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A Prince for Christmas

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It's definitely been a Christmas Day that Ann won't be forgetting any time soon. With Goro's plans of revenge against Shido coming to light, and the thrill of sitting in Yusuke's lap during the present exchange, and still not quite having processed everything that happened the night before at the ball, Ann's head feels like it's spinning.

In a good way, though, like she's on a ride at Destinyland. It feels like everything's sliding into place. Like everybody's where they belong.

It's not going to be easy to go back home after the holidays are over. It never is, but there are special circumstances this year that'll make it particularly hard to leave.

One specific circumstance is standing next to her right now. She sneaks a glance at Yusuke as they make their way back to the palace. The snow really is starting to get heavy; it's already gathered on Yusuke's hair, flakes clinging to the strands.

She reaches out to brush them away. She's allowed to do things like that now, reach out and touch Yusuke whenever she pleases.

There are other things she's allowed to do now as well, and she can't think of any reason to delay them.

"Hey," she says after they've stomped the snow off their shoes and slipped inside the side door, the one meant for employees. "Come up with me to my room tonight."

She means to phrase it like an offer Yusuke can't refuse, but it still comes out a bit like a request. They've been busy the last few days, what with the whole overthrowing-the-tyrannical-king-in-secret thing, but she wants to take advantage of the time they have left before she goes back home. And she has a perfectly nice bed, in a perfectly lovely room, surrounded by perfectly sound-proofed walls.

Well. Sound-proofed enough.

"I'd be happy to," Yusuke says. It's possible he hasn't quite caught onto the implications of Ann's suggestion yet, not that Ann minds surprising him just a little. "I'll need to pick up my sleepwear from my room, however."

Ann slips her arm under Yusuke's, hooking them at the elbows. "Or maybe you don't need to," she says, letting her voice go coy.

Yusuke looks at her. "It's much too cold to forgo sleepwear," he says, sensible as can be.

"Yusuke."

"Hm?"

She squeezes his arm. She lifts her eyebrows. He stares at her, nonplussed, until something seems to click into place. "Oh," he says. His expression changes, curiosity appearing. "Oh."

Ann grins. She lets go of his arm to grab his hand instead. After all those weeks of moody pining, the thrill of even the most mundane things, like hand-holding, has yet to wear off. She rubs her thumb over Yusuke's hand, feeling his long, delicate fingers. The fingers of a painter, an artist. She's seen the careful way he's maneuvered brushes around on a canvas. She can only imagine how gentle he'll be when touching her.

"I have always wondered how opulent the bedrooms in the palace actually are," Yusuke says. "The aesthetic of the antique furniture alone is very enticing. What would you say is the dominant motif of your room?"

"Um. Velvet?" She thinks of the pale pink brocade curtains, the satin sheets. Is there actually even any velvet in her room? "Or maybe not. I'm not sure." She tugs on his hand, skipping ahead a few steps. "You'll see soon enough!"

Suddenly she can't wait. The palace, even in all of its luxury, has sometimes felt overbearing in its massive size, the arched ceilings too vast and cold, the hallways too long and empty. She remembers visits where Goro would come to her in her room after bedtime, how they'd sneak snacks from the kitchen and talk well into the night, but this is different, so very different. This is a visit of a much more indecently intimate nature.

She speeds up into a run, giggling as she goes, much too loud for the silent hallways. She doesn't stop until she's at her door and has closed it behind her and Yusuke, breathless and eager all at once.

"Well, here it is!" Ann announces, gesturing to the room at large.

She flicks on a few lights, illuminating the soft colors and golden accents in gentle lamplight.

"Oh," Yusuke breathes. "It's enchanting. The designer was obviously influenced by William Kent. The lampshades, for instance—"

He continues. Ann lets him gush while she unwinds her scarf from her neck and shakes the remaining snow free from her coat, watching Yusuke move about her room with complete comfort and, in turn, finding comfort in seeing him do so. It's something new to have him in her private space like this, and it certainly feels new, but at the same time, it feels easy, almost natural.

She tugs him down onto the settee—hey, there is velvet in here—after a few minutes of lauding the way the light bounces off of the crystals of the chandelier. She expects him to continue his museum's tour of her room, undeterred, but instead he swivels his attention seamlessly to her, as if she's yet another masterpiece to appreciate.

Will she ever get sick of that? The fluttering in her ribcage says no.

"You know," she says, grabbing his hand again. She grins. "You were totally jealous today."

"Jealous," Yusuke says. "Yes, I was. Perhaps it was presumptuous of me, but... up until today, I had only ever been jealous of another artist's talent, of a creativity that plundered greater than mine." He stops, and Ann almost assumes he's gone into another one of his artist's trances, but he speaks up again. "I suppose that's not quite right. Up until I met you."

He squeezes her hand. If he was looking at her like she was precious art before, now he's looking at her as if she's a priceless painting hung up behind a pane of glass in a museum, untouchable, unreachable. Propped up and worshipped by all its audience.

She scoots closer on the settee. "Really?" she says. "Why—why's any of that presumptuous?"

"I suppose I'm not sure if I have the right to be jealous.."

He looks at her, hopeful. The hope is laid out, so bare and raw for her to see, that it almost startles Ann. She knows there's a lot in their way, obstacles completely different from the ones that existed before of differences in class and wealth, but rather practical obstacles that affect lots of couples, rich or poor or tall or short or normal or not-so-normal. Still—

"I don't care what it takes," she blurts out. "If it has to be long-distance, then let's do long-distance! I want to be your girlfriend. I'm going to be your girlfriend!"

It's a bit embarrassing, announcing something that should really be a decision they make together, but Yusuke, blinking in surprise, doesn't seem to mind. He slides closer too, smiling.

"I mean," Ann says. "If—if that's what you want, too."

"There is something quite poetic about being separated by distance for periods of anguish, only to be joyously reunited again," Yusuke murmurs. "It's a truly universal experience, one that must've fueled the artistic urges of even my ancestors."

"So—you're okay with that?" Ann asks.

"Of course I am," he says. "But, Ann, I know that there are many men by your home, closer than I will be, and perhaps even more desirable—"

She can't even bear to let him finish that self-deprecating thought. She leans in, letting go of his hand to firmly grab him by the face, kissing the words away mid-sentence. He responds without hesitation, winding his arms around her shoulders and pressing himself even closer.

"They won't be you," she says. She groans right after she's said it, because that definitely sounded better in her head. "Ugh. That wasn't supposed to be so cheesy."

Yusuke shakes his head. "I found it beautifully sentimental."

"Oh. Then—yeah. I meant it." She leans in for another kiss, this one slightly longer, warming up any parts of her that were still cold from the outside chill. It goes on long enough that she slides into his lap, making herself comfortable there. "D'you want to move this over to the bed?"

"Hm." His hands flex on her back, considering. "I'm not all that sleepy yet, I must say."

Ann gets to her feet. She grins, feeling carbonated all over from excitement. "Great. Me neither."

 

&

 

Goro returns to his office the morning following their group meeting with a buoyancy in his step he hasn't felt in years, one he rather thinks to be fuelled by none other than hope

It's a wonderful feeling, one abated only by the note on his desk, one written cleanly and clearly in his father's script. 

An ill omen, no doubt, especially after everything that they've been doing today. 

 

Meet me in the Crimson Dining Room tonight at 8 o'clock for supper. Whatever other plans you may have had can wait. 

We will be discussing your new "relationship."

 

He has a full list of tasks for the day, some of which will evidently need to be rescheduled on Shido's whims, but a far more pressing thought nags at him, twisting his stomach into another shape entirely. 

Pulling out his phone, he sends a quick text to Akira. 

 

Get everyone together for an emergency meeting. 

 

He doesn't have to wait long for a response to come in. 

 

Barn? Kitchen?

Is everything all right?

 

The barn will do fine. 

 

&

 

What had already been a considerable amount of snow the night prior seems to have been covered by a veritable avalanche overnight, blanketing the world in white with no sign of stopping. Outside the barn, the wind whistles sharply enough to sing, all alongside the promise of yet more snow. 

It's times like these that Futaba is especially grateful that the barn is heated, not just for her and Mona, but for the horses, too. From her perch up in Mona's favorite hayloft—much smaller than Akira's but no less cozy—she watches as a few of the others file in, just as expected. 

"You're late," she says from behind a beam, Mona jumping off of her lap, startled by the sound of her voice. 

Makoto sighs, staring up at the space above Zorro's stall. "We didn't have an assigned meeting time, Futaba."

"But we are meeting, aren't we? And I got here first."

Which is impressive, all things considered. It would have made far more sense to gather in her room, but that would have required allowing seven people into her tiny room, all of whom may as well have been near-strangers up until their Christmas present exchange. Instead, she had to lug all the necessary equipment out here with her. 

"So, what's going on?" Ann asks, her in Yusuke's behind her back. They think they're being subtle, but really, why even bother at this point?

"My father wishes to dine with me tonight. He's requesting that I alter my schedule to accommodate this new whim of his."

"Yes," Makoto chimes in, "I was given similar instructions to free up your schedule. Admittedly, I was rather alarmed, seeing how he's always quite fond of schedules and keeping you busy, but—"

"Yeahhh," Futaba cuts in, feeling herself sweat as the attention is turned back upon her. "You might not want to go to that dinner. He's totally going to try and poison you."

Ryuji all but explodes in response. "Dude, what the hell! Does he already know we're snooping around?! That's way too soon! We'll never be able to get him for his bullshit at this rate!"

"Perhaps if you'd allow Futaba to finish explaining what she knows, she might be able to shed more light upon our dilemma," Yusuke says, drawing a pout out of Ryuji as Makoto gestures for her to continue.

"Go ahead, Futaba."

"Well, I noticed that something kinda weird was bought not via the palace treasury but one of those shell companies that Shido uses. It was just labeled as an 'unknown' alongside a really long string of numbers and letters—no weight, no price, no nothing. So I looked into it. And I'm pretty sure it's arsenic."

She's almost disappointed there isn't a drumroll to go along with the grand reveal, though she supposes the astonished faces fanned out beneath her in the barn speak for themselves.

"How very… Agatha Christie of him." Yusuke taps his chin. "When was this substance ordered?"

"The night of the ball. After the announcement." 

Akira and Goro exchange glances, not that Futaba can blame them. While they were getting off, Goro's shitty dad was plotting his murder. She can only imagine how much that must suck to find out. 

"Then I assume it would be out of the question to procure an antidote."

Makoto confirms it before Futaba has to. "I'm afraid so. With this blizzard in full force, I daresay it would be almost impossible. However…"

"Maybe just don't eat anything at dinner?" Ann offers, Haru chirping up beside her. 

"I'm sure it'll look suspicious to your father, but it would be preferable to being dead, I should think."

Futaba clears her throat, tossing down a chopsticks box. "Quick, Ryuji! Catch!"

He does, inspecting the package as though it's a bomb they could use to explode Shido over dinner. "The hell is this?"

"Well, for starters, it's not for you. Hand it to the prince, your favorite person here."

"Ugh."

"Are these chopsticks?" Goro asks, having taken the lid off to pull the contents out of their box.

"Merry Christmas; my gift to you is not dying tonight."

"Dude, none of what you're saying is makin' any sense!"

"They're silver," Makoto interrupts before Ryuji can continue, amazement coloring her tone. "Silver turns black when it comes in contact with arsenic."

Futaba nods. "Which should let you eat while avoiding whatever is poisoned. And ideally sneak some of it out for evidence to add onto the pile."

"Is it still regicide if you're killin' the crown prince?" Ryuji shakes his head to himself. "Whatever, man! This guy is going down!"

He's not the only one who seems to be elated at the thought, smiles all around the barn even in spite of the surprise of the dinner invitation. Even Goro looks to be relieved, which Futaba is pretty sure is… new.

"No time to rest," she says, starting her descent down from the hayloft to glance at Goro. "You're coming with me. We need to plan for how we're going to do this tonight."

 

&

 

Goro has been on countless news programs and attended countless events. Rare was the day indeed when he wasn't surrounded by secret service and bodyguards on one of those events, his own personal entourage either in full view, or just out of sight. 

Even so, he's not sure he's ever felt quite so... wired up—or nervous about it, for that matter. The wires don't reach his ears, and he's certainly not wearing an earpiece, but he nevertheless relented to Futaba's insistence that she might be able to listen in on their conversation just in case something went wrong. Like in the instance that Shido had discovered her wiretaps in some of the rooms and had come to suspect that something was wrong. 

Admittedly, it would be just like Shido to wait until the last second before surprising him with a change of location and removing any of Futaba's connections to the room in question just prior to his entrance. 

It would also be helpful if he didn't have to shout his safe word—or rather, safe phrases—in order for Futaba to hear him. All done in the name of his safety.

First, if he should find that his food has been tampered with, he is to say that Akira has taken his heart. And second, should he find himself in mortal peril, he is to utter the word crow in some capacity. To allude to murders, no doubt. 

Even so. How he is meant to bring crows into conversation, he still isn't entirely sure, but Futaba assured him that it was a far better option than dying from being poisoned by a substance they didn't anticipate—or worse, stabbed—something Goro reluctantly agreed with. Even if it would be much easier to prosecute Shido on account of murder, he would still very much prefer to live through this. With both of them gone, who would even ascend the throne? Ann? With Yusuke as prince consort?

The thought is amusing enough to briefly stifle his nerves as Goro pushes down the handle and opens the door, though they return swiftly enough as he steps through the large, arched entryway, his shoes resounding on the wooden parquet. 

The room—featuring pale green wooden paneling and striking French tapestries around the walls—is far from unfamiliar to him. Though not used nearly as often as some of the other dining rooms employed upon their receiving guests in the name of both simple hospitality and state visits—or his and Shido's offices, for that matter—it nevertheless has seen plenty of use on a familial level. This is where breakfast is served, and where Ann and him will dine together upon her visiting. On those occasions, the open fireplace has always proved particularly nice, especially when her visits accompany snow. It's rarely hot in this part of the country, and the stone walls do little to keep things warm all on their own

If it were up to him, Ann simply shouldn't leave. After this whole sordid affair is sorted out, it would be nice to have her around more. Especially with her parents always traveling for state visits of their own, charity events and balls. The estate has to get lonely for her too. If it wasn't for Akira… 

He doesn't care to finish the thought, oddly far removed from his old mindset of not needing anyone. It's a little like looking at a picture of oneself and wondering how the man in the image has ever once been him. Except that there are no family pictures hung up around the palace, Shido rejecting the notion from day one. 

It strikes him that he's never before felt particularly lucky in life, but Akira has managed to somehow turn that around for him, too. The news reports alone—

Hearing the door open, Goro turns away from the crackling fireplace, his nerves jumping back into full force. Right. He's here to avoid getting murdered. Reaching into his suit jacket, he fingers the chopsticks still tucked into his inner pocket with some relief. 

"Shido."

"Sit," he says, his tone miles from a request, not that Goro is used to anything different from his father. 

He isn't sure whether to feel better about the fact that they're not alone in the room anymore, one of the staff pulling out a seat for Goro to take. If he were dining with Ann, their seats would be together, close so that talking might be less awkward. But dining with his father has always been something of an awkward affair with both of them sat at the far ends of the table. The distance isn't too great—a far cry from their dinner with the Okumuras—but certainly far enough that he isn't worried about switching the chopsticks on the table for his own. 

His chair is pushed in behind him, Goro watching other attendants wheel in a serving cart with their first course. 

"You've gone out of your way to make this a rather elaborate meal, I see. Are we celebrating anything?"

"It's just traditional kaiseki. Have you gotten so used to slumming it with your new boyfriend that you've forgotten how we dine here at the palace?"

Goro feels himself bristle. So that's how this is going to be. 

"Are you just here to berate me for my choice of significant other?" he asks.

Shido sneers. "I'm here to ask you what on earth you were thinking when you disobeyed my direct orders and ignored what was best for the nation in your selfish campaign toward…" He shakes his head, all but rolling his eyes as the staff serves them their starters.

Allowing his gaze to take in the variety of dishes laid out before him, Goro has to resist the urge to openly scowl. Of course Shido would make this about openly berating him. This could have easily been a meeting in his office, but that would have clearly been far too easy to escape from—and far harder to poison someone during. 

The ceramic chopsticks are laid out before him as if to mock him, Goro waiting for the staff to turn their backs and for Shido to busy himself with his starter of steamed tofu and pike conger before swapping them out for his own rather non-traditional ones. 

If only Shido had opted for a more traditionally western meal. Then they could have used silverware from the start. 

Sighing, he experimentally touches a bite of food with his chopsticks, holding them there for a few moments before allowing himself to eat. 

"It was hardly a planned effort on my part."

"Clearly." The word comes dripping with Shido's disdain. "It's rather obvious that, had you put any thought into your actions beforehand, this would not have been the route you would have chosen to take."

Goro opts for stabbing the next bite of food to check it for poison, glowering at the royal insignia before him.

"I had an epiphany that night."

"That the throne was something you no longer wished to reach?"

Gritting his teeth, Goro continues. "That this isn't what my mother would have wanted for me."

Silence descends as their soup is served, Goro surreptitiously dipping his chopsticks into the clear broth before setting them aside in favor of the ceramic soup spoon.

"So then," Shido finally continues after a sip of broth, "you think your mother wouldn't have wished for you to become king?"

Even now, there remains something comforting about the thought of stabbing Shido—painfully, viciously—to death. The thought briefly trumps all others, evidence and witnesses and plans mentally pushed haphazardly aside as Goro allows the thought of violence to calm him. His father deserves to die, but putting him behind bars might be even more satisfying. Death is… far too simple a punishment for such a despicable man. He deserves to pay for his crimes. For the rest of his life. Possibly involving hard labor. In something resembling a gulag. 

Goro eases his grip on his chopsticks. 

"No, I daresay she would have hoped that the world would have become progressive enough as to allow for her son to be his true, authentic self and to be king despite it."

"Even if that were true," Shido continues, waving it off with his hand, "the world hardly works in such romantically fanciful ways. You can dream all you wish for a fairytale happy ending, but the world doesn't work this way."

Their bowls are cleared away in favor of some flame-grilled fish. Goro chuckles. "Clearly, it does. Or the media wouldn't be responding the way that it is."

For the first time since his entry into the room, Shido bothers looking up at him, murder written clear in his eyes. There's nothing friendly about his expression, about the intent within it. Once upon a time, it would have affected him considerably more. Now… 

Shido can't touch him anymore. Piercing a bite of yakimono, Goro smiles. "The world has changed. And evidently not with you alongside."

"I am the world!" Shido snaps, eyes blazing. "If there are changes to be made, I'll be the one to make that decision, not the public! You seem to have forgotten that you have no jurisdiction here, no rights to the throne as of yet. I can ruin your every prospect of ever touching your supposed birthright. Have you forgotten your place?! You're nothing more than a bastard, the illegitimate offspring of my late wife."

Everything inside of Goro twitches with every buzzword Shido drops at his feet as if intending to bait him, draw the information he's sat on for years and years out of him as if on a string. 

His self-control in not calling the late queen a whore must have been tremendous.

"It must look curious to the public," Goro starts, drawing his hands back to nod his thanks to the server bringing him his rice course, "that the crown prince should not ever be allowed to ascend the throne."

Sinking his chopsticks into the rice, Goro feels his blood run cold as he watches them slowly blacken at the tips. 

"Especially," he continues, heart pounding in his ears, "seeing as my heart has been rather stolen by someone I clearly care for deeply. It was hardly something I could have controlled. Akira—that is to say, my significant other—is quite the thief of hearts. I think if you met him properly, you'd quite like him. But then—" His smile widens despite how faint he feels at the realization. "—you were the one who employed him, weren't you? I suppose I ought to be thanking you."

Goro sets down his chopsticks. He expected this. It shouldn't bother him how closely he could have come to dying if it wasn't for the help of his… of his friends

The realization sinks in slowly, but with no small amount of weight. He has friends now.

Hopefully they heard his verbal cue. After all, it's Ryuji's job to get the poisoned leftovers somewhere for them to keep as evidence, but whether he'll actually succeed at that, Goro can't be entirely sure. Even without them, they should have enough evidence, and yet… 

"It's not a matter of public approval, it's a matter of the law."

Goro nods. "And your ability to change it."

"Are you truly expecting the public to rejoice in your inability to produce an heir?"

"I expect them to rejoice in our ability and willingness to rescue a poor child or two from the overflowing orphanages in our country. I am, after all, a bastard, aren't I? I'd understand all too well what it means not to have any parents left." Pushing back his bowl of rice, he waves off one of the servers as he scoots his chair back. "No dessert for me, thank you."

"Aren't you going to eat your rice?"

The words hang between them with a certain weight. As though Shido knows that he knows and is simply waiting for confirmation. 

Goro is determined not to give it to him.

"Forgive me. All this homophobia has lost me my appetite."

 

&

 

It takes some doing, but by the time Ryuji manages to snatch the leftovers out of the trash, he's fairly certain that this particular bit of rice is his greatest achievement. It was deemed worth rewarding with a sandwich, something he decided upon seeing a gloriously full fridge, one that definitely wouldn't fit a small tupperware container filled with crucial evidence.

Crucial evidence that he managed to get solely thanks to his willingness to root through the garbage.  

Now proudly situated in the fridge, Ryuji is nevertheless still grinning amidst bites of sandwich by the time the prince returns to the kitchen after meeting up with Futaba to discuss, whatever that meant. 

"Hello… everyone," he says from the entryway, Akira getting up from his seat to kiss him. Only when he pulls away once more—which takes way too long—does he speak again. "What was that for?" 

"Making it out alive. And… calling me the thief of your heart."

"I—!" Goro splutters, Ryuji snorting only for a glob of mayo to escape from his sandwich in the process. "I didn't realize you were listening in!"

"That's our Akira, biggest thief of hearts we got 'round here!" he announces through a mouthful of food, Makoto smacking him on the arm.

"Please tell me you're going to shower after you finish that," Ann says from her spot on the counter, legs dangling over the edge as she purses her lips. "I can kinda smell you from over here."

Ryuji's sigh is exaggerated. "Guess it would've been just too much to ask for the hero of the hour to get some appreciation around these parts."

"I never said we didn't appreciate your contribution!" Ann fires back, Akira blinking before his eyes go wide.

"Wait—you got it?"

"Hell yeah, I got it!" Setting down his sandwich, Ryuji turns to straddle the bench to face Akira and a rather bewildered-looking Goro.

"Apologies—got what, exactly?"

"The evidence? The rice? Keep up, yo!"

"Ryuji!" Makoto cuts in in a whisper-shout. "Lower your volume!"

"Was it particularly difficult?" Yusuke asks.

"Uh, yeah! That scumbag Shido got someone off all the plates before I could wash the dishes. Pretty sure I saw Mishima wheeling 'round a cart, though. Anyway, so I kinda had to go dumpster diving. Futaba told me it was rice, so I put it all in a tupperware. It's in the fridge now."

"That… does explain the stench," Goro says, Ryuji pulling a face before he continues. "Still, thank you. This will be valuable evidence to have."

"Oh." He blinks. "You're welcome, I guess."

"What's next?" Akira asks, pulling the container out of the fridge. 

Goro looks grimly at the container. It's obvious what he's thinking, what they're all thinking. That if Shido's at a point where he's comfortable winging poison about, he means business, and nobody knows how extreme his next attempt will be. They have to act, and fast.

"We need to go talk to Sae," Goro says. "It's time to prepare for tomorrow."

 

&

 

Even on short notice, there isn't a single journalist or reporter who doesn't jump at the invitation to Goro's spontaneous press conference. 

"They'll all be there," Makoto confirms, consulting her clipboard. "I imagine nobody wants to miss out on the story." Her mouth twitches. "Or should I say, second story, considering the papers and sites are still reporting what happened at the ball."

Goro bites back a pleased smile. Never could he have predicted that his unanticipated coming out would benefit him, but the serendipitous wave of popularity that Goro's been riding ever since is certainly compelling proof. He straightens out his tie, then his sleeves. He's attended and hosted dozens if not hundreds of press conferences over the years, but none have ever excited him before.

He's about to get everything he's ever wanted. On top of all the things he never knew he wanted. It feels as if years of bad luck are about to be balanced out on the karmic scales with a deluge of good fortune, and exactly at the right time, at that.

"And the police?" Goro asks.

"They'll also be in attendance. I've given them the gist of your speech, and provided that you see it through, they're intending to immobilize Shido should he try and put up a fight."

Goro would be surprised if Shido wouldn't. He's spun and greased the wheels of multiple schemes to get where he is today; he definitely won't let himself fall from his peak without clawing and snarling.

It's all right. Goro's prepared, all thanks to people he never would've dreamed would be standing beside him today as co-conspirators. Teammates. Friends.

He turns to Makoto. "If I haven't thanked you yet," he starts.

She smiles at him. "You're welcome," she says.

"I realize you're not just doing this for me—"

"But we would have," Makoto interrupts. "It's the right thing to do."

A month ago, that sort of talk of right and wrong and integrity and due process would've elicited an eye roll. Akira and his ragtag group of friends must be rubbing off on Goro, because now he finds it almost inspiring.

The door opens, revealing Yusuke and Ryuji. "We're setting up the banquet hall in the East Hall now," Yusuke relays. "It should be ready in time for the conference, provided we can find enough chairs."

"No sign of Shido," Ryuji adds. He grins like a kid setting up a prank behind his parent's back. "Don't think he's realized what's going on just yet."

"Let's keep it that way," Goro says. He gives one last pass over his shoulders, smoothing any errant wrinkles aside.

Goro's scale of overdue good luck seems to lend a hand in that case. For the next hour, Shido doesn't make an appearance, not that Goro was expecting him to. It's unnerving, knowing that Shido's most likely holed up in his office, doing his best to put another assassination attempt on Goro into motion, but all Goro has to do is beat him to the punch. And if he's played his cards right, Shido isn't even aware yet of the fact that Goro's geared up, fist waiting, right around the corner.

Behind the curtains of the banquet stage, he checks his watch. He can hear the muffled sounds of a murmuring, expectant audience through the fabric. The excitement inside him gains speed, sizzling. He feels like he's swallowed a firework, and, any second now, he's going to rocket around the room just from the sheer thrill of it all.

"Hey," Akira says, touching Goro's shoulder. "Are you ready for this?"

Goro checks his watch again. The minute hand ticks closer to the full hour. His excitement surges, only dappled with nerves.

"More than," he says. He cocks his head toward the wings of the stage. "Will you be watching?"

Akira grins. "All of us will be."

He looks just as excited as Goro feels. There's something like triumph in his expression, a sense of victory that Goro wants to wash himself in. He's been dreaming of a moment like this for as long as he can remember. Never did he ever imagine sharing it, but now that he is, it only feels as if the joy is multiplied.

He focuses again on the buzz of the waiting crowd, the way it sounds almost soothingly of white noise. It isn't until Sae appears next to him, tall in her no-nonsense heels and pantsuit, that Goro realizes the time has whittled away, leaving nothing between him and his goal. She nods at him, waiting for his go-ahead.

Goro takes a breath. He reaches out and squeezes Akira's wrist just for a moment, just to feel the warmth.

"Well," he says, calmly. "Let's annihilate him."

He pushes the curtain aside.

The crowd immediately quiets when they see him striding out on the stage, readying their cameras. Goro finds his place behind the podium, and already the first flash eagerly goes off. The room is full, almost fuller than he expected. All the better.

"I'd like to thank everybody for coming," he says in greeting. "I'm glad to see that there are so many of you, but I'm afraid there won't be any more revelations about my sexuality, if that's what some of you are here for."

A smattering of laughter ripples through the crowd. Another rapid flash clicks near the far left.

"In truth, this press conference isn't about me at all. It's about King Shido."

Goro looks to the wings where Sae is waiting, and behind her, Akira. The proud look on his face blooms a warmth in Goro that feels like flowers opening up for the sun. He turns back to the crowd.

"King Masayoshi Shido, who has deceived and betrayed the entire country, who has not just embezzled money from the hard-working people of this country, but also murdered any of those who have gotten in his way. Including my mother."

The crowd has gone slack-jawed and wide-eyed. This will be the story of most of their careers, if not their lifetimes. Goro owes them all the transparency they'll need to make it as juicy as can be.

"I must ask for forgiveness from the people, because these facts are something I've known for many years now, but was waiting for the right time to reveal. I realize now that there is never a right time, only a wrong time, which is any time that isn't now. I've sat on this information long enough, and I vow to never let another life fall victim to the king's schemes. Including my own, which was threatened by a poisoning attempt orchestrated by Shido earlier this week."

A few gasps sound from the audience. Even from his distance, Goro can hear pens frantically scribbling, writing down every tidbit they hear.

"The uncomfortable truth is that the king is guilty of many crimes, almost too many to list here and now," Goro continues. "Among those charges are extortion, bribery, coercion, murder, and embezzlement. He is not worthy of the throne he stole from my mother. He is not worthy of the throne he is attempting to keep from me."

He looks out at the sea of gobsmacked faces. Shido's played his part well over the years, Goro thinks grimly, given how shocked—and even heartbroken—some of them look. The outward facades, the pill's sweet coating, the rusty metal's gilded layers, are all gone. All Goro has to do now is make sure everyone's taking notice.

He clears his throat close to the microphone, effectively quieting down the crowds with their rapid-fire gossip.

"Sae Nijima, my legal counsel, will elaborate further on the situation."

Goro gestures to Sae, stepping away from the podium. She smoothly takes his place, straightening her blazer before launching into her own speech, as cool and composed as her sister. Goro would be content to spend the rest of the conference watching the reactions of the crowd, the snapping of camera flashes, the nearly eager drooling of the reporters scribbling away on their notepads, but when he glances to the side where the others are waiting, he sees Akira frantically waving him over.

He finds a way to inconspicuously duck away from view. By the time he reaches the wings, Akira's grabbing his wrist and pulling him close.

"Shido's gone," Akira says.

"What? Isn't he in his office?"

"He's not. The police already checked. They're searching the entire palace now. So is everybody else."

The entire palace. Goro can't even count the number of rooms without doing complicated math, and can hardly imagine that the police have dispatched enough officers to comb every corner without it taking all day.

With a cold chill, Goro realizes that Shido might just have one last plan up his sleeve. He wasn't sitting in his leather chair, quietly planning another murder attempt on his son; he was planning an escape. A getaway. He knew all about Goro's plot, and wanted to outsmart him.

Goro isn't going to be outsmarted. He sets his jaw, meeting Akira's concerned eyes. "They won't find him," Goro says. "But I can."

Behind Akira, Makoto steps closer. "What do you mean?"

"He's not in the palace anymore, not when staying would make him little more than a sitting duck for the police to find. No, he's fled. He's fled and I know where he's gone."

His initial urge is to turn on his heel and run, to get to work and finish what he started. His second instinct, however, the one that stops and thinks, the one that sounds like Akira's voice, gives him pause.

This isn't just his fight anymore. He shouldn't be the only one who gets to bring it to a close.

He seizes Akira's hand. "There's a helicopter hangar up north. Not far, but too far to walk. If he's made a run for it, I know that's where he's gone."

"But if it's too far to walk," Akira says, but stops himself. He doesn't need long to catch up. "He's gone on horseback?"

Makoto seems to have come to the conclusion at the same time as Akira. She looks crestfallen that they've let a crucial detail of their plan go unaddressed. "Sojiro-san was here the whole time," she says. "He wasn't watching the stables."

They can discuss the details of it all later. Right now, action is more important than brainstorming. "If we want to catch him, we need to go right away," Goro says.

"I'm coming with you," Akira says.

Goro nods. He looks at Makoto. "And the rest of you?"

"We'll keep searching here," she says. In her eyes, Goro can already see the gears whirring, the need to organize a strategy. If there's anyone Goro trusts to guide the group in his stead, he couldn't have found a better leader. "You two go. Hurry!"

Neither of them need to be told twice. They push the curtains aside to work their way backstage and out into the hall. It seems endless now that there's a reason to rush, the timer on Goro's shoulder ticking quickly and urgently, much like his heartbeat. He runs through the corridors to the exit, feeling the quick, determined thuds of Akira's footsteps next to him all the while. It feels almost as if they're marching into combat together, two halves of a dynamic army.

The snow is blindingly bright when they do finally burst through the doors and make a run for the stables. It's high, too, coming up to Goro's shins and forcing him to slow down. He can't imagine that Shido got very far, even on horseback, but there are also too many variables for him to be sure: when did Shido leave? Could he have reached the helicopter hours ago? Is Goro completely off-base, and Shido didn't go by horse at all?

"Come on!" Akira yells, storming through the snow, reminding Goro that now isn't the time for doubt. If Goro's wrong, he has an entire team back at the palace acting as his back-up who can check the places Goro can't and come up with the ideas that Goro hasn't.

By the time they reach the stables, Goro realizes his gut was worth trusting. Samael is gone, the door to his stall flung wide open. Sojiro is nowhere to be found either, and, in his absence, the horses have become restless, shuffling their hooves.

He exchanges a look with Akira. "Are you good to ride?" he asks. They've had their trots through the forest, but a high-speed chase through the snow is slightly more advanced as far as horseback riding skills go.

But Akira's already reaching for the saddles, no hesitation present. "I'll take Arsene," he says with all the confidence of a seasoned rider. "Let's go."

They saddle up their horses. Goro hasn't done this in a while, not when Sojiro usually prepares Robin Hood for him, but adrenaline is bringing old muscle memories back. Goro cinches all the straps into place and tightens all the necessary buckles. 

By the time he's done, Akira's already guiding Arsene out of the stables. Goro hastens to catch up. Out in the snow, the sky a horizonless white blanket, it's almost difficult to find his bearings and pinpoint a cardinal direction. Goro squints against the harsh wind.

"That way," Goro says, pointing.

He hoists himself up and swings a leg over Robin Hood. On horseback, it's even harder not to notice how cold it is out here without so much as a hat or a scarf as protection, but they don't have time to go back and properly accessorize for the weather. If Shido already left hours ago, they need to get a move on before visibility gets any worse or the wind gets too sharp to safely fly through, should Shido already be airborne and fleeing in a helicopter right now.

Next to him, Akira is also pulling himself up onto his horse. He moves with a fluidity that wouldn't have come so easily a few months ago. Maybe Sojiro really is that good of a teacher and desperately deserves a fruit basket for everything he's ever taught Akira about horses, if only just for this moment. Without meaning to, Goro thinks of their first little outing while horseback riding, how romantic it was without even trying. Already back then, Goro should've realized how it would all end, that there was no chance his heart would come out of the fray unchanged.

"Ready?" Goro asks.

"Ready," Akira answers.

They take off. Goro knows the trails around the palace like the back of his hand, but he doesn't usually travel them at this speed—let alone through snow this deep. He relies on Robin Hood, who gallops between the trees with a swift ease, his muscles rippling underneath Goro with every stride. The branches of snow-laden evergreens dart by in a blur, Arsene thundering along from behind.

The headwind is icy, whipping Goro's hair and stinging his cheeks, but Goro won't slow down, not now when it counts most. He presses his legs into the warm horse's body under his thighs, urging faster movement from Robin Hood. The tall trees here are shielding them slightly from the snowfall, allowing Goro to see the landmarks he needs to know that they're still on track.

He hasn't gone out to the hangar in years, and never before on horseback. They should've taken the snowmobiles with their heated seats, or had Futaba scan the area first. Isn't Futaba capable of something of that military-like caliber? Can't she fire up a drone and just zero in on Shido?

"Goro!" Akira yells behind him. "Goro, look!"

Goro tugs on Robin Hood's reins to pull him to an abrupt stop. He looks over his shoulder and sees Akira, windblown and pink in the nose from the cold, pointing at the ground.

The thick boughs have protected the ground from the worst of the snow, but in the icy slush left behind, Goro sees the fresh imprint of hooves.

A fresh burst of adrenaline grabs hold of him. They're not far. If they just push on—

Goro grips the reins, urging Robin Hood back into motion. A million scenarios are running through his head, only some of them with happy endings. If Shido's managed to flee the country, Goro can only begin to imagine where he's intending to hunker down, let alone what his next plan is. Shido never operates without one. All Goro can hope is that he hasn't laid out a trap that Goro's about to crash into headfirst.

They just have to keep moving. They just need to be faster. The scenery is truly whizzing past them now as Goro ducks down against the harshness of the wind, pushing his horse faster, harder. The prints on the ground below seem to blur together; it almost looks as if there are too many, more than just evidence of one horse. Goro can't stop and examine them now, not when he has a goal very much in sight. The public humiliation and the besmirching of his name isn't enough; Shido needs to be sat in front of a judge and brought to justice and served a sentence. Goro won't let him escape. Goro won't—

Goro's a bit late to the game, apparently.

Robin Hood screeches to a halt, hooves sliding on the slippery ground. Not a hundred feet away is Samael, and his rider isn't in sight.

"Oh," Akira says, coming to an equally ungraceful stop next to Goro. His hair has become wild after the ride, although now really, really isn't the time for Goro to run his fingers through it. Later, after—after—

"Hey," Sojiro grunts from where he's kneeling on top of Shido, who's squirming, none-too-dignified, facedown in the snow. "Nice of you to join the party."

"Listen here, you don't want to know what happens to those who cross—" Shido starts to snarl, but Sojiro's knee digging into his spine cuts him off. That, or it's the dirty snow in his mouth.

"I assumed he was heading for the hangar," Goro says.

"He was," Sojiro says, readjusting his knee. "Didn't quite reach it, though."

"I thought you didn't want to get involved," Akira says, faint.

"Oh. That. Yeah." Sojiro shrugs, then sighs. "I figured, why not?" He gestures down at Shido with the hand not currently pressed between his shoulder blades. "Want to give me a hand here?"

Akira and Goro both hurry to dismount their horses. Goro's still trying to process the scene in front of him as reality: Shido thoroughly detained by Sojiro Sakura of all people, who seems to have ridden here on Goemon, who's now contently whinnying next to Samael, whose saddle has gone slightly crooked. Goro can imagine Sojiro bodily yanking Shido off him, which is a mental image that's somehow as impressive as it is hilarious.

Were it any other moment, he might just laugh. Maniacally, possibly, but laugh nonetheless.

What he can't hide, however, is the wide, relieved smile.

 

&

 

"Dude," Sakamoto says from where he's stretched out on the cabriole sofa, scrolling through his phone. "You're trending. Everyone's flipping out."

He looks delighted, so Goro feels it safe to assume that the reactions, however shocked, are positive. 

Not that anyone was really expecting anything different after that press conference, especially considering that it was capped off with Shido's capture. Goro can only imagine how long it'll take the wheels of justice to slog through the inquest or put Shido to trial, but if there's anything he knows for certain, it's that Shido will never sit on a throne again. Not only would Goro never allow it again, but he imagines the people wouldn't either, not anymore.

"It certainly all went very well," Makoto agrees. Her smile is almost far off, as if reliving their success. "The new year will definitely be different."

"For all of you as well," Goro feels the need to add. "I know to value all your help. There's a good chance I never would've been able to do what you've done as a team on my own, and the fact that you all chose to support me after everything that's happened is… as touching as it is baffling."

"Awww. It's like watching the Tin Man grow a heart," Futaba says. She mumbles it under her breath more than anything else, but everyone turns to look at her regardless, hearing it just fine. She goes pink in the face. "I'm just saying! It's a good thing! He always used to be so uptight."

Goro can let that one slide, given his overall mood and the light-hearted atmosphere of the room.

He lifts his glass. "Well then. To being less uptight."

"Hear, hear!" Ryuji shouts.

All of it really is baffling. The whirlwind of the last few days still leaves Goro feeling like he's been out in the eye of the storm, watching it all happen with an almost awestruck disbelief. Having everyone rally together behind him. Organizing the details of the case with Sae. Seeing his efforts reach triumphant fruition at the end of it all. They're the sort of outcomes Goro could've only fantasized about in the past, and now Shido's on his way to jail and his parlor is full of laughing staff members as the champagne gets passed around. Goro remembers all too well the days where the most exciting thing this room saw was conversations about crushing on boys over teatime with Ann; now it's party central in time for the New Year, complete with fizzing drinks in tall flutes and decorative banners.

Just as baffling is Akira's hand, warm and sure, on the small of his back. How Goro came out of all the rubble with this still intact is a lesson to himself about people. That they won't all give up on him like he fears. That they can see his ugliest sides and still want to stick around.

"Soooo we're definitely all getting nicer rooms, right?" Ryuji asks. "I mean, I'm not sayin' I need, like, a bed made of gold." He grins, wolf-like. "But we did help take down a corrupt king, so it's not like I would complain."

"Hm," Goro says, pretending to consider. "How's a promotion to the Chief Royal Fitness Instructor sound?" He tilts his glass gently left and right by the stem. "And I'm sure we can negotiate a better room, as well, if yours is unsatisfactory."

Ryuji blinks. "Wait—seriously?"

"I don't intend to keep the same staff that my father did," Goro says. "Kamoshida's position is open, effective immediately, and Akira mentioned to me that you quite enjoy sports."

"Seriously?" Ryuji says again. He looks at Akira, dumbfounded, before turning back to Goro. "No more cleaning up after rich people?"

"I, for one, would certainly appreciate Ann no longer being harassed at the hands of that man," Yusuke chimes in, Ann quick to nod in agreement despite her mouth being still full of champagne.

Goro's smile widens. "Is that a yes?"

"That's—that's a hell yeah!"

It's probably the happiest Goro has ever seen Ryuji in his vicinity. He's a bit crass, but Goro thinks he could get used to him. Like an acquired taste. The same could be said for friendship as a concept. Already now, Goro can feel the layout of his heart changing, the moats draining, the walls crumbling, the passageways opening. It feels like taking a breath of fresh air after spending years cooped up inside. It's almost alarming in how foreign it feels, but even so, Goro can tell that it feels better.

"The same would apply to the rest of you," Goro says. "I believe changes in title and salary are due. I don't claim to be the anti-Shido, and I'm certainly not a paragon of virtue, but I do want to right as many of my father's wrongs as I can."

Makoto smiles, pleased. "Sounds pretty virtuous to me."

Goro knows that everyone in this room is more than privy to some of Goro's less than ethical choices that he's made in the past, but he recognizes forgiveness when he sees it. "I'll do my best," Goro promises.

Another round of champagne circles the room. It's an expensive bottle, one that is usually only uncorked in the presence of worthy royalty, but Goro can't think of a better occasion than to celebrate the fruition of a lifelong ambition—and with people he can call friends, no less.

Shido's gone. He's really gone. Not just out of Goro's life, but out of the palace that was never his to take. Out of the public eye and out of everyone's good standing. 

From all the bright smiles and happy laughter in the room, it feels safe to say that everybody is just as elated as Goro. Just as relieved, especially with the news of their promotions.

There is one promotion left that he needs to see to, however.

He sets his flute down, heading to the settee where Ann is sitting cross-legged next to the celebratory platter of desserts provided by the chefs. Not far away on the ottoman is Yusuke, quietly drawing her in his pocket-sized sketchbook.

Goro taps Ann on the shoulder, then motions toward Yusuke, who's too deeply engrossed in his illustration to notice. "I suppose you don't find that odd anymore?"

"Nah," Ann says, shrugging. "It's just Yusuke being Yusuke." She grows slightly pink as she glances at his sketchbook. "Also kinda flattering, you know?"

Flattery is in the eye of the beholder, Goro supposes. Yusuke's a strange man, but he's a tremendous artist, and hopefully those two things together somehow create a good boyfriend.

Assuming that's what Ann wants, of course. Although Goro's sort of banking on that being the case.

"I'm glad that you're happy," he says. "You are, aren't you?"

Ann's blush spreads over her cheeks to take over her ears too. "Yeah," she says. It looks like she's biting on her cheeks to keep from smiling too widely. Goro would make fun of her if thinking about Akira didn't make him feel just as stupidly, joyfully lovestruck. "I am. It's not like anything I've ever—but I am. Maybe that's why."

Her sentences aren't quite complete, but Goro understands anyway. Sometimes people like him and Ann are forced to only socialize in their own circles so long that they get dizzy. All of it, the rigamarole, the stiff decorum, the pressure, the appearances, it can feel exhausting and inauthentic, neither of which are good sensations to bring to a relationship. Yusuke's grounded, at least in all the ways a slightly kooky artist can be.

"Then I have a proposition for you," he says.

"Oh?"

"How would you like to… extend your stay here, so to say?"

"Extend it?"

"Permanently, that is." At her widened eyes, Goro explains. "If I'm going to be king, I'm going to need an advisor, and quite frankly, I can't think of anyone better suited for the job."

It's never been easy saying goodbye to Ann when she leaves after an event or a holiday. He's spent his whole life always aiming for his goals via the complicated way, usually with multiple levels of Shakespearean subterfuge, but he's starting to learn that sometimes the simplest way actually works. In this case, it's just asking.

"Really?" Ann asks. The grin she was trying so hard to hold back earlier springs forth like a set of doors bursting wide open. "Goro! Of course I want to stay!"

She flings her arms around him in a tight hug. Behind him, Goro can hear Yusuke mumbling, obviously not happy that his subject's moved, though he has the sneaking suspicion that he's about to be rather happy. Goro has the sneaking suspicion that Ann relocating here means the halls will be brimming with oil paintings of her. They might have to set up a gallery just for that express purpose.

Changes are definitely coming, that's for certain. Goro, for one, can't wait.

 

&

 

Many hours and many champagne bottles later, their celebration comes to an end, and it's well past midnight by the time Goro and Akira head back to Goro's room.

Already, Akira's starting to see it as his and Goro's room. It's only been a few days—and a few very enjoyable nights—but somehow, Akira doesn't think sleeping in the hayloft is in his future anymore.

That's not the only change around here. Goro looks different, almost startlingly so. Like a coiled spring that's finally been released. He smiles more easily. He moves less stiffly. He even spent the majority of their little party socializing with all of Akira's friends. Maybe that's something they're going to start sharing soon too, just like Goro's room.

"Do you know what Sakamoto said to me before we left?" Goro says as they walk.

Akira can think of a number of things, especially considering Ryuji was a little tipsier than the rest of them. Not that he can blame him; that was good champagne. "Was it safe for children?"

Goro smirks. "He told me to be good to you," he says. He laughs, the sound nearly a snort. "Or else. I appreciated the sentiment, actually. On your behalf, at least."

Akira can't help but smile. He reaches out, tangling his fingers with Goro's. They're warm, even if the night's been cool and the hallways drafty after the snowstorm. "He's just looking out for me."

"I know," Goro says. "Although I think he's forgotten who out of the two of us has a dungeon prison in their arsenal."

He laughs at his own joke. That's different, too. His entire face looks more open, more free, more honest. Akira can understand where Ryuji's coming from after everything they've been through with Goro, but Akira also knows that the threat is entirely unnecessary. Maybe it's just the alcohol, buzzing pleasurably in his veins, or the overfull happiness of the evening, but Akira can tell, with certainty, that it's all up from here. Shido's going to go to prison, and Goro's going to be king, and everything will be as it was always supposed to.

Although, to be fair, if things hadn't happened the way they had with Shido unjustly running the ship, Akira never would've come to work here and never would've met Goro.

He won't be sending a thank you card to Shido anytime soon, but it would be awfully satisfying to let Shido know that, in the end, he was the one hoisting his own petard.

They reach Goro's room and slip inside. Akira can't go to sleep just yet; he's not sure he'll even be ready hours from now, not with the way he's thrumming with emotions. He takes off his shoes and hangs up his jacket, and by the time he's gotten comfortable, Goro's thumbing through his phone.

"I got an email from Sae-san," Goro says. It looks like he's biting down on a smile. "Apparently there's been a huge public reaction to the press conference." The smile must be growing stronger, because Goro rolls his lips into his mouth to keep it at bay. "And it looks as if people are receptive to the idea of me replacing Shido."

Of course they are; that was obvious. Akira knew that they would be from the beginning, but it doesn't seem as if Goro did, because Goro's face is tightly drawn, nearly glassy around the eyes. It isn't until he blinks and hurries to rub his knuckles over his cheeks that Akira sees—almost tangibly—just how great the relief is for him. Prince Akechi's public image is full of bravado, of smooth charm and confidence, but underneath all that is Goro, the shunned son, the tormented boy, the man held prisoner from his own justice. After years of planning, of scheming, of hoping, it makes sense that it'll all feel unreal to him for a bit.

Akira decides to try and make it feel a little more real.

"Took long enough," Akira says. He steps closer, grabbing Goro by the lapels until he looks up and puts his phone away. "King Akechi."

Goro's eyes shift: suddenly any moisture is gone, replaced by a darkness that goes straight down south Akira's pants. His hands find Akira's hips, squeezing. "Hm," he says.

He looks like he wants to ask say it again but maybe isn't sure that he's allowed to. Akira doesn't mind. He'll say it again. He'll sing it and shout it if it makes Goro hot and bothered.

Akira leans in, dragging his mouth over Goro's pulse point. "King Akechi," he murmurs. "Would you have time for one of your most loyal subjects?"

Goro's hands flutter on Akira's hips before tightening, thumbs digging in. "I might."

Akira's smile presses into Goro's neck. He hides it with a series of kisses, open-mouthed but gentle, searching for a response. He gets one in the form of a slow shudder that trembles its way through Goro's body, matched with a low exhale.

Akira will never tire of this, taking Goro apart bit by painstaking bit. He slides his hands over Goro's shoulders, then trails down his chest, and over the ticklish spots of his stomach.

"I can always prove my loyalty, if you'd like," he whispers.

He can hear Goro swallow. "Oh?"

Akira untucks Goro's shirt from his pants. He takes his time with the buttons, going methodically about his work, and by the time he's brushing his hands over bare skin, Goro's breathing has gone heavy, irregular.

"You'll have to do better than that," Goro says.

Akira grins. He knows a challenge when he hears it. "I can do that," he promises. 

He sinks to his knees, slowly, so Goro realizes exactly what he's doing and what's about to happen. By the time he's removing Goro's belt, Goro's hands have found his hair. His eyes have gone darker still, eager and aroused. He looks so good, so affected, that Akira can't tease any longer.

He yanks Goro's pants down. They don't go to sleep for a long time after that.

 

&

 

Of all the regalia he's ever had to wear, this one is by far the most cumbersome and ostentatious-looking. And yet, Goro isn't sure he's ever felt so happy wearing any of it.

"Do I look ridiculous? Be honest."

"Not yet," Ann says, looking him up and down. "But give it a few more layers and I'm sure we'll get there."

"Very funny."

"The last robe is waiting for you closer to the ballroom, anyway. It'd be way too heavy to make you lug it all around the palace."

He inhales, shaky, letting the breath out again as he tugs at the fabric here and there. It looks… almost unreal. He imagined himself wearing these clothes before—dreamt of it, really—but now those dreams are finally close enough for him to touch.

"A part of me wasn't sure I'd ever get here."

"If you need to cry, I think I brought—" Ann cuts herself off, hand halfway into her pocket. "Nope, false hope. Makoto has the tissues. So it's way too early to cry. Remember that for the sake of your makeup."

Goro scoffs. "I'm not going to cry. I just—"

A knock resounds at the door. "Can I come in?"

Akira. Goro feels himself relax at his voice, a smile coming over his features. "Why wouldn't you be allowed in?"

The handle is pushed down only for Akira to slip in through a mere crack, alongside a shrug. "Wasn't sure if this was like it being bad luck to see the bride before the wedding day."

"I'm not sure I could be further from a bride right now."

Although the thought alone brings with it its own smiles. It's something he has been thinking about, more than usual. After all, it's not every day that one becomes king, able to change laws for the better. Able to alter the royal articles of conduct to allow him to marry a man. 

Not that he'd be a bride even then. Instead, the thought of two grooms comes to his mind, the excitement of perhaps one day calling Akira his husband. Royal weddings happen fairly quickly following engagements, and the last thing he wants is to overwhelm Akira unless he's certain. 

But… perhaps soon. After all, he feels certain. 

"You do look pretty strapping, though," Akira chimes in, cocking his head at his appearance with a smile. "Kingly, almost."

Goro grins. "Only almost?"

"Definitely."

"Right, so if you two lovebirds are done—"

Another knock sounds at the door. "Pardon the intrusion," Makoto's voice comes muffled through the wood, "but it's time."

Dismounting from the small fitting platform Ann had allowed him to temporarily borrow from her closet with the aid of Akira's hand, Goro takes in another deep breath. "Of course."

The outfit is even harder to move in than he'd expected just standing on the platform, Goro shuffling along at what feels like a snail's pace. 

"Want me to hold up your train?" Akira asks, laughter hiding behind his barely-restrained tone of voice, Goro sighing despite his own smile. 

"No, I'm sure I'll manage… somehow. Just don't laugh at my struggle while I have an audience."

He doesn't; instead, Akira opens the door for him, Goro stepping out into the hallway to wide eyes on Makoto's part.

"Oh! I see getting dressed all worked out swimmingly. I'd factored in a good bit more time on your schedule in case you needed additional assistance."

"Hey!" Ann pipes up from behind him, stepping out with a scowl. "I know what I'm doing here! Besides," she adds, "Yusuke gave me a bunch of pointers."

Their relationship has been going strong just as long as his and Akira's has, and it's nice to see. Long gone are the days from almost a year ago where they gathered for tea or went riding to talk about their respective crushes. Now they get to talk about their respective significant others. 

"Anyway, I'm going to check that he and Ryuji didn't accidentally forget about the coronation. You never know when Ryuji will get caught in one of the exercise machines again… or when my boyfriend gets lost in a canvas and loses track of time entirely...."

"Probably a good plan," Makoto mutters, tapping her clipboard. "The itinerary for after the official ceremony is not nearly so jam-packed as you had feared previously. There's your coronation ride to see the people after the official ceremony, the candle-lighting ceremony in the atrium, the coronation dinner…"

Her phone buzzes. "Futaba says that Robin Hood is ready to ride. Mishima has already prepared him." She sighs, angling her head up to what is most likely one of her wiretaps. "Please stop doing that, it continues to be unnerving."

"She is in charge of palace security," Goro says with a chuckle. He'd considered having them removed, in truth, but it simply made sense to expand her skillset to be useful to all in light of everything that had happened. She's even on the payroll for it now—not to mention the benefits of a bigger room and more monitors to accompany her newfound authority. 

His thoughts drift back to Robin Hood, saddled up and ready to go for his ride across the grounds to greet the people gathered out in front of the palace, room left open between the crowd only for his procession. A quick glance out the window tells him all he needs to know. There must be hundreds of people, all congregated en masse, many of them holding little flags, all eagerly awaiting the chance to see their new king. 

In the distance, he can just make out Sojiro putting the finishing accoutrements on Robin Hood, properly decking him out for his ride to follow his coronation while Mishima watches him. His life has improved, too, he'd like to think. While Akira still likes to go out to help him on occasion, he has a proper, paid assistant now. And a better barn, for that matter.

"It's time, Your Highness."

"Not Your Highness for much longer," Akira adds, his grin wide as Goro turns to look at the two of them, a similar smile coloring his own features. One that he's not sure even an odiously long coronation ceremony could possibly wipe from his face. Not now, not today. 

"I shouldn't be Your Majesty to the two of you, either."

"Just for me? On special occasions?"

Akira's voice is quiet, but the glance that Makoto gives them over her shoulder as she starts leading the way for them down the stairs nevertheless speaks volumes. She knows enough. Too much, really. 

Then again, most of his staff do these days. They're… more friends, less employees. A part of him still isn't entirely used to it, even now, almost a year later. But it feels right for all of them. Better. The mood in the whole palace has been summarily uplifted. They're preparing for a new Christmas season, and somehow, it already feels like the spirit of the holidays has crept into the halls. 

They come to a stop outside of the ceremony hall, Makoto offering him a nod. "Ready?"

He returns it, feeling oddly sure even as he watches her slip into the room, a deep, shaky breath leaving him. 

"I'll be in the wings, watching the whole time," Akira says. "Or—the audience?"

"Whyever would I want you in the audience?"

"It's your coronation day. Won't—won't things change? I'm far from… uh, queen material."

He glances down at himself, and Goro knows what his gaze is saying. He's not only a commoner, but a man. 

The door behind him cracks open, Makoto's hushed whisper coming through the slit. "We're ready for you."

"Just—" Akira blurts out as soon as the door closes again, clearly eager to finish this line of thought before he loses the chance to voice it at all. "I want you to be sure you want this. Because you're a prince."

Goro's smile widens, reaching out to cup his cheeks. "Lucky for you, I'm not a prince. I'm a king."

He leans in for a kiss. Akira meets him halfway.