There is no denying that Inarizaki is a gorgeous kingdom. The late afternoon sun pushes lazily through the clouds to shine off the lake, shooting a kaleidoscope of colors across Keiji’s vision as he walks through the tall trees lining the water’s edge. It’s wild out here at the far end of the castle’s garden. Deep green vines wind their way up the thick trunks of the trees. Moss coats the rocks in thick layers. Grapevines that Keiji is certain were not planted here intentionally criss cross the branches, their deep purple berries welcome beacons for any hungry animals in the area. It’s utterly still except for Keiji himself, and most importantly, empty except for him as well.
In the week and a half since Keiji arrived in Inarizaki, he has had very little time to explore by himself. First, of course, was the wedding. Keiji had found that marrying a man he had just met was not quite as awkward as he had anticipated, though that was likely because Prince Osamu seemed to be just as reserved as he was himself. Then there was the three day crash course of Inaraizaki's history and culture. Following that was another days long event wherein Keiji was taught all of the miniscule duties he might be expected to do as the husband of the second crown prince. Then he spent time shadowing other people as they did those jobs for him, most of which were little more than hosting small gatherings with the gentry and facilitating small talk. It was a tedious process, and one that Keiji is beyond pleased to be able to step away from for a moment.
The lake he’s standing in front of now is a decent size. He can see the shore in every direction, but it is large enough that it would probably take a few hours to swim to the other side, if one were so inclined. Keiji has always found water to be calming. He suspects it has something to do with his particular brand of magic. A reckless part of him wants to dive in. To throw off his new, hand-crafted, custom Inarizaki-made boots and dig his still socked toes unapologetically into the mud and silt at the base of the shallows. He won’t, but he wants to. He settles for kneeling on the cleanest rock he can find by the water, sliding his right gauntlet off of his hand, and slipping his fingers against the lake’s cool surface, aching to chase the ripples where they spread out from his touch.
As focused as he is on the cool caress of the water, Keiji doesn’t even think about his clothes until it’s too late and his long, billowing sleeve is already draped into the water, the silver fabric turning nearly black as it gets wet. He sighs darkly. There’s just no getting used to the style of clothes here in Inarizaki.
Back home in Fukurodani, the clothes have a more rigid form. Gauntlets and belts and boots and corsets accompany every outfit to define figures and lend the wearers a sleek and polished finish. Inarizaki’s clothes are nothing like that. The fabrics are soft, gauzy. Every outfit has layers and layers of it, and they billow and drape in ways that Keiji can’t fathom when looking at and is only more confused by when wearing them. The robes are long and stretch out behind him when he walks. The ends of the sleeves come well past the tips of his fingers. He feels altogether far too large and also as though he’s been swallowed whole. Not to mention the fact that they’re just plain inconvenient. He’s lost his own hands within the silks daily and the tipped fingers of his gauntlets are always snagging and tearing at the insides. Keiji is afraid that none of his correspondence has been legible since he’s arrived because every time he reaches to grab something from across the table, his sleeve drags across the letters and smears them until they're nearly incomprehensible.
By the time he retires in the evenings, his sleeves are covered in remnants of his day - the ink from his letters, splotches of soup from dinner, dust and dirt from outside. Even now, Keiji can see ink spreading across the fabric of his sleeve along with the water. Despite his best efforts, he finds this supremely embarrassing. The fact that everyone around him seems to manage to keep their sleeves clean day after day can only be attributed to the fact that they’ve been doing it every day of their lives. Keiji certainly hopes it won’t take him a lifetime to get the knack of it himself, but then, he supposes, he will have the rest of his life to practice.
The cold water of the lake is starting to freeze the tips of Keiji’s fingers. He presses them further in until his whole hand is submerged and lets the chill seep into his skin. He itches to remove his other gauntlet as well, but one glance at his left hand shows that sleeve is torn, and Keiji does not feel like confronting that head on at the moment. Just the thought of it reminds him again of the difficult adjustment process he’s been facing.
Keiji had been preparing himself for this transition ever since he was betrothed to Prince Osamu at age fourteen, but there are just some things you can’t quite prepare for until you’ve experienced them for yourself.
Since he stepped foot in Inarizaki, Keiji has been observing. Every interaction, every story told, has been gathered and catalogued into his picture of this country, how it’s run, who its people are, and where he fits into it all. Keiji is used to uncovering the weaknesses around him. Weaknesses in people, in relationships, in systems. He tallies and calculates them so he can determine how to fill in the gaps and make up for what’s missing. Keiji thrives in those voids left by other people. Using the problems around him, he used to be able to slowly place himself until he’s settled in roles he’s best suited for.
But lately the only weaknesses he’s been uncovering have been his own.
The thought leaves a bitter taste in his mouth. He wishes he’d brought something to drink or maybe even a snack with him. The area beside the lake is flat and covered in lush, green grasses. There is a perfect balance of sunlight and shade from the trees. It would be a picturesque place to host a picnic or sit and read a book. Though, neither of which would accomplish Keiji’s goals in being here.
Everything has been so different in Inarizaki, it has left Keiji feeling unmoored and unlike himself. Now he just wants a flicker of normalcy. This is what found him hunting through the back gardens of the Inarizaki estate to try and find a secluded enough space to practice his magic. Practicing his magic was never an event that Keiji particularly delighted in, it was more of an obligation than anything, but it is maybe the one thing he can do now that he would have been doing in Fukurodani. And he yearns for it. For a piece of home, of himself.
Keiji refuses to call what he is doing now “sneaking out.” As new as being a part of the royal family is to him at the moment, he does know it comes with the perk of having close to free reign over the grounds. They are, in part, his now, after all.
Approximately an hour ago, he had presented his attendants with a soft, slightly simpering smile and beseeched them to excuse him, for he was going to take a walk around the gardens. They accepted his smile as generously as they had accepted all the others he had offered them since arriving. It was not an insubstantial number. He’d been smiling politely for hours. Days even. From the moment he first set foot in Inarizaki, probably.
His cheeks hurt. Even with his face relaxed, sitting at the edge of the lake, they still twinged.
He had entered the gardens directly from the entrance that connected to his rooms in the castle. Polite smile still in place and hands clasped properly behind his back, he kept his posture impeccable while striding a confident and unhurried pace through the flowers and past servants wandering through their various chores. The picture of serenity, he nodded at those he passed in the friendliest way he could manage while holding himself in check so severely. He wanted to run. Not away from this place or his duties. Just away from the eyes. Just for a moment.
The further he went through the well manicured bushes, the fewer people he saw and the quicker his steps became. When the first wilder, untrimmed bush came into sight, he thought he was surely away from any prying eyes and almost dove straight into the underbrush to explore deeper into the more wooded areas of the grounds. He had only managed to thoroughly snag one long sleeve on a stray branch when a small group of courtiers walked by, clearly enjoying the fine evening. Keiji had seamlessly turned towards them, using the bulk of his outer robe to hide his stuck arm behind him as he bowed towards them slightly, The Smile back in its place on his face. They murmured inanities at him, mostly congratulations on his recent nuptials. He responded with words of equal unimportance and stood pristinely upright and still until they turned the corner out of sight.
Then he rushed off of the well tended path without care. He didn’t even flinch when he heard the sound of his sleeve ripping as it tore itself loose from the branch.
Only once he was well and truly away from the conventional paths of the garden did Keiji drop the curve of his mouth. His shoulders remained tight, and he jumped at every noise, expecting someone to wander up to him. But his breaths came a bit easier with nothing but the leaves there to witness him. He’d only stopped walking once he spotted the lake.
Now, with his fingers dancing in the water, stained sleeve growing wetter by the second, Keiji drops a bit more of the tension that he’s been holding. He leans away from the water to sit back on his heels and sighs. There’s no point in drying his wet fingers before slipping them back into his gauntlet, so he doesn’t bother. The feeling of moisture under the silver gauntlets is a little uncomfortable, but being able to feel the water on his skin is grounding.
The gauntlets themselves are always a comforting weight against his palms. Keiji presses them more firmly into the smooth fabric of his dark pants to prevent him from twisting his fingers tightly together, closes his eyes, and takes stock of himself. With his eyes closed, he is able to note the tension that remains in his shoulders and the back of his neck. His hands aren’t shaking, which is a good sign. Anxiety occasionally staggers through him, and in those moments magic is hard to control, often making the anxiety skyrocket even further as he worries about controlling it. Now, though, he’s in a stable enough state of mind. The practice will be good for him, the magic familiar. He takes one final deep breath and stands.
Settling into the proper starting stance is as easy as breathing. Daily magic lessons in Fukurodani had just about molded him into the shape permanently. Legs hip distance apart for a sturdy base. Back straight and shoulders rolled back, body held at attention. Both arms extending out from his core, palms up as though holding a tray of the most delicate glass figurines. Steady yet gentle.
He starts his magic slow. Reaching out with his mind, he prods the power inherent in the lake’s water to get a feel for it. The lake itself is calm, an attribute that has been imbued within its every drop since the moment they coalesced there. It's simple for Keiji to gain control of. He prompts and nudges for a moment, pushing and pulling the water away from him and back towards him, a slow forward and backward motion of his arms directing the flow. He separates a bead or two and drags them across the surface of the lake for a moment, indulging his earlier desire to draw shapes and patterns in the mirror glaze of the water. Keiji has never been much of an artist, but the lake naturally takes his nudges and makes its own masterpiece. The ripples spread ever outward, beyond any of Keiji’s thoughts for a pattern.
It doesn’t take long for him to feel ready enough to start some real practice. That’s what he came out here for, after all. Playing is nice, but that’s not something he did a lot of back home either.
With a steadying breath filling his lungs, he resets his arms back to the basic stance and focuses hard on the power flowing off the water. Keeping his moves steady, Keiji scoops his hands in towards his shoulders and the water jumps to follow his command, enthusiastically reaching closer to him. His hands trace a circle over his head, calling the water to follow. Keiji huffs out an annoyed breath when the deft motion of his arms happens to also fling one sleeve directly into his face. He manages to hold his concentration on the magic, though it’s a very near thing.
The fabric continues to swing with his movements but settles when he places his arms over his head, hands open towards the sky. With minute twists of his wrists and precise flicks of his fingers, Keiji maneuvers his following of droplets into the arrangement he wants. Here he bends small fragments of water into just the right shape. There he prods the shape to their proper place. Bit by bit, he finesses the water until a constellation of droplets float above his head. The entire night sky held suspended and reflecting the now fading light of the sun. It’s not a particularly impressive feat of magical ability, just a warm up meant to test concentration and mastery. Keiji holds it steadily as a reminder that there are things he can control.
It warms him to his core to be able to do this. This particular spell is a tedious one. It takes strict focus and mental toughness. Keiji had a pretty good knack for it from the beginning, but he’d never been particularly keen to practice it for long. Now he feels like he could hold these twinkling spots of water until night falls and the real constellations come out to mirror them. He’s shifting to settle further into his stance when the hairs on the back of his neck raise, prickling with an odd awareness.
Keiji’s body whips towards the soft exhalation behind him before he’s even consciously aware of the presence standing there. He barely even feels the harsh slap of his sleeves whipping around him and against his sides, he’s too shocked by the shape that’s solidified before his eyes. Standing ten feet behind him in the gap between two gnarled trees is Prince Osamu, wide-eyed and mouth slightly agape.
Keiji opens his mouth to say something, anything, but there’s nothing there. With his mind utterly void of all higher thought, he suddenly remembers why this spell needs complete concentration. The water that moments before had rushed to obey his magic now threw itself spectacularly at the mercy of gravity as soon as Keiji was distracted. For a full fifteen seconds, Keiji is caught in his own personal torrential downpour. He pinches his eyes closed against the onslaught and resigns himself to the situation. When there’s finally no water left from his spell, Keiji is drenched to the bone and dripping a muddy splotch into the ground beneath his feet.
He winces out a little smirk, refusing to open his eyes.
How poetic , he thinks.
Keiji is shocked to hear the sound of laughter. It’s loud and pure and unfiltered. Honest. If Keiji hadn’t known that Prince Osamu was the only one in the area, he wouldn't believe that was where the sound was coming from. Even knowing who it had to be, Keiji can’t stop himself from being stunned when he finally opens his eyes to witness his royal highness struggling to breathe through fits of giggles, his arms wrapped tight around his stomach, shoulders hunched over. Prince Osamu has been so stoic as long as Keiji has known him. A serene prince. A marble statue.
A person maybe held as rigidly as Keiji himself had been. Huh.
Something about the thought shatters through Keiji’s held surprise. The deep rumbling sounds of Prince Osamu’s laughter are still filling their shared space. Hearing it makes Keiji feel ridiculous, a little silly, and inexplicably light for the first time in ages. He stops trying to evaluate the reasons why. He just...lets go.
And then he’s snorting, pressing his ruined, soaking sleeve to his face and staining it further with the sound of his own laughter. It’s so loud that his throat almost feels raw with it. It’s cathartic enough that he can’t bring himself to care. Minutes pass before either of them can stop, but even as their laughter slows to hiccups, Keiji can’t bring himself to immediately move his hand from where it hides his face. Doing so feels too open. The laughter is enough for now. The laughter is likely far too much already.
When Keiji finally settles himself enough to look back at Prince Osamu, he catches him straightening his shoulders from his slouch and schooling his expression as close to his characteristic polite blankness as he can get with a small smile still refusing to leave his lips.
“I am so sorry, Akaashi-san,” Prince Osamu says finally, “I did not mean to startle you.” His voice is breathy from the laughter, but the apologetic lilt to the tone is genuine, if a bit formal.
Keiji takes a moment to pull himself back together before trusting himself to respond. His own voice still comes across quite a bit more affected than he’d like when he does speak. “It’s quite alright, Your Majesty.”
Prince Osamu’s face tightens nearly imperceptibly at the formal address, though he doesn’t comment on it. He does, however, step away from the tree line and move to take the outermost robe off of his shoulders. “No, it's not. You're soaking wet. Here, please allow me to give you this for now and I'll walk you straight back to the castle for some dry clothes."
Keiji meets him halfway and immediately pushes the outstretched bundle of robes back towards Prince Osamu. “No, I couldn’t possibly.”
“Of course you can. I insist.”
“It’s unnecessary. I’ll be quite alright until I make it back to the castle.”
Keiji reaches down and grabs the bottom edge of the offered fabric where it touches the forest floor to pile it back on top of Prince Osamu’s arms. There are leaves stuck to the otherwise pristine fabric. Keiji moves to brush the foliage off and is once again caught off guard as Prince Osamu places his own hand over Keiji’s gauntleted fingers. The pressure is gentle but insistent, a clear plea for Keiji to take the clothing offered. Looking up from the robes, Keiji can see concern and guilt in Prince Osamu’s stormy eyes.
“Please allow me to do this much. It’s my fault your robes are ruined.”
Keiji snorts slightly at that. He’s ruined almost every set of robes he’s been given since he arrived. The idea that anything Prince Osamu could do would ruin them any more than Keiji had already done himself was ridiculous.
“I can assure you, it is not,” Keiji says, slipping his fingers slowly out from under Prince Osamu’s wide palm. He wonders how he came to be arguing over propriety and politeness with a prince in the woods. There’s no good answer.
Prince Osamu’s frown deepens minutely at the loss of contact, but he doesn’t chase after Keiji when he pulls away.
Maybe it’s the unexpected familiarity of the address coming from his stranger of a husband. Maybe it’s the lingering notes of Prince Osamu’s laughter in his mind. Maybe it’s the strange, liminal feeling of being soaked to the bone in clothes that don’t feel like his own in a secluded forest far from his home. Regardless of the specific reasons, Keiji finds himself giving a bit more of himself than he quite meant to.
“Osamu,” he says back firmly, but not unkindly, “the sleeves on that robe are inexplicably, horrifyingly even longer than the one I’m in now. If you insist that I put it on, you will have to be prepared to see me cry.”
Keiji’s tone is mild throughout, and he refuses to break eye contact or lose his neutral expression. He keeps a serene air about him even as Prince Osamu’s eyes widen a little in surprise. Then, with just as little warning as before, Prince Osamu is laughing again.
He looks so different when he’s smiling , Keiji thinks, now that he’s watching Prince Osamu’s mirth without the acute surprise he felt when seeing it the first time. Laughter makes the second crown prince light. Body parts that seem stiff and unyielding throughout the day are made dynamic with a natural vivacity that makes Keiji think he is meant to be in motion. Prince Osamu’s eyes are on him again, crinkling up at the edges with his smile, their gray brighter than moments before.
“The sleeves? Really? They bother you that much?”
Keiji merely hums, struggling to keep hold of his feigned neutrality. He wants to smile back. “Yesterday, I set my cup of tea on the edge of one sleeve without realizing it. When I went to turn the page of the book I was reading, I spilled the entire tea cup all over the pages and my robes, effectively ruining both.”
“Ha!” Prince Osamu’s laugh is more subdued this time, his smiler smaller and more reserved, but mirth still colors every shade of his expression. “I used to do that all the time when I was young. They just take some getting used to, I promise.” He pauses for a moment, the smile slipping off his face a little before he continues. “I can talk to the tailors about getting you some robes with shorter sleeves.”
Somehow this, more than anything else in this entire surprising interaction, startles Keiji the most. He’s not entirely sure why or what he had been expecting to happen instead. Perhaps he thought his seemingly complete disregard for Inarizaki’s preferred attire would be seen as an insult. Or as something to be met with censure and not accommodation.
Prince Osamu’s expression softens at the edges, “Of course.” Another slight hesitation. “I know Inarizaki does not feel like home to you…” There is space in this pause for a ‘ yet’ . Keiji can practically taste it there, but Prince Osamu moves on without it. “So, anything at all that I can do to help you feel more comfortable here, I will do without question.”
Oh. Well. Keiji is not at all sure what to do with that. It makes him want to be honest in turn though, so when he says, “Thank you,” they feel like the heaviest two words he’s ever said, being weighed down with emotion as they are.
Prince Osamu smiles at him again, this time without any threads of uncertainty, and holds out his arm. “Let’s head back,” he says, but it sounds like “you’re welcome.” It sounds like, “without question.”
Keiji doesn’t hesitate to slip his hand properly into the crook of Prince Osamu’s elbow. He can feel his wet sleeve transferring cool water into Prince Osamu’s clothes. Prince Osamu doesn’t even flinch. And it’s not quite the start of something, not yet, not really. But as he considers the picture they make walking back through the garden, him drenched and dripping water onto the path, Prince Osamu walking proudly despite having his immaculate outer robes in his arms instead of across his shoulders, Keiji can’t help but to think that this, at least, is a step in a welcome direction.