Chapter 1: prologue
It was the fog.
Yuuri could understand cursed lands and blessed objects but he'd never heard of something as transitory as weather being a vehicle for concern the likes of which Gunter spoke. The miasma of fog rolled through from the high mountains once every century or so, and the devastation it left in its wake was legendary. It didn't carry monsters like something out of a Steven King novel or somehow melt ones' skin off. It was much, much worse than that, his adviser warned. The fog made people speak the truth.
Yuuri, for all his faults, didn't get it.
Perhaps he was too idealistic. It wouldn't be the first time someone had made such a point. But really, what harm was there in honesty? Too often people spoke around a subject and points were left misunderstood. Pride made men silent when there was no better resource to end conflict than conversation. Yuuri rather liked the idea of people speaking the truth for once. Granted, little lies like telling the cook the meal was delicious when in fact it was a bit over salted would be missed--but even so, they'd both benefit in some small way to letting the little niceties go for a moment. Yuuri was nearly always honest and so he had no real concerns as to what might come out of his mouth while the fog settled over Blood Pledge Castle and the surrounding lands. Those who did seem nervous made Yuuri wary. What truths were they trying to hide?
Gwendal was the worst in hiding his anxiety. The entire time they sat in conference listening to Gunter's concerns, the noble had rolled his fingers through imaginary stitches, his left brow twitching with every fifteen or so. Yuuri had stopped paying attention to the silver-haired mazoku's words completely as his mind instead filled with all sorts of wild possibilities that might be lurking behind the stoic lips. The oldest brother was surprisingly sensitive--would he make a love confession to someone he'd been trying to deny for years?! Perhaps he had a dark secret which he feared might come out? A love child, or an elopement, or maybe some secret desire? Even Conrad, who stood silently but with a crease of worry on his brow, seemed to be dreading the power of the fog. It made him wonder if he even really knew any of his friends with the way in which they seemed to quietly panic as Gunter gave what was really nothing more than a weather forecast.
Only Wolfram seemed to feel as Yuuri did. He just looked bored. He glanced at Yuuri, his fingers curling under his pouting lips as he rested his chin against his palm. They shared a light shrug. He supposed they were both too young to really have any interesting secrets worth keeping. Ah, the wisdom and worry of age.
"Your Majesty!" Gunter implored, regaining Yuuri's attention with a start. "Please do pay attention; this is very important."
"Na, Gunter, everything will be fine. The fog only lasts about a day before it shifts out of the kingdom, right?" Yuuri clarified. He sighed, rubbing at the back of his neck. "In that case, we just avoid any political actions until we can choose our words more carefully. We don't have to shut down the whole kingdom but if people prefer to stay indoors and wait it out, that's fine."
"Your Majesty." Gunter frowned, shaking his head with his chin dropped to his chest.
Conrad smiled stiffly. "He's not entirely wrong, Gunter. The fog will come regardless of what we do. Perhaps an optimistic outlook will serve us better than fear."
"The only reasonable course of action is to quarantine everyone until the fog has moved on."
"Because of a truth serum?" Yuuri asked, surly he must have missed something if it was really that big of a deal.
Gwendal pinched at the space between his brows. "There is no private housing in the barracks. Soldiers would be exposed to the fog within their ranks under such pretenses."
Yuuri sighed louder. "Well, what did they do the last time the fog came in?"
"The Maou took a cruise and those who stayed behind vowed never to speak of what had transpired."
Okay, well that wasn't exactly a surprise. Yuuri wasn't about to share in that particular plan of action, though. "I'm not going anywhere. I hear almost daily for Wolfram about how much of a wimp I am. I can take honesty--especially if it's not said to be mean."
"I wouldn't have to call you a wimp if you didn't act like one."
"I just said I'm not going anywhere! What more do you want!?"
"Hmph." Wolfram looked away, his chin raised haughtily. "It doesn't do any good to praise you for something you should be doing anyway."
Yuuri shook his head, casting his fiancé a dirty glare. "If I can survive Wolfram on a daily basis, I'm sure everyone can manage one day of honesty."
Gunter opened his mouth to begin again with his insistence then stopped, head sinking, his whole demeanor mirroring his defeat. "Yes, Your Majesty," he said, looking sideways at the anxious Gwendal whose fingers stilled then hastily rolled several more stitches through the air with a disproving scowl.
Yuuri didn't notice anything different the morning the fog rolled in. He woke up in bed with his fiancé, Wolfram somewhat splayed over him with his obnoxious sleeping habits, and felt exactly the same as the morning before. He bathed himself while Wolfram gathered another hour of beauty sleep then spent his time between getting dressed and attending the morning meal with the usual banter and friendly jests. Wolfram seemed the same as well, just as cranky and irritable as ever. What was Gunter so afraid of, he couldn't help but wonder. This truth-fog was seriously a piece of cake.
At least, that was what he thought before breakfast. During breakfast was something of another story entirely.
"I couldn't sleep a wink last night. I was so worried about the fog that I couldn't manage anything past three rounds of masturbation while thinking only of our beloved king."
"How energetic of you, Gunter!" Celi replied, apparently the only person at the table immune to the shock of hearing such confessions spoken so boldly.
Yuuri's face was nothing less than two shades beneath scarlet as he sat in a stupor, his spork halfway to his lips and then forgotten as his eyes focused on nothing in particular.
Nope. No big deal. Just a little bit of truth fog. Everything was just fine; no body was saying weird things.
"Thinking of Yuuri!?!?" Wolfram shouted, standing and slamming his hands to the table.
Conrad gripped his younger brother's shoulder to calm him, the immovable object to the third son's unstoppable force. "Wolfram, today is a day when we must be our most forgiving," he reminded him, his own cheeks just as red as Yuuri's in second-hand embarrassment.
Gunter hid his face behind a napkin and the drape of his long bangs. "My apologies," he mutter weakly.
It was instantly less funny to see how mortified Gunter looked. Yuuri cleared his throat and the contents of his spork. Perhaps, for now, it was best not to say anything.
"Oh, Wolf, don't be mean. I'm sure everyone here has touched themselves while thinking of His Majesty Yuuri. It's not so strange!"
Oh, look, the egg was fried perfectly. That's nice. Nice, runny yoke. Just the way he liked it. Yum.
"I even hear there's a small market for black toys said to be the perfect likeness of His Majesties little king."
"Mother, I think perhaps the less said, the better," Conrad advised, all but sweating as he forced Wolfram to sit back in his chair.
Celi frowned. "You're no fun. How will we share our deepest secrets and hidden passions if we don't talk?"
"That's not... really what we're trying to do," Yuuri muttered, his eyes averted to his plate and no longer willing to wander.
Gwendal grunted in agreement, as stoic as ever but almost sickeningly pale as he did his best to ignore everything but his own meal before him.
So this was what everyone was so worried about. Okay, Yuuri understood now. Honestly, though, it hadn't occurred to him that they would find themselves pressed to admit to those kinds of things. They didn't exactly come up in normal conversation. It was just a matter of Gunter making the mistake of mentioning what he'd done the night before. Yuuri, at least, was lucky in that the most embarrassing thing he could possibly admit to was that it'd taken three passes to satisfactorily wipe his ass that morning after a rather messy bout of defecation. As long as he didn't mention anything about his morning or anything bathroom related, it probably wouldn't come up. And even if it did, it wouldn't be the worse thing to have happen. Certainly better than announcing how many times and about whom he thought of during private, sensitive times. Poor Gunter. How mortifying. They were definitely going to instigate the never-speaking-of-this-again plan.
It was nothing but the sounds of cutlery on plates for the rest of their meal, most people excusing themselves immediately and running to hide as the magnitude of the potential terror they faced remained a permanent fixture in their minds. No one wanted to be the next Gunter. Such a dishonor would be almost worse than death. Only Conrad and Wolfram refrained for fleeing, staying instead by Yuuri's side as though the day were much the same as all the others.
"Well, the less said the better," Yuuri advised, trying to honor his tutor in at the very least not speaking of him in his absence.
Wolfram nodded, though his annoyance still pinched along his brows. Conrad smiled slightly and let Yuuri lead the way.
Out in the gardens the fog was nothing short of beautiful. It was of a shifting color that was simultaneously green and lilac with hints of amber in the swirl of its arms. It hugged the flowers with a persistent dew and smelled heavily of rocks and earth.
"What do you think made it, Conrad?" he asked, leaning against one of the walkway pillars to gaze out on the open square that offered an opaque veil between them and the other side.
Conrad paused, looking at the innocuous haze with complete seriousness. "I don't know. Perhaps it is made of souls or wishes--an unrealized dream that has since become aware but not able to understand the consequences of its design."
Yuuri nodded. That sounded nice. "I think I like to think of it as good intentioned--not something cruel. Honesty itself isn't a bad thing."
"No. But the ability to lie--or to filter through the truth--is important in our lives. Not everything we think or feel deserves to be shared."
Wolfram breathed a long sigh, leaning opposite Yuuri, and let his head fall back to the stone. "This is going to be a long day," he said. And it was true--of course it was true--as far as any of them could tell. But it was still just one day. They'd been through far worse. The Originators, with all their evil, had fallen in much the same amount of time. This was nothing compared to that.
"I suppose with visibility like this, catch is out of the question. So is riding, training, anything outdoors, really," Yuuri remarked, aiming to think of something they could do while they waited for time to pass.
Conrad smiled gently. "It's no worse than a rainy day. I'm sure you and Wolfram will find some minor bout of trouble to get into. You always do."
"And you always come rescue us," Yuuri added with his own wide smile. He was right. Outside the minor fiasco at breakfast, it was surly going to be a simple matter of staving off boredom more than anything. He and Wolfram were nearly pros at that.
"I could paint your portrait."
"Never again," Yuuri swore, thinking only of the stench. Wolfram's lack of skill certainly factored in as well.
"You could try your hand at painting mine."
Yuuri could only imagine the mess he'd make of that and chuckled lightly at the thought. "My skill wouldn't do a handsome guy like you justice," he said out loud, somewhat surprising himself with the words. He'd meant to say 'you'd only make fun of me' but his tongue and lips had built a different sentence entirely.
So that was what it was like. Yuuri found himself rather relieved. He'd been concerned the fog would cause some sort of compulsion to just say the first thing that came to mind but instead it seemed to be very fair in its application. The words it made him say were far more honest than the ones he'd chosen. He wasn't afraid of Wolfram laughing at him--the mazoku was always mocking him. His real fear was in not being good at it; in trying to impress him and failing spectacularly. That was okay. He was okay with having said that.
What a gracious fog indeed.
"It would be interesting to see what your heart put on the canvas."
"My heart?" Yuuri echoed.
Wolfram hummed in affirmation. "You have to learn from masters to be able to paint what the eyes see but it's instinctual to paint what is in your heart. Even if it's just a big splash of a single color, if you paint with your heart, then your feelings will come through."
Yuuri frowned thoughtfully. "So which do you paint from?"
"My heart, of course. I love you."
"That's terrifying," Yuuri admitted. It only took an instant to realize the words which came through. He stammered, eyes wide with shame on his cheeks as he did his best to recover from that rather insensitive remark. "I mean, uh, I don't love you," he said, trying again, and finding the words just as callous. What was this?! "I--I mean, I... a lot of the time I do everything I can to get away from you because you're like this massive, suffocating force of nature." What was happening?!?!
Yuuri placed his hands over his mouth and he moved away, staring at Wolfram with eyes blown wide. Wolfram stared back, his mouth pulled thin and green eyes void of all expression.
"Oh, shit, I--I--I mean; I mean I don't mean--I... I really want to not say anything else."
Wolfram's voice was low, hesitant and soft. "Right."
"I'm sorry..." Yuuri took several steps back, his knees shaking slightly as his hands visibly trembled at his face. "I should have been more insistent about my prejudices and expectations from the start but I didn't want to risk losing the perks of our current relationship--I mean I never thought about your feelings at all! I mean--I...!"
It only got worse. Every time he opened his mouth it only got worse and now every sentence ended with a wince like a heavy-handed blow to his fiancé's face. Yuuri found feeling in his legs only to put that strength into a full out run, not caring where they took him so long as it was far away from there.
"Yuuri!" Conrad called out, and Yuuri wanted nothing more than for his retainer to stay away, to make sure Wolfram was alright, to treat his heartlessness as the evil it was and abandon him this once to tend to someone more worthy of his attention.
How could he say those things to his friend? How could he so ruthlessly tear into him even when he could see the pain in his eyes? And the fact that it was all true, that every word was real, made every step he took in haste one step too few to truly escape.
How could I say that?
"How could I be so complacent in my own willful ignorance?"
How do I make it up to him?
"How do I tend to my own feelings of guilt while ignoring the responsibility I have for my actions and past inaction? How do I make sure I don't lose the parts of him I like without having to face or accept the parts of him I don't?"
I really hurt him.
"I don't care how much this hurts him. I just want everything about it to go away because I'm not comfortable with any matters regarding homosexuality."
Am I... am I a bad person?
"I blame him for making me feel and act this way."
Is that really how I feel?
"If Wolfram hadn't taken the proposal so seriously, none of this would have happened. How many times did I have to say it? I don't want him like that. He refused to listen. His actions are perverted and disgusting. We could have been much better friends if he just stopped being gay."
Yuuri put his hand over his mouth, still shaking as he sank to the ground in some random corridor, too shocked at his own words to move as the things he preferred to believe about himself stood in stark contract to the things he spoke. Worst of all was the resounding silence in his mind standing to rebuke each sentence uttered in honesty. It wasn't pretty--he hated every breath of it. But it was true. Despite everything he told himself and every pass he granted for one action or another, there was nothing he didn't know in his heart being whispered on ragged breaths. There was selfishness and greed in all hearts--even in the Maou's who spoke to kingdoms about changing their ways and abolishing their prejudices. What a two-faced snake he was; what a demon. Wolfram was a dear friend. One of his closest. Someone he depended on. And yet these were the thoughts and words his countenance brought up. This was how Yuuri truly felt. And it made him sick to his stomach.
One hand held to the cool stone to steady himself, Yuuri tried to stand again as footsteps drew nearer to his temporary refuge. His muscles refused his orders, though. His mouth tasted of bile. His nose was running, his whole head hurt and there was nothing he could do to stop any of it now. Whoever it was was going to find him. He simply had to resolve himself to saying nothing until the fog was gone.
"Yuuri," Conrad called, quickly making his way to his king's side in a crouch beside the wall.
Yuuri shook his head, not wanting him there--wanting him there least of all perhaps. "Conrad, you shouldn't have followed me; you should have stayed with Wolfram," he said, despising the preference he took even now.
Conrad pushed Yuuri's bangs from his face, feeling at his forehead with a large, warm hand. "I tried," he said huskily. "I told him he should have known better. So... It's best he have some time alone instead, I think."
It was almost laughable except for the way it hurt inside. Yuuri's gut clenched just thinking about the double-play they'd just run with Wolfram forgotten on the pitch. "I'm such a coward," he cried, almost relieved to hear the words in perfect harmony with his intent. He sniffled and wiped his nose on his sleeve. Nothing but an ignorant, childish coward.
Oh, good. He knew. Wonderful. So long as they were all on the same page, he supposed.
Conrad rubbed Yuuri's back, rocking him with the strong motion which warmed his shoulders in comforting friction. "It's okay," he promised, and so it must have been. Yuuri leaned his head against the wall.
"What do I do?" he asked, more conflicted than he had ever been in his whole life.
The second brother didn't say anything--couldn't say anything? Would it have been a lie to tell him everything would be alright?
Yuuri breathed deeply, feeling it rumble in his chest as muscles still trembled with contained sobs. He wished he could at least be cool enough to say he was crying on behalf of Wolfram and the depths of his concern extended far outside himself. He wouldn't be able to make that claim today, though. The fog would make an ever greater bastard of him if he tried.
But Conrad's warm presence made breathing easier and set his hands firm in their sweaty fists. His panic was dispersing little by little and with it the horror of clarity seemed to shift further and further out of care. "I think today, perhaps, is a good day for reading," the soldier supplied. "You can work on your vocabulary or simply enjoy something about events far different from these for the time being."
Yuuri nodded, his tongue less traitorous when he refrained from speech.
"And I think it is probably best to avoid Wolfram for the rest of the day as well."
It was an understatement too obvious not to chuckle at. "Yeah. I think you're right. It won't be hard--I've had lots of practice at it. It's easy to ignore him since I don't respect him... I think his love for me is laughable. He's a punchline. I treat him like a joke because he's not mazoku to me--his love makes him lesser to me. He doesn't even deserve my sympathy." Yuuri's voice cracked, new tears streaming down his face as he learned to hate the man he was. "I don't want this to be true. I don't want these things to be me. I don't want to be a person who thinks that."
Conrad was quiet for much longer than Yuuri could stand. "Conrad?" he asked, terrified his friend would walk away from him.
He didn't. Of course he didn't. But his face remained mostly hidden under the shadow of his bangs.
Yuuri hung his head, staring down at the stone tiles on the floor. "I don't want to face this. I want it to just go away where it can be ignored again."
"Then you really will be an unfair king," Conrad spoke at last, hand stroking through his king's hair. "Because it may please you to ignore it, but Wolfram has no such luxury. Every day he faces the part of you you try to pretend isn't there."
I don't want to hurt him. "I don't care about his feelings."
Conrad pulled him close, his head cradled beneath his chin. "I don't believe that," he whispered softly.
"I don't want to either."
It took time but eventually Yuuri could stand and walk under his own power, the shock having passed and his body no longer seized by the strength of his own repugnance. He still felt raw but facts only had a numbing effect now. Even if he couldn't escape the train of thought that stayed with him through the day, he had reached a point of saturation to where nothing was really a surprise any more and nothing else really mattered anyway. So his steps were slow and his face forlorn but at least he wasn't immobile in a heap against the floor. He'd take a bath, he'd decided. Take a bath and hide away. And never, ever, ever again would he not take Gunter's warnings seriously.
Conrad walked beside him as his silent retainer, his lack of speech all Yuuri needed to hear to know that he was not happy with his king. Still cared about him, still served him without resentment, but was not currently his greatest fan when all was said and done. The hatred in Yuuri's heart, now laid bear, had tarnished something. It was a little nice to leave that pedestal, though. Nice to be... well, human. A 'person' was perhaps the more politically correct term. Either way, Yuuri wasn't an icon of perfection and ideals right now. Just another high school teenager. An idiot. A wimp.
Though they had tried to take a less direct rout, hoping to avoid seeing anyone else on the short walk towards the Maou's private baths, the olive green uniformed man who stalked towards them was not to be ignored. He'd come around a corner at a near run, his ponytail training behind him, with only the smallest of movements made to show how much Gwendal did not want to walk past his brother and king. He had two options, though: go back the way he came or carry on. It was a quick decision but not enough so for his hesitation not be noticed. Squaring his shoulders, he made haste to pass them with only a nod but the corridor was too narrow for three bodies to pass without each of them being near enough for detailed sight.
"Proposal?" Yuuri heard himself say as his eyes caught the red mark against the larger man's left cheek. He hadn't meant to say anything but it seemed he was still in fact capable of being surprised if only in other people.
Conrad paused. Gwendal kept walking. At least one of them had the right idea.
"Gwendal?" Conrad said, turning to watch his older brother walk past as though he were a ghost haunting the halls. "Did you accept?"
The first son's hands clenched at his sides though he stood with his back still facing away. "She ambushed me. There was no other possible outcome."
Conrad smiled slightly, his face at least trying to convey sympathy even if his words missed their mark. "Congratulations. Anissina is a lucky woman. We all knew you'd settle down with her eventually. You've been sleeping together for decades after all."
Yuuri's ears burned red as he glanced at Conrad, seeing the fear in his eyes he knew all too well of someone who had said so much more than they had meant to.
Gwendal's back remained turned but his shoulders were surprisingly emotive. "And how is your Yozak, Conrart?"
Conrad's jaw set but he nodded to himself as he put a hand to Yuuri's back and steered him away without another word spoken--not even good day. They were back on track as though the meeting had never occurred, and Gwendal continued in his own retreat in exactly the same fashion.
Well, that was... more than Yuuri ever wanted to know. Ever. And entirely unsurprising in its own way as well.
"You and Yozak?" Yuuri asked, still having a difficult time grasping and holding on to the fact that talking was never a good idea on this day.
His retainer cleared his throat. "In the past. Yes."
"But not anymore?"
"No, not anymore."
So not only had he told Conrad he thought his baby brother was gross for wanting to be with another man, but he'd told Conrad he thought he was gross and Yozak and Gunter and everyone else who didn't particularly gravitate towards the opposite sex. What a wonderful day to be alive.
"I've taken female lovers too," Conrad offered, though sadly they both knew it was not for clarity but because he did not want to be disliked by his king. He didn't fall in to the all-or-nothing pile and so maybe they could coexist today. "Gender is not a criteria by which I guide my affection."
Yuuri rolled his shoulders which had become drooped with shame. "Is it like that for everyone on this planet?"
"No," Conrad said, shaking his head. "It's very much as it is on Earth. Only the way in which we view it is different. My mother, for instance, is very much into men and men alone. Gwendal only has eyes for women though he considers himself too busy to bother with things like romance. And then there are those like Gunter who have eyes only for men but whom still prefer to be alone not out of shame but of preference. There are those like myself who judge attraction by a persons' character and those like Yozak who will sleep with anyone for almost any reason." The last part was a bit less matter-of-factly spoken, the swordman's brown eyes narrowing slightly.
It wasn't any of Yuuri's business. He really didn't need to ask. "Is that why it's in the past between you two?" he seemed to question anyway.
Conrad scowled, not at Yuuri but at the ground in front of them. "No. Yozak enjoys his line of work and isn't ready to settle down. It's not advantageous for him to be committed to another."
"Ah. So you're just friends now?"
"No," Conrad answered, though his head moved to say something else entirely. The contradiction seemed to cause his mind to stall out, his pupils retracting as his mouth hung slightly open.
At least it didn't appear that Yuuri was the only one learning something about himself today. "Are you in love with Yozak?"
Conrad didn't say another word. Outside the royal bath he bowed politely then walked away, leaving his king's protection to the armed guard that stood sentry outside the doors. It was sudden but understood, an act of pride and of fear. It was better this way. For everyone.
Alone, Yuuri went inside.
Night could not come soon enough.
Meals were taken in private throughout the castle to avoid any further regrettable instances. The maids had a hard time not mentioning their irritation with the extra work but no one seemed to care too much about the airing of minor grievances. So long as they made it through the day without destroying their interpersonal relationships, it would be a successful tactic. Yuuri was relatively certain he already had a lot of damage control to see to in regards to Conrad and Wolfram in the time to come. Worse than that, however, was the time he was going to need to invest in himself.
Maybe it was the lack of positive role models. Maybe it was internalized social stigma. Yuuri knew he hadn't liked it when kids called him gay just because he refused to peek into the girls' bath on a school trip. Gay was a joke; an insult. Gay was synonymous with being a pervert or some kind of pedophile when it came to youth sports. Gay was worse than cooties or the boogeyman and treated a little bit like both. That was kids stuff, though, and the sort of things he should have left behind as he got older. Except he hadn't, it seemed. Not at all. And the people he loved were still the people that made him uncomfortable if he bothered with thoughts about whom they welcomed into their beds. Not that he was one to talk when he lay nightly beside an extraordinarily beautiful young man who quite often slept beside him in a pink negligee.
There was no touching except for when Wolfram's crazy sleeping habits landed his fist or somehow foot into Yuuri's face but even with that said, he didn't really have room to talk. Most sane people would still find that weird. Okay, maybe not sane people but... well, people who cared about gender expression, sexuality and pretty much everything that bothered Yuuri from a spectator's point of view. It had bothered him. A lot. It had been very weird and very unwelcome and on the whole a little scary to suddenly wake up and find another man in his bed. A very eager man. If the proposal had been out of love or attraction, Yuuri could see how Wolfram might interpret the arrangement as warranting clandestine meetings under the canopy of his bed. But it hadn't been, and Yuuri had tried to make that very clear.
Not that any of that mattered anymore. That was a long time ago. Wolfram had stopped being an unwelcome surprise under his covers and was just... Wolfram. That's where he slept. The nightgowns were just what he wore to bed. Yuuri's bed. Their bed. Where they slept and nothing more and even the wild advances that had been there in the beginning had gone away completely. Wolfram being there didn't scare him anymore--nagging thoughts like the price might rape him if he slept with his back to him were vestigial at best. But they had existed. They still came up when surrounded by men whose preference in men was less than questionable. And even though he knew that it was ridiculous to assume every gay man he met wanted to sleep with him--willing or not--it was still a thought in his head. A stupid thought. But recognizing it as stupid wasn't the same as challenging those thoughts and making them stop.
So much easier said than done.
He supposed--no, he was quite certain--that Wolfram would be sleeping in his own room tonight. No one would blame him. It wasn't unheard of; Wolfram had his choice of any of the state rooms or soldier's quarters. Sometimes he didn't feel well; sometimes he just didn't feel like sleeping with company. Sometimes Yuuri didn't. They'd actually gotten very good at recognizing when the other needed space and respecting that without much comment past hopes the reasons left fast. Yes, Yuuri often felt a sigh of relief at escaping his fiancé for the night, but it wasn't as though Wolfram wasn't welcome there generally. Generally speaking, his absence was felt more than his presence. But Yuuri still feared the way his mouth would phrase that if given the chance to be blunt and unapologetic.
Even though it wasn't quite nightfall, Yuuri felt ready to retire for the night. The sun was still white but the sky had taken on a lilac hue with threats of orange that were enough of an excuse to call it a day. The halls were all but empty except for the guards posted at doors and with his head down to make doubly sure he didn't run the risk of encountering anyone until the fog rolled away, he found himself in his chambers without incident or delay. He was so intent on his own thoughts and speculations that sight seemed a secondary sense to what he imagined to be there. He imagined quite fully an empty bed in an empty room. Instead, his steps coming to a halt in the middle of the floor, he realized he did indeed see honey gold and baby pink standing by the mirror on the other side of the room. His feet refused to move and his brain did its best to comprehend what could only be a ghost. It just... it didn't make sense. Not in the least. The cognitive dissonance left him frozen to the floor.
Wolfram was brushing his hair, his face dewy from having been washed from the basin at his side. He didn't turn to see Yuuri but through the mirror their eyes easily locked. He didn't smile but there was no scowl on his face either. He simply continued moving the brush down his scalp to the longer ends that, when uncurled, lapped at his shoulders. His nightgown already hung lose again his body.
"You bathed," he observed, his attention returning to himself. "Good. You should change into your night clothes, Yuuri. It's better if we all go to sleep."
Had Yuuri missed the part where he'd traveled to yet another world in which perhaps he hadn't said some of the worst things ever to come out of his mouth? He hoped so but very much doubted it. In his experience, other worlds were far more different than simply missing out on one mistake. "Wolfram? Why are you--"
"Nothing's changed," Wolfram said, interrupting him without pause.
And the fog let him say that? Yuuri felt cheated. What sort of immunity did the fiery prince have that no one else seemed to possess? "I said such horrible things to you," he insisted, not sure what he expected or why he felt worse with Wolfram not avoiding him like the plague.
Wolfram put his hairbrush down, raking his fingers through the fluff of curls as he walked over towards their bed. "Do you really think I'm so stupid that I didn't know those things already?" he asked. His voice was somewhat hollow, his eyes most definitely not seeking Yuuri out, but he still crossed to the bed and pulled down the blankets on his side. "Like I said: nothing's changed. I know it's early but let's go to sleep."
There was no way in which that might have hurt more, even had Wolfram run a sword under Yuuri's ribs into his heart. Wolfram knew. Even if Yuuri had never said anything, he'd made it obvious to his fiancé--to his friend--that those feelings were in his heart.
"How can you stand to be around me right now? How can you stand to be around me at all ever if you know these things about me?"
Wolfram sighed, sitting down on the sheets as he finally looked up into Yuuri's face, doing his best to look annoyed and put-upon rather than hurt or whatever else lay beneath. "Yuuri, when I first met you I insulted you, your mother, your world, and made no secret whatsoever that I felt you were lesser to me than the grime under my nails. I had disaligned myself with my brother because of his parentage, written off all humans as mindless beasts, I tried to kill you in a duel and I made you so mad, you then tried to kill me. All of this began with me behaving like a selfish, angry, child doing everything he could for some form of validation," he rattled off, never one to pull punches and therefore not in the least surprised by his own honesty. "Despite all that, you let me stay by your side. And you taught me to be better. Now I see the world the way you see it--I dream about the same future you dream of where our daughter doesn't have to worry about wars and people hating their neighbor because of their race. You didn't change me--I changed me--but you showed me what it was I wanted to be. You made me a better person by letting me follow you. So what sort of fiancé would I be if I didn't try to do the same for you?"
This was the man they once were prepared to call their 28th Maou. And it made all the sense in the world. Being a mazoku of noble birth, being the strongest in the fire element, being son to the 26th Maou and the 27th Maou's fiancé all put aside, this was what made him worthy to rise to power in Yuuri's wake. Wolfram was... Wolfram was not the man Yuuri had met on the steps of Blood Pledge Castle all that time ago. Yuuri had forgotten that young man had ever existed and somehow still never really acknowledged that he'd been replaced as well. Wolfram had grown up at some point in ways that made him more beautiful now than ever.
Wolfram scowled at the silence and the scrutiny Yuuri seemed to stare at him with. "You have an effect on people, Yuuri. You should know that by now."
He'd been told that before but the evidence had never been made as startlingly clear. "You're only saying those things because you blindly hope I'll accept you one day," he said, and it wasn't even close to the words he wanted to use. Yes, he believed it, but couldn't he just say something nice about how encouraging it was to have someone that believed in him like that? "What happens when the engagement is annulled? What if I marry someone else?"
"What if Big Cimaron never declares peace?" Wolfram argued. "It's the same thing, Yuuri. You can't change people's minds or hearts by force. All you can do is never give up. No matter what, I'm always going to be here. I'm stubborn and selfish. And I want to stubbornly and selfishly make you into as good a man as you are a king. And you're a great king, Yuuri."
A great king? Him? Now? It had to be the truth--or at least the truth as Wolfram saw it--but Yuuri most certainly did not feel like a great anything. Not even a good something. "I don't deserve you, Wolf," he said, and for once felt no opposition to the words.
Blinking in surprise and with a pinkness rising in his cheeks, Wolfram busied himself with getting beneath the blankets and smoothing the wrinkles out over his thighs, wisely sealing his lips for once as he lay back against his pillow.
It was time to go to bed. Time to stop talking. Time to wait out the fog in safety and security, warmed by proximity but kept separate by habit. Tomorrow would be better. Tomorrow would be hard but still more acceptable than this. But at least, in some ways, nothing had changed. For better or worse, at least there was some solace in that.
Yuuri woke to a hard shove and a muffled grunt of "Get off" which seemed to emanate very close to his ear with the sound of a voice he knew well. He felt he'd certainly fall off the bed, arms awkwardly positioned out in front of him as they were, but the weight of Wolfram's body as he rolled away across Yuuri's pinned arm helped the Maou from tumbling over. He could still feel the softness of Wolfram's nightgown in the memory against his hand.
"Sweaty," Wolfram grumbled as he planted his face firmly into his pillow, now once again on his side of the bed though the wet spot of drool on Yuuri's shoulder was evidence enough that he hadn't always been there. The fact that it was Yuuri's arm that had been caught beneath him and that even now, most of Yuuri's body was at best in the middle of the bed rather than his own side put the blame quite obviously on himself.
He supposed that was certainly one way to make sure Wolfram didn't strike him in his sleep--at least until overheating the fiery mazoku. In all honesty, though, Yuuri wasn't really all that surprised by himself. His mouth had been poison and his words venom tipped. He hadn't been at all satisfied by the absence of comfort he had available to give in conversation. Especially not with Wolfram able to assuage so many of his fears regardless of the fog. His body, at least, was not limited only to expressions of undiluted truth. It wasn't surprising at all that it had reached out to his fiancé during dreams of equal horrors. The way Wolfram tossed and turned, it wasn't surprising at all that being moved closer and held tight wouldn't wake him any more than his own mindless thrashing. Not at all surprising. Not one little bit.
Blushing lightly and clearing his throat, Yuuri pulled himself back to his proper side of the bed. "Sorry. Guess I, uh... yeah," was all he managed to say, rethinking the offer of any excuses when it would seem to belittle his companion's intelligence.
Wolfram's face was still hidden in the white fluff of his pillows with the tips of his ears tinged in pink. "Nye grr nah," his fiancé complained, muffled and in all ways unintelligible.
Yuuri smiled softly and looked up towards the window. Morning, at last, had arrived. Sunlight shown pale over the rooftops with many clouds in a dingy sky. Storms ahead, maybe? Things certainly didn't look clear and the walls of his castle cut off his view of the earth. "Think the fog's gone?" he asked, looking for hints in the dew against the window's glass.
Wolfram turned his face, his hair sticking up in tufts in several directions. "I don't know. Have you tried lying?"
"Wimp," Wolfram complained, finally rolling over onto his back, his eyes circling in derision though his lips curled into a teasing smile.
Just another, average, pleasant morning. Yuuri couldn't have wished for more.
Well, he could have wished that it had all been a dream. That would have been a relief and joy to wake up to. Baring the impossible, though, this was certainly the best outcome. Wolfram looked rested if not annoyed, no signs of crying he may have tried to hide. Again, it would have been nice to maybe not have a damp patch against his shoulder that was almost definitely drool from the princes' mouth but, all things considered, he much preferred drool to tears any day. Yuuri had certainly shed enough of his own.
It felt early but the cloudy skies hid the sun and all real measure of time without moving. Yuuri usually ran with Conrad in the mornings though he wondered if his friend would be waiting for him today. He felt stiff and tired and worn out from yesterday's endless streams of confrontation. He imagined his retainer felt much the same way. No need to be in a hurry in any case. Instead Yuuri made himself comfortable under the blankets, propped up against his arms as he watched Wolfram try his hand and catching more sleep. "So, what did you end up doing yesterday?" he asked, deciding to ignore the closed eyes and even breaths in favor of catching up.
Wolfram huffed a sigh and rubbed at his nose, his lashes still splayed on his cheeks. "Mm. Reread that letter Greta sent from Cavalcade. Started to write a reply but I just kept writing 'we miss you'. Scraped it. Took care of my horse. Took a few baths. Saw the tailor and made him cry. Not much."
"I told you I didn't mind silver buttons. Silver looks fine with black--it looks nice," Yuuri argued, knowing all too well the reason he might grief his tailor as the button conversation was immortalized as one of the most ridiculously heated discussions to date.
Wolfram cracked one eye open at him, his face a mask of fury. "It clashes with what I'm wearing," he spat. "You're getting gold buttons. That's final."
"Okay. Okay." Yuuri raised a hand in defeat yet again on the subject as the one who cared the least. The tailor had apparently already been brought to tears over the damn things; best to leave it as it was now. He had thought that was how they'd agreed to leave it last time--silver because they were already sewn on--but he supposed he couldn't be upset at the change since his fiancé had been about as able to contain his true feelings and opinions as Yuuri had been that day.
"What about you?"
"What did you and Conrad do?" Wolfram asked.
"Ah." Yuuri yawned into his hand, buying time for thought in a good jaw stretch. "Well... I said more things I wish he hadn't heard. Same sort of things he'd already heard me say, though. Oh!" he rolled closer, ducking down towards the other pillow somewhat conspiratorially and lowering his voice. "Gwendal's engaged to Anissina! Apparently she cornered him and made the most of things."
Wolfram looked confused for a moment, his brows misaligned, then frowned up at the bed's canopy above. "Poor big brother," he mutter sympathetically.
"I don't know. I think it's nice. She's a bit scary and her inventions are sometimes death traps but... well, she needs someone who will let her be who she is," he admitted, knowing personally and far better than by reputation alone how fiercely independent the scientist was. "And Gwendal... well, it would take someone as forceful as Anissina to get him away from his job now and then."
"Maybe," Wolfram agreed, though his pout betrayed other thoughts. "She's not exactly cute, though. Big brother prefers cute things."
"Well, if they have kids, I bet they'll be really cute."
Wolfram sat up on his elbows. "Big brother a father?" he repeated, then after a few seconds of thought smiled gently before pushing himself to sit with his back to the headboard. "Mm. I think that suits him."
Yuuri nodded, enjoying a small mental picture all his own. He knew Conrad was good with little kids but it seemed likely Gwendal too was fond of them given his feelings for the youngest brother. And Wolfram was very fond of him as well. Despite the age gap and almost polar differences in personality, they were picture perfect siblings. Gwendal had to have had a lot of patience with Wolfram and endured a lot of bratty attitude with flying colors. Perfect father material, really. Plenty of stuffed creatures to go in a crib. Even if a mother like Anissina made Yuuri worry about the relation of her future test subjects, Gwendal was sure to be the kind of stern but loving father figure that a child of any temperament would feel loved by and enjoy.
It was weird in a way to think of the people he knew as people. Gwendal was almost always paperwork and sturdy desks the same way Conrad was a sword. It was weird to think about desks and swords falling in love or getting married. They were normal things but even Murata who was a very person-like person to him was never really thought of as someone who would actually pair off and have a life separate all his own. It was weird to think of what they did when Yuuri wasn't around outside Gwendal being at a desk with paperwork and Conrad waiting for the use of his sword. Now he could almost see Gwendal making time in the evenings to read bedtime stories or Conrad and Yozak enjoying a night out off of duty for the first time in a while. It was better, he realized, not to think of people in the context of his own life. Doing so only reduced people like Wolfram into annoying, arrogant stalkers with selective hearing and a violent temper.
"Wolf?" he asked to get his fiancé's attention. "If I never came to Shin Makoku, what do you think you'd be doing right now?"
"I'd have died in war trying to prove myself as my brothers had done."
Yuuri scowled. "That's morbid," he muttered, lips pinching in displeasure, though it did sort of seem a certainty even to him when he thought about it. "I mean, what did you want to have happen? What were your dreams growing up?"
Wolfram looked at him as though he'd inquired as to his preference in fart noises. His nostrils were slightly flared and his eyes intense in their scrutiny. "That's a weird question. Answer it yourself if it matters," he challenged, slouching slightly down the hard wood at his back.
"Me? I don't know," he admitted ruefully, then paused and gave it another shot. "I guess... well, I wanted to be a professional baseball player at one point but I think I kind of fell back on thinking I'd end up a banker like my dad. I wasn't the kind of person who had things like that all planned out."
Wolfram nodded, punching the pillow at the small of his back as he slouched down even further. "I'd planned to rise to glory and honor in war, come home victorious and probably start a family, hoping one day to become the Bielefeld representative with Gwnedal as the Maou."
Yuuri raised one brow in mild surprise. "Yeah? Who'd you think you'd marry?"
"Wasn't important. Someone from a noble house. Just a matter of station."
"And now?" Yuuri asked, somehow forgetting how obvious the answer should be.
Wolfram's look said as much, and his arms crossed over his chest indignantly. "Now I'm going to marry you. We'll have at least two kids--one for Bielefeld and one for Shibuya which will be new lands designated for an eleventh noble house comprising of the southern half of Maou territory which I will have my brother or Uncle nominate to the ruling council towards the middle of your reign. And if you die before me, I will retire there."
"You've planned that far, huh?" Yuuri asked, feeling somewhat overwhelmed by how quickly Wolfram could summarize several hundred years of a life he'd apparently already decided for him.
"Of course. You don't plan anything. So someone has to."
That was, in its own way, quite true. "And if we don't get married?"
"Then Conrad will cry when he finds your corpse at my feet."
"Wolfram," Yuuri grumbled. "I'm serious."
Wolfram looked to be far less interested in the trend of their conversation than he had even at its start. "That's a useless question. Answer it yourself if it matters."
And again, Yuuri did so at his best. "If I didn't marry you... I'd marry a nice girl. Wouldn't matter about her station or her race. Or even what world she lived in. I never really thought about the fact that I don't have a home here other than this castle. So I guess... I guess it would depend on the woman I married which world we raised our kids in. And if she were from Earth then I'd really need to make sure I got an Earth job or... talk to Bob about some kind of arrangement so I could provide for them." Yuuri rubbed at the back of his neck, slightly embarrassed by how little thought he'd given to what his future plans entailed. "It's a good thing I didn't abandon my Earth studies. I might actually need that someday," he joked, though Wolfram didn't offer a smile. Instead the mazoku looked off towards the far end of the room, his arms crossed against his lap as he frowned.
Unlike before, Wolfram didn't respond with his own answer once Yuuri had finished. He seemed frozen if anything; perhaps asleep with his eyes open though he did blink now and again. "Wolfram. I answered," Yuuri reminded him, but waited longer still as his fiancé's face took to an expression of deep contemplation, his eyes lowered as thoughts trickled by.
"If I didn't marry you... I suppose I'd go live with my uncle. Move to Zorashia once Greta took the thrown. Make sure her kingdom was peaceful and she was happy. Then... travel, I guess. Until adventure saw me to my grave."
Yuuri frowned, somewhat surprised to note there were few similarities between Wolfram's future hopes without Yuuri, with Yuuri, or with Yuuri but only as a friend. There was almost nothing desired for himself in the latter. It was rather far from the kind of future Yuuri wanted to see him live. "Sounds lonely," he said when the silence grew too long.
"It would be a life of greater purpose than staying here with a king who doesn't need me."
"Not marrying you isn't the same as not needing you."
"I'm too proud to be nothing more than your companion, Yuuri. I'm powerful and well trained."
"I know you are," Yuuri admitted, and was once again well acquainted with all the reasons he feared making changes to the way things already were. He'd lose Wolfram entirely if he didn't at least go along with the public pretense that he'd someday marry him. "I don't want you to go anywhere," he assured. "I mean, no one makes tailors cry over buttons like you do."
Wolfram smirked at that, the seriousness slipping gently though his face was still taut the weight of worries. "Would this imaginary woman who has no distinguishing features or accomplishments but is already more worthy of being your fiancé than I am make tailors cry?" he asked.
Yuuri shrugged. "I don't know. I've never met anyone I thought I might marry. But... I think maybe she would. Because she'd want me to look my best beside her."
"Then she'd better look good in gold, Yuuri, or your tailor will cry again."
Yuuri chuckled once more, knowing it wasn't really at all that funny and that the topic was, in many ways, a very painful and real one for them both. But on the surface, it was still all about those infamous buttons, and for their mutual attempts at making this easier, he was more than willing to crack a smile.
Wolfram seemed to welcome his smile but still remained serious to a fault. "You're not calling our engagement off," he ordered, his face finally turning towards his king with green eyes sharp and bright.
It would be the right thing to do, though. Just because it would be hard and hurt them both didn't mean it wasn't the best thing to do nonetheless. "I just want to be fair to you," Yuuri said, and knew immediately that the fog was indeed gone.
"Then get up and get changed so you can go on your morning run with Conrad," Wolfram ordered again, raising a foot to push Yuuri from their bed, his heel pressing firm into his side. "I'll see you at breakfast."
It probably was time. Yuuri slid away, blankets thrown aside with no further incentive needed from the prodding foot that followed. "Okay," he said, scratching at the short hairs at the nape of his neck. "You understand that us being engaged doesn't actually mean I am going to marry you though, right?"
"No, I don't understand that," his fiancé replied. "But I know that's how you see it. And... if someday I have to admit defeat, it won't be a surprise. Just don't cheat on me. Give me the benefit of a warning so I can make a graceful exit with my pride intact."
It was worth one last, small smile to at least both know how current objectives ran. "I can do that. I can definitely do that," he promised as he hurried to grab his sweats from the wardrobe.
The run with Conrad had been a quiet one and breakfast had been lacking in all but three attendees--Celi, Wolfram and Yuuri himself. Everyone still seemed much more content with keeping to themselves in the aftermath with all but the ex-Maou expressing some manner of shame or regret. It made Yuuri rather happy to know that, as far as avoiding people, he was the all-star. He had an entirely different world he could escape to if he wanted. Which was why he asked Murata to visit, his own domain not exactly welcoming of men, and met in secluded confidence in one of the castle's sitting rooms.
Effe's treats were set out on the table with some tea as well to drink. Murata looked tired but quite pleased to see snacks provided. His overall demeanor was annoyed just the same.
"This looks like a bribe," Murata lamented, picking up one of his favorite treats. "Do I even need to ask how yesterday went at the castle?"
"It's not a bribe. It's... compensation for coming all the way over here." It was a bribe. Yuuri sat guiltily in his chair, trying to pretend things were as okay as Wolfram made him feel they were regardless of how disastrous everyone else's avoidance made him worry things had become.
Murata sighed and nibbled at the cookie. "You do realize going back to Earth just because something made you uncomfortable is childish, right?"
"Murata," Yuuri whined. He hadn't even explained to him what had happened and already he was jumping to conclusions. Correct ones. He was as bad as Wolfram was when it came to telling him things straight. Except for the rather blatant difference in that the Great Sage always remained a mystery himself despite how well he seemed to be able to read a situation or the people in it. He didn't make a habit of lying so much as he tended to omit things--important things--unless events forced him to better explain. Now that may have been something interesting to have seen the day before: the Great Sage compelled to complete and uncomplicated truth. It seemed a waste Yuuri hadn't stumbled upon him the day before. He wasn't exactly sure what he'd have wanted him to have confessed but the sheer volume of potential made it an opportunity sadly missed.
"You're not really that worried about what happened yesterday, are you?" Murata asked, dunking his cookie in tea as he reclined in his chair. "It can't have been that bad."
"I told Wolfram and Conrad I think gay people are disgusting, that I want to be as far away from them as possible, and I don't care if that hurts their feelings because homosexuals are dirt."
"Ah," Murata said, with neither pity nor surprise. "Well, that was bound to happen, I suppose. All things considered, it's not really that big of a deal."
"Not that big a deal?!" Yuuri repeated, wondering if perhaps Murata had gone partially deaf and missed the part where he was insulting--or, worse still, that he was abhorrently prejudiced against people he he otherwise dearly loved.
The Great Sage nodded. "If it makes you feel better, Shibuya, there is no such thing as truth; there is only perspective, and that's quite easily changed if you allow yourself to look at things another way. The things you said yesterday only reflected your perspective at the time. Today is a new day," he said simply, as though it somehow made everything alright. "I'd really rather hoped you'd left Earth prejudice behind but I suppose fifteen years is more than enough to internalize self-hate into a projected fear."
Yuuri's nose wrinkled at that. "Self-hate? Murata, are you calling me gay?" he asked, trying not to be offended.
Murata nodded, looking oh-so smug, as he refreshed his cup of tea. "It's sometimes amazing to me that you don't understand just how powerful Shinou was. Do you have any idea how easy it would have been for him to have created the tradition of the slap proposal all so that, thousands of years down the line, when you lost your temper and struck Von Bielefeld, instead of making a mess of internal affairs, you'd bind yourself to your greatest ally? Considering the fact that he managed to set it up so that all three of Celi's children by different men carried the souls of the ancestors that held within them the three other box keys, it would be the easiest thing he'd ever orchestrated as part of his overall plan."
Yuuri balked at that, somehow overloaded though nothing he said was exactly new, just perhaps phrased differently enough that it seemed to him to be grander in reveal than it was. Sadly, it actually made about as much sense to think Shinou somehow instigated the invention of the archaic noble proposal as it was to believe at some point it randomly happened that physical abuse necessarily equated romantic, monogamous love. "So.. Shinou wants me to marry Wolfram?" he asked, not sure if the feeling in his gut was fear of the god-like man or displeasure.
"Who knows," Murata said with a shrug.
Yuuri shook his head in defiance. "If Shinou wanted me to fall in love with Wolfram, wouldn't it have made more sense for him to be born a girl?"
"So you could leave him behind out of misguided chivalry instead of keeping him close as you do?" the Great Sage asked without pause given for reply. "Even here, we have antiquated ideas about the roles of men and women. There would have been no one there to save you all the times Von Bielefeld pulled through for you had he been born female. And you yourself enjoy the power, influence and freedom you have due in part to your gender as well."
"So, what, you're saying Shinou made me gay?"
"Shinou made you Shibuya Yuuri. He put you in a loving home and gave you your own special perspective on humans you'd need to save this world. But he could not influence the hate our world would otherwise teach you as well." Sitting back, Murata crossed his hands over his stomach, frowning thoughtfully at his troubled friend. "You're not a bad person, Yuuri. You're young. Earth taught you to be scared to find other boys attractive and to react the way other people acted so you'd fit in and be accepted. Earth made you believe you weren't a man if you liked other men. I mean, you're a passionate person, Shibuya, but you're kind of insecure. Aren't you the one who said the reason you slapped Von Bielefeld instead of punching him was because you thought he was so pretty?"
Yuuri's hands fell hard against the table. "It doesn't make me gay just because I notice that everyone in Shin Makoku is ridiculously beautiful!"
Murata smiled slightly, his eyes untouched by the expression. "No, it doesn't. I agree. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I've known you a long time and I wouldn't be surprised if you told me you were gay. Only you know for sure, but it wouldn't be a big deal to me regardless. As long as you were honest with yourself. Just let me know if you're going to call things off with Von Bielefeld. Advanced notice preferably so I can be first in line. I've got a thing for tsundere blondes," he added with a wink.
That was perhaps an even more terrifying thought than of marrying Wolfram himself. Murata and Wolfram? Despite the fact that in a few decades they'd probably look quite a bit like the portraits in the castle halls, it seemed very wrong that they should be an item. "You like Wolfram?" Yuuri asked, the words making him feel guarded and unwell.
Murata shrugged again. "What's not to like?" he asked, and smiled just a little bit more. "Besides, he reminds me of someone I used to know. And going from consort to the Maou to consort to the Great Sage wouldn't hurt his ego too much either."
Yuuri's frown deepened, feeling teased and slightly belittled by his friend. "You're doing this on purpose aren't you?"
"Maybe a little" Murata confessed, scoffing down another cookie. "But I'm not joking."
Of course he wasn't. Or, at least, of course he'd pretend he wasn't. Yuuri wasn't stupid; he knew what Murata was doing. But knowing didn't keep him from feeling jealous in some way. He didn't like feeling as though Murata was a threat any more than he liked the conflicted unease in his belly when confronted with the possibilities as to why jealousy in their affairs might even exist. A self-loathing homosexual? Yeah, he'd heard of it before. But he was even less sure he liked the way if felt to reflect on the possibilities of its truth. "I'm never sure if you're playing some kind of game with me or being sincere. I definitely should have looked for you yesterday instead," he moaned, not touching either his drink or snack as a sour feeling sat heavy in his gut.
Of all the things he'd said, that seemed to be the only one to garner surprise in the other young man. "You don't think you can trust me?" Murata asked, the sunlight casting an opaque sheen on his glasses.
Yuuri shook his head. "I didn't say that. Just... I trust you, overall, but I know you're the Great Sage first and my friend second. You serve Shin Makoku, not me. And usually that's the same thing. But sometimes it isn't."
"I see," Murata said, his face even more closed off as his eyes remained hidden. "And what would you have asked, then? Had we seen each other, what would you have wanted to know?"
"I don't know. What one thing would you have told me that you otherwise would never say?"
Murata took a long pause, his fingers tracing the curl of his cup's handle as he seemed to contemplate one choice out of many possibilities. Yuuri expected him to smile and tell him that it was too bad he missed his chance, or at the very least break the sudden tension in the air with some offhanded comment on fate or his king's gullibility. Instead Murata seemed locked in thought, miles away, until his lips thinned out with his reply. "If it were one thing, and if it were related to the mess you're in right now, I suppose it would be that four thousand years go, before Shinou had even considered what he needed to accomplish for you to exist, he knew everything about Wolfram's life. Wolfram was the cornerstone to all his plans--not you. And of all lives in this world, his is perhaps the most precious to him, even if it is also the one he would sacrifice first. Which makes you far luckier than you could possibly imagine."
The words put a shiver down Yuuri's back, spoken as they were like an ill omen. "What does that mean?" he asked, finding more questions than answers in Murata's gifted truth.
Murata shrugged, the black of his eyes showing once more as the sunlight fell behind a cloud instead. "It means whatever you think it mean," he replied, the corner of his mouth lifting gently in the mockery of a smile. "It's all a matter of perspective, after all."
Murata had better, more proactive means of giving everyone a break from uncomfortable truth-telling than simply avoiding life and the people in it: a quest. Everyone knew the fog came down from the mountains but no one knew what it was or why it existed--not even the great sage himself. Rather than act as victims of a force they could not fight, they could rally together as they would any adversary and take the fight to the mountains instead. Gwendal certainly liked the idea, though he seemed eager for any excuse to create distance between himself and his fiancée. Conrad was always agreeable when it came to interesting excursions an Gunter had lauded the whole idea as a marvel of Murata's infinite wisdom in his usual tone of adoration.
There was no telling what would be waiting for them but there was a high possibility that the fog's effects would still be an issue much closer to its source. So the chosen party was kept small--just four people. Yuuri was going, of course, which made Wolfram and Conrad's presence only mentioned as a formality. The fourth member would be Yozak. Even though Yuuri had easily observed the tension in Conrad's jaw as his retainer quietly clenched his teeth, Murata was insistent that their friend travel with them--after all, Yozak already made a habit of saying exactly what he was thinking and would therefor be perfectly adept in any situation they found themselves in. They were the same four that had braved the miasma and proven their bonds much stronger than their fears. So they would be the four to go, and Gunter praised the selection while Gwendal scowled but gave consent.
Conrad had left the room without saying much at all. He would be compliant but he did not seem happy. Yuuri wondered if somehow that wasn't part of Murata's plan as well. Despite the wealth of his reasoning, the addition of Yozak did seem suspect when Gwendal was quite willing to go. But this was, in some way, intended to help repair things damaged by the truth-telling fog. So perhaps, in some suspicious way that generally made Yuuri uneasy, Murata knew exactly why the tendon's in Conrad's neck had grown taut with restrained tension and had chosen the half-mazoku specifically because the reaction was no longer good.
Wolfram had certainly noticed. A hand to his wrist had been enough to keep his fiancé from following the swordsman upon their dismissal, but Yuuri still hesitated to explain why he felt it best to leave him alone when it was Conrad's business and not his.
"You can't tell me not to ask him about it and then not tell me why!" Wolfram complained, loudly, as they walked the halls to their room to pack. "If it's bad enough that he can't fully hide it, then it could very well affect our mission!"
"It's not a big deal," Yuuri tried to persuade him, though such wimpy answers did not feel up to the task.
Wolfram scowled, his green eyes sharp and discriminating. "If it's not a big deal, then I should be able to ask him."
"It's really nothing, Wolfram."
"You think I don't know my own brother?"
Yuuri started to speak then stumbled over his word's meaning. Perhaps he was being a little more obtuse than necessary. "I'm not--okay, so... knowing your brother, you know about certain things and people?" he asked, doing his best not to gossip above what might be common knowledge.
"I know about him and Gurrier," Wolfram quickly put to rest. He shook his head, seemingly at Yuuri's own ignorance. "Once mother finds out about something, everyone knows. They were stupid kids who grew up to be stupid adults, though it was Yozak that my big brother blamed most."
Yuuri frowned. "Blamed for what?"
"Well, if Conrad had been the instigator, he at least would have had the sense to carry out an affair where they wouldn't be caught by the maid," Wolfram explained, his chin held high but not high enough to mask the slight rolling of his eyes.
It was hard not to laugh. Yuuri had never given much thought to what Conrad had been like as a teenager, considering him more or less just a smaller version of the man he already was now. But thinking of him and Yozak as two experimental teenagers eagerly looking for any ol' place that was quiet and out of sight to meet in privacy was almost more than his brain could handle. Most of the guys he knew in school were that way--even Murata to some extent, back on Earth. No matter how mature and cool they were now, Conrad and Yozak had been young and hormonal once; awkward and discovering interest in others. Acting on it and, apparently, getting caught by maids. It was so normal as to feel hilariously unlikely. "Anything bad happen?" Yuuri asked, still not entirely sure how courtly manners played in to teenage indiscretions.
"No. Neither of them are nobles so acting like commoners wasn't exactly beneath their station. No one cared. Had they been nobles, some sort of proposal would have been expected but they weren't so there was nothing." Wolfram held back and let Yuuri enter the bedroom first as the guards held open the door, their conversation taking a short pause as they took to their private quarters. Bags could have easily been packed by the maids or other staff but Wolfram insisted he at least lay out the outfits he chose to wear while someone else in the finishing touches could ensure he had enough socks.
Yuuri stretched his arms over his head as he walked to sit down on the bed, not interested in crowding around the wardrobe while Wolfram picked things out for them both. "Did you ever think they'd marry?" he asked, trying to hold back a yawn as well.
Wolfram shrugged, his hands pushing uniforms aside with the shhlk of hangers. "I didn't think about him back then," He said, and Yuuri winced and wished he hadn't asked. It was so easy to forget, with how close the brothers were, that there was a time when filial love was scarce if not simply hidden. Wolfram spoke of it as simple fact, though, and didn't seem bothered at all by things that were now in the past. "I did like knowing Yozak was with him in the war, though. I always believed he'd take care of him, if only because they were the same race. As two half-mazoku, they deserved each other."
Yuuri nodded, ignoring allusions to prejudices that no longer existed. "Was it ever serious? Or... just... you know?"
"I don't know, Yuuri. I was either too young to notice or too proud to care." Wolfram turned with arms crossed and an irritated frown, judging Yuuri for being so slow to grasp either the difference in ages or in the times. "They were and then they weren't. When Julia died, Conrad just left us all and when he came back, he was different. I couldn't even begin to tell you where Yozak was. Off on assignment I'd image. It was years."
Yuuri sighed, kicking his feet gently over the side of the bed while Wolfram turned back to the wardrobe. He pulled out their simplest cold-weather traveling clothes--the ones that came as a matching set in beige, olive and gold. Yuuri didn't care so long as he didn't have to wear the bear-ear hats. He'd save any comments for then.
"So what has Yozak done to make my brother annoyed at him now?"
"It wasn't him, it was the fog," Yuuri tried to explain. He supposed he'd come this far, he might as well tell. "When the fog was here, Conrad mentioned how he and Yozak had been together in the past. When I asked him if he still loved him, he tried to say no but he ended up saying yes instead. I don't think he realized he still did until that moment. I think he's still kind of dealing with that."
Wolfram nodded his head, pulling out the staple blue and black uniforms Yuuri knew by heart and laying them off to the side. "I guess that's not very surprising. Conrad only thinks about you and his duty. No one else is even remotely as important to him as you are. He probably thinks he got rid of all his selfish thoughts."
Yuuri supposed that might be true but preferred to think of his retainer and friend as a little more three-dimensional than that. "It doesn't matter. If it happened that long ago, I don't think we're really going to have any problems on this trip. Conrad just knows something about himself he didn't before. So he might not be looking forward to spending time with Yozak right now, but I'm sure once we set out, it'll be like it always has been."
"Mm," Wolfram hummed in noncommittal dissent, fingers trailing over cloaks.
"You don't think so?"
"I don't think Gurrier is going to ignore Conrad acting weird," Wolfram predicted, turning away from the wardrobe once again as he eyed Yuuri instead.
Yuuri shrugged. "Maybe he shouldn't. I mean, it won't exactly help us on the mountain, but maybe they should talk about it. If they used to be in love--especially if they still are in love--then they should... I don't know. But it's not fair if they both still love each other for them to not be together," he said.
Wolfram stared at him for a second then slowly smiled, his eyes no longer discriminating but instead warm and inviting instead. Yuuri knew he must have said something that made the mazoku happy but he couldn't even guess as to what it must have been since they'd been talking about Conrad the entire time.
"... What?" he asked, as his fiancé's gentle smile began to make him nervous.
Wolfram shrugged his shoulders, his face still set in pleasant humor. "Nothing," he said, lying without any remorse. "I'm just remembering how cute you look in the bear hat we need to remember to pack."
"No!" Yuuri shouted, already prepared for this argument and ready to go toe to toe. "No ear hats! We are both too old to be wearing hats with animal ears on them!"
If Wolfram heard him, he certainly pretended not to. Smiling still, he rummaged for their accessories while Yuuri stubbornly took up arms in the only battle he'd been ready to fight in another war of fashion.
The ride was hell. Conrad was the worst actor Yuuri had ever seen, failing to do much more than acknowledge Yozak's presence before closing off and sliding into duty mode. No one failed to notice. Even Yozak's good spirits didn't last long as they road off with little banter. Wolfram would reply if Yuuri attempted conversation but he seemed much more interested in the tension slowly brewing between the two men riding in front. Like a train wreck, it was hard not to pay attention to. Murata was absolutely the worst for having a hand in this mess.
They slept in an inn in Wincott territory, all four of them uncomfortably settled in close quarters without the horses or scenery to excuse the quiet. They were tired enough, at least, that talking beyond agreeing upon watch shifts wasn't necessarily expected anyway. Not wishing to be overheard in a room all four of them shared, Yuuri settled on making faces at Wolfram whom slept in the bed beside his own. Wolfram, possessing a rather expressive face, made quite a good conversationalist as they both expressed their annoyance and dread without a word spoken between them. Even their 'goodnight' came across loud and clear with little smiles and heavy sighs.
The morning was more of the same: quiet meals with conversation mostly centered around travel plans, uncomfortable stares and scenic miles on horseback. Yuuri absolutely could not stand this going on much longer but it wasn't any of his business and, more so than in any time before, this was something he needed to leave up to his retainer and trust him to handle on his own. With talking having almost universally been vetoed, Yuuri had no choice but to go back to making faces at Wolfram as they had the night before, simple expressions quickly being replaced by stupid faces just to try and get the young prince to laugh. Or get annoyed with him and lecture him on proper conduct. Anything, honestly, would be fine. Wolfram must have been feeling the conduct of the adults in their party was childish enough all its own, though, as scowls gave way to crossed eyes and extended tongue in response to Yuuri's pig nose and slatted eyes. They both laughed at how stupid they looked, getting some attention from up front.
"And what are the young masters finding so amusing?" Yozak asked, looking over his shoulder at the pair.
"Nothing," they chimed in unison, smirking but admitting to naught.
Yozak gave them a wink and turned his back to them again with the rest of the trip proceeding in much the same way.
There was no inn the following night, with two tents set up instead--one for Yuuri and Wolfram and the other for Conrad and Yozak. Optimal, really, and not at all surprising or unsuitable. But instead of dividing the night into three watches as they had at the inn, Conrad insisted on only two. Wolfram would not be sharing in the duty. If tent flaps could slam, theirs would have.
They were small tents only really suitable for sleeping but Yuuri still got the impression of Wolfram heatedly pacing even with him sitting perfectly still, arms crossed and eyes boring holes in the canvas walls.
"Are you going to stay mad all night?" he whispered, not wanting their voices to carry out to Conrad who had been the first to stay stationed near the firelight.
Wolfram didn't bat so much as an eyelash. "Yes."
Yuuri sighed, rolling over on his side facing Wolfram as he looked up at him with a frown. "You know if has nothing to do with you. If Conrad let you take a watch shift, it would mean he'd have to spend time alone with Yozak in their tent."
"This is childish."
"I didn't say it wasn't," Yuuri defended.
"The Great Sage is an idiot."
"I'm not exactly disagreeing with you there either."
That, at least, cracked a small smile on the prince's otherwise stony face. He laid back in his sleeping pack, head against his pillow as he continued to stare upwards at the peak of their tent. It was a pity he looked so beautiful when he was angry. It would have been nice not to appreciate anything about his fiancé's displeasure.
"Conrad's just being stubborn," Yuuri assured him, keeping his voice low and calm. "Tomorrow will be better."
"Liar," Wolfram accused, though the corners of his lips still pinched in with a small grin. He closed his eyes and grew quiet in the darkness, inviting sleep for the both of them in the shadow of Conrad's back.
The shadows made it hard for Yuuri to sleep, though. He could see Conrad as a silhouette against their tent like a Chinese shadow play and couldn't help but think he should be out there with him. Yozak might overhear but someone needed to say something. Two days was far too long for things to have gone on this way. It was bad enough in the way it was affecting overall morale but now his actions were making Wolfram feel undervalued and that was kind of going too far. As much as Yuuri was certain no one wanted to be told how to manage their personal life, this was becoming a bigger problem than just who had feelings for whom. Was he even really able to say anything as a friend and not as a king, though? Titles complicated everything, almost especially between him and the man who named him.
A second shadow appeared, though, even without Yuuri moving from his tent. His heart beat a little faster for a second, expecting to see a sword drawn against a potential bandit, but heard instead the voice of their spy who hadn't taken to sleep yet either.
"Well?" he asked.
There was quiet accompanied by the crackle of fire, then a soft reply of "You should get some sleep," which addressed nothing said nor unsaid at all.
"Sure thing, Captain. Right after you explain to me why you've suddenly got a problem with me."
"I don't," Conrad said.
"You really want to play this game?"
"No. So go to sleep."
Yozak's shadow crossed its arms behind its head like a diamond. "I haven't seen you this hung up in a long time. What happened? You confess your undying love for the kid while the fog was in town?"
"The fog is no laughing matter," Conrad warned, his voice raising slightly above the hushed tones they'd spoken in before.
Yozak chuckled, the sound making shivers spike down Yuuri's spine. "Right. Fine. I'll relieve you in a few hours. Try not to melt sitting that close to an open flame," he warned caustically as his shadow ducked down and disappeared into the block of black that was the other tent.
Yuuri watched quietly as the shoulders of the Conrad silhouette dropped, the head falling forward until only a gentle hill remained of the stoic black outline of a man.
The third night was already looking to be as bad as the ones before it. They'd hit the foothills late in the day and already the temperatures were getting colder. Yuuri couldn't yet see his breath but he definitely felt the chill in the air. The cold disposition shared by Conrad and now Yozak didn't help matters much either. Yuuri had never been more appreciative of the fact that Wolfram was with him than he was in the company of two grown men who seemed to enjoy playing a game in the daylight hours that's only rule was to pretend nothing was wrong. Yuuri had his own games to play to pass the time, most of which involved trying to get a rise out of Wolfram which led to a few impromptu chases to break up the monotony. By nightfall all their cheeks were red but only half of them from smiles or laughter, faces chapped by cold winds flowing down the mountain instead.
The night watch was broken into two shifts again but this time, at least, Wolfram was prepared to be left out. He still wasn't pleased but he wasn't as insulted as he had been before. Alone in their tent, the two of them huddled closer for shared warmth and whispers in the dark, both turned towards the middle of the tent so they faced one another.
"What do you think is waiting at the top of the mountain?" Yuuri asked, beginning to become excited again as the focus of their quest came closer to the foreground. That, at least, would be something he could actually target. He didn't feel nearly as out of his league as he did when thinking about the conflict between his friends.
Wolfram shrugged, buried up to his chin in blankets but still mostly visible over their lip. "I don't know. Maybe a sorcerer?" he guessed.
That would certainly earn them a bit of excitement if not outright danger. "They said it's been happening for thousands of years. So maybe a really powerful spell?"
"We'll see," Wolfram said, his long lashes fluttering across the tops of his cheeks. It was amazing, really, how tired one could get after doing nothing but riding a horse all day.
Yuuri sighed. He wanted to stay up and visit, really, but it was rather counter intuitive to the task at hand. They needed sleep for the day ahead, even if the day ahead promised to be just as boring as the ones before. Wolfram certainly didn't have any trouble shutting down. "Wolfram?" he whispered, watching the mazoku's green eyes peek out from his lashes again. "Do you think there'll be fog up there?"
"Mm," he hummed affirmatively. "Probably. But we're not the ones who need to worry."
That was certainly true. Whatever wasn't being said now was almost guaranteed to come out in a day or more. Yuuri was almost looking forward to it, though. Someone needed to say something by now.
As with the night before, shadows spread across the canvas of their tent from the campfire outside. Conrad was first again, his thick form blanketing them in darkness. And like the night before, he did not stay as a lone shadow as another form darkened their tent as well as it joined the steady silhouette.
Yuuri bit his lip. He didn't want to eavesdrop on them but it was almost impossible not to so long as he was awake. Closing his eyes, he willed himself to hurry up and lose consciousness. This wasn't any of his business. He didn't need to hear whatever was said. But even with the best of intentions, he still found himself trying to breath even quieter so as to not miss the whispering sounds of conversation carrying over on the wind.
"You're either going to explain what's going on, or I'm going to punch you in the face. Your call, Captain."
Conrad's voice was nearly inflectionless. "There's no need for that."
"Do you want me to give you to the count of three or just start swinging?"
Yozak's snarky tone carried over into his exhalations. "Even the kiddo is tired of your bullshit," he warned, the spy continuing to be as observant and tactless as ever.
"I can take care of this on my own. If you've got a problem, you can leave."
"What, and be like you?"
There was a sever drop in temperature that seemed to freeze even the air. Everything seemed to quiet--even the fire. Yuuri swallowed, wondering how long the silence was going to last, afraid he'd missed some whispered words and yet also afraid he hadn't. This wasn't any of his business, he kept reminding himself. This had nothing to do with him. He focused harder on trying to nod off while even the insects forgot to chirp in the night.
"Tch. It's not even worth it," Yozak said at last, accompanied by the sound of a boot toe striking softly at the embers outside. "You know, I thought you'd stopped being this guy."
"You used to like me just fine this way," was Conrad's dull reply.
"Yeah. Back when I understood why. Right now? I don't get it."
"I'm not asking you to."
The next sound, the sound of a fist striking hard against flesh, was impossible not to hear and even harder to ignore. Yuuri's eyes flew open, his body ready to rise into action. Wolfram's green eyes were staring back into his though, and his hand caught Yuuri's in the dark to keep him still. The shadows over them showed nothing more past the single blow and despite the heavy beating of his heart, Yuuri stayed as still and as quiet as the dead. He kept his eyes focused on Wolfram's which were as demanding as they were full of sympathy, his fingers gently holding Yuuri's hand with his palm across his knuckles.
"You never learn!" Yozak was saying harshly, his tone no longer favoring a whisper. "I'm trying to help you, but you never let me! You always act like you have to do things yourself and then what happens? I mean, don't get me wrong, I sometimes can't stand the man you became on the best of days, but at least the man you were confided in me."
Conrad's shadow seemed to spit, a hand rubbing roughly as his jaw. "I grew up. You should try it."
"Grew up? You ran away! No one saw you for years! All the half-mazoku soldiers except you and I were dead, Julia was dead, everything was a mess, and you left us. And if you ask me, you never came back! Shinou knows it was good to see you smile again but it's been everything for the kid and nothing for anyone else ever since. Your arm, your life, hell if either the kid or Shinou had told you they wanted the key to Hellfire, you'd have cut the still beating heart from your brother's chest without hesitation. Because no one else matters. You've got your fealty and nothing else because the only thing that came back from that other world was a servant to the crown. And you're just so damn proud of it too."
Yuuri's hand turned under Wolfram's grasp, fingers curing around in a returned embrace.
"Would you have had me turn my back like Adelbert instead?"
"I'd have more respect for you if you had. The day you learned why Julia died, you gave up your free will. At least the rest of us still remember what it's like to do more than follow orders blindly."
"Go to bed, Yozak," Conrad ordered, sounding tired in more ways than one.
Yozak shook his head, his shadow retreating slowly with arms raised in surrender. "Right. Why should you talk to me? I'm just your friend. Thought I was, anyway. Then again, I thought I was a lot more than that at one time too. Shows what I know."
Yuuri hated this. Yuuri absolutely hated this. He'd thought... well, he didn't know what he'd thought. That there had just been some kind of misunderstanding? That they just hadn't been honest with each other? He never expected there to be so much pain involved in something so simple as being in love. It was like it was real. It was real. It just hadn't seemed that way before.
Yuuri's heart skipped a beat as Conrad's shadow grew over them, the sound of footsteps nearing their tent making his destination obvious. Wolfram quickly closed his eyes, and Yuuri immediately followed suit. He heard the flap to their tent open, then, after a pause, fall back shut. The footsteps left and in the dark he could feel Wolfram give his hand a squeeze.
Yuuri didn't bother opening his eyes anyone for the night. He'd already been up later than he ever wished he had.
Yuuri had seen it in the demon mirror and heard of it in passing, but the events of over twenty years ago were still fragments in his mind. He was resolved to never fully understanding what had happened in that time. He knew a lot of people died, that Stoffel was to blame for much of the people's unhappiness, and that the death of Suzanna Julia von Wincott was perhaps the most pivotal event to take place. Her death made Adelbert abandon his people and ensured Yuuri's own existence. It took Conrad to Earth. In reverse, however, it took Conrad away from Shin Makoku. Yuuri had never considered it like that, always remembering the parts where he was named by the man and that the half-mazoku had learned of baseball from his world. He'd been missing from the lives of everyone else here, though. During such dark times, Conrad was so far away that no carrier pigeon would ever find him. It must have hurt. They must all have been so worried. Yozak, most definitely, fell into both of those camps.
Wolfram wouldn't let Yuuri sit in their tent and brood over such things in the morning, though. He tugged Yuuri out of his bedroll and shoved clothes in his arms, a towel yoked over his shoulders as he ushered him out of the tent with little spoken above 'come on'.
"We're going to bathe in the stream," he told Yozak as they walked past, a sword in his hand to let the spy know there was no need for further protection. The air was chilly but Yuuri supposed that just meant this was their last opportunity to be properly clean before they started up the mountain.
Yozak eyed them but remained sat on a log, the fire before him brightly lapping at the bottom of a cast iron pan that sizzled with animal fats. "Not too long and don't dunk your heads," he warned.
"I'm not an idiot," Wolfram said with a scowl. He pushed Yuuri to move and, stumbling, Yuuri did as prompted. It was hard not to want to remain behind and ask questions but Wolfram's insistence demanded such things should wait. They instead took a short path to where the mountain water rolled past smooth stones, the stream moving quite quickly out in its deeper territories while the shores lapped calmly as boulders diverted faster currents past. It was very clear and the gentler waters showed blue-scaled fish feeding along the rocky floor. Wolfram dipped his toes in before barking orders to undress. It was very, very cold but also very good for their health as well. Yuuri wasn't going to argue that he was sore from the rough riding and though he preferred the relaxation of a good, hot bath, he was no stranger to the colder verities as a sportsman back on Earth.
They sat on stones as they scrubbed their skin with soap, towels laying across their laps for modesty. They were to be quick about it but not so quick as to run right back into camp without some time taken for themselves. The night hadn't exactly been a calm one, and even if Wolfram had been less than interested in talking in their tent, perhaps out here Yuuri's attempts to talk through his thoughts would be better received. "About last night..." he began, not quite sure how to start but certain Wolfram understood anyway.
He did, though his reproachful scowl was less than the king had hoped for. "You should forget about it, Yuuri. It's not any of our concern."
"How can you say that?" Yuuri asked. "They're our friends. He's your brother."
"And I respect them both enough to know that they can handle their own, personal affairs."
Yuuri raised his hands in surrender, the soap only barely staying within his grasp. "You're right," he admitted. "I know. I just don't want to see them hurting like this."
Wolfram sighed gently, his own agitation remaining at a simmer. "It wouldn't fix things if they got together," he said, and with a short incantation threw his flames at the water and visible boulders at their sides. There was a huge plume of steam off the icy waters and the rocks glowed red in the fire's wake. With cautious steps, the mazoku entered the stream with soap leaving foam trails down his pale skin. By his shiver it was still quite cold, but not so much as that he avoided deeper waters that swallowed him up to his navel. The boulders gave off constant trails of steam as they continued to cool as well as cook within stream.
Yuuri finished scrubbing the smell of Ao from his skin then set his soap and cloth down near the shore before cautiously joining his friend. He splashed the chilly but not uncomfortably cool water over himself, dunking down to rinse but careful not to wet his hair. The wind was worse than the stream, really. He took comfort in the proximity of hot boulders to feel the radiating heat against his back. A fire user was definitely an excellent person to have on a mountain expedition, he thought.
Most of his thoughts, however, remained on the unhappiness of their troupe. "I guess I was pretty naive," he muttered, his defeat weighing heavy even against his bare shoulders. "Life's not like it is in fairy tales. It doesn't happen that the prince and the princess kiss and then everything just magically gets better after that."
Wolfram moved closer, his face still taut with scorn. "I don't think either of them want to be together, Yuuri."
That... that just didn't make any sense. "Conrad still loves him," he reminded him.
Wolfram remained completely unimpressed. "Even the people we grow to hate, we still love the part of them we remember."
Yuuri was rather tired of being surrounded by people who could pull off both looking cool and sounding cool as well. Had Wolfram looked or sounded more like Gwendal, it'd have been the perfect mentor moment from a dramatic movie. Instead, naked and surrounded in trails of steam with the wilderness all around them, he looked more like a magazine model that might appear beside a column with sage life advice. Even so, it only seemed to make it weirder still that somehow Yuuri himself was the one people in this world looked to for some form of guidance. At the very least, he had no small shortage of wizened help. "You sound like Murata," he complained anyway, preferring to keep things typecast in some small ways when organizing his life.
Wolfram's annoyed stoicism cracked at that, one brow quirking questioningly as his cheeks turned a dusty shade of red. "You think I sound like the Great Sage?" he asked.
It hadn't exactly been meant as a compliment. Yuuri put up his hands again, bowing out of that particular misunderstanding. "I mean specifically in this instance. He said truth was a matter of perspective. That's pretty much the same thing, right? The way we felt in the past isn't less real just because we don't feel the same anymore in the now. Sort of like nostalgia? Or something."
The look Wolfram gave him seemed unsure to say the least. "Maybe," he said, crossing his arms across his chest. "Either way, the men they were might have been in love, but the men they are now seem better off apart. So just stay out of it."
Yuuri nodded, agreeing absolutely, even if the thought of it did make him sad. He didn't like the idea of people growing apart. He knew enough people from divorced families to know it happened all the time but he supposed he believed in fairy tales in more than one way still. He absolutely believed that love conquered all. We was a pacifist; it was at the core of his intrinsic sense of justice. And he supposed, as an extension of that, he did in some way believe in true love. His mother had certainly championed such things. She was a romantic, though--Yuuri was not. Regardless, he felt in his heart that falling out of love was a tragedy in its own right. He didn't want to believe people could change so much as to no longer feel the same kind of love for each other. People were always changing, after all. No one ever stayed exactly the same.
Wolfram was an excellent example of that. Yuuri had no idea who Conrad had been before he'd met him, but he knew who Wolfram had been the day they met. And he knew who he was now. If Wolfram kept changing... it was a weird thought, really. Yuuri had no idea what to predict his friend might become as they grew older. He certainly wouldn't be like either of his brothers but the thought of him becoming more like his mother was an almost frightening thought: Wolfram off on free-love cruises, visiting his continental lovers with his newfound acceptance of humans and mazoku alike. A cold shiver ran down Yuuri's spine at the mental picture that produced--of the prince, wary from travel, falling into the arms of his current obsession and inviting them in for conquest. Nope. Nuh-uh. He was going to scrub that from his brain immediately. Some things were just too bizarre to consider.
"Why are you making that face?" Wolfram asked, leaning in closer while Yuuri's eyes refocused on the here and now.
"Ah, Nothing. Never mind," he stammered, looking aside for something to distract himself with. There was only the towels, wet cloth and soap at the side of the stream but it was enough to fuel a quick, topic-changing idea. "Turn around, let me wash your back," he instructed, then rushed out to grab the ivory bar before anything could be said to stop him.
Wolfram made a face but complied as instructed, his pale shoulders and back to Yuuri as the king prepared the soap and cloth. If he'd had hips, he definitely would have looked like a woman from behind, with the ends of his hair curling in damp tendrils along his spine. Yuuri almost felt nervous as he placed the suds to his skin, his other hand anchoring in a curl along the blonde's firm bicep. It was weird to think that, not so long ago, he would have done almost anything not to be here, doing this. Part of him said it was because Wolfram had changed. Part of him wondered, though, if he was the only one.
"Wolfram, have I changed much?" he asked, his hand following the dip of the other man's shoulder blade as he more-so imparted the scent of soap than did much to remove any dirt or dead skin.
"Of course you have," was his fiancé's simple reply.
"You're not anything near as wimpy a king as you used to be," Wolfram explained without any punches pulled. "When you came here, you couldn't even read or ride a horse. Now you act much more like an adult and need us to give you aid as though you were a child much less."
"That's not really changing. That's learning new things."
Wolfram shrugged gently. "You're a good king, Yuuri. You weren't always, even though you always had the potential to be one. You were a king with good intentions, and now you're a good king." He looked over his shoulder at Yuuri, looking away just as quickly while the soapy cloth ran circles above his hip. "You're far too cute for your own good and a peerless cheater, though. You should work on that next."
Yuuri couldn't help but chuckle even though part of him wanted to reprimand him with customary irritation. "I'm not the cute one," he settled on instead, almost muttering it more than speaking. "And I don't know why you keep calling me a cheater. I've never cheated on anyone."
"Elizabeth," Wolfram stated flatly.
"She was your childhood sweetheart."
"Childhood friend, not sweetheart. And you didn't know that at the time. You thought you were having a marriage interview with a beautiful woman who wanted to be your bride. Even though you had me."
Yuuri winced, the washrag pausing along the concave ridge of Wolfram's spine. "I guess you knew my nature better than I did," he admitted, though he still felt he didn't quite deserve a reputation for being unfaithful.
"I knew you didn't value my love for you enough not to discard me without a second thought."
That hurt, but not in the same way it had before. It didn't hurt in the way that made Yuuri ashamed of himself as much as it did in the way that made Yuuri confront what that must be like. What it must feel like to hear from an informant that the one you love is interviewing perspective brides while you're away in service to him. What it must feel like to ride back as fast as the wind, thoughts running through your head of how your entire world is crashing down while inside your chest your heart is breaking with every stab of this surprise betrayal. He remembered how Wolfram hadn't even gotten off his horse--he'd ridden straight into the castle to confront Yuuri, and the expression on his face...
Yuuri leaned his forehead against Wolfram's neck, his hands still holding firm to his body to keep him from turning more than his head. It was quiet and the water was growing colder around them. But he didn't want to move just yet--didn't think he could move if he tried.
"Don't cry, Yuuri," Wolfram instructed, fingers curling around his at his arm.
Yuuri nodded, sniffling softly to keep back the things that threatened to come out. "I'm sorry," he whispered, and pondered regretfully if he'd ever really apologized before.
The lengthy pause of absolute silence said he might never have.
"You can't be faithful to something you don't believe in," his fiancé said at last, giving his hand a squeeze before letting his own fall away. "Come on. We'll catch cold," he warned.
Yuuri nodded and straightened up, pulling Wolfram along rather than falling aside. Today was going to be a very long and tiring day. No matter what, though, he wanted Wolfram there at his side.
They encountered the fog at the end of the day's ride and to Yuuri's mild pleasure, at the very least, the fireside arguments before the beginning of first watch ended that night as well. Everyone but Yozak knew to keep silent for the most part if only for the sake of morale but the spy was already at a point of annoyance where no one, including him, was all the surprised by what little he had to say anyway. The trip was even quieter but it had stopped being boring in part because of the silence. The fog was their enemy and they had found it again. There was a real sense of danger once more in their somber ranks. The top of the mountain was well within their sights.
There were lights up there, they'd realized. Where before the golden twinkle was easily mistaken for stars, there was now visible firelight flickering in the dark. At least thirty points of light seemed to be man-made and as they went out, Conrad and Yozak counted them upon their late-night shifts. It was either a castle or a village they were coming upon--neither of which they had any idea existed in these parts. The mountain was still covered in lush forests but there was snow now clinging to the evergreens. Why anyone would live in such a remote place was beyond them. Especially, in no small part, because of the fog.
They reached the town late into the following afternoon, met with stares and quiet observation as they passed by homes and places of business. They were all quaint little wooden structures with fine stonework accents, their chimneys puffing out clouds of smoke and condensation running along the glass windows in light of the contrasting heat indoors. It looked safe and comfortable--nothing like what Yuuri had pictured as the source of the mysterious fog. He even saw signs of children playing in the snow. It looked like any other mazoku village he'd visited--albeit quite somber in tone.
They road towards the largest structure in the village hoping to find it to be a mayor's house or other important personage. While not much larger than the other homes, the one Yozak picked out among the rest had more stonework than the others with accents following a covered porch. In its doorway stood a haggard looking man with dark eyes that followed Yuuri specifically. It made a shiver run down the Maou's spine but he smiled, putting forth his best as he prepared to make new friends. That was always how he most preferred to think of things.
"Hello!" he shouted, waving eagerly at the man in the doorway. "Are you someone we can speak to about the fog up here?"
The man took a few steps forward and then fell on one knee before the steps of his porch. "Your Majesty. You do us a great honor in your visit. It would be my pleasure to tell you anything you wish to know. I am Rupert, the elder of this village. Please come inside and warm yourselves by the fire."
Yozak smiled. "Sure is great no one can lie around here. Makes my job easier in protecting the Maou if none of you can hide your intentions," he said, his glib remark not at all unintentional as he seemed to be testing the waters so to speak. Yuuri was not a fan of his antagonizing their new acquaintance in this way but never got a chance to say so.
Instead, Rupert's chuckle captured his attention as the man righted himself back onto both feet. "No one here would ever wish harm upon his Majesty or his men; have no fear. Not even the spirit of the fog would desire any harm come to him."
"Spirit of the fog?" Yuuri echoed, allowing Conrad to help him off his horse and down onto the compacted snow on the ground.
Rupert nodded, pushing both hands into the warmth of his coat. "It's a kind spirit but a spirit nonetheless. Please, come inside where it's warm and allow me to answer all your questions there."
Conrad walked ahead, leading the way, while Yozak collected their horses to stable. Yuuri started to follow his retainer, unpleasant thoughts nagging at the back of his mind, then stopped, unable to move past the mention of a spirit, and pulled Wolfram closer to his side. "Don't get possessed again, Wolfram," he warned, not having forgotten the last spirit they'd dealt with and the mess that had caused them all. It could be that Wolfram was extremely susceptible to being inhabited by other forces. Better safe that sorry, he thought, even if a direct order did seem a little ineffective as prevention.
Wolfram didn't seem flattered at all that Yuuri had thought of his safety. Instead he burned red even above the rosy windburn on his chapped cheeks. "That happened one time!" he insisted, almost growling with humiliation.
"It happened several times!" Yuuri corrected.
"It was the same person every time so it only counts as once!" the prince challenged, his tone far above the quiet expectations of a private aside. "You make it sound like I've had a queue of people inside me!"
Oh, of all the ways he could have phrased that. Yuuri blushed hard, his mouth instantly falling prey to the fog once again as he rambled on in retort. "Don't say it like that or I start thinking about you having sex with other people and that makes me uneasy!"
"Ha!" Wolfram rebuked with his chin held high. "I'm not unfaithful like you."
"My imagination doesn't think you're anything like me. My imagination thinks you're like your mother."
The village really couldn't have been any quieter and Yuuri sort of hated it for that. That was not at all the way he meant it but it wasn't exactly not what he meant either. He was really sort of starting to get a handle on this 'perspective' thing. Truth was a lot less straight forward than he'd initially thought.
For his own part, Wolfram's look of shock couldn't have been any wilder. It didn't last long, though, followed by a very dark look Yuuri had only seen on a few choice occasions. "What are you trying to say about my mother?" he asked.
Oh, shit... Lie, lie, please spirit of the fog, let him lie. "That she's kinda whorish in the best possible way." ...oh, this was going to be a new, special kind of hell. Yuuri winced, teeth embedding themselves into his bottom lip as the words flew out unhindered. He was well aware he could be a bit of a hypocrite at times but this almost seemed karmic in the grand scheme of things. "You can hit me if you want," he offered, relatively sure he wasn't asking for a proposal so much as a good punch in the face.
"I might," Wolfram growled, though his hands made no move to strike him. Instead he breathed deep and looked away. "Mother has a big heart is all."
"So do you," Yuuri said, apparently not finding the grave he'd starting to dig deep enough just yet.
Wolfram was nearly in his face with that, not at all bothered by their audience which, given the size of the town, was probably rather extensive at their current volume. "You really think I could ever behave like that? Publicly and in full view of everyone go from lover to lover without any shame?"
No, he knew he couldn't. And that wasn't at all what he'd meant. Not that the real meaning was worthy of being spoken of under normal circumstances.
Conrad cleared his throat to bring them out of their 'lovers quarrel' and back to the broader spectrum of things. Rupert was waiting at the steps, a thoughtful expression on his face. Yozak was almost out of sight with the horses but the shaking of his orange head was still clear in the white-washed backdrop. There were faces in the windows and in the doorways of the town. They'd been there maybe ten minutes and already they were a spectacle.
Wolfram huffed and moved to pull away but Yuuri dragged him back, not so much a coward as to not at least give setting things straight a try. "What I mean is... I think you would want one person to love you and only you until death. And that it might take a lot of searching to find that person, and there might be a lot of heartbreak while you look, and you might get so disillusioned by loss and time that you start thinking that love is fleeting instead of forever. And then it wouldn't matter so much if they were perfect for you so long as they loved you enough right then. Like your mom." Yuuri frowned, still wishing that had come out nicer than it had. He didn't want any misunderstandings between them. He didn't exactly think of Celi as whoreish. Celi had buried three husbands, after all. Yuuri couldn't fathom that kind of heartache. It made sense, in a way, that she'd forgo attachment knowing the pain it caused. That was fine--that was her choice. He just didn't like to think of Wolfram making that same choice. "I don't mean any disrespect at all. I promise."
Wolfram scowled at him but the fire of his rage had already burned out. He grumbled as he jerked Yuuri to walk since the king refused to let him move alone. "Your imagination is stupid," was his only response as he forced him up the stairs towards their host.
Rupert spread his arms in condolence. "It takes a while to get used to, but you'll soon find the fog to be a minor inconvenience," he promised.
Yuuri smiled with a wince and let Wolfram drag him to wherever he decided they should go. He'd opened his mouth wide enough for both feet, after all, so in all fairness he'd leave their destination to him.
Despite the humble exterior of the classic mountain cottage, Rupert's home was filled to the brim with golden trinkets and gems. It was enough to make Yuuri pause and stare, having seen less riches in his own castle or even that of Voltaire or Bielefeld. Maybe even combined. The tray their drinks and food was brought out on was golden, as were the cups and plates for each service. By their strength they weren't pure but Yozak's own expression showed Yuuri's suspicions that they were plated in the genuine article to be true enough for him. Rupert wasn't rich, he was almost literally made of money as though he possessed the Midas touch. Silly as it might have been, Yuuri made sure to be aware of the mazoku's bare hands just to be on the safe side and not end up a golden Maou statue. Especially not now as they were tucked away indoors where the wind didn't blow and the fire warmed him effortlessly.
They all sat in the seating room except for Yozak who took point in the doorway between them and the hall. Wolfram fussed over Yuuri's cold hands while Conrad made as much effort in not staring at the surrounding wealth as Yuuri did--which was none at all. Rupert's gentle laugh seemed to suggest he didn't mind, though, or was at the very least not offended.
"I'm not a bandit," he said, perhaps used to strangers coming to such conclusions. "We've been mining this mountain for riches for many, many generations. Since before the fall of Soushu, in fact. What you see is simply the combined efforts and skills of the men and women who have lived on the mountain. You may take anything you like--the have no real value to us here," he offered, gesturing to scabbards and candlesticks alike which littered tables, shelves and even the walls.
Yuuri shook his head, far more interested in the people of the mountain than he was the riches they owned. "Thank you for the offer but there's no need. I'm not here to take your treasures, we're here to learn about the fog."
"And get frostbite," Wolfram muttered, still rubbing Yuuri's hands within his own. He was in a mood and Yuuri knew better than to try and coerce him out of one. It was his own fault either way and if Wolfram wanted to fuss at him, that was fine. It was better than being ignored. He'd seen enough of that over the past week to know it was the last thing he wanted to deal with.
The maid who brought them food and drink bowed out with her task fulfilled, their cups steaming with hot brew beside small sandwiches prepared as crustless triangles. Conrad tried them both, then nodded with intention that both were safe for Yuuri's own consumption. The tediousness of protocol. Yuuri smiled at their host, hoping foremost not to offend. "It's not that we don't trust you," he began, but had no time to follow up.
"Don't worry, your Majesty. I understand. It is in your nature not to trust--as it is for everyone who does not live on this mountain."
"Ha!" Wolfram scoffed, finally letting Yuuri's hands go if only to shove a hot drink between the Maou's palms instead. "Yuuri trusts everyone which is why the rest of us have to work so hard to keep him alive."
Rupert laughed again, nodding along. "Perhaps. But even so, it is not the same as it is for the rest of us who live with the fog every day."
"Every day?" Yuuri echoed, wondering if perhaps the fog's effects weren't reaching the sitting room and thus permitting such an exaggerated tale.
The older man nodded, sipping at his tea quietly, before setting it down to rest against the golden saucer in his lap. "We only know that it is rare because we have heard the stories of how it began. Thousands of years ago, this village was little more than a temporary mining settlement. The mountain was full of priceless minerals and mazoku came from all around to work hard and make their fortunes. Winters have always been hard so most went home before the season hit. One year it came early, though. Winter frosts killed the unharvested crops in the miner's gardens and spoiled the grain in a few unfit silos. The way down the mountain was icy and dangerous. Most decided to stay and whether it out together.
"As the weeks and months went on, a woman began going door to door asking for any food scraps that could be spared. Her children were starving, she said. Some gave her food but others said they had none to spare and turned her away entirely. As more weeks passed, she could be seen waving her pickax in her frozen garden, breaking the cold soil as she made a grave for a lost child. This repeated over and over until spring finally found the mountain and crops could be sown again and the path down the mountainside could be traveled to seek food below. The woman was a broken shell by then, with only one child surviving. When she saw the health of those around her in the village with fat still padding their bones, she became beside herself with rage and grief.
"Her last act before dying was to curse the village for its heartlessness but, being a mother and knowing she would leave her child in their care, she did so with the intent to teach rather than harm. From then on, the mists and fog of the mountain have kept the settlers here from being able to lie to one another. They must face the true heartlessness of their actions and decide based on that confrontation whether or not they are willing to live by their words. There have been many winters like that since but not since the fogs came under her spirit's command has anyone been able to turn away another for help. Having to confess that your greed keeps you from helping and that you believe your own life to have more value than your fellow mazoku's has always inspired acts of kindness in its wake."
Yuuri found himself leaning hard against his knees, listening intently to every word spoken, his cup forgotten completely in his hands. "So she wanted everyone to tell the truth so they'd have to confront what their actions said about the contents of their heart," he summarized, feeling both sad for her plight and discouraged by it. "But doesn't that mean her spirit isn't at rest if the fog is still around?"
"Perhaps it does," Rupert agreed. "but I don't think she's unhappy. Most call her the Mother of the Mountain. This is where her children were buried and where her bloodline lives on as well. My departed wife was part of her lineage, in fact. You could say Mother is more of a folk hero than a ghostly villain."
That still didn't quite sit right with him. Yuuri's experience with ghosts was limited but always inspired a sense of dread or of sadness. Ghosts were supposed to want to move on, weren't they? Be reborn and have a chance at life again? Was it really okay? He wanted to say no. The way the people had hidden away in their homes as they came up made that feeling even stronger. It wasn't okay for a spirit, good intentioned or not, to decide how a person should live. Lies were important--which was not anything Yuuri had ever thought he'd ever have reason to say. People needed their secrets. On the mountain, it sounded as though everyone had none, private thoughts exchanged for gold and gems which reportedly were worthless. "If treasure doesn't hold any value for you, why are you all still living up here?" he asked, sure there was something sinister being neglected, like an extension of the curse that bound them all there and forced them to live under the spirit's control.
"Because this is home," Rupert explained in the simplest of terms. "And, to be honest, the world outside our mountain is a strange and unwelcome place. Below the fog, people are dishonest with each other. They say one thing and mean another. This is a foreign concept for us here. We grew up and have lived our whole lives with only honesty spoken. Your existence is barbaric to us, to put it plainly. And though we have nothing but respect and love for the Maou and Shin Makoku, we would prefer to bee left alone as we have been for centuries."
"It's not that bad," Yuuri defended, though he couldn't deny the hurt of betrayal that lingered in his memories.
Rupert sighed, taking another long drink before continuing on in their talk. "When my wife fell ill, we left the mountain to try and find some way to cure her. We have excellent healers among our settlement but they could not make her well. We were naive in our travels, though. We were robbed twice and given bad guidance. She was given drafts which promised to cure her which did nothing or, worse still, brought on new symptoms. In the end we returned here to give ourselves peace in her final days. I have seen what is below and while I will not say that everyone we encountered had motives unfitting to their words, we were too often harmed by our own trustfulness to see much value in remaining anywhere but here."
Yuuri winced, knowing that he spoke of his kingdom, a place under his rule, and that no matter how hard he tried to lead his people in good, there would always be those who thought only of themselves. "I hadn't thought of it that way. Your experience without the fog is a lot like ours with it. The whole castle shut down once it hit. We couldn't handle complete truth 100% of the time."
"The fog left the mountain?" Rupert asked, sounding surprised to hear as much.
"Yeah. Apparently it does that every couple hundred years or so. That's why we're here. It caused such a mess, we were wondering how to stop it."
The kindness in the man's eyes faded slightly, a darkness pinching across his stare. "I cannot allow you to do anything that might disrupt our way of life," he said, and his tone was enough to make both Yozak and Conrad rest their palms against their swords.
Yuuri cleared his throat, feeling anxious as the tone of the room shifted suddenly. "I understand that. I do. I really don't like the idea of a spirit inhabiting a mountain rather than moving on but... it sounds like you're all happy here," he admitted, warring slightly against his instinctual feelings towards the dead.
"We are," Rupert explained. "We may be wary of travelers--so many have been bandits who surprised themselves by announcing their intention to murder and rob us--but we are kept safe here by Mother in that way as well."
"So that's why everyone stayed indoors when we arrived," Conrad said, speaking up from his corner of the sofa.
Rupert nodded, waving his hand towards the multitude of trinkets he possessed. "Tales of the mountain's riches live on even now, it seems. Less people seem to believe in the power of our fog than in stories of our fortunes."
And who could blame them? It sounded absurd. If the bandits who tried to rob them were anything like himself, even if they did believe in it, they wouldn't think they had anything to fear of the truth. It seemed the only people who really did have nothing to fear from it were the ones who lived on the mountain. To them this was normal. They didn't think they were missing out on anything by not keeping secrets or sugar coating their words. They had as hard a time understanding Yuuri's way of life as Yuuri has in understanding theirs. It felt silly to say something like 'perhaps not everyone is suited to the same way of life' since in many ways that was self evident. But... maybe it wasn't as obvious as he wished to believe. Maybe he did have a bias towards thinking his own way of thinking was superior. He'd certainly made fun of a lot of customs in this world but had it been out of derision?
Honestly? A little. Engagements, duels, greetings, clothing, there was a whole list of things that he'd mocked which were rich traditions and customs to the people who practiced them. He liked to think he was better about it now--and to his own credit, he probably was--but he still proved to be less considerate of alternative points of view at first glance. Maybe a mountaintop village that had to tell the truth sounded like a terrible place to live to him, but to Rupert and the others, this was the way things were supposed to be. Their nightmare was having to second guess other people, and Yuuri could appreciate that if nothing else. Being able to trust the people around you was paramount to his own mental stability. So who was he to tell someone else their way of life was wrong?
Well, he was the Maou so he sort of had the extreme ability to do just that. He could validate or eradicate based on his will. He wasn't sure how to exercise a spirit but his powers would probably do a fair bit towards that end. And if not, when they left, he could find someone else to take care of it for him if he decided it was worth it. But was it worth it? These people could never leave because their culture was at ends with the rest of the world. They were, in a way, prisoners. Was being happy with the way things were enough justification not to try and bring them in to the rest of the world?
Yuuri frowned thoughtfully, too many conflicting thoughts coalescing in his head. "What do you think, Conrad?" he asked at last, instinctively looking to his retainer for insight.
The soldier was quiet for a moment, then spoke slowly as one still growing accustomed to the fog. "Shinou himself was a guiding spirit for Shin Makoku. Perhaps not all spirits are destined to move on to the next life, especially if they have found their calling in death," he said, wonderfully insightful into Yuuri's hangups as was one of the many reasons his council was so often required.
Yuuri smiled, feeling assured that his decision was right. "We won't do anything to disturb your mountain, Rupert," he promised, only the slightest twinge in his gut arising in allowing their isolation to continue.
The older man's eyes brightened again, the feeling in the air once more cordial and kind. "Thank you, your Majesty," he said with a bowed head.
Yuuri smiled brightly and finished off his tea. This wouldn't exactly be a result to bring back to Shin Makoku, but now at least they knew why it was and the value to a small settlement their little truth-telling inconvenience really was.
Yuuri enjoyed going around the settlement to meet the other mazoku who lived there. Once word spread that he was indeed their king, most doors opened without hesitation to them with children playing outside in the yards. It was suddenly everything Yuuri was used to seeing when he road through a town, the air filled with laughter and labor as daily chores continued in the daylight hours. Everyone seemed happy. A few people complained about personal afflictions like toothache or gout or a husband who was too lazy to provide a decent sex life but none of the complaints were of the fog itself, even as Yuuri had to remind himself not to make a big deal about the frankness of the residents' speech. It was normal to them to say such things to strangers and friends alike. They didn't seem embarrassed in the slightest to tell him these things. They really were okay with the way things were. In a way, Yuuri almost would have preferred to discovered they secretly wanted him to save them from the fog and give them all a normal life. This was the life they chose, though. And they were happy living this way.
It was only Yuuri, Wolfram and Conrad that toured the settlement with Yozak on his own getting a feel for the lay of the land, planning escape routes that Yuuri imaged they'd never need to use. It was his job, though, much as the diplomatic side of things was shared between Yuuri himself and Wolfram. After the scene they'd made upon arrival, it was good to show everyone that they weren't always like that. They were understanding anyway. A little too understanding, perhaps, or at the very least far too observant.
"With such a passionate disposition, your Highness must be quite the lover."
"Your Majesty is much smaller than I imagined. Are you sure you're not more interested in the larger man? It's confusing when you're both so small."
"Your Majesty's double black coloring is amazing! It must black down there as well!"
"I will touch myself while I think of you both touching each other tonight."
"I never though Maou Celi was a whore. I believe in free love myself. Would you like to stay?"
Each time Yuuri quickly tried to change the subject, unable to be suave about it and instead saying something along the lines of "I'm very uncomfortable with this! Please talk about something else!". Wolfram was positively red though the color was at times from rage and others from embarrassment. Yuuri felt as bad for him as he did for himself knowing how much willpower his fiancé was utilizing in not making another scene upon each instance and instead limiting himself only to smacking hands away when people tried for anything more than a customary handshake.
Conrad seemed more like himself than he had for days. Yuuri hated that it was only now happening with Yozak absent from their party. The soldier laughed and offered sympathy, his smile prominent even as some of the older women inquired why he wasn't the one marrying their Maou. Like old times. Like before the fog hit Shin Makoku. Yuuri wanted to be glad for it but hated to think it was mostly for show. As soon as Yozak was around, this Conrad wouldn't be. Throughout the day when the soldier grew quiet, Yuuri noticed it was because he was looking at Yozak through a window or across the lane. There was little that made Yuuri want to hit Murata more. He knew what he was doing--there was no way he didn't know. And when he got back, they were going to have a little talk. Maybe a long talk. It depended on his remorse or lack thereof, really, and if they had to go back to Earth to have it, so be it.
Yozak joined them again for dinner with Rupert, his own demeanor unchanged while Conrad grew quiet once again. There was no inn on the mountain so their host had been kind enough to offer them rooms in his own home--of which there were two. Yuuri refrained from wincing though his insides puckered and squeezed. He didn't want an argument about who was stuck sleeping with whom. He had a feeling he'd find himself rooming with Yozak which was all fine and good until one realized that left Wolfram with Conrad and pretty much ensured a few choice words between them. And if Yuuri shared with Conrad, there was no telling what the other two might do with their overwhelming personalities crashing in such close quarters.
"One of the rooms has only one bed," Rupert clarified at the dinner table as his maid cleared it of their meal. "I had heard rumors that your Majesty shares his bed with his Highness already but if such rumors are untrue, I can see about finding something more suitable."
Yuuri coughed, unprepared, still having a hard time not blushing even despite all the things he'd heard that day. "No, that's true. He usually sleeps with me. Just sleeps! Nothing else. But he's my fiancé so... yes. He's usually in my bed."
Rupert chuckled, smiling brightly. "Ah, youth," he said with a tone of nostalgia. "If you're ready, then, I'll show you to your rooms."
Yozak stood from the table, sighing loudly. "I've seen them. I'm going to check on the horses first," he announced, already walking away with his arms crossed behind his head.
That made things easier, Yuuri guessed, and wondered if perhaps his absence during the day hadn't also been planned to ease the tension. It would be a very subtle means of avoiding confrontation during their stay on a truth-telling mountain. Yuuri was thankful for his foresight. Too often he forgot just how insightful their friendly spy was.
"I'll go with you," Conrad said as he too rose from the table.
Not even the wind could be heard in the stunned quiet after his words as they all paused to make sure they'd heard correctly. Well, not all of them. Rupert was completely unaware of the strangeness of Conrad's remark but Yuuri could not help but quickly look between the two men as they stood in the dining area heading out.
Yozak looked over his shoulder at the soldier and nodded after a pause, leading the way while Conrad informed Wolfram that he was in charge and promised Yuuri he'd return soon. Yuuri nodded but heard very little of it. This was impossible. They'd spent days in uncomfortable silence and now, out of nowhere, they were going to start being normal again? What had he missed?!
Wolfram looked more irritated than confused, his brows heavy over his emerald eyes. "How cold is your barn?" he asked their host with minimal inflection.
"Not very. Your horses will be fine," he was promised.
The look on Wolfram's face said that wasn't at all why he was asking.
Did that mean he thought they were going to fight? Yuuri stood up, instantly moving to follow the other two. No matter what had happened in the past, they were both still friends deep down. He couldn't let them fight like enemies--especially not in a place like this!
Wolfram grabbed him by the wrist, keeping him away from the back entry and instead pulling him to follow Rupert towards the stairs that lead to their room. "Leave it," he instructed coolly, his eyes still narrowed with displeasure.
"I don't want them to get into a fight," Yuuri explained, pulling gently in his grip."
"Later," was Wolfram's warning reply.
Yuuri frowned but obeyed, allowing Rupert to show them to their room and settle them inside before turning back to his fiancé behind the closed door. "They're just going to say things they don't really want to say and hurt each other's feelings on accident! You know how it is! I don't want them to do something they'll regret!"
"They didn't go to the barn to fight, Yuuri," Wolfram said, his hands balling into fists at his sides as his voice dropped to a growl. "I'm surrounded by impropriety!"
Impro--What? Yuuri blinked, little gears spinning in his mind but nothing coming of it. "What do you mean?"
"Didn't you see the way he was looking at him all day? He couldn't not look at him! Yozak has been the only thing on Conrad's mind since we got here and now they're off alone in the barn together!"
"You don't mean..."
"No way!" Yuuri exclaimed, leaning in close, feeling like one of those gossiping women he'd seen in his mother's dramas. "They had a fight! They were definitely not happy with each other! There's no way they're doing that!"
Wolfram rolled his eyes and walked towards the quilt strewn bed, shaking his head side to side. "They have no shame. It's absolutely vulgar," he muttered before bouncing down against the soft bedding, legs and arms both crossed in annoyance.
He seemed so certain, Yuuri couldn't help but tuck his own disbelief aside in favor of Wolfram's assertion. He'd known his brother longer than him, after all, and was better at reading romantic intention than Yuuri was in general. If he was wrong and they were fighting, Yuuri was certain he'd feel very guilty in the morning. But if they weren't fighting and Yuuri ran out there to confront them, it'd be an awkward mistake the likes of which he felt only death would save him from. Better to err on the side of optimistic caution, even if he didn't understand it. Conrad had seemed more like his old self, after all. Maybe it didn't have as much to do with Yozak's absence as he thought it did.
With Wolfram in a mood, it was up to Yuuri to unpack their clothes from their rucksacks leaning against the wall. It was easy to find their sleeping garments among the plain looking travel clothes as Yuuri's robin's egg blue pajamas were the only things not beige or black among his own attire and the pink of Wolfram's simple gown was just as rare among his things. He handed it off to Wolfram, draping it over his shoulders for when he was done sulking like a child while Yuuri himself undressed from the many layers of his travel uniform to slip into the comfortable blue cotton pants and loose button-down.
Wolfram touched the hearty weave of his gown but didn't move to get up of change. "Do you think it's strange that the fog lets you call me your fiancé even though you have no intention of marrying me?" he asked instead, his back to Yuuri while the Maou changed though his attention remained very much fixed on him.
Yuuri paused while fitting a button through its hole, part of him wondering where that even came from while another, quieter part wasn't really all that surprised. At least now that he understood the fog a little better, it was easier to talk about such things. As long as the meaning was truthful, the fog generally let one choose their own words. "I could do worse," he said, continuing to dress, feeling awkward and naked even as his flesh was being tucked out of sight.
"Which means you still think you could do better."
That was one way to take it, yes. The way Yuuri wanted him to if truth be told--and that was a promise if nothing else while here. But it was an admission too of possibilities that for so long seemed impossible to concede. "I think... you are the most important person in my life whether I want you to be or not. And I'm afraid of that," he tried to clarify, finding not all of the words he'd tried to say ending up in that particularly sentence. Especially the part about being afraid. That wasn't at all very manly of him to admit. Exceptionally wimpy, one might say. And at least one person was sure to think so.
Wolfram shifted on the bed, turning towards him with somewhat wide eyes and a thin mouth. "Afraid of me?"
"No, not you. Of... me. Of being different. From other boys at home. From my brother. Of the possibility being gay instead of confused."
His fiancé's face made it very clear the next words out of his mouth would be nothing more than a request or clarification on what the word 'confused' was supposed to mean in this context. Being vague was not something Wolfram had much patience with so Yuuri carried on without insisting on his prodding.
"You have no idea what you do to me sometimes. You have given me an erection on more than one occasion," --oh, god, no one needed to know that!-- "and I can use the excuse that it's because your appearance is sort of feminine only so much because I know you're a boy--man, sorry--and... and knowing that has never stopped me from reacting to you."
Wolfram's cheeks were absolutely burning with a flush of red in contrast to the brilliant green of his wide eyes. "But before... before you said--"
"Before I blamed you. Like... it was your fault I felt this way. And I wouldn't be confused if you dropped it. If you just stopped pursuing me, then I could go back to being comfortable again. But it's not your fault. It's mine. And I'm embarrassed at how long it took me to face that. It was easier to ridicule you than it was to face myself. It doesn't change the way I acted before or the reasons I did what I did, but... I want to be a better person. I want to be honest with myself. And you."
Like the times back at the castle, nearly none of those words were the ones he wanted to use. At that time, they had hurt Wolfram and surprised Yuuri. Now, it seemed, the tables had turned. Now if was Wolfram's turn to blink in surprise while Yuuri's chest constricted around the unprepared admission. He'd been a bully. He'd taken his insecurities out on Wolfram. He wanted very much to go easier on himself, to explain the differences in their culture and how that had as much to do with his reluctance in considering himself as anything other than straight rather than just dealing with some indiscriminate post-pubescent virility. But the fog wasn't going to let him sugarcoat anything. Yuuri was in control of himself and Yuuri had chosen to act out rather than reflect within. He could blame whatever outward forces he wanted to but it had always been his choice to conform or not. He chose to ignore his instincts. He chose to let his fear and confusion hurt others. That's what it came down to in the end, however he wished to look at it. And he supposed, in that same way, it was also entirely within his own power to stop.
Wolfram pulled his gown off his shoulders, holding it in his hands instead as he stared at Yuuri with undiluted fascination. "So I'm really your fiance?" he asked, either himself of the fog both smart enough not to jump to conclusions on love.
Yuuri rubbed at the back of his skull, beyond uncomfortable but still somehow pleased when he looked at the hopefulness shining in Wolfram's eyes. "That's still a lot for me to really consider," he said, turning the blankets down on his side of the bed. "But... well, the fog did let me say it. That's something at least."
Smiling softly, Wolfram nodded and stood up, moving aside to finally dress for bed.
Yuuri slept well. It wasn't necessarily surprising seeing as Rubert's accommodations were comfortable and warm but having dreaded the nights since almost the beginning of their trip, it was a welcome change to fall asleep in peaceful surroundings and to wake up to nothing more dreadful that Wolfram's elbow digging into his side. It was very much a morning unlike any he'd had in a long time--not since the fog first descended upon them. His heart felt lighter and his mind was at peace. The mystery of the fog was no longer unknown and the repercussions of their experience with it were far better settled than they had been before. For himself and Wolfram, anyway.
With the morning still painted in lavender dawn, Yuuri left Wolfram asleep in their bed and crept slowly out the door into the hallway beyond. He needed to see someone. To talk to them. With honesty a continuing issue, such conversations were best done without an audience to overhear while being in strange places made an entourage standard procedure if things weren't settled early on.
Most of the estate seemed to still be asleep. Outside his room the air lacked the smells of breakfast but instead carried the crisp sharpness of winter snow that even the thick panes of glass couldn't hold back. Yuuri expected to see Yozak in the hall as he'd been assigned the second watch nearly every night of their journey. His orange hair wasn't there to be cast in a halo of the rising sun, though. Stationed there instead, sitting on the windowsill at the top of the stairs, was a pensive Conrad, his gaze immediately tracking to find Yuuri in the hall at the sound of hinges and soft footsteps.
It was... awkward. Yuuri had prepared himself to have this conversation with a completely different person, someone he wasn't as close to who's honesty wouldn't cause any permanent issues between them if anything personal was said. He'd planned to let Conrad come to him if he wanted to and simply assuage his curiosity with Yozak's explanation in the here and now of morning. But Yozak was asleep and instead it was one of his closest friends sitting watch. All the things he'd thought to ask had been metaphorically thrown out the window the moment he saw the far off look in the other man's eyes. Instead Yuuri felt filled with trepidation, his curiosity fleeing with the darkness. It wasn't any of his business, he reminded himself and forced a quick smile to disguise his mild surprise.
"Good morning," he said, waving gently as he walked nearer.
Conrad smiled, looking more like the Conrad Yuuri was used to seeing, as he stood up from his perch at the window. "Good morning," he echoed. "Sleep well?"
"Mm? Oh, yeah. Wolfram and I had a nice night," he said, not entirely sure why he was compelled to include Wolfram in his reply but almost used to the anomaly by now. Enough so that it didn't come as any great surprise when questions he had told himself he wouldn't ask came spilling from his lips anyway. "How was your night with Yozak?" he heard himself say, his teeth embedding themselves into his bottom lip with a wince the moment it wandered past.
Conrad faltered slightly, but with a blush rather than the cringe that had seemed normal before. "...Good," he answered simply, his shoulders rounding out as he ducked his head, left hand rubbing at the beck of his neck in a very familiar gesture of discomfort they both knew. There was an awkward pause, a few seconds of breath and thick swallows, before his open mouth released sounds that formed words rather than stalling noises. "Yuuri," he began. "I must apologize for my behavior. I have behaved childishly this entire journey and there is no excuse for it beyond my own insecurities and fear." A wince. Unintentional admissions. Uncomfortable truths. This was not a conversation either was looking forward to. Which, in a way, made it the one they absolutely should be having.
"I've been really worried about you."
Conrad nodded. "I'm sorry. I... never learned how to handle these things. Like you, my instinct has always been to try and outrun the problems of my personal life. Distance and distractions are the bandages for wounds which time heals. But there are always scars."
Yuuri walked closer, frowning, hating to know Conrad recognized his cowardice and even more so that it was something they shared. "Is Yozak a scar?" he asked.
"I thought so," the swordsman admitted, neck still bent as his eyes searched the floor. "We served a purpose to each other a long time ago but... we're not the people we used to be."
"But you still love him."
"Why isn't that enough?"
Conrad's long stretch of searching silence after the word made Yuuri worry he wouldn't continue, that he would close his mouth to the words he feared might come out and instead choose to be mute on the subject. It was his right to do; he had ever reason to stop talking and usher Yuuri back to his room to get ready for the new day. But Yuuri wanted to know. After so long, he almost felt he deserved to know even if he knew in his heart Conrad owed him nothing but the apology he'd already given.
With a deep breath, Conrad did continue though. And it poured from him like water off a cliffs edge, dangerous but somehow beautiful in its destructive power. "Because I let heartbreak win," he said. "I let losing Julia harden me. I let her death dictate my entire life, choosing to serve her even in her death by serving you, the person she left me to become. Everything since that day has been about Julia. And that has been a disservice to you, to my family, to Yozak... and to myself." He paused again only for a moment, no longer looking away but towards Yuuri instead with a look that almost seemed to beg for understanding. "What you said to Wolfram about our mother... it's true of a lot of us. And we found different ways to deal with that pain. Mother embraced free love, Gwendal rejected all love, and I stubbornly focused my whole heart on a another person's cause."
"Are you unhappy?" Yuuri found himself asking, not sure what else to say.
Conrad's gentle smile said almost more than words, his dark eyes brighter with the expression as he placed a hand on Yuuri's head. "I love my life, Yuuri. There is very little about it I would change. Getting to be the one who plays this role in your life makes me very happy. But I'm beginning to see that perhaps I have limited my potential happiness by declaring my duty to be my sole reason for living."
Yuuri nodded more out of habit, knowing deep down that these were things he couldn't really understand. A lot of people in Shin Makoku were like that, though. No, that wasn't quite true, it wasn't just his kingdom; the people he'd met in this world who'd lived through war and turmoil tended to have similar stories. They were used to being willing to die for something. Living for something, finding something to cherish beyond protection and possession, was often foreign or simply forgotten in favor of more drastic ways of thinking. He understood that much, at least, but more like an academic understands history than as a player in those very events. It just wasn't like that on Earth. His sympathies would always be somehow lacking in that fundamental difference. So long as Conrad was happy, though, it didn't really matter. It even sounded like he was planning to expand upon his expectations in life. To be honest, Yuuri felt relieved. He wanted a normal life for his friend. He wanted the same for him as he'd want for anyone: love, luck and longevity. It made such hopes much more fruitful if the other wanted the same for himself too.
Yuuri couldn't help but smile a little, thinking about the possible future and the ways it could be different from the present they were used to. "Not that Yozak isn't a great guy, but I kind of like the idea of maybe being the godfather of one of your kids someday," he said, hoping to assuage any misguided guilt his friend might have in wanting something more than eternal service to king and country.
Conrad chuckled, his hand falling heavy to Yuuri's shoulder. "We'll see."
Hearing him laugh again was definitely one of the best things to happen lately. "So everything's okay now?" Yuuri asked, feeling that it was deep inside his chest but still longing for someone else to confirm it for him.
Conrad was not quick to nod, though. Instead he breathed a short sigh, his eyes glancing again towards the brightening sky. "No," he said. "But it's going to be. Same as for you."
Same for him? Yuuri paused for a moment, looking back over his shoulder at the closed door to his bedroom.
"We're both very lucky to have friends who will stick by us even when we don't deserve it," Conrad continued, voice quiet as though they shared in that secret alone.
It was far from a secret, though. Yuuri had known that for a long time, including many other people than simply Wolfram whom he could count on to be by his side no matter what. Wolfram was different, though. It was hard to explain how other than to simply say they were, in a convoluted way, the same relative age and maturity. They could relate to each other in ways his older friend's couldn't. Even Murata, who was his closest companion on Earth, was somewhat distant from him in many ways due to his own relative age and maturity.
Oh, Murata. Yuuri still wasn't sure what to make of his involvement in this. Yes, it all seemed to have worked out for the best in the end, but had he known or simply played them like game pieces in the off chance things improved? Their last conversation had left him somewhat paranoid about his friend, not excluding the not-so-subtle hints that he had an interest in Wolfram, or that Yuuri himself and Wolfram where close entirely by Shinou's design. He didn't like that bud of possessiveness the former gave him, nor the hopelessness of the latter. He wanted to believe his life was full of choices even if past events proved so much was ordained. Even if, given the choice, he might not deviate so far from fate as he once felt sure he would.
"Do you think me and Wolfram are meant to be together?" he found himself asking, not actually all that disappointed in himself for putting sound to the words in his head.
Conrad chuckled, the hand on his shoulder giving him a squeeze. "You and Wolfram compliment each other in beneficial ways and I do believe you bring out the best in each other. But he's not the only person in this world or yours who could do that. You're not going to miss out on your one true love if you choose someone else. And despite his dramatics, if you turned him away, he could find someone else who makes him happy too. Chances at romance are rarely all or nothing just as love isn't always all flush and flutter."
That was, perhaps, the best thing Yuuri had heard all day. Much more than Murata's wise words, he wanted very much to believe in Conrad's own thoughts. "You really believe that? I mean... even considering the part Shinou played in every part of your life? You don't think that maybe some things are just... intended?"
"I think our Maou is capable of anything," Conrad said with a smile. "Don't worry about what someone else may intend for your life. Just live happily."
Yuuri nodded, his entire being feeling rejuvenated to its core. He was right, he though, and smiled back at the closed bedroom door. There was no destiny that was going to force him to do anything against his will. He had a choice--just as he always had. Same as every time before, he had the choice to follow his own heart.
Only one more chapter and then an epilogue to go.
Being back in Shin Makoku was, perhaps, the best thing imaginable. His home, his friends, his room, his bed--everything he could ever ask for was right there in front of him again with long nights by campfire and only moderately cozy inns a thing of the recent past. At least the trip home had been less stressful. Conrad had even asked Wolfram if he'd take first watch on their first night back on the mountain side. Things were much better now than they had been before.
But the last thing Yuuri intended to do was thank his Great Sage and friend.
Whether it was called for or not, they both needed to return to Earth after so long spent in the demon world. With that in mind, Yuuri said goodbye and headed to the temple with his usual accompaniment. They saw them both off with waves and well wishes, fountain water becoming bath water as Murata and Yuuri both rose up into the Shibyua tub where towels and a change of clothes were set out for their return. In all that time, Murata hadn't asked any questions or said anything of worth. He just smiled, knowingly, even as he rubbed his wet hair into a damp disarray, back to back with his own refection.
Yuuri sighed, scowling at him, which only served to make his friend's smile stronger. "Murata," he called, sitting on the side of the tub. "You've set me up in some pretty unsavory ways before, but I thought you were sort of done with all that stuff now."
His friend sighed, still smiling, looking for all the world as though he had no idea what Yuuri meant by that. "It all turned out alright," he replied, wringing his shirt out in the sink as he moved to dry himself more.
"That's not the point!" Yuuri exclaimed. He put his head in his hands as he groaned, not used to having to try to explain human niceties to another person from planet Earth. "You can't write off hurting someone's feelings like it's no big deal," he began, though really there wasn't much more to say than just that. It wasn't okay to knowingly hurt someone--physically or otherwise. Surely Murata already knew that!
But if he did, it didn't matter. There was no change in his expression as he changed into dry things, only looking mildly annoyed that the topic was still up for conversation. "Stubborn people require a special sort of motivation to change their ways, Shibuya. No one ever said life was without hardships. No one was hurt, no one was even in danger, and the benefits to your situation far outweigh the annoyance of a few weeks of uncomfortable travel."
"I don't think it's right to manipulate people and situations like that," Yuuri said, and certainly not for the first time to this particular person.
"Shibuya," Murata moaned with a roll of his eyes. "You're a king. Manipulation is an integral part of politics. It's how we manage conflicts, especially non-violent ones, with controlled outcomes which benefit ourselves."
He was right. He was always, annoyingly right. But that didn't mean Yuuri had to accept it. "Don't do it again," he ordered, aware that it was an order only after he'd said it, though part of him wondered if it was really possible for him to order the kingdom's Great Sage.
"I cannot promise you that I won't," the other said in reply, somehow hinting that, perhaps, Yuuri could not.
Still, Yuuri blinked back surprise, almost stunned to hear such words from his friend. But Murata's smile was gone and his eyes were cast in the glow of his glasses, shading his intentions behind the obscuring glare.
"It's my job to advise you in the best course of action," Murata explained, his arms crossing over his chest as he spoke. "Secondary to that, it is my responsibility to see that, even when you make mistakes or forge your own path regardless of my guidance, you are safe, the kingdom is secure, and nothing irreparable has occurred. I know you will always trust me because even after everything that has happened, you still heed my advice. But nowhere in our contact as king and sage does it require we be friends, Shibuya. As much as I like being your friend and as fond of you as I am, my duty is more important than whether or not you like me. So I will continue to use everything in my power, including the manipulation of you and our allies, to ensure Shin Makoku is happy and prosperous."
As though the air conditioner were on, Yuuri felt a cold shiver run down his spine, turning the warm dampness to a chilled clamminess that made his inside feel ill. He knew instinctively that Murata was not his enemy, but something about his determination made Yuuri feel hollow deep inside. This was why, he supposed, he would always be better friends with Murata Ken here on Earth than he could ever be with Shin Makoku's Great Sage. Murata the Earth boy was far less pragmatic than the four thousand year old memories that ruled his life elsewhere.
"I get what you're saying," he agreed at last, relating the sentiment to those he'd heard from the likes of Gwendal long ago. "I just... I guess I just don't like it coming from you. I like you better on Earth, you know."
Murata sighed, his eyes becoming visible again as his head titled up. "In a way, I do too. It's hard to be myself in the other world. I'll always be him there. And he has far too many things to keep tabs on."
Yuuri nodded, though he could only guess at the extent of which he meant. He knew there were similarities between Murata's position and that of Conrad's: lifelong missions of service due to someone else's mission in death. Shinou's soul was in the temple, though, whereas Yuuri had once been Julia. Murata was protecting a four thousand year old legacy in tribute to his fallen friend. Maybe lover? Their familiarity in the short and few times he'd seem them together was... well, but what were people like that long ago? Perhaps they were more familiar in general back then. Shinou certainly hadn't thought anything at all of possessing Wolfram and making them kiss for sport. And Wolfram looked so much like him, too. If it weren't for the history books stating explicitly that the original king died childless, Yuuri would have sworn that Wolfram had to be his decedent.
And he was. Murata had said as much, now that Yuuri thought about it. Why would Shinou know of Wolfram before any other part of his plan? Because his own child would also go on to have children, and a decedent would exist into this time. Which meant that not only did someone who looked like the dead king exist, but that person had the same blood running through his veins as well. It reminded Yuuri of other points in their conversation which settled even worse in his stomach than before.
"So... is it the Great Sage who likes Wolfram or does Murata Ken?" he asked, looking at his friend through the corner of his eye as he gauged him suspiciously.
"Hm? Oh, I only have eyes for the ladies, Shibuya. Pert butt, curvy hips, big breasts. Though I might have to agree with you on the blonde thing," he said, giving a small wink which neither confirmed nor denied anything.
But, he supposed, that was the essence of Murata Ken. And if it was a matter of taking it or leaving it, he'd definitely take it for now.
"Ken-chan! Yuu-chan! Your curry is waiting!"
Yuuri perked up at the sound of his mother's voice, himself still wearing damp clothes while Ken stood dressed and ready.
"Coming, Mama!" Ken called back, hurrying closer to the door. He turned back to Yuuri, smiling, a hint of mischief tucked away in one peaked corner. "Better act fast," he warned, before hurrying through the door.
Yuuri wasn't exactly sure what they were talking about anymore, and heaved himself up from his seat on the tub to quickly free himself of his wet things.
Chapter 17: Epilogue
Yuuri sighed as his attention wandered towards the the large window behind him and its view of his peaceful kingdom carrying on in harmony outside. He was tired of paperwork. He was tired of working in general. It was far too nice a day outside to spend it working behind a desk. But work he must, and with an even heavier sigh he turned in his chair to look at the parchment once again, reading out loud the particulars of the order to help himself concentrate beyond just reading words.
Life, as it would happen, was just as set on Yuuri being distracted as Yuuri himself was keen for distraction. The right door of the large pair to his office swung open, short legs carrying the intruder quickly around the conference table to his desk in a half-run. The boy's cheeks were flush with exertion, his black eyes wide and wild as he ran into the desk, bending across the top to obscure Yuuri's view of the parchment till all he could see was his excited face.
"Guess what!" the boy shouted, beaming, almost bouncing with unconstrained excitement.
Yuuri smiled gently, leaning back in his chair, his fingers tapping against his chin as he pretended to give it a good think. "Guess, huh? Hmm... you found a secret kingdom in the U-bend of a toilet?"
The kid laughed, rolling his eyes.
"Too weird? Okay. You... got perfect marks on your studies?"
This time the child stuck his tongue out, his growing boredom with the game causing him to rest his chin in his palms as he perched his elbows against the desk.
"You're right. What was I thinking? So it must be that... you've fallen in love with a beautiful girl and will heartlessly leave your papa any day now?"
"Da~d!" the boy whined, rolling his eyes dramatically. "Give up yet? You're never going to guess."
Yuuri smiled, rather enjoying a little game of light teasing, but decided, in the interest of keeping his attention, he may as well let the boy go on and explain. "Okay, Riki. I give up."
Riki's wide grin returned, his arms leaning harder on the desk. "Gunter says a magic fog is coming in!" he announced, bouncing roughly with excitement. "Do I get to watch you go out and force it to go away? Like Whoosh!" he said, standing up and pushing his hands out as though he were blowing his foe back before him.
Yuuri chuckled, watching his son act out the heroic feat he imagined his father might make in the face of a supernatural foe. Surely it wasn't that fog, though. Had it really been that long since then? He supposed it must be. He had two kids now, the youngest of which was only forty-seven--only forty-seven? He really had settled in to the mazoku way of thinking. It was hard not to when all of forty-seven years look like a nine year old child.
Turning his his chair again, Yuuri stood and walked closer to the window, opening it up to better peak around the edge of the wall to where the mountains lay on the horizon. It was hard to see, though; not due to fog but mostly due to distance. Reports of fog would have had to have come from border patrols, then. Still plenty of time left to prepare for a shut down of all unnecessary functions.
Riki bounced at his side, trying to get a good look too. "Can you see it?" he asked, bumping gently into Yuuri's hip.
Yuuri put a hand on his head, patting the soft black hair to try and calm him and usher him away while he safely closed the window again. "No sign of it. Probably won't be here for a few days still. But don't worry; there's nothing to be scared of," he promised, guiding him back towards the desk where he sat in his chair and pulled his son into his lap. "What did Gunter say about the fog?" he asked.
"He said it eats everything in its path and melts stuff like acid!"
"... Right. And what did he actually tell you about the fog?" Yuuri inquired, shaking his head at the manner in which youth so easily reinterpreted their world.
Riki rolled his eyes, the real world apparently far less interesting than the one he'd made up. "He said it made people tell the truth. But he said it like it was really scary. If it's so scary, though, then why is everyone acting like we're just going to hide from it? Mazoku don't hide from stupid weather! We fight it! Right, Dad?"
Yuuri shook his head, not even bothering to wonder what he'd done in his life to deserve such a child. He knew exactly what he'd done. What they'd done. There was divine justice in the world after all. "Well, it might be super scary for some people. Like certain people who like to embellish the truth," he teased, tickling his son who wriggled and giggled until he stopped a moment later. "It's not that bad, though. And it doesn't happen often. So we just let it be and give everyone a few days off to deal with it however they like."
"But it's just some stupid fog!" Riki argued breathlessly, leaning back hard against Yuuri's chest.
Yuuri nodded, leaning his head against his. "Yes, it is. And we all know how much you like to stick to the truth so I guess this will be super easy for you, right?"
"Riki!" a familiar voice shouted from the doorway. They both looked up, watching Wolfram as he stood in just inside with a very cross expression. "What are you doing in here? You're supposed to be at your riding lesson."
"Oh, poop," Riki muttered under his breath, sliding down from his father's lap. "I just wanted to tell dad about the fog," he explained, shuffling slowly towards the door as though he could manage stalling longer before he had to go.
If a crestfallen expression and feigned guilt were his weapons of choice, though, he'd aimed them at the wrong target. Wolfram was far more determined for him to get on with his studies than Riki was to stay behind and talk more with his father.
"If I hear one more time than you've left in the middle of your lessons with Gunter, there will be no more baseball for a month."
That certainly got Riki to stand up straight. "What!? Dad!" he shouted, turning to Yuuri for some support.
Yuuri held up both palms in surrender. This was not a battle he was going to pick and, even if he did think a month was far too long, it was 100% in Riki's power to keep such a punishment from befalling himself.
Riki grumbled and stormed past him out of the room, muttering as he went about things Yuuri couldn't hear from his desk but which seemed to raise a brow from Wolfram as the boy pushed past him. As soon as he was done giving Riki disproving looks, though, it was Yuuri's turn to feel the fire. Wolfram shook his head as he entered the room and closed the door behind him, his green eyes never leaving Yuuri's as he scowled at him from the other side.
Yuuri's hands rose in surrender again. "I didn't realize he'd left early. I don't even know what time it is. I've been working since breakfast and I think I might have missed lunch."
"You did," Wolfram told him, taking a seat on the corner of his desk. "I've ordered something be brought up so as to not disturb you too much more."
Smiling softly, Yuuri leaned back in his chair, watching the sunlight make every stray hair on Wolfram's head glow brightly like a crown of light. "Riki was just excited about the fog," Yuuri explained, his interest in paperwork long forgotten. "Gunter said it's on its way. He wanted to see if I was going to kick it out of the kingdom."
Wolfram hummed pleasantly with amusement, his eyes searching the sky outside the window. "Doesn't feel like it's been that long," he said, voicing Yuuri's own thoughts from before. He looked absolutely stunning, which wasn't saying much since he always did. But Yuuri quite liked him in the sunlight where everything gold about him shimmered.
Standing up from his chair, Yuuri wrapped his arms around his husband, smiling at him as their noses nearly touched. "I'm kind of looking forward to it, honestly," he said, loving the weight and warmth of the other man held captive in his embrace.
"Oh?" Wolfram asked. "And why is that?"
"So I can tell you I love you, over and over again, and you'll know one hundred percent that it's true."
Wolfram chuckled fondly, shaking his head as his own arms wrapped around Yuuri's neck. "That wouldn't change anything. I already know that," he said, and pulled him closer for a long, sweet kiss.