She would never admit it, but Sae appreciated student council meetings. She liked seeing all the mundane, behind the scenes details of student life distilled into piles of paperwork and Tatewaki’s surprisingly professional PowerPoint slides. Hitsugi was the only one with any real power—well, and Shizuku, who did most of the actual administrative work (not that Shizuku would ever deny Hitsugi anything ) —but Sae knew there were ways to work the system. You just had to know what buttons to push.
“The Takarazuka Club wants a winter ball?” Shizuku asked, frowning down at the application in her hands. It was a last minute addition to the agenda, the copies still smelling faintly of toner. “What are they thinking? There are only three weeks left in the semester, there’s no time to put it together.”
She should know better , Sae mused, watching Hitsugi’s eyes light up. Kaicho can’t resist a challenge .
“The club says they’ll take care of planning and setup.” Sae pointed out, tapping her own copy. “All we need to do is provide space and funding.”
There were groans from half the table. “What are you doing ?” Akira hissed, leaning in next to her. “We just had that stupid maid festival! This would mean more work and more embarrassing costumes.” Sae gave her a gentle I know what I’m doing kick and Akira sat back, scowling.
“Takarazuka, that’s all cross-dressing and shit, right?” On Akira’s other side, Sid tipped her chair back and strummed a chord on her omnipresent guitar. “Like Sister Ray , fuck yeah. ‘Bout time we got some fucking punk rock up in here.”
“Do you have any idea what you’re talking about?” Alice groaned next to her. “Because I don’t.” Sid gave her sister-in-arms the middle finger and went back to her guitar, the twanging turned petulant.
“ Anyway ,” Shizuku said over the rising noise. “Even with the planning taken care of, students would need clothing; the application’s very insistent about dress code. And dance lessons, the high schoolers have all had ballroom dance for physical education but the middle-schoolers haven’t.” She looked to Hitsugi beseechingly.
“I think,” Hitsugi considered, then declared: “this is an excellent idea. Drama! Passion!” She smacked her hand on the table for emphasis, scattering paperwork in all directions. “The girls of the Takarazuka club have come to us with courage and determination in their hearts, who are we to deny them?” Her face and hair glowed, the white of her uniform was all but blinding. Hitsugi paused and looked down at herself, frowning. “Tatewaki, turn that off.”
“I’m sorry, Hitsugi-sama!” Tatewaki said from the bank of light switches. “You were so inspiring, I thought it would be—”
“Then stop thinking. Now,” she continued, ignoring Tatewaki’s wails. “Clothing. Shizuku, contact the Amachi Fashion House. Have them send a team over. I’ll cover costs for students who can’t afford suitable attire on their own.”
“Yes, Kaicho,” Shizuku sighed.
“As for the dancing...Sae, Akira, you’re both formally trained, correct? You can handle the lessons.”
“I told you,” Akira muttered sourly, slouching into her chair.
“ No .”
Sae looked up from answering a question about footwork to see Mudou and Kurogane at the door of the gym, arguing and blocking the way. The closest sword-bearers edged away nervously.
“But Ayana, how can we have our super romantic dance scene if we don’t practice?” Kurogane flung her arms out in a loose—very loose—approximation of a slow waltz and shuffled back and forth. “Do you want to lead? I can be the girl if you want me to!”
“Maybe she wants to dance with someone more her size,” Kuga said from the hallway, ducking under Mudou’s outstretched arm and grabbing one of Kurogane’s hands. “Someone who fits her, if you know what I mean.” She winked and started twirling the smaller girl in tight circles.
“Is that true, Ayana?” Kurogane broke free and stumbled dizzily to her sister-in-arms, clutching at her leg. “Am I too small to satisfy your needs?”
Mudou made an inarticulate growling noise and took a threatening step forward, fists clenched. Everyone who wasn’t Kurogane or Kuga took a large step back. Sae sensed that was her cue to intervene.
“I’ll be back in a moment,” she told Akira, who followed her line of sight and rolled her eyes. Sae jumped from their makeshift raised platform and quickly wove her way through the crowd.
“Mudou-san, may I borrow you for a minute?” she asked, casually prying Kurogane away and handing her to Kuga. “I’m sure Kuga-san can help Kurogane-san with the basics.” She had no idea if Kuga knew how to dance, but anything that kept her away from the more vulnerable students was a good thing.
“I guess?” Mudou said, reluctantly following as Sae turned away.
Behind them, Kurogane said “be gentle with me, Jun Jun! It’s my first time!” and Sae quickened her pace, taking Mudou’s hand to pull her along.
“Sorry,” Mudou muttered as they make their way back to the center of the gym. “I knew what they’d be like, don’t know why I came.”
Because that’s how you and Kurogane work , Sae didn’t say. “To learn how to dance, I’d imagine. The ball isn’t only for sisters-in-arms; isn’t there anyone else you’d like to dance with?”
Mudou’s eyes darted automatically to where Kamijou Maki and her partner were practicing the foxtrot, laughing as they fumbled through the steps. “No,” she said. It was adorable.
They reached the platform and climbed up, joining Akira and the blushing first year she’d acquired in the past minute. “Excellent. And since my partner has been co-opted, I need you for this next dance.”
“What?” Mudou started, looking wildly around her as if only then noticing where she was. “You mean in front of everyone?”
“Yes.” Sae arranged them for the start of a Viennese waltz, her hand settling firmly on Mudou’s waist. The other girl was white and stiff, clutching at Sae’s shoulder. So there’s still something the terrible Mudou Ayana is afraid of? She’ll need to get over that if she wants to be real competition.
None of this was revenge for breaking their record, of course, but the sharp smile Akira gave her was nice regardless.
“Okay, everyone, we’re going to start on our next dance. The Viennese Waltz is faster than the slow waltz, but the starting position is the same...”
“So, are you ever gonna let me in on what you’re up to?” Akira asked from their living room, not looking up from where she’s sprawled across the couch reading Sae’s copy of Tsuki no Kage, Kage no Umi . She’d waited until the night before the ball, holding out much longer than Sae’d expected.
“Hmm?” Sae stopepd brushing her hair, still damp from the bath, and wandered through her open bedroom door. “What do you mean?”
She wasn’t going to make it easy , not when teasing her sister-in-arms was so much fun.
“I’m not stupid,” Akira set the book aside and crossed her arms. “You had your calm-but-secretly-gloating face on during the whole council meeting, you didn’t fight the dance lessons even though you hate teaching people shit and,” she jabbed an accusatory finger at the garment bags draped across Sae’s reading chair. “Those got done way too fast.”
“They came!” Sae exclaimed, rushing across the room. “Akira, why didn’t you hang them up? So lazy!” She gathered up both bags and swept into her room, hanging them up in the wardrobe where she kept her white uniforms. She had to fight the miles of tulle on the skirts to get it closed again.
“Didn’t know where you wanted them.” Akira said, following her. “And you didn’t answer my question. Look.” She leaned back against the door jamb. “I don’t care what you’re up to - you want to wear a big frilly dress and dance at a ball? That’s freaking weird but fine, you’re my partner, I’ll help. I want to help. But you’re not making it easy.”
“You’re always telling me not to worry about things, that you’ve got everything under control. And I believe you. Nothing can stop you when you put your mind to it.” She said it with gratifying conviction. “But you don’t have to do it alone. You know you can trust me, Sae, so trust me. Let me in once in a while.”
Sae couldn’t quite meet her eyes. Akira always surprised her, in the end. “I got a call from my mother last week,” she admitted, keeping her tone light. “About New Year’s. Word’s gotten back to her that I’m not spending enough time with your honorable cousin and she’s worried about our ‘future happiness’. She’s set up half a dozen dates for us next week on top of inviting him to come with us to the shrine.” Sae had expected it, planned for it, but that hadn’t made it any less annoying. She’d wanted to see Akira at least once during the holiday.
“I was approached by the president of the Takarazuka club right after. She wanted to ask about funding for a party. It sounded like fun.”
“And you wanted something you could control,” Akira said.
“Yes,” Sae admitted. It was half of the truth, after all.
The other half, Sae thought as she struggled into her ridiculous dress the following evening, was that she wants to dance with Akira. Wanted a lot of things, but right then shed settle for the feel of Akira’s hands and the way they’d move together, so much closer than in battle (and it’d been months since they crossed blades with anyone). She wanted something she could carry with her into the new year.
And Akira was right, about the trust. Sae couldn’t give up all of her secrets at once, not without screwing with Akira’s focus—Akira needed to defeat Hitsugi, needed to make one last grand bid for her father’s attention—but she could give her one.
The Tenshi Academy auditorium was completely transformed the night of the ball. The walls had been repainted in creams and golds with columns and intricate detailing everywhere, the wooden floors polished until they shine. Chandeliers hung at regular intervals and the ceiling was covered in a mural of the evening sky, winged women with swords battling between the clouds. Sae had the sinking suspicion Hitsugi was going to make it a permanent fixture.
A giant staircase rose above it all, winding gently from the catwalk above the stage down to the floor. Sae and the rest of the student council—those who showed up on time—were ensconced at the top, hidden behind a glittering curtain. It was almost two stories tall; they had to take a lift up.
Down on the stage, the Takarazuka club was wrapping up an excerpt from the Floral Dance Scrolls to the applause of the student body. Sae was honestly impressed, she'd wanted a dance and the club had more than delivered.
“I think this fucking thing is trying to kill me,” Sid whined next to her, tugging at her tie. “And my head feels funny.” It was the first time Sae had seen her without her headband, her slicked back hair making her face long and unfamiliar. In her gray suit with the jacket missing and her black shirt-sleeves rolled above her elbows, she almost looked like someone to take seriously.
“These costumes were your idea,” Alice reminded her partner, slapping Sid's hand away from her neck. “You’ve been Bonnie & Clyde this and Bonnie & Clyde that for weeks . Stop whining.”
“It is a totally bitching outfit,” Sid admitted. “And you look fucking anarchistic in that turtleneck thing. But,” her hands unmoored and twitching, “are you sure I can’t have my guitar? Just to carry around?”
“Yes,” Alice said firmly.
A low mechanical growl sounded below them, shaking the staircase and making them all turn, reaching for swords that weren't there. The lift slowly carried Hitsugi and Shizuku into view, Akira wedged in behind them.
Hitsugi was resplendent as Lady Oscar— of course she’s Lady Oscar, of course—her curled hair striking against the red of her military jacket. She’d gotten to keep her sword, Sae noted. She didn’t think she’d ever seen their Kaicho without it. Shizuku was dressed as André. Am the only person in the school with any subtlety?
“What? Something wrong with my costume?” Akira looked down at herself. “It better not be the wig. I just spent thirty minutes having it fussed over. How hard is it to put on a wig?”
“No, it’s,” Sae reached up and brushed a finger across the silver braids at Akira’s temple. “It looks good. You look good.”
Very, very good: black shirt and black pants and black boots, a great black coat unfurled around her, accented in silver to match her wig. It made a slow shiver of want curled in Sae’s stomach and she took a deep breath to fight it back. “Der Tod suits you.”
“Thanks, I guess,” Akira said, face going pink. “You look good too. Very, uh. Very fluffy.”
Sae rolled her eyes but was stopped from saying anything scathing by Hitsugi’s voice, booming through a dozen speakers. “LADIES, YOU HAVE ALL SHONE BRILLIANTLY THIS YEAR.” Sae pivots and saw that the curtain drawn back to reveal Hitsugi to the crowd below.
“Almost time, I guess,” Akira said, leaning close to be heard. “Shall we?” She offered Sae her arm, smiling self-consciously.
“AS SHIZUKU HAS TOLD ME ON MULTIPLE OCCASIONS, THIS BALL WAS A TERRIBLE IDEA. THAT IT HAS WORKED ANYWAY IS A TESTIMONY TO THE GUTS AND DETERMINATION OF THE TAKARAZUKA CLUB AS WELL AS ALL OF YOU HERE TONIGHT. ENJOY IT AS IS YOUR DUE.”
The music swelled around them as they descended and Sae let herself be caught up in the moment, enjoying the swirl of Elisabeth's white gown around her and the weight of Akira’s arm intertwined with her own.
The president and vice-president of the Takarazuka club were waiting for them on the floor, all four pairs taking up position as the music changed to signal the first dance. Sae placed her right hand in Akira’s left and curtsied deeply, grinning as the students around them rushed to catch up. Everything failed to dissolve into chaos, which she took as a credit to her teaching skills.
The minuet wasn’t the best dance for what she was about to do, it's wasn’t intimate enough, but the timing was right. “I want to tell you something.”
“What’s that?” Akira asked, moving in step beside her.
“I’m not going to marry Ryouichi.”
“You’re what? You’re not?” Akira came to an abrupt halt and Sae had to push her to get them moving again. “How long?”
“Since the end of last year.” Since the first time I wished it was you instead of him . “I’ve been saving money from the Hoshitori since we started, but that’s when I decided.”
“I feel like I should be protesting on behalf of my family,” Akira said. “But fuck that.”
They danced in silence for a moment, Akira’s hand tight around Sae’s. Then Akira broke out into a grin, brilliant and happy. “I’m glad. You know I’m with you on this, right?”
“I know.” Sae had a million plans stretching out into the future, one for every contingency she could think of. This was the first time she could see her way to the one she wanted most of all, gleaming in the distance, humming in Akira’s hand on hers.
It was a beginning.