The slick marble floors seem to glitter under the brilliant chandeliers lighting the halls. There is little stirring save for the occasional chatter of servants and wandering staff, maids escaping to their quarters and guards going about their rounds. Though quite frankly, Kentarou's too worried about keeping himself upright to be listening to whatever is being said. They shouldn't even be doing this. He's been told numerous times that this he isn’t allowed to be there unless he's with an adult. No exceptions.
Not even for the over-eager prince.
Kentarou doesn't understand why he never listens. Surely he must get tired of being scolded for his disobedience. But whenever somebody says you can't, Tooru always says I will, which is proven by the way he's currently dragging Kentarou out the door of the east wing and down the stairs to the undercroft. Even now, as Kentarou tries to keep them from moving forward, his sandaled feet do little to deter the boy pulling his wrist. He's older, taller, and slightly stronger, which is all it takes to trap Kentarou in an inescapable situation.
Tooru's wearing fancy clothes- a jacket lined with suede and a perfectly pressed collared shirt. He's obviously been to another party. There seem to be a lot of them lately. Meanwhile, Kentarou's dressed in shorts and a thin shirt for bed, so while he won't be punished for getting dirty, being pulled out of the servants quarters is still disobeying Mama Xiao.
But he supposes peeling potatoes as punishment is objectively better than anything she gives him.
Just thinking about what she'll do to him makes his blood turn to ice and sends a shiver down his spine. He returns his attention to Tooru, close to begging when he whispers frantically, “Let's go back. I'm gonna get yelled at.”
Tooru doesn't hear him. Or maybe he just doesn't care. Either way, he continues walking them down the thin corridor until they reach the door to the kennels. The smell of wet dog and meat is strong, and through the gaps in the door Kentarou can hear alert growling and faint whining. Tooru drops his wrist in order to open the door, but he can tell from the loud bang it makes when it slams shut that it's heavier than it looks. Kentarou moves forward to help against his better judgement so Tooru doesn't tear his dress coat.
He doesn't know why he's even wearing it. It's the middle of summer. Kentarou will never understand the wardrobe decisions of nobility.
Together, they pry open the door and hold it just long enough for both of them to squeeze through before easing it shut. It stinks of urine and feces, which seems unbefitting of the purebred hounds they have here, but nobody ever listens to Kentarou. Or Tachi-san. But Kentarou won't have to worry about a lecture as long as he doesn't track anything inside with his sandals, though there’s definitely no going back for Tooru.
He glances at him. Pressed pants. Polished black shoes. Hair done up and shining.
Tooru’s going to get in trouble. Again.
Kentarou tries to warn him. Again.
“We can't be here. We're gonna get in trouble.”
Tooru finally looks him in the eye.
Their eyes are definitely different, but whenever he looks at Tooru, Kentarou sees… himself. He isn’t sure how to put it into words, but there’s an unmistakable familiarity when he thinks back to when he looks in the mirror and when he’s face-to-face with Tooru. He shouldn't be surprised, though he finds he can't get used to it, especially since their actions differ so greatly.
Tooru is completely unaware of the smell. He can barely stop his shaking as he grins at Kentarou, grabbing his hand and guiding him further into the kennels. The hounds recognize Tooru and quiet down, yet Kentarou still finds himself scared of them. Mama Xiao says that the hounds grow up loving Tooru and she warms Kentarou to never play with him when they’re nearby. She said she doesn't know what they would do if he accidentally got hurt when they were playing together, and Kentarou had become scared when he realized he hadn't known either.
And it’s not as though Tooru getting hurt when they’re playing is something rare. He’s always jumping off stuff. Always trying to climb statues. Always getting bruises. Always getting Kentarou punished. But he doesn't mind, not really.
Not always. Only sometimes, if she finds them, because then the punishments become a lot worse.
Tooru drags them to a large open pen and all of Kentarou's reservations instantly vanish.
A female hound eyes them groggily, recognition of Tooru- and miraculously, Kentarou- allowing her to let her guard down enough for them to step into the pen.
Tooru turns to him them, eyes shining with joy as he squeals, “Look! Puppies!”
There are nine tiny pups tripping over themselves and their mother's legs in their haste to get to Tooru, who albut dives into the middle of the pen to play with them, curious yips filling the air. Kentarou has never seen so many pups in one place before. He's not allowed to look at them or feed them or touch them in case they take to him more than they do Tooru, though he finds he wants at least one of them to. He's seen how happy Tooru gets when the hounds crowd him and lick his cheeks, and he wants that too.
Tooru's fawning over the pups with so much fervor Kentarou feels embarrassed watching, turning away skittishly, eyes flickering uneasily as he grumbles, “I'm sleepy. Let's go back,” Another feeble attempt to drag Tooru way.
Tooru ignores him.
Kentarou gives up.
As his shoulders slump in defeat, Tooru looks up, eyes locked on him and hand ecstatically waving him forward. Kentarou steps in cautiously, gaze flicking uneasily to the mother. She is awake, watching them with such strong focus that it makes Kentarou uncomfortable, like he’s doing something wrong. When she makes no move to stand up, he slowly make his way further into the pen, careful to avoid stepping on the hyperactive pups. The mother looks on with fierce protectiveness for her young, and whether she considers Tooru one of them or not is something he'd rather not find out. Kentarou makes sure to sit a fair distance away from Tooru should anything happen. Tooru doesn't acknowledge this, busy trying to coax a pup into his lap.
He sends Kentarou a blinding ray of pearly white teeth, “I promised I'd show you remember? Without Mama trying to make me do my lessons?”
Kentarou has no idea what to say to that, because he truly forgot such promise ever being made. All he does is blurt out his earlier objections in the hopes Tooru doesn't notice, “We’re gonna get in trouble.”
Tooru only seems to brighten at this. “No we're not. I'm here, so it's fine. We can play as long as we want!”
The mother startles at Tooru’s sudden exclamation, snapping her gaze toward him on full alert. The pups have no idea what's going on around them, attention exclusively on their mother, each other, and Tooru. Kentarou purposefully sat too far away to make any sort of contact with them, yet he finds he regrets it. While Tooru continues gushing, Kentarou experimentally scoots closer. No reaction. Closer. No reaction. Kentarou scoots opposite Tooru, and again, no reaction.
One of the pups- the smallest, slowest one- turns away from the crowd in front of Tooru, away from their brothers and sisters, to clumsily run at Kentarou. Obviously Kentarou doesn't expect it, so he's extremely hesitant to touch the pup, who doesn't seem to care and haphazardly tries to crawl into his lap. They slip the first few times. Kentarou has to stay completely still for them to be able to crawl in successfully, and he begins to wonder who they are. Do they have a name? How old are they? What are they thinking about? Who do they think he is to be running at him when someone like Tooru is less than a foot away? Are they boy or gi-
“The girls are nicer you know! Tachi-san says they love you faster and a lot more fiercely than the boys most of the time, but I don't really get the last part.”
Kentarou starts to say something, but Tooru just keeps mouthing off as he tries to pet all the pups simultaneously while saying a million things at a the same time.
Kentarou doesn't know how long they sit there. The thin beams of light that were streaming in through the grates level with the ground outside have disappeared, so it's definitely past their bedtime. Tooru says nothing about it, and Kentarou tricks himself into believing this is okay for tonight. He listens as Tooru discusses his lessons, of foreign lands with dense forests filled with strange animals, harsh deserts that stretch on for days, deep snow that can bury houses, and silver mines that send dust flying on every gust of wind. Tooru promises to bring him pastries and cakes from the kitchen the next time they have time to eat together, and Kentarou looks forward to it so much that he conveniently forgets Mama Xiao already gives him leftover desserts at the end of the day.
They're both getting tired. All of the pups have retreated to their mother's warmth, sleeping in a heap at her side as she continues to eye the two boys. Kentarou, as reluctant as he was to come here, finds he doesn't want to leave. He doesn't get to spend much time with Tooru since he's in court with the nobles or in lessons with tutors or doing other stuff. They don't get to play together anymore.
Tooru stands, offering a hand to help Kentarou. He takes it. “We can come back tomorrow to play with them again.”
Kentarou nods, and before anything can go wrong, he feels himself smile back. “Okay.”
Then it does.
When they head to the door leading out of the kennels, hand-in-hand with Tooru leading the way as per usual, they are met with guards and Tachi-san and Mama Xiao and her .
They have nowhere to go. No escape.
She's beautiful. She has to be given who she is. Her teal gown gives the impression that she's floating with how flowy it is against the concrete flooring of the undercroft.
He freezes. Kentarou yanks his hand away from the older boy before she notices the contact.
The woman's face is set in a frown. Nothing too harsh, yet nothing to take lightly. “What do you think you're doing?” She's mad. She always is when Kentarou sees her, though whether that's because of himself or Tooru, he doesn't know.
Tooru nervously kicks at the floor, eyes downcast and smile wavering as he chirps, “Nothing.”
She crosses her arms. Her nails are sharp. “Tooru”
All it takes is another moment of staring at the floor for Tooru to mumble, “We were just looking. We didn’t do anything wrong.”
She isn’t pleased. “Yes you did. You know better than anyone else that you can’t be down here alone. The door is locked for a reason, and just because it wasn't this once,” Her eyes ease over to Tachi-san as she speaks. The man’s caramel skin seems to dull a shade, “Doesn't mean you can go inside.”
“Y-Yes. Your Majesty is exactly right. This door is locked to keep you safe unless somebody’s down here with you,” Even as he addresses Tooru in a calm yet firm manner, Kentarou can still see how he’s trembling and the guards are smirking in a way that makes his skin crawl.
Tooru’s shoulders sag as he finally steps through the door of the kennel. Kentarou can feel his absence at his side. “Sorry.”
She breathes out, and although the tension in her shoulders is as it always is, she smiles faintly at Tooru, “No harm done this time, but don’t let it happen again. Now, off to bed with you. I’ll be up in a minute.”
Kentarou watches as Tooru trudges away with Mama Xiao, sparing a sympathetic glance over his shoulder as they walk down the hall. The guards follow Tachi-san into the kennel as they push past Kentarou, sending him stumbling forward as the door slams shut. The sound makes him jump.
She’s still in the way.
She’s frowning at him down her nose. Kentarou already feels small given his age, so standing in front of her makes him feel like a flea. She sighs. Deep, tired, as though Kentarou’s disappointed and drained her beyond repair. What does she have to be disappointed by? He hasn’t done anything to her. But he has, he knows he has, he has to have done something if Tooru gets in trouble around him. Though if it were such an issue then she should take that up with Tooru, not him.
But everybody loves Tooru and nobody thinks anything is his fault, because he’s only a child who doesn’t know any better.
She forgets that Kentarou is younger than Tooru. So does Kentarou.
“You know you’re not supposed to be here. You should’ve taken Tooru to his room and went straight to bed.”
He doesn’t like this. It’s not his fault. “Tooru wanted to see the dogs.”
She drags a hand down her face, “Tooru’s different. He’s… special.”
He hates her.
Kentarou stares defiantly into her eyes, mustering up all the courage he can as he barks, “I'm special too.”
Her jaw clenches. Her face hardens, expression guarded with cold, cold eyes. She’s mad. He said the wrong thing.
Then again, nothing he says seems to be right when it comes to her, so what does it matter?
“No, you aren't. And you never will be.”
That ends that.
They don’t go visit the pups the next day.
Or the next day. Or the rest of the week. Or the rest of the month.
Instead, Tooru spends his time studying with tutors, attending parties, and sitting in court beside his mother and the king, who never acknowledges Kentarou's presence in the palace.
Kentarou doesn't have time to form an opinion on that, because he's exactly where he's expected to be, helping Mama Xiao and the other cooks prepare dinner every night by peeling potatoes and a bunch of other vegetables Kentarou isn't even sure grow in the kingdom. His hands ache from holding the peeler for hours on end, but he doesn't dare complain. He wakes up, does as he's told, and stays away from the prying eyes of the queen.
The exact opposite of Tooru.
It seems the prince can't go a day without causing some new wave of gossip to erupt. Good or bad, he manages to stay the center of attention. Tooru's teasing that Iwaizumi kid again. Tooru made a noble’s son cry. Tooru's managed to memorize the music for one of Kanade’s five symphonies on the piano. Tooru threw a tantrum when his mother was tucking him in.
Kentarou doesn't really care. He doesn't have time to, not when there's so much work to be done. Sometimes he helps Ryo-san mop and wax the halls, sometimes he helps Hayato-san water every single poinsettia bush in the gardens. He does anything and everything. He does more chores in the three months he doesn't see Tooru than he has most of his life.
But he still forces himself to be angry with Tooru, because there isn't anyone else he can be mad at who will care.
He trudges to the kitchen at dawn everyday, sits in the same chair, feels his posture correct itself from how long he sits there, and goes to bed. He wills himself to frown at every mention of the other boy, but given Tachi-san's offhanded comments, Tooru's been going to court without a care in the world. Kentarou's given up on calling people on their lies and simply shrugs, scrubbing at the grime of the wall with a renewed vigor.
Kentarou's on his way back to his room after this, hears the laughter of guards through the walls and drunken slurring of nobles in parlor rooms, when he's stopped by Mama Xiao.
Her eyes bleed sympathy as she takes his hand, and Kentarou has learned to take comfort in the cold, because it's all he knows, “There's one more thing you have to do before bed, little one.”
This is the worst.
He's cleaning. It's not a parlor room, or the dining room, or the throne room. It's so, so much worse.
It's Tooru's playroom.
Mama Xiao makes it a point to tell Kentarou not to waste time playing around as he's putting everything away. She doesn't want him to stay awake breaking things when he's supposed to be sleeping. If Kentarou were as stupid as he'd been three months ago, he'd tell Mama Xiao to tell Tooru's mom to make him clean up after himself so seven year old servants wouldn't have to worry about breaking anything he thought was important. But he keeps his mouth shut and doesn't comment.
Mama Xiao watches him for all of three minutes before leaving him on his own with a yawn.
Alone in a room filled with toys worth more than his life, Kentarou lets the tears he's held at bay glide down his cheeks. He clenches the model train he holds in his hands, thinks of smashing it, but can't justify the pain of the whip being worth it.
He thinks of dense forests, vast deserts, and uninhabitable snowstorms. Thinks of men and women living so far away that their existence holds no bearing on anyone else, how their passing will never be known.
Then he thinks of himself, and drags his fingernails down his wrist. They're far too short to leave a mark.
The work is monotonous. Placing picture books in piles, returning sets of toy soldiers to their boxes, putting stuffed animals into baskets. He spots a stuffed wolf, remembers the son of the king's personal guard, and barely suppresses the urge to rip its head off.
His movements come to a halt when he reaches a set of dominoes.
They're nothing too special, just a silver tin with intricately designed vines and the royal sigil in the middle.
Tooru has four sets of the exact same set.
Kentarou has never had something this nice before. His fingers itch.
He allows himself to be selfish this time and this time alone. As he slides the set into the pocket of his shorts, he allows himself to take the barest hints of satisfaction from the last act of freedom he will ever partake in.
He quickens his efforts to finish the work before the guards get tempted to check on him. He walks to the doorway, switches off the light, and hastily exits the room.
His walk down the halls are agonizingly slow. Kentarou knows he needs to hurry or he'll be scolded for loitering, but he can't let anybody hear the faint clinks coming from his pocket. Thankfully, most of the staff littering the halls are too preoccupied with their own responsibilities to care too much about him.
He rounds the corner to make one final sprint to the servants quarters in the West Wing and slams into someone. When he hits the floor, the clinks are undeniably loud. He tenses as he looks up, eyes wide in fear before he sees who he has to explain himself to.
Kentarou imagines himself running away before Tooru's mother can say anything to him. He pictures screaming and pouncing on Tooru, hands flailing and fingers clawing and heart hurting while awaiting an apology that will never come and the lullaby of a woman whose face he cannot recall.
What he does not picture himself doing is taking the hand of a boy born with a gilded spoon in his mouth, getting pulled to his feets, and casting his eyes to the floor in shame.
His pocket jingled when he fell. They both heard it echo down the hall.
Tooru doesn't yell at him though. He waits silently until Kentarou raises his gaze from the floor. Then he smiles.
It's breathtaking really, the way Tooru's eyes light up with wordless apologies and dreams of an impossible future, playing games in a room normally filled to the brim with false promises and empty praises. It's wide and unbridled, genuine with honesty Kentarou has only been awarded once in his life only to find it would have been better to stay an ignorant child.
“Can I see the box?” The request isn't accusatory or judgmental.
Kentarou hesitantly slides the case from his pocket. In this light, he can see the true intricacies of the sigil, the gemstones placed on the tip of each leaf on every vine. Realization barrels into him.
He could die for taking this. He's only just realized who gave this to Tooru.
But he doesn't take the box back. No, Tooru takes Kentarou's hands in his own and wraps them around the box firmly. “I know I get you in trouble a lot,” He sounds so shameful, so ashamed of the state of his birth that Kentarou wants to kick him, “But I still wanna be friends. I'm your big brother, so I want us to be close.” And then his lips curve upward, but Kentarou doesn't feel the warmth of affection. He feels wrath. “I want you to have these. They're like a promise, okay? A promise that we'll always be brothers.”
Kentarou's a fool. He's a fool that continues to hold hope in the world when it's been proven all of it should be burned away, cinders never influencing his life in any way ever again. But he stares into the eyes of the only person he can consider family, and can only nod as the beginnings of a grin start to rise within him.
Then there's a hand on his shoulder pulling him back. Slowly, not rough, but firm. Tooru barely manages to catch the box after a bit of fumbling.
“Seems you've been getting into a lot of trouble lately kid,” There's the barest hint of sympathy, but it's overridden by the nails digging into his shoulder. “The bee isn't a fan. Doesn't like when a worker disrupts the order of the hive, you know?” No, he doesn't know. Kentarou doesn't know anything anymore because he's fucking stupid, but he doesn't say anything, can't. “You can go off to bed Your Highness. We're gonna have a little chat here.”
Tooru doesn't budge. Kentarou feels a spark in the depths of his chest.
“I'll take care of this. Your mother wants you to go to bed.”
Kentarou expects an argument. He expects Tooru to frown and throw a tantrum. He expects him to stamp his foot like a little diva from the Southern Isles, making crude demands with a snarky voice. He expects the promise they've made to be honored in full.
What he doesn't expect it to look at Tooru and feel that spark within him die.
It's as if he's seeing the boy for the very first time. A boy with beautifully kept hair, silk pajamas, and the eyes of a woman known to be the most gorgeous in the kingdom.
A boy who turns his attention to the marble beneath his feet as Kentarou is dragged by the wrist to get another bout of lashings, lashings that are always, always, always, Tooru's fault.
“I hate you!” The scream tears itself from his throat before he realizes it's coming, but Kentarou can't stop, wouldn't want to even if he could, “I hate you! You'll never be my friend! Never!”
You'll never be my brother.
And that's the crux of the matter, isn't it? Because it doesn't matter if their blood is the same, if they have the same father.
Tooru has the right mother, and Kentarou has none at all.
When Kentarou drags himself to his bed in the servants quarters that night, he sobs when Mama Xiao rubs salve on the lashes on his back.
He remembers Tooru’s teasing commands to pick up the toys he threw everywhere when they played outside and visualizes the color of Tooru's hair and eyes.
He lays in the portion of the palace reserved for nobodies while Tooru is read a bedtime story by his mother and their father.
That night, the seeds of envy plant themselves in Kentarou's heart.
And they fester.