Actions

Work Header

paper boats

Chapter Text

Seven years ago…


 

“No!” Eiji screams so hard his throat burns, twisting and flailing helplessly in the soldiers’ grasp. He kicks at one of them, trying to break free to run to Aslan. “Let him go! No! Stop! Aslan! Aslan! Stop! Let him go—oof!”

The soldier’s knee to his stomach knocks all the breath from him and leaves him hanging limp and wheezing in pain. “Stop your squealing, brat.”

“Aslan!” Eiji gasps, tears streaming down his face. “Leave him alone, you don’t n-need him, you’re only after me!”

His pleas go ignored. The soldier in front of him, the squad leader, kicks Aslan’s side again where he lies, limp and broken and bloodied, on the ground, unmoving. “What? No more fight in you? So much for a knight-in-training!”

Aslan doesn’t respond. Eiji isn’t even sure if he’s breathing.

“Aslan!” he screams again. “Aslan, get up! Run!”

“Pretty sure he’s dead,” one of the others says, giving him an experimental kick of his own. “Should we just get rid of him?”

The leader shrugs. “Might as well. Stupid brat, thought he could protect his little princeling, huh? ‘My brother’s the knight commander,’ ooh, how scary! That sure went well for him!”

All of them laugh. Eiji’s stomach threatens to spill up his throat, and as one of the soldiers steps forward, reaching down to grab Aslan under the armpits, his blood runs cold. “No!” he screams, struggling in vain against the hands digging into his shoulders. “Stop, let him go! Leave him alone!”

“Take the prince to the other captives,” the squad leader orders. “After that we can have our fun with the rest.”

“Yes, sir!” The two soldiers holding Eiji’s arms painfully twisted behind his back start to haul him away, no matter how much he struggles.

“No! No! Let go! Aslan! Aslan! Wake up!”

The other soldier throws Aslan’s bloody body over the parapet into the moat. Eiji’s screams of despair drowns out the splash, far below.


Present day…


Snip, snip.

Snip.

With easy, practiced, almost mindless movements, Eiji trims away the withering flowers and curled, old leaves, delicately pruning each plant before moving to the next. He’s wearing clean silk robes and kneeling in the grass, but he can’t bring himself to care about staining his knees green, not when this little garden is all that really brings him peace of mind. Green knees are a small price to pay for blessed, sweet silence.

“Some people would say it’s not very princely to do your own gardening.” Sing takes a loud bite of an apple. “Since there’s landscapers and whatnot already in the grounds.”

“Some people would say it is not very princely to be a prince without a kingdom.” Eiji shrugs, unbothered, and trims away another dried-out old flower. It flutters and falls to the ground with all the rest, to decay back into the soil from which it came. “But I do not really have much control over things of that nature.”

“You have a kingdom,” Sing says, though at least he has the grace to look a little abashed. “…Technically.”

“Technically.” Eiji smiles humorlessly. The Lees put a puppet regent “governor” on his father’s throne the day they invaded, seven years ago, the day they executed his parents and took him as a ward. Sure, he’s still the Crown Prince of Unshu in name, but in reality, he’s nothing but a glorified hostage. A bird in a cage is still a bird in a cage, no matter how gilded the bars may be.

Sing knows that. He’s one of the few bright spots in the Lee courts, someone who tries to keep his spirits light despite everything, and for that Eiji treasures him. He’s apprenticed to the court’s head alchemist, and the gardens behind their lab are Eiji’s getaway, when the whispers and the glances and court’s intricate dance on a knife’s edge all get to be too much.

“Shorter says Nadia’s gonna make some apple pastries this afternoon.” Sing takes another bite out of his apple. “She took some people to the orchards earlier. S’where I got this. So, you’re invited to have some with tea if you wanna. Unless you have plans…?”

Eiji shakes his head. “No, Yut-Lung and I will be having dinner together, but not tea. I would love to come. When you see her, please thank her for the invitation for me.”

He bows his head, turns back to his plants, and uses a little nudge of magic to whisper encouragement to them, particularly the one at the end that seems to have suffered most from the wind last night. His magic is slow and sleepy and earthy, good for spells of growth and nurturing and healing and not much else, but at least it makes itself useful in the gardens, sometimes.

If only it was the kind of magic that would have been useful for—

No, he reminds himself. He’s been down this road many times before, and it always leads to the same place: despair and self-blame. There’s no point in travelling it again. What happened to his family—to his kingdom—has already happened. What happened to Aslan already happened. No matter how much he wishes he’d been gifted with Griffin’s battle magic instead, he can’t change the past. Can’t go back in time. Can’t save anyone.

So here he is.

(Snip, snip.)

Gardening in the courtyards of the enemy.

(Snip.)

Alone.

“Okay, hold up.” Sing hops down from the low tree branch where he sits, pads across the grass, and puts a hand on Eiji’s shoulder. “You’re being… melancholy. What’s bothering you today?”

“Am I not always melancholy?” Eiji puts on a wry smile, trying to find at least some humor in things. “Yut-Lung says I am, at least.”

Sing huffs and rolls his eyes. If Shorter was here, Eiji knows he’d ruffle his hair. “You’re changing the subject. Dodging the question, actually. I asked, what’s bothering you?”

Eiji presses his lips together and looks back at his flowers. “The same things as always, Sing. I am sure you must be weary of hearing me say it by now.”

“If stuff about… the invasion… is eating at you, we’re friends.” Sing gets a stubborn look in his eye. “And if you wanna talk about that, you can. I’m not gonna get sick of it.”

Eiji doesn’t move. There’s an ant, crawling along the leaf of one of his violets. He watches its slow progress, from the tip of the leaf back toward the stem, crawling and crawling and never looking back.

“But of course if I’m overstepping I’ll shut up,” Sing adds hastily, holding his hand up as if to appease. “Sorry. Should I let you be? Or should—”

Eiji sighs softly. His hand drifts up as if of its own accord, brushing across the little lump under his collar where his pendant rests, and he rubs his thumb over it, closing his eyes. “You are not overstepping. I… am grateful for your concern.”

Sing waits a few seconds, then prompts, “…But?”

He can’t possibly tell Sing the real reason he’s in a strange, sad mood today. The less Sing knows about it, the safer he’ll be. But if Eiji has learned anything from being a close ally of Yut-Lung Lee, it’s how to lie, and the best lies are close to the truth.

“Sometimes I just cannot help but think about the people… everyone who died,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “I wonder what they would think of me today, if they could see the kind of person I have become. I wonder if my parents would be proud. If my little sister would still think I am worthy of respect. If Aslan would still—” and here he can’t help but laugh, shaking his head, “—want to marry me.”

Sometimes the grief is a soft, silent stream flowing in the back of his mind—ever there, but unobtrusive, almost forgettable if he’s occupied with something else. Sometimes it’s a torrent, a deluge, washing him away until he loses the strength to swim. Sometimes, he thinks about how it used to be, when he was little and there was nothing to worry about, and he could hold his best friend’s hand and explore the woods behind the palace and laugh his days away, and he knows, with certainty, he’s drowning.

Today is just one of those days.

“Of course they’d all still love you!” Sing squeezes his shoulder. “You haven’t done anything that’d make them think any less of you, Eiji. I mean, hell, you’re probably not proud of being here, but being here is… what you’re doing is surviving. You didn’t have another choice.”

“There is always a choice.” Eiji fumbles at his pendant again, carefully pulling it out from under his robes and stroking his fingers over its smooth, slightly worn surface. Aslan won it for him at a carnival booth, years ago, when he was twelve and they were running through the streets at the spring festival, hand-in-hand and laughing without a care in the world. It’s one of the only things he has left of his old life. “But thank you, all the same.”

Sing scoffs. “I mean, sure, I guess. But your choices were like… either conform or die, pretty much. And yeah, maybe I never met your family or your Aslan, but I’m pretty sure all the same that they’d all prefer you alive.”

“Maybe.” Eiji sighs shortly. He can’t bear the thought of the judgment in his parents’ eyes, or the disappointment in Aslan’s, or the innocent confusion in Nahoko’s. What’s truly eating at him right now, Sing can never know.

But he can’t help but wonder how they would all feel, knowing that their Eiji grew up to be a soft-spoken, sweet, seemingly harmless murderer.

“Dude.” Sing gives him a little shake. “Do you hear yourself? There’s no maybe about it! I’d rather see you do what you gotta do to survive rather than lay down and die a meaningless death!”

Realistically, he knows that the blood on his hands, however indirect it may be, is justified. He’s doing what he has to do to get his homeland back from the Lees. To free his people. But…

It’s still hard to know that today, a man is dead, and it’s (at least in part) thanks to him.

Maybe Aslan would laugh, if he was here. After all, his brother was the Knight Commander. Of course Griffin must have seen his fair share of battles. Taken a few lives, even. Of course Aslan wouldn’t judge for something like that. But part of Eiji still recoils, because no matter how good his cause, he’s still… people are still dying, and he’s still the one behind it.

“I… suppose you are right,” he tells Sing, barely even paying attention to the conversation. It’s not about anything real, anyway, and he’s a little tired of falsehoods. “It is just… hard.”

“I know.” Sing sighs, dropping his hand back to his side. “But that’s what we’re here for, y’know? You don’t have to keep it in your head all the time. If you’re having a bad day, me ‘n’ Shorter, we wanna know, okay?”

Eiji offers him a wan smile. “I will try to keep that in mind more. I am sorry. I am no good at opening up. But you already know that.”

Sing snorts. “Yeah, well, small wonder given who you’re always hanging out with.”

Eiji almost (almost) laughs. Yut-Lung is certainly a character, and he’s not exactly known for his openness with anyone. Most people see him as a little eccentric but harmless, just the useless seventh son of the late Emperor Lee. What less people know is that behind his shimmering silks and reticent smiles lie a cold, cunning, calculating mind, and a deep, dark fire that burns for revenge.

“I suppose you could say he has rubbed off on me,” he answers instead, kneeling for his flowers again. “In more ways than one.”

Sing snorts again. “I’ll say. Sometimes I wonder—d’you guys try to look like twins on purpose? Like… not necessarily in the faces, but…” He shrugs. “You both dress the same, and you have some of the same mannerisms, and… jeez. Actually, you can’t tell me. Shorter and I have a bet, and it’s off if you actually tell us.”

“Then how will it be resolved?” Eiji tips his head to the side. “Or is it just that I have to tell you both at the same time?”

“You can tell me,” Sing says, “but you have to tell him, too. He won’t believe me if I say you said I won.”

“He’d believe you if you said that I told you he won.” Eiji laces a little more enchantment into one of his rose vines, willing it to grow strong and proud. “Which I might be about to say.”

“True, but I wouldn’t tell him in that case.” Sing bites into his apple again. “So? You guys dress in the same kinda stuff on purpose?”

Eiji smiles. “Yes. Yut-Lung and I… have a certain image we both want to cultivate, and having a certain kind of wardrobe helps us guide people’s perceptions of us. But… if you are asking whether we both meant to wear blue today, the answer is no. It is a coincidence.”

Sing frowns, considers that for a moment, and frowns some more. “That doesn’t… that means I half won, half lost. Hm.”

“You can half-tell Shorter, then,” Eiji suggests wryly, flicking his wrist to cut off his spell.

Sing ignores that to peer over his shoulder as the vine straightens, leaves lifting to the sun and buds slowly filling with color. There’s a little awe in his face. “Wow. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of watching you do that stuff.”

Eiji laughs, a little self-conscious. “Thank you. If you could have seen my mother’s magic, though, you would just laugh at me. She had much better control. I… was still learning from her, when… well. You know.”

“Yeah,” Sing agrees, voice soft. “Still. Your magic is really cool, too. I wish I could do magic…”

Eiji shrugs. Magic, for him, is always tinged with regret. “It is nice, but not anywhere as useful as what you can do. Alchemy is important. Magic… especially something as frivolous as sunlight magic, is… pointless. It makes for nice parlor tricks, but not much else. I suppose battle magic is at least functional, but…”

“You think your family magic is pointless?” Sing sounds flabbergasted. “But you’re from the only family that has sunlight magic…”

“Yes, and look how much good it did Okumura House.” Eiji tries not to be bitter, most days. It only ever hurts. But sometimes he just can’t help himself. “The last prince of the Okumuras, and he spends his days dressed in Lee finery, kneeling in a Lee garden, tending to Lee flowers. Very useful, isn’t it!”

Sing looks like he wants to say something further, but he just sighs instead. A few more minutes pass in silence.

“Sorry,” he finally mutters. “I won’t push it.”

Eiji sighs, guilt stabbing at his chest. “No… I am sorry. I am just… cranky today, I think. It is not your fault. I should not… It is wrong of me to take out my frustrations on you just because you try to show concern.”

Sing offers an easy smile. “Nah, don’t worry about it! If you don’t wanna talk about something, we don’t have to talk about it. Wanna head back in?”

Eiji looks up to the blue sky, wistful, and shakes his head. “You can go ahead if you want, but I think I will stay here a little longer. It is nice outside, and I like the quiet.”

“I’ll stay, then.” Sing hops back up onto the tree branch and swings one leg back and forth. “You’re right, it’s nice out. Might as well enjoy it while it lasts, huh?”

“Yeah.” Eiji stands, dusts off his knees, and adjusts his robes. The weather is mild today, so he’s wearing light, gauzy silks covered in rich embroidery, cut just low enough to be what Yut-Lung calls flirty without being immodest. The grass doesn’t seem to have added much color, so his knees are still pale blue, a few shades darker than the clouds above, and he knows he still looks just like the perfect little hostage princeling… if only he could feel like one, too.

He settles onto a stone bench next to Sing’s tree and heaves a deep sigh. It’s barely past noon, and he’s already exhausted. Perhaps after the news breaks, he can claim shock and retire to his rooms and sleep. But not yet, not until—

A door from the main palace opens, and Eiji automatically fixes his posture into something neutrally demure, his ankles crossed and his hands folded primly in his lap. One of Yut-Lung’s attendants comes rushing out, barely throwing Sing a second glance as he dips his head to Eiji. “Lord Okumura, your presence is requested at once! You must not have heard the news yet. The Prince’s brother has just died.”

Eiji gasps, one hand flying to his mouth in impeccably-feigned shock. He practiced this in the mirror, with Yut-Lung, so many times he could probably do it in his sleep, but the panic roiling in his stomach now that it’s happened is real.

They’ve killed a prince. Now they have to get away with it.

“How?” he manages, eyes wide as he stands and gathers himself to hurry to Yut-Lung. “Which brother? What happened? Is Prince Yut-Lung alright?”

“It was an accident,” the attendant says. He gestures impatiently, and Eiji hurries to fall into line behind him to follow him back to Yut-Lung. “It was Prince Kam-Lung. He and several attendants from King Holstock’s court went on a riding trip, but unfortunately he was thrown from his horse, and…”

“Oh, how horrible,” Eiji gasps, so caught up in his false horror that he trips over the hem of his own robes, and Sing has to catch his arm to steady him. That’s fine. Maybe it even added to his charade? “That is absolutely terrible, oh…”

“Yes.” The attendant shakes his head. “It’s a tragedy. Our Prince has requested your company in his time of grief, Lord Okumura, so please, take care of him.”

“Of course!” Eiji bobs his head. “Prince Yut-Lung is… of course, I will do my best.”

“Thank you.” The attendant stops in front of the gilt door to Yut-Lung’s apartments, nods to the guard posted outside, and lifts the knocker to rap twice against it. After a moment, another attendant opens it, and Eiji is ushered inside. Sing hesitates and tries to follow, but the attendant at the door stops him.

“The Prince has requested Lord Okumura’s presence,” she says. “Only Lord Okumura.”

“It’s fine,” Yut-Lung calls from further inside, and Eiji has to admire how well he disguises his words. If he didn’t know better, he’d say it really does sound like Yut-Lung is trying to keep a tremor out of his voice. “Sing Soo-Ling may enter as well.”

The attendant steps back, and Sing follows Eiji with a nod of thanks. Eiji quietly takes his arm as they walk through the receiving room into Yut-Lung’s sitting room.

Yut-Lung is sitting on a red-and-gold sofa, hair spilling about his face as he looks down into the teacup nestled in his hands. His shoulders are hunched as though he’s hiding tears, and for a moment Eiji has to admire the strength of his portrayal, before he goes back to doing his best to keep his own acting believable.

“Yut-Lung,” he says softly, dropping Sing’s arm and hurrying three steps closer to the sofa before he slows, uncertain, and takes a careful seat next to Yut-Lung. “I just heard the news. I am so sorry…”

“We were never that close,” Yut-Lung interrupts, his voice a little flat, a little bitter. His hands don’t leave the mug. “Can you believe it? Of everyone in the family, he was the one closest to my age, and I never bothered to be close to him or appreciate what I had, or—I can’t believe myself, Eiji, do you hear me? I’m already talking about him in the past tense like it’s easy! What is wrong with me?”

“Oh, Yut-Lung,” Eiji murmurs, furrowing his brow as if his heart is wrenching for his friend, instead of just pounding with fear that they’ll be caught lying. He reaches out, lays a hand very tentatively on Yut-Lung’s shoulder, and lets himself relax when he’s not shrugged off. “It is normal to… to have regrets, when you lose someone. It does not mean there is something wrong with you for it.”

Sing shifts from foot to foot, as if he wants to say something, but ultimately doesn’t. The two attendants in the room glance at each other, then back at Eiji and Yut-Lung, who doesn’t seem to care.

“I bet you’re happy,” Yut-Lung says suddenly, jerking away from Eiji, and though he’s not weeping, his eyes are suspiciously red.

Eiji reels back as if slapped, shocked and suddenly terrified. They made an agreement—but what if Yut-Lung really meant to just get him executed for treason? What if he’s about to turn him in as a conspirator against the crown? What if—

“But if you wanted to kill one of my brothers for what happened to Unshu, that’s the wrong one!” Yut-Lung laughs, a little hysterical. “You should have gone after Gan-Lung! He’s the military man! Kam-Lung was just a stupid ambassador! Not good for anything but talking nicely to people! There’s no reason to celebrate his death!”

“I am not celebrating!” Eiji holds his hands up as if to ward off a blow. “Yut-Lung, please! I—just because my family is gone does not mean that I wish that kind of pain on you or your family!”

“Pretty words,” Yut-Lung says, tossing his hair. “You say pretty words to my face, to comfort me, but behind my back you laugh—”

“My prince!” Sing’s voice is low and taut. “That’s enough.”

“How dare you speak to the prince in such a manner?” one of the attendants demands, outraged, and Sing lifts his chin defiantly. “Your Highness, how should we have him punished?”

Yut-Lung waves a hand. “Leave him,” he says flippantly. “It doesn’t matter. Why should I care about Sing talking back to me when my brother is dead? It doesn’t matter! None of it matters!”

“Yut-Lung,” Eiji says gently, because even if he knows that this is an act, it still hurts to see someone grieving in front of him. “I think you should drink your tea, please. And then get some rest. I will stay, if you would like me to. It is clear that the shock is getting to you, I think.”

“Shock,” Yut-Lung repeats, his voice dull and his eyes flat. Then he laughs again, the same humorless, grey sound, and flaps a hand at the attendants. “Fine. Fine! Leave us. Leave us alone! If Eiji wants me to cry about it, I’ll do it where at least nobody can see. Get out, all of you!”

“Yes, Your Highness.” The attendants both bow deeply and walk to the door, heads held high.

Sing hesitates. “Would you rather I leave too?”

Yut-Lung shrugs. “It’s not like you ever actually listen to me. Do what you want.”

Sing looks to Eiji, and guilt stabs him in the gut. Sing is a good, genuine person, with real, actual concern for the two people in front of him. He’s been a good friend to Eiji for all these past years, and now Eiji pays him back by lying to him.

“I can handle this,” he says quietly, resisting the urge to close his eyes against the guilt as he perpetuates the lies. Yut-Lung isn’t truly grieving, and Eiji doesn’t truly need to comfort him. But Sing doesn’t know that. Can’t know that. “You do not need to worry. It will be okay.”

“Bold words, indeed!” Yut-Lung laughs again. “Sure. Go do whatever you want to do, Sing. I’ll just be here, with my dear friend,” and he smiles a smile that’s a bit too wide as he slings an arm around Eiji’s shoulders. “He’ll tell me to cry and let it out. I’m sure. If you’re going to say something similar, definitely get lost.”

Sing hesitates for a long, long moment. “Okay,” he says, eventually. “If you’re sure. But…. if you need anything, I’ll be at Shorter’s lab, okay?”

“Okay,” Eiji promises. He holds up the façade of a wan, sad smile for a minute longer, until the receiving room door has closed behind Sing, and then breathes out a deep sigh of relief.

“What.” Yut-Lung shifts, curling up comfortably in the corner of his armrest, and takes a slow swig of tea. “You sound stressed.”

Eiji gives him a dry, unimpressed look. “Are you not?”

Yut-Lung laughs, a little bitter but mostly amused, and tucks his hair behind his ear. “Oh, Eiji. It astounds me, how naïve you try to be even after living with me for so long. No, I’m not. Why would I be? My dear brother is dead, after all. If anything, I’m grieving, not stressed.”

Eiji sighs. “You can drop the act. There is still so much that needs to happen before we can relax, Yut-Lung…”

“So many more brothers we need to kill, you mean,” Yut-Lung corrects.

Eiji winces and bites his lip. “Yes.”

“Oh?” Yut-Lung sits up a little straighter. “What’s with the long face? Don’t tell me you’re having second thoughts now. Because even if you are, I’m afraid there’s no backing out, not at this point.”

“I am not having second thoughts!” Eiji shakes his head quickly. “Sometimes I just…”

He trails off and looks away, at the tassel hanging from the curtains by the balcony door. It’s a rich golden color, with complex knots braided into a thick plait that holds the curtain back, and just for a brief moment Eiji wonders how much easier life would be if he could just be an inanimate object, knowing no purpose other than to just hold what he was told to hold.

“You just what.” Yut-Lung scoffs. “Let me guess. You told Sing whatever’s bothering you, but you won’t tell me, because you’re afraid I’ll be mean about it?”

“I did not tell Sing anything.” Eiji folds his arms across his chest. “I told you that I am not telling anyone but Shorter. I meant that. Is it so hard for you to understand that when I give you my word, I mean it?”

“Maybe it is.” Yut-Lung’s gaze turns sharp, cool, and calculating. “I never count on anyone if I can help it. I thought you would know that by now.”

“Mm.” Eiji sighs. “You are in such a good mood. I would rather not spoil it.”

Yut-Lung lets out a bright, merry peal of laughter. “Oh, that’s rich! I suppose I am in a good mood, now that you mention it. Why wouldn’t I be? One down, five to go. We’re off to a good start! But whatever you didn’t tell Sing has to do with our little secret, so I’m afraid I do have to ask what it was.”

Eiji blows out another sigh, exasperated. “I told you, I did not tell anyone, and I am not going to! Why can’t you just leave it at that?”

“Because I refuse to let there be any variables involved in this that I don’t know about.” Yut-Lung gives him a slow, level look. “You’re included.”

Eiji presses his lips together and resists the urge to roll his eyes. “I am just finding it hard to be in as good spirits as you are. That is all.”

“Oh, really?” Yut-Lung sips his tea and raises an eyebrow. “And why not? If it’s not second thoughts, then…?”

“I just have a hard time being happy about the fact that we just killed someone!” Eiji snaps, crossing his arms against his chest and glaring. “And I am not saying we should not have or anything like that! I just—it feels hard to celebrate something like that, okay? That is it! Are you happy now?”

Yut-Lung slowly puts down his tea, turns, and stares at Eiji with a hard, inscrutable look in his eyes. “You pity him?”

“Maybe a little.” Eiji looks away. “I do not regret what we are doing. I just—”

“Did you forget?” Yut-Lung sounds utterly livid. “Did you just forget what kinds of things my brothers were complicit in? What kinds of things they’ve done? Maybe you have the luxury of forgetting, but not a single fucking day goes by, Eiji, not one day, that I don’t get reminded of what they did to my mother. What I saw them doing, to my mother, when I was six. You think someone deserves pity? Pity me! Pity your own damn self! Did you forget that—”

“Yut-Lung,” Eiji warns, his throat threatening to close. “Do not. Please.”

“—that they murdered your mother, too? They had your parents both executed, and they tortured them, too? Did you forget, Eiji? Did you forget the sounds of their screams?”

Yut-Lung is staring at him with nearly murderous intent now, eyes piercing, and Eiji wants to sink back into the cushions and vanish. His eyes prickle with unshed tears. “Yut-Lung, stop it…”

“Did you forget that you didn’t even get to see them before the day of the execution?” Yut-Lung laughs, a harsh sound that cuts like a knife. “That Wang-Lung was the one who held you back and made you watch as they died, without ever getting to say goodbye? Did you forget that Gan-Lung was the one who beat your precious Aslan Jade to death, just for fun?”

The tears spill over, and Eiji chokes on them, shoving his hand over his mouth to swallow a sob. “Stop! Please!”

“They are all monsters, Eiji!” Yut-Lung slams his teacup onto the table so hard Eiji is afraid it might break. “Don’t you fucking dare waste your pity on them! They don’t deserve an ounce of it, not after what they’ve done. They’re monsters. And if you sympathize with them, then… maybe you are, too.”

“All I said is that I do not like the idea of killing people!” Eiji cries, dashing at his cheeks to wipe away the stupid tears. “I did not say I forgave—and do not ever think I could forget. I could never. I could never! You are not the only one here who has suffered!”

“If you’re so determined not to get your hands dirty that you’re willing to let my brothers walk free just because you don’t want to be mean,” Yut-Lung sneers, “you might as well have forgiven them.”

Frustrated, Eiji just clenches his fists in the silk of his robes and turns away to face the window. “This is why I did not want to tell you. I knew you would be like this. I told you it was nothing important and you did not listen. I do not—I am not forgiving anyone! I am helping you do all of this! I just—it does not mean I enjoy it! Why is that so hard for you to understand?”

“So maybe you aren’t having second thoughts. You’re just weak.” Yut-Lung chuckles, picks up his tea again, and takes a delicate sip. “If you think being a leader means you have the luxury of being able to decide if you enjoy something or not, you’re even more naïve than you look.”

Eiji draws his knees to his chest and wraps his arms around them, staring hard out the window at the clouds dotting the idyllic blue sky. If only he could still be out in his garden under the clouds, instead of in this stifling room with Yut-Lung and his constant, harsh criticism. No matter what he does, it’s never enough for Yut-Lung, as if he always needs to make sure that Eiji knows he’s better than him. It’s exhausting. Sure, they’re working together, are sworn allies through this entire process, but Eiji isn’t sure if Yut-Lung would ever consider him a friend.

Which makes him more than a little sad. He wants to be friends with Yut-Lung. When Gan-Lung brought him back here to be a ward of the Lees after the empire annexed Unshu, he was thirteen and alone and terrified. Yut-Lung was the only person in the court near his age, and he latched on fast. And even though he knows Yut-Lung views him more as a means to an end than anything else, he desperately wishes things could be different. That they could really be friends.

In times like these, he misses Aslan more than ever. It hurts more than he’d like to admit.

“Oh, stop being so gloomy,” Yut-Lung sighs, brushing his hair over his shoulder. “It really annoys me, when you try to play the moral superior. We’re all ruined people, and none of us is any better than the other! Can’t you at least pretend to be happy for me, if not for yourself?”

“Why should I be happy?” Eiji doesn’t turn around. “You—hm. Never mind. I do not know why I bother to try to talk to you about things like this.”

“About what.” Yut-Lung snorts. “You want me to solve your weakness for you? Is that it?”

“Griffin used to say that caring for others is a sign of strength, not weakness.” Eiji breathes out slowly, not wanting to turn to face him but sick of being belittled. “That having empathy for all beings is hard, but makes you strong.”

“And look where Griffin is. Six feet under. If even that. Did my brothers give your people proper burials? I forget.”

Eiji goes rigid and gasps as if slapped. “Yut-Lung!”

“What?”

“That’s over a line!” Eiji snaps, fingers digging into his own arms so hard it hurts. Yut-Lung’s brothers were horrible to him all his childhood, and Eiji knows that, but he doesn’t understand why that seems to make Yut-Lung think he has the right to be horrible to everyone else, even those close to him.

“Oh, is that where the line is?” Yut-Lung sighs. “I can never tell with you.”

Eiji whips his head around just to glare at him. “Did you only summon me here to tell me that I am not good enough for you?”

Yut-Lung shrugs languidly, like he hasn’t a care in the world, and sips his tea. “All I’m saying is that basing your values on Griffin’s chivalry is all well and good in theory, but Griffin is dead because of his chivalry. Nobody gives a rat’s ass about a knight commander. If he’d just left you and your family and run, he would’ve lived. You can follow his footsteps, but you’ll get yourself killed. I’m far more interested in the business of staying alive.”

He sips his tea again, tipping his head back to finish the last of it, and Eiji stares at the bottom of the cup before turning his head away and crossing his arms. Sometimes, Yut-Lung’s insistence on complete isolation, emotionally speaking, grates on him too much to ignore. Frosty, he takes a moment to reply. “I do not see the point in living a life like that.”

“Of course you don’t.” Yut-Lung chuckles to himself, sets his cup down, and wipes his mouth on the back of his sleeve. “That’s why people all fall for you, isn’t it? Your naïve little soul with your big bleeding heart. Everyone knows that’s how you get yourself killed. Maybe that’s why everyone who sees you wants to protect you, hm? Like Sing, just now?”

He’s bitter. He’s always bitter that even here, in his own family’s imperial court, Eiji is more popular and likable than him. Maybe if he stopped being so horrible to everyone, Eiji thinks dourly, he’d be well-liked, too.

“Sing telling you off has nothing to do with me being naïve,” he answers instead, staring at a cloud. “It has everything to do with your own behavior.”

“Oh! And there it is!” Yut-Lung laughs. “The backbone! If only you had that more often! Instead of being so soft all the time, why don’t you show some spine? Make a name for yourself!”

Eiji digs his fingers into his arms again to keep from turning to him and yelling. “If you think surviving for this long in a vipers’ nest is something I could have done without a spine, there is no hope for you,” he finally says, voice soft. “And you can say what you will, but there is bravery in vulnerability. It is not my fault you are too afraid of rejection to ever try it out.”

“As if!” Yut-Lung scoffs. “You’re one to talk. You, calling me a coward? That’s rich.”

“Whatever you say, Yut-Lung,” Eiji says numbly, laying his head against the back of the sofa. They lapse into an uncomfortable silence after that, and Eiji sits there and quietly watches the clouds float by.


Three days later…


“Yo, Bunny! C’mere for a sec!”

Eiji puts down his book, hops up from the dusty armchair next to the shelf, and hurries over to Shorter’s lab bench, wrinkling his nose at the faint acrid smell in the air. “What is it?”

Shorter holds out a small vial. “Try it!”

Eiji eyes it dubiously. “What is it supposed to do?”

“Drink it and you’ll find out!” Shorter grins.

Eiji smacks his shoulder lightly and taps his foot. “I am not drinking some random thing without knowing what it is!”

“Aw, come on!” Shorter laughs and holds it closer to his nose tantalizingly. “I wouldn’t give you something harmful, would I?”

“No, but still…”

“Just try iiiit,” Shorter wheedles, slinging an arm about his shoulders and giving him a squeeze. He’s warm, and Eiji leans into him even as he rolls his eyes. “It’s nothing bad, I promise!”

Eiji can’t deny that he’s curious. Giving in, he takes the vial and gives it a careful sniff; it smells delicate and sweet, like a light fruity tea, maybe, or a fresh-plucked blossoming flower. “Hm… okay, I suppose…”

He lifts the vial to his lips and drains it in one sip, and—

The sensation of a sunny day slams into him, like it’s a bright and golden afternoon and he’s just spent hours running through the streets with Aslan, carefree and laughing. Warm, heavy contentment spreads throughout his limbs, and laughter bubbles up in his throat and nearly spills out his mouth, the kind of delight that’s so pervasive it has to sneak up on him or else go unnoticed. He’s happy.

The taste lingering on his tongue is delicate and floral and so familiar it hurts, and as he swallows, the nostalgia hits him as he realizes what it was: sakura mochi ice cream, specifically the ice cream from one of the vendors at the annual springtime festival back in Unshu. He and Aslan used to attend that festival together every year, hand-in-hand as they ran from stall to stall to try the different games and snacks, or dancing in the square with everyone else in the city.

It rained, one year—the year Aslan won him his pendant, actually. He still remembers shrieking when they splashed through a puddle and cool water soaked into his sandals, and how Aslan looked like a disgruntled, wet cat as they huddled together under a shop awning and watched the downpour. It was the ice cream shop, and they bought some to eat while they waited for the rain to slow.

“When we get married,” Aslan said, his pale green eyes intent and serious, “we have to do it inside somewhere. I’d hate it if we got stuck in the rain at our own wedding.”

Eiji laughed at him, back then. “Of course we will! It has to be in the palace grounds, remember? The arrangement papers said so!”

“Yeah, but the grounds could include the courtyards.” Aslan scowled at the rain, shoulders hunched. “I hate getting rained on.”

“Don’t worry,” Eiji assured him, with all the innocence of youth. “We won’t get married in the rain. Promise.”

It was truer than he realized, Eiji thinks wistfully. They won’t get married in the rain. They won’t get married at all. Aslan was murdered only one year after that promise was made.

He opens his eyes and finds himself back in the lab, staring up at Shorter with blurry eyes. “I…”

“Eiji?” Shorter puts his hands on his shoulders, concerned. “You okay? It wasn’t supposed to make you cry…”

Eiji flings his arms around his neck and clings to him like a lifeline. Shorter is tall and strong and warm, and he gives the best hugs—right now, he hugs back hard enough Eiji’s feet nearly leave the ground, and he feels a little more secure.

“Whoa, hey, hey!” Shorter rubs his back. “What happened?”

Eiji presses his face against his shoulder and lets out a deep sigh. “It tasted exactly like… it was like the sweets at the spring festival in Unshu.” He brushes a tear from the corner of his eye, then returns his hand to Shorter’s back. “I have not had them in years. I thought I would never…”

“Oh, Bunny.” Shorter gives him a gentle squeeze. “I’m sorry. It was supposed to just make you feel happy, not… Sorry. I didn’t mean to make you remember something painful.”

“No, no!” Eiji jerks his head up to look at him—it worked, it worked! He almost forgot the taste, and the good memories along with it. “It did make me happy! I never thought I would be able to taste them again. I…” He laughs, wipes at his eyes again, and leans against Shorter’s chest. “I used to go to the festival every spring, with Aslan. When we were very small, Griffin came with us, too, to make sure we did not get into trouble. I had not thought about the day Aslan won me my necklace in… a long time. Thank you.”

Shorter rests his chin atop his head and sways him gently back and forth. “Well… if you’re sure it didn’t make you sadder, you’re welcome. It’s supposed to taste like a good memory, or your favorite dessert, and it’s supposed to make you feel happy.”

“It worked,” Eiji mumbles, smiling against his shirt. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Shorter pets his hair. “I’m glad.”

“What was the occasion?” Eiji looks up again, finally pulling back. Shorter ruffles his hair and starts cleaning up his workstation, pouring excess liquids into a waste beaker and setting aside glassware to wash. “You do not usually just make random happy potions and tell me to drink them.”

Shorter laughs. “Can’t I just want to give my friend a surprise shot of happiness?”

Eiji pokes his side, and he yips and jerks away.

“Eiji! No tickling while I’m holding glass!”

Eiji wiggles his fingers innocently. Shorter gives him what’s clearly an attempt at a stern look, but doesn’t quite make it, because he’s rather obviously hiding a smile.

“You can want to, but I feel like there is a reason.”

Shorter’s smile fades, and he sighs as he walks to the sink to rinse his glassware. Eiji follows, standing next to him and wordlessly taking each test tube as he washes them to place them on the drying rack. “I thought you could use a pick-me-up these days. You’ve been… I can tell you’ve been feeling down since the prince died.”

Eiji winces. “Yes.”

“Sing told me Yut-Lung was trying to take out his grief on you,” Shorter adds, passing him a beaker. “But I know that’s not it, so… I’m guessing he said something else, instead, that’s eating you.”

Looking away, Eiji bites his lip. After their argument, he and Yut-Lung have hardly spoken past what their charade requires. He knows Yut-Lung is waiting for him to apologize, but he doesn’t want to. Not when he’s the one who was hurt. “He… got angry with me because I felt bad for helping to hurt—to kill—someone. Even if the someone in question was a very bad man. He said feeling bad for him was the same as forgiving him for everything he did, and—”

Shorter scoffs. “That fucking bastard.”

Eiji pauses. “You think so?”

“You feel bad because you’re a very kind-hearted person.” Shorter rinses out the last flask and turns off the tap. “He’s just mad you’re a better person than he is ‘cuz it makes him insecure. Don’t pay him any mind, Eiji.”

“I have to,” Eiji sighs. He places the flask on a peg and wipes his hands on the towel by the sink, folding his arms across his chest. “This would be a very bad time for him and me to fall apart.”

“Ugh.” Shorter drapes his arm around his shoulders and steers him from the lab to the small kitchen and sitting area outside, where he pushes him down on the couch. “Want some tea? I’ve got jasmine.”

“Yes, please.” Eiji settles in against one of the armrests and folds his legs to the side, looking down into his lap. “I just do not know what to do with him. I wish he would listen to me without taking everything so personally. I do not know why he just…”

“He doesn’t know how to live without his own head and at least three sticks all wedged real far up his ass,” Shorter answers, putting his kettle on to boil. He walks back over, plops down next to Eiji, and pats his knee. “It’s not your fault, Bunny. He takes everything personally, whether from you or anyone else. It’s… probably his brothers’ fault, honestly, but it’s not yours.”

Eiji lets his head fall against his shoulder. If only everyone could just be like Shorter. The world would be a kinder place, and he wouldn’t have to dread it. “I have to figure out how to talk to him before tomorrow…”

“Oh shit, right.” Shorter blows out a breath. “Varishikov gets here tomorrow, right?”

“Yes.” Eiji sighs. “Apparently he is bringing his heir, too. Yut-Lung was not happy when he first heard there was a change to the original plan. You should have seen him… but it is fine. I told him it is very likely that anyone Lord Varishikov chose as an heir would make a good ally, especially because Lord Varishikov cannot both be a bodyguard and an informant, and he calmed down.”

“Good job!” Shorter pats his knee again. “You’re playing him at his own game, huh?”

Eiji lifts an eyebrow. “Maybe it is my game, too.”

Shorter laughs and shakes his head. “Nah. You’re too good.”

“I am also a politician, just like him.” Eiji lightly elbows him. “Do not underestimate me!”

“I would never.” Shorter elbows back. “You’re a politician, but not like him. Or any of them here, honestly. Everyone here wants personal power. You just want to do right by people. That’s why it’s different.”

“But I know how to use the same tools as them,” Eiji says. “I think that makes me the same.”

“Nah.” Shorter shakes his head again, confident as ever. “If it did, you wouldn’t feel any worse about this shit than Yut-Lung does.”

Shorter hops up to go turn the stove off as the kettle starts to boil, leaving Eiji staring at his back, speechless. Maybe he does have a point. But being a simple, foolish idealist with a bleeding heart isn’t what gets results—Yut-Lung has drilled that into his head enough times over the past several years for it to stick. He might want to do right by people, but he’s still here, playing power games just like the rest of them. So doesn’t that make him just as bad—

“You want the blue mug or green one?”

“Blue,” Eiji manages, pulling himself out of his thoughts.

Shorter fires off a two-fingered salute from the kitchenette. “You got it, Bunny,” he says, and as he pours the tea, jasmine-scented steam wafts into the air and fills the room.


Knock, knock.

“Eiji, open up,” Yut-Lung calls through the door. “And be quick about it. We don’t have all day.”

Eiji sighs and puts his half-finished tea down to let him in. He’s not particularly looking forward to this conversation, but he supposes they have to have it before meeting with Lord Varishikov. Might as well get it over with. “Yes?”

Yut-Lung sweeps in with an imperious look and closes the door with a flick of his hand. He gives Eiji a quick once-over and frowns, then stalks to the sofa and settles down. “I’m assuming you have words for me about the other day?”

“What do you want me to say,” Eiji sighs. “If I tell you I am sorry, it will be hollow. I do not think that is what you are after.”

Yut-Lung hisses out a sigh, folds his arms across his chest, and looks away for half a second. “No… if anyone should be apologizing, I think it’s me.”

Eiji blinks.

Yut-Lung huffs. “You don’t have to look so surprised about it. I’m capable of owning my mistakes.”

“I know, I just… did not think you would realize it was a mistake.” Eiji carefully settles onto the edge of his armchair and picks up his teacup again, taking a slow sip. “But… thank you.”

Yut-Lung lets out a disgruntled noise. “You can thank Sing,” he mutters. “You’re clearly wondering what happened, don’t try to hide it. He came and gave me a talk on your behalf, you know. Said you were upset and didn’t tell him why but he was sure it was my fault for taking out my feelings about Kam-Lung on you.”

Eiji’s lips twitch into an almost-smile that he hides behind the cup. “Hm. Funny that he was right without knowing the truth.”

Yut-Lung rolls his eyes. “I already said I’m sorry. You don’t need to rub it in that I did something wrong.”

“I am not rubbing it in!” Eiji protests. “I just…”

“It’s fine,” Yut-Lung sighs, running a hand through his ponytail. “It’s just that thing you do. You’ve got Shorter and Sing wrapped around your fingers, just because you somehow always make people think you need protecting. Sing tried to protect you from me. As if you would ever need protection from me, of all people.”

He laughs, a soft and not-quite-but-nearly bitter sound. Eiji bites his lip and debates whether to say anything, but Yut-Lung continues before he can.

“People feel the need to protect you because you’re soft. And you felt bad for Kam-Lung because you’re soft. It’s on me, really. I should’ve known that I can’t both have someone soft and unassuming around to disarm my opponents, and have them never be soft about things where one needs to be hard. You wouldn’t be useful if your softness wasn’t genuine.”

Eiji looks down into the tea in his lap. “I… guess so.”

“Mm. I can’t fault you for your nature. Just as you can’t fault me for mine.” Yut-Lung shrugs. “Anyway. Speaking of using you to disarm people, Lord Varishikov and his heir are here. They’re in my receiving room, waiting for us. You—is that what you’re wearing to the meeting?”

Eiji blinks, looks down at himself, and back up. He’s wearing some simple but elegant black mourning robes, with a high neck embellished with silver ribbon twisted into knots like flowers, with his hair in a series of complex braids atop his head. “What is wrong with it…?”

“We know Lord Varishikov is quite devoted to his late wife,” Yut-Lung says, and taps a finger to his lips. “But his heir is some nobody he picked up off the streets and took in, or so the rumors go. Varishikov is someone I know how to manipulate. But the heir is yours. You need to make sure you get him wrapped around your cute little fingers, just like the others. So you need to be… a little more appealing.”

Eiji balks. “But what does that have to do with—”

“Don’t play dumb, Eiji.” Yut-Lung stands, beckons, and marches toward his bedchambers and closet. “Let’s find you something a bit sluttier.”

By the time Yut-Lung is satisfied, Eiji is pretty sure he’s going to freeze to death in the drafty corridors of the old palace. At least it’s not winter, he tells himself, wrapping his arms around himself as they walk down the hall toward Yut-Lung’s receiving room. It’s not that bad of an outfit, really—it just bares his shoulders and collarbones, and he gets cold easily.

“Don’t let me down,” Yut-Lung reminds him, and pushes the door open.

“Your Highness,” Lord Sergei Varishikov greets immediately, rising to his feet and bowing. He’s huge, Eiji realizes faintly; only years of training keep him from unabashedly staring at Varishikov’s ridiculously broad shoulders as he draws himself back to his full height. “And my lord. It’s a pleasure to meet both of you.”

“Likewise,” Yut-Lung says, putting on a small smile.

“It is my pleasure, truly,” Eiji demurs, dropping his gaze to the carpet and ducking his head just enough to be considered bashful. “Thank you for coming on such short notice, my lord.”

“It’s no trouble at all.” Lord Varishikov chuckles. “And please, just call me Blanca. Allow me to introduce my heir, as well. This is Ash Lynx.”

The young man at his side bows again, and Eiji finally gives him a good look, keeping Yut-Lung’s words in mind. He has messy, blond hair tied in a small ponytail just above his neck, and his green eyes are almost unnervingly piercing. There’s something familiar about his face…

“It’s wonderful to meet you both, Prince Lee, Prince Okumura,” he murmurs. His voice is low and his gaze, if possible, gets even more intense, and Eiji can’t help but stare, because there’s something just barely out of his grasp, and he…

It takes him staring for just a moment too long, but it clicks, and Eiji’s world comes crashing to a standstill. The blood roars in his ears and everything fades to grey—everything except those familiar, familiar green eyes.

He’s a ghost.

Aslan.

Even as he tries not to stare, not-Aslan stares right back at him, as if he’s drinking him in and won’t stop until he’s sated. Under the weight of his gaze, Eiji can’t breathe.

Yut-Lung will kill him, he knows, faintly, but if he stays here and looks at the ghost of his childhood best friend, his innocent little first love, he’ll burn up and die on the spot. He has to—he can’t breathe. He needs to get out of here, he can’t—Aslan died, so what business does this stranger have walking about with his face—

“I am sorry,” he gasps out, clawing his way back into the present. “I—I have to go—”

He turns and nearly stumbles in his haste to get to the door, but then it’s swinging closed behind him and he’s running, sprinting down the hall in a flurry of silks without looking back. His rooms are just around the corner; if he can get there he can bolt the door and hide and break down in peace, and once he’s gotten his feet back under him he can figure out how to apologize to Yut-Lung and then Ash Lynx, but right now he can’t breathe.

He’s fumbling with the key to his rooms when a hand closes on his shoulder, and he nearly screams as he whirls around and comes face-to-face with the ghost of his Aslan. “N-no, I—I really can’t—”

“Eiji,” Ash Lynx murmurs, taking both his hands and holding them so tight it nearly hurts. “Eiji, it’s me.”

Eiji gapes at him, then shakes his head frantically even as he clutches at his hands. It can’t be him. It can’t! He—he died on the day of the invasion! “N-no, no no no, you died! You can’t be here!”

“I am here,” Ash Lynx—Aslan—says, rubbing his thumbs over Eiji’s knuckles. He’s grown so much, Eiji thinks as tears well up in his eyes alarmingly fast. He’s the taller one now, with broad shoulders, broader than Griffin’s, even. And there’s a guarded sorrow in his eyes that was never there when they were children, and… and he’s here. “I finally found you. God. Finally…”

“You were dead,” Eiji whispers, sniffling, and the first hot tear escapes and rolls down his cheek. “You were dead.”

“Not quite.” Aslan lets go of one of his hands to brush the tear away, and his touch lingers. Eiji leans his face into his palm and squeezes his eyes shut. Aslan lets out a shuddering breath, thumb tracing a reverent line across his cheekbone. “Can we go somewhere private to talk, Birdie?”

It’s as if all the air was just punched out of his lungs. Eiji reels for a moment, stabilized only by the touch of Aslan’s hand on his. No one has called him “Birdie” in years. Not since the executions.

“This is—these are my apartments,” he manages, twisting around to look at his key, still stuffed into the lock without turning. “I… we can go here…”

“Sounds perfect,” Aslan says, and turns the key for him.

Once they’re inside, Eiji can’t help himself any longer. He reaches up, brushes tentative fingers against Aslan’s cheek, and discovers warm skin and a real, soft smile. Disbelief wars with desperate, fierce joy, and he feels himself trembling.

Aslan abruptly collapses to his knees like they can’t hold him anymore, and clutches at his hands again. “Eiji. Eiji, Eiji, Eiji, oh my god, I found you,” he breathes, and then he’s pressing soft, desperate kisses to Eiji’s fingers, his knuckles, his palms, tender and reverent. “I found you, I found you, I found you…”

“I’ve been here the whole time,” Eiji blurts out, absurdly, and sinks to the floor, holding Aslan’s hands so hard his knuckles turn white. “I—you lived? You—this whole time—you were—you were alive?”

“Yeah.” Aslan lets go of his hands. Eiji almost protests, but then he wraps his arms around him and pulls him close, holds him fiercely to his chest. Eiji melts against him, burying his face in his shoulder, and realizes with a start that he can feel his heart beating. “Alive, and trying to get to you.”

“You’re alive,” Eiji whispers, and the tears spill over in earnest. “You’re alive…”

“Oh, Eiji,” Aslan breathes, and he holds him so close the lines between them almost (almost) disappear. “I’m here now. It’s gonna be okay. I’m here, and I’m alive, and we’re gonna go home together. Everything’s gonna be okay.”

“How,” Eiji sobs into his shoulder. “How?! You—they—you weren’t moving, and they threw you into—they threw you into the moat, and—”

Aslan’s arms tighten around him. “I wasn’t completely dead when they did that. I don’t remember much about it, but Max… he found me and pulled me out of the water. He saved me. I wouldn’t be here without him.”

Eiji whips his head up so fast he nearly slams it into Aslan’s chin. “Max is alive, too?!”

“Max is alive,” Aslan confirms, and he cups Eiji’s cheek, his embrace melting into something tender. “Nahoko, too. Max saved both of us. We three lived together for a while, before…”

More hot tears spill down his cheeks. “Nahoko? She—I thought they killed her, too…”

Aslan sucks in a sharp breath. “They told you she died?”

“They told me they couldn’t find her.” Eiji suddenly clutches at him, and he tightens his arms around him again as Eiji buries his face in his shoulder. The carpet burns a little under his knees. “I figured that meant…”

“Oh, Birdie.” Aslan sighs. “No. Max got her. Max got both me and her out. She… they’ll both be really happy, when they hear that I finally found you.”

Eiji sniffles. “Found me?”

Aslan nods, leaning in close enough to press their foreheads together, and Eiji has to swallow another sob. “I’ve been trying to get to you this whole time. I missed you. I couldn’t just leave you in the fucking vipers’ nest all alone, Eiji, I had to come find you…”

“You came here for me?” Eiji whispers in disbelief, his voice cracking. It’s all too much—he starts to cry harder, burying his face in Aslan’s neck and clutching at his shirt. “Aslan, Aslan, I missed you, I m-missed you so—so much!”

“Shh, shh, it’s okay, it’s okay.” Aslan rubs his back. “I missed you too, Birdie, but I’m here now. Everything’s gonna be okay. It’s all gonna be okay. I’m gonna get you out of here, and everything’s gonna be okay.”

“I missed you,” Eiji sobs, again, fingers curling into fists in the back of Aslan’s shirt. He’s warm and he’s solid and he’s real, and Eiji is holding onto him so tight it probably isn’t comfortable, but he isn’t saying anything about it, and oh, god, he’s alive, and Nahoko is alive, and Max is alive, and oh god, Eiji missed him so much…

Aslan rubs his back some more, slow and deliberate. “Oh, Eiji… I missed you, too. I missed you, too. Shh. Don’t cry. It’s okay. I’m here, okay?”

Eiji laughs despite himself, then hiccups. “How c-can I not cry? I thought you were d-dead this—this whole time, and… and…”

Aslan threads his fingers into his hair, and Eiji melts against him, clinging fiercely. He cries for several minutes longer, just trying to wrap his mind around Aslan being alive, and here, in front of him, holding him. Max is alive, and Nahoko is alive, and Aslan is alive, and he came here to find him, and everything just feels far too good to be true. His mind keeps trying to find fault with the situation, like maybe this is all just a clever ploy, and he’s fallen for it, but…

But Aslan called him Birdie. Nobody else has ever called him Birdie. Aslan gave him that nickname when he was three, after hearing his mother call him little bird all the time. How would anyone else know it?

“You wanna move to the couch and get cozy?” Aslan asks, a few minutes later, still stroking his hair, looking at him like he can’t quite be real. “I feel like we’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

“Yeah,” Eiji says, looking up at him again, more carefully this time. He looks more worn, more guarded, than before, and there’s a hardness in his eyes that never used to be there, and there’s no trace of the soft baby fat in his cheeks anymore. His voice has deepened, and his shoulders broadened, but he’s still himself.

Still Eiji’s Aslan.

The thought makes his heart swell, and he reaches up to tuck a stray lock of hair behind Aslan’s ear. Aslan catches his hand and smiles, soft and sweet.

Eiji squeezes his hand and brings it to his lips, kissing his fingers just like Aslan did to him a few minutes ago. “Yes. I would like that,” he says. “I would like that a lot.”

Chapter Text

Six years ago.


 

“Eiji?”

Eiji doesn’t turn, even when Shorter takes a few steps closer. That’s worrisome; Eiji’s usually always polite, even when he’s sad. Which is more often than not.

Shorter touches his shoulder. “Hey, Eiji, what’s wrong?”

Eiji still doesn’t look at him. He’s a little slip of a thing, barely fourteen and looking like he’d melt into the shadows and vanish with the last of the daylight if he could. He’s staring out the window into the gloaming, arms wrapped tight around himself. “Why do you bother with me?”

“Huh?” Shorter blinks, then squeezes his shoulder. “Because you’re my friend. Why else?”

“Yut-Lung said…”

Shorter has to bite back a scathing comment. The youngest Prince Lee is quite opinionated, even at twelve, and constantly lashes out at Eiji at every opportunity he gets. “What did he say?”

“He said that grieving my family is basically showing sympathy to people who were traitors to the Lee empire.” Eiji breathes out a shaky sigh. “Today is the one year anniversary of the exec—of when my parents—and he said I should not miss them, because… he… hated his father. I think. I do not know. He just… he got mad at me for it.”

Shorter rolls his eyes and wraps his arm about Eiji’s shoulders, pulling him into his side. “Don’t listen to him. He’s a hypocrite. He still misses his mom.” 

Eiji sinks against him, lip trembling. “Then why would he say that to me?”

Probably because he wants Eiji to stop being sad, but he doesn’t know how to be decent to other people. Shorter swallows a sigh and reminds himself it’s not really Yut-Lung’s fault he’s being raised by his shitty brothers, but every time he has to help Eiji put his own pieces back together, the urge to give Yut-Lung a piece of his mind grows.

“Because he’s a little dipshit,” he says, instead of any of that. “And he doesn’t like thinking about the fact that his family is the reason yours is dead. So he wanted you to stop reminding him. It’s not your fault. Don’t let him get to you.”

“I am so tired,” and Eiji’s voice wobbles and cracks heartbreakingly as he turns and buries his face in Shorter’s chest. “Everyone is out to get me and I am so, so tired! I just want it all to stop.”

“Oh, Bunny.” Shorter hugs him close, rocks him back and forth like he’s a baby, and rubs his back as he starts to cry in earnest. “Oh, my poor little Bunny. It’s gonna be okay.”

“I do not want to live like this for the rest of my life,” Eiji sobs, hands clenching fistfuls of Shorter’s shirt as he gasps for air. “I cannot, I cannot—I would—I want my family! I want them back!”

Shorter’s heart squeezes painfully in his chest. “Oh, Eiji, I know you do. I’m so, so sorry. I’m sorry.”

Eiji lifts his head, and the tears streaking down his cheeks glimmer in the dim lamplight. Shorter gently wipes them away, and Eiji sniffles again. “Why did they have to attack us? We never hurt anyone.”

Shorter sighs and shakes his head. “I don’t know. It’s… how the empire works, I guess. Shitty reason, I know. I’m sorry.”

“I wish I could have at least died with them,” Eiji whispers. “Then I could still be with them, instead of this. I wish…”

He looks to the window again, longing, and Shorter’s heart stops.

“No, no no no, hold on, no way!” He tightens his arms around Eiji, pulls him back toward the center of the room, and pushes him down to the chaise to hold him close. “Eiji. Don’t you dare.”

“There’s nothing left for me, Shorter.” Eiji doesn’t fight him. It’s like there’s no fight in his body at all—he’s just limp and exhausted, like a broken doll. “I will be a pretty Lee puppet until they marry me off to whoever is convenient, and then I will be a pretty puppet of whoever that is, and then I will die. That is the life I have to look forward to. I might as well just die now and get it done with. Maybe, at least, then… I could see them again…”

Shorter is shaking his head before he’s even aware of it. “No, Eiji,” he insists, punctuating his words with a squeeze. “No. Don’t you dare.”

“Why?” Eiji sounds lost and sad and pitiful, and Shorter wants to march to Yut-Lung and scream. He might be a child, but he needs to know that his words have consequences, dammit!

“Because you’re my friend.” He rubs Eiji’s shoulders, then tips his head up and looks at him seriously. “You know that, right? You’re pretty much the only person at court here that treats me, Sing, and Nadia like we’re people too, instead of just servants. You’re important to us. You’re—”

Eiji bursts into tears all over again and buries his face in his neck. “I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry! I’m just so tired, I don’t—I don’t know what to do!”

“Rest,” Shorter answers, smoothing his hair down. “Cry it all out, Bunny. Just cry it out, and get some rest.”

He swallows the words he was about to say. They’re true, but right now is probably a bad time to say them. Not when Eiji is already hurting.

But they linger in the back of his mind, on the tip of his tongue, for the rest of the evening, as Eiji cries his heart out into his shoulder and clings to him like a lifeline. He just holds him and holds him and holds him, trying not to focus on how unfair the world can be, to do something like this to someone as genuine and kind as Eiji is, as four words dance around his thoughts and over and over try to spill out of his mouth.

You’re family to us, he doesn’t say. After all, the truth speaks for itself.


 

Present day.


 

A major perk of being the official court alchemist is that most of the time, Shorter has the freedom to do his own research, interrupted only by royal requests for tonics, serums, or the occasional potion. He makes testosterone regularly for Eiji and Sing, sure, but that’s not a particularly labor-intensive process. And most of the Lee brothers look down on him and his work, so the only one who makes regular requests is Yut-Lung, who often asks for a specially-brewed concoction to enhance the potency of the poisons in his garden.

Not that most people know he has a poison garden. But that’s a can of worms for another time.

This week’s batch of potency enhancer is simmering away in a reflux condenser, and Shorter adjusts the heater under it one last time before he steps back and rolls his shoulders. It’s still early in the day; most of the palace is still asleep, so everything is blissfully quiet. A bird chirps somewhere near one of the windows.

Thirty minutes. After it sits at reflux for thirty minutes, he needs to filter and dry the product, and then dissolve the resulting powder in water so Yut-Lung can dilute it for his plants as needed. Easy-peasy!

Until then, he heads to the tiny “apartment” that adjoins the lab; it’s got a small bed, a bathroom, and a cramped kitchen, plus a dining table piled high with notebooks. Sing refuses to believe him that the stacks are organized, but they are.

Thirty minutes is more than enough time to make and enjoy some tea, he figures, setting his lab coat aside and washing his hands. So long as he watches the clock, he can also sit down and start his calculations for the experiment he ran last week, which—

The door bursts open and nearly crashes into the far wall, and he startles and slams his knee into the countertop. “Shit!”

“Shorter!” Eiji stands silhouetted in the sun, beaming for a split-second before he gets almost comically concerned, mouth turning into a little round o. “Oh no! Are you okay? Did you get hurt?”

“Nah, s’fine,” Shorter manages, rubbing his knee and standing up straight again. “Good morning to you, too, huh. I was just about to make tea, d’you want some?”

“Sure!” Eiji closes the door, finally, and stands there instead of plopping onto the couch like normal. He’s practically bouncing on his feet, excited and happy, and Shorter eyes him, raising an eyebrow wordlessly. “And good morning! Yes! It is a very good morning!”

“Why’s that?” Shorter turns around to get the kettle on the stove. The way Eiji bounces when he’s excited (and taps his foot when he’s impatient) is why Shorter calls him Bunny; he certainly looks the part today, dressed in soft greys. “Something happen?”

“Yes!” Eiji hugs himself. “It’s amazing, it’s—I still can’t believe it!” He laughs brightly and hops over the back of the couch to get to the kitchen faster, where he grabs Shorter’s hands and spins the two of them.

“Careful!” Shorter tugs him to the side before he can smack his hip on a drawer handle and laughs. “Alright, alright. Spill it, Bunny. What’s up?”

Eiji laughs more brightly than the sun and looks up at him, the picture of pure delight. “Oh, Shorter! My Aslan is alive!”

Shock slams into him like a tidal wave, and he holds Eiji’s shoulders excitedly. That’s great! Eiji’s Aslan, surviving the invasion after all? That is good news! Shorter never met him, of course, but just knowing he’s out there somewhere, not dead, is gonna do wonders for Eiji’s guilt over his supposed death. “Wh—really? Are you sure? Shit, that’s great! How do you know?”

Eiji wiggles gleefully. “He is here!”

Shorter blinks. “Here, as in…?”

“In the palace!” Eiji clasps his hands together under his chin, then hugs himself again, like he can’t quite figure out what to do with himself. “Shorter Shorter Shorter, you have to meet him! He came here to find me!”

In the palace, here just to find Eiji… hm.

Hm.

Shorter wants to be happy for him, but…

Part of him is happy for Eiji. It’s so rare that he laughs like this. But the rest of him… he’s seen Eiji and his grief over the years, and he just wants to protect him. And this… it feels awfully convenient, especially right now, just as the plan Eiji and Yut-Lung have been concocting for years is finally going into action. Finding someone who could conceivably look like Aslan Callenreese, seven years later, would be difficult but not impossible, and Eiji being Eiji, he wouldn’t even question whether it’s really him or not, because he’d be too glad to see him again.

Someone could be putting a puppet under the name Aslan Callenreese into Eiji’s heart, and trying to use it to manipulate Eiji. It well may be one of King Wang-Lung Lee’s own schemes, to try and smoke out whether Eiji’s loyal enough to the Lees for raising him after his parents died. Who knows? Varishikov’s heir is a total stranger. He could well be a plant.

Maybe Wang-Lung is even trying to see if Eiji could be a suspect in Kam-Lung’s murder.

“Eiji,” he says delicately, turning away to pour the tea, “I’d love to meet him, but… how do you know it’s him?”

Eiji blinks, smile dimming as he accepts the cup Shorter passes him. “What do you mean?”

Shorter hesitates. He doesn’t want to ruin Eiji’s happiness so soon, but he has to ask. “I mean—anyone could show up and say hello, my name is Aslan Callenreese, right? How do you know it’s actually him?”

Eiji’s smile brightens again. “Oh! He… he called me Birdie. Only Aslan ever used to call me that, when we were little.”

“Oh,” Shorter says. “Yeah, that makes sense.”

The cynic in him says it doesn’t, not really, because an impostor could have found someone who used to know the Okumura family, or who used to work in their home, who could’ve told him details about how young Aslan acted around Eiji. He’s just not convinced—how could someone survive being thrown into a moat, unconscious and bleeding out?

“Yes!” Eiji giggles. “Oh, Shorter, he told me he came searching for me, so he could make sure I am okay and safe! He—this whole time, he was thinking of me, too. He wanted to find me…”

“That’s really sweet,” Shorter murmurs. It’s hard to quash his worries, even for the sake of letting Eiji be happy for a few minutes longer. “When did you say I should meet him?”

“We can all have tea together!” Eiji claps his hands. “You can come to my apartments this afternoon? I have an excuse to call him, because I—well, when I saw him in the meeting yesterday, I ran away, so now my excuse is that I owe him an apology for my rudeness,” and he laughs.

Shorter stares at him for a second before he catches himself. He doesn’t think he’s ever seen Eiji laugh this much, not in all the time they’ve known each other.

“Yeah, okay,” he says, just a heartbeat late. “That sounds good. Want me to come by around three?”

“Sure!” Eiji bobs his head. “Yut-Lung and I are going to be with the King and the other Princes for a little while, but hopefully I will be done by three. I told Aslan to come by around four, though, so you can come early if you like; I will tell my attendants I am expecting you.”

“I might do that.” Shorter ruffles his hair. “You have comfier couches than I do, Bunny.”

Eiji swats his hand and laughs again. “Yes, yes, fine. I need to go soon, though; the Lee meeting is to talk about the funeral, and Yut-Lung wants me there just … because he does.” He huffs, wrinkles his nose, and shrugs. “I am sure it will be fine. It is not like I will be expected to give input.”

Shorter swallows a sigh. “Yeah, well. What else is new, right? Sky’s blue, grass’s green, Yut-Lung’s an asshole.”

“He’s not that bad,” Eiji defends.

Shorter gives him a skeptical look. “Yeah, and my hair’s not that purple.”

Eiji scrunches his nose up petulantly. “Well… you have not reapplied the color in a while, so—”

“Oh, fuck outta here with that,” Shorter scoffs, grabbing the end of his ponytail and dusting him across the cheeks with it like it’s a broom. Eiji squawks indignantly and wobbles and leans precariously backwards to get away, but Shorter doesn’t let him. “My hair is purple as hell, and Yut-Lung is a dick. Accept it!”

“Shooorteeeerr,” Eiji wails, trying to shield himself with his arms as Shorter grabs him around the waist to keep him from escaping and squishes his cheek with the other hand. “You are bullying me!”

“It’s for your own good!” Shorter lets go of his ponytail and tweaks his nose. “You’re in denial!”

“He is my friend!” Eiji protests.

Shorter just raises an eyebrow.

“…Sometimes,” Eiji amends. “When he wants to be.”

“Yeah.” Shorter rolls his eyes and finally releases him. “That’s not what friends are really like, Bunny.”

Eiji puffs out his cheeks. “It… is easier to be his friend than to insist he be mine,” he says after a few seconds, biting his lip. “It is not worth the energy. He… he has his own issues to work through, anyway, so the way he treats me is not really important compared to everything else.”

“A shit childhood isn’t a reason to treat others like shit.” Shorter gently pokes his chin, a reminder not to bite his lips. “It’s an excuse. But I get you. Choosing your battles is important. Just… remember that real friendships aren’t… The way he treats you isn’t real friendship. Okay?”

Eiji sighs. “I know. I just wish it could be.”

“He has to want to be friends with you, too, Bunny,” Shorter reminds him, softening. “If he doesn’t, that’s his fuckin’ problem, yeah? Shit taste. But it’s not your fault. You know he has his own… uh… he’s working through his own bullshit, and I think it’ll be awhile ‘til he realizes that pushing people away all the time isn’t a sustainable way to live, but. Whatever.” He shrugs, pulls Eiji into his arms, and pats his shoulder. “That’s on him to figure out. And I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I’ll say it again, but seriously—you don’t need to spend time hoping he’ll realize he’s fucking himself over. Let him take what time he needs, and take that time for yourself. Okay?”

Eiji lays his head on his shoulder. They’ve both grown a lot since they first met, but sometimes Shorter can’t help but think of that first day, when he ran into the Lee family’s new ward sobbing his eyes out in a corner of the courtyards. Eiji is smart, and capable, and independent, but sometimes, Shorter still looks at him and just wants nothing more than to protect him.

“I know I cannot make him change,” Eiji says, “but… I wish he would. I wish he and I could be real friends. Sometimes I think we are finally getting there, and then he says something else and it reminds me that no matter how wishful my thinking is, he does not actually want me for myself. Just because I am useful to him.”

“Maybe one step forward and two steps back is his way of making progress.” Shorter squeezes him tight. “One of these days, he’ll realize what he’s been missing out on this whole time. Maybe it’ll be too late, by then, but one day he’ll find the way to get his head outta his own ass.”

Success! That gets a laugh out of Eiji. Shorter lets him go, smooths his mussed hair back down, and offers a little, sincere smile.

“No matter what happens out there, today or whenever, I’ve got your back, ‘kay?” He claps Eiji’s shoulder. “Now you better run along so you’re not late to that meeting. I’ll see you in a couple hours, yeah?”

“Yeah.” Eiji smiles back, the bright warmth from earlier rekindling behind his eyes. “Thank you, Shorter. See you!”

With a parting wave, he hurries back outside, leaving Shorter alone with his tea and the stacks of notebooks and the last of the morning silence. It’s just as well. Silence is conducive to contemplation, and he has a lot to think about.


“I just… I dunno.” Shorter blows out a frustrated breath and stares out the window at the sunlight streaming down onto the grounds. “I can’t tell if it’s genuinely weird or if I’m just being overly paranoid.”

On the other end of the couch, his sister considers that for a moment before she shakes her head. “No, I don’t think you’re being paranoid. It’s… the timing is what has me primarily concerned. It just seems strange, given the accident. I wonder if the King is trying to test Eiji’s loyalty.”

The accident.

Right.

The extremely accidental, not-at-all premeditated death of Kam-Lung Lee. Yup. Super accidental, definitely unintentional. Absolutely.

It’s weird, keeping secrets from Nadia, when she’s the one who practically raised him all on her own. But he knows he has to. The only reason Yut-Lung let Eiji tell him about the conspiracy is that he’s court alchemist, and if they’re ordered to speak under truth serum, he has to be on their side so that he can create a null batch. It’ll be execution for treason for sure, if he’s caught.

So—the less Nadia knows, the safer she is.

“I was wondering that, too,” he says, instead of any of that. “It’d be hard but not impossible to find someone who looks like Aslan Callenreese might have if he survived, and if anyone has the resources to pull something like that off, it’d be the King. Having him show up right after Prince Kam-Lung died is… I don’t feel too comfortable about that.”

“Neither do I.” Nadia pulls her legs up under herself and folds her arms. “Especially because of how Eiji always said his Aslan died. Even assuming his memories might have been foggy because of the trauma of it all… he was sorely wounded and thrown into a moat while unconscious. Practically the only way I can think of that someone would survive that would be magic, but where in the world would a Callenreese have gotten magic that strong?”

“Well… Eiji did say Griffin was their knight commander because of his battle magic,” Shorter concedes, chewing at his lip thoughtfully. “But he never suggested it was strong enough for something like that. I dunno, Nadia… I’ve never seen battle magic in person, so I can’t say.”

“I’ve seen it, once.” Nadia sighs. “I didn’t get the impression that it’d save the user if they already were so close to death, but who knows? I’m no expert, either.”

“I’m just worried about Eiji,” Shorter mutters, steering the conversation back to its main topic. “If this guy really is an impostor pretending to be Aslan Callenreese, he’s gonna be crushed.

“Yes.” Nadia sighs again and glances at the clock. She’s gotta get back to the kitchens soon; preparations for the royal family’s luncheon need to begin. “If this Aslan Callenreese is an impostor, I can take care of Eiji. But you… you need to take care of him.”

Shorter smiles humorlessly. “Oh, trust me. If he hurts even a hair on Eiji’s head, I’ll kick his ass into next month.”

“I don’t want to have to wait until next month to find out who sent him, Shorter,” Nadia deadpans. “Make sure you ask first.”

Shorter snorts.

“You’re having lunch with them both, right?” Nadia asks, sitting up properly and slipping her feet back into her sandals. “You can size him up then and see how he is around Eiji. And around Eiji’s friend.”

“Tea this afternoon,” Shorter corrects, “but yeah. That’s my plan. I was kinda thinking maybe I should… I dunno… Eiji said that he said he came here looking for him. If he really did, I wanna know why. Can’t just be that they were such good friends he decided to walk into the snakes’ nest just to say hi again.”

“Sure, but then again, you would do that for Eiji,” Nadia points out, not unfairly.

Shorter shrugs and inclines his head to admit yeah, she’s right. “I’d do a lot of stupid shit for Eiji. So would you.”

She laughs lightly and nods. “You’re not wrong. He’s basically my favorite little brother.”

Shorter squawks. “Hey!”

Nadia snorts, flicks his forehead, and stands. “I need to be getting back to work. But thanks for telling me about this. Let me know how tea goes, will you?”

“Oh, definitely.” Shorter rolls his shoulders, stretches, and gets to his feet, too. He’s getting a bit of an idea… which means he should go hunt Sing down soon. Maybe right after tea. Yeah, there’s no time to finish it before tea, but maybe at tea he can suggest they do tea or a picnic or something again tomorrow, and he can put his idea into practice then… yeah, that should work. Eiji’s gonna say yes, no doubt about it. “I hope… For Eiji’s sake, at least, I hope this guy is the real deal. And that he’s really here ‘cuz he loves Eiji, and that his timing is just a coincidence.”

“I hope so, too.” Nadia purses her lips. “But we can’t survive on just hope. We need something of substance, too.”

“I know.” It’s one of her favorite sayings. Shorter has heard it many times before. “I think I might be able to get us some stuff of sustenance, though. Not today, but probably tomorrow…”

Nadia raises an eyebrow. “You’re going to make serum?”

“Yeah.” Shorter sighs. “But I’ll need Sing to help me out, ‘cuz I need to fiddle with the potency enough that pre-prepared clever answers that just barely answer the question on a technicality won’t work. If he’s a spy I’m sure he’ll have those on hand.”

“Oh, absolutely.” Nadia looks relieved, Shorter notes. Was she wondering if he was planning to simply meet the guy and form an opinion from that, without any empirical evidence? Please. Give him some credit here. He’s a scientist. “That’s why it’ll be tomorrow?”

“Yeah.” Shorter heads to the door, then pauses, hand on the knob. “Need some time to perfect the concentration. Which is why I gotta go hunt Sing down. He can start the basic prep while I’m at tea, and we can work on the rest afterwards. Later, sis!”

“Good luck with tea,” Nadia calls after him as he leaves, and he raises a hand in acknwoedgement.

Now, where is his apprentice?


 

Once Sing’s gotten the basic prep started, Shorter leaves him to it and rakes a comb through his hair once before heading for Eiji’s suite. Fuck it, it’s good enough.

Eiji’s attendants have indeed been told to expect him, because the one standing by his receiving room door merely nods in greeting and gestures inward. Shorter nods back and pushes the door open. It’s heavy enough to swing shut on its own behind him, and he strolls on in.

He’s expecting the room to be empty.

It’s not.

He balks and stops short in his tracks halfway to his usual sofa, staring at its occupant, who stares right back at him.

This must be the so-called Aslan Callenreese. He’s certainly handsome, with broad shoulders under a ruffly cream shirt and a dark green velvet coat, and there’s an almost ethereal beauty in the fine features of his face. His eyes are bright and unnervingly piercing. Damn.

“You must be Shorter Wong,” he says, breaking the silence first. Shorter presses his lips together slightly, displeased at being so taken aback that he ceded the opening move. “Eiji told me he wanted me to meet you.”

“Yeah?” Shorter saunters to the opposite couch and sprawls out comfortably. Is it a dick move to make it clear that he’s at ease around Eiji, and that Eiji trusts him? Because this guy better know that if he tries to pull anything on Eiji, Shorter’s gonna beat his ass. “He mentioned as much to me this morning, too. Assuming you are Aslan Callenreese.”

Aslan raises one delicate eyebrow with the slightest hint of a smile. “Yes. Though you can call me Ash Lynx. Most people do. Especially as most people don’t know who I am. Eiji must trust you a lot.”

With just those six words, Shorter feels jolted out of his depth. He’s an alchemist, not a politician, and he’s never learned how to play the word games of all the nobility. Whether Ash Lynx really is who he says he is or not, he’s well-equipped to play his part. Shorter shouldn’t underestimate him.

Eiji must trust you a lot, as if he’s the one closest to Eiji who gets to make these lofty observations. Clever.

If he wants to brag about his closeness to Eiji, his satisfaction will be short-lived. Shorter can outdo him in a heartbeat.

“He does,” Shorter says after a moment. “Eiji and I don’t let secrets lie between us.”

“Is that so.” Ash considers that for a heartbeat, head tilting to the side. A lock of fine golden hair falls across his face, and absently he reaches up to tuck it behind his ear. “That does make sense. You’re the court alchemist. If anyone can get truth out of someone, it’d be you.”

Shorter laughs incredulously. “Are you suggesting I drug him just to make sure I know what he’s up to? Dude. It’s not that deep. He’s my friend.”

Ash inclines his head. “I know he is. I meant that you’re an important ally for him to have, given what he’s gotten himself into, here. Though—I have to wonder, if you’re as close to him as you say… why would you let him get himself into a mess like this to begin with?”

A mess like—is he talking about the assassinations?

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Shorter says stiffly, almost looking back at the door but catching himself at just a slight turn of the head. He can’t indicate that there’s something incriminating to be overheard, but at the same time, if that attendant overhears…

“There’s no need to play coy,” Ash says. “Eiji told me everything. And don’t worry about eavesdropping. No one can hear what we’re saying.”

“How can you be sure?” Shorter looks at him suspiciously. “And frankly, I don’t know what you mean. What’s there to tell?”

His heart is pounding. He can’t confirm anything. Eiji told me everything is such a vague sentence! What if Ash Lynx really is a spy from Wang-Lung just trying to get Shorter to spill Eiji’s secrets by pretending he has Eiji’s confidence?

“Oh my god,” Ash mutters. “Nobody can hear anything from within this room, ‘kay? And seriously. You know about Eiji and Yut-Lung’s plan. Eiji told me, and he told me you know. Don’t play dumb.”

Shorter’s eyebrows shoot up. Eiji told him? And what if he’s just insisting nobody can hear anything to get Shorter’s guard down so he can get his partner on the outside to jot down notes on their conversation to take to the King’s spies? What if…

“Look,” Ash says, and holds up one hand. He snaps his fingers, and there’s a little sparkle around his fingertips, and—

The world goes silent.

Shorter gapes at him for a moment, then tries to say what the hell except he stops, choking on the first word because he can’t hear his own voice even though he can feel it vibrating in his throat, and white hot panic rises up in his chest. He can’t hear anything. Not his own breaths, not the sound of his voice, not the scrape of his fingernails against the upholstery on the sofa as he clenches his fists—nothing.

And then it all comes back with a pop.

“What,” he forces out, trying to get his heart rate back to normal, “the fuck.”

“Didn’t look like you were gonna believe me any other way,” Ash says, shrugging. “Sorry for the worry. But again: nobody can hear what’s being said in this room.”

“You have magic?”

Ash grins, suddenly smug. “That’s right. You get it now?”

Shorter blows out a breath slowly and takes a moment to steady himself. Then he meets Ash’s eyes and pins him with the hardest stare he can. “Don’t ever use a spell on me again without asking first.”

Ash sighs. “Yeah, yeah, I said sorry. But sure. I won’t.”

“You better not,” Shorter warns, “or Eiji will be disappointed in you.”

A look of almost comic indignance passes over Ash’s face. “I—he’s not—it’s not like—I’m just—”

“You deny it ‘cuz I’m right.” Shorter lays his hands back down in his lap and relaxes against the back of the sofa. Getting Ash spluttering sure seems to have knocked him down a few pegs, from lofty magical knight—and Shorter wonders what in the world that spell was, what kind of magic, because magic is rare enough on its own but something like silencing spells? He’s never heard of them—to just another guy, human like any other.

He’s a lot more likable when he’s just a guy, Shorter thinks. He can almost see them eventually being friends, right now.

Almost, because he’s still pissed about the silencing spell.

“Yeah, right.” Ash scoffs and crosses his arms. “Whatever. Anyway. I was trying to ask you about this whole… scheme Eiji’s gotten himself into.”

Shorter raises an eyebrow. “You’re gonna have to be more specific than that, dude.”

Ash frowns. “Why’s that? You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

“Yeah, maybe I do, maybe I don’t.” Shorter shrugs. “But for all I know, you’re not really Aslan Callenreese, and you’re here pretending to be someone Eiji misses just to test whether he’s really loyal to the Lees or not, and you’ll go report to Wang-Lung at the end of the day. And regardless of what I do or don’t know, or Eiji’s loyalty, that’s just cruel. So if you’re here just to hurt him—”

“What the fuck,” Ash hisses. “They do that to him? They tell him some of us survived just to test him?”

Shorter surveys him impassively. He certainly looks incensed, fingers digging into a cushion like a leopard’s claws, but anyone can learn to act. “Sure. You seem surprised. How do you think they’ve gotten such a huge empire? By being empathetic and sweet to every little prince whose family they murder?”

“They already killed his parents and kidnapped him,” Ash seethes. “And they have to psychologically torture him, too, while they’re at it? God, what the fuck! He didn’t mention that.”

“He doesn’t like to think about it.” Shorter shrugs. “And it’s been a couple years since it last happened, anyway, so—”

“They did that to him when he was a kid?!”

“Again,” Shorter deadpans. “Empire. Dunno why you’re so shocked about it.”

“I’m not surprised,” Ash corrects, his breath hissing out in a venomous sigh. “But he’s already had to suffer so much that I had hoped he’d be spared.” He drops his face into one hand for a moment, rakes his fingers through his hair, and shakes his head. “What… happened?”

Shorter purses his lips. “They had a servant tell him she was actually a refugee from Unshu who was now in the service of the Lees to feed her family. He wanted to speak Unshuan with her, even though they told him he’s forbidden from speaking it to anyone. She reported on him, just as she was ordered to, and Hua-Lung beat him black and blue. I was the one in charge of making sure he healed up okay.” He pauses. “He was fifteen.”

Ash clenches his fist into the cushion so hard Shorter half-wonders if it’ll have puncture marks. “Fucking hell! And—god, I’m so fucking—those bastards!”

Shorter nods. Waits. “So now maybe you see why I’m hesitant to trust you are who you say you are, for his sake, if nothing else. And why I’m not gonna tell you anything until I’m sure you won’t hurt him.”

Ash stares at him for a long, long moment. “I would rather die,” he finally says. “But I’m glad you’re trying to protect him. He deserves people who look out for him.”

“He does,” Shorter agrees. “I very much want to believe you’re one of them. But Eiji’s convinced you are already, which means I have to be the skeptic.”

Ash slowly releases the cushion. “What would I have to do to convince you I’m not here on anyone’s behalf but his?”

Shorter snorts. “You answered your own question already, buddy. I’m the court alchemist. Come by my place tomorrow afternoon and I’ll have truth serum ready. Drink it, swear that what you told me today is true, and I’ll trust you on it.”

Ash narrows his eyes for a moment, then nods once, stiff and sharp. “Fine.”

“And don’t tell Eiji,” Shorter adds, as an afterthought. “Or you can, but I’d rather you didn’t. Just… because he’s happy you’re here. And I don’t want that to be ruined if it doesn’t have to be.”

Ash nods again. “Agreed.”

“But if you tell me what—”

Before he can finish, the door opens again, and he quickly cuts himself off as Eiji enters, a soft smile blooming across his face. “Shorter! Aslan! I am so sorry to keep you both waiting!”

“Don’t worry about it!” Shorter waves a hand.

“We weren’t waiting long,” Ash assures.

Eiji looks between them both happily, then plops down on the sofa next to Ash. Shorter has to stuff down a twinge of jealousy—normally Eiji snuggles up with him when they have tea together. But, he supposes, if he had a presumed-dead childhood friend show up, and he was certain it really was them, he’d be all over them, too.

“I am so glad you both already met and started talking!” Eiji says, tucking himself under Ash’s arm and beaming. “Are you friends now?”

Shorter and Ash exchange dubious glances.

“Yes,” Shorter says after a moment, because that’s the answer that’ll make Eiji happiest.

“He already invited me to have lunch with him tomorrow,” Ash adds. There’s a softness in his face that wasn’t there before, as he looks down at Eiji, and part of Shorter is relieved despite himself. Either the guy’s a really good actor, or he might really be genuine. Even if it doesn’t explain the timing.

Eiji gasps. “Really?! Oh, that makes me so happy!”

Whatever, Shorter thinks to himself. He’ll have answers tomorrow. For now, Eiji’s laughing and bright and happy like he deserves, and that’s more than enough for him.


 

“Shorter! Yo!” Sing perks up as soon as Shorter shoulders the door open and walks back into the lab. “How’d it go? Who’s the guy?”

“Well…” Shorter rolls his shoulders, locks the lab door, and tosses his light jacket to a couch in favor of his lab coat. “He sure says he’s Aslan Callenreese. And from the way he behaved, he’s either telling the truth or he’s a damn good actor. But I’m still not sure.”

Sing puffs out his cheeks. “What do you mean?”

“I mean we still need to find out the truth, from his mouth.” Shorter shrugs his lab coat on and comes to stand by Sing at the bench, watching the condenser bubble. “How long’s it been on?”

Sing glances at the clock on the wall. “Fifty-three minutes.”

Just seven to go, then. “Alright, sweet. You’ll help me adjust potency, yeah?”

Sing scrunches up his face. “You already asked me that, Shorter. And I already said yes.”

“Okay, look,” Shorter complains, lightly elbowing him. “I have had a long day, and I didn’t ask to come back here to your sass, buddy, so—”

Sing interrupts him with a very prim, “No horseplay allowed in the lab.”

Laughter wells up in Shorter’s chest despite everything, and he reaches over to tweak Sing’s nose. “Right, right. My bad. I see I’ve taught you well.”

“I might as well be the real court alchemist around here,” Sing laments. “At least I know how to organize my papers…”

Shorter snorts. “Hey, rude. They are organized. Not my fault if you can’t see that.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

They lapse into a companionable silence, standing shoulder-to-shoulder and watching water bubble through the condenser as the proto-serum boils. Shorter still remembers the day Sing learned that reflux condenser tubes have dual compartments. He was shook. It was hysterical, like the idea just never occurred to him before, and he assumed the water just flowed upwards for vague, mystical, undisclosed reasons.

Like magic.

Shorter’s fingers twitch on their own to drum against the lab bench, just to reassure him that they make noise when they do, and that he can hear it. A bird twitters outside, water flows down the hose into the sink, and his fingers tap out a rhythm.

A heartbeat passes.

Two.

“He has magic.”

Sing takes so long to look up at him that for a split second, he wonders if he didn’t actually speak out loud at all. “Who does? Callenreese?”

Shorter nods. “Yeah. At least decently powerful, too.”

“What the hell,” Sing mutters. “Magic is rare as hell but we’ve got two of them popping up right here? First Eiji, now him… What kind’s he have?”

Shorter purses his lips, displeased. “That’s—”

“You look like Nadia when you do that,” Sing comments. “That’s kinda funny.”

Shorter frowns. “Do what?”

“You make the same face as she does when she doesn’t like something!” Sing laughs. “You’ve never noticed?”

Shrugging, Shorter glances back down to the serum. It’s starting to go from milky-white to clear; good, that’s where it should be. “Wow, Sing. It’s almost like we’re related or something.”

This time, Sing elbows him.

“No horseplay, oh great court alchemist.”

“I’m just following my master’s example.” Sing grins, then cocks his head to one side like a curious puppy. “What were you saying, though? His magic?”

“I don’t know what it was.” Shorter blows his dissatisfaction out in a sigh. He hates not knowing things. “Just that he can do silencing spells. At least two at a time. He muted—at least he said he muted, anyway—Eiji’s receiving room, so no one outside could hear what we were talking about, and while he was doing that, he… also blocked out my ability to hear, to prove to me that he could.”

Sing lets out a tiny strangled wheeze before finding his voice. “What the fuck?”

“Language,” Shorter reminds him. “Nadia’ll have my ass if you talk like that in front of her.”

“Says the guy who just said she’d have his ass,” Sing snarks back. “What kind of magic lets…. I’ve never heard of layered silence spells. What’s up with that?”

“I dunno!” Shorter gives him a look. “You’re the magic nerd. I thought you’d know.”

Sing shrugs and hums an I dunno. “Beats me. I guess I can go poke through the library sometime.”

“Also ask Eiji,” Shorter adds. “Next time you get the chance. Ask him if Aslan has always had magic. I don’t know if I trust this.”

“His brother had battle magic,” Sing offers. “And you know it runs in families, so it’s totally possible he might have inherited it, too.”

Shorter levels him a skeptical look. “Battle magic doesn’t sound to me like it covers silencing spells.”

Sing crosses his arms and frowns at the lab bench. “Yeah,” he agrees thoughtfully. “It doesn’t. God, why isn’t this weird to Eiji? Doesn’t he think it’s at all suspicious? I would’ve thought last time would fuck him up for good about stuff like this.”

Last time—yeah, that was definitely, uh… ouch. Shorter didn’t see the actual beating—only Eiji and Hua-Lung were in the room when it happened—but he was ordered to make salves to help the bruises and welts heal faster without scarring, and god, he doesn’t think he’ll ever forget walking into Eiji’s quarters and seeing him like that. Lying on the floor, shirtless, his entire back angry and red and bleeding and raw from a belt, with the shape of Hua-Lung’s boot bruised into his side.

“Yeah, I would’ve thought so too,” he answers quietly, “but last time itself he told me it wouldn’t.”

Sing gives him a funny look. “What’s that mean?”

Shorter sighs. Even now, it’s hard to think about Eiji clutching his hand and crying from his bed, unable to move without searing pain but desperate for some kind of comfort. “He’s… he told me even if it happens again, he has to keep believing, ‘cuz he’s scared that if a time comes and he doesn’t, that’ll be the day it really was someone from his home.”

Sing deflates. “Oh.”

“Yeah.” Shorter pats his shoulder. “He… he’s coping as best as he can. That’s why we just gotta protect him, yknow? To make sure nothing like that can happen to him again.”

“Yeah.” Sing still looks unsettled. He was so little when that whole thing happened—only ten, and still innocent—and Nadia and Shorter tried to shelter him from it as much as possible. He only realized the nature of Eiji’s “accident” years later. “Yeah, I know. It’s just…”

“We do what we can,” Shorter says gently. “No more, no less.”

“It still fucking sucks,” Sing mutters. “Don’t you dare say ‘language’ or I’ll tell Nadia myself.”

Shorter laughs. “It does. But hey—that’s why we all have each other. To lean on. Speaking of which, seven minutes are up, yeah? Let’s take it off the heat.”

They remove the flask of serum, now completely clear, from the hot plate and set it in an ice bath. Once it’s cool enough to touch, Shorter carefully takes a pipette and makes a dilute solution, one part serum to five parts water.

Now for the trial-and-error part.

“Here,” he says, passing the vial to Sing. “Bottoms up.”

Sing sniffs it once, then carefully tips his head back and drinks it. “Ugh. Kinda bitter.”

“Yeah, well. Whaddya do.” Shorter waits a few seconds. “Feel anything?”

“Not really.” Sing considers. “Am I supposed to?”

“Tell me it tasted like bananas,” Shorter suggests.

Sing makes a face but dutifully makes his attempt. “It tasted—it—mgh—mmph—eugh! What the hell?”

Shorter is a good teacher and Sing is a good student and does not deserve to be mocked, which is the literal only reason Shorter doesn’t start laughing at the faces he just made on the spot. It’s an uphill battle.

“Okay,” he says instead, willing his lips not to twitch. “So I’m guessing it felt like something that time.”

Sing nods. “Felt like my throat was closing up.”

“Alright, that’s how it’s supposed to feel. Nice, we got it right!” Shorter holds up his hand for a high five, which Sing returns enthusiastically. “Cool, okay. Now for potency. Try to answer as vaguely as possible, ‘kay? Uh… let’s see… aha. What do you think about Eiji?”

Sing considers that for a moment, then says, “He’s nice.”

Shorter blinks. “…That’s it?”

Sing shrugs. “Yeah. Looks like this isn’t that strong. Maybe if you give me a little higher concentration?”

“Sounds like we gotta do that,” Shorter agrees, and picks up the flask again. This time, he dilutes it only to one part serum and two parts water, stirring carefully for several seconds to make sure it’s thorough. “Okay. Ready?”

Sing just holds out a hand. “Yup!”

He downs it faster this time, then makes another disgusted face and scrubs his hand across his mouth. “Ew, that’s way worse this time!”

“We all thank you for your sacrifices in the name of scientific advancement,” Shorter teases. He waits a few moments again to make sure the serum has the time to take effect, then asks the same question again: “So, what do you think of Eiji?”

A momentary look of pure horror dawns in Sing’s eyes for a split second before he bursts out, “He’s really sweet! He’s probably the most genuine person in this entire court and he’s always so careful to be kind to everyone he ever talks to, even if it’s servants or villagers from the tiniest town in the middle of nowhere, and I really admire that about him. I wish the Lees were better to him, ‘cuz he’s sad all the time and I hate that he’s sad because he’s such a good person and—”

“Holy shit,” Shorter mutters.

“—and he deserves to be happy! He’s also so, so handsome, especially when he leaves his hair down and goes to the gardens, ‘cuz he smiles most when he’s in the gardens. He also gives really good hugs and he smells nice, like jasmine! It made me really start liking the smell of jasmine a lot more. He’s just so good, like… I don’t even know how to put it into words! He’s always so nice and he has the best smile of anyone I’ve ever seen and I wish I could make him smile more. Because he deserves to be happy. I hope I can make him happy. And—”

“Whoa there, tiger!” Shorter cuts in. “Okay, okay. I get you! You’re good. It’s okay. Uh. Holy fuck, Sing.”

Sing closes his mouth, completely red, and stares at him for several seconds. “Don’t you dare say anything.”

“I wasn’t—I mean I am, but, uh. Wow. Wow!” Shorter tries his hardest to swallow an incredulous laugh. It comes out as a tiny giggle. How long has Sing been trying to hide this giant crush on Eiji? He can’t ask, not right now, but holy shit!

“Don’t!” Sing glares, getting even redder, if possible. “Where’s the antidote!”

Shorter looks around. “I dunno. Did you start brewing one when I told you to?”

“No, I forgot,” Sing blurts out, then realizes what he just said. Horror flashes across his face again. “Oh, fuck! Shorter, I h—hope you step in something unpleasant, you asshole—”

“Hey, I’m not the one who didn’t make an antidote despite knowing I was about to be a guinea pig.” Shorter covers his grin with one hand but finally gives up on suppressing his laughter. “God, Sing! Okay. Okay, let’s get that brewing already. But in the meantime are you—”

“Don’t or I will tell Nadia on you!” Sing shrieks. “Don’t finish that question!”

“Okay, okay, I won’t!” Shorter ruffles his hair and then taps the table, getting back down to business. “Go wash out these vials, I’ll get the antidote started. You poor fool.”

“You’re a jerk,” Sing says, and then looks momentarily delighted. “Ha! See? It’s the truth!”

“Rude!”


 

Ash Lynx arrives on Shorter’s doorstep at precisely half-past-three, just as agreed. He’s punctual, Shorter will give him that.

“Hey,” he greets, opening the door and stepping back to gesture inside. “Welcome to the alchemist’s cottage. Tea’s ready, and there’s some chocolate and strawberry pastries over there—the strawberry cream tarts are especially good—if you want a snack. Don’t touch the notebooks.”

Ash surveys the room with interest, eyes lingering on the closed lab door for a moment before he settles onto the couch and leans forward to take a strawberry tart from the stand Nadia sent over. “Sure. Thanks.”

Shorter gets the teapot and pours two cups, brings them to the coffee table, and settles down. “So I figure you wanna just get straight to the point.”

“Yeah.” Ash takes a bite of the tart and blinks. “Shit, that is really good. Wow. Anyway, yeah, let’s get on with it.”

“I’ll tell my sister you’re a fan,” Shorter says dryly.

“Your sister made ‘em?”

Shorter nods as he leans over and picks up the vial he prepared last night. “Here it is. Truth serum. Drink it and tell me who you are and what your intentions toward Eiji are, and then I have the antidote ready. Sound good?”

Ash considers that for a long moment, green eyes cool and calculating as he puts the tart down. “Theoretically, yeah. But how do I know that you’re not a Lee agent and now that Eiji told you the truth about who I am, you’re not just trying to poison me to get rid of someone who might try to turn him against the King?”

“I coulda poisoned the tea or the tarts,” Shorter points out. “It’s not poison.”

“You could have,” Ash agrees. “But humor me. I have reason to be suspicious, too, you know. The Lees would kill me on sight if they found out who I really am.”

Shorter inclines his head, conceding the point. “Fair enough.”

He puts the vial back down and gets a second one, pours about a third of it into the new one, and downs it in one sip. It’s bitter, and it burns his throat as it goes down, making his eyes water; he sets the empty vial down and holds the original back out to Ash again.

“This is truth serum,” he says. “And I can’t lie about that.”

Ash seems satisfied. He takes the vial and knocks it back like a shot, not even commenting on the taste, and clears his throat. “Alright. You want my whole life story or what?”

Shorter shrugs. “The more detail you give me, the more I’ll believe you, but I mean, it’s truth serum. Up to you.”

Ash snorts. “You want detail? Fine. My name is Aslan Jade Callenreese, younger brother of Griffin Callenreese, who was the Knight Commander for House Okumura until the Lees invaded. My brother saved Queen Nozomi’s life, and as a boon, asked that Eiji and I be betrothed to ensure my future would be good. I was two and Eiji was four. All my life, he’s been my best friend.”

“How’d you survive the invasion?” Shorter interrupts. “Eiji told me they beat you unconscious and threw you into the moat to drown, if you were still alive.”

Ash blows out a breath. “Well, they did, but my brother’s fiancé was nearby. He told me he saw me fall and pulled me out of the water. I only woke up the next day, when we were on the road.”

“Where did you go?”

Ash’s face hardens almost imperceptibly. “Ecolisina. There’s a small town not far from the Unshuan border where Max took us to hide and heal. It’s where I spent the next several years.”

Shorter shifts. “You said ‘us’. Who else did Max take?”

“Eiji’s little sister.” Ash softens again. “Nahoko.”

Shorter’s eyebrows shoot up. “Nahoko’s alive? Does Eiji know?”

The look on Ash’s face can only be described as scathing. “Of course Eiji knows! You think I’d come all this way and not tell him Max and Nahoko are safe and waiting for him to come home?”

“Well, I dunno what to expect from you, dude. Not like I’ve ever met you before.” Shorter nabs a chocolate éclair from Nadia’s pastry tray and takes a bite. “So. How’d you get from a small town in Ecolisina here? And why’d you come with Varishikov?”

“Blanca was my ticket here,” Ash answers. He sips his tea and contemplates the pastry tray for a moment before continuing. “Years ago I promised Nahoko I’d find her brother and bring him back to her. And I knew Eiji must be living through hell, in the middle of this shithole. So I travelled to Halfmoon looking for someone who could get me passage and entry to the Lee court, and Blanca fit the bill. He only agreed to come here because of me. He was ready to pass Prince Lee’s request for aid on to someone else.”

“So what does he get out of it?” Shorter asks. “He named you his heir. That’s a big deal. Is he helping you out of charity, or what?”

Ash snorts. “Hardly. He was formerly in the Ecolisine royal guard as a secret agent and assassin. I… had to pay a ridiculous amount to get him. King Dino over there wasn’t too happy about letting him go, either.”

Shorter snorts. “If he’s motivated by money, can we trust him? What if someone else pays him off to expose you?”

“Oh, hell no, don’t trust him.” Ash finishes his first pastry and reaches for a second. “He’s got his own code that he follows, and hell if I know what it is. He tries to be a gentleman, though, so I’m pretty sure he’d warn me if he wasn’t planning on being my ally any longer.”

“Hm. Okay. Good to know.” Shorter nibbles at his éclair again, thinking. “So you said you want to get Eiji out of here? What exactly do you mean?”

“I want to take him home,” Ash says immediately. “Back to middle-of-nowhere town in Ecolisina. Max and Nahoko are waiting for us.”

Shorter sucks in a breath. “The Lees would burn your town to the ground if they found out he was hiding there. And they’d probably kill his sister, too.”

“Not if they think I snuck into his room and killed him one night.” Ash takes another leisurely bite of his tart. “Blanca’s a master assassin, remember? I’ve picked up a few tricks.”

“So you plan to fake his death and spirit him away in the night?”

Ash nods. “More or less, yeah.”

Shorter hesitates. “And… have you told him this yet?”

“Not in specific. We were kind of busy talking about… everything else. Why, you think he won’t want to go or something?” Ash snorts, as if the thought is ludicrous instead of true.

“Well, uh… kind of,” Shorter hedges. “So yesterday, when you said he told you everything—did he tell you why he has to stay here a little longer?”

Ash shakes his head. “That was a bluff,” he admits. “I know something was bothering him, but he didn’t go into it. Said he didn’t want me to think worse of him right after we got to see each other again, and clammed up. So I was worried and I was hoping you’d tell me.”

Shorter blows out a breath. “Oh, jeez. Okay, so… I know what it is, but it’s not… it isn’t really my secret to tell. I’d be betraying his trust if I told you without his permission.”

And the less people that know, the safer they all are. Only the three of them know about Yut-Lung’s quest for the throne, and it’s safer if it stays that way.

“Hmm. I understand.” Dissatisfaction shines in Ash’s eyes, but he doesn’t press, for which Shorter is grateful. “I’ll ask him about it again when I get a chance.”

“Yeah,” Shorter mutters. “Just—don’t press him if he doesn’t wanna talk about it, okay? It’s… a big deal, and he might not feel ready to say it. Especially because it—well, it eats at him. But… yeah. You know.”

“Mm.” Ash sips his tea and eyes the pastry tray again. Shorter watches him a little incredulously. How many of the fucking things is he planning to eat? “Sure. Was there anything else you wanted to know?”

“Just one thing.” Shorter looks him dead in the eye. “What kind of magic do you have?”

Ash smirks, just-so-slightly. “Battle.”

“I’ve never heard of battle magic being able to silence.” Shorter looks at him suspiciously. “What the hell was that?”

“It’s all about knowing how to use it.” Ash shrugs. “I dunno if you actually want to hear about magic theory, but long story short is that it depends on perception. Deafening someone makes it easier to sneak up on them in a fight, so you start there, and then you broaden your usage until it comes when you call, not when it’s needed.”

“…Huh.”

Shorter mulls that over for several seconds. He never knew battle magic could be so broad. By that definition, anything that could be useful on a battlefield could be covered by battle magic, and then trained to be called at will. That’s…

He looks Ash over again, watches him inhale a third tart, and shakes his head slowly. “You are one terrifying bastard.”

Ash’s lips curve into the most genuine smile Shorter has seen on him yet. “Thanks.”

Shorter shakes his head again, sighs, and turns to the table again. “Alright. I have the antidote—”

The door rattles.

Both of them freeze, Ash jumping to his feet and landing in a slight crouch not unlike that of a cat waiting to pounce. Shorter stands slowly, trying to keep silent, and moves toward the window.

“Shorteeer!” Eiji calls through the wood, whiny in the way that means he’s in a good mood. “Let me in! Why’s this locked? You never lock your door! Let me iiiinnn!”

Oh, thank fuck. Shorter breathes a sigh of relief and sees Ash relax behind him. “I’m coming, I’m coming! Anyone ever told you that you princes have no patience?”

He pulls the door open and Eiji bounces in like a breath of fresh air. “You can’t tell Yut-Lung that I am here,” he says, pushing it closed behind himself before he catches sight of Ash and utterly lights up. “Aslan! Oh! I forgot! You both had tea! Am I interrupting?”

“Not at all, Birdie,” Ash says, and holy shit is that a soft look on his face. “C’mon in. Why are you hiding from Yut-Lung?”

Eiji plops down on the sofa next to Ash, and Shorter locks the door again before settling on Eiji’s other side. Eiji makes a face. “He wants to go shopping and get us some new clothes for summer, and I do not feel like getting stabbed by tailors and their needles just so that he can declare that I make a nice doll.”

“Doll?” Ash sounds distinctly unimpressed. “Seriously?”

Eiji deflates a little, and Shorter catches Ash’s eye and shakes his head discreetly. Yut-Lung likes that he can use Eiji as a tool, to make him cute and appealing and innocent enough to charm people, draw them in, and disarm them, but Shorter knows Eiji hates having to dress up in sheer tulle and semi-revealing clothes just to make Yut-Lung’s chess games easier.

Ash clears his throat. “Anyway. Uh. Here,” and he picks up the last éclair and more or less stuffs it into Eiji’s mouth. “Eat that. It’s good.”

“Mrmph?” Eiji blinks around his sudden mouthful of pastry, chews, swallows, and giggles. “Thank you, Aslan. What have you two been up to?”

“Oh, we drank truth serum and started talking about the past,” Ash says breezily, and then claps a hand over his mouth. Shorter tries and fails to stifle a laugh.

Eiji looks between them, aghast. “You drank truth serum?”

“Yes,” Shorter says.

“Yes,” Ash says.

“But—we have so many secrets that people can’t know about!” Eiji puts his éclair down in Ash’s plate and whips his head around to fix first Shorter, then Ash, with a stern look, cheeks puffed out in a disapproving pout. “Are you both idiots?!”

Ash huffs. “No.”

“Yes.” Shorter shrugs.

Eiji looks back and forth between them, still incredulous. “I cannot believe you both!”

“Well, this dumbass thought I might have been someone posing as me just to get at you and hurt you!” Ash crosses his arms. “Like, I’d rather cut off my own arm, but—”

“I get that now!” Shorter defends. “But it was a reasonable suspicion, so you can shut your mouth, Lynx.”

Eiji looks between them again and heaves a deep sigh.

“I am not sure whether I should be annoyed with the two of you or I should just be flattered,” he admits.

“Flattered,” both of them say in unison.

Ash picks up the half-eaten éclair again before Eiji can respond with anything more than an exasperated look. As soon as Eiji opens his mouth to say anything, he stuffs it in again. “Eat,” he says. “Don’t waste good food.”

Eiji gives him a dour look, completely ruined by his hamster-like cheeks.

In that moment, Shorter realizes he can definitely feel a kinship of sorts with Ash Lynx. He catches his eye, grins, and then pokes Eiji’s side. “Well? It’s good, right? You should eat up!”

Eiji lets out a muffled whine as he swallows and wipes the chocolate smeared on his lips away. “You are both ganging up on me, and for what?”

“Because!” Shorter ruffles his hair. “We love you.”

Damn, he really should get that antidote.

Chapter Text

Five years ago.


“Aslan?”

Aslan looks up from his book, blinking away the disorientation as he tilts his head at Max in silent question.

Max looks exhausted, standing in the doorway wearing the shawl Jessica brought over last weekend. He pretends otherwise, but Aslan knows he hasn’t been sleeping well lately, with the anniversary approaching. Not like any of them have slept well at all since…

“Can you check on Nahoko?” Max sighs, runs a hand through his hair, and shakes his head. “She’s… upset, but she doesn’t want to tell me what’s bothering her. I think she’ll talk to you, though—”

“Yeah, I know.” Aslan gets up from the armchair and heads for the stairs. “She’s upset about Eiji, Max. What else would it be?”

Max sighs. “I know.”

Three steps up, Aslan stops, though he doesn’t turn around. “…I’m upset about Eiji, too.”

It doesn’t sit right with him, living here in the safety of a tiny obscure little town, with Max and Nahoko and Jessica, while his best friend is all alone a world away, held hostage by the Lees. Eiji deserves a quiet, peaceful life, too, deserves to be able to cry on the shoulders of people who love him and to hug his little sister and watch her grow up. The invasion was two years ago, but Aslan still misses him so much it physically aches sometimes, in the bitter, deepest hours of the night.

“Aslan,” Max murmurs. Footsteps cross the living room, and then Max pulls him back into a hug, standing behind him on the steps. Aslan closes his eyes and relaxes against him like he always has, back in the days when his worst problems were scraped knees, when he’d cry and come running back to Griff and Max.

Max is all he has left of Griff, now. Just like Nahoko’s all he has left of Eiji.

Damn the Lees. They really took so much from them…

“Let me go talk to Nahoko,” he finally says, ignoring the rough patch in his voice that matches the tightness in the back of his throat. “She needs someone.”

“She’s not the only one,” Max answers, but he lets go without further argument, and Aslan hurries up the stairs.

Nahoko is a tiny thing, only nine years old but with the weight of the world carried in her dark, haunted eyes. She was seven on the day of the invasion, when Griffin saved her—her mother thrust her into his arms, Max said, and begged him to get her to safety. And Griffin passed her to Max before going to try and find Eiji, and—

Aslan closes his eyes. Griff and Eiji are both out of reach, now. He needs to focus on Nahoko.

She’s wrapped in a blanket, sitting on her bed, and staring out the window, all curled in on herself. There’s a cup of tea, untouched, cooling on her nightstand. Aslan knocks once on the open door and waits.

Nahoko takes a moment, but she turns, big brown eyes swimming with unshed tears. “Aslan…”

“Hey, squirt.” Aslan carefully settles onto the bed next to her with a wan smile. “Max asked me to check on you. Wanna talk about it?”

Nahoko’s lower lip trembles, and one of her hands darts out of her quilt cocoon to dash at her eyes. “I… I miss Eiji. I want him to come home. I wish he was here.”

Aslan’s heart clenches. Not a day goes by that he doesn’t wish the same, but he’s never said so out loud, so plainly. Nahoko looks so much like her brother sometimes it’s uncanny. “I know. I know. I miss him, too. Hopefully, they’re taking good care of him, at least—”

“Don’t say that!” Nahoko snaps tearfully, scrubbing at her cheeks. “They’re monsters! They killed so many people and they laughed when they did—they—they won’t—Eiji can’t—they’ll—!”

She breaks down into a sob, and Aslan sighs softly and pulls her to his chest, blanket and all. “I know, Nahoko. I know. I’m sorry. I just have to hope he’s okay. That’s all we can do for him now. But it’ll be okay. Don’t worry.”

Nahoko clutches at his shirt and cries harder, and Ash rubs her back and drops a kiss to the top of her head. He’s so useless to her! Words of comfort are empty when there’s no truth behind them, and everything about this situation is bleak. Frustration rises in him, clawing at the inside of his chest like a wild beast. Telling her that it’ll be okay is just a lie! How can it be okay when her brother is far away, suffering, and she won’t ever see hiim again?

“I want him back, Aslan,” Nahoko sobs, voice thick and heavy with grief. “I want him back!”

Aslan presses her closer, protective—as if he could ever protect her, if the need arose. As if he didn’t try and fail to protect Eiji. As if…

As if he could do anything.

The frustration roars, a desperate beast gnawing at his stomach and tearing into his heart until it strips away the layers of sedentary, desolate grief and leaves him raw, hurting, vulnerable, and blazing. Something in him snaps. There has to be something he can do. He can’t just be useless. Not again.

“I’ll bring him back,” he whispers, pressing another kiss to the top of her little head. “I’ll bring him back to you, Nahoko, I swear I will.”

Nahoko’s head snaps up so fast she nearly slams it into Aslan’s chin, and her eyes are red and glassy and for the first time in two years, hopeful. “Wh—you—how? How?! But Aslan—”

“Shh, shh. Don’t let Max hear,” Aslan cautions, looking at the open door. His head is already spinning. It’ll be dangerous. Max will try to stop him, to keep him safe like he swore to Griffin. But Aslan doesn’t care. He has to do this. He can’t just sit here idly and leave Eiji to the wolves.

How can he get into the Lee court? He has to keep his promise no matter how impulsively he made it. But random nobodies from tiny towns nestled deep in the Ecolisine mountains don’t get to visit with Imperial nobility… so he’ll need a way up, into the noble ranks, without revealing his Callenreese heritage.

The Ecolisine court is fairly friendly with the Lees. If he can spin a reason for an Ecolisine nobleman to take him in, maybe…

“You mean it?” Nahoko whispers, eyes shining. “You’ll bring him home?”

“Yes,” Aslan whispers back. “I promise.”


Present day.


“You did well!” Blanca calls across the sparring ring, lowering his practice sword. Ash blows a lock of hair out of his face and tries not to glower. Bastard doesn’t even look like he’s broken a sweat! And here Ash’s been running himself ragged just to keep up. “Let’s call it for today and go get some breakfast, hm?”

“Yeah, sure.” Ash lowers his sword too and rolls his shoulders, then his neck, stifling a groan. He’s gonna need a hot bath later; he can already tell he’s gonna be sore. Ugh.

Blanca smiles, as if he’s some kind of benevolent, gentle giant instead of a dick who’s way too nimble in a fight for someone so huge, and holds his blade out to Ash, hilt first. “Take them back to the armory, will you? I’ll send for a breakfast to be brought up for the two of us.”

Ash accepts it with a grunt of acknowledgement and turns to walk to the armory, a sword in each hand. He’s looking forward to breakfast.

Well, no. He’s looking forward to getting breakfast done with.

Because after breakfast, he gets his hot bath. And after his hot bath, if he takes long enough in it, court will be done for the day. And after court’s done for the day, he can go find…

Eiji.

It’s hard not to smile just at the thought of him, but Ash is damn good at being grumpy, especially in the morning, so he manages. Barely. But he can’t be blamed, not when Eiji’s everything he’d hoped he’d still be, and more. The Lees haven’t broken him. He’s still Nahoko’s big brother. Still Ash’s Eiji.

He’s grown up—they both have—and there’s sorrow in his eyes that never seems to fully recede, but his smile is still the same smile Ash grew up with. He never realized just how incredibly much he missed that smile until it was in front of him again, and Eiji was weeping tears of joy into his shoulder and clinging to him like he’d never, ever let go.

He has to write home to Max and Nahoko tonight. He’s finally, finally found Eiji.

The armory is nearly deserted this close to the beginning of today’s court session, which suits Ash just fine as he shoulders the door open and strides to the back wall to return the two practice swords. There’s only one other person here—a red-haired woman sitting on a bench and sharpening a dagger. He gives her a cursory nod as he walks past, hangs his swords up, and turns again to leave.

“My lord,” she says suddenly, breaking the silence, and he stops in his tracks. “You are Lord Ash Lynx, yes?”

Ash slowly turns on his heel, keeping his face carefully blank. “Yes. I’m afraid I haven’t made your acquaintance before, however, Lady…?”

“Shi.” She sheathes her dagger and stands, offering a hand to shake. “Fiona Shi. I understand you’ve arrived recently from Ecolisine. How fares the motherland?”

Fiona Shi. She must have married into an imperial noble’s family, if she’s here but originally from Ecolisine. Not for the first time, Ash curses his limited knowledge of the members of the Lee court and their allegiances—Eiji would know everything there is to know about this Lady Shi, but Eiji’s busy sitting in court and looking pretty, since that’s all the Lees let him do. He’s basically their doll, a prisoner wrapped in fine silks and shimmering brocade, and it makes Ash sick—but that’s a thought for later, not now.

“Halfmoon is as prosperous as ever,” he answers instead, smiling as he shakes her hand firmly. “How long has it been since you last visited, my lady?”

Something sours in Lady Shi’s expression, in the slight downturn of her lips. “Three years. I haven’t been home since I married my husband.”

“Three years is a long time.” Ash waits a moment, but when she says nothing, he prompts, “Has life here been to your liking?”

Lady Shi’s eyes grow sharp and bitter. “You seem a well-intentioned boy, my lord. So I’d like to give you a word of warning. I’ve heard that you’re interested in Prince Okumura. Am I correct?”

Ash stiffens, though he tries not to show it in his face, and merely inclines his head. “What would you say if I said yes?”

Lady Shi sighs and settles back onto her stool, resting one booted ankle on her knee. “I would caution you to turn your sights elsewhere,” she says after a moment. “Prince Okumura has a pretty face and a sweet voice, but he isn’t to be trusted. The vipers have raised him as one of their own. After all, everyone says you catch more flies with honey.”

Ash’s nails dig into his palms as a chill runs down his spine. “Are you saying that he…?”

“He’s a selfish, manipulative, vile person.” Lady Shi folds her arms across her chest and looks away. “I used to think he and I were friends. He showed me quite differently. I… don’t mean to tell you what you should or shouldn’t do, of course, my lord. But were I you, I would cast my affections to… safer places.”

Eiji? Selfish, manipulative, and vile? Ash seethes at the words. He’s good! The Lees didn’t raise him, the Okumuras did, and the Lees took him! He’s not one of them! How dare she imply that he’s like them?

But lashing out won’t do him any good, so he forces himself to unclench his fists and relax his shoulders, blowing out a breath. “I… see. Thank you for the warning, my lady—”

“One year after our marriage, he seduced my husband for all the court to see,” Lady Shi interrupts flatly. “I realized after that he only used me to get to my husband, specifically because of his friendship with Prince Gan-Lung. We fell out of favor with the prince for a time as a result.”

Ash stares at her, and she softens, a bittersweet smile curving her lips.

“You would have heard as much from the rumor mill eventually. You might as well hear it from me. Your eyes asked the question, though I appreciate you holding it back. You’re an chivalrous and polite one, Lord Lynx. But chivalry doesn’t get you far in this world. Be careful that the snakes don’t stab you in the back.”

It takes every ounce of self-control in him not to tell her off, that she’s making assumptions about him when she knows nothing of him or what he’s been through to get here, but he swallows the words down and bows stiffly instead.

“Thank you, my lady. I will be sure to think on what you’ve told me,” he says, and before she can say anything more, he turns on his heel and strides out of the armory.

When he gets back to Blanca’s quarters, breakfast has already arrived. It’s hearty and still hot, and he eyes the eggs with relish as he settles down at the table. Blanca chuckles as he pulls out his own chair.

“Looks like you’ve worked up a healthy appetite!”

“Course I did,” Ash grouses. “You made me run in circles all morning.”

Blanca laughs merrily. “Don’t complain too much! You are the one who came to me and asked for training.”

Ash huffs and just grabs a plate. Lady Shi completely soured whatever good mood he might have had earlier, and now the hours that lie stretched between him and Eiji are interminably long. “Ugh.”

Blanca, ever perceptive (damn him), notices. “Something bothering you, Ash?”

Ash stabs a fork into an egg with perhaps a little more force than necessary. “No.”

Blanca just looks at him.

“I said no!” Ash glares. “Put that eyebrow down. I’m just hungry!”

Blanca holds up his hands as if in surrender and starts making his own plate. He’s completely unfazed and almost amused. Ash considers chucking a fork at him. “Alright, alright! Remind me we should work on your lying skills this afternoon.”

“Sorry, but I’m spending the afternoon with Eiji,” he retorts, a little petulantly, and stuffs a bite into his mouth.

“Ah.” Blanca nods as if now he understands everything. “What about Eiji is bothering you?”

Ash glowers darkly across the table, but he just smiles and inclines his head, unbothered. Smug bastard. Ash blows out a breath, swallows, and taps his foot impatiently. “Some lady in the armory was just talking shit about him and it was annoying.”

Blanca raises that goddamned eyebrow of his again. “Talking ‘shit’?”

Ash rolls his eyes. “She said he’s a snake just like the Lees. And that he like… seduced her husband away from her or something. Bullshit.”

“Hm.”

Blanca is silent for a moment, and Ash takes the opportunity to stuff another forkful of eggs into his mouth. God, he is hungry. Blanca’s training regimens are intense. And the food here is fucking stellar.

“Ash.” Blanca finally speaks up again, this time with the cadence of a concerned uncle, and Ash immediately feels a prickle of defensiveness. “I would caution you against… immediately dismissing her words. Of course you shouldn’t instantly believe everything you hear, either, but… I have heard similar stories concerning your Prince Okumura, while listening around the palace over the past couple of days.”

“Eiji’s a good person,” Ash says, voice low and dangerous. “I know him.”

“You knew him,” Blanca corrects, infuriatingly patronizing. They’ve had this conversation before, and it always spirals into a useless argument. Ash is getting really fucking sick of it. “But that was seven years ago. You have no way of knowing what kind of person he’s become since then.”

“Yeah, except that I’ve already met him and talked to him!” Ash scowls. “And he’s still a good person! Why are you so determined to prove to me that he’s bad and that our whole point in coming here was moot?”

“I’m not!” Blanca sighs. “You just don’t get it yet. I’m just trying to look out for you, Ash. People change. It might not even be his fault—he must have done whatever he had to do to survive here. My point is simply that you shouldn’t assume the best of him just because you want it to be true.”

Ash bites back a snappish retort by smothering it with more breakfast. “Whatever,” he finally says. “You’re not gonna change my mind, and I’m clearly not changing yours anytime soon. But you know what? I’ll just ask him directly.”

“He could always lie,” Blanca cautions.

Ash can’t resist rolling his eyes, scathing. “If he wanted me dead, he could’ve announced to the world that I’m Aslan Callenreese already. I trust him, and you’re not gonna change that.”

“I know I’m not,” Blanca says patiently. “Or else I never would’ve agreed to Prince Yut-Lung’s request in the first place. And I certainly wouldn’t have brought you along.”

Ash snorts and pours himself some coffee, looks over inquisitively, and pours a second cup when Blanca nods. “Yeah? So why do you keep saying the same shit over and over?”

“So that if I’m right and things do go unfortunately—thank you—you’ll at least have some warning, and hopefully some semblance of a backup plan.” Blanca adds a sugar cube and a little cream into the cup Ash passes him, and stirs with a spoon so dainty it’s comical in his huge hand. “It’s just to keep you safe, Ash.”

Ash adds three sugar cubes and a significantly larger amount of cream to his own mug and shakes his head. “You’re late. If there was a time for keeping me safe and sheltered, it was a long time ago.”

Blanca’s smile is just a little sad, now. “I know.”


After soaking in his bath in an attempt to steam all the irritation out of himself like he’s a piece of bitter, grouchy broccoli, Ash meanders down towards the gardens. Eiji mentioned them being one of his favorite places to spend free time or clear his mind, and Shorter said that he’s almost always found there after court because he hates court.

The gardens have a huge hedge maze that he’s seen from the windows around the main courtyard, along with a long field of orchards and carefully cultivated shrubs kept trimmed into geometric forms and sculptures of animals. A green dragon roars above his head as he enters the grounds and starts to wander.

He doesn’t find Eiji in the orchards, nor is he in the sculpture garden; eventually, Ash gives the entrance to the hedge maze a dubious look before stepping in. He’ll have to make sure to keep track of the turns he takes. But, he supposes, if he were Eiji, and he wanted to hide from the world, this would be a good place to do it.

Truth be told, Ash isn’t much of a fan of mazes. They remind him too much of the top floor of the palace in Halfmoon. But at least that damned palace means he knows what patterns are likely to come up, and how to find his way around, given time.

He wanders through the hedges for about half an hour or so, by his estimate, without seeing anyone. Here and there a stream runs babbling through stepping-stones or under little bridges, and he follows it as best as he can, making a mental map of the maze as he goes. The source of the stream, most likely, is where he’ll find the center of the maze.

His logic bears fruit: after a few more minutes of walking in the warm afternoon sunlight, he rounds a corner and stumbles upon a wide-open space with a gnarled old cherry tree above a bubbling fountain that runs into a large, shallow pool. Next to it, in the shade, is a hammock, and in the hammock are two figures.

“Huh? Oh, Ash. Hey,” Shorter greets, keeping his voice soft so as not to wake Eiji, who’s asleep on his chest. “How’d you get in here?”

“Followed a hunch.” Ash takes a couple steps closer and stops next to the hammock, looking down at them both. Shorter has one foot on the ground, rocking it gently, and Eiji sighs softly in his sleep as Ash’s shadow falls across his face. “Is he okay?”

“Just tired.” Shorter looks down at Eiji fondly and pats his head. “He’s always gotta put on masks in front of court, and it wears him out. But he’s alright.”

“Mm.” Ash shifts, then sinks down to sit cross-legged in the grass. “I can understand that.”

He thinks back to Lady Shi this morning, and what a pain in the ass it was to pretend he was fine with what she was saying. And that was only a short conversation! He’s no stranger to lying, but god, living in a gilded cage like this does sound exhausting.

It makes his heart sink. He spent his years of torment and misery hoping that at least, at the end of the road, he’d find Eiji unharmed and blessedly alright. But that was always a fool’s hope. No one could possibly witness their parents’ executions and be taken from all semblance of a support system, and then come out alright.

“Were you looking for him?” Shorter rubs Eiji’s shoulder soothingly, but looks at Ash, inquisitive. “Did he tell you how to get in here, or were you wandering in the maze for a couple hours?”

Ash smiles at the thought. “I was looking for him, yeah, but no, he didn’t tell me. I just guessed, and I was right.”

“You guessed how to solve the maze?” Shorter sounds nonplussed. “Must be one hell of a guess, dude.”

Ash shrugs lightly, dismissive. He’s not about to get into details about his year in Halfmoon. “You could call it intuition.”

“You came here to find Eiji, and a bunch of bushes aren’t gonna get in your way,” Shorter jokes, chuckling. Eiji stirs with a sleepy mumble, and he quickly soothes him with a hand in his hair. “Shh, go back to sleep. You’ve got time. S’okay. Sleep.”

“Mmph.” Eiji opens his eyes and blinks a couple of times, bleary, before squinting at Ash. “Aslan…?”

“I’m here,” Ash says, softening, and reaches over to stroke Eiji’s hair back from his face. Eiji nuzzles into his touch, closing his eyes, and sighs. “Go back to sleep. I’ll be here later.”

“Mm.” Eiji nestles a little closer to Shorter, tucking his face against his collarbone, and nods. “Mmkay. Wake me up in five…”

“I’ll wake you up if you’re not up in another ten minutes, Bunny.” Shorter pats his shoulder. “Sleep.”

Ash waits for a couple of heartbeats, just watching the flutter of Eiji’s dark eyelashes as he sinks back into slumber. Eiji and Shorter are very close, especially for Eiji to be asleep on him like this, completely vulnerable. And then there’s the pet names, on top of that, too…

“Bunny?” he finally asks, looking up at Shorter.

Shorter chuckles again. “Yeah. ‘Cuz of how he taps his foot when he’s impatient, y’know? And sometimes twitches his nose? It’s like bunnies.”

“I’ve always called him Birdie.” Ash looks back at Eiji, with his soft, round cheeks and long eyelashes and sweet face, relaxed in his sleep. Like this, it’s easy to forget that he’s twenty years old. He looks like he could be fifteen and innocent, curled up cozy and safe from the horrors of the world. “When we were little, his mom called him her little bird, and I extrapolated from that. He was Prince Birdie, and I was his knight.”

“That’s cute.” Shorter smiles. “He told me a lot about you, you know. I can’t even begin to cover how much he missed you.”

Ash’s heart twinges painfully in his chest. “Yeah. I missed him, too.”

A heartbeat passes. Two. A breeze stirs the leaves in the hedges and the tree above them, sounding like an echo of the sea, and Ash closes his eyes, turning his face up to the warmth of the dappled sunlight. It’s peaceful here, with the fountain and the plants. He can see why it’s Eiji’s safe haven.

He opens his eyes again. “Hey, Shorter. How did you and Eiji meet?”

“I ran into him in the orchards while getting cherries for my sister to make jam.” Shorter’s smile is fond and reminiscent as he gazes down at Eiji. “He was sitting under a tree and crying and for a little while. I didn’t realize who he was, so I thought he was one of the other attendant brats, like me, and told him to come on back to the kitchens with me and I’d sneak him some chocolate. He didn’t correct me. Actually he didn’t say anything until Prince Hua-Lung came along and demanded to know why he was hanging out with someone as below the Lees as the alchemist’s apprentice.”

Ash rolls his eyes. “How lowly.”

Shorter snorts. “Right? Anyway, I freaked out, cuz that was the first time I ever talked to royalty and I didn’t know he was royalty, I just got him to help me do chores and he was following me around like a lost puppy. But after that he said hi to me next time he saw me, and then came by to thank me later, and we just… became friends, I guess.”

Ash laughs, then sobers. It hurts to hear about Eiji, alone, grieving so much he couldn’t even speak to someone trying to comfort him. “I’m glad he had you, at least. We were all so scared for him, all alone here for all these years…”

Sighing, Shorter nods. “He’s been lonely,” he agrees, dropping his voice and rubbing Eiji’s shoulder again. “He’s… pretty starved for affection and just like—contact with people who aren’t looking to constantly tear him down. It’s pretty much only me, Nadia, and Sing who ever get close to him. He never really says it, but he craves love. He’s got such a big heart…”

Ash hesitates for a long moment. “Lady Fiona Shi approached me this morning,” he finally says. “She said she used to be friends with him. What happened?”

Shorter’s face fills with disgust. “Yut-Lung happened.”

Ash tilts his head to one side inquisitively.

Shorter blows out an explosive sigh. “It’s… I think you should ask Eiji himself to tell you that story. He’d tell it better than me, for sure, and it’s also… it’s not entirely mine to tell, yeah?”

That makes sense, and Ash nods his acceptance. “Can I ask you something else, then?”

Shorter flashes a quick thumbs-up. “Yeah, shoot.”

“Why’s your hair purple?”

Shorter blinks, then tips his head back and laughs, loud and bright. Eiji grumbles wordlessly in his sleep. “You been sitting on that since we met?”

“Maybe a little,” Ash admits. “I was trying to find explanations, but none really make sense. I noticed your apprentice had a bit of purple in his hair, too, but not like yours. What’s up with that?”

“Oh, you noticed Sing too!” Shorter grins. “Nadia still gives me shit for that—remind me to introduce you to her, by the way. She said to kick your ass if you ever hurt Eiji, so I know you’ll like her. Long story short, Sing and I were experimenting with amethyst infusions and we blew one up. You should’ve seen us right after it happened! It wasn’t just the hair. Eyebrows, too!”

Ash tries not to laugh at the thought of Shorter’s eyebrows also being bright purple and doesn’t quite manage it. “God. That sounds like a mess.”

“It was,” Shorter says cheerfully. “It got fucking everywhere. Sing grew it out, but I figured hey, it’s a good look, so I fiddled with it until I got it into more of a gel than uh, a mild explosive, and now I’m stickin’ with it! I’m thinking about trying other colors sometime. Maybe a jade green, that could be fun. If you ever want purple hair, just lemme know.”

“I think Blanca’d have a heart attack,” Ash says, and then considers. That might be funny, actually. Especially if Blanca tries to give him another talk about why he shouldn’t throw himself into loving Eiji just because they’ve been separated. “So mark me down as a definite maybe.”

“Don’t you dare,” Eiji mumbles, lifting his head from Shorter’s chest to give him a dark look before he looks at Ash and blinks a couple of times. “I like your hair like it is. It is pretty.”

Ash reaches up and touches the base of his ponytail, suddenly a little self-conscious. “You do?”

“Mmhmm.” Eiji hums, stretches, and scoots up to sit on the edge of the hammock. “You grew it out some. It looks nice.”

“You’re one to talk.” Ash gives him a meaningful look. When they were younger, his hair was short and fluffy, cropped close around his ears. Now it’s long and thick, braided into a simple plait that lies over his shoulder almost down to his waist. He must not have cut it much since coming here—that’s an Imperial custom, Ash is pretty sure.

Eiji laughs and slides off the hammock to plop into the grass, reaching for him and making little grabby motions with his fingers; Ash obediently scoots over to hold him. Eiji wraps his arms around his waist and presses him close, tucking his head into his neck, and Ash sighs to himself, squeezing him tight.

Eiji shifts, looks up with a sweet smile, and taps two fingers against his back. “Hi.”

“Hey.” Ash taps him in return. “Had a good nap?”

“Better have been good!” Shorter sits up on the edge of the hammock and rolls his shoulders. “I can’t feel my left arm!”

“It was very good,” Eiji assures him, teasing. “Don’t worry. You still make a good pillow.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ve been told I’m fucking great to sleep with,” Shorter asserts, poking Eiji in the side of the head. “Remember? Even Lung Nui said—”

Eiji pulls away from Ash to smack Shorter’s arm. “I do not want to remember that you slept with Lung Nui!”

Ash pauses and looks between the two of them again. They are very close, and… he has to ask. The truth will make itself known eventually, and if he wants to get Eiji out of here, he needs to know if Shorter’s gonna complicate things.

“So… wait, clear something up for me,” he says, before Shorter can retort. “Are you two a couple?”

Eiji stares at him like he’s just announced that he likes to mush rotten beans into his lunch every day.

Shorter bursts into laughter.

“Aslan!” Eiji wails. “I have standards—”

“You think we’re a thing?” Shorter cackles, flopping back in the hammock with a dramatic sprawl. “Yeah, right! Eiji wishes he could get a piece of this—”

“Absolutely not!” Eiji sniffs.

“—but it’s just as well, ‘cuz holy shit, I would rather die than date him—”

Defensive, Ash folds his arms across his chest. “Why’s that? Eiji is a damn good person and you’d be lucky to have him.”

Eiji blinks, then smiles a bashful, brilliant smile.

Shorter claps both hands to his face and groans. “Dude! What do you want from me? You want me to be dating Eiji or not?”

“I didn’t say what I want has anything to do with it,” Ash huffs, looking away indignantly. “All I said is that Eiji is a fucking delight and there’s no need to be rude about it!”

“Shorter just does not do dating,” Eiji deadpans, staring pointedly at Shorter. “Instead he sleeps his way through all the maids who come through this area of the palace.”

“Hey!” Shorter defends. “Not just maids. If there’s a hot enough guy I’ll fuck him, too!”

Ash looks back and forth between them. “Then… who’s Lung Nui?”

Eiji gives Shorter a dirty look. Shorter shrugs unrepentantly at him and grins. Eiji sighs, turns back to Ash, and says, “Lung Nui is one of my attendants. She did not meet me in the morning as is usual and I was worried, so I went to Shorter’s place to see if he knew anything, and… as it turns out…” and here he lets out a long-suffering sigh, “Shorter was the reason she did nto show up in the morning.”

“To be entirely fair,” Shorter cuts in, “it wasn’t just me. Mao Lui was there too. It was partly his fault.”

“They were both in your bed.” Eiji sniffs and crosses his arms. “I blame you entirely.”

“She’s good in bed! They both are!” Shorter leans down and ruffles Eiji’s hair. “I have no regrets.”

Eiji ducks away. “I still did not want to see that.”

“Then you should have knocked.”

Ash can’t help laughing. “You walked in on it?”

Eiji pulls a face. “The aftermath. But I cannot even shame Shorter because he has no shame.”

Shorter grins broadly and fires a finger pistol at Eiji. “You got that right, Bunny.”

Eiji sighs long-sufferingly and looks at Ash. “See?”

Ash laughs again and shakes his head, amused. He’s glad Eiji has had at least one friend here who could make him laugh like this. “My poor little Birdie. You’ve had to put up with so much, huh?”

Eiji nods furiously. There’s a few strands of hair coming loose from his braid; Ash reaches over and gently tucks them behind his ear.

Eiji catches his hand.

“Aslan,” he says, intertwining their fingers. Ash looks at their joined hands and feels warm inside. This is what he’s been looking for. This is what he’s endured the last five years for. He’s got his Birdie back within reach. “I am glad you are here.”

“Me too,” Ash murmurs, and smiles.


At teatime, Ash walks Eiji back to his quarters. Eiji takes his arm and almost floats next to him, walking with a careful, almost dancelike gait. He’s wearing black, as is the entire imperial family, and now that he’s not napping in the gardens, his hair is up, the braid neatly wrapped around his head. He’s so elegant and graceful and demure that Ash can’t quite buy into it. It feels calculated.

“My lord,” Eiji says, smiling innocently up at him. “I must thank you for your company this afternoon.”

Even after just a few short days here, Ash has become painfully aware of how different Eiji acts in front of others as opposed to when it’s just them, or with Shorter. No wonder Lady Shi thought he was something he’s not. She never really saw the true Eiji.

“On the contrary, I must thank you!” Ash replies smoothly, stopping outside Eiji’s door and giving the attendant walking closer from down the hall a quick look. “Your presence is nothing short of a delight, my prince.”

Eiji giggles, a fake little titter that’s worlds removed from his real laugh. “You are too kind, Lord Lynx! Please, allow me to at least offer some hospitality to you in return for your courtesy. Would you stay for tea?”

“If my prince wills it, I would love nothing more,” Ash murmurs, bowing as he lifts Eiji’s hand to his lips and presses the ghost of a kiss to the back of his knuckles.

Eiji smiles at his attendant—Lung Nui, Ash remembers—and leads Ash into his apartments, gesturing to him to make himself comfortable on one of the sumptuous couches. It’s a pretty luxurious cage, Ash has to admit. But a cage is still a cage, and Eiji is a trapped bird. It’s obvious, from the way he cried at their reunion. He’s a trapped songbird longing to taste the free air again.

“Please tell the kitchens to send up tea for two,” Eiji requests, and Lung Nui nods. “We’ll take it in private, as well.”

“Of course, my prince.” Lung Nui curtseys and hurries to the door. “I hope you enjoy it.”

“Thank you,” Eiji murmurs. He stays standing until the door has closed behind her, then sighs and slumps back into a waiting armchair and groans, pressing his hands to his temples. “Ugh…”

“You sound tired.” Ash leans over and places a sympathetic hand on his knee.

Eiji stiffens for half a second before relaxing again, shoulders drooping as he places his hand over Ash’s. “Yeah…”

“Sleep early tonight,” Ash advises. “You’ve had a long day, huh, Birdie?”

“Not that long,” Eiji mumbles. “Just court, that’s all. It was not as bad as it could have been. I did not have to talk much, anyway. I don’t really know why I’m this tired…”

“Emotional stress does that sometimes.” Ash shifts and scoots forward so he doesn’t have to lean quite so far to keep his hand on Eiji’s knee. “Just rest.”

Eiji shakes his head, pushes himself up from the chair, and more or less collapses next to Ash, hugging his arm to his chest and leaning against him. Ash softens immediately, thinking about what Shorter said—that Eiji is starved for love and affection—as he leans his head against Eiji’s.

“I already slept earlier,” he says. “I don’t want to right now, not while you are here. I would rather spend time with you as much as I can.”

Ash smiles. “I’ll always be here from now on, Birdie. You don’t need to worry about that.”

Eiji hesitates, then turns and presses his face into Ash’s shoulder. “I always thought that when we were little,” he admits, voice muffled. “That you would always be there, so I did not have to worry about taking you or anyone else for granted. But I was wrong to think that. Who knows what might happen, today or tomorrow or whenever? We might not have as long as forever.”

“Alright then,” Ash concedes. “Maybe I’ll always be here, maybe not. But I’ll be here with you as long as I possibly can, for whatever time that might be. Is that enough?”

Eiji lets out a slow, soft breath, then looks up at him with big brown eyes that shine a little too-bright. “More than enough,” he answers, hugging his arm tighter. “More than I ever thought I would have again.”

“Oh,” Ash sighs, pulling his arm away to wrap it around Eiji and press him close. “Birdie…”

Eiji melts against his chest, not unlike he did when they first reunited, and slips tentative arms around his waist. The silk of his court robes is soft under Ash’s hands, and the warmth of his body seeps through it. His hair smells faintly of jasmine.

“I still can’t quite believe you’re here, sometimes,” Eiji admits into his shoulder. His hands curl into fists in the back of Ash’s shirt. “It feels like a dream come true.”

“I made a promise,” Ash answers, voice soft. “I told your sister I would bring you home. And I meant it.”

Eiji tenses, suddenly, like there’s something he wants to say but it’s gotten stuck in his chest, and his whole body rebels at the idea of keeping it in. “I—I want to go home,” he manages, desperately, and then shudders in Ash’s arms. Ash holds him tighter, worry spiking in his chest, because surely there’s a but coming. “I want to, I really want to, but—but I can’t, Ash, I’d just be hunted down even if we did run.”

“Have a little more faith in me than that,” Ash murmurs, rubbing his back. “I have a plan. Don’t worry. We can get you out of here without being hunted. If we fake your death convincingly enough, no one will think to look for you at all. They just have to think I killed you and ran.”

Eiji lets out a tiny, sniffly squeak. “No, I—I can’t—”

There’s a sharp rap on the door, and Eiji jerks away from him as though burned. “Tea for Prince Okumura,” someone calls, and Eiji excuses himself in a flurry of silks to go attend to it.

Once their tea is on the table, steaming in front of them, and the door has closed behind the maid again, Ash leans over to take an almond pastry and pats the couch next to him for Eiji to sit again. “C’mon, you don’t need to stand like that.”

Eiji stops fidgeting with his sleeve and sits again, biting his lip. He doesn’t touch the tea or the pastries. “I… Aslan…”

Ash nibbles the pastry but keeps his eyes on him. It’s a good pastry. “Yeah?”  

Eiji wraps his arms around himself and stares at the floor, shoulders hunched in on himself. The inches between them suddenly seem to span miles. “I c-can’t leave. I want to, I really, really want to go home with you, but… I can’t. I can’t. I’m sorry.”

“Eiji…” Ash puts the pastry back down in a saucer and shifts to look at him directly. “I know the Lees are powerful, and they’ve had you for a long time, but I promise Blanca and I can get you out of here safely. They won’t be able to find us. We’ve been planning for years—”

“That’s not it!” Eiji shakes his head frantically, eyes squeezed shut in desperation. His fingers dig into his arms so hard it looks painful. “I know you could and I trust you and I want to go with you, I really really do, but I can’t!”

Ash frowns, stomach dropping in sudden dread. The pastry is heavier than a brick in his hand. He puts it back down. “What do you mean?”

Eiji buries his face in his hands for a moment, takes a deep breath, and lets it out shakily. “I… I’m not… I can—oh, god, Aslan, hold me, please—”

He lurches forward unsteadily and buries his face in Ash’s neck, clutching at the front of his shirt, and trembles as Ash wraps his arms around him, worried. “What is it? What’s going on?”

Eiji shudders. “You can’t tell anyone,” he whispers. “It’s my head if this gets out.”

A chill runs down Ash’s spine. “Of course I won’t.”

Eiji presses closer to him, clutches at him a little tighter, and finally says in a voice so small Ash almost can’t hear, “You know how there was an accident, and Prince Kam-Lung died?”

Ash is starting to have a distinctly bad feeling about this. “Yes…” 

“It was no accident,” Eiji whispers, muffled into his neck. “Yut-Lung and I were behind it.”

Ash stiffens in surprise. Eiji is—and with one of the Lees?! His head spins. So the Lee clan’s hold over their own domain is less firm than they’d have everyone believe, and they’re no less susceptible to the corruption of power than any other large group of rulers. Blanca’s suspicions were true. But they never thought it ran this deep.

He has to know more. “Why are you working with Yut-Lung Lee?”

“Because,” and oh, god, Eiji’s voice is trembling, “he and I have an agreement. If I help him get the throne, he’ll restore Unshuan independence. Aslan… for our people, I have to. I have to, Aslan, even though I want to go home with you! I’m supposed to be our crown prince. It’s what I need to do, it’s what I’m supposed to do. It’s what—it’s what my parents would have wanted,” and his voice cracks.

“Oh, Birdie,” Ash breathes. He reaches up and carefully pulls out one, then two, three, and four, of the pins holding Eiji’s hair up, and when the braid comes back down he loosens the tie at the end of it and starts to unwind it as best as he can with one hand, until Eiji’s hair flows loose down his back and he can run his fingers through it. Seven brothers, and of all of them he had to end up allied with the youngest. Ash’s head spins. “Birdie, Birdie, Birdie. You’ve gotten yourself in deep, haven’t you?”

“It’s for our people,” Eiji sniffles. He’s not quite crying yet, but it’s a close thing, and he’s trembling slightly against Ash’s chest. “I have to. I—if you want to go home I understand—”

“Without you? Fuck no!” Ash scoffs. Sure, he’ll have to do a bit of reevaluating, but… if he was planning to fake an assassination, he definitely has the skills to help pull one off for real. It’s not like it adds to his risk—if he’s found out as a Callenreese here, he’s dead either way. “You’re the entire reason I came here. I’m not leaving without you.”

“Oh.” Eiji takes in a shaky breath, trying to steady himself, and lifts his head from Ash’s shoulder. Ash pauses, hand still in his hair, and Eiji touches his cheek, hesitant, like he’s not sure he’s allowed, and then breaks into a small, radiant smile. “You mean it?”

“I swear it,” Ash pledges. “I leave here with you or not at all.”

“Oh, Aslan.” Eiji hugs him tight and lets out a little wet laugh, breathy with relief. “You’re not mad? I… I know you came here to take me and leave but… and if it’s too much I understand, and—”

“Birdie,” Ash interrupts, a little amused, as he rubs his back. “I already promised I’m not leaving. You can relax now.”

Eiji laughs sheepishly. “Yes. Right.”

He sits back after a moment, though he stays close, with his leg pressed against Ash’s as he reaches to pour them both tea. Ash accepts the cup he’s passed and waits until Eiji settles back with his own and leans into his side to ask the other question that’s been weighing on his mind.

“Eiji… can I ask you something?”

“Yes?” Eiji looks up, smiling softly. “What is it?”

Ash sighs. “This morning, a Lady Fiona Shi approached me,” he says, watching Eiji’s face carefully. Eiji stiffens, and his smile fades as he looks down as if ashamed. “She told me to avoid you because you’re not trustworthy, and that you seduced her husband away from her. Is that… true?”

Eiji flinches. “Yes,” he says after a long moment, “but I didn’t mean to.”

Ash waits for a moment.

Eiji sighs. “Her husband… they had an arranged marriage,” he finally says, “and neither of them is very fond of the other. He—he was very close to Gan-Lung Lee, and, ah… Yut-Lung wanted to get between them, so that it would be easier to catch Gan-Lung alone later. So he needed me to slip a letter with some incriminating statements on it into Lord Shi’s personal possessions, so that Gan-Lung would find it, and it would ruin their trust.

Eiji sighs very deeply before continuing, looking down into his lap. “And the easiest way for me to enter his office was… if he wanted me there. So Yut-Lung said I had to make him want me. And—he didn’t—I left before things went too far, but… he told court otherwise, to blame me, but Prince Gan-Lung denounced him for blaming me because I am a Lee ward, and… it all just went badly. Both of them lost a lot of standing in court after that, and Fiona never forgave me.”

The pieces slot neatly into place, and Ash thinks now he knows why Shorter was so disgusted earlier. He’s kind of disgusted, too. “Yut-Lung didn’t tell you they were married, did he?”

Eiji shakes his head mutely, swallows hard, and says, “Fiona was—she was an outsider here, too. I thought of her as a friend. And then the news broke that Lord Shi had fallen out of favor with the Prince and he blamed me for it, and Yut-Lung thought it was the funniest thing that I ruined my own friendship with her, and… that was that. I do not blame her for hating me. I would hate me, too.”

Ash presses his lips together. “It’s not your fault.”

“I hurt her,” Eiji murmurs. “That is my fault. Even if I was doing what I thought was the right thing for my people, even if I didn’t know, I hurt someone I called a friend.”

“Maybe,” Ash shrugs, “but Yut-Lung set you up. Did he even ask if you wanted to do that? It’s not like he gave you all the information necessary before he made you do that.”

He’s rather defensive of his Birdie, he realizes a little sourly. Sour, because the voice realizing it sounds suspiciously like Blanca’s, and he doesn’t care for that. But the idea of being forced to seduce someone and curry favor with one’s own body hits a little too close to home for him to be anything but defensive.

“Maybe,” Eiji repeats. Then he sighs, sips his tea, and shakes his head. “It was a while ago. It doesn’t matter anymore. What’s done is done. All that matters is looking forward from now on.”

Ash looks at him slowly, as the steam from his tea rises around his face. “Yeah,” he says, after a couple of heartbeats. “We have to move forward.”

He picks up his pastry again, finally, and for a few minutes they just sit together in silence.


Prince Yut-Lung Lee glides into the room softly, silently, with swanlike grace and a sharp eye. Ash can see the cunning behind the way he holds his shoulders carefully slumped, his head tipped down just enough to seem demure, the hands hanging limply at his side. For all intents and purposes, he looks like a princeling mourning his dear brother who has just died.

But Ash knows the truth.

He knows the truth, and that’s why Eiji has requested Yut-Lung’s presence—and Shorter’s—to tell them that he’s told Ash, that Ash is in on it now.

Man, he always knew he was getting in over his head when he left home, but this is massive. This is like he jumped into a huge river and it’s just spilled into the ocean. This is international politics, this is treason, this is potential war. It’s the highest-stakes chess game he’s ever played.

But his gaze slides back to Eiji, and he softens a touch. Doesn’t really matter. No matter how big the game gets, he’s playing to win.

The door closes, and Yut-Lung waits a few moments to make certain they are completely alone. Then he turns, walks over to Eiji where he sits next to Ash, and stares down at him coldly, all pretenses dropped. Ash prickles at the glare on his face, directed at Eiji, and has to stop himself from scowling back.

“You summon me and Shorter this late at night,” he hisses, voice icy, “and you have your boytoy with you. Please, tell me this doesn’t mean what it looks like it means.”

Eiji meets his gaze, unwavering. “I told Aslan about what we are doing—”

Thwack!

The slap is hard enough to knock Eiji’s head to the side, against Ash’s shoulder. Every muscle in Ash’s body goes rigid with restrained fury.

“Yut-Lung!” Shorter is on his feet. “Control yourself!”

“You idiot!” Yut-Lung clenches his fists, ignoring him. “Just because you’ve found yourself a good lay doesn’t mean you can go around telling everyone every little—”

Eiji whips his head back up defiantly. “I did not tell anyone other than him, and I am not going to! But I told him because I trust him!”

“You trust him? What about me? What about Shorter? You didn’t ask whether we trust him!” Yut-Lung raises his hand again. “You selfish, idiotic, incompetent—"

Ash grabs his wrist before the strike can fall, and Yut-Lung gasps, clearly not having expected that. For all his bravado and composure, his wrist is still thin and pale, and Ash tightens his grip until he knows it must hurt. “Raise your hand to him again,” he warns, “and I’ll tear it off.”

Yut-Lung wrenches away from him, and he lets go. Yut-Lung cradles his wrist to his chest and looks furious. “You think I’ll listen to you? If I wanted you dead, I could tell my guards you threatened me. Think carefully, Callenreese.”

“If you betray him and have them separated,” Shorter interrupts, eyes dark and unreadable, “you will no longer have my support.”

“If you choose to abandon me, I’ll just replace you with an alchemist who won’t.” Yut-Lung turns his glare on him. “Sing is much—”

Shorter cuts him off with a sharp laugh. “Sing would listen to you way less than I do. And if you got rid of me, you’d have to get rid of him too, and then you’d have to take all the time to find another alchemist to have them trained to the royal standard. No, Your Highness, I’m afraid you have to admit that this time, your subject has some sway over you.”

Yut-Lung looks from him back to Ash, who has settled back against the cushions but hasn’t taken his eyes off him, to Eiji, quiet but defiant despite his reddened cheek, and lets out a slow breath. “Fine. You have me at the disadvantage here. So what? You don’t care that Eiji’s spilling our secrets without asking us first? The more people that know about it, the more likely we are to get found out.”

“I don’t—” Shorter starts.

“Actually, Your Highness,” Ash interrupts, not bothering to disguise the caustic disregard in his voice, “Blanca and I already had our suspicions. Eiji just confirmed them.”

Yut-Lung rounds on him. “What? Why?”

Ash shrugs. “We just thought the timing of your summons was interesting, and a few other things. Sure, we didn’t expect something this big—and I haven’t told him what Eiji told me, before you throw another fit—but we thought you were up to something. And we were right.”

“What do you mean, a few other things?” Eiji asks softly. “If we’ve been visible to you, we might be visible to others…”

Ash shakes his head, patting his hand reassuringly. “I doubt you have to worry about that. Blanca is… what do you know of him, anyway?”

“That he’s one of Ecolisine’s most renowned knights and he was granted a baronship for it, and that he used to work directly for King Golzine before his retirement.” Eiji wrinkles his nose. “We hired him as a guard to keep up the charade that Yut-Lung is paranoid and vapid. What is it you know that we do not?”

The name King Golzine in Eiji’s soft voice makes revulsion slither down Ash’s spine and sit coiled unpleasantly in the pit of his stomach. He does his best to ignore it, drawing his finger in a slow circle over the back of Eiji’s hand to remind himself that he’s in the present. “Blanca wasn’t just a knight. Nobody outside of the top circle of Ecolisine advisors knows, but he was the head of their intelligence network.”

Yut-Lung hisses out a slow breath. “I see.”

Shorter nods to himself, as if not surprised. “Makes sense for a spy to want to get in on the neighbors’ issues. No wonder he responded easily when we reached out.”

“Oh, no,” Ash snorts. “He was perfectly happy to pass the request off to some non-retired knights, but I told him to accept it.”

Yut-Lung looks momentarily confused. “You? Why?”

Ash looks at Eiji, sitting next to him, and feels himself soften a little as Eiji smiles at him. “Why do you think?”

Yut-Lung heaves a deep sigh. In that moment, he sounds more like a grouchy seventeen-year-old and less like a conniving prince, and Ash almost laughs at him. “Of course,” he mutters, aggrieved, as he slouches into a chair. “Great. I have to put up with this now.”

Ash drapes his arm around Eiji’s shoulders, partly just to irritate Yut-Lung, but mostly because he just wants to hold Eiji close, especially after Yut-Lung’s barrage. “Surely I don’t know what you mean.”

“Ugh.” Yut-Lung sighs again. “Surely not.”

“Serves you right,” Shorter snickers, then sobers and squares his shoulders, all mirth draining from his face as he looks across the coffee table at Yut-Lung. “But, my prince, before we put the topic to rest, I have to make one thing clear.”

Yut-Lung looks over and raises an eyebrow. “What?”

Shorter folds his arms across his chest. “If you ever raise a hand to Eiji again, you’ll make an enemy of me.”

Yut-Lung sits up a little straighter, his eyes narrowing. “Is that a threat, Shorter Wong?”

“No.” Shorter lifts his chin. “Consider it a promise.”

Yut-Lung holds his gaze for several heartbeats, until Eiji coughs lightly and murmurs, “Shorter, I appreciate it, but that really isn’t necessary. You don’t need to get into things between us.”

“No, no,” Yut-Lung shakes his head finally, sighing in defeat as he looks to Eiji. “I shouldn’t have hit you. I was angry with you, but it wasn’t the appropriate response.”

“Oh!” Eiji looks surprised, like he didn’t expect even this half-assed apology. “Thank you.”

“I’m still not happy that you told Lord Callenreese here about our agreement without consulting me, however.” Yut-Lung presses his lips together in displeasure. “If it happens again… well… it better not happen again. Understood?”

“Oh, get off his ass,” Ash groans, rolling his eyes as he pulls Eiji closer against his side. “I was interrogating him about why he wouldn’t leave with me. If you have to blame someone, blame me.”

Yut-Lung raises an eyebrow again, looking at him for a long moment. “So you offered him an easy way out, and he refused?”

Ash holds his gaze unflinchingly. “That’s what I said, isn’t it?”

“Well.” Yut-Lung looks at Eiji again, then nods, slow and measured. “Consider me… a little impressed. I thought if you had the chance, you’d ditch me and run the second you could.”

Eiji looks rather unamused. “Did you really?”

Yut-Lung shrugs and looks away. “It’s not like people have much of a habit of sticking around. And running certainly would be easier for you.”

Eiji sighs. “If you actually thought I would leave just because it is the easier choice, perhaps you do not know me as well as you think. I have a duty to my people, Yut-Lung. You know that. And even if I did not, I did give you my word that I would help you.”

Shorter meets Ash’s eye, across from him, and then glances pointedly at Yut-Lung and rolls his eyes. Ash smirks and inclines his head.

“Your duty to your people,” Yut-Lung repeats. “And your word. You gave my brothers your word that you would be loyal to them, though, so can you blame me for being skeptical of it?”

Eiji huffs and shakes his head. “Did I do that because I wanted to, or because I had to? Don’t be stupid. You know the difference, even if you don’t want to say it out loud! Besides, your brothers are…”

He trails off, wrinkling his nose again, and a tiny, wry smile tugs at Yut-Lung’s lips. “The worst?”

“The worst,” Eiji agrees vehemently. The tension between the two of them breaks just like that, and both relax. Ash wonders how many times they’ve had conversations like this, frosty and bitter, that they both know exactly how to offer an olive branch and move on so quickly.

“I’ll drink to that,” Shorter joins in, miming a toast, and Eiji laughs. “Speaking of which. If we’re all gonna be hanging out here, can we get some wine? Not like we have anything… sensitive… to talk about, right? It’s all… out of the way?”

Everyone looks to Yut-Lung as if to ask do you have more grievances to air?, but he just shrugs. “Sure, why not! Let’s send for some wine.”

It’s late enough that within an hour, Yut-Lung decides to go back to his apartments and sleep, and Shorter agrees to walk him there. Ash finds himself finishing the last of his glass with Eiji tucked against his chest, drowsy and content.

“I need to get back to my rooms, too,” he finally says, reluctant to dislodge Eiji but keenly aware that it’s growing too late for him to respectably be visiting a prince in his apartments.

Eiji, just tipsy enough to be soft, sleepy and open, whines quietly. “Do you have to go?”

Ash’s heart tugs in his chest. It hurts to leave even though he knows, logically, he won’t be far—just a few corridors away. “I do, but I’ll be back tomorrow. Is that okay with you?”

Eiji lifts his head, eyes soft and sad, but nods and pulls away to sit up alone. Ash misses his warmth immediately. “Okay.”

Eiji walks him to the door, still soft and sleepy and sad, and clutches at his hand as he slips his feet back into his shoes. Ash squeezes back, then turns and looks at him. His hair is down, falling in messy waves, and his robes are rumpled from lying on the sofa; he looks ready to crawl into bed and sleep. “Well… good night, Birdie. Sleep well—”

Eiji flings his arms around him and hugs him hard, clinging to him for several long moments as Ash gently wraps his arms around him and squeezes him close. “I wish you could stay, Aslan,” he mumbles into Ash’s neck, fingers weakly sliding against the back of his jacket. “Every time I say goodbye to you now I wonder if it will be the last time again.”

“Oh, Birdie.” Ash gives him a tight, tight squeeze, then draws back and, impulsively, slips the jacket off. With a flourish, he drapes it about Eiji’s shoulders, pulls it close around him, and steps back. “I’ll see you in the morning. I promise.”

“Okay,” Eiji whispers, clutching the jacket around himself like a lifeline. He blinks a few times as Ash withdraws completely, looking up with big, shiny eyes, and it takes everything in Ash to stop himself from saying “fuck it” and pulling him close and staying forever. “Okay. I will see you in the morning. I—I promise, too.”

“Good,” Ash says, and kisses his forehead before he opens the door to let himself out. “I’ll hold you to it.”

Eiji smiles softly. “I look forward to it. Good night, Ash Lynx.”

Ash bows slightly. “Good night, Prince Okumura,” he says, and then he turns and walks away.

Chapter Text

Eleven years ago.

Water trickles in rivulets and beads down the edges of the leaves, shiny and bright, until it streams down into the dirt below, soaks in, and disappears. Yut-Lung eagerly watches it flow, tracing each drop that catches his eye and glints in the morning sunlight. He’s giving the plants a good, healthy drink of water, so they can grow big and strong!

“Careful, dear,” Mama says, leaning over him and tilting his watering can back upright. “You don’t want to overwater them, or they won’t grow.”

Wide-eyed, he looks up. “You can overwater them?”

“Yes.” Mama pats his head. “You know how if you drink too much water, your tummy hurts?”

Yut-Lung nods. He hates when that happens. Whenever he runs around he has to remind himself to drink water slowly. Not that he really gets to run around a lot, anyway. His big brother Chan-Lung told him he wasn’t supposed to run inside.

“The same thing happens to the plants,” Mama explains.

Yut-Lung blinks. “It does? But how do they drink? They don’t have tummies!”

“They drink from the dirt.” Mama brushes the leaves aside, showing him where the stem goes into the ground. “They have little straws that catch the water under it, so when it rains, or when we water them, they can drink it up! But their straws can suck up too much water, and then the plant doesn’t feel good. It isn’t exactly a tummy ache, but it makes the plant feel bad.”

Yut-Lung nods seriously and puts the watering can down. “Okay. I won’t give them more.”

“That’s a good boy.” Mama pats his head again. “Do you want to come water the next bed, too, or are you tired?”

“I wanna keep watering them!” He grabs the watering can so fast the water inside sloshes precariously, nearly sending him off-balance. “I don’t wanna go inside.”

“You don’t?” Mama sounds surprised as she picks up her own watering can and takes his hand, leading him to the next bed. “I thought you were cold.”

Yut-Lung puffs up his cheeks. “Yeah… but big brother Wang-Lung wants me to go to lessons when I’m done with you, and I don’t like him.”

Mama is quiet for a long moment. “Why not, dear? He’s your brother.”

Yut-Lung shrugs. “He’s scary.” He’s big and tall and he always looks at him with this weird look in his eye, like he’s angry, but also something else, and Yut-Lung doesn’t know what it is, but it always makes him want to run and hide behind Mama. “I think he hates me. What if he wants to get rid of me?”

Mama stops walking and puts her watering can down. Then she puts her hands on Yut-Lung’s shoulders and looks at him so seriously that he puts his can down, too. “A-Lung, has he ever tried to hurt you?”

Yut-Lung squeaks. “N-no! He’s just scary, Mama!”

Mama relaxes. Why? Was she really worried? Should he be scared?

“Don’t be afraid of him, A-Lung,” Mama says, and she hugs him tight. Yut-Lung relaxes in her arms, burrowing into her neck. Mama always keeps him safe. “Don’t be afraid of anyone.”

“Even if they’re scary?” Yut-Lung asks. Mama is always right, but he still thinks some people are scary.

“Even then. Especially then, my son.” Mama strokes his hair for a moment before she pulls back and looks at him, smiling again. “Wang-Lung is your big brother, okay? He would never hurt you.”

“Okay,” Yut-Lung says, and satisfied, he picks up his watering can again. After all, Mama is always right.


Present day.

By the time Yut-Lung arrives, all four of his brothers are already seated around the table, and lunch is ready and waiting. They haven’t bothered to wait for him to start, but his place is set, and he hurries to take his seat.

“Yut-Lung,” Hua-Lung says, inclining his head. “Nice of you to finally join us, little brother.”

Yut-Lung ducks his head and stares down into his lap, hunching his shoulders enough to look properly abashed. “I’m so sorry I’m late, I was in the library with Eiji and I lost track of time…”

It’s a lie, of course. He was in the library with Eiji, but he left late perfectly intentionally. The more his brothers think of him as harmless, eccentric, and obedient, the less they’ll stick their noses into his business.

“It’s no problem.” Wang-Lung pours himself more wine. Yut-Lung considers telling him that his crown is a little crooked, but decides against it. He can sit there looking like a fool until the end of their farce of a family luncheon. “Though I would prefer if you could try a little harder to be punctual in the future. You are a representative of our family.”

Yut-Lung hides a smile and hangs his head. “Of course I will. I know. I’m sorry.”

Wang-Lung waves a hand and sips his wine, all-too-pleased to have once again put Yut-Lung in his place. His delight in reminding everyone that he’s in charge, that he’s the emperor, will be his undoing. He’s convinced that he’s so far above everyone that he doesn’t have to look at who might be climbing the ladder next to his feet.

Pathetic.

“It’s not the worst timing you could’ve had.” Gan-Lung lifts a bite of curried rice to his mouth, lips already shiny and smeared with grease. “We were just talking about Eiji.”

Wariness seeps in, though Yut-Lung doesn’t allow it to show as he picks up his chopsticks. “You were?”

“Oh, yes.” Gan-Lung wipes his mouth on the back of his hand—certainly undignified, but of course no one criticizes him for it. “Shi Lai-Ke has been most cooperative lately. And you know how cold his wife has been to him since the last incident with our little Eiji, so I have been considering rewarding him by letting him be the one to finally break the little bird’s wings. He was definitely interested, three years ago. He may be less interested now that Eiji’s older, but he would still enjoy it.”

The idea of letting Shi Lai-Ke of all people take Eiji to bed—of his ugly, rude ass being encouraged to rape Eiji as a reward for sucking up to Gan-Lung again—makes Yut-Lung’s skin crawl. Not that he would ever admit it out loud, but… memories of sheets stained with blood and sweat and cum and tears rise, unbidden, into his mind’s eye, and he only manages to shut them out again by sternly reminding himself that it’s all in the past, that it’s normal and to be expected, and that none of it matters.

Besides, the real problem isn’t whether Eiji gets raped. It’s that if it happens, Eiji—fragile, soft Eiji—will shatter, and then he’ll be utterly useless.

And…

It’s been a month since Aslan Callenreese—Ash Lynx—arrived to the Imperial Court, but Yut-Lung still can’t get the image of those intense, burning green eyes boring into him after he slapped Eiji that one time. If Eiji gets thrown to Shi Lai-Ke, Ash will be enraged and become a wild card, and that will be a complete pain in the ass to deal with.

So, really, it’s just logical for Yut-Lung to revolt at the idea.

“What?” He balks, freezing with rice halfway to his mouth. “But… you promised Eiji would be mine to play with!”

Chan-Lung laughs. “Yut-Lung, surely you know he can’t be yours forever?”

“I know, but… if you let Shi Lai-Ke have him, he’ll break, and then I’ll have to deal with him crying and moping about it,” Yut-Lung complains, aiming for flippant petulance. “I don’t want to have to take care of him.”

If they really do try to go through with this, it won’t be the end of the world; he’ll just have to ensure that an accident befalls Shi Lai Ke. Nothing fatal—it would be too convenient—but something just effective enough to put him on bed rest for a while… maybe a broken leg or something. And with Blanca around, that won’t be hard at all.

It’s not that he’s worried for Eiji. It’s just that Eiji is his tool, and having that tool break just when he needs him to be most useful would be a major setback.

And certainly there’s no reason that his heart is pounding. He must have just walked here faster than he realized.

“Well, if you prefer, we could see about marrying him off afterwards,” Hua-Lung suggests. “Golzine’s sending that representative next week. It might set our relations with Ecolisine back in good standing if we offered him Eiji…”

“But—but Eiji’s mine!” Yut-Lung looks between his brothers, hoping he doesn’t actually look as panicked as he feels. “You can’t take him away, you promised I’d get to keep him as long as I want!”

“I did,” Wang-Lung says, “but—”

Yut-Lung sighs deeply, putting on the mask of a petulant child. “Is Shi Lai-Ke’s favor really so important you would break your promise to your brother? He’s already proven that he doesn’t respect you, Gan-Lung. Why be so generous? Have you truly forgiven him completely?”

Gan-Lung takes a long pull of his wine. “Hmm… I suppose not. It would be too kind of me to give him such a prize when he did attempt to steal from me.”

Yut-Lung nods. “I used to think highly of him, brother, but after he stole—what was it? It was your ruby circlet, right? Or the emerald one?”

“It was the rubies.” Gan-Lung looks slightly displeased at the reminder. Good.

“Right. It made me lose all respect for him… that he would just want to use his connection to you for his own personal gain.” Yut-Lung sighs again. “I guess I’m also just reluctant to see you give Eiji to someone like that, when he’s mine right now…”

“No, no.” Gan-Lung shakes his head, and Yut-Lung knows he’s won. “You do bring up a valid point. Perhaps we can revisit this topic another time, but for now, breaking in our free bird is too high an honor for him.”

They also promised Eiji when they took him in that so long as he was good and obedient, he wouldn’t be raped, but Yut-Lung knows by now that his family’s promises have always been empty.

“So… I can keep him?” He looks between his brothers, widening his eyes to look pitiable and innocent. The fact that they still fall for it is only testament to their own stupidity, but he supposes it works in his favor well enough, so he won’t complain.

Gan-Lung nods. “Yes. You can keep taking good care of him, too.”

“And if you ever want any help, you know where to find us,” Chan-Lung adds. The glint in his eyes is enough to make Yut-Lung a little nauseous, even if he is used to it. “It’s what family is for, little brother.”

“Of course it is,” Yut-Lung says, picking at the rice in his plate. “Family… You know, I wish Ho-Lung had been able to attend the funeral. It would have been nice. I worry about him.”

“This again?” Wang-Lung groans. “Yut-Lung, for the last time, Kam-Lung was not murdered! It was a riding accident. You should stop being so paranoid. It looks bad that you immediately jumped to conclusions and hired a private bodyguard, as well! You couldn’t even have just hidden behind the Imperial Guard?”

“You don’t know that it was an accident!” Yut-Lung tightens his hold on his chopsticks. “The gear was worn through! Someone wanted him dead!”

“Or someone was a negligent fool and didn’t check the saddle straps before readying horses for the riding party,” Chan-Lung sighs. “We’ve been over this, Yut-Lung. You need to get your paranoia in check. We can’t get rid of your bodyguard now that he’s here, I suppose, but please don’t be so ridiculous. It makes the whole family look bad.”

“I don’t think it’s surprising he’s reacting like this,” Hua-Lung says, crossing his arms. “He would rather assume it’s foul play, because otherwise he has to confront how delicate life is. It’s just that he’s naïve.”

Oh, it is so easy to make these idiots underestimate him. And soon, when the Ecolisine representative arrives, he’ll play directly into Yut-Lung’s hands.

“He is,” Gan-Lung agrees. “Take it from me, Yut-Lung. As the general of our army, I know how easy it is to kill someone. Accidents happen. Kam-Lung just had an unfortunate accident.”

Yut-Lung hugs himself. “But…”

“Keep your private guard if it makes you feel better.” Wang-Lung pushes his chair back from the table and stands. His crown is still crooked. “But don’t go spreading your foolish paranoia around to everyone. We have an image to uphold. Be on time for lunch, next time, as well; I have lots of work to tend to, and I can’t afford to wait on you.”

True to his word, he doesn’t bother to wait for an answer before he turns on his heel and leaves the dining room; the large double-doors swing shut behind him with a thud.

One by one, all of his other brothers finish the last of their lunches and file out with barely a cursory glance in his direction. Yut-Lung waits until they’re all gone to let himself smile a real smile before he stands to leave as well.

Behind him, the meat cools in his plate, untouched.


The door to the alchemist’s cottage is locked.

Impatient, Yut-Lung raises his fist to bang on it—Shorter has no other duties, so he better be here!—when a woman’s low moan from inside drifts out through the wood, and he stops.

“Yeah,” Shorter’s voice, muffled, follows. “Yeah, that’s it, baby…”

Yut-Lung stares at the door incredulously as another muffled moan, this one louder than the last, drifts out. This one is a man’s voice, a man who is definitely not Shorter. The woman laughs breathlessly, and—

…Seriously?

Ugh.

He can’t believe he’s fucking listening to this.

“What is the point of having a court alchemist,” he grouses, turning on his heel so abruptly that his robes flare out around his ankles, “if he’s always too busy fucking around to do the work you request him to do—”

“Prince Yut-Lung?”

Sing pops his head around the side of the house like an inquisitive hamster. Yut-Lung raises an eyebrow at him. “Yes?”

“I have your fertilizer!” Sing beckons him. “Shorter told me you were going to come for it, so he said I should wait here until you got here, since he’s… busy.”

“Busy,” Yut-Lung repeats sarcastically. “Yes, I noticed. I’m considering ruining it for him so that he knows better for next time he has an appointment with me.”

“Please ruin it,” Eiji’s voice drifts around the corner, and as Yut-Lung follows Sing to the back garden, he sees him sitting in the grass next to a row of marigolds. “It is Lung Nui and Mao Lui again. I do not want—last time, he started gushing to me about how good in bed they both are, and I do not—it is so difficult to look someone in the eye after being told about—”

“I’ll ruin it,” Yut-Lung interrupts. He doesn’t particularly want to know what Shorter says that Lung Nui is good at. Eiji can suffer with that knowledge alone, thanks. “Has he already slept his way through the rest of the staff? Is he on his second run?”

Eiji looks aggrieved. “No… the three of them do this on a kind of regular basis.”

“At least they’re having a good time?” Sing shrugs, clearly trying to offer an olive branch on Shorter’s behalf. “And he did make the stuff for you, so it’s not like he neglected his duty. He’s just…”

“I’m not mad at him,” Yut-Lung interrupts, waving a hand to assuage Sing’s worries. “Just disappointed.”

Sing shrugs again. “At least they know that he just likes to sleep with friends. You should’ve seen the time after he slept with Li Qing… she wanted to be exclusive and also said she wanted to marry him, and she was so persistent about it and she wouldn’t stop coming back here to ask if he’d changed his mind yet or if he still wanted to break her heart, and…”

Yut-Lung pinches the bridge of his nose. “That would have been an easily-avoided problem if he had just avoided sleeping with her.”

“It would have,” Eiji agrees, “except that apparently she, and I quote, ‘sucks dick like a champion, so it was totally worth it’.”

Yut-Lung sighs deeply. He didn’t come here to learn details about Shorter’s sex life. Time for a change of topic. “And what about you? Where’s your tail?”

Eiji blinks, tipping his head to the side like a confused puppy, before it clicks. “My tail…? Oh! You mean Ash? He is sparring with Blanca right now!”

“Ah, I see. I’m sure he’d be here otherwise.” Yut-Lung settles onto the stone bench next to Sing, who wordlessly offers him a bowl of grapes. He takes one, pops it into his mouth, and nearly makes a face when it’s more sour than he expected. “Why aren’t you watching? I’m surprised that—oh, wait, is it that you’re afraid to let him see you drooling?”

Eiji goes pink, and Yut-Lung smirks. Out of the corner of his eye, he notices Sing’s face fall just slightly. Interesting.

“No! I just did not want to distract him!” Eiji protests, crossing his arms. “I do not dr—he is my best friend, Yut-Lung, not—that’s ridiculous!”

“Is it?” Yut-Lung taps a finger to his lips in thought. “Because to me it certainly looks like you’d happily hop into his bed given the opportunity.”

Eiji’s flush darkens. Sing pops another grape into his mouth and looks away. 

“You know perfectly well that I am not interested in sleeping with anyone,” Eiji huffs, dropping his gaze back down to the marigolds. “Stop being presumptuous!”

“I’m only saying what I see.” Yut-Lung hazards a second grape; this one is significantly sweeter than the last, and he reaches for a third. “And you were betrothed as children.”

Eiji scoffs. “Yes, when we were children. And an arranged marriage between children doesn’t mean anything about how you feel when you are both adults!”

Yut-Lung shrugs again. He’s not actually invested in whether Eiji gets laid or not, but it certainly is fun to tease him about it. “True, but something about the way he looks at you tells me that if you were going to end up with anyone between your legs, it would be—"

“You shouldn’t push it if Eiji isn’t comfortable with this, my prince,” Sing says a little stiffly. He doesn’t make eye contact with either of them, instead staring off into the orchard.

Interesting.

Luckily for him, Yut-Lung is in a good mood and doesn’t care that he just interrupted him. “Oh, very well, if it really bothers you that much.”

“Thank you, Sing,” Eiji says. “At least some people here know how to be nice to me.”

Yut-Lung very maturely throws a grape at him.

After a moment, he stands, picking up the poison augmentation drops. It’s a medium-sized jar full of viscous, dark liquid that shimmers a deep purple in the evening light.

“It’s nearly sundown.” Yut-Lung glances at the golden sky. “I need to water the plants now. You both are welcome to come, if you please, but if not, I’ll be taking my leave now.”

“We’ll come!” Eiji chirps. He jumps up and dusts off his robes, the sheer silk swirling around his legs, and as an afterthought grabs the bowl of grapes from the bench. “Right, Sing?”

“Sure.” Sing takes the jar to carry it for him and follows as Yut-Lung walks from the alchemy garden toward the maze.

It’ll take a few minutes of walking to get to his poison garden, and the drops are most potent when administered exactly at sunset. He doesn’t need to poison anyone important yet, but after Ho-Lung dies (in three days, and he’s almost excited at the thought) the rest of the assassinations will be much closer to home. It’ll be important to have a good stock of poisons on hand.

And… it doesn’t hurt to have an assassin’s apprentice on his side, he admits to himself. He’s very skilled at the art of herbalism and poisons, but Ash is trained specifically in how to blend in and how to kill. He could prove very useful. It’s a good thing he’s wrapped around Eiji’s fingers, even if Eiji somehow hasn’t managed to notice that yet.

They walk through the maze in an amiable enough silence, the grass whispering underfoot as they turn corners or walk down tall, green corridors. Yut-Lung knows this maze like the back of his hand. It has always been his refuge, even when all other places in the palace ceased to be sanctuaries.

In his garden, tucked deep inside the hedges and full of innocuous flowers, he fills his watering can from the stream and mixes the contents of the jar into it, stirring with a stick from the ground. Sing watches him, while Eiji looks out over the plants, pensive.

“This one looks a little under the weather,” he says suddenly, kneeling in the grass and pointing to a dense cluster of branches. “Do you want me to…?”

“Yes,” Yut-Lung says immediately, coming over with his watering can. The mountain laurels have a few spots on their leaves; logically, he knows they’re susceptible to blights and are hardy enough to bounce back, but the idea of losing his tiny laurel thicket is terrifying. “Yes, please.”

Eiji reaches forward and brushes his fingers along the spotted leaves, hands glowing with a faint golden light that’s almost reminiscent of the sun. The laurels respond to his touch, their green color deepening into something richer as a few buds blossom, and the spots fade away, back into healthy leaves. Eiji takes several seconds to linger, thumb stroking over one of the bigger leaves, before he pulls back, and the light fades.

Relief rolls through Yut-Lung before he even realizes how nervous he was. “Thank you.”

“No problem!” Eiji offers a cheery smile. Yut-Lung doesn’t return it, just staring at his mountain laurels.

“Make sure you wash your hands before eating anything,” he says finally, wrenching his gaze away. “Their leaves are poisonous.”

Eiji nods. “Right! I know. I usually assume everything in here is.”

Yut-Lung smiles wanly. He doesn’t really get it. “Yes. My… I used to love to touch all of the flowers when I came here, and my mom always said to be careful watering the laurels.”

Eiji’s eyes widen. “Oh,” he says, softly. “You have taken very good care of them.”

“Your mom planted those?” Sing asks, also softer than usual.

Yut-Lung just nods.

Sing looks at them, contemplative, and nods very slowly, as if to himself. “They’re beautiful.”

“Yes,” Yut-Lung murmurs, glancing down at the newly-bloomed flowers. “They really are.”


“Turn a little left.”

Eiji obediently turns his head to the left, and Yut-Lung slides another pin into his hair, securing a small braid into place around the bun at the back of his head. Eiji’s hair is very thick and not as silky as Yut-Lung’s, which makes it easier to pin. Technically, they have attendants that could do this for the both of them, but they’ve been doing each other’s hair in the mornings before court ever since they were children, and it’s an unspoken tradition Yut-Lung is loath to break.

They aren’t friends, of course, but it’s something comforting, and he prefers to keep it. Just a secret that only the two of them share.

He steps back for a moment, selects a floral comb from the dresser, and slips it securely into Eiji’s hair as an accent. The pearls dangling from the centers of the flowers clack against each other as Eiji turns his head, glancing in the mirror, and Yut-Lung catches his eye. “Good?”

“Mmhmm.” Eiji smiles at him. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Yut-Lung smiles back, just slightly. Of the two of them, Eiji has always smiled far more easily. He’s never understood why, when Eiji’s the one who lost his entire family and his country, but—well, to each his own. Maybe Eiji just isn’t affected as much as one would think he should be. “Are you ready?”

“I guess.” Eiji laughs, demure, and looks down into his lap. The makeup around his eyes only makes them look bigger and softer, as if he’s an innocent child instead of an accomplice to murder. “It is not like I have to do very much at court. Are you ready?”

“Mm.” Yut-Lung glances into the mirror and pushes one pin back in his own hair until it feels more secure. “I don’t tend to do much more than you, anyway. Being the seventh son has its perks.”

Eiji laughs again, soft and humorless. “I guess it does. Are you… okay?”

Yut-Lung gives him an odd look. “Of course I am. What makes you ask that?”

Eiji shrugs and lets his gaze slide away. “I just worry, sometimes. Are you ready for… of course you are, I do not know why I even thought to ask that.”

Yut-Lung pauses, prepared to be weary again. Is this going to happen every time?

Of course it is. Eiji is soft. That’s the entire reason he’s useful. It just apparently has the unintended side-effect of making him feel guilty for every life they take.

“Are you ready?” He keeps his gaze focused on his own hair, running his hand through the end of his braid. “Or are you going to mope about Ho-Lung, too?”

Eiji hesitates, and Yut-Lung swallows a sigh. They both know he’s going to say yes, so—

“No,” Eiji says, and shakes his head, though he looks much less resolute than he sounds. “No, I will not.”

Yut-Lung blinks. That’s unexpected. Is he just putting on a brave face? He must be. “Are you sure? What changed?”

Eiji looks down into his lap, and, of all things, blushes. It’s very slight, and only barely visible under the makeup, but Yut-Lung knows him, and he knows that it’s there. And he smiles, too—a sweet, soft smile that feels almost too intimate to look upon.

Oh.

Ugh.

Yut-Lung feels about two years shave themselves off of his lifespan before Eiji even opens his damn mouth and says, “I talked to Aslan.”

Of course.

Of course Aslan Jade Callenreese could get through to Eiji when Yut-Lung himself couldn’t. It’s not that he’s jealous—of course not! Eiji doesn’t matter to him in that way; he doesn’t care if they’re emotionally close. But to think that someone who has known him for years and years couldn’t make him understand, and then that someone who hadn’t at all been there for him since he was thirteen could come waltzing right back in and magically make things click—

Of course it’s infuriating! He has every right to be annoyed.

He’s not jealous. He doesn’t care if Eiji wants to go spread his legs for his perfect knight, or even everyone in the damn palace (although that that’s more Shorter’s speed). He just feels…

He feels…

Taken for granted?

No, that’s silly. He has no emotional investment in Eiji. It’s not like they’re friends.

“Really,” Yut-Lung finally responds, and though he tries to mask it, his voice drips with thinly-veiled venom. “What did your Aslan have to say about it, that it finally got through your head? So I can make notes, for next time.”

Eiji shakes his head, still smiling that stupid, soft smile. “There will not be a next time, you do not have to worry!”

Yut-Lung folds his arms across his chest, eyebrows raised. “Oh? But now I have to know.”

Eiji finally looks up at him, his eyes shining, and Yut-Lung nearly smacks him just to make him stop. He shouldn’t get to feel soft and sweet and happy if Yut-Lung can’t, too. They’re supposed to be in this together, every step of the way.

“I told him I felt bad for hurting others, even if it was for a good cause,” Eiji says, “and he responded by telling me about… my little sister. And how she is doing. And… he told me about Max, and Griffin, too, things I did not remember, about what they had to do when they were knights. And he told me that it is good to not enjoy killing, but to recognize that if it must be done, the one to do it may as well be me. And I may not love the process, but I love the people I am defending.”

Yut-Lung stares at him, incredulous, for a moment. A lofty, idealistic pep talk did it for him, where a reminder of everything these monsters have done failed? Eiji is… ridiculous. Stupid. Naïve.

“So you just needed baby stories?” he scoffs. “I suppose I will keep that in mind for the future.”

“Not baby stories!” Eiji’s luminous smile disappears, and he wraps his arms around himself defensively, as if Yut-Lung would ever pose a real threat to him. “He just reminded me why I am doing this.”

“And I didn’t?” Yut-Lung snorts.

“You did! But not all of it.” Eiji shakes his head, then looks down at his feet for a moment. Yut-Lung is about to retort with something icy when he lifts his chin again, something fiery and resolute blazing behind his eyes, and adds, “You reminded me what we stand against. Aslan reminded me of what I am fighting for.”

“How flowery,” Yut-Lung says automatically, blowing out a dismissive breath to hide the discomfort those words spawned deep in his chest.

(What is he fighting for—?)

He should change the subject.

“Shi Lai-Ke wants you again,” he says abruptly, turning away from the vanity and walking back to the center of the room. “Gan-Lung wants to give you to him. I found out at the luncheon the other day.”

Eiji gasps behind him. He doesn’t need to turn around to know that he must be trembling, eyes wide, and face white as a sheet, his previous smiles shattered. “What?! He—but—I thought—I thought they promised—”

“Oh, Eiji.” Yut-Lung shakes his head and glances over his shoulder. Sure enough, Eiji is standing, both hands clasped over his mouth in shock and horror. The soft, happy look is completely gone; for just a moment, a tiny needle of guilt stabs Yut-Lung for destroying it, but he shoves it viciously aside. “Don’t tell me you thought their promises ever meant anything. You were always going to be someone’s prize.”

“The Emperor—” Eiji swallows hard, shaking his head in denial. “The Emperor told me that if I was good they would never force me to—no one would force themselves on me—they said—”

If he starts crying, it’ll ruin his makeup, and they spent long enough on that that redoing it will definitely make them late for court. Yut-Lung sighs and crosses the room back to him, takes his trembling hands, and squeezes them ever so slightly.

“Don’t be so silly,” he murmurs, and Eiji gives him a wide-eyed whimper. “It’s not that bad.”

“I can’t!” Eiji bursts out. “If I end up having to lie there and just—and just endure it and that is it for the rest of my life, I will die—

“Shhhh.” Yut-Lung squeezes his hands, ignoring the guilt gnawing at his stomach. This is much less satisfying than he thought it would be. “Have more faith in me, Eiji. I managed to dissuade him for the time being.”

“You did?” Eiji’s eyes water more, not less, and Yut-Lung nearly swears. “Yut-Lung—”

“Do not start crying,” he hisses. “We are not waiting to redo your eyeliner if it gets messed up. Get it together, Eiji.”

Eiji lets out a tiny whine but nods, taking a deep breath. “Right. Right, sorry. I… um… I…”

“I have a plan,” Yut-Lung interrupts, before Eiji can try to speak and make himself start bawling. God, he really is delicate and soft. He smiles too much, and he cries too much, too. Perhaps he just feels too much, in general. “I’ll worry about the details for now. Just be on your guard, and don’t let any of Gan-Lung’s guys corner you until I figure this out. Alright?”

Eiji nods wordlessly.

“Good.” Yut-Lung squeezes his hands one last time before letting go. “Now come on. Let’s go. Save those tears for Ho-Lung when they break the news.”

That startles a watery laugh out of Eiji, surprising both of them, and then Eiji nods again, sniffling once. “Right. Okay. Let’s go,” he agrees, and leads the way to the door.

Yut-Lung follows, with one unpleasant thought on his mind:

For this to work, he’ll have to make a deal with Ash Lynx.


The biggest problem is that Ash Lynx, unfortunately, is an insufferable prick. He might be worse than Shorter.

“Your Royal Highness.” Ash inclines his head—he doesn’t even bow—and smirks, making it more than clear that he doesn’t actually regard Yut-Lung as his superior or better. “It’s quite the surprise to receive a summons from you, of all people. Especially on the day after your poor brother’s demise.”

Scratch that. Definitely worse than Shorter.

“Oh, shut up and sit down and listen.” Yut-Lung points at the sofa across from him. “I didn’t call you hear to listen to you tell me about your opinions of me.”

“Of course not.” Ash takes a seat, crossing one leg over the other and lounging back with false indolence. He’s like a cat—Yut-Lung can almost see his figurative tail lashing back and forth, his eyes unnervingly piercing. “Though I will note that I have yet to state a single opinion, Your Highness.”

Yut-Lung hates the way he manages to make his title sound like an insult. Shorter does that, too, sometimes, but at least Shorter pretends to respect him part of the time. Ash Lynx, on the other hand, has yet to forgive him for slapping Eiji that one time, and he’s made it clear every single time they’ve seen each other since.

It’s utterly vexing.

“You are obnoxious,” Yut-Lung sniffs. “The tea in the pot is jasmine. Help yourself if you want it. Or don’t, I don’t care.”

“Certainly,” Ash says, and does not move.

Yut-Lung resists the urge to roll his eyes.

“Whatever. You can drink it, or not. If you don’t, that’s more for me.” He fiddles with the end of his braid, annoyed, and blows out a short breath. “I called you here to talk about Eiji.”

Ash doesn’t move, but his gaze sharpens, and his eyes go chilly. “What about Eiji?”

Yut-Lung drums his fingers on the armrest of his chair, sighs, and leans forward to pour himself a cup of tea. He doesn’t bother pouring one for Ash. “What do you know about Lord Shi Lai-Ke?”

Ash watches him blow on his tea for a long moment. “I know that you set Eiji up to get between him and his wife two years ago.”

Ah. Of course Eiji told him about that.

“It wasn’t about his wife,” Yut-Lung corrects, sighing again. “He and my brother Gan-Lung were getting quite friendly, and Shi Lai-Ke has always been interested in Eiji.”

“So you used his lust for Eiji to get between him and your brother.” Ash’s eyes narrow. “And you didn’t care for what that might do to Eiji because of his friendship with Lady Fiona Shi. I see.”

“No, you idiot,” Yut-Lung hisses. “Gan-Lung wanted to give Eiji to Shi Lai-Ke as a present. Permanently. Getting to blame him for stealing from Gan-Lung and ruining their relationship was a bonus, but frankly, I don’t give a shit about whether Gan-Lung has friends. I made Eiji get between them so that Gan-Lung wouldn’t want to give him to Shi Lai-Ke anymore.”

Ash stares at him for a long moment. His face is utterly unreadable. Yut-Lung stares back, holding his gaze steadily.

“You lied to Eiji?”

“Is it always about what I did to Eiji with you?” Yut-Lung sinks his nails into the cushioned armrest for a moment, irritated. “Yes, I lied to him. He would have been too afraid to keep doing what I needed him to do if I told him the truth. Besides, I told him most of it. He knows that Shi Lai-Ke wanted him.”

“He told me that you were very happy that you ended his friendship with Lady Fiona.” Ash is unconvinced.

Yut-Lung could scream. Yes, maybe he didn’t like that Eiji was getting along so well with someone else, but that was a matter of safety for their plan! They can’t afford to become close to outsiders. It’s not like he was jealous, or anything ridiculous like that!

“I had to make him believe that was the reason,” he sniffs. “Anyway, this still isn’t what I called you here for. I don’t want to waste time arguing about the past.”

“Sure,” Ash says, tossing his head to get his hair away from his eyes. His voice is light and easy in a way that clearly says I won, and Yut-Lung could strangle him. He isn’t changing the topic because he’s backing down! He’s changing it because he doesn’t want to spend any more time than he absolutely has to talking to Eiji’s boytoy!

“Three days back, I had lunch with my brothers.” Yut-Lung sips his tea. Is it petty of him to take his time blowing on it just to make Ash wait? Perhaps. Perhaps he’s a petty person. “Gan-Lung told everyone that Shi Lai-Ke has been working very hard to get back into his good graces, and he’s considering giving him a night with Eiji to reward him.”

Ash stiffens.

“And,” Yut-Lung continues, “since Eiji is quite useful to me, I have a vested interest in keeping that from happening. A bird with broken wings can’t flutter about anyone’s head.”

“So you want me to kill Shi Lai-Ke,” Ash says flatly. “I can do that.”

“What?” Yut-Lung stares at him for half a second before remembering himself. “No, you idiot, you would be the first suspect if he died right after it became clear that he still has interest in Eiji.”

Ash raises an eyebrow. “Would I?”

“Everyone in court knows you have a thing for him,” Yut-Lung scoffs. “Even if you aren’t already courting him. You aren’t exactly subtle about how much time you like to spend with him. Of course eyes would be on you if Shi Lai-Ke tried to rival you for Eiji’s affections and then died.”

“He’s not after Eiji’s affections.” Ash is cold and dangerous, something dark flickering in his eyes. It flashes across his face too fast for Yut-Lung to place, but for just a moment, he thinks he catches a glimpse of how terrifying Ash Lynx must be on the battlefield. “He just wants to control him.”

Yut-Lung waves a hand dismissively, brushing off the shiver that runs down his spine at the look in Ash’s eyes. “Of course. That’s all sex is good for. But my point is that I cannot allow anyone to break Eiji at this point, not when our plans are already in motion. So…”

“If you don’t want me to kill him, what do you have in mind?” Ash’s mouth is a firm, thin line of displeasure. “I could still kill him. People can talk, but if no evidence can be traced back to me, talk is all it is. I’m not afraid of rumors.”

“Well, you should be,” Yut-Lung snaps. “I won’t have you ruining the chances of our success just because you need to kill off your competition.”

Ash’s eyes flash again, and this time Yut-Lung swears the room drops in temperature for a solid five seconds. “Do not,” Ash hisses, “ever insinuate that I want to control Eiji for my own enjoyment, ever again.”

Yut-Lung holds up one hand in mock surrender, taken aback. Why is he so vehement about it? That’s just what people do, isn’t it? “Alright, fine! Calm down.”

“I’m perfectly calm.” Ash pins him with a frosty glare for another several heartbeats before he finally relaxes his stiff shoulders, blows out a breath, and pours himself a cup of tea. “But I hope you know that I would rather die than ever hurt Eiji.”

“You’re absolutely ridiculous,” Yut-Lung mutters, sipping his own tea again. The earthy, floral flavor of jasmine is calming, and he takes a slow breath to inhale the steam, closing his eyes for a moment. “What did he ever do to be worth your life?”

Ash looks at him for a long moment with… with… pity?

“You genuinely don’t understand, do you?” he asks, raising his cup to his lips. “I’m surprised you’ve had him to yourself for so many years and you don’t get it.”

“I don’t want your pity!” Yut-Lung snaps. “If you don’t want to talk about it, fine! You can just say so instead of—”

“Eiji loved me,” Ash interrupts. “That’s what he did. And I would do anything to see him happy.” He levels a look at Yut-Lung, not frigid as a winter wind anymore, but neutrally cool, like an early spring breeze. “Maybe one day you’ll understand.”

Love?

What kind of ridiculous bullshit excuse is that? Love is a delusion that only fuels weakness. Love fosters dependency. Love is the reason he still aches for—

No. Not that. Not now.

“I don’t think so,” he says stiffly, taking a slow sip of his tea to buy time collect himself. “Regardless, I really don’t care if you think you ‘love’ him, or whatever. All I need is for you to help me get Shi Lai-Ke to back off.”

Ash looks like he wants to say something, but instead of whatever might have been on his mind, he just nods, and the slight warmth in his eyes dims. “Of course. I’m assuming you already have a plan, or you wouldn’t have called me here…?”

“Correct.” Yut-Lung takes another deep breath, smelling the jasmine, and shifts gears. It’s better not to let himself be even slightly vulnerable in front of the Lynx. “Shi Lai-Ke is a run-of-the-mill disgusting man. He lacks a spine. All I want you to do is to stake a claim, publicly, and scare him off.”

Ash blinks in surprise. “That’s it?”

“It’ll have to be showy,” Yut-Lung warns. “He’s a coward, but a proud one. If he thinks he can steal Eiji anyway, he’ll try. You have to intimidate him. Make him think that you’ll fight him for Eiji, and that you’re too much trouble to be worth the effort.”

“I would fight him,” Ash mutters, “so that part won’t be a problem.”

“I have something specific in mind.” Yut-Lung leans back against the cushions behind him. “Court is in an uproar right now because of how Ho-Lung died, so now the perfect opportunity. It should be effective—it’ll be public, showy, and intimidating—and for you, I don’t think looking ‘scary’ will be a problem.”

Ash snorts.

“There’s only one thing that might make it difficult,” Yut-Lung adds, and really, this is the hard part. “Well… maybe not difficult. But it might be a hurdle, for you, at least.”

Ash raises an eyebrow. “And what would that be?”

“Well,” Yut-Lung says, and hesitates for just a second. “Eiji isn’t going to like it.”

Chapter Text

Four years ago.

“Ash. Come. There is someone I would like you to meet.”

Golzine’s hand is hot against the small of Ash’s back, even through the cotton of his shirt, and revulsion slithers down his spine. He resists a physical shudder, too used to the ever-present disgust that sleeps under his skin like stained, slippery silks, and keeps his face so neutral he may as well be dead.

“Really?” Golzine propels him down the carpeted hall, sounding almost amused. “Do you have no curiosity as to who it could be?”

Ash has already met Blanca. He doesn’t care about anyone else. Blanca is his one ticket out of here, if only he can convince him that helping him is worth drawing Golzine’s ire.

“I do not,” he answers blandly. The one thing that matters is getting to Eiji. He doesn’t care about the rest.

Besides, someone Golzine wants him to meet? Definitely just another high-ranking dignitary who wants to fuck him into a mattress until he bleeds and cries, then walk out. Their faces have started to blur together at this point.

It’s a good thing Griff is gone, and that Max can’t see him now. He can’t bear to even imagine the shame.

“Well, that’s no good.” Golzine shakes his head. “We’ll have to do something about that. I can’t have you being so broken yet.”

Ash lifts his gaze from the end of the hallway to glance neutrally upwards. “Yet?”

Golzine smiles thinly, a smile that doesn’t reach his cold eyes. “You still have some use besides as a pretty whore, my dear.”

“I won’t be your whore forever,” Ash warns, eyes flashing—Golzine thinks he’s broken, but he’s wrong. Ash may splinter, but he never breaks. “And one day I will put a knife in your back.”

“There’s your usual fighting spirit.” Golzine chuckles. The loathing that crawls beneath Ash’s skin recoils and sends nausea spiking up his throat, even as he begins to feel, again, that none of this really matters. “You really are a wild animal. There are two choices with those like you. Either I tame you, or I break you. It’s up to you,” and he slides his hand lower, but Ash doesn’t give him the satisfaction of a reaction, “which it will be.”

They reach the end of the hall, and Golzine’s hand slides back up to the small of Ash’s back as two attendants open the double doors.

“You are now in the presence of the King!” a herald calls out, announcing Golzine to the room without so much as an acknowledgment of Ash’s existence.

He’s used to that, too. He’s basically furniture to these people—barely even spared a second glance, but oft-used—and he’s done shedding tears over it, or over them. Ecolisine doesn’t deserve his tears. It doesn’t matter how anyone touches him or sees him; if he retreats far enough into his own mind, he doesn’t notice. And if he doesn’t notice, he can endure.

He will survive this. He will get out of here. And he will find Eiji. He made a promise.

(It’s the one thing keeping him going.)

“Your Royal Majesty,” a new voice says, and Ash slants a look to the middle of the receiving room as the attendants all file out, apparently under prior orders. “It is an honor to be in your presence—”

“Oh, cut the chit-chat, young Lord Arthur.” Golzine waves an imperious hand, and the young man standing in front of the sofa in front of them shuts up immediately. “You sought an audience with me, did you not? What about?”

Arthur. Ah, that’s the name of the House whose leader passed away suddenly last week. Ash heard about it from two of the men three days ago, as idle chat as they passed him back and forth between them.

So this must be the new Head of the House. His name is Fr… Something with an F. Fr… Francis? Frank? That might be it. Frankie? Frankie, probably.

Frankie Arthur bows again. His hair is full of gel, Ash notes—so much so that he’s willing to bet it would be hard to the touch. He can’t help but smirk at the thought; perhaps Lord Frankie Arthur wants to look tough and grown-up, like a real star of the show, but all he looks like right now is an idiot. Especially with the feather-trimmed cape. Hasn’t anyone told him that feathers are the exact opposite of fashionable?

“I wanted to come pay my respects to you, Your Majesty,” Frankie says. Golzine sits down, signaling Frankie that it’s alright for him to take a seat as well, and Ash wordlessly sits down, too. “And renew my House’s pledge of allegiance to you. I deeply apologize that I didn’t ask for an appointment sooner.”

“I wouldn’t have expected you to.” Golzine dismisses him with another wave of his hand, then rests it on Ash’s thigh. Ash looks down for a moment with detachment, wondering if that’s even his body. He can’t quite tell anymore. So many people have laid claim to it. “The passing of your uncle must have been quite the shock.”

Ah. So this is the late Lord Arthur’s nephew. Ash files that away—he wasn’t quite sure what the relation was. The two men never cared to mention it.

(Disgust roils in the pit of his stomach, and he’s glad there’s no refreshment tray in sight, because he’s certain even looking at food would make him throw up right now. He hates letting anyone touch him at all, but having Golzine’s hand, of all hands, resting on his thigh is making him actively nauseous.)

“It was certainly unexpected,” Frankie nods, looking down, and in that moment, looking at his smoothly-crafted façade, Ash knows that he is the one who killed his uncle. “But we are making do as best as we can.”

“Good.” Golzine’s thumb rubs a slow circle into Ash’s leg. If Ash felt more like he was in his body, he might have flinched away. As is, he numbly observes it happening, then looks back at Frankie Arthur. “I’m pleased to hear that.”

Frankie looks back at him, his eyes full of nothing but malice.

“I am glad that it pleases you, Your Majesty.” Frankie inclines his head deeply. “If I may… who is this… nobleman… that accompanies you?”

“Ah,” Golzine says, smiling that cold, oily-smooth smile. “He is… well, he is not my heir yet, but I will get him to agree one of these days,” and he laughs, a sound that would send the revulsion that runs sticky and dark through Ash’s skin into splinters and shards of ice, if only Ash could muster up enough of himself to care.

“You don’t want to be the Ecolisine heir-apparent?” Frankie Arthur sounds scandalized, his eyes flashing with genuine confusion, or even horror. “Why not?”

Ash struggles to find his voice for several slow, excruciating seconds, but when he remembers how to use it, it is at least steady and light. “My reasons are my own.”

“He’s a bit of a wild one,” Golzine says, and laughs again. “Ash Lynx, they call him.”

“Ash Lynx,” Lord Arthur repeats. The bewilderment in his eyes has faded, and what has risen in its stead, Ash realizes, is nothing but pure, unbridled hatred. “It is a pleasure to meet you.”


Present day.

“It’s so hot,” Ash complains, fanning himself with one hand.

Eiji gives him a Look over his shoulder, one of those sarcastic ones where he doesn’t quite roll his eyes, but heavily implies it with his eyebrows. He did this when they were kids, too. It’s still just as cute as it was back then.

“You are the one who said we need to talk in private!” Eiji huffs, turning another corner in the garden maze. Ash silently adds it to his mental map. “So we are going somewhere private, Ash Lynx!”

Ash puffs out his cheeks. “I hate when you call me that.”

Eiji turns to walk backwards and face him, this time adorably cocking his head to the side, curious. His big, floppy sunhat tilts endearingly with him. “Ash Lynx?”

“Yeah.” Ash shrugs. “I know you have to in court, and all, but when it’s just us? You don’t… have to use that name.”

“Oh!” Eiji brightens. “I was not sure if you preferred it over Aslan, since you said you have not gone by Aslan in many years, so I thought…”

“No, you’re right.” Ash sighs in relief as they turn again, walking in the shade of the tall hedges now. “For everyone else, I prefer Ash Lynx. But with you… when it’s just us, at least, call me Aslan?”

“Okay!” Eiji claps his hands together, beaming. “I already—”

He trips over a root in the ground, and windmills comically for a moment before Ash catches his arm and steadies him. “Hey, maybe look where you’re walking, yeah?”

Eiji looks up at him with a warm, sunny smile, and tucks his hand into the crook of Ash’s elbow so they can walk together. “I was trying to look at you!”

Ash chuckles. Being with Eiji always feels so freeing, light, and easy. It was a feeling he almost forgot, during their years apart, but now that they’re together again, he never wants to let go of this warmth in his chest. “Yeah, I noticed.”

A light breeze rustles the branches around them; the leaves whisper almost like the sea. Ash turns his face up to it, enjoying the wind in his hair, and follows easily as Eiji guides him down a side corridor.

“It really is a nice day today.” Eiji tries to lean his head against his shoulder, but the brim of his hat gets in the way, and as Ash looks down at him, he scrunches his nose up, displeased. Sometimes, it’s very clear where Shorter got the “Bunny” nickname. “I am glad! I was so sick of winter.”

“You never have liked the cold, huh, Birdie,” Ash muses. He has fond memories of bundling up in blanket forts when they were young, curled up together in Eiji’s bed and sharing one giant mug of tea the size of their heads. Eiji was always very whiny when he got cold, so they would parade around in capes made of throw blankets, chasing each other around the palace and giggling.

Eiji shakes his head fervently. By the way he squeezes his arm, Ash knows he’s remembering the same bygone days. “Never ever. I missed having someone around in winter to keep me warm, you know.”

Ash laughs, and as the warmth in his chest threatens to overflow, he leans over and presses a kiss to the side of Eiji’s head, over his hat. “This winter, I’ll make up for all the years I missed. Promise.”

Eiji looks up at him with bright eyes and a tiny, delighted smile, and just nods, as if he can’t quite find the words to reply.

Under Eiji’s expert guidance, their meandering walk leads them slowly but surely to one of the rooms hidden in the maze, with the gnarled old cherry tree and the spring that feeds the brook that babbles its way through the maze. It rained not too long ago, and the spring is bubbling with vigor.

Ash leans down, unlaces his boots, and tosses them aside, and trots barefoot across the grass to dip his toes into the water. It’s refreshingly cool, and he rolls up his trousers to his knees, so that he can sit on the rocks around the pool and dangle his feet in the stream.

“You really do not like the warmth that much, do you,” Eiji observes wryly, walking over behind him and leaning down, hands on his shoulders. His thick braid falls over his shoulder and onto Ash’s head, and Ash catches the end of it and gives it a slight, playful tug.

“You can always put on more layers when it’s cold,” he argues. Eiji settles behind him on the rock and starts to massage his shoulders, and he closes his eyes, tempted to lean back into him but knowing that that would be too much. “What are you supposed to do when it’s too hot? Strip out of your skin?”

“Yes,” Eiji agrees, deadpan. “Do that. Do it right now.”

Ash twists his head around just enough to raise a sardonic eyebrow. “Really? You want me skinned, Birdie? You want me to skin myself?”

“You cannot do it, I see,” Eiji sniffs. “Turn back around. I am busy.” His thumbs find a particularly tense knot in Ash’s shoulders, and he gasps, indignant for a completely different reason. “Aslan, your muscles are all so tight! How do you live like this?”

“I perservere,” Ash sighs, closing his eyes in bliss again. “You don’t have to—”

“I know I do not,” Eiji cuts him off, flicking his ear. “But I want to. God, you are so tense I will have to get you on a bed to do this properly! Unless you want to lay in the grass…?”

“I do not. I do not particularly want to get grass up my nose.”

Eiji laughs and keeps rubbing his shoulders, slow and rhythmic and hard. “Okay. Perhaps later. Are you always this tense? Is it from all the sparring you do?”

“Mm.” Ash shrugs one shoulder. “Probably.”

“Wow…” Eiji leans in and hooks his chin over his shoulder, pressed against his back, and Ash is suddenly achingly aware of every inch of them that is touching, of the solid weight of him against his back and of the gentle, cool touch of his fingers as they rest against his collarbone. “Can you teach me some?”

Ash takes a deep breath.

Sometimes, he forgets that he hates letting anyone touch him, when he’s with Eiji. But sometimes, Eiji touches him and it feels so strikingly good that he can’t help but be mind-numbingly aware of it, almost painfully cognizant of every little brush of skin on his skin, even with the safe barriers of clothes in-between. Eiji touches him so easily, so gently, and reminds him of what loving touches are supposed to be, and it takes him by surprise when he least expects it, until he’s breathless and ruined and frozen in time.

He leans back into Eiji, experimental, and lightning sparks under his skin.

He feels… safe.

“Teach you… what?” he asks, several seconds late.

Eiji’s arms tighten around him, an affectionate squeeze. “To use a sword! I… never was allowed to learn, but… could you show me? I want to be able to defend myself, if…”

If the occasion ever arises? Why is that a hard sentence for him?

“I do not want to be a burden on you,” Eiji adds, more quietly, “if… something like that ever happens again. I want to be able to hold my own. Or even… protect you. I should have been able to.”

Ash’s heart aches, suddenly, and he opens his eyes. “Eiji…”

Eiji shakes his head. “I know we were children, and it was an unfair fight to begin with, but—”

“We were children,” Ash interrupts. “Even if you could have fought, we would have still… been separated.”

Very, very carefully, he tips his head to the side and lays it back against Eiji’s shoulder. When the breeze next whispers across his skin, it brushes his neck, and he swallows, hard. He feels exposed and vulnerable, sitting like this. He feels…

“I know,” Eiji admits, leaning his cheek against Ash’s head. “I… just never want to see anything like that happen to you again, and… I could… if I could be useful, so that you would not have to defend me…”

“I can teach you.” Ash takes a deep breath and slowly lets it out. “But not because I want you to take care of me. I want you to be able to defend yourself. It doesn’t have to have anything to do with me.”

“Of course it has to do with you,” Eiji says, but his voice is soft, and Ash can hear a smile in it. “It always comes back to you, Aslan.”

Ash just reaches up and pats his head, rests his hand there, and stays.

After a moment, Eiji withdraws and scoots around to sit next to him on the rock instead. Ash misses his embrace already, not that he could ever say so; he just watches as Eiji takes off his hat and pushes the sheer sleeves of his summer robes up, revealing his slender, strong forearms, and aches with want.

“You wanted to talk to me in private,” Eiji says, dabbling his feet in the stream too. “What about?”

Ash winces. It’s an abrupt return to reality, and he can’t say he enjoys it.

“I talked to Yut-Lung about Shi Lai-Ke.”

The moment he says the name, Eiji’s smile vanishes, and his face goes pale. Ash’s heart cracks. The inch between them suddenly spans miles.

“What… about him?” Eiji asks, looking down into the stream. “Is he… are they giving me to him after all?”

“No!” On impulse, Ash lays his hand over his; Eiji looks up at him with wide eyes, deep and dark even in the midmorning sun. “No. Yut-Lung actually thinks I could, uh… scare him off, but…”

Eiji gasps, a sparkle of hope appearing in his eyes. “You… could?”

Ash sighs, looking away a little uncomfortably. “He said that Shi Lai-Ke is enough of a coward that if I ‘stake a claim’ on you first, publicly, and intimidate him, it’ll make him think it’s too much trouble to fight me for you, so…”

“Stake a claim?” Eiji repeats, shifting a little closer, and Ash lets go of his hand to wrap his arm around his shoulders in what he hopes is a comforting gesture. “Yut-Lung said that? What does he mean…?”

Ash hesitates. “It’s… You might find it humiliating, and if you aren’t comfortable with this I will think of something else, because I don’t want to—I don’t want to hurt you, in any way, and if you don’t want this, then—”

“Aslan,” Eiji interrupts, hooking his foot around Ash’s ankle in the water. “What is it?”

Ash takes a deep breath. “In three days, after court, Shi Lai-Ke is planning to meet with Gan-Lung for dinner. Yut-Lung says he’ll distract Gan-Lung, and instead you and I will go to the sitting room where he’s supposed to meet Gan-Lung. I will make small talk with him, while also…while you sit in my lap and I grope you.”

Eiji is silent for a moment, and when he does speak, his voice is very small. “Oh.”

Ash bites the inside of his cheek. He knew this would make Eiji uncomfortable. God, he could fucking strangle Yut-Lung. “If you don’t want to—”

“It’ll make him leave me alone, right?” Eiji asks, tucking his face into Ash’s shoulder. “I—I haven’t—he’s—he has tried to—a few years ago, he did—”

Ice creeps up Ash’s spine. “Eiji… Did he rape you?”

“No!” Eiji shakes his head vehemently and clutches a fistful of his robe. He’s trembling, just slightly. Ash is going to murder Yut-Lung, he swears. “He—he just. He tried? I—I had a drug, Yut-Lung gave it to me, to make him fall asleep before going too far…”

Ash stares down at him. He looks so sweet and unassuming, wrapped up in gauzy sheer fabric and paraded around like a doll, but he’s been through hell and back already, and yet when he smiles, it’s still full of sunshine.

But he isn’t smiling, now.

Ash wraps both arms around him and holds him close, twisted at the waist to hold him tighter. “I will protect you,” he pledges, voice low as he presses a kiss into his hair. “I will never let anyone touch you ever again, I swear, Bluebird.”

Eiji hugs him back fiercely. “I trust you.”

Ash loosens his embrace, and Eiji slumps into his side. He keeps one arm about him, though, and Eiji gives him a grateful look, hooking his foot around his ankle again.

“I’ll think of something else,” Ash says. “I’ll—”

“No, Ash.” Eiji shakes his head and plays with the hem of Ash’s shirt. “I trust you. I… you can… I trust you to take care of me.”

Ash’s chest tightens painfully with a burst of emotion. He stares down at Eiji’s head again, flabbergasted, before he asks, “Are you—are you sure? I’m sure I can come up with something, if this is really—I don’t want to hurt you—”

“You won’t!” Eiji looks up at him, gaze soft and trusting. “I know you will not.”

“Right.” Ash breathes in slowly, then breathes out, steadying himself. “Okay. So, uh… I was thinking… I mean, I could just put my hand near you, and move my fingers, and it would look like I was touching you, and you could fake it so that you don’t actually have to have me doing that to you there, uh…”

Eiji blinks, as if that hadn’t even occurred to him, and Ash nearly blanches at the thought that he really trusts him enough to let him do the real thing.

“Oh!” Eiji goes a little pink-cheeked. “I, um… I… could try? But… I do not… actually know…”

He trails off, and Ash waits a moment with bated breath. When he doesn’t pick back up, Ash gently taps his shoulder and prompts, “What do you not know?”

Eiji’s blush deepens. “How to… fake having reactions,” he admits, ducking his head. “I never… um… I have never actually been with anyone? I would always use the drug if I ever had to let someone take me to a bedroom, so, um…”

“Oh, Eiji.” Ash laughs in swift, heady relief. “That’s okay. That’s okay!”

“Do not laugh at me!” Eiji protests, pouting, as he swats at Ash’s shoulder in complaint. “Stop laughing!”

“Sorry, sorry!” Ash drops his face into his free hand, shaking his head. “I just thought you were going to say something bad, but it was just that!”

“Aslan!” Eiji whines, hiding his face in his hands. “Stop laughing!”

Ash almost kisses his hair again, overwhelmingly fond, but stops himself in time and just gives him a quick squeeze instead. “You’re right, you’re right. Okay. Uh… do you want me to show you…?”

Eiji peeps over the tops of his hands. He’s so adorable—and the idea of letting a filthy, lustful man with a heart of stone touch him is unfathomably vile. “Show me?”

Ash nods. “How to fake it. Like…”

He lets go of Eiji and shifts, rolling his hips forward and arching his back, and knits his brows together as he closes his eyes, tips his head back, and parts his lips just slightly. It’s easy enough to slip into this mask, with how many times he’s worn it before, but doing it in front of Eiji feels a bit foul.

“See?” he asks, opening his eyes. Eiji is still looking at him over his fingers, eyes wide. “You kind of make the line of your body directed towards your hips, and—”

And he drops his head back and moans, low and sultry and dirty, just like the gross old men always like to hear. It’s part of the act, just another part of the show, and he rolls his hips a little bit, just enough to hint at the idea of fucking into someone’s hand.

When he lifts his head and opens his eyes again, Eiji’s cheeks are bright red.

“I—I can’t do that,” he stammers, burying his face in his hands. “I can’t! I might die!”

A little self-conscious, Ash huffs and rubs the back of his head. “Really? It was that bad?”

Eiji squeaks. “No!” he cries, flapping a hand at Ash while hiding as best as he can behind the other. “No, you—you did good! Aslan, um, you—yes! But I can’t! No one would buy that from me! I can’t do that!”

“It’s okay!” Ash lets out a breathy laugh, reaching for the flappy hand, and holding it in both of his. Eiji doesn’t pull away, so he gently rubs over his knuckles, soothing and slow. “It’s okay, Birdie. It’s just an act. It’s an act like any other. It’s okay.”

Eiji peeps at him over his other hand. “But… I’m not… I cannot…”

Ash reaches for his other hand and holds it, too, stroking his knuckles. His palms are still cool, despite the warmth. “Why not?”

“I will look stupid,” Eiji mumbles, hanging his head. “And everyone will know I am acting, and…”

“Just try,” Ash urges. “If it looks bad, I’ll tell you what to fix! That’s what I meant when I said I’d teach you.”

Eiji squeezes his eyes shut, opens them again, and nods. Ash clasps his hands for a moment longer, then lets go, and Eiji leans back and takes a deep breath.

He’s clearly hesitant as he turns his face up, but it’s a good move, drawing the eye to the curve of his neck. Ash nods approvingly, and Eiji bites his lip, awkwardly pushes his hips forward, and lets out a soft, squeaky “Oh,” before turning scarlet and burying his face in his hands again, pulling his feet out of the water, and tucking his knees to his chest.

“That wasn’t bad!” Ash protests, patting his back. “Birdie! You can do it, you don’t need to be so embarrassed—”

“Can’t!” Eiji squeaks back. “Really can’t! I will overthink it and I will be stiff and bad and I will ruin everything and—”

“Eiji,” Ash sighs, and wordlessly, Eiji whines and slumps against his chest, still curled into himself as a tight ball. Ash smiles ruefully and wraps his arms around him, pulling his legs out of the water and turning to face him properly. “Okay. Okay, Birdie. If you’re sure you don’t wanna do that…”

“I do not want to do that,” Eiji reiterates, curling in tighter. “I do not.”

“Okay.” Ash drops another kiss to the top of his head.

Why does he keep doing that today? Why does he ache to reassure Eiji all the time, to promise him that it’s alright, to be his island of safety amid everything else? He doesn’t always understand the intensity of his love for his Birdie, and sometimes it almost frightens him in its ferocity, but god, does he love him.

“Okay, Birdie. What do you want to do, then? We can go find Yut-Lung and talk to him, see if there’s another way—”

Eiji shakes his head very rapidly and looks up. His cheeks are still flushed rosy pink, and his eyes are wide; Ash almost kisses his forehead, too. “I do not want to argue with him,” he says, and tucks his face into Ash’s neck. “I… if I tell him the only reason I do not want to do this is that I am not… that I do not know how to fake it, he will just berate me, and then he will refuse to work with you.”

“Then we tell him I’m uncomfortable.” Ash leans his cheek against his hair. “I don’t mind taking the fall.”

But Eiji shakes his head again. “No,” he sighs. “He will know it was me. You already talked to him, and you did not immediately shut it down for your own comfort, so he will know that you changed your mind because you talked to me.”

“Then… we tell him you’re uncomfortable, and if he tries to give you shit, I give him shit back?” Ash suggests, annoyance flickering up in him. Why doesn’t Yut-Lung respect Eiji’s boundaries? Is it really that hard to take into account that your ally might not want to have to fake being groped in front of a man who wants to rape him?

Eiji just sighs. “If they are meeting in three days, I do not know if there is time to come up with something new,” he admits, slowly sliding his arms around Ash’s waist. “Especially with King Golzine’s representative arriving the day before. This is probably the only way…”

Ash presses his lips together, distaste rising in his gut and with it, a hint of nausea. “I’ve been meaning to ask,” he says, trying and failing to keep his voice neutral. “Who is Golzine sending, anyway?”

There’s more venom in his voice than he intended, and Eiji looks up in surprise. “Um… a Lord Arthur,” he says, tentatively reaching up to touch Ash’s cheek. “Are… are you okay?”

“Fine.” Ash lets out a slow, measured breath. Arthur. That asshole. He hoped he wasn’t going to see him ever again, but it figures that it would be him. “I… just don’t care for Golzine or his court.”

“I know.” Eiji looks up at him with those soft, tender eyes. “I actually have been meaning to ask you, too… Why do you hate Dino Golzine so much?”

Ash thinks about blood and tears and soiled sheets and soldiers with whips and the endless jeers about paying his debt, and takes a deep breath.

“Ask me again some other time,” he says softly.

Eiji only looks more concerned, but nods and tucks his face back into his neck. “Okay.”

Ash shakes his head. “Anyway. That’s not important. What do you want to do about Shi Lai-Ke, if this isn’t gonna work but there’s no time? We can’t just give up, so… you could try again, if you think it’ll work? It really wasn’t a bad first attempt, I promise—”

“No,” Eiji mumbles, “I really do not think me trying to pretend in front of him is a good idea. I know myself, and I will panic and overthink it and do a very bad job.”

“Then what?” Ash asks, concerned. “We can’t—”

Eiji lifts his head and meets his gaze squarely, eyes resolute. “I think,” he says, “that you are going to just have to touch me for real.”

Ash freezes.

Eiji trusts him that much?

He takes a deep breath. “Eiji… are you sure?”

Eiji drops his gaze again, bashful, and nods, looking down to the spring. “I… It is you, and I know you would not hurt me, and… I trust you?” He fidgets with his sleeves for a moment, ducks his head, and adds, “Besides, shouldn’t we make it as authentic as we can?”

Ash stares at him for a long, long moment.

He trusts him. Eiji trusts him enough to let him touch him intimately, all as part of an act—and is the one to suggest it, of all things; Eiji really doesn’t think he would ever hurt him, and…

There’s a tightness in his chest that he can’t quite acknowledge, not yet, as he nods slowly. “If you’re sure. I… I don’t want you saying this just because you think you have to, or because you think it won’t be okay otherwise, because I don’t want to—if you feel like you just have to resign yourself—”

“Aslan!” Eiji looks up at him again, eyes big and dark. “If I had to choose anyone to—to do this with… it would be you.”

The air whooshes out of Ash’s lungs, and words fail him so that the only thing he really can do is lean forward, head bowed, until his forehead finds Eiji’s collarbone. It’s an awkward angle, and it hurts his neck, but it’s worth every second of pain and more if it can communicate to Eiji just how much his trust means, just how honored Ash is to have it, or how endlessly humbled.

“Aslan,” Eiji murmurs, voice softening, as he places his hand on the back of Ash’s neck. “I… I trust you. You know that, don’t you?”

“I know,” Ash says, closing his eyes as Eiji starts to card his other hand through his hair. “I know, but… this is something big to trust me on, and… I—” love you, love you, love you.

The words catch in his throat, sticking like barbs, and he swallows them again. It isn’t time for them. Not yet.

“I know.” Eiji strokes his hair. “I know. But I mean it. You are… You are…”

He lets out a tiny frustrated noise, apparently unable to find the right words either, and Ash cracks a little smile at their solidarity, inconvenient though it may be. “You don’t have to say it.”

“I want to.” Eiji’s fingers caress a little circle against his scalp. “I just do not know how.”

Ash laughs, then lifts his head, tilting it to one side to observe his Eiji. His hair is starting to come loose from his braid, and the sun lights it up in a warm halo around his head; he’s dressed in light blue, and his smile is as bright as the sky above.

“Guess we both need to re-learn how to speak,” Ash tells him, slipping into Unshuan, like he hasn’t in years. He’s rusty, and out of practice, but Eiji must be as well, living here in the Lee court, so he isn’t too embarrassed. It’s nice to be able to speak their native tongue again.

Eiji’s reaction is immediate. His eyes fly open wide, and then he lets out a cry and launches himself at Ash, flinging his arms around his neck and sending them both toppling—

Splash!

—off the sun-warmed stone and into the pool.

It isn’t deep—it’s shallow enough that they both surface easily, sitting on the smooth stone of the streambed. Eiji looks so stunned, his mouth open in a little round o and hair plastered to the side of his face and his robes swirling about him in the water like a cloud, that Ash can’t help but laugh.

Eiji squeaks. “Sorry! I—I did not mean to do that—”

Ash reaches for him, still laughing, and when he comes willingly, Ash grins, claps a hand to the back of his head, and dunks him under again.

Eiji comes up spluttering indignantly, all traces of remorse utterly banished from his eyes. “Aslan!”  

“God,” Ash snickers, sitting back in the water and grinning widely. “Your face just now, Birdie, you should’ve seen it—”

Eiji uses both hands to splash him with a triumphant ha!

In hindsight, he really should’ve seen that coming.

They lay together in the sunny patch of the grass, later, once they’re finished with their ridiculous, childish water fight. Ash is spread-eagled on his back, and Eiji’s head is on his arm; the sun does its best to dry them, but it probably isn’t going to get the job done on its own. He hasn’t done anything silly and fun like that since… he can’t remember.

“I was trying to hug you,” Eiji grumbles. His voice sounds right in Unshuan, and Ash couldn’t have stopped himself from smiling if he tried. “You ass.”

“I’m the ass?” He snorts. “You’re the one who dunked us both! You’re the ass!”

“Hey!” Eiji smacks his arm, and he just laughs again.

“God.” Ash runs a hand through his damp hair, grinning. “I haven’t had fun like that in… years, I think.”

Eiji rolls over and flops at him, draping an arm over his chest and snuggling close. It would be a lot cuter if they weren’t both so soggy, but even so, Ash wraps his arm around him. “Yeah… I think I have not, either. Maybe a few times with Shorter, but…”

“I missed you,” Ash confesses, as if it’s a secret.

Eiji’s smile is luminous. “I missed you too.”

Ash tilts his head just enough to press a kiss to Eiji’s wet hair, warm inside in a way he knows he hasn’t felt since he left Max’s house. Eiji feels like home, and the words that were so hard to say earlier come easily, now.

“To me,” he murmurs, lips brushing Eiji’s hair, “you are everything. You are everything, Birdie.”

Eiji sighs happily and presses a tiny kiss to his shoulder, snuggling in close. “I missed Unshuan so much.” He looks up, eyes sparkling. “Thank you.”

Ash smiles back, and they lay together in a peaceful silence for a few more minutes.

“You’re sure it’ll be okay?” He lazily bumps his cheek against Eiji’s temple. “With Shi Lai-Ke, I mean. All that. You’re sure about it?”

Eiji nods against his chest. At least their silly water fight has rid him of his bashfulness, Ash supposes—he feels lazy and content, and Eiji curled up at his side feels the same way.

“I trust you,” Eiji repeats. The words feel more solid in Unshuan, a secret message meant only for him. “You are… you also are everything, Aslan.”

“Oh,” Ash mumbles, feeling his face heat. Eiji smiles again, bright and beautiful, and closes his eyes. “Birdie…”

“Aslan,” Eiji answers, soft and warm. Time flows easily as they lay there together in the sun, peaceful and content, while overhead, puffy white clouds drift by.


“So.” Shorter pours two glasses of wine, and Ash tips his head in wordless thanks. “Tomorrow, huh.”

Ash sighs and runs a tired hand through his hair, looking out the window into the night. It’s late; Eiji is definitely already asleep, in his big, empty rooms. The lamps around the palace walls glimmer, regular pinpricks in the darkness, and above them the stars twinkle, distant and eternal and cold.

“Yeah.” He turns back to Shorter in time to accept the offered glass with another nod. “Tomorrow.”

Shorter grimaces as he eases himself down into the armchair opposite Ash. “You don’t sound enthusiastic.”

Ash gives him a sharp, quelling look. “You think I would be?”

“’Course not.” Shorter takes a long pull of wine. “Shi Lai-Ke is a piece of shit. I hate what you guys have to do, too, but… that’s not actually what I was talking about, Ash.”

Ash blows out a sigh. He’s not looking forward to any part of tomorrow. The entire day is just going to be bad. Not only does he have to put the plan into motion regarding Shi Lai-Ke, but also Arthur is arriving at court, and… ugh. He’s already exhausted, just thinking about it.

He sips his wine, too. “Then what?”

“Golzine’s representative.” Shorter gives him a knowing look in return, crossing his ankle over his knee. “You made a face when Yut-Lung mentioned him earlier at tea. You said you spent some time in the court at Halfmoon. Got a history with him or something?”

Ash sighs and looks back outside. The moon is a pale crescent, just a barely-visible silver sliver in the night. “You could say that.”

“Is he a shady character?” Shorter follows his gaze. “I get if if you don’t wanna go into it, dude. We all have secrets we don’t wanna share. But I just wanna know if I should be wary going in.”

“He’s as shady as they come,” Ash says flatly. “He killed his uncle to become head of the House and has spent all his time since trying to curry favor with Golzine. I wouldn’t be surprised if Golzine names him heir soon. Frankly, I’m surprised he hasn’t.”

Shorter whistles. “Damn. A potential heir, and he’s sent him out of the country to a city that thinks he might be behind the assassination of one of their princes?”

Ash shrugs, uncaring. Ho-Lung’s death was well-orchestrated, he has to admit; their assassin was a desperate man bribed to get caught and swear Golzine sent him. On his execution, Yut-Lung promised him that his family would be well-cared for for the rest of their lives. Ash might not like him much, but he has to admit—Yut-Lung knows how to weave a tale to elicit loyalty.

“If anything, he’s probably testing him,” he says after a moment, taking a slow sip of his wine. “And he’s definitely here with an ulterior motive.”

“Oh, for sure. I have no doubt.” Shorter sighs. “I honestly don’t know what it could be, though. That’s what’s got me worried.”

Ash drums his fingers along the edge of his armrest. “If I had to guess… I would say Golzine wants him to find out who actually sent the assassin.”

“Oh, shit.” Shorter leans forward in alarm, eyes widening. “You think he’s onto us?”

Ash shakes his head. “I think he’s suspicious that one of the brothers killed Ho-Lung and blamed him, but I don’t think he thinks there’s a bigger conspiracy afoot. I would bet that he thinks Hua-Lung is behind it.”

“Mm.” Shorter relaxes, leaning back, but looks contemplative as he swirls the wine in his glass. “Still. We better be careful around Arthur, then.”

“Yeah.” Ash sighs again. “He hates my guts for whatever reason, so at least I doubt he’ll try to use me for information.”

Shorter blinks. “What for?”

Ash shrugs. It doesn’t seem like the right moment to say that he was Golzine’s first choice for an heir, or that Arthur let his jealousy consume him, or even that Golzine pitted them against each other for his own amusement. It’s not the right moment, because he doesn’t want to tell anyone what his relationship with Golzine was like, least of all someone he likes.

“He’s fucking batshit,” is what he says instead, sipping wine. “Bet he doesn’t know I’m here, though. That might be funny.”

Shorter snorts. “Yeah, I bet. ‘Oh, hey, what’s up, I’m here to fuck everything up—oh shit is that Ash Lynx?’” he mimes, waving his hand in an exaggerated gesture of shock.

Ash laughs. “God, I bet the look on his face’ll be hilarious.”

“Yeah, right?” Shorter grins. His smile softens after a moment, though, fading into something more genuine, and he cocks his head to one side and asks, “Seriously, though, you gonna be okay? I won’t pry into whatever went down between him and you, but… I know it can be hard, seeing people you have history with.”

Ash offers him a tired, genuine smile in response. “Yeah. I appreciate it, but I’ll be fine. He’s nothing I can’t handle.”

“’Course, bro.” Shorter drains the last of his wine. “Either way, if anything happens, I got your back.”

Ash tips his glass to him gratefully. “Thanks, Shorter. I appreciate it.”

“Anytime, man.” Shorter slumps back in his chair and sighs. “Well. Tomorrow’s a big day. We should get to bed soon.”

“Yeah.” Ash leans his head back and drains his glass, wipes his mouth on the back of his hand, and heaves a deep sigh. “In a few minutes.”

Shorter smiles, understanding, and they share a companionable silence as outside, the moon rises higher into the sky.

Chapter Text

Five years ago.

Eiji shakes his head, eyes squeezed shut against the tears that won’t stop coming. “You would not understand.”

His Imperial is clumsy at best. Sure, he learned to read and write and speak in most of the languages of the surrounding nations growing up, but he’s never had to be fluent before, not when he lived in Unshu and he could speak Unshuan without repercussion and—and he didn’t have to force his clumsy, stupid tongue around the strange sounds of this new language. He never had to before!

He misses Unshuan. Misses the way it sounded in his mother’s voice, or the flavor of the words in his own mouth. Misses his father’s laughter, and Nahoko’s squeals. Misses…

Misses his family. They’re gone, and he’ll never, ever get them back.

“What’s there to understand?” Yut-Lung Lee asks, not even trying to hide the disdain in his voice.

Eiji doesn’t understand him. He acts like he hates him, but he won’t just stay away and leave him alone, either. If he thinks Eiji is so stupid and naïve and annoying, why doesn’t he just go away?!

“Why I am sad!” Eiji dashes at his cheeks. “I know you hate me for crying so much. Why should I tell you about it?”

“You think I hate you?” Yut-Lung sounds genuinely surprised, but before Eiji can respond, he scoffs, sounding much more like his usual self. “Of course you think that. Stupid Unshuan.”

Eiji just stares at him. “Of course,” he repeats. “This is how you talk to me. What else should I think?”

Yut-Lung looks away. “Think what you want,” he finally says, after a long moment. “It doesn’t matter to me.”

Silence falls.

“I miss my little sister,” Eiji whispers, a secret that hangs in the air between them, until—

“Oh,” Yut-Lung says, voice flat and sharp and acidic, full of a venom that wasn’t there before. “So you’re like that.”

He abruptly stands and leaves, and Eiji stares after him, tears falling down his cheeks freely now. What did he say wrong?


Present day.

The evening rolls around far too quickly for Eiji’s liking, and despite his earlier assurances to Aslan that he trusts him to take care of everything, Eiji is a bundle of anxiety.

“Stop fretting,” Yut-Lung scolds, pinning the last small braid up in place so that his hair is out of the way, wrapped in an elegant coiffed bun shaped a little like a rose. “You’re acting like this is the end of the world or something. You’ll be fine.”

“I know, I know.” Eiji swallows hard and tells himself not to bite his lip, now that there’s makeup on it. He hates that he can’t even leave his hair down for this; he would have liked to be able to hide behind it. “I just—I do not like him.”

Yut-Lung sighs. “Just focus on your Aslan Jade Callenreese.” He pushes another pin into the bun for good measure. “I’m sure you won’t find having his hand between your legs that bad.”

Eiji lets out a tiny, wordless whine. Yut-Lung just laughs.

They leave Eiji’s suites and walk down the hall side-by-side as they always do; Eiji is careful to keep his face blank of the panic roiling in his gut, up until Yut-Lung says, “And this is where I leave you. I’ll see you later tonight, Eiji,” and slips away behind a closed door.

“Oh, god,” Eiji mumbles to himself, squeezing his hands into fists tight enough to dig his nails into his palms. He’s—he’s terrified.

He hasn’t been alone in a room with Shi Lai-Ke in years—not since the night he fled his quarters after planting Gan-Lung’s stolen circlet. The only reason he isn’t panicking more is that Aslan will be there with him, and he won’t be totally alone; he has to cling to that fact, or he knows he’ll freeze up in fear.

He takes a deep breath, resists the urge to rake his hands through his hair to calm his nerves, and turns on his heel. They don’t have the time for him to waste panicking in an empty corridor by himself. There are more important things at stake here.

Lifting his chin, he’s careful to maintain a demure, graceful pace as he walks, as is expected of him, just in case he run into anyone in the hallways. He doesn’t dare look nervous. Showing vulnerability is just begging to be preyed on, and in this bed of vipers, it’s nearly impossible to recover from the first slip.

And then—

And then he turns a corner and Aslan is there, and his heart thunders in his chest even as it slows and calms itself, remembering that he’s safe, and as Aslan looks up and smiles at him, Eiji can’t resist going to him, needing a physical reminder that it’s all going to be alright, that this will work.

“Eiji,” Aslan greets, and then lets out a soft breath in surprise as Eiji bypasses taking his offered arm and instead goes for a hug, wanting to be held and reassured if only just for a moment. “Hey, you. Hey… It’s alright, yeah?”

“It should be.” Eiji takes a deep breath, relaxing as Aslan holds him close to his chest, and manages to step back. He needs to collect himself before anyone can come by, but he wants—oh, he wants to tuck himself back into Aslan’s arms and never move again. “I just—sorry—I just needed…”

Aslan’s eyes are warm and understanding, with no trace of judgment. “I understand. It’s alright.”

Eiji smooths his nervous hands over the skirt of his gown and takes another deep breath. “Do I look okay?”

Aslan gives him a slow glance-over, down and back up, and then he smiles, small and sweet and breathtaking. “Handsome as ever, don’t worry.”

The use of handsome instead of pretty isn’t lost on Eiji; Aslan has always been good at remembering the little things. He lets out a breathless, nervous laugh and clasps his hands together, looking at the door to the sitting room. “Oh. Thank you. I, um… should we go?”

“Yes.” Aslan’s face shifts, his eyes sharpening and the warmth in his smile melting away into ice. “Let’s get this over with, shall we?”

Eiji stares at the door for a heartbeat. Once he takes Aslan’s arm and they enter, he has to act like a pretty, simpering doll, just there to be used and enjoyed, and Aslan will have to pretend that he enjoys seeing him like that.

But the longer they stand here in this stolen, intimate moment, the higher the chances grow of someone unassuming walking in and shattering it anyway. They would look less credible if someone tells Shi Lai-Ke that Ash Lynx was being tender with Eiji in the hallway before being cool and smug and selfish over tea.

Eiji takes Aslan’s arm.

“Let’s go,” he says. “I want to get it over with, too.”

Aslan smiles, and to Eiji’s surprise, leans in and presses a quick kiss to his temple. “I’ll protect you,” he promises, but before Eiji can respond, the door is open, and he has to school his expression into something airy and giggly as he floats in on Aslan’s arm.

It’s a small, relatively secluded sitting room, as far as sitting rooms in the palace go, but it is technically still one accessible to all court attendees. Court today was long and exhausting, especially with the recent arrival of Lord Frederick Arthur of Ecolisine—someone Aslan warned him to be very wary of—and Eiji is loath to spend his entire evening here, instead of unwinding in the privacy and sanctuary of his rooms.

Shi Lai-Ke is already here, as they knew he would be; he’s sitting on one of the couches not far from the window overlooking the sunset, but he looks up when they walk in. His eyes slide from Aslan to Eiji, and they linger.

Eiji tries not to shudder.

Aslan, meanwhile, slips right into his role. “Oh,” he sighs, sounding rather disappointed. “I didn’t realize this room would be occupied. We’ll have to go elsewhere, pet,” and he glances down at Eiji with—with what almost feels like detached indifference, as if he couldn’t care less what Eiji thinks of what he’s saying, and between that and Shi Lai-Ke’s gaze boring into him, Eiji feels his heart start to pound again.

“Oh?” Shi Lai-Ke looks to Aslan now, and without the red-hot weight of his stare, Eiji feels a little more like he can breathe. “If you were looking for someplace secluded, don’t mind me. Sit down if you like. I’ll be leaving soon.”

Whenever Gan-Lung summons him. Except that he won’t, not for a good several minutes, and Eiji has to be stuck here in this room with this man he hates.

He presses a little closer to Aslan, subtly enough that it could be mistaken as a simple shift of his weight, and though Aslan doesn’t outwardly acknowledge him, when he leads them both around the table to the armchair nearly opposite Shi Lai-Ke, he keeps himself between him and Eiji.

“In that case, I’ll take you up on that,” Aslan says smoothly. He drops into the armchair with the lithe grace of a cat, sprawled out indolently against the cushions, and takes Eiji’s wrist to tug him down across his lap. “Lord Shi, am I correct? I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of making your acquaintance yet.”

Shi Lai-Ke’s lips thin in displeasure as Eiji curls in against Aslan’s chest, tucking his face into his neck. “Indeed. You are still new to our court, are you not, Lord Lynx? Most tend to get to know me earlier than later.”

He is so pompous! He only has a degree of importance because of his family’s ties to the military, and then only too, really, because of Gan-Lung’s influential support. Eiji makes the mistake of looking across the room at him and immediately has to look away, focusing on the buttons on Aslan’s shirt.

He is not eighteen and alone and scared now. He is twenty, his Aslan is here with him, and Shi Lai-Ke is not going to touch him again. He does not need to think about what happened two years ago.

“Relatively new,” Aslan says, unbothered. Though he doesn’t look down at all, he wraps his arm around Eiji’s waist and holds him close. To Shi Lai-Ke, it must look like he’s holding Eiji in position, so he can’t leave; to Eiji, it’s just a reminder that they’re here together, that Aslan promised to protect him. “I also think it’d serve you well to remember that I am not most people.”

Shi Lai-Ke raises both eyebrows, clearly surprised. “There is no need for animosity, my young friend,” he chides, as if he’s a kindly uncle talking down to an unruly child. As if he could ever be anything but vile! “Come now. Onto more pleasant topics. I see you’ve taken quite the shine to our lovely Prince Okumura here, haven’t you?”

Aslan smiles, sharp as a knife and cold as ice, and Eiji turns his head just enough to hide his face in his neck. “You could say that,” Aslan says, and his hand slides from Eiji’s knee up, over the inside of his thigh, and…

Eiji squeezes his eyes shut. It’s hard not to feel humiliated, even though it is Aslan, and he knows Aslan doesn’t truly see him as a simple plaything. All the same, when Aslan’s fingers very tentatively brush against him, he gasps.

Aslan is saying something else to Shi Lai-Ke. Eiji tunes it out. He tunes all of it out—he doesn’t want to think about Shi Lai-Ke right now, doesn’t want to imagine those horrible eyes on him, watching him and lusting after him as Aslan touches him so carefully, so gently. Shi Lai-Ke must be feasting on every reaction he gives; the idea of it makes Eiji feel a little sick.

He clutches a weak fistful of Aslan’s shirt and burrows into his shoulder. His face must be red, and he knows he probably looks just like the mindless doll everyone sees him as, with his legs spread for someone’s questing hand, but…

But if he doesn’t think about it?

If the only part he thinks about is that it’s Aslan, and Aslan is holding him, and Aslan promised him that he would protect him, and that Aslan is here and Aslan is keeping him safe…

He lets out a tiny whine-turned-sigh and presses closer against Aslan’s chest as his fingers keep working, slow and tender. If this is all he focuses on, and not the lofty, smug, sharp lilt of Aslan’s voice, or the repulsive phantom weight of Shi Lai-Ke’s eyes boring into him, it…

It isn’t … that bad.

Aslan’s other arm is wrapped firmly about his waist, and as Eiji burrows into him, he gives him a gentle, reassuring squeeze, his thumb rubbing a slow, soothing circle into Eiji’s hip. Eiji doesn’t look up, instead pressing his face closer into Aslan’s neck. He can smell Aslan’s cologne (citrus and spice, elegant and warm), and a bit of the natural scent of his clothes; it soothes him and keeps him grounded in the moment, instead of letting him panic and go stiff.

Relax, he reminds himself, willing himself to melt into Aslan’s chest. He’s supposed to look like he’s enjoying this, not like he wants to bolt. And… maybe… if it wasn’t like this, and… they weren’t here… and…

No, no, he can’t think like that right now.

“—quite looking forward to it,” Aslan is saying, when Eiji tunes back in, though he doesn’t open his eyes. The skin of Aslan’s neck is warm, and he smells like safety and comfort. His shirt is smooth silk, warm from his body, and Eiji sinks into him. So long as Aslan is holding him, he’s safe. Neither Shi Lai-Ke’s heavy gaze nor the sparks kindled between his legs matter.

“I’m sure you are.” Shi Lai-Ke sounds much less pleased than Aslan, his voice kind of pinched and sour. Eiji almost lifts his head to look at him, but reconsiders. He doesn’t want to look away from Aslan, not while Aslan’s hand is (oh, oh, god, this should not feel good but it does) stroking him through the relatively thin material of the gown Yut-Lung picked out for him. “Try not to hoard the prince there all to yourself all night, eh? Let someone else have a turn for a change.”

Eiji’s blood runs cold. How could he—how could he just say that, in front of him, as if—

“Mmm,” Aslan hums, as if considering, and then he very deliberately pushes Eiji’s legs further apart and strokes him with unhurried, showy confidence, fingers pressing almost into him—if Eiji wasn’t wearing clothes, he thinks he would have entered him, and then the heel of Aslan’s hand rubs into him just so and sparks fly through his body and down his legs and up his spine and he gasps.

“Ah—!”

Aslan’s other arm tightens around him fiercely even as blood rushes to his face, and Eiji curls up, closing his legs around his hand and clinging to him, his heart pounding. This is—the light touches were one thing, but this—he can’t have reactions like that—not in front of Shi Lai-Ke—

He doesn’t want to be here anymore. He doesn’t want this he doesn’t want this he doesn’t want to be here he wants Aslan to get him out of here somewhere safe, Aslan, please, please, please…

“Mm, I think not,” Aslan says, his hand on Eiji’s hip once again rubbing a slow, tiny circle there, as if to soothe him. His voice is in complete contrast—cold and hard and icy, and when Eiji opens his eyes to sneak a panicked glance up at him, his face is frigid. The room feels cold just from the chill in his eyes, and Eiji wishes it was possible for him to press even closer just to feel warm.

“Excuse me?” Shi Lai-Ke asks, but he sounds shaken instead of imperious, and Eiji could let out a cheer if he wasn’t frozen in place himself.

Aslan’s hand is still between his legs, but he gently strokes two fingers along the inside of his thigh, as if trying to soothe him more, and Eiji’s chest tightens with the sudden, bizarre urge to cry.

“I said, no.” Aslan smirks. He’s still leaning back, sprawled easily in his chair, and in this moment, he commands the room—he’s cool and composed and in charge, and every line of his body radiates danger. “Prince Okumura is mine, and I don’t share.”

Shi Lai-Ke gapes. Eiji curls one arm about Aslan’s neck and sneaks a glance across the low table between them; Shi Lai-Ke’s face is pale, and his eyes are full of fear.

Oh, Eiji loves his Aslan.

Pulling himself together, Eiji lifts his head just enough to nuzzle Aslan’s cheek, and then he winks at Shi Lai-Ke with a confidence he knows he doesn’t truly possess before he snuggles back into Aslan’s neck.

“I hope you can find a way to enjoy the ball even without a dance with my Eiji,” Aslan adds, smug and sharp.

The knot of tension in Eiji’s stomach shrinks. A ball. They were talking about a ball. They were talking about the ball in three days, not—not about passing him around from bed to bed like a toy.

He can’t quite help himself—he presses his lips to Aslan’s collarbone, needing to give him some kind of affection for protecting him. At least it fits with the charade.

Aslan gives him a slight squeeze in response, not taking his gaze from Shi Lai-Ke for an instant. Shi Lai-Ke stares at them both, aghast, and—

The door opens.

Eiji starts slightly in surprise, but Aslan doesn’t move, still staring Shi Lai-Ke down. Should he turn and look over Aslan’s shoulder? Should he check to see if it’s Gan-Lung, come to collect Shi Lai-Ke? What if it’s someone else? Should they leave?

No, if he gives up the charade, all of this will have been for nothing. He has to pretend to be vapid and subservient and mindlessly attached to Aslan. He will just trust that Aslan is still in control of the situation, no matter who just entered, and that it doesn’t matter, and—

“Ah, so there you are.” The new voice is unfamiliar, and Aslan—

Aslan stiffens.

“I was looking for you, Ash.”

Eiji wraps his arm tighter around Aslan’s neck, lifts his head, and looks to the door. His fingers curl into the hair at the nape of Aslan’s neck, just below his ponytail.

Standing in the entrance to the sitting room is the newcomer to their court, Duke Arthur of Ecolisine. He’s a tall man with dark blond hair, gelled back from his face, and his smile doesn’t reach his hard eyes.

Aslan turns and looks at him too, more slowly, almost disinterested. “Really? I’m flattered.”

“I’m sure you are.” Arthur saunters into the room slowly, glancing first at Shi Lai-Ke and then sliding his gaze to Eiji. He lingers uncomfortably long, no doubt taking in the thin, slightly sheer gown and the placement of Aslan’s hand, and then looks Eiji directly in the eye and smirks.

Eiji has to suppress a shudder. He feels dirty.

“You certainly seem to be having a good time here,” Arthur says, still looking at Eiji. “Impressive, after how you left Halfmoon.”

Aslan’s arm tightens around Eiji so much that it almost hurts. Eiji rubs his thumb over the back of his neck, trying to soothe him—something about Arthur puts him on edge, and that’s enough to make a strong protective instinct shove all of Eiji’s nerves and panic away. Aslan has been protecting him, and now it’s his turn.

“I’m sure I have no idea what you mean,” Aslan answers lightly, his fingers digging into Eiji’s hip. “I left Halfmoon in perfectly good spirits.”

Shi Lai-Ke bristles, across the room, and finally bursts out, “I’m not sure who taught you manners in Halfmoon, Your Grace, but here in the Imperial Court, it is considered quite rude to only greet one person of rank in a room.”

Arthur laughs him off. The icky feeling in Eiji’s gut grows—this is the first time he’s interacted with the man, but he’s already convinced he will never like him.

“Oh, calm down, old man.” Arthur waves a hand. “Nice to meet you, too, my lord. I’m terribly sorry to have greeted my old friend before you.”

“Oh, we’re friends?” Aslan tips his head to one side, a chilly smile playing about his lips. He’s still tense, though, his heart beating fast in his chest, and Eiji’s desire to protect him only intensifies. “And here I was under the assumption that you would ‘never forgive me’ after you lost our duel in disgrace. How times change!”

“In disgrace?” Shi Lai-Ke splutters. He seems to have decided that Arthur is an easier target for his ire than Aslan, and if the situation were any less dire, Eiji thinks he might find it funny. “So you have no honor!”

Neither do you, Eiji thinks spitefully. For a man who regularly cheats on his wife and has no qualms bribing and blackmailing his way through life, Shi Lai-Ke certainly likes to pretend to stick to the rules of social etiquette.

“Let bygones be bygones, Ash,” Arthur says, his eyes flashing dark and angry even as he pastes on a fake, oily smile. “It’s been years. I truly am glad you’ve found something precious to you here.”

He looks at Eiji again, but not at his face—at his shoulders and chest, exposed by the neckline of his gown, and then lower—and licks his lips.

Unease settles into the pit of Eiji’s stomach, thick and heavy. This man is a danger to him.

“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance properly, Prince Okumura.” Arthur steps forward and takes Eiji’s unwilling hand from Aslan’s shoulder to press a hot kiss to his knuckles. Eiji has to resist the urge to yank his hand away and wipe it on the upholstery. “You are even more beautiful up close… almost like a maiden.”

“The pleasure is all mine,” Eiji manages, pulling back and pressing his hand to Aslan’s chest. His heart is pounding, and the word maiden settles uncomfortably into his gut. Of course Arthur would call him that. He’s wearing a stupid dress and everyone is talking about him like he’s just a toy, anyway. “Th-thank you.”

Aslan’s arm around him tightens again, uncomfortably so. Eiji taps two fingers against the back of his neck, and he loosens his grip, but only barely. When he speaks, his voice is airy, but his eyes are cold. “Let bygones be bygones, you say.”

“Indeed.” Arthur’s false smile grows. “I’m not the only one willing to look past old bad blood. I’m sure King Golzine would love to have you come visit again sometime, despite what you did. He was so excited when we heard you and Blanca ended up here. He told me to tell you he misses you.”

Aslan goes rigid.

“I’m flattered,” he says again, but his heart is pounding and his body is tense and maybe no one else can see it, but when Eiji looks at him his eyes are screaming that he wants to flee, that something here is wrong, wrong, wrong. “Unfortunately, I can’t say the same.”

Arthur raises an eyebrow. “Really? Because—”

That is enough.

“Aaaaash,” Eiji interrupts, as whiny and bratty as he can possibly be. He drapes himself against Ash’s chest and loops both arms around his neck and flutters his eyelashes, pouting, and makes a point of rolling his hips to rub into Aslan’s still hand. “This is boooring, I wanna go do something fun… can we pleeease get out of here?”

That seems to snap Aslan out of his spell; Eiji can see the relief in his eyes as he slips his smug mask back on and looks down at him again. “So needy,” he croons, and chuckles. “Can’t you be patient? I’m having a conversation here.”

Oh no, he needs to whine and wheedle to make this authentic, oh no, um, what to say?! He flounders for a second and blurts, “But you promised!” before leaning in to murmur “I was really good all day!” near his ear, as if he means for it to be a whisper. Shi Lai-Ke and Arthur can definitely hear him, but they don’t have to know that he means for them too. “And I’m still wearing it…”

Aslan lets out another breathy chuckle and then presses a soft, warm kiss to his jaw. “Alright. You win. A promise is a promise, after all. Let’s get going, my sweet.”

Eiji forces himself to giggle as he jumps up from Aslan’s lap and immediately latches onto his arm as he gets up, sparing only a careless glance over his shoulder to both Shi Lai-Ke and Arthur and focusing only on Aslan. Aslan stands with the lithe grace of a cat, pulling Eiji into his side, and looks to first Shi Lai-Ke with sharp eyes and then to Arthur with a false smile again.

“I must excuse myself, gentlemen,” he says, and nods once to them both before letting Eiji tug him to the door.

They make it a few paces down the hall and around the first corner before Aslan cracks and stumbles to lean heavily against a wall, blowing out a deep, explosive breath as he buries his face in both his hands, fingers twining angrily into his hair.

“God,” he hisses. “God, Eiji, I’m so fucking sorry—”

“Hush.” Eiji wraps his arm around his waist and pulls him away from the wall, looking ahead with determination. “Not yet.”

They walk in silence the rest of the way. Eiji almost pulls Aslan into the library just to take the passage behind the fifteenth bookshelf and shave a few minutes off their trip, but stops himself. It wouldn’t do if the rumor mill somehow, as unlikely as it is, learned that after they left the sitting room, they never were seen making it to any bedroom. The needy throbbing between his legs fades fast, now that they’re leaving, and all Eiji wants now is to get out of this stupid dress and hide.

The walk back to his apartments is excruciating; Aslan is agitated and upset, and Eiji aches to comfort him, but he can’t, not until they get somewhere private where they can speak freely. He hugs Aslan’s arm as they walk to hopefully send him some wordless comfort, but he has a feeling Aslan will take it as just another part of the act.

Finally, the door closes behind them, and Eiji slides the lock into place with a click, relieved beyond measure as he turns around. “Aslan—”

Aslan abruptly drops to his knees in front of him, head bowed, and takes one of his hands in both of his. “I’m so sorry, Birdie,” he breathes, and as Eiji looks down at him, startled, he brings Eiji’s hand to his mouth and kisses his fingers. “I’m sorry.”

“Aslan!” Concerned, Eiji drops to one knee too, cupping his cheek in his free hand and raising his head so he has to meet his gaze. “What are you talking about? We did everything just like we said we would, you do not need to be sorry for—”

Aslan’s breath shudders out of his chest as he deflates. “I never, ever want to do anything like that to you again.”

Eiji softens, understanding, and caresses his cheek. “You did not hurt me.”

“I was treating you like—like you weren’t there.” Aslan shakes his head and stares at a point somewhere over Eiji’s shoulder. “Like you weren’t a person. I… I can’t do that to you, Eiji, I’m so, so sorry…”

“Hush,” Eiji chides very gently. His heart aches. His Aslan… “It was an act. I know it was an act. You did not hurt me, Aslan.”

Aslan closes his eyes and wordlessly leans his cheek into Eiji’s hand.

Eiji takes their joined hands and brings them to his lips this time, pressing a kiss to each of Aslan’s knuckles. “You made me feel safe.”

Aslan’s eyes fly open. “What? But I—”

Eiji takes a deep breath and blows it out. “Can we—do you want to sit down? On the couch maybe? Or… something?”

Aslan nods, but his eyes are still wide, and he follows Eiji like a lost lamb until Eiji pushes him down to sit on the sofa. Eiji immediately plops down and curls into his side, and he looks at him plaintively. “Eiji?”

Eiji tugs his arm around himself and burrows close to him. After that, he doesn’t want to be alone; he wants some kind of comfort, and it’s easiest to find it right here in Aslan’s arms, where he feels safe. “Mm?”

“How did—” Aslan breaks off and swallows, hard. “You felt safe? During… that?”

Eiji nods against his shoulder, much more at ease now that they’re alone, with no prying eyes to leer at them. It feels much more pure, this way. “Because you were there. And I knew—I know—that you would never let him touch me.”

“I would never,” Aslan agrees softly, leaning his cheek against Eiji’s hair. “I’m still sorry. I treated you so awfully.”

“Aslan,” Eiji sighs, immeasurably fond as he tips his head up and looks up at him. “I told you to do all of that. You do not need to feel bad for it.”

Aslan looks away.

“Thank you,” he mumbles. His voice is a little rough.

“Oh, Aslan.” Eiji lifts his head and leans in to kiss his cheek. “I love you very much.”

Aslan’s breath catches in his throat. When it comes back out, it’s a wheezy laugh, incredulous, as he looks down at him. “This, of all things, makes you say you love me?”

“The fact that you care so deeply about whether something I agreed to in the first place made me feel bad?” Eiji asks, trying not to laugh at the look on his face. “Yes. It does.”

Aslan blinks, once, twice, and then groans and flops over to lay down across his lap. Eiji does laugh, resting a hand on his shoulder and threading the fingers of the other into his hair, gently pulling the ribbon holding it in a ponytail away to let it fall loose. Aslan sighs in contentment.

“I love you too,” he mumbles, and closes his eyes. “I… thank you, Birdie.”

“For what?” Eiji rubs his shoulder. “For telling you things that are common sense? Or for—”

“For getting us out of there.” Aslan sighs deeply. “I froze up. Stupid of me. So… thank you, for saving the both of us.”

Oh.

The sweet, heady relief coursing through him dissipates, fades into vague discomfort again at just the thought of Arthur, and Eiji presses his lips together in distaste. “Of course. I look after you just as you look after me, Aslan.”

“Mm.” Aslan smiles, a small and hesitant smile. “My hero.”

Eiji hesitates. “What… what did you mean, about the duel he lost in disgrace?”

Aslan sits up again and runs a hand through his hair, his smile fading. “It’s… a long story,” he warns. “And you won’t like it.”

Eiji leans into his side again, hugging his arm. “Tell me anyway.” 

Aslan takes a deep breath, blows it out, and reaches up rake a hand through his hair. Loose now, it falls down almost to his shoulders in pale waves. Eiji resists the urge to run his hands through it, but only because he would have to let go of his arm to do so.

“I… spent a year in Halfmoon.” Aslan looks at Eiji, then at the armrest on his other side, then down into his lap as if he isn’t sure where he should be looking as he says these things. “You already knew that. I mean—I spent a year in Golzine’s palace. That’s where I met Arthur.”

“In his palace?” Eiji blinks in surprise. “So… that is how you met Blanca, then?”

Aslan nods. “I went directly there when I left Max. I sought an audience with Golzine because Halfmoon was the nearest royal court, and I figured a royal court would be the best way to find someone who could get me here, to you.”

He pauses, then, green eyes going a little wide, and looks down at Eiji with slight alarm.

“I don’t—when I tell you what happened in Halfmoon—I don’t want you thinking it’s your fault in any way,” he says, and the mild unease in Eiji’s stomach prickles its way into wary dread. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault except for Golzine’s, and his—his allies. But it’s not like I only got hurt because I wanted to find you, or anything—it’s not your fault you got held hostage, I mean, and—”

“Aslan,” Eiji cuts in, biting his lip. “You are scaring me. What happened?”

Aslan inhales slowly. “Golzine… took a liking to me,” he finally says, after a pause long enough for Eiji to become very aware of his heart pounding in his throat. “And didn’t want me to leave. He thought I would make a good heir, like he’s been looking for.”

Eiji can feel his brows knitting together as he hugs Aslan’s arm tighter. He knows beyond a doubt from the look in Aslan’s eyes that this story ends horribly, but he doesn’t know how yet, and it frightens him.

“But, you know, I was never interested in staying.” Aslan looks away again, something unreadable in his eyes until he turns his head. Eiji curls in close to his side, needing to be close to him in this moment, needing him to stay near, but without knowing why. “And he didn’t like that.”

“He tried to make you stay?” Eiji’s voice comes out barely more than a whisper. “Is that why it took you a year there?”

“That’s how I met Arthur.”

That isn’t a real answer to the question, but Eiji won’t pry, not now in this vulnerable moment.

“Arthur… is very ambitious.” Aslan blows out a breath, finally looking back at Eiji even if only for the blink of an eye before he drops his gaze to the rug. “So when he saw that Golzine favored me, he resented me for it. And when he found out that I didn’t want Golzine’s favor, when he coveted it so much… he decided he hated me. That was the duel I mentioned. He challenged me, then when I won, tried to stab me in the back.”

“I will beat him up,” Eiji decides.

Aslan chuckles, and it’s like the breaking of glass—the walls come down, the tension leaves his shoulders, and he slumps into Eiji’s arms like a tired housecat. “I would prefer if you didn’t,” he says, laying against Eiji’s chest as Eiji tries valiantly not to topple backwards onto the cushions behind him. “I don’t trust him around you.”

Eiji gives up and lets himself fall back onto the couch, with Aslan on top of him. He’s heavy, but it’s kind of nice, like a big, warm, weighted blanket, that also smells nice and has soft hair. Aslan lets out a tiny surprised noise (somewhere between a hum and a squeak) but lays his head on his chest without question.

“What did he do to you?” Eiji strokes his hair back from his face and folds his arms about his shoulders. “It is not like you to freeze…”

Aslan hesitates for a long moment. “It wasn’t… so much his doing,” he finally says. “It was more the old man.”

Eiji blinks in confusion.

“Golzine.”

“Oh!” Eiji frowns. “I will beat him up!”

“As much as I’d love to see that,” Aslan murmurs, “I would probably throw up if he was even in the same room as you. I… really, really hate him, Birdie.”

Eiji pauses. He wants to know what Golzine did to his Aslan, but if Aslan isn’t ready to talk about it—even this much is a hard conversation for him to have, Eiji can tell, and he doesn’t want to press. But what in the world did Aslan go through, that he wants—that he won’t tell Eiji, because he’s afraid Eiji will blame himself?

“Can I ask why?”

Aslan is silent for a long moment. “You can,” he finally says, “but I don’t know if I can talk about the details right now.”

“Then I will not ask.” Eiji plants a kiss on the top of his head. “I will stay here with you, and we will talk about nice things instead. Does that sound good?”

“You don’t wanna know?” Aslan sounds surprised, but he doesn’t move so much as a muscle, laying contentedly on Eiji’s chest.

“I do,” Eiji shrugs, “but only because I want to take care of you. And if taking care of you means getting your mind onto things that are more pleasant, then that is what I want to do.”

“Oh.” Aslan pats at the side of the sofa, the cushion, and a pillow before his questing hand finds Eiji’s wrist, and he intertwines his fingers with Eiji’s and gives his hand a soft, tentative squeeze.

Eiji laughs and squeezes back, heart warmed. “It will be okay! Would you like some tea? I can send—”

“He tortured me.” Aslan’s voice is so quiet that Eiji almost misses the words entirely. His eyes are closed, but he doesn’t look pained—just quiet and content, if a little sad. “In a lot of ways. For defying his will when he said I owed him.”

Tortured.

A year.

Eiji hears himself gasp as if from a long ways away. He can’t breathe for a moment, can’t find his voice at all, can’t—

Aslan sounds almost like a frightened child when he turns his face up, worried. “…Bluebird?”

—and it all comes rushing back. Eiji hugs him tight, kisses his temple and his forehead and his brow and his nose, peppers tiny kisses all over his face, and cups his jaw and holds him and holds him. “Oh, my Aslan, my sweet Aslan…”

“It’s alright,” Aslan murmurs. His smile breaks Eiji’s heart. “Hey… it’s okay. I survived. It’s all in the past, Birdie. Shh.”

“You never should have had to go through that to begin with!” Eiji shakes his head. “You should—why are you comforting me about this?”

Aslan laughs, a tiny and soft but real laugh, and leans his face into Eiji’s touch. “You’re the one in distress, and comforting you is what I’m here for?”

“No!” Eiji swats his shoulder. “That is not what you are here for. And this is not about me, Aslan. Please do not downplay it for my sake! I never want you to have to deal with anything like this alone!”

Aslan blinks at him, clearly not having expected that, and then nods slowly. “Okay. I… think I can do that.”

“Promise me?” Eiji asks. “You will let me take care of you?”

Aslan takes a slow breath, nods, and reaches up to graze his fingers tenderly along Eiji’s cheek. “Anything for you. I promise.”

Eiji sighs and closes his eyes, holding his Aslan close. He’s never met Dino Golzine, but as of today, he hates him—he’s glad they’re going to be deposing him, that he very well may end up dead as a consequence of the war they’re planning.

He wants him to suffer, he realizes, a little surprised at himself. He usually… he usually doesn’t want people to suffer. The only exceptions were the ones who killed his parents, and…

And Gan-Lung Lee, for “killing” Aslan, all those years ago.

“I would do anything for you, as well,” Eiji tells him. “You are my Aslan.”

Aslan has always been his best friend, but the words “best friend” don’t truly seem to encompass their bond. Family might be closer—Aslan is the only person from his childhood within reach, now, and that makes him precious to Eiji beyond words—but it doesn’t completely encapsulate everything Aslan is to him, either.

Yut-Lung thinks that they are just going to end up in bed together. But that isn’t accurate either. It’s not that Aslan isn’t handsome—Eiji knows he is, with his brilliant green eyes and his strong jaw and those broad shoulders. He’s very attractive. But Eiji doesn’t want to be close to him all the time just because he wants to sleep with him. It’s more that… Aslan just fills a deep, aching need that’s been gnawing at him for years. He makes him feel at home.

And he hasn’t had a place (a person) to call home in… a very, very long time.

I love you, he thinks, looking down at that soft golden hair. Aslan’s eyes are closed, but a very slight smile curves his lips. The weight of him is grounding and comforting. Eiji feels so very safe like this. He could almost fall asleep just like this, except…

“Hey.” He prods at Aslan’s shoulder. “Get up for a minute.”

Aslan opens his eyes and takes his sweet time, slowly sitting back up. “Mm?”

“It is getting late. I want to change into something more comfortable.” Eiji stands up, stretches, and picks at the neckline of the stupid sheer gown, making a face. He almost forgot he was wearing it, until he looked down, but now that he remembers, he wants it gone. “If you also want to get changed for the night now, I have one of your robes in my wardrobe.”

Aslan looks surprised, rubbing the back of his head. “You do?”

Eiji raises an eyebrow. “Did you think that after that display, you would be spending the night anywhere but in my rooms?”

Aslan, bless him, turns pink, as if they didn’t come here from a room in which he was confidently fondling Eiji during a casual conversation. “I, ah… right, good point, uh…”

Eiji laughs, turning around. “Would you unlace the back for me?”

“Of course.” Aslan clears his throat. A moment later Eiji feels his hands at the small of his back, undoing the neat little bow Yut-Lung tied there this morning, and then carefully pulling the ribbon through the rivets until the gown is loose enough that Eiji can slip it off. His touch is steadfast and gentle. “Is that alright?”

“Perfect.” Eiji gathers it up around himself, a little bashful—why is he blushing?—and doesn’t turn around. “Thank you.”

Aslan, at least, doesn’t seem to have noticed his reddened cheeks. Eiji hears him flop back onto the couch, apparently unbothered. “Anytime.”

Eiji bites the inside of his lip as the straps start to fall down his shoulders, then hurries off into his bedroom to get changed properly. Why does having Aslan help him undress make him so flustered? Yut-Lung has helped him get in and out of his clothes plenty of times before…

It must just be leftover embarrassment from earlier. That’s all.

He tosses the offending gown into the laundry—he doesn’t particularly want to see it again—and pulls on a pair of cozy silken pajamas to sleep in. Aslan’s robe, quietly nabbed from his rooms when Eiji dropped by a few days ago, is folded neatly in his wardrobe, and Eiji grabs it before trotting back out into the sitting room.

“Here,” he says, and in true “best friend” fashion, he throws it directly at Aslan’s face. It lands on his head and stays there, and Eiji can’t help but laugh.

“Thanks,” Aslan deadpans, voice muffled by the fabric.

“Whenever we go to bed, you can sleep on the sofa, if you like,” Eiji tells him, “or—”

He stops for a moment, dumbfounded, when Aslan stands and just strips where he stands. He shimmies out of his pants first, then unlaces his shirt and tugs it off by the collar, uncaring that Eiji is there. And really, it’s not that Eiji minds, but—

There are just so many scars crisscrossing his back.

“Sorry,” Aslan says, shrugging the robe on and turning back to him with a wry smile. “What were you saying?”

Eiji blinks, wide-eyed.

But no—if he wanted to talk about it, he would. He just shared that he’s been tortured; surely that explains most of them. Eiji isn’t going to make him talk about his scars. They aren’t his to ask about, they’re Aslan’s to tell him about, and only if he wants.

“I said, we do not have to sleep just yet, but when we do, you can sleep on the sofa, if you want to,” he manages, only half a second late. Aslan’s hair is mussed from his shirt. That’s something safe to focus on. Safe, and cute. “But also, my bed is large enough, so… you can share it with me, if you want?”

Aslan’s eyes widen. “No, no, I can’t do that to you,” he says, shaking his head quickly. “It’s your bed, and I don’t want to make you uncomfortable—”

“Please?” Eiji wraps his arms around himself and sways from foot to foot, uncertain. “I mean, um, if you are not comfortable or if you do not want to, that is fine! But to be honest, um… earlier was… I am not upset, but it was… a first? And I… I do not really want to be alone right now.”

Aslan stares at him for a moment, and then he breaks into a warm, boyish grin, and Eiji feels like he’s just been hit by a train, because that’s the same smile from when they were kids. “You’re sure?”

Eiji smiles back, much more at ease. “Very. You are ridiculous! We used to sleep in the same bed all the time!”

“Well, yeah, but then we grew up!” Aslan crosses his arms. “I’m not gonna presume you’re still comfortable with that!”

“Stupid,” Eiji tells him, very fond, and finally gives in to the urge to ruffle his hair. “I am always comfortable with you. I told you, you make me feel safe.”

Aslan opens his mouth, shuts it again, and finally gives him a grumpy look. “You can’t call me stupid in the same sentence as you say something so cheesy, stupid.”

“Watch me!” Eiji grins. He could count on his fingers the number of times he’s felt so lighthearted and at ease since coming to the Lee court, and most of them have been after Aslan arrived. “You are my Aslan and I feel safe with you… dummy.”

“Yeah?” Aslan reaches over and ruffles his hair roughly, and Eiji yelps. “Well, you make me feel safe, too, and that’s impressive, ‘cuz no one’s done that since I left Max, so suck on that, idiot!”

Oh. Eiji blinks. “Wait… really?”

Aslan groans. “Forget it,” he says, and turns to the bedroom door. His ears are red. “I’m going to bed. Fuck you.”

“Yes, that is what everyone thinks you are doing,” Eiji says, trotting after him.

In one swift motion, Aslan grabs a pillow from the sofa and hurls it at his face. “Shut up!”

(When they finally make it to bed, they’re still smiling.)

Chapter Text

Five years ago…

It takes everything Shorter has in him to keep from sprinting down the hall. He knows it’s unbecoming, knows that a court official would never run indoors, knows that he has to carry himself in a manner that befits a court alchemist, but—

But he’s the court alchemist, and he has to tell Nadia the news, because he’s the court alchemist and he’s just been appointed and she has to know now!!!

He settles for a quick stride, his boots thumping against the carpet as he hurries to the kitchens, his official new court alchemist robes flaring out around his ankles as he walks. Sixteen is very young for a court alchemist, but his mentor announced his impending retirement six months ago, and Shorter knows he’s good at what he does and he aced the exams and the practical without any trouble. So maybe Nadia won’t be surprised when he bursts in to tell her, but she’ll still be happy.

Being the court alchemist means he’s made himself essential, and being essential means he’s that much more secure here. He won’t just get conscripted or shipped off to be useful elsewhere like most boys his age.

(Like Lao.)

And if they get Sing interested in alchemy when he’s a little older…

“Nadia!” He bursts into the kitchens, unable to stop grinning. “Hey, hey, hey! Nadia, guess what!”

Nadia’s stirring a huge pot at the stove, but she turns immediately at the sound of his voice. Shorter watches her take him in, from his wide smile all the way down to the way he taps his foot (he’s too excited to stand still!), until her eyes settle on the embroidered insignia on the collar of his robes, and she gasps.

“Shorter—”

“I did it!” He cuts her off with a whoop and grabs her hands, spins her under his arm as if they’re in a ballroom like all the stuffy nobles, and beams ear-to-ear. “I did it, Nadia! I’m the official court alchemist now—”

“No horseplay!” Nadia yanks her hands away and smacks his shoulder in reprimand, but she can’t stop smiling as she does it, and Shorter can’t even pretend to be sheepish. “The stove is hot!”

“But Naaaadiaaaa…”

Nadia laughs breathlessly and hugs him, pulling him down and pressing his face into her shoulder. “Oh, Shorter, I’m so proud of you. I knew you would do it!”

Shorter all but wiggles in delight. He’s shot up recently, tall enough to rest his chin atop her head if he goes up on the tips of his toes, and while it’s been hilarious to declare that he’s the big sibling now, sometimes he misses being able to tuck himself into her arms like a kid.

It still feels like he’s a kid right now, though, as she ruffles his hair and lets go of him. Her eyes are a little too-bright… it must be the onions in the soup.

“Yeah!” Shorter pumps a fist. “Now you don’t gotta worry about me anymore. I’m all set!”

Nadia frowns and pinches his cheek. She looks exactly like their mother did, when she makes that face. “You should still be careful.”

“I know, I know!”

Shorter looks around the kitchens, curious. There’s usually some other workers in here, like Nadia’s sous chefs, but right now, it’s just them. Maybe the others are all on break. It is just after lunchtime for the nobles.

“Where’s Sing?” he asks. Nadia reaches around him to pull some dried sage from the bushel hanging above the stove. “Thought he’d be in here with you right now.”

“He’s taking a nap in the lounge.” Nadia crumbles the leaves and dusts them gently into the pot. “I think he might be getting sick. He says he’s fine, though.”

Shorter frowns. “Getting sick? I guess it is winter…”

“He went out to play without putting on a hat yesterday.” Nadia shakes her head disapprovingly. The light from the hearth is reflected in her eyes. “I told him to, but that boy has a mind of his own.”

“A kid after my own heart.” Shorter presses a hand to his chest, above his heart, and grins. “But hey! I could use my new court alchemist permissions to make him some medicine. Without having to buy the ingredients out of our pockets!”

Nadia purses her lips. “You could, but I’m not sure how much court would approve you using the lab for personal reasons…”

“Nah, they won’t care.” Shorter waves a flippant hand. “’Sides, I’m allowed to work on personal projects, so long as the majority of my time is spent on research that they approve, or on projects ‘specially requested by a Lee.”

“Mm.” Nadia is silent for a moment, stirring the pot, but then she lets go of the spatula and smiles up at him, quiet and radiant. “I’m really happy, Shorter.”

“Aw, sis.” Shorter leans down and kisses her cheek. “Thanks for always being supportive of me. Means a lot.”

Nadia’s smile softens, and she sighs, looking down at the bubbling soup. “If only Mama and Baba could be here, too.”

Shorter shifts from foot to foot. Nadia’s old enough to remember their parents well; he only has bits and pieces of memories, like how smooth Mama’s hair was or how tall he felt when Baba paraded him about on his shoulders. “Yeah.”

“They’d be very proud to know what you’ve accomplished.”

Shorter follows her gaze down into the soup. A big bubble pops and spatters liquid onto a chunk of potato. It smells delicious. “I like to think they would be, too.”

“They would.” Nadia turns to the drawer next to her and fishes out a spoon, the other hand holding the spatula and stirring in a slow, wide circle. “The youngest ever court alchemist in the Lee dynasty. You’ve made history, Shorter. You’re brilliant.”

Shorter laughs, a little sheepish, and rubs the back of his neck. “Well, it’s only ‘cuz Yao Cheng retired…”

“Still.” Nadia dips the spoon into the pot. “You should be proud. Here, taste.”

Shorter bends his head and obediently lets her feed him the spoonful—

It’s a mistake. A boiling, flaming, hot mistake.

He fans both hands at his mouth and hops back and forth from foot to foot. It doesn’t really help.“Ah—oh—ow—hot, hot—”

“Shorter! Why didn’t you blow on it?!”

“Hot hot hot!”

“I take it back, maybe not so brilliant—”

“Nadia!”


Boots clicking on the polished marble floor, Shorter strides down the wide hall towards the grand double doors at the exit. Meeting with Gan-Lung Lee always leaves a sour taste in his throat, more so whenever Eiji is there; he can see the way Gan-Lung’s eyes linger, and it feels foul.

But Yut-Lung whisked Eiji off before he could check if he’s alright, and so Shorter has nothing to do but return to the alchemy lab and get back to work. None of the Lees are happy with the newest addition to their court, and they want him to smoke out the truth.

Voices drifting from a side corridor catch his attention, and he pauses. Forget speak of the devil—apparently all you have to do is think of him.

“What, doesn’t it bother you?” Lord Arthur’s voice taunts. “You don’t think I’m gonna forget about your little prince, do you?”

“Honestly, I don’t care what you do, Arthur.” Ash sounds severely uninterested. “I know you’re obsessed with me, but really? Pushing me up against the wall like this… what will people think?”

Arthur hisses. “You fucking bastard—”

Shorter takes a couple of steps back and glances down the hallway. Sure enough, Arthur has Ash cornered against a wall and is glaring at him intently; Ash has his arms folded across his chest and looks almost bored. The air is ripe with tension.

“Just wait, Ash,” Arthur seethes. From the side, his slicked-back hair looks… almost like a paintbrush, Shorter thinks. How long will it take him to notice him? He’s sure Ash already knows he’s there. “Just wait, I’ll make you pay. You’ll regret being so disrespectful to me.”

“You’ve never once respected me, have you?” Ash lifts one hand and examines his nails. “Why should I respect you?”

Arthur slams a fist into the wall beside Ash’s head and roars in his face. “You fucking—”

Ash’s eyes flash, and even from several paces away, Shorter can feel the temperature drop.

“Oh, please, Arthur.” Ash smirks. “Raise your fist to me. Give me an excuse. Give me an excuse to hand you your ass on a silver platter again. I’d love to see the look on your face—are you looking for a rematch? You could’ve just asked.”

Arthur snarls wordlessly, but steps back after a moment, shaking with palpable rage. “You… you…”

“Me, me.” Ash runs a lazy hand through his hair. “Is that all you have to say? Can I go now?”

“Just you wait,” Arthur hisses again. “I’m gonna tear that prince of yours apart. Whatever you see in him, I’ll destroy it. You think you can be happy just ‘cuz you get out of Halfmoon? You’re never, ever gonna get to keep him! I’m gonna break him, I’m gonna tear—”

Alright, that’s more than enough.

“Ash!” Shorter raises an arm in greeting, firmly inserting himself into the conversation by striding over and physically wrapping it around Ash’s shoulders. “There you are! I was looking for you, buddy.”

“Oh?” Ash inclines his head. He maintains impeccable posture and even smiles a chilly smile, but Shorter can tell there is frost running through his veins and ice itching under his skin. “It’s been a lovely chat, but it looks like someone has actual need of me, Arthur. Guess I’ll have to talk to you later!”

“I’m not done here!” Arthur grabs Shorter’s arm to tug it away from Ash. “Listen here—”

Shorter wrenches his arm from his grip without too much difficulty and pins him with a steely glare, drawing himself up to his full height. “We are done here.”

Arthur glares between them for a moment before he seems to realize he’s outnumbered and backs down, clearly angered that Shorter has intervened. “Really, Ash? Hiding behind the Lees and their pet alchemist now?”

“Tread carefully, foreigner.” Shorter pointedly looks down at him. “It’s a criminal offense to insult the Imperial Family as their guest. Aren’t you supposed to be here to help mend our kingdoms’ relations?”

Arthur’s face darkens. Next to Shorter, Ash smirks.

“No wonder Golzine hasn’t named you his heir yet,” Ash shrugs, voice light. “I suppose I was always better at being diplomatic.”

Arthur makes a choked, almost inhuman splutter of incoherent rage, but Ash ignores him, looking up at Shorter. “You were looking for me. I’m assuming that means it’s ready?”

There is no “it”, but Shorter nods. “I had it out in the sun this morning to charge. You’re not busy right now, are you? You can come with me and pick it up.”

“That would be perfect.” Ash starts walking, and Shorter falls into step beside him. “See you, Arthur!”

When they get to the court alchemist’s apartment, Shorter gestures Ash to the couch and immediately puts on some water for tea—from Ash’s face alone, he can tell this is a conversation that’s gonna need it.

“I didn’t need a rescue.”

Shorter glances over. Ash isn’t sitting—he’s standing near the door, arms crossed and face dark. At first glance he just looks angry, but it’s a stark contrast from the cold rage before; now he just reminds Shorter of a disgruntled kitten.

“Never said ya did.” Shorter opens his tea cabinet and contemplates the various boxes and tins, puffing out his cheeks in thought. Jasmine green is a classic, but maybe he should make something fruity. The apricot black is always good with honey… but then again, so is the pomegranate white…

“I can handle Arthur on my own. You shouldn’t get involved.”

Shorter pauses. “Dude, are you pouting?”

Ash gives him a wounded, indignant look. “No!”

“Oh, come on. Just sit down, dumbass—look,” Shorter holds up a hand before he can bristle at the insult. “I’m not getting involved. Except—hey, apricot black or pomegranate white?”

Ash stalks to the sofa and sits down with his arms still crossed. He moves with his usual fluid grace, but his hunched shoulders and pointy elbows still just make him look like a spiky kitten, and Shorter almost laughs. “…Do you have any mango green?”

“Of course I have mango tea. What do I look like to you, a heathen? A clown?”

Ash cracks a slight smile. “You really want me to answer that?”

“Hey!”

By the time Shorter settles down next to him, their two mugs steaming on the tiny coffee table, Ash has managed to relax enough to uncross his arms and to nearly smile again as he says “Thanks”, and Shorter tips his head in acknowledgment.

“So…”

Ash sighs and looks away across the room. A silent moment hangs in the air between them, and then Ash leans down to pick up his tea.

“I’m guessing you wanna know why he has it out for me so bad, huh.”

Shorter leans back into the cushions. “I mean… I’m curious, yeah, but I’m not entitled to your life story.”

There’s a pause.

“You’re a genuinely good guy, Shorter.” Ash quirks a smile down into his tea, just a tiny upturn of the corners of his mouth. “Don’t lose sight of that.”

Shorter flashes a small grin at him, flattered. “Thanks, bro. Not planning on it.”

“Arthur hates my guts.” Ash cradles his tea in his lap, looking down into the rising steam. “I don’t feel like going into why, but it does make me worry.”

“’Cuz of what he said about Eiji?”

“Mm.” Ash nods. “I can handle him when it’s just me. But I wish he hadn’t—I should’ve thought about it,” he sighs, shaking his head. “It was his first full day at court. Of course he’d go looking for me. I didn’t think, and now I’m worried Eiji’s gonna be in more danger thanks to my oversight.”

“He’s not gonna get Eiji alone.” Shorter leans over and picks up his tea too—he made apricot black, in the end—and sips it slowly. The heat seeps into him, refreshing and soothing as hell. “You don’t gotta worry about that.”

Ash sighs. There’s a troubled look in his eye, one Shorter knows better than to pry about, but god is he curious about what went down in Halfmoon, however many years ago. What could possibly have rattled Ash Lynx, of all people?

“He’s craftier than he looks. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up bribing some guard to get at Eiji, or something like that.” Ash shakes his head. “I was hoping after a month of this he’d lay off, but it doesn’t look like he’s planning to let go of this… fixation… he has, anytime soon.”

“On Eiji?” Shorter asks.

“On me.” Ash blows out a frustrated breath. “He wants to prove he’s better than me. And after he saw me with Eiji last month, he’s decided Eiji’s important to me. And so to make me suffer, he wants to hurt Eiji.”

“Sheesh.” Shorter sips his tea again, making a face. “What a petty asshole.”

“You can say that again.”

“What a petty ass—”

“You are the most infuriating person I know, I swear to god—”

Ash looks so exasperated that Shorter can’t help but grin, and then they’re both laughing into their tea as the afternoon dust motes dance through the air. It feels warm and cozy.

“I just don’t know what to do,” Ash confesses after a long moment. When he looks down into his tea, Shorter is struck by the beauty of his profile—his pale eyelashes, his high cheekbones, his emerald-green eyes, the cut of his jaw. He really is a handsome man, with the hair falling around his face framing it just so, and the light only serving to underscore his features. “And I hate not knowing what to do.”

“About what, specifically?”

Ash waves a hand. “All of it. Arthur. Arthur’s interest in Eiji now that I went and fucked up. I don’t think I’ll be able to convince him Eiji isn’t important to me—he’ll see through it if I try, and if I don’t try, he’ll be convinced he’s right and that I’m taunting him, so—”

“Hey.” Shorter cuts him off with what he hopes is a comforting hand on his shoulder. “You don’t have to deal with it all alone.”

Ash frowns. “Shorter, I just told you I don’t want you getting involved. His bullshit issues with me are between me and him, not you.”

“God, you knights are insufferable,” Shorter groans. “So chivalrous. Can’t you just let people help?”

Ash snorts, blowing on his tea. “What other insufferable knights do you know?”

“Sing’s big brother.” Shorter glances at the framed sketch of Lao on his desk and suppresses a wince. It’s one of the only images of him they have, and it’s behind a pile of notebooks and under a layer of dust. “He died two years ago.”

“Oh.” Ash is silent for a few heartbeats. “I’m sorry.”

“Nah, don’t be.” Shorter waves a hand. “Not like you could’ve done anything about it. Gan-Lung had him sent off to be a squire ages ago. We knew back then what would eventually happen.”

Ash looks dissatisfied with that answer. “…Yeah, I guess we knights tend to get killed off more than most, huh.”

“You better not be like the rest, Lynx,” Shorter warns. “If Eiji has to mourn you twice…”

Ash’s eyes blaze with pale fire. “He won’t. He’ll never have to mourn anything again, if I can help it.”

“Good.” Shorter claps a hand on his shoulder. “Good man! So you’ll let me help you out with Arthur if he’s a pain. Yeah?”

The look of indignant shock on Ash’s face is priceless. “You bastard, you can’t just use Eiji to con me into things—”

“Great! I’m glad you came around!” Shorter grins into his tea. Mm, yes, the apricot was a good choice. “I won’t let him get Eiji alone. You don’t have to worry about that. Do whatever you need to, and I’ll get in his way as much as I can.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Ash protests. “I’m the one who fucked up by letting him see us. You don’t have to fix my mistakes.”

“Fucking knight-ass idiot,” Shorter mutters. “It’s not fixing your mistakes, it’s working with you ‘cuz you’re my friend and so’s Eiji.”

Ash blows out a disgruntled breath, looking for all the world like a grouchy kitten again as he raises his teacup again. “Fine! Have it your way. Bother Arthur if you want.”

Shorter flashes him a grin and a thumbs-up. “Thanks! Wasn’t gonna wait for your permission either way, but it’s good to have it.”

“Fucking pain-in-the-ass alchemist.”

Shorter winks. “Oh, I’m always happy to be the pain in the ass of a pretty guy! I use lube, I mean. But like, sore-the-next-day pain? Hell yeah!”

The look Ash gives him can only be described as withering.

“Not interested,” he sniffs, taking a large sip of tea. “Never going to be interested, before you ask.”

“That’s okay!” Shorter laughs. He can’t even be disappointed—he doesn’t flirt with high expectations! It’s just in good fun, and besides, he’s not blind. He can see the way Ash looks at Eiji. “But you know where to find me if you ever change your mind.”

“Tch. You wish.”

Shorter reaches over and flicks his shoulder. “Yeah, yeah. I’m kidding! We all know how you look at Eiji—”

Ash spits tea across the room.

“You what?!” he splutters, coughing, and Shorter pounds him on the back until his eyes are watering. “You—I do not—Eiji isn’t—what the fuck, Shorter, I swear to—I’m not—”

“Ooooh,” Shorter realizes, letting his hand go from thumping Ash’s back to patting it sympathetically. “We’re still at denial. My bad. I thought last month would’ve changed that—I thought… wait, wait. If you’re still at denial, you mean you guys aren’t already together?”

“No!” Ash shakes his head vehemently and jerks away from his touch.. “It’s not like that! What the fuck? He’s my best friend, I don’t—I would never—I don’t want anything like that from him!”

“Huh?” Shorter tips his head to the side, confused, as he settles back into his side of the couch. “But you and him… you’re sure?”

“Positive!” Ash puffs up like a hissing cat, eyes cold again. “I would never want anything like that from him. I would appreciate it if you would stop acting like I would!”

Shorter thinks of the way Eiji’s eyes shine when he talks about Ash, and only about Ash, and slowly tilts his head the other way. “Uh… yeah. Okay. My bad. Sorry.”

“It’s fine.” Ash crosses one leg over the other, face still red, and sips his tea again. “Just don’t do it again.”

“Right.” Shorter thinks about Eiji’s delight every time he sees Ash, about the way his eyes linger on him, about the specific softness in his face only when Ash comes up, and tries not to wince. Poor Eiji. If Ash is this averse to the idea of being romantically involved with him, whoof. That’s… gonna hurt, whenever it comes up.

“Anyway.” Ash finally breaks the silence, still not looking at him.“I … appreciate your help earlier. Thanks.”

“Anytime, dude,” Shorter says, and it’s a promise.


There’s a tapping noise, sometime late in the deep hours of the night.

Tap tap. Tap tap tap.

Shorter groans as he rolls over, bleary and confused. There’s no sun, it’s dark… he’s sleepy. Nothing’s on fire. “Whazzit…?”

Tap-tap-tap.

Oh. The window.

Frowning, Shorter rubs the sleep from his eyes and peels himself out of his blanket, padding over to the window. It’s gotta be like, three or four in the morning. What the fuck…

Big dark eyes under a big dark hood greet him from the other side. “Shorter?” Eiji whispers, barely audible through the glass and pulling his cloak tighter about himself, as Shorter blinks at him groggily. “Can I come in…?”

“Bunny?” Shorter squints. “Yeah, yeah, ‘course…”

He’s reaching for the latch on the window when Eiji disappears around the side of the house, and he remembers he has a front door. Right. That is a thing that his little house possesses. Right…

By the time he stumbles through the dark and opens the door, he’s awake enough to be worried. What has Eiji out here so late at night when he should be asleep in his bed? Is he safe? Is everything alright?

He starts to open the door; when it’s barely more than a crack open, Eiji slips through like a shadow and bumps it closed behind himself again. Shorter locks it again automatically.

“Thank you,” Eiji murmurs. His cloak is large and nondescript enough that it’s unlikely anyone could identify him without being close enough to see his face, and the fact that he’s out sneaking around only makes Shorter’s worry intensify. “I am sorry to wake you…”

“That’s fine, Bunny.” Shorter touches his cheek, tips his face up in the dimness. Moonlight slants through the window and falls over his cheekbone as he looks up. “Are you okay? What’s going on?”

Eiji bites his lip and leans his cheek into Shorter’s hand. “I… couldn’t sleep,” he admits, wrapping his arms about himself. “Is it okay if I stay here for a while?”

It’s been years, and Shorter still doesn’t think he’ll ever get over the fact that Eiji considers him a safe place, somewhere he can go to hide from the world when he feels too small to carry it all alone. “Of course,” he says, and draws Eiji into a hug. “Stay as long as you want.”

Eiji shudders in relief and sags against his chest, arms winding about his waist. “Thank you,” he whispers. “Thank you very much.”

Shorter rubs his back and swallows a yawn, swaying a little on his feet. “D’you want some tea? Or… to talk about it, or…?”

Eiji hesitates. “I… can we sit down?”

“’Course.” Shorter gives him a squeeze and lets go, guiding him through the living room with a hand on his shoulder until they reach the couch. “Here good?”

“Yes.” Eiji sinks down slowly and immediately curls in on himself, pulling his knees to his chest and wrapping his arms around them. The cloak pools around him like an added layer of protection. “Thank you.”

“You don’t have to keep thanking me, Bunny.” Shorter reaches under the hood and ruffles his hair. “You look like you need some hot chocolate. I’ll make some.”

That gets a tiny laugh out of Eiji. “Nadia has you trained well, doesn’t she?”

“I learned from the best,” Shorter agrees solemnly.

He turns to cross the room and promptly stubs his toe on the coffee table.

“Fuck!”

“Oh!” Eiji gasps, hands flying to his mouth. “I am so sorry—”

Shorter flaps a hand at the lamp on the other side of the table until he clicks it on, then gives Eiji his best chastening look. “You’re sorry that I just can’t fucking walk in a straight line?”

Eiji fidgets. “Well, I—you would still be asleep if not for me, so you would never have hurt yourself to begin with… and… stop looking at me like that,” he protests, ducking his head.

“I will stop looking at you like this once you stop earning this look.” Shorter folds his arms across his chest. “Are you done?”

Eiji nods sheepishly, and Shorter leans over and pats his head.

“Now, I’m gonna make us both some hot chocolate,” he says, “and then we’re gonna talk about it, ‘cuz you look like you need to get a big load of somethin’ off your chest. Okay?”

Eiji heaves a deep, mournful sigh. “Okay.”

Shorter comes back with two mugs soon, hands one to Eiji, and settles down next to him. Eiji slumps into his side immediately, and Shorter can’t help but wrap his arm around him comfortingly. “Hey, hey, aww, Bunny… talk to me, what’s going on?”

“I…”

Eiji stares down into his hot chocolate for several seconds. When it doesn’t provide any answers, he turns his face into Shorter’s shoulder and sighs again.

“I’m scared.”

Shorter rubs slow circles into his shoulder. “Scared of what, exactly?”

Eiji peeps up at him, eyes big and afraid. “…War.”

Oh.

Oof.

That is a scary one.

“Yeah.” Shorter blows out a breath and takes a long drink of his hot chocolate. He shouldn’t have actually made himself any… it’ll just put him right back to sleep. But now he’s got it. “Yeah, I get you.”

“Are you scared, too?” Eiji asks softly. “I know Yut-Lung is. He will never admit it, but I know.”

“Of course I’m scared, Bunny.” Shorter leans his head against Eiji’s. “We’re about to start a war. I’m fucking terrified. But I know—there’s no—this war, it’s inevitable, and it’s better at least if we’re the ones in control. We can make sure it ends quickly.”

“There’s just… no turning back.” Eiji looks down into his mug. “I mean—I know there has been no turning back for a long time now. Not since the first death. But once we kill Gan-Lung… there really will be no turning back.”

“At least it’ll get Arthur out of our hair,” Shorter offers, smiling wanly.

Eiji doesn’t smile back. “Mm.”

“I… god, yeah, it’s hard to know if we’re doing the right thing.” Shorter glances at him. “Drink your hot chocolate. It’s not too hot right now.”

Eiji obediently lifts the mug to his lips. “…Thank you, Shorter.”

“You’re welcome, Bunny.” Shorter gives him an affectionate squeeze. “But I get you. I’m worried, too. People are gonna die, and not all of them are gonna be bad.”

“Sometimes I wonder if we should have never done this,” Eiji admits, very quiet. “If I should have just accepted my lot after the invasion, and… not killed anyone.”

Shorter shakes his head. “Honestly, Bunny? Even if you weren’t here and I didn’t have a stake in Unshu getting its sovereignty back for your sake, I’d still want Yut-Lung to be on the throne instead. His brothers don’t actually care about investing in the country’s future; their administration is top-heavy and built on bribes and bullshit. I promised Lao I’d do everything I could to give Sing the best future I could get him, and I firmly believe Yut-Lung is the way to get there.”

Eiji’s eyes are dark and deep. “You think?”

“Yeah.” Shorter gently bumps his head against his. “I might not always get along with him as a person, but he’s got a good head for leadership. Definitely better for everyone else than his brothers.”

“I just wish there was a way to do this without causing a war.” Eiji bites his lip. “I am scared, Shorter, I know we will make it a quick war, but people are still going to die—how does this make me any better than the Lees? I hate them for making my people die, but what am I doing?”

“Fighting for what you believe in.” Shorter rubs his shoulder again. “Keep drinking. You’re fighting for justice for your people. It’s not fair to them to live under military occupation, like it’s not fair to us to live in Imperial servitude. Yeah, people are gonna die, but they’re already dying. Might as well make their deaths count for something.”

Eiji sips his hot chocolate and hums, leaning into his side. “I want Golzine dead,” he finally says, with a vehemence that seems to startle even himself. “I—I mean—”

“No, you said what you meant the first time.” Shorter looks down at him strangely. “What’d Golzine do to you, Bunny?”

“Not to me.” Eiji shakes his head. “To Aslan. He… he hurt him for very selfish reasons and I would—I know I am hypocritical for what I have been saying, but I want him dead. I would—I would kill him myself, if I could.”

Shorter’s eyebrows shoot up.

“That’s a big difference from how you felt this spring.”

“I know.” Eiji grips his mug with both hands and stares down into it. “Do you think… maybe it is pointless to worry about whether I am a good person?”

“You’re a good person,” Shorter reassures him. “You don’t gotta worry about that.”

“No, that isn’t what I mean.” Eiji taps his fingers against the side of the mug, his nails clinking on the ceramic. “I think maybe I am a bad person, but I am trying to be a good leader for my people, and that is what matters. They do not need me to be satisfied with who I am. They just need me to free them from military rule.”

Shorter purses his lips. “That… may be true, but I don’t think what we’re doing makes you a bad person. Does it make me a bad person?”

“Of course not!” Eiji shakes his head vehemently enough that he nearly spills his hot chocolate. “I just—I am scared, Shorter. We are starting a war soon.”

“I know.” Shorter pulls him in close, tucking him into his side. “I know, Bunny. I’m sorry it’s weighing you down this much.”

Eiji leans into him and closes his eyes, his eyelashes long and dark against his cheeks. “How do you not let it weigh you down?”

Shorter huffs out a little laugh. “Honestly? Maybe I’m the shitty person outta the two of us, but I just don’t think about it like that very much. I’m doing whatever it takes to make sure me ‘n’ mine get a safe and happy future. I just don’t bother trying to place myself on a scale of good and bad. I dunno. I just know that by helping you and Yut-Lung out, I’m helping Sing and Nadia, and I’m okay with it.”

“Even with a war on the horizon?” Eiji asks, eyes wide and dark as he looks up at him. “Do you really never wonder if the people you are fighting for are worth as much as… I am just so afraid, Shorter, I never want to be like the Lees, but here I am, starting a war anyway…”

“One, it’s gonna be a short war, ‘cuz we’re sending in the third party,” Shorter reminds him. “With Yut-Lung’s aid, Cain Blood’s faction will overthrow Halfmoon fast. Two, Bunny, you can’t protect everyone in your kingdom if you aren’t willing to fight sometimes. Not everyone is gonna play nice, and you can’t save everyone.”

Eiji flinches. “I… I know that.”

“Eiji…” Shorter gives him another little squeeze. “Who are you worried about disappointing? Is it yourself? Someone else?”

“My parents.” Eiji hangs his head. “I want to be a son they would have been proud of. But it is so hard to know if they would be proud of the things I am doing…”

Oh, that hits close to home. “I know the feeling,” Shorter sighs, leaning his head against Eiji’s. “I have no idea what mine’d think of us. Nadia might, but I don’t remember ‘em well enough to guess at how they’d feel about me doing this.”

“I think they would be proud of you.” Eiji’s voice is small and a little timid, but he smiles very slightly when Shorter looks down at him. “I never knew them, so I mean, I cannot be sure, but I would be proud of you, at least.”

“Oh.” Shorter can’t help but smile, warmth spreading in his chest. That was unexpected. “Aw, Bunny… thanks. That’s real sweet of you.”

Eiji finishes the last of his hot chocolate and sets the mug aside with a soft sigh. “It is true. You are an admirable person.”

Shorter bumps their heads together. “You, too. I think your parents would be so proud of you for being so strong after everything you’ve gone through. If they were here, they’d say, ‘Hey, Eiji, you’re doing so fucking amazing—‘”

Eiji bursts into laughter, covering his face in his hands. “I do not think I ever heard my parents swear once in my life!”

Shorter laughs too, relieved to see him smiling, and shrugs. “Well, hey, maybe I’m paraphrasing, but you know what? Point stands!”

“Does it?” Eiji looks up at him again, gentle and plaintive. “Is this being strong? I do not think I am very strong.”

“Definitely.” Shorter pinches his arm. “What kind of question—of course you’re strong. You were brought here alone as a kid, and now you’re still thinking of your people despite that it’s been years and you’d be super within your rights to be entirely focused on your own survival. You endure, Bunny. That’s somethin’ to be proud of.”

Eiji blinks a couple of times, and then to Shorter’s delight he just whines and burrows into his chest, flopping halfway into his lap. “Shorter…”

“I’m right!” Shorter pats his shoulder and knocks back the rest of his hot chocolate in one long pull. “I’m sure Ash would agree, too.”

Eiji makes a vaguely disgruntled, muffled noise. “Do not use him against me…”

Shorter laughs. “Okay. Fine. I won’t. You wanna stay here for the rest of the night?”

Eiji peeps up at him. His eyes are hopeful and soft and the lamplight reflects warmly in them, and Shorter is briefly thrown back to a night years and years ago, when Eiji came to the apartment he used to share with Nadia and Sing and Lao, and very timidly asked if he could stay, a soft-spoken boy deep in the throes of grief that immediately activated every nurturing bone in Nadia’s body.

“If it would not be too much trouble,” Eiji says, just like he did back then, and Shorter pinches his shoulder in reprimand. “Ow!”

“You’re never trouble,” Shorter reproaches. “And it would literally be more work to send you back to your rooms. Come on.”

They leave the dishes for the maids to gather in the morning and move back to Shorter’s bedroom; his bed is plenty big enough for the both of them, though Eiji gives it a distrustful look as Shorter flops back down.

“When did you last change the sheets,” Eiji deadpans, arms crossed. “I do not want to sleep on—”

“Oh my god, Bunny,” Shorter groans. “Yesterday morning. I’m not a fucking gremlin. Come on, just go to sleep already…”

Eiji grumbles something that Shorter doesn’t catch but slips under the covers without further complaint, scooting in until he can snuggle into Shorter’s side and hug his arm to his chest. It’s how he always sleeps when they wind up in the same bed, and it’s literally never not going to be the cutest fucking thing in the world.

“Feel better?” Shorter asks, waiting to close his eyes until he’s sure Eiji will be okay.

“A lot.” Eiji sighs. “Thank you. I think… I just needed to not be alone.”

“Anytime, Bunny.” Shorter turns his head and presses a little kiss to his forehead. “Sleep well.”


“Oh, I bet the Lynx is going to love this,” a gleeful voice says, and Shorter opens his eyes, bleary and groggy all over again.

Yut-Lung stands over his bed, looking far too pleased about something for Shorter’s taste, and behind him Sing trails, looking sheepish. Well, at least that explains how Yut-Lung got into his bedroom.

“Mmph?” Eiji snuffles sleepily, burrowing into Shorter’s chest, and Shorter’s heart almost stops at how cute he is.

Oh. Right.

Eiji’s here.

Shorter scrubs a hand over his face, yawning. “With all due respect, my prince… the fuck?”

Yut-Lung laughs. Great, he’s in a good mood. That’s always fun. It’s better than his bad moods, but seeing him laugh is always weird and slightly disconcerting. “Did you forget, Shorter Wong? It’s the solstice.”

Ugh. That’s right. The plants. His special tonic. Poisons. “S’not noon yet, though…”

“I wanted to be certain you remembered,” Yut-Lung says merrily. “And it seems I was right to remind you! I need to administer the tonic today, after all.”

The tonic… and he needs Eiji there, to promote the growth of the roots after he harvests them… which means Shorter has to distract Sing, because Sing can’t know why Yut-Lung is harvesting belladonna roots, and…

“Ah…?” Eiji rolls over and blinks up at the ceiling. “Yut-Lung…?”

“Good morning, sweetie,” Yut-Lung teases. “I bet you slept well, hmm?”

Shorter groans. “Still haven’t fucked him, so you can stop with the weird jokes.”

Eiji, a little pink now, huffs and crosses his arms. The way he scrunches his nose up in complaint really, really reminds Shorter of bunnies, and the only reason he doesn’t say so is that he doesn’t want to give Yut-Lung fodder to tease with, but god Eiji’s cute. “I slept very well, for your information,” he sniffs.

“Sorry,” Sing mumbles.

“It’s fine, kid.” Shorter heaves a sigh and pushes himself into a sitting position, though it dislodges Eiji, who lets out a wordless yip of complaint. “S’about time for me to be getting up and about, anyway.”

“You gotta stop calling me ‘kid’!” Sing protests. “I’m sixteen, Shorter.”

“Okay, kid.”

“I hate you.”

“It’s alright, Sing.” Yut-Lung tosses his hair over his shoulder. “He’ll be past his prime soon, anyway, and then you’ll show him.”

“Hey!” Shorter protests. “Since when do you take Sing’s side in this shit?!”

Eiji snickers from the bed, rolling over. “It is funnier this way, you have to admit,” he says, and Yut-Lung looks inordinately pleased with himself.

For a moment, it’s almost as if they’re just a group of four friends, rolling out of bed in the morning and getting ready for a normal day. Yut-Lung isn’t remote and distant and cold; Eiji is warm and open and laughing, and Sing is grinning and glad to be included with the rest of them. In another life, maybe they could have all just been friends, but—

But the moment passes, and Shorter swings his legs out over the side of the bed. “Anyway… get out, I’m gonna go shower. And get breakfast.”

“I’ll call for it while you go shower,” Eiji offers, and then because he’s still waking up and hasn’t slipped all his masks back into place yet, he reaches over and playfully smacks Shorter’s arm. “Stinky.”

“You were literally just sleeping in my arms.” Shorter catches his hand and start hauling him upright; Eiji protests and tries to burrow back into the blanket. “What’s that make you? Stinkier?”

“No,” Yut-Lung say. “You’re stinky, and you’re contaminating him. Feel shame, Shorter.”

“Never in my life.”

Yut-Lung laughs over his shoulder as he heads out of the room, Sing trotting at his heels. “I’ll be waiting in the gardens. Don’t keep me waiting too long, you two!”

Shorter pauses in his Eiji-wrangling and watches them go, then glances back down. Eiji’s stopped struggling to watch, too, and looks up to meet his gaze.

“They have been spending more time together recently,” he says. “I think Sing is good for Yut-Lung. He has been… more mellow.”

“You think?” Shorter rubs the back of his head. “I could see that. Yut-Lung better be good for Sing, though, or I’ll beat his ass.”

Eiji laughs. “Do not let him hear you say that!”

“Oh, I know.” Shorter stretches, rolls his neck, and finally stands up, heading to the bathroom. “I gotta make sure I get the drop on him, y’know.”

Eiji laughs again. When he finally sits up, he’s grinning, and his hair is so endearingly mussed that Shorter almost goes back over to him just to hug him. “That is not what I meant!”

“I know, but it’s what I meant!”

Eiji’s laughter trails behind him as he closes the door and strips, turning the hot water on. As he steps into the shower, he can’t help but think to himself—he would do anything to protect that smile.

Chapter Text

Twelve years ago.

“Eiji!”

Aslan rushes in in a flurry, his hair wind-mussed, his grin wide, and his eyes bright. The door almost knocks against the wall behind it as he flies through, and Eiji looks up in alarm.

“Shh!”

Aslan stops dead in his tracks, eyes widening and mouth opening into a tiny o, as he realizes why Eiji didn’t jump up to greet him—Nahoko is asleep in his lap, a tiny round bundle of blankets. She’s been fussy today; Kaa-san thinks she might be getting sick, but she’s denied it vehemently and toddled around excitedly all the same. But she’s napping now, after Tou-san asked Eiji very seriously to get her to rest, and if Aslan wakes her up, she’ll be up and about again, and…

…No, it’s okay. She doesn’t wake. She just snuggles in closer and presses her face into Eiji’s tummy and snuffles, her baby cheeks so cute and round that Eiji can’t resist the urge to poke one.

“Sorry,” Aslan whispers loudly. “I got excited.”

“It’s okay!” Eiji smiles at him, then pats the space next to himself on the bed. He loves spending time with Aslan! He was hoping he would come sit with him soon. Nahoko is cute, for a baby (Kaa-san says she’s a toddler now, but to Eiji it doesn’t matter, she’ll always be his baby), but it gets boring when she’s just sleeping on him, even if he does take his duty as a big brother seriously.

Aslan obediently hops up and scoots in to sit next to him. Eiji lifts one hand from Nahoko’s back and takes his hand, intertwining their fingers.

“Your hand is so cold!”

Aslan laughs. “I was outside! It’s snowing, Eiji!”

Eiji gasps. “It’s snowing?!”

His first instinct is to jump down from his bed and sprint out the door with Aslan at his heels. It’s the first snow of the season! He wants to play in it and chase Aslan into snowbanks and make snowmen like they did last year!

“Yeah!” Aslan grins and squeezes his hand. “Come on, let’s go play! I wanna see if the creek froze over yet!”

…But Nahoko is asleep on him, and Tou-san’s voice echoes in his mind: You have to be responsible, Eiji. To be a big brother is a very important task! She’ll be counting on you.

Eiji’s smile fades as he looks down at the pink blanket, and Nahoko’s dark hair. She mumbles something in senseless baby-talk, one tiny hand clutching weakly at his shirt, and something in his stomach twists.

“I can’t,” he sighs. “I have to look after Nahoko…”

Aslan deflates. Eiji feels terrible—he’s just deserted his best friend. Playing in the first snow of the season is the most fun part of snow, but now he’s told Aslan he has to go play alone, and that isn’t nearly as fun.

“I’m sorry,” he adds, looking over plaintively. “My mom said she cannot go out in the cold right now, because she might be getting sick, so even if we wake her up…”

“No, no!” Aslan shakes his head really fast and squeezes Eiji’s hand tight. “I’ll stay here! You must be bored if you just have to watch a baby all day.”

“Actually,” Eiji corrects primly, “she is a toddler.”

Before Aslan can answer, heavy footsteps sound in the hallway, and then someone calls, “Aslan! You up here?”

Sir Griffin Callenreese, the knight commander, pokes his head into the room. Eiji scowls at him.

“Griff!” he admonishes. “You both are definitely related! Why are you so loud? My baby is sleeping!”

“Oh!” To his credit, at least, Griff drops his voice immediately, though he smiles in that weird way all the grown-ups do when Eiji does things like a prince should. “My apologies, Eiji. And to Nahoko, as well, though I hope she hasn’t awoken.”

Eiji looks down at Nahoko. She’s still fast asleep; maybe Kaa-san is right and she is sick. She’s like him—she isn’t normally a heavy sleeper.

“You didn’t ruin everything this time,” he tells Griff. “Just watch it next time!”

Griff bows deeply, but he’s grinning the stupid grown-up grin now. Eiji doesn’t like that. It always makes him feel like he’s missing something. “Thank you for your lenience, my prince. I’ll be more careful in the future!”

Aslan rolls his eyes. “Stop it,” he complains. “You’re being weird.”

Eiji gives him a warm look. Aslan says things when Eiji only thinks them. This is why he’s Eiji’s favorite knight.

“I’m not!” Griff defends, holding up both hands as if to defend himself. “I just came to find you—Max said to come get you. He wants to build a snowman with you!”

Eiji’s heart sinks. He wants to build a snowman with Max and Aslan…

But Nahoko is more important. He promised Kaa-san and Tou-san that while they’re in the meeting with the ambassador from Ecolisine, he would look after his baby sister, and it’s important that princes keep their promises, so he has to stay. It’s important to do his duty, even if he wants to go play.

But Aslan shakes his head firmly, and to Eiji’s surprise, lays it against Eiji’s shoulder, making himself cozy. “Nuh-uh. Eiji can’t come out ‘cuz he’s watching Nahoko, and I’m keeping him company. You go build the snowman with Max.”

“Oh?” Griff looks a little surprised, and he breaks into a charming smile. “That’s very gallant of you both. But the season’s first snow only comes once a year, and it’d be a shame for the two of you to miss it! Why don’t you go meet Max? And—”

“I am watching the baby,” Eiji repeats, nearly rolling his eyes. Why doesn’t Griff get it? “I can’t go play. I promised I would take care of her.”

“That’s very noble of you, Eiji.” Griff gets a point back. He’s a knight; he does know a thing or two about nobility. “But it’s also important for a prince to be able to delegate tasks to those he trusts. I’ll watch Nahoko for you, and you and Aslan can go play. How does that sound?”

Eiji wavers. Delegation… that’s a skill Kaa-san and Tou-san talk about, but he doesn’t entirely know very much about it himself. “Um…”

Aslan, beside him, perks up. “Yeah! You trust Griff, right, Birdie?”

That settles it. Eiji nods solemnly and looks down at Nahoko. Griff is the knight commander! He’ll definitely keep her safe and warm. “Okay. She might be getting sick, so you can’t let her go out in the cold, though,” he cautions. “Or else.”

“I’ll be very careful,” Griff promises.

“Okay.” Eiji very gently pats Nahoko’s back. “Nahoko? Wake up, I need to get up.”

“Mmnnh?” Nahoko opens her eyes, slow and sleepy, and blinks up at him. “Nii-chan…”

Eiji can’t help but smile down at her. She is a tiny, round baby, and her cheeks are so cute. “Griff is going to sit with you for a while, okay? You can go back to sleep. I will be back soon!”

Nahoko looks around, noticing Aslan and Griff for the first time. “Oh,” she says, and then she’s pushing herself into a sitting position, and Eiji helps support her immediately. Is it just him, or is she a little warm? Oh, ow, his leg is full of pins and needles now that she is off it… ow.

Griff comes closer to the bed as Eiji winces and tries to straighten his legs. “Hi, Princess,” he says, bowing again, and Nahoko giggles. “Mind if your loyal knight replaces your brother for a little while?”

Nahoko yawns, uses Eiji’s shoulder to clamber to her feet, and holds out her arms to Griffin. “Pick me, pick me!”

“Your wish is my command!” Griff scoops her up and sets her on his shoulders, holding onto her legs. “Goodness me, Princess, but you’ve gotten so tall!”

This makes Nahoko squeal with laughter. “Not tall! Just up!”

“Ah, indubitably, you are as wise as you are rotund,” Griff says, nodding sagely. “Thank you, Princess. You’ve enlightened me.”

“Come on, come on!” Aslan tugs Eiji’s hand, suddenly impatient again now that Nahoko is taken care of. “Let’s go!”

“Wait!” Eiji laughs, thumping his leg up and down on the bed a few times. The worst of it is past, so he jumps down and catches his balance; Aslan slides down next to him with a little thump. “I need to get a coat.”

“You need a hat, too, Aslan,” Griff reminds him, turning in slow circles while Nahoko pats his head to tell him to speed up. “Max will send you back if you don’t get one, so don’t try and cheat me.”

Aslan huffs petulantly and turns to Eiji. “Can I borrow—”

“Of course,” Eiji says, already heading to his wardrobe. Aslan gets the blue hat with the pink pom-pom on top, and Eiji gets the floppy green one.

“Now come on!” Aslan says, when Eiji has finally gotten dressed properly and Nahoko has piloted her Griffin-steed out of the bedroom and down the stairs. “We have to sneak-attack Max!”

Eiji tugs on his gloves and nods. “He will never know what hit him,” he says solemnly, then grins, excited. It’s the first snow! They’re about to go downstairs and out into the courtyard and play, and then they can come in for hot chocolate. Snow is the only thing that makes the cold worth it.

Aslan grins. “Yeah!”

Eiji abruptly dashes to the door. “Race you!” he calls, and behind him Aslan squawks, indignant, and the pitter-patter of their footsteps follows them all the way outside.


Present day.

“You’re holding it too tight again.”

Aslan lowers his practice blade—it’s more of a balanced stick, really—and walks over. Eiji sheepishly lets him adjust his grip (again), pressing his lips together firmly. He’s going to get this. He’s going to learn how to wield a sword.

“Sorry,” he says, ducking his head. “I just feel like I will drop it…”

Aslan laughs. “Don’t worry about that.” He twirls his sword, the motion so languid and easy it’s like it’s an extension of his arm and not a stupid, thick, heavy chunk of metal. “If you hold it like that, your wrist can’t bend easily. That’s how you fuck up your arm.”

“Oh.” Eiji frowns. “That is no good.”

“No,” Aslan agrees, tossing his head to get his hair out of his eyes. “Remember what I showed you earlier. You want to think about the tip of the sword and how it moves when you move your arm. Don’t think of it as this whole foreign object—you’re just moving, and it’s moving with you.”

Eiji purses his lips. “You make it sound easy, but that is hard.”

“It is.” Aslan’s eyes are warm. “Especially when you haven’t done it before. Don’t worry! It takes practice.”

Huffing, Eiji adjusts his grip on the hilt again and settles back into the stance Aslan taught him. “Can I try again?”

“Of course.” Aslan moves so fluidly he might as well be liquid, flowing from one position into the next as he takes up a stance opposite Eiji, one hand behind his back. His hair is starting to come loose from his ponytail like a golden halo; under the midmorning sun, he looks like the summer come to life. “Ready?”

“Yes.”

They circle each other slowly, Aslan at ease and unhurried, while Eiji scrutinizes him for an opening. There isn’t one, of course, becaue Aslan has a lot more practice under his belt, and Eiji has an eye untrained for combat, so he gives up and lunges forward in a simple stabbing motion.

Clang!

Aslan’s practice sword catches his easily, deflecting the blow to the side. “Good, but you should have seen me coming with the parry.”

Eiji resists a snappy retort and tries again, slicing down, toward his legs. This time, Aslan just jumps back, out of the way.

“Attacking while I’m talking to you?” He laughs. “Not a bad tactic, but—”

Eiji lunges a third time, this time going in with a slice toward his shoulder. Aslan flips his blade up to catch it, but not quite in time; Eiji’s blow has enough force behind it to knock it to the side, and his sword bumps Aslan’s shoulder.

“Nice!” Aslan praises. “You did a lot better that time! If you just—”

“You are going easy on me,” Eiji gripes, lowering his blade back to his side. “You have been going easy on me this whole time! You are not fooling me, I know you could have blocked that easily if you wanted…”

Aslan gives him a sharp look. “Yes, I am going easy on you. You’re a beginner to this. I’m not gonna go all out at you when you’re just starting to learn.”

Eiji presses his lips together again, a little frustrated. “You are just giving me a false sense of security! Letting me win three strikes in is so obvious, Aslan!”

Aslan sighs. “Eiji… you aren’t gonna learn everything in just a week of me teaching you. It takes ages. First you have to build up muscle memory. I’m not babying you, but…”

“Fine.” Eiji fans himself with one hand. The sun is starting to climb high in the sky, and it’s getting hot; soon it’ll be too hot to keep sparring, and they’ll have to call it quits for today anyway. “But can you stop going this easy on me? It makes me feel—I do not know—stupid, I guess.”

Aslan blinks, clearly surprised, as he plants his sword in the dirt and wipes his brow on one sleeve. “Oh shit, it does? Sorry. I didn’t mean that. You’re genuinely doing really good so far. The basics are super important when it comes to swordplay.”

Eiji considers that for a moment, tips his head to the side, then nods. “Okay. Thank you. Maybe one more round, and then we can call it a day out here?”

“Sounds good to me.” Aslan picks up his sword again.

“One condition,” Eiji adds. “Do not go easy on me this time. I want to see how you actually fight, Ash.”

Aslan raises one eyebrow. “Are you sure about that, my prince?”

And here they are, in the middle of the sparring grounds—with a decent amount of privacy, to be fair; not many others are out here—and Aslan is standing with a blunt sword in one hand and his hair in a messy ponytail and his eyes piercing as ever, and he’s smirking. His shirt is only partially laced, thanks to the heat, and Eiji almost stares, but—

Yes, I am sure,” he manages, because the other option is letting himself panic about how handsome Aslan is, and that isn’t something he can afford to do right now. “I want to see!”

“Alright, if you say so!” Aslan grins. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Ready?”

Eiji lifts his blade again, and they begin the slow circle just as before. Aslan waits for him to make the first move again, and Eiji eyes him suspiciously; his gait seems different now, more dangerous than before. There’s something fierce in his eyes that wasn’t there before.

Well, he has no expectations of winning this fight anyway. He lunges—

And there’s a reverberating clang that runs up his arm and then his sword isn’t in his hand and there’s a hand on his wrist and a tug and he’s falling and—

Aslan’s chest presses hard into his back, and the hand lets go of his wrist and clamps tight around his waist, pinning his arms to his sides. Aslan’s blade rests against his throat.

Eiji squeaks.

“Um—”

Aslan chuckles next to his ear, low and breathy. Eiji can feel it rumble in his chest. Can Aslan feel the way his heart is pounding?

(It must just be an adrenaline rush, and nothing to do with the way Aslan has him pinned close to him. Nothing.)

“Still want me to stop going easy on you?” Aslan’s hand on his arm tightens.

This feels like what happens in the trashy romance novels Yut-Lung refuses to admit Eiji has caught him reading before, Eiji thinks wildly—it would be so very easy for Aslan to twirl him around and dip him over his arm and kiss him, and—

What?!

He can’t be thinking about—no! He shoves that thought away vehemently, and feels himself floundering.

“Uh, I, um—”

Aslan laughs. Eiji can feel it again, and his cheeks heat. It must just be from the exertion and the warmth out here. “What’s wrong?” he asks. “Cat got your tongue?”

That manages to snap Eiji out of whatever strange spell he’s in, and when he tries to pull away, Aslan lets him go. He turns around again to give him a look. “Was that a joke on your name being Ash Lynx?”

Aslan shrugs, smug and cavalier. Eiji considers attempting to shove him to the ground, but decides against it; he’d probably somehow catch him and throw him down instead. Damn knight. “You decide! Was it?”

“Oh my god.” Eiji huffs and picks up his fallen sword. “You win! I am a beginner. Let us go inside, it is hot and I want a bath, I feel all sweaty and gross…”

Aslan’s grin only grows brighter as Eiji starts walking back to the armory and he falls into step with him. “Okay! Don’t forget to drink water. And we should do some cooldown stretches as well, or else you’ll definitely freeze up and get sore later, and with the ball tomorrow that would be a real pain, so—”

Eiji elbows him. “Make up your mind,” he says, unable to ignore the smile tugging at his own lips—Aslan’s good mood is contagious. “Are you making fun of me, or fussing over me?”

Aslan considers that, then shrugs. “Both?”

“That was not an option!” Eiji huffs. “You are insufferable.”

Aslan elbows him back. “So I’ve been told. You’re the one who asked me not to go easy on you.”

“I know, but I did not mean to feed your ego,” Eiji grumbles. “Next time I will not.”

Aslan’s eyes are warm and merry. “Right,” he agrees. “Next time.”


Music swirls around the ballroom, a light and lofty waltz fitting for a summer night. Eiji twirls Yut-Lung around and around, and Yut-Lung gracefully floats down the dance floor as if gravity is merely a suggestion, until they’re both dizzy and there’s nothing left to worry about save the line of dance and their posture.

Dancing with Yut-Lung has always been a highlight of balls like these. Eiji normally can’t stand them—he loves the dancing, but the leering eyes and the wandering hands and the politics and the games are all just so much to deal with, and by the end of the night he always wants to run away forever. But at least Yut-Lung does none of that, and for that at least, he is Eiji’s refuge.

They turn a corner with practiced ease, Yut-Lung’s sleeves fluttering behind them, and Eiji pulls him to the side to step around a slower couple not travelling as much around the floor, before sliding into an easy chain step so they can at least try not to be so dizzy by the end of the piece.

“I hate his jacket,” Yut-Lung mutters, only audible because he’s right next to Eiji, as they dance past. “Taupe? Really? How tacky…”

Eiji snorts. “It is not the prettiest on the floor tonight, no.”

“Of course not.” Yut-Lung cracks a smile. “That’s us, Eiji.”

The waltz draws to a close far too fast, and then Eiji twirls Yut-Lung out under his arm and bows to him, as is customary. Yut-Lung curtseys gracefully, and Eiji walks him off the floor.

“I have to go mingle with some of Chan-Lung’s friends tonight,” Yut-Lung says absently, as they take glasses of water from the refreshment table by the dance floor. “Watch yourself. Don’t let anyone get you alone, you hear me?”

“Of course,” Eiji nods. This, too, is normal—Yut-Lung can never stay forever, and so he’s always left at least partially to his own devices. Luckily, at least, Shorter is here, in his capacity as a court official, so Eiji can go find him and cling to his side…

…and to Aslan’s.

“Alright.” Yut-Lung nods. “I’ll get going then. Be careful.”

“You too,” Eiji says, though he knows it’s useless. Yut-Lung doesn’t care very much what others do or say to him, and shrugs it all off with ease. He’ll never understand that about him.

Yut-Lung melts into the crowd, and Eiji turns slowly in place, scanning the room for Shorter. It’s generally pretty easy to spot him—and there he is, a shock of purple hair amid the sea of revelers. It’s combed to the side tonight, and combined with the well-tailored forest green suit he’s wearing, makes him look almost regal.

Eiji pushes through the crowd, careful not to appear either too meandering or too insistent—the former invites conversation, and the latter questions—until he reaches his side. “Hi.”

“Hey, Bunny.” Shorter smiles, bowing to him, and Eiji swats his shoulder. “Hey!”

“Stop that!” Eiji laughs. “What are you doing?”

“You do outrank me,” Shorter says, and takes his hand and presses a playful kiss to the back of it. “My prince.”

“You can’t bow to me in the same sentence as you call me Bunny!” Eiji protests, but he already knows what Shorter was after, and he’s succeeded—he just wanted to make Eiji laugh. Shorter is a warmhearted, kind person. “That does not make sense!”

“Does too.” Shorter sips from the champagne flute in his hand and twirls it delicately between two fingers. “You wanna go dance? Or do you need a break for a minute?”

“A break would be good, I think,” Eiji admits. “Where is Ash? Have you seen him tonight?”

“Not yet,” Shorter shakes his head, “but the night is still young. I’m sure he’s around here somewhere. Or maybe he plans to show up fashionably late.”

Eiji frowns. Why isn’t Aslan here…? Hopefully he is alright, and not sick or anything. He seemed fine this morning, though… Maybe he is just running late after all?

“Let’s go sit down, then,” Shorter suggests, offering his arm. Eiji takes it and follows him easily as he moves toward the tables in the back of the ballroom; Shorter is both tall and broad, and it makes it very easy for him to clear a path through a crowd when he wants. It’s nice to walk with him during crowded balls like this one.

And then the crowd parts a little more, and Eiji freezes.

Shi Lai-Ke is standing in front of him, talking animatedly to Gan-Lung with Fiona at his side; neither of them has noticed him yet, but this is a confrontation he absolutely wants to avoid, especially if Aslan isn’t with him to deal with Shi Lai-Ke, and—

Fiona turns and catches his eye. He freezes.

But, curiously, instead of glaring and looking away, she inclines her head, and… to his surprise, offers him a tiny smile. “Your Highness.”

“My lady,” Eiji answers immediately, surprised, and next to him, Shorter stops in his tracks. “It’s… good to see you.”

“You as well,” Fiona says. She steps away from Shi Lai-Ke’s side, almost hesitant, and dips into a low curtsey. “Forgive my impudence, Lord Wong, but… may I steal a dance with the prince?”

Eiji blinks. When he looks up at Shorter, Shorter looks slightly surprised, but just tips his head to Eiji. The decision is his.

“I would like that,” he says, and tentatively holds out his hand. “If you would, my lady?”

Fiona places her hand in his, and Eiji glances up to Shorter again, a little apologetic, as she smiles at him. It’s a genuine smile, too—what in the world happened? He thought she hated him.

He leads the way to the dance floor and waits for the current dance, a slow, sensual tango, to end, before he takes her hand and sets the other on her back. A foxtrot begins to play, and he sways them from one side to the other before guiding her into a feather step.

“I wanted to talk to you,” Fiona says softly. Her voice is barely audible over the chatter and the music. “About… well… about everything.”

Eiji would hang his head, if he weren’t leading; as is, he keeps his posture impeccable, but drops his voice instead. “I am very sorry, my lady. I never meant to hurt you, but I know I did. I—”

“No, no, let me speak first,” Fiona hushes him, and to his surprise she squeezes his hand—what? Is she attempting to console him? “I… realized recently, or, I should say, I found out, that neither of us had all the facts, back then, and when I accused you of just using me, I was… I was wrong. And for that, I’m sorry, Your Highness.”

“My lady,” Eiji breathes, surprised, as he leads her into a weave and natural hesitation step. They round the corner of the dance floor and continue down the short wall with another feather step into a heel turn, and Eiji lets his body’s memory of the steps take over. “You have nothing to apologize for. It was my fault.”

Fiona catches his eye and shakes her head just slightly before she resumes follower’s position, gazing off over his shoulder as they dance. “It wasn’t, Your Highness. I know that now. You don’t—you shouldn’t take responsibility for things that you didn’t do.”

Bewildered, Eiji almost forgets to drop their arms as they step between another set of couples. “Things I did not…? Forgive me, my lady, but I do not understand what you mean.”

“Maybe I shouldn’t have asked you for a dance,” Fiona muses, as if to herself. Eiji tries to ignore the stab in his heart those words bring, just twirling her around again to get onto the long wall. “Let’s just finish the foxtrot, my prince. We can talk after.”

“Talk?” Eiji bites his lip. He doesn’t understand what she wants from him. It’s—it’s nice that she tried to offer an olive branch; it’s certainly more than he ever thought she would give him again—but what is there to talk about? How was it not his fault? Yut-Lung didn’t give him all the information, but he still could have tried harder to find out. And…

“Yes, talk.” Fiona laughs warmly, almost like she used to. “You don’t have to look so worried, please, I promise I’m not about to bite your head off or anything!”

“I am sorry!” Eiji blurts out immediately, guiding her around another slow-moving couple. They weave their way down the wall as the foxtrot continues to play, and he tries to focus again on just the dance, on his careful floorcrafting, and on the music, not on the anxiety starting to build in his stomach. “I did not mean to look doubtful of your intentions—”

“Eiji,” Fiona sighs. Eiji’s heart lurches. She hasn’t called him by name in years. “Can I—can I still call you Eiji? I promise, I just want to talk. If it’s been too long and you don’t want to have any sort of relationship, that’s… that’s alright, but I thought… maybe this could give us some closure, at least.”

She wants closure. Okay. That makes sense. Maybe everything he’s done still eats at her, and she wants to talk about it one last time.

“Of course,” he says, breathing out in time with the next downbeat. “I understand. And yes, my lady, I do not mind if you use my name.”

“Then please, use mine,” she requests. “Call me Fiona. No more ‘my lady’ business.”

“Fiona,” Eiji repeats, very soft, and dares to let the flicker of a smile cross his face.

When the dance draws to a close, instead of thanking him and disappearing into the crowd, Fiona takes his arm and ushers him to the balconies lining the outer edge of the ballroom. The air is pleasantly cool outside, once they duck through the doors, and there aren’t many revelers compared to inside; the relative quiet is almost deafening.

“Finally,” Fiona sighs, leaning against the stone banister. The balconies here overlook the orchards, and the sweet scent of the few late-blooming flowers drifts up faintly from below. “It’s so stuffy in there.”

“It is a little warm,” Eiji agrees, turning to look at her in the moonlight. She’s resplendent in dark green, her hair in an intricate braid coiled into a thick bun at the base of her head, and she looks radiant. They used to steal away together before, too, when they were younger and the world seemed simpler, and he would be lying if he said the familiarity of it all doesn’t hurt. “What did you want to talk about?”

“About… us,” Fiona says, looking over her shoulder at him. “Do you… mind?”

“Talking?” Eiji asks, taken aback, and when she nods, he shakes his head no. Stepping forward, he rests his elbows on the stone too, looking out into the night next to her. “No, of course not.”

Fiona sighs. “I know… things aren’t the same, and they probably never will be again.”

“Yes,” Eiji agrees, heart heavy.

“But… I kind of want to try anyway.” Fiona gives him a tiny smile, not quite looking at him. “I, um… I’ve missed you.”

Eiji blinks. “I missed you too,” he admits, but shakes his head again. “But I do not understand—not that I am not glad to be talking to you again, but… I thought you hate me now. What… changed?”

“Oh.” Fiona looks startled, now. “Prince Yut-Lung didn’t talk to you about this?”

Yut-Lung? What does he have to do with Fiona deciding not to hate him any longer…? “No… what did he say to you?”

Fiona sighs and looks back out into the orchards. “He told me he deliberately kept it from you that Lai-Ke is my husband.”

Oh.

Eiji looks down at the stone under his arms. “…He did, yes. But that does not… excuse that I hurt you.”

“It doesn’t, I’m aware.” Fiona glances at him again, just for half a second. “But… it does add that you were hurt, too.”

Eiji is silent.

“He also told me… that he did that because my husband was a danger to your safety,” Fiona says, very tentatively. Eiji looks at her, but she doesn’t meet his gaze. “He… really didn’t tell you any of this?”

Eiji shakes his head. “None… what does that have to do with—I already knew he was dangerous to me, so why…?”

“No, it was that…” Fiona folds her arms across her chest and looks away. “Prince Lee Gan-Lung wanted to—to reward Lai-Ke by making you, um… disappear for a time.”

It’s as if he’s just been punched in the gut. Eiji feels all the air leave his lungs, and he knows he must have just gone white as a sheet, because Fiona looks terribly concerned all of a sudden, but he can’t…

“Making me—but—”

“He told me he would tell you this!” Fiona catches his arm. “Eiji? Are you okay?”

They promised, but their promises never meant a thing. Yut-Lung was right all along. Of course he was! But Eiji really thought—even years ago, they were already planning to sell him off? Despite all their assurances that as long as he was obedient, they would never let harm come to him? He…

“I’m alright.” Eiji shakes his head, pressing his hands to his temples and rubbing to calm himself. “I just… I never knew… but it makes sense.”

And so Yut-Lung made him get Shi Lai-Ke publicly humiliated not for any political reasons like he claimed, but just to keep Gan-Lung from giving Eiji to him.

Which means Yut-Lung saved him, while sheltering him from the truth.

Which means…

“I’m sorry for springing it on you like this,” Fiona says, eyes downcast. “I thought Prince Yut-Lung would’ve talked to you by now. He spoke with me days ago.”

What in the world prompted Yut-Lung to bring this up with Fiona now?

“It’s alright,” Eiji repeats, smiling at her a little shakily. “I am alright. I think I just… need to talk to him.”

“Of course.” Fiona steps back. “Do you want—I can let you go find him, if you need, or…?”

“I think I would like that,” Eiji admits. “But I am—I am very glad we got to talk, too, Fiona; I, um…  it makes me very happy.”

He clasps his hands together and bows to her, not deeply enough that it would offend those who outrank him, but deep enough to convey great respect, and stays like that until she taps his shoulder.

“I’m happy, too,” she says, and offers him a smile. “What do you say to tea tomorrow? We can talk more then, in private, too.”

Tomorrow.

Eiji doesn’t wince, but he certainly wants to.

“I actually am having tea with Yut-Lung and Gan-Lung tomorrow,” he says, pressing his lips together in disappointment. “Maybe… dinner?”

It’s not like they’ll actually have dinner tomorrow, not after their teatime plans play out. Gan-Lung’s hours are numbered, and war looms on the horizon.

“Dinner sounds good!” Fiona clasps his hands and smiles radiantly. “I’ll see you then, okay?”

“See you,” Eiji agrees, and head spinning, he heads back inside. Where is Yut-Lung? Why did he never tell him about any of this? Why…

The wall of noise hits him immediately, as soon as he steps through the doors; the music and lights and laughter are almost overwhelming after the quiet night, but he adjusts after a moment and starts to scan the crowd, moving with a delicate gait and a sense of purpose.

Yut-Lung is on the dance floor. That’s unfortunate—but what is funny is that he’s dancing with Shorter, of all people, and though their faces are schooled into perfectly neutral expressions, Eiji just knows they must be sniping at each other as they waltz. He’s never been around the two of them without them eventually resorting to dumb name-calling, if Yut-Lung is in a good enough mood to not threaten Shorter with the dungeons for insulting him.

He meanders toward the dance floor, slow and graceful; if he times his steps right, he’ll get there near the end of the song, and then he can just pull Yut-Lung aside for a chat without—

A hand grabs his wrist.

“Prince Okumura!” Duke Arthur grins down at him. The glee in his eyes is almost as notable as the complete lack of warmth. “How wonderful to run into you again. May I have your next dance?”

“Um…”

The problem is that there is no way to politely turn down such a request without risking making a scene, and he already knows Arthur is the kind of man who would definitely make a scene if turned down. So there really is no choice.

“Of course, Your Grace,” he finally says, stomach sinking down into his feet and heart rising to his throat in alarm. Arthur’s hand tightens on his wrist until it hurts.

“Wonderful,” he says, all but dragging Eiji to the edge of the floor. “I’ve been wanting to get to talk to you.”

“Is that so?” Eiji tries to tug his wrist away, ineffectively; Arthur tightens his fingers until they dig in, and he stifles a yelp. “I—I am flattered!”

The waltz draws to a close, and Shorter and Yut-Lung leave the floor. Eiji stares at them both desperately, begging them to turn and catch his gaze and see him begging for help, but neither of them does, and Arthur practically hauls him out onto the floor. Eiji is almost relieved when they take their positions, if only because it means Arthur lets go of his wrist.

The next song is, unfortunately, a tango; Arthur places his hand at the small of Eiji’s back and presses him against himself. His other hand holds Eiji’s, and Eiji suppresses the urge to pull away and make a face. Both of Arthur’s hands are sweaty.

Arthur starts out with a reverse turn, his hand guiding Eiji into it harder than Eiji expects, and he almost stumbles. It’s the Ecolisine style, he realizes belatedly; he doesn’t know it well. Shouldn’t they be dancing Imperial dances, here in the Imperial court?

“You truly are a ravishing sight in that pink,” Arthur murmurs, leaning in close; Eiji deepens the bend of his back to keep away from his face, but it means more of his neck is exposed, and he has to suppress a shudder at how vulnerable it makes him feel. “Has anyone told you that tonight, Your Highness?”

“Ah, n-not in those words, no,” Eiji manages. He wants to close his eyes, but he can’t, not on a dance floor when Arthur is forcing him to dance a style he barely knows. “Thank you?”

“Really?” Arthur laughs, his breath hot against Eiji’s skin. “I’m surprised Ash hasn’t been all over you. Tell me, does he fuck you hard, or does he try to be gentle with your delicate little body?”

“Excuse me?!” Eiji nearly trips over himself again, in shock this time. “That is very inappropriate, Your Grace—”

“I don’t care about being appropriate with you,” Arthur hisses, all pretense dropped. “You’re Ash’s little whore, aren’t you? Don’t deny it; I saw him with you my first day here. You hang off his every word ‘cuz you’ve been trained so good by the Lees, but you latched onto him, of all people! That was your mistake. Maybe you fell for his pretty face, but I’m sure there’s other cocks just as good you could’ve jumped on.”

“Duke Arthur, that is enough!” Eiji digs his nails into Arthur’s hand in an effort to shut him up. “I do not care about your rivalries or what-have-yous with Ash, I am no part of it!”

“Oh, but you are.” Arthur digs his nails into Eiji’s hand back, squeezing it so hard it hurts, and Eiji stifles a cry. “You’re special to him. So I’m gonna break you, mark my words. I’m gonna have a great time with it—I won’t be gentle, not at all. You’ll pass out before I stop, and you’ll bleed. You’re never gonna get away. And when I’m done, I’ll slit your pretty little throat and leave you there in bed for him to see.”

“What is wrong with you?” Anxiety and fear eating away at his resolve, Eiji tries to pull away, to step back, dance etiquette be damned, but Arthur presses him fiercely to his chest and grins a cruel, dangerous grin.

“My, my, Your Highness. Isn’t it terribly rude to leave a partner abandoned on the dance floor?”

“I could tell the Emperor that you are threatening me,” Eiji warns, hoping that he doesn’t look pale and shaky like he feels. Arthur strikes him as the type of man that, if he knows he’s gotten under his skin, will never stop. “You are already under scrutiny for Prince Ho-Lung’s assassination, and now you are threatening the ward of the Emperor? This is a bad look.”

“Go hide behind Ash and your prison guards if you want.” Arthur twirls him about and then dips him over his arm, and Eiji gasps in shock as he’s forced to clutch at his shoulders to avoid falling. “I’ll still kill you. Unless…”

“Unless what?” Eiji asks, breathless and distressed, almost tripping over his robes as Arthur yanks him back upright.

“Come to Halfmoon with me,” Arthur suggests. “Tell me what the Lees are actually planning. Someone had to blame us for that death, and I bet you know who. You have a great motive for wanting Lee deaths, too. So think about it, little whore. King Golzine will reward you handsomely. Maybe even get you your parents’ palace back. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

Eiji’s stomach flip-flops. Arthur is targeting him?  

“Stop calling me a whore,” he says, instead of responding, and—

A hand taps Eiji’s shoulder firmly, and suddenly Shorter is there, and Eiji could almost sob in relief. He looks stern and imposing, taller and broader than Arthur, and he’s come to the rescue, and oh thank god—

“Terribly sorry,” Shorter says, not sounding sorry in the slightest. “But do you mind if I cut in?”

“I do—” Arthur starts, but Eiji cuts him off brightly with a “No, no, of course not!” and pulls away from Arthur as though burned. Other couples go around them as they stand in the corner.

“Thanks!” Shorter says.

“I wasn’t done with him!” Arthur glares up at Shorter. “You can’t just take him—”

“I’m not!” Shorter grabs Arthur’s hand and forces him into a follower’s position, in the Imperial style, not Ecolisine. “Come on, big boy. Scared to dance with a simple alchemist?”

Bewildered, Eiji watches Shorter wrangle Arthur back into the flow of dancers. He should leave. He should go find Yut-Lung like he planned. He should—

“Eiji.” Aslan’s hands are suddenly on his shoulders, and then Aslan is in front of him, green eyes dark and intense. “Eiji.”

“Ash,” Eiji gasps. “Ash, I—”

Aslan pulls him away from the dance floor and holds his shoulders firmly. “Did he hurt you?”

Eiji shakes his head frantically. Would it be too obvious if he flung himself into Aslan’s arms right now? He’s trembling from relief, and he knows it; the knot of horrible anxiety in his stomach has given way into a thousand-and-one butterflies, and he wants to hide. “No, no, I am fine, I… It is okay, he just—he just talked, at me, um…”

Aslan’s eyes narrow, and then he pulls Eiji to his chest, uncaring of all the partygoers around them, and strokes his back. “Are you alright?”

“I’m okay.” Eiji hesitates, then carefully tucks his face into his neck. He’ll give himself five seconds of comfort. Just five.

Aslan smells good. His cologne is familiar and comforting. (Four.)

And his arms are tight and safe and secure. (Three.)

Two.

One.

Eiji lifts his head and breathes out carefully. The tango is in its final bars; Aslan takes his hand and guides him away, toward the refreshment tables. “Come on. Let’s get you something to drink, okay?”

“Okay.” Eiji sighs. He’s still shaking. That’s annoying. “Um… Ash?”

Aslan looks down at him with such genuine, tender concern that Eiji almost tears up. He can’t cry, because they’re in front of everyone and he’s wearing makeup, but he really, really wants to. “Yes?”

“Thank you,” he whispers. “You both got me out of there.”

“Told you,” Ash says, and he lets go of Eiji’s hand to drape his arm about his shoulders, “I’ll always take care of you.”


“Brother!”

Yut-Lung rises with his usual soft grace, and Eiji rises next to him, bowing slightly, as is always expected of him. Yut-Lung just holds out the packet of tea with a smile.

“I’m glad you could make it,” he says, inclining his head. “You’re always so awfully busy…”

“I’m still busy,” Gan-Lung says, settling down on the sofa across from them, “but one must make time for family sometimes. I have to return to the barracks soon, though—we’re leaving for the war games at dawn.”

Yut-Lung nods quickly. “I know! I remembered. The war games… do you think I could come watch sometime?”

“Not this year.” Gan-Lung shakes his head sternly. “That’s not nearly enough notice. Perhaps next year. But you have no skill with a blade or a firearm, so you would only be able to spectate, before you get any bold ideas in that pretty little head of yours. Understood?”

“Of course!” Yut-Lung beams. The expression is so incredibly unnatural on his face that Eiji wonders how in the world Gan-Lung doesn’t see right through it. “Thank you, Brother. I look forward to it!”

“You are such a strange child.” Gan-Lung snorts. “So. What is that tea you’ve picked out for us today?”

“It was a present!” Yut-Lung holds the packet out again; Gan-Lung still doesn’t take it. “I went ahead and steeped some for us, because I know you only have a few minutes, but here’s the blend, if you’re interested! Duke Arthur had it delivered to my rooms three days ago. Do you think… he likes me?”

“God, I hope not!” Gan-Lung groans. “Don’t tell me you’ve caught feelings for him, Yut-Lung. He’s a nuisance, and I can’t wait to be rid of him!”

Yut-Lung looks crestfallen. It’s a good act, Eiji has to admit. “Oh… okay. But the tea still smells good, right?”

Gan-Lung gives it a look. “Well… I suppose that’s fair. We may as well make use of the gifts he brought from Halfmoon.”

“Here.” Yut-Lung pushes one of the cups across the table. It’s laced with enough belladonna root and cyanide extract to kill a full-grown man twice over; the entire packet of tea could probably lay half a platoon out sick for several days. “It’s hot, but I know you like your tea extra-hot.”

Gan-Lung looks pleased. “I do. Good on you for remembering that.”

He picks up his cup and blows on it gently, then takes a slow sip. Eiji watches with bated breath. He knows he has to drink a little of his own, to add credibility, but his fingers just want to hold something, or else twitch with anxiety. His heart is in his throat. Pushing through his hesitation, he reaches for his own cup and just holds it, lifting it to his mouth just enough to blow on it.

“This is good tea,” Gan-Lung says. “A little sweet for my tastes, but not bad. What kind is it?”

“A floral blend,” Yut-Lung answers, looking down at the packet. “It says it’s called ‘Summer Nights’. I can ask Duke Arthur what specifically went into it, next time I see him, if you’d like…?”

Gan-Lung waves a dismissive hand. “Nah. I don’t care that much. Still… it’s not bad.”

Eiji takes a tentative sip of his own tea. It’s alright, but the taste is ruined by the knowledge that he’s drinking poison.

(It would certainly be terrible if somehow the cups got switched around and he’s drinking the heavily-poisoned one, while Gan-Lung has the one that’ll just make him slightly sick for a day or two.)

Half an hour passes. Eiji takes slow, tiny sips of his tea, and Yut-Lung mirrors him; Gan-Lung drains the entire cup and reaches for one of Nadia’s strawberry pastries, practically inhales it, and grimaces.

“I need to get going soon,” he says, but he’s making a strange face, squinting up at the skylight. “Ugh. Think I’ve got a headache… is there any water?”

“I’ll get you some,” Eiji volunteers immediately, as he is supposed to, and he trots off to the side room with the tiny kitchen in Yut-Lung’s apartments, retrieves the pitcher of chilled water from the refrigerator, and pours a glass. It’s cold in his hands as he walks back into the sitting room, and the traitorous, terrified part of him wonders if that’s the poison taking effect.

He freezes in the doorway.

Gan-Lung is on his knees in front of the table, clutching at his throat and coughing. “W-water, Eiji—give me—give it—”

“Brother, are you alright?” Yut-Lung rubs his back, standing next to him, looking for all the world like a worried brother should. “Eiji, don’t just stand there, give him the water!”

“Right!” Eiji hurries forward and holds out the glass. Gan-Lung reaches for it and misses by a mile—his hand slams into the edge of the coffee table, and he howls.

“Brother!” Yut-Lung cries. “You look unwell, what’s going on—”

Gan-Lung wobbles and collapses where he sits, sprawling on the floor and coughing. “Wh…what is… give—give me the water, Eiji,” he croaks, and Eiji stumbles forward, heart in his throat.

“Here!” he cries. The alarm in his voice is real. “Here, please drink!”

Gan-Lung curls in on himself and convulses.

Yut-Lung screams.

To watch a man die is a horrible thing. Eiji thought he already knew that—he saw people die in the invasion of Unshu, saw people he knew all his life impaled on swords or riddled with bullets, choking on their own blood. But those were all in bits and pieces and flashes of horror as he fled, where this—this is slow.

Gan-Lung locks eyes with him and hacks and heaves as if he’s going to throw up, but nothing comes up; he reaches for the water Eiji is still holding out to him, but he can’t seem to figure out where it is, and his pupils are so blown-out that his eyes look black. “Ei… ji…”

“Help!” Yut-Lung screams again. “I think my brother has been poisoned! Help! Someone!”

Eiji’s head is pounding, and the screaming isn’t helping; the lights are too bright, and he sinks to the floor, tears in his eyes. “It’s water, please drink,” he begs, because he knows they’re trying to kill this man but he’s on the floor dying, and he’s begging for water and Eiji can give it to him—it’s not like it’ll save him, but it might ease his passing—but he won’t take it, he can’t because he’s in pain and he’s hyperventilating, and—

Gan-Lung goes limp. The water spills everywhere, soaking into the rug.

“Oh, god,” Eiji whimpers, staring at him. He’s still convulsing slightly, even unconscious, and his breaths are growing shallower and shallower. “Oh god, oh god—”

Yut-Lung shakes Gan-Lung’s shoulder, first gently, then more roughly. When there’s no response, his face changes completely.

He stands and grabs Eiji. “Go to the doors,” he instructs, hauling him up. “Your head probably hurts by now. Mine too. We only have a few minutes—go scream for the guards to hurry.”

Stumbling, Eiji nods. His head is splitting, his eyes are on fire, and now he wants water—his throat is dry, his heart is pounding so hard he feels like he might throw up—but they have a job to do.

He nearly trips over the dying man on the floor on his way out.

Behind him, Yut-Lung pulls extra cyanide powder from a pocket in his sleeve and sprinkles it into their half-finished tea, so that under investigation they’ll seem as heavily poisoned as all of the tea in the packet. Eiji watches him work for a moment before he catches himself on the wall and stumbles to the door.

He throws it open and catches the eyes of the guard posted across the hall, clearly unnerved by the screams but unsure of where they came from. “Help,” he sobs, and the tears do fall now. “Help, please, the prince has been poisoned!”

“Poison?!” The guard’s eyes fly wide, and she turns down the hall to yell to someone Eiji can’t see. “You there! Fetch the court alchemist at once! Our prince’s life is at stake!”

The room spins, and Eiji gives up, flinging an arm toward the wall in a last-ditch effort at remaining upright. It doesn’t work, and he collapses in a heap, head colliding painfully with the floor.

The guard, knowing her loyalties, rushes past him, no doubt looking for Yut-Lung and Gan-Lung, and Eiji squeezes his eyes shut. It’s so much easier to just lie here and wait for someone to come help him… he’s not worried. Yut-Lung knows his poisons, and he promised that Eiji wouldn’t get a lethal dose. He’d just get sick.

Mm… and being sick means he gets to stay in bed.

He’s so tired. Bed sounds good. He wants to rest.

There’s a roaring in his ears, and the world is all grey-white fuzz. His head is on fire.

“Bunny!”

A warm hand on his face. A shadow falling over him. And then strong arms, scooping him up from the floor, and Eiji groans, forcing his eyes open.

“Shorter…?”

“Hey.” Shorter leans over him; it takes Eiji a moment to realize he’s being carried down the hall somewhere. Shorter’s face is grim. He’s a really good actor; he looks really worried. “Looks like you got poisoned. Don’t worry—I’ll take care of you. You’re gonna be fine, okay?”

“Is it a lethal dose?” someone else asks—the guard? There was a guard there. Eiji remembers her. She ran to check on the princes when he screamed. “Or is he like Prince Yut-Lung?”

“I can’t be sure yet,” Shorter answers, terse. “But he didn’t drink as much of the tea as Prince Gan-Lung did, so I think he’ll make a full recovery, too.”

“Shorter,” Eiji sighs, and lets his head loll against his shoulder. Footsteps fade off in another direction. Is the guard going somewhere? Aww. They could’ve been friends. “My head hurts.”

“I know.” Shorter shifts him slightly in his arms; Eiji doesn’t know exactly what he does, but it becomes easier to tuck his face into his neck, even if everything is spinning, and Eiji curls into him, hiding his face from the light. “Keep taking deep, slow breaths for me, alright? You’re gonna be okay. I’ll give you some medicine.”

“Where’s Yut-Lung?” He’s sick, too, isn’t he? Eiji would look for him, but everything… hurts. Opening his eyes hurts. “Is he… okay?”

“He’s gonna be fine, too. Someone’s bringing him to his rooms, and he’s gotten medicine, too. Sing’s taking care of him. Everything will be okay.”

Eiji’s stomach does something very topsy-turvy. Eiji doesn’t like it. “I’m sorry.”

“Why?” Shorter asks.

“Might throw up on you,” Eiji mumbles, burrowing into him. “Feel bad.”

“You should throw up, if you can.” Shorter sounds very serious. Shorter normally isn’t so serious. “It’ll help get it out of your system. Do you need me to put you down, Bunny?”

“No.” Eiji clutches at him weakly. “Noooo.”

“Alright. Tell me if you need to.”

Shorter kicks a door open, and Eiji lets out a despairing whine—the sun is bright, and it hurts it hurts it hurts, his head is splitting open and he’s gonna throw up and he’s gonna die here, Yut-Lung is a stupid stinky liar and Eiji’s gonna die!

“Eiji!”

Aslan?

Aslan… yes. Aslan. He’s soft and huggable and if Eiji could open his eyes, he would want to look at Aslan, because Aslan is good to look at, but he’s too busy dying for that, so he settles for whimpering softly in greeting. Shorter is walking fast, and it makes his head bump against his shoulder. It’s excruciating.

“Fuck,” Aslan mutters. “You look terrible.”

Eiji whines in response and flops a sad, pathetic hand toward him. “Head hurts…”

“Is he gonna be okay?” Aslan sounds very worried, but his hand is warm when it takes Eiji’s. Warm is good. Eiji coughs. He feels awful. “Fuck!”

“He’ll be fine.” Shorter blows out a breath. “Open the door for me, would you?”

A door squeaks, and then it’s dim again, blessed shade, out of the sun, and Eiji even opens his eyes. “Ah…?”

Shorter lays him down gently on a bed, and Aslan immediately takes his hand again, holding it in both of his. Eiji takes a deep breath and immediately regrets it, nauseous beyond belief.

“Keep an eye on him,” Shorter says. “If he needs to throw up, let him, it’ll help. I’ll be right back.”

Eiji’s vision fades in and out. Everything feels awful. How was he standing up on his own earlier? Everything is spinning and his head is killing him and he’s so so so nauseous, and everything is bad. Bad, bad, bad.

“Stay with me, Birdie,” Aslan murmurs, and then someone kisses his forehead. Eiji whines softly. That was nice. Can whoever that was do it again? “Just hang in there.”

And then maybe a minute or an hour or maybe a year later, someone is helping him sit up, and something is pressed to his lips, and he splutters before realizing he should drink whatever this is. It’s cool and slightly sweet, almost like cherries, and surprisingly, it feels like it rises to his head and cools the splitting headache down.

And then there’s an unpleasant lurch in his stomach, and he barely makes it out of the bed and halfway to the bathroom before he throws up.

“Oh, Bunny,” Shorter coos, rubbing his back. “There you go. Get it all out.”

Eiji stares at the gross spot on the floor, vision already clearer, and bursts into tears.

Aslan ends up helping him to the bathroom to wash his mouth out and then carrying him back to bed, while Shorter cleans up. Eiji feels awful, still crying as Aslan tucks him in, but Aslan strokes his hair back from his face and kisses his forehead again—oh, it was him—and pulls the blanket up around him.

“It’s alright,” he soothes. “Drink the rest. It’ll help.”

Eiji’s hands are shaking too much to hold the cup, so he lets Aslan hold it up to his lips and sips it slowly. A little dribbles down his chin, and he nearly withers away in shame. His headache has simmered down into a dull, throbbing roar, and the room is already spinning less, but god, he feels horrible.

Aslan is careful and patient, and with his help, Eiji manages to drink the entire tonic Shorter prepared; Aslan helps him back down to the pillows and tucks the blanket up to his chin.

“Sleep now,” he murmurs, cupping Eiji’s cheek. “You’ll feel better when you wake, alright?”

“Mm,” Eiji mumbles, leaning into his touch. “Stay?”

“Of course.” Aslan strokes his thumb along his cheekbone and doesn’t pull away. Eiji closes his eyes and drifts.

“—hate that this was part of their plan,” Shorter mutters. “Seeing him like this…”

“I hate it too,” Aslan murmurs, his voice soft. “At least Yut-Lung had to go through this, too, and not just him.”

Yut-Lung. Is he okay? Eiji wants to ask, but his limbs are leaden and his eyes won’t open. Maybe he’ll just… nap… and then find out.

“Yeah.” Shorter sighs. “Though I hate the fuckin’ protocol about it all. The emergency antidote supply all had to go to Yut-Lung, so I had to bring Eiji back here to treat him. And I couldn’t have extra antidote on hand ‘cuz that’d look like I had knowledge beforehand. But I just hate seeing him like this and knowing they all think he’s… not worth as much. Ugh! That shit makes me so mad sometimes.”

“You ‘n’ me both, dude,” Aslan agrees.

The hum of their voices finally lulls Eiji all the way under, and he slips into a dark, dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

Five years ago.

“So that’s it?”

Aslan folds his arms over his chest. He doesn’t want to talk to Max, doesn’t want to look at Max, doesn’t want to be near Max, until Max gets his head back on his shoulders and stops—stops doing this. The tears prickling at his eyes are humiliating beyond belief. If Max tries to comfort him, he’ll kick him, he swears.

Coming around the table toward him, Max sighs, weary. “What’s it, Aslan? Why are you in such a mood today? I can’t help if you won’t talk to me.”

“You’re not gonna help!” Aslan bites out. “All you do is make it worse, every single day! Maybe it’d be better if I just left, anyway!”

He doesn’t know where he would go; it’s an empty threat, but the alternative is backing down and letting Max touch him, and he refuses. He flat-out refuses.

“What are you talking about?” Max steps back, at least, but the way he frowns and sets his hands on his hips suggests he’s not going to go away and leave Aslan alone. “I need you to use your words and talk to me, kitten, or—”

A flash of rage and betrayal and despair and a hundred and one other things all rolled into one big ball of tumult slams into Aslan. “Don’t call me that!” he snaps, tensing. That’s Griff’s name for him, and Griff is dead. And Max doesn’t care!

Max raises his hands in surrender. “Alright, alright. Aslan. Okay? Better?”

“I guess.” Aslan gives him a dirty look.

“What has gotten into you today?” Max leans against the table, and Aslan curls into the armchair, fingers digging into his arms until it hurts. He wants to leave. He wants to be anywhere but here. “What’s wrong?”

“You!” Aslan hisses. “You don’t give a shit anymore, do you? Stop acting like you care about me, when you don’t! I’m tired of you pretending to love me when you don’t want anything to do with me!”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Max’s eyes widen in alarm, and he tries to step forward before stopping himself again. “Aslan… where did you ever get the idea that I don’t want you around? You’re a little brother to me—”

Aslan stands abruptly, nearly slamming his fist into the back of the chair in rage as his vision blurs. “You’re! Not! Griffin!”

Max lets out a soft sigh, far too understanding for Aslan’s liking. Why won’t he just yell back? Why won’t he yell and scream and be angry, too, so Aslan can feel justified in his own fury?!

“Of course I’m not, kiddo.” Max shakes his head. “I’m not trying to replace him.”

“You are!” Aslan storms away to hide the way his eyes are burning and threatening to betray him. “You are replacing him! You don’t care about him anymore, and soon you won’t care about me, either, and, and then—”

“Aslan!” Max follows him to the hallway. “What in the world gave you the impression I don’t care about Griff?”

And now he’s playing innocent?

Aslan’s rage boils over. Fists clenched, he whirls on Max and glares as hard as he can. “Liar! I saw you! I saw you kissing Jessica yesterday!”

Max’s eyes widen.

Got you, Aslan thinks, satisfied.

Only… if this was what he was after, why does he feel so… hollow?

And then Max shifts, and the soft, open look fades into reproach and something harder to read, and Aslan shrinks a little as Max steps forward and puts a hand on his shoulder. Why does he feel so empty? He’s just trying to do right by Griffin’s memory, and Max wants to forget him. Right?

“Aslan.” Max gives him a hard look. “Do you think Griff would have wanted me to live the rest of my life mourning him? Do you think he would be happy, knowing that I spent every single day miserable, knowing that I’d never see him again? Do you think that’s what he wants?”

Aslan gasps, and his throat closes up immediately at the thought. Griff is too gentle to even think—Griff was too gentle, that is, Griff was too gentle to want something like that for Max, but—but—

“But you’re just replacing him,” he repeats, a little desperate, and the tears well up so strong that he can’t hope to fight them. They spill over as he shakes his head frantically, pushing at Max’s hand. “He—he loved you and—and you’re—he’s gone and—and you won’t—”

“Oh, Aslan.” Max pulls him into a hug, presses him close, and rubs his shoulders. “There, there, kitten. I’ve got you.”

“I said, don’t—”

“Hush. Hush.” Max strokes his hair, slow and rhythmic, and pats his back, as if he can’t decide which specific soothing motion he’s going for. He’s always been like this. “I’m not replacing Griff, buddy. I’ll always love him, and I’m never gonna forget him. But just because we lost him doesn’t mean we can never find happiness in life again, okay?”

We can find happiness. Including him. That doesn’t seem true, and Aslan sniffles, vision blurring so bad that he squeezes his eyes shut, and the tears slip down his cheeks. “But…”

Max drops a kiss to the top of his head. “Think about it this way. Griff wouldn’t want you to spend your whole life being sad about him, you know. You don’t have to move on immediately, but you should try to live the best life you can live. It’s what he would want for you. That’s the best way to honor him, don’t you think?”

“Max,” Aslan wails, and then he’s clutching desperate fistfuls of Max’s shirt and sobbing and sobbing and sobbing like he hasn’t in months—maybe not since the invasion itself—as Max holds him tight. “I, I’m sorry, I s-said such mean things—”

“It’s all okay, kitten.” Max rubs his back. “Shhh. It’s okay. I’m not mad at you. Just let it out.”

“I miss Griff,” Aslan sobs, sniffling hard. His eyes burn and his throat is all closed up, and he clings to Max, face pressed into his shoulder like he’s never going to move again. “I miss him, Max, I want him back!”

“I know, little bug. I know.” Max rocks him back and forth, still rubbing his back, and Aslan cries harder. Max is all he has left of Griff, in a way—and it hits him, then, that he’s all Max has to remember Griff by, now; they’re just two pieces of a broken family, floundering in the sea and trying to survive after the shipwreck. “It’s gonna be okay. We’ll be okay.”

“Jessica hates me,” Aslan cries into Max’s shoulder. “I’m—I’m always rude and annoying and when she marries you she’s gonna make you get rid of me, and, and Nahoko will have to choose who to stay with, and—”

“Whoa there, buddy,” Max cuts him off, and kisses the top of his head again. “I’d never marry anyone who tried to get you out of my life. You’re stuck with this old man! And anyway, she loves you, Ash. She knows you’re just dealing with a lot. You don’t have to worry. It’s all okay.”

Aslan bursts into tears all over again and clutches at him desperately. “Max…”

“Let it out,” Max repeats, stroking his hair. “That’s it. Take your time, kitten.”

Aslan clings to him and cries and cries and cries, screaming out the grief he swallowed the day he lost his brother. When he finally quiets, he feels lighter than he has in two years.


Present day.

Ash is in a maze.

The top floor of this palace is a labyrinth, a prison without cells; he knows the patterns in it by now, knows to keep a hand along one wall if he wants to find the windows, or to turn left save when at a familiar junction if he wants to locate the bedrooms. The maze is too big to remember the details of, and he’s not convinced that the walls stay the same every time, but he’s learned the tricks of the trade by now.

It displeases Golzine, that the labyrinth doesn’t faze him any longer. Ash takes some small satisfaction in that fact as he walks, keeping close to the right wall. He doesn’t know where he’s going, but he knows it’s this way.

He’s sore, as he walks, and the bruises on his thighs and his wrists ache, a dull, quiet pain that never really goes away anymore. He doesn’t think about it.

And then Golzine is there, in front of him, as he turns a corner, and he stops in his tracks. Suddenly he’s a child again, and he’s been here only a day—he’s small and scared and bleeding, and the horrors of last night are still fresh in his mind—and as Golzine reaches for him, he freezes.

“Such a pretty thing you are,” he muses, and cups his face. “You will do. You will do nicely.”

Ash tries to pull away, but his body won’t move. The walls shift, and he doesn’t know where he is anymore; the corridor unwinds and stretches out before him, a yawning maw into the void. “Let me go.”

He means to say it authoritatively, like an order. His voice comes out a pathetic whimper instead.

“No,” Golzine says, and smiles, the cold, empty smile that fills Ash’s soul with ice. “No, I don’t think I will.”

The hallway wraps around itself again, and then it’s a bedroom—Golzine’s bedroom—and the sheets are still stained with blood. Ash’s stomach heaves.

“We’re only getting started,” Golzine says, and leans in to kiss him.

Ash wakes with a jolt, stomach roiling unpleasantly, and gasps for breath, disoriented and panicky. He’s not in Halfmoon, he’s not in Halfmoon, he’s not in Halfmoon—he’s in the Imperial court, he’s grown now, and he can defend himself. No one can hurt him anymore.

Telling himself he’s safe only does so much; he stares unseeingly at the ceiling above his bed and tries to breathe. His body is wrought with tension, and nausea has settled into his gut, ready to slither up his throat at the first opportunity.

He hates his nightmares.

He’s not scared of Golzine—he’s done with that fear, he’s sick of it, and he’s over it—but his body doesn’t seem to care, because he’s shaking and he’s coated in a cold sweat, and his heart is pounding so hard that he can feel it hammering away in his chest. His lungs refuse to cooperate, either; his breath is short and far too fast, and his head spins.

Go back to sleep, he tells himself, taking a deep breath. He only manages to inhale halfway before he splutters into a cough, his heart thundering in his ears, and pathetic tears prick at his eyes until he squeezes him shut.

Golzine smiles—

Ash opens his eyes with a gasp, focusing on the pale outlines of the moonlight against the curtains, and stares intently at the window until he can’t see anything else.

So closing his eyes again is a bad idea.

Shuddering, he rolls to the edge of the bed and sits up, swinging his legs over the side and bracing his arms on his knees. Being swaddled in such sumptuous sheets isn’t helping things; in this moment, he can’t stand the touch of expensive linen or high quality silk, and even the robe he’s wrapped in makes his skin crawl. He hates when he gets like this.  

It’s been two years. Why does it still haunt him? It’s over. He’s gotten out of that horrible fucking place, and he’s never going back. He’s here now, and he has to focus on helping Eiji, so they can go home. This… this needs to leave him alone.

The next part is routine, at least, and the mindlessness of it helps him keep steady. He pushes himself to his feet and stumbles on shaky, unsteady legs to the closet to get a clean robe and underwear, then shuffles to the bathroom and turns on the shower, as hot as he can stand.

Under the pounding water, he closes his eyes again, for just a moment. The white noise surrounding him drowns out his thoughts, and the water is just shy of scalding—hot enough that he almost feels cleansed—as he leans his head against the marble wall and groans.

Ash hates being so weak.

He stands under the water and scrubs himself raw, as if he can wash away the ghost of Golzine’s touch, and wraps his arms around himself as the water stings his reddened skin. He feels hollow. The tears don’t come.

He doesn’t know how long he stands there, but eventually his shaky legs give out, and he slowly sinks down to the tub floor and wraps his arms around his knees as the water pounds against his back. It’s getting too hot and steamy to be comfortable, but he doesn’t move; this is the only thing that he knows will drown out the whispers, and the thought of being alone in the silence again sends a shudder crawling down his spine.

It’s only when the steam gets so cloudy that it gets hard to breathe that he finally stands again. His knees protest, but he ignores them and turns his face up into the water for a moment, breathes out, and turns the water off.

The silence is deafening.

“I am so fucking tired of this,” he mutters to himself, wringing out his hair as best as he can, and steps out of the shower.

Eventually, Ash settles in the sitting room, wrapped in his new robe as his hair drips onto his shoulders, with a lamp and a book borrowed from the palace library. It’s a treatise on the nature of man in the form of a novel, filled with analogies to good and evil in various guises that the protagonist encounters on his journey; basically, it’s an engaging enough read that it’s easy to lose himself in the words instead of his own thoughts, and that’s all he really needs right now. He makes a cup of tea before sinking into an armchair, frowns when blowing on it fogs up his glasses, and sighs.

He isn’t sure how much time has passed—it’s been seven chapters, for whatever that’s worth—before his alarm spell alerts him that someone is nearby, and he freezes.

Someone tentatively knocks on his door.

Ash silently opens the left-hand drawer on the side table, picks up his dagger (it’s better to be on the safe side, he reasons), and holds it slightly behind himself, out of sight, before he prowls to the door. Who wants him so late at night?

He pulls it open, ready to pounce if need be, and feels himself tense again, but for a completely different reason.

“Eiji?”

Eiji stands in the hallway, hugging himself and looking very uncertain. He’s wearing a court-style outer robe that, on closer scrutiny, was just thrown on over his pajamas, and his face is pale.

“I am sorry to disturb you so late, Ash,” he whispers, looking down. “I just—I couldn’t sleep. May I come in?”

“Yeah, of course.” Ash steps back to let him in, closes the door behind him, and resets the alarm spell as he locks it. Eiji hovers next to him as he puts the dagger back in the drawer, but as soon as he closes it and turns around, he lets out a shaky breath and comes closer, dropping his head onto his shoulder.

“Sorry,” he whispers again. “I… I just… do not want to be alone right now.”

“It’s alright.” Ash rests a hand on his shoulder and lets him sag into him. It’s funny that earlier, even fabric made his skin crawl, but now, Eiji makes him feel better. “You’re not disturbing me.”

“Why are you awake right now?” Eiji asks, looking up at him with big, worried eyes. “I did not expect you would actually open the door.”

Ash shrugs lightly. It’s not important, and Eiji’s dealing with enough right now; he shouldn’t burden him with all his shit. It was a long time ago. “I was reading,” he says, instead of anything else. “D’you want some tea?”

“You’ve been up this entire time?” Eiji sounds shocked. “Aslan, you need to rest, too! You can’t just read all night!”

“It’s fine.” Ash lightly squeezes his shoulder before he drops his hand and moves back to the sofa. “I slept some, but then I woke up. I’ll go back to bed eventually.”

Eiji trails after him, discarding the court robe on the back of an armchair and tentatively curling up next to him on the sofa. “Why did you wake up?”

Ash hesitates. He wants to tell him, but… he shouldn’t. Eiji came here seeking comfort after he clearly had some nightmares of his own, and it would be pretty shitty of Ash to turn around and expect him to take care of him instead. So he shrugs again and says, “I’m just bad at sleeping sometimes.”

“Oh.” Eiji doesn’t look satisfied with that answer, but he lets it go. A heartbeat passes, and then two, and then Eiji takes his hand and holds it in both of his. His hands are cold.

“What about you?” Ash prompts, holding his hand back. Somehow, Eiji always knows what he needs, even if he doesn’t say a word. “Nightmare?”

Eiji nods, looking down. “I… do not want to think about it,” he mumbles, and very carefully leans in to lay his head on Ash’s shoulder, as if he’s worried he’ll be pushed away. As if Ash could ever reject him. “Can I just sit with you for a while? I can leave when you want to sleep again. I don’t mean to disturb you, really…”

“Absolutely.” Ash smiles, just barely, and looks down at him, then leans his cheek against Eiji’s hair. It feels nice, having the weight of him leaning into his side, feeling the touch of his hands. It makes the present seem more solid, while the past’s grip on him grows more tenuous. “You can stay here for the rest of tonight if you want. You’re not disturbing me.”

“Oh.” Eiji lifts his head and looks up at him, eyes a little too bright, and turns his head to kiss his cheek. Ash feels a little warmer. “Thank you, Aslan.”

Ash reaches over and picks up his book again, setting it in his lap. “You ever read this one?”

Eiji nods, cheek against his shoulder, and rubs his thumb over Ash’s knuckles. “Years ago. When I first came here, I spent a lot of time in the library to avoid having to talk to anyone.”

Ash softly squeezes his hand. He thinks of Eiji as a child, like he was the day of the invasion, sitting all alone in the Imperial library, and it hurts the same way hiding away in Golzine’s library used to hurt him. “Yeah. I get that.”

Eiji hums to himself in thought before tapping two fingers against the back of Ash’s hand questioningly. “Aslan…”

“Yeah?”

Eiji glances up at him, eyes big and dark. “Are you alright?”

The dark is still too dark, and the sheets are still too smooth, and if Ash closes his eyes and lets his mind drift, he can still feel phantom hands roving over his body. No, he’s not alright. But he will be in the morning, because he has to be.

“Of course,” he lies. “What makes you ask?”

“Is anyone who is awake at this hour alright?” Eiji reaches up and cups his cheek, not looking away, and Ash feels his breath catch in his throat. Eiji’s hands are gentle, not like the ones that haunt him in the night. “You worry me, sometimes.”

Ash shakes his head. “You don’t need to worry about me, Birdie. I’m here to take care of you.”

“You promised me.” Eiji’s voice is full of reproach. “You promised you would let me take care of you, too.”

Ash freezes. He did promise that, didn’t he?

Torn, he drops his gaze. He can’t break a promise to Eiji, but he can’t stomach the idea of unloading everything on him, either, not when he’s still recovering from being poisoned in the process of killing a man. Eiji needs him to be strong.

Except that right now, Eiji is asking him to let down his guard, not to be strong, and he doesn’t know how to be both.

“Aslan?” Eiji prompts, more gently, his hand still on Ash’s cheek. “What is it?”

Fuck it. He can’t break his promise, not when Eiji looks at him with those big dark eyes. “I… had a nightmare, too,” he admits, and glances away. “It’s nothing important. I just couldn’t get back to sleep after.”

But Eiji doesn’t coo or pity him. Instead, he just leans in and gently bumps their noses together and laughs, his voice dry. “What a pair of fools we make. Four in the morning, and here we are.”

Tension Ash didn’t realize he was holding dissipates from his shoulders, and he huffs out a small chuckle despite himself. It is a little ridiculous, now that Eiji puts it like that. “Yeah. Kinda stupid, huh?”

Eiji nods, and to his surprise, leans up on his knees to kiss his forehead. “Yeah,” he murmurs, cupping Ash’s cheek again. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Ash shakes his head quickly. “No. Not tonight, anyway.”

“Okay,” Eiji says, and reaches both hands up to pull his glasses off. Ash looks at him, nonplussed, as he folds them and places them on the coffee table next to the now-empty teacup.

Eiji ignores his questioning look and instead runs his hands through Ash’s hair, still slightly damp, before he loops his arms around his neck and pulls him close. Ash lets out a tiny yip of surprise as Eiji hugs him, but his face fits into the crook of Eiji’s neck like he was made to curl into his arms all along, and when Eiji doesn’t let go, he relaxes, carefully winding his arms around him, too. The book lies forgotten against his leg.

“I just want to hold you,” Eiji explains quietly. “Is this okay?”

Ash lets out a soft breath. How did Eiji know that his touch would wash the phantom hands away when Ash himself didn’t know?

Tentative, Ash closes his eyes.

There are no leering ghosts smiling at him from the void, no sumptuous bedrooms he wishes he could forget. There’s just a comfortable darkness, and the feel of Eiji’s arms about him, and the slight jasmine scent of Eiji’s skin.

He opens his eyes again and briefly entertains the idea of pressing a kiss right here, to the side of Eiji’s neck, a simple kiss just to show his affection, his appreciation. Sometimes, he really does want to cover Eiji in kisses, to hold him, to keep him close forever. He doesn’t know what that means, though, and if he lets his thoughts linger on it right now, he knows he’ll meander back into the labyrinth.

And he knows too many men here ogle Eiji, the way they used to ogle him, and he doesn’t want to do anything that Eiji might find uncomfortable. Kissing Eiji’s cheeks or his hands is one thing, but kissing his neck feels like crossing a line, a line that someone as soiled as him is forbidden from crossing.

He’s overthinking this. He knows he is, but he can’t stop. “It… It’s nice.”

“Okay. Good.” Eiji leans his cheek against Ash’s hair, and sighs. “Sorry. I just… need to be close to you. It is dumb. I know.”

“Not dumb. Nightmares suck.” Ash gently pats his back, relief flooding through him. So Eiji is taking solace in this, too—it’s not just for his sake. “Are you tired, or do you wanna sit out here more…?”

“Can we sit a little longer?” Eiji asks, holding on tighter. “I am still… a little wired. Not for too long, though! Then we can go to bed?”

“That sounds good to me,” Ash tells him, and closes his eyes again.


“…Aslan?”

Groggy and tired, Ash pulls his pillow closer to his chest and buries his face in it, hiding from the morning light. It’s not time to get up yet. He’s sleepy.

“Aslan, wake up…”

Huh?

His pillow is talking.

Oh, that’s right—

Ash opens his eyes, blinking against the sun, and realizes he’s curled up against Eiji’s back, arms wrapped around him like a koala as he holds Eiji to his chest. Eiji, who crept into his room in the dead of night, with dark, worried eyes that begged to stay. Eiji, who came to him seeking comfort, and yet took care of him anyway. Eiji, in whose arms he feels safe.

Protectiveness stirs in his chest. “Eiji?”

Eiji lets out a tiny sigh and rolls over in his arms. His face is still a little paler than it should be, but his eyes are clear and he’s smiling; compared to two days ago, he looks much better.

“Good morning.” Eiji snuggles into his arms and tucks his head under his chin. “Sorry to wake you, it is just… nearly time for breakfast, right? You said you usually eat with Blanca?”

“Mmph.” Ash presses his face into his hair and closes his eyes again. “Not t’day. Sleepy.”

“Oh.” Eiji sighs again and curls in closer. When he blinks, Ash can feel his eyelashes brush his neck. “Okay. Are you going back to sleep…?”

“Maybe.” Ash opens his eyes again to look down at him, pulling the covers up to tuck them more securely around him. He’s still cold, has been shivering since the poison ran its course, and Ash is determined to keep him warm. There was nothing he could to do protect him from the poison, but at least he can be here for him now. “You okay?”

“Mm.” Eiji slips his leg between Ash’s. His feet are cold, too. “Yes, I just… is this okay?”

“Your feet are fucking ice cubes.”

Eiji pulls back. “Sorry—”

Ash drapes his leg over him, trapping his cold feet against his skin, and flicks the back of his shoulder. “I didn’t say to go away, dummy.”

“Oh.” Eiji relaxes again. “Right.”

Ash blows out a slow breath and presses his lips to his hair. Eiji’s been quiet—he slept most of yesterday, thanks to Shorter’s tonics, but even when he was awake he didn’t say much—and it’s starting to worry him. Yesterday, he figured it was just exhaustion as his body worked through the last of the poison, but the hesitation in every move he makes is new, as if he’s not sure if he’s really allowed to take up space.

“Thank you for letting me stay,” Eiji mumbles into his neck, his hand curling into a tentative fist in Ash’s robe. “I’m sorry for keeping you up last night.”

“You didn’t keep me up,” Ash reminds him. “I was reading.”

“Stil,” Eiji persists. “Thank you.”

Ash presses his lips together. How can he make Eiji understand that there’s no universe in which he opened the door and found his Birdie trembling, alone, whispering that he couldn’t sleep, and didn’t let him stay? There’s no need to thank him. There was no thought, no choice. He just saw Eiji in need, and he acted.

“I will try not to bother you so much again,” Eiji adds, but even as he says it he curls in closer, face pressing into Ash’s collarbone. “I know you need your rest.”

“It’s no bother, Birdie.” Ash gives him a gentle, affectionate squeeze. “You’re my best friend. I like spending time with you. And… I wasn’t doing too great last night, either, but you helped with that. I’m glad you came to me.”

Eiji lets out a soft breath, warm against Ash’s neck, and closes his eyes again. “Really?”

“Really.” Ash kisses his hair this time; something about the way Eiji is curled up in his arms, having come to him for comfort, makes him feel warm inside. “So, I should be thanking you.”

“Oh,” Eiji mumbles, voice tiny. He sounds like there’s more, like he’s hesitating with something on the tip of his tongue, and when Ash doesn’t prod, he takes a quick breath. “I—I just—I kept having nightmares.”

“I know.” Ash holds him close, lets him collect himself for a heartbeat, and then when he stays quiet, quietly prods, “About the poison?” Being in pain and thinking that you’re going to die is terrifying. He wouldn’t be surprised if Eiji was afraid, after that.

But Eiji shakes his head. “No, I knew about that, it did not—I mean, I didn’t enjoy it, but—I… um… not that. No.”

He’s quiet, but he peeps up at Ash with big soft eyes, and Ash takes that look as tacit permission to prompt, “Then?”

Eiji bites his lip, looks down into the blanket, and whispers, “Gan-Lung said my name right before he died.”

Oh.

Ash stills. “Do you know why?”

Eiji nods against his collarbone and takes a soft, shaky breath. “He was begging me for water. I, um… I… I tried to give it to him, but he couldn’t hold the glass, and he dropped it and it spilled everywhere, and then… and then he was dying, but he still looked at me and reached for me, and it was awful.”

Oh, Birdie. Ash holds him tighter, even pressing his legs together to gently squeeze Eiji’s thigh between them. Watching people die is awful, even for someone as desensitized as Ash; people with kind hearts like Eiji never should have to experience things like that. “Listen. It’s…”

Eiji ducks his head. “I know! I know he was a bad man and I should not feel remorse, but—but he was in so much pain, and he could not stand, and I cannot stop thinking about it!”

“You don’t need to be ashamed, Bluebird.” Ash’s voice is soft. “I had nightmares for ages after I first killed a man.”

Eiji’s head snaps up. His eyes are wide. “Really?”

Ash almost, almost laughs. “Yes, really. I couldn’t believe that I’d just ended someone’s life. But it was him or me, and I had somewhere to be, so I really wasn’t planning on dying anytime soon, so I had to. Didn’t stop me from agonizing about it for a while, though.”

“Do you—do you still?” Eiji touches his cheek with a tentative hand.

“I mean, I have the occasional nightmare, yeah,” Ash shrugs. The bandit on the road to Halfmoon is the least of his nightmares, these days. “But I’m alright, yes. Don’t worry.”

“I will worry if I want to,” Eiji retorts. “Is that what last night was about?”

Ash shakes his head. “Nah. It was… something else. Don’t worry about it.”

Eiji looks like he wants to argue, but he decides against it in the end, instead leaning in and pressing his lips to Ash’s jaw very softly. “Okay. Then, thank you for taking care of me.”

“Of course, Birdie. Thank you for taking care of me.”

Ash flops over onto his back and pulls Eiji with him, grinning when Eiji yips in surprise as he’s hauled onto Ash’s chest. But that means he’s in prime position for real hugs, and Ash wraps both arms around him tight and gives him a tight squeeze, holding him close and relishing the warmth and the weight of him. He thought he’d hate being touched forever after Golzine, but Eiji’s the exception.

Because Eiji feels like home.

“You’re gonna be okay,” he promises, looking down at Eiji’s sea of hair. “I promise.”

Eiji hesitates and then blows out a sigh, laying against Ash’s shoulder. “I just—I watched him die, Aslan…”

“You did.” Ash kisses his head. “And you’re still gonna be okay. You’re not a bad person for doing what you had to do.”

“Maybe.” Eiji props his head up and looks at him, eyes dark and worried. “But you know, in the moment, I started trying to think how I could help him. If I could make the pain stop, take the fear away… he looked scared, Aslan, he knew he was dying and he was scared, and…”

“Most people would feel for someone dying,” Ash assures. “It’s not—”

“But he’s the one who almost killed you!” Eiji burrows into his chest. “That’s—that’s what my nightmares were. I… had to come make sure you were safe, because—because in my dream—this is so stupid, now that I am saying it out loud, oh god—in my dream, I saved him, and then he killed you, and I woke up and I was alone, and I kept panicking too much to go back to sleep, and…”

“Oh, Eiji.” So that’s why Eiji just wanted to hold him. His heart aches for him, and he takes one of his hands and brings it to his own neck, connects Eiji’s fingers to his pulse, and offers a small smile. “You don’t need to worry about me. I’m right here. Totally fine.”

“I know, I know.” Eiji huffs, but he doesn’t pull away. “I just—I hate how awful this makes me feel. I am so tired…”

“I know, Birdie. I know. You wanna sleep a bit more?” Ash rolls to the side again and drapes his arm and leg over Eiji protectively. “I’m still sleepy as shit. Let’s just get brunch later. Deal?”

Eiji smiles a little at that, and he snuggles in too, tucking his head back under Ash’s chin as if he’s always belonged there. They used to take naps together like this, a lifetime ago, and Ash would be lying if he said the thought wasn’t bittersweet. “Okay. Brunch sounds good. Are you sure Blanca will not be upset with you?”

Ash flaps his hand dismissively under the blanket. “He’ll tell me to be responsible and then kick my ass on the sparring grounds, and that’ll be it.”

That gets a real laugh out of Eiji. “Oh. Okay. Well, if you are sure you are okay with that, I do want to sleep more,” and his eyelashes brush Ash’s neck as he closes his eyes.


The next time Ash wakes, it’s because Eiji’s slipping out of bed; he opens his eyes a little to watch him pad across the floor to the bathroom, and bleary, he closes them again.

When he wakes fully, Eiji isn’t there. It must be close to noon by now—so much for brunch—and he frowns up at the ceiling for a moment before he sighs deeply and throws the covers aside, rolling out of bed. He can’t sleep forever, and he’s kind of hungry. Where’s his Birdie?

Quiet voices drifting from the sitting room make him freeze in his tracks, sitting on the edge of the bed. One of them is Eiji, which answers that question, but the other…

The other is Yut-Lung Lee. What the fuck is he doing here?

“…should have told me,” Eiji is saying, voice soft. “I wish you had.”

“I don’t regret not telling you then,” Yut-Lung answers. “You would have frozen up too much to do anything about it.”

What are they talking about? What did Yut-Lung keep from Eiji? Ash is immediately on his guard, hackles raised, and silently prowls across the floor to stand near the door, so he can hear better.

There’s a pause, and then Eiji sighs. “…Thank you.”

“Oh, don’t go getting all sappy on me,” Yut-Lung mutters. “It’s no big deal. Don’t—stop, don’t you dare cry on me, Eiji.”

“I will not cry!” Eiji sounds a little defensive, and Ash almost throws open the door to glare at Yut-Lung immediately. “I just—it is not a big deal to you, but to me it is, and… I am grateful. So, thank you.”

There’s another pause, and then Yut-Lung says, “Fine. You’re welcome. I… I’m glad you feel better.”

“I feel much better,” Eiji agrees. “I thought she would hate me forever. I—I feel a lot better now. So, really, thank you, Yut-Lung, I mean it—”

“Stop that!” Yut-Lung huffs. “If you’re gonna look at anyone with that stupid face, go look at Sing, he’s the one who put me up to it!”

Ash frowns, thinking; someone Eiji thought would hate him? This must be about Fiona. That’s right—they did dance together, the night of the ball; Ash remembers seeing them leave the dance floor together, while he was still stuck with Blanca.

“Sing?” Eiji sounds baffled. “You mean… he knows about all of this?”

Yut-Lung is quiet for a moment, then finally says, “Yes. Not—I haven’t told him everything, but he knows about Shi Lai-Ke and you, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Eiji sighs deeply. “Why did you tell him?”

“He heard about what you and your pet Lynx did, and he asked me about it. I don’t know why he asked me, but he did.” Yut-Lung sounds tired. Ash bristles—he’s no one’s pet. Least of all Eiji’s. Eiji would never try to own him. Yut-Lung’s adamant refusal to accept what they are to each other grates on him endlessly, not that he’ll ever let the brat know that. “Specifically, he asked if I put you up to it. I don’t understand that boy sometimes. Why does he always suspect me?”

“Because it is always you,” Eiji replies a little flatly. “When was that?”

“Last month. A few days after you actually did it, I think.”

“And he told you… to talk to Fiona?” Eiji’s voice softens. “About me?”

Yut-Lung sighs. “Yes… he said you really cared about her, and sat there for a while trying to make me feel guilty about the whole thing, so, really…”

“So you did feel guilty.” Eiji sounds a little smug, and Ash almost snorts. “I used to wonder if you ever would.”

“Shut up,” Yut-Lung grouses. “I didn’t feel guilty, I just… decided to do something nice for you. That’s all. Don’t get used to it! I’m not going to make a habit out of doing you favors!”

“I don’t expect you to,” Eiji says, but there’s a smile in his voice that doesn’t seem like he’s convinced. “I am still just… glad you did this one. You are right—I will thank Sing, too.”

“Why?” Yut-Lung asks indignantly. “I was the one who did all the actual work! I didn’t mean you should really thank him, I just said that—”

“Yut-Lung!” Eiji laughs. “You are ridiculous, you know?”

There’s a pause, and then, “Ugh, Eiji, I don’t do hugs, you know that…”

A tiny voice in Ash’s head is disgruntled. Ugh. Eiji shouldn’t hug that bastard. He should come back to bed and let Ash hug him instead.

The rest of him is relieved. Eiji needed closure over this, and he’s finally gotten it.

“Okay.” Eiji laughs again, soft and gentle, from the other side of the door. He sounds like he’s feeling better, at least, and the thought both is a relief and sours Ash’s mood slightly. Did Yut-Lung manage to cheer Eiji up where he couldn’t? “Thank you for coming to talk to me. I know you are still not feeling too well, either.”

“I’m fine.” Yut-Lung sounds dismissive. “Sing has been taking care of me well enough. I should be completely back to normal tomorrow, I think. I take it that you’re not doing as well, though…?”

“What gives you that idea?” Eiji asks.

“You’re here.” Yut-Lung says it like it’s obvious. “So you’re clearly still not sleeping well.”

“Oh.” Eiji sighs. “I… slept well enough last night.”

“That’s good to hear.” Yut-Lung pauses. “Was it because he tired you out?”

Seriously? First Shorter, now Yut-Lung? Yut-Lung really thinks he’d ever want to fuck Eiji? Let alone while Eiji’s recovering from drinking poison! Eiji is his best friend, and Ash loves him desperately—he would never, ever try to defile Eiji’s light like that.

Ash has to take a deep breath. People will assume what they want. He has no control over them, even if they’re stupid and wrong. Especially Yut-Lung. This is just an extra layer of wrongness on the grand, frosted cake that is Yut-Lung’s perception of Eiji’s relationship with Ash. And it doesn’t fucking matter.

“Yut-Lung!” Eiji sounds scandalized. “Stop! How many times do I have to tell you, we are not like that?”

So Eiji’s having to deal with the assumptions, too. Ugh. Ash remembers his late-night urge to kiss him, and a hard knot of discomfort settles into the pit of his stomach.

He leaves the door and goes back to his bed, pulls one knee to his chest, and stares at the wall, frowning. He’ll just think about other things. Like… that Eiji and Fiona did make up, because Yut-Lung talked to Fiona about how unfair the entire situation was to Eiji? Interesting.

Well—it’s good. He’s glad Eiji’s friend has stopped blaming him for being manipulated. It’s clearly made Eiji happy, too.

But Yut-Lung is still in Ash’s bad books. He’s the one who engineered the entire situation, even if it was with… good intentions, mostly. And maybe Eiji can’t see it, but Ash can tell that he was just envious of Eiji for making a friend, despite his claims otherwise. So this whole thing feels rather… incongruous.

Or maybe Ash should just give Sing Soo-Ling more credit.

He sits there for several minutes, chewing at his lip, while Yut-Lung and Eiji keep talking outside, their voices low, indistinct murmurs. He feels restless, like a pacing cat trapped in a cage. He wants to go out and spar. He wants to read a good book. He wants to eat breakfast. He wants to take a hot shower. Maybe he should start there.

And then the door opens.

Ash tenses immediately, shooting to his feet, but relaxes immediately when he sees Eiji, silhouetted by the sunlight streaming in through the windows behind him. He’s wrapped up in one of Ash’s jackets, though he’s just clutching it around himself like a cape, and he’s still in his pajamas. He looks cozy.

“Oh! I’m sorry, I did not mean to startle you!” Eiji hurries over to the edge of the bed and takes his hand, clearly trying to be soothing. “Good morning?”

“G’morning.” Ash squeezes his hand. It’s still cool; he looks at Eiji, concerned, and holds it in both of his. “You’re still cold?”

“Yes…” Eiji looks down. “I am sorry I went through your closet! I was just cold when I got up, and I did not want to wake you up, so I did not ask, but—”

“It’s fine.” Ash taps his thumb on the back of Eiji’s hand. “I don’t mind. Help yourself.”

Eiji smiles at him and opens his mouth to say something else, but Yut-Lung interrupts from the sitting room with a scoff of “Good morning? Good afternoon, more like! It’s half past noon! Get up, Lynx, Eiji and I are both up, and you don’t even have an excuse to be in bed this late!”

“Um, actually,” Eiji says tentatively, “I did keep him up in the middle of the night, so…”

Ash glances in the general direction of the sitting room, feeling a familiar, cool mask slide into place. “I do apologize, Your Highness. If you’re so distressed about my sleeping habits, I suppose you’ll be happy to get me a cup of coffee, though?”

Yut-Lung gets up from the sofa and marches to the doorway of his bedroom just to give him a very dirty look. “No, I will not!”

Ash furrows his brow, pretending to be innocently confused. “Why else would you have come to my apartment?”

He can practically see the steam coming out of Yut-Lung’s ears as he raises his chin. “I live in this palace, and I have every right to be in here if I want, regardless of you—”

“Stop this,” Eiji interrupts, pulling his hand away and waving it between them both. “Get out of bed, Aslan. You can go shower, and I will make coffee.”

“No,” Ash and Yut-Lung say immediately, and then exchange glances. Yut-Lung glares; Ash smirks.

“The point is that he specifically is supposed to get me coffee,” Ash explains. “He came all this way, you see.”

“He doesn’t deserve any coffee,” Yut-Lung says. “Don’t let him win, Eiji.”

Eiji gives them both a very unimpressed look and walks away. Ash watches him go, sighs, and gets out of bed properly. Yut-Lung rolls his eyes and follows Eiji.

One hot shower later, Ash settles onto the couch next to Eiji, draping his arm along the back of the cushions as he rests one ankle on his knee and sips his coffee. Eiji scoots closer to him, until their legs brush, and smiles at him.

“Stop that,” Yut-Lung says immediately, and Ash shoots him a dirty look. “Stop making that face, Eiji, or I’ll leave.”

Ash lifts an eyebrow and takes a slow sip of his coffee. “Keep making that face, Eiji. Please.”

“Fuck you, Callenreese.”

“Good afternoon to you, as well, Your Highness.” Ash inclines his head, knowing that it’ll just annoy Yut-Lung more, and drops his arm from the cushions to around Eiji’s shoulders. “What brings you to my rooms, anyway? Did you come here just to complain about Eiji?”

Yut-Lung looks annoyed. “Eiji is the one who asked me to come. He wanted to talk to me.”

“Ah.” Ash looks down at Eiji, leaning into him with a tiny, satisfied smile. “That would explain it.”

Eiji laughs, surprising both of them—Yut-Lung looks scandalized—and reaches up to intertwine his fingers with Ash’s. “One of these days, I will make you two get along. I do not know what I will have to do, but I will do it.”

“Maybe,” Ash says.

“Never,” Yut-Lung sniffs, at the same time. But it makes Eiji laugh again, so Ash isn’t bothered.

They sit together for a few minutes; Ash isn’t entirely sure why Yut-Lung hasn’t left yet, if he’s finished with his conversation with Eiji, but he seems to be waiting for something. Ash decides to ignore him for now in favor of getting himself something to eat.

A minute or two later, his questions are answered—the spell chimes, and then there’s a knock on the door—and when Ash goes to check, it’s Shorter, his purple hair neatly combed to the side, with two bottles of the tonic he’s been giving Eiji and Yut-Lung for the past two days. They must’ve sent for him while Ash was in the shower.

“Hey, the gang’s all here, huh?” Shorter greets them with a nod as Ash closes the door behind him and resets the silencing and alarm spells again, so that no one can eavesdrop. It’s annoying that he has to recast them every time the door opens and closes, but it’s better to be on his guard.

“Thank you very much, Shorter,” Eiji says, accepting the bottle gratefully.

“No prob!” Shorter grins as he passes the second bottle to Yut-Lung. “How are you both feeling today?”

“Much better.” Yut-Lung screws the cap off the bottle and takes a slow sip. “Mostly just a little tired, and a little nauseous. But the rest of the symptoms have faded.”

“Good!” Shorter claps his hands. “Eiji?”

“Still tired,” Eiji sighs, and when Ash sits down next to him again, he leans into his side. “My head mostly feels better, though very bright light still makes it hurt, but the nausea is a lot less, and I do not feel like my throat is very dry anymore.”

“Alright, that’s progress!” Shorter sits down next to him and ruffles his hair. “I guess you drank a bit more of the tea than Yut-Lung did. Rest up another day or two, and you should be right as rain.”

Eiji nods very seriously. “I will! Thank you.”

“The funeral is in two days,” Yut-Lung says after a moment. “After this, there will be no turning back. Wang-Lung took it very seriously when I told him Arthur gave me the tea.”

“He is already dead, Yut-Lung.” Eiji folds his arms across his chest; Ash tucks him against his side, hoping to offer some wordless comfort. “There is already no turning back.”

“Well, yes,” Yut-Lung concedes. “But I mean that I believe Wang-Lung is seriously considering a war council in the coming days. Arthur has denied all involvement, but there isn’t much that he can do anymore. I’m surprised we haven’t received a demand to send him back to Halfmoon yet.”

“I’m sure Golzine wants him back.” Ash shakes his head. “But he might be biding his time. That, and I doubt Arthur would leave even if ordered, at this point. He’s a crafty bastard. I bet he’d still try and find a way to twist the situation to his advantage somehow, instead of escaping, if he had the chance.”

“Um,” Eiji says very timidly, “I do not know if this is relevant, but… at the ball, three days ago? He, um… wanted me to come back to Halfmoon with him.”

“What?!” Ash’s blood runs cold at the thought. “What did he say to you?”

Eiji places a hand on his knee as if to soothe him. “It is okay! He… he just said that he wanted me to come back to Halfmoon and tell Golzine who is really behind the murders, because he thinks I am the mastermind because I have the right motive. He… said maybe Golzine could get my family’s palace back from the Empire, if I was cooperative.”

The idea of Eiji being cooperative with Golzine, of all people, makes Ash’s stomach lurch unpleasantly. “I see.”

“So he’s decided you’re the key to it all,” Yut-Lung muses. “Interesting. Well, he’s going to be toast any day now anyway, if he doesn’t leave, so I’m not worried, but he certainly is a piece of work. Funny that he’s so far from the truth and yet so close, hmm?”

“Be careful, Bunny,” Shorter advises. He looks grim and worried, like Ash feels. “Since he feels like he’s been cornered, he’s gonna be even more dangerous. I’d advise you don’t hang out alone for the next couple of days, at least ‘til he’s been officially dealt with. Just keep me or Sing or Ash or someone with you if you’re gonna be sitting somewhere for a while, yeah?”

“What, do I not count?” Yut-Lung crosses his arms across his chest. “That’s awfully rude of you, Shorter Wong.”

Eiji looks a bit put out, and Ash wishes they were alone so he could pull him into his arms and kiss his hair like he’d like to. But he has to watch himself around Eiji in front of these two, now, since they both seem to think he’s trying to—that he just wants to fuck Eiji, so he can’t do that. Instead, he just tightens his arm around him and rubs his shoulder gently.

“Are you sure?” Eiji looks between the three of them. “I know he is not to be trifled with, but… I do not want to be any trouble. And he is already under house arrest in his apartment.”

“You’re not any trouble, Birdie.” Ash looks at him, and feels himself soften at the uncertain look on his face. “It’s a lot better safe than sorry. We know he’s got it out for you, and just ‘cuz he’s under house arrest doesn’t mean he won’t try and pull anything.”

Eiji looks down into his lap. “I guess. I just… do not want to be a burden.”

“You’re not.” Ash squeezes his shoulder. “It’d be way worse if he did something to you because we let our guard down. Working for Golzine makes you willing to do a lot of shit to seek his approval, and when you’re that desperate, you can justify some wild risks.”

Like the diplomatic suicide that attacking Eiji openly would be. But Ash knows that after fucking up badly enough to get framed for instigating a potential war, Arthur must be desperate to do something to get back into Golzine’s good books, and he’s impulsive enough to say fuck it, if they want war it’s war and attack Eiji anyway, if he thinks doing so would end the murders.

“Yes, exactly.” Yut-Lung doesn’t look pleased to be agreeing with him, which Ash finds mildly entertaining as he draws himself from his thoughts. “It wouldn’t do for Arthur to get the upper hand just because we get careless. It’s better to be paranoid and wrong than careless and right.”

“Agreed.” Shorter leans back against the sofa cushions, head tipped back to look at the ceiling, and blows out a breath. “So. We’ll know about the war council real soon, huh?”

“Yeah.” Yut-Lung presses his lips together. “Until then, all we can do is wait.”

“You’re already in touch with Cain Blood’s group?” Shorter asks, lifting his head again. “They know when to move?”

“They don’t know when exactly, yet, but yes, I’m in touch with them,” Yut-Lung says. “Once most of the army has been deployed, they’ll take Halfmoon. Cain Blood himself seems an honorable man, at least from his letters; I don’t believe he’ll back out of our agreement.”

“Good.” Shorter sighs. “And Golzine’s gonna deploy to Cloud Lake? You’re sure?”

“As sure as I can be before the war council.” Yut-Lung sighs. “I wish there was a way to make sure Arthur gets convicted for this. I’m pretty sure he will, but it is technically just my word against his, and I’m not sure if Wang-Lung is ready to break the peace.”

“Gan-Lung is dead.” Eiji folds his arms across his chest. “What more could he want for it?”

“Proof that Arthur really is targeting us,” Yut-Lung answers easily. “I suppose you could tell him about being threatened at the ball, though that’s still your word against his, at this point… If only we could have caught him actively doing something incriminating. Still, I think the odds are good.”

“It’ll be fine. Wang-Lung has enough of a spine not to take this lying down.” Shorter runs a hand through his hair. “God, sometimes I think about how big this whole thing is. We need a fuckin’ break, man.”

“We don’t get breaks,” Yut-Lung sniffs.

“I want to go to the beach house,” Eiji sighs wistfully, leaning into Ash’s side. “But without all the pomp and circumstance. Just us. Just for a day. Maybe we can do that sometime this summer…”

“I don’t think we’ll have the time,” Yut-Lung says dismissively. “Besides, we have bigger things to worry about.”

“You’re right.” Eiji shakes his head. “It is just a wishful thought.”

“Maybe when this is all over,” Ash murmurs, mostly just for Eiji, “I’ll take you to the beach. We can bring Max and Nahoko, too, and Max’s girlfriend. It’ll be fun.”

Eiji hums. “That sounds nice. I would like that.”

“I’m coming, too,” Shorter interjects. “I’m gonna build a bomb-ass sand castle.”

“You are all children.” Yut-Lung twirls his hair around his fingers. “Stop planning a fantasy beach trip and focus on the here-and-now, will you? We have work to do.”

“You said yourself all we gotta do right now is wait,” Shorter points out. “May as well fantasize about the beach.”

“What’s the matter?” Ash asks. “Are you just scared of all the sand? Afraid Shorter’s gonna make a better sand castle than you?”

That does it—Yut-Lung’s eyes narrow, and he digs his fingers into the cushion next to him. “I love the beach, thank you for asking. I just also have priorities! But if we went, I would build a much prettier sand castle than Shorter, because I actually have an eye for aesthetics.”

“Well, now we have to go,” Shorter immediately decides. “We’re gonna have a competition, and Eiji’s gonna judge.”

“Why not me?” Ash asks.

Yut-Lung gives him a dirty look, and really, that’s all the answer he needs.


“You seem distracted, lately,” Blanca observes, sipping his tea thoughtfully.

Ash pushes his glasses up his nose, looks up from his book, and raises an eyebrow. “Do I?”

“You’ve been teaching Prince Okumura to fight. And spending quite a lot of time with him.”

“He’s the entire reason I’m here.” Ash lowers his gaze back to his book, disinterested. “Of course I’m spending time with him. And I have a vested interest in wanting him to be able to defend himself.”

“Oh, I’m not trying to deny that.” Blanca smiles, and holds up a placating hand. “I had my reservations about him, but you are the one who has to make the choice about him in the end, so I will defer to your judgment of his character.”

Ash gives him a sharp look. “Had?”

“Hm?”

“You had your reservations?” Ash repeats. “That means you don’t have them anymore. What changed?”

Blanca shrugs lightly, as if to dismiss his concerns. “I have spoken to him about you. That was part of it.”

Ash closes the book and pins him with a stare. “When did you go talk to Eiji about me?”

“A few times.” Blanca takes another slow sip of his tea. “Does that bother you?”

“No one likes knowing they were talked about behind their back.” Ash rolls his eyes. “Of course it bothers me. What, did you interrogate him about whether he’s good enough for your standards?”

“No.” Blanca sighs. “I’ve merely made my judgment as to his personality and motivations. He’s hiding something, you know.”

Blanca levels a look across the table at him, and in that moment Ash knows that he knows. He might not know what, exactly, but he’s suspicious of Eiji, at least, and he’s sharp enough to put together the clues slowly on his own.

“He is,” Ash replies evenly. “So am I. We all have secrets.”

“Do you keep secrets from each other?” Blanca looks at him knowingly. “You know what he’s hiding, then.”

Ash meets his eyes. “Yes.”

“And he knows what you’re hiding?”

Ash hesitates. It’s a mistake.

“You cannot hide your past forever,” Blanca admonishes gently. “Fear does nothing but cloud the heart, Ash. If you’re afraid of his rejection—”

“I’m not!” Ash snaps. “I just—I don’t want to talk about it, okay?”

Blanca considers him for a moment. “With him, or at all?”

“At all!” Ash grabs the book again. He doesn’t want to be having this conversation, least of all with Blanca. What happened in Golzine’s palace can stay there. He has no intention of dragging Eiji into it, especially not while Eiji’s under so much stress already. “It’s not that I’m scared, I just don’t—there’s no need to talk about it right now! And he knows. He knows enough.”

“Do you want him to fix you?” Blanca asks.

Ash scowls. “No!”

“You can’t fix him, either,” Blanca warns. “You won’t be able to make him move past what’s happened to him, and he won’t be able to make you move into the present and the future, either.”

Taking a deep breath, Ash blows it out and looks across the table a bit sourly. “So what are you trying to say? That I should leave him alone ‘cuz we’re both broken?”

“No.” Blanca shakes his head. “I just worry for you, Ash. I don’t want to see you get hurt again.”

Ash presses his lips together. “Eiji would never hurt me.”

“I hope not.” Blanca sips his tea again, silent for a heartbeat, and then looks at Ash again. “What, exactly, is the nature of your relationship with him at this point?”

“For the last fucking time,” Ash groans, “I do not want to fuck him, I love him, he’s my best friend, and I’m so fucking tired of people assuming that means I want to—that I would ever do something like that to him, so I swear to god, Blanca, if that’s what you’re hinting at, I will get up and leave—”

“Are you sure?”

“What do you mean, am I sure? Sure about whether I’ll leave? I’m plenty sure, I can show you right now!” Ash stands, ready to walk to the door.

“Not that.” Blanca shakes his head. “That you would never want to pursue intimacy with him.”

“Pursue intimacy?” Ash rolls his eyes. “Those are some flowery words for it. I’m not interested in fucking him, full stop. Why does everyone think that?”

“Why else?” Blanca is infuriatingly calm; it makes Ash kind of want to chuck something at his head. “You must be doing things that make people independently arrive at this conclusion. Have you considered how you behave with him?”

An unpleasant feeling coils into the pit of Ash’s stomach. “What, I’m not allowed to be affectionate with someone I care about?”

“Is that what I said?”

Ash crosses his arms and looks away. “…No.”

“Correct.” Blanca takes another sip of his tea. “But there’s clearly something between you that isn’t just regular friendship. Which is why I’m inquiring as to the nature of your bond.”

“How do you know it’s not just friendship?”

Blanca gives him a slow look. “Would you let just any friend of yours into your bed for the night?”

Ugh.

“No, but that’s ‘cuz Eiji’s different.” Ash frowns. “I’d let Nahoko sleep in my bed if she needed it. Eiji’s the same way. He’s just—he’s not just anyone. Just ‘cuz I’m comfortable with him more than I am with other people doesn’t mean I want… that.”

“Alright,” Blanca concedes, in the voice that means he very much is not conceding. “But if you did want him, Ash… it wouldn’t be a crime.”

Ash rolls his eyes. That’s easy for Blanca to say. He’s never been passed around like a toy or had to lay there and take it. And Ash is no fool—he sees the way eyes linger on Eiji in the halls around the palace. Shi Lai-Ke might’ve been the most dangerous of them, but he’s by no means the only man with lustful thoughts.

Ash will never be like them. He refuses to even entertain the notion of seeing his Birdie that way.

“What do you even want,” he grouses instead, giving Blanca a dirty look. “Do you want me to stay with him or not? Make up your mind.”

“I want whatever will make you grow into the man I know you will be.” Blanca’s answer is as cryptic as ever, and Ash rolls his eyes again. “I want you to be cautious, but not so much so that you impede yourself from that growth.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t think—”

There’s a terse knock on the door, and then Yut-Lung enters without so much as a pause. He sweeps his eyes over the room, doesn’t find what he’s looking for, and zeroes in on Ash with a frown.

“Where’s Eiji?”

Ash tenses. “I thought he was with Shorter. Is he not?”

“Shorter’s with Sing. They said they thought Eiji was with you.” Yut-Lung hisses under his breath. “Shit. Did that idiot go off alone somewhere?”

A sudden commotion from the corridor catches their attention, and Ash is on his feet, tensed and ready for action, even as Sing barrels in, eyes frantic.

“Bad news,” he gasps, putting a hand to the wall and leaning against the stone to catch his breath. “Shorter went to ask Nadia if she’d seen Eiji, and she had—but—but it’s bad. We found her on the floor in the kitchens, half-conscious. And Arthur—”

Shit!” Ash doesn’t even wait—he whirls on one heel and stalks back into the room, grabbing his sword and his pistol from his bedchamber.

“—knocked her out,” Sing is panting to Yut-Lung and Blanca. “And took Eiji. He killed the guards and escaped his confinement somehow! We should’ve been more careful!”

“Too late for that.” Ash straps the sword to his side and holsters the pistol, tucks two knives into his boots, and meets Blanca’s eyes. Blanca nods—go—and he squares his shoulders. “How long ago did this happen?”

“Not too long!” Sing straightens back up. “Nadia thinks she was only out for a few minutes, so they can’t have gotten far!”

“Do you know which way they went?” Yut-Lung demands.

“Nadia says she thinks Arthur was going to the west gate,” Sing says, brow furrowing, “but he won’t have stayed on the main roads for long.”

“That’s fine.” Ash closes his eyes, reaching for his magic. It swirls and froths deep within him, roaring like a maelstrom, and crackles out at the slightest touch—it’s furious and terrified and enraged that Eiji has been taken, and so is he.

Find him, he whispers to it, and the storm inside rumbles ominously.

West.

He can work with that.

“We should organize a search party to go after Ash,” Blanca says. “He’s going on ahead, but in case there’s an issue and he needs backup…”

Ash opens his eyes again. A phantom wind whispers through the room, wrapping its icy tendrils around him, and he straps one more dagger to his leg. His vision is a little sharper, a little stronger—the magic within howls and tugs at him, urging him go this way, this way, now, go now, and Blanca’s voice fades into a low buzz, unimportant.

“Have a medic ready,” he says, and strides past Sing. He’s the last knight of Unshu, and he’s going to war.

Chapter Text

Nine years ago.

“Eiji! Hurry up!” Aslan practically bounces on his feet, standing on the rocks by the edge of the stream. “Mine’s beating yours! You gotta watch!”

“I’m coming! I’m coming!”

Eiji runs after him eagerly. Somewhere behind them, Max is blundering through the woods, calling them to come back, but their paper boats have hit the fast part of the stream, before the little waterfalls, and they won’t see who wins the race if they wait on him!

He rounds the bend around a big boulder, and Aslan lets out a shout of glee and sprints off further along the bank, out of sight. “Come on, Eiji!”

“Boys!” Max calls, somewhere in the distance. “Don’t wander too far!”

“Hurry up, Max!” Eiji yells back, running after. He’s lost sight of the boats completely, and soon they’re gonna go over the falls, and that’s the finish line! They won’t know who won if they can’t see when they go, and they’ve been planning this race for days, ever since they saw how much it would all week! The stream is overflowing with the spring rains, and even today it’s still cloudy. This is the perfect day for racing paper boats!

“I can’t keep up if you keep going through the bushes!” Max laments, and Eiji laughs over his shoulder, ducking under a thick branch and crawling under a big, thorny bush that hangs over the edge of the stream. Aslan is somewhere up ahead, and he’s gotta catch up!

Just as Eiji dusts his knees off and gets back to his feet, he hears a sudden cry and then a splash, and fear spikes through him. “Aslan?!”

There’s no answer, and Eiji scrambles along the banks of the stream. The mossy stones are slippery, and he has to hike up the legs of his pants to hop from one to another just so he doesn’t trip on himself. What happened?! Did Aslan hurt himself? Was that him falling in? Is he okay?!

He skids around a little pool full of swirling leaves and twigs and little forest debris uprooted by the storm, nearly falling in himself when a muddy patch slides precariously underfoot, and scrambles to the deeper pool just before the waterfalls.

Aslan is sitting in the cold water, eyes wide with shock. He’s completely drenched, and Eiji can’t tell if it’s just water on his cheeks, or tears as well. “Ei—Eiji?”

“Aslan!” Eiji gasps. There’s a boot-shaped print in the moss on the triangular rock nearby, and he can immediately gather what happened—Aslan must’ve tried to hop from one stone to the next, but the wet moss slipped underfoot, and sent him into the water.

Aslan blinks up at him. “I… I lost sight of the boats.”

Eiji pauses, halfway through rolling up his pant legs, and then shakes his head as he pulls his boots and socks off. “Forget about the boats! Are you okay?”

He wades in, gasping from the shock of the cold, and reaches out.

“Give me your hands!”

Aslan reaches back, trembling. His hands are cold and clammy, slippery from the water, but Eiji holds on firmly, pulling him to his feet with another splash. Cold water cascades down his body, and Aslan gasps, swaying, and hops on one foot. It’s only then that Eiji realizes the knee on his pants is torn and reddened, and he’s favoring one leg over the other.

“Aslan!” He lets go of his hand to wrap an arm around Aslan’s waist, uncaring of the cold. “Lean on me, okay? Let’s get out of the water!”

Aslan nods and leans heavily into him. Eiji stumbles as a rock in the water shifts under his weight, but catches himself and Aslan without falling. They totter their way back onto the bank, and Aslan’s legs abruptly give out under him. They sink to the ground together, and Eiji grabs at his soaked jacket, tugging at it.

“We have to get this off you,” he says, guiding it down Aslan’s arms. “The cold will be worse if your clothes are all wet.”

“I didn’t see the boats,” Aslan whispers, looking up at him, eyes definitely sparkling with tears now. “I don’t know which one won.”

“Who cares about the boats?” Eiji stops fussing with the jacket to cup his face, serious. His cheeks are so cold it’s scary, and he presses his palms fully to them, hoping at least some of his warmth will help. “You got hurt!”

One tear rolls down Aslan’s cheek into Eiji’s hand. “But—but y-you were looking forward to racing paper boats, and—and I ruined it!”

“Aslan!” Eiji hugs him. Who cares if he gets wet? He needs to hug his best friend! “You didn’t ruin anything!”

“And now I’m getting you all wet!” Aslan shivers in his arms, and Eiji hugs him tighter.

He needs to get him somewhere warm! It’s bad to get wet and cold while the weather’s still got a spring chill. Anxious, he looks around.

“Max!” he cries. “Max, come here quick!”

“Kids?” Max at least is close enough to hear him, and now his distant voice is sharp. “Stay put, I’ll be right there!”

“But no. I’m getting me wet,” Eiji corrects, pressing Aslan close. “Is your leg okay? How bad is it?”

“I just scraped it,” Aslan sniffles. Eiji can feel the exact moment he gives in, because he slumps into his arms and buries his cold nose in his neck and whimpers. “It hurts…”

“It’s gonna be okay!” Eiji hugs him tighter.

There’s a special sunlight spell he knows, and it’s hard, but he focuses as hard as he can and reaches for the sunshine inside himself to try and bring it outside, too. Kaa-san always describes it like that, anyway, and right now, Aslan could use some warmth like the sun’s.

He concentrates for a few seconds, and then Aslan gasps. Eiji opens his eyes and realizes he did it! He’s glowing, not bright enough to hurt anyone’s eyes, but enough to warm himself like the sun. He doesn’t really feel it more than as if he was standing in a patch of sunshine, but by the way Aslan nuzzles into him, it’s noticeable.

“There!” Eiji says, satisfied, and pets his damp hair. The roots aren’t wet, but the ends are dripping with cold water, and he’s careful not to let his hand get into that, so it doesn’t get the cold onto Aslan’s scalp. “I will always find you and take care of you. Promise!”

“Eiji,” Aslan mumbles, and clutches at him, one hand a tight fist in the back of Eiji’s sweater. “Eiji…”

“Don’t worry.” Eiji rubs his back. “Max will help!”

Aslan lifts his head and looks up at him with watery green eyes. “I’ll always find you, too,” he promises solemnly, as if he’s forgotten the pain and the distress. “And I’ll take care of you! I promise, too!”

“It’s a deal!” Eiji kisses his cheek. “We’ll always take care of each other. Right?”

“Yeah.” Aslan kisses his cheek back and takes one hand from his back to wipe at his face. “Yeah. Okay.”

The bushes rustle, and then Max comes barrelling into the clearing. “Boys! What happ—oh, shit, Aslan, you okay, buddy?”

Aslan wipes his eyes again, detangling himself from Eiji just enough to look at Max. He keeps pressed close otherwise, and Eiji keeps his arms around him. He’ll keep him warm!

“Mm,” Aslan hums, which isn’t really a response. “Eiji helped. But it hurts. Help?”

Max smiles, a weirdly soft smile that Eiji doesn’t get, and comes closer. He leans down and ruffles Eiji’s hair. “Good job, Eiji,” he says, and then drops to one knee beside them. “Let me look at that leg, Aslan.”

Eiji scoots back to hold Aslan against himself while Max inspects him, and when Aslan’s breath hitches with pain, he hugs him tighter. “It’s okay,” he promises, and lets Aslan lean into him again. “We’ll get you home!”

“Sorry again about the race,” Aslan mumbles, as Max gathers him into his arms to carry him back. “We can say you won to make up for it.”

Eiji shakes his head. “You’re ridiculous,” he says, and reaches up to pat his back. “Don’t you know you are far more important than some paper boats?”


Present day.

Eiji is terrified.

The stolen wagon trundles along frantically down the bumpy road; he’s bound and gagged and blindfolded, thrown into the bed like luggage and covered with what he can only assume is a blanket to hide him from view, and every hole or root that catches the wheels jostles his already-weakened body painfully against the planks.

The cloth in his mouth tastes disgusting and his throat is parched already. He’s pretty sure the only reason he isn’t crying is that his mouth is too dry and the tears won’t come—he already feels the ache in his chest that makes him want to sob.

Why did Arthur have to attack Nadia? If she’s badly hurt, he’ll never forgive himself—he thought it would be safe to visit her, but he was stupid and—and now he can’t stop picturing her limp body collapsed on the floor, and it’s his fault.

Eiji squeezes his eyes shut under the blindfold against tears that don’t come.

“Awake yet, princess?” 

The cart keeps going, but the blanket is yanked away, and then rough hands are on him, forcing him to sit up. He lets out a strangled yelp, jerking away from Arthur, but tied as he is, it’s ineffective, and he hears Arthur laugh.

“Oh, don’t be like that. I’m gonna have so much fun with you, little whore,” and then the gag is roughly pulled out, leaving him coughing. Arthur’s hand grabs his chin. “What do you have to say to that? Gonna sing for me?”

Eiji thinks frantically. He doesn’t know where they are; he can’t see. But they can’t be too far from the palace, and even if they aren’t near it anymore there are still outposts from the Imperial City for miles. 

“HELP!” he screams, as loud as he can. “HELP ME! SOMEONE HE—

Arthur’s backhand catches him unawares and sends him tumbling painfully back to the wagon bed. He can’t even catch himself on his hands, and his head slams into the floor. His cheek stings miserably.

“So you wanna do things the hard way?” Arthur kicks him in the stomach, and Eiji curls in on himself, gasping for breath. The tears come, finally, from the pain, and he fights hard to swallow them. He doesn’t want to give Arthur that kind of satisfaction. “Fine by me. I’m more than happy to break you earlier than later.”

“I will not break,” Eiji manages, curled into himself. He’s sick with fear and the only thing he can think of, for whatever reason, is the day of the invasion—how he thought he would die, then, screaming and alone. Maybe it’s his fate to reprise that, now. “You do not have to do this—”

Another kick, and Eiji yelps like a wounded animal. “Oh, I don’t have to do this!” Arthur grabs him by the chin again and hauls him back to a sitting position, on his knees. “But I want to. I want to torture you until your throat goes out from the screaming. I’m gonna destroy you. I’m gonna turn you into a pathetic wreck that’s so broken that your precious Ash Lynx won’t even recognize you.”

Ash.

Aslan.

Aslan, Aslan, Aslan—

“Ash will save me,” Eiji whispers, because it’s all he can hold onto right now, with the fear taking hold. “I will not break. Ash will save me.”

“Bullshit!” 

Another slap, from the other side this time, and Eiji collapses to the wood again, banging his head. It hurts, it really hurts, and he wants to cry so much but refuses to let himself.

“Ash doesn’t know where you are, and he won’t until I get you back to Halfmoon!” Arthur laughs, a cruel sound that cuts like knives. “King Dino’ll be thrilled to know you’re Ash’s slut. He’ll want to make you his private pet, just like Ash, and he’ll hurt you more than I ever could. You’re gonna suffer, and suffer, and suffer, and then I’ll kill you.”

“Why are you doing this?” Eiji cries, the tears finally falling. The blindfold catches them before they can run down his cheeks, and he’s almost grateful for it, so that Arthur doesn’t get to see that bit of his humiliation. “I have done nothing to you!”

“I was ordered to find a good source of information on the Lee court’s latest bullshit,” Arthur says, and he yanks Eiji upright again, one hand fisted in the collar of his robe. The other hand settles around his throat, and Eiji cries out as it tightens because he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe he can’t breathe it hurts it hurts he can’t breathe! 

“No—stop—ah—” he croaks. The wagon goes over another jarring bump, and Arthur loosens his grip enough that Eiji can gulp down a lungful of cool, refreshing, godly air again, coughing and wheezing miserably. 

“And you’re the perfect source,” Arthur adds, his hand moving lower, to trace Eiji’s collarbone, and then to dip his fingers below the collar of his robe. “With the added bonus of you being Ash’s whore? You’re perfect, Your Highness. How could I turn down such a tasty treat?”

Terror seizes Eiji’s heart all over again as Arthur yanks on the collar of his tunic until it rips audibly, tearing it open to expose his chest, down to his waist and almost to his hips. Cool night air rushes in against his skin. “Stop, please, stop! I—please, do not do this—stop!”

Another bump, and Eiji loses his balance and topples backwards, unable to catch himself. 

Arthur catches him by his braid, and Eiji cries out. 

“You think anyone would stop just ‘cuz you begged, with that pretty little face, princess?” Arthur laughs again, and Eiji nearly breaks down sobbing. He wants to throw up. “If it worked like that, Ash would’ve gotten off easy, too.”

“What are you talking about?” Eiji sniffles despite himself, and Arthur rewards him by tugging his braid hard. “Ah!”

“Oh?” Arthur sounds pleased, a dangerous sign. “He never told you about his past, little slut? Not once, while you spread your legs for him and let him take whatever he wanted? Did you just lack the brains to ask, or were you too busy losing your mind on his cock?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about!”

“He used to cry all the time,” Arthur says, leaning in so close that Eiji can feel the warmth of his breath on his neck. It makes his stomach turn. “Dino told me about it. He’d put his face in the pillows and cry as they took turns fucking him raw, til he bled, and then kept going. He was just like you, crying stop, stop like a stupid baby. You’re gonna end up just like him, you know.”

That—

That has to be a lie, doesn’t it?

(“He tortured me,” Aslan’s voice whispers, the echo of a memory. “In a lot of ways.”)

The pieces slot into place with sickening clarity, and Eiji shakes his head, distressed. “No, no, no, no, no—”

“No, what?” Arthur taunts, and then he’s kissing greedily at Eiji’s neck, and Eiji lets out a strangled cry and tries to squirm away but he can hardly move, and hot tears of shame and terror and frustration soak into the blindfold. “No, you don’t want this?”

"Stop," Eiji begs, bucking in his grasp, trying desperately to twist away or jerk back, anything to make this stop. Fear clogs his bruised throat. "Please, Arthur, please, stop!"

Arthur laughs again, an ugly sound, as he shoves the ripped tunic aside and grabs at Eiji's chest. Eiji bites the inside of his cheek to keep from crying out in despair as Arthur pinches his nipple. The humiliation and the terror want to drown him, and bound as he is, he can't even hope to swim. 

"But princess," Arthur says, mouthing at his jaw, "I'm just barely getting started!"

And then he's kissing Eiji, hard and cruel and uncaring, and it's just like every other time a horrible man has kissed him at the Lee court but worse because he's not even at court anymore, and the terror numbs Eiji so much that he bites down hard on Arthur's tongue.

Arthur jerks back with a muffled cry, his hand leaping away from Eiji's chest, and for a blessed moment he lets Eiji crumple and fall back to the wagonbed. 

His voice is murderous.

"You… are going to pay for that."

The thrill of fear that zings through Eiji's stomach doesn't have long to make him tremble in fear, unable to see what's coming. Arthur kicks him in the stomach again, and again, and again, grabs him by the throat, and hauls him up again as he chokes and gasps, his lungs burning. More tears soak into the blindfold, and Eiji struggles to breathe, spots dancing in front of his closed eyes. 

"Who is behind the murders?" Arthur demands, dropping him again in a heap. Eiji wheezes, coughing delicately, and gulps in sweet, sweet air. 

Arthur only gives him a moment to catch his breath before kicking him again. 

"You know what's going on," he hisses, slamming Eiji to the floor and keeping him pinned by the throat. "Who. Is. Behind. The. Murders?"

"I don't know," Eiji rasps. He can't betray Yut-Lung. Not now. The plan can still succeed, even if he dies here, and then his people will be alright. "I don't--"

"You really wanna do this the hard way, don't you?" Arthur slaps him again, making his head spin, and the wagon creaks as they rattle over another bump. "Fine by me, slut."

He grabs the rope around Eiji's ankles and pulls them up, towards his hips, and Eiji cries out as the motion forces his knees to bend. He struggles against it as best as he can, but he's still weak and Arthur has the upper hand. 

He shoves the torn tunic up, exposing Eiji's hips to the night air, and Eiji hears the shing of a blade being unsheathed. Terror seizes him all over again, closing his throat and sending him far, far away, deep within himself, until it's like none of this can be really happening at all. 

"Ash will save me," he whispers, numb with fear. "You can't hurt me."

"Watch me," Arthur hisses, and then fabric rips again, and Eiji cries out in horror as the waistband of his pants suddenly loosens from the cut down the middle. 

Arthur forces his knees up by pulling the rope binding his ankles higher again, and despite himself Eiji lets out a sob of fear. Arthur laughs again as he toys with the torn waistband, not pulling it down yet but making it very clear that he can. It's horrible and intrusive and every fiber of Eiji's being screams out against it, but he's helpless. 

"I'll ask again, and every time you deny me I'll get less forgiving," Arthur tells him, stroking his cheek in a sickening parody of sweetness. "Be good and maybe I'll even make the first time painless. So, again: Who is behind the assassinations, princess?"

“Ash will save me,” Eiji whispers, going limp. If he can’t fight it, he can’t fight it. His head is pounding and he’s exhausted and his body is still weak; he knows he can’t take Arthur in one-on-one combat, and he’s already tied up and blindfolded, anyway.

There’s nothing he can do.

He’s helpless.

He’s going to die here.

He’s helpless.

“Ash will save me, Ash will save me, Ash will save me…”

Arthur yanks him forward and bites down into the vulnerable skin where his neck joins his shoulder, hard, and Eiji cries out, trying and failing to jerk out of his grasp. “You little piece of shit slut,” Arthur hisses, and grabs Eiji’s throat again and squeezes tighter and tighter. “You say that one more time and I’ll stop being nice, I’ll fucking kill you, I’ll kill you!”

Eiji sobs and gasps ineffectively for breath. He can’t breathe, he can’t breathe, he can’t breathe, oh, god, his vision is starting to swim, he can’t… he can’t…

But if he’s going to die here, he may as well make it count for something. He can’t breathe, he—he doesn’t want to die—he can’t breathe—

“I’ll tell you!” he rasps, squirming ineffectively in Arthur’s grip. “Please, please…”

It has the desired effect. Arthur’s hand loosens, and he chuckles darkly. “There we go. Was that so hard, pretty boy?”

Eiji can’t tell him. He won’t. He wracks his brain in desperation, trying wildly to come up with something, anything to say, and stalls in the meantime by coughing. “I… I… can I have some water, please…”

Arthur laughs. “You poor little delicate thing. Fine. One minute. Don’t try to pull anything, or else,” he cautions, and Eiji hears him climb over something in the wagon.

The panic churning in his stomach and strangling his heart thunders, but there’s a new thought there, now—the idea that if this is how it ends, at least his death can serve a purpose—that calms his nerves, somewhat, or at least numbs him to his terror. He feels far away from here, like none of it is really happening, and it would be frightening if it didn’t afford him a little precious clarity of mind.

Who could he blame the murders on? Can he spin it as someone in Golzine’s court trying to usurp him by making him go to war? Is there a way he can…

Arthur will think he’s lying, if he pulls out any random name. And then he’d—he’d hurt him for it, and the numbness grows in response to the fear. He has to think, he has to think, what are the right names! Aslan told him Blanca was a spymaster. Who’s the new one? They talked… They talked about it, think, Eiji, think—

Footsteps approach again as the wagon hits another bump, and Eiji winces. “Here, sweetie,” Arthur says, and then a bottle is at his lips, tilted up unforgivingly, and Eiji’s only choices are swallow or choke. Tepid water spills from his mouth down his chin and drips to his chest as he splutters, and then Arthur pulls the bottle away again. “Had enough?”

Foxx.

That’s the name. Aslan told him the new spymaster is named Foxx. He thought it was odd to spell it with two “X”s, and Aslan laughed. He remembers now.

“Yes,” Eiji manages, and coughs. “I… You won’t hurt me if I tell you?”

“I’ll think about it.” Arthur’s hand caresses his cheek again, and Eiji can’t suppress a shudder. “But if you decide to go back on your word, I’ll definitely make you regret it. The choice is yours.”

“Okay.” Eiji takes a deep breath. He’s going to die a horrible, painful death at Arthur’s hands, or at Golzine’s, and he has to make his peace with that, right here, right now. He’s going to die, and whatever time he has left will be torture.

But if he can still save his people, if he can keep Yut-Lung’s plans alive until Nahoko can reclaim their throne… it’ll be worth it.

I’m sorry, Aslan, he thinks, because god only knows how crushed Aslan will be when they find his body. I’m so sorry.

“Well?” Arthur prods, hand skimming down to rest against his throat again, as a warning. “My patience isn’t limitless, princess. Talk now, or else.”

Here goes nothing. Eiji hopes fervently that his lying skills are up to par even under this kind of pressure. “I, ah… I was contacted by a man from Ecolisine. He works for King Golzine. He asked me… he wants me to kill Prince Yut-Lung for him, when… I do not know when, but he said he will send me a signal.” Eiji coughs to buy himself another precious moment, thoughts spinning wildly.

Arthur’s finger taps the side of his neck, just above his pulse point. “Oh, really? And what’s this man’s name? What does he get out of it? What do you get out of it? What did he promise you?”

“He—he told me if we start a war, they—whenever the Imperial army attacks, he would—he would incite a coup,” Eiji manages. His throat is screaming. This lie feels sound, but he prays that Arthur doesn’t ask too many questions, or else he knows his story will fall apart. “He is… he is a high-ranking man, I think. He told me, he would kill Gan-Lung to weaken the military structure, and once he takes the throne, he… he will ask for me, so he can set me free.”

That should do it. Arthur thinks of him as a stupid, naïve brat. Pretending that someone is taking advantage of his naïveté is believable, right? Arthur will take that bait. Hopefully.

“So you just want to be free?” Arthur laughs, an unpleasant sound. “Poor little princess. I don’t think you realized what you were signing on for. Now tell me,” and his voice grows hard, “what is his name?”

“He said,” Eiji stammers, “that his name is—his name is Foxx.”

Arthur goes deadly quiet.

“Foxx?” he asks, after a moment of harrowing silence. “You’re sure about that?”

“Y-yes,” Eiji says, and coughs again. “That… that is all I know. Please…”

“So you had nothing to do with Gan-Lung’s death?” Arthur’s hand drops from his throat. “I guess you are too stupid to plan to drink your own poison. God, so this whole time…” He laughs again, and there’s the sound of a clap, maybe of his hand to his forehead. “You were just the tool. To think I thought you could have been behind it all…”

Sure, Eiji thinks spitefully. Which of us is really too stupid to see?

“I just want to go home,” he says, and when his voice cracks, it isn’t an act. “That’s all I want.”

“You poor, pathetic bitch.” Arthur abruptly shoves him back down, and Eiji cries out in surprise and pain as he collapses to the boards. “Now what? You have no more use except as Ash’s whore. You think I’m gonna let you off the hook now? You don’t even need to do anymore talking, if that’s really all you know. I could cut your tongue out, right now!”

The fear comes back, full force, and slams into Eiji like a train as he lays there, helpless. He’s done what he can to throw Arthur off. Now he just has to face his death with the same dignity his parents faced theirs. He can’t keep crying or panicking or begging, he has to do better, he won’t give Arthur the satisfaction of breaking him just to hurt Aslan! If he dies, he dies, but he won’t—he can’t—give in.

“What’s wrong?” Arthur mocks. “Surprised I’m not gonna let you go? I already fucking told you, slut,” and he kicks Eiji in the stomach, hard. Eiji doubles over with a gasp of pain, curled in on himself and wheezing softly, and Arthur kicks him again, and again. “You’re gonna die, but you’re gonna suffer so fucking much first.”

“Fine,” Eiji rasps out. “Do what you will.”

Arthur sounds absolutely murderous when he grabs his braid again and yanks his head back. “Oh, I will. And you’ll regret trying to put on a brave face. I want to hear you scream,” he snarls, and the knife nicks against Eiji’s throat. “So go on. Scream for me.”

“You hit me last time I screamed,” Eiji manages. It’s the wrong answer, because Arthur slaps him anyway, catches him by the braid when he starts to fall, and then kicks him, so that his hair holds up his entire body weight. He cries out.

“So you wanna get bratty, huh?” Arthur hisses. “God, you’re lucky Golzine wants you in one piece, or I’d tear you apart.”

And suddenly there’s the sound of a knife, Arthur’s knife cutting into his hair, and Eiji goes very still, because it’s very, very close to his neck—and then he’s falling, dropped back to the boards like a sack of potatoes. His suddenly-short hair falls around his neck and ears, and he gasps at the shock of it.

“That’s all I can do to you for now.” Arthur fists a hand in his hair and yanks his head back. “But just wait. I’ll cut out your bratty tongue. And I’ll make Ash watch. And I won’t let you die fast. Oh, no. You’re going to suffer, and he’ll suffer with you.”

“Okay,” Eiji whispers, trying to find that state of numbness again. It’s only a little effective. “Whatever you say.”

Arthur lets out a roar of rage. “Don’t you fucking dare patronize me,” he growls, and then he shoves Eiji onto his back and his hands are around his throat and he’s squeezing and squeezing and Eiji can’t breathe and he’s choking and—

The wagon goes over another bump in the road, a big one, with a thud.

A few things happen in that moment.

“Your Grace,” the wagon driver calls, suddenly. “There’s something—”

A dull roar in Eiji’s ears drowns out the rest, his vision blacking out.

Something explodes in a thunderclap so loud it shakes Eiji to the core. The pressure of Arthur’s hand vanishes.

Eiji is so tired, and he still can’t see, can hardly move. Wheezing pathetically, he slumps back to the floor of the wagon. It takes him several seconds to realize that the ride has not magically become smooth—they’ve stopped.

“Wh—what—”

There’s no response, and he curls in on himself, coughing. At least he gets a reprieve for a moment. He can survive this. Arthur wants him dead, but he’s useful to Golzine, so he can’t kill him on the journey. There must be… there has to be a way he can escape sometime. He… he…

His throat burns, though, and god, he—

FWOOM!

A blast of hot air shoots in from outside the wagon, and Eiji cries out, scrambling to roll onto his other side so it won’t burn his face. There’s a scream from a voice he doesn’t recognize—the driver, maybe?—and the sound of crackling flame.

“Arthur?!” Eiji curls in on himself tighter, teeth gritted against the pain as the intensity of the heat burns at his back. He can smell woodsmoke now, and terror of a wholly different sort seizes him. “Don’t—don’t leave me here—"

They’ve stumbled into a fire, and now instead of escaping, he’s going to burn to death.

The floorboards are rough under his cheek, though, and it gives him an idea. Squeezing his eyes shut, Eiji starts to drag his head along the wood, ignoring the way it scrapes at his skin; as he hoped, after a moment it catches on the blindfold, and he feels it move an excruciatingly small amount as he drags his head down. 

Smoke is starting to burn at his eyes; he keeps them closed tighter as he straightens his neck and then drags his head down again. The blindfold catches on the same spot in the floorboards again, and this time it scoots almost an inch up before coming free—he can see directly down now, enough to see the dim light from the fire and the dirty silk of his shirt. 

Two more drags pulls the blindfold off enough that he can shake his head, and it slides off his hair to the wood. His cheekbone stings, and his eyes smart from the smoke, but he can see now. When he rolls over, groaning, his eyes widen.

The wagon is surrounded by tongues of flame, forming a barrier across the road and into the rocky hills on either side. The wagon’s cover keeps him from seeing too far to either side, but he doesn’t need peripheral vision to know that this is no ordinary fire—there’s nothing for it to burn.

This is magic.

The clash of metal on metal draws his attention, and he gasps, scooting awkwardly toward the outside of the wagon. His arms and legs are still bound too tightly for him to have any hope of freeing himself without something sharp, but—but maybe—if there’s fighting—

Eiji sticks his head out of the wagon and immediately gets a good lungful of smoke. Coughing hard, he swallows against the pain and squints into the night until he realizes that the fighting, whoever it is (is it Aslan? It must be, it must be, please!), must be in front of the wagon, not behind.

If it’s Aslan, he can relax. The fire won’t consume the wagon, so long as he’s in it. Aslan would never hurt him. He knows that. 

But on the off chance that it isn’t…

It’s about a four-foot drop to the ground. Eiji looks down at the pebbles and rocks strewn along the road and winces. That’s going to hurt.

Still, he manages to wriggle his bound legs over the edge and sit up, though it’s hard without his arms to balance himself; the clash of blades from the other side of the wagon and the roar of the flames drown out the noise of his jump down.

Dizzy and disoriented, he still loses his balance and crashes to his knees, gasping at the sharpness of the pain that stabs into him when the rocks dig in. But he’s done it. He’s out of the wagon.

From his new vantage point, he can see that the flames have the wagon surrounded on all sides; when he peeks under it, he can see the legs of the horse in front, afraid but unsure of where to run, and in front, a motionless figure on the ground. Beyond that, there are two pairs of boots moving in tandem—the fighters. 

One of them must be Arthur; Eiji’s eyes water too much to let him make out details, but he thinks he recognizes the black boots he saw Arthur wearing in the kitchens, when he attacked Nadia.

And the other…

Eiji gasps softly, and a sob of pure relief nearly chokes him. He would know his Aslan anywhere.

Arthur is on the defensive; Eiji manages a painful scoot-hop that gets him around the corner of the wagon, where he can see, and watches as Aslan drives him back relentlessly toward the wall of flames, then stops.

“What? Is that all you’ve got?”

Eiji expects not to be able to hear him over the roar of the fire. Instead, Aslan’s voice is low and dangerous and clear, like the wind whipping through the night sky. His laugh is so cold it burns.

“Since when do you fucking have magic?” Arthur demands, enraged, as he tries to duck away, and lunges. “Why won’t you die already!”

Aslan catches his knife on his sword easily, rolling back with the momentum of the blow to balance on one leg, lift the other, and kick Arthur in the gut, hard. Arthur stumbles back with a strangled noise, his face twisted in hate.

“You’re fighting with magic! You fucking bastard! Don’t act as if you give a fuck about making this a fair fight!” Arthur coughs.

“I never said I did!” Aslan advances, the wind whipping dangerously around him. “You lost the right to a fair fight once you decided to attack Eiji.”

Normally, when Eiji has seen them interact, Aslan has been cool and detached around Arthur, acting as if nothing he said or did could ever matter to him. But this—this is a whole new side of him, perilous and frigid, like when they spoke to Shi Lai-Ke except a thousand times more.

Thunder rumbles in the distance, and the fire roars higher. Eiji’s eyes water from the smoke and the wind. Muted lightning flashes in the clouds swirling overhead.

Sparks begin to dance along Aslan’s blade.

“But as much as I want to kill you,” Aslan hisses, “you’re more useful alive, at least for now.”

“Aslan,” Eiji whispers, and coughs. His throat hurts so much. He’s never seen Aslan like this, so cold and ruthless and furious. What does he mean, Arthur is more useful alive?

His head spins. He’s not going to die here after all—Aslan is here, and Aslan won’t let Arthur kill him—but he can’t seem to figure out what that means. What’s supposed to happen next?

“Your little whore in the wood stove over there must be roasting nicely,” Arthur taunts, though his voice is a bit ragged from exertion. “Too bad you can’t kill me, huh, Ash? Bet you’ll regret agreeing to that when you realize you’re too late.”

“Too late?” Aslan repeats, and the sparks on his sword dance more frenetically, and the wind begins to rise. He doesn’t turn around, not taking his eyes off Arthur for a second. “What do you mean, too late?”

“Don’t play dumb!” Arthur laughs wildly. “You know exactly what I mean! He told me what I needed to know, so I slit his pretty little throat. But I gave him old Dino’s regards, first, and he cried for you, Ash. So much. That’s why I had to kill him. Wouldn’t stop screaming.”

“You’re lying!” Aslan roars, but there’s a moment of hesitation, and—

Arthur lunges. Eiji tries to scream a warning, to cry out that it’s a lie, but his voice is barely more than a croak.

Aslan catches Arthur’s dagger on the hilt of his sword again, but slower this time, almost stumbling. The electricity coiling around the sword, however, leaps from metal to metal, and then Arthur howls, dropping the dagger, and Aslan screams in wordless rage as he kicks him again.

Arthur staggers back and collapses to his knees, clutching his hand, and Aslan raises his sword to the heavens. Lightning flashes overhead, and the wind whips at Eiji’s torn clothes and messy hair, sending shorn pieces into his mouth and leaving him spluttering.

“I’ll kill you!” Aslan brings the sword down as it crackles with lightning, and the fire roars in response as he slams the flat of the blade into Arthur’s side like a bludgeon. Magical sparks arc over Arthur’s body as he jerks on the ground, and Aslan raises the sword again. Eiji can’t see his face; he’s just silhouetted against the fire as the stormclouds swirl ominously above. “You’re lying, you sack of shit, I’ll kill you—”

Thunder booms overhead, and Eiji chokes on a hoarse cry that’s swallowed by the wind. “Turn around,” he begs Aslan, painfully trying to scoot forward. The rocks on the ground dig into his legs painfully, and his voice doesn’t work enough to let him call out. “Aslan, I am here, I am here…”

Arthur croaks something from the ground; Eiji can’t hear it, but Aslan brings the flat of the blade down again, and then again, beating him into the dirt with it as the storm above them looms. This magic—Eiji has never seen anything like it, not even the day of the invasion. Battle magic is strong, but he never knew it could do this.

“Aslan,” he rasps, again. The wind is getting dangerously high, and even from this distance the fire is searing.

Aslan is going to kill Arthur, Eiji realizes. He’s going to kill him before Eiji can drag himself over there.

“Aslan!” he begs, but the howling wind steals the words from his mouth. Desperation stirs in his chest, and in the pit of his stomach, and somewhere deep in his soul, where his mother’s magic lives. “Ash, stop!”

Aslan roars and raises the sword again, and lightning flashes overhead. Rain begins to fall in torrential sheets.

“Ash!” Eiji cries, and coughs. What is he reaching for his magic for? What will a bit of sunlight do? Golden light sparkles in the corner of his vision, but it doesn’t do anything to stop Aslan. “Stop, you’ll kill him!”

Aslan swings the sword down.

And a sunburst tears the night sky apart.

It’s brilliant and golden and blinding and glorious, and for an instant the mountain road is as bright as noon, and then brighter, and brighter, and it burns, until Eiji screams from the effort of holding it and everything goes

w h i t e.

When his vision clears, the crack in the sky is gone.

Aslan’s sword is at his side. He’s standing, but he turns to face Eiji, eyes wide, and Eiji sees tears on his cheeks, and…

Arthur lies on the ground, unmoving, but not impaled. Good, Eiji thinks, a little woozy. Aslan didn’t kill him.

Then Aslan is running toward him, nearly stumbling in his haste, and the fire burns low around them as the clouds recede, and the wind falls silent as Eiji whispers, “Aslan,” and tries to shuffle forward again.

And then Aslan is there, his eyes alight with magic and glowing an unreal green. There’s blood on his shirt, and a tear in the shoulder, but he doesn’t seem to care as he drops to one knee and catches Eiji as he sways.

“Eiji,” he breathes. “Eiji, Eiji. You’re alive. Hold still,” and then there’s a knife cutting through the ropes and suddenly his arms can move, and they’re in agony as the blood finally starts to circulate again, prickling through his wrists and palms and fingers. Aslan cuts the ropes on his legs, too, and Eiji nearly sobs in relief as he collapses into his arms, clutching clusmily at his shirt with numb fingers.

“Aslan,” he whispers. “Aslan, I… Is Arthur…?”

“Not dead.” Aslan holds him close to his chest, letting him hide in his shoulder. “You… stopped me. Thank you.”

“Oh.” Eiji shudders in his arms. “Oh. Good.”

Aslan cups his face and looks down at him, his eyes still blazing, and Eiji closes his eyes and leans his face into his touch, feeling his chest start to tighten with tears. But his eyes open again as Aslan’s thumb brushes over the scrape on his cheek, and he stiffens instinctively.

“He did this to you?” Aslan’s voice is low and dangerous, and the dim fire behind him burns a little higher.

“N-no.” Eiji takes a shaky breath. “That one—I did that, um—I was trying to get the blindfold off.”

“Not what I meant.” Aslan’s eyes narrow, and then he lets out a breath and just presses Eiji’s face close to his chest, careful not to touch the raw skin this time. Eiji clutches a fistful of his shirt and presses his cheek against him as the tears start to slip down his cheeks. He can hear Aslan’s heartbeat, and he clings to it, closing his eyes and just listening to that soothing thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. 

“Where else are you hurt?” Aslan asks, a minute (an eternity) later, pulling back to look at him. There’s still fire in his eyes, but it’s not fierce, surging flames—it reminds Eiji of a hearth, warm and comforting. “What did he do to you?”

“Not…” Eiji takes a shaky breath as more hot tears spill down his cheeks. “Not too much, I am okay—”

“You’re not,” Aslan says, cupping his face, and Eiji’s breath catches in his throat as he leans down and presses his forehead to his, green eyes intense and alight as they gaze into his soul. “You don’t have to lie to me.”

Eiji fumbles for words, dizziness and nausea and tears all fighting to control him, and in the end he just sags against Aslan—his body is weak and tired, and Aslan can hold him up, Aslan won’t let him fall—and bursts into tears. “I—I want to go home,” he sobs, the world spinning. “I, I want… Aslan, I…”

“Bluebird,” Aslan breathes, and he kisses Eiji’s forehead so tenderly that Eiji just starts to cry harder. “I know. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“I don’t feel well,” Eiji hiccups, turning his face into his chest to hide from the dying embers and the black night. “I feel horrible, Aslan,” and as if his body knows what he just said aloud, another wave of dizziness assails him, spinning him around and around and around until he has no idea which way is up or down and all he knows is that Aslan is holding him and he can still feel his heart beating.

“Eiji?”

Aslan’s voice sounds like it’s far away, but Eiji tries to say his name in response—tries, because his limbs are growing heavy and his head is spinning, and he’s so, so tired.

“Eiji!”

He closes his eyes, and in his mind for a split second, he can see the sun, shining down on his family, as they were years and years ago, when his mother wove delicate spells out of sunbeams and laughed at him and Nahoko as they chased them through the fields.

And then the memory passes, and all he knows is the dark.


Eiji floats.

He drifts through nothingness, through a void of blessed darkness, as the pain pounding behind his eyes slowly dissipates into wisps that fade into the blackness all around him. He’s nowhere, and he’s everywhere; his body is not his own, and his mind drifts and drifts on the waves of an onyx sea.

“Ei-chan,” a voice murmurs, and he sighs, turning his head towards it just a touch. “Eiji, my darling.”

Kaa-san, he realizes, and sinks a little further into the water. He’s safe here. “Kaa-san… I missed you.”

His voice is weak and pitiful, and his throat aches for some reason. He doesn’t remember why.

“I love you, Ei-chan,” Tou-san’s voice says, and tears prick at Eiji’s closed eyes. “I love you, son.”

“I missed you, too, Tou-san,” Eiji whispers into the starless night. He’s so, so tired. “I am so happy to be with you again…”

“We’re so proud of you.” Kaa-san’s voice brushes across his face, and there’s a faint whisper almost like a kiss pressed to his brow. “But you need to wake up.”

“What?” Eiji opens his eyes, confused and hurt, but he can’t see anything—the void extends and extends and extends, and even when he waves his hand in front of his face, he can’t see it. Suddenly, the embrace of the sea seems less comforting and more dire, and he gasps, treading water. “But I—I cannot just leave you, I…”

“Wake up,” Tou-san murmurs, a featherlight touch on his shoulder. “You have to wake up.”

The inky sea pulls at him, thick like molasses, and he cries out, trying to swim to shore. But he’s in the middle of the waves, and he doesn’t know which way shore is, and panic starts to consume him. “Kaa-san!” he cries, and his voice is a hoarse, choked scream, like a terrified child. “Tou-san! Help me! Kaa-san, Kaa-san—”

“Wake up, Eiji, please,” Kaa-san murmurs, except her voice is funny, now.

“Wake up,” Tou-san repeats. “Wake up. Wake up. Wake—”

The waves pull him under, and the sob in his throat drowns him.

“—up,” Yut-Lung begs. “You have to wake up, it’s been hours, everyone is getting scared, so wake up, wake up right now!”

Eiji opens his eyes slowly, groggy and confused. He’s in… he’s in a bed, he realizes slowly, and suddenly Arthur’s words come rushing back to him and he gasps, eyes flying open wide.

“Eiji!”

His bed, he realizes. He’s in his bed, in his room, and Arthur is nowhere to be seen. He’s cold, cold and numb and exhausted, and he’s alive.

Yut-Lung, on the other hand, is in a chair on the side of his bed. His hair is a mess, his makeup has been hastily scrubbed off, and his eyes are suspiciously red-rimmed; there’s sunlight streaming in from the windows, despite the curtains behind him, and it only highlights the dark circles under his eyes.

Eiji blinks at him, once, and hoarsely manages, “You look awful.”

Yut-Lung blinks back at him, mouth falling open, and then surges forward onto the bed and grabs his shoulders. “You—you idiot! You can’t just—you can’t get kidnapped and then come back here and scare the shit out of everyone and then call me ugly like nothing happened—”

“Oh,” Eiji mumbles, closing his eyes and grimacing as Yut-Lung shakes him. “Please—please stop, I might throw up…”

Yut-Lung stops immediately, and to Eiji’s complete and utter surprise, smooths his hair back from his face with a gentle hand. “Oh. Sorry. Do, um… do you need me to get a bucket, or anything…?”

Eiji shakes his head. “No, not that bad.”

“Okay.” Yut-Lung settles back into his chair with a tired sigh. “Good.”

Eiji groans. He feels like shit, and his head is full of static. “What… happened?”

Yut-Lung gives him a funny look. “You got kidnapped. Don’t you remember?”

“I passed out,” Eiji says, and with effort, drags his heavy arms up so he can rub his aching temples. “I remember… Aslan came to find me, and… he fought with Arthur, and I passed out. Is—is he okay?”

“Who, Ash or Arthur?”

Eiji sinks down into the pillow, squeezing his eyes shut against the light. “Aslan—I think he was hurt, but I do not know—he is alright, isn’t he?”

“He’s fine.” Yut-Lung hesitates, then pulls the comforter up, tucking it around Eiji’s chin. “You scared the shit out of everyone, with… whatever you did, though.”

“Sorry.” Eiji sighs. His throat still hurts, and the more he tries to talk, the more apparent it becomes. “And—and Nadia?”

“Everyone’s fine, Eiji.” Yut-Lung rests a hand on top of his head for a moment. “You’re the one in the worst shape.”

“But Arthur attacked her,” Eiji protests. He can still see it so clearly in his memories—the way Arthur slammed the pommel of his dagger into Nadia’s head, and how she collapsed like a broken doll—and he knows the unease won’t leave him completely until he can see her himself. “Was she badly hurt?”

“She has a mild concussion, and she’s taking it easy right now.” Yut-Lung sighs. “Shorter’s taking care of her. I’m telling you, everyone’s fine. Worry about yourself, for a change, will you?”

“Sorry,” Eiji mumbles again. “…Yut-Lung?”

“What?”

Eiji hesitates for a moment. “Could you—could you get me some water?”

He expects Yut-Lung to scoff and say that he’s not a servant, Eiji, or to roll his eyes and tell him to get it himself. Yut-Lung hates being ordered around, and if anyone but his brothers tells him to do something, he never does. Eiji wouldn’t ask him if he thought he could walk right now.

But instead, Yut-Lung pats the top of his head again and says, “Yeah. Just a sec,” before he walks away.

Eiji coughs softly, wincing, and blinks after him.

Yut-Lung returns with water after a few seconds, and even helps Eiji sit up to drink it. Eiji appreciates the help; his entire body feels stuffed with fuzz and static and fog, and he thinks he might collapse if he tries to sit up on his own, forget standing. He’s exhausted.

“And you told me I look awful,” Yut-Lung mutters, once Eiji gets settled back down. “God. Get some more sleep.”

“You were just trying to wake me up,” Eiji protests, but his eyes are already closing of their own accord. “Make up your mind.”

“Well, I know you’re not dying now.” Yut-Lung rolls his eyes, but he leans down and pulls the comforter up and tucks it under Eiji’s chin again in a surprisingly tender gesture. “And you look like death. I’ll send for Shorter to get up here to check on you, but in the meantime, you should rest. You really look like you need it.”

“Mm.” Eiji sighs. If everyone is okay, and he really is safe… Yut-Lung isn’t wrong. He’s so tired. There’s a niggling feeling in the back of his mind, like there’s something important he needs to say, but he can’t for the life of him remember what it is, and his head aches too much to dwell on it.

He closes his eyes again.

When he awakens for the second time, Shorter is there, stirring a glass full of something on the bedside table. Eiji squints at him for a few seconds, adjusting to being awake; his head is still all foggy and weird, and his limbs are leaden. The light is dimmer against the window—it must be afternoon, then, since this window faces east—and in the ambience, Shorter looks stern and noble and troubled.

“Shorter…?”

He turns immediately when Eiji croaks out his name, and the unhappy set to his mouth vanishes as he smiles warmly. “Hey, Bunny! Glad to see you awake. How’re you feeling?”

Eiji frowns. “Bad.”

Shorter’s smile fades. “Yeah. I figure you would be. I’m glad you’re safe, though,” he says, and leans down to press a kiss into Eiji’s hair. “Don’t worry about a thing for now, ‘kay? You just rest up. We’ll take care of you.”

“Where is Aslan?” Eiji asks, catching his hand weakly and holding it. “I have not seen him.”

“He’s sleeping.” Shorter squeezes his hand. “He was sitting with you all night, but I kicked him out to rest properly once the sun came up and you were still out. Don’t worry. He’s okay.”

Eiji smiles a little at the thought. “Good. I was worried about him.”

“Aw, Bunny.” Shorter finishes whatever he was making, sets the spoon on a napkin, and perches on the edge of the bed. “No worries! I told you. Now here—drink this, it’ll help.”

Eiji tugs at his hand again, wordlessly asking for help, and Shorter leans down to slip an arm around him and help him up. Eiji leans heavily into him and closes his eyes as the room spins. God, is this what it feels like to overuse his magic? He’s never done it before, but he feels like shit. At least Shorter is warm and steady and strong. His touch makes the emptiness filling Eiji’s head start to recede.

“Thank you,” he mumbles, and accepts the glass with hands that only shake a little. Shorter holds him as he drinks, slowly; the tonic is a little thick, and it tastes kind of earthy and bitter, almost like green tea brewed just a little too strong. “What is this…?”

Shorter gives him a gentle squeeze. “It’s medicine to help your body heal itself faster. It’ll help with all the cuts ‘n’ scrapes ‘n’ bruises.”

“Oh.” Eiji takes another slow sip. Cuts and scrapes and bruises. He must look like a piece of work. “Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome.” Shorter rubs his shoulder. “Drink slow, take your time. You hungry?”

Eiji thinks about it, about to say no, but then realizes with surprise that he is. He’s hungry, and he feels sooty and sweaty and gross. “Yes,” he admits. “And I want a bath.”

“Alright!” Shorter smiles down at him. “We can get those concerns taken care of, no problem. I’ll send for someone to send up some food, and you can eat after you finish the tonic, ‘kay? And then a nice hot bath. It’ll do you good.”

Eiji takes another slow sip, nods, and turns to press his face into Shorter’s shoulder with a tiny whimper. He feels lost and numb, like the terror of just a few hours ago—was it a few hours? It was last night, he supposes—never happened, and it’s left him feeling utterly empty inside.

“Oh, Bunny,” Shorter murmurs, and then wraps his arms around him and holds him close. “It’s okay. You’re safe now. We got you. I’m here.”

Eiji nods wordlessly. He just wants to feel safe.

Shorter sits with him until he finishes the tonic, then disappears to send for a very late lunch to be brought up. Yut-Lung comes back, too, and they both sit with Eiji while he eats, and for once they don’t snipe at each other even a little. It makes Eiji smile, just a bit, even though the food he eats doesn’t taste like anything.

“I’m glad you feel a little better,” Yut-Lung says, and touches his shoulder briefly. “You had us worried for a while there.”

“Sorry.” Eiji looks down at his empty bowl.

“Don’t apologize for getting kidnapped, idiot.” Yut-Lung sighs. “Just… rest. You’ll be fine in no time, so don’t fret, okay?”

“Yes,” Eiji says obediently. “I will do my best.”

“What he means is, it’s gonna be fine, Eiji, so take your time and heal up.” Shorter snorts. “Be kind to yourself.”

“Right.” Eiji glances sidelong at him.

“Yes, that.” Yut-Lung rolls his eyes, and Eiji almost smiles. “I have to get going now, unfortunately; Hua-Lung wants to see you, Eiji, but I’ll keep him out of your hair for today, at least. Tomorrow I can’t guarantee, but… well, whatever.”

“Okay.” Eiji takes a breath, lets it out. “Okay. Thank you.”

“I’ve gotta go for a little bit, too,” Shorter says apologetically, leaning in to pat Eiji’s shoulder. “Sing’s handling Nadia and Arthur, but we’ve got some stuff in the lab I need to check on before sundown. I’ll be back after, though.”

Eiji nods again. He doesn’t want to be alone, but if everyone is busy, that’s just how it has to be. That’s okay. “Alright. I will see you later?”

“Yeah!” Shorter flashes him a grin as he gets up to leave.

And then they’re both gone, and Eiji stares at the wall across his bedroom. It’s getting to be evening now, and the sun has nearly gone down again. He misses it, even if he didn’t leave bed at all today.

The silence grows louder.

He can hear himself breathe, can feel his own heart beating, but it all seems distant, and above all the fog in his mind threatens to choke him all over again. He should have asked Shorter and Yut-Lung what happened to Arthur—is it safe for him to be alone now? They thought Arthur was locked up before—but they wouldn’t have left him if it wasn’t safe, right?

He takes a deep breath. Panic won’t help him get anywhere. He just needs to sleep so the tonic can take effect. But he wants some tea, and a bath. And he needs to go to the bathroom, too. Maybe he can get up and do things for a little while. Maybe…

The act of getting out of bed, going to the bathroom, and coming back is so utterly draining that he doesn’t make it back to his bed before his vision starts to swim, and he hisses “Shit!” as his knees give out. He’s already bruised and aching when he collapses uncermoniously to the rug with a thump, and it hurts, dammit! Right next to his bed, too. How humiliating.

“Eiji?”

The door opens, and Eiji jerks in surprise as Aslan hurries in, worry in his eyes. His hair is mussed from sleep, and his clothes rumpled. Eiji’s heart warms at the sight of him. Shorter said he was asleep, but somehow, Eiji didn’t realize that that meant he was asleep on the sofa in his sitting room.

“Hi, Aslan,” he manages, sitting up and rubbing his head. His hair is short now, he realizes—the memory of Arthur’s knife shearing through it rises up unbidden, and he feels his smile dim immediately. He almost forgot. “How are you feeling?”

“You’re on the floor,” Aslan blurts, frowning, and drops to one knee at his side to wrap an arm around him. “What happened?”

“I just got a little dizzy,” Eiji admits, leaning against him for a moment. Just like with Shorter, it feels good to touch someone, to remind himself that he’s here, in the present, not trapped in a weird dream where nothing feels real. “Help me up?”

“Course.” Aslan keeps his arm around him and supports him as he clambers to his feet again, then sits down on the edge of the bed. Aslan sits next to him, arm about his waist. Eiji is more grateful than he’ll ever know. “How are you feeling?”

“Okay.” Eiji sighs. He feels awful, but Aslan will only worry more if he says so. “How about you? You got hurt, didn’t you? You were bleeding.”

“Huh?” Aslan blinks. He must’ve just woken up, Eiji realizes, and that’s more endearing than it has any right to be. “Oh! No, no, I’m fine, it was just a scratch.”

“Oh. Okay.” Eiji leans into him, sighing. It’s nice to be close to him now, somewhere safe—last night feels just like a dream. Or a nightmare. “I’m glad.”

“You were asleep for a long time.” Aslan turns his head and presses a kiss to his hair. “I was worried.”

“I think I overdid the magic,” Eiji admits, and ducks his head. “That was overkill, huh?”

Aslan chuckles, and to Eiji’s slight surprise, kisses his temple this time. It’s a soft kiss, and he feels so safe in Aslan’s embrace that he nearly turns his face up to respond with a kiss of his own before he catches himself. It just feels natural. “No. I think you were extremely stressed, and you responded with a spell of the magnitude of how you were feeling. It’s to be expected.”

“Oh.” Eiji does turn his face up, but this time it’s just to look at him, hoping that something in his face will convey what he can’t find the words to say. “Thank you. For… saving me.”

Aslan cups his face at that, softening, and then very gently leans in and kisses his forehead. “I promised you, didn’t I? I’ll always find you, and I’ll always take care of you?”

Eiji gasps. That promise—years and years old, made in the haze of days too good to remember—he nearly forgot it, or buried it with all the rest of the memories that hurt too much, and he stares at Aslan, sure that his eyes are wide like saucers as his vision blurs. “Aslan,” he whispers, leaning his cheek into Aslan’s hand. “Aslan, Aslan, Aslan—”

“Oh, Birdie.” Aslan leans in, until their foreheads are pressed together, and Eiji’s breath catches in his throat. He wants to kiss him. He wants to kiss his Aslan so, so much right now, it almost hurts—he just wants to wrap himself up in Aslan’s arms and kiss him and kiss him, and to just be close to him, to curl up in him and rest and know he is safe, and he is loved.

“Aslan,” he whispers again.

“I’m so glad I made it in time.” Aslan tightens his arm around him, and Eiji melts. “I was so, so scared when I heard he’d taken you. I thought he would try—he—he hurt you, didn’t he?”

“He did.” Eiji drops his gaze, though he doesn’t pull away. Aslan’s thumb caresses his cheekbone. “But—but Aslan, he also… he told me some things.”

Aslan’s gaze turns sharp. “Things?”

Eiji nods, and dread sneaks back into the pit of his stomach, even though Aslan is here, holding him close. He’s so tired of dread. “About… you. About what Golzine did to you.”

Aslan pulls away abruptly. Shock ripples through Eiji, and then terror seizes him.

“Aslan?”

Suddenly frantic, Eiji grabs his arm. Aslan lets out a slow, measured breath, but he doesn’t shake him off.

“I was waiting to tell you,” he says, voice carefully steady. “…Fuck.”

“I—I’m sorry.” Eiji reminds himself to breathe and lets his grip on his arm loosen, but before he can pull away completely, Aslan very loosely takes his hand, tentative, as if he’s not sure he’s allowed, and Eiji’s heart cracks. “I wanted to wait until you were ready to talk. But… Aslan. Is it—is it true?”

“What did he tell you?” Aslan doesn’t look at him, but from his body language alone, Eiji’s heart sinks.

“That Golzine raped you.” He holds Aslan’s hand tighter. “Horribly. And a lot.”

Aslan hisses out a deep sigh, his shoulders slumping. “Yeah. And not just him.”

Eiji feels his heart stop all over again. The emptiness in his head is getting louder, and he shakes his head mutely before he finds his voice amid the horror. “Aslan…”

“I’m sorry.” Aslan still won’t look at him. “I know I should’ve been honest with you from the start. And I shouldn’t keep things from you. I just—I just wished I could pretend I wasn’t broken, and I could take care of you like you always took care of me, and…”

“Aslan,” Eiji tries, again. He tugs at his hand, this time, hoping to get the message across. “Don’t talk about yourself like that.”

Aslan finally glances at him, but only for an instant before he drops his gaze again. “What do you mean?”

“Like—saying you are broken.” Eiji pulls him closer again, so he can hold his hand in both of his, and brings their joined hands to his cheek. It’s easier to chase away the silence in his mind if he keeps Aslan close to him, and it’s important that he tells him these things, that he’s done nothing wrong, that he’s perfect and that Eiji loves him and is so, so grateful to him, and… “You are not.”

Aslan sighs. “Eiji…”

“And if you think it changes my opinion of you any, it does not.” Eiji presses his lips to Aslan’s knuckles. “It just… makes me wish I could have been there to protect you. And I know I cannot change the past, so… it makes me also wish to hold you more. At least, let me protect you now.”

When he lifts his head, Aslan looks stunned. “You… want to protect me?”

Eiji laughs, self-deprecating, and shrugs one shoulder. A bruise somewhere on his back complains at the motion. “I mean… I know I am not very useful for it, but yes.”

Aslan shakes his head, still looking dumbfounded, and it’s too much. Eiji stands up and reaches for him, pulls him into his arms, and holds him close, until Aslan lets out a soft, shuddering breath and tucks his face into his neck. He can’t handle both his own emptiness and Aslan’s distress. He has to fix one of them, and Aslan is much more important.

“I came here to try and comfort you,” Aslan murmurs, folding his arms about Eiji’s waist. “God, Eiji.”

“I want to make sure no one ever hurts you again.” Eiji leans into him and closes his eyes. He’s not so weak he can’t stand to hug Aslan, and even if he gets dizzy again, he’s not trying to move anywhere. “I want to take care of you. I want to make you smile, and I want to hear you laugh, and I want—I want to get out of here, one day, and run away back to Unshu with you, and I want to stay with you and never, ever let anyone hurt you.”

“Eiji,” Aslan breathes. “Birdie.”

“And I want—” Eiji catches himself, tightening his arms around him. “I want to do everything I can so that you know how much I love you, Aslan. Because I love you so, so much, you are my best friend and you are my world and you are everything, and nothing will ever change that. Least of all what others do to you.”

“You’ll make me cry,” Aslan says, and he’s trying to laugh it off, but his voice is a little wet, and Eiji rubs his back, his own chest tightening.

“Then cry. Whatever you need to do, to feel better. To feel safe.” Eiji nuzzles his hair. “I hope I can make you feel even half as safe as you make me.”

“You do.” Aslan presses his face into his neck again. “I love you, too.”

Eiji stands there, holding him, for several long heartbeats. Aslan doesn’t move, just holds him tight, and Eiji closes his eyes. The dread in the pit of his stomach melts away, leaving only deep, warm affection for his lionheart, and Aslan’s arms feel so safe that he nearly forgets how empty he’s felt ever since waking. If Aslan doesn’t ever let go of him, maybe he’ll finally feel like himself again.

“I promised first,” he says, instead of any of that. “Remember?”

“Yeah,” Aslan murmurs, and Eiji can feel him smile against his neck.

Eventually, though, his body begins to protest, and the fuzzy ache at the back of his head migrates forward to settle behind his eyes. The empty, lost feeling still won’t dissipate, and the more they stand there in the quiet, the more uncomfortably aware of it Eiji becomes, until he shifts in Aslan’s arms and lifts his head.

“I want to take care of you forever,” he says, and wrinkles his nose. “But also, right now, I just want a bath.”

Aslan snorts. He looks surprised for a second, like he didn’t expect himself to laugh, but then he’s grinning, a warm, boyish grin that goes right to Eiji’s heart. “Yeah, okay. Want me to clear out?”

“Not really.” Eiji peeps up at him. “You could… stay? If you wanted?”

Aslan’s grin fades, and his eyes widen. “You… wouldn’t mind?”

Eiji shakes his head. “Not at all. You could, um—if you want! Only if you want—but I would not mind if you—if you wanted to join me, either. I have, um, there is this meadowsweet and lavender medicinal bath that is always so nice for aches and pains and bruises, and—”

“Eiji,” Aslan interrupts. His voice is low and rumbly in his chest, and his eyes are just a bit too-bright. “You want me to take a bath with you?”

“Only if you are comfortable and you also want to,” Eiji mumbles, feeling his cheeks heat. It was an impulse suggestion, and now he feels stupid and ridiculous for it. But he wants a hot bath, and he wants to be with Aslan, and it seemed the easiest solution! “Or you can pretend I did not say anything, that is also fine—”

Aslan kisses his forehead again. Eiji’s breath catches in his throat.

“I think I’d like that,” he murmurs. “Just because it’s you.”

“Oh,” Eiji says, and for a moment, he really, really wants to kiss him again. He shoves the urge back down, though, and resolves to not think about it until later. “Aslan.”

“And you can ask me anything you want,” Aslan adds, and leans their foreheads together again. “I won’t hide from you anymore. Whatever you want.”

“I won’t ask you to tell me anything,” Eiji returns. “You tell me what you want me to know, on your terms. It is not you hiding things from me. It is you having control over when you want to talk about it, Aslan.”

Aslan tips his head to the side, not unlike a puppy deep in contemplation. “You think?”

“I know.”

A small, sincere smile curves Aslan’s lips. “Okay,” he says, and steps back, but he keeps one hand at the small of Eiji’s back. “Meadowsweet and lavender, you said?”

“Yes!” Eiji wraps his arm around his waist. Aslan isn’t going to like watching him disrobe and seeing all the bruises, but… it’s probably easier, if they just have this conversation now, about everything that happened last night.

Did it really happen only last night? It feels like a haze. He leans into Aslan’s touch and decides not to think about it.

“But you can still ask me anything you want to know.” Aslan glances down at him fondly as he pushes open the bathroom door. “If I don’t want to answer yet, I’ll tell you.”

“Good.” Eiji pauses in the doorway to lean up on his toes and kiss Aslan’s cheek. “And, um… same goes for you. I know I probably look worse for wear, but…”

“Eiji,” Aslan interrupts, and cups his cheek in one hand. “If you don’t want to talk about it, we don’t have to. I saw enough.”

Eiji ducks his head. “I think… it might help me to tell someone what he said,” he admits, and just for a moment, slumps forward to rest his forehead against Aslan’s collarbone.

Aslan rubs a little circle at the small of his back with three fingers, small and soothing. “Okay. Then I’m all ears.”

“But first, let’s run the bath?” Eiji peeps up at him, and Aslan smiles so tenderly that he nearly feels his knees give out for reasons completely unrelated to his body’s magically-induced fatigue.

“Of course, Bluebird.”

Aslan kisses his forehead one more time, then pulls away to go to the large tub set into the marble floor. It’s easily big enough for the two of them, and then some; Aslan starts the hot water and lets it fill, while Eiji goes to a cabinet to get the medicinal bath mixture to add.

He passes the mirror on the way, and freezes.

His hair is shorn short, yes, and it’s messy and uneven and it looks stupid. But that’s not what catches his eye.

There’s a ring of ugly, purple bruises, mottled all around his throat. If he looks closely, he can almost see the shape of Arthur’s hands there, marked on his skin—and suddenly he’s right back in the wagon and he can’t breathe, he’s touching the bruises on his own throat and it’s like Arthur’s hand is on him all over again and he can’t—he can’t breathe—and he’s going to die—he can’t—

“Birdie.”

Aslan’s hand takes his, pulls it away from his neck. Eiji gasps for breath, desperate.

“Can you see me?” Aslan asks. His voice is low and gentle, and when Eiji manages to tear his gaze from the mirror and looks up at him, his green eyes are intense. “Look at me.”

“I see you,” Eiji whispers. His voice feels hoarse, and his stomach flips in anxiety again.

“You’re safe,” Aslan tells him, and strokes his thumb over his knuckles. “You’re safe. You’re with me. We’re in your private bathroom, and all the doors between the hallway and here are locked. I won’t let anyone hurt you. You’re safe.”

Eiji takes a wavering breath. “Tell me again,” he begs. “Please.”

“You’re safe, Bluebird,” Aslan murmurs, and rubs his knuckles again. “You’re safe. I’m here.”

Eiji shudders and slumps forward into his arms. He can’t look in the mirror anymore, not until these heal. He can’t.

Aslan seems to get it. He guides him away, steps slow and small, so that Eiji can shuffle forward with him without lifting his head from his shoulder, until they aren’t in front of the mirror anymore.

“Okay?” Aslan taps two fingers against his back. “Do you need me to keep talking at you?”

Eiji shakes his head, a little ashamed suddenly, and looks up from his shoulder. “No,” he says. “I—I’m fine now. Sorry. That was—that was weird. Thank you.”

“It’s fine, Eiji.” Aslan smiles at him gently. “Don’t be sorry.”

He leans in and kisses his forehead again, and then turns to go back to watching the water rise in the tub. Eiji stares at his back, suddenly breathless for reasons he can’t possibly hope to name, and takes a deep breath before he turns to the cabinet with the herbs.

He wonders if he ought to be more self-conscious about this—he’s never actually taken a bath with someone else before, not counting as a young child—but somehow, he isn’t nervous at all. Common sense tells him he should at least be fretful, but he’s not. Instead, he just takes the box, crosses the bathroom again, and slumps against Aslan’s back, exhausted all over again.

It’s Aslan. There’s no one in the world he could be safer with. Why would he be nervous?

The emptiness inside him recedes a little again as the warmth of Aslan’s body seeps into him, and he sighs. “Aslan… I am so tired.”

“I can imagine,” Aslan murmurs sympathetically. He turns around, dislodging Eiji, and sits on the floor, then holds out his arms. “Here. Sit with me.”

Eiji settles into his lap easily. Normally, sitting in people’s laps means giggling and pretending and flirting, but that’s in front of prying eyes and not in private. Here, when it’s just Aslan, he can sink against him and close his eyes and heave a deep sigh, and Aslan just loops an arm around his waist and nods, as if he understood every word that Eiji didn’t bother to say.

“I was really scared,” Eiji mumbles. Next to them, the water continues to rise. “He said he was going to torture me to death.”

Aslan’s arm around him tightens. “He’s the fucking worst.”

Eiji lets out a tiny huff of laughter, and then nods vigorously. “He—he cut my hair because he was mad he could not—he could not do anything else.” The words he couldn’t cut out my tongue before giving me to Golzine stick in his throat, too horrific to say out loud, even though he said he wanted to talk about it. Besides, he doubts Aslan wants to hear anything about Golzine. “He wanted to know who was behind the murders, and he said he would torture me if I didn’t tell him.”

And then it slams into him—he was forgetting something all day, that niggling feeling in the back of his mind—

“Oh!”

He sits bolt upright in Aslan’s lap, eyes wide.

“What is it? Did you tell him?” Aslan asks, voice low and urgent.

“No—” Eiji shakes his head, tapping at his shoulder as if that’ll somehow communicate it for him, magically. “I lied. I think—I told him it was Foxx who put me up to it, and I think he believed me. Foxx is the man you mentioned, right?”

Aslan nods slowly, cogs clearly turning behind his eyes. “You… told him… fuck, Eiji, you’re a genius!”

He gives Eiji a delighted squeeze, and Eiji yips in surprise. “I am?”

Aslan grins, devious. “We can talk about it a little later, but yes. If he can get that back to Golzine, he’ll turn on his own intelligence and spy-ops chief, and that’ll be fucking rich to see.”

“I was hoping it might be that,” Eiji admits. “But now Arthur is in custody, so how can he get that to Golzine…?”

“We’ll figure it out.” Aslan gives him another squeeze. “In the meantime, you relax. For tonight, just lemme take care of you, ‘kay? I’m proud of you.”

Eiji’s eyes widen, and then he wordlessly slumps into Aslan’s chest and clings to him.

“I’m proud of you,” Aslan repeats fondly, and pats his back.

When the bath is ready, Eiji glances at Aslan a little shyly—here’s the only bit of hesitance he’s felt about this at all, finally showing up—before he opens his robe, then drops it to the floor, followed by his underwear, and climbs into the tub. The second he settles into the water, all reluctance is completely forgotten, and he closes his eyes and sighs in bliss.

“I take it the water’s great,” Aslan teases, and there’s the rustling of clothes and then a small splash as he slips into the tub, too. “Oh, shit. Yeah, that is nice.”

“Told you,” Eiji hums, opening his eyes. There’s a little bit of scented steam wafting up from the water, and it smells sweet and floral. Aslan smiles at him, and Eiji scoots closer to him, so that their sides touch, and leans against his shoulder.

“You did.” Aslan’s hand finds his, under the water, and he intertwines their fingers. “You okay?”

Eiji nods. “Just tired. Wanna be close to you.”

“That seems doable,” Aslan says, and presses a kiss into Eiji’s hair, softer than a whisper.

Eiji eventually dozes off there, leaning into his side, as the water slowly cools around them. He only wakes when Aslan finally pulls the plug and drains the tub, and gathers him into his arms to get him dressed; sleepy and groggy and confused, he just goes along with whatever Aslan is doing, but something about that makes Aslan stop and hold him tight.

And then he’s standing there in the bathroom, clutching at Aslan’s shoulders, and he’s exhausted and he’s relaxed and the empty silence screaming in his head is finally at the quietest it’s been all day, and Aslan is pressed close to him, and there’s nothing between their bare skin. It feels electric. It feels normal. It feels right.

“Stay with me,” Eiji requests, breathy and soft. “Please stay tonight.”

“Oh, Eiji.” Aslan tightens his arms, just for a moment. “Of course I’ll stay.”

And he does.