonder if Kurusu will still be here come summertime, when everything is in full bloom.

"It does," he tells him. "The palace certainly has its share of breathtaking nature. It makes living here feel a little less... well, it makes the solitude better."

"Solitude," Kurusu murmurs, almost inaudibly. Damn it. Too honest. "Is that what it's like? Being a prince?"

Goro feels keenly aware of how self-absorbed it would sound to complain about the many comforts in his life to a stable boy sleeping in a hayloft. Then again, Kurusu might have everything Goro's ever wanted while taking it completely for granted: friends and family. A mother who's alive? To ask would probably be inappropriate.

"It's demanding, that's for certain." He gives a deprecating little laugh in an attempt to lighten the mood. It's unclear whether Kurusu falls for it or not. "Although I'm not sure I'm qualified to do much else."

Kurusu shrugs. "I'm not qualified to look after horses."

Goro's surprised he brought that up. He steals a look; Akira looks perfectly contained, certainly not near tears or a tantrum. Was Goro wrong about his circumstances?

"Kurusu-kun," Goro says. "I hope you won't mind me asking. How is it that you came to be here?"

"A horse took me."

Goro smiles in spite of himself. "Charming as always," he says. "I meant here, to the castle. Working for my father."

Kurusu's quiet for a long time—thinking up a believable lie, perhaps? When he does speak, the evasiveness in his tone could be heard even underwater.

"It just sort of happened," he says, not looking at Goro. "If I was a king, I certainly wouldn't have hired me."

But Shido's not a regular king. Goro nods, but doesn't push further. He can take a hint when it's shoved at him. Besides, a little bit of rooting around in Kurusu's paperwork would probably bring the truth to light. Goro would have easy access, and Shido probably wouldn't find it all that strange for him to investigate a new hire, either.

All he really knows for sure right now is that Kurusu is not here of his own free will. Which means that someday, when he's been granted his freedom or catches Shido on a merciful day, he'll leave, go back home—wherever that is—and never think of Goro again. Maybe he'll think of fond days cleaning rubbish with Sakamoto, or of lessons with Sojiro, or laughing with the staff in the kitchens, but not Goro. Something like anger crawls through him—at least, he wishes it would be anger.

The air up here this high in the hills suddenly feels frighteningly thin.

"We might want to consider returning," Goro says, voice tight, already turning back to Robin Hood. "It won't do either of us any good to be out in the cold too long."

"Are you getting cold?"

Actually, Goro's uncomfortably warm all over. He fumbles for Robin Hood's reins and reaches deep into that familiar reservoir of artificially chipper smiles.

"Let's just say Sakura-san won't be very happy with me if I return his only stable hand with a cold," he says, falsely happy. He climbs onto his horse. "Wouldn't you agree?"

"Shame," is all Akira mumbles, but he follows all the same.

The ride back is silent save for the trot of horse hooves on damp ground, crunching the occasional pine needles along the way. Still, Goro's mind is screaming at him the entire time. Why did he bring Kurusu up here in the first place? Why did he ask him those questions? Why did Kurusu look so perilously good up there on the mountains, the trees framing him, the puffs of icy air leaving his parted lips only highlighting his jet black hair? And when did Goro start describing things like that space cadet artist Kitagawa, anyway?

On the bright side, Kurusu doesn't seem to notice his shift in mood, the appearance of his well-maintained mask. He and Arsene dutifully follow Goro back to the stables, where Kurusu stows the horses back into their stalls and refills the water in their buckets.

Goro watches this from the sidelines, only his manners keeping him from fleeing. "Well," he says. "I should be going. Thank you for accompanying me today, Kurusu-kun. I quite enjoyed it."

"You can—" Kurusu stops, clearing his throat. His cheeks have turned red in the moist heat of the stables. "You can call me Akira, if you'd like to."

"Oh." The clean goodbye script Goro had prepared is suddenly shredded from his mind. "That's—I suppose I could."

Kurusu—no, is it Akira now? Goro can't possibly accept such a thing—smiles at him. That smile should be made illegal.

"Then… have a nice day, Akira-kun," Goro says. "Stay warm."

The name feels concerningly natural on his tongue, like it belongs there. He escapes the stables like a man being chased before he can think any harder on it.

 

&

 

Goro tells himself that the—lately rather frequent—rerouting of his own pathway to take him through the servants' wing is purely a matter of coincidence. A way to further avoid running into Shido. Not encountering Shido tends to save him time, after all, even factoring in the increased chance of running into Niijima, always so eager to update him on his schedule. So what if people tend to give him odd looks here and there before falling back on the polite habits they've grown accustomed to? If it cuts down on his time getting held up… 

…and increases the chance of encountering Kurusu—that is, Akira… 

He shakes his head. That's not what this is about. 

And yet, when he overhears voices and laughter in the kitchen on his way back from dinner—it was always easy to forget the fact that the help weren't allowed to eat until the royal family had finished—he can't help but slow to a stop, Goro pressing against the wall just outside before he can talk himself out of it.

"Yo, bro night is not the same without you there, man," Sakamoto remarks. "Where were you, anyway?"

If Sakamoto is talking to who Goro assumes he is… he already knows where he was. Which means the question just becomes whether or not Akira will admit to it in front of his friends.

"I was with Akechi."

Akechi. Right. He forgot to extend the same first-name privileges he was extended—though he supposes that it's not as though Akira would be referring to him by first name to someone like Sakamoto. Still—he'll have to rectify that during their next meeting.

Not that the matter of names is really all that important right now—not considering the way his chest blooms with warmth at Akira's acknowledgment. It's almost enough to drown out the mutters of shock that resound around the table. Almost.

He wonders if Akira is the type to care about that kind of thing. He doesn't think he is, but—trust has never come easily to him, either.

"That's… surprising." Niijima. Well. That will certainly save him the trouble of having to hide from her. "Did he say what he wanted?"

"It's not like that. We're friends."

Friends. Goro isn't sure that's the word he would have used for it.

"But isn't he, like… kind of a total stick in the mud?" 

It might be easier to take Sakamoto's words if they sounded angrier. As it is, there's little more than skepticism. He sounds more put out than anything else, Goro wishing, not for the first time during this conversation, that he could witness this discussion so he might catch a glimpse of Akira's facial expression. 

"I've always known him to be perfectly pleasant from my experience, though I understand that my experience does not make for anything particularly comprehensive," Kitagawa remarks before Akira cuts in once more. 

"I like him."

"Honestly," Niijima continues, disregarding Akira's words altogether and nipping the growing warmth in Goro's chest in the bud yet again, "I'm surprised to hear that he has friends at all. He never struck me as particularly social."

"Uh, that's because you chase him around with that clipboard of yours? Anyone would want to get away from that."

Goro thinks it might be the first intelligent thing he's ever heard Sakamoto say, not that Niijima seems to pay it any mind.

"But… doesn't it feel strange to be friends with someone who is essentially your boss?"

Her words touch on something Goro has been trying to shelve in the back of his mind and firmly ignore ever since he first found himself—dare he say it?—flirting with Akira against his better judgment. He tries to remind himself that it shouldn't matter that Akira is nothing but a mere stable hand, but—

"It's not like that. We just get along."

"Oh, ew," Sakamoto interrupts him once more, Goro's fingers itching to choke someone. "You're not, like… interested in him, are you?" 

"Wha—no. He's the prince. Let's be serious. No."

Goro feels like he's swallowed a peach pit, the feeling intense enough that he's not even sure that he doesn't have one presently sitting, hard and heavy, in his gut. Taking root and sprouting. He wants to be swallowed up by the ground, his every delusion about Akira singularly ensuring that he'd feel like an absolute idiot for ever believing that he could reasonably come to care about someone below his station. 

"Your Highness?" someone suddenly says behind him.

Shit. Goro jolts.

"Sakura-san." Goro smiles even through slightly damp eyes, the surprise of company coming down the hallway jerking him out of his reverie of self-loathing. His voice is tight, the sounds leaving his throat feeling thick and viscous, and he thinks himself rather lucky that it didn't crack, too. "I was just leaving."

It doesn't matter that he didn't ask. Goro knows fully well that any more time spent in this moment will have him falling apart, and the last thing he needs is for people that don't care about him and don't trust him to see him like this.

Chapter Text

There are things that Yusuke ought to be doing, countless things that he really should be working on.  

Not that it's his fault that any attempt at focusing on anything other than the window is deemed an utter failure within seconds. Not today. 

The third car of the day rolls up through the snow-dusted gravel driveway, Yusuke feeling his heart skid to an anxious stop right alongside it. 

The first had been a mere delivery for the festivities. The second, the royal family's return from an event held at the local children's hospital. 

This one, surely…

"Lady Ann is here," Makoto's voice rings out through the servants' wing as Yusuke's formerly bated breath switches to something bordering on hyperventilation. "Behave yourselves, everyone."

Behave himself? How on earth is he supposed to accomplish such a momentous task? He doesn't doubt that the remark was meant to be primarily leveled at him, and yet he foresees himself lasting no more than five hours at most this time before approaching Lady Ann yet again to entreat her to model for him.

He's not a complete animal. He's more than capable of waiting for the crown prince to finish greeting his cousin.  

So, for now, he simply takes his place alongside the rest of the staff by the entrance as Lady Ann is shown inside. They all line up by the door as she walks in, even more breathtaking than Yusuke remembers in her coat and heeled boots. She's carrying only a singular shiny handbag, but a prompt moment later, a butler trails behind her, arms laden with more luggage.

Ann's gaze meets Yusuke's for mere seconds only for her cheeks to promptly bloom with a beautiful flush, one he'd love to do justice on canvas. Her skin tone alone—

"That's her?" Akira whispers up at him. Yusuke nods as he smiles, Lady Ann's gaze still averted as she instead focuses on the crown prince, one kiss on each cheek left in greeting. 

"Yes, indeed. That is the angel who has stolen the creative heart and soul of this artist."

The two of them depart upstairs before Makoto allows the lot of them to disperse, Yusuke letting out a deep sigh. "Even just being around her sets my very spirit aflame..."

"I'm leaving you in charge of this," Makoto turns to look at Akira, Yusuke blinking as he lets his tented fingers drop from his chest. "If he tries to proposition Lady Ann again, do whatever it takes to stop him."

"... I have things to do today," Akira explains, blinking at Makoto. Yusuke can't imagine that today is the only day he has duties to attend to. The chances of his running into Lady Ann at one point over the next several weeks of her staying here is quite likely, and it is not as though it would be possible to assign him a 24/7 handler, something that Makoto seems fully aware of.

"Just… do what you can," Makoto sighs, and leaves it at that.



&



"So, you've managed to avoid his pleas to draw you nude thus far," Goro chuckles into his cup of tea, his amusement genuine enough to reach his eyes. 

It's a telling sight for Ann, who's gotten to be far more used to seeing her cousin fake it until he… hopefully makes it. 

Something is different about him. Ann is determined to get to the bottom of it. 

"So far," Ann groans, her legs pulled up underneath her on the plush chesterfield. She knows she's technically not supposed to sit like this for tea—or anything else, for that matter—but it's just the two of them here, and it shouldn't matter, not really. "Don't know how much longer they'll be able to ward him off, this time."

"There has been discussion with the staff that another infraction could easily lead to his termination," he supplies, Ann's eyes widening as she shakes her head. 

"Wha—no! I don't want that! Don't let them do that on my behalf! Just because he's oddly fixated on drawing me and nothing else doesn't mean—" She groans again. "I don't want him gone."

Goro’s actions have always been measured, really. Just… never quite to this extent. He seems to be overthinking even something as simple as placing his cup down on its saucer, and, for a brief moment, Ann thinks she sees the gears turning in his mind. 

"You don't?" Goro asks. He puts his teacup down to think, looking at her oddly. "Do you have feelings for him?"

"What?" Ann snorts. "That came out of nowhere. Of course I don't."

"Then again, I suppose it's not like your parents would approve."

"Oh, no, they totally would." She shakes her head, waving the concern off with a flick of her wrist. "They've never cared about that kind of thing."

"Ah." The fake smile is back, and Ann wonders how she managed to walk any bit of progress backwards quite this quickly. He takes a slow sip of tea. "Then that is the difference between the two of us."

"I take it Shido's been talking to you about that?" 

"Here and there." The chuckle that leaves him borders on self-deprecating. Ann leans forward in her seat. Her cousin never cared about that sort of thing before now. Something really must be different if that's changed. Something like—

She gasps. "You like someone. Someone you're not supposed to like."

For a moment, Goro splutters, his eyes wide as he quickly sets his tea down before allowing himself to cough. The napkin Ann hands him isn't necessary, but it seems to make him feel a bit more comfortable for its presence all the same. 

"Sorry about that…" She shakes her head, reaching for her own tea once more. "Didn't think it would have that reaction. Kind of… makes me think I hit the nail on the head, though."

"You should know just how unfair that trick is," Goro remarks, his coughs finally subsiding as he sets the napkin down. "If I didn't know better, I would think you'd planned it this way."

Ann grins. "Good thing you do know better, huh? Sooo... who is he?"

His eyes widen yet again, Goro blinking at his cousin as though she's lost her mind. "You're very lucky I wasn't holding tea when you said that, or I'm afraid you would have had to witness a second rather uncouth loss of composure."

"Uh… why?"

"Why would you assume him to be male?"

"First of all, please. Second of all, I knew it! I wasright!"

Goro sighs, porcelain cup back in his hand as though it's a lifeline. He looks more resigned than Ann had hoped at this point, as though he really can't imagine this having a decent outcome at the end of it. "What is it that gave me away, exactly?"

He sounds dead serious. Too serious, if she's honest.

"There's no need to sound so panicked. You've just never struck me as straight, like, ever."

"Ah." He sounds less than amused, even with the smile on his face. "I see. I need to be doing everything in my power to rectify that. I can't have Shido catching onto the fact that I've come to care for one of the staff, let alone a male member of the staff. It would be… inconvenient." 

"Well, I hate to break it to you, but you'd have to change, like, your entire personality. And even if you could do that, doing that overnight would be incredibly suspicious, you know."

Goro sighs. "I do suppose you're right. I would still rather he didn't find out about this little… inclination of mine."

"He barely even pays attention to you at the best of times," Ann remarks, shaking her head. "He won't notice."

"I wouldn't put it past him to be spying on me, frankly. But as of now, his motivations..." Another sigh. Ann can only imagine just how heavily this has been weighing on him. "So long as I keep doing as I'm told and follow the motions, he shouldn't catch wind of any deviations."

"Sooo... are we going to talk about this mysterious boy that's snatched your heart?"

"It's not like that," he says, quick to shake his head. "No one's snatched my heart, and besides, he said out loud that he's not interested."

"To your face?"

"No, to his friends. He wasn't aware I was listening in."

"You were eavesdropping?"

Has she ever seen Goro blushing? Well. She supposes there's a first time for everything.

"It certainly wasn't like that. You're making it sounds so scandalous. It was in the servants' wing, if you must know. He was speaking to his—" He pauses to take a sip of his tea. "His friends."

"Since when do you take unnecessary trips through the servants' wing?"

She knows she's being cheeky, her forefinger tracing along the edge of her own cup of tea, her head neatly propped up on her palm. But—she's also the only person that can rightfully get away with teasing him like this, so she's intent on making the absolute most of it.

"I think you already have the answer to that question," Goro mutters. "More importantly, why wouldn't he be honest around his friends?"

When was the last time Goro actually asked her advice, let alone on matters of the heart? Right, it's never happened before.

"Oh, please. That much should be obvious. He's friends with the rest of the help, right? I doubt they view you the same way he does. Can you even imagine the amount of shit they'd give him for that?"

"... you are probably right. I hadn't considered that."

"How does he act around you when it's just the two of you?" Ann presses.

He seems to think it over. "Pleasant. Flirtatious, I believe. I could be wrong. I'm not particularly well-versed in these matters." 

Ann’s trying to imagine Goro flirting, and how it would look. She knows that he’s charming, that he’s comfortable around crowds, but she’s never known him to charm with intent before.

To be a fly on the palace walls sometimes. Ann wraps her hands around her cup, excited. "I wish I could go over your past conversations and pick them apart! Or maybe have you wear a wire so I can listen in from here on out...?"

"A-absolutely not!" 

"Oh, stop worrying! I'm not going to get in the way of your sexting—wait, you have exchanged numbers with him, right?"

"I don't even know if he has a phone, Ann."

"Well, you want to spend more time with him, right? But he's probably busy doing... whatever it is that he does, just like how Shido works you half to death with events and paperwork. The obvious solution is to text." 

"I may actually be granted more free time now that you're here," he remarks, a slow smile taking shape. "But you may be right."

"And then you'll even have textual evidence for me to analyze!"

"Try not to get your hopes up prematurely. If you turn out to be right, I'm not certain if our conversations will be wholly fit for public consumption."

Ann can't help but laugh, interrupted only by a knock on the door.

Goro sighs. "Enter."

Niijima slips through the door, hands clasped.

"I apologize for the intrusion," she says, bowing to them. "His Majesty the King is looking for you."

"Both of us?" Ann asks. The king usually spares a moment to greet her when she comes to visit, but it’s something she always sort of hopes he’s forgotten. That office gives her the creeps.

Niijima offers a soft nod. "For different reasons, yes."

"Well, then, I suppose we ought to be off." Another sigh escapes Goro as he sets his tea down, moving to stand. He straightens up. "Shall we?"



&



It's downright irritating how relaxed Ann can be about absolutely everything in her life to the point where she doesn't even blink before putting her feet up onto a couch. Not that Goro can really say he's surprised. Her parents don't even care if she falls in love with a commoner. How utterly convenient for her.

It's disarming in the same ways that Akira disarms him, Goro uncertain when he last opened up to someone so freely. Then again, he's always been close to Ann, so perhaps this was to be expected, after all. It certainly does help that they're both royalty.

The door to Shido's office opens up beside him, and Goro feels himself straighten on instinct. He's already had his talking-to, more of the same—I hope you remember that just because Lady Ann is here doesn’t mean you can slack off on your responsibilities—but, well.

Ann emerges from the door.

"And?" Goro asks.

"Oh, he just wanted to greet me."

Must be nice. He’s about to suggest that they go grab some sweets to enjoy with fresh refills of the tea, when—

"Lady Ann!" calls an eager voice.

This time, Niijima is nowhere in sight to stall Kitagawa's inevitable assault, Goro biting his tongue as he catches sight of Akira coming up right behind Kitagawa, who's hastening toward them. Running after him, Akira looks a bit like a harried zookeeper hurrying after an escaped animal.

"I'm afraid you were too slow to intervene, Akira-kun," he says, unable to help the small smile as Akira shrugs alongside his own smile.

Ann looks defeated at best, exhaling heavily. "What do you want?" she asks Kitagawa.

"I must entreat you once more to allow me to paint you—"

"The answer is still no!"

"But if it is for the sake of art—"

Ann’s eyes go wild. "It's lewd—not to mention completely inappropriate considering my title!"

"Is the scene in Titanic where Jack paints Rose wearing nothing but the Heart of the Ocean lewd?"

"Ughhhh, that's completely different!"

"If you wish to accent your form with jewelry so it might match the scene—"

"Jack was in love with Rose and you've already said that you have no interest in me as a woman! I'm just a subject to you. So I'm not interested!"

"So, if I was in love with you—"

"If you value your health, you do not want to finish that sentence!" Ann shrieks.

Sorry about this, Akira mouths, Goro's smile widening as he chuckles.

Shall we escape? he mouths back, Akira's eyes narrowing in obvious confusion. Well. Goro supposes he can't blame him.

His second attempt involves hand gestures, Akira's entire face lighting up as Goro's intended meaning hits him before he nods. 

The next thing he knows, Akira's hand is around his wrist, tugging. 



&



Akira didn't really think it through, grabbing Akechi and taking off on a run. He didn't have a plan, at least not to start. 

But he's always been good at flying by the seat of his pants, making things up as he goes along. They could go for another ride, just the two of them, hide away in the hayloft and just talk—

Or he could take him on an adventure. If there's one thing Akira has gleaned from his conversations with Akechi thus far, it's that he—more or less—hates his life as prince. Not that he can blame him, what with him being constantly supervised even while trapped beneath Shido's thumb, a veritable puppet on a string. 

So an adventure far away from palace life might be nice. And while he'd love to take him away on a weekend trip to another country altogether, he might have to think... smaller scale than that, considering his almost nonexistent budget for this impromptu outing. 

They make it as far as the courtyard when it occurs to Akira that Akechi doesn't have his coat with him. Turning back could be bad; if they ran into any of the staff—or, worse, Shido—the whole thing could easily be called off before it ever gets off the ground, really. 

So the name of the game becomes… improvisation. 

"Wait here," he tells Akechi, his heart in his throat as he almost trips on his way into the barn, breathless and hopeful by the time he's staring at Sojiro, brush in hand as he's attending to Lady Ann's horse, Carmen. "Is there a spare coat I could borrow?"

"... why?" It's not like it's surprising that he's suspicious, narrowed eyes and all; Akira was just hoping to avoid this particular hurdle. "What's this about?"

"I'm going out."

"Alone? Take your own coat."

"With a friend."

Sojiro's eyes narrow. "This friend wouldn't happen to be the crown prince, would it?"

Akira resists the urge to blink. "It would."

For a moment, it looks like he's in for a lecture, but then Sojiro just sighs, his brush hand dropping as he shrugs, gesturing vaguely toward the coat rack. "Might have something there you can use. Just—bring him back in one piece, yeah?"

"I will." He nods, grabbing both coats—his and Sojiro's—and making a beeline for the barn door. 

Akechi is waiting for him right outside it, rubbing gloved hands together to stay warm in the cold. His eyes fall back to Akira and the coats in his grip. "Ah, there you are," he says. "I was wondering if you'd perhaps decided to go to work, after all."

"Here," Akira says, thrusting his own coat out for Akechi to take with a small smile.

"... are we going out somewhere that will require a coat?" He pulls it on even as he asks, Akira quick to nod as he buttons up his own. 

"I'm taking you on an adventure." 

Now the problem is just figuring out transportation. He'd considered taking the horses into town, but it would be a bit far. Walking is out of the question— 

If only they could commandeer just one car of the royal fleet. Unfortunately, they all seem to be carefully guarded by a chauffeur. 

"Damn," he mutters. 

Akechi follows his gaze for a brief moment. "Actually—I believe I might be able to help here. You're hoping to secure us transportation, correct?"

Akira nods. 

"Then I will be right back."

Watching him walk up to the chauffeur now—head held high, back straight, exuding self-confidence and princely grace like a regal eagle—Akira isn't sure that it's possible for him to seem any more impressive. 

Then again, that could be his inappropriate crush talking.

"Hello there," Akechi says. "I'm in need of a car today. A ride into town."

The chauffeur looks up, confused. He shifts from one foot to the next. "My schedule didn't mention you needing a ride today, Your Highness."

"It's an unexpected errand I was sent on by the king," Akechi says, speaking with enough conviction to start to persuade the chauffeur. He delivers the coup de grace with a stern, "You wouldn't wish to disappoint the king, would you?"

The image alone nearly sends a shiver through the chauffeur, who is quick to open the door for the two of them, Akech motioning for Akira to slide inside. It’s overwhelmingly different from the royal car that brought Akira here, what with the extensive foot room and immaculately polished leather and carafes of ice water a few feet away. Akira follows Akira's entry, smoothing his coat into place. 

Akira still feels breathless, though he imagines that has more to do with his present company. Even so, he can't stop himself from leaning in to whisper in Akechi's ear. "That was impressive."

If his hope hasn't led his eyesight as astray as it has his good sense, he's half-convinced that Akechi is blushing. 



&



They leave the chauffeur on-call for their pick-up from the city, Akechi sending him back to the palace for the time being. 

Their walk is quiet to start, the silence surprisingly comfortable. Even now, with Akira's hands in his pockets and the knowledge that they'd be freezing exposed to the outside air, they still seem to remember all too well the feeling of Akechi's warm wrist in his. 

That would be the only thing that could possibly improve upon this little clandestine excursion of theirs, he thinks. The opportunity to walk hand-in-hand with the person he likes. Not that that's an even remotely reasonable wish. Akechi's the prince, and no amount of flirtatious glances or brushing shoulders will change that.

"Do we have a destination in mind?"

Akechi's voice pulls him back into the moment. He doesn't, not really. He's still flying by the seat of his pants, if he's honest. 

Of course, that's when he catches sight of his former place of employment. Even by daylight, it's hard to miss Crossroads.

It's instinct—and a bit of panic—that prompts him to grab Akechi's gloved hand to urge him onward.

"I suppose that answers my question as to whether or not you'd like to grab a drink," Akechi says with a laugh, Akira feeling warmth run up his neck and over his face. 

"Did you… want to? Go to Crossroads?"

"Haha, don't worry." He shakes his head, Akira wishing he could focus on anything other than the fact that Akechi's hand is still in his. "That sort of place isn't really my idea of a good time."

"Oh." Akira nods, his steps slowing somewhat. "Their gay nights not your thing, then?" He's been told before that he has a gambler's spirit, but he's not sure there's anything in the world he feels less like in this particular moment. The risk in his question feels almost like it's too much for his heart to take in that moment. He tries to mask it as a joke, in case he’ll need it to be in a moment.

"No, ah—that is, in general. Not to mention that the press coverage that could result would likely be quite explosive." Akechi's hand leaves his as they turn a corner, Akira's disappointment almost palpable.  

"Right." He should have assumed as much, honestly. Not that the fear of being caught by journalists stopped the king from going to bars like Crossroads.

The street they've turned onto is larger than the last, seemingly bustling with life now that the sun has set. It's the sight of an A-Frame sign advertising an art exhibition at the National Gallery, however, that finds Akira's mind returning to the matter at hand. 

He's being a terrible host during this excursion, something he needs to work to rapidly rectify. 

"Come on," he says, his hand moving briefly to the back of Akechi's arm to guide him, in part to avoid the urge to take his hand again, "I know where we're going."



&



Goro has been at the National Gallery countless times. Though it was built before his time and turned into an art museum long before his birth, he's been invited to open dozens of exhibitions and showcases, not to mention charity events and balls occasionally held in the large atriums of the building. 

Never before, however, has he been here as a guest. 

"I'm fairly certain," he starts, the two of them having finally arrived at the teller's booth after no small amount of waiting, "etiquette states, that, if either party is a member of the royal family, they ought to be the ones to pay."

"Etiquette also states that when you force someone out onto a—" Akira stops himself. 

Something like the word date lingers in the air like dust. It occurs to Goro that he could have easily said outing, if not gathering, or something else equally simple and innocuous, except that Akira looks so… flustered, poorly hidden underneath reddening cheeks. Goro can't imagine he himself looks any better.

Akira takes the moment of Goro's speechlessness to lay several bills down, completely ignoring Goro's protests. 

"You will have to allow me to pay you back," he insists upon being handed his ticket, the two of them setting off into the gallery.

"No. Here," Akira says, evidently content to completely ignore Goro's words. "Take my glasses." 

"Won't you be unable to see the artwork yourself, in that event?" Even the prospect of a promising disguise over their time here—Akira's coat aside—isn't enough for Goro to wish to deprive him of his eyesight, and he allows the glasses to hover inches below his face as he looks at his companion. 

Speaking of his coat… 

"The only thing I want to see right now is right next to me."

It is almost unfair how easily he can just say things like that. 

"You are absolutely shameless, Akira-kun," he chuckles, sliding the glasses onto his face. 

"I'm kidding," he says. "They're not prescription."

The stab of disappointment at his amendment is quick to take second place as his words come accompanied with another whiff of horses and pine—both so distinctly Akira as to distract him. Why would he give him his coat in the first place? 

If the scent lingers after they return to the palace and he takes the coat off, he'll be in dreadful trouble. 

"I feel a little silly wearing non-prescription glasses, to tell you the truth," he remarks, a small smile on his face as they make their way inside the gallery.

"Well, you know my secret now," Akira says, his smile seeming to light up not only his face, but the whole room, "so no telling."

"Whom would I possibly tell?" It is not as though he has friends the way his companion does, picking them up as though his entire existence were a well-laid trap of charm and good looks for those around him to fall into, head over heels. 

Of course, even if Akira were worried about him spreading the news, something Goro rather doubts, there's nothing silly when it's Akira that's wearing them. He simply looks good, with and without the ridiculous fake glasses. Although now, seeing him without them on almost makes him feel as though he's getting a rare glimpse of Akira in a state far more vulnerable than he's used to showing the world. The way he might look upon first waking, perhaps—or whilst in the shower. 

Suddenly, he's grateful for the physical barrier of sorts that the fake glasses put up over his flush, something he'd previously always relied on his hair for. 

He wonders how many other people have seen Akira like this, and feels himself unable to let go of the thought at all.

"Akechi-kun." Akira's voice jolts him back into the moment as he beckons him into another room of the gallery. 

"That reminds me," he starts, "I did forget to extend the same courtesy to you as you did me, didn't I? I suppose it's particularly relevant now that we are in public. Please, call me Goro."

"Are you sure?"

"We wouldn't want someone around us to catch onto our presence here, would we?" He's all smiles, but—in truth, he's almost relieved. The gallery makes for the perfect excuse to allow Akira the honor of calling him by his first name… all while protecting his own vulnerabilities. 

"All right, then… Goro-kun." 

"Now, then," he continues, eager to move on from the warm feeling in his chest as quickly as possible, "might I ask where you are leading me this time?"

"It's just around the corner."

The increased foot traffic should have given it away, he supposes. The royal showcase, of course. Though the tacky, large pieces of art featuring Shido are enough to make him scowl outright, it's not all bad. After all, there's art of his mother here, too. 

"We don't… have to stay here," Akira tells him, Goro quick to shake his head. 

"Thank you, Akira-kun, but… there are some pieces here that I haven't seen in some time." 

"You were a very cute baby."

Goro can't help but laugh. "I am hardly here to marvel at that, but… I am pleased to hear that someone thinks so."

Akira's attention leaves the smaller portraits of him as a child, instead shifting focus upon the portrait that seems to have piqued Goro's interest.

"Who is she?"

He supposes there would be no point in proclaiming ignorance. He knows these pieces; grew up with them from birth. Of course he'd know the face of his own mother, clad in a striking robin's-egg blue kimono. After all, it was the last official portrait ever drawn of her. 

"My mother," he says, wondering if his voice sounds hollow… or as filled with emotion over this as he truly feels. He can't even decide which he'd prefer anymore. 

Turning to Akira, he lets himself smile, honest and genuine. "Thank you for letting me see what it is like to experience this as a normal person."

For a moment, he's half-convinced that Akira will take his hand again—and finds himself hoping for as much, however briefly—when they're interrupted.

"IT'S PRINCE AKECHI!!"

Goro wheels around in time to see a handful of young girls, mouths agape, fumbling to grab their phones out of their pockets. So much for his disguise.

Well, he supposes it was only a matter of time. Not that it's all bad. 

After all, Akira's hand is grabbing his once more.



&



Thinking on his feet and flying by the seat of his pants might just be Akira's specialty. At any rate, it's the nicest way he can think to describe his uncanny ability to grab Goro's hand and take off running at the first sign of trouble. 

If nothing else, it gets them away from the prince's gaggle of fangirls, breathless and panting by the time they slip into a narrow alleyway. 

"You're very popular."

"Not nearly as popular as you," Goro tells him, all smiles, and Akira can't help but wonder just how lonely the prince must be on a day-to-day basis. 

"I'm sorry it couldn't last longer." His voice is soft, quiet—befitting their location now. The city has always been good about keeping things clean, if nothing else, and there's little more than the crunch of old, long-dead leaves to be found underfoot. A part of him wishes, as narrow as the passageway is, that it were smaller still—small enough, at least, to bring them closer. 

Another excuse to hold his hand again, maybe. This is a slippery slope, but Goro feels helpless to keep from sliding down it.

"We probably ought not to return to the street the same way as we came," Goro continues, "if we do, we run the risk of being ambushed again, I'm afraid."

"Then... I guess we'll just have to see where we come out on the other side." They're on an adventure, after all. There's no reason not to see where this takes them. 

Akira leads the way. It's a bit of a tight fit, and he checks intermittently—as though a part of him is worried—to make sure that Goro is still following behind him. 

"Are you nervous that I'll leave you, Akira-kun? I don't even know where I would possibly go.  You know this city far better than I."

"It's my responsibility to keep you safe."

Goro chuckles.

"I'd wondered if our chauffeur this evening wouldn't think it strange that I was traveling without a bodyguard. I now realize that he'd likely assumed you to be in that position. And, as it turns out, he was right."

Bodyguard is better than nothing, he supposes. After all, Akira knows the consequences would be dire if something happened to the crown prince while out with him. That sort of thing, regardless of context, could probably land him in jail. Shido would do his best to see to that.

They emerge from the other end of the alley to a flurry of activity, a makeshift ceiling composed entirely of string lights more than making up for the cloudy sky above, the brisk night air mixing with the unmistakable scents of baked goods and mulled wine. 

"Is this a European Christmas Market? I was... unaware that we had one of these in town."

"Every year," Akira explains, even as he finds himself unable to take his eyes off of Goro, childlike wonder written all over his features. Had Goro been a fish and the palace a very small, restrictive fishbowl, Akira rather feels as though he's dropped him into an entire ocean of new experiences and sights to behold. Who knows how much time he spends glued to the duties of a prince?

"Perhaps we could… survey some of the stalls, if you wouldn’t mind?"

It's such an innocent question from Goro—exceedingly polite, too—as if he's expecting the answer to be no, even as it's plainly obvious just how much he wants to experience another small bite of normalcy over the course of this evening. When he gets back, Akira can imagine the world that’ll await him: paperwork, chores, more responsibilities only befitting a royal. He’d like to keep Goro away from that world at least for a little while longer.

Akira nods. 



&



They only make it past two stalls until the crowds become thick enough that Akira holds out his hand to him—and Goro sees fit to take it. 

Even through his gloves he's not used to all this physical contact, the motion almost throwing him off enough to have him scanning their surroundings for a place where there are, perhaps, less people. 

At the same time, it's quite nice, and he knows that there are few people—if any—that he would tolerate holding his hand the way that Akira is. Then again, it's different with him. There's an element of trust there, something strangely unfamiliar to someone like him.

It's an odd sort of luxury that he long thought himself as having grown out of wanting. 

"Have you ever tried Baumkuchen?" Akira asks, evidently having caught sight of Goro eyeing the sign. He shakes his head, but—there's more to it than that, and he realizes he likely ought to clarify.

"I can assure you that it's quite safe for you to assume that I haven't had any of this, Akira-kun. The fare we eat at the palace does tend to be rather… traditional."

"Then I guess we'll just have to get you a little bit of everything," he declares, Goro's eyes widening momentarily as Akira gets them into a particularly long line.

"Are you quite certain?"

Akira just nods even as Goro realizes that there's really no reason for them to be holding hands anymore. He lets go with some haste, a soft chuckle escaping him.  

"Ah… my apologies." If he weren't wearing gloves, he might see it fit to run his palm down his front to rid it of the last traces of Akira's presence. As it is, all he can do is feel awkward, ambling in the moment like an inexperienced child.

"I don't mind." 

Of course he doesn't mind. It's downright infuriating. He might as well say that he doesn't care, and they'd come out on the other end with the same result. 

Not that being annoyed about this is, in any way, helpful to him. Seeing as the alternative—I don't mind; I like holding your hand—would be completely out of the question. Not just for Akira to say, but—for him to want, more importantly. 

But he does want it. Wants to be wanted, even if it is unilateral. Even if he can't return the sentiment. After all, being able to return it would be far, far worse for him. The consequences not only of losing sight of his plan, but of the repercussions that could befall him should Shido find out, would be astronomical… 

The line moves faster than he expected, and, before he knows it, he's holding a piece of Baumkuchen and a commemorative mug filled with mulled, spiced wine. It smells amazing, but—

"You are not paying for us, this time. I won't allow it." He hopes he sounds as resolute as he feels. Princely stance, declarative tone—and yet, Akira doesn't falter. 

"I kidnapped you, didn't I? It's only fair."

Goro opens his mouth in protest even as Akira places another set of bills down on the counter. 

He's… unfathomable. 

"I'll have you know, I'm not used to not getting my way, Akira-kun."

"I'll find a way to make it up to you, I'm sure," he tells him, and has the audacity to wink as he grabs his own cake and wine to bring them over to a presently-unoccupied standing table. 

There's no winning opposite that smile, he supposes. He'll have to find a way to repay him later. Then again, he supposes it's just as possible that this was his plan all along.

"They will wonder why I won't have the stomach to finish my dinner at the palace this evening, I'm afraid."

"Let them," Akira shrugs, Goro unable to keep himself from laughing. If only he could have his lackadaisical spirit, the ease and comfort with which he must approach life. To Goro, life is much more akin to a minefield, every step needing to be calculated and measured with deadly accuracy. One step out of line… 

Then again, tonight seems to be a considerable step out of line. In a lot of ways, it's as though he's removed himself from the minefield altogether. 

No—that's not quite right. Akira was the one responsible for that. Without his encouragement… 

Their evening together reminds him of his late-night rides with Robin Hood, but… better, somehow, if only on account of the non-equine company involved. It's freeing and fun in ways he hasn't experienced, perhaps ever. 

The mulled wine warms him and makes him shiver at the same time as Akira's glasses fog up on his face, the gentle burning down his throat reminding him that he is, in fact, drinking alcohol while out with the palace's stable boy, the scent of him maddeningly ever-present on the coat around his shoulders. 

If only the press—no, better yet, Shido—could see him now. It might feel downright liberating. 

Taking a bite out of his Baumkuchen, he's not certain he's able to stop his face from lighting up. Still, he waits to finish chewing and swallowing before nodding his assent. He’s had his fair share of Christmas treats at the castle, but never before German delicacies.

"It's delicious!"

Akira, meanwhile, is already through half of his own cake. "I'm sure the palace kitchens would be happy to make some for you."

"It wouldn't be the same," he explains, quick to take another bite to hide how utterly naked he feels. 

They eat and drink in silence the rest of the time, with Akira finishing much faster than him. Not that he can help it, he supposes. He's used to eating as politely as humanly possible. Slowly and neatly, not a single crumb wasted, ideally. Akira eats with unfettered abandon, as though no one could possibly be watching—or care. 

Not that a few classes on how to be a proper King's Consort wouldn't—

What is he thinking? He buries his expression and the remainder of his thoughts in his mug as he finishes the last of his mulled wine, the realization that their evening has almost drawn to an end dawning on him as he catches sight of one of the clocks in the area. 

Ah. He suspects he has roughly ten minutes left before he's bound to receive an angry call about missing dinner. Might as well make the most of them.

"Shall we take a walk, Akira-kun?"

As surprised as he looks by the suggestion, Akira naturally accepts the offer, the two of them setting off on their way through the city. Their hands aren't even close to touching anymore, and Goro supposes he's meant to prefer it like this. 

With evening rolling in in earnest, the shift in temperature becomes almost palpable. Akira's breath is visible in front of his face with every exhale—something that would typically fog up his glasses. Now, however, that particular annoyance comes to rest on his own shoulders, Goro doing his best to avoid exhaling in such a way as to obscure his vision. 

Akira is… nice to look at, he finds. It's something he was aware of before, of course, but—now, with the Christmas lights from the market behind them and the occasional streetlight serving to illuminate his silhouette, he's almost as painful to look at as he is to look away from. 

Not that Akira seems to be noticing his quandary.  "It's snowing," he says, prompting Goro to look up at the sky only to feel himself start to smile. 

"So it is." He allows himself to inhale the brisk, chilled winter air as deeply as his lungs allow, his whole body somehow feeling fresh and renewed from the inside. It's invigorating, Akira's company. "Thank you for this, Akira-kun."

"I should be the one—"

His phone rings earlier than expected. As if on cue, his shoulders slump even as his back straightens instinctively, and he reaches into his pocket. Even without looking at the screen, he already knows whom to expect to be yelling at him on the other end when he answers. 

"Where are you?! Palace security—"

"I'm well aware that I'm missing dinner; there's no need to shout."

"Like hell there isn't—! I demand you come back to the palace this instant!"

"I need to call the chauffeur, so I'm hanging up now." 

Shido is still talking by the time he hangs up to speed-dial the chauffeur, Akira's gaze understandably quizzical. 

"It would… probably be in your own interest if you forgot this conversation ever happened," he explains, the ringing on the other end of the line promptly replaced by the chauffeur's voice, Goro requesting a pick-up for the both of them at their original drop-off point, a spot not all too far from their current location. 

"Our conversation?" 

"No," Goro laughs, stiffer now than before, something he's suddenly uncomfortably aware of as he hangs up. "My conversation with Shi—that is, the king."

"Is he always like that with you?"

The scoff that leaves him is more in the name of self-derision than anything else. "I suppose I should be used to you not listening to instructions by now. Come—the later we are in getting back to the palace, the more likely I am to get yelled at some more. Shall we hasten?" 

An unfair tactic, perhaps. Even if he wanted to stay out here with Akira, it's not sustainable, not even for the entirety of an evening. And if anyone would care about what would become of Goro tonight, it would be Akira—no matter how surprising that fact still is to him.

They head for the pick-up point, shoulders brushing as they walk.



&

 

The camellia garden has always been one of Ann's favorite places in the palace, ever since she started coming here. Even covered in snow, the blossoms of yellow and white have always done their best to continue peeking out through the cold winter blankets and put a smile on her face. 

The sound of someone approaching stills her pen mid-sentence in her journal. She had taken care not to be followed—had even brought out a small towel to ensure that her rear wouldn't get wet sitting atop the bench, and yet...

"Ah, Lady Ann. I was hoping I might find you here," a familiar voice says.

"Uuuuughhhh!" Her distress and frustration comes out loud and sonorous—enough so as to startle a pair of Pallas' rosefinches from where they had been sitting. "You are an absolute pest, you know that?"

"This scenery..." Yusuke continues, as though her words had been meaningless to him. He’s without a coat, and obviously getting colder by the minute. It looks as if he saw her from the window and darted outside just to catch a chance to talk to her. "I am not certain which is more beautiful to behold—it or you, Lady Ann."

"Oh please, oh please let it be the scenery."

He shakes his head. Well. So much for that. 

"Perhaps it is both. Far be it from me to have such a single-minded view of such magnificent beauty. Perhaps you might allow me to paint you as such, surrounded by all this splendor?"

"And I'm guessing you'd have me get naked to pose in the snow, too?"

"Well, ideally. Though I realize that this could be potentially biologically problematic."

"You know what?" she declares, setting her journal aside. "I'll make you a deal." She's treading on thin ice here, and she knows it, but more than anything else, she's tired. It would be nice to get to come to visit her cousin just once without also having to worry about being asked to model for a pervert. "If I can't find a single thing in this entire palace that you consider to be more beautiful than me, then you win. You can paint me however you want. Out in the snow catching my death from the cold without proper winter gear on, naked, whatever. But if, among all this precious, expensive junk, I find something, then I win, and you'll never get to ask to paint me naked again." 

"I see..." He falls quiet for a moment, seeming to consider her words. "I suppose either way I would retain a muse, of sorts. Very well. I accept your challenge."

"Of course you do. It's not like you're going to be doing most of the legwork here." She sighs. "Well then, come on. The beauty of this palace isn't going to reveal itself with you just standing here." She moves to stand, gathering her things up as Yusuke falters.

"But, the camellia garden—"

"Is it more beautiful and inspiring than me?"

"Well, no—"

"Then, it's decided. We're off to see the fountains."

 

&

 

The ornamental fountains prove to be a wash, as does the snow-blanketed gazebo. With the flowerbeds not yet in bloom, Ann's quest eventually takes them inside the palace—and to a particularly ornate-looking door, her expression quite serious as she turns to look at him.

"Okay, look. It took some doing, but we're going in here. No turning back!"

"Where exactly is here?" 

In lieu of an answer, Ann grabs his arm to drag him inside. It serves as an answer, he supposes, considering the look of the place. 

"Is this… the royal jewelry collection?" 

Ann beams, her hands clasped behind her back as she nods. All around her are displays of carefully maintained jewelry, all propped up on silver stands. Tiaras, crowns, necklaces, brooches and rings every which way. "Mmhm! We can look as much as we want—just no touching!" 

"I am not a barbarian, Lady Ann," Yusuke simply says, allowing his gaze to scan over a vast array of sparkling jewels as Ann opens a couple of drawers. They are beautiful, yes, the gemstones glimmering under the lamplight, but… 

"There's this one… and this set… and oh, this is one of my favorites! Especially the tiaras are to die for, wouldn't you say?"

"Perhaps," he starts, cocking his head. He stares at one of the sapphire rings, undoubtedly a stunning piece of work, but it’s unmoving, a still life that won’t ever surprise Yusuke, or inspire him, or excite him. "I do enjoy how the diamonds catch the light in a vast rainbow of colors. However..."

"What?"

"This is mere vanity. Though these jewels may be beautiful, they fail to capture the immense complexity contained within a single individual, wouldn't you say?"

"Uh, I guess…? But it's not like you see anything in me beyond my looks, right?"

The gasp breaks forth from his chest unbidden, tented fingers coming to rest over his chest as he balks at her. "Preposterous!"

"All right, then. Tell me what has you so fascinated with me."

Yusuke doesn’t even know where to begin. "A girl like you could have anything and anyone she wanted. Yet you defy the idea of royalty at every turn. You dress as you wish, eat whatever you desire without fear of public outrage or condemnation from the tabloids, and you're unerringly kind even to those below you in status. Moreover, unlike the likes of King Shido, you don't put on airs of any sort. You simply dare to be yourself. It's remarkably refreshing, if I may be so bold."

"Oh." More than just shocked, Ann looks downright flattered—as though she would have never expected to hear these words from him. Still, they're true. It's not as though he's making this up for the simple purpose of getting her onto his canvas. "But then… why the obsession with me naked?"

"We hide ourselves beneath endless layers of clothing—a deceptive thing. I wish for the world to see you as I see you, genuine and honest and bold."

"... right," she says. It sounds very much like it's the end of that particular conversation. "Let's just… move on." She starts to head for the door only to change her mind, turning back to Yusuke with a shake of her head. "On second thought, I might need more time to come up with more places. You blew through all the ones I had lined up… pretty darn fast." 

"Very well. Another time, then."

"This isn't over yet!" she declares, pumping a victorious fist into the air before stepping back into the hall. 

Yusuke can't help but smile. That gesture of hers alone may make it at least ten percent more difficult for her to find anything that would compare, not that he's about to say as much out loud. He'd hate for her to feel the need to alter her scintillating personality for him in any way. 

 

&

 

A loud knock on the door jolts Goro awake where he's propped himself up over his desk.

He clears the roughened sleep from his throat, straightening up. "Come in," he says, hastily shuffling papers together into some semblance of organization.

Niijima slides into the room. There's a tray in her hand, and it takes Goro a second to remember that he asked her to bring him fresh coffee. If nothing else, at least this proves he hadn't nodded off for very long. Something about sleeping atop scattered paperwork feels very undignified for someone of Goro's stature.

"Here you are, Your Highness," Niijima says, setting the tray down on the one corner of the desk still free from Goro's paper rampage. All these files, and still no progress. Niijima eyes the desktop in what she must assume to be an inconspicuous approach. "Do you require anything else?"

Goro would normally appreciate the manpower if the issue weren't sensitive. As it is, it already feels strangely indecent for him to be doing this.

He's not certain why. Akira is employed by Shido, and therefore, by extension, Goro as well—surely he has the right to look up information on the people working inside his home.

"No, thank you," Goro says. An idea strikes him just as Niijima bows and heads for the door. "Actually. Would you please request an audience with the king on my behalf?"

"Is it an urgent matter, Your Highness?"

Goro squirms in his seat, wishing he could say it is. He's been looking into Akira's history for hours, and despite having discovered plenty about his hometown, relatives, blood type, and school grades, everything related to his job here at the palace is conveniently missing—how he was hired, or even found in the first place. Shido must have taken great care to make sure no such papers were accessible, assuming they ever existed in the first place.

He'll tackle the issue of why he wants to know all this so badly later. After all, he already feels more than uncomfortable enough from having scrounged up all of this unnecessary information in the first place, not that he's certain as to why. It's no more than what would be available on his own wikipedia page.

Has Akira read his wikipedia page, he wonders? Again, he's not certain as to why he cares.

"Not urgent, no. But the sooner the better."

"Understood," Niijima says.

She walks briskly from the room, leaving Goro with his quiet surroundings and mess of a desk once more. What must it be like, he wonders, to have a father one can casually approach for a conversation whenever one wishes, whether it be about business or politics or personal opinions and conundrums. Goro imagines those types of fathers lounging in leather armchairs by television sets, newspapers and cigars in hand, good-natured smiles on their faces as sitcom reruns play in front of them. Shido has never been that type of father. His face most likely wouldn't even know how to convincingly smile good-naturedly in the first place without simultaneously appearing fake.

Familiar anger spikes through him like static electricity. He latches onto it, does his best to absorb rather than lash it back out. He'll need all that anger, one day.

Niijima comes back to Goro's study ten minutes later. She stands with her hands crossed by the door, and says, "He's available at present, Your Highness."

Is that so? Shido must be in a good mood this evening. Goro shuffles the disrupted papers into order and gets to his feet.

Shido is on the phone when Goro arrives. He takes little notice of his visitor, attention set to his call and the work on his own desk, which is decidedly neater than Goro's at the moment.

Perhaps because it's bigger. Everything is always bigger with Shido. Goro rubs a hand over his cheek to stave off a curling lip.

"I look forward to it, Okumura-san," Shido says into the phone, voice a well-practiced silk, smooth but cool. "All arrangements can be formally dealt with upon your arrival. Yes, naturally."

Goro listens to them exchange pointless pleasantries as he waits. He remembers Okumura being like that from the last time they met at a function. A sycophant of slimy proportions.

Eventually, Shido puts the phone down. His gaze turns, steely and guarded as ever, to Goro.

"So." Shido steeples his hands together, surveying Goro over the top of his fingertips. "What brings you here?"

Goro decides to get right to the point. "Where did you find Akira Kurusu?" he asks.

His contempt for the subject matter clearly overshadows any appreciation he might've had for Goro's bluntness. Shido huffs, already reaching for his pen, deeming this a conversation worth multitasking through.

"This is what you spend time concerning yourself with?" he says. "I thought you had enough to do."

Goro opts to ignore his taunting. "He has no digital or paper files beyond a background check. He also has no expertise in the field he's been hired in."

"You say that as if piling horse feces onto a wheelbarrow takes any sort of skill."

"Shido-san," Goro tries again, "How did you manage to bring him here?"

Shido's mouth curves slantwise, upward on one edge—too cunning to be trusted. He levels his gaze with Goro's. "Why does it matter to you? If you're taking a sudden interest in life as a servant, there are plenty of ways I can accommodate that."

Goro sighs. Shido's evasiveness is an answer in of itself. He wouldn't be trying so hard if he didn't realize the truth would annoy Goro. Akira's not the first employee to wind up here with suspect circumstances, coltish and uncertain, frightened of unspoken threats. It was the missing details of the story that interested Goro, details that Goro admittedly wanted in order to uncover more about Akira rather than unseat some hidden palace scandal.

"I see," he says. "So you blackmailed him?"

Shido's lip twitches a fraction. "What an outrageous claim."

"I simply know your methods."

Silence, thick and crackling with untapped tension, is strung between them. Finally, Shido rises from his chair and says, "He assaulted me inside an establishment I falsely believed to be safe. I brought him here to work when he begged to be spared from legal action." He tilts his chin up. "Happy now?"

Not really. Then again, Goro should've known better than to believe actual candor would leave Shido's mouth rather than a convenient lie.

"One more question," Goro pushes. "What was the name of the establishment?"

"I forget," Shido says. "Little more than a hole-in-the-wall bar I was passing."

Hole-in-the-wall bar? Once again, Goro senses little more than a tickle of truth in his statement. Perhaps it would be worth it to make a few calls, check in with some of the local taverns. Goro's fairly certain that he would hear a vastly different telling of the tale from another perspective.

He sees himself out with a quick goodnight that Shido doesn't bother to return. On the bright side, that coffee from Niijima doesn't seem all that necessary anymore now that he's prickling with curiosity. Nosiness, though, might be a better description at this point, given how his innocent search through a few files has turned into an informational witch hunt.

Goro could just ask, he supposes, but he's picked up on the hint that Akira doesn't really want him to know. And, to be questioned by him regarding Goro's interest—or worse, asked to stop investigating entirely—would take Goro's research from creepy to all-out insensitive of Akira's wishes. 

He considers going back to his study to start sorting through the guest list Shido shoved at him for the Christmas ball, but his conversation with his father has left him in a sour state. The coffee Niijima left him will be cold by now, too, which rounds out the rather pathetic image of him sitting at a cold desk, sipping at dregs and imagining the staff having a merry time together in their quarters, laughing and playing cards and not worrying about what stuffy Prince Akechi is up to at all.

Goro rubs the bridge of his nose. His mind is a cave, cobwebbed with horrors much more benign than what really sits in the darkness, and, at least rationally, he can recognize as much. Still, logic isn't strong enough to stop him from thinking the worst: that Goro is seriously misinterpreting his burgeoning friendship with Akira and crowning it with foolish significance that doesn't actually exist.

Still, some of the signs he's been getting… even unreasonable fears can't smother them. All that hand-holding at the Christmas market, the intimacy of offering up a first-name basis, the way Goro catches Akira looking at him sometimes... surely, that isn't normal. Goro's sheltered childhood in the castle can't have skewered his romantic intuition that badly. He's had people pine for him before, fawn over his title and his popularity in the papers, but that brand of affection is different from the kind that's frighteningly personal, one that's created off the back of knowing Goro as a person rather than as a prince.

Goro checks his watch. It's late, enough so that the kitchens might be empty save for a few people wiping down counters who would leave him be if he requested it. He doesn't want to call Niijima again for more caffeine, acutely aware that she'll start wondering what it is that has mind in such an overdrive. For all her quiet nature, the judgement is always particularly rife in Niijima's eyes.

Besides, the kitchen at night is always calming, at least when it's empty. The silent darkness, the humming of the refrigerator, no one to bow after and follow him like attention-starved dogs. It gets exhausting for Goro, being on all the time. It never stops, not in this life, not in this castle. He makes his way down the corridors.

The kitchen isn't empty, though. A few murmuring voices can be heard when Goro rounds the corner—Sakamoto, it sounds like, and Akira. A flare of envy stabs Goro in the gut.

The two of them go instantly quiet when they see Goro in the doorway, Sakamoto elbowing Akira in the ribs.

"Don't let me interrupt the sleepover," Goro says. He thinks he's doing a good job covering up the bitterness, but when he hears the words come out of his mouth, they're dripping with disdain.

"Hey," Akira says. "Need something?"

Goro's gaze skips between them. Not anymore, he thinks. "Just looking for a fresh cup of coffee, but don't worry. I can prepare one myself."

"No," Akira says quickly, stepping forward. "Let me help."

Despite himself, Goro smiles. "A bit outside of your usual expertise at the stables, isn't it?"

Akira mirrors the same smile. "How hard can it be?"

Behind him, Sakamoto is rolling his eyes, perhaps unaware that Goro can see him. His opinion of his friend conspiring with Goro is so markedly obvious that Goro almost feels the need to roll his own eyes as well. Something of a Cold War seems to bubble between them, mediated only by Akira's well-kept composure.

"Then I'll take you up on the offer, Akira-kun." Goro revels like a child who's won rock-paper-scissors when he sees Sakamoto's eyes widen at the casual display of intimacy wrapped up in Akira-kun. "Some basic coffee with cream and sugar will do."

Sakamoto leans closer in a way he probably believes to be subtle, pinching Akira's arm. "You even know how to work the coffee machine?" he mutters.

Akira swats him away. His confidence in something well outside of his realm of skills is oddly endearing. Goro wonders—is Akira trying to impress him? Please him? To believe that to be the truth feels too much like wishful thinking.

"I'll see you later," Akira says to Sakamoto, just loudly enough to be a hint. The gentle push to his shoulder is a bit of a stronger hint.

Goro feels like he's wearing the focus of Akira's attention like a crown. It's unbelievably satisfying, watching Akira send that hot-headed moron off to his quarters so he can spend time with Goro instead, his smugness the jewels to go with the metaphorical crown. Sakamoto sighs, like it pains him to leave Akira alone with the likes of Goro, but he goes nonetheless.

"He really has quite the grudge against me, doesn't he?" Goro asks as Sakamoto slams the door shut behind him. Not that the slamming is indicative of anything; Sakamoto doesn't strike him as the type to do anything gently.

Akira starts shaking his head, but stops after a moment. "I wouldn't say grudge."

"Wouldn't you?" Goro says. "Although I honestly have no idea where his hostility comes from. I've barely talked to him the whole time he's worked here."

"Actually, that's probably the reason."

"Because I haven't spoken to him?" Goro hadn't ever even considered that line of thinking before. With that perpetually aggressive expression, Sakamoto was never exactly a neon sign blinking APPROACHABLE. "Frankly, I didn't think the staff wanted me to try and befriend them. There's a line there, you see, a professional barrier I'm expected not to cross."

He looks over at Akira. He can only imagine how hypocritical he sounds—here he is, tucked into the shadows after hours with a man who is essentially his employee, waiting for him to personally make Goro coffee. Not to mention all the other occasions when he's blatantly crossed lines, even if they were perfectly innocuous lines of friendship.

"I get it," Akira says. Perhaps it would've been better if he had said nothing at all, but then he adds, "I think you should. Talk to them more. They would like you."

Goro tries not to think too hard on how many people constitute as they and how well Akira knows them. 

Without being able to filter it first, Goro says, "Do you?"

Akira shuffles his hands into his pockets. "I do."

The earnest tilt to his words is almost too much for Goro to bear hearing. Is this how friends talk to each other? He doesn't know. He's never had much practice with friends. All he knows for sure is that it isn't how employees talk with him. Niijima is civil to a robotic fault, Sakamoto avoids him like a disease-ridden outhouse, and Kitagawa has a one-track mind singularly focused on art (and Ann, when she's here). Everyone else working at the palace is a fair bit older than him, creating chasms that Goro hasn't bothered to try crossing. Shido wouldn't approve, anyway—mingling with commoners is what he'd call it, probably, and not with approval.

If he knew what Goro was doing now...

Goro shakes the intrusive thoughts of Shido out of his head. In front of him, Akira is scanning the kitchen, looking slightly lost but obviously attempting to hide how out of his element he is.

"You have made coffee before, yes, Akira-kun?"

A long pause precedes Akira's answer. "A few times," he says, as if choosing his words carefully. "Drinks are more my speciality, actually."

"Drinks?" The words hole-in-the-wall bar thread through Goro's memory. "Such as cocktails?"

"Yeah," Akira says. "But, don't worry. I can make coffee. It'll be great."

Goro hides his incoming laughter for the sake of Akira's pride, which is clearly geared up for the task at hand. Goro leans against the counter, watching as Akira tries a few cupboards in a search for a coffee maker, finally coming away with the siphon set.

Akira huddles around his work when he notices Goro surveying, hiding the machine with his back. Still, the noises are suspicious enough, painting images of what may be happening behind Akira's broad shoulders. There are so many ways vacuum coffee can go wrong, and only a handful of ways it can go right, but far more than he is lamenting the state his coffee will no doubt arrive in, Goro is enjoying the experience. Being in Akira's company has woken him up as easily as a shot of caffeine would have.

Concerning, that.

"You shouldn't stare like that," Akira says over his shoulder. "It can unnerve baristas."

"Baristas?" Goro repeats, this time unable to stifle his chuckling. "Most baristas do their work in the open."

The machine hisses, diverting Akira's concentration back to the coffee. Goro watches the line of his spine shift as he bends over the counters, hands fiddling with the glass bulbs, preparing the grinds. There's something soothing about observing him.

If only Goro had someone to talk to about all this candidly. The closest he has is Ann, who is always unfailingly kind, but who has a perspective on matters of romance so close to Goro's own thanks to their similar upbringing that she can't exactly offer him helpful advice. A father could—a good one, that is, attentive—or a mother.

Like it always does, a deep pit of longing scratches Goro from the inside. Longing to have a proper family. Longing to have had the chance to know and learn from his mother.

And a different type of longing, a darker one, with claws and teeth, snarling for revenge, aching for it to be imminent.

He guides his gaze downward. Goro can be patient. He just has to wait.

It doesn't take long after Akira moves the machine over the heat of the stove for the bubbling to begin and for pressure to flow the water upwards and gravitate it back down. It looks drinkable—at least from a distance.

"Here," Akira says, setting a cup down in front of Goro, modestly dotted with cream to create a deep hazelnut color.

It looks normal, save for the coffee grinds that come swirling into sight as Goro grabs a spoon and starts stirring. It's only thoroughly-imprinted manners that lead the cup to his lips for a taste. And maybe also Akira's hopeful face.

Grains touch Goro's tongue with the first swig, coating his mouth like sand washing in with the tide. Clumps settle between his teeth.

"How is it?"

"Well. It's—" Goro stops, trying to smile like an encouraging teacher might after handing back a failed test.

"It's not good, is it?"

"Uh," Goro says, swallowing like one might gulp back bitter cough syrup. "May I take a gander at what may have gone wrong?"

Akira's face falls.

"Did you, by any chance, forget to use a filter?"

"Oh. Oh."

Akira wheels back around, dismantling the machine to examine the parts. Goro takes the moment Akira's back is turned to pick a few coffee grounds out of his teeth.

"I'm... sorry?" Akira says, covering his eyes with his hand. The bit of his face still in view seems to be nearly smiling, mouth tugged at by the silly amusement of the situation. "Is a second chance off the table?"

He removes his hand, letting Goro get an eyeful of his apologetic, contrite, unfairly cute face. Something inside Goro, demanding to be felt, is telling him to do whatever he can to keep Akira smiling, whenever possible. 

"I don't think it is," he says, but slides the cup aside anyway. "But perhaps some lessons are in order? I hear Sakura-san is good with coffee."

"Sojiro has made you coffee?"

"Only once," Goro says. It was years ago. He'd been having a bad day, and he happened upon Sakura in the kitchen, who told him he had a knack for making a good cup—a coffee sommelier, of sorts—and that a good cappuccino might put some pep back into his step.

He remembers something else, too: Sakura telling him that he first started playing around with coffee in an effort to impress an unflappable woman. Is something similar happening here tonight?

Goro traces the rim of Akira's failed concoction, still tasting grinds in his mouth. "Thank you for this," Goro says. Why did you make me this? he'd much rather ask. He can't quite summon up the nerve. And piggybacking on that question is a slew of more: why did you take me to the museum? Why did you keep holding my hand so much? Why are you keeping your past a secret from me? "I must admit, it's not what I came for, but I enjoyed the entertainment regardless."

"What did you come for?" Akira asks.

"Some extra hours in the day, I suppose. Coffee has a way of sometimes making that feel possible." Goro feels himself slip dangerously close to the edge of revealing more than he knows he should, and pulls himself back. "I have a lot of work lately in regards to preparations for the Christmas ball. It's coming up so soon, but there's still so much to do."

"For you?" Akira asks, incredulous.

"Yes, surprisingly, a prince is not immune from his father's assigned errands." That much isn't a lie. "There's lists to orchestrate, invitations to approve, and an endless amount of names to learn." He thinks of the call Akira overheard at the Christmas market, and the inferences he must've come away with about Shido. "You must be at least somewhat familiar with my father and his tempers." Goro leans forward the barest of increments, feeling out the atmosphere of the room, the temperature of the conversation. "I can only imagine that the circumstances that lead you here under his employ were not happy ones."

Akira's eyes go downcast, as if fascinated by the marble of the kitchen counter. Goro can see a story brewing behind his gaze, one that he may or may not feel the urge to share. 

It's possible that he doesn't trust Goro enough. Goro has his fair share of experience with distrust. Strangely enough, it still stings when he recognizes it in Akira, in the shuttering of his open expression into something more closed off.

"Not sure it's something we should be talking about here," Akira says, guarded, but apologetic, too.

It's a good point. Goro nods. "Maybe some other time," he says, straightening up. The clock on the wall grabs his eye. "Well. It's getting late. I should probably be heading to bed."

He's not sure where that conversation was headed, anyway. If Akira did tell Goro his story, he'd surely ask for Goro's, as well. And even here, still enveloped in the calm comfort of Akira's presence, he knows it would be a bad idea.

He paints the veneer back on, shooting Akira a smile more manufactured than he'd like.

"Thank you for the late-night entertainment," he says, more jovially than he feels. "I'll see you again, Akira-kun. Have a good night."

"Goro," Akira says before he can go. "I'll deliver on that second chance."

God, he's infuriating. Charming. Annoying. Beguiling. Sirenic, in the way Goro can't seem to stop coming by. Whatever magic this is, it's a craft he has yet to learn how to master himself, even after too many speech courses, etiquette lessons, and books geared toward swaying crowds in one's favor to count.

"I'll look forward to it," Goro says.

Chapter Text

"Clothes maketh man!" Ann proclaims proudly, offering a spin in place to Yusuke as he sits on the small seat at the center of the rather large walk-in closet.

Large as it may be, it's nothing compared to the size of the room itself, full of plush velvet accents and sophisticated wooden furniture. Compared to the shared sleeping space the staff occupies, Yusuke isn't used to such opulence.

"You say that this is merely the closet space you have while visiting here?" he says, baffled. "I could easily live here."

"Focus!" she says, pursing her lips as she stares at him. "And yes, I have more closet space than this at home, but that's hardly the point. The point is that your ideas about clothes are all wrong! They don't hide a person's personality, they accentuate it! Regardless of the kind of person you are, the sort of clothes you wear can help you express it!" She stops to consider the racks of clothing in front of her. "If I wasn't royal, I'd probably want to go into modeling. Not that I haven't dabbled in modeling on the side, but… my point stands."

She's modeled on the side? Yusuke's sitting up straight just thinking about the resulting art: photographs, or perhaps commercials? He'll have to look further into this later. For now—

"I cannot think of a single outfit that would serve to accentuate rather than hide your effervescence and general splendor. But… I have been proven wrong before."

"Right!" she says, slipping behind a changing screen that would appear to leave little to the imagination. Goodness. Even her curves… "You're definitely going to be proven wrong this time!"

Yusuke allows a thumb to meet a forefinger each, creating a makeshift picture frame for him to gaze through. An impromptu canvas featuring reality. The way she is shaped truly is breathtaking, not that he'd ever thought about her in this light before. He watches her silhouette move behind the screen, a dance of blurry feminine mystique.

Thank goodness he brought his sketchbook—his hands are already flying over the page, Ann's mere presence seeming to inspire him.

"Ta-da!" Emerging once more from behind the screen, Yusuke exhales at the sight of her, allowing his hands to momentarily relax. 

She's in an extraordinarily sumptuous evening gown, one no doubt at hand for any evening soirees spent mingling with other royalty. The bright red of the fabric commands attention, wrapping tightly around Ann's torso as if tailored for her every curve. Still, no matter how elegant, the dress is covering up something that would be much better seen bare and unmasked.

"Ah, yes. Quite lovely indeed."

Ann sighs. "...lemme guess. Doesn't hold a candle to the idea of me naked, huh."

"No, your silhouette alone—"

"Yeah, yeah, I've got it." 

It goes like this another three times—her second attempt with another gown, her third with an earth-toned horse-riding ensemble, and the last with an extremely casual outfit that Yusuke never would've even dreamed of Ann owning. Eventually, Ann allows her shoulders to slump in temporary defeat, Yusuke snapping his sketchbook shut. "Well, I guess that's that, then. I thought maybe if you found some clothes you'd like, you could paint me in those instead, but no, I guess that was just too much to hope for."

Yusuke doesn't enjoy knowing that the disappointment on Ann's face is of his making. "Do not despair yet. I'm certain your efforts will bear fruit soon enough, considering your enthusiasm in the venture."

"Wow, Kitagawa-kun. That's… surprisingly supportive."

Something about her words feel… wrong, and for a moment Yusuke struggles to put his finger on it. Kitagawa-kun. Of course. It's astonishing it didn't occur to him any sooner. He clears his throat.

"I wish to see you in your most honest state, Lady Ann. The least I can offer you in return is my first name."

She blinks. "Um… still kinda weird, but… all right, I guess. Yusuke."

Her use of his name perks him up, his eyes wide as he regards her once more. "Yes?"

"Oh, no, just… testing it out, I guess." She shakes her head, her hair catching the light in a way that strikes him as mesmerizing. The urge to pull out his sketchbook tugs at him again.

He can't help the chuckle that comes forth from his throat, Yusuke smiling despite himself. "I must warn you now, Lady Ann. I'm not certain that you'll be able to find anything as riveting as you."

"See, you say that, but I do still have at least one more idea left. And this one just so happens to be my favorite. It'll take me a couple of days to set up, though."

"Very well." Either way, he already knows he won't be disappointed. After all, it will mean the chance to spend more time with Lady Ann. 

 

&

 

On most days of her working at the palace, Makoto feels rather like she's in charge of a zoo. 

It makes sense, unfortunately. She's here to manage the zoo, after all. On some days… that means not asking too many questions.

Like today, Makoto looking around the majority of the palace before finally finding Kurusu in the kitchen, trying hard to use the coffee maker and failing miserably. Judging by the generous amount of coffee-like substance now covering his front, it appears that this is not his first attempt. 

"I was wondering where you were… although I wasn't expecting to find you here."

Kurusu blinks, surprised to no longer be alone in the room. 

"I'm practicing."

Makoto can't help but chuckle. "I can see that. Although you don't appear to be having a great deal of success."

"I'll keep trying," he tells her with a naively hopeful nod as Makoto throws a glance at her wristwatch with a sigh. 

"No, no… don't do that, you'll waste the beans that way. I'll teach you how to do it properly, all right? Just promise me that you'll clean up after yourself when we finish up here?"

Kurusu nods again, Makoto opening a cabinet to gesture at a wide variety of beans available to them.

"We don't use the top shelf. Not only because we can't reach it, but because those are the king's select few he'll tolerate when he's being subjected to a cup of coffee with a foreign head of state."

"What about Prince Akechi?" 

She's been expecting that question in particular. And though she was getting there, it's nice to know that her hunches have been on the right track, at least. "Over the winter, he prefers Colombian coffee beans. In the summer, when he requests more cold brew coffee, he tends to switch to Hawaiian beans. Though in both cases, he tends to prefer a lighter roast." Makoto smiles in a way that she can only hope to be disarming. "Are you hoping to make coffee for the prince?"

Kurusu nods. 

"You're actually in luck," she continues, her smile slowly widening. "The crown prince's favorite is made with the French press, which is far easier to use than some other coffee makers." Grabbing the beans, press, and a kettle to set onto the stove, she nods. "You'll want to make sure that the beans are fresh, that your equipment is clean, and that you don't over-brew. Oh—and that you use the right amount. Too much, and it'll be too bitter; too little, and it'll just end up tasting watered down. You'll want to use a coarse grind—nothing pre-ground, so you'll need to grind them fresh. You can just use the machine here. It's pretty idiot-proof, thankfully." 

Walking Kurusu through using the grinder isn't too bad, which thankfully lends credence to her words. It is idiot-proof, which is a good thing if he's going to be making a habit of this. She can only hope that the prince is actually hoping for a cup of coffee right around now.  

"Just four tablespoons... right, just like that." Grabbing the kettle to hand to him, she gestures for him to go ahead, to practice by doing. "The water should be hot, but not boiling. Pour it on over and then put the lid on—but don't lower the plunger yet. It'll need to steep for around four minutes, as the prince tends to prefer a strong cup. Once the four minutes are up, you can slowly and carefully lower the plunger and serve the coffee. Think you've got it?"

"I think so." 

It's not as certain as she might have hoped, but it's good enough, and, for that matter, she has the feeling that the prince wouldn't even particularly care if Kurusu served him a bad cup. 

"You'll get better with practice, of course. Though, if you want an expert to teach you, I would recommend asking Sakura-san for assistance. He's particularly good with coffee."

Kurusu nods, as though this isn't news to him. Well, then.

"I was personally very surprised when he was the one to teach me in the first place. But the prince does enjoy his coffee far more than he enjoys his tea."

If Kurusu was going to clarify how he came about the knowledge of Sakura's abilities in making good coffee, he never gets the chance. Instead, Sakamoto steps inside, his eyes widening at the sight of them huddled together over the coffee machine.

"I was just comin' to get a bite to eat and woah, did not expect to be interruptin' anything! Come on, you can tell me!" He sidles up to Kurusu with several nudges of his elbow, though the latter seems thoroughly unfazed. 

"Lunch is in less than—" She sighs, shaking her head. "I was only teaching Kurusu-kun to make coffee. Please don't get the wrong idea."

"And spillin' it, eh?" Sakamoto grins. "Only way to make it, bro."

"He had a lot of failed attempts before a more capable instructor stepped in." She sighs again. His apron more than tells that particular story for her, though Makoto has no interest in being associated with said failures. "Incidentally, I think you're ready to serve now."

Kurusu's hands are steady as he pours the coffee out into a small cup, Makoto offering him an encouraging nod. "That's perfect. Are you going to bring it to the prince now?"

"Ohhhhhh, man, this is all for that jerk?"

"With all due respect to the newcomer, I would not be making use of my extremely limited free time in order to teach him to make coffee for himself." Makoto clears her throat. "Moreover, we are in his employ and should not be making a habit of insulting—"

Sakamoto continues as though he didn't hear so much as a single word she said. "Here, serve me a cup."

Makoto blinks. "I really cannot stress enough how terrible an idea that would be. The prince takes his coffee far stronger than most people I know that regularly consume coffee. You are not one of those people. Isn't your drink of choice to go with dinner lemonade?"

"Yeah, so what? I can handle anything that stuck-up prince dude can!"

Makoto pinches the bridge of her nose. "Sakamoto-kun…"

Kurusu, meanwhile, slides him the cup and saucer, a dare seeming to linger behind his eyes. 

"I—okay, all right, your funeral; just don't blame me when this goes awry and you run into another priceless antique and end up on cleaning duty for the next month."

"Like hell I will!" Sakamoto exclaims, drinking it down in a single gulp as though it's a shot of vodka. Good grief. "Oh, hell no, that's way too hot! This shit tastes like bitter dirt! What the hell?! That dude drinks this every day?!"

"It is traditionally served with milk and sugar," Makoto comments, staring in what she hopes to be self-evident disapproval at Sakamoto.

Kurusu grabs another two cups to pour, sliding one of them over to Makoto. 

"Oh, thank you," Makoto tells him, blinking as she adds a bit of cream and sugar to stir in before lifting the cup to take a small sip. "So you're... not serving this batch to the prince, then?"

"No," Kurusu says, shaking his head as he takes a moment to inhale the aroma. For his part, Sakamoto is still sticking his tongue out in disgust before finally conceding defeat and heading to the fridge for something with which to wash the taste down. "No. I want to get better first."

Makoto laughs, shaking her head. "I'm sure he'll appreciate the gesture regardless of quality, if it's coming from you."

That seems to hit the nail on the head as Kurusu colors, Ryuji returning from a still-open fridge, orange juice container in hand. 

"Wait, so—you're like, actually interested in that dude?"

Makoto resists the urge to close the fridge door for him and instead clears her throat. "Sakamoto-kun. Close the fridge. And don'ttell me you're going to drink straight out of the carton like some kind of animal." 

"Uhhhhh, yeah, of course not. I was... totes gonna get a glass..." 

The fact that he struggles to even find one is answer enough. 

"I really like him," Kurusu says, shrugging as he returns them to their other conversation. "We're friends."

Reaching behind her, Makoto grabs a glass to hand to a still-struggling Sakamoto. Whether he's struggling to locate proper drinkware or it's to do with the fact that his friend is romantically interested in 'that jerk, the prince,' she can't be sure, but at least one of his problems is solved for the time being. 

"Dude. Dude. Dude. You realize there'd be a dick involved that isn't yours, right???" 

She wishes she hadn't been taking a sip of coffee just then. A coughing fit ensues, aided only somewhat by Kurusu's well-meaning pats on her back. The comment about their being friends seems to have been lost to Sakamoto in its entirety, though Kurusu takes it in stride regardless. 

"So?"

"Woah, dude." 

"It's good," Kurusu tells her, nodding after taking a sip of the coffee, Makoto letting out one last cough as she nods. 

"Of course it's good. The prince has good taste. Just don't go wasting his favorite beans on cups for the staff too often, all right?"

"I won't."

"All right, man," Sakamoto continues, shrugging. "I don't get it, but, like, if that's... what you want..."

"If there's anything you ever need to talk about," Makoto cuts in, "you can talk to me, all right?"

She has the feeling it's something he needs to hear. He's been somewhat secluded out there in the stable, and even if he has befriended Sakamoto, he's not exactly the best companion for all types of conversations. Kurusu nods again, finishing up his coffee before grabbing the press and the other cups to wash.

"Well, good. I ought to be getting back to work, unfortunately," Makoto says. "All of us should be, actually."

"Uhhhhh, guys, am I supposed to feel like my heart is going to burst out of my chest? It's like I'm fast, but faster."

She knew caffeinated Sakamoto was a bad idea, Makoto letting out a long-suffering sigh. "It's the caffeine, Sakamoto-kun. You'll be fine. You might have some trouble getting to sleep tonight, but you're not going to die. Just... try not to run into anything expensive this time?" 

She's about to leave when her imminent departure reminds her of something else. Right. "Oh, but—I almost forgot. I actually have your bonus right here." 

Detaching the envelope from her clipboard to hand over to Kurusu finds her met with a puzzled stare. 

"I don't... get paid." 

She's noticed that. He's certainly not part of employee-based expenses. Then again, it's good not to ask too many questions of the king. 

"Don't ask me. I was just told to give this to you. And it doeshave your name on it." 

Kurusu takes it, though the confusion doesn't dissipate.

"Why don't you ask the prince when you next see him? I'm sure he'd be able to clear up the mystery."

"Thanks," he says. "I will." 

She can only hope he knows what he's getting himself into. 

 

&

 

"The… kitchen?" Yusuke blinks. Of all the places in the castle, he would not have considered this to ever be Ann's intended destination. 

"You said it yourself—I eat what I want and don't care what anyone thinks. One of the many reasons for that is because I love food!"

"Am I to assume that you consider there to be a certain… beauty in food, then?"

"Nothing more beautiful in the world!"

She dismisses the chef who hurries forward to see to whatever it is she needs—all the while never sparing Yusuke a single glance, of course. It's possible he believes Yusuke's in her company by sheer mistake, which doesn't surprise him. Ann exudes all the grace of royalty that Yusuke, as a simple artist, could never.

"I talked to some of the bakers this morning," Ann explains. "They said they'd have some stuff ready for me by this afternoon." 

With the chef's go-ahead, Ann opens the fridge and pulls out several trays absolutely filled to the brim with delicious desserts. There are slices of layered cake, delicate petit fours, well-risen souffle cups, and eclairs drizzled with chocolate. "Isn't this amazing?" Ann says in awe. "Dig in!"

Yusuke forgets to eat on the best of days, so this truly is a treat in more ways than one. They take a seat at one of the tables and are immediately handed plates emblazoned with the royal crest, a far cry from the scratched porcelain Yusuke usually has his dinner on. He grabs a petit four, cut to precise proportions and topped with a decorative caramel nest, and takes a bite. Not only is the beauty of the painstakingly orchestrated composition of each and every dessert a visual treat, the taste is as exquisite as the preview that the scent allows. 

"Here, Yusuke—" she starts, sliding a piece of half-eaten cake toward him. "This one's my favorite! You've got to try it!"

"Ah," he blinks. He hadn't expected her to share her favorite with him. He's not quite certain why that surprises him so—or why it strikes him as so delightfully flattering. "I appreciate the generosity, thank you."

"It's just common courtesy," she says through a mouth half-full of food. "Besides, you didn't think I was eating all this by myself, did you?"

What a magnificent creature she is, truly. How elegant in function. How brilliantly bold in execution. Yusuke sinks his fork into the side of the cake, watching how it slices into the moist sponge. He can imagine painting such an exquisite culinary masterpiece, how his paintbrush would complement the swirls of buttercream, but it still wouldn't compare to Ann as his subject. A still life could never fascinate Yusuke next to her animated smiles, her dancing eyes, her beautiful complexion.

"In that case, perhaps I will have to return the favor and share one of my favorites with you?" Yusuke offers. "If it is common courtesy, as you say."

Win or loss, he doesn't want the challenge to come to an end—not yet. It seems to him frightfully soon.

"Oh, you don't have to do that!" she laughs, shaking her head. "Besides, I'll have you know that I've had time to come up with more ideas!"

Thank goodness

Anxiety rolls off him like water off a carapace. How peculiar. Has he truly gotten so attached to his time with Lady Ann? Then again—it's been much longer than just the last few days; it's been years, years of watching from a distance, of yearning to be part of her colorful world and transfer that world to his canvas.

Ann points her fork at her plate. A smidgen of cream has ended up next to her mouth, unnoticed by her. Yusuke's fingers twitch, desperate for a brush to bring the scene to life. "Since I assume this one failed, too?" she asks.

"Ah—yes? It is certainly artfully presented, but… it is the company that struck me as particularly exquisite."

"It's fine," she says, shaking her head. She certainly seems to be smiling more than he's used to seeing. "I guess this was pretty self-indulgent of me, anyway."

"Not at all. I very much enjoyed myself."

"Oh." She sounds more surprised than he expected. Did she think, he wonders, that he hasn't been enjoying these little treasure hunts of theirs?

They eat in silence for a few moments, interrupted only by Ann's praises to the chef in between bites. Yusuke tries a bit of everything, not just because he skipped lunch, but because he's awfully curious as to how Ann's favorite desserts taste, which flavors entice her the most. It's the sort of information he's never learned about anyone before, but he can already imagine finding ways to incorporate this into a portrait of her. Perhaps the backdrop will be the same sultry brown as the chocolate souffles...

"Where to next?" he asks once he's finished.

"Oh, right—there's this room with all these antiques, like, stuffed to the brim, you know? I thought we'd go there next… buuut, I kind of feel overstuffed myself, so maybe we can save that for next time."

"Certainly." Pushing his plate aside, he nods. "Exceptional fare as always. I daresay the only thing that would make this better would be if it had been prepared by you, Lady Ann." 

She laughs, half-horrified, even as the grin remains on her features. "Oh, no, you definitely do not want me to make anything for you. I'm an awful chef."

"I'm sure you're not nearly as bad as you think."

"Um, anyway!" she laughs, more high-pitched than usual. "Want to finish things off with a cup of tea?"

Yusuke nods. If Ann is blushing, he doesn't notice. He leans forward in his chair, thinking. "Also, what would you say to some porridge?"

 

&

 

Goro's shoes nearly slip out from underneath him as he fights to keep his balance on icy walkways. The paths around the castle are never so slippery, but then again, this isn't the meticulously cleaned castle, but the town, and not necessarily the best part of town either.

Goro scratches another name off his list before stuffing it back into his coat pocket. That'll be the fifth bar so far, with no luck yet. His investigation is starting to feel more and more like a fool's errand, and the longer he goes without finding any information, the more pursuing this feels like a bad idea. It hasn't escaped him that he would hardly consider doing this for any other employee with a mysterious past, but then again, Akira is the exception to so many things when it comes to Goro.

He readjusts his sunglasses and his low-slung hat before entering the next bar—a pub of low standards straddling the border of the bad part of the area. The sixth bar on the list. He can't imagine Akira working in a place like this, but he refuses to delude himself into thinking that he knows Akira all that well in the first place.

Goro reaches for the door handle, flaking with old paint. The interior isn't any better maintained: the dim lampshades are home to insect carcasses, the odor of cigarette smoke fogs the air, and the barkeep behind the counter is fiddling with chipped beer taps.

Goro feels his lip curl. Even if he weren't a prince, he has a strong feeling that he wouldn't spend his time in places like these. Likewise, he doubts Shido would.

"Hello there," Goro says, approaching the counter, all the while being very conscious not to physically touch anything. "I have a few questions, if you'd be so kind as to answer them."

The bartender grunts. "What kinda questions?"

"I'm interested to know if a young man by the name of Akira Kurusu has ever worked here."

Another grunt, this one more disinterested than before. "Never heard of 'im."

Goro's shoulders slump. That's the other thing about prowling around town playing detective without palace authority to back him up: people are much more inclined to lie. Separating the fibs from regular old apathy isn't always as easy as it seems, either.

"Right. Well, thank you anyway."

He takes his leave. Seventh is the charm, perhaps? Or, alternatively, a different reality is grimly making itself known to Goro: that Shido may've sent Goro on a wild goose chase when he mentioned finding Akira in a bar in the first place. He loathes to think that might be the truth, but it does align neatly with Shido's tricks.

Goro grabs his list once more, scribbling off yet another candidate. The next one, however, catches his attention.

Crossroads. The name is familiar. Goro taps the back of his pen against his chin until it comes to him—it was the bar, the one with the pink sign, that Akira mentioned while they were walking through town together. Something about their gay nights not being Goro's thing, as if the life of a prince could ever afford to allow such insalubrious adventures.

Akira might have known about them because he was a patron of the place. Or, possibly, an employee.

Goro hastens. The wind is harsh today, and the sky redolent of incoming snow. He tugs the ridiculous knitted hat—a beanie scavenged from the lost and found area of the employee quarters—further over his cold ears. He still remembers the path he took with Akira, where they left the car behind, where they found the Christmas market. If he just retraces his steps—

The hot pink Crossroads sign comes into view quickly once he rounds the corner. Luckily, it seems to be late enough into the afternoon for it to be open, so Goro grabs the situation by the horns and hurries inside.

The first thing he notices is how the pink has bled inside as well—the walls, the plush stools, the neon signs, all aglow from the pink lamps overhead—and bonded with purple along the way. Soft piano music plays, muted, from nearby as a full-figured woman shakes tumblers from behind the counter. The woman—who appears to be a man in drag wearing a shockingly purple wig—notices Goro almost immediately.

"A new face, huh?" she says, setting down the tumbler. She gestures to the vacant stools in front of the bar. "Come in. Sit down."

Goro does. He takes in the eclectic scenery, different from the other bars he's visited today, much more flamboyant in color, and tries to imagine Akira here, in the same floral kimono worn by the woman behind the bar, mixing drinks. The image brands itself onto Goro's brain.

"You're not underage, are you?" the bartender asks. She has a raspy voice, that of a smoker. "There'll be no alcohol for you if you are."

The intact ethics of the place at least gives Goro some comfort. He shakes his head, the bartender appraising him critically as she reaches for a cigarette. The bar is exceedingly dark when viewed from behind his sunglasses, but he's determined to stick to his disguise.

"I'm not here to drink. I have a few questions, actually."

"Reporter?"

"No. Just a... curious Samaritan."

The woman hums. It's clear from her narrowed eyes that she doesn't quite believe Goro, but instead of questioning him, she grabs a lighter tucked into the shelf of liquor bottles behind her and flicks it to life in front of her cigarette. A graceful plume of smoke floats from her parted lips into the pink spotlights shining downward.

"Call me Lala." She takes another slow drag from her cigarette. "Lala Escargot."

"And that's... your real name?"

Lala raises one elegantly plucked eyebrow. "Who wants to know?"

Goro sidesteps to the best of his ability. "I'm terribly sorry, but for certain reasons I regrettably can't disclose, I'd rather remain anonymous for the time being." When Lala doesn't press further, Goro takes the opportunity to keep going. "I was wondering if you know a man by the name of Akira Kurusu."

Goro's obviously pressed a button. Lala's expression darkens, and she fixes Goro with a condemning stare that very nearly quivers through him. Goro feels alarmingly like a hunter caught by the mother of the bear cubs he has in hand.

"If this is some sort of threat," she warns, voice low, "I won't take kindly to it. That boy has sacrificed enough."

How to react escapes Goro for a moment. The carefully contained anger searing in Lala's eyes—like a gun with the safety still on but the danger still very much felt—is a surprise. "Oh. Uh. Nothing of the sort," he says. "I just want to figure out what happened to him."

Lala's unyielding gaze has yet to defrost.

"But you do know him?" Goro asks, tentative. "I know he had a run-in with the king here."

"I do," she finally says. The grip her fingers have on her cigarette has gone tight, denting the filter between her knuckles. "And he did. Did the king send you?"

Goro shakes his head. "I wasn't sent by anyone."

"Listen, child," Lala says, and while her voice has softened, it's still unerringly stern. "If you're not involved with all this, don't make the mistake of getting involved. Those people don't play nice."

Goro's throat closes. He knows the stories, but they were always something in his periphery, something that he knew of the same way people know that somewhere, at some time, there's a natural disaster probably killing people, but not affecting him. All that was Shido, and Goro wasn't the one driving that particular train—he wasn't even on the train.

Until now, it seems.

"What exactly happened? There are..." Goro gropes for words. "...rumors. Stories going around. Did Akira work here?"

"He did," Lala divulges in between puffs, taking the time to waft the smoke away from Goro. "Helped around the bar, talked a lot to the customers. We get a lot of troubled folks around here looking for an open ear."

She looks at Goro, imploring, searching, as if trying to figure out if he's one of those troubled folks. Goro looks away. He's not sure if his sunglasses are tinted enough to do him the favor of hiding any of his personal turmoil.

"He has a way with people, you see," Lala continues in that same husky voice. "He's very approachable."

Oh, Goro's well acquainted with that fact. "Did the king agree?" he asks.

Lala sighs, the sound of it tired, only undercurrents of anger remaining. Goro knows you can only feed off of rage so long before exhaustion kicks in if your opponent keeps knocking you down. Shido is especially good at the knocking down.

"He came in. Nobody recognized him at first, not in the clothes he was wearing." Without missing a beat, Lala replaces her burnt out cigarette with a new one, lighting it up. Goro is starting to get the idea that this might be a two-cigarette kind of story. "He sat in a booth in the back. Drank like a sailor."

Goro feels the disgust well up in him, vomitous, the blood beginning to pound in his head. He can feel where this story is headed.

"And then?"

"I take it you can fill in some of the gaps," Lala says. "Drunks are annoying if they're harmless, but a whole different story if they're aggressive. He grabbed a few of the female customers the wrong way, and Akira stepped up, pulled him away. It wasn't until the guy was on the ground complaining that anybody realized who he was."

She shakes her head. The soft atmosphere of the club, the gentle piano—all of it suddenly feels in stark contrast to Goro's reeling mind, a monsoon of emotion rolling through his ribcage. He's torn between wanting to demand every detail and never hearing more of this story ever again. Most children are disillusioned about their fathers when they grow up, but this, this—Goro is disappointed with himself for even being shocked.

"And then..." Goro says, struggling to put words out at an acceptable volume. "The king threatened litigious repercussions against your business if Akira didn't find a way to make it up to him."

"Haven't seen the poor kid since," Lala admits. She glances toward the door, almost nostalgically. "If you have, tell him he never should've ruined his life for me." Fury clouds over her dark eyes for a moment. "How that man can sit on a throne with a clear conscience is a real mystery. Hey, you all right, honey?"

No. Yes. Underneath the cover of the counter, Goro curls his fingers into fists. He knows what answer he should be giving, what Lala will want to hear, but he can't get himself to open his mouth without running the risk of unleashing his senseless temper.

A family trait, maybe. Goro's skin crawls.

"I'm quite fine," Goro lies; he feels like sticking his fist through that flashing neon welcome sign right about now. "And the woman he assaulted, I suppose...?"

"Kid, he covered his tracks. Made sure none of us were saying anything, or else. Like I said, you don't want to go messing with these people." Lala looks at him again. Something about her gaze feels unnervingly like an X-ray, reading his mood and his secrets. "You sure you're not already involved in all this?"

She has no idea. Goro closes his eyes, taking in a carefully slow breath through his nose. He hears himself speaking in a voice that's peculiarly calm.

"No need to worry," he says, reaching for that part of himself that has long since learned to compartmentalize flares of anger. The haze of it still smears over his vision for a few moments after he's tucked it away. "I'm not in any danger myself."

He gets to his feet. If he stays any longer, he may reveal more than he means to, and it's best to keep this little excursion as anonymous as he can. He's already pushing the envelope as it is considering his hardcore admirers have recognized him in disguise before—his voice, he's been told before, tends to give him away—and the last thing he needs is a money-thirsty bartender leaking a story to the press about the prince slinking around shady clubs in his copious free time. Not that Lala seems like the type to go sniffing around for journalists to spill beans to, but Goro can't be reckless enough to rely on intuition alone here.

"I really must be going," he says. "I appreciate you sharing that story with me. I imagine it isn't something you like reliving."

He suddenly feels ashamed for not ordering something, especially after that story. The bar may very well be strapped for cash.

"As long as you don't go hollering it to the king, you're welcome," Lala says. She points him down with one austere finger. "Don't go doing anything that'll get you in trouble. And pass the message along to Akira."

She reaches for her third cigarette in a row. And Goro thought Sakura-san's smoking habits were bad.

"If I see him, I will," he says. He owes the woman that much. "Thank you for your time."

Lala calls after him as he leaves. "Be safe out there, kid."

Outside, the fresh windy air is almost a shock compared to all the smoke from indoors. Goro pitches his head low as he walks to avoid any accidental sightings; he's really not in the mood to play Prince Charming right now. He's still having trouble processing this newly obtained information, and on top of that, he's mad at himself for having trouble in the first place. He knew going in that Shido's side of the story would be wildly inflammatory at best, after all.

Still, to this extent... to hold a woman's business and her livelihood hostage, only to make an innocent man pay the price... to say nothing of what prompted all this in the first place: assaulting someone after one too many drinks and refusing to take responsibility. And now, somehow, others are the ones facing the consequences, some of which are as dire as being forced to bunk in a horse barn, surrounded by hay.

A horrible thought shakes him: is Akira only being nice to him as part of some long-game revenge plot? Goro can't completely write it off. No one's ever bothered to extend such kindness to him before beyond the basic courtesy shown by the staff, and after what he's just heard, he can't help but be suspicious. It's certainly how Goro's brain functions.

Still, it might not be fair to assume Akira's functions the same way.

Goro's head hurts. Would Akira want to talk about this if Goro tells  him he already knows? He's never been particularly forthcoming about the subject, but perhaps it's the confessing itself that was the hardest. Maybe there's shame at the heart of the silence, or embarrassment, or an urge to keep Goro from getting involved, but now that he knows, Akira might just be willing to speak about all this, offer his own perspective of the situation.

It's when to bring it up and ask that's the difficult part, really. And when to weigh the pros and cons about if bringing it up is even a smart decision.

 

&



"So? Where is this mysterious room of knick-knacks?" 

Ann laughs. "Don't let my parents hear you call it that! This used to be my mom's favorite room when she stayed here, you know. She used to hide away in there to get out of her etiquette lessons. There's tons of gorgeous—oh—"

They turn a corner just in time to catch sight of a somewhat older man, tall with a rather athletic build. Yusuke doesn't recognize him— but then, Yusuke recognizes very few people around the castle. He's usually focused on far more important things, after all.

The man comes to a stop in front of Ann, leering. "You're looking as good as ever, Ann. Any chance I'll get to exercise with you when I'm done with the king?"

Just Ann, then? How very peculiar.

Ann's stiff body language sends a clear gauge of her comfort levels with this man. "Oh, ummm..."

Yusuke resists the urge to step in front of her, straightening with a frown. "I believe Lady Ann will be occupied today."

The man turns to appraise him. He scoffs, obviously not impressed. "What, with you? Don't make me laugh."

"Is there a problem with that?"

"Uhhhhh," Ann interrupts, evidently eager to prevent this from turning into something more dire. "This is Yusuke Kitagawa, Kamoshida-kun. He's the palace's artist. I unfortunately already have a session booked with him."

"That right?" The man named Kamoshida doesn't look like he believes a single word out of Ann's mouth. And with Ann swaying back and forth almost nervously, Yusuke is certain of one thing, if nothing else. 

He does not like this man. 

"It is," he says, offering a perfunctory nod. "We do need to be off. We have yet to choose a location for her portrait this year, and I suspect it will take some time depending on whether or not the lighting is kind to us."

"Another time, then?" Disdain seems to drip from Kamoshida's voice as Ann gives a shrill, somewhat anxious laugh. 

"Oh, for sure!" She nods, Yusuke left to frown as the man finally departs for his... exercise session with the king. 

A shaky exhale leaves her by the time they step out of the hall and into the sitting room, Ann shaking her head as if in order to restore her smile. "Sorry about that! I guess now we have no choice but to actually follow through on that portrait session, huh?"

"It is not a problem. More importantly, I do not like that man."

"What, Kamoshida? Yeah, he's kinda slimy, I guess, but the king likes him, so..." 

"Your hands are tied." Yusuke understands. He doesn't much like it, but he does understand. 

"Yeah." She sighs, moving to sit on the edge of a rather expensive-looking, plush settee. "I mean, kinda. Obviously I rank quite a bit higher than him, being a Duchess, and all, but it definitely would upset the king, and I don't really want to deal with that. He'd probably take it out on the staff. Or Goro."

"Goro?"

"Oh, right—sorry. The prince, I mean. Anyway—I just… think it would probably be bad if I stopped playing along."

"You shouldn't have to feel the need to play along in the first place."

Ann laughs, though there's no humor in the sound as she shakes her head. "I wish it were that simple. I kind of… wish he'd just forget about me. It would be easier, you know. But it's like I end up running into him at least once every time I come here, and it's always..."

Yusuke's mind takes the thought and finds himself unable to keep from staring down a particularly dark path. Is he…

"What has he done to you?" he says, his voice likely several octaves lower by now than normal.

"Oh!" she exhales her surprise, eyes wide as she stares at him. "N-nothing like that! I mean—I wouldn't put it past him, but—he hasn't—that is, Goro's usually intervened before—" 

She falters, not that he can blame her, Ann pressing her lips together. "He... grabbed me once. But it was just my arm, and I know I shouldn't assume—"

"No," Yusuke hears himself say, his voice dark and deep as he reaches for Ann's hand. "You have every right to feel uncomfortable around him. Such despicable human beings barely even have a right to exist, let alone be granted an audience with someone of your grace and beauty."

"Kitagawa-kun..." Her surprise settles on her features in the form of a smile, a soft laugh bubbling out of her throat that makes him feel a bit like he's watching a sunrise, only… brighter, somehow, more vibrant. "It'd probably work even better if I told him you were my boyfriend. Although… thaaaat might get you fired."

"It would be worth it if it put an end to your torment, Lady Ann." 

"Hey," she starts, her voice soft as he faintly realizes that he's still holding her hand, her thumb slowly playing at his forefinger. "Can I call you Yusuke?"

"...of course you can."

"But then you have to promise to stop addressing me as Lady, okay?"

"I… all right. I will do my best… Ann-sama."

"That's no better! Just—Ann! If you absolutely need to add an honorific, make it chan!" 

She's blushing now, a chuckle slipping free from his throat. "Ann-chan? I couldn't possibly call you that in public."

"Wha—no! Only when it's just us, silly!" The blush is downright furious now as she finally lets go of his hand and moves to stand. "Aaaanyways..."

"Yes, I do suppose we ought to find a location for your portrait session now. Shall we?"

She nods, and Yusuke can't remember the last time his heart felt so buoyant. 

 

&



"Some of these really need replacing," Akira murmurs, frowning at a splintering slat of wood in the stable wall.

Sojiro huffs. "Trust me, kid. I've mentioned it. The stables aren't exactly priority, not when the horses aren't in danger." He heads over to where Akira is standing over a piece of wood, bent horrendously out of shape. He flicks at it with his thumb.

"What do you think?" Akira asks.

Sojiro's brows push inward. "It's not big enough to be fixed soon. Purely cosmetic. If it was a Christmas ornament in the castle that needed spit-shining, that might be a different story."

Akira is starting to get the hang of how things work around here. Except for that bonus—that seems to be a complete anomaly in how Shido runs his business of a Kingdom.

Although he hardly thinks Shido was the only one responsible for that.

"It'll get fixed eventually," Sojiro says as he pulls his coat on. He pauses, glancing up at Akira's living quarters. "Tell me if you need a bucket for the hayloft on rainy days."

He smirks, and despite the fact that it's meant to be a joke, Akira imagines it'd be the king's daydream to have Akira stuck under a leaky roof night after night. Morgana would probably stop spending the night with him if it got too moist up there. As weird as the cat is, its presence is nice, comforting after a long day sorting through horse food pellets.

Sojiro leaves for the night a few minutes later. He says his goodnights to the horses first, in a voice low enough that he intends for Akira not to hear, but Akira hears anyway. He's not nearly as gruff and grumpy as Akira first expected him to be. As a matter of fact, none of this is actually as bad as he expected. After that night in the bar, and the morning after when two men in dark suits came to collect him, no questions answered, he had feared the worst—cleaning chains in dungeons, perhaps. And, at least in spirit, it's most likely what Shido intended. Isolation, exhaustion, suffering.

He clearly didn't anticipate Akira making friends, especially not with the prince. The prince, who is surprisingly well-intentioned, and reserved, and looks at Akira like no one's ever bothered to offer him friendship before.

Friendship. Right. Akira huffs.

It's almost hard to believe the tree that Goro fell from, but then again, isn't he adopted? Akira was never big into royal gossip tabloids, but he does vaguely recall learning about the story: the tragedy of the queen dying in childbirth, and her newlywed husband claiming the throne in her stead. The child, though, was reportedly the subject of an affair, and the king took him in out of a deep commitment to selflessness, or—more likely—a deep commitment to appearing to be deeply committed to selflessness. Akira closes his eyes, trying to remember. That kid was Goro, wasn't it?

Asking him would no doubt be seriously crass, if not a major misstep. He ought to remember his place. No matter how many Christmas markets he takes Goro to, or how many coffees he makes for him, he's still a stableboy. Even in his old life, he was little more than a bartender. Hardly a viable dating specimen for the likes of a prince, especially a prince as highly sought after as Goro. Those screeching fangirls they just barely escaped at the museum are burned into his memory.

He crawls into his bed, his own thoughts wearing him out, particularly the ones where he tries to figure out exactly how many esteemed duchesses and countesses and empresses are in line right now to marry Prince Akechi. Best not to think about it too much.

Up in the hayloft, the weathered wood is no better. A beam right over his head is coming loose. Akira reaches for it, picking at it, tilting it like one might a tooth about to fall out. Behind it is more paneling, but there's also—

Akira sits up, squinting. Something gleams behind the piece of wood he's nudged aside, something small and metallic, glinting off the lamplight, tiny as a button. What is that?

A gentle knock on the stable door halts his investigation. Akira climbs down from the loft, hoping it isn't Sojiro back to collect forgotten cigarettes. Then again, it's not like Sojiro would ever bother knocking.

He slides the stable door open. On the other side stands Goro, smiling.

"Hi," he says.

"We've got to stop meeting like this," Akira teases.

He's rewarded with a small chuckle. "Don't worry. I don't have a curfew I have to uphold."

"Really?"

"Well, my schedule certainly suggests a bedtime, but I'm a grown man." Goro leans in just a fraction as he starts to pull off his gloves. A longer visit, then. Something in Akira's chest starts nervously tap-dancing. "And besides, the king doesn't know I'm here."

Akira tries not to look into that, that Goro's breaking rules to see him. All this is starting to feel very Shakespearean romance, which is either exceedingly good, or horrifically bad, depending on the ending. Akira shuts the stable door again, though it's not only to keep the warm air in.

"A bit late for a ride," he observes.

"Oh, I'm not here for a ride," Goro says. "I came to see you, actually."

Goro's eyes are traveling, however, around the stable, specifically on the hayloft and the makeshift bed Akira's prepared himself there. Goro doesn't look all that well, actually. A little rougher around the edges, like he didn't sleep too well last night. Work for the Christmas ball, maybe, or... something else?

"So this is really where you sleep," Goro says, settling a hand on the hayloft ladder, the wood already smoothing out on the rungs from Akira's frequent use. "May I?"

"Sure."

Goro climbs up until he's sitting on the edge, where the sheets don't fully cover all of the hay. He's looking around like a child in an abandoned candy factory, eyes empty, disappointed. Akira follows some blind instinct and climbs up as well, sitting down near him.

"You all right?" he asks.

Goro looks at him like he's nearly forgotten Akira is there too. "Oh. Yes. My apologies." He gently lays his hand down on the edge of Akira's sheet, fiddling with it. "Doesn't feel very substantial."

Is this some sort of room check? Like summer camp? Akira scratches the back of his head. "It keeps me warm enough. The stable's heated, after all."

Goro hardly seems to be listening, even if he is nodding along. The longer he sits here, the more his entire disposition seems to droop. There's obviously something upsetting him, but whether it's the state of the barn or something else entirely, Akira isn't going to dare to ask. He's never quite seen Goro in a funk like this before, although even that feels like a privilege he shouldn't be taking for granted considering that Goro usually walks around with his dazzling prince persona like he's legally barred from dropping it.

Finally, Goro says, "It's not... very festive, is it?"

"The stable?"

Goro gestures at the room at large. "All of it. Your space, especially. No lights. No garlands."

"Well, the horses don't really celebrate."

Goro doesn't laugh. His muted dismay is morphing into something else: determination. "We should fix it," he says. "A tree. We'll put a tree up."

"A tree? Here?"

Akira peers around the tiny hayloft space. It hardly lets him fit, let alone holiday decorations to boot. Besides, Akira has the feeling that if so much as a single ornament vanished from the palace only to be found in Akira's living space, he'll be branded a dirty thief. He opens his mouth to bring this up, but Goro's already reaching for the ladder again, heading for the floor.

"I have the perfect place in mind," Goro says, waving Akira down as well. "Come with me."

 

&

 

The Christmas tree lot is completely deserted when they arrive, although that isn't too much of a surprise considering that they barely even caught the last of the palace chauffeurs before they retired for the evening. The only plus is that the late hour has allowed Goro to go without a disguise, no ski mask or clown nose in sight.

Between rows of plump trees—Balsam, Douglas, Grand—Akira makes out a cashier's stand in the distance, still manned by one employee currently closing up shop. Goro hurries between the aisles to reach him as if possessed by the spirit of Christmas. Akira, still bemused by this entire adventure, follows.

"Excuse me," Goro calls out just as the employee locks up the booth behind himself. "I'm here for a tree for the castle." He extends a hand, all professional bravado. Even Akira is impressed by his skills, how he can work anyone from a single person to an entire crowd so effortlessly. "You'll keep the lot open for a few minutes longer, won't you?"

The employee's eyes widen when he notices who it is who's flagged him down. He takes the proffered hand, shaking it. "I—I mean, of course, Your Highness," he says.

Goro shoots him a winning grin, one that could sell toothpaste. Akira prefers his more private smiles, but this one is certainly fulfilling its purpose: the employee unlocks the booth once again and turns the lights back on, illuminating the rows of trees, bathing each fir branch in yellow light.

"Do you need help finding a certain tree, Your Highness?" the man asks, with all the enthusiasm of a man looking to be knighted. "Any assistance with different types? Should I get the hot chocolate machine up and running for you two?"

"No, but thank you anyway," Goro says. He grabs the back of Akira's forearm. "I think we'll just browse for the time being."

Akira is still trying to process what exactly is going on: one minute he was tucked away in his bed, fiddling with old wood paneling, and the next, he's in a Christmas tree lot after hours so Goro can help liven up the horse barn. How on earth is he supposed to explain this to Sojiro tomorrow? Telling him a Christmas elf came and spruced up the place might be more believable than the truth. Then again, Sojiro has been giving him some very knowing looks lately when he mentions Goro, so maybe he would believe the truth.

"Goro," Akira murmurs once they're out of earshot from the overeager booth attendant. "I think all these might be a bit... big."

Goro shakes his head. "Of course they are," he says, like it's obvious. He laughs a little—a relief to hear, actually, after that grim mood in the hayloft—and guides Akira over to a corner all but tucked away, stuffed with a collection of lopsided, malnourished, nearly naked trees, most of them not growing over three feet in height. The unwanted bunch, the misshapen rejects.

Goro picks one up, giving it a little shake. A few needles fall into the snow, leaving a truly pitiful home behind: barely any branches, with barely any sylvan scent of fir to boast. It would easily fit in the hayloft, although Akira doubts it would accomplish the goal of bringing much Christmas spirit to the area.

"Picture it with a few decorations," Goro says. "Besides, I highly doubt anyone else will buy it if we don't. It's too... undesirable. As far as trees go."

Something in the air shifts. Akira searches Goro's face, feeling as if he's meant to pick up on something important here. It would be too impolite to ask, so Akira does the next best thing and grabs the tree out of Goro's hands. It's a truly pathetic tree, its only strength being how lightweight it is and how little of a mess it'll make. Sojiro won't like having to sweep needles up every night anyway.

"It's great," Akira says.

"Really?"

He nods. "A bigger one wouldn't fit anyway." Also, he's starting to get the troubling sense that this sad little tree is a metaphor for something. He'll try to unpack that later; for now, he just brings the tree over to the cash register.

The employee seems as confused as Akira as to Goro's choice of tree. "Your Highness," he says, with all the false certainty of a salesman. "There are lots of other trees—bigger trees—better trees—"

"This one will do just fine," Goro says firmly. "And I'll be sure to recommend your tree lot to the public next time I have a chance. Thank you very much for your overtime."

He hands over a few bills—overpaying, if someone would ask Akira, because that is surely a coins-only tree as far as worth goes—and Goro holds the tree carefully, like a trophy, the entire ride home.

 

&

 

Once they've arranged the tree in the corner of Akira's hayloft, only barely encroaching on his sleeping space, Goro wonders if he didn't go overboard with his insistence on a Tiny Tim of a tree. An unwanted tree. An orphan tree. There's a reason, after all, that the other trees get chosen. Their proud fullness, their evergreen color, their tall splendor.

He watches Akira fiddle with the edge of a branch, testing the sturdiness of the needles, and feels a heat bloom in his gut, warm and soothing, like a swig of alcohol. He'll need to dig through the storage closets tomorrow and find a few leftover ornaments. Or maybe he can assign the order to Niijima; she might appreciate something a bit outside of the humdrum of schedule delivering and housekeeping surveillance. 

"Already a bit better, isn't it?" Goro says. "Even if it is a small start."

A small smile takes hold of Akira's mouth. "Are you trying to interior decorate the stable?" he asks.

"Well." Goro pauses. Red heat grabs his face. He knows it's silly. A limbless tree in the corner of the hayloft won't make up for anything Shido's done, much less will it keep Akira here indefinitely, nor will any other ephemeral gestures. Akira has a home he most likely wants to go back to one day, and a job, and a life, and he's simply waiting out his sentence here until he can scram. The traitorous thought—the one that Akira's only shown him kindness as part of a giant machination—pokes Goro again. "I would feel better knowing you're comfortable."

"What makes you think I'm not?"

Goro's head flies up. "Akira-kun," he says, disbelieving. "You live in a barn. With horses. Everything here smells of manure."

He shrugs. "You get used to it."

Somehow, that's worse. "You don't deserve it," he spits, looking away. That same anger that seized him at Crossroads bubbles up again, like a boiling geyser. "Living in this filth—working in this hole. It's not right."

"I don't mind it so much," Akira admits. If he's put off by Goro's harsh words, he doesn't let it break through his composure. "It's all been better than I expected. I've made friends. There's even a cat here who likes to hang out with me."

Goro stares at the tree again, as if willing it to back him up. "I've noticed the friends," he murmurs.

"And there's you, too," Akira adds, making Goro wonder why he's been deliberately separating him out from his friends, if it's something he ought to be reading into. Akira reaches out, gingerly nudging Goro's side. "I got your bonus."

"Oh." Goro straightens up. "I don't intend to take it back, regardless of what you have to say about etiquette."

"Why'd you do it?"

He's not sure if he'd rather take the orphaned Christmas tree complex conversation over this one. Goro doesn't know how to phrase any of this without laying himself bare, revealing bits and pieces he'd rather keep locked away. Maybe Akira was right about the barn being heated, because right now, Goro's on fire, skin tingling.

"I know you don't receive a salary," Goro confesses. "I know—" Everything. Would that be indelicate to admit? He wants to say he understands, but imagines that wouldn't be all too mollifying, if Akira would even want to hear such a thing. "I know how Shido found you."

The hand Akira's been using to fiddle with the Christmas tree freezes. Time seems to suspend in Goro's confession, dragging out the consequences: if Akira's upset, or just shocked.

"You do," Akira says slowly. His tone of voice is unreadable.

"I went to Crossroads." Goro's hands twist together on his lap, squeezing the blood out of his fingers, suddenly uncertain as to whether it would be better, somehow, depending on how he found out. After all, he could have easily found out from his father, or palace records. But here he is, hearing himself just tell the truth. "I talked to... a very interesting woman who told me about you, and what happened the night you met Shido."

"You talked to Lala?" Akira says, now sounding slightly dumbfounded. "Is she all right?"

"Mostly just concerned about you." I am, too, Goro thinks desperately. It's why he did all this snooping around in the first place. He can only hope Akira recognizes that in all this rather than the creepiness, obsessiveness, and all-around weirdness that also went into this operation.

"How did you know how to find her?"

"I didn't." Telling Akira he traipsed all over town first before finding Crossroads sounds bad, even in the bubble of his own head. "I... Shido tipped me off without meaning to. Pointed me in the right direction."

"And she... told you everything?"

Goro nods. "Mind you, it took her a bit to warm up to me enough to think she could trust me with the information." He clears his throat, suddenly sheepish. The last thing he wants is for Akira to go on thinking that Lala is out there telling everyone and their mother about his story. "You stepped in when Shido was behaving inappropriately with a woman. He didn't appreciate it, and then you were punished for interfering. Am I right?"

Akira looks downward. Ashamed admission colors his silence, explaining it. The sight of his chagrin only sends Goro's own guilt at digging around uninvited in Akira's business skyrocketing. Sudden understanding grabs Goro—Akira's humiliated, and of course he's humiliated. He acted on his own justice and has been paying for it, shamed for it ever since. What he did probably doesn't feel very heroic, not anymore, not when it's landed him in indentured servitude with a sadistic king.

"I apologize for looking into all this like I did," Goro says. "I realize you didn't want me to, considering you never gave me much of a straight answer whenever I asked." Akira's face is tilted too far downward for him to get a proper look. It clenches Goro's stomach. "It's not quite that I meant to pry, I just—wanted to understand, I suppose."

A long pause stretches between them, long enough that Goro wonders if he ought to leave, let Akira process. But then Akira straightens up, and his face is free of bitterness. Actually, a shadow of relief might even be there.

"He threatened to shut down the bar. I couldn't let him do that. It wasn't right."

Goro refrains from pointing out that this—tying himself down to the kingdom as an unpaid laborer—isn't exactly right either, but, to be fair, Goro doesn't think rightness even has a place within Shido's reign. There is no perfect solution here, not as long as Shido sits on the throne and Goro's powerless underneath him.

Goro's hand furls together on his knee, looking for a place of calm. It's easy for him to get worked up these days. He never used to pay much attention to the plight of the employees—too wrapped up in his own hardships—but Akira's struggle bruises a deep part of himself that he feels with every swallow.

"It's okay that you looked into me," Akira says, somehow knowing it's what Goro needed to hear. "The whole story isn't my proudest moment, but it's better that you know."

Something warm touches Goro's shoulder, and it takes him a moment to realize it's Akira's hand, unsteady on his back, as if uncertain if he's allowed to touch. Goro turns to look at him, leaning into the soft palm.

"I'm glad to hear that," he says. He gives a hollow laugh. "It may not be worth much, but I believe you did the right thing, upholding your justice. And if you need assistance with anything—"

He stops talking, abruptly, when Akira's hand moves from his shoulder to his jaw, thumb swiping over Goro's chin. His gaze is drawn somewhere around the neighborhood of Goro's mouth, unwavering, and the intensity of the moment hits Goro suddenly, like a car crash. Akira looks wholly focused, on him, on him, on nothing but Goro, the emotion behind it feeling overwhelmingly like—

"Mrrrrow!"

A blur of black fur leaps up onto the hayloft, succeeding in both stopping and jumpstarting Goro's heart in the same millisecond. Akira and Goro jolt aside—when did they get so close anyway?—as a cat settles on the hay between them. Its bright blue eyes turn to Goro in a way that feels unsettlingly judgmental. Finally, it turns and crawls into Akira's lap.

"Well!" Goro says loudly, still waiting for his pulse to stop thumping through his muscles like drums. He fumbles for the ladder, not sure if the cat just did him a favor or the opposite. Overthinking won't get him anywhere, although he knows perfectly well that's exactly what he'll be doing tonight in bed. "I'll make sure your tree gets some decorations on it tomorrow."

"Right," Akira says. Thankfully, he sounds a little dazed as well. "I—I appreciate it."

"Thank you for spending the evening with me. I apologize that it got so late," Goro says. Surely all that just now hadn't really happened, had it? Did it really? Were there many reasons out there to touch someone's chin and lean in, aside from the obvious? Again, Goro can't stress enough how new he is to this friendship business. "I'll make sure that our next engagement won't run so late into the night."

Akira nods. He looks shaken enough that Goro can only imagine how ruffled he himself appears. Best not to think about that. The cat, still on Akira's lap, blinks solemnly in Goro's direction. Where on earth did it even come from?

"Goodnight," Goro says. He's flustered enough that it nearly comes out as good morning.

Chapter Text

Yusuke and Ann never do end up going into the antiques room, though not for lack of trying. When they find it locked, Ann simply decides to take him to the next place that she's since deemed her favorite. 

It's long stopped being about winning or losing their little game. By now, she simply enjoys spending time around Yusuke, who's refreshingly different from most of the people she tends to be around. He's charming and bright and protective of her, even if a little weird. Then again, Ann knows fully well that she's a little weird, too, so it's not as though she can really talk. More importantly, he really seems to care about her feelings. He's invested in the things she likes, and appears to be genuinely interested regardless of what it is that she has to say. Even when she goes on and on about fashion he doesn't once roll his eyes. It's nice, especially considering how lonely she's come to feel at home when not surrounded by her friends, her parents usually off on royal tours or other royal engagements around the country.

Things have always been better here at the palace, though. Here, she has Goro—at least, she does whenever he has the time free, which he seems to have less and less of. The winters are always a rather busy season around here, but this year seems to be on a whole new level of busy. Maybe his workload is picking up?

The more likely option, of course, is that this has to do with that male member of the staff that spirited him away the other day. A big part of her is desperate for more info on how things are going between them. 

The other part wishes she could find something even remotely as exciting for herself. 

She's bored. She knows that she—more or less—has no right to be feeling bored in the palace around Christmastime, but here she is, with everyone around her far busier than her. Goro is understandably occupied. Likewise, Niijima, who is typically fairly good company, is running around the castle trying to finalize everything relating to the ball whilst also continuing her usual job, which already strikes Ann as basically impossible even on the best of days without the added stress of the ball. And Yusuke…

She's not sure how to feel about that one anymore, Ann torn between wanting to think more about it and wanting for a distraction. Although she knows someone who might be able to help her clear it all up.

So she sends a quick text to Goro, hoping that he'll get back to her sooner rather than later.

 

Stables? 

I know you're really busy and stuff!!

But I'm SO bored I'd kill for a ride with my fave cuz!!!!!

 

She lets herself flop down on the bed, her limbs splayed out in opposite directions. On the worst of days, it takes Goro more than fourteen hours to get back to her. Hopefully—

Catching sight of her phone lighting up in her hand, Ann's eyes widen as she sits up in bed. 

 

I will admit that I could use a break. 

I still have a few things to finish up here, but I ought not to be long if you want to head to the stables now.

 

Yesssssssssss!!!!

On my way!! Don't make me wait too long!

 

I will try to hurry for your sake.

:)

 

If his words didn't already have her jumping out of bed to scramble to get into her riding gear, the rare addition of an emoji certainly does the job, Ann dressed and ready in under half an hour before she's headed out to the stables. 

"I'm here to request Carmen!" she announces brightly as she steps into the stable, already waving to the attendant tucked away in one of the stalls as she closes the door behind her. It doesn't look to be Sakura-san. "The prince and I are going for a ride, so you might as well get Robin Hood all ready, too!"

The attendant pokes his head out from behind the door with surprising alacrity, making Ann wonder if the secret keyword here might be prince

"Sure. You're Lady Ann, right?"

"Yep! That's me! And you're a new hire, so I don't know your name yet."

"Oh, right. Akira Kurusu. Akira's fine."

There's a quiet that settles after that, Ann moving to pet Robin Hood as Akira gets Carmen out of her stall. At least, it lingers until he decides to speak up again, glancing at her from over his shoulder as he grabs a saddle.

"Are you close to the prince?"

"Oh, yeah! We kinda grew up together after he lost his mom, you know? My parents are gone for diplomatic functions and events a lot, and before I was too young to really join them, I ended up sort of just spending a lot of time around here. All the best parts of my childhood involved Goro."

She thinks about the time that they ended up hidden away in the kitchens overnight, making for a delicious impromptu sleepover that definitely did not go unpunished. Or the time that they singularly toppled over the palace Christmas tree after their game of chase took them unexpectedly indoors. Or the time that they both hid from each other thinking that the other person was responsible for the seeking. Now, they have tea and go horseback riding and talk about their lives… love lives included, hopefully. 

Not that he's here for horseback riding right now, as was promised. "Now, I come here and he makes me wait for him." 

How long ago was it that he said he still had a few things to finish up? Glancing at her watch, Ann frowns as Akira leads Robin Hood out of his stall, too. "We didn't really have an appointment, but… he doesn't normally make me wait for this long. He's not the type to be late, you know."

"I know."

She sighs. "His head's just been kind of all over the place lately. He's busy with the ball, and on top of that, he's got this crush that's got him all worked up."

Akira's hands still on the straps of Robin Hood's saddle. "Crush?"

"Yeah, on some gu—person," she self-corrects, pressing her lips together. "But you didn't hear that from me! Honestly, even getting that much out of him so far has been nearly impossible. He's not exactly forthcoming with his feelings. Buuut I do still know him better than most, so the fact that he thinks he can hide this stuff from me is just kinda silly, y'know? Hey…" Stopping herself as a new idea strikes her, Ann grins. "You wouldn't happen to know who the special guy is, would you?"

"Uh." The guy looks almost as if he's forgotten how to put a bridle on a horse altogether, Ann sighing again as she absently thumbs through her phone.

"I guess it makes sense that you wouldn't, being cooped up out here all day. But he does come to ride pretty often, right? Surely he can't be as tight-lipped as—oh, who am I kidding? Of course he would be that tight-lipped, especially about something like this. Never mind, forget I asked." 

Wait. 

"Say… you wouldn't happen to know anything about Kitagawa-kun, would you?" Stepping forward, she lets her hand run down Carmen's nose, the way Ann knows she likes it. 

"I know that he really wants to paint you," Akira offers, seemingly finished with the horses as he turns back to whatever work he was doing before. "Uh. Sorry."

"Oh, no, it's fine!" Ann is quick to correct him—faster than she'd expected even of herself as she waves it off, a smile on her face. "I don't mind—er, that is, he's kind of… stopped pushing for it? And I was wondering if you knew what that was all about."

"I could ask him for you."

"Ohhhh no—" She cuts herself off. That might actually help. If they spoke, mano a mano, there's a good chance that she might find out more than he'd outright admit to her. After all, she's hardly one of the staff, even if she does hang out with them sometimes. "Actually, on second thought, that might not be such a bad idea—"

The barn door opens behind her, Ann whipping around to catch sight of Goro, as her face splits into a wide grin. 

"You're finally here!"

"Goodness," Goro chuckles, "you make it sound as though I didn't warn you about this beforehand. But, I suppose you've always been impatient." 

His laughter is warm and friendly, the sound lingering even as he catches sight of Akira, his expression sobering somewhat. 

"Hi," Akira says, suddenly seeming to have forgotten that Ann's there at all.

Goro, however, tears his eyes away and turns to Ann."I trust you've been having an interesting conversation?"

"I'll tell you on our ride, come on!" Ann tells him, already leading Carmen out into the courtyard by the reins. She is not going over her feelings for Yusuke—if she can even call them that, honestly—with someone else to listen in on them, the thought giving rise to a nervous chuckle slipping free from the back of her throat.

 

&

 

They're barely on their riding trail when Goro turns to her, the same question from before still lingering in his gaze. She can already tell that it will be nigh impossible to get anything else out of him while her own lips remain zipped. 

Not that she had any intention of keeping them zipped. 

"So? What were you two gossiping about?"

"Ugh, must you make it sound like something dirty? It wasn't like that, honestly! I was just trying to figure out if he had any info on—" She clears her throat, suddenly sheepish as she feels her cheeks heat up under Goro's probing gaze. "On… someone."

"...oh."

"What, did you think we were talking about you?" Ann grins. He's not even wrong, but the look on Goro's face right now is priceless, there being something inherently and inexplicably delightful about proving a sibling wrong on their assumptions. He more or less qualifies as that by now, she's convinced of at least that much.

"Ah… yes."

"This wouldn't happen to have anything to do with your crush, would it?"

Goro's cheeks heat up in a way that strikes her as damnably familiar considering recent events, Ann squinting as she recalls her own attempt to talk about her… confusion. 

Which is definitely not a crush. 

"I really want to meet this guy you're pining over, you know. He must be pretty amazing if he's caught your attention."

"That's not—" Goro expels a huff of air, the color on his cheeks only seeming to darken. He looks straight ahead, hands tight on Robin Hood's reins."There is absolutely no pining."

"Oh, come ooooon, you can tell me! I don't want to have to get all my info from that cute stable boy, but I will if I have to!"

Goro's attention shifts almost instantly, his eyes wide as he turns to stare at Ann, half-incredulous. 

"What do you mean, cute?" 

Ann scoffs. "Please, anyone with eyes would be able to tell that he's plenty attractive. That tousled hair, those glasses hiding eyes that just seem to scream fu—"

"Ann, that's more than enough of that."

"I mean, that's the way he was looking at you, wasn't he?"

Had he been sipping away at a cup of tea, Ann is half-convinced it would have all come out again, spewn in all directions and showering Robin Hood in the process.

"Excuse me?"

"Don't give me that look!" Ann does her best to look mock-affronted, rolling her eyes. "He was. It's not like you to be surprised about that. You've got adoring fans pretty much everywhere. Everywhere you go without a disguise it's like oooo, Prince Akechi! and please sign my left boob, Goro-chaaan!before your bodyguards have a chance to peel them off of you."

"Please, please stop." He looks rather like he could die of embarrassment even as he does his best to contain his laughter behind his glove. 

"You know it's true! Maybe that cute stablehand got the job just so he could be closer to you… star-crossed lovers, and all."

The mood seems to sober at that, Goro chewing on his bottom lip as he stares ahead of himself at the evergreen trees lining their path. "Ah… no, I sincerely doubt that."

"Well, either way, he's clearly interested in you."

"All that aside, you said that you were trying to mine him for info on someone yourself. Someone who is not..." He clears his throat, seemingly biting his tongue to keep from divulging a potentially interesting amount of information. Darn. "...who is not related to me and my interests in some way." 

Ann feels her cheeks bloom with color all over again as her thoughts return to Yusuke, and the way he'd held her hand, stepping in when Kamoshida became too aggressive. She doesn't have feelings for him, does she? Even if she does, they're… barely even worth noting. They've just gotten closer. Become friends, even, which is something they haven't properly done in all the years she's been coming to the palace. How was she supposed to know that under all those nude painting requests, he's actually a nice guy?

"It's… it's nothing. I mean—I don't think it's anything. You'll laugh."

Goro shakes his head, looking at her quite seriously. "I won't laugh."

"Mmm… do you promise?"

"I feel as though we're rather going back in time here. Yes, of course I promise. Though I shouldn't have to, seeing as we're adults now and not children anymore."

Ann rolls her eyes, the gesture exaggerated. "You know what I mean. You won't even trust me with the name of the guy you're so besotted with, so it's not like what I'm saying is that off-base."

"I am most certainly not besotted with anyone!"

"Methinks the lady doth protest too much," Ann tells him with a laugh, leaving Goro to color further. 

"It's Kitagawa-kun, isn't it?" 

She hadn't expected such a piercing retaliation. Ann's eyes go wide as she stares at him. 

"How… uh, I mean—of course not! Whatever gave you that idea?!"

Rats.

"You haven't complained about him once since the last interaction that I was witness to, Kamoshida complained about you getting yourself a new boyfriend-bodyguard, and I will admit I was witness to you two walking down a hallway together at one point. You looked happy. Suspiciously so." Goro looks at her smugly. "Not to mention that, now that I've mentioned it, you're turning quite pink yourself, and not from the cold."

He's right, of course. Spending time with Yusuke has been a happy thing, not that she's really allowed herself to admit as much. He's… odd and enigmatic, puzzling in ways that she hasn't really ever been challenged before. It would be annoying if she wasn't so addicted to the feelings he leaves her with when they do get to spend time together. 

And if he wasn't so cute.

"Yeah," she tells him, a soft sigh escaping her. "I don't really know how I feel, though. He did protect me from Kamoshida, though, so it's no surprise that he complained to the king. Sorry you had to deal with that."

"Honestly, I found the whole thing rather amusing," Goro tells her, unable to keep the smile off his face as he shakes his head. "Serves him right. I almost hope he does become convinced that he's your boyfriend, if it'll ward him off from assaulting you once more."

Another sigh. Ann shakes her head, clearing away the tangle of knots that thinking about Kamoshida has left in its wake. "We can only hope. I don't know, though, honestly. Kitagawa-kun is… kind. And kind of weird. It wouldn't be that surprising if he wasn't interested and was just… sort of being himself."

"Do you want him to be interested?"

"I… maybe? I dunno. I've been trying to figure that out. I made a deal with him after he wouldn't stop bugging me about that nude portrait session."

"Oh?"

"The challenge was for me to find something more beautiful than me, which, honestly, shouldn't have been hard. If I won, he'd stop bugging me about it, and if he won, I'd let him do it."

For a moment, Goro just stares at her, eyes and mouth both agape.

"You were actually going to let him draw you naked?"

"Wha—no! I didn't think he was going to make this so hard! It would have been easy if he wasn't so… no, obsessed is the wrong word. I don't know, fascinated with me? But it's like everything I've shown him hasn't been good enough. But now..." 

She inhales a crisp breath. Thinking this in her head as she's falling asleep is one thing, but actually saying it out loud? Admitting it to another person? That practically makes it real.

"...now you… want him… to draw you naked...?"

Snorting, Ann can't stop herself from laughing out loud, shaking her head as she grins. "No, dummy! Now I—" Ugh. "Now… I don't want the challenge to end. I've been having so much fun with him! It's stupid, I know. He's just so different from the people I usually have to deal with."

"It's not stupid in the least." There seems to be a story there, Goro quieting as he stares at the reins in his hand, and Ann already knows that her asking him about it would likely go intentionally unheard or simply rejected outright.  

There are dozens of workers at the castle, far more of them male than not. It could be impossible to narrow down precisely who it is that he has his sights set on, but—whoever it is, all she really knows is that Goro seems to have it bad, even if he doesn't quite realize it himself.

"So..." Goro starts, cutting Ann's thought process short as he lets his gaze wander over the snow-covered scenery, "what did you think about the stable boy? I know you mentioned that you thought he was cute, but..."

Ann blinks. 

"He seems nice," she tells him, wondering if Goro just unintentionally handed her the keys to his subconscious... and if she's supposed to take it as such. "And was totally staring at you. Which was weird, though, seeing as you were only in there for all of thirty seconds. But there I was, caught between Romeo and Juliet—"

"It was nothing of the sort," Goro tells her, his cheeks flaring up with color all over again. 

Well, if she was looking for confirmation…

"No, really, he seems nice. Very sympathetic to my dealing with Yusuke. I told him it wasn't a problem—but like, if he's perceptive, he probably knows by now that there's something going on now? I guess it doesn't really matter. Do you know if he's close with the other staff?"

"He's close with everyone, it would seem." Even Goro's voice seems to bristle, Ann only barely managing to stifle the laugh that threatens to spill. 

"Including you?"

"Of course not." Goro clears his throat. "Can you imagine Shido ever approving such a thing? He'd sooner see me dead than spending my time with stable trash."

She wishes she could laugh about how blatantly obvious Goro is being, and how much he's giving away, truly, but she's left to frown instead, shaking her head. "I'm sorry."

Goro just sighs. "It's certainly not your fault." He looks down at Robin Hood, and at the winding trail ahead of them. "And, at any rate, we should probably head back. I am not in the mood for a fight with my father tonight."

 

&

 

The snow at the castle seems to fall differently than it does anywhere else in the city, Akira thinks. It's thicker, easier to pack, and falls in bigger flakes, nicer to watch from windows. The window in the kitchen isn't the cleanest, installed more for the purpose of light than anything else, but Akira can still make out fat snowflakes curling down from the sky through the frozen glass.

Ryuji, in the midst of a battle with a massive sandwich he's prepared himself, talks through a mouthful of bread. "Looks nice, right?" he says. Half of his sandwich's contents are spilling out the back. Ryuji isn't great at knowing when too much is too much. "It'd be even nicer if we weren't the ones who always gotta clean it off the walkways."

It isn't a surprise to Akira. Ryuji always seems to have moments of enraged indignance where he complains about being expected to work, as if he's forgotten he's not here on vacation. He may be right on this occasion, though, because a moment later, Makoto comes into the kitchen with a clipboard.

"There you two are," she says.

"Shit," Ryuji says around another bite. He shoots Akira a sidelong glance. "Think she'd notice if we made a run for it?

"Very funny, Sakamoto. The paths and driveways need shoveling, and you two are on duty."

Ryuji's answering groan is about half a minute long. "Why is it always us two with the shitty manual labor?"

"Think of it this way," Makoto suggests. "You and Kurusu-kun are the only ones strong enough to handle it."

The groan isn't any shorter this time. "Fine," Ryuji relents. "But I'm finishing my lunch first."

"Fine by me. As long as you're done out there before sundown." She fixes them both with a look that's near maternal in its confusing combination of authority and kindness. "And bundle up. It's cold out there."

"We will," Akira promises.

Ryuji takes his sweet time finishing up his sandwich after Makoto leaves, even bothering to snack on the toppings that fell out and onto the table. Akira doesn't bother to call him out on his procrastination; he just waits for him to pick up on the fact that the sun isn't going to peek out and melt all the snow away for them anytime soon.

They pick up shovels from the tool shed tucked behind the palace greenhouse once they both grab their coats. The sky is clear white, smelling of crisp snow still to come, which Ryuji conveniently uses as another target for his venting.

"This is such a pain in the ass," he grumbles. He pitches his shovel into a pile of snow more aggressively than altogether necessary.  "By the time we finish up front here, it'll all be snowed over again once we're done in the back."

"Then we better hurry," Akira advises. "Come on."

Ryuji doesn't find his words all too motivating. His shoveling combines with muttering under his breath each time he sends another batch of snow over his shoulder, words Akira can only occasionally make out but seem to consist of various colorful swear words.

Across the palace courtyard, a girl is leaping around the snow, bright orange hair a sharp contrast to the glimmering stretches of white snow and equally white sky.

"Who is that?" Akira asks, leaning on the handle of his shovel.

"Who?"

Akira points, Ryuji following his finger. "Think that's Sojiro's daughter. Futaba, maybe?"

"Have you talked to her much?"

"Not really. Once or twice before she ran away from me like I was some kinda repo man. I don't think she's big on people."

"Hm."

Akira watches her a bit longer, but just a touch too long for Ryuji, who pelts him in the side of the face with a handful of snow.

"Got a crush?" he asks, grin shark-like. When Akira shakes his head, his disposition drops considerably. "Oh, right. Forgot you got the hots for Akechi."

The bite of the wind has nothing against the sudden warmth of Akira's reddening cheeks. He's glad he has the cold to blame them on, huffing as he resumes his shoveling. "Don't... say it like that," he says, wincing. "We just get along."

Without meaning to, Akira thinks of the first thing he noticed when he woke up: the new Christmas tree tucked into the hayloft. It looked especially wretched in the light of day, barely qualifying as a Christmas decoration—let alone a tree—but the memory of Goro insisting he have it and setting it up at the foot of his bed washed over him the moment he woke.

Other memories nudge him now, too: the softness of Goro's jaw, the quiet surprise on his face when Akira touched him, the way he was close enough to kiss. And, of course, Morgana's superb timing.

"Are you really sure he's not just a huge ass in disguise?" Ryuji presses.

Akira lets Ryuji talk while he focuses on the task at hand. Eventually, the thick snowfall tapers down into something smaller and softer, allowing easier shoveling and improving visibility. Akira wipes the snowflakes off his glasses, smudging the lenses in the process. His arms are starting to burn; the stable work didn't prepare him for this amount of muscling about.

"I need a break," Ryuji declares, not for the first time.

"Ryuji, we're almost done."

"I gotta take a leak," Ryuji says, tossing his shovel onto the pile of snow. "I'll be right back."

Akira has a sinking feeling that Ryuji's bathroom break is also going to involve stopping for hot cocoa, wasting time on his phone, and raiding the fridge in the kitchens for a snack if Makoto isn't there to shoo him back outside. He watches Ryuji amble off for the castle and resigns himself to finishing up on his own.

The sound of boots on snow five minutes later gives Akira new hope. Maybe Ryuji found his work ethic somewhere between here and the bathroom.

Akira turns around. So much for that theory.

"Oh, hello," Goro says, approaching. The way his eyes crinkle when he smiles throws Akira's stomach into somersaults. "Just the person I was looking for."

"You were?"

Goro lifts the bounty in his arms: a box of Christmas tree decorations. Akira peeks inside, noting a shimmering garland and several metallic baubles, dabbed in glitter and flecked with gold. Everything looks exceedingly palatial, certainly not fit for the grime of the barn.

Goro has a look on his face like a child who's just discovered how fun disobedience can be, all secret satisfaction. "I highly doubt my father will ever come investigate your sleeping space, but just in case, tell anyone who asks that I brought them to you."

Akira shakes his head, but the rebellious glint in Goro's grin is contagious. "You'll get in trouble."

"Strict as he may be, I think even the king would feel a bit silly disciplining someone over something as trivial as Christmas ornaments." Goro readjusts the box. It jingles as he does. "Do you have time to spruce up your tree?"

Akira wants to. Would it be possible to leave the rest of the work to Ryuji, assuming he's ever returning? Makoto would be furious if she came out here and saw the courtyard deserted, snow piling up, shovels abandoned. Goro would cover for him, but Akira can only imagine the endless ribbing that would come from Ryuji if he explained that away.

"I... can't," he says, regret pinching him as he gestures to the snowy walkways. "I have work."

"Oh. I see. Do you need assistance?"

"I had assistance, but." Akira glances at the castle, at the nondescript servant's entrance. He can already imagine the look on Ryuji's face if he were to return right now and stumble upon Akira and Goro's tête-à-tête. The raised eyebrows, their dance of suggestion. Followed by merciless teasing.

Maybe accusing Akira of having the hots for Goro isn't so far off the mark.

"Ah. You've been abandoned, have you?"

"He's coming back," Akira says.

"Shall I help you in the meantime?"

Akira chances a glance at Goro's physique. He's a slender man, good lines, but Akira has the feeling he has even less opportunities to exercise his biceps than even Akira does. He leans on his shovel.

"Wouldn't be a very princely activity."

"Ah, well." Goro takes a small step closer, clasping his hands behind his back. A flash of last night tickles its way up Akira's spine—the subtle longing, poorly hidden, in Goro's eyes, the almost-kiss, the smell of his shampoo. "You're in luck. I've been doing lots of unprincely activities as of late."

"Sounds like you have a bad influence around."

"The worst," Goro says. "I can prove it."

Before Akira can so much as blink, a splattering of snow smacks him in the face, leaving him spluttering out powdery ice. When the world comes back into focus, Goro is snickering, covering his laughter behind his fist. It's possible it's the first snowball he's ever attempted to throw at someone in his life.

Akira wipes the snow off his eyelashes. Then he ducks down and snatches a handful off the ground, pitching it toward Goro like a baseball he wants a homerun out of.

It hits Goro on the nose like a pie slapped to the face, the sight of it almost comical. Goro's surprise is only temporary before he delicately clears the snow off his cheek with his gloved hand with all the grace of a member of royalty.

"Now that," Goro says, voice perfectly pleasant, "felt like a declaration of war."

The snowball fight is instantaneous after that. Akira barely manages to sidestep the next snowball that comes careening his way, and the next hits him square in the back, shattering before he can duck beneath the heap of snow he and Ryuji have spent the last hour piling together. He has plenty of ammunition on this side of his fort, not to mention the experience of knowing how to pack a snowball that'll whizz through the air like a bullet, but Goro is a scarily fast learner, throwing snowballs with the unerring tempo of a machine.

Akira hunkers down behind the block of snow, only emerging to aim and throw, but Goro takes advantage of those fleeting moments, throwing snowballs that slam everywhere from his head to his chest to the exposed skin of his jugular. Akira doesn't let himself be deterred, giving as good as he gets until Goro decides to corner him behind his pile of snow, arms laden with ammo. The wicked smile he's equipped with feels like a critical hit all on its own.

And climbing directly into enemy territory is definitely cheating, but Goro is apparently not the type to play fair. He pelts Akira with snow that he isn't even bothering to shape before he throws it at him, the onslaught only ending when Akira swipes his legs out from underneath him. Goro goes staggering on the ground, his fall and his war-like madness broken by the fluff of the snow.

When he props himself back up, he's laughing, the kind of laughter that goes uncontained, uninhibited. It strikes Akira that this may be the most carefree he's ever seen Goro, all royal protocol stripped away and leaving unfettered happiness in its wake. Emotions storm to the surface of Akira's chest—affection, fondness, and that same happiness he can identify in Goro's smile.

And shivering, bone-seeping cold, too. He gets to his feet, brushing snow that's starting to cling onto his pants back to the ground. He offers Goro a hand, who accepts it. His glove is as ice cold as expected. Akira lets himself wonder if Goro's cheeks are just as icy, if his nose and lips are just as numb.

"That was quite ruthless," Goro says, but he sounds impressed.

Some blind, lovestruck impulse seizes Akira by the ribcage. He grabs Goro's wrist, perhaps more firmly than he should, and barely has the time to figure out if he's making a bad decision before he lunges forward and kisses Goro, slightly off-center but no less heart-pumping. The kiss burns a sensitive underbelly Akira didn't realize he had, leaving him struck, vulnerable, vibrating with the fear of what repercussions are lurking.

But then—unresponsive before but abruptly startling into movement—Goro shifts closer and tilts his head just enough to kiss back. The reality of that sits in Akira's throat, almost refusing to be processed, because—is this truly happening? Is this what would have happened last night in the hayloft if only Akira had been quick enough? Goro's lips are soft, cool, but the breath that comes out from his parted mouth is warm, shockingly so in comparison to the frozen nose pressed against Akira's, so shocking that Akira pulls back, reminded of what exactly he's doing and with whom.

For a soul-freezing second, they stare at each other as if seeing each other anew. Akira's never seen Goro so ruffled before—pupils blown wide, cheeks pink, mouth open. The same mouth Akira was just kissing.

“I,” Akira says, but can't grasp any further words. He's aware that he's supposed to say something, but has no idea what. “I'm sorry.”

Goro doesn't say a word. Akira's rendered him catatonic, or maybe he’s legitimately starting to freeze into place out here in these subzero temperatures. Which one is better?

“I didn't mean to overstep,” Akira continues, voice shaky.

That seems to snap Goro back to life. “You didn't,” he says.

It isn't until his icy hand has wrapped around the collar of Akira's coat that Akira realizes where this is going and what's about to happen next. Goro's looking at him with eyes that seem to ask for permission, a concept so nonsensical—because how would Akira not want this? How can Goro not realize?

Or maybe he does realize, because a moment later Goro's kissing him again, mouth hesitant at first but growing in confidence soon enough, slanting against Akira's just right. The moment feels so fragile, like fine-spun glass, like ice—possible to shatter with the gentlest of touches—but Goro doesn't seem to be afraid of ruining it, of pressing too hard or not enough. His resolve is firming until he's grabbing Akira in a vice-like grip, kissing him with a mounting fervor, with the passion of a man hitherto denied pleasures he's now relishing in. Akira reaches for his waist, still not quite believing he's allowed to do so, but Goro leans in closer and makes a noise—something soft and appreciative that runs straight down south Akira's body.

And then Goro wrenches himself away like an alarm is going off in his ears, jerking him awake, the hands at his shoulders suddenly putting an arm's length of distance between them. The catatonia is gone, replaced now by a frantic, hare-like stress that he's doing a horribly poor job of keeping concealed.

“Goro,” Akira tries, to—apologize again? Explain? Reassure? He's not certain what the right thing to do is, but before he can figure it out, Goro shoots him one hysteric look and takes off to the palace in a power walk trying desperately not to become a sprint.

Akira can do little but stare after him like one might marvel over a dream they're still trying to parse after waking up. Was any of that real? The only proof supporting the theory is the forgotten box of Christmas ornaments sitting in the snow. The wood of the box is starting to get wet.

A whorl of questions attacks Akira's already puzzled brain. How is he supposed to treat Goro after this? Is he supposed to avoid him, to give him time to digest? Is he meant to forget it ever happened?

“Sorry for the wait.”

Akira whips around. Ryuji's back, soda in one hand and bag of chips in the other.

“I stopped by the kitchen. I was gettin' super hungry.” Ryuji's eyebrows knit together. “You okay? You look a little…” He stops, searching. “...wet.”

It's an unwelcome reminder of just how cold Akira actually is: the snowball fight left him well plowed with snow, snow that's since melted over his coat, down his shirt, and through his hair. He scrambles for an excuse, not sure if he'd be able to tell Ryuji the whole story right now when he's still struggling to get his heartbeat under control.

“Yeah,” Akira says after nearly a beat too long. “I just... slipped. And fell in the snow.”

“Seriously? You know Makoto's gonna have your head if you, like, get pneumonia.”

“I should change,” Akira says, grateful for the escape, even if his knees do feel like jelly right now. “I'll be right back.”

 

&

 

The question that ends up disrupting their formerly peaceful lunchtime in the kitchens comes to them from around a mouthful of food, Sakamoto practically spewing condiments onto the plate beneath his sandwich and beyond. 

"Why doesn't the moon have a name?" 

It's an almost weekly occurrence by now, Sakamoto’s ridiculous questions. If Makoto were the sort of person to actively maintain a social media account, she'd seriously consider posting all of them for the viewing pleasure of the general public. 

As it is, she's simply left to sigh, her exhale wavering as she throws him a pitying glance. 

"Please tell me you're not actually serious."

"All the other moons have names," Sakamoto explains, looking to Kitagawa for brief confirmation only to be met with a slow nod of assent that, yes, all the other moons do indeed have names. "It's not fair that ours got the raw end of the deal, man!"

"Fairness doesn't even remotely—the moon is not a person. There's nothing about it to be fair because the moon doesn't have a conception of justice or fairness to begin with."

Sakamoto continues, undaunted, as though he didn't hear a thing Makoto said. "It didn't do anything to deserve that kinda shit."

"Sakamoto," she starts, as though taking a moment to inhale could possibly fill her with the patience she needs to endure yet another one of these questions. "Ignoring the fact that there is literally nothing the moon could deserve because, again, it's not a person, I do need to actually point out that the moon does have a name. It's called 'the moon.'"

"That's a lame-ass name considerin' that's what we call the other moons. Raw deal, man."

"Actually, it does have a name in other languages," Kitagawa chimes in, shaking his head as he spears a shiso leaf onto his fork. "In Ancient Greece it was known as Selene. In certain romance languages, it's known as Luna."

"Then what the hell is wrong with our language?!" Sakamoto demands, a piece of lettuce making its way from his mouth and onto the table as Makoto picks up her napkin to clean up after him.

"Is that really all you're eating, Kitagawa-kun?"

"It deserves a name!" Sakamoto exclaims again, looking more intense about this by the second.

"I—" Makoto falters. she still can't believe this conversation started at all, let alone that it's still going on, somehow. "This is easily the most pointless conversation we've ever had, which is honestly saying something. Start a petition if you're so upset about it, Sakamoto.” The kitchen door easing open catches her eye. “Oh—Kurusu-kun. You have no idea how glad I am to see you."

Kurusu walks to the fridge as if in a trance. It's been a common theme since… yesterday, she supposes. When she handed him his list of tasks for the day in the morning, he'd just walked right on past her, as though she was an apparition. And while Kurusu hasn't been working at the palace all that long, it still stood out as rather an anomaly. 

Though it's likely not all too hard to pinpoint exactly what that has to do with. She just hopes that it won't affect the rest of the castle as she fears it will. 

"Dude," Sakamoto interrupts her train of thought, actual genuine concern written on his features as Kurusu takes a seat beside him, having evidently found nothing in the fridge worth eating. "What's up with you? You've been out of it since yesterday; did you get frostbite on your nuts or somethin'?"

Kurusu glances at the table and all the witnesses sitting around it. He leans in closer to Sakamaoto as he speaks. Kurusu's words are quiet, practically whispered as he tells Sakamoto whatever it is that has him so rattled. Living with her sister meant getting particularly good at reading lips, something Makoto is doing her best not to do right now, if only on instinct alone. 

She's not trying to eavesdrop, either, despite the fact that it would be downright easy from where she's situated in her current spot. Instead, she gets up to grab Kurusu something to eat for lunch, as he is apparently far too dazed to—

"YOU AND AKECHI KISSED?!"

The defeated exhale that leaves her is one she could have predicted. 

"Sakamoto, how many times have we talked about using our inside voice?" she says.

"Is he talking about the prince?" Kitagawa asks, Makoto fighting the urge to roll her eyes as she plates some of the onigiri that she'd prepared yesterday. 

"Yes," she says, her voice dropping several octaves as she purses her lips. "Obviously."

"How did that even happen?!" Sakamoto demands.

"Well, Ryuji," Kurusu starts, sounding increasingly like he's about to put on a TED Talk, "when two people like each other, sometimes—"

"Hang on." Kitagawa still looks utterly lost as Makoto returns with a plate to slide over to Kurusu. "I don't quite follow."

"Surely you understand how he feels, Kitagawa-kun? After all, you've got something similar going on yourself."

"...I do?" 

Sakamoto snorts. 

"With Lady Ann," Makoto supplies helpfully.

"Ah, I see. Though I must insist that that is quite different. My relationship with Lady Ann is a matter of art."

"Is that all?"

Kitagawa blinks, looking rather as though he's on the verge of a breakthrough before Sakamoto shatters that opportunity rather spectacularly, already reaching for his third piece of onigiri in the thirty seconds they've been sitting in front of him. 

"Okay, but. Dude. Dude. He's like, you know. A prince."

Kurusu shrugs. It’s a valid point, but not one Kurusu seems to have an answer for.

"Does it make a difference if they both have feelings for one another, Sakamoto-kun?"

"Dunno why you're asking me. Thought about it when Lady Ann first showed up, but nah, man. That would be like, way too much pressure."

"As though you would ever stand a chance with Lady Ann to begin with?" 

Sakamoto shrugs. 

"He actually left right after," Kurusu says. The admission is delivered with far less panic than Makoto had expected from, well, just about anyone. Then again, Kurusu has thus far struck her as someone rather… unflappable under most circumstances. If she's honest, it's surprising that he's even bringing this up in the first place.

"After you kissed, you mean," Makoto prompts.

Kurusu nods. 

"If I may be so bold as to ask… who kissed whom, exactly?"

His hand flutters in his lap. "I kissed him. I apologized and tried to give him some space after, but… he didn't want that."

"He wished for it to continue, I take it?"

"Then he kissed me," Kurusu explains as Sakamoto shovels another onigiri into his mouth. "It was sort of frenzied. Went on for a while. And then… he kind of ran."

"Sounds like that kiss really rattled him." She isn't sure when she slid into the position of unofficial palace counselor, but it suits her. Perhaps she can enlighten Kitagawa as to the implications of his relationship with Lady Ann after all of this. Ideally, before the matter explodes on them. "Have you considered that it might be his first?" 

Kurusu nods, then shrugs—almost as though the thought had been a foregone conclusion for him. 

"And you just did it, anyway? Ice cold, man," Sakamoto tells him around a mouthful of food as he shakes his head. "I wouldn't want my first kiss with a dude to be… uh, with a dude."

"That sounds like it would be difficult to achieve," Kitagawa cuts in just as Kurusu's phone buzzes in his pocket. Makoto watches him visibly pale upon reading the message he was sent. 

"...I have to go."

"Is something the matter, Kurusu-kun?"

"Thanks for the food." It's all he says before he's headed out the door, Makoto left to frown as she shakes her head, mostly to herself. 

"Uhhh, that was weird. You don't think that was for a booty call with that stick-in-the-mud, do you?"

"No," Makoto says, her frown only deepening. "Definitely not."

"Say," Kitagawa starts, turning to look at Makoto. "Are Kurusu and the prince involved somehow?"

 

&

 

Goro isn’t entirely sure what happened after that kiss out in the snow. All he really remembers is running, and running, and running some more, until the breath started burning in his lungs, at which point he kept running until he could safely lock himself away in his study.

He hasn’t slept much since; his mind has been yelling at him nonstop, not entirely unlike an overeager exercise coach. He wasn’t thinking, just acting on emotion, which Shido would certainly berate him for. There’s no room for emotion, for foolish impulses, for romance and friendship, not when being a prince is about alliances, appearances, logic, and business. Goro has never been one to take Shido’s advice to heart—but in this case, he sees the validity. His own plans would interfere quite badly with a relationship and all the drama that comes with—to say nothing of the mental turmoil.

His own plans. Akira doesn’t fit anywhere in there; there’s just no room. And besides, Goro doesn’t even do friendships, so how on earth could he ever entertain the idea of a non-platonic relationship? His pulse skips at the thought alone.

He buries his head in his hands. And what was he thinking, exactly, choosing an employee, a member of the help, of all the viable people out there to choose, as the object of his affection? There’s a chasm between then—one Goro’s been flirting with, admittedly—that grows larger every time Akira buddies up with another staff member, with someone else that’s in Goro’s employ and ostensibly hates him as a result. The differences between them are just so colossal when he thinks about it—class, rank, financial situations, friends, occupations—that the more he considers it all, the more Goro regrets that impulsive kiss.

Especially the way it, still now, makes his entire body race like a machine going into overdrive any time he lets himself think about it.

He's jolted to alertness when his study door swings open and Ann storms in.

"Don't you knock?" he asks.

"Don't you keep plans anymore?" she shoots back, arms crossed.

Right. They were supposed to have tea today. Or go horseback riding? Goro's mind is scrambled eggs. He burrows his face back into his hands.

A chair leg slides across soft ornate carpet as Goro hears Ann sit down beside him, the fabric of her skirt shifting as she does so.

"What's with you lately?" she says, less irate and more curious. Concerned, maybe. A beat passes between them, too long, long enough that Goro can practically smell her leaping to conclusions. "Is it because of—"

"Don't," he says, lifting his head again. It's starting to ache right behind the temples. Dual impulses pull at him: to share, to shed the secret, and to also never say a word about any of this. If he doesn't say it out loud, it might as well have never happened. "Maybe it's better if we don't talk about this."

"What even is this?" Ann presses. She reaches out, prodding him in the elbow. "Your crush?"

"Don't say it like that," Goro snaps. He can't stomach words like crush right now. It may just trigger his gag reflex. "You have no idea—"

And if he's being honest with himself, the kiss was just the tip of the iceberg. It was a long time coming, what with all the suggestive behavior beforehand—behavior Goro had done nothing to stop. He had liked it, reveled in it, enjoyed the compliments and the gooey look in Akira's eyes when Goro occasionally caught him staring. All that earnest attention was new to him… and, if he's honest, is still something of a novelty now. Goro has been helpless to feed it, encourage it, egg it on.

"Then tell me, dummy," Ann says. "What's going on?"

Something is lodged in Goro's throat. Possibly his heart. He does his best to swallow it back down.

"I did something. Something... potentially stupid." He looks at Ann warily. "Do you remember the man I told you about? The..." He waves a hand about, as if hoping it'll speak for him. "...employee."

From the look of her twitching mouth, Ann is working tremendously hard to keep any off-putting smiles at bay. "I do."

"Well. Yesterday, we." He can't possibly share this story, can he? Can his mouth even form the words without his entire system immediately shutting down like an embarrassed computer? "We may have kissed out in the courtyard."

Laughter, actually, might have even been preferred to Ann's over-the-top, wide-eyed, boggled stare of shock. The worst part may be that Goro understands it perfectly—if he could go a few months into the past and tell his studious, stone-faced, pleasantly polite self that he would end up making out with a servant in the snow, he wouldn't believe it.

"What?!" Ann says, at a volume that's almost worrying. "Seriously? Who started it? Are you, like... together now?"

She looks thrilled, apparently not reading the signals off of Goro's sweaty brow and wan face. Goro desperately needs her to match his level of excitement if he wants this conversation to keep his sanity intact.

"No," he says firmly. "And that's—not going to happen. And it doesn't matter who started it. It was a mistake."

Ann's face falls. That's better.

"Wait, why?"

"Because he's—he's a servant. And I'm a prince. I have a duty to this country, and things to do, none of which involve romancing the help in my free time. Which I have so much of, as you know."

The bitterness creeps into his words like an oozing stain. Goro can't help it; this entire relationship was doomed long before it ever began. To pretend it has a future or even the slimmest of chances is an affront to his own intelligence.

"And—and my father, you think he'd approve?" Goro continues. His hands snarl around his hair, trying to tug the headache away. "Not all of us have the luxury of dating whomever we find in the servant's wing who gives us the time of day. I have a title, and if I ever want to be king, I can't bother with such—such distractions."

The bluster leaves him slowly, like a boiling pot cooling down. Shame spreads afterwards; Ann doesn't deserve to be snapped at just because he's in a tailspin. It's not her fault that she has more personal freedoms, after all. She simply got lucky. 

"I'm sorry," he finally says when Ann stays unnervingly quiet. "That was uncalled for."

She puffs out a breath, leaning back in her chair. "Wow," she says. "This guy's really got you worked up."

Goro's mouth twists. "That's what you took from all that?" he asks, peering tiredly up at her.

"You basically had a breakdown because of one kiss."

It's not just the one kiss. Goro feels another swell of honesty well up in him, blubbering near his throat, begging to be told. He lets go of his hair and takes a shaky breath in.

"I don't know how he feels either," he admits. "I keep thinking—he had a bad incident with Shido, which is what led him here. I can't stop from wondering if he's just using me."

"As what, revenge?"

Goro sighs. "You think it's silly."

"Of course I think it's silly! Why would he be using you for revenge if it's Shido he has beef with?"

Goro shrugs. He moves to shuffle some folders about on his desk, looking for the comfort of habit in the act. It might not be logical to Ann, but it makes perfect sense to Goro. A wounded heart is capable of so many things, so much deception. He should know.

"Perhaps you don't have enough insight into the situation," Goro says. "I've left things vague in the past—"

"Obviously I know who you're talking about, you doofus!" Ann interrupts. "And it's obvious he's nuts for you, not scheming your murder! Seriously, what's even going on inside your head?"

Goro blinks, caught off guard. The clock over the mantle ticks. Ann stares at him like he's missing vital gears inside his brain. Has he really been that transparent all this time? That's concerning, if not something of a relief—at least, so long as the knowledge hasn't gone any further than Ann.

"You... know who it is," he says slowly.

Ann gives him a look just short of an eye roll. "Really? The cute stable boy. The one you were flirting with the other day. The one shooting you heart eyes."

Sheer indignance makes Goro sit up ramrod straight. "I was not—!" He clears his throat. Remembers himself. "I'm not sure what you're referring to," he says, voice very measured. He smooths his thumb over the edge of a folder. "You—really? You think he's actually... interested? In me?"

He winces the moment he's said it. What is he, a quivering boy, waiting for valentines? Ann's hand reaching over the desk to grab his wrist stills him and his vitriolic paper shredder of a brain.

"Yes!" she says, smiling again. The changes in mood are dizzying; Goro feels like his heart is sitting on a tilt-a-whirl. "And legitimately, too. I could tell."

"What do you mean, you could tell?" The same investigative drive that had him trundling past a dozen bars in the bad parts of town seizes him again, hardening his resolve to at least learn the facts as well he can. "Did he tell you something? Directly? Or are you inferring?"

"Goro, relax! He didn't confess his great big crush on you to me, if that's what you're asking."

"So then what did he say? And when?" The look on Ann's face reminds him that he maybe ought to dial this all back a bit. "My interest is entirely hypothetical, of course."

"Of course," Ann repeats, very dryly. "Well, totally hypothetically, I think he likes you. And he didn't say anything, but it's... I don't know. The way he looks at you."

Her eyes slide beyond Goro, going a little wistful. Goro wonders if Ann didn't ask for that tea time today so she could talk a little more about her own problems with Kitagawa, which can't possibly be on par with Goro's meltdown-inducing conundrums, but must surely be troubling her as well. He inhales carefully. Things used to be so easy around here, back when he was younger. He and Ann would spend their time skidding around, trying to sneak into the kitchens, pretending to be crime-solving detectives. Now they brood around the castle like characters out of a Brontë novel, worrying themselves over their respective infatuations.

"That still doesn't solve the matter of our differences," Goro says in a voice gone small. "I want to be king, and that sort of goal doesn't leave space for other indulgences."

"You really want that, huh?" Ann asks.

"I do. It's what my mother would've wanted, too," he says. He wonders what she would say to him today. What would she think of his attachment to one of his employees? There are days when Goro can hardly recall her voice, her face—but he likes to believe she'd support him. "And I'd like to do her proud."

"You know," Ann says, tracing the delicate woodwork of the armrest. "If Shido were to start sleeping with one of the servants, nobody would blink an eye."

"...what?"

"Kings make their own rules, is what I'm saying."

Goro shakes his head. "Not good kings," he mutters. "Doing anything you want just because you can get away with it... that's not the mark of a good leader, much less a good person."

"Goro." Ann leans forward, eyes fierce. "You take everything way too seriously. If you want to make out with the stable boy, just do it. It doesn't have to be the end of the world, okay?"

She has a point. Shido would never agree, but Goro sees the sense nonetheless. Lately, he's been wound tightly enough to tie himself into knots, stressing over every little smile, nod, kiss—maybe he just needs to allow himself a deep breath now and then and reevaluate.

Perhaps he ought to consult Akira. For all Goro knows, he's having his own panic attack in his hayloft right now. An honest conversation might be necessary to see what this even is, or where it's going, or what they even want from it. There's a possibility Akira's considered it and decided Goro's not worth the trouble. If Goro had hung around long enough yesterday, he might've even said as much right there in the courtyard.

Some deep, untouched part of his soul hopes not. Goro's not even sure if that's the part of himself he should be listening to or ignoring.

Chapter Text

I know about you and the prince.

 

The text stares up at Akira like a bad omen in his hand, blood rushing in his ears. No known sender. No telephone number displayed at all. A wad of dread wells up in Akira's throat, nearly choking him.

It's true that Akira has been a bit more negligent than he should have been. Kissing out in the open of the courtyard, right there for anyone and everyone to see—it was reckless, completely blind. The castle is teeming with employees, security guards, not to mention people who are sitting right in the king's pocket, paid solely to be his eyes and ears.

But would those people really reach out to him like this, rather than grabbing him by the armpits and dragging him straight to the king's office to face his supreme judgment?

A thought strikes him then: Why him?

If someone is blackmailing him, what could they possibly want from him? Of all the people in the castle, surely he'd be the most useless choice. The prince would be a far better avenue. After all, one look into the barn, into his dinky little holiday hayloft, should be more than enough to convince anyone that he has nothing of value to offer. What could they want, the clothes off his back?

Akira hits the reply button with nervous fingers.

 

Who is this?

 

Doesn't matter.

The two of you have been super careless.

 

What is it you want?

 

Want?

I'm telling you I know.

 

His phone is trembling—or maybe it's just his hand? Definitely his hand. Behind him, around the corner in the kitchen, Akira can faintly make out the others still talking about him, trying to explain the situation to a perfectly oblivious Yusuke. Turns out, there might not be any kind of situation to talk about, not after this. These messages certainly feel like they're holding an already shaky relationship at gunpoint, killing it before it can ever start.

 

How do you know?

 

I heard the two of you in the stables.

 

In the stables? That night they had gotten the Christmas tree had certainly passed a few innocent lines that should technically always be between prince and servant, but it certainly wasn't damning evidence.

And how did someone overhear anything there, anyway? The stables are fairly removed from the palace, and the only person Akira can even imagine sniffing around after hours is Sojiro, who Akira is pretty sure he would've seen hunkering down in a stall if he was crouching around, listening in. And considering that Sojiro seems all but allergic to sharing personal stories, Akira is having a hard time rationalizing why Sojiro would want to listen in on their late-night Christmas decorating session, anyway.

But still, who else could it have been? Morgana?

Akira stuffs his phone into his pocket, heading for the barn, lunch forgotten. There's a gnawing feeling in his stomach, one he can't quite place, if it's a warning to leave all this alone or not. He's certainly not an equal match for the king's cronies, although a few ominous text messages doesn't quite feel like the king's style. Breaking fingers, snapping necks—that sort of thing feels more like the king's style.

Sojiro is alone in the barn when Akira comes inside, buffing horse hooves with greasy hands. He gets to his feet when he sees the grim look on Akira's face.

"Something wrong, kid?"

Akira's phone—and the messages therein—feel like a piece of hot coal burning a hole through his pocket. "Were you here the other night?" he asks, doing his best not to sound like he's investigating him for murder.

"What night?"

Akira wracks his brain for a memory, a detail that sticks out about that night, one other than Goro pressed next to him in the hayloft, close enough to kiss. He rubs the bridge of his nose underneath his glasses. "It was a few days ago. The day I showed you the wall, how pieces were falling off."

Something clicks into place. The wall—the wood

"Sorry, but I wasn't. I don't hang around after clocking out," he says, but Akira is already scrambling up to his bed, reaching for the panel he noticed in the ceiling. Sojiro watches his urgent clawing at the wood, confused. "What's going on?"

Akira yanks the unsteady panel off, exposing that same suspicious button he saw before. Except it’s not a button at all. It’s a bug. All the blood seems to sink to his feet. So the castle has been spying on him, but by order of whom? Did the king already have his sights set on him from day one? Aside from hanging around Goro, he’s hardly done anything noteworthy. A dozen more questions flurry up in his brain like a windstorm, the most important one being how wise it would be to give in to the overwhelming urge to yank that bug right off the wall, or if all he'd accomplish is raising suspicion.

"You know, vandalizing this place is probably not in your best interests," Sojiro says with the voice of someone who's already far removed themselves from the situation and any consequences to come. Still, he edges closer, peering up at the hole in the ceiling. "What's up there?"

Akira lowers his voice. "It's a bug."

Sojiro sighs. "Well, get a fly swatter."

"Not that kind," Akira says, sotto voce, hoping to lead by example. "Someone's been listening in here."

The exasperation on Sojiro's face melts away. He seems momentarily stunned, but that fades too to make way for an unamused, unhindered grouchiness. He heaves a sigh loud enough to be heard from outer space.

"Come on," he mutters. "There's someone I need to talk to."

The cock of his head toward the door is the only indication that he wants Akira to come, too. Akira hurries down from above, following the sounds of grumbling all the way to the castle.

 

&

 

Sojiro spends the entire march to the servant's wing trying to come up with appropriate punishments for—whatever the hell this is. Most parents deal with shit like sneaking out to see boys or bad grades or falling in with weird crowds, which feels like a walk in the palace gardens in comparison to the stunts Futaba has pulled. Keeps pulling.

Behind him, Akira is following along despite the confusion clear in the occasional looks he keeps shooting Sojiro. He probably thinks the king is out to steal his soul or hang him for treason, which Sojiro wouldn't rule out just yet, but at the moment, Sojiro just isn't sure how to explain this whole mess without just showing him.

"How did you realize someone was bugging the place?" he asks.

"I got some... strange text messages." Sojiro watches Akira's throat work as he swallows. "Threats."

Sojiro is going to ban curry for a month. She'll have to eat with the rest of the employees like a big girl. "Threats?" he grumbles. "What kind of threats?"

Akira doesn't answer. If Sojiro had an idea before, he definitely knows what's going on now. He really didn't think he'd have to brief the kid on keeping his ill-advised love affair under wraps from prying eyes, but then again, how was he supposed to know that some tech guru shut-in was going to wire the place like an FBI agent?

He closes his eyes, praying that whatever it is Futaba caught on her audio feed was safe for family consumption.

"Here's my room," Sojiro explains once they're in the sleeping quarters, but he bypasses that room, heading instead for the one adjacent to it. He tries the handle, and, unsurprisingly, it's locked up tight.

"Uh," Akira says. He has a look on his face like he's about to face every childhood's closet monster. "Who's in there?"

Sojiro raps on the door with his knuckles. There's not a peep to be heard through the wood, and Sojiro would put good money on Futaba crouching underneath her bed right now. A veritable mafia boss behind a screen, and a total chicken in reality. Sojiro huffs.

"Futaba, open this door," he says. "I'm not joking around."

It takes a while. Long enough that Sojiro is about ready to start bartering with WiFi privileges—the network is like a weapon in her hands—but eventually, the door squeaks open. One bespectacled eye peeks out.

It lands on Akira, widening. "Don't come in here," is all she says.

"Futaba," he warns. "You have a lot of explaining to do." The eye swivels back to Sojiro. "When did you start wiretapping the stables?"

Her sliver of a gaze goes downcast. "A few months ago," she mumbles. "I just wanted to listen to the horses!"

Sojiro scoffs. "The horses?"

"Yeah! To know they're okay and stuff! It gets cold in there at night!"

Sojiro folds his arms over his chest. "Futaba," he says. He lets his voice go surly. At this rate, they won't be going anywhere fast. "Tell the truth." He points at Akira, who's watching this entire exchange like they've just stumbled upon an alien hiding in the attic. It's her own damn fault for making herself a castle cryptid, never coming out from behind those doors. "Have you been texting him threats?"

"What?!" Now the door does open, at least enough to reveal both eyes and an extremely displeased upturned mouth. "I wasn't threatening him! I was just warning him!"

"Warning him?"

"Yeah! He and Akechi are gonna get caught at this rate. He's lucky it was me who noticed first and not someone else."

Futaba thinks she's done Akira a favor, scaring the guy half to death. Sojiro doesn't even know where to begin—the idiot who's wooing the country's most sought-after prince, or the daughter who's listening to their sweet nothings via wiretap. Ideally, he'd remove himself from the situation entirely, but that doesn't seem to be an option.

He knows one thing for sure—he's going to have to have a talk with Akira about this whole Akechi business sooner than later. Boy, is that going to be fun.

"All right. Listen here," he says to Futaba. "Apologize to the guy. Whatever it is he does at night in those stables isn't your business."

"But—"

"It just isn't, got that?" He wheels on Akira, who is giving a valiant—but transparent—effort at appearing as unaffected by all this as possible. "And you. Remember that those stables aren't some kinda drive-in. Keep it PG."

The color drains out of Akira's face like he's pulled a bathtub stopper. Behind him, Futaba sniggers. She sobers up considerably when Sojiro turns back to her.

"Sorry," she says, earnestly enough. "I just wanted you to be more careful."

"Uh." Akira's mouth works wordlessly, apparently fumbling for the right response. "Thanks?"

"I'll give you the WiFi password, if you want. The king doesn't want the help to have access to it, but it's pretty easy to get into." She shifts from foot to foot, easing the door open another smidge. Her socked feet rub together, fidgeting. It's easily the most Futaba's spoken to someone that doesn't have hooves and a tail in years, and Sojiro can only hope this isn't a fluke. He had hoped she would've befriended someone a bit smarter than this kid—Makoto, maybe, she has a good head on her shoulders—but a friend is a friend, and Sojiro's happy all the same. "Peace offering?" she says tentatively.

Akira nods. "Sounds good."

"Great!" she turns around, a curtain of red hair whipping the door as she goes rooting around for a piece of paper to scribble on. The door slides open enough to put her room on display—the heavily shuttered windows, the glow-in-the-dark stickers on the wall, the snack wrappers bunched up around the trash can. And, of course, the massive computer screens piled together on the desk. If the king ever starts conducting room checks...

At Akira's bewildered glance, Sojiro runs a hand through his hair. "My daughter," he explains, not sure if that explains much, but perhaps a little. "She means well, I promise."

Futaba reappears with a slip of paper that she hands over like it's a drug deal. "Don't share it," she tells Akira, deadly serious. "Not unless they deserve it."

Akira nods. Futaba retains eye contact for a moment, as if searching for a lie, and then nods in the preciously precocious way a child imitating a businessman closing a deal might. She closes her bedroom door after that, having probably filled her quota of human interaction for the day, leaving Sojiro to make a mental note to remove that bug from the barn tonight. And to check for extras.

He looks at Akira. The kid's had a hell of a time here at the castle so far, but Sojiro can't quite scrounge up any sympathy when the guy seems to be seeking out trouble. Maybe Futaba was right, and he is unbelievably lucky it was only her eavesdropping ears listening in on whatever it is he and Akechi whisper to each other by moonlight.

"Hey," he says. "Make some time soon, will you? I'd like to have a little chat." He winces. "After we take down those wiretaps."

 

&

 

It's not that he's ignoring Goro, really. It's more that Akira is half-convinced that Goro doesn't really want to see him… or isn't ready to, at any rate. Whether it's on account of needing time to process their impromptu kiss or simply not wishing to consort with him again, Akira can't be certain. He just hopes it's the former. 

Then again, Goro definitely did kiss him. He may have taken the first step in breaking down the last remaining wall between them, but the second kiss had been all Goro's initiative, as though that wall had been holding back an onslaught of emotions, enough of them to drown in. 

All of that does help his case, he thinks.

And while he's considered going to find him, he also knows that Goro was the one that had left in a panic. Seeking him out—chasing him down, really—would feel desperate on his part, if nothing else. 

So he waits, deliberately staying up later than normal if only in the hopes that Goro might seek him out, as though the lateness of the hour would make any difference in his liability to make a potentially bad decision. 

For the most part, he tries to stay in predictable locations, places where Goro would know to find him. He takes breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the same time every day and stays in the barn otherwise. 

Surely, surely, Goro could use a good ride to clear his head. He keeps hoping, at any rate, glancing up at the door every time there's so much as a noise. 

So when Sojiro sends him on an errand into the palace, Akira feels a sense of dread wash over him at first, as though Goro is a kettle he's been watching patiently in the hopes of it coming to a boil—only to meet his expectations the second he's not there to witness it. 

Then again, maybe they'll cross paths. 

Still, he takes the papers with some reluctance, tracing familiar steps back to the palace, eyes hypersensitive to any hint of tawny hair he might spot coming down the hallway. 

It reminds him of their first meeting, back when he still thought Goro had been part of the help. It would have been easier, he thinks. Ryuji certainly was right about that. Akira can't help but wonder if that isn't precisely why he's been avoiding him. An easy, clean break. 

The thought hurts more than he cares to admit. 

He rounds a corner only to almost collide with someone, Akira's hands moving to steady both of them. 

Oh. Goro. Suddenly the very thing Akira has been hoping for terrifies him.

"Ah," Goro says, blinking as he takes a slow step back, Akira allowing his hands to drop once more. "Kurusu."

Kurusu. Has he been… demoted? Akira blinks. 

"Akira," he insists, a flush coming over Goro's features as if on cue. 

"This is rather public," Goro admits softly, his eyes darting around them as if looking for escape routes from this conversation. "And I don't wish to disrupt you—that is, your work—for that matter."

"You don't," Akira supplies, his own gaze fixed on Goro's rather nervous one. "You… haven't."

"Not… here," Goro tells him, shaking his head. He has a point, of course. Anyone could be listening where they are now. Futaba had been a sobering reminder of that fact.

"Come on," Akira says, moving to take Goro's hand as though it's the most natural thing in the world—and it is, in a lot of ways. He knows this area of the palace, luckily. Knows a place where people generally don't go. He leads Goro to the servant’s wing, down a quiet hall.

Opening a familiar door, he nods for his companion to slip inside before following, closing the door, and locking it, the two bathed in darkness—at least, until Akira reaches up to pull on the small drawstring to bring a small lightbulb to life. 

"This is… a closet," Goro says, ducking his head as he seems to take stock of how little space they have here. Less, it would seem, than Akira remembers having in his time here.

"This used to be my bedroom," he explains, glancing around with a frown. "They added some boxes, though. Sorry about that. Didn't expect it to be so cramped."

"It's fine."

"You wanted to talk?" 

It's not entirely true. Goro clearly didn't want to talk. If anything, he's too polite not to give in to Akira's puppy dog eyes—or something like it. 

"I… ah, yes."

"I didn't want to force it," Akira explains. "You seemed uncomfortable."

Goro doesn't say anything. Akira can only assume that it's because the only honest response to his words is I was.

A silence settles between them, uncomfortably charged. Goro looks awkward. His gaze is to the ground, fingers wrapped tightly around his arm—he looks as though he'd rather be anywhere else but here, talking about this. 

Finally, Goro allows the silence to crack, his words coming out faster than even he appears to have anticipated, as though he's itching to finally be rid of them.

"I’m extremely sorry if I’ve encouraged something I shouldn’t have as of late, or sent signals that confused you. I admit I do have feelings for you, but I feel to act on them would just cause both of us more harm than good. Thus, I do feel rather strongly that our…" the word relationship appears to cause him physical pain, "... affinity for one another needs to end here, regardless of how I or anyone else might feel." 

Akira feels a little as though the floor has dropped out from under him. His stomach hurts, blood pounding in his ears. It occurs to him that he's no longer holding Goro's hand. When did that happen? 

"Goro," he says, and moves to remedy the situation, his hand wrapping easily and comfortably around Goro's, the contact evidently surprising enough to him that chestnut eyes meet his for the first time since their near-collision. "Did the king find out?"

"What?"

"Is he telling you to do this?"

"No—no, this is simply… for the best." Akira can practically hear the for your own good lingering beneath Goro's words. He looks like he's about to cry. 

"Is this what you want?" Akira asks.

"I—what?"

Has anyone ever asked him that, he wonders? Probably not. 

"Are you doing this because it's something you want, or because you think it'll protect me? Because it's what the king expects, or what's expected of your title?"

Goro seems to wilt. "There are… a lot of reasons."

"Are any of them because you don't want this?" He said he had feelings for Akira, didn't he? His words already feel like they're a fever dream away, hazy and painful in his gut the longer he concentrates on them. 

"That's..." 

Goro's gaze falls to his lips, if only for a moment, and Akira can't help but mirror him. The closet is already cramped, but he takes a step forward regardless, his tongue darting out, practically baiting Goro to let his eyes fall to temptation once more. 

"You can tell me if you don't want this; I won't be offended."

"No, that's not—" Goro shakes his head, the motion faint. "I do… want this." 

His words border on a whisper, but they're enough to embolden Akira to shift closer, his hand moving to cup Goro's cheek, thumb tracing soft lines. 

He wants to… touch more of him. 

Goro exhales shakily, his eyes closing, lips parted just enough to tease at Akira's self-control. 

"I do, too," he says, and closes the distance between them. 

The kiss is soft, bordering on hesitant, but Goro still melts in his hands, eagerly returning the affection offered, not even bothering to stop when his back hits the wall. Instead, his fingers thread their way into Akira's hair to tangle in his curls, the motion more than encouraging enough in its own right. 

They're breathless by the time they break for air, the heady look in Goro's eyes telling Akira all he really needs to know. 

"This is… a terrible idea," he says, the last vestiges of a protest left on his tongue as Akira shakes his head, stealing another brief kiss from his lips. 

"Not if it's what you want." 

This time, Goro is the one to kiss him, teeth catching his bottom lip before he deepens their kiss, more frenzy and desperation edging its way into the motion once more, a restless echo of their second kiss out in the snow. 

Blindly, Akira reaches out for something to help stabilize him, the sound of his foot hitting a box startling them both back to reality after a long moment lost in each other. The silence between them is a comfortable one, the antithesis of their time out in the hallway earlier.

"I really like you," he tells him, his words almost painfully earnest, as though what he's really doing is presenting his heart to Goro on a silver platter and asking him for forgiveness for having fallen in love with someone far outside his station. "Can we try this, maybe? Us?"

"I want to," Goro admits, his voice hauntingly quiet. "I… like you, too."

"I know I'm not a prince, and that I can't know what you deal with, but… I still want this."

"We'll make it work," he hears Goro say, Akira's eyes going wide enough to draw a soft laugh from Goro's throat. "It's… worth an attempt, I suppose. If nothing else."

"Thanks, Your Highness."

"Goro," he insists, a smile edging its way onto his face, Akira unable to help but grin back at him. 

"How suspicious do you think it'll look for us to both sneak out of the closet at the same time?"

"Ah… I can only imagine that it will look extremely suspicious."

Akira steals another kiss from him, his hand moving to the door handle with a grin. "Give it a minute or so and then meet me in your office after you leave. I have a surprise for you."

 

&

 

Dazed doesn't even begin to describe how Goro feels by the time he gets back to his office as agreed upon. There is something… indescribably alluring about Akira, and a not-insignificant part of him feels rather like he was just swept off his feet.

Akira is not in his study, Goro finds when he finally allows himself to take in his surroundings, his knees still faintly weak from their kiss. No—kisses.

Goro finds himself simultaneously regretting all and none of them. 

Maybe Ann is right. Maybe this doesn't have to be earth-shatteringly serious. Even if it doesn't work out in the end—the most likely outcome, arguably—he will have gotten to enjoy himself. If Shido would be allowed to fool around with the help, there is no reason why Goro shouldn't be just as entitled to the same sort of dalliances. 

He's trying to be logical about this. Emotionally guarded. 

And then… Akira opens the door with his elbow, precariously balancing a tray in his palm, and shoots him the brightest smile he thinks he's ever seen. 

Ah. 

Once more, his knees feel weak, Goro finding himself suddenly grateful to be seated in his chair, very much stationary. 

"I made coffee," Akira explains, looking so damn hopeful that Goro just about forgets the memory of the coffee grounds in his teeth. "I've practiced."

This is what it is, he thinks. Goro can spend all his time convincing himself of what a terrible idea a relationship with a servant truly is, can regret every single time he's chosen to kiss Akira again and again… and then Akira smiles at him once and he forgets himself. 

How hopeless is he if he can be undone by a smile alone?

"Oh? With a filter this time, I take it?"

"A coarse-ground Colombian light roast. With a French press," Akira tells him, his smile bordering on smug as Goro stares at him. The implication hangs heavy in the air—that he went more than out of his way to learn about Goro's preferences. "Niijima-san taught me."

He can't imagine that Niijima would have gone easy on him. The tray is set down on the desk between them, Goro pulling it a bit closer to take a slow sip of the—evidently painstakingly-created—coffee.

"Mm—this is… surprisingly delicious."

"Doubting my dedication already?" 

Goro chuckles, a faint clink of porcelain sounding as he sets the cup back down. "Not at all. I'm actually quite impressed that you would be willing to go so far."

"I really like you," Akira tells him again, as though it ought to explain everything about his behavior. 

It doesn't. It really doesn't. At least not by Goro's estimation. But then again, he's never grown up with any shows of affection from his father. All of this is new to him. 

"Akira," he says slowly. "I'm certain that I don't need to tell you this, but. If we are to engage in this… relationship… then we need to be extremely careful. Whatever dangers you may have envisioned arising from our spending time around each other before..." Goro shakes his head. He's not sure how to express the magnitude of the severity involved—how grave the consequences would be. The thought of it alone makes Goro want to back out of their arrangement anew, but he's more than well aware that it would be cruel by this point—and not only to Akira, but to himself, as well. 

"I know," Akira says, nodding with a certainty that makes Goro frown. He doesn't. Doubts of Akira trying to get to Shido via him, fears of Shido finding out, and the greater consequences of this, even outside of the palace, have been on his mind nigh-continuously ever since Akira took his breath away with that first kiss, turning days and days of repressed fantasy into a reality he'd been hoping to ignore. To… continue ignoring. 

And now, here they are. At the very forefront of fledgling relationship. Practically standing on a damn welcome mat. 

The only problem is that, in Goro's mind, the welcome mat is situated right at the edge of a cliff. One misstep, and they're dead. Both of them, really, if he knows his father at all. 

Goro sighs. 

"My father is a concern, of course, but. If the media caught wind of this—" He hesitates. The fallout would be far bigger than just Shido. There would be consequences—long-term ones, even beyond just Akira's likely elimination. "They watch me like a hawk. As you can probably imagine, I am a very eligible bachelor in their eyes. Thus, if they caught wind of the fact that I'm involved with a man…" He has to bite his tongue to keep from calling theirs a gay relationship, his sexuality definitely not something that he's ready to pick apart and overanalyze right now. "My future in this kingdom and as its king would be on extremely shaky ground. It already is, for that matter, and I cannot jeopardize that." 

He takes another sip of his coffee, lukewarm by now. He wishes he could allow himself the luxury of focusing on its taste and not on the potential fallout of their relationship, Goro finding himself overwhelmed with concerns and feelings alike all over again.  

Is he gay? He certainly has non-platonic feelings for another man, feelings he's never experienced around anyone else before now. It would be convenient, certainly, if he could be in a position more easily approved of in Shido's eyes: one where he eyes every woman as a piece of meat instead of respecting them by default.  

This, meanwhile, is anything but convenient. It's complicated, messy, and far more intense than anything he's ever felt before—aside from anger, he supposes. Anger, resentment, grief—those things have always been at the forefront of his mind. Akira has brought a burst of color into his life he hasn't felt since before the death of his mother. If he's honest with himself, it's almost as though he forgot how to feel anything not intrinsically negative or neutral at best. He had small joys, certainly—the taste of good coffee, coming inside from the cold, long rides atop Robin Hood—but they were band-aids on a gushing wound at best. 

The taste of good coffee. The thought brings him back to the moment as he blinks down at the lovingly-crafted cup before him. 

"Thank you for this, Akira." Even as he says it, he's not certain if he's thanking him for the coffee or something else entirely. For bringing light and warmth back into his life, perhaps. Or for showing him actual, genuine affection for the first time since he was a child. 

He must have not heard him get up and round the table, because the next thing Goro knows, he's being near-startled out of his seat as Akira leans down to kiss him, soft in his movements. 

He pulls back too soon, still smiling, and Goro can't help but think he's in trouble. 

"Nothing to thank me for. You're jeopardizing a lot for me. To… be with me. I can't imagine that that's easy to do. So thank you."

Akira's words feel like a minefield. There's a lot to unpack there, none of which he particularly wants to. But he's right. He is jeopardizing a lot for him—that is, for them

"It's not just for you. It’s for me, too," he tells him, gaze dropping for a moment. Because it is. He's never had something like this, someone to care about. It's… nice. "I'm not so selfless as to put my entire future on the line for something I'm not equally invested in." 

And isn't that a terrifying prospect to consider. As much as he's—at least in part—convinced that this will inevitably end in disaster and his quite likely heartbreak, he cannot escape the fact that he is invested in this. 

"I'm glad," Akira says, his hand moving to cup Goro's cheek, thumb tracing the skin there. He's… affectionate. It's so starkly different from what Goro is used to that he surprises himself when he leans into his touch. 

But no—he wants to enjoy this. 

Getting up from his seat, he makes sure the curtains are closed and the door is locked before he returns his attention to Akira, surprised to feel a smile growing on his own features. 

"Kiss me again," he says, and finds his mind no longer swimming with an endless sea of potential regrets, Goro's elation fuelled more by relief than anything else. 

But even that is cast aside when Akira guides him to sit at the edge of his desk, takes his face in his hands, and kisses him again, a sensation dizzying enough to get lost in. 

"Again," he whispers between heady kisses, pleased to find that Akira knows how to take orders from his prince in these moments, when it really matters.

 

&

 

The goofy little smile on Akira's face tells Sojiro all he needs to know when he comes back to the stables after dinner. He's seen that smile before, on his own face in the mirror, right around the time when he met Wakaba and had his brain stuffed to the brim with thoughts of her. Akira's in a whole mess of trouble if he's even half in love with the prince as Sojiro was with her.

These people run in different circles, live by different morals. The sooner Akira knows that, the better.

"You forgot to muck out the stalls before lunch," Sojiro says as Akira slides the door shut behind himself.

"Oh. Sorry about that," Akira says. "I'll take care of it."

Sojiro watches him shrug his coat off and grab a shovel. The kid's got a good work ethic, but he's obviously given to distraction. At least, one distraction in particular.

A paternal instinct pulls on Sojiro, one he didn't used to have. Life was tons easier before he felt the need to offer help to every miscreant and misplaced youth that happened to stumble over his barn, Futaba just the start of the pack, but turning back now feels impossible. He knows Akira has a good support system, but friends giving you advice doesn't automatically equal friends giving you good advice. And frankly, Sojiro can only imagine the information that that Sakamoto kid is cramming into Akira's ears.

He glances over as Akira swings open the door to Johanna's stall. He'd love to put this off, if not delay it indefinitely, but he also knows—disturbingly—that young love moves without a speed limit. Best to get this out of the way as soon as possible.

"Maybe we should have that talk now," Sojiro says. God help him if he ever has to do the same with Futaba one day. "Come on over here."

He beckons Akira out of the stall with a weary hand. The moment Akira stands in front of him, however, he loses any idea of how to do this, where to even begin. He looks at Akira, which turns out to be a mistake, because nightmarish swarms of what Futaba could've possibly overheard happening in these stables assault Sojiro at the sight of his face.

He pinches the skin between his eyebrows. "Listen. About you and Akechi." He braces himself with a deep breath. "I don't know what Futaba listened in on, but I'm assuming there's... something there. Between the two of you."

Akira hesitates a moment. It's complicated, then. Sojiro knows complicated.

"There is, but it's... new," Akira says. "Futaba didn't overhear anything except us talking."

If that's a lie, Sojiro's happy to pretend it isn't for the sake of his sanity.

"And you know what you're doing here? Both of you?" he asks.

Akira nods with a conviction that's almost amusingly naive. Still, Sojiro doesn't want to entirely pop the bubble—he remembers what it was like to feel like this, young and in love and on top of the world, totally invincible. He wasn't, of course, but he wouldn't have liked it very much back then if someone would've snapped the illusion in front of his face.

"Whatever it is between you—you know it's not ever going to be normal, right?" Sojiro asks gently. "Him being a prince—maybe it feels like some star-crossed lover thing right now, but it's more complicated than that."

"I know that."

"Do you?" Sojiro searches the kid's face. It's so easy to get blinded by love, even easier to be burned by it, especially when you don't see the flame hurtling at you from behind. "You date the prince, you date the whole damn crown. You get what I'm saying?" Akira nods. Sojiro is pretty sure he doesn't, but maybe that's one of those lessons you have to live and learn in order to understand. "Who else knows?"

"My friends at the castle," he says. "Ryuji, Makoto, Yusuke."

"Any of them likely to squeal on you to someone who shouldn't know?" Sojiro frowns, scrubbing at his beard. "That Ryuji's got a loud mouth." And a tendency to screw over anyone in a six-foot distance thanks to it, although greater distances have been reached.

"He won't say anything. None of them will."

Well, the wheels are in motion now, no matter if Akira's right about his friend's loyalty or not. The thing is, Sojiro doesn't know how to properly explain without putting the fear of death in Akira that the king—should he find out—isn't just some garden variety protective dad. He's a ruthless leader with an entire arsenal of punishments up his sleeve, none of them particularly fair. His and Akechi's relationship ending would most likely be the kindest consequence of them all.

Then again, he's likely well aware of at least that much, seeing as he's sleeping up in the hayloft.

The bit that probably hasn't occurred to him yet, Sojiro thinks, is that nursing some sort of secret affair is all fine and good for the short term, but is just not sustainable for the long run. Any relationship meant to be kept in the shadows has numbered days, and Sojiro has the sinking feeling that Akira hasn't stepped into all this looking for an offhand fling.

No good in pointing that out. Sojiro doesn't take pleasure in being a wet rag on someone else's good time.

But there's still one last thing he should probably mention. Sojiro shuts his eyes, praying for the escape of death. When it doesn't come, he plows on.

"So you and Akechi," he starts. "You haven't..." He uses his fingers as props, twining them together. He regrets everything the second he does it and Akira's eyes pop wide open. "Have you?"

"No," Akira says immediately, like the word's an arrow shooting out of his mouth. "No, we haven't. And we won't—not here."

Can Sojiro get that in writing? Engraved, preferably, on metalwork. "And... you'll be safe?"

"Safe? Oh. Yes. Yes."

Sojiro grunts. "Good." Is he supposed to elaborate? Pass on some words of wisdom, some tips? Hell, he's not the boy's father, but his father's not here right now, is he? "Do you... need me to continue?"

The discomfort must be radiating off of him in waves, because Akira can't seem to shake his head fast enough. "I got it," he says.

Sojiro nods. Akira nods back. A few feet away, Johanna whinnies, which is Sojiro's cue to find a new conversation topic. He claps his hands together, straightening up. If life will be nice to him, he'll never have to repeat this conversation ever again, Futaba included. Futaba can just stick to tentative friendships.

And Akechi… well. Despite the fact that Sojiro is positive the guy doesn't have a responsible enough parental figure to give him the same chat, Sojiro won't be extending the same lesson to the prince. He just won't.

"Right," he says, gruff once more. "Back to the manure, then. And make sure to bring it to the greenhouse later for composting."

 

&

 

Ann can think of far more places that are beautiful—and far more beautiful than her, at that. It would be easy. She could fight harder to gain access to the antiques room, could hire a car to take them out to the beach or into the mountains to gain access to a view of the whole country from up high. They could go into town and simply people watch, bearing witness to countless beautiful moments whether they be between parents and children, siblings or couples. They could look at the lights of the Christmas market, or witness the sunrise from the roof of the castle, like she's done with Goro before.

Today, though, she's being somewhat selfish in her choice, and she knows it. After all, though the view before her might be deemed traditionally beautiful, it's extra special for her.

Yusuke steps into the room with the surprise already painted on his face, Ann brightening the second she sees him.

"Yusuke! You made it!" 

Too much? Probably.

"Did we have a session scheduled for today?"

"Nope!" Which was a bold choice on her part, she knows, but she's been losing her mind from boredom. While it might be enough for Goro to survive off of, as an extrovert, one human interaction a day is simply not sufficient for her own particular needs. 

"Ah, well. No matter, I suppose. Did you intend for this to be our final destination, or are you here to pick me up?"

"This is the destination!"

"But..." He looks around, as though a second viewing of his surroundings might serve to further enlighten him. "This is my studio."

"Yep!"

They're surrounded by works nearing their completion, half-finished paintings, and blank canvases. The floor is rough and worn, old wood made to look older yet by paint splatters of all colors. A small stool, currently occupied by Ann, is situated at the center of the room, an easel before her and a paint palette to her right. 

"I don't understand. This is the very opposite of beauty. This is the… painful truth of the artist's heart."

"Not to me. I know you might not see it the same way, but I wanted you to get to see what I find most beautiful. You work so hard all the time and create so much beauty for everyone else—I could have just as easily brought you into the hall with all the art of the royal family. Or we could have gone to the museum—but this is the work behind the scenes. Everyone sees a gorgeous finished product, but they don't see how many hours of blood, sweat, and tears went into that finished product. But—I do. Or, um, I want to. Being here makes me feel really special, Yusuke."

Her chest feels warm. It's a strange feeling, Ann smiles at him as she finds herself suddenly hoping for him to realize…

To realize what, exactly? 

Her eyes fall to his sketchbook as she nods at it. "I'd probably feel the same way looking at those."

That seems to startle Yusuke out of his momentary lapse in focus. He flushes more deeply as he glances down at his sketchbook and hurriedly places it down on the small table housing his paints. "Ah, hardly. I—thank you, Ann. For sharing with me your conception of beauty. It… truly means more to me than I can say." 

"I'm kind of out of things to show you." Liar. "But… I also don't really want this to be the end." 

Her fingers tucked under her thighs, one leg crossed over the other, she leans into him, even though he's half a room away. 

Her heart is beating almost impossibly fast. Is she… flirting? Has she been flirting with him all this time? 

Has he been flirting back?

No, she would have noticed that. She notices Kamoshida's flirting, after all. 

So, then… maybe it's just her. 

"I agree," he admits somewhat softly. He looks like he's doing his damnedest to puzzle something out, something bordering on impossible. In a lot of ways, she thinks she knows how he feels, if nothing else. "I do feel much the same way."

"In that case, do you have time now?"

"I wish I did. Unfortunately, I only returned here briefly to retrieve some additional paints. The king had an impromptu request regarding the decor, and I hope to be able to accommodate him."

"Oh." The sting of disappointment strikes her harder than she expected. Ann hopes it doesn't show on her face. "That's okay. Next time, maybe?"

"Certainly," Yusuke tells her, smiling as he retrieves two tubes of colors and steps to the door. "You're welcome to stay as long as you like, of course. Please, consider my home as you would your own. Especially if you see beauty in it as I do not."

He steps out, and Ann is left wondering if he was born with the soul of an artist and a poet, or if it was something that grew in his chest, not entirely unlike how she feels now. It's an overwhelming thing, as if it resents being held back only by her lack of understanding. 

She picks up his sketchbook and allows herself to leaf through it. There are the occasional portrait mockups, animal sketches and landscape outlines, but… 

Most of it is just… her. 

None of them are even remotely lewd or inappropriate. Most of them are just of her face or her neck and arms—but they're all candid. Some, she recognizes as scenes from their time together, Ann munching happily away as she takes another bite of cake, Ann laughing, Ann posing in one of her outfits, Ann flushing from being referred to as Ann-chan… 

Her silhouette is featured, too, from when she was changing for him, but it's not remotely pornographic. It just strikes her as beautiful. 

She flips a page to find a sketch of their held hands. Even though it’s a simple subject, it’s obvious that Yusuke spent a great deal of time laboring over the details, everything from the shading of the knuckles to the curve of the nail-beds exact. Ann swallows hard.

How has she been such an idiot? 

She's in love with him. 

"Ah," Yusuke's voice rings out clearly from a few steps away, Ann realizing vaguely that the door had opened when she wasn't paying attention. "I seem to have forgotten a few things in my haste," he tells her, leaving her wondering when words that seemed so simple to articulate before have now turned into molasses in her throat. There's a lump there, half-unspoken words, half-unshed tears, and she can't help but think that this must be how Goro feels. All the time.

"Yeah," she hears herself say, Yusuke answering her with an open smile. He's spent the last several sessions looking at her like she's his sun, so maybe it's not hopeless yet, not entirely. 

He slips back out of his studio and Ann decides, then and there, to come up with a plan. She just needs to find a way to cleverly allude to her feelings without making an absolute fool of herself. It ought to be doable. 

Possibly.

 

&

 

Peach jam oozes off the side of Goro's piece of toast. His bread was served a bit jam-heavy today, too soggy for Goro's liking. He doesn't mind too much, if only because his lunches have been particularly enjoyable lately, filling in both food and company. Akira's been making a habit of stopping by Goro's office in the afternoon with a tray of coffee and sandwiches.

Goro can get away with skipping lunches with the excuse of too much work. Breakfast, though—Shido would disapprove if Goro avoided him during every meal of the day, to say nothing of suspecting something to be amiss. Even a prince can only be busy with so many things a day without making time for meals.

Across the table, over the candlesticks and the sugar bowl, Shido is cutting into a piece of fruit. Without looking up, he says, "I'm inviting Okumura and his daughter to come a few days earlier than the ball."

Ruffled tumult rises in Goro's stomach, a wave that disturbs his breakfast. He lets himself chew a bite of bread before speaking, but the pause is too long for Shido's liking.

"Do you have an issue with that?"

Goro meets his steely gaze. "No," he says.

Shido doesn't believe him, but he doesn't press it. He digs his knife in the rind of his fruit, precise in his slice. "I hope you realize that a marriage that solidifies the kingdom's ties to the country's most dominant businesses would be beneficial for all involved. You included."

Goro rolls his lips inward before he speaks, allowing himself a moment to bite back whatever bitter poison was about to wing its way out. "Is that so?"

"You're aware that I've expressed reticence in you ascending to the throne... to disrupt the royal bloodline, to allow the child of an affair to become king." Shido's gaze is unerring, boring into Goro's, searching for the slightest hint of a defiant emotion. "But... I would be willing to reconsider the law currently in place if you were to show me dedication to the kingdom. Loyalty to what it needs. Taking a wife would undoubtedly be a step in that direction."

An impulse of blind savagery strikes Goro. He wonders what it would feel like: to lunge across the table and heave forward with the sharp ends of the fork first, straight through Shido's crisp, ironed shirt until it's colored deep red.

Goro closes his eyes, pulling the brutal urges inward. To act on impetuous compulsions would be a slap in the face to months of planning. He's not a child; he can control a violent tantrum just fine, even if Shido's blatant manipulation of Goro's goals—unreachable, still—are slowly dragging him to boiling point. He tugs himself back to a gentle simmer.

"I see," he says. "If a suitable union would help to convince you that I am willing to make sacrifices for the sake of the country, I will consider it."

"Do so," Shido says. "And if I were you, I wouldn't take too long making your decision, before I change my mind."

Shido snaps his fingers to bring Niijima over from the doorway to clear away his plate. Goro looks pointedly away, concentrating on his own, just in case she tries to shoot him a sympathetic glance. He doesn't want it. He listens to the heavy thuds of Shido's retreating footsteps, the sounds of silverware and porcelain plates being cleaned up. Goro could learn to envy even a servant in moments like these. How simple it must be, to wash dishes, to prepare beds, to follow orders, but to have no obligations otherwise.

He abandons his breakfast early, still hungry, but with no real appetite to motivate him to continue. He has work to do today, is supposed to meet with Kitagawa about plans for the royal holiday portrait, sort out the dietary restrictions for the guests coming to the ball with the head chef, and at least a dozen other chores Shido's saddled him with, but he doesn't feel like working on any of them. Not now, after that disastrous breakfast. It must've looked quite calm to the unbiased outsider, but Goro's thoughts are tumbling around inside his head like a lone coin in a dryer.

Goro tries seeking refuge inside his office, but finds the atmosphere too claustrophobic for the time being: the clock's ticking too loud, the chair's padding too hard, the tall pile of papers on the desk offensive. He gives up on the idea of horse riding for a release, too, in fear of Akira—or worse, Sakura—being at the stables and then asking about the sour look on Goro's face and the obviously bad mood he's in.

He ends up opting for the spot behind the castle where he can set up an archery range. It's not something he typically does in the wintertime, the wind too strong and the cold too bracing, but right now, Goro welcomes the rough chill.

The equipment is all in the shed by the greenhouse. Goro normally asks someone else to prepare it for him, but in the interest of avoiding human contact for the time being, he opts to take care of it himself. He sets up the target a good ways away on the path, just enough of a challenge to distract him. The aged wood of the bow is familiar, as is the design of the arrows, all things he's taken comfort in before. They're a strangely cold solace now. Goro can't help but notice that all things that used to hold warmth have gotten a little colder lately the closer he gets to his goal, or, at the very least, the plan to achieve it.

(Except for Akira, perhaps.)

He tries to bottle his anger, brought down to spitting embers, into the arrowhead in an attempt to let go of it as he shoots the arrow off to his target. His archery gloves do little to ward off the frigid cold, numbing his fingers and tampering with his accuracy. The arrow lands in the blue middle ring, wobbling as its momentum settles.

Shido has a bad habit of getting under his skin like this. No matter how hard Goro tries to thicken it, armor it, refuse to let him in, he always manages. Shido’s too familiar with where the leaks are, where his vulnerabilities lay. Goro takes in a deep, crisp breath, and steadies the bow again as he draws another arrow and slots it into place.

He shuts one eye, focusing on the blur of the target in the distance. He’s gone further than this before, and with success, but his mind is a bit too scattered for him to appreciate the challenge this morning. He tries to will his hand into complete stillness. When he lets go, the fletching whizzes past his ear, disturbing Goro’s hair as it goes. Better, but still not what he’s capable of.

Goro inhales again, more slowly, deliberately, this time. Shido nudges his way back under his steadied composure, as well as all his implications about Okumura and the future of the kingdom. The ultimatum he's essentially sat in front of Goro.

The next arrow suffers the brunt of Goro’s irritation. He snaps it into place and lets it go with little to no preamble, watching it zoom off and smack into the outer layer. The uncoordinated strength behind it is too clumsy to stick, the arrow flopping into the snow after a crooked attempted landing.

Footsteps crunch on the snow behind Goro, but he doesn’t bother to turn and look; instead, he squares his jaw and focuses on what he should be doing—calming down. He grabs another arrow with renewed zeal.

The footsteps stop no further than a few feet away. It isn’t until a pair of arms wrap around Goro from behind that he lowers the bow and turns to look, and, certainly enough, Akira’s there, tucking his chin into the crook of Goro’s neck.

“Hi,” Akira whispers into his ear. “You’re going to catch a cold without a bigger coat on.”

Goro looks down at his gray peacoat, currently obscured by Akira’s warm arms. Not his winter coat, but thick enough for a small archery session nonetheless. He really hadn’t wanted to stop and worry about scarves and hats earlier, not when he was desperately craving a few gulps of fresh air and a clearer head. His head’s certainly clearing up, but what’s left inside it isn’t all that pleasant.

“How did you find me?” Goro asks.

“I saw you from the window.”

Goro’s downcast gaze flies upward at that, scanning the windows of the palace for watching silhouettes. With regret present, but still taking a backseat to caution, Goro twists out of Akira’s grip.

Akira seems to understand well enough. “The window in the stables,” he clarifies.

“Still.” Goro shakes his head, glancing up at the windows once more: tall, arching, latticed, and thankfully still free of any spying eyes. “You never know who may be watching.”

The walls have ears, as they say. And eyes, and noses, and high-tech, well-hidden surveillance equipment. The last thing Goro needs right now is for Shido to withdraw his offer—as noxious as it is, as much as it turns his stomach—because he oversaw something he shouldn’t have from his office window. In broad daylight. In clothes that stand out against the stark white snow.

“You look busy,” Akira mentions.

“Just occupied." Goro slides his thumb over the curve of his bow, worn smooth by years of handling. Aside from riding, archery is one of the few outlets he lets himself indulge in, and one of the few Shido actually allowed when Goro was exploring his options. Far too many sports weren't fit for the makings of a prince.

Now that Goro hopes to be king, Shido's list of demands and expectations on him seems to have doubled, if not tripled. Assuming he ever even passed the bar to be a prince in his father's eyes.

Goro glances over to see Akira carefully watching him. What must he be reading off of Goro's face, he wonders. Something in Akira's eyes always makes Goro feel—distressfully—like his emotions are on the surface for the taking, rather than in the murky swirl he typically has them confined in deep inside.

"It was a rough morning for me," he explains, more honest than he expects himself to be. He draws another arrow, hoping Akira will recognize it as a sign that he's more interested in a distraction than a heart-to-heart. "But I don't want to bore you with the details."

Akira doesn't press the matter, which Goro is grateful for. "All right," he says. 

Goro expects him to say more, but his eyes are trained on the arrow Goro is preparing. The audience is only slightly unsettling; Goro's well familiar with what it's like to have eyes on him, but usually not while he's practicing his aim. "Interested in archery?" he asks.

"Interested in watching you do archery," Akira replies.

He waits, clearly expectant. Goro doesn't know why he's nervous, not when he's been doing this for years. His fingers flex on the arrow. When he pulls it back and releases—half of his concentration falling to the wayside to make room for the suspense of Akira's watchfulness—it lands in the red, a hair's breadth away from the gold.

For a moment, they both examine the result. "Not bad," Akira says. His shoulder bumps against Goro's. "Have you been doing this long?"

"Since I was a child," Goro says. 

He grabs another arrow, determined to do better. It pays off this time: the arrow zips straight into gold, only about a centimeter away from the pinhole. Goro lowers his bow, pleased, pleasure which multiplies when he notices Akira's impressed smile.

He extends his bow. "Would you like to give it a try?" he asks.

"Me?"

"I wouldn't give my bow to just anyone," Goro says. He's going for a teasing tone, but Akira looks flattered nonetheless, gingerly grabbing the bow. He runs his fingertip along the bowstring, feeling its bounce, its resistance.

"If I do badly—"

"You won't."

"But if I do—will I be punished, Your Highness?"

Goro fights the urge to roll his eyes, instead throwing Akira a look. The shadow of a smile—the first one he's felt all morning—creeps up Goro's mouth. He positions himself at Akira's side. "I'll coach you," he says. "Give it a try, and I'll help with some pointers."

Akira grabs an arrow, slotting it into place. He does his best to emulate Goro's form, but his beginner's errors are rife in his stance: an over-rotated elbow, too much tension where he's hooked his fingers into the bowstring, no anchor point in sight. Goro doesn't laugh—he knows he was the same once, when he first started out—and instead gently guides Akira's arm into place.

"Relax your shoulders," he says, kneading the tense muscles until he can feel the stiffness subside. "Tilt your elbow to the left—no, just a bit. There you go."

He folds his fingers over the white-knuckled claws Akira's made of his fingers, waiting for them to loosen their grip. They're gloveless, but still carrying warmth, and Goro is loath to let go. He never found archery instruction to be intimate—not before, anyway, possibly because his mentor was an erratic, elderly expert rather than a lithe, handsome stable boy—but it certainly feels particularly affectionate now, confidential, something Goro wouldn't want anyone else to see.

Akira's arm is starting to tremble under the bow's strain, although his expression is doing its best to not appear affected. Goro takes mercy on him. "One last piece of advice," he says. "Find a spot to anchor the string to. Try your chin."

Akira does so. "Can I let go now?"

Goro grins. "Yes."

The arrow rockets to the target. It doesn't hit the buttress, which is an accomplishment in of itself considering Akira's little more than a tenderfoot novice. Goro has the feeling he's never so much as picked up a bow before; although, to be fair, archery is the sort of hobby exclusive to the crowds Goro tends to run in, and not so much the sport of a suburban commoner. Hitting the outermost circle is still something to be proud of.

Akira puffs out his disbelief. "Are you sabotaging me?"

"You might just be beyond coaching," Goro admits. He curls a hand over his burgeoning smile, doing a dreadful job of hiding it. "Try again."

Akira does, some part of himself apparently reacting to the challenge to prove himself. Or better himself, probably. Goro watches him prepare another arrow, this time taking great care with the positioning of his feet, the level of his eyes. The concentration visible in his gaze looks familiar, and it takes Goro a moment to recognize it in himself as a look he's seen before in the mirror.

The second arrow does better, grazing the edge of the outermost red ring.

"Again," Akira insists.

The third is better still, and the fourth—and last in Goro's quiver—is a lucky shot that winds up smack in the bull's eye zone, although it misses the pinhole. Goro can see the strength of a natural in Akira, prepubescent talent that could be honed granted enough time and effort. He could probably easily pick up all the skills necessary of a King's Consort under Goro's training.

Not that he would ever need such a thing. Akira's no different from the servants Goro was envying this morning, living a simple life—or, at least, simpler than Goro's. He takes a breath, sliding his hand to Akira's shoulder.

"What do you think?" Akira asks.

"Not bad. But there's room for improvement. As there are in most things." Goro smiles, taking the bow from Akira. "And now, the archer has the esteemed job of retrieving his arrows."

"Okay. On one condition." A thief-like slyness narrows Akira's eyes. He leans in to whisper his request into Goro's ear. "Kiss for the lucky beginner?"

A thrill runs through Goro. He's not sure how it's possible; he's kissed Akira plenty of times by now. Surely the excitement should be waning, rather than intensifying. The science of all this—romance, passion, the strong appetite Goro's had lately for seeing Akira sans clothing—is new to him, not something Goro's ever bothered to explore before. It never felt like a possibility in Goro's life, much less a priority. Duty before love is the motto of any royal, with arranged marriages all too commonplace.

It's a thought that reminds Goro of exactly what he was trying to avoid, roiling the butterflies Akira brought into his stomach back into caterpillar cocoons, but Akira pulling back to let Goro see his happy smile appeases Goro's upset stomach. He knows it's irresponsible, given the extremely public backdrop Akira's chosen for their kiss, not to mention Goro's own warnings for them to be cautious, but he lets his own desires surge to the front of the queue for a selfish moment. He leans in and gives Akira what he's asked for.

The kiss is brief, chaste as well, but still warms Goro considerably in the cold air. He shivers his way into just one more kiss afterwards, this one slightly longer than the first. Akira doesn't seem to mind, hands curling around the thick fabric of Goro's coat at his elbows.

Goro's eyes still flick to the windows after they pull away from each other, just checking. No beady eyes to see from behind frosted windows. He lets out a breath of relief, one Akira is kind enough not to tease him for.

"For that second kiss, I'll get your arrows, too," Akira says to him, his lips just a little wet from where Goro's kissed them. Goro feels his ears go pink at the sight.

Chapter Text

Sojiro is squeaking a wheelbarrow of fresh hay to the stables when he notices the big white delivery truck parked right by the door. He stops, waiting for the car to drive by, closer to the servant's entrance, where most if not all deliveries are dealt with. It doesn't. The engine rumbles to a stop instead.

"Hey," Sojiro calls out as the driver hops from his seat, door swinging open. "Drop off point is actually closer to the palace."

The driver, clipboard in hand, is already consulting delivery papers. Sojiro takes the moment to examine the truck. TANAKA'S MATTRESS EMPORIUM arches over the side. Sojiro's mind zooms to unpleasant places.

He folds his arms over his chest. "You delivering a mattress?" he asks.

"Yup. And I have specific instructions to bring it to the stables right here." The guy taps the information on his clipboard. "Not the palace."

"Uh huh." Sojiro scratches his chin. He has the feeling he already knows the answer to his next question, but asks it anyway. "Who's it for?"

The man checks his papers again. "Akira Kurusu," he says. "You him?"

"No. But I know him." Sojiro glances briefly at the truck again, and all the suggestions therein. A mattress is only good for two things, only one of which should be happening in his barn. Still, chasing the delivery guy and the prince's generous present off might veer a little bit too much into the territory of a protective father chasing a boyfriend's singing telegram off with a shotgun.

He signals for the man to wait while he fetches Akira. Sojiro finds him on the path coming back from the palace, laundered saddle pads in hand. His stride slows considerably when he sees Sojiro, less than pleased, hoofing it toward him.

"Something wrong?" Akira asks.

Sojiro cocks his head to the stables, where the truck is still waiting. "Come with me."

His tone of voice brooks no argument. Akira follows along, stopping only when he sees the delivery truck, feet stuttering to a halt. Sojiro watches his eyes read the company name, mouth twitching.

"You know anything about this?" Sojiro asks as the delivery man starts hauling a mattress out of the back. Thick, fluffy, and resplendently white. All bought and paid for. Not the sort of thing the average stable hand would be specially presented with. Also not the sort of thing that tends to fit into a grimy old barn, where Sojiro can only assume it'll stick out like a vanity table in a pigpen.

"I don't," Akira says. He sounds startled enough that Sojiro believes him. "Do you—do you think—"

"Yeah," Sojiro says. The urge to roll his eyes pulls at him, really tugs, but Sojiro holds back. "You might want to ask your prince pal."

Akira signs a few delivery forms, then watches alongside Sojiro in stunned silence as the mattress gets lugged up into his hayloft space, squeezing in next to—when did that Christmas tree get there? It looks just as incongruous as expected surrounded by hay and aging wood. Within a few minutes, Morgana has already hopped on top of it, inspecting it for prime kneading spots.

Sojiro grabs Akira by the sleeve before he can check it out, too. For all he knows, the mattress is just a somewhat innocent gift meant to soothe Akira's back after night after night on nothing but scratchy sheets and hay, but on the other hand, there's something overtly provocative about giving someone a bed as a present. Back in Sojiro's day, that's the sort of come-hither gift that would've meant business.

He shudders just thinking about Akechi's intentions. If he wasn't a damn prince, Sojiro would be having a the-barn-is-not-a-brothel conversation with him, too.

"This isn't—some sort of invitation, is it?" Sojiro asks.

"No. No." Akira stopping to think about it isn't very reassuring. "I think he just wanted me to sleep better."

Sweet, but terrifying in equal measure. Sojiro stares down that extremely out-of-place mattress, Morgana perched in the center, and prays everything that'll ever happen on it will remain G-rated, regardless of whether or not Futaba's stopped listening in. It feels like a prayer that wisps away into smoke, too impossible to actually have any chance. He's seen the longing looks those two idiots keep throwing at each other, how they wander around together outside the castle sometimes.

"That's nice of him," Sojiro scrounges up in terms of what on earth to say in response. It is, after all, if Akechi really does have Akira's well-being at heart. Considering that Sojiro was half-convinced that the prince had a carefully-chiseled heart of stone to keep intruders out, this might actually be a good thing. People can surprise you sometimes. "I'll see if I can get some better sheets for you while we're at it. There might be some extra ones in the linen closet no one would notice are missing if you're lucky."

"You don't have to."

Sojiro sighs. "I know I don't have to, but it's only the decent thing to do." He glances at Akira, smirking. "The prince seems to agree with me on that."

Akira opens his mouth, as if to make excuses. Sojiro claps him on the shoulder before he can.

"It's all right. It's nice to see. Just... be careful."

"I know," Akira says. There's a good chance lots of people have been saying the same thing to him as of late. "And thanks."

 

&

 

There's a note discreetly taped to the back of Akira's schedule for the day. Makoto doesn't acknowledge it, doesn't even give off any inclination that she herself realizes it's there, just presses it into Akira's hand and walks off. When Akira unfolds it—carefully, like it's part of a secret mission—he recognizes Goro's handwriting.

My office, 1 pm?

Even the question mark is endearing. As if Akira would ever even consider saying no. He tucks the note back into his pants, hidden from view of any prying eyes.

The day passes by on a snail's back after that, the excitement slowing down all his chores into a torturous crawl. The horses all take forever to be properly exercised, and the measuring of their food seems even duller than usual, and then there's the matter of Akira's mind wandering about to places it shouldn't when he's working—or in public, really—because he's too focused on his clandestine meeting with Goro after lunch.

He'll have to find a way to show his appreciation for the mattress, in a manner grander than coffee this time. Last night's sleep was a dream compared to the usual lumpy slumber he's been enduring, his bed now all bounce and warmth.

He slips away from the stables while Sojiro is finishing up lunch, still blissfully unaware of Akira's truancy, and heads for the palace. He has to duck behind a pillar when he hears Makoto's shoes clacking down the hall, as he's not exactly keen to explain what's going on—or rather, what he hopes will soon be going on—and waits until the coast is clear before hurrying to Goro's office.

Upon standing in front of the massive oak door, Akira fiddles with his watch, checking the time. He's a few minutes early.

He knocks on the door anyway. "Housekeeping," Akira says against the wood.

The door flings open a few seconds later. Goro goes from narrowed eyebrows to slightly flustered as he realizes Akira's the only one there, and Ryuji hasn't shown up at exactly the wrong moment to dust Goro's bookshelves. He peers nonchalantly down the hall, and then—finding it empty—grabs a fistful of Akira's shirt and yanks him inside.

Upon further inspection, Goro's nerves aren't the only thing slightly off—he's also shucked off his upscale jacket, leaving him in nothing but a short-sleeved button-down, a look far more casual than Akira's seen him in before, the most laid-back previously being an argyle sweater vest, and there's nothing inherently laid-back about argyle.

"I didn't bring coffee this time," Akira says. "Hope that's okay."

"That's fine," Goro says. The smile he shoots Akira is openly nervous. "Honestly, I just wanted to see you."

Akira feels, not for the first time, like a teenager skipping class to make out with someone behind the bleachers. He comes a bit closer, but still far enough away that Goro can explain to him he's misinterpreting the purpose of this visit—although he really hopes he isn't.

"Just to see me?" Akira asks. The privacy of the room is making him bold.

Goro's responding chuckle is still a product of nerves, but amusement has wormed its way in as well. His hand reaches out to curl around the side of Akira's neck, thumb brushing over his jawline. "Other activities can be arranged. What did you have in mind?"

Akira gives him a sample: a gentle, closed-mouth kiss that goes on just long enough to inspire an encore. The hand on his jaw tightens before it weaves its way around to his hair, pulling Akira closer.

"I believe I'm a fan of your plan," Goro admits. "But, uh—" He looks over his shoulder at the expanse of papers spread out over the desk, the paperweights, the pencil holders. A bit messier than Akira's seen Goro be before. "Careful with the desk."

He kisses Akira again, and Akira lets himself melt into it, wrapping his arms around Goro's shoulders. Something about this is unfairly intoxicating. He'll gladly forego all future bathroom breaks in favor of this, of sneaking into Goro's office just to get his fix of Goro's lips, hands, neck, waist. He pulls at the fabric of Goro's shirt, the familiar scent of Goro's laundry detergent tickling Akira's nose as he frees it from his pants, eager to brush his hands over the soft warmth of Goro's stomach.

Goro pulls away, breath hitching.

"Ticklish?" Akira asks.

Goro's mouth twitches.

"So that's a yes," Akira says.

"No comment."

Goro quickly captures his mouth again instead. If he has objections to Akira's roaming hands, he isn't sharing them, leaving Akira to gently continue his exploration, this time avoiding his sensitive stomach and moving instead over the sides of his torso, the dip of his waist. Akira leans them forward, right up against the edge of the desk, pushing them together close enough that Akira feels as if they may just fuse together.

If any parts of Goro exist that need steadying, Akira's touch seems to be placating them. Akira's only guessing, but he's fairly sure that Goro's areas of expertise—of which there are astoundingly many—don't involve this.

The bulge in his pants, however, seems to imply that he'd be interested in discovering more.

Akira feels his coherence swim as Goro lets a sweet noise out that falls straight into Akira's mouth. It's not just intoxicating; it's disorienting, a bit like swimming too deeply underwater. Akira tips away from Goro's lips to kiss him softly on the cheek, and then the chin, and then the sensitive spot right under his ear. The last one earns him a tremble.

"This okay?" Akira murmurs. It feels borderline belittling to ask, but it feels callous to not.

Goro's nod rubs their cheeks together. "It is," he says. "Although, truth be told, my office might not be the ideal space for—for—"

He stops. Akira begs to differ—so many flat surfaces call out to him, as well as some upright surfaces that could also be fun—but if he was in Goro's position, he's not sure he could ever get work done in here ever again with the knowledge that he's come against that bookcase over there burned into his brain, not to mention that Goro might want the memory of his first dick-on-dick contact to be slightly less rushed and slightly more romantic. That's fine. They can just make out for an hour, or two, or three, as far as Akira's concerned.

But then Goro's hand creeps down enough to palm Akira through his pants, curious—or maybe just evil—and Akira's innocent plan goes careening.

The knock on the door that sounds a second later may as well be an electric shock. They shoot apart as if lightning had struck between their noses.

Goro's voice is rough when he calls out. "What?"

"It's Niijima," Makoto says. Akira looks around the room, frantic to locate the best hiding spot, but before he can dive underneath the desk, she speaks up again, still safely behind the door. "Your father is requesting you, Your Highness."

The look Goro gives the closed door is hardly short of murderous. Akira notices that the hand he combs through his hair is shaking. "We weren't scheduled to meet until this evening before dinner."

"He says it's urgent, Your Highness."

The color drains out of Goro's face, annoyance settling in. Akira isn't sure what urgent translates into in royal speak, but it obviously isn't birthday presents and a cake.

"Fine," Goro says. "Tell him I'll be there in ten minutes."

He tucks his shirt back into his pants—perhaps a bit more aggressively than necessary—and smooths out his disheveled hair. Still, his swollen mouth stands out like the dead giveaway it is. Akira reaches forward, gingerly swiping his thumb over Goro's reddened bottom lip, snapping Goro out of his irritation in the process.

"Sorry," he says. "Duty calls."

"It's okay," Akira says. He's not sure what would've come next anyways, and how much Goro might've ended up regretting exchanging handjobs over what looks to be a very expensive mahogany desk. He ducks in close, close enough to peer at Goro's downcast eyes as he brushes the wrinkles out of his shirt. "Hey." Akira snags his wrist in a loose grip. "Come to the stables tonight?"

Goro looks up at him. Akira can see the roll of his throat as he swallows. "Tonight?" he repeats.

"We can... pick up where we left off," he offers. "If you'd like."

Akira searches his face for signs of panic. He knows Goro isn't some blushing schoolgirl, or—even more insulting—a child who doesn't understand their own limits, but Goro's also a little bit more high-strung than most guys his age, most likely thanks to his sheltered upbringing. He wouldn't be surprised if Goro pulls out an excuse keeping him from being able to say yes.

Naturally, Akira has to fight to keep the surprise at bay when Goro says, "I would like that," in a voice that doesn't waver in the slightest.

"Okay." He leans in to give Goro one last kiss. "Okay," he says again. 

He helps Goro straighten up and then sneaks back out into the hallway after checking for any signs of life, like he's crept into a changing booth with Goro and now needs to beat a hasty retreat. He can hear Goro chuckling after him as Akira hastens down the hall, still flattening down his disturbed hair, hair that might be disturbed once more tonight. A tiny little thrill jaunts through Akira at the prospect.

 

&

 

Goro is not in the best of moods when he heads to Shido's office after hastily hiding any evidence of having spent part of his afternoon necking with his boyfriend in his office. He's not used to this—sneaking around, hurrying to brush creases out of rumpled clothing, making sure he doesn't look too thoroughly kissed—and it feels like years of teenage romance, long missed, have belatedly shown up.

The only thing he can't seem to straighten out about his appearance is the pleased, crooked smile on his face, put there by the lingering effects of Akira's visit. Remembering the kisses, the hands gripping his hips, the electrical sensation of feeling firsthand just how much Akira wants him. He needs to shut all that away for the time being. At least while he's under the hammer of Shido's gaze.

The word urgent, when tacked onto the end of Shido's demands, had the meaning beaten out of it long before today. It's meant to inspire swiftness in Goro much more than it's intended to describe a situation, which is once again proven by the way Goro finds his father sitting, unperturbed, calm as can be, in his office.

Any relaxation Goro might've attained from his fleeting moments with Akira fades away like steam from an opened oven. He stands by the door, waiting to be acknowledged.

Shido glances upward. "You finally made it."

Goro ignores the bite of finally. "You said something was urgent?"

"I just got off the phone with Okumura," he says. He waits for Goro to draw his own conclusion, to follow the trail of implications in his words. "Your time for consideration is over."

Goro clenches his fist. The rage that burns through him is red hot, simmering with a strength that Goro almost expects to come roaring out of him and make a mess of the pristine office. He uncurls his hand, curls it back in, matching the rhythm of his agitated breathing. In his mind, he draws the arrow, snapping it free alongside his fury. His mind's eye helps the process along by shooting the arrow into Shido's throat.

"You want my decision?" Goro asks.

Shido shakes his head. "I want your compliance," he says. "I want you to take your duty as a prince seriously."

Goro reins his scoff in like he's holding back an angry animal. His status as a member of the royal family always wavers depending on what point Shido is trying to get across. How many times has he been reminded, none too gently, that it is by Shido's limited generosity that he's here at all? That he has permission to call himself a prince despite everything his mother's done?

Goro wills the arrow back into his imagination, only to snap it outward once more. This time, he adds a crunch effect for maximum stress relief.

"And if I refuse?" he asks, voice level.

The threat is a hollow one, and Shido seems to realize as much as well. He folds his hands on top of his desk. "Provide me with one sufficient reason why."

Goro stares, the truth hovering under his tongue. Shido stares too, as if daring it to come out. Goro pushes the urge back into hiding.

Shido breaks their eye contact, obviously believing himself to be the victor. "Okumura and his daughter are arriving tomorrow," he says. "You are expected to be there to welcome them and to ensure their stay goes smoothly." A tarantula crawls its way through Goro's stomach. "If all goes to plan, you and Okumura's daughter will have a special announcement to share during the Christmas ball."

He gets to his feet, gesturing to the door: a silent signal the conversation has ended. All the words Goro wants to let slash and strike out of his mouth sit there, untouched, in the heat of his belly. To say them now would be foolish.

Wait, says the voice inside him—the patient one, the reasonable one. The one that doesn't surrender to bone-numbing emotions.

His date at the stables suddenly feels much too far away and all too close simultaneously. Goro finds he can't think of both Akira and Okumura in the same thought; their two presences repel each other in his brain like magnets.

"Understood," Goro says, and leaves the office.

 

&

 

Does 9pm tonight work for you?

 

Sounds good. All wiretaps have been removed!

 

Wiretaps???

Akira?????

 

&

 

Every aspect of this relationship has felt too good to be true for Goro, ever since Akira first came into his life. Maybe that's why he tried to convince himself that Akira could easily have been going after him solely in the name of getting revenge on his father. After all, he's almost certain that the reason he tried to pursue Akira's background so aggressively is because the possibility of his father hiring someone to spy on him is an all-too-realistic scenario in his life. 

All things considered, Shido probably knows. Knows that his son is gay, knows that pushing him into a relationship with a woman would be effectively murdering any possibility of him ever being happy. In his father's eyes, he can only imagine that he belongs in the closet forever, where no amount of media scandals can bring shame to the royal family. 

The royal family, which Shido isn't even part of by birth. 

He wonders if he could do it, for the sake of his own revenge. He wouldn't be the first king to keep a mistress, after all, his father most likely included. Akira could slot neatly into the position of his royal paramour, his clandestine lover, an ill-begotten secret the royal family would do anything in their power to cover up while the front of the picture-perfect heterosexual marriage is presented to the world. 

The thought makes him sick. 

And while he certainly feels for the Okumura girl—a loveless marriage carries with it an untold number of challenges, no doubt—it's Akira that would truly be left to suffer. Forced to watch from the sidelines while Goro presents a significant other to the world that he doesn't love. Forced to watch him have children with his wife. 

But then, what would a life with Akira by his side even look like? Would the public even accept a male consort to the king? Not having children has never been an option for someone on the throne. Perhaps they could adopt, plucking one or two children from out of the country's foster system. The thought of being able to help others, to make a difference—it's always been his favorite aspect of his station. Not everyone is so lucky.

And if he were to become a father alongside Akira—the result of an adoption into a happy marriage—Goro is half-convinced he would be able to avoid turning out like Shido. Their house could be one of warmth and laughter—

He supposes he should have expected the other shoe to drop, really. All this time, he'd wanted to, had hoped to relax into the bright spot of happiness he'd found within Akira, his frequently bleak days made a little brighter… but it makes sense now why it wasn't to be. 

He should have known this would end in disaster. 

Still, he's not the type to break an engagement, at least not for the most part. Not if he can help it.

Moreover, he mentally tacks on (fully aware that he's doing little more than seeking out a viable justification of his current path), this might be the last time he gets to spend time like this with Akira for a while. He can already predict what his schedule will start to look like following the Okumuras' arrival. His father will do everything in his power to choke the free time out of him. 

Then again, maybe it's for the best. If he can't be with Akira the way that he wants… it might be easier not to have to see him at all. 

There's still hope for Akira, after this. He's not permanently trapped within the bounds the titles of crown prince and king push on him. He can still find someone else and be happy, after this. 

Goro’s steps come to a slow stop in front of the barn. He takes in a deep, shaky breath. He doesn't think he's been followed, and—even if he has—he's well-known for his predilection toward late-night rides. It shouldn't be suspicious. 

Still, he's… nervous, Goro noting the way his gloved hand trembles slightly. He wonders why. Is it the knowledge that they will, in some measure, be intimate tonight? No risk—presumably—of being caught, no one to hold them back or interrupt them… 

How far will they go, with all restrictions effectively removed? So far, Akira has claimed every one of his firsts. And—even if it doesn't come to that tonight—he does want to offer Akira at least that much. 

Under no circumstance is he losing his virginity to a woman. 

It's with a renewed sense of purpose—hope, perhaps?—that he finally stills his quivering hands and opens the barn door. He sets about closing it behind himself just as quietly, Akira already leaning out over the hayloft to catch sight of Goro. 

"You came."

"You sound so surprised." Goro hears himself chuckle, if only to cover for how close he indeed came to not showing up at all. "Tell me, do you always make a habit of leaning quite so far over the edge of the hayloft?"

"Only if I'm expecting a visit from the prince."

"The prince, you say? What's he like?"

"Well," Akira starts, climbing down the ladder, "he's pretty cute. Smart, too. Even slums it with stable trash like me."

"As your friend, I rather feel like the prince would be remiss not to mention the risk of falling… given the lack of a balustrade for protection." Perhaps, he thinks, that could be next. If he can't be with him, the least he can offer is financial assistance, protection—if he's honest, he wants to shower Akira with gifts, but one too many errant expenditures could easily prompt Shido's suspicions.

"Friend?" Akira smiles, taking Goro's hand as though it's the most natural thing in the world. "The prince is my boyfriend."

"Ah," Goro says, trying hard not to let the word stab him through the chest. "He must be a very lucky man, then." 

"I'm the lucky one," Akira tells him, which hurts only as long as it takes his lips to find Goro's, his mind effectively shut off from the world at the sensation—at least for the time being. 

He wants… more of this, forever. He must truly be a complete idiot. 

Their fingers interlaced, one of Akira's hands in his hair, it's hard to suppress his wanting, a soft little moan leaving him before he can stop himself.

This… definitely won't do.

He feels not entirely unlike a horny teenager. He thought himself beyond those urges, old enough to know better, but—it seems that Akira brings out the best and worst in him, all at once.

They're already breathing hard by the time Goro pulls back to rest his forehead against Akira's, his free hand finding his cheek. "If we are picking up where we left off, I believe we may wish to relocate upstairs."

Akira lets out a soft laugh—bright and effervescent—and pulls back to gently guide him to the ladder.

"You'll love it. The prince, my boyfriend, got me this swanky new mattress."

Goro lets out a soft breath as Akira starts to climb the first few rungs of the ladder. "Must you say it like that?"

Soon enough, it won't be true anymore, not if Shido has his way. He'll still be a prince, certainly, but—boyfriend? There's far too much commitment in that. Lover, maybe. But—

"Yeah." Akira throws him a wink over his shoulder as he climbs the rest of the way up, Goro following him into the hayloft. Their excessively-decorated sad excuse of a tree and the mattress seem to be the only things that lend the space any life and color, Goro's heart aching at the thought. Can't he do more, offer more to Akira? Perhaps if he remodeled the whole space, he wouldn't leave, even after—

"See?" His thoughts interrupted, Goro looks up to catch Akira settling lightly atop the mattress, as if testing its bounce with a grin. "I must be moving up in the world, living in the lap of luxury like this."

"Don't tease," Goro tells him, color creeping up over his shirt collar. "I was trying to do something nice."

"You did." Akira holds his hand out to him, an open invitation to join him that Goro finds himself taking even in spite of all his misgivings. "I know I'm lucky to be with you."

Goro thinks it may have felt less painful had he been stabbed. 

"About that," he starts, feeling the truth already dancing on his tongue, taunting him. "I… think that while we are together, I would prefer not to be the prince."

"Oh?" Akira finds his hand to take, pressing a soft kiss to Goro's palm. "Just… my boyfriend, then?"

"Just Goro," he says, and fights the tightness in his throat threatening to make itself heard. 

"Okay, Just Goro," Akira smiles, leaning in to steal a kiss from him, his hand curling gently against Goro's cheek, "I can do that."

"There are, ah—" he does his best to interrupt their kissing when another thought occurs to him, Goro doing his best to grant himself sufficient willpower to pull back from the temptation before him, "no more wiretaps, correct?"

"No. No hidden cameras, either. I checked."

"Good," Goro says, and leans in to kiss him again.

He tells himself that they end up on the bed because kissing side-by-side is awkward. That it's more comfortable to lie down. But then he ends up on his back beneath Akira, his… boyfriend kissing the living daylights out of him. 

His hands end up tangled in the front of Akira's shirt, and he forgets why he was ever upset in the first place, momentarily lost in the sensation of Akira's skin against his own, the tease of his tongue, the heat of his lips. Maybe he could do this, so long as Akira is willing to stay. There have been dozens of kings in the closet, perhaps—

Akira runs his hand down Goro's front to cup his growing erection, and Goro forgets to think. 

"More," he rasps against his lips, suddenly desperate for anything that might quiet the pandemonium of his mind, Akira pulling back just to smile at him. 

"Okay," he whispers, pressing another kiss to the corner of his lips. "I can do that."

Akira's fingers find his buttons, and Goro feels a fresh wash of nerves come over him again. His caretaker saw him naked when he was a child, of course, but—this is completely different. For years now, he's hidden himself away beneath layers and layers of clothes, anything to keep someone else from really seeing him. 

In a way, he supposes it won't matter if Akira sees him naked. After all, he's one of the few people that's ever seen beneath his myriad masks in the first place, save for perhaps Ann. Ann, who is family, and therefore doesn't count. But Akira—he’s something else entirely.

Goro feels the last of his buttons come undone, the tails of his shirt slipping free from his pants as Akira pulls back from their kiss to nudge the material of both his shirt and blazer off his shoulders. 

Sitting up to shed the offending garments, Goro almost misses Akira, sat back on his haunches, tugging his own shirt off. The sight is riveting, to say the least, and, for just a moment, he feels his breath catch.

He's seen himself, of course—scrawny and lithe, he's never thought of himself as much to look at in the ways all the magazines seem to imply—but this is different. He supposes he should have expected that working in the stables would make Akira look… well. 

Rather different from himself, certainly, with only the most prince-appropriate of recreational activities under his belt—horseback riding, fencing, archery. 

"Ah," he hears himself say, blinking as he stares, the whole of his vocabulary—typically rather refined and eloquent—leaving him in one fell swoop as Akira tosses his shirt aside, his own gaze running up Goro's front… only to settle on his face once more. 

"You're amazing," Akira tells him, so matter-of-fact that Goro is almost inclined to believe him, if only in the moment. He wonders if the doubt has now moved up to his face, but even if Akira hasn’t realized that he's staring because he's moments from salivating at his boyfriend, that he's faltering because he doesn't want this to end, not yet, not when it's only just begun—it doesn't matter.

Either way, Akira is still doing everything in his power to brighten up the darkest corners of his life, and that's more than sufficient for the time being. It has to be. 

So when Akira leans in to kiss him again, Goro decides to give in to the moment at last, his own hands moving to loosen Akira's belt. 

The metallic clink of the buckle is enough to make Akira pull back, eyes wide to the point of concern. 

"Are you sure?" 

"Only if you return the favor," Goro whispers, as if it ever mattered to him in the first place.

Things move surprisingly fast after that. Akira shifts, shucks off his pants, and sets about getting Goro's pants off him, too. Even with their underwear still between them, it's nice being almost skin to skin, a slow thumb trailing over his cheekbone as Akira hovers over him. 

"So, so beautiful," he mutters, stealing another kiss from Goro, his free hand running down to his underwear before hesitating at the waistband. Why is he hesitating? "Do you… want me to keep going?"

Ah. A matter of politeness, then. Goro tries to resist the urge to grind his hips up against Akira's—and then does it anyway, the low groan leaving Akira more than enough to encourage him to keep going. 

"Is this a sufficient answer?" Goro asks.

It seems to be. Akira kisses him again with newfound fervor and passion, Goro suddenly grateful for the brief flare of daring and impatience that inspired him—until Akira's hand slips past his waistband to wrap around his cock, and he forgets how to think.

It's entirely different from touching himself, he finds, the early beginnings through his clothes back in his office a pale, lackluster imitation of the real thing. His own grip is practiced and efficient, a necessity when getting off in his shower, eager for the evidence to wash down the drain alongside his shame. But this—this feels more like he had chosen to make a day of it, of taking his time to experiment and really get to know himself. 

Is that what Akira is doing now? The intimacy of it is dizzying. 

He's breathing hard by the time he pulls back to look at Goro, his gaze as attentive as it is affectionate—so much so that Goro struggles not to look away. 

"You still okay?"

Goro nods, catching his bottom lip between his teeth before suddenly adding, "But I want to see you, too." 

He almost regrets his words when Akira pulls his hand away to sit up and shimmy himself out of his underwear—but then Goro catches sight of his erection, of the way it springs free from his waistband, and wonders how he could have ever thought that Akira was faking his attraction to him.

A part of him isn't sure what he expected. They look to be about the same size, really—perhaps Akira's is somewhat thicker than his, but not in a way that their differences strike him as particularly prominent. 

And yet… he can't bring himself to look away, as though the sight of another cock is so completely different from the sight of his own that he's left speechless, openly astonished.

"Can I see you, too?"

The question startles him out of his amazement, blinking as he looks up at Akira.

"What a silly question. Of course you can."

He's about to hook his fingers into his own underwear when Akira leans in to kiss him again, his hands moving to cover Goro's own before helping him ease the material down over his hips and the over swell of his erection. 

"I didn't want you to get embarrassed," Akira whispers against his lips, and Goro wonders if his heart has ever truly felt so full. 

How many more nights like this could they have, if he wasn't hellbent on taking the throne and doing right by his country, giving Shido what he’s deserved for a long, long time? 

The thought is a somber one—but then Akira kisses him and kisses him and he can't help but forget himself, the two of them ending up flat on the bed once more. 

By the time he pulls back from their kiss—legs tangled, bodies skin-to-skin—his vision is half-pillow and half-Akira… and he feels happy. 

"You'll have to go back to being the prince soon."

He really doesn't want to think about that right now. "Mm."

"I'd rather you stay Just Goro for a little while longer."

Me, too, he wants to say. But every time he tries, the words seem to falter before they can reach his tongue. 

Instead, his touch trails down Akira's front, more exploratory than anything else. The angles and planes of his body are mesmerizing… and still he finds his fingers hesitate when he reaches his lower abdomen.

"It's okay," Akira whispers, Goro nodding as his hand slides a path the rest of the way down to gently grasp hold of his cock, feeling it twitch in his hands.

"I suppose… if I do have to go back to being the prince… we ought to make this night a memorable one."

Akira steals another kiss—a veritable thief by now, considering the tally of stolen kisses—and smiles. 

"Okay."

His fingers find Goro's cock to wrap around once more, a sharp inhale following him as his hips jerk toward Akira. 

"Touch me, too," Akira whispers, his forehead finding Goro's, and there's little he can do but acquiesce in the face of such an earnest request, and his reticence seems to slip away alongside his shyness the second the first groan leaves Akira's throat. 

It's harder, certainly, touching someone else—especially whilst being distracted himself, Akira's hands just as intent on making Goro feel good as the reverse—but the sweet litany of sounds he's being granted in reward for his efforts makes it entirely worthwhile. He finds a rhythm with his hand, the warmth and thickness of Akira’s erection heavy in his fingers, a truly unforgettable sensation.

He’s never done anything like this before, and his curiosity is overflowing. Akira’s breathing is getter harsher, exhales landing on Goro’s cheek as his hips push into Goro’s touch. His own hand is doing nothing short of spellwork on Goro’s cock, thumb slipping over the head, rubbing all his most sensitive spots.

"You're so—" Goro starts.

The words, a mere whisper, escape him before he can so much as finish the thought, Goro left wondering what on earth the rest of it was meant to be. But then Akira comes with a spasmed cry, and Goro follows shortly thereafter, with nothing left to distract him from his own pleasure and how good Akira's hand feels wrapped around him.

They stay like that for a while after, Goro still catching his breath for a while after their peak. 

"Your sheets," he mutters after a long moment, the realization that they very much soiled his bed washing over him alongside an unspeakable sense of dread.

"Um," Akira says, his expression sheepish at best. "I actually—Sojiro got me some new ones, to go with the fancy new mattress. Probably… from some… outside location. Far away from the palace. Nothing you'd hear about."

Goro can't stifle the giggle that follows, the earlier sense of happy calm settling in his chest once more. "Oh, I'm sure. And they certainly won't have the royal crest emblazoned on them, right?"

"Uh—" 

The brief panic that crosses Akira's features is cute enough that even Goro can't resist stealing a kiss for once. 

"I'll help you put them on. And dispose of the old ones, too." 

It makes for quick work between the two of them—but it's the silence that creeps back into Goro's mind that makes him look at his scattered clothes somewhat longingly. It would be safer to head back to the palace now, and in every single way, at that. As much as he wishes that this were forever, that this was his bedroom and all of this was acceptable… the Okumuras are coming tomorrow. 

He's about to reach for a stray sock when Akira catches his hand, all puppy-dog eyes as he looks up at him from his spot on the mattress. 

"Come back," he says, more plea than anything else. "You'll get cold if you stand around there any longer." 

Well, he supposes it won't be the end of the world if he curls up with him... just for a little longer, the warmth of Akira's embrace enveloping him a mere moment later.

He can always leave after Akira falls asleep.

 

&

 

Life at the palace has been nothing if not entertaining of late. Everywhere she turns, it seems, Makoto finds herself bearing witness to countless signs of romance, the general mood of the place exuding more of a sense of spring and Valentine's Day than Christmas. 

It isn't until she catches sight of a sprig of mistletoe and scowls that she realizes how bad things have truly gotten. 

It's not even their fault. The rational part of her brain is fully aware of this. Just because people have found themselves in this miserable palace in the middle of the Christmas season hardly means that Makoto is in any place to judge them, let alone to rain on their parade. 

Her problem, she supposes, is that she can only see all of this end badly. Particularly for the prince. What started off as what could only have been called a romantic comedy is rapidly turning into a romantic drama, and the last thing she wants is to see the heartbreak that will inevitably ensue. 

The knowledge that they will be planting soon for the spring is what initially leads Makoto outside, clipboard in hand, ready to take stock of the soil. They've had snow fairly recently, which should certainly help to ensure both consistent watering and temperature regulation, but not all of the gardens are quite so lucky. Mulch will have to be ordered for any place that the snow won't be able to reach.

She's two steps out of the palace when she catches sight of Kurusu pulling the prince into the greenhouse. A quick kiss is shared in the doorway before the frosted glass blocks her view, though it's not hard to figure out what happens next—not when the shape of a body comes to be visible through the glass. 

They're being sloppy. It's not her place to tell the prince how to go about hiding his clandestine romance with the stable boy, but they've been incredibly careless lately. If she’s caught sight of their little tête-à-têtes quite as easily as she has, it's only a matter of time before the king finds out, and for repercussions to follow. 

Perhaps the reason that she hasn't said anything yet is that, in truth, she feels terrible for the prince. She’s the one who’s been tasked with arranging customized wedding invitations and putting deposits down for caterers, so she has more of a view into the prince’s situation than others. He's hardly had the easiest time of things in his life, but the king's most recent demand—of his potential impending engagement—seems to be a particularly grave obstruction of his free will.

It was rare to see a genuine smile on Akechi’s face prior to Kurusu's arrival. Taking away that joy now, when he can only hold onto it for so long, simply seems cruel.

She supposes the soil can wait, Makoto exhaling cool air. There's still more than enough to do in preparation for the ball alone. The lobsters should have been delivered today, too—a thought that ends up bringing her to the kitchen. If they haven't, she'll have another task ahead of her. If they have… well. Maybe she'll make herself some coffee to aid her in getting through the rest of the day. 

Returning to the palace and stepping into the kitchen, Makoto sighs at the sight of the lobsters. Thank goodness. For once, something she can simply check something off—

To her left, someone heaves an even bigger sigh, drawing Makoto's gaze to the sight of Lady Ann, chin perched neatly atop her palm as she traces shapes into the stainless steel of the countertop. 

Another sigh follows, this one heavier than the last.

"...Lady Ann?" Makoto says.

"Oh," Ann says, as though she hadn't even realized that someone else had entered the kitchen. That particular romantic drama is clearly still playing itself out without a resolution even remotely in sight. "Sorry, did you—did you need the counter? I can move..."

"No, no." Makoto shakes her head, waving her concern off as she moves to sit at the counter. "I was just here to check on the lobsters for the ball. Are you—" She clears her throat. "I couldn't help but overhear. Do you… maybe want to talk about it?"

"Oh, I'll be okayyyy." Ann seems to reconsider this statement a second later, however, as she says, "You'd probably think it's stupid."

It's Makoto's turn to sigh as quietly as she can manage. In for a penny, in for a pound, isn’t it? "What makes you think that?" 

"Well, it's embarrassing. I've never really dealt with this stuff before."

Well, at least that confirms her suspicions about the topic at hand, Makoto getting up to set about making them both a cup of coffee. 

She's known Lady Ann for a long time, really. Though her own employment at the palace has not spanned a great deal of time just yet, her father used to work here, too, as a royal officer, causing Makoto to call this place home for the vast majority of her childhood. Even after her father's death, it didn't take that long for her sister to finish her degree and take on a position as royal family legal counsel. The palace has always been home, in a way. 

And, with her and Lady Ann being around the same age. it was only logical for them to establish at least something of a kinship, if not an outright friendship, over the years.

She also knows that Lady Ann is right. As far as Makoto is aware, Ann’s never had feelings for anyone, let alone had a significant other. 

"Let me hazard a guess." Makoto takes a deep breath, reaching to grab a bag of Lady Ann's favorite coffee beans from the pantry shelf. “Does this have something to do with… Kitagawa-kun?”

Ann’s stunned blinking encourages Makoto to continue.

"You have feelings for him? And he's… unfortunately something of an oblivious airhead when it comes to… normal people feelings."

"Um, wow." Lady Ann says, looking up at Makoto as she empties the beans into the grinder. "You figured that out really fast."

She wants to say that it wasn't hard to figure out—but, well, it's not the whole truth. After all, being in her position affords her a certain amount of insight into all the latest castle gossip. She knows that Kitagawa is a space case from just spending any amount of time around him. And she's not sure anyone could have missed his and Ann's flirtatious forays throughout the palace—particularly after Kamoshida caught wind of the apparent cockblock now in his way. 

"I'm just… really observant." Sure, she'll go with that. Lady Ann certainly doesn't seem to notice, back to tracing hearts into the stainless steel as Makoto readies the French Press.

"Yeah, I mean… I can't even really blame him, you know? It's not like I figured it out until the last time I saw him, either, when I saw his sketchbook that was just… filled with candids of me? Not like… creepy photos, but like stuff that he'd drawn? Just of me looking happy, eating, laughing. Totally normal stuff. It was weird."

Makoto frowns. "That… actually sounds surprisingly normal for him."

"Right!" Ann nods, her eyes wide. "He's always trying to paint me naked, but then he draws me all the time? Just everyday stuff? And like—there are so many sketches. He didn't even seem weird about it when he saw me looking through it. Like it's—" She falters then. "I don't know. I've been spending a lot of time with him lately, you know? And he's… really sweet. He protected me from Kamoshida. He apparently sees me as more than a sex object. And we can just… talk. About anything. And it feels so comfortable. I guess I've just… never felt like this before. He makes my heart race… all the time. In hindsight, it seems kind of stupid that I only just now figured it out."

"Have you tried telling him how you feel?"

"I've actually kind of been avoiding him ever since?" Lady Ann winces. "I mean, no, I haven't told him yet. I'm just… one of those girls that wants a perfect, fairytale romance. You know, the kind you see in the movies. I want that. I don't want to have to have to settle. And I don't want to have to do all the work, either."

"Well… you can lead a Kitagawa to water..." Pouring them both a cup of hot coffee, Makoto breathes out slowly as she takes a seat. "Maybe you could send him a couple of hints. Or someone else could talk to him? It's possible that he hasn't figured out how he feels about you yet. He is pretty oblivious, after all. It might just be a matter of someone helping to open his eyes."

Ann opens her mouth to respond just as Kitagawa walks into the kitchen, his very being seeming to light up at the sight of Ann. 

"Lady Ann!" he exclaims, Ann letting out a rather shrill, nervous laugh as she grins, painfully artificial. Goodness. Did the prince teach her? 

"Yusuke! I told you not to call me that, didn't I?"

"I do suppose you did. My apologies, Lady Ann."

Makoto isn't sure she's ever seen Ann quite so red. Well. If that isn't a sight to behold.

"You know," she hears herself say, setting down her cup of coffee, "now would be a great time to tell Kitagawa-kun about that thing we discussed."

"Right!" Ann laughs. "The thing!"

"...what thing, if I may ask?"

"You may not!" Ann’s next giggle sounds just as forced as the last, before she lowers her voice and adds, under her breath, "Give me a moment, will you?"

"What was that?"

"Oh, nothing!" The awkward laughter back in full force, Ann gets up to round the counter, one hand gesturing to the tank of live lobsters. "See these? I learned… recently… that lobsters mate for life. Kind of like people. Or… penguins. You know, when one penguin gives another penguin a pebble? I guess it's... sort of like giving someone an engagement ring. The point is that they meet someone they adore, they fall in love, and they live happily ever after!"

Not quite the segue Makoto would’ve suggested for finding a way to start this conversation, but she can’t blame Lady Ann for a bit of nerves.

"How fascinating." Kitagawa crouches then, until he's eye-to-eye with the lobsters.

"Have you ever… felt that way about someone?"

The artificiality drops off of her words, only soft trepidation remaining. 

Kitagawa is looking intently at the lobsters. He looks for so long that Makoto can’t help but wonder if Ann’s words are actually sinking in, but then— "This… color."

For a moment, Ann just stares at him. 

"Um," she starts, blinking, "Kitagawa-kun?"

"Just look at them. That deep, carnelian red... is it not truly resplendent?" He breathes out in reverence. Makoto feels this entire discussion spiraling out of control, so much so that she hesitates to even look at Ann. When she does, Ann looks caught somewhere between exasperation, disbelief, and disappointment. "And yet, they do nothing to stir my heart in the way that—"

Ann groans, throwing her hands up. "Yes, yes, I know, you win, but listen, this isn't about even that—"

"I absolutely must sketch this!"

Kitagawa isn’t listening. Instead, he whirls on his heel and hastens out of the room in search of his supplies. The silence he leaves behind is painful at best.

Ann drops her head into her hands. The muffled sound of her groaning makes Makoto wince in sympathy. Kurusu isn’t the only one who’s fallen for someone who may be more trouble than they’re worth; of all the people in the palace to lust after, Kitagawa is easily one of the more complicated options. For all of his positives, Kitagawa’s hopeless obliviousness nearly cancels them all out.

Makoto struggles with something to say that’ll improve the situation. Maybe pulling a few sweets meant for dessert tonight out of the fridge would cheer up Lady Ann?

"Perhaps someone else should talk to Kitagawa?" Makoto suggests. She’s certainly not volunteering, but maybe Sakamoto’s bluntness would be effective if she could rope him into this. 

Ann draws her head out of her hands. She looks more resigned than anything else. "It’s fine," she says. "If he just doesn’t get it… maybe he just doesn’t want to get it, you know? Maybe he’s trying to let me down easy."

"I don’t think that’s the case," Makoto says.

Ann doesn’t say anything. Makoto can’t blame her lack of optimism. It’s hard to have perspective when standing so close to the circumstances, but Makoto, as a bystander, can tell pretty clearly that Kitagawa cares for Ann. Explaining that, though, is a challenge when Kitagawa’s signals are so starkly different from how other people make their feelings obvious. 

Ann finishes off the last of her coffee before getting to her feet. "Thanks for the coffee," she says. "And for the conversation. I should get going."

She leaves before Makoto can find a way to convince her to stay. 

Chapter Text

It's still early in the day when Akira spies a sleek car pulling up to the castle, rolling neatly over the gathering snow. If this weather keeps up, he and Ryuji will be stuck outside again with their shovels for the afternoon.

His vantage point from the kitchen window makes it clear that this is a luxury car. The mark of the royal family isn't visible anywhere, though. The car settles for a moment before the driver steps out, crisp in his steps as he opens the back door for its haughty inhabitants.

First to step out is a tall man, chiseled jaw, dark hair and checkered cravat. From the other side comes a petite woman in a lavender coat who hurries to stand next to him. They certainly hold themselves up like royalty, with all the certainty of people whose significance will be valued here. And yet, the staff was given no orders to welcome any guests or stand in line by the entrance, obedient, for a special arrival today. Instead, all of them are behind Akira in the kitchen right now, polishing off breakfast.

Akira looks over his shoulder, beckoning Ryuji closer. "Hey," he says. "You know who these people are?"

Ryuji comes closer to also peer out the window. "Huh? Oh." He makes a face, the same one he makes whenever he's about to start ragging on the king or the prince and all the glamour and riches they luxuriate in. "That's the guy who owns Big Bang Burger. You know, that massive fast food joint?"

"His name is Kunikazu Okumura," Makoto says, stepping up to them. "And his daughter Haru." She turns to Ryuji. "Sakamoto, you didn't clean up your dishes."

"I'm still eatin'!"

Akira knows Big Bang Burger, but can't quite connect the dots as to what he's doing here. Burgers don't quite seem like the king's first choice for catering.

"They're... business partners of the king," Makoto explains.

"What she means is, they're hotshots who love sniffing their money, just like Shido," Ryuji says.

Makoto sighs. "They're not as bad as you're making them out to be," she says. "His daughter's very nice. She's always been polite whenever I've spoken to her."

"Yeah, but look at the family she's comin' from. With a dad like that, she's gotta be a chip off the old block."

Makoto clears her throat. "If I recall correctly, Sakamoto, you aren't very close with your father, are you?"

Ryuji colors. He at least has the shame to look sheepish. "Yeah, okay. I get what you're saying."

Akira has zero interest in tackling the deeply embedded hatred Ryuji has for anyone financially superior to him. He watches as the Okumuras head for the front door, the junior Okumura careful on the ice with her heels.

"Why do you think they're here?" he asks.

"Probably for the Christmas ball," Makoto guesses.

The Christmas ball is still a ways away. Akira can't imagine that Shido is big into entertaining company any longer than he absolutely has to, either. Maybe Goro will know something about it, if Goro has time to meet up later.

Just thinking about Goro—and specifically, their date last night in the hayloft—leaves him warm under the collar. Remembering how it felt to touch him, kiss him, feel him shake and come apart under Akira's hands, is leaving him in a state inappropriate for a public space. He looks away from the window, wondering when the next encore can be. He's impatient for it to be as soon as possible, but he knows it's not exactly realistic for him to expect a prince to always be available. Especially now as the bustle of the holidays looms ever closer.

"Greeeat," Ryuji huffs. "More people to clean up after. God, this time of the year is such a pain in the ass."

"You probably won't even interact with them, Sakamoto," Makoto reminds them. It's a rule Akira's definitely learned by now: don't be seen, and don't be heard. "Now can you finish your breakfast? It's getting cold."

Ryuji heads back over to the table, leaving Akira alone by the window. When he looks out again, the Okumuras are gone, and the slick car they arrived in is pulling away.

 

&

 

Goro watches as Shido's practiced smile slots into place two seconds before the parlor door opens. An employee stands on the other side, bowing before announcing the new visitors and making way for them to enter.

Okumura comes strutting in a moment later, his daughter dutifully behind him. Okumura looks the same as always: gelled hair greased into place, smirk crooking his smile, eyes cold. By his side, Haru looks perfectly poised, if not meek in her deference. Goro's never particularly minded her, but knowing what's expected of him now, he can't help but feel cold toward her, even if it's an unreasonable reaction. She isn't exactly the villain in all this, and she certainly isn't the decision maker. If she had declined, there would've been another politically advantageous connection for Shido to push on him.

Still, that doesn't change that right now, she's the woman who's going to be stealing his future from him, meant to sit next to him as his wife. A symbol of strength between the honorable kingdom and the business emporium that grew from nothing.

It's also not lost on Goro that this is hardly a mutual beneficial deal. A prince and all the privilege of nobility in exchange for a fast food heiress. Knowing that he's little more than a pawn in Shido's plan to have Okumura in his debt is like having a sour pill, undissolving, always in his mouth.

"Okumura-san," Shido says. His eyes flick over Haru, silently appraising. "I see your family is in good health."

"Thank you for the invitation, Your Majesty," Okumura says after a short bow. His voice is as greasy as his hair. "What a delight to spend the holidays enjoying the gift of your hospitality." He gestures to his side, where his daughter stands, hands clasped. "I'm sure you recall my daughter, Haru."

"Of course," Shido says.

The pleasantries are all so artificial that Goro can practically taste the dishonesty. He catches Haru's eye, whose gaze quickly skips away. How much does she even know about what their fathers have promised each other? Did she agree to marrying him, or has she been strong-armed into it just like Goro?

"You will join us for dinner tonight," Shido says, and even with his most cordial tone, it still sounds like an order. "We will be able to celebrate all of the..." He looks at Goro, smiling coolly. "...exciting news awaiting us in the New Year."

"We're looking forward to it," Okumura says. "Aren't we, Haru?"

"Yes, Your Majesty," Haru says.

Goro has to look away. He lets his gaze latch onto one of the windows, at the white sky and the gathering frost. Akira might be outside today, tasked with de-icing the walkways. Goro would much rather be out there with him, no matter the temperature, than in this room. As a matter of fact, Goro would rather be anywhere than this room.

He listens, only distantly, to Shido observing the courtesy of offering them tea, and to Okumura declining, citing long travel.

"I believe we'll freshen up for this evening," Okumura says. Goro has long noticed that he always speaks for both himself and Haru. Shido speaks for Goro, too, but never lumped in with himself in a we statement.

They take their leave after more useless chit chat is exchanged, mostly about the clemency of the weather and what pastimes the Okumuras will be partaking in during their stay. Haru mentions being excited to go horseback riding through the forests here on Milady again, which only makes Goro feel mildly nauseous. It's hard enough to contain both thoughts of Akira and thoughts of Haru in his brain, but to know that she'll meet him, and he'll see her—

Goro tries to swallow, his stomach rolling.

"She will make a devoted wife," Shido observes after the door's been shut behind the Okumuras, gone to get settled into their rooms. "Many would be envious of your position."

Goro says nothing. Shido's phrasing his words carefully, as if this is all a generous favor Goro should be thankful for. He's not.

At his silence, Shido exhales loudly through his nose. He checks the time. "Make sure you're here for dinner by six. Don't be late."

Goro nods, and leaves that noxious room not a minute too early. Any longer, and he's fairly certain he would've suffocated under his own turbulent emotions.

 

&

 

Sojiro knows he's in the calm before the storm when he sees the Okumura limousine on the property. Before he knows it, the entire Christmas crowd will be flocking to the palace, and, right alongside it, demanding horse rides. And if his habits are anything like that of previous years, the prince will be spending more time than usual blowing off steam on rides as well.

Then again, the prince might have a different source of stress relief this year. Sojiro snorts as he rubs his grooming mitt over Carmen's side.

He's not going to pretend to be thrilled about those particular developments, not when the resulting fallout feels downright inevitable—and Sojiro doubts it'll be pretty—but at the same time, he can't dispute that this might just be what someone like Akechi needs. He's stiffer than a stale baguette, and loosening up with a Christmastime fling might just help.

Sojiro hopes it's just a fling. Anything more is downright dangerous. If Akira hasn't figured that out yet, he needs to take off the rose-colored glasses and read the damn room. Or in this case, palace.

The door to the stables jerks open, bringing with it the precise danger Sojiro was just thinking of.

The king marches in, uncaring of the dirty snow he's dragging inside on the soles of his shoes. He looks around the stables with sharp eyes, scanning the stalls like lasers. Probably looking for sloppy work to blame on Akira, although Sojiro isn't counting on Shido finding anything. Sojiro's a good teacher who knows what he's doing.

He steps out of Carmen's stall. "Your Majesty," he says in greeting. "What can I do for you?"

Shido's eyes snap to Sojiro's. "Prepare Samael. I'm going for a ride."

"Understood."

He heads into Samael's stall, working to saddle him up while Shido resumes his examination of the premises. It's also possible that he's making sure the place is up to snuff for when Okumura or his daughter come around looking for a horse. Sojiro's worked here long enough to figure out that Shido feeds off of showing off his riches and all the convenience they buy to anybody beneath him in rank, and any outlying details that give the lie to the perfection he aims for are unacceptable.

Sojiro glances over his shoulder long enough to catch Shido frowning at a grimy window.

"I expect the stables to be deep-cleaned before the arrival of our holiday guests," Shido says.

"Mmhm."

"I'm amazed this place isn't cleaner, considering I brought you an assistant."

Assistant. Right. Sojiro didn't realize that this was an act of benevolence on Shido's part to ease Sojiro's workload. He hides his snort with a well-timed cough.

"He's been working hard," Sojiro assures him. He chances another glance and finds Shido's hard eyes watching him carefully. "He's definitely being kept busy."

Those hard eyes narrow, pitiless. Shido's like a man carved out of ice, glacier-like in his foreboding power. Sojiro knows all about powerful men, and how much those who don't kneel and grovel before them get under their skin.

"There's plenty of work to go around," Shido says through a thin sneer, "if you don't feel busy enough."

Sojiro just straps all the buckles on Samael's bridle into place, quiet. He isn't one to prod the beast around here, at least not excessively. Shido folds his arms across his chest and walks down the length of the stables, where he's still standing when Sojiro leads Samael out of his stall by the reins.

It takes Sojiro a moment to realize what Shido's staring at so intently. His neck is craned back, eyes trained on the hayloft, where a triangle corner of palace sheets is hanging over the edge of a plump mattress. Sojiro braces himself for whatever accusation of theft is about to spew forth; he's not going to out the prince's stable boy paramour, but he's also not going to stand by while Akira suffers the consequences of Akechi's poorly thought out generosity.

Sojiro clears his throat. "Your Majesty," he says, rustling the reins.

Shido turns sharply around. "These stables have certainly been... upgraded from the last time I was in here," he says. His voice has become barbed, every syllable a sharpened spear. "You wouldn't know anything about that, would you, Sakura?"

Sojiro lets out little more than a noncommittal noise.

"Now listen here," Shido growls, stepping closer. "I run a tight ship around here. I don't take kindly to those who are trying to rock the boat."

"You're talking to the wrong guy," Sojiro says. The fact of the matter—that Shido should really be interrogating his son about the lavish upgrades to the hayloft—is a detail Sojiro's keeping under his hat for the time being. "I don't know anything."

Shido looks at him for a long time, obviously expecting him to crack and the truth to spill out. Finally, he says, "He's not here on a retreat. He's here to do penance." He eyes the mattress again. "Whoever disagrees can take that up with me personally."

He seizes the reins, snatching them out of Sojiro's hands. The chill that sweeps in the stables as he yanks the door open is nothing compared to the chill he leaves behind. Sojiro watches as Shido thunders outside, Samael in tow. It isn't until Sojiro heads over to shut the door again that he realizes how much tension he's holding in his shoulders. He rolls them, already missing the easy-going calm that was chased out the minute Shido stormed in.

Sojiro's annoyed at even having to defend a kid for not sleeping on bare hay like some kind of animal, but more than that, he's unsettled. If Shido investigates this any further, he might just find the arrows leading back to the prince. Sojiro can only imagine the flying debris from that particular explosion.

Sojiro picks up his grooming mitt again. The ornaments on the sad excuse for a Christmas tree in the corner of the hayloft glint in the corner of his peripherals. He's never been the type to sit around worrying, but maybe it's time to have another talk with Akira. Remind him to ask his lover boy to hold back on the gifts, maybe.

 

&

 

Dinner that night is an extravagant affair. The table is full of sea bream sashimi, unagi on beds of steamed rice, precisely shaped onigiri flavored of fine salmon, and glossy cones of sakura jelly. To say nothing of the side dishes. It takes multiple butlers to bring all the food out, an ostentatious parade of gourmet cuisine.

Goro knows perfectly well that this is just another form of Shido's peacocking. A subtle jab into Okumura's side, reminding him of the crown's superiority in every conceivable fashion. Okumura purses his lips as the dishes pile up, nearly crammed, but says nothing.

"A feast is more than appropriate given the occasion, wouldn't you agree, Okumura-san?" Shido says from the head of the table. He gestures at the food with proud open arms. "Enjoy."

"Thank you for all this, Your Majesty," Haru says. "It all looks lovely."

Goro tucks his napkin into place. The chefs must've been working all day, if not preparing last night as well, marinating meats and letting doughs rise. The food on display could tempt even the fullest of men, and still, a distinct lack of appetite churns Goro's stomach. He's all too aware of what tonight is about, what will be discussed. Still, he lets himself eat small bites, if only because eating excuses him from talking.

Conversation wanes as dinner begins, only the scrapes and clinks of cutlery filling the air. Occasionally Okumura will speak up to share some ingratiating comment, something about how exquisite the curtains in the palace ballroom are, and egg Haru on to emphasize the same compliment.

Haru always does. She does whatever her father asks of her, no questions asked, even if Goro can see the strain of this constant performance in her eyes whenever she turns back to her plate. She'll go far up the ladder of royalty with this subservience. Goro's impressed despite himself. It seems like Shido really did find the perfect bait, the perfect wife.

The perfect wife. Goro's stomach rebels yet again.

Shido waits until the dessert is unveiled to bring up the inevitable. He catches Goro's eye, on his right down the long table, almost as if daring him to object, to defy expectations. Goro swallows, resolute.

He has to do this. He has to let the plan work itself out. He has to trust in the process. His teeth scrape over his fork with his next bite.

"The coming year will be busy for both of us," Shido says to Okumura across the table. "I hope Okumura Foods is... prepared for all the incoming changes."

Okumura smiles. "Of course we are," he says. "Haru's already very excited about wedding planning. Aren't you, Haru?"

Haru hesitates for only a second. "Yes, father."

Don't look at her, Goro tells himself firmly. Don't look at any of them. He tries to escape the room mentally, let his mind travel somewhere different, somewhere happier, but when he realizes his happiest place is in the quiet of his office drinking homemade coffee with Akira, he snaps back to the present. He isn't allowed to think about Akira here, not now, not when the conversation of choice is about his imminent wedding.

"We'll have to find a proper time to announce the engagement," Okumura continues.

"The Christmas ball will be ideal," Shido says. Once again, his eyes flicker dangerously over to Goro. Goro won't be goaded into making a scene, not now. "Wouldn't you agree?"

"It's a great idea," Goro says. "Anyone important will be in attendance, after all."

"It would behoove us to already have save the dates at the ready by then," Okumura points out. "A spring wedding seems to be the best option, considering time constraints."

Okumura pushes the conversation from flower arrangements to venues to ceremonial traditions. It's obvious he desperately wants this wedding to go through. Goro finds his desperation pathetic. Shido must as well; Goro can't imagine he's excited about having another family greedily dip their fingers into the well of their royal privileges, and the greed is all too visible in Okumura's eyes.

What Okumura does with his honorary title means nothing to Goro. What Haru could possibly want to achieve as his esteemed wife means nothing to him either. They can all play puppet with him now, fully convinced they have him under their thumbs, arrange his wedding and his life and his future exactly as they see fit, but they won't know it's all an illusory victory. Not until after Goro's seized the power that was always meant to be his.

"Father, we still have plenty of time to discuss all this," Haru interrupts when Okumura moves on to specifics of the wedding cake. She looks slightly flustered, the first time Goro's seen her show real emotion since she arrived. It could be that all this is a bit much for her, too. "We shouldn't overwhelm His Majesty with all these details so soon."

"So soon? Trust me, Haru, this is all right around the corner."

"Yes, but—"

Goro takes pity on her. "No, she's right," he says. "We don't need to rush. Planning the Christmas ball takes priority for the time being, so let's focus our attentions there."

It's obvious that Okumura isn't pleased, but he's also been chagrined enough to leave it be. Haru may be tolerable, but if Goro's going to be marrying into this family as a whole, he's not going to stand for Okumura's constant meddling. Shido's is bad enough already.

The rest of dinner may as well be white noise in Goro's ears. Okumura switches gears and presses instead on the when, where, and how of the engagement announcement. Goro bites down on the inside of his cheeks until his mouth tastes mildly metallic.

Outside the window, the Christmas lights lining the palace exterior glow through the dark night. Goro doesn't know what it's like to enjoy this time of year, to look forward to Christmas. His whole life it was just an entire month of extra work and extra commitments, and by now, nothing has changed.

Not for the first time, he wonders what the servant quarters look like tonight. If the employees are all crowded inside, caroling together as they wash dishes, baking Christmas treats in their free time. The image in Goro's head is most likely a total distortion of the truth, but even just the idea of such happiness being experienced by someone while Goro's in this awful room, struggling to keep his dinner down, leaves his fists shaking under the table.

Everything will be better, someday. When Shido is gone. Goro has to believe that.

 

&

 

Somehow, it becomes harder to believe the more time he spends away from Shido. And while time and distance have always made wonderful bandaids in the past, a part of him knows that proximity to Akira has only served to further fashion him with blinders. 

He's trying to put that behind him now, but it feels impossible when reminders are everywhere. It's almost silly; their relationship was incredibly short-lived—it’s hard not to already think of all of it in past tense—and yet already Akira has managed to dig his fangs into him.

Tonight, with his anger over dinner having waned to a comfortably dull hunger, it's a problem.  

Goro, after all, has always been something of an insomniac. 

The issue used to be remedied easily enough: a quick trip to the kitchens for some coffee or the simple decision to work instead of sleep, to start going through the piles of paperwork that could just as easily be completed now and save him the trouble of doing them tomorrow. 

(Not that he could ever be allowed a breath of free time. Should Shido find out about his being out of work, he'd simply find that reason enough to assign him more of it.)

The problem is that he can't very well go down to the kitchens right now, not unless he wants to risk the chance of running into Akira or one of his friends. And even if he could—

It's hard to even drink a sip of coffee without thinking of him and it leaving a bad taste in his mouth.

Not that he's been making it particularly easy on Goro. Though it's obvious that he's trying to control himself and space out his messages, the increasing concern ever since Goro's absence in his bed this morning is palpable and painful. 

As if summoned by Goro's intrusive thoughts, his phone lights up with yet another. 

 

Missed you today. Maybe we can see each other tomorrow? 

 

Some sort of painfully masochistic urge pricks at him, Goro scrolling up to read through the messages again. 

 

Good morning :) missed you in bed but I figured you had princely stuff to go do. Don't let them work you too hard :)

 

So much for them not working you too hard, huh? ;)

 

Let me know if you have time for a coffee break today?

 

Or a break for anything else :)

 

He stopped trying after that, thankfully. Until now, at least.

Guilt gnaws at him, frightfully persistent. He certainly won't be able to sleep with this weighing on his conscience. 

Picking up his phone, he allows his thumb to ghost over the keyboard, his fingernail tapping out a slow beat against the glass. 

He can't give him too much hope. Ideally, he'd give him no hope at all. 

Sorry, he writes, biting his tongue as he stares down at the word. Is that too much? A part of him feels like he's apologizing for their entire relationship even happening in the first place, for allowing Akira into his heart instead of simply rejecting him outright as he should have done from the start. No, he just had to go and allow himself a dalliance far more befitting his father. 

He deletes it again. 

Except that, no, it's only polite to at least apologize for not being able to see someone. Especially if that someone still thinks him to be his boyfriend. 

Even just thinking about the word makes him feel ill, nausea turning his stomach with guilt.

 

I'm afraid my schedule is particularly busy at the moment. 

 

He stares at the message. Should he add anything more? Is he obligated to? A plea to excuse his absence from Akira's life in the near future? That would be a lie. He'd have to excuse his absence from the rest of Akira's life. 

The sick feeling in his gut threatens to overwhelm him then, the thought a bitter reminder of his reality. Things will have to be better once he's on the throne and Shido is no longer in power—not only for him, but for everyone. Akira might never forgive him, but his own happiness is a small price to pay for the happiness of the masses… and his revenge. 

The soft sounds of laughter and conversation carry down the hall and through the heavy, thick wood of his bedroom door, dampened but still audible. Compared to the rest of the palace, his room truly feels like a drab place, unfathomably lonely despite its riches and splendor. 

He presses send, promptly closing the application and placing his phone face down on his nightstand. Sleep won't come for him tonight, he already knows at least that much, but he might as well try. 

Anything to stave off the need for coffee tomorrow. 

 

&

 

Pencil has never been Yusuke’s favorite drawing medium of choice. He twists the one in his hand around his knuckles, waiting for inspiration to strike. Should the holly wreaths hang from the front doors? Should the banisters be draped in frosted berry garlands or sprigs of evergreen? 

He’s usually better at making those decisions. In the past, sketching decorations for the Christmas ball was one of Yusuke’s highlights for the season. The canvas of the castle is different in December, begging to be cared for, to be brought to life with holiday magic.

Yusuke wonders if his mind is too muddled this year. It shouldn’t be; things aren’t all that different from last year. As a matter of fact, they’re nearly exactly as they always were. Why Yusuke feels so viscerally changed is an enigma he can’t unwrap.

His eye drifts over to his sketchbook, set aside on his stool. He can’t help but recall the way Lady Ann had flipped through it with careful thumbs, impressed even with the most rudimentary of Yusuke’s illustrations. Perhaps she is the reason he feels off-kilter. The knowledge that, no matter how much he’s enjoying her company lately, she will soon be going back home to a life of responsibilities and friends completely separate from Yusuke, weighs on him like an anvil between the shoulder blades. Can his artwork even survive without her around? He knows it can—did, in the past—but he’s been terribly spoiled recently with all their afternoons spent together. To suddenly be without them—

The door to Yusuke’s studio creaks open. “Ann?” he calls out, hopeful.

Akira steps inside instead. “Sorry,” he says. “It’s just me.”

“Please, don’t apologize.” Yusuke sets his pencil down. “I welcome your company.”

Akira takes his words as the go-ahead to step inside Yusuke’s studio. He looks around at the cluttered supplies, the stacked canvases, and finally, the easel in front of Yusuke. “What’re you working on?” he asks.

“Conceptual sketches for the decorations for the Christmas ball,” Yusuke says, frowning at his work thus far. Christmas has sneaked up on him this year, his thoughts elsewhere, and his unpreparedness shows. By this time last year he was already putting in orders for crystal baubles and velvet tablecloths.

Akira takes in the designs. “Looks festive,” he says. “I like the, uh.” He pauses, carefully considering the sketches. “I like the ice sculpture ideas.”

“Ah, so do I. The aesthetic value alone—it would exude so much elegance.” Yusuke lets himself get lost in visions of behemoth snowflakes and graceful angels carved from ice, framing doorways in frozen splendor. When the visions fade, he’s back in the present, watching Akira’s eyes travel the collection of unfinished artwork piled up against the wall. “Ah. You’ve never seen my studio before, have you?”

“I haven’t.” Akira points at the sketchbook next to Yusuke, the one full of his personal drawings rather than what he’s been ordered to create by the king. “Can I?”

“Of course.”

Akira picks it up, leafing through it, and takes a seat on the stool it vacated. From that angle, Yusuke can see the sketches he’s lingering on: the depictions of Ann, in varying stages of completion, and drawn in multiple different mediums.

Akira looks at them for a long time. Perhaps he, too, is taken by Lady Ann’s radiating beauty. It wouldn’t surprise Yusuke.

“These are all of Lady Ann, right?” Akira asks.

“Yes, indeed. Have you met her yet?”

“Yeah. She came to the stables to go riding.”

Yusuke tries not to bristle at having missed such an occasion. Ann, sitting astride a robust horse, surrounded by the backdrop of icy wilderness and flourishing evergreens, would be a marvelous painting.

“So you two are... friends?” Akira asks.

Yusuke’s never given thought to what they are. “I’m not sure it would be appropriate to call us friends,” he admits. Would Ann even want such a rumor floating around? A few days spent together for the sake of Ann’s challenge don’t exactly erase the worlds of differences between them. “Seeing as she is a member of royalty, while I am little more than a man with a paintbrush... the schisms between us are quite vast.”

And paintbrushes, what are they in comparison to golden scepters? Or jeweled crowns? Yusuke sighs, but when he looks at Akira, he looks rather glum as well.

"Quite vast," he repeats, almost to himself. "Yeah, I guess they are."

Yusuke tilts his head at him, curious, but Akira appears to have already mentally moved on, redirecting his attention back to Yusuke's sketchbook.

"So the painting her naked thing," he says. "You're done with that?"

"Of course not. That's a goal I intend to actualize, for not just my own sake, but that of the entire art world."

Akira smiles. "So the schism isn't that vast."

Yusuke makes a noise, dismissive at first. He contemplates it a moment after. It's possible Akira's misconstruing things, mainly that nude paintings are some illicit act of intimacy, rather than the reverent art they truly are, the respect for the craft, the admiration for the grace of someone as exquisite as Lady Ann.

"I'm afraid you don't understand," Yusuke says. "My interest in her goes no further than her being my subject."

"Really?"

Yusuke rolls the pencil around in his grip. He always believed his intentions to be pure of heart, but perhaps—

He doesn't have time for these intrusive thoughts. He's already behind in his work as it is because of his excursions around the palace with Ann, and if he doesn't catch up on the Christmas displays, it'll be the king knocking at his door instead of Akira, and not with a friendly smile.

"Would you mind doing me a favor?" Yusuke asks, only partially because this conversation is starting to press on sore spots he didn't realize he had. He reaches behind his designs to pull forward a few papers. "I've choreographed a fireworks show for the ball, but I need the king to sign off on the pyrotechnic permits. If you could deliver them for me, I would be in your debt."

Akira nods. "Sure."

"The prince would do as well," Yusuke says.

Akira winces, almost imperceptibly. Yusuke prides himself on his sharp artist's eye for catching it, although he can't quite parse the reason behind it. Didn't Makoto say that Akira and Akechi were getting quite close? "Uh. The prince and I—" Akira starts, then cuts himself off. He shakes his head. "Never mind. I'll deliver them."

"Thank you."

Akira gets to his feet, taking the papers. Yusuke's sure the king didn't intend it to be so, but Akira's a pleasant presence to have around. He fits in nicely with all the rest of them.

 

&

 

Akira welcomes Yusuke's errand as an excuse to visit Goro. It's been days of radio silence, too many days to be normal. The first few Akira was willing to write off as just being a busy time as the holidays start to loom overhead, but Goro's distance is starting to feel intentional.

The thought prickles him, sitting in his belly like a cactus. The bad feeling isn't enough to deter him from investigating, though, and Yusuke's papers are giving him the means to do just that. Akira rarely has chores that take him directly into the palace, and this won't be an opportunity he'll squander.

It might be something simple. Maybe Goro's been swamped with preparations for the Christmas ball. Maybe the king's been keeping him busy with those new arrivals Akira saw pull up in the limousine the other day.

Or maybe Akira's performance during their night together in the hayloft was so cringeworthy that Goro's decided to never look him in the eye again.

Akira winces. The last option is, unsurprisingly, his least favorite. It also feels unlikely when he thinks back on the memories of that night: the warmth in Goro's touch, how he shook and moaned in Akira's arms, the gentle way they fell asleep curled up against each other. Unlikely, but not impossible. 

The timing certainly is curious.

Yusuke's conversation about Lady Ann and the barriers between their classes comes back to the forefront of Akira's mind. The sour truth behind his words is one Akira's been purposefully avoiding for weeks now, but combined with all of Sojiro's well-meaning but mostly just incredibly daunting warnings, it feels like his relationship—can he refer to it like that?—with Goro is on a timer.

Still, he'd rather it be later. Even if he's just delaying the inevitable, he wants to savor all this magic for just a bit longer.

He makes his way up the stairs and down the corridor to Goro's office, knocking on the stately mahogany door.

Nobody answers. Akira knocks again a few times, a bit more firmly. It's not like Goro could know who's on the other side of the door, but still, it's starting to get harder for Akira to not feel offended. Is Goro on the other end, hiding? Is he embarrassed about their last encounter?

It's hard to tell what Goro's feeling. Sometimes he seems open and blooming in Akira's presence, happy to be seen, happy to be known, and other times he seems distant and shuttered, like a house with the lights off. Akira's been writing off those moments as an effect of stress, of being tugged left and right with princely responsibilities, but now, standing alone on the other side of a door after days of silence, he's not so sure.

Akira sighs. It wasn't his first choice, but he'll just have to go to the king with Yusuke's papers now. He leaves Goro's door with reluctance, turning around and heading instead to Shido's office.

He thumbs over his phone in his pocket as he walks. He's already sent too many texts as it is, unanswered, but his hurt is telling him to push harder, to prod Goro into at least one response.

 

Just stopped by your office but you weren't there. You okay?

 

He's about to press send when the low murmurings of voices catch Akira's attention. The door to Shido's office is slightly ajar, just enough to overhear the conversation inside. Akira's feet falter. He eases forward just enough to catch a glimpse through the crack in the door; Shido is standing, angled away from the door, speaking to a man Akira vaguely recognizes as Kunikazu Okumura. 

Shido's stance is forceful, almost aggressive in his crossed arms and upward-tilting chin. In contrast Okumura is shifting, as if trying to find his footing across from Shido's power stance.

"—seems more concerned with the Christmas ball than the wedding," Okumura is saying. "I do hope His Highness is not a... flight risk, as it were."

"Are you implying that I don't have the prince under control?" Shido shoots back. His voice is carefully measured, a potion of toxic substances. "I advise that you keep your concerns focused on your end of the deal."

"You certainly can't blame me for being troubled," Okumura says. "Not with the... rumors that follow His Highness around."

The temperament of the conversation is frosty, a collection of words locked under ice. Akira feels some of that cold swoop into his stomach too. Even without all the details, Akira can put part of the nauseating puzzle together.

"Do I need to remind you that this marriage is elevating a fast food business to the rank of royalty?" Shido says. "The likes of hamburgers and fries can only be described as a downgrade for the reputation of the crown." He leans in, looming. Okumura's weasely mouth twitches. "If I were you, Okumura-san, I wouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth."

Akira doesn't need to hear anything else. It already feels like someone's punched all the oxygen out of Akira's lungs, leaving him seasick, desperate to find a point on the horizon to anchor himself onto.

A few things tumble into place. Goro's being evasive because he's getting married. Goro's been avoiding Akira because he has a new role to fill, the role of the dignified royal fiance, not the illicit lover to the stable boy. Was he going to tell Akira? Or was he just going to let the news spread, quietly becoming little more than a phantom in Akira's memory, leaving Akira to watch him announce his engagement?

Akira can't think straight anymore; his mind is pacing, a Newton's cradle tossing chaotic thoughts back and forth. He just needs to get out of here. He can hear Okumura stammering behind him, trying to form smooth responses to Shido's cutting comments, but it's all just static to Akira's ears.

He pushes himself away from the wall and walks, numb, down the hall and out of the palace.

 

&

 

The mattress in the hayloft, once a symbol of Goro's rebellious affection, feels different to Akira than it used to. He stares up at the ceiling, the worn wooden beams. He listens to the snuffling of the horses as they shuffle. He tries to focus on those tangible, sensory details, but his thoughts are being kidnapped elsewhere.

Shido's words, weddings and marriages and reputations, replay in his mind, a skipping vinyl, over and over. He had considered telling Makoto he was feeling too unwell to work today, but ended up giving up on that idea when he realized that if he wouldn't be working, he'd be sulking on his own with nothing but his emotional bruises to occupy him. At the very least, work distracts.

It worked, to a degree. He shoveled hay around with a determination he had never shown before, and even Sojiro had been impressed. By now, lying in the hayloft with aching arms hours later, he wonders if he's just overdone it.

He closes his eyes, but that doesn't block out the voices. Shido's low, hissed reminder. Do I need to remind you that this marriage is elevating a fast food business to the rank of royalty?

The door to the stables opens. Akira's heart freezes, expecting trouble—Goro, who Akira isn't ready to look at just yet when all his feelings are still like scrambled eggs—but Futaba's the one to stroll in, Morgana tucked under one arm. She lets the cat go, who immediately wriggles out of her arms and darts away.

"Hey," she says. "Want to smuggle some hot cocoa out of the kitchens? I know where they keep the good stuff."

Akira sighs. He doesn't mind hanging out with Futaba, who's quiet but has been opening up to him more and more ever since sharing her contraband internet, but tonight, he just wants to sit and wallow in his own misery.

"Nah," he says. "I'm pretty tired today."

"No fun," she whines. "Is Sojiro really such a slavedriver?"

Actually, Sojiro had casually suggested breaks to Akira about four times over the course of the day, all of which Akira ignored. It's not like he's going to coop himself up in here forever, but he just needs time to wrap his head around how everything went wrong so fast. If any of it had even been real in the first place. He can't figure out why Goro would pretend, but somehow, him not pretending is just as bad, if not worse. It means that Goro liked him, likes him, but not enough to tell him the truth. Not enough to let Akira know that this relationship would have limits.

If he had known, he never would've let himself...

...get so attached. Akira swallows.

Morgana hops up onto the hayloft a moment later, paws possessive on the sheets as his claws sink into the comforter. He fixes his blue eyes on Akira, meowing. It somehow sounds just like Sojiro's nagging. Take a coffee break, kid. Are you angry at the hay or something? Maybe you should take a walk and get some fresh air.

Akira scratches under Morgana's chin. "I'm fine," he tells the cat. "I mean it."

"What do you mean?" Futaba says, head popping up over the mattress as she climbs up the ladder. "Are you and Mona sharing secrets without me?"

"No secrets," Akira insists. Not anymore, anyway; his one big secret is effectively no longer in existence. "Do you want to come up?"

Futaba surveys the space. "Hmmm. Seems tiny." Her eyes land on the tree. "Kinda neat, though."

Akira makes room for her as she clambers up, pulling Morgana into her lap once she's situated. She bounces on the mattress, clearly surprised by its softness, but despite a few probing looks, doesn't comment on it. Maybe, despite some of her social failings, she's managed to pick up on Akira's mood, and perhaps even the reason behind it.

"Palace is getting kinda busy, huh?" she asks. "This time of year is always like that."

“Yeah,” Akira says. “Pretty busy.”

Is it also always full of business executives there to marry off their daughters? Akira can't look Futaba in the eye as she searches him for clues as to why he's so grouchy, but he's also having trouble looking at where she's sitting on his bed and not remembering having Goro here with him.

Once more, the word marriage expands in his brain like an invasive balloon.

The stable door groans open again. Futaba freezes, squeaking, but the cat in her lap keeps her immobile.

Makoto's the one to come in this time. She taps the snow off her shoes before she does, polite even in her intrusion. "Good evening," she says. When she sees Futaba up in the hayloft as well, she pauses. "Futaba-chan. How nice to see you again."

"Jeez," Futaba mutters under her breath. "This place never used to have so much traffic."

"Mind if I come up?" Makoto asks, stopping by the ladder.

Akira is getting the distinct feeling that the therapy cavalry has arrived. He knows he should be grateful to have people he's known for no more than a few weeks be so kind to him—be his friends, really—but mostly he's just annoyed that he's apparently as transparent as he is. He misses one dinner, and suddenly everybody knows he's heartbroken over the prince?

He sighs. "Sure," he says, ignoring Futaba's strangled noise of protest. "Come on."

Makoto's heels clunk on each rung on her way up. She doesn't join them on the landing, opting instead to stand on the ladder. Her eyes linger on the Christmas tree too. All right, maybe Akira isn't so much transparent as he is stupidly obvious.

"How are you?" Makoto asks him.

"Why are you asking?"

She waits a beat before answering. She seems to be figuring out the best way to be delicate in this situation. "I was told to start looking into wedding invitation cardstock," she finally says. "I know the Okumuras have been having... well, an eventful stay."

She's looking at Akira with these unhappy eyes, ones that expect Akira to melt into his own tears any second now. He won't, but his humiliation is threatening to swallow him whole. His exhaustion too, which currently has nothing to do with how much his muscles ache and how little he ate today, but rather how hurt he feels down to the pit of his stomach. To say nothing of how hard it's been to pretend to be fine, to be in constant battle between wanting to talk about it and never speak of any of it again.

"Ouch," Futaba says, not exactly helpfully.

Makoto's hand lands gently on his forearm. "Are you all right?"

Akira looks at her. "No," he says. "But I will be. Once I—I don't know. Get over it, I guess."

If there's even something to get over. Wedding invitation cardstock says there never was.

"I'm sorry," Makoto says. "For what it's worth, I think he's sorry too."

Is an apology made on Goro's behalf really supposed to make Akira feel better? He rubs a hand over his forehead. "Yeah, maybe."

"He's a weirdo," Futaba pipes in. "And kinda unpredictable. Probably why Shido wants him to marry him off as soon as possible, before he puts an explosive in his breakfast or something." At Makoto's stare, Futaba withers a bit. "What? It was totally obvious in Okumura's emails with Shido that all this was planned behind Akechi's back."

"You've... read the king's personal emails?" Makoto asks, faint.

Futaba shrugs. "Yeah. It wasn't hard, by the way. His passwords are all super easy."

A stunned silence follows. Akira isn't so much surprised—not anymore, after his previous experience with Futaba's hacking prowess—as he is impressed. And also slightly frightened as to what else she has up her sleeve.

"Uh," Makoto says. "Be that as it may." She swivels her attention back to Akira. "If you need closure, you should just speak to the prince. He owes you that much."

"He's a prince. Pretty sure he doesn't owe me anything."

Makoto's gaze hardens. "He's also a person. Just like you."

Akira nods. And he's also a million other things that Akira just hasn't discovered yet. He's a liar, and maybe also a damn good actor. And a politician, and a member of the royal family, and the son of the king. All that should be enough for Akira to shut the book on all this.

"I'll think about it," he says. Even if the idea of closure has unhealed parts of him seeping at the edges.

"You know what would help?" Futaba says, poking him in the knee. "Hot cocoa."

Akira laughs despite himself. "You really want that cocoa."

"That's a great idea!" Makoto says with exaggerated cheer. "I can bring some for all of us?"

"Two out of three say yea!" Futaba declares. "Only one out of three says nay. Democracy has spoken."

"That decides it, then." Makoto claps her hands together. "I'll be back shortly."

She descends the ladder. She leaves behind a very pleased Futaba, who grins as she plays with Morgana's ears. "I like her," she tells Akira. "If she plays her cards right, she might get the Wifi password too. And by cards, I of course mean amount of hot cocoa."

"Of course," Akira agrees. 

 

&

 

The diamond ring in Goro's hand is almost offensive to look at in its opulence. The oval-cut gemstone, surrounded by glittering diamonds, glints in the light. The thin golden band sits, half cushioned, in its velvet box.

"It's an Okumura heirloom," Shido says. His tone of voice makes it clear he's not impressed. "I don't care what you do with it as long as it's on his daughter's finger in time for the ball."

Goro snaps it shut. He doesn't know why he even has to see it, touch it, know of its existence. He's getting the feeling that Shido's pushing him, trying to edge him toward surrender.

The wedding preparations already started in earnest before Goro could so much as blink. Okumura seems to have gotten his wish with hurrying the process along; no sooner had Goro approved his speech for the Christmas ball before he was being bombarded with details for the wedding, from choosing tablecloths to being measured for his outfit. 

It’s obvious Okumura wants to get this show on the road as soon as possible. What’s not obvious is if he thinks all these nuptial tasks are meant to excite Goro, or, as they’re actually doing, to drive him further and further away from the idea. It’s one thing to agree to a mutually-beneficial arranged marriage, but it’s another to be assaulted with the riff-raff surrounding the ceremony and the rehearsal dinner and the guest list. The reality of what’s going to happen is staring Goro straight in the face, and it’s not an appealing sight.

"Understood," Goro says.

"Good." At his desk, Shido steeples his fingers together. "The timeline Okumura's brought forth is for an early spring wedding."

Goro offers one solitary nod.

"No objections?"

Shido's eyebrow is cocked. The undercurrent of his look tastes of a standoff, one Goro won't give him the satisfaction of submitting to.

Goro clears his throat. "No," he says, firm. "I'm perfectly aware what this union means for the crown."

The eyebrow slips higher still. "Oh?"

"The alliance with Okumura Foods is valuable, is it not?" Goro asks.

He's fishing. Baiting. Trying to shepherd Shido toward the goal Goro's set up. Shido must know it exists. Shido, better than anyone, knows that no favor comes for free, and what Goro's doing for him is well beyond the realm of a garden variety favor.

"Speak plainly," Shido orders.

"I'm making a sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom. I've proven my loyalty to the crown." Goro feels the gravity of the conversation start to press on him. He can't push too hard, but he can't let himself be pushed either. Finding the balance is key. "I'd like you to acknowledge that."

Shido's chest moves, but Goro doesn't hear him breathe, in or out. He crosses his arms. "And I suppose you already have something in mind."

His closed-off body language tells Goro that he needs to tread lightly. He leans forward, imploring. "Shido-san," he says. "Who will take the throne after you if not me?"

"There is no after me. There is only now." Shido looks at him with hard eyes. "If you already see it otherwise—"

"Of course not."

Shido stills. Goro can see his chin minutely moving, like he's grinding his teeth together. "I don't think you can understand the humiliation that came with taking in a child that isn't my own. A child that was the product of infidelity. There's ridicule that I still deal with to this day."

Liar, hisses the reptilian corner of Goro's brain. The corner that wants to lunge across the table and pounce.

"It was the ultimate betrayal to me for your mother to conceive you with another man while we were engaged. I had no obligation to raise you. I had no obligation to give you the position you've been granted." He pivots carefully left and right in his chair, the slow tilt of it almost menacing. "You're a prince today because of my compassion. Is that not enough for you?"

Goro thinks of the countless hours he's spent searching, combing, hunting for the one clue Shido was too sloppy to clean up. Countless. Amazing how one trying minute in Shido's company can somehow threaten to tear all that work away, to snap Goro into a quick and clean act of revenge.

He manages a tight smile. "My apologies if I haven't made my gratitude clearer," he says. He walks cautiously on the razor's edge of his rage. "You weren't required to take me in. But you did, and in the process, you have groomed me into a king. I want to carry on your legacy."

Shido says nothing. The swiveling of his chair is slightly creaky. By afternoon, someone will have been ordered up here to fix it.

"I will marry Haru Okumura," Goro says firmly. "But I need your word that you'll at least consider my request."

"It's a hefty request."

"I realize that."

Shido's chair has stilled. He's gone back to staring at Goro as if trying to crumble him to stone, most likely searching for a weakness like all predators do. Goro intends to hold his gaze, unflinching, but then his phone vibrates in his pocket. He slips it free for a quick glance, but Akira's name on the screen freezes him.

It's a text. Akira hasn't reached out in the past few days after catching on to Goro's intentional silence, but it seems he still has something to say. Goro slides the message open.

 

I heard the news. Congratulations.

 

It's like the Titanic of Goro's heart has just hit the iceberg. He had been hoping—however foolishly—to avoid this altogether, at least until it no longer could be avoided. Who did Akira hear it from? How did he react?

He's not sure how long he spends staring at his phone, mouth dry, but it's obviously too long for Shido's liking. "Do you have more pressing matters to attend to?" Shido hisses.

Goro thumbs over his phone screen, too lost in the message to even notice Shido's question for a few moments. When he does look up, he feels like Akira's text has skinned him, exposing all of his sharp edges.

"Actually, yes," Goro says, sliding his phone away. "But I believe we were done anyway, were we not?"

The defiance is a new sensation to Goro's nerves, and possibly also to Shido's, if his expression is any indication. Goro finds, oddly, that he doesn't have the urge to walk it back. It may be unwise, a slap in the face to his own scheme when he's currently trying to coax Shido's benevolence out from underground, but right now, a part of him—the part that flared to life whenever he was  tucked into the hayloft with Akira—is standing up straight.

It's too late to salvage Goro's relationship with him, but for the first time since the guilt has engulfed him, Goro feels it necessary to see him. To explain, to apologize. His moral compass, usually dormant, is pointing straight at Akira, at the obligation he owes him to properly end what they had together in a method more dignified than a sad text message.

"Fine," Shido says. "Don't forget the charity lunch tomorrow."

He stands up, indicating that he has business to attend to just like Goro does. Goro heads out of the office first with Shido on his heel, except he turns sharply left down the hall while Goro has a different destination in mind: the stables.

When he gets there, only Sojiro seems to be around, measuring oats into a bucket. He straightens up and gestures at Robin Hood.

"Your Highness," Sojiro grunts. "Should I saddle him up?"

"Not this time," Goro says. His eyes make a quick scan of the hayloft too, just to be sure. Goro's donated Christmas tree is still there, which he optimistically wants to take as a good sign that Akira hasn't given up all hope on Goro's character, or, at the very least, doesn't despite him.

"He's not here," Sojiro says through a sigh. "And maybe looking for him isn't such a great idea."

He gives Goro a pointed look. The fact that the rumor mill goes as far as Sojiro is as baffling as it is concerning.

But Goro will look into that later. “I’m only looking to speak with him,” he says. “Do you know where he is?”

Sojiro stares at him for a long moment, long enough that Goro’s starting to feel inappropriately chagrined under the weight of his wordless judgment. It would rankle Goro if he wouldn’t understand it so clearly. Goro may be Sojiro’s employer for all intents and purposes, but Sojiro’s still in Akira’s camp as far as picking sides go, if it’s come that far. He knows that the entire situation might look damning to an outsider, but Goro can’t help but feel a bit betrayed that no one seems to even be considering what Goro’s vantage point of the situation is. All anyone ever sees is the extravagance of royalty, the privilege and the money, but never the life that exists behind it.

Finally, Sojiro speaks. “He’s in the palace. Niijima-san put him to work in the ballroom. Preparations for the ball, if I remember right.”

It’s exactly the information Goro needs, even if Sojiro was reluctant to give it. He nods, grateful. “Thank you,” he tells Sojiro as he heads back to the door.

“Wait,” Sojiro calls out. He’s staring at the ceiling, as if praying for strength, when Goro turns around to face him again. “If you’re okay with me saying it, Your Highness—think twice before doing whatever it is you’re about to do, all right?”

Goro blinks.

"If you're only going to make it worse, maybe it's better if you don't do anything at all," Sojiro says.

He looks almost angry. Sojiro's usually very even-tempered, almost fatherly in his patience, but the look on his face right now is nearly a warning. Goro's first reaction is to internally flare up, aggrieved, but then he realizes something. Goro's been skirting his way around the castle, hiding in his bedroom from all facets of reality—ranging from Okumura to Akira to his responsibilities—but Sojiro's been here, watching Akira react, possibly even mourn.

"He's not been doing well, then?" Goro asks.

"Not exactly," Sojiro says. "But you can see for yourself, if you really want to talk to him."

It would certainly be easier not to. Goro could leave a message with Sojiro, a pithy apology that does the job, but it still feels like a coward's response, a skeletal version of what Akira actually deserves.

"I will," Goro says. "Thank you for the advice regardless, Sakura-san."

He leaves the stables and heads back to the palace, chewing over the implications of Sojiro's words as he goes. It pierces parts of Goro to hear that Akira hasn't been handling the news of Goro's engagement well, even if other parts of Goro are sickeningly pleased that he isn't off partying his woes away with all his plentiful friends among the staff.

If he's so upset, that must mean he genuinely cared about Goro. Cares? Goro can't quite manage to presume just yet. All he knows is that if the roles were reversed, Goro's already dreadfully scarce reservoirs of trust would be empty.

But he's banking on Akira being different. Slightly better than Goro, at least in matters of maintaining a heart.

That thought carries him down the corridor and into the ballroom. It's still lacking the Christmas cheer that it'll be bursting with during the ball, empty of sweeping skirts and quiet of festive orchestras, but in a matter of days, it'll be unrecognizable, brimming with movement and conversation.

Now, in the echoing silence, Goro's shoes sound on the floor as he walks inside. His entrance is immediately noted by the only other occupant, who looks up from where he's mopping the marble tiles.

The sight of Akira's untidy head of curls pitches Goro's pulse into higher gear. Suddenly, Goro wonders if Sojiro's warning was less about protecting Akira and more about Goro; just seeing Akira again splits his heart open, and out leaks every inconsequential thing separating him from rushing forward and bruising Akira's face with kisses.

"I found you," Goro says. His voice sounds unnaturally loud in the large ballroom.

"You did," Akira says, stilling the mop. "You were looking?"

"I wanted to speak with you." It isn't a lie, but abruptly Goro has zero idea what it is he wants to say. "I understand that you've... heard the news."

Akira visibly swallows. "Yeah."

Goro searches his face for an identifiable emotion. He was desperately wishing earlier that Akira wouldn't be angry, but now, he wonders if anger might actually help. Akira storming off and not wanting anything else to do with Goro would certainly make it easier to focus on his new commitments, his new bride, his new life.

"Congratulations," Akira says. His voice is very flat.

The fact that Goro can't reach out and touch Akira is killing him. It feels like he's denying himself a magnetic pull, but giving in won't make any of this easier. Sojiro's words about thinking twice before searching for Akira ring in his head.

"For what it's worth, this marriage isn't..." Goro trails off. Real is the word he's lingering on, but it will be real, in every sense except for willingness of its participants. "It's little more than a contract."

"Oh."

"In truth, Okumura-san and I are essentially acquaintances."

"Oh," Akira says. "Then... do you still—" He stops. He looks injured. "Never mind." He leans heavily on the mop, and Goro does him the heart-slicing favor of pretending to not know where that sentence was headed. "I guess that means you and I... that it can't continue."

Goro's vision blurs around the edges. He turns to compose himself and catches sight of the two of them in the ballroom's arching mirrors, standing too far apart, spines too stiff. It wasn't even that long ago when they were wrapped up together on the mattress in the hayloft, coddled in a false happiness that this could last. Goro's the one to have ripped that happiness away, and now all this nauseating tension is left behind

"It can't. I'm sorry." Goro looks away from their reflections. "I shouldn't have allowed it to happen in the first place. I knew what expectations were waiting for me, and it was unfair to you to not disclose those conditions."

"That you would be getting married."

Goro hates hearing those words come out of Akira's mouth. "Yes," he says. "I apologize if you're upset or disappointed."

Sojiro had implied that Akira was upset. If Goro lets himself look closer, Akira does look unwell: unrested around the eyes, fingers fidgeting. Goro wants to hold those fingers, uncurl them from the mop, but such an intimate touch would surely be unwelcome.

Akira doesn't say anything, not that Goro can blame him. He isn't expecting him to accept his apology, not under these circumstances. The silence suspended between them is awkward in a way it never was before.

Goro's just about made the decision to leave to not prolong the discomfort when Akira speaks up.

"When's the wedding going to be?" he asks.

"Oh. In the spring, possibly." Earlier, if Okumura has his way. "We're announcing the engagement the night of the Christmas ball."

"So soon?"

Goro nods. Once again, looking Akira in the eye feels like a momentous feat. "Royal weddings tend to run on a fast schedule," he says. 

Not that dragging the engagement out would change anything. The end result remains the same. If not Haru, then there will eventually be another arrangement. Goro knew this all along, ever since he understood the very concept of marriage, and he suddenly feels as cruel as Shido for ever having dragged Akira into this mess. Not for the first time, he's left to wonder if Shido and him are more alike than he wants to admit.

As if to rebel against any bits of him that resemble his father, Goro's struck with a need to be as altruistic as possible.

"I'd like to invite you to the ball," Goro blurts. "Formally. As my guest, not as a member of the staff."

Akira's eyes widen. "What?"

"It's a wonderful night of the year. And it's—" The least I can do. Like a night of hors d'oeuvres and expensive suits can make up for what Goro's done to him. He clears his throat. "Please. I would welcome your presence."

Akira's already shaking his head. "Wouldn't that look... suspicious?"

"Anyone who would have a problem with it would be free to speak to me about it," Goro says, straightening up. "You're free to bring someone else from the staff with you if it'd make you more comfortable." As long as it isn't Sakamoto, Goro thinks but doesn't say. God knows what sort of catastrophe Sakamoto would be in a ballroom full of breakable dishes and haughty royals.

"I don't think it's a good idea," Akira insists. "I don't even know how to—how to dance properly."

"Not even a waltz?"

Akira shakes his head.

"Well, it isn't difficult. I can teach you." Goro takes a step forward before he realizes he's doing so. "All you really require are the basics."

"Uh, I really don't..." Akira's saying, reluctant, but Goro lifts his arms in a dancer's position, expectant. Akira looks at his outstretched grip, his open hands, and relents. "All right. Where do I start?"

In the hinterland of Goro's brain, he recognizes that this truly isn't a good idea. Goro disregards it. That same rebellion he was galvanized by in Shido's office tickles him again: dancing with a stablehand in the ballroom is something he, as a married prince in line for the throne, soon won't be allowed to do.

"I'll take the woman's stance so you can learn to lead," Goro says. "Extend your palm. Like—this."

Goro opens Akira's hand until it's flat, a waiting cradle for Goro's fingers. He sets the mop in Akira's other hand aside, leading it to his waist.

The moment Akira shuffles into the position, hands flexing, Goro realizes this isn't just a bad idea. It's a dangerous idea. Horrendous. Truly Sakamoto-level stupid. The waltz isn't even a particularly intimate dance, really just a respectable way to entertain and socialize, but holding Akira, even at arm's length, is igniting a muscle memory in Goro that's urging him to slide closer.

"It's a box step," Goro says on an exceedingly dry mouth. "So we move in a square. Start with your left foot going forward."

Akira does so. His eyes are thankfully trained downward on his feet, saving Goro the added challenge of having to stare into them. Goro slides back with his right foot. He's done the waltz so many times that even the reverse is simple for him, but Akira's proximity, the familiar feel of him, is unseating Goro.

"Now go to the side with your right foot," Goro instructs. "And bring your left foot over to join it."

"Like this?"

"Yes, and then go back with your right foot."

Akira guesses the next step on his own. His left foot slides to the side and is met smoothly with his right. There's a fluidity in his movements that make it clear he'll pick the steps up swiftly.

Goro can't help but laugh. "Very good," he remarks, starting the box once more. "I should've known you'd be a fast learner. You're always finding new ways to impress me."

For a moment, absorbed in the rhythm of the step, Goro forgets that this may be one of the last times Akira gets to. In that sense, this feels more like a funeral than a ballroom dance lesson, a romantic tryst by the sparkling light of the chandeliers hanging above them. He speeds up his feet, and Akira falls into place opposite him, keeping pace with ease. Goro shouldn't be surprised; Akira took to the horses in a matter of days as well.

"You can count if it helps you, although it doesn't look like you need it," Goro says. "The waltz operates on counts of three. One, two, three. One, two, three."

He repeats the numbers in a whisper. The pattern of the dance is straightforward enough that Akira follows along with only the occasional hesitation, the only true symbol of his inexperience being his clamped grip. Goro gives his hand a wobble, trying to shake the tension out.

"Relax," he advises. "Dancing can be quite meditative, if you allow it to be." Goro tries to lead by example, breathing out any awkward air that remains around them. His shoulders loosen. "To paraphrase Voltaire, it's reading and dancing that are some of the only amusements in the world that don't harm it."

Even with his downturned head, Goro can tell that Akira is smiling. "What about horseback riding?"

Akira's smile is something Goro wasn't expecting to see, at least not today, in the wake of his grim news. A pang of longing hits him like a punch.

"Keep your eyes on your partner," he says. "It's not very polite to only look at your footwork."

Akira's head snaps up. The smile is still there, like he's enjoying being taught, if not gently teased. His steps don't falter, even as he locks eyes with Goro.

Watch out, Goro's mind warns him. It feels like he's just entered a high-voltage area. Electricity spits around him, as dangerous as it is thrilling.

"Can you keep counting?" Akira asks, voice low.

"I didn't think you needed it."

"I don't," Akira says. He goes a little pink around the cheeks. "But I like to hear your voice."

His blush must be contagious. Goro can feel his face heating up too, and now he's the one nearly stumbling. He tries to concentrate on the dance, the steps he's done a million times with duchesses and baronesses over the years, but now feel almost new with Akira as his partner.

He keeps counting, as requested. The sway of his body with Akira's is an acute brand of joy, as if somehow more vital parts of themselves have lined up. Goro interrupts himself a few minutes later only to continue his lesson.

"It's meant to be a traveling dance," Goro says. "Do you feel confident enough to try?"

"Definitely not."

"The steps don't change. You just angle your body as you go." He tries a new tactic. "Come now. You won't let me outdo you, will you?"

"So it's a competition?"

Goro smirks. "If you'd like."

It does the trick. Akira takes control of the dance, pulling Goro tightly to him and sweeping him in a circle. His footwork goes erratic in the process, the elegance lost, but Goro doesn't mind; something about the situation is abruptly amusing, enough so to make him laugh as Akira spins and spins them in fast circles.

"That's just cheating," Goro says as the dance loses all semblance of the waltz. "I won't let you win when—"

Winning might not have even been Akira's intent, because before Goro realizes it, Akira's kissing him, lips still curved into a smile where they're pressed against Goro's. The hand that was holding demurely on to Goro's waist is now clutching at his back, holding him close, and Goro's powerless to pull away. A part of him knew this would happen the minute he suggested the lesson, if not the minute he walked into this room and laid eyes on Akira.

He's weak, just like Shido's always snidely saying in ways he thinks Goro won't recognize. Being weak for this, though, for Akira, feels like being launched into space, leaving him weightless and unanchored. It's a weakness he suspects Shido's never felt before, and that in of itself feels like a power.

He kisses Akira back, sliding the hand on Akira's shoulder around to his neck. It hasn't been very long since the last time they did this, but it still feels like something of a reunion, like coming back to a bookmarked novel. Goro parts his lips and lets Akira deepen the kiss, if only for a moment, before Akira pulls away.

He doesn't go far. His forehead bumps Goro's, mouth still close enough to let his exhale mingle with Goro's inhale. The hand on Goro's back flexes, caught between wanting and abstaining.

"Sorry," he whispers. "That was a mistake."

Goro swallows.

"Right?" Akira asks.

Of course it was. The question is superfluous, the answer too obvious to even be bothered with, but still Goro doesn't want to say it out loud. The truth, one that supersedes his common sense, is that this feels too good to let go. That Akira makes him feel more alive, more defiant, than any chase after his rightful crown ever has.

That thought belongs to dangerous territory as well. He knows this is a bad idea. He knows that Akira, in the way he defies all the bedrock logic Goro has relied on for years, is a bad idea.

This can't work. Nobody wants to be the undercover lover to a married prince, the secret under the covers. Do they?

The doorknob to the ballroom rattles. Goro jolts away from Akira just as the door swings open, revealing Okumura on the other side. His eyes zip from Goro to Akira with open suspicion.

"Pardon the intrusion," Okumura says, voice tight. He readjusts his cravat. "I'm not interrupting anything, Your Highness, am I?"

"No," Goro says immediately. He goes for brusque, but the voice that comes out of his mouth sounds more flustered than anything else, not that he's surprised. If he was floating in outer space with Akira a second ago, Okumura's arrival has just sent him rocketing down to earth at inhuman speeds. "We're just in the process of preparing for the Christmas ball."

Belatedly, Akira reaches for his mop. Okumura follows the movement with beady eyes.

"I see," Okumura says after a beat. "Well. My daughter and I are certainly looking forward to it."

"You'll be sure to enjoy yourselves," Goro says.

Okumura bows his way out, albeit slowly. His gaze is the last to leave, as if stuck to the scene with glue. It isn't until his footsteps have faded from earshot that Goro lets himself exhale.

"Do you think he..." Akira trails off.

"No," Goro says, but he can't be sure. "I don't believe he did." Even so, the comfortable mood their dancing brought to the room has dissolved, impossible to reclaim. "But it was a good reminder. Such public places are probably not the best locations for waltz lessons."

"Right."

Goro looks over at Akira. He can still feel the pressure of Akira's mouth on his, the desperate clench of Akira's hand at the small of his back.

"We should continue them somewhere more private."

Akira's eyes go large. It's possible he was expecting Rejection Speech 2.0. "We—we should?"

"Are you busy tonight?"

It's an out. An out that Goro doesn't want him to take, but he wouldn't blame Akira if he did. The situation is complicated, messy, fraught with snags—

"I'm not," Akira says. "I'll be in the stables. Sojiro should be gone by eight."

His eyes are bright, much brighter than when Goro first found him here.

"I'll be there," Goro promises.

Chapter Text

The first thing that Akira notices upon his return to the barn is the note pinned to one of the wooden beams. 

It feels like a tremendously bad omen after the downright blissful afternoon he's had, as though karma is intent on balancing the scales once more, tragedy following closely on the heels of far too much happiness. 

Not that he hasn't been reveling: Goro's departure from the ballroom found him humming to himself as he finished mopping, a skip in his step as he hurried back to the stables in the hopes of not missing his arrival. 

In hindsight, it feels like a rather naive bit of hope that's been kindled in his heart. Even if Goro wants him now, there's no way of knowing if he'll feel the same way tomorrow, or the day after. If sneaking around behind the crown's back will become too much for him, or if a discovery by the press won't make the decision to split for them.

Would he be all right being Goro's little secret? That same naive bit of hope in his gut says yes, something he knows Sojiro would chide him for, and likely with good reason. Getting involved with royalty—let alone as the crown prince's gay love affair—is no picnic. It comes with not just tremendous risks, but the knowledge their happiness might be swept out from beneath them at any moment—including at Goro's discretion.

He intended to freeze him out once already. Who's to say that he wouldn't do the same in a heartbeat if it meant protecting his own interests? 

And yet… Goro didn't call their kiss the mistake it rather obviously was. 

Instead, the promise of a second dancing lesson was left in the air between them, one filled with the potential for more.

Not that the note pinned to the beam plants too much confidence in the thought of Goro not second-guessing that decision already.

A quick scan of the note hits him first with hope—Makoto's handwriting, and her signature—and then dread, curling around his gut like a snake. 

 

Akira,

The king would like to speak with you as soon as possible. If he's not in his office, your best bet will be to wait for him there. 

Makoto

 

Considering how closely Okumura just found him and Goro standing just now, Akira can hazard a fairly good guess as to just what this meeting might entail. 

Then again, a quick scan of the last few weeks in his head makes him wonder just how careless they've really been. At worst, there could already be paparazzi pictures, but he's fairly certain that even the fact that he's sleeping on a mattress can be taken for rather damning evidence.

His thoughts curdle in his belly, Akia tearing down the note before scribbling another on the back to pin up in its place. 

 

Be right back. 

- Akira

 

Excessively hopeful, maybe—especially if the king isn't in his office—but the last thing he wants is for Goro to think that he's standing him up to spend time with his friends. 

Swift steps and nerves alike carry him through the palace, Akira running through a number of worst-case scenarios along the way. 

Not that he knows the charge for romancing—or is it seducing?—a crown prince engaged to be married. Is there a punishment worse than sleeping up in a hayloft? Maybe Shido will take away his fancy new mattress, or abscond with his Christmas tree to deprive him of holiday cheer... but that seems far too benign considering his usual style. 

Surely it would seem suspicious to his friends and the other staff if he just suddenly disappeared, thrown into a dungeon—or worse, had his execution ordered. The king would probably want to pull the trigger himself, if the murderous intent in his eyes every time he's seen Akira thus far is anything to go by. 

Then again, maybe the palace has ways to cover such things up with a king like Shido at the helm. Does the palace even have a dungeon? Perhaps Goro would know.

Or Futaba. If he told her in advance that there might be a non-zero chance that the king orders his execution, she'd be able to keep things on the up-and-up. Or maybe avenge his death after the fact. 

Then again, he has the feeling that she'd know even without him informing her of the possibility beforehand. 

It simply feels like too great of a coincidence to assume that a summons to see the king as soon as possible would follow right after them nearly being caught in the act by the senior Okumura for no reason, and by the time he reaches Shido's door, Akira is debating whether death wouldn't be preferable to dealing with the consequences of interrupting the phone call he can hear through the thick wood.

He knocks, waits a few seconds, and opens the door regardless, ignoring the glower thrown his way upon entry.

"I don't care how it's done so long as you get it done, do you hear me? I don't have time for these delays, and I certainly have better things to do than—just get it done, I need to deal with a vermin problem in my office."

The receiver is slammed back down with enough force that Akira is almost surprised it doesn't break from the impact alone.

"Close the door."

"You wanted to see me?"

"While you are in my office and breathing the same air I breathe, you will address me as Your Majesty, or so help me god I will have you tried for treason."

He stands, evidently intent upon making the most of the measly two inches that he has on Akira. 

"And... outside your office everything goes, Your Majesty?"

"Listen here, you little shit. I don't care who you think you are. I can be a forgiving man, but disrespect is the one thing I won't stand for."

Akira looks him up and down, very much still standing, and opens his mouth before closing it again. He bites his tongue. If Goro liked Shido even a little bit, this would be a very different meeting, one where Akira wouldn't be tempted to continue needling him by being as annoying as humanly possible. That being said, Goro’s never given him the impression that he cares for the king, what with the way he plans out Goro’s life on his behalf.

"Go on," Shido grinds out.

"I was just going to say that you must be very tolerant then, Your Majesty."

The fingers steepled atop the walnut wood desk tense noticeably, brown eyes narrowing behind yellow-tinted lenses.

"If you are speaking to me, you will address me as Your Majesty. Anything else will not be necessary, as you have no need to refer to me."

"And if I'd like to sing your praises, Your Majesty?"

If it's possible, Shido's eyes narrow further.

"For your sake, I will pretend I didn't hear that. Seeing as you have more important things to worry about right now."

Akira blinks. "Oh, Your Majesty?"

Bared teeth grind together as though hoping to threaten him. 

"You seem to be under the false belief that playing dumb will… aid you, in some way. I can assure you that it won't."

"I'm not sure what you're talking about." A beat. "Your Majesty."

A fist forms in place of formerly tented fingers, Akira biting down on the inside of his cheek to keep his satisfaction from showing on his face. 

"I'll get straight to the point. The engagement between Akechi and Haru Okumura has been in the works for some time now, and I would sooner have you eliminated before I allowed stable trash like you to ruin it."

Eliminated. Right. He expected something like that would come up. Once more, Akira's mind flits back to the potential promise of palace dungeons. 

This time, he holds his tongue, Shido continuing. 

"I know what you are," he says, his voice as dark as his expression. "You and Akechi both. Filthy, disgusting little faggot queers." His stare is icy as he rounds the table. "I realize that your feeble mind cannot possibly comprehend the magnitude or the importance of such a merger, but rest assured. Should you get in the way? Not only is that useless brat never going to sit on this country's throne, I'll have him exiled. I'll make sure of it."

Shido opens the door for him, his gaze as lethal as it is expectant. 

Every possible cheeky response that he might have had prepared has summarily left him, Akira's jaw tight as he forces his gaze to drop from Shido's. "Am I dismissed, Your Majesty?"

"Leave. Get out of my sight and don't loiter. You've done more than enough to besmirch the crown already without you sullying the royal hallways with your stench."

Akira knows enough not to linger; instead, his steps carry him to the servants' hallways as quickly as they can manage, breathing easy only upon his return to less hostile terrain. 

Goro should know about this. About him being threatened and insulted in every which way, the looming dread that the crown might be further out of reach for him with every kiss they share. 

He should

And yet… every fibre of his body is resisting against the thought. For one, Goro has enough to worry about already. For another, he's not sure that there would be another dance for them to enjoy if he Akira told him about this particular meeting. 

Hopefully, Goro won't be there yet when he gets back to the barn. Then Akira can avoid lying entirely. 

 

&

 

Somehow, arriving at the barn before Goro does not end up feeling like a victory. 

Or, if it is, it's a pyrrhic one, one that comes coupled with the knowledge that they have to be endlessly careful from here on out. Maybe they could wait until Goro ascends the throne and then continue the affair, if Goro would even want to. 

If. Waiting now, in the barn, he supposes that he's waiting on precisely that if

Not that he's entirely discounting the thought that Goro might come just to tell him that they can't, but he decides to hope regardless. Maybe, just maybe, Goro will think happiness is worth risking the throne. Will think Akira is a worthwhile reason to take a chance.

By the time the barn door creaks open after a short knock, Akira realizes that he's been mindlessly sweeping the same square foot for a good five minutes or so.

"You came."

If he's not misjudging the look on Goro's face entirely, Akira would almost say that he looks sad despite the smile on his face, a soft chuckle—just as sad as the smile—leaving him as he shakes his head, closing the door behind him. "You sound so surprised."

After the evening he's had, he can hardly blame himself for it. "I just… know how much is on the line for you." He swallows, unable to help but feel as though his heart is painfully exposed. As though he already knows what to expect from all this and is a fool for hoping regardless. "But I'm glad," he rushes to add. "I was hoping you would."

Another chuckle, this one more natural than the last. A welcome sound. "I must admit, it has been some time since I last had someone so willing to endure my dance instruction."

"You've had other students?"

"Just Ann, in a way. But… I find that I prefer allowing you to lead more than I enjoyed leading opposite her."

"In that case," Akira says, propping the broom up against one of the wooden beams before making his way over to Goro, his hand outstretched. "Maybe you'll allow me to show you my preferred style of dancing?"

"You certainly know how to get a man’s attention... I suppose I could allow that. My curiosity is piqued, after all."

Goro's hand fits perfectly into his, Akira pressing a kiss to the back of it. "I don't have any music, but I'm sure you can use your imagination."

"We didn't need music back in the ballroom, did we?"

"No," he says, stealing another kiss from the back of Goro's knuckles before pulling him closer. "You and me is more than enough." A part of him wonders if he’s not talking about something more than the music now, but he silences that thought and instead focuses on the moment. Akira’s arm slides around Goro’s middle with ease, their faces less than an inch apart.

"This style of dancing of yours is... rather intimate. Where am I supposed to put my arms, exactly?"

"Ideally, you'd put them around my neck."

None of the hesitation he might have expected manifests itself in the way Goro slides his arms up over his shoulders, stopping only when their foreheads touch against each other. Not that Akira is complaining.

"And now?"

"Now we sway," Akira says, starting them off slow. It can hardly be deemed leading when this is all he's doing, but neither of them seems to mind much. 

"You're very good at this," he whispers, Goro's answering smile blurry at this distance. "A natural." 

"Well, it's hardly difficult."

"I think someone would have a very hard time with this if they weren't... in love with me."

The pause that follows is filled with a silence that can only be described as heavy, too many hopes and dreams weighing it down as Goro draws back to look at him. "Am I?" he asks. "In love with you?"

Much as Akira wants to say yes, wants to believe that Goro would choose him over the crown, everything in Goro's expression seems to be begging him to say no. To offer an out, a means of escape from this emotional vault Akria seems to have locked them both into.

"I don't know. Are you?"

In lieu of an answer, Goro pulls him into a kiss. It’s slow to start but increasing with desperation by the second as Akira's tongue pleads for entrance. Akira isn’t even sure if he can trace where the desperation is coming from; is it himself or Goro? Both of them seem to have their reasons for it, an urgent need to cling to the shelter that this unstable, shaky relationship creates for them.

The moan that leaves Goro is more than enough to spur him into action, Akira easily backing him up against a pillar to slip his knee between Goro's legs. They kiss for what could easily be either long hours or frantic minutes, Goro’s hands winding tightly into Akira’s hair.

The pinned note above Goro's head is a frosty reminder of what happened less than an hour ago, and Akira reaches up to tear it off its pin, crumpling it up in his right hand. 

"What was that?" Goro gasps against his lips, Akira shaking his head as he traces the path of his jaw with open-mouthed kisses. 

"Just a note Makoto left." Not a lie, not really.

"Is now really the time to do... housekee—ah—"

Seeking out the sensitive parts of the crook of his neck is enough to silence Goro for the moment, Akira tossing the balled up piece of paper aside for now. Goro is right, of course. He can deal with the housekeeping of the barn later. He has more important matters to deal with at the moment, like kissing just the right spots of Goro’s throat until his breath hitches.

"Climb up into the hayloft?" Akira asks him.

Goro doesn't have to be asked twice. He slips out of Akira's arms with a swiftness and ease making his eagerness thrillingly obvious, hurrying up the ladder with only the occasional glance back to check if Akira is following.

And Akira is. He's not sure that anything could keep him from it.

It doesn’t seem that anything can keep Goro at bay either. It's Goro that tugs Akira onto the mattress with him upon reaching the hayloft, and Goro rolls enthusiastically on top of him, and Goro who scrambles to pull off Akira’s shirt and get Akira's pants undone, eager to tug them down.

"Easy," he laughs, stalling Goro's hand with a smile. "We have time." He pauses. "Don't we?"

Goro's gaze falls, enough of an answer all on its own. "I want to make you feel good. Will you let me?"

Are you apologizing for something you haven't done yet? Akira wants to ask, and doesn't, not when his tongue refuses to move. Are you asking me for forgiveness in advance?

He nods regardless.

This time, Akira allows Goro to pull his trousers the rest of the way off his legs, the damp spot at the front of his underwear earning him a smile. "And you're calling me eager," Goro whispers, leaning down to press a soft kiss to the spot where his erection strains against its fabric confines.

Hooking his fingers into Akira’s underwear, Goro tugs them aside to follow his pants, a shiver running through Akira with his legs exposed. The barn is heated, but it's still winter, even if it's a different sort of warmth he's missing right now.

Akira’s hand finds Goro’s hair. The soft strands are a comfort to him in this moment, almost frightening in its newness. Or perhaps its transience? "Have you…" He swallows. "Before?"

A flash of something crosses Goro’s eyes. Shame? Akira wants to assure him that he doesn’t need to be embarrassed, that he doesn’t even need to do this at all if it’s just out of some forced obligation, but then Goro’s hand wraps around Akira’s dick, stroking. His tongue follows a moment later, hesitantly exploring.

"No," Goro admits. "But you’re not the only fast learner between the two of us."

Akira’s words stutter in his own throat as Goro licks over him again. "Will you at least allow me to recipr—oh, fuck—" 

It's his turn to go speechless, Goro tonguing his cock with growing confidence before wrapping his lips around the tip and sinking down. The groan that leaves Akira is entirely involuntary, torn from his throat as his head falls back. After keeping the truth about Shido from him today, he'd thought making Goro feel good to be least he could do.

Now, with Goro doing everything in his power to tend to him instead, he can't help but wonder if he shouldn't be worried, after all.

He allows it to happen despite that fact, Akira's hand running through Goro's hair just to hold. No pressure, no urging, no attempts to goad him into going deeper. Goro’s inexperience is easy to notice in both the careful way he explores and the almost over-ambitious way he tries to go too deep too fast. It’s like he has something to prove, and Goro’s teasing words from the ballroom pop back up in Akira’s head: maybe Goro’s a little competitive in this aspect too.

If it is a competition, Goro’s certainly going for the gold, sinking down on Akira's cock as far as he can. It isn’t very far, admittedly, but it still feels unthinkably good to Akira, who’s struggling to keep his hips in check as Goro wraps his fingers around anything his mouth can’t reach.

"Goro," Akira gasps, his fingers tightening in his hair. Even just the gentle bob of Goro’s head almost feels like too much, too fast, bringing him far too close to the brink. "God. You’re so—so good." 

Is it because it's with Goro? Because this is where he wants to keep him, forever? The moment feels like it's slipping through his fingers like sand, escaping him with enough speed to be alarming. 

"Stop," he whispers, his fingers tightening as he eases Goro’s head up and off of his length. "I'm close. And I want to come with you."

Goro licks his lips, his smile warmer than it should have any right to be as he turns it upon Akira. "Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have me tend to you first?"

His hand strokes up and down Akira’s cock once more, the path now slick with spit.

Akira groans. "Goro. Come here." 

Even with his teasing, Goro seems easily swayed. Akira beckons him to join him at his side, aching to touch, to make Goro feel as good as Goro just made him feel. He waits until they're both situated and comfortable, Goro tugging off his clothes as well. Though one of his eyes remains shrouded by the pillow beneath their heads, all he needs is the one to see Goro, to rest their foreheads together and wrap his hand around both of their lengths at once. 

"Good?" 

The words leave him in a breath, his hand moving slowly to start and gaining confidence only once Goro nods against him. The friction is incredible, the heat of them pressed together hypnotizing.

"Y-yeah, like that. Don't stop."

Their legs tangle together of their own accord—or is that Goro's doing?—the two of them impossibly close as Goro's hand finds his hip to tease at the skin there, soft and gentle, his eyes fluttering shut as Akira kisses him, soft. 

This moment won't last long enough, he knows. Not for him, and not for Goro either, he thinks. Their happiness is a fleeting one, either until he's married off and his throne is secured, or he's fired for insubordination and seduction of the crown prince, tried for treason and thrown—if not in the dungeons, then—into a real prison. 

Right here, right now, he doesn't much care. He just allows himself to get lost in the feeling of having Goro this close, in the way his hips jerk up to meet each stroke of Akira's hand. 

Goro comes before he does, but it's his orgasm that causes Akira’s to follow, his hand and the bedsheets stained alike. They're both breathing hard by the time they resurface, Goro's eyes blinking open as though surprised to find that this wasn't some particularly intense fever dream.

"Stay here tonight?" he asks, his heart in his throat as he wonders how long he can drag this out, this fleeting, hollow happiness of theirs. His hand feels sticky. Right. "Never mind, I—I'll grab us a tissue, hang on—"

Goro's hand stalls him before he can reach the box, grabbing hold of his arm to urge him back, back into the land of false hope.

And like a fool, Akira follows.

"I'll stay," Goro says, his voice soft. "I'll stay this time."

Akira's smile is small, too trusting for his own good. "I'll hold you to that, Your Highness."

Reality washes over him like an ice bath with his own words, and Akira decides that it's for the best.

 

&

 

The Christmas charity luncheons are never as festive as they purport to be, but something in the garland-bedecked windows and ornamented tables is putting a bit of extra gusto into Goro's smile today. He makes his rounds to greet some of the more high-profile attendees, nodding when he needs to nod and laughing when he needs to laugh. The grating smiles and painfully civil chatting are normally major irritants for Goro's mood, but it's easier to be a prince today after not having to be one last night.

Last night. With Akira. In the hayloft. In a place he didn't think he'd return to and with a person he didn't think he'd get to spend time with again. At least, not so intimately, and certainly not with so few clothes.

Goro adjusts the collar of his shirt, feeling a bit hotter than before at the memory. He didn't plan for this, certainly tried his best not to succumb to it, but something about Akira coaxes him to raise the iron-barred gate guarding the castle of his heart.

He spent the majority of the luncheon doing his best to not let his mind drift back to those memories. Stilted conversation about diplomatic relations during the soup course wasn't gripping enough to hold Goro's attention, not when the competition was thoughts of Akira's naked body, his exceedingly talented hands, his soft moans.

Courses now served and eaten, Goro tries to focus on the task at hand: clinking champagne flutes while mingling with government officials. He pushes Akira mentally aside.

"I'm very much looking forward to the ball this year," the ambassador for foreign affairs tells Goro. "Your decorator always works wonders. Any hint as to the theme this year?"

"I believe Kitagawa-kun is planning to incorporate ice sculptures this year," Goro shares. "I'm afraid I know little else. I also enjoy the surprise when first walking into the ballroom."

The ambassador leans a bit closer, eyes eager. "I've also heard a few rumors floating about that it'll be a special night for you indeed."

"Surely a man of your stature knows better than to listen to rumors," Shido says, smoothly appearing by Goro's side. His hand slides, vice-like, over Goro's shoulder, in what may appear to be a fatherly gesture to the untrained eye. "Although this time, there may be a grain of truth underneath. The ball will certainly be one to remember."

The ambassador's enthusiasm withers slightly under Shido's reproach. "You're very right, Your Majesty," he says quickly. "How very nice to see you again."

He bows to both of them before scuttling off to make conversation elsewhere. Goro shouldn't be surprised that the secret of the engagement is already leaking; if they couldn't even keep the news contained in the palace, he can't expect the public to keep it tightly under wraps either.

Goro's fairly sure he has Okumura to thank for that—who, for the first time, is swanning around the luncheon alongside the royal family, already reaping the rewards of a marriage that has yet to happen. It would disgust Goro if it wasn't busy making him deeply uneasy. It feels as if every time he turns around lately, Okumura is there, staring, watching, waiting to bear witness to something scandalizing. The incident in the ballroom yesterday is still fresh in his mind, particularly the critical look in Okumura's eyes as his gaze flickered from Akira to Goro and back again.

Shido's hand, still on Goro's shoulder, squeezes.

"Are you aware of the rumors that you've inspired, Akechi?" Shido says, voice pitched low. The event bustles on around them, oblivious of their conversation.

"A life in the spotlight always attracts idle chatter."

Shido seems to ignore him entirely. "And do you think all of the idle chatter you've garnered is befitting of a king?"

Tension suffuses Goro. He can't tell if Shido's just probing, taunting, or has an actual ace up his sleeve, but Goro refuses to let his expression give anything away. He schools it into one of complete neutrality.

"I was under the impression that men of our stature don't listen to rumors, Shido-san," he says.

"Those of us who need to watch our image would be wise not to plug their ears," Shido tells him. His fingernails dig into the crisp fabric of Goro's jacket. "Should one of those rumors take hold, a man of your preferences would never rule this country."

Dread climbs up Goro's body. It isn't the first time Shido's made subtle digs at Goro's sexuality, but it is the first time he's used it as a threat. Then again, Goro shouldn't be surprised that Shido's pulling out whatever speed bumps necessary to deny Goro's request.

It isn't anything concrete, though. As long as Shido doesn't have anything beyond whispered rumors to throw at Goro, he can weather the jabs about his inappropriate interests. He's been dealing with them long before he ever even stopped to consider if they were true.

As long as Shido doesn't mention Akira. As long as nobody knows about—

"If I were you," Shido mutters, "I'd remember to behave myself. If I wanted to make my mother proud, that is."

Across the room, Goro notices Okumura watching them. He quickly averts his gaze a moment later, disappearing into the crowd.

"A king must learn that his country comes first," Shido says. "There's room for nothing and nobody else."

He claps his hand on Goro's shoulder, too hard to be jovial, before finally pulling it away. Goro feels his lunch roll over in his stomach. Shido speaks like he's a paragon of virtue, a selfish and sacrificial king, and the most repugnant part is that the people agree. The public sees the charming hero Shido paints himself to be, and sometimes it feels as if only Goro sees the unvarnished devil underneath.

"I agree, Shido-san," Goro says. "And I appreciate the advice. I'll take it to heart."

"As you should." Shido takes a step aside. His eyes roam over the crowd, and Goro sees the cool mask of King Shido slip seamlessly back over his features before he steps back out to shake the necessary hands.

Goro watches him slip between the people, all of whom bow and smile and are eager to receive attention from the king. Goro wants to shake all of them by the lapels, to rip off Shido's amiable disguise and show them the ugliness instead. He can feel eyes burning into his neck, watching. He knows it's Okumura without having to check.

Not for the first time, Goro considers if he's risking too much. If the bad idea he's still indulging in is too bad. Without Akira here to fog his common sense, the reality of their relationship seems almost laughable. What are the chances it could possibly work, with the eyes Goro has on him all the time?

The forgiving way Akira held him last night comes back to him. His tender kisses, his careful touches, like he expected Goro to disappear if he squeezed too firmly. The way he asked him to stay, as if knowing from the start that he likely wouldn't. Goro can't blame him for his distrust, not after the way Goro's seesawed with their relationship, but last night, all he wanted to do was seize Akira by the shoulders and promise him that he's not going anywhere. It's a promise he's not sure he can make, but it's one he wishes he could.

Does that count for anything?

"Your Highness," someone says from Goro's left. It's one of the global diplomats, smiling at him. "The luncheon was splendid this year, was it not? I particularly enjoyed the kujira. The chefs have outdone themselves. I wanted to ask you about..."

Goro pivots his concentration back on track. He can think about Akira later. He can worry about Akira later. For now, he has to go back to being a prince.

 

&

 

Never again, Ann thinks, does she have a right to criticize Goro for his stalking endeavors. 

If one can even call them that. All he ever did was look into his stable boy's past and eavesdrop on a conversation or two. Which isn't to say that what she's doing is all that much worse, really. 

It just isn't any better, either.

Even without a specific destination in mind, it would have been nice to go riding with Yusuke, drag out their deal a bit longer just to spend more time with him.

And it would have been more than possible if she'd just gotten there a few moments earlier. She wouldn't have needed to duck behind the wall with only the sounds and voices emanating from the entrance hall to clue her in on what is happening. 

Aside from the obvious, that is: first, Haru came for Goro's free time and his good mood, and now she's going after Yusuke, too. 

"This is quite nice, Yusuke! I really like what you've done with the place so far!"

"Why, thank you, Lady Haru." Something small and horrible inside of her bristles. Haru isn't a lady yet. She may be engaged to her cousin in all but name, but that doesn't mean anything. Yusuke continues despite Ann's mind bitterly running away with her. "I must admit, I do believe that it's coming together. Bit by bit, we'll bring holiday cheer into these halls."

"I hadn't expected you to be doing all the decorating yourself. Doesn't the palace employ people to do that?"

"Oh. Yes. But they were doing a dreadful job, so I told them to leave."

"Oh!" A beat passes, Ann's grip tightening around her hem as she mentally prays for Haru to just… move on. Instead, the opposite happens. "In that case, would you care for my assistance? I'm quite good at taking direction."

Say no. Say no. 

"Certainly, Lady Haru. I would be delighted by your assistance."

Dammit. 

Ann grinds her teeth together, allowing her body to slide down the wall into a crouch.

"Oh, you needn't call me that! I'm hardly a lady yet."

"Very well. Just Haru, then." 

Somehow, somehow, that is so much worse than Lady Haru. Yusuke won't even call her just Ann, despite her asking him to, their conversations always buried under layers and layers of artifice and formality. Oh, what she wouldn't give for the chance to just tear them down and present herself, honestly and truly to him, feelings and all. Ideally he'd take her seriously, but…

"Ah, forgive me. I almost forgot to ask. Did you seek me out for anything specific?" 

"Now that you mention it, yes, I did. There was a… portrait session my father scheduled for me today? But if now is a bad time, it's really no trouble—"

A portrait session? Okumura is already having portraits done of Haru prior to their even getting engaged? Or is this on Shido's orders, another way for him to attempt to dissuade Goro from rebelling against the unfair hand he's been dealt? Though Okumura would probably leap at the chance of having Haru's inclusion in the royal family be made so official.

If only she could just get the chance to talk to Goro about all this. Maybe that would even serve to discourage her from being just as bad as him. Letting out a soft groan, she lets her head fall back against the wall.

"Lady Ann?"

"Ah!" All but shrieking, Ann only barely keeps herself from falling over as she turns to look up. Oh. Not Yusuke or Haru. "Sorry! What?"

"Are you all right?" Makoto asks, peering down at Ann with no small amount of concern. "Is there a reason you're…" She looks up and down the length of the wall separating Ann from Yusuke and Haru's decorating extravaganza. "...sitting here?"

"Just—" She shoots back up to standing, a shrill and somewhat unnatural laugh leaving her as she staggers slightly. "Was feeling kind of woozy, you know! Needed to sit down—stood up too fast just now too, actually—" Turning to peek into the entrance hall, Ann lets out a tiny growl of frustration. Gone. Off to paint Haru’s portrait, no doubt. 

"Lady Ann?"

Right. Makoto is still standing there. 

Turning back around, Ann twirls a strand of her hair as another laugh escapes her. 

"Ahh, no need to worry about me! I’ll just be off! Probably to find my cousin!"

"Probably?"

Admittedly a strange thing to say, perhaps, but it doesn’t much matter now, Ann turning to offer a brief "Yep!" over her shoulder, already en route to Yusuke's studio.

If Goro could see her now…

Surely he’s never done anything quite like this before, actively following Akira on an outing with his friends. Not that this can constitute an outing necessarily, but still. 

Letting out another groan, Ann takes a decisive turn down the hallway leading to the studio. Should she… bring something? Cookies, coffee? She certainly couldn’t bring three cups and saucers lest it look like she was stalking them, but just bringing two might make Haru feel just terrible, like she was getting in the way of their rendezvous. 

Her conscience gnaws on her. 

If she was feeling remotely rational, she wouldn’t be going in the first place. 

She heads to the kitchens.

 

&

 

Of all the horrifying, embarrassing things that her father has forced Haru into since their arrival at the palace, this might be at the absolute top of the list. 

It’s nothing unusual for him, this level of... entitlement, but it’s different when it's in front of his employees or business partners. At the company or at home people have to bow and scrape to him, Haru included. Here, the opposite is true. And while she knows it needles at him, the far more frustrating part is the way he seems to take it out on her, the one thing in his vicinity that he can still control. 

So she's here, having an oil portrait of herself painted. Of all the ridiculous things. 

Not that it's all bad. Yusuke's company is nice, in part because he seems wonderfully down-to-earth. Necessary formalities aside, he seems wholly nonplussed about the differences between the classes that seem to permeate every nook and cranny of this place.

Which also means that he talks to her like a person. A real person, deserving of common decency instead of an excessive and artificial sense of respect that borders of reverence she's hardly earned. 

And, well, it's nice to not be given the side-eye by one of the employees for once.

On the one hand, it's not as though she can blame anyone for resenting her presence. She's not even formally engaged to the crown prince yet, and already people are calling her Lady Haru and—evidently—expected to bow and scrape to her

On the other, something tells her that there is far more to the palace politics of late than meets the eye. It could just be a matter of paranoia, but more and more she's been feeling like her father is attempting to fit a square peg into a round hole—even if it means sanding down her edges to see his vision realized.

Then again, when has she ever not been a tool for her father to use?

"Has anyone ever told you that you have rather regal features?" Yusuke says from where he’s sitting behind a large canvas.

"Whatever do you mean, Yusuke?"

"Like an anachronistic beauty out of time, better suited for, perhaps, the visionaries of the Rococo? I would need only find the right brushes and colors—"

The door opens.

"Surpriiiiise!"

It’s Ann, and she’s not alone. The spread that she seems to have brought into the studio is truly impressive, platter after platter of desserts littering the serving cart wheeled in ahead of her, Ann following shortly after to nudge the door shut with her heel. 

It truly is an incredible selection spread out before them, one that seems made up of both French and Japanese desserts in equal measure: choux pastries filled with crème pâtissière, slices of clafoutis, and mendiants are accompanied by strawberry-filled daifuku, white karukan manju, and slices of kasutera. 

"Haru! I didn't expect to see you here!"

"Oh," she starts, getting the distinct impression that she interrupted a meeting that had originally been intended for the two of them, and very much not her. "My father scheduled a portrait session. I'm sorry, did you two have plans that I disrupted?"

Yusuke shakes his head. "Certainly not. I'm sure Lady Ann simply wished to brighten my day."

"That's right! I remembered how much you liked our taste-testing in the kitchens and I… wanted to share it with you again."

"This is a veritable feast… I don't suppose you would object to Haru joining us?"

She's not nearly as sure of that plan as Yusuke seems to be, especially since—even with the sheer amount of food in mind—Ann appears to have been planning a date for two, an event for which she would almost certainly be a third wheel, more in the way than anything else.

"Ohhh nooo, of course not! In fact, we'll entertain you together while you keep doing your very important work."

Very important work, yes. Like painting a completely superfluous and premature oil painting for her father to ooh and aah over while celebrating their being that much closer to the benefits of the crown.

"You don't mind, do you, Haru?"

"Oh, no, not at all! Thank you for sharing your sweets with me."

"I was going to steal Yusuke away today, but if he has work to do I can toootally understand that."

It's a good thing, from the looks of it. Yusuke is entirely focused on the task at hand as he gets back to work, absorbed in something on the canvas, his attention just about anywhere other than on Ann or the sweets she brought in. 

"My muse," he mutters, a swooping brush stroke punctuating his words, "she's finally found me again!"

Ann's disappointment feels palpable even just from a few feet away, Haru chewing on her bottom lip. Even with Yusuke occasionally glancing up over the top of the canvas to get a better look at her for her portrait, a part of her can't help but wonder if Ann isn't precisely the muse he was missing. 

Picking up a sweet from the cart alongside a small plate, she takes a small bite.

"This kasutera is extremely delicious," Haru says, desperate for something with which to fill the silence.

"Yeah? I'm glad. I mean, I didn't make it, obviously. I just really love sweets, and I guess the castle kitchens are always eager to satisfy. Or they're just so used to Goro's sweet tooth that attending to mine isn't that hard. Not that Goro allows himself to indulge a lot, but…"

As Ann trails off into silence again, it strikes Haru just how little she truly knows about the crown prince. Her fiancé, technically. Just… not yet. Little as her father talks about her mother, she always thought her parents had married for love. She'd always grown up with the same idea—the hope of a fairytale happy ending someday with someone who loved her as much as she loved them. Not a business deal intended on expanding the reach of her father's business. 

Then again, she's not sure her happiness has mattered to her father for some time now. Either that, or he's always assumed her happiness to be identical to his own.

Grabbing one of the strawberry daifuku off the cart, she turns to Ann. "Do you and Yusuke get together like this often?" 

"Hm?" As if Haru's words had pulled her out of a trance she'd been unaware of, Ann blinks, taking a seeming moment to process her words. "Oh, no. I mean—sort of. We have a bet going. Or… a challenge, I guess. It's silly."

"I'm sure it isn't," Haru says, silence settling over them once more as Ann stares wistfully at Yusuke. 

"He's just—" Ann finally continues, letting out a sheepish laugh to cut through the awkward air between them. "He wants to paint me, and so I'm trying to find something he wants to paint more than me, which is turning out to be kind of impossible!"

"That's very sweet. Why don't you want him to paint you?"

"Oh, it's, um." Twirling a strand of hair from her pigtails around her forefinger, Ann smiles through a wince. "It's a nude…"

"Oh." 

"Yeah."

Haru nods, finding herself at a bit of a loss of what to possibly say to that. If the air was awkward before, it's suffocatingly so now. 

"So…" Ann says, evidently eager to change the subject. "Do you and Yusuke know each other very well?"

"Oh, no. No, I just… met him earlier, really. For the portrait. It's nice, being able to talk to someone so openly and freely. I don't have that luxury often."

The sigh that leaves Ann could likely blow a small house down, her chin perched in her palm.

"Yeah…"

Biting her bottom lip again, Haru watches Ann's gaze roam over the serving cart, guilt nagging at her insides. She must have come here with incredibly high hopes, and now Yusuke seems to have fallen into some sort of painter's trance. 

"Yusuke, why don't you have some of the sweets I brought?" Ann tries regardless, Haru forcing down the second-hand embarrassment slowly threatening to drown her.

No answer. 

"Right, so I'm off!" Ann declares, clapping her hands onto her thighs before getting up. "But this was nice! We should… totally… do it again sometime."

Ann leaves faster than Haru can intervene, but the damp nature of her eyes stays with her all the same, and it takes Haru only a few moments of deliberation before she gets up herself. 

"M-my apologies, Yusuke-kun, I'll be right back!" 

Rushing out into the hall, she feels a bit of relief at seeing Ann only a few steps away, Haru waving before trying to catch up to her. "Ann-chan, please wait!"

Her eyes are still glossy, Haru realizes as she reaches the far end of the hall. "I sincerely apologize if I gave you the impression of anything otherwise, but there really isn't anything between me and Yusuke-kun. We're just acquaintances, really."

Ann sighs, her gaze falling to her feet. "That's… really sweet of you to say, but it doesn't really change anything."

"What do you mean? He seems really interested in you!"

Ann shakes her head. "It's been weeks like this. I've just been trying, but it's not going anywhere. It's no use, nothing's going to come of it."

"Just because he's a little oblivious doesn't mean he couldn't eventually catch on," she tries, her voice soft.

Ann's smile is sad at best. "Thanks for trying to cheer me up. Sorry that you have to marry my cousin. You're clearly a good person, and you deserve better than a loveless marriage."

She gives Haru’s elbow a grateful squeeze before she turns around to leave.

Does Haru, though? Her whole life has been planned out for her, all in the name of the Okumura legacy. It wasn’t just for the company, it was for the history of her last name, for the sake of her family. And this was a great honor—her father was always reminding her of that. Marriages born of romance were foolish endeavors meant for people with less responsibility in life, less power.

"If only my father thought the same," Haru mumbles upon Ann's departure, too quiet for anyone but herself to hear. 

 

&

 

As the days leading up to Christmas decrease, Goro’s stress exponentially increases, and, for once, Akira’s presence is not a balm it once was for his spinning mind.

If anything, it’s verging on the edge of being a contributing factor. In between wedding planning and preparations for the Christmas ball and attending all the events that go hand-in-hand with the season, Akira is slipped into the holes of Goro’s schedule. Frantic kisses with Akira in his office when the door is locked. Quick fumbles with Akira in the stables when time permits. Things that would’ve set Goro’s heart aflame a few weeks ago but are now burning him up with guilt and contrition. Living off of something unsustainable, tying his happiness to it, is the sort of juvenile misstep he could’ve allowed his heart as a child, but not now, not just as an adult but also as a man who’s mere inches away from the throne.

Doing anything to jeopardize that goal feels foolish, absurd, but then Goro’s back in Akira’s company for a few short, blissful moments and anything other than being with Akira feels foolish and absurd. It’s that sort of lack of judgment that just isn’t the mark of a king.

He’s proven right just a few days before the ball.

He comes back from a meeting with the minister of finance to find Akira leaning against his desk. He has his hands in his pockets, eyes taking in the piles of unfinished paperwork, but he looks up, smiling, when Goro comes inside.

That smile should be under lock and key. Goro checks his watch. “Did we plan a meeting I forgot about?”

Akira shakes his head. “I thought I would surprise you. You’re busy, I know, but—“

“Which makes your visit all the better,” Goro says, setting aside his briefcase. It isn’t lost on Goro that Akira’s been quick to apologize lately in case he’s intruding, some of that bravado of old nowhere to be seen. If Akira’s suffered a hit to his confidence, in particular his confidence in their relationship, Goro knows on whom to lay the blame.

He tries to dismiss some of that insecurity by coming closer, grabbing Akira by the collar and kissing him. Akira’s quick to respond, head tilting to meet Goro’s, hands finding purchase on Goro’s waist. It’s incredibly nice, the kind of kiss Goro could lose himself in after a long day, at least until—

A knock on the door sounds. Goro’s prepared to ignore it in case it’s Okumura, lurking—as he always is lately—with more questions about the engagement announcement, but then Niijima’s voice comes through the door.

“Your Highness?” she says.

Goro and Akira both sigh. Always being on high alert when they meet up has become par for the course, but lately the interruptions seem especially frequent. Goro considers ordering Akira to hide under his desk, but if the hushed, well-intentioned comments he’s been getting from Niijima about being careful around Okumura are any indication, there’s no need to hide anything from her she already knows. 

Reckless, chides his brain.

Goro heeds the warning, for what it’s worth, and takes a few steps away from Akira to establish a healthy distance between them. “Come in,” he says, letting his voice carry through the door.

Regardless of whatever she knows or doesn’t, Niijima still seems startled to see Akira in Goro’s office when she opens the door. “Oh,” she says, eyes going briefly wide. “You’re both here. That’s… convenient, I suppose.”

“Convenient?” Goro repeats.

“The king would like to see you.” She clears her throat, glancing at Akira. “Both of you. As soon as possible.”

“Both—both of us?” Akira asks.

“I’m afraid I don’t know the reason.”

Goro’s fairly certain he knows the reason. Shido’s quiet threat whispered to him at the luncheon wasn’t quite punchy enough; now he has to pull Akira into the equation as well. A cool wall of apathy spreads in Goro’s mind. The only way he’ll be able to sit through yet more intimidation is by shutting off any parts of himself that may respond to Shido’s methods.

It’s a skill Akira clearly hasn’t mastered. When Goro glances over at him, he looks worried.

“Fine,” Goro says to Niijima. “We’re on our way.”

She leaves the room, Goro intending to follow her, but Akira seizes his wrist before he can.

“Goro,” he whispers. “What if—do you think he’s figured it out?”

Goro forces that inner wall of ice to spread further. He can’t entertain thoughts like the ones Akira’s having. He just can’t. “He hasn’t,” Goro says. Has he? “Anything he throws at us is nothing we can’t deny.”

Akira doesn’t look appeased. “This is a bad idea. It feels… off.”

Goro can’t think of a single interaction with Shido that hasn’t been off in some way.

“What exactly is your suggestion? That I ignore his request and avoid him indefinitely?” Goro gently pulls his wrist free. “Come on.”

The walk down the hall to Shido’s office is a long one, and the longer they walk, the more Goro has to convince himself of his own words. Shido doesn’t know anything. He can’t. He has no real evidence. Goro would know if he did. They’ve been careful, cautious at every turn.

Haven’t they?

He knocks on Shido’s office door and feels his heartbeat echo the sounds.

“Enter,” Shido says.

Inside, Shido’s sitting behind his desk, scribbling signatures away on paperwork. He points at the chairs in front of him wordlessly, not looking up, not acknowledging their arrival. His pen scratches against the paper as he keeps writing.

Goro and Akira take their seats. The spine of the chair, always uncomfortable, is somehow even stiffer than usual. Goro’s back shies away from it.

“You wanted to see us?” Goro prompts. “Both of us?”

“Yes, I did,” Shido says. He puts his pen down, unnerving in his slowness, and rests his penetrating gaze on Goro first, Akira second. Back to Goro.

His eyes are cold, but he’s smiling. The edge of his mouth is tipped upwards in something that could almost be identified as happiness. Smugness. Shido’s only happy when something’s gone his way, when a piece of the puzzle is slotting into place. Goro’s starting to get the unsettling feeling that he himself is the puzzle piece.

Without a word, Shido opens up a drawer in his desk. He pulls out a stack of something he slaps on the desk between Akira and Goro.

They’re pictures, at least five or six. All of them were taken at a distance, so first Goro has to look more closely, but once he does, there’s no denying what they’re pictures of. He feels his heart splinter.

On the top of the pile is a snapshot of him and Akira, blurry with movement, but not quite blurry enough to be unidentifiable. Akira has him pressed up against an exterior wall of the palace, tucked close, Goro’s mouth open in happy laughter. That elation in the photograph seems untouchable now, frozen, too sharp a contrast to the dread Goro’s feeling now.

Goro thumbs the picture aside to see the one underneath it. This one’s somehow even more damning: they’re in the greenhouse, and even through the windows, it’s obvious that they’re kissing. The third is the same, except it was taken in one of the servant’s halls. Goro doesn’t remember any of them, not the kisses, not the touches, and certainly not the cameras just out of sight. The scaffolds of his composure shake.

They had been so careful. Or at least, Goro had thought they had been.

Next to him, Akira hasn’t moved. When Goro steals a glance, his eyes are wide behind his glasses. It’s clear he’s as shell-shocked as Goro is.

What can he lose, though? Goro’s the one with everything at stake. A kingdom, a place on the throne, the title he deserves and has fought for for so long. Akira has nothing to fight for. Nothing to risk but a spot in a damn hayloft.

Goro steels himself. He takes a breath. “Who took these pictures?” he demands.

Shido’s smile twitches. “The palace is under constant security,” is his answer.

Goro’s so close. He’s so close he can reach out and graze victory with his fingertips. That fantasy always playing out behind his eyes—finally usurping Shido after years of abuse and manipulation, claiming the role his mother intended him to have—is slipping. Goro can’t let it go.

“Well, aside from some superficial resemblances, I don’t see how you can definitively prove this is me in these photographs,” Goro says.

Shido leans forward. Even with the desk separating them, it still feels as if he’s looming over Goro. “So you’re claiming to be uninvolved? Unaware of what I’m presenting to you?”

Goro feels his stomach churn, an icy sea in the winter. He nods.

“Hm,” Shido says. It almost seems as if that’s that, and he’s accepted Goro’s ridiculous lie, but then—

He opens the same drawer in his desk again. He pulls something out—yet more pictures? Goro’s gut swoops—but this time it’s a piece of paper. It puts it on the desk and slides it toward Goro with one fingertip.

“A bank statement,” Shido says in explanation, “detailing the purchase, made with your card, to Tanaka’s Mattress Emporium. Quite an expensive mattress, at that.” He pauses to let the weight of his words sink in. It’s one of those tricks Goro’s seen him use before when speaking to crowds, a persuasive tactic that usually works. Goro doesn’t want it to this time, but even so, he can feel himself fighting the urge to fill the silence, to defend himself. “Recently, I stopped by the stables. Can you imagine what I found there, Akechi?”

Something is blocking Goro’s throat. Is it words, or something worse, like Goro’s heart? If he speaks, will all of him crack open?

“Combined with multiple eyewitness accounts I have of you two… cavorting around the castle, I’ve seen and heard enough to make up my mind.” Shido’s stare is unrelenting. “If you’d like to make your situation worse, feel free to continue lying.”

It’s over. How can it be over? How can years and years of work be flushed away without care because of one mistake? How could a few heart-to-hearts and a warm pair of eyes tear all that away from Goro?

How could he let this happen? How could Akira do this to him?

“I’ll be honest, Akechi,” Shido continues. “I’m not interested in a confession. I don’t need it. What I do want is to know how to deal with this, because there are two ways this unravels.” He holds up a thumb, counting the first. “You learn that your actions have consequences, and you leave this castle behind. You live with the fact that you will never be a prince again.”

Goro looks at Akira again. Say something, he thinks, feeling increasingly hysterical. The emotions are building up inside him like a wildfire, burning every good memory he’s gained because of Akira and leaving behind a barren wasteland of regret.

You did this to me. You did this to me knowing all that I have to lose, and you have nothing to say?

Shido holds up a second finger. “Or, I overlook this indiscretion. Provided you admit to being hoodwinked and taken advantage of by a stable boy intent on sabotaging the royal family. As humiliating as it may be to confess to being so easily duped, you will be given the chance to win my respect back, and with it, eventually, an opportunity to be king.”

The tumult inside Goro’s stomach screeches to a halt. The look on Shido’s face is one Goro’s seen before: it’s a challenge, waiting to be accepted. He’s laid his cards out on the table, and his hand is unspeakably stronger than anything Goro has to offer.

“Perhaps he wanted revenge on me for bringing him here, and used you to do so,” Shido theorizes, almost blithely. “Perhaps he just wanted to keep you off the throne. I did tell him, after all, that consorting with you would keep you from holding any meaningful position as a royal.” Shido tilts his chin. “Or did he not inform you of that particular conversation?”

No, he didn’t. A fresh wave of ice hits Goro in the sternum. Akira didn’t mention talking with Shido, or that Shido had already made it clear he knew what Goro was. That he had his suspicions about their relationship and that Goro’s future was in danger as a result. He had been able to write off Akira’s obliviousness to the significance of his situation as unintentional, as bumbling unawareness, something someone of his inferior rank and stature could never fully understand, but now he’s being presented with evidence to the contrary. That Akira knew that Goro’s life and success and self were on the line and didn’t care.

“Yes,” Goro says. Resolution hardens in him, taking shape. “You’re right.”

Finally, Akira turns to look at Goro, but Goro’s focused elsewhere: straight ahead, where Shido’s eyes are flashing. He looks almost impressed. The one time he’s made his father proud, apparently, and Goro’s 

“Coercing the prince into having… relations, let alone homosexual ones, is a serious crime,” Shido says. He’s either coaxing or pushing or just adding fuel to the wildfire between Goro’s ribs. “I’d say it’s on par with treason.”

“Goro,” Akira starts to say. The panic in his voice is starting to creep in, but Shido cuts in before he can say anything else.

“Don’t speak to him,” Shido snaps. He points Akira down with a stern finger. “Show some respect. He’s Your Highness to you, and nothing less.” He lowers his finger. “Akechi. There’s no need to be ruined along with such a fool. Without him in your way, your path to your crown will be open.”

His path to the crown. Clarity is starting to reach him after months of sitting in a lovestruck haze. Hindsight is leaving a trail of emotions in its wake: rage, want, a boiling intensity of all of it together. Maybe Shido is right. Maybe Akira did dupe him, distracting him from his goals, pulling him from all the things that he gathered his soreness around. He clung onto those things for a reason.

His mother would be so disappointed. His mother had dreams for him, hopes that he would make the entire country proud. Not that he would be seduced and wooed by a delinquent stablehand.

“I do intend to be king,” he tells Shido, firm in his choice. His voice doesn’t waver, and neither does his gaze. “And nobody will take that from me. Least of all a stable boy who saw fit to take advantage of my position as a prince.”

“Well, then,” Shido says. “Let’s proceed.”

 

&

 

Akira doesn’t hear much after Goro looks Shido straight in the eye and throws Akira under the bus.

That bus was coming for them both. Akira would’ve pushed Goro out of the way, would’ve taken the fall for him. But Goro took matters into his own hand, made sure there would be tire tracks all over Akira’s back to point a finger at.

His head swims. So many people warned him of this ending badly, of this relationship not being the fairytale he wanted it to be, but never did Akira think it would play out like this. All those weeks of trust and raw emotion and real affection—was none of it real? Was Akira throwing his love at a wall all this time and never saw it bouncing off and hurling back at him?

He doesn’t check back into the conversation until Shido starts discussing adequate punishments for him.

“I promised to spare your former place of employment legal action in exchange for your labor,” Shido is saying. His voice is a frostbite that’s traveling up Akira’s body. “But I realize now that I was too benevolent. It seems both Akechi and I gave you trust you weren’t worthy of.”

Akira thinks of the last time he was in this office opposite Shido. He had taunted Shido, poked the dragon of his wrath. He had no idea it would manifest in all this, in taking Goro away from him. He didn’t think that was possible.

Or maybe he just didn’t think.

“My generosity held me back, but now I believe I may have to pay another visit to that bar you’re so very fond of,” Shido says. “It’s a shame that its owner will now have to pay for your mistakes.”

A renewed flash of anger, deflated out of Akira just a second ago, strikes him. “Leave Lala alone.”

Shido smiles. He’s hit an underbelly and knows it. “Perhaps you should’ve considered her before you scammed the royal family and debauched the prince’s name with a potential scandal.” He waves a dismissive hand, as if indicating that the garbage needs to be taken out. “To think that such a delinquent has taken a foothold in my kingdom. Such a disgraceful crime must be penalized.”

The only reason Akira’s even here is to protect his past. He agreed to indentured servitude for Lala, for Crossroads, a place Shido ravaged and ruined the moment he stepped inside. That he now sits here speaking of disgraceful crimes—

And worse still, that Goro is sitting here too, in agreement.

“You won’t cross me again,” Shido says. “I’ll make sure you won’t even have the time to consider it.”

Unlike last time, this threat sits in Akira like a vial of poison, bound to hit his bloodstream at any moment. It was naive of him to think that Shido would execute him, not when there are so many ways to torture and persecute someone like him.

When they’re both dismissed a few minutes later, Goro wastes no time high-tailing it to the door in large, purposeful strides. He doesn’t seem to want to spare even a second for Akira, not to explain, and certainly not to apologize. Something in the unwavering way he walks away from Akira, how easy it is for him to turn his back, dissolves all of Akira’s anger into miserable confusion and burgeoning despair. Betrayal, maybe.

He makes a desperate grab for Goro’s wrist before he’s out of reach once the office door shuts behind them. “Goro,” he says, horrified to find his voice is already wobbling. “Goro, talk to me. Please.”

Goro’s wrist twitches in his grip. He stops, but it’s obvious that he’s itching to run, to yank himself free and hurry far, far away from Akira. He had foolishly thought himself to be Goro’s sanctuary, a place of refuge, a safe spot where he didn’t need to pretend, but the tense way Goro’s holding himself now laughs at the very notion of Akira ever meaning anything to him.

He just needs to know why. He needs to lift the partition that Goro’s put between them, to find a way to burrow under his layers of weaponized barriers. He’s done it before.

“Why did you do that?” he asks, pleading. “If this is about Shido—”

Shido’s name whips Goro to attention. He wrenches his wrist away, harshly enough that it feels like something in the fabric of the universe has ripped. His eyes are suddenly wilder than Akira’s ever seen them, almost tameless.

Words explode out of him. “You have no idea what this is about!” he shouts, voice strangled. “You have no idea what I need to do! You don’t know who I am!

“Goro,” Akira says, helpless to say anything else.

“I am a prince! You’re nothing more than a goddamn piece of stable trash! I won’t let you ruin this for me!”

He looks nothing like the unmasked boy Akira’s had in his bed, whimpering and vulnerable underneath him. This Goro is an almost eldritch, feral counterpart, a piece of nuclear weaponry that’s mushroomed into blinding smoke and rubble. He breathes heavily, as if gearing up to spit more venomous insults, but instead he takes off down the hall at a frantic pace.

This time, Akira doesn’t try to stop him. Everything about Goro, even the hunched, angry line of his shoulders, is unfamiliar to him. He was a stranger in Shido’s office just now when he coolly placed all the blame on Akira’s shoulders, and he’s a stranger now as he yells out his frustrations and runs away, emotions trailing behind him like a tattered veil. Or maybe he was a stranger all along, and Akira’s just now seeing the real version.

His heart throbs at the thought. So does his head. There isn’t a single part of him that doesn’t feel wounded right now.

Akira slumps against the wall and takes a deep breath, waiting for the pain to start subsiding.

Chapter Text

"I simply do not believe I did anything wrong," Goro says, clinking his spoon against the edge of the porcelain cup before setting it down on the saucer and taking a sip. 

"Mm-hmm."

In truth, Goro had been reluctant to tell Ann about everything that had happened, even in spite of his conviction that he'd been entirely in the right. Protecting his assets, his future, the future his mother had wished for him to have—they need to take precedence over silly romantic inclinations. Feelings are fleeting, the perils and pitfalls of emotions all too easy to succumb to in light of a little seduction. Seduction like Kurusu's, smooth and flirtatious with an ease that Goro could almost deem enviable.

But Ann, with her freedom and her idealistic notions of romance, likely thinks his path foolish. He's certainly been a fool, but no longer.

"I don't expect you to understand," Goro says.

Ann's silence speaks volumes, not that he can entirely blame her. He's assumed her to be testy with him for some time now for ignoring her, which he hasn't. There would have simply been no sense in attempting to fit her into the gaps in his schedule, brief as they were. And, at any rate, he's been busy. 

Busy... with Kurusu, yes, but that's behind him now. No more canoodling means more time to spend with his cousin. If anything, she should be overjoyed.

He certainly isn't. Recounting the little situation in Shido's office brought him little joy, not knowing the somewhat revisionist history he inserted into his explanation. As though he should need to defend himself. 

"Perhaps if you weren't such a romantic at heart..." he continues, gesturing vaguely as he sighs.

"And what's wrong with that? It wouldn't hurt you to be a bit more romantic."

"Not all of us have that luxury," Goro says, the dreadful feeling in his gut tempered somewhat at Ann's response. Better than her disapproving stare, at any rate, the weight of which had been starting to wear on him. 

"Right. You have a country to run."

"If Shido will ever even allow it after my recent transgression."

"Just because he's a homophobe—" Ann shakes her head. "Honestly, so what if he were to release the news of your sexuality? Or your relationship? The laws have changed, the people view these sorts of things differently now."

"Not," Goro says, finding his tea far too bitter and opting to drop in another sugar cube, "in a royal family. The nobility has always prided itself on tradition, on the ability to produce heirs to succeed us, to—"

"Oh, because Shido has always been so big on letting anyone succeed him, right?"

Goro grits his teeth, continuing. "To be steadfast guiding lights, reliable and trustworthy. I'm engaged to be married, Ann."

"Not yet!"

"About to be, then. The point is that while my father negotiates the details of that arrangement with Okumura, it would cast a terrible light upon me and the entire royal family for him to reveal what is essentially a scandal. And in the middle of the Christmas season, no less."

"Right," Ann scoffs, "as if the people are somehow less inclined to be kind at Christmastime. They're not all Shido, you know. Besides, I'm pretty sure the poor guy is heartbroken. You probably blindsided him, throwing him under the bus like that."

"Good," Goro mutters, the grip on his porcelain cup dangerously tight. If anything, he's given Kurusu's mental state too much thought already, which is to say, any at all. He should be ashamed of himself for focusing on anything but the path ahead. 

If anything, what he did was humane. Put him down kindly and swiftly, with no hope for redemption. No turning back. The less hope that Kurusu was left with in light of his... betrayal of sorts, the better. Ideally, Shido would just let Kurusu go. Cast him out and allow him to return to a normal life, one far away from Goro. Far enough that he might become easier to forget, unable to tempt him in any way. 

Which isn't to say that he's tempting him even now. Certainly not. 

"All I'm saying is that I think this is still fixable!" Ann says.

Crossing his arms in front of his chest, his stare turns toward the window. Anywhere but at Ann, who's imploring him to see what she likely considers to be reason. "It isn't and I don't want to."

"So you had one little explosion! Just send him a text and explain! You let your temper get the better of you, said some things you didn't mean—"

"I meant all of them." If anything, he's seeing clearly for the first time in months. 

"Don't you think you're being a little ridiculous? Cruel? I mean, he didn't do anything to you. He just... made you happy."

"And who gave him that right?" Goro snaps, his gaze turning to the carpet. Asexuality would have suited him well. Aromanticism. Never at risk of being tempted by another person, never needing to so much as consider the happiness they might bring him. The thought alone strikes him as idyllic. 

If there was a way to simply remove his heart and its irrational inclinations, he almost dares say he would take it. He'd assumed himself to have frosted over said heart long ago, but evidently he didn't finish the job sufficiently.

"Goro," Ann says, pulling him out of his thoughts, her tone firm.

"I assure you, I'm quite serious. I realize you think that happiness and true love should trump all good sense and reason, but not all of us can so carelessly throw aside our future for nothing more than hope," he says. "Hope that the person warming your bed won't lose interest over the next week. Or only be after your money or your title. I refuse to throw away the crown that is rightfully mine for eye candy."

Ann levels him with a look. "Now you're just being crass."

Maybe. "I'm not wrong. How many marriages end in divorce? Add nobility into the mix and it's more likely to end in murder. People will do anything for power, I—" His fingernails dig into his palm, Goro hardly able to feel the pain of it. "I've been blind, frankly. Willing to take a chance on love when I should have known it would only ever end poorly from the start." The lump in his throat feels golf ball-sized. Goro attempts to swallow it down anyway. "Shido was right."

Disapproval turns into incredulity on Ann's face as she leans forward. "Excuse me?" 

Goro doesn't pay it any mind, stirring his tea once more. "The chance that Kurusu was attempting to get revenge is far too high for me to discount."

"You don't really believe that, do you?"

"Why did he lie? Shido spoke to him, told him that there was a chance that I could lose everything if we kept up our relationship. And he didn't tell me. Didn't even think to—" He inhales. Exhales. Rage sits, untempered and fiery hot, in the pit of his stomach, eager to annihilate every other emotion in his wake. "I've been a fool. Duped by a simple peasant."

Ann stares at him, judgment radiating from every part of her body. "Honestly."

"What does he have to lose? His place in that barn? I can't believe I—" He shakes his head. What he'd believed to be mere embers, kindling of his rage, still burn scathingly hot, angrier than he even remembers them. He should have been harsher with Kurusu, more adamant opposite Shido. Leaving even a single seed of doubt on where his loyalties lie... foolish. "That I would even allow such a thing to happen speaks far more about me than it does him. It's pathetic. Unbecoming of royalty. There's a reason I've kept to myself all these years."

"Now you're just being classist!"

"People of our standing just don't mix well with the lower class. Haven't you figured that out yet?"

He knows his words have hit their mark when the fight seems to leave Ann. If anything, she looks hurt, no doubt thinking back to her own silly little flight of fancy with the staff. 

It's for the best, really. Better she rid herself of any misplaced hope she might have had in that particular relationship going anywhere—and sooner rather than later.

Now, if only he could rid himself of the guilt that always comes hand-in-hand with that look on Ann's face. 

"Fine," she says, sounding very much as though it couldn't be further from fine if it tried. "You win. Now no one gets to be happy." Getting up, she heads to the door. "I really hope that when you finally make it to the throne, you'll still think that it was worth what it took to get there." 

He doesn't notice until after the door closes behind her that she barely even touched her tea. 

 

&

 

"He did WHAT?"

Ryuji's voice is loud enough to nearly ricochet off the kitchen ceiling, mouth agape and eyes bulging. It's the sort of full-bodied reaction that might offer Akira much-appreciated consolation if he didn't feel numb all over after sharing that story aloud.

"Shhh," Makoto chides, but even she looks shaken at what Akira's just told them. "Not so loud."

"Sorry!" Ryuji says. "I just—I can't—goddammit! That asshole Akechi is out of his mind!"

"I must agree, it does seem wildly out of character," Yusuke agrees. "Not that I doubt Akira, of course."

"It's what happened," Akira says in defense. He's definitely not up for sharing it a second time so everybody can comb over the believability of the details.

Makoto, Yusuke, and Ryuji all stare at him, their faces revealing various levels of horror. Makoto looks ashen but far more sympathetic than upset. Yusuke looks shocked but is already phasing into deep thought, like this story is a dusty painting that he just needs to see the full, undisturbed version of. Ryuji, meanwhile, looks like a raging bull ready to launch out of his seat.

"I knew something about that guy was bad news," Ryuji says. "Didn't I say that at the very beginning?"

"That's not exactly helpful at present," Makoto reminds him. She looks at Akira with a worried twist to her mouth. "More importantly, are you all right?"

Akira shrugs. No single sentence feels good enough to explain how he feels right now, provided he can even articulate his feelings. He's been betrayed by someone he was genuinely falling for, Shido has slammed him with triple the workload, and, as the cherry on top, the little sleep he did get last night was helpfully interrupted by Morgana, whose snores filled the hayloft all night long.

"Of course he's not," Yusuke answers on his behalf. "After everything he's gone through, his mind must be an apocalyptic wasteland."

"That's true," Makoto says. She looks down at the breakfast plate, only picked at, in front of Akira and tries to helpfully nudge it closer to him. "You should eat. You've been working so much; you must be hungry."

She's right, but even with all the extra hours of work foisted on Akira, his appetite is still missing. The fruit and eggs and rice, usually appealing, don't look like anything he'll be able to keep down. Every time he thinks about that vicious look in Goro's eyes a fresh wave of nausea slaps him across the face.

Yesterday, Sojiro had tried to lessen his load after seeing him struggle with his infinitely long list of assigned chores, offering to take some of them off his hands, but it was a loophole Shido had obviously foreseen: he had woken up this morning to tasks strewn all throughout the palace, each as demeaning as the last. The worst is easily the grunt work he's been ordered to do in the kitchen, not because of the dishwashing or the oven scrubbing, but because this means he'll have to attend the ball.

Not as Goro's guest, as he had originally intended, but as a waiter, a butler to quietly sweep between happy guests picking up empty glasses. Not that he's under the delusion that Goro's offer even still stands.

"We need to do somethin'," Ryuji says, fists curled on the table. "What d'you think we can get away with? Somebody has to teach Akechi a lesson."

"I don't think it's like that," Akira says, but his voice sounds hollow even to his own ears, unconvinced. The two Goros in his mind live in too sharp of a juxtaposition to possibly coexist. He can either be the quietly affectionate man living under the king's thumb or the cruel prince ready to barrel over anyone and anything on the road to power, but not both. He shakes his head. "I don't know what it's like. But—I can't believe that this is all him."

Three faces stare at him again: concern, doubt, and, as usual, furious disbelief from Ryuji.

"What if he's doing all of this because of Shido?" Akira says. The theory sounds pathetic, spineless, but he has to at least put it out there. "What if Shido's playing a bigger role than I'm seeing?"

Makoto's worry visibly deepens. "Akira, even if he's doing it because of Shido… he's still choosing to do it. To you. Isn't that the part that actually matters?"

Akira doesn't know anymore. He has no idea how it even came to this; he was just supposed to be a menial worker at the castle, to do his penance and eventually go home. Now he has the king working to indict him for treason and a broken heart that not even the world's most accomplished surgeon could suture up.

Is he an idiot to think that there's more to this than what he's seen so far? Is his mind just scrambling at excuses, trying to patch up his leaking pain as best as it can?

"Hell if I care. We can beat up Shido too if you want," Ryuji suggests.

"Ryuji," Makoto hisses.

A chef with his head in the pantry looks briefly over his shoulder. Ryuji curses under his breath, and the chef quickly diverts his gaze.

"Shit. Sorry."

"Don't make things worse," Makoto tells him in a whisper. "And keep your voice down. Especially if you're talking about overthrowing the crown you're employed by."

"I don't think Akira's speculation is impossible," Yusuke says, ignoring Ryuji's bad ideas altogether. He rests his chin on his palm, thinking. "But even if Shido is pulling the strings, Akechi's goal is obviously to become king. And is there really a future for your relationship if he achieves it?"

"Dude. There's no future 'cause Akechi basically put him in front of the firing squad!" Ryuji howls. His voice starts to rise in pitch, but Makoto digs her elbow into his stomach before he can draw attention from the kitchen staff again. He hunches in closer, quieting. "All I'm sayin' is, that's not exactly boyfriend material, now is it?"

Akira gets to his feet, chair scraping on the floor in his rush. He didn't even really want to be having this conversation in the first place but knew it would come up sooner or later and just wanted it done with, except it's not done, it never will be done as long as Ryuji keeps hurling plans for revenge around and Makoto keeps looking at him like he's a sorry little broken-winged baby bird out in the rain. If this discussion continues any longer Akira's ears will start ringing.

It's not like he needs them to enable him and support his conspiracy theories about Goro's intentions. But he also can't sit and talk openly, unhurt and unaffected, about what happened. Not yet.

"I should get started on work. I have a lot to do." Not a lie, and his new schedule will attest to it. When Makoto opens her mouth, no doubt to badger him into eating more breakfast, he beats her to the punch. "I'll try to work up an appetite for lunch."

"This isn't exactly healthy," Makoto reminds him.

"I'll be fine," Akira says, not meeting her eyes. He pushes his chair back into place. "You guys don't need to worry about me."

"Well, hey, man," Ryuji says. His anger has made way for concern as well, which fits much better on Makoto's face than his. Akira prefers the righteous anger, actually. "If you need help today, I'm sure we can all make some time."

"Thanks, but I don't want Shido to catch wind and double down on your workload too."

The three of them exchange glances, the mood palpably glum. Shido's definitely done what he's set out to do, Akira thinks. Upturned not just his own life but all the lives of the people around him as well, which somehow only makes Akira more miserable. None of this would've happened if he hadn't come here. None of this would've happened if he had just minded his own business in Crossroads that night, something dozens of people told him in nonchalant judgment after the fact. Mind your own business. Don't meddle. Keep out of it. Now he's so deeply in it that their advice is starting to feel prophetic.

"It's okay, dude," Ryuji says. "Let 'em punish me. They can't overwork all of us. We'll start a union or something."

"Maybe those are also thoughts you should keep to yourself," Yusuke suggests. "Or at least keep to a very low whisper."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Shido's got eyes and ears everywhere." Ryuji sighs, grabbing the unfinished piece of toast off of Akira's plate. "This place sucks."

Nobody disagrees with him. Akira can't help but notice that it doesn't look like he's the only one suffering from a bad mood in the castle lately, even when surrounded with an increasing amount of Christmas cheer. None of it, not the garlands or the fresh pine trees or even the sounds of the orchestra practicing Christmas waltzes drifting through the castle, is reaching Akira this year.

Maybe next year, if he's still here.

But then again, Goro will be married by then, maybe even ruling the country with Haru proudly on his arm while Akira's stuck scrubbing the stables, so maybe next year won't be too festive for Akira either.

 

&

 

Akira sets down the thousandth box he's carried into the ballroom for the last hour. His back had started hurting at the thirty minute mark, and by now, his knees and palms have joined in. He's been given an extensive list of all the things that need hauling from the storage room all the way across the castle to the ballroom, from chandelier lamps to unwieldy statues to crates of heavy candlesticks.

Around him, the ballroom is starting to come together. Yusuke's done marvels at turning the echoing space into a room Akira can imagine Christmas cheer gathering in, sticking to a classy theme of wintery blues and icy whites. Spots are marked where the ice sculptures will stand, tall and cool.

It won't be long now until the ball. In a few days, the castle will be full, and Goro will be lost amongst the crowds, busy with his duties. And Akira will be there too, an invisible servant, moving in the shadows where Shido wants him to know he belongs. Watching from the perimeter, little more than an unseen ghost.

He doesn't have time for a break, but Akira takes one anyway on his way back to the storage room, needing a moment not just for his body but also to shut off his brain for a bit. Shido knew what he was doing ordering Akira to work in the ballroom. All Akira can see in there are visions of Goro and Haru, waltzing, really waltzing like Akira never could, twirling in graceful circles on the marble floor. She'll have a diamond ring on her finger, and no amount of sympathetic glances from Makoto will ease the pain of watching it happen from the sidelines.

He finds a staircase to take a seat on. He's not sure how long he can sit here before the weight of his work—an ever-growing list—starts bearing down on him. He rests his head in his palms, thumbs rubbing his temples.

"Hey, man."

Akira looks quickly up. Ryuji's standing there, frowning.

"Makoto told me you were movin' shit to the ballroom," he explains, "so I figured you were around here somewhere."

"Yeah." He thinks of his list, and just how little he's actually done so far. "I'm just… taking a quick break."

"Lemme help," Ryuji says.

"You don't have to."

"I know, but c'mon. I want to." He points at the staircase. "But we can also just sit here and hang out if you want."

It would give Akira's sore hands and shaky legs a shot at recuperation, but he'd rather just get this over with so he can hurry along to his next back-breaking task. Cleaning sooty chimneys, maybe, or scrubbing the rust off of the dungeon chains. Assuming there really is a dungeon,

Akira gets to his feet. "Let's go."

The task moves unsurprisingly faster with two people. Ryuji tries to take too many boxes each time, balancing them all in his arms with the grace of a drunken sailor. Still, it does speed up the process, even if Ryuji keeps having to run back to grab fallen boxes.

"I'm telling you," Ryuji says as they shuffle down the hall, each holding onto one end of a velvet settee, "nobody's gonna notice half the shit we're dragging in there. Did you know Yusuke's making ice sculptures? Ice sculptures, man. Everybody's gonna be staring at those."

"They sound pretty cool."

"Yeah. Theme of the party, or something. Probably to go with the prince's heart of ice." Ryuji snickers at his own joke, then abruptly stops. "Sorry, dude. Too soon?"

Akira pretends that hearing Ryuji mention Goro doesn't feel like someone's twisting a bayonet in his stomach. "No, it's—it's fine."

They round a corner, careful to ease the settee around the sharp edge of the wall, when Akira stops in his tracks. It's hard enough as it is to talk about Goro, but seeing him is a whole new brand of heart attack.

Walking briskly down the hall, fiddling with the buttons on the hem of his sleeves, Goro looks as heart-stoppingly handsome as always. He doesn't seem to notice Akira, at least not until he glances upward and his step stutters, losing purpose. The eye contact he holds with Akira feels like a bomb has just gone off in Akira's heart.

"Oh, hello," Goro says. His tone is businesslike, just that of a prince, and nothing else. "Sakamoto." He pauses for an agonizing moment. "Kurusu."

Suddenly seeing Goro isn't so much the problem as what comes after: talking to Goro.

Ryuji, however, takes care of that for him. "You," he snarls when he sees Goro. "Mind getting out of our way so we can get the place ready for your big, fancy party?"

If possible, Ryuji's operating on even less of a filter than usual. Goro glances at him, unfazed. "Not at all," he says. His eyes slide briefly over to Akira. It looks as if it pains him to even sneak a glance. "Don't let me get in the way."

He slides to the side, giving them the room to pass, but Ryuji doesn't move, as if the power of his scorn—something he's never exactly short of in Goro's presence—is anchoring him in place.

"Bit late for that, don't you think?" he says, eyes narrowed.

Goro blinks, clearly not expecting the confrontation. Or maybe he wasn't expecting Akira to share the story. As if Goro was Akira's dirty little secret, just like Akira was for him.

"You know, the least you could do is say you're sorry," Ryuji barrels on. "After everything you put him through, it's seriously the least you could do."

Goro opens his mouth. A sound comes out, something that might have hoped to become a word, but then he closes it once more. He looks tired, dark circles sagging his eyes. Suddenly Akira wishes that Ryuji wouldn't be here, stirring the pot and throwing fuel on the fire. If they were alone, Goro might want to really talk with him, to explain, to say whatever it was his anger kept him from saying a few days ago outside of Shido's office.

"I agree," Goro says once he's collected himself against the onslaught of Ryuji's judgment.

"You—you do?" Akira says.

Goro clears his throat. He looks Akira in the eye. He's so calm and composed, almost like he's rehearsed this, that it almost gives Akira the chills.

"I'm sorry if I ever gave you the impression that I was interested in you… like that," Goro says.

A second bomb goes off in Akira's heart, pulverizing anything the first missed.

"You're a valuable employee at the castle and I respect your work, but… that's where our relationship ends."

His voice is extremely poised, unnaturally so. He looks like Goro trapped under a sheet of ice.

The settee thumps heavily to the ground where Ryuji was holding it. "Are you kidding me, man?" he says. "Everybody sees through your bullshit. Akira woulda been fine without you but you just had to screw up whatever Shido didn't get a chance to."

Ryuji gears up for more condemnation, hackles rising. It occurs to Akira that holding onto that couch was the only thing keeping Ryuji at bay, and now with nothing to occupy his hands, he's on the warpath. Goro's face, startled out of his cool diplomacy, is what moves Akira to action.

"Ryuji," he says. He shakes his head. "It's okay."

"What? It's not okay, man. You don't have to keep making excuses for this piece of—"

"Ryuji," Akira says again, more sharply this time. The last thing any of them needs is Ryuji joining Akira in the hayloft as punishment because he wouldn't stop running his mouth. A few weeks ago, Akira wouldn't have been so worried about the prospect, but he doesn't know what to expect of Goro now, this new Goro, the one who all but fed Akira to hungry wolves.

The current Goro, however, seems to be in a charitable mood, for whatever that's worth. He's a little pink in the cheek after Ryuji's accusations, but he doesn't pursue that conversation; instead he straightens out his shoulders and clears his throat.

"I'll leave you two to your work," he says, professionally stoic once more.

He leaves at a pace significantly faster than before, clearly eager to not spend another second in Akira's presence. Or Ryuji's, who's close to breathing fire and breaking out the boxing gloves.

"I don't get you," Ryuji spits. He still sounds angry, obviously not sure where to put it now that Goro's gone. "That guy's done everything he can to ruin your life and you're still gonna tidy up the ballroom so he and his rich friends can celebrate being assholes?"

"Not doing it isn't going to get me anywhere," Akira says. Ryuji's anger must be contagious, because the edges of Akira's mood are starting to get annoyed too, not that he can entirely trace it back to a source. At Ryuji, for provoking an already sensitive situation? At Goro, for pushing around a narrative in which their entire relationship was just a fictional hallucination of Akira's mind? Or at himself, for letting himself be so affected?

Ryuji still isn't picking up the settee. "Dude. Just promise me that you're not trying to get him back."

If he was, does Ryuji really think lugging heavy furniture around at Shido's command is Goro's love language? "I'm not," Akira says. "But disobeying Shido isn't going to help, you know."

Ryuji sighs. It's more of a huff, but he picks up the settee anyway. "Yeah, I know," he grumbles. "He's not gonna report you to Shido, is he?"

Of course he isn't, Akira thinks as they head for the ballroom, but then realizes he doesn't know. He doesn't know anything about Goro anymore.

 

&

 

Goro's conversation with Ann runs through his mind like a broken record, Goro replaying bits and pieces as his boots kick sparkling flurries of snow off the ground. 

There's more of it in the forecast. If the reports they're getting so far are true, then the night following the Christmas Ball could see all of them at the palace snowed in.

Right on the heels of his engagement. If only his fiancée was someone he actually wanted to be snowed in with. 

A momentary lapse in judgment brings forth the thought of just how nice it would be if it was Akira he was getting snowed in with. An excuse to sleep in, avoid work, and spend all day in bed together, making the most of their inability to leave. The thought pricks at his heart, more painful than he expected it to be. 

So much for taking his mind off his thoughts. If anything, his walk around the palace gardens seems to be doing rather the opposite, every place conjuring up more memories. It's only been a few weeks since his arrival at the palace—could he and Akira truly have spent that much time together? Made so many places their own? 

Under normal circumstances, he'd go riding or ask someone to set up his archery equipment for him. Now, his boots carrying past the shed with said equipment, it feels impossible to so much as touch a bow and arrow without allowing his mind to jump to his impromptu teaching session with Akira in the same breath.

And naturally... horseback riding comes with the same downsides—but multiplied by roughly one hundred. Everything from their shared rides, the times spent in his hayloft, their Christmas tree excursion, the things that took place on the mattress he gifted him... 

Akira has not only his first kiss to claim for himself, but just about every first he has on record. First date, first boyfriend, first... intimacy. He tries to push down the jealousy he feels at the thought of Akira doing anything of the sort with anyone else—past, present, or future—as if he has any right. 

He stands by what he told Ann, he does. He doesn't regret choosing the crown over love, couldn't possibly besmirch his mother's memories like that. But... perhaps there could have been a better way to do it. To break Akira's heart, he supposes. 

Kicking up another snow flurry, he sighs, his gaze drifting to the tree ahead of him. His first kiss happened just a few feet away from it after a rather spirited snowball fight. His first snowball fight, if Akira was keeping track, which he most likely wasn't. All of these things must have been quite normal to him growing up. Not like Goro, who only had Ann for a playmate around the myriad holidays through the year—and only in the most socially acceptable ways of play available to children. 

Now, as if intent on reminding him that the past has long been swept away by a clean blanket of snow, all traces of their snowball fight and the ensuing kiss are long gone, replaced by the ladders of workmen putting up lights around the trees around the palace in preparation for the ball.

One of them is humming, something Goro thinks to be a Christmas carol. When was the last time he ever felt like humming in his life? 

His anger at himself twists and turns until it resembles the hellfire of rage he feels for Shido. If it wasn't for Shido, maybe he and Akira would be having another snowball fight right now. Knowing how desperately he needs to clear his head, Akira might have volunteered the activity, stealing Goro away from his work... 

Turning away from his past with a sigh, Goro makes his way back to the entrance of the palace, deliberately ignoring both the servants' entrance he once preferred in the name of avoiding his father and the horse barn not far in the distance. Too many memories. Ann's reminder that he could still fix this echoes in his mind like a drumbeat, Goro reminding himself of his every conviction once more. No. He can't lose sight of his goal now, not in light of nothing more than memories. He's tossed Akira aside twice now. Who's to say that he'd even take him back?

Recognizing the dangers of this train of thought, he speeds up his pace, hurrying up the steps and through the front door to make his way down the plushly carpeted halls. The safety of his office... that might make for a decent sanctuary, far away from the torturous reminders littered everywhere else around the castle.

Even as he follows the familiar pathways, he knows this to be an act of sheer folly. If it wasn't for the multiple clandestine meetings between him and Akira, the kisses they shared against and on every possible surface, then there would be the reminders of his tea time with Ann discussing him, his favorite tea set perfectly visible from within the confines of the vitrine housing it. 

He was cruel to her. Perhaps. Jealousy has always clouded his mind, his vision, and always in those moments when he most needs clarity. Ann deserved that clarity, though he can't imagine that she didn't know why he lashed out at her, the potential of her happiness with Kitagawa. 

Not that it's assured—but even so, the opportunity lies before her all the same. If Kitagawa reciprocated, no one would question their relationship, not in her family. What Goro wouldn't give for such an idyllic life.

If she gets a happy end, why not him? 

He's almost disappointed when he makes it back to his office without running into anyone of note, anyone who might have made sense of the scramble that is his mind, Goro sighing as he unlocks his door. 

Just like he left it. 

His life has been a lot like that. Predictable, routine. Untouched, prior to Akira's entrance. Making his way over to his desk, he finds that his steps feel almost as heavy as his heart. 

He meant what he said. He has no desire to fix this. He still doesn't. Not only because there would be no hope in Akira accepting an apology, but because he doesn't regret his priorities. 

But maybe he ought to explain. Maybe he can do that much.

He's pulling out a pen and a piece of paper adorned with a royal letterhead before he can think to stop himself. 

 

Akira, 

Kurusu-kun, 

Akira, 

 

This early in the game, and he's already having trouble. That certainly does not bode well.

 

I hope this letter finds you well.

I wished to express

 

Drawing back, Goro sighs, crumpling up yet another piece of paper. This is dreadful. Perhaps a draft, then, and ideally on something other than official royal stationary. Taking out a bit of scrap paper, he starts over. 

 

Our last meeting

I wished to rectify

I fear that I may have been somewhat unkind

 

This is impossible. Ann would know what to do, how to write this if she were here, and if Goro hadn't entirely spat on her happiness during their last meeting. He sighs. There's no need to apologize to Akira, is there? He can simply... be straightforward. Matter-of-fact. 

 

I will understand if you do not wish to read this letter or any other by me, but as I lost my temper during our last meeting, I wished to clarify a few things that I fear may have been misrepresented at the time.

 

His pen stops to tap out a pattern on the scrap paper. He was the one doing the misrepresenting, but that hardly matters now, in hindsight. Surely Akira knows this. 

 

First, I hope to impart upon you that I am fully aware that our relationship was real, at least to me. Perhaps you wish to think of it differently in the future in light of recent events, but please know that I will think of it fondly and hope that you will be able to do the same in spite of how things turned out between us. My time spent with you was some of the nicest of my life. I thank you for this. 

Even so, I apologize that I allowed it to happen, if only because of the pain that I no doubt caused you. I should have known better than to prioritize my own feelings over those pertaining to the crown. 

I regret how things ended between us. Unfortunately, the goal I am chasing is one that I have been working toward far longer than you can imagine, one that my mother desperately wished for me. 

I understand that you may not ever be able to forgive me, but this is something I must see through to the end. 

Perhaps, in another life, things might have been different between us. 

 

Goro sighs, signing his name at the bottom. It's good enough, he supposes. It doesn't really need royal stationary—this is him, not his princely, shining self. Just Goro. 

A glance toward the clock tells him that the staff should be having dinner right about now. With any luck, he'll be able to drop off the letter in Akira's hayloft before anyone will catch sight of him there. 

He hopes. He's not sure he could live down such an awkward run-in. 

 

&

 

From high up on the beams of the stables, Morgana perches, comfortably balanced, and watches as a familiar human with familiar scents sneaks in and climbs up to the hayloft. He lingers for a while, examining the scene, before Morgana registers the rustling of paper, the dropping off of a white envelope. It sits, innocent, on the beam next to the pillow.

Something about its crisp rectangular shape entices Morgana, almost more than the treasure-like gleam of the Christmas baubles on the tiny tree. Had the needles not been so sharp, he would've already climbed it, stood triumphantly on its thin branches.

That envelope, though, is well within reach. Morgana rises from his watchful position on the beam, sinking claws into the wood as he stands. Perhaps he will take the paper, just to nuzzle it. Just to hoard it away somewhere safe deep within the nest of hay where he keeps all his most coveted goods. A pilfered golden ornament, fallen from the Christmas tree. A shoelace snagged from one of Sojiro's boots, good for gnawing. A soft t-shirt, smelling pleasantly of his favorite human.

The letter will join his pile, Morgana decides. It will crinkle most enjoyably against his whiskers. If he nibbles on the corners, it won't resist his teeth. He leaps in graceful strides across the intersecting beams, his desire for the envelope growing in urgency.

He snatches it up into his mouth and jumps down onto the floor, foregoing the ladder. This piece of paper is his now, Morgana thinks with delight.

He trots off with it, pleased.

 

&

 

There is something infinitely beautiful about the hustle and bustle of the palace on the night of the Christmas hall.

Makoto has thought this every year, but this year in particular it feels especially remarkable, leaving her to make a mental note to commend Yusuke for his hard work later on.

The commendation is well-deserved: twinkling lights sparkle seemingly as far as the eye can see, and towering ice sculptures make up the centerpieces both outside and inside, each one more intricate than the last. Inside the palace, every hallway open to the public is brimming with Christmas spirit, with appropriately-themed runners adding an extra splash of cheer to the carpetry. The walls are lined with blue- and silver-decorated evergreen garlands, the larger rooms and atriums all replete with an ice sculpture each while boasting of similar Christmas decor. Garlands line the walls and sit atop firetop mantles, outclassed only by the imposing Christmas fir trees and nutcrackers, sleighs, snowmen, snowflakes, and reindeers made of ice.

Some rooms even come with the illusion of a rich family life existing in the royal household, with some baubles strategically hung onto the trees to showcase some of the crown prince's arts and crafts from his time as a child. Even the grand fireplace has several stockings hung up, the names of the royal family stitched onto each one. Even Ann's mother and the late queen feature, though the latter has been symbolically left empty. The others, Makoto knows, are filled nearly to the brim with packing peanuts, only the top graced with small, colorfully wrapped styrofoam presents and a few sweets. Just enough to look full to bursting.

Not that the outside is any less resplendent. The center of the circular driveway stands a magnificent Christmas tree entirely of ice, complete with lights, ornaments, and garlands, the other trees around the property similarly bedecked. Limousine after limousine pulls up in the driveway, various members of the nobility and the country's political landscape stepping out in fur coats and extravagant outfits beneath.

"Thank you so much for coming," she says for the hundredth time that night, an artificial smile having long taken the place of anything genuine that may have once resided there. Still, there is one upside to doing little more than checking names off of a guest list: nobility has never been too fond of shaking hands with the common folk, her included. So while she may be invisible at best or a coat rack at worst, at least she doesn't need to engage with anyone beyond that.

A brief glance inside tells her that not everyone has been quite as lucky. Milling along the rest of the aristocracy are the usual faces, Shido and Akechi making the rounds to shake as many hands as possible, the staff keeping to the sidelines as necessary. The lone exception to the rule seems to be the few staff members equipped with trays of hors d'oeuvres, featuring both sweet and savory canapés.

The menu was a daunting one even for the chefs in the kitchen. Everything from black tie scallops layered with black truffles and moistened with buttery vermouth and truffle juice to lamb confit croquettes with quail eggs and lemon verbena make their way around the room, the aroma wafting out from the entrance hall and making Makoto terribly hungry.

Not until later, she reminds herself. And even then, she already knows she won't be eating any of the fancy canapés offered to the crowd on the royal guest list.

A dour reminder to Akira, no doubt.

Catching sight of him wiping down a tray, Makoto turns to Mishima, three fur coats in his arms. "Here, I'll take those coats. You can take over checking the guest list as it seems that most people have arrived by now." Unfastening the guest list from her clipboard, she hands it to him. "I have a few more things to see to. And, frankly, I have my doubts that the attaché to the Italian foreign office will still show up."

Heading to the coatroom to hang up the three in her arms, she looks down at her checklist for the evening. A few more things to see to is an understatement, to be sure. She needs to double-check that everything is set to go with the accommodations for those staying overnight, that the champagne flutes are ready to be brought out, that Ryuji actually did the wash and changed the linens in the white room, and that the staff she's overseeing isn't about to have a meltdown over the events set to transpire tonight. 

Casting another glance at Akira, whose own keeps wandering off to sneak peeks at the crown prince, Makoto sighs. If tonight goes off without a hitch, it will be an utter miracle. She's sure of at least that much. 

Weaving her way through the crowd and into the ballroom, she checks a few things off her mental checklist. The live orchestra is tuning their instruments, the ice sculpture drink fountain seems to be working marvelously, the floor was polished and buffed without leaving it slippery… 

Beside her, Lady Ann enters on the crown prince's arm, both of them dressed to the nines, even if the crown prince's ensemble borders on understated. A simple black dinner jacket and tapered black trousers with a single row of braid down each outside leg do plenty to allow him to blend in with the rest of the crowd even despite the red royal worn over his white evening shirt and waistcoat. Polished shoes, hand-tied bowtie, white handkerchief in his left breast pocket, cufflinks—everything looks to be in place. Makoto breathes a sigh of relief. Even despite the surely scattered nature of both heart and mind in recent weeks, it would seem that long-standing traditions are not so easily forgotten. Were the king the sort of man to be proud of his son, this would have certainly been sufficient cause for it. 

"I just don't think it's hopeless yet," Ann whispers far too loudly behind her, Makoto wincing as she straightens out a few napkins on the drinks table. "It wouldn't kill you to be an optimist once in a while."

"Ann—there's nothing to be optimistic about here. Tonight will be a failure in one way or another. Either something will permanently botch any remaining chance of my ever sitting upon the throne or I will be forever trapped in a loveless engagement which my father will be sure to turn into a loveless marriage all but a few months from now."

"You could at least text him." 

"Oh, of course. That'll be the day. Can you imagine the kind of trouble I'd get for bringing a cell phone into a ballroom?"

He's not wrong there, Makoto thinks to herself, watching from out of the corner of her eye as Ann is asked to dance by a foreign dignitary, the crown prince left unattended for roughly two seconds before the king swoops down upon him like a vulture.

"Akechi," he says by way of greeting, taking his place beside Goro as they look out over the ballroom. 

"Shido."

Their voices are quiet enough that Makoto doesn't think anyone else can hear them, and once again she is grateful for being invisible.

"When you look at this ballroom before you, what do you see?"

Akechi sighs. "People. Nobility. Politicians. Everyone with something to gain."

"Wrong." Shido's voice is commanding as ever, offering the illusion of a father, eager to snap up a teachable moment. "It's a chessboard, one on which I am king. If I falter, so does everyone else. So they place their trust in me so that I might extend my benevolent hand in the name of their protection. So long as everyone plays the part of a good little pawn, I'm willing and even happy to offer that protection." A beat passes. "So tell me, Akechi. Will you be a good little pawn tonight?"

The air feels heavy and pregnant between them, sizzling with meaning both deeper and far more sinister than most might assume. 

The crown prince seems to recognize as much. His jaw squares and tightens, twitching with barely-concealed rage. 

"Obviously."

Catching sight of Yusuke across the ballroom, Makoto opts not to stay for the rest of the loving father-son talk. 

"Kitagawa-kun," she says, stepping up beside him as she glances down at her clipboard. Still far too much to do. Too much for her to now go and play palace mom to the entire staff. Even so, it would be hard not to tell where Yusuke's attention seems to be, and the disasters that could sprout from it. 

Allowing her gaze to follow his confirms it. Ann, clad in a beautiful wine-red a-line ball gown, satin beneath layers upon layers of chiffon, is a vision. The sparkling white jewels extending even beyond the belt at her waist accentuate her figure beautifully, not that the off-the-shoulder chiffon sleeves or the sweetheart neckline weren't doing plenty of that already.

"She is… a truly magnificent creature."

"It might help not to refer to her as a—" Makoto sighs, shaking her head. "Never mind. Aren't you going to ask her to dance?" 

The thought of controlled chaos strikes her then, Makoto batting it away. 

"I—I couldn't possibly. To be worthy of such a woman…"

 Beside Yusuke, an older man—one Makoto recognizes to be the minister of foreign affairs—lets out a chuckle as he pats Yusuke on the back. "Better you snatch her up now before someone steals her away from you, son."

Yusuke blinks, as Ann is stolen away from one politician to dance with another. 

"I beg your pardon?" 

"Young love is always such a wonderful sight to see. Wouldn't you agree?" the man asks Makoto, who startles somewhat at being addressed personally. 

"Oh, yes. Of course, sir."

 

&

 

"Love?" Yusuke mutters as the Minister makes his way back into the crowd. "But I don't understand."

Except that he does: buried beneath weeks of competition, her bet that she could find something more beautiful than her to him, glimmers an incontrovertible truth. That he doesn't wish for this competition to end not for its own sake, but for the sake of seeing more of Ann. Clothed, even. Gone seem to be the desires to paint her nude solely for the sake of artistic merit and expression, evaporated into a smoke that resembles more so the deep and genuine affection left in its place than anything else. 

It strikes him then that someone is saying something off to his left. Makoto's mouth is moving, but his gaze keeps being drawn to twirls of red, his mind reeling. 

"My apologies," he mutters, shaking his head as he watches Kamoshida make his way up to Ann to demand a dance. "There is something I must do."

His steps are resolute, drawn to a resplendent vision in sparkling red chiffon, every part of Ann perfectly coiffed and pulled together. Small diamonds pinning up her hair catch the lights around the room as Kamoshida attempts to twirl her.

"Might I cut in?" He steps in to interrupt, his hand held out. Kamoshida is an eyesore, someone Yusuke would hardly deem worthy of his attention even if all of it weren't permanently affixed to Ann. Perfect, beautiful Ann, eyes wide as she looks back and forth between the two of them. 

Kamoshida sneers. "You may not. Aren't you part of the help?"

Yusuke cocks his head. "Are you implying that you're not?"

"Of course he may!" Ann declares, accepting Yusuke's arm with a vehemence he hadn't expected, but that is hardly unwelcome.

Thinly veiled anger peeks out from beneath the placid veneer of  "Princess Ann, surely you don't mean to suggest—"

"Oh, I do mean to suggest! Come on, Yusuke, let's go!"

Yusuke clears his throat, trying to ignore the warmth that billows up in his chest at the thought of her coming to him for this, choosing him. 

"Please, Ann, wait. There is something that I fear must be said." He turns to Kamoshida. "Kamoshida-san. Though there are undoubtedly many courtship dances found within the animal world, please do Lady Ann a favor and cease your pathetic attempts to woo her. She is not interested in you, and you are only embarrassing yourself the longer you continue this charade."

"How dare you speak to me that way?!"

"That was all," Yusuke declares, turning his attention back to Ann with a smile. "Shall we?"

He hardly even notices Kamoshida's glare leveled at him as he stalks off the dance floor, Yusuke taking his place with ease as Ann places his hand at her waist, taking the other in hers. 

"Just... follow my lead," she says, a sheepish laugh escaping her. 

Her aid, though thoroughly appreciated, proves unnecessary. Dancing is, after all, a form of art, and Yusuke twirls Ann with ease. He can't be certain as to whether he's getting the steps all right, but it's easy to follow the patterns, especially when they were demonstrated right before his eyes all evening. 

"Forgive me if it is not proper for us to converse freely while dancing, but my heart bids me to speak. You look… utterly mesmerizing tonight," he says, honesty spilling from his lips before he can so much as consider his words or their meaning. 

Her smile widens, the rose blush on her cheeks almost as lovely as the rest of her. "You… called me Ann."

"Oh."

"Before you say anything else—don't apologize. I like it. I like the way it sounds when you say it. I like… you. I mean, the way you just told Kamoshida off like that? I never thought someone would do something like that for me—"

"My heart wants you." The words tumble out faster this time, Yusuke slowing their steps to a stop.

"H-huh?"

"My heart," he repeats, breathless, bringing her hand to his lips to kiss her knuckles. "I fear that this… contest of ours has been unfair to you for some time now. After all, how could you find something more beautiful than yourself when I am… in love with you."

"Oh," Ann whispers, her eyes wide. "Y-you are?"

"I am afraid so."

His words earn him a smack, Ann's face twisting into flushed annoyance. "Don't be afraid! I—I also—" 

She's not looking at him, cheeks aflame, Yusuke feeling his smile widen. "It is quite all right. Please, no matter your answer, do take your time."

"See?" Burying her face in his front, she allows her fabric-muffled murmurs to finish the sentiment for her. "You're always so nice and considerate and charming, how was I supposed to not totally fall for you—"

Lifting her chin with his fingers, Yusuke allows himself to lean in to kiss her, soft. She's… magnificent.

"Thank you for this, Ann," he says, resting his forehead against hers. "I will guard your heart as fiercely as I guard my brushes."

"More," she insists, Yusuke unable to help but laugh. 

They should get off the dancefloor perhaps, just standing in the middle of the room in a rather public embrace, but right in this moment, Yusuke hardly cares to, more content than he has felt in a long time. 

"More," he agrees, and delights in the sight of her smile.

 

&

 

Goro leads Haru around the ballroom for what seems like their hundredth dance of the evening. He's starting to get tired of waltzing, especially under such scrutiny, but every time he and Haru part after a song he's hunted down by Shido, who hisses reminders in his ear about following the plan.

Get engaged. Announce said engagement. And don't, definitely don't interact with the staff or anyone who may compromise the success of the evening.

Goro knows both of those things mean Akira. Akira, who Goro's caught glimpses of all evening long, handing out glasses of champagne on golden trays and petit fours nestled on napkins. He looks striking even in his waiter's uniform: a sleek black ensemble save for a white button-down and matching waistcoat. Just stealing glances at him feels like a crime, but not doing so feels like one too.

"You seem stressed tonight," Haru says to him. "Is it because of the announcement?"

Goro jerks his attention back to her and away from where the staff is standing, dutiful, by the wall.

"Yes, I suppose so," he says. "It is a life-changing announcement, after all."

Haru's eyes are downcast when she speaks again. "It is," she agrees. "But our fathers have already made their minds up."

What if Goro hasn't made his mind up yet? Would his free will even have any bearing on what happens next at this point? The stones are cast. The dominoes are in motion. And yet—

All he can think about as Haru matches his dance steps without faltering is how it felt to waltz with Akira. How it felt to dance with someone uncoordinated, uncaring of their skill. How it felt to forgo the finesse and just sway, just feel.

But none of that matters now. Goro can't be in obedience of his heart's every whim and desire, and even if he could be, he can't resuscitate something he personally saw to being thoroughly killed.

The frustration ripples through him like a gun's recoil. He set out years ago to dethrone Shido and take the kingship for himself, to expose Shido's vile deeds to the public that adored him, and somehow, along the way, Goro's become no less a monster. He knew his path might claim victims along the way, but not like this. Someone like Akira was never meant to get involved.

He wonders what his mother would say now. If she'd understand his journey. If she'd be disappointed by what he's done. What she'd want him to do now. The deep longing for a proper parent that normally accompanies any thoughts of his mother is overtaken this time by more pressing emotions: tangled regret, clueless frustration, and most of all, the nagging feeling that he's doing everything all wrong.

"Can I ask you a question?" Goro asks Haru as they continue to dance. Her face tilts up at him. "What do you think your mother would think of all this?"

"Oh." Haru looks to the side. "Well, as you may know, my mother wasn't a businesswoman. She fell in love with my father without knowing anything of his connections."

Goro can read between the lines. "So you believe she wouldn't approve of our engagement."

"Well, um, I'm sure she would have gotten used to it," Haru says. "She understood that a lot of my father's life was governed by work, after all."

Gotten used to it. Much like how Goro will need to get used to this marriage, and this life, and all the things his future will shackle him to.

He needs a drink, possibly even something heavier than the champagne flutes floating around. He steps away from Haru, dropping her hand and bringing their dance to an abrupt halt.

"My apologies, but I'm quite thirsty," he says.

He starts looking for the nearest waiter, searching for a uniform among the twirling couples and rustling dresses as people dance around him. He spots a tray balancing glasses glinting under the lights not far away, but something more in the forefront of Goro's vision seizes his attention first.

It's Ann, being led around the dancefloor by none other than Kitagawa. He's guiding her in line with the music with such unexpected grace, nothing about him appearing too tall or too lanky anymore as he dances with Ann with unforeseen ease.

And Ann, she's looking up at Kitagawa with the same awe that must be unbidden on Goro's face. He's a commoner, an employee of the palace, a man beneath her in rank, and yet he's found the courage to sweep Ann around this prestigious ballroom? Goro had always assumed him to be the sort of man to hide behind his paintbrushes, whose daring only ever makes an appearance in his paintings.

And yet—he's managed to do more than Goro ever has. He's out here, surrounded and outclassed by noblemen and dukes and barons, but he's still abandoned his dutiful spot on the sidelines with the rest of the staff to take Ann by the hand and hold her by the waist and spin her around the room.

Is he that naive? Or is he that brave?

It feels like electricity is gathering in Goro's stomach. The music is swelling—or is that trembling violin just in his own head?—and suddenly he has a goal in mind and he's striding with purpose to the edge of the ballroom.

He doesn't stop until he's maneuvered his way through the twirling couples and is standing in front of Akira. Goro's earlier frustration has toppled over into longing, and that longing has now solidified into determined intention.

Goro clears his throat, as if he doesn't already have the attention of Akira and everybody surrounding him. Not that it matters. Goro's focused on his objective, and anything else orbiting them is inconsequential.

If this is his one night before his entire life is decided for him—

He extends a hopeful hand. "May I have the next dance?"

For a second, he's met with nothing but stunned silence. Then—

"Yo," spits Sakamoto, moving to stand in front of Akira. He looks like an angry dog whose leash has just been removed, eyes ablaze. "You may have this spare fuck I'm not using!"

Goro grits his teeth. He should've expected Sakamoto to get involved like some sort of aggressive bouncer, but still, he was hoping to handle this with at least a shred of decorum.

"Sakamoto," he starts.

Before he can politely—god, Goro should get a medal of valor just for this conversation—ask Sakamoto to mind his own business, Makoto steps next to him as back-up. Her expression is grim, nothing like the quiet orderliness Goro's used to.

"You should go back to the ball," she advises Goro. "Don't you think?"

Goro bristles. "I think I should speak with Akira."

"He doesn't want to speak with you," Makoto says sharply.

So it's two bouncers now? Goro knows, even outnumbered, that he has the upper hand here, but he also knows that leveraging it will harm his cause more than hurt it. He switches tactics.

"He's aware I'm sorry," Goro says. "I explained it as well as I could in the letter."

Once again, all he gets in return are blank stares. Even Akira, who Goro can only see part of over Makoto's shoulder, looks puzzled.

Fine, if the letter isn't good enough. Fine. If Akira wants a spectacle, if he wants more than just private ink on private paper, then Goro will grant him that wish. He's not sure where this reckless thinking is stemming from, but now that it's clutching him Goro doesn't want to be released from it. He wants to follow it through, to chase that sensation of autonomy to wherever it'll take him.

He turns away without a word. He hears Sakamoto muttering after him, but that too, just like the loop of Goro's own thoughts, soon fades into the distance as he pushes his way through the chattering couples. The stage at the head of the room is set for his engagement announcement, and an announcement is something Goro fully intends to deliver.

He heads up the steps, waving at the orchestra to pause the music. The string instruments screech to a stop, and with them, the ballroom comes to a stop too. A sea of people, curious, look over their shoulders and turn to the stage when they see that the crown prince has something to say.

Among that sea is Shido, eyes narrowed, grip white on the stem of his champagne glass. Goro meets his steely gaze without reserve. Try and stop me, he thinks.

"Excuse me, everybody," Goro says to the crowd. He's made speeches to bigger groups than this, but never a speech with such weight behind it. Never a speech he's not researched, memorized, and edited for mistakes. Never a speech about something like this. "I'm terribly sorry to interrupt, but I have something of an announcement."

He finds Okumura's beady eyes in the crowd as well, dark and expectant.

"As many of you may already have heard, I'm meant to announce my engagement today to Haru Okumura." Goro inhales carefully. "I'd like to officially make clear that this engagement will not be happening."

Buzzing whispers ripple out through the crowd. Every reporter in the room seems to have suddenly elbowed their way to as close to the stage as possible.

Conviction grows in Goro. The chains around his heart, the necktie noose around his throat, is loosening for the first time in a long time.

"I realize that business transactions and marital arrangements are common in a life such as mine, but it's a life I refuse to live. I value the transparency that the crown owes to its people, and if I were to take part in such a marriage, I would be in direct opposition of my own commitment to honesty with the public."

Goro takes another deep breath. He finds the only pair of eyes in the crowd that actually matters: Akira's. They've gone wide and blown, zeroed in on Goro like he's the only thing worth looking at or listening to in the whole room.

Goro desperately needs to prove him right.

"Purporting to be in such a relationship would be a painful lie not just to the people I serve, but to myself, and most importantly to the person I truly love. The man I truly love."

There it is. One of the biggest secrets Goro's ever kept concealed under the floorboard of his heart, out in the open. There was a time when he thought the only way he'd ever let it see the light of day would be if somebody amputated it out of him, but now here he is, still in one piece, not flayed in the slightest. If anything, he feels fully whole.

The hushed whispers elevate in volume as scandalized gasps enter the mix. Shido's heading for the stage now, all but shoving his way through the crowd. Goro continues, unabated. No hostility from the king will push the words back into Goro's mouth; no persecution can change his mind.

"I realized I've let the wrong things influence my choices, but I've been thinking lately of what it is my mother, the late queen, would have wanted for me," Goro says. "I believe she would've valued my happiness, not just for me, but because a happy prince can lead a happy country. And one day, I will do so as king." He holds Akira's gaze across the room. Lets his intent leak—no, explode, so they're clear as it can be—through him. "I hope I can do it with him by my side."

Shido reaches the stage. His fury is all but radiating off of him, almost powerfully enough to penetrate his pleasant public facade, but Goro has no intention of giving him the opportunity to do damage control. He can't take back what Goro's said. He can't take back what Goro feels, either. He can't take anything from Goro, not anymore.

He turns to smile at Shido, free and easy. When he turns back to the crowd, he feels near weightless.

"Merry Christmas, everybody," he says. "Please, enjoy the ball."

The room erupts in talk, and overwhelmingly, applause too. Rapt stillness turns instantly into a flurry of movement, of journalists taking notes, of guests breaking into gossip, of the music starting once more with renewed zeal. Goro hastens off the stage, as if pulled by a string to his target, but Haru wavering by the stairs halts him.

Her smile is weak, perhaps with surprise, but her eyes are bright, free of tears or disappointment. There's a weightlessness to her shoulders as well, perking her up considerably.

Still, Goro knows he owes her an apology. "Okumura-san," he says immediately. "I'm sorry. I realize that wasn't very considerate of—"

She seizes his wrist, interrupting him. "You don't need to be sorry," she says. "I understand. And I think this is for the best."

Goro's glad she agrees, but he knows there are more loose ends than just her potentially hurt feelings. "Your father—" he starts.

"He definitely won't be happy," Haru admits. "But that's okay. There's more to life than just business deals. I think he'll understand that one day. And even if he doesn't—I do."

It occurs to Goro that he's been underestimating Haru, thinking her to be nothing more than a pawn sitting in her father's pocket. He foolishly thought himself to be alone in this pact of marriage, in this arrangement that seemingly no one could relate to, when in reality, Haru was there all along, just as emotionally entangled and disregarded as Goro was.

He owes her a proper apology, a longer one, but later.

"Thank you, Okumura-san," he tells her for now.

He intends to hurry through the crowd, to find Akira and figure out if what he left behind with him can still be put back together, but Goro's path has grown thick with sycophants and congratulators alike. A politician swoops in and grabs Goro by the palm, vigorously shaking his hand.

"Your Highness, what a speech!" the man bellows. "None of us expected, of course, that—"

"I'm terribly sorry," Goro says, extracting his hand. "Can we resume this conversation later?"

He dodges a few other attempts to grab his attention with quick smiles and polite dismissals. He can't see Akira anymore, not without the height of the stage to help him. It suddenly seems as if the room is overfull, clogged with people Goro can't identify for the life of him, his mind a tunnel focused solely on his objective. Even his hard-wired reflex to be graciously diplomatic at all times when under public review has short-circuited, leaving nothing but instinct behind, and his instinct is only saying one name, over and over again.

His determination to work his way through the crowd is interrupted when Goro sees Akira doing the same, gently elbowing past murmuring ambassadors with the same scrambling haste Goro feels thrumming in himself. His eyes go wide when he sees Goro, almost as if he's still catching up on what's happened, still processing Goro's speech in his head.

Which is probably for the better, because at present, words have abandoned Goro. He used them all up on that stage, and now he's left with nothing but adrenaline, pumping through his bloodstream and his eardrums and his fingertips.

Time passes—probably not very long, although it does feel excruciatingly so—before Goro finds his vocabulary again. He licks his lips. Akira's eyes, wide open, follow the movement.

"I understand if I may be too late," Goro begins.

"I don't want to talk," Akira says.

"Oh." Goro's heartbeat hangs in the balance. He should've known that things don't come easily, especially not for Goro Akechi, whose entire life is shrouded in ill omen, and especially not after everything he's done to sabotage the very thing he's now trying to save. "Well, perhaps later—"

He doesn't get a chance to finish what he's saying, because suddenly Akira's hand is on his cheek and his mouth is on Goro's, hungry and eager and achingly familiar, and oh, that's what Akira meant by not talking.

Goro's arms are winding around Akira before he can overthink the etiquette of it all, pulling him in closer, needy for the intimacy he's been depriving himself of for too long. It's a kiss so thorough that, if he were a frog, it would turn him back into a prince. Maybe even a king.

Akira's fingers dig into Goro's cheek almost too hard, as if not trusting all this not to go away, but when he slowly pulls away from the kiss a moment later, he's looking at Goro with wonder, a hopeful tenderness that Goro wants to frame and hang up on a wall.

"Did you really just do that?" Akira asks.

Goro's a little too kiss-drunk to fully comprehend the question. "Hm?"

"Go up there and tell everybody in here that you're in love with me."

Oh. That. "Yes, I did," Goro says. "And what do you have to say about it?"

Akira's lips slant into a private little smile. It's a smile Goro's allowed to see again. As a matter of fact, there are many things Goro's allowed to do now, like kiss Akira and hold Akira and love Akira without compunction.

Akira might be thinking the same thing. He holds out his hand. "I'll take that dance now," he says.

Goro looks at his open palm and all that it entails, and for a second, the forgiving affection behind it is almost overwhelming. Goro's done everything he possibly could to destroy this, to bury it deep and never exhume it again, and this whole time, Akira's been nursing it, believing in it, protecting it for a moment like this. Goro could kiss him for his patience. And he will, as many times as he wants.

For now, though, he takes Akira's hand and lets himself be swept up in his arms. Akira leads them through a clumsy waltz that doesn't gain rhythm until Akira's stopped smiling long enough to focus, but even then, Goro can't seem to do the same. Akira's doing everything wrong, pressing too close, holding Goro's hand too firmly, but Goro revels in the imperfect nature, so different from the image of the infallible prince he usually forces himself to adhere to.

Behind him, a camera clicks. He sees Akira's eyes catching the movement over Goro's shoulder, but Goro squeezes his shoulder in reassurance.

"Let them," Goro says.

He knows not everyone will have favorable things to say, that some will criticize and some will praise. A lifetime of media coverage has desensitized Goro from the opinions of others, but tonight, he lets himself be aware of their presence, of their cameras and their notepads. They're going to print a story that Goro wants out there, a story that he can't—and doesn't want to—turn his back on.

Akira, for his part, is looking at Goro like he's replaced himself with a clone. He huffs out a wondrous little laugh. "What's gotten into you?"

Common sense, perhaps. "Perspective," Goro says. "Long-term thinking. Mostly about what my mother would've wanted. About you." He shakes his head. "My letter explained it better than I can now."

Akira looks as perplexed as he did before. "What letter?"

"The one I left for you in the hayloft. By your bed."

"I didn't see a letter by my bed," Akira says. "When did you leave it?"

"A few nights ago. You never received it?"

"No, I don't remember seeing it." Akira's confusion melts away into something different: a teasing smile. He leans in closer, pulling Goro flush against his chest. His lips graze Goro's ear as he whispers. "You could come back to the stables with me tonight? Help me look for it?"

The promise underneath the offer sizzles under Goro's skin. How can any of this be real? There's certainly a dream-like haze over everything, like it's all a fantasy, a fairytale. How could it be anything else, with the ice sculptures gleaming and the music soaring and Akira of all people dancing him in inelegant circles?

"I have a better idea," says Goro. "It's high time you see my room for a change, wouldn't you agree?"

Akira's coy smile grows until it crinkles his eyes. He drops Goro's hand to cup his cheek again, his response a long, eager kiss. Not far away, someone—Sakamoto, Goro bets—inappropriately wolf-whistles.

"I definitely agree," Akira says once he's pulled away. "Should we meet somewhere? Later?"

"Later?" No, no later. Goro's not wasting another second. He has time to make up for, and that time begins now. They have so much to do, to talk about, to not talk about, and nothing the rest of this stuffy party has to offer could possibly compete with those plans. "How about now?"

He steps out of Akira's arms to seize his hand. He thinks of Akira pulling him through Christmas markets this way. He thinks of covering Akira's cold hand in his out on the archery field. He thinks of their fingers, entwined, between soft sheets. He's never letting go of this hand again.

"Come on," Goro says, tugging. "You wouldn't disobey an order of the prince, would you?"

Akira's answering smile is almost too bright to look at directly, like the sun. Goro tugs again, and Akira comes all too willingly.

 

&

 

The giddiness Goro feels running through the festive palace hallways with Akira in tow is something he can safely say he has never felt before, his heart light and the smile on his face shockingly genuine. 

There might be—no, will be—repercussions, he knows. Even so, he's not sure that he's ever felt so free, so liberated. Not only is he openly, publicly, his own authentic self for the first time, he rid Shido of one of his primary weapons to use against him while his own leverage still remains, years of research somehow still in existence despite the fact that he's managed to say /no to his father for the first time. 

No more engagement, no more marriage. He's not sure what will happen with Shido, but if he can have even a smidgeon of the happiness his mother was denied at the hands of his father, he wants it, wants to allow himself to feel it to the fullest. 

Regardless of how the press will react, regardless of the hell Shido will bring down on him for doing this, he rather thinks that his mother would have been pleased with him choosing this, choosing his own private happiness for once. 

He is, after all, only a man. 

Behind him, Akira is beaming, Goro's steps speeding up as they round the corner to the royal sleeping quarters. Compared to the rest of the palace, these hallways border on barren, no Christmas decor lining the Rococo-panelled walls or sitting in every corner. 

He's breathless by the time they reach his door, an evidently shared affliction as he takes in the sight of Akira beside him, his cheeks rosy and his smile wide.

"Will I get in trouble if someone finds out that you took me back here?"

Goro chortles. "Whoever would think to punish you for my actions would have to deal with me, first. At any rate—I'm certainly not letting you sleep in that barn anymore."

"Morgana might miss me, you know," Akira says, his grin widening as Goro gets his door unlocked to let them both in. 

"If he starts being allowed in, you'll have to tell him that I'm dreadful at sharing."

Closing the door behind them, Goro pulls Akira in to kiss him again, finding himself shockingly greedy despite having him, having this, only recently. Perhaps it was a matter of thinking that he'd never get to have it again... not that Goro is complaining, Akira giving as good as he's getting. 

"Bed," he mutters against Akira's lips, the word making Akira look up and take in his surroundings for seemingly the first time. 

"This room—"

"My room," Goro tells him, allowing himself to take it in again from the point of view of a newcomer. And not just any newcomer, he supposes. Someone who has, until recently, been sleeping in a barn. 

And to think that Akira assumed he'd have to continue to do so. 

"It's incredible," Akira mutters as if in sheer awe, Goro smiling despite himself.

"Would you care for a tour?" 

His words draw Akira's gaze in some surprise, Goro's smile widening. "This used to be my mother's room, and my grandmother's before me. A long line of royals has used it, though it underwent some remodeling at the start of the last century. Mostly for repairs..." Taking Akira's hand in his, Goro interlaces their fingers before leading him around the room. "The wall decor was restored back in 1942, though I'm sure some of the lustre the colors once held must have faded again over time. I imagine it will be due for another restoration soon enough. The molding on the walls is in the French style, as is most of the furniture."

"It's very... opulent."

Goro nods. "That's one word for it. Thriftiness has never been a particularly common word in the royal vocabulary. When my ancestors spent, it was always in great sums and always in the name of extravagance."

"It looks like it paid off," Akira says, allowing his gaze to roam over the walls up to the decoratively molded ceiling tiles.

"The rug is and the curtains are Persian," Goro continues, "a gift from one of Iran's later monarchical rulers. It was restored just recently." Walking around the settees and plush chairs, Goro makes his way around the room with Akira in tow.

"And this," he finishes, smiling as he moves to sit at the edge of it, "is the bed."

"I had no idea. It's been so long since I've seen one."

"Are you joining me or not?"

He doesn't have to be asked twice, Akira climbing atop Goro to kiss him again, his shoes discarded along the way. 

Right. Clothes. 

"Help me?" he mutters against Akira's lips, his own fingers moving to slowly undo his bowtie. 

They have time, he has to keep reminding himself. He has time. 

The happiness peering down at him now isn't going anywhere. 

"You know," Akira says between stolen kisses, "it might be easier to get undressed if we leave the bed."

"Absolutely not." He hasn't spent nearly enough time in his bed yet, Goro grinning as he tugs off his own shoes and socks, Akira meanwhile struggling to get out of his suit jacket. "Here," he interjects, reaching up to help ease it off his shoulders and pausing halfway to steal another kiss. 

The scenario feels mismatched at best, and yet Goro can't help but play out their future together within it, the smile on his lips soft as he imagines himself stealing kisses as he helps Akira out of his formalwear five, ten, fifteen years from now. Maybe longer, if Akira will have him. 

"Stay," he hears himself blurt out as Akira pushes his pants down to his knees.

"What? I'm—I'm not going anywhere."

"No, that's not—" Goro sighs, finding himself suddenly conflicted. He's bared so much of his heart tonight already. Does he dare to bare a bit more? He sighs, looking askance. "Surely you must already know that if I have any control over the matter, you will not be expected to stay here… as a servant. Needless to say." A beat passes as Goro clears his throat. He's heard all the little adages of letting go of the things one loves in the hopes that they might return, but a quiet part of himself remains nevertheless terrified of abandonment both real and perceived. "You will be able to consider yourself… emancipated. And then, if you nevertheless wish to remain—"

Akira doesn't allow him to finish, just leaning in to kiss him, soft and sudden. 

"I'm not going anywhere. Why would I want to leave?"

"Um," Goro says, blinking. "Countless reasons, truly? Starting with being made to sleep in a hayloft in the dead of winter, the slave-driving nature of my father, my mistreatment of you and your heart—"

Another interruption, this one just sweeter than the first. Akira's lips taste of a homecoming long denied himself, Goro allowing himself to relax into what he assumes to be his answer. 

Hopes to be his answer.

"Tell me again," Akira whispers after drawing back, the smile on his face warm and happy. Probably not the smile of someone who is about to tell him that he's moving out as soon as he's free of his indentured servitude. "What you said on stage, I want to hear it again."

"What? I said a lot of things on—oh." Goro blinks. "That I'm in love with you."

Akira nods. 

"Oh," Goro says again, feeling a blush steal its way across his cheeks. "I am. I love you. I am in love with you."

"Then why would I want to leave?"

By the time Akira pulls back from yet another stolen kiss, Goro is smiling despite himself. "While that does mean more to me than you perhaps know… I hope you know that I do still wish to hear your answer."

"Did you ask a question?"

"Don't tease," Goro says, mock-glowering at the smile on Akira's face, taunting him. "You know what I meant."

"I do," he says, nodding as he reaches for Goro's bowtie to undo before turning his attention to the buttons of his vest. "But my feelings haven't changed. Of course I love you. So, if that's okay with you and the rest of the palace—"

"Oh, who cares about the rest of the palace," Goro mutters, reaching for the front of Akira's unbuttoned shirt to pull him in closer. "They're not here. Just you and me, with none of the princely decorum expected of me."

"Well then," Akira whispers, leaning in to press a kiss to his cheek, soft, his thumb moving down his front to undo those buttons, too. Too many layers, Goro thinks, and wonders if Ann is having the same problem. "Just Goro… since you're not a prince right now… do you think anyone would mind if you got a little loud tonight?"

A shiver runs through him, all thoughts of Ann and her paramour rushing from his mind to leave only Akira. Akira, who is trailing warm kisses over and along his jawline, down his neck to suckle at the crook of it. Precisely the sort of thing unbecoming of a prince, hickeys, and Goro finds he couldn't care less. Let the world know, for all he cares—either he's already shredded his future beyond repair… or the horrendous consequences Shido has been threatening him with won't come to pass, after all. 

Either way, there's no harm in allowing his boyfriend to mark him in some way.

His boyfriend. The thought makes him smile even through the sighs leaving him as Akira kisses his way along his collarbone and down his chest, claiming laboriously uncovered skin. None of the guilt or dread building over the last several weeks over a commitment he wishes to honor, but won't be able to. He can just… have this. 

What a miraculous feeling. Do most people experience this level of freedom? Not that he's about to take it for granted. Instead, he allows himself to relax back onto pillows that he's fairly certain have never felt so utterly soft, watching as Akira kisses his way down his chest to undo his pants closure.

Oh.

"You needn't—"

"I want to," Akira cuts in, shaking his head. "Honestly."

"If you're certain, I suppose I can hardly object," Goro mutters, though the astonishment remains. Last time, he did this for Akira—partially out of guilt, partially simply because he wished to. This time…

Goro doesn’t deserve this happiness, not after all he’s done. And yet—Akira has seen it fit to forgive him. More than that, he insists on prioritizing him as he is now. For the first time in his life, he feels unendingly spoiled. 

And he needn't even worry about apologizing for it. 

His pants are eased down his legs, Akira littering enough kisses over his hips to make him fear that he'll be made to wait longer yet—but Akira takes mercy on him and places his next kiss along the side of his cock, his hand gently cradling the length of him.

"That okay?" he murmurs against Goro's skin, the sensation seeming to run through him in a shiver from head to toe.

"If you admit to enjoying teasing me entirely too much, then yes."

"Not too much," Akira says, smiling as he steals another kiss, and another, trailing his way up his length. "Never too much." 

His proximity is the only warning he gets before Akira wraps his lips around him and sinks down to take him into his mouth with a groan, one to match Goro's. His eyes flutter shut at the feeling of pleasure that courses through him, opening only to find Akira watching him with each gentle bob of his head. 

"Tease," Goro grinds out, fingers tightening in the sheets beneath them. "Incorrigible—"

As if prompted by his protests, Akira speeds up instead of slowing down, seemingly intent on quieting him by drawing moans out of him instead. Taking him deeper until he catches himself gagging, Goro groaning as he shakes his head. "D-don't push yourself."

"It's fine," Akira says, pulling off of him to replace his mouth with his hand. "I want this with you."

"I'd rather you—that I—" He feels heat spread to the tips of his ears. "Inside."

"Oh," Akira says. And again, "oh," his eyes wide as he regards him. "Yeah—yeah, we can—we can do that." Clambering back up his body, Akira steals a kiss. "Do you have condoms? Lube? I can head down to the kitchens to see what kind of oil they have down there if I need to."

He blinks. "Lubricant—yes, of course, in my top bedside drawer; I assure you, there is no need to involve olive oil or any other sort." A beat. He does his best to push down his jealousy and steel himself for an answer he might not find favorable. "Have you done this before? You haven't said."

"No." Akira shakes his head, the motion coming with some relief for Goro—relief he'd rather not voice in any way. "I haven't."

"Well then, we won't be needing condoms, will we? Seeing as we are both… men…"

For a moment, Akira's eyes go wide, as if he can hardly believe what he's hearing "You'd trust me with that? Just like that?"

"I meant what I said. I love you. Of course I trust you." With his happiness, his heart, his capacity to rule… Akira truly is a marvelous individual, to have won him over so completely. If he hadn't been the one to break his heart twice by now, he'd most likely be waiting for the other shoe to drop. "You never… lost faith in me, never wavered in your affection. I have a great deal to answer for, but you? No."

Akira is shaking his head before he even finishes speaking. "No. You don't. Not anymore. You've more than made up for it with what you did tonight." 

He has a point. There's no walking that back, after all, no way to un-come out of the closet. Before his mind has a chance to run away with him, however, Akira kisses his front and moves his hands to his hips. 

"Roll over for me?"

Complying readily, he listens to the sound of a drawer being opened with a small, secret smile on his face. 

A part of him can't truly believe he's really doing this. What would Shido say, if he knew what he was doing now? His rage would certainly be cathartic, though something in his mind quells the thought: now is not the time to be thinking about Shido.

No; rather, his thoughts should be on the magnificent boy—young man, really—at his side, fumbling with the cap of the lubricant to the best of his abilities as Goro watches him. He's… sweet. Unfailingly kind. A veritable knight in dented armor to rescue him out of his princess tower.

The same princess tower he'd thought he needed to remain confined in for the rest of his life if he wished to effect any change in his own kingdom. 

He's never felt so free, Goro smiling as he turns to regard Akira from his spot on all fours. "I want them to hear us," he says, voice softer than his words. "You know what that means, don't you, Akira? Don't you dare hold back."

Akira's astonished expression shifts into a smile—and from there, into a grin, wide and mischievous. Exactly the expression he hoped to see.

"You got it, Your Highness."

Akira lifts his body by the hips, knees spread and open wide for him. It's a vulnerable position, but Goro feels oddly safe, even as—

"Oh."

One second, he feels a tongue at his rim, wet and warm and soft, only for it to draw away the next.

"Is that… okay?"

"Yeah," he whispers, then accompanies it with a nod, firm and resolute. "Keep going."

Akira does; his attentions are measured and true, singularly devoted to Goro's pleasure, his tongue pressing into his hole to gently fuck him with it. A noise leaves him then—one Goro first attributes to Akira only to find that it's coming from his own throat, his whimpers only increasing in volume as Akira withdraws his tongue and allows his fingers to take his place. He scissors them easily, stretching him as gently as he can. 

"Have you done this before?" Akira asks from behind him, which he supposes is a fair question.

"On my own. In the—ah!—privacy of my own bedroom—"

A kiss, then, upon his lower back. "I'm glad. I don't want this to hurt you."

"I'll be fine. I don't mind a little bit of pain."

He can feel Akira's grin against his skin. "Noted. But… not tonight. Not the first time."

No, not the first time. He has a good point, Goro smiling to himself as Akira slips a third lubricated finger inside of him to scissor and stretch. 

"That's—ah—at this point you're just teasing me," he gasps, groaning as he pushes back against the fingers inside of him.

"Am I?"

"Just—" He pants. "Please, Akira. You won't hurt me if you just—"

He doesn't have to say anything more, Akira pressing a kiss to his lower back before lining himself up at his entrance to press inside, agonizingly slow. 

Not that it can be helped. It's slow going for a reason, Akira stopping anytime that Goro so much as winces at the pressure of his length filling him. It stretches him open with a burn that perfectly straddles the border between pleasure and pain, and Goro is left to shudder by the time Akira is buried within him fully. 

"Stay there," he gasps, fisting the sheets beneath him as he rests his forehead on the pillow, his breathing even and controlled, willing his body to relax. "I think—you can keep going."

"Are you sure?"

"Mm." He nods, grinding himself back against Akira and finding himself pleased when it draws a groan out of him. "Yes. Move." 

And Akira does, a staggered breath preceding his slow thrusts—thrusts that steadily gain in speed as Akira finds his footing and Goro pushes back to demand more with each and every time he fills him. 

"Actually," Akira gasps on the in-stroke. "Roll over again."

"What?"

Akira nods, Goro glancing over his shoulder to see it. "I mean it," he repeats. "Roll over."

"All right," he mutters, watching with some faint disappointment as Akira pulls out of him just long enough for Goro to roll over and spread his legs again. "Like this?"

He wastes no time in rectifying the situation, Akira repositioning himself to slide back home. And again and again and again, until Goro's head falls back into plush pillows and he feels like he's seeing stars to match the cloud he's on. 

"Like this," Akira says as he leans over to press a kiss to the corner of his mouth, "I can look at you."

"And kiss me."

"And kiss you," he agrees, kissing Goro as he hitches his leg up higher on his hip to take him deeper, harder, until it's only Akira's tongue that's swallowing his moans and whimpers.

He's not the only one: Akira seems just as breathless and affected as he is, one hand reaching out to grasp hold of the ornate headboard behind them for leverage. 

Feeling Akira's thrusts become more frantic, Goro reaches for his own cock to stroke, desperate to join him in his climax. But Akira seems to have the same idea, shaking his head as his own free hand moves to take over for Goro's. "Together," he mutters, Goro nodding his response as he moves with Akira.

It almost works, but it's good enough, Goro feeling himself come first—toes curled, legs arching and stiffening around Akira's waist—before Akira follows after him, thrusts stuttering with his release. 

It takes a bit. Silence settles in between them, comfortable, and Goro finds himself marveling at what his body is actually capable of. Loving and being loved by this man in his arms. 

He feels… unendingly lucky, now more than ever. 

"Wow," he hears Akira say beside him, Goro smiling as he turns to look at him.

"Yeah," he whispers. "Wow."

Akira kisses him before he can ask for it, Goro allowing himself to melt into the touch with a soft sigh. What he truly wishes to say is thank you, but he rather thinks that Akira knows. So, instead, he offers him something better. 

"I really do love you."

"I really love you, too," Akira says, his smile the most beautiful and brilliant thing Goro thinks he's ever seen.

Chapter Text

Akira wakes up on Christmas morning in a cloud.

It feels like one, anyway. In his half-asleep haze, all Akira can comprehend are heavenly soft sheets, and velvety smooth pillowcases, and the soothing scent of rosy detergent. Nothing like the scratchy hay and woodsy smell in the stables.

The stables. Akira shifts in the bed. It actually doesn't feel like he's in the stables at all. Another glaring clue is the overwhelming warmth, warmth that Akira is sleepily tracing to the heat source in his arms.

The heat source makes a noise, a breathy little exhale, and burrows closer. Akira reaches out and pulls it closer without too much thought, getting a mouthful of hair for his trouble. It isn't until an arm slips over Akira's chest that he starts to slot the puzzle pieces together.

Last night. The ball. Waiting on pretentious dignitaries. Listening to Ryuji complaining about waiting on pretentious dignitaries. Goro storming up and demanding a dance. Goro going on stage and—and—

Akira opens his eyes. He's surrounded by velvet curtains draped over a four-poster bed, beyond which lies an opulent bedroom, full of gold-accented mirrors and antique furniture and fancy wallpaper.

More interesting, however, is what's inside the bed with him. Namely, who.

Akira looks down at the sleeping man curled against him. He can only imagine how many would be surprised to see Prince Goro Akechi cuddling, naked, with a stable boy, in the bed where they had sex together.

And what good sex it was. Akira can still feel it in his fingertips, the ghost of orgasms past, present, and future. He's tempted to kiss Goro awake right now just to relive it all again, but at war with this idea is how amazingly calm Goro looks in his arms, no worried lines between his eyebrows, no stressed tilt to his mouth. Akira was so sure he wouldn't be able to have this again, and yet, somehow, he's been given a Christmas miracle.

The muffled buzz of a phone, mostly likely tucked into the pocket of the pants he discarded all too enthusiastically last night, sounds from somewhere on the floor. It's short, probably just an incoming text message, but it still causes Goro to stir.

For a frightening second as Goro wakes up, Akira doesn't know what to expect, if Goro will regret what he's done and immediately want to walk it all back. They didn't get a chance to talk much last night, not between the giddy laughter and hurrying to remove clothes and the breathless bits that came after, but now Akira wishes they had stopped to do so. What does Goro want now? How does Akira fit into his plans? Will Akira fit into his plans?

Goro's eyes blearily open. He blinks a few times, his gaze unclear before it focuses on Akira's face. The memories are visibly coming back to him; Akira can practically see the zoetrope of last night's paramount moments sliding across his eyes.

Akira doesn't even realize he's been holding his breath until Goro smiles and lazily hooks a leg over Akira's thigh, at which point all the tension Akira's been clutching melts off of him and disappears into the blissful pile of sheets and pillows.

"Good morning," Goro says. His voice is still rough with sleep, and it's doing funny things to Akira's lower half. "I've never woken up quite like this before."

Akira laughs. "With me in your bed?" He pulls Goro closer, reveling in the fact that he can.

"Mmm. With you in my bed and not caring who knows you're in my bed," Goro clarifies. He tangles his hands into Akira's hair, tugging him in until they're kissing, soft and unhurried. The usual strain existing in the undercurrent of their time together is gone, and its absence feels like someone has finally fixed a broken floorboard Akira's gotten accustomed to stepping on. It's refreshing. Almost brand new.

Akira's just about to roll on top of Goro and see where this morning will take them when his phone buzzes against the carpet again. It's followed by a few more buzzes in quick succession.

Akira pulls away from their kiss with a groan. "Sorry," he says. "I think that's my phone."

Goro's hips settle tantalizingly against his. "You want to go get it?" he asks in a tone of false innocence.

Akira groans again, this time for a different reason. A very strong part of him wants to kiss Goro again and again and then say good morning to a few other body parts of his as well, but the fact that those messages could be one of his friends worried about his whereabouts gives him pause.

"Just a second," Akira says, untangling himself. "Don't go anywhere."

He gives Goro incentive with one more kiss, then hurries out of the bed to wrangle his phone out of his pants. Multiple notifications are waiting for him, first from Makoto: 

 

I assume everything worked out last night after that big speech?

 

Then from Futaba:

 

Sojiro says you didn't sleep in the stables last night( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

 

And then, most recently, from Ryuji:

 

dude you should check the news

have you looked yet

CHECK THE NEWS

 

Those last three give Akira pause, thumbs hovering over his phone. He knows he can't stay in the oasis that is Goro's luxurious bedroom forever and turn a blind eye to the world outside, a world that is probably still reeling from the bombshell Goro dropped last night. Akira's stomach prickles, fearing the worst. He doesn't need a lot of imagination to visualize ways journalists might've sensationalized Goro's coming out, followed shortly by a confession of love for not just a commoner, but a menial laborer in his employ. At best, there could be jokes and ridicule, and at worst, there could be slurs and insults.

Still, Akira would rather rip the bandaid off than delay the inevitable. He swallows down his reluctance and works his way through the news on his phone.

 

FAIRYTALE COMING TRUE FOR PRINCE AKECHI?

 

HOW A BELOVED ROYAL BECAME AN LGBTQ SYMBOL IN ONE NIGHT

 

YOU'LL NEVER GUESS WHAT GORO AKECHI DID AT THE CHRISTMAS EVE BALL - TRY NOT TO CRY WHEN YOU SEE THE VIDEO

 

NOT SO ELIGIBLE ANYMORE: GORO AKECHI IS NOW A HOT GAY ICON, AND HIS BOYFRIEND IS JUST AS SMOKIN'

 

Akira blinks a few times as he scrolls through the headlines, waiting for the hallucination to dissolve. He keeps scrolling even as the catatonia starts to set in. Everything he sees, even the clickbait, is supportive, grateful, almost celebratory. Akira himself is showing up in some of the articles, too. His name is even misspelled a few times, which feels like the first rite of passage for any celebrity.

Celebrity. God, is this really happening?

"Get back up here," Goro says, patting the bed. "Akira?"

"You have to see this," Akira says, still stunned.

"What is it?"

Akira scrambles back onto the bed and under the covers. He hands his phone to Goro without a word, watching as Goro's expression undergoes the same wild journey: wariness, growing interest, confusion, to the final destination of complete awe. He obviously wasn't expecting to develop a whole new fan club, not to mention the blessing from thousands of journalists and existing devotees. Akira has a feeling that Goro has led a very carefully coiffed life, never stepping out of line for fear of radical repercussions, and after stepping way out of line last night without a consequence in sight, there's a good chance his entire life's philosophy is imploding in on itself right now.

"This…" Goro trails off, clearly at a loss for words. "This can't be real."

Akira has to laugh. Never does he know what to expect from a moment with Goro, and this is no exception. Akira awaits a zig, and he gets a zag.

The laughing must be infectious, because soon Goro has a hand over his mouth and he's laughing too, both in audible delight and disbelief. "Whatever Shido was hoping to do to me after last night, this has definitely ruined his plans," he says. "I never would've expected…"

He trails off again, but this time it seems to be in sheer astonishment. Akira can fill in the blanks well enough. After everything, he never expected to still be accepted. He never expected to still be loved and admired and supported.

Akira curls a hand around Goro's cheek, tilting his face toward him. It's possible that Goro, for all his worldly knowledge, isn't very well-versed in concepts like acceptance. Not that that should be a surprise, with a king like Shido always looming, continuously setting the bar impossibly higher.

"I get if it's not easy for you," Akira says, "but you should trust that not everybody will let you down."

Goro laughs, this time a bit weakly. He rubs a hand over his eyes. "It doesn't come naturally to me. My whole life—" Goro stops, moving his hand aside to look at Akira. He looks incredible in the mornings in a way the dusty hayloft never made clear, his hair charmingly disheveled, his face soft with remnants of sleep—but Akira can't enjoy those details now. Later, yes, and hopefully for many mornings to come, but for now he wants to focus on what Goro's telling him. "I worry a bit that you don't really know me, Akira. There's so much I never told you."

Akira rubs his thumb encouragingly over Goro's jaw. "You can tell me now?"

Goro struggles to take his next breath. It feels as if he's opening up a bandage for Akira to look under, and Akira is all too aware that he needs to value this rare display of honest vulnerability for what it's worth.

"I'm sure you can imagine that my life has never really been my own," Goro says. "So many aspects of it were controlled since the moment I was born. I knew the only way to take that control back was to play along with Shido's demands until the moment I could expose him to the public for what he really is."

Akira could cheer, but out of respect for Goro's fragile state at the moment, holds back. But he knew, he knew all along that Shido was at the core of everything, influencing and masterminding and determining Goro's every move. Akira's friends didn't believe him, but his instinct about Goro was right. So much for Goro's worry that Akira hardly knows him.

"He's been a stain on my life for as long as I can remember," Goro says, hands curling into the sheets. "Although I doubt I have to explain that to you. You know what he's like. He's the one who blackmailed you into working for him, after all."

A thought strikes Akira. 

"You're right," he says slowly. "You don't have to explain that to me. But there are other people you should explain this all to."

Goro's eyebrows twitch. "No," he says. "You wouldn't be suggesting—"

Akira finds Goro's hand, unfurling it from the sheet to tuck it into his own. "Maybe it's time you get to know your staff."

Goro looks down at their clasped hands. "I already got to know the staff, thank you very much."

Akira rolls his eyes. "I meant all of the staff. And not like how you got to know me." He squeezes Goro's hand until he looks Akira in the eyes. "Goro. Whatever it is you need to do, wouldn't you rather do it together?"

The idea has probably never occurred to Goro, judging by the look on his face, guarded and cautious, but at the same time, considering Akira's offer. Akira pictures his life: dreadfully lonely, possibly by design, to avoid painful betrayals or greedy dissemblers. Asking him to change his entire way of thinking won't happen overnight, but today could be the start of that long road.

Akira strokes a strand of Goro's hair and his free hand. Goro found a way to make room for him in his heart, so maybe he can open himself up for some others as well.

"Fine," Goro concedes. "But Sakamoto better not give me any lip."

 

&

 

"Hey, what the hell's he doing here?" Sakamoto grumbles.

Five seconds in, and Goro already has proof that this may have been a bad idea. He tries to catch Akira's eye, check if it's perhaps not too late to drop Akira off for the festivities and slither his way out, but Akira's grip on his hand is almost painfully tight. He's clearly aware that Goro's a flight risk.

The kitchen looks jollier than Goro's ever seen it. It looks like somebody smuggled in a tree from the ballroom, and a few sparkling garlands are hung up on the cabinets, and a pile of gifts on the dining table. Sakamoto's popping sweets into his mouth, Niijima's passing out presents, Kitagawa's fixing the angle of an ornament on the tree, and Ann—Ann?!—is instructing Kitagawa on his work. Goro's obviously interrupting something of a staff Christmas party, which only makes the urge to flee stronger.

"Ryuji," Niijima says sharply. She turns to Goro, apologetic. "He didn't mean that," she starts to say, but she seems to lose her train of thought when she notices Goro and Akira's entwined hands. "Uh. What I mean to say is, Ryuji's sorry if he's being rude."

She shoots him a look of warning that Sakamoto seems to heed. He shifts on his feet. "Yeah, sorry. I was just jokin'. That big sappy confession last night wasn't half bad, you know. You really stuck it to Shido."

He grins—actually grins—at Goro before he snaps out of it and seems to remember he has a deeply entrenched loathing against Goro to maintain.

"Yes, well, I'm glad you... appreciated it, even if it wasn't exactly for your benefit," Goro says, doing his best to establish something resembling a foundation between them. He knows it's what Akira wants.

The minute he thinks it Goro has to fight back the urge to roll his eyes at himself. He's hopeless. He's never done anything for the sake of somebody else's happiness before if it didn't benefit him as well, and now, out of nowhere, he's one of those people who considers others and their well-being.

It's nauseating, but it also feels concerningly… nice. He could get used to this feeling.

"Don't worry, I know for whose benefit it was," Sakamoto says. The grin is back, but now it feels almost filthy to look at. He wheels it on Akira. "How many times did you benefit last night, huh?"

"Are you opening gifts?" Akira says very loudly, stepping forward to look at the tree.

Niijima looks as grateful for the distraction as Goro feels. "We are. Can I interest either of you two in a cookie?"

She brandishes a tray from between the gifts full of cookies, all of which are decorated in extreme detail. Looks like Kitagawa's work. The flecks of food coloring on his fingers Goro sneaks a peek of confirm his suspicions.

It all certainly looks like a cozy little Christmas morning for the staff. Goro can see gift tags with Akira's name on them too, awaiting unwrapping.

"I don't want to spoil the celebration," he says, brisk. "I can come back later—"

"Nonsense," Kitagawa says. "We'd be honored if you stayed, Your Highness."

Subtly, Akira's hand squeezes Goro's. This might be a good opportunity, it seems to say.

Goro bites the bullet. "Please, the formalities aren't necessary," he says. "I'd like us to get to know each other beyond the scope of a prince with his employees."

It's obviously not something anybody in the room was expecting. "O-oh?" Niijima says when no one else speaks. "Is that so?"

"Truth is, I feel I owe it to all of you to be honest. Not just for the work you've done for me over the years, but for the kindness you showed a newcomer who turned out to be instrumental in instigating a change in me. A change that would inspire me to break free from the mold made for me by the king."

He looks at Akira, whose fond eyes were clearly not anticipating such a sentimental declaration. Counting last night's speech, that's now two in a row under a timespan of twenty-four hours. It's starting to feel like emotional honesty is something of a gateway drug.

"So basically, Akira wants us all to hang out together?" Sakamoto sums up.

"That may be part of it," Goro agrees, "but there's more."

Goro braces himself for the wave of confused refusals and dismissive rejections sure to come his way. Will you help me overthrow the tyrannical king isn't something you can just blurt out. You have to lead up to it, but Goro has no idea how.

Luckily, Akira steps up to the plate. "Ryuji," he says. "You know how you're always talking about taking down the king?"

"Yeah?"

"Would you be up for actually doing it?"

For one heavenly, silent second, Sakamoto's too stunned to respond. Everybody else looks equally shocked.

"Dude," Sakamoto finally says to Akira. "You seriously convinced Akechi?"

"Actually, it was his idea."

The shocked faces swivel over to Goro.

"Your idea?" Kitagawa asks.

"Yes," Goro says. "And it has been for quite some time."

Niijima, for her part, looks mortified. Probably because as someone who usually has their finger on the pulse of what's happening in the palace—even the things done in secret—she can't quite fathom something of this magnitude escaping her watch.

"You've been actively planning to overthrow King Shido?" she says. "My goodness."

"Yes, and…" Goro meets eyes with Akira. He feels like something in his brain has been hard-wired to never ask for help, but he does his best to override that instinct. "...I would like all your help in seeing this through."

"Our help?" Sakamoto says. He scoffs. "Why would we do that?"

"When Shido is no longer in power, it is I who will take over his position. And I intend to thank those who helped me earn that spot with the living and working conditions they deserve," Goro explains. He throws in another tactic as well. "I also imagine none of your senses of justice would allow it. For me, it may just be an absurdly personal grudge, but for the rest of you, it may just be rewarding to dethrone a filthy criminal."

"An absurdly personal grudge," Kitagawa murmurs.

"Uh, how come you never told me about this?" Ann demands.

Her stormy look makes Goro wince. "I've never told anyone," Goro says in defense. "I never thought I would. It's a… complicated story."

Niijima offers up an encouraging smile. "We have time, if you'd like."

If he'd like. Goro can't say it's necessarily something he wants to do, even if he recognizes the necessity, or at least the benefit, of recruiting a team. Then again, there may be something cathartic about unloading the secrets off his chest.

It's been years. The weight of them has nearly started to deform his shoulders. To share the load might feel almost… therapeutic.

"All right."

 

&

 

The big explanation doesn't come until everybody's taken a seat. Unwrapping gifts can wait, at least until the prince spits out the classified secrets he's been keeping to himself like a bomb under his tongue for god knows how long. Even after all these years, Makoto has never seen him this unmasked, this unguarded. He usually looks like he's always a thousand cool miles away, even when standing close, but right now, he doesn't look so distant. He's up close and personal, more so than ever before.

Makoto makes another round of coffee while everybody else gets settled, then passes cups out around the table. By the time Akechi's drunk half of his, he seems ready to talk.

"Shido has always told me that I'm not his biological son," he says to start. His hands are wrapped tightly around his cup. "For as long as I can remember, I had to pledge fealty to him just for his benevolence of allowing me to remain in the palace as his adopted child. He told me what he told everybody—that I was the result of my mother's infidelity. I had no reason not to believe him. It's not as if my mother was alive to tell me a different story. And then, one day, a few years ago, I found a journal."

"You found a journal? Here, in the palace?" Yusuke asks.

"It obviously wasn't meant to be found. Ann and I had a history of exploring spots we weren't supposed to be when we were children. That's how I found it, tucked away under some hollow floorboards. It was my mother's." Goro's mouth twists into something that isn't a smile. "In it, she shared her fears that she would be murdered soon by her husband, and that she worried what would become of their child together."

Even Ryuji seems to be intrigued now, leaning closer on the table.

"What?!" he shouts. "Shido killed your mom?"

"Actually, Shido killed the queen," Yusuke adds. His horror is better cloaked than Ryuji's, but he sounds equally unsettled. "He essentially committed regicide to forcefully take the crown for himself."

The puzzle pieces click into place for Makoto. "And by claiming you to not be his biological son, he keeps you from being any real threat to his power."

The cleverness of Shido's plan almost outshines its ugliness. He's certainly thought through his steps, and Makoto can only imagine for how long he's been devising his schemes. Akechi's mother was the first victim, but how many since have fallen prey to Shido's manipulative hunger?

"Yes, never mind that my blood relation to my mother would qualify me regardless had Shido not appointed himself as king in the wake of my mother's death, illegitimate heir or not," Akechi says. "Adopting me also made him nothing short of a saint in the eyes of the media. The bastard of his wife's infidelity, and yet Shido is kind-hearted enough to parent him."

His grip on his cup has gone lethal, but then Akechi takes a carefully measured breath and the tension leaves him in twitchy increments. It's an anger management technique he's obviously been using for quite some time, not that Makoto can blame him after hearing a story like that.

"And you've kept all that information about your mother hidden for all these years," Makoto says. "Why?"

"I knew I needed to wait for the right time. Even during my angriest moments, I realized that to blurt it out without forethought would be revealing my ace too soon for it to matter." Akechi shakes his head. Even with the white-knuckled grip gone, a simmering irritation has obviously remained. "Besides, it wasn't enough. A diary indicting him of murder would never be adequate proof to prosecute him."

"What about all that shit about him pretending not to be your real dad?" Ryuji says. "I'm guessing your mom's diary doesn't say anything about some steamy affair."

Ann grabs Akechi's arm. "And I bet we could prove that you're related pretty easily. We just have to—"

"I proved it years ago," Akechi interjects. "You're right; it was unthinkably easy. I didn't need to do more than swipe a glass Shido drank from."

So he's been sitting on the disquieting hunch that Shido had his mother killed, and he's been keeping a paternity test hidden. And for years. Makoto tries to imagine harboring that sort of ill will without anywhere to put it for so long. There's no doubt it's grown a life of its own by now, become something that defines Akechi, something that gives him a purpose and all his goals a direction.

Oh. Well, that certainly explains a lot of Akechi's decision making as of late.

She sits up straight. Perhaps it's a habit still around from her leadership roles at school, but Makoto's not one to have a problem set in front of her without needing to find a way to solve it.

"It's still not enough," Makoto says, the gears of her mind already rotating into motion. "Shido's supporters wouldn't be deterred by a paternity test. It's too small of a lie to make a real wave, not to mention that Shido could always play oblivious in response and say he didn't know." She lifts a hand to her chin, thinking. Without anyone here to disprove Akechi's mother's infidelity, they'll need an entirely different path. "We have to focus our attention somewhere else. We can always reveal the truth about Shido being your father later, after we've really laid down the fist of justice."

Ann blinks. "Fist of justice?" 

Ryuji scoots closer, no less pumped up. After spending his entire employment being shushed whenever bringing up the subject of overthrowing Shido, he must be overjoyed to finally put all his animosity to work. Out loud, at that.

"Okay," Ryuji says. "What else can we nail the bastard for? There's gotta be tons of skeletons in Shido's closet."

Everybody exchanges glances across the table. Everybody's had their fair share of unpleasant run-ins with Shido, and the rumor mill at the palace has never exactly been favorable towards him, but they're going to need something better than hearsay and gossip.

"Well," Yusuke says. "He has been supplying me with non-organic paints that are toxic blights on the environment."

"Oh," Akira says. His mouth twitches. "That's—that's certainly something."

"I believe I can up the ante," Akechi says. He takes a deep breath, a tell that he's about to drop a bomb of eye-opening information. "I have been starting to stockpile proof that Shido's been embezzling from taxpayers for years—more or less since he came into power. I've been able to trace his ties to several shell companies he's using in tax haven countries to get away with his money laundering, but I'm still missing some links, and it's been hell attempting to prove that the invoices and receipts that exist are fake, especially while Shido does his best to keep me busy around the clock."

"Yeah!" Ryuji yells, then quickly transitions from excitement to rage. "Wait, I mean—hell no! What a piece of shit! But I betcha that's something people wouldn't be so quick to forgive!"

"I agree," Yusuke says. "We need to keep building off of this."

"I don't have enough evidence yet to make a case," Akechi reminds them. "It's not just about the court of public opinion; the actual courts need to convict Shido of a crime. If they can't do that, all of us are buying our tickets to prison for treason."

"Geez," Ryuji mutters. "Merry Christmas, everybody."

"We just need to find people willing to testify against Shido," Makoto suggests.

"How are we supposed to find those people, though?" Yusuke asks. "We can't very well go around town asking every citizen. Word will get back to Shido much too fast."

The group descends back into silent brainstorming for a moment. Makoto's about to get up to offer coffee refills when, next to her, Akira fishes his phone out of his pocket. He thumbs it open. Over his shoulder, Makoto sneaks a glance at a few text messages that have come in.

 

are you guys seriously talking about vive la revolution right there in the kitchen

haven't i taught you better than that by now?!?!?!

I can HELP btw

 

Makoto doesn't even need to look for the sender's name to figure out who sent those, even if the realization that the employee kitchen is bugged and wired without Makoto even having the slightest inkling of when or why or how that happened is unnerving at best.

Akira lifts his head. "Futaba," he says loudly, as if speaking to a child playing hide-and-seek. "Why don't you come out and say hi?"

"Uh," Ann says. She looks around the room like she's searching for the three ghosts of Christmas. "What's going on?"

Akira's phone buzzes on the table as more text messages come in. Makoto leans in to catch a glimpse.

 

I hate you

I'm not coming

 

"Why not?" Akira says aloud.

 

because everyone's there!!!!!

PEOPLE!

 

"Come on, Futaba," Makoto joins in. "You said you can help?"

She doesn't respond, at least not in text message form. Makoto wonders if she pushed too hard, but then again, she's not sure what Futaba's hoping to do in assistance while cooped up in her room. Preparing a secret coup d'état is definitely more of a hands-on project.

Akechi, for his part, has his head in his hands. "How many other rooms does she have wiretapped, exactly?" he says, muffled.

"Wait a second," Ann says. "What?"

Suddenly the door to the kitchen eases open. When everybody turns to look, Futaba slinks in, hunched in on herself as if hoping to arrive unnoticed. When she sees that the entire table has their eyes on her, she very nearly moonwalks out the door.

"Welcome!" Makoto says, hoping to inspire calm. She stands up, gesturing to the coffee machine. "Would you like some coffee?"

Futaba's gaze zig-zags across the room like a frightened deer. First to all the people sitting at the table, then to the plate of Christmas cookies, then to the crooked garlands on the walls, and then to the half-full coffee carafe.

"Nah," she says. "Sojiro's is better."

"Sojiro," Yusuke repeats, coming to a conclusion. "That's right. You're Sojiro's daughter, aren't you?"

"And a technology prodigy," Makoto adds. "Right, Futaba?"

Futaba shrugs. She grabs the carafe and pours herself a cup of coffee anyway, swilling it left and right. Her shoes roll nervously back and forth on the floor. "Your words, not mine."

"Mm." Makoto smiles. "Since when have you been listening in on the kitchen?"

"Rather," Akechi interrupts. "What have you been listening in on?"

"Stuff that would make you tear your ears out," Futaba says gravely.

"Woah," Ryuji says. "Really?"

"No, not really. But I do have stuff. Stuff you can work with, I mean. I've been digging around in Shido's emails for years. It's not like he admits to all his crimes right there in black and white, but I do have names of the people he's doing shady business with."

Makoto picks up the cookies and holds them out invitingly, hoping to wordlessly encourage Futaba to sit at the table with the rest of them instead of hovering around the coffee machine. The plan works after Futaba seizes a few cookies and bites into one; it passes muster and Futaba shovels more into her fingers before crouching in one of the empty chairs.

"That's an ideal place to begin," Akechi says slowly. He's giving Futaba a funny look, one rife with quiet mistrust. "Why exactly are you interested in helping this cause?"

Futaba mutters something under her breath.

"Pardon?" Akechi pushes.

"You think you're the only one who lost your mom?" Futaba throws at him. Her lower lip wobbles, which she does her best to cover up by nibbling on a cookie. "I don't have any proof either. But Shido killed my mom too. She worked here back when your mom was still alive. I think she knew too much and Shido wanted to make sure she couldn't share any of it."

It's an answer Akechi obviously wasn't expecting. Makoto wasn't either, not that she has trouble believing it. Shido loves murdering his way out of problems, and if what Futaba's saying is true, her mother certainly would have been a problem for him.

"I know that we might not be able to find evidence for what he did to my mom," Futaba continues. "But I still want him to rot in jail! He doesn't deserve to be out free, much less running a kingdom!"

It's an impassioned display, one that Makoto wasn't expecting from Futaba. Akechi, too, looks baffled, although Makoto guesses his bewilderment traces back to realizing that his fight, one he went on as a lone soldier for years, is actually shared by many others. His indignance and resentment aren't just his alone.

"Then let's make that happen," Akira says. "Let's put him in jail."

"Yeah," Ryuji says immediately. "Where do we get started now?"

"The names of people Shido's worked with that Futaba's tracked down is a good starting point," Makoto says. "We could split up and see how many of them we could convince to join our cause. Share their story."

"That definitely sounds like quite a task," Yusuke observes.

"It does. But with all of us working together, we should be able to get it done," Makoto says.

"Hey, guys," Ann says. "Aren't you forgetting someone who could totally help us?"

"Who?" Akira asks.

"Haru Okumura! If anybody deserves to have a grudge against Shido, it's the girl who was gonna be forced to marry his son."

"Oh. Oh." Akechi grins. Makoto realizes it's one of the only times she's ever seen the prince do so genuinely, and it feels like spotting a unicorn. "Ann, you're a genius."

"Yes, she really is," Yusuke agrees in his usual degree of reverence whenever Ann is being discussed. The difference this time is that their fingers are interlinked. "Haru would have more connections and influence than most of us. She'd be a strong asset."

"Then, if things go well, she can join us in our investigation," Makoto says.

"We're gonna start tomorrow, right?" Ryuji asks.

"Why tomorrow?"

Ryuji gestures to the pile of presents sitting under the pilfered tree. "Uh, hello? It's Christmas! We gotta celebrate!" He gets to his feet, eager to get the gift-giving started. "Uh, we don't have anything for you, Akechi. Sorry. Although, I guess we sort of got you a revolution against your evil dad? So yeah, we got you a kickass present."

Everybody laughs, even Akechi. Even Futaba. Ryuji starts shoveling presents into his arms to distribute to the table, Futaba begins rooting around the cupboards for hot cocoa ingredients, Akira grabs one of Akechi's hands from where it's wrapped around his cup to hold with his own, and Yusuke spearheads a discussion about the pleasing symmetry of the Christmas garlands.

For the first time in years, it really feels like a Christmas worth celebrating at the palace.

 

&

 

"Knock, knock," Akira says, mock-rapping his knuckles on the doorway to the sight of Goro jolting out of his reverie. Sitting at the edge of his desk, it seems obvious that he hadn't expected his attentions to be diverted by the book in his lap, but it takes him a moment to wrench his gaze off of it all the same. 

The smile that greets him doesn't lie, however, Goro brightening as soon as he sees who it is disturbing his reading.

"I was hoping that would be you," he says, snapping the book in his lap shut. 

Akira cocks a smile, slipping the door behind him shut. Just in case. "Miss me already?"

"Something like that." The book is set aside with a smile, though the pensieve look nevertheless remains on his features.

"Something on your mind?" 

Goro hesitates, his gaze returning to the book at his side, fingertips trailing over the leather front. "Mm." For just a moment, Akira expects that that's all the answer he'll get, but then Goro lifts it up to hold out to him. "Here."

Taking it, he frowns in his confusion, shaking his head. "... what is this?"

"You'll see."

Flipping to a random page, Akira allows himself to skim. 

 

There are so many things I wish I could go back and tell my younger self. So many things that I regret, and so many things that I hope my son won't have to.

Perhaps I won't be around to teach him these things, but I hope to be. There are enough fools in this family already, after all. 

Because I have been a fool. Ignorant, naive—blindly hopeful that my gut instincts were wrong in the interest of my freedom. 

I do not feel particularly free now. Being the crown princess and now the queen means that I never have felt free, and marriage only seems to have cemented the rigid power structures surrounding me, ones not aided by my husband, a man that I wished so badly to love that I nearly convinced myself of it. 

But people lie and deceive and go to all ends to deceive if it's in their own best interest. 

The love I feel just holding my son eclipses any love I ever felt for my husband, if that could even be called love. 

I hope he knows. I hope that Goro knows that when I hold him, I know him to be the most precious gift I have ever received.

 

Akira stops reading, looking up at Goro. 

"It's my mother's journal."

Akira nods, not sure what to say that wouldn't feel more like salt in the wound than anything else. 

"I am… sorry that I kept all this from you."

"No—no, don't be. I know you had your reasons." They only met just recently, after all. It's odd to think that it's merely been weeks since he first met Goro and thought him a fellow servant traversing the halls. "She, um." He gestures to the journal. "She seems to have really loved you."

"I wonder what that would have been like," he says, a soft, sad chuckle leaving him despite the smile coloring his features. "Can you even imagine that? A parent who loves their child and treasures their company. I certainly can't. These are… all the memories I have of her, really. The paintings in the museum and in the palace don't count. They're… attractions at best. But this? This has always felt private, special. Something just for me and her."

The words ripple through him like a stone atop the surface of a pond, Akira's smile bordering on shy. "Thank you for… sharing it with me."

"I think she would have liked you," Goro says in lieu of a proper response, his own smile wide, his gaze somewhere far off as if lost in a daydream where the three of them might have coexisted, once upon a time. "I really do."

"I wish I could have met her. She seems like she was a good mother." Would have been, he supposes. "A strong woman and queen, one who wouldn't have lead the country with an iron fist like…"

"Like my father, yes." Goro's grin briefly turns cheeky. "I wish I could have met her, too. Properly, not simply through her ink on these pages." Plucking up the journal once more, he allows his fingertip to trace the well-worn spine, the creases in the leather binding. "I keep thinking that I should reread it again. Perhaps this time my thoughts won't be clouded by a need for revenge as I read."

"Because we'll have gotten that revenge by then," Akira agrees, Goro letting out a soft laugh as he gets up to place the journal back on the shelf. 

"I hope so. Come here?" he asks, Akira taking several steps forward for Goro to pull his arms around him. "Thank you."

"Um." He blinks, returning the embrace despite his confusion. "What for?"

"For encouraging me to open up. Not just to you, but to your friends. For being patient with me as I familiarize myself with the concept of trusting anyone other than myself… and perhaps Ann, sometimes."

"She's nice," Akira agrees, smiling all over again. "I like her. As does Yusuke, from the looks of it."

"Yes, she does have rather an infuriating ability to converse easily with just anyone, regardless of station." A beat. "It's… shockingly nice, having people that one can rely on."

Reaching down, Akira seizes Goro's hand to hold and squeeze. "They're called friends," he says, pressing a kiss to the back of his hand. "And you were long-overdue for several dozen."

A soft laugh escapes Goro, his gaze dropping as he reaches up to tuck his hair behind his ear, the rest of it having artfully fallen into his face to hide his flush. "You're incorrigible."

"If I wasn't, how could we pull off this heist just the two of us?" He grins. "Exactly. Now let's dethrone a despot together."

 

&

 

They all get their marching orders from Futaba the next day in the form of a list, divided among their teams, full of names and the likely locations of people who Shido has engaged with in a not-so-legal fashion. They're all to gather as much compelling evidence and testimonies as they can before nightfall, at which point everyone will reconvene at the stables for an update.

"Won't this look suspicious?" Sakamoto mutters while they're waiting for the car Goro asked to discreetly take him into town to pull up to one of the side doors. Everybody's decked out in coats, scarves, and hats to brave a day of the winter elements—at least, everybody except for Futaba, who only plans to wave them off ("I'm just gonna stay behind and be moral support. The best moral support there ever was!" she eagerly declared earlier). "A bunch of the staff is nowhere to be found even though we have a ton of shit to clean up after that massive party?"

"No offense meant, Sakamoto," Goro says, doing his best to be considerate, "but Shido will not be searching for you personally. Or any of you, really."

"Considering that works to our advantage, I'm more than fine with it," Yusuke says.

The car pulls up. Goro had specifically requested a larger vehicle, but everybody still has to squeeze to fit in the available seats.

Not that Goro particularly minds Akira pressed against him shoulder to thigh, warm and reassuring, but it's Sakamoto on his other side that Goro could do without.

The ride into the city is quiet while everybody studies their respective lists. Futaba's impressive information gathering skills aside, the lists themselves make Goro's skin crawl. Next to each name is how they've, in some unsavory way, offered their unscrupulous help to Shido's cause, each as repugnant as the last.

 

Politician being paid to hide Shido's corruption

 

TV president making sure all news stories about Shido are positive

 

Former bouncer going after anybody publicly denouncing Shido's names or policies

 

Goro smothers any hints of depression with determination. They're going to do this. They have to do this, not just for himself, not just for his mother, but for the future of the kingdom and the people it serves. If they can pull this off, the evidence against Shido will start to take shape. It used to be an intangible form, a borderless creature without lines on which Goro gathered all his pain and hope. Now it'll be a real compilation of proof, an actual case worth pursuing. 

They just need a few of Shido's crooked connections to be swayed, and if even half as many have been blackmailed or coerced into helping him as Goro suspects, it shouldn't be too difficult of a task, just laborious. Goro imagines his smooth charm and royal connections will work well blended with Akira's approachable, trustworthy nature, but he can't quite say the same for Kitagawa's skills of persuasion or Sakamoto's tact. To say nothing of Ann's acting skills, which may work against their cause altogether.

Goro recognizes his doubts for what they are, though: a complete, almost crippling unfamiliarity with working with a team. He's been alone for years with this project, and more than once, he told himself he wanted it that way. That he can investigate the way he wants to. That he doesn't have to rely on anybody else. That he doesn't have to worry about someone else throwing a wrench in his efforts.

All those points are valid, but there are advantages to collaboration. Being able to share the load with others who are just as passionate and dedicated as he is. Trusting himself to rest on the support of people who have his best interests at heart. Knowing that a fight that's been suffocating him in solitude for years might just be in his reach.

Akira squeezes his knee as the car comes to a stop right on the edge of the center of town. There's also that addictive feeling of connection, the one that reminds Goro he's not alone in that big, cold palace, or even in the world.

They all file out of the car. Makoto offers a few more well wishes of good luck before they separate down different streets, huddled in their coats and hopes of success. 

Goro looks down at their long list. He smooths it out with a gloved hand.

"So," he says. "Where would you like to begin?"

He glances at Akira, who's staring down the street, thoughts traveling. "I have an idea," he says. "There's someone who's not on the list who I'd like to involve." A small smile grows on his face. "Someone who'd totally testify against Shido, and who has journalistic connections."

Goro raises an eyebrow. "Really?"

Akira's smile grows. "What do you say we start in Crossroads?"

 

&

 

Ann has been on something of a cloud nine since the night of the ball, not just for herself, but for Goro also. And while today is certainly all about Goro making his dreams come true—as well as the dreams of the whole kingdom, arguably—Ann can't help but be selfishly glad to have a day out on the town with her new… boyfriend. 

The label is hardly official yet, but she's decided that it suits them all the same, Ann finding Yusuke's hand to interlace their fingers together.

"Sooo, who's first on our list of targets?"

"Well, let's see here." Yusuke fumbles for a moment in pulling the folded-up paper out of his pocket, shaking it open in favor of taking his hand back from where Ann has claimed it for herself. Around him, soft snowflakes have begun to fall, adding yet another layer of white onto the already existing blanket of snow covering the city. "It would appear to be the head of a yakuza gang."

"I'm… sorry?"

"The head of a yakuza gang."

"Ooookay, I was worried I'd heard that correctly. What on earth is Shido doing with yakuza ties?"

Yusuke keeps reading, his eyes flitting over the paper. "It seems to allow for a sort of catch-all in terms of influence over the kingdom. Those whom the yakuza protect and collect protection money from are likewise those who are forced to pledge their allegiance to Shido. They… also seem to aid him in his money laundering efforts, taking a cut of those profits while he takes a cut of the protection money they collect."

"This sounds… kinda huge. And we're supposed to convert that guy over onto our side?"

"Not exactly. Futaba said that I should try and get access to the man's computer while you attempt to seduce him, although I cannot say that I am too thrilled at the prospect—"

"Wait," Ann interrupts, a frown clouding her features. "Get access how? No offense, but you're… not exactly a hacker like she is. None of us are."

"Hardly. Thankfully, she simply said to plug this into the computer and she'd take it from there." Reaching into his pocket, he pulls out a small USB flash drive to show her.

"Oh." That seems doable. "Okay, then I'll just do my best to keep him distracted for long enough that he doesn't get too suspicious." 

Yusuke's brow creases. "And you are certain that you are comfortable with this?"

"It's no big deal, right? So what if he's some big hotshot yakuza dude! No one can withstand my womanly wiles!"

"That is precisely what I am afraid of," Yusuke mutters, holding the door open for her to step through. 

The building is hardly the sort one would consider one of the headquarters for a yakuza gang, but then again, that likely factors a great deal into its appeal. After all, this is only one of many locations, and why not use a laundromat storefront to cover for the shadier dealings going on further inside?

Stepping up to the front desk, Ann puts on her best, most charming fake smile. "Um, we were hoping to speak to a man named…"

"The cleaner," Yusuke answers for her, Ann quick to nod following a glance over her shoulder. 

"Yep, that's the one! Might we be able to find him here?"

The woman behind the desk stares, a row of freshly cleaned dress shirts rotating beside her. She wears her age in her eye bags, expression as tired as she likely feels.

"No."

Cocking both her head and her hip, Ann's smile turns pouty. "Not even if we say we're here on behalf of my uncle Shido, the king...?"

The woman sighs. "One moment, please."

Pressing a button, she lifts the telephone receiver up to her ear, her skeptical gaze seemingly indecisive on whom to focus on more—her, or Yusuke—before switching into another language to communicate with her boss. It takes a few moments until she hangs up, her tired gaze returning to its prior preoccupation. "First room on the right up the stairs."

Ann only realizes that she's somewhat nervous as they make their way up to the second story landing. Compared to the bottom floor, this one has been spit-shined from top to bottom, marble floors sparkling with each step as it catches the soft morning rays of sunlight perfectly. Ann's steps resound throughout the room, the pattern of it slowing down as she approaches the door, butterflies in her stomach.

"Okay," she nods. "We can do this!"

She's not sure if it's meant more for herself or for Yusuke, but she hopes it to have the intended effect all the same as she knocks and opens the door upon being bidden entry. 

It's a beautiful office, cherry wood furniture accenting ebony walls and black marble floors. A large seating area separating them from the man's desk looks just as plush and classy as the rest of the office, and Ann realizes after a few moments that the place reminds her a bit of Shido's office: no-nonsense, and yet somehow oozing money.  

"Hello," she starts slowly, reaching up to twirl one of her pigtails as her grin widens. "So, I'm Ann Takamaki, and this is my assistant—"

"I know who you are," the man cuts in, getting up from behind his desk. He looks more than a little annoyed. And yet, that is definitely his laptop on the desk. "Shido sending his niece to do his dirty work for him now? Can't even bother with a basic phone call?"

"Ohhhhhh, no no," she rushes to correct, shaking her head with a soft laugh as she takes several steps further into the room. "I'm not here because of him. I'm here because…" Walking over to one of the many armoires, she reaches out to touch on the edges of a picture frame. "... I saw your picture in my uncle's office and you were just so cu—um, I mean hot—that I just had to come and see for myself."

The gears seem to be turning for a moment, the guy clearly more than a little confused, not that she can blame him. All that really matters is that he's walking toward her and not noticing Yusuke walking along the perimeter of the room to get behind the desk and to the laptop. "The king keeps a picture of me in his office?"

"Um, yeah! Yeah, haha, totally! And now I see why, I mean, you're just so… so…" She reaches out to touch his arm, smoothing down the material of his jacket. "Attractive!"

In her pocket, her phone buzzes.

"I mean, just look at all those… um, manly … tattoos! What kind of girl wouldn't want a guy covered head to toe in ink, right?"

The buzzing in her pocket continues, frequent enough that someone could mistake it for a phone call.

"Looks like someone really wants your attention."

Ann lets out a too-shrill giggle, offering the man an apologetic wince. "Sorryyyy… I should probably check that real quick."

 

Ann, the laptop was turned off. I fear that this will not work. 

It is password protected. I have attempted to contact Futaba.

Is that truly your opinion of men? 

I had not even considered the power of tattoos… 

 

"What's going on here? Are you trying to pull a fast one on me?"

"Ugh, crap!" Stuffing her phone back in her pocket, Ann fights the urge to roll her eyes the cleaner's gaze clearly on Yusuke… and the USB stick. Of course. "Yusuke! Was now really the time?!"

"My apologies for losing my composure… we are here in the name of justice. Not… romance."

"I think he knows that by now!" Groaning again, Ann shakes her head. "Shido has been pulling the strings of your clan for a while, right?"

The man's eyes swivel back over to Ann, gaze narrowed. "So what?"

"So, we think you shouldn't have to deal with that crap from my uncle! There's about to be a new king in place once we topple this regime, but in order to do that, we kinda need all the help we can get."

"And you want me to put my neck on the line? Why would I do that?"

"It would be wholly anonymous, of course," Yusuke cuts in. "We simply wish to prove the king's ties to the criminal underworld and his connection to his shell accounts."

Ann nods, her smile bright. "Wouldn't you like to stop having to play puppet to a tyrannical despot? Pocket all that protection money for yourself instead of funneling over any of it to the crown?"

The cleaner looks to be considering it, at least, even though his gaze remains as lethal as ever. "I was kinda considering breaking free of that guy's influence anyway… why should I help you in the process?"

"Weeeeell," Ann says, stretching the word out as she thinks, "thaaat's actually why I brought this guy along! He's kinda an amazing artist, sooo we were hoping to offer you a new tattoo design in exchange for your help!"

"Ann!"

"A new tattoo design for your cooperation—that sounds like a fair deal, riiight?"

Yusuke looks less than thrilled, but he'll live, especially seeing as the cleaner seems to be considering the proposal, eyes narrowed, deep in thought.

"Hmm. I normally don't let just anyone design my ink for me, you know."

Ann's smile widens, her finger busying itself with a lock of hair from her pigtails, twirling it as she cocks her head. "Well, I'd say he's hardly just anyone. He is the palace artist, after all."

If it's possible, the cleaner's eyes narrow further. "All right. Prove it."

"I do beg your pardon," Yusuke says, his deadpan response drawing her gaze with an apologetic smile thrown his way as the cleaner continues.

"Prove it. Prove you can draw more than pretty little princesses and fairies."

"Fairies!" Yusuke blurts out, Ann's eyes going wide as she frantically shakes her head. 

"Yusuke!" she whispers in all but a shout, the words coming out through her teeth. "Shut up!"

The cleaner seems unfazed, pulling out a brush and paper to set in front of Yusuke. 

"So—just so we're clear," Ann cuts in, "if Yusuke's art impresses you, we've got a deal?"

"Yes." He nods. "We've got a deal."

Yusuke just sighs, and Ann feels herself fall a little more in love with him.

 

&

 

"I'm really honored you're letting me help you all with this," Haru says as she sidesteps a pile of snow gathered on the sidewalk. It's begun to snow since they left, and it's starting to make the streets slippery. "It's sweet to be included."

The staff, plus Akechi, had come to her last night after a tense Christmas in the palace to speak with her. Her father hadn't spoken with her all day, as if she had somehow been the one to drive the prince into the arms of the help, and Shido hadn't made an appearance once. Her day was shaping up to be rather glum until that knock on her door, to say nothing of the conversation that came after.

"Are you kidding?" Ryuji says. "You're a hotshot heiress to a fast-food empire. You could eat the scumbags on this list for breakfast. You're like our secret weapon."

Those are nothing like the compliments Haru's used to getting. You'll make a great wife for someone one day, Haru-chan. You've really grown into your figure since being a teenager, Haru-chan. You're too cute to worry yourself about such important company matters, Haru-chan. Ryuji's words make her feel like some sort of battleaxe. She giggles.

"Thank you!" she says. "I've always dreamed of being a vigilante of justice. This way, I sort of can."

"We truly can't express how lucky we are to have you on our side," Makoto says.

"My whole life, people have always wanted things from me because of my position in society," Haru shares. At Makoto and Ryuji's fraught expressions, she smiles in reassurance. "It's nice to be asked to help with something that I genuinely want to do. Putting a stop to Shido is a worthy cause."

"Hell yeah," Ryuji says. "And not just cause that guy almost made you marry Akechi."

"Oh, Akechi-san isn't so bad," Haru chirps. "I'm sure his boyfriend can attest to that!"

"Yes," Makoto says. "Akira would probably be happy to tell you just how nice the prince is, Ryuji."

"Urgh," Ryuji says. "Thanks, but no thanks. Akechi's maybe kinda all right, but I still don't want to hear Akira's review of the guy."

Haru has to giggle again. She's never spent time with people her own age before in this kind of carefree capacity. She's usually busy being paraded around by her father, told when to stand, where to sit, what to say. The few occasions she's had in the past to make real connections have always been interrupted by the topic of favors and networking slipping its way into the conversation, leaving her with a dismal amount of people she can authentically call friends.

Here and now, though, she's excited to do something her father would take as an affront to his very being: mingle with the staff. They don't roll their eyes or turn their noses up at her. They don't beg for influence or money. Actually, they let her live out her silly childhood fantasy of playing a heroine of justice.

She grins into her scarf as they walk, scanning street names as they go. They should be getting close now.

"Here it is!" Haru says. She double-checks the address, then stares up at the building to their left. It's fairly nondescript, save for the television network initials up on the corner. "It definitely looks like where we would find the TV president Futaba-chan researched."

"All right!" Ryuji says. "Let's go."

Their quest for justice is only slightly stymied by the existence of the receptionist. Before Haru can prepare a cover story, Ryuji's marching up to the desk.

"Hey, dude," he says. "We're here to see the president."

The receptionist looks at Ryuji with disdain. "The president?" he sniffs. "I'm afraid he's not available for… walk-in appointments, and certainly not with just anybody. You and your friends will have to leave."

"What was that?" Ryuji grumbles. "Just anybody?"

Haru intervenes before the short fuse of Ryuji's temper can ignite. She steps up to the desk. "Oh, we're sorry," she says brightly. "My name is Haru Okumura. I'd like to speak with the president regarding a tell-all feature."

The receptionist's eyes swivel to Haru like he's found gold nuggets in a pile of manure. "Okumura?" he repeats. "Of Okumura Foods?"

"That's right."

"Who was meant to be engaged to the prince on Christmas Eve but was instead rejected in front of an entire audience?"

"U-um, well, that's not entirely—"

The receptionist shoots to his feet. "I'll be right back."

He hurries off. Haru turns to the others, pleased.

"That was incredible," Makoto says once the receptionist is out of earshot. "And a truly impressive save, considering what you had to work with." She eyes Ryuji sternly. "Hey, dude? You really thought that was a good idea?"

"Sorry!" Ryuji says. "But come on, did that guy really have to act so high and mighty with us?"

"We need to approach this with tact, or we won't get anywhere," Makoto reminds him. "Let Haru be the one to talk, all right?"

Ryuji begrudgingly agrees, although not without a bit of grumpy mumbling. By the time the receptionist returns to the desk, Makoto's relegated Ryuji to standing inconspicuously behind her and Haru.

"He'll be more than happy to talk with you," the receptionist says, flashing teeth. "Right down that hall."

Haru thanks him with a cheerful smile. She's had a lifetime of stiff banquets and political events as practice for a moment like this, and the excitement of it all is almost overwhelming.

Ten minutes later, the three of them are sitting inside the president's office. The president himself is a greasy man in a slightly too snug suit whose salesman face seems to click on the moment he catches sight of Haru.

"When I heard an Okumura was here to talk shop with me, I expected your father!" he says as he settles behind his desk. The smile he gives Haru is like that of a fisherman who's unexpectedly found a fish wriggled onto his hook.

"I hope that won't be a problem," Haru says.

"Oh, no, no, not at all! Always happy to open my doors." He leans forward in his seat. "So," he says. "I hear you wanted to discuss a tell-all with me. I suppose you have a few juicy tidbits to air after being jilted by your almost-fiance at Shido's Christmas ball." He winks, then guffaws, as if the very idea of such a scene is the makings of a comedy show. "You'd get great ratings."

"I'm sure I would," Haru says. "But the tell-all I was referring to is really of a different nature."

"Oh?"

"As I understand it, you've been working under the orders of the king for a while now."

The president shifts. The leather of his seat sounds as he uneasily readjusts himself. His smile, previously plastered on as if superglued, flickers. "Yes, I—I suppose I have."

"And not always in a way that necessarily benefits the public. Isn't that right?" Haru presses. "My sources tell me that you've been manipulating Shido's image through the widespread influence of your television programs, from discarding any information that would affect him negatively to sometimes airing complete untruths. Do you disagree?"

The corner of the president's mouth twitches as the rest of his smile contorts before slipping away entirely. His hands leave damp spots behind as he lifts them from his desk.

"Just what exactly are you looking for, young lady?" he says.

"Okumura Foods would be more than happy to work with you in a sponsorship role in the new year," Haru says. "Provided, of course, that you fully support the king." Before he can croak any stammered pledges of loyalty, Haru continues. "The king that will soon be replacing Shido."

"Replacing Shido?" the president says.

"You can count on it happening, sir," Makoto adds in, smooth and collected, an effortless wingman to Haru's cause. "The only question is which side you'll be standing on once the dust settles."

"Yes," Haru agrees. "We will not expose your misconduct so long as you share the knowledge that you kept from the public."

The president looks at all of them with shrewd eyes, considering. If he feels like a cornered animal, he's doing his best to cover it up, although Haru can see cracks in his composure. The sweaty forehead. The twitching thumbs.

Finally, he takes a breath. He looks to be both impressed and displeased in equal measure as he processes his options. 

"Let's talk," he grumbles.

 

&

 

As the shy December sun begins to set, the snow starts falling in earnest. The innocent, wispy flakes grow fat and thick, and by the time Goro and Akira have finished off the fifth name on their list, the weather has become too demanding to ignore, winds whistling and streets slick with ice. They call the driver just in time and make it back to the stables with minimal fishtailing on the roads.

What should be a pitch-black evening sky greeting them when they arrive at the palace is instead an almost gray-purple hue that's promising, almost ominously, more snow. Underfoot, a good amount is already crunching as the two of them work their way to the stables.

The rest of the gang is already there waiting with hot cocoas in hand when they pull open the door.

"Hey!" Ryuji says, ushering them in and hurrying to shut the door behind them. The warmth of the stables is an immediate comfort to Akira after a day spent trampling through the snow. "We started to worry you guys were stuck out in the snow."

"We left town about an hour ago when we saw that it wasn't letting up," Makoto says.

Even with an hour gone by to warm up, most of them still look a bit battered by the weather. Damp coats hang from the stand by the door, and Haru and Ann are both sitting, Akira's bed sheets draped over their laps, up on the hayloft with Futaba and Morgana.

"It's certainly a heavier snowstorm than anticipated," Goro says, shedding his coat as well.

"Do you think we'll get snowed in?" Ryuji asks. He very nearly visibly gulps. "Snowed in with a murderer?"

"If Shido wanted to murder you, he doesn't need to wait for a snowstorm," Futaba says from up on the hayloft, feet dangling. "Pretty sure you're just low-hanging fruit to him."

"Wait, low-hanging what?"

"If we can get back on track," Makoto says loudly. She surveys the room. With this many inhabitants, plus the horses, it's quite cramped. "How did the mission go for everybody?"

"We didn't finish our list, but those we did get to are willing to testify," Akira shares. "Including my old boss."

"Yeah, we got a whole group of people on board too," Ann adds. "Seems like a ton of people out there are more than happy to snitch on Shido."

"Sounds like we all made good progress," Haru says cheerfully.

"Uh," another voice suddenly says, awfully suspicious. "Progress on what?"

It's Sojiro, who Akira had, until now, somehow forgotten was in the stables. Of course he's here. He's probably the one who made all the hot chocolate for everyone without even being aware that he was preparing beverages for a group of trouble-making revolutionaries.

"Our operation!" Ann says. She lowers her voice. "To get Shido off the throne."

Sojiro's eyes very nearly pop out of their sockets. "To get—what?"

Akira should've known this would happen. Sojiro's no rebel-hearted mutineer; he's not going to understand their plan, let alone cheer them on.

Ryuji sighs. "It's kinda a really long story," he says. "The short version is that Shido's a psychopath who needs to be stopped, and we're totally gonna be the ones to stop him."

By the time he finishes speaking, Ryuji sounds downright chuffed, grin stretching from ear to ear, but Sojiro looks completely unpersuaded by his impassioned words, like he's been chiseled out of stone. A very unimpressed, slightly disappointed stone.

Akira can tell that he desperately wants to tell all of them just how bad this idea is. He watches as the muscles in Sojiro's jaw work overtime, holding words back.

"And you kids... you know what you're doing?" Sojiro presses, voice severe. "You know you could all wind up in jail for this, don't you?"

The unease he's trying to distribute floats through the stables but doesn't linger for long in the face of everyone's determination. Akira knows what the stakes are. Everybody does. If he was worried about being thrown into a dungeon for taking the prince out on a few dates, he can only imagine where he'd end up for a crime like this.

And it is a crime, at least as long as Shido is king. Anyone speaking up against him will be silenced, and anyone actively trying to yank the metaphorical and literal crown off Shido's head will probably be silenced permanently. And that's why it's so important not to back away from this.

"We know it's a risk," Akira says. "But it isn't something we can just let lie."

"Yeah," Ryuji piles on. "If we're not stopping Shido's reign of terror, who the hell will?"

"To call it a risk is putting it a bit lightly," Sojiro says. He folds his arms tightly over his chest, a surefire sign that he deeply disapproves of everything going on under his nose. "Jail might just be the nicest thing that could happen to all of you if Shido catches wind of this."

"Sojiro!" Futaba interrupts. Her hands have gone white around her mug. "You know that Shido killed mom, don't you? Don't you want justice for her?"

Sojiro splutters. He looks as if he's just been struck by lightning. "You're saying that—that Wakaba was murdered by the king?"

There's incredulity there, but also audible is a hint of hurt under all that disbelief. He looks like he desperately wants to write off all their accusations as ridiculous, to order them to go to their rooms—including the prince—and to knock it off with all their absurd uprising, but he can't quite get the words out after Futaba drops that bomb on him. He can't seem to get any words out.

Makoto must see the same sliver of light under the door that Akira does. "We'd welcome your support, of course," she says gently. "If you want to help, we'd be honored."

Sojiro splutters again. "Forget it," he says. "What you kids are doing is a death wish. You shouldn't be meddling in someone else's business." He grumbles under his breath. His concern and his irritation have mixed together into a twisted grimace on his face as he reaches for his coat, wadded up on the counter next to the unassembled bridles. "It's too late for this. I'm going to bed, and all of you should too."

The silence he leaves behind as he stomps from the stables is only slightly discouraging. Akira's been around Sojiro long enough to see the kindness underneath his gruffness, and it was all but spilling out of him just now. Akira can appreciate being worried about, but there's a bigger picture here than just his own well-being.

Everybody else in the stables seems to understand that too. Makoto clears her throat, undeterred. "Well, we knew not everybody would support us," she says, "but I think I know someone who would. Someone who'd be a great asset, and would help us sort all of our intel together into a real case."

"Your sister," Goro says. "Of course. Why didn't I think of Sae before?"

"I can speak with her tomorrow, lay out what we have so far," she offers. "Goro, do you want to come?"

Goro nods. The rest of the evening is spent sharing the details of all of their accomplishments of the day, including even Futaba, who's been combing through all of the encrypted files Shido's been hiding that she's been able to crack into. It seems they won't be able to recruit any more witnesses for a while, at least until the snow lets up, but everybody agrees that for now, they have enough.

This is really happening, Akira thinks as he looks around the stables, alive with chatter and excitement and anticipation for what happens next. He reaches for Goro's hand, warm again after their frigid day in the snow.

"Hey," he whispers to him, tugging on his hand. "Can you believe any of this?"

"Not at all," Goro says. "I keep waiting to wake up, honestly."

"Me too," Akira says.

He's about to lean in for a kiss when a handful of hay lands right in his hair. He pulls away, immediately finding the culprit: Ann, who's giggling at them from up in the hayloft. Morgana's purring like a locomotive in her lap, nudging her hand into pets.

"Hey, lovebirds!" she calls. "Do you want some hot cocoa too?"

Akira grins. "Yeah, we do."

He squeezes Goro's hand. Goro squeezes back.

Chapter Text

It's definitely been a Christmas Day that Ann won't be forgetting any time soon. With Goro's plans of revenge against Shido coming to light, and the thrill of sitting in Yusuke's lap during the present exchange, and still not quite having processed everything that happened the night before at the ball, Ann's head feels like it's spinning.

In a good way, though, like she's on a ride at Destinyland. It feels like everything's sliding into place. Like everybody's where they belong.

It's not going to be easy to go back home after the holidays are over. It never is, but there are special circumstances this year that'll make it particularly hard to leave.

One specific circumstance is standing next to her right now. She sneaks a glance at Yusuke as they make their way back to the palace. The snow really is starting to get heavy; it's already gathered on Yusuke's hair, flakes clinging to the strands.

She reaches out to brush them away. She's allowed to do things like that now, reach out and touch Yusuke whenever she pleases.

There are other things she's allowed to do now as well, and she can't think of any reason to delay them.

"Hey," she says after they've stomped the snow off their shoes and slipped inside the side door, the one meant for employees. "Come up with me to my room tonight."

She means to phrase it like an offer Yusuke can't refuse, but it still comes out a bit like a request. They've been busy the last few days, what with the whole overthrowing-the-tyrannical-king-in-secret thing, but she wants to take advantage of the time they have left before she goes back home. And she has a perfectly nice bed, in a perfectly lovely room, surrounded by perfectly sound-proofed walls.

Well. Sound-proofed enough.

"I'd be happy to," Yusuke says. It's possible he hasn't quite caught onto the implications of Ann's suggestion yet, not that Ann minds surprising him just a little. "I'll need to pick up my sleepwear from my room, however."

Ann slips her arm under Yusuke's, hooking them at the elbows. "Or maybe you don't need to," she says, letting her voice go coy.

Yusuke looks at her. "It's much too cold to forgo sleepwear," he says, sensible as can be.

"Yusuke."

"Hm?"

She squeezes his arm. She lifts her eyebrows. He stares at her, nonplussed, until something seems to click into place. "Oh," he says. His expression changes, curiosity appearing. "Oh."

Ann grins. She lets go of his arm to grab his hand instead. After all those weeks of moody pining, the thrill of even the most mundane things, like hand-holding, has yet to wear off. She rubs her thumb over Yusuke's hand, feeling his long, delicate fingers. The fingers of a painter, an artist. She's seen the careful way he's maneuvered brushes around on a canvas. She can only imagine how gentle he'll be when touching her.

"I have always wondered how opulent the bedrooms in the palace actually are," Yusuke says. "The aesthetic of the antique furniture alone is very enticing. What would you say is the dominant motif of your room?"

"Um. Velvet?" She thinks of the pale pink brocade curtains, the satin sheets. Is there actually even any velvet in her room? "Or maybe not. I'm not sure." She tugs on his hand, skipping ahead a few steps. "You'll see soon enough!"

Suddenly she can't wait. The palace, even in all of its luxury, has sometimes felt overbearing in its massive size, the arched ceilings too vast and cold, the hallways too long and empty. She remembers visits where Goro would come to her in her room after bedtime, how they'd sneak snacks from the kitchen and talk well into the night, but this is different, so very different. This is a visit of a much more indecently intimate nature.

She speeds up into a run, giggling as she goes, much too loud for the silent hallways. She doesn't stop until she's at her door and has closed it behind her and Yusuke, breathless and eager all at once.

"Well, here it is!" Ann announces, gesturing to the room at large.

She flicks on a few lights, illuminating the soft colors and golden accents in gentle lamplight.

"Oh," Yusuke breathes. "It's enchanting. The designer was obviously influenced by William Kent. The lampshades, for instance—"

He continues. Ann lets him gush while she unwinds her scarf from her neck and shakes the remaining snow free from her coat, watching Yusuke move about her room with complete comfort and, in turn, finding comfort in seeing him do so. It's something new to have him in her private space like this, and it certainly feels new, but at the same time, it feels easy, almost natural.

She tugs him down onto the settee—hey, there is velvet in here—after a few minutes of lauding the way the light bounces off of the crystals of the chandelier. She expects him to continue his museum's tour of her room, undeterred, but instead he swivels his attention seamlessly to her, as if she's yet another masterpiece to appreciate.

Will she ever get sick of that? The fluttering in her ribcage says no.

"You know," she says, grabbing his hand again. She grins. "You were totally jealous today."

"Jealous," Yusuke says. "Yes, I was. Perhaps it was presumptuous of me, but... up until today, I had only ever been jealous of another artist's talent, of a creativity that plundered greater than mine." He stops, and Ann almost assumes he's gone into another one of his artist's trances, but he speaks up again. "I suppose that's not quite right. Up until I met you."

He squeezes her hand. If he was looking at her like she was precious art before, now he's looking at her as if she's a priceless painting hung up behind a pane of glass in a museum, untouchable, unreachable. Propped up and worshipped by all its audience.

She scoots closer on the settee. "Really?" she says. "Why—why's any of that presumptuous?"

"I suppose I'm not sure if I have the right to be jealous.."

He looks at her, hopeful. The hope is laid out, so bare and raw for her to see, that it almost startles Ann. She knows there's a lot in their way, obstacles completely different from the ones that existed before of differences in class and wealth, but rather practical obstacles that affect lots of couples, rich or poor or tall or short or normal or not-so-normal. Still—

"I don't care what it takes," she blurts out. "If it has to be long-distance, then let's do long-distance! I want to be your girlfriend. I'm going to be your girlfriend!"

It's a bit embarrassing, announcing something that should really be a decision they make together, but Yusuke, blinking in surprise, doesn't seem to mind. He slides closer too, smiling.

"I mean," Ann says. "If—if that's what you want, too."

"There is something quite poetic about being separated by distance for periods of anguish, only to be joyously reunited again," Yusuke murmurs. "It's a truly universal experience, one that must've fueled the artistic urges of even my ancestors."

"So—you're okay with that?" Ann asks.

"Of course I am," he says. "But, Ann, I know that there are many men by your home, closer than I will be, and perhaps even more desirable—"

She can't even bear to let him finish that self-deprecating thought. She leans in, letting go of his hand to firmly grab him by the face, kissing the words away mid-sentence. He responds without hesitation, winding his arms around her shoulders and pressing himself even closer.

"They won't be you," she says. She groans right after she's said it, because that definitely sounded better in her head. "Ugh. That wasn't supposed to be so cheesy."

Yusuke shakes his head. "I found it beautifully sentimental."

"Oh. Then—yeah. I meant it." She leans in for another kiss, this one slightly longer, warming up any parts of her that were still cold from the outside chill. It goes on long enough that she slides into his lap, making herself comfortable there. "D'you want to move this over to the bed?"

"Hm." His hands flex on her back, considering. "I'm not all that sleepy yet, I must say."

Ann gets to her feet. She grins, feeling carbonated all over from excitement. "Great. Me neither."

 

&

 

Goro returns to his office the morning following their group meeting with a buoyancy in his step he hasn't felt in years, one he rather thinks to be fuelled by none other than hope

It's a wonderful feeling, one abated only by the note on his desk, one written cleanly and clearly in his father's script. 

An ill omen, no doubt, especially after everything that they've been doing today. 

 

Meet me in the Crimson Dining Room tonight at 8 o'clock for supper. Whatever other plans you may have had can wait. 

We will be discussing your new "relationship."

 

He has a full list of tasks for the day, some of which will evidently need to be rescheduled on Shido's whims, but a far more pressing thought nags at him, twisting his stomach into another shape entirely. 

Pulling out his phone, he sends a quick text to Akira. 

 

Get everyone together for an emergency meeting. 

 

He doesn't have to wait long for a response to come in. 

 

Barn? Kitchen?

Is everything all right?

 

The barn will do fine. 

 

&

 

What had already been a considerable amount of snow the night prior seems to have been covered by a veritable avalanche overnight, blanketing the world in white with no sign of stopping. Outside the barn, the wind whistles sharply enough to sing, all alongside the promise of yet more snow. 

It's times like these that Futaba is especially grateful that the barn is heated, not just for her and Mona, but for the horses, too. From her perch up in Mona's favorite hayloft—much smaller than Akira's but no less cozy—she watches as a few of the others file in, just as expected. 

"You're late," she says from behind a beam, Mona jumping off of her lap, startled by the sound of her voice. 

Makoto sighs, staring up at the space above Zorro's stall. "We didn't have an assigned meeting time, Futaba."

"But we are meeting, aren't we? And I got here first."

Which is impressive, all things considered. It would have made far more sense to gather in her room, but that would have required allowing seven people into her tiny room, all of whom may as well have been near-strangers up until their Christmas present exchange. Instead, she had to lug all the necessary equipment out here with her. 

"So, what's going on?" Ann asks, her in Yusuke's behind her back. They think they're being subtle, but really, why even bother at this point?

"My father wishes to dine with me tonight. He's requesting that I alter my schedule to accommodate this new whim of his."

"Yes," Makoto chimes in, "I was given similar instructions to free up your schedule. Admittedly, I was rather alarmed, seeing how he's always quite fond of schedules and keeping you busy, but—"

"Yeahhh," Futaba cuts in, feeling herself sweat as the attention is turned back upon her. "You might not want to go to that dinner. He's totally going to try and poison you."

Ryuji all but explodes in response. "Dude, what the hell! Does he already know we're snooping around?! That's way too soon! We'll never be able to get him for his bullshit at this rate!"

"Perhaps if you'd allow Futaba to finish explaining what she knows, she might be able to shed more light upon our dilemma," Yusuke says, drawing a pout out of Ryuji as Makoto gestures for her to continue.

"Go ahead, Futaba."

"Well, I noticed that something kinda weird was bought not via the palace treasury but one of those shell companies that Shido uses. It was just labeled as an 'unknown' alongside a really long string of numbers and letters—no weight, no price, no nothing. So I looked into it. And I'm pretty sure it's arsenic."

She's almost disappointed there isn't a drumroll to go along with the grand reveal, though she supposes the astonished faces fanned out beneath her in the barn speak for themselves.

"How very… Agatha Christie of him." Yusuke taps his chin. "When was this substance ordered?"

"The night of the ball. After the announcement." 

Akira and Goro exchange glances, not that Futaba can blame them. While they were getting off, Goro's shitty dad was plotting his murder. She can only imagine how much that must suck to find out. 

"Then I assume it would be out of the question to procure an antidote."

Makoto confirms it before Futaba has to. "I'm afraid so. With this blizzard in full force, I daresay it would be almost impossible. However…"

"Maybe just don't eat anything at dinner?" Ann offers, Haru chirping up beside her. 

"I'm sure it'll look suspicious to your father, but it would be preferable to being dead, I should think."

Futaba clears her throat, tossing down a chopsticks box. "Quick, Ryuji! Catch!"

He does, inspecting the package as though it's a bomb they could use to explode Shido over dinner. "The hell is this?"

"Well, for starters, it's not for you. Hand it to the prince, your favorite person here."

"Ugh."

"Are these chopsticks?" Goro asks, having taken the lid off to pull the contents out of their box.

"Merry Christmas; my gift to you is not dying tonight."

"Dude, none of what you're saying is makin' any sense!"

"They're silver," Makoto interrupts before Ryuji can continue, amazement coloring her tone. "Silver turns black when it comes in contact with arsenic."

Futaba nods. "Which should let you eat while avoiding whatever is poisoned. And ideally sneak some of it out for evidence to add onto the pile."

"Is it still regicide if you're killin' the crown prince?" Ryuji shakes his head to himself. "Whatever, man! This guy is going down!"

He's not the only one who seems to be elated at the thought, smiles all around the barn even in spite of the surprise of the dinner invitation. Even Goro looks to be relieved, which Futaba is pretty sure is… new.

"No time to rest," she says, starting her descent down from the hayloft to glance at Goro. "You're coming with me. We need to plan for how we're going to do this tonight."

 

&

 

Goro has been on countless news programs and attended countless events. Rare was the day indeed when he wasn't surrounded by secret service and bodyguards on one of those events, his own personal entourage either in full view, or just out of sight. 

Even so, he's not sure he's ever felt quite so... wired up—or nervous about it, for that matter. The wires don't reach his ears, and he's certainly not wearing an earpiece, but he nevertheless relented to Futaba's insistence that she might be able to listen in on their conversation just in case something went wrong. Like in the instance that Shido had discovered her wiretaps in some of the rooms and had come to suspect that something was wrong. 

Admittedly, it would be just like Shido to wait until the last second before surprising him with a change of location and removing any of Futaba's connections to the room in question just prior to his entrance. 

It would also be helpful if he didn't have to shout his safe word—or rather, safe phrases—in order for Futaba to hear him. All done in the name of his safety.

First, if he should find that his food has been tampered with, he is to say that Akira has taken his heart. And second, should he find himself in mortal peril, he is to utter the word crow in some capacity. To allude to murders, no doubt. 

Even so. How he is meant to bring crows into conversation, he still isn't entirely sure, but Futaba assured him that it was a far better option than dying from being poisoned by a substance they didn't anticipate—or worse, stabbed—something Goro reluctantly agreed with. Even if it would be much easier to prosecute Shido on account of murder, he would still very much prefer to live through this. With both of them gone, who would even ascend the throne? Ann? With Yusuke as prince consort?

The thought is amusing enough to briefly stifle his nerves as Goro pushes down the handle and opens the door, though they return swiftly enough as he steps through the large, arched entryway, his shoes resounding on the wooden parquet. 

The room—featuring pale green wooden paneling and striking French tapestries around the walls—is far from unfamiliar to him. Though not used nearly as often as some of the other dining rooms employed upon their receiving guests in the name of both simple hospitality and state visits—or his and Shido's offices, for that matter—it nevertheless has seen plenty of use on a familial level. This is where breakfast is served, and where Ann and him will dine together upon her visiting. On those occasions, the open fireplace has always proved particularly nice, especially when her visits accompany snow. It's rarely hot in this part of the country, and the stone walls do little to keep things warm all on their own

If it were up to him, Ann simply shouldn't leave. After this whole sordid affair is sorted out, it would be nice to have her around more. Especially with her parents always traveling for state visits of their own, charity events and balls. The estate has to get lonely for her too. If it wasn't for Akira… 

He doesn't care to finish the thought, oddly far removed from his old mindset of not needing anyone. It's a little like looking at a picture of oneself and wondering how the man in the image has ever once been him. Except that there are no family pictures hung up around the palace, Shido rejecting the notion from day one. 

It strikes him that he's never before felt particularly lucky in life, but Akira has managed to somehow turn that around for him, too. The news reports alone—

Hearing the door open, Goro turns away from the crackling fireplace, his nerves jumping back into full force. Right. He's here to avoid getting murdered. Reaching into his suit jacket, he fingers the chopsticks still tucked into his inner pocket with some relief. 

"Shido."

"Sit," he says, his tone miles from a request, not that Goro is used to anything different from his father. 

He isn't sure whether to feel better about the fact that they're not alone in the room anymore, one of the staff pulling out a seat for Goro to take. If he were dining with Ann, their seats would be together, close so that talking might be less awkward. But dining with his father has always been something of an awkward affair with both of them sat at the far ends of the table. The distance isn't too great—a far cry from their dinner with the Okumuras—but certainly far enough that he isn't worried about switching the chopsticks on the table for his own. 

His chair is pushed in behind him, Goro watching other attendants wheel in a serving cart with their first course. 

"You've gone out of your way to make this a rather elaborate meal, I see. Are we celebrating anything?"

"It's just traditional kaiseki. Have you gotten so used to slumming it with your new boyfriend that you've forgotten how we dine here at the palace?"

Goro feels himself bristle. So that's how this is going to be. 

"Are you just here to berate me for my choice of significant other?" he asks.

Shido sneers. "I'm here to ask you what on earth you were thinking when you disobeyed my direct orders and ignored what was best for the nation in your selfish campaign toward…" He shakes his head, all but rolling his eyes as the staff serves them their starters.

Allowing his gaze to take in the variety of dishes laid out before him, Goro has to resist the urge to openly scowl. Of course Shido would make this about openly berating him. This could have easily been a meeting in his office, but that would have clearly been far too easy to escape from—and far harder to poison someone during. 

The ceramic chopsticks are laid out before him as if to mock him, Goro waiting for the staff to turn their backs and for Shido to busy himself with his starter of steamed tofu and pike conger before swapping them out for his own rather non-traditional ones. 

If only Shido had opted for a more traditionally western meal. Then they could have used silverware from the start. 

Sighing, he experimentally touches a bite of food with his chopsticks, holding them there for a few moments before allowing himself to eat. 

"It was hardly a planned effort on my part."

"Clearly." The word comes dripping with Shido's disdain. "It's rather obvious that, had you put any thought into your actions beforehand, this would not have been the route you would have chosen to take."

Goro opts for stabbing the next bite of food to check it for poison, glowering at the royal insignia before him.

"I had an epiphany that night."

"That the throne was something you no longer wished to reach?"

Gritting his teeth, Goro continues. "That this isn't what my mother would have wanted for me."

Silence descends as their soup is served, Goro surreptitiously dipping his chopsticks into the clear broth before setting them aside in favor of the ceramic soup spoon.

"So then," Shido finally continues after a sip of broth, "you think your mother wouldn't have wished for you to become king?"

Even now, there remains something comforting about the thought of stabbing Shido—painfully, viciously—to death. The thought briefly trumps all others, evidence and witnesses and plans mentally pushed haphazardly aside as Goro allows the thought of violence to calm him. His father deserves to die, but putting him behind bars might be even more satisfying. Death is… far too simple a punishment for such a despicable man. He deserves to pay for his crimes. For the rest of his life. Possibly involving hard labor. In something resembling a gulag. 

Goro eases his grip on his chopsticks. 

"No, I daresay she would have hoped that the world would have become progressive enough as to allow for her son to be his true, authentic self and to be king despite it."

"Even if that were true," Shido continues, waving it off with his hand, "the world hardly works in such romantically fanciful ways. You can dream all you wish for a fairytale happy ending, but the world doesn't work this way."

Their bowls are cleared away in favor of some flame-grilled fish. Goro chuckles. "Clearly, it does. Or the media wouldn't be responding the way that it is."

For the first time since his entry into the room, Shido bothers looking up at him, murder written clear in his eyes. There's nothing friendly about his expression, about the intent within it. Once upon a time, it would have affected him considerably more. Now… 

Shido can't touch him anymore. Piercing a bite of yakimono, Goro smiles. "The world has changed. And evidently not with you alongside."

"I am the world!" Shido snaps, eyes blazing. "If there are changes to be made, I'll be the one to make that decision, not the public! You seem to have forgotten that you have no jurisdiction here, no rights to the throne as of yet. I can ruin your every prospect of ever touching your supposed birthright. Have you forgotten your place?! You're nothing more than a bastard, the illegitimate offspring of my late wife."

Everything inside of Goro twitches with every buzzword Shido drops at his feet as if intending to bait him, draw the information he's sat on for years and years out of him as if on a string. 

His self-control in not calling the late queen a whore must have been tremendous.

"It must look curious to the public," Goro starts, drawing his hands back to nod his thanks to the server bringing him his rice course, "that the crown prince should not ever be allowed to ascend the throne."

Sinking his chopsticks into the rice, Goro feels his blood run cold as he watches them slowly blacken at the tips. 

"Especially," he continues, heart pounding in his ears, "seeing as my heart has been rather stolen by someone I clearly care for deeply. It was hardly something I could have controlled. Akira—that is to say, my significant other—is quite the thief of hearts. I think if you met him properly, you'd quite like him. But then—" His smile widens despite how faint he feels at the realization. "—you were the one who employed him, weren't you? I suppose I ought to be thanking you."

Goro sets down his chopsticks. He expected this. It shouldn't bother him how closely he could have come to dying if it wasn't for the help of his… of his friends

The realization sinks in slowly, but with no small amount of weight. He has friends now.

Hopefully they heard his verbal cue. After all, it's Ryuji's job to get the poisoned leftovers somewhere for them to keep as evidence, but whether he'll actually succeed at that, Goro can't be entirely sure. Even without them, they should have enough evidence, and yet… 

"It's not a matter of public approval, it's a matter of the law."

Goro nods. "And your ability to change it."

"Are you truly expecting the public to rejoice in your inability to produce an heir?"

"I expect them to rejoice in our ability and willingness to rescue a poor child or two from the overflowing orphanages in our country. I am, after all, a bastard, aren't I? I'd understand all too well what it means not to have any parents left." Pushing back his bowl of rice, he waves off one of the servers as he scoots his chair back. "No dessert for me, thank you."

"Aren't you going to eat your rice?"

The words hang between them with a certain weight. As though Shido knows that he knows and is simply waiting for confirmation. 

Goro is determined not to give it to him.

"Forgive me. All this homophobia has lost me my appetite."

 

&

 

It takes some doing, but by the time Ryuji manages to snatch the leftovers out of the trash, he's fairly certain that this particular bit of rice is his greatest achievement. It was deemed worth rewarding with a sandwich, something he decided upon seeing a gloriously full fridge, one that definitely wouldn't fit a small tupperware container filled with crucial evidence.

Crucial evidence that he managed to get solely thanks to his willingness to root through the garbage.  

Now proudly situated in the fridge, Ryuji is nevertheless still grinning amidst bites of sandwich by the time the prince returns to the kitchen after meeting up with Futaba to discuss, whatever that meant. 

"Hello… everyone," he says from the entryway, Akira getting up from his seat to kiss him. Only when he pulls away once more—which takes way too long—does he speak again. "What was that for?" 

"Making it out alive. And… calling me the thief of your heart."

"I—!" Goro splutters, Ryuji snorting only for a glob of mayo to escape from his sandwich in the process. "I didn't realize you were listening in!"

"That's our Akira, biggest thief of hearts we got 'round here!" he announces through a mouthful of food, Makoto smacking him on the arm.

"Please tell me you're going to shower after you finish that," Ann says from her spot on the counter, legs dangling over the edge as she purses her lips. "I can kinda smell you from over here."

Ryuji's sigh is exaggerated. "Guess it would've been just too much to ask for the hero of the hour to get some appreciation around these parts."

"I never said we didn't appreciate your contribution!" Ann fires back, Akira blinking before his eyes go wide.

"Wait—you got it?"

"Hell yeah, I got it!" Setting down his sandwich, Ryuji turns to straddle the bench to face Akira and a rather bewildered-looking Goro.

"Apologies—got what, exactly?"

"The evidence? The rice? Keep up, yo!"

"Ryuji!" Makoto cuts in in a whisper-shout. "Lower your volume!"

"Was it particularly difficult?" Yusuke asks.

"Uh, yeah! That scumbag Shido got someone off all the plates before I could wash the dishes. Pretty sure I saw Mishima wheeling 'round a cart, though. Anyway, so I kinda had to go dumpster diving. Futaba told me it was rice, so I put it all in a tupperware. It's in the fridge now."

"That… does explain the stench," Goro says, Ryuji pulling a face before he continues. "Still, thank you. This will be valuable evidence to have."

"Oh." He blinks. "You're welcome, I guess."

"What's next?" Akira asks, pulling the container out of the fridge. 

Goro looks grimly at the container. It's obvious what he's thinking, what they're all thinking. That if Shido's at a point where he's comfortable winging poison about, he means business, and nobody knows how extreme his next attempt will be. They have to act, and fast.

"We need to go talk to Sae," Goro says. "It's time to prepare for tomorrow."

 

&

 

Even on short notice, there isn't a single journalist or reporter who doesn't jump at the invitation to Goro's spontaneous press conference. 

"They'll all be there," Makoto confirms, consulting her clipboard. "I imagine nobody wants to miss out on the story." Her mouth twitches. "Or should I say, second story, considering the papers and sites are still reporting what happened at the ball."

Goro bites back a pleased smile. Never could he have predicted that his unanticipated coming out would benefit him, but the serendipitous wave of popularity that Goro's been riding ever since is certainly compelling proof. He straightens out his tie, then his sleeves. He's attended and hosted dozens if not hundreds of press conferences over the years, but none have ever excited him before.

He's about to get everything he's ever wanted. On top of all the things he never knew he wanted. It feels as if years of bad luck are about to be balanced out on the karmic scales with a deluge of good fortune, and exactly at the right time, at that.

"And the police?" Goro asks.

"They'll also be in attendance. I've given them the gist of your speech, and provided that you see it through, they're intending to immobilize Shido should he try and put up a fight."

Goro would be surprised if Shido wouldn't. He's spun and greased the wheels of multiple schemes to get where he is today; he definitely won't let himself fall from his peak without clawing and snarling.

It's all right. Goro's prepared, all thanks to people he never would've dreamed would be standing beside him today as co-conspirators. Teammates. Friends.

He turns to Makoto. "If I haven't thanked you yet," he starts.

She smiles at him. "You're welcome," she says.

"I realize you're not just doing this for me—"

"But we would have," Makoto interrupts. "It's the right thing to do."

A month ago, that sort of talk of right and wrong and integrity and due process would've elicited an eye roll. Akira and his ragtag group of friends must be rubbing off on Goro, because now he finds it almost inspiring.

The door opens, revealing Yusuke and Ryuji. "We're setting up the banquet hall in the East Hall now," Yusuke relays. "It should be ready in time for the conference, provided we can find enough chairs."

"No sign of Shido," Ryuji adds. He grins like a kid setting up a prank behind his parent's back. "Don't think he's realized what's going on just yet."

"Let's keep it that way," Goro says. He gives one last pass over his shoulders, smoothing any errant wrinkles aside.

Goro's scale of overdue good luck seems to lend a hand in that case. For the next hour, Shido doesn't make an appearance, not that Goro was expecting him to. It's unnerving, knowing that Shido's most likely holed up in his office, doing his best to put another assassination attempt on Goro into motion, but all Goro has to do is beat him to the punch. And if he's played his cards right, Shido isn't even aware yet of the fact that Goro's geared up, fist waiting, right around the corner.

Behind the curtains of the banquet stage, he checks his watch. He can hear the muffled sounds of a murmuring, expectant audience through the fabric. The excitement inside him gains speed, sizzling. He feels like he's swallowed a firework, and, any second now, he's going to rocket around the room just from the sheer thrill of it all.

"Hey," Akira says, touching Goro's shoulder. "Are you ready for this?"

Goro checks his watch again. The minute hand ticks closer to the full hour. His excitement surges, only dappled with nerves.

"More than," he says. He cocks his head toward the wings of the stage. "Will you be watching?"

Akira grins. "All of us will be."

He looks just as excited as Goro feels. There's something like triumph in his expression, a sense of victory that Goro wants to wash himself in. He's been dreaming of a moment like this for as long as he can remember. Never did he ever imagine sharing it, but now that he is, it only feels as if the joy is multiplied.

He focuses again on the buzz of the waiting crowd, the way it sounds almost soothingly of white noise. It isn't until Sae appears next to him, tall in her no-nonsense heels and pantsuit, that Goro realizes the time has whittled away, leaving nothing between him and his goal. She nods at him, waiting for his go-ahead.

Goro takes a breath. He reaches out and squeezes Akira's wrist just for a moment, just to feel the warmth.

"Well," he says, calmly. "Let's annihilate him."

He pushes the curtain aside.

The crowd immediately quiets when they see him striding out on the stage, readying their cameras. Goro finds his place behind the podium, and already the first flash eagerly goes off. The room is full, almost fuller than he expected. All the better.

"I'd like to thank everybody for coming," he says in greeting. "I'm glad to see that there are so many of you, but I'm afraid there won't be any more revelations about my sexuality, if that's what some of you are here for."

A smattering of laughter ripples through the crowd. Another rapid flash clicks near the far left.

"In truth, this press conference isn't about me at all. It's about King Shido."

Goro looks to the wings where Sae is waiting, and behind her, Akira. The proud look on his face blooms a warmth in Goro that feels like flowers opening up for the sun. He turns back to the crowd.

"King Masayoshi Shido, who has deceived and betrayed the entire country, who has not just embezzled money from the hard-working people of this country, but also murdered any of those who have gotten in his way. Including my mother."

The crowd has gone slack-jawed and wide-eyed. This will be the story of most of their careers, if not their lifetimes. Goro owes them all the transparency they'll need to make it as juicy as can be.

"I must ask for forgiveness from the people, because these facts are something I've known for many years now, but was waiting for the right time to reveal. I realize now that there is never a right time, only a wrong time, which is any time that isn't now. I've sat on this information long enough, and I vow to never let another life fall victim to the king's schemes. Including my own, which was threatened by a poisoning attempt orchestrated by Shido earlier this week."

A few gasps sound from the audience. Even from his distance, Goro can hear pens frantically scribbling, writing down every tidbit they hear.

"The uncomfortable truth is that the king is guilty of many crimes, almost too many to list here and now," Goro continues. "Among those charges are extortion, bribery, coercion, murder, and embezzlement. He is not worthy of the throne he stole from my mother. He is not worthy of the throne he is attempting to keep from me."

He looks out at the sea of gobsmacked faces. Shido's played his part well over the years, Goro thinks grimly, given how shocked—and even heartbroken—some of them look. The outward facades, the pill's sweet coating, the rusty metal's gilded layers, are all gone. All Goro has to do now is make sure everyone's taking notice.

He clears his throat close to the microphone, effectively quieting down the crowds with their rapid-fire gossip.

"Sae Nijima, my legal counsel, will elaborate further on the situation."

Goro gestures to Sae, stepping away from the podium. She smoothly takes his place, straightening her blazer before launching into her own speech, as cool and composed as her sister. Goro would be content to spend the rest of the conference watching the reactions of the crowd, the snapping of camera flashes, the nearly eager drooling of the reporters scribbling away on their notepads, but when he glances to the side where the others are waiting, he sees Akira frantically waving him over.

He finds a way to inconspicuously duck away from view. By the time he reaches the wings, Akira's grabbing his wrist and pulling him close.

"Shido's gone," Akira says.

"What? Isn't he in his office?"

"He's not. The police already checked. They're searching the entire palace now. So is everybody else."

The entire palace. Goro can't even count the number of rooms without doing complicated math, and can hardly imagine that the police have dispatched enough officers to comb every corner without it taking all day.

With a cold chill, Goro realizes that Shido might just have one last plan up his sleeve. He wasn't sitting in his leather chair, quietly planning another murder attempt on his son; he was planning an escape. A getaway. He knew all about Goro's plot, and wanted to outsmart him.

Goro isn't going to be outsmarted. He sets his jaw, meeting Akira's concerned eyes. "They won't find him," Goro says. "But I can."

Behind Akira, Makoto steps closer. "What do you mean?"

"He's not in the palace anymore, not when staying would make him little more than a sitting duck for the police to find. No, he's fled. He's fled and I know where he's gone."

His initial urge is to turn on his heel and run, to get to work and finish what he started. His second instinct, however, the one that stops and thinks, the one that sounds like Akira's voice, gives him pause.

This isn't just his fight anymore. He shouldn't be the only one who gets to bring it to a close.

He seizes Akira's hand. "There's a helicopter hangar up north. Not far, but too far to walk. If he's made a run for it, I know that's where he's gone."

"But if it's too far to walk," Akira says, but stops himself. He doesn't need long to catch up. "He's gone on horseback?"

Makoto seems to have come to the conclusion at the same time as Akira. She looks crestfallen that they've let a crucial detail of their plan go unaddressed. "Sojiro-san was here the whole time," she says. "He wasn't watching the stables."

They can discuss the details of it all later. Right now, action is more important than brainstorming. "If we want to catch him, we need to go right away," Goro says.

"I'm coming with you," Akira says.

Goro nods. He looks at Makoto. "And the rest of you?"

"We'll keep searching here," she says. In her eyes, Goro can already see the gears whirring, the need to organize a strategy. If there's anyone Goro trusts to guide the group in his stead, he couldn't have found a better leader. "You two go. Hurry!"

Neither of them need to be told twice. They push the curtains aside to work their way backstage and out into the hall. It seems endless now that there's a reason to rush, the timer on Goro's shoulder ticking quickly and urgently, much like his heartbeat. He runs through the corridors to the exit, feeling the quick, determined thuds of Akira's footsteps next to him all the while. It feels almost as if they're marching into combat together, two halves of a dynamic army.

The snow is blindingly bright when they do finally burst through the doors and make a run for the stables. It's high, too, coming up to Goro's shins and forcing him to slow down. He can't imagine that Shido got very far, even on horseback, but there are also too many variables for him to be sure: when did Shido leave? Could he have reached the helicopter hours ago? Is Goro completely off-base, and Shido didn't go by horse at all?

"Come on!" Akira yells, storming through the snow, reminding Goro that now isn't the time for doubt. If Goro's wrong, he has an entire team back at the palace acting as his back-up who can check the places Goro can't and come up with the ideas that Goro hasn't.

By the time they reach the stables, Goro realizes his gut was worth trusting. Samael is gone, the door to his stall flung wide open. Sojiro is nowhere to be found either, and, in his absence, the horses have become restless, shuffling their hooves.

He exchanges a look with Akira. "Are you good to ride?" he asks. They've had their trots through the forest, but a high-speed chase through the snow is slightly more advanced as far as horseback riding skills go.

But Akira's already reaching for the saddles, no hesitation present. "I'll take Arsene," he says with all the confidence of a seasoned rider. "Let's go."

They saddle up their horses. Goro hasn't done this in a while, not when Sojiro usually prepares Robin Hood for him, but adrenaline is bringing old muscle memories back. Goro cinches all the straps into place and tightens all the necessary buckles. 

By the time he's done, Akira's already guiding Arsene out of the stables. Goro hastens to catch up. Out in the snow, the sky a horizonless white blanket, it's almost difficult to find his bearings and pinpoint a cardinal direction. Goro squints against the harsh wind.

"That way," Goro says, pointing.

He hoists himself up and swings a leg over Robin Hood. On horseback, it's even harder not to notice how cold it is out here without so much as a hat or a scarf as protection, but they don't have time to go back and properly accessorize for the weather. If Shido already left hours ago, they need to get a move on before visibility gets any worse or the wind gets too sharp to safely fly through, should Shido already be airborne and fleeing in a helicopter right now.

Next to him, Akira is also pulling himself up onto his horse. He moves with a fluidity that wouldn't have come so easily a few months ago. Maybe Sojiro really is that good of a teacher and desperately deserves a fruit basket for everything he's ever taught Akira about horses, if only just for this moment. Without meaning to, Goro thinks of their first little outing while horseback riding, how romantic it was without even trying. Already back then, Goro should've realized how it would all end, that there was no chance his heart would come out of the fray unchanged.

"Ready?" Goro asks.

"Ready," Akira answers.

They take off. Goro knows the trails around the palace like the back of his hand, but he doesn't usually travel them at this speed—let alone through snow this deep. He relies on Robin Hood, who gallops between the trees with a swift ease, his muscles rippling underneath Goro with every stride. The branches of snow-laden evergreens dart by in a blur, Arsene thundering along from behind.

The headwind is icy, whipping Goro's hair and stinging his cheeks, but Goro won't slow down, not now when it counts most. He presses his legs into the warm horse's body under his thighs, urging faster movement from Robin Hood. The tall trees here are shielding them slightly from the snowfall, allowing Goro to see the landmarks he needs to know that they're still on track.

He hasn't gone out to the hangar in years, and never before on horseback. They should've taken the snowmobiles with their heated seats, or had Futaba scan the area first. Isn't Futaba capable of something of that military-like caliber? Can't she fire up a drone and just zero in on Shido?

"Goro!" Akira yells behind him. "Goro, look!"

Goro tugs on Robin Hood's reins to pull him to an abrupt stop. He looks over his shoulder and sees Akira, windblown and pink in the nose from the cold, pointing at the ground.

The thick boughs have protected the ground from the worst of the snow, but in the icy slush left behind, Goro sees the fresh imprint of hooves.

A fresh burst of adrenaline grabs hold of him. They're not far. If they just push on—

Goro grips the reins, urging Robin Hood back into motion. A million scenarios are running through his head, only some of them with happy endings. If Shido's managed to flee the country, Goro can only begin to imagine where he's intending to hunker down, let alone what his next plan is. Shido never operates without one. All Goro can hope is that he hasn't laid out a trap that Goro's about to crash into headfirst.

They just have to keep moving. They just need to be faster. The scenery is truly whizzing past them now as Goro ducks down against the harshness of the wind, pushing his horse faster, harder. The prints on the ground below seem to blur together; it almost looks as if there are too many, more than just evidence of one horse. Goro can't stop and examine them now, not when he has a goal very much in sight. The public humiliation and the besmirching of his name isn't enough; Shido needs to be sat in front of a judge and brought to justice and served a sentence. Goro won't let him escape. Goro won't—

Goro's a bit late to the game, apparently.

Robin Hood screeches to a halt, hooves sliding on the slippery ground. Not a hundred feet away is Samael, and his rider isn't in sight.

"Oh," Akira says, coming to an equally ungraceful stop next to Goro. His hair has become wild after the ride, although now really, really isn't the time for Goro to run his fingers through it. Later, after—after—

"Hey," Sojiro grunts from where he's kneeling on top of Shido, who's squirming, none-too-dignified, facedown in the snow. "Nice of you to join the party."

"Listen here, you don't want to know what happens to those who cross—" Shido starts to snarl, but Sojiro's knee digging into his spine cuts him off. That, or it's the dirty snow in his mouth.

"I assumed he was heading for the hangar," Goro says.

"He was," Sojiro says, readjusting his knee. "Didn't quite reach it, though."

"I thought you didn't want to get involved," Akira says, faint.

"Oh. That. Yeah." Sojiro shrugs, then sighs. "I figured, why not?" He gestures down at Shido with the hand not currently pressed between his shoulder blades. "Want to give me a hand here?"

Akira and Goro both hurry to dismount their horses. Goro's still trying to process the scene in front of him as reality: Shido thoroughly detained by Sojiro Sakura of all people, who seems to have ridden here on Goemon, who's now contently whinnying next to Samael, whose saddle has gone slightly crooked. Goro can imagine Sojiro bodily yanking Shido off him, which is a mental image that's somehow as impressive as it is hilarious.

Were it any other moment, he might just laugh. Maniacally, possibly, but laugh nonetheless.

What he can't hide, however, is the wide, relieved smile.

 

&

 

"Dude," Sakamoto says from where he's stretched out on the cabriole sofa, scrolling through his phone. "You're trending. Everyone's flipping out."

He looks delighted, so Goro feels it safe to assume that the reactions, however shocked, are positive. 

Not that anyone was really expecting anything different after that press conference, especially considering that it was capped off with Shido's capture. Goro can only imagine how long it'll take the wheels of justice to slog through the inquest or put Shido to trial, but if there's anything he knows for certain, it's that Shido will never sit on a throne again. Not only would Goro never allow it again, but he imagines the people wouldn't either, not anymore.

"It certainly all went very well," Makoto agrees. Her smile is almost far off, as if reliving their success. "The new year will definitely be different."

"For all of you as well," Goro feels the need to add. "I know to value all your help. There's a good chance I never would've been able to do what you've done as a team on my own, and the fact that you all chose to support me after everything that's happened is… as touching as it is baffling."

"Awww. It's like watching the Tin Man grow a heart," Futaba says. She mumbles it under her breath more than anything else, but everyone turns to look at her regardless, hearing it just fine. She goes pink in the face. "I'm just saying! It's a good thing! He always used to be so uptight."

Goro can let that one slide, given his overall mood and the light-hearted atmosphere of the room.

He lifts his glass. "Well then. To being less uptight."

"Hear, hear!" Ryuji shouts.

All of it really is baffling. The whirlwind of the last few days still leaves Goro feeling like he's been out in the eye of the storm, watching it all happen with an almost awestruck disbelief. Having everyone rally together behind him. Organizing the details of the case with Sae. Seeing his efforts reach triumphant fruition at the end of it all. They're the sort of outcomes Goro could've only fantasized about in the past, and now Shido's on his way to jail and his parlor is full of laughing staff members as the champagne gets passed around. Goro remembers all too well the days where the most exciting thing this room saw was conversations about crushing on boys over teatime with Ann; now it's party central in time for the New Year, complete with fizzing drinks in tall flutes and decorative banners.

Just as baffling is Akira's hand, warm and sure, on the small of his back. How Goro came out of all the rubble with this still intact is a lesson to himself about people. That they won't all give up on him like he fears. That they can see his ugliest sides and still want to stick around.

"Soooo we're definitely all getting nicer rooms, right?" Ryuji asks. "I mean, I'm not sayin' I need, like, a bed made of gold." He grins, wolf-like. "But we did help take down a corrupt king, so it's not like I would complain."

"Hm," Goro says, pretending to consider. "How's a promotion to the Chief Royal Fitness Instructor sound?" He tilts his glass gently left and right by the stem. "And I'm sure we can negotiate a better room, as well, if yours is unsatisfactory."

Ryuji blinks. "Wait—seriously?"

"I don't intend to keep the same staff that my father did," Goro says. "Kamoshida's position is open, effective immediately, and Akira mentioned to me that you quite enjoy sports."

"Seriously?" Ryuji says again. He looks at Akira, dumbfounded, before turning back to Goro. "No more cleaning up after rich people?"

"I, for one, would certainly appreciate Ann no longer being harassed at the hands of that man," Yusuke chimes in, Ann quick to nod in agreement despite her mouth being still full of champagne.

Goro's smile widens. "Is that a yes?"

"That's—that's a hell yeah!"

It's probably the happiest Goro has ever seen Ryuji in his vicinity. He's a bit crass, but Goro thinks he could get used to him. Like an acquired taste. The same could be said for friendship as a concept. Already now, Goro can feel the layout of his heart changing, the moats draining, the walls crumbling, the passageways opening. It feels like taking a breath of fresh air after spending years cooped up inside. It's almost alarming in how foreign it feels, but even so, Goro can tell that it feels better.

"The same would apply to the rest of you," Goro says. "I believe changes in title and salary are due. I don't claim to be the anti-Shido, and I'm certainly not a paragon of virtue, but I do want to right as many of my father's wrongs as I can."

Makoto smiles, pleased. "Sounds pretty virtuous to me."

Goro knows that everyone in this room is more than privy to some of Goro's less than ethical choices that he's made in the past, but he recognizes forgiveness when he sees it. "I'll do my best," Goro promises.

Another round of champagne circles the room. It's an expensive bottle, one that is usually only uncorked in the presence of worthy royalty, but Goro can't think of a better occasion than to celebrate the fruition of a lifelong ambition—and with people he can call friends, no less.

Shido's gone. He's really gone. Not just out of Goro's life, but out of the palace that was never his to take. Out of the public eye and out of everyone's good standing. 

From all the bright smiles and happy laughter in the room, it feels safe to say that everybody is just as elated as Goro. Just as relieved, especially with the news of their promotions.

There is one promotion left that he needs to see to, however.

He sets his flute down, heading to the settee where Ann is sitting cross-legged next to the celebratory platter of desserts provided by the chefs. Not far away on the ottoman is Yusuke, quietly drawing her in his pocket-sized sketchbook.

Goro taps Ann on the shoulder, then motions toward Yusuke, who's too deeply engrossed in his illustration to notice. "I suppose you don't find that odd anymore?"

"Nah," Ann says, shrugging. "It's just Yusuke being Yusuke." She grows slightly pink as she glances at his sketchbook. "Also kinda flattering, you know?"

Flattery is in the eye of the beholder, Goro supposes. Yusuke's a strange man, but he's a tremendous artist, and hopefully those two things together somehow create a good boyfriend.

Assuming that's what Ann wants, of course. Although Goro's sort of banking on that being the case.

"I'm glad that you're happy," he says. "You are, aren't you?"

Ann's blush spreads over her cheeks to take over her ears too. "Yeah," she says. It looks like she's biting on her cheeks to keep from smiling too widely. Goro would make fun of her if thinking about Akira didn't make him feel just as stupidly, joyfully lovestruck. "I am. It's not like anything I've ever—but I am. Maybe that's why."

Her sentences aren't quite complete, but Goro understands anyway. Sometimes people like him and Ann are forced to only socialize in their own circles so long that they get dizzy. All of it, the rigamarole, the stiff decorum, the pressure, the appearances, it can feel exhausting and inauthentic, neither of which are good sensations to bring to a relationship. Yusuke's grounded, at least in all the ways a slightly kooky artist can be.

"Then I have a proposition for you," he says.

"Oh?"

"How would you like to… extend your stay here, so to say?"

"Extend it?"

"Permanently, that is." At her widened eyes, Goro explains. "If I'm going to be king, I'm going to need an advisor, and quite frankly, I can't think of anyone better suited for the job."

It's never been easy saying goodbye to Ann when she leaves after an event or a holiday. He's spent his whole life always aiming for his goals via the complicated way, usually with multiple levels of Shakespearean subterfuge, but he's starting to learn that sometimes the simplest way actually works. In this case, it's just asking.

"Really?" Ann asks. The grin she was trying so hard to hold back earlier springs forth like a set of doors bursting wide open. "Goro! Of course I want to stay!"

She flings her arms around him in a tight hug. Behind him, Goro can hear Yusuke mumbling, obviously not happy that his subject's moved, though he has the sneaking suspicion that he's about to be rather happy. Goro has the sneaking suspicion that Ann relocating here means the halls will be brimming with oil paintings of her. They might have to set up a gallery just for that express purpose.

Changes are definitely coming, that's for certain. Goro, for one, can't wait.

 

&

 

Many hours and many champagne bottles later, their celebration comes to an end, and it's well past midnight by the time Goro and Akira head back to Goro's room.

Already, Akira's starting to see it as his and Goro's room. It's only been a few days—and a few very enjoyable nights—but somehow, Akira doesn't think sleeping in the hayloft is in his future anymore.

That's not the only change around here. Goro looks different, almost startlingly so. Like a coiled spring that's finally been released. He smiles more easily. He moves less stiffly. He even spent the majority of their little party socializing with all of Akira's friends. Maybe that's something they're going to start sharing soon too, just like Goro's room.

"Do you know what Sakamoto said to me before we left?" Goro says as they walk.

Akira can think of a number of things, especially considering Ryuji was a little tipsier than the rest of them. Not that he can blame him; that was good champagne. "Was it safe for children?"

Goro smirks. "He told me to be good to you," he says. He laughs, the sound nearly a snort. "Or else. I appreciated the sentiment, actually. On your behalf, at least."

Akira can't help but smile. He reaches out, tangling his fingers with Goro's. They're warm, even if the night's been cool and the hallways drafty after the snowstorm. "He's just looking out for me."

"I know," Goro says. "Although I think he's forgotten who out of the two of us has a dungeon prison in their arsenal."

He laughs at his own joke. That's different, too. His entire face looks more open, more free, more honest. Akira can understand where Ryuji's coming from after everything they've been through with Goro, but Akira also knows that the threat is entirely unnecessary. Maybe it's just the alcohol, buzzing pleasurably in his veins, or the overfull happiness of the evening, but Akira can tell, with certainty, that it's all up from here. Shido's going to go to prison, and Goro's going to be king, and everything will be as it was always supposed to.

Although, to be fair, if things hadn't happened the way they had with Shido unjustly running the ship, Akira never would've come to work here and never would've met Goro.

He won't be sending a thank you card to Shido anytime soon, but it would be awfully satisfying to let Shido know that, in the end, he was the one hoisting his own petard.

They reach Goro's room and slip inside. Akira can't go to sleep just yet; he's not sure he'll even be ready hours from now, not with the way he's thrumming with emotions. He takes off his shoes and hangs up his jacket, and by the time he's gotten comfortable, Goro's thumbing through his phone.

"I got an email from Sae-san," Goro says. It looks like he's biting down on a smile. "Apparently there's been a huge public reaction to the press conference." The smile must be growing stronger, because Goro rolls his lips into his mouth to keep it at bay. "And it looks as if people are receptive to the idea of me replacing Shido."

Of course they are; that was obvious. Akira knew that they would be from the beginning, but it doesn't seem as if Goro did, because Goro's face is tightly drawn, nearly glassy around the eyes. It isn't until he blinks and hurries to rub his knuckles over his cheeks that Akira sees—almost tangibly—just how great the relief is for him. Prince Akechi's public image is full of bravado, of smooth charm and confidence, but underneath all that is Goro, the shunned son, the tormented boy, the man held prisoner from his own justice. After years of planning, of scheming, of hoping, it makes sense that it'll all feel unreal to him for a bit.

Akira decides to try and make it feel a little more real.

"Took long enough," Akira says. He steps closer, grabbing Goro by the lapels until he looks up and puts his phone away. "King Akechi."

Goro's eyes shift: suddenly any moisture is gone, replaced by a darkness that goes straight down south Akira's pants. His hands find Akira's hips, squeezing. "Hm," he says.

He looks like he wants to ask say it again but maybe isn't sure that he's allowed to. Akira doesn't mind. He'll say it again. He'll sing it and shout it if it makes Goro hot and bothered.

Akira leans in, dragging his mouth over Goro's pulse point. "King Akechi," he murmurs. "Would you have time for one of your most loyal subjects?"

Goro's hands flutter on Akira's hips before tightening, thumbs digging in. "I might."

Akira's smile presses into Goro's neck. He hides it with a series of kisses, open-mouthed but gentle, searching for a response. He gets one in the form of a slow shudder that trembles its way through Goro's body, matched with a low exhale.

Akira will never tire of this, taking Goro apart bit by painstaking bit. He slides his hands over Goro's shoulders, then trails down his chest, and over the ticklish spots of his stomach.

"I can always prove my loyalty, if you'd like," he whispers.

He can hear Goro swallow. "Oh?"

Akira untucks Goro's shirt from his pants. He takes his time with the buttons, going methodically about his work, and by the time he's brushing his hands over bare skin, Goro's breathing has gone heavy, irregular.

"You'll have to do better than that," Goro says.

Akira grins. He knows a challenge when he hears it. "I can do that," he promises. 

He sinks to his knees, slowly, so Goro realizes exactly what he's doing and what's about to happen. By the time he's removing Goro's belt, Goro's hands have found his hair. His eyes have gone darker still, eager and aroused. He looks so good, so affected, that Akira can't tease any longer.

He yanks Goro's pants down. They don't go to sleep for a long time after that.

 

&

 

Of all the regalia he's ever had to wear, this one is by far the most cumbersome and ostentatious-looking. And yet, Goro isn't sure he's ever felt so happy wearing any of it.

"Do I look ridiculous? Be honest."

"Not yet," Ann says, looking him up and down. "But give it a few more layers and I'm sure we'll get there."

"Very funny."

"The last robe is waiting for you closer to the ballroom, anyway. It'd be way too heavy to make you lug it all around the palace."

He inhales, shaky, letting the breath out again as he tugs at the fabric here and there. It looks… almost unreal. He imagined himself wearing these clothes before—dreamt of it, really—but now those dreams are finally close enough for him to touch.

"A part of me wasn't sure I'd ever get here."

"If you need to cry, I think I brought—" Ann cuts herself off, hand halfway into her pocket. "Nope, false hope. Makoto has the tissues. So it's way too early to cry. Remember that for the sake of your makeup."

Goro scoffs. "I'm not going to cry. I just—"

A knock resounds at the door. "Can I come in?"

Akira. Goro feels himself relax at his voice, a smile coming over his features. "Why wouldn't you be allowed in?"

The handle is pushed down only for Akira to slip in through a mere crack, alongside a shrug. "Wasn't sure if this was like it being bad luck to see the bride before the wedding day."

"I'm not sure I could be further from a bride right now."

Although the thought alone brings with it its own smiles. It's something he has been thinking about, more than usual. After all, it's not every day that one becomes king, able to change laws for the better. Able to alter the royal articles of conduct to allow him to marry a man. 

Not that he'd be a bride even then. Instead, the thought of two grooms comes to his mind, the excitement of perhaps one day calling Akira his husband. Royal weddings happen fairly quickly following engagements, and the last thing he wants is to overwhelm Akira unless he's certain. 

But… perhaps soon. After all, he feels certain. 

"You do look pretty strapping, though," Akira chimes in, cocking his head at his appearance with a smile. "Kingly, almost."

Goro grins. "Only almost?"

"Definitely."

"Right, so if you two lovebirds are done—"

Another knock sounds at the door. "Pardon the intrusion," Makoto's voice comes muffled through the wood, "but it's time."

Dismounting from the small fitting platform Ann had allowed him to temporarily borrow from her closet with the aid of Akira's hand, Goro takes in another deep breath. "Of course."

The outfit is even harder to move in than he'd expected just standing on the platform, Goro shuffling along at what feels like a snail's pace. 

"Want me to hold up your train?" Akira asks, laughter hiding behind his barely-restrained tone of voice, Goro sighing despite his own smile. 

"No, I'm sure I'll manage… somehow. Just don't laugh at my struggle while I have an audience."

He doesn't; instead, Akira opens the door for him, Goro stepping out into the hallway to wide eyes on Makoto's part.

"Oh! I see getting dressed all worked out swimmingly. I'd factored in a good bit more time on your schedule in case you needed additional assistance."

"Hey!" Ann pipes up from behind him, stepping out with a scowl. "I know what I'm doing here! Besides," she adds, "Yusuke gave me a bunch of pointers."

Their relationship has been going strong just as long as his and Akira's has, and it's nice to see. Long gone are the days from almost a year ago where they gathered for tea or went riding to talk about their respective crushes. Now they get to talk about their respective significant others. 

"Anyway, I'm going to check that he and Ryuji didn't accidentally forget about the coronation. You never know when Ryuji will get caught in one of the exercise machines again… or when my boyfriend gets lost in a canvas and loses track of time entirely...."

"Probably a good plan," Makoto mutters, tapping her clipboard. "The itinerary for after the official ceremony is not nearly so jam-packed as you had feared previously. There's your coronation ride to see the people after the official ceremony, the candle-lighting ceremony in the atrium, the coronation dinner…"

Her phone buzzes. "Futaba says that Robin Hood is ready to ride. Mishima has already prepared him." She sighs, angling her head up to what is most likely one of her wiretaps. "Please stop doing that, it continues to be unnerving."

"She is in charge of palace security," Goro says with a chuckle. He'd considered having them removed, in truth, but it simply made sense to expand her skillset to be useful to all in light of everything that had happened. She's even on the payroll for it now—not to mention the benefits of a bigger room and more monitors to accompany her newfound authority. 

His thoughts drift back to Robin Hood, saddled up and ready to go for his ride across the grounds to greet the people gathered out in front of the palace, room left open between the crowd only for his procession. A quick glance out the window tells him all he needs to know. There must be hundreds of people, all congregated en masse, many of them holding little flags, all eagerly awaiting the chance to see their new king. 

In the distance, he can just make out Sojiro putting the finishing accoutrements on Robin Hood, properly decking him out for his ride to follow his coronation while Mishima watches him. His life has improved, too, he'd like to think. While Akira still likes to go out to help him on occasion, he has a proper, paid assistant now. And a better barn, for that matter.

"It's time, Your Highness."

"Not Your Highness for much longer," Akira adds, his grin wide as Goro turns to look at the two of them, a similar smile coloring his own features. One that he's not sure even an odiously long coronation ceremony could possibly wipe from his face. Not now, not today. 

"I shouldn't be Your Majesty to the two of you, either."

"Just for me? On special occasions?"

Akira's voice is quiet, but the glance that Makoto gives them over her shoulder as she starts leading the way for them down the stairs nevertheless speaks volumes. She knows enough. Too much, really. 

Then again, most of his staff do these days. They're… more friends, less employees. A part of him still isn't entirely used to it, even now, almost a year later. But it feels right for all of them. Better. The mood in the whole palace has been summarily uplifted. They're preparing for a new Christmas season, and somehow, it already feels like the spirit of the holidays has crept into the halls. 

They come to a stop outside of the ceremony hall, Makoto offering him a nod. "Ready?"

He returns it, feeling oddly sure even as he watches her slip into the room, a deep, shaky breath leaving him. 

"I'll be in the wings, watching the whole time," Akira says. "Or—the audience?"

"Whyever would I want you in the audience?"

"It's your coronation day. Won't—won't things change? I'm far from… uh, queen material."

He glances down at himself, and Goro knows what his gaze is saying. He's not only a commoner, but a man. 

The door behind him cracks open, Makoto's hushed whisper coming through the slit. "We're ready for you."

"Just—" Akira blurts out as soon as the door closes again, clearly eager to finish this line of thought before he loses the chance to voice it at all. "I want you to be sure you want this. Because you're a prince."

Goro's smile widens, reaching out to cup his cheeks. "Lucky for you, I'm not a prince. I'm a king."

He leans in for a kiss. Akira meets him halfway.