It’s not uncommon for people to be single for longer these days, but Azusa has been dreaming of something like this ever since she were a young child, for her Prince Charming to come swooping in and carry her off into the sunset. Romantic things. She dreams like a princess should, and she gets a pass for it because she is a real, bona fide princess.
There isn’t as much urgency to marry off every royal child these days, but Azusa wants love, dammit. She looks forward to the meeting with potential suitors more than her parents do at this rate, but no one’s ever clicked.
And now she’s twenty-one and while there’s nothing wrong with that per se, she just wants romance already. Her parents urge her to be patient, which is easy for them to say; she’s never seen two people so in love with each other before, and it only makes it easier for her to dream.
She has high hopes for today’s suitor, though. He’s handsome, with a bit of a boyish charm that Azusa can see from the single picture of him she’s been given. He doesn’t hail from too far away either, a smaller kingdom with looser views than the old monoliths of royalty (which she’s secretly glad for. She might be dying for love, but it doesn’t mean she’s going to be an irresponsible queen when it comes down to it).
So she puts on her best dress, sits still when she gets makeup applied to her, and then she waits in one of the sitting rooms to which the suitor and his bodyguard that will be accompanying him should arrive.
Azusa can see the castle grounds from a window, can sense a storm looming overhead, and Takeuchi takes a few steps closer to her. “Not the most perfect day,” he says in his low voice, curt and full of concern. Takeuchi’s been her personal guard for years now, watched her grow up and always looked out for her in that quiet, sometimes confusing way. She knows this is his way of trying to ground her, that he can see the way her hands shake slightly from where they perch on her knees.
“That just means the universe put all its effort into making our meeting perfect instead.” As she says it, she finds that she believes it more than she thought she would. She has a feeling about this meeting, she knows it; it’s not the end of the world if Azusa and the suitor aren’t a match, because she knows there are others that are vying for her hand in marriage—it’s no secret in the kingdom that the Miura princess wants to marry, and others are capitalizing on it with less than savory intentions.
She just has a feeling.
One of the maids knocks on the door, steady raps to break her reverie. “Your Highness? The suitor has arrived, and requests audience.”
Takeuchi returns to his post by the door and opens it without so much a word. He bows, but Azusa can see the split second he spends to analyse the people in front of them—a prince and his knight.
Akabane looks more handsome in person than he does in photos—rare of the suitors she often gets sent to her, Azusa thinks with amusement—and he’s smiling gently as he bows back. The guard he has behind him is unusually short, easily the shortest person in the room, but the strong grip they have on the hilt of their sword means business.
There are more of Azusa's guards positioned out of the door, she can see, but the room is only the four of them now: a prince, a princess, and two guards.
She waves a hand to the seat in front of her. “Please, sit.”
Takeuchi pulls out the chair for him, and Akabane gratefully accepts. Almost sheepishly, she notes, eyebrow arching.
And then she says, “Takeuchi, take it easy.”
He does, to his credit. He relaxes slightly, and the only reason she catches it is because she’s known him for so long. They get along so well because—despite appearances—Takeuchi acts on his gut feelings, just like Azusa. The fact that he relaxes at all is a good sign that these people aren’t about to hold a sword to their throat and demand the throne.
“Your guard can take it easy too, Akabane-san, if they wish.” Azusa says lightly. She’s not sure whether he’ll let them, but she feels remarkably at ease with the two of them.
He smiles—good man—and says, “Akizuki, I think we’ll be alright, if you wish to do so.”
Azusa can practically feel the frown, palpable from behind the helmet. There’s a few moments of tense silence, and then the guard removes the offending item.
But soft! What light through yonder helmet breaks; it is the east, and Akizuki is the sun. Her hair is tied into a low braid, and her forehead has a light sheen of sweat. She holds her helmet under one arm and takes an almost inaudible sigh, and then stands back straight, facing Azusa, and bows.
“I am grateful,” she says, in a voice like the cage of a songbird—rusted, weary, the songbird within one right move from breaking free.
(And falling in love with a knight in shining armour is another fairy tale theme, isn’t it? And love at first sight?)
Takeuchi lets out the smallest cough under his breath, and Azusa realizes she’s been staring. “Oh! Well, of course. You are a guest of ours, no need to wait around in agony.”
With a hint of amusement, Akizuki responds otherwise professionally. “My lady, it is no agony of ours to be in your company.”
Akizuki’s probably just being polite. Even so, Azusa feels her heart flutter. “Likewise.”
Takeuchi coughs again, and Azusa’s head whips so fast back to the suitor sitting in front of her that her mind is still buzzing with the sudden change. “I must say, I do apologize for the weather today. That you still arrived to today’s meeting is a blessing.”
“I cannot in good conscience turn down a woman’s request,” Akabane says somewhat cheekily, and Azusa finds herself at ease in his company.
“Well, should the weather worsen, guest quarters can be prepared for the two of you. Although it is not far, I wouldn’t like to see either of you be caught in a preventable situation.”
Incredible. This is the first suitor she’s met with that didn’t immediately make her feel uneasy with awkward advances, and she’s discussing the weather with him. Something tells her he doesn’t mind, though, and the topics they touch on are varied, not at all forced.
A clap of thunder punctuates the knock striking against the wooden door of their meeting chamber. Takeuchi opens it to a maid, who informs them that dinner will be prepared for her and her guests soon.
“Excellent,” Azusa says. With a cursory glance outside the window, she figures she might as well take precautions. “Could you also prepare guest chambers? It would be preferable if our guests do not traverse through a storm unnecessarily.”
“Of course, Your Highness.” The maid bows and exits the room.
This might be her chance; there’s something Azusa is dying to know. “I ask of the three of you, may the prince and I speak in private? It should be no longer than half an hour until dinner is prepared, and then we will reconvene.”
Takeuchi nods in the corner of the room. “Understandable.”
Akizuki and Akabane glance at each other briefly, and they both nod. “We will meet you then,” Akizuki says, exiting the room first, Takeuchi right behind her.
She watches the door close behind them, waits until there is nothing hanging in the air except the rain pattering against the window, and then says to Akabane, “is Akizuki-san single?”
She knew she must have read him right, because his surprise is not an unpleasant one; it’s filled with mirth and humour as he replies, “only if Takeuchi-san is.”
Azusa laughs so hard she smacks the table.
Dinner is a relatively private affair between Akabane and Azusa. The latter, who often does not make unusual requests, has requested the company of both Takeuchi and Akizuki, so dinner is, in fact, a relatively private affair between the four of them.
Between her and Akabane there is an ease that comes with a certain understanding. Takeuchi watches the scene with his nigh-unreadable face, but Azusa knows him, and she knows that the look he’s giving her is something of curiosity, because she’s never been this relaxed around a suitor.
Perhaps a little wary, now, as she breaks out the alcohol. “We all need to loosen up a little tonight, don’t we?”
“With all due respect, Your Highness, I believe you are in no need of ‘loosening up’.” Takeuchi’s eyebrow twitches up. Amusement, most likely. Azusa will bet on amusement.
“Nonsense. Takeuchi, you look like you could use a drink to calm your nerves. Actually, you should come sit.” She sweeps her hand out to the table—shorter than it should be in this sort of situation, but she doesn’t like to follow rules sometimes—and towards the plates that were set out at her request. “We did set up for you both, after all.”
She winks at Takeuchi. Alright, he’s rather unamused, but she tilts her head and he follows, regardless. It’s times like this (as if she isn’t grateful most days) that she truly thanks the heavens for Takeuchi taking care of her, as he sits down without a word and begins eating. It’s not the first time she’s broken rules, unspoken or not, to foster friendship with him, anyway.
“You two are kind of close, aren’t you,” Akabane says with a laugh evident in his voice. “Wish you’d tell me how you got that to happen. Akizuki is a bit of a stickler for conduct, but I promise she’s good company.” He follows Azusa’s example and gestures for her to sit at the space in front of Takeuchi.
“Your Highness may be easier to handle if you are sitting rather than standing,” Takeuchi chimes in. The tone in Your Highness is fond and sarcastic, and Azusa’s already feeling slightly light-headed, her laugh bubbly.
“I—that’s rather rude of you—” Akizuki stutters, and it’s the first she’s seen her at a loss all night. “Your Highness—”
“He’s known me since I was a little babe,” she says dismissively, humour in her eyes. “It keeps me sane. Joking around, being casual. Sort of a requirement as royalty.”
Akabane’s eyes sparkle with laughter as his eyes turn back to Akizuki. “Pot, kettle.”
“I do have the decency to not make comments in public,” the knight says, defending herself.
“This is hardly public,” Akabane retorts.
Azusa watches in fascination as the two stare each other down, a conversation taking place right over her head; there’s no change in their expressions at all until Akizuki sighs, brow twitching. Her back is ramrod straight as she pulls out the chair with slightly more force than necessary, wooden legs scraping harshly across the ornate floors. She holds her cutlery like weapons and stabs at the food as if it were an opponent.
“Please, Akizuki-san, we have all the time in the world. Take your time eating,” Azusa says, refilling her glass with more wine.
“If I am being commanded to eat, then I shall do so, with all due respect.” She continues eating and looks back at Akabane, who smiles—it indicates to Azusa that this is not out of character for her, which means that Akizuki’s got an attitude when shes comfortable.
Oh, Azusa can live with this.
“And if I command you to drink as well?” She says, raising a wine bottle.
“If that is a challenge, my lady, I do accept.” Akizuki lifts her head up high, jaw strong, hint of a smile playing on her lips. She raises a hand, calloused and strong from her years of service, and Azusa refrains from asking exactly what kind of service those hands could provide for her.
Azusa pours everyone at the table a glass, Akizuki last. Raising her glass to signal a toast, she says, mustering the royal blood in her veins, “a toast. To a union, or perhaps two.”
Akabane snorts into his wine glass.
In the dining hall, the light staccato of raindrops has given way to the thundering of a god’s previously-restrained wrath, and Azusa is very much in love with Akizuki Ritsuko.
Akabane has gone somewhere with Takeuchi, perhaps to the guest chambers, and hopefully so; the latter is very much sober, with the former very much drunk, and Takeuchi—as he leaves—offers Azusa a questioning gaze. In it, he asks about her intentions with Ritsuko, with him and Akabane, and overall, if she knows what she’s doing.
She doesn’t. She’s not cognizant of it, at least; but her gut knows what it wants, and so she answers it all with another wink. Take care of him, Azusa hopes she says.
Nothing but the best. And he leaves, out a side door as to not alert the inhabitants of the castle, to take him to the guest room prepared for the two of them.
Next to her, she feels Ritsuko abort a movement to follow Akabane—she is so full of concern, or dedication to her duty, and Azusa wants that. Ritsuko is fiery, always thinking of other possibilities, challenging and snarky and kind all at once, and Azusa thinks, I had a good feeling about today’s suitor.
“Would you like,” she slurs, leaning a little more into Ritsuko, “to feel like a princess tonight?” She fiddles with the ringlet on top of her own head, carefully—so as not to disturb her hair—and removes it without waiting for an answer.
“I cannot, for it is not what has been asked of me.” Even so, Azusa places the ringlet on top of her head, and there’s a look of restrained wonder in Ritsuko’s eyes. "By my family, and the Royal family."
“And if it were I that asked it of you? I am royalty, after all.”
Ritsuko’s laugh is rusty from disuse, but no less beautiful. It echoes out of her chest, a windchime made of her ribs tittering in the breeze. “You’re impossible.”
“Not if you don’t want me to be.”
“I’m afraid that’s not for you to decide,” Ritsuko says, and Azusa feels something change when she closes her eyes in thought. “I cannot. It is simply out of the question for me to be doing—this.”
“Having a conversation?” Azusa asks, knowing where the conversation is headed.
“Having a conversation with these undertones.” Ritsuko’s eyes open again, more guarded than they have been all night. Azusa smiles, and it doesn’t quite reach her eyes; resigned, she leans back slightly, maintaining eye contact.
The circlet glitters on Ritsuko’s head, and it’s out of place. It only serves to emphasize the differences between them, how fragile Azusa’s hands were placing it on her head, how steady Ritsuko remained. It’s unfair how well today’s suitor meeting went; that they connected, found themselves reflected in the other, and had eyes for completely different people.
“What sort of undertones? It’s rather rude of you to assume that I follow,” Azusa says. “Perhaps we have drank too much. Shall you escort me to my room?”
The look Ritsuko gives her is full of exasperation, one born only out of fondness. “It seems to me as though you may have ulterior motives, Your Highness.”
“Perhaps.” Azusa smiles, back straight, standing up suddenly out of her chair. The quick movement blends seamlessly into how she leans down, tucking a strand of Ritsuko’s hair behind her ear, and kisses her—nothing but a brush of the lips, playful, smiling, remorseful.
Without waiting for an answer, she turns around to glide to the exit, feeling simultaneously chained to the other woman in the room and as if she were floating on air. Hand on the doorknob, she pauses. “I believe Takeuchi has taken Akabane-san to his own guest room and is standing guard there, waiting for us to follow. You are free to replace him, if you wish."
"This is an unfamiliar environment," Ritsuko says. She looks back at her, moving her head only enough to see her in the periphery, and she still feels blinded; there is blush high on her cheeks but her eyes never lose fire. "I may get lost."
"Understandable." Azusa says, the most cautiously she's been all night. "And if you were to stand post outside the wrong door?"
“I will guard you outside the door as if you were mine.” It knocks the wind almost completely out of her. It's bold and stated as a fact and—trying not to seem too surprised—she turns around to face her once again.
Her chin is raised high in some sort of defiance, and Azusa thinks as if it were possible for me to deny her a single thing. Maybe Ritsuko's words earlier were a precursor to this, a cocoon for how she now emerges, aware of the consequences but still playing around the borders of acceptable.
It's not ideal, but if Azusa plays her cards right, she and her suitor can continue to have meetings. It'll be a slow dance across the kingdoms, and it will reach its crescendo in due time. But for now, it is enough. So she takes the hand that is extended to her in this room and responds, “And, should I fall asleep, who will be there for me?”
Ritsuko leads, taking the first step. If, earlier, she has knocked the wind out of Azusa's lungs, then with her words now she refills them with a slow, steady trickle of water, threatening to drown her.
“Then, Azusa, we will meet again in your dreams.”
She stands to follow Azusa out of the room, and the dance begins.