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What Else Is There?

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Hajime arrives at the small pond first, which is unusual seeing that he usually has to sneak away in order to come. He sighs, sitting back against a tree far enough away to have dry ground around it but still have a clear view of the water. He and his friends had found this small clearing years ago, back when they were children looking for any excuse to get away from their responsibilities at court. That young, they didn't wonder at the peculiarity of such a well-kept pond in the middle of a well-kept grove of trees. And now that they knew of the strange magic in these woods, they didn't want to ask questions.

Hajime watches a swan pick at the grass along the muddy bank on the far side from him. The swan looks over in his direction, judges him harmless, and continues searching for food.

Rustling and laughter drift toward Hajime. He watches as the swan's attention turns to the noise, feathers ruffling uneasily. Hajime turns to his friends as they plop down next to him.

"What's on the docket today, Highness?" Takahiro asks, taking a bite of an apple he must have taken from the orchards on the way here. "No meetings to sleep through? No parties to crash?"

Hajime rolls his eyes. "My father is back so he is running the country at the moment. No room for his successor. And I don't want to be in a room with him for longer than I have to be."

Hiro and Issei exchange glances Hajime chooses to ignore. He watches the swan, who has gone back to picking its way through the bushes on the bank of the pond. He decides that next time he comes here, he will bring food to feed it.

"I hear you’re hosting a ball soon," Issei comments after he and Hiro are done exchanging cryptic looks. "Didn't realize you suddenly had an itch for marriage."

"Once I get married, my father has to give up the throne," Hajime reminds them. "My mother would prefer me to take the crown. I'm already well past the time I could."

"No offense to his Majesty, but I think everyone would prefer you to have the crown," Hiro says, which earns him a punch to his shoulder from Issei, as if Hajime would suddenly decide to tell his father of their insubordination.

Hajime stares off into the pond where he can see small silver glints that are probably fish swimming about their daily business. He wishes very briefly that he could have been born a fish with no responsibilities. Or that swan, who has wandered onto the pond, swimming in aimless circles.

"I'm glad I'm just sixth in line for the throne so I don't have any political maneuverings to navigate," Hiro continues, drawing Hajime's attention back to him. "Think we can scare that swan off the pond with these rocks?"

Issei snatches one out of Hiro's hand and darts to the edge of the pond before Hajime can protest. He watches as Issei, the one with the best arm out of them, skips the rock toward the swan, who squawks in outrage. Hajime can't help the short laugh that escapes him.

"You know, we'll be by your side no matter what happens," Hiro says, blindsiding Hajime with the seriousness in his voice. Issei was the one who did the sentimentality, Hiro the lightheartedness, so hearing these reassurances from Hiro made Hajime feel more touched than usual. "I mean, we all know how court can be. You can trust us, always."

"Thanks," Hajime says. He really means it, but talking like this makes him feel embarrassed, so he changes the subject. "Do you think Issei's going to rile that bird up enough to get pecked?"

"He's already on his way by the looks of it," Hiro cackles. "That swan's stupid enough to pick a fight too."

Hajime chases Hiro down to the bank, relishing in his slowly dwindling free time. He has always liked the thought of ruling his country, but he would prefer to marry someone in his own time. Too bad those two duties were so interconnected.

***

Tooru scowls as he storms into the dining hall as the clock strikes nine. As the days get longer, his time indoors slowly diminishes, a fact he loathes.

Akaashi glances up, rolling his eyes at Tooru's dark expression before going back to his reading. Usually the dining hall bustled with life, people and creatures coming and going at all hours, so Tooru relishes the silence of just the two of them. The room is big, with lofty ceilings held up by massive arches, long rows of solid wood tables, and food lining the back wall, changed out as the day marches along. It's the only room that looks unfinished, and Tooru loves the rough stone walls, free of overly-ornate tapestries and intricate vases. Tooru comes from a life of wandering, a life full of sharing houses and wagons and empty of restricting, rigid castles.

He dishes himself some salad, grabbing a half-loaf of milk bread, then sits on the far side of the table. Ushijima would come looking for Tooru if he did not check in soon, so he devours his food.

Akaashi looks slightly ill as Tooru wipes his mouth. "You eat as wildly as Bokuto-san," he comments, closing his book. Tooru rolls his eyes.

"Just thank me, Keiji-kun, that I decided not to draw Ushijima's attention to the dining hall."

Akaashi rolls his eyes back. "You're the only one here who cares about Ushijima's attention, Oikawa-san."

Akaashi smirks at Tooru's sudden scowl. Before Tooru can retort the door bangs open. "AKAAAAASHI!”

“And that’s my cue,” Tooru says, standing up with his used plate. He stalks out of the room, throwing his plate into a bucket of used dishes as Bokuto launches into an excited story about his day, complete with massive hand gestures. Tooru sighs as the door shuts behind him, the silence welcoming.

He knows he should go see Ushijima, that procrastinating will only make him ask more questions, but Tooru is tired. Tired from his long, embarrassing day but also just mentally exhausted. Becoming human seems to drain his life more and more, even though he loathes his swan body. He wants to curl up in his bed and sleep, then wake up with the sunlight streaming on his face, just this side of too warm. He would take his time wandering down to breakfast, bathing as long as he pleases in water warmer than lukewarm. He would read a book, or play the piano, or learn how to do something new.

Instead, he is going to rush out of his room as the sun begins to rise, praying that he makes it to the lake before his body transforms for the day. He will only remember vague snatches of his day and always in the back of his mind feel an animalistic fear that does not go away even when he has turned back to human.

Tooru swipes his hand over his eyes. Before he can decide where to start his search for Ushijima, he appears around the corner. “Ah, Tooru. You usually retire early so I though I would check on you.”

Tooru presses his lips together, controlling his words with amazing self-restraint. “Ushiwaka, hi. I was just looking for you. The nights are getting shorter so I stay out longer.” Tooru shrugs as if this is not a big deal.

Ushijima studies Tooru. Tooru shifts under the heavy stare, trying to lessen it, trying to become less important than Ushijima wants him to be. “Is something concerning you?” Ushijima asks.

Tooru shakes his head with a fake smile. He has learned what the right amount of fullness to his smile is to shake Ushijima off his true feelings. “Of course not. I am tired is all.”

“You have about three moon cycles until you must decide, Tooru,” Ushijima says, placing a hand against Tooru’s cheek. Tooru suppresses a shiver of revulsion as Ushijjma’s thumb traces his cheekbone. “You could break the spell now by choosing me."

“I have three months left to make my decision.” Tooru’s voice stays steady, almost cheerful. “Let me have at least that before binding myself to you.”

Ushijima withdraws his hand. His gaze lingers on Tooru’s face. “Go to sleep, Tooru. I will see you tomorrow night. I have errands to attend to now. Spring is always a very busy time.”

Ushijima watches Tooru, who stares back. Sometimes Tooru thinks Ushijima wants him to sympathize with his responsibilities, but Tooru finds it hard when most of his day is spent nowhere near politics. When the silence stretches into something monstrous Ushijima finally shrugs, gives a brief goodbye, and walks away.

Tooru watches Ushijima go, breathing a sigh of relief when he disappears from sight. Tooru hates that Ushijima suggested sleep, but there isn’t much he can do but obey. Maybe tomorrow he can figure out a way to avoid him. And come up with a way to get out of this curse.

Chapter Text

Hajime becomes a very frequent guest to the pond while his father is home. First, it keeps him out of the way, as his father prefers his successor. Second, it keeps Hajime from murdering anyone from the sheer inanities of court. And last, he has taken up trying to befriend the resident swan.

It takes about a week for the swan to eat out of Hajime’s hand, hesitant and startling at the slightest of movements. It takes another week for the swan to stop fluttering away as soon as Hajime shifts toward it, and by the end of the month, it comes to Hajime almost immediately. Hajime feels a strange sense of pride the first time the swan nuzzles up to him and falls asleep.

Hiro and Issei, who come out when they can get away from their own responsibilities, think the whole situation is hilarious, but respect Hajime’s choice. “You’ve always had a thing for taking care of people,” Issei says one day as the swan tentatively swims to follow Hajime as they wander around the bank’s edge.

“And you used to bring stray animals home all the time and make us help you hide them,” Hiro points out. "I guess we can allow this too.”

“Why thank you,” Hajime says dryly. "I don't know what I would do if you didn't approve."

“You are most welcome, Highness,” Hiro says, bowing low while Issei shakes his head. And then, not so tactfully, he changes the subject. “But seriously, Hajime, I don’t want to pressure you, but marriage right now would put you and the kingdom in the best position.”

“But I don’t want to marry anybody my father has approved,” Hajime bites out. In Seijoh, a marriage alliance is the best indicator of the strength of a ruler's reign. So far, the king had presented a wash of lower-royals who had no desire to raise their ranks. Hajime hadn't known there were so many people content with their status before they had been paraded in front of him. When he had briefly mentioned Hiro as a possibility (to anger his father more than serious consideration) his father had almost thrown a chair at him. Apparently Hiro had too much pull in the court.

“Your mother would approve anyone,” Issei points out. “How long do you have to stay married for your title to stay valid?”

“Twelve years,” Hajime mutters. He kicks a rock into the pond. The swan hisses, shakes its wings, and darts toward the center of the pond. Hajime watches the swan dip its head into its wing, a sense of betrayal emanating off of it. Hajime almost apologizes, but realizes that it is a swan for hell's sake.

“You could marry one of us,” Hiro says, putting his face right in Hajime’s, forcing him to stop. “I can suffer being a king’s consort for twelve years. Issei’s pretty enough for it.”

Hajime shoves Hiro’s face away. “Sorry, but I would like to keep my sanity.”

Hiro laughs as he darts back toward Issei. “Hajime’s too noble to enter into an obligation for twelve years just to steal the crown from his father,” Issei says. “Besides, isn’t that what he did?”

Hajime nods but chooses not to elaborate. If they do not know that his father is on his fourth consort, that Hajime fears for his mother's life daily, how he admires her for walking a fine line between cunning and obsequiousness, he will not enlighten them. The swan gets bolder now that the three of them have stopped. Hajime watches it glide toward him. He bends down, offering his hand, which the swan investigates for a moment then ignores. He wishes he had brought food for it.

Hiro sighs, plopping himself next to Hajime. “I’m teasing. Mostly.”

“If it makes you feel any better my mother has decided she wants me to make a decision at the ball. She and Father have agreed that anyone invited is free choice.” They all know the game his mother had won--they cannot host a ball without inviting the most important families of the court and surrounding royalties, which means if Hajime plays his cards right, he can declare a betrothal to someone with greater political ties than his father wants him to. He is sure his mother is counting on this.

Issei hums. “There are some good choices around our age. At least you won’t get left with some decrepit baron from the Southern Deserts.”

“If I did he would probably die,” Hajime points out. “I get a year to grieve before I have to enter into another marriage contract if that happens.”

“Hey! Maybe we can poison your consort out of your life if you absolutely loathe them,” Hiro suggests. Hajime snorts.

“But seriously,” Issei says after the three sit in silence on the bank of the river, watching the swan pick in the grass for food next to them. The tips of its wings just brush Hajime’s shin where it rests on the grass. “I admire the fact that you have morals you do not want to compromise. If you really feel that strongly, do not get married. But, maybe consider how you can help stop a war from erupting with the Northern Tribes. You’ll have to get creative.”

“Something, you’re terrible at, but never fear. Issei and I can help you out!” Hiro reaches out, probably to pet the swan, maybe steal a feather, but the bird nips at his outstretched fingers with a hiss, circling away with its head up as if appalled.

Hajime sighs, dragging his hand down his face. He has thought about it, over and over. And the only thing he can come up with is the same as everyone else...get his father off the throne. "Stop harassing the swan. And me, for that matter. If I find someone I potentially want to marry, I will declare it at the ball. If not, I won't. That's that."

"Sorry," Hiro murmurs after a few seconds of tense silence.

"It has been a long few weeks. When does your father leave?" Issei, always the peace-keeper, asks, slowly reaching his fingers out for the swan. Hajime did not realize a swan could have such human emotions, but distrust glimmers in his eyes as he allows Issei's fingers to just graze his neck before he pulls away, back toward Hajime.

"He decided to stay until I make a decision on Summer Solstice."

"Damn," Hiro comments. "Why does the swan hate me so much? Issei's the one who threw a rock at him first!"

"You tease him mercilessly," Hajime points out, rummaging in his bag. He scrounges up a handful of oats from the bottom of it, which the swan snaps out of his palm quickly. The swan preens as Hajime runs a hand down its head, over the downy feathers of its wings. The swan gives Hiro a mean look before settling its head on Hajime's thigh.

Issei attempts a few more times to make contact with the bird, who reluctantly allows him by the time they have to leave. He still hisses at Hiro any time he attempts to get closer than five feet.

"I'll be back tomorrow, yeah?" Hajime whispers, feeling foolish talking to an animal, but the swan just butts his head against Hajime's outstretched palm before wandering back toward the pond.

***

Keiji refrains from grimacing when Tooru sits down across from him, next to Kenma, who curls up into Kuroo's side further than he had been before. Kenma's attention focuses on the strings wrapped around his fingers, an endless loop of Cat's Cradle. It is not Tooru's fault that Keiji is in a bad mood, that he is slowly being stretched thin as his responsibilities stack higher and higher. He hates spring.

"Tooru!" Bokuto, the best of all of them, crows, his eyes lighting in enthusiastic innocence. "You never eat supper with us!"

"I do too," Tooru pouts. Keiji rolls his eyes. "But since my curse lasts until sunset, everyone eats without me."

Bokuto's eyes widen. Keiji knows he hates confrontation with Tooru, especially about the ruler of their court, and he can't really blame Bokuto for that. Tooru is a force to reckon with when it comes to Ushijima.

"It's the full moon, so we are going flying tonight," Keiji says, diverting Tooru's attention toward him. "You seem awfully chipper, Tooru-kun. Any particular reason?"

Kenma glances at Keiji for a moment before turning his attention to Tooru, the string wrapped around his fingers forgotten. In Keiji's opinion, Kenma is the most perceptive out of the group, Tooru not far behind, but Keiji knows how to use his perceptiveness the best. And he knows Tooru has a major blindspot when it comes to himself.

Tooru is a very predictive creature if you think about it hard enough.

Tooru sits up, his brown eyes glittering with a warmth Keiji has seen slowly leaking from him over his captivity. "There is a man that comes to my pond. And he feeds me, and follows me around, and he is so handsome..."

"And he thinks you are a swan," Kuroo points out. He joins Kenma's game, but his focus is on Tooru. "Tough break."

Tooru huffs. "It is only a matter of time until he stays out after dark, and then we will meet, and it will be true love..."

"I mean, he already likes your pretentious swan self, so why would he hate your pretentious human self?" Kuroo needles.

Keiji watches Tooru deflate; he grips his fork tighter, dips his head toward his shoulder, not unlike the way he would as a swan. Keiji turns to Kuroo, ready with a sharp retaliation.

"Aww, Kuroo, be nice!" Bokuto jumps in before Keiji can say anything. "Tooru's pretty and smart and super strong headed. He can make this work if he keeps up this positive attitude!"

Keiji tries to control his smile at Bokuto's sincere compliments. Keiji thinks Bokuto doesn't have a bad bone in his body. He thinks he might be falling a little in love with Bokuto, even with all his airheadedness.

"Yeah," Tooru says, trying to rally back to his good mood. "I just have to talk to him. And I am pretty. It'll all work out."
"You have to decide by Summer Solstice, right?" Kenma asks softly. Tooru nods. "Then I hope you succeed in meeting this man."

Tooru dips his head again. Keiji sees a faint blush on his pale skin. "Thanks, Kenma," he says.

The table stays silent for most of the rest of the meal. Bokuto, never the one to exclude people, asks Tooru if he wants to come out with them, but Tooru is adamant in his refusal. For as much as Tooru doesn't want to be at Ushijima's court, his moods can permeate the room like a perfume or toxin. As for the last seven years, all of Ushijima's household has revolved itself around the curse binding an outsider to their court.

When Tooru finally leaves, the atmosphere stays melancholy. "Poor Tooru," Bokuto finally says. "Wouldn't it be hard, being trapped in a curse you don't want? For a person you don't want to marry? I can't imagine. I mean, our transformations are natural, and we get to control how we use them. His is forced on him every day."

Keiji rests a hand on Bokuto's arm before he can spiral into his thoughts. Keiji knows the most about everyone in this room, Bokuto especially, as he had a bit more complexity to his emotions than everyone else. "You said yourself Tooru is strong. Maybe this man at the lake will break the curse."

Bokuto smiles at Keiji and Keiji's heart turns over. "Yeah, you're right! C'mon Akaashi, let's go explore!" And with that, Bokuto scampers away from the table. Keiji sighs.

"When are you going to tell him how you feel?" Kenma asks, attention focused on the tangle of string around Kuroo's hands. Keiji watches Kenma pick three different strings, unraveling them from Kuroo to make a new design of his own around his hands.

Keiji should check on the rest of the court. He has heard rumors of poachers in the woods, now that Ushijima's time is slowly stretching thin as summer approaches. It is Akaashi's responsibility to make sure the Nighttime Court stays safe. But instead he glances toward where Bokuto had disappeared. He remembers his golden eyes glittering in excitement at flying with Keiji tonight. Their schedules do not align often, so these times are precious to Bokuto. And Keiji, if he quit lying to himself.

"Maybe when Tooru figures his life out," Keiji decides before following Bokuto out of the door.

***

Tooru got his bounce back after Bokuto's unexpected words of encouragement. He knows this is probably silly--a human isn't going to fall in love with a swan. Ushijima had pretty much secured Tooru as his once he had set the terms of his curse. But, while he does not remember a lot of his time as a swan, he remembers the man who lets him eat from his hand, who lets him follow him around, who protects him when he is scared. He likes the feeling he has around the man.

He will meet him one of these days, even if he has to get creative.

Tooru is about to turn in for the night when he, quite literally, runs into Ushijima. Ushijima's strong arms wrap around Tooru's shoulders to keep him from stumbling. "I was looking for you. Will you join me for drinks in the parlor?"

"I just ate," Tooru says, trying to come up with an excuse to get away. Sadly, there isn't one. Ushijima just stares at him until he relents. He allows Ushijima to take his hand as they walk toward the parlor, a part of the house that really only Ushijima uses. And Tooru, as the honored guest of the house.

Tooru watches warily as Semi Eita, one of Ushijima's Daytime Court, sets out drinks and pastries. Tooru always feels his guard raise when he is confronted with Ushijima's inner court, and Semi's scowl does nothing to reassure him. Ushijima pours Tooru's drink first, offering him food he doesn't want. Tooru takes it, watching as Semi melts back into the hallway. They sit in silence for a few moments, Tooru looking anywhere but Ushijima’s calculating gaze. “You have been staying out longer than usual.”

Tooru feels his lips turn up into a sneer. “Are you watching me every moment of the day now Ushiwaka-chan?”

Ushijima shrugs, taking a sip of his wine. Tooru huffs and downs his glass. “No, of course not. I just noticed a new pattern in your day. I must warn you though—reports have come in about trespassers in the woods. I cannot do anything until one of our own are hurt, and I do not wish it to be you. Maybe you can ask Akaashi to put you with a scouting group if you feel inclined to be out after dark.”

Tooru shrugs. “My pond is enchanted so nothing can hurt me. Unless you lied about that.”

“I do not lie.” Tooru wishes he could elicit some emotion out of Ushijima other than mild amusement. He feels like a child who has pleased his father any time they talk, and it infuriates him. “But the path from here to your pond is not enchanted, so take caution. Or,” and here Ushijima takes Tooru’s hands in his. Tooru tenses but does not pull away, “you can join me in my household.”

“We talk about this all the time,” Tooru says through gritted teeth, trying not to snap, or yell, or burst into tears on the spot.

“I know, but you must understand that you have run out of time. If you do not declare yourself to me by the Summer Solstice, you will be a swan for the rest of your life. There is nothing I can do about it. I know you would rather be in this body.” Ushijima reaches up to cup Tooru's cheek. He likes to do that, touch Tooru's face, as if the intimacy will wear Tooru down to resignation. "You are very pretty, Tooru. I would rather you keep this form."

Tooru jerks away, eyes wide. It is no real secret that Ushijima is attracted to him, but he has never flat out said it. It rattles Tooru to his core. He hates almost everything that comes with being a bird. But he also thinks ahead, to his permanent human body, to his life in Ushijima’s house, in Ushijima’s bed. How he would always have to be thankful to Ushijima for allowing him use of his own human form, follow his every command because Ushijima holds Tooru's humanity in his hands. The thought makes Tooru want to hurl. Maybe he would be better off as a swan.

He hates everything about this situation so much. Especially how helpless he is.

“I’ve upset you,” Ushijima says, jolting Tooru back to reality. “Go sleep. I will see you soon. I am needed elsewhere for a few nights, so you will have to fend for yourself, but I will return with plenty of time for you to declare yourself mine.”

With that, Ushijima stands, leaving Tooru facing an empty wall. He grips his glass tightly before throwing it, the shattering sound satisfying. Semi will be furious he has to clean it up. Tooru leaves before he can feel guilty about the mess.

Chapter Text

Hajime does not remember falling asleep, but the sun had dropped low in the sky, making the day just drowsy enough to take Hajime with it. When he opens his eyes he is disoriented, mostly because of the blackness that shrouds him. He sits up quickly, heart pumping as he takes in his surroundings. Falling asleep by himself outside was the worst thing he could have done.

The sight in front of him slows his rushing thoughts as he tries to comprehend the landscape around him. He is at the same bank as usual, but the water is glowing a pretty teal blue, emitting enough light to see comfortably with. There are also fireflies flitting among slightly glowing flowers—Hajime is not sure if they glow on their own, or if the fireflies give them the illusion. At this point Hajime thinks maybe he is dreaming still. He goes to stand and freezes when he notices a person kneeling by the pond just a few feet away from him.

He is probably tall, is the first thing Hajime thinks. He can’t see too much of the boy’s face because his hair is long enough to brush the nape of his neck and cast his forehead in shadow, but Hajime can see pale porcelain skin and the shape of wide eyes. His fingers are long, agile and deft as he weaves something that Hajime thinks will end up a basket. He looks like he had been made from the magic of the pond, constructed of luminescence and bound into human form.

Hajime swallows, trying to wet his suddenly dry throat.

The boy looks up then. Hajime would be embarrassed to be caught staring except the boy’s smile is as captivating as his silhouette. His eyes crinkle with the motion of his mouth.

“You know, there are poachers in these woods. You should be more careful where you fall asleep.”

His voice is a rich tenor purr. Hajime thinks there is a hint of the Northern Wanderer accent in it, but he could be mistaken. The Wanderers hadn’t come to court since Hajime was a child and the tensions between their countries meant there would not be a random citizen wandering around the woods.

Hajime decides he is dreaming. What else could explain this surreal experience?

“Can you speak?” Hajime blinks his attention back to the boy, who’s looking at him with wide eyed concern.

“Y...Yes, of course,” Hajime stammers. “Who are you?”

The boy laughs, the sound melodious to Hajime’s half asleep brain, but if he were more awake he would probably find its teasing sound annoying. “My name is Tooru. I live around here. May I know your name as well, or are you just going to continue staring at me dumbly? I mean, you can continue staring if you want. I am gorgeous.”

Hajime finally feels irritation burst through his surreal bubble. "Shut up, I can hardly see you in this weird light. You could be hideous."

Tooru gasps. "I am as beautiful as a swan, thank you very much."

Hajime smirks. "About as needy as one too."

"How would you even know?" Tooru snipes back. "You still haven't told me your name."

"Hajme Iwaizumi," Hajime says before he can remember that he is a prince and should probably come up with an alias. He holds his breath, waiting for Tooru's eyes to widen, for him to bow in fearful piety, but Tooru just smiles again.

"It's nice to meet you Iwa-chan, even though you called me ugly."

"Iwa..." Hajime stammers. He gives up that battle when he sees Tooru's eyes glinting. Apparently Tooru doesn’t know the Iwaizumi name. Who was this strange man? "I never called you ugly. I said the light makes it difficult to see you from so far away."

Tooru takes that as an invitation to come closer. He walks with a gait Hajime has only noticed in dancers and athletes, and the way his hips move is mesmerizing in this strange, surreal light. Tooru sets himself just a hand's distance away from Hajime. Hajime can feel the heat of Tooru's body curling around his left arm.

He was just as pretty up close as he was over by the pond, but this time Hajime notices his wide eyes are a deep brown, enriching as the soil underneath them, and he has a light spattering of freckles across his nose and cheekbones that complement his hair color absurdly well.

"So?" Tooru says, his voice just a hair's width under normal. "Am I still ugly, Iwa-chan?"

Hajime blinks, trying to gather his thoughts. "I didn't say you were ugly," Hajime says, appalled when he notices his voice has also dipped to match Tooru's cadence. "I said you might be hideous."

Tooru rears back. Hajime starts laughing. "Mean! Mean Iwa-chan!"

Without thinking, Hajime reaches out to draw Tooru back toward him. The comfort of touching this person makes Hajime uneasy. Hajime has always held himself apart from affection because to attach himself to something is to open a vulnerability. Hiro and Issei aside, Hajime can remember on his fingers how many people he has shown affection to. And Tooru makes it so easy.

“I...I have to go,” Tooru says to break the silence. “Can I see you tomorrow night? It has to be after dark.”

“I can’t tomorrow,” Hajime says, remembering that his mother had told him he had to be at dinners for the next few nights. He doesn’t miss the way Tooru’s expression falls. He hates the look. “But...I really want to see you again. I just don’t know when. It is hard for me to get out past dark. Will you be here if I come back in the next week?”

“That’s a long time to give me, Iwa-chan,” Tooru sniffs but Hajime sees a small smile playing on his lips. “I will stay a half hour past dark every night.”

“Are you sure that’s safe?” Hajime couldn’t help himself.

Tooru’s eyebrows lower in confusion for a moment before his expression clears and his cocky smirk is back. “Aw, Iwa-chan is worried for me! Don’t worry, I am safe in these woods. Besides, aren’t you the stranger here?”

Hajime feels his face blushing but keeps his eyes on Tooru. “You’re the one who said there were poachers. I’ll look into it, see what I can find.”

Now Tooru’s expression shows open confusion. Hajime holds his breath, waiting for the inevitable question, but Tooru just shrugs it away. “Just don’t fall asleep places you shouldn’t and you should be fine. I’ll see you again. Next week.”

Tooru does not say it like a question, but Hajime nods anyway because he really, really wants to see him again. He watches Tooru nod back before he slips into the trees, leaving Hajime next to the glowing pond still wondering whether he had just hallucinated the strange encounter.

***

Kuroo’s smirk reminds Bokuto of a cat’s expression right before it devours the mouse it had been chasing. He has seen Kuroo do that a few times, pounce on his unsuspecting prey, but generally Kuroo acts more catlike in human form than his actual cat form. Bokuto's senses perk up as he looks for Kuroo’s source of amusement.

The only thing even a little out of sorts is Akaashi and Tooru sitting together with Akaashi not looking like he wanted to die. Instead he seemed extremely focused on Tooru’s quite animated, if a little hushed, story. Bokuto bites his lip as he glances between Kuroo and Akaashi a few times. “What’s going on?”

“Well,” Kuroo stretches himself languidly, all feral grace. Bokuto sometimes admires the way Kuroo moves so fluidly, like running water, but then remembers he is also part cat and that is something Bokuto never wants to be. “Tooru came in late tonight. Like, just a few minutes ago. Apparently he has started to come in later and later.”

Akaashi’s duties in Ushijima’s household consisted of a variety of responsibilities, most of them revolving around the safety of the Night Court. Bokuto could almost classify him as captain of the guard, except there was no guard in Ushijima’s court, and Akaashi was one of the softest people Bokuto knew. Although Akaashi's brutal honesty and unamused expressions fit the job perfectly. Any time someone altered their schedule too drastically, Akaashi was the first to know. Akaashi had also worn himself thin trying to find this poacher before any of them got hurt. Bokuto wishes he could come up with a way to help, but so far nothing had surfaced.

Bokuto fidgets at the table, wanting to join Akaashi but knowing that if Akaashi had sought Tooru out, he must have some important reason. Akaashi hates spending more time with Tooru than necessary, although Bokuto doesn’t understand why. Tooru is funny and dramatic and pretty to look at, and he tells the best stories. It was a misfortune that Bokuto was generally a nighttime creature while Tooru was strictly a daytime one. At least Tooru had chosen to be part of their court so he could at least spend some time with them.

“Where’s Kenma?” Bokuto asks to distract himself from the sharp expression in Akaashi’s eyes that may or may not have Bokuto feeling antsy for reasons he will not acknowledge. Bokuto watches Kuroo’s sly look turn into a pout.

“That is what you have to say about this juicy development in Tooru’s curse? Not wow, Kuroo, nice sleuthing or I wonder if Tooru finally met his mysterious man but where’s Kenma?”

“You’re always together!” Bokuto tries not to sound too defensive, but he never had been a very good liar and has not improved if Kuroo’s recovered look is anything to go by.

"You know, you can always just tell Akaashi you like him."

Bokuto is already shaking his head before Kuroo's finished his sentence. "I don't know what you mean. Akaashi is my friend, like you are."

"Sure Bo. You're friends the exact same way that we're friends." Bokuto frowns. That wasn't really what he meant, but he couldn't really tell Kuroo that. Kuroo continues speaking anyway, letting Bokuto off the hook. "Anyway, Kenma doesn't approve of my research so he left."

"Oh." Bokuto turns his attention back to Akaashi and Tooru, who look to have started a little argument if Tooru's pouty lips and Akaashi's steel glare mean what he thinks they do. Bokuto has been on the receiving end of that particular look of Akaashi's too many times to think otherwise. He watches Akaashi stand with his food, scan the hall, and meet his eyes. Bokuto looks away, feeling guilty for staring. He is so focused on trying to eat without making a mess that he doesn't realize Akaashi has taken the seat across from him until he says, “Bokuto-san, I do not think you can fit any more carrots on that spoon.”

Bokuto lets the spoon clatter back into his stew, cringing when a few drops of broth splatter onto the table. Kuroo snickers behind his roll. Akaashi sighs. Akaashi is always sighing at Bokuto.

“So, what’s with lover boy over there?” Kuroo asks, leaning forward. Bokuto glances to where Tooru is now sitting alone, stirring something in the bowl in front of him. He looked lonely, Bokuto thinks. It must be hard, being adopted into a court he hadn’t wanted to be a part of, struggling to make friends with people who were jealous of a status he had that he had not wanted.

He should probably go say hi.

But Akaashi was sighing again, pinching the bridge of his nose like he did when he was particularly stressed. “Tooru is reckless and Ushijima would not be pleased if he got injured because of that recklessness.”

Kuroo shrugs. “Not much you can do about that except lay out the rules.”

“I just...feel bad.” Akaashi’s words are stilted, something that almost never happens. Bokuto stops pretending to eat, focusing all his attention on Akaashi. “Tooru wants to break his curse. He might, if I allow him a bit more freedom. But with the poachers in the woods Ushijima has made it quite clear to me that Tooru’s safety is a top priority.”

“But usually poachers aren’t out at night,” Bokuto points out. “And if he gets hurt when he’s human, well, that’s pretty much his fault. Ushijima can’t blame you for his wandering.”

“It is also outside of his bounds to put a curfew on any of us,” Kuroo puts in. Bokuto stares at where Kenma is now curled under his arm, fiddling with the ever present string around his fingers. Kenma meets Bokuto's eyes with his gleaming amber ones before turning his attention back to Kuroo. It unnerves Bokuto how silent Kenma can move, but Akaashi always points out how unobservant Bokuto is so maybe everyone else noticed his entrance.

"Tooru's curse has clear boundaries. Don't let Ushijima add fake ones." Kenma glances up for just a moment to meet Akaashi's eyes before nudging Kuroo, offering him the tangle around his fingers. Kuroo studies the design for a moment before redesigning it on his own hands.

Akaashi presses his lips together. Bokuto wants to reach out and hug him but stops himself, mostly because he would probably knock over all the food between him and Akaashi if he tried. He can tell Akaashi wants to say more, but he just turns back to his food, stabbing at the potatoes on his plate.

“Do you want to go out with me tonight, Akaashi?” Bokuto asks, mostly to relieve the tension, but also because he wants Akaashi to say yes. For himself, movement always relieves stress, takes his mind off of his worries. Maybe it would help Akaashi. “We can look for the poacher’s camp, see if they are somewhere in the forest.”

Everyone at the table knows the gesture is futile. They have scoured the forest. At this time of year, when Ushijima’s time is stretched to its thinnest, is when the forest is most vulnerable. Everyone knows. But Kenma puts his string away. “I would like to stretch my legs. C’mon, Kuro, we can search Highwind Crag.” Kuroo nods. He waves with a meaningful eyebrow gesture in Bokuto’s direction, which Bokuto chooses to ignore. He turns back to Akaashi, who is looking at him. “Did I miss something on my face?” Bokuto wipes at his lips. Akaashi shakes his head, and Bokuto sees a small smile.

“Thank you, Bokuto,” Akaashi says. Bokuto creases his eyebrows, trying to figure out why Akaashi would thank him, and he clarifies, “For trying to help me. I appreciate it.”

Bokuto does not get embarrassed easily because of his boisterous, clumsy nature, but he feels his face turn hot. “Oh, it’s okay Akaashi. I like helping you!”

Before he can do or say anything he regrets he jumps up to take care of his dishes. He scoops Akaashi’s up on the way, almost forgetting his chopsticks, which Akaashi hands him after taking his last bite. On the way back he decides to stop by Tooru, who is still in full-pout. “Hey. Are you okay?”

Tooru scowls at Bokuto. “Great! Fine! Perfectly lovely. How are you, Bokuto? As happy as always, right?”

Bokuto tries not to let Tooru’s words bother him, because Tooru has no friends and probably forgot his manners because he hasn’t talked to anyone in awhile. “I am happy, thanks for asking. Akaashi and I are going flying tonight. You can join us if you want?” When Tooru’s lips twist into a sneer Bokuto backtracks. “Or not, I know you don’t like your swan form but I thought I would invite you anyway. In case you wanted to get out.”

“According to Akaashi I’m not allowed to go out after dark, so I guess I’ll pass.” Tooru’s words had lost their heat. Instead he just sounded tired. Bokuto stands there for a few seconds, trying to think of the best way to comfort Tooru, but just ends with, “Well, the offer is there, if you want it.”

“You can come out with us, Tooru. I apologize if I came off a little strongly during our conversation. I just want to make sure everyone is safe.”

Bokuto glances over to Akaashi, who stands next to him with his fingers twisted together, a sign of his discomfort. Bokuto almost takes Akaashi’s hands in his to stop their chafing but resists at the last moment.

“It’s fine Akaashi.” Tooru brushes a hand through the air as if to wipe away the tension between them. Bokuto feels himself relax a little at the gesture of truce. "I should go to bed anyway. Have a good time...searching."

As Tooru goes to stand another person slides onto the bench next to him, and another stands to the other side of the table. "Now, now, let's not have any fighting. Since Toshi is gone and left me in charge, I've taken it upon myself to come see our infamous Night Court more frequently!"

"Hey Tendou!" Bokuto says, watching Tooru's face turn into a sneer and Akaashi stiffen beside him.

"If Ushijima-san left anyone in charge, it certainly wasn't you," Akaashi says in his mild, slightly affronted way. His eyes flick to the looming figure at the other end of the table. "Maybe Semi."

"Ah, Semi-Semi," Tendou answers, ignoring Akaashi's slight. "He goes to bed too early for this job. We just noticed some drama with our resident swan, so we decided to stop by, make sure everything was fine. Don't want you hurt or anything."

Bokuto thinks Tendou sounds like he wishes just the opposite for Tooru. "Lucky for you, Tooru falls under my watch," Akaashi says. Bokuto glances over and notices the way that Akaashi has drawn himself up, looking just as regal as any king.

"And the more you talk, the more I remember why I decided to choose the Night Court over the Day Court," Tooru says, drawing the attention back to him. "Entitled, insufferable eagles. I wouldn't be surprised if Ushiwaka put you up to this."

"He just wants to make sure..." Semi starts but Tooru bangs his fist against the table as he stands up. Everyone stares at Tooru, silenced.

"If I hear another word about my safety I swear to all hells..."

"Alright, alright, settle down! We won't say anything about your safety. Geez, touchy much?" Tendou stands with a wide smile. "Nice chat. We should do this more often. Come on, Semi, let's go bother Shirabu. Ta-ta!" Bokuto, Akaashi, and Tooru all watch Tendou swagger out of the dining hall, Semi speaking in low, harsh tones to him. No one says anything until the doors shut behind them.

"After that I almost want to take you up on your offer of going out," Tooru says.

"Let me know if he continues to harass you," Akaashi says, back to fiddling with his fingers. "That is unacceptable."

"I can take care of myself," Tooru says, and Bokuto doesn't doubt it, "but thank you. You two should get out there. I'll see you tomorrow night."

Bokuto watches Tooru drift away from them, disappointed that Tooru has declined his offer for the second time. "Don't feel bad, Bokuto-san." Akaashi rests a hand on Bokuto's arm. Bokuto jumps, cursing himself silently when Akaashi withdraws his hand quickly only to go back to twisting his fingers together. "He will do what he wants."

Bokuto sighs. "I know. But I thought for a second he would come out with us. He'll come next time! Now, c'mon, I think I know where we can start." With that, Bokuto takes Akaashi's wrist, untangling his nervous habit. Akaashi's smile is so pretty Bokuto almost blurts out his unexplored feelings. But he catches himself in time. Stupid Kuroo, he thinks as they exit the palace and take flight into the vast forest.

***

"Hey." Hajime pulls Hiro aside as they walk down the stairs toward the throne room for their afternoon court session. "Do you think that you can cover for me if I go out after this?"

Hiro raises his eyebrows. "It's a little late in the day, don't you think, Highness?"

"Exactly. I won't be missed, right? Just, tell my mother I turned in early if she asks." Hiro studies Hajime, who looks mostly the same as usual. Lately, though, Hiro has noticed a slip in concentration from the prince. Not that his work output has gotten worse, or that he is any less considerate than usual. But sometimes Hiro will catch Hajime not listening to the banter between him, Issei, and Hiro when they sit together at lunches or dinners, or Hajime can't be bothered to gossip about Lady Keiko's newest hat atrocity when they are sitting board at court. It's appalling, really. There better be a good excuse.

"Is this about the poachers you mentioned a few days ago?" Hiro asks.

"It is...associated. You can use it as an excuse. Will you do it or not?"

"I guess. But only if you tell me where you're really running off to. You never go out after dark. If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were having an illicit, sordid affair." Hajime's eyes shift to the side. Hiro gasps. "No! Really? Who--?"

"Shut up! It's not like that. Just, will you cover for me?" Hajime's eyes are desperate when they look at Hiro. Wordlessly, Hiro nods. Hajime lets out a breath of relief. "Thanks. Really. It's still...new. And definitely not what you think!"

"You don't know what I think," Hiro answers.

"I think I have a pretty good idea," Hajime mutters. "Come on, the king will have my head if we end up late." They slip into their usual seats. Issei is already there. Hiro is itching to tell Issei of this new update in Hajime's life, but he sits patiently waiting until Hajime gives them a quick goodbye and disappears into the crowd.

"Notice anything odd about His Highness lately?" Hiro asks, not so subtly as they begin to make their way out of the room as well.

"Other than the fact that he seems to have his head filled with daydreams? Not really." Issei shrugs, as if this is the least concerning thing on his mind.

Hiro frowns. "He wants me to cover for him while he goes out. Tonight. Issei, he all but admitted that he is meeting someone!"

Issei studies Hiro for a second before shrugging. "It's about time, isn't it? And besides, if it makes him happy, good on him. Out of everyone in this room, he deserves happiness, don't you think?"

Issei brings up a good point, Hiro has to concede. Hajime works himself down to the bone, making himself accessible for anyone to speak with if they are concerned, smoothing over as much of his father's recklessness as he can, reviewing and signing the majority of the royal funds, not to mention the fact that visiting dignitaries have started seeking Hajime out secretly to circumnavigate the king. "We can give him this," Issei says quietly as if reading Hiro's thoughts.

"Only if we figure out who it is," Hiro says.

Issei grins. "I wouldn't expect anything else."

Chapter Text

Hajime paces restlessly as he waits for Issei and Hiro to join him. Two representatives from the Northern Tribes had arrived six days ago with no warning, and last night Hajime had received a private message asking for a brief council with the visiting dignitaries. This on top of his already secret meetings with various dukes across their land and the fact that Ushijima had set up a meeting between Kuroo and him specifically, cutting out his father altogether, had him running at a frantic pace that left little time to visit Tooru at the pond.

Although, he could not say he hated being relied upon like this. It felt good, knowing that the work he did and the commitment he had made to fair and kind ruling was paying off. He just wished he could rule by himself without the guilt of working behind the king's back.

Issei and Hiro slip up next to him, both watching as he paces back and forth. "Did they say what they wanted to meet for?" Hiro finally breaks the tense silence.

"No," Hajime says shortly. He stops moving, adjusts his sleeves and collar. "But I am sure we can all assume it is for negotiations."

Issei nods. The three of them stare at each other awkwardly until the visiting dignitaries join them. Hajime clears his throat, straightens up, no longer uncertain or angry or upset but the picture of royalty. He gives a slight bow of his head. "Masters Sei and Akito, welcome."

"Thank you for taking the time to meet with us, Prince Hajime of Seijoh. I apologize we have not arranged a formal meeting before now. We have been...unduly busy as of late." Master Akito says, sharing a look with Master Sei that Hajime interprets as having to do with Seijoh's interference, before smiling. Hajime almost does a double take, because he is certain he has seen that smile before.

Hajime fumbles to remember what Master Akito had said before getting distracted. "Ah, of course. I also have not had the time to sit in on your meetings." Everyone in the hallway knows that Hajime has subtly been left out of any talks toward peace with the Northern Tribes. Just because the king is greedy and paranoid does not mean his is not smart. His cunning is what has kept him on the throne for so long.

"Shall we go in and get this meeting officially started?" Hiro asks, opening the door without waiting for an answer. Hajime gestures to the two foreign dignitaries to walk before him, then shoots Hiro an appraising look, which he shrugs to. Issei nods his head toward the two men, an indication that he thinks this is worth their time. So Hajime slips into the room, watches as Issei studies the corridor for anyone who could have noticed their entrance and needed a smoothing over, before walking in as well. Hiro shuts the door quietly behind them. Hajime lets out a sigh of relief. The hardest part was now over.

"From what we have gathered, you and the king have a very different outlook on how this kingdom should treat its allies. Is that correct?" Master Akito starts.

Hajime sees Issei and Hiro share a look out of the corner of his eye. These men are blunt and to the point, which Hajime appreciates. Very seldom does he see that when talking about sore political subjects.

"Yes." Hiro's mouth tightens, but Hajime ignores it. Hiro and Issei are definitely the more politically minded, as they have had a lifetime of cultivating their words to flatter and impress, while still making a subtle impact. Their standings in court hinge on what they say and how well they say it. Hajime's has as well, but as the next in line for the throne, not many people will tell you when you should have played a long game until after the situation is over and done with. Besides, if this was the way Master Akito wanted to approach the topic, who was Hajime to say otherwise?

Master Sei nods. "Forgive me, it is my first time in this region of the world. I understand that your ascension requires a marriage contract."

Hajime nods, his answer already prepared from the numerous times he has had to answer questions similar to this one. "I want to make sure I make the best possible choice for my country, for myself, and my future consort. While I understand that the issue of ascension is pressing, you must agree that it is not something to be taken lightly, especially in the situation that Seijoh is currently in." Meaning that Hajime could be assassinated by the king if he takes anything just one hair too far.

"Of course. It is just difficult to decide how to approach the situation we are currently being backed into by your present king when we do not have any information on when you may be taking over this kingdom." Master Akito places one hand on the table, face up. "On one hand, we could strike a deal with you to be upheld within a year's time. Or, if that is unacceptable, we could ready our people for war, which we do not want to do, but it is becoming an ever-present reality." His other hand is also placed on the table, palm up, as if he wanted Hajime to choose between them.

Hajime tenses his jaw. He knows all of this. Hiro and Issei had warned him of this very situation, yet they had come up with no alternatives.

"How long are you here for?" Issei speaks up suddenly. Both Masters turn toward Issei, who is still lounging in his usual way. "His Highness has a ball scheduled on the summer solstice, a little less than a month away. He believes he will make a decision on that night. If he does not, we can renegotiate how to uphold our deal immediately after, or you can decide if war is the best decision for you at that time."

"We can also discuss marriage options from your Tribes," Hajime offers. "I know it is not a common thing to do for your country, but here it would show we have a unity that has previously been lacking."

If the three of them had learned anything while brainstorming, it was that having a strong alliance with the Northern Tribes would be one of the best things they could do. The Tribes were an enigma that previous rulers had treated as a desert plant--to be fed and watered once or twice a year, mindful of the sharp spikes, before never thinking about them again. The Northern Tribes were essentially multiple self-functioning domains with their own ruling systems tenuously tied together by one larger tribe who oversaw their big needs. The idea fascinated Hajime, who had his own hands full with just his dukes and knights who owned sections of his land. To be in charge of multiple self-sufficient kingdoms...

He had heard that they had even created a pact with Shiratorizawa, Ushijima's empire, which in itself was impressive. Seijoh dealt with Ushijima when necessary because they shared the forest, which was Ushijima's main domain. But Hajime knew, and was growing to learn more, that Ushijima was practically in charge of any sort of mystical goings-on the whole continent wide.

Hajime jolts back to the conversation when Master Akito speaks. "Let us think about that offer. We had planned to begin our travels back soon, but summer solstice is not far. We have other business we can attend to here while we wait. And we may as well hold our conversation about imminent war until we are certain we can no longer put it off."

Hajime doesn't know if these men pushing off the negotiations is a good thing or a bad one. "Very well. But please, if there is anything I can do for you in the meantime..."

Master Akito smiles that infuriatingly familiar smile as he stands from the table. Hajime is quick to follow and leads them to the door. "Believe me, young Highness, you will be the first to know. This meeting has been more productive than all the councils we have been on previously combined, and we did not even draft a negotiation." He glances over to Issei and Hiro, who are still sitting, Issei's eyes drooping as if the meeting had bored him to sleep. "You have sharp friends. Keep them close."

With that, the two Masters see themselves out the door, leaving the three of them in silence. Hajime sighs as he falls back into his chair. "I guess that went well?"

"Sounded like it did," Hiro answers, flicking Issei's forehead. Issei bats his hand away but sits up. "And hey, now that you have them off your back, you can go meet your mysterious lover and ask them to marry you. Problem solved."

Hajime felt his face heat up. "What in all hells are you talking about, mysterious lover?"

"You know," Issei says. "The one we keep covering for you to go see."

"It's not like that..."

"Says you," Hiro answers. "You can keep saying it, but I, for one, am not going to believe it until I see it with my own eyes."

"I'm with Hiro," Issei says. Hajime feels strangely betrayed. But if he is serious about Tooru, if these stolen moments mean anything to their relationship going forward, he should definitely consider marriage. Or at least Tooru meeting his two closest friends.

"I'll ask him if he is okay with meeting you. He seems...shy."

Hajime knows for a fact that Tooru is not shy. But hesitant or cagey gives off the wrong connotation. Hajime knows Tooru is hiding information from him, but it is not like Hajime has been anywhere close to truthful on his end either. The two of them skirt around those questions as if they are clearly marked land mines in a field. One fatal step might blow everything they have built to pieces.

"Perfect. Sooner rather than later in this case," Hiro says. "And while we're waiting, you can tell us all about him."

"I mean...There's nothing really to tell," Hajime stammers, but he thinks about Tooru's long neck, his silky brown hair, his wide, shining eyes, the way his lips pout when Hajime makes fun of him.

"Liar. You get that soft expression every time we mention anything about your mystery."

"Well, he's beautiful..." Hajime starts, and finds himself telling the two of them way more than he ever expected to. Something about Tooru just makes Hajime want to talk about him. He knows he should probably tell Tooru about himself soon, if for no other reason than to invite him to the ball. Because he thinks that he could see himself marrying this stranger he met in the woods, and the thought is both exciting and terrifying.

***

Tooru berates himself at his hopefulness each night he sits out on the bank of the pond. He and Hajime had spoken a few times since their first encounter. Each time had left Tooru feeling dizzy with excitement. Hajime still cannot tell him exactly when he will show up, but Tooru waits every night anyway.

He is out there when Ushijima arrives back from his most current trip. Startled, Tooru stands, dusting himself off to cover his hands, trembling from panic. "Ushiwaka. Why in hell's name are you here?"

Ushijima's eyes travel along Tooru's face as if searching for something, stopping at his eyes after a few uncomfortable moments. "I was on my way back to the palace when I felt your presence here by the lake. I came to see if everything was alright."

"Of course everything is fine," Tooru grits out. He cannot stop his hands from clenching into fists. "I can stay out as late as I want. Besides, Bokuto just flew by and Kuroo is lounging in that tree over there, which means Kenma is around here somewhere. So I'm well watched."

Ushijima holds up his hands against Tooru's hostility. "My apologies. I just wanted to see you since I just returned. And make sure you were all right. Will you come home with me?"

Tooru feels unexpected tears prickling at his eyes from his rage. Because Tooru can't say no to Ushijima's requests without casting suspicion on himself. Ushijima is good at coercing Tooru into bending to his will without actually lifting a finger. The worst part about it was Ushijima didn't even realize what he was doing. He probably really did just want to spend time with Tooru, having been away for weeks.

Tooru follows Ushijima home, refusing to engage in his questions. When Ushijima finally gets that Tooru won't talk, he speaks about his time away. Tooru feels himself disconnecting from the conversation. He watches Kuroo slink through the trees next to them and tries to find Kenma, since they never separate when they go out. He thinks he spots something rustling in the bushes once, but he never gets a clear visual on the creature. It might even be the wind. He knows he sees Bokuto in a tree because the owl hoots at them as they pass, as if in greeting. He wonders where Akaashi is. He wonders if any of Ushijima's inner court, Semi or Tendou or Goshiki, are out. Probably not, as they are daytime creatures.

"A full human will balance out the court," Ushijima says. Tooru blinks himself back into the conversation. "You would be a needed asset. If you want another incentive to stay with me. It is something to consider."

Tooru does not deign that comment worthy of a response so he sniffs instead, turning his head away.

It is one of the longest nights of Tooru's life. In the morning he rushes to the pond. Hajime does not have a set schedule, but he does have a loose pattern. And his pattern indicates that he should be coming to the pond for a visit soon, day or night. Tooru hopes he hadn't missed him.

Hajime does not show up that day, but just as Tooru is about to give up hope for the night Hajime comes into view, panting slightly. He probably ran to make their allotted half hour deadline.

"You're still here," Hajime gasps, a small smile on his lips. Tooru stops himself from throwing himself at Hajime, instead allowing his smile free reign. "I can't stay long but...I'm so busy I wanted to make sure you hadn't forgotten about me."

"How could anyone forget about Iwa-chan?" Tooru asks, giddy. He does not remember the last time he has felt this happy. "Especially me. Standing next to Iwa-chan makes me especially beautiful because of his caveman looks."

Hajime rolls his eyes. "You're the one who stands so close. Sorry I haven't been able to see you but...hey, do you want to meet my friends? I can probably get out easier with them. Or use them as cover."

Tooru bites his lip. He knows who Hajime is talking about, in the vaguest sense. The two boys who come with him to the pond. He wants to say no, but Hajime used the best argument to win Tooru to his side: more time together. That is all Tooru wants. If not forever, then at least until Tooru is forced to pick Ushijima or his swan form.

But he really wants forever.

He has taken too long to decide, because he sees Hajime start to backtrack. "I mean...If it's too soon..."

"Sure," Tooru cuts across Hajime's stammering. "Tomorrow?"

Hajime nods, relief evident in his expression. Hajime's smile leaves Tooru's stomach tied in the best knots. Hajime has never met with him two nights in a row, so Tooru has something to look forward to that has a definitive end date. It is a nice feeling.

Before Hajime leaves he pulls Tooru into a hug. Even though Tooru is just slightly taller than Hajime he tucks his face into Hajime's shoulder. He suppresses the urge to kiss him. Because the rules are very clear--Hajime has to pass a test before declaring his true love for Tooru. A kiss probably wouldn't prompt that declaration, but Tooru wants to play this safe. He has no idea what would happen if Hajime declared his love right now. Tooru will have to tell Ushijima about Hajime soon. The thought makes him sick. He wants Hajime to be only his, not sullied by Ushijima and his court and this curse.

On Tooru's way back to the palace, Kenma slinks up next to him. “Tell Ushijima tonight,” he says. “I think this may be a good chance for you to break your curse.”

Tooru wants to tell Kenma that of course this is a good chance. That didn’t he see how Tooru looked at Hajime, as if he had created the stars? But Kenma makes it hard for Tooru to snap at with his withdrawn demeanor and fathomless eyes, so instead he just says, “I think I really like him.”

Kenma’s smile is small but real. “I’m very happy for you.”

***

Kuroo slips into the parlor Ushijima had summoned him to. Ushijima has systematically been taking reports from those in charge of his lands before he leaves for Karasuno in the south, and Kuroo is the last.

Kuroo is surprised to see Tooru in the room, chin propped on his knees, arms wrapped around his legs. “I hope you do not mind, Tooru and I have something to discuss after your report,” Ushijima answers Kuroo’s unvoiced question.

“Of course not. There is nothing to report anyway. I have not seen anything out of the ordinary. I have a meeting with the prince of Seijoh this week to discuss the poachers and reestablish land rights.”

Ushijima nods. “Thank you. Please report back to me once you hear if the humans have anything newsworthy.”

Kuroo bows low. “Of course.”

“Before you leave, would you like a drink?” Ushijima gestures to the table. Kuroo hesitates, noticing the way Tooru tenses, but ultimately he cannot say no to his king. “Thank you, sir.” He sits as Ushijima motions to a servant to bring Kuroo a glass.

The three of them sit in silence, Kuroo and Tooru awkward and Ushijima oblivious. Kuroo watches Tooru’s hands flex and relax in his nervousness. Ushijima, also noticing the tick, wraps his thick hand around Tooru's bicep. Tooru stops instantly.

Kuroo remembers when Tooru first came to court seven years ago, prettier than a sunflower, cuttingly derisive, and beautifully defiant. Now Kuroo watches how he cowers behind Ushijima, trying to stay in control but ultimately bending to Ushijima’s all-encompassing will. He is amazed Tooru still finds ways to avoid cowing to Ushijima entirely.

“Tooru, you said you had something to tell me. Would you like to wait for Kuroo to leave or do you want to speak now? I know you like to sleep.”

Kuroo meets Tooru’s eyes. Tooru studies him, his brown eyes calculating. Kuroo knows from Kenma that Tooru is going to tell Ushijima about his secret love tonight and wonders if that is what the conversation is going to be about. He wonders what Ushijima would do to Tooru if Tooru told him while they were alone, which is an absurd thought because Ushijima is a benevolent ruler. But Kuroo can only assume Tooru is mulling over a similar question.

Kuroo guesses correctly when Tooru says, "No, I'll tell you now. Ushiwaka, I met someone. So you need to give your test. Or whatever.”

Kuroo has never seen Ushijima as surprised as he does in this moment. He stiffens, mouth thinning. By the way Tooru shifts, Kuroo can tell the grip on his arm has also tightened. Kuroo has wondered how much Ushijima really wanted Tooru to join their court, and this must be the answer.

“I must meet them first, but you have picked an inconvenient time to tell me. I am leaving tomorrow for Karasuno.”

Tooru pulls himself away from Ushijima. “Well I’m sorry my curse is inconvenient for you but I have less than a month until I turn into a swan. Make time.”

Kuroo shifts uncomfortably as they stare each other down. “I do not understand. Why choose a path that is uncertain when you have all of this to inherit? What else could you possibly want?”

“Because I don’t want to inherit this! I never have. My tribe told me I was chosen, that I should be grateful for the opportunity to increase my station, to marry into a better kingdom, a magical one. But I had everything planned, I knew everything that I wanted to do. And regardless of that, I really like him. I want him to commit an act of true love for me.”

Ushijima glances over at Kuroo. “You may leave.”

Kuroo glances at Tooru as he stands. Tooru has folded his arms, everything guarded. “Tooru...”

“I’ll be fine, Tetsu-kun. Ushijima-san has to leave in the morning so I’m sure he’ll need to retire early. Go find Kenma.”

Kuroo gives one more appraising look around the room before taking his leave. He finds Kenma sitting in the foyer, intense concentration focused on the strings in front of him. Kuroo walks up, watches him struggle for a second. “If you take the third and sixth strings up around the middle string you can make a turtle.”

Kenma sighs. “I don’t like the shape of the shell.”

“Of course you don’t.”

“How was your meeting? You were in there longer than you thought.”

Kuroo takes Kenma’s wrists, helps him stand. He turns him around and proceeds to guide them toward their adjoining quarters. “Tooru was there. He told Ushijima about his new interest.”

Kenma glances up at Kuroo, gaze sharp. “What happened?”

Kuroo shrugs, guiding Kenma around a pillar. “Steps,” he says and then, “Ushijima was shocked. I’ve never seen him scrambling like he was. I didn’t realize how...attached he has become to Tooru. You don’t think he’ll find a way around it, do you?”

“He can’t,” Kenma says tersely. “It is against the bounds of the curse. If Tooru told him, he has to follow through with the test."

Kuroo nods. He doesn't say that he is still worried--that Ushijima is blunt and used to getting what he wants. He must have assumed that Tooru would always be a part of his court. He would do everything in his power to keep it that way. Kuroo may not have strong feelings toward Tooru, but he does want him to live the life he wants.

"He seemed...very passionate about this man," Kuroo says as he and Kenma get ready for the night.

"Can I sleep in your room tonight?" Kenma asks instead of answering. Kuroo nods. They curl up together, Kenma closer than usual.

"If I lost you, I don't know what I would do," Kenma finally says. Kuroo glances down, tries not to do anything to disturb this fragile moment. Kenma has his head tucked so Kuroo cannot see his expression. "And Bokuto would hang the moon for Akaashi. Tooru doesn't feel that for Ushijima, and Ushijima likes Tooru for his appearance and his tenacity. He doesn't...love him, I don't think. Tooru would self-destruct if forced to stay at court. He would destroy the court. That cannot happen."

Silence lays thick against them. Kenma only speaks so much when extremely passionate about something. Kuroo had never thought Kenma even gave Tooru a second thought. He usually shied away from his overbearing, overwhelming, overcompensating personality.

"I always underestimate you," Kuroo blurts out. He feels his face heat up almost immediately. Kenma bumps his head into Kuroo's chest before looking up, a small smile curled around his mouth, crinkling his eyes. It makes Kuroo's heart thud faster, louder, clearly noticeable to both of them on the bed.

"Everyone does, but you least of all." Kenma kisses Kuroo's jaw before turning around. "I'm tired. G'night, Kuro."

Kuroo lays awake in bed long after Kenma falls asleep. The words Kenma uttered echo in his head, birds trapped with nowhere to go.

Chapter Text

“Don’t do anything to scare him away,” is the last bit of advice Hajime gives in a string of pleas to Issei and Hiro.

“How dare you,” Hiro says in mock offense. “We are court trained to act courteous and gentlemanly.”

“I think you are making his point,” Issei says mildly as they push through the clump of trees bunched right at the edge of the clearing. Hiro and Issei start bickering but Hajime doesn’t pay attention. Instead, he glances around, locating Tooru sitting with his chin tucked into his knees, staring at the luminescent pond. When Tooru’s eyes meet his, Hajime can’t help his sigh of relief. It wasn’t that he thought Tooru would not show up, really, but his hesitation at the suggestion had placed the idea into Hajime’s head.

“How in all hells is everything glowing?” Hiro asks, breaking the small moment between Hajime and Tooru. “How have we never been here after dark?”

“That would be the dinners. And the balls. And, I don’t know, the night guard...”

“Shut up,” Hajime hisses as Tooru stands, dusts himself off, and makes his way over to them with the same grace Hajime had noticed the first time they had met.

“Iwa-chan’s late,” Tooru announces when he has joined their group.

Iwa-chan Issei mouths to Hiro, who grins. Hajime braces himself for the inevitable teasing.

Hiro shrugs, turning to Tooru. “Get used to it. You would think he’d have learned his manners by now. But I guess when no one is telling you what to do...” Hiro says then bows slightly. “Takahiro Hanamaki, at your service. That's Issei Matsukawa. I must say, Hajime wasn’t kidding when he said you were pretty as a flower.”

“Limbs like a willow,” Issei adds.

“Eyes as deep as a pool of...”

“Okay! I have never said any of those things.” Hajime knows his face is burning so he turns to Tooru. He is surprised to see Tooru's cheeks also dusted pink. Tooru takes Hajime’s hands in his, suddenly much shyer than Hajime has ever seen him.

“I didn’t know Iwa-chan liked how I looked so much. He doesn't tell me, that's for sure. Instead, he's always telling me how hideous I am."

"No, that was one time and you brought it on yourself..."

Tooru can't keep his straight face and starts laughing. “It’s okay Iwa-chan, I still like you. Even when you are a brute.”

“So, now that we know Your Highness really does have a mysterious man he meets at the pond after dark, why haven’t you invited him to the ball yet?” Hiro asks.

“Hiro,” both Hajime and Issei hiss at him, but the warning is too late. Tooru has frozen in place, his grip on Hajime’s hands tightening before suddenly disappearing.

“Your...Highness?” he asks, his voice strangled. He takes a step back. Hajime automatically reaches out for him. “You...never said. Of course you are. The prince of Seijoh, right?”

“Wait, Tooru,” Hajime says, although he is not sure what he is asking him to wait for, as Tooru has not made another move to flee. “I just...you didn’t know. And it was refreshing to be treated like an equal.”

That gets Tooru’s attention. His lip curls into a sneer, and he tosses his head up. “Ah yes, you would know exactly what if feels like to be trapped in a role you never asked for and never wanted, your schedule limited to whether you can stay out long enough to not get noticed.”

“Actually, that does sound just like you,” Issei says to Hajime. “Except I think you’re warming up to your role as future king.”

“You should have said he didn’t know you were a prince!” Hiro burst out, causing all three of them to momentarily forget their argument in favor of staring at Hiro.

“It was implied,” Issei deadpans.

“I know I don’t really know you,” Tooru says. Hajime turns to him, wary. He has learned how sharp Tooru’s tongue could be. “But are you always so oblivious? It must be rough at court.”

“Are you speaking from experience?” Hiro shoots back. Hajime sighs, watches helplessly as Tooru shows all his teeth in a mocking smile, Hiro puffs himself up, both gearing for a battle. Issei shrugs when Hajime looks toward him. His friends had all gone crazy.

"All I'm saying is that reading a room is a pretty important skill to have," Tooru answers, "regardless of whether you are a peasant or a king."

Hajime sidles over to Issei. What was it with his friends and wanting to argue? "Should we stop this?"

Issei shakes his head. "I think they're done."

And they seemed to be, with the serious fighting at least. Issei raises his eyebrows at Hajime. "And Iwa-chan? How cute."

Hajime scowls. Before he can say anything he hears said nickname. "Iwa-chan, you didn't tell me that!"

Hajime turns back to Tooru, wary. "Didn't tell you what?"

"That you are an animal whisperer!" Tooru has situated himself closer to Hajime, his whole right side pressed against Hajime's left. Tooru rests his hand on Hajime's arm, and all he can focus on is the warmth of Tooru's bare skin on his own. "You know, I bet the Woodland Court would do well to have an animal whisperer amongst them. Sure would keep Karasuno in the mountains from causing any more riots."

Hajime watches Issei and Hiro exchange one of their signature looks. "Are you part of the Woodland Court?" Hiro asks casually.

Hajime feels Tooru's grip tighten on his arm before loosening back to normal. It is the only tick that gives away something is wrong. "Not really, just interested in the goings-on. Who wouldn't be, with the magic?"

"If nothing else, Highness, marry him for his politics," Issei says with a whistle, breaking the awkward moment of considering whether to question Tooru further or allow his secrecy to pass.

"And, apparently, his prowess to read a room," Hiro says. "And give charmingly infuriating nicknames, Iwa-chan."

"How about my ability to tackle you to the ground?" Tooru snaps.

"Gotta catch me first!" Hiro sings and takes off laughing, Tooru right on his heels. Hajime watches his friends wrestle each other. He had worried about what would happen if Tooru didn't like his friends, or if his friends had reservations about Tooru, especially because he had absolutely no personal information about him. Now that Tooru knew he was a prince, he could potentially disappear, and Hajime would have no idea where to even begin looking for him. Or he could be a con artist who didn't know what trap he had actually sprung until right that very moment.

Hajime was used to being at a slight disadvantage, but he didn't like the one-sidedness of this one.

"Iwa-chan! Help me!" Tooru yells out as Hiro gets the upper hand. Hajime hesitates for just a moment, because it has been so long since he has just let loose, allowing himself the pleasure of shucking off his role as prince and putting on the mantle of carefree friend. Issei smirks and takes off toward them. Hajime decides to follow.

Issei finally announces that it is well past time for them to leave, to which Tooru pales, dusting himself off and saying he has to go too. "Wait," Hajime says, grabbing his wrist as he turns away. Hiro and Issei give not-so-subtle hints that they will be waiting out of hearing range for Hajime to finish whatever moment he had just started with Tooru. Undeterred, he plows on. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you before," Hajime says, his voice barely above a whisper. He watches Tooru duck his head into his shoulder, waits as he gathers his bearings and looks back at Hajime. "I don't want you to think it was because I am embarrassed of you or of my position. I really want you to come to the ball. So...So that I can ask for an official courtship."

Tooru's eyes widen. Panic grips Hajime at the frightened look, so he continues hurriedly, "I...I mean. If it's not too soon. If it's what you want. If it is not, I understand, please do not feel pressured to do anything..."

"I want to," Tooru says, his voice firm. Hajime takes a deep breath. "You just caught me by surprise. I, uh, I have to...get permission, but I want to. I promise." Hajime watches Tooru take a shaky breath. “You’ll come back?”

Hajime smiles, relieved. “Of course. This week is slow for me, and now that Issei and Hiro know where I’m going, I’m sure they will be much more accommodating with their excuses. They really want me to get married.”

Tooru smirks. Hajime’s brain stops all logical thought when Tooru puts his arms around his neck, their noses so close to touching. He can feel Tooru’s breath whisper across his lips when he says, “Just as long as Iwa-chan wants to marry me.” Hajime opens his mouth, probably to make a stupid promise but Tooru’s hand covers his mouth before sound can come out. “I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“I hope so,” Hajime says. Tooru lets out his chiming laugh, releasing Hajime. He gives a little wave before slipping away down the path on the opposite side of the clearing.

Hajime is surprised when he sees Issei and Hiro standing just around the bend of the trail, although he does not know why he thought they would leave him alone so easily. “So, you’re madly in love,” Issei says.

“I like him,” Hiro declares.

Hajime stares at him. “You argued with him most of the time! And tackled him to the ground!”

“And we argue very well, thank you very much!”

“Sounds like you're the one who is courting him,” Issei says, shielding himself from Hiro’s punch. Hajime laughs, a burden lifted off of his shoulders.

"Maybe...You should get more information about him?" Hiro says, his voice raising as a question at the end. Hajime stiffens. Hiro hurries to clarify. "I don't think he is malicious, but you never know. He seems to know a lot about a court he claims no part of."

"And his accent is slightly Northern," Issei points out. "The nickname is unique."

Everything they are saying is true, are things that Hajime has been mulling over. "I know," he says, his voice harsher than usual. He sighs. "Sorry. It's just...Usually I would have asked already, but there just hasn't been a moment..."

"You are so in love," Hiro says with a cackle.

"Shut up!" Hajime says, his face flaming. Of course they do not.

They're almost to the castle when Hiro says, "You know, just to be clear, it's still your fault you didn't tell me he didn't know about you being a prince and all."

Issei and Hajime groan.

***

Kuroo is running late, which is not a thing he is used to.

His morning had started early, settling disputes about who was using what on whose property that seemed utterly ridiculous. He then ran around trying to find the contract that Ushijima had left him for Seijoh, which Tendou had helpfully "put away" without telling him. And on top of it all, he had a guilty feeling pooling at the base of his stomach because of the spat he had had with Kenma the night before.

What a great day.

So Kuroo is maybe not in the best of moods to meet Prince Hajime Iwaizumi of Seijoh, but he is a professional, after all, and his mood does not need to affect this meeting. Even if every other meeting with Seijoh has brought him nothing but irritation and a want to burn down the whole city.

Hajime Iwaizumi is not what Kuroo expects. When Kuroo had come to Seijoh Castle before he had met with numerous delegates who talk around issues with superfluous vocabulary that hadn't actually gotten anything done, leaving him frustrated with nothing to report back to Ushijima. From the moment Iwaizumi had told Kuroo to call him by his name without the formalities, Kuroo knew this man meant business. He could see why Ushijima had insisted on dealing with the prince himself rather than anyone the king sent.

"Ushijima sends his regards and apologizes he could not be here himself. Spring is a busy time for the Woodland Court, as you can imagine."

"I'm sure," Hajime says as he peruses the contract that Kuroo had proposed. "I heard there are poachers in the woods."

Kuroo is glad that Hajime is not looking at him because he knows his features show the surprise he is feeling. The goings-on of the Woodland Court do not usually make it to human ears, regardless of how high up those ears are. He schools his face back into his placid mask before Hajime looks up. "I can assure you we are doing everything we can to find them. They should not be a threat to your city."

"I would have mentioned it before if I had thought otherwise. I just wanted to let you know that if it is anyone under my authority please do not hesitate to let me know. If you need help, please ask. We will uphold our end of the treaty."

Kuroo almost starts laughing because the poachers in the woods who had avoided detection for so long could not possibly be fully human at this point. "Thank you for your cooperation, Iwaizumi."

They sit a few more minutes in silence as Hajime finishes and gathers his thoughts. "I agree with most of this, but I find the restricted access to the woods unnecessarily harsh. As far as I know, our people have not caused yours any harm, unless there is something that you would like to bring up that you failed to mention before?"

The steely glint in Iwaizumi's eyes promise a challenge. As much as Kuroo wants to push, he knows that would not be a great idea in his state of mind, so he holds up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "No, nothing at all like that. We have just noticed that there are some strange things happening recently and would like to keep everyone involved as safe as possible."

"The only people who go into the heart of the forest are those who already have magical affinities, and with your express permission," Hajime counters. "If you would like us to monitor more closely who goes in and out, we can accommodate, but I find the restrictions unreasonable. What message are we sending to my people if we tell them they are no longer allowed in the wood? It seems suspicious to me, something that would cause talk, and there are already so many rumors because of the secrecy of magic. We can reduce our hunting by 5% if you would like, as a show of good faith, in exchange for the accessibility to stay the same."

Kuroo regards Iwaizumi, who looks back at him calmly, unruffled. Kuroo knows that Seijoh does not need to hunt in the Woodland run by Ushijima, that they hardly ever fill their permits unless the year has been unnaturally hard. He knows that Ushijima has written in this new clause to the treaty because of Tooru and the fact that someone had met him at his pond, which Ushijima had always seen as secluded. But unless Ushijima has other victims stowed away, there is nothing else to protect. Tooru's curse is up in a handful of weeks anyway.

"I believe that would be acceptable, but let me bring it to Ushijima. He was adamant about this one."

Iwaizumi nods, his shoulders relaxing. "Thanks. I just...I like the woods. They have always been a place that I can go to relieve the stress of my station. I do not want to make it so that someone less fortunate than I doesn't have a place to escape to if they need it."

Kuroo cocks his head, thoughtful. An idea had planted itself into his mind early on, sprouting as Iwaizumi talked, and flowered at this final statement. "Tell me, Iwaizumi, have you ever been to the lake in the woods? It's close to your castle, just to the east."

Iwaizumi's eyes widen. "I...Yes. My friends and I grew up playing in the clearing next to it."

Kuroo smirks. He could see why Tooru would be drawn to this man, his calm personality, his undaunted opinions. His physique. Kuroo decides to take a chance. "So, you're the one that has caught Tooru's attention. He didn't say his visitor was a prince."

Kuroo notices Iwaizumi's grip on his chair arms tighten. "Wha-? How-?" Ah. Interesting. It seemed Tooru was keeping more secrets than Kuroo thought. "Is Tooru part of the Woodland Court?"

Many, many more secrets than Kuroo thought. Kuroo wonders how Tooru had spun his web to ensnare someone like Iwaizumi, who seemed to like clear, defined answers before agreeing to anything.

"Forget I said anything," Kuroo says with a lazy wave of his hand. He hopes he had not just ruined whatever Tooru had created. Kenma would never speak to him again if he had. He stands, ready to leave. Iwaizumi looks like he has a million more questions, but he just leads Kuroo to the door, bids him farewell, the perfect image of royalty.

On a whim, Kuroo turns back to him. "You know, Tooru really likes you. And I think you'd be good for him." Before Iwaizumi can say anything back, and before Kuroo can dig any more of a hole for himself, he saunters away.

***

Tooru jumps when a knock sounds at the library door. Lately, he has taken to holing himself up in the library at night to avoid running into the Daytime Court and their disappointed glares, and the Night Court and their inquisitive ones. Tooru’s pride would not allow him to stoop so low as to admit when all odds are against him. He might just stay a swan to avoid the embarrassment of it all if Hajime doesn’t live up to his expectations.

But...Hajime had asked him to the ball. Hajime had wanted to court him before he knew where Tooru came from. If he had been a peasant this would have been a dream come true.

But Tooru is not a peasant, and neither is Hajime. They both have specific roles, duties to their countries.

Tooru’s mind whirls. It helped, that he was Northern royalty. Could benefit both Hajime’s country and his own lands, as well as the Woodland. He had thought his time helping his family were over once he were given away to Ushijima, but maybe not. Maybe he could still be of use and be happy.

The knock sounds again. Tooru stands. “Yeah, sorry. Come in!”

He is surprised when Kuroo enters the room, shutting the door softly behind him. Tooru glances around for Kenma, but it does not appear that he came with. “What did you want, Tetsu-kun?”

Kuroo smiles. It is strangely devoid of any maliciousness, which sets Tooru more on edge than it should. He sits back down warily. "To what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?"

Kuroo shrugs, dropping himself into a chair across from Tooru. "Thought you might like some company. You seem to stick to yourself since you shook up the court with your announcement."

"Ah, so you're here to gossip. How surprising." Tooru slumps into his chair, suddenly very tired. He does not know why he expected anything else. Everyone here wanted to talk to him to get into Ushijima's good graces, or didn't want to talk to him because they found him overbearing, too intense, too mopey, too moody. He was a curiosity to be displayed and admired, not a real person with actual feelings.

"Gossip is part of any court, Tooru, even for you wanderer lot. This is how we were born and bred to be, especially us who have been royalty all our lives." Tooru knows that most of the court had found Ushijima after they had manifested some sort of shapeshifting ability. It varied wildly from if they had come of their own free will with a blessing from their former homes, like Kuroo or Akaashi, or whether they had been treated poorly or exiled, like Bokuto or Kenma. Or if they had a curse placed on them, like Tooru. Most of the Daytime Court had already existed with ties to Ushijima, which made it hard to penetrate into those circles (not that Tooru would want to).

"Maybe I don't have the time or the willpower to gossip at the moment," Tooru says in a surprising moment of honesty.

Kuroo nods. "Then we won't gossip. A little peace and quite is nice after the day I've had." Tooru waits for him to go on, but he does not. Instead, Kuroo pulls a book off of the table, flipping through it as if he had already started it. Tooru braces himself for the inevitable questioning to begin, but after ten minutes of silence he has to admit that Kuroo must really be here to unwind from a stressful day, not interrogate Tooru on his curse.

Tooru allows his mind to flit to other things. Hajime had not been at the pond today, but Tooru was not too disheartened, especially now that he knew he was competing for time in a prince's schedule. He would continue waiting, give it at least three days, before worrying about whether or not Hajime and his friends had decided he wasn't worth the effort.

He liked Hajime's friends, grudgingly, but they had grown on him. They seemed loyal, with only Hajime's well-being in mind. Tooru finds himself hoping that he made a good impression, that they aren't warning Hajime to get as far away from him as possible because of all the secrets and lies. He wants them to like him.

He also thinks about the way Hajime had asked him so earnestly to come to the ball, to allow him to officially announce a courtship. That would have been the perfect opportunity for Tooru to tell Hajime that Tooru had a secret. But instead, like the coward he is, he just agreed, hoping Ushijima would issue his test before then so he could attend knowing full well he would stay human, would stay with Hajime forever.

Tooru feels his cheeks start to heat up as he realizes how silly he sounds in his mind, like a lovestruck child who wants to follow his new crush everywhere. Hajime does that to him, and in the moment it always feels so right. It is only after they have separated, after Tooru catches himself hoping, that he realizes this may just be a dream after all.

"You know," Kuroo says, shattering the serenity of the room, but also destroying Tooru's self-destructing spiral. "Kenma loves myths and legends. Tests of courage, defying odds at all costs, true love's kiss to break the spell, all that. Sometimes I wonder why he doesn't want to be with someone braver than me."

Tooru stares at Kuroo for a few moments, but Kuroo just glances at him before going back to his book. This is the most open anyone has ever been with him--well, besides Bokuto, but he hardly counted because he was open with anyone who asks him a question with the slightest bit of authority. "You...are brave."

It sounds lame, but Tooru finds himself actually meaning it. Today is just full of surprises.

Kuroo scoffs, but Tooru can see the way he fidgets with the pages of the book in his hands. He knows Kuroo and Kenma had some sort of argument, and he wonders if that is why Kuroo is bringing this up now. So Tooru plows on. "Kenma doesn't want courageous acts of danger and daring. Leave that stuff for Bokuto and Akaashi. Kenma wants the constant presence of knowing someone is there for him. You show him how much you care by allowing him to sit next to you after a long day or indulging him in that damn game of Cat's Cradle you two play over and over again. I'm sure he thinks you are brave just by protecting him."

Kuroo is openly staring at Tooru after his speech. Tooru sits back, stunned. He really should go to bed. He is obviously not in his right mind. Stupid Iwa-chan for making him so sappy.

Kuroo clears his throat. Tooru can tell he is about to say something that will shock him again so he braces himself. "The reason Ushijima lost you is not because he cursed you to be with him. It is because even though he says you have so much to offer the court, he does not allow you to exercise any authority."

Tooru feels his hackles rise at the mention of Ushijima. Kuroo, sensing the shift in emotion, holds up his hands in a placating gesture. Tooru allows him to continue without interruption, although the temptation is strong. "You are smart and opinionated, which Ushijima admires but does not want or need in a consort. He needs someone who will back him up, who will allow him to shine without overpowering him."

"So, anyone in his daytime court," Tooru says.

Kuroo gives his malicious smirk. "I suspect a lanky redhead wants that job very much."

"I knew it!" Tooru bursts out gleefully, then stops. "Hells, we started gossiping."

Kuroo shakes his head. "Hard habit to break, I know. But while we are on the gossiping topic, I just wanted to say. Prince Hajime. Of Seijoh."

Tooru feels his cheeks warm again. He has not blushed so much in his life. Kuroo nods, his smirk growing. "Ah, thought so. I mean, he is attractive if you're into muscles and authority. His countrymen seem to like him well enough. He's blunt but thoughtful. Tell me, did you know he was a prince when you met him, or am I shocking you with this revelation?"

"Shut up," Tooru hisses as if anyone were listening in on their conversation. "I just found out last night! What did you say to him?"

Kuroo holds a hand to his chest as if wounded. "Why would you suspect that I said anything to him? And even if I did, it was all in the interest of protecting those that I care about here in this lovely palace..."

"Oh hells, just stop talking already." Tooru puts his head in one hand. This could not be happening. Kuroo could not have found out, could not have said something to potentially ruin what he had started...

"You know, you should be honest with him," Kuroo says, throwing Tooru off guard for the thousandth time that night. "He seemed very confused that I knew who you were. When I mentioned that you were familiar with Ushijima's court, it seemed like he gained some clarity but for the most part he looked as lost as I was when I finally figured out he was who you had decided to fall in love with. You have high taste, oh great Oikawa-san."

"Shut. Up. Already," Tooru grits out. "He asked me to come to his ball. He said he wants to court me. How can I just come out and be like, by the way, I'm cursed in Ushijima's household, so you have to figure out how to break me out? Please. No one would want to fight for me that hard."

"You always do that."

Tooru creases his eyebrows. "Do what?"

"Talk about yourself as if you have no value. Of course someone would want to fight for you that hard. In fact, Prince Hajime does, from what I gathered from him. And telling him about your situation would only make him more determined to win you over."

Tooru glances away from Kuroo. His whole life he has been told who to be, his worth measured by his willingness to submit to other's visions of who he could become. Stripped of all of that, who was he really? What was his worth?

He wants Hajime to love him, and he wants to prove to Hajime that Tooru can love him more than anyone else. He was smart, and he wanted to use that intelligence to help others. He took chances. And if Hajime ran away when he heard about Tooru's curse, it was his loss.

"The ball is on Summer Solstice. Hajime can declare his love to me then, if Ushijima is too busy to do anything else. He comes back in a few days, so I'll let him know then."

Kuroo's eyebrows rose. "Cutting it close there. What if you can't get to Ushijima in time if Prince Hajime fails?"

Tooru shrugs. "Maybe I'm meant to stay a swan then."

The door to the library opens. Both Kuroo and Tooru turn their attention to Kenma, who slips into the room silently, sitting in a chair close to Kuroo. "Hey," Kuroo says, all of his attention now focused on Kenma, Tooru forgotten. "You okay?"

Kenma nods, curling up in the chair. He leans his head on Kuroo's arm. "No fair, you read ahead."

"Not really, I was rereading some of the ones I fell asleep in."

Ah, so Kuroo had started the book. Tooru stands. "Well, what a lovely chat. I'll leave you two alone."

He makes his way around the table. As he passes Kenma he feels a soft touch, feather-light against his hand. When he glances down he sees Kenma's arm retreating, and when Tooru gives Kenma a questioning look he just shrugs. "You looked like you needed it, is all. Kuro, we already read that one."

Tooru slips out the door as the two of them bicker about where they are in the book. One day, he thinks, a spring in his step. He will have that one day.

And he has a plan to make it so.

Chapter Text

Tooru did not realize it would be so hard to sneak towels and a picnic basket out of the palace before sunrise without being noticed, but by the time he finally makes it to the door he is sure at least half the palace knows he has them, and it is mostly Tendou's fault. “Someone’s eager to show off his goods,” Tendou says in his sing-song voice that makes Tooru want to rip his throat out.

“Don’t be jealous because you wish you had anything to show anyone,” Tooru says sweetly before slamming the door shut, cutting off Kuroo’s barking laugh. Tooru sighs, slumping down against the door for just a moment before hurrying down to his pond. He had gotten up early with the intention of gathering everything together to take over to the pond to allow himself leisure time to set everything up how he wanted, but then Tendou had to come interrupt.

So instead of situating everything how he wants, Tooru ends up shoving the towels, the picnic basket, and the wine into a clump of bushes as his body spasms with the change from human to swan. He squawks irritably and destroys a bush not far from him with his beak in retaliation before heading to the pond. The swan part of him feels somewhat abandoned, because since Hajime had started seeing Tooru’s human self, he rarely comes to visit during the day. It does not help improve his mood.

Sometimes, Tooru can remember his true form when he has something to look forward to. Other times, his swan instincts take over, and he is disoriented when he turns back, forgetting how a human body functions, uncomfortable in his big, lanky form. Today he sits in a strange in between, waiting for the same man for different reasons. Time moves slowly. Tooru swims restlessly, jumps onto the bank to scare away squirrels and chase any eagles away from his clearing, more territorial than usual. He wants nothing to do with the Day Court. He waits for Hajime, but he doesn’t arrive.

When the sun sets Tooru feels like he could run miles. Human again, he starts pacing to alleviate his tension, but he needs more, something else to focus on. So he spins a few cartwheels, exhilarated and slightly lightheaded from the fact that he can still execute them so nicely after years of not practicing. He stands on his hands, walks a few paces, but is woefully underdeveloped in that area, then starts practicing his front walkover. He does not know what compelled him to suddenly remember his old hobbies, but it probably has something to do with the motivational speech he gave himself with Kuroo's help.

Maybe when you think there is a chance you get to keep your body, you tend to want to be more present in it.

Tooru is just about to try a few flips when he hears someone clearing their throat behind him. His heart speeds up, but he forces himself to finish executing his last walkover, drawing out the slow roll of his arched back, leaving his arms up and neck elongated. He knows he looks good. This night is all about securing his future.

He refuses to think about the fact that most of this is out of his hands because of Ushijima's terms. Iwa-chan has to love him in order to declare true love, obviously. Tooru is determined to make himself so desirable Iwa-chan will do anything he says.

"I didn't realize you were so talented," Iwa-chan says, his voice woefully steady. Damn him and his levelheadedness. Oh well, Tooru had other things planned.

"I come from a family of acrobats," Tooru says dismissively, as if he had not had to fight to continue his acrobatic training when his family deemed it too unnecessary. Why not sing? Play an instrument? Something more...court appropriate.

Because it does not matter what I do, if I am just going to be sold off to another court for magic.

Hajime looks like he wants to say more, probably about what Kuroo brought up about the Woodland Court, so Tooru runs up, grabs Iwa-chan's hands. He has noticed that Hajime likes when Tooru touches him, that he stops asking questions. Probably because he hasn't been laid in awhile. Tooru should scold him for being so transparent, but who was Tooru to talk? It would be a cold day in the hells below when Tooru slept with Ushijima, as many times as it has been so casually alluded to.

So Tooru just grips Hajime's hands tighter. "Look, I have a surprise! Come on, come on!" Tooru leads Hajime to where he has set up their small picnic, the towels almost as big as blankets and just as soft.

"Wow," Hajime says, whistling low.

"But first! I was thinking maybe we can swim. The water looks cold, but it is actually not too bad. Besides, it is starting to warm up!"

"Wait, swim...?"

But Tooru had turned around. He takes two deep breaths to steel himself, then pulls off his tunic. He shivers as the cool air nips at his skin. He kicks off his boots next, then turns to look at Hajime over his shoulder. He catches Hajime staring for a few seconds at the expanse of skin now visible. Tooru smirks.

"Like what you see, Iwa-chan?"

Hajime blinks, and the blush that dusts his cheeks is adorable. Tooru keeps needling. "It's like you never use the public baths."

"Shut up," Hajime mutters and shucks his shirt off without warning. Tooru gets caught up watching the way his arm muscles move as he throws his shirt at the towels Tooru had arranged so nicely. His body is so, so nice, Tooru thinks, admiring the firm muscles along Hajime's torso and chest. Giddy, Tooru rids himself of the rest of his clothes and steps into the water.

The initial shock dulls quickly. Ushijima would never overlook the fact that Tooru could get hypothermia, so as soon as his skin touches the water he feels it subtly heat to match his body temperature. He sighs as he sinks in.

"It is deeper than it looks," Tooru explains when Hajime stops to stare, confused as to how a six foot man can suddenly disappear only a few feet from the bank. Truthfully, Tooru learned long ago that the pool will do what he wants, within reason. Probably so there were no unfortunate accidents. Hajime shrugs, strips himself of the rest of his clothing, and joins Tooru in the water.

Tooru swims away lazily. Before, he had never had a preference for the water, but he has noticed he likes swimming now, that the water feels safe as it enfolds him in its arms. He dives down low, finds Hajime, and splashes up. He laughs when Hajime sputters. "Oh, now you're going to pay."

"No! Iwa-chan, don't--!" But the rest of Tooru's words are lost as Hajime dunks his head under the water. Tooru grips onto his arm and tugs Hajime down with him.

Tooru hasn't had fun like this in years, even if Iwa-chan is a brute who is clearly winning this dunking match. Tooru feels like a drowned cat when he finally declares surrender. Hajime pulls him close, helps him wipe the hair out of his face. "Your smile is so pretty," Hajime says. Tooru feels the air around them change, all of himself longing to reach out toward this man in front of him. He allows himself to drape his wrists on Hajime's shoulders.

Tooru knows it is coming, and for a moment he almost just lets it happen, curse be damned. But he is afraid of what it would do to this man if he allows Hajime to show any sign of affection before Ushijima gives permission, so he turns his face away at the last minute, holding up his hand so Hajime is left kissing his palm. Confused, Hajime pulls away. Tooru sees the embarrassment cloud his features, and Tooru hates himself, just a little, but Hajime gets his bearings back quickly.

"You can't kiss me," Tooru says quickly. Hajime stays silent, studies him for a moment.

"Yesterday I talked to a delegate from the Woodland court. Why did you lie to me?"

Tooru's high comes sinking down. He turns his head, bites his lip, wonders what to say to make Hajime understand, make him stay, without divulging all the ugly truth of his situation. Tooru doesn't want to be that visible, not yet.

"Please, I didn't mean...I'm sorry...Don't hate me."

"Hey." Tooru feels a hand on his cheek, a slight nudge to look Hajime in the eye. Tooru wants to hide, wants to sink into this water and drown, but he looks. He looks, and he sees the softest, most compassionate green eyes he has ever looked into. Eyes that just want to understand before they judge, that see the way Tooru tries, even if he comes up short. At that moment, Tooru understands why everyone would like Hajime as their ruler. "I understand what it is like to want to have a secret or two."

Tooru takes a shaky breath. "Yeah, I am part of the Woodland Court. It is...complicated." Tooru takes a deep breath. "I'm...Actually, I am Northerner by birth, but I have lived as part of the Woodland for almost seven years. I didn't want to tell you...I didn't want you to leave without giving me a chance."

"The Woodland makes a lot of people nervous," Hajime says, his thumb tracing mindless patterns on Tooru's cheek. "But what I have come to learn is that they have to abide by the same laws us mere humans do."
Tooru laughs a helpless, sorry laugh, because magic flows in his veins now too. "I just...like you. Stupid Kuroo for saying anything."

Hajime grins. "Ah, yes, heaven forbid we be honest with each other before we enter into a serious relationship."

Tooru sniffs. "At least then we're bound to each other. Gotta make it work at that point, right?"

Hajime throws his head back and laughs. Tooru watches a drop of water race down his neck and has the sudden urge to lick it. "Alright!" Tooru says, too loudly, "I'll race you back. Loser has to feed the winner."

Tooru takes off, listening to Hajime's protests. He definitely wins.

After they redress they sit huddled together, eating the cheese and bread Tooru had brought with the wine. He notices Bokuto and Kuroo but hardly pays attention to them, the wine making his head floaty. He feels Hajime's nose brush his cheekbone, then his collarbone. Tooru knows he should push Hajime away, should put distance between them, but this bubbling feeling of being wanted expands every time Hajime touches him.

"I'll pray to whatever fate gave us the opportunity to meet," Hajime murmurs some time later when they lay hazily together.

"You've saved me," Tooru whispers.

"Same," Hajime murmurs. "I...I guess I have a confession. My ball. The one I want you to come to. Everyone wants me to take the throne. My father...Well, let's just say he has never been the best king, but there was a point when his greed was for the benefit of the country rather than just for himself. So, I should take the throne. It is logical, my duty. But to do that, I have to get married. Our country sees marriage as lucky and a sign of prosperous fortune if there is a strong couple on the throne, so my reign will be defined by my marriage. Or marriages, if it comes to that."

The sweetness on Tooru's tongue becomes cloying. He swallows a few times as the taste builds up. Waits for the rest of a confession he already knows. Unwanted. Easiest Choice. Just because you're so pretty.

"I met you and you were perfect. It felt like I had always known you. It was another reason I didn't want to tell you who I was. Because, what if you thought the only reason I wanted you was because I needed to get married to secure the throne? What if I just wanted the idea of you to match reality?"

Not enough, a bartering piece to secure power, just stop talking, Tooru, nothing you say will ever matter.

Maybe being a pretty bird is all you're good for.

Tooru sets his glass down, hands trembling. He had read this situation so wrong. "Hey. Tooru, wait. I thought about it, I talked with Issei and Hiro, I really think what we have..."
"Can we finish this conversation later?" Tooru whispers, his voice barely audible. He needs to not be tipsy-bordering-on-drunk when they talk about this. Tooru has a habit of spiraling downward when he has drunk too much. He wonders if he will ask and ask for affection until Hajime breaks the rules of Tooru's curse.

"Yeah...Yes, of course. As long as we finish it. I want to see you again."

Tooru laughs quietly, because as much as he feels hopeless in this moment, he wants to see Hajime too.

"I'm sorry I made you sad."

"Maybe I'm just a sad person, Iwa-chan," Tooru answers.

Hajime brushes his fingers lightly over the back of Tooru's hand. "I want to make you feel better."

Hajime helps Tooru pack his stuff in silence. Tooru thinks about just turning around and leaving, but whatever energy he always feels around Hajime is still strong, maybe stronger than before, so he leans his forehead onto Hajime's shoulder for just a moment, not quite a hug but almost more intimate, before turning away.

For the first time ever Tooru sees Kenma, a small, mostly black wildcat, on his way back. Kenma trots next to Tooru, every once in awhile nudging up against him or running between his feet. When they get back to the palace, Kenma sits, licking at one paw.

"Thanks," Tooru whispers. Kenma cocks his head then darts off into the bushes where Tooru sees Kuroo's taller, more menacing shadow. Tooru wonders when Kenma became so good at reading his emotions. Maybe he always had been, and Tooru had just been so self-involved he hadn't noticed the help being offered to him.

"Stop," Tooru scolds himself as he pushes open the door. This is not a time for self-pity, not the time to let the alcohol in his system take over. He makes his way to the laundry to drop off the wet towels first, then over to the kitchen to return the basket and get rid of the wine bottle and glasses.

Ushijima is making his way out of the kitchen as Tooru arrives. Of course. Ushijima, who has servants for everything, who probably never sets foot in the kitchens, would run into Tooru here, of all places. Does Ushijima never sleep? Never decide to take a break?

He eyes the basket and bottle in Tooru's hands. "Did you have fun?"

"I...Yes." Tooru stares at Ushijima, who gives him an unreadable expression. Ushijima takes the basket from him, motioning with his head for Tooru to follow. Struck dumb, Tooru does just that. When the silence between them stretches too far, Tooru asks, "How is Karasuno?"

Ushijima sighs, handing off Tooru's wine bottle and glasses to a servant. "Tiring. Unpredictable. I am unsure what to do about them."

Tooru hums. "Maybe if you let Daichi handle his own problems, you would not feel so stressed. From what I have seen, he could handle the bandits..."

Tooru stops talking when he notices Ushijima's eyebrows have creased. He feels something akin to irritation smoldering low in his stomach. Kuroo's words from the night before echo in his head. "Never mind."

Airheaded, silly, why do you even try? Damn alcohol, making his tongue and thoughts loose.

"Are you drunk?" Ushijima asks. His voice is gentle, concerned.

"Not really," Tooru says because he is not, but Ushijima just pulls him closer. Tooru sighs, too tired to pull away or argue. He needs to sleep.

Tooru wonders how a swan is going to handle a hangover.

"Come on," Ushijima says. "I will walk you to your room. Tell me about your night. You seem in...relatively good spirits."

Tooru smiles because Ushijima is the worst at trying to make him feel better, but he tried so hard. They might have been friends if the situation were different, if Ushijima could bend his iron rules just a little. If Ushijima ever thought about his happiness over his responsibilities. "I went swimming and drank a little too much wine is all."

Ushijima stays silent. Tooru knows the question he is trying to tactfully ask. "Did you...have a visitor?"

Tooru smiles, remembers the way Iwa-chan's nose brushed over his cheekbone, skimmed his shoulder, wishing it had been his lips. "Yes."

Ushijima frowns. "When am I meeting this stranger?"

In a moment of honesty Tooru says, "Whenever my cowardliness decides to give way to my pride."

Ushijima chuckles. "So, probably soon--you are always more prideful than cowardly. Although I...I wish you would stay."

Tooru studies Ushijima. He does look...regretful. Almost desperate, as if watching a seashell flowing away on a current. Unnecessary, but nice to collect. Tooru shakes his head. "You think you do, but everyone here knows I don't belong."

"A full human..."

"Yes, yes, balances the courts. Has for centuries, I know. Beside that, is there any other reason for me to stay?"

Ushijima shrugs. "You're very smart, and so beautiful..."

Tooru snorts. "You literally asked me if I was drunk when I told you what I thought you should do about Karasuno. Not a very good way to show you think I can use my brain. And of course I am beautiful. Everyone with eyes says that..."

"So humble," Ushijima mutters.

"We don't get along well enough to stay together for the rest of our lives," Tooru tries again.

Ushijima blinks. "I get along with everyone."

Tooru groans. He is tired, his head is starting to ache, and damn, unmovable Ushiwaka is not getting what Tooru is trying to tell him. So Tooru gives up. "Let's talk tomorrow. Or something."

Ushijima hesitates. Tooru braces himself for a fight but instead Ushijima finally gives a reluctant nod. "Sleep well, Tooru."

Tooru gives a small smile. "Night, Ushiwaka."

***

"It's weird to come out during the daytime," Bokuto remarks, but he has a spring in his step that tells Keiji he is just making an observation. "Maybe we should try it more."

"Aren't you tired?" Keiji asks, stifling a yawn of his own. They are nocturnal creatures, but these poachers are well hidden at night, leading Keiji to believe they must be day creatures. Since they cannot locate the poachers at night, Keiji was hoping they would have better luck during the day.

So far, it has been a lot of walking. He and Bokuto had come out mid-afternoon to scour for clues. The sun has now started dipping behind the horizon, making the forest shine with a hazy golden light. Keiji feels like he is walking through a dream, which does not help his sleepiness. He yawns again, bigger this time, stretching his arms with it to try and wake himself up.

"Kinda, but I am more excited to be out here! Sometimes I miss the colors of the world, like this sunset."

Akaashi quirks his mouth. "Bokuto-san, you know you are awake during daylight hours even though you are a night creature."

Bokuto turns to walk backward, looking at Keiji with his earnest expression. "I mean, I know, but it's not like we ever come outside. We're always in meetings with Ushijima, or organizing the weapons, or in the library. Maybe we should ask Ushijima to hold court outside. At least then we won't be bored out of our minds..." Bokuto's eyebrows crease as he slows, looking at something over Keiji's shoulder. Keiji is just about to turn around when he sees Bokuto's eyes widen.

"Move!" Before Keiji can do anything Bokuto has tackled him to the ground. He feels a rush of wind by his left ear, a sharp pain stings his cheek, hears a short kraa of a crow, and then notices the pounding of footsteps.

Before he can do anything Bokuto has rolled back to his feet. "C'mon!" he says breathlessly, eyes sparkling with excitement, before taking off, changing into an owl quickly. Keiji stumbles to his feet to chase after Bokuto. He is too disoriented to shift into an owl, so he lets Bokuto take the intruder by air, while he follows on foot.

They weave through the forest, Bokuto ahead of him, zipping through the trees. Keiji loves these woods, knows them better than anywhere else, but Bokuto has always been the better hunter, has always had an instinct for trees and obstacles. Once he hones in on his prey, he does not let it get away.

Keiji jumps over tree roots, careful not to trip, turning his attention to the cloaked intruder. This person is incredibly fast, faster than Keiji with no sign of slowing down. Keiji thinks he will have to change in order to catch them when the figure stumbles.

The stumble gives Keiji an advantage. He is relieved to have this over with, when suddenly Bokuto hoots in alarm, plunging to earth. Luckily, Keiji is paying just enough attention to Bokuto to avoid barreling into him. He dodges, skids to a stop to turn back to Bokuto, trying to decide whether to help or keep going.

By the time Keiji looks up, the figure and the crow have disappeared. In fact, there are now two crows just leaving his vision.

Keiji knows following would be a waste of time at this point so he turns back to Bokuto. He is tangled in a rope net, hooting quietly, fluttering his wings to try and dislodge himself.

Keiji bends down. "Hey. Hey! Let me help. Stop moving, birdbrain." He gently unwraps the rope from around Bokuto, wincing at the gouges on his claw where the weighted trap had wrapped itself. Whoever threw this had good aim. "Can you turn back?"

The owl in his grip shivers. Keiji sets it down, watches as Bokuto shifts back into his human form. He winces, grasping onto his ankle where the gouges are fully formed. "Good thing we brought supplies," Keiji says doubtfully as he unwraps the bandages in his possession. He wraps Bokuto's ankle firmly.

"I think it looks worse than it actually is," Bokuto says, rolling the ankle in question after Keiji is done bandaging it. "What about your cheek?"

Keiji stares at Bokuto. "My cheek?"

"Yeah, you have a cut...It's still bleeding. Here, let me clean it." Bokuto pulls Keiji closer, so close Keiji can see the freckles that dust Bokuto's cheeks. They aren't usually noticeable, but Keiji likes them, could imagine brushing his fingers along them...

He blinks. This is definitely not the time for thoughts of attraction...

But Bokuto's hands are so gentle on Keiji's face as he wipes the blood away. "Thankfully it isn't very deep. It would have been worse had he gotten the back of your head. I'm glad I saw him." For the first time, Keiji realizes that Bokuto is still worked up. That he is worried for Keiji.

"Take a deep breath, Bokuto-san," Keiji instructs when he notices Bokuto shaking. Bokuto does as asked, taking a huge breath in, then letting it out. He shakes his head as if to clear it, resolve back in his eyes.

"You are one of my best friends, Akaashi. I don't want you hurt. Who would I invite flying with me?"

Keiji's breath catches. It sounds awfully like Bokuto meant to say something else but shied away at the last second. Bokuto runs his fingers over the cloth once, twice, before pulling the cloth away. Keii should just say it, tell Bokuto how he feels, but as he opens his mouth, Bokuto says, "I think the bleeding has stopped."

Keiji snaps his mouth shut, the moment crumbling in front of him. He sighs, glances around, and realizes exactly where they are. He jerks away from Bokuto, on his knees before he even knew he was moving. "We need to get back to Ushijima quickly. Hells, we chased them over to Tooru's pond. If those crows are desperate for food, Tooru could be in danger." Keiji gathers the net, picks up the few crow feathers he finds around them.

"Tooru hardly ever leaves his pond," Bokuto says, his voice uneasy.

"With the commotion he might have," Keiji says, helping Bokuto to his feet. "Can you walk on your leg? Do you see any of the Day Court around?"

Bokuto taps his foot on the ground a few times, bounces on his toes. "Seems fine, just stings. I have not seen anyone in awhile. C'mon Akaashi. Let's go tell Ushijima what we found. If we find an eagle, we'll send them back Tooru's way."

Keiji glances back the way the crows had flown, swallows hard. If Tooru gets hurt...

Bokuto pulls Keiji's hands apart, laces them into his own. "'Kaashi, this is not your fault. This danger is present at all times, so we just have to focus on catching them, yeah?"

Keiji sighs, freeing his left hand. He leaves the other one in Bokuto's grip, a strong, reassuring presence he needs right now. "Yes. You are right. Let's go."

Bokuto smiles his beautiful smile. At least he has this, Keiji thinks. If nothing else, Bokuto is always here to help him carry his burdens.

***

Hajime has never really been to the wood in this twilight hour, everything bathed in soft yellows and oranges. Before, he had left well before sunset, and after he had met Tooru he had come after dark, once everything for the day had settled.

He likes this time, he decides in the first few minutes of his walk toward the pond. There seems to be more activity, squirrels chittering, birds swooping through the tree branches. Sometimes Hajime wishes he had been born to a rural family, one more closely connected to nature. At least when he is king he can make sure to give himself time away from people, to reconnect to himself here in the quietness of the woods.

He hasn't been out during the day in awhile. The Northern delegation has taken to shadowing him, and he has been happy to accommodate, because that just means he gets to see Tooru more.

Their night last night filters through his mind. Tooru bathed in that surreal teal light of the water, his smile radiant, his laugh infectious, his body lithe and supple under Hajime's touch...

His uncertainty of Hajime's love for him.

Is it love? Can it be called that after only a mere handful of weeks together?

It is more than my parents have, Hajime thinks.

Maybe I'm just a sad person, Iwa-chan.

Hajime had always noticed that lingering sadness in Tooru's emotions, an underlying current threatening to take down whoever tries to cross it. Maybe it is one reason Hajime has never pushed Tooru to share more about himself than he was willing. And sure, maybe Hajime is shallow and originally liked Tooru for his looks, but after their night together, and the night Tooru had met Issei and Hiro, Hajime is sure he likes Tooru for his haughty personality, his sharp mind, even the way he dedicates himself so fully to something--Hajime is sure Tooru waits every night for Hajime to show up, even when he knows Hajime only appears once or twice a week.

Tooru has become such an integral part of his life, he doesn't know what he would do if Tooru were to suddenly disappear from it.

Hajime stops. He cocks his head, straining to hear what caught his attention in the first place, but nothing stands out, other than the fact that the animals have gone quiet, a calm before the storm. He continues walking, senses on high alert. He is glad he brought his knife, but he wishes he had a sword, or a bow, something a little bigger to protect himself. The Woodland is tamer than most wild woods, but it also houses magic. He is no stranger to reports about strange beasts with no heads or mythical dragons who lie in mountains of gold that are never seen again.

He is close to the pond when he hears a fluttering of wings, a sharp whistling, and a rough bugling cry. Hajime freezes, his eyes widening. Because he would know the sound of an arrow anywhere. Poachers.

Hajime sprints toward the pond. Please, don't let it be his swan, he pleads silently as he crashes through the clearing, his eyes roving everywhere. He hasn't been to see it in awhile, so wrapped up in his court and in Tooru...let him get there in time.

The swan is huddled next to the tree Hajime usually sits under, beak picking at an arrow protruding from its wing. Hajime's heart plummets. "No," he whispers. For just the briefest moment he thinks about affection, about how everything he loves seems to have an expiration. The swan seems to sense Hajime's presence because it looks up, gives a pathetic cry before going back to nudging at the arrow in its wing.

Hajime only thinks about what to do for a second before kneeling next to it. "Shh," Hajime says as the swan shies away from him. "Let me help you."

The swan is shivering violently as Hajime wraps his hands around its body. It bucks when Hajime touches the arrow. "Hey, hey, I have to get it out of you. Settle down. Settle."

Hajime is not sure why he is talking to the swan--it is not like he can understand, but it makes him feel better so he continues whispering to it as he gets a firm hand on the arrow and yanks.

The swan screams. It is the only word Hajime can use to describe the horrible noise. He can barely hold onto the swan's bucking body. "Damn poachers," Hajime hisses. He is not sure if he has anything to bandage the swan's wing--he wonders if the swan will even be able to fly again, which makes him swallow back tears.

Hajime rummages through his pack, squinting in the poor light. The sun is seconds away from setting. "No," Hajime grits his teeth and decides to set the swan down so he can look faster.

He does not notice the sun completely disappear. His attention is not drawn back to the swan until suddenly there is a weird glowing light where he had laid it down.

Hajime stares as the swan shifts, elongates into the form of a human. A human he knows very well.

"Holy shit," Hajime breathes as Tooru's body solidifies. Hajime watches Tooru curl up, his hand grasping his hurt shoulder. The wound looks bigger and uglier than it would had Tooru been a human when he had been shot. Hajime glances around the clearing, still trying to find a logical explanation for how Tooru had magically arrived in front of him, but all he sees is a cat tearing across the clearing. It does not matter. Hajime knows what his eyes had seen. Tooru is a swan. His swan.

Tooru lets out a small whine of pain, which sets Hajime moving. He grabs a spare shirt from his bag and proceeds to tear it into makeshift bandages.

"Hey," he says, voice barely above a whisper, as he moves next to Tooru. He puts a hand underneath Tooru's back to lift him up, mindful of the gaping wound in his shoulder. "Tooru, hey, I'm going to bandage you as best I can. Then I'll take you back to the castle so the healers can look at you."

Tooru's eyes flutter open. Hajime swallows his shock when he sees the pupils blown wide in pain. "Iwa-chan, Iwa-chan, it hurts," he whispers. Hajime takes Tooru's fingers, which had been grasping at Hajime's shirt, in his own, squeezing reassurance into his touch. When he lets go, Tooru's hand finds purchase in his tunic top once again. "Iwa-chan, please, I'm not...I'm not a swan..."

"Hey, stop talking," Hajime scolds as he sets to work. Tooru's eyes close, his grip lax in Hajime's shirt. Hajime would think he had fainted if it wasn't for the way Tooru's nose would scrunch up as Hajime bandaged the wound.

"Okay," Hajime says with a sigh once he has done as much as he can. Blood is already seeping through the bandages. "I'm taking you back to the castle."

"No!" Tooru says, keening softly when he tries to sit up but can't. "I need to go back."

"You can't move," Hajime points out. "The healers at the castle are the best at what they do..."

Tooru pulls himself up to sitting, his hands still tangled in Hajime's tunic. He tucks his head into Hajime's neck. Hajime wraps his arms around him to keep him upright. He shivers as Tooru's breath paints his neck. "I...I need to go...I'm scared, Iwa-chan."

Hajime's grip tightens on the man in his arms. In all honesty, he is scared too, because the swan he has been looking after has turned into the man he wants to court, who may bleed out before he can get to someone who can help him, but Hajime does not let it cloud his mind. "You will be okay. I will make sure of it."

He feels Tooru nod against his head. "Can--Can you take me to Ushijima, please? I p-promise I will be well-looked after."

Hajime hesitates for a second before lifting Tooru, trying to mind his wound. Tooru cries out anyway, curling himself into Hajime's chest. Hajime staggers under his weight--it is not that Tooru is large, but he is tall, taller than Hajime, and strong so no matter how thin he is, he still weighs a decent amount. "Tell me where to go."

"Follow...the path." Hajime nods. He takes about ten steps before he sees a figure walking down the path towards them, pace brisk. The cat he had noticed before is loping next to the man.

"Your highness, Hajime Iwaizumi, prince of Seijo.” Hajime blinks as Ushijima, king of the Woodland, walks up to them, a solid wall of human. “Do not worry about formalities, I see you have more pressing matters on hand. What happened?”

“I...” Hajime swallows, glances down at Tooru, notices how pale his face is, almost translucent in the moonlight, and finds his resolve. “I heard a distress call so I ran over. He...he was shot. I'm not carrying medical supplies...”

Ushijima walks over, holds out his arms. Hajime transfers Tooru as delicately as he can, wincing at the sob of pain, as Ushijima shifts him to get a firmer grasp. Hajime feels like he just gave away a part of himself. "I will look after him. Thank you for finding him, and I apologize for any inconvenience he has caused."

Hajime's eyes widen. "Incon..." He cannot even finish the word he is so flabbergasted, anger kindling inside of him. "He was a swan who got shot by poachers! It's probably more inconvenient for him than anyone else."

Tooru turns his head, his eyes meeting Hajime's. "I'm not a swan," he says again, his voice faint as starlight.

Ushijima glances down at Tooru, then over at Hajime. "I understand. Is he the man that you want to declare true love to you?"

Tooru nods. Hajime has walked into a conversation he has no context for, which sets him on edge. Ushijima turns to Hajime and for a moment Hajime sees a steely determination in Ushijima that sends shivers down his spine. "Here are the terms of Tooru's curse. He must have someone declare true love to him and no one else before the summer solstice of the curse's seventh year on the day of my choosing. If he does not receive that declaration from the one he chooses, he will stay a swan for the rest of his life, or accept his role in my court as my consort. I hear you have a ball coming up on the solstice, correct? I will bring my guest. You can declare your love then. Do we have a deal?"

Hajime swallows. This is...a lot of information to process so quickly. Does this change the way he sees Tooru? He looks down, sees Tooru's desperate, terrified eyes, pleading for him. Every part of Hajime longs to scoop Tooru back into his arms, protect him from everything hurting him, make him feel so, so wanted.

"Yes."

Ushijima nods. Tooru sighs, sinking back into Ushijima's chest.

"I will see you in a week, then." Ushijima turns away.

"Wait." Ushijima pauses. Hajime swallows, before finishing his thought. "I can't...Can you please let me know how Tooru is? I can come to you, or..."

Ushijima nods curtly. "No need. I will call on you in the next few days. Now, I must get Tooru back to the palace so he has the best chance of recovery."

Hajime nods. "Of course. I look forward to hearing from you."

Ushijima nods, turns, disappears down the trail. Hajime sees Tooru's brown eyes peek over Ushijima's shoulder before they flutter closed, Tooru's whole body going limp. Hajime inhales sharply. Unconscious, Hajime reassures himself. Not dead.

Hajime jolts when he feels something against his legs. It's a small wildcat. He can't even get any identifying features before it slips back into the foliage, following Ushijima.

When Tooru gets out of this Hajime is going to have to sit him down and have him explain how in all the hells this Court functions. Hopefully. If Tooru survives.

"Of course he will," Hajime whispers to himself. Because he wants it to be true. He needs it to be.

Chapter Text

Being a swan in the palace is a strange experience. Ushiima has a small pond in the garden, along with the bathhouses, but Tooru still feels confined, unnerved, his instincts to break free, get away...

His wing stops him from going far. From doing anything, really. It is pinned to his side by cloth bandages and no matter how much he squirms and pecks he cannot get it free.

The first day is torture. He curls up in the shade of an oak tree, hissing at anyone who tries to approach him. When he turns back to himself his legs hurt from sitting for so long in the grass so he limps back inside, wanting nothing more than to curl up in bed and sleep for ten years.

Instead, Ushijima makes him go to the healer's ward. "Why?" Tooru asks, trying to keep his voice level. It was not like Ushijima had any real healers, because each of them had some sort of accelerated healing. Semi was really the only one with any experience with medicine, but Tooru knew most of the Night Court also had some knowledge of herbal medicine. It didn't mean that anyone else could help him.

"So that we can make sure you are healing as you should. Your wound reopened, Tooru, you are bleeding." Tooru glances down to see that he does, in fact, have a smear of blood on his shoulder. He does not think it would help his case to point out that the swan doesn't realize bandages are there to help him so all he did that day was try to get them off. "And you are so pale. Please. For my peace of mind."

Tooru sighs. Ushijima continues. "I do not wish to inconvenience you, but you were hurt under my care. I will do everything in my power to make you better."

Ushijima's remorse settles on Tooru like a cape. So instead of going to his bed, of finally feeling comfortable, he goes to the healing ward. Semi scowls when he sees Tooru walk into the room. Tooru sneers right back but finds a bed in the far corner that probably won't be too terrible. He winces when his wound pulls. He has not really gotten a good look at it, the night before a blur of pain, and then Ushijima had given him something to make him drowsy while he bandaged Tooru's wing so he couldn't move it that morning.

Everything was wrong. Now Iwa-chan knew what he was, what he had been cursed with. He vaguely remembers Ushijima and Iwa-chan talking about him, remembers Iwa-chan agreeing to Ushijima's terms. At least there was that.

But. Was he upset? Would he think on what had happened and rescind his offer?

"Here," Semi's voice drags Tooru out of his thoughts. Tooru takes the cup Semi is offering him. "Ushijima told me he would send you here. Drink this. It will help you heal faster. It might taste...strange."

Tooru wrinkles his nose at the smell, then takes a sip. He shivers in disgust but downs the rest. At least it was warm.

Semi then goes about re-bandaging Tooru's wound. It is...deep. Tooru looks away before he gets a good look at it.

"It is already healing faster than usual. It should be completely closed over in about a week. You'll have a scar, but there should be no loss of movement."

The ball is in six days. Tooru swallows down his panic. He can still move, can still walk. He could always put his arm in a sling if absolutely necessary, but like Semi had said, it was healing quickly. Iwa-chan wouldn't care.

Semi turns away. Tooru thinks he is going to leave, but instead he turns back around to face Tooru. "I don't understand you at all. Wakatoshi bends over backward to make sure you have everything you need, anything you could ever want, and all you do is throw it back in his face."

Tooru closes his eyes. He knew this would happen. He is too tired to argue, too tired to do anything other than take what Semi and all the Day Court think of him.

"You're just a selfish..."

"Now, now, Semi-Semi, this is definitely not the time for that opinion, and not any way to treat a guest or an invalid. Go be rude to someone else. I heard Shirabu just flew in. Go have a nice chat with him. Or just go to bed."

Semi turns his scowl on Tendou. Tooru sighs. His head is starting to hurt, a throbbing pulse that matches his heartbeat. He keeps his eyes closed, willing himself out of this situation.

He must have dozed off for a while, because when he wakes up Semi is gone and Tendou is sitting in the chair next to his bed. He shifts himself into a more comfortable position, pulling the blanket up to his chin. The movement catches Tendou’s attention. He turns his unerring gaze to Tooru. “I wondered how long you were going to stay asleep in that horrible position. Your poor neck will be just as sore as your shoulder.”

“That’s a little bit of an exaggeration,” Tooru mutters. Tendou holds up another cup of tea, which Tooru grudgingly takes. “What are you doing here? Aren’t you tired? Where’s Akaashi? Or Kuroo?”

Tendou hums. “You ask a lot of questions. Akaashi is doing important court business. Who knows where Kuroo is. Ushijima remembered Semi-Semi was on duty, and we all know how well you two get along. Actually, you don’t get along with many people, do you?”

Tooru looks away. He used to get along with everyone, used to thrive around people. When had that changed?

Tendou continues rambling. "I mean, you have an excuse for it. You must be getting desperate at this point. I remember when you used to try to fit in with us. I personally apologize for never trying to reach out to you when you offered a truce. It's no wonder you chose the Night Court. They may be rough, but they are much more open than us."

Tooru stares at Tendou, wondering if he is still dreaming, or if there were something in the tea that was making him hallucinate. Tendou raises his eyebrows. "Do you...want something?" Tooru finally asks.

Tendou sighs, looks up at the ceiling. "No, not really. Well, I think we want the same thing, but for different reasons. I want what is best for the Woodland Court. You already know you aren't what Ushijima needs. So I want you to be happy."

Tooru scoffs, but he is also smiling. "That logic doesn't flow."

Tendou shrugs. "Eh, we both got there."

Tooru feels a wave of tiredness wash over him. He hums, closes his eyes. "I think you should tell Ushijima that you...you know, find him attractive. Maybe it will get him to think about something other than me."

Tooru pries his eyes open to see Tendou's face frozen in surprise. Tooru chuckles. "Please. It's pretty obvious to all of us. We're ravenous gossipers, you know."

Tooru is surprised when Tendou's face splits into a grin and he lets out a cackle. "I am doing something right if I'm inspiring gossip. If only Ushijima put more stock into the gossip of his court. Now, go to sleep or he's just going to yell at me for keeping you up."

But Tooru doesn't really need any prompting because as soon as he lets his eyes fall shut, he sinks deep into sleep.

***

Bokuto smiles when Tooru opens the door. Tooru looks tired, but he gives a small smile back, which Bokuto appreciates. "You're a much friendlier face than Semi."

"Yeah, Ushijima told me to come here tonight and get you situated. I mean, I volunteered after you, you know, freaked out this morning..."

Bokuto stops speaking when Tooru's cheeks go red. No one really blames him for the mess he made in the healing ward that morning. In Bokuto's opinion, it was really Tendou's fault for not waking Tooru up before he shifted. They all knew hurt, angry animals lashed out, especially when disoriented.

Bokuto grabs his bandages and the poultice he had made while waiting for Tooru to show up, along with a tea he knows will relax Tooru without making him too drowsy. Bokuto hates using anything that seems to drug a patient, except when absolutely necessary.

Bokuto hums softly in approval when he sees the wound still looks clean. "It didn't open today, which is good. Here, this will be a little cold, but it should feel nice after a few seconds."

Tooru hisses when Bokuto starts to press the poultice into place. "Damn," he mutters. "Semi didn't do this yesterday."

Bokuto rolls his eyes. "He has fancy medicine. I just have this, but it healed up my ankle pretty well, so I'm sure it will be fine for your shoulder."

Bokuto watches Tooru's eyebrows crease. He doesn't say anything, so Bokuto goes back to tending to Tooru's wound. Truthfully, Bokuto loves helping people this way. He has a sense for what a body needs by the way an injured person acts or moves. Before he had found his place in Ushijima's court, he had worked as an apprentice to a physician, usually mixing medicines, but he loved when he got to go treat people. Once he got here, his love extended to animals as well. He just...understood how creatures worked.

"When did you get hurt?"

"Huh?" Bokuto blinks himself out of his intense concentration.

Tooru rolls his eyes. "You said you hurt your ankle, but I don't remember that. Did you do it recently?"

"Oh," Bokuto says. "Yeah. Um, the same day you got shot. Akaashi and I were chasing the poachers, but one of them threw a net that caught around my talon. Man! It's been terrible waiting for it to heal. I just want to go out again."

When Bokuto realizes he is treading onto shaky ground, he stops speaking. He focuses back on Tooru's wound, peeking at his face every once in awhile to gauge if Tooru is going to start yelling. Instead, Tooru laughs. "Bo-kun, I promise you, you don't want to be a bird with that wound. It is terrifying, and once you get used to it, then it's terrible."
"I know! That's what Akaashi keeps saying, but still," Bokuto heaves a sigh. Not shifting for so long makes him antsy. He doesn't like feeling confined to one place, one part of himself. Especially when Akaashi goes out every night. He feels...left behind.

"There," Bokuto says, tying the bandage ends into a knot, shaking himself out of his funk. "That should keep for the night. Is the tea okay?"

"Oh." Bokuto watches Tooru glance down at the mostly empty cup in his hand. "Yeah. Better than Semi's."

Bokuto sniffs. "Of course it is. I know my herbs better than Semi."

Tooru laughs. Bokuto grins. He is glad that Tooru is taking this so well. Maybe it is because he can see an ending to this curse. Without thinking, Bokuto asks, "Um, are you going to miss it?"

Tooru gives him a questioning look. Bokuto clears his throat uncomfortably, but he is too curious to back down from the question. "You know, are you going to miss being a swan? The ball is in five days, right? I know it wasn't anything you wanted, but...I mean, it was a surprise for almost all of us, when we got our transformation ability. I was just wondering if you would miss it."

Tooru stays quiet for so long Bokuto thinks he isn't going to answer. He has almost forgotten about the question when Tooru finally starts speaking. "I didn't think I would. For the past seven years, it has regulated every part of my life. But...he's kind of a part of me now, as much as I don't want to admit it. I mean, no one knows what will happen when the curse is broken. Maybe...Maybe I'll still be able to tap into this side of me."

Bokuto bites his lip. It must be hard, he thinks, to be trapped in this in-between, neither human nor magic, never knowing where you fit in, trying to accept something that doesn't fit, but then trying to live without it when it is gone. Bokuto remembers back to his old life, to when he knew he found out he was different...

He blinks. No, he's not going to think about that. It would only make him upset, and right now he had to be here for Tooru.

"I hope you can. And then you can really come out flying with me!" Tooru laughs again. Bokuto watches his eyes drift slowly shut before reopening. "You should sleep. Sorry I'm keeping you awake. Don't mind me, I'll just be sitting here, not talking..."

"Bokuto-san, you can never stay quiet for longer than three minutes." Bokuto whirls around to see Akaashi behind him. "Shh, do not yell."

Bokuto snaps his mouth shut because he was, in fact, going to say Akaashi's name, and it probably would have come out pretty loud. Bokuto watches Akaashi pull up a chair next to his. Akaashi hadn't told Bokuto he was planning on coming to see him, but Bokuto couldn't say he was upset about the surprise. Bokuto loved surprises, especially when they included Akaashi.

"Well, I'll leave you two lovebirds to it," Tooru sighs, settling himself into the bedsheets. Bokuto freezes, glancing furtively at Akaashi, who looks as impassive as ever.

"Goodnight, Tooru-kun." Tooru makes a noise but he's mostly asleep. Bokuto fidgets in his seat, antsy to talk to Akaashi, but knows he will just get shushed if he tries, so he waits for Akaashi to speak first.

It is excruciating.

Finally, after what feels like hours but is probably less than fifteen minutes, Akaashi says, "You and Tooru seemed to be getting along pretty well."

Bokuto shrugs, turns to look at Akaashi. The wound on his cheek has mostly closed, leaving a light pink scratch. Bokuto allows his eyes to roam the rest of Akaashi's face, skimming over his prominent cheekbones, his delicate nose, his pale pink lips. Bokuto swallows hard when his eyes meet Akaashi's fathomless blue ones. Akaashi's lips quirk into a smirk. "Is my face so irresistible you can't remember what I said?"

"Huh?" Bokuto says, then remembers what Akaashi had said before Bokuto had gotten so distracted. "Oh! Yeah, I like Tooru. He's funny, in a snarky sort of way."

"You seem to attract snarky sort of people, Bokuto-san, which is interesting, because you're too earnest to be snarky," Akaashi says, his smirk widening into a smile. It makes Bokuto's heart stutter.

"Koutarou," Bokuto blurts out. Akaashi raises his eyebrows. "Um, you always call me Bokuto-san. It's so formal. You...You can just call me Koutarou. If you want. If not, that's fine too..."

Bokuto freezes when he feels Akaashi's hand on his. "Koutarou," he says in a low voice. Bokuto glances at the bed, where Tooru is obviously deep in sleep. "Do you like me, Koutarou?"

Bokuto swallows. "Of course I like you, Akaashi! I hang out with you all the time!"

Akaashi chuckles. "No, that is not what I meant. Are you attracted to me, Koutarou?"

Bokuto almost regrets telling Akaashi he could call him by his first name, because every time he says it, heat shoots through his body. Bokuto swallows hard, and, before thinking, just starts speaking. "Please, don't hate me, 'Kaashi!! You're just...You're so smart, and intimidating, and so pretty. Everyone probably likes you!"

Akaashi's hand comes up to cover Bokuto's mouth. Bokuto snaps his mouth shut. He's not sure if someone can explode from all their emotions, but he is sure his body can't take much more of Akaashi's closeness.

"I could never hate you, Koutarou. Because I like you too."

Bokuto's eyes widen. Without thinking about it, he wraps his arms around Akaashi, pulling Akaashi to him in a gigantic hug. Akaashi grunts, scrambling for purchase, but Bokuto just sets him in his lap, craning his neck to see Akaashi's reaction. Once Akaashi has gotten his balance with his knees on each side of Bokuto's thighs, he takes Bokuto's face in his hands. "I was going to tell you a few days ago, in the woods, but we got distracted. I think I've been in love with you ever since you asked me to go flying with you the first time. You really helped me, Koutarou. You always help me, and I love that about you."

Bokuto swallows. He tries to be helpful, especially to Akaashi. It is why h i's sitting here, watching Tooru, so Akaashi didn't have to worry about another person.

Akaashi leans down so their noses brush. Bokuto shivers. "Can I kiss you?" Bokuto whispers.

"Yes, please," Akaashi breathes, and Bokuto is already pressing his lips to Akaashi's before he can finish, swallowing the words. Akaashi's hands are calloused but soft on Bokuto's cheeks. Bokuto shivers, wraps his arms more firmly around Akaashi. He thinks he can stay like this all night--he wonders why it took so long for them to get here, he hopes he can keep this feeling, Akaashi's weight on him, lips pressed against each other's, forever.

Akaashi breaks away first. His eyes are sparkling in a way Bokuto has never seen, but he loves it. "Now I have to tell Kuroo he was right," Bokuto says sadly.

Akaashi rolls his eyes, sitting himself back onto Bokuto's thighs. "You do not have to tell him anything, honestly."

"Yeah, but I'm a terrible liar, 'Kaashi, we all know that!"

Akaashi chuckles. Bokuto reaches out to brush some of Akaashi's hair out of his eyes. "You haven't been happy lately," Bokuto says finally.

Akaashi's face falls back to its usual reticent expression. Bokuto is sad to see the smile leave, but is also surprised when, a few second later, Akaashi's expression opens up into something more vulnerable, a side Bokuto has never seen before. "I am just a bit stretched right now. Ushijima is not his usual self; he is not thinking clearly. I do not really blame him--this has not happened in centuries, and this court thrives on stability. I am just afraid Ushijima will do something he will regret in the long run." Akaashi turns his head, and Bokuto follows his gaze to where Tooru is still sleeping peacefully. Akaashi sighs. Bokuto pulls his chin gently back so he can look into Akaashi's deep blue eyes again.

"Five more days," Bokuto says. "And then whatever happens, happens. It's all fate at this point, right?"

Akaashi smiles, kisses Bokuto's nose. "If only my brain could settle on such simple notions. Now, as attractive as it was, you picking me up and setting me in your lap, this is a weird position and I am starting to get sore..."

"Oh hells! I'm so sorry, 'Kaashi! Let me help you..." Akaashi maneuvers himself back into his own seat, Bokuto's hands fluttering uselessly around him.

"And, Koutarou?"

Bokuto turns his attention to Akaashi. Akaashi smirks. "If I'm going to call you Koutarou, you have to call me Keiji. It's only fair."

"Ah," Bokuto stammers. "Ah, yes of course, Keiji."

Akaashi leans over to kiss Bokuto again. "I'll never get used to that."

Same Bokuto thinks as Akaashi rests his head on Bokuto's shoulder. But, Bokuto thinks, maybe he doesn't ever want to get used to the feelings Akaashi gives him.

***

Hajime keeps his secret about Tooru to himself for four full days before he finally cracks. He is with Masters Sei and Akito, listening as they explain, in vague detail, how the Northern Tribes fit together. "The tribes choose whether or not they want to join our governance," Akito was saying. "They can join and leave at any time, within reason. We have some Tribes who only join for the summer, or winter, when threat levels are higher. They pay tribute to the ruling family of their area, who in turn pay a portion to the Oikawas..."

"Wait. There are multiple rulers?" Hajime interrupts. He is slowly realizing that, while he knows most of the quirks of other countries surrounding him, he knows next to nothing about the North. Another reason why Tooru would be a good fit for him, and this kingdom.

Master Sei nods. "There is too much change for just one ruling family. It is not to say we don't have a governing family--the Oikawas have held that title for centuries, although succession is not always blood-related. It is a name bestowed on the highest, most fair ruler. But we would be amiss if we did not acknowledge the work our other leaders do for the Oikawas. It is why we only hold titles in the loosest sense."

It makes sense, in a distant, irrelevant way. Not so far from their own hierarchy, but enough to make him curious. Hajime could spend hours interrogating them about their lifestyle, but they do not have that kind of time. And besides, if he has his way, Tooru will be there to answer all his questions.

Hajime has had a hard time focusing on anything that wasn't Tooru for the past four days. He feels helpless, trapped in his responsibilities. He has thought about trying to find Ushijima on his own, to make sure Tooru is okay, but that would be reckless. So instead he fills his days with busywork so the only time he can brood over Tooru is in bed, without an audience.

But here, with the Northerners, he lets himself finally ask. "What...How does your affiliation with the Woodland Court work?"

Akito and Sei share a reserved look. Hajime sighs. "Look. I met a Northerner in the wood who said he was part of the Woodland Court, so I was curious."

Akito's eyes widen. He sits up straighter in his seat. It is the most reaction Hajime has seen out of either of these two men since they showed up here a few weeks ago. Had it really been that long? Time has become a strange, stuttering mess since Hajime had met Tooru.

"Is he...well?" Master Akito asks. Hajime studies Master Akito, notices the way his fingers have tightened subtly on his armrests, the slight strain in the corners of his mouth when he presses his lips together. It is clear that whatever tie Akito has to Tooru runs deeper than a passing acquaintance.

"Do you know him?" Hajime counters, refusing to break eye contact with Akito.

Master Sei is finally the one to break the awkward standoff. "Our tie with the Woodland Court is ancient. It allows us access to magic. You may not understand our...desperation. This land is filled with overflowing magic, which the Ushijima family has always kept in check, so there is plenty for everyone to utilize. There is magic in the north, but buried deep in the snow in the very far reaches of the tundra. It pools there, unable to branch out. And we have not had a skilled enough magic user to tap into it in years. So, as an alternative, every generation we give one of the ruling family to the Woodland Court as the price for continued magic. They are given a place in the Ushijima household, if they desire it, which helps balance the Ushijima court and also allows us the use of the magic that flows through that line. It also gives the Woodland Court delegation in our government. Every Oikawa has a place in our court, regardless of where they go, or how their opinions differ."

Hajime has never considered what his life would be like without the magic of the Woodland Court. They do not use it much, but he is not sure what it governs that might suddenly break apart if no longer present.

"What happens if the...offering, decides not to stay?" Hajime asks.

Master Akito shrugs. "To be perfectly frank, there are discussions about the validity of this continued tradition every time it comes up. We almost decided to break with it this time, but fear makes men grow complacent. If it were to break, we would have to find an alternative, but we have been preparing for it. Our last...delegate...did not seem like one to allow fate to tie him to a court he has no desire to be part of."

Hajime smiles, thinking of the night at the pond, Tooru pouting because of the secrets being shared between them. "Yes, he is well, but you are right in saying he does not want to be tied to the court. He highly objects to it, actually."

Masters Sei and Akito share a look. "If I am out of line, please say so," Master Akito says, glancing at Master Sei, so Hajime isn't sure if he is talking to Sei or Hajime himself. "Can you please tell me a little more? He is my brother, you see, and we were close before he left. He used to play with my son..."

Hajime swallows. He had thought they may be related, but not that close. Their smiles were so very similar. It only made sense.

So Hajime tries to tell Akito what he would want to hear, if he had a missing brother. He doesn't realize how long he has been talking until there is a rap on the door.

Hajime is surprised to see Hiro. Hiro clears his throat. "Um, Your Highness, apologies for interrupting, but you have a visitor."

"We have taken up a lot of your time today," Master Akito says as he stands up. "Thank you for entertaining us, and for your information on my brother. I can tell you have befriended him, for which I am very grateful."

"Ah, yes. Please excuse me." Hajime stands as well, ushering the Northerners out the door. He stands next to Hiro, both of them watching the two turn the corner, before Hiro finally turns to Hajime.

"King Ushijima is here to see you."

Hajime stiffens. He is earlier than Hajime thought he would be, but Hajime won't complain about news of Tooru. "Where is he?"

"In the receiving parlor. The king about burst a blood vessel when Ushiwaka told him he wasn't here for him, and then on top of it he let him know that Kuroo would be back in a few days time to solidify the agreement you had made. He all but let him know that he would not be dealing with anyone other than you or your men."

Hajime raises his eyebrows as they make their way down the stairs. "Since when have you called him Ushiwaka?"

Hiro rolls his eyes. "Please, Highness, everyone calls him that except you. That's all you are going to say about this? You're not going to tell me why he has come here to call on you?"

Hajime shrugs, adjusts his shirt as they meet Issei in front of the receiving parlor doors. "Maybe we have struck an unlikely friendship."

Issei snorts. "With that guy? Does he even know what a friend is?"

"Stop, or I am not letting you in."

Hiro gasps. "Not letting us in? But we are your advisors, your only sense of rational judgement..."

"Well, then, the kingdom is doomed."

Issei sighs. "Unfortunately, I think Highness is right on that count."

Hajime hadn't realized how tense he had become until Issei had broken the mood around him. "Come on. You cannot say anything though. I will answer all your questions afterward, okay? Promise me."

Issei studies Hajime for a second before shrugging. "Sounds fine with me."

"Alright," Hiro says. Hajime nods and opens the door.

Ushijima is standing in the center of the room, facing the door. He nods his head when Hajime enters. "Prince Hajime Iwaizumi of Seijoh. Thank you for seeing me without any warning."

"Of course, King Ushijima." Hajime hopes that he is addressing him properly. Ushijima always seems to prefer Hajime's full name and title, which, quite frankly, makes him feel weird.

"I have come to bring you news of Tooru," he says, cutting straight to the heart of the matter. "He is recovering well, although his transitions are always rough. He does not like being away from his pond, but I am keeping him in the palace for safekeeping. An injured swan would become a target, no matter how safe he is in that clearing."

"If he is safe in the clearing, how did he get shot?" Hajime asks, his temper spiking irrationally.

Ushijima shrugs, his face as impassive as before, as if speaking about Tooru getting injured is a topic as important as traveling conditions. "He left the designated boundaries. I warned him what would happen, especially with poachers in the woods."

Hajime sighs. There is not really any use in arguing over this. "So he is well?"

Ushijima nods. "He will be well enough come summer solstice."

Hajime waits for Ushijima to continue, to do anything, but all he does is stare at Hajime. He shifts uncomfortably. "Did you...need anything else?"

Ushijima shakes his head. "I was just observing. I hope you realize that Tooru can thrive anywhere, but his talents will be best utilized with me, in my court. We need his stability for all kingdoms involved."

Hajime presses his lips together, gathering his thoughts and his patience before speaking. "This really is not a question of where Tooru's skills are best utilized, but whether or not he wants to stay with you. The world will not end if something doesn't go the way you foresee. Who knows, maybe there is a better solution."

Ushijima shakes his head. "The old ways are stalwart. They do not fail."

"They don't make for much change, either," Hajime points out.

Ushijima's impassive expression cracks, just a tad. "It doesn't matter. What will happen, will happen. I will send Kuroo back to finalize the changes to our treaty. I will see you again on the Summer Solstice."

With that, Ushijima excuses himself. Hiro scrambles to escort him out the door. When the door shuts, Hajime sighs dramatically, dropping himself into a chair. Issei takes a seat across from him. "Well. That was unexpected. Are you going to explain what that was all about?"

"Maybe when Hiro gets back."

Issei shrugs. Hajime closes his eyes. Tooru is okay. The relief is a medicine Hajime didn't know he needed. He does not know if he can wait three more days. Maybe he should run after Ushijima, demand that he take Hajime to Tooru now, and declare his love. He just wants this done, over with.

He wants to see Tooru again.

Hajime opens his eyes when Hiro bursts back through the doors. He looks furious. Hajime braces himself for the inevitable.

"Okay, what happened? Why in all hells would Ushijima be here, of all places, to reassure you that your secret lover is okay? He didn't even talk about anything political, he said he is sending back someone else! You have a lot of explaining to do." Hajime glances over at Issei, who shrugs. He doesn't even scold Hiro for his rudeness, which is a big indicator to Hajime that this is serious.

Issei takes some pity on him. "Tooru did mention that he had an affiliation with the Woodland Court. Maybe Highness had a reason to keep this secret."

Hajime swallows. He has never kept secrets from these two, and this secret has been threatening to spill out for days now. There is no way that he can just sit here listening to them theorize about Tooru without blurting out the truth, so he makes the decision to just tell them. "Yeah, Tooru is part of the Woodland Court. Actually, remember that swan we used to see at the pond? That is him."

Both Issei and Hiro stare at Hajime, for once at a loss for words. Hajime shrugs, chuckles uneasily, and proceeds to share his story of that fateful night where he found out Tooru had the capability to turn in to a swan. "It was terrifying," Hajime concludes. "And I don't know what to do. I mean, I kind of do. I do not think it affects my feelings for him. I still want him."

"Because he is pretty," Issei says, raising his eyebrows. "He is exactly what you look for in a partner, Highness, you aren't very subtle."

Hajime creased his eyebrows. "What does that even mean? I have only had, like, two serious partners!"

"You want a tall, pretty, intimidating partner who still needs your help," Hiro says. Issei nods in agreement. "He is smart, politically savvy, and now he has a curse that needs breaking. He's relying on you, Iwa-chan! Don't let him down!"

"Being needed is very much your kink," Issei chimes in. "Impressively attractive magical boys with an aura of sadness? Yup, Highness will be there to bandage all their wounds."

"You guys are the worst. Why do I keep you around?" Hajime stands up, ready to die of embarrassment in the privacy of his rooms, but Hiro cuts him off.

"Wait, wait! We're sorry."

"You aren't sorry," Hajime scoffs.

"I mean, you're right, but still. We should actually talk about this."

Hajime sighs. "What is there to talk about? Do we trust him or not? Do we think that the benefits of this situation make everyone safer? Or is it time for something to change?"

Hajime stares down Issei and Hiro. Finally Hiro shrugs. "I don't really see why we wouldn't trust him. I mean, sure he lied, but, I don't know. I probably would too? And he seemed to answer your questions honestly when you asked him. It wasn't like he spun fables to hold your interest."

"And on the note of Ushijima. It is kind of concerning. Will this cause an overflowing of magic? To be perfectly honest, we are not nearly as educated as we should be when it comes to the mystical side of our heritage. I think generations of pushing it away has caused an imbalance, not just in the Woodland Court, but everywhere. One day, it is going to burst. I don't think Tooru's choice of court is going to affect anything much," Issei adds.

"That's what the Northern delegation implied too," Hajime says. He runs a hand down his face. "What do we have to lose anyway, right? I should just do it?"

"Sure," Hiro says. "Besides, he's easy to tease. We'll get along great."

Hajime groans. "Thanks for the advice, I guess?"

"We will lead the country to ruin one way or another," Issei says. "Now, don't you have a meeting with the King to get ready for?"

"Oh, damn!" Hajime scrambles up. At least he has taken care of the situation with Tooru. Now he just has to deal with his father.

For the first time in awhile, things are finally looking positive.

***

How did this all go so wrong?

Wakatoshi paces his office. He feels like a caged animal. Maybe he should go flying, relieve the stress weighing down on him. But no. He has too much to do. Too much to orchestrate.

Why is everything with Tooru so difficult?

"You know, if you keep pacing that circle, the floorboards are going to show through the rug."

Wakatoshi sighs. Satori is being ridiculous, but he brings up a good point. Wakatoshi has done nothing productive for the past fifteen minutes. So he stops moving, turning to face Satori, who is leaning up against his desk, unrolling a piece of parchment, then letting it go to scroll back up before unrolling it again.

"Nothing is working out how it should," Wakatoshi says. He has always been a simple, straightforward ruler. His court likes him for it, as does everyone they interact with. He does nothing to dispel the aura of intimidation around him--it makes his job easier. He allows very few people to see him less than put together.

He tries with Tooru, but it is hard. Tooru is explosive, energetic, stubborn, and wears his emotions for everyone to see. Wakatoshi fears that Tooru would tear him to shreds if he saw the uncertainty he has between moving this kingdom in a new direction and staying true to the old ways.

The old ways work. The old ways have always worked.

Satori shrugs. "Maybe that is a good indicator that there is a new path that needs treading."

With Satori, everything seems easy. Satori is dedicated to him, to the court, and, most importantly, he wants Wakatoshi's attention. He's easy to talk to, even though Ushijima doesn't like to talk much.

"Maybe it just means I am not working hard enough to find the right solution," Wakatoshi says stubbornly. Because Wakatoshi Ushijima is nothing if not stubborn.

Why fix something that has always worked?

Why fight against something that is right in front of him?

Wakatoshi sighs, sits down in the chair at the desk.

"The successor of Seijoh. Hajime Iwaizumi. What do you think of him?" Wakatoshi asks Satori.

Satori shrugs, sitting in a chair across from Wakatoshi. "I've never met him, but from what I've heard, he seems great. His kingdom likes him, Kuroo likes him. Apparently our resident swan is enamored with him, if the rumors are true."

Wakatoshi grunts. "I don't listen to rumors."

"Clearly," Satori grumbles. "What do you think of him?"

Wakatoshi sits silent, gathering his thoughts. What does he think of Hajime Iwaizumi? "He is politically smart, but not a genius. He will make necessary changes to his kingdom when he takes the throne, but he would hold a steady course until his successor relieves him of his duties. Nothing more, nothing less. He would not take risks. We are similar in that regard."

"But?" Satori prods quietly.

Wakatoshi glances at Satori. He is serious, which does not happen often. "But I think with someone who would take risks, he would change. He is eager to help."

Satori shrugs. "Is that a bad thing?"

Wakatoshi clenches his hands into fists. "We take care of our own, Satori. That is how it has always been. We have so much to handle as it is, and now Tooru wants to leave? That just isn't how it is done. We have to make him stay."

Satori swallows. He contemplates his words, which is also not something he does frequently. Wakatoshi doesn't like that he can tell Satori may be tiptoeing around him. "Toshi. The boundaries of the curse are clearly defined. You can't interfere with them."

"It is my decision how the test is administered. If Hajime Iwaizumi declares his love to the wrong person, it will be entirely his fault."

Satori sits up straight. Wakatoshi looks away from him. He cannot stand the surprise and disappointment in his eyes. From anyone else, yes, but not from Satori. "Toshi. You are a fair ruler, and a great person, but I think you're letting your anger, or panic, or anxiety or something cloud your judgement. We both know that would be wrong."

"If I allow him to leave, I will be a failure to my lineage," Wakatoshi voices his insecurity for the first time.

"Change is not failing. Change is a necessary part of life..."

"Satori, I will not lose."

They stare each other down. Satori finally stands up. "Fine. Do what you want. But I do not think you're making the right decision."

Wakatoshi watches Satori slip out the door. He stares down at his desk, trying to push down the hurt in his chest. "The old ways never fail."

Maybe this time, however, they might.

Chapter Text

Issei watches as the ballroom transforms from a dusty hollow shell to a sparkling gold woodland. He does not understand where all the planters with flowers and grown trees came from. "When did we grow a garden?" he mutters to Hiro, who is leaning against a pillar getting angry glances from the decorators who just strung branches around it.

Hiro shrugs lazily. "It is our portable garden. Don't you remember signing the petition to keep green things on hand in times of crisis or random decorating needs?"

"Oh, I must have missed it when I signed the one that said any surface that more than fifty people will see in the castle has to be inlaid with gold."

Hiro snickers. "Gotta cover up the bad taste with blinding decor, of course."

A tall woman with a severe face, a tight gray bun, and a hawkish nose approaches them. Issei stands at attention. He has had enough run-ins with Madame Sana to know he does not want to cross her. "Sorry, Issei, Hiro. If you would not mind, could you please go ask His Highness whether he has decided on the plum pudding or the lemon cakes as the center piece?" Issei presses his lips together to control a smile as Hiro scrambles to stand fully from his perch, brushing off the sleeve that now has gold flakes on it.

"Of course, ma'am. We will be back with his answer shortly."

"Take your time," she mutters with a scowl before stalking off to yell at some poor boy hanging an overflowing pot of leaves in the wrong place. Issei walks out the door quickly, Hiro right on his heels.

"She is the only one who keeps this country in line," Hiro says once they are safely away from the ballroom, walking up the stairs toward where Hajime was last seen entering a meeting. "The king declares war, but before the declaration makes it out of the palace, Madame Sana is there to rip up the decree then scolds the king until he is apologizing for all his past misdeeds."

"I'm pretty sure that has actually happened," Issei says with a grin. He raps on the meeting room door they have stopped in front of before opening it.

He is surprised to see that the only two in the room are Hajime and a tall man with unruly black hair that falls just shy of his right eye. They are both standing, which either means the meeting is just starting or just over.

Hajime glances over in surprise. "Oh, I though you two were overseeing the decorating."

Hiro snorts. "Please. Madame Sana put up with us as long as she could. She wants to know if you wanted the apple pudding or the orange bars as the center piece."

Issei rolls his eyes. "Plum pudding or lemon cakes," he corrects.

Hajime frowns. "I told her the pudding would be fine."

"Told you she just wanted to get rid of us," Hiro says. "I'm sorry, you are Kuroo, correct? From the Woodland Court."

The man nods, a grin slipping onto his face. It looks like he is up to no good, but Issei can't really judge because he and Hiro do not have the most innocent smiles either. "We were finishing up our negotiations, and I was just leaving. Will one of you escort me to the door?"

"Of course," Issei says, wondering what Kuroo wants. He really does not seem malicious, but the request is interesting.

He sees Hiro pout out of the corner of his eye, so Issei knows he is not the only one that has had his curiosity piqued. "I guess I will go back to Madame Sana and give her the news."

Well, that was an upside that Issei had not been expecting, but not having to speak with Madame Sana again was certainly a good thing. He turns to Kuroo, extending a hand toward the door. Kuroo says a brief goodbye to Hajime before leaving.

They walk in silence down the stairs to the entrance hall. No one is paying them attention, too busy scurrying around making the castle presentable for tonight's ball. Issei pulls open the door, disappointed in the lack of communication between him and Kuroo, when Kuroo turns back to him.

"You are close with Iwaizumi, correct?"

Issei nods. "One of his advisors."

Kuroo's eyes shift as if he is making sure no one has noticed them speaking. When he looks back at Issei, his face has fallen into a serious expression, lips turned down, eyebrows furrowed. It makes him look much more intimidating. "Tonight. If anything strange happens, please do not be alarmed. The summer solstice is a time of strange magic, where all the lines are blurred."

Issei's eyebrows raise. "If you are implying His Highness is in danger..."

"No, no, nothing like that." Kuroo shakes his head. "Just...I wanted to let you know, in case something out of the ordinary occurs. You did invite the Woodland Court to your celebration. Thank you for showing me out."

Before Issei can come up with any questions, Kuroo has slipped down the stairs out of hearing range. Issei shuts the door slowly, mulling over Kuroo's words. They obviously have something to do with Tooru's...situation.

He blinks his eyes a few times, forcing himself back to the present. He walks back to the ballroom slowly, where even more servants are crammed into the space, the frantic pace making Issei feel antsy.

"That was horrible!" Hiro moans into Issei's ear. "Never make me face Madame Sana alone again. How dare you!"

Issei gives a halfhearted grin, but he cannot stop thinking about the words Kuroo had said to him. Hiro studies his face. Issei knows Hiro is a master at reading body language, so when he motions with his head out the door, Issei does not protest. Hiro leads them down the hallway to a small office. "What happened?"

"Nothing, really," Issei says. Hiro stares at Issei, waiting. "Kuroo just told me that strange things might happen tonight, because of the summer solstice."

"I'm not surprised," Hiro says. "I mean, Highness told us his lover is a swan, and this is the first time Ushiwaka has ever graced us with his presence at a party we have invited him to."

"Should we tell Hajime?" Issei asks.

Hiro glances out the window. Issei looks too, watches the way the lush green leaves of an oak tree flutter in an unfelt breeze. "No."

Issei nods. He had thought the same thing. Hiro continues. "We allow whatever is going to happen to happen. Kuroo would have told Hajime himself if it were serious, I believe. They seem to be...friendly, with each other."

He has a point. It still feels weird to keep Hajime in the dark about something like this, though, with his future on the line. "After tomorrow, we definitely need to start brushing up on our history of magic."

"Sounds boring," Hiro sighs, but there is no real antagonism behind the words. "Shall we see how long we can pretend to oversee the decorating until Madame Sana makes us do something else?"

Issei grins.

***

Hajime hates to admit it, but he loves dressing in his finery every once in awhile. He cuts a stunning figure in his navy surcoat, which is embroidered in silver with the royal crest. The belt is a little much for his tastes, but the sapphires complement the ensemble very well, and he had made sure his ceremonial sword was weighted properly and sharp, in case he needed it for something other than ceremony. He likes the way his boots look, long with embroidered designs in the leather, although they are pretty unreasonable for anything other than elaborate parties like this one.

The one thing he really despises is the crown on his head. He scowls at it in the mirror, wishing he could take the weight off and throw it on the bed, but he has long gotten over trying that. Maybe when he is king he will get rid of crowns altogether.

A knock on the door startles him. It must be Issei or Hiro here to tease him. He flicks his eyes to the door. "Enter."

He is even more surprised when he sees his mother walk in, shutting the door softly behind her. She is also dressed in her party attire, a splendid deep purple dress with a skirt almost as big as the door she just entered. Her hair is curled and arranged up with beautiful amethyst pins. With all her powders and makeup she looks radiant, a picture of eternal youth, but Hajime knows what a toll the job as silent queen has had on her.

"Oh, my dear, you look so handsome," she says, taking both of Hajime's arms and kissing his cheeks in greeting. Hajime smiles. "This is your big night. Are you ready for it?"

The implications are unspoken: are you prepared to announce a courtship, even if the options are not to your liking?

Hajime sighs. "Yes."

"Your father will try to talk you out of it. Do not let him. Any threat he gives you is unsubstantial." His mother has on the same expression she used to use when she caught he, Issei, and Hiro sneaking into the kitchens or out of the castle past curfew. It makes Hajime grin, which she catches. "This is a serious matter!"

"I know, I know," he says, kissing her on the cheek. She pushes her lips out in a pout that he definitely did not inherit. "I...I haven't told you, but I think I met someone."

Her pretty green eyes widened. Those Hajime had inherited, and he loved them. "Why didn't you say anything sooner? Who is it? Someone at court?"

Hajime shakes his head. He had gone back and forth trying to decide whether to tell his mother about Tooru (not everything, but enough), and had decided not to, but looking at her now, he had to say something. "No, he is not from court, but he could be a better choice. He has ties to the Northern Tribes, Mother."

His mother sinks slowly onto his bed, still staring at Hajime in surprise. "That would be a very convenient match right now, son. Are you sure he is going to come? Did you invite him?"

Hajime rolls his eyes. "Of course I invited him, Mother. As for actually attending, I am hopeful. I think you will like him."

His mother smiles. "I am glad. You look happy when you speak about him. I was pretty upset when I realized that I would have to push for you to get married because of your father. I always hoped you could find someone you could genuinely be happy with, someone who would balance you and your responsibilities. That you could take a different path than the one your parents ended up on."

"Mother," Hajime says gently, but she shakes her head to stop him from continuing.

"Do not pity me. I decided what I wanted and made my decisions long ago, and they led me to you and being the queen of a very prosperous kingdom. How could I ever regret that?"

Hajime smiles and holds out his hand for his mother to take. She stands up, brushing the wrinkles from her skirts. "Oh dear. Sana will not be pleased to hear I have been sitting with my skirt on."

"I'm just so full of surprises you couldn’t resist," Hajime says, to which his mother laughs. He walks her to the door. Before she leaves she turns back around, rests her palm on Hajime's face, and strokes his cheek with her thumb twice.

"I am so very proud of you," she says. Without waiting for a reply she exits, the door falling shut quietly behind her.

Hajime blinks his eyes a few times to clear the water from them. He glances at himself once more in the mirror, the setting sun letting in just enough light to see by, before following her out the door and down to the ballroom.

***

Tooru walks into the palace from the garden when the sun has just left the sky, heart fluttering in his chest. He is not used to being nervous--excited or anxious, yes, but not usually nervous. But this is his moment. His move from being caged to freedom. His shoulder has healed enough to just be a minor inconvenience at this point. Everything is going to be perfect.

The house is unusually silent as he makes his way down echoing hallways. He walks up to the second floor, following the dim lights. The doors to the second floor sitting room are propped open. That in itself is not unusual. What is unusual is the amount of people in the room. Curious, Tooru peeks in.

Everyone turns to look at him. Taken aback, he steps away from the door, but Ushijima is already making his way over.

"The hardest part will be the wound, Semi," he says, barely sparing a glance at Tooru as he prods Tooru further into the room. Tooru glances up at Ushijima's stoic face, more stony than usual, then over at Semi, who just gives a short nod. Tooru looks around the room to see if he can get any sort of clue as to what is going on, but no one is looking at him. Akaashi has his hands twisted together, a sure sign of his discomfort at whatever the situation is, and paired with the severity of his blank face Tooru knows it is not good.

Tooru's unease reaches a peak when he glances at Tendou, who looks serious for once in his life, his lips pursed in disapproval, eyes narrowed to slits.

"What is happening?" Tooru asks, his voice more unsure than he wanted it to be, but the energy in the room is so...wrong. It is making him more anxious.

"Are you ready?" Ushijima asks, still ignoring Tooru, and Semi gives another short nod.

"This really isn't nec..." Tendou bursts out, but Ushijima sends him a glare that makes him stop talking. They stare at each other for a moment before Tendou shrugs and stalks out the door, slamming it behind him. Ushijima sighs.

Tooru turns around to face Ushijima, forcing Ushijima to acknowledge him. "What in the hells are you doing?"

"What has to be done. I apologize, Tooru. I hope you will forgive me someday." Before Tooru can say anything else Ushijima takes his arm and turns him back around to face Semi. He also takes Semi's arm as well. Tooru's eyes widen as he feels a strange pulling, as if his skin is stretching away from his bones. He gasps, but he cannot seem to get air into his lungs. When he thinks he is going to pass out from either the pressure or the lack of air, everything presses back into normal.

He closes his eyes, coughing, trying to make his lungs work again. When he opens his eyes, he is met with a mirror image of himself staring down at him where Semi used to stand.

"What..." Tooru whispers, and now he feels tiny pinpricks of fear dotting his skin. He turns to Ushijima. "What are you...?"

"Does everything feel okay?" Ushijima asks the mirror Tooru, ignoring the real Tooru once again. The mirror tilts his head, shrugs his shoulders, and winces.

"That wound is tender." And the voice is Tooru's too. But it is not Tooru because he is Tooru. He glances down at his hands as if they can tell him what he looks like, but they still look like his own hands.

He opens his mouth, to say what he doesn't know, when the world ripples. He shudders, blinks, but all that happens is a narrow focusing before the world goes black for an instant.

When he regains consciousness he knows he isn't human anymore. He knows his damn swan body even if he usually doesn't remember being in it.

He tries to move, but his wings are pinioned to his sides by firm hands. He cries out in distress, struggles harder, but Ushijima's grip is iron. Tooru reaches back, nips at Ushijima's fingers, but it does nothing to loosen the hold.

"I will be back before the clock strikes midnight. You can then declare yourself to me, as it should be."

Tooru doesn't know how he had missed the golden cage sitting in the corner of the room, but now he is being shoved into it. He flutters his wings, disoriented, tries to fly out, but Ushijima has more experience with this and is much quicker. He shuts the door, the lock slipping into place. Tooru tries to reach out with his beak to the lock, then his wing, but it is too far to reach.

He almost wishes he weren't conscious, that he were his usual self, because being trapped here, watching Semi take over his life so easily, shatters him to pieces. He whistles quietly, beats himself against the cage again, gnaws at the bars around him. His wound throbs. He watches Akaashi clench his fists, staring at Tooru in the cage. Tooru cries out again, pleading, but Akaashi just turns to stalk out of the room after Ushijima.

"I'm sorry," Tooru thinks he hears Akaashi mutter, but then the door shuts, leaving Tooru alone in this pretty gold cage.

How did this all go so, so wrong?

***

"Okay, Bo, you have to be quiet, or we are never going to catch anything," Kuroo hisses, punching Bo's shoulder.

Bo rolls his eyes. "We haven't caught them yet. What makes you think we are going to be successful tonight?"

Bo does have a point. Kuroo shrugs. "The magic of the summer solstice, of course." He is only slightly sarcastic when he says it. "Besides, we have narrowed down the possible locations to three--two on Highwind Crag, which are not likely. Kenma and I roam around there all the time. And here. I have to admit, this is a nice spot."

And it is. It is to the far southwest, away the palace in a rocky area that boarders a mostly uninhabited part of Seijoh, directly below Tooru's pond and across from Highwind Crag. "No one ever comes over here," Bo concedes. "I mean, there is nowhere to fly. I guess you guys could make it work..."

Kuroo shakes his head. "There isn't anything over here. Kenma and I grew bored of it pretty quickly."

Bo sighs, sitting down fully. "I wonder if Ushijima sent us out here because of what is happening with Tooru. I don't understand Ushiwaka sometimes. He and Tooru clearly are not made to be together! He should be happy that Tooru found true love!"

Kuroo glances over at Bo, whose face has fallen into a pout. Kuroo hopes Bo is not going to fall into one of his moods, because he is not prepared to talk him out of one of his funks right now. "I don't know if it is a matter of...attraction at this point. It is a matter of balance. You've felt it, haven't you? The strange energy surges. The other night Kenma and I found a cave at the crag that hasn't ever been there before."

"Akaashi and I noticed some of the trees have started singing during sunrise," Bo admits with a full body shiver. "It was weird. Do you think it's because of Tooru leaving the court?"

Kuroo shrugs. "All I know is that there is some sort of imbalance, and Tooru's departure is just going to upset the balance even more. We need to be prepared."

Kuroo watches Bo glance over at him a few times, a sure sign he has an opinion he is not sure he wants to share. Kuroo waits patiently, because Bo cannot keep a secret to save his life. "I think Ushiwaka needs to delegate some of his work, especially if things are going to get more out of control. You come from a royal line, and Daichi over in the Karasuno mountains is doing a fine job of leading as well. It would be more manageable if--if things are going to get harder."

Bo snaps his mouth shut. Kuroo waits again, and Bo starts speaking a few seconds later. "I mean, just saying. If Ushiwaka wants to keep control, that's fine too! I'm just happy to help where I can."

Kuroo knows Bokuto's history is painful. Besides Kenma, Bo has probably had the hardest childhood of anyone here. Despite being one of the nicest people Kuroo has ever met, Bo is always waiting for a punishment of some sort. Kuroo hates it. "Bo, that is a reasonable opinion to have. I think most of us have a similar one."

Bokuto shrugs one shoulder. "I just want everyone to be happy."

Kuroo nods. He busies himself with untangling the rope in his hands. Honestly, it is little more than a long string, woven with strange golden fibers. Every time his fingers brush against them he feels a strange, invasive pulse that dulls his tie to his magic. Bokuto hates the feeling, so Kuroo is left with the job of wrapping these around their captives, which is fine. They have done this enough times now to be good at what they do.

"So, two more crows," Kuroo muses. "We should probably let Daichi know he will be responsible for them."

Bo grins. "We haven't seen him since fall! I like that guy."

Kuroo laughs softly. "Maybe we should make you the delegate to Karasuno."

"I would totally do that!"

Kuroo shushes Bokuto, who rolls his eyes but quiets down. They sit in silence for a good while before Bokuto finally breaks it. "It has to be almost midnight. I wonder what is going on with Tooru."

Truthfully, Kuroo is wondering the same thing. He knows the reason Ushijima asked the two of them to go out to catch these two crows tonight has something to do with helping Tooru or, more specifically, not helping him. Ushijima is acting too strange for it to be anything else. "Do you think he would choose the court, if something went wrong with Iwaizumi?"

Bokuto shifts. "I don't know. I think he is terrified of losing his human life to live as a swan. But he is also scared of being trapped. I mean, any of us could leave if we really wanted to. We have no binding ties to the court, but Tooru does, so even if he refuses Ushijima's advances, even if he just stays locked away in a room, he still cannot leave. That must be scary."

The Northerners were also not accustomed to such static lifestyles. Kuroo remembers when Tooru had first arrived here, how he had roamed the palace like it was a cage, how he had begged to be able to sleep out in the garden. Kuroo wonders how long it has been since Tooru has slept under the stars.

"I don't think so either," Kuroo finally confesses.

Bo smiles. "But everything is going to be okay. I think Tooru is really in love with Iwaizumi, and I cannot imagine him not reciprocating. Tooru doesn't really seem the type to see something that isn't there."

"That's true. But maybe you are just so in love with Akaashi that you think everyone is a romantic."

"Hey!" Bo protests. Kuroo smirks. Neither Bo nor Akaashi have actually come out and said they had spoken of their relationship, but the way Bo has started grinning whenever Akaashi walks into the room, and the way Akaashi stands tilted toward Bo like a sunflower toward the sun is blatantly obvious. "Like you're one to talk! The first thing you ever ask anyone is whether or not they've seen Kenma, and then you always go find him before you do anything else. You share adjoining rooms!"

"But at least we actually know how we feel about each other," Kuroo says. He remembers a time when he had been less than certain, when Kenma had led him by the hand to his room and proceeded to scold him for not asking Kenma how he felt before Kuroo had just decided their relationship wasn't going to work. And then Kenma had pulled Kuroo down onto the bed and kissed him until he felt like the whole world had become just the two of them in that small, secure place.

"You are still in your enamored phase," Kuroo says. "It hardly counts..."

"Shh!" Bokuto hisses, shifting onto his toes. Kuroo focuses abruptly to his surroundings, cocks his head, listening for the movement that Bokuto must have heard. There is a slight rustling in the trees directly across from them. Kuroo moves himself slowly into a stance that allows him a quick takeoff. He narrows his eyes, trying to differentiate the shape of trees from the shape of humans. He thinks he sees two figures. He catches Bo's eyes, motions with his head. Bokuto nods when he has located the two figures as well. Kuroo taps his finger on his knee once, twice...

Bokuto takes off on the third tap. He is not as fast as Kuroo, but he is stronger and more intimidating, good at herding their prey toward Kuroo. Kuroo shifts, holding the rope in his hands. The smaller, faster figure darts right toward him as Bokuto takes off after the taller one. Kuroo takes two quick breaths, then he launches himself at the figure about to pass him.

It is a solid connection. He is at least a half a foot taller than the poor figure he tackled, so he easily overpowers him. The person struggles violently, his hood falling off his head to reveal a bright orange mop of hair. "Hey! Let me go!"

Kuroo snorts as he wraps his first rope around the boy's--because he cannot be older than sixteen--wrists. "You have been terrorizing the animals in this forest. Why would I let you go?"

After the boy is subdued but still grumbling Kuroo sits back, panting, to study him. He is small, not just in stature but in build as well. He looks malnourished, his cheekbones prominent and his eyes almost as big as Tooru's. Kuroo bites his lip. He will make sure they get proper food before they have their official audience with Ushijima.

Kuroo looks over to Bokuto, who is about ten feet away. He is still wrestling with his figure, who is tall and gangly. Kuroo is surprised to see that Bokuto has slipped a bracelet made of the same stuff as the rope onto the boy's wrist. Once Bokuto flips the boy over, straddling his back, the fight is over. Kuroo whistles to catch Bokuto's attention, then throws the rope over to him.

"Who are you?" Bokuto asks as he finishes tying the other boy's arms. "You almost got away. Good thing I had that bracelet in my pouch. You have to have pretty good focus in order to transform under that much stress."

The boy just glares at Bokuto with frigid blue eyes and a scowl to rival Akaashi's on a bad day. Bokuto does not seem intimidated. Kuroo turns to his own captive, because that is probably where they are going to get most of their information.

"C'mon, get up," Kuroo sighs, heaving the boy up and dragging him toward his friend and Bo.

"Stop! I can walk just fine!" Kuroo shrugs but leaves his hand wrapped around the boy's forearm.

"Why don't you tell us who you are and why you are here? I promise, we are not going to hurt you."

The boy with the fire hair rolls his eyes. "You just tackled us to the ground and tied us up. Besides, your face is scary."

Bo lets out a cackle. Kuroo shoots him a glare, which he shrugs to. "He has a point, Kuroo, you do have a scary face sometimes."

"Maybe I just have a scary face when I get punched in the gut," Kuroo snaps. He turns back to the boy. "And besides, you shot one of our court. That is a pretty serious offense."

The boy's face falls. "Oh no. We didn't think there were any other people out there who could transform like us. Are they okay?"

Kuroo stares at the boy and Bokuto laughs so hard he is sure . “You didn’t...Oh wow. Okay. I guess we should let you know that a lot of the creatures in this wood are shapeshifters. That is why hunting in the woods is monitored as thoroughly as possible."

"But everyone is fine," Bokuto says as the two boys share a look of panic between them. Kuroo would have let them worry a bit more. "We're gonna help you. What are your names?"

"Hinata," the boy in Kuroo's grasp speaks up. Kuroo tries not to take offense that Hinata seems to trust Bo more than he trusts him. "And the grumpy one is Kageyama."

Kageyama glares at Hinata. "Idiot, why did you tell them?"

"Because they're gonna help us!"

"You don't know that! Maybe they just wanted to know our names so they could get more information easier!"

Hinata draws himself up to his full height. Kuroo and Bokuto share a look between them. Before Hinata can say anything, Kuroo interrupts. "Look. Maybe we can go back to the palace and get this all sorted out."

Hinata tenses under his hand. "I promise," Kuroo says slowly, "everything will be just fine."

Hinata and Kageyama share another look before Hinata sighs. "Yeah, okay. I'm really hungry."

Bokuto nods. He pushes Kageyama toward the trail and they start making their way back to the palace. "I can imagine. I left home without any provisions. I've always been a decent hunter, but it is rough when you can't control your shifting very well. Sometimes I'd be in a dive to catch prey and suddenly shift back to human."

Bokuto shakes his head. Kuroo snorts. "I don't know how you're still alive."

"Oh please," Bokuto scoffs. "I know you have just as many horror stories as I do! Like that time you fell out of the tree trying to catch a robin!"

Before Kuroo can retort the ground rumbles. He stumbles, catching his balance quickly. He glances around, trying to locate the source of the trembling, when the earth heaves again. "Does that happen a lot here?" Hinata asks Kuroo.

Kuroo shakes his head. "No, this is the first time."

"Over there," Bokuto says, pointing a finger to the right of Kuroo. He and Hinata both glance over their shoulders to see what Bokuto is pointing at. Kuroo can barely see a plume of smoke against the starry sky, but the treetops are rustling as well. Something large is coming toward them from the area of Tooru's pond.

Not only them, but also toward the general direction of Seijoh castle.

Bokuto and Kuroo exchange looks over their captives' heads. They are by far the closest to whatever is making the uproar in the forest.

"We should go check it out," Bokuto says.

"Did you bring any weapons?" Kuroo retorts.

Bokuto rolls his eyes. "I always bring my knives. What about you?"

Kuroo shrugs. He has two daggers, but he usually fights in his cat form. "I'll be fine. What about these two?"

"I have a bow," Kageyama says, voice petulant. "And I'm good with it."

"The best in the kingdom!" Hinata crows, not seeming fazed in the slightest by the threat in the forest. "And I have a slingshot. I'm a pretty good aim."

"You must be the one who shot Tooru then," Bokuto muses, pointing to Kageyama. Then he turns to Hinata. "And are you the one that threw the trap at me?"

Hinata's eyes widened. "Were you the horned owl?" Bokuto nods. "I'm so sorry!"

"Nah, don't worry, my leg's all healed up. And your throw was amazing!"

"Bo," Kuroo says sharply because he knows that Bokuto could keep talking all night. "This is not the time. Are we going to go after this thing, or should we drop these two off beforehand?"

"No! Let us help you, please?" Hinata turns, eyes shining with excitement. "I trained! And Kageyama has been teaching me all sorts of tricks about hunting and tracking."

Kuroo sighs. "I guess," he says. Bokuto nods. "I'll take these off you then, but don't run away. Ushijima is merciful to the ignorant but he will be less kind to those who blatantly disregard his rules."

Kageyama nods, his face still serious. Kuroo wonders if he even knows how to smile. He also wonders if he himself has lost all sense as he unknots the ropes. "You get to keep the bracelet," he says and wraps a rope around Hinata's wrist. At least then they couldn't fly away.

A roar echoes around the forest, followed by another tremble from the earth. "We need to go now," Bokuto says and before Kuroo can warn him to be careful, he takes off running in the direction of the source of the smoke.

Kuroo sighs as Hinata whoops and chases after Bokuto, leaving Kuroo with Kageyama. "Well, shall we?" he asks, to which Kageyama rolls his eyes but follows. Kuroo takes up the rear, wondering what is happening in this forest and if it will ever go back to normal.