Hawks’ heart is still pumping adrenaline into his bloodstream when he hits the alley, boots skidding against the pavement. He reeks of smoke and ash, clinging to his clothes like a grimy second skin, a layer of suffocating filth he can’t wait to wash off when he’s home later.
He’s just glad he’s got so few feathers left for it to stick to, but he’s sure it’ll take two showers to get it out of his hair.
The primary feather he does have left feels heavy in his grasp, and there’s blood dribbling onto his glove from the shaft, a clear indication that he really is at his wit’s end. He’s lucky he even had the forethought to keep it after he ripped it out, in the heat of battle.
There’s sweat curling his hair, the back of his neck still clammy with it. He can feel it pooled in a handful of super unpleasant places, the biggest drawback of wearing a plugsuit. While the thing is lightweight and aerodynamic, perfect for flight, it’s also skintight and insulated against those chilly, sky high temperatures in a way that’s working against him right now. Especially with his huge, puffy coat on top.
He’ll have to make this little meeting quick, if he can.
(Knowing who he’s meeting though… it’s very unlikely.)
Hawks rounds the corner into the warehouse, and draws up short, breath catching in his throat. On instinct, his sword arm raises, and his primary feather sharpens as it cuts through the air to sit against the other man’s throat.
There, eyes glinting in the light of an open flame in his palm, is Dabi—both the source of his frustration and current, nearly charred state. There’s a lazy grin stretching his lips, pulling at his staples; a haunting glow cast over the scars lining his face and throat. He looks the part of a twisted Cheshire Cat, waiting for an unsuspecting Alice.
Or perhaps a canary to eat.
The flame sputters out, leaving them in a thick, smoky darkness. It takes Hawks a moment to adjust, blinking away until his eyes adjust to the setting sun filtering in through the open doorway at his back.
It’s more than enough to see the amused smirk painting its way across Dabi’s lips. He scowls when a low chuckle follows.
“That wasn’t what we discussed,” Hawks says, voice neutral. He can’t give him the satisfaction of knowing just how irritating he’s been already, barely a few months into their partnership. How he grates against Hawks’ nerves, an itch he just can’t scratch.
“Is that so?” It’s barely a question, a bored statement that slips from his mouth on a breath Hawks can feel blow across the feather he’s holding. He’s looking down his nose at the hero, eyes heavily-lidded, but the turquoise in them is still aflame, calculating and captivating at once.
He’s beautiful. Hawks barely bites down on the words between his teeth, swallowing them whole. He masks it with pursed lips and a scowl.
He doesn’t get to call him that in this lifetime. Not yet, anyway.
“I was hoping we’d get along better than this, Dabi.”
“Oh?” He raises a brow, and slowly, deliberately, his molten gaze travels downwards. Hawks feels his cheeks heat as the other man drinks in every inch of him, acutely aware that the plugsuit he’s wearing leaves very little to the imagination. He doesn’t dare shrink into his jacket to get away from the scrutiny, not willing to give Dabi even an inch, when he knows very well the other man will take a mile.
The same way he knows that Dabi takes his coffee black, with the smallest hint of sugar on rainy days, despite never having stepped foot in a coffee shop with the villain.
Or that he knows winter’s his favourite season, that he prefers cats to dogs, and his favourite colour is a specific shade of pale blue, like the sky on a soft, snowy morning, even though he’s lied through his teeth for years that it’s black.
Or that he has a talent for art, the kind with paint splattered across his clothes or charcoal staining his fingertips, but would never admit it.
Or that his long, slender fingers were built for piano keys, among other things. That he has a wonderful singing voice, low and gravelly, a haunting siren song Hawks has always been drawn to.
(He wonders if in this lifetime, his injuries affected any of that.)
Hawks knows this, because he’s lived four other lifetimes with Dabi—though this is only the second in which he’s sported that name—and he remembers every one.
The problem, of course, is that Dabi never does.
Not until they die.
Their first life together begins amongst the red leaves and soft, white snow of the Godswood—but first, Hawks loses everything he has ever known.
Takami Keigo is ten years old when the Aerie falls in a failed rebellion against the crown.
His people, the men and women of High Forest, ride into battle on the backs of giant eagles and are the most talented bowmen in the Five Kingdoms—but in the end it barely matters against the Fire King.
He snuffs out their uprising like a weak flame, a candle flickering amidst a storm. Dozens are slaughtered, the earth littered with the remains of broken hopes and scorched feathers. Towns burned, castles broken, their wings clipped.
And then, to ensure no further defiance or attempt to defect from the crown—he takes the heir, Lord Takami's only son, as his prisoner. He dresses it up in fancier terms, calling the young fledgling a ward of House Todoroki, but the young boy knows what it means.
He will never see his family again. Not as long as he lives, probably.
And he wants to be upset about this. He tries. He wails for nearly an hour, tucked uncomfortably between a horse’s head and the king himself, until his body gives up and he simply slumps forward into the mane of the animal and pouts, exhausted.
But then, given time to think, his thoughts crisp and clear in the cold mid-morning air, he realises something.
His father didn’t fight for him. Lord Takami had barely given pause when the Fire King had ripped him from his mother’s grasp, hadn’t even looked up from where he kneeled against the stone floor when his son had begged not to let him go.
He’d simply turned away, fingers reaching back to summon forth his eldest daughter, still dressed in her flying leathers and battle-won scars. She’d stepped forward, placed her hand on their father’s shoulder, and given her younger brother a coy, almost predatory smile.
He wasn’t needed. He never had been, really.
He’d been scolded for picking up swords in the training grounds as a child, attempting to mimic the soldiers practicing. Laughed at for trying to ride one of the eagle chicks his size, since nobody else would teach him, like his sisters before him. He’d simply been given little lordly dressings and paraded around as the crown jewel of High Forest, looked after by nursemaids and never his own family.
He’d been the shiniest treasure in the Aerie on purpose, the heir apparent to the outside world, but the forgotten son within the castle’s walls—and evidently, it had worked.
And with that realization, his anger washes away, replaced by a wave of loneliness and misery, as cold and hollow as the snowscape they traverse. He curls in on himself, and remains quiet the rest of the way to Winter’s Peak—the crown’s northern capital, where the royal family spends the coldest months of the year.
But then upon arriving, well—things are different than he expects, certainly.
There are no iron bars or chains awaiting him, befitting of the title of prisoner. No single, lonely room to be kept in, sheltered from the word and the people of Winter’s Peak.
Instead, he’s dressed in fresh clothes; a fur-lined cloak and padded leather emblazoned with the Todoroki symbol—a sun and moon, split down the middle. He’s shown his new room, one with a warm hearth and a cushioned featherbed. And directly across the hall from the crown prince, he’s told by one of the nursemaids as she fusses over the fit of his new clothing and his unruly hair.
(And how strange it is, to have a nursemaid fuss over him with kind eyes and gentle fingers, rather than look at him with pity.)
The crown prince, who he’ll be learning alongside. Tutored, with the rest of the Todoroki children, in reading, writing and the basics of etiquette and strategy—and trained at arms, too. By the finest master-at-arms in the kingdom.
Because the king wants to make him a squire. A knight in training! Him!
“Your father was a fool not to train you,” the king tells him, one hand on his shoulder as they walk along the wooden bridge that overlooks the inner courtyard. Below, Ser Sorahiko instructs a group of young men—too fresh-faced to have been part of the army that marched on the Aerie—through complex drills, swinging swords against one another in a rhythm of metal on metal.
“The people of High Forest have always been gifted soldiers, some of the best fighters I’ve ever seen,” he continues, his voice deep and rumbling in a way that leaves the young boy intimidated. “Their speed is practically unmatched, as are their talents with a blade. Those natural skills are something that runs in your blood.”
“O-Oh, I—” he stammers, nearly stumbling down the first step as they wind away from the courtyard and through an archway. “I don’t have any of that. I’m not anything special, sir—milor—your Grace!”
He wonders if he were to jump the railing now, if he’d break enough bones to dissolve into the earth and not have to deal with his embarrassment. His cheeks burn, and he ducks his head as the king laughs, a booming sound that echoes off the large, stone buildings they pass.
“It’s alright, boy,” the king grunts. “I wouldn’t expect a border constituency to put much worth in proper manners. You’ll learn.”
The alley opens up ahead of them, masonry giving away to an open clearing. A blanket of white stretches out across it, framed by thick, towering pines and brittle, naked ash trees.
It’s the tree at the centre, though, that captures his attention immediately. Hooks him and draws him closer, his boots crunching softly into the snow beneath them. He’s heard of tales of their Godswood before, but no stories quite do justice to the ethereal, towering weirwood ahead.
The forest floor is carpeted with its fallen leaves, blood red in colour, staining and streaking the snow like a battlefield. The thick, smooth trunks are pale as bone, and at the centre of them, carved into the massive main trunk, is a face. There’s dried sap crusted in the eyes, the same shade of crimson as the winged symbol of House Takami.
And there, next to the tree, is a young boy—or perhaps, a young man? He isn’t sure how many years Todoroki Touya has on him.
And he knows this is Touya, the crown prince, not simply by the golden circlet woven through the red locks atop his head, nor the finery he’s dressed in and thick fur cloak, sporting a broach with his House sigil.
He knows this, because he has his father’s eyes.
Startlingly bright, the colour of the sky above the Narrow Sea at midday, reflecting off the seafoam below. On the king, the fire burning within is intimidating; terrifying, when he’s heard what it’s like on the battlefield, but on the crown prince…
He finds himself captivated, without words. A moth drawn to a torch flame, pulled into an orbit that brings him within a foot of the taller boy. There’s a smattering of freckles across his nose, and an ocean of wonder beneath long lashes. The cold winter has flooded his ivory skin with colour, highlighting his cheekbones and the point of his nose.
There’s a soft glow to him, cast from the noonday sun and reflected off the snow around them, and it masks the hard edges he can see in the way Touya holds himself, in the razor-sharp curve of his lips and the slant of his brows. There’s something familiar about it, something that tugs at the corners of his mind, that flickers in his chest.
He’s seen many handsome warriors in his life. Men and women alike, known in High Forest equally for their beauty as well as their skills on the proving grounds, that have come to court trying to woo his sisters.
He thinks the crown prince might be the prettiest of all.
“Touya,” the king booms, standing between them. It’s loud, and snaps him from his reverie in a truly mortifying second.
The crown prince is giving him a funny look, and he realizes with a rush of heat to his neck and face that he must have been staring.
The king, at least, seems not to have noticed.
The same way he seems oblivious to the way the prince flinches, ever so slightly, when the king’s hand lands on his shoulder. “I would like you to meet Takami Keigo, the Hawk of House Todoroki. He is to be your squire.”
His knees turn to jelly, and he fights with everything he has not to let them give out then and there. He’s fairly certain he’s not breathing.
An official title? As the prince’s protector? Oh Gods…
He gapes up at the king like a fish, blinking stupidly.
The crown prince snorts. “The Hawk?” He raises a brow, his eyes raking over the shorter boy in a slow, almost painfully unimpressed once-over. “Sounds way too cool for a snot-nosed kid who spent his whole trip here crying into a saddle.”
His cheeks burn as he suddenly realizes why there was a pull of familiarity to the prince.
He’d been there, at the Aerie. He accompanied his father to accept High Forest’s surrender, had been in the room when they’d dragged him away from his family towards the unknown, and had been on a horse just to the left of them, on the road.
He ignores the sting behind his eyes, puffing up his chest a little. He opens his mouth to speak, but the prince beats him to it.
“A little birdie singing a sad little song,” Prince Touya tilts his head, leaning down into the other boy’s space. There’s the glint of a blade between them, pulled from the prince’s belt, he thinks. The tip of it settles against his cheek, a sharp pinprick against his cold-kissed skin. “You going to keep me safe, little Hawksy? With those great big tears of yours?”
His sisters used to tease him for being defenceless, untrained, no matter how many times he snuck out to try and learn on his own. They used to tell him if he wasn’t careful, one day he’d be snatched from the nest by someone bigger and tougher, his fragile skull cracked open like an egg while they hunted for the Aerie’s secrets.
He feels that years-long inferiority bubble beneath his skin, heating his blood.
Without thinking, he slams his foot down over the prince’s, the heel of his new, thick boot slamming down on the older boy’s toes.
Touya hisses, and his grip on the knife goes slack enough for the shorter boy to reach up and snatch it from him. And then he turns, tip of the blade held tightly between his fingers, and whips the thing away from them.
There’s a satisfying thunk as it digs into a pine tree ten paces to his left. He watches the hilt wobble with a flash of pride, breath held in awe that he actually managed it, for only a moment before turning his attention back to the crown prince, his fists clenched at his sides and his brows drawn together stubbornly.
“I’ve got far more than tears to offer you, my prince,” he says, sounding far more confident than he feels. He squares his shoulders, standing up as straight as possible. He’s only as tall as Prince Touya’s brows, but he puffs his chest up in the hopes that his wider shoulders make up the difference. “So don’t underestimate me.”
The prince’s eyes are wide, and this close, he can tell the older boy isn’t breathing. He watches the barest flicker of fear ghost over the blue of them, before they narrow and slide up to look at the king. He’s still standing beside them, watching their whole exchange.
And then the gravity of what he’s just done hits him all at once.
He assaulted the crown prince. He stomped on his foot and wrenched a knife from his grasp, and then gloated about it.
Oh Gods, he thinks, I’ll die before I ever get the chance to prove myself.
His breath catches high in his throat, stays there as he bows his head, refusing to look at either royal he’s in the presence of. He counts the agonizing seconds until the king recants his offer, drags him by the scruff of the neck back to the castle and throws him into a dungeon to rot. Or maybe, he won’t even bother with that, and incinerate him where he stands, with all the Old Gods as his witness.
Instead, the air crackles with a booming laugh, the loud pop of wood buckling in a hearth. Just as it did earlier, walking through the castle grounds, it sets his teeth on edge as it echoes across the clearing, stretching to the farthest trees and back.
“I knew there was potential in you, boy,” the king says, sounding far too pleased with himself, and the golden goose he’s found. “It just needs to be finely tuned.”
Relief crashes through him, a wave of overwhelming ease that has his legs buckling. He hits the snow with a soft thud, bowing his head and propping an arm on his raised knee. He thinks, for a brief and fleeting moment, of grabbing the prince’s hand to accompany the plea pushing at the inside of his lips, but thinks better of it.
He’s tempted fate enough already, and he’s been in the winter capital less than a day.
“My prince—Ah, Your Grace,” he says, and the words are cotton in his mouth, thick and unrepentant on his tongue. “Please, give me the honor of proving myself to you. I’ll be the best squire you could have asked for!”
There’s a tremor to his voice, he knows. And it’s higher than it should be, a result of his nervous heart sitting squarely on his sleeve.
“You think you can impress me, little Hawksy?” Prince Touya says, and he can hear the challenge in his tone well enough without seeing his face.
“I know I can.” He looks up, jaw set and brows drawn into a hard, determined pinch. He hopes the gold of his eyes burns with the fierce resolve coursing through this veins. “And… Hawks.”
“Hm?” Prince Touya’s look slips, just a fraction of an inch, teetering on surprised.
“Until I have earned my title, my name—call me Hawks. I pledge you my loyalty and my life, from now until I die, or disappoint you.” The words may be heavy on his tongue, but he’s sure he’ll live up to them.
He knows he’ll fight as hard as he can to earn his place in this family, this castle, and in the turquoise eyes looking down a pointed nose at him. There’s a dim fire burning at the centre of them, the smallest embers waiting for a spark to catch.
“Okay,” Prince Touya’s voice comes slowly, his tone hesitant. “Okay, Hawks. But you better not disappoint me.”
Hawks smiles, his heartbeat a soaring, staccato melody in his chest. A buzz of hummingbird wings rattling beneath his ribcage.
Barely a year later, and Hawks is one of the most skilled archers in the court. Better, even, than most of the soldiers in the Kingsguard.
His swordplay still needs work, but he learns quickly and is light on his feet, faster than anyone else Ser Sorahiko has ever trained. There’s a flourish, a song, to the way he dances around with a blade, a melody that leads him through every movement as though it’s deeply ingrained in his bones, his blood.
He can best Prince Touya in drills most days, and the older boy has been practicing for many years longer.
Hawks pushes himself to be the very best he can be, not simply to fulfill his oath to the crown prince and king but to himself. A promise he made that first night, tucked beneath the furs on his bed, cradling the feather pin he’d ripped from his old clothes before his nursemaid had thrown them away. Gold and red, the sigil of House Takami. The only thing he had left of his family—a family that hadn’t wanted him.
He’d sworn that night he’d make them regret it. That he’d make himself such a skilled knight one day, top of the Kingsguard, the best in the realm. Maybe, if he should be so lucky, he’d even be commander one day, when Touya became king.
And it isn’t just the blood, sweat and tears he’s shed on the training grounds, nor all the written and etiquette lessons he’s excelled at. Hawks has done his absolute best to impress the rest of House Todoroki, too.
He helps the nursemaids look after the little princes whenever he can; puts Shouto to bed when they have their hands full with Natsuo, makes sure the young children behave at meals or when the king has visitors. In the summertime in the South, Hawks and Touya take them swimming in the bay, and he chases cats through the Red Keep with Princess Fuyumi, and brings the Queen her meals when the heat proves to be too much and keeps her abed for days at a time.
He knows it’s silly, and dangerous, but in the dark of night—Hawks thinks of the Todorokis like family. He knows he shouldn’t, knows very well he’s simply their prisoner, and that one wrong move could have him incinerated, but…
Well, Prince Natsuo loves his jokes. Princess Fuyumi shares her books with him. Prince Shouto’s only a babe, but Hawks never fails to put a smile on his face when they’re playing. Their Queen mother is gentle and kind to him, like a summer breeze. And Touya—Prince Touya is stubborn, and abrasive and sometimes an absolute prick, but he challenges Hawks, he makes him laugh, and even if the older boy doesn’t think the same, he’s the first and closest thing Hawks has ever had to a friend.
Together, they’ve stitched up part of the gaping wound in his chest, they’ve soothed the longing ache that he carries in his bones wherever he goes. They’ve helped Hawks forget about home, and the family that let him go without a fight.
At least until the night of his eleventh name day, anyway.
He’d gotten in trouble with the cooks for wasting food at breakfast, but he simply hadn’t woken with an appetite, dread coiling in his stomach. It had caused him to be late to the training grounds, and Ser Sorahiko had given him an earful. Then, after lunch, Sister Shuzenji had caught him scaling the railings of the upper balcony again and threatened to refuse him healing should he fall and break something. It had drawn enough foul attention his way that the king had pulled him aside in the evening and chastised him until his face had grown hot and his eyes had stung.
And now here he is, having snuck out of his room after everyone has retired to their chambers, throwing rocks into the treeline in the middle of the Godswood. Where no one can hear him cry as he imagines the faces of his family members painted on the cluster of pines before him, and chucks the sharpest stones he can find at them.
He makes it through only a few before the dam breaks, and tears spill down his cheeks, liquid hot and burning shame into his skin.
“You gave me away!” he shouts at the memory of his father, standing tall and uncaring a foot ahead at the nearest pine, voice hoarse. “You gave away your only son!”
Every word is ripped from his lips like a stolen plea, accompanied by a rock and fresh misery blurring his vision. “You! Heartless! Fucking! Bastard!”
The queen would berate him for his language, he thinks idly. Tell him he’s spent too much time around her eldest. His own mother would have washed his mouth with soap and stone. The thought of her reignites the hollow feeling in his gut, gnawing at his insides. He pictures her, quiet as a dove, water in her eyes as her only son was pulled from her. She hadn’t said a word.
“You gave me away,” he repeats, his voice cracking at the end. He’s losing steam as quickly as he is ammunition, his arms feeling heavy, his head a clouded fog. “You sent me away… to a place s-so cold… and lonely…”
He’s hiccoughing now, skipping over every few words, his chest heaving. Hawks drops the last stone from his frozen fingers into the snow at his side, and collapses, as though someone has cut him from his strings.
“W-Where they… they d-don’t call me by n-name and… and I don’t…” the cold bites at his knees, through his breeches, but he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care about anything other than the unsteady beat of the broken thing in his chest. He reaches for the rock, clutching at it so tightly his knuckles begin to whiten.
How strange his skin looks, so richly tanned against the crisp, white snow. How out of place, just like him. He blended in better in the southern capital over the summer months, but here, in the north, it’s obvious he doesn’t belong.
“You don’t what?” A tentative voice says, and Hawks startles. “Don’t like us?”
He looks up to see Prince Touya standing a few paces from him, furs pulled tightly around his lanky frame, a sad sort of look on his face.
“Oh!” Hawks’ heart plummets into his stomach, and he scrambles to his feet, only slipping a little in the snow. “N-No! No, I like your family plenty, Your Grace! I didn’t mean any disrespect!”
Prince Touya steps closer, and Hawks scrubs furiously at his eyes with the back of his hand, trying to wipe away the evidence of his tears, but it’s no use—his hands are red and shaky, raw from the frost, and it only causes him pain. He can’t bite down on the whimper fast enough.
“Hey,” the taller boy is at his side in an instant, fingers cradling one of Hawks’ hands in his with a gentle care he doesn’t deserve. He runs a thumb over Hawks’ red knuckles carefully. “You’re going to get yourself sick out here, idiot.”
“I’m s-sorry,” Hawks bows his head immediately, letting out a watery sniffle. He squirms, pulling his hand from the prince’s grasp and dropping it to his side as he stands up straighter, shoulders rigid. He tries very hard not to shake or show weakness. “I’m sorry, Your Grace, I was just—”
“Don’t do that.” The prince’s voice is rough, annoyed, and it floods his shaky limbs with lead, fear skittering across his spine. He’s insulted him, somehow, and now he’s going to pay for it. “Don’t treat me like—like you’re a servant, or something. Don’t keep me at a distance.”
The blond freezes, unsure of what exactly he’s meant to do. “I’m—but I am. I’m your loyal s-subject and squire.”
What else could I be? There’s a pressure at the back of his eyes again, a mounting wave held fast behind the dam Hawks refuses to let break. He can’t possibly look that pathetic in front of the prince.
“You’re…,” there’s a pause, where the prince’s voice softens, his words nearly as gentle as his touch as he reaches out again, this time placing his hand on Hawks’ shoulder. “You’re my friend, Hawks. So you don’t have to—the title’s—call me Touya, okay?”
Hawks looks up, coming face to face with a sea of sadness in those blue eyes. There’s something else, too. Something achingly familiar, like the way his voice wrapped around the word friend almost pleadingly. It sounds as lonely as Hawks feels.
“I don’t think I’m allowed,” he frowns, voice barely above a whisper.
“You are with me, when it’s just us.” Carefully, as though he’s afraid Hawks might flinch away or refuse, the prince’s arms settle around the shorter boy, drawing him into a hug. He tucks Hawks beneath the furs he’s wearing, wrapping him up in a comfortable warmth, and the moment he’s held tight against the prince’s chest, something in him snaps, brittle twigs in a forest of loneliness. He soaks the taller boy’s tunic with an ocean of tears.
Touya shushes him, combs a hand through Hawks’ hair, and talks in a soothing voice. “We’re friends, Hawks. And so—so if you’re unhappy, I’ll listen. You don’t have to yell at memories in the Godswood in the middle of the night. Next time, just come across the hall to my room.”
It’s then that Hawks realizes why the prince found him so easily, and thinks of the likelihood that he’d heard him sneak out and followed close behind. It rips a fresh sob from his lips, and he curls his cold hands into the fabric of Touya’s shirt.
“M’sorry,” he mumbles. “You don’t—hic—you don’t have to do this.”
“I don’t have to do what?” The older boy sounds confused.
“Be nice to me. I mean, if you’re—hic— doing it just because you feel bad for me.”
Touya pulls back from him with a scowl. “I’m not.” He winces, and his face softens slightly. “I don’t do things because I feel obligated, or think I have to. I don’t—I don’t do things unless I want to.”
Hawks blinks, dumbfounded. He stares, wordlessly, as the skin at Touya’s neck begins to redden, a dusting of colour peppering his cheeks. He wonders if the cold is finally affecting the older boy, and feels a twinge of guilt that he’s made him stand out here in the frost so long. They really should be going back inside.
The prince, especially. He’s sure to cause a panic if one of the nursemaids checks his room and finds his bed empty.
“I like you, Hawks,” Touya says, a little more insistently. “So why shouldn’t I be nice to you?”
It damn near sends him to tears again, but Hawks bites down on his bottom lip firmly, trying to keep it at bay. He chews at the skin between his teeth, and his voice is still a little watery when he speaks. “Takami.”
This catches Touya by surprise, who blinks down at him and furrows his brows. “What?”
“Um, you can call me—if I’m to—well,” he stammers, suddenly realizing he hasn’t the right to ask anything of the prince, friends or not. It’s not his place, and it’s probably not appropriate, either.
Hawks bows his head, cheeks burning. “F-Forget it, Your Gr—”
The prince clears his throat .
“Touya!” Hawks squeaks, cheeks flushing.
“That’s better,” he smirks, and then shucks off his furs, draping them over Hawks’ shoulders. Protest bubbles forth on his lips, but Touya shakes his head firmly. “I’m not going to catch sick before we make it back, but you might.”
“Okay.” His voice is small, muffled by the cloak as he hugs it tighter around himself, burying his face to hide his embarrassment.
The prince smiles, and they fall into companionable silence on their walk back. Hawks doesn’t dare break it, this gentle, quiet spell that’s fallen over them as they walk side-by-side, shoulders brushing. He half thinks the entire evening might be a dream, that any moment now he’ll wake and find he imagined the whole thing, perhaps from the comfort and warmth of his bed, or passed out in the snow in the Godswood.
Somehow, they manage to sneak back in and up to their rooms without encountering a soul and by the time he’s standing before his door again, the shaking in his bones has abated. He slips the furs from his back, holding the cloak across the hall towards the prince.
“Thank you,” he whispers, shy smile tugging at his lips.
“You’re welcome,” Touya’s answering smile is soft. He takes his cloak back, folding it over the arm about to push his chamber door open—but then he hesitates, eyes bright in the dim torchlight as they flicker over Hawks’ face, then away.
The younger boy turns away, finding it easier to mumble his next words into dark oak than at the boy they’re meant for. “Goodnight, Touya.”
And then he’s pushing his door open with a wooden groan so heavy he nearly misses the prince’s response.
The door slips from his fingers, and Hawks nearly trips on the fur in the entryway to his room. He whips back to look at the prince, sputtering, but there’s barely more than a whisper of red hair disappearing across the hall and a soft click of the lock sliding home.
Hawks hugs his knees to his chest, toes just barely dipping over the edge of the rooftop. He peers down at the courtyard below, where some of the younger children are playing hide and seek. Some are tucked behind training dummies, others amongst the guards watching from the benches.
The library tower is one of the tallest structures in Winter’s Peak, and from up here, Hawks has nearly the whole castle grounds at his fingertips. The guest house and armory sit to his left, the great keep ahead. The smell of dinner’s leftover stewed potatoes and roasted pig wafts up from the kitchens at his back, and beyond the walkway that frames it, barking from the kennels.
There’s the barest hint of snow falling softly around him, gently blanketing the roof tiles, dusting across the peaks of the outer walls, like sugar icing on cake. It’s soothing, in a way, and doesn’t bother him nearly as much up here even if it’s cold enough to freeze fingertips. Thankfully, his are wrapped tightly in gloves, tucked beneath the furs he’s wearing.
Hawks never comes up here unprepared, considering how long he usually stays hidden away, if he’s lucky. He’s gotten much better at climbing, undetected by the nursemaids or guards or Sister Shuzenji. And it’s worth it, because here, high up in the air—it’s one of the few times Hawks gets to be at peace, alone with his thoughts.
The problem, of course, is that all his rampant thoughts only upset him further at the moment. If his attention drifts away from the game far below, or he stops admiring the soft glow of the lights from Winter Town, outside the castle walls, well—
Do you have any idea how dangerous that was? What if you’d missed?
He would’ve killed you and cut Natsuo’s throat! I had to!
Hawks buries his face into his cloak, screwing his eyes shut and absolutely refusing to cry. He’s thirteen years old, he shouldn’t be brought to tears over something as silly as Prince Touya putting him in his place.
After all, he’d endangered the younger prince’s life.
They’d all gone out riding that morning, out past the north gate and into the woods. Not too far, but deep enough they’d been swallowed by the trees and could pretend for a little while. The three eldest Todorokis, Fuyumi’s squire Rumi, and Hawks himself.
The girls had packed lunch, the boys a couple of practice swords, and they’d been taking turns running short drills with Natsuo. He’d only just begun his lessons with Ser Sorahiko, and he swung way too hard with such a light weapon. Touya was already thinking he might be better suited to a heavy broadsword, or perhaps even a hammer.
By the time the young boy tired, Hawks was itching for a better fight. He’d come a long way in three years, and was far faster than Touya, so the prince wasn’t really a match anymore. Princess Fuyumi’s squire, on the other hand…
Rumi was unlike anyone Hawks had ever fought or trained with, less flourishy hand gestures and far more lunges, directed by her powerful legs. She’d been trained overseas, and it was evident in her fighting style.
So they’d put on a little show for the royal children. A friendly duel that kept them on their toes, kept them focused and challenged.
Enough so that they’d neglected their duties. They were squires, it was their job to protect the Todoroki family from unseen enemies outside the castle walls. And they’d let a group of bandits walk right up and snatch the young Prince.
You put my brother at risk. You don’t have the right—
To what? Save your brother’s life? It was the only thing to do, so I did it!
They’d been surrounded in moments, and thrown into action. Hawks had followed his gut, grabbed his bow the moment Touya had drawn his sword on the man holding a blade to Natsuo’s throat. While the prince provided all the distraction he needed, he loosed an arrow that buried itself deep in the kidnapper’s eye. And despite the fact that Hawks had never ever missed a target, Touya had been furious.
Hawks huffs, breath ghosting into the cold air. He cracks his eyes open just enough to see it, nose still buried in his furs. Stupid Touya. He was only trying to help, to do his duty, he’d never have hurt the little prince—
And what do you know, anyway? You don’t even have siblings!
I did, before your father took me away from them!
His eyes sting, and Hawks lifts an arm to scrub at them angrily. He shouldn’t be upset about this. It’s not the first time he’s been reprimanded for being too fast for his own good, and it certainly won’t be the last.
A chill skitters down his spine, and he pulls his cloak tighter around his face before flicking a glance over his shoulder.
There, on the walkway leading back to the castle, stands Prince Touya. Hesitation has his shoulders hunching, his brow crinkling and his eyes downcast. Almost as though he’s the one at fault, between the two of them.
When Hawks doesn’t answer, simply blinking at the other boy in confusion, he tries again. This time, his voice comes out a little more nervous and unsure. “Keigo?”
Beneath the confines of his cloak, Hawks digs his fingernails into his palms in an attempt to keep the heat from rising to his cheeks, as it does every time the prince uses his given name. He’s still certain that he doesn’t deserve it.
“What do you want?” The words are muffled between his knees and distantly, in the back of his head, a voice that sounds suspiciously like Sister Shuzenji tells him he should probably watch his tone. If only he could bring himself to care.
“For you to come inside, where we can talk?” There’s a scraping of stone as Touya clambers onto the roof, uncertainty colouring his face. He’d never admit to being afraid of heights, Hawks suspects, but it’s still there in the tense line of his shoulders and the way his gaze flutters towards the edge and back. “It’s pretty cold out here.”
Hawks knows it’s not an issue for him; winter is Touya’s favourite season. He delights in snow fights and breathing words into the air like they’ve seen the guards do with smoke and the redness of Hawks’ face, so bright and thick it overpowers his freckles.
Hawks huffs, turning away from him. “I’m fine,” he mutters.
There’s a loud exhale, a mumbled curse, and then footsteps. Slow, careful and hesitant. Hawks isn’t sure if it’s because of the roof, or his standoffish mood. He doesn’t really care.
Then, feet appear just over the roof’s edge in the corner of his vision as Prince Touya takes a seat beside him. There’s a hesitant look upon his face, an almost worried curve to his brow, as though he expects Hawks to flinch away.
He doesn’t, and the older boy presses their sides together without looking over at him. Warmth seeps through the connection, lulling Hawks into a familiar comfort. The silence that stretches between them is vast, nearly cavernous, a heavy hand against the blond’s throat. Part of him wants to say something, wants to bridge the gap between them that feels far greater than it is, physically, but he can’t bring himself to do it, the words simply too thick on his tongue.
Thankfully, he doesn’t have to.
“I’m…sorry about today,” Touya says. “I may have overreacted.”
Hawks sits up straighter, head whipping around to look at the other boy. There’s a ghost of a smile catching at his lips when he speaks, trying in vain to keep the delighted flutter out of his voice. Maybe he’d imagined it. “You what?”
“You heard me.” He keeps his gaze steady, looking out across the courtyard, and Hawks wishes for the strangest of moments that he could see it, that the prince would turn turquoise eyes on him, full of the apology he’s offering and the warmth they typically burn with.
For some reason, it makes him push his luck. “It’s pretty windy up here,” Hawks says. “Easy for words to get lost.”
The prince rolls his eyes, huffing out a breath that drifts into the air before him. It’s a moment more before the words are repeated, sluggish, as though they’re pulled from his mouth like rotted teeth. “I’m sorry for the way I acted. I was… scared.”
“You? Scared?” He knows there’s a dangerous smirk on his lips, one that could easily get him pushed off the tower if he’s not careful.
“Yeah, yeah, shut up,” Touya looses a put-upon sigh, but his voice goes quiet when he continues. “I should’ve trusted that you’d handle it. You’re one of the finest archers I’ve ever seen, and I’m lucky to have you as my squire.”
Absently, he picks at a fraying thread on his breeches, keeping his eyes downcast to stop the prince from seeing the colour of his burning cheeks. “It was still dangerous, what I did. You had every right to be angry with me.”
“Maybe, but I should’ve known that you wouldn’t let anything happen to me, or my family.” He gives his shoulders a loose roll, and Hawks feels the shrug through their contact. “And I—I shouldn’t have said what I did about yours.”
And there it is, the real reason Hawks has barely spoken to the prince since they’d returned to the castle. The reason he’d been quiet at dinner, and come up here nearly as soon as he’d been dismissed for the evening. The reason he absolutely refuses to look at Prince Touya, for fear he’ll see that beneath all the praise and talent with a blade, Hawks is still that same little boy who cried the whole ride to Winter’s Peak—the same one who broke down in the Godswood and nearly caught frostbite for it.
The little lordling, sensitive over the loss of a family who didn’t want him.
“Did you know?” Hawks asks, and the tremor in his voice is so obvious he wants to pitch himself from the roof.
“That you had siblings?” Touya pauses, humming as he taps at his chin. “I… I don’t think so. I don’t care much for my politics lessons with Maester Mera, but I remember… I remember before you came to us, you were the only child of House Takami I’d heard of. Mainly because I remember him saying mother had insisted we send a gift for your birth, as a sign of good faith.”
He wonders if he ever got to see it, this royal gift, or if it had gone to his sisters, like everything else in his life.
“But that day, at the Aerie—the girl at your father’s side, the one dressed like a soldier… She looked a lot like you, I thought.”
Hawks nods, pressing his lips together tightly. He takes a deep breath, ignoring the sting at the back of his eyes. “Asuka, my eldest sister. There’s two others between us, also girls.”
The truth is met with silence, careful and delicate. He can practically hear the gears turning in Prince Touya’s head, and holds his breath as he waits for the next question. “What were they like?”
Hawks laughs. It bubbles up suddenly, the taste of it bitter on his tongue as it pours out of him. It sounds higher pitched and far more strained than it should, even to his own ears. Stretched thin and weak, not unlike his happy memories of them.
“Awful,” he says, with absolute honesty. When he chances a look at the prince, Touya’s eyes are wide, his brows lifted high enough they disappear beneath his windswept bangs. His lips are slightly parted, reddened by the cold. It clearly isn’t the answer he’d been expecting, but it’s the only one Hawks has.
When he’d been younger, he’d idolized his sisters. He’d loved them with everything he had, and wanted to be just like them. He spent years dreaming of flying the skies with them, a deadly quartet, the Aerie’s strongest unit. But as he grew older, Hawks had realized that would never happen.
Not simply because he was kept apart from his sisters, never allowed to learn or be involved in the same things they were, but because whenever he tried…
“Can I train with you? I know all the stances and rules!” He’s seven, and barely taller than the practice sword in his hands.
“No, fuck off.” Asuka looks at him with disdain, while Suzume and Hibari roll their eyes. The latter two knock swords, the clang of metal echoing in the clearing.
“You were younger than me when you started!” He doesn’t whine, not quite, because he knows where that will get him, and it’s nowhere pretty. “C’mon, you’re an odd number anyway!”
“I said fuck off, Keigo.” There’s the tiniest prick of pain in the middle of his chest, where his sister pokes him with her sword. “This isn’t your place.”
“But you all get to ride eagles and fight battles! Why can’t I?” He’s pouting now, and the dangerous light in Asuka’s eyes tells him it’s a mistake.
She cracks her knuckles. “If you don’t shut up, brat, I’ll make you.”
Hawks sniffles as he finishes the story, and wipes the evidence in his fur cloak. He knows the nursemaid will scold him for it in the morning when she sees it in his washing, but he doesn’t much care. Anything to keep his weakness under wraps, hidden away beneath all the qualities and polish that make him a worthy squire.
It’s a moment before Prince Touya speaks, and when he does, the words are rough and bitter in his mouth. His jaw is set so tightly Hawks can see a vein, and his brows furrowed so far it’s a wonder he can see for all his squinting. “Family should never teat you like… like you’re an object or a nuisance just because you don’t fit the mould.”
Hawks doesn’t need to ask to know the source of his anger, he’s seen it firsthand—after all, there’s a reason the three eldest Todorokis were able to sneak off with little more than teenage squires for protection today, while little Prince Shouto had remained locked in the castle.
“I’m sorry for the way they treated you, but…” Touya sighs, looking at Hawks with bright, honest eyes. Something burns at the centre of them, something haunting and sad, though the blond isn’t sure on whose behalf it kindles. “I’m not sorry my father took you away. I’m not sorry he marched his army down there and punished yours for breaking his oath, and I’m not sorry he came back to us, no matter how much I hate him, sometimes—because he came back with you.”
There’s a hesitant press of fingers against his, and Hawks obliges, unfolding his hand so that Touya can slot their fingers together.
“Because you’re my friend,” he continues, after he’s taken a moment to collect himself. “And nobody’s ever going to—to hit you for wanting to play with them, or give you shit for trying to be included. If they do, I’ll have their heads . We’re not going to cut you out of things, the way your sisters and father did. And I’m—I’m sorry if I made you think that earlier today.”
Hawks squeezes his hand as tightly as his leather gloves will allow, swallowing the lump in his throat. He doesn’t trust himself to speak, and so he blinks away the pressure behind his eyes and stares up at the sky with a soft smile painting his lips.
It’s several moments of silence, their hands held gently between them, before Hawks finds his voice again.
“Did you know they don’t write to me?” He asks, stars twinkling in and out of clouds above them. He tries very hard to focus on them, and not the thickness in his throat, the weight of his admission. “My father, I’m not surprised but—my mother, either. Not a single one in three years.”
Touya squeezes back, his voice quiet and sad. “Do you miss them?”
Hawks shrugs. The ache in his chest has long since faded, but sometimes he still thinks of them, of what they’re doing. Are they happier without him? Do they talk about him? Do they even notice he’s gone?
“They were the only family I had,” he says instead. The words are weak, and just as hollow as he feels, because that’s the saddest truth of all. They weren’t that great to him, barely even treated him as family should , but Hawks still loves them with all the jagged pieces of his heart.
“I can be your family.”
The words are spoken so softly, on barely a whisper and nothing more, that Hawks almost misses them. His gaze drifts out of the clouds and back to the present, focusing on Touya’s face. His bright eyes, filled with hope and care; his flushed cheeks and windswept hair. He squeezes Hawks’ hand again, and the blond realizes he’s probably staring.
One corner of his mouth quirks up. “You want another brother?”
This time, Touya’s voice is more certain, more sure of himself. He doesn’t even hesitate. “I want you.”
It coaxes a laugh out of Hawks, something featherlight and a little damp. Something grateful. He blinks back tears, and feels the weight of forgiveness for their earlier fight all but lift from his shoulders. “Good thing you’re stuck with me then, Your Grace.”
He expects the title to lighten the mood, to earn him an eye roll or a playful shove, the way it normally does. Instead, the prince looks more serious than ever.
“Now and always?” He asks, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth.
If Hawks didn’t know any better, he’d say the other boy looks nervous. Which is silly, really. He’s sworn to be Prince Touya’s squire for as long as he’ll have him, and in a few years, he’ll officially take his knightly vows in a ceremony that will bond him to the crown prince for the rest of his days.
Still, a blush colours Hawks’ cheeks as he thinks of the other ceremony in which those words are used.
One beneath the giant weirwood tree, ribbon as red as the leaves that adorn it wrapped between two sets of hands. One that ties two souls together forever, in life and death, through illness and whatever else may ail them.
His breath catches, and Hawks is glad for the gloves between them when Prince Touya squeezes his hand again, because he’s sure his palm is sweaty. Just as sure as he knows that can’t possibly be what the other boy is referring to. He must simply be speaking of the day Hawks will bend the knee, and swear fealty to him officially, for the rest of his days, as the other boy grants him his Knighthood.
That’s all he wants, and Hawks is happy to oblige him.
“Now and always,” he nods, squeezing back. Prince Touya’s smile is a warmth over the horizon, a burst of sunlight in the flurry of grey, dreary snowfall.