Quick Note: This was written for Fuyu no Sora's fluff challenge at "Exiled to the Couch" at AnimeSuki. She totally did it because she knew that I flail helplessly in the face of trying to write fluff!
The Lady is Always Right
"You have to step a little closer to me, Lillet," Hiram Menthe said patiently.
Lillet bit her lip so that she wouldn't make any kind of embarrassing sound. Now, if anyone were to suddenly walk into the room, Lillet would have quite a lot of explaining to do. A fresh-off-the-dragon Royal Magician clasped intimately within the arms of the third Prince to the throne? Tongues would be wagging, although no doubt Lillet would get the worst of the rumours. It wouldn't even help that they technically had a chaperone in the room.
Particularly for Lillet.
"The last time Lillet did that, she made more mistakes in the footwork," the third person in the room commented, her soft voice filled with unusually edgy tones.
"Yes, but we have to be in the proper dance hold in order to move smoothly," Hiram explained, gently pulling Lillet a few inches closer when she didn't move on her own. He readjusted their arms so that elbows weren't sticking out in strange angles. "See? Okay, let's switch. Amoretta, come change places with Lillet."
Amoretta Virgine slid off the stool and moved over. Lillet couldn't help watching her, with what was probably a silly dazed expression on her face. Amoretta's pale blonde hair and complexion exuded an otherworldly aura, one that was only compounded by her controlled movements even just for walking. Being a homunculus infused with an angelic core, it was no wonder that Amoretta appeared divine—but Lillet was still biased when she concluded that Amoretta was the most exquisite being she's ever seen.
Hiram took Amoretta's hand with a gallant bow, guiding her into the same dance hold. Lillet frowned—did his arm really have to rest all along Amoretta's exposed sleeve?
"When I move, I would guide you along with a little pressure on your back or your hand," Hiram explained to both of them, demonstrating just that as he stepped forward, prompting Amoretta to step back reflexively. "The male leads, which means that beyond the basic steps, it's the man who would control entering a spin or a turn."
"The male role," Lillet corrected, crossing her arms.
"The male role," agreed Hiram easily, and Lillet felt a little guilty for being irritable. He really was just trying to help, and besides, given how respectful Hiram was around Miss Opalneria, he wasn't one of the chauvinistic Court folk. It was beyond strange to Lillet to see gender roles enforced so strongly in the capital city—weren't the nobles ruled by a Queen? Yet for some reason, the majority of men and women here insisted on propriety and tradition, both concepts something that Lillet was struggling to learn as quickly as she could.
Learning how to dance at Court balls was her first step in not appearing like a total country bumpkin.
"Ready? Just like before—remember, you step back, with your right foot." Hiram clasped Amoretta's hand more tightly and started counting. "—quick, quick, slow. Again, with your left foot forward—quick, quick, slow." He stopped them when they had finished the box step, smiling. "Exactly right. Alright, keep practicing the steps by yourself—Lillet, your turn."
"I don't understand something," Amoretta said, her hands wrapped around her elbows as she looked down.
"Dancing—it is an expression of emotion, yes?"
Hiram gave Lillet a surprised side-long look. Lillet shrugged, equally puzzled at Amoretta's question and not keen to respond. "Yes," Hiram replied, adjusting his glasses. "It's supposed to be. Although most of the time, I think people dance at Court so that they get a chance to speak semi-privately with other folk."
"If it is supposed to be symbolic, then why are the positions so rigid?"
"Because these are ballroom dances." Hiram lifted a hand and counted off his fingers. "Waltz, the basse danse, the pavane—"
"We get it," Lillet hurriedly broke in. She didn't think that Amoretta's question warranted a full lecture on the history of dance.
"Well, anyway, ballroom dances tend to have more structured steps and such. And here at Court, it's…the culture." Hiram lifted his shoulders in a shrug. "It's what everyone is used to, I suppose."
"But what if everyone was open to learning all kinds of positions and roles?" Amoretta asked, her red eyes narrowed in a confused frown. "I don't understand why Lillet and I have to learn the same dance steps."
"It's…" Lillet trailed off, biting her lip. She didn't want to offend Hiram and his customs, but it was hard to keep her thoughts quiet from Amoretta, especially when she agreed with the absurdity. "It wouldn't be helpful if we learned the male role," she tried to explain. "The men wouldn't know the female role, so we wouldn't be able to dance at balls with them."
"But it makes no sense," Amoretta argued with a light sigh. "If balls are not for expressing how you feel, then would it not make sense for us to be able to speak with as many people as we can? If we only know the same steps, then we could only dance with the same people, and never dance with the other half of the Court."
"Um…" Hiram tapped a leather-clad foot on the ground as he thought. "Well, when men want to speak, we usually talk over cards, or over wine. I'm sure that women also have places where they talk…"
"Most men wouldn't be comfortable dancing with other men," Lillet said bluntly, feeling her heart wrench at the innocent confusion in Amoretta's expression. "Or women with other women. So even if I learned how to dance the male part so that I could dance with other women, I don't think that any of them would want to."
"But I want to dance with you," Amoretta said mournfully, her arms uncrossing to take one of Lillet's hands.
Lillet blushed, feeling a light-headed bubbling fill her chest. She couldn't help stroking the soft skin on the back of Amoretta's hand with her thumb, wanting nothing more than to run her fingers up the skin peeking through the grey fabric of Amoretta's sleeves.
"Ahem," Hiram coughed, apologetic at interrupting.
Lillet jumped back, blushing as she relinquished Amoretta's hand. Amoretta didn't blush, but matter-of-factly turned to continue their lesson. Lillet followed along, more and more miserable as she tried to mirror her body movements to the instructions.
Often, Amoretta said the things that Lillet couldn't quite put into words, and she didn't have any shame in saying them aloud. Why couldn't Lillet do the same? She wanted to dance with Amoretta, but that's just not how things are done here. What would be the point in causing a stir, and possibly alienating her peers and future associates?
But did Lillet want to spend the next part of her life as a mindless Court fop? That wasn't why she had decided to work at the Royal House of Magic.
Causing herself to stand out wouldn't help her work though.
Lillet already stood out anyway, being the youngest Royal Magician and coming to Court with a trail of tales and rumours behind her. So if it made Amoretta happy, wouldn't it be worth it, for Lillet to just act instead of overthinking?
"Lillet?" Hiram broke through her melancholic thoughts. "Are you paying attention?"
"I'm sorry," she blurted out, already heading for the door. She yanked it open and paused, trying to shrug self-consciously and smile at her worried friends. "I just need a bit of a break. Thanks, Hiram, I…Amoretta, I'll see you later. Please don't stop because of me."
Wouldn't it be worth it?
Lillet didn't have to fake her smile.
"Bartido!" She exclaimed as they stepped around the dance floor, nipping between a grizzled noble pair and two other ambassadors into the open center of the ballroom. "How have you been doing? And you're allowed to be here?" With all the dignitaries, nobility, ambassadors, and Royal Magicians present, this was an unlikely event for her old friend to attempt to crash, given his situation the lasttime he was here.
Bartido Ballentyne laughed, winking roguishly as he guided Lillet into a short spin before taking her waist again. "It's great to see you again too, Lillet. And yeah, I'm all official this time—Ambassador Ballentyne, that's me."
"That's a better title than 'spy'," Lillet said dryly.
He chuckled and lifted his shoulders in an unrepentant half-shrug. The motion lifted his golden epaulets and made his pressed shirt wrinkle slightly, reminding Lillet of Bartido's casual wear back during their Silver Star Tower days. "Magicians are a rare bunch back home, and my previous, uh, experience here made me stand out from the other applicants. I get paid much better than before, believe me! Besides, I would have jumped at the opportunity anyways, after I heard that you'd be here."
Oh dear. Lillet coughed, flushing as she was suddenly feeling far too warm. "Um, yes, it's great to see old friends again."
"You look fantastic, by the way." He nodded down at her silky, dark purple ballgown with a smile. "I swear, you've only grown prettier since our schooldays, Lillet."
"Thanks," Lillet stammered, glancing to the side in desperation. Oh dear! Even though she doubted that anyone could overhear them, she still hoped that Amoretta was preoccupied and not accidentally listening in (Amoretta would never be rude enough to do it on purpose). Good, there her lover was dancing with the Prime Minister. Lillet felt slightly guilty that she was pleased to see a polite expression on Amoretta's face as the Prime Minister talked animatedly at her. "Um, hey, did you get a chance to say hi to Amoretta?"
"I'll try to catch up with her later." Bartido flashed his most charming smile at Lillet, his dark eyes gazing brightly into hers. "I'd rather monopolize your time while I can."
"Bartido…" Lillet bit her lip, tensing as he leaned his head in. He was either going to kiss her cheek, or whisper something in her ear. She felt her face getting hot as his black hair brushed her skin.
"Relax," he drawled, his lips a bare inch from her ear. "I'm just jerking your chain."
"What?" squeaked Lillet, then she rolled her eyes and slapped his shoulder with the hand that had been resting there. "You big jerk," she shook her head affectionately. "Did Hiram tell you?"
"His royal highness and I write each other," Bartido laughed, still pressed fairly close to Lillet but without any of his seductive charm. "But Amoretta and I keep in touch too, and seriously Lillet, did you know that half her letters talk about you and your daily life?"
Instantly, Lillet felt her good humour vanish. "They…they do?"
Bartido frowned, easing back so that he could look at her. "Yeah. She's head over heels for you, still. I'm manly enough to admit it's kind of cute. Isn't that a…good thing?"
Guilt ate away Lillet's words. She could only give a half-hearted nod, lowering her gaze.
"Lillet Blan. Tell your old friend what's wrong."
"Nothing. Okay, something," Lillet sighed, glancing over his shoulder back at Amoretta. "She wants to dance with me."
"And what's the problem?"
"She wants to dance here. At balls like this."
"So go dance with her," Bartido said. "Doesn't everyone know about you two anyway?"
"Well, they do." That fact didn't exactly continue to endear Lillet to her colleagues and peers, but Lillet said whatever to that. She wasn't going to hide her relationship, even if she tended to avoid yelling it off the watchtowers. Actually, the fact that Amoretta was a homunculus was more of a scandal than the fact that she was a girl among the other magicians, or those with enough magical knowledge to understand. "But among these people, it's the equivalent of…of a Lord dancing with his mistress. I'll never be ashamed of Amoretta, but it's a total social faux pas," she said sadly.
"I say, screw that," Bartido said indignantly, although he kept his voice low. They were both growing up it seemed. "Haven't you noticed? Your Queen is pretty young and new to her throne, and it's the same with the neighbouring kingdoms. Things are getting shaken up, and the shaking is done by people like us. So who cares?"
Lillet sort of cared. She felt all the worse because of it. "I just don't want to attract attention. I just want to work, and stay away from all the…drama."
"What's the drama? You're just dancing with your girlfriend. That's what it means to you and Amoretta, right?" Bartido was guiding them smoothly across the room, although Lillet kept her eyes on him, trusting his direction. "If you act like it's something weird, then it will be weird. If you act like it's nothing special, then everyone will be forced to act that way too."
"I'm not as confident as you are, Bartido."
"Sure you are. You're Lillet Blan, Royal Magician. Vanquisher of Grimlet and the Archmage Calvaros." Bartido raised an eyebrow, a jaunty smirk on his lips. "What can everyone else claim to against that?" He released Lillet into another outward spin, and Lillet stumbled for a step when he didn't pull her back at the end of the move.
They had moved over to where Amoretta was dancing with a young lord. Lillet cast a longing look at her, then looked nervously at Bartido.
He jerked his head, raising an eyebrow in prompting. He let go of her hand, managing to give her a tiny shove forward as he did so.
Lillet swallowed, standing still in the midst of all the twirling couples. She bunched her sweaty hands in the folds of her dress, then straightened. Right here, next to Amoretta and seeing all her grace and beauty, was very different than looking at her hopefully across the room.
Lillet would do anything for Amoretta.
She stepped next to the pair and tapped the lord on the sleeve. "Excuse me," she said politely as both the young man and Amoretta focused on her. "May I cut in?"
Nonplussed, the young lord looked between Amoretta and Lillet, torn. No doubt he didn't want to insult one lady by accepting, or the other by refusing the request. "Uh, miss…"
"Yes," Amoretta breathed, stepping out of the lord's arms and giving him a brief curtsey as a farewell. Her red eyes sparkled like sunlight through rubies as she turned to Lillet, laying her hand in Lillet's outstretched one.
"Would you do me the honour of a dance?" Lillet asked, somewhat belatedly, but she didn't care. She felt weightless under Amoretta's warm smile.
"I would love to."
Lillet drew Amoretta closer, then stopped, blushing in embarrassment as reality ensued. "Um…I'm sorry. I don't know how to lead."
Amoretta laughed lightly, her entire body language giddy and delighted. "That's okay. I can." Expertly, Amoretta took Lillet's left hand and placed it just below the muscle on her right shoulder, then took Lillet's right hand and gently squeezed.
"You can?" Lillet said dazedly, meeting Amoretta's eyes adoringly.
"I learn quickly," Amoretta purred, pulling Lillet in and moving, both their bodies reacting to each other with practiced familiarity.
Lillet smiled as they danced, twirling gracefully together on the wooden floor, their dresses swishing in unison. She rested her cheek against Amoretta's, their breathing matching.
Author's Note: The very talented and fantastic yuiseppe wrote and drew a funny epilogue comic to this story, "Ballroom Dancing," to which my only response is to bounce excitedly, squeal insensibly, and urge you all to go check it out at "Exiled to the Couch," or through the link in my profile page ^_^.