Atsushi cringed at the nickname, keeping his bow low to the ground so the King couldn’t see his frown.
“I have a name,” he muttered to himself. Of course, the King wasn’t listening.
“You’re late again,” grumbled Akutagawa, sitting on his throne, surrounded by his court. Each card watched Atsushi, some snickering to each other. Atsushi knew they had been waiting for his execution since he messed up the first time.
“Yes sir,” mumbled Atsushi. He cast the occasional glance up to Akutagawa, only to find him glaring down at Atsushi through the heart-shaped jewels in his mask. Atsushi’s long ears dropped.
“I assume you also know the punishment for displeasing your King?” Akutagawa said, and to Atsushi’s horror, he stood from his throne. Fluffy tail quivering, Atsushi stared with wide eyes at His Majesty, red coat flowing around him. To the King’s right, the card with the axe was already grinning.
Realizing the King was waiting for an answer, Atsushi gulped. “M-my head, sir,” he whimpered.
Akutagawa nodded, and Atsushi went pale. Run , every muscle in his body screamed. But he couldn’t move. Beneath the King’s steely gaze, as cold as the gleam of the executioner’s axe, Atsushi felt glued to the floor.
Akutagawa stepped forward, down the steps leading from his throne, dragging the train of his red coat behind him. Atsushi squeezed his eyes shut; it was all he could do. His body continued to twitch, wanting to run, but his fear petrified him and drained every ounce of strength from him. The sound of Akutagawa’s boots against the tile floor drew ever nearer, and Atsushi held his breath.
Suddenly, the sound stopped. All Atsushi could hear was his own heartbeat and the whispers of the onlooking cards. Flinching on instinct when something touched his head, Atsushi nearly fainted; but what touched him was not the metal of an axe’s blade.
Atsushi cautiously opened his eyes when he felt the King’s hand on his hair. The court had gone silent, watching with bated breath as the King’s hand trailed down to Atsushi’s jawline, lifting his face up to look into his dark eyes.
“Your head, and your entire being,” Akutagawa said, his regal voice echoing through the hall, looking down at Atsushi with an expression he can’t identify, “they belong to me now.”
Atsushi heard gasps from the cards, and his long, white ears twitched toward their voices, but his eyes remained focused on Akutagawa. He had only just managed to rediscover his breath, only to have the King steal it away again.
“In two days’ time, you will come to live in the palace with me,” Akutagawa continued. “That gives you a day to gather your belongings and move them here. When you return, you will not leave my side.” His even tone sent shivers down Atsushi’s spine, but from what, he couldn’t tell. “Do I make myself clear?”
Atsushi nodded, and Akutagawa stepped back, taking his hand from his head. “Then go,” he said, pointing towards the door.
Suddenly, Atsushi remembered how to run. Jumping up from his bow, he turned on his heel and ran, ran out of the hall, ran out of the palace, ran into the woods, where a rabbit feels safe.
Leaning against a tree, his chest heaving, Atsushi brought a gloved hand up to his neck incredulously. There was no blood. His head was still attached to his shoulders. By some miracle, the King of Hearts spared him.
But Akutagawa’s words came spiraling to the forefront of Atsushi’s thoughts, causing him to curl up where he sat, clutching his head. He was spared, yes.
But to what end?
“You’re alive,” Dazai remarked, raising his teacup when Atsushi stepped out of the woods and onto the Hatter’s lawn. “I was certain that the next time we saw you, you wouldn’t have a head.”
“What a shame,” said Shibusawa idly.
Atsushi sighed, still shaking a bit as he pulled one of the lopsided chairs up to the table, accepting the chipped cup that Dazai passed to him.
“I didn’t think I’d ever see any of you again, either,” Atsushi murmured, staring into his tea but not drinking it.
Dazai hummed a bit, sipping from a teacup that miraculously still held liquid, despite the holes littering it like swiss cheese. “Was His High-and-Mighty-ness not holding court today?” he asked.
Atsushi shook his head, looking down at his lap and away from the March Hare across from him.
“No, he was there,” he said quietly. He jumped when a fork flew across the table with deadly accuracy, landing straight up in the slice of cake in front of Atsushi.
“Then why isn’t your head rolling in a basket right about now?” Shibusawa muttered, drawing his hand back from his throw. “I’ve been waiting for that lucky rabbit’s foot of yours for ages now.”
Atsushi pulled himself out of his shock for long enough to cast a small glare at the Mad Hatter. “Why don’t you just take Dazai’s?” he snapped. Dazai only shrugged.
“Because he’s a hare ,” Shibusawa explained with a roll of his eyes. “Only rabbit’s feet are lucky. The dumbest of dodos could tell you that.”
In the seat beside the Hatter, Fyodor gave a small snore. Atsushi had only just realized he was there, and he felt grateful that the Dormouse slept; he scared Atsushi even when he smiled innocently. His smirks were downright terrifying.
“Or I could just take the foot from you now, before you’ve even died,” Shibusawa said, casually raising a cleaving knife from beneath the table. Atsushi paled.
“Come now, Hatter,” Dazai finally spoke up. “He needs that foot to run as far away from the King as he possibly can.”
With a frown, Shibusawa lowered the cleaver back under the table.
“Actually,” Atsushi said, “I don’t know if I have to run.”
Dazai tilted his head, ears twitching. “And why’s that?”
Atsushi gulped a little. He tried to pick up his teacup, but his hands shook so violently that he placed it back down before it spilled. “Because… He said he wouldn’t kill me.”
“I will,” Shibusawa chirped, but Dazai threw his teacup at him.
“This isn’t about you, Hatter,” he said with a dangerous smile as the teacup exploded in a burst of party streamers and confetti before it reached Shibusawa. “Now, Atsushi,” said Dazai, turning back to the Rabbit, “What do you mean? The King’s never spared anyone.”
Atsushi nodded. “That’s why it’s so strange. I don’t get it at all.”
Dazai leaned back in his chair, so much so that the front legs of it tilted off the ground. “Well… perhaps he sees something in you that the rest of us don’t.”
Atsushi narrowed his eyes at the Hare. “That wasn’t necessary.”
“Or,” Dazai continued as if not hearing Atsushi at all, “maybe he needs a new manservant. He had the last one beheaded, you know.”
Atsushi gulped, his hands wringing at the tablecloth a bit. “And the one before that, and the one before that,” he murmured nervously. “I hope that’s not it.”
“Well, he needs someone that fears him so greatly that he’ll follow his every order,” Dazai pointed out, sitting up properly in his chair again, leaning forward across the table and pointing at Atsushi. “You fit the bill pretty well, Usagi-kun .”
Atsushi flushed at the nickname, frowning at Dazai.
“I believe he’s fond of you.”
Atsushi jumped when he heard that voice. Fyodor yawned, peering over at Atsushi with intrigue in his eyes and a smile forming on his lips, that very same one that caused Atsushi’s tail to twitch nervously.
“Knowing the King,” the Dormouse continued, placing his elbows on the table and resting his head in his hands, “he would only spare someone he cares for a great deal. Wouldn’t you agree?”
Tugging on his collar a bit, Atsushi looked anxiously towards Dazai for help, but the Hare remained focused on the biscuits on his plate.
“I…” Atsushi said slowly, not meeting Fyodor’s eyes. “I… I don’t think…”
“You don’t think it’s true?” Fyodor said. “Atsushi, if the King beheads those who disobey his orders once, then why do you suppose he hasn’t killed you, who has disobeyed his orders time and time again? I see no other reason why you’re not bleeding out on the floor now.”
“We can fix that for you,” Shibusawa said casually, now using the oversized meat cleaver to slice an equally oversized cake.
Atsushi shot him a glare. “You’re making me uncomfortable.”
“Well, what does the King want from you?” Fyodor asked, and Atsushi sighed.
“He… Wants me to come live with him. In the castle,” he said, fidgeting in his seat, realizing how strange those words sounded when he spoke them. Dazai and Fyodor exchanged glances.
“Definitely manservant,” Dazai nodded, sipping his tea.
“Or,” added Fyodor with a smirk, “A concubine.”
Atsushi paled, freezing like he had done in the palace. “Y-you don’t actually think-!”
“We’ll just have to see,” Dazai shrugged with a smirk that mirrored Fyodor’s. Atsushi hated it. “In any case, it looks as if the King plans on keeping you around for some time.”
Atsushi took a deep breath. The thought of the King admiring him in that way- he had never considered it once. But strangely enough, he wasn’t sure how he felt about it. His initial reaction was disgust, but after realizing that that wasn’t what he felt at all, Atsushi had to think a minute about how he actually felt about Akutagawa, and how he felt about serving under him.
“Then what am I supposed to do with these decorations?” Shibusawa snapped, not giving Atsushi that chance to think. He raised up a crudely-drawn poster of Atsushi’s headless torso, complete with spurts of blood, with the words “Happy Beheading Day” written across it in cheery letters.
Atsushi snapped out of his confusion long enough to stare incredulously at the Hatter.
“Please… Burn them.”
For perhaps the first time in his life, Atsushi arrived on time. For despite being spared once, he didn’t want to risk being late again, especially under the King’s direct orders.
A card - still glowering at Atsushi, presumably after his unprecedented pardon - met the White Rabbit at the door.
“We’ll take your belongings to your chambers,” muttered the card, while two others came from behind him and took Atsushi’s two small suitcases. They were all he had managed to salvage from his former home.
“Good timing,” Chuuya had said, standing upside-down underneath a tree branch. “You get a new place to live right after that human girl destroyed your house.”
Atsushi smiled sadly. “Depends on how you look at it,” he said. He turned around to gaze at his house, the roof and windows of which Kyouka had sprouted through after taking too many bites of an Eat Me biscuit.
Atsushi looked up at the Cheshire Cat again, who had taken to sitting properly on the branch, watching Atsushi’s house as if that strange human girl might burst out of it again.
“Can you watch it while I’m gone?”
Chuuya glanced down at Atsushi when he spoke, feline tail swaying beneath him.
“I mean, the repair crew comes by every few days,” Atsushi explained quietly. “If you could just watch and make sure nothing goes wrong, I’d be really grateful.”
Chuuya blinked, and then he sighed, resting his cheek on his palm, a faraway look in his eyes. “You know you’re not coming back, right?”
Atsushi stared at him, trying to keep his heartbeat from speeding up. “W-what do you mean?”
With a grunt, Chuuya stood. He turned his back to Atsushi, his entire body facing the house, his tail swaying more forcefully now.
“You’re going to either stay there permanently, or be killed,” Chuuya said. When he looked back at Atsushi, his narrow eyes glowed an ominous blue. “Either way, you’re staying in that castle for the rest of your life.”
Atsushi couldn’t stop it. His heart rate sped up again, reminding him painfully how much of a cowardly rabbit he truly was. He turned on his heel, away from Chuuya, not saying another word, even as his knees shook.
So there he stood, not hours later, waiting in front of the King’s bedroom door as the cards had instructed.
Atsushi took a deep breath. And another, and another. Every time he reached his hand to the door to knock, all the oxygen left his body as if he had been kicked in the stomach, and he drew his hand back to breathe again.
Akutagawa opened the door before Atsushi did.
The White Rabbit stepped back in surprise, bowing instinctively, but the King grabbed his shoulder before he descended to the floor.
“That won’t be necessary,” he muttered, managing to sound coarse even when mentioning something kind. Taking a breath again, Atsushi stood up to face him, and Akutagawa watched him with dark eyes.
“I was about to check and make sure you had arrived,” explained Akutagawa, his hand still on Atsushi’s shoulder. “It seems you came on time.”
Atsushi nodded, throat dry, looking at Akutagawa’s hand as if it was a foreign object. “Y-yes, but,” he said slowly, only meeting Akutagawa’s eyes every now and then, “w-what exactly are my duties now?”
Akutagawa watched Atsushi’s face, emotions that he couldn’t read crossing his eyes. Finally, he saw one he recognized; the smallest flash of uncertainty, of fear even, showed in Akutagawa’s eyes for the tiniest of seconds when he pulled his hand back to his side.
“Yes,” the King said, breaking the silence as his eyes regained their steely shield. To his surprise, Atsushi found himself wanting to look a moment longer at whatever emotion the King hid behind his mask. He banished the thought quickly.
“Essentially,” Akutagawa continued, stepping into his room, motioning for Atsushi to follow, “you’ll have no other duty but to stay by my side.”
Crossing the threshold into the King’s room felt like a crime in and of itself, Atsushi thought as he walked inside, resisting the urge to gawk at the room’s silver and crimson decor.
“As a man in waiting?” he asked while his eyes wandered across the room. Everything the king owned seemed to be encrusted with rubies, from the bedposts to his vanity.
“No!” Akutagawa said sharply, jutting into Atsushi’s thoughts, whipping his attention back to him. The King scowled, but upon seeing Atsushi’s face and the immediate fear that struck him, he seemed to make an effort to soften his composure.
“No,” he repeated, gentler. Atsushi’s ears twitched perplexedly at this. “Gentle” and “King Akutagawa” were words he had never put in the same sentence before. “You won’t wait on me, White Rabbit,” Akutagawa explained, strangely enough, while not meeting Atsushi’s eyes. “You’ll merely… Stay with me. By my side. As I require.”
If Atsushi hadn’t known better, he would have said the King devolved into stammering at the end of his order.
“When I don’t require you,” Akutagawa continued, sitting down in a chair that appeared to be worth more than Atsushi had ever owned, “you’re free to roam about the castle grounds as you please.”
Atsushi opened his mouth to ask a question, but he quickly closed it. The King had said “castle grounds” in such a way that he immediately know he couldn’t go beyond them. But another question formed on his lips, and this time he couldn’t stop it from coming out.
“Why am I doing this?”
Immediately Akutagawa fixed Atsushi in a glare, one that caused him to instinctively hang his ears and appear small.
“Out,” Akutagawa growled, and Atsushi lifted one ear to hear him better.
“I-I’m sorry?” he asked.
“Out!” Shouted the King, jumping up from his chair, and Atsushi bolted, leaping out the door as quickly as he could.
He slowed in the halls, but upon hearing the King’s door slam, he surmised that he likely shouldn’t bother him.
So Atsushi explored. He walked down hallways, gazing at paintings and architecture the likes of which he had never seen. He passed by cards, who grumbled to each other behind his back, as if he couldn’t hear every word.
“Why is he here?”
“Why is he alive ?”
“Must be the King’s new pet.”
“He’s resorting to that clumsy fool?”
“He must be really lonely this time.”
Atsushi’s ears swiveled in the cards’ direction as he stepped into the garden. He avoided looking at them, not wanting them to know he had been listening, but their words caught him off-guard. Lonely, he thought, mulling over the word, trying to relate it to the King and failing. Someone lonely wouldn’t behead whoever displeased him. Someone lonely wouldn’t choose to stay isolated in a castle on the edge of his kingdom. Someone lonely wouldn’t cause everyone under his rule to fear him, pushing them all away until they wanted nothing to do with him.
“See, you think that, and you’re wrong about all of it.”
Atsushi resisted the urge to scream a little, partially by covering his mouth with his hand. He turned around towards the voice, catching sight of a man with a large, bulbous tail and small horns, lounging on an oversized mushroom. He appeared to be smoking, but from the smoke’s candy-like scent, Atsushi realized that wasn’t the case.
“Ranpo?” he asked, stepping towards the strange man. “You live here now?”
With a nod, the Caterpillar took a long drag of his pipe. “I’m basically a living lawn ornament,” he said as he exhaled, “but the food’s good, and I’m given all the flavors I want, so I’d say it’s worth it. And sometimes the King comes to me for advice.”
Atsushi blinked at the new information. “The King wants advice?” he asks. Ranpo nodded, sitting up.
“Sure. All the time,” he said. Breathing out a cloud of pink vapor, he added, “He asked me whether or not he should invite you to live with him, actually. Although ‘invite’ probably isn’t the right word.”
Atsushi’s ears twitched forward towards the Caterpillar, and he leaned onto the mushroom. “And you said he should,” he said incredulously. Ranpo nodded.
“Yep, because even though you may think otherwise, he really is lonely.”
“It’s still scary how you knew I was thinking that.”
“I know everything,” Ranpo said with a smirk. “And I also know that, often, someone who’s lonely might just push everyone away for fear of being hurt. Especially,” he opened one eye, capturing Atsushi in a jade-like gaze, “if they’ve been hurt in the past.”
Atsushi gulped, slowly trying to understand the weight of the Caterpillar’s words, but Ranpo continued before he could.
“Actually, the King has wanted someone by his side for a while. He wants you there right now, in fact,” he said, pointing off towards the castle. As if on cue, a card approached them from around a hedge, coming towards Atsushi.
“There’s more to the King than you think, White Rabbit,” Ranpo said, sucking on his pipe again. “You should try to find what you’ve been missing.”
Atsushi stared at him, about to ask what he meant by his confusing words, but the card ran up to him before he could say anything.
“His Majesty requires your presence,” the card said formally. Atsushi looked to the Caterpillar again, but he already had his back to him, blowing pink vapor into the air.
So Atsushi followed the card back to Akutagawa, trying to keep his breathing steady, but keeping Ranpo’s words in mind.
Akutagawa accepted Atsushi back to his side silently, and Atsushi’s life with the King began.
“Akutagawa shows more gentleness when you’re around.”
Atsushi raised an eyebrow, looking up at Ranpo from where he sat on the ground, sipping his tea while the Caterpillar breathed out a large blue cloud.
“Are you completely sure of that?” Asked Atsushi with a small sigh, taking another sip from his teacup. Despite living with the King for weeks, Atsushi still managed to be amazed at the cups’ intricate and unique designs, which had gold lacing across them in branching patterns.
Ranpo nodded, leaning back on his mushroom, holding his pipe to the side with one hand.
“Well, he hasn’t beheaded anyone since you’ve been here, right?” He said. Atsushi could hear the smirk on his lips as he added, “He’s showing off for you, you know.”
With a frown, Atsushi set his cup back on its saucer, which rested on the ground.
“He has a funny way of showing it,” he muttered, pulling his knees to his chest. A nearby hedgehog waddled up to his cup and started drinking from it. “You know I come out here when he kicks me out, and this is, what, the third time this week?”
Ranpo hummed, flipping over onto his stomach and watching the hedgehog while taking a drag from his pipe again. “He doesn’t want you to think less of him, so he kicks you out so you won’t see him angry or upset. Thought you knew that by now,” added the Caterpillar. “Not a great strategy, but it’s all he knows how to do. He should come ask me for a better way.”
Atsushi looked up at him, searching the Caterpillar’s face for truth or lies, but Ranpo’s eyes remained closed as if he slept. Atsushi knew better, however.
“Let’s talk about something else,” mumbled Atsushi, frustration clear in his voice. He picked the teacup off of the ground after the hedgehog left, bringing it close to his face to investigate all the gold covering it like veins. “Like teacups.”
Ranpo huffed. “Teacups?”
Atsushi nodded, turning the cup in his hands. “Shibusawa really likes to collect teacups,” he said, “and I visited his house a lot, mostly to see Dazai. He’d show me the collection sometimes, so I learned to appreciate them.” He paused. The remains of his tea looked like charred ash in the bottom of his cup. “But even though Shibusawa’s teacups all used to be pretty, they keep getting broken and cracked, and he never fixes them.”
Even those his eyes stayed closed, Ranpo seemed to be watching Atsushi as he continued, “But these… They’re perfect. The King’s teacups are unlike anything I’ve ever seen. There’s not a scratch or dent in them, like everyone treats them with care.”
Atsushi looked up when Ranpo gave a chuckle. “What’s so funny?”
Opening one eye, Ranpo grinned. “You think those cups have never been broken, Atsushi?”
Before Atsushi could respond, Ranpo took the teacup from him. He held it loosely, carelessly in one hand, and Atsushi almost panicked watching it dangle.
“Teacups are typically the closest thing on hand when Akutagawa flies into one of his rages. He’s picked these up and thrown them against walls more times than I can count,” he explained. Atsushi stared incredulously at the cup.
“But… It looks perfect,” he said. Ranpo nodded, and his smirk returned as Atsushi’s ears pricked. In the castle, the bell rang to tell Atsushi to return to the King’s side.
“They’re repaired with gold, Atsushi,” Ranpo said, watching Atsushi as he stood. The White Rabbit began his way back to the palace, but he heard the Caterpillar say as he left, “The scars may never completely fade, but they can heal so beautifully.”
When Atsushi arrived in the throne room, the King had already begun to hold court.
“You’re late, White Rabbit,” snapped Akutagawa, raising his attention from the toad bowed before him to Atsushi, frowning even when Atsushi rushed to his normal position by the King’s side.
The court held for some time, as whenever they would appear to be done, another citizen would be brought in and thrown before the King’s mercy. But before every sentence, Akutagawa glanced at Atsushi. While Atsushi tried to keep his eyes forward, understanding his role as a possession to be seen and not heard, he saw Akutagawa search his face from the corner of his eye. When the King turned back to the court, Atsushi would resume watching him, watching his pale skin, his dark eyes. A few times, Atsushi caught himself mistaking the King’s evanescent presence for beauty.
It was strange, Atsushi thought, watching Akutagawa spare yet another of the kingdom’s creatures. Before he had joined the court, he would hear of beheadings almost daily. And yet, in Atsushi’s presence, Akutagawa almost seemed to be trying to control himself better.
Atsushi shifted a little on his feet, but he froze when Akutagawa turned to eye him mid-sentence.
“What are you doing?” He asked. Atsushi’s ears flopped sheepishly.
“I, uh,” he stammered, trying to keep to himself how his mind and eyes had wandered, “I’m just… Getting tired. From standing so much,” he lied.
No sooner had he spoken than Akutagawa stood from his throne.
“Then you sit,” he said almost curtly. “I’ll stand.”
Atsushi stared at him. The King didn’t move, instead, he watched Atsushi through his mask, red rubies standing out over porcelain skin. He watched as Atsushi walked with his tail tucked to the throne, he watched as Atsushi sat, and he watched as Atsushi gave a shy smile.
“Thank you,” said the Rabbit. To his surprise, the King seemed to stiffen, covering his mouth with his hand. He coughed once, which Atsushi used to explain the red in his cheeks, before turning back to the peasant before them, continuing on with the hearing as if nothing had happened.
But something had happened, Atsushi thought that night. He laid on his back, staring up at the drapery above his bed, using his rabbit hearing to subconsciously listen to the sounds of the castle around him, still bustling after the sun had set. Something had happened, and not only had it happened, it had happened between Atsushi and Akutagawa, the King of Hearts.
Atsushi groaned a little, unable to sleep no matter how he tossed and turned. He couldn’t get that moment from the throne room out of his head, that moment where they locked eyes, that moment where Akutagawa may have even extended a gesture of kindness . But for the King, that should be impossible.
Atsushi’s ears twitched. He sat up suddenly, alert to the sounds from the next room over. The floor felt cold beneath his feet, but he made his way out the door and into the hallway as quickly as he could, for the King called his name.
“Your Majesty?” Atsushi asked softly, opening one of the double doors that led to Akutagawa’s bedroom. A candle had not been lit in the room, so Atsushi had to feel his way over to Akutagawa’s bedside, where he whispered again, “Your Majesty?”
Atsushi blinked. In the dim moonlight, the room slowly came into focus, and he noticed that the King still laid down in his bed. Neither of his eyes had opened, and Atsushi suddenly realized that he had been talking in his sleep.
Atsushi frowned. The King’s face appeared troubled, with a furrowed brow and gritted teeth. He shook from time to time, breathing heavily, murmuring pieces of Atsushi’s name.
Nearly without thinking, Atsushi set his hand upon the Akutagawa’s. Before he had a chance to realize what he had done, to pull away, Akutagawa gripped his fingers, still trembling.
But after a moment, he stopped. After a moment, his features relaxed, and if Atsushi didn’t know better, he would have said the King appeared to smile.
With a small sigh, Atsushi used his other hand to pull a chair to the King’s bedside. He sat down on it, leaning over onto the mattress, holding Akutagawa’s hand in his. He wasn’t sure how he would explain himself in the morning, but he did know that, even in his sleep, Akutagawa would be upset if he left.
So he stayed, eyelids drifting closed, falling asleep beside his King. His last thought was the realization that, in his sleep, Akutagawa had called him by name for the first time.
Thankfully, Atsushi woke before Akutagawa, who had moved in his sleep so that he no longer held the Rabbit’s hand. Atsushi managed to slip back into his room undetected, and the King didn’t appear to know anything about what went on the previous night.
But Atsushi remembered. He remembered every time Akutagawa woke him up during that night, whispering his name, gripping his hand and pulling it to his chest. And that knowledge tore into Atsushi like a knife carving into his skin. At some point or another, he and Akutagawa would need to talk, and he couldn’t put it off any longer.
“Are you alright?”
Atsushi jumped when Akutagawa spoke to him. They walked down the hallway together, side-by-side, as Akutagawa insisted. Atsushi had to stop himself from thinking that that almost made him equal with the King.
“You seem distracted,” Akutagawa said, turning his eyes forward once again. “I’ll… Do my best to solve whatever ails you,” he ended with a murmur, covering his mouth with his hand again and coughing. Atsushi watched him, nervous eyes wide, and behind his back, he clenched and unclenched his hands.
“Would you go on a picnic with me?” He asked shakily.
Akutagawa paused in place, and Atsushi stopped beside him.
“... Pardon?” asked Akutagawa.
Atsushi, tail twitching, took a deep breath. “A picnic,” he repeated, “I’m inviting you to a picnic. I-in the garden.”
Akutagawa paused for a moment. He watched Atsushi, who could practically see the gears turning behind the King’s eyes.
“I suppose… That would be alright,” Akutagawa said, and Atsushi held back a sigh of relief. “Will that ease what bothered you?” At Atsushi’s eager nod, Akutagawa’s shoulders seemed to relax. “Okay.”
For the first time since he arrived at the palace, Atsushi felt a genuine smile on his lips.
Akutagawa arrived precisely when Atsushi asked, which caused the White Rabbit to scramble a little about the picnic blanket.
“I guess I’m so used to being late, I’m surprised when other people show up on time,” he laughed nervously. Akutagawa only nodded, eyeing the scene before him as if he didn’t know what quite to do. Before him, a picnic blanket had been laid out in the castle garden, surrounded by red rose bushes still dripping with paint. On the blanket, Atsushi had set multi-tiered trays filled with biscuits and cupcakes, a platter holding a strawberry cake, and a teapot with its contents still steaming from beneath its lid.
Atsushi sat down, and Akutagawa followed suit, sitting across from him on the blanket.
“How do you like your tea?” Asked Atsushi, pouring him a cup.
Crossing his legs beneath him, Akutagawa murmured. “With a tablespoon of milk. No sugar.”
Atsushi smiled little again. “Really? I have to have sugar, or it’s too bitter for me,” he said as he passed the cup and saucer to him. Akutagawa only nodded, blowing on the tea to cool it, as Atsushi said softly, “It’s rose tea. The cards said it was your favorite.”
Akutagawa nodded again, and even though the hard lines in his face relaxed somewhat when he tasted the tea, he still said nothing.
The silence between them felt tangible. Atsushi found himself fidgeting again, only nibbling idly at his biscuit while Akutagawa sampled everything.
“Sooo,” Atsushi said slowly, earning him a glance from Akutagawa. “Is there… Anything you want to talk about?”
His ears drooped a little when Akutagawa shook his head.
“No need,” he said plainly, passing his cup to Atsushi so he could fill it again. Atsushi offered a thin smile.
“But, well, we haven’t talked much since I got here, and it’s been a while,” he began. “Maybe we should get to know each other better?”
Akutagawa visibly stiffened, and Atsushi flinched so harshly that he nearly dropped the teapot.
“No,” Akutagawa snapped. Atsushi gulped. His instincts told him to run, but with shaking hands, he pushed them down. He couldn’t run from this anymore.
“Your Highness,” Atsushi said, drawing Akutagawa’s attention. Before he could correct him, Atsushi continued, “I have the right to know what I mean to you.”
Akutagawa scowled, but he drew his legs closer as if he was retreating into himself. “Get out,” he growled.
Atsushi set his jaw, trying to appear intimidating, no matter how much his tail twitched with fear. “We are out,” he said firmly. “There’s nowhere for me to go.”
“Go inside then!” Akutagawa roared, snapping his head up and staring him down with dark eyes that burned like coals.
“No!” Atsushi shouted right back. Akutagawa’s eyes widened as if no one had spoken to him that way before, or perhaps he had never expected Atsushi of all people to do so. Nevertheless, the White Rabbit held his ground. “Something’s going on, King Akutagawa! And I demand to know what it is!”
The King stared at him in stunned silence. Letting the rage fall from his eyes, from his lips, Atsushi let out a sigh.
“You can’t just push your problems away every time. Even if you’re afraid, you have to face them head on,” he murmured, looking down at his teacup. Veins of gold wove across it in unpredictable patterns. “Unlike me.”
Silence filled the air again, only broken by the far-off cries of a flamingo in the menagerie.
“What do you mean?”
Atsushi’s ears pricked. He looked up, back at Akutagawa, who watched him with something unknown in his eyes. Atsushi chuckled humorlessly.
“I mean I’m a coward, Your Highness,” he said, a sad smile on his lips. “I should’ve brought this up a long time ago, but I was scared. Terrified. I’ve always been scared of you.”
He could hear the King’s breathing, coming out slowly and hesitantly.
“If what you’ve told me is true,” Akutagawa said, and Atsushi cringed immediately, squeezing his eyes shut, ready and dreading whatever punishment he would receive, “... Then you’re the bravest man I’ve ever met, Atsushi.”
Atsushi froze. He looked up at Akutagawa, wide-eyed, staring at his ruler, who looked more vulnerable than Atsushi had ever thought possible, with his knees shaking and pulled to his chest, his eyes looking down at the ground.
“I’m the coward,” he whispered almost too quietly for Atsushi to hear, his hand covering his mouth. He paused, and still shaking, he murmured again, “Leave.”
Atsushi frowned, setting his jaw. “Ryuunosuke Akutagawa, King of the Land of Hearts,” he said firmly, drawing the King’s eye, “I will not leave you. Not now, not ever.”
Akutagawa stared at him, mouth open, brows twisted in what almost appeared to be pain.
“You may have been hurt in the past,” Atsushi continued to speak, words coming to him almost without his knowledge, “and you may push me away so I don’t see your weaknesses. I get it. That’s why I run so much,” he whispered. He noticed as Akutagawa began pushing trays and platters out of the way with abandon, drawing closer to him with that same expression still on his face, but Atsushi didn’t run.
“Maybe you push people away because they hurt you, and you don’t want to get hurt again. Maybe you kill them to make sure they can’t hurt you anymore,” he said softly.
Porcelain teacups crashed and shattered as Akutagawa knocked Atsushi over, laying him flat on the blanket, his hands on either side of his head. His breath came out raggedly through his open mouth, and his dark, broken eyes looked upon Atsushi with a mix of hope and fear, swirled together into a tempest.
With a single hand, Atsushi reached up, lacing his fingers through the King’s dark hair.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he whispered.
Gently, slowly, Atsushi rose up onto his elbow, and gently, slowly, he brought Akutagawa’s lips down to meet his.
“What’s this?” Asked Chuuya, frowning at a letter that a penguin had just given to him.
Dazai shrugged as he sipped tea from a teacup so broken that only half of it remained. “An invitation, perhaps?” He looked up as another penguin flew onto the table, presenting the letter in its beak to Dazai. The March Hare smiled. “Oh, I get one too?”
More penguins arrived, despite Shibusawa’s attempts to swat them away with his hat, and Fyodor chuckled. “Looks like we all do.”
Chuuya, meanwhile, stared at the contents of his letter in disbelief. “Already? It’s only been a year…”
Dazai looked at him quizzically, but only for a moment. Then he smiled again, opening his letter, showing the invitation to the rest of the table. “It seems as if the entire kingdom,” he said with a grin, “is invited to the wedding of the White Rabbit and the King of Hearts.”