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nine lives

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Yaku’s on his third drink of the night.


“Slow down,” Kuroo scolds, plucking the drink right out of Yaku’s grasp. He turns a withering glare on him, but Kuroo hands his drink to Kenma at his side, who throws it back in one gulp. Kenma and Kuroo are insufferable that way, working in tandem as they so often do. They are, regrettably, his oldest friends; Kuroo, prince of the Eastern realm, betrothed to Yaku for as many years as they could remember, desperately trying to squirm away from each other and toward freedom until Kuroo had put his foot down about his lover, the only child of the Kozume family and Kuroo’s eternal partner in pissing Yaku off.


“This is your fault,” he tells him, snatching something red and fruity from a passing golden tray. “If you hadn’t been such a romantic, I wouldn’t have to find a new fiancé.”


Kuroo’s golden eyes soften behind his mask, and he has the grace to look slightly sheepish. Fuck him. Fuck him and his stupid, distinctive hair that renders the whole point of this being a masquerade party completely moot. He is the reason they’re in this mess in the first place; Yaku’s parents throwing him this lavish ball to find him a new husband, someone new to rule his kingdom with, fretful without the guarantee of East Nekoma’s friendship. They don’t know Kuroo, Yaku thinks, taking a vicious sip of his drink. Everything about him is catlike, from the fluid way he moves to his sharp eyes and curling smile, but he might as well be a puppy when it comes down to it; fiercely loyal and tail-waggingly eager to solve everyone else’s problems.


But, he digresses. Yaku had been insistent on a masquerade party. It’s easier that way, less shallow; if Yaku’s going to have a husband, he’s not going to skate by on good looks. West Nekoma has been in somewhat of a tough spot recently, struggling to pick themselves up after the Nohebi invasion back when Yaku’s parents were children. It’s theirs again though, this land. Fought back with tooth and nail, and Yaku will be damned if he’s the one who gives it up through finding himself a husband with no mind for politics. Kuroo would have been good in that regard, Yaku laments mournfully. But Kuroo made up his mind a long time ago, and Yaku will never begrudge him love, not ever.


So he’ll find someone new. It can’t be that hard.


“What about him?” Kenma lazily points to some rowdy blonde in brilliant, electric blue; kitsune mask covering his whole face but his backless outfit leaving very little to the imagination, tanned skin rippling underneath the intricate golden chains.


“He has a nice ass,” Yaku says, tilting his head in appraisal with a scrunched nose. Kuroo shakes his head.


“Uh-uh. That’s one of the Miyas. The older one. See, you can see his scar.”


Of course, a masquerade party is a little bit of a redundant idea when you’ve been circling the same people your whole life. Inarizaki is closer to East Nekoma than West, but Yaku knows enough of the princelings and lords of the other kingdoms to identify them by gait alone. Always pays to know who tried to stab you in the back.


Kenma sniffs and tilts his head forward so his curtain of hair falls around his face more pointedly. Kuroo rolls his eyes fondly, shrugging at Yaku. “He’s not right for you.”


“Who is, then? Him?”


“No, that’s Moniwa-san from Dateko. He’s not even a prince, so there’s no way your parents would go for it. That’s their prince, Futakuchi-san over there. You’d want to beat the shit out of him, trust me.”


“May I remind you again: this is your fault.”


“That’s why I’m trying to help you,” Kuroo huffs.


“Well stop. I don’t need your-”


“Yaku-san!” A voice hollers over the din. Kenma goes ramrod straight and grips the inside of Kuroo’s wrist at the exact second that Yaku fists a hand in his shirt. Kuroo glares at him, fingers protectively curling up and over Kenma’s hand.


“Don’t need my what?” He mimics, but as soon as Yaku starts to move he goes with him, weaving them artfully through the crowd. They’ve pulled this trick plenty of times before; trying to shake Haiba Lev off of them. The Haiba family are good people, one of West Nekoma’s oldest noble bloodlines, but Lev spends half the year in the north with his mother’s family, and only half the year here, and he makes Yaku want to make biting people legal court behaviour. In times like this, their height works to their advantage. Kuroo, tall and unmissable with his silken hair and brilliant garnet-red clothing goes one way, Yaku melts into the crowd in the other direction. Lev breezes straight past him, the wide legs of his emerald-coloured pants swooshing as he half-jogs after Kuroo.


A hand grabs Yaku’s on the dance floor, and he’s spun into the arms of Akaashi Keiji, prince-consort of Fukurodani. Bokuto, their youngest prince, is one of Kuroo’s oldest friends and Yaku knows the both of them well. Bokuto presses up behind him, the pair of them crushing him between their chests. Yaku leans into Bokuto’s considerable bulk, threads his fingers with Akaashi’s as Bokuto clasps his hand over Yaku’s own and continues on like they haven’t squirreled a third dancer into their embrace.


“Is the man of the hour having a good time?” Akaashi asks, blandly.


“Piss off,” Yaku tells him, which makes Akaashi twitch a smile.


“Is there anyone you like?” Bokuto asks, more earnest. “I thought really hard about who you’d like from Fukurodani’s court, but Kuroo said you were being really picky. Have you met the Miyas? I think you’d like them.”


“Yaku-san should never meet the Miyas,” Akaashi says adamantly. “And besides, we should stop trying to matchmake him. He can make his decisions on his own.”


“I know that, Keij’,” Bokuto whines, “but Kuroo said-”


“Well nevermind what Kuroo-san said. We should stay out of it.”


Yaku has no interest in being in the middle of whatever squabble Akaashi and Bokuto are having, because anyone who’s ever spent a significant amount of time with them knows that they can’t stay mad at each other for long, and they’re affectionate to say the least. Kuroo has spent a lot of time with Bokuto and Akaashi, which means that Yaku, by extension, knows better than to stick around for the inevitable making up. Akaashi’s eyes are already softening around the edges, which must mean that Bokuto is making some kind of face that Akaashi can read as sad, despite the elaborate horned owl mask covering the majority of his face. He’s already leaning in as Yaku slips out from between them. He highly doubts either of them notice he’s gone.


It’s nice, he supposes, to see the palace decked out like this. The chandeliers seem to glow more than they usually do, light flickering off the windows with their engraved ornamentation, silks and gem-laden gold adorning the ballroom. It’s nice to see people flowing around him, laughing and smiling. It’s good to see West Nekoma happy again.


A shoulder catches him and Yaku growls to himself, even as a solid hand lands in the centre of his chest to stop him from falling to the ground. He tilts his head up, poised to yell, and comes face to face with a beautifully made mask. It’s fashioned into the shape of a snarling tiger, stripes inlaid with tiny, glittering stones the colour of the void. It’s eyes are sparkling emeralds, teeth bone, glistening in the warm light. The eyes that sparkle behind them are a warm, deep brown, intense and glittering. Blonde hair flops forward over the mask, though it’s darker and shorn far shorter on the sides.


“Who the hell are you?” Yaku asks, hands finding purchase against the leather of his corset, hauling himself up. His outfit is almost entirely black, leathers and soft linens, and no gaudy silks or sheer chiffons. No gold, only silver dangling from his ears and cascading down his chest.


“You don’t recognize me?” He asks, and he laughs, big and bold. It nags something familiar in the back of his mind, just out of reach. He sounds almost like… like- “It’s Tanaka.”


Oh. Yaku squints, reaching a hand up to brush some of that blonde away from the mask. When did Tanaka grow his hair out? Surely Suga would have mentioned his brother doing something like that in his letters, if only because Suga would think it looks silly. It should look silly, but his hair is so soft that Yaku can’t help but like it, but only a little. And when did Tanaka get so big ? He’s never been particularly tall, nor particularly broad, but Yaku can feel the strength of his shoulders under his hands, and if Tanaka’s here then-


“Is Suga-kun here?” Yaku whips his head around, looking to and fro for him. That was an invitation he’d been excited to send. Suga would never be a match for him, expected to stay in Karasuno ever since his big sister had married the princess in Kitadaichi, but that didn’t change the fact that he was Yaku’s friend, and he could use some more of those around.


“Koushi sends his regards,” Tanaka says, sounding genuinely regretful. “He couldn’t make it tonight.”


“Oh,” Yaku tries not to pout. “It’s just you then.”


“Just me,” Tanaka agrees. “Do you want to dance, Yaku-san?”


Yaku casts his eyes one way. Miya in the blue is somehow in his way again, sneering at someone tall and dark in the most hideously feathered outfit Yaku has ever seen. It dawns on him with slow-crawling horror that it’s Kitadaichi’s young prince, looking three seconds from ripping Miyas head off. He swings his gaze the other way; if someone commits murder at his party, Yaku wants plausible deniability. The other direction is even worse. Lev is making toward him with the eager puppy look. Yaku tightens his grip on Tanaka’s biceps- and seriously, when did they get so big? Just yesterday, Tanaka was Suga’s gangly, awkward little step-brother- and nods, just once.


“I don’t see why not.”


Tanaka’s hand is warm and heavy in his, weaving him through the crowd. Yaku watches with intent as Tanaka’s free hand finds his waist, unbinding his own sash, threading it between his fingers and over around his palm. He must have practiced, Yaku thinks with an endeared little smile. Studied for this, like knowing West Nekoma’s traditions alone would have been enough to win Yaku over. Yaku knows him, Tanaka forgets. Yaku knows him earnest and flushing, hot-headed and expressive. Not the diplomat that Yaku wants at his side.


Tanaka loops the other end of the sash around his hand, and Yaku twists his wrist to get a better grip on the soft fabric, tugging him a half-step closer. Tanaka stumbles, and Yaku steps into the first movement of the dance, forcing him to catch up. He fumbles after him for a few beats, before his feet become fluid, moving under him with practiced ease. He jerks the control back, spins Yaku, sends him hurtling to the end of their tether, uses the momentum to swing him back in, brushes touches to his waist, circles him in their concentric waves, close and then far away, palms pressed flat together and then dragged apart, fabric binding them tight.


“Did you practice, Tanaka-kun?” Yaku asks, eyes twinkling. “I remember you having two left feet.”


“Things change,” Tanaka says, tossing his head back to unstick his hair from his mask. A bead of sweat drips from his jaw down the stiff collar of his vest. It’s such a fascinating outfit for someone from Karasuno. They’re a kingdom that favour lighter, flowy fabrics. Suga usually walks like something ethereal, draped in satin and the occasional velvet, shimmery and weightless as he drifts across the floor. Tanaka has less inherent grace, but the bombastic presence to pull it off.


This is different. Layers aren’t common and yet here he is; the corset and the vest with the big shoulder pads and the tight black undershirt clinging to his arms, the way the sleeves taper to a point over the back of his hands, the way his pants stick close to him, the off-set skirt, swishing around his ankles, the shiny boots, close-toed, capped with silver at the tip or maybe, Yaku thinks breathlessly as he’s twirled past him again and catches a hint of it on the breeze, maybe it’s steel


“I didn’t hear you announced,” Yaku says, leaning back into the sling created between their bodies as Tanaka dips him, the gold of his mask scraping against the carved ebony of Yaku’s own.


“You must have been distracted,” Tanaka says, hauls him back to his feet and twirls him all the way to the end of his tether again. Yaku spins obligingly, feet quick and precise. He’s danced this dance all his life; knows all its intricacies. Kuroo used to make him dance it with him, furious and volatile, pouring his emotion into it like it was the only out he had. Dance tells a story, Yaku thinks, and this one tells the story of two lovers, longing to be together but constantly pushed apart, but never quite letting go. So yeah, Yaku had known. So yes, Yaku knows now, reeling himself back in, brushing his hand over Tanaka’s cheek, knocking the mask forward just a little.


“Maybe,” Yaku says, evenly, “I’ve had a lot to drink.”

“You seem fine to me,” Tanaka says, the pair of them moving together, mirroring each other, carefully twining up the slack to keep their bound hands in position, stepping through the motions in perfect sync. Yaku watches him with beady eyes. Even the best actors have to make mistakes sometimes. “Are you not enjoying the party?”


“Would you enjoy being bought? Sold on the lies someone presents to you for the biggest decision of your life?”


“No,” he says, earnest. Yaku has always liked Tanaka like that. It’s a good ruse.


“You’re too nice,” he laughs and it’s fake, and he knows that Tanaka knows it too. “I bet you only think that because Koushi’s going to be sold one day too, no matter how long he fucks that nice knight of yours for.”


Tanaka’s eyes widen almost imperceptibly under the mask, shock glancing across him as Yaku spins himself, wraps their tether around himself and presses him in close, free hand coming up to grasp at the back of the man’s neck. Tanaka lowers him slowly, into the cradle of their tie, fist raised high to keep him supported, free hand nestled in the small of his back.


“You dance well,” Yaku tells him, brushing his fingers up behind his ear, where the mask moved just slightly to reveal dark ink behind the shell of his ear. “For a backwater little nobody.”


The stranger sucks in a breath, holds him there with the tiniest tremble in his shoulder. The world moves around them, others still stuck in their own dances, but Yaku doesn’t care. Under the pads of his fingers, he can feel the way the skin smooths to an almost unnatural degree, traces it over the shape of a little black cat. The stranger doesn’t move, barely even breathes. They’re shallow, controlled little things, but Yaku is still close enough that they ghost over his lips.


“What now?” Yaku asks him, strokes his fingers through his hair. “What was your plan from here?”


“I didn’t have one,” the man breathes, blinking owlishly at him. “I didn’t think I’d get this far.”


Yaku scrapes his nails over the base of his neck, leans in an inch closer. The man’s hand raises higher, keeps Yaku’s sling taught. He keeps going until he’s right at his ear, all but bundled into his chest, smoothing both hands down his abdomen as he speaks against the delicate cartilage, tastes steel on his tongue as his lips brush the lobe.


“Gardens. Now.”


He strikes out ahead, brushes through his guests with easy nimbleness. Either the stranger comes or he doesn’t, and it doesn’t bother Yaku either way. A Nerima insurgent in his lovely masquerade party isn’t going to bother anyone. If he were here to kill, he would have done so while he had the chance. He hadn’t. Yaku doubts what they say about Nerima, anyway. West Nekoma knows a thing or two about taking back what was taken from you in turn, the way Nerima clawed their way back from under the heel of Itachiyama, fought them back with gnashing teeth and dripping fangs. Their insurgent community is small and smart, is what other people say. It’s only a time before they give other folks ideas, is what other people say. Yaku thinks they forget all the kingdoms have a history of taking. It wasn’t so long ago there was only one Nekoma. People find it easier to forget.


He flits through the paved courtyards easily, rounds the rosebushes and the peonies, ducks straight for the gnarled, curling tree in the centre of it. It soothes him, this ancient tree; roots upending the tile and pushing it jagged, staking its claim on this place. The heavy branches are thick with lanterns and baubles, shining brightly in the darkness of the night. The stranger steps into view as Yaku brushes his fingertips across the bark, circling. The man watches him carefully, cautiously.


“What’s your name, really?” Yaku asks. When he doesn’t answer, he arches a brow. “I think I deserve to know the name of somebody I danced with, don’t you? You’ve been found out, after all, I don’t suppose it matters too much now.”


“Tora,” says the man, “that’s what all my friends call me, at least.”


“Am I your friend?”


“I don’t know. Are you?”


“I don’t know, did you come here to kill me?”


“I don’t know, did you come out here to die?” Tora bristles like a cat, fists curled at his sides. Yaku pauses his circling, casting a bemused look at him over his shoulder. A hothead, too. Just like Tanaka. He supposes, out of all the young princes he could have picked to imitate, it wasn’t the worst one. While he’s contemplating the curious similarities, the fight in Tora’s eyes dims, shoulders pulling up to his ears as he frowns at something invisible on the tile beyond the does of his boots.


“Nerima aren’t killers, you know.” He stands almost ashamed now, like he’s realized some grand mistake that Yaku never realized he made. Well, aside from the failed attempt at impersonation. That doesn’t seem to be what’s getting him though, head tilted down toward his feet, shoulders hunched and stiff. Yaku turns, smooths his fingertips over the roughness of the bark and tilts his chin upward to contemplate his answer among the gentle rustling of leaves.


“Take your mask off, Tora,” Yaku tells him, and the man obeys. There’s not even a split second of hesitation as his hands stretch up to pull at the delicate leather straps holding it in place, letting it fall from his features. It’s shocking, really, how much they look alike; Karasuno’s prince and this young insurgent. His blonde mohawk sticks to slightly damp skin from sweat under the mask, his eyes intense and focused, nearly catlike in their skittishness. There’s a prominent knick on his chin, raised and still slightly pink, like only months instead of years have soothed the shape of it.


“Yours too,” Tora says, and Yaku obliges. He hates the weight of it anyway, but it had been a necessary sacrifice. Yaku hates to fake things, but nights like this always call for it and it’s easier when no one can see the open disdain curling his lip. It feels good to take it off, to tie it carefully to his waist. Tora watches him. Yaku watches him watch. They stand in silence for a long moment, before Yaku takes a step forward.


“Why did you come here?”


“Itachiyama’s prince,” Tora says, slowly, “he brought something with him that never belonged to him. We’re taking it back.”


“We?” Yaku raises a brow. Tora tilts his head upward, blinks at something far above them.


“I think Shibayama and Inuoka should have it by now, so it doesn’t matter anyway. I opened the tunnel for them, so they’ll get out before your guards find them.”


“You’ll give me the names of your fellow rebels, but not your own?”


“It doesn’t matter now,” Tora says, a little resigned. “Either you turn me in or you don’t. The others can keep themselves safe. They’ll be careful, because they always are, especially after a big job.”


“Stealing from Sakusa-san,” Yaku cocks his head a little. “Is that what you do? You steal things?”


“No,” Tora says, eyes blazing. “We return lost things. We find them, and we bring them back.”


“So what were you doing at the party then? What was lost down there?”


“I told you,” Tora’s brow furrows, and Yaku wants to smooth it out with his thumb. This time, when he steps closer, Tora pushes his chin out but doesn’t move. Yaku smooths his fingers down his chest, traces the detailing of his corset. “I opened the back door for them.”


“So then what about me?”


“Um,” Tora says, flushing brilliantly. Yaku cocks his head and leans in closer. “You weren’t part of the plan. I just wanted to dance with you, because you’re so pretty.”


“Oh,” Yaku says, feeling his cheeks heat. “Oh.”


“I’ve heard stories about you, Yaku-san, but I didn’t really think anything of it until I saw you. Even with your mask, you move so gracefully, so easily. I wanted to see what it would be like to move with you.”


“How did you even recognize me?” Yaku asks, feeling a little light-headed. A prince of a nation is someone bound to get noticed, but no one really notices him, not like that. It’s easy, drifting along in the shadows, better to be underestimated until the last possible moment when you strike the killing bite. Nobody is in awe of him like this. Tora raises a hand, presses one finger to the gem in the centre of Yaku’s headpiece.


“Nekoma’s Dragonspine,” Tora says. “Kai says it’s a mechanical marvel, or it was for it’s time, refining metal so thin and versatile that it could mould to someone’s body the way it does, all mined from Nerima when it was under Nekoma’s banner.”


“But… surely you can’t have seen it before? The last time anyone wore it was my Ma, after her victory in the war.”


“Just a drawing. But I know the colour of Nerima opals.” He smooths his thumb across the gem, knuckles brushing Yaku’s forehead, before he jerks his hand back. If the redness of his face is anything to judge by, he’s only just realized the intimacy of his touch. Yaku hides a giggle behind his hand, keeping the barrier in place to hide his grin. Tora rubs the back of his neck, ducking his head shyly.


“I’m not very good at this stuff,” he says earnestly. “I was just supposed to open the door and pretend to be the prince while I collected a message and got out. I didn’t mean to lie to you-”


“A message?” Yaku asks, eyes narrowing. “From who?”


Tora pauses, then reaches into a pocket inside his vest. Carefully, he unfolds a piece of paper, deep jet seal broken but unmistakable. Yaku traces Inarizaki’s signature wax, tracing the elaborate dancing fox embossed into the cracked facade. Tora smooths his thumbs over the edges of it, watching Yaku from under his lashes, lower lip pink from being worried between his teeth.


“This is quite a thing to trust a stranger with.”


“But I do trust you,” Tora says, all genuine belief and gentle conviction. “You won’t tell anyone, I know it.”


“Well, it’s typically unwise to run around accusing princes of some kind of treachery,” Yaku says, gently gripping Tora’s wrists, dragging his thumbs over the tendons in the back of his hands. He feels them flex and yield under his touch as Tora cranes forward until their foreheads brush.


“I don’t know if it’s treacherous,” he says softly. “I can’t read all that well. Kai’s the only one of us who ever got any formal schooling, because his parents hid books in the walls. I can barely write my own name. None of us even know where to start when it comes to changing that. Nerima’s not out to kill anybody, Yaku-san. I only want things to be better.”


“I understand,” Yaku says, the knowing of it stealing breath from his lungs. West Nekoma is deeper into recovery than Nerima is. If he’s being realistic, Nerima hardly stands a chance. Itachiyama is powerful, and though Nerima has fought them back, Yaku knows well enough the ebb and flow of history to know a second strike waits on the horizon. If the valley between Tora’s brows is anything to go by, he’s not stupid enough to think otherwise, either. “I don’t want my brothers to fight my parent’s fight.”


“My sister shouldn’t have to fight mine.”


“Yeah,” Yaku says, soft.


“Yeah,” Tora echoes back to him, their noses slotted together. Yaku tilts his mouth up, brushes his lips over Tora’s in the ghost of a kiss. Tora’s mouth opens slightly, slacks in shock, and Yaku laughs into it, breathless and giggly in the back of his throat.


“Did you hear something?” Someone says on the other side of the shrubbery, and Yaku jumps, violently. Tora’s fist crumples the note, shoves it quickly back into the pocket of his vest. His other wrist stays circled in Yaku’s grip. They look at it, simultaneously, before Tora stretches his long fingers down and threads them between Yaku’s.


“This way,” he whispers, and tugs him into the maze.


They run.


Tora knows his maze better than Yaku does, feet falling sure of their path as Yaku sweeps his train up over an arm and laughs, lets himself be tugged along in Tora’s tidal wave. Perhaps he should be more concerned about the amount of time Tora has spent in this maze in order to memorize it, and how he got into it in the first place, but right now it’s the furthest thing from his mind. They twist and turn through the hedges, and at some point Yaku kicks off his shoes and crooks his fingers into the heels, dangling them against his side as his bare feet press into soft earth still damp from last night’s rain. A fountain rises in the centre of the maze as he and Tora burst through and hurtle toward it.


Yaku leaps in first, dragging Tora in after him. He stumbles to his knees, laughing as Yaku stands under the spray and spreads his arms out wide. The water batters down onto him, plasters his hair to his forehead and soaks him to the bone. This late at night, it strikes a chill through him, refreshing and harsh. His lungs prickle with the cold and it shoots through him all the way to his toes. He turns, watches water-laden fabric swirl around him as he dances his way around the fountain’s basin, Tora kneeling at his feet and gazing up at him reverently, starlight reflected in his eyes.


“You’re so beautiful, Yaku-san,” he sighs, grin stretched across his face so that Yaku can see his slightly pointed canine. He takes his face in his hands, presses his thumb to it. Tora purses his lips, presses a kiss against the pad of his finger before Yaku sweeps it away and replaces it with his lips. Tora’s hands grip his forearms, pulling him closer as Yaku stumbles into his lap, caught up in his embrace, kissing in the bone-cold water of the fountain. He laughs at the absurdity of it all, his tongue in the mouth of an infiltrator at his courting party.


“Dance with me,” Tora says into his mouth, wrestles him back to his feet. “Please.”


“Do I know the steps?”


“Probably not,” Tora says, pressing their palms firmly together. Yaku laughs, bows slightly to him. Then, they dance.


It’s an old dance, one Yaku has only ever heard about in theory, back before Nerima was carved away from Nekoma, far before anyone alive can remember. It’s a dance about connection, about touch. Tora brushes past him and twirls him around, one hand on him always. They touch and they touch and they collide as they twist and spin, kicking up water as they go. Tora smiles, bright-eyed and near feral, and Yaku feels his own grin stretch his face as their fingers lace and their chests brush, noses knocking in accidentally closeness before Tora stretches them out to the width of their arm span and turns them in a tight circle.


“This is a scandalous dance,” he teases, and Tora tips his head back, laughing a big, gutsy laugh. It makes Yaku’s stomach flip in the best way, Tora’s hand in the small of his back to support him as they orbit each other, never more than a breath apart.


“I wanted to dance it with you, though,” Tora says, so Yaku kisses him again, fists his hand in his collar and pulls him down, straight under the downpour of the centrepiece, backing himself up against the marble. Tora’s hands cradle his face like he’s something precious, something to exalt, thumbs pressing over his cheekbones and following the shape of them down to where their lips connect, brushing back out over his jaw as Yaku sighs into his lips and hauls him closer, one arm hooked around his middle and fisted into the back of his vest.


“Come back,” Yaku whispers, “there’s no one quite like you.”


“You want me?” Tora says back, eyes open and honest in their surprise. Yaku brushes his hair back from his forehead and nods, presses their faces as close together as they can be, clutching him close.


“Yes,” he says, “without question.”


“Okay,” Tora agrees, nodding so that their foreheads grind together. “Okay, I’ll come back. I’ll court you properly, Yaku-san, chaperoned turns about the gardens and all.”


“That’s so very boring of you,” Yaku says, snickering into his mouth as he leans in for another kiss. “I’ll reject your advances if we don’t slip into the maze every chance we get. Teach me. Teach me how to navigate it.”


“If you teach me to read.”


“Deal.” Yaku nods, and Tora holds him close, tilts his chin up for another chaste kiss. He steps back, unwinding his sash from his waist again. Yaku holds patiently still, waits as Tora knots it carefully and attentively around his waist and tugs it tight. His hands linger, fingerprints burning through Yaku’s wet clothes.


“Something to come back for,” Tora says, and Yaku grins, so wide his cheeks hurt.


“I’m not enough?” Yaku teases. Tora smiles, pointed canine visible, before he kisses Yaku one last time and climbs out of the fountain. Water cascades from his waist down, and Yaku laughs, watching him shake out his waterlogged boots and push his hair back. Tora shoots him a smile over his shoulder, staring at him with unabashed wonder, before he slips into the shadows of the maze, and out of Yaku’s line of sight. He listens for him; for the retreating footfalls, the squish of wet leather, anything to indicate his departure. There’s nothing. Yaku presses a hand over his own chest and bites down on his own smile, kicking an arc of water in glee.


It takes him an undetermined amount of time to navigate the maze back to the gardens. Clearly, he’s been away too long, because Kuroo is leaning against the tree, posture relaxed but shoulders held just too high for Yaku to believe him. Kuroo doesn’t look at him as he wanders closer, doesn’t comment on Yaku’s soaked clothes, even as they walk in silence back to Yaku’s rooms. It’s not until Yaku is hurling his shoes to the floor and beginning to peel out of his top layers that are starting to make his shoulders ache with the weight of them that Kuroo pulls a mask from under the drapery of his sleeves to press it into Yaku’s hands.


Yaku turns the tiger mask over and over in his grip, and grins up at Kuroo’s eyes.


“I will never understand you,” Kuroo tells him. He kisses his knuckles, shakes his head, and bids him goodnight.


Kuroo is, of course, watching him like a hawk all through breakfast. Yaku sees him jump every time that Kenma kicks him under the table to stop him from staring so rudely — twelve, exactly — and yet his eyes trail back to Yaku, narrowed and calculating, trying to puzzle him out like the hobbyist cube that Bokuto had sourced him from his trip to Inarizaki years ago. Yaku just smiles, folds more of his breakfast into his mouth and fiddles with the end of the sash knotted firmly around his waist.


“You said you chose someone,” his mother says in the middle of the day, when no suitable prince has called. Kuroo raises his brow, eyes lifting briefly from his book, before they flick back down in a poor attempt at pretending he’s not actively listening.


“I did,” Yaku confirms. His ma frowns at him from across the room, clearly displeased with him antagonizing her wife like this. Silently, Yaku apologizes for what’s to come. Neither of them are going to like it much. Tora isn’t a prince. Tora isn’t like anything Yaku ever envisioned for himself, and he’s certainly nothing like what his parents envisioned for him either. But he’s honest, and kind. A just person with a true heart. That’s the kind of person Yaku wants to be with, politics be damned. Someone who will fight tooth and nail with him for a better future. The kind of person who will support the king that Yaku wants to be.


“Excuse me, your majesties,” says an attendant, looking pale. Yaku stands, dusts off his clothes, and threads his fingers through the trailing ends of his sash with a wicked smile. His mother frowns deeper at him, skirts swishing around her legs as she gets to her feet. “An envoy has arrived.”


“From where?” She asks, even as Yaku starts toward the door.


“Nerima,” the attendant says.


Morisuke,” Ma says.


“Ah,” Kuroo says, mirth in his voice. “This is going to be interesting.”


Yaku can feel his mother’s scathing look on the back of his neck, but he doesn’t care. He sweeps through the grand doors to the reception hall, where Tora stands across from him in plain black, hair still blonde and messy, eyes still twinkling and sweet. He blushes when he sees Yaku, fidgeting, trying desperately to hold back his grin. Yaku laughs, and that breaks him. He laughs too, clutching his stomach while his companions turn warm smiles on him. One is tall with close cropped hair and a calming aura, the other with a cat-like little mouth and wide, observing eyes, hair almost blue-black in the light.


“I think you have something of mine,” Tora says, when he recovers. Yaku twirls one end of the sash around his hand, thumbs over the material of it contemplatively.


“Oh, this?” He says, tilting his head. “What will you give me for it?”


“Morisuke,” his ma says, and Yaku feels his mother’s horror turn up by a solid five. Kuroo’s amusement is palpable, and Yaku doesn’t need to chance a look at him to know the grin curling up the corners of his mouth.


“Anything you like,” Tora says, and Yaku knows he means it. He could ask anything of him and Tora would do it without hesitation. Pluck the stars from the sky? A simple trial, if it meant placing them in Yaku’s hands. It’s ridiculous, the way he can simply feel the devotion settled deep in Tora’s bones, from somewhere hidden within his chest, untouched by horrors Yaku knows he’s seen and can’t imagine.


“I’d like to take a turn about the garden,” Yaku says, watches Tora bite back another laugh and stifles his own on the back of his hand.


“May I escort you?”


“You may,” Yaku says, mirroring Tora’s bow, before curling his hand into the crook of his elbow.


“Morisuke,” his mother says, grief evident on her face. His ma’s eyes are twinkling with amusement now, hand settled low in the dip of her wife’s back. “Please, can we talk about this before you go cavorting about in public?”


“Later,” Yaku promises her, with a smile. She wants what’s best for him, he knows, but she worries. But she also raised him with a good head on her shoulders, and he knows she would never begrudge him love, the same way she would never blame Kuroo for picking the course that would make him happiest.


She doesn’t look happy about it now, trailing them as they wander through the garden, retracing their steps from the night before in the daylight. Kuroo and Kenma have blessedly abandoned them, having slipped away with Tora’s companions to do… something. Who knows what. Probably laugh and tease him a little, if the everything about Kuroo is anything to judge by. Yaku doesn’t care. Kuroo knows him best, and he knows that if Tora is his choice, then Kuroo supports it wholeheartedly.


“You really think I’d make a good prince?” Tora asks, quietly, face scrunched up in something probably supposed to be serious thought.


We,” Yaku tells him, “will make excellent kings.”


“Oh,” Tora says, flushing red. It makes Yaku want to do something stupid like kiss him right in front of his parents. Kissing him again would be very smart, he thinks, but perhaps when no one with half a mind to kick Tora out of the castle can see them. “Am I ever going to get my sash back?”


“Probably not,” Yaku says. “I like it.”


“That’s okay,” Tora says, lifting his hand to press a kiss to the back of his knuckles. “Just so long as I get to see you wear it for a little longer than this.”


“Guarantee it,” Yaku tells him, feeling the warmth spread through him, all the way down to his toes.


Yaku doesn’t really believe in love at first sight. All of the love around him has been languid, like the slow heat of summer, but the knowledge of something rattles in his chest. They have time. His mother will come around. If the twinkle in Ma’s eye is anything to go by, she’s already there. Kuroo will give his blessing. Yaku will learn Tora the way Tora will learn him, until there are no parts of them left that they don’t know. It feels good, to know his future, to have it cradle his hand gently and walk him around his gardens, sun shining down through the red leaves of the maples and dappling the ground below.


West Nekoma’s future is uncertain. Nerima’s is also uncertain. Yaku can’t tell where either of their stories will end; whether he’ll die bloodied on a battlefield or old and infirm in his own bed. One thing seems certain to him now, though, watching the strong cut of Tora’s jaw as he laughs so hard he shakes himself, and Yaku has to steady him to keep him upright; he knows he wants to keep Tora in his life for all of it.