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The Fox Prince

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Laughter and live music floated through the ballroom all the way to Kiyoomi's hiding spot behind a thick marble pillar, where he contemplated the costs and benefits of bashing his head into it. 

 

"Cheer up, Kiyoomi-kun!" Komori exclaimed, his smile more blinding than glittering chandelier lights shining down on them. "It's a party! You can't spend the whole time sulking!" 

 

"Forgive me if I'm not exactly feeling celebratory tonight," Kiyoomi grumbled, tightening his grip on his goblet. 

 

Komori laughed, like the traitor he was, slapping a hand on Kiyoomi's shoulder as if he had just told the funniest joke in the world.

 

"How ironic of you to say," he said, grin splitting across his face. "Considering this is your engagement banquet." Kiyoomi scowled. The reminder of his impending wedding tomorrow soured his mood even further. 

 

"I’m not married yet. Something could still happen from now until morning to save me from a lifetime of torture. Miya could mysteriously go missing, or slip into a coma after a tragic accident, or he could finally develop enough common sense to jump off a balcony—"

 

"Okay, I'm taking this before you insult the crown prince of Inarizaki in front of one of their ambassadors," Komori interrupted, snatching Kiyoomi's goblet out of his hands.

 

Kiyoomi chuckled lowly, a smirk curling his lips. “It’s not wine, Komori,” he said, his smirk growing bigger when Komori sniffed at the goblet, eyes widening. 

 

“My god, it’s not poison is it?” Komori cried, horrified, looking at Kiyoomi with shock splashed across his face. “I know you’re not happy with the whole arranged marriage situation, but this isn’t the answer, Kiyoomi-kun!”

 

“Calm down, Motoya,” Kiyoomi said, exasperated. “It’s just a headache cure. I knew there would be a large crowd tonight, and all the bright lights and the incessant, loud noises are so incredibly irritating.” Komori’s features softened, but he still didn’t look happy. 

 

“Kiyoomi,” he said, voice careful, and a slight frown on his face to match. “You know how people from Inarizaki feel about magic. You can’t just be brewing potions when we’re trying to solidify an alliance with them.”

 

Kiyoomi narrowed his eyes, his cousin’s chastising tone heating a simmering vexation under his skin. He wasn’t an idiot, he knew the consequences of performing magic under the nose of Inarizaki nobles. But frankly, he didn’t care what anyone thought of him or how his actions reflected badly on his future as a foreign ruler of their land. They'd never hidden their distaste for Kiyoomi, either. 

 

“If those bastards want to unite our two kingdoms, they have to accept that magic isn’t the dangerous evil they’ve convinced themselves it is. Why should we be the ones to yield, to sweep thousands of years of our culture under the rug because it will ease the comforts of our neighbors? I’m not going to agree to a strict ban on magic on my land, so why should I pretend to now?” He held Komori’s eyes with a venomous glare of his own, a terse silence stretching further and further between them when neither would back down. 

 

Komori finally tore his gaze away, turning around to place Kiyoomi’s goblet on a refreshment table in front of them. But he paused in his movement, fixated on something at the front of the room.

 

"We’ll have to hold this discussion for a later date.” He lifted his chin to the grand oak doors on the other side of the room, where a figure had emerged from the darkness outside and stepped into the warm glow of the ballroom. “Your betrothed is fashionably late, as always." 

 

As if on cue, trumpets burst from across the ballroom as the herald announced Atsumu's arrival. The sound of women shrieking with delight accompanied his name, and Kiyoomi felt another headache forming underneath his temples. 

 

He refused to turn around, retreating further behind the pillar into a dark corner and ignoring Komori calling out after him in confusion. But Kiyoomi was not ready to face Atsumu quite yet. Wasn't ready to face what was in store for them a mere day away.

 

Since before he knew what marriage was, he’d been told that he and Atsumu were to marry one day, and their partnership would unite the neighboring kingdoms of Itachiyama and Inarizaki, bringing peace to the North for the first time in 300 years. It was a great honor, to grow up knowing you were destined to inherit a throne with twice the wealth and power of any of your ancestors, and herald in a new age of peace and prosperity to the people of your kingdom. Kiyoomi’s parents, along with every tutor, advisor, and courtier he had ever encountered, never failed to drill this concept into his head time and time again. The promise of eternal glory and opulence didn’t appeal to Kiyoomi as much as it should have, however. He was never the type to chase after money and influence, more content to keep to himself and his books about the magic arts. 

 

No, Kiyoomi was more concerned with his prospective husband. 

 

Kiyoomi and Atsumu first met when they were seven years old. Kiyoomi punched him roughly ten seconds into introductions, but no one could really blame him for it. There was simply no other way to react when your future fiancé takes one look at you and says, “Aw, he’s ugly!” 

 

If their parents thought that spending more time together would cultivate some affection between them, they were sorely mistaken. Every summer of his childhood, Kiyoomi was forced to spend a month or so in Inarizaki with Atsumu and his younger (and much more likeable) twin, Osamu. And every summer, Atsumu pulled at Kiyoomi’s hair, pushed him into thorny bushes, and sprinkled dirt into his food when he wasn’t looking. Kiyoomi wasn’t much better either, mocking Atsumu’s accent until he cried and locking him in secluded closets alone for hours on end. It quickly became clear that they might actually murder each other before they could exchange vows, and the annual visits slowly faded into nonexistence. Once they reached their teens, Kiyoomi only saw Atsumu when it was strictly necessary, during wedding, funerals, and joint holiday banquets that his parents made sure he could not avoid.

 

He wasn’t sure if it was Atsumu’s equally antagonistic personality or that fact that he had no choice in being stuck with him for his entire life, but every little thing about Atsumu made Kiyoomi’s blood curdle. They barely interacted unless it couldn’t be helped, but even a few words exchanged between them was enough to trigger a full-blown shouting match that would last for hours. 

 

Kiyoomi steeled himself, running a list in his mind of possible insults to throw at Atsumu when he inevitably had to talk to him tonight. Because they were at a banquet in honor of their goddamn engagement. He turned around, squinting at the sudden rush of light and movement in his vision before his eyes settled on Atsumu, easily spotted in the crowd from his flowing red cloak and the glittering crown adorning his head. 

 

And— 

 

Oh no. 

 

Kiyoomi swallowed, his gut churning with an unfamiliar fluttering as his eyes raked over his fiance's figure. 

 

Miya Atsumu looked very different from when Kiyoomi had last seen him, almost a year ago.

 

He glided across the marble floors with all the regal grace of a fully fledged crown prince, a confident but subdued smile pulling at his lips. Kiyoomi’s gaze ran down from his light blonde, perfectly coiffed locks to his tanned skin and the way the muscles of his chest filled out against the rich velvet of his clothing. Atsumu squinted around the room, looking for someone, before his eyes landed directly on Kiyoomi. Kiyoomi suppresses the instinct to look away, holding Atsumu’s gaze like a challenge. Atsumu smiled, a little mischievous, and started toward Kiyoomi. Kiyoomi felt a shiver run up his spine. 

 

Up close, Kiyoomi noticed how Atsumu’s features had matured into a sharp jaw and sultry, half-lidded eyes. The light blonde color on top of his head contrasted with the dark brown of the hair closely cropped to his neck and his eyebrows, giving him a unique, masculine look. His prominent cheekbones were dusted pink even through his tan, courtesy of the heat of the ballroom. He tilted his nose up at Kiyoomi, revealing a long, bare neck that Kiyoomi’s eyes latched onto when Atsumu swallowed, throat bobbing up. Atsumu’s plump, pink, glistening lips parted, and Kiyoomi’s breath hitched. 

 

Maybe arranged marriages weren’t as horrible as Kiyoomi had previously made them out to be.

 

“Omi-kun,” Atsumu spat out in greeting. “You’re looking bitchy as usual.” 

 

All the pleasant warmth drained out of Kiyoomi’s body as quickly as it had come. If only Atsumu hadn’t opened his mouth, Kiyoomi could have indulged himself in the fantasy a little longer. But how could he ever forget the many, many reasons he hated Miya Atsumu? He felt a little foolish for being momentarily charmed by the curl of his lips and the glow of his skin, but reality crashed into Kiyoomi like a gallon of ice water to his face. Atsumu was a dick, period. 

 

“Hello, whore,” Kiyoomi shot back. “Tell me, how did you make it past the guards? Surely they wouldn’t have let a pile of maggots through the doors, even if you are wearing a crown.” 

 

Beside him, Komori forced out a nervous laugh, a smile tightening around the edges. “Atsumu-kun, always a pleasure! Don’t mind our Kiyoomi-kun for being a little crabby tonight, he just gets skittish around big crowds, you know?”

 

Kiyoomi’s cheeks spiked with heat. “I don’t get skittish.” Komori just patted his shoulder light-heartedly, however, and Atsumu’s expression lit up with mocking delight. 

 

“He acts tough but he’s a big softy. Wouldn’t you agree, Atsumu-kun? You two have known each other all your lives.”

 

“Can’t say I agree, Motoya-kun. Omi-kun didn’t seem too soft that one time he accidentally missed his target during archery practice and shot me in the shoulder.” 

 

Kiyoomi's glare was dripping with venom. “Only because you bit me! I still have a scar!” His hand reflexively covered his right wrist, where Atsumu’s teeth marks were currently hidden by layers of silk and cotton. “Who the hell still bites people when they’re eighteen years old?”

 

Atsumu huffed angrily. His hands were curled into fists at his side. “I wouldn’t have done it in the first place if you hadn’t told everyone at court that I missed the Karasuno kings’ wedding because I had died!” 

 

Kiyoomi couldn't help himself—he snickered, eyes sliding to the side as he considered the memory. Atsumu had shown up at the Itachiyama castle a couple days later, absolutely fuming, and demanded to know why so many people were sending his family condolences and asking when the funeral was taking place. Osamu had accompanied him, only to personally approach Kiyoomi and shake his hand, thanking him for his service. 

 

“That was possibly the greatest accomplishment of my life. I will never apologize for that.” 

 

Atsumu growled, and lunged at him. Kiyoomi blocked his face with his arms instantly, well-versed in Atsumu’s attack style. But the blow never came, and Kiyoomi peeked through the gap between his forearms to see Komori pushing into Atsumu’s space, blocking him from Kiyoomi. 

 

“Guys! Can you maybe not attempt to murder each other in the middle of your engagement party?” Komori yelled, throwing his arms out, palms flat and facing each of their chests. Even if he was significantly shorter than both of them, he still commanded a looming presence. “You're supposed to be getting married tomorrow, so would it kill you to pretend to tolerate each other for the night?” 

 

Atsumu hunched in on himself, looking sheepish. It wasn’t often that Komori scolded other people this openly (Kiyoomi was perhaps the only exception).

 

“I can be civil. Omi-kun’s head might implode if he tries to hide the fact that he’s a giant pain in the ass for less than a minute.” 

 

Kiyoomi raised a fist in warning. “You want me to show you a pain in the ass, Miya?”

 

“Kiyoomi! Less threatening physical assault during a diplomatic event, okay?” Komori grasped Kiyoomi by the shoulder, pulling him back another step. 

 

“Why should I care if people hear me? Maybe then they’ll finally realize that this arrangement between us is doomed.” He pouted, feeling a bit betrayed that Komori wasn't taking his side on this.

 

Komori squeezed his shoulder tighter, prompting Kiyoomi to glance at him. “You’re a good man, Kiyoomi, and you’ll be a good king. I trust you to do what’s best for your people, even at the cost of your personal feelings.” He spoke in an undertone, trying to give them a semblance of privacy while Atsumu stood not even an arm’s length away. A lump caught in Kiyoomi’s throat at Komori’s words. His eyes burned, and he blinked the heat away. So much of his life was spent stressing under the expectations of his parents, his advisors, and the public. It wasn’t often that someone took time to compliment Kiyoomi, to recognize that he did take his duties seriously and he put a lot of effort into obtaining skills that would help him rule. 

 

“Fine. I’ll hold my tongue until this mortifying ordeal is over. For you." 

 

“Gonna be sweet to me from now on, Omi-kun?” Atsumu asked, cocking a brow. His eyes flashed with fire, and heat swooped in Kiyoomi's gut. He buried the feeling deep down. Kiyoomi bared his teeth, knowing that Atsumu alone would not mistake it for a smile. 

 

“Enough to rot your fucking teeth.” 

 

— 

 

Kiyoomi kicked his door open with an enraged snarl, sending the ancient wood slamming against his workroom wall. He let out another yell, stomping over to his desk and pulling out various vials filled with 1qcolorful liquid, throwing them onto his desk hastily. 

 

He knew that this night would be a disaster, knew that he was going to spend hours suffering through fake pleasantries and suffocating under his too-tight collar. But it had been so much worse than he imagined, having to do it all beside Atsumu. Atsumu, who had no right to send a thrum of pleasure through Kiyoomi skin with every smirk. 

 

Kiyoomi took the mortar and pestle out from the drawer under his desk and poured the squishing liquid from each vial into the stone bowl. Contrary to what many foreigners believed about witchcraft, you weren’t born with the ability to perform magic. Magic was an art and science all at once, a skill to be crafted and honed through years of rigorous training and research. 

 

And Kiyoomi was damn good at it.  

 

He watched the colors swirl and fizzle in his mortar pot, some of his anger evaporating away as he carried out this familiar routine. First, pour all liquid ingredients and stir till the solution was a single color. Then, crush together the necessary herbs or organic materials into a paste and mix in until the solution thickens without lumps. Stick a written enchantment on the side and let the potion sit for the designated amount of time. And lastly, apply the solution directly onto the skin. For what Kiyoomi was currently making, a quick stroke against his forehead was most effective. 

 

His current experiment was a synthesis of metamorphosis enchantment and calming draught, a concoction he'd developed on his own to survive life as a royal with his less than diplomatic disposition. It was used to ease his anxiety after long periods of time in big crowds, or high-stress meetings with a political council to give their input on foreign and domestic affairs, or any other activities that drained Kiyoomi of energy and patience. For tonight, it was meant to take the fire of resentment and indignation burning under his skin, and transform it to something more peaceful and subdued. He desperately needed it if he wanted to get any sleep tonight. Without something to extinguish his anger, he would spend the night glaring at his bedroom ceiling, plotting another elaborate scheme to kill Atsumu without any suspicion cast on him. 

 

The mere thought of Atsumu reignited a flicker of rage in Kiyoomi’s chest. His bitterness mixed with a lingering flutter in Kiyoomi's stomach, and he groaned. His fingers twitched where they lay curled around a knife, cutting foxglove petals into thin slices. He exhaled slowly, trying to stamp down the warring feelings in his gut.

 

Perhaps the most important rule of magic was that emotions were crucial to the essence of the enchantment or potion the user was creating. Magic, at its core, was an extension and reflection of the human soul. The spellbooks Kiyoomi grew up reading emphasized the importance of being in the right headspace when performing magic, as a person’s person's countenance could influence the outcome of a spell. 

 

For everything to work properly, he had to be impassive. Unaffected. Detached from sentiment and vice alike. 

 

He was just finishing up sprinkling in dried flakes of a butterfly wing when the door to his bedroom flew open again. 

 

Kiyoomi whipped his head around, coming face to face with his fiancé. His grip tightened around the small mortar bowl, and his eyes flickered to the mess of parchment pieces etched with magic symbols and assortment of herbs and flowers spread around his desk. He glanced back to see Atsumu staring at them too. 

 

Fuck.

 

“You’re doing witchcraft?” Atsumu’s voice was hushed, almost inaudible beneath the pounding of blood in Kiyoomi’s ears. 

 

“It's called potion brewing,” he said calmly. Reigning in his panic, Kiyoomi crossed his arms and tilted hsi chin up at Atsumu. "And what’s it to you?”

 

Atsumu’s glare cut through his feigned confidence like a heated blade. “Goddamn traitor. I knew we never should have trusted you northern freaks—" Atsumu stomped closer, yanking the mortar bowl out of Kiyoomi’s hands. 

 

Kiyoomi thrust himself forward, fingers flexing as he tried to grab it back. "Hey! What do you think you're doing?" He caught onto Atsumu’s wrist, forcing it up and stopping Atsumu from moving any further away from him. 

 

"I'm taking this to the council. No way is Inarizaki proceeding with a trade agreement when their crown prince is a filthy sorcerer." 

 

Kiyoomi snorted. "Sorcerer is such an outdated term. And if you arrest me for practicing magic, be prepared to arrest half of my kingdom, too." Atsumu huffed, disbelieving, and his dismissal burned an indignant flame in Kiyoomi’s chest. "And you're not taking my potion! Hand it over!" He rushed at Atsumu with all his strength, taking advantage of his height to crowd Atsumu into a corner. 

 

"Over my dead body!" Atsumu extended his arm out, keeping Kiyoomi’s potion just out of reach.

 

"Stop touching it! You're going to corrupt it!" Kiyoomi’s anger spiked with fear when he saw the color of the viscous liquid sloshing around in the bowl begin to darken, black spots blooming around the edges. 

 

"Ha! You say it like that's a bad thing," Atsumu said, smug.  

 

"It will be if you don't give it here. Who knows what your inexperience could do to an enchantment like this?"

 

Atsumu's jaw clenched, his scowl digging lines into his skin. "You're a liar and a traitor. I can't trust you."

 

"For the last time! Let it go!" Kiyoomi summoned all his strength and tugged on the bowl, wrenching it out of Atsumu's hand. 

 

"Never!" Atsumu bellowed, scrambling for it again. Kiyoomi was not prepared for Atsumu to pull so hard, however, and the bowl goes flying through the air. 

 

"Whoopsie," Atsumu squeaked.

 

Atsumu shrieked as the mortar bowl landed squarely on his forehead, a golden, glowing substance like honey oozing its way down his hair and face.

 

"That can't be good," Kiyoomi breathed. 

 

Light erupted from Atsumu's body, and Kiyoomi threw a hand over his eyes to stop himself from being blinded. He heard a fitful scream, which only faded into silence. 

 

For a moment, everything was still. Then, Kiyoomi heard a strange twittering sound coming from Atsumu’s direction, and cracked open his eyes a tiny fraction to survey the damage. 

 

Except Atsumu wasn’t in front of Kiyoomi anymore. Kiyoomi’s eyes darted around the room, searching for the familiar shock of platinum blonde hair. But Atsumu was nowhere to be found. 

 

“Did it...kill him?” Kiyoomi voiced aloud, not daring to hope it was true. 

 

Another round of twittering shook Kiyoomi out of his thoughts, however, and his gaze lowered to the floor where the noise seemed to be coming from. 

 

A fox sat, trembling, where Atsumu once stood. 

 

Kiyoomi blinked at it. It blinked back at him. 

 

The fox came up to just under Kiyoomi’s knees, with thick, shiny red fur running down its back. It’s underbelly sported a soft yellow color, almost a faded golden. It had a square, fluffy face with a tiny black nose and wide black eyes looking up at him. Its ears were a darker red from the rest of its body, perked up and at attention. Behind it, a fluffy white tail laced with red and gold hairs swished back and forth, almost nervously. 

 

"Atsumu?" Kiyoomi asked, bending down on one knee and raising his hand to pet the fox’s head. 

 

The fox sunk its teeth into the meat of his fingers.

 

"Ow!" Kiyoomi withdrew his hand, cradling the wound and inspecting it for signs of blood. The fox’s tail wagged faster, and it’s eyes seemed to sparkle while watching Kiyoomi groan in pain. "Okay. So definitely Atsumu, then."

 

Atsumu twittered at him again, a foreign sound that reminded Kiyoomi of a cat being bathed. Atsumu spun around in a tight circle, jerky movement conveying his panic and anger well enough for Kiyoomi to know that he was pissed. 

 

"Hold on, I can't understand you." Kiyoomi surveyed the room, his gaze catching on an old fauna spellbook he hadn't touched in years. 

 

"Let me see if I can…" He reached for the book, flipping through its contents before he found the section he was looking for. A passage on communication with animals. Atsumu was still human, of course, but a human soul trapped in an animal vessel could still have beastly magic cast upon them.

 

"Communication with a creature of the earth can be realized if the user establishes an unbreakable bond of trust with their respective animal companion," Kiyoomi read, running his finger along the words. "Well, we don't have quite enough time for that, do we?" Kiyoomi turned his head to Atsumu, who had taken to tearing up scrolls and knocking down herb jars lining Kiyoomi's supply cabinet, in a fit of wild rage. 

 

Kiyoomi ignored Atsumu's enraged growling and the sounds of expensive glass vials clattering to the floor. He pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to clear his mind and concentrate. There was always another way when it came to magic. You just had to think outside the box and get creative. Kiyoomi scanned the lines of medicinal herbs and exotic plants and formulated a plan in his mind. 

 

He turned his attention toward Atsumu again, who was furiously scratching claw marks into Kiyoomi’s ancient spell books. He scooped up Atsumu in one hand, holding him at arm’s length while Atsumu thrashed around violently. 

 

“Okay, I can use an enchantment to help us understand each other. But you’re going to have to cooperate with me, alright?” Kiyoomi reached over to pull a jar out from one of the upper shelves, and hissed when he felt Atsumu’s claws rake over his wrist. 

 

Kiyoomi jerked back, more out of shock than pain, and almost let go of Atsumu. "Don't be a bitch, Atsumu. How else am I going to be able to talk to you?" Atsumu’s answering snarl conveyed clearly that he couldn’t care less. 

 

Kiyoomi sighed, bracing himself for what he was about to do. He never had any pets growing up, but once, when they were kids, he helped Komori feed medicine to his sick rabbit. She had screeched and bit and spit out the dry, bitter leaves for what felt like hours before Komori was able to shove them down her throat. And Atsumu was infinitely more aggravated than that rabbit. 

 

 With a grimace, Kiyoomi quickly swiped a large parsley leaf out from the jar and ran it over his tongue, wetting it with his spit. He then jammed his hand straight into Atsumu’s unsuspecting mouth, ignoring his protesting wail as his fingers touched the back of Atsumu’s tiny throat. He released the leaf and removed his hand, and dropped Atsumu down to the floor for good measure. Atsumu choked and sputtered while Kiyoomi stalked over to the sink in the corner of the room to aggressively scrub his hands with soap. 

 

Before he could turn around to face Atsumu again, Atsumu’s voice greeted him from behind. 

 

"What. The fuck. Did you do to me," Atsumu gritted out, breathing heavily. Kiyoomi narrowed his eyes, irked. He didn’t do jack shit. He whirled around, his temper at a boiling point. 

 

"You did this to yourself, asshole! Your negative emotions corrupted my potion, and now you're stuck as an ugly red skunk." Kiyoomi felt a little silly, arguing with an animal barely a fourth of his height, but his innate instinct to yell at Atsumu overtook any self-consciousness he had. 

 

"What do you mean I corrupted your witchcraft? I’m not a wizard, or whatever you call yourselves!" It was weird, hearing Atsumu’s voice come out of the red and white snout, with a button black nose and thin whiskers. Atsumu’s large, round eyes had something human about them though; they glinted with a light that suggested something deeper, something more intelligent than a typical animal, behind them. Not that Atsumu would ever be described as deep or intelligent in any other capacity. 

 

"First, I just told you, everyone is capable of performing a simple spell. In this case, however, I did all the hard work in brewing everything, and you immediately ruined it with a single touch."

 

"What the hell kind of curse did you put on me?"

 

"It's not a curse," he corrected, then paused. Although this spell was unintentional, corrupted magic often fell under the large umbrella of the dark arts. "Well, not exactly. I was brewing a specialty potion. It's a mix of a metamorphosis and calming draught. It's supposed to transmute emotions. I guess once it became corrupted with your negative energy, it became a transformation spell.” 

 

“Well, how do you break it? I can’t stay in this body!”

 

“I don’t know Atsumu, you’re much more likable in this form. Besides, you were barely considered a person before this anyway,” Kiyoomi leaned his hip against the corner of his desk, raising an eyebrow as he revelled in looking down at Atsumu. “Plus, no one’s going to force me to marry a fox.” 

 

“You idiot,” Atsumu said flatly, with a shake of his head. The fur around his face swished in a way that compelled Kiyoomi to not take a single thing he said seriously. He looked like a toy. “What happens when people come looking for me, and find out that the Itachiyama crown prince cursed his fiancé with illegal magic?” Atsumu’s fox eyes, slitted and glowing in the dark lighting of the room, slid up to meet Kiyoomi’s. “Sure, there won’t be a wedding. But there definitely won’t be a treaty anymore, either.”

 

Kiyoomi weighed his options. Ordinarily, he would rather light himself on fire than willingly help Miya Atsumu. On the other hand, cursing the crown prince of a neighboring kingdom was an action that could stir up enough resentment and anger in their people to start a war. Which, Kiyoomi thought with a heavy pang in his chest, was not the ideal way to begin his term as a reigning monarch. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, reluctantly accepting his fate. 

 

“Okay, so, we have a wedding to attend tomorrow,” he began, trepidation creeping in as the circumstances of their situation solidified in his mind. 

 

“One in which everyone will expect both of us to show up on time, in human bodies.”

 

“So we have to get you back to your original form in…” Kiyoomi ran the numbers, heart sinking when he realized just how much of a time crunch they were in. “Thirteen hours.” He exchanged a panicked look with Atsumu, who, even as a fox, managed to look nervous at the prospect. 

 

“This isn’t going to end well, is it?” Kiyoomi pursed his lips. No, it probably wasn’t. But they still had to figure something out, regardless. He pushed himself off of the desk and made his way to the bookcase with all of the written material on magic he had collected over the years. 

 

“Transformation spells are relatively easy to undo, fortunately. Some require no magic at all, so your bigoted ass is in luck.” He cast a sideways glare at Atsumu, trotting alongside him to the bookshelf. 

 

“How can a spell be broken without magic?”

 

“Ever heard of the magic in a true love’s kiss?” Kiyoomi asked, running his finger over the titles displayed on the spine of each book before pulling out a volume from the shelf. He smirked at Atsumu’s horrified expression. 

 

“You’re fucking with me.”

 

“Guilty,” he admitted, turning back to flipping through the pages before he reached one that seemed promising. “But this solution is similar. Magic is simply an extension of our souls. Our essence and human spirit. And therefore, to undo a transformation spell, you have to reveal your true self.” He flipped the book over for Atsumu to read, but Atsumu didn’t spare it a glance. 

 

“Omi-kun, you can hear yourself, right? What the hell does that even mean?” Foxes couldn’t frown, or furrow their eyebrows, but Atsumu still shot Kiyoomi a contemptuous look, his eyes narrowing and teeth poking out from under his upper lip. 

 

“Oh, am I just supposed to know everything here? I don’t know, to counteract the spell you have to be truthful. Open and honest. If you have any mind-blowing secrets spill them now, and that should probably work." Atsumu blankly stared at him for several long moments. Kiyoomi almost snapped at him to say something, but then Atsumu huffed, and Kiyoomi suspected he would have rolled his eyes if he was able. 

 

“I’m a prince, Omi-kun. And a dedicated one, unlike you.”

 

“Watch yourself, rodent.”

 

“Foxes are canines!” One of Atsumu’s ears twitched, and he bared his teeth, exasperated. “Look. My entire life is built on dishonesty and ulterior motives. I'm a royal, for Christ's sake. The balls and banquets, the courtly manners, the political marriages—surely you can understand. I’ve never known the luxury of sincerity since the day I was born.” Atsumu’s gaze drifted to the side, and he heaved a long sigh. 

 

Kiyoomi lowered the spellbook to his lap, overcome by a sudden pang of empathy in his chest. This was a feeling he understood first-hand, and something he struggled with in his daily life as well. It was a nice fantasy to be seen as the immaculate crown prince of a prosperous kingdom, adorned with wealth and influence, but beneath it all, Kiyoomi’s status made him feel isolated from everyone else. Studying magic was an escape for Kiyoomi, because it allowed him an outlet for his emotions and broadened his perspective on the world. And, if Kiyoomi was honest with himself, he was sorely lacking in the poise and tact that a prospective king was supposed to possess. Atsumu was much better at the acting part of their role, oozing charisma and charm with every word he spoke. 

 

Kiyoomi had always been jealous of his seemingly natural ability to attract others’ attention and praise, but he never considered how much of a toll keeping up that kind of façade must take on him. It was a rare moment of clarity in which Kiyoomi remembered that he and Atsumu were prisoners of their title alike, and perhaps the only ones who could relate to one another when it came to the royal struggles of a future ruler. 

 

“There might be another way to break your curse,” he murmured. 

 

“Though you said it wasn’t a curse?” Atsumu countered, but his eyes lit up with curiosity. 

 

“I’m being nice here, you don’t get to act cheeky,” Kiyoomi said with a pout, flipping to the very end of his spellbook. Atsumu tracked his movements diligently, and his tail gave a single flick of acknowledgement. 

 

“Forgive me, oh-so-generous one.” 

 

Kiyoomi ignored him, scanning over the last passage of the book. He smiled, and held it up for Atsumu to see. 

 

An illustration of an old, mossy cave was plastered over both pages, with ancient rocks scattered around its entrance and thick, winding vines digging into the sides. Inside, there was only black, and the ink of the drawing had smeared around the edges, giving off the impression of the darkness slowly crawling its way out of the cave.

 

“Old Magic still lives in this land, buried deep and lying dormant beneath Itachiyama soil. In places without any human activity, magic thrives,” Kiyoomi explained, laying the book on his lap and beckoning Atsumu to come closer. Atsumu took a couple steps forward as Kiyoomi turned to another page, revealing another illustration. This one depicted a pool of water—the mirrored surface glimmered as if reflecting sunlight, although the pool was surrounded by only stone and roots. 

 

“Legend tells of a cave that possesses a small body of water that was enchanted centuries ago, by the founders of our kingdom. If you wade into the center of the pool, it will somehow show you a reflection of your soul. Your true and honest self. The Elders call it, ‘The Cauldron',” Kiyoomi smiled, remembering when he first learned of this tale, back when he began studying magic arts. He was so fascinated by the idea of being able to see yourself as you truly are, not what people expected you to be or what you had deceived yourself into believing you were. He was also terrified of what it would show him. “And once you’ve been shown your true self, your original body will be restored.” 

 

“But it’s just a myth?” Atsumu deadpanned, unimpressed. 

 

Kiyoomi frowned. “It’s not a myth. It’s real.”

 

“Have you been there?”

 

“...No.”

 

“Has anyone you know, dead or alive, been there?”  

 

Kiyoomi pursed his lips, and suppressed the sudden urge to stomp on Atsumu’s tiny, fluffy head. Instead, he slammed the book shut and took pleasure in watching Atsumu’s sensitive ears reel back in shock. 

 

“Do you want to get your body back or not? I’m trying to help you here.” 

 

“I just don’t want to end up on some wild goose chase that’s just going to waste my time.”

 

“Then have fun chasing rabbits in the forest for the rest of your life,” he snapped, and stood up. Atsumu ran circles around his ankles, however, keeping him from taking any steps toward the door. 

 

“Woah, woah, wait! Look, I never said I didn’t want your help,” he pleaded, skidding to a halt in front of Kiyoomi. Kiyoomi raised an eyebrow at him. 

 

“Go on.” 

 

“I mean, it’s just—you know how my people feel about magic. And look!” He spun in another circle. “Your potion making turned me into a child's stuffed toy. You can imagine how I’m having a hard time trusting this whole process.”

 

“I’m not fond of those who complain while someone is trying to help them. And I’m even less fond of ignorant fools who assume anything unfamiliar to them is inherently evil.” 

 

“I’ll be better at that. I want to be better.” Atsumu’s voice was strong, even, and promised earnestness and integrity. Anyone else would have been instantly convinced. But Kiyoomi had known Atsumu his whole life, and seen ugly parts of him that most people were quick to dismiss. Even still, when he looked down into Atsumu’s eyes and held his steadfast gaze, he didn’t register a hint of deception. Kiyoomi’s resolve crumbled to dust. 

 

Maybe Kiyoomi was a fool to believe him. But he didn’t really have a choice, did he? 

 

“Fine,” Kiyoomi relented, quickly turning away from Atsumu. “Let’s leave now, then. We only have so much time.” He picked up a map of Itachiyama and spread it across his desk. At his side, Atsumu jumped from the chair to the top of his desk, sitting in a corner where he could see the map as well. Kiyoomi eyed the prints his dirty paws left on the wood surface, but didn’t say anything. He circled the location on his map, pushing it for Atsumu to examine. 

 

“All the way past the mountains? That’s a least a four day ride by horse.”

 

Kiyoomi laughed. “Miya, we’re not traveling on a horse.”

 

“You can’t seriously expect us to make it there by foot.” Kiyoomi’s lips twisted into a smug smile, and he pulled out a sheet of clean parchment and a quill, scrawling symbols carefully across the page. Atsumu’s ears shot up as he watched Kiyoomi with wide eyes. 

 

“What are you doing? Omi-kun? Omi-kun, what are you doing?” He jumped to all fours, padding closer to Kiyoomi and placing a paw on Kiyoomi’s map. Kiyoomi’s eye twitched in annoyance. 

 

“Will you shut up? I’m trying to concentrate.”

 

“Concentrate on what?”

 

“This teleportation spell, duh.” 

 

Atsumu barked out a laugh, the sound half human, half fox. Kiyoomi rolled his eyes, swiping the finished spell and a jar of sea salt. He stepped over to the empty center of the room, tipping the jar over and spread it in the shape of a large star, then connected all the pointed ends in one overarching circle. Once he was satisfied, he turned to Atsumu with his hands on his hips, expectant. 

 

“You’re insane. I’m not touching that thing,” Atsumu declared, backing closer to the wall in his spot on Kiyoomi’s desk. Kiyoomi sighed, impatient, and stomped over to pluck Atsumu into his arms. 

 

“If you want my help, you’re going to have to do things my way, Miya,” he said, wrestling the thrashing fox in his arms. Atsumu managed to jump out, however, and sat on the floor a few feet from Kiyoomi, posture stiff as stone. Kiyoomi swiftly pointed to the shape at his feet. “Now get in the salt pentagram.” 

 

“No fucking way.”

 

“Oh, come on!” Kiyoomi cried. “Fine. I’ll continue to do everything myself, as usual.” With an agitated groan, he reached forward and plucked Atsumu off the floor. Atsumu wriggled and let out a startled yelp, but didn’t have time to escape again before Kiyoomi had slammed another scrap of parchment with an enchantment written on it, and both of them were plunged into darkness. 

 

— 

 

Before Kiyoomi even opened his eyes, he knew the spell had worked. His skin prickled with the sudden thickness of humidity and summer heat. He inhaled, taking in the smell of lush greenery and dirt. Around him hummed the buzzing of insects, the chattering of wild animals, and the soft rustle of plants in the wind. 

 

“Oh my god, did we die?” Atsumu’s voice sounded from his arms and Kiyoomi registered the feeling of soft fur tickling his chin, Atsumu’s tiny nails digging into his chest fearfully. 

 

“No, idiot,” he muttered, cracking an eye open. The thick canopy above cast them in partial shadow, but there was still enough light from the beating sun to tingle Kiyoomi’s sensitive skin. “Look, we’re here.”

 

Straight in front of them was a path, not carved out by man with machinery, but forged by centuries of magic cultivated in this area. The flora along the sides of the path bent over backwards, and the grass they stood upon pointed the way forward, their lengths stretched all the way sideways and not yielding to the breeze. He started off at a brisk pace, Atsumu trotting alongside him.

 

“I don’t see a cave,” Atsumu said stiffly. 

 

“We couldn’t exactly land right in front of it when this area is meant to be untouched by human activity. We need to leave as little a footprint as possible, to preserve the energy of ancient magic in the air and land,” he explained. Kiyoomi pushed a stray tree branch aside, and narrowly avoided stepping on a beetle scuttling across the open path. 

 

“Oh, please. What, if we breathe too much, then the magic will fade away or something?”

 

“Kind of, yeah.”

 

“Well then this all-powerful and ancient magic doesn’t sound too strong to me,” Atsumu sniffed. 

 

“It’s not about strength, dipshit. Magic is influenced by the human energy in its surroundings. And to keep this particular magic in its natural state, we must interfere with it as little as possible.” He was getting tired of explaining every little thing about magic to Atsumu. Hadn’t Atsumu read up on Itachiyama culture at all? Studied a single historical text about the kingdom he would be responsible for one day? Kiyoomi feels the familiar Atsumu-related irritation bubble in his chest. So much for Atsumu trying to be better.  

 

A sudden pressure against his leg causes Kiyoomi to stop in his tracks. He tentatively glances down, expecting another beetle crawling up the length of his pants—

 

But instead there's just Atsumu, jumping up from his calf to his hip, clawing his way up Kiyoomi's body like a monkey climbs a tree until he settled in the juncture between Kiyoomi's neck and shoulder, perched with his thick, frizzing fur pressed up against Kiyoomi's ear.

 

“What do you think you’re doing?”

 

“You’re walking too fast. I can keep up this way.”

 

“I’m not a horse, Miya! Get off!” Kiyoomi lifted a hand to swat Atsumu away, but Atsumu dodged with unexpected agility, moving up onto Kiyoomi's hair, his claws digging into Kiyoomi's scalp. 

 

“No way. This way we maximize time and leave less of a trace for a bear to chase after us or something.”

 

“Bears aren’t native to Itachiyama. We do have wolves, though." 

 

“Okay, but that’s actually worse . You see how that’s worse, right?” 

 

Kiyoomi snorted. “You don’t have to worry about them. I don’t think wolves are interested in eating overgrown, loud-mouthed rats.” Atsumu gasped in offense. 

 

“How reassuring! Thank you, Omi-kun! And I’m sure your resemblance to a shriveled corpse wouldn’t look very appetizing to them either,” Atsumu jabbed, punctuating his remark with a tug on a lock of curls on the back of Kiyoomi's head. 

   

He snorted again, giving up on kicking Atsumu off of his shoulders. It wasn't unpleasant, he realized as he continued walking through the forest. He assumed the extra weight and mouthful if fur would agitate him in the summer heat and humidity, but Atsumu was a lighter weight than some of the ceremonial robes and armor he was forced to wear for formal occasions, and Kiyoomi liked the feeling if soft, velvety fur tickling his cheek and neck. He'd never had a pet before, and it was nice to share physical contact with something warm and cuddly. He sighed internally. Too bad the one snuggled up against him was also the most irritating person on Earth.  

 

They reached the entrance of the cave. The looming outline of crumbling stone and rotting ivy curling around the edges was imposing enough, but nothing could match the shock of fear that struck straight through Kiyoomi’s heart when he stared into the inside of the cave. Darkness looked back at him, sucking in light, sound, and movement into its still, black nothing. Kiyoomi felt as if the more he stared into it, the more it was tugging him closer, inciting him to sink into the endless shadows. A shiver ran through him despite the sweltering heat. 

 

“We’re supposed to go in there?” Atsumu squeaked from near Kiyoomi’s ear. Kiyoomi secretly shared his trepidation, but he would die before admitting weakness in the face of Miya Atsumu.

 

“Yup,” he piped with false cheer. “Off we go, then.” Kiyoomi squared his shoulders, Atsumu exhaled shakily, and together they stepped into the unknown abyss. 

 

Only cold and darkness greeted them from the inside of the cave. The temperature seemed to drop twenty degrees the instant they had passed the entrance, and the unnatural chill unnerved Kiyoomi more than the lack of light or sound as they walked deeper inside. 

 

When they had gone in far enough that there was no light from the entrance to guide their way, Kiyoomi took each step with great caution. He ran a hand along the side of the stone wall, dry and rough against his bare palm, and listened to the crunch of pebbles and dead weeds beneath his feet intently. He was suddenly grateful for Atsumu’s presence, grounding him to reality and giving him another living, breathing form to cling to for a semblance of normalcy in the darkness. The sound of Atsumu’s sharp breath and the occasional twitch of his tail on Kiyoomi’s neck gave him more comfort than he would ever admit. 

 

“How long is this going to take?” Atsumu whined.

 

“I know it’s basically impossible for someone with your lowly level of intellect to shut the hell up,” Kiyoomi. “But now would be a great time to grow another synapse in your brain. One that will tell you that now is not the moment to have a pleasant chat.”

 

“Can’t you light a fire or something with your little magic tricks?” Kiyoomi paused, taken aback. That wasn’t a terrible idea. He wouldn’t exactly be able to see what he was writing, but Kiyoomi had written enough flame enchantments to have the motions memorized. He crouched to the ground, causing Atsumu to hop off of his shoulders. Kiyoomi momentarily mourned the loss of his touch, then stomped the thought out of his mind. No matter how frightened he was in this situation, he was not going to start seeking Atsumu for comfort. 

 

He ripped off a piece of parchment and placed it on the ground, then marked it up with the characters needed for a simple flame. They couldn’t create a torch unless Kiyoomi had access to some sort of wood and a lot more kindling. But with the thin parchment as fuel and enough oxygen in the air, Kiyoomi only needed a small spark of magic to ignite the fire. Hopefully he would at least be able to see where he was going. 

 

Kiyoomi felt a hum of energy pulse through the cave, and the lines on the page carved themselves with lightning, dowsing the area around them in vibrant brilliance. But then, the fire spreading over the page spluttered and extinguished, returning to ink. They were thrust into darkness once again.

 

“Hey!” Kiyoomi cried, and shook the page. Again, the symbols glowed to life. Again, it faded seconds later. 

 

“What’s wrong?” Atsumu asked, stepping closer. 

 

“This has never happened before. There’s some kind of...block.” He racked his brain for an explanation. His spellwriting was correct, there was no doubt about that. He saw the symbols as clear as day when the fire ignited. “The Old Magic in this area must prevent magic users from interfering. I can’t use magic in here.”

 

Atsumu groaned. “So we’re gonna be stuck without seeing anything like this the whole time?”

 

“Unfortunately.”  

 

“Great. You know, maybe next time you decide to curse me into an animal body, vanish me into an evil cave, and drag me on a suicide mission, make sure to remind me to bring a lantern on hand," Atsumu said, and started off without Kiyoomi further into the cave.  

 

Kiyoomi growled. “You’re impossible. This is why I didn’t want to help you—your arrogance really puts you above everyone and everything, huh?" 

 

“I’m sure you’re plenty knowledgeable about arrogance. You know, just because you can do your little magic tricks, that doesn’t make you any better than me.”

 

“You may have been right about this being a suicide mission, Atsumu. One more second of your whining and I’ll be tempted to kill you and myself right here.” 

 

Kiyoomi heard Atsumu suck in a breath to retort, before he was cut off by the whistle of a faint wind.

 

“Did you hear that?”

 

“There wasn’t wind in here before, was there,” Kiyoomi said in low tones. 

 

Kiyoomi stilled his movements, listening intently for another sound. Instead of wind, this time, hushed whispers crept into his ears like the sound of insects crawling. It sent a chill running down his spine. Or perhaps that was because the air had suddenly become much colder. His skin felt like ice, and the blood pumping through Kiyoomi’s veins and pounding in his head couldn’t warm him from what felt like frosted fingers trailing down his back. 

 

“Do you feel it too?” 

 

Kiyoomi opened his mouth to speak, but found that he couldn’t utter a sound. Any response stalled behind an icy stillness in his mind.

 

The whispers, much closer this time, rang clear and deafening in his mind. It was as if they were coming straight from his own thoughts.

 

Little prince, a voice breathed, icy and echoing, crushing his skull like deep water. How desolate is your soul. How pathetic you must be, to be afraid of your own reflection. A shuddering chill rolled through him again, choking out his thoughts. He looked around, a sense of dread tightening in his gut. There was only darkness, and he was all alone. 

 

So many secrets you keep. Do you wish to know what they would say, if they saw you as you truly are? 

 

Kiyoomi squeezed his eyes shut, forcing himself not to listen, not to speak. Throat constricted, he succumbed to the cold freezing his limbs and sank to his knees. The icy air thickened, and numbness crawled up his body and settled over him like a mountain. 

 

“Omi-kun! Stop, don’t listen to it!” Atsumu’s voice sliced through the chill like a flaming sword. “What’s happening? Why is it so cold?” A velvety pressure slid across his limp hands, and he twitched his fingers around a small, fluffy tail.

 

“Don’t pull my tail, asshole!” Atsumu yelled, and it was as if Kiyoomi broke through the surface of the glacial sheet trapping him beneath a frozen lake. 

 

“Atsumu,” he gasped, and grasped for him in the darkness. Atsumu jumped from the floor into Kiyoomi’s lap, and Kiyoomi quickly wrapped an arm around him, getting to his feet.

 

“I’m right here, Omi. I don’t really know what’s going on, but just keep focusing on me, okay?” Kiyoomi nodded, even though Atsumu could not see him, and took off, Atsumu clutching to the fabric around his ribcage as they flew further into the cave. 

 

Once Kiyoomi had regained his sense of self, he realized he recognized the cold, dark voices. They were Knox, spirits of shadow and misery, that preyed on the deepest, most innermost insecurities of their victims to suck out their life force. These creatures of Old Magic were rarely heard of in areas populated by many people. Kiyoomi guessed that these Knox were acting as guardians of the cave, placed there to ward away wanderers and trespassers. 

 

Relief had barely loosened the knot in his chest when the voices returned. 

 

Son of ignorance, heir of shame, are you truly worthy of your own life? 

 

They were much more faint this time, as if whispering behind a thick curtain. He huffed, glad that they were no longer penetrating his mind.

 

“We’re good, Atsumu,” he murmured. But Atsumu didn’t respond. Kiyoomi slowed his pace, gripping Atsumu closer to his chest. “Atsumu?”

 

He can taste your deceit. The Knox were barely audible to Kiyoomi, but Atsumu shivered in arms like they were as loud as an avalanche. Kiyoomi sat on the floor again, wanting to concentrate on pulling Atsumu out of his daze. 

 

He resents you for your endless defections. Atsumu whimpered, and Kiyoomi brought him up to his face, stroking his fur in an attempt to soothe him. 

 

“Atsumu! Don’t listen! Focus on me, remember? Focus on my voice,” Kiyoomi pleaded, burying his cheek in the scruff of Atsumu’s neck. He was cold, and trembling. But soon his whimpering slowed, and Kiyoomi could feel some of his own body heat warm Atsumu as the moments passed. 

 

“Omi?” Atsumu asked, voice cracking. 

 

“I’m here,” Kiyoomi responded, relieved. “You’re safe, Atsumu, don’t worry. The voices— they’re called Knox. They tell you whatever you most fear to try and trap you.”

 

“Bitches,” Atsumu breathed out, his head flopping down to rest on Kiyoomi’s shoulder. 

 

“Yeah, they’re bitches,” Kiyoomi agreed. He ran his hand through Atsumu’s fur where he held him up by the torso, admiring its soft, sleek texture. 

 

The sound of the Knox came once more, drifting farther with each word uttered aloud. It was so quiet, Kiyoomi wasn’t sure if they were addressing him or Atsumu. 

 

What would you give, to know the liar you are fatefully bound to? 

 

Ask what he conceals from you. 

 

The chorus faded, but the chill remained, clinging to his bones. And then their whispers withered into nothingness. 

 

Kiyoomi stayed planted on the floor with Atsumu still huddled up against him for a while, and after a few minutes Kiyoomi realized light had returned into the cave. He blinked around at his surroundings a few times, to make sure he wasn’t imagining it. In the far distance, a light shone at the end of the tunnel, illuminating the stone walls around him with an eerie, enchanted glow. 

 

They had made it. 

 

Kiyoomi silently rejoiced, ready to sprint all the way to the light just to finally get out of this place, when Atsumu stirred against his chest.

 

“Omi?” 

 

Kiyoomi hummed in response, continuing to stroke Atsumu’s head. His ears felt like rose petals, silky against Kiyoomi’s fingertips. 

 

“What were those things—the Knox—what were they saying to you?” Atsumu asked, and Kiyoomi’s hand froze in place. A mix of surprise and panic swirled in his stomach, and he swallowed down a lump in his dry throat. 

 

“Nothing that you need to know,” he said, keeping his tone even. 

 

“You shouldn’t be scared to be yourself,” Atsumu said firmly, and Kiyoomi cursed silently. It was just his luck that Atsumu heard what the Knox had told him. Kiyoomi’s greatest fear and deepest insecurity. 

 

“And what would you know about it?” Kiyoomi snapped defensively. It was easier for him to start an argument with Atsumu than attempt to untangle the mess of anxiety and self-doubt that was Kiyoomi’s psyche. “You’re the favorite of your kingdom, and of mine, for that matter. Everybody loves you. You don’t know what it’s like to have people constantly casting you disappointed looks, like they’d rather have anyone else for a future king,”

 

“I think I do know,” Atsumu said slowly, as if he was choosing his words carefully. He shifted in Kiyoomi’s hold, and for a moment Kiyoomi was afraid he would turn to face Kiyoomi directly, but Atsumu simply slumped against Kiyoomi’s chest and exhaled deeply. “It’s lonely, isn’t it? No one else shares the same kind of pressure on your shoulders, knowing that one day you’ll be responsible for thousands of people’s lives, even if you can barely manage your own.” Atsumu paused, and his tail swished once against Kiyoomi’s hip. “I guess you and I are the only ones who understand that, huh? But we’ve never talked about it.” He craned his head back and met Kiyoomi’s gaze. 

 

Kiyoomi stared into Atsumu’s slitted eyes that somehow still looked so human, and wondered why he had never known this side of Atsumu. Thoughtful and compassionate. Treating Kiyoomi as an equal instead of an enemy. He thought about how before today, Kiyoomi would have expected Atsumu to abandon him in the tunnel and leave him to the mercy of the Knox. Hell, Kiyoomi was surprised he didn’t leave Atsumu there himself. But instead Atsumu had reached out to him and drove away the darkness with soft, encouraging words. 

 

“We could now,” Kiyoomi said quietly. Atsumu’s tail wagged.  

 

“People are going to love you when you’re king. They love you now,” he said, and the genuine warmth in his voice almost made Kiyoomi believe him. He scowled. 

 

“I don’t need to be pitied, Atsumu. I know they all think I’m…cold. Unfriendly. Unlikeable.” Kiyoomi looked away, frowning at the stone walls encasing them. He’d heard the conversations meant to be hidden from him behind closed doors; servants spoke of a prince who never smiled, and the nobility of a ruler not fit for a role that required people skills. 

 

“Nobody thinks that about you!”

 

Kiyoomi glared at him. “ Everyone thinks that about me. You’ve spent your entire life telling me so,” he spat out, a wave of repressed bitterness emerging from deep within his chest. Kiyoomi expected Atsumu to snap back at him with another insult, as was the routine they had followed their whole lives, but instead Atsumu averted his gaze, and his ears drooped down in guilt. 

 

“I’m sorry for that.” 

 

Kiyoomi, blanched, taken aback. He raised a brow at Atsumu, suspicious. 

 

“Did you just apologize to me? You? Miya Atsumu?” 

 

“I felt like it was overdue, okay! I really am sorry,” Atsumu’s eyes were large and glossy. In the dim lighting, they glowed a soft crimson, like burning embers. “I don’t think you’re unlikeable. Well, you try very hard to be, but when you’re not trying,” Atsumu’s eyes twinkled with amusement. “I guess you’re not the worst.”

 

Kiyoomi’s heart lurched in his chest, shocked and unbelievably pleased. His pulse shook through his body, thawing his flesh and leaving it burning with heat. He looked away, not trusting this new feeling blossoming from his chest. It’s not like Atsumu had even said anything overwhelmingly flattering— he’d just told Kiyoomi that he wasn’t the worst . Those words shouldn’t have such a visceral effect on Kiyoomi’s heart. 

 

 But they did. And Kiyoomi didn’t want to think about why. 

 

“What about what the Knox told you?” He said, mostly as a distraction for himself, but also because he found that he genuinely wanted to know. 

 

“Huh?”

 

“The stuff about not being worthy. I heard it too, you know,” he said, trying to catch Atsumu’s eye when his gaze flitted around their surroundings. 

 

“That’s not really important right now,” Atsumu said, voice wavering with nerves, and he shifted in Kiyoomi’s grip. But Kiyoomi held on tighter, and thread his fingers through the fur on Atsumu’s back. 

 

“It’s important to me.” Kiyoomi spoke quietly, almost in an undertone, but the stagnant silence of the cave made the sound ripple. His voice echoed off the stone walls like a puddle disturbed by raindrops. 

 

Although the distant glimmer of the Cauldron allowed for partial visibility in their place against the wall, Atsumu’s face was still mostly hidden in shadows. His fox eyes, however, reflected light in the darkness. Kiyoomi watched the reddish color gleam intently, and wondered if Atsumu’s expression would have been easier to read if he were still human. 

 

It occurred to Kiyoomi what a strange situation he found himself in. Talking animal aside, he never imagined conversing with Atsumu in a way that didn’t make him want to pull his own hair out. But their journey had revealed much that Kiyoomi never knew about Atsumu, and the unfamiliarity of their circumstances made it easy to forget what they had been before. Their responsibilities, their hatred for each other—it all seemed so distant in the dim, silent stillness of this moment. 

 

“You don’t get to hear me spill about my feelings while I have no blackmail material on you,” he said, shaking himself out of his thoughts. “What was that about?”

 

Atsumu didn’t answer, and Kiyoomi cringed, hoping he hadn’t pushed too far past Atsumu’s boundaries. He swallowed, preparing to drop the topic when Atsumu finally answered. 

 

“Do you ever think about why you were the one chosen to rule?” 

 

Kiyoomi frowned, not expecting another question in response. “No? I’m the son of the king? That’s how monarchies work, Atsumu,” he said flatly. Atsumu huffed, flopping onto Kiyoomi’s lap and resting his chin on his knee. 

 

“See, you don’t get it. All my life, ‘Samu has been by my side, and sometimes I can’t help but think of what it would have been like if they’d chosen him. I was only born six minutes before him. It’d be easy to disregard that difference, and call him the rightful heir. He would be so much better at all this stuff,” Atsumu said wistfully. The words spilled out of him like a dam that had been pushing to burst for a long, long time. Kiyoomi regarded him carefully, unsure how to handle this foreign, vulnerable side of Atsumu. 

 

“Maybe he would. We’ll never know for sure.”

 

Atsumu snorted. “You’re shit at comforting people.”

 

“Shut up. I’m getting to that part.” Kiyoomi tentatively placed his palm on Atsumu’s back, and began stroking him when Atsumu didn’t pull away. “Osamu is...generally considered more amiable. And more tactful. And I guess more intelligent,” he admitted. 

 

“You can stop now,” Atsumu grumbled. 

 

“But, to me at least, he always seemed apathetic about his royal duties. He never really showed much enthusiasm or interest when attending council meetings, or diplomatic visits. Politics is obviously not his passion. And people need a king that’s passionate about governing others. Like you are,” he finished, and scratched at the underside of Atsumu’s ear. He wondered when an affectionate gesture like that became something that Kiyoomi did so easily. 

 

“I didn’t realize you ever saw me as anything but lazy, or annoying,” Atsumu said after a moment. He had barely even twitched from his place in Kiyoomi’s lap, and Kiyoomi smiled when he realized Atsumu felt shy in response to praise. 

 

“Obviously I said that shit for the sake of being mean. I’m not naturally kind and honest, okay? Complimenting you just now took a lot out of me.” Atsumu laughed, the movement jolting his whole body. 

 

“Yeah. I get it. Thank you, Omi-kun. Really,” he said, and Kiyoomi’s stomach gave a weak flip. 

 

“Well, you were nice to me first,” he conceded. “So thank you, too, I guess.” It might have been the first time they had thanked each other, at least sincerely. Kiyoomi glanced off to the side, squinted at the light in the distance. "The Cauldron's not far from here, Atsumu. Are you ready to get your body back?"

 

Atsumu hummed, shaking himself off and rising to all fours.

 

"Hell yes. Let's get the fuck of out here, thank you very much."

 



The pool shimmered like starlight, glittering and bright. As they drew closer, shapes took form upon the surface, like misty shadows in early morning light. 

 

“What’s up with the water? It looks like it’s reflecting something,” Atsumu asked, trotting to peer over the edge. Kiyoomi hung back along the walls, resting against the cool, dry stone. 

 

“Oh, that’s just the enchanted surface of the Cauldron. Wading in the waters will reveal your true self, and looking into it reveals your deepest desires. What we want most in life is the driving force of our souls, so I guess it fits. The images are projected on the water like a reflection.”

 

“You never said anything about that,” Atsumu said, rearing back as if the water had burned him. He sounded fearful, and Kiyoomi frowned. 

 

“I didn’t think I had to. It’s not going to hurt you, Atsumu. Just go in.” 

 

“You’ll be able to see the images?”

 

“Yeah. I’m right here.”

 

“Okay, no. I’m not going in,” Atsumu said firmly, fully turning away from the Cauldron and walking off. Kiyoomi pushed himself off the wall to chase after him. 

 

“Atsumu, what the hell? We’ve gone through so much to get here, you can’t back down now! How else are you supposed to get your original form back?” He blocked the only exit, forcing Atsumu to circle back to the other end of the pool. They stood facing each other from opposite ends of the cave, and Kiyoomi felt like he was chasing a child running away from their bath. 

 

“I don’t know, we’ll find another way, I guess? But I’m not going near that thing.” 

 

Kiyoomi let out a strangled cry, clenching his hands at his side. “I won’t judge you for whatever shows up on the surface. Be it money, power, riches, I don’t care. My opinion of you will not change, I promise. Just get in so we can get out of here!” He pointed at the Cauldron aggressively, his voice tilting up in desperation. 

 

“No.”

 

Kiyoomi glared at Atsumu, and Atsumu stared back. Then Kiyoomi ran at him, and Atsumu jumped back, yelping in surprise. 

 

“Omi-kun! Get away from me!”

 

“You’re hopping in that pool or I drown you in it!”

 

They ran circles around each other. Kiyoomi was infinitely frustrated, ready to tear his own hair out and wring Atsumu's tiny neck. Luckily for Kiyoomi, his size advantage gave him more strength and endurance than Atsumu, and he finally caught up to him on the far end of the pool. Atsumu skidded to a hault, causing Kiyoomi to reel back in confusion. The sudden movement lost Kiyoomi is balance. He staggered once, flailing his arm out to grasp onto the wall for purchase, but it was too far away.

 

Atsumu looked back in time to gap at him with wide eyes as Kiyoomi screeched, tripped over his own feet, and fell through the glittering surface of the Cauldron. 

 

 

“There you are, Omi-kun.”

 

Kiyoomi’s eyes fluttered open. He registered twinkling lights, chatter, the smell of roasted meat. He looked down at himself. He was wearing formal Itachiyama robes, black and gold draped over him in thick, heavy wool and cotton. He jerked his head up, seeing Atsumu smile at him, his warm brown eyes shining with mirth. 

 

A very human-looking Atsumu. 

 

“Atsumu? What’s going on? How did you get your body back?” Kiyoomi said in a rush, stepping closer to him. Atsumu caught both his wrists in a loose hold, and pulled Kiyoomi in until they were a breath apart. 

 

“What are you talking about, Omi-Omi? Come one, people are waiting for us outside.” He nodded his head in the direction behind him, where laughter and music resounded all the way to them. Kiyoomi squinted, seeing figures dance and mingle about. Perhaps they were too far away for Kiyoomi to see clearly, but he was unnerved by the fuzzy, blurry outline of those people. They didn’t look real. 

 

“I don’t trust this. This is some kind of illusion or something,” Kiyoomi said, looking down to where Atsumu’s hands gripped his wrists. Kiyoomi couldn’t find anything strange about them. Atsumu’s hands looked strong, and his touch was firm, but warm. His stomach fluttered. 

 

“You’re not making sense, Omi. Are you feeling okay?” Atsumu leaned his head up, closer to Kiyoomi’s face. Kiyoomi’s cheeks burned with heat, and he wrestled out of Atsumu’s hold, taking a step back. 

 

“I’m fine! Get off!”

 

“So tetchy,” Atsumu teased. He drew in closer again, his eyes bright with a mischievous glint. "But I like you that way,” he said breathily. 

 

Kiyoomi froze. He blinked at Atsumu, who smiled at him with a dopey, adoring look on his face. Kiyoomi stood paralyzed. His initial shock morphed into a stunned pleasure curling in his gut. Atsumu was just as handsome as Kiyoomi remembered him. His skin had the same tanned, earthy glow, and his hair framed his strong face in perfect, blonde waves. 

 

“Uh,” Kiyoomi said dumbly, still entranced by the sight of Atsumu, so close and so, so gorgeous. Their faces were inches apart. Kiyoomi could feel the heat from Atsumu’s breathing on his skin. It sent a thrill of excitement straight into his gut. Atsumu continued to smile, his half-lidded eyes showing off thick, long lashes. Atsumu’s lips parted, and Kiyoomi tracked the movement hungrily. 

 

“Come here, love. Whatever’s wrong, I’ll make it better.” Kiyoomi was still drinking in the low rumble of Atsumu’s voice when a hand curled around the hair at the base of his neck and pulled him down into a deep kiss. 

 

Everything in Kiyoomi’s body melted into Atsumu’s mouth. He gasped, eyes sliding shut, gripping onto Atsumu’s tunic as his knees buckled. Atsumu groaned, wrapping his other arm around Kiyoomi’s waist and bringing their chests flush together. Kiyoomi groaned when Atsumu bit his bottom lip, dragging it out. Kiyoomi felt searing heat at every place they touched. His heart pounded violently in his chest and his pulse rushed in his ears, drowning out the sounds he only vaguely knew he was making. 

 

“Love you so much,” Atsumu breathed into his mouth. Kiyoomi swallowed the words with a whimper. 

 

“I love—ow!” 

 

Kiyoomi’s hands flew to his collar, where someone had grabbed him from behind and pulled him off of Atsumu. Kiyoomi opened his eyes, and found himself submerged in water. Atsumu, the dancers, and everything had vanished, replaced with an endless expanse of light blue. He gasped, accidentally inhaling a mouthful of water, and gagged before the same hand, still gripping his collar, dragged him up and he broke through the surface. 

 

“You’re heavy,” a strained voice said, as they hauled Kiyoomi’s body to the side of the Cauldron. Kiyoomi’s back was pressed against a strong, warm chest, being waded through the water with one arm wrapped around his torso. 

 

“Atsumu!” Kiyoomi choked, throat still raw from swallowing so much water. 

 

“It was some kind of trick, I don’t know. Had to pull you out of there before you drowned,” Atsumu said hurriedly, collapsing against the edge of the pool. The water was shallow here, and Atsumu sat with his legs splayed out on either side of him, arms dramatically tossed over ledge circling the entire Cauldron. He heaved a great sigh, and Kiyoomi stared at his dripping blonde hair, his skin, shining and wet, and his, once again, human body. 

 

“You’re back,” Kiyoomi said shakily, once he caught his breath. 

 

“I’m back,” Atsumu repeated, chest rising and falling deeply. 

 

“You dove in to save me?”

 

“You could have died. I wasn’t just going to stand by and watch.” He opened one eye, and Kiyoomi stared at his thick lashes, stray droplets of water nestled in them. He looked away. 

 

“Thanks. For getting me out of—” Kiyoomi gestured vaguely to the center of the pool. “That.”

 

“Yeah, yeah. Of course.”

 

“You didn’t happen to see—” Kiyoomi felt his cheeks redden, and he caught a glance at Atsumu’s equally red blush. “Shit.” 

 

“Yeah,” Atsumu said simply, sounding defeated. Kiyoomi grimaced, humiliation coursing through him. He wanted to dive back into the water to drown himself properly. 

 

“I’m sorry if it made you uncomfortable,” he said at last, when he could think of nothing else. 

 

Atsumu tilted his head. “Why would it make me uncomfortable?” 

 

Kiyoomi blinked at him, confused. “Because—I mean—you saw the kiss, right?” Atsumu nodded slowly. 

 

“Well, it’s just that. You had to see my heart’s desire, and it was...that.” Kiyoomi cringed at himself. Why, why, why were these words coming out of his mouth right now. He stared intently at the ledge, wondering if the stone was strong enough to kill him if he slammed his skull into it. 

 

“What do you mean your heart’s desire? I thought you said it would show mine.” 

 

Kiyoomi rolled his eyes, a familiar annoyance from having to explain every little thing about magic to Atsumu taking hold. 

 

“No, stupid. I fell in the pool, it reflected my heart’s desire before you pulled me...” Kiyoomi trailed off, taking in Atsumu’s words. He whipped his head toward Atsumu, dumbfounded, and saw that Atsumu was looking back at him with an equally stunned expression. 

 

“Do you like me?” They said in perfect unison. Oh, God. Kiyoomi wanted to die. 

 

“You go first," he deadpanned. Atsumu shook his head vigorously. Droplets flew out of his hair and rippled the surface of the water below them. 

 

“I don’t want to! You do it!” Atsumu cried petulantly. Kiyoomi shot him a withering look. 

 

“I just had my entire heart and soul bared to you on a giant shimmering pool. You. Go. First.”

 

Atsumu groaned, and lowered his head to the ledge with a hollow thunk. 

 

“Well, I like you, I guess,” he muttered, muffled from where his cheek was pressed against the cool stone. “I know I always picked on you growing up, but I really liked having your attention whenever I could get it. And teasing you was the only way I knew how to get a reaction out of you. You always seemed so unaffected. Any change in expression, even if it was you being pissed at me, was still such a rush.” 

 

Kiyoomi could only stare at him, mind whirring. He recalled a decade of bickering, antagonism, and squabbles between them. There was never hint of affection from Atsumu's actions. What an idiot. 

 

“I literally hated you for years,” Kiyoomi said dryly. 

 

“This is not a good confession so far.”

 

“And I only realized I liked you yesterday, when I saw you at the banquet.”

 

“Oh, really?” Atsumu looked up at this, his cheeks flushed and his eyes shining with interest. It was a good look on him. Kiyoomi nodded, abandoning any defensive desire to deny his feelings for Atsumu. 

 

“You looked hot as hell. I was extremely attracted to you before you opened your mouth and immediately called me a bitch.”

 

Atsumu chuckled, bringing a hand up to rub the back of his neck. “Yeah. That was a bad move on my part,” he grimaced, and Kiyoomi felt a jolt of affection and amusement at the sight. It was wildly exhilarating to know he could make Miya Atsumu nervous. “So does this mean you want to...court? Or date?”

 

Kiyoomi gave him a blank stare. “We’re getting married in a few hours.” Atsumu flinched, dropping his head back on the ledge with another groan. 

 

“Right, right. Almost forgot about that part.” He sighed, and a silence fell between them. Kiyoomi wanted to move closer to him, to sink back into Atsumu’s arms and feel him breathe. “Can we just stay here forever? Or at least until we figure out what this is, between us?” Atsumu said weakly. 

 

“I don’t think we have the luxury of time, Atsumu,” Kiyoomi murmured. “It’s strange. I’ve been dreading the day our betrothal was officiated my entire life, but now, I’m kind of excited for it.” 

 

Atsumu laughed, and pushed himself off of the ledge. He grinned at Kiyoomi, eyes sparkling. “And what if I told you I’ve been secretly looking forward to it for years?”

 

Kiyoomi's hands itched to touch him. He swallowed back a lump in his throat. “I’d say that’s kind of pathetic, Atsumu.” 

 

“If I’m pathetic it’s your fault. Don’t know how crazy you make me,” Atsumu scooted into Kiyoomi’s arms, wrapping around him like a wet, muscular blanket. Atsumu buried his face into Kiyoomi’s neck, and Kiyoomi raised a hand to tangle in Atsumu’s soaking hair. The locks, heavy with water, fell limp between his fingers. Kiyoomi frowned. 

 

“I think I miss when you were a fox.”

 

Atsumu pulled away, tilting his face up to pout at Kiyoomi. “Huh? Why?”

 

“Your fur was fun to pet.”

 

Atsumu clapped his hand over Kiyoomi’s hand, still threaded through Atsumu’s hair. “You can still pet my hair! I wouldn’t mind!”

 

“Maybe later,” Kiyoomi said, and tightened his grip, using the leverage to pull Atsumu closer. “But right now, there’s something else I want to try.” Kiyoomi’s eyes drifted to Atsumu’s pink, plump lips. His face hadn’t dried yet, and his lips shined enticingly. 

 

“Oh? What is that?” Atsumu probed, his lips curling into a wry smile. Kiyooi rolled his eyes, and leaned in, pressing their mouths together. Atsumu hummed happily, throwing his arms around Kiyoomi’s shoulders. Atsumu’s lips slid against his and a burst of fluttering erupted in Kiyoomi’s stomach, spreading through his chest and sending sparks right down to his fingertips. Even though he was still soaked to the bone, Kiyoomi felt warmer than he had in a long, long time. 

 

Kiyoomi pulled away to suck in a large breath, then immediately nosed his lips down Atsumu’s jaw, descending to his neck. “I don’t know what this is going to be, but I’m willing to find out. With you by my side.”

 

“Yeah, same here,” Atsumu sighed. 

 

“You could say something more heartfelt,” Kiyoomi pouted, biting at Atsumu’s neck experimentally. Atsumu laughed, high-pitched and breathy. 

 

“Omi-kun, it’s hard for me to come up with a good line when all I’m thinking about is kissing you again,” he said, and Kiyoomi smiled against his throat. He lifted his face back up, and their lips met once more. 

 

 

They arrived incredibly late to their own wedding.

 

"Where the hell have you been? Why are you wet?" Komori demanded as he greeted them at the castle entrance. He placed his hands on his hips, a frown on his lips. "You two weren't fighting again, were you?"

 

Beside him, Atsumu laughed, and tugged on Kiyoomi's wrist to bring his hand to his lips. Atsumu pressed a soft kiss to Kiyoomi's knuckles. "Nothing like that, we promise. I'd even go as far to say we bonded today."

 

Kiyoomi smiled at him, not trying to hide the fondness bleeding into his features. "Just a bit," he agreed, and they shared knowing smiles.

 

Komori’s gaze flickered between them. "I don't know what's going on here, but I'm just going to accept it, because no one is trying to tear anyone's head off, and we have a ceremony to get to! Atsumu, go get changed, now!" He called over some servants to take Atsumu to his quarters. Atsumu squeezed Kiyoomi's hand once before letting go, winking at him as he walked away. Kiyoomi continued to smile as his back disappeared through the castle doors. 

 

"You sure you're ready for this, Kiyoomi-kun?" Komori looked at him with a curious expression. "There's no turning back after this. A lifetime of ruling with Atsumu as your husband."

 

Just yesterday, those words would have sent Kiyoomi spiraling. But now, they settled into his chest like warm honey. He looked out at the pink streaks of dawn emerging from over the horizon. A new life waiting for him just around the corner. 

 

Kiyoomi smiled, eyes crinkling at the corners. 

 

"I think I can handle it."