Actions

Work Header

Try and Again

Work Text:

Kou’s first emperor died when Kouha was young. Not so young that he can’t recall it, but a lot of the details are fuzzy. The chaos that ensued was far away and had nothing to do with them. What he recalls most vividly is that a few weeks after, and after the princes had been killed too, people came to move him and his mother.

Over and over they explained that the emperor was dead, and Kouha’s father was the new emperor. With his father as the emperor that meant he was now the Third Imperial Prince. As such, their living arrangements were no longer suitable. They wanted to take them away from the quiet safety of their cramped, out of the way room.

That was unacceptable.

The cause and reasons did not connect to any meaning. All he saw was men he did not know trying to grab his mother, hurt his mother, separate them. So he screamed, bit, scratched, stabbed, did everything he could, until it was just the two of them. That’s how things were supposed to be.

In the end, his brothers came for him. Looking sadder than Kouha had ever seen him, Brother En explained in measured tones that something happened. That something meant he and his mother were going to have new accommodations. Nicer accommodations. The first of many changes to come, and he might not understand them all right away, but they needed him to be patient.

So he took those words. He kept them at the front of his mind as the world around him morphed into something he should have been able to recognize, but didn’t.

Finding out what happened—and in far more detail than a child his age had justification to know—was relatively easy. The emperor died, assassinated by an insurgent group of highly debated origin. Later, that group was executed, but since it wasn’t public some say it was all a charade. Then, before the coronation could take place, the crown prince was killed in a fire along with another prince. The entire wing was burned to the ground. Their bodies were so disfigured and charred they couldn’t be displayed for the funeral. Kouha even heard rumors that they didn’t die, but were kidnapped and are now being experimented on in some secret lab hidden in the mountains.

Most of it is nonsense. Probably.

Only one person knows all the gory details about the princes. Hakuryuu. As far as Kouha knows he doesn’t talk about it, and why would he? While there was all that unflattering gossip at the start, not even a year was needed to dispel it. As the gossip faded it took the memory of their lost princes and emperor with it.

Half the time Kouha forgets, too.

Not actively or anything, though. He’s learned their history well enough, from before the Empire’s formation, to its beginning, to the current state of things. The idea of his gluttonous fool of a father uniting three warring countries is beyond laughable. It’s just that Emperor Hakutoku and his sons aren’t tangible to him. To the point Kouha is barely cognizant that Hakuryuu had brothers. There aren’t any holidays or traditions that specifically honor them. Their accomplishments belong to the people of the Kou Empire, not to them. The few stories he’s heard paint them as figures out of some distorted legend rather than real people who were related to him.

Kouha doesn’t even know what they looked like. Presumably they resembled Hakuryuu—but Hakuryuu looks like his sister and his sister might as well be a reflection of their mother. So who knows.

They’re such a distant thing. Hakuryuu and his sister might as well be the only evidence that time ever existed.

How absurd that notion is.

For Kouha it’s unmistakable, that divide between what used to be and what is.

Now, he is an acknowledged prince, the third prince that’s somehow feasibly in line to the throne. He has a handful of carefully selected attendants to nitpick his every imperfect gesture and careless pronunciation. They poke at him when he’s not standing up straight enough or neglecting to show proper respect in his speech. If he’s not ready fast enough in the morning they barge into his room without regard and make him be ready. In the early days he attacked them, but they were well prepared for whatever he might throw at them.

He has a strict schedule filled with lesson after lesson of countless things he’s still surprised he has learn. Economics, history, etiquette, strategy, literature, calligraphy, government, math, just an endless rotation of subjects. It’s not as though Kouha dislikes it exactly. He recognizes he’s being provided with the foundation to support his brothers, even if he can’t yet see how all of it is applicable.

Every text assigned is read in a timely manner. Sometimes he goes out of his way to find supplementary material to go along with it. He rereads until he understands the material as best he can and takes notes. Some topics even allow opportunities to seek out his brothers for advice, which he’s immensely grateful and greedy for. Advice, usually, but every now and then he’ll get some praise, whether it’s verbal, an approving look in their eye, or a pat on the head.

The tutors themselves aren’t intolerable either. By this point, anyway. Kouha’s lost count of the replacements over the years. He’s still astonished they bothered after the first five, the first dozen and beyond. The number of grievous injuries he inflicted is well into the double digits. As a result he’s been left with a mix of well-regarded tutors who know what they’re talking about, and tutors who only kind of know but are capable of handling him if he gets violent. That he hasn’t attacked a tutor in years proves very little.

For whatever reason everyone wants Kouha to remain as an overly defensive, unsocialized little kid. Over the last five years they’ve seen him daily. His progress should be obvious simply from seeing him. He knows he’s not exactly a shining example of an imperial prince, but he’s not a savage. In fact, Kouha would say he’s taken to his position far more smoothly than the nobility likes to say he has.

Their stubborn refusal to accept that makes him want to demonstrate for them just how uncivilized he can be.

But.

There’s little satisfaction for him to gain from that. While displeasing his tutors has few repercussions, it’d only set Kouha back in his studies. It also risks displeasing his brothers, which he tries to avoid.

There’s also the emperor, but he doesn’t care about his third son.

No one plays the role of minder, so Kouha is more or less left to do as he likes where his education is concerned. But he only ever skips if something better comes along.

In the palace those moments are rare. Most often he has to go out of his way to find them. Other times, though, they appear like magic and how is he supposed to let them slide by without comment?

That is to say, ignoring Judar when their paths cross is way too much to expect of him.

Most things in the palace are dull, but Judar is entrancing. From the first glimpse Kouha was drawn in. Despite his features and dress Judar wasn’t obviously from Kou. His ambiguous position only reinforced that. He ran around the palace as he liked, used magic without regard to whether it was appropriate, and talked over everyone like he knew best. He doesn’t speak crudely, not in the way Kouha does, but there’s something off about his speech still. It’s like Judar was taught how to socialize, but wasn’t given any meaningful practice.

When Kouha sees Judar now, his curiosity gets the better of him. He’s lounging up in a tree like there’s nothing he should be doing in the middle of the day. His thick braid hangs halfway down the trunk and even from this distance Kouha can spot a pile of fruit balanced on his stomach.

From the corner of his eye Judar should be able to spot him, but he doesn’t spare him a glance. The only reaction he gives is a casual blink when Kouha calls out to him from the tree’s base. As he climbs the tree Judar drops a peach core that narrow misses smacking Kouha’s neck. Then, he rolls his head to the side, away from Kouha like it’s a coincidence.

Kouha swings himself up on to a branch opposite and slightly higher than where Judar is reclined. “Hey, Judar.” He gives his best smile but can feel it stretch too forced across his face.

There’s a pause, and then Judar glances at him impassively, question in his eyes. And when Kouha takes too long to respond he raises an eyebrow and goes, “What?”

The flat annoyance in his voice makes Kouha’s mouth quirk for a split-second. Nothing about Kouha means anything to Judar, not his birth or his title or his reputation. He treats him the same way he treats pretty much everyone, with cool disregard.

At first Kouha wasn’t sure what to make of Judar and his titles. An oracle, a high priest, a magi, okay whatever, but what did he actually do? No one ever really answered this to his satisfaction. Following him around didn’t yield answers, either. Most of Judar’s time seemed to be dedicated to lazing around, and if he wasn’t lazing around Kouha couldn’t find him. A lot of times he’s away from Kou, but no one talks about where he’s gone or what he’s doing there. He sure as hell isn’t acting as an ambassador.

Asking Judar himself isn’t much better, somehow. Ask him where he went and he’ll just go on and on about the trip itself like there wasn’t anything political about it.

Supposedly his whole thing is strength, so everything revolves around that, which by extension strengthens Kou. He wants to find someone strong and make them stronger. Or something. From the look of things he’s already chosen Brother En, but if you ask he denies it. Brother En is a candidate but he’s not his king. Took him to conquer two dungeons, but no, that’s not his king. Crown prince of the Kou Empire but no that’s not his king.

The language is pedantic and meaningless as far as Kouha can see.

“Let’s hang out.”

“Ehh, I’m kinda busy, you know?”

“You’re kinda not, actually.”

Judar narrows his eyes. Then, it disappears with a blink and he tilts his head back until it comes into contact with the tree. There’s an audible thud but Judar’s expression doesn’t twitch.

“You can hang around, I guess.”

“I meant we should do something fun.”

Judar gives half of a shrug. “Like what?” he says like he’s already turned down every possible suggestion multiple times.

Kouha lists off things they could do. He just got some makeup that could be fun to try out, although Judar doesn’t even apply his own. Judar could let him play around with his hair, but Judar has only let him when he’s inebriated. Drinking could be fun but Judar doesn’t feel like it. They could go into town but Judar doesn’t want to, and he feels like going twice in one week is excessive.

The difficult thing about Judar is that he resists being an active participant in having a good time. To call it laziness is to ignore how utterly disinterested he gets when he’s dragged anywhere. The only thing that seems to really catch his eye is when there’s some unexpected chaos.

You would think that means it’d be easy for Kouha to get his attention, but it wasn’t the case even when Kouha was being reprimanded multiple times in an hour daily.

They end up chatting idly about palace gossip neither of them particularly cares about but both of them know. Talking about how vapid the aristocracy isn’t Kouha’s favorite thing, but the way Judar disparages people desperate for his favor will never not be amusing. Though, it only really works when those people are in the vicinity. In this situation the bulk of the work is left to Kouha. A good half of each topic requires him to convince Judar that he does actually know who Kouha is talking about.

About an hour into their chatting Judar perks up and it has nothing to do with Kouha. His eyes drift to the side, then spark with life upon seeing something he likes. The half-eaten fruits piled on him make a quick journey to the ground when he straightens up.

Kouha is forgotten, and as Judar shifts for a moment it looks as if he’s going to jump down to join his fruit. Instead, he waves his arm like his completely black clothes camouflage him and calls out, “Hakuryuu!”

Predictable, honestly.

In the palace there are a handful of things that Judar will give his attention, and fewer he will give his undivided attention. Brother En is one, of course. Other things include food and offerings, although both aren’t above criticism from him. Then, there’s Hakuryuu. Kouha has no idea why. He’s even outright asked; Judar stared at him like he didn’t understand the question and started talking about something else entirely.

Hakuryuu is interesting enough, sure, but he doesn’t see what about him would be interesting to Judar, specifically. He’s kind of sullen and superficial—and not superficial in the vapid way others in the palace are. Nothing about him really gives off an aura of strength in any capacity. Despite that, Judar is always saying things like “when you conquer a dungeon” to him, which he doesn’t say to Kouha or Kougyoku or really anyone else. Maybe it’s some kind of mocking joke, but if anything, Judar’s deliberate provocation is more like good natured teasing when it’s directed at Hakuryuu.

Is having a dead family supposed to give him some advantage over the rest of them? Kouha doesn’t see why Judar would think so. But he can’t see any other reason, either.

Hakuryuu steps into Kouha’s field of vision at the base of the tree. The moment he catches sight of Kouha he gives a polite bow and greets him. Then, he turns toward Judar and goes, “What is it?” and while his words are polite, his tone is less so.

“What are you doing? Come up here.”

Hakuryuu looks up the length of the tree, and frowns looking at the space the two of them are already occupying. “I think I’m okay down here.” He pokes at the discarded fruits with his foot. “You’re going to get scolded again.”

Judar scoffs. “So what if I am?”

“Perhaps this time it will be followed by them refusing to let you sneak out so many snacks.”

“You’ll get it for me instead, won’t you, Hakuryuu?”

“Not if you’re going to drop it all over my floor, I’m not.” There’s a brief silence, and Hakuryuu rushes to fill it before Judar can say anything else. “Anyway, I’m busy. So, I’ll see you later. Goodbye, Kouha.” He gives another shallow bow before turning away.

Kouha waves back absently, but his attention shifts to Judar as he nearly falls out of the tree in his rush to not allow Hakuryuu an easy escape. Only a few steps are managed before Judar latches his arm around Hakuryuu’s to drag him back under the tree’s shade.

“Hey, where are you going?” Judar looks around the courtyard like he’s expecting there to be someone else whose stolen Hakuryuu’s attention from him. Who that might be is anyone’s guess, since Hakuryuu keeps everyone at the same distance.

“I have things to do,” Hakuryuu practically mumbles. He tugs his arm but there isn’t any strength behind the movement.

“Like what, lessons? That’s so boring, Hakuryuu.”

Now, Hakuryuu does mumble, and it’s too soft for Kouha to hear from up in the tree. He follows that up with looking over to Kouha with what can only be a wordless appeal for assistance.

Kouha gladly takes the invitation. The last thing he wants to do is watch Judar fawn over a kid. He drops from the tree far more smoothly than Judar did, and puts an arm around his shoulders. “Hey, Judar. What’re you bothering Hakuryuu for?”

“I’m not. Right, Hakuryuu?”

Hakuryuu makes a sound that doesn’t strictly qualify as disagreement and Kouha can’t help shooting him a look. Why ask for help if he’s not going to do the bare minimum to help himself?

“I’m busy,” Hakuryuu finally mutters, looking at the ground.

It’s better than nothing, somehow.

“With what?”

“I’m preparing something.”

“For what?”

Hakuryuu frowns, looking incredibly uncomfortable. Did he just lie without having thought of the actual lie yet? Judar tilts his head seemingly oblivious to any unease Hakuryuu is feeling. Whether it’s genuine or not, Kouha can’t say.

Finally, Hakuryuu relents and says, “My sister’s birthday.”

“Hakuei? I didn’t know her birthday was soon. What are you making?”

“A special dinner. And,” he halts for some reason, looking flustered. “I’m embroidering something for her.”

Judar blinks. “Eh? Since when is that a hobby you have?”

“I’m not very good at it yet, but she recommended I pick up a new hobby so…”

“You should embroider something for me, too.”

“Um…” He throws a glance at Kouha, but Kouha has no idea what he might expect him to do about that one. “Maybe once I’m better at it.” He grabs Judar’s arm so he can work his arm free, and as soon as he has he puts distance between them.

From the expression on his face Judar isn’t too impressed with either Hakuryuu pulling away or his lack lack of commitment. He adapts easily enough, however, unoccupied hands going to his hips to make a show of his displeasure, pushing away Kouha in the process.

Idly, Kouha wonders if this feeble defiance is what makes Judar think Hakuryuu is a viable king candidate. If so, he really ought to reevaluate his standards.

Before anyone can do or say anything else, though, a voice calls out for Judar. In unison the three of them turn to find a group of imperial mages entering the courtyard. Their faces are covered, as usual, and they are utterly still except for the wind rustling their robes. Despite that, annoyance radiates off them like heat. They don’t call for Judar again, expecting eager compliance.

Like most things where Judar is concerned, the nature of their relationship isn’t clear, but they seem to be more or less in charge of him. Perhaps it’s meant to be the other way around but Judar is too young, because Judar doesn’t really respect them more than anyone else in the palace. In fact, it might be less respect than most people get from him. Unless you count the part where he actually listens to them.

Judar groans, body tensing with aggravation. He throws out his hands like it’s all he can do. “What?”

The magicians do not react to his temper. They never do. “Magi, you are needed.” One of them speaks. It’s not clear which, and if all of them had spoken together at once Kouha probably wouldn’t have noticed.

“For what? Can’t you see, I’m busy.”

“You are needed.” They walk away without waiting for a response.

Judar doesn’t stomp on the ground, but he might as well. With the imperial magicians it’s pretty much the most he can do. When he inevitably deflates it’s coupled with a defeated sigh. He doesn’t even try with those minders of his, but they’re probably all better off for it.

“I’ll see you later, Hakuryuu.”

He bids farewell to Kouha, too. After the fact. When Kouha crosses his vision.

It’s genuine, though. That counts for more than Judar realizes.

Judar departs, leaving Kouha alone in the courtyard with Hakuryuu. They share a look, but Hakuryuu turns away as soon as he recognizes it’s happening. There’s leftover tension in his shoulders and neck from the imperial magicians’ appearance. He doesn’t try to rid himself of it, instead incorporating it into his rigid posture like it’s meant to be there.

“Sooo… is it true?”

Hakuryuu blinks, and it takes nearly a full minute for him to come to the conclusion that he is the intended recipient of this question. That’s about usual for Kouha’s attempts at engaging him in conversation. Years of this, and still Hakuryuu struggles to progress past bewilderment. If it were someone else Kouha might feel slighted.

They are brothers, even if for the time being it’s only in name. For Kouha, Brother En and Brother Mei call him family, so that’s more than enough reason for Kouha to share in the sentiment.

That Hakuryuu doesn’t take to it so readily is an entirely separate issue.

“Is what true?”

“That stuff about your sister’s birthday.”

Hakuryuu gives him a baffled look, like he can’t conceive why he’d lie about that or why Kouha would be compelled to ask if he did. Then, in an instant it’s gone, replaced with a mask of inoffensive neutrality. “Yes.”

If that’s a lie Kouha can’t tell.

Regardless of if it is, Kouha is curious so he asks, “What are you gonna embroider?”

“I’m not sure. I was thinking a robe or shawl. Maybe a scarf. But I’ll have to go into town to buy something,” he says with obvious distaste.

“Do you wanna come with me?” At Hakuryuu’s hesitation he adds, “You don’t gotta answer right now. I’ll check before I go. Whenever that is. It’ll be soon, though.”

Hakuryuu nods with blatant relief. Not because requiring an answer has been delayed, but because he doesn’t think Kouha is going to follow up. That relieves him of the burden of refusing the Third Imperial Prince whose status is more valuable than his own. Except, Hakuryuu’s deliberate courtesy wouldn’t allow him to refuse anyway. Even if it is Kouha.

“I didn’t know you were interested in that kinda thing,” Kouha says. “Clothes. Embroidery. And you cook. Seems you always go for unusual hobbies, Hakuryuu.”

For just a few unchecked seconds Hakuryuu bristles, but he reins his emotion in before any of it can crack or wrinkle his calm mask. He does a much better job than Kouha ever did when he sensed a possible implied slight.

“I’m not. Interested, that is. Not really. I just want to make a nice birthday gift for my sister.”

“I’m sure she’ll appreciate it whatever it ends up being.”

Hakuryuu looks up at him seemingly grateful, but he doesn’t smile. “Thanks.”

Kouha can’t fault him for being a sullen kid, but doesn’t being obvious about it kind of go against his whole perfectly polite prince persona?

Not that Kouha is in any position to criticize his performance.

“I was gonna hang out with Judar, but since he got called away, you wanna do something instead?”

Hakuryuu takes a breath like he’s bracing himself, and releases it as an almost pained sounding “okay” that makes no effort to sound polite.

He’s such a weird kid.

“Come on, then.” And he leads them off knowing Hakuryuu will follow without needing to check

Hakuryuu is without a doubt weird, but Kouha likes that about him. From pretty much the moment he saw him Kouha knew he’d like him. That first time, Kouha recognized him immediately, before his brothers could point him out. Everything about him made his identity a beacon, so much so it’s hard to say what shined brightest.

His face was exceptionally pretty, even and especially among the dolled up nobility in the room. The telling burn scar that took up half his face stretched like a starburst to the other side where it didn’t belong, and did little to detract from how striking his features were. If anything, it enhanced them. The discolored skin extending down his neck to suggest further scarring, the mismatched eyes that never lingered too long in one place.

And that scar, there wasn’t any comparable to it in the entire room. It commanded stares, attention, questions, yet everyone went about their business like he wasn’t there.

Hakuryuu, for his part, tried to avoid looking directly at anyone. Whenever his gaze would wander to the ground it would stay there for a few seconds, and then jerk up like that wasn’t allowed, and wander, looking for a safe space. It was an incredibly awkward attempt to blend in without drawing attention to himself. It was also familiar. From a boy born into the royal family, however, it peculiar.

But then, he wasn’t the royal family anymore, and that didn’t suddenly make him the branch family.

So, what did it make him, then?

If the servants, attendants, nobles, and guards around were anything to go by, it made him nothing.

He was their prince still, ostensibly. He was just less than, when he hadn’t been before.

All of it called Kouha’s attention, piqued his curiosity, kindled his sympathy.

How could it not, when Kouha was the same. Ever since he was born he’d been nothing, and in spite of becoming the Third Imperial Prince he would remain nothing.

That’s just how it is. And that’s part of what makes the palace so fucked isn’t it? Kouha could rise in status and have nothing change, remain scum. At the same time, Hakuryuu could lose his and cease to exist. How does that work?

Hakuryuu abides it instead of lashing out, and Kouha doesn’t know how he does it. Is it somehow easier to have everything taken away than to have never had it at all? Maybe it’s that he hasn’t actually lost everything. He still has his sister, and the rest of them, too, even if he doesn’t know it. His needs are still provided for and he lives like a prince, nothing like what Kouha or Kougyoku had under the previous emperor.

He has so much. A better life than most can hope for.

He just… doesn’t matter.

That isn’t a bad thing by default. Not everyone can matter in the same way Brother En does, or Brother Mei. Sometimes the small things need to be enough. Hakuryuu matters to his sister, and he matters to Kouha. He knows for a fact that he matters to their brothers too. To Kouha, that carries more weight than being valuable to the empire or their people as a whole.

Kouha doesn’t know how it is for Hakuryuu, and it’s not really something he can ask. When they talk it’s consciously never about things like that.

Kouha takes them through the palace. Down numerous hallways, making turns that seem like they’re meant to confuse, up some stairways and down others. No one pays them any mind as they make their way like ghosts of a past and present that never was.

They climb out a window after going up one stairway. They walk across the slanted roof, taking care to not slip. At the end, they climb up to the next, higher roof. From there they make their way to the edge of the roof that curves upward enough for them to sit with their legs dangling over the edge.

They are comfortably out of sight, and can watch the going ons of the palace as if it doesn’t have anything to do with either of them.

The silence they sit in can’t be called companionable, but is far from unwelcome. Just this, judgement free company, is hard to find in the palace. Everyone has an angle and is concerned with their own status. Neither of them are great for maintaining appearances.

So while this is the path of least resistance for Hakuryuu, he wouldn’t be here if he didn’t want to be.

He puts on a show of being compliant, but with Judar he’s contrary all the time. Both are choices he’s made.

Kouha wants to be on that level, too, but the only choice he gets is to wait.

“Kouha,” Hakuryuu eventually says, trailing off like he hasn’t decided what he’s going to say, not like he’s having second thoughts. “What are you going to do?”

Kouha frowns, not seeing what Hakuryuu might be referring to. “About what?”

“No, I mean—in general,” Hakuryuu says. He straightens his back, lifts his head, looks past the buildings in the distance.

Kouha looks out too, but can’t spot anything remarkable, just mountains and plans and endless, empty sky. The sun is glaring behind them, casting long shadows that hint at their existence to the people below.

He doesn’t really know what Hakuryuu is getting at, so he just answers to the best of his ability. “I’m going to support Brother En and Brother Mei”

“What does that look like?”

“Like, not causing trouble for them mostly. In a few years maybe I can join them in the field. Or maybe I can get my own squad?” Kouha almost cringes at the thought. As if there are any soldiers who’d willingly follow his orders. It doesn’t count if they only listen because his brothers said so. He shakes off the thought. “I haven’t thought that far ahead. I just wanna do what I can for them.”

Hakuryuu hums in acknowledgment but says nothing. He’s staring ahead intently.

“What about you?”

Hakuryuu’s eyes search the horizon. The ideas he’s sorting through don’t get voiced. Every blink he makes drains the focus in his gaze until it’s gone, and in the end he simply shrugs without energy.

“Really?” Kouha realizes as soon as he says it that his surprise is feigned.

It would be more surprising if Hakuryuu did know. He’s never asked for confirmation from anyone, least of all Hakuryuu, but from what he’s seen Hakuryuu doesn’t really have many proper duties or expectations in the palace. When the princes gather it’s unlikely for him to be present. He doesn’t have a place at court. Barely anyone talks about him or his future despite the fact that in a few short years he’ll be in his teens.

Seemingly, his daily routine is up to his own discretion, from academics to training. The same is true for his sister, he thinks, though to a lesser extent.

Maybe there are restrictions on what’s permitted for him, but Kouha doesn’t know anything about that. However Hakuryuu chooses to spend his days is a mystery to him. All he knows is their paths don’t really cross that much.

A handful of times Kouha has overhead talk of Hakuryuu succeeding Koutoku as emperor, which is absurd and patronizing. No one pretends that’s a possible outcome, including Hakuryuu. All it does is dare Hakuryuu to want something that will get him killed.

And if that’s the case, why did they let him live this long in the first place?

Kouha wants to take back his surprise but he’s stuck with it.

As is Hakuryuu, who shrugs again, unaffected.

“What about what you want to do?”

Hakuryuu narrows his eyes in thought. Perhaps he thinks that question is a trap, but Kouha won’t judge him even if he does say he wants to be emperor someday.

He almost doesn’t expect him to answer, but then Hakuryuu says, “I want to protect my sister.”

Kouha nods. It’s not a bad answer, but how to do that is an issue. Is he going to take Judar up on his offer to conquer a dungeon? Is he going to take part in the military? Are those things he’s even allowed to do? His sister is part of the military, but she’s not in line to the throne and they’re not going to marry her off anyway. He could serve under her maybe, is that what he wants? If so, why isn’t he doing that already?

Those are some pretty obvious follow up questions, but Kouha doesn’t feel like he’s in any position to voice them.

Hakuryuu being the one to bring up the topic is basically an invitation to ask. He’s worried or something. Except it isn’t, and Kouha isn’t really the best person to give advice.

“If that’s what you want to do, you should.”

“I want to, but I’m too weak to do anything.”

“Lucky for you that can be changed.”

Hakuryuu sighs so softly Kouha at first mistakes it for a breath.

“What, you don’t think so? Sure you’re kinda scrawny, but you’re a kid. You’re supposed to be scrawny. Give it a few years before you give up.”

Hakuryuu side eyes him. “Thanks.”

A laugh bursts out of Kouha before he can think to hold it back. In response Hakuryuu looks at him warily, which only makes him laugh more.

Now sensing he’s being made fun of somehow and flustered by that suspicion, Hakuryuu asks, “What’s so funny?”

“Nothing, really.”

Hakuryuu scowls, but looks away as the expression forms so Kouha won’t see.

Kouha looks away too, to keep his smile wholly to himself.

How to express that Hakuryuu’s moody real self is far more likable than his unobtrusive prince façade. It’s not possible to do without also calling him out on being a fake. Kouha has no real issue with that, but they have a very tentative sibling relationship he doesn’t feel like putting in jeopardy. Breathe wrong and Hakuryuu, against all odds, will find a way to turn it into a reason to pull away.

Kouha’s hand twitches, and he pulls it into his lap so it won’t act on any impulsive ideas. His mouth decides to take on that burden in its stead. “Y’know, Hakuryuu, it’s still really early. We could go into town now, if you want.”

“Yeah, I guess we could.”

Nothing about that is decisive. If anything it’s the exact same resignation from earlier. Kouha should have expected it. Just, it was hard to not get caught up in the moment and forget. No matter how Hakuryuu chooses to act, that seclusion is a steadfast constant that works to weave lie and truth uncomfortably close.

In moments like these Kouha doesn’t mind the idea of being Hakuryuu’s big brother. Dragging his little brother into town because it’d be good for him even sounds kind of fun, because Kouha thinks he’d be good at getting him to have fun outside the palace where things are more easygoing and everyone is too caught up in their own business to keep track of two lowly princes meandering about.

They could take their time and Hakuryuu might end up looking forward to going again. Whenever he goes on his own he probably goes to the nearest marketplace and comes right back. But there is so much more outside the palace, especially if you know the right people and know where to look.

No, Kouha wouldn’t mind that at all.

But it’s not up to him. The hand gets extended, and it’s left to Hakuryuu to decide.

And what Hakuryuu has decided time and time again, is that the only big brothers he wants are the ones that are dead.