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you can thank your stars all you want but I'll always be the lucky one

Chapter Text

.

Technically, it all started because Judal decided to be an asshole.

To be fair, many things had started because Judal decided to be an asshole, like the school principal’s very unfortunate haircut back in primary school, or the whole middle school soccer team suddenly sporting bright pink tie-dyed jerseys, or that one classroom fire back in high school, among other things (and there were a lot of other things).

It kept her at night, sometimes, questioning herself why she was still friends with the guy.

Kougyoku had known him long enough to know that whenever Judal got that smug, up-to-no-good grin on his face, it was best to keep her distance for at least a few days. Not that he actively got her involved in whatever trouble he was going for (he had given up halfway through primary school, besides, there was always Kouha), she simply preferred not to be collateral damage ( “Aw, Kougyoku, I didn’t know you were gonna be here! S’okay, green’s a good look on ‘ya.” ).

More importantly, she didn’t want to be caught in the crime scene holding evidence ( “Miss Ren, we expected better of you. You should know better than to aid such childish behavior.” and she was never  going to naively hold a bottle of glue again just because Judal asked her so nicely. ).

It was rare for one of Judal’s pranks to result in good things.

Fine. Judal’s pranks never, in written/remembered/reported history, resulted in good things.

Until Kougyoku met her (new, not-prank-pulling, sweet, considerate, too-good-to-be-true, and very much not-Judal) friend because Judal decided to be an asshole.

“Have you seen that new kid?” Judal had asked her one evening.

She cast him a withering look as if to point out ‘It’s the first week of the term, there’s a LOT of new kids’ .

She couldn’t be sure he interpreted her expression correctly, but he was prompted to elaborate: “Blue hair. Big head. Annoying nerd smile. He’s like, really small. Looks like he should be in first grade. Hangs out with this, like, disgusting ray of sunshine.”

Kougyoku had seen that new kid, yes, and she didn’t think he should be in first grade, no thank you. Maybe middle school. Or first year high school at most. Whatever. She couldn’t recall his name, but he was supposed to be a kid genius of some sort under a scholarship. They shared some of their classes. She assumed the ‘disgusting ray of sunshine’ Judal was pertaining to was the blond student who looked like the kid’s big brother or guardian because they were always together.

She didn’t have to reply, it seems, because Judal had, inevitably, arrived to a very Judal conclusion: “M’gonna make that kid suffer.”

He had that face on. She knew by now that any effort to dissuade him will go to waste.

“Go easy, he’s a kid.” was all she said. “And a little warning would be nice. Last time, you got paint on my favorite skirt.”

.

She was present when Judal pulled the first prank. A safe distance away from the colorful glitters and shiny cutout shapes that ended up adorning the kid’s - Aladdin , she learned from the blond friend’s horrified exclamation - head of long blue braided hair.

Aladdin furrowed his brows as he looked around, looking for the perpetrator. Judal was not owning up to the crime but was not trying to play innocent either with his smug grin and not-very-subtle sniggers.

Blond friend was too busy patting off the glitter and confetti on Aladdin’s hair to see Aladdin’s expression turn sour, usual pleasant smile switched for a scowl.

He glared. It was cute because he looked like an angry puppy. It also made Kougyoku rub her temples.

Because Aladdin’s expression blatantly spelled, ‘You’re gonna regret that.’

Judal, because he decided to be an asshole (and when he does, he commits ), grinned wider and cocked his head, obviously meaning, ‘Come at me, bro.’

Kougyoku could only sigh, and comforted herself by looking at the worried blond friend who was now trying to borrow tissues from some girl in their class to help wipe off the glitter. Why doesn’t she have a friend like that?

.

The last time Kougyoku witnessed a prank war, it was between Judal and Kouha, and it ended in a most terrifying friendship between the two. After that, they became partners in crime instead of rivals.

Kouha was not here, however. (College was not for Kouha, and that she agreed with. Backpacking across the continent to go to questionable destinations for an indefinite period of time was the way to go for Kouha, it seems.)

Compared to her brother, Aladdin was, genius or not, a kid, younger than his friends here in campus - so it made sense that he would try to get back at Judal.

During the Judal-vs-Kouha war, Kougyoku kept her distance until it died down. This time, she knew it was best to do the same.

The thing is, it was kind of hard to avoid either of them because Judal was her roommate (Kou, and it turned out that Aladdin and his friend were their next-door neighbors, and they shared about 40% of their classes.

Maybe she shouldn’t have been so surprised when she followed Judal into the study lounge three days after his prank on Aladdin and was welcomed with slimy bright yellow goo from an impressively set-up contraption above the doorway.

She shrieked, and then promptly wished to disappear from the face of the Earth because of course all eyes would turn to her.

“Holy shit, that’s actually good !” was from Judal, the bastard - and she gaped because how was he entirely goo-free and how dare he laugh at her?!

“Miss, I’m so sorry! That- That wasn’t for you, I swear- Crap, I’m really sorry-” was from Aladdin, and he sounded so distressed that Kougyoku actually found it hard to be angry at him.

“Aladdin, what the hell!” was Alibaba (she learned the name of Aladdin’s ray of sunshine blond friend just the day before), who instead of flailing helplessly like Aladdin or laughing hysterically like Judal, actually moved to help her. “Miss, are you okay-”

“Please save my papers.” was her first reaction, shoving her (thankfully goo-safe so far) papers and bag towards him.

“Right, yeah, sure.” he nodded and accepted the items.

As soon as her hands were free, she moved to wipe the goo from her face. It made her feel grosser. It was sticky and it felt wet and it was everywhere .

Alibaba shoved her things for Aladdin to hold, assessing her state. “Here, uh- Oh, man. You should-...”

He was a quick thinker, and Kougyoku was grateful for it because she realized that the yellow goo was making her clothes not only stick to her figure, her blouse was also becoming partly see-through. What the hell was that goo?! Alibaba removed his jacket - which was pure white (who even wears a pure white jacket???) - and wrapped it around her, not seeming to care if it also got stained by the goo. She quickly hugged the jacket to herself to preserve her modesty. He also retrieved a handkerchief from his pocket so she can wipe her face with it.

The goo was persistent. Wiping it off actually felt worse .

But hey, Alibaba was trying, so - “Thank you.” Kougyoku mumbled softly, head bowed to hide how horrible she must look, all yellow goo and red cheeks. When Judal poked at her hair, she swat at him. “Not you !”

Judal ignored her in favor of examining the pinch of yellow goo he now had on his fingers. “Damn, shorty. What is this shit?”

“Like I’ll tell you.” Aladdin grumbled.

“Don’t worry about your clothes. It won’t stain.” Alibaba assured Kougyoku as she tried to wipe chunks of goo off her collar. “Right, Aladdin?”

“Yeah. It won’t. It’s just sticky- It’ll come off in water.” Aladdin said, still distraught, hugging her papers and bag to himself. “I’m really really sorry, Miss Ren-”

Kougyoku just looked down and shook her head. “I know you didn’t mean it. Just-”

“It was for Judal!” Aladdin insisted. “I’d never have done it if I knew you’ll get caught in-” then a pause as he glared at Judal accusingly. “You pushed her in!”

“No I didn’t.” Judal said. “I pulled her with me ‘cause I know you were plannin’ something. I thought you won’t do it. Too late. It was happening. So I stepped back.”

Kougyoku rounded on him. “You didn’t think to pull me back too?!”

Judal pouted. “Whoa, I’m not the nerd who cooked up special goo to pour on you.”

“It was for you !” Aladdin pouted back.

“Still your fault-”

You started it!”

“And you actually followed-”

“You can’t always get away with being a bully-”

Okay, they were causing a scene now. They had caused a scene. And were prolonging that scene, with Kougyoku dead center because of her pathetic dripping-in-goo state. She doesn’t do attention. She ducked her head, internally panicking. What should she do? Just… leave? Aladdin has her things. Maybe she could just grab them and make a run for it. She’ll find Alibaba later to give him his jacket and handkerchief back, he was just next door anyway-

She wasn’t sure if Alibaba noticed her panic, but he cut off the argument swiftly. “Nope, we have no time for this. I’m going to take Miss Ren back to the dorms before you two can embarrass her further, and- ” his eyes narrowed as he pointed to them when they moved to follow him. “-you two will stay here and get this mess cleaned up. While you’re at it, maybe think about what you’ve done?”

He didn’t wait for their reply. He just took Kougyoku’s things from Aladdin and led her out the room. They left to the sound of Judal and Aladdin still bickering.

As they walked to the direction of their dorm building, Alibaba sighed. “I’m really very sorry for the trouble, Miss Ren. I really should have stopped Aladdin. He said he just wants to make things even, and I did think Judal kinda deserved it, but still.”

“Oh, it’s… it’s done now. Nothing we can do about it. And Judal was being a bully.” she said sullenly, now squeezing yellow goo off her hair. It really felt gross. Did Aladdin make this? If she wasn’t its victim, she would be impressed.

People stared at them as they walked by. No, scratch that - they were staring at her. It was awful. Kougyoku was the least social of her siblings. Kouen, Koumei and Kouha always oozed confidence, albeit in different ways. But Kougyoku - Kougyoku was awkward. There was a reason why she always prefered to trail after Judal or her brothers.

Right now, she wasn’t alone. Alibaba was walking with her. But she didn’t really know him, and even though he hadn’t acknowledged all the staring their way, it must be embarrassing to walk with a girl dripping wet with weird yellow goo.

“You don’t have to walk me all the way back.” she said, avoiding looking at him. He had been really nice to her, and she didn’t want to trouble him any further. “I’ll… I’ll just take my things, and I’ll wash your jacket as soon as I can-”

“Nope, not happening.” he shook his head firmly. “You don’t deserve to do a yellow goo walk of shame alone.”

So he knew that people were staring. So he doesn’t care? Or he doesn’t want to leave her to suffer alone? That made her smile a bit. “Thanks, um, it’s Alibaba, right?”

“Yep. Alibaba Saluja. It’s nice to meet you. Uh, Kougyoku? Did I say that right?”

She nodded. “Nice to meet you too. I’ll… shake your hand, but… you know.” she smiled uneasily, raising her hand which still had traces of the sticky yellow goo.

Alibaba snorted, then extended his hand. “Nah. Bring it in.”

“No, I’m not infecting you with sticky goo!” she insisted, although she couldn’t help but let out a small laugh.

“Hah! You just gave me an idea!”

He tucked her papers and bag securely under one arm, then with his other hand he took a bunch of goo that had been stuck on the ribbon on top of her head.

He visibly cringed, not hiding his disgust as he withdrew his hand, his palm now covered in goo. “Oh, ewww. This is gross ! Aladdin really went all out- Ew. Ewww. OH MY GOD, IT’S HORRIBLE. IT… IT DRIPS BUT IT’S STICKY. EUGHHH-”

Kougyoku had to stifle her laugh behind the borrowed handkerchief. “W-Why did you even do that?!”

“I don’t know, solidarity? I think?” his expression was that of a person who had been dead set on a goal but was slowly regretting his decisions, then he took in her state again. “Oh man, and you’ve got a ton of it on you!”

“Yes, I do feel really really gross. This is worse than when I got caught in a food fight between Judal and my brother. That was pie. This is way worse than pie for some reason.” she shook her head, then cringed when her own hair got stuck in her cheek. She brushed it off and then cringed some more because goo got caught in her hand again . “I’d congratulate Aladdin but that would be weird. I’m gonna have to take a really long shower for this.”

“Can’t blame you. I only have it in my hand and I want to shower too.” he said, considering the goo in his hand.

Then he shrugged and said, “Oh, well. What’s the worse that can happen?”

Kougyoku watched in horror as he pressed his goo-infested hand to his cheek.

“Ew. Euuuggh.” he groaned, face scrunching up as he glared at his hand. “Okay, it’s worse in the face.”

“What are you doing?!” she whisper-shouted, only barely stopping herself from slapping his arm and staining his white shirt (he had been wearing. a white shirt. under the white jacket.) with the goo.

Alibaba shrugged again. “It’s just- You look horrible.”

She paused, an eyebrow raised. It was one thing for Judal to call her an ugly hag , but no one had ever said she looked horrible.

Alibaba, for one, looked horrified. “No, no! I mean! I didn’t mean you look horrible! You look fine! No, not fine, there’s the goo. I didn’t mean like horrible ugly, ‘cause you’re not ugly. You’re pretty. No, wait, I just mean- You’re still pretty even with the goo- Okay, no, that’s inappropriate- Uh- Uhhhhh…”

He was going in circles. Kougyoku just blinked, looking at him expectantly.

After a few moments of hand flailing, he finally seemed to gather his thoughts. “I mean, you look like you feel horrible ? I think you do? And I- Y’know, people are looking at us, so I thought maybe uh, maybe I should have goo too so you won’t feel alone?”

She nodded slowly. “So it’s like you said before? Solidarity?”

“That! Yup. We are now together suffering from Aladdin’s weird evil yellow goo from hell.” he said, nodding back eagerly. “And you don’t have to worry about shaking my hand now. Yay.”

Kougyoku hid an amused snort behind the sleeve of his too-big jacket. Finally, she raised her hand for him to take.

He grinned as he shook her hand.

A soft, wet, squelching sound was heard.

They stared down in growing terror.

“Ew.”

“...so gross.”

“Right, so let’s just… do this over when we’re not covered in goo.”

“Oh… Oh no.”

“What?”

“We’re gonna get goo on the doorknob, are we?”

.

The next day, Kougyoku received a bunch of flowers with a card saying “I’M SORRY YOU GOT SHOWERED WITH GOO.” and a tiny envelope with a gift card to an expensive clothing store.

“Aladdin, no. It was an accident.” she said, although she would admit she was very touched.

Aladdin shook his head stubborn. “No, it wasn’t. I set it up, it happened at the right time, it just hit the wrong person. I’m really really sorry!” - and then he bowed his head again.

Kougyoku turned towards Alibaba who was standing beside his best friend, and he just nodded  encouragingly as if to say ‘Just accept it or he’ll feel real bad forever.’

“Alright, alright. I’m taking this. You’re… forgiven, I guess? The gift card is a bit much-”

“It’s okay, it’s a token of apology, You missed study time and I ruined your shirt. Please take it!”

A sigh. “Okay. Thank you.”

She was standing by the doorway of her dorm room when she found the two of them waiting, knowing she would have to come out soon since her next class was about to start.

As she moved to quickly put away the apology tokens, Aladdin peered inside the room with narrowed eyes. “Where’s Judal?”

Kougyoku shrugged. “Off somewhere, I don’t really know…”

“...the black one is his bed, right?”

“Aladdin…” Alibaba started, tone bearing warning.

“Can I put like, plastic spiders on it or something-”

Alibaba groaned. “Aladdin, no! That’s Kougyoku’s room too.”

“It’s not like she sleeps on his bed.” Aladdin pointed out.

An awkward silence.

“...Right? Wait, are you together like that?”

Kougyoku frowned, blushing in embarrassment. “What? N-No! We just grew up together, he’s like-” A brother? No, she loves and adores her brothers. Judal she… doesn’t know, really. It’s weird. “-a cousin, or something.”

Aladdin nodded. “Okay. I promise I won’t touch your bed.”

The boy didn’t blink even once as both Kougyoku and Alibaba looked at him.

Surprisingly, it was Kougyoku who broke the silence as she looked away from Aladdin and towards Alibaba. “We have next class together, right?”

Alibaba blinked. “Yeah…?”

“We should go, or we’ll be late.” she said, adjusting her bag on her shoulders and stepping outside the room. Aladdin, still standing inside, beamed as she continued, “I didn’t see anything here.”

Alibaba sniggered and shrugged at Aladdin before following her.

“Don’t worry, I’ll lock the door! And I’ll put your flowers in the water!” Aladdin called after them happily.

.

The dorm room window sills had enough space to serve as a window seat. One only had to pull the blinds and window panes open, and the metal bars that was attached outside window ensured that anyone sitting in the sill won’t fall over.

Kougyoku was sitting in that very spot, mirrored by Alibaba from his own room next to her’s as they quizzed each other for an upcoming test on a subject they shared, when her roommate let out a shrill cry from his bed across the room.

“WHAT THE FUCK?!” came Judal’s outraged cry when he saw Kougyoku laughing from her spot.

Aladdin’s head appeared next to Alibaba’s as he excitedly asked, “Did it work? Did it???”

Kougyoku was too busy stifling her laugh behind her hand, but she nodded.

Judal charged towards her. “DID YOU DO THIS, YOU UGLY HAG?!”

“No!” Kougyoku answered, enjoying the situation too much to feel threatened.

Then Judal stuck his head out the window, narrowly missing Aladdin as the boy swiftly ducked back inside his room, and came face to face with Alibaba.

Alibaba took one look at him and broke down laughing as well.

Judal’s hair and face was filled with bright green feathers and plastic spiders (because Aladdin always made good on his promises).

“Where is he?!” Judal snarled, the action making the feathers rustle and a spider from his hair fall to his nose, in turn making him hurriedly brush it off and both Alibaba and Kougyoku laugh again.

Aladdin only stuck his head out again and grinned innocently, waved, and then disappeared again.

“You little- How did you even-” then Judal stepped back to look at his roommate. “ You.

“What?” Kougyoku challenged - it was easy to do so when Judal looked specially ridiculous.

He seemed taken aback at her smugness, and then bristled when he caught the flowers on her desk. Then he peeked out the window again to see Alibaba, who quickly hid his face behind a thick reference book. It would have looked convincing if the book wasn’t upside down.

“You let them bribe you with flowers?!” Judal accused.

“I-... I wasn’t bribed!” Kougyoku frowned, indignant.

She wasn’t. She let Aladdin in because... well... Judal had it coming. And alright, maybe she was still kinda annoyed that he didn’t save her from a prank that was supposed to be for him.

He grumbled as he looked out the window again and shouted, “I know you can hear me, half-pint! Better watch your back ‘cause this ain’t over!”

Then he grabbed his towel and headed for the bathroom.

Before slamming the door, he pointed at Kougyoku and scowled, “Stop fraternizing with the enemy!”

Kougyoku pouted, but melted into a smile when she saw Alibaba still sniggering from his window. “What’s Aladdin doing now?”

Alibaba looked inside the room, snorted, and then grinned. “Jumping on the bed celebrating his victory.”

She giggled shortly, looking back down on her book. After a moment, she heard Alibaba exhale loudly before saying, “So, back to business. Was it your turn or mine? Mine? I think?”

Kougyoku smiled as she looked back at her notes and picked a question.

.

Chapter Text

“You’re so lucky, Princess. Your soulmate is a prince.”

Whenever Kougyoku heard those words said to her, she would always look down and trace the soul mark on her wrist. The lines seemed to shimmer faintly, and she thought she heard the crackling of flames.

She was only eight years old when the mark appeared, and she didn’t understand exactly what it meant. Her teachers and servants simply told her that there was someone out there who was meant for her. A person with a matching mark who she had a special, unique connection to.

Kou Empire was a military country. Few people believed in the marks. And for the Royal Family, whose priority was keeping power and order in the empire, soul marks were more often than not an inconvenience. They had to keep the bloodlines pure or forge alliances through arranged marriages, after all.

Ka Koubun had told the young princess that if Kougyoku’s soulmate had been a commoner or even a noble that the Empress didn’t favor, Kou’s sorcerers would have done to her what they had already done for some of her older siblings and cousins - they would have cut the bond.

“What happens when you cut the bond?” she had asked.

Ka Koubun had smiled softly. “You will not be connected to the other person anymore. But you don’t have to worry about that, milady!”

Because her soulmate was a prince , her guardian said happily, even proudly. A prince of Balbadd, a land across the sea, one that Kou has been looking into offering an alliance with for the past few years.

“They would arrange your marriage soon, I presume.” he continued. “You really are lucky, Princess. The Empress is very pleased! You will help seal an alliance with a rich land! They say your prince is favored by his King father as well - who knows? You might be Queen yourself, someday.”

Up until then, her lessons, besides court manners and traditions, had been practical - martial arts, the art of war, how to lead armies… After they discovered who bore her matching mark, she was encouraged to read stories, romances, fairy tales. Gallant princes saving beautiful princesses. Falling in love, living happily ever after. She wouldn’t realize until much later that it was to make her more compliant.

Having a prince as a soulmate made her feel special. Her other cousins and sisters were to be married off to noble strangers, who didn’t share anything special between them. She, however, was going to be married to someone who was connected to her. They were meant to be!

After that, she was proud to bear the mark in her wrist, alive and vibrant compared to the others, whose marks were more like scars, colorless and faded because of the broken connection.

Alibaba , they told her his name was. Prince Alibaba Saluja of Balbadd, third son of King Rashid Saluja. He was the same age as her. A perfect match, everyone said.

Kou was busy fighting a war with another country, so chances to visit Balbadd for a formal meeting never came up. This didn’t worry her so much. The Empress herself had told her that King Rashid was very pleased at their offer to wed her to his son.

Gyokuen promised her that after the war, they would send her to Balbadd to formalize the arrangement.

“You are still young, my dear. Let’s not be so impatient. I hear from Ka Koubun that you are doing wonderful in your lessons. Keep it up, so we can show the King of Balbadd that his son is most fortunate to be promised to you.”

She was only nine, then. And as any obedient royal daughter would, Kougyoku smiled and bowed her head to her aunt and stepmother. “Yes, Your Highness.”

.

His brothers teased Alibaba whenever they caught him looking at the marks on his wrist. Ahbmad would huff and say that having a soulmate is not that special, which always made Alibaba feel smaller. Thankfully Sahbmad was kinder and his teasing was a friendlier kind, asking Alibaba if he was thinking of his future wife again.

They didn’t understand, Alibaba thought. Maybe they would if they get soul marks too. His mother once told him soul marks manifest in different ages depending on the people, and sometimes they never do. There was no easy explanation to it. Until his brothers get theirs as well, perhaps they would never understand why Alibaba was always fussing over his mark.

At first, it was the color. It was eye-catching - blue like the ocean standing out against his pale skin, and it shimmered faintly. Of course his eyes would be drawn to it.

Next, whenever he touched it, he could hear soft sounds behind his ear like a whisper, only it wasn’t a voice but rather the sound of waves crashing softly into the shore.

It puzzled him as an eight year old, and when his father told him that it was something only he could hear because of his soul mark, his eyes lit up with delight.

“It’s magic?”

Rashid chuckled. “Yes, Alibaba. Perhaps it is.”

Then his King father told him that Kou’s Empress reacted favorably to the proposal, and they were only waiting for the war in Kou to end before formalizing it.

He wondered what Princess Kougyoku was like, and so told his father he wanted to meet her. He was too young to really comprehend the thought of being married to anyone. Instead, he was more curious about this connection he supposedly had.

He wanted to know why this magical something thought he should be connected to a princess from another kingdom whom he didn’t even know existed. He wanted to ask her how it felt when her soul mark appeared. Soul marks were supposed to look exactly alike, but usually they differed in color. What was her mark’s color then? What does she hear when she touches it?

“Soon, my boy. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. You are soulmates. You will meet when it’s the right time.”

.


 

.

Alibaba was ten when it first happened, when he first felt the connection really tug at him. He was resting after his fencing lessons, drinking water when he suddenly felt the pain in his chest. At the sound of his goblet dropping to the floor, his teacher looked towards him and saw him curled up on himself, clutching his chest.

He was brought to the palace’s healer, and when the old man didn’t find anything wrong with him physically, he insisted that there must be something wrong.

“Please, it… it really hurts-

He was already crying when he reached up to tug at the healer’s robe. He barely registered the man taking his arm to examine the soul mark on his wrist.

“My Prince,” the healer said softly. “It could be your soulmate.”

“W-What…?”

“She might not be in a very good place right now. The pain… is it in your heart?”

He tried his best to think about it. He was taught to always be honest with the people trying to help him. And yes, his chest did feel heavy, as if something had clutched his heart and squeezed harshly.

“I… It could be? I’m not sure.”

“Sometimes, when one needs help, or when one is in pain, it can be felt by their soulmate, specially if they have a strong bond.”

“But- I haven’t even met her-”

“As long as you believe in your connection, your bond remains. Can you try reaching out to her? Comfort her, to lessen the pain you’re both feeling?”

Alibaba understood the concept, but it did not make sense… Comfort her? Princess Kougyoku was on another country. But it did make him worry. Why should she be in pain? Where was she? Was she sick? In danger? He wouldn’t wish either on anyone.

He looked up at the healer and asked, “How?”

“Think about her, about your bond. Touch your mark if it helps. Focus, try to send your thoughts, your wish for her to feel better.”

Alibaba wasn’t sure he understood fully, but if the pain he was feeling now was actually hers, then he wanted it to stop. For her. So he pressed his hand against his wrist and closed his eyes.

.

The dinner had gone very wrong. Kougyoku was never the best at conversations and politics. Her brothers and older sisters were much better. They were born and bred in the court. She was only brought in when her mother died when she was six.

A guest was being too friendly and intimidated her. She said something she shouldn’t have, and ruined a supposedly perfect evening. The Empress had looked at her in disdain, in disappointment.

From the first day Kougyoku joined the Kou Royal Family, she had tried her best to fit in, to gain their approval despite her own doubts.

She could not handle disappointment, not after the past few years of endless lessons to live up to their expectations.

So after that disaster of a dinner, after a stern conversation with the Empress, she fell into her bed in a flurry of broken-hearted, frustrated tears. She ignored Ka Koubun outside her door, asking after her.

She wanted to shout for him to leave her alone. But no kind and proper princess would do that, even to a servant! Suppressing the urge made her feel worse somehow. Even now, even in the confines of her room, she felt like she had to keep up appearances.

That was when she felt it, a sensation at the back of her mind. It was strange, and she was so confused she actually stopped sobbing to sit up.

“What-”

It was a warm feeling that seemed to wrap around the cold chill she had been feeling. She didn’t know why, but she felt an urge to hold on to her soul mark. As soon as her fingers touched the red marks on her wrist, the feeling intensified, like an invisible embrace while someone told her that everything was going to be alright.

She closed her eyes and slowly laid back against her pillows, holding her hands close to her chest, letting the comfort calm her down until, tired from crying and from the day’s events, she fell asleep.

.


 

.

The ‘pulls’ came more often after that. When her teachers confirmed that it was indeed possible for soulmates to feel each other through their bond, Kougyoku accepted the change easily. After all, it had already happened.

It was easier, almost subconscious after that. Sometimes when she was feeling particularly nervous about appearing in court, or attending another state dinner, she would feel a gentle nudge of support through their bond. Sometimes when she felt happy, there was something like a nod or a content smile from someone in her thoughts.

She had learned how to give back, too. She thought if he could do it, she should be able to as well.

Once, she was walking around in the palace gardens, when she felt a sudden tightness in her chest. She paused and sat down on the nearest surface - a fountain - then touched her mark and sent her sympathies through the bond. She couldn’t know exactly what the source of the fear and agitation was, but a distant feeling seemed to whisper the word ‘nightmare’ , and she accepted that too. It was alright to feel scared and upset after a bad dream.

‘It’s alright.’ she thought. ‘I’m here for you. You’re not alone.’

.

It was strange at first, for Alibaba, to know that there was someone connected to him who felt the same things as him. If he was hurt or upset, why should she suffer too? But there never seemed to be any resentment whenever he felt so. He will just be surprised at the sensation of his soulmate trying to comfort him through the bond.

It wasn’t all bad things, of course. Once in the middle of dinnertime, he suddenly felt a foreign lightness in him. A surge of happiness, he recognized. He broke into a smile and even released a very soft chuckle, catching his father’s and brothers’ attentions.

“What’s so funny? Are you laughing at me?” Ahbmad asked, eyes narrowed and accusing.

“N-No!” Alibaba replied quickly, blushing in embarrassment at being caught. “I just… It’s- She’s… she’s feeling really happy right now. I feel it too.”

Ahbmad scowled in confusion. “She? Who?”

“Your princess?” Sahbmad supplied curiously before their eldest brother could start a tantrum.

Alibaba blinked, then slowly avoided their gazes. “...yes. My princess.”

“That’s good. You already get along.” Rashid nodded his approval. “Let us hope the war in Kou ends soon, no? So you can finally meet her.”

.


 

.

Thewar, however, went on for another year. Other countries had sent their forces to join. Alliances had been broken and built. Kougyoku was not told much, but she was informed that King Rashid of Balbadd had sent some men and aid to Kou as well.

“Of course he would want Kou to win.” Ka Koubun explained to her. “His son’s future bride is here, after all.”

With the emissary from Balbadd came a sealed letter. Empress Gyokuen handed the letter to Kougyoku herself - a message from Prince Alibaba, the woman said.

During the past years, the Empress had seemed to favor her over her other sisters. The woman gave Kougyoku the message unopened, then dismissed her to read it in privacy.

She went into her favorite spot in the gardens to do just so.

The message was written in strokes that looked neat and careful. With an awed smile, she read the contents. It was addressed to Princess Ren Kougyoku, and started with formal greetings. An introduction, indicating the prince’s name and full title. He was glad to finally be able to send a message through the safe hands of their emissary. He was honored to be her soulmate, and would do his best to fulfill his duties as his father’s son if their kingdoms were to arrange their marriage. He extended his hopes and loyalty to the Kou Empire and prayed that they win the war.

It sounded very formal for an eleven year-old, even a prince. It felt a bit off, somehow - very different from the image she had of the person on the other side of the bond…

She read on, and the tension broke - she couldn’t help but let out a smile at the next words.

‘My teacher made sure I wrote all that before I write anything else. Sorry if it’s boring. I meant every word but I think you already know that.’

There it was, it sounded more like him somehow. Warmer and more carefree.

He wrote that he was glad to be writing to her, and was curious about her. He said it would be nice to be friends, although he already thought they were so but found it polite to still ask. He said he would like to get to know her better, but before he asked her anything, he shared himself first. She was thrilled to learn these small facts: he liked reading adventure stories, he was good at economics and arithmetic but didn’t enjoy them as much as he did his swordfighting lessons, he had friends when he was younger that he dearly missed, his favorite color was red, and the soulmark in his wrist was blue.

‘When I touch it, I hear ocean waves. Why do you think it’s so?’

In his letter, he apologized if it was too much. He said that he was hoping to hear back from her, but she should write a reply only if she felt like it.

Of course she felt like it! She wanted him to know about her too. She wanted to tell him she liked stories too, about heroines who were good at fighting because while she was trained in combat she had never been to a real battle. She liked doing calligraphy and sewing, but found her other lessons boring. She could never bond properly with her sisters, but felt closer to her brothers. She sought Kouen’s approval the most, but she loved Koumei’s kindness and Kouha’s open displays of affection. She wanted to tell him about her wish to approach her cousins Hakuei and Hakuryuu, about Empress Gyokuen who was intimidating but whose strength was admirable. She wanted to let Alibaba know that like him, she did not like state dinners and formal gatherings, did not enjoy being stuffy and pretending to be perfect by smiling all the time. Her favorite color was pink, her soul mark was red, like the flames she heard whenever she touched it. Perhaps he hears the ocean in his mark because she liked looking out to the ocean as it brought her peace and calm.

She must have been sending her feelings through the bond, because she felt a light nudge back. A tentative one, inquisitive (because surely he did not know what exactly was happening with her at the moment). She relaxed and sent him her feelings of excitement and gratitude. He happily pushed back, with a hint of confusion at first, but it was followed with calm and content, an acknowledgement.

It was in this state when Judal found her. He was a child her age who was training as a royal sorcerer. Unlike the other trainees however, he was being kept in the palace grounds upon the Empress Gyokuen’s orders.

He huffed when he saw her smiling to herself, then made a rude remark about her sanity. Rightly offended, she whirled around to voice her displeasure, but stopped when something about her friend caught her eye.

“Judal-chan, you got your soul mark! Do you-” she stopped abruptly, noting something wrong. “T-that’s a… strange… color…”

Judal scowled, hand involuntarily touching his neck and the faded marks circling it like a necklace. “What are you, stupid? It’s cut.”

“What?” she asked, almost dropping Alibaba’s letter as she looked at the marks in the boy’s neck. She tried to remember when the last time she saw him was - it couldn’t have been that long… maybe about a week ago? “W-When did you get it?”

“I dunno. Like, three days ago. Then they cut it.”

“Cut it? W-Who did it? Why? Did you know who your soulmate was?”

“No. I don’t need to know. My teachers just cut it. And the Empress. She said I don’t need a soulmate if I’m gonna be a strong magician.”

“B-But-”

“What? Just ‘cause you’re all happy with yours doesn’t mean the rest of us should be.” he said, expression visibly disgusted. “And you only got it ‘cause you need to marry him for Kou, right?”

She reached for her own wrist, covering her soul mark defensively. “That’s… not really-”

“Just sayin’.” Judal scoffed, although he didn’t sound as aggressive as usual. If anything, as he glared at her covered wrist, he looked… bitter? “If the stupid bond’s so special, then why’s it so easy to cut?”

Kougyoku looked away, hastily folding up the letter in her lap and clutching it to her chest.

“You… You don’t understand.” she said softly, willing herself to be angry and call the boy off - who did he think he was to talk to his Princess like this? - but at the same time, she felt sad for him… and for the people around the palace she could remember having faded marks, who had bonds purposely cut so they could serve their country better.

She had never cared much before, but it was painful to think of now. As she felt the ever-present pull of Alibaba’s bond wrap around her, unprompted, reassuring her without questioning why she needed it, she came to the conclusion that she couldn’t imagine how unbearable it would be, to lose her soul bond with Alibaba.

For Kougyoku, who lived the first few years of her life feeling isolated and out of place even among her own family, it had grown to be unthinkable to do without her soulmate, to go without the feeling of knowing she was never alone as long as they were connected.

The next time she saw Judal, his faded marks were hidden under a layered gold necklace.

.


 

.

But of course, Kougyoku thought, because it was to good to be true: to be a favored daughter, to be bonded to a kind and loving soulmate, to be treated like a prized jewel - of course it would all end.

King Rashid’s decision to send half of his army to Kou, the rapid decline of their economy caused by wars left and right on countries Balbadd traded to, and the ambitious traitors who were in his council - all of those made it all-too-easy for detractors to start a civil war in Balbadd.

After another year of struggle, it was too much for a man already old and ailing, and the King passed away too soon. Then it was chaos for Balbadd royalty, until First Prince Ahbmad Saluja was crowned the new king. A boy king. A puppet of his sly, power-hungry council.

The Second Prince, submissive and non-threatening, was reduced to clerk duty, to be his elder brother’s assistant.

The Third Prince, intelligent and a born leader who had been favored by both his father and the people, was sentenced to exile for crimes the council pinned on him, his title and birthright withdrawn, his whereabouts unknown.

Empress Gyokuen, cunning, ruthless and cruel if she willed herself to be, broke the news to Princess Kougyoku herself, followed by the words, “You know what is to happen, right, Kougyoku?”

Kougyoku knew. She didn't understand.

But the Empress had called her by her name, not ‘sweet child’ , or ‘darling’ , or ‘my girl’ , which told Kougyoku enough about her situation.

Stilll - “He’s alive!” the princess cried. “I’d know if he wasn’t!”

“That’s why this is necessary, isn’t it?” Gyokuen said, no trace of remorse or pity in her voice. If the Prince was dead, they wouldn’t need to cut to the bond.

Kougyoku begged - pleaded - “N-No…” the girl sobbed. “Please! I’ll do anything! I’ll marry anyone you want me to marry, I’ll fight in the war with my brothers! Just-... Please, your majesty- Don’t take this away from me- Not him , I beg of you-”

The Empress frowned, and rolled her eyes. When she looked back at her, it was in exasperation. “You foolish girl.”

.

Travelling on his own was difficult, but Alibaba already knew that when he fled from Balbadd. He struggled to lay low and hide his identity while also trying to get by.

He shouldn’t be thankful for it, but the desperate economic situations of their neighboring countries left even a homeless and scruffy thirteen-year old like him with jobs from employers and traders who needed workers but would not be able to pay enough for more demanding adults.

He tried to keep it in, his grief and his loneliness. because after his initial shock a few months ago, he felt Kougyoku’s anxious and scared call through the bond. He had thought something happened to her, but he faintly realized her fear was for him - she was probably surprised to feel his anguish all of a sudden and worried over it. She had always been that way, he had learned. Whenever he felt sad or scared, she nudged back with almost anxious concern.

After that, he tried to numb himself… he didn’t want to rely on her support so much. But sometimes it slipped, him feeling a genuine sadness in his situation and her worrying over the bond. Would his constant mood of misery alarm her enough to wonder if something terrible had happened in Balbadd?

He was not prepared when, a month after his exile, he froze dead in his tracks as an overwhelming flood of emotions pulled at him through the bond. He stumbled towards an empty alley, leaning his back against a brick wall and sliding down to the ground, clutching his soul mark to his chest and trying his best not to drown in the emotions his soulmate was sending him. He tried to pin the emotions down, to identify them: there was shock, then crushing sadness, perhaps grief, a huge dose of worry, and... and fear? She was scared, so scared that it sent chills down his spine.

He wondered if this was how she felt when he reacted to his father’s death and his exile.

He tried to help - that was what they did, always. Without fail, or question, they always tried to help each other. He breathed deeply and tried to send his own concern for her. ‘What’s wrong?’ he thought. ‘Why are you so scared?’

He felt her reach out, holding on to their connection tightly. Her pull was strong - stronger than ever, and he could feel a sort of desperation to it. As if she was clinging, hanging onto a tether.

Something was wrong. Something was very very wrong.

He couldn’t do anything but to try and grip back as tight as he could, to let her know that she was not going through whatever this was alone, just like that first time she pulled at their bond years ago.

Except this was much more painful than that, and his soul mark felt like it was burning in his wrist, all while the sound of waves crashing in his ears were the loudest they have ever been. It almost sounded like someone’s scream.

And then… then there was nothing. No feeling, no burn, no noise except his own labored breathing.

It was gone, just like that - and it took Alibaba so off guard he just sat there with wide eyes for a full minute.

Slowly, he looked down and uncovered his soul mark, just to see its usual vibrant blue fade into the color of a scar in his skin.

“No.” he whispered, letting out a choked sob. “Not her too.”

.


.

Kougyoku lay in her bed, under layers of thick blankets.

“Princess, we could leave a fire for you.” one of her handmaidens said, gazing warily at the cold fireplace in her mistress’ quarters. “Are you sure you don’t want us to? There is a storm tonight.”

“Yes.” the princess said, burrowing further into her sheets. “I’ll be fine.”

She couldn’t bear to hear the sound of the flames.

.


 

.

“The fastest route would be by the sea, of course. But we will be traveling by land. It’s a much longer journey. Would you be fine with that?”

Alibaba shook his head. “No, I-... I don’t like boats much.” he said, trying on a smile for the leader of the group of traders he had asked to come with. “I get sea-sick.”

“Not in a hurry to get to your destination, are you, boy?”

His smile turned sheepish now. “Not really.”

‘As long as I get away from here.’ Alibaba thought.

.


 

.

“Kougyoku.”

She whirled around and froze when she saw who was standing by the entrance of the training grounds.

“Big brother Kouen!” she said, sending the man a smile as she jogged towards him. “Welcome home.”

“It is good to be home.” he nodded, spared her one of his curt smiles, and then eyed the practice sword she held in her hand. “I heard that your skills have greatly improved. Koumei told me you are a formidable fighter now.”

She looked down, fiddling with the hem of her training robes. “A-ah, I… I wouldn’t say that… I’ve simply been… training every day…”

“You put too little credit on yourself.” Kouen said as he laid a hand on top of her head, a rare gesture of affection. “I will be leaving soon. How would you like to join me?”

“J-Join you? Where to?”

“I am going to conquer a dungeon.”

She did not think twice before bowing her head. “It would be my honor!”

.

“Why did you choose me, Vinea?”

“Oh, little queen. It’s because I have never met someone so lonely, yet still strong enough to face me.”

.


 

.

He met Aladdin during his travels. Then Amon happened, and Morgiana was free, and he had conquered a dungeon, and Alibaba suddenly had enough gold to last him several lifetimes.

Aladdin came up with an offer of exciting adventures to come, an invitation to see the world.

He would have taken it - it would be so easy, to go with the boy in his flying carpet just like that. But for some reason, he thought, ‘No, not yet.’

Before anything, before leaving his old life behind, he needed some closure.

It was time to go back to Balbadd.

.


.

“Is this some sort of twisted joke?” Kougyoku asked softly, hands clenched tightly together in her lap.

Ka Koubun did not know what to say, but he tried all the same. “It is what the Empress wants for you, Princess.”

The young woman let out a humorless laugh. “When I was eight, she wanted me to be a pretty princess, fall in love and marry my soulmate to secure her alliance with Balbadd. When my soulmate lost his status, she changed her plans, cut off my soul bond. My soul bond that she had always told me was special and sacred. When she told me I need to make myself useful for the war, I trained and studied for it.

“Now she wants me to go to Balbadd to marry their King, so she can hold Balbadd again, now that it has recovered from the civil war’s damages? What, so now I’m back to being a bargaining chip?”

“Princess, you know you are the only candidate left.” Ka Koubun said, trying to appease her. “Your other sisters have been married or betrothed-”

“I am not like my sisters anymore, though, am I?” she demanded. “I’m not eight anymore, she can’t- She can’t fool me into thinking this is all I am good for anymore. I’m eighteen! I conquered a dungeon with my brother. I was chosen by Vinea. I am a warrior, a King Vessel! I-”

She choked on a sob now, because despite her genuine anger, her Empress and Kingdom’s orders were all she had known and she already knew there was nothing she could do.

She wondered if this was what Kouen wanted for her too, when he said he was proud of her upon earning Vinea. She wished Koumei was here, maybe she could ask him for his advice. He was wise, and he might be able to offer another solution. She wished for Kouha. Kouha would comfort her, he always did. But they weren’t here. They were off expanding the Empire. Even Hakuei - surely Hakuei would understand her. Why was Hakuei free out there while she was ordered to stay put?

“Balbadd’s King is a puppet of his council.” Ka Koubun started explaining, his voice low. “This council had asked the Empress for an alliance. The Empress has gained their loyalty. We just need a way in. Princess, it is your duty. If you marry him, you secure a whole country for Kou. This is more than an alliance. We could have it.”

She understood, she really did. Even though she had never been good at politics, she understood this much, yet-

“I deserve better than this.” she whispered, but closed her eyes and bowed her head.

She tried not to think of a pull, at the back of her thoughts, on a thread tied to her soul, assuring her that ‘yes, you deserve better’ . She knew it wasn’t coming. Even after years, there were still traces of her broken bond left in her instinct, like a void that could never be filled. Even after years, she was still learning how to not cling to it.

.


.

“They rebuilt Balbadd on the backs of slaves.”

Alibaba hadn’t seen his friend since that night of the attack on the palace all those years ago but Cassim’s eyes were clear and sharp on his own, and Alibaba could see the sheer anger and determination in them.

“Sure, trade’s opened again, tourists come and go, and the streets are cleaner. But that’s ‘cause they starved us little people down here until we had no choice but to be their slaves so we’ll at least have food.”

Alibaba looked down. Had he stayed… had he tried to plead for his place in the palace at least, could he have helped or persuaded Ahbmad to put more consideration to all his citizens?

“Look. You’re smart, you’re a good fighter, and you have these… resources. We don’t have to tell the others about who you really are.” Cassim said, this time his voice going softer, persuasive. “Just… help us. We’re your people.”

Alibaba knew he was right. These were his people, prince or not, and he already abandoned them once.

“Alright.” he said, finally nodding. “But what you did when you attacked those royal guards in the market earlier? That wasn’t right. We’re not getting innocent people hurt. If we’re doing this, we won’t be doing it as terrorists. We’ll be a resistance.”

Cassim only nodded back. He extended a hand and Alibaba took it, shaking it firmly. “Welcome home.”

Alibaba smiled. “Thanks.”

“Oh, and… I’m sorry, I guess.”

A blink. “For what?”

“For… that?” Cassim said, gaze wandering towards his friend’s wrist. Alibaba followed it to rest on his faded soul mark. “It’s sad that you… lost them so soon.”

Whenever people saw his soul mark, they quickly assume his soulmate had died. They usually saw it as a tragedy, for someone as young as he was.

Cassim of all people would understand. Alibaba looked at his friend’s shoulder, eyes soft of Cassim’s faded mark. They both missed Mariam, but Alibaba knew the scar ran infinitely deeper for Cassim.

He let out a breath and a small sad smile. “Yeah. It’s… It’s okay. It’s been a couple of years now. We move on, right?”

“Yes.” Cassim said, this time giving him a comforting pat on the shoulder. Alibaba was relieved when he didn't ask further, simply saying, "We do.”

.


 

.

Balbadd had a beautiful capital, Kougyoku would give it that. The palace was not as big as Kou’s of course, but that was to be expected. She was welcomed with all the proper accommodations, and the people were very warm and pleasant.

The king was… not as she had expected. She did expect him to be only a few years older than her, because she was told as much. But she had to steel herself when he only spared her a glance and scoffed, commenting that she wasn’t as pretty as she should be, and that she seemed boring. Puppet king or no, Kougyoku had expected a little more maturity , perhaps. King Ahbmad was too much a spoiled and arrogant brat to her.

The second Prince was the opposite - too sheepish and shy, and though he cast her an apologetic look, he did not even try to call off his brother’s behavior.

The third Prince- no. She would not think of that. They had not mentioned him, it was almost as if he did not exist. Even Ka Koubun never went there.

The palace grounds were pretty enough, she supposed, to distract her from the situation. She took her time to roam around, two quiet servant girls trailing after her. She had left the arrangements and talking to Ka Koubun. It might seem petulant of her, but she really could bear no more of it, knowing that she was and would continue to be surrounded by the same people who had exiled her soulmate and cost them their bond.

She stopped by the palace’s gardens, which were very different from the one in Kou, but still held a simple, peaceful beauty.

It was here that Sahbmad happened upon her, and he offered a polite greeting and a shaky bow. She returned it as proper, and would have quietly watched him leave had he not glanced back at her before stopping again. He seemed to brace himself before turning back towards her.

“M-My brother…” he started, and Kougyoku thought that, finally , maybe he was going to apologize for the King’s behavior. He seemed like a nice person, simply very fearful and submissive.

"Yes, your Highness?" she prompted, almost eager-

But then he said, “He was very fond of you.”

She stood frozen, hand instinctively coming to her wrist, which she now always kept covered under her wide sleeves. They had not mentioned him , ever since she arrived. She was not prepared for this. “Y-Yes, I am honored to grace His Majesty’s court.”

Sahbmad looked even more sheepish. “I… I meant Alibaba. Our- The third-... former- third Prince. He’s not here anymore, but- I still remember.”  This time when he met her gaze, he looked very sad. “He worried a lot when he felt that you were upset, and he would smile all day and tell us you were feeling happy so he was, too.”

She wanted to lash at him. ‘Why?’ she wanted to ask. ‘Why would you say this? I am betrothed to your other brother now - why would you remind me of the one whom you must know I long for?’

But hadn’t Alibaba once told her in one of their letters that Sahbmad was always kind to him? That he was glad he had one brother who did not make him feel unwelcome?

So she held herself back, and waited for the prince to finish.

“It’s just… He… I am sure he would have loved to meet you. And… And  I know your bond has been… ended, but- he must be happy for you and all you’ve achieved.”

Kougyoku felt weak but spared him a small smile, and if her lips trembled, she didn’t bother hiding it. If Sahbmad was the person Alibaba told her he was, he would understand her. “Thank you. I appreciate your kind words.”

“Y-You’re welcome. Have a pleasant day, princess.”

He left, shoulders stiff and ears red. When she turned to the servant girls with her, they avoided meeting her eyes. Kougyoku sighed. They probably know. Did they judge her, for resigning to her fate, for marrying a King instead of her soulmate?

Suddenly she felt tired, in a country not her own, in a palace her younger self looked forward to being in but now felt like a prison, in a situation that was forced on her.

She simply sighed and told her companions, “Please take me back to my room, I would like to retire early tonight.”

.


 

.

There was a resistance in Balbadd, they told her. Poor people from the slums who were in over their heads and who did not have any sense of loyalty to their masters, they said. Just a minor discontent. They were of no consequence, and would be taken care of before the wedding.

“If they were such a small threat, then why does it look like more than half of the city is gathered at the castle gates?” Ka Koubun demanded of their hosts, while Kougyoku stood behind him, not hiding her displeasure.

They would fix the situation quickly, they said. Their leaders were willing to negotiate with the King. While they were sure the palace guards would be enough, it would be better if the Princess was kept in a safer part of the palace.

Kougyoku only spared them one last look of disdain and a few scathing words. “When you asked for an alliance with my country, you assured us that Balbadd was a peaceful and thriving nation. We would not ally with a government not able to keep their citizens content.”

Then she left, escorted by guards. Ka Koubun would stay to oversee the proceedings.

It had only been an hour after she had gone back to her room when the door burst open, and a breathless prince Sahbmad stood before her.

“Princess!”

She stood up, on high alert. “What is this? Where is Ka-”

The prince shook his head vigorously, then said, “It’s him!”

She did not need to ask more. She already knew .

.

Alibaba knew negotiating with Ahbmad would be nearly impossible. He also knew the council would do anything to discredit him and silence the people. But they had let him in, granted him audience. Cassim and the others stood behind him, and if he did not prove to them that they could find a way to appeal for change without bloodshed, Alibaba knew they would not hesitate to return to their violent ways.

If he failed here, one of his two families would undoubtedly suffer. He had lost enough, he had to set things right.

But Gods, he was trying his hardest and was still losing the fight.

“Ahbmad, honored brother, please-”

Ahbmad scowled. “You are not my brother! And you have no right to call me by my name!”

Alibaba grit his teeth. “Your Majesty. Please, all we ask is-”

“I will not listen to the words of a slave.” the boy king sneered. The council behind him looked pleased.

“I am not a slave. An exile, maybe. But for crimes you do not have proof of and cannot hold against me now.” Alibaba said, sparing a glance to the councilmen behind his brother’s throne. “I am a trader, a citizen of Balbadd, and I only stand in your court for an appeal. If you weren’t willing to listen, why did you even let us grace your presence-”

“You may not be a slave but the rest of those trash you call your people are! I called you in to tell you that no matter how much you shout, or how long you stand in my gates... I don’t care! I will let you starve out there, and I will never listen to the likes of you-”

The King froze abruptly when a voice cut right through his words, cold and firm - “Oh, but you will.”

Ren Kougyoku walked into the throne room, head held high, red eyes piercing. Sahbmad looked out of breath and nervous behind her, while the councilmen along with Ka Koubun were visibly panicking. The group of rebels looked to her in surprise and confusion.

Her eyes scanned the room imposingly, until they found Alibaba’s golden ones. His brows furrowed in question, and he opened his mouth to speak but Ka Koubun beat him to it.

“P-Princess, I… I think it’s best that we stay out of local affairs-”

“No.” she said firmly, walking forward. “As someone who would potentially stay in this country as a ruler, this is my concern as much as it is theirs.”

Ahbmad narrowed his eyes at her as she stopped to stand right beside a baffled Alibaba. “What are you saying,” he asked scathingly, “Princess?”

“I am saying that I, Princess Ren Kougyoku of the Great Empire of Kou, am breaking off our engagement until you listen to the concerns of these people and solve the local unrest that prompted your good citizens to stand in front of your gates to appeal their concerns,” she replied, then added a challenging, “Your Majesty.”

A stunned silence filled the room.

“Kougyoku?” was Alibaba’s shocked whisper, looking straight at her. “Is-... Is it really you-”

She looked back at him and smiled.

“Princess,” Ka Koubun stepped forward, torn. “This is not what the Empress-”

“The Empress is not here.” Kougyoku said firmly, eyes still fixed on Alibaba. “My duty is to secure a beneficial alliance for the Kou Empire, and Kou would not ally with a country whose people would turn on them because of an incompetent government.”

She turned her gaze towards Ahbmad again, then at the seething councilmen behind him. “This is my decision, so I suggest that you do what needs to be done to come to an agreement, before I deem you unworthy of our support and go back home.”

“P-Princess, don’t you think you are being… a little biased?” one of the councilmen asked, sounding desperate. “You do not have to take this… this traitor’s side just because he’s your-”

The princess shook her head, resolve unwavering. “I take no sides but Kou’s. Alibaba Saluja and his companions came here in peace. If they hold the solution to restoring order here so Kou can gain a worthy ally, I will support them. End of discussion.”

Alibaba watched as the councilmen argued among themselves, and then crowded over to Ahbmad scowling in his throne to offer their advice.

He spared Cassim and the others a glance - they looked as shocked as he was, but they were clearly impressed by what just happened.

Then he looked at Kougyoku again, looking defiantly at Ka Koubun, who was still shaking his head at her actions.

Before he could hesitate, he grabbed her attention by getting down on one knee and bowing his head. “Princess, we thank you for speaking up for us.”

Kougyoku smiled softly at him, then at his companions who bowed awkwardly. They were rebels, and she understood that their gesture were more out of respect for her fairness than them yielding to her status. “You are most welcome.” she replied, in a voice much kinder and vulnerable than what she used towards the king and his council.

When he looked up at her, he had a brilliant smile that reminded her of all the sunny comfort and happiness she felt through their bond all those years ago. “It’s good to finally meet you.”

“It’s good to meet you too.” she said, offering him her hand. She held her breath when he took it gently and pressed a fleeting kiss to it. “My Prince.”

“My Princess.” he returned, getting back on his feet but not letting her hand go.

It was a dull ache, seeing the faded mark on his wrist. A chain of little flowers, twined together. When her own sleeve slipped down, revealing her matching mark, she wondered if he felt the same pain, the same longing.

The marks were nothing more than scars now, but as they stared into each other’s eyes, with fiercely determined gazes and small smiles on their faces, they thought perhaps they didn’t need their old bond back to understand each other.

There was no feeling, no pull, no call from an invisible thread. Their hands dropped to their sides, but they knew what the other was trying to say, because they have said it to each other countless times before - and they would not stop now.

‘I’m here. You’re not alone.’

‘We will get through this together.’

One of the councilmen cleared his throat.

Alibaba and Kougyoku stood to attention to listen to the king’s decision, facing whatever happened next side-by-side.

.


.

When everything was over, after the King agreed to hear the people’s pleas, corrupt officials got exposed of their crimes through the evidence gathered by the resistance, Balbadd was declared a democracy and Kougyoku’s engagement had been effectively cancelled due to the change in government, the two found themselves sitting on the grass in the palace’s gardens, huddled together.

Alibaba was busy twining tiny flower stems together and Kougyoku was watching him work in rapt attention.

“I still can’t believe you don’t know how to make a flower chain.” he snorted, amused.

She only pouted. “I was busy learning other things!”

“You’ve had a flower chain drawn in your wrist since you were a kid, but you never thought to make a real one?”

Her answer was an indignant huff, but before she could come up with a fitting reply, he reached out, took her hand, and then wrapped a simple but elegant chain of flowers around her wrist, right on top of her faded soul mark.

They were quiet for a moment, and then Alibaba brushed his thumb over her wrist. “I’m sorry this had to happen to you.”

Kougyoku frowned, looking at both of his hands cupping one of hers, holding it carefully as if it was something precious and fragile. “It happened to us.” she replied softly. “I know you must have felt it.”

“I did.” he nodded. “It was my exile, though. Losing my status. That’s what made them cut it, right?”

“It doesn’t matter.” she shook her head. “I’m sorry I didn’t fight for it.”

“We were kids. We couldn’t have done anything.”

Slowly, she finally nodded, squeezing his hand in comfort.

“I guess Father was right, after all. I had started to stop believing.” he chuckled, and when she tilted her head in question, he continued. “He always told me not to worry about when I’ll meet you. He said we’re soulmates, we will meet when it’s the right time. When our bond was cut I thought it would never happen.”

“It did, though.”

“I don’t know if we got lucky, but I’ll take it.”

Kougyoku smiled softly, and with her free hand, she plucked a small flower near her and then tucked it behind the young man’s ear. “What-... Where do we go from here? I can’t-... I might have disappointed my aunt. Not that I regret it, but maybe- I don’t think I should head home just yet.”

The question made him pause to think. They dropped their raised hands, resting them by Alibaba’s knee with their fingers still linked.

“You know I’ve been traveling, right? Before I got Amon and… and went back here?”

“Yes?”

“I’ve heard stories, I’m not sure how true they are," he took a deep breath, "but I’ve heard that the priestess in Reim can restore broken soul bonds as long as both people are still alive. And-... and there’s Magnostadt, with magicians who study these things, and- I don’t know, Aladdin and Morgiana, I promised them we’ll go on an adventure, to see the world and-  I mean, Balbadd would be fine without me now, it’s in the right hands, Cassim and the others can do this... Maybe, if you want to-...  Uh, if you’ll still have me, maybe… maybe we could try-”

She didn’t wait for him to finish, and dropped any and all restraint she had left. She pulled her hand from his grip so she could throw her arms around his neck and bury her face on his shoulder.

“Of course I’ll still have you! Why would you even ask that?” she said, voice muffled against his shoulder. “I’ll go with you! I-... I’ll go with you and your friends. Ka Koubun will try and stop me, I won’t let him. We’ll go to Reim or Magnostadt, or wherever… Just- I want to stay with you.”

He laughed and returned her hug just as tightly. It was their first, but it felt like they’d been doing it forever. And maybe they had, all those times they wrapped each other in the security of their bond even miles apart. “Okay. Okay... I’m glad to hear that. We’ll do this together, yeah?”

She nodded, not bothering to hold back her tears. “Yes.” Then she drew away to look at him and let him wipe her tears. “B-But what if-... What if it’s impossible after all? To fix this? You said you only heard the stories.”

She looked down at her wrist again, at the marks now covered with tiny flowers that reflected it almost perfectly. Was that… was that the reason why their soul marks were flower chains? Was it some sort of sign? She had always wondered why it was so.

“Well,” he shrugged, a boyish smile on his face. “If it doesn't work, then I guess… I guess we’ll just have to use our words to communicate this time around?”

She didn’t know how she knew, but she thought it was so much like him to say that. She let out a carefree laugh, and nodded. “Maybe we will.”

It doesn’t matter now, she supposed. They were starting over, together, and perhaps this time around they wouldn’t need the invisible thread and shimmering marks. Just having each other was enough.

.

Chapter Text

In a time of the economy’s all-time low, it was very impressive that Kou Empire’s royal palace maintained its pristine condition.

Alibaba had to give it to the Empress and the remaining palace staff. In a crisis, it wouldn’t do well to show the people that one of the major symbols of their great leaders was starting to crumble. No, the perfect and grand royal palace maintained an appearance of power, and so held up as much morale of the citizens as it could. Alibaba liked to think it also gave them hope.

However due to the crisis, and despite with the palace’s rich appearance, he knew for a fact that the place had less staff than preferable. Many servants had left or resigned as the economic situation declined. The palace’s prestige was maintained by the sheer dedication and loyalty of its few remaining staff.

So it was not surprising, really, that Alibaba often found most of the palace hallways empty and isolated. It did not bother him anymore, compared to when he first arrived and accepted his new position as Prime Minister and was familiarizing himself with the place.

But mostly empty hallways meant that even hushed conversations carried through to anyone with decent hearing, so when he heard the muffled sounds of conversation between some palace servants from a distance, he was taken out of his daze.

They were just down the hallway, at the first corner ahead, three of them, all women, judging from the shadows he saw cast on the wall.

Alibaba decided he was going to make his steps louder, maybe he should cough or something, let them know someone was coming. He didn’t want to eavesdrop after all-

“...-you mean the Prime Minister? Alibaba-sama?”

-and mission aborted. He stepped closer to the walls, out of sight, and walked more cautiously.

Normally he would mind his own business, but technically it was his business now, now that the topic was him.

He was a new resident of the palace, and he wasn’t even a local, or anyone particularly famous. He prayed not to overhear negative opinions about him. It would be a letdown if they somehow didn’t like him-

“Yes, him.” a woman’s voice answered. It was deep and a bit raspy. Must be one of the senior servants.

“What about him?” came the reply from the voice that made him stop in the first place. It was a much younger-sounding voice, high-pitched and curious.

“Oh, you are new here, aren’t you?” came from the third person, clear and authoritative. She sounded older than the high-pitched one, but younger than the deep-voiced one.

“Ah, no, I’ve been working here for a year! In the kitchens, though… just washing dishes and scrubbing floors. But last week they told me more people will be needed to serve and assist here, so I volunteered! They said it’s because guests are expected…”

“Yes, that’s true. It’s partly because of that Alibaba-sama, I think. Apparently we have started a trading company.”

“I’ve never heard of him before. Is he new?”

The eldest woman hummed. “He’s only been here a few weeks, yes, but what a change he’s brought, indeed. To the Empress, most specially.”

“What do you mean? Was the Empress different? I’ve never met her until I served her during dinner a few days ago. She’s awfully young, isn’t she? Only a year older than me! But she’s very nice and kind, smiled a lot...”

“Ah, you see… the smile’s a new thing. She’s always been a nice girl, when she was Princess. Could be cold at times but was never unkind. Becoming Empress changed that, though. She was still kind, but also very, very lonely without her family. Everyone knows she didn’t want to be Empress, after all...”

“Really? She didn’t?”

“She only took it out of duty, because she’s the only one left to take it. All that pressure, though… The poor dear.”

Alibaba frowned. He couldn’t imagine being in Kougyoku’s shoes indeed. Left by her family to rule a whole crumbling empire? She was intelligent and a good leader, he was sure - but too much pressure could still affect even the most able. He saw how it affected her, when he first came here. Kougyoku’s crying face was something he never wanted to see again.

There was a grunt of agreement from the other woman. “We rarely ever saw her happy and smiling after she became Empress. It was very sad. Things are looking up now though. Had to admit, it’s nice to see Her Highness smiling a real smile again.”

He agreed with that. Since his return, he was welcomed by smiles from the people who knew him, but somehow Kougyoku’s smile was something else. Seeing her light up so much when she saw him still tugged at his heart.

“Because of the new Prime Minister? Why so? Did she not like Ka Koubun? I thought he was good at his job and he’d been looking after her a long time?”

“Hah. Ka Koubun’s alright, but you have to admit, Alibaba-sama is very different from him. Have you met him?”

Now Alibaba listened intently. He wasn’t familiar with all the servants in the castle yet . He hoped he made a good impression.

“Um… Yes. He’s young too, I was very surprised! He’s also very nice, not like Ka Koubun at all, so bossy - how did he become Prime Minister again?”

“He was a friend of the Empres. I heard he was gone for a while, traveling? On a trip of some sort. Apparently he’s a good businessman.”

“He seems to know the family personally, way back from the Empress Gyokuen’s rule.” the older woman added. “He and Her Highness talk about Kouen-sama and Hakuryuu-sama a lot.”

“A friend, huh? But he’s a foreigner... Is he a noble?”

“I heard that he used to be a Prince in Balbadd, but there’s no monarchy there now… But a prince is a prince, I guess. If that part’s even true.”

“He calls her by her name! I had thought that improper!”

“Well, as long as the Empress doesn’t mind. She appears to be fond of him. Oh! One of the guards - he used to be a soldier, he told me that Alibaba-sama was a dungeon conqueror! He fought in that battle in Magnostadt...”

“With Kouen-sama and the others? And the Empress? My older sister told me she was very powerful when those metal vessel things were still used-”

A chuckle. “Oh, my girl. Our Empress used to be able to command the ocean itself.”

“Amazing!”

Alibaba found himself smiling softly at this. He missed Amon. Kougyoku had confessed to him that she also missed Vinea dearly.

“Is that why everyone was talking about how they both took down those intruders last week by themselves?”

There was a displeased noise from one of the older women, and a click of the tongue from the other.

“Those criminals. I still cannot believe they had it in them to rob the palace, and the Empress’ own quarters, no less!”

Alibaba sighed silently. He remembered that incident - the official statement was that those so-called ‘intruders’ were thieves, but Kougyoku, Alibaba and a select few higher-ranking officials knew that it was an assassination attempt.

He should have expected that a few remaining supporters and fanatics of the late Empress Gyokuen were still lurking around Kou. He was told that there used to be more of them causing trouble during Hakuryuu’s rule, but they still stirred things up every now and then.

The assassins were skilled, knocking out the guards in the hallway and then powering through the ones who were able to fight back. Alibaba was lucky of his newfound speed, and Kougyoku herself didn’t back down. Together, and with a few of the remaining guards, they were able to stop the intruders.

“It was very impressive, indeed, but still - those guards were practically useless! The Empress shouldn’t have had to fight.”

“Now, now… It’s a time of peace. Our more capable people are busy securing our trade products and the Empress is very capable of defending herself. You were there, no?”

“You were there?! You didn’t tell me! What happened? Did the Empress really fight?”

A resigned sigh. “Yes, she did. When those criminals barged in, the guards fought them off, and Alibaba-sama told me and the other women to take the Empress somewhere safe… He joined the guards in the fight, but some of them got through. Imagine my surprise when Her Highness stepped forward and protected us! Bare-handed!”

“No weapon! That’s incredible!”

Alibaba made a mental note to find out who this girl was, simply because he, too, would totally proclaim ‘Empress Kougyoku is incredible!!!’ every chance he could get.

(He would have to risk getting pummeled by the Empress herself because he was being embarrassing, but it would be totally worth it, he thought.)

“Oh, she was very skilled, but it got better! Alibaba-sama picked up these swords from the fallen guards and threw one at her-”

“That’s dangerous!”

“-she caught it, silly. Perfectly, might I add.”

Alibaba couldn’t help but grin proudly. He did scream internally when he saw Kougyoku shove the other ladies behind her and start fighting their assailants without any armor or weapon . So he hurried to aid her, retrieved the nearest weapon he could, shouted her name, and hoped she would be able to catch a sword in those heavy sleeves of hers.

“It’s a waste she had to tear the sleeves of those robes, but we were all speechless as she and Alibaba-sama fought together to finish off those criminals.”

He knew Kougyoku was a skilled swordswoman, but that was the first time he saw her utilize a normal sword instead of a Djinn Weapon Equip. And he could say for a fact was that being Empress did not make her rusty, at all.

“I would never forget that night. And to think the first thing they did after was ask us and the others if we were alright! They really were something else.”

“Oh, I wish I had been there!”

A pause, then a deadpan “We almost died.”

“You didn’t, though! And you got to watch Empress Kougyoku kick ass!”

“Girl! Language!”

“It’s just so amazing! And you said it too! The Empress used to be really sad and withdrawn? It must be great to see her so full of life again.”

“Yes, that is true. The new Prime Minister really did wonders here… for the Empire, yes - but more for the Empress, I think.”

Alibaba could only smile again. Kougyoku welcomed him so happily and warmly after his return, and simply would not stop thanking him for staying with her to help Kou. He still couldn’t quite forgive himself for not telling her about the Sinbad and Zepar deal sooner, but they were both moving on from it. Right now he was very glad to be there for her, to make her feel less alone.

Kougyoku needed a break from all the pressure. She had told him once that as her precious friend, she would do anything for him. Well, Alibaba felt the same, besides-

“They do seem very fond of each other... If you know what I mean.”

“Hm? What do you mean? What are you getting at?”

“You know there were rumors a while back? You didn’t hear it from me, but... apparently they were arranged to be married when Kougyoku-sama was still a princess?”

“I didn’t know that! Could it be true?!”

“Supposedly. It’s very possible, though. I heard Kouen-sama himself arranged it. That meant he approved of Alibaba-sama. Of course, things didn’t go as planned, but-”

“Oh, that’s… that’s very romantic! They were arranged to be married but they had to part, but he still made his way back to her! That’s just like in my favorite stories!”

“I guess it’s a good match, yes. It’s kind of inspiring too, if you think about it... The Empress’ mother was of low birth, and Alibaba-sama isn’t exactly royalty anymore, if he ever was… so they’re both more humble than Kou’s past rulers. The people already like them...”

“Do you think they… you know, have… affections? For each other?”

“It seems very likely. They do act very comfortable with each other.”

“I saw him hold her hand once, and the Empress looked really happy!”

“They are the same age too. And they might be leaders of a country, but they are both young people, so it won’t be surprising-”

...and this was heading towards actual gossip territory. Alibaba would not listen to this, he refused to.

Quickly, before he could back out, he stepped away from the wall, and pretended to clear his throat just as he rounded the corner and ‘stumbled’ upon the three servant ladies.

The youngest one quickly scrambled to a bow, followed by the tall, middle-aged woman, and then finally the elder servant only smiled a knowing smile and nodded slowly.

“A-A-Alibaba-sama!” the young one sputtered. “G-Good- morning-”

“Good afternoon ,” the second woman corrected. “Prime Minister.”

The third woman, the eldest, finally inquired, “Can we do anything for you, my lord?”

He took a moment to assess them. He had thought that they were only gossiping in the halls, but it looked like they were actually doing something. They were preparing tea.

Why it was taking three of them to do so, he did not know, and he wasn’t about to question it for the sake of avoiding awkwardness.

“Actually, I- uh… Oh. Would you know where I might find Koug-... the Empress?” he asked, winning smile in place to cover up for the slip-up. He knew Kougyoku didn’t mind him calling her without the title (she actually preferred that), but the servants were another matter.

The three exchanged a look before the middle one answered. “Of course, my lord. I believe Her Highness is currently on the balcony near the royal library, the one overlooking the garden.”

The youngest lifted the tray containing the tea and snacks. “I was just about to bring these to her, my lord. She asked to have tea sent up.”

“I see. Thank you.” Alibaba nodded. He didn’t think too much about it when he offered, “Want me to take that to her?”

The girl blinked. “W-We really shouldn’t bother you, Alibaba-sama!”

“Oh, don’t worry, it’s nothing! Not a bother at all.” he assured her. “I’m going up there anyway-... ah, but don’t let me force you!”

The girl seemed to consider it seriously, then after exchanged another look with her companions, she bashfully smiled back at Alibaba.

“U-um… I do think… the Empress would like it very much if… you brought it?”

He raised an eyebrow, but nodded slowly. “Alright, then.. Uh. May I?”

As soon as he took the tray, the servant girl bowed, thanked him and apologized for the trouble, her cheeks flushed.

To be sure, he asked the second woman for quick directions, and she politely provided them. He nodded and thanked them for their help, then walked off with the tray carefully balanced in his arms.

It was fancy and ornate and turned out to be heavier than expected. That girl was strong .

He thought he heard a distant “How did I do?” and “You did good. Very good.” and “Let’s do our best to support them.” from behind him, and he only fought the blush in his own cheeks as he dismissed the blatant implication.

Should he tell Kougyoku?

‘Hey, Kougyoku! Some of the servant ladies seem to think we’re a thing?’

And she’d probably blush bright red again (she does that often, he wasn’t complaining) and stammer out a scandalized ‘A-A-Alibaba-chan w-w-why would they think that?!?! Are we being i-improper?!’

Okay. Nope. He’s not going to do that to himself right now.

.


 

.

He found Kougyoku easily, sitting on a comfortable couch in one of the palace’s balconies. She was busy reading, and only looked up when he spoke.

“Tea time, your highness.” he announced, setting the tray down on a low table.

“Oh.” she blinked. “Alibaba-chan, you… brought… the tea?” She tilted her head and looked past him, probably trying to look for the servant who was originally supposed to deliver her afternoon snack.

“I did! I met some of the servants on my way and I told them I’ll bring this to you myself, since I was looking for you anyway.” he said, plopping down on the floor by her feet. He started pouring tea for both of them.

Kougyoku raised an eyebrow, then smiled. “Well, thank you. Why were you looking for me?”

“I was bored, and I thought I’d keep you company.” he answered.

Between coming up with plans for the trading company and meeting with different people from merchants to government officials, they had all been busy. Too busy that when they got to a reasonable stopping point, he and Kougyoku agreed that a break was in order. After all, even Koumei , who was probably the calmest person Alibaba knew, was starting to get stressed from the endless workload. Everyone was visibly relieved.

Alibaba thought a day-off would be nice, to just lounge on his rooms or roam the castle or something… But then he quickly got bored and decided to look for someone to hang out with.

He handed her a cup and she accepted it gladly, taking a sip before saying, “I’m afraid I’ll be boring company. I was only reading.”

He took a moment to savor the taste of the tea first before he eyed the scroll on her lap. “What are you reading? More reports? I thought we were on a break from that?”

Kougyoku laughed lightly. “It’s not a report. It’s a story. One of our classic ones here in Kou. All the little girls have been told this, at least once.”

“What’s it about?”

She took another sip from her cup. “A prince travels hundreds of miles, fights through enemies and overcomes obstacles to save his one true love, a princess held hostage, who waits patiently for him.”

Alibaba looked at her curiously. “...so does he save her?”

“Yes, he does get to her eventually! It doesn’t sound so impressive the way I said it, but it’s quite long… It’s an epic, the prince had exciting adventures. You would have to read it to understand why it was so loved.”

“Mm-hm.” he understood that. Sinbad’s adventures didn’t sound as exciting unless one actually read the written tales. “So you’re doing a re-reading, then?”

“A bit.” she said, then released a soft sigh.

Alibaba eyed the minute frown in her face. He reached out to tap a finger against her cheek, making her jump slightly to blink down at him.

“W-What?” she asked, cheeks pink, but looking more confused than angry.

“Why the long face, then? You don’t like the story?”

Kougyoku shook her head. “It’s still the story I grew up with, that’s for sure. It’s still exciting, with adventures and such. But I guess... I’ve grown out of it? This time I actually wanted some things to change. The prince did some pretty foolish decisions on the way. Mostly, I wish the princess wasn’t so submissive. In the story, she did nothing but wait for him, and in the end, they got married, but the story only mentioned that the heroic prince became a king and ruled justly. What happened to the princess? What did she do with her freedom? Did she make a good queen?”

Alibaba thought about it as he leaned back against the couch, absently looking down at his tea. “Yeah, there should be more stories where princesses fight too. Where they’re the heroes of the story.”

“Yes, there should be...” she nodded, then looked at him and smiled excitedly. “You write stories, don’t you?”

He snorted sheepishly. “I wanted to write my own adventures, like Sinbad did. Maybe just with some bits added to make it more interesting. I’ve lost track of it though. Maybe sometime around… Reim?”

She giggled. “Too busy being a gladiator?”

“Too busy trying not to die as a gladiator.” he sniggered.

“Would you write one where the hero is a girl?”

Alibaba looked at her, then sipped his tea before shrugging. “Ah, I don’t have to. Who needs fiction when there’s history right here?”

Kougyoku blinked. “History?”

“You.” he pointed out, grinning. “A girl who became a princess, then dungeon conqueror and a warrior, then an Empress. Sounds like an epic to me.”

She blushed as she always did, looking down at her lap. “H-How about you? A boy who became a prince, then… um…”

“Exile.” he provided.

“Yes, but after that, you were a dungeon conqueror, and a hero to your people, and a gladiator, more heroics, and a journey riding a dragon!”

He snorted, leaning his head back against the couch and tipping his chin up to look at her. “We sound like the stuff of stories. History books would be more interesting if they added our bits in, don’tcha think?”

Kougyoku giggled behind her sleeve, a gesture that always sent him back to the days when they first became friends. Then her hands dropped back to her lap as she looked out past the gardens and into the distant view of Rakushou. “Do you ever wonder about how it will end?”

He was silent for a moment, taking in the sight of his companion - his friend, girl-princess-warrior- Empress , whom he admired and believed in with all his being. The afternoon sun rays cast a brilliant orange to her hair and eyes as she gazed to the distance.

He lost his answer right then.

"Alibaba-chan?" she asked, blinking at him when she noticed him staring.

He snapped out of his reverie, clearing his throat before saying, “W-Well, we’re working our butts off for that happy ending, aren’t we?” He couldn't help the nervous chuckle that followed. God, what was wrong with him? Was it those gossiping servants putting ideas in his head? It must be. 

Kougyoku smiled. Alibaba didn’t always have an answer, but he always seemed to know what to say. For that, she was grateful. That he came back to her, and had promised to stay as long as she needed him. This fact, she wasn’t afraid to say out loud. “I’m really glad you’re here with me, Alibaba-chan.”

He smiled back. “Me too.”

She went back to sipping her tea and reading her story.

He watched her for a while. When he looked away, it was with a struggle, and Alibaba decided he must be suffering from bad karma or something.

He will never eavesdrop again.

Chapter Text

Kougyoku was smiling, Koumei noted.

It shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise, really. Kougyoku was always smiling these days, specially whenever she saw him. He appreciated the sentiment, that she was very happy to have at least one of her brothers back home with her. He also knew she must be happy that things appeared to be looking up. Getting the trading company up and running and actually bringing in some profit didn’t come without a struggle, but it was working nicely so far, so that was definitely something to be enthusiastic about.

But no, Kougyoku was smiling as she was reading a trade report , leaning easily against her desk, one hand propping her chin up while the other was absently twirling a single flower on her hand.

He stared for another minute, but his sister only kept reading and smiling, and he couldn’t find a reason to question it. Maybe the reports showed good numbers. He has yet to check those, so maybe it was that.

So Koumei went off to mind his own business. He had his own work to do, after all.

.


 

.

Kougyoku was smiling again, this time as she was writing what looked like executive letters.

Then she frowned and made a soft displeased noise. Koumei squinted through his mask (which was pretty useless, seeing as everyone knew who he was anyway), to see her worrying over the delicate flower chain wrapped around her wrist, and what looked like a dark stain in one of the tiny white flowers. She must have accidentally brushed the chain against her inkwell while working.

She carefully took the tainted flower from the chain, which held on impressively. Then, she resumed working, obviously more careful this time. The smile returned.

“Koumei-sama?” called Ka Koubun from his spot on the room. Koumei had forgotten the advisor was there. The man must have noticed his scrunched up face. “Is something the matter?”

Kougyoku had also looked up, expression concerned. “Koumei-nii-sama?”

Finally Koumei looked away, then yawned into his fan. “Nothing. I’m just feeling a bit sleepy.”

.


 

.

Kougyoku was smiling again . Not that Koumei didn’t like seeing his sister happy, but today she was also humming . Every now and then, she would look up from her task of signing and stamping official documents, eye the small bunch of flowers on the little vase on her desk, and smile.

Two or three years ago, it wouldn’t have piqued his curiosity. But right now, with the rest of their family either missing or in exile, he and Kougyoku were the only close family each other had, and Empress or not, Kougyoku was still his younger sister. He was determined to take care of her.

So he finally decided he would ask.

“Empress.” he said softly.

When Kougyoku looked at him, her smile was a wary one. “Koumei-nii-sama, please, there’s no need to be so formal…”

“Ah. Kougyoku.” he nodded, then when she only blinked up at him, he continued. “You seem very cheerful today.”

She blinked again. “You think so?”

“I simply noticed.”

“Oh. Well… it’s a nice day.” she shrugged, obviously at a loss on how else to respond.

They were family, yes. They’ve fought together side-by-side, yes. They would do anything for the other, yes.

But also, they never talked about things like these with each other.

It was awkward.

They knew the conversation wasn’t over yet, but they didn’t know how to continue, either.

Probably due to lack of anything else to do, Kougyoku absently brushed her fingers against one of the flowers in her desk.

Koumei went straight for the opening as soon as he saw it.

He said, “Those are nice flowers.”

She paused.

Okay.

On second thought, that was terrible . Truly and utterly terrible. Flowers on a desk were only natural, and Kougyoku had always liked pretty things, really, so why on Earth did Koumei think bringing them up would be a good idea? He didn’t know anything about flowers, he should have said something about pigeons instead-

But then Kougyoku brightened up. Oh . That worked ? It was the flowers , then? Something about them, at least?

“They are, aren’t they?” she asked, cheerful smile back in place. “Alibaba-chan gave them to me this morning!”

Well. That was… something. “He did?”

“He does his morning training in the garden.” Kougyoku continued. “And he always brings something back for me. It’s very nice of him, don’t you think?”

Koumei resisted the urge to point out that, technically speaking, Alibaba was offering her flowers from her garden. He’s been giving her flowers that she already owned…

But Kougyoku seemed pleased. Besides, it’s the thought that counts. Or something like that.

“Yes,” he finally said. “It’s very nice of him.”

That was a less awkward stopping point in the conversation, and Koumei was relieved when Kougyoku simply beamed at him again before returning to work.

.


 

.

The next day, Koumei came in just in time to see Kougyoku carefully replacing the flowers in her desk with new ones. She greeted him a good morning and he greeted her back.

“More flowers today?” he asked, feigning nonchalance.

She smiled the bright smile he was getting used to by now. “Oh, yes! Alibaba-chan gave them to me just now.”

“My Lady, they’re not even the good ones, they’re a bunch of wildflowers at best.” Ka Koubun interjected, his face unimpressed.

Kougyoku pouted, hunched protectively over the little vase. “Hush, Ka Koubun! My dear friend gave these to me, and they’re pretty enough! I know we have fancier flowers in our garden, and I think they ought to stay there. It would be a waste to let them wilt here! Picking little wildflowers do no harm, though, and they’re adorable.”

Koumei would have to agree to that. Besides, fancy flowers in a desk meant for working was just overkill. The tiny and simple ones were alright. “And where is our Prime Minister now?” he asked.

“He left to get cleaned up, my lord. He came from his daily sword exercises.” Ka Koubun answered. “We are going down to inspect the renovated storage facilities today, if I’m not mistaken.”

Koumei nodded, sitting on his chair and picking up some documents for reading.

Kougyoku was humming as she organized the documents on her own desk, usual smile in place.

It was a nice sight, Koumei decided. And if a bunch of wildflowers in a tiny vase on her desk was the secret to that, he was glad for them.

After a few moments, Alibaba arrived, looking cleaned up. “Good morning, everyone! So, are we ready to go?”

Koumei nodded, and just as he was standing up and patting down his robes, he heard Kougyoku complain, “Ka Koubun, am I really not allowed to go? I want to see the facilities too…”

Ka Koubun’s lips were drawn to a stern line. “Empress, it is simply not wise for you to go. We’ll be crossing the fields, it might be cramped and full of workers and civilians, we can only bring a limited number of guards-”

Kougyoku looked down sadly. “I wouldn’t mind so much. I want to see our workers and to personally tell them they’ve been doing a good job…”

And then, Alibaba, because he was Alibaba Saluja, savior of the downtrodden, turned towards Koumei. “It’s a good idea, though, right? The people would love to see their beloved Empress who cares about them and values their hard work.”

Kougyoku, because she was Ren Kougyoku, sincere and caring leader of her recovering nation, perked up at the prospect. “You think they would?”

Koumei watched as Alibaba faced the aforementioned beloved Empress and exclaim, “Of course they would! Who wouldn’t love to see you?”

So Kougyoku hid her pout behind her sleeves and then stared up at her advisor and aide with big, teary, imploring eyes- “Ka Koubun, please?”

Koumei had to take a step back when all three of them looked to him for the final say.

He sighed, avoiding their gazes and waving his fan dismissively. “It should be fine if she goes. Our men are trustworthy. Kougyoku can handle herself, and all three of us would be with her. Besides, I do think it would boost morale.”

Ka Koubun sighed in defeat, Alibaba beamed, Kougyoku beamed back - and at this point, Koumei decided he would rather stare at the sun than at the latter two.

“Alright then, let’s surprise our workers!” Alibaba said excitedly.

Ka Koubun led the way, followed by Alibaba who offered his arm to the young Empress. Koumei trailed after the two, looking on as Kougyoku looped her arm around her friend’s while they walked together.

A thought was clawing at the back of Koumei’s head as he watched them. Something… something he was forgetting, or missing-

They were well on their way to the palace courtyard when he noticed Kougyoku tip-toe slightly to whisper something to Alibaba’s ear, and then the two started laughing between themselves-

“Ah.” he blurted out, as the pieces clicked into place. The other three looked towards him, but he covered up by yawning. It was only half-faked.

They proceeded on their short trek towards the horses they would be riding.

Koumei decided that he would have to talk to the Empress- no, to his sister… and her friend , very soon.

.


 

.

A day after that very successful visit to the new storage facilities that managed to raise quite a lot of morale among their workers, Koumei got into trouble with one of the servant girls.

Alright, trouble was an overstatement. He really just didn’t know how to talk to people. Therefore a servant girl who was trying to chat him up and who asked the most random of questions was a truly horrific problem in his book.

He really needed to get to the Empress’ study, there was work to be done, but the girl had stopped right by the doorway and started talking to him.

It took a full ten minutes for the girl to run out of things to say, ending up with ‘ Maybe wait just a tiny bit more before entering???’ and for him to successfully request her to ‘ Please let me through, I have to do things, work things, inside that room???’ .

She finally let him pass and he entered the familiar chamber, only to find Alibaba and Kougyoku both hunched over the Empress’ desk, going through a document together.

Okay. This was… normal, by his standards. So why was the servant girl telling him to wait and-

‘Ah.’ came his realization. It made sense, somehow, and explained a couple of things.

.


 

.

A few days after that, he found two royal secretaries, four maids and a guard all pressed against each other and a wall, all of them visibly concentrating on listening to… well, to something or someone on the other side of the wall.

“What’re they saying?” whispered one.

“Something… something about… a dragon? A dragon mother? Flying? I’m not sure-” answered another one.

Koumei cleared his throat.

All of them scrambled off in a flurry of embarrassed and heartfelt (but still hushed) apologies, leaving him to round the corner to see-

Alibaba perched on a balcony railing, talking animatedly, and Kougyoku standing beside him, thoroughly entertained at his tale.

‘Ah.’ Koumei thought.

Now that was just obvious.

.


 

.

When one afternoon, Koumei overheard the two royal gardeners starting a bet on when the grand imperial wedding would be held, he decided enough was enough.

Wait, that sounded too aggressive.

To be more accurate, Koumei decided to resign to his fate.

He braced himself as he stood outside the door to the Empress’s study, looking towards the high palace ceilings and sighing.

‘Why me?’  he asked, to whoever or whatever divine entity must be responsible for this.

When he entered, Alibaba and Kougyoku were having afternoon tea, both engrossed in their own paperwork over their respective desks.

They looked up at him and both greeted him pleasantly.

Koumei sighed. Again.

‘Kouen-nii-sama, my brother, my King, I love and respect you and I would do anything you asked, but WHY THIS? You should be the one doing this, not me.’

But Kouen was not around, and Koumei just had to be strong .

‘If this fails, the door is right behind me, and a jump from that window leads to a fish pond that would catch my fall. I’ve become a competent runner in my years in exile and have become used to fish. I can do this.’

“Koumei-nii-sama, are you alright?” Kougyoku asked, her innocent eyes blinking curiously.

Best get to the point, then, Koumei thought.

“Are you two reinstating the engagement? Everyone seems to think so.”

Alibaba spit out his tea. Thankfully away from precious paperwork.

Kougyoku blinked again. “What engagement?”

“The one between the two of you. The arranged marriage.”

“W-What? Me and Alibaba-” Kougyoku gaped this time, almost spilling her tea. “There is no such thing!”

Koumei took this in, then eyed Alibaba, who was trying to put his cup of tea away properly at least. “You haven’t told her.”

Kougyoku turned towards the blonde across the room too. “Alibaba-chan, what is Koumei-nii-sama talking about?”

“U-Uh... it was... two years ago? And it was on Kouen’s orders-”

She looked properly scandalized. “I’ve been engaged for two years and I didn’t know?!”

A pause from all parties involved. After a bit of consideration, Alibaba said, “I died , though, so technically-”

Kougyoku looked even more horrified somehow. “My fiancee died and I didn’t know! And-” she stopped, then turned to Koumei. “E-Everyone seems to think so? Who’s-... Who's everyone?”

“Everyone in the palace.” Koumei answered absently, fingers twitching, analyzing his exit strategy because Kougyoku didn’t know and Alibaba had all but brushed the fact aside so what the hell has been going on, really?   Then for good measure, he added, “Including me.”

This time both of them looked at him, alarmed.

“Why?” they both asked.

They do make a great pair, Koumei could see that now.

Why indeed? The flowers? The easy affectionate gestures? The blindingly bright smiling at each other? The casual intimacy? Late night walks together? The loud declarations of how much they adore each other? The acting like they have been married for years when they’ve only been reunited a month ago?

He didn’t want to say all of those, because from the way both of them were blushing bright red, they might just be the ones who would think it worth it to jump out the window and into the fish pond if he enumerated the facts.

Alibaba could do what he wanted, for all Koumei cared, but he would not risk his sister jumping off a window.

So Koumei settled with, “Haven’t you been openly courting her?” towards Alibaba, then for Kougyoku, “-and haven’t you been entertaining his propositions?”

They both shrugged cluelessly.

And now, instead of Kouen, Koumei wished for Kouha . Kouha would have grabbed the two of them and shake them back and forth until they got the point.

Even Judal. Judal would have gotten the job done, one way or another.

Was it too late to convince the two clueless idiots in front of him to visit his two brothers in the island so they could do the talking?

Koumei tried again, “Kougyoku, you were angry-”

Kougyoku shook her head quickly. “I’m not angry, just surprised and concerned-”

“-you were concerned at the fact that you didn’t know, but not the fact that it was Alibaba.”

She fell silent and hid behind her sleeves.

“Alibaba, you accepted the offer, didn’t you? More or less? And you knew the engagement would be with Kougyoku?”

“I… I guess I kinda did.” Alibaba said, looking away as well.

“Congratulations, it is the belief of the whole palace staff that you are engaged again . I did not know who spread the word, or even how they knew , but you two were providing solid proof. Now I know for a fact that the gardeners have a bet going on about the wedding date, and the handmaidens and seamstresses have been suspiciously looking through fancy fabrics and embroidery as of late, and I even heard some guards talking about the celebratory feast.”

“Wait, wait.” Alibaba gaped. “Are you telling me they’ve been preparing already?”

“I wouldn’t say ‘preparing’, but they’re all very enthusiastic over the prospect.”

He watched as the two looked towards each other, then back at their respective paperwork again.

Was that his cue? Koumei didn’t care. It had been one of the most awkward moments of his life - he was out .

“So,” he started, with the best tone of finality he could summon. “I would leave you two to discuss. Empress. Prime Minister.”

.


 

.

A full week later, Koumei passed by the gardens to see Alibaba sitting by a patch of wildflowers, brows furrowed in deep concentration.

“Prime Minister.” he greeted simply.

“Lord Strategist.” came the curt response.

He crouched down beside the young man, who he now saw was making something out of the tiniest wildflowers he had ever seen.

A simple, delicate flower chain too small to be a bracelet, but just the right size to be a-

Koumei took a deep breath, silently uttered a prayer again (‘O blessed rukh, grant me strength for this man beside me is an idiot.’) and then he raised his fan and hit Kou Empire Prime Minister Alibaba Saluja on the back of his head.

Alibaba yelped, looking at him in dismay. “Ow! What was that for?!”

Koumei only stood up and started walking away.

He simply said, “Come, I’ll show you where to get an actual ring.”

Chapter Text

‘This is Dragon to HQ, target has been secured. We’re ready for extraction.’

‘Copy that, Dragon. Seeking your coordinates. Stand by.’

Two figures stood together in the rooftop of one of the tallest buildings in the city. They looked into the view of the streetlights and skyscrapers as they waited in silence.

Then a gust of wind almost blew them back and they heard the quiet hum of the stealth aircraft they recognized as their ride home.

When one of the aircraft doors opened, the taller shadow indicated towards it with a flourish. “After you, princess.”

His companion only gave him a light, playful push before hopping in the jet, and then took a sweeping look of the area before he followed.

As soon as the doors closed, the jet took off. Both agents headed straight towards the cockpit.

“Right on time as always, Koubun.” Kougyoku greeted their pilot with a smile.

“And a great job as always, miss.” Ka Koubun said, smiling back at her. Then he nodded towards her companion. “And you.”

Alibaba only grinned, used to the other man’s blatant favoritism. “Thanks for picking us up, man.”

“It’s my job.” came the nonchalant reply. The pilot then pressed several buttons on his console before speaking up, “This is KE-08, reporting in. Dragon and Phoenix have successfully retrieved the target. Now en route to HQ.”

As the call went on, Alibaba slumped on one of the chairs, sighing deeply as he made himself comfortable. Kougyoku followed, setting a small suitcase down on the table between them before sitting across from him.

“So,” he started, casual now that their job was mostly complete. It had been quite a simple retrieval job. Got a bit tricky, but they managed. “It’s our last mission for a while, yeah? Got any plans for our break?”

Kougyoku started letting down her hair from its updo as she answered. “Not much. I figured I’ll just rest up tomorrow. I haven’t really thought much about after...”

He hummed in approval. “Good plan. Me, I’m gonna sleep all day.”

She let out an amused chuckle as she brushed her long hair with her fingers. “Of course you are.”

“All day for all of two weeks.” he clarified.

“Uh-huh...”

“I’m serious!” he insisted laughingly. “We’ve been working day in day out for two months!”

“One of those jobs got us a beach resort stay for a week.” she pointed out. “You got free massages and a hot tub!”

“While running surveillance.” he retorted, raising a finger to emphasize his point. “It’s not a real vacation unless you can be a couch potato all you want, worrying about nothing.”

“Fine, fine.” she finally waved it off, grinning. “Just don’t overdo it. I want to recognize my partner when we return to duty.”

He rolled his eyes, pouting. “I gained a few extra pounds one time …”

“You ate too much, admit it.”

A scandalized gasp. “Fat-shaming!”

“No, I thought you looked adorable!” she laughed. “Adorable, but impractical, because we had to get you a new suit last minute.”

“I recovered!”

It was her turn to roll her eyes. “Yes, it was very impressive.”

He was about to retort when they both felt a shift in the aircraft and realized that they were landing. Ka Koubun called out to let them know that they’re back, and that their boss had issued a mission debrief in order as soon as they arrive.

When they landed, Alibaba took the suitcase that contained their secured target and waited for Kougyoku to put her hair back up on a ponytail before leading the way out.

He hopped off the jet first, then offered her his hand. “You’re welcome anytime to come over and be a couch potato with me. If you want.”

She didn’t need the assistance, but she took his hand anyway and let him help her down to the ground. “I was planning on doing some spring cleaning, shopping and maybe mani-pedi… but thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.”

Casting one last friendly salute towards their pilot, the two finally turned, walking towards the hangar exit and stepping inside headquarters.

Debrief was short and to the point.

“Good job. Keep it up. Dismissed.” their Director said, nodding in his curt manner. It sounded detached and cold, but they knew the man enough to tell that he was pleased. The two each gave a polite bow, thanked him for his time, and turned to exit- “Also.”

Alibaba and Kougyoku paused, looking back expectantly.

“Enjoy your vacation. You deserve it.” was all Kouen said. Then he waved them off again with a huff. “Get out of here.”

.


 

.

Kougyoku was pleased that she was being quite productive.

It had only been five days. So far she had:

  • succeeded in getting a much-needed rest day
  • cleaned up her room (it took a whole day, since their family home was a small castle and her ‘room’ was more like a small flat)
  • seen a movie with Kouha (it was an action movie, full of explosions and fake blood, and she criticized the plot and direction while Kouha complained that the damage wasn’t nearly impressive enough)
  • gone on a shopping spree and gotten her hair and nails done with Hakuei (who was a most excellent companion)

Yes, Kougyoku was indeed feeling good about her vacation so far.

She was lounging in her room, watching a cooking show and taking note of the fancy pasta recipe when she received several texts from none other than her partner.

 

Alibooboo: BABE!!!

Alibooboo: VACATION!!! IS!!! GREAT!!!

Alibooboo: I LOVE MY LIFE!!!

 

Kougyoku raised an eyebrow. Who was the last person who broke into her phone again? Oh well, the contact name was mostly harmless. It could be worse.

She only snorted as she typed in her reply:

 

 

Really? Have u at least gotten up to shower and brush your teeth?

 

Alibooboo: ok first of all - ouch

Alibooboo: second - i shower everyday and brush my teeth after every meal!

Alibooboo: third - i went out two days ago to attend mariam’s piano recital and take a vid for cassim who cant be there!!! #adulting

Alibooboo: tho yes i’m living the couch potato life. binge watching stuff. aladdin is here now bc he can smell disney movies from a mile away and he arrived just in time for moana

Alibooboo: were waiting for the popcorn. so how are u? 

 

 

Aladdin has good taste.

I finished my to-do list early. I’m watching how to cook cheesy rigatoni on tv.

 

Alibooboo: ok i won’t pretend to know what a rigatoni is

Alibooboo: wait is it a ravioli

  

 

Close. It’s pasta. With sausages.

 

Alibooboo: ooooohhhh

Alibooboo: are you gonna try cooking it?

 

 

 Hmmm. Maybe? If I get someone here who’d like to eat it. Everyone’s out.

 

Alibooboo: ok good luck then!

Alibooboo: but if you get bored making fancy spaghetti... come over we got a ton of movies here and also i finally remembered my netflix password. 

 

 

Noted. Thanks for the invite.

I’ll text u. 

 

And for good measure, she added a kiss-face emoji.

He replied with two thumbs-up and one heart-hands.

.


.

It was late evening by the time Kougyoku dragged herself away from the cooking and lifestyle channels and magazines she had apparently decided to drown in that day.

Maybe she shouldn’t judge Alibaba so much. The couch potato life is indeed nice once in awhile.

She was going to one of the house’s kitchens (why are there? multiple kitchens? why is the house even this big? ugh.) to get herself a snack when she came across Kouen, who was talking to someone on his phone.

“-yes, I’m on my way. Start the preparations. You know what to do.” he was saying, pausing to listen when he saw her standing at the bottom of the staircase.

Kougyoku only smiled, knowing she shouldn’t bother the man. Her big brother was Director of their agency - he was on duty at all times.

She expected him to simply raise a hand in a combination of acknowledgement and goodbye, but instead he walked towards her and when he was only a couple of steps away, he spoke to his phone - “Hold on, give me a minute.”

“Big brother.” she greeted softly, hands fiddling with the hem of her blouse.

“Kougyoku.” he said, expression softening.

“Going to HQ this late?” she asked, letting a hint of worry slip through her features as she looked up at him.

“I have to take care of something.” he answered, laying a hand on her shoulder. “Urgent mission. I might have to take point this time, too.”

Her eyes widened. Kouen hadn’t gone on field missions for a long time now. He was an excellent field agent, of course, but his responsibilities as Director usually kept him in the headquarters overseeing things. “What? Why do you-... Are we short-handed? Do you need me to go on the field? I can do it, I don’t mind-”

“No, it’s fine.” He shook his head, sparing a small smile. “This one’s a solo mission. Not for you.”

Kougyoku frowned. “But-”

“I can handle it. Don’t worry.” he assured her, and any more concerns she had died when he leaned down and dropped a short kiss to the top of her head. “I’ll see you when I get back.”

He didn’t give her time to do anything else, as he brought the phone back to his ear and started speaking again. “Gather whoever’s available - I’ll be there in ten.”

Kougyoku could do nothing but watch as her brother left. She stood there in silence, in the big, empty family mansion.

Koumei was in another mission, she knew. Kouha just finished his own and could very well be on his way home, but now that there was urgent business in HQ, it was highly probable that Kouha would stay there longer to provide support for their brother-slash-Director. Hakuryuu was out of town and Hakuei was somewhere else.

She didn’t realize being on break from work would render her this alone .

Quickly making up her mind, Kougyoku abandoned her late night snack plans, went back to her room, and changed into more appropriate clothes - tank top, skinny jeans, boots, and a bomber jacket. She quickly piled spare clothes into a bag (waterproof, as it was raining), checked her phone battery, and then headed towards the garage.

Vinea was parked in her usual spot, the sleek motorbike easy to spot in its black-and-silver glory, aquamarine highlights almost glowing in the dark. She hopped on the vehicle, slipped on the matching helmet, and drove out.

She hoped Alibaba still had some popcorn.

.


.

When the rang the doorbell to Alibaba's flat, Kougyoku realized that she forgot to send a heads-up. It was too late, however, as the door was opened by-... Morgiana?

“Miss Kougyoku.” the young woman greeted in her usual quiet way, bowing slightly. Polite and to-the-point as always.

“Oh. Hello, Morgiana. Good evening.” Kougyoku smiled back, taking in the girl’s appearance. Morgiana was wearing a shirt too big for her and men’s boxers. Her hair was wet and a towel was draped over her shoulders.

“Mor, who is it?” Alibaba’s familiar voice rang from inside the apartment, followed by his head peering out from the corner to see who his guest was. He blinked. “Kougyoku! Hey, come in! I didn’t know you were coming.”

“Sorry I didn’t text.” Kougyoku said, tentatively stepping into the apartment when Morgiana stepped aside to let her in. She hung up her wet jacket and took off her boots by the entryway.

“Nah, it’s alright. You drove your bike in this weather?” Alibaba said, looking out the window and in the rainy city streets. “What brings you here?”

“Uh…” Kougyoku started, her words lost as she looked between Alibaba making a hot drink in the counter, Morgiana toweling her hair, and then at Aladdin who was sleeping soundly on the couch, cuddling a throwpillow. Alibaba’s living room was a mess of snacks, CD’s and a game console. The home screen of Mario Kart was looping in the TV.

“The rigatoni didn’t work out.” she finally said.

Alibaba was clearly about to tease her, but when he saw her minute frown, he grew concerned. “Hey, everything okay?”

Kougyoku smiled weakly. “Of course.”

Morgiana, catching the look between the two of them, took the initiative and announced, “I’m going to bed."

"Oh. Already?" Alibaba asked.

"Mm-hm. I have an early shift tomorrow. Good night.”

“Night!” Alibaba called after her before she disappeared to his spare bedroom. Then he looked at Kougyoku. “So… why the long face? Was the not-ravioli really that bad?”

Kougyoku was about to speak when Morgiana came back.

They both watched as she wordlessly walked past them, stopped by the couch, heaved a still sleeping Aladdin up over her shoulders like a sack of potatoes, and then carried him back to the bedroom.

“Wow.” Kougyoku breathed. “I’ll never get used to that.”

“Same.” Alibaba nodded.

Now that they were alone, she finally relaxed, dropping her bag in the couch and standing across him in the counter. “Okay, so... just to clarify: are you with Morgiana or not?”

Alibaba blinked. “I’m… what? With Mor- Oh.” he blushed. “Ohhhh. No. No, it’s not like that!”

Her eyes narrowed. “Really?”

“Really! You know she works nearby, right? It was raining hard and she got stuck, so I told her she could stay here for the night.”

She looked doubtful for a moment, but then he finished stirring the cup of hot chocolate he was making, topped it with marshmallows and slid it across the counter toward her in offering. She sighed because he knew her so well it was almost unfair.

She took the cup. “If you say so.”

“Besides, that’s just weird. She’s like my sister.” Alibaba said with a shudder, then started making chocolate for himself. “That’ll be like dating Mariam. Or Toto, or Aladdin.”

Kougyoku smiled wryly. “Mm. Next time I find him awake, I’ll tell Aladdin you see him as your sister.”

“Ha ha ha- You know what I mean. And don’t tell Aladdin. He’ll love it.”

“You really have to stop adopting everyone you accidentally end up helping on the job, though.”

He pouted. “I can’t help it. Most of them don’t have families left! And you told me you love that about me.”

She pouted back. “And I regret telling you that because it encouraged you.”

Alibaba simply brushed it off, blowing on his drink before taking a sip. “So… what’s the visit for, really? Do we have a new job?”

“No, we’re still on vacation.” Kougyoku looked sheepish when she answered, “I just wanted to punch something.”

“You have a gym in your crazy big mansion.” he pointed out.

“Someone.” she corrected mildly.

“...and that someone is me?” He raised an eyebrow. “I thought I’ve been forgiven for ruining the red heels? I bought you a new pair, right? Didn’t you like it? Or- Wait, is this because of that shiny dress I spilled ink on-”

“Nooooo…” she despaired, rubbing her temples. “It’s not the heels- Oh, I love the new ones you bought for me, actually. Thank you.”

He shrugged. “I owed you after I broke the old ones stabbing someone.”

“I know. And I didn’t like the shiny dress much anyways, so don’t worry about that.”

“Is this the knife then? Are you still mad that I missed my throw?”

She rolled her eyes. “I knew you’d miss. You have the worst throwing aim ever! Please stick to guns. For your sake.”

He frowned. “So why do you want to punch me?”

“I don’t want to punch you.” she said, exasperated. “I wanted to… spar, maybe? I wanted to spar with someone.”

He considered this. “You wanted to let out some steam?”

“Yes. I’d ask Hakuryuu, but he wasn’t around." then she lowered her voice into a whisper, just to be safe. "Also, he has a crush on Morgiana, so I think it’s nice that I don’t have to tell him that she’s been taken by his good friend Alibaba.”

Alibaba gaped. “No way. Hakuryuu? As in, our Hakuryuu?”

“I heard Kouha teasing him about it.”

“Wow. Okay.” Alibaba said, blowing on his drink again. “So do you still wanna spar? It’s pretty late, but I don’t mind doing a few rounds. Might help me sleep.”

Kougyoku put her drink down. “Are you sure? I’m not ruining movie night or anything?”

“Nope. I've watched enough for today, and Aladdin's knocked out. It's a lazy night.”

“You’re such a couch potato whenever we’re off-duty. That can't be healthy.”

“I know, that’s why I think it’s a good thing you came over to beat me up.” he grinned. “Alright, let me change out of my pajamas.”

.


 

.

Alibaba fell on his back with a groan, pinned under Kougyoku’s lithe but strong figure.

For the fifth time that night.

“Do you know,” he said, breathless, “that I always sleep better after you kick my ass?”

Kougyoku let out a small laugh, relaxing as she freed him from her hold but not getting up from where she sat straddling his waist. “Are you asking me to knock you out?”

He grinned teasingly. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

“Oh my God, it was one time, and I already said sorry!” she said, bashful as she punched his shoulder playfully. “Let me live it down, I really didn’t mean to knock you out!”

“I know. I was teasing.” he grinned, crossing his arms behind his head, not complaining about the weight of his partner sitting on him as he got comfortable in the exercise mat. “So? Let out enough steam yet?”

She nodded, brushing her now messy hair away from her face. “Thanks.”

“Anytime.” he said, raising a fist. “Partners, right?”

She knocked her fist against his with a smile. “Partners.”

Then his mischievous grin softened to a concerned smile as he looked up at her. “Will you tell me what happened to piss you off so much you had to kick my ass five consecutive times?”

“I wasn’t angry...” she admitted, picking at a stray thread on the hem of his tank top. “I think I was... lonely, a bit. And frustrated.”

“About what?”

“My family.”

“Yikes.”

“I know. Yikes.”

Alibaba looked at her in sympathy. It was one thing to be frustrated over one’s perfectly normal family. It was another thing if your family was like Kougyoku’s.

He tried to blow at the lump of hair sticking to his forehead and getting into his eyes. When it didn’t work, Kougyoku reached down to brush it back. They’d trained together enough for her to not be grossed out by sweat-slicked messy hair.

“What happened?” he asked.

She slid off him only to lie on her back beside him, their shoulders touching. “It wasn’t like they did anything terrible. Just… Things. Lately. Something someone said that made me feel... bad? I'm sure they didn't mean it that way, but still... I feel like I’m some kind of weak link.”

“What?” He turned his head to look at her. “Hey. Dragon.” the name made her look back at him. “Your actual codename is Dragon , how is that a weak link?”

She pouted, looking up at the ceiling. “Speak for yourself, Phoenix .”

“You know that’s different. They called me that ‘cause I was a loser who set myself on fire by accident during karaoke night and survived because Aladdin dumped a whole bucket of ice on me.”

She had to bring a hand to her face to keep from laughing at the memory.

“But they called you Dragon, unironically, because you’re an actual dragon.”

She sighed. “I’m not.”

“Oh, yeah, you’re not a fire-breathing dragon. More like a water dragon, with a whole ocean’s worth of power and stuff. That’s two-thirds of the Earth, man.”

“I’m not.” she repeated, this time with exasperation.

“You are.” Alibaba returned with just as much exasperation. “Remember when we first met? You almost stabbed me-”

She slapped his arm without much force. “You snuck in through the window!”

“-and then drowned me.”

“It was easy to push you off the window, I knew the pool was there, I just didn’t know you couldn’t swim.”

“Our first job? We didn’t want to work together and screwed it up. I tried negotiating, and I would’ve died if you didn’t unleash hell on those guys.”

“I told you they were past negotiating.”

“Job after that-”

“You caught my fall.”

“-yes, but only after you kicked ass.”

She groaned.

And then she groaned some more when he released a torrent of stories highlighting her ‘badassery’ in the many jobs they’ve taken together for their agency.

Their agency that was also, conveniently, her family.

But she had to admit, it was kind of touching how many stories he was able to recall out of the blue.

She didn’t even really remember the other ones he was talking about.

Did she really fight a man twice her size while only wearing a bathrobe?

That needed confirmation. She asked, “Was that also the time you strangled someone with my bra?”

“Yes, that’s the one. I really never thought bras were that hardcore until I used them in combat.” he answered, all seriousness. “Also, you’re the reason I almost never wear ties anymore.”

“What? Why?”

“I’ve seen what you can do to a man with them. A couple of times. Enough times to scar me for life.”

“I won’t do those to you.” she assured him, but felt the need to add, “Probably.”

He snorted. “I rest my case.” then he tilted his head slightly, to give her a friendly, comforting head-butt. “You’re the most badass girl I ever met.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Dead serious. But maybe don’t tell Morgiana and Toto, ‘cause I might’ve told them that too.”

This time she sounded judgmental. “Oh my God, you player.”

“No no no - it’s just-... you’re all badasses! But you , Miss Ren, take the cake because of how often I get to witness it!”

“Really? How often?”

“On the regular. Like, on every job? And all my jobs are with you? And this is my day job, so. Pretty much everyday. Except, of course, the past couple days since we’re on break.”

Kougyoku looked back at him before she groaned again, shifting to her side and pressing her forehead to the side of her partner’s arm to avoid looking at him because as much as she liked his blinding bright-as-sunshine smile, it wasn’t helping that much right now.

“Hey…” he said soothingly, moving his arm to tuck her to his side instead, wrapping it around her and resting his hand on her waist. She crept closer and laid her head on his chest without a fight, a hand draped loosely across his torso. “Okay, I think I forgot how gross and sweaty we are right now. You sure you’re okay?”

Kougyoku shrugged. “People cuddle all the time after sex, why can’t we cuddle after sparring?”

“Huh. That’s… a good point.”

Kougyoku was always a picture of a smiling, cheerful young lady decked in fashionable blouses, skirts, dresses and proper heels, hair perfectly done up and manners impeccable. It was easy to forget that she had been trained just as hard as her siblings and cousins were, that she was a terrifying field agent, and from Alibaba’s experience, there were very few things that could genuinely bother her.

(Very few, as in: spiders, horrible fashion sense, and peanuts. Peanuts only because she was allergic to them. That was it. That was the end of the list.)

Even after two years of working together, Alibaba sometimes still did a double-take whenever she switched between cute girl to deadly spy.

After a short round of silence while they waited for their breathing to relax and sync, Kougyoku said, “I feel like all of us in the agen- in the family - we have our… roles and specialties, you see.”

“Yeah?”

“Kouen is the leader... so he knows how to manage us best. But when the mission needs real, complicated strategies with several contingency plans, he sends in Koumei, right?”

“Mm-hm. Koumei’s the perfect guy for that.” - it scared and amazed Alibaba everytime Koumei came up with several different solutions seconds after being presented the problem.

“When the job needs to be showy, with brute force and loud explosions, it’s Kouha.”

“Yep.” - Alibaba remembered that one time Kouha was on their team. The mission was the least subtle mission ever. Footage even went viral. According to plan. Because that was Kouha.

“If it’s a diplomatic one, he sends Hakuei. If he needs a guy for skilled hand-to-hand combat, there’s Hakuryuu. Even Judal’s got his own stuff, I don’t know what exactly, it’s always top secret, but Kouen always says ‘this one is perfect for Judal’ or something.”

“Okay.” Alibaba nodded. “And that brings us to…?”

“That brings us to me. To the fact that I’m… well… compared to them, I’m nothing really special?”

“Whoa hey, wait, no, I’m not gonna let you say that.”

“Think about it!” she insisted. “I was never even given a job - any job - until you came around!”

That was… true. Two years ago, Alibaba had gone to Kouen seeking help for his own family. The Rens were a solid institution comprised of elite individuals related by blood and their long-time allies whose loyalty had also spanned for generations. Meanwhile, Alibaba’s little troupe was a bunch of misfits with odd skills. Save for Cassim and Mariam, none of them were actual blood relatives. That was why Alibaba had been surprised when Kouen accepted his plea for support. Kou took in his little found family and provided them with protection so long as they used their skills for the agency.

The Kou agency was one of the best, with decent clients and a clean-cut reputation, so for all intents and purposes, Alibaba’s group agreed that they got a good deal.

Alibaba’s first mission with them was Kougyoku’s as well.

Kougyoku hadn’t been pleased that after all her training, when she was finally assigned to a mission, she was paired up with someone who had little experience and not even one of her family. Didn’t they trust her on her own?

Alibaba hadn’t fared any better, because firstly, Kougyoku was scary, and secondly, if he screwed up, he might cost the Rens one of their own and he did not want to know the consequences of that.

But Kouen had been resolute: “ You two will be partners from now on until I state otherwise.”

It was a rocky start, but they eventually developed a decent working relationship, and then a solid friendship, and now after spending their whole career so far as a team, they were a unit.

Still, that didn’t mean Kougyoku wasn’t left wanting.

“Why do they never give me a solo mission?” Kougyoku continued. “Don’t get me wrong, I like working with you, but it makes me wonder if they think I’ll do terrible at the job without you?”

“Ah. I kinda get it now… yeah.”

“What about you? Don’t you want to go solo sometimes?”

“I think… going solo has its advantages. Maybe- It’s a good thing when you’re trusted to like, succeed, all on your own, yeah?”

“Precisely!”

“I think I’m just… still reeling, like, I still can’t believe Kouen actually adopted my whole… family, that I’m kinda fine with whatever he assigns to me. I'm lucky enough I never actually thought to question it?”

Kougyoku bit her lip. "Sorry, I must sound so spoiled."

"Noooooo." he soothed, rubbing circles on her back. "I only mean that I understand why you wanna try to go solo. And I might feel like it too someday. It's just that for me, right now, I'm fine with what I got. It just so happens you’re part of that. Of all of that. And I don’t hate that you’re a part of all of that."

“Thanks...” she sighed. “You know, I don’t mind that they think we work well together. I mind that they think I’m not good enough on my own.”

“But you’re their wild card.”

“I’m what?”

“That’s your thing, you know. You can do anything .”

This time, she lifted her head to look down at him. “What do you mean?”

He righted the strap of her tank top that slid down her shoulder, then said, “You’re good at everything.”

“I’m… not.”

“Not as good as them in all their… specialties. But you can do a bit of everything! Hear me out: you’re smart like Koumei, you can keep your head cool on negotiations like Hakuei, you’re really good at fighting like Hakuryuu, and let’s face it, that one time you blew up a whole yacht will make Kouha proud.”

“It did. He said we should’ve recorded it.”

“See! That’s you. You’re like… flexible. Like water! I told you-”

“No water dragon puns.”

“-and I’m out.”

She rolled her eyes, but smiled fondly as she perched her chin on his chest.

“I’m proud to be your sidekick.” he said after a while.

“Silly, you’re my partner. You’re pretty great too.”

“And now that I think about it, maybe they just keep us together because… well… it’s optimal cover? Like that one time we went undercover as newlyweds on honeymoon? Can you imagine if you went with Kouha, you look like twins! And your brothers are… well, your brothers. Hakuryuu never does undercover ‘cause he’s a terrible liar. Hakuei is… well, that could work, but there’s still a family resemblance. And I-... I think I’ll feel awkward as hell if it was me with any of your brothers, or even Hakuei, because she’s… like… she’s really big-sister-y?”

Damn. He was right. And she told him so. “That makes… sense. So much sense.”

Was that the actual reason why every time a mission needs two agents to go on undercover together, the first candidates were Kougyoku and Alibaba?

(Do they really always need to be a couple for their covers, though? Sometimes Kougyoku couldn’t help but think maybe Kouen was just having too much fun at their expense. At this point even off-duty sometimes they would slip up and call the other “babe” or “honey”. At times, it wasn't even a slip-up. It doesn't help that Alibaba thought that the nicknames were fun. These days Kougyoku is totally unaffected whenever her siblings and cousins asked her how her “boyfriend” was doing. One time Olba asked Alibaba where he had been and Alibaba answered “I was with my wife- I mean I was at work. With. Uh. Not my wife. I... have no wife. I forget sometimes hahaha but I do have a... work-wife. Yep. That was totally what I meant to say!” and now he’s pretty sure his whole family will never let him live that down.)

“You’re worrying too much about this stuff.” Alibaba said, smiling his sunny smile again as he cupped her cheeks. “You’re doing great. You’re not a weak link. There’s no weak link. That’s why Kou is so strong. You’re all assets.”

“You’re part of Kou too, you know.” she said, smiling back softly. “You’re an asset.”

“Oh yeah?”

“You, Mister Phoenix, are the nicest agent I’ve ever known.” she declared. “I don’t know why you’re an agent, really. You’re more like a superhero.”

“Aw. Thank you.”

“And for the record, Kouen didn’t give you your codename because of the karaoke incident.”

“...What? Really?” he blinked. “Kouha told me it was because of that!”

She sent him a look that clearly said, ‘Do you hear yourself right now?’

“Why did I get the name then?” he asked. “I was planning to get a phoenix tattoo, you know? What backstory do I tell my artist now?”

Kougyoku laughed. “Go with the karaoke story because the real one’s confidential.”

“Whoa, what? What’s the real one then?”

“They codenamed you ‘Phoenix’ because,” she paused, probably trying to gather her words, “you go down but you always rise back up. Seriously, how many comebacks have you done even before you joined Kou?”

Alibaba thought about it. Balbadd after his father was murdered and he had to run from the company. Getting into trouble with Aladdin and somehow surviving. Balbadd again , this time coming out of it with Cassim, Mariam, Hassan and Zaynab. The Sindria company didn’t count as it was more like affiliation than recruitment, but there was Reim after that. His stay there was cut short when they went against the Magnostadt faction and the victory cost them too much so Alibaba and his growing ‘family’ had to leave and find somewhere else for support. Finally, there was Kou, their most stable agency so far.

“You’re counting, aren’t you?” Kougyoku asked with a knowing smile.

“Mm-hm.” he answered absently. “...and hoping I won’t have to do anything like that again now that we’re with Kou. I wouldn’t be able to afford to, you know. I’m not on my own anymore. I have… my people. And we’re finally in a good place now.”

He thought of his family again. Aladdin wasn’t getting into any more trouble. Morgiana was free. Cassim, Hassan and Zaynab finally aren’t forced to do some shady agency’s dirty work out of debt, but rather as valued assets on their own. Little Zassan will grow up in a safe home. Mariam was doing very well, the regular medication doing wonders for her health. Toto is getting a chance at college. Olba was dedicated to training his skills as an agent.

“You won’t have to. You know we all put family first in Kou. That’s why Kouen took you in. He knows you’re loyal to your family.” Kougyoku said. “He wouldn’t respect you otherwise.”

“I know.” he nodded. “I still feel lucky.”

She hummed. “I guess you are.”

“How do you know about the phoenix thing?”

“I asked my brother, of course.”

He was surprised. “You did?”

“Yes, shortly after they gave us our codenames.” she said, then she suppressed a giggle. “I asked him why because I thought Phoenix was too cool for you.”

He frowned. “Okay. Ouch.”

To her credit, she looked guilty. “That was before I learned that you weren’t a total loser!”

He decided to make the most of it, sniffing dramatically. “Babe! I am wounded!”

She laughed, still apologetic, then pressed a quick kiss to his jaw before smiling cutely. “Sorry, honey.”

It didn’t even take a second before he wrapped both arms around her and she laid her head back on his chest again, giggling. “Totally forgiven.”

It felt nice, simply being together like this.

He took a deep breath, just holding his best-friend-partner-work-wife closely, until he couldn’t help but let out a grunt as his body started actively complaining .

“Seriously, though. Ouch? For real now? This mat’s not for relaxing at all.”

Kougyoku simply laughed as she drew away and sat up. “Shower?”

He nodded, letting her pull him up. “Shower.”

.


.

In the morning, they woke up to Alibaba's bedroom door being slammed open.

“ALRIGHT, WAKEY-WAKEY LOVEBIRDS!”

Years of training and instincts kicked in, and by the time Alibaba and Kougyoku both sat up, two loaded guns were trained on the person who dared disrupt their peaceful slumber.

Said person was Ren Kouha, who raised an eyebrow, unfazed. “Wow.” he said in monotone. “Very impressive.”

Beside him, Aladdin had his hands over his eyes, but his fingers were still parted to let him see what was happening. He whispered, “I almost got shot. That’s so cool.”

Morgiana’s head peered in from outside the room. She took one look at them, then disappeared again. They heard her say, “Guns.”

Someone outside - Cassim? - answered, “I always thought they were knife people!”

“Twenty bucks, please.”

“God-freakin-dammit. Here.” Ah, definitely Cassim.

Concluding that there was no immediate threat, Alibaba put his gun back under his pillow and laid back down on the bed, mumbling that their family was so weird and what the hell are they all doing in his flat at six o’clock in the morning? He was having the time of his life sleeping and he swore to God if they didn’t let him sleep until noon at the earliest, he was going to grab his flamethrower from under the bed and-

Kougyoku set her own weapon on the bedside table and yawned.

“...What are you guys doing here?” she asked, rubbing at her eyelids.

“Fetching our dragon and our phoenix ‘cause we need you to wreck shit today.” Kouha crossed his arms across his chest. "We have a job. Kouen left me in charge, I've assembled a team, but you two are taking point undercover. Congrats, you're married and your honeymoon is on a fancy cruise ship and you're busting a drug ring.”

Kougyoku nodded sleepily, then yelped when Alibaba pulled her down with him and pulled the covers over both of them, dramatically pleading, “Five more minutes, we were supposed to be on vacatioooon.....”

“Uuuuugghhhh you’re so embarrassing.” came Kougyoku’s complaint, but she didn’t move to get up either.

Aladdin grinned as he clapped his hands together. “Great, you’re both already in character!”

Kouha joined in the grinning, snapped a photo, and then slung an arm across Aladdin’s shoulder to pull the boy with him. “Wheels up as soon as Hakuryuu gets back from coffee-and-doughnut run, so finish your sappy morning make-out session or whatever and get your butts in the car!”

Alibaba groaned as he grabbed a pillow and put it over his own head. Kougyoku only stared at the ceiling as she listened to sounds of activity coming from the rest of the flat.

“Moooor, is that bacon???” Aladdin was calling out.

“Yes, do you want some too?” was Morgiana’s reply.

“You don’t have work today?” Kouha asked. “AND WHERE’S THE FUCKING REMOTE.”

“ALIBABA GET YOUR LAZY ASS OUT OF BED OR YOU WON’T BE ABLE TO PAY FOR THIS FANCY APARTMENT OF YOURS.” ah yes, Cassim was still there.

“Cassim, how’s your sister doing?” - wait, was that Hakuei?

“Oh, uh, she’s doing fine, ma’am. She’s going to school again. Caught up fast, she’s in top ten of her class, and playing piano again.”

“Really? That’s great to hear.”

Alibaba lifted the pillow to say, “Is it me, or is everyone in my apartment? Because last I remembered, it was just you, me and Aladdin and Morgiana.”

“Morgiana let them in, obviously.” Kougyoku replied, then gave him a helpless smile. “They’re family.”

“Our family is weird.”

She shrugged. “We love them.”

He snorted, burying his face in his pillow again. “We do.”

Then they heard the door opening and another familiar voice announcing, “Coffee!”

“...and that’s Hakuryuu, with the promise of caffeine. I’m getting up.”

“Nooooooo...”

Kougyoku rightfully ignored the whining and simply picked up her gun from the bedside table and then stuffed the weapon in her bag. Then she headed to the bathroom, probably to wash up.

Alibaba listened to the faucet running. When Kougyoku came back, she had her hair tied back, face looking fresh. She took a fallen pillow from the floor and threw at him. Then she went to join the others.

He finally got up, stretched, and stepped out his bedroom.

He stood by his doorway for a second, taking in the chaos in his dining room: Morgiana throwing a strip of bacon for Aladdin who tried to catch it with his mouth (he failed, it landed on his forehead), Cassim stuffing himself with doughnuts, Hakuei sipping her overpriced coffee still looking regal in spite of the ruckus around her, Hakuryuu greeting Kougyoku a good morning as he handed her her usual coffee order, and Kouha flipping through channels, a piece of toast (covered with an unhealthy amount of chocolate spread) held between his teeth.

Right. Nothing new at this point.

Kougyoku walked towards him and handed him his coffee with a smile. "I guess vacation's over early, then."

Alibaba shrugged as he accepted the beverage, smiling wryly. "I knew two weeks was too good to be true."

"At least we get to go on a nice honeymoon."

"Oh, yeah." he nodded approvingly. "Luxury cruise. Gorgeous wife. Drug lords to arrest. Couldn't ask for more."

Kougyoku laughed softly.

They shared a toast with their coffee cups and drank.

Time to get to work.

Chapter Text

Chapter Text

01

.

People always called Aladdin a boy genius. He was used to this by now. He had skipped grades, won competitions, graduated years earlier than other kids his age and gotten a full scholarship in a prestigious university with a few other perks that included an apprenticeship under one of the university’s leading researchers.

Miss Yamu was brilliant. She always encouraged learning and once told Aladdin that anything can be achieved with the right attitude and mindset (and bravery, she added absently, mumbling about lab safety and such).

Aladdin knew he was a smart person and a hard worker. He was curious, and intuitive, and resourceful, and patient although his patience was running a little too thin as evidenced by his current need to meditate and remind himself that he had all the aforementioned qualities in spades and  this  problem  - this  thing -

“It can be done.”

That’s right. He nodded to himself, and then more firmly-

“I can  make it happen .”

It felt great, saying it. He was feeling the determination seeping in slowly now. That familiar feeling of  ‘everything-is-laid-out-before-me-I-just-gotta-figure-out-a-way-to-make-it-work-and-I-WILL-MAKE-IT-WORK’  that he relied on and made him a good student in the first place-

“I  will  make it happen-”

“Uh, hey, buddy? You okay over there?”

Aladdin was snapped out of his determined musings by the familiar voice of his roommate, and was so surprised he fumbled with his phone in his hands until the gadget fell flat on his face.

He let out an undignified yelp as he sat up on his bed, nursing his nose and forehead.

“Okay, maybe you should take a break from… whatever it is you’re doing. Have you slept yet?”

This time it was his roommate’s boyfriend, voice sounding genuinely worried.

Aladdin looked towards the bed across the room where Sphintus and Titus were sitting together with a laptop, both looking at him in a mix of curiosity and concern. He smiled and waved sheepishly. “Ah, no, I’m fine! I’m okay, really.”

“You were staring at your phone and talking to yourself.” Titus pointed out.

Sphintus nodded. “Yeah, man. It sounded serious.”

“It’s nothing… Just kinda zoned out. Thinking ‘bout some stuff… Um. A new project…” Aladdin replied, laughing shakily as he pretended to be concerned over the mess of books, papers and other study paraphernalia in his bed. “What’re you guys up to?”

‘Ten bucks says they’re watching cat videos.’  he thought.

“Nah, just watching cats.” Sphintus shrugged.

Aladdin beamed. His new friends were very predictable.

Also, they’ve been giggling and he’s been hearing grainy meows and distant voices from the laptop for the past hour now. So what else could they be doing, really?

“So what’s your new project about?” Titus asked, eyes wide and shining at the prospect of a bright new idea. This earned him a snort and a mumbled “Nerd.” from his boyfriend.

That  made Aladdin pause. His  project  was barely starting. Heck, he just decided to do it a mere minute ago. Should he tell them?

Aladdin shrugged. Of course he should. Titus was like him (a nerd, according to Sphintus) and Titus would enjoy a good problem to solve. And Sphintus was a good guy. These two were his friends, and they were- Huh.

They were crazy about each other. Which was good. That should be useful.

“Okay. Well…” he took a deep breath. “You know Alibaba? Alibaba Saluja?”

“The blonde dude with the pointy hair?” Sphintus asked.

“Your best friend. The business major.” Titus answered much more kindly. “You used to be roommates before you transferred here with Sphintus, right?”

“Yup.” Aladdin nodded, hopping off his bed to move to Sphintus’s side of the room.

Aladdin became roommates with Sphintus in the beginning of his third year in University. He missed Alibaba’s company, specially now that they didn’t share classes anymore, but they always find time to hang out. It wasn’t too hard, considering Alibaba just happened to be a few doors down the hall.

“So what about him?” Sphintus asked as he and Titus made space for Aladdin to squeeze in between them.

“Can you open his Instagram?”

Sphintus raised an eyebrow but proceeded to do as the boy said. “Look at that username.  the_great_alibaba , huh.” he sniggered as they watched the profile load.

“Open the latest pic.” Aladdin instructed.

The photo was of a tall cup of overpriced takeout coffee with a sky blue post-it that said ‘Fight on!’ with flower doodles in bright pink ink, surrounded by piles of books, papers and reviewers on top of what was undoubtedly Alibaba’s study desk. Just behind it was a slightly off-focus view of Kougyoku who appeared to be sitting on his bed and doing some studying of her own.

The caption read:

feeling down from all the studying but  the sweetest girl  in the universe
brought surprise coffee  !!! to soothe my tired and battered soul !!!!  
#blessed   #lovehersomuch  

“Oh, that’s sweet.” Titus said, touched. “And so nice.”

“It’s cheesy.” Sphintus said, huffing. “And if you think it’s ~so nice~ why dontcha post a pic of me whenever I bring you lunch?”

“Do you want me to?”

“Dear god, no. Ma would print it out and hang it up in the house, framed and everything.”

As usual, Titus missed the point. He only smiled and said, “Your mother is wonderful.”

Sphintus rolled his eyes, not bothering to correct his boyfriend. Instead, he nudged Aladdin. “What’s this got to do with your new project thing?”

“That,” Aladdin said, “is my new project.”

The other two squinted at the photo for a moment. Then Titus said, “I don’t get it.”

“Those two. Alibaba and Kougyoku. They’re my problem. I mean.  Look  at it.”

“Look at  what ?” Sphintus whined. “The coffee? The mess? The heart emojis?”

“The people.” Aladdin said, rolling his eyes.

“The people are your problem?” Titus asked. “Why? They look fine. She looks fine, I mean. And he sounds okay. Aren’t they okay? Wait- Oh. Do  they  have a problem? School problems? Um… Relationship problems?”

Aladdin huffed out a breath. “See?”

“See  what ?”

“You thought they were together! Like, together  dating  and stuff!”

A pause.

Titus looked very confused. “They’re not?”

Aladdin shook his head. “They’re not.”

“You’re shitting me.” Sphintus said. “Those two hold hands  everywhere  and are all over each other, like, 24/7.”

Aladdin raised an eyebrow at Sphintus’s surprising knowledge, but didn’t question it. “They are, aren’t they.”

“And didn’t they go as Mickey and Minnie Mouse on that party last Halloween?”

“They did.”

Then Titus raised a hand. “We shouldn’t count Halloween. Aladdin and Judal went as… well, Aladdin and Jasmine. And they’re not dating.”

Sphintus had to stifle his laughter at the memory.

Aladdin pouted. “That doesn’t count. We did it for the cash prize. And we won. Alibaba and Kougyoku went in matching costumes because they wanna be cute together. And they were. But it’s also very couple-ish.”

“It is, man.” Sphintus had to agree. “Everyone said they were a cute couple.”

“I know. They’re adorable.” Aladdin nodded. “I love them. They’re both my friends. But I’m just… I’m  done . Go look at the rest of his feed.”

The three of them turned back to the laptop as Sphintus scrolled down to see the rest of the photos on Alibaba’s account.

Another photo of Kougyoku smiling at the camera as she ate ice cream, homework, selfie with Kougyoku, food, Kougyoku and Morgiana, food, a stack of business books, Kougyoku hugging a sloth, food, Kougyoku with a flower crown, selfie with Mariam, selfie with Aladdin, a view of campus from a dorm room window, Kougyoku blushing and pouting, flowers, gym selfie, food, Cassim with Hassan and Zaynab’s kid, Kougyoku and Mariam, a fat cat, homework, Kougyoku reading, food, a selfie, Kougyoku struggling to eat a burger, a calendar with a funny note on it, Judal scowling at his phone, an empty lecture hall, Kougyoku in his jacket, movie tickets, Kougyoku napping in a desk- alright, there was indeed a recurring theme here.

Also an alarming amount of heart and sparkle emojis in the captions.

“Does she know that she’s 50% of his IG?” Sphintus deadpanned. “And does he know that the heart emoji is not a valid punctuation mark?”

“Oh, you don’t wanna see Kougyoku’s, then.” Aladdin said. “That one’s got filters and stickers and the hearts come in all colors.”

Sphintus shuddered.

“That,” Aladdin pointed at the monitor. “That’s my project.”

Sphintus looked skeptic. “You want to play matchmaker?”

“Oh!” Titus nodded, finally getting it too. He was a bit slow with the cues sometimes, but he always followed through. “You think they like each other, so you want them to start dating!”

“Basically.” Aladdin said. “And I don’t just  think  they like each other I  know  they do.”

“Really. You do.” Sphintus remained unfazed.

“I do.” Aladdin said, firm this time.

Titus blinked. “Any facts to support that statement?”

“Oh my god. Nerds.” Sphintus groaned, scrolling further down on the feed only to see more random things and more Kougyoku.

“Look, I’ve known them since start of first year. We met when I spilled  Solomon’s Wisdom  on Miss Kougyoku-”

“Please don’t call it that. It’s weird yellow goo.”

“A  powerful  substance!”

“Still weird and yellow. Still goo.”

“Okay. I spilled some on her. By accident. Then Alibaba rescued her and after that they were friends. But like,  super  friends. They’re cool and they get along. Then they started being cuddly. Which was still nice. Then they were like…  this.

“Like constantly one extended eye contact away from making out?” Sphintus suggested.

“Like  pining  over each other!” Aladdin said. “Like spending holidays together! Like… one time Alibaba went away on vacation, Kougyoku sulked and said she missed him and they called each other like every five hours! And… and when Kougyoku wore this really pretty dress, Alibaba held on to me and told me to take him to the clinic because he’s maybe having a heart attack! Whenever he sees something cute, he takes a pic and sends it to her!”

“Oh.” was all Titus was able to say. “I see.”

“Alibaba sent me a text one time talking about her eyes. HER EYES.” Aladdin groaned, taking out his phone then immediately tapping and swiping. “...not in the medical sense like maybe she should get glasses or something. He said they…” - he referred to his phone for reference, then continued, “-they  glimmer in the afternoon light.  The word was ‘glimmer’. And that’s just one time. There are other texts too- Am I a flash poetry journal?”

Sphintus clicked his tongue. “Holy shit, he sounds really bad.”

“And I have to deal with them!” Aladdin exclaimed, this time throwing his hands up in exasperation. “I don’t even know how Mor does it. She just looks at them and then shakes her head.”

“Well, that Morgiana chick is metal.” Sphintus said.

“She may be, but I’m not. I’m just an ordinary human, who is tired of all the pining, specially if Alibaba texts me everyday about how cute his  ‘very special friend’  is.” Aladdin pouted, hands raised for the air quotes. “And then he tells me her future boyfriend would be so lucky, and I tell him that’s him, he’s the boyfriend, but he’s like  ‘No way, she’s out of my league’  and I’m-...? I am  done , I can’t.”

Titus reached out to pat the boy’s head to comfort him, then ruthlessly declared: “Your friend is a fool.”

“He’s my friend.” Aladdin said, full of regret. “I love him a lot, I really do, but he’s been like this for all of second year. I endured that. But I don’t wanna suffer this mutual pining for another year.”

This time Sphintus laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder, looked him dead in the eyes and said, “Unfriend him.”

“No, Sphintus, I’m not you.”

Sphintus shrugged. “Worth a try.”

“So how are you going to… execute this project of yours?” Titus asked.

“I’m thinking about it.” Aladdin answered, brows furrowed. “Also, I’m open for suggestions.”

They were all silent for a while.

Then Sphintus said, “How about you lock them up in a closet and don’t open it till they make out?”

Titus looked at him and only said, “Why.”

Aladdin rolled his eyes: “Again: No, Sphintus, I’m not you.”


The next day, Sphintus found Aladdin hanging out with Alibaba in one of the University courtyards under the shade of a tree. Both looked up to greet him when he plopped down beside them, then went back to studying.

Sphintus had a paper to finish, so he decided to take his laptop out and work on it until his next class. As he waited for the machine to boot, he looked around only to catch a familiar face looking towards them.

He reached out to nudge Alibaba. “Dude, I think your girlfriend’s tryina call you.”

Alibaba frowned as he looked up, “I don’t have a- Oh!” he suddenly broke into a smile so bright Sphintus wished he had sunglasses, then waved towards the girl who was already waving happily at him.

Kougyoku was with her girl friends, obviously just passing by. She pointed to the Starbucks cup she was holding, then mouthed,  ‘Thank you!’  and beamed.

Alibaba gave a thumbs up, then waved again. Kougyoku waved back again, and this time her friends joined her, giggling. Alibaba only chuckled sheepishly as the group of girls walked off, chatting with each other.

“What was that?” Aladdin asked.

“Uh, just returning the favor from yesterday, y’know… she brought me coffee.” Alibaba answered easily, going back to studying. “So I brought her favorite Shaken Peach Citrus White Tea Infusion Lemonade.”

“Oh…” Aladdin nodded, then exchanged a look with Sphintus before shrugging as if to say  ‘I don’t even know what that is.’

Sphintus, however, quickly recalled the conversation he and Titus had with the younger boy the day prior. The mutual pining and the obvious romantic tension and the flash poetry-

He thought about it again - it wasn’t his problem, per se… but Aladdin was his roommate. When Aladdin inevitably loses his close-to-infinite amount of chill because his best friend was being a hopeless idiot, Sphintus didn’t want to be there for the kid’s breakdown. Last time Aladdin lost his chill, everyone within ten feet of him got Solomon’s Wisdom to the face.

God, it’s a really weird name to call yellow goo.

So the conclusion here was that maybe Sphintus should give a shit about this Alibaba-Kougyoku-Mutual-Pining situation.

And well… if locking them up in a closet was out of the question (because apparently Morgiana already did that once when she lost her chill and it didn’t work) maybe he should try the route of finesse.

“So…” Sphintus started, scooting closer to Alibaba. “So, dude.”

Aladdin squinted at him, but Alibaba simply raised an eyebrow and blinked. “Um. Yeah? Dude?”

Sphintus inwardly pat himself on the back. This will be easy. Aladdin and Titus were both weirdos, but Sphintus was a ~social butterfly~ if he would say so himself. He was sure he’d be able to crack Alibaba right away. “So… girls, huh?”

Aladdin looked horrified, then started shaking his head frantically at him.

Alibaba didn’t notice and only blinked. “Girls? What… about girls?”

“C’mon, man. Girls.” Sphintus chuckled. “You like them, right?”

Alibaba blinked again. “Yeah, I like girls, fair enough.”

“Those girls were pretty hot. You know all of ‘em?”

“Yeah, but only because-” Alibaba paused, looking confused. “Wait… uh. Dude, I thought you were… gay?”

Sphintus snorted. “I’m not gay. My boyfriend is.”

“Oh. Okay.” Alibaba nodded. “Well, there’s Kougyoku. The others, I just know them because they’re her friends.”

“Cool.” Sphintus said, nodding back. “Any of them your type?”

If he was drinking, Alibaba would have spit out his drink. “W-What? Type? W-What do you mean, man???”

“Y’know, wanna go out with one of ‘em?”

“G-Go out- No! I mean- They’re all nice girls of course- and-” he coughed. “-they’re pretty, sure, a-and smart and- but- err. I already- Um, yeah, no-”

“Really?” Sphintus teased. “Not even Kougyoku? She seems pretty great. You guys seem tight.”

This time when Sphintus saw Aladdin behind Alibaba, the boy was not only shaking his head, but also making an ‘X’ with his arms, mouthing ‘NO STOP NOOOOO’.

Meanwhile Alibaba’s awkward expression had morphed into fear as he laughed nervously. When he spoke, his voice was an octave higher than usual. “Y-Yeaaaaah? Whaaaaaat? Kougyoku? Nooooo-”

“You don’t think she’s great?” Sphintus teased.

“SHE IS!” Alibaba quickly corrected. “But! Hahaha- She’s- She’s my friend, y’know, and she’s- She’s wonderful, actually! Okay? She’s the best! But- hahaha- I can’t- I just- Haha-”

Oh, man. Sphintus got what Aladdin was worried about now. The guy was having a mental breakdown. “You like her, don’t you?”

“Nooooo- Yeah- Maybe a bit but like a lot- NO I DON’T MEAN THAT- YES- No- PLEASE DON’T TELL HER-”

“Why not?”

“I’m sure she doesn’t like me back-”

“There it is.”

“DON’T TELL HER-”

“I won’t, okay, go on-”

“-it’s not like I’m anyone special, she’s just really nice and kind and smart and sweet, man!”

“Alright. You really think that.”

“She’s too good, I won’t- She doesn’t see me that way, I’m her  friend -”

“Friend. Yes, sure. Friends are good. You’re a good friend.”

“Exactly, we’re friends! It’s not like she should be  obligated  to like me back-”

“Sure, sure. I get it-”

“Th-There you go!”

“Have you even considered it, though.”

“W-What? Consider what?”

“Dude.” Sphintus said, this time grounding the other guy by gripping him by his shoulders. “Dude, look at me.”

Alibaba shut up and did as he was told for once.

“What is the problem here, again? Why haven’t you asked her out?”

Alibaba shrugged helplessly. “What if she says no?”

“But,” Sphintus enunciated, slowly but surely, like he was explaining something delicate to a small child - “what if… she says  yes ?”

Alibaba stared.

His companions were pretty sure they could see steam come out of the guy’s ears as he visibly slumped back into the tree trunk behind him, even reaching back to hold on to it, probably for additional support.

Sphintus gaped, because holy  snakes  the guy actually hasn’t considered that sheer possibility like-  Okay , Titus was right. He was a fool.

Aladdin just watched it all unfold in quiet terror and curiosity, hands on either side of his face.

Sphintus blinked. “Um. Dude, are you okay-”

“No.” Alibaba squeaked out, then looked around, probably looking for an exit despite the fact that they were already outdoors. “I- Um. I… have to… go water my bonsai.”

Then he was gone.

Sphintus was impressed - he didn’t know it was possible for someone to disappear so fast.

“Oh my God. Look what you did.” Aladdin said, exasperated. “YOU BROKE HIM.”

“What?” Sphintus raised his arms, pleading innocence. “He went to water his plant!”

Aladdin sighed. “That bonsai is  plastic , Sphintus.”

Sphintus’s pleased smirk fell flat. “Oh, man. I broke him.”

.


 

02

.

When Aladdin arrived in his dorm room that afternoon happily clutching a science journal Miss Yamu had lent to him, Sphintus and Titus were in the middle of a video chat with Marga.

As soon as the girl saw him walk in, she smiled and said, “Oh, it’s Aladdin! Hi, Aladdin!”

“Hi, Marga.” Aladdin greeted back with a smile. “How are you?”

“I’m fine, thank you!” she cheerfully replied. Aladdin had only met Titus’s little sister twice, but Titus and Sphintus Skyped her regularly so he was used to the girl. She was sweet and adorable. No wonder Titus loved her so much and Sphintus doted on her. The girl continued talking to her brother and his boyfriend about her day, something about a group project at school that involved arts and crafts.

Aladdin discarded his jacket, bag and shoes, then laid on the bed to start reading his science journal.

He was one paragraph in when the door was abruptly slammed open.

It only took him a second to take in the long black hair, the eyeshadow and eyeliner, the choker, crop top and low-waist jeans to identify who the invader was.

Aladdin quickly bolted up in alarm. He threw away his reading material, grabbed the giant inflatable toy hammer beside his bed and yelled “USURPER!!!”

Judal let the hammer harmlessly hit his head once before yanking it from the younger student’s grip and then carelessly tossing it behind him. “Oh, shut up, shrimp.”

“What are you doing here?” Aladdin asked, tone suspicious, grabbing for his pillow. The Great Prank War may have been over but he still kept his guard up because Judal incited a rematch every so often.

Before Judal could answer, they heard a tiny voice from the laptop. “Ooooh! Who’s the pretty lady?! Is she your friend too, Titus?”

Judal frowned and whirled around to look at the source of the voice, only to see Marga's curious face in the computer screen.

Titus laughed nervously. “Oh, um, Marga, actually-”

“Who’s that?” Judal asked, walking over to squint at the monitor.

“Titus’s sister.” Sphintus answered, wary. “Man, she’s a kid, don’t-”

Judal cut him off, nodding at the girl. “Hey, short stuff, what’s your name?”

“My name is Marga.” came the perfectly polite, sheepish answer.

“You think I’m pretty?”

“Yes! Your hair looks so nice. And your necklace!”

“Heh.” Judal smirked, then he pointed a finger at Marga. “When you come here, you go look for me, I’ll give you a necklace like this. We’ll look badass together.”

“Really?! Can I touch your hair too?”

“I’ll let ‘ya braid it if you’re good.”

“Okay! Thank you, lady!”

Judal shrugged, then looked at Titus as he jabbed a thumb towards the screen. “I like this kid.”

Then he went back to Aladdin, and Titus and Sphintus only shared a helpless look before shrugging and continuing their call.

Judal nudged Aladdin with a foot. “Scoot.”

“What?” Aladdin asked, but did as he was told, backing up against the wall and leaving space for their unexpected guest.

Judal dropped like a dead man on the bed. “Fuck, I’m so tired.”

Aladdin looked unimpressed. “Your room’s just a few doors down the hall, you know.”

“Are you shitting me?” Judal scoffed. “No way am I staying there, my stupid roommate and that ugly hag not-girlfriend of his are being disgusting.”

Aladdin snorted. “What’re they doing this time?”

“Homework, I think.” Judal shrugged. “Studying. Whatever. I dunno what is up with your best friend today, but he’s acting like an idiot… more than usual. Blushing like 50% more than usual. And I dunno how Kougyoku doesn’t notice it when she’s staring at him the whole time. Or maybe she does and she thinks it's cute.”

“Oh.” Aladdin nodded. “Sphintus kinda broke Alibaba today.”

“I said sorry already!” came Sphintus’s quick retort before returning back to his Skype call.

Judal raised an eyebrow at the guy before asking Aladdin, “What’d he do?”

“He told Alibaba there’s a possibility Kougyoku might like him back and I guess that was too much for Alibaba and he short-circuited.”

“Possibility?!” Judal exclaimed, scandalized. “SHE ALREADY LIKES HIM BACK, WHAT THE FUCK.”

Aladdin did a most impressive eye-roll. “You don’t say.”

“No, she  told  me.” Judal said.

“She- She did?”

“Well, she didn’t really, but she like… asked me if I know his type, or if I could find out if he likes someone so I said  ‘nah he probably likes you, he’s got shit taste like that’ , and she didn’t believe me. She didn’t even get angry, she just. Straight up. Denied the truth.” Judal said, sounding tired and exasperated. “I told her I’ll tell him she likes him but then she threatened me with prime blackmail material. That hag.”

Aladdin blinked. He didn’t think Kougyoku was capable of being that cruel. But then… there was indeed that one saying about women and fury and hell.

Judal’s face then looked solemn and… resigned?  Wow . He must really be tired. “Take my advice, kid - never get a childhood friend. They always have dirt on you.”

“Actually, I’m trying to think of a way to get those two together.” Aladdin said, after some hesitation. “You know… before they kill us all with second-hand embarrassment at how obvious they’re mooning over each other?”

For the first time since he arrived, Judal looked straight at Aladdin and for once, he looked like he didn’t want to toss the teen on a dumpster. “Yeah?”

Aladdin nodded. “Yeah.”

“Right. I’m in. What’s the plan?”

Aladdin had to lean backwards in surprise. “W-What? You’re- You want to help?”

Judal sat up and nodded. “For the greater good.” Then he must have thought that sitting was still too much work so he grabbed Aladdin’s pillows and laid back on them. He crossed his arms behind his head. “I mean, screw it, y’know. I live on the same room as that idiot, and on vacations I’m at the Rens’ place more than half the time. It’s either they hook up with each other and get some chill, or I murder them both.”

“Okay… well,” Aladdin considered it, then finally decided to just roll with it. “There’s no plan yet. But we know this: they both actually like each other, they just can’t say it because… reasons. We’ve also got a list of Don’ts. Number one, don’t tell them outright - because Alibaba short-circuits, like earlier and Kougyoku denies it, like you said. Number two, no shoving them in a closet - it doesn’t work. Mor already tried and nothing happened, because they thought it was a prank and they just sat there. They thumb-wrestled until someone let them out.”

“What, so we can’t tell ‘em and we can’t push ‘em because they can’t grasp the fucking concept and they’ll think we’re kidding. What else do we do when we’ve tried the most freakin’ blatant shit already?"

Aladdin stared at him. “Blatant.”

“Yeah, I know how to use that word, smartass-”

“No, no, no - that’s it. We need to  not  be blatant.” Aladdin said, grinning.

“Be subtle then?” Judal scoffed. “Like… whisper in their ear? Whatcha want to do, put them on a boat in a lake while we get fish and birds to sing around them?”

“Are you talking about Little Mermaid?”

“Yeah, duh.”

“No, I’m just thinking… maybe we could still push them together, but make it look like we didn’t mean to do it-”

“Stage an accident? What, you want me to push them both on the bed and go  ‘Oopsies!’  and then leave them there to have a moment?”

“Yes! Exactly!”

Judal stared, face spelling out -  ‘Are you serious right now?’

Aladdin shrugged, expression replying -  ‘Do you have a better idea?’

Judal threw his hands up. “Fine, let’s go with that.”


The following week witnessed what Aladdin was tempted to call a disaster but for the sake of um, camaraderie, he would call it… err… effort?

Well, Judal was having the time of his life, that’s for certain.

So far Aladdin had witnessed:

 

  • Judal ‘accidentally’ stepping sideways, shoving Kougyoku against Alibaba as the three of them were walking together. “I thought I saw a roach.” he had claimed. “T’was just dirt on the floor. I think.” He considered it a win as he saw Alibaba trying not to have a meltdown because Kougyoku was rubbing his arm on the spot where she crashed against him.
  • Judal ‘tripping’ over a bunch of magazines and subsequently pushing Alibaba to land on his bed, where Kougyoku was studying. They spluttered their apologies and it was a mess as they tried to reorganize the papers that went everywhere.
  • Judal shouting a loud “Out of my way!” while waving around a life-sized anatomical skeleton model - “I'm carrying science!” - he added as justification, as he was about to pass by Alibaba and Kougyoku, who were chatting in the hallway. Alibaba was quick to pull Kougyoku against him to save her from getting slapped by a skeleton hand. Cue the two of them exchanging sheepish ‘Thanks’ and ‘You’re welcome’ and ‘No really, thanks!’ and ‘Really don’t mention it!’ afterwards.
  • Judal convincing Morgiana, of all people, to help him. Aladdin didn’t even know what Judal said to her, but apparently Morgiana agreed. Next thing he knew, Morgiana, who was sitting on a nearby bench, expertly rolled a soccer ball towards Alibaba’s path while he was walking, causing him to almost trip and to drop his books. Of course, Kougyoku helped him pick them up. Their hands grabbed the same book and they looked at each other in surprise, teen romcom style. Judal and Morgiana high-fived.
  • Hakuryuu shakily and awkwardly yelping “Spider!” causing Alibaba to scream and hold on to Kougyoku while Kougyoku wrapped an arm around him protectively, grabbed a book and said, “Where?!” ready to kill the offending creature. “U-Umm, it’s gone now.” her cousin had replied, sweating nervously. (Later, Aladdin saw Judal pat the poor guy on the back and whisper “You did good, Ryuu. Really good.”)
  • Judal actually saying “Oops, ah, I feel nauseous. Must be vertigo!" accompanied by a noble attempt at acting, flailing and causing an innocent Kougyoku to fall on top of a napping Alibaba. They almost kissed - Aladdin was prepared to cheer (he had his official Best Friend Congratulatory Statement ready for close to two years, dammit) except Judal actually tripped for real and ended up on top of the two on the couch and ruining the moment.

 

Aladdin breathed deeply. Why on Earth did he enable this?


 

03

.

“B-B-But why would he ask me out? Why would  anyone  ask me out? I’m  dreadful . I’m not even that pretty, and I’m boring, I can’t talk to people, I can’t go to parties alone, all I do is study and-”

How dare you.

Three pairs of eyes looked up from their tasks to see their companions staring at each other in tense silence.

Kougyoku blinked at Alibaba, mouth open as if she was about to say something but couldn't find her voice.

Alibaba stared back at her, brows furrowed, frowning deeply.

Kougyoku then narrowed her eyes, putting down her phone on her lap and slowly asking, “Excuse me?” - demanding,  offended .

“How dare you.” Alibaba repeated, no remorse in his tone.

“How dare I  what ?”

“How dare you call yourself- what-  dreadful ?” Alibaba sounded incredulous now. “I am  not  going to let you say that, lady.”

Kouyoku gaped.

“And you’re plenty pretty- You’re  beautiful!  And you’re not boring, or any of that- YOU’RE PERFECT.”

“W-Wha-” she pouted then. “You’re just saying that, and this guy asking me is probably just pranking me-”

“No, maybe he saw how amazing you are!”

“I’m not-!” she spluttered, visibly fighting through her blushing face. “A-And you can’t say that to  me  when  you  turned down a girl just last week because, according to you, you’re not even that cool! You’re cool! Why can’t you see that you’re cool?!”

“Well, why can’t you see that you’re also cool?!”

Right beside them, unnoticed, Aladdin, Judal and Morgiana stared.

“Oh my God.” Aladdin whispered, bringing his face in his hands, groaning. “They can’t even  fight  like normal people.”

Judal shook his head before grabbing the book that was in Morgiana’s lap and burying his face in the pages. “Why.” he said under his breath. “WHY. Why are they like this.”

Morgiana looked down at her now-empty lap.

Then the three of them looked up when they heard Kougyoku squeal, only to see Alibaba now trying to  tickle  her, both of them laughing, still arguing which of them was more date-able and  “I won’t let you call the Cutest Girl In The World ‘boring’, how dare you!”  and  “Why do you always think you’re lame?! You’re not lame, any girl would be lucky to date you!”

When Aladdin groaned again, Morgiana raised a hand and rubbed his back comfortingly. Aladdin gave in and latched on to her, dramatically tucking his head on her shoulder. She stroked his hair softly.

On her other side, Judal buried his face in the book again, mumbling a heartfelt wish for the cold clutches of death to claim him. Morgiana moved to rub his back too, but stopped herself when she realized it was  Judal , who she wasn’t even  that  close to-

“Go on.” Judal said. “Do it.”

Morgiana only blinked once before patting the guy’s back and whispering an awkward but sincere, “There, there.”

“Thank you.”

Man, Judal  thanked  her. The situation must be really  bad .

But then, maybe it  was  indeed bad. After all, their latest plan:  Operation Green-Eyed Epiphany , just failed spectacularly before their very eyes.

“What’s happening here?” said a new voice as someone else joined their little group, making Aladdin, Morgiana and Judal look up while Alibaba and Kougyoku were still in their own little bubble being embarrassing.

Kouha had finished his mysterious world tour a year ago and finally went to University like his sister, only to become the campus cryptid. That meant everyone knew him for some weird reason even though he was rarely sighted by anyone outside of his classes, and he would randomly turn up at parties and bring the place down. No one knew what his major was, everyone had their own theories. Ren Kouha was a legend.

This was one of his rare sightings.

“Look at them.” Judal said glumly, gesturing towards Alibaba and Kougyoku, who had switched positions. Alibaba was now pleading for mercy while Kougyoku poked him relentlessly.

Kouha looked… and looked, and looked.

Then, because apparently Ren Kouha has no time for this foolishness, he huffed and said, loudly:

“Hook up with each other already, you  cowards .”

Alibaba and Kougyoku paused, stunned.

Then they broke apart and stammered, “W-W-what? Us?! No way, haha-”

“I got asked by someone else, not by him!”

“Yes, I- I am h-helping her respond-”

“I’m going to turn him down, though-”

“Exactly! W-Wait, really?”

“Not because I like someone else, per se-”

“Really? Y-You don’t like… anyone?”

“W-Well, yes, I- um- I am just not ready to date anyone right now, I think…?”

“O-Oh… but… but someday, though, maybe-?”

“M-Maybe…?”

Kouha looked at them before also shaking his head. “Okay.” he said, turning to Judal. “So, there’s this group of assholes earlier who hit on me until they realized I’m a guy and then they accused me of tricking them and called me... lots of things.” He stood up, dusting his shorts and picking up his bag, which looked bulky and too full - “I’ve got five cartons of eggs, six rolls of toilet paper and ten rolls of duct tape in here.”

Judal took a second to process his friend’s words before gathering his things and standing up. “Let’s do it.”

Aladdin also determinedly scrambled for his bag and stood up. “I’m going with you!”

Alibaba and Kougyoku watched as the three began to leave, then gaped when they realized that Morgiana was standing up as well.

“Morgiana, you too?!” Alibaba exclaimed, surprised.

Morgiana nodded as she adjusted the straps of her backpack.

“You  know  what they're up to, right?” Kougyoku asked.

Morgiana paused, looking back at Alibaba and Kougyoku who were both wearing concerned looks for her.

It was touching, really. They were both really sweet, loving people. Morgiana was grateful for their presence in her life.

But they were also idiots, sometimes. Besides, egging, duct taping and whatever it was Judal, Kouha and Aladdin were up to sounds fun.

She shrugged, said “You only live once.” then turned to follow the others.


 

04

.

Titus sighed. “I can’t believe I’m harboring criminals now.”

Judal tilted his head from his position on the expensive plush couch, munching on some potato chips, while Aladdin looked up from his perch on the counter, spoon on mouth and a cup of frozen fruit yogurt in his hand.

Judal spoke with his mouth full. “Not crime! T’was justice!”

Aladdin nodded fervently.

Titus sighed again, and for a while, only the sound of the running shower from the bathroom was heard in his apartment.

Kouha had gone straight to take a shower as soon as the trio barged in pleading for sanctuary after the number they did on some students… and those students’ respective dorm rooms… and cars… and perhaps more but Titus was afraid to ask the specifics. Aladdin and Judal raided his fridge and kitchen shortly after, starving from their run. Apparently Morgiana contributed too, but instead of imposing on Titus’s place, she decided to hide out at her big brother Masrur’s flat nearby.

It was impressive, Titus had to admit. And from what little context they gave him, those guys deserved what they got.

Then Judal groaned in a way that could only be described as irritation. They turned to see him swiping away at his phone. “GOD. I was feeling alive there for a sec. I want to die again.”

“Not on my couch.” Titus said, eyebrow raised. “What happened?”

“Alibaba updated his Instagram.” Judal answered, then looked at his companions. “Three guesses.”

Aladdin was quick to answer. “Books or notes. Food. Kougyoku.”

Judal scoffed. “You little monster.” then he tossed his phone towards Aladdin, who hastily dropped his cup of yogurt down on his lap to catch the item in his hands.

The yogurt stayed miraculously in the cup as Aladdin looked at the phone’s screen with Titus hovering curiously behind him.

The photo was of Kougyoku eating a cake while reading a book.

“Hah!” Aladdin laughed, then giddily tapped the phone to ‘like’ the photo. Maybe Alibaba and Kougyoku will do a double take when they see Judal’s username in the ‘Likes’ list.

“So what happened to your latest scheme?” Titus asked, opening his own cup of yogurt.

Aladdin frowned. “It didn’t work.”

“Don’t ask. It was traumatizing.” Judal added.

Aladdin shook his head as he put the phone down and picked up his snack to resume eating. “I think we’re out of ideas.”

Titus ate a spoonful of yogurt and hummed in thought. “I’ve been thinking… you just need one of them to confess, right? You’re sure the other one will definitely reciprocate?”

Aladdin nodded.

“It’s kind of old-fashioned, but if they’re too nervous to say it out loud to each other, maybe you can convince one of them to… maybe, write a letter or something?" Titus said thoughtfully. "You can volunteer to deliver it if they’re to shy to do it themselves, too. Maybe assure them that you can be a mediator of sorts, like, let them think you’ll be there to  ‘soften the blow’  if they really believe they’ll get rejected. Maybe they’ll take the risk then.”

Titus looked up from his snack to see the other two staring at him slack-jawed.

Aladdin looked down at his lap, thinking hard. Yes, Titus missed cues more often than not, but he’s also really logical and eager to come up with good solutions. This one was very sensible.

“A letter.” Judal said, then to his companions’ surprise, he got up and joined them on the counter. “Fuck, why didn’t we think of that? They’re both  saps , of course they’ve tried writing a letter once or twice. An email. Text. Whatever. We just gotta get ‘em to give it.”

Titus shrugged awkwardly. “Yes, I mean… that’s how Sphintus asked me out.”

Aladdin nodded. “I remember. You were passing notes in class. I was literally between you guys.”

“He said writing it down and letting me read it was less embarrassing than saying it to my face.”

Judal considered it, then nudged Aladdin with his bag of potato chips. “You up for it, brat?”

Aladdin scooped another spoonful of yogurt. “I take Alibaba, you take Kougyoku?”

A nod. “It’s on.”

Titus smiled. He was glad to be of help. Maybe. Aladdin was a good friend. And Judal-... well. Titus considered it a work in progress. His mother did tell him to make many good friends in University.

They heard the bathroom door open, followed by Kouha’s voice. “Hey, can I borrow some clothes?”


When Aladdin suggested the idea to Alibaba  (“Write it down and I’ll give it to her! You don’t have to hear what she says, I’m gonna get her reply for you.”)  the blond turned an amazing shade of red, then purple, before running to his bed, diving under the covers and oh. Aladdin didn’t know anyone could make a blanket burrito that fast.

But Aladdin was determined. So he sent a text requesting for backup, then straddled the rolled-up blanket containing his friend and loudly said, “YOU WON’T KNOW IF YOU DON’T TRY, ALIBABA.”

In less than five minutes, Morgiana was in the room. She took one look at the two before joining Aladdin, straddling the cocoon and making Alibaba groan under his friends' combined weight.

“What are we doing?” she asked. Classic Morgiana - move first, ask questions later.

“Mor, tell him! If he can’t bring himself to tell Kougyoku, maybe he can put his feelings in a letter and we can bring it to her! Maybe get her answer too, if she’s too shy to dump him.” Aladdin answered.

Alibaba let out a miserable cry. “OH GOD SHE MIGHT DUMP ME. Tell him, Morgiana!”

Morgiana took a deep breath. “Aladdin has a point.”

“MORGIANA, I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE BETRAYING ME LIKE THIS!”

It didn’t faze her, because Morgiana was badass like that. She only said, “You’re welcome.”

That was when Aladdin’s phone chimed with a message. He checked it quickly, paused, then passed the item to Morgiana so she can read it as well.

Aladdin took a long sigh. It might be too much, but Alibaba probably couldn’t tell, wrapped in a blanket as he was - “Oh, well. Fine, don’t do it. We just wanted to help. Let’s go, Mor.”

Morgiana only handed him his phone back and said, “Okay.”


The next day, Judal handed Alibaba a flowery pink envelope.

“What-”

“Read.”

“But what-”

“Open it, then read.”

“Dude, I’m studying-”

“For the love of- It’s from Kougyoku, just read it. Then- I dunno, she wants me to tell her what you… have to say… about… it.”

Alibaba only looked at his roommate strangely before setting aside his notes and opening the envelope. He started to unfold the paper but noticed that Judal was staring hard at him.

“Are you going to watch me read?”

Judal rolled his eyes before walking off and sitting on his bed on the other side of the room. It took all he had not to stare at Alibaba as the guy read the contents of the letter. He glanced from time to time, and Alibaba had gone very quiet, brows furrowed as he took in the confession.

A few minutes later, he heard Alibaba’s awed, whispered. “Wow, that was-... Wow.”

‘Fucking  finally .’ Judal thought, already savoring the taste of victory on his tongue. He eagerly leaned forward, grinning. “Yeah? What d’you say?”


“WHAT THE HELL, HAG?!”

“I-I-I’M SORRY!!!”

Judal took in the sight of Ren Kougyoku grossly sobbing into a tissue paper, protectively cradled by none other than Ren Kouha, both of them sitting on the latter’s bed.

Kouha looked at him with a pointed expression as he stroked his sister’s hair.

“I-It’s just- Y-Y-You were making me nervous!” Kougyoku sniffed. “I wanted to give him my letter, I swear, but you were telling me to h-hurry up, so I did and I- I gave you the wrong one!”

Judal narrowed his eyes. “Yeah, you made me deliver your Feminist Philosophy paper.”

“I told you! I didn’t mean to!”

He took a deep breath - what would Aladdin do? - Oh. “We can fix this. Where’s the letter?”

Kougyoku looked away from him and whimpered, “I put it through the paper shredder.”

“WHAT? WHY???”

“Because I read it again and it was so embarrassing!”

Judal looked at Kouha, at a loss, and Kouha only shrugged at him as if to tell him to accept his losses before grabbing another handful of tissue and handing it to his sister.

“It’s gonna be fine. The letter’s gone now.” Kouha told Kougyoku sweetly. “I’m hungry. Should we get pizza? Ice cream?”

Kougyoku sniffed, cuddling closer. “Pizza sounds nice.”

“Great. Pizza party! Judal's buying!” Kouha said brightly. He didn’t give Judal a chance to complain as he threw his wallet towards the guy.

Judal rolled his eyes but caught the item anyway, took a few bills, and thew it back before leaving the room.

“J-Judal, wait!” Kougyoku called.

“What?”

“What did Alibaba think of the essay?”

Judal groaned as he ran a hand down his face because  of course  Kougyoku would be concerned about that too.

And  of course , Alibaba  did  have something to say about the godforsaken essay.

“It was really interesting and well-written. He spotted a minor typo somewhere. And he really liked your conclusion.”


 

05

.

Sphintus had seen his fair share of weird stuff, but he had to admit this was one of the weirder ones.

Leaning forward on the counter was Titus, while Judal stood across him on the other side and worked on his face. Aladdin was sitting on top of the counter, make-up kit on his lap.

This was not the sight Sphintus expected upon arriving at his boyfriend’s flat.

“Uh, what’s up?” he asked in greeting.

“Sphintus! Judal is doing my make-up!” Titus said cheerfully.

“No talking.” Judal scolded, then snapped a finger at Aladdin’s direction. “Gimme that brush.”

Aladdin dutifully handed the brush that the guy was pointing at, then smiled at Sphintus. “I’m learning new things.”

Sphintus simply dismissed this as one fever dream and rolled with it. “So you guys are going to the party too?”

“Hell yeah, why d’you think I look this good?” Judal snorted, and he had a point, his pants were tighter and shinier than usual. “Your boyfriend dresses like a nun, by the way. I did you a favor and raided Kouha’s closet to give him nicer clothes.”

“My clothes were perfectly fine!” Titus said, indignant.

“Yeah, for presenting your latest scientific breakthrough in a panel of snobby old people.” Judal countered. “You wanna go back in them?”

“I-” Titus started, but paused, self-consciously adjusting the off-shoulder sweater Judal put him in. “No. Fine, I actually like these clothes. I should… go shopping soon.”

Now curious, Sphintus walked around the counter to see the rest of the blond’s ensemble. He took in the cute shorts and thigh-high boots, then let out an appreciative whistle.

“Ew.” Aladdin said.

“You’re welcome.” Judal smirked, then grabbed Titus before he could move to probably teach his boyfriend some manners. “Hey, keep still! I’m not done with you.”

“So who else is coming?” Sphintus asked, settling on the counter with them.

“Hakuryuu’s picking Mor up.” Aladdin said. “Also, I think Alibaba is trying to get Kougyoku to go.”

“She doesn’t like loud parties.” Judal said. “But Kouha’s coming too, so I’m pretty sure she’ll go.”

Sphintus took an eyeliner from the kit in Aladdin’s lap and squinted at it. Then he put it back, a grin on his face. “I think I have an idea.”

Titus raised an eyebrow, causing Judal to hiss in warning.

“Your matchmaking project thing is still on, right?”

“Please don’t remind us.” Aladdin frowned. “I’m going to this party to drown my problems in alcohol.”

“You're just saying that, you're probably drinking orange juice tonight.” Judal said. “And yeah, the stupid project is on, though we’re this close to giving up.”

Sphintus chuckled. “It’s simple, isn’t it? They’re going to a party, they gotta do what everyone else is doing. Why don’t you start a round of Truth or Dare and make them play?”

Judal pointed his brush at him. “Yes.”


In the end, Judal had been to worst parties. It wasn’t the wildest or the liveliest. After all, Kouha didn’t seem like he was in the mood for mayhem (or maybe it was just too early in the evening) - but it will do. It was still crowded and loud and Aladdin was drinking orange juice.

It wasn’t too difficult to find a spot for their little group. When Sphintus suggested the Truth or Dare game (they had decided back in the flat that he’ll be the one to bring it up in the party), the others didn’t mind much and agreed. Kougyoku didn’t want to join them at first, but a little mocking and teasing from Judal had done the trick.

So they sat in a little circle on the ground beside the pool: Aladdin, Judal, Titus, Sphintus, Alibaba, Kougyoku, and Kouha. They didn’t have time to get Morgiana and Hakuryuu from where they were stuck talking with some of their varsity friends.

Sphintus emptied his bottle of beer before setting it down in the middle of their circle. Then the games began.

It was supposed to be simple, Aladdin thought as the night wore on.

They just had to make the bottle point at either Alibaba or Kougyoku and if they choose Truth, they’ll be asked to confess, and if they say Dare, they’ll be  made  to confess. Or kiss someone. It will depend heavily on who was asking, but there were four of them in on the plan and it should go smoothly.

They should have taken the alcohol into consideration.

God, Aladdin should have taken the alcohol  and the people  into consideration.

It was hard enough to make the bottle stop at a specific person, for crying out loud. It was fun at first, really. The bottle's first victim was Aladdin himself.

Aladdin chose truth and Sphintus asked him if he watched porn and Aladdin very pointedly said, “Yes, for  science .” He spun the bottle and it stopped at Judal.

Judal chose dare and Aladdin dared him to apologize for pranking him back in first year. Aladdin really should have used that opportunity better, dammit.

Then it was Titus. Titus chose dare and Judal dared him to chug his drink, which he did. He looked very dizzy afterwards, but held up admirably.

When the bottle ended up pointing at Kouha, Kouha chose dare and Titus dared him to knot a cherry stem with his tongue because apparently Titus was very curious as he didn’t believe that such a feat was possible.

Sphintus chose truth because he was scared of whatever Kouha’s dare for him was. Instead Kouha smirked and asked, “How far have you gone with blondie?”

Sphintus almost dropped his (new) bottle of beer, face red, but Titus beside him answered, “Oh… We haven’t gone very far.”

“Really?” Kouha grinned, obviously enjoying Sphintus’s shocked and flustered face.

“Mm-hm.” Titus nodded, eyes closed, smiling while he leaned against Sphintus’s shoulder. “We don’t really go anywhere else besides campus together. But I took him home with me last Christmas to meet my family. We plan to stay with his family this year. That’s far. Egypt is far. Sphin, we should go on a vacation, don’t you think? Paris. I wanna go to Paris with you. But Egypt first.”

Finally Alibaba stated the obvious. “I think he’s drunk.”

“He’s definitely drunk.” Aladdin said, reaching over to wave in front of Titus’s face. “Titus? Are you okay?”

Titus blinked slowly before giggling. “Hi, Aladdin.” he said, waving back, then trying to high-five Aladdin’s hand. “I’m so glad you’re my friend.”

“Lightweight.” Judal snorted, then tilted his chin at Sphintus. “Are you gonna spin the bottle or d’you want us to do it for you?”

Sphintus scoffed and leaned forward to reach for the bottle, but Titus frowned and tugged at his shirt. “Sphin. Sphintus.  Baby .”

Sphintus paused, hand on the bottle. “Yes?”

Titus pat his arm lovingly. “Do your best. I believe in you.”

Sphintus looked at his boyfriend with an expression that said  ‘You are so adorable but also so embarrassing right now’ . He sighed and said, “Thanks, babe.”

It went on for few more frustrating rounds, the bottle never stopping to point at either Alibaba and Kougyoku.

Aladdin swore it was mocking them.

Until it finally cooperated.

The problem was, Titus was the one who spun it.

Titus was drunk.

Aladdin and Judal exchanged alarmed looks.

“Miss Ren!” Titus said, too excited to be sober. “Truth or Dare?”

Kougyoku, who was also feeling a bit tipsy by then, stammered out, “D-Dare…?”

Hah. Maybe Judal’s  ‘I bet you’re too chicken to do anything!’  teasing earlier had an effect on her.

“Okay! Hmmm… Let me think…” Titus said, considering.

Aladdin groaned. Oh no, Titus must have forgotten that this whole game was part of a plan - it had a  goal . He saw Judal shoot Sphintus a  look , and Sphintus quickly nodded, wrapping an arm around Titus.

“Babe, you want me to give the dare?” he asked sweetly. “I have a really fun one.”

Titus sniffed. “Go away, Sphin, you’re drunk.”

“Oh, come on-”

“I got it!” Titus said, raising a finger. He was just missing a lightbulb over his head. “I dare you to kiss the person you like most in this circle!”

Aladdin let out a relieved breath. Judal looked at the heavens and mouthed a ‘Thank you’. Sphintus smiled at his drunk boyfriend in pride. Kouha eyed them in suspicion, but he was nodding slightly, as if figuring out what was happening.

Alibaba had tensed, and he suddenly looked most interested in the drink on his hand.

Meanwhile, Kougyoku’s cheeks were starting to acquire the same shade as her hair as she fiddled with the sleeves of her jacket ( Alibaba’s jacket , actually- when did that even happen?) She snuck a glance at Alibaba, before closing her eyes and taking a deep breath.

“Okay.” she whispered, eyes open again, doing one last sweep of her companions’ faces. “Here I go.”

They all watched as she got on her knees, then leaned sideways towards Alibaba-

-only to lean right past him so she could press a quick peck on Kouha’s cheek.

The consensus was “Nooooooo!”

“What? He’s my brother! I like him the most!” Kougyoku squeaked.

Alibaba being the great friend that he was, told Kougyoku that  yes , of course, that makes perfect sense.

Aladdin was ready to call it quits. After all, across him, Judal was mumbling a string of colorful words in his hands. Sphintus was the one looking to the heavens now - “WHY”, he was whispering.

At least Titus seemed to have accepted Kougyoku’s justification as he nodded and said, “Oh, I see. I like my brother too.”

Sphintus snapped out of questioning God to tell him he didn’t have a brother.

Maybe they should call it a night.

It was then that their peaceful little gathering was disrupted.

“FAMILY!” a vaguely familiar voice shouted.

“Oh, no.” Alibaba said.

“MY FAMILY!” The voice was closer now.

“Ow! What the fuck?!” Judal cursed as he almost spilled his beer when someone collapsed on him.

Hakuryuu leaned heavily on the raven-head’s side. “Hello, family.” he slurred, smiling at his new companions. "I'm so happy I found you..."

“Hi!” Titus greeted back.

“Not you.”

Titus pouted.

Morgiana sat with them, bearing no signs of having to drag Hakuryuu over from wherever the hell they came from. “It’s not me.” she said. “I was with Toto. I just found him like this.”

Judal shifted because Hakuryuu was trying to cuddle him. He froze when he felt wetness on his shoulder. “Dude, are you drooling on me?!”

“Nooooo.” Hakuryuu replied.

“It’s worse.” Kouha said. “He’s crying.”

Aladdin shook his head. “Oh, boy.”

“Maybe we should get him home.” Kougyoku suggested, bless her heart.

Hakuryuu was a lightweight and an emotional drunk. It was most fearsome combination.

“NO! I have- I have things to say!” Hakuryuu said petulantly. “I-I’m fine! I’ll go home tomorrow!”

“Okay, okay. Let’s calm down.” Alibaba soothed, ever the negotiator. “What do you want to say, Hakuryuu?”

"I just... I hate this."

"Um, what...?"

What happened next was legendary.

Suffice to say, Hakuryuu went  off .

“This. You. I hate... y-you. I hate you all! I hate this stupid party! The music! The music is terrible! I haven’t heard any Beyonce! PLAY SOME BEYONCE!” the last one he directed towards the general direction of the nearest speaker.

Aladdin watched as Kouha grinned giddily and raised his phone to capture the moment.

”I- I just wanted to be alone tonight and watch MasterChef Junior but noooo, you guys all had to go here to this stupid party where my stupid classmates are. They’re stupid. I hate them. They talk about my face. And my sister. They all have a crush on my sister??? NO ONE’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR HAKUEI! No one!”

Alibaba reached out again. “Alright, buddy-”

Hakuryuu weakly swat his hand away. “No! I’m not done- You! I see you!” he cried, pointing at Kouha and his phone. “You’re taking a video aren’t you?! You’re so- so-... mean! YOU ARE MEAN. I don’t know how someone so- so small??? Can be so mean? I hate you too. And you- You’re so… tiny.” this one he directed at Aladdin. “Why are you here? You should be in kindergarten??? Children should be playing and enjoying their- their childhood- STOP LAUGHING, EGYPTIAN. You-”, he gestured vaguely towards Sphintus and Titus, “I don’t know who you guys are. I keep forgetting your names ‘cause they sound the same? Which one is Brutus?”

At this, Titus looked at Sphintus and asked  “ Am I Brutus?”

“Why are you here? Why are any of us here? Life is meaningless and- Kougyoku! Kougyoku, you're here! Do you know. You’re my favorite cousin. Do you know that? YOU ARE. You’re so nice and you don’t make fun of me.”

“T-Thank you?” Kougyoku said, mustering up a smile for her cousin.

“That’s why I- I want you to be happy, you know?” he continued, sniffling into Judal’s sleeve, who looked horrified and started mouthing  ‘TISSUES!!!’  at everyone else. “I want you to be happy ‘cause… ‘cause one day you’re gonna be president, right?”

Kougyoku blinked. “Um… not really-”

“You will! You will be president someday!” Hakuryuu insisted. “That’s why your major is politics!”

“He has a point.” Kouha said.

Kougyoku shrugged. “I was thinking more like… Kouen’s advisor or campaign manager…?”

But Hakuryuu was very drunk and he believed he was right. “No, no, no you will be president. The point is… the point is… Alibaba.”

Alibaba raised both eyebrows as everyone looked at him. “Uh. Me?”

“Yes, you. Alibaba, I love you, bro.” Hakuryuu said, accepting the tissues Judal shoved at his face. “You’re my best friend. C’mere-”

Alibaba awkwardly took the outstretched hand and shook it. “Yeah, uh, I love you too, bro.”

Then Hakuryuu raised their hands and, with tears and snot and  feeling , said, “Kougyoku, you marry him, okay? Because he loves you! HE DOES! He’s a good person!”

Well. There it is.

Alibaba paled. “Wha- Dude-”

“I know he’s lame but sometimes he’s not! He can be stupid, and tries to help everyone, but you’ve got a thing for that, so whatever??? You two are so good for each other. I just- When you become president? When you become president, you marry this man, okay, because he... like... cares for the people or something. 'Cause... like... you’re perfect, right, and he adores you and you love him too, like??? That’s so beautiful? Love is so beautiful...”

Aladdin looked around to tally his friends’ faces and upon observation, if this was an Instagram post, he’ll just caption it ‘#shook’.

Kouha was trying so hard not to laugh out loud because he was still trying to take a video. Judal was  trembling , hand covering his mouth. Morgiana was shaking her head, looking blankly at their drunk friend. Sphintus was busy comforting Titus who apparently saw it fit to cry too because love is indeed beautiful Sphin it's the most beautiful thing.

Kougyoku and Alibaba were both blushing, and very pointedly trying to avoid looking at each other.

Finally, Hakuryuu seemed to notice that everyone had gone quiet. His response to this was to actually  continue  - “We should go on a double date. Alibaba, you ask Kougyoku, okay? It’s crazy you haven’t asked her. She’ll say yes, you know. Morgiana told me that Aladdin told him that Judal said Kouha said she likes you. Or maybe Kougyoku you can ask him, you know? He’s too chicken to ask you. Judal said.”

At this, Kougyoku gaped and look at the rest of her friends, gaping in disbelief.

“W-Whaaaaaaat?” Alibaba squeaked, laughing nervously. “Hakuryuu, man, I think you’re drunk-”

“I  know !” Hakuryuu sniffed. “Imma throw up soon, but not now. We should. We should set the double date, okay. With you, my bro, and Kougyoku, and me, and- and someone, like...” then he turned to Morgiana beside him. He raised a hand to stroke her hair. It would have looked much more sweet and dignified if he were sober. “Morgiana, you are  so pretty , and  I like you so much . Do you have a boyfriend?”

Morgiana, because she was an actual goddess, only blinked once before saying, “I’m married.”

“Nooooo!” Hakuryuu despaired. “Ju! Judal, go out with me!”

Judal spluttered for a split second before answering. “I’m sorry, buddy. I’m dating Kouha.”

“You are?!”

“He is.” Kouha nodded, smiling apologetically. “And we’re both dating Aladdin.”

“Really?!”

Aladdin threw his hands up and decided to hell with it, this has gone down the path of chaos anyway. “They swept me off my feet.”

Hakuryuu, bless his drunk heart, looked like he was earnestly trying to process the information. “How does it work? And you’re like eight? Is this... legal?”

Then he started coughing. Kougyoku, proving why she was Hakuryuu’s favorite cousin once and for all, grabbed her bottled water and offered it to him. “I think you should go home. Right? Do you want to go home?”

Hakuryuu drank the water and nodded. “Yeah… I’ll just… watch MasterChef Junior because no one loves me.”

Morgiana rolled her eyes before taking his arm and swinging it over her shoulders. “Let’s go get you home.” Before standing up, she said, “We came in his car. I don’t drive.”

Judal groaned before taking Hakuryuu’s other arm. “Fine, I’ll do it.”

The others watched them go.

“Okay, that was… something. I’m staying away from that guy at parties from now on.” Sphintus declared. “Also, I think the two of us should head back now.”

He was right. Titus was already sleeping on his lap.

“You guys need a ride?” he asked the others. “You’re gonna have to squeeze into my backseat, though.”

Alibaba and Kougyoku were still very quiet, Aladdin was already yawning, and Kouha had just concluded that nothing else could probably top Hakuryuu that night, so they all gladly accepted the offer.


It failed, ultimately. Alibaba and Kougyoku were both silent and awkward on the ride home, but they were back to normal the day after.

Titus swore off alcohol.

As for Hakuryuu, no one had the heart to tell him about his little outburst. He confessed to feeling like he should apologize to a lot of people but not knowing exactly why. They all told him that he did nothing wrong and they still love him.

Kouha was probably saving the real story for a boring family dinner down the line.


 

+01

.

 

A week later, Aladdin came jogging up to Judal while the raven-head was walking towards the dorm building. He tugged at the taller student’s sleeve as soon as he caught up.

Judal yanked his headphones down to rest on his neck. “What? I don’t have candy.”

“You’re going to your room, right?” Aladdin asked.

“Yeah, what’s it to you?”

“I forgot one of my books in there. I texted Alibaba but he’s not replying, so can I go with you instead?”

Judal shrugged. “Do what you want.”

When they got there, Judal turned the knob only to find the door locked. He grumbled as he tried to retrieve his keys from his pocket but paused when Aladdin spoke.

“Why is there a sock on your doorknob?”

Judal stared. There was indeed a sock tied to the doorknob.

“Is it some kind of prank? A message? An inside joke? A-”

He scoffed. “I know you’re a kid but you’ve been here three years and you don’t know what this means? It means ‘STAY OUT’ because your roommate’s inside making out with someone. Or doin’ more than making out-”

He stopped when Aladdin looked at him with wide eyes. “Wait, so… if there’s a sock in your doorknob… and you’re here… does that mean…?”

“Oh, hell no.” Judal said, tone dark. “That bastard!”

Aladdin took a step back as Judal snapped, jammed his key inside the doorknob and slammed the door open.

“ALIBABA YOU LITTLE SHIT, HOW DARE YOU DO THIS TO-”

Both Aladdin and Judal paused by the doorway as they were greeted by a girlish squeal and a surprised yelp.

“...-Kougyoku?” Judal finished, trying to comprehend the sight of his childhood friend and his roommate on his roommate’s bed, clothes and hair disheveled, both flushed and glaring disbelievingly at him.

“Dude!” Alibaba scolded, withdrawing from where he was hovering over Kougyoku. “There was a sock on the knob and everything!”

Kougyoku pulled a pillow to cover her unbuttoned shirt. “You could have at least knocked.”

“No.” Judal said. “No. Nope, I am not talking to either of you right now.” He grabbed Aladdin who had hidden behind him, then shoved the teen inside the room. “You got five seconds to get your shit. Five. Four-”

“Excuse me!” Aladdin squeaked, making a beeline for Alibaba’s study table and grabbing his book. “Sorry! I swear I didn’t want him to barge in! Please don’t mind us! Congratulations! Bye!”

“-One.” Judal nodded as Aladdin went back to hiding behind him. He made a stiff salute to the two inside the room. “Right. Uh. Carry on.”

Finally, he stepped back and closed the door again.

“My eyes! I didn’t want to see that! My poor innocent eyes!” Aladdin said despairingly, hugging his book to himself. Then he looked up at the taller student. “Wait, why were you angry back there? Did you think he was with someone else?”

Judal huffed. “Yeah, 'cause- Shit. We’ve been working on  them  for months and we keep failing, I’ve started to think it was impossible.”

Aladdin grinned. “Aww, you were worried about them!”

“Shut up or I’m stuffing you in your locker.”

“We don’t have lockers here.” Aladdin pointed out haughtily.

“Whatever. Tell your roommate to sleep over at his boyfriend’s flat. I’m crashing at your room tonight.”


“That was so embarrassing.” Kougyoku whispered hiding her face with the pillow she was holding against her chest.

Alibaba chuckled, gently prying the pillow off and smiling down at his new girlfriend. “It could’ve been worse, though. At least they left right away.”

Kougyoku giggled. “You’re right, I guess.” She wrapped her arms around his neck to pull him down towards her again, picking up where they left off-

Then the door opened again and Judal peered inside.

“By the way, if you need protection, just look in my drawer-”

This time, both Alibaba and Kougyoku groaned and shouted, “GET OUT!”