too tempting not to touch / but even though it shocked you / something's electric in your blood
“What are we?”
“Then we agree on something.”
They weren’t friends.
There was something uneasy about the word. Friends. Sometimes, still, it was hard to say. It got stuck in Leo’s throat, like a cough, and he would choke it out, flinching when a helping hand patted his back, harder than necessary because Takumi didn’t know that he was somewhat impressive in hand-to-hand strength, accustomed to the distance of a bow. For all his aversions to Nohrians, Takumi didn’t fear touching him. He didn’t flinch like Leo repressed. No, Takumi was afraid of monsters in the dark but those monsters were never shaped like humans, posing as people you loved, sitting at the head of the dinner table with a grip light enough on their goblet so it would only take a flick of their wrist for it to be thrown across the room, hard. The word friend was hard to say but family was harder.
They weren’t friends but they had a lot of common. At first, it had been irritating. No matter their brief first exchange in which they made an agreement in their intolerance for each other, they broke it, unintentionally. Where Leo stood, Takumi was beside him and the most infuriating part was how well it worked, how tactically clever Takumi was when he wasn’t hollering curses at Leo for stepping on his toes- well, you’re the one who’s flouncing about- and when the enemies went up in smoke, Takumi was on his tiptoes like he thought his hands curled into the front of Leo’s shirt could even out the imbalance between them. Leo would make himself bored, lips curled, head tilted, if only to pretend Takumi wasn’t getting under his skin.
And Leo didn’t flinch then. He wasn’t afraid of an enemy’s attack. It wasn’t a surprise when someone who hated you hurt you.
Worse still (as if it could get any worse) was the reactions of their comrades around them. At first, Leo had been too focused on Takumi to even hear the giggles, the whistles lost to the wind and the blood rushing to his ears. It was only by the third time they had found each other at blows that they had been separated with Takumi’s lip bust and Leo’s ribs sore that Leo realised that no one stepped up sooner. No one ever did. He confronted his retainers on it and was met with Odin’s atrocious acting, his jolly whistling a way of avoiding answering. Niles simply laughed and asked his prince if he was sure his new friend hadn’t hit him in the head because Leo was being surprisingly stupid today. The man was a blessing and a curse. They left the room with Niles last words an off-hand comment about the injury Leo inflicted in return, quite unlike him to get his hands bloody but I’m sure a tiny cut won’t stop the Hoshidan Prince from working that mouth, eh, Prince Leo?
And with the realisation came horror. Leo had almost chased after Niles, got as far as swinging out of his doorway only to bump into Camilla who had stepped back, seen the colour to his cheeks and then pointed… in the direction of Takumi’s room.
Leo had turned away with as much pride as he could muster and closed the door. He could still hear her giggling on the other side of it.
And with the horror came no end. At once, he noticed everything he had been missing. Sly comments, especially from but not limited to Niles, subtle shifts in formations from the dinner tables to the battle field and was it him or was Takumi being louder than normal? He was blissfully unaware of everything like the lucky fool he was, in perfect sight of Leo as they dined, sat between his retainers who were just as painfully loud. Leo had felt his jaw twitch and fingers flex, ready to throw something at the Hoshidan prince, if not a spell then at least a potato. Then he remembered the eyes on him and looked back at his table. Elise sat across him, swinging her legs, and when she smiled, elbow on the table and puffed cheek deflating against her propped up fist, Leo dropped his fork in his plate in defeat. Even his little sister was waggling her eyebrows at him. He had pocketed an apple and left to the refuge of his room. At least books didn’t look at him like they expected something.
The fourth time they had ended up in each other’s face at the end of a battle, Leo was all too aware of the sound of laughter, amused hollering and whistling that was a mix of Odin’s innocent trill and Niles’ suggestive catcall. Takumi was close, deaf to it, glare fierce. His lip was plump where Leo had hit him only a week ago. He hadn’t gone to a healer and Leo was surprised enough at this fact to not think.
And he said the wrong thing. “Like to wear your battle scars, do you?”
Takumi left a bruise on his jaw and in a similar fashion, Leo had let it go from purple to blue to green to yellow. Camilla’s smile was thinner when she saw it. Elise offered to heal it, cheery, not understanding what it meant. But in a roundabout way, Leo liked it, not the pain but the reclamation of deciding which pains he would heal and which ones he could choose not to, right under the roof of his own home. He thought he had won and that would be the end of it. He had healed. And yet Takumi continued to occupy his mind, a distraction that gave him something else to think about though he didn’t know he searched for it, a distraction that didn’t end like a book inevitably did.
Niles had only got a few words out before Leo had shook off a lewd comment about the state of his jaw. Perhaps confirming that his mouth was in working condition wasn’t the right thing to say. It seemed that these days Leo was always saying the wrong thing, thanks to Takumi.
The rumours grew and Takumi heard none of them.
It was frustrating. Takumi was all too easy to miscalculate and underestimate. His temper, his bad attitude and his inability to conceal both covered intelligence so brilliant that even Xander had been impressed. The pains of the ignored younger brother had come second to the sheer frustration of seeing Takumi offer genius plans whilst remaining ignorant to the teasing they had been subjected to.
Or rather, when they finally spoke to each other beyond tactical measures or curses, Takumi was simply a fool to the nature of it.
“What are we?” Leo asked, as he had the first time they had spoken to each other upon the agreement to a truce of indifference.
Takumi didn’t hesitate then, he didn’t hesitate now. “Rivals.”
They were early to meet their brothers, armed with plans. Leo kept his close to his chest but Takumi, ever emotional, wasn’t good at holding back. Takumi’s eyes were brown but emotions passed through them like storms. Frustration and indignation a whirlwind so powerful Leo could have missed the flash of regret. Leo wasn’t the only one speaking thoughtlessly. “I wasn’t under the impression they meant two different things.”
Leo relished the upper hand. “If you read as many books as people say you do then surely you wouldn’t have to ask me that.”
“I wasn’t asking,” Takumi snapped before his tone took a mocking, mimicking turn. “And surely you’re not one to listen to rumours.”
“Listening does not equate to believing. How many books have you read to finish despite their poor quality?”
Takumi’s eyes narrowed. “Why do the books I read matter so much to you?”
In a detached sort of way, Leo noticed that there were dark circles under Takumi’s eyes, signalling lack of rest. It appeared he didn’t trust his hosts, even in his sleep.
Leo’s simple answer made a muscle tic in Takumi’s jaw. “Enough of this senseless talk. There are more pressing matters than what you think will make a good bedtime story.”
“Do you know what they’re saying?” Leo said, lowering his voice.
“Yes,” Takumi responded impatiently, occupying his eyes with anything but Leo. “But do not flatter yourself, Prince Leo. We are nothing alike.”
Leo thought about the reason they kept fighting, the way they looked at their older brothers. Then he thought about Takumi not looking at him, not out of misplaced shyness or shame. He truly was a fool, ignorant to what it meant to be alike. Leo snorted. “That I know.”
Takumi turned on him. Shorter than Leo, he lacked the usual layers of clothes he wore as armour but still carried his bow as if he didn’t trust to leave it behind anywhere on Nohrian territory or rather, he presumed he would need it. That was likely to be the case. In just a shirt, Leo could see that he was as a disadvantage. Takumi was built stockier. Leo had heard that he trained in his free time, the sound of his retainers taking a friendly beating but without the sound of metal meeting. They didn’t spar but tussled.
“Are we done here?” Takumi demanded. It was a forceful question and the other’s gaze didn’t waver. Leo wondered if his own eyes had storms.
And they wouldn’t meet again until parallel lines broke out of formation, a supposedly rare event.
Perhaps it was the severity of their schedules or the uneasiness of rival kingdoms giving way to a necessary companionship but for some time, Leo and Takumi didn’t fight. The rumours calmed, Niles found someone new to bother and all that was left the occasional innocent comment on the similarities between the two young princes. Leo dismissed them and relished that he rarely had to look Takumi in the eye, only ever meeting in boardrooms with their brothers, trusting Takumi to fight for himself behind him on the battlefield.
He didn’t think about the implications of giving his back to a man who proclaimed himself an enemy, a rival. There were worse enemies in front of him.
And Leo loathed admitting it but he was bored.
At first, he didn’t understand. He took stairs two at a time, books in threes. When with others, he felt characteristically uneasy, pushing away Niles’ casual touches and shushing Odin’s declarations just the same. When alone, he felt uncharacteristically uneasy, restless for something he couldn’t put his finger on, looking for answers between volumes on history and philosophy. It was the sort of feeling that frustrated to no end when present but when gone, it was like it was never there. Maybe Niles was right that Leo wasn’t as sharp as usual. It took him too long to understand that Takumi somehow righted an unexpected wrongness, over maps and with the sound of an arrow sailing too close past his ear. Leo had stared at the Faceless he missed, out of his peripheral vision, just as Takumi was, but didn’t look back. He trusted Takumi to cover his ground and Leo worked harder to cover his own. With detached understanding, he accepted that the Hoshidan prince had saved his life. It overshadowed his own incompetence, the fury that a perfectionist directed towards the mirror. Even without seeing him, Takumi was always central to his line of sight.
If he was being truly honest with himself, Leo would admit that he only understood when they met alone again, too early to a meeting where they planned to impress their older siblings. Takumi stilled at the sight of him in the room, empty otherwise. Leo smirked, a practiced twitch of his lips. “Prince Takumi.”
“Prince Leo,” the other responded, terrible at hiding his suspicions.
“Now,” Leo said, in a tone he knew was the opposite of reassuring, “there’s no need to look at me like that. I’ve said no more than a few words.”
“Those few are quite enough,” Takumi said dryly.
Leo considered redacting what he planned to do but instead settled to sighing melodramatically. “I suppose that means you wouldn’t fancy a book full.”
Takumi was taken off guard and Leo used the opportunity to toss a book, previously settled over Xander’s papers detailing a vulnerable village to the west, at the other prince’s face with only the warning of, “Catch.” Takumi did.
He lowered the book to stare down at it for a long moment as if he expected it to be a trap. Sick of the silence like he had never been before, Leo said, “It won’t morph into a snake.”
Takumi glared at him but said nothing, surveying the spine for a title but finding it on the first yellowed page, the black ink of an illustrated bow and arrow still stark against it. When Takumi looked up, his gaze wasn’t suspicious. “Why are you giving me this?” He sounded confused.
Leo simply said, “You saved my life.”
Gods knew both of them didn’t measure a life for a dust drenched book but Takumi didn’t say it. Arrogantly (hopelessly), Leo didn’t expect him to understand but in Takumi’s eyes, there was no fog. For people like them, books had given them something immeasurably powerful to take to battle. Books had taught them words to live by.
They knew a book didn’t repay Takumi for Leo’s life but maybe the knowledge in it would save Takumi’s life one day.
They weren’t friends but in between the pages was an offer of a compromise without spoken words.
Leo wondered if Takumi had been as restless as him because when they came back, they came back swinging. They were maintaining a paranoid image, the jeers were louder, their fights extended to corridors, the dinner hall and every cut, every bruise, every pain made Leo smile. Takumi bit but Leo tore back. It got better, it got worse. They refused to see their younger sisters to heal their wounds. They were children, easily provoked. They were men, proud, and Leo became well acquainted with Takumi’s hands, clenched hard around the front of his shirt and open and careful as they cradled the books Leo oh-so carelessly threw at him.
One night, Leo found himself thinking about them, Takumi’s hands. It was getting harder to sleep.
Niles had seen the bags under his eyes and raised an eyebrow. Leo shook his head, dismissing the comment before it came, and his retainer chuckled. So what are you guys anyway? Friends?
Takumi arrived to meetings early but Leo arrived earlier, a book always tucked to his side. And with Takumi, Leo rediscovered the pages he had forgotten, the stories he had grown bored of, reading the words in a whole new way.
They weren’t friends but somewhere along the lines, between the books they shared, things became comfortable, easy. Too easy and if Leo knew anything, it was to fear the calm before the storm.
In the heat of summer, Leo forgot to. They had taken to eating outside, the Nohrians trailing after the Hoshidans who turned towards the light like sunflowers. Leo toed dandelions with the tip of his boot, a book on his lap, ill equipped for the warmth in black clothing but he had ridded his armour some time ago, leaning against the tree as he was, savouring the shade. He couldn’t ever remember the kingdom being this light. It made him forget they were in the middle of a war. It made him confuse who his enemies were.
Takumi had dropped beside him without a word (a surprise in itself) and by the time Leo’s squint allowed him to recognise the Hoshidan prince, others had already followed his lead, sitting down with plates piled of food, talking between mouthfuls. It could have been like Leo wasn’t even there had it not been for Takumi who nudged him, half a loaf in his hand. Leo had been so busy wiping sweat off his forehead as discreetly as possible he had forgotten to get his own lunch or rather postponed it for later, with the promise of privacy. Pride made him want to reject but then his stomach grumbled and he wondered if it was warm enough to blame the sun for the flush rising up his neck. Takumi snorted at Leo’s body betraying itself and pressed the loaf insistently into his hands. Leo took it.
Their trades were not limited to books. The exchange did not go unnoticed but Leo pretended to not see the look directed his way by Camilla, who was basking like a cat in the sunlight. Soon enough, Hinata battling an insect distracted him well enough. He didn’t look at Takumi but rather felt him shake a little with silent laughter. It was too hot out but in the pit of Leo’s stomach, he felt warmth.
Nonetheless, the heat had been unforgiving and Leo trudged back into the coolness of the castle as soon as lunch came to an end. He heard Takumi follow and led them to the nearest room that wasn’t occupied, holding his breath. They had talked books in the neutral ground of the boardroom but never had they met outside of it, only taunting in passing, until today.
A game of trades. Takumi had surrounded him at lunch and now, Leo opened an empty room and let Takumi in.
Leo knew the vast kingdom, from the villages and towns beyond the walls to the gardens just outside and the interior castle halls he called his own. He knew it like the back of his hand and he knew the room they entered now (though, in a home as big as this, he couldn’t recall if he had ever been in before.) It was wholly identical to the many rooms that paralleled it all over the castle, a study with a desk, a quill, ink and parchment stored away in it and general books that wouldn’t interest him or his guest but he wasn’t here for them anyway. Leo led the way to a table shrouded by a sheet. The curtains were half drawn but there was enough light for them to see but not enough to hurt Leo’s eyes. He hoped Takumi wouldn’t protest and Takumi didn’t, instead closing the door behind him silently. Leo would have said cat got your tongue? had his own not been caught.
The only sound was the ripple of fabric as Leo lifted the sheet, airing the dust where it caught in the slim ray of light that crossed the chessboard, favouring the black pieces to the white. Leo righted the king and then turned towards the other prince. Takumi stood so the sunlight caught half of his face, blinding one eye, the other golden but unreadable. Leo gestured at the chessboard, free from the dust that aged everything else in the room, and asked, “Fancy a game, Prince Takumi?”
Joining the books and the lunches, Leo taught Takumi chess. Leo still called them trades, though logically it made little sense to view their exchanges as such. If Leo gave in books and Takumi in meals then the chessboard was equal ground, the new boardroom with the pieces their very own armies to lead.
Takumi, as intelligent as he was, lost often and swore that he would beat Leo in shogi. He laughed when Leo mispronounced it. It didn’t matter if they lost or won here, not because it wasn’t real anyway but because somewhere between books and hours of each other’s company, they had stopped being rivals.
So they weren’t enemies and their meetings weren’t trades but what they were neither claimed to know. They were at war, often preoccupied with jobs of leading tactically or advising their brothers, and their lives didn’t stop between the hours of their exchanges.
That didn’t mean Leo didn’t think about it.
It had taken Leo more time to get used to the casual touches that occurred between friends. Takumi was far less careful with concepts of personal space – all the Hoshidans appeared to be. One lunch time, he had watched Hinata sling his arm over his prince like it was nothing, like being friends destroyed every school of belief between a man and his royal liege. But what was a touch between two princes?
As lax as Takumi appeared in his authority, Hinata and Oboro were loyal to a fault and watched their prince leave with Leo every day with attentive eyes, not all too kind in the case of the latter. Only orders appeared to keep Oboro from launching herself after them. Or perhaps that was the friendship between them. Over time, it had begun to feel strange to refer to them as Takumi’s retainers but friends was harder.
It had taken Leo even longer to get used to Takumi touching him. The first time Takumi had bumped his shoulder, Leo had braced himself for a touch harder and instead had received an odd look from the other prince, looking back at where Leo had frozen in the path. What? Did you forget something?
No, Leo wanted to say. I realised something. But that meant saying what they had become and it was easier to decode the language of touch than to speak of what it meant.
The next time Takumi bumped their shoulders, Leo bumped his own back and Takumi laughed at whatever they had been talking about. Leo couldn’t remember what. The touch, the laugh – a soft chuckle, unused and surprised – had felt like the day in the sun, a flush at the back of Leo’s neck and warm in his stomach.
Soon, Leo had learnt the art of friendly touches and the kingdom grew used to the sight of them pushing each other through the corridors, insulting each other lightly, but had yet to know about the quiet meetings with hands brushing elbows as Leo led the way, Takumi still unaccustomed with the darkness of the hallways and terrible at directions.
An instance found them arguing about the kingdoms’ code of conduct at the table with animated hand gestures, after watching Effie devour a table of food. Including the table, Takumi joked and Leo rolled his eyes at the exaggeration, recalling how Takumi had broken out in sweat when watching the soldier have her dinner, awe and fear as plain as day on his face.
“I did not look like that,” Takumi argued, pulling a face in response to Leo’s impersonation.
Leo just snorted, turning to open the door to the study as he said, “Believe me, that was exactly your expre- huh.”
Takumi’s voice was close behind him. “What is it?”
“The door.” Leo jangled the handle so the futile sound of a lock echoed the hallway. “Someone locked it.”
“No,” Leo said dryly, “using a key.”
Takumi didn’t sound impressed. “Then what’s the problem? Break in?”
“Do you use your arrow to pick locks like a common thief too?”
Suddenly, Takumi moved to stand with his front pressed to Leo’s side, the difference in their heights all the more prominent so close. It had been a while since they had any reason to meet face to face, Takumi’s expression an argument, mouth pursed and chin tilted up so their gazes met with surprising evenness. “Move.”
Leo opened his mouth to argue until Takumi put his hand on the door handle and he stilled, unable to do anything. Leo couldn’t remember an instance before this where skin met, not without the memory of violence. Now Takumi’s hand was over his, brushing it away, and after a second, Leo complied robotically. He stepped back and watched as Takumi put some force behind his touch, the shoulder that met Leo’s just mere moments before now shoving against the door.
The door opened with a concerning creak but Takumi looked smug, gesturing at the handle that was still thankfully intact. Leo stared at him in question. Takumi shrugged. “Everything in these particular rooms is ancient. I just guessed the locks were too. It was just stiff.” Much like the rest of the castle was left unsaid. You have no idea, Leo’s still body would say.
“Remind me to have new ones installed,” Leo murmured.
Takumi didn’t take offence, not waiting for Leo to push past but entering the room first. Leo watched him march over to the chessboard, sitting himself down with familiarity. Their last game lay in wait, unfinished. They had gotten distracted discussing the philosophy behind kingship and the role of the queen, debating with a passion that had sent a knight flying. Leo closed the door and retrieved the missing piece from where it had rolled under the desk chair. He didn’t need to survey how Takumi reset the board. They had played together enough times that he had faith in Takumi.
The game transpired as normal until a non-descript move of Leo’s, midway through. He noticed Takumi staring and looked up from the game board, chin still balanced in his hand and expression half-in half-out of thought. “What?”
Takumi blinked when he realised he had been caught and stumbled over his words. “I just noticed something – earlier. Your skin is… really soft.” Leo was lucky that his hands propped him up. He stared back at the other prince, unblinking. Takumi kept talking. “Well, it looks soft- on your face, that is. I haven’t touched your face.”
Leo relaxed faster than he thought he would, faced with Takumi’s oblivious blunders. “Do you hear yourself speak? I haven’t touched your face.”
“I meant I’ve touched your hands and they’re soft!” Takumi flushed now, embarrassed. “Gods, your impersonations are awful.”
“You’re awful.” But Leo didn’t mean it, smiling, and for weeks, he hadn’t understood the warmth inside him until now, spreading in time with Takumi’s blush. He didn’t have time to catch the thought before it got out of hand and out of hand it did. He was enamoured – with the scattered chess pieces, the light filtering between unevenly closed curtains and the endearing sight of pink across Takumi’s cheekbones.
And the thought couldn’t hurt him here, between friendly touches and questions like best two out of three? It was a secret, like the nature of these meetings and the sound of Takumi’s laugh. It was Leo’s alone.
They weren’t friends but-
The thought could hurt Leo when he was alone.
Under normal circumstances, he had an ordered system. When Leo found it difficult to sleep, he worked. When he was too tired to work, he would read. When he was unable to keep his eyes open, he slept. But some night had become tosses and turns of endless restlessness, like and utterly unlike that of which he experienced during the brief hiatus of his and Takumi’s confrontations. Now he struggled to sleep, too exhausted to do anymore work but every book had begun to remind him of Takumi, his thoughts never straying too far from the other prince. Some nights, Leo found he didn’t mind, setting aside books to give to him when they would next meet.
Other nights, he longed for sleep so he could stop thinking, so he wouldn’t have to face the implications, the consequences of what he had done. Other nights, Leo felt alone, vulnerable without his armour, unarmed without a book. On these nights, Leo would curl up, unable to remember what he was punishing himself for. He made a mantra, chanting even as he choked, they were friends (we aren’t) they were only friends (no we’re not) because these days, friends was better than what they had become. But it wasn’t enough when he was alone and he was left to face a monster morphing into the shape of the man Leo had no choice but to look up to when he felt so very small.
On these nights, Leo could still hear his voice, low, deep in his chest, like a hand curled around his heart as he said that he was disappointed, he expected better from his brilliant son, so intelligent with the brain but so weak, so pathetic with his heart. Leo still remembered the first time he had stared too hard at another man – another boy, he desperately corrected himself, another boy just as he had been a boy himself – and he remembered it as the first time the man he loved more than any other had raised a hand against him.
Feelings were beaten out of him to mould him into not only a soldier, a prince but his father’s son.
On these nights, Leo slept between instances of panic seizing him, squeezing his neck when awake and smothering his chest when he was asleep.
Leo woke cold but sweat drenched like the summer days he rose to. He washed and dressed, agreeing with his sisters that he really ought not to stay up so late studying, knowing it showed on his face. He didn’t realise he was holding his breath until he saw Takumi, a way away but close enough that Leo could see the way the skin at the corner of his eyes folded gently as he smiled in greeting. When Takumi took his breath away, Leo taught himself to breathe again.