The hallway stretches out before Daichi as he walks, sword dangling at his hip and footsteps muffled by the plush crimson carpeting underneath his feet. It is late and most of the palace workers have retired for the night except for the guards stationed at their posts. As the personal knight of the heir to the throne, Daichi is senior to all of them and they straighten up as he walks past, arms ramrod straight by their sides until he rounds the corner and leaves their sight.
Any other time he may have cast an obvious and meaningful glance at the deck of cards carelessly sticking out of one of the guard’s pockets, but tonight Daichi’s mind lies elsewhere. More specifically, he is thinking about how it is so deep into the night that there isn’t long until the sun rises, and yet when he had made his nightly rounds to his liege’s chambers, the bed was still perfectly made and worriedly unoccupied. With a weary sigh, Daichi had turned on his heels and made his way to a few of the suspect spots he tends to find the missing first prince of Nekoma.
The hidden alcove by the third courtyard—empty.
The bench in front of the gardenia bushes in the royal gardens—barren.
The rooftop lookout by the bell tower—vacant.
In the end Daichi finds him in the archival library, tucked away in a corner with only a single candle to illuminate the space. The royal family had their own library, of course, a grand ornate room with multiple floors that opened up to hundreds of thousands of books covering the walls all the way up to the ceilings. But the prince was never one to be where you expect to find him. He prefers smaller, simple spaces. For example an old, rickety wooden desk shoved up against the musty corner of a forgotten library, amongst books that have been left to collect dust.
He is sprawled over an array of documents spread out across his desk, back rising and falling softly as he sleeps. Daichi’s sigh is swallowed in his guilt—he knows that the prince doesn’t sleep much these days. It is rare for him to fall asleep somewhere other than his own chambers, for one is only vulnerable without consciousness and a prince cannot ever be caught off guard unless he wishes to lose his life. The fact that he is doing so right now can only mean that his body is at its wits’ end, finally succumbing to sleep after being pushed far past its limits.
Tetsurou’s face is cradled by the soft glow of candlelight, illuminating the awful shadows under his eyes and the sharp hollows of his cheeks. He has worked himself to the bone in the past few months and it shows, carving a hole in Daichi’s chest the more he must bear witness to the prince’s strife.
Stepping forward with a small breath of resignation, Daichi lays a gentle hand on Tetsurou’s back and braces himself.
The movement is automatic—a hand to the hilt of his sword, the other coming up straight for the windpipe. Daichi easily parries both.
It was he who taught Tetsurou this reflex, after all. He who taught Tetsurou time and time again that he can never afford to be defenseless. That he cannot trust or relax even in sleep.
“Tetsu,” Daichi’s voice comes out begrudgingly tender. “It’s just me.”
Upon hearing the casual way Daichi is addressing him, Tetsurou looks around in alarm through bleary eyes, still not yet fully awake.
“There’s no one here but us. Don’t worry.”
It isn’t until Daichi reassures him that they are alone does he let his guard down, melting straight into Daichi’s arms with a groan. “Gods, you scared me.”
“Apologies.” Running his fingers through Tetsurou’s unruly hair, Daichi notices that even his tresses are looking a little more drooped over and unlively than usual. “You shouldn’t sleep here, Tetsu. It isn’t safe.”
“Yes, I know,” Tetsurou murmurs, burying his face into Daichi’s chest. “I’m just exhausted. I can’t have gotten more than a few hours of sleep this entire week.”
“You’re pushing yourself too hard.”
“And whose fault is that?” Pulling back, the candlelight reflects off of his eyes, shining melted gold and honey and everything good. Tetsurou smiles, leaning his cheek against his hand coyly. “It is all for the sake of fulfilling our promise.”
“This again,” Daichi sighs, brows furrowing in frustration. “I didn’t mean for you to take it this far and you know it, Tetsurou.”
Looking up at Daichi from where he is seated, Tetsurou’s gaze is as intense as the grin he’s wearing upon his mouth. It means trouble—the best kind, arising from when his mind has been dead set on something and there is nothing anyone can do to convince him out of it. Daichi would die for this smile, would willingly follow it into war or terror or even an assault from the heavens itself. He swore on the sword hanging from his belt that he would perish before letting anything happen to it.
He would sacrifice anything, anyone—if it meant saving just this one person.
“You said,” Tetsurou says slowly with an amused crook of his lips, “that you would marry me the day I united the seven nations.”
The dusty books sitting on their shelves seem to tremble at his words, pages filled with stories of old. The physical documentations of the history of Nekoma bearing witness to royal blood together with a commoner, his knight, is so sacrilegious that Daichi must close his eyes to shut it all out.
It had started small, as things always do, started with Daichi realizing that he loves the way Tetsurou scrunches his nose in boredom when he studies Latin, or the way he sticks his tongue out after he burns it on his morning tea. But as time went on Daichi only found more things to love, and now it is a secret to everyone what they are, what they feel when they are with each other.
It is a secret that Tetsurou’s very existence burns deep within Daichi’s chest with all the might of a blazing star.
And that, that is no small thing.
“It is an impossible task,” Daichi says, his voice low. “I meant it as a way to say never. The seven nations have been at war for centuries, Tetsurou. Surely you understand that a peace treaty is as impossible as you and I marrying.”
“Nonsense.” The flippant way he dismisses reason makes a fire burn in Daichi’s belly. “It is my job to advance our world into days of peace and prosperity, the likes of which none have ever seen. I have been training my entire life to be a proper ruler. There shouldn’t be anything that is not possible.”
Daichi groans in frustration, withdrawing his hand from Tetsurou’s hold. This is his own fault. He should have known better than to word his rejection this way.
“Well surely you don’t have to work yourself this hard chasing such a dream?” he pleads, frowning at the sight of Tetsurou’s yawn, tears beading in his eyes as he stretches like he hasn’t known a day of proper rest in months. “You look unwell. I’m worried about you.”
“Time is ticking, Daichi. I wish to wed before we both turn 30. I’m already fighting off suitors picked out by my father, you know.”
Tetsurou’s tone is light, but to Daichi it is a dead weight that has been sitting in his chest for years, and he knows that Tetsurou can sense the shift in mood after what he said. The room lapses into silence as Daichi struggles to piece his thoughts together properly and as Tetsurou gives him to space to do so.
When Daichi looks up, the flickering flame of the candle is dancing in Tetsurou’s eyes, casting a glow around his smile. So handsome and kind and good, like the man Daichi always knew he would be—even as a gangly child, missing his front tooth with arms too thin to even raise a sword. This is why Daichi has chosen to stay by his side all of these years, to watch him grow into the man sitting before him now.
It is he who Daichi has loved since the very moment he met him, perhaps with a different physique but with the same beautiful eyes of melted gold.
This is your king, his father had said to him years ago. You will give your life to protect him as I for my king. It is the fate a knight bears, my boy.
He hadn’t understood what those words meant back then, a mere child of 8 years old still wielding a wooden practice sword. But he had looked and seen Tetsurou, standing by the majesty Nekomata’s side with his chest all puffed out in pride despite looking a little bit like a rooster and Daichi, in all of his childish naivety, had thought that this boy was someone he wouldn’t mind following into the light.
And since then, that is what he has done.
They made a grave sin somewhere along the way, where loyalty morphed slowly into desire over the years and when Tetsurou had leaned in, somehow soft and sharp all at the same time Daichi had fallen headfirst into everything he was, blinded by his own love that he had once thought he could never receive in return.
But now it is time to reap the consequences of his weakness, for Tetsurou is a man destined for greatness and Daichi is a mere tool to be used in his quest for it.
“We cannot possibly wed, your highness.” Daichi takes a step back, expression rueful. “Despite what we are when we are alone, what I have allowed to happen because of my own weakness, the reality is that you are royalty and I am your knight. When it is time to choose your suitor, I hope that you may choose a person of equal status to your own.”
The small smile Tetsurou casts his way is forlorn, as it always is when Daichi speaks of this.
“I have already chosen someone, but we are not equal,” he says, tilting his head to gaze up at Daichi. “He is a man who stands far beyond me. I can only hope to reach him someday.”
“Call me by my name,” Tetsurou murmurs, finally standing to draw nearer. “Please. Be mine.”
It’s a request so laughable Daichi has to shake his head in disbelief. How daft, he thinks. How silly of a thought that there has ever been a time where everything Daichi is has not belonged to him.
“I have always been yours from the start.” A hand works itself around Daichi’s waist and just as easily breaks his resolve. Tetsurou pulls and Daichi goes, like he always does, standing so close that their noses are almost touching. “And I will be until I can no longer hold a sword.”
“That is far from what I want, Daichi.” Leaning in, Tetsurou presses his lips to the height of Daichi’s cheek. “I want you to be mine until we are old and weathered and grey.”
He moves to press a kiss to Daichi’s other cheek.
“Until we lose all our teeth and we must feed each other soup for every meal.”
A kiss on his forehead.
“Until we get a little batty and have to remind each other where we left our spectacles.”
To the tip of his nose.
“Until the stars burn out of the sky and rainfall ceases to bless these lands.”
Tetsurou kisses him, lips soft with his thumb grazing just under Daichi’s jaw. It is a confession and a plea all at once, soft as the sun rises with all the force of the moon that can pull tides from its place in the sky.
“I want you to be mine until the end of time. Long after we or the seven nations cease to exist.”
“And I want to be yours,” Daichi whispers, brushing the back of his fingers along Tetsurou’s cheek. “But there are rules to follow, and Nekoma needs an heir after you.”
“We can adopt one. I was adopted by my father, was I not?”
“Yes, because his majesty was unable to conceive.”
“And so I will because I cannot bear to live without my love.”
Daichi sighs, but a smile graces his lips as he cups Tetsurou’s face in his hands. “You are insufferable, my liege.”
“And that is precisely how I will unite the seven nations—by being so insufferable that they cannot do anything but agree to sign the treaty.”
“Well then, I shan’t believe anyone other than you has the capability to do it.”
“Watch me, my love. I will present the document to you as a wedding favour.”
What they are doing is a crime. In many countries, to catch royal blood in a tryst with a commoner is a scandal at best and an offence punishable by death at worst. But it is hard to imagine that what they have can be wrong simply because some insignificant political rules deem it to be, especially when Tetsurou holds him as if he is a treasure to be protected rather than a tool who has been fated from the start to be the one protecting.
Daichi loves him so.
He would give him anything he wanted. Even if it may result in riots all across the country, scandal or death or anything in between.
“If I cannot convince you otherwise, you must at least start getting a decent amount of sleep. At this rate I’ll be marrying a living corpse by the time you succeed in your endeavor.”
It is the first time that Daichi has ever relented and Tetsurou’s eyes widen before he catches himself, reigning his emotions in like he has been taught to do since childhood. But the telltale signs are still there, like the crinkle under his right eye that appears only when he is holding his smile in secrecy, and the way his lashes flutter as he takes a shaky breath.
“Very well. I cannot deny my future husband’s wishes, after all. To my chambers it is.”
“In that case, do something about that unruly hair—”
“Please be reasonable, my love. I cannot achieve the impossible.”
They break out into laughter, muffled so as to avoid catching the night patrol’s attention out in the halls. But as their laughter fades out into unguarded tenderness, Daichi draws his hand across Tetsurou’s skin, vowing once more to protect the person he loves with everything he has.
“My prince,” he whispers.
Tetsurou stares into his eyes, covers Daichi’s hand with his own before taking a step back and dropping to one knee, bringing Daichi’s hand to his lips as he lowers his head in worship.