Title: the last dance

A/N: For the 'A Lost Ballroom of Gold' fe3h rarepair zine! I got partnered with the amazing MadamPringle who made the most BEAUTIFUL PIECE to go with this. It's a masterpiece. Go look at it.

Summary: Lysithea sighed as she stood in the empty ballroom. Once more, her illness had kept her from actually staying for the full thing. Once more, she'd had to retire early. Luckily, Lorenz knew just how to make her feel better. He had saved the last dance for her, after all.

The ballroom was quiet. Lysithea stood stock still in the hallway, listening to the quiet murmurs of the servers, the clatter of dishes, the soft strumming of instruments. All of which she'd expected, but there weren't any of the other accompanying sounds. No matter how hard she strained her ears, she couldn't hear the swishing of a hundred ball-gowns, the rhythmic steps of dancers, or the gossiping nobles. Especially the gossiping nobles. Their voices were impossible to ignore, no matter how many doors she'd closed and how deep in her blankets she buried herself.

They'd all been present hours ago, when she'd taken leave for a short rest. Lorenz had kissed her cheek, telling her to go, that it was fine that she had once again had abandoned him to the wolves. It was his territory, after all, and he was as fluent in their meaningless buzzing as she was with her research.

What she had intended to be only a short, ten minutes nap had clearly ended up much longer. The guests had left. It was the only reasonable explanation. Lysithea glanced at the mask dangling off her right hand, its purple ribbons brushing against her silken dress. There was no point in putting it back on if no one was still around.

Sighing, she quietly trotted toward the central staircase. Despite Hilda's many, many lessons, she still couldn't move as gracefully as she wanted, and maybe it was a good thing the ball was over. Her dancing was lacking in many places and while Lorenz insisted he found it charming, she knew the rumours that ran amok every time she went out in public.

If it were directed at her, she wouldn't mind, but at him…

Lysithea snorted. She'd grown soft in the past few years. To think there'd be a day when she actually cared what the nobility thought.

As she descended the staircase, the view before her confirmed what she'd already known. Most of the small tables were gone now, stored away until the next ball. The long table filled with tasty morsels and sugary sweets was empty, the butlers carefully folding its lilac cloth.

Only the musicians were still seated on the stage, their instruments out as they softly played a ballad. No doubt they were waiting for their payment before packing up. Maybe she could handle that, if only to make up for everything else Lorenz had covered in her stead.

Quietly, she crossed the ballroom and headed toward the balcony. A cool breeze hit her bare arms soon as she stepped out and despite herself, she shivered. It was a mild relief after weeks of summer heat, and she rubbed her arms as she moved toward the railing. The Gloucester lands sprawled before her. When she'd first arrived, she'd found the castle lands too expansive.

They still were, but she felt more fond than annoyed when she took in the candle-lit gardens. A little further out, she could just make out the lanterns of carriages as their guests travelled home, like small fireflies flitting in the dark. Leaning against the railing, she rested her chin on her clasped hands she watched the steady stream.

A silken cloth landed on her shoulders, disturbing her musing. Lysithea looked up to find Lorenz smiling tenderly down at her. For once his hair didn't block her view of his face, all pinned up and back as it were. However, he still wore his mask, though the delicate velvet couldn't hide the emotions shining through his eyes. "Cold, my love?"

"No," she mumbled, feeling hot under his stare. No matter how often he used pet names and showed his affection, she wasn't sure if she could ever get used to it. Her ears burned from something as simple as this; it was a good thing no one else was around. Lysithea drew the coat around her tighter anyways, breathing in the rose-water scent that penetrated all of his clothes. "But thanks."

"Say nothing of it." His smile grew wider. It was ridiculously easy to make him happy. "Are you feeling better now?"

"Much," she reluctantly admitted. When he wrapped an arm around her shoulder, pulling her close, she leaned into him. They were alone, she could allow herself this weakness. "I needed the rest. I'm sorry I had to leave you like that."

"There is no need for apologies." Lorenz pressed a chaste kiss on her head and she shivered at the touch, at the memories of other, more heated kisses. "Besides, that was as much for me as it was for you. I am just glad that you have recovered."

There he went again, shrugging off this as though this was nothing, as though this had only happened tonight and not on a regular basis. For all of his fancy words and lofty ideals, he was surprisingly humble when it came to matters like these. Irritated, Lysithea bit her cheek as she looked up at him. "Lorenz."

"Yes, love?" He smiled innocently at her.

It was hard, sometimes, to argue with him when he looked at her like that: full of adoration, as though her company was all that he needed. It left her feeling unsettled, as though her heart was too full. She had to look over his shoulder to keep talking. "It's not just tonight. I've left you alone at these functions more often than not. I'm…" Lysithea sighed. Removing her second crest wasn't exactly what she'd thought it'd be—some days, she felt even frailer than she had before the operation. "I thought I'd be stronger by now."

"Nonsense." Despite his stern tone, his expression was still one of warmth. "You are one of the strongest people I know. You have argued with diplomats and nobles without backing down. There is nothing wrong with needing a break. It is healthy."

Healthy.

She should ignore that part of the sentence, focus on his praise instead. It was a warm, summer night, they'd just had a ball, and there was no need to drag in an inconsequential matter. Yet, all she could hear were the echoes of past arguments, all she could see were the nights he spent burning the midnight oil.

There was a reason Lysithea never worked on the more delicate aspects of diplomacy.

"Healthy? You want to talk to me about healthy?" Turning in his arms, she reached up to tug the ribbons holding his mask up, careful to avoid the pins keeping his hair together. This was a serious discussion and she needed to see him properly.

As the mask fell in her hands, he stared at her blankly. His ears were pink from where her hands brushed them. "Lysithea?" Lorenz asked, bemused.

That was much better. She could see his expressions more clearly now. Pulling out of his grasp, she crossed her arms and frowned. "How long did you spend organizing this ball?"

Lorenz's smile dropped a notch, his expression forlorn as he awkwardly dropped his hands. "That…I spent as long as was needed."

"And how many nights did you crawl into bed after midnight?" She scowled as he tried to sidestep the issue. "That is not healthy."

Lorenz's brow knit as he finally started treating this seriously. "If that is the case, then I must insist you do not spend your nights in the library. You will strain your eyes if you continue to read by candlelight."

"What?" Lysithea gaped, her jaw dropping. Perhaps it was a good thing that even the staff were gone by now: she didn't have to worry about lowering her voice. "You are the one with a secret pair of spectacles."

"That…" Lorenz flinched, his eyes wide with surprise. "Ignatz."

"Doesn't matter who told me." She rested her hands on her hips. "You spend too much time on your paperwork—don't think I haven't noticed the bags under your eyes. You don't even sleep some days!"

"When you were sick, you still insisted on reading over my policies." he pointed out, his normally placid voice rising to match hers. "Despite the doctor's orders—"

Lorenz cut himself off, looking away. She cocked her head, not sure how to respond. "Lorenz?"

After a moment, he chuckled, brushing back a stray hair. His cheeks were a soft red as he quietly admitted, "It's amazing how much more I can love you, Lysithea."

Immediately, she flushed, her mouth opening and closing like a goldfish's. She would never understand how he was able to say those things so easily, the words just rolling off his tongue like a pleasantry. Pressing her cold hands against her cheek in a futile attempt to fight her blush, she squeaked, "What does that have to do with anything?"

God, it was hard to sound dignified when her body refused to cooperate. Her skin burned as she covered her mouth, humiliated.

"Everything." His eyes crinkled as he laughed, gently prying her hand off her mouth. "Look at us, arguing about each other's safety. Neither of us listening to our own advice."

"That's…" Lysithea stared at his fingers, unable to refute his point. They were both as stubborn as it came, ignoring their own follies for the other's. "Do as I say, not as I do? When you put it like that…I guess it's no wonder we keep having this same argument over and over."

Lorenz nodded, his shoulders still shaking with amusement. "We are a pair of hypocrites."

"I wouldn't go that far…but, yes." She sighed. They'd gone far off track from what she'd wanted to say in the first place. Gently, she interlaced their fingers, ignoring his sharp intake of breath at the action. A shudder ran up his arm and her eyes followed it up till she was looking at his bright red face. "I wasn't planning to argue tonight. Like I was saying before, thank you."

Lorenz swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing as the blush spread down his neck. She was glad he reacted as badly as she did to physical affection; unlike with his silver tongue, it felt like they had even-footing here.

"Whatever the reason, I keep leaving you alone for these balls. As silly as they are, I don't mind them that much when you're there," Lysithea explained honestly, squeezing his hand. She kept her eyes trained on his. "I know how useful these are politically…one day…I'll help you with them."

"Lysithea…" Lorenz's smile was smaller now, but it felt more real too. "I…"

It was suddenly too much—his expression, her words, everything. God, had she really said all that? Embarrassed, she let go and stepped back. "Well…" She cleared her throat. "We should pay the musicians and let them go."

As she turned around, Lorenz's hand wrapped around her wrist, tugging her to a stop. Still too mortified to look at him, she mumbled, "What?"

"There's one last thing I need them to do before they leave," Lorenz replied.

"One more?" Confused, she looked up at him. His mask was back on now—when had he taken that back?

"Yes." He let go of her wrist. Bowing forward slightly, he held out a hand. "I did promise you the last dance, remember?"

"But—everyone's gone," she replied incredulously.

"Then it's a private dance." He reached up, tenderly tugging one of her locks free, curling it loosely around a finger. She breathed in sharply as he pulled it to his lips, pressing a kiss to her white strands. Lorenz asked once more, "Shall we, my love?"

Heart in her throat, she shyly nodded. When he held up her mask, she turned around, closing her eyes as he pressed the soft fabric to her face and gently tied it in place. Her skirt twirled as she turned around and took his hand. "I'll try not to step on your foot," she mumbled as he directed them back into the ballroom.

"I do not mind if you do," he replied easily, signalling to the musicians to start playing a slow waltz. His right hand slid around her waist, pressing her close as they swayed through the hall. "I love how you dance. It's charming."

"It's not," she hotly retorted, resisting the urge to hide and bury her face in his chest. It was only the two of them now, the floor cleared of everyone and everything else. Candles lit the hall, bathing them in a warm gold as they stepped in and out of the candelabras' and chandeliers' glow.

In his arms, she felt oddly graceful as he guided her through the steps. The entire time, he kept a confident grip on her hand, never letting it go for more than a second as she pivoted around him. As they stepped in and out of shadows, spinning further and further away from the musicians, the moon was their only witness. For once, there were no guests watching. For once, the staff wasn't in the room. It was just the two of them. She hadn't felt this relaxed since their school days or when he'd first courted her formally.

It was an excuse, but Lysithea had always needed pretext for embarrassing actions, no matter how much she wanted them. Gathering her courage, she tightened her grip on his hand. Lorenz glanced at her curiously but didn't say anything. As they stepped into the shadows, she reached up, hooking a delicate hand around his neck and pulling him down. He gasped, lips parting in surprise, and she leaned forward, kissing him softly.

He tasted like sunlight, like an ever-present warmth. Reluctantly, she pulled away as they automatically stepped into the light.

"Lysithea…" Flustered, Lorenz stepped on her toes.

Before he could apologize, Lysithea giggled. "You're right, that is charming."