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Starting Over

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Title: Starting Over
Author: Arigatomina
Website: www.arigatomina.com

Starting Over

Part 1

Yuuri was back.

It shone on the servants, their busy chatter brighter than ever, those quick fleeting smiles less hopeful and more reassured when they greeted the nobles and waited on the guests. They'd put up a good front during the last few months, when many in the castle were prone to lash out rather than be cheered up, or to send the well meaning maids on their way with a noncommittal wave before sinking back into the sullen mood that permeated the air. Now those servants were validated. The Maou was back and all of their efforts to maintain a cheerful demeanor were rewarded. They'd never quite believed the king had left forever, and so viewed his eventual return as a matter of course. He was the 27th Maou of Shin Makoku. Of course he would not have abandoned his throne after serving for such a short reign.

Even Ao was different. His rider had been back for less than a week, too little time to have slipped off to the stables for a visit, let alone out for a ride that wasn't necessary. Somehow the horse still knew. He stood peacefully in his fancy stall, eyeing those who passed with a careless sort of interest. A mere week ago, he'd have rushed to push his head over the stall door, too dignified to cry out because he was, after all, a king's horse. He'd have caught Wolfram's sleeve if he could, and pulled it delicately until he was given some bit of attention. Now he was content to watch as another horse was chosen and led out of the stables.

Those in a position of power were naturally affected the most. Gwendal had less paperwork to do. He wasted no time ridding himself of the excess workload he'd acquired, so that he could focus on the more pressing issue of their faltering alliances. Their allies were not stupid. During the last few weeks they'd begun to suspect what those at Blood Pledge castle had hoped to keep from them, that the Maou had not simply left on another of his extended, but regrettably routine, absences from their world. Gunter had danced around their inquiries, doing his best to underplay the urgency of the situation, while Gwendal worked to strengthen their current treaties before the news spread. Now they were busy reassuring their allies, inviting the most recalcitrant ones to come to the castle and see for themselves that the Maou had returned, just as they'd been saying he would. Yuuri's return was as casual as if he'd never expected anything to change while he was away, so convincing him not to mention that he'd never planned or expected to return was a simple thing. Everyone was careful not to reveal what might have happened had his unexpected return been even a short month later, Shinou forbid the state they would have been in had he never returned.

Everyone was affected, whether they were validated, relieved, or simply happy to see their lovable king come home. Greta certainly fell into the latter category, throwing off her increasing depression and bouncing back with all the spirited resilience of a child too faithful and innocent to believe her father had truly intended to abandon her forever. With no more need to constantly monitor the child, Anissina was once more darting around the castle in preparation for another of her cross country women's liberation trips. Cecilie was determined to throw a celebration party for the newly returned king, which would conveniently double as a reception for those stubborn allies who had to see the Maou for themselves. And Conrad, who'd so soberly returned to his full time training of the foot soldiers and cavalry, was once more doubling as a baseball coach and running mate to the Maou and those who'd quickly begun to lose interest in the new sport just as it was about to take off as a regular pastime.

For Wolfram, nothing had changed. Or rather, everything had changed a second time. Yuuri's departure had meant the end of their engagement. Not officially, since there was still the need to maintain a front for those skittish allies. But as far as his duties were concerned, he'd gone back to training his elite guard, screening new candidates, and avoiding the castle as much as he had before he'd suddenly become the Maou's fiancé. As the third son, his responsibilities were few and relatively unimportant to the court. He'd been one of the few to leave the castle during those first months, drawn to look over the Bielefeld holdings, running border patrols and sweeps that had been relegated to Conrad's men when Yuuri had been ensconced in the castle. The only change after his brief stint as Yuuri's fiancé and personal guard was that he was more familiar with other lands, and the dangers to be found there. He introduced drills using hoseki. With more human allies than he could stomach, it shouldn't be difficult to find volunteers capable of using, and more than willing to use, those stones against his squad. He would have preferred to experiment outside Shin Makoku, where the real battles would take place and being able to use maryoku on human territory, against esoteric magic, would be essential. Unfortunately Gwendal and Gunter, and Conrad besides, contrived to keep him close enough to the castle that he could continue his front as 'fiancé to the soon to return king' until further notice. Now that Yuuri really had returned, it was no longer a front.

His soldiers watched him with varying degrees of wary doubt as he readied his horse and led them out of the courtyard. Only two of them had really known him before the engagement, the rest had come to expect his infrequent presence. These latter had taken the last few months' training poorly. He couldn't say they were lazy, precisely. They were not. They simply had grown accustomed to irregular training, spirited and violent, when Yuuri had done something particularly insulting, short and distracted, when Yuuri was about to take one of his unnecessarily dangerous excursions outside of Shin Makoku. He supposed they'd grown skittish of him, wary of his random mood swings, because they'd never seen him any other way. And the only Maou they'd ever served was too much a pacifist to bring them on his trips, forget using them in actual combat. For all that, they were dedicated soldiers, all but one of them skilled in majutsu, and loyal to a fault. He was proud of the progress they'd made these last few months. To see them suddenly revert to watching him as if they expected he would run off or explode any second now was infuriating.

True, he would eventually have to resume his place at Yuuri's side, most likely as soon as everyone finished assuring themselves that the king was really back, but that shouldn't have affected his squad like this. Their daily existence wouldn't change so much whether Yuuri was back or not. They'd continue to be trained by his second and third in command, who followed his orders whether he was present personally to oversee them or not. Few of them had ever seen Yuuri, and that only a few times immediately following the engagement when he'd been foolish enough to sneak the new king outside the castle himself. Most of the excursions took place on human lands, and so his squad had no use as guards to the king. That was unlikely to change, even with his new training regimen. And it wasn't as if any of them had ever spoken to Yuuri, not even Lukas and Daniel, who'd known Wolfram before he was old enough to control his own maryoku. Whether Yuuri was back or not should make no difference to them. Yet even those two were watching him with hooded eyes.

Well, then. He'd just have to prove through actions what not even his own mother believed through words. He'd changed to suit the engagement, and again after Yuuri left. He wasn't going to change yet another time just because Yuuri was back. Resuming his duties to his squad had been an embarrassing demotion after being important for so long. He'd borne enough pitying stares these last few months to last a lifetime. Did they really think he'd become the Maou's fiancé for the position? That he'd suffered the humiliation of being ignored and pushed away every single day just so he could have a title? Fiancé to the king. Certainly it was a lofty title to follow his name. But he'd been perfectly satisfied not having a title. Being useful was far more important than that. Whatever Yuuri thought of the way he'd forced himself on him, never leaving his side meant he was the foremost shield between the Maou and the rest of the world. Conrad and Gwendal might have protected the king from distant threats, but Wolfram knew he'd saved his life more than once just because his position as fiancé gave him constant access to the king. That was the only reason he might have regretted losing the position. He'd lost some of his usefulness when he was suddenly without a fiancé to protect. Anyone who thought he'd held the position out of romantic interest was a fool. Which included his brothers.

His mother had known better. She was partly to blame for the engagement, after all. She'd spoken to him after Yuuri's seemingly final departure. His brothers had avoided him with ill disguised pity, uncomfortable in the face of what they saw as a broken heart. Cecilie had never been that romantic. No, she'd purposely sought him out because she knew his tears had nothing to do with the unexpectedly sudden end of an unrequited love, and everything to do with his pride. Standing there, watching him go, he'd been struck with the stunning realization that it was all for nothing. Yuuri had gone to resume his life on Earth, Wolfram would go back the castle and resume his life, everyone would go back and there was no point to any of it. Had Shin Makoku gained from Yuuri's stint as demon king? They'd gained numerous alliances, all of which were based solely on the leadership of a young half human boy who was now gone forever. Those alliances would not hold. If anything, the humans would be even more resentful at having had their hopes raised by someone who'd never intended to make a commitment. Shinou was gone. There would be no more hand picked Maous to lead the country. They'd gained nothing but a moment of peace and a lifetime of regret. And Wolfram had urged Yuuri to go, needing vindication and proof of what he'd known all along, that Yuuri didn't care, not about him, or Greta, or even the country itself. What did he have on Earth besides a family he rarely saw and a life where no one needed or even noticed him?

Wolfram hadn't expected him to go. When it came to other people, Yuuri was selfless to a fault. Here was an entire country, an entire world that needed and relied on him. There was his daughter, who was too young to understand choices and too old to not know when she'd been abandoned. He'd expected Yuuri to make another selfless decision and stay. And so when he'd gone, forever, Wolfram had finally realized that he'd never understood Yuuri at all. He never would. He hadn't expected Yuuri to think of him, but he'd been certain Yuuri would think of everyone else, at least of Greta and Conrad. Only Yuuri hadn't thought of them, or he'd thought of them and chosen to put himself first, with their dishonest blessings. And since Wolfram had been the first to urge him to go, did that make it his fault? What was the point of the last year? All of their efforts and pain, he'd thought it was for Yuuri, for themselves, for their future. Had it all been for Shinou? For the release of a spirit all of them had taken for granted for so long that he didn't really mean anything to any of them? It was all one more pointless adventure to place in the library, where it would be taught as a history lesson with no true relevance to the present.

Gwendal and Gunter had the role of making Yuuri's brief reign mean something. They'd dedicated themselves to the task of holding onto the changes Yuuri had wrought for as long as possible. A year, two if they were exceedingly lucky. Conrad was more pragmatic. He'd done the selfless thing Wolfram had expected from Yuuri. He'd gone back to his old life without thinking of himself, glad for Yuuri's happiness no matter what that meant to everyone else. And Wolfram had followed his example.

It was far more difficult for him than it was for Conrad. He wasn't selfless like that. He'd lived his life thinking of himself because he knew that if he didn't, no one would. That first night in his own room was a relief tinged with resentment. He no longer had to humiliate himself, forcing his way where he wasn't wanted. He wouldn't have to listen to the whispered speculations about his virtue, which most had given up for compromised as soon as the engagement was made known. And yet he'd been plagued with resentful reminders that Yuuri hadn't even known he had his own room. The entire encounter with the Bearbees was due to Yuuri's attempt to relocate him. Where did Yuuri think he'd slept before the engagement? He'd been relieved to wear enough clothes that if there were summons during the night he'd be able to fight without being completely exposed. Yuuri had never once appreciated that thrice blasted nightgown, which Cecilie had quietly promoted to put his homophobic fiancé at ease by letting him pretend it was a girl in his bed. Had Yuuri never thought it strange that a soldier would own such a thing? Wolfram was certainly no Yozak. Yuuri had never considered that the reason he slept so restlessly was because his dreams were disturbed by the presence of someone who didn't like him in the same bed. Shouldn't Yuuri have noticed that when they traveled and he had his own bed, he woke up in the exact position he'd fallen asleep in? If Yuuri hated sharing a bed so much, why had he never suggested having twin beds moved into his room? They'd had twin beds often enough during their travels for Yuuri to know he wouldn't have complained about an arrangement like that. But Yuuri had never asked, and he couldn't ask without swallowing his pride. He didn't sleep at all that first night. The second night he began a campaign to forget that became easier with each passing day.

Now Yuuri was back and everyone was expected to revert as if he'd never left.

Two days after Yuuri's return, his mother had caught him outside his bedroom door. He'd been expecting her. Gwendal had given him uncomfortably pointed looks during dinner, going so far as to open his mouth when he made no effort to follow Yuuri to his room. He'd known what his brother wanted to say, just as he knew that Gwendal was too repressed to actually say it. So his mother was the one to follow and stop him before he could disappear into his room for the night.

"Why, you're behaving just like a scorned lover," she sighed happily. "While terribly romantic, it's hardly effective if you don't express your displeasure to your fiancé yourself."

"I don't care," Wolfram snapped. "He never meant to come back. Why should I have to crawl after him just because he changed his mind? It's only a matter of security, anyway. Post more guards on the door! Have Weller-kyo stay with him, if you're that terrified of letting him sleep by himself. I doubt either of them would mind that."

"Oh, my poor dear," Cecilie simpered, wrapping her arms around him and all but suffocating him in her half exposed cleavage. "Your jealousy makes you absolutely adorable. You know your brother has no plans to steal your fiancé away from you."

"I'd kill him if he did," growled Wolfram. He didn't bother to struggle against the embrace. "That's not the point. I've already destroyed that abominable nightie, so there's no use in me sneaking into his bed. It never had any effect on him, anyway, aside from making him avoid me even more. I'll stand watch myself, if you insist, but I refuse to do any more than that."

"That's your stubbornness talking," she murmured, speaking into his hair as it were. "He thinks you're angry with him. You have every right to be angry and hurt, and if you'd just look at him you'd see that he's sorry. He considers you a dear friend, whom he misses as much as you've missed him."

Wolfram ducked free at that. "We're not friends - he doesn't even know me! He's made an attempt to know everyone but me, and I'm satisfied with that. But not if I'm expected to continue this farce of an engagement. He doesn't want it! I never wanted it!" His furious expression was tainted by confusion, seeing her sad smile. "Even you don't want it, or you'd never have pushed that ridiculous duel with Elizabeth. Why do we have to keep doing this? He's a wimp. He'll marry whoever you tell him to - with pleasure if you'd just pick a female for him to slobber over!"

"Now, Wolf-chan," his mother said, shaking her head, "you know why. I'd hoped dear Elizabeth would be the turning point, but it was already too late. You'd already fallen in love with him. I want you to be happy. Despite what you seem to believe, your brothers also want you to be happy."

This was too much. His frustration snapped along with his voice and he pressed back against the door with a quiet emotionless whisper. "I'm not happy. I never was and you know that. Tell me to do it for the kingdom, for Yuuri's sake, and I will. Don't tell me to do it for myself. If you want me to be happy, you'll leave me alone. Until he breaks the engagement, I'll continue to follow him outside of this kingdom, as is expected of me. Here, he has more than adequate protection. There's no need for me to hover over him every second of the day when he's inside his own castle. Now if you'll excuse me, my squad is going to meet a new hoseki user in the morning and I didn't get much sleep last night."

Despite what he'd told her, he hadn't gotten much sleep that night, either. Now, seeing the way his men were watching him with wary eyes, he wished he'd simply left her in the hall without speaking at all. His eyes felt heavy and he was far too tired to deal with those looks without snapping. They were expecting him to snap, to leave Lukas in charge of the trip and storm off to find his cheating fiancé the way he might have done a few months ago. He wouldn't do it. Yuuri was undoubtedly being overly friendly with someone at this very moment, one of the maids, one of his brothers, Gunter, someone who was most assuredly not his fiancé. And it was an insult on him in the eyes of anyone who saw it. But everyone in the castle already knew the engagement was a joke. They were accustomed to Yuuri having interest in everyone except his fiance. He'd salvage what was left of his pride when the guests arrived and he had an appearance to uphold, dragging his loose fiancé away from whatever lovelies the dignitaries inevitably brought with them. Right now he had more important things to focus on.

"Philipp," he said sharply, with a pointed look at the fidgeting brunette who'd tensed so much his horse was walking with its neck bowed. "Stop worrying the bit before your horse throws you off. If you require additional riding lessons, report to Weller-kyo when we get back. Some time with the infantry will teach you not to disrespect your mount."

The boy blushed and loosened his overly tight hold on his reins, the horse immediately shaking its head with relief. Wolfram turned back around and spurred them into a faster pace. He'd reserved a field not far from the city for their drills. The newest hoseki user would meet them there. He'd had considerable trouble finding powerful humans willing to train with them, natural considering the goal of their training was to withstand the one defense humans had against maryoku. The last one had been a mere child by human years, eager to help with his promise of compensation. She'd been harrassed by her neighbors into quitting despite the poverty stricken family's need for money. He'd been annoyed but not very surprised by that, and when she'd offered to find a replacement, he'd rewarded her as well as if she'd stayed on herself. It was the least he could do. This sort of training should have been done years ago. He had Yuuri to thank for his new awareness of the threat posed by human magic users. That was one of the few benefits of their engagement; his travels taught him things that his brothers never thought to mention to him, or didn't realize themselves. For all that they'd never seen battle, his squad was the first line of defense as far as maryoku users went. They'd more than live up to that name, if he had any say in it.

.-.

Wolfram was avoiding him.

Yuuri hadn't noticed at first. He'd been so shocked to find himself back that his first order of business was to strangle Murata half to death for not telling him he had the ability to cross worlds sooner. All of those weeks of sorrow and regret, wishing he'd had more time to consider his decision, that he hadn't been faced with abandoning his world without so much as a goodbye to his parents, and Murata had simply let him suffer without so much as hinting that he could do it on his own.

He'd thought about Greta first. She'd never understand. How many years would it take before she finally got over having been abandoned by yet another parent? That led him to Wolfram. Would he continue raising Greta? He'd adopted her because of their engagement. Did that mean he'd marry someone else and continue raising her as his own daughter? Somehow he couldn't picture that. Wolfram had never shown interest in anyone, not even Elizabeth, who'd been in love with him to the point of obsession. It was easier to imagine Wolfram raising her alone, bitterly in the shadow of the one who'd abandoned them both. He could see Wolfram closing himself off over the years, and Greta drifting away until she spent more time with Anissina and Conrad, possibly even Cecilie.

He thought of Conrad every time he played, wondering what would become of that baseball diamond the men had worked so hard to make for him. Would they keep playing in his memory? He imagined the smoothly tilled dirt growing wild with weeds, Conrad's mitt lying on a shelf with dust graying its smooth sheen. The sport would be a bitter reminder. He kept having dreams of Wolfram playing on the team opposite him, and he wondered why he'd never tried to interest him in his favorite hobby.

He had nightmares about the war he'd only heard glimpses of. A war that lasted for years and took the lives of loved ones on both sides. He saw Cecilie and Greta crying together as they received news of the brothers' deaths, Blood Pledge castle in ruins around them. Cimaron often played a huge part in these dreams, the constant reminder of Belal, who'd been left crazy but very much alive and in charge of a nation.

Murata didn't mention Shin Makoku during those weeks, except in fondly playful reminders of the good times he'd had and the friends he was glad to have had the chance to meet. Shori kept his hopes alive with talk about the lake in Switzerland and the possibility, once he'd assumed the position of Earth's Maou, of one day crossing dimensions without Shinou's power. It was also his brother who made him reconsider things he'd made a habit of never thinking about, namely Wolfram, his possession, and the events leading up to it.

"I thought he was seducing me," Shori admitted from his desk, while Yuuri sat on the edge of his bed. "It was very disturbing."

"I bet," said Yuuri. "I'm pretty sure he's gay. Or bi," he added, thinking of Elizabeth.

"That's not what I mean," Shori said, in a unwaveringly direct tone. "It was disturbing because I was tempted, not just by the power he offered, but by him."

Yuuri's eyes widened at this blunt admission. He shifted uncomfortably and stumbled for something to say to that. "Well, he does look like a girl. He dresses like one, too, when he's - erm, sometimes he does." And he blushed furiously when Shori gave him a pointed look.

"I wasn't seeing him as a girl," said Shori. He frowned and adjusted his glasses. "I may have to reevaluate my sexuality to include forward young men."

"Erm, uhh, oh," Yuuri said intelligently, his eyes too wide in his red face. If he'd been in Shin Makoku, this was where he'd have made a quick escape. His brother's sharp gaze kept him pinned in place.

"Yes. Which makes me wonder, why didn't you notice your lover slipping away in the middle of the night? Conrad mentioned that the two of you had been sleeping together for over a year in that world." Shori's eyes narrowed dangerously, torn between his possessive brother complex and the disturbing fact that he'd nearly had an affair with his little brother's fiancé, albeit while said fiancé was being controlled by someone else.

"That - it - agh, it was an accident!" Yuuri blustered. "He's the one who kept getting in my bed - I tried kicking him out, but he kept coming back. And it's not like we ever did anything, half the time I ended up getting shoved to the floor so we didn't even share the bed, really. The only reason we were engaged so long is because it's normal for guys to do that over there, at least, that's what everyone said. I never met any gay couples, but no one ever looked at me funny when they found out we were engaged, so, so I guess it's really common over there." And he frowned, forgetting his frustrated embarrassment for a moment. "I wonder why I never met any gay couples if it's so common. Not that I looked, just that...it's kinda strange that I didn't see any no matter how many kingdoms we visited. Maybe because they were mostly human kingdoms..."

"Humans have a shorter life span," said Shori. "Mazoku generally have less need to mate for the sake of offspring, so they rarely bother with official marriages. You know the original reason father married mother was so they could have children. Most of the mazoku working for Bob prefer quiet relationships, regardless of sex. It's no different here than it is there, we just lack countries offering gay marriages because the laws were set in place by humans and we mazoku saw no point in changing that."

Yuuri's expression faltered. "I thought mom was being eccentric when she said he proposed on the fifth date..."

"No. Which is why she threatened divorce so often when you were still in skirts and pigtails."

"Shut up," Yuuri grimaced. "Don't remind me of that." The pictures were bad enough. He was glad he didn't have many actual memories of wandering around publically dressed as a girl. And it reminded him of a skimpy little pink nightie that showed way too much flawless pale skin. Talk about disturbing.

"You made a very pretty little girl," Shori said, with a completely straight face. "I'd much rather see you married to a spirited young man, than an old pervert."

Yuuri gaped and sputtered. "Why is it automatically a guy!"

Shori blinked soberly, raising an eyebrow. "Because you cling too tightly to your homophobia to be straight." He turned back to his computer with a parting, "Don't worry, by the time I'm powerful enough to be Maou of Earth and open a portal for you, you should be mature enough to stop lying to yourself. You're still a little boy, after all."

He'd gone back to his room with a beet red face and ignored his older brother for the rest of the week. His first instinct was to shove the conversation away, just as he'd done to everything 'fiancé' related since the engagement began. He tried that and it seemed to work for the first day. Then he had an immensely disturbing dream where he walked into his room in Blood Pledge castle and found Wolfram in bed with his brother. And instead of immediately waking in a cold sweat and shuddering from the traumatic images, he'd stormed over and 'rescued' his fiancé from his evil perverted older brother. He remembered the rest of the dream so clearly that he'd blushed the duration of the following day and dreaded falling asleep that night for fear of a repeat. Suffice it to say after that day he was convinced that short discussion with Shori had made his brother's potential bi-ness rub off on him. He welcomed the war dreams after that, because while they left him torn up inside, they didn't back him into a corner and shove his tenacious denial down his throat. Why had Wolfram's ridiculous nightgown bothered him so much? Because it was too blatantly tempting for even a supposedly homophobic skirt chaser to ignore. And Yuuri had never been homophobic, thank you very much, evil older brother, he simply balked at the idea of a guy treating him the way he imagined girls would want to be treated by him. He'd never seen two gay guys interact and the idea of being treated like a girl reminded him of his childhood. His immediate response was absolutely not.

By the time Murata gave him that unexpected shove back to Shin Makoku, Yuuri had already started to consider what he'd do when he met Wolfram again. It would be years in the future, when Shori had taken over Bob's company, and Yuuri had graduated from college and had time enough to help him experiment at the lake. He'd be older then, and surely their combined maryoku would eventually be enough to open a portal. He imagined Wolfram would be older too, whether he looked it or not - he still wasn't sure how the passage of time compared between the two worlds. He saw their meeting as a tentative one between two mature adults who'd once been close friends. They'd get to know each other again and see where things went from there. Greta would be married, possibly with children of her own, and she'd support them, urging their reconciliation despite Wolfram's stubborn pride and Yuuri's clumsy apologies. It would be like those sappy girly movies, with him playing the part of childhood love coming back to take back what he'd given up on in his foolish youth. There would be no lengthy joke of an engagement with one chasing the other, just two adults fitting together comfortably, and they'd grow old together because Yuuri would stop aging when he hit adulthood, just like Conrad had, and they'd raise their grandchildren and great grandchildren and everything would be the same as it was before he left except they'd be older and they wouldn't fight anymore.

All of those whimsical thoughts seemed incredibly stupid now. Wolfram was ignoring him. He was still in high school, Greta was still an adorably clueless little girl, and Wolfram was as hard to talk to as ever. The only thing that matched his predictions was the lack of fighting. Wolfram wasn't talking to him outside of family meals, and then only when Yuuri spoke to him first. Wolfram hadn't shown up in his room, or even in Greta's when he took time out from the mountain of catch-up paperwork signing to visit their daughter. Cecilie assured him they were still engaged, and that her youngest son was just being his usual stubborn self because he was too proud to admit how much he'd missed him. Conrad, when Yuuri tentatively asked him if Wolfram were angry and waiting for an apology, had smiled and touched his shoulder and told him that there was nothing to apologize for. He'd only been gone for a few months. Yeah, that was a long time, but no longer than the time he'd come back to find himself in the middle of an attack by unknown assassins. Except this time no one had expected him to come back. Ever.

Wolfram deserved an apology, whether he was waiting for one or not. He'd already apologized to everyone else. Greta cried when he apologized to her. She held tight and made him promise to never do it again. That was a promise he was going to keep no matter what. She also confirmed some of his fears. Wolfram had visited her regularly during his absence, but she'd spent more time with Anissina and Cecilie than her father. Yuuri wanted to be resentful of that. He couldn't be, because when he thought about it, Wolfram had kept Greta constant company during his irregular absences in the past, and they'd both made a habit of leaving her behind to be tended by Anissina during their journeys to other kingdoms. He decided they had to sit down and find her a more suitable baby sitter, someone who was hired solely to take care of her, and not a servant or friend taking time off to keep an eye on her when there was no one else available. Neither of them could be a stay at home parent, they had too many responsibilities, and even if Anissina had been a suitable role model for an naive child - which she wasn't, in his opinion - it wasn't right to keep expecting her to take care of their daughter. The problem was, in order to talk to Wolfram about the idea, he'd have to get him alone. The last two days he'd never even seen him outside of dinner. Wolfram must have been taking lunch somewhere else.

He frowned at the stack of signed documents to his left. It didn't seem to be growing at all and he felt too guilty and relieved to be back to not tackle the make-up work as quickly as possible. They needed stamps here. Maybe if he explained the concept to Anissina she could design one using his signature. That wouldn't make the paperwork that much quicker, since he'd still have to attempt reading them before signing, but it would save his wrist a lot of pain in the long run. And it was more efficient when he went away from the castle and Gunter or Gwendal took over his duties. They could sign it in his place, using the stamp, and the paperwork requiring the king's signature wouldn't stack up so much while they waited for his return. Gwendal should appreciate the efficiency of an idea like that. Just as long as he didn't recognize it as a blatant attempt to skirt all that wrist-cramping busy work. And speaking of wrists, his was starting to hurt something awful. He rotated it, cracked his knuckles, and grimaced at the loud pops. It made him wonder if Shori ever feared carpal tunnel working on the computer for such long hours. That made him think of the silly dating games Shori played when he wasn't using his computer for work. Which made him think of Wolfram. His thoughts were definitely going in circles these days. Time for a break.

Gwendal looked up when he entered his office with the signed papers in his arms. His eyes flicked from the stack of documents to Yuuri's face, and a wrinkle developed between his dark eyebrows. Yuuri knew that meant Gwendal approved and was too...Gwendal...to let that approval through as an actual smile. Yuuri made his own smile twice as bright to make up for Gwendal's overly sober demeanor.

"I'm taking a break now," Yuuri said, in a bold tone that said he was informing rather than asking permission.

Gwendal stared for a moment, that crease holding firm on his brow, and gave a sharp nod. Another of his decisions during those 'when I finally find a way back there' brainstorming binges was that as long as he was king, he'd start acting like one. He'd do his work, no matter how mind numbingly boring it was, until he thought he would snap. And then he'd stop for a while before resuming again. No more sneaking out when Gunter wasn't looking, nodding off when he'd been left to sign papers without someone standing guard over his shoulder, and absolutely no using Conrad, Greta, and Wolfram as an excuse to slack off. Not that he could use Wolfram as an excuse when he didn't even know where he was. Yeah, he really needed to talk to him before he got so distracted he wrote the wrong name on one of the documents like a schoolgirl doodling her crush's name all over her homework. He couldn't stand having someone upset with him and the fact that he couldn't even apologize was driving him crazy.

"Do you know where Wolfram is?" asked Yuuri. His kingly stance faltered when Gwendal's eyes flicked up and locked on his. He fidgetted, quickly explaining away his reason for asking. "I wanted to talk to him about getting someone to watch Greta full time. It's no good leaving her with whoever's handy when we can't be here, and I'm sure Anissina's got a lot more important things she'd rather be doing."

Gwendal continued to stare at him for a long moment, then dropped his gaze back to the work stacked on his own desk. "Gisela could recommend someone. She should be in the stables. One of the foals hasn't been taking milk this week."

"Oh, okay." Yuuri blinked uncertainly. "But I should probably talk to Wolfram first, you know?"

"He won't be back till this evening," said Gwendal, not bothering to look up from his work. "His squad's training outside the city today."

Gwendal's tone said there was something he didn't like about that. Yuuri couldn't tell if it were the training itself, that the training was outside the city, that it would last till evening, or that Wolfram hadn't bothered to mention it to his fiancé. He hoped it was the latter. Conrad didn't seem to think there was anything Yuuri should worry about with Wolfram not speaking to him. Yuuri found it disturbing. He wanted to believe Gwendal thought it was something to worry about, too.

"I see," Yuuri sighed. "Well, I'll let you get back to work. Thanks!" He paused in the doorway and flashed a bright smile over his shoulder. "I'll definitely have all that paper work finished by this weekend." He then disappeared, in a hurry to get out of range before Gwendal could say anything to spoil his optimistic mood - like reminding him that by this weekend there would probably be a fresh stack of work to do whether he finished what he currently had on his desk or not.

.-.

The return to the castle took much longer than their departure. Wolfram led the way at an easy pace out of consideration for the two incapacitated members of his squad, one of whom was seated woozily behind him. The new hoseki user was very different from the young girl who'd recommended him. Giro Reinhild had short spiked white hair and an overly sober glower that reminded him too much of Gwendal. He suspected the man also had a soft spot for cute little children, considering the one who'd recruited him as a replacement. Reinhild was also admirably strict and considerably more powerful than the girl had been; having brought his own hoseki, he used them with a skill that made Wolfram doubt his back story. He'd run the name past Gunter before allowing his squad to do another drill with the man. As it was, he had no one but himself to blame for their current condition. He'd ordered Reinhild to gradually increase the magic until he gave the word to cease, and he had done just that. Unfortunately his own stubborn pride had led him to resist much longer than was safe for some of his men, none of whom would willingly speak up to remind him that he was the leader for a reason. He was supposed to be more responsible than that.

The young man behind him swayed with each fluid step the horse took, one arm propped on the back of Wolfram's shoulders with his head ducked in the crook, his other arm wrapped loosely around Wolfram's waist. Wolfram kept a tight hold on the second arm. Daniel was riding at his side and would warn him if the man passed out and threatened to slip from the horse, but Wolfram wasn't taking any chances. Besides, Daniel had his own incapacitated soldier to watch out for. Wolfram knew it was a morale booster for the younger members of his squad to see how weakly Lukas was seated, doubled behind his third in command. That would be a point to tease him over after they recovered; for all his experience, Lukas had behaved every bit as stubbornly as Wolfram himself and now he was paying for that. Having suffered sea sickness his entire life, Wolfram had nothing but sympathy for the two drunkenly dazed men. He'd still take part in the teasing of Lukas because, as his second in command, Lukas was the one who should have reminded him to stop before half of his squad was almost too weak to guide their mounts back to the castle. If it hadn't been for Daniel, who had more than his share of pride to make up for his lack of foolhardy stubbornness, they would have ended up spending the night in the field.

Despite having let the drill run too long, he knew it was a good practice session. Even the weakest of his squad had remained conscious, and Reinhild had used two red hoseki the size of his large fists before Wolfram was forced to concede for the day. He still hadn't managed any form of shielding against the magic. He didn't know if that would even be possible. The point was to build a tolerance, and they were certainly progressing on that front. He hoped Reinhild's background would check out because finding another hoseki user with that much strength who was willing to stay in the city would be next to impossible. If he did come out clean, the next step would be actual duels against the magic, at an increasingly closer range so the trial would be double; withstanding the activated hoseki and retaining enough concentration to control their magic at the same time. Once again he resented Gwendal's stubborn refusal to let them cross the border into human territory. Maybe they weren't ready for that at the moment, but it was only a matter of time. And with Yuuri's return they had more than enough human allies with unused land that it shouldn't be difficult to find one willing to permit his small group entry. Any strengthening of Shin Makoku's forces was a benefit to allies, after all. Still, it would be a while before they were finished with the training they could do on their own land. He'd raise the issue again when they'd reached that point. A small demonstration for Gunter and Gwendal should be enough to prove his point. Neither of them had as much resistance to the mere presence of hoseki as even the weakest of his squad now had. Yes, a demonstration would be just the thing. And if either of the men became sick, well, that wouldn't be so bad, either.

"Ah," Daniel called, his quiet tone forcing a garbled groan from the boy behind him, "I don't like your smile, Captain."

"You would if you knew what I was thinking," Wolfram smirked.

Daniel nodded sagely, the movement earning him a weak punch to the shoulder that he firmly ignored. "You could always share."

"I could," agreed Wolfram. But he wasn't going to and Daniel knew better than to ask. It was one thing to insult his brother in his thoughts, and another to say it aloud in front of his men. He tilted his head, addressing his swaying passenger in a quiet tone. "Can you handle a trot to the castle? Five minutes at most."

"Yes, Captain," came the thready response, followed by a slight tightening of the arm around his waist.

Wolfram sniffed at the title. He wasn't a captain and likely never would be. Daniel had coined the term, his calm influence on the group such that whatever he said they automatically repeated. So long as they didn't use it in front of anyone outside their squad, Wolfram wouldn't complain. He turned an amused look on the two riding to his right. "Are you going to slow us down, Lukas?"

The boy raised his head high enough to glower through sweaty bangs, his tone thick and droll, "No, Captain."

"That's what I like to hear," Wolfram said, his voice loud enough to carry to the entire group. "There are no weaklings in my squad."

There was an immediate affirmative, even from the boy behind him, and Wolfram grinned as he picked up the pace. They weren't the elite for nothing. Each one of his men was handpicked and each one would hold his head up to the bitter end, no matter the odds. Even the newer members who were so wary of his temper were loyal at the end of the day. That was more important than anything.

He slowed when they reached the courtyard, immediately calling out to the stablehand who came to meet them, "Fetch Gisela."

The man looked them over with wide eyes and ran off without asking any questions. Wolfram watched him for a moment. That was enough to spot Yuuri across the way, playing catch with Conrad. The scene was so familiar, something he hadn't seen in so long, that he stared for nearly a minute before he realized Yuuri was staring back at him. He gave a grudging nod, only because he'd never ignored Yuuri in front of anyone who wasn't family and had no intention of starting now. He bit back the furious 'cheater' that tried to spring from his mouth. There was no point. If everyone at the castle knew their engagement was a fraud, that included his squad. He turned his attention back on his men. They were waiting silently for him. He dismounted carefully and reached back to help his passenger to the ground. Daniel followed, and then the others. The most fit of them took care of the horses, leaving him and Daniel to support their burdens across the yard. The boy beside him was turning pasty white, biting his lower lip with an expression Wolfram recognized instantly. His own stomach roiled at the thought. He told himself firmly that if the boy threw up on him it would be his own fault. He would not yell at him. And he absolutely would not throw up with him. No matter how much he wanted to.

Yuuri ran over to them and paced alongside him, "What happened?"

"Nothing," Wolfram snapped. Yuuri was paying more attention to him than he was to the obviously suffering boy hanging off his shoulders. For some reason that annoyed him. "We were training."

"You're bleeding," Yuuri protested, staring at his stained uniform with the same expression the stablehand had given him.

"I'm not," Wolfram said sharply. Was Yuuri making an effort to embarrass him? The soldier beside him gave a stilted lurch and Wolfram's throat tightened. The boy was definitely going to vomit. Not here, not in the courtyard in front of startled servants and his fiancé and Conrad, who, for some unknown reason, was watching with blatant amusement in his eyes. Wolfram stopped in his tracks and gave Yuuri an embarrassed frown, his voice coming out thick due to the nausea roiling in his stomach. "I'll explain later."

He dropped to his knees and pulled the sick boy's arms over his shoulders with a muttered, "Up." The boy gave a feeble protest that Wolfram ignored as firmly as he was ignoring the sick taste creeping up into the back of his throat. The kid could throw up on him as soon as he got within lunging distance of a bedpan. Not here. He knew this was his own fault, but that didn't make him any more willing to be sick right here.

Yuuri took a few steps, his mouth open to offer his help because honestly Wolfram didn't look much better than the poor boy he was carrying. Conrad caught him before he could speak, laying a heavy hand on his shoulder. Yuuri glanced back and was startled by how calm Conrad looked, as if he wasn't the least bit concerned. When he looked back again, Wolfram had already disappeared into the castle.

"Don't worry," said Conrad. "It's nothing a little rest and some help from Gisela won't cure. They're training to resist hoseki," he explained, when Yuuri gave him a doubtful look. "Those with high maryoku suffer debilitating nausea at close contact, remember? A person might cough up blood if the exposure is prolonged, but there isn't any permanent damage." He gave a smile, letting that amusement spread from his eyes to his mouth. "They've been working on this since you left. Wolfram knows what he's doing. You can bet that whatever mistake he made today, he won't be making again. He takes good care of his squad."

"Oh," Yuuri blinked, sending another look at the door.

He turned to look at the boys exiting the stables. They looked back as they filed past, some of their expressions wary, but just as curious as his own. All of them appeared exhausted, too pale, and a few had as much blood splattered on the front of their uniforms as Wolfram had. It reminded him of the first time he'd seen Wolfram's "elite guard" and wondered, only half jokingly, if they'd been chosen because they were all young and pretty. The last one to exit the stables was the only one who didn't look as if he'd just been through a day of torture. He was a full head taller than the others and looked almost as old as Shori. Yuuri didn't have to ask to guess this was the token half-mazoku member of the squad; hoseki wouldn't have bothered him no matter how long the training lasted. He did wonder, though, why he hadn't helped support one of the two incapacitated boys. The boy stopped and bowed respectfully, and Yuuri decided not to ask. It was probably the sort of thing that would make Wolfram angry with him.

"Heika," the boy greeted, "Weller-kyo."

"How was the training?" asked Conrad.

"Good. We have a new hoseki user. Much better than the last one."

"Too much better?" Conrad ventured, that amusement dancing over his eyes again.

"Possibly," the boy said. "The Captain's going to check him out."

"Nothing to worry about, then," smiled Conrad.

The boy gave another half bow and wandered off across the courtyard.

Yuuri stared after him. "Why didn't he go in with the others?"

"He's one of mine," said Conrad. "He can't quite match swords with Wolfram, but hoseki has no effect on him, so he's very useful in the squad. They never go out without him now."

Yuuri shot him a disbelieving look. "Wolfram asked for one of your men? Willingly?"

Conrad laughed and prodded him towards the castle. "I assure you, he didn't enjoy a moment of it. But, yes, he did. And despite Florian being one of my men, he's quite tight lipped about what goes on during Wolfram's training. Just between you and me, Heika, I think he has a crush on his new 'Captain.'"

Yuuri stopped in surprise, whipping around to stare in the direction the older boy had gone. Conrad gave another soft laugh and patted his back.

"Don't worry," said Conrad. "I doubt you'll ever have to worry about Wolfram being unfaithful."

"I wasn't worried," Yuuri said quickly, his tone just shy of an outright pout. "It's just...weird, is all. Ordering around someone who has a crush on you? That'd be really awkward. And don't call me Heika, Nazukeoya."

"Ah," Conrad smiled. "I'm sorry, Yuuri. It should be safe to go after him now," he nodded, with another light prod toward the door. "You might want to hurry, though, if you plan to catch him before dinner. I doubt he'll be making an appearance tonight. Hoseki has about the same effect as a ship, where Wolfram's concerned."

"Oh," Yuuri grimaced.

In that case Wolfram probably wouldn't be in the mood to talk to anyone tonight, let alone him. But it couldn't hurt to check. Probably. And if Wolfram chased him off, he'd just try again tomorrow. Even Wolfram wouldn't be stubborn enough to take his men out again after dragging them home so exhausted. He gave a cheerful wave to Conrad, feeling more hopeful than he had since he'd first realized his fiancé was avoiding him. It wasn't until he stepped into the hall that he realized he had no idea where in the castle Wolfram had gone.

.-.
TBC

Chapter Text

Gunter was more than happy to show Yuuri where Wolfram's squad was quartered. As with Gwendal, Yuuri got the impression Gunter disapproved of Wolfram's training. The man didn't even glomp him in greeting, and he was practically stalking down the hall so that Yuuri had to trot to keep up with him. He bumped into him when Gunter was stopped by two of the regular castle guards.

"What is the meaning of this?" Gunter demanded.

"I'm sorry, sir," one of the guards said. "We have standing orders to admit no one but Lady Gisela into this wing."

"This is His Majesty's castle-"

"I'm sorry, sir," the man repeated. His eyes flicked to his comrade, who stepped up beside him until they physically blocked the hall. "We have standing orders."

Gunter snapped a sharp look on Yuuri, "Rescind them."

"Huh?" Yuuri stepped back. The two soldiers had stiffened and were currently staring at him as if he were an enemy. "What-" He cut himself off when he spotted Gisela exiting a room down the hall, Wolfram right behind her. The blonde's eyes narrowed dangerously when he caught sight of them. Luckily that glare swept right past him to lock on Gunter.

"He can't rescind Lord von Bielefeld's orders," the guard blurted.

"Of course he can," Gunter scoffed. "He's the Maou."

"What is this?" Wolfram demanded. He barely glanced at Yuuri. The two guards almost slumped when he came to their defense. That was enough to make him grind his teeth. His orders had stood for months without anyone contesting his authority. This was the third time someone had threatened these particular guards since Yuuri's return. Bad enough his mother had snicked her way past the watch without Gunter trying to force his way in, using Yuuri, no less. He glared at the haughty disapproval Gunter was sending him. Gwendal was behind this. "You know that no one is permitted into this wing."

"This childish behavior is unacceptable," Gunter stated. "I've spoken with-"

"Gwendal," spat Wolfram. "I don't doubt it." He turned curtly to nod at the two guards. "My orders stand."

"Of course, sir!"

"No exceptions."

"Yes, sir!"

Gunter drew himself up, "You don't have the authority to-"

Wolfram cut him off with a cold look. "I will speak with you in the privacy of your office. Or Gwendal's, since he's undoubtedly responsible for this." His fury faltered when he caught sight of the concern and guilt on Yuuri's face. Did Yuuri think this was his fault? Gwendal had been hounding him since he'd first gotten the idea to initiate his own training. Gunter might be using Yuuri's presence to bolster his own self-righteousness at the moment, but that was hardly Yuuri's fault. Judging by the uncertainty blazing off the boy's face, he had no idea what he'd unwittingly stepped into the middle of. "Did you want to speak with me?"

"It can wait," Yuuri blurted. He winced, bracing himself for a disgusted mutter of 'wimp' that never came. Even Gunter seemed to forget he was there, too caught up in his open disapproval of whatever it was that had Wolfram channeling Gwendal. Yuuri couldn't remember the last time he'd seen Wolfram's eyes so cool and shuttered. He remained frozen in place, watching dumbly as Wolfram marched past him, Gunter hot on his heels. Gisela snapped him out of it by addressing one of the guards, both of whom, Yuuri realized, were still eying him warily. He flashed them a harmless, apologetic smile, and backed up a few steps. It didn't help much, judging by they way they continued to watch him.

What had gotten into Gunter? He knew his title supposedly gave him power over others, but he'd never used it. He certainly hadn't given orders to the castle guards, who he assumed belonged to different sections, each following the command of one of the brothers. Gwendal or Conrad in particular because, now that he thought about it, he'd rarely seen Wolfram give orders to anyone. The few times he had, Yuuri had assumed the guards obeyed out of respect rather than because they had to. Now he regretted knowing nothing about the chain of command within the castle. He didn't want to be drawn into whatever power issues Gunter had with Wolfram, especially when he was trying to make peace with Wolfram. Peace. Even as he thought the word, he knew it wasn't the right one. They could hardly make peace, make up, when they weren't fighting to begin with. What he really wanted was for things to go back to the way they'd been before, where he'd complain and Wolfram would yell and everything was comfortable and familiar. Could he honestly tell himself he was trying to change when what he wanted the most was for nothing to change?

Gisela joined him, giving him the perfect excuse to get away from the suspicious guards. He cowardly used the excuse to get away from his thoughts as well. It had been so easy to imagine what he would do differently when he had thought it would take place years in the future. He had expected time to do most of the hard work for him. He was still doing it, still letting himself be swept along without putting forth any effort on his own part. Just when had he gotten into that habit? Earth certainly didn't work that way, so why did it seem so natural to be a passive participant here? He was frustrated, on the verge of getting angry with himself, and so - knowing full well what he was doing - he avoided the issue by latching onto the closest distraction in sight. This was his problem, he admitted it, and acknowledging he had a problem was the first step to fixing it, right? So he'd focus on the first step and work on the next one later. Right. And to think, he used to wonder why Wolfram insisted on calling him a wimp.

"Were you checking on Wolfram?" he asked Gisela. He wanted to ask if she'd mentioned their earlier discussion with Wolfram, but he was afraid of her answer. If she had, then he didn't need to speak to him about it now. And, knowing himself, he'd need that excuse to start up a conversation with Wolfram. If she hadn't said anything about it, then he'd get to keep his excuse, but he'd have to worry that Wolfram would get angry that they'd talked about it behind his back. Honestly, everything was much too complicated now. He didn't like it one bit. At least Gisela smiled at him, casually, proving that none of the conflict going on in his mind had made it to his voice. Maybe he was improving.

"Were you?" she smiled back.

His mouth opened and a blush hit his cheeks. He stopped himself before he could deny it, lie and say he'd just wanted to talk to him about Greta. Why was he embarrassed? Why did he need to explain away his reason for wanting to talk to Wolfram? He'd done the same thing with Gwendal earlier. Why did he do that? He was worried about Wolfram. At least, he had been worried. Having seen the way Wolfram marched off, head up and scowling, he wasn't really worried about his health now. But he had been worried and he wasn't ashamed to admit it. "Yeah," he said, finally. He was grateful when she didn't make a fuss over his continued blush. Telling himself he had no reason to be embarrassed didn't stop him from feeling that way.

"He's in high spirits," Gisela assured him, "as I'm sure you noticed. If he had his way, they'd be back out there tomorrow. Luckily for us, Lukas didn't fair so well. I've ordered two days of bedrest for him. Wolfram won't take the squad out without their second."

He almost asked if that was the boy Wolfram had carried inside. But Gisela hadn't seen that, and he had an idea he should already know who Wolfram's second in command was. The boy hadn't looked very strong. Then again, none of the magic users in Wolfram's squad looked particularly strong. They all looked young, small, and pretty, much like Wolfram himself. That blush returned and he gritted his teeth, turning his face away from Gisela as subtly as possible. The first time he'd seen Wolfram, he'd thought of him as a pretty boy. That was nothing new! "Um. There was a lot of blood when they came in," Yuuri mumbled.

He hadn't seen any blood just now. Wolfram must have changed quickly. In that room he'd come out of? Was that wing where he'd been staying? He glanced at Gisela, the question on the tip of his tongue, only to bite it back. She was nodding at his comment, worry showing on her face for the first time.

"I can help with the nausea and debilitation, even the internal damage. I can't make up for the blood loss, though. They'll have to replenish that the slow natural way."

"Internal damage?" Yuuri blurted. He immediately felt stupid. A person didn't cough or puke up blood unless something inside was damaged. But that sounded serious, a lot worse than Conrad or even Gisela made it out to be. Both of them were treating the subject far too casually. He frowned at her, assuming what he thought was a properly sober stance, head up, shoulders back. This was serious. If they were downplaying it for his sake, he wanted them to stop immediately. "Do you approve of this training?"

Gisela looked surprised, possibly even amused for a moment, but she sobered quickly. "In theory, yes. It's overdue. You saw what happened to Gwendal after longterm exposure to hoseki. We have no defense against it. High level magic users are especially vulnerable. Any tolerance they can build up now may save lives later." She sighed, frowning off into the distance. "In practice, I don't like seeing the effects firsthand. They're attempting too much, too quickly. Another accident like today's could be fatal. At the very least, they should have a healer on hand."

"Why don't they?"

She sighed, flashing him a weak smile. "Because Gunter forbid me from risking myself. I'm just as susceptible to houjutsu as anyone else. And Wolfram refuses to have outsiders spying on his squad. He never even introduced them to you, did he."

It wasn't a question. He winced guiltily. This was as bad as admitting he didn't know where Wolfram was sleeping at night. "I saw them a few times, when I first came here. But they almost never went with us on trips, so..."

"Understandable. Maybe you can accompany them on their next exercise. You are the only one with healing abilities who can withstand hoseki, after all."

She left him with a conspiratorial smile and wink. Yuuri stared after her, feeling a little off-kilter and suspicious. He'd just been set up. He'd swear he had.

"That's a marvelous idea!"

He whipped around to find Cecilie standing at his shoulder, smiling in a very disconcerting way. His eyebrow twitched. This was definitely a set up. Had Gisela come up with the suggestion herself, or had she been taking cues from Cecilie all along? He tried to recall if she'd looked over his shoulder while they were talking. He wouldn't put it past them.

"I'm sure Wolfram will appreciate your company," Cecilie smiled, as if he'd already agreed.

Yuuri was just as sure he wouldn't.

"He hasn't had a chance to show off his squad to you since your return. They really are quite impressive. Conrad can accompany you to forestall any complaints about your safety. Yes, that will do just fine."

She seemed to have it all worked out. Yuuri shifted uncomfortably. "Um, shouldn't we ask Wolfram about this first?"

"Not at all! I'm sure he expects you to be just as opposed to his efforts as Gwendal is. Having your support will be a splendid surprise." She clasped her hands together, beaming a pleased smile. "It's so nice that you're taking an interest in this. I'm sure it's just the sort of thing you'd have proposed yourself eventually."

He had no idea what she was talking about, the training or his tagging along. He was certain he wouldn't have suggested either, though, considering he had yet to say more than two words to Wolfram without a handful of people watching on. A blank look was claiming his face and he seriously disliked it. How was he supposed to take control when dealing with people like these? Cecilie was even harder to deal with than Wolfram.

"Now, then. We'll stop by the kitchen and pick up a few things. Knowing Wolf, he won't be joining us this evening, but he will be hungry. I'm sure we can find something that will sit well on his stomach. You can deliver it personally and have a private dinner for two while you discuss your plans with him, among other things. You two have so much to catch up on."

"Um..." The plans were hardly his. Admitting Cecilie had conned him into the idea wouldn't make him look very good in Wolfram's eyes. Just the wimp, being manipulated as usual...

"Come along," Cecilie beamed, prodding him into motion.

He let himself be propelled along, his stomach churning uneasily. Was she playing matchmaker, trying to smooth things over between them? Or was she hoping to rile things up by getting them together where they couldn't help but clash? His gut told him it was both. He did want to talk to Wolfram, and it would be better if he didn't have to use Greta as his reason for seeking him out. But it wasn't very kingly to let himself be manipulated by his fiance's mother. He should have spoken up earlier instead of clamming up, should have ignored Gunter and whatever issues he had with Wolfram. Or, even better, he could have gone with them to help sort out the problem. It was one thing to decide he would take his life here seriously, and another to actually step up. Especially when it involved this overbearing family and an angry Wolfram.

.-.

Wolfram couldn't remember the last time Gwendal had addressed him with such open contempt. He was proud of the way he withstood it. He held his tongue, knowing he was absolutely in the right. The training was dangerous but necessary. The benefits were obvious. All he had to do to prove it was carry an activated hoseki in his pocket and hand it to the man. He could have, and would have, done just that if he were willing to make half the people he passed sick long before having the satisfaction of seeing his brother spew all over that polished desk of his. Gwendal didn't believe he was good enough to attempt this. Would never believe. He would always be an ignorant spoiled brat in his eyes. Fine for the third son, unacceptable for the leader of an elite squad.

Then there was Yuuri. While Gwendal wouldn't address that issue openly, Gunter had no such reservations. Wolfram wondered what sort of discussion the two of them had shared on the topic. He had no doubts that half of the things Gunter said were taken right from Gwendal's mouth and given to him because his brother was too stuffy to say it himself. While he was obligated to listen to their objections about his squad, because Gwendal was his superior there, he wasn't about to be lectured where Yuuri was concerned. Certainly not by a man who molested his fiance every chance he got.

"It's none of your business," he said flatly.

Gunter definitely didn't agree. "It is when you're letting your emotions cloud your judgment." Gwendal gave a stiff nod. "You are using this training as an excuse to avoid-"

"I decided on this when we thought he was never coming back!" Wolfram denied.

"But he is back," said Gwendal. "You should have postponed any further excursions in light of that. With the Maou's return, you have other obligations-"

"What obligations? To be seen doing nothing? I haven't missed any public appearances and I won't! Even if I did have a mishap and missed one, what makes you think any of the visiting nobles would notice? Or care, for that matter? He's the figurehead, not me. I'm a soldier. My obligation is to the kingdom and to my squad."

"It doesn't have to be your squad."

Everything seemed to freeze. His vision blurred around the edges until all he could see was Gwendal's disappointed eyes. The threat hung overhead, smothering him in cold disbelief. He'd wondered before if he hadn't been given his own squad simply to keep him busy and out of the way. His magic had always been strong, but his temperament made him unreliable. When he'd first formed the team, he'd been arrogant and reckless. He liked to believe he had grown since then, more than enough to have earned the responsibility. He felt his body numb, heating from the inside out as if his blood were boiling. He was vaguely aware of Gunter backing away from him. Gwendal barked something at him that he didn't hear. That threat had struck him where he was most vulnerable. His squad was all he had. He'd been reminded of that when Yuuri left and he wasn't going to forget it again. They were his alone and they looked only to him. No one could take them away from him.

"Try," Wolfram murmured. He felt an odd smile curve his lips. "You must be desperate to resort to idle threats, Brother." The numbness remained, but he reigned in his maryoku. "You have no cause to interfere with my squad. You need them to keep me occupied more now than you ever have before. The nobles never believed Yuuri was coming back. We both know who they had in mind for the next Maou. Not all will be satisfied by his return, knowing he will continue to leave for his world whenever the mood strikes him. You wouldn't want me with too much time on my hands. My squad keeps me busy and out of your politics. That's the reason I was given it, after all. Let it alone."

"Wolfram," Gwendal hissed, half rising out of his chair.

"What? Are you the only one allowed to make idle threats in this office? You're the one being rash and unreasonable. You're the one using my training as an excuse to interfere with my private life. Go back to scowling each time I give you a report on our progress and leave the meddling to mother. At least she doesn't have to call in Gunter to say what's really on her mind. Which reminds me," and he turned to him, his vision still too blurred on the edges to make him out until he was staring straight at him. "I need a background check on our new hoseki user. Giro Reinhild. If you really want to interfere with my training, pull up something damning on him. Then I'll listen."

His brother yelled after him when he left the office. He ignored it. He was starting to feel cold again, and dizzy. The satisfaction of having told off his brother was marred by the realization that Gisela had been right. He had no business being on his feet. At this rate, he would never make it back to his room. For a moment he actually toyed with the idea of using Yuuri's room. It was closer and he could rest and be gone long before dinner was finished. His pride ruled against it. Unless it was to save Yuuri's life, he'd never step foot in that room again. He stopped by a window instead, using the pretense of looking outside to pause and lean against the wall. His eyes were bleary when he was roused by someone stepping too far into his personal space. He almost thought it was Conrad because of the height and hair-color, then the blurry figure spoke.

"Captain?"

He bristled, snapping at him. "Don't call me that in the castle."

"I'm sorry, Lord Von Bielefeld."

"Wolfram," he corrected testily. They weren't on the field, and while he resented that Florian's loyalty was to Conrad first, the man was still a part of his squad. "What is it?"

"May I assist you?"

Wolfram scowled and straightened up proudly, ignoring the way his stomach protested the movement. "Do I look like I need assistance?"

"Yes," Florian said quietly, in an apologetic tone.

That was another thing Wolfram resented. He was convinced Conrad had picked the most calm-mannered man he could find just to spite him. It was no wonder Florian had so much trouble getting along with the rest of the squad off the field. He sighed and scrubbed a hand over his eyes. It didn't help. Now they were sore as well as blurry. "Is it noticeable from a distance?"

"No."

"Good. Walk with me." With the figure on his left and the wall on his right, he wasn't likely to bump into anyone. It was still embarrassing to think he looked bad enough to need help just walking back to his room. Hopefully anyone who spotted him would assume he was otherwise occupied and not come close enough to notice that he wasn't seeing straight. This was the last time he'd let himself be lured into an argument the moment he got back to the castle.

It was slow progress, but better than waiting and risking being noticed by anyone else. His vision cleared after a while and he found himself frowning at Florian. The man was taller than anyone on his squad, visibly older, too. He wasn't striking, but Wolfram was sure he'd have noticed if he had seen him in the halls before. He wondered what he did with his time. The others accepted him by default, even ribbed him on the field, but they had little interaction otherwise. By choice? "Do you regret being assigned to us?"

"No! It's an honor."

Wolfram snorted. "It's a waste of your skills. This training doesn't benefit you. When we advance to combat simulations, I'll put you to better use. I'd like to arrange fights against someone wielding a sword embedded with hoseki. Humans have such weapons. If it were activated in advance, it wouldn't matter who wielded it."

"Reinhild has the stance of a swordsman," Florian pointed out.

"I know. But even if he checks out, I wouldn't trust him in armed combat, not against the others. Daniel's the only one as good at hand-to-hand as he is at magic, and even he lacks the height and strength to deflect a strong attack." Contrary to Gwendal's biased opinion, he did not take chances with his squad.

"May I ask an impertinent question?"

If he'd felt better, he might have laughed. They'd never had someone in the squad as polite as this guy before. "Feel free."

"Why are there no older mazoku in your squad?"

He would hardly call that question impertinent, though it did touch a sore spot. "Doesn't it bother you that you're taking orders from someone younger than you? Older mazoku don't last long on my squad. They don't follow orders well and they condescend to the others." And they were even more condescending to him. They wanted a leader like Gwendal, tall, stately, visibly aged. They couldn't take him seriously and he refused to be treated like a child by his own men. Besides, "Our ability to function as a unit is just as important as the strength of each individual. We're only as strong as Philipp." Florian didn't laugh, but he did smile. He couldn't have been completely alienated from the rest of the squad if he caught that joke.

"He's improving," Florian said diplomatically. "He doesn't flinch nearly as much as he used to when you snap at him."

Wolfram scoffed. "I was serious about him spending time with the infantry. It would make him appreciate riding. He does very well on the ground, but put him on a horse..."

"Have him ride bareback in his free time. He's more nervous of the horse than he is of you."

Wolfram nodded, but didn't accept the suggestion outright. It was a good idea. Unfortunately, free time wasn't something they had much of at the moment. The best he could do right now was have him sleep in the stall with his horse, and despite Philipp's shortcomings, he had too much maryoku to face hoseki after sleepless nights. He should have paid closer attention to him when he first joined the squad. There were many things he should have done but hadn't. Now, he had to make the best of it.

He almost didn't notice when Florian stopped walking. He turned to see what had caught his attention and promptly scowled, humphing under his breath. He should have expected Conrad to show up. His day wouldn't be complete, otherwise. He seethed, watching as the two men greeted each other. He couldn't help but wonder if Conrad was the reason Florian had approached him in the first place. He was Conrad's man, after all. Wolfram turned on his heel, walking away from them without a word, relishing in the rude gesture. He'd spent more than enough time being jealous of Yuuri's attachment to Conrad. He refused to be jealous over an auxiliary member of his squad.

He didn't make it far before Conrad fell into step beside him, taking Florian's place as if it had been planned in advance. He fumed and ignored the man for as long as he could. Since Yuuri's return, Conrad was the only person who hadn't pressured or lectured him to get back into Yuuri's bed as if that were all he was good for. Not that he was particularly good at that, either. Part of him insisted this was because Conrad enjoyed being able to spend time with Yuuri without Wolfram interrupting to drag his cheating fiance away. He honestly didn't believe that any more, though. He had seen for himself the nauseating depths of Conrad's selflessness. Even if their engagement were dissolved today, Conrad would have to be pushed to make any sort of move on Yuuri, pushed by Yuuri himself. Wolfram could easily convince himself that this had been Shinou's plan all along; Julia reborn in a body Adelbert wouldn't want, an instant affinity with Conrad, and the only thing standing in their way was him. If it happened, he would hate Conrad forever and spend the rest of his life ensuring that he never laid eyes on either of them again. But he wouldn't fight against it because Conrad wouldn't fight for it. He honestly despised him for being so morally perfect, yet they were in the same position in the end. Yuuri took them both for granted and, if the question were put to him, wouldn't choose either of them. Not for marriage, anyway.

"Did you really threaten treason?"

Wolfram stumbled, the amused tone catching him off guard nearly as much as the question itself. An insulted denial rose up his throat and froze there. He had, hadn't he? He wasn't supposed to even know what the nobles had been saying during Yuuri's absence. Had he not gone to the Bielefeld holdings, he wouldn't have known some of them were pushing for him to take the throne. At the time, he had dismissed the notion as ridiculous. An unfulfilled engagement wasn't enough to put him in line for the throne. Gwendal had been running the country all throughout Yuuri's reign and would continue to do so. If he chose not to assume the throne himself, then their mother would, while he continued to run the country behind the scenes. Yet the nobles had made one point that Wolfram took note of with pride. The person with the highest maryoku was always the Maou, and his was highest next to Yuuri's. That realization had been a turning point for him, making him determined to focus on improving what he already excelled at and leading to his current training regimen. Here was something he had over Gwendal and even his mother, a former Maou herself. It was his alone, much like his squad, and he'd sworn not to take either for granted again. But that was all part of living for himself, finding his own goals in a world where he was just the third son and not the Maou's fiance. He'd never seriously considered the idea of replacing him. Maryoku aside, he didn't have the training or temperament, or the desire, to rule the country.

"It's about time," Conrad commented, smiling lightly when Wolfram sent him another shocked look. "You're not a child who has to act up for attention. You're skilled in your own right and others have noticed, even if members of your own family haven't."

"I would never displace Yuuri," Wolfram scoffed. Conrad seemed to be praising him, if threatening to steal the throne could be praiseworthy, and he neither wanted nor needed it. "Gwendal threatened to take my squad away from me. He can't do that any more than I could take this country away from Yuuri. My men will never follow another and no human nation would ally with us if we had a pure mazoku Maou. He made an idle threat to scare me and I responded in turn. That's all."

"I wouldn't be so sure of that..."

Not Conrad, too. There was no humor in his tone now, and his eyes probed him in a way he didn't care for at all. He could feel his maryoku coiling again, but this time he kept it tightly in check. "Let him try, then. He'll regret it." He turned away, eyes blazing, and growled when Conrad caught his arm before he could take a single step.

"That's not what I meant," Conrad said quickly, in a calm and reasonable tone. "Whether your men would let themselves be reassigned or not, he can't take them from you. Yuuri would never allow it." Wolfram's shoulders hunched, and he relaxed his grip, just a little. "Your threat, on the other hand, isn't an idle one at all. There are nobles who would choose you over him, regardless of how the human nations would react. If you didn't mean it, you shouldn't say such things. If you did mean it..."

"I don't," Wolfram muttered, staring at his feet. "You know I would never do that to Yuuri."

"I know," Conrad smiled gently. "You did scare Gwendal, though. He was beside himself when he couldn't locate Mother and ranted quite loudly to me about the possible ramifications of this. Can I reassure him?"

"Do what you like. Just do it away from me." He tugged his wrist free and walked away, thankfully alone this time.

He felt he'd been doused, left with smoldering resentment in the place of anger. Rather than revitalizing him the way anger might have, the sodden mess stunk and weighed him down. Conrad would smooth the ruffled feathers, taking the sting out of everything he'd said, and Gwendal would be right back to hounding him again. He had accomplished nothing. He might as well have ignored Gunter and Yuuri both and gone straight to bed. The only reason he'd spoken to the adviser in the first place was to stop him from trying to use Yuuri to undermine his orders. He still couldn't believe the man's gall. At least Gwendal had blood ties to justify his high-handed meddling. He wondered if the two were sleeping together now. He snorted at the thought, but didn't dismiss it out of hand. Gunter was awfully supportive of Gwendal's attempts to get him back into Yuuri's room. Well, he hoped they were. It would serve Gwendal right to have a taste of what it was like to watch his supposed partner fawn over someone else right before his eyes.

The guards had changed while he was away. The new ones snapped to attention when he passed, a gratifying show of respect that helped sooth his mood. Gwendal was ultimately in charge of the palace guards, but Wolfram had intervened enough to ensure that none of the ones stationed here had ever stood guard over the Maou's wing. The last thing he wanted was a daily reminder of how shamefully he'd behaved in the past.

He couldn't blame that on Cecilie, not entirely. She had suggested he go that first night, but he was the one who'd decided to officially move into the room. And he had enjoyed it, terrorizing Yuuri with the slightest flash of skin, punishing him for the humiliation he'd suffered both from the public duel and the extended engagement that followed. It had been thrilling to see how much influence he had over this, the strongest man in the kingdom, the Maou himself. The wimp. Then later, once he realized Yuuri did have some redeeming qualities to go with his innumerable flaws, he'd stayed because it gave him a sense of purpose, worth. He had protected him with his mere presence and no one could take that away from him. He had enjoyed it, too, not having to sleep alone, unseen, unknown, shunted off to the side and forgotten. He could barely admit that to himself without his stomach clenching in disgust. But it was true. If it weren't for the engagement, not even his own family would have noticed him. The engagement had given him Yuuri, a captive audience, an unwilling companion, and he'd taken full advantage of it. Really, it was a blessing Yuuri had left, otherwise he might still be throwing himself at the boy like some dog starving for affection. The only thing he couldn't understand was why Gwendal and Cecilie wanted him to act that way again. If he could see now how horribly he'd behaved, surely they had seen it all along. Conrad was the only one who had ever taken him to task for his excessive behavior, so it was no wonder he was the only one who understood why he was so determined to make a fresh start now. He'd finally seen the error of his ways. Wasn't that a good thing, a sign of maturity? Maybe that was the problem. They didn't want him to grow up because then they would have to deal with him. It had to be easier to disregard a spoiled child than a strong soldier with loyal men and the support of a few influential, however misguided, nobles. They insisted it was all about Yuuri, but it wasn't. He was coming into his own and they didn't want him to own anything.

Light shone under the door of his room. He berated himself for the carelessness, though he didn't remember lighting the lamp at all. He'd only ducked in to grab a clean uniform before meeting Gisela and doing the rounds with her. The unfortunate boy he'd carried in had scrambled off his back before vomiting all over his shoes, but that hadn't spared Wolfram from following suit. Now he wanted a bath, some crackers, and a long sleep. He'd take those members of his squad who were well enough out for a short ride tomorrow. The way his maryoku had flared today proved he was overdue for some serious meditation. Hopefully he could pry Daniel away from Lukas' side long enough to join them. He still couldn't believe Gisela had ordered bedrest on his second in command. As if he'd follow it for a single day, let alone two. Just because Wolfram left him behind didn't mean he'd remain inactive. Why, at this very moment, he was probably-

"Um!"

Wolfram froze, one hand at his neck, the other reaching for his towel. He hadn't even glanced at the bed upon entering the room. Why would he? No one other than himself and the maids ever entered this room. He turned slowly, wide eyes taking in the boy sitting on the edge of his bed. Yuuri looked rumpled, as if he had dozed off while waiting for him. Dozed, in his bed. Wolfram nearly reeled from the sudden epiphany that struck him like an open handed blow. Was this how Yuuri had felt that first night? Anger might come later, though he doubted it since this was no more than he deserved. For now he felt nervous, wary, not frightened exactly since this was just Yuuri, but strangely violated. And this was someone he'd shared a bed with countless times. He couldn't imagine how it must have been for Yuuri to wake up only to find a complete stranger sleeping beside him. And he'd been naked! If he hadn't hated himself already, he would have started now. Yuuri jumped to his feet, a blush striking out on his face. Wolfram felt his own cheeks heat, though it was more from shame than embarrassment. He wanted to bolt from the room and drown himself in a chamber pot. It would be less painful and humiliating than standing here, facing what he'd done.

"It was Celi's idea!" Yuuri blurted. He cringed the moment the words were out of his mouth. Coward, coward, coward! Just a minute ago he'd been lying on that bed, admitting to himself that he not only recognized Wolfram's scent on the sheets, but that he'd missed that scent in his own room. He was going to apologize for leaving the way he had, tell him he missed him, and ask if they could try again. He'd do it better this time. Yet here he was, blushing his fool head off and barely able to meet Wolfram's eyes without fidgeting. "Sorry," he mumbled. "I would have waited outside, but she snuck me in when the shift changed. I didn't want to cause any trouble if they saw me in this wing. I shouldn't have involved her at all, but she said you wouldn't be coming to dinner and I didn't know where your room was."

Yuuri hadn't even known he had his own room until Shinou's nightmares had driven him to it, so many months ago. Wolfram shouldn't have felt guilty about that, but he did. He turned away, gathering the rest of his bathing supplies. That was the perfect excuse to keep this short, whatever this was. He could hardly order Yuuri out of his room after invading Yuuri's for over a year. "Is it about earlier?" he asked as casually as he could. "Our training went on too long, that's all. It's nothing to worry about." He heard Yuuri approach him and resisted the urge to tense up. He was not nervous around the wimp. He never had been and never would be. "I'm sorry I was so abrupt with you. I didn't want anyone to be sick in the courtyard."

"Wolf?"

He could still remember the first time Yuuri had shortened his name that way. He'd been so surprised and hopeful. A nostalgic smile pulled at his lips. As bitter as he might be about so many things, he did like Yuuri. Maybe he even loved him the way his mother insisted he did. Whatever the emotion was, it wouldn't disappear just because he'd given him up. He turned to find Yuuri hesitating a few steps away, looking young and uncertain and vulnerable. He was so much older than him, really. Maybe he could start thinking of him as a little brother the way Conrad claimed to. Bitter amusement bubbled in his throat and he swallowed it down quickly. That would be the day. "What?"

Yuuri forced himself to straighten up, meeting those green eyes head on. This was important and he wasn't going to screw it up. "I'm sorry." Not good enough. He took a step closer, caught one of Wolfram's hands, and tried again, firmly ignoring Wolfram's surprised expression. "I'm sorry, Wolf. I really am." For a moment Wolfram simply stared at him, then he laughed suddenly. It wasn't a mocking laugh, it was a sharp startled sound, exasperated and confused. The hand was tugged away before he could make up his mind to hold onto it.

"You don't have to apologize, wimp," Wolfram said, shaking his head. Of all the things for Yuuri to say to him. "How many times did I force my way into your room? We're still engaged. If anyone has the right to come in here, it's you." He grabbed his supplies and turned back with a brisk frown. "What did you want to talk about? I'm overdue for a bath and you'll miss dinner if you don't hurry."

Yuuri picked himself up off the floor, figuratively speaking. Wolfram couldn't have knocked him more off-kilter had he whacked him upside the head with a baseball bat. His heartfelt apology was taken completely the wrong way and dismissed with a flick of those perfectly manicured fingers. The worst part was that he was relieved. This was familiar territory, Wolfram reminding him of the engagement, calling him a wimp, looking at him with that naturally haughty gaze of his. Was it sad that he had missed this?

"Actually," Yuuri said quickly, "I brought food with me. It's nothing sweet, thick, or overly salty. Mostly it's just bread, potatoes - I heard somewhere that carbohydrates can settle an upset stomach, though I'm not sure if it's true. Stuff like that. I thought we could eat while we talk, or afterward. There are a lot of things I want to talk to you about. But it can wait till you've had your bath, if you want." He listened to himself babble, feeling a stupid grin tug at his face. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so awkward around Wolfram. Maybe it was the way the boy was staring at him, as if he were some curious insect he were about to depict in one of his horrible paintings. "In fact, why don't I join you. I'll even wash your back. It'll be just like old times." He was in awe at the nonsense coming out of his mouth. Old times? Who was he kidding? He'd never offered to go anywhere near Wolfram in the bath. Every time Wolfram had so much as suggested washing his back, he'd panicked, becoming self conscious to the point of freaking out entirely. He certainly didn't want to be anywhere near a naked Wolfram now, when he knew he wouldn't be able to look at him without remembering those dreams. Which probably wasn't something he should even be thinking about when in a bedroom with Wolfram, who was now walking toward him with a determined frown. Was it too late to take it back? "Um..."

Wolfram frowned more when Yuuri leaned away from him, ever the skittish fiance. He placed the back of his hand over the boy's forehead and peered into his big wary eyes. "You don't seem to have a temperature..."

"What?" Yuuri huffed, batting the hand away irritably. "I'm not sick. I just want to spend some time with you. Is that such a bad thing?" From the concerned expression that spread over Wolfram's face, he supposed it was.

"Has Gunter been working you too hard? Maybe you should see Gisela, just in case." Yuuri was obviously stressed, antsy, and not thinking clearly. Hadn't Conrad been watching over him at all? Wolfram sighed. He should have known this would happen. Between Gwendal and Gunter, they probably had him under so much pressure he'd run back to Earth before the week was out. He would have to talk to his mother about this. If they didn't ease up, Yuuri would be in no condition to meet their allies, let alone to reassure them. He hated to admit that Gwendal might have been right, about anything, but Yuuri's state proved he had neglected him. Someone had to take care of the wimp and they were still engaged. He shoved his handful of supplies into Yuuri's arms and went to grab an extra towel and robe. "I'm not walking to the other side of the castle, so you'll have to use the bath here." Yuuri was still frozen in place when he turned back, staring at him with a wide-eyed, chagrined expression. He scowled, marching past him to hold the door open. He didn't know what annoyed him more, how obviously sick Yuuri was or the fact that the bathing room was probably occupied. A glance back at his gaping fiance cleared it up for him. He was most annoyed with Conrad. Even when he'd clung to Yuuri's side like a tick, Conrad had hovered just as closely. Wolfram would never have left Yuuri to the mercy of Gunter and Gwendal if he had known Conrad would be doing the same.

"Don't worry, Yuuri," he sighed, watching the boy hesitate, then stumble past without even trying to meet his eyes. "You'll feel better after a good soak." And he'd feel better after taking Conrad to task for allowing this to happen. Maybe he could ask Florian to keep an eye on Yuuri for a few days. It would serve Conrad right to have his own man taking better care of their king than he was.

The bathing room was similar to the one Yuuri was used to, just on a smaller scale. Wolfram had made him wait in the hall, checking that the room was clear before letting him enter. Once inside, he bolted the door behind them as well as the one leading to the adjoining pool. A few muffled voices told Yuuri that the pool was currently occupied. He wondered if Wolfram would run whoever was in there out once they were ready to go in. Although he didn't appreciate Wolfram's ridiculous possessiveness any more now than he had before, it was a relief to know some things hadn't changed. As usual, he was tempted to inform the boy about a few Earth customs that would make his head explode, such as locker rooms, shower rooms, and public hot spring trips with his family and teammates. And hadn't they both participated in group nudity in his cramped bathroom on Earth? As far as he was concerned, it was a little too late for Wolfram to worry about a few people seeing him with nothing but a towel around his waist. He couldn't count on both hands the number of people who'd seen him with nothing at all. But, as usual, he put up with it. At least this time it came in handy. While Wolfram was busy ensuring their privacy, he had a chance to get a grip on the situation.

Wolfram was mothering him. This was familiar. This he could deal with, and as unnecessary as it was, it was certainly better than being avoided. Wolfram wasn't angry with him, or, if he was, he was doing a good job of hiding it. Considering all the angry tantrums he'd seen Wolfram throw, he wasn't sure anger was something he was even capable of hiding. Wolfram was distracted. He'd seen a lot of that right before he left, though he hadn't realized it was Shinou's doing at the time. It felt strange, wrong, when he closed himself off like that. He had such a loud presence that the entire room seemed muted when his mind was a million miles away. Wolfram was also keeping his distance. This Yuuri had no experience with at all. When he entered the room, Wolfram had stood well back so there wasn't so much as a brush of their sleeves. Once the room was secure, Wolfram took half of the bath supplies and retreated to the corner with his back to him. He was left feeling like an intruder, one who was being completely ignored. If Wolfram was still possessive, controlling, and not angry, then why was he making an open show of not paying attention to him?

"We're not the only ones who will want a bath tonight, Yuuri. Don't dawdle."

Yuuri scowled at Wolfram's back, annoyed by the lecturing tone and by the fact that he hadn't even bothered to look over his shoulder at him. How did he know he was dawdling? Maybe he was just getting undressed really quietly. He was about to turn his back, to prove Wolfram wasn't the only one who could play that game, when he realized he'd never seen Wolfram undress before. He was the one who always got to the bath first, putting his back to the clingy shadow and ignoring him for all he was worth. Was that why Wolfram was doing this, to show him how it felt? Somehow he didn't think so. Wolfram attacked head on, he wasn't the type for subtlety.

Blue slipped down over a pale shoulder and Yuuri tore his eyes away before his traitorous mind could turn the sight into something erotic. Maybe it was good that he had no memories of ever seeing Wolfram undress, or dress, for that matter. Dream Wolfram was frilly and pink and soft like a sleepy sex kitten. Yuuri blushed, grimaced, and swallowed a laugh at the thought of it. This Wolfram was just Wolfram, the stubborn one with whom he'd bathed dozens of times. Even when Wolfram had used the fiance excuse to come after his back in the bath, it had never been sexual. Yuuri had been afraid it was at first, back when he'd worried the boy might molest him in his sleep or something. After a while he'd realized it was just part of the possessive claim Wolfram had staked on him, the right to wash his back. He assumed Wolfram never did that for his friends because he'd always insisted it was something Yuuri should be grateful for. This was another point where he was tempted to burst Wolfram's bubble by revealing that back-washing was just as casual on Earth as bathing was. He'd never tell him, though. Not only would he lose his excuse to keep those hands off his back, he'd also have to deal with the jealous explosion and cheating accusation.

By the time he had doused himself and was lathering, Yuuri felt much more at ease. Although the temptation to sneak a peek niggled at him now and then, he resisted without any real trouble. It helped that Wolfram wasn't looking at him, either. Which, now that he thought about it, was fairly typical. For someone who wanted to marry him, Wolfram had never looked at him in a suggestive manner, or done anything more intimate than sleeping in his bed. Even that had proven to be innocent, his own dreams notwithstanding. He didn't need to be nervous just because his brother had planted some seeds and his hormones had let them take root. Even if he told Wolfram he was thinking of him that way, it wasn't as if his fiance would turn into some pervert and attack him. His mind supplied an image of that, complete with drool and flaring nostrils, and he laughed out loud.

"What is it?"

"Nothing!" Yuuri said quickly. No, he really wasn't afraid of that happening. He felt Wolfram looking at him, and he glanced over his shoulder, relieved when he met those green eyes evenly. "I was just thinking of something Shori said about that night he made his pact with water. Do you remember any of that?"

Wolfram looked away, rubbing shampoo into his hair. "I remember being in his room near the balcony, looking at the rain outside, not knowing how or why I was in there." He also remembered that his hand had been flat against Shori's chest. His throat tightened at the reminder. Wasn't it bad enough Shinou had taken him into another man's bedroom, the brother of his fiance, without making him touch the man? He dumped the bucket of water over his head, wishing he could wash the memory away just as easily. "I didn't think he would tell you about that." Yuuri had left so soon afterward, that he hadn't thought he would ever have to face Yuuri if Shori did tell him about it. What could Yuuri possibly find amusing about that? The irony, of course. After all the times he'd warned Yuuri about cheating on him with his own brother, in the end he was no better. But... "Whatever happened that night, I had no part in it."

Yuuri was across the room before he realized what he was about to do, and by then he didn't care. It was Wolfram's voice, so small and hurt. Wolfram should never sound like that. He leaned over his back so he could hug him. The embrace should have been awkward, with him hugging his shoulders more than anything, and the wet hair dripping from where he'd pressed their cheeks together, but it wasn't. "I'm so sorry! I shouldn't have brought that up. I wasn't thinking. I'm sorry I didn't realize what was happening to you. You would have noticed if it had been me. I was so caught up in everything else that even when you said you were having nightmares, I didn't even..." His breath caught in his throat and he tried to tighten his arms, but they slipped. Then Wolfram turned and suddenly he was the one being held, comforted. It wasn't right. He couldn't do anything right. "And then you died. I let you die." Wolfram, who had vowed to fall with him with such a beautiful smile. He hadn't even let himself think about it afterward because if he had just paid more attention he would have seen it. The day Wolfram was kidnapped he'd been so close to the temple, if he hadn't been standing by the window he wouldn't have gone after him, his heart could have been taken then and there and he wouldn't have even known. "I'm so sorry..."

"Oh, you wimp," Wolfram sighed, holding him closer and trying to smooth away the telltale shake in his shoulders. "Why do you blame yourself for everything? I didn't know what was happening, so how could you have known? None of that was your fault. It was mine." Yuuri stiffened and he patted his head back down before he could argue with him. "It was my fault. I should have told someone." He'd wanted someone to notice on their own, to notice and be concerned enough to force him to talk about it. He should have known better. Unless he screamed his hurts to the world, the world could care less. It had always been that way. The only difference with Yuuri was that he felt guilty for not noticing, where no one else would have. He gave a little laugh that made Yuuri's shoulders twitch upward. "You must have overdone it playing ball with Conrad today, for your body to hurt so badly you're crying over it."

Like the excuse he had given for crying after retrieving Conrad's arm. He hadn't needed an excuse then and he refused to use one now. He shoved himself free enough to glare at him. "I'm crying over you, you idiot."

Wolfram's eyes widened, warmth spreading over him before finally settling in his cheeks. He couldn't stop himself from smiling. He did, however, stop his hopes from soaring and his hands from drawing Yuuri into another embrace. "Then I'm sorry for making you cry, wimp," he teased. He released Yuuri's shoulders and waved him off. "You're wet. Finish washing before you catch a cold. You're clearly under enough stress as it is without getting sick."

Wet. Like Wolfram, with his blonde hair clinging to his face, beads dripping over his blush to catch at the edge of his smile. Another drop of water slipped free, enticing him to follow it down, and Yuuri fled as quickly as he had approached. His heart and throat ached, and he still had tears in his eyes, yet his hormones chose now to make themselves known. Suddenly every part of his skin that had touched Wolfram's was tingling, and he couldn't understand how his body could be at such complete odds with his mind. He was angry and upset here! He had avoided that guilt the entire time he was away and now that he had finally faced it, what did he get? Wolfram comforting him and his body reacting to the moment as if he'd been copping a feel rather than crying his heart out. He was such a mess. He scrubbed until he'd burned away that traitorous tingle completely. He doused himself with cold water, just to punish those hormones, and then stalked toward the door to the pool.

Wolfram whipped around when he heard the bolt being thrown. "Yuuri! Wait!" He rushed over, but it was already too late. By the time he reached him, Yuuri had already opened the door a crack and was frozen, staring wide eyed at the pair inside. Wolfram winced and closed the door, not that doing so would erase what Yuuri had seen. How many times had he told them not to do that in the bath? He rapped loudly on the door, causing a splash to be heard on the other side. "Bedrest means you rest!" he yelled. "In bed!"

There was a muffled giggle, then a plaintive, "But I was dirty!"

"You still are," Daniel pointed out before raising his voice. "My apologies, Your Excellency. I shall take him firmly in hand."

"Oh, my," Lukas breathed. "Is that a promise?"

There was another splash, and then muffled whining. Wolfram burst out laughing. It was undignified, and he shouldn't condone them, and he really did feel guilty for letting Yuuri be traumatized, but he honestly couldn't help it. They never failed to amuse him. There was a reason he didn't let people into this wing. He demanded decorum in public and perfection in the field, but here the members of his squad were free to be themselves. They were a breath of fresh air at the end of a long day.

He listened for the door in the other room to close, and then sent a side-long look at his slack-jawed fiance. He sighed, rolling his eyes. Was it really that shocking to see two boys kissing? He and Gisela had walked in on far worse when they were doing their rounds, earlier. Yuuri was lucky that kissing was the most they'd risk doing in the bath. Still, he knew he had to take responsibility for this. "I'm sorry you had to see that, Yuuri. If it helps, tell yourself the dark-haired one was a girl." His lips twitched as he imagined Lukas' reaction to that, though Daniel would definitely get a kick out of it. "He's certainly prettier than Yozak, even without a dress." Yuuri snapped around to gape at him and he cracked, laughing so loudly he had to slap a hand over his mouth to muffle the noise.

Wolfram's convulsive laughter was so infectious Yuuri found himself trying to smile. He couldn't quite pull it off. His mind was working way too slowly at the moment. It had hit a snag on one thing in particular, replaying it over and over, and still, he wasn't sure he had made the right connection. "Firmly in hand..."

"Yuuri!" Wolfram gasped.

For a moment Yuuri was confused at how Wolfram could look so scandalized, wide-eyed and blushing, when he was the one who'd gotten the reference right away. Then he realized he had also gotten the reference, he just hadn't wanted to acknowledge it. A furious blush came to his own face. Wolfram sputtered and then he was laughing again. This time Yuuri joined in, though he was laughing at himself for having been stupid enough to repeat the line out loud. In his own defense, he was used to innuendos involving girls. This one was definitely a guy thing.

.-.
TBC

Chapter Text

The bath was wonderful, hot and relaxing, and with a little effort Wolfram could almost forget he wasn't alone in it. Since moving back into this wing, he'd been in an awkward position as far as the bathing area was concerned. The engagement had drawn a line between him and his men that he hadn't truly been aware of until Yuuri had left. In the field he'd had no trouble slipping back into old habits, bedding down with his squad and bathing in whatever water source was available. But the first time he'd stepped into the bathing room here in the castle he'd realized just how different things were. He'd been stunned to see his men falling over themselves to clear the room. Daniel had glossed over it, saying they were simply making way for him so he wouldn't be disturbed by their chatter, but he'd already realized his mistake. In the field he was leader, comrade, soldier, but here he was fiance to the king and they couldn't forget that even when he was trying his hardest to. Now he made it a point to bathe last if possible, and to bar the doors to prevent any awkward encounters. Maybe that was why he felt so uncomfortable being in here with Yuuri, hearing him breathe and feeling the ripples when he moved. He'd grown accustomed to being alone in here. It was nice to know he could doze off without worrying about slipping under the water or staying in too long. At the same time, it seemed inappropriate to be sharing this room with Yuuri when he couldn't even share it with his own squad. He should have taken Yuuri to the royal baths when he'd had the chance.

"Did you ever like girls?"

Wolfram sat up so fast his elbow smacked painfully into the side of the bath. He grabbed it, glaring at Yuuri. The wimp couldn't even look him in the eye. "Just what are you implying? You slapped me, remember?" Why did everyone seem to forget that? Yes, he'd said something he shouldn't have and now that he'd met Yuuri's mother, he understood how angry he must have been. But any real man would have punched him for it. It was hardly his fault Yuuri had grown up in a strange human world where men smacked each other when they were angry. The fact that he'd ended up engaged to a man didn't make him any less of a man himself.

"I know," Yuuri winced, still not looking at him. He ducked his head until his chin dipped into the water. "I didn't mean anything by it. I was just wondering if you ever had any crushes growing up..."

"Hn." As if he didn't know exactly where Yuuri was going with this. "For your information, I once came very close to slapping Gisela."

"What!" Yuuri snorted water and ended up sputtering and hacking. "You didn't!"

Wolfram glowered at him. "Why is that so hard to believe?"

"It just is!"

"Well, I did. I'd gotten into a fist fight with this insufferable brat who expected me to fawn over him just because of who his father was." It had taken his mother forever to smooth things over, and he'd gotten quite the lecture from Gwendal. At the time he couldn't have cared less. "I locked myself in my room and refused to come out and apologize. Gisela had the guards break my door down and then she came bursting in, cornering me and yelling at me and..." He couldn't help but laugh at the memory. She'd been so terrifying he'd ended up cowering before her, and she'd pushed him around so much the healing had hurt a lot worse than the fight. "I made up my mind then and there that I was going to marry her. I spent weeks trying to figure out a way to slap her without anyone catching me."

Yuuri closed his mouth, feeling a little shell-shocked. He was still struggling with the concept of Wolfram pursuing a girl, any girl at all. But Gisela? And the way Wolfram described it, it certainly didn't sound like a childhood crush. More like an attempt at revenge. "Um, so...why didn't you do it?"

"Are you kidding?" Wolfram demanded, gaping at him. "She would have challenged me in a heartbeat and I could barely summon fire back then, forget using a sword. She'd have mutilated me and Gunter would have finished me off. I might have been rash and impulsive, but I wasn't stupid." He huffed moodily, folding his arms over his chest. "Besides, I think Brother knew what I was up to. It was nearly a year before his men stopped following me any time I went near her..."

"Oh." He had a sudden image of a pint-sized Wolfram stalking Gisela through the castle, with green-uniformed men popping up to foil him at every turn. It still didn't sound very romantic to him, but it definitely sounded like something Wolfram would do. He'd seen the stalker side of him on more than one occasion. Then again, if Wolfram had been that young then it probably hadn't stemmed from attraction. Yuuri frowned. "What about Elizabeth?" She was gorgeous, a strong fighter, and totally in love with him. Yet Wolfram had completely brushed her off.

Wolfram groaned, "I've told you I don't remember why I slapped her. I do know that I would never have intentionally struck her for any reason. She was a sister to me. The fact that she still calls me brother should tell you something about our relationship. I don't know how it's done in your world, but brothers and sisters don't marry here."

"They don't on Earth, either," Yuuri said quickly. "I'm sorry I brought it up, okay?" Wolfram sniffed, sticking his nose in the air. The sight brought a helpless smile to his face. Wolfram had to be the only person he'd ever seen who could do something that snobbish and still look cute. "So what about guys?" That nose came down and he was given a narrow-eyed stare. He struggled not to squirm or look away.

"I never seriously considered slapping a boy. I did have a crush on one once, though." The look on Yuuri's face was amusing, as if he were both eager and afraid to hear more. "We were training in magic and every time I tried to throw a fireball he'd have his friend blow it down so he could use his earth element to smother it. I should have known he was already taken from the way they teamed up against me. I could have won a one on one duel easily, but he would never accept my challenges. It was always the two of them making me look like a fool."

Again, there was nothing resembling puppy love as Yuuri defined it. He raised an eyebrow. "And you liked him for that...?"

"No, I wanted to kill him for that," Wolfram snorted. "I liked him because no matter how infuriated I was with him, he still made me laugh. They both did, actually." He flashed Yuuri a weak smile. "That's when I finally realized they weren't just teaming up to spite me. I was jealous for a while after that, but I got over it."

"So you gave up."

Wolfram grinned, stretching back against the edge of the bath and folding his arms over his chest. "Hardly. You don't find entertainment like that every day. I kept training till I left them both in my dust. Then as soon as I got my own squad I made them my second and third in command. Which is why just barging into this bath without checking first is a very bad idea." He waited a moment, and then laughed at Yuuri's expression. "Yes. Those two. They haven't changed since the first day I met them."

Gisela had mentioned ordering bedrest for Wolfram's second in command. Yuuri had seen the blonde carrying the dark-haired boy into the castle earlier, which meant he was the second. He was also the one Wolfram had suggested he pretend was a girl. Prettier than Yozak. Well, that wasn't saying much considering those biceps of his, but still. If that was the one Wolfram had liked, the 'girl' in the relationship, did that mean he thought of him the same way? Or maybe he was wrong and it was the blonde Wolfram had liked. If he'd had a crush on Gisela because she'd stood up to him, then... "Which one of them did you-"

"It doesn't matter," Wolfram cut him off. "That was a long time ago. Don't for one minute believe that I harbor inappropriate feelings for one of my men because I don't." He narrowed his eyes when Yuuri continued to look doubtful. "Understood?"

"Yeah!" Yuuri grimaced. "Okay. I was just curious. You don't have to bite my head off. So...are they married, then?"

"Hasn't Gunter taught you anything?" Wolfram sighed in exasperation. "Of course they're not married. Neither of them are nobles so it's not as if they have to worry about someone proposing to one of them. Besides which, they're soldiers on the same squad. They'll live, fight, and die together with or without a ceremony. A formal mazoku marriage requires the blessing of Shinou- Oh..." He dropped his eyes, blinking in surprise. "I don't know how marriages are being done now. I've been away from the castle so much it never even occurred to me. I'll have to ask Gunter about that." He shook his head, "But as far as soldiers go, they rarely marry unless it's to pass the family name down to their children."

"I see. Gunter hasn't really gotten into that stuff yet," said Yuuri. He wasn't sure how the discussion had gotten to marriage. He was trying to segue the topic to attraction, but so far all he knew was that Wolfram tended to have crushes on people who bullied him. One of whom was now a member of his squad and prone to making out with his boyfriend in this very bath... Not knowing which of them it had been was going to drive him crazy. How was that fair? Wolfram would never have tolerated him having regular contact with someone he'd once liked, especially if he refused to say which one it was. He couldn't even point out the hypocrisy without Wolfram getting insulted and angry with him. To think, all those times Wolfram had accused him of cheating just for talking to people, and here he was sharing a bathing room with some pretty boy he'd had a crush on. "So, um, if we hadn't gotten engaged, do you think you would have ended up marrying a guy or a girl?"

From the moment Yuuri had started talking, Wolfram had known they were leading up to this. What he didn't understand was why Yuuri felt the need to fumble all over the place instead of coming right out with it. Throughout the entire engagement Yuuri had never hesitated to tell anyone who would listen that he wanted to marry a girl, preferably a princess, but any female would do in a pinch. It was hardly a secret. He already knew and he wasn't interested in hearing the details. So if Yuuri thought asking him about his crushes would make him return the favor, he was sorely mistaken. His crushes had been in the past, fleeting and over long before the engagement. Yuuri's were current. Wolfram had enough trouble remaining civil without having to hear about all the girls he was looking to replace him with.

He slipped under the water, wetting his hair again, and then started combing it with his fingers. The delay was enough to make Yuuri look distinctly nervous. He couldn't help but feel a little guilty about that. He didn't want to make this harder for either of them, but the engagement had to hold at least until Yuuri became sixteen in his world. Then he could dissolve it without any formality at all. In the meantime, they had allies and nobles to placate, and that would be a lot easier if there was as little conflict between them as possible. He gave the nicest smile he could muster. He hoped it didn't come out bitter or patronizing. "Yuuri, if you're trying to ask which I would have preferred, then my answer is that I was never particular. I've only had a few crushes in my life and they were on people I thought I'd never be bored with. Their gender had nothing to do with it." It was only as he grew older that gender became an issue. He looked too much like his mother and acted too much like his father. The contrast simply didn't work. He was too pretty for girls, too abrasive for boys, and women merely saw him as a cute doll to dress up. As his mother liked to tease, it was the men who were interested in him and marriage was the last thing on their minds. "Now, if you don't have any more personal questions, why don't we get out?" He flicked his wrinkled fingers. "I'm getting waterlogged."

"Right..."

Yuuri hurried to get out first so he wouldn't catch a glimpse of Wolfram emerging from the water. His hormones picked the strangest things to get excited over. A flash of his knee when he'd slipped under the water, the curve of his arm when he'd combed his hair, the nape of his neck when he'd turned to look over at him. They were about the same size and shape, and he was nearly as pale as Wolfram was. The sight of his own arm certainly didn't do anything for him, and knees weren't exactly sexy...as far as he knew. Maybe instead of trying to broach the topic of attraction with Wolfram, he should talk to someone on his own wave length, like Murata. It wasn't just the cultural differences. The age issue made him wonder if mazoku even had the sort of puberty phase humans did. For all he knew they didn't have the same hormones, or they got them when they were too young to act on them. Their bodies aged slower, but their minds wouldn't. Right? Conrad had said they were usually five times older than they looked. But he couldn't wrap his mind around that. If Wolfram had been physically two years old for five years, then by the time his body turned three he would have had the mind of a fifteen year old. Which would mean he now had the mind of an eighty year old. He certainly didn't act like it. Or maybe the mind was limited by the body, and it took mazoku kids five years to learn what human kids could learn in one. That didn't sound right, either. It definitely wasn't something he could ask Wolfram about. He supposed he could ask Conrad, but it would be obvious he was asking with Wolfram in mind. He couldn't quite picture himself asking Conrad when his little brother had gone through puberty.

The problem was that everything he'd heard implied Wolfram had liked people for their personality, not because he'd been attracted to them. Which made him wonder if Wolfram was attracted to him at all. He'd never looked at him that way, let alone hit on him. The closest he'd ever come to making a pass at him had been in the cave that time, when he'd suggested they share body heat. For all he knew that could have been due to the miasma, the bad vibes of the place, and not any inclination on Wolfram's part. The irony was staggering. All this time he'd taken it for granted that Wolfram liked him that way, because it wasn't unusual for guys to like each other 'that way' here. And now, just when he was trying to accept the fact that he liked Wolfram that way, he was confronted with the possibility that he wasn't even Wolfram's type. Or that Wolfram didn't have a type because he'd hit puberty either when he was physically too young to act on it or mentally too old to be tempted by it. What was he supposed to do with that? There was no way he could admit his attraction if it wasn't mutual.

He was just starting to tug on his hair in frustration when Wolfram interrupted him by pushing a stack of cloth at him. A blush took over his face as he wondered how long he'd been standing there like an idiot. It couldn't have been for too long because Wolfram wasn't quite decent yet. He was toweling his hair, wearing a soft-looking pair of white pants with a draw string at the waist and nothing else. Yuuri was somewhat proud that his eyes went from the pants to the towel without pausing too long on what was in between. Blue might have been Wolfram's signature color, but he looked good in white, too. It really brought out the color of his hair. It would look even better if he weren't frowning as if he'd just eaten something sour.

"Stop daydreaming and dry off before you catch a cold," Wolfram sighed. Letting Yuuri soak for so long had clearly been a bad idea. He looked even more out of it now than he had earlier. "And get dressed. You can't walk in the halls here with just a robe."

Yuuri dropped his eyes, blushing furiously at having been caught staring. He focused his attention on the stack he'd been given. He'd seen Wolfram grab the towel and robe earlier. He had no idea where the clothing had come from. There was a pair of pants like the ones Wolfram was wearing, a short sleeved shirt, and an indecent piece of black string that they liked to call underwear here. His blush doubled at the sight of that. He'd wondered what Wolfram would look like in black even before he'd started to reevaluate his sexuality. But the image of Wolfram in this particular bit of black was new. He was suddenly glad he'd spaced out and been unable to peek when Wolfram had started dressing. "Where did you get the clothes?" he asked, as he toweled himself off.

"In the washroom. That's where I left our clothes. I'll lend you something clean to wear when we get back to my room." He took their used towels into the other room and returned with his sword and a pair of slippers for Yuuri. His fiance had enough trouble with cold feet without him contributing to it. "Why weren't you wearing Morgif?"

Yuuri watched with amusement as Wolfram secured his sword, on the outside of the robe. It didn't look quite as ridiculous on Wolfram as it would have on him, but it still seemed pretty silly. It wasn't that long of a walk back to the room. "Why would I be wearing Morgif?" Aside from that short game of catch with Conrad, he'd spent the entire day sitting behind a desk.

Wolfram sniffed, ignoring the mocking look he was being given. "Because he had a hand in saving this world. And because he's been chained up, alone in the dark, ever since you left." Although he hated the sword's fondness for the maids, he hadn't liked seeing it locked away down there. It had too much personality to be treated like the other relics, just another former treasure that had outlived its usefulness. "Besides, with so many important guests coming, you should maintain an appearance of readiness at all times."

"I don't think walking around with a sword strapped to the outside of my bathrobe is going to make me look more kingly," Yuuri said weakly. "I did get Morgif out of the treasure room, though. He's been on the wall in my room since I got back. But I guess you wouldn't know that."

"No, but moving him from one wall to another isn't much of an improvement." He unlocked the outer door and stepped out into the hall. "A sword is no use to anyone unless it's within reach."

"Fine," Yuuri sighed. "I'll start wearing him if it'll make you feel better." He waited until they were back in Wolfram's room before pushing. "Why are you staying in this wing now?" If he could get Wolfram to admit he was avoiding him, then he could apologize again. And this time there wouldn't be any misunderstanding about what he was apologizing for.

Spotting the tray of food Yuuri had mentioned earlier, Wolfram used that as an excuse to turn away. "I started taking my squad out more after you left. It's more convenient to stay in the same wing than it is walking from one side of the castle to the other every day." He chose not to mention that this had been his room long before Yuuri's departure. It wasn't as if he'd lied that day Yuuri had set out to relocate him. This wing had been full at the time, with his men doubling up to make room for the other soldiers. He'd given two of them permission to use his room until they could go back to their own. "Conrad shares a wing with his soldiers. It isn't unusual for a squad leader to room close to his men."

And this arrangement put Wolfram closer to one of his men in particular, Yuuri thought moodily. It didn't matter that Wolfram denied having any feelings for him, or that he was taken already. The fact remained that he was living a few doors down, possibly right next door, to the guy. And spending every day with him, for all he knew. Meanwhile, Yuuri barely saw him at all. "I heard you were training to resist hoseki. Gisela said it's dangerous."

"Then she talks to much." Wolfram scowled at the idea of her gossiping to Yuuri behind his back, but he was glad to talk about something else. He took the tray to the bed and waved for Yuuri to sit across from him. Despite his stomach feeling a little weak, he was still starving. One of the first things he'd learned was not to eat before going out on one of these training sessions. It never stayed down. "It's no more dangerous than any training. In fact, we get more serious injuries sparring with magic and swords than we ever would with hoseki. We're only training to resist the presence of an activated stone right now. When we hit our limit, we stop for the day."

"How do you know when you've reached your limit?" asked Yuuri.

"When Lukas falls." He realized his mistake immediately, wincing at Yuuri's blank expression. After being in their constant company for so long it felt strange to be talking to someone who knew nothing about them. He reminded himself that Yuuri didn't know any of Conrad or Gwendal's men by name, either. They had all done their part to keep Yuuri away from battles, which meant away from the soldiers as well. Since he didn't know how many of them there were, he wouldn't notice when some of them were lost. Soldiers didn't just die during wars. There were accidents during training, minor attacks and skirmishes on the borders, and even the occasional bandits within the heart of their kingdom. None of that was serious enough to warrant the king's attention. But Yuuri wasn't a typical king. Just knowing the statistics was likely to upset him. It would be much worse if he started making friends with the soldiers. There was no telling how he would react when one of them died. It was up to the soldiers to protect the kingdom and they could hardly do that if Yuuri let his emotions push him to protect the soldiers as well.

"I know how strong each member of my squad is," Wolfram said quickly. "The ones with the strongest magic are affected the hardest, so when they falter, I know the training has gone on long enough." That was how it worked in theory, anyway. Pride remained a constant problem. If he had been on his own, he would gladly train until he lost consciousness. When he could keep his feet the entire time and ride back to the castle without assistance, he knew he wasn't really pushing his limits. With his squad he had to be more responsible. So he and Daniel kept an eye on Lukas. His magic was the next strongest and since he'd never suffered sea sickness or been exposed to hoseki in human lands, he wasn't nearly as good at hiding the symptoms as Wolfram was. Unfortunately he was just as eager to push himself as the rest of them were. The more resistance Lukas built, the harder it was to know when to stop the training. It wouldn't be long before they'd have to start watching Daniel instead, or separating the squad so those who could handle more were in a position to do so without endangering the others. He didn't want to be forced to rank them like that. The weakest members of the squad tried that much harder because they were training right next to the strongest ones. Shifting them to the back ranks would demoralize them. "I know how bad it must have looked when we came in earlier, but the training itself isn't really dangerous. It could be," he admitted, when Yuuri looked as if he would protest, "but it doesn't have to be. No one has ever attempted this sort of training, so we're still working out the kinks."

Yuuri scowled, annoyed to have Wolfram glossing over it even more than Gisela had. Did they all think he was stupid? "When it makes you cough up blood, I'd say it's pretty dangerous."

"All training is dangerous," Wolfram shot back. He struggled not to raise his voice. This was Yuuri he was talking to, not Gwendal. Yuuri wasn't questioning his abilities, he was just concerned. Because that was what Yuuri did. He worried. "My squad specializes in magic. Every time we train in magic at least one person comes close to using up his maryoku. You can die from using too much maryoku. We also train with swords, though not as much. All it takes is one mistake during a spar and you have a deadly wound. If you compare the damage we get from overexposure to hoseki to the damage caused by overextending ourselves during magic training or having an accident during sword training, then the hoseki is the safest thing we're working with. We just stand there, Yuuri." He let out an exasperated breath. "That's all we do. The hoseki wielder activates his stones and we stand in a circle around him. As soon as someone falls down, we leave. Yes, we do use maryoku to insulate against the effects, but the training never lasts long enough for us to use even half the energy we'd use during magic duels. And, yes, there is physical exhaustion and some blood loss involved, but it's nothing compared to the injuries we'd get from serious sword duels. It is the least inherently dangerous training we've done since I first got the squad." He needed Yuuri to believe him. If he could get Yuuri to understand, then it wouldn't matter what Gwendal said to him about it. Yuuri didn't have Gwendal's biases. Yuuri had seen him fight and had never once implied that he was useless or incapable.

"Can I see it?"

"See what?" He didn't like the way Yuuri was looking at him, so direct and serious. It reminded him of where they were, which he'd been pointedly not thinking about.

"This training. Hoseki doesn't affect me. And if it's not dangerous, then you have nothing to hide. Right?"

Nervousness swept over him, making him wish he hadn't eaten anything. There were so many things wrong with the very idea. Even if Gunter found nothing on Reinhild, he still wouldn't feel comfortable letting Yuuri near him. Not with himself and most of his squad too incapacitated to protect him. Florian alone wasn't enough to guarantee his safety that far from the castle. He didn't want Yuuri to see him struggle. He wasn't self-conscious with his squad because no matter how badly he felt, he still took it better than they did, and they were far too focused on their own struggles to watch him in his. With Yuuri there he would be on display, as would his entire squad, and with that much pressure they'd undoubtedly push themselves harder than was safe. That would hardly prove the training wasn't as dangerous as Yuuri thought it was. But more than any of that, he didn't want anyone to get the wrong idea. People would think he'd forced Yuuri to come along, that he was still clinging to the engagement and dragging Yuuri around with him in order to keep an eye on him. "It wouldn't be appropriate. I have nothing to hide," he said quickly, when Yuuri's eyes narrowed. "It just wouldn't be safe for you to accompany us. I only have one person on my squad who isn't affected by hoseki. If anything happened while we're out there, we wouldn't be able to protect you properly."

"If one person is enough to protect you guys, then I don't see why-"

"You're the king," Wolfram snapped. "How many times do you have to be reminded of that? You know you can't leave the castle without a proper escort. No one has anything to gain by attacking my squad. Even if someone were tempted, we'd still be able to defend ourselves against a minor attack. With you along, the attack wouldn't be minor and we'd have no chance at all of deflecting it without someone dying." Those words caught him up better than any other argument could have. Yuuri flinched, losing some of the sharpness his eyes had taken on. That soldiers died was a fact of life. But Yuuri was too idealistic to comprehend that, and Wolfram wasn't afraid to use it to his advantage. He and his men would give their lives to protect Yuuri, but if he had a choice he wouldn't intentionally risk either.

Yuuri hadn't wanted to mention Conrad, knowing how Wolfram would react to that. Unfortunately Wolfram wasn't leaving him much choice. He wouldn't stop worrying until he'd seen this training for himself. He hadn't received any sort of training in healing, so he didn't know if he'd be of any use there. But if he was there with them, he could at least try. He braced himself for the explosion and said, "I'll take Conrad with me, then." Sure enough, Wolfram stiffened so suddenly the whole bed shook. He couldn't help wincing, though he refused to back down. "With him there, we won't have to worry about an attack. I'll even go in disguise, if that will make you feel better about it."

He would die. Having Yuuri there would be humiliating and distracting. But Conrad was a thousand times worse because he wouldn't say anything, he'd just watch with that insufferable smile of his. Wolfram could already see it, Conrad keeping Yuuri company as content as could be while he was busy straining not to cough up a lung. Not only would the training itself go to hell, but all of his attempts to pretend he didn't care how close the two of them got would burst into flames. Let them play ball and hang around the castle together. He wasn't there to see it, so it didn't matter. To have them follow him and do it out in the field, right in front of him and his entire squad, was too much for his wounded pride to take. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He would not scream at Yuuri. It would accomplish nothing and he'd feel worse later for having done it. He'd handled Gwendal, hadn't he? He wasn't about to lose control with Yuuri, while sitting cross-legged on his bed in pajamas, no less. No, that would be ridiculous. He continued to hold his breath until his lungs burned and then let it out as slowly as possible. At some point he would have to stop reacting to the mere mention of Conrad like this. He knew that. But knowing that and achieving that were two very different things.

"We won't be training with hoseki for a while. We have to wait until Gunter finishes looking into our new hoseki user," said Wolfram. He was so proud of how calm his voice sounded that he didn't pay any attention to the weird look Yuuri was giving him. "If he checks out and you're still interested, then we can discuss the details later." Hopefully Yuuri would forget all about it by then or be too busy to slip away from the castle. If nothing else, he could always use Gwendal as a last resort. As loudly as he objected to Wolfram training outside the city, he'd never allow Yuuri to accompany him. All he'd have to do was hint that Yuuri was thinking about it and Gwendal and Gunter would load him down with so much paper work he'd never make it out of the castle, let alone out of the gates.

With a lighter heart, Wolfram devoted himself to the food sitting between them. Yuuri had made some surprisingly good choices there. It was certainly more satisfying than the field ration crackers he'd expected to snack on before bed. It took a little while before Yuuri joined him, but once he did the mood was almost pleasant. He even found himself tempted to ask him about his day, what he'd done while he was away in his world, how he felt to be back here again. That would have destroyed the mood, though, so he let the silence hold. He already had a good idea what Yuuri had been doing since his return, signing documents, sending invitations, and spending time with Greta. He had checked in on her yesterday only to be informed that Yuuri was reading to her in his room. He'd felt as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. She was the one aspect of the engagement that he had no shame in admitting he was going to miss. When Yuuri left she had begun to call him Papa for the first time, a title formerly reserved only for Yuuri, and as much as he had enjoyed it he had also felt guilty because it wasn't true. He had known that once they were forced to admit Yuuri was never returning, the engagement would be dissolved and she would belong to no one. He lacked the authority to adopt her himself. Now she had her real papa back, but he was still facing the same end. With the two of them spending as much time together as possible, it would be easier for him to fade into the background. He'd never had any real claim over her, so the sooner he broke ties with her the better. He didn't want to feel he was abandoning her if he ended up leaving the castle altogether.

"Will Heathcrife be bringing Beatrice with him when he comes?" asked Wolfram. She needed more playmates her own age. It wasn't right that her only friend was an infant she rarely saw.

Yuuri beamed, glad to have something safe to talk about. Wolfram's failure to react earlier, and the casual way he'd put him off, had made him too nervous to break the silence himself. "I invited him to, but I haven't received a response yet. Greta said they've been exchanging letters. It never even occurred to me to set the two of them up as penpals. Was that your idea?"

"Anissina's. She had a boy in one of her stories set letters adrift in bottles." He snorted. "It took forever to convince Greta that her bottle would never make it all the way to Cavalcade. Gisela and Yozak helped her raise a carrier pigeon. You couldn't possibly find a filthier and more unsuitable pet for a princess. Naturally she loves the thing."

"She is my daughter," Yuuri smirked.

"Indeed." She'd even named the dirty thing 'White' as if it were entirely appropriate to do so. While he appreciated that they had gotten her writing regularly to her friend overseas, he did wish they could have left the pigeon to the handlers. She'd insisted on keeping it in her room for over a month and it had taken a tearful maid to convince her it had gotten too big to clean up after. His nose wrinkled as he recalled the stench that had clung to her clothing.

"That reminds me," said Yuuri. "I think we should get a babysitter for Greta. A nursemaid, governess, someone whose only job is to take care of her when we're both away from the castle. Kids need stability, you know? She should have someone who's always here, just for her."

"That would be good for her," Wolfram said slowly. He looked him over closely, seeing nothing but a smile at his apparent agreement. He frowned in response. "Yuuri. Has Gunter talked to you about your coming of age ceremony?" Did Yuuri think the engagement was going to drag on for another year or two before he could finally get out of it? There was no point getting Greta a woman to look after her when he could get her an actual mother in a few weeks.

"No, he hasn't mentioned it. Other than dropping off papers and telling me who to send invites to, we haven't talked much since I got back. Why?"

Wolfram just shook his head. If Yuuri didn't realize yet, then he wouldn't be the one to tell him. He'd find out soon enough. This explained why Yuuri had been pushing him to talk about girls in the bath, though. It must have been a rude shock for him to come back after so long only to find out they were still engaged. Yuuri probably expected him to start smothering him again, and that was why he'd sought him out instead, hoping to head him off. He could easily have told him and put him out of his misery. Unfortunately for Yuuri, he was a little too bitter to do that. He wasn't going to enjoy the next few weeks, so he saw no reason for Yuuri to, either.

"Wolf...?"

"You should look for someone older and more responsible than Anissina or mother," Wolfram stated. "Someone with experience at raising young ladies. Of course she should be well-versed in the ways of the court. Greta is a princess in her own right, and as the king's daughter she should be taught by the very best."

Yuuri winced, "I guess, but..."

"In fact, you might even consider hiring Elizabeth's former governess. She has all the qualifications and hasn't had much to do since her charge came of age." The fact that she was dumpy and plain didn't hurt, either.

"If she was Elizabeth's governess, wouldn't she be a little old for the job?"

"We're talking about a governess, not a wife," Wolfram said icily. "As a full mazoku, she's more than young enough to teach Greta's grandchildren, should she choose to keep her on. But if you're more interested in hiring someone based off looks and youth, then I'll thank you not to involve me in it." He shoved off the bed, leaving Yuuri to catch the tray before it could spill. It would be just his luck if Yuuri fell for his daughter's governess. At this rate his reputation would never recover. Having been engaged for so long was bad enough without everyone knowing he'd been dumped for the babysitter. He let out a disgusted growl, slamming his closet door open with more force than necessary. He shouldn't have even gotten into this discussion.

"I didn't mean it like that!" Yuuri cried. He hurriedly set the tray on the nightstand. He crossed the room to find Wolfram digging noisily through his closet. At least he hadn't shut himself in it this time. "Honestly, Wolfram. It's not like that at all. I just want us to find someone Greta will like spending time with. If she's too strict or old, then Greta would see it as a punishment. She doesn't deserve that." He didn't want her to turn out like Elizabeth. Sure, Elizabeth was beautiful and refined, but she was also rigid and cool. He wanted Greta to stay warm and friendly, even if that meant she wasn't as proper a princess as Wolfram thought appropriate.

"If you say so," Wolfram muttered, not bothering to look back. He dropped his arms to his sides with a quiet huff. "I don't have anything dark to loan you. You'll have to borrow one of my uniforms." He almost cringed. What would the guards think when they saw Yuuri dressed in his colors? And after he'd gone to so much trouble to make sure they'd never stood watch over Yuuri's room.

"You want to get dressed now? But it's already late enough to turn in."

"I am not escorting you back to your room in pajamas and a bathrobe. At least try to remember where you are. This is the soldiers' wing, not the royal chambers."

Yuuri bristled at the patronizing tone. "Who said I need an escort? Or that I'm going back to my room at all? Maybe I'll just stay here tonight."

"You can't!" Wolfram blurted.

Yuuri raised an eyebrow, not caring that Wolfram looked more panicky than angry. "I can't...? I thought you said I was the only one who had a right to come in here."

This was revenge, Wolfram realized with a jolt. He honestly hadn't thought Yuuri capable of it, but there was no mistaking the challenge in his eyes. Feeling an angry blush break out on his face, he drew himself up. "The bed isn't big enough for two people."

"It looks big enough to me," Yuuri remarked, turning to hide his smirk. He hadn't intended to risk something like this, but Wolfram's reaction made it an irresistible temptation. "I'll sleep by the wall. That way if one of us gets kicked out of bed, it'll be you."

"I hope I kick you to death," Wolfram hissed, only to blush harder when Yuuri laughed. This couldn't be happening. It had taken him so long to get used to sleeping alone, to appreciate and look forward to it. What if he started feeling as if the engagement was real again? As long as he kept his distance it was just a formality, a front, upholding appearances in public. If he backslid now he would be devastated later. He couldn't go through that again. Yuuri tossed his robe over the back of the chair and climbed onto the bed. Wolfram's fingers twitched and he had a sudden urge to run from the room. "Yuuri..."

"Come on, Wolf. I'm too tired to fight with you, and you look exhausted." Yuuri slipped under the covers and sighed as the scent immediately enveloped him. He buried his face in one of the pillows. "You invaded my bed way too many times to whine just because I'm borrowing yours."

"Who's whining!" Wolfram snapped.

"Turn off the light and come to bed, Dear," Yuuri called, in a tone he'd heard his father use so many times it came out sounding far too natural. He smothered a laugh in the pillow at the strangled noise Wolfram let out. He shouldn't enjoy this so much. And he really should have been concerned about sharing a bed with Wolfram after the dreams he'd had. But the bed was different, the mood was playful, and there were no girly frills in sight, so he figured it was safe enough.

Wolfram grudgingly set his sword to the side of his bed and turned off the lamp. Yuuri flashed him a smirk when he lifted the covers, and he gave him a contemptuous sniff in return. "You have a sick sense of humor."

Yuuri just smiled, snuggling more comfortably into the pillow. "Whatever you say, Dear."

"Sick," Wolfram insisted, putting his back to his twisted excuse for a king. His was the last word spoken that night.

.-.

Wolfram woke a few hours before dawn to find his right hand glowing. It took a while for his dazed mind to comprehend that it wasn't his hand that was glowing, but rather the pale blue pendant his hand was curled around. Yuuri's pendant, formerly Conrad's pendant, originally Julia's pendant. The pendant which, if he recalled correctly, Yuuri had been wearing on the inside of his shirt when he'd gotten into the bed. Wolfram had never gotten out of bed so fast. A split second later found him crouched on the floor, peeking up over the edge of the bed. Yuuri grumbled but showed no signs of waking. Wolfram slumped over with relief, his heart racing as his sleep fogged mind sought to catch up.

What the hell had he been doing in his sleep? Digging around in Yuuri's clothes? And for him to grab that blasted pendant of all things. If he had to go grabbing anything it should have been Yuuri's hair or maybe his neck. He could easily imagine doing that in his sleep. That pendant was nothing to him. That was Conrad's bond to both Yuuri and Julia, his tie to the past and vow for the future. He wanted to set fire to his hand for even touching it. He'd never seen her in Yuuri and he had looked for it, after learning whose soul Yuuri possessed, yet another aspect of Shinou's meddling in their lives. They were both sweet willing martyrs when necessary but that was where the similarities ended as far as he was concerned. He'd liked her, because everyone had, but he'd never seen anything in her. She'd always seemed muted, distant, floating through life rather than living it. Yuuri, on the other hand, was bursting with life, riddled with flaws, and eternally frustrating since he was both the weakest and strongest person around. With just one of his ridiculous foot-stomping tantrums, Yuuri displayed more personality than Wolfram had ever seen in Julia. He understood why Conrad had idolized her, of course. She had been perfect. But that was precisely why he had never connected to her himself. Perfect was boring. He would always choose flawed, frustrating, and amusing over peaceful perfection.

He leaned back against the bed, his sword resting on his folded legs. He'd been dreaming again. He hadn't gotten a good night's rest since Yuuri's return, so he didn't know why he had expected tonight to be any different. The dreams always woke him up, leaving him restless, anxious and guilty. This one was no different. He'd been in a hurry to get somewhere, but he hadn't been able to find his horse. Everything in the stable had been wrong, mixed around on him, and when he'd gone outside he'd realized he wasn't even at the castle. He'd had no idea where he was. How was he supposed to get there in time if he didn't even know where he was? The dream itself had been stupid, of course. They always were. He'd had similar dreams as a child, usually when he had failed to do something. This time, he honestly didn't know what the guilt was about. It obviously had something to do with Yuuri and the engagement, but he couldn't tell if it was guilt over the way he'd behaved in the past or how poorly he was handling it now. Either way, he didn't know what he was supposed to do to put his conscience at ease. Be nicer to Yuuri? He humphed quietly. He was already being nicer to him than he had during the entire engagement. The only way he could possibly bother him any less was to leave the castle, and then he'd probably start having anxiety dreams for leaving Gwendal in the lurch right when he needed him around to put up a good front for their guests.

Yuuri grumbled, rolling onto his back and flinging an arm out so his wrist smacked against the wall. From the way his face wrinkled, it must have smarted. Wolfram smirked at the sight. At least he wasn't the only restless sleeper this time. He sighed, watching Yuuri's face relax as he fell deeper asleep. He really didn't understand what it was about him that attracted so many suitors. Yuuri was just as pretty as him, yet everyone wanted him, young and old, male and female alike. He might have dismissed some of it as his coloring, being a double-black, but he'd never seen anyone fawn over Murata at first sight. Although, in his case, he had glasses obscuring his eyes so they looked more like a dark brown than true black. Shori's eyes were black despite his glasses, yet only his mother had been interested in him. Because he was older? The first time he'd seen Yuuri, he had pegged him as a wimp, clueless and easily pushed around. Maybe that was what everyone found so attractive about him, the vulnerability. Wolfram couldn't relate to that. If Yuuri had just been a wimp, he wouldn't have wanted anything to do with him.

That was the problem. He might wish things had been different, that they could have simply been friends the way Yuuri was with everyone else, but he knew himself too well. If they hadn't gotten engaged he would never have given Yuuri a chance to prove he was more than the wimpy human he'd appeared to be. He certainly wouldn't have stolen away on boats in order to keep him company if he had just been the king and not his fiance. Without those trips he would never have seen past Yuuri's flaws. He probably wouldn't have had much contact with him at all until it came time for Shinou to extract the key from him. Knowing that, he couldn't entirely regret his choice to make their engagement as real as a one-sided engagement could be. Even if he'd never known him as well as he'd thought he had, Yuuri was the closest thing to a friend he'd had since his childhood. From the very start, Yuuri had treated him as an equal, even though they hadn't been at all. He couldn't fill that void with his men, not even Lukas and Daniel. They might have been equals as children, training at the same level, caring nothing about the roles they'd been born into, but they were his subordinates now.

With a sigh, he rose and leaned over the bed, pulling the covers up to Yuuri's shoulders. Having Yuuri here, sleeping in his bed, where he should never in a million years have ended up, made him miss the wimp more than he had when he'd thought Yuuri would never return.

He went over to his closet. Since he was awake, anyway, he might as well fetch something from Yuuri's room for him to wear when he woke up. It would have been bad for Yuuri to walk around in one of his uniforms at night. He didn't want to imagine the sordid tales the maids would start if they spotted him doing it in the daytime. He sighed at himself. So much for not going in there unless it was a matter of life or death.

He'd just started to untie his robe when he heard something bump against the door. He was across the room in a heartbeat, pausing only long enough to snatch his sword off the floor. What was wrong with him? He hadn't even bolted the door last night. With the training, and Gwendal, and Yuuri showing up out of nowhere and then commandeering his bed, he'd been too frazzled to think of anything but sleep. And he slept so heavily he wouldn't have even heard the door opening.

He held his breath, listening closely. After a while he could just make out the light steps of the guards at the end of the hall. They often walked off the last few hours of their shift, when sleep was most likely to sneak up on them. With one more glance at Yuuri, he slipped out of the room. And he nearly tripped over a long bundle sitting right outside his door. He had to wave his arms to catch his balance. He shut his door, scowled at the cloth wrapped thing, and then dismissed it. He was more interested in who had left the package than he was in its contents. The guards snapped to attention when he reached them. If they had witnessed the clumsy way he'd exited his room, they gave no sign of it.

"Did anyone come through here?" he asked.

"Yes, sir. Two of the maids went by a little while ago with the laundry cart."

He nodded sharply and turned away, stalking back to his room. The maids. He should have known. Those infuriating busybodies had been sticking their noses in his business since the start of the engagement. He'd even caught them running a betting pool at one point, on who would steal Yuuri away from him. Even Anissina's name had been on it. It had taken every ounce of restraint he had not to set their skirts on fire and watch it eat its way up to their giggling faces.

He crouched by the bundle. It was wrapped in brown cloth, long on both ends, thick in the middle. The moment he touched the thin edge, a muffled groan sounded from under the cloth. His breath caught in his throat and he could almost feel his heart skip. They couldn't have. Even if the maids had dared to attempt it, they couldn't possibly have done this. His eyes flashed at the guards, who gave no sign of having heard anything, and then he grabbed the package and ducked back into his room. This time he made sure to bolt the door behind him.

In his haste to unwrap the bundle, he jostled it around, causing Morgif to groan and moan under the cloth. He ignored the noise. Once the cloth was loose enough, he let the sword roll free onto his desk. His suspicions were confirmed when he saw what had been sitting in the middle of that bundle. It was one of Yuuri's uniforms. Now it wasn't just a question of who, but how. The timing was frightening. Even if someone had managed to smuggle Morgif out of Yuuri's room, past the guards, and all the way through the castle without him howling loudly enough to wake the dead, the odds of them leaving the uniform at the same moment he'd been about to fetch one were impossible. His hand clenched tightly around the hilt of his sword, his breaths coming in short bursts. It wasn't a coincidence. It couldn't be. He darted to the window, peeking behind the curtain at the dark courtyard. He could see the guards stationed across the way. There wasn't enough light in the room for someone outside to have seen his silhouette past the curtains.

He closed his eyes. This was paranoia. He knew that. No one was out there, no one but the guards had been out there all night. What reason would anyone have to spy on him from outside when his door had been unlocked? And the timing could very well have been a mere coincidence. The maids had collected the dirty clothes from the bath. They would have recognized Yuuri's uniform instantly and known, in that way they had, exactly where he'd gone to bed. It didn't take much to assume that Yuuri wouldn't have brought a change of clothing with him. And the maids were not the only ones who slipped in and out of this wing at will. There was a much bigger meddler afoot, one who could easily have seduced Morgif into being carried quietly with just a flash of her cleavage. The maids had told her, she'd gotten the clothes and the sword, and then the maids had left it outside his door on their way down the hall. It made perfect sense. Yet he didn't believe it for a second. This wasn't her style. She would love to have Yuuri forced into one of his uniforms. She would be absolutely giddy at the idea of him having to swallow his pride and go into Yuuri's room to get clothes for him. She would never have gone to such lengths to make this easier for him.

"Wolfram...?"

He whirled, drawing his sword halfway free before he realized it was just Yuuri. Noisy Morgif had woken him up. He took a shaky breath and sheathed his sword. He didn't want to be here, in this room, in this castle. Everyone here was so busy meddling, manipulating him with so many strings, and now they were sneaking around behind his back so he couldn't even trust the guards. For all he knew they had stood there and lied to him.

"Are you okay?" asked Yuuri.

"No," Wolfram muttered. "A stupid dream woke me up." He waved at the desk when Yuuri came over to him. "And someone left this outside the door for you. It was probably Mother."

"I thought she couldn't touch him without getting bitten." Yuuri picked up his sword, frowning at the grumbling face. Morgif's noise was already settling into snores, but they were a little too loud to be real. That was what Yuuri liked to call his 'who, me?' ploy. He gave him a little shake. "Did you let Cecilie bring you all the way over here?"

Wolfram rolled his eyes at the nonsensical noises coming out of Morgif's mouth. He usually found it cute when Yuuri tried to talk to his sword as if they could actually hold a conversation together. Right now he wasn't in the mood. "As long as she carried him by the sheath or the belt, she could do it as easily as Gunter did. Only the Maou can wield him, but anyone can pick him up as long as they don't touch near the hilt. Anyway, whoever it was left those clothes for you, too. I'm going back to sleep."

"We'll talk about this later," Yuuri warned Morgif, setting him down on the stack of clothes. He hurried back to the bed so he could get in first. He hadn't been kicked a single time so far, that he knew of, and he wanted to keep it that way. It wasn't until Wolfram slipped in after him that he realized kicking wasn't the only thing he had to worry about. He propped himself up on his elbow, looking at him worriedly. "Um, Wolfram? Since when do you sleep with your sword?"

With a groan, Wolfram opened his eyes. It would have only taken a few more seconds for him to fall asleep. He looked down to see what Yuuri was talking about and blinked slowly. He had forgotten to prop his sword against the bed and had, instead, taken it under the covers with him. This wasn't quite as bad as falling asleep with one of Gwendal's stuffed animals in his arms, but it was fairly close. Really, he had no idea what was going on in his head any more. "Since now, I guess," he sighed. "Don't worry, I promise not to kill you in my sleep." He was too comfortable to move, and with his hands occupied at least he wouldn't have to worry about grabbing things if he had another of those dreams. "After all," he murmured, "if I killed you I'd want to be awake to enjoy it..."

Yuuri gulped, staring down at the hilt peeking out of the covers. Wolfram was completely asleep by the time he finished saying that, his voice having droned off so quietly Yuuri couldn't tell if he'd been joking or not. He was pretty sure it was a joke. Still, even if Wolfram didn't draw it in his sleep, that sword had a lot of hard edges to it. He really didn't fancy getting whacked with the thing. He waited a few minutes, just to make sure Wolfram was completely out of it. Then he pinched the tip of the hilt between his fingers and tugged. It was like prodding a pillbug's belly. Wolfram curled inward and the sword completely disappeared under the blanket. Yuuri's eye twitched. He hadn't counted on that.

Telling himself he was only acting in the name of self-preservation, he moved closer to Wolfram's back and wrapped an arm around him. There wasn't much room between the top of that sword and Wolfram's chest, but with a little maneuvering he had his arm resting in the crook of his elbows. He didn't think for a second that he'd be able to hold him still if Wolfram was determined to flail around, but he'd definitely feel it if he lifted his arms, and that sword along with them. Hopefully it would be enough warning for him to wake up and get out of the way.

After a few minutes with his nose buried in Wolfram's hair and that warm chest moving under his arm, he gave up trying to justify his actions. He'd save that justification for Wolfram in the morning, if he had to. He didn't need to use it on himself. The sword just provided an excuse for him to make one of his 'when I finally get back there' imaginings a reality. This was just as easy and natural as he'd thought it would be. They'd hugged before, held and supported one another when they were injured. So it was pretty pointless for him to roll all over the place trying to avoid contact in bed. He'd often been forced right off the bed, but only because he had moved away each time Wolfram moved closer. If he had held still, he would have had Wolfram sleeping right up against him every night. Maybe he could forget the excuses altogether and just point out that they didn't need to fight for the bed in their sleep if they were sharing it to begin with. He wasn't going to move away anymore. If they were still like this when Wolfram woke up, he'd tell him just that.

A few hours later, Yuuri was prodded out of a strange dream by something scratching at the door. He didn't want to wake up. Yozak and that dark-haired guy from the bath were in wedding dresses and fighting over the bouquet, with way too many grooms waiting at the end of the aisle. One of them was Wolfram, looking positively evil in a black tux. He'd almost conned him into stepping down and leaving the would-be brides to the other guys when a sheep ran out from under Yozak's skirts and started scratching at the door of the church. That sent Wolfram running back to yell at Conrad about how anyone who would sneak a sheep to a wedding didn't deserve to get married. Yuuri was just about to go Maou on the lot of them and drag Wolfram out of there by force when he blinked himself awake. Yet the scratching continued.

He closed his eyes, praying there wasn't actually a sheep in the room. Or Yozak in that wedding dress because pink polka dots definitely didn't suit him. He lifted his head warily and found the room empty. The scratching was coming from the other side of the door. The sheep wanted in, not out. He dropped his head back on the pillow, determined to let the thing rot out there. Sheep didn't have claws, so it shouldn't be scratching on doors in the first place. Wolfram groaned, squeezing his arm. That woke him up better than a whole herd of sheep. His head popped back up and a blush broke out on his face. Wolfram was cuddling his arm, his sword having been pushed over to the edge of the bed. He had a few embarrassed seconds to enjoy it before the scratching started again. This time Wolfram shoved his arm away and flopped over onto his stomach, knocking the sword off the bed with a loud clatter.

"Shut up," Wolfram groaned, burying his face in the pillow. "That's not even my horse."

A muffled snicker sounded from the hall. Then someone rapped hard on the door.

Wolfram shot upright and flung his pillow across the room in one fluid motion, "I'm awake, already!" He moved sluggishly toward the edge of the bed, grumbling the entire way. "Wake the entire castle...bedrest, my ass...kill for a single day in bed...sun's barely up and I'm-" He stood up and promptly disappeared with a clatter and a thump.

"Wolfram!" Yuuri yelped. He hurried to the edge of the bed and was relieved when he found dazed green eyes staring back up at him. He'd forgotten just how groggy Wolfram could be when he first woke up. "Are you okay...?"

"Yuuri...?" Wolfram stared at him, blinking slowly. Then his eyes dropped to the bed Yuuri was sitting on and his face caught fire. He hid it in his hands. How could he have forgotten? Yuuri in his bed, tripping over his own sword, yes, this was going to be a wonderful day. "Not one word," he muttered. "Please."

Yuuri had to bite his lip to keep from laughing. He'd never seen Wolfram's face so red. He got up and sidestepped his downed fiance, not making the mistake of offering to help him. By the time Wolfram passed him to dig in the closet, Yuuri had wiped most of the smile off his face. The corners of his mouth continued to twitch, though. Morgif greeted him with a croon, his mouth twisted in a way that told him he'd seen the whole thing and found it just as funny as he had. Yuuri's favorite part was the automatic pillow-flinging. It made him wonder if Wolfram's men always woke him up that way. And then suddenly he no longer had to fight to keep the smile off his face. Wolfram had been staying here so long that he'd developed a routine. What if he preferred that routine? That wake up call had been odd, but it was definitely better than having Gunter walk right in to con and scold him out of bed. In fact, if Wolfram insisted, his men probably wouldn't wake him up at all. Even Yuuri didn't get that sort of freedom in his room and he was the king. There wasn't even a bolt for his door, and absolutely no sense of privacy. People walked in and out any time they felt like it. They didn't even knock half the time.

"What's wrong with you?" Wolfram scowled, passing him to retrieve his sword.

"Huh?" Yuuri wondered what sort of face he'd been making for Wolfram to sound so cross. Or maybe Wolfram was just cross because he was awake and didn't want to be. "I was just thinking. About a lot of things." He shook his head and grabbed the uniform out from under Morgif, leaning him against the desk instead. Despite his sleepiness, Wolfram had somehow already dressed. He hurried to catch up with him. "Have you been eating breakfast with your squad?"

"Sometimes. We didn't yesterday. There's no point eating before a hoseki drill," Wolfram grumbled, his nose wrinkling. "It just makes things messier."

Yuuri hopped to the side so Wolfram could get at the mirror. "You're not having one of those today, right? Will you eat with the rest of us this morning?"

"If you want me to." Wolfram ran a hand through his hair and winced at his appearance. If he didn't get a good night's sleep soon, he was going to develop dark bags under his eyes. "It won't be pleasant if I'm there, though," he warned. "Don't let yourself get dragged into anything that comes up, especially if it involves Gwendal and Gunter. You have to spend a lot more time with them than I do."

"Why are they so upset about your training?" asked Yuuri. "If it's not that dangerous, then-"

"It's not just about the training. They're upset with me, in general." He stared at his reflection and gave a dark smile. He'd been smiling like that a lot lately, but it was still unnerving to see it on his own face. He hoped it had a similar effect on Gwendal. "I'm just not living up to their expectations."

"In what way?" Yuuri frowned. He glanced up and nearly had a heart attack. "Wolfram!" He grabbed Wolfram's arm, turning him to face him. The expression vanished, replaced by confusion and a touch of irritation.

"What? Why are you looking at me like that?"

Yuuri's eyes narrowed. "That was Shinou's face. Soushuu's version of his face."

"Oh!" Wolfram snorted, shaking his head. "Relax, wimp. I'm not turning evil on you. I saw that smile on your face, too, when he possessed you. It was very disturbing." He gave the smile again. "It suits me much better."

"It does not!"

"Of course it does. I already look like him. The resemblance is only going to increase as I get older."

"Maybe so, but I don't think that look suited him, either. I definitely don't like it on you." Yuuri didn't want to admit how much seeing that had scared him. With that one smile, Wolfram's entire demeanor darkened into something cunning and cold. He'd rather have him training with a whole room full of hoseki than imagine him in here, by himself, practicing that smile. "It's not you, Wolf. It doesn't suit you at all."

As if Yuuri knew that much about him. Wolfram sighed, folding his arms over his chest. "Why are you getting so worked up over this? It's just a facial expression. You should see some of the ones you wear when you're performing 'justice' on people. As far as intimidating looks go, there's no competing with yours. Mine just has the added benefit of reminding certain people that they don't know me at all. Greta told me I actually ate with all of you, as natural as can be, and explained that I'd risked your brother's life because he wanted the power to protect you. And Gwendal not only believed it, he didn't even try to punish me for it. I have never gotten off that easily with him. But Shinou did. And it wasn't the things he said, it was the way he said them. He accomplished more with one smile than I ever could with years of pleading and arguing and screaming."

He stopped, watching the blood drain out of Yuuri's face. This time the smile tried to come naturally. He kept it at bay. Shinou, or Soushuu, whoever had been in command, had fooled his entire family for days, possibly longer. If his own family didn't know him from an imposter, then Yuuri had never stood a chance. "Sorry. You said you had talked to Shori about it, so I thought you knew. I have no memory of saying anything to your brother, so I couldn't have explained my actions that night even if I'd wanted to. That was him, too."

He ran a hand over Yuuri's bowed head, mussing his hair, and then handed him the brush. "I told you not to blame yourself, wimp. He used you even more than he did me. Your entire life was all part of his plan. Remember what he did to Conrad, letting us believe he was dead and then setting him against us, when we could just as easily have gotten the boxes without all of the suffering if he had simply told us what he needed us to do and why. Mother's faced with the fact that all three of her marriages were part of his scheme, just so each of her children would have the proper bloodline to be keys, all waiting here together for your arrival. For as long as I can remember she's been searching for 'love' and now I finally know why. All of her marriages fell apart because if even one of them had lasted, Shinou would have had more trouble getting his keys all in one place. He used and manipulated everyone in this kingdom from the moment he died until the moment you freed him. I blame him for that. But you put the blame entirely on Soushuu and forgave Shinou all of his machinations. You can't blame yourself after absolving him."

"He created Shin Makoku," Yuuri whispered. "He became infected by Soushuu because he fought to save this world. The boxes had to be gathered or else Soushuu would have eventually gotten free to destroy everything. He sacrificed his body and devoted his soul to making sure Soushuu was finally destroyed once and for all..."

"I know all of that. But he had a choice to tell us or to use us. Every one of us would have willingly done what was necessary to save this kingdom had he told us. He chose not to. There's honor in being a willing martyr, Yuuri. There's only shame in being a puppet." He sighed, dropping his eyes. "I'm sorry I said anything. I should never have brought any of this up." He couldn't talk to anyone about it. Even his brothers continued to be as devoted to Shinou's memory as they had been to his spirit. He was the only one who resented being used and he'd known better than to admit it. And to say it to Yuuri, the one who'd risked his life to free him... "I'm sorry, Yuuri."

"You think I should have destroyed him..."

"No!" Wolfram said sharply. He grabbed Yuuri's shoulders, forcing him to meet his eyes. "I agree that he deserved to be free. No matter what personal resentments I have, he created and nurtured this country and none of us would exist without him. He deserved to be free and I'm glad you were able to do it. You are the best Maou Shin Makoku has ever had and we wouldn't have you if it weren't for him." That bold admission brought a blush to his face, and he winced, smiling weakly. "I can't forgive his methods, but I will never deny all the things he's done for us."

Yuuri swallowed roughly. Half the time he was convinced he was a lousy king. But when people like Wolfram and Conrad said otherwise, he couldn't help wanting to prove them right. If only he knew how to do that. "Then you don't hate him?"

"Hate is too strong a word," Wolfram stated airily. He dipped a rag in the little bowl before the mirror and washed off his eyes. "I have no idea what will happen to this country without him around. Our generation will manage, of that I'm certain. Future generations will be on their own, though. People fought enough over the kings he picked. If it's up to them to choose the next one, Shin Makoku could tear itself apart. It will be up to our children," and he smirked at Yuuri's wide eyes, "to see to it that never happens."

"Children?" Yuuri squeaked. He had a sudden memory of Wolfram holding a baby, murmuring that he was practicing for the future. Surely even pure-blooded demons weren't that different from humans. Wolfram had been referring to Greta's children, right? Right...? He opened his mouth, but only a wispy whine came out. It was just as well. He wasn't ready to hear an answer to the question trying to work its way out of his throat.

As amusing as Yuuri's reaction was, Wolfram couldn't fully enjoy it. Even during the engagement, raising a baby had been a fanciful notion at best. He couldn't imagine himself ever marrying now and he'd sooner die than let a child of his blood be given the title of bastard. If he ever reached the point in his life where he wanted to start a family of his own, he'd simply foster a child the way Yuuri had. He didn't have the status to adopt a runaway human princess, but there were always a few mazoku children orphaned from one tragedy or another. Some of his own men had lost their parents in the war and been raised by others. He might even be in a position to adopt one of their children someday, assuming he outlived them. Now that was a fanciful notion.

With a wistful smile, he prodded Yuuri toward the mirror. "Just comb your hair, wimp. We'll be late for breakfast."

.-.
TBC

Chapter Text

The first half of breakfast passed much the way dinner had the last time Wolfram had joined the others. There was an awkward silence hanging over everyone and what little talk there was started and centered around Yuuri and Greta. No one mentioned where Yuuri had spent the night, though they must have all known by then. Wolfram imagined how each had taken the news before his and Yuuri's late arrival. Gunter would have been scandalized that he'd kidnapped Yuuri and spirited him off to the dark recesses of the soldier's wing to do who knew what to him. He would have run straight to Gwendal, who would see it as proof that he really did want to sleep with Yuuri so long as it was on his own terms. His brother would object to the location, though, and how much danger he'd put Yuuri in by forcing him to sleep with minimum protection. Conrad, well, he couldn't even guess how Conrad had taken the news. His mother must have been tickled pink, which would certainly explain how she'd smiled at him when they entered the room. Wolfram told himself firmly that he didn't care what they thought of it so long as they kept those thoughts to themselves. He kept his attention on his food, and on Greta, who was excitedly telling Yuuri all about the new foal. It seemed she still hadn't been told that she would never be allowed to ride it.

"The mare's firstborn was a gift to her from Stoffel," Wolfram told Yuuri. "Unfortunately her foal is black."

"Unfortunately?" Yuuri repeated.

"He's like a little Ao!" Greta beamed. "I named him Night!"

Wolfram lifted his eyes, looking around the table, waiting for someone to say something. No one else looked up. They'd actually hoped the foal might die when it stopped taking its mother's milk, just to spare them from having to disappoint Greta. She was so excited to have her own horse, which would have been raised to answer to and seat only her. The mare was a lovely dappled gray, so they couldn't have guessed she would give birth to a black foal. Now they were all waiting for someone to break the bad news. It had to be soon, before she became even more attached to it.

"Aren't you a little young to be riding a horse?" Yuuri asked Greta, smiling weakly.

"Nope! I've been learning on a little horse already!"

"A pony," Conrad reassured Yuuri. "It's perfectly safe."

Wolfram caught his eye, asking without words if he was willing to tell her. Conrad gave a sad smile and sighed. He would if he had to. It suddenly struck him how amusing it was the way they'd all come to dote on a little human girl. She had all of them wrapped around her little fingers even more than Yuuri did. None of them would willingly play the part of villain, no matter how necessary. He sighed himself. If none of them said anything, eventually someone would inform Yuuri and he would be the one forced to tell her. She'd forgiven him for leaving, so she would forgive him for taking her new horse away easily. But she shouldn't have to. They'd all known this was coming before Yuuri had even returned. They should have told her the day the horse was born.

"Greta," Wolfram said quietly, "do you remember why Ao is the only black horse here?"

She bit her lip, her eyes darting off as she recalled the lesson. "Because he's the maou's horse! And only the maou can ride a..." Her eyes widened and most of the color fled from her face. "Oh..."

"What's wrong?" Yuuri asked, looking around in confusion.

Wolfram nudged Greta's chin up, smiling gently. "When Ao is too old to keep up with the other horses, he'll be put in a big pasture where he'll have beautiful sons and daughters. And Night, your Night, will carry the king in his place. He'll make you proud." It hurt to see her blinking back tears, but she wasn't letting them fall. She was so stubborn, more like him than Yuuri, or so he liked to think.

"Does he have to go away until Ao gets old?" asked Greta.

"No. He won't go anywhere for a year or two, and then he'll be back before you know it. In the meantime, we'll get you another horse. He or she can live in the stall right next to Night so they'll grow up as best friends."

"Wait!" Yuuri said loudly, half rising out of his chair. He was torn between panic at Greta's teary eyes and anger at being left in the dark. "If it's her horse, then-" Greta turned to him and he blinked in surprise. For a moment she looked much too old.

"Only the king can ride a black horse," she said sadly. "I forgot."

"That's what this is about?" he demanded, glaring at Wolfram. "You'd take her horse away just because of the color? That's a stupid rule!"

"Your Majesty," Gunter started. "Tradition-"

"No! It's stupid," Yuuri snapped, turning his glare on him. "If it's that important, just streak its mane and tail white. Problem solved. I'll bring some hair dye from earth if you don't have any here." He looked around the table in exasperation. "I can't believe you guys would give her a horse and then take it away because it's the wrong color. I get the black uniforms, but this is a horse we're talking about here."

"Pure black stallions are very rare," Conrad said quietly.

"I don't care if this is the last one ever born in this world. No one is taking my daughter's horse away from her. Not while I'm king." He folded his arms and leaned back in his chair, scowling fiercely. He couldn't believe even Conrad could be so rigid over something so...stupid. Greta tugged on his sleeve. He wiped the frown off his face and gave her a reassuring smile. "Don't worry, I won't let anyone take your horse."

"I'll give him to you when he's old enough," she said solemnly. She flashed a quick look at Wolfram. "I can do that, can't I?"

"Of course. You can give him to whomever you like."

"Can I have a white horse like yours? A little sister for Night?"

"I'll find you one myself," Wolfram promised. He flashed a quick look at Yuuri, who was frowning and gaping and looking as if he'd been smacked in the face with a wet rag. His eagerness to stand up for his daughter was commendable, but Greta was mature enough to handle the reality of the situation. She'd probably learned more about traditions than Yuuri had, despite Gunter's best efforts to educate their king. For all that she was human, she was already turning into a fine mazoku princess.

"Greta," Yuuri frowned. "You don't have to do that."

"It's okay," she said quickly. This time she smiled. "Night is much too pretty to have white in his hair. Wait till you see him, Papa. He has the sweetest eyes and his nose is really soft. He's tall, too. He'll be just as big as Ao when he grows up. I'll get him a sister. Or..." She turned back to Wolfram, "A wife? Is he too young to have a wife?"

Wolfram laughed. "He's a little young to be tied down. Let him grow up before you arrange any marriages."

"Okay! A sister's better, anyway. They can share secrets."

Which was something she wanted for herself. Wolfram picked at his food as conversation started up here and there. With that crisis averted, or overcome as it were, the mood had improved greatly. He didn't want to be the one to ruin it. Greta was lonely. Even if Yuuri married right away it would be years before she had a sibling old enough to share secrets with. There were plenty of kids her age in the city, just a short walk from the castle gate, yet it might as well have been a different continent. He had no doubts that she would be perfectly comfortable playing with them, but he cringed at the thought of how they would treat her. She would have to be escorted, chaperoned, and even if she wasn't recognized the guards would be. The noble child closest to her age he knew of was the Wincott boy, and he didn't want her anywhere near that brat.

A sudden silence caught his attention, and he looked up to find everyone staring at him. His eyes circled the table. A knowing look from Conrad, a scowl from Gwendal, a reproachful frown from Gunter, a disappointed pout from his mother, and confusion from Yuuri and Greta. Those two were looking from him to the others. He hadn't been paying attention, but it was obvious the topic had drifted to something they all held him responsible for. He dropped his eyes and took a slow bite of his food. It wasn't until Gunter cleared his throat and spoke that he understood.

"The ceremony is very important," said Gunter, "but it's not something we have to worry about just yet."

"My celebration has priority," Cecilie smiled quickly, reaching over to stroke Yuuri's cheek so that he cringed a little. "Don't tell me you've forgotten about it already?"

"No," Yuuri blurted. "Of course not. But the coming of age ceremony is supposed to take place on my birthday, right? That's only a week and a half from now."

"In your world," Conrad reminded him. "A single week in your world can mean months in ours. After the ball you can travel between worlds and see exactly how time moves between the two. Then we'll have the proper date to plan the ceremony for."

"Oh. Okay." He wondered if he'd have time to celebrate with his parents before coming back here. Or maybe he could bring them with him. His mother was dying to see Shin Makoku, and he really wanted to introduce her to Greta. His daughter slipped a hand onto his leg and he smiled down at her only to find that she wasn't looking at him. He followed her gaze and jolted in alarm. Wolfram was ash white, staring blankly at the tabletop. "Wolfram?"

"Excuse me," Wolfram said, rising mechanically.

He was barely out the door when Gwendal rose and stalked out after him. Gunter rose a moment later, and Yuuri stood up himself.

"What's going on?" Yuuri demanded.

"Nothing that need concern you, Your Majesty," Gunter said quickly, before hurrying after the two.

For a long moment he stared at the door they'd disappeared through. Then he slammed his palms down on the table, utterly frustrated. "When are you guys going to start telling me what's going on around here?"

"Papa..."

He winced guiltily at having raised his voice in front of her. "I'm sorry, Greta, I-"

"Gwendal doesn't like Wolfram anymore," Greta whispered.

"What?" He took one look at the tears forming in her eyes and lifted her out of the chair, hugging her tight. "Of course he does."

"He doesn't..."

Cecilie circled the table, easing close enough to pet Greta's hair. "Gwendal loves Wolf-chan very much. He just worries about him. That's what big brothers do."

Greta just shook her head, hiding her face in Yuuri's chest. Yuuri shot a desperate look from Cecilie to Conrad, who quickly joined them. As much as he wanted to be a good father, he was completely out of his element here. He couldn't stand to see her cry. That made him want to cry, too.

"Did someone say something to you?" asked Conrad. "About Gwendal and Wolfram?"

She stopped shaking her head, but she buried her face even tighter into Yuuri's shirt. Cecilie exchanged a quick look with Conrad.

"Or did you overhear someone gossiping about them?" Cecilie murmured, in a teasing voice. "A rumor, perhaps?"

Greta stiffened and raised her head, frowning at Cecilie. "Princesses don't pay attention to rumors," she said stoutly, before ruining it with a sniffle.

Cecilie beamed back at her. "My son's taught you well. No, princesses don't listen to rumors. But they do hear them, now and then..."

"What did you hear?" Yuuri asked her, finally catching on. "It's okay," he said, when she ducked her head, "you can tell me anything."

"I was in the kitchen again," Greta whispered.

Conrad sighed, shaking his head at the confused look Yuuri shot him. "She started sneaking in there last month. We've all talked to her about it. As far as mischief goes, it's a minor offense at best. One of the guards always follows her to make sure she gets back to her room safely."

Yuuri hugged her, dismissing her mumbled apology. It was sad that she lived in a world where sneaking to the kitchen for a midnight snack was dangerous. "It's okay, Greta. I did the same thing when I was your age." Without needing a guard to follow him there and back. "Just tell us what you heard."

"They said he's sick of him and he's going to get rid of him." She whipped her head around to stare at Cecilie. "He wouldn't do that. Would he...?"

"Never," Conrad said sharply.

"May I?" Cecilie asked Yuuri, her arms outstretched. She settled Greta on her hip, not minding how her dress rode up a little. "You know all those funny animals Gwendal makes? He's made enough of those for Wolfram over the years to fill an entire room. Ask Wolfram about them sometime. He'll blush and scowl just like a little kid. Wolfram has always been Gwendal's favorite." She flashed a smile at Conrad, who relaxed enough to return it.

"Tell me, Greta," Conrad said quietly. "Are you sure the people you heard were talking about Gwendal?"

Greta ducked her head. "Are you going to ask me who they were...?"

"No," Yuuri assured her. "If we need to know, we'll find out for ourselves." She peeked at him and he smiled back. "I promise."

She nodded back at him, then frowned at Conrad. "I'm sure. They said Gwendal deserved to be king and Wolfram would be awful, and that's why he was sick of him trying to up-" She worried her lip for a moment. "To do something, I can't remember the word. They said he was sick of him trying to do it so he was going to get rid of him for doing it. But Papa is the king. There's only one king. I don't understand."

"You don't need to understand," Cecilie said firmly. "They were petty gossips with too much time on their hands. Whereas we have very little time at all to be wasting on such nonsense. We still have to get you fitted for your new dress."

"Now?" Greta asked, making a face. "But she pokes me..."

"Only when you fidget," Cecilie teased. "Gentlemen, if you'll excuse us now, we have ladies' business to attend to."

Yuuri leaned close when Greta waved at him, letting her kiss his cheek and returning the gesture. "Try not to worry so much, okay?"

"I'll try my best," Greta promised. She frowned up at Cecilie as she was carried off. "Do I have to get new shoes, too?"

"Every new dress must have new shoes to match."

Greta let out a very unlady-like groan, and Yuuri smiled after them. Once they were out of sight, the expression faded away. "What's really going on around here, Conrad?"

"Let's take a walk," said Conrad. "This is a conversation best kept away from prying eyes." He gave a pointed look over Yuuri's shoulder.

Yuuri glanced back just in time to see the servant door close. Judging by the rustling sound of skirts hurrying away from the room, they probably could have stayed right where they were. But if Conrad wanted to talk about it somewhere else, that was fine by him. They could talk on Earth if Conrad wanted to, just as long as he finally got some straight answers.

.-.

Wolfram let himself be guided all the way to Gwendal's office. His brother had caught him just outside the dining room and he didn't have the strength to shrug off the hand he'd latched around his arm. He was still recovering from the shock. He'd thought he had the time difference figured out. Yuuri had said he'd only been away for weeks in his world, meaning each week was less than a month here. He could keep this up for a few weeks. But he'd never asked exactly how many weeks. For all he knew the flow of time in Yuuri's world could be even slower now that he had used his own portal to cross over. If he was facing months, he didn't know what he'd do.

Gwendal finally released him, leaving him standing in the middle of his office. A moment later the door opened and Gunter slipped in. Wolfram flinched when his brother rounded sharply.

"Not you!" barked Gwendal.

Gunter jumped, but quickly nodded. "You won't be disturbed," he promised, before leaving the room.

Gwendal sank into his chair, where any nervous hand movements he made would be hidden behind the desk. His scowl darkened until it bordered on murderous before he could bring himself to speak. "The engagement can't be broken. You made that impossible the first night you spent in his bed."

Wolfram paled so much he worried that he might pass out. Shame twisted his stomach painfully. At the same time he was relieved to finally have it out in the open. He had never expected Gwendal to find it in himself to address the issue personally. The engagement was important because it kept Yuuri from being swept up by someone who would manipulate and influence him. It tied him to the family and kept him out of the hands of misguided men like Stoffel. The nobles would have sent the most cunning and beautiful girls they could find for that exact purpose. That was why Gwendal hadn't challenged Yuuri's proposal. Yuuri was harmless and by his own hand, he'd tied himself to the family. But Gwendal had no part in Wolfram moving into Yuuri's room. That had been his mother's idea. It was revenge, pure and simple. By refusing to take it back and then defeating him, Yuuri had locked him into the engagement. He'd wanted to lock Yuuri into it as well. He had known Yuuri would never touch him, his mother wouldn't have suggested it otherwise, but he'd also known Yuuri was too kind to break the engagement if he knew what it would do to him. He'd been sick of hearing Yuuri speak of their engagement as if it were something insignificant he could ignore and undo whenever he got around to it. So he'd taken the one step available to him to trap Yuuri just the way Yuuri had trapped him. But things were different now. He refused to blackmail him into being miserable for the rest of his life, especially when that meant being miserable himself. As for his reputation, it became more tattered the longer the engagement lasted. Keeping up this farce wasn't helping his reputation in any way.

"I know," said Wolfram. "I accept full responsibility for my actions. It was my choice and I will live with that choice. It doesn't matter what sort of reputation I have. Once the engagement is broken, I won't have anything more to do with the court. I'll be just another soldier."

"You will not," Gwendal growled. "Why can't you understand that? Too many people know who you are. Even in the human kingdoms, you're as recognizable as he is."

"I don't care. I'm sorry, Brother, but I really don't. I'm not going to continue forcing this on him. He is the Maou. He has the right to decide his future." For the first time in months, he was able to give his brother a genuine smile. "And I have the right to decide mine."

.-.

Conrad led him to one of the small plant-filled courtyards. It was early enough for the air to be a little nippy, but the boxed in courtyard was empty, with no doors or windows close enough for any eavesdroppers. Yuuri propped an elbow on the rail while Conrad made himself comfortable against one of the pillars.

"Wolfram is still young for a mazoku," Conrad started. "If he were human, he wouldn't be much older than you are. He's always fluctuated between being immature and too mature for his age, but in the last few months the balance has tipped and it's alarming for those who've known him his entire life."

"You don't seem alarmed," said Yuuri. "You're the only one who doesn't seemed worried at all."

"That's because I have eyes and ears where the others don't," Conrad admitted. "Florian doesn't tell me much, but he tells me enough. Do you know anything about Wolfram's squad?"

"Just that they're all magic users, an elite guard."

"They were originally an honor guard. The volunteers came almost exclusively from Gwendal's men, to keep an eye on Wolfram and protect him when we couldn't be around. They wore his colors so anyone who saw them would know he was never alone. Mother used to show him off, you see, when he was little." He gave a nostalgic smile. "She was so happy to have a child who took after her. She'd greet her suitors with him in her lap, all decked out for the occasion." His smile faded away. "But not all of those suitors were there to see her. It was a rude shock for all of us to realize anyone might target him. He was younger than Greta, just a baby. Mother hid him away for years until Gwendal and I could start training him to protect himself. Even when he started training seriously in magic with others his age, we hated letting him out of our sight. As soon as he graduated, the squad was created to watch him for us. Except Wolfram never saw it that way. He took charge of it from the start and, one by one, replaced all of Gwendal's men with the kids he'd grown up training with. Kids he'd already surpassed himself."

"That's why they're all so young..."

"Exactly. Gwendal's men meant well, but they knew their job was to protect him. Of course they couldn't follow his orders when it meant endangering him, and they certainly couldn't fight seriously with him and endanger him themselves. Instead of learning from them and being protected by them, Wolfram created a squad of kids he could teach and protect. His men were never meant to see battle. Yet he has turned them into the best collection of magic users we have. As the war general, that's on Gwendal's conscience now." He shook his head, smiling proudly. "Wolfram has a better sense for magic potential than his academy instructors did. Either that, or he's simply better at bringing out that potential. Taken collectively, those 'kids' of his could best any group of grown magic users Gwendal could pit against them. And he knows it. He would never willingly send Wolfram into battle, but if the need arose he would have no choice. Wolfram's new training just makes things worse. With the entire squad present, they could defeat someone stronger than Wolfram. But hoseki renders them all but defenseless."

"He said no one had any reason to attack them," said Yuuri.

"That's what he believes," Conrad sighed. "We hid him too well. He doesn't understand yet that he's visible in a way he never was before. What Greta overheard is part of a feud that started while you were away. Many of the nobles were pushing for Wolfram to take the throne. That's due in large part to his training with hoseki. We still don't know how they found out about it so quickly. They were impressed by his initiative and support him taking it as far as it can go. If even one small squad of mazoku can overcome that weakness then our human enemies won't have any defense against us. They want that, and no matter how worried Gwendal is, he can't put a halt to the training with that much support for it. He can't even take charge of it because those nobles are convinced Wolfram is the only one who can carry it out and succeed, precisely because he and his squad are young and adaptable. They see Gwendal as too old fashioned and worry he'll restrain and crush any attempt at progress. On the other hand, some of the nobles are against Wolfram because they fear he'll ruin the alliances we have by making the human kingdoms feel threatened. We don't know how far word of this has spread yet. It's only a matter of time before the human kingdoms find out, if they haven't already. When they do, it won't be our human allies we have to worry about."

"Do you think we should stop him?" asked Yuuri. "Stop the training?"

"No. You must have seen it yourself. More and more humans are using hoseki. As long as you continue traveling to human lands, he'll continue following you there. All it takes are a few well placed stones to render him useless. He wants to be able to stand on his own. We can't deny him that."

"What can we do, then? I asked to go along, with you there so it's safer. I haven't been trained in healing, but I'm sure I could help some. But he brushed me off, saying we could discuss it later. He meant never."

"Having you there would be a mixed blessing," Conrad admitted. "Healing would help if there were an attack, but you should be wary of empowering him too much."

"What do you mean?"

"Right now the biggest thing limiting them is the distance. They have to be far enough from the city that no mazoku are affected by the hoseki, but they can't spend the night out there so he has to stop the training while his men are still able to make it back to the castle safely. If they were healed on the spot, they would push much harder, not having to worry about being in good enough shape to make it back. Although having a healer on hand would be useful, you shouldn't offer your services too freely. Also, while having both of us there would give me just cause to place guards around the perimeter, the targets would be doubled. The field Wolfram has been using is not a good place to establish a useful defense. There are too many civilians traveling through the nearby area to identify them from true threats. The most logical solution would be to have him move the training onto one of our older, more private training grounds. That would mean having him stationed away from the castle."

"How would that be safer?" Yuuri asked, not quite panicking at the idea. "Having him further away?"

"High level magic can be very destructive. There are a few places in Shin Makoku that still bear the scars of war. There are no villages nearby because nothing grows in those areas, so they remain the best locations to train those most likely to damage the landscape or endanger nearby towns. Each area has natural defenses, which is the reason they were the scenes of so much conflict in the past. With the proper supplies, even a small group of proficient magic users could hold one of those areas secure against an outright invasion, let alone a few would-be assassins. From a defensive stance, it's the safest alternative. It would, however, isolate them from far out of the reach of any healers, including you. Some of the nobles have been pushing that as a way to minimize the effect this training has on the kingdom and our allies, while conveniently taking him further from the throne. But it's not a solution any of us support. Perhaps in the future, depending on how things turn out, but not now. Gwendal and Wolfram were never fighting over the throne to begin with, no matter what the rumors say to the contrary. With you back, it isn't even an issue."

"I never even thought about who would become king after I left," Yuuri admitted. He wondered if this contention was what Wolfram had been referring to when he spoke of the kingdom tearing itself apart trying to decide on the next king. He couldn't imagine anyone seriously pitting Wolfram against Gwendal. While he felt he should be loyal to Wolfram, he didn't honestly believe there was any comparison between the two. Gwendal was the obvious choice, with age and experience, and as far as he could tell Gwendal already ran the country even without being king himself. All Yuuri did was talk to people and sign papers, and put his foot down on what few issues Gwendal and Gunter saw fit to tell him about. He grimaced at that. He wanted to know all the things that were going on around him, things a king should know, but he was afraid that even if Gunter told him, he would be overwhelmed and most of it would go right over his head. It was going to take time, maybe a lot of time.

"As I said," Conrad smiled, "it's no longer an issue. Unless you're intending to leave again...?"

"No!"

"I'm glad. We're all glad to have you back, Your Majesty."

Yuuri sighed, "Don't-"

"Yuuri," Conrad said firmly. "You should know that the problem between Gwendal and Wolfram isn't just about his training, or the way the nobles have been bickering over the throne."

"He said that. Wolfram said he wasn't living up to his expectations?"

Conrad shook his head. "He's making decisions for himself. He always has, but now he's stating them rather than sharing them. He doesn't volunteer anything anymore. Gwendal fears we lost him in the temple that day. We walked in there with the golden-haired baby we all did our best to hide away from anyone who would even think of hurting him. The Wolfram we got back is practically an adult. It's painful to have the baby of the family grow up, but it's especially difficult for Gwendal. They were always close. Now he has no idea how to talk to him. They're more similar than any of us realized. Secret Gwendal." He smiled, looking off over the courtyard. "We never imagined we would someday have a secretive Wolfram."

"He is different," Yuuri said quietly, thinking of that dark smile. But then there was the way he'd laughed in the bath. He'd never heard him laugh like that during the entire time he'd known him. Even when Ulrike had reduced his mind to that of a child, his laughter had been wild, bordering on hysterical. His laughter last night had been easy, satisfying, and entirely natural. "I don't think he's changed that much, though. I mean, so what if he wants to keep some things to himself? I don't think that has to be a bad thing..."

"Neither do I," Conrad assured him. "Florian isn't the only eye I've had on him when he's away from the family. Nothing I've seen gives me any reason to worry."

Yuuri's eyes narrowed, and he gave Conrad a suspicious stare. "Have you been having Yozak follow him?" Conrad's enigmatic smile was all the answer he needed. In that case, maybe Cecilie hadn't been the one to pay him and Wolfram a visit last night. "Conrad..."

"I can neither confirm nor deny that," said Conrad. "The fact remains that Wolfram is on the verge of adulthood, and neither Gwendal nor Mother is ready for the baby of the family to grow up."

"But you're ready?"

Conrad's eyes softened as he looked past Yuuri to the walkway they were standing in. "Do you remember what you called me the last time we were in this hall?"

An inexplicable blush broke out on Yuuri's face. All he'd been thinking of at the time was getting the keys back, getting Wolfram back. It had seemed so natural to call him that. "Brother..."

"Yes, Yuuri." Conrad pushed away from the pillar and ran a light hand over Yuuri's head, ruffling his hair. "I'm very proud to see my little brothers grow up. Both of them."

Yuuri stared after him for a long time, that blush holding firm on his face. It might have been hours later when Gunter found him, still standing there, and whisked him off to the desk stacked high with papers that awaited him. He worked his way through an entire stack of them in a daze before that blush finally faded away, to be replaced by a smile.

.-.

Just as Yuuri was about to take his first break of the day, Greta showed up at his door with a little white dove perched on her shoulder. From the way Wolfram had spoken of it, he'd expected her new pet to be an actual pigeon, the filthy sort that were such a nuisance on Earth. Then again, on earth the only difference between the two was size and behavior, so he supposed that might be true here as well. The little white bird perched so daintily on Greta's shoulder was definitely a dove, as pretty and clean as any of the ones he'd seen delivering messages around here. He was immediately charmed when Greta had her friend perch on his finger as she showed him how easily she slipped messages into its little carrier. It turned out that she had gotten a response to his invitation even sooner than he had. He spent a good hour talking to her about Beatrice's upcoming visit, and the new dress Cecilie was having made for her. They both preferred her cute pants-suits, Yuuri because they were adorable, Greta because they were easier to move around in. By the time she left and he headed back to his work, he was determined to take her out for a day of tree climbing as soon as possible. Once she had a full time governess, she'd probably be stuck in dresses all the time, learning to be a little lady, and that would be the end of her wild tomboy days. That idea depressed him nearly as much as the idea of her growing up at all. He swore she'd shot up a few inches since he left.

His wrist was killing him by the time lunch rolled around. He told himself firmly that the half-covered desk he left behind him was worth the pain. He had made some serious progress and was feeling quite proud of himself. He'd even learned a few things from the papers he was signing. Generally the foreign words blurred after a few hours and he was just scrawling his name on pages that could contain declarations of war for all he knew. Not today. He now knew there was a bandit problem near their border that had apparently been a recurring issue long enough that some of Gwendal's men had taken to doing bi-weekly sweeps of the area. They wanted permission and funds to station two retired soldiers and their families in the town permanently. The request came from the town itself, which was more than eager to have them but couldn't afford to build homes for them. He supposed even retired soldiers would be enough to give the residents a sense of safety and discourage would-be thieves. And having people in position to discourage trouble was certainly better than sending them out after the trouble had already started. He'd signed the document happily and headed to lunch eager to ask Gwendal what sort of pension soldiers got when they retired, if any.

Gwendal didn't show up for lunch. Gunter and Wolfram were conspicuously absent as well. Only the fact that Cecilie was also missing kept him from jumping to conclusions. If the real problem between Gwendal and Wolfram was a brother issue, then it really didn't involve him. He didn't want to intrude and possibly make things even more awkward between them. He'd hoped to judge the atmosphere at lunch, so he'd know if it was safe to take his signed papers to Gwendal's office later. Now, he supposed he'd just have to keep stacking them on the floor next to his desk until Gunter showed up. He put his questions to Conrad instead, and received what he could only call a lecture on Shin Makoku's version of Japan's national pension program. He nodded often, a weak smile spread over his face, and dragged himself back to his desk with his head hurting even more than his wrist had. He decided he preferred Gunter's rambling explanations over Conrad's attempts to liven up topics by inserting puns that were more painful than funny.

There was no chance of him getting back into the paper-signing mood after that. He bypassed his desk to gaze out the window at the activity below. The castle seemed especially busy these days. He suspected some of the more stiffly dressed people he'd seen riding up or stalking the halls were representatives of nobles and allies, but since none had show up in his office, he couldn't be sure. A few minutes passed before he realized he was looking for blue amid all the gray down there. He spotted a small group of brown on horseback, talking to a lonely green before riding out the gates, but the majority were what he thought of as castle-guard-gray. And Dakaskos, whose bald head he would recognize anywhere, darting from one gray to another before being grabbed by a colorful trio in skirts and being hauled into the castle with them. Out of all the people moving around down there, he only knew the names of those four. He turned away from the window feeling uneasy.

Was it normal for a king to be surrounded by strangers in his own home? He didn't know any of those people, didn't know what sort of lives they led or the troubles they had. He knew Dakaskos by name, but he didn't know why the man was always running around like an errand boy instead of standing silent guard or being sent out like the other gray-uniformed soldiers. He'd seen those three maids so often he couldn't view them as servants, yet he had no idea if they were mazoku, half mazoku, or even human. Each of them was as pretty as could be, but none of them were married. Or were they? For all he knew, they could be full mazoku and have a dozen kids hidden somewhere in the castle, or away in a village where they sent their wages in lieu of being there themselves. He knew nothing about them. They were all just familiar faces moving around in the background. Just how self-centered was he to have gotten used to this so quickly? True, he was kept insanely busy, to the point where he'd barely touched the tip of all the knowledge Gunter was trying to cram into his head, but these were people he saw every day. He knew more about that little pirate-wanna-be Rick than he did about Gisela and how Gunter had come to adopt her.

"I'm not just a lousy king," he muttered to himself, "I'm a lousy friend."

Morgif grumbled, emoting exasperation, restlessness, and dissatisfaction all in a few groans. Yuuri pulled him free of the sheath, lifting him up so he could eye him better.

"I got a lot done today," he scowled. "I'm allowed to take a break."

The pursed face Morgif made told him that if he were going to take a break, he could at least do something more productive than stand around being gloomy. A condescending moan and a few garbled groans later, he'd successfully conveyed what he thought they should be doing with their time.

Yuuri scoffed, "You lost all that power you had before I left. You're back to being a sword that can't cut anything. Why do you think I hate training with you?" Morgif let out a low grunt. "Yeah, I know I gave your gem to Yozak, but-" Those white lips stretched upward into a high pitched lecturing tone. "Okay, so you helped me avoid Adelbert's blows that time, but-" His sword started a flurry of sounds that made him want to cram his hands over his ears. He gave it a hard shake instead. "I get it, already! You're all pumped up because you got to look cool the last time I used you. Just remember this was your idea. Don't blame me when you get sent flying." He sheathed his sword, ignoring the insulted and arrogant noises it made. It was depressing to have a sword that was better at playing shogi than it was at being a sword. He had no one to blame but himself, though, so there wasn't much he could do about it. He hadn't wanted the humans to view Morgif as a threat, so now he was stuck with a sword that no one could call a threat.

He glanced back out the window. This time he spotted two people he did know, very well. Conrad rode out of the stable, followed by Greta on the cutest little gray pony Yuuri had ever seen. It had a ridiculously long mane and tail, tufts of hair falling over its hooves, but it held its head just as high as Greta did. His daughter riding a horse. He grinned proudly at the image she made, her back straight, the reins held confidently in her little hands. She even had thigh-high riding boots on, which were far too cute for her. He watched them pass through the gate, sighing once they were out of sight.

"You know what that means," he said to Morgif. He rolled his eyes at the dismissive noises the sword made. That was easy for Morgif to say. He'd been hanging off his right hip during breakfast, so he hadn't seen the way Wolfram had looked when he'd left the room. For all he knew, that had nothing to do with Gwendal at all. He could have been suffering some sort of relapse from that training yesterday. Even if it was just brother issues, he doubted Wolfram would be interested in helping him make an idiot out of himself. Yuuri blinked, a droll look falling over his face. What was he thinking? Wolfram was constantly harping at him for not training more. He would probably consider smearing his face in the dirt therapeutic. "But I don't know where Wolfram is. Do you-" Loud snores broke out in the room, and Yuuri glowered. "Right. Useless as always. I'll have you know I don't believe for a second that you actually slept through being carried last night. If it was Yozak, then-"

A light knocking distracted him. He turned in time to see a little piece of paper slip under the door. Bemused, he crossed the room and looked out into the hall. Empty. Even the soldier usually stationed down the way was absent. There were plenty of doors nearby that a person could have slipped into, but if this was what he thought it was, he wouldn't bother chasing. He lifted the paper and promptly snorted. This definitely had Yozak written all over it. Well, assuming he had intentionally drawn the crude map to look like it was done by a child's hand. The only actual child around here was Greta, and he'd watched her leave with his own eyes. Yozak had probably been out there the entire time, listening to him talk to himself, just waiting to slip the map in the second his name was mentioned. It irked him a little that his own sword was playing along with the whole secrecy thing, but in this case he didn't mind too much. It was obvious where the map would lead him. If Yozak wanted to help him without doing so upfront, then he'd just go along with it.

He was considerably less grateful when he found himself in Wolfram's wing after being led up three flights of stairs and back down again for no good reason. Of all the strange and surprised looks he'd gotten along the way, none of them compared to the way the guards here reacted. Their eyes widened, and they snapped to attention with pale faces as if they hadn't tried to bar his way just yesterday. He smiled weakly, nodding as he passed, and walked a little quicker. The map took him through a few more turns, up and down another flight of stairs just for the fun of it, before ending in a boxed courtyard empty of greenery but teeming with blue. He could swear there were more guys than Wolfram had rode in with yesterday. That might have been due to the way they were crowded together, though. Yuuri approached the edge of them, failed to see past them, and finally pushed himself up to sit on the railing where he'd have a view over their heads. There he was, just as the little red x on that rotten map had promised. But, from the looks of things, Wolfram had already found someone to vent his issues on with his sword. He was fighting that blonde guy from the bath, convincing Yuuri that it really was the dark-haired one he'd had a crush on and that some of his jealousy was still hanging around. Why else would he be trying to kill his third in command?

Yuuri propped Morgif up so he could watch the match, since this was probably the most action either of them would see today. He watched nervously as Wolfram rushed the blonde with a furious rain of blows. The blonde met the attack without giving way, his face focused and determined. Then he suddenly tipped backwards. Yuuri's mouth opened when it looked as if Wolfram's sword would follow him down, but instead of landing on his back, the blonde twisted and swept Wolfram's feet out from under him. Morgif let out a grunt that might have been sympathetic when Wolfram hit the ground instead, rolling to the side and narrowly avoiding the sword that stabbed into the dirt near him. A small flash of fire caught the air between them, sending the blonde diving away. He swept a hand over the ground, sending up a tiny whirlwind of dirt that caught Wolfram right in the face. Yuuri heard one of the guys closest to him hiss and mutter something to the person next to him, who elbowed him in the side. Fire swept down the length of Wolfram's sword and he swiped it through the air in front of him, his other arm scrubbing over his eyes. He got to his feet just in time to meet the blonde's attack, which was every bit as violent as his had been.

Yuuri leaned forward, unaware of how close he was to losing his balance. Wolfram looked like he was holding his own, but they weren't just fighting with swords. In the back of his mind he noted that the blonde was using wind, meaning the dark-haired guy used earth and was definitely the one Wolfram had crushed on back in the day. At the front of his mind, he was more concerned with how heavily Wolfram was breathing, his cheeks flushed on his pale face, eyes reddened by the dirt still clinging to his lashes. What was he doing fighting like that after covering the front of his uniform with blood just yesterday? Wolfram shoved his opponent back and snapped his head to the side when the blonde swiped a hand in his direction. Yuuri could see the gust of wind ruffling Wolfram's hair on its way past. Wolfram continued to tip sideways until one knee touched the ground, then his sword twisted and struck the blonde's near the hilt at the base of the blade and sent it spiraling away. Most of the soldiers there backed up, leaving one familiar brown-haired man to catch the sword on its way down. Yuuri barely took the time to recognize Conrad's man. His attention was caught by Wolfram's expression. He was smirking, looking as pleased as could be, and the blonde was smiling back as if neither of them had ever had any intention of killing the other. Yuuri's face screwed up in annoyed confusion. Something wasn't right here.

That guy who'd hissed a moment ago let out a quiet whoop. "The captain is so cool!" he whispered.

The boy next to him snorted and shoved him on the arm. "Challenge him, then, you idiot."

"Ugh, don't rock me. You'll make me sick again..."

"A likely excuse."

Yuuri eyed the two of them worriedly for a second before seeking Wolfram out again. Did that mean the blonde had challenged Wolfram and not the other way around? Somehow, he disliked that even more than the thought that Wolfram had started it. Surely this wasn't a normal training exercise. Right? Wolfram wiped his eyes with a handkerchief, leaving a smear of dirt across one cheek that Yuuri found oddly appealing. He didn't get to see Wolfram dirty nearly often enough. He promptly shifted back on the rail, mentally smacking himself for letting that thought slip through. He watched Florian hand the sword to the blonde, who gave a little bow before stepping back to the edge of the watchers. Then the blonde lifted his head and looked directly at Yuuri. A blush hit his cheeks immediately.

There was no expression on the blonde's face, but he was looking at him as if he expected Yuuri to know what he was thinking. He had no idea what the guy was thinking. Did he realize Yuuri had been with Wolfram last night and seen him with his boyfriend? Or was that look because he was watching the squad now? He hadn't seen much in the bath aside from the liplock, but he'd seen enough to tell him neither of those guys held a candle to Wolfram, even if he had been gay enough to scope them out, which he wasn't. If the blonde had a problem with him watching their spar, then that was just too bad. If being engaged meant they could enter each other's rooms without permission, then surely they could spy on each other's training as much as they wanted. And it wasn't as if he were really spying. Anyone who turned around would see him, including Wolfram. It wasn't his fault Wolfram was too busy looking at Florian to notice him. He was starting to think Wolfram was a little closer to these 'kids' of his than Conrad realized. He didn't like it very much.

Wolfram was almost finished venting. A few rounds with Daniel was enough to tire him out on a good day, which today certainly wasn't. Gwendal still refused to accept his decision. Had Yuuri been anyone but the Maou, Gwendal would have forced them to marry ages ago. With the engagement hanging on Yuuri's decision, all Gwendal had to do was convince him not to dissolve it. Wolfram knew there was a way to sway his brother, he just hadn't come up with the proper bargaining point yet. At best, Gunter simply wouldn't tell Yuuri that his coming of age meant he could dismiss the engagement as a foolish mistake of his youth. In that case, Wolfram could still count on Conrad to tell Yuuri the truth. The worst case scenario was that he'd have to tell Yuuri himself, and even if he did, there was a good chance Gwendal would guilt-trip Yuuri out of exercising his right. He had never expected to be caught up in his own trap. And while he could tell Gwendal he was ready to take responsibility, the idea of actually talking to Yuuri about all of this was horrifying. He didn't think he could lie to Yuuri as easily as he had to Gwendal. He was fully determined and ready to have the engagement over, that was true enough. But he was terrified of what might happen afterward. He didn't need Gwendal to warn him of how many people knew who he was. He'd been hearing those rumors from the very start. It didn't matter how prepared he thought he was, he knew he would end up killing the first idiot who had the nerve to proposition him to his face. Removing himself from the court would keep proposals at bay, but it wasn't marriage offers he was worried about. If the rumors started saying he was as desperate for 'free love' as his mother was, he might seriously have to contemplate suicide. Which, in his case, meant taking a leaf out of Gegenhuber's book and seeking out opponents strong enough to do it for him. The very thought of being reduced to that made him want to hurt someone.

Florian caught his eye, one hand falling to the hilt of his sword. Wolfram smirked and lifted his own sword. He wasn't quite finished venting, after all. That was the great thing about training. The slightest lapse in concentration was dangerous, so there was no room for needling thoughts and worries. Putting on a show for the others was an added benefit, that being the closest thing to an apology they would get for yesterday's training. They rarely got a chance to see him beaten in a fencing match and Daniel had come very close in that last round. As tired as he was now, Florian could disarm him easily. Assuming he had the guts to do so. That was the trouble sparring with him. Wolfram refused to use magic against him, since it would put him at an unfair advantage. And Florian refused to put his full weight into his attacks, since that would put him at an unfair advantage. That left them both holding back so that any spar they had degenerated into a frustrating exercise of restraint. But it was good to let Florian show his skills now and then, and to remind the others that they would be in situations where they couldn't use magic and would have only their swords to rely on. He very much doubted they would be able to summon even a little magic when, not if, he got to include a hoseki-enhanced sword in their training. He had already warned them that would be the next stage. If they couldn't hold their own against Florian now, they wouldn't stand a chance once hoseki was added to the mix. Even a light spar like this served to both impress and intimidate them.

He took the attacks two-handed, feeling his right arm shake with each impact. If Florian would strike just a little harder, he'd lose his grip altogether. Despite how much he hated being pandered to, it impressed him how well Florian could gauge his opponent's strength. The man did the same thing when he fought Daniel, though he eventually disarmed him every time. Wolfram had never been able to accurately judge an opponent that way. He simply couldn't tell when a person was holding back and when they were really as weak as they seemed. He was left guessing, often with humiliating results. The only reason he knew how much Florian held back was because he'd seen him fight with Conrad. Anyone who could last that long against him should have been able to hold his own with him. The only physical advantages he had over Florian were his speed and willingness to hit the ground if necessary. He'd only seen Florian hit the ground once, tripped up by Philipp, of all people, and then he'd been so surprised he'd had his sword knocked away before he could even think of getting back up. One of these days he'd pass that tip along to Conrad. Men who regularly fought on horseback should be quicker to recover from an unexpected fall.

He remained on the defensive until one of his knees faltered and Florian pulled up sharply. Telling himself not to be annoyed, he accepted the end of their duel as graciously as he could. Not very graciously at all. He scowled and sniffed at the man's apologetic smile. Ostensibly, the point of this was to wear himself out physically so the meditation would go smoother, not to wind up bedridden himself. It was difficult enough keeping the squad occupied without Lukas around. He didn't want to think what trouble they could get into with only Daniel to watch over them.

He waved off Florian's acknowledging bow. He hadn't come close to winning that match and they both knew it. Daniel stepped forward again, and he raised an eyebrow at him. Between Lukas wearing him out last night and their matches this afternoon, Daniel couldn't possibly still have the energy to fight. Unless Daniel had done the wearing out this time. There was really no telling with those two. He sniffed and stepped back, letting his third take his place. Daniel caught his eye before looking past him. Wolfram turned just as the two soldiers met with a clash of swords. His eyes widened when he spotted Yuuri, sitting on the edge of the wall across the way. He made his way over to him quickly, confused as to how he'd found them, and uncomfortable at the reminder of the talk he might have to have with him. By the time he reached him, he was resolved to deal with that issue when the time came and forget about it for now. If it really was a month or two before Yuuri came of age, then there was no use obsessing over it just yet.

"How did you get out here?" he asked, stopping on the outside of the wall and frowning up at him. "Didn't any of the guards warn you this was the soldiers' area? You could get hurt roaming around here by yourself."

"The guards didn't say anything to me," Yuuri answered honestly. He didn't plan to mention Yozak's note. "And I'm perfectly safe. You'd have to send a sword flying pretty far for it to come anywhere near me." Wolfram's eyes narrowed, and he smiled at him. "Morgif wanted some action, so I thought maybe we could fight a little. But it looks like you've already worn yourself out, huh?"

"Hardly," Wolfram sniffed. "I could take you in my sleep." A snort sounded from behind him, and he stiffened, paling as he realized exactly what he had just said. His eyes narrowed and he turned slowly to stare at the boy standing closest to him. "On second thought, I am a little tired. Why don't you fight one of my men instead. I believe you just volunteered, Philipp?"

Yuuri winced as the boy who'd been whispering early turned around. His eyes were huge and his face was ash white. The poor kid looked terrified, actually letting out a quiet whine when Wolfram stared him down. Yuuri kept his mouth closed, unwilling to trade places with him.

"My apologies, Ca- Your Excellency. I was caught up in the match and didn't realize we had company." The boy bowed at the waist and stayed that way, clearly hoping for some sort of reprieve. The guy standing beside him glanced back at Wolfram and promptly sidled two feet to the right, putting himself out of the line of fire.

Wolfram stared at that bowed head until he saw the ears turn pink. Although Philipp wasn't the worst on his squad with a sword, he froze up completely when facing someone of a higher rank. Him being defeated by Yuuri wouldn't be a surprise to anyone. But if by some chance Philipp actually won, then Yuuri would be the one humiliated. He'd never set the two to face off. The threat worked nicely, though. "In that case, continue to watch the match. From a different location."

"Yes, sir!"

The boy darted into the crowd, circling toward the other side of the courtyard. A few of the men closest to them shook their heads as he passed. He was well liked, considered the joker of the group, but he really did try Wolfram's patience. If one of his men wanted to poke fun at him, he should at least be brave enough to take his punishment head on. Philipp had his laughs and then flinched, cowered, and cringed when he was caught. Punishing him was like kicking a kitten. It left a bad taste in his mouth and didn't do anything to change the behavior. Once again, he told himself the boy would grow out of it in the next few years. He just didn't know if he could keep him on the squad long enough for that to happen.

The part in the crowd gave him a glimpse of the match just as Daniel tried that sweep of his. Florian jumped right over it without a moment's hesitation. Wolfram's eye ticked as he turned away. He'd tried that once, completely messed up the timing, and landed so hard he'd nearly given himself a concussion. While he was waiting for Philipp to grow up, he sincerely hoped he grew some himself. He hadn't grown more than an inch or two in the last twenty years. If he didn't hit a growth spurt soon he would have to resign himself to never being as tall as his brothers. That was unacceptable. His features took after his mother, so why should his height take after his father? He might as well ask what his mother had seen in a man who was shorter than herself. It didn't bear thinking about.

"You never answered my question," Wolfram said, moving back to Yuuri. "How did you get out here? Did you ask someone where I was?"

"No," Yuuri said honestly. "I probably should have asked someone, though. I walked up and down a lot of stairs before ending up here."

"So you were just wandering around the castle?" Wolfram let out an exasperated breath. He didn't know what to lecture him for first, how dangerous it was to wander off without anyone knowing where he'd gone, or how embarrassing it was for them to have the Maou get lost in Blood Pledge Castle. Either lecture would have fallen on deaf ears, so in the end he saved his breath. "Does Gunter know you walked out on your paperwork?"

"I haven't seen him since this morning, so probably not. I got all the invitations finished, though. And most of the signing done. I can finish what's left tomorrow and be done by noon." He folded his arms over his chest proudly. Instead of the praise he rightfully deserved, all he got was a raised eyebrow. He'd like to see Wolfram stuck behind a desk for days on end. "What are you up to?" he shot back. "I thought you would be taking it easy after the way you guys turned up yesterday."

Wolfram humphed, turning his face away. "I'll have you know we're doing nothing but meditation today. This is just a way to ensure that those of us with more energy will be tired enough to sit still for that long. We should have left hours ago, but I decided to let them rest until noon. There isn't a man here who isn't eager to be out and about after being cooped up for most of the day. Bedrest is not a common occurrence for members of my squad, regardless of the training we're doing."

"Right," Yuuri muttered. He noticed the way a few of the men within hearing distance straightened up out of the slump-shouldered stances they'd been in. It was apparent to him that at least those few would rather have spent the day in bed. He felt sorry for them. The few 'training sessions' he'd had with Wolfram had been painful enough. He couldn't imagine being ordered around by him every day. "So how do you meditate? Just sit on the ground out here or-" Wolfram whipped around, eying him so closely he would have leaned back if he could have without tipping over.

"Gunter has seriously neglected his duty to you," Wolfram stated, surprise taking the sting out of the criticism. "Has he not even taught you the basics of magic control?" Yuuri blinked wide eyes at him, and he realized just how close he'd gotten to him. He quickly stepped back. "I suppose he didn't see it as a pressing concern," he sighed. "You do consistently tap into your power when needed. Assuming that other personality is a manifestation of your soul and not another aspect of Shinou's meddling, you should be able to continue relying on it indefinitely. But if there's even a chance that personality has disappeared along with him, then I'd think teaching you to control your maryoku would be a high priority."

Even if that personality came entirely from Yuuri, he should still be eager to take control of it. It wasn't just the sporadic power surges and memory loss to consider. Yuuri said the strangest things when he was in that state, and the magic he performed was unsightly at best. With the proper control he could handle just about any trouble that came up, using half the power and not coming off looking as if he'd lost his mind. If he were in Yuuri's shoes, he would certainly have started training the moment he realized his potential. Then again, if he were in Yuuri's shoes he would never have relied on an alter ego in the first place. Especially one as bizarre at that detective slash fire brigade slash whatever strange title he chose to call himself when he emerged. His mother referred to it as Yuuri's "Maou" personality, but in Wolfram's opinion it had to be something Yuuri had picked up as a child on earth and simply never grown out of. That personality had more in common with the extravagantly outspoken heroes in Anissina's novels than with any Maou Wolfram had ever heard about.

"I don't think that had anything to do with Shinou," Yuuri frowned. "I remember more each time I revert to it, and it's easier to come out of it. In the beginning I didn't even know I'd done anything. Now...I think I could tap into it at will if I had to. Not that I'm against learning to control my magic myself! I'd rather be learning to do that than reading all those books in the library." He laughed weakly. He'd seen Wolfram reading some of the books Gunter had assigned him, as a peaceful way to pass the time. He didn't expect any sympathy from him and so he wasn't surprised to get none. It was interesting to think this was the same Wolfram he'd seen in the past, reacting in horror to the mountain of books Julia dumped before him. He was just like Wolfram had been back then, so maybe he, too, would learn to enjoy the history lessons eventually. Like twenty years from now. "So? How do you meditate?"

Wolfram waved a hand dismissively. "It depends on the person. The main point is to remain motionless and quiet so that all of your attention is focused inward. You call up your maryoku and then rein it in to a level that you can comfortably maintain. Sometimes it helps to play with your element a little beforehand. But you have access to all elements, so I wouldn't even know where to begin with you. Although..." He shot Yuuri a considering look. "I don't recall ever seeing you use fire." He'd seen him use wind and earth along with his usual water, and even garbage, which he'd never considered an element before and refused to start counting as one now. In his other persona, Yuuri had full control of liquids and solids, and even the air around him. But he didn't use fire. Maybe because it was inherently destructive and more difficult to get rid of once it caught hold of the landscape. "I could tell you about controlling that, but I doubt you'd ever need to. You do well enough with water alone." At least it sank into the ground afterward, calling forth more growth than a thick layer of ash ever could. "Regardless," he said firmly, "Gunter is in charge of your education in that area. Even if I were of a mind to invite you along with us, I wouldn't dream of interfering with his training of you."

"Yeah, right," Yuuri snorted. He'd believe that the same day he'd believe Wolfram had decided to call off the engagement, marry a human, and become a pacifist all in one go. "Since when do you care about stepping on Gunter's toes?"

"Since you left," Wolfram admitted frankly. "It's not my place to interfere with your magic training any more than it's my place to lecture you on tradition. Technically I shouldn't have even worked with you on your swordsmanship. The only reason I did is because Conrad refused to punish you with his sword the way he used to with me. It's ridiculous that the best swordsman we have should insist on going so easy with you. You're not a toddler, after all. But his choice to not teach you is justified in a way, given your resistance to hoseki and ability to use magic anywhere in the world. You'll never have to rely entirely on a sword, so it doesn't matter very much if you're never taught. Magic is different. You're far too old and important to ship away to the academy to be trained from scratch. Learning from an amateur would simply lead to accidents, which the kingdom can ill afford. It's up to Gunter to take your training in hand. Should he suffer the same weakness Conrad has, then Gwendal will take over the training in his place. I have no doubt that Brother will train you into the ground before even considering going easy on you." He tossed his head. "I certainly don't envy you if you're forced to learn from him."

Yuuri leaned forward, squinting at Wolfram. Was he babbling? He wondered if he had sounded anything like this last night when he'd talked about 'old times' and shoved his foot down his throat so far his stomach hurt from it. The airy way Wolfram spoke, as if everything he said was perfectly reasonable, was familiar. But none of the words he was saying came off as natural. More like an actor rehearsing lines. "What are you on about, Wolfram?"

"Excuse me?" Wolfram turned back to him, scowling. "Weren't you listening to a word I said?"

"I was listening. You just weren't saying anything that made sense." Yuuri shrugged and hopped off the rail. With an amused smile tugging his lips, he walked to him and pressed the back of his hand against his forehead. "You don't feel warm. Maybe we should have Gisela take a look at you, just in case."

"Yuuri!" Wolfram bristled, glaring hard at the laughter in Yuuri's eyes. How dare he use that on him! He had been legitimately concerned last night when he'd done that to Yuuri. And calling Gisela on him wasn't something to even joke about. He didn't even like hearing her name spoken out loud. She would take one look at him and his squad and-

"Wolfram von Bielefeld! What exactly do you think you're doing?"

If looks could kill, Yuuri was sure he'd have been reduced to a crispy critter by the glare Wolfram shot him. It wasn't his fault! How was he supposed to know just speaking her name aloud would summon her like that? He snatched his hand away from Wolfram's forehead and clapped it against his other hand, in a praying position. "I'm so sorry," he whispered. Wolfram hissed through his teeth at him, and Yuuri shied away from him.

"Well?" Gisela demanded, coming to a halt directly in front of her target, both hands on her hips.

"We weren't training," Wolfram said quickly, if a bit weakly. He heard the spar break up behind him and knew his men were fanning out to back him up. Judging by Gisela's face, he was going to need their show of support. "We took the entire morning off. All we're doing this afternoon is meditating. We're not even going far for that, just to the tree, and we'll stay in the shade the entire time." He took a step to her, dropping his voice. "Daniel and I weren't affected nearly as much as the others, and Florian wasn't affected at all. We were just wearing ourselves out so we'll be as tired and eager to sit around as the rest of them."

Gisela smiled sweetly. "Those with the highest maryoku are affected the strongest by hoseki. Are you really trying to tell me you weren't affected as much as the others...? That would be contrary to all known logic."

Then logic was wrong. Wolfram gritted his teeth so he wouldn't wince away from that smile of hers. He knew that was how it was supposed to work, but he had seen the effect hoseki had on his men. He had never once felt as bad as some of them looked after a drill with the stones. He certainly hadn't needed someone to help him keep his seat on a horse afterward. The only real problem he had was the bloodloss leaving him with dizzy spells. Like the one that was looming right now. He wished he had the nerve to use Shinou's smile on her. Her smile was just as creepy, so it would only be fair. He took a deep breath instead, as much to clear his head as to calm himself. "You had your chance to order bedrest on me yesterday. You chose not to because you could see for yourself that I wasn't affected as badly as Lukas was. This light sparring session did no harm whatsoever. A few hours of meditation won't, either."

Yuuri watched Gisela's smile disappear, her face darkening into what some called her Sergeant look. He gulped and put himself in the line of fire. "I'm going with him." The thunderclouds parted, leaving sunshiny sweetness all over her face. If his heart hadn't been lodged in his throat, he might have laughed.

"Oh!" Gisela smiled. "In that case, I have no objections." She tilted her head, turning her smile back to Wolfram. "Have a relaxing time meditating. In the future, do try to limit the 'light sparring' so you aren't left as pale as a ghost. All right? If you pass out from exhaustion and overheating on top of the bloodloss, then I'll have no choice but to order a week of bedrest on you. Imagine what your squad would think of you then." She turned on her heel, marching away briskly and happily.

The moment she was out of sight, Wolfram turned on Yuuri. "Why did you say that? Now you'll have to come with us because if she finds out you didn't, she'll kill me!"

"That was the idea," Yuuri shrugged. "Well, not the her killing you part, the me coming with you part. I want to know more about this meditation. And since you've got this whole bizarre reason for not inviting me, I'll just invite myself. Don't worry, I promise not to get in your way."

"My reason was not bizarre," Wolfram snapped. "It was entirely legitimate. Gunter would have my head if I took you out of the castle, let alone to do something that might interfere with his training of you. I have enough trouble without him getting the wrong idea and thinking I-" He closed his mouth, a disgruntled frown covering his face. The light-headedness was getting to him. Bad enough he'd nearly finished that sentence in front of Yuuri without his entire squad right behind him.

"Thinking you what? Invited me along? I'll just tell him it was my idea. He might throw a fit, but he'll get over it. He always does."

Wolfram nodded slowly, still very aware of the soldiers at his back. He'd come very close to making a fool of himself. "Why don't you do that. We'll be meeting at the stable in an hour. If you can get Gunter's permission, meet us there."

"Okay," Yuuri smiled. "I'll go find him right now."

"Try Gwendal's office," said Wolfram. "He'll probably be there."

"Right. Thanks!"

Wolfram watched Yuuri hurry off. He barely lost sight of him before he smacked a hand over his forehead. "Florian!"

"Yes, Captain?"

"Go after him and make sure he gets there safely," Wolfram sighed. If Yuuri had really been up and down stairs, then it was a small miracle he'd ever found his way here. He could be wandering the castle all night trying to find his way back. "You can meet us in an hour or take the rest of the day off, your choice." Florian nodded sharply and hurried after their king. Knowing he was unlikely to see either of them again until tomorrow, he turned to the rest of his squad.

Despite what he'd told Gisela, Daniel did look a little peaked. Some of the others did as well. Just standing in the hot sun had been enough to leave them wilted, despite their attempts to hide it. He shook his head tiredly and started singling the faded ones out. He couldn't remember the last time he'd taken a group out without either Lukas or Daniel coming along. They wouldn't be going far, though. And it would serve Daniel right to be left behind along with his more foolhardy partner. That would teach him not to attempt a match with Florian after going so many rounds with him. If he didn't know better, he'd suspect his third was hoping for a promotion to second. Well, if Daniel improved his magic just a little more, he might even give it to him. It would be interesting to see the two of them competing with each other for a change. Lukas was becoming far too complacent with his role as the 'stronger' of the pair.

.-.
TBC

Chapter Text

Gunter didn't protest nearly as much as Yuuri had expected him to. He did, however, repeat a number of the points Wolfram had made. Technically, he already had full control over his magic. In his Maou state he could perform magic that could have taken a full mazoku most of his life to master. Gunter saw no reason to worry that he would ever lose access to that persona because it was, in his opinion, merely a glimpse of Yuuri's future self. Rather than losing it, he would gradually become it, absorbing it into himself so that he could perform magic just as instinctively. This would happen with age and wasn't something that could be forced or rushed. As for meditation, that was no more necessary for Yuuri than it was for Gunter himself. That was only truly needed for youngsters who had faulty control of their maryoku and hotblooded people prone to outbursts. Wolfram, in other words.

Since this lecture took place in Gwendal's office, Yuuri couldn't help but notice the way his eyes flicked to the animals on his bookshelf at that last bit. Knitting was his way to meditate and 'cleanse his soul', as Gunter liked to put it. But if Gwendal took exception to being lumped in with the young and hotblooded, he said nothing about it. What he did do was suggest that Gunter tag along if he was so concerned with Wolfram having a bad influence on him. At this suggestion, there was a long look exchanged between the two men that Yuuri couldn't decipher. It reminded him of the strained atmosphere that had filled the room when he'd walked in earlier. It seemed Wolfram wasn't the only one at odds with Gwendal these days. Yuuri almost felt sorry for him.

Wolfram was naturally shocked when Yuuri turned up with Gunter at his side. He probably shouldn't have been, though. This would give Gunter a chance to look over his squad, while also protecting Yuuri from whatever scheme he thought this was. It couldn't have sat well with him that Yuuri himself had decided to tag along. Yuuri going out of his way to seek him out was difficult enough for Wolfram to accept. It must have been quite a hard pill for Gunter to swallow. He wouldn't be surprised if Gunter was just as suspicious as he was as to Yuuri's motives.

The moment they rode out, Yuuri realized just what a mistake it had been to bring Gunter with him. Gunter led the way, riding slightly ahead and between him and Wolfram. That was awkward enough considering he hadn't even asked Wolfram where he'd intended to take his squad. Gunter took control of the trip as if it were perfectly natural for him to do so, and judging by Wolfram's glare, the move was an open insult. He was sorry for giving Gunter a chance to start another power struggle with Wolfram. Then there was the distance between them. Yuuri had seen this as a way to show interest in Wolfram's training of his squad, so it would be easier to slip his way into future excursions, even if he wasn't taking part in the training itself. Watching the group meditate couldn't be any more boring than watching him and Conrad toss a ball back and forth for an hour straight, something Wolfram had done more than once. Even if it were boring, it would be worth it if he could get Wolfram used to having him around for these things. With Gunter along, taking all of Wolfram's attention, Yuuri might as well have still been back at the castle.

The real reason he wanted to go was harder to admit. He didn't like the vibe he'd gotten from watching Wolfram interact with his squad. He wasn't worried about Wolfram cheating on him, of course, no more than he was seriously worried one of his men might tempt him to do so. Wolfram put way too much emphasis on virtue and loyalty to risk his own. But seeing them together, especially now that he knew something about their history together, left him worried and envious. Wolfram wasn't just avoiding him, he was avoiding him in order to spend time with them. Even when he'd been right there in front of him, Wolfram's attention had still drifted to those men of his. He felt left out and had an irrational fear that if he didn't do something fast he was going to lose him to them.

As important as Conrad made Wolfram's training sound, he'd probably be spending all of his time on it in the foreseeable future. Thinking rationally about it, Yuuri had to admit they hadn't really spent that much time together at the castle even before all the trouble with the boxes came up. Staying at the castle had always meant spending his days in a room with Gunter and only getting a reprieve when he snuck away or some disaster broke out. Wolfram occasionally showed up just outside the door when he was released for meals, or spent a few hours reading nearby when he was locked in the library. Otherwise, he only saw him in the morning, at meals, and at night. Thanks to this training of his, Wolfram wasn't even showing up at each meal. But that wasn't the real problem. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he was that the real issue here was the sleeping arrangements. Inserting himself into Wolfram's daily routine might make up for not seeing him during the day, but it wouldn't help get him back in his room. He had no idea how to accomplish that. He really doubted he'd be able to move into Wolfram's room as easily as Wolfram had moved into his. Wolfram got violent when he was angry and he was still a lot stronger than him.

He sent a furtive look at Wolfram, finding him still narrow-eyed and stone-faced. That was Gunter's fault, Yuuri reminded himself, and maybe Gwendal's, for suggesting he come along. He glanced over his shoulder at Wolfram's squad. As usual, the collective sight of them made him feel horribly inadequate. There were fewer of them present right now, and he had noticed earlier that the blonde was missing. The ones remaining looked pale and tired, yet each one still radiated 'skilled pretty boy' to Yuuri's eyes. The only one of them he could imagine approaching was Florian, and only because the guy had shown him the quickest way to Gwendal's office earlier. Even with him, Yuuri was overly self-conscious. He couldn't forget what Conrad had said about him and wondered if Wolfram knew that Florian had a crush on him. The idea that Wolfram had known, and sent Florian to escort him for that very reason, wouldn't leave him alone. That would be a really low thing to do. If Wolfram was trying to make him jealous, there were easier ways to go about it.

Ao shook his head, prancing a little as if to remind him that this was their first ride since his return. He patted the horse's neck before sneaking another look at Wolfram. The white horse was as stiff as its rider. Wolfram was in full-out regal mode, his back as straight as a board, looking every bit the prince on his solitary white steed. Someday Yuuri would figure out how to do that. When he narrowed his eyes like that and put on a mask of indifference, he just looked as if he were stoned or half asleep or something. He suspected it was the nose. Wolfram's nose was upturned enough that when he lifted his head his entire demeanor just screamed aristocracy. Yuuri shifted in his saddle, glowering between Ao's ears. If Wolfram really did overcome hoseki, then getting over his seasickness would be easy. He'd have no flaws left except his temper and his strange taste in art. That so wasn't fair.

When he had imagined coming back here, he had seen himself as an adult, visibly older than Wolfram, preferably with a clear height advantage. He'd thought he would at least be mature and dignified enough to stand beside him without looking like some wall-flower of a pity-date. He resented being such a bad match for him. It made him wonder what Wolfram's men thought when they looked at the two of them together. Did they merely see him as the king and withhold any further judgments? Or did they take one look at him and wonder what the hell Wolfram had ever seen in him? He knew none of them would say anything, either way, but he still felt depressed and defensive thinking about it. He couldn't make himself age any faster, and even if he did he wasn't sure it would make much difference visibly. For all he knew ten years from now would find him the same height while Wolfram shot up to tower over him like the rest of his family did. If Wolfram was growing up as fast as Conrad implied, then he might not even have that long. There wasn't anything he could do about it. As for what Wolfram saw in him, Yuuri had no idea. If it wasn't attraction, then his looks had nothing to do with it. Wolfram had thrown the word love at him a few times, but he'd never been mushy or overly affectionate with him the way their mothers were. Their relationship mostly consisted of them butting heads, with a lot of exasperation on both sides. He could only assume that was it. Wolfram liked him for the same reason he'd liked Gisela as a kid, because he argued with him and kept life from being boring. Once upon a time, Yuuri had imagined himself settling down into a peaceful life like his father had, with a normal job, a pretty wife, and very average kids. Then he found out that most of them were demons, his mom ran his dad ragged, and the whole 'normal' thing was only on the surface. He suspected life with Wolfram would be just the opposite. A hurricane on the surface with still waters lying content beneath.

Gunter was leading them to the training fields. Wolfram couldn't say he was surprised. One of the biggest criticisms Gwendal had against his training was where it took place. He rarely took his squad out among the other groups who trained near the castle, namely because those areas were always occupied and chaotic. With hoseki, he had a perfect excuse to avoid placing his squad in a little corner amidst the others. There were plenty of full mazoku training there and even distant hoseki might distract them enough to cause serious accidents. It would have been safer to train here, where training belonged, but then he would have to wait and schedule the drills when there was no one else around. That happened so rarely that it would mean only training once a month, if that. Gwendal knew that, and hadn't pressed the issue, but he still didn't like them having any sort of drill on what was, technically, civilian land. That was a problem Wolfram would have to revisit once they advanced to having actual duels near the stones. Taking them here was probably Gunter's way of reminding him.

Wolfram held his silence bitterly. His men were tired, and so was he. This was a much longer ride than he'd intended to take them on, and with all these distractions nearby it would be much harder to concentrate. He didn't like having Yuuri out here, either. Already, Yuuri was staring around him wide-eyed and apprehensive. They were supposed to be keeping him away from the soldiers, not taking him directly into the heart of them at their most violent. The way Yuuri was looking at the chargers in particular told him that Conrad wouldn't appreciate this any more than he did.

For a moment, Yuuri felt as if he had traveled back in time again. They passed a small army of brown uniformed men on horseback, who could easily have been the same troop he'd seen Conrad ride out with that night, twenty some years ago. But these were fighting each other, the wind carrying the clash of their blades, pounding hoofbeats, and a sense of urgency. It looked far too real. He had decided on total pacifism, so those men would never go to war so long as he was king. Yet they were training as if they would, their battle every bit as violent and dangerous as that spar Wolfram had been having with his own man. Were they all like that? Wolfram had told him bits of it, and he had seen glimpses of it himself in Conrad, now and then. That war had left a deep mark on those who'd survived it. He understood why they would want to ensure they didn't suffer the same casualties if it happened again. But the important thing was to make sure it didn't happen again. Wouldn't it be better to turn that energy toward preventing it rather than preparing for it as if it were inevitable?

Even as he thought that to himself, he already knew what sort of answer he would be given. For them, it was inevitable. From what little history he'd learned so far, the demon kingdom had always been at war. A few months of peace were nothing to those who lived as long as mazoku did. Even the last twenty years of uneasy peace might be like a blink of the eye to them. He doubted he could change that. He didn't think he should even try because if the day came when his ideals fell apart and the kingdom really did have to go to war again, at least this way they'd be ready for it. He would do everything in his power to make sure that day never came. And they would continue to ready themselves in case it did. At times like this he longed for his life back on earth, where wars were things that distant strangers fought and he only heard about on the news and in history classes. They were all right when they said that ignorance was bliss. He couldn't put his head in the sand here, no matter how much he longed to.

Wolfram was looking at him. Yuuri quickly plastered a smile on his face. If Wolfram realized that little mock battle had upset him, then he might never let him near his squad again. Whatever Wolfram said about Conrad, he was just as guilty of trying to shelter him. "Do you guys do that?" he asked, waving at the group in the distance. "Fight on horseback?"

"No."

Wolfram watched as Yuuri nodded and faced the front again. Yuuri didn't do a very good job of hiding his relief. Wolfram was glad he hadn't explained why they didn't fight on horseback like Conrad's men did. He eyed the cavalry group resentfully for a moment before disregarding them. He had tried to get himself and his best swordsmen into one of those mock battles, with Conrad's approval, but it had been a pointless and irritating experience. The men had been too careful to avoid pushing any of them for it to be considered training at all. It wasn't fair. They might have been younger and smaller on the ground, but their horses were every bit as strong as any of the ones Conrad's men rode. In fact, he'd even say their horses were superior because they had been trained to ignore magic, whether it was cast from their backs or right beneath their heads.

After that one futile attempt, they'd taken to having their own mock fights on horseback, but it was more to entertain each other than anything. There weren't enough of them to have anything resembling a real charge. And there were techniques men in the cavalry were trained in that Wolfram couldn't learn on his own, certainly not well enough to teach to his men. Without having those skills, their training on horseback always emphasized magic over swordplay. He tried to make the best of it, though. There was a certain pride in learning to fight on horseback without touching the reins, offensive magic in one hand and the sword to defend in the other. That wasn't something they would ever pick up fighting men who wielded no magic. He knew some of Gwendal's men were far better at it than he was, but until his brother brought it up, he wouldn't mention it. He didn't want his brother taking control of any aspect of their training. He knew if he gave him the smallest opening his brother would end up taking charge of everything they did. They hadn't yet proved themselves well enough to risk that.

Gunter took them all the way to the far end of the field, where the forest began again and there would be a nice shade. At that, Wolfram decided the man might not have intentionally been trying to antagonize him. If Gunter had truly been looking to irritate him, he'd have stopped them in the sun, closer to the groups training, and then dared him to prove that his men could handle both the heat and the distraction. Wolfram knew his men would have proven just that, but he didn't want them to have to. This was supposed to be a relaxing and soothing exercise, not more torture. Still, he supposed he would have to give them a few days off after this. By the time they got back to the castle, they would be exhausted. He already was.

He paused immediately after dismounting, waiting till a wave of dizziness passed. Gunter was conning Yuuri to make himself comfortable near the tree line, all the while giving him a prettified version of what sort of things the soldiers did around here. If Yuuri believed even half of the things Gunter was saying, then he was more naive than Wolfram thought he was. He almost hoped he was. He didn't want Yuuri to turn into a cynic where conflict was concerned, like the rest of them had. That stubborn optimism of his was one of his more appealing features. Eternally frustrating, but very appealing all the same. He quickly turned his attention to the men dismounting around him, watching for anyone who might feel as lightheaded as he had. Philipp was the only one left who'd suffered bloodloss yesterday. The others had less maryoku, though their control was nearing perfection. Unlike him, they actually enjoyed meditation, communing with their elements and nature. Their maryoku might not increase much by the time they reached adulthood, but with their control it would be more than enough. They would never have to worry about using too much and running out the way those with an excess of maryoku and lack of control did.

Wolfram did his best to emulate them. He had to cheat a little, since he couldn't sit still very long unless he was literally too tired to fidget, or mentally too preoccupied to move. Right now he was aiming for the former, which meant eliminating the things likely to distract him once he sat down. He left his horse near the tree line with the others, and then threaded his way through his men. The brothers were sitting together where their energy could feed off each other, something only those two could do as far as he knew. The rest had ranged themselves at a comfortable distance from one another, some sitting crosslegged, one earth element lying flat on his back in the grass. Philipp was sitting near the edge of the shade, biting his lip, and sending furtive looks toward Gunter and Yuuri. Getting him to meditate was difficult when it was just the squad. Today it might very well prove impossible. Wolfram was determined to try, though. If anyone needed this sort of exercise, it was him. It frustrated him to no end to be faced with so much potential and to not be able to harness it.

From the very start, Wolfram had been at odds with those who had an affinity for water. Before he'd met Yuuri, he'd had a few water users on his squad. But they never lasted long. Like healers, they were needed elsewhere. Even those who fit comfortably into the squad were compelled to leave the moment they mastered their magic well enough to be useful. He'd never had one long enough to get used to the way they worked with their element, and seeing Yuuri use his didn't teach him much. He couldn't even ask him how he used it because Yuuri had no idea. Then there was Yuuri's brother. As far as he knew, all he'd done was give him water to drink to form the pact and Shori had been able to use it at his discretion. He supposed he could disregard both of them as being so powerful they simply had an instinctive ability to use the element without understanding how they did it. With normal magic users, he couldn't count on instinct. Philipp certainly didn't have anything like that. He was the closest thing to a water user Wolfram had been able to find on his last sweep, though, so he was determined to make the best out of him. Philipp's magic leaned toward ice rather than liquid, so he wasn't sought after the way most water users were. If Wolfram could figure out how to teach him, he had a good chance of keeping him on the squad for the long term.

Teaching was not something that came easily for him. With Philipp it was even harder. He had great potential and enthusiasm, but he lacked focus. Wolfram knew the boy had a bad case of hero worship toward him, but it wasn't much different from the way Philipp reacted when anyone of a higher rank payed too much attention to him. He was far too self conscious, easily intimidated, and prone to freeze up in embarrassment. The kid was shy, pure and simple. And Wolfram was the first to admit he had no idea how to deal with shy people. Yelling at them made them worse and pandering to them certainly wouldn't help build stronger backbones. He could only hope Philipp's shyness went away along with his childishness as he grew older. In the meantime, he did what he could to work around it.

Philipp blushed when he neared him, dropping his eyes and fidgeting. Wolfram sighed. "Turn toward the trees."

"What?"

"Turn," Wolfram ordered, pointing to the side. "If you're facing them, you'll look at them. If they're at your back, you'll worry that they're looking at you. Face the trees. When you're tempted to look, stare at that tree instead and remind yourself why you're out here. They're not interested in us. There's no need to be self-conscious about having them nearby. Von Christ wouldn't come all the way out here just to watch us meditate. They have their own reasons for being here." The lie came easily and served its purpose. It may not have even been a lie. Gunter was obviously more concerned with Yuuri's interest in the squad than he was in the squad itself. As for Yuuri, Wolfram still wasn't sure exactly why he had wanted to come out here, but he doubted his reason had anything to do with intimidating the likes of Philipp. With one look, Yuuri would realize he was making the boy uncomfortable, and then he'd stop looking in his direction altogether.

He watched as Philipp turned and closed his eyes. The blush faded away, revealing just how bad his complexion was. He'd looked fine when they left, a little paler than usual, but no worse than the rest of them. The long ride had taken a heavy toll on him. If he had known Gunter would take them out here, he would have left him behind. But Philipp needed this meditation even more than he did. One of the reasons hoseki was affecting him so badly was because of his high maryoku. If he could control it better he should be able to handle the drills as well as Daniel. He had the potential, Wolfram just couldn't seem to bring it out. He crouched before the boy and placed a hand over his forehead. Philipp's eyes and mouth snapped open, but he scowled them closed.

"Relax," he said quietly.

He closed his own eyes and concentrated on channeling his maryoku into a soothing ball. It was completely different from calling up an element like fire. No matter how many books he'd been forced to read over the years, healing magic had never come naturally to him. He couldn't even lower a fever, let alone heal a wound. But he could settle anxiety and general discomfort. Anyone could, really, if they were willing to expend a little energy for something so minor. He stopped when he heard Philipp's breathing level out. The boy didn't look that much better, but he was more pale than gray, and he immediately called a blue clump of energy into his palm. Wolfram watched until that wad smoothed into a ball, growing smaller until it was the size of a marble. He was convinced the boy could maintain a higher level than that, but at least he was concentrating now. He left him to it.

Gunter and Yuuri were staring at him when he went over to them. He ignored Gunter and took a seat a short distance from Yuuri. They were the next distraction he'd have to deal with before settling into his own meditation. He made himself comfortable and waited for it.

"Do you often perform healing magic on your men?" Gunter demanded.

As if he shouldn't. Wolfram sniffed, not even looking in his direction. "If I could, I wouldn't need Gisela's services, now would I?"

"Is that what you were doing?" asked Yuuri. "Healing him?"

"Not even that," Wolfram admitted. "I can't heal anything more serious than a headache. I was just helping him relax enough to concentrate. He was nervous at having the two of you here." He wouldn't give Gunter the satisfaction of admitting that the ride out here had been too much for a member of his squad. He caught Yuuri's eye. "It isn't every day you have the Maou himself watching over a simple meditation exercise."

"Uh, yeah," Yuuri winced, smiling weakly. "I guess not. Still. I forgot you were trained to do healing magic, too. I never see you use it, so..."

"He was never officially trained to be a healer," Gunter informed him. He tried to catch Wolfram's eye and failed. "Healing magic requires far more patience and study than using elements because it relies entirely on the person's desire to heal, and their control of maryoku. With elemental magic, one's maryoku is the catalyst, summoning and activating the element, and then fueling its execution. The elements themselves do a portion of the work, so there is less strain on the caster. Healing magic at its most basic is the transfer and manipulation of one's maryoku. There is a finite limit to how much maryoku a healer can expend safely. That's why healers are only used when absolutely necessary."

Yuuri dropped his eyes. He knew that Julia had died from using too much of her energy on healing the wounded. Did Gunter resent Wolfram using Gisela to treat his squad? Or was he worried that Wolfram might be overextending himself? Maybe that was the real reason Conrad had warned him not to offer his own healing services too freely. He was worried about history repeating itself.

Yuuri glanced at the boy Wolfram had been working with. He was sitting as motionless as the others, his hand having curled tight over that little ball of energy. If the point had been to help the kid concentrate, then it had definitely worked. And it didn't look as if Wolfram had used very much energy to achieve it, so... He took a deep breath, shoved down the jealousy he'd felt just a moment ago, and turned a smile on Wolfram. "It's nice that you'd do that for one of your men," he said. "I was starting to think you were a slave-driver."

Wolfram dismissed that, not wanting Yuuri to get the wrong idea about him. "I certainly don't coddle them, if that's what you're thinking. But I'm not cruel, either. I ask no more than what I know they can give." He heard Gunter make a quiet noise of disbelief, and decided to address him directly. "I also take responsibility for my mistakes. If that means performing what little healing I'm capable of, then I'll do so."

"Which is reckless," Gunter huffed. Only Yuuri's presence between them kept him from saying more. What Wolfram considered 'taking responsibility,' he and Gwendal considered being irresponsible. They simply couldn't get through to him that he was more important than those kids of his. His safety and well-being should have been the squad's top priority. But it never would be so long as Wolfram maintained full control over them.

Wolfram didn't bother to counter that. "Are you going to tell Yuuri how to meditate, or should I?"

"I shall teach His Majesty," Gunter said quickly. His back straightened, and he turned liquid eyes on Yuuri. "Not that you need it, of course. Why, you are the very picture of a soul at peace."

Toning the man's worshiping praise out, Wolfram closed his eyes and concentrated on his maryoku. He didn't disagree with Gunter entirely. Yuuri's soul was at peace, because it was Julia's and she had always epitomized peace. But meditation involved a lot more than calming one's soul. Touching one's maryoku, calling it up, and deliberately manipulating it was just as important and that was where Yuuri would benefit from this sort of thing. Despite his 'peaceful' soul, Yuuri's maryoku flared just as badly as Wolfram's did when his emotions were in turmoil. And unlike him, Yuuri had no control whatsoever when that happened.

Yuuri tried to pay attention to the things Gunter was telling him, but his eyes kept wanting to turn to Wolfram or to that boy he'd healed. He'd seen Gisela heal plenty of times, and even been healed himself occasionally. But seeing Wolfram do it, the visible energy tinting his face and the soft expression of concentration he wore, suddenly made it seem intimate, special. He couldn't stop himself from being jealous of that kid. He wanted Wolfram to pay that sort of attention to him. It just didn't make sense. He hated having Wolfram fuss over him, treating him like some weak damsel in distress, the wimp who had to be protected at every turn. He wanted to be the strong one for a change, to have Wolfram wake up with his head resting in his lap instead of it always being the other way around. Yet at the same time he found himself wondering, jealously, why Wolfram had never once offered to heal him the way he had healed that kid. He sighed at himself and tried to pay closer attention to Gunter's instructions. He had never offered to heal Wolfram, either, so he had no room to complain.

.-.

It was late by the time Wolfram trudged from the bath to his room. The men he'd taken out had bathed together and it had taken forever for the last of them to leave the bath. He hadn't wanted to rush them along, so he'd waited as patiently as he could. By the time he got in himself, he'd been so tired he only stayed in for a few minutes. He was determined to sleep in tomorrow and had passed the message along on their way back to the castle. His men hadn't quite cheered, but they'd been visibly pleased and relieved. It would probably be noon before the castle saw a bit of blue moving around.

A low moan greeted him the moment he entered his room. What was left of his good mood plummeted hard enough to leave a crater in the floor. His glare zoomed in on the pale face twisting around on his desk. Then it shifted to the blanketed lump on his bed. This joke had been played out already. What was he doing in here again? And he was asleep! He shut and bolted his door, leaning back against it and frowning at the bit of black hair poking out from under the blanket. At least he'd brought Morgif this time. The sword had noted his entrance, so it would have raised a storm of noise if anyone else had walked right in here while Yuuri slept. It was still dangerous. And frustrating. They'd parted on good terms earlier, with Gunter hauling Yuuri off to the library to fetch a book he just had to start reading before dinner. Wolfram had even gone to dinner himself, and suffered through all the awkwardness his presence inevitably aroused these days. So why was Yuuri here again? If it was just a little bit of petty revenge, then Yuuri should have at least stayed awake long enough to enjoy his reaction.

Morgif hummed at him, and Wolfram stalked over to his desk where he could glower at the sword properly. He wasn't as good as Yuuri at reading the expressions on that contorted face, but he was sure he saw amusement at his expense. He also saw a stack of clothes sitting on his chair, along with that book of Gunter's, telling him Yuuri had come prepared this time. Which meant he had intended to the stay the night when he'd set out for this part of the castle, and hadn't simply fallen asleep while waiting for him to return. He shook his head, bewildered and annoyed by the whole thing. Another mocking noise sounded from the sword, and he untied his sword and robe, tossing the latter right on top of that white face. That shut Morgif up for a few seconds before it started huffing and twisting its face around to knock the robe loose. Wolfram was already slipping into his bed by the time the sword finally succeeded. He pulled the covers all the way over his head and was asleep the moment his head hit the pillow, not even hearing the low reproachful complaints that sounded from the other side of the room.

.-.

Yuuri woke feeling as if someone had dumped a bucket of ice water on him. He sat up with a shocked gasp trapped in his throat, eyes flying around his room in search of the culprit. Except it was actually Wolfram's room and Wolfram was the only person in sight. He was also asleep. He stared down at him for a second before a voice whispered his name out of the darkness. A shiver clawed its way up his back, forcing him to clench his teeth around what would have been a very unmanly shriek had the sound met the air. He stared wide-eyed at the dark across from the bed and the sound came again. Just a breathy whisper that sounded a lot less like his name now that he was paying attention. It was more like a windswept 'oowee' than anything. Morgif? He opened his mouth, relief hovering somewhere above his head, ready and eager to crash over him. Then a glint of movement caught the corner of his eye. His head snapped around and his breath caught in his throat. The doorknob was turning ever so slowly. He watched, frozen, as it turned as far as it could go. The door moved inward a hair to press gently against the bolt. For a moment nothing moved and the only sound in the room was Wolfram's breathing. Then the door eased back and the knob was turning again, slowly moving back to its original position. Yuuri continued to stare at the motionless doorknob until a gasp broke the silence, bringing a rush of much needed oxygen to his brain.

He'd been dreaming. Something weird and nonsensical, that had suddenly turned dark and cold. A glance at the bed told him Wolfram had stolen the covers, so that explained the sudden chill that had taken over his dream. Then something bad had happened that had shocked him awake in a blind panic. He was awake now, had been since he'd sat up to get away from whatever had been in that dream. Which meant someone really had just tried to come into the bedroom. A soft questioning noise came from the other side of the room. This time Yuuri recognized Morgif's voice immediately. Maybe that was what had startled him awake, the creepy sound of his sword trying to speak his name. Because Morgif had known someone was out there in the hall.

He scooted to the end of the bed so he could climb off without going over Wolfram. If the person was still out there, the last thing he wanted was for Wolfram to wake up and find out about it. Wolfram would rush out there without a second thought, giving the person exactly what he wanted. This was his room, after all. It was possible someone had seen him come in here last night, and that he was actually the target, but he doubted it. Either way, he wasn't about to go out there and confront whoever it was. If a locked door was enough to dissuade him, or them, then Yuuri definitely wouldn't be the one to unlock it. He picked up Morgif, shushing him when he tried to con him into doing the brave thing and going out there to face the prowler. He'd been kidnapped way too many times to do something that stupid. Wolfram had only been kidnapped once, but considering how spectacularly his rescue attempt had failed, he wasn't eager to try it again. He carried Morgif over to the door and stood a foot away from it. No sound, no movement. There was a hint of light shining underneath the door, though.

Moving as quietly as he could, Yuuri lay down on the floor so he could peek underneath it. The crack was just wide enough for him to see into the hall. There was flickering light from the torches down the hall, but no feet or suspicious shadows. What about the guards? Surely they would have stopped anyone suspicious from entering the wing. So maybe it wasn't someone suspicious, or it was someone the guards couldn't stop from coming in and doing whatever they liked. It could even be someone who had slipped in during the shift change and hung around in order to peek in on them when the guards weren't looking. He didn't think Yozak would go that far, but he could easily imagine Cecilie doing it. The guards certainly wouldn't be worried about her peeking in on her son, so she wouldn't even have to sneak around to do so.

He sat up and looked closely at Morgif. His sword was ignoring him, that mouth pulled up into an angry pout at having been shushed earlier. Yuuri took him over to the bed where he propped him up next to Wolfram's sword. He crouched down in front of him so he could whisper, hopefully without being heard by anyone who might be hovering just outside the door.

"Do you know who it was?" asked Yuuri. Morgif blew a toneless huff of air at him, which was his equivalent of rolling his eyes. "Of course not," he sighed. "You probably just heard footsteps, huh? Are they still out there?" The pout returned. Leave it to Morgif to be disappointed about that. "Thanks for waking me up." That white mouth pinched out in another whispery 'oowee' that set Yuuri to shivering and rubbing his arms. "Yeah. That's really creepy. Creepy but effective. From now on, you keep watch. Tomorrow I promise to get Conrad to knock you around as much as you want." The sword scoffed at that but appeared mollified.

Yuuri circled to the foot of the bed and climbed back up. He didn't actually know if he'd be able to keep that promise or not. He'd definitely be talking to Conrad about this, but he doubted Conrad would be in any mood to spar with him once he did. He hoped it was a false alarm and that it really had just been Cecilie sneaking around out there. If it were, then he wouldn't have to explain to Wolfram why he'd let him sleep through the entire event. He'd never have to mention it to him at all.

Once he was back in bed, he set about retrieving his half of the blanket. It wasn't even being used. Only Wolfram's legs were covered, the rest of the blanket bunched near his feet and hanging off the foot of the bed. He pulled the blanket up to their shoulders and eyed him closely. He didn't have an excuse to put an arm around him this time, and it would be a lot more awkward finding a comfortable position with Wolfram facing him. He settled with lying on his back, close enough so there would be a little contact but no chance of nose or knee bumping if one of them woke up suddenly. Not that he expected to fall asleep any time soon.

As much as he wanted to pass the visitor off as a nosy relative, he couldn't get that conversation with Conrad out of his head. If someone was targeting Wolfram because of his training, then his solution would be to stop the training. He wasn't worried about upsetting the nobles, but he was worried about having Wolfram turn against him. He didn't know if Wolfram would forgive him for doing something like that. All he did know was that Wolfram was never sleeping alone in this room again. If he couldn't get him to move back into his room, then he'd move in here. Wolfram could be violent when angry, but he didn't honestly believe he would hurt him. He'd give in eventually. And that would give the brothers the perfect excuse to station more guards in the area, protecting Wolfram better without injuring that pride of his.

Despite his worry, he did end up dozing off after a while. He woke later to find the sun shining through the curtains and vague noises filtering from outside and down the hall. By the time Wolfram started to stir, he was wide awake. He was also sporting a vivid blush. They had rolled together at some point in the night and now had legs and arms in places they really shouldn't have been. He'd spent a good hour trying to decide if it was wiser to disentangle himself now or stay right where he was until Wolfram woke up. In the end he stayed, blushing off and on. Wolfram opened his eyes while the blush was on, and Yuuri felt it crank up a few notches until his faced burned from it. He didn't say anything, he just smiled weakly and waited. Wolfram blinked blankly at him for a moment, then he shifted his left hand. As that hand was currently under the edge of Yuuri's shirt, the movement tickled his stomach in more ways than one. Yuuri watched him freeze, emotions passing over his face in slow motion. Confusion, shock, disbelief, a furious blush, then he paled and would have scrambled away if Yuuri hadn't had an arm and a half around him. Yuuri had reacted in much the same way when he'd first woken. After a while he'd realized that however embarrassing and awkward the contact was, it didn't feel uncomfortable in a bad way. Just not something he was used to. Judging by Wolfram's face, he wasn't used to it, either. He pulled him into a hug before he could work up the strength to scramble free for real.

"Good morning," Yuuri said. It was actually probably closer to noon, but he'd get to that in a minute. "Wolf? I'm sorry for leaving the way I did."

Wolfram stared at the pale blue pajama top pressing into his cheek. He was still trying to get over his horror at waking up to find a hand up Yuuri's shirt and a leg thrown over him so his knee pressed right up against- A strained noise started in the back of his throat. He had removed both offending limbs the second he realized where they were. This wasn't his fault. He couldn't help what he did in his sleep. Yuuri was the one who'd snuck into his bed. He squirmed back an inch and froze at the feel of skin touching his back. There was a hand under the back of his shirt. That noise started in his throat again. Yuuri was just as bad as he was! Was it contagious?

"Um, Wolfram?" Yuuri shot a worried look at the blonde head lying on his chest. He'd hoped to get his apology out of the way before he had to meet Wolfram's eyes. But he had a feeling Wolfram hadn't heard a word he said. Steeling himself for the worst, he pulled his arm off Wolfram's back and let him scramble free. He quickly sat up, catching one of his hands before he could leave the bed altogether. "Wait a minute! Just wait, okay? I'm trying to tell you something."

"This is not my fault," Wolfram blurted indignantly. He yanked his hand free and sat on his knees, scowling at Yuuri. "This is my room. My bed. You're the one who came in here uninvited. If this is anyone's fault, it's yours!"

Yuuri blinked in surprise, taken back and a touch amused. "Uh, okay. I wasn't planning to blame you, anyway. It was nice..."

"What!"

Wolfram was staring at him as if he'd lost his mind. Yuuri quickly grabbed his hand again, holding it with both hands this time. "Listen, Wolfram. I'm sorry I left the way I did. The whole time I was gone I was planning to get back here someday. Shori was going to help me open a portal in the lake in Switzerland. You know the lake I'm talking about? We were going to try opening a portal there once we had enough maryoku to do it. If I'd known I already had enough, I'd have come back immediately. I'm sorry I didn't figure it out sooner."

Wolfram shot a quick look from the hand Yuuri was holding to the sincere expression on his face. What the hell did any of that have to do with them groping each other in their sleep? "I see," he said, slowly. Well, if Yuuri was planning to pretend it had never happened, then he was more than willing to go along with him.

"I've been thinking..."

"About a lot of things," Wolfram finished for him, dismissively. He'd heard this before.

"Well, yeah," Yuuri frowned. "I did a lot of thinking while I was gone. About what I'd do when I got back here. And about us." He dropped his eyes, looking down at Wolfram's hand instead. "I want to start over. I'll do it better this time, I promise."

Wolfram stared at his own hand, feeling lost and more than a little wary. "What are you talking about, Yuuri?"

"I'm talking about us," Yuuri frowned. He was making a mess of this. "The engagement. I want to make it work. I know I never took it seriously, and I still think I'm too young to get married, but I have to grow up sometime and you're an important part of my life here. I can't imagine marrying anyone else. I've liked you for a long time, and I've realized I'm attracted to you, too, so while I still have some hangups about the whole two guys thing they're nothing as serious as I thought they'd be. I mean, I've always said people should be free to love whoever they want, so it's not like I was ever really prejudiced against the idea itself. It's just that my mom always wanted a daughter and I never quite got over the-"

"Shut up, Yuuri." Hurt dark eyes flashed up to his, and Wolfram rubbed his free hand over his forehead. "I don't know who you've been talking to, but this isn't necessary."

"Wolfram-"

"Listen," Wolfram said quickly. "When you come of age you can dissolve the engagement as a foolish mistake made in your youth. You proposed by accident. You accepted my challenge by accident. If you had been older and better educated in our customs, none of it would have happened. Once you have your coming of age ceremony, you can explain that and end the engagement with no formalities. It will be as if it had never happened. You don't have to worry about hurting my feelings or injuring my pride. I promise I won't raise a fuss."

"But I don't want to end the engagement." Yuuri looked him over frantically. Did Wolfram want to end it? He couldn't ask. He couldn't even consider the possibility of that. "I want to make it work, I'll try harder this time and do it right. If you'll give me a chance to."

He sounded serious. What if he was? Wolfram stared at his hand again, replaying everything Yuuri had said since he'd woken up. If Yuuri was really asking for a second chance he would give it to him without hesitation. And then he would be hurt a thousand times worse than he had been when Yuuri had left. He couldn't be serious. After all, he'd said he was attracted to him. That proved just how confused he was. Wolfram took a deep breath and looked him in the eye. "Yuuri, no matter how much pink I put on, I'm still male underneath. I always will be."

"I know that!" Yuuri winced. He still wasn't entirely comfortable with that, but the knowledge didn't stop him from imagining things that simply wouldn't have been possible if Wolfram were female. The fact that Wolfram was undeniably male never left his mind no matter how frilly and kitteny he appeared in some of his more embarrassing dreams. He was fully aware of the fact that Wolfram could kick his ass, and in at least one of his dreams he'd done a lot more than that. A furious blush took over his face and he squeaked on his first attempt to speak. He cleared his throat before trying again. "Believe me, I'm not thinking of you as a girl. At all." Everything would be so much simpler if he could.

Judging by Yuuri's blush, Wolfram didn't want to know what Yuuri was thinking about him. His eyes widened as the implications of that struck him like a punch to the gut. Yuuri was actually attracted to him. And considering the way they'd been wrapped around each other when he'd woken up, that wasn't something he could simply overlook and dismiss. He tugged on his hand. "This isn't a conversation to be having while we're in bed together."

Yuuri blinked in confusion. "Isn't that the best place to talk about this sort of thing?"

"No!" Wolfram blurted. Even Yuuri couldn't be that naive. "If you're actually serious, then..."

"I am," Yuuri insisted. "I'm completely serious." If anything, this made Wolfram pull harder. "I'll prove it to you." He leaned forward suddenly. He managed a light brush of their lips before Wolfram finally got his hand free and careened backwards off the edge of the bed. Yuuri cringed at the impact, then scrambled down after him. Wolfram was bent over his knees, holding the back of his head in his hands. Yuuri winced and rubbed a hand over his bowed back. "Are you okay?"

Wolfram shot him a wild-eyed look. "I can't believe you did that!"

He sounded far too scandalized over a tiny peck on the lips. Yuuri frowned worriedly at him. "Are fiance's not allowed to kiss here? Or is there some sort of ancient tradition about kisses that I don't know about?" Wolfram was giving him that look again, as if he were insane. Yuuri huffed at him. "Are you attracted to me, Wolf?" His fiance let out what he could only call a squawk.

"That's none of your business!"

If it wasn't his business, whose was it? Yuuri watched bemused as Wolfram shot to his feet and disappeared into his closet, slamming the door behind him. If that hand on his belly and knee on his groin hadn't already answered his question, Wolfram's fiery blush and quick retreat certainly did. He still didn't know if Wolfram had accepted his apology, but at least he didn't have to worry about his attraction being one-sided. He got dressed and then sat down at the desk to read some more of Gunter's book. He'd give Wolfram a little time to himself before conning him out of the closet.

.-.
TBC

Chapter Text

"Well? Who wants to explain this?" asked Gisela, as she eyed the shame-faced pair.

When she had answered the urgent call, the last thing she had expected to find was a frantic Yuuri hovering just inside the door and a sulking Wolfram sitting in the back of the closet. The latter had an impressive egg growing on the back of his head and just enough blood spotting his hair to have sent Yuuri into a full-blown panic. She'd ordered the latter to stand aside, quiet and out of her way, while she dragged Wolfram over to the chair so she could get a better look at him. It was only after she assured Yuuri that the injury wasn't serious that he finally settled down. Now she had the two of them sitting on the edge of the bed before her, Wolfram glowering at the floor and Yuuri fidgeting sheepishly.

She put her hands on her hips with an exasperated huff. "Wolfram, do you want to spend the next week in bed?"

"This had nothing to do with my training," Wolfram snapped. He could only meet her eyes for a second before looking away. He still couldn't believe Yuuri had sent for her. He'd gotten dressed and was combing his hair before he'd even noticed the bump had bled a little. His mistake was complaining to Yuuri about it. That had made Yuuri feel guilty, which had led to him insisting on healing it himself. Even if he had believed Yuuri was capable of it, he wouldn't have let him. It was entirely unnecessary and more than a little insulting. If this was what Yuuri considered 'doing better', then he didn't want any part of it. He folded his arms over his chest and lifted his head, forcing himself to meet Gisela head on. "I just fell and bumped my head."

"It was my fault," Yuuri admitted, sending an embarrassed look at Gisela. "I startled him."

"Oh?" She looked from one to the other. "You must have startled him quite badly for him to fall over backwards so hard he cracked his head on the floor."

Wolfram bristled at her insinuating smile. "It's not what you're thinking."

"Then it's worse?" Gisela gasped playfully.

"No! It was nothing like that at all!"

"It was just a kiss," Yuuri blurted at the same time. Gisela's smile vanished and Wolfram turned on him so suddenly he thought he was about to hit him. He ducked a little, and then blushed for having done so. "Um..."

"Idiot," Wolfram hissed.

"Oh, my," Gisela said slowly, taking in their embarrassment. A grin crept over her face, her eyes sparkling merrily. "I see. Well, it seems congratulations are in order, Your Excellency." She winked at Wolfram. "With this, you'll pull far ahead of the competition in the Royal Love Pool."

Wolfram stiffened, his hair practically fluffing in outrage. "They're still doing that?"

"Royal what?" asked Yuuri.

"They are indeed," Gisela answered, ignoring Yuuri for the moment. "But I suspect having stolen His Majesty's first kiss will blow the competition out of the running. That is, of course, assuming no one learns about the aftermath..."

Wolfram's eyes narrowed in annoyance. She was about to blackmail him. She thought he had kissed Yuuri, and that Yuuri had shoved him away, leading to his fall. And now she was offering to keep his secret, letting him keep his pride, in exchange for something. Since he already planned to give his squad a few days of rest, he supposed he might as well go along with it. "Nothing leaves this room."

"Not even the kiss?" Gisela teased. "I'd think you would be proud to have stolen that."

"He didn't-"

"Be quiet, Yuuri," Wolfram snapped dismissively. "No one would believe that, anyway." He glared at Gisela. It was times like this that he seriously wondered why he had ever liked her. She was as manipulative as his mother, but unlike his mother he needed to keep on Gisela's good side. His training wouldn't get anywhere without her and she didn't hesitate to remind him any time he argued with her. "What do you want, Gisela?"

Gisela looked from him to Yuuri, who was frowning hard enough to develop a wrinkle between his brows. "Well...I did want you to take it easy for while, but now I think my silence is worth more than that. Much more. Such as the whole story." She smiled sweetly at Yuuri. "What were you about to say? Wolfram didn't what?"

"I didn't ask for him to send for you in the first place," Wolfram said sharply. He stood and pointed her toward the door. "Thank you for your assistance, but it is no longer required here. Feel free to spread whatever rumors you like. People will believe what they want, regardless."

"Wolfram," Yuuri frowned. "Is it really such a bad thing? It was just a little kiss. We are engaged, after all."

Gisela stiffened, becoming a statue three feet from the door. Wolfram let his hands drop in defeat. She wouldn't be taking another step now. She slowly turned her head to stare at him. He glowered back, fighting off a blush that would have given him away completely. Then she looked past him and he saw the exact moment realization struck. Her eyes widened and she eyed Yuuri from head to feet as if to make sure he was who she thought he was, then her eyes flew back to him. He imagined he had looked a lot like that himself, when he'd realized Yuuri was actually kissing him. He envied the fact that she didn't fall over the way he had.

"You..." Her eyes flew to Yuuri again, widening incredulously. "You stole Wolfram's first kiss?"

"Um...we're engaged, so..."

Wolfram snorted before he could stop himself. If Yuuri wasn't careful, he'd end up using that excuse as often as he had in the past. "I told you no one would believe it," he muttered over his shoulder. He stepped to the side, placing himself between the two of them and ending their little staring session. "Do you intend to repeat this?"

Gisela deflated, shaking her head. "No one would believe it."

"Exactly."

"Hey!" Yuuri scowled. "Is that some kind of insult on me? That no one would believe I'm the one who-"

"Obviously," Wolfram scoffed. He didn't bother looking back, keeping his attention on Gisela. "I already intend to give the men some time to rest, so you don't need to worry about that. And..." He hesitated for a moment before flashing a wry smile at her. "I honestly doubt you would repeat any of this, even if it were believable. I'd rather you order me to rest than have you resort to blackmail."

"It wasn't blackmail," Gisela defended primly. "I was merely offering an exchange of favors. I refrain from gossiping, you refrain from killing yourself, and we both walk away happy."

"Except I'm not suicidal and you're not a gossip monger."

"I suppose." She looked past him and smiled at Yuuri, who was still standing awkwardly a few feet away. "Don't worry, your secret is safe with me. And if I may offer some advice?"

"No!" Wolfram blurted.

"Sure," Yuuri said, frowning at Wolfram.

"Try not to startle him next time. If you really want to wake him with a kiss, have him sleep next to the wall so-"

"Gisela!" Wolfram cringed, a blush crashing over his face. "Don't even think things like that around him! Do you want me to tell Gunter that you're tainting Yuuri's innocent mind? Because I will! And that's not blackmail, it's a promise."

"Why, listen to you," Gisela breathed, amusement dancing all over her face. "And here I was, thinking that you hadn't been your usual excessively jealous self lately. Really, you have nothing to fear from me. I'm trying to help you, not steal him from you."

"Ugh!" Wolfram's hands rose to dig in his hair. She was right. He was behaving like a child and it was all Yuuri's fault. "Will you just get out of my room, already?"

"I suppose." She leaned to the side, flashing a wink at Yuuri. "I apologize, Your Majesty. I'm sure you only kissed him by accident and have no intention of ever doing so again. But if by some chance your mind isn't quite as innocent as as some people think it is, I'd be more than happy to advise you. I am a healer, after all. I know all about anatomy, human and demon alike."

Wolfram erupted, grabbing her and all but throwing her out of the room.

She waved over his head, "You know where to find me!"

With the door finally closed behind her, Wolfram let out a little whine and thumped his forehead against it. His mother had gotten to her. There was no other explanation. Even if she didn't repeat everything she had seen, heard, and said to Cecilie, he still couldn't imagine being able to look her in the eyes without blushing now. She had teased him in the past, but never like this. He groaned in disgust, shoving away from the door. Maybe he should tell Gunter what sort of things she was saying in front of Yuuri. He would have a heart attack. He might even ship her off to the Von Christ holdings. As much as he was tempted, he knew he'd never go through with it. He would be too humiliated, and besides...he needed her around. Yuuri was looking embarrassed and confused when he finally turned to face him. That was such a common look for him to wear that he didn't even bother rolling his eyes. He waved at the door instead.

"I'm going to check on my squad. If you intend to get any work done today, I suggest you get going as well."

"Can't we talk about this?" Yuuri asked.

"Not right now," Wolfram said firmly, using the most impersonal tone he could muster. "The day is half over and I have things to do. As the king, I'm sure you have even more things to do than I do. Am I wrong?"

Yuuri eyed him for a moment, and then sighed in defeat. "No, you're not wrong..." He did have things to do. Telling Conrad about last night's prowler was at the very top of his list. He was already starting to feel guilty and nervous for having put it off for as long as he had. He wanted to believe it wasn't serious, but the longer he delayed telling anyone about it, the more he worried that it really was. "Okay," Yuuri sighed. "You win. But we have to talk about this at some point. I won't take it back."

Wolfram snorted. "That sounds familiar. Just get to work, Yuuri. Before Gunter bullies his way in here to collect you."

.-.

Conrad didn't react for a long time. His face closed off, and he simply stood there, staring at nothing. Yuuri would have given anything to be able to endure that silence until Conrad was ready to speak. He couldn't, of course. He doubted more than a minute had passed before his mouth opened and he was babbling like an idiot.

"I thought maybe it was Cecilie. She left Morgif outside Wolfram's room the other night, so I thought it might have been her checking on him. Or us. Unless Yozak was the one who did that? That map he left me was a lot of help, though he could have shown me the quickest way there instead of sending me all over the castle. Not that I'm complaining! It's nice to have someone on my side, it's just that I could do without all the sneaking around. I already know you've had him following Wolfram, so it was easy to guess he'd left the map to show me where he was."

Yuuri fidgeted when Conrad remained silent, though at least now he was looking at him instead of staring off into space. "Um, anyway, I thought maybe you could ask Cecilie if that was her last night. I understand why she might want to peek in on Wolf," or spy on both of them, "but it scared me having Morgif wake me up that way. And I feel bad about keeping it a secret from Wolfram. I just figured if it was some kind of an attack, then the last thing we'd want is for him to go rushing out to confront the person."

"Yuuri," Conrad said at last. "Do you mean to say someone took Morgif from your room and brought him to Wolfram's room? Without Morgif knowing who had done it?

"He says he slept through it, but I don't believe him. If it wasn't Yozak, then he's probably just covering for Cecilie. You know how he is with girls."

"It certainly wasn't Yozak," Conrad said sharply. "He isn't even here right now. He left as soon as Wolfram returned from his last training session. I'll speak to Mother, but I doubt she had any hand in it, either. Tell me more about this map. Do you still have it?"

Yuuri's eyes widened, a chill working its way up his back. Yozak hadn't left the map. That meant whoever had done it could just as easily have led him to a deserted area of the castle for an ambush. And he, trusting fool that he was, had followed the directions without a moment's hesitation. "It's in my room. I guess you don't think Cecilie would have left the map, either?" He sighed, feeling a little sick to his stomach. "I'm an idiot..."

Conrad shook his head. "She's been very busy lately, and she isn't the type to keep her meddling anonymous. She prefers to brag about and receive credit for her schemes. Besides, even she wouldn't have been permitted near Wolfram's door without the guards at least waking Wolfram to inform him of the visitor. No one should have been able to go near his door without being seen..."

"Can you put more guards out there?" asked Yuuri. "I thought since I'm sleeping there now, that would-"

"Not anymore."

"What?" Yuuri's eyes widened, the sudden flash of anger on Conrad's face making him want to back away. He knew he'd messed up, but surely it hadn't been as serious as Conrad was taking it.

Conrad attempted to school his expression, but his eyes remained dark. "I'm sorry, but I can't allow you to continue sleeping in that wing. It's too difficult to secure with so many soldiers moving about at odd hours. I appreciate that you wish to make amends with Wolfram, but it's simply too dangerous. Even if he were capable of protecting you during the night, you don't always retire at the same time. I didn't even realize you had gone in there on your own yesterday afternoon until the guards informed Gwendal of it. Any one of those guards should have stopped you, or at least accompanied you." As none of the guards stationed there had ever spoken to Yuuri, they'd been too cowed to question him. That was just one more reason he shouldn't be going anywhere near that part of the castle.

"Wait," Yuuri said quickly. "This isn't about me. I shouldn't have followed that map without making sure I knew who had left it, and I guess I should have told someone where I was going before I left, but that's all beside the point. If that was an attempted attack last night, then it was on Wolfram, not me. That was his room, and only the guards knew I was in there. We can't let him stay in there alone, that won't solve anything!"

"Agreed. He'll have to move back into your chambers for the time being."

"No!" Yuuri blinked, surprised by his own voice. Conrad looked even more startled. Yuuri pushed quickly, before he could recover. "I don't want him to move back in unless he wants to. I fought way too hard to get him out of my room to order him back in it now. If he's doing it because he has to, then it's meaningless. Besides, his room is more convenient. It's closer to his men, and there's a lot more privacy." He realized his mistake immediately. Conrad didn't react as overtly as his own brother would have, but there was definite suspicion and disbelief in his sharp eyes. Yuuri was reminded of how Gisela had looked at him earlier, as if seeing him for the first time. And, unlike Gisela, Conrad clearly didn't like what he saw. "There are still things we need to talk about," Yuuri said in a rush, struggling not to look or sound guilty. "The best time to talk is first thing in the morning, and that's a lot easier without Gunter barging in on us."

"This isn't a question of convenience," Conrad reminded him. He chose to believe that talking was the only reason Yuuri wanted privacy. Unlike Gwendal, he had never seen any harm in the two boys sharing a bed. Yuuri was probably the only person in their world who didn't notice Wolfram's looks, and as far as he could tell Wolfram was determined to end the engagement altogether. He reproached himself for doubting either of them, even for a moment. That Yuuri's revelations had come as a rude shock was no excuse for taking his anger out on him. "I'm sorry to make things more difficult for you, but this is an issue of safety. Your safety."

Yuuri stiffened, taking an involuntary step back. He knew what was coming and he didn't want to hear it. Conrad was about to give him the line about his life being more important to him than the life of his own brother. Each time he was given that line, he had to work harder to erase it from his memory. He didn't want Conrad to be the sort of person who could say and mean such a thing. So he did his best to forget, to continue believing that he wasn't. This time he suspected he wouldn't be able to erase the memory. He didn't want those words stabbing at his conscience the next time he thought of or looked at Conrad. His eyes narrowed resolutely and he was speaking before he knew what he was about to say.

"No, I'm sorry, Conrad," he said flatly. "Not only am I going to continue going in there, I'm going to move in until I can convince Wolfram to move back into my room willingly. It's important that I do it this way and I'm not going to risk messing it up because you're worried about my safety instead of his. This is about him, not me. If you want to help, then you'll station more guards in the area. It would be reassuring if you can get one to patrol the hall just outside the room while we sleep. You might also look into the shift change. There's a twenty minute window where the guards trade places. That's how Cecilie got me in that first night. The entire wing was wide open. If we got in that way, anyone could have." Conrad stared closely at him, looking worried and conflicted, but not particularly surprised. Yuuri refused to back down. If he had to make it an order, he would.

After a while, Conrad dropped his eyes. "Very well, Your Majesty."

Yuuri didn't correct him. Although he hadn't used the words, Conrad had clearly taken it as an order from the Maou. He suspected he wouldn't have gotten his way, otherwise. He thanked him solemnly, promising to fetch the map from his room, and then he left him before he could do anything to undermine his momentary authority. Like everything else, giving orders without feeling foolish and guilty would take some getting used to. One minor victory at a time, he assured himself firmly. He'd grow into this role yet.

.-.

Despite what Wolfram had told Yuuri, he didn't bother checking on his men. Giving them time off was giving them time away from him. He wouldn't ruin that by popping up unexpectedly. He left long enough to ensure Yuuri would be gone, and then returned to his room. Once there, he wrote up an invitation for Reinhild to visit the castle at his earliest convenience. Gunter wouldn't have gotten around to that, and there was just enough time for another training session before the ball, provided he sped the interview along and Gunter approved of his story. Wolfram wanted to know as soon as possible, either way. He had a letter from the Bielefeld representative that he couldn't reply to until he knew what sort of schedule he and his men would be following. If he had to start searching for a new hoseki user, they'd be available in the meantime to do whatever tasks Waltorana needed done. Hopefully Reinhild would satisfy Gunter. He was wary of what Waltorana might say to him now that Yuuri was back, especially if he got him alone. Waltorana supported his training completely, so if he could honestly say he was busy, the man would agree that the training took precedence.

He also wrote a reply to Elizabeth's last letter. Greta's request for a white filly gave him a neutral topic to start off with. He really wished his mother hadn't invited her to the ball. Although Elizabeth was no longer professing her love for him, she was openly furious with Yuuri and had offered to come to the castle immediately and challenge him again, with the guarantee that she would win this time and set him free of the engagement. She had no concept of how utterly humiliating that would be for him. He put her off as coolly as he could, reminding her of who Yuuri was, and that she herself had given her support for the engagement. She would stew over that, but he knew in the end she would do what he would have done and stand by her word. To take back her blessing just because Yuuri had disappointed her was dishonorable. That he appreciated having her angry on his behalf went unsaid. She was the only one he knew with a temper as volatile as his own. It was troublesome to have her direct that anger at Yuuri, as if he needed her to protect him from the wimp, but it helped him reign in his own temper. She was eager to behave just the way he refused to behave. That helped him put things into perspective. He didn't even consider telling her about this morning's development.

That returned to consume his mind the moment he stopped writing. He didn't know what to do and there was no one he could go to for advice. The simple fact was he didn't know anything about how fiances were supposed to behave. If Yuuri was going to make a serious attempt to do it 'right' and 'better', then he would have to do the same. But he didn't know what that meant. All he knew for certain was that it was inappropriate for them to share a bed, something Gunter had reminded him of more than once. He hadn't paid him any attention since Yuuri's revulsion had ruled out any chance of them doing something improper. Now, that possibility was a serious concern. He didn't care what the rumors said to the contrary, he had never compromised Yuuri's virtue, and he certainly hadn't forfeited his own. Until this morning.

He still didn't know where that had come from. It had never happened in Yuuri's bed, so why had it happened in his? He hadn't been dreaming about Yuuri, hadn't been dreaming at all as far as he knew. Just the thought of touching Yuuri that closely made him feel guilty. He might have considered doing such a thing months ago out of pride's sake, in a final desperate attempt to make Yuuri take their engagement seriously, but this morning had nothing to do with pride or desperation. That had been attraction, lust, and rather than having a panic attack and avoiding him for the rest of his life, Yuuri had called it 'nice.' What did that even mean? That Yuuri wanted him to do it more often? If that was Yuuri's idea of 'doing it right,' then he was going to be very disappointed because Wolfram was first and foremost a soldier to the crown. Soldiers did not go about deflowering their king, engagement or not. He wasn't even sure what that meant and he sure as hell wasn't going to ask Gisela.

His first thought was that his stupid nightgown had worked after all. Or Cecilie had been right about distance making the heart grow fonder. The first possibility upset him. He hadn't minded wearing the thing at first, since it had elicited amusing reactions from Yuuri. But he didn't want Yuuri to be attracted to a female version of him. If that was what Yuuri wanted, he might as well sleep with his mother. She certainly claimed to be willing. The second possibility scared the hell out of him. If Yuuri's heart was involved, then he'd have a difficult time not trusting him. He refused to trust him. He would give him a chance, wait and see what happened between now and Yuuri's coming of age ceremony, but he wouldn't get his hopes up. He wasn't even sure which outcome he should be hoping for. He had prepared himself for the end of the engagement. He knew what to expect and had already planned ways to get around the worst of it. He had never considered what might happen if the engagement didn't end.

Yuuri wouldn't marry him. The very idea of he and Yuuri sharing a marriage bed was laughable. Doing indecent things in their sleep was completely different from attempting such things while wide awake. Eventually Yuuri would be forced to face exactly what marriage meant, and that would be the end of it. Wolfram didn't even think he was ready to face that. He certainly wasn't in any position to help Yuuri accept the idea. Just the thought of having to walk Yuuri through anything like that made his face burn so fiercely that his eyes hurt. He'd gotten plenty of tips from his mother since his own coming of age ceremony, but all of her advice centered around the assumption that he'd be snatched up by an older man who knew exactly what he was doing. The fact that he was male and not the least bit interested in men her age never seemed to get through to her. Even if he hadn't been disgusted by the very idea of being touched by someone that old, he sincerely doubted anything she had to say would apply to a boy as inexperienced as he was and a thousand times more skittish. He didn't have a seductive bone in his body and Yuuri was as far from a lech as a person could get and still be male. He supposed the natural thing would be to talk to one of his brothers about it, but that was hopeless. Gwendal couldn't talk about things like that, and Conrad was probably still a virgin.

Even without marriage as a possibility, there was a good chance he and Yuuri could stay engaged for years. He liked Yuuri, and if he could believe Yuuri honestly wanted his company, he wouldn't mind spending so much time together in the future. But he'd already been through that. No matter what Yuuri said, Wolfram knew Yuuri would always latch onto anyone who caught his eye. Yuuri didn't consider dancing with other people to be flirting, and he thought love should be given to everyone and everything equally. He was by his very nature a cheat. Yuuri would never hear the rumors his behavior caused, and probably wouldn't understand how much they hurt even if someone did mention them to him. He didn't want to go through that anymore. If he thought it was bad now, how much worse would it be a few years down the line? Was Yuuri's company really worth that? His immediate answer was yes, it could be more than worth it, and he hated himself for it.

That Yuuri had kissed him was the most amazing thing in the world. He felt like an idiot for caring so much. It had been a pathetic excuse for a kiss. Yuuri had only done it to prove his point. Wolfram could easily imagine himself doing the same, stealing Yuuri's first kiss just to prove that he could. Had he done so in the past, Yuuri would never have trusted him again. He, on the other hand, didn't trust that Yuuri would ever do it again. Forget the marriage bed, Yuuri would never make it through the kiss at the end of the ceremony. At least he would always remember his first kiss. He would also remember that the kiss, like his first proposal, had been given for all the wrong reasons.

He left his room determined not to think about the engagement anymore. He was getting good at that, forgetting things or putting them aside so he could continue to function without obsessing so much. The next time Yuuri asked him if a kiss between fiances was really such a big deal, he'd simply send him to Gunter. Then he'd stand back and watch the panic attacks. In the meantime, he sought Gunter out himself, for an entirely different reason. He had no doubt that Reinhild would come the moment he received his message, so he wanted to make sure Gunter was available to meet with him before he sent the message out. Hopefully he could keep Gunter focused enough on doing his job that he wouldn't start in on him about Yuuri having slept in his room again. That was a confrontation he'd just as soon postpone indefinitely.

.-.

Yuuri never found the map. Conrad didn't stick around to speculate with him about what might have happened to it. With his mind swimming in paranoia, Yuuri supposed it was just as well. Now really wasn't the time to play detective in an attempt to solve the mystery. He already knew enough to leave him in turmoil. Conrad seemed convinced that the prowler was the same one who'd delivered both the map and Morgif. But rather than viewing those acts as helpful, Conrad saw an ulterior motive. Unfortunately for Yuuri, Conrad chose not to share that possible motive. As nervous as Conrad's concern made him, Yuuri still had trouble dismissing his gut instinct that this was all harmless matchmaking. Honestly, he'd sooner believe Greta had conspired with the maids to get him and Wolfram together. The idea of an enemy bringing him a change of clothes was just too farfetched. What possible motive would a bad guy have to do that? Yet Conrad was determined to think the worst, so Yuuri couldn't push the possibility out of his mind completely. It remained to niggle at him every time he started to think about something else.

It was only natural that he ended up at the window of his office again, distracted and staring vacantly outside, rather than finishing the last of his paperwork. He had far too much on his mind to concentrate. At least he was finally thinking about something other than Wolfram. Despite Wolfram's negative reaction to his kiss, having done it left him feeling liberated. With that out in the open, he wouldn't feel like he was walking on eggshells around him anymore. He was finally free to think about other things he'd noticed since his return.

Like Gunter. The man had been acting strangely since he'd gotten back. He'd sought Gunter out after Conrad left, earlier. Once again, he'd found him in Gwendal's office. And just like before, it was obvious he'd interrupted something. Gwendal never looked up from the documents spread out before him, and Gunter had been far to quick to dismiss his apology for being so late. Not only had Gunter not complained about him wasting half the day, he'd actually seemed sympathetic, as if he felt sorry for him. He worried that the two of them were hiding some sort of political development from him. It wouldn't be the first time they had held strategy meetings and made their plans without telling him anything. He didn't know what to do if they were hiding things from him again. When he asked if there was anything going on that he should know about, Gunter had become flustered and had hurried him out of the room with honey-coated reassurances.

Another thing bothering him, now that he was no longer fretting over how to confess to Wolfram, was Murata. He hadn't seen a glimpse of him since they'd arrived. It was normal for him to spend most of his time at the temple, but with Shinou gone he had expected to see him in the castle more. He had actually wondered if the temple would be closed now that the maidens no longer had the first king's spirit to worship and interpret. Were they in mourning? He couldn't bring himself to ask anyone about it. He definitely couldn't visit the temple himself to find out. Losing Shinou had to be like losing their god. Ulrike must have been devastated, however happy she was to have him freed. What would she do now? Would she spend the rest of her already impossibly long life locked away in that tomb? Or would she and the other maidens be free to lead other lives now that they had fulfilled their duty?

From what he understood, Murata had retained his memories through each reincarnation in order to help Shinou carry out his final end. Yuuri didn't think he would be mourning now. Murata certainly hadn't acted upset while they were away. Then again, Yuuri had never been good at seeing things Murata chose to hide. If he really had joined Ulrike and the others in some sort of mass mourning, then he didn't want to intrude. The things he wanted to talk to Murata about were too petty compared to this world losing its 'God.' He wondered if that were why Wolfram was so upset. Being used and then abandoned by someone who was practically a deity had to hurt. He understood that. He was still glad Wolfram and Murata were far from each other right now. The thought of the two of them talking about Shinou together was a little scary.

Blue moved in the courtyard below, immediately catching his eye. Wolfram descended the steps and stood there waiting, his attention directed to a figure who had just ridden through the gates. The white-haired man dismounted, a stable hand leading his horse away. Yuuri watched the two greet each other before heading into the castle There had been nothing suspicious about the man, but something in Wolfram's stance had him hurrying out of his office. It wasn't until he reached the hall that he realized what it was. Wolfram had been in his 'regal mode', his hand hovering casually close to the hilt of his sword. If Wolfram was that on guard with the guy, then he definitely shouldn't be going into the castle alone with him. Yuuri hurried down the hall, hoping to intercept them. Where was Yosak when they needed him? Or one of Wolfram's squad? He suddenly understood why Wolfram had shadowed him so much. They couldn't station guards everywhere in the castle. And if a little kid like Greta could get the drop on them, anyone could.

He caught them a short way from Gunter's office. A pained expression crossed Wolfram's face when he spotted him. Yuuri couldn't help being a little put out by that. Would it kill him to look happy to see him? He did his best not to let his irritation or worry show. "What's going on?"

"This is Giro Reinhild," Wolfram stated. "He's the hoseki user I told you about." He nodded to the man beside him. "This is the Maou."

"Yuuri."

The tall man offered a differential bow. "It's an honor, Your Majesty. I'd like to express my gratitude for the way you aided Caloria."

"You're from Caloria?" Yuuri asked in surprise. A glance found Wolfram looking just as surprised, as well as suspicious. That seemed a little worrisome. Surely Wolfram hadn't been training with the guy without even learning where he was from. This time some of his worry made it to his face. "Are you taking him to see Gunter?" he asked Wolfram.

"He was invited for an interview," Wolfram said diplomatically. He stared hard at Yuuri, hoping he would get the message and not say anything to embarrass or insult the man. Reinhild knew exactly why he was here, of course. That didn't mean they had to be rude and forward about it. Yuuri must have caught the gist of his message because he closed his mouth. But he made no move to step aside so they could proceed. Wolfram reminded himself that this was the sort of situation he had expected to be in once the guests for the ball arrived. At this moment, Yuuri was the king, and Wolfram would not be the one giving a bad impression by behaving immaturely. If he couldn't handle having Reinhild as an audience, then he wouldn't survive the nobles who would be coming. He blanked his face and gave the smallest nod possible without actually bending his neck. "Would you care to join us?"

"Yes..." Yuuri frowned at Wolfram. There was something seriously wrong with him, but he guessed now wasn't the time to comment on it. Reinhild was staring at him, and he flashed the man an apologetic smile. "I hope you don't mind me tagging along."

"Not at all." They moved on a few paces before Reinhild spoke up. "Not to be rude, but is it customary for the Maou to pay such attention to his captains' affairs, or is it my presence that has you worried?"

Yuuri looked around in surprise. The man was still stiff-looking, but there was definitely a teasing note in his voice. Wolfram was wincing, his face twisted up as if he'd just been offered a big glob of yogurt on a swaying ship.

"I'm not a captain," Wolfram bit out. That was it. He would have to get rid of that nickname. It had been cute at first, flattering and amusing, but they weren't being at all careful who they used it around. If word of it got to Gwendal, he'd never hear the end of it.

Reinhild flashed him a quick frown, "I was under the impression that you were. Do you mean to say you hold no rank whatsoever?"

"No, I'm a lord, of the von Bielefeld line." The man's claim to know nothing about the demon court seemed true enough, because he appeared mollified by that. Wolfram wasn't. He'd been born a noble, it wasn't something a person had to work for like the rank of captain, commander, or general.

"And a prince," said Yuuri. Wolfram shot him a glare, he frowned back. "Aren't you? Your mother was queen, so..." He caught a glimpse of Reinhild's expression and turned all the way around. He'd rarely seen a grown man flush.

"Your father was the last Maou?" Reinhild asked, in a strained voice.

Although Wolfram had been trying to avoid embarrassing the man, he had to appreciate the humor of the situation. At the moment, Reinhild reminded him more of Yuuri, and the way he'd reacted at that first family dinner together, than of Gwendal. The man wasn't the slightest bit intimidating when he looked as if he were choking on a live fish. "No, mother wasn't married to the Maou, she was the Maou. The title of Maou goes to the ruler, king or queen." He turned to include Yuuri in the explanation. It wasn't proper to correct him in front of a guest, but Yuuri had already ruined any attempt at keeping this formal. He was far too friendly and informal for his own good. "Mother is no longer queen, so we're no longer royalty. That's why I take after my father's line rather than hers."

"Oh," Yuuri nodded. "I guess that makes sense."

"Yes," Reinhild agreed. He cleared his throat. "I apologize for my ignorance."

"Don't," Wolfram sniffed. "There was no reason for you to know." It was a mark in his favor that he didn't. The last thing he wanted to was to have the man pandering to him. He hurried to move them along before Yuuri could say anything else to sidetrack them. "Gunter's waiting." Yuuri could hear as much as he wanted about Reinhild's background there. And unlike Yuuri, he could count on Gunter not to say anything that Reinhild didn't need to know. He'd hired the man to do a job on the field, not to brag to him about how important they all were. He was a former fisherman. He didn't need to hear about nobles and Maous. Or fiances. Wolfram was sure Yuuri would have dropped that news on him next. Frankly, it was nice to have someone judge him on his own merit without knowing all of that.

Gunter took charge the moment they entered his office, drilling Reinhild with his most cool and congenial manner. Naturally, he came off as a bit pompous, but Yuuri had effectively rid the man of his reservations. That little chat in the hall had lowered Reinhild's shields enough that he addressed Yuuri and Wolfram as much as he did Gunter. This really was more of an interview than an interrogation. Making friends with strangers was one of those things Yuuri did instinctively. Although Wolfram preferred working with a standoffish stranger, he had to admit he wouldn't miss being so nervous around the man. He just hoped Yuuri didn't take this new 'friendship' too far. Yuuri might be willing to believe everything the man said, but Wolfram wouldn't until Gunter had verified it all.

Reinhild hailed from Caloria. Wolfram shouldn't have been surprised to hear that. He'd known the man had been forced into service of Big Cimaron prior to the alliance, and there were only so many territories that had been stripped of their able-bodied men during that conflict. What caught him off guard was that he'd actually been to Caloria himself. He might even have met one of the man's relatives at some point.

"After the alliance, most of us were free to return home," said Reinhild. His body language tensed, some bitterness leaking into his tone. "Unfortunately, by then I no longer had a family there to come home to. I couldn't return to my former occupation, so I looked for work using the training I'd received in combat. Caloria lacks a formal army, so I took a few posts guarding ships from pirates. When I got word that mazoku were attempting to incorporate hoseki into their training, I headed here."

"And where did you hear about that?" asked Gunter, with a pleasant smile. He sent a pointed look at Wolfram, who glowered back.

"From my niece, Lisa."

Wolfram straightened up in surprise. "I didn't realize you were related. There's no resemblance."

"I know," Reinhild smiled. "She and my sister take after my mother. I started tracking them down as soon as I took to the sea. Once I realized they had settled in Shin Makoku, I asked if there were any hoseki users among your forces. As I understand it, half-mazoku are as capable of using hoseki as humans, so it seemed a natural conclusion that they would also be training in that."

Now there was an idea. Wolfram wondered why no one had thought of it before. Even Conrad had managed to use a hoseki against him, and he hadn't received any training at all. If a full mazoku like Adelbert could learn it, torturing himself all the while, then surely their half-mazoku soldiers could. But it wasn't feasible. It would be too difficult to keep them separate from the full mazoku, on or off the field. They'd really only be useful when they needed to perform magic on human lands. What a nasty shock that would be for the humans, to have their own houjutsu used against them...

"She told me about the work you had hired her to do," he nodded to Wolfram, " as well as the personal troubles she was having as a result. I came right away to offer my own services. I'm not skilled for anything else and, frankly, I'm too old to join another man's fishing fleet. I spent most of my youth saving up to build my own ship. After seeing it sunk, I can't imagine myself starting from scratch. Cimaron took my livelihood from me in order to train me in houjutsu, so it's only fitting that I turn those skills against them."

"You don't plan to go back to Caloria?" asked Yuuri.

"There's nothing for me there. Many of those who were forcibly removed have returned safely, but it will take years before the economy truly recovers. My sister and her husband would like to return once things have stabilized there, but I doubt I ever will."

Wolfram didn't need the look Gunter shot him to realize Yuuri's conscience was about to get the better of him. With a quick nod to Reinhild, he conned Yuuri out of the room before he could insult the man by offering aid, apologies, and promises he couldn't keep. They certainly didn't want Yuuri revealing his ignorance about all that had happened in the last few months. Once they were in the hall, he shushed Yuuri and explained. "Lady Flynn has taken as much help from us as she can. Now the country has to recover on its own in order to prove itself. It's a matter of pride to show their own strength."

"Pride?" Yuuri grimaced. "Foolish pride, maybe. If they need something we have, then we should give it. It's as simple as that."

"Do you think Shin Makoku's resources are inexhaustible?" Wolfram asked, exasperated. "Talk to Gunter about that before you meet Lady Flynn at the ball. Just don't do it in front of Reinhild. He may never intend to return to Caloria, but it's still his homeland. You've embarrassed him enough for one day without offering charity."

"What? How did I embarrass him?"

Wolfram groaned, "You're so clueless."

"I'm serious," Yuuri scowled. "All I did was talk to him. You're the one who didn't even know where he came from. He could have been a Cimaron spy, for all you know. You're lucky he turned out to be a nice guy."

Of course Yuuri was sure of that. One reasonable sounding story and Yuuri was convinced. Wolfram sighed, shaking his head. "You have no idea how fortunate you are to have us around to look after you. Left to your own devices, you'd have this kingdom as war-torn and poor as Svalera within a year. Being trusting and helpful are only good qualities if you don't take them to extremes. Honestly, I'm beginning to think Gunter should let me take up some of your paperwork so he can spend more time making a man out of you."

"Excuse me?" Yuuri yelped. "What do you mean by that? You're the last person who should be lecturing me about being a-" The door opened behind them, and Yuuri flushed. Reinhild quirked an eyebrow at him, making his face darken as he hurried to get out of the way. He hoped the man hadn't overheard them bickering.

"Your Majesty," Reinhild nodded politely. He went to Wolfram and presented him with a little stone box. "I hope I will have the honor of working with you in the future. In the meantime, I wish you the best of luck."

Wolfram froze, not even watching him leave. His eyes were locked on the stone box, that felt far too heavy for its size. This couldn't be what it looked like. His thumb brushed over the smooth speckled gray and black surface, then flicked the latch. The lid popped open and for one brief moment he thought he might pass out. Then he snapped the lid shut, taking deep breaths and blinking to get the red haze out of his eyes. No, it wasn't what it looked like. It was a thousand times more unexpected.

"What is it?" asked Yuuri. He'd seen a flash of something, but Wolfram had been holding the box too close for him to get a good look at what was inside.

"A necklace," said Wolfram. He slipped the box into his pocket and shook his head, staring after the man. Suddenly Yuuri was right in his face, snapping him out of his daze.

"He gave you jewelry?" Yuuri demanded, in something very close to a screech. He whipped around, his hands curled into fists. "Who does he think he is? I was standing right here and he gave you jewelry? I knew it! I knew something was going on with him. I suspected him all along!"

"You did not," Wolfram scoffed, amused despite himself. "And it's not what you think. If anything, it's a token, a bribe so I'll continue to pay him for his services. It's not unusual to stay on the good graces of one's employer."

"It's not unusual to give another guy's fiance jewelry?" Yuuri sputtered. "You don't even wear jewelry!"

"Exactly. Rest assured you'll never see me wearing this around the castle, either. Mother is the one who wears shiny baubles, not me."

"Then why did he give it to you?" Yuuri's eyes narrowed. Wolfram was being far too casual about this. "Does he know we're engaged?" There was no immediate answer, which was all the answer he needed. His shoulders straightened and he marched off down the hall. He didn't get far before Wolfram caught up to him.

"What are you doing, Yuuri?"

"I'm going to find him and tell him to take his 'bribe' back and leave my fiance alone!"

Wolfram grabbed his arm and yanked him to a halt. He nearly laughed at Yuuri's belligerent expression. "Don't be ridiculous. I swear to you this is not some token of his affection, or anything of the sort. So calm down before someone sees you and thinks you're jealous."

"Well, maybe I am," Yuuri snapped. He scowled, dropping his eyes uncomfortably. "If someone's going to give you jewelry, it should be me. I'm your fiance. That's what fiances do. Right...?"

Was that what bothered him so much? That he wasn't 'doing it right'? Wolfram dropped his arms with a sigh. "No, Yuuri. If I were a girl, you would give me jewelry, but I'm not. I don't wear it. If you wanted to give me something, I'd rather be given something I can use. But I've never given you anything, either, so it's not as if you're failing in some way that I'm not."

"On earth people give each other rings when they get engaged."

"There's no such custom here regarding jewelry. Just poke around the treasure room some time. As the Maou, you'll be given as much jewelry from allies as Mother receives from her admirers. It doesn't mean anything untoward."

"So he really was just giving you a necklace to thank you for hiring him...?"

"Yes," said Wolfram. It wasn't quite a lie. Reinhild had given him the necklace to prove his usefulness, and to show his support for the training itself. Even if he didn't check out, Wolfram would be able to continue the training without him so long as the stone in the necklace remained active. Eventually the energy would fade away, but by then he would be able to find a replacement for Reinhild. By giving him the stone, the man was saying that he thought the training was a good idea and should be continued, whether he was the one helping them or not. It would have been better if he could tell Yuuri what the necklace actually was, but he knew that was a bad idea. Yuuri would worry, Gwendal would hear of it, and the stone would be taken away. He would turn it over once it had lost its usefulness. Anissina would undoubtedly be interested in the stone case. He was rather interested in it himself.

"Why didn't you tell him we're engaged?"

This time Wolfram was the one to look away. "I wanted him to respect me because of what I'm capable of, not who I am or who I'm engaged to. He's human, a soldier. Nobility doesn't mean anything to people like him. Besides..."

"What?"

Wolfram eyed him distastefully. "You don't look much older than his niece. I can just imagine the sort of outburst he'd have made if he found out you were engaged at your age. He knows I'm older than I look and treats me as such. If he started thinking of me as a child, too, I'd never be able to work with him."

"Too? You're calling me a child?" Yuuri gaped, all but stomping his foot. "Why are you trying to pick a fight with me today? Is this because I told Gisela about the kiss?"

"Shut up," Wolfram hissed. He sent a frantic look around to make sure no one was nearby. "Don't mention that where someone might hear you!"

"I'll mention it, alright! If you keep acting like this, I'll go out into the courtyard and scream it as loud as I can."

"That isn't funny!"'

"I'm not joking," Yuuri scowled. "You're the one who always went around bragging about us being engaged. Now you're acting like you're ashamed of me or something. If I'm doing something wrong, then tell me already. Because I have no idea what your problem is."

Wolfram flushed furiously. "You're embarrassing me by acting like this, that's the problem."

"I'm only acting like this because you're being a jerk!"

"Then stay away from me! I was minding my own business, you're the one who came butting your nose in where it doesn't belong."

"That's rich coming from the guy who used to follow me everywhere I went," Yuuri scoffed.

"Yes, and you hated every second of it. If you're trying to give me a taste of my own medicine, then congratulations, you've succeeded. You can stop now."

"That's not what I'm doing."

"Well, it certainly looks that way from my end."

"I'm not." Yuuri groaned. This wasn't getting him anywhere. "I'm just worried about you."

"Like I was worried about you?" Wolfram demanded. "There's a very big difference, Yuuri. Unlike you, I can take care of myself."

"Yeah, right. You did a great job of that last night."

"What do you mean by that?" Wolfram's face burned in indignation. If he was referring to the way they'd woken up, he swore he would punch him. Gwendal could haul him off to the prison for all he cared. "You hadn't exactly taken care of yourself, either, from what I recall." He could scrub all the skin off his knee and he still wouldn't forget that.

"Oh!" Yuuri blushed until his ears were red. "No! I didn't mean that! I mean-" His mind provided a vivid image of Wolfram taking care of himself and he nearly combusted on the spot. How could Wolfram talk about things like that after freaking out over a little kiss on the lips? "I can't believe you thought I meant...you..."

"What else was I supposed to think you meant?" Wolfram blustered, his own ears reddening. If Yuuri hadn't meant it like that, then he was the one with his mind in the gutter. What was wrong with him? "Just forget I said anything!"

"That will be pretty hard," Yuuri whined, scrubbing a hand over his eyes. He couldn't get the image to go away.

Wolfram really wished Yuuri hadn't used that word. He shifted his weight, barely resisting the urge to rub that burning itch off his knee. He was turning into a lech and it was all Yuuri's fault. "Can we just change the subject, please? The point is, you don't have to try so hard-" He cringed. "Just...don't do what I did. If you want to 'do it right' then don't do anything I did. Everything I did was wrong..."

"What do you mean?" asked Yuuri. He lowered his hand so he could look at him.

"I should never have done any of that. Using the engagement to force myself on you - and you know I don't mean it like that!" he blurted, before Yuuri could take his words the wrong way. "I know you've been coming to my room to pay me back for doing that to you, but you don't have to. I know I should never have done that and I'm sorry. I apologize. I won't do it again."

"But I want you to," Yuuri said quickly. "I didn't go to your room for payback. Well, maybe a little payback, you should have seen your expression. It was great. Um," he winced at Wolfram's glare, "but that was just a side benefit. Honest, that wasn't the real reason I went in there. I missed you. My bed is too big for just me, and I miss getting to talk to you in the morning when you're all grumpy and cute...uh, that didn't come out right." He huffed in exasperation. "What I'm trying to say is I like sleeping with you. I liked it before I left, I just got so used to complaining about it that it became a routine. You'd call me a wimp too scared to sleep by myself and I'd whine about you stealing my bed and kicking me out of it in your sleep...you know, our usual interaction and all...um..." He blinked dumbly and gave up. He might as well just tell him and get it over with. "I'm moving into your room. I'll be sleeping in there with you from now on."

"What!"

Wolfram's shriek bounced off the walls, striking his ears like an icepick. Yuuri cringed painfully. "Yeah. Sangria already started moving my clothes in there. So...we're roommates again."

"You...!" Wolfram grabbed the front of his uniform and shook him, his eyes livid. "You just decided this on your own? What makes you think you can do that? Eh?"

"I'm your fiance," Yuuri squeaked.

"Not if you're dead, you're not!"

"Don't spill blood in the hallway, the maids have enough to do as it is," Anissina commented, strolling past the two.

Wolfram froze mid-shake, Yuuri hanging limply at the end of his fist. His eyes followed her as far as possible without turning his head. Then he looked at Yuuri. The wimp was back for less than a week and here he was, reverting back to form. He hated his life. All of the fight drained out of him and he released his hold, watching dully as Yuuri skittered to a safe distance. Then he turned away, trudging off in the direction of a room that was no longer his alone.

"Um, Wolfram...?" Yuuri watched him walk away, too wary to follow. "I'll see you tonight!" A bristle started from Wolfram's feet all the way to his shoulders, but he didn't slow or look around, so Yuuri supposed that meant he had accepted the new arrangement. A slow smile spread over his face. Wolfram had taken that much better than he had expected.

.-.
TBC

Chapter Text

Wolfram's room had been invaded. There was a second desk shoved right up against his own, an oversized nightstand that was too tall for the bed had been pressed right next to it to make room for the gigantic dresser, and he hadn't even stepped through the doorway to see what might be crammed into the other corner of the room. There was a black rug on what little space remained visible of the floor. Yuuri had never had a black rug in his room. Where had the thing come from? And his curtains had been replaced. There had been nothing wrong with his curtains! He'd had those curtains for the last eighteen years and now they were gone, no doubt stuffed in the same chest the ones currently hanging there had come from. If his room had been a tad bigger, he was sure they'd have stuffed Yuuri's enormous bed into the room as well. Clothes, Yuuri had said. He didn't even want to imagine what his closet looked like now.

He closed the door without stepping inside. The maids couldn't have moved that furniture on their own. He would find the man who had helped them and set his hair on fire. Unless it was Dakaskos, in which case he'd set the back of his pants on fire before forcing him to march that mess right back to the Maou's wing. Or wherever he'd gotten it from. That dresser was absolutely uncalled-for. He knew very well that Yuuri didn't own any more spare uniforms than he did, and only enough casual clothing to fill two shelves in his own closet. He'd never seen Yuuri use anything more than the first drawer of his dresser in the entire time he'd shared his room. Just how many drawers did the maids think a man needed for undergarments and pajamas? Unless the others were full of linens or...

He opened his door, took one look at his bed, and then slammed the door as hard as he could. That was not Yuuri's bedspread. Yuuri had never owned a black bedspread. What made them think he needed one now? But he didn't need to ask because it was painfully obvious. The two touches of blue he'd had in his room, his blanket and curtains, were now black. His room, the only sanctuary he had in this entire castle, was now the most cramped and gloomy room he had ever seen. And he would have to sleep in there tonight because if he caught so much as a glimpse of the people responsible for this right now he wouldn't be able to stop himself from killing them.

"Sir...? Is something wrong...?"

His eyes snapped to the side, and he bared his teeth at the concerned guard. "Go away."

"Yes, sir!"

Wolfram watched him go. The guard stumbled in his haste, catching the other guard and dragging him off to the far end of the hall. The two men hesitated there, sent another look at him, and then darted around the corner. He had a strong urge to go after them. No, he decided, he really didn't need to be anywhere near the maids at the moment. He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths. It didn't help. With all of that air in his lungs, it was even harder not to yell. At least he didn't have to worry about taking it out on Yuuri. There was a far more willing source of stress relief right next door.

For a moment he wondered whether to knock or scratch. After one gloomy glare at his own door, he decided this was urgent enough to startle them. He rapped hard on the door. It only took a moment before Daniel opened up, proving that even they didn't mess around in broad daylight. "May I intrude?"

"Of course," Daniel smiled. "I heard you would be avoiding us today. This is a pleasant surprise."

"I was giving you time away from me," Wolfram sniffed. "You're supposed to be grateful." He stepped into the room and his eyes were immediately drawn to Lukas, who was lounging on the bed with his dirty shoes propped on the pillow. Wolfram's nose wrinkled. "I see your manners haven't improved."

Daniel sighed, taking full responsibility. "I do try, but you see what I have to work with."'

"Message taken," Lukas said, rolling his eyes. He sat up and folded his legs under him. "So, to what do we owe this honor? And please don't tell me it's Lady Gisela again. If I have to spend another day in bed, he'll kill me. I'd rather face a field full of hoseki than be at his mercy like this."

Wolfram snorted, amused despite himself. "Funny you should mention that. Reinhild was here. I don't know how his interview went yet, but he left me a parting gift. Are you feeling up to performing a shield?"

Lukas rocked forward, his eyes wide. "He didn't!"

"A shield?" Wolfram prodded, "Around me, if you please." The air shimmered around him. Even at such close range it was a tacky shield, not nearly as strong or translucent as what Gwendal could perform. He shook his head, exchanging a knowing look with Daniel. "Two years practicing and this is the best he can do..."

"It's not for lack of trying," Daniel said kindly. "I just don't think he has a knack for this sort of thing."

"You can't even make a shield," Lukas scoffed. "At least I can block maryoku without blowing the walls down."

"Enough," Wolfram interrupted them. "Take a good look and tell me if you feel anything. If your shield can block this, then I won't say any more about the shoddy appearance. For now."

Lukas winced, "It doesn't look that bad."

"It really does," Daniel informed him. He clasped his hands behind his back and turned his full attention on Wolfram. "Sorry, Captain. You know I have to get the last word in."

Wolfram rolled his eyes. "I know. Now look." He pulled the box out and opened it up, tilting it so they could see the stone. Confined as it was, the energy crashed over him so he wavered before he could get his maryoku active enough to counter it. His stomach immediately cramped up, making him glad he had slept through breakfast. "Can you feel anything?"

"Nothing," said Daniel.

"Good." Wolfram snapped the lid shut and flicked a hand at Lukas. "Drop the shield and leave the room."

Lukas jumped to his feet, nothing joking about his manner now. "Please, Captain. I may have had a mishap the other day, but I swear I can handle being near a hoseki that size."

"It's stronger than it looks. Besides, I want to know if you can feel anything from outside the room." His eyes narrowed when it looked like Lukas would argue. "Now."

"Yes, sir."

Wolfram waited till he was gone, and then frowned at Daniel. "How is he, really?"

"He's been having dizzy spells from the blood-loss, but otherwise he's fine. He says he just forgot to take shallow breaths. One deep breath was all it took to start him coughing and then..." Daniel shrugged, sighing softly. "You were there."

"Have you been feeling dizzy?" asked Wolfram.

"Yes."

"So have I. I don't think there's any way around that." He waved Daniel over to the door and then moved as far from it as he could get. "This really is stronger than it should be, considering the size. Yet the case seems to block it entirely. Come closer if you're able, but don't force yourself. I mean that."

"I won't."

He opened the box again. The energy wasn't as overpowering without the shield, but it still felt stronger than he would have expected from such a small stone. Daniel didn't so much as flinch, so maybe it was the proximity. The blonde approached, getting to within a foot of him before he grimaced. Wolfram didn't prod him to come any closer than that. "What do you think?"

"It's much too strong at this distance. And it's a necklace. I sincerely hope you have no intention of ever wearing that."

Wolfram raised an eyebrow. "Is that a challenge?"

"No, Captain. But it's definitely a challenge from Reinhild. I'm hoping you won't take him up on it."

Wolfram nodded, snapping the box shut. He slipped it back into his pocket. "If he was telling the truth, then he wants to strengthen our forces as a form of revenge against Cimaron. His story is a little too convenient, though. You can let Lukas back in, now."

"Can we make him wait a little longer? He gets so nervous at the thought of me being alone with you. He doesn't understand that he's the bad influence, not me."

"He's just afraid I'll give you his job," Wolfram scoffed. He opened the door himself, stepping deftly aside when Lukas came spilling in. "It's rude to listen at the door."

"Unless it's my door," Lukas grumbled.

"Well?" asked Daniel. "Did you sense anything?"

Lukas ignored him. He leaned against the door, not speaking until Wolfram repeated the question. "No," he drawled, "I didn't sense a thing. But I did see a king." He smirked when Wolfram's eyebrow twitched. "He stared at me. For a good two minutes. It was very awkward."

"That's odd," said Daniel. "He was staring at me yesterday. I can't imagine why."

Wolfram flicked a glare from one to the other, not the least bit amused. "Maybe that's because the two of you were kissing in the bath. Again."

Daniel gasped, a pretty pink blush rising to his cheeks right on cue. "His Majesty saw me naked? With him?"

"You're one to talk," Lukas sniffed. "How do you think I feel? I had to stand out there with him for two minutes. I was this close to ducking into Philipp's room. And I would have stayed in there, too. He's cuter than you, anyway."

"He has a girlfriend."

"He does not. Everyone knows he's lying about that."

"Stop it," Wolfram snapped. "I'm serious. No more messing around in the bath. Or in the halls, for that matter."

Daniel frowned indignantly at him. "We've never done that."

"Because you're a prude," Lukas muttered. "Don't worry, Captain. He won't let me near him in the halls, doesn't want to give the maids a show."

"They twitter," Daniel shivered, rubbing his arms. "You don't even have to put on a show. Every time they see a guy, they twitter. You can't even walk past them without that...that...twitter. It's disturbing."

Wolfram's mouth twitched. At least he wasn't the only one unfond of the maids. "Just try to keep the displays of affection limited to your room for a while."

Lukas tilted his head against the door, his expression entirely serious now. "How long is a while?"

"I don't know," Wolfram admitted. "Just keep it to your room until I say otherwise."

"Understood."

"I'll see to it that he obeys," Daniel promised.

"Oh?" Lukas drawled, smirking again. "So you're going to lend a helping hand?"

"Not if you don't move away from the door. I doubt His Excellency would appreciate the view."

"I wouldn't," Wolfram said blandly. "Move, Lukas. Now."

"Oh, right," Lukas winced. "Sorry, Captain. I wasn't really trying to block your exit. I just forgot this was the only door out of here."

"I'm sure. Take tomorrow off as well. If you get bored, practice that pathetic looking shield of yours."

"It didn't look that bad," Lukas whined.

"It really did," Daniel said sadly.

Wolfram shut the door on their bickering. He turned away and abruptly found himself glaring again. The guards were back, except now there were three of them, standing much closer to his room than usual. This time he couldn't even complain about the change. There would have to be more guards in this wing with Yuuri moving into it. But for them to be here already reeked of Conrad. Gwendal would never have gone along with this. He turned his back and entered his room too quickly for them to catch a glimpse of the morbid black pit it had become. Only his room wasn't quite as black as it had been. He entered just in time to catch Yuuri stuffing the carpet under the bed.

Yuuri stared at him for a moment, feeling very foolish. Then he jumped to his feet. "This wasn't my idea! Honestly, I had no idea they would do this. My room never looked like this, so I don't know what they were thinking. I'll have it back to normal by tomorrow afternoon, I promise."

"Relax," Wolfram sighed. "I know this wasn't your idea. The maids hate me, that's all."

"That's not true. I'm sure they were just trying to..." His eyes moved from the curtains to the bed, and he winced. "To do something nice...for one of us...maybe. I don't know what they were trying to do, exactly, but I'm sure they didn't mean any harm. Anyway, I'll fix it."

"No. The ones who did this will undo it first thing tomorrow. I'll see to that." He crossed to his desk and sat down. He considered putting up a good front, but decided against it. He didn't feel good at all. "I won't be going to dinner, so if you were waiting for me, there's no need."

"Why not? We slept through breakfast. And missed lunch! At least, I did..."

Wolfram frowned at his reflection for a moment before looking up to where Yuuri was reflected over his shoulder. His eyes narrowed. If he was going to give him a chance, he might as well start with this. "Can you keep a secret, Yuuri?"

"Of course I can," Yuuri frowned. "What-"

"Catch."

Yuuri was caught off guard, but as high as Wolfram's overhanded toss was, he caught the box easily. He couldn't help giving him a wincing smile. "One of these days I'll teach you how to throw things without lobbing them as if they're fireballs."

"Just open it," Wolfram muttered. "You wanted to see what he gave me, didn't you?"

"Yeah," Yuuri admitted. He opened the box, holding it away from himself when the glow struck his eyes. "It's red," he frowned. "I thought it would at least be green or blue." He pulled it free so he could turn it over. It was just a roundish red stone with a metal spike stuck in the middle and a loop of string for the 'chain'. "Does this even count as jewelry? I mean, the glow is pretty, but rest is a little...plain..."

"Put it back in the box."

"Why?" Yuuri looked in the mirror only to scowl when he saw Wolfram had his head down and wasn't even looking at him anymore. "Does it bother you to have me touching his 'token' to you?"

"It's hoseki. The stone is much stronger than it looks, especially when it's out of the box." He was surprised how much difference there was. The moment Yuuri had lifted it free, he'd felt worse than he had when he'd been the one holding the box open. "When the box is closed, the stone material completely shields the effect."

"You!" Yuuri had dropped the box. He scrambled to put the necklace away in it. "Why didn't you tell me that from the start?" He closed the box and left it there on the floor. "Are you okay?"

"Of course I am," Wolfram snapped. He lifted his head so he could glare at Yuuri properly. "I've been training to resist hoseki for months. That stone may be stronger than its size suggests, but it's nothing compared to the two Reinhild used on us. I'm feeling nauseous, that's all."

"Do you need to throw up?" Yuuri asked worried.

Wolfram grimaced. "Don't even suggest it!"

"Why would he give you that?"

"So we can continue our training whether his backstory checks out or not. And this stays between us, Yuuri. It's a secret. You can't talk about it to anyone, not even Conrad. Do you think you can manage that?"

"I can keep a secret," Yuuri scowled. "If I think I should. Give me a good reason to keep this a secret."

"Because I asked you to." Wolfram turned sideways in the chair, one arm leaning on the back of it. "That should be reason enough. I didn't have to tell you anything. Even if you had looked at the necklace while I was out of the room, you would never have known what it was. I took a chance by telling you because you asked me to give you a chance. That is what you wanted, isn't it? I'm giving you a chance. So if you really want to prove something to me, prove that I can trust you."

"If you put it like that, then I don't have a choice, do I? That's not fair, Wolfram. You can't expect me to keep quiet about something this dangerous..."

"It's not dangerous," Wolfram said, at patiently as he could. "I'm not even saying we'll use it. But we'll have it in case we do need to use it, if I can't find us another hoseki user right away. And if we do use it, it will stay in the box. It's strong enough just with the lid open that we could train with it at close range for weeks before we'd ever have to take it out."

"Then why the secrecy?" Yuuri demanded.

"Because I don't want Gwendal to take custody of it. If you tell Conrad about it, that is exactly what will happen. The moment he has control of our training, I'll lose everything." He closed his eyes and turn back to the desk, where he rested his chin on his folded hands. "I've worked very hard on this and it's important to me. Now you're in a position to take it away from me. I'm trusting you not to."

Yuuri sat down in the other chair, sitting sideways to face him. Wolfram decided this was nice, much better than having to do all of their talking in bed. He would probably let the second desk stay. "Well?" asked Wolfram.

"What do you expect me to do?" Yuuri felt like he was being backed into a corner and it wasn't fair.

"Honestly?" Wolfram gave a mocking smile. "I expect you to run straight to Conrad and tattle like a wimp."

"I don't tell him everything!" Yuuri protested. Immediately, he thought of his last few conversations with Conrad and winced guiltily. He was practically lying through his teeth, wasn't he? Conrad was his confidante. When he had a problem, Conrad took care of it, or reassured him if it wasn't something that could be fixed. Was that what Wolfram wanted, to be the one he brought things like that to? He couldn't. Half the things he was bringing to Conrad right now were about Wolfram, because he couldn't talk to Wolfram himself about them. "If I tell him things, it's because no one else will talk to me. Everyone around here leaves me out of the loop, and you're just as bad as the rest. Are you saying you'll actually talk to me?"

"I'm willing to try. I'm talking to you now, aren't I?"

"You are, and I'm really suspicious about why." Yuuri made a face and dropped his chin onto his arm so he could frown at Wolfram evenly. "This whole conversation has me really uncomfortable. I'm waiting for the catch, like it's a trap or something."

Wolfram huffed in amusement. "If I wanted to trap you, I wouldn't warn you first, Yuuri. That's not what this is. The simple truth is, I don't feel right about this situation. Reinhild shouldn't have given me that stone, not like that. I won't hesitate to take advantage of it now that I have it, but I don't want to feel guilty about it. I certainly don't want to involve my men in something that will cause trouble for them later. If I don't tell anyone I have it, then I will be acting irresponsible. By keeping you informed, I'm accountable to someone. You're here. Judging by the additional guard in the hall, I'm guessing you'll be here every night, at least for a while. If anything goes wrong, you'll be the first to know. Believe me, I couldn't hide a bad training session even if I wanted to. You've been on enough ships with me to know that."

"So if I think you're going too far with that stone, I can tell someone? And you won't hold it against me?"

"Well," Wolfram frowned, "I'd hope you would at least give me advanced warning so I have a chance to correct the problem before you tattle on me, but...yes, that's the basic idea. From what I can see, that stone is weak enough that the effects don't reach through the walls. If we do end up using it, we'll probably do it here in the castle, possibly in one of the courtyards with a shield in place. Eventually someone will notice and Gwendal will confront me about it, which will let you off the hook entirely. So I'm not asking you to keep this a secret for long, however it turns out."

"Wait!" Yuuri said quickly, straightening up. "You mean with that necklace you would train here? Instead of going outside the city?"

"As long as it's a closed room or we have a shield in place, I don't see why not..."

"Perfect!"

Wolfram blinked in surprise. "What?"

"That's perfect. Great. That makes me feel so much better. This whole training outside the city thing doesn't sit right with me at all." Yuuri huffed, grinning weakly. "You should have said that from the start. That changes everything. I have no problem keeping this a secret if it means you'll be here where it's safe. I'll even ask Gisela for healing tips - discretely, I promise! That way you don't have to let her in on it, and-"

"Wait, I never said anything about that. If we do end up doing this, then we won't be risking injuries serious enough to need Gisela. Of course I wouldn't have you sneaking around on my behalf. That's out of the question. As for doing the training here, that's only temporary, and only if Reinhild doesn't check out and I can't find a replacement quickly. I never said I would use that necklace for training. It's a possibility, depending on how things turn out. Once I have a new hoseki user, I would naturally move the training to a less populated area, whether outside the city or in an unused training area."

"But you could do it here if you wanted to, right? You could work with Reinhild or someone else right here in the castle as long as you used a shield?" Yuuri paused, frowning suddenly. "Um...how do you do a shield? Does it block magic or..."

"Gwendal put up a shield when I challenged you," Wolfram reminded him, his eyes narrowed in annoyance at the memory. "Most people with an earth affinity can. My second in command tried one earlier and it blocked the stone's effect. But that was at close range, with a small stone. He wouldn't be able to maintain a shield for long if he were exposed to hoseki himself, and he wouldn't be able to put one up at all while facing an actual hoseki user. Not yet, anyway."

"Then Gwendal could put one up for you..." Yuuri realized his mistake as soon as the words left his mouth. He cringed a little, leaning away from Wolfram.

"Yes," Wolfram growled, "I'm sure Gwendal could. If I were willing to let my training depend entirely on his cooperation, which I'm not. I can't believe you would even suggest that. Do you not understand the entire point of this? This is my training. I will not let him take control of it."

Yuuri put his hands up to ward off that hostility. "Okay! I got it. I'm sorry I suggested it. Maybe I can learn to do a shield or something. It was just an idea. You'll be working on this training for a long time, so who knows, maybe later I can help out like that. I'm just tossing out possibilities, see?"

"Fine. You can toss out whatever possibilities you think of. Just don't expect me to rely on your assistance in any way as far as my own training is concerned." Wolfram shook his head, stopping Yuuri's protest before it could fully form. "You barely have time to yourself as it is. You haven't played catch with Greta once since you got back. With you staying in here, you'll see her even less. Once you catch up with your signing, you'll resume your lessons with Gunter, learning more about our history and culture, and those of our allies. If you find some time to fit healing and magic training in there as well, that's wonderful. I'm sure it will help you control your maryoku better in the future. That's to your own benefit."

"I just want to help."

"I appreciate that, but it isn't needed." Wolfram smiled, softening the rejection. "Having your support would mean a lot more to me than having your help."

Yuuri smiled back. "Okay." He would still learn anything he could that might help, but he knew Wolfram was right about his schedule. There were so many things he needed and wanted to learn here and there was never enough time. Wolfram glanced over his shoulder, and Yuuri followed his gaze. He jumped when he realized he'd left that stone box lying on the floor. He fetched it. "Sorry about that. Where are you going to keep it? It would probably be bad if the maids stumbled across it."

"I'll keep it in my desk," said Wolfram. He put it away in the bottom drawer. He winced a little when Yuuri caught a glimpse of the fluffy things filling that drawer. "Gwendal's creations," he explained. "I ran across a chest of them last month and picked out the pastel ones. Greta has been wanting to redecorate her room, but she keeps changing her mind about the color. I'll give them to her once she makes up her mind and has the shelves ready."

"Yellow?" Yuuri guessed. He'd seen some pink and pale blue fluffies in there, but white and yellow were predominant. "Yellow always struck me as her color. Or a burnt orange, maybe."

"I think she's leaning toward pink and blue at the moment," Wolfram sighed. "Last month it was moss green and orange. I don't understand her tastes at all."

"She's a little girl, what do you expect? I didn't have a chance to tell her I was moving in here. Do you think she'll be upset? She hasn't come to my room at all since I got back, so I didn't even think about how she might react."

"She doesn't do that anymore," said Wolfram. "When you left I asked her if she was alright sleeping by herself. I couldn't have her coming into this wing, so I offered to room closer to her, but she said she liked sleeping in her own room. She might change her mind now that you're back. It's difficult to say. Some days she insists that she's all grown up, other days I catch her sucking her thumb when no one is looking. Watch out for that, would you? It will ruin her mouth. I don't know where she picked that habit up from."

"All little kids suck their thumbs."

Wolfram raised an eyebrow. "Not here, they don't. Unless they want fish mouths by the time they're teenagers. I've seen people like. It isn't pleasant."

"Okay," Yuuri laughed. "I'll take your word for it. So, are you feeling okay now? Does your stomach still hurt? What's it like, being close to hoseki on purpose?"

"I'm fine. A little queasy, maybe, but nothing bad. With close contact to hoseki, everything clenches up. Stomach, lungs, throat." He curled his hand into a fist. "It's like being compressed, weight pushing inward all around you. When you raise your maryoku, it pushes back against it a little, loosens it up enough so you can function. It still hurts, but it's more of an ache than a pain. Gisela thinks the nausea has more to do with the ear than the stomach. I'm still not sure how she determined that. After a while, it's feels like the ground is pitching, even when you're standing still. It's just a very unpleasant sensation. The constriction goes away as soon as you get away from the energy, but the nausea can last for hours." His eyes fell to the closed drawer of his desk. "When it gets bad, I wonder what it must have been like for Brother to be locked in that cell embedded with hoseki. He was locked in there for so long, yet he managed to walk away from it. We're aiming to do even better."

"He walked away, but he had bruised ribs from it," said Yuuri. He could still remember how pale he'd looked, all bandaged up in his bed. It was alarming to see someone like Gwendal reduced to that.

"That could have been from the beating he took," Wolfram reminded him. He was still furious about that. It wasn't bad enough that they'd beaten him. They'd then locked him in a cage where just breathing was torture. He had barely stepped into the cell and he'd been driven to his knees. But that wouldn't happen again. It would take more than a few raw stones to get him off his feet now. "The fact remains that he was able to ignore the effects much better than I did. That wasn't due to his maryoku, it was due to his willpower. My men and I aren't lacking in either."

Yuuri didn't agree quickly enough to suit him. Wolfram pushed his chair back and rose, folding his arms over his chest. "That reminds me. Please don't stare at my men. If you have a problem with them, bring it to me. It's my fault you're in this wing. They shouldn't have to hide in their rooms for fear they'll run across you in the hall."

"What are you talking about?" Yuuri rose to his feet as well. He wasn't about to sit while Wolfram loomed over him like that. "What did I do?"

"I'm talking about Lukas and Daniel. The ones from the bath? They told me you've been staring at them." He saw Yuuri's eyes widen, and shook his head at him. "I admit they shouldn't have been doing that in the bath, but they had no reason to expect you would ever see them in there. It was my fault you were in there, so if they make you uncomfortable, take it out on me, not them."

Yuuri blushed as he recalled the very awkward encounter he'd had when he had reached Wolfram's room earlier. He had stared at the dark-haired boy, but, in his defense, the boy had stared right back at him. That had nothing to do with the kiss he'd seen, though. He'd frozen. All he could think was that this was the guy Wolfram claimed to have had a crush on once. The guy Wolfram had told him to pretend was a girl. And standing there, looking at him, he hadn't seen anything girly whatsoever about him. In fact, the guy was a few inches taller than him and, at close range, a little intimidating. He'd felt as if he were being stared down at by a rival who didn't think much of him as competition. Now, as he gaped at Wolfram, he wondered how he could have gotten that impression. What had the guy done, run straight to Wolfram to 'tattle' on him? For staring back at him? Forget being a rival, the guy sounded more like a pansy now. "He told on me...?"

"They didn't know why you were staring at them," Wolfram frowned. "They knew I was in the bath, but they didn't see you. They probably guessed later that you might have been in there with me, though."

Yuuri didn't pay much attention to the way Wolfram was misunderstanding that little staring session. His mind was rapidly putting things together until suddenly they clicked and he stepped backwards so sharply he nearly knocked his chair over. Shock crashed over him. "You were in his room! That's why he was just standing there in the hall - because you were in his room! I can't believe you - you...hypocrite! What the hell were you doing in his room?"

"Yuuri! I told you-"

"No!" Yuuri snapped. "I know exactly what you told me. You told me you had a crush on him. Now I find out you were in his room. His bedroom! The bedroom of a guy you had a crush on. If I even thought about going into the bedroom of someone I had a crush on, you would kill me! You, Wolfram von Bielefeld, are a hypocrite and that's all there is to it." He folded his arms over his own chest, scowling for all he was worth. "Now you tell me why I shouldn't call you a cheater as well as a hypocrite. Go ahead. I want to hear this."

Wolfram's face reddened in indignation. "How could you even suggest-"

"I suggest nothing. I am saying it flat out. Were you or were you not in his bedroom?" Yuuri didn't give him a chance to do more than gape. "You were. We both know you were. Now tell me why. Explain yourself. Well? I'm waiting."

"He's-" Wolfram closed his mouth for a second before it fell open again. He couldn't believe Yuuri would even suspect him of being unfaithful. And with one of his own men? "He's my second in command! I was showing him the stone Reinhild gave me."

"No, you weren't showing him anything. He was in the hallway and you were in his bedroom. Try again."

"I was showing it to him! I had him put up a shield when I showed it, and then I sent him out of the room because he's still recovering from that last training session and I didn't want him to be affected by it while I was having Daniel gauge the strength. He's my third in command and that happens to be his room, too!"

"Oh, so you were in the bedroom with Daniel, instead. That's the blonde one, right? Yes, I see. That makes it okay, then, right? Wrong. Let me guess, you had a crush on him, too? So it's a threesome you've got going there. That's just great!"

"What!" Wolfram backed up sharply, knocking over his chair. "What are you saying? I never had a crush on Daniel! And what do you mean by threesome? What are you talking about?"

"You know exactly what I'm talking about," Yuuri accused. "But, let me guess, you guys have a different name for threesomes here, huh? Well, that doesn't matter one bit. You were in their room instead of his room. Their bedroom. Great. And you're going to stand there and justify that? Because they're your men? Your boys? Yeah, I'll just bet they are!"

Wolfram snapped, grabbing him by the front of his uniform and giving him a good shake. "Stop it, Yuuri! Just stop!" A hand snatched hold of his own uniform and suddenly they were both being shaken. "Yuuri!"

"No!" Yuuri yelled. "You are not going to shake me quiet! You're in the wrong this time, Wolfram. You are!"

"I am not!" Wolfram let go of Yuuri's shirt and grabbed him by the chin instead. "Listen to me," he said, in lower tone. "I had a crush on Lukas over thirty years ago. You weren't even born yet. I was jealous when I found out they were together, but they were the happiest couple I had ever seen so I would have died before breaking them up. To this day, they are still together, still happy, and I would never do anything to come between them. Someday one of them will die and it will be my fault, because they fought on my orders. I have to live with that. My crush died the day I realized that. They are my men. Don't degrade that by insinuating such vulgarity. When one of them dies, it will kill the other because they're in love. Real love, Yuuri, not your idea of love that's given equally to every insect, animal, and person alike, but real love that you give to one person and one person alone. They have that. Do you honestly believe I would do anything to destroy that?"

"No," said Yuuri. He released his own grip. "But you think I would. I can't make friends with anyone without you accusing me of cheating. You're saying they're your friends, people you care about, but that I should trust you to have relationships like that without being jealous. What about you, Wolfram? You are a hypocrite and you know it. You expect me to be okay with you going into their bedroom. I am. I know you weren't in there messing around with them because you're not that kind of person. You should know by now that I'm not that kind of person either. But if I went into another man's bedroom you would throw an unholy tantrum and accuse me of doing everything we both know neither of us would ever do. And I'm sick of it!"

Wolfram dropped his arm. "It's not the same. You're too trusting and naive. Even if I did trust you, I can't trust the people around you. If you went into another man's room, there's no telling what he'd do to you. You're so blind to the way people throw themselves at you that you wouldn't even see it coming."

"Not everyone is trying to get into my pants," Yuuri said in disgust. "You know that."

"Like I said, you don't even see it. Your first day here Mother drugged you. She left her perfume in your bath and went in with you with the intention of seducing you. Had you felt the slightest attraction for her, that perfume would have turned it into a full fledged lust. The only reason you got away is because your innocence sent you running from the scene. You had no idea, did you?" Wolfram smiled bitterly. "Why do you think you hit me at dinner that night? Because that perfume made any emotion you felt a thousand times stronger. Our entire engagement happened because Mother flubbed her attempt to seduce you."

"Bullshit."

Yuuri had blurted it out of shock. He wasn't arguing, he was flabbergasted. Wolfram snorted. "I'm sorry to be the one to break it to you. She bragged about it while Gunter was explaining what you'd done. The whole family knows, but we're so used to her seducing whoever she sets her sights on that I guess no one bothered to tell you. That's the world we live in. You live in it, too, now. And until you wise up enough to watch out for predators, female or otherwise, I can't trust you alone with anyone. I just can't. I would no sooner trust you alone in a man's bedroom than I would Greta."

"Don't," Yuuri grimaced. "Don't make that comparison. Don't even joke about that. She's just a kid. No one would..."

"Is Earth really that different? Do you all walk around assuming no one would ever hurt you just because you wouldn't hurt anyone yourself? That no one would want a child because you wouldn't want one? That men won't want you because you don't want them? Of course not. I've been there, Yuuri. You saw the way those women flocked to Gunter. He has never been interested in women, but that didn't stop them for a second. I'm sure, given the chance, they'd have done their best to seduce him."

"Okay, I know some people are like that, and I'll definitely buy Cecilie because she's...different." Yuuri squirmed a little, horribly uncomfortable about that entire subject. He actually had heard something about her perfume being that pretty smell in the bath that time. Even Conrad had commented on the nice fragrance. Realizing that she had actually come into the bath hoping he'd be all hot from the perfume and...yeah, he didn't want to think about that at all. "But you can't say you thought Ulrike was going to jump me. She's half my size! You freaked out and all she did was touch my hand. We weren't even alone together. That's what I'm complaining about. You do that all the time. And Conrad! He's like my brother, or an uncle, or second dad to me. And he's your brother! I mean, you have to know he's not some predator, yet you act like he's...public enemy number one or something. That isn't about protecting me from him, that's about you being jealous. And it's not fair at all. I care about him at least as much as you do about your friends, but I don't even know where his room is. You'd never let me go near it even if I did. Why? Because you don't want me to have relationships like that. Yet I'm supposed to be okay with you having them? That's hypocritical, Wolfram."

"I know."

A moment passed in silence before Yuuri realized Wolfram wasn't going to say anything else. There was no attempt to explain, justify, or apologize. Which, to Yuuri's mind, meant Wolfram either had no intention of changing the behavior, or was unable to. He didn't know what to say to that. Wolfram's irrational jealousy and possessiveness was something Yuuri had learned to live with, but he had hoped that if they talked about it enough, eventually it would go away. "Can you at least try? You try not to get jealous when I talk to other people and I'll try not to get jealous when you spend more time with your squad than you do with me."

"I already am. I haven't said anything since you got back."

"Because you haven't been near me," Yuuri scoffed. "You don't know who I've been talking to. Of course you can't say anything about it. You've been avoiding me to spend time with them."

"And that bothers you? I thought you'd be grateful. Even now, we just end up fighting when we're together." Wolfram offered a weak smile. "Are you saying you like fighting?"

"Well, it's not boring. That's what you said, right? You had crushes on people you thought you'd never be bored with? I don't particularly like fighting with you, but I have to admit it's never boring." Yuuri shrugged, giving his own smile. "I like that."

"Careful. I'm rubbing off on you." He leaned forward impulsively and kissed Yuuri's cheek.

Yuuri's eyes widened, a light brush striking his face. "What was that for?"

"Being sweet," Wolfram smirked. "And cute."

"Oh." Yuuri dropped his eyes, shifting awkwardly. He didn't like being called cute by someone who looked like Wolfram. He would take sweet, though. He had just admitted having a crush on him, after all. "Um, you never did answer my question. Is there some ancient tradition about fiances kissing?"

"None that I know of. It isn't encouraged, though." Wolfram sent a sidelong look at the bed and made a face at the blanket. "It could lead to other things." Though that shouldn't be a problem in their case, especially with that blanket. Black might have been the king's color, but it definitely wasn't a romantic color.

Yuuri glanced up in time to follow Wolfram's gaze. His blush darkened. If he kissed Wolfram now, would he think he was leading up to those 'other things'? Wolfram's eyes turned back to him, and he chickened out completely. He shouldn't have asked him about kissing. He should have just done it. It had been so much easier talking and thinking about these things when they were in bed together. And speaking of beds, "Can you even use a black blanket? I mean, wouldn't sleeping under a black blanket be the same as wearing black clothes?"

"You would think so," Wolfram muttered, glowering at the bedspread again. "But if they think that will keep me from sleeping in my own bed, they're mistaken. You're the only one who will see me, anyway, and you won't complain."

It wasn't a question, it was an order. Yuuri snorted at him. "No, I wouldn't complain. I was actually wondering what you'd look like in black. I guess I'll get to find out tonight, huh?"

Wolfram sniffed back. "Remember to get a good look. First thing tomorrow I'm getting my blanket back. My curtains, too. This room looks like someone died in it."

"It is a little goth. Dark and morbid," he explained, when Wolfram quirked an eyebrow at him. "I am sorry about that. Sangria said she'd bring some of my clothes over here for me. She never said anything about doing this."

Wolfram shrugged dismissively. He didn't want to get angry about the invasion of his room again. "We can deal with her tomorrow. You should head off to dinner. If you go now, you'll have time to talk to Greta first. You can tell her where you are just in case she does decide to sneak to your room tonight. It wouldn't do for her to find it empty."

"Yeah. Does that mean you're still not feeling up to eating? Want me to pick you up something to snack on before bed? You didn't seem to have any trouble with the food I got last time."

"I'd like that. Thank you." Wolfram smiled gratefully. His stomach had actually settled down well enough that he could have joined them for dinner. He just didn't want to sit there with Gunter and Gwendal. The additional guard outside proved that Yuuri had told someone he was moving into this room. He was sure that had been Conrad, though, not Gwendal. He couldn't imagine Gwendal agreeing to this no matter what Yuuri said to convince him. That meant either Conrad had talked his brother into it, or Gwendal hadn't been informed yet. Wolfram preferred to keep his distance from the entire matter. This hadn't been his idea and he had no intention of taking the blame for it.

"I'll see you later, then," said Yuuri. He made it to the door before changing his mind. He hurried over and caught Wolfram just as he was righting his overturned chair. It was a quick kiss, just another light press of lips, but it felt nice and right. He grinned at Wolfram's shocked expression. "Don't fall asleep before I get back. I'll be bringing food with me. Bye!" He left the room quickly before his fiance could react. There was a guard stationed just outside the door, but even that couldn't stop him from pausing to pat himself on the back. He had to ambush Wolfram in order to get up the nerve to kiss him. That was a little sad. But he'd kissed him just the same and Wolfram hadn't fallen over this time, so he was definitely improving.

.-.
TBC

Chapter Text

"It's inappropriate and unacceptable," Gunter stated. Although he had every right to be indignant and frustrated, his tone was more pleading than anything.

"You're preaching to the choir here," Murata pointed out. He was doing his best to keep his amusement out of his tone and off his face. He had wondered how long it would take for someone to draw him into the castle, but he had really expected Yuuri to be the one doing it. Instead he found himself seated at the head of the recently vacated dinner table in a late night meeting with the castle's adults. The irony was killing him.

"Yuuri will listen to you," said Conrad. He calmly waited for Murata to stop snorting. "Having lived in the same world, you understand the way he thinks better than anyone. You can speak to him as a friend, rather than an adviser."

"And what friendly advice would you have me give him?"

"Appeal to his reason," said Gunter. "He wouldn't dream of housing Greta in the servants' wing. Surely he'll understand why having the Maou move into the soldiers' wing is simply unacceptable."

Conrad shook his head. "Arguments like that won't sway him. He doesn't care about class differences."

"I'd prefer that he never does," Cecilie commented. "That's one of his many charms." She turned an appreciative smile on Murata. "No. What you must do is appeal to his romantic nature. It would be far easier to woo Wolfram in the privacy of the Royal Chamber, after all. The bed was made for just that."

"Mother," Gwendal bit out repressively.

"What?" she demanded. "I agree that the current situation is unacceptable. Just because my reasons differ from yours-"

"This has nothing to do with the engagement," Conrad said firmly, giving them both a quelling look. "Yuuri is concerned about Wolfram's safety and is deferring to his wishes out of guilt. What you need to do," he said to Murata, "is assure him that he has nothing to feel guilty about. He was placed in an untenable situation and made the only choice he could have made. He's the only one who can't seem to accept that."

"Of course he can't," Murata scoffed. "He doesn't just perform 'justice,' he believes in it and adheres to it as well." He held his silence while Conrad and Gunter quickly expounded on Yuuri's innocence of any wrongdoing. Their definition of poetic justice clearly differed from his own. What was he supposed to say to them? They certainly didn't want to hear the truth. Their paragon of virtue was a light push away from jumping Wolfram and the bedroom they were in when it happened wouldn't change anything.

"Please speak with him," Conrad finished.

"If you insist," Murata sighed. He could almost hear a certain former Maou chuckling at his expense. He suspected a kinder person would be apologizing in advance at this point. "While I'm advising Yuuri, what will you be doing about Wolfram?"

Conrad sighed heavily. "I doubt he'll concede. Gwendal and I will speak with him, but I suspect we'll have no choice but to remove him from the castle."

"Really?" Murata inquired. "And you don't think Yuuri will have anything to say about that?"

"Not if Wolfram leaves by choice," said Gwendal.

Unless Wolfram had been brow-beaten and guilt-tripped into making that choice. If that was the route they intended to take, then as Yuuri's friend, and the Maou's sometime adviser, he would be obligated to inform him. Did none of them realize that? Twinkling green eyes and a small knowing smile told him at least one of them did. That was something. For the others, his reputation demanded he give at least a token of sage advice. "You're about to make an awkward situation far worse."

"How could things possibly get any worse?" Gunter demanded dramatically.

Since that was clearly intended as a rhetorical question, Murata didn't bother answering it. They'd find out soon enough.

.-.

Oblivious to the meeting taking place on the other side of the castle, Yuuri was engaged in the surprisingly fun task of feeding his fiance. While he had always been bemused by Wolfram's groggy half-asleep state, he had never thought to take advantage of it. Having returned to the room to find Wolfram asleep at his desk, after specifically reminding him not to doze off, he had to make sure he didn't go to bed on an empty stomach. He couldn't chew for him, but he could definitely make sure the food at least got to his mouth. That was the fun part.

"I'm not hungry," Wolfram grumbled. Even if he had been, sleep was much more tempting than plain fare like bread and boiled potatoes that hadn't even been seasoned properly. He wrinkled his nose when Yuuri cheerfully brought the loaded spork to his mouth.

"You're so hungry your stomach is gurgling," Yuuri pointed out.

"It is not," Wolfram huffed. He grudgingly opened his mouth and then muttered around the food. "Rude of you to suggest such a thing."

"Rude is not apologizing for falling asleep on me, and not thanking me for bringing you dinner."

"No," Wolfram insisted, "rude is you-" He was interrupted by the cracker Yuuri slipped into his mouth. The boldness of that distracted him for a full minute, during which he chewed and accepted a sip from the cup he was offered. He had clearly felt Yuuri's fingers against his lips. What made him think he could do that? The one time he had tried to hand-feed Yuuri, his fiance had blubbered like a baby. Now here he was offering him a bit of bread with an amused and confident smile. Wolfram snatched it with his teeth, gulped it down whole, and glared indignantly. "Rude is kissing me and then running away."

Yuuri's eyes widened with surprise, but instead of blushing he found himself grinning. "At least you didn't fall down this time."

"How would you know? You didn't wait around to find out."

"Actually, I did," Yuuri admitted sheepishly. "I waited outside the door."

"Wimp," Wolfram said scathingly. "Count yourself lucky I was too dignified to come after you. I had a mind to."

Yuuri eyed him closely and decided that although Wolfram was more awake now than he had been, he wasn't nearly as comfortable with the topic as he was trying to act. That gave him the confidence to tease him. "To kiss me back?"

"To hit you," Wolfram snapped. He wouldn't have, but he had honestly wanted to. "I won't have you kissing me just to prove that you can. It's insulting." It was also unfair because it left him unable to kiss Yuuri back unless it was for the very same reason, just to prove that he could.

"I did it the first time to prove that I was serious." With awful results. He should have known his second attempt hadn't gone as well as he'd hoped. "I did it earlier because I wanted to."

"Then you shouldn't have run away afterward."

Yuuri scowled at his tone. He couldn't believe he was being lectured about this. "I left because I didn't want you to freak out again. The last time I kissed you, you shut yourself in the closet!"

Heat swamped over Wolfram's face. "We were in bed together! After the way we woke up, how did you expect me to react when you-" A firm press of lips silenced him. Although it lasted a bit longer than the other two it wasn't really a kiss. It was a prelude to a kiss, only neither of them moved to make it real. Yuuri's eyes were far too serious, looking nearly as frustrated and bewildered as Wolfram felt. After a long moment, Yuuri pulled back.

"Why did you never kiss me, Wolf? Didn't you ever want to?"

Pride alone kept Wolfram from looking away as self-disgust twisted his insides. He was so ashamed of the way he had thrown himself at Yuuri. To have Yuuri question him about it just made it worse. "I wanted a lot of things, but I wanted them for all the wrong reasons. You treated our engagement like a bad joke, as if my future didn't mean a thing to you. If I had thought for one second that kissing you would do anything besides make matters worse, I would have done it. But there was only one time when I really wanted to."

"When?" asked Yuuri. He couldn't do anything about the past except try to make up for it. Wolfram's future certainly mattered to him now, because he was determined to share it.

"In the cave," Wolfram said, with a wry smile. "Do you remember that? I wanted to kiss you then."

Despite a helpless blush at the memory, Yuuri grinned. "You wanted to share body heat."

"I wanted to share you. Not my fiance, not the Maou, just you, Yuuri." Brushing his knuckles along Yuuri's cheek, he tilted his head and leaned forward to press a firm kiss on his mouth. He licked his lips and there was a brief awkward meeting of teeth. Then Yuuri's mouth opened and they were tasting each other. A real kiss. He tasted a hint of salt from the food they had eaten, but this was Yuuri and that made it sweet.

.-.

Sometime after the meeting broke up, two conspirators met in a darkened bedroom. One was snug, if not quite happy, in bed. The other was fully dressed and seated on the edge of the bed. A ruffle of hair and a light kiss to the forehead from the latter brought a long sigh from the former.

"I wish you would talk to Wolfram."

"Believe me, he won't listen to anything I have to say."

"Maybe you're wrong. You could at least try."

A slow smile answered that. "When it comes to this family, I'm never wrong. Don't you know that by now?"

"Nobody likes a meddler."

"Such words of wisdom. Go to sleep. Tomorrow should prove quite...interesting."

"Wait. What did happen to that map?"

"I imagine one of the maids made off with it. Don't worry. No one would ever connect it to you."

"Because I didn't draw it."

"Of course you didn't."

.-.

In another part of the castle, two others were doing their best not to conspire anything beyond guaranteeing the peace and safety of their king and his fiance. At least, one of them was. The other one was too worried about his little brother to think clearly. Yozak rather enjoyed being the clear-headed reasonable one for a change.

"I rushed back because you said it was an emergency." Folding his arms over his chest, Yozak eyed the man with open amusement rather than the pity he so dearly deserved. Not that he didn't feel sorry for him, because he certainly did. It couldn't be easy having one's loyalties divided like that. Conrad's problem was that he looked so deeply for possible threats that he missed the obvious. "This looks like a clear case of matchmaking to me."

"Mother denies having done anything. She's the only one who could have transported Morgif."

"As far as we know," Yozak pointed out. "Not many have actually tried. And the map? You haven't even asked Greta about it."

"I don't have to. She's never even been in the soldiers' wing. She couldn't possibly have drawn it."

"Unless she had help. I get it," he said, before he could be interrupted, "I really do. But you have to admit everything here points to meddling females. The only hint of a threat is that someone tried to enter the room. Maybe. Or maybe they were just checking to make sure the door was bolted. That's something an overprotective person would do, which you know for a fact because you've done it yourself. You've even had me do it a time or two."

"He has no business staying in that wing if he can't even remember to lock his door at night," Conrad muttered, running a hand through his hair. "Now he has Yuuri in there as well. He should know better. He has to know better."

"You said it was Yuuri's idea. Maybe your brother has as hard a time saying no to him as you do."

"If he did, then they'd both be in Yuuri's room right now and none of this would be an issue. I wish they would make a clean break and be done with it. I thought that was what Wolfram wanted, but at this point I have my doubts. The longer this drags on, the more difficult it will be for both of them."

"They'll have to muddle their way through that on their own. Separating them might make it easier, especially since you won't have to worry about whoever is meddling around here at the castle. And if there really is a threat, then it's likely to follow Wolfram. Might as well set up a trap while the bait is out in the open."

"I am not setting him up as bait!" Conrad shot to his feet and paced. Had he not already retired for the night, he might very well have left for a few hours. A fast ride would go a long way to settling his mind. "If there is a threat, it's right here and he's better off away from it. You haven't heard anything, so there's no reason to think-"

"I haven't heard anything because every time I catch a hint of rumor you have me running back here to shadow Wolfram and his squad. I didn't even make it to the border this time. You have to make up your mind, already. Decide to keep me on him or let me go do what I do best. You're wasting my talents. If you think it's an outside threat, give me time to head it off. If you're convinced it's already here, then button the hatches until we can root it out. Either way, he's going to be a target, and Yuuri as well, now that he's back. Might as well keep them together so they can both be protected at the same time. Unless that's what you're really afraid of...them being together?"

Conrad grimaced at his suggestive grin. Yozak didn't need to waggle his eyebrows like that in order to get his meaning across. "Don't you start. I hear enough of that from Mother. You would think she didn't know Yuuri at all. Of course I'm not afraid of him crossing the line."

"No," Yozak agreed, "Wolfram's more liable to do that. I actually admire his restraint."

"Yozak."

"I do. It can't be easy sleeping with the person you love and not taking advantage of the situation. I certainly never managed to hold back like that."

"That's not what I called you back here to discuss."

"We're not really discussing anything," Yozak waved. "Your mind is already set on splitting the lovebirds up. You'll stay here and protect Yuuri, I'll shadow your brother, and we'll both hope for the best. Now sit back down. If it's a ride you need to clear your head, I'm willing to do the honors. Might as well make myself useful while I'm here."

"You're crass and incorrigible."

"I know," Yozak grinned. "Isn't it great?"

.-.

Yuuri went to bed with a hard-on. During his few years since hitting puberty, he had spent plenty of time imagining what it would be like to make out with someone. True, until recently those imaginings had only featured girls, but he hadn't thought it would be that different with another guy. Groping and fumbling and rubbing and panting. Messy frantic heated contact. Never had he pictured it seated in a chair, leaning forward with only their mouths touching. Once started, Wolfram wasn't the least bit shy and after a while Yuuri wasn't either. He couldn't get enough of his mouth, his tongue, what his nonexistent experience dubbed erotic to the extreme. Kissing him had quickly gone from a surprisingly easy and comfortable pleasure to a thrilling need. They were just getting started and any lingering fears he had about going further were swept away. Then, just when he was thrumming with a heady urgent excitement, Wolfram had pulled away and bid him goodnight with a sweetly hesitant smile. Leaving him sitting there with a raging hard-on the likes of which he had never imagined on himself.

What the hell was wrong with him? And it was just him. His stunned eyes had followed Wolfram's progress to the bed and spotted no evidence that he was similarly affected. That was so unfair he actually found himself fighting back an inexplicable rage for a moment there. His first instinct was to demand Wolfram finish what he had started or, even better, prepare for him to finish it. As if he'd really have the nerve to ask such a thing, let alone demand it. Eventually his indignant outrage sheepishly settled down. His arousal, on the other hand, did not. There was no longer any doubt about it. He was most definitely gay for his fiance. Stealing a peck on the lips from him had been a daring move he'd had to force himself to make. But one kiss from Wolfram, the invitation of it, and he was ready and eager to dive head-first into as much as he could get. He wondered if that was what his brother had meant when he had commented on how attractive he'd found Wolfram when he was being forward. That thought was followed by another burning rush of rage that took even longer to beat back down than the last had. It was nearly an hour before he finally trudged his way to the bed, and still that hard-on lingered.

He climbed in and put his back to the cold wall. His body had to calm down at some point. In the meantime he didn't dare touch Wolfram for fear he'd rub against him like a horny dog. He was in serious trouble. If just kissing Wolfram left him like this, what would happen when they really did make out? He immediately called himself an idiot. Thoughts like that were not helping his body forget what it wanted to be doing at the moment. By all rights, Wolfram should have been suffering just as much. He focused on that, on the unfairness of it all, until his body finally, grudgingly, succumbed to sleep.

It felt as if only a few minutes had passed when he was disturbed by a thump on the bed. A soft whine from Wolfram had him burying his face closer against his neck. It couldn't possibly be time to get up. A soft laugh and a slight rocking of the mattress snapped him out of his sleepy daze. He opened his eyes to stare dumbly at the dark-haired boy leaning over him. "Murata...?"

"You really should keep the door bolted at night," Murata advised him. "If Von Christ had walked in on this, you'd be married by sundown. And the envy of many," he added, with an appreciative look at Wolfram. He was just waking up and appeared tousled and fetching beneath the black bedspread and his rumpled fiance. Murata couldn't help but smirk. "It's nice to see the two of you getting along so well."

For a split second Yuuri almost ordered him from the room, determined to see him suitably punished for daring to look at Wolfram like that. Then he realized he was lying on Wolfram with a knee between his legs while Murata was sitting on the edge of the bed taking in the entire scene. His face flamed as he scrambled away, yanking the blanket up over Wolfram as if he wasn't fully clothed in his white pajamas. "What are you doing in here?" he asked, his voice coming out a little higher-pitched than he liked.

"Waking you up, of course. Good morning, Your Excellency," he said to Wolfram, who slowly sat up with a dark, if groggy, scowl. "I'm afraid I have to steal your fiance away now. He has work to do." He shrugged apologetically at Yuuri, whose face still looked on the verge of combusting. "Someone had to fetch you. Better me than Von Christ, right, Shibuya?"

"How did you get in here?" Wolfram muttered.

"The door was open. And I have a way with the castle guards, not to mention the maids. I can be very charming. Haven't you noticed?"

"Don't flirt with Wolfram," Yuuri snapped. He promptly grimaced when they both turned to look at him, Murata raising an eyebrow and all but grinning with amusement. With a tired groan, he climbed out of the bed. "Just let me get dressed. I don't see why you couldn't have waited till after breakfast. I don't have that much paperwork left."

Murata followed him, leaving Wolfram to flop back on the bed with the covers pulled over his head. "From what I hear, you have a new habit of being late for breakfast, when you don't miss it entirely. As the Maou, you should really try to be more punctual."

"I get enough lectures from Gunter," Yuuri complained. "I don't need any from you."

"Just advising you," Murata said amicably. "People around here seem to think that's my job. I'm too nice to argue with them."

As if Murata didn't enjoy the attention and deference he received as a result. Yuuri didn't bother commenting on that. Although he resented having someone come in to wake him up, something he wasn't supposed to have to deal with in Wolfram's room, he had been wanting to talk to Murata. He was feeling grumpy enough to make him wait in the hall while he got ready, but he was glad he wouldn't be going very far. Once he was dressed he went over and shook Wolfram's shoulder until he got a bleary-eyed glare for his efforts.

"You have to work," Wolfram grumbled, "I don't. Let me sleep."

Yuuri smiled. "Just get up long enough to lock the door behind me. Okay?"

"Should have thought of that last night." With a loud sigh, he crawled out of the bed and followed him to the door.

"We won't be making that mistake again," Yuuri agreed. He kissed him and was disappointed when Wolfram pulled away after just a light brush of lips.

"Morning breath," Wolfram grimaced, waving him away "Mine, not yours. I'll see you later, at a more decent hour of the day."

"At breakfast?"

"More likely lunch."

Yuuri frowned, but didn't argue. He'd have someone wake him for breakfast if he couldn't get back here in time to do it himself. Wolfram had been missing too many meals lately. It was no wonder he fell asleep so easily. He left the room, listened for the bolt, and then followed Murata down the hall. They reached the corner before Yuuri noticed what was missing.

"Where are the guards?" Yuuri demanded, halting in his tracks. "They're supposed to be guarding the door at night."

"I'm sure they were. I passed a few on my way in who appeared to have been up all night. But it's daytime now, and there are plenty of soldiers around here to keep an eye on things. It is a soldiers' wing, after all." He smiled suddenly and directed Yuuri's attention down the hall. "See?"

Yuuri looked over just in time to receive a casual wave from the dark-haired pansy who had tattled on him last night. Annoyance brought a scowl to his face as he watched him settle on the floor with a deck of cards, quickly joined by another boy in blue from the room across the hall. The second one glanced over at him and said something that had them both laughing quietly. It was all Yuuri could do not to march over there and say something to them. He had no idea what he would say to them, but he would say something to wipe those smiles off their faces. A hand caught his arm and tugged him around the corner before he could take a single step in their direction.

"As fun as it might be to hang out in the soldiers' wing, it's only a matter of time before Von Christ comes to see what's keeping you. It's tough being the king, eh, Shibuya?"

"Yes," Yuuri muttered. "It really is."

.-.
TBC

Chapter Text

The moment Yuuri sat down at his desk, Murata picked up the entire stack of paperwork and began sorting it into two piles, one of which was much bigger than the other.

"What are you doing?" asked Yuuri.

"Helping you. I'll pull out anything you might actually want to read. Just sign the rest." He watched Yuuri scrawl his absurdly long signature to the bottom of the first document and leaned against the desk as he quickly sorted through the rest. "So, are you going to break the engagement or marry him?"

"What?" Yuuri yelped.

"Don't stop signing. You don't need to think to do that. None of these are remotely interesting. Forcing you to read this is either a stall tactic or an exercise in cruelty. Probably both."

Flushing, Yuuri focused more than he actually needed to on the documents he was signing. That was easier than finding out what sort of expression was on Murata's face. "I know how it looked earlier, but..." He closed his mouth and signed his name again. It wasn't quite as bad as it had looked, but it was close enough that he didn't want to lie about it.

"The only reason I ask," Murata informed him, as he slid the stack of trivial nonsense in front of Yuuri, "is because, as a rule, fiances don't have sex before marriage here. Get caught flaunting that tradition and you really will find yourself in a shotgun wedding."

Yuuri's arm jerked, leaving a streak of ink across his desk. "We're not having sex! Not even close!"

Murata sighed and didn't complain about the fact that Yuuri was staring at him and no longer signing. "You looked close enough for his brothers to demand a wedding. Take my word for that. If you thought an accidental engagement was awkward, a forced marriage would be pure hell. Not the least of which because, as the Maou, you'd gain the reputation of being a wimp who was dragged to the alter by force." He gave Yuuri a wry smile. "You can give up on ever being taken seriously as the king if that happens. Since you haven't asked me to help you escape back to Earth yet, I'm guessing you plan to continue on as the Maou. I'm telling you, a shotgun wedding is the last thing you want. Don't forget, once married you would actually have to consummate the marriage."

Yuuri couldn't focus on the threat of a shotgun wedding and how badly that would undermine his reputation as the Maou because his mind, and hormones, were consumed by the thought of a wedding night. Marriage meant a wedding night. Black sheets and Wolfram in white? It would be like last night except Wolfram wouldn't walk away from him this time. Would he be forward and bold again, or would he hesitate? Would Wolfram expect him to know what to do? Then it occured to him that on their wedding night everyone in the castle would know exactly what they were doing. The thought of that, everyone watching him knowingly and him frozen like a deer in headlights, had him breaking into a cold sweat.

"That's what I was afraid of," Murata muttered. So much for Yuuri's impending birthday sending his hormones out of control. He looked both terrified and sick to his stomach, as if he still couldn't accept that such things happened between two males. "You need to move back into your own room, Shibuya. Everyone in the castle is worried about what's going on between you two." Yuuri snapped him a wide-eyed look, growing even paler. Maybe Conrad was right and Yuuri really was as innocent as the pure driven snow. He had a strong urge to smack that out of him. "If you're that set against it, then leave Wolfram alone until you can end the engagement. Then you can both marry someone else."

"He's not marrying anyone but me and I am not ending the engagement!"

Yuuri shot to his feet and the force of his maryoku nearly had Murata slipping from where he was half-sitting against the side of the desk. Well, then. The corners of his mouth twitched for a moment before he could mask his surprise. "You're not?"

"No!"

"Why not?" Murata raised an eyebrow when Yuuri's mouth snapped shut. As he stared at him he saw a dark blush completely take over his face. This time when his lips twitched he didn't stop the smirk from forming. "Oh. And here I thought I had misjudged you. Puberty finally hit, eh, Shibuya? He is very attractive. Beautiful and passionate. You'd have to be dead not to notice."

"You keep noticing and you will be dead," Yuuri growled, though it was mostly bluster. He sat down hard in his chair and willed the embarrassed heat out of his face. "I saw the way you looked at him this morning."

"Yes," Murata admitted, "but I'm not engaged to him. I'm not even a noble. If he were interested, he could take me as a lover without bothering with an engagement." He watched with satisfaction as Yuuri's face tightened and his maryoku flared. It was nice to have proof that he hadn't misread the situation after all. "You, on the other hand, have to play by their rules. Messing around with him is one thing, but don't let him push you into sex unless you're absolutely certain you want to be married to him. For good and for real. He's not going to let you sleep around once you tie the knot. He'd likely kill you first." He lowered his voice and said gravely, "You could die of old age without ever having known a woman."

As if that were the most horrible thing imaginable. Yuuri snorted and smiled despite himself. "Are you really a skirt-chaser, or do you just wish you were?"

"I have lived a lot of lives. Although I don't like to boast of my conquests," he said in a boasting tone, "I rarely had to do the chasing. They came to me. Just one of my many charms."

Up until this lifetime, where he was a geek who got bullied to the point where he needed someone like Yuuri to rescue him. It was very hard to look at Murata and see a person with any experience, let alone tons of it. He must have had sex in at least some of his lives, though. Yuuri squirmed at the awkwardness of it as he asked, "Have you ever...done anything? With another guy?" For a moment Murata's eyes gleamed with pure deviousness behind his glasses and Yuuri nearly bolted. Then he blinked and he was just another guy eager for some locker room boasting of his exploits.

"I've been around that block a time or two. There was this one time with scarves," and he grinned at how Yuuri was leaning toward him with wide eyes, "but you wouldn't be interested in that since you have access to Earth. Fur covered handcuffs would be much sturdier."

A little whine started in Yuuri's throat and he gulped it down furiously. Bondage. Murata was talking about bondage sex. His imagination was eager to try placing him and Wolfram into such a scenario and they hadn't even made out. Not really. "Not..." He coughed when his voice broke embarrassingly. "That's not..."

"Too advanced?" Murata ventured. "Sorry. Have the two of you even kissed?" A furious blush assured him that they had, but there was a hint of guilt and uncertainty in Yuuri's eyes that made him wonder. "Did it go badly...?"

"I don't know," Yuuri admitted with a groan. "I thought it was...it seemed like...but then he...I just don't know. I don't know what to think. He's eighty years old! But Conrad says that makes him about my age. And yet he didn't act like he even-" He grimaced miserably. "There I was and he wasn't even..."

"Oh," Murata sighed with relief. "That. Someone should have warned you about that." He was sure Conrad would have done so if Yuuri hadn't been engaged to his virginal little brother. "They're hormone surges, Shibuya. All Mazoku go through that when they come of age. It's worse for you because as the Maou you have a lot of maryoku tied up with your hormones and emotions. Just do your best not to let your Maou side take over and you should be fine."

Was it his 'Maou side' that he had been fighting last night? His violent response had seemed so much worse faced with Wolfram's complete lack of one. "Is it like puberty, then? Do mazoku have a second one or is this the only one they go through?"

"We, not they," Murata corrected him with a smile. "And, yes, that's a fine comparison. It's merely a second milestone on the road to adulthood."

"Then Wolfram went through it, too." Did that mean Wolfram would understand and sympathize, or that he'd look down on him for losing control so easily? He didn't want to be the only one reacting like that, and he definitely didn't want Wolfram looking down on him because of it. And what if he did lose control? "What is my 'maou side'? Do you know if that was really part of me or something to do with Shinou?" The question was out before he remembered he probably shouldn't bring Shinou up around Murata. But the boy didn't look bothered, didn't hesitate at all. He even offered him a smile.

"That's all you, Shibuya. I don't know why your imagination gave it a separate personality, but it's just an aspect of who you are. Maybe it was your mind's way of letting your maryoku and instincts act when you weren't yet ready to take charge yourself. He's more like a uniform you put on than another person sharing your body. With practice you should be able to don that uniform without pretending you're someone else."

"Practice," Yuuri huffed, with a little laugh. "It comes out when I'm angry. I'm not sure I can practice being angry."

"I suspect you'll get more practice than you actually need," Murata admitted. He directed Yuuri's attention back to the stack of busy-work before him. Although Yuuri was the very powder-keg of hormones he had assumed he would be by now, things hadn't progressed far enough to risk an explosion just yet. If Yuuri caught the brothers plotting to send Wolfram away he might banish the lot of them. The kingdom would sink without Gwendal at the helm. Murata was too fond of Shin Makoku to let that happen.

.-.

Wolfram spent the morning consumed by desire and fear. He couldn't stop reliving the kiss and that horrible moment when he had pulled away. He had imagined himself back in that cave, free from responsibility and inhibitions, just him and Yuuri away from the world and he wanted. He wanted that intimacy, the merging, and he wanted Yuuri to want it, too. But they hadn't been in that cave. They'd been in his bedroom, in the castle, fiance and Maou, and he couldn't bear to have Yuuri be the one who pulled away first. The rejection would have broken him. It still might. He should never have kissed him, not like that. The desire should have been locked up tight, buried under a mountain of snow and ice so deeply no amount of fire could reach it. Now it had surfaced, was burning in his chest, and he didn't know what to do about it. He had a desperate desire to talk to his mother. That terrified him more than anything.

He transferred that terror onto the servant who showed up to pass along an invitation to breakfast from Yuuri. She fled down the hall to see about returning his room to some semblance of normalcy. He watched her disappear with a ghost of satisfaction before turning on his heel and heading in the other direction. Using a servant's exit he made it all the way to the stables before his escape was blocked by an orange-haired man who was smiling in a way he didn't appreciate at all. He never liked being laughed at. Now he couldn't bear it.

"Where are you running away to?" Yozak asked, casually filling the entrance to the stables.

Wolfram halted in his tracks. Was he really running away? From Yuuri? From his own feelings for Yuuri? So much for his pride. He looked past Yozak and caught sight of his horse down the way. Cowardly or not, he needed this. He needed out, away, just for a while, just long enough to quiet the fear. "I'm going to the temple," he decided. Now that Shinou was gone it would be a place of solitude, if nothing else.

Yozak took a slow step forward so that Wolfram grudgingly looked back at him. "The Great Sage is currently in the castle, if you were hoping to talk to him. Besides that, I have it on good authority Von Voltaire wants to have a word with you." He jerked his chin up, directing Wolfram to look back over his shoulder to where a green uniformed man was hurrying across the courtyard towards them. He caught a glimpse of Wolfram's clenched teeth before the boy snapped around and marched over to meet the man halfway. Yozak couldn't help but sigh in sympathy for him. The poor kid looked fit to explode. He supposed he could have let him escape for a little while, shadowing him at a distance to keep Conrad happy. But if Wolfram was that eager to get away from the castle he might very well jump at whatever excuse the brothers had come up with.

Wolfram clenched his fists so tightly they trembled as he stalked through the halls, outpacing the soldier who continued to follow him as if he might refuse the summons. If Gwendal wanted to speak to him during breakfast then it concerned Yuuri and his decision to move into his room. He didn't want to deal with this. He couldn't deal with this right now. What did he care about propriety when he was drowning? But Yozak had been staking out the stables, which pointed to Conrad's involvement as well. Better to face them now and be done with it. Maybe then they would direct their complaints to Yuuri for once. This couldn't possibly be entirely his fault. Yuuri deserved some blame for this, surely. Even the kiss hadn't been entirely his fault. Yuuri had kissed him back, he really had, and now he found himself wishing he hadn't. The unfairness of that was so painful he could barely breathe past it. He didn't want to do battle with his brothers. He wanted to cry to his mother. Oh, how he hated himself for that.

Conrad and Gunter were waiting in Gwendal's office. Wolfram entered the room, taking what was fast becoming his usual spot before the desk, and looked past them all to and through the window visible past Gwendal's head. He didn't have to engage them. All he had to do was listen dutifully, and then he'd be free to go. He could do that. The lecture began predictably with the inappropriateness of the Maou sleeping in the soldiers' wing. As petty as taking a black horse away from a little girl, Wolfram thought to himself. Except a black horse was a target as surely as a Maou surrounded by soldiers. He knew that, accepted it, even. He wasn't to blame for this. Not that anyone cared. His eyes latched onto the tiny form of a winged skeleton in the sky and that brought to mind Yuuri's helpless amusement at the fanciful notion of such things. He quickly directed his blank stare to the clouds instead.

"Are you listening?" Gwendal demanded.

"Yes," said Wolfram. His own voice sounded so calm and polite, even casual, that he marveled at himself. He let his eyes drop and focus on his oldest brother and was surprised to find that it was easy. He simply didn't care. Compared to the turmoil eating him from the inside out his brother's frustration, criticism, and disappointment, none of it seemed that important. He didn't care. "It's inappropriate and unacceptable. Would you like me to explain that to His Majesty on your behalf?" He wondered if it were cruel to let them see how little he cared. He didn't care if it was. That should have been funny but wasn't.

"I would like for you to take this seriously," Gwendal bit out.

"Wolfram," Conrad started, taking a step toward him. "This situation is more concerning than you realize." Wolfram looked over at him and a cold chill clawed its way down his spine. There was nothing in his eyes. The vivid green was flat, as blank as his expressionless face. As if he wasn't even in the room. Conrad sent a shocked look at Gwendal, finally understanding why he had been so rigid since the moment Wolfram entered the room. Was this what he had meant? How often had Gwendal seen him like this? "Wolfram," Conrad said again, more firmly this time.

A hand reached for Wolfram's shoulder and he took a sharp step back. If Conrad touched him he was fairly sure he would hurt him. What a nice mess that would make. "Just say it. The situation is concerning. In what way? And what do you expect me to do about it?"

Conrad was silent for so long that Gunter jumped into the breach. "Someone may be attempting to harm His Majesty." He quickly explained about Morgif, the map, and the attempt on his bedroom door. Taken as a whole, and with Wolfram's uninterested stare drilling through him, Gunter suffered a moment of doubt. It actually didn't sound that threatening, did it? But this was Yuuri they were talking about. "His Majesty's very life may be in danger!"

"Would you like me to bar my door against him?" asked Wolfram. If Yuuri was a real Maou that wouldn't stop him, but since he was Yuuri it probably would. There would be no more private talks, no more kissing, and without the temptation maybe the fear would go away, too. That would be nice. Wouldn't it? "Or I could leave the castle for a while," he offered. His brothers stiffened as if he had struck them. As if his presence here was really necessary, anyway. "I would be back in time for the ball."

Gwendal dropped his eyes so his glare burned into his desk. He hated this. "As a matter of fact, that-"

"No!" Conrad said sharply. "That's no longer-"

The door to the office was thrown open and Anissina swept in as if they were, or should have been, expecting her. She smiled at Wolfram, who blinked, flinched, and then slowly started edging away from her. Then she directed the full force of her annoyance at Gwendal. "Since when am I left out of strategic family meetings? I should have been invited."

Gwendal tensed, fighting not to fidget. "Can't this wait?" he asked through his teeth.

"Why?" she demanded. "So you can jump to even more ludicrous conclusions?" She turned back to Wolfram, who had edged closer to Conrad as if he could actually hide behind him. "I delivered Morgif to your room. One of the maids mentioned having found Yuuri's clothes in the bath and since I doubted he had been washed back to his world this soon I decided to save you both some embarrassment in the morning. You may thank me this afternoon. I have been designing an experiment that has your name written all over it." She enjoyed the way Wolfram cringed. Then she snapped an annoyed look back to Gwendal. Really, the man was too old to be so foolish. "As for the map..." She stepped aside to reveal a little girl with hunched shoulders and a piece of folded paper clutched in both hands.

"I'm sorry," Greta cried, her eyes pleading with Gwendal. "I was just letting Yuuri borrow it. I didn't mean to get anyone in trouble!"

"You?" Conrad demanded in disbelief. He flushed guiltily when Greta flinched at his tone. "I'm sorry," he said quickly, lowering his voice. "I'm just...surprised. How did you come by a map like that?" With someone's help, obviously. Which meant Yozak was right. How could Yozak have been right when he hadn't even been in the castle for more than a day at a time in months?

Greta gave him a wary look and took the hand Anissina offered her. "It's my map. I wanted to see Wolfram. Then I dreamt about finding him and that's how I got the map. He's almost always at the red x when he's in the castle. I only loaned it to Yuuri so he could visit him..."

"You saw it in a dream?" Gunter asked, his tone dripping with skepticism. He regretted that when both Gwendal and Anissina pinned him with black reproachful stares. "Not that I doubt you in any way, of course!" He wouldn't dream of calling His Majesty's daughter a liar. "I'm just...surprised. Yes," he nodded to Conrad, "it's quite a surprise."

"Indeed," Anissina said icily. Then she turned, reached around Conrad to catch Wolfram by the arm, and swept both him and Greta toward the door. "Next time you decide to have a strategy meeting," she called over her shoulder, "do remember to invite the most intelligent person in this castle."

Silence reigned in the office as all three men dropped their eyes. Gwendal was relieved she had chosen Wolfram as her torture subject. He hadn't failed to notice that her arrival had immediately brought life, and a natural fear, to his eyes. She did have that much going for her, at least. Gunter was torn between loyalty to his king and the urge to point out to anyone who would listen that humans simply didn't have prophetic dreams without the use of houjutsu. Either Greta had lied or there was something very strange going on with her. Yet how could he point that logical fact out when even Gwendal didn't want to hear it? Conrad was feeling foolish and uncertain. Yozak was right? Meddling females afoot and they had all looked to Cecilie without even considering that Anissina was still in residence. Wolfram had come back the moment she appeared. How wrong was it that he was so distant from his own brothers that it took someone like her to bring him back? Had he drifted that far on his own or had they driven him to it? Or had Yuuri's departure done that? He had been so focused on protecting Wolfram physically that he hadn't given a thought to his emotional state. He had no idea what was happening to him, let alone how to fix it.

The silence continued, growing heavier until it oozed out into the hall. Murata wrinkled his nose at it and then peeked his head into the room. "I take it this means you won't be sending Wolfram away. Right?" The two brothers merely stiffened in surprise, but Gunter gave a startled jump and nearly tripped on his own robes. Murata smiled at him for that lively response. "Isn't it amazing what you can learn when you simply ask people? And it's so much more efficient than speculating and assuming the worst. All of you have missed breakfast, by the way. That's too bad. The cooks informed the rest of us that today's experiment is going to keep them so busy they've decided to skip lunch and serve an extra large dinner instead. Just in case you start wondering why there's no lunch being served and decide to assume it's an evil plot on the side of the kitchen workers or something." With a knowing smile he strolled on past the room, leaving them to their syrupy silence. There was no harm in rubbing their faces in it a little. They were the ones who had requested his assistance, after all.

.-.
TBC

Chapter Text

The moment they rounded the corner, Greta beamed and began to skip alongside Anissina. Wolfram was so startled by the transformation that he ceased to pull against the hold the woman had on his arm. For her part, Anissina remained sunny and determined to get on with the business at hand.

"Did I do good?" Greta chirped.

"You did well," said Anissina. "Those men should be ashamed of themselves."

"I was afraid they'd want to see it," Greta admitted. "I almost cried."

"That would certainly have done the trick."

"Wait," Wolfram blurted, finally pulling his arm free. "Do you mean you lied?" His shock was more for Greta than Anissina. The girl looked hurt by his question. If he hadn't just witnessed her acting abilities he might have felt bad for doubting her. "Greta?"

"I never actually said this was my map," Greta pouted. She crumpled the paper and shoved it into her pocket. "I haven't gotten my map back yet. But I didn't think they'd believe me about lending it to Yuuri if I didn't have it with me. So I let them think that I did. That's not really lying."

It was close enough for a stern lecture. Wolfram's heart just wasn't up to it at the moment. "Did you really draw your map based on something you saw in a dream?"

Greta's pout became downright mutinous. "I never said I drew it. I found it when I woke up."

"Exactly where did you find it?" Wolfram couldn't help his tone. He was getting a very bad feeling about this. Greta dropped her eyes and edged closer to Anissina's side. Wolfram recalled the woman's presence just as she reached out to capture his arm again.

"That is a very poor way to show your gratitude," she informed him. "I expect far better when you repay me for claiming to have left that sword."

"You lied, too?" Wolfram demanded as he was pulled into motion once more.

Anissina looked back at him with an arched eyebrow. "What reason would I possibly have to lie about a thing like that? Accusing your own daughter of lying is bad enough, but to accuse me? Really. I do hope you won't ask for mercy during this experiment. I shall have none for the likes of you."

Wolfram couldn't help cringing and digging his feet in a little deeper, for all the good it did him. Whether she had lied about delivering Morgif or not, she had apparently been quite serious about having an experiment with his name on it. And now she was put out with him. "I thought you were preparing to leave on a trip," he said frantically. "Surely you don't have time for experiments."

She gave a condescending sniff. "Naturally the experiment is in preparation for my trip. One of the ladies I wish to accompany me has reservations due to her acute seasickness." She watched all of the blood drain from Wolfram's face and gave a sly smile. "Being the genius that I am, I have invented a headpiece to conquer that inconvenience. Once you have powered it up sufficiently you may have the honor of testing it. Should you perform adequately, I might even be persuaded to create a second headpiece for your own personal use. Unlike some people, I do know how to show my appreciation."

Greta tugged her hand free of Anissina's and darted off ahead with an excited, "I'm going to help with the pudding!"

Wolfram stumbled as his stomach dropped to roll around between his feet. She was going to kill him. The only saving grace was that Yuuri, the engagement, and his feelings about the two were the last things on his mind.

.-.

Yuuri's first reaction was relief that training to resist hoseki clearly hadn't cured Wolfram of his seasickness. His second reaction was guilt for being so selfish as to want Wolfram as flawed as he was. He wouldn't wish the misery of seasickness on his worst enemy. Well, maybe an enemy he was especially angry with, but even then he would probably sympathize if he witnessed the suffering firsthand. He embraced his well-deserved guilt and pushed his way through the little crowd of curious kitchen workers. Once he had a clear view he was forced to stand for a moment, confounded and rather impressed by how weird Anissina and her experiments could be. Couldn't she have found a nearby lake? Even the baths would have been better than cramming his fiancé into a pot and floating it in a cauldron. His nose wrinkled. A cauldron filled with what looked like tapioca pudding but definitely wasn't. No wonder Wolfram looked so green. Were they trying to kill him?

Greta was leaning over the cauldron, a dripping ladle held up toward Wolfram's pasty face. "Just one bite?" she asked eagerly. "I helped with the mashing!"

"The mashing of what?" Yuuri demanded. It smelled like smashed ants and sweaty feet poured over a decomposing animal.

Greta whipped around. The stuff dripping from the ladle wobbled dangerously but was too thick to splatter free. "Papa! Look, it's working! He hasn't thrown up once!"

"Of course it's working," Anissina said in an insulted tone. She was standing off to the side, leaning against the pedaled contraption that had been used to power her invention. "He has never had the stomach for pudding. That he can survive being floated in it proves without a doubt the effectiveness of my invention."

Yuuri tore his gaze from the frightening slop dangling off Greta's ladle and looked at Wolfram. He hadn't even noticed the invention. He should have. It was a pair of earmuffs with a glittery silver tiara on top. He couldn't imagine how she had convinced Wolfram to wear that, or to participate in this at all, for that matter. Wolfram looked miserably sick and humiliated and exhausted. Their eyes met and Yuuri stiffened as if someone had jabbed him in the ass with a sword. Who the hell did Anissina think she was?

"That's enough," Yuuri snapped. He stalked forward and caught Wolfram under the arms, lifting him out so easily he would have questioned it if he hadn't been so angry. "This experiment is over!"

"But he hasn't tried the pudding," Greta protested. She was staring sadly at the ladle, so she missed the look Yuuri shot her way. Anissina didn't miss it. Greta blinked when the woman moved to stand in front of her.

"Your Majesty," Anissina said coolly. "My experiment was specifically designed to-"

"I don't care," Yuuri cut her off. "You will not be using my fiancé for any more experiments. I forbid it!"

Anissina's eyebrows shot up, as did many among the spectators. She would have commented on that bold order if Yuuri hadn't reached over to pull the charged headset off Wolfram. "Don't…" She heaved a sigh when Wolfram promptly choked and wilted. "...take that off," she finished with annoyance. "Honestly," she huffed. "What did you think was preventing him from being sick?"

A maid hurried forward. "Here's the bucket, Your Majesty!"

Yuuri glared the girl back. As if he'd let Wolfram throw up in a bucket in front of what appeared to be the entire kitchen staff and then some. "Where's the nearest bathroom?"

"Bath…?"

"Lavatory," Yuuri grimaced. From the way Wolfram was shaking even a closet and a bedpan would do. The startled girl pointed at a doorway and Yuuri swept Wolfram up and rushed him through the parting crowd of onlookers. This time he did wonder at how easily he carried him. Either anger made him stronger or Wolfram had been missing even more meals than he realized. He suspected it was both when he finally found the right room and Wolfram succumbed to dry heaves. Had there been anything in his stomach it would definitely have come out. Yuuri rubbed his back and tried not to wnce at the wretched sounds. He should have been used to them by now.

Wolfram let Yuuri help him rinse and dry his mouth, then slumped miserably against him. He would have happily curled up on the floor, but Yuuri was warmer. His pride was currently a battered whimpering thing. He'd soothe it later. He knew pride was what had kept him from being sick sooner, not Anissina's silly device. As if a sparkling headset could have any effect on his stomach. What nonsense.

"Why did you let her talk you into that?" Yuuri asked quietly. As angry as he was with Anissina, he knew she couldn't have forced Wolfram into it. She was scary and intimidating, but Wolfram was usually stubborn enough to stand up to her. "Did she trick you somehow?"

"She lied for me," Wolfram mumbled. "Or confessed for me. I'm not sure which."

"What-"

Wolfram groaned and pushed against Yuuri's chest. "I'll tell you all about it later. I need to lie down." The floor would have to do, after all. He squirmed his way toward it, but Yuuri's arms tightened, pulling him back and down. His stomach churned at the motion and he would have complained, loudly, if a quick look hadn't found Yuuri beaming down at him.

"You can rest your head in my lap," said Yuuri. He grinned a little wider at the insulted expression that spread over Wolfram's face. Had this been payback that look of his would have made it all worthwhile. This wasn't payback, though. This was another fantasy made real. He had rescued Wolfram as surely as if he had taken up a sword on his behalf. True, he'd probably be embarrassed later, especially if everyone teased him for sweeping Wolfram out of there like that. But for now he was too high on satisfaction to care. Despite the scowl, Wolfram didn't try to lift his head out of his lap.

As much as Yuuri's smug smile goaded him, Wolfram couldn't bring forth the energy to complain. He closed his eyes and wrinkled his nose when Yuuri began to lightly pet his hair. As if he were a lapdog, of all things. He had a lot of nerve. And why hadn't Yuuri told him that a thigh made such an uncomfortable pillow? All this time he had thought he was doing his fiancé a favor by not letting him wake up with his head on a hard and dirty surface. He resisted the urge to shift his cheek in hopes of a softer spot. It was only a matter of time before he had to acknowledge that his head had no business anywhere near Yuuri's lap. Until then he would be very still and let his fears and sense of responsibility keep company with his wounded pride. His dizzy head, shaky limbs, and quivering stomach definitely had priority right now.

Yuuri's right leg fell asleep at about the same time Wolfram did. He wasn't expecting that. It had only taken a few minutes. He'd bet anything Wolfram had sat motionless for hours while he slept with his head in his lap. Couldn't he even do this right? Apparently not on his first try. Prickling needles began creeping up his ankle until he bit his lip, straining not to let his leg twitch. Wolfram was a heavy sleeper. Maybe he could shift him over to his other leg. If he lifted him just a little he could curl his legs in the other direction and-

A hard knock at the door had them both recoiling. Yuuri grimaced and clenched his teeth as his leg woke all the way up in one painfully clenching wave. Wolfram swayed and slumped sideways so he was braced against the wall.

"Yuuri?" Conrad called through the door. "Is everything all right?"

Wolfram's pride surged up so fast he nearly choked to death on it. Conrad wouldn't let him stay in here. Yuuri would offer to help him back to his room and Conrad would volunteer to support him. Conrad would support him straight to Yuuri's bed. Conrad was on Gwendal's side now. The traitor. Wolfram forced himself up, took a stiff-legged step, and wrenched open the door. "Everything is fine," he growled. He could have saved his breath. Conrad looked right past him to Yuuri, who was cringing on the floor with his face twisted up as if he were the one about to be sick. Wolfram stared at him for just a moment before turning away. He wasn't even going to ask. "Everything is fine with me, anyway," he muttered as he marched past his brother.

"Wait!" Yuuri blurted. His leg wasn't done killing him yet. He tried to scramble up and failed miserably. Conrad caught him before he could sink back to the floor. No, he really couldn't do anything right. Not on the first try. And he wasn't likely to get a second try any time soon if he didn't get himself together. Wolfram was the one who shouldn't have been able to walk right out on his own, not him.

"Are you all right?" asked Conrad.

"My leg fell asleep," Yuuri muttered sullenly. He flushed when Conrad's lips twitched. "It's not funny." It certainly wasn't kingly. "I'm fine. Go help Wolfram. I'll catch up in a second." He was a little surprised when Conrad simply nodded and left him. He wished he had gotten a good look at Wolfram's face before he left. If Wolfram was in danger of stumbling or passing out it would be Conrad who reached him first. Yuuri wanted to be the one Wolfram leaned on. Gritting his teeth, he stumped out of the room as quickly as his wobbly leg allowed.

He needn't have rushed. They were standing in the hall just off the kitchen. Conrad wasn't hovering close to catch Wolfram if he fell, though. He was holding his wrist and frowning down at him, his voice a quiet and urgent murmur. Yuuri hesitated for a split second before hurrying over to them. The brother issues would have to wait.

"Their involvement doesn't change anything," Conrad was saying. "The threat might not be as serious as we feared, but the fact remains that-"

"So good of you to join us, Yuuri," said Wolfram. As expected, Conrad's mouth snapped shut. He didn't release his wrist, though. Wolfram knew he'd end up on the floor if he tried to wrench himself free. "Why don't you talk to Yuuri about it," he suggested casually. "This does involve him as well." He was immune to the reproving look Conrad shot him.

"What involves me?" asked Yuuri. He frowned from one to the other, Wolfram with his shuttered eyes and Conrad with his tightly pressed lips. "What's going on?"

Conrad's stony silence answered one of the questions that had been fueling Wolfram's indignant anger. Everyone was pressuring him because they couldn't pressure Yuuri. Conrad wouldn't even discuss this in front of Yuuri because he had already tried that and failed. Wolfram looked closely at Yuuri, who was frowning at Conrad with suspicion, impatience, and…yes, growing anger. For him. Wolfram let out a sharp breath that would have been a laugh on a better day. When had his wimp developed such a backbone? He was so pleased and proud of him that he shrugged off his own pride enough to extend his free hand. "Yuuri? Would you mind walking me to my room? I'm still a little shaky."

"What? Oh! Sure."

Wolfram watched Conrad as Yuuri pulled his arm around his shoulders and looped his own arm around his waist as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Conrad had released him the moment Yuuri moved, and the shock and consternation on his face made all of Anissina's torture worth it. Wolfram resisted the smug smile that tried to take over his face, but his eyes danced with amusement as he let his surprisingly attentive fiancé turn him away. He hoped Conrad wondered and worried about this all day.

By the time they reached Wolfram's room, Yuuri was determined to talk to Murata about his Maou side again. Whatever strength had let him carry Wolfram earlier was long gone. He spent the last few steps to the room frantically worried that he wouldn't be able to pick Wolfram up if he stumbled and fell. He should have asked Conrad to go with them. He had been so surprised to have Wolfram actually ask for his help, to have him admit that he needed help, that he had jumped at the chance to provide it. And he hadn't liked the way Conrad was looking at Wolfram as if he hadn't even noticed how pale his face was. Brother issues were no excuse for stopping Wolfram in the hall when he could barely walk. Yuuri decided he would have to have a talk with Conrad, too, once he was done with Murata.

There were no guards in the hall, and no sign of the blue uniforms he'd seen earlier. The room was empty and nothing appeared out of place aside from all that black. Yuuri scowled anyway. They could have walked right into an ambush. He'd have to add Gwendal to his list of people he needed to talk to. And the maids, he reminded himself, as he watched Wolfram crawl onto his black bed. He had meant to have the room back to normal by now. He folded the sides of the blanket over Wolfram rather than try to con him into getting up and under the covers.

"Are you going to sleep it off?" asked Yuuri. "Do you need anything?"

"Mh. Pull the curtains before you go," Wolfram grumbled. When he had asked for Yuuri's assistance he hadn't expected to actually need it. Bad enough he had leaned on Yuuri almost the entire way. He refused to ask him to take a nap along with him. The blankets would warm him up eventually. The light behind his eyelids dimmed nicely. He dropped asleep so fast he didn't even hear Yuuri leave.

It took five minutes of pacing outside Wolfram's door before Yuuri worked up the nerve to do what needed to be done. He knew it was necessary. He couldn't leave Wolfram sleeping alone with his door unlocked and no guards in sight. If he stayed in the room he'd end up in the bed and the last thing Wolfram needed right now was to be groped in his sleep. There was only one option and he was man enough to face it. He was the king here, after all. Straightening his spine, he knocked quietly on the door. Then he berated himself for cowardly hoping no one answered.

The door opened a crack and Lukas peered out. The boy stared at him with one wide eye before shutting the door again. Yuuri gaped. He was supposed to be the king around here. What kind of soldier did that to his king? His fists clenched and he lifted one, fully intent on pounding the door down and teaching that tattling pansy a little respect. The blonde slipped out and looked right past his raised fist with a manner just as polite as could be. Yuuri dropped his arm. He didn't need to hear the laughter to know he was being laughed at.

"Is there something I can help you with, Your Majesty?"

Yuuri felt his shoulders slump. Any kingly spirit he'd possessed had slunk away like a kicked dog. "You're Daniel, right?"

"Yes, I am, Your Majesty."

Pretty and polite and definitely laughing at him. Yuuri sighed and glanced past him to the closed door. "Is the other one coming out?"

"Lukas is indisposed at the moment," Daniel said apologetically. "Did you wish to speak with him?"

"No," Yuuri decided. He had a creeping suspicion the other one was naked or something. The blonde's hair was mussed and Yuuri's brain kept wanting to go back to that liplock he had witnessed. If he had interrupted something he really didn't want to know it for sure. "If you or another of Wolfram's men is available, I want one of you to guard Wolfram's door. Just until I can get the regular guards down here."

Daniel's polite mask broke into surprise and concern. "Is he alright? Has something happened?"

"He'll be fine," Yuuri said quickly. "It's just…" How much could he say without having Wolfram furious with him later? "Do you know Anissina? The experiments she does?"

"Oh," Daniel winced. He sent a sympathetic look at Wolfram's door and then smiled at Yuuri. "Say no more, Your Majesty. We'll see to it he isn't disturbed."

"Thank you," said Yuuri.

"Not at all," Daniel smiled. "As members of his squad, his safety and well being are our top priority."

"I'm glad to hear it," Yuuri said quickly, before turning on his heel and walking away. Daniel's challenge was one he had no problem with. Wolfram's men should be loyal to him first and their king second. He was pretty sure Daniel had expected him to be insulted or jealous or something. He wondered again just what Wolfram's men thought of him. Not that it mattered. As far as Wolfram's safety was concerned they were on the same side. That was good enough. Now he just had to get Wolfram's brothers on board. He had specifically asked for guards just outside that door. If Conrad couldn't see to it, he'd have to take it up with Gwendal. And if he got all flushed and intimidated he would just remind himself of that unguarded room he and Wolfram had just walked into. Murata was right, he decided. He was getting more practice at being angry than he had expected.

.-.

Yuuri was the last person Gwendal had expected to come barging into his office without so much as a knock. Luckily he had been expecting Anissina to come barging in on a return visit, so he wasn't entirely startled. Gunter was startled. Gunter jumped and nearly tripped, but he'd been doing that a lot lately. Yuuri didn't even seem to notice. Still, all things considered, perhaps a bolt on his office door wasn't out of the question.

"There are two guards permanently stationed just outside the royal bedroom," Gwendal stated. This nonsense was getting entirely out of hand.

"Great," Yuuri beamed. "Then it won't be any trouble to have them relocated to stand guard outside Wolfram's room instead."

"Be reasonable, Heika," Gunter pleaded. "It's terribly inappropriate for the king to be running about in the soldiers' wing, let alone sleeping there. Would you allow Greta to move into the servants' wing? It is simply not done."

"It is now," Yuuri said firmly. He turned his attention back to Gwendal. That black stare bit right through any anger he tried to maintain. He found smiling was a much better buffer. Smiling made Gwendal's eyebrow twitch. "Will you inform the guards of their new duty or should I?"

Gwendal narrowed his eyes, tightening his face in an attempt to keep his eyebrow still. "I will allow the royal guards to relocate temporarily. Only on the condition that you will return to your own chambers before the ball. It is imperative that none of the visiting dignitaries see you anywhere near that wing. The good of the kingdom must take precedence over your personal desires. Your Majesty."

Guilt reared its ugly head and Yuuri felt his smile trying to slip away. He kept it firmly in place. If he couldn't get Wolfram to move back into his room by then, he'd at least make sure he remained guarded until the ball was over and the visitors left. Then he could move right back in with Wolfram again. It was a fair compromise. He didn't like it, but as the king he could accept that appearances would be important once a bunch of stuffy nobles were milling around the castle. "Agreed," he nodded. "Please inform the guards as soon as possible."

"I'll do that," Gwendal said stiffly. He didn't trust how quickly Yuuri had capitulated. He watched suspiciously as Yuuri turned to sail out of the room. "By the way, Your Majesty," he called after him. "Don't you still have documents that need to be signed?"

Yuuri missed a step, stiffened, and hurried faster for the door. "I'll get right on that. I'm almost done," he promised without looking back. He shut the door behind him before Gunter could follow. Then he rushed toward his own office. He had completely forgotten about his paperwork. No using Wolfram as an excuse to get out of work. It was sad how quickly he had forgotten that promise to himself. But thanks to Murata the stack of things to read had shrunk considerably. He decided to an hour of reading, an hour of mindless signing, and then he could take a break and check on Wolfram. And track down Conrad, Murata, or one of the maids. Then he would go back to work for a few hours. That would still leave him with plenty of free time before dinner. He'd check on Greta, check on Wolfram again, and maybe-

"About time," Anissina drawled.

Yuuri froze just inside his office. She was sitting in his chair, staring at him over her folded hands with a small yet very worrisome smile. Yuuri had given her an order earlier. Now he wanted to run away from her and hide under Wolfram's bed. There was even a soft rug under there now.

"Close the door, dear," said Anissina.

Yuuri jumped when his nearest escape path clicked closed. A startled look revealed Greta. She was watching him with eyes nearly as wary as his own. He suddenly recalled that she had taken part in Anissina's torture of Wolfram. Was she going to help her torture him as well? He'd known the woman was a bad influence on her, but he hadn't dreamed it was this bad. His sweet little girl a sadist? It couldn't be true. "Greta…?"

Greta stared at him for a long silent moment, then her face crumpled and she lunged at him, wrapping her arms around his waist and nearly knocking him off his feet. "I tasted the pudding!" she wailed. "I didn't know! It smelled bad, but they said it was supposed to smell like that so I thought it must taste great or why would they cook it when it made the whole kitchen smell like that? But it tasted even worse than it smelled! Wolfram will never forgive me for trying to make him eat that!"

"Nonsense," Anissina said dismissively. "That pudding is very nutritious. Not a drop of it will go to waste. You're to be commended for helping with the preparation. Very few people have the stomach for that, you know. Once it congeals enough to be pickled it will make a marvelous donation to the poor during my trip. If you stop crying and hurry back to the kitchen you might be allowed to help with the beets."

Greta pushed herself out of Yuuri's awkward embrace. Her teary eyes were wide and excited. "Beets?"

"For the pickling."

"I've never seen pickled beets," Greta exclaimed.

She was out the door before Yuuri could respond to her swift change in moods. He stared at the door, stunned that he had been abandoned in favor of beets and horrified at the thought of how much worse that stinking slop would be after congealing and being pickled. Then it occurred to him that Anissina had just encouraged Greta to run to the kitchen. He summoned enough confused anger to look her in the eye. "I thought everyone was trying to keep her out of the kitchen."

Anissina sniffed. "No one wants her sneaking down there at night to listen to the gossips. There is, however, nothing wrong with a young lady who has an interest in cooking. She certainly doesn't have much else to do around here. But Greta isn't what I wish to discuss with you. This is."

Yuuri winced when she lifted the sparkly earmuffs from her lap. Where was that empowering anger when he needed it?

"You stole the subject of my experiment and forbid me from using him again. How bold of you, Your Majesty." She smirked, watching as Yuuri both blushed and cringed. "I can only assume that you were unaware both of you owe me a debt of gratitude. While you were enjoying breakfast, I was saving your fiancé from being sent away."

"What?"

"Sent away," Anissina repeated. "From the castle, if not the kingdom. With him out of the castle you would return to the royal chambers and there would be no more worry about unknown people leaving packages outside your door. Luckily I was present to claim responsibility for that, and your darling daughter admitted to being the lender of the mysterious map everyone is so concerned about. We should be thanked for that. Instead, you interrupt my experiment, give me orders before witnesses, and make that poor girl cry. The extent of your ingratitude is shameful."

"You left Morgif?" Yuuri blurted. "And the map was-"

"I wasn't finished," Anissina informed him. "It's rude to interrupt with anything less than a heartfelt apology. The just course of action now is for you to finish the experiment in Wolfram's place. You do believe in justice, don't you, Your Majesty?"

Yuuri winced. "Of course, but…I'm not seasick."

"No, but you do have an excess of maryoku. I have already determined that my device works. Now I need someone to charge it enough to last the duration of my trip. Aside from Wolfram, you are the only one who can do that on his own. You will do the honors, won't you, Your Majesty?"

With a groan, Yuuri realized just how she had gotten Wolfram to agree to abject humiliation. She had appealed to his sense of honor. With a dash of blackmail? "Did you really deliver Morgif?"

"What reason would I possibly have to lie about a thing like that?"

"For the sake of your experiment," Yuuri muttered. "To get a willing guinea pig. Or two…"

"Don't be ridiculous. Pigs don't have maryoku no matter what breed they are." She rose smoothly and escorted him to the door.

"Can it wait till later?" Yuuri asked weakly. "I wanted to get some work done before-"

"I have a schedule to keep," she said firmly. "Had you not interrupted me I might well be on my way by now. I'm sure you won't show your gratitude by delaying my plans even further."

He would if he were a real king, Yuuri thought crossly. Since he was a wimp at the moment he should at least make the most of it. He shot a look up at her as she propelled him down the hall. "Would Gwendal really have sent Wolfram away if you and Greta hadn't taken responsibility for Morgif and the map? Just to get me out of that room?"

Anissina smiled knowingly. "He would have tried. Somehow I rather doubt the Maou would have allowed his fiancé to be sent away without his permission. Would you, Your Majesty?"

The anger was back, just like that. It was surging and empowering and if he had still wanted to refuse to help her he could have done so easily. He didn't. He gnashed his teeth and spoke through them. "Never!"

"Of course not," she agreed in a smooth soothing voice. "Now, thanks to Greta and I, that is no longer a concern. There is no need for you to come to blows with your fiancé's brothers. But do hold onto that anger. It will make charging my device so much quicker."

Maintaining his anger wouldn't be a problem. Controlling it would be. She had said brothers. Conrad had been ready to send Wolfram away? Was that why he had stopped Wolfram in the hall? Even with a harmless explanation for Morgif and the map, Conrad was still trying to split them up. He could understand that from Gwendal and Gunter with their stiff old fashioned formality and adherence to rules and customs. But Conrad wasn't like them. Conrad was supposed to be on his side. Suddenly Yuuri hoped charging Anissina's device took a lot of energy. He was going to have to talk to Conrad sooner rather than later and he didn't want to be enraged when he did it.

.-.

There was a card game being played in the hallway when Yuuri finally got back to Wolfram's room. Greta squeezed his hand and he glanced down to take in her excited expression before looking back at the improbable scene. Three blue uniforms, a gray, and a cute little maid in pink, all seated in a circle inches away from the booted feet of two extremely rigid royal guards. One of the blues, who Yuuri immediately recognized as the boy Wolfram had healed during that meditation trip, leaned back and said something to the guard behind him. The blank-faced man gave no response, but the comment drew giggles from the girl in pink and snorts from the other two blues. The gray remained silent, probably because he had caught sight of Yuuri. He murmured something, and then there was a flurry of motion as they scooped up coins, cards, and a shawl the girl had been sitting on, and the entire group hurried into the room across the hall and shut the door behind them.

Greta let out a disappointed sigh. "Did I scare them away?"

"No," Yuuri muttered, "I did." He didn't know whether to feel bad for spoiling their fun or justified. They shouldn't have been having a party right outside Wolfram's door after Daniel had promised Wolfram wouldn't be disturbed. On the other hand it didn't seem right to ruin their fun just because he had moved himself into their wing. He was still debating how he should feel about that quick retreat when he reached the guards and saw that Wolfram's door was wide open. Wolfram was sitting cross-legged on his neatly made bed, cleaning his sword and looking pale but steady. Yuuri hesitated in the doorway. Greta didn't.

"Are you feeling better?" she asked, rushing over to the bed and climbing up to sit across from him.

"Of course I am," Wolfram said stiffly. Then he smirked down at her. "But only because I didn't eat any of that poison."

"I did," Greta grimaced. "It was so bad! I'm sorry I tried to make you eat it. Are you mad at me?"

"No. But I am-" He stopped and looked past her to Yuuri, who was still hesitating in the doorway. "Come in and close the door. The three of us need to talk…" He waited until Yuuri joined them on the bed before looking down at Greta and finishing, "…about your map."

Greta's face pulled into a stubborn pout and she dropped her eyes and began picking at her fingernails. "I didn't lie about it…"

"No one is saying you did," Yuuri said quickly. He had brought Greta along to prove to her that Wolfram wouldn't hold a grudge about earlier, but he had also been hoping Wolfram would know more about the claims she and Anissina had apparently made. "I just want to know how you got it." And who had slipped it under his door for her. And who had taken it from his room afterward.

"I dreamt it," Greta grumbled, "just like I said."

"The map was there when you woke up?" Wolfram asked in a voice carefully devoid of skepticism. Greta nodded, and he shot a quick look at Yuuri to make sure she had given him the same story. Not a lie, then, yet certainly not the full truth, either. "Where was it? On your pillow? On the floor by your bed?" He knew they were getting somewhere when Greta's mouth pinched and she didn't raise her head.

"On my desk…"

"So you woke up to find a piece of paper with a map drawn on it, lying on your desk." He waited, giving her plenty of time to sneak a peek at him or Yuuri. She didn't. She clenched her hands in her lap and looked as guilty as could be. Just what he'd been afraid of. "What was on your desk when you went to bed, Greta?"

The silence dragged on for so long that Yuuri was impressed despite himself. Had he been the one pinned down by Wolfram's stare he would have sung like a bird. Greta was made of sterner stuff. A fist full of anxiety clenched in his gut. Surely she hadn't done anything that bad. She was just a kid. A sweet kid, who according to Anissina had faced down Wolfram's brothers for their sake. He finally broke and caught Wolfram's eyes. "Maybe-"

"No," Wolfram snapped. He understood how Yuuri felt, but this was serious. Far more serious than where Yuuri slept at night, not that his brothers would agree. Not even Gunter had pointed out the problem with Greta's story, and he must have realized it immediately. Wolfram hadn't thought of it until a few minutes ago, when he'd been watching his men annoy those unwelcome royal guards. Philipp had invited a maid to join their game, possibly the girlfriend he kept claiming to have. And it had struck Wolfram that not even the maids knew where he and his men trained when they were within the castle. Aside from them, only Gisela could have drawn a map leading right to them. That Greta herself might have drawn it was impossible. Human girls couldn't perform magic…unless they had access to an object that was magic in itself.

Wolfram let out a long sigh and reached over to lift Greta's chin so she was forced to look him in the eye. "Have you been in the treasure room, Greta?"

She looked from Wolfram to Yuuri, blinked, and then burst into tears. Wolfram winced at the sharpness of her wailing sobs. Yuuri cringed, and then winced as well when she threw herself into his arms and nearly knocked him off the bed. His hands patted her back frantically as he stuttered what he hoped were soothing words.

"It was just a piece of paper," Greta cried into Yuuri's chest. "Just a little blank piece of paper! There was a vase with roses on it and I was going to draw a picture of it. But when I picked up the paper the picture was already there. Whatever I imagined was right there. My own magic looking glass just like in the stories. It was mine. It wanted to be mine. Without me it was just a piece of paper…"

"Stop crying," Wolfram sighed. He ignored the surprised and reproachful look Yuuri shot him. After her little performance earlier he couldn't trust that her tears were real. Even if the tears had been genuine, the wails were definitely an exaggeration. Thankfully she settled down to quiet sniffles, though she continued to hide her face against Yuuri, who kept up his flustered 'there-there's. "You know you should never have been in the treasure room. There are dangerous items stored down there. You should never have gone in there. You should never have touched anything in there. And you certainly should never have taken something out of there. What do you have to say for yourself?"

With a long dragging breath, Greta pushed free of Yuuri's embrace. She wiped her nose on her sleeve, put her shoulders back, and looked – not at Wolfram – but at Yuuri. "I've been really bad. I don't know why. I was just so…mad that you left. I know that's your home and you wanted to see your mom and dad, your f-family, but…I'm your family, too! That's why I went in there. Everything in there is yours and I was going to steal something of yours so I'd at least have that. I know it was wrong and I did it anyway." Her face twisted up and she scrubbed her arm over her face. "That's why I asked one of the maids to slip the map under your door. I knew I had to give it back, but I didn't want you to know I'm the one who took it. Only I got you and Wolfram in trouble…" She dropped her arm and turned pleading eyes on Wolfram. "I never meant for that to happen, I swear! When Anissina asked me about the map I was going to tell her the truth, but she didn't ask where I got it so I thought maybe I wouldn't have to tell what I did. Only not telling the truth is the same as lying so now I'm a liar as well as a thief and – I can't even give the paper back because someone else took it this time! I can't fix this. There's something wrong with me and I can't fix that, either."

Wolfram opened his arms and held her tightly as she dampened his chest nearly as badly as she had Yuuri's. These sobs were real, low and stomach wrenching, and his throat hurt just to hear them. If he had paid more attention to her instead of wallowing in his own feelings after Yuuri's departure she wouldn't have gotten so lost. He gave a shaky smile when Yuuri scooted over to put his arms around them both. If he felt bad, he could just imagine how hard this was on Yuuri.

"There's nothing wrong with you, Greta," said Yuuri.

"Nothing," Wolfram agreed. "You're just a kid. Young and confused and left alone far too much. We're more to blame for this than you are." He smiled when she stubbornly denied that. "It's true. You should have been given a nursemaid the day you came to us."

"I'm not a baby!" Greta sniffled. "I don't need a nurse…"

"Not a baby, no. But you are a very young lady. What you need now is a governess. And your dear Papa has already begun to search out the perfect one for you."

Greta's head popped up, her teary eyes latching hopefully on Yuuri. "Are you really?"

"We've been talking about it," Yuuri admitted. "Do you want a governess?"

"I need one," Greta said soberly, sounding far too old for a moment. Then she ruined it by beaming and bouncing excitedly. "Beatrice says all young ladies have a governess. They're old and strict, but they keep you from getting in trouble because they know everything. Hers taught her to dance and swish and peck!"

"Peck?" Wolfram asked sharply. He knew some countries considered a peck on the cheek or lips an appropriate greeting, but that certainly wasn't the case here.

"Like a bird," Greta nodded. She darted her head down in a sneaking peck. "Quick so no one sees you eat. That's how ladies get a glass figure. Some of the ladies after her papa tie themselves up so they look smaller but her governess says real ladies eat like a bird so they don't need to tie themselves. I'd never want to have to tie myself up. I wish I had a governess now. She could teach me how to swish before Beatrice gets here…"

Yuuri and Wolfram exchanged a wary look over her head, but neither volunteered to ask what swishing meant. They promised to get her a governess as soon as possible. Then the conversation turned back to the issue of the missing map, which according to Greta's description would no longer be a map since it apparently showed whatever the person holding it wanted to see. It had to have been taken from Yuuri's room by one of the maids. If they were going to recover it before anyone else got wind of Greta's theft, they'd have to answer the questions of why, which maid, and did she realize what she had.

.-.

"A compromise?" Conrad demanded, staring down at his older brother in disbelief. If anyone should have been able to simply refuse Yuuri it was Gwendal.

"That is certainly preferable to caving to his every whim," Gwendal pointed out. "At least this way he will be out of that wing in time for the ball. What have you accomplished toward that end?"

Conrad snapped his mouth shut and ran a hand through his hair. He didn't understand what was going on with either of them. The castle was already buzzing with tales of how Yuuri had boldly berated Anissina for using 'his fiancé' in her experiment. He had overheard two maids cooing about how strong Yuuri was to have swept Wolfram away like a rescued princess…or a bride on her wedding night. By all rights, Wolfram should have been furious with Yuuri for being made to look so weak. Instead he had almost appeared smug when he had asked Yuuri to escort him back to his room. The smugness was typical possessive Wolfram claiming rights to Yuuri's attention. The willingness to appear weak was not typical of Wolfram at all. Yuuri's eager attentiveness wasn't typical, either. Conrad couldn't quite convince himself that Yuuri's concern was simply worry for a friend. He had a horrible suspicion that Yozak might have been right about more than just the map and meddling. "Gwendal…"

"Enough," Gwendal snapped. "I refuse to be lectured by you in regards to-"

"Do you remember when Wolfram came of age?"

Gwendal flinched back in his chair as if struck. His upper lip curled and his hands dropped beneath his desk to fidget furiously. "There is no comparison. Wolfram is a full mazoku. He was always hormonal and temperamental. There is no reason to think Yuuri's coming of age would be any worse than yours."

"Except he has maryoku, far more of it than Wolfram did at that age. And he's engaged," Conrad felt his loyalties splinter and cut until he had to choke out the words, "to our little brother." In whose room he was suddenly insisting upon sleeping.

"Are you implying-"

"No," Conrad said quickly. "Of course not. I'm just beginning to wonder if Wolfram is really the one we should be trying to convince. If Yuuri is suffering hormone surges he might be pressuring him, without even meaning to. At least on the matter of rooms." Because he couldn't quite make himself believe Yuuri might pressure Wolfram on any other matter. As Yozak had pointed out, Wolfram was far more likely to be the one doing that.

Gwendal scoffed at the very idea, his body relaxing enough for his hands to return to the surface of his desk. "If he were pressuring Wolfram to do anything, he would be sporting bruises and the entire castle would be hearing about it."

"A few months ago I would have agreed with you. After this morning, I'm not so sure."

"Pure stubbornness," Gwendal scowled. "He insists he wants the engagement over, then he installs Yuuri in his room. He stood in this office, looked me right in the eye, and insisted he's prepared to accept the damage this engagement has done to his reputation. Then he turned around and did the one thing guaranteed to ruin him even further? No. His selfish stubbornness hasn't changed one bit. He wants things his way regardless of the consequences. And there will be consequences. They're going to marry whether either of them likes it or not. If you had hopes to the contrary you can give them up right now.

"Not this again," Conrad groaned. "It would never work. Yuuri won't marry another male. It just isn't done in his world. I've told you that."

Gwendal raised an eyebrow. "Yet you worry that he might be pressuring Wolfram? Make up your mind. And accept the facts. This isn't his world, it's ours. Whether it was intentional or not, the fact remains that Wolfram is ruined. Yuuri will do right by him, even if I have to challenge him myself."

This brought a wan smile to Conrad's face. "You know I would counter your challenge on his behalf."

"That should prove interesting," Gwendal agreed. Especially if Wolfram challenged them both for interfering in his life. Shin Makoku hadn't seen a three-way duel between brothers in years. Leave it to a half-human Maou to instigate such nonsense. "I'll look forward to it."

"As will I," Conrad laughed. He knew exactly what Gwendal was thinking. The only question was which of them Wolfram would side with – the one in favor of marriage or the one opposed to it. It didn't even occur to him to wonder where Yuuri might stand on the issue. If it did come down to a duel all three if them would insist on waiting until Yuuri was safely away in his own world.

.-.
TBC

Chapter Text

The treasure room was dark, dusty, and packed. The contents appeared to have doubled since the last time Yuuri had ventured in here. He doubtfully eyed the mess while Wolfram looked over a scroll he had plucked from a holder to the right of the door. "There are scraps of paper all over the place. She picked up something that looked like trash."

"But she knew it wasn't trash when she took it out of here," said Wolfram. He rolled the scroll back up and put it away. "The inventory hasn't been updated in years. If she really did find it on the floor, then it probably came in with the most recent collection. Gather up any loose papers you can find. Maybe hers was part of a book or pad, in which case any matching pages could help us identify it. I'll look for the vase. That will at least tell us which part of the room she found it in."

"We should have brought her with us."

"That would raise too many questions. If anyone asks, you wanted to look at your treasure and I insisted upon keeping you company." Gunter might guess the truth, but he had held his silence earlier and Wolfram hoped he continued to do so.

"What she did wasn't that bad." Yuuri scowled as he squatted and started piling up any paper in sight. "I don't blame her. Why would they?"

"They wouldn't, not really. But it will remind everyone of how she came to be with us. I think that's what she's most afraid of, losing people's trust and being viewed as an outsider again. I'd just as soon Gwendal never realizes she is still an accomplished liar."

"Do you have to say it like that?" Yuuri had enough guilt as it was. He had claimed Greta as his own, but he hadn't raised her. He had never understood how a little girl could become a would-be assassin, so he had never questioned how easily that would-be assassin had become a perfectly sweet and innocent little girl again. He had taken her in and assumed doing so would erase any problems she might have. He might call her his daughter, but honestly he had treated her more like a cute pet to be enjoyed while he was around and left behind when he had better things to do. "It's my fault for not being a real father to her."

"You aren't old enough to be a real father to her," Wolfram pointed out. He huffed out a quiet laugh at the memory. "One look at her should have been enough to know her claims were nonsense. It's a credit to her acting abilities that she was even allowed into the castle."

Her lying abilities, Yuuri thought gloomily. "A real father would make her face the consequences of her actions, not sneak around trying to hide her mistake."

Wolfram turned away from the unopened crate he had been about to climb over and went to crouch in front of Yuuri. "Is that what you want to do, Yuuri? I don't view this as hiding Greta's mistake. I view it as making up for my own. I really do blame myself more than I blame her. When you left she started calling me Papa." When Yuuri's eyes widened, he dropped his own. "Maybe my reaction gave me away. Or maybe she heard it from someone else. I think she knew I couldn't adopt her without you."

"Why not? You claimed her as soon as I did!"

"As a gesture," Wolfram bit out. "If we married, any children of yours would be mine. I claimed her as a way to stake my claim on you. It was a selfish and cruel thing to do. I never considered her feelings, what would happen to her when you married someone else and she never saw me again. If I had it to do over..." But there was no point thinking about that. He rose and moved to sit on the edge of the crate. "After you left I encouraged her to spend more time with mother. As a former Maou, she's the only one of us who might have legally been able to adopt her. I avoided the castle and rarely saw Greta when I was here. I thought a gradual break would be easiest on her." He could have helped her deal with the anger and grief. Instead he had abandoned her as surely as Yuuri had. He folded his arms over his chest, looking away when Yuri rose and approached him. "Everyone here loves her. I won't have them viewing her with mistrust now because I wasn't here when she needed me. I'm not trying to hide what she did. I'm trying to make up for what I did, what I didn't do."

"I'm the one who left," Yuuri whispered. His throat ached. Wolfram's averted eyes were too bright. If Wolfram cried he didn't know what he'd do. "I'm so sorry for leaving like that."

"You didn't plan to leave." It was suddenly so easy to forgive him for that. After all, "I have been planning to leave for a long time now. At least I have a chance to make a proper goodbye before I go. That's more than you had."

Yuuri pulled him off the crate and hugged him fiercely. "You're not going anywhere." He felt and heard Wolfram take a hitching breath, and held him tighter. "I won't let you go anywhere."

"I have to," Wolfram choked out. His throat was so tight it hurt to breathe. He wanted to sink into the embrace, wanted so badly to feel wanted and needed. Yuuri did care. But Yuuri cared about everyone and everything and that wasn't good enough anymore. He wasn't a lonely child starving for some bit of affection. What he wanted, what he really craved, was to be necessary. He wanted one person whose world would stop if he wasn't a part of it. He was never going to get that from Yuuri. He had already died a slow death and Yuuri hadn't even noticed he was gone, hadn't hesitated to leave the moment he was brought back. Yuuri didn't need him. No one here really did. He took a shaky breath. "I won't stay here and watch you marry someone else. I can't. I'll always serve you and the kingdom, but I'm going to leave as soon as the engagement is over. I have to."

"It's not going to be over. I'm going to marry you."

"I wish you wouldn't say things like that." He dropped his head against Yuuri with a pained smile. Yuuri sounded so determined it would have been easy to believe him. He wrapped his arms around Yuuri and hugged him back, grateful for the kind words if not the sentiment behind them. "You can make your decision after your coming of age ceremony. You'll still be a child until then," he murmured. His voice was too quiet for the teasing tone he had been trying to put into it. He leaned back so he could see Yuuri's eyes. They were as damp as his own felt. Poor Yuuri, trying his hardest to do it right. There was no right between them. "You're too young to risk being forced into marriage." He gave him a teasing smile. "There is no bolt on this door. We could claim we were dancing, but I doubt anyone would believe it."

Yuuri reluctantly let Wolfram step away. This was the second time today someone had warned him about the possibility of a forced marriage. He frowned as he watched Wolfram climb over the crate to rummage in the pile behind it. "It wouldn't be a forced marriage. You can't force the willing," he blurted. "I'm not afraid of a shotgun wedding."

"We'll never have any kind of wedding," Wolfram muttered before he could stop himself. He winced when he heard Yuuri climbing over the crate behind him. Yuuri could be nearly as stubborn as he was. They could very well end up arguing all night until Yuuri's mind was set on marrying him, just to prove that his mind was set on marrying him. He didn't want anything more between them to be done simply to prove a point. He turned with a warning frown. "Yuuri-"

"Can a king even be forced to marry?" Yuuri asked sharply. He was angry, mostly at himself. Wolfram didn't believe him. That was his fault and he didn't know how to fix it. He had never appreciated him, had never really seen just what he had until it was gone. If he couldn't get Wolfram to trust him, he'd lose him again. He couldn't stand the thought of that. "If someone came in here and saw us kissing, could they really force us to marry?"

Wolfram flushed indignantly. "I would never kiss you in a place like this. It's filthy, for one thing." His eyes widened when Yuuri stalked toward him. "Don't even think it. Yuuri, I swear if you kiss me just to prove that you can I will beat you to within an inch of your life." His hand dropped to the hilt of his sword when he felt Yuuri's maryoku flare at that threat. "I meant it, Yuuri."

"I believe you," Yuuri said, stopping right in front of him. "I want you to believe me, too. I want to kiss you. I want to make out with you." Wolfram's eyes narrowed, but now wasn't the time to explain that term. "I want to marry you. More than any of that, right now I want..." He curled his hands into fists and let out a shaky laugh. "What I really want is to spar with you. Right here and now." He glanced over the boxes and glints in the piles around them. "We'd destroy this entire room and I couldn't care less." Wolfram was still eyeing him warily. Yuuri gave him an unhappy frown. "Murata told me it's normal for mazoku to have hormone surges when they come of age. I guess my Maou side is slipping a bit. Sorry." He forced himself to turn away before he made things worse. "I'll look for the vase on the other side of the room. White with roses on it, right?"

Wolfram caught his arm before he could take a single step. "How much energy did Anissina take from you earlier?" Concern overcame everything else as he vividly recalled the months leading up to his own coming of age. Why hadn't he considered that? Yuuri had more maryoku than a full-blooded adult mazoku. His wouldn't be the token ceremony normally performed for half-mazoku. Yuuri was experiencing a real physical change. Wolfram cringed at the thought of Yuuri being reduced to a quivering ball of self-loathing. His mother's talks hadn't helped him one bit. He could only pray she didn't try to help Yuuri through this. "What exactly did Murata tell you?"

Yuuri grew nervous as Wolfram's open fear infected him. "Murata just said that it was normal. He said I'd be fine as long as I don't let my Maou side take over."

"And Anissina?"

"She acted like she took a lot, but it didn't feel that way to me." He winced and admitted, "I was angry at the time. I barely noticed what she took."

Wolfram nodded. "Getting angry easily is the least of your worries. You'll want to meditate and spar and..." He blushed furiously as he realized Yuuri wouldn't be able to do the other thing that helped, not in his room.

"What's wrong?"

"You really are attracted to me," Wolfram blurted. His face was so hot it hurt. Yuuri blinked and then blushed dark enough to make him feel somewhat better. It was still difficult to look him in the eye. "If Mother's perfume amplified things, this is a thousand times worse." But it also made it very difficult to lie to oneself. His own coming of age had forced him to accept that he served no purpose in the world and he had hated himself long and hard before firmly burying away his childish dreams. What had Yuuri's forced him to accept? His feelings for him? Wolfram dropped his eyes, wondering with more hope than he should have allowed just how Yuuri would deal with those revelations. Maybe Yuuri would bury those unwanted desires as deeply as he had. If he did, then for Yuuri's sake Wolfram hoped they never resurfaced the way his had. Then again, Yuuri wasn't likely to have his heart stopped any time soon. That had a way of shaking things loose.

"We should probably look for that vase," Yuuri said slowly. He didn't want to. He didn't want Wolfram to let go of his arm. He wanted to hold him again, to kiss him and ask what that third option was that had made Wolfram blush like that. But Wolfram did let go of him, so he turned away and made his way to the other side of the room.

His eyes passed blindly over shelves of dusty artifacts. He opened a chest of glittering coins and jewels, and reached in to play idly with a string of gold and green. Even if Wolfram did wear jewelry this would clash horribly with his uniform. It would be beautiful against his bare skin, though. Yuuri dropped the necklace and slammed the lid of the chest with more force than necessary. He sent a guilty look over his shoulder and frowned when he spotted Wolfram sitting on his heels before a low shelf. "Did you find it?"

"I should have known," Wolfram murmured. "She came in to take something, yet she wanted to draw it instead of keeping it. A vase she coveted but couldn't steal..."

Something in Wolfram's tone had Yuuri scowling as he hurried over to him. The vase was dusty, more gray than white, but the moment Yuuri looked at it he understood exactly how Greta had felt. He wanted to take a picture of it and put it online for everyone to see and envy. "I don't even take pictures," he murmured to himself.

"I painted it when Mother first received it," said Wolfram. "The painting was such an exact replica I had to destroy it. People wanted to draw the painting the same way I had drawn the original."

The thought of Wolfram painting something realistic was enough to snap Yuuri out of his trance. He sent him a look of disbelief. "You painted an exact replica?"

Wolfram smiled without taking his eyes off the vase. "I was young. I hadn't developed a style yet. I just reproduced what I saw. Anyone can do that. It is the furthest thing from art." He leaned forward and gently blew some of the dust off the vase. "It isn't even pretty. Brother said it was cursed. Mother called it an enchantment. I think the woman who made it was in love with her. She wanted the vase to be duplicated the world over so everyone would see and worship, but never touch. Mother was the only one who could touch it. I thought she had destroyed it. How sentimental of her to put it away down here. Sympathy for an unrequited love..."

"Wolfram?"

"Yes, Yuuri?"

"Stop looking at the vase."

Wolfram let out a quiet laugh as he reached blindly around the floor for any paper that might be nearby. "I don't think I can," he admitted. "This is why Greta wanted to draw it rather than steal it. We should move one of the crates in front of this shelf when we leave." He sighed with relief when Yuuri shoved a slip of paper into one of his hands. His eyes finally left the vase, dropping to widen on the torn page he was holding. He quickly rose, putting his back to the shelf and reaching down to pull Yuuri up with him. "Where did you find this?"

"It was under my knee," Yuuri admitted. "Is it-"

"From the same book as Greta's? Quite possibly." Wolfram helped Yuuri shove a crate in front of the shelf. Then he held up the page where he could see it. "Sketchbook of the Great Sage. What do you suppose are the odds of that?"

Yuuri stared at the fancy lettering for a long while. Then he grabbed Wolfram's hand and pulled him toward the door. "I have a good idea where to find him, too."

.-.

Murata was taking a well-deserved nap in Yuuri's ridiculously large bed when a weight suddenly flopped over his legs. He sat up with his heart pounding in his throat. "What-"

"They know about the map. You might want to return to the temple."

"Don't do that," Murata huffed. "Unlike you, I can actually die from a heart attack." He shoved the body off his legs. "I liked it better when you were a proper ghost."

"They know about the map," Shinou warned him. "They're on their way here now."

"The map," Murata repeated, his eyes narrowing dangerously. "The map you said no one would ever connect to me? That map?"

Shinou rose, looking more sheepish than guilty. "I didn't know they'd find the title page. I can't predit the future."

"No, but you're very good at setting the future up so it turns out just the way you want it to. I told you I'm finished helping you meddle. I want no part of it."

"Which is why I haven't done anything since you came back. Ulrike is the only one who knew I was still around. All I did was keep an eye on Greta. It was the least I could do since you let Yuuri linger on Earth for so long. How was I to know she would try to give back that page from your sketchbook?"

"It is not my sketchbook," Murata muttered. He put on his glasses and eyed the door, debating the merits of bolting versus confessing. Not that he had anything to confess to aside from consorting with a meddling ghost. He hadn't even done that much by choice. "You know very well I destroyed all of my sketchbooks before I died. Just because some tinkerer named his pad after me doesn't make it mine."

"Maybe you can explain that to them. They'll be here any minute." Shinou frowned thoughtfully. He wondered how Yuuri knew Murata would be in his room.

"Yes," said Murata, "that's a grand idea. And when they ask how I knew about it, I can tell them that a little ghost whispered it in my ear." He glowered when Shinou vanished, reappearing as a weightless miniature sitting on his right shoulder. "Will you be sticking around this time?"

"No. Whatever happens between them can't have anything to do with me."

"Yet you were obviously spying on them or you wouldn't know they're on their way here."

"I took a few discrete peeks in on them. I'm not a voyeur. Notice that I am not disclosing anything that I may have seen aside from the fact that they know about the map and intend to confront you about it."

The tone implied that he had seen quite a bit. Murata wished Shinou had taken physical form so he could swat him off his shoulder. "Just because you're not gossiping doesn't mean you aren't meddling. Still! Haven't you had enough yet? What exactly are you hoping will happen?"

"I just want them to be happy."

Murata scoffed. "I know better. You brought Yuuri here when he was the same age as Wolfram because you wanted Wolfram to fall for him."

"He had the heart-"

"Meanwhile, you fully expected Yuuri to fall for Conrad. You intentionally set them up for heartbreak. Isn't it enough you screwed up Cecilie's love life without messing up her son's?"

"I had less of a hand in that than you think," Shinou said coolly. "I supported her marriages-" He frowned when Murata snorted. "Very well. I promoted her marriages. But she wanted them and loved them and loves the sons she got from them. She has no regrets. Wolfram is the only one who holds what I did against me."

"Which is why you should talk to him. Now would be as good a time as any."

"They can't know I'm still around until they have decided for themselves where they will go from here. The future is theirs. I'm just sticking around for the ride."

The presence vanished an instant before the door opened. Murata's shoulders slumped. Shinou obviously wasn't sticking around for this particular ride. He watched as Yuuri tried and failed to tug Wolfram into the room. Shinou wouldn't tell him whether he wanted them together or not. He suspected Shinou still felt he owed it to Conrad to give Julia back to him. For a spirit who could see everything when he wanted to, he was very blind. Julia was dead and buried. All that remained was Yuuri. Wolfram was a perfect match for Yuuri.

"You caught me," Murata said, strolling to them with a smile. "When I heard you weren't sleeping in here any more, I didn't think you'd mind me borrowing the room. It's much bigger than the one I usually stay in when I'm in the castle."

Yuuri stepped back when Murata joined them in the hall. Wolfram refused to set one foot inside his bedroom even to talk to Murata. He was surprised by how much that hurt. He pushed that down as firmly as he could. "I'm not here about you using the room. I'm here about this."

Murata eyed the slip of paper with honest contempt. "Sketchbook of the Great Sage? My sketchbooks were of much better quality than this. They were also very flammable. I burned them shortly before my death. This isn't from anything of mine."

"You don't know anything about it?" Yuuri sent a quick look at Wolfram and received a nod. "We think Greta's map was on a page from the same book as this. We were hoping this might help us find it."

Murata handed the paper back. He had thought that vanquishing Soushuu would rid him of the need for subterfuge and lies. Had he known Shinou would now be able to use his energy to take corporeal form he might have stayed back on Earth. Things were supposed to be simple now, not more complicated than ever. "I was told that Greta's map vanished from your room. Were there guards stationed outside the door that night?"

"The guards," Wolfram said, sending a frustrated frown at Yuuri. "Of course. The guards can tell us everyone who entered your room from the moment you left the map till the moment you noticed it was missing. We can get the names and confront them. If none of them confess we'll know one of them is lying. Then it's just a matter of figuring out which one."

"We should have thought of that," Yuuri agreed with a wince. "Thanks, Murata."

"I'm glad to help," Murata smiled. "Now, about the room-"

"It's all yours," Yuuri waved. He tugged Wolfram down the hall. "Let's ask the guards outside your room first. Then maybe we can spar a little while we're over there?"

Wolfram couldn't help but smile at Yuuri's expression. He looked both wary and hopeful. "I know you hate crossing swords with me, but it really does help. You'll feel awful if you flare up and hurt someone."

"Especially you."

Wolfram gaped and then laughed. "You're worried about hurting me? Oh, Yuuri, you should be so lucky! You would have to go full Maou in order to beat me and I haven't done anything to earn a 'punishment' from him. I was referring to your maryoku flaring up when you're going about your day. You'll have to be careful that it doesn't flare up around Greta or the maids. Even Gisela could be hurt by it if she were too close. When you get angry, either meditate it down or find someone to spar with. I'll volunteer members of my own squad if I'm not available to fight with you myself."

"Even Lukas?"

Wolfram looked down at the hand that had tightened around his own. He shouldn't get so much pleasure from Yuuri's jealousy, particularly when there was no basis for it. He smirked anyway. "Especially Lukas. He's very good at being irritating. He might even be able to irritate you into using your magic. Daniel is better with a sword, but Lukas has the highest maryoku of anyone on my squad."

"After you."

"Well, of course."

Yuuri squeezed his hand again. "I'd rather fight you." He drank in Wolfram's smile. It was worth being beaten into the dust to have Wolfram smile at him like that. And, besides, he had been promising Morgif a nice fight. He just hoped sparring with Wolfram would help dampen the urge to do things fiances didn't, as a rule, do.

.-.

As soon as Murata closed the door, arms slipped around his shoulders and pulled him back a step. He sent a sidelong scowl at the cheek pressing against his own. "We've talked about this."

"We haven't been half brothers in a very long time, if we ever were to begin with."

"That's not the point. This is my last life remembering everything. Wait until we're reincarnated."

Shinou let out a quiet laugh. "You say that as if you think I intend to have our souls placed closely enough for us to meet up in our next life." Which was exactly what he had intended to do all along. But he hadn't known then that he would be able to take form once freed of Soushuu. He saw no point in waiting when they could enjoy a semblance of life right now. Murata was stubborn, though. His Daikenja had always been stubborn. "Speaking of our next life, would you prefer to be born as a male or a female?"

"As if it matters." Lips brushed his neck and he squirmed free. "We've talked about this. I'm not going to change my mind."

"You have never been kissed in this lifetime, just like your first."

"Perhaps I intend to keep it that way," Murata muttered. He definitely didn't intend to live his last life sleeping with a dead man.

"I don't want you to die a virgin again."

Murata scoffed and plopped back on the bed. "I'm just a teenager in this life. There are plenty of years left for me, and lots of people on earth. I might hook up with someone eventually. Some of the girls over there are very cute."

"I see." Shinou joined him, stretching out on his back and folding his hands behind his head. It was so nice to feel things again. He patiently looked forward to the moment Murata gave in and let him feel even more. "Tell me, will these girls be wearing the scarves, or will you?"

"I knew you were eavesdropping," Murata laughed. "I've never used scarves on anyone. Or had them used on me," he added, before Shinou could get any ideas. "I was just messing with Yuuri. He makes it too easy."

"And the 'block' you claimed to have been around?"

"Just once as a male," Murata frowned. "It wasn't something I cared to repeat."

"Then you would prefer to be a female in your next life?"

"Not really. Too much regular bleeding. I definitely prefer being male. And tall. It's frustrating being this short and weak." He folded his arms over his chest and scowled up at the ceiling. "You wouldn't believe how often I've been bullied in this lifetime. I might as well have no maryoku at all."

"You have enough for me to be here. You could live out your life with me. No one would dare bully you here."

"No," Murata snorted, "I'd be avoided and condemned for consorting with the spirit of a man rumored to have been my half brother. That's not much better than being bullied. I actually like people now, and prefer to have them like me. In case you hadn't noticed."

"I noticed," Shinou smiled. "Have you noticed that the rumor of our possible relation died long before I did? I think you protest too much."

"Don't," Murata warned, half serious and half laughing. "I didn't share those plays so you could spout them back to me. If you start quoting Shakespeare at me, I'm going to hop on one of Anissina's bikes and ride all of my maryoku off so you'll be stuck floating around the temple for the rest of the week."

"Would you really do that? Yes," Shinou frowned, "of course you would. You can be a cold taskmaster when you set your mind to it. I recall Cecilie was quite fond of scarves during her second marriage. There may still be some sturdy ones stored away in the castle..."

"You wouldn't dare," Murata said dismissively. He closed his eyes and pulled off his glasses, letting Shinou set them on the nightstand. He enjoyed his company when he wasn't being an infuriating meddler, but he really did prefer him not having a physical body. They were too unevenly matched now, so much so that he felt like a child next to him. Still, a deviant part of him longed to wake up bound by scarves with Shinou stretched out over him. That little fantasy had followed him through more lifetimes than he cared to count and retained its appeal no matter what sort of body he was living in. It was a good thing Shinou couldn't possibly make it real. Shinou couldn't manifest physically at a distance from him and he doubted Wolfram had left any scarves behind in this room. There might be a few socks the maids had missed that could be stretched long enough, but even an amorous spirit would balk at that.

.-.
TBC

Chapter Text

"Put your back into it, Yuuri."

Yuuri blushed and any strength his double-handed swing might have had fizzled out. He winced back a step when Wolfram knocked his blade aside as if it were a fly. "Don't say things like that," he complained. "It sounds so wrong."

"How is telling you to use your strength wrong? You aren't that weak. I've seen how you use those sticks-"

"Baseball bats?" Yuuri frowned, as he made another half-hearted swipe.

"And I know you can throw hard," Wolfram continued. He shoved Yuuri's sword back with growing annoyance. "Come at me seriously. You're the one who wanted to spar with me."

Yuuri made a low swing, quick with Morgif's eagerness and light with his own reluctance. This had been a mistake. A big stupid mistake. "I didn't know I'd be attacking you. I thought you'd be the one attacking me. You always attack me." And he defended…poorly.

"That wasn't sparring," Wolfram scoffed. "If Conrad had ever done his duty by you, you would know the difference. I attacked you to teach you defense." He countered with a sharp strike of his own. At least Yuuri used his weight when it came to blocking. "I also did it to punish you. Blades are good for that, which you would know if he had taught you anything." His eyes narrowed when Yuuri attacked with a bit more intent. Yuuri shouldn't react to complaints against Conrad that way. "Sparring serves three purposes. Honing your skills, defeating your opponent, and venting. You're supposed to be venting, Yuuri, so put your back into it and attack me seriously."

"I don't want to vent on you. I'm not angry with you," Yuuri bit out. He was frustrated with him, but this definitely wasn't the way he wanted to attack him. His face heated up again. Hopefully Wolfram would blame it on exertion. He might not be swinging his sword very hard, but he was moving fast. Morgif was eager and excited, and kept pulling him to aim at unguarded parts of Wolfram that made Yuuri very nervous. If one of those strikes got through it would do serious damage even without his weight behind it. "Maybe this was a bad idea."

"Nonsense. Think about the last time you were angry. Tell me something that made you angry today."

Yuuri braced himself against a swift attack. He definitely preferred being on the defense. Between Morgif's coaching and Wolfram's holding back all he had to do was stand firm and hang on. "After I left you in your room, I wanted one of your men to guard the hall. When I knocked, Lukas took one look at me and shut the door in my face."

"He did?" Wolfram was so startled he got knocked back a step before he could counter. Morgif was putting his all into this even if Yuuri wasn't. Wolfram smirked at Yuuri's annoyed expression. "You must have knocked at a bad time. I apologize for his rudeness, but they did have the day off. Since he's a member of my squad, feel free to direct whatever anger you feel towards him at me."

"I was only angry for a minute," Yuuri growled. The anger was quick to return, though. "It wasn't even the fact that he shut the door on me. It's the fact that it was him, and you had a crush on him."

"Years ago," Wolfram reminded him. He didn't take offense this time. Yuuri was hitting a lot harder now, with a hint of maryoku behind the strength. "I doubt he even noticed at the time, so I'd rather you not mention it to him. He'd tease me about it."

"And you'd let him?"

Yuuri's maryoku definitely had a way of enhancing his physical strength. Wolfram hadn't engaged in many spars during his own coming of age flare ups, so he wasn't sure if that was normal or not. He would have to experiment with that himself sometime. For now he did his part to egg Yuuri on. The minor hurt he felt that Yuuri still questioned his faithfulness was more than enough to meet and counter his blade. "For your information, I demand complete respect on the field and in public," he informed him. "How my men treat me in private is between me and them. Teasing is annoying but harmless." He made a heavy attack of his own and was both surprised and pleased by how quickly Yuuri countered. Maybe swordsmanship was another of those inherent talents Yuuri had access to when he was angry. "If one of them goes too far," Wolfram said scathingly, "I don't hesitate to let him know."

"Just how far is too far?" Yuuri demanded. He didn't want to imagine Lukas teasing Wolfram. He didn't want to imagine any of those guys playing with Wolfram. Yet he could imagine it. Vividly. "An elbow to the ribs? Messing up your hair? Dunking you in the bath?" And that was the worst because he now knew Wolfram had been sharing a bath with all of them the entire time he was gone. "Have they all seen you naked?!"

Wolfram froze. He barely felt his sword being knocked out of his loose grip. Yuuri was blazing, the back of his hair ruffling along the collar of his uniform, and Wolfram wondered if he had been foolish to feel so confident he had nothing to fear from Yuuri's 'maou' side. That part of Yuuri enjoyed doling out judgments and punishments, only instead of using a sword he used humiliation. Wolfram felt his own maryoku coil, threatening to erupt as badly as Yuuri's currently was. He kept it firmly under wraps. One of them had to remain rational here.

"Yuuri," Wolfram said quietly, "unlike you, I have been alert to predators for a very long time. If one of my men had seen me naked he would no longer be one of my men. They have all seen me with my shirt off, filthy if not bloody, bathing in a stream or lake or even a bucket. Lukas and Daniel have seen me with just a towel, along with everyone else in our class at the academy. None of my men has ever looked at me any more than was necessary to clean or bandage an injury. They aren't interested in me that way. No one in this castle is." His lips curved into a wry smile as he turned away to retrieve his sword. "Aside from you."

"How is that possible?" Yuuri demanded. He felt outraged and heady and confused, and when Wolfram suddenly attacked him with his blade he welcomed it because at least that made sense.

Wolfram let his maryoku go, just to buffer the oppressive feel of Yuuri's wild energy. And this was still Yuuri, despite the slightly longer hair and the fact that he wielded Morgif with just one hand. He might be wary of the maou, but he wasn't the least bit afraid of Yuuri. As a matter of fact, he was rather annoyed with Yuuri. "Do you really want to know?" he asked sharply, torn between frustration and amusement. Who held conversations while sparring? "I blame Mother for most of it. Next to her I look almost normal. Then there's Brother. He has the soldiers so eager to shelter me that they'll never view me as anything but a child. The only ones who have ever been interested in me are old men my mother's age, usually because she turned them down or because they think I'd be easier prey. It's disgusting."

And infuriating, Yuuri agreed. His blood boiled at the thought of old men lusting after Wolfram. Or maybe that was his maryoku. The air was hazy around them and he found himself meeting and returning Wolfram's blade as if he actually knew what he was doing. Wolfram was flushed and bright-eyed, and it suddenly occurred to him that Wolfram might need to vent as badly as he did. It was wrong to vent on Wolfram when Wolfram was the only person not making him angry these days. But if Wolfram was just as frustrated then maybe they could vent on each other. It might even be satisfying to vent on each other.

"I don't understand this world," Yuuri admitted, in a frustrated growl. "Just when I think I finally get it, something knocks me over and I feel stupid again. Everyone said it was normal for two guys to be together here, but I never saw any of it until I opened that door in the bath on your former crush."

"Emphasis on former," Wolfram snapped. Yuuri had a serious grudge about that. He was really starting to wish he hadn't mentioned it.

"You're an outright bishounen-

"What?"

"-yet the only guys I've ever seen react to you are-" Old men, Yuuri realized, with a choking dose of outrage. Just a bunch of sick old men in a hospital. "What is wrong with the guys in this world? You should be surrounded by fanboys. And girls! You don't even have fangirls!"

"Yuuri," Wolfram huffed in exasperation. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"I'm talking about you. And gays!"

"What?"

"Where are they?" Yuuri demanded. His voice sounded a little hysterical to his own ears but he really needed to know because it didn't make any sense. "If it's so normal and common here where the hell are they?"

"Who?" Wolfram asked frantically. Yuuri's sword was becoming as erratic as his energy. He could feel a sheen of moisture on his skin and it was too early to be this dark out. "Where are who, Yuuri?"

"The gays! I can't be the only one!"

"I don't-" Wolfram hissed when his sword was wrenched away by a wet swirl of wind. Then he was being crushed against Yuuri's chest with something tugging and pinching at his right hip. It took a long moment to realize his fiancé was squeezing the breath out of him and Morgif was eating his pants. His mouth fell open. Then a deluge of rain soaked them both. Wolfram gave up. He curled his arms around Yuuri, rubbing his back while easing his hip as far away from Morgif's mouth as he could. "I'm sorry, Yuuri, but I have no idea what gay means. Tell me who the gays are and I promise I'll help you find them. Okay?" Yuuri trembled for a moment, and then started laughing. Wolfram decided to take that as a good sign.

By the time Yuuri laughed himself out, there were menacing rumbles and cracks overhead. He didn't want to take shelter, though. That would require letting go of Wolfram. He sighed and dropped his head onto Wolfram's wet shoulder. "Did I make it rain?"

"Yes, you did." Wolfram smiled at Yuuri's guilty little voice. "Did making it rain make you feel better?"

"Yeah…"

"Good. Now get Morgif away from me before he bites me for real."

Yuuri recoiled, lifting his sword to gape at the blue cloth hanging out of Morgif's pursed lips. "Morgif!"

Wolfram snorted as he eyed the damage. The sword had eaten through the skirt along his right hip and down into the corner of the front pocket of his pants. Yuuri's eyes dropped to the ragged hole, and Wolfram tugged the edges together as well as he could. "At least his teeth aren't as long as his lips," he shrugged.

"You pervert!" Yuuri yelped at his sword. Morgif grumbled defensively and continued chewing on the blue in his mouth. Yuuri's face went bright red. "I thought you only liked girls!"

"He bites anyone who touches him except you," Wolfram reminded him. He grabbed Yuuri's arm and pulled him out of the little courtyard and onto the sheltered walkway. "Technically I was touching him. It was hard not to with you holding him right next to me." He recalled his own sword and released Yuuri. He had barely stepped into the downpour when a crack of lightning shot down to race along the length of his blade. The hairs on his arms stood up and he darted back under the overhang. "That could have been us!"

"Are you okay?" Yuuri dropped Morgif, ignoring his grumbles of protest. Wolfram was running his hands over his arms and Yuuri did the same. He could feel the goosebumps covering his arms and his face was pitch white. Yuuri felt about the same. "You were almost struck by lightning!"

"I don't need you to tell me that," Wolfram snapped, letting out a shaky breath. "That could have been us. The next time you make it rain, leave the lightning out of it." He sent a wary look at the rain sloshing up along the rail and soaking the floor beneath their feet. That wasn't just rain out there, it was a veritable storm. "Come on," he said, smiling weakly at Yuuri. "Grab Morgif and let's get changed before one of us gets sick. I'll come back for my sword once it dies down."

Yuuri's eyes dropped again to the pale skin and bit of black cloth peeking out along Wolfram's hip, then he turned on his heel to snatch up his pants-eating sword. "He can keep yours company," he growled before tossing Morgif into the courtyard. Morgif's mournful moans were music to his ears. Wolfram's grin was even better. "Justice," Yuuri said, with a grin of his own.

Wolfram laughed. "Just as long as no one steals him."

"I should be so lucky," Yuuri scoffed. He caught Wolfram's hand, sorry it was cold and wet because he'd lost control, but happy that it closed firmly around his own. He didn't know if hand-holding was normal here or not. At this point he really didn't care either way. Wolfram didn't seem to mind, and his opinion was the only one that mattered.

"Now," Wolfram said, as they hurried toward his room. "Tell me all about these gays you're looking for. I'll do whatever I can to help you find them."

Yuuri winced. "Can we pretend I didn't say that? At least for tonight? I really don't want to get into that." At all. Ever. Not with Wolfram. Unless he absolutely had to.

"Will you explain eventually?"

"Yes. I promise." And he would, too. About five years after they were married. Or maybe ten. Ten sounded good. A solid decade or two.

"And bee-showmen?" Wolfram prodded. "I won't have you insulting me in another language. Unless that was a reference to bearbees?"

Yuuri laughed. "It's bishounen. Nen, not men."

"Nen?"

"I'll explain what it means later," he promised. That explanation wouldn't be nearly as awkward. He hoped. "It has nothing to do with bees and it's not an insult. Okay?"

"I suppose. I just hope our next sparring bout isn't quite so…confusing."

"You and me both," said Yuuri.

.-.

Conrad was halfway to his room when Yozak slipped into step beside him. The man was soaking wet and grinning like a fiend. Conrad braced himself. Yuuri and Wolfram had both turned up at dinner with wet hair. When Cecilie asked if they had been caught in the freak storm that was still raging outside, the two had looked at each other and laughed. Conrad had quite literally bitten his tongue through the entire meal. He should be relieved at this chance to get some answers. He wasn't.

"You know you're welcome to take dinner at the table with the rest of us," Conrad reminded him.

"I swung by the kitchen earlier. It's amazing how chipper they are down there considering how much they all hate making that pudding. It must have been quite a scene this morning. Hate to have missed that. I'm going to make a killing on that betting pool, though."

Conrad glared at him. "You did not take part in that."

"And if I did?" Yozak grinned.

"You will regret it."

"Promises, promises," Yozak waved. "You're just jealous because you couldn't make a bet yourself since you were in the running, too."

"That's-"

"I know, insulting and wrong and whatever are those maids thinking." Yozak bumped Conrad's stiff shoulder with his own. "Ease up, already. Yuuri doesn't pay any attention to things like that. He'll never know about the pool, and he wouldn't think anything weird about you even if he did find out. Anissina's name is still on there, you know. And Gwendal has more points than you do." He grinned when Conrad missed a step. "I think it's that whole pretend engagement in Svalera. Awfully wicked of him."

"Yozak…"

"Wolfram has all but won that pool now, so the real wagers are being placed on the wedding date. I'm debating on putting my money down for before the coming of age ceremony. The odds are long for that spot. Would be a great win and I wouldn't have to share it with anyone. Except Anissina. She put her money down before she left, the sly gal."

"I am not amused," Conrad muttered. "Just tell me why you're wet. Only a madman would go out in this."

"Regular hurricane, eh? That lightning is nothing to joke about. I wouldn't have gone out in it except, well, it's the oddest thing. I was walking along the soldiers' wing, just minding my own business and getting some air, when I heard this moaning." He snuck a gleeful look at Conrad's stiff shoulders and pinched face. "You know I'm not one to interrupt someone else's fun, but the moans were awfully loud. The voice was familiar, too. Now, I admit, I never pegged Yuuri as the sort to play in a lightning storm…" Conrad stopped in his tracks. It was all Yozak could do not to crack up. This was too easy. "But you did ask me to keep an eye on Wolfram, so I figured the least I could do was make sure he wasn't out there with him. Not that I wanted anyone else to be out there with him, either, what with all that moaning going on…"

"Yozak."

"Yeah?"

"I'm going to take my sword to you."

"Which one?" Yozak quipped. "Anyway, as I was saying, I went ahead and followed the moans and there he was, lying in one of those little courtyards right next to Wolfram's sword. I couldn't just leave him out there, so I went ahead and put him on Wolfram's bed. I left a note, too, just so everyone knows who did it this time."

"You were referring to Morgif, then."

"Of course. The poor thing was moaning fit to wake the dead. If not for the thunder he'd have scared half the castle. It was the weirdest thing, though. He had a strip of blue cloth in his mouth. Looked like a piece of a pocket, only I couldn't tell if it was a front or back. Wolfram didn't happen to be limping when he came in to dinner, did he?"

Conrad stalked away with a pounding headache. "I am so glad I can provide a source of amusement for you."

"You saw it for a second there, didn't you," Yozak prodded mercilessly. "What do you think they were doing in that courtyard? This storm didn't blow in on its own. Did they seem happy at dinner? Maybe a little more…relaxed…than usual? When was the last time you've seen Wolfram go anywhere without his sword? Did you wonder about that? Him coming into dinner all happy, relaxed, and without his sword? Maybe even holding hands…?"

Conrad whipped around to pin him with a sharp stare. "Just how much did you see? Stop playing with me and spit it out. I don't want to hear any more about-"

"Yuuri having warm fuzzy feelings for your little brother? I know. But word in the castle is heavily leaning that way. Me, I saw them coming out of the treasure room earlier today, holding hands as casual as could be. Is that the usual thing for guy friends to do on earth? Because it looked awfully sweetheartish to me."

"I have no idea how hand-holding is considered on earth," Conrad said dismissively. "Wolfram has led Yuuri about by the hand too many times for anyone here to be surprised by that."

"Except this time it was Yuuri leading Wolfram. In the direction of his bedroom, from the looks of it."

"It would certainly be a relief to have them back in there," Conrad said flatly. He refused to be bothered any further by Yozak's implications. The man had been right about the meddling and the map. He was not right about Yuuri and Wolfram. "Don't take your jokes too far, Yozak. Yuuri is the Maou, and Wolfram is too honorable to take advantage of anyone, least of all his own king."

"Not even when they're engaged?" Yozak drawled.

"Especially when they're engaged. He's a noble, after all."

Which was an insult as far as Yozak was concerned. "You know, he might be a noble, a demon noble at that, but he's flesh and blood the same as you. So is Yuuri, for that matter. You put two hormonal teenagers together and things happen. That's life. I don't know why you fight it so hard. You never were a prude."

"I am when it comes to my little brothers. Yes," Conrad said, before Yozak could interrupt, "I know Wolfram doesn't view Yuuri as a brother, but he should. Putting them together is practically incestual."

"Now you're trying too hard," Yozak said, rolling his eyes. "Back to business, I don't know what they were doing in the treasure room, or how that ended up with them out in that courtyard. Do you want me to stalk them around the castle for a bit and see what I can dig up? Although, you might not like the results..."

"Gwendal moved the royal guards outside Wolfram's room, as I'm sure you noticed when you were in there. They should be safe enough for now. Yuuri promised to move back to his room while the nobles are visiting for the ball. Hopefully he'll take Wolfram with him. I'll want your ear to the ground from the moment the first guest arrives until the last one is gone."

"No wandering off for me, then. I wonder what I should do with my time…"

Conrad snorted as he opened the door to his room and closed it behind them. "You can start by putting an end to whatever betting is taking place down in the kitchens. You would think after being informed that Greta was down there they would be more circumspect with their entertainment."

"They keep a guard posted now," Yozak said in their defense. "She won't be getting close enough to hear anything she shouldn't. Not that there's much gossip about anything besides the engagement right now. I don't think I'll be able to find out who was talking about Wolfram usurping the throne. Everyone cares more about the wedding than they do the kingdom at the moment. If he has any haters down there, they're playing mum."

"I'm less concerned with the sentiments inside the castle than I am with the ones outside it."

"We'll know how the wind blows once people start trickling in. In the meantime, here." Yozak held his hand out with a proud, and only slightly malicious, smile. "I pried this out of Morgif's mouth. Didn't seem right to leave it there, it being so close to your little brother's crotch and all. Unless it's a back pocket…" He shrugged and waved the bit of cloth in front of Conrad's blank face. "Either way, it's all yours."

"You were serious…"

"Of course! Do you think I'd joke about something as serious as an attack that close to the king's fiancé's crown jewels?" Yozak put up a token protest when he was escorted bodily from the room. It wasn't until he smacked a palm on the door that he noticed Conrad had snatched the evidence out of his hand. "What?" he asked through the door. "What did I do? I was being helpful! If this is the thanks I get, see if I do you any more favors!" He grinned when nothing but silence seeped out from under the door. Leaving Conrad to stew in his own doubts wasn't quite as enjoyable as staying the night, but it was close enough.

.-.
TBC

Chapter Text

Yuuri signed the last of the documents in front of him with a flourish. Earlier, just when he had thought himself almost done, Gunter had dumped another stack on his desk. It had been a small stack, thankfully, so this time he really was finished. He sat back in his chair, cracked his knuckles, and beamed. Now he just had to slip away before Gunter found something else for him to do. He was half afraid there would be a round of formal greetings before the ball, and he dreaded having to practice silly handshakes and bows or whatever bizarre things that involved. One of these days he might actually have to memorize that stuff himself. He dreaded that, too.

Wolfram was leaning against the wall just outside his office. Yuuri was happy to see him there, and he was all set to tell him he should have come in and kept him company. Then he heard what Wolfram had to report. Annoyance promptly took over. "You confronted them without me?"

"It wasn't a confrontation. I simply informed them that a piece of paper had gone missing from your room and if they valued their future here that paper would find its way back into your possession posthaste. That could be more difficult with Murata ensconced in your room. I don't see why he is in there. If he wanted a bigger room here in the castle he had merely to ask."

Yuuri wasn't interested in talking about Murata. He had been looking forward to confronting their suspects. "Why didn't you wait for me?"

Wolfram's eyes narrowed, though he wasn't quite looking at Yuuri. "They would have been too busy twittering and fawning over you to take this seriously. And I know you would have caved had one of them cried."

Yuuri had to admit there was a lot of giggles and whispers when he passed within sight of the maids today. Twittering was a good description for that hushed sound. He had known he would be teased about that scene in the kitchen. And he knew he had a serious weakness for crying females. Greta proved that often enough. Still, his first thought was that Wolfram had left him out in order to keep him away from the maids simply because they were girls. He considered complaining about that irrational jealousy and decided against it. He was worried about just where he and Wolfram stood today. They hadn't argued last night, but they hadn't kissed, either. They had gone to bed with the familiar ease they'd had before he had left. Familiar and entirely platonic. He was still strangely uneasy about the fact that he hadn't woken up wrapped around Wolfram this morning. He felt like they had taken a step back instead of a step forward.

"At least you came right away to tell me how it went," Yuuri smiled. His words were met by a guilty glance, and he found himself frowning again. "Didn't you...?"

"I did intend to," said Wolfram, "but Mother caught me on my way here. She has a request. She wants me to teach you a dance in preparation for the ball."

"She wants us to dance together at the ball?" Yuuri yelped. He immediately regretted it. Wolfram's eyes shuttered, flat and dark, and his lips curled into a hint of that cruel smile that looked so wrong on his face. Guilt clenched painfully in his stomach. Was it any wonder Wolfram doubted him when he still reacted like that? "Wolf-"

"Of course she doesn't want us to dance together. She wants you to learn so that you will dance well and often, making it clear to anyone who attends that absolutely nothing has changed. She would teach you herself, except she's too tall for you to lead her properly." His upper lip curled. "I'm willing to don a dress for the lesson, if it will make you feel better."

"Wolf, I didn't mean that the way it sounded." That awful smile slipped away, but Wolfram's eyes remained cool and distant.

"Yes, you did. I don't blame you. I have never once danced with another male. There is only one dance appropriate for two males and I don't even know the steps to it. Rest assured, I don't like the thought of dancing with you in private any more than you like the thought of dancing with me in public. Luckily for you, that will never happen. Unfortunately for me, Mother's point is valid. The kingdom needs you to show you're the same affable Maou you were before you left. Dancing the night away will prove that quite nicely." He gave a wry smile that didn't touch anything but his lips. "Look at it this way, Yuuri. I'll not only be giving you permission to flirt, I'll be making you better at it."

"And hating me for it?" There wasn't even a pretense of denial, just a flat look that made him want to pull Wolfram into his office and kiss some life back into him. "I won't do it." Obviously. Wolfram should at least give him that much credit. "I won't dance with other people when you consider that cheating. Not that I do," he said quickly, because he wanted that much clear. "Dancing isn't any more intimate than sparring as far as I'm concerned. You send more heated looks at your men when you spar with them than I'd ever send at a girl I'm dancing with."

"What?"

Maybe arguing with him wasn't such a bad idea after all. At least Wolfram was really looking at him now. He'd rather have him angry than blank and distant like that. "Well, it's true. I saw you fighting with Daniel, smirking all flushed and satisfied..."

"You can't seriously be comparing a fight to..." Wolfram closed his mouth, bristled furiously, and then started over. "We were sparring! Training. That isn't remotely similar to you sweeping some simpering girl around a dance floor."

"Only because I don't do it as often or enjoy it as much," Yuuri scowled. "Dancing is awkward and embarrassing and I sure as hell don't get all flushed and excited about it."

"I do not get-" Wolfram flushed furiously. "There is nothing improper about the way I fight with my men. Or with anyone, for that matter."

"But there's something improper about me dancing with a girl? Even if I'm only doing it in public for the sake of appearances?"

"No," Wolfram bit out. "But that doesn't make it any easier to watch."

"Then we're even. I'd rather see you dance with girls than watch you fight with guys. The only difference is, I'd have no problem never dancing with a girl again, but you'll always be fighting with other guys whether I like it or not. If one of us should be complaining, it's me."

"You have never complained before," Wolfram scowled back at him. "I have made my feelings about you dancing with others quite clear. You have never shown any interest in what I do with my men."

"I've never seen you with them. I've only seen a few glimpses of them the entire time we've been engaged. Were you hiding them?" His eyes widened when Wolfram looked away. Guiltily. "You were?"

"No! Well, yes, in part. The less you have to do with the soldiers the better. Brother and Conrad have done the same with their own men."

"But I'm not engaged to either of them." It was past time he got to know these men. He didn't like being jealous of them. That was as irrational as Wolfram's jealousy, and he wasn't hypocritical enough to deny it. He wouldn't be able to ask Wolfram to work on that if he became just as bad. "Let's make a deal. Teach me this dance and then you decide whether I actually use it. I won't dance with anyone unless you okay it, no matter what Cecilie says. In exchange, you introduce me to your men. All of them. And tell me about each of them."

Wolfram sighed, his shoulders slumping as all of the fight drained out of him. "I'm so tired of this..."

"What?"

"I'd like to introduce you to my men," Wolfram admitted, "but it would be wrong. Foolish. Maybe even cruel. Soldiers die, Yuuri. If you know them by name you'll be more likely to notice when we lose one. I can't do that to you."

"That's-"

"Besides," Wolfram said, talking over him, "the entire point of teaching you this dance is so you can sweep off anyone who agrees to partner with you. If I had the power to stop you I would, no matter how selfish that would be. I'm sure the main reason Mother asked me to teach you is so I'd have time to accept the idea. And I will," he said sharply. "I will resent the situation and your partners, but I will not take it out on you. You're the Maou and you have to play the part. I'll play my part as well...with stoicism if not grace."

Wolfram was pushing him away. The distance Yuuri had sensed was gaping wider by the second. He leaped across the chasm before Wolfram was entirely out of reach. Like all of the kisses he had initiated, it was awkward. Wolfram jerked back into the wall, shocked and stiff and still so far away. Then his arms came up and he was right here with him, returning his embrace and kissing him back with as much intimacy as he could have hoped for. Yuuri's fears crumbled away. It wasn't the hormone surges that made him need Wolfram. They might be to blame for his extreme reaction the other night, maybe even for the way he kept crawling all over him in his sleep, but they had nothing to do with this. He threw himself into the kiss, loving the lack of urgency. He wanted more, but he didn't need more. Not yet. There was no horrible urge to finish and be done with it as quickly as possible in order to attain relief. He felt he could keep kissing Wolfram forever and enjoy the way it just got better and better. Had he pulled Wolfram into his office before making that leap he might have done just that.

It was the feel of Yuuri's hips pressing into his own that snapped Wolfram back to his senses. He had come to Yuuri's office determined to do the right thing and teach Yuuri to dance well enough to assure everyone at the ball that the Maou took his engagement no more seriously than he ever had. The entire point of the ball was to prove to the skeptics that nothing had changed and he was man enough to do his part. But something had changed. Yuuri was kissing him like a lover, right in an open hallway where anyone might see. Wolfram was too selfish not to enjoy that, just for a moment. He knew that moment had now passed. If they didn't stop he was going to embarrass himself and Yuuri was pressing too closely not to notice. Breaking the kiss, he turned his face away and then gasped when Yuuri kissed the side of his neck instead. Were fiances allowed to do that? It felt too wicked to be allowed. He forced himself to be firm and pushed Yuuri back a step. Yuuri's eyes burned into his and he felt himself flush.

"We're in the hallway," Wolfram said quickly. His voice sounded breathless and weak. So much for being firm. "Are you having a flare up?"

"No." Yuuri was so relieved to be able to say that. It wasn't hormone surges or energy flare ups. It was all Wolfram. "I just wanted to kiss you. Do we really have to stop?"

"We're in the hallway," Wolfram repeated. Exasperation helped to strengthen his voice. "You can't be doing things like that in the hallway." Even lovers wouldn't be that bold. "We have to...be discreet. It isn't just dangerous, it's...unseemly." Wolfram winced at himself. He sounded like Gunter. Why did he always go from one extreme to the other? He might not be a lech, but he certainly wasn't a prude, either. "If you had warned me, we could have stepped into your office instead." Yes, because saying that wasn't nearly as extreme as complaining about Yuuri's lack of discretion. He blushed and scowled and resented the way Yuuri was smiling at him with open amusement. This wasn't funny.

"Do you want to step into my office for a minute?"

"Absolutely not," Wolfram lied. It wasn't right for Yuuri to be boldly teasing him. Tempting him like that. He behaved rashly enough without an invitation. "I'm supposed to be collecting you for a dance lesson. Mother is waiting." She might have already sent someone to see what was keeping them. Had that someone stumbled onto them kissing like that he wasn't the only one who would be considered thoroughly compromised. Were he a better person he would feel appropriately ashamed by that possibility rather than wistful. What nonsense. He didn't want either of them forced into marriage.

Yuuri let himself be pulled down the hall without complaint only because Wolfram had taken him by the hand. He quickly fell into step beside him. "I don't get it," he admitted. "You have never let me dance with girls at these things. How would me suddenly dancing with a bunch of them prove nothing has changed? That would be a really obvious change."

"A change for the better, on my part," Wolfram muttered. "The real purpose is to show that you have no more decided your future than you had before you left. We want people to believe yours was a planned absence. And this is a ball, after all. If you sit out the evening they'll wonder why, and look to me for answers. I won't be chasing away your potential partners this time. I told Mother as much, which is why she insists you dance as often as you can. We can't both be standing around looking stoic. Assuming you could." He sent a quick look at Yuuri, who appeared too confused to have registered the insult. "Your inability to act like a noble is part of your charm. You'll reassure and endear people just by being your usual bumbling self." There was the scowl he had been waiting for. He smirked. "I'll teach you to dance, but I won't help you with the small talk or the other social niceties. I doubt even Gunter could keep you from saying the wrong thing as soon as you're left to your own devices."

"So you're hoping, what? That I'll make an idiot of myself?"

"More or less. The less kingly you behave, the more people like you. I might not understand why that is so, but I have seen it enough to know it's true." Wolfram was relieved when Yuuri grumbled under his breath and dropped the subject. Wolfram was well aware that the ball could prove to be the ultimate test of his resolve. If he couldn't even spend one night watching Yuuri dance with other people then Gwendal was right and he had only been fooling himself to think he could let Yuuri go without a fight.

By the time the dance lesson was finished, Yuuri felt as graceful as a one-legged chicken. He almost wished Wolfram had worn a dress, what with all of the lectures about 'proper distance' to avoid his partner's skirt. Luckily Greta had been available for the twirling and hand-kissing. She raved about the twirling and how her skirts would swish once her dress was done. And practicing with her hand wasn't nearly as awkward as doing it with Wolfram would have been. He blamed that on Cecilie. The lesson could have been a fun family affair if she hadn't been watching, smiling, and commenting on everything from Yuuri's breath to Wolfram's form. Wolfram was graceful of course, swirling Greta around like a regular prince charming. Yuuri, on the other hand, had a horrible time trying to kiss the air above Greta's hand without exhaling through his nose. It was a shame she didn't have gloves on. Not that kissing a girl's glove would be any less awkward.

Yuuri was making a clumsy attempt to lead Cecilie around the room – without twirling her right into Wolfram and Greta – when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He stumbled to a halt and looked up to find Yozak smirking down at him.

"Mind if I cut in?" asked Yozak.

Cecilie cooed her delight. "Oh, how brazen of you!"

"I'll take that as a please do. Find another partner," he said, as if he were doing Yuuri a favor. "I'll take the lady off your hands."

Yuuri watched in bemusement as Yozak swirled her away. It was so weird to see him dancing with a woman when Yozak had been dressed as a woman the last time he'd seen him on a dance floor. Wolfram and Greta came over to him, and he flashed a weak grin. "He stole my partner."

"I doubt anyone would dare do that to you at the ball," said Wolfram. "But if someone does ask if you'd mind him 'cutting in', the proper response is 'I certainly would.' It's even better if you don't stop dancing at all. Glare over your shoulder at anyone impertinent enough to tap you, and then ignore him. It's disrespectful of your partner to give her up so easily." His eyes narrowed on his simpering mother. One would think she hadn't danced with a man in years. "Unless Mother is your partner. She never stands on ceremony." Yozak noticed him watching them and winked. Wolfram turned away with a scowl. Better they were interrupted by Yozak than by Conrad, but not by much. "Dance with Greta," he told Yuuri. "You have the steps down. Now you just need to practice them."

"You're leaving?" asked Yuuri.

"I need to speak with Gunter."

"Now? About what?"

"The schedule my squad will be following." Specifically whether or not they'd be able to fit in another training session with Reinhild or if he would need to find something else to keep his men occupied. They had been lazing around the castle for far too long.

"Wolf-chan?" Cecilie called after him.

"I've done my best," Wolfram said over his shoulder. "He's all yours now."

Cecilie directed her pout at Yozak, who had the grace to wince. "Did you intend for that to happen?"

"Actually, I was hoping Yuuri would take a hint and steal him away from Greta." Which was probably dumb of him, he realized. "I should have stolen Greta from Wolfram, eh?"

"He would have taken that as an excuse to leave, too," Cecilie sighed. "What you should have done is steal Yuuri from me. That would have gotten a reaction, I'm certain."

"I try not to be that obvious," Yozak grinned. "Unlike some people." He laughed when Cecilie preened. "Encouraging Yuuri to dance could very well ruin your ball, you know."

"Nonsense. What is a ball without drama? You should consider attending yourself. I am in charge of the music, you realize."

"Oh, no," Yozak said playfully. "Don't turn your matchmaking wiles on me. I'd sooner pretty myself up and mingle with the ladies than be the only one doing that dance in public. You noble folk can have the drama. I prefer a lower profile."

"A shame," she murmured. "He does know the steps to that dance."

Yozak grinned. "I'm well aware of that."

.-.

Murata accepted the temporary eviction notice with restrained amusement. If Wolfram thought the culprit unlikely to return the map with him occupying the room, he didn't mind making himself scarce for a while. As tempting as it was to lay about in bed all day, the company did get annoying after a while. Shinou had undoubtedly overheard the suspicious question Wolfram had shot him before departing. Murata was no more eager to explain the meaning of 'gay' to Shinou than he was to Wolfram. Yuuri had to be the one who had brought that word here. The only question was why throw that word out and then refuse to say what it meant. If Yuuri thought Wolfram was gay then he was in need of more advice than Murata had realized. Advice Yuuri wasn't likely to get from anyone else around here. It wasn't meddling if he was merely offering himself up for any questions Yuuri might have. That was just being a good friend.

He found Greta first, happily chatting alongside a doting Cecilie about 'swishing Beatrice' at the ball. Given the girl's age, Murata refrained from asking. "Have either of you seen Shibuya?"

"Yozak stole him away," Greta pouted. "I told him I certainly would mind, but he took him anyway."

"You didn't glare hard enough," Cecilie smiled at her. "You must make your displeasure very clear. We were having dancing lessons," she explained to Murata. "Yozak swept him off to do something baseball related, most likely with Conrad. Those two haven't been spending much time together lately."

Her glittering eyes told Murata she had a good idea why that was the case. He let them go with a smile of thanks and took himself to the nearest window. There he had a mental discussion with himself about the definition of meddling. Rushing off to interrupt Conrad and Yuuri before they could have a heart-to-heart would definitely be meddlesome. It wasn't any of his business what those two might say to each other. On the other hand, observing them from a polite distance would let him get a feel for the situation. He didn't have anything better to do. And unless he decided to stay on Earth from now on, any decisions Yuuri made would affect him as well. Preparing for the future was different from trying to control it. Yes, because being an avid observer was so very different from being a voyeur. He had lived too many lives to start lying to himself now.

"Bored?" Yozak asked when Murata sat down beside him on the steps. "I'm surprised Gunter isn't picking your brains about some obscure aspect of ancient history."

"I've done my best to avoid him," Murata admitted. "He thinks I know far more history of Shin Makoku than I actually do." Shinou had done his best to fill him in over the last few days, between picking his brain about all he had seen and experienced during his own years on earth. If Gunter had questions he could save them until Shinou was ready to reveal himself. "What about you?"

"Oh, I keep busy. Most of the time. Right now I'm taking it easy. Not as much entertainment out here as you'd think, though." They weren't even talking to each other. Yozak had settled far enough away for Conrad to know he wouldn't overhear anything. He couldn't very well read lips when Conrad's back was to him. No, Conrad wasn't keeping quiet because of him. He hadn't intended this when he had set out to needle him last night. All he wanted was for Conrad to put his assumptions aside for five minutes and actually talk to Yuuri. Was that too much to ask?

"I hear there was some sort of entertainment earlier," said Murata. "Something about dancing lessons?"

"Of all things," Yozak scoffed. If Cecilie was hoping for drama then he would hope for the exact opposite. Drama was to be expected with those two. It was nothing new. Hand-holding, sneaking around, thunder-storms, and suspicious sword bites? Now those were new. Conrad tossing the ball to Yuuri in complete silence while Yuuri watched him just as quietly was new, too. They would have to talk eventually, but it obviously wasn't something he could arrange for them. He shouldn't be surprised. He'd known this family long enough to realize they rarely sat down and talked things out. Maybe Conrad really did view Yuuri as a brother. He was certainly treating him like one.

Murata eyed the silent pair, unaware that he was thinking along the same lines as Yozak. Everything would be so much simpler if they would just talk about it. Conrad wasn't stupid. He had to know what Yuuri's coming of age meant. Conrad had made himself Yuuri's confidante. So why wasn't Conrad inviting Yuuri to confide in him? Was he really that afraid of what Yuuri might say?

"Some storm we had last night," Yozak commented. "You'd never guess it from the clear skies today."

Murata forced himself to give a token hesitation before accepting the topic. At least Yozak was willing to talk about the obvious. "We should count ourselves lucky his strongest affinity is for water."

"No kidding," Yozak grinned. "To hear Conrad tell it, Wolfram started some serious fires at that age. I missed all of that myself, being away at the time. When I got back he had already secluded himself in his room. Too bad that's not an option for the Maou." Especially since it was Wolfram's room he would be locking himself away in. The brothers wouldn't take kindly to that even if they didn't have the upcoming ball to worry about.

"If Shibuya wanted to hide, he would have run back to Earth by now," said Murata. "A few storms are preferable to that."

"You think we'll have more of them?" Yozak laughed when Murata raised an eyebrow at him. "Yeah, same here. I'm looking forward to it, myself."

"I wouldn't go that far," Murata sighed. This probably counted as gossiping. He disliked being a hypocrite. But what else was there to do around here? Deliver himself to Gunter and chat about all of the plotting he and Shinou had taken part in way back when. Or steal Yuuri from Conrad so he could confront him about this 'gay' thing. Or go find a quiet corner where Shinou could happily haunt him for the rest of the day. Only one of those options really appealed to him. He refused to do it. If he was going to meddle he would at least wait his turn. Yuuri couldn't handle uncomfortable silences. He'd end the quiet ball-tossing ball on his own before long, one way or another.

.-.

Wolfram set his men to a sweaty, repetitive, uninspired series of sword fights. Spars and mock duels were entertaining, challenging, and rewarding, but they didn't really build muscles or stamina. After the last few days his men needed the exercise. He probably did as well, yet he remained on the edges where he could snap at anyone daring to slack off. So far no one had. He was almost disappointed by that. They hated this sort of exercise as much as he hated assigning it to them. He should have gotten at least a token complaint from Lukas if not some quiet whining from Phillip. Instead they threw themselves into the work like the well-disciplined squad they were. He should have known they would be able to read his mood.

Gunter had coolly informed him that he had not yet completed his background check on Reinhild and saw little chance of doing so before the ball. There were, however, a number of border patrols his squad could see to in the meantime. Wolfram suspected at least one of those had been sent by Waltorana. It would be just like the man to send another request directly to Gwendal after not getting a reply from Wolfram himself. He was going to refuse the request, which meant explaining to Gwendal exactly why he was intent on avoiding his own uncle. And if Gwendal brushed off his concerns and made it an order he would be going anyway. He should be putting careful thought into how he could convince his brother. He certainly shouldn't be giving his men busy-work while marveling at the fact that he had actually danced with his fiance.

Wolfram had left the hall convinced that it wasn't him Yuuri objected to. It was being on display with him. He doubted Yuuri would have been so stiff and reluctant had they been alone. Yuuri had relaxed a few times, forgetting that Cecilie was watching their every move. Even standing in for some future female partner hadn't stopped Wolfram from enjoying the way they had moved together. And so he'd been jarred out of it nearly as badly as Yuuri each time Yuuri recalled their audience. Yuuri might have accepted his interest in him, but he still panicked at the thought of anyone noticing that interest. Which made that encounter in the hallway even worse. What was Yuuri thinking? If Yuuri didn't want anyone to know then he should at least be discreet about it. But Yuuri was coming of age, which if it was anything like Wolfram's experience meant acting on impulse and regretting it later.

Wolfram didn't have that excuse. He didn't have any regrets, either. He didn't even have guilt, which made no sense at all. Had they been in Yuuri's office instead of the hallway he might not have ended the kiss himself this time. He would probably let Yuuri kiss his neck again if he were inclined to do so, even though he was fairly sure that was one of those 'other things' that fiances weren't supposed to do. It wasn't as if he had pushed Yuuri into it. He should still have guilt for allowing it to happen, much less enjoying it so much. Yuuri didn't know any better. Wolfram did. It fell to him to protect Yuuri from himself, especially while Yuuri was at the mercy of overwhelming urges. Wolfram suddenly found himself doubting his ability to do the right thing by Yuuri, which made his lack of guilt all the more worrisome. At this rate he really was going to have to talk with his mother.

.-.

Yuuri was relieved when Murata led him off to his office as soon as he finished practicing with Conrad. He had never felt so awkward in his company before. Conrad had looked concerned and sober, as if he had as many things he wanted to say as Yuuri did but was no more eager to say them than Yuuri was. So they had tossed the ball back and forth, hard and fast to make up for the silence that was so loud it hurt the ears. Was he losing him? What would Conrad think of him if he found out Yuuri was putting the moves on his little brother? And he was. Wolfram was right about the hallway. Anyone could have seen them, including Conrad. Would it help if he explained that he fully intended to marry Wolfram? He was afraid it wouldn't. If Conrad really had joined forces with Gunter and Gwendal he might insist on separating them until one of them changed his mind or there was a wedding. Yuuri refused to be separated from Wolfram right when he was trying to get closer to him.

Murata waved Yuuri into the chair and then hopped up to sit on the edge of the freshly cleared desk. "Wolfram threw me for a loop earlier," he said without preamble, "by asking me what 'gay' meant. He's under the impression you're searching for 'other gays'?"

"Oh, God," Yuuri cringed, blushing furiously. "What did you tell him?"

"That I had no idea what you were talking about and he would have to ask you to clarify. Did you really call him gay? Are you that...stupid?"

"What? No! I was talking about me!" Yuuri's shoulders hunched and he wished his chair would open up and swallow him. "We were sparring, venting, and then I got...confused and it all just came out."

"Confused is right," Murata sighed. "Wolfram is no more gay than you are. By all accounts he wouldn't even qualify as bisexual. He's too sheltered to have explored his sexuality with anyone."

"I am gay," Yuuri blurted. "I'm gay for him." Murata's mouth fell open and Yuuri went on before he could laugh or tease or whatever he'd been about to do. "I don't know how it happened. Why me? I always thought I was straight. I mean, I could handle being bi, but I'm not even interested in girls anymore. One comment from Shori and suddenly I'm the only guy in Shin Makoku, the only person in this entire castle who is attracted to him? How is that possible? How does that even make sense? Were they lying? Did they all say it was normal for two guys to marry just so I wouldn't feel weird about being engaged to him?"

"You have a blind spot the size of Africa," Murata said slowly. "I knew you were obtuse about some things, but..." This was impressive. Sad, but impressive all the same. Only someone who had withstood Wolfram's looks for a year could be that blind to the people around him. "You aren't gay, Shibuya. You did like girls before meeting him and you've never had interest in guys aside from him. That you're interested in your fiance to the exclusion of all others just proves that you're the loyal sort. If you insist on labeling yourself, stick with formerly potentially bi- and currently exclusively Wolfram-sexual." That conned a weak smile from Yuuri. "If you need a reason for it, blame it on your mazoku side, or puberty. Or chalk it up to the fact that Wolfram is beautiful enough to make even straight men look twice."

"But that's just old men," Yuuri scowled. "He said as much and I've seen it myself. Aside from me, only dirty old men are attracted to him. And that was just one time that I saw. They were human men, too. We've gone all over the place together and no guys ever react to him. If it's not me, then what's wrong with the guys here? If there really are gay guys here, where are they hiding?" He drew himself up sharply. "I think it was a lie. It isn't normal for two guys to get together here. They were just saying that because I'm the king."

"Marriage between two noble males isn't common, but it does happen and is perfectly legal. Shinou saw to that when he began giving permission for noble couples to marry. As for the rest of your...gross misinterpretations, I suggest you look around you a little more closely. Gunter would be a good place to start. Unlike you, he is gay. Openly flamboyantly prettily gay. Even you must have noticed that."

"Of course I did," Yuuri muttered. "But he's Gunter. Gunter is...Gunter." Really, that said all that needed to be said. Gunter was in a class of his own. He was Gunter. He just was.

"Fair enough," Murata sighed. "How about Yozak, then? Does the fact that he's perfectly comfortable donning dresses not clue you in a little? The fact that he enjoys doing so and gets a lot of amusement from it?"

"He only does that to sneak around. Spying and stuff. He's not the least bit-" He stumbled for a word, one that would describe what Yozak wasn't without insulting people who were...more like Gunter. "He's not flamboyant," he said finally. Yozak was nothing like Gunter, who pranced and sighed and reminded him a lot of Cecilie when he got all happily excited about things. Gunter was Gunter. Yozak was a manly man who just happened to wear dresses sometimes...

"Well done," Murata smirked. "A king should know how to be politically correct about these things. And, no, Yozak doesn't fit the 'queen' stereotype of the crossdressers on earth. But he does have the same confidence in his masculinity that many of them do."

"That makes you think he's gay? Because he's manly enough to wear dresses sometimes and not care how it makes him look?"

Murata sighed. If Yuuri regularly twisted logic up that badly it was no wonder he was so confused. "No. I think he's gay because he only looks at men." And one man in particular, which anyone without a continent sized blind spot would know. "He hasn't exactly made a secret of the fact that he isn't interested in females. The dresses merely cement the fact that he's perfectly comfortable being what he is. A bottom."

"What?!"

Murata winced, leaning away from him. "Okay, maybe I'm wrong about that part. But he still stands as an obvious example of the gay and bisexual people all around you that you somehow have failed to notice. If you want the other side of it, Anissina is the clear choice around here." He scoffed when Yuuri just stared at him with a dumbfounded look on his face. "Scary sadistic overt feminist? Women's Liberation trips? The only man she ever shows interest in just happens to cringe and flee as soon as he hears her voice? You should really pay more attention to the stories of hers that Greta loves so much. There's a reason Anissina so often places herself in what would traditionally be the prince's role, and why she always rescues whatever damsels inhabit her tales."

"Are there others?" Yuuri asked quietly. "Right in front of me, that I never even noticed?"

"Yes. Some closer than you'd believe. They aren't all gay, of course. The majority are more bi than anything. But I can safely assure you that a good portion of the mazoku you see in this world are in or have had intimate relations with members of the same sex. Marriages aren't common, but relationships are."

"And I never noticed..."

"You weren't looking for it and, since you tend to associate with nobles and noble households, discretion keeps overt displays to a minimum. You could live out your life here without ever catching two people kissing in public regardless of their genders. Public displays of affection are usually limited to hugs, hand-holding, and dances. And a kiss during wedding ceremonies, of course."

"Dances," Yuuri blurted suddenly. "Cecilie asked Wolfram to teach me a dance so I can dance with a bunch of girls at the ball."

"Surprisingly cold-blooded of her," Murata frowned. "I take it Wolfram refused?"

"No. He taught it to me. But he said there was only one dance where two guys danced together. Is that why I've never seen guys dancing before? Because they don't do public displays like that?"

"In my time men never danced together, in public or otherwise. That appears to have changed over the years." Shinou was eager to teach him that dance. Murata had categorically refused. "If you actually married Wolfram you would be expected to dance with him, and any other male couples in attendance would join you on the dance floor. For the most part men are content to sit out and let the ladies have their fun."

"Wolfram doesn't know the steps to that dance."

"I'm not surprised. It isn't as if his brothers would teach it to him." Although he was fairly certain they both knew the steps quite well.

"I could teach it to him," said Yuuri, "if you taught it to me."

Murata was struck dumb. Yuuri wasn't even blushing. He was leaning forward in his chair, his face excited and determined. Murata cleared his throat before asking, "Why would you want to do that?"

"Because I can."

"I see," Murata lied. He didn't see at all. "Well, unfortunately I don't know the steps, either. But I know someone who probably does."

"I can't ask Gunter," Yuuri grimaced. "He'd freak out, and then he'd tell Gwendal and Conrad and-"

"I was thinking of Yozak, not Gunter." Though Yozak might be just as quick to run straight to Conrad with the news. Yuuri smiled so widely he decided not to mention that. Pointing out the overt gays in Yuuri's midst was very different from informing him that his chosen father-figure was romantically involved with one of them. That would be meddling on a grand scale. "Do you want me to ask him for you?"

"Yes. Soon, okay?"

Meaning before the ball? Surely not. Yuuri might have a new-found attraction to his fiance, but that didn't mean he had the nerve to make such a public display. Besides, he would have to include Cecilie in his plans in order to set up the proper music. With her involved the brothers would get wind of it and shut down the entire scheme. "I'll mention it the next time I see him," he promised. "In the meantime, let's disprove this belief of yours that you're the only one in the castle attracted to Wolfram."

Yuuri scowled at the reminder. "I wasn't counting you. He doesn't know you were looking at him like that."

"I wasn't referring to me. Come along and see for yourself. You'll probably feel better knowing you're not the only blind person around here. It sounds like Wolfram has his own blind spot if he honestly hasn't noticed." He left the office, trailed by a reluctant Yuuri, and stopped the first male they came across. A stiff-looking soldier in Gwendal-green. Perfect.

"Excuse me," Murata smiled, "but I was wondering. Are you sexually attracted to Lord Wolfram von Bielefeld?" He promptly stepped back so Yuuri could have a front row view of the man's blush, fear, and sputtered denials. Talk about protesting too much...

.-.
TBC

Chapter Text

It was late afternoon before Yuuri had a chance to look around him with his freshly unshuttered eyes. Wolfram had shown for lunch, quiet and preoccupied. Conrad had been absent. Gunter had dragged Yuuri off after the meal for 'greeting practice' every bit as embarrassing and weird as he had feared. Finally free, Yuuri found himself walking the halls, lingering at windows and peering closely at everyone he passed. Each person here had a private life, which he had of course known. He just hadn't considered exactly how much they kept private. When he encountered Sangria, he wished he hadn't stopped Murata at five. They hadn't even gotten to the maids. Sangria asked, amid giggles, if they were satisfied with the room. He assured her they were, and she went on about her business. A quick encounter that told him nothing about who she was. For all he knew she was the reason the black bedspread hadn't been replaced with Wolfram's original blue. He didn't have it in him to ask why not, or to mention it at all.

Of the five men Murata had accosted earlier, three had reacted with guilt and fear. They might be too respectful and cowed to ever look at Wolfram openly, but they had certainly noticed him. He didn't like the thought of men around here noticing Wolfram, yet the fact that they did was something of a relief. He wasn't the odd man out, he was just the only one in a position to actually act on his interest. Wolfram thought no one in the castle wanted him because everyone here was a member of the family, a friend of the family, or subservient to the family. Except for him. And Murata, but he wasn't counting him. Yuuri suspected that if he hadn't been the maou, and a wimpy maou at that, he would never have been allowed near Wolfram. Sheltered, Murata had said. He could definitely see that now. Maybe he had been sheltered as well.

If one of Gwendal's men could have a secret attraction for Wolfram then it was very likely some of the people in this castle really did have a secret attraction for their king. That was a horribly uncomfortable thought. Now every time a soldier or guard avoided looking directly at him - which they all did - he was going to wonder if it was just respect or something else. Were they hiding an unwanted interest in him or his fiance? He would never know one way or the other unless he traumatized them by asking the way Murata had. Since he wasn't going to be doing that, he might as well continue taking it as respect and nothing more. He wasn't sure he'd be able to do that now, though. Easier to take blinders off than to put them back on.

One of the men Murata had questioned, another dignified-looking green, had sharply informed them that he would never view a child in such a way. As if they had accused him of being a pedophile. If some of them really did consider Wolfram a child they had to think the same of him. Which would go a long way to explaining why Wolfram was the only one who had ever seemed to take their engagement seriously. They had never expected anything to come from it. Was that the real reason Cecilie wanted him to dance with everyone except his fiance? To show the guests that he was still just a kid playing at being engaged? If so, Wolfram had to know about it. Yuuri wished he had just come out and said as much. At least then they could have argued about it.

It was the last man Murata had stopped who bothered Yuuri the most. A young unremarkable-looking castle guard gray. The guard hadn't looked directly at either of them, but his voice had been thick with contempt and disgust that said a lot more than his simple 'no' had. Even Murata had been taken back by it. That was where Yuuri had stopped him, assuring him that he had proven his point and didn't need to torture any more of the guards and soldiers. As soon as they parted ways, Yuuri went back to look for that last guard. He hadn't found him. He wasn't sure he would recognize him if he did see him again. He would recognize his voice, though. He could still hear the sound of it...and the implication that such a thing was beneath him. He wanted to dismiss the man as a homophobe, but he had never met one of those in this world, not even in the human lands. Maybe like that second green the guard had taken insult because of Wolfram's age. Yuuri didn't think that was the reason, either. A personal grudge, then? Wolfram could be grating, but Yuuri couldn't imagine him doing anything to inspire that much contempt in a person. Not just a person, either. This was a guard who moved freely around the castle and was charged with protecting the occupants, one of whom he had contempt and disgust for. Were there others like him? How many? If he could identify them, would he have the power to get rid of them?

He was nearly back to the greeting hall where he had left Gunter before he realized his own intent. He hesitated outside the door, reminding himself of how easily Gunter might fill the rest of his day after answering his questions. He decided it was worth it. He threw the door open and was halfway across the room when he saw them. He stopped in his tracks. He stood frozen and wide-eyed as the stony-faced man stalked past him and out the door. Gunter was as white as a sheet. Yuuri's face felt as hot as lava. They stared at each other while the gears in Yuuri's brain gave a few rusty clicks. Oh. Oh...another one.

"Y-Yuuri-heika! I can explain!"

"No," Yuuri blurted. "Please don't. I didn't see anything." Denial surely went hand-in-hand with discretion. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I wanted to ask about the castle guards."

Gunter's lower lip trembled for a moment. Then he clasped his hands in front of him and gave a desperately forced smile. "The guards?"

"Yes. I want to know how many there are, who is in charge of them, how they're hired, who has the power to fire them, everything." He was relieved to see that grimace of a smile leave Gunter's face. Did Gunter really think he was going to judge him? At least Gunter had been behind a closed door. Yuuri had jumped Wolfram in a hallway. He wouldn't be judging anyone any time soon.

"Has someone insulted you?" Gunter asked in a more normal, yet now shocked, voice. "Or behaved inappropriately in some way?"

"Not exactly. I do have concerns, though. Can you tell me about the guards?"

"Of course!"

"Good," said Yuuri. He finished crossing the room, determined to forget what he had seen, at least for now. Later he would indulge in his shock. This explained why Gunter had been so secretive and jumpy lately, particularly when he walked in on him unexpectedly. One thing was for sure, it would be a long time before he entered an occupied room without knocking.

.-.

Conrad had never breached Wolfram's territory before. With Yuuri now openly installed in that part of the castle the guards made no real attempt to keep him out. Wolfram's courtyard of choice was set between the soldiers' wing and the guards' quarters. Once it had been a weedy forgotten bit of space. Now it was an enclosed and well-protected training area. He wondered if this was where Yozak had found Morgif last night. There were far worse places Wolfram could have taken Yuuri for their fight. Assuming it had been a fight.

He lingered behind the railing, noting the differences between this exercise and the drills he put his own men through. Two x's from top left to bottom right, hard on the shoulders double-handed and stylistically more suited to fencing than sword fighting. A good way to ensure cramped muscles and pinched nerves. Yet the flushed faces proved they had been at it for some time without apparent injury. Lots of practice, he supposed. Florian was the only one who appeared to be having difficulty, probably because he was facing Wolfram and had the height difference to deal with. That was the biggest difference from his own drills. He assigned and monitored exercises like this. His men would have been very confused if he had ever attempted to join them in one.

A blonde, Wolfram's third, noticed him and made a hissing 'psst' sound that cut through the noise. Wolfram looked up, caught sight of him, and stepped out of his row. The men shifted so Florian was trading swings with two who had been paired off before. Conrad smiled at the swift looks some of them sent him. Not as hostile as Wolfram, but just as suspicious and wary. Even Florian looked suspicious about his presence here in Wolfram's territory. At this rate he might have to stop viewing the man as one of his own.

"Why are you here?" Wolfram demanded. "Has something happened?"

"Walk with me?" asked Conrad.

Wolfram clenched his teeth and sent a quick look at Lukas, who nodded. There were less than fifteen minutes left of the drill. They could finish without him. He stalked past Conrad, desperate to get him out of here. Conrad had no business being in here. It was bad enough to have Royal Guards just outside his room. He refused to have Conrad lurking about the wing as well. He sent a sharp glare at him as they moved down the hall. "If this is about the room again-"

"How are you?"

"What?" Wolfram nearly stopped in his tracks. Only the fact that he was close to getting Cornad out of his wing kept him moving. "What kind of question is that?"

"A concerned one. From the storm last night, I gather he lost control. The next month or so could prove very difficult for him. He might not be...quite himself. You shouldn't feel obligated to deal with him all on your own."

"Are you volunteering to lecture it out of him?" Wolfram scoffed. "Certainly, since that worked so well with me. He doesn't need your help. I know more about what he's going through than you do. I'm more than capable of helping him meditate and spar when his maryoku becomes unstable. Besides," he scowled, "it isn't as if he damaged anything or endangered anyone. I took him outside before encouraging him to vent."

"And leaving your swords behind?"

Of course Conrad would know about that. Yozak was the one who had recovered their blades. Wolfram walked faster. "I wasn't expecting the lightning. We'll be more careful next time."

"There shouldn't be a next time. It's dangerous to engage him when he has no control over his own power."

They finally exited the wing. Wolfram rounded to give Conrad the full force of his anger. "Do you think I don't know that? I would never intentionally endanger him. But it would be far more dangerous for him to try holding it inside until it bursts out on its own. Then he wouldn't just hurt himself, but anyone who happens to be near him - which would hurt him even worse."

"I was referring to the danger he poses to you," Conrad said quietly. He accepted that Wolfram was something of an authority on coming of age with an excess of maryoku. Even Gwendal and Cecilie had been unprepared for and unable to suppress the explosions of rage Wolfram had been prone to at that age. If Yuuri experienced anything even close to that level Wolfram might very well be the perfect person to help him through it. But he shouldn't have to be, certainly not when it meant endangering himself. "Remember, Wolfram, he doesn't just have his own energy to deal with. He has the last of Shinou's as well."

"It's his now. He wields it the same as his own - by accident or under the influence of his maou side. I can handle both. Until he ends the engagement he is my responsibility. Stay out of it and leave him to me."

"Wolfram-"

"You can't help him with this!" Wolfram clenched his fists against the need to lash out. This wasn't about keeping Conrad away from Yuuri like some scrap of meat they were fighting over. This was about protecting Yuuri from Conrad and Gwendal and Cecilie - from all of them. Yuuri wasn't going to end up like he had. He wouldn't allow it. "You can't even spar with him. He doesn't need to suppress his maryoku, he needs to use it and he'd be too afraid to do that with you. Gwendal could spar with him, but we both know he won't. He'd have him terrified of his own power by lecturing him about control - as if anyone has made a single effort to teach him that. Gunter didn't even want to teach him to meditate! What do you think you can do for him? You're not going to get him to stay in his room until it's over, not when you can't even convince him to sleep in there. At best you'd send him running back to his own world and that's the last thing this kingdom needs. Is that what you want? To chase him away?"

"Wolfram, why are you letting Yuuri stay in your room?"

"We're back to that? Is that all anyone here cares about?!"

"I care about his safety," said Conrad. "I also care about yours. Is he pressuring you, Wolfram? In any way?"

Wolfram took a sharp step back. The blood rushed from his face so quickly he felt dizzy and cold. What kind of question was that? He shook his head at Conrad, whose face was so hardened he should have been on a battlefield with blood-splattered armor. "What are you asking me? If Yuuri is..." He caught the flicker of pain in Conrad's eyes, guilt and distress and doubt. Had he put that there? Had he done something to make Conrad doubt Yuuri? That shouldn't be possible. Yuuri was Julia in Conrad's eyes, perfection on a pedestal. Surely he didn't have the power to knock that idol down. Wolfram drew himself up and reclaimed the step he had just lost.

"This is Yuuri we're talking about," Wolfram said calmly. "If he tried to pressure me into anything I would take my sword to him. Unlike you, I have no qualms about punishing him as needed. He's in my room because he wants to be and I won't kick him out just because the rest of you want me to. He isn't hurting anything aside from Brother's and Gunter's sensibilities and your pride as a protector. If you are determined to fight that, so be it. I won't back down. Yuuri's mind is the one you will have to change." He looked at him closely, a small smile crossing his face at the consternation visible on Conrad's. "Unless he's pressuring you? Do you need my help with the wimp?"

Conrad felt his lips twitch. How strange to go from doubting everything he believed to fighting helpless amusement. "He has been particularly headstrong lately. But aside from his new sleeping arrangements he hasn't started any outright rebellions so far."

"Inform me if he does," Wolfram said haughtily. "So long as I remain his fiance I will do my part to keep him in line."

"Of course," Conrad smiled. "I apologize for doubting your ability to do so." Wolfram humphed at that. Conrad's smile widened. "I'll be taking Greta for a ride tomorrow morning. If you and Yuuri would like to accompany us, we'll be going directly after breakfast." Wolfram just humphed again, neither accepting nor rejecting the invitation. Conrad took himself off with a lighter heart. He should have known Wolfram had things firmly in hand. Hormone surges might have Yuuri being not quite himself, but he was still Yuuri. Wolfram had never had trouble dealing with Yuuri. As usual, it was Yuuri he should be concerned about.

.-.

When Gunter stormed into his office, Gwendal's first instinct was to bolt upright to better face the menace head-on. It took most of his self control to remain casually seated behind his desk. This was his office and Gunter was not Anissina. The man was an emotional whirlwind who taxed his patience at the best of times. He was not, however, a threat to anything but his peace of mind. Gwendal held his place, cool and controlled, until Gunter reached his side and swept one flat hand through the air...inches from his nose before it slapped down on his desk. Gwendal flinched and felt his heart pounding in his throat. A bit too close for comfort, really.

"I take it you're upset," said Gwendal.

Gunter trembled, his breaths coming in short bursts, his hand curling into a claw on the desk. "You abandoned me! Give me one reason I shouldn't slap you this instant!"

"I wouldn't let you. I would immediately challenge you to a duel and defeat you. It would be hypocritical of you to propose to me after refusing to allow me to do so from the very first. With Gisela as an heir you have no need to marry. Anissina would mutilate you if you destroyed her dream of breeding a child off me. Shall I continue?"

Gunter wilted into a resentful sulk. "I only asked for one. You can't use the last two, anyway. Those are my reasons."

"Which is why I felt I should remind you of them." Gwendal watched that hand slip off the table to flutter near Gunter's temple. Dramatics were preferable to Gunter in a temper. "I suppose you made up some story as to what we were doing and, like the veriest fool, he swallowed it whole."

Gunter's hand snapped down to his side, insult and a dash of outrage on Yuuri's behalf stiffening his shoulders and spine. "I most certainly did not. As a matter of fact..." Worry took over again, ruining his attempt to remain properly indignant. "He didn't let me explain. When I tried, he asked me not to. He said," and his eyes caught Gwendal's, "that he hadn't seen anything."

"Denial, then," Gwendal muttered, more disgusted than anything. "I should have expected as much."

"But he did see us. He must have," Gunter protested.

"Of course he did. He's just taking the easy way out, as usual. He has been denying reality since that 'maou side' of his first showed itself and he conveniently forgot everything he had done. If he wants to pretend he saw nothing, let him. I for one have no intention of explaining anything. I will not defend myself to the likes of him."

Gunter supposed he should have known better than to expect sympathy for that horrible scene he had been abandoned to face alone. That he had been caught by the Maou in such a compromising position was too humiliating for words. Yet he was the one who had insisted theirs remain a dalliance only. Gwendal might one day decide a marriage of convenience with Anissina was the simplest way to beget an heir and get her out of his hair forever. With Shinou gone there would be nothing to stop them from marrying for the wrong reasons. Gunter, on the other hand, had no need to marry. It still stung his pride that Gwendal wasn't jumping to make an honest man of him now that they had been caught by their king. At the very least they were setting a poor example for someone so young and new to his place among the noble houses.

"Why did he come back?" asked Gwendal. "He usually avoids you as much as possible to avoid being forced to learn anything."

"Oh!" Gunter's eyes widened and glowed with pleasure. "He took it upon himself to learn more about the castle guards. I have never seen him show such interest in a topic I did not personally bring to his attention. He wanted to know everything, where each one was stationed, the rotations, their ranks and duties-"

"That's my domain."

"Well, yes, of course it is. But as the king-"

"The castle guards are my domain."

Gunter sighed and swept around the chair to rub Gwendal's stiff shoulders. It was no wonder he kept getting pulled muscles as often as he clenched up like that. "Don't be stubborn. He's interested. We must encourage and foster any interest he has in matters of leading, controlling, or directing - whether it's the castle guards or some other aspect of the kingdom. You did want him to take more responsibility and that is precisely what he's trying to do. Of his own initiative! This is a wonderful development."

"You can say that," Gwendal growled. "It isn't your domain he's trying to interfere with. What exactly does he want with my guards?"

"Just to look them over for now. I thought a line up in the front courtyard would be fitting."

Gwendal whipped a sharp glare up at him. "You did not offer to arrange that for him."

"No," Gunter smiled, "of course not. I offered to ask you to arrange that for him. The castle guards fall under your domain so any requests concerning them must by nature go through you. As I was careful to inform him."

Gwendal accepted the deference, but shrugged off the hands. He preferred to be tense and irritated at the moment. "I am having a bolt installed on this door. I suggest you stay out of here until then."

Gunter gasped at the implication. "Need I remind you that you're the one who came to me earlier?"

"A mistake I will not make again."

"Oh?" Gunter sailed for the door, his cloak swishing when he turned at the last minute for a parting salvo. "You might wish to reconsider scorning his majesty's penchant for denial when you are so often guilty of practicing it yourself."

"I'll take that under advisement. Now get out of my office." He watched coolly as Gunter left the room in as much of a tiff as he had entered with. It wasn't until the door closed and he was alone that he smiled.

.-.

"Now?" asked Yuuri. He sent a quick look around the hall to make sure no one had overheard, and then blinked up at Yozak. Murata sure didn't waste any time.

"There's a good hour before dinner," Yozak shrugged. "Sooner started, sooner done. You haven't changed your mind, have you?"

"No! I haven't changed my mind." He was having some serious second thoughts, though. "I just...would rather no one else know..."

Yozak laughed and escorted Yuuri toward the storage room he had picked out for this illicit lesson. "They won't hear it from me. I got my hands on a music box for this. It's not the exact score, but it's close enough." He paused when they reached the door. If word got out about this it wasn't just Conrad he'd have to worry about. Wolfram would be after his blood, too. "Before we go in and get started, we're going to have to make this an order. Just to cover my tail, you understand."

"What?"

"You," Yozak pointed, "as the king, order me, as your subject, to teach you this dance and to never tell anyone I'm the one who taught it to you."

"Oh." Those second thoughts were now twisting and burning themselves into an ulcer. Yuuri took a deep breath and made his second leap of the day. "Yozak, as your king I order you to teach me this dance and to never tell anyone that you're the one who taught it to me." He took another breath, which was much easier than the last. "I won't tell anyone either. Okay?"

"I live to serve the king," Yozak grinned. He opened the door and waved Yuuri along. "Come on in, then. I'm about to make a man out of you."

Yuuri cringed as he trudged into the dusty room. "I wish you hadn't said it like that."

.-.
TBC

Chapter Text

Yuuri blushed through the first half of dinner. Cecilie took great delight in teasing him, assuming it was the prospect of exerting his newly learned dancing skills with beautiful ladies that had him feeling embarrassed. Wolfram was suspiciously quiet, not reacting at all to her barbs. Conrad came to Yuuri's rescue after a while and the rest of the meal passed in casual conversation. Gunter was absent, but Gwendal's formidable presence made up for that. Yuuri was sure Gwendal took his blushing to be a result of that scene he had walked in on. Honestly, Yuuri was more shocked than embarrassed about that. Gwendal was so cold and restrained it was hard to match him up with the man he had walked in on. His brain simply refused to accept that Gwendal and kissing could go together. Passionate kissing. With groping. No, his brain couldn't make sense of what his eyes had seen. According to his brain, Gwendal in a relationship meant stiff formal gestures done grudgingly out of necessity. A partner of his would be lucky to get a kiss on the hand. It was far easier to imagine Conrad in a relationship. He would be warm and affectionate, like his dad except not as awkward. Really, it was strange that Conrad didn't have anyone. If Conrad's antisocial older brother could pin down a butterfly like Gunter then Conrad should have no trouble at all. Yuuri focused on that, absently following the conversation Conrad was having with Cecilie, until his blushing faded away. He was feeling comfortable and relaxed when dinner ended. Wolfram was quick to ruin that.

"Meditation or sparring," Wolfram scowled at him. "Pick one."

"We just sparred last night. I haven't had a flare up since!" Yuuri didn't see how sparring now would do anything but get him all worked up again. And remind him of what he'd been doing with Yozak. The blush returned, twice as bad now that he was alone with Wolfram, who was looking at him as if he knew exactly what he had been up to.

"It's easier to prevent a flare up than it is to contain one." Wolfram turned away before he could be infected by Yuuri's blush. He waited until they were in the courtyard before facing him again. It was still difficult. Yuuri looked so wary and guilty that he felt awful for even wanting to address this. But it would save Yuuri grief in the long run. "I know what you were doing," he said quietly. He hated the way Yuuri flinched. "It's nothing to be embarrassed about. There is nothing shameful about...taking some time to yourself. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."

"You think I was masturbating?!" The word was out before Yuuri could even consider censoring it. The silence was almost surreal. Had he really yelped that out so loudly? Wolfram's face was bright red, as dark as that morning he had tripped over his sword. Wolfram was looking shocked and scandalized again. How was that right? Wolfram was the one who had brought it up. Unless he had misunderstood, Wolfram had actually been trying to make him feel better about doing it. Yuuri couldn't imagine how much worse this moment would be if he had been doing it. Could a person blush himself to death? Wolfram appeared to be making a go of it.

"I apologize," Wolfram choked out. He was no better than his mother! At this rate he might as well offer Yuuri lotion and warn him about chafing. Instead of helping, he was making it worse. "I shouldn't have said anything. I just, I hate that Mother drew attention to your embarrassment, though luckily she attributed it to the dancing. Once she guesses the truth she might...say things to you. I don't want you to listen to her. That's all. I wasn't trying to make you feel worse. That's the last thing I wanted to do."

"I walked in on Gwendal and Gunter making out."

Wolfram blinked. "What?"

"I think that's why Gunter didn't come to dinner," Yuuri said quickly. He hated throwing Gunter under the bus, and Gwendal too, for that matter. But he had to say something to keep Wolfram from combusting on the spot and he couldn't tell him the real reason he had been blushing. He had given his word to Yozak. "I left Gunter in the hall after his formal greeting practice, then I went back with a question for him and I walked in on them. They were making out."

Wolfram stared at him in dumb surprise. Yuuri certainly knew how to change the subject. "Making out...?"

"Kissing and stuff."

Wolfram's lips twitched. "Stuff...?"

"Stuff," Yuuri nodded. He sagged with relief when Wolfram sputtered into full laughter. A split second later he was smiling himself. He needed to make Wolfram laugh more. Everything was right in the world when he laughed. "It was awful. Gwendal stalked out looking like he wanted to kill me. Poor Gunter was petrified. He tried to explain, but I begged him not to. I don't know what he could have said to 'explain' it. That he tripped and Gwendal caught him with his mouth?"

"I knew it!" Wolfram exclaimed. "I knew something was going on with them. They have never been in such an accord, with Gunter being a veritable mouthpiece-" He stopped himself before he could continue that thought. Gwendal was his brother, after all. "And you, poor Yuuri, caught them in the act? This just hasn't been your month. You may never open a door again without dreading what you might see on the other side."

"I'm knocking first," Yuuri grinned. "From now on I'm not touching a closed door without knocking first."

"Wise of you."

"The sad thing is that I was wondering where the gays were last night. If I had just waited another day I might have realized some of them were behind closed doors." He regretted his words immediately. He hadn't meant to remind Wolfram of the gay thing. He was sorry to see Wolfram's smile vanish, but he did like that gleam in his eyes. Wolfram wasn't the sort to let something go without getting to the bottom of it. And, honestly, Yuuri didn't like that he had gone to Murata for answers. Besides, he had as good as promised to confide in Wolfram if Wolfram would actually talk to him about things. This was a chance to talk to him. They just had to do it in a way that kept either of them from blushing to death.

"I pick meditation," said Yuuri. "Back to back, that way we can talk without looking at each other. It won't be as embarrassing that way."

"It won't be meditation if we're talking," Wolfram was compelled to point out. He didn't argue, though. He also didn't point out that it wasn't meditation if they were touching each other. Yuuri's back was warm against his own and somehow sitting like this was more intimate than holding hands. And it was Yuuri's idea. He leaned back with a guilty smile. "We don't have to talk about anything that will embarrass you."

"I want to. I wasn't masturbating," Yuuri blurted. He felt Wolfram's breath catch and wondered if this was really that much better. If he was going to be watching for Wolfram's reactions they might as well be face to face. He kept talking, anyway. "If I needed to do that, I'd do it at night in a bathroom. A lavatory, I mean, not a bath."

"Is it so casual on earth?" Wolfram asked curiously. Yuuri sounded embarrassed and awkward, but not the slightest bit ashamed.

"For guys," Yuuri snorted. "I think I was ten when my dad gave me the talk...and a box of tissues to keep in my room." His face burned at the memory of how often his mom had dusted that box before he finally opened it in front of her just so she would stop watching it curiously. "I was twelve the first time I used it."

Wolfram doubted this was something fiances talked about. It was something friends talked about, though. His men talked about this sort of thing all of the time. He knew that because they always stopped if he came within hearing range of them. Even Lukas and Daniel never went beyond innuendos when he was around. He was touched that Yuuri was willing to talk about it with him. He beat down his embarrassment and embraced his curiosity. "Have you been...taking care of yourself ever since? Even before you started coming of age?"

"Since I hit puberty - human coming of age, I guess you'd call it. I haven't done it as much since I started coming here, though." Because he'd had Wolfram sleeping in his bed. Had he been afraid he might think of him if he touched himself, even back then? He ducked his head despite knowing Wolfram couldn't possibly see his blush. "Murata said coming of age is just like a second puberty. Only this time it's the energy I have to watch out for. Last night took care of that."

"I had no idea humans matured so young." Greta wasn't that far from twelve. Wolfram shoved that thought away with both hands. She would have a governess or mother by then. He didn't have to think about that and didn't want to. "I can't imagine having two coming of ages. One was more than enough."

"What was it like for you?"

"Excruciating. Don't listen to any of them if they try to advise you. You'll get nothing but lectures and guilt trips about suppressing your energy and...Mother." His upper lip curled. "Her talks about 'releasing passion' made it all sound too filthy to even contemplate. It's a miracle I didn't kill anyone when I started setting myself on fire."

"You did what?!" Yuuri twisted until they were staring at each other over their shoulders.

"I exploded," Wolfram said frankly. "You can't suppress your energy indefinitely. Anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. That's why you need to spar, so you can let it out under a controlled setting. And meditation, so you can hold it until you're able to spar."

"Were you hurt?"

Wolfram turned away with a bitter laugh. "I set myself on fire, Yuuri. Of course it hurt. The damage was mostly to my hands and arms, and Gisela was skilled enough to heal them. But she had been called away the last time I did it. I had to wait for her to get back. I kept to my room after that. I spent the last part of my coming of age evaporating all the water in the bath. And taking care of myself," he admitted, because Yuuri had been open about that. "It may be embarrassing, but it really does help."

Yuuri turned to lean against his back again. The thought of Wolfram taking care of himself was always going to make him blush. He was glad Wolfram couldn't see it. "Murata said all mazoku go through this. Why was yours so bad if everyone goes through it?"

"Because I'm difficult," Wolfram scoffed. "Brother was probably born with an iron control. I doubt he had any trouble suppressing his energy when he came of age. Mother, naturally, took her first lover and released 'passion' all over him. She did offer to get me one, but I prefer to believe she wasn't serious about that. I might be more like her than my brothers, but I'm not that much like her."

"That would be like my dad offering to get me a prostitute," Yuuri cringed. "That's just wrong. She better not have been serious."

"Prostitute?"

"Someone you pay to have sex with you."

Wolfram snorted. "She wouldn't have needed to pay someone. Not that she was serious, of course. Brother would never have allowed it." Conrad wouldn't have, either. He wondered if Conrad was as worried about Cecilie talking to Yuuri as he was. Did Conrad know she considered sex the most obvious solution to one's coming of age? Was he afraid she would suggest as much to Yuuri? No. Conrad might have suffered a moment of doubt about Yuuri's hormones, but he had been only too happy to discard them. Still... "Just in case you're getting ideas," Wolfram warned him, "I won't let you take a lover while you're still engaged to me, and you can't end the engagement until after your coming of age ceremony. That means you'll have to suffer through this on your own, the same as I did."

Yuuri bristled. "Stop expecting me to cheat on you. If I took a lover it would be you, and I already know fiances aren't allowed to have sex before marriage here. Murata told me all about that." Wolfram moved so fast Yuuri pitched over backwards. Fists in his shirt jerked him upright. Yuuri paled at Wolfram's scarily flashing eyes.

"You talked to Murata about sex? With me?!"

"He brought it up!" Yuuri yelped. "After he woke us up he said if anyone else had seen us like that we'd be married that same night because fiances don't have sex before marriage as a rule. He was just telling me about the rule. The tradition."

"Oh..." Wolfram released Yuuri and sat back on his heels. He let out a shaky laugh at Yuuri's wary expression. "I'm sorry. I thought-" He ran a hand over his face. "I don't know what I was thinking." That Yuuri wanted to have sex with him and had asked to see if it was allowed? That Yuuri was afraid of having sex with him and had checked to make sure there was no threat of that? Incredibly stupid thoughts. If Yuuri ever got up the nerve to ask someone about sex it would be Conrad, and everyone would know because Conrad would have a heart attack and die on the spot. He laughed again. "I really am sorry. I should have realized no one would tell you about the traditions regarding fiances. It was good of Murata to inform you." Or reassure him, if he had been worried about that.

"Why is that a rule?" asked Yuuri. "If it's okay to take a lover without planning to marry, then why do fiances have to wait till they're married? On Earth some people wait till they're married because they want to be each other's first. But if Cecilie took a lover when she came of age that means her husband wasn't her first. Did they still have to wait? Or is that just a rule for fiances who haven't already had lovers? She married three times. Did she have to wait each time just because they were nobles and engaged to be married? Oh, but Conrad's dad wasn't a noble. Does that mean they didn't have to wait, or did the fact that they were marrying mean they still had to even though-"

"Stop," Wolfram winced. "You're making it more complicated than it is. It's an antiquated tradition set up to ensure that heirs are legitimate. Originally engagements had to last ten celibate months to ensure there was no child on its way. Given how many children were born a few months after the marriage, it's obvious few people really waited even then. These days it's only the nobles who adhere to that tradition. As a result, engagements rarely last longer than a month. According to Mother, she was only engaged to my father for two days. Nobles aren't any more likely to wait than anyone else, but they do accept the consequences of not waiting. Anyone caught flaunting that tradition marries immediately."

"Does that mean we really could be forced to marry if someone saw us, even if we were just kissing or," he blushed furiously, "touching in our sleep?"

Wolfram blushed as well. He was very glad they weren't having this conversation in his bedroom. When Yuuri addressed an issue directly, he didn't pull any punches. "Technically no. You proposed and defeated me by accident while you were underage. No one can force you to honor that. If we were caught after your ceremony, we could demand a test to prove we hadn't...failed to wait. We both have maryoku. If we didn't wait, there would be proof of it. But even if we failed the test, you could still fight being forced into marriage. You're the king. If you went 'maou' you could defeat anyone who challenged you." He shrugged with a weak smile. "Not that any of that matters, of course. Your virtue is perfectly safe with me."

There was an insult in that. Yuuri was sure of it. He scowled. "Then why were you worried about us getting caught? In the treasure room and in the hallway."

"Because you're a wimp. A tender-hearted wimp," Wolfram smiled, because it wasn't really an insult. "Brother could guilt-trip you into marrying me. You're too nice for your own good. As the king you can't be forced, but as a wimp you could easily be coerced. I won't give him an excuse to try. But if he does, I'll counter his challenge on your behalf. Assuming Conrad doesn't beat me to it."

"Conrad? Is he that set against us getting married?" Yuuri winced when Wolfram's teasing smile was replaced by a pinched look. Conrad would always be a touchy subject with Wolfram. But they were actually talking for once. Talking about Conrad couldn't be any more awkward than talking about masturbation and they had survived that. He did wish they were back to back, but knew it was too late for that. "I played catch with Conrad earlier. He looked really worried, but he didn't say a word to me. Anissina said he and Gwendal were ready to send you away just to get me out of your room. Does the thought of us getting married bother Conrad that much?"

"Did you play catch with him this afternoon?" That explained why Conrad had sought him out. Wolfram sighed and crossed his legs so he was facing Yuuri directly. He would never have pictured himself a peacekeeper to patch things up between the two of them. Maybe he could consider this penance for his own bad behavior. If he really had caused a rift between them, it was only right that he smooth it out. He would rather let Morgif bite all of the fingers off his right hand, though. "I spoke to him before dinner. Someone slipped a maggot in his ear to mess with his mind. I cleaned it out for him. You have nothing to worry about."

"That's not an answer to my question," Yuuri frowned. "Is he trying to split us up? So we won't get married?"

"He just wants you back in your own room so he can protect you properly. If he knew you were suffering an attraction for me, he would try to keep us apart as much as possible. But only for your own good. You can't give in to temptation if there's no one around to tempt you. It would never occur to him that without me around your attentions might simply turn to someone else. Knowing you are coming of age and believing that are two very different things. He'll probably always view you as an innocent child who needs to be sheltered from the wicked world."

"Are you picking a fight with me?" Yuuri asked suspiciously. "My attentions aren't going to turn to someone else the second you're out of sight. Even before I came back you were the only one I thought about like that. Keeping us apart now won't change anything. But Conrad told me after I came back that he was proud to see us grow up. Both of us. He said that to me. That he was proud of us."

"Maybe he was," Wolfram scoffed, "in theory. Accepting responsibility and making a place for yourself is part of growing up. Of course he would be especially proud to see you embracing your duty as king. We'll all be proud of that. But mental and emotional maturity are different from-" He flushed irritably. It still felt wrong to speak of anything related to sex around Yuuri. Was he no better than Conrad, then? Yuuri had spoken of his coming of age with an openness Wolfram envied. If Yuuri's own father had taught him the word masturbation then Yuuri might know even more about these things than he did. It was ridiculous for him to shy away from the word sex as if it would taint Yuuri's innocence. He wasn't Conrad, after all. He was Yuuri's fiance. "Sexual maturity," Wolfram bit out. "I'm convinced Conrad never matured sexually, so the thought of you experiencing that could be downright traumatizing for him. He isn't worried about us marrying because he can't accept the possibility of you marrying anyone. Ever. Marriage implies sex, and you're too perfectly pure to engage in such a filthy thing."

"Do you really believe that?" Yuuri demanded. "That sounds more like Gwendal than Conrad. Or it would if I hadn't walked in on him. I have to rethink how I view Gwendal now because I can't fit what I saw with what I thought I knew, but Conrad is..." His stomach was churning with worry and guilt because he hated the thought of disappointing Conrad. But Conrad couldn't really view him that way, could he? He had never acted like he did. "He's been to Earth. He always treated me like a normal guy. If he saw me the way you think then he'd expect me to grow up like, well, like what I thought Gwendal was like - cold and alone and more likely to cringe than to hug you back. I'm nothing like that. I'm...a people-person. Conrad knows that. He's even teased me about-" He flushed as he recalled the few times Conrad had teased him. He had rarely teased him about his fiance. He had teased him about girls. Yuuri had insisted he liked girls and Conrad had teased him accordingly. Wolfram was wrong. Conrad didn't think he was asexual, he thought he was heterosexual. Because Yuuri had stubbornly insisted that he was. "It's not me, Wolf," he blurted. "It's you."

"What?"

"It's because you're a guy and all he knows is what I always told him - that guys don't get married to each other on Earth. Shori said I came off as a homophobe and I probably did. Conrad has talked to me about girls, so he can't think I'm too young to be attracted to someone. It's the idea of me being attracted to a guy - because I fought it so hard he believed me. I'm sorry. I'll talk to him. I'll explain that I was wrong about that. I'm sure once he understands I'm serious he'll-"

"Have you lost your mind?" Wolfram hissed. "Talk to him? And tell him what? That you have suddenly discovered an attraction for me? He would never believe you discovered that on your own. He'll blame me for seducing you into it!" Because he was the 'passionate' one, the fire, the heart, the one who took after their mother whether he liked it or not. "Most of all he'll blame himself for trusting you with me. Then he will play the honorable protector and challenge me - and don't for one second think I'll do the kind thing and stand down. Oh, no, if he challenged me I would get to set the terms. Magic, not swords. I won't hesitate to burn him where he stands, destroying every last bit of his pride. It would be a disaster, Yuuri. You can't talk to him. If you care about him at all, you won't say anything about what happens between us."

"You're wrong," Yuuri insisted, but he did so quietly. Part of him could see things unfolding just the way Wolfram predicted. Wolfram was too convinced for anything Yuuri said to change his mind. He had suffered his own doubts about how Conrad would react to him and Wolfram having a real engagement. He was in no position to convince Wolfram when he couldn't truly convince himself. A quiet protest, made out of blind trust and loyalty, was the best he could offer. "You're not giving him enough credit."

Yuuri was backing down. That left Wolfram with no one to fight. He dropped his eyes. "I give him full credit for being true to himself. Your safety and happiness are the world to him. I don't want him viewing me as a threat to either." He didn't want to be a threat to either. But he was. It wasn't safe to let Yuuri stay in his room, and letting Yuuri indulge in his attraction certainly wasn't ensuring his happiness. He resented Conrad because he envied him. Why was it so hard for him to do the right thing? He looked at Yuuri in the fading light and wondered what it would be like to see him through Conrad's eyes. Yuuri would be lonely on that pedestal. Perfect and pristine and completely miserable. Someday Yuuri might thank him for knocking him off that perch and getting him a little dirty. A people-person? Yuuri was a real person. He didn't belong up there.

"Are you going to tell me about your gays?" asked Wolfram. "I thought you were going to when we first sat down. Or would you rather meditate? That means no more talking. It isn't meditation if you aren't concentrating."

Yuuri winced, wishing he could take the easy way out and pick meditation. But Wolfram had already gone to Murata about this. What if he went to Conrad next? Did Conrad know what gay meant? Despite Wolfram's warning, Yuuri was determined to at least try to talk Conrad into accepting their engagement. That would be a lot easier without Conrad wondering if Yuuri had called his little brother gay. "It's really stupid," Yuuri muttered. "I got myself all confused because I had a blind spot. I wish you'd forget I said that."

"But you know I'm not going to. How do Gunter and Gwendal fit in? You said some of your gays were behind closed doors. Were you referring to them? They're your gays?"

Like a dog with a bone. Yuuri hung his head and confessed, leaving out all mention of Murata questioning the guards, but including his comments about Gunter, Yozak, and Anissina. By the time he was done he felt like an idiot. But Wolfram hadn't been insulted by anything he had said. That was what he had really been worried about. When he finally snuck a peek, Wolfram was frowning at him thoughtfully. There wasn't a hint of disgust or reproach.

"I didn't realize Earth was so different," said Wolfram. "It sounds as bad as Svalera with regards to demons and humans marrying. I wish you had told me sooner. I would never have told your parents about the engagement if I had known there was a chance it would disgust them."

"Oh, there was no chance of that," Yuuri laughed weakly. "They're more like the people here. If we walked down my street holding hands we'd get dirty looks, but my parents aren't like that. In fact, my mom probably would have been more surprised if I had brought a girl home. I sometimes wonder if she still thinks of me as a girl."

"Because she dressed you as one." Wolfram recalled how humiliated Yuuri had been when she pulled out and shared those pictures of him as a child. "Some of those dresses would have been prettier on your brother." He shrugged at Yuuri's shocked look. "They were too subdued for you. They would have looked mature rather than plain with his eyes and hair. My mother would have curled your hair and put you in ruffles."

"You were dressed as a girl as a kid, too?"

"There is no 'crossdressing' stigma here. When Elizabeth dons pants rather than a dress she doesn't fancy herself a man. She simply dresses in what is comfortable for her. I admit, I have always wondered why Yozak enjoys playing the part of females so much, but I would never have assumed it spoke to his preferences. I thought he merely got a laugh out of tricking men into thinking him weak. I'm sure Murata was reading too much into his choice of clothing."

"You don't think he's gay, then?"

"I think the fact that he is only attracted to males has nothing to do with the fact that he enjoys dressing as a female. One is who he is, the other is a hobby of his. You have worn dresses both as a child and an adult. Did putting one on change who you were attracted to?"

"Logic," Yuuri smiled. "No, of course it didn't. Earth is bad about stereotypes. I'll work harder not to bring them here. Walking in on Gwendal and Gunter made me throw most of them out the window, anyway."

"To be fair, it does sound as if Gunter fits your Earth stereotypes. With one very big exception. He is not the least bit weak or feminine."

Yuuri gaped, squinted, and then gaped some more. "Huh? Since when? What?"

Wolfram laughed. "He is Gunter von Christ. He's a first-rate swordsman. He may be all but retired now, but he is the one who taught Conrad to fight. If he and Brother were to duel with swords I have no doubt Gunter would come out on top."

"No," Yuuri blurted. "My brain is going to take that the wrong way and bring up images that will give me nightmares. Gwendal and Gunter? That hurts my brain but I can accept it. Gunter and Gwendal? That breaks my brain and I won't be able to function. I don't want to think about how those two fit together." Except, having said that, he was now thinking about it. He squirmed and grabbed the first distraction that came to mind. "Bishounen! That means pretty-boy. That's what went through my mind the first time I saw you."

Wolfram blinked in surprise. "That isn't an insult."

"No," Yuuri smiled. "Just embarrassing for me. I had never seen a guy as pretty as you, not in real life. You went from being a bishounen, to a racist jerk insulting my mom, to my fiance, all in a few minutes."

"Poor Yuuri," Wolfram sighed. "I certainly didn't make it easier for you. In my defense, you humiliated me in that duel. Keep that in mind when you recall my subsequent harassment of you. My backside was bruised for a week. My ego was bruised for months."

"Your-" Yuuri nearly choked to death on his own tongue. "What?! What did I do? Spank you?!" In front of everyone?

"What? No! Of course not! If you had done that I would never have shown my face in this kingdom again!" Wolfram stared at him in cold horror. Had that been a possibility? He had behaved like a spoiled brat. What better way to punish a spoiled brat than a spanking? He would never have survived that. Instead of holding a grudge, maybe he should have considered himself lucky. "No," he winced, "what you did was make an example out of me. You held me up for everyone to see, what felt like thirty feet in the air but was probably closer to fifteen, and then you dropped me on my ass. No more than I deserved, admittedly, but for my first taste of public humiliation it was excessive. Tormenting you and traumatizing you in your own bed seemed a fitting payback. At the time," he sighed, dropping his eyes. "I regret it now, of course. I should have considered that you had no memory of it. If your maou side was trying to teach me a lesson, he failed miserably. All he did was make me even more of a brat."

"I wasn't exactly nice and mature myself," Yuuri cringed. He had never wondered how that duel had ended. He was told he had won and hadn't thought any more about it. Public humiliation? He couldn't imagine how that had felt. Pride was everything to Wolfram. Pushing the engagement didn't come close to payback for that. At times Wolfram had been frustrating and annoying and embarrassing, but never humiliating. Even at his worst, Wolfram had just been...Wolfram. What was it the others called him? Spoiled selfish sulk? As if he were a toddler whining when he didn't get his way. It was Adalbert's name for him that Yuuri had secretly liked. The brat prince. It was the brat that brought the prince down to earth. Wolfram had the bearing and looks of a prince, but he was bossy and opinionated and difficult, and that was what made him charming. For the first time, the thought of falling for his own prince charming didn't make him feel like a girl. Wolfram was just Wolfram, after all. He wouldn't have him any other way. "We have come a long way, haven't we, Wolf?"

"I'd like to think so."

Wolfram's tone was light and playfully haughty. Yuuri caught his eye. "I'm going to marry you, you know."

"Yuuri."

"It won't be a happily ever after, but it will never be boring. You'll make me a better king, and I'll make you a happier Wolfram."

"Yuuri," Wolfram protested. That had to be the sweetest thing anyone had ever said to him. "Are you trying to court me? We're already engaged. You don't have to say nice things to me."

"If I don't have to, then you know I'm doing it because I want to." Yuuri smiled, enjoying how flustered and wary Wolfram looked. "Let's go in. I'm not going to get any meditation done to night. We'll be more comfortable talking in bed than we are out here, anyway." That earned him a faint blush and a suspicious narrowing of Wolfram's eyes. If Wolfram couldn't tell he was flirting with him, then he would have to be more obvious about it. Yuuri rose and caught his hand, pulling him up and into the castle. "Come on," he urged. "I'm going to scope you out in the bath."

"What? What does that mean?"

"You'll see," Yuuri grinned.

Wolfram tugged on Yuuri's hand so he could scowl at him properly. "Are you playing with me?"

Yuuri snorted. "Not yet."

"If you're mocking me, you'll regret it," Wolfram warned him. "If need be, I will drag you back outside even if you're in pajamas with wet hair."

Wolfram would do it, too, Yuuri thought with amusement. Those Royal Guards could end up seeing a lot more action here than they ever had in the Maou's wing. "I'm not mocking you," Yuuri promised. He was enjoying him like he should have from the start.

.-.

Years of spywork kept Yozak from tensing when Conrad sat down beside him. His head remained turned so he looked over the castle wall to the winding path that led down to the town below. Awkward didn't begin to cover this.

"Avoiding me?" asked Conrad.

"Just taking some air." And doing his best to stop feeling like a meddling pervert. He shouldn't have mentioned that dance was usually only performed by adults. Yuuri said it reminded him of 'slow dances' teenagers did in his own world. The kid might never have known it was considered risque if he hadn't told him. He was sure Yuuri had still been blushing when he went in to dinner. He could only hope the family had found something else to attribute that to.

"I spoke with Wolfram."

Yozak sent him a startled look. Well. So much for his assumptions. Conrad was smiling, calm and confident, at peace with the world. Conrad had talked with his little brother and had all of his fears and doubts dismissed. Meanwhile Yozak had been teaching their king to... Well. Talk about a guilty conscience. "So I was way off base, eh?"

"Close enough to make me question things," Conrad admitted. "He is coming of age and they have been spending an unusual amount of time together. But hormones alone can't change a person's preferences. I knew that. I shouldn't have needed to be reminded of that. Males don't get together in Yuuri's world, and everyone knows how Wolfram feels about dirty old men."

"Yuuri isn't exactly a dirty old man," Yozak winced. Yuuri was closer to being one than he had been this morning, though. Because of him. If Conrad ever found out he would kill him.

"Which makes him even less of a threat. They're perfectly safe with each other. Wolfram may need help keeping Yuuri's maryoku in check, but otherwise they're fine. The same as always. I don't want to hear any more hints to the contrary. Not from you."

"Fair enough." Downright convenient, really. He could hardly mention having taught Yuuri how to dance with Wolfram without hinting that Yuuri wanted to dance with Wolfram, now could he? Conrad was happier not knowing and he was happier when Conrad was happy, so, yeah. Two orders now for him to keep his trap shut. He might as well do it. "You won't hear another word about it from me."

"Thank you. Will you come inside? I don't like being at odds with you."

"Tell me about it," Yozak said, with a laugh of relief. "I'm not around enough to fight with you when I am here."

"Exactly."

.-.

"Gay is a derogatory term for homosexual, someone who is only attracted to members of the same sex." Murata slipped into bed while Shinou digested that. He regretting giving in so easily, but Shinou had nothing better to do than pester him. Since he was sleeping in a guest room tonight that pestering was in especially close quarters. Shinou was sitting on the edge of the small bed, taking his sweet time before going away. There wasn't room for them both.

"He attributed that term to Wolfram?"

"Strange," Murata drawled. "You almost sound offended."

"That term does not apply to him."

"No, it doesn't. Shibuya realized that much. He was applying the term to himself. I know," he sighed. "He has issues. At least he's willing to talk about them. That's more than some people can say."

"Meddler," Shinou smiled. "Did you enjoy accosting those men? You could have proven your point with a simple spar in the front courtyard. They're hardly discreet when he fights."

"If Shibuya saw how many men came out to watch he would be paranoid. Three out of five isn't nearly as alarming."

"You found two who weren't?"

"Amazing, isn't it? His appeal isn't universal. Perhaps he doesn't look enough like Cecilie."

"He looks like me."

"Except he's to be preferred since he's very alive and closer to my own age." Murata raised an eyebrow when Shinou scowled at him. "Do you think I'm just saying that to upset you?"

"I wish you were." Shinou sighed and leaned over to pluck the glasses off Murata's nose. "Will you try for him if the engagement ends?"

"Of course not," Murata muttered. "He'll be long gone. He wouldn't notice me even if he did stick around."

"You deserve to be noticed. And appreciated. I never failed to do both."

"I know," Murata smiled. "Take your leave now. This bed isn't big enough for two."

"So you say. That map had better be returned quickly. I would dislike having to give a young lady nightmares."

Murata closed his eyes while a kiss was pressed to his forehead. As if he were a child. And Shinou wondered why he refused to have sex with him. "Do you know which young lady took that map?"

"No, but I could find out easily enough."

"Give it another day. I'd prefer that you stay out of other people's dreams."

Shinou smirked. "Then I'm welcome in yours?"

"If need be," Murata sighed. As if he could keep him out. He dreamed of him whether he was actually around or not. At least the dreams were realistically tame when he was around. He had to give him that.

.-.
TBC