Actions

Work Header

Cinderella

Work Text:

Once upon a time in a faraway kingdom...

“Do we really need this many knights helping? It’s just a birthday party,” Maezono Kenta asked as he stretched. They all heard the sound of his joints cracking and mentally winced in sympathetic pain.

“Yeah, but we can’t slack.” Kawakami Norifume stifled a yawn. “The king and queen are worried about Tetsu-oujisama’s single status. So they’re using Masashi-oujisan’s 15th birthday as an excuse to find him a bride.”

“That’s pretty cold. Way to tell their son how much they care about him,” Kuramochi Youichi mumbled. As an only child, he had a hard time imagining how the Masashi might feel. But he figured it at least left a bitter taste in the young prince’s mouth.

“It’s just a fifteenth birthday,” Miyuki Kazuya reminded him with a shrug. “It’s not like it’s the coming of age ceremony.”

“Head Knight incoming,” Shirasu Kenjirou warned them.

They quickly straightened and pretended to be hard at work. The Head Knight Tanba Koichiro nodded at them as he passed, followed closely by Isashiki Jun and Kominato Ryosuke. From their rush, the younger knights wouldn’t be shocked if Prince Tetsu had wandered off to town to play shogi without notifying anyone again. It wasn’t that the Crown Prince was headstrong and stubborn without any regards to anyone. It was more that he was quite air-headed at times and most likely forgot that he should let someone know before going off.

“Whoever ends up as his bride is going to go gray before she hit her thirties…”

Time left until Tetsu meet his love: 30 Days.

*

The weeks leading up to the young prince’s birthday felt like a never ending nightmare.

Youichi left the slums to brave being one of the King’s Knights. These days, however, he felt more and more like a palace maid, forced to help with decorating and cleaning for the sake of foreign dignitaries and nobles.

“Ryo-san, have you had lunch yet?” Youichi called as he held up the basket filled with rice balls.

The pink haired knight was sitting under a tree’s shade in the gardens. He lazily waved Youichi over, offering a bottle of water in return for the rice balls.

“This is brutal,” Ryo mumbled as he bit into a rice ball. “Did Takako-chan make this?”

“Huh? How could you tell?”

Ryo smiled mysteriously but didn’t answer. “How are you keeping up with everything? If it’s too much for you, just say the word and we’ll replace you. There are plenty talented knights eyeing your spot.”

“As always, you’re so cruel…” Youichi sighed. “It’s nothing I can’t handle, but I’ll be glad when the ball is behind us.”

“Don’t think too badly of everyone,” Ryo said, surprising Youichi. “They just really want our ditzy prince to finally find the one.”

Before Youichi could voice his shock at Ryo’s gentleness, Ryo was called away by a “family emergency.” The smile on Ryo’s face never slipped, but Youichi could feel the unease radiating off of him. As a slum rat, Youichi wasn’t well-versed in the nobility status and squabbles. But from what he had been able to pick up, the Kominato noble family had been slowly falling through the ages. Ryo, as the eldest, was trying to bring the former glory back to his family by becoming a knight. It looked as if the rest of the family wasn’t too keen on it, though.

“Must be rough,” he thought to himself.

He picked up a rice ball and took a huge bite out of it. He regretted it immediately. The rice ball’s center wasn’t anything edible. In fact, it was the seed of a peach. Did Takako often put things like this in rice balls? Was that how Ryo knew right away it was her who made these?

Kuramochi shook his head. No wonder no one else wanted these.

Time left until Tetsu meet his love: 26 Days.

*

“Kuramochi, you look free. With us!” Isashiki shouted as he ran by, strapping on a sword. Behind him trailed Zono and Miyuki, also hurriedly grabbing their respective weapons.

“I’m sorry, Isashiki-san. Azuma-san said-”

“Tch! Fine!” Isashiki snapped. “If you see Ryo, tell him to catch up. It’s the bandits again!”

Time left until Tetsu meet his love: 18 Days.

*

“I think I prefer the bandits over helping with the ball,” Youichi groaned.

“Don’t we all,” Nori mumbled, rubbing his shoulders. “I can’t wait for this to be over.”

“Once it’s all over, we’ll have to help clean everything,” Shirasu reminded them unhelpfully.

“Noooo,” Zono howled. “Don’t say it! It makes me depressed just thinking about it!”

“Tetsu-oujisama better as hell find someone amazing!”

Time left until Tetsu meet his love: 14 Days.

*

“Ryo-san, do you have…” The rest of the question died in Youichi’s throat.

“Kuramochi, good timing,” Ryo said. He none-too-gently pushed a young man who looked strikingly a lot like him forward. “This is Haruichi, my brother. Show him the ropes, won’t you?”

“I said I won’t run, aniki,” Haruichi muttered darkly. But Ryo just smiled back in answer.

“Uh… I’m Kuramochi,” Youichi offered awkwardly. “Nice to meet you.”

The younger Kominato stayed quiet. With his pink bangs hiding most of his face, Youichi couldn’t tell what he was thinking at all. Finally, Haruichi let out a soft sigh and nodded his head in a polite greeting.

“Pleasure.”

Time left until Tetsu meet his love: 11 Days.

*

“What do you mean we’re out of plums?!”

Youichi flinched at the screech from the kitchen. He instinctively grabbed Haruichi to stop him from going inside.

“Kuramochi-san, we need to deliver the apples,” Haruichi stated.

“Yes, but we also don’t want to earn the wrath of the kitchen staff,” Youichi said. “Bad things happen when you anger people who make you food.”

Haruichi sighed. He placed the box outside the kitchen door and began to walk away. “We have other things we need to be doing,” he reminded Youichi.

Polite but detached, as if he was just tolerating Youichi’s behaviors. It reminded Youichi of his early days at the castle, as he followed Ryo unquestioningly around. Back then, Ryo had been detached too, a bit cruel, perhaps, but still…

“Brothers,” Youichi sighed.

Time left until Tetsu meet his love: 9 Days.

*

“Haha! The older Kominato wasn’t enough, so you’re making moves on the younger one?” Miyuki laughed over dinner.

“Shut up! It’s not like that. Ryo-san asked me to take care of him.”

Miyuki mused over that as he took a bite.

“He’s a cold brat, though,” Youichi grumbled. “Not cute at all.”

“Oh, that’s right. You weren’t there, were you?”

“Hm?”

“The younger Kominato was part of the bandit attack last time.”

Youichi remembered Ryo rushing off because of a family emergency. Was that because of…?

“What a brat, causing so much trouble for Ryo-san…”

Miyuki smiled wirly. “If it’s for the sake of your goals, sometimes, it can’t be helped.”

“You speak like you know what they’re going through.”

“Oh hey, it’s Ryo-san!”

Youichi’s head snapped up, back straightening. But Ryo was nowhere to be seen. He didn’t have to turn back around to know that Miyuki was laughing.

“You damned tanuki!”

Time left until Tetsu meet his love: 6 Days.

*

“No more, no more!” Youichi whined as he collapsed to the ground.

“The guests start arriving tomorrow,” Zono grunted. “At least we should be back to our normal knightly duties.”

“That’s assuming we’re done with the preps,” Nori reminded them. “We can’t just abandon it. What would people think of our kingdom?”

“I wonder what kind of a person would fall in love with our dork of a prince…”

Time left until Tetsu meet his love: 4 Days.

*

Colors of the rainbow dyed the fabrics of the dresses and suits the nobles wore. Despite having been a castle knight for the past two years, Youichi still felt uncomfortable in their presence. If he got too close, it always felt like he might taint the colors and dirty it somehow. It was much better to hang back, out of sight as horses brought lords and ladies from far away kingdoms.

“Oh, are you hiding from them, too, Haruichi?” Youichi asked when he spotted the younger Kominato.

Haruichi flinched at the voice but quickly calmed when he realized it was just Youichi. “I’m sure you’ve heard. Kominatos aren’t popular with the upperclass nowadays.”

But wasn’t that because of you? Youichi shook his head and refused to give in to the urge to ask that question. Besides, if Ryo found out that Youichi thought like that, he’d probably end up taking care of the horses for the rest of the year.

“Kuramochi, nice timing. Care for a game of shogi?”

“Tetsu-oujisama! Shouldn’t you be greeting the guests?!” Youichi didn’t mean to squawk. He kept an eye out for an angry storm that was undeniably Isashiki as he tried to come up with ways to keep the Crown Prince here at the castle instead of in the town.

“They were bored by my talk of shogi. As the Crown Prince, I mustn’t bore them. So I left,” Tetsu reasoned.

Didn’t normal princes come to the conclusion to not talk about shogi and instead talk about things that the guests would be entertained by? Youichi turned to Haruichi. Surely, the younger Kominato knew how to play? All nobles knew how to play, right? But Haruichi didn’t look very interested. Instead, he seemed to be glaring at the grass growing by his feet.

“I don’t know how to play,” Youichi admitted in the end.

“That’s a shame. I shall find Masashi then.”

“Please stay in the castle!”

Time left until Tetsu meet his love: 2 Days.

*

Although the ball itself started at 7pm, the entire day felt like one long festival. No matter where Youichi turned, he ran into someone with fancy dress and elegant jewelries. Even in his knightly attire, he felt out of place. But no one said a single remark to or about him (then again, why would they ruin a perfectly good day by talking to a slum rat?).

“I think it’s… this way…?”

Youichi peered around the corner and spotted a young maiden who looked lost. The top part of her hair was pulled back in a neat ponytail tied by a cute bow while the rest of her hair fell behind her. Her wide brown eyes radiated an air of innocence that Youichi couldn’t help but to find adorable. He wasn’t too good with what passed for fashion (especially not about dresses), but he couldn’t help but to be in awe of the orange-tinged dress that seemed to have borrowed its colors from a sunset. She carried a small matching purse that was bulging with something. But what caught his eyes in the end, were the twigs and leaves sticking out of her hair and the mud on her golden slipper. Had her carriage broken down? Did she walk to here from wherever she was from?

“Are you alright, miss?”

The maiden spun around, causing the dress to flare. Her face flushed red and she opened her mouth as if to shout. But instead, she quickly held her hand over her mouth and took a deep breath. Then, she said calmly, “I-I’m fine. Just… lost…”

Her voice was softer and quieter than Youichi expected. From the initial reaction, he expected a loud yell and indignified screeching. Perhaps she was one of those girls who tried to look classy in front of other people?

“The ball is that way,” Youichi said, pointing. “You’re a little late, though.”

Her blush deepened. “I know,” she mumbled. “Uh… The prince…”

“He’s there at the ball.” Or at least he was the last time Youichi peered in. Who knew with Tetsu, though?

“I see… Thank goodness…”

There were private moments in people’s lives that the rest of the world should not see. The soft smile of relief on the maiden’s face was definitely not something Youichi should have seen. He turned around quickly, hoping against hope that he could erase the smile from his mind. It wasn’t meant for him, you see. That smile was something private, something sacred. But his face betrayed him by heating up and his heart betrayed him by racing. He felt his body tremble and oh thank god, he was looking away. How uncool he must seem in front of her!

“Thank you, kind knight!”

He sneaked a look at the bright smile (this time, all for him!) as the maiden waved. She then turned and determinedly walked towards the ballroom.

Youichi opened his mouth then shut it. What was he supposed to say anyways? But as a knight, he supposed he could watch over her. Just to make sure that she didn’t get lost (and that she finally got those leaves out of her hair…).

Time left until Tetsu meet his love: 38 Minutes.

*

Youichi found her by the food table by the side of the room. She wasn’t eating, mind you. She was standing next to the young Prince Masashi, talking lowly to each other. Now Masashi was tall and well-built (more so than Tetsu, to be honest), so Youichi could understand how someone who never met the princes before would make this mistake.

But what worried him was the look of gentleness in Masashi’s eyes. The way his lips quirked up into a hint of a smile. The way his right hand seemed to hover towards the maiden. His left was holding onto a box… A present? Now that Youichi looked closer, the maiden’s purse seemed lighter. Could she have come here with a gift for Masashi…?

Then could it be?

“What are you looking at?” Miyuki asked as he peered over Youichi’s shoulder.

“Huh? Nothing. It’s...”

Youichi trailed off at the look on Miyuki’s face. The emotions that Youichi had become accustomed to seeing on Miyuki’s face were mocking smirks and resigned smiles (for whenever Prince Tetsu asked for a shogi match). But this was something new. His face was twisted with something darker. Almost akin to anger. The angriest Youichi had ever seen Miyuki had been when Nori was injured due to their error. But even then, there had been a mocking smirk on Miyuki’s face as self-loathing statements flew out of his mouth.

Right now, Miyuki wasn’t smiling.

“Why...?” Miyuki mumbled.

“You… okay?”

Miyuki snapped out of whatever it was with his usual grins. “Oh, that’s right. Ryo-san was looking for you.”

“Eh? Ryo-san was?”

“You better hurry before he replaces you!”

“Oh shut up!” Youichi paused before he ran off. “Hey Miyuki, you know that you can trust us, right?”

Miyuki laughed. “What’s with that cheesy talk? Hurry and go before Ryo-san gets mad!”

“Yeah, yeah! I get it!”

Time left until Tetsu meet his love: 32 Minutes.

*

“Hm? Why would I call for you?” Ryo asked, looking quite amused. “Or was the best excuse you could come up with to come see me?”

Youichi groaned. Damn that Miyuki! He muttered dark curses under his breath before leaning over the balcony that overlooked the ballroom. A good portion of the other knights were here as well, keeping an eye out on the party while resting.

“Has anyone caught Tetsu-oujisama’s eyes?”

“Nope,” Isashiki answered with a small yawn. “But someone caught Masashi’s.”

“Does it really count? She’s the only one who realized that it’s his birthday,” Tanba pointed out.

“Not to mention she seems a little…” Masuko Toru trailed off, too polite to put into words what the rest of them apparently thought.

“It’s just twigs and leaves,” Youichi volunteered the information. “I think her carriage broke down. She probably walked the rest of the way to the ball. Her slippers were covered in mud, too.”

The other knights gave him a knowing look and Youichi found himself blushing. “Wait, wait! It’s not-”

“It’s fine if you do,” Masuko assured him with a thumbs up. “Love is a free thing.”

“That’s assuming Masashi-oujisan doesn’t fall head over heels for her,” Tanba reminded them.

“I’m not in love with her!” Youichi exclaimed.

“Well, as long as Tetsu-oujisama doesn’t fall for her, I suppose it's fine. Brotherly rivalry over love isn’t pretty to watch.” Ryo leaned against the balcony with a wistful smile.

Youichi didn’t have the nerve to ask him for details.

Time left until Tetsu meet his love: 12 Minutes.

*

“Tetsu must be bored,” Isashiki remarked. They watched the Crown Prince stifle his yawn.

“Hey, if he doesn’t pick someone, what happens then?” Tanba asked suddenly. “Do we throw another ball until he finds someone?”

“He’ll find someone. It’s for the kingdom,” Masuko reasoned.

“Oh, everyone’s gathered here,” Takigawa Chris Yuu stated as he walked in with Miyauchi Keisuke.

“We’ve done our round,” Miyauchi said. “Next pair go.”

“Let’s go, Ryo.” Tanba straightened himself and nodded at the door. With a soft sigh, Ryo patted Youichi’s shoulder as goodbye and left with the Head Knight.

Time left until Tetsu meet his love: 5 Minutes.

*

“Tetsu, you idiot! Where are you going?” Isashiki hissed as he glared down at the Crown Prince.

From their position high above everyone, they could clearly see that the prince was dodging requests to dance in order to escape towards the doors. He had yet to dance with a single person that night, and it was obvious that Isashiki was taking personal offense at this.

“That’s it! I’m going down there!”

“Jun, calm down.” Masuko placed a hand on Isashiki’s shoulder, half to calm him and the other half to stop him from jumping off the balcony.

“Just give him time. I’m sure he’ll find…” Chris blinked. “Oh.”

At the word, they all quickly turned their attention back to the Crown Prince. He strode forward confidently, if not a little hurriedly. Almost as if he couldn’t get there soon enough. He waved away anyone who tried to stop him. He ignored most of the people trying to get his attention. His eyes were locked forward, almost as if he couldn’t see anything else. And instead of making his way to the exit, he walked towards someone who was also making her way towards him.

Youichi had read about moments like these. He heard of moments like these in fairy tales and romance novels but had never witnessed it in real life. The moment when two fated ones spotted each other from across the room. The moment when they single-mindedly made their way to their fated one, not caring of reason or logic. The moment when they met eyes and suddenly, the rest of the world faded away and there was just that person…

“Oh dear…” Youichi heard someone mumble. But he couldn’t focus on them. Because didn’t they all see? They were watching something rare, something pure, something that was normally immortalized in fairy tales.

Prince Tetsu and the young maiden met in the middle of the dance floor. Youichi could only imagine what kind of magical words were uttered. Then, almost as if he had just realized it, Tetsu held out his hands in jerky movements. Youichi imagined her delighted giggles as she took his hands and they took the dance floor.

Time left until Tetsu meet his love: 0.

*

Isashiki let out a loud howl of victory and was quickly hushed by everyone else. Chris smiled down at the Crown Prince. Miyauchi breathed heavily out of his nose. Masuko squeezed Youichi’s shoulder as if to console him, which made no sense. Youichi knew the maiden for less than a minute. Did they really think you could fall in love in that short span of-

Okay, but Prince Tetsu was a different story.

What the maiden and the prince had was something that was out of a storybook. You couldn’t even hope to compare it to Youichi’s blushes. Just look at the way Prince Tetsu looked so stiff, moving next to her (And you just don’t understand. Prince Tetsu took dancing lessons since he was small! He was never stiff like this!). Just look at the way Tetsu’s face flushed red, the way his eyes stayed trained on her as if he had never seen anyone or anything more precious (And Tetsu never looked at anyone like that before).

But see, here was the part that was truly magical.

It wasn’t one-sided on Tetsu’s part.

The maiden’s face was just as red. Her eyes just as awed. There was a giant smile on her face that even Youichi could see at this distance. She hadn’t looked away from Tetsu for as long as Tetsu refused to look away from her. Almost as if they were drawn together by a magnet (or fate). Even when the music ended, the two stood, staring into each other’s eyes.

“Yes finally!” Isashiki laughed. “Our idiot prince did it! He’s found the one.”

“Amazing. To be able to witness such a tender moment…” Chris sighed. The fond smile on his face never faltered.

Another song began again and the two continued to dance.

“I’m… going to do my rounds,” Youichi informed everyone.

But no one spared him a second look as he left.

Time left until Midnight: 4 hours 26 minutes.

*

“Did you see?” Nori asked like an overexcited squirrel. His joy spilled out in waves, and Youichi couldn’t help but to laugh at that.

“You mean Tetsu-oujisama?”

“He’s so smitten! I don’t think I’ve ever seen him like this! I think this is it! We did it! He’s found the one!”

“Thank god. Now let’s never do this again,” Zono added.

“We’ll have to prepare for the wedding, though,” Shirasu reminded them.

They all groaned.

“Why would you say that out loud?” Youichi whined.

“I guess until then, we should just be happy for our prince...” Nori chuckled suddenly, catching all of their attention. When he realized that they were staring, he blushed. “Ah, no. I just… I’m just really glad that things worked out, you know?”

“What is she like, does anyone know?” Zono asked.

Youichi figured the few seconds of interaction couldn’t count. He shrugged along with the rest of them.

“Now that I think about it, where is she from?” Shirasu wondered.

“Does it matter? Tetsu-oujisama is happy!”

Figuring that they would let Nori stay in his bubble of happiness, no one else disagreed. Youichi said his goodbyes and continued on.

Time left until Midnight: 3 hours 47 minutes.

*

“There you are, Miyuki! You have some nerve! Ryo-san wasn’t looking for me!” Youichi yelled when he spotted the bespectacled knight.

“Oh, is that so? Haha! I must’ve gotten it confused!” Miyuki laughed brightly. The dark mood from earlier seemed to be all gone now.

“Did you hear about Tet-”

“Yup!” Miyuki nodded with a giant grin pasted on his face. “I’m pretty sure the entire castle has either seen or has heard of it by now. We’re such gossip-whores. Haha!”

Youichi frowned. It felt like Miyuki was forcing himself to be cheerful, which was just as scary as seeing him in a dark mood. He considered voicing his concern but changed his mind, remembering Miyuki’s flippant way of dismissing it last time.

“By any chance, do you know anything about her? No one else seems to have any idea.”

Miyuki’s grin froze for a bit before he laughed. “Oh dear, how just like Tetsu-oujisama! Haha! He fell in love with someone mysterious.”

“You know what, I’m going to leave you alone.”

Time left until Midnight: 2 hours 34 minutes.

*

“Kuramochi-kun, you’re making rounds, too?”

“Tanba-san! Ryo-san!” Youichi greeted. “I figured I’d make myself useful.”

“Ah, uh… Kuramochi-kun…” Tanba hesitated and instead of finishing what he wanted to say, he turned to Ryo for help. 

Rolling his eyes, Ryo said, “Tetsu-oujisama is dancing with-”

“Don’t they look great together?” Youichi asked, laughing loudly at their bewildered looks. Then he paused. “Oh, that’s right. Is Masashi-oujisan okay with this?”

“He retreated to his quarters before they started dancing,” Ryo informed him.

“Well, I guess that’s that, then.”

“Kuramochi-kun…” Tanba trailed off, seemingly unable to continue to talk.

“I’m going to peek in the ball before returning to my duties. Talk to you later!”

Time left until Midnight: 1 hour 15 minutes.

*

The Crown Prince’s hands were shaking as he attempted to pour punch into a cup. Youichi tried really hard not to laugh at the look of pure concentration on the prince’s face as he tried to pour the punch. However, his hands kept trembling, causing the punch to spill every which way.

Ah jeesh, someone take pity on-

The maiden placed her hand over Tetsu’s. The two met eyes and smiled at each other. Suddenly, Tetsu’s hands weren’t shaking anymore. In fact, he looked calmer somehow.

“Now that’s love for you.”

Youichi greeted Katsuda, who leaned against the wall, watching the Crown Prince and his maiden.

“What do you mean, Katsuda-san?”

“See, the part about love that people forget is that it’s not just about racing hearts. It’s also about the serenity. Racing hearts imply passion, but without the serenity to balance it, it’ll be a very short-lived relationship. You need both to last a lifetime.”

“... I see…?” Youichi didn’t. Not really. But he just nodded along with the older knight.

Out of the corner of his eyes, he spotted a familiar shade of pink. A Kominato, definitely. But seeing that he had said goodbye to Ryo in the opposite direction, this must be Haruichi. He wondered what the younger Kominato was up to but was distracted by Katsuda beginning to speak again.

“See, the girl I’ll marry will be someone like that. Someone who can make my heart race with just a look but then calm me with just a touch. Doesn’t that sound romantic?”

“Ah… excuse me, Katsuda-san. I think Haruichi needs my help.”

Time left until Midnight: 48 minutes.

*

As Youichi made his way to Haruichi, he spotted the maiden walk away from Tetsu. The Crown Prince didn’t look too worried, so it must be something innocent like a bathroom break. In that distraction, he almost missed Haruichi rushing towards the bathroom after her.

“What is he…?” Frowning, Youichi quickly followed them.

Time left until Midnight: 43 minutes.

*

They were in the men’s bathroom. It wasn’t like Youichi dared to go near it, but he was curious as to why the young maiden had rushed in there followed closely by Haruichi. Taking a deep breath, he leaned against the door of the bathroom, just enough to catch bits and pieces of a conversation.

“... can’t believe you…”

“... supposed to do?”

“I don’t know! … for me…”

“At midnight…”

“Why would you?! …”

Youichi leaned in more, trying to listen better. What were they talking about? What about midnight?

“Oi, Kuramochi, if you need to go, just go.”

Youichi nearly jumped out of his skin. He pulled away from the door, letting it slam shut. He flinched, knowing that the two inside probably knew that someone heard.

“Azuma-san…”

Azuma gave him a weirded out look, most definitely judging him for this. “Oh, did you by any chance see the Tetsu’s woman run this way?”

“Uh… She’s… uh… She’s in…”

“Oh, you guys had the same idea, huh?” Ryo greeted as he and Tanba walked towards the bathroom.

Now that Youichi paid more attention, more and more knights were gathering here. They were most likely curious about the maiden that had caught the prince’s attention. But the problem was that Haruichi was in the bathroom with her (not to mention she was in the men’s bathroom). And now that Youichi thought about it, should he even be letting them be together in solitude? But if Ryo got angry at his little brother because of him...

The door to the bathroom opened and the maiden walked out. She looked at the knights gathered around and frowned. “Did I use the wrong bathroom?”

“No, no!” Nori assured her quickly. “You can use whatever bathroom you’d like!”

Miyauchi squeezed his shoulder, calming him down. The two exchanged small smiles. Youichi wisely looked away.

“What’s your name?” Zono asked.

“Where are you from?” Ryo added.

“Do you like our Tetsu?” Azuma demanded.

The maiden’s face turned red as she backed away nervously. “I... uh… You’re all asking so much…”

Tanba hushed everyone with a look. Then he motioned for people to ask one at a time. After glancing at one another, Shirasu finally spoke up.

“How are you enjoying yourself?”

“It’s been a lot of fun,” the maiden said, smiling brightly. “Thank you for putting together something so wonderful!”

Ah, Youichi’s face was heating up again. How did something as simple as her smiles make him feel so warm like this?

“Do you like Tetsu?” Azuma asked again.

“Yes! He’s such a delight! I didn’t think I’d find someone so dazzling.”

“When do you want the wedding?” Zono blurted out.

“The…?”

“Sorry, that was kind of rude. I just… You and the prince just looked so happy that I-”

“... The prince?” the maiden echoed.

“Yeah, Tetsu-oujisama.”

The maiden blinked slowly. “Oh,” she whispered. “Oh no. Please excuse me!”

Time left until Midnight: 21 minutes.

*

She rushed into Tetsu’s arms, much to the knights’ collective relief. They watched from a distance as Tetsu frowned, looking confused as the maiden said something that the knights couldn’t hear. Then the Crown Prince held her close, and somehow that seemed to soothe the maiden. When Tetsu released her, few moments later, she seemed much calmer.

Tetsu held out his hand, and the two took the dance floor again. Slowly but surely, they moved across the floor, swaying to the gentle hums of the orchestra.

“All’s well that end’s well,” Tanba said softly.

“We still have no idea who she is, though,” Zono mumbled.

“We can figure it out later,” Nori said. He touched shoulders with Miyauchi. “Together.”

“Together,” Miyauchi agreed.

Youichi sighed and looked at the dance floor. It appeared that the Crown Prince was no longer stiff. The two moved gracefully together, smiling and whispering soft secrets to each other. Well, what did he think would happen? This was how all storybooks went. The beautiful maiden found the prince and the two lived happily ever after. There was no space for a slum rat like him.

Time left until Midnight: 0.

The bells rang, signaling the end of one day and the beginning of another. The look of horror was back on the maiden’s face. She tore herself away from the Crown Prince and began to run.

“Wait!”

Youichi didn’t need an invitation. Out of all the knights, he was the fastest (probably because he survived for so long in the slums). Without hesitation, he took off at top speed, determined to bring the maiden back to her rightful place.

*

The maiden was surprisingly fast, despite the dress. She dodged the knights and took turns that someone new to the castle would never have known. Instead of heading towards the main entrance, where most of the knights were waiting, she headed towards… the wall that separated the castle from the woods?

Youichi blinked in stupor as she climbed the nearby tree and jumped the wall. No time to waste, however. He followed her suit and jumped down into the dark forest.

*

“Got you!”

Youichi yelled as he tackled her to the ground. They were a good distance away from the castle but close enough that they could still hear the commotion over there.

“You’re not going anywhere!”

The maiden struggled, kicking and thrashing violently. Her palm made contact with his jaw, but he managed to keep his hold on her, refusing to let her go.

“Let me go, damn it!”

It was the first time in the entire night that the maiden spoke loudly. And Youichi couldn’t help but to frown because… That voice… didn’t it sound suspiciously low for a girl?

The pause was more than enough for the maiden to punch Youichi, knocking him off of her. The struggle had been more than enough to tousle the wig, not to mention the dress had slipped down revealing a surprisingly flat chest. The golden slippers had long fallen off to the side (or perhaps the maiden took them off to be able to run better). Alarm bells screamed in Youichi’s head and he couldn’t stop himself from shouting out deliriously.

“Shut up!” the maiden who was most clearly not a maiden screamed. Tears gathered in the golden brown eyes and he angrily wiped them away. “I don’t want to hear it! I know! I already got an earful from Harucchi!”

Who?

Youichi shut his mouth and nodded slowly. He slowly sat up and relaxed when the… young man made no moves to fight him.

“You… uh… Why are you…?”

“Today’s Masashi’s birthday. So at the very least, I wanted to get him a present. I figured it’d be easy to sneak into the ball if I’m dressed like this. But then I saw him...” The young man sniffed miserably and wiped his eyes again. “Why did you have to chase me? I could’ve just counted today as a dream. Something I could never do in real life. But now that you’re here, I can’t do that!”

Oh dear gods, what was Youichi supposed to do? The maiden that Prince Tetsu fell head over heels for was a man. Worse still, this young man was crying in front of Youichi while blaming him for this situation. What was he supposed to say? What should he do? Should he fight to bring the man to the prince? Should he let the young man go and lie to the prince?

“If only, it was anyone but him…”

Youichi frowned. “What are you-?”

But he never got to finish his question. He felt something heavy smack into the back of his head. And as the world blurred and faded, he caught sight of a familiar emblem.

Bandits.

Time left until happily ever after: 10 Days.

*

When Youichi came to, he was tied to a tree in what he assumed was the bandit compound. There was dried laundry up on the branches of the tree that he was tied to, obscuring his vision. But he could smell the fire and the slow cooking of a late night snack.

“One job, Bakamura!” hissed a voice that Youichi hadn't heard before. “You had one job!”

“I know! I know! I’m sorry!” came the wail of the voice that sounded like Tetsu’s maiden. Except for the part where the maiden wasn’t a maiden.

“What should we do? We can’t just keep a knight tied to a tree forever,” said someone new.

Youichi desperately hoped that that meant he would be allowed to go home soon.

“Oh, I can-”

“Shut up, Sawamura. You caused this mess.”

“So I’m saying I’ll take responsibility and-”

“And I’m saying that you’ve done enough to cause us all headaches. If you still have energy, go check on him.”

Youichi wondered if he should pretend to be sleeping. But before he could decide, the maiden-who-was-not-a-maiden walked up to him. There was no way Youichi could forget those brilliant brown eyes. The young man was no longer wearing the orange dress. Instead, he wore commoner’s pants and a simple shirt. He looked startled to see Youichi awake and quickly reached for a nearby club.

“Good night,” the young man said.

“Whoa! No good night! You’re not hitting me on the head with that! Why the hell do you guys have a random club lying around anyways?!” Youichi hoped that his shouts wasn’t so loud that the rest of the bandits didn’t hear.

“For things like this,” the young man explained, motioning at Youichi.

“Just how often do you kidnap people?”

“It’s not an often thing! It just… happens.”

Youichi wasn’t sure if he really wanted to know. “Alright, so what are you going to do with me? Kill me?”

The young man looked horrified at that. “What kind of monsters do you think we are? Why would we k-kill you?”

Did this guy just stutter?

“... Aren’t you guys bandits?”

“Yes, but we don’t k-kill! We exist to have fun!”

Yes, he most definitely did stutter.

Youichi was having a hard time wrapping his mind around this. “Haah?”

“Rule number one of being a Sawamura Bandit: Go have fun as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone!”

Now that Youichi thought about it, the bandits did for the most part did things that were minimal in damage. Their ruckus was usually little things like fireworks in the village square, stealing everyone’s left socks from the laundry lines, and switching out the nobles’ imported jewelry with candy… Wait no, the last one wasn’t that minimal in damage. But that had been in part because of the nobles’ wrath. Youichi still shuddered in remembrance.

“Well, that’s the ideal anyways. It doesn’t always work out,” the young man admitted. “And sometimes Harucchi’s plans get really… mean.”

“... Are you the leader of the bandits?” Youichi finally managed to ask.

“Obviously.”

No, it really wasn’t obvious. The talk from earlier also sounded like he was getting bullied, too. Was he getting bullied by the people who followed him? That was… that was really pathetic.

“You…” Youichi stopped himself to try and get his head back on track. “So you’re… So you seduced our prince for fun. Is that what you’re saying?”

“No! That was an accident! I wasn’t supposed to meet…” the young man’s face flushed and his voice took on a dreamy tone. “Him.”

Okay, so from what Youichi could gather, this guy truly did love Tetsu. That was a relief. Then again, Youichi supposed it would take one hell of a talented actor to fake the tender moment the Crown Prince shared with this young man. But the problem became the bandits.

“Do you like Tetsu-oujisama?”

The young man nodded shyly.

“Then why don’t you become his?”

“What do you mean?” the young man asked with a frown.

“I mean give up being a band-”

“No.” The young man’s golden eyes flashed with anger, and his firm voice left no room for questions.

“But don’t you like Tetsu-oujisama?” Youichi tried again. “I’m sure he’s fine with the fact that you’re a man. So if you just-”

“Then why doesn’t he give up his prince title for me?” the young man demanded. “Why should I be the only one to give up my livelihood? I’m not interested in a relationship where one side constantly sacrifices in order to be together. That’s not love.”

Youichi’s heart fluttered at the declaration. Damn. He hated to admit it, but that was really cool. But he wasn’t ready to give up just yet.

“Giving up being a prince and giving up being a bandit are two really different things, don’t you think?”

The young man shook his head. “No, it isn’t. Would you give up your knighthood for the one you love?”

Youichi wasn’t sure. He had never fallen in love, not like the way the Crown Prince and the young man gravitated towards each other. Given that, he didn’t think anything he said now would mean anything. Even if he said he would or even if he said he wouldn’t, he would never know until that moment came.

“At least you’re honest,” the young man said when Youichi put his thoughts into words. “Well, now that we’ve finished talking, I guess I should let you go to sleep…”

“Put down that club! I’ll go to sleep without it!”

Time left until happily ever after: 9 Days.

*

“Don’t be like that, Sawamura!” teased a voice that made Kuramochi freeze. Because wasn’t that voice…?

“You’re the one to talk, Miyuki Kazuya! Why didn’t you tell me you’ll be at the ball?”

“I honestly didn’t think you’d actually have the nerve to show up there after kidnapping Masashi.”

“I let him go, didn’t I? I even brought him a gift for his birthday!”

“Hahaha! That’s why I say you’re the best!”

“Stop making fun of me!”

The playful banter continued as Miyuki Kazuya walked into Youichi’s line of vision with Tetsu’s maiden (Young man, he mentally corrected himself. He really should get used to saying young man. Or learn his name). For a second, Youichi thought that that would be that, Miyuki would continue on, teasing the young man, until he was out of Youichi’s line of sight. But then he looked up and met eyes with Youichi.

Miyuki’s smile fell.

“... Why is he here?” he asked, voice low.

Youichi knew that tone of voice. Once, after a prison break, the two of them had been doing rounds when they ran into one of the prisoners. Miyuki had the same tone of voice then when he calmly dealt the killing blow. Youichi did not like what this implied.

Miyuki’s hand hovered over the sword by his side. But it wasn’t just Miyuki who was shocked by this situation.

“Why… are you standing with them? Oi, Miyuki, don’t tell me you’re-”

“Yup! That’s correct!” Miyuki said brightly with his usual fake laugh (and now that Youichi heard it, he realized that Miyuki’s laugh earlier had been different. Had Miyuki been laughing for real…?). “I, Knight Miyuki Kazuya, the son of the Duke Miyuki Toku, am actually a bandit!”

He drew forth his sword and pointed it at Youichi.

“Now that you know, you have to-”

“Stop it,” the young man scolded, stepping between the two of them with ease. “I know you like playing the villain, but you’re going too far, Miyuki Kazuya. We don’t kill.”

The young man was wasting his time. Miyuki wasn’t the type to listen to people. If he was, he wouldn’t be known as the man who had nothing but his good looks and family fortune going for him back at the castle. The only orders he obeyed were those that Miyuki agreed with. Even if Prince Tetsu was to give him an order, if Miyuki didn’t like it, he ignored it. At least that was the Miyuki that Youichi knew.

But this bandit wearing the face of the knight that Youichi trained with wasn’t someone that Youichi knew.

With another bright fake laughter, Miyuki sheathed his sword. “You take things too seriously, Sawamura! You know I don’t kill.”

Youichi had never heard a more obvious lie. Didn’t kill? Every knight had at least five kills under their belt. It wasn’t like it was a requirement, but it was their job to protect the kingdom. There was no way to protect without killing.

The young man seemed mollified, however. He nodded and turned to look at Youichi. “Sorry if that scared you. Miyuki Kazuya here doesn’t know when a joke has gone too far. But don’t worry! On our honor as bandits, we won’t kill you!”

“‘Honor as bandits’… huh?” Youichi mumbled.

Miyuki covered his mouth, shoulders heaving with laughter. Youichi had seen Miyuki's simple grins on his face, but this kind of full-blown laughter was something completely new. It was almost as if Youichi was looking at a different person. Someone who just had the same face as the knight that never failed to infuriate Youichi.

“Why are you laughing for?” the young man demanded, kicking Miyuki’s shin.

That only served to make Miyuki double over, still laughing. He fell to the ground, clutching his stomach as he howled with even more laughter. The young man fumed and stomped away, cursing the handsome bespectacled knight. Few minutes after the young man left, Miyuki straightened himself and glared at Youichi with a cold glint in his eyes.

But after seeing him break down laughing like that, it was hard to take him seriously.

“I’m sure you have a lot of questions, but answer this one first. When you found out about Sawamura, were there anyone else nearby?”

“... Why should I answer a traitor?”

Miyuki shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter to me whether you answer or not. I already know there was no one else.”

Youichi tensed. “So you asked to see my reaction.”

So even if this Miyuki laughed more, his sharp wit was still the same.

“You’re wrong, you know. I was a bandit before I was a knight. If anything, it should be Sawamura who’s angry at me for betraying him.”

There was something sad about that statement. Almost wistful.

But before Youichi could think more about it, Miyuki left, yelling for Sawamura’s attention.

“What the hell…?”

Time left until happily ever after: 8 Days

*

“... He’s doing what?”

“That’s why I came here,” Miyuki explained.

The thing about this bandit encampment was how easy it was to eavesdrop. Youichi wasn’t sure if it was just carelessness on their part or if they did it on purpose. But either way, he was learning way too much about these bandits than he ever wanted to know.

“A slipper…? But where would he have gotten…? Oi Bakamura, don’t tell me you dropped one of your shoes?”

“In my defense, I was carrying an unconscious knight at the time.”

“You idiot! You idiot! Do you want all of us to be killed?!”

“Now, now, Kaneba-kun, don’t yell at-”

“It’s Kanemaru!!”

Youichi frowned. So Prince Tetsu managed to find one of the maiden’s slipper… Except, of course, that maiden was a man. From Miyuki’s intel, it sounded like the prince was forcing every woman to try on that shoe. Except that he would never find “her” since “she” was actually a man, who was also the leader of the bandits and…

His head hurt.

Only Prince Tetsu would somehow get tangled up in this kind of crazy drama.

“So Sawamura, what’s your plan now?” Miyuki asked.

“M-my plan?”

“Are you going to ignore this every happened? Are you going to give up this life and go to him? What do you want to do?”

“I… don’t know.”

“Do you like him?”

“Yes.”

Youichi found it quite striking that there was no hesitation in that answer.

“Do you want to marry him? Because if you do, you should act now before someone else takes your spot.”

There was a small pause, possibly as the young man thought about this. Then finally, he said, “It’s not like he can accept me as I am.”

Youichi scowled. “That’s not true! Tetsu-oujisama isn’t that shallow! No matter who you are, no matter what you do or what your circumstances are, Tetsu-oujisama will accept everything!”

Another pause of silence followed. Miyuki peeked over the dry laundry and stared at Youichi coldly.

“You sure talk a lot for a hostage. Want me to silence you?”

“Miyuki Kazuya, I told you that we don’t kill!” With that, Miyuki was yanked back and the young man took his place to look at Youichi.

“Do you mean it?” he asked quietly.

Youichi nodded. “Tetsu-oujisama accepted a slum rat like me as one of his knights. He doesn’t judge based on shallow reasons. So please, won’t you give him a try?”

The young man sighed. “I’ll think about it.”

Time left until happily ever after: 8 Days

*

The young man (Sawamura - Youichi finally learned his name) was so painfully obviously in love that it made Youichi want to rip out his hair. Of course, he couldn’t actually. He was still tied to a tree.

In the past few days that he stayed as their hostage, Youichi learned quite a lot. For example, although Sawamura was the leader, the one who did the actual logistics was someone called Kanemaru. Ryo’s younger brother (that Sawamura called “Harucchi”) used to help out with that until he was forcibly taken back to the castle. Aside from those two, everyone else with the bandits seemed to almost blindly adhere to the rule “Go have fun as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.”

From time to time, Sawamura stopped by with food that he held up for Youichi to eat. And when Youichi made enough noise, someone else came by to let him use the bathroom. Otherwise, he spent all of his time tied to a tree, listening in on everyone’s conversations, and occasionally talking to Sawamura.

“So uh… What is he like? The prince, I mean.”

That was the third time this guy asked about the prince in the last two minutes. Youichi really just wanted to eat.

“He… likes shogi,” Youichi said between bites.

Surprisingly, Sawamura’s eyes lit up. “He does? Is he any good?”

Oh shoot. Maybe Youichi shouldn’t have brought this up. Everyone knew that although the Crown Prince loved shogi, he could never win a single match. Would knowing that disappoint Sawamura? What kind of guys did Sawamura like anyways? How was Youichi supposed to sell the prince to the bandit leader when he had no idea what Sawamura liked?

“No clue. I can’t play,” Youichi said evenly.

“That’s a shame. I should ask for a game…” Sawamura stopped abruptly and shook his head. “What am I saying. I can’t. I’m-”

“What’s wrong with being in love with Tetsu-oujisama?” Youichi asked gently.

“It’s not being in love that’s the problem. It’s acting on it that is. I already decided I wouldn’t. What kind of a man goes back on his word?”

So it wasn’t a complete lost cause. If Youichi could find the right words, he might be able to convince Sawamura.

“If I recall, your word was that you wouldn’t chose Tetsu-oujisama because he wouldn’t give up the prince title. If he does, would you-”

Sawamura shoved the rest of the food into Youichi’s mouth, making him gag. Youichi spat the food out, grimacing at the waste. This damned brat-

“Please don’t give me false hope,” Sawamura whispered softly. His cheeks and eyes were matching red, and his brows were furrowed with anguish. Without letting Youichi explain himself, Sawamura quickly left, wiping his eyes.

Time left until happily ever after: 5 Days

*

“The prince probably gave up by now, you know.”

No answer.

“We’re starting to get restless.”

No answer.

“Hey Sawamura, are we no longer going to have any more fun?”

“… I…”

Time left until happily ever after: 4 Days

*

Youichi woke in the middle of the night to shouts for help.

“What happened?”

“We just wanted to go to the town but the knights… They just… They were vicious!”

Vicious? That didn’t sound like them. Youichi frowned. Did being unable to find the “maiden” drive them to violence? Even if that was the case, Prince Tetsu wasn’t the type to allow that! So what really happened?

“They just attacked us without any prompt! We were lucky to have survived.”

“You’re sure you didn’t do anything? This doesn’t sound like something the knights would do.”

Exactly! Youichi was grateful that someone else also noticed it.

“We really didn’t do anything. We just showed up. And they attacked us.”

“Sawamura, what should we do? Getting revenge is far-fetched but-”

“We need to fight.”

Youichi blinked. What was Sawamura saying? Fight?

“... You mean prank, right? We’re going to prank them?”

“No. We’re going to fight them,” Sawamura said simply.

“W-whoa! We didn’t join you to start a war against the king! We just wanted to have some fun!”

“Besides, how do you plan on fighting against trained knights?”

“The knights have forgiven us for pretty much everything until now. But for them to suddenly attack us like this means that they can no longer turn a blind eye to us. If we as bandits want to survive, the only way to do so is to fight.”

Sawamura paused, letting that sink in. When he felt that everyone had understood the gravity of the situation, he continued.

“So anyone who doesn’t want to fight, leave now. Don’t ever take on the bandit name. Never speak of what you’ve done as a bandit. Cut all ties and leave. If you can’t do that, then help me fight.”

Youichi couldn’t see the expression on their faces. He didn’t know what they looked like after Sawamura made that bold declaration.

But he imagined that no one could leave after a speech like that.

Time left until happily ever after: 3 Days

*

“Untie me,” Youichi demanded.

Sawamura scowled. “What? So you can betray all of us and get the glory of single-handedly bringing down the bandits?”

“No, so I can help you.”

“... I don’t understand.”

To be honest, Youichi himself wasn’t sure what he was doing. But he understood that if he didn’t do this, he would regret it for the rest of his life. Huh. So that was his answer. He would give up his knighthood for the sake of...

Youichi grinned. “I’m saying I’ll be a bandit.”

Time left until happily ever after: 2 Days

*

Sawamura’s strategies were surprisingly solid. And with Kuramochi’s knowledge of the castle, they thought they could actually pull this off.

They were too overconfident.

“You have some nerve, Kuramochi,” Ryo said. He had one foot on Youichi’s chest. But what kept him down wasn’t that. It was the sword pointed at his throat.

For one, they forgot to take into account the difference in their skill levels. For another, they forgot to consider the possibility that the knights might be waiting for their attack. Even with Miyuki's and Haruichi's added betrayal and help, they were no match.

On the ballroom floor, the bandits found themselves completely overpowered by the knights.

Sawamura was trading blows with Tanba, but it was obvious that he wasn’t used to fighting with a sword. He was being pushed too far back. But perhaps the biggest tragedy was the fact that Youichi knew that Sawamura wouldn’t run. Not when so many of his men were down and out for the count. Sawamura would never run by himself.

“Miyuki's and Haruichi's betrayals were obvious. But you? I actually trusted you,” Ryo admitted softly.

“Ryo-san, it’s not what you think! That guy… He’s…”

Tanba swung, knocking the sword out of Sawamura’s hands. But the bandit leader didn’t give up. He raised his fists, eyes blazing with determination.

“Sawamura, run, you idiot!” Youichi yelled.

The smile on Ryo’s face tightened. “You’re putting him first?”

“Shut up!” Sawamura yelled at Kuramochi. “If I run now, what’ll happen to everyone here?”

“That’s a good mentality for a leader to have. Tanba, allow me the honor of fighting him.”

Every pair of eyes turned to Tetsu. He undid his princely cape and tossed it to the ground. It was quickly followed by his sword. Then Tetsu took on a fist-fighting position.

Tanba nodded and took a step back, but he kept his sword unsheathed just in case. Seeing that, Sawamura turned to Tetsu. Youichi knew Sawamura would lose from the look of conflict on the bandit’s face. This was bad. At this rate, the Crown Prince was going to hurt the one he loved!

“Wait, Tetsu-oujisama!”

“You stay silent, traitor,” Ryo threatened. He drew a thin line of blood from Youichi’s neck with his sword.

“Ryo-san…”

Sawamura moved first. He threw a punch that Tetsu easily dodged. The two moved, almost as elegantly as they had been when dancing in this exact room. If the situation wasn’t so dire, Youichi would have laughed at the irony. Whether dancing or fighting, these two’s movements were in sync. Why didn’t anyone else notice it? Why hadn’t anyone else realized it?

Couldn’t they see how well these two fit each other?

Youichi would like to believe that had the dance floor been clean of blood and the bodies of the injured, this dance-like-fight would have lasted for far longer. But Sawamura miscalculated where to land, and ended up slipping on the blood on the floor. Tetsu reached for him, and everyone knew that this was it.

The final blow.

But that wasn’t what happened.

Tetsu reached for Sawamura and slipped on the blood himself. The two fell, tangled together. And at the end of it all, Tetsu had Sawamura pinned to the ground with his entire body.

“Now you can’t run,” Tetsu said.

Youichi opened his mouth to yell again but was stopped by Ryo’s sword. At this rate, he might really lose his head! But what was more important? Seeing Prince Tetsu and Sawamura happy? Or keeping his head?

“You caused me quite a headache. But I knew that if I kept searching for you, you’ll appear,” Tetsu continued, his voice soft and… gentle? But why would he sound like that when he was addressing the bandit leader?

“So let me ask you again. Won’t you please marry me?”

“W-what?!” Isashiki howled in bafflement. He wasn’t the only one. The others all looked at the Crown Prince in disbelief and confusion.

“No, no! We were looking for the maiden. The maiden, Tetsu! Why are you proposing to the bandit leader?”

“Because I’ve found my heart,” Tetsu said simply. He stood up and offered his hand for Sawamura to take.

“How… How did you know…?” Sawamura whispered. He slowly pulled himself up to sitting position.

“I would recognize your eyes anywhere.”

Sawamura shook his head and refused to take the offered hand. “I’m… I’m not going to give up being a bandit! So there’s no way I’ll ever marry a prince!”

Tetsu didn’t even hesitate.

He knelt before Sawamura, eyes serious. “Then I’ll become a bandit. There’s nothing wrong with a bandit marrying a bandit, is there?”

“What are you saying?! What about the kingdom?” Isashiki continued to howl.

“It’s fine. Masashi can take care of it,” Tetsu answered. Then he turned his attention back to Sawamura, who hooded his eyes by looking at the ground. “Won’t you please consider me?”

Sawamura didn’t look up, but his shoulders began to shake. Youichi tensed. Was he okay? Was an injury from before suddenly hurting? What was wrong with him?

Tetsu put his hand under Sawamura’s chin and gently lifted his head up. Sawamura looked back at him, cheeks flushed and eyes wet with tears. Tetsu’s eyes widened, a soft gasp leaving his mouth. His brows furrowed with worry and guilt, and he let Sawamura’s head go.

“I… I’m sorry,” the Crown Prince whispered hurriedly. “I didn’t mean-! I’m sorry!”

But Sawamura didn’t look down at the ground again. He continued to look at Tetsu through the tears. He sniffed loudly and shook his head.

“Do you… do you mean it? About marrying me? Do you really want me?”

“You are the only one I will ever want.”

Sawamura let out a delirious laugh. “What the hell? What’s with this crazy fairytale?” Then more calmly, he grinned through his tears and said, “Yes! Please marry me! Please be mine!”

Tetsu relaxed. He took Sawamura’s head in his hands again, leaning in close for a-

“Wait! You can’t do that before the wedding!” Isashiki yelled.

Time left until happily ever after: 1 Day

*

Officially speaking, the wedding would be in three month’s time. Plenty of time for the other kingdoms and nobles to prepare wedding gifts while the knights and maids worked together to tidy up the castle yet again for another celebration.

But as it turned out, Tetsu and Sawamura were not very patient about these things.

In a small gathering of just the knights and the bandits, the two of them exchanged vows of love. And in front of the witnesses gathered there, they finally had their true love’s kiss.

Time left until happily ever after: 0.