L-chan's notes: Originally written for the prompt "the future". Any and all feedback is appreciated, and as always, I thank you for reading.
Title: Out Here
Though he was across the ballroom and surrounded by lovely young ladies, Natalia sensed Guy's silent, desperate plea for help. She'd been watching the proceedings with amusement, but when his beseeching eyes met hers, she set down her champagne glass and started toward him.
Several gentlemen tried to cross or even block her path, attempting to engage her for the next dance before someone else could claim the honor. She acknowledged them all with gracious courtesy and noncommittal replies but never stopped moving, determination in every click of her diamond slippers and every sway of her crimson ball gown, until she was able to join Guy's group of admirers.
She took her place right next to him, the privilege of an old friend and person of her royal status, and a play she knew would turn the other women against her. "Oh, Lord Gardios," she began, "how marvelous to see y—" And then she suddenly swooned, taking great care to fall against him rather than to the floor.
"Your Highness!" Only someone who knew him well would realize his alarm was not genuine and hear the undercurrent of gratitude in his tone. The three young ladies gasped with appropriate concern, but did nothing to help.
Natalia's hazel eyes were unfocused, and she moaned as if in a genteel sort of pain. "My! I apologize, but it's so very warm in here, isn't it." She fanned herself, and suppressed a giggle by turning it into a pathetic whimper.
"You don't look well," he conceded, lending her his arm. She grasped it with a strength an ill woman would not have. "Please do excuse me, ladies," he said to his adoring yet annoyed fans, "but I must escort Her Highness outside for some fresh air."
They mumbled various words of understanding and curtsied prettily, not daring to be outright rude to the visiting princess. Natalia felt their envious eyes boring into her back as she glided away on Guy's arm, and she grinned.
"You are my best friend," he told her, opening the door to the balcony.
"It's only right that I do you a favor for once," she replied. The cool air did feel refreshing, and she sighed with relief, as glad to be away from the throng as he was. It had been warm in there. "You looked a bit trapped."
"Trapped isn't the word for it." He folded his arms on top of the balcony's railing and looked out into the night. "I feel like I'm a prize everyone's fighting over."
"Well, of course they are," she answered. Guy had always been popular with women, and they with him, but now he was the most eligible nobleman in Grand Chokmah. He certainly looked the part in an elegantly tailored cerulean coat that made his eyes even bluer, his crisp white shirt adorned with gold cufflinks engraved with his family crest, matching the medallion he wore around his neck. "You're titled, handsome, clever, and charming. And you helped save the world." Though most people were not aware of that. "I'd be more surprised if every available lady wasn't after you."
He turned to her and quirked an eyebrow. "Handsome, huh?"
She rolled her eyes. "False modesty doesn't become you, Guy."
With a shrug, he went back to contemplating the stars. "This was all a set-up, you know," he said after a long pause. She did know, but didn't know that he knew. "For whatever reason, the emperor has made it his personal project to marry me off."
As far as Natalia could ascertain, the reason was the emperor's own entertainment. She'd overheard him and the colonel having a laugh at Guy's expense—it seemed a wager was involved as well—and she felt a little guilty for finding the situation humorous herself. "And?"
"Is your future countess here tonight?"
He groaned and shook his head. "I don't know. I mean, I'm almost twenty-five, so I should know what I want, and yet…." After another pause, he looked at her. "I'm pretty sure that what I want isn't in there."
In a way, it was the same for her. For most of her life, she'd been betrothed to her beloved cousin, but now it was like she had to start over and learn what it was she wanted. It wasn't something she'd had to think about before.
Her father had been most understanding these past three years and had not pressed her to consider another arrangement. However, she was aware of her duty to her country, and it was time to start thinking about the future. She was twenty-two, after all, and not getting any younger.
But what did she want?
The gentlemen in there, though persistent and socially suitable they might be, did not make her heart flutter with girlish delight, or even stimulate her on an intellectual level. The noblemen at home were likewise unimpressive for reasons she could not put into words. Perhaps it was that she found them lacking in sincerity, their arrogance a shield for their intimidation, their flattery a means to an ambitious end.
Or perhaps she was too harsh and judgmental, rejecting them simply because they weren't… right. Whatever that meant, she knew they were not right for her. Putting aside some nebulous idea of what she required in a potential suitor, she was waiting for her natural woman's instinct to recognize that intangible, indefinable something she was looking for.
She joined Guy at the railing, mimicking his crossed-arms posture, standing close enough that her ball gown's full skirt swished against his leg. "Do you know what I sometimes do?"
"When I'm talking to a man, I'll sometimes try to imagine what it would be like to have children with him."
Guy looked equal parts amused and intrigued at this. "So our prim and proper Natalia has a dirty mind after all."
"I don't mean that," she clarified, feeling her cheeks burn at the insinuation, and his grin only grew bigger. "I just try to picture being a family with him." Despite her position and her duty, she still had the same basic desires as any other woman. "When I thought the emperor wanted to marry me—"
"You know that was just a ruse, right?"
"I know that now, but at the time, well, I admit I thought about what it might be like."
She gave a comical shudder, and he laughed. "Not even for the sake of my country could I do that."
He nodded in sympathy—he understood all too well how eccentric the emperor could be—then his smile was replaced with a look of curiosity. "Has anyone ever fit your picture?"
"Not so far," she said. "Well, just the once."
She nodded, almost wishing she hadn't brought it up. "I'm not so naïve as to think I'll be lucky enough to marry for love, but…." She wanted it. More than anything, she wanted that again. She didn't expect an instant, exciting spark, but she wanted that warm contentment of someone's presence.
"Yeah," he said quietly. "That would be nice." They fell into respective reveries for a moment, and then he said, "I don't remember much about my parents, but I know they loved each other. Their marriage may have been arranged for political reasons, but they came to care about each other. So I know it can happen."
It was possible. She'd seen it herself. There was a small amount of hope in that.
"And I remember how they would stay up all night talking and debating anything." A little smile appeared on his lips at the memory. "I want that. In fifty years, I want to know we still have things to talk about." His smile grew bigger when he looked at her. "You've spoiled me."
"You, Anise, Tear, Noelle. I've gotten used to having intelligent women to talk to. The girls in there… they're very nice and all, but it was clear we'd run out of things to talk about after five minutes. Once the social pleasantries have been exhausted, I want to talk about things that matter."
"And you don't want someone who'll just parrot back your own opinions to you, or say what they think you want to hear." She spoke from her own experience.
"Exactly. Or someone who's so afraid or incapable of having an opinion that they say nothing. I couldn't stand fifty years of empty silence. I'd suffocate."
"But mindless chatter to fill the silence can be just as suffocating. Sometimes you don't need to talk."
"No, sometimes you don't. Sometimes… the most important things are said in silence."
There was the difference. When was the silence empty, and when was it comfortable? When was it lonely, and when did it wrap around you like a favorite blanket? When were you left ignorant, and when did you hear everything you needed?
All these things coalesced in her mind, the things she wanted, the things he wanted. Love, passion, friendship, family, happiness. Somewhere in there had to be the answer. Could she have all these things? Could she even find someone who could be all these things?
Or if that was all too much to ask, could she find someone who could be enough?
A sudden breeze fluttered the loose tendrils of her hair and made her skin pucker with gooseflesh. Before she could register the chill and rub her arms, he'd taken off his coat and draped it over her shoulders.
"You're cold," he said.
He was always quick to notice such things. "Thank you," she replied. She slipped her bare arms into the sleeves, and the lingering heat from his body embraced her, cozy and far more intimate than any dance she had shared this evening. It was quite a lovely feeling. "What about you?"
"I'm good," he replied. "I shall bask in the warm glow of your beauty."
"Charmer," she giggled, a bit of pink spreading over her cheeks.
The moon had risen high now, full and gleaming like a newly polished pearl. Lights from the city and the stars shimmered in the crystal waters of the canals, sparkling in time to the soothing, bubbling sounds of the fountains.
"You know," she said after another moment of companionable silence, "I think you'd be a good father, Guy."
He grinned. "Yeah?"
"Mmm. I can see you with a little blond boy, teaching him how to fight." She mimed swinging a sword as she'd seen him do so many times.
"Wow, that is the worst form I've ever seen."
This time she mimed shooting an arrow at him, his coat's sleeves obscuring the tips of her fingers. "All right, maybe you could teach me, too."
From inside came the sounds of violins and a piano, of chatter and gaiety. The ball was going on without them. "Oh, I think the music's started again."
He tilted his head, considering it. "I guess we should go back in."
"Yes, perhaps we should."
But neither of them moved.