It was comparatively easy to get by in England, because the name meant nothing except that she wasn't from these parts. Akihiko quickly got used to being the odd one out and settled down to ten years of a vague sort of existence, quietly tucked up in a corner while the other children played and laughed.
Her mother seemed to bounce in between treating her as a treasured doll, or like she simply didn't exist at all. She dictated Akihiko's life to the extreme at most parts – choosing only the prettiest dresses for her to wear every day, demanding that the maids do her hair in a certain fashion, deeming only certain past times suitable for a young girl - but then left Akihiko on her own aside from that. As a result, Akihiko spent a lot of time alone in her room, perched on a frilly pink bedspread and devouring fairy tales from the few books her mother thought suitable for a girl to read.
By the time Akihiko was eight, she hated these books, detested every single word of the fairy tales, and desperately loved them at the same time. While her mother roared and rampaged on the floors below her bedroom, Akihiko found the only escape possible in stories of princesses and the handsome princes and knights that came to save them. Of course, it was all ridiculous; the princesses were beautiful but apparently incapable of anything bar being rescued by handsome men, and while the mothers - or step-mothers - were mostly evil, none of them needed dragging from puddles of their own sick. Akihiko didn't think a fairy tale life was quite the one for her, even as she sat at her window and wished for a boy on a white charger to come galloping down the lane to the rescue.
At age ten, Akihiko's mother gave up and sent her daughter back to Japan. Under the confused attention of the servants, and to the embarrassed bafflement of the school she was immediately registered with, Akihiko changed her name to Aki and hoped no one would notice she still wrote her name with the full contingent of kanji.
Her father was a constantly distracted man, slightly too busy with business to mind his children too much. As far as Aki could tell, he would probably be quite a nice man, if only he had managed to get his priorities straight. She met him for the first time in her living memory at Narita Airport, and had been swung up into his arms like she had weighed nothing. It turned out that there was something very comforting about being in her father's presence, and Aki found herself drawn back to the fairy tales, where the fathers were so often good but painfully inept. It didn't help that he called her his 'princess', and fussed over her in the slightly hopeful manner of a father that was hoping his daughter would start to make sense to him sometime soon.
Within a week of her arriving in Japan, Aki had an entire new wardrobe of clothes and enough jewellery to make even her mother jealous. She toyed with it vaguely, but always ended up choosing the least girly outfits she could; her father's reaction to this was ambivalent, as he was clearly wobbling in between wanting her to grow into a lady, to marry into a good family and build helpful connections, or a woman, to actually help in the company by her own rights. Aki was fairly sure she didn't want to be either of those, but it seemed crass to mention it when she barely knew the man.
The house, which rivalled the size of the English mansion she'd grown up in, also contained her step-brother, Haruhiko, with whom Aki shared an uneasy sort of truce. As the oldest son Haruhiko seemed to be, even at the age of twelve, setting himself up for taking over the Usami company – he expected little more of his sister than for her to stay out of his way and try not to disgrace herself too much. He was less approving of Aki's refusal to dress up and act prettily but, as his sister remained quiet and absently polite to all people, he didn't complain. It helped that Aki's mere presence reduced her brother to embarrassed muttering – even his ten-year old stepsister made him awkward.
In the stories, stepsiblings were meant to be horrible. Haruhiko gave Aki a freshly gathered bouquet of flowers the first time they met, and she knew it couldn't be true in this case at all.
The boy that had woken her from sleep amid the blue and white and green of the clearing was fuming, huddled up in an awkward position beside her.
Words were flowing easily today, especially after her nap, and Aki's pencil was going blunt rapidly, her attention focused solely on getting her heroine to an epiphany. She only looked up when the burning pressure of the boy's gaze on her face became too much, and he flickered his cinnamon eyes away rapidly, flushing at being caught staring.
"So, uh, how'd you find this place?" he asked, his brows buckling down as he tried to look annoyed; nevertheless his tone was curious.
Aki recounted the tale of the kitten that had led her here and how the colours and light had captured her imagination. After she had finished speaking the boy stared at her, dumbstruck for a moment.
"Wait," he said eventually, "Aren't you a girl?"
"I'm glad you noticed," she replied, returning to her scribbling with a small smile on her face.
It was just one of those things that was never really mentioned between them. It never seemed to matter.
In school, the girls hated her and the boys fawned on her. That was fine by Aki – girls were not her speciality and there was a talent to getting by in a society of rich girls, which didn't involve being quiet, slightly chilly and thoroughly uninterested in looks.
By the time puberty hit, Aki had a strong male following – admittedly mostly at a distance. Hiroki had established himself as her protector in school, woe betiding the boy that tried to get past him, and Haruhiko, a very grown up fifteen to his sister's thirteen, shadowed her like a guard dog on the walk home from school.
The first person to slip through the net was Aki's tutor, who hesitantly touched one of her budding breasts while they were alone together in the mansion's library. He had begged her to sleep with him, promised her he could do it in a way that would technically retain her virginity. Aki had said nothing until the lesson was over and then she camped outside her father's bedroom door until his return late that night. She had blurted the whole unfortunate story right then and there, shaking with rage and shock under the fluffy blanket Tanaka-san had given her when she'd refused to move from the floor, and her father had listened with a rapt sort of attention Aki had never seen on him before.
With the beans spilt, her father had given her a reassuring hug, a kiss on the forehead and a promise he would fix it the next day. The tutor never reappeared in the Usami house, possibly never reappeared anywhere judging by the smirk that was plastered on Usami Fuyuhiko's face for the rest of the week, and Aki was very much assured that her position as her father's little princess was a handy one to have indeed.
Not to say, of course, that Usami Fuyuhiko had suddenly and mysteriously become parent of the year. Haruhiko was still under pressure to follow his father into business and to achieve astoundingly good school results in the process, and the man himself remained distant and unavailable for most intents and purposes. Aki was always struck by just how confused her father seemed to be as to any appearance of his children.
On finding she could no longer do up the buttons on any of her school shirts without the front straining alarmingly, Aki had gone on a hunt for Tanaka-san. The man was unfailing reliable and present in a way Usami Fuyuhiko had never managed to be, even if Aki still wasn't entirely sure what the butler's first name was, but today he was strangely absent. Forced to either risk it or just throw all caution to the wind and go to school half-naked, Aki turned to her father for once.
"Where's Tanaka-san, father?"
Usami Fuyuhiko was already in his study, wiling away the few minutes between his waking and going to the office by doing more work at home, and he looked tired and drawn when he finally tore his eyes from his paperwork. "He's sick with the flu, my darling. What do you need?"
"New shirts, father."
"Really? I could have sworn I bought you new ones at the start of the school year."
Aki glanced down at her chest and sighed. "You are aware I am a girl aren't you father?"
"Of course, darling, but I don't see how that changes –"
"A fourteen year old girl…" she tried, resisting the urge to cross her arms in case the strained buttons popped completely. "On the verge of womanhood..?"
The look of startled realisation on her father's face was endlessly entertaining, especially as he choked on his next words. "Fair enough," he croaked, "I'll tell one of the maids to get you sorted." He levelled his gaze on the front of her shirt and then whipped it away so fast Aki was surprised he didn't give himself whiplash. "Maybe you should wear your jumper today as well.."
"Thank you father." She turned to leave before he spoke again.
"Um… Are you... No… How's… everything… else?" He asked, uncharacteristically nervous. "Nothing… unexpected, I hope?"
"Father, I am fourteen," she sighed, turning slightly and catching a glimpse of his expression, half-concerned, half-mortified. "Don't worry, I spoke to Aunt Ayako about that years ago."
"…years…" he said faintly. Aki gave him a fleeting grin and left. Princesses didn't have problems like this.
At least Usami Fuyuhiko was a better parent than his wife. Usami Akina had not spent more than a couple months in total in Japan since Akihiko had moved there those five years earlier. Even her fleeting visits brought nothing but pain and aggravation.
Finding her daughter was no longer a pliable, pretty child but a headstrong teenager seemed to upset Akina greatly. Every interaction between the two would end in a fight, and these fights could last for hours, only ending when it became physical and the servants would have to drag them apart.
This time was little different – Aki had only wanted to escape the house for a couple hours and meet with Hiroki, but her mother had intercepted her and taken exception to Aki wanting to go and meet with a boy. It had worsened from there and now Akina had a grip on a handful of Aki's hair, screaming, "You are my daughter, you little bitch! Don't you fucking forget it!"
When the servants managed to pry them apart, Aki had fled for the safety of her room and had only snapped back to regular comprehension when she found herself in front of a mirror.
Even if she had wanted to, there was no way Aki could forget her parentage. Aside from the stupid name – a family tradition paired with her father's absent idiocy – the face that stared back at her held the image of both her parents, now more so than ever as she edged into adulthood. Her mother's fine bone structure and silvery blondness combined with her father's high cheekbones and cold blue eyes. It all made for a handsome, rather than pretty, face; attractive in its androgynous fashion. But it was the hair, princess-esque locks that tumbled to her waistline, that made it obvious she was someone's daughter.
The scissors she found in a drawer were blunt, dragging strands out even as it sliced through the knot of hair she had gathered in her fist at the nape of her neck. Cool air swirled about her neck as the first cut strands fell forward against her cheeks and she threw the tattered remains of her ponytail to the ground. Already her head felt lighter – whether it was the absent weight of the hair or the freedom to think differently about herself, she wasn't sure. Even better, she no longer looked like fucking Rapunzel.
"Jesus Christ, what did you do to your hair?" Hiroki had stopped in horror, staring at his friend. "You look like a guy!"
Aki rolled her eyes and heaved her school bag slightly higher on her shoulder – it was brushing against side of her skirt and rolling it up her thigh. "You know how to charm a lady, Hiroki."
Takahashi Takahiro, on the other hand, did actually know how to charm a lady, albeit it in a sort of helpless, unaware sort of way. His peculiar brand of naïve kindness and affection regardless of who it was applied to, along his determined averageness, leant him an almost immediate place in Aki's heart. She wanted him to be her knight in shining armour, even as she told herself she was sixteen and tired of the princess stories by now.
It was a devastating sort of crush to a girl who had never really crushed on anyone before. No one had attracted her attention in the same sort of way Takahiro had managed. She practically draped herself over him every possible opportunity she had, and he never seemed to realise just how deeply her emotions ran. Even as Hiroki rolled his eyes and declared it all the most undignified thing he'd ever seen, Takahiro just thought Aki was being friendly and nothing more.
It would have to do.
Somewhere along the road, a seventeen year old Aki realised, her father had given up on her becoming a lady. In retrospect it was probably when she'd hacked off all her hair and started smoke like a chimney stack that he might have got the idea his daughter was never going to be meek and subservient to anyone.
"I will do law, but, and this is the important bit, father, I'm not necessarily going to work for the company. You do understand that, right?"
He was already talking about calling a friend of his that operated an important business law firm in the city, so Aki suspected he had once again only heard the part of the sentence he wanted to.
"Father," she growled, "You are not listening to me."
"Of course I am, darling," he said, still in that vague tone that Aki knew never boded well.
"No, you are not!" She stood up, nearly knocking her chair over and snapped, "I am doing this to prove to you that I would hate a life in the company. And once the degree is over, I'm going my own way."
"So, you're doing this to spite me, essentially?"
"If I was doing this to spite you, would I have told you before time?" She sighed, deflating slightly. It was hard disappointing her father, but the man had to be taught his boundaries if she didn't want to go the way of Haruhiko. "If it turns out I have a massive change of heart, then I'll join the company, but otherwise…" She shrugged.
Across the table her father blinked and then shrugged as well. "All right. I suppose it means we both have a few years to prove our cases." He stood, much more calmly than his daughter had done and came around the desk. "Give me a hug and we can agree on it."
"A handshake is more traditional," Aki pointed out.
"A handshake is for stuffy old businessmen, not fathers and daughters."
Sometime in the middle of her university life, as she struggled to keep herself alive amid the tutorials and essays and churning out the novels she had discovered a talent for writing, Hiroki had visited. He had found her miserable and moping, weighed down with her workload and a sudden, grim realisation that Takahiro wasn't going to realise how she actually felt.
"Aki," he said, pushing her down onto the sofa and pressing a cup of steaming coffee into her shaking fingers, "I need to tell you something."
"What?" she groaned, only barely resisting the urge to shove her entire face into the coffee mug and drown herself in caffeine.
"This is important, so listen!" he barked, throwing himself onto the sofa opposite. He was nervous, Aki noted groggily, fidgeting and refusing to meet her gaze, which he always did when he was upset and not willing to show it. "I-I'm…" He squeezed his eyes closed and then it all came in a rush of words. "I'm gay, Aki, and you better be ok with it because I can't change it. God knows I've tried but I really just can't. I really thought you might be the one, but there was always that nagging sensation in my head that it just wasn't right, and I've realised now why. 'Cause I'm gay."
Aki blinked at him once, twice, and then shrugged, "Ok, fair enough."
Hiroki gaped at her. "Is that all you're going to say?" he spluttered.
"Well, congratulations then!" Aki rolled her eyed and got up, plunking herself on the seat next to her friend and leaning her head on his shoulder. She spoke more honestly next, in a kinder voice, "Thank you for telling me."
Hiroki grumbled something in an undertone and blushed even more heavily, but he stayed still and let Aki relax against him.
"Wait…" Something triggered a retrospective reaction in her head. "You thought I was the one?"
In the end, Aki came out with a law degree, head of her class at a prestigious school, and hated it just as she predicted she would. Grudgingly, but obedient to his word, her father backed off and Aki flitted off to make a hell of a lot of money writing novels.
Even her obsession with Takahiro was of benefit – her written fantasies about him, complete with a few changes such as the substitution of a Y chromosome for one of her Xs, enjoyed a ceratin amount of success in the BL market and made her editor very pleased indeed. Aikawa Eri was a woman who matched the stereotype of an angry redhead far too closely, but she and Aki appeared to share many of the same interests. If Aki hadn't been such a terrible person with her deadlines, or Aikawa hadn't been her editor, there would have been a truly magical friendship there. As it was they were still good friends, but the tensions ran too high for either of them to stand the other's presence for more than a couple hours without tempers flaring.
Meanwhile Aki's actual relationship with Takahiro went nowhere, aside from branching into the annoying side track of having to tutor his little brother.
Takahashi Misaki made the mistake of waking Usami Akihiko up just shy of noon, screaming about the perverted nature of the BL books written under her name. Never a morning person, she heaved herself out of her bed and pinned him to the wall with her stare and the effect of her morning-perked nipples under a thin black shirt.
"It doesn't hurt him because he doesn't know," she said, flattening her sleep ruffled hair.
"You can't write stuff like this!"
"Well, I have already."
"Listen, you harpy, why do you have to write this shit about my brother? You could write it about any man!"
Aki's temper, stressed already by the sudden waking, went 'ping'. She slammed a hand against the young man's chest and snarled in his face, "Then why not you?"
Nothing really came of it, Aki deciding she would have to much more fucked up to try anything on the whimpering boy, but their relationship remained slightly distant even as they grew more used to the other.
The addition of Kajiwara Manami to the equation changed things rapidly, and even though Aki took it with grace and joy on the outside, the little girl inside still kind of hoping for the handsome prince collapsed with tears.
So, oddly, did Takahashi Misaki. It was such a strange reaction, a dirty way of crying, stealing someone else's emotions to do so, and Aki loved him for it. She hadn't cried in front of anyone since she had been a baby, never even felt the compulsion to do so, but that night she cast her arms over Misaki's neck and leant her head down onto his shorter shoulder so she could sniffle just a bit. He was kind enough to let her.
Takahashi Misaki was a young man, and his explanation for the name was that his mother had been so convinced she was having a girl she had ignored the obvious signs on the scans that the child was a boy. And the name had, unfortunately, stuck.
He was coming into his prime very gradually; in his last year of high school he had managed to grow at least a foot taller, but remained willowy and pretty rather than broad and handsome like his older brother.
Happily, in a way, it turned out that some women, or at least one woman, kind of liked that in a man. He was losing count of the times he had woken in Usagi-san's bed instead of his own, with a grown woman using him as a hot water bottle.
"You are an embarrassment to adulthood, you harpy," he told her, picking one of her limbs off like a man prying a mollusc from a rock, "Get off so I can make breakfast."
"Will you be my wife?" mumbled Aki, nose deep in the pillows still.
Misaki would never have normally admitted it, but he was delighted when he found the small stack of fairy tales on one of Usagi-san's shelves. He had always loved these stories whenever he was a kid, and the glamour hadn't worn off as he had gotten older. It was even better that the pages were well-thumbed and slightly bent by less graceful hands, and the spines curved with use – it meant these books had been read repeatedly, presumably by Usagi-san herself.
Aki was trapped downstairs as Aikawa-san struggled to persuade her to show up to an awards ceremony – "If I have to wear a dress, I'm not going!" – so Misaki was able to settle down and have a quick read through one of the simpler books, translating from the English type to Japanese out loud. He was so enraptured he didn't notice the door slam downstairs and the pad of soft feet approaching the study. Aki stood in the doorway and listened as her lover mumbled out the words as the princess finally met her prince and they lived happily ever after, drawing softly on her cigarette.
When the story was done, Misaki carefully placed the book back and then nearly leapt through the ceiling when Aki spoke.
"I haven't been able to bring myself to touch those books since I was ten," she said, considering the glowing tip of the cigarette calmly. "I read them too much; got sick of the contents, you see."
"I'm sorry for prying," the young man said nervously, but Aki waved him down.
"They're nothing but childish memories to me. Read them if you want."
"Oh. Thank you!" Misaki grinned for a second and then the smile faded into a smaller form, warmer and nostalgic. "I used to read things like that all the time – it was my favourite pastime, to play 'save the princess' and stuff like that." The smile faded a bit more. "Although I never could honestly place myself as the knight in shining armour. I'd be too scared to fight dragons!" He laughed nervously and then descended into a gloomy, embarrassed silence.
Aki puffed out a mouthful of smoke and said, "I never wanted to be the princess. I think we might suit each other."
"Guys at uni were asking about my girlfriend today," Misaki said hesitantly. He was always kind of nervous when Usagi-san was in one of her moods, smoking like a chimney and generally being a very difficult person. This time it was a plot failure on something Aikawa-san had previously cooed over, her editor senses for a bestseller tingling, and Usagi-san was well and truly against the wall.
"Oh." Aki had kind of grown used to being the dirty secret at this point. Misaki was under her thrall, that was enough, and he certainly didn't protest much anymore; he was embarrassed, no doubt, that this relationship wasn't all roses and joy and sweetness and romance, but what relationship was? Everything was a bit fucked-up, and Aki counted her blessings that this relationship wasn't actually that bad. There had been worse.
"So, I said I was going out with an older woman and of course they all jumped on me like it was some sort of revelation even though you've been picking me up from school for weeks and everyone recognises you and I was so surprised that they hadn't realised I just burst into laughter and now some of them think I'm kidding an- Mmf!" He pried her off, and gaped at her, now bouncing in front of him like an excited rabbit, "How the hell did you move so fast?"
"You told them?"
"Aha…" Misaki scrunched up his nose, cheeks pinkening with embarrassment. Aki could see the faint patches of stubble he'd need to think about shaving soon, the angle where his jaw was starting to broaden, the tightness of his shirt across widening shoulders. He was slowly catching up to her on height; maybe within the year she wouldn't have to bend her head to kiss him. "Well, yeah. I did."
"Thank you, Misaki," she said honestly.
He blushed bright crimson and leant up to kiss her instead. Well, why not? It wasn't happily ever after, but it worked just fine in the end.