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Dream of Sunflowers

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There were two common truths in the world. The first was that to hold power was to possess strong magic. The second was that those fortunate enough to find true love held the cure to any curse. It was with this knowledge that every royal family sought to bring powerful magic users into the bloodline, and that with every generation a search would be held to the find the true love of the heir, so that the family be defended against all manner of magical ills.

In the land of Sukāfu, there was a third truth: Prince Shōta, born with the ability to halt the magics of others with but a single glance, would never fall prey to a curse. It was a fortunate thing, for this too was known: Prince Shōta had no true love.

Or rather, Prince Shōta wanted no true love, for when the year of searching had begun, it had been the Prince himself to sabotage the festivities, to spurn the hands of nobles come from near and far, to flee from feasts and galas alike. No manner of protest or caution had changed the young Prince’s mind - he was adamant that he wanted not for love, and certainly not a love that would be found through such a circus.

And so, while the children of every kingdom, fiefdom, and house alike began to wed and frolic, the Prince of Sukāfu stood alone, with few save his cats and the captain of his guard for company, and his magic for protection.

For a time, all was well. It was the way of these things - danger, and risk, and fate, all could, for a time, be put off.

There is a price to be paid for everything though, even time. Even hope.

And while spindles dipped in poison were dodged, apples filled with spells lay uneaten, and beautiful youths with lips painted with spells went unkissed, the danger could not be avoided forever.

The curse, when it struck, was borne by neither needles nor thread, in neither man nor food, but dipped on the claws of a kitten. For Prince Shōta, who bore no patience for his fellow man, had ever been weak to animals. It took but a single scratch to punish the prince for his obstinance, and send him deep into slumber.

It is here that our tale begins, with a Prince cast into sleep, and a knight cast into misery. For when the morning sun began its trek across the sky with neither hide nor hair of Prince Shōta seen, it was the captain of his guard, Toshinori, who climbed the steps to wake him. Thus it was the captain of his guard who found him.

 

“Prince Shōta, have you woken? There’s little time to waste, your highness - the students have all gathered and the carriages are full to bursting with supplies for the excursion you’ve planned for their class. All we await now is your presence.”

Once upon a time, Toshinori was the hero of heroes, the knight upon whom all others looked upon with awe and hope. Over years of heroics, his legend had grown, until all knew of the man, and so it was easy, when sickness and injury fell upon him, for none to see the man. The years of life as a legend were over, however, and while Toshinori was a knight still, his duty was no longer to the world, or even the training of his successor.

These days, his duty was to one singularly exasperating man, whose ability to sleep and inability to wake had ever been the most difficult of Toshinori’s challenges.

There was no response to his call, and the knight, standing upon the stone steps that would lead to the Prince’s rooms, his inner sanctuary, sighed.

What had he expected? Either the Prince was sleeping, in which case it would take far more than a simple call from beyond the steps to wake him, or the Prince was working, in which case the same was true.

As always, it seemed he had no choice but to ascend the stairs and enter the Prince’s chambers if they were to make it to their destination without their excitable cohort of students falling into anarchy.

Toshinori climbed the staircase easily, long legs devouring the distance in but a handful of swift steps, and approached the heavy wooden door that served to guard the Prince’s privacy. He offered the man behind it's path one last chance to avoid having his rooms invaded. “My prince, have you heard me?”

Still, there was no response. A frown crawled over the knight’s face, lengthening the sharp lines there and painting an expression of terrible worry across his features.

“Prince Shōta?”

Still, there was no response. Foreboding grew, and dread with it, and so Toshinori pushed open the door.

The first sight to greet the knight’s worried gaze was that of the bed, unmade and empty. The former was not so unrare a sight, but the latter certainly was - Prince Shōta, who loved sleep far more than a man of thirty ought, was ever climbing in, and rarely out of, its warmth. Slumber would have been an all too common cause for the Prince to fail to heed the call of his guard, a reasonable explanation.

But the bed was empty and so shadowed eyes scanned the room further.

Thus the second sight to capture the knight’s attention was the balcony, its sliding doors left jarringly open, and the beginnings of a brisk wind blowing through the gap. He could not see the shadow of his Prince standing beyond it. It was there that he searched next, hoping beyond reasonable hope that his prince would be there, bound in his blankets, safe and peacefully sleeping.

(Later, Toshinori would think on this thought, and curse himself.)

And as he stepped through the open balcony doors he found that in some ways, his hope was true - for there lay the prince, fallen to the floor as if his person were of no more importance than an empty sack. One of his hands lay outstretched across the cold stone of the balcony floor, smooth back marred by a trio of red, wet lines.

Cat scratches, to match a kitten - an unfamiliar creature of blackest fur and palest eyes, who sat atop the fallen man.

Shōta’s eyes were closed, his face slack, pale. Toshinori fell to his hands and knees, and when he reached for him with trembling hands, the knight found that his prince was cold, and still to the touch. He was breathing though, faint and shallow, and the pulse of his heart’s blood was present, if weak and slow when worried hands checked the hollow of his throat.

The taste of iron coated Toshinori’s tongue as he sat back on his knees, watching Prince Shōta’s still form. Sleep then, rather than death, and with that realization his lungs, weak and struggling as they would always be, loosened enough to allow another breath.

“Prince Shōta?” He called, expecting nothing and receiving it.

This was no natural sleep, that much was clear, and though he knew his duty, for a moment the knight could only look down upon his cursed prince, the subject of his protection, in despair.

For the first time, he regretted that the prince who had claimed him as his own had never allowed himself to find true love.

 

“It’s a sleeping curse,” confirmed Shūzenji, the head mage of the castle’s Healer’s wing. She was an old woman, wizened and experienced in the ways of magic and medicine alike. “And a powerful one at that. Someone was trying to be very sure that our dear prince would be impossible to wake.”

“Trying,” the Queen repeated, her voice hard and unfeeling as stone. “As in, they were unsuccessful?”

“What will it take to wake him?” The King asked bluntly, hard stare fixed on the mage.

In the corner of the room, Toshinori watched over his charge, presenting a slumped back to the conversation. The prince had been settled into the bed, but he was as stiff as one of the recently dead, his face unnaturally still and unmoving. The dark bags under his eyes seemed deeper, as if his cursed sleep was only exhausting him more.

The royal wing of the infirmary was no place for a knight, and surely this was doubly true for the knight who had allowed this to come to pass. It would have been best for him to hold his tongue in the presence of his betters, to gaze upon the prince in silence and defend against those who might inflict harm upon his vulnerable shell.

This was a matter for the royal family, for the Queen and King were faced with losing their child, their heir, and propriety demanded his silent obedience; his unending gratitude that he was still amongst the living after his failure.

And yet despite this truth, Toshinori found himself speaking, voicing the one concern that neither ruler seemed ready or willing to acknowledge. “How long can he last like this, without food or drink?”

The Queen and King started, as if they had forgotten his presence entirely, while the healer, long acquainted with the knight, merely smiled, her expression sad and knowing.

“Perceptive as ever, Sir Toshinori. It is hard to say - the magic of the curse itself will sustain him for a time. At best we have six months. At worst we have two.”

She drew herself to her full height, little as that was, and turned grave attention to the two rulers. “And to your questions, your majesties, no, they were not successful, and yes there is a cure, not that it does us much good. This version of the sleeping curse is even older and crotchetier than I am, and the only cure, as you might guess, is true love’s kiss. It will take a pure and romantic love, mutually felt, to wake Prince Shōta.”

The silence that fell in the private room was deafening, growing ever more tense as the Queen and King began to understand the meaning behind the healer’s grave intensity.

“My son,” the Queen began in the slow, careful manner of one who has been given unwelcome news and yet still hopes up he messenger will recant their missive, “ Must return these feelings of love, for the kiss to work?”

“Yes, My Queen.”

“There must be another way,” blustered the King, who pale face had quickly grew red, “My son’s heart is colder than the winter snow. He has never taken another to bed, and has certainly taken none into his heart! True Love’s kiss isn’t possible for him.”

“As you say, My King.”

Toshinori was certain that it was he alone who knew the old woman well enough to hear the frosty note that had entered her voice. He remained silent, his own blood boiling, as the head mage climbed upon a stool to stand taller.

“Sleeping curses are old, cantankerous works, your majesties, and the magic that crafted them cares nothing for how obtainable the cure is. Prince Shōta is well liked for his deeds, if not his words. There must be someone that he loves, who would love him in return.”

The two royals glanced at each other, an awkward moment of silence falling. As the King had implied, neither could think of who, if any, their son might love. But then, as if by some unvoiced agreement, they turned towards the corner where their son, and more specifically his knight, rested.

“You spend your days and nights with our son,” said the Queen, her dark eyes stern and demanding. “You know him better than any. Who could his love be?”

It would take more strength than even the Queen possessed to make Toshinori squirm, but his face was an expressive one, and his worry writ clear. “Prince Shōta has never mentioned love, ma’am.”

The King snorted, scorn upon his features, “You would expect us to believe that you, who has spent the better of four years in our son’s shadow, knows nothing of what moves his heart, or who he might wish to take to bed?”

“Something like that. Prince Shōta has never spoken of love, or bedding anyone, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t those that move his heart.” Guilt welled in him - necessity or not, the knight knew his prince would not want his royal parents to know so much of the nature of his heart. But, he rationalized to himself, surely his prince would rather lose some of his carefully protected privacy and wake, than hold onto his secrets and sleep.

... Hopefully his prince would rather wake and lose some of his secrets, than remain trapped in sleep.

“Hizashi, of House Yamada, and Princess Nemuri, of the Suimin Kingdom, have both maintained close friendships with the Prince.”

For a moment, he could have genuinely believed that the King and Queen would have rather he said that there was no one. He could read it in their eyes, the distaste and disdain for the two he had named, and he genuinely feared that they would rather lose their heir than send for either of the two.

In that instant he was sure, more than ever before, that his decision to shelter and hide his own feelings was the correct one. If even the rank of Princess and Lord could not salvage the reputations of Prince Shōta’s dearest friends, what chance could a simple knight have?

And while Prince Shōta had never, in all his life, allowed his parents’ disapproval to sway him - that was hardly the same as considering a mere knight to hold a piece of his heart.

The Queen and King stared at one another, and the knight stared at his feet, and finally, it was the healer, impatient now that an option had been presented, who cut the tension.

“Well?” She demanded, “Shall we send for them, your majesties?” Her tone strongly implied that royalty or not, she would accept only one answer.

It was fortunate for all of their sakes that for once, the Queen and King chose to overlook the impertinence. “Send for Princess Nemuri and Lord Hizashi,” they ordered Toshinori, “And bid they make haste.”

 

Lord Hizashi was the first to arrive, not quite three days later. His horse was a panting, shaking mess, her sides coated with sweat and heaving with exertion, and he was little better, his hair wild and unruly, his skin pale with exertion and fatigue, but his strides were even, his eyes uncharacteristically stern.

It spoke to the depth of his caring, that the Lord of Yamada, who hated being seen with even a single hair out of place, would appear in the middle of Sufāku’s court in such a state.

Toshinori was glad to see him. Three days was long enough for rumor to spread, and idle gossip to grow credence. Word within the castle town was beginning to spread that Prince Shōta had not been seen, that he was cursed, and such ill tidings would only travel with time. With Hizashi here, if all went well, the Prince would awaken, the whispers would cease, and he would be free to deal with the ache of his heart on his own time.

“Where are they hiding him?” Were Hizashi’s first words, the normally loud, bombastic man’s tone low and sharp with -concern as he strode towards the knight.

Toshinori drew in a deep breath, well aware of the response his answer would create. “In one of the tower rooms - “

“A tower , really? They’re still determined to keep Shōta’s life as cliche as possible, then. Show me the way? If we’re lucky, my good looks and charm will have him right back on his feet.”

The two men shared a laugh, worry hiding behind their smiles. They both hoped it could be so easy.

 

Hizashi’s kiss did not work. When Nemuri arrived a day later, she was no more successful. Toshinori, who had been worried from the moment he found his prince collapsed atop a stone floor, carefully hid his bitterness that only now did the Queen and King seem to awake to their son’s peril.

Messengers, in the form of both men on horseback and pigeon-tied notes, had been sent to All corners of the land within scant hours of Nemuri’s failure. It would be at least a week's time before the first of them would be able to return and still more time after for the arrival of those lords and ladies invited.

Not since he’d first received his injury had Toshinori felt so useless, able to do nothing for his prince besides sit and watch over his bedside. This was not an enemy he could fight, or a sickness he could cure. Nothing but love could cure this, and Prince Shōta - Prince Shōta had given him so much. Toshinori could not bring himself to hope that he’d give his heart, particularly not when he was so undeserving.

Though a proud warrior still, he was no longer the champion he had been, the ever-conquering hero. The prince relied more on his own magic for protection than he did the knight, and though he had never said the words, Toshinori was certain it had been pity that guided his decision to bring in such a disgraced fighter as his guard.

He was not the handsome man he had been, body rippling with muscle and honed into a deadly weapon. His once fearsome height simply ensured that his gangly figure was memorable now, his strong chin and jaw rendered skeletal by the weight he'd lost in the time between then and now. His eyes were shadowed, the blackness of them long since made more fearsome by his tired and drawn appearance.

In other words, while his skill had not diminished, the ferocity of his appearance had. None ran in fear of a knight who looked scarcely capable of wearing his own armor. He had been prepared to leave the life he loved and become a farmer, if only so that he could do something of use with the time he had left, when Prince Shōta came across him.

He would never forget the look on his face - the pinch of worry that had seized his brows, a shadow of concern for an unhealthy stranger, swiftly blown aside by recognition. "Sir Yagi?" the Prince had asked, addressing him as a Knight, when so few others had bothered in the wake of his brutal injuries. "Do you remember me?"

He hadn't, much to his chagrin - as a knight, Toshinori had saved scores of lives, fought legions, and defeated more monsters than he could have possibly remembered. It was a terrible thing to admit, particularly to royalty, and he had been braced for the scorn and anger his answer was sure to bring - only to be left surprised.

Shōta had not been angry to learn he had been forgotten, to realize that to the Knight who had so impacted him, he was but another in a sea of grateful faces.

"It doesn't matter," he had said. "I remember you. What are you doing this far north? Has the great hero finally sworn to a lord?"

It had been the off-handed way the prince shrugged off possible insult, the teasing edge to the question so many had long sought, that had swayed Toshinori to speak freely to the royal. Their conversation had lasted long past decent hours, the Prince bargaining for the knight to stay in the  company of his own traveling party, that he might hear more of the tale the next morning. One additional morning had turned to two, into a week, until finally the Prince had made his offer and convince the knight to become his guard.

Looking now at the cursed man, Toshinori could find no sign of the confident and self-assured man he had been. The sleep of the curse was not a restful one, and while the prince did not appear to dream, his expression since the curse had befallen him had not changed - grim and withdrawn, untouched by peace.

The tired eyes were still puffy with exhaustion, dark in contrast to the pallor of his skin. The typically shaven face sported a bristling of hair, dark and patchy around the prince's face. His dark hair was scraggly, growing matted with each additional day without the Prince being moved. Shūzenji, the head healer, had said it would be at least a few weeks before his health began to truly decline, but the knight could not help but feel that he was already there. It was hard to imagine what weeks of this would bring.

Toshinori itched to help him, and burned knowing that he could not. There was nothing he could do - no comfort he could offer. Even keeping Shōta company was an empty, meaningless gesture when his prince was locked inside of his own mind, unaware of all that was happening in the world around him. Caring for his flesh was a novel thought, but the Prince hated unasked touch, and it would have been wrong to offer the very thing he loathed so much as a gesture of caring.

This was the other reason Toshinori refused to kiss him.

It would not work. His Prince did not and could not return his feelings - to ignore that for the sake of his own pleasures would have been reprehensible. It was crime enough that when the lords and ladies of the land arrived they would be let loose like hunting hounds to touch and press upon Prince Shōta. Respecting his true wishes was the least he could do, as knight and friend.

 

Respecting the Prince’s wishes was the last thing on any of the suitor’s minds. Offered wealth and allegiance if they could but wake the Prince, they poured in from all corners, each with a more elaborate tale of connection and love than the last. All were eager to take their chance, and none were happy to fail.

As was typically the case with these things, those who tried first were the best behaved. Princes and princesses, ladies and lords, the sons and daughters of landed knights - the first trickle of would-be suitors were at their utmost best behavior, offering their thanks to the Queen and King for the opportunity, and their condolences for the grief the matter was causing them. These were the nobles who lived closest to Sukāfu, and thus the most to lose through dishonorable contact. If a stranger had to be the one to wake Prince Shōta, it was one of them that would have been most preferred.

Only one of them, Emi of the Fukukado family, had ever shown the slightest interest in the Prince, and even she admitted, in private of course, that she was here from the obligations of their faint friendship, rather than romantic interest. The rest were of similar age to Prince Shōta, educated as a cohort of nobility, and thus holding some sense of fond allegiance towards one another. They offered, when led to the Prince’s chambers, only the most chaste of kisses, a demonstration of respect.

So it was natural that one by one, each of them failed, eventually leaving with nothing but a stolen kiss, a sorrowful smile, and a solemnly expressed hope that a love would be found.

The next to arrive were those from more distant lands, and they came in spurts, a handful at a time, and Toshinori was grateful when the Queen and King were humane enough to reject the younger ones out of hand, the daughter of the Yaoyorozu family and the youngest son of the Todoroki line both sent home with grace. The children were the best behaved of the lot, in part because they wanted to be the true love of a man who had been their mentor no more than he would have wanted them to be.

The adults were the problem - Enji of the Todoroki’s came himself, when his son was rejected, and his kiss was brutish and unfeeling, a match anyone with eyes could see would fail. Chizome of the Akaguro family arrived next and the clash between he and the Iida family patriarch nearly brought the guest suites their families were residing in down around their ears. Kai of the Shie Hassaikai group was escorted from the castle grounds by a quartet of guards after Toshinori caught him in the act of taking blood from the Prince.

The list, and the attempts, went on and on, eating away at the limited time they had, and draining hope with each failure.

And with each attempt, Toshinori felt his frustration grow. Not all those who came were chaste or brisk - some lingered, as if the touch of their tongues and hands could count as love, and some were all too eager in their touching. Each night, the prince was cleaned and washed, and each night Toshinori sat as his guard, deterring all who might try and press the issue of their lust. The lack of respect, of basic decency, was galling, and each clumsy, uncaring touch fanned his fury into a flame. Why could none of them see that the Prince was worth more than his title?

With each passing day his worry grew into an ocean, a vast sea of despair. Why could none of them see that his prince was worth loving?

Shūzenji had warned them that they would have six months at best, and it had been four. The Prince’s health was beginning to fail, despite the best that they could offer him. His hair had grown brittle, his breathing raspy, his skin cool to the touch, unless the fire in his chambers was fed to blazing, and his blankets piled high about him. The bones of his face were gaining distinction, the faint roundness of good health sharpening with every passing day.

Two more months, was the optimistic hope, and yet Toshinori could not shake the fear that he would wake one morning only to learn that Shōta had passed in his sleep, that he would be forced to watch, helpless, as his Prince faded into death. Part of him, the faithless, cowardly part that has whispered in his ear from the beginning, urges him to leave this place before the worst could come to pass. The rest knows that there is no point - he cannot run far enough to escape his own heart. If - not when, if - all efforts fail, he will deal with it then; for now, there was hope to keep burning. Hope that one of these suitors could be the one. Hope that Shōta would wake soon. Hope that all would be well.

He looks down at the prince once more, looking past his pale skin and sunken face, to the strong chin and tired eyes, and finds it within himself to smile. Once, in his life as a legend, it had been his mantra that a hero always wore a smile, went beyond to overcome the odds. He doesn’t live by that anymore, but in this case - in this moment...

“I may be a hero no longer, my Prince, but I can be here, at least. I don’t know if you can hear me, but I hope your sleep eases, to know you are not alone. It’s a pity, isn't it, that you’re finally getting to sleep the days away like you always wanted, and it’s not even letting you rest?”

The joke was weak, brittle, and there  was no response - there could not have been a response - but that wasn’t the point. It never had been. The point was to keep Shōta company, so that even should Toshinori’s worst fears come to pass, it would not be a silent, lonely death that took the Prince, would not be a passing unaccompanied by mourning. The last thing Shōta deserved was to be alone, not when he was already surrounded by so many who did not love him.

“I am here; it will be alright.”

One of Shōta’s hands had fallen free of the blankets - Toshinori noticed it now, only because he could not bear to look into the Prince’s still face a moment longer. He shook his head, weak smile slipping he noticed how cold the slender fingers were, and he wrapped his own hands around the cold limb to try and provide warmth, circled the chill skin with the parents of his own fingers to encourage circulation, build warmth.

There was a mark on this hand, paler still than the rest of the flesh but fading, in the shape of a ring’s band, and Toshinori’s heart clenched to see it. There had been a time where his prince could be scarcely be seen without the bearing his kingdom’s crest, and now it has been months since he last bore it's weight, the long worn marks made from bearing its burden fading away. Slowly, his hands ceased their rubbing, and he simply cradled the limp hand between his palms.

For a long while, he sat like that. Hands cradling the hand of his prince, eyes fixed on the rise and fall of his chest, ears pricked for every catch and hitch to each rattling breath. He looked at him, this man he loved and has always loved, and he smiles, because to do otherwise would be to weep.

Finally, when the sky began to pink and the denizens of the castle began to stir, he stood to make his exit. But his hands did not want to release his prince, and his heart could not bare a farewell, not so soon, and so he put it off, for one final moment.

Toshinori raised that hand, spine dipping low to reduce the distance made by his considerable height. His fingers curled around Shōta’s, until his hand resembled a loose fist, knuckles clearly presented. His thoughts took him to the ring that ought be here, and the mornings of official business in the court, mornings that began and ended with this - a kiss, gentle, to the smallest knuckle.

The connection lasted a scarcely a moment before Toshinori stood and placed that hand gently on the bed, securing yet more blankets about him, that he might stay warm. It seemed to help - already the rattling breaths were calming, beginning to come slow and steady.

Toshinori left with but one last, wistful glance, and so did not see the moment when his prince shifted and turned in the blankets, burrowed into their warmth. His breath still rattled, his skin was still pale, and not a sound left his lips, but his eyes shifted beneath thin lids, the first sign of dreaming.

 

From the midst of nothingness rose the sun, its surface a bright, brilliant yellow that shook minutely with each caress of the wind. Its petals shifted and shook, each of them a burning shade of goldenrod at the base, gradually brightening to a translucent cream near the closed center. With every degree the sun rose, the petals shook more, spreading, changing from a single mass of blurred motion into a wave of shifting lines as the delicate, wrinkled edges began to straighten, standing tall.

The sun bloomed, and with every flourished petal, somethings began to rise from the nothing. Streets unfolded themselves, their pages shifting and their leather backs creaking with every step that fell on their gold-leafed faces. Structures rose next, crests emblazoned on their round faces, grips and handles turned inwards to allow the metal to shine.

He grew, building himself from distant memory to warm feeling to vivid thought, and stretched his - bone under muscle under blood - legs and walked along the streets, lifting soft feet to avoid scuffing the covers. He had to hurry, but stitching the pages would slow him down, so he would have to walk carefully to make sure he was on time for the wedding.

The wedding, the wedding, the wedding. With every unfurled petal the sun grew higher and the time grew faster and he was going to be late to the wedding. He tried walking to the side - walking along the bump and edges of the spine, hoping the sturdier side of the back would keep the streets together, would let him walk faster, but it barely seemed to help at all.

More and more of the sun’s face could be seen, and yet it was getting dark, getting darker with every step, and he was going no faster, he was going to be late, he was going to be late . He walked faster, nearly stumbled, and finally remembered to - inhale, air into chest into lungs into heart, exhale - breathe and the world came slowly back into focus.

There was a kitten walking beside him. He did the only rational thing, and stepped onto its paw so it could give him a ride. Every one of its steps covered a dozen of his, and when he looked up, the black fur was thick enough that he couldn’t see the sun. The petals wouldn’t unfurl if he couldn’t see them. Time wouldn’t move. He’d make it to the wedding. He had to make it to the wedding.

The kitten carried him far, until the leathery faces of the street gave way to polished, glittering green dirt, and then it dropped him so it could run off for a swim in the lake. When he looked up, the sun’s petals were in the same position they were before, only just continuing to unravel, and a - saliva over tissue over skin peeled back from teeth - manic grin spread over his face. He wasn’t out of time.

From the dirt grew summer blossoms, yellow as the sun itself, but the petals were spread wide, the large centers a warm brown. The mouth of a path lined with them stood before him, shadowed by the size of the enormous blooms. The wedding hadn’t started yet.

The prince walked into the maze of summer blossoms, the ground crunching beneath his feet, and was soon surrounded by them, walking down a path strewn with their fallen petals, and they were tall, tall and sickly and drooping to the side, still standing despite torn stems. They towered over him, and they were beautiful, not in spite of the damage or because of it, but because they were.

His pace had slowed, and his gaze was held by the open vulnerability of each flower’s face. He was no longer rushing - he was in the place he needed to be. The petals of the sun spread over head and the petals of the summer blossoms swayed in the breeze and he was on his way to the wedding.

Everything was going to be alright, because he was here.

 

When Shōta woke, it was to brightness of sunlight streaming into his eyes, and he could still smell the soft and familiar scent of summer blossoms, still hear the soft crunch of damp soil underfoot. For a long moment, he couldn’t understand why he was resting in bed rather than standing under the noonday sun in a field of flowers. The moment passed though, and truth of his dreaming dawned upon him as he became fully aware of his surroundings. The bed he was lying on was soft and warm from the combination of his body heat and a mound of blankets, the room was warmly lit by sunlight spilling through the thin shafts that made up the windows. This wasn’t his room, but a well made set of guest quarters, and as he rubbed sleep from his eyes he pondered why that might be.

He couldn’t remember what he’d been doing before he’d fallen asleep, and he felt exhausted, weighed down and heavy in his own skin. There was a dryness to the back of his throat and it bothered him, each inhale scratchy and rough and he could only hope that he hadn’t fallen asleep with in a strange room with a balcony open. It would explain the dryness in his throat and the chill in the air but then he’d have nothing to protect himself from Toshinori’s pained, disappointed looks, the well honed sense of disapproval he turned on the prince whenever he thought he was being careless with his safety.

The thought was almost enough to get him out of bed, if only so he could check, and hide the evidence if there was a balcony open. Almost . The bed was very warm, and he was so very tired, and when he peeked again at the distance between the bed and the corner of the wall where a balcony would extend, it was so far away. And - was that a glass of water, at his bedside table? Apparently so. Blessing his thoughtful past self, Shōta stretched an arm out from under the covers and groped for the glass, drawing it to his lips. The water was warm, from a night of sitting out, but refreshing and he swallowed greedily, until his thirst was quenched. There. That was better.

Shōta closed his eyes, and hoped he would get back to sleep quickly. He was tired, and his dreams had been pleasant. Something about a wedding, about summer blossoms and yellow petals, something that had been peaceful and warm, and he wanted to get back to them.

Between one thought and the next, he returned to dreaming.

Several hours later, when servants arrived to freshen the room and change the blankets, they thought nothing of the empty glass, or the Prince’s changed positioning. It was well known that Sir Toshinori watched over the prince in the knight - if he had finally deigned to care for himself and drink, it would gain no protest from them.

And so they too left without seeing what lay before them.

It was dim when Shōta stirred next, the light of the setting sun gently falling over him. His thoughts filled with yellow petals and blue skies, the wispy edges of pleasant dreams. It was strange - he felt as if he’d slept forever, as if he’d been ill and lost in shadow, only to waken in the blooms of summer. He could hardly remember the last time he’d seen one of the flowers - towering and beautiful they may have been but  summer blossoms rarely grew this far north - and yet the hazy vision had brought him comfort like nothing else. A soft sigh left his lips, and he shifted so that his forearm shaded his face. His eyes ached less with the dim lighting, and what must have been nearly a full day of sleeping having done much to recover his strength, but he still didn’t feel like getting up.

He might have lain there for hours yet, if not for the call of nature, the uncomfortable fullness of his bladder reminding him of just why it was unwise to sleep away one’s entire day.

Forced to bow to the uncaring whims of his body, Shōta stood and fumbled his way to his washroom. Relief was imminent, and he spent a long moment washing his hands and face, looking at himself.

Never a classically handsome man, or one concerned with his looks, even he couldn’t deny that there was something startling different about his face, as if it had changed between one bout of sleep and the next.

“I should shave more often,” he told himself, looking at his reflection. “A full beard just doesn’t work for me.”

The hair that had grown over his chin and neck was dark and bristly, uncomfortable to the touch - it was full, at least, not the patchwork growth of a teenager, but the look of it simply didn’t suit his face. He felt like he was looking at a stranger, or worse, at his father. If shaving didn’t require creams and oils and blades of assorted lengths, he would, at this very moment, have a shaved and clean face. Better to be as smooth and soft as a child than to look any more like the King than his heritage demanded. It was bad enough that his parents knew he could be counted on to ensure the kingdom coffers were in order, that the guard was appropriately dressed and armed, that schools were funded. The last thing he needed was for the people to be able to take one look at him and think he was ready to be king.

But shaving did require oils and creams and blades of assorted length. It was just too much trouble to deal with now; shaving could wait until morning. It wasn’t like anyone besides Toshinori and the cats would see him before then.

Though now that he thought about it… where was Toshinori? As much as he had enjoyed sleeping all day - and had needed it - he wasn’t sure why he still felt so exhausted, or why his loyal guard had indulged him like this. It was possible, of course, that Toshinori had simply visited while he slept, but then why would he not have woken him, that he might handle the day’s tasks?

He frowned, staring at himself in the mirror. Under the overgrowth of facial hair he could see his face twisted into a grimace, his eyes were bloodshot and tired, his hair was a tangled mess from sleeping on it all day. In other words, nothing looked all that different, and yet, there was surely something wrong with him for Toshinori to have given him the day off.

…maybe it was his birthday?

No, that was foolish. Toshinori would have woken him up, if it was his birthday, not to mention the fact that the palace-wide celebrations would have demanded his presence.

The face in the mirror was still covered in beard, still frowning, and still utterly exhausted. Thinking through the matter wasn't resolving anything, and while stepping out and looking for a servant would solve the 'find Toshinori' problem, it wouldn't do anything to address his exhaustion. He'd just have to hope that Toshinori was around the next time he woke, because giving up on the thought of conducting any kind of business from the day in favor of going back to sleep was clearly the superior option here. Toshinori would understand - half of his role as captain of the guard was acting as master of Shōta's schedule.

His bed - and the strangely comforting dreams of sunny days and fields of summer blossoms - called him.

 

Lord Tomura of Gensui arrived with little fanfare, trailed by the captain of his guard - a quiet man by the name of Kurogiri, clad head to toe in black armor that Toshinori found unsettlingly familiar to that of old, long defeated enemies - and a dozen guards. He was the last of the nobles who would answer the Queen and King's call, and though Toshinori wanted Prince Shōta awake more than anything, he found himself wondering whether his prince would be better off in the cursed realm of sleep than betrothed to such a man.

He wasted no time presenting his demands - nothing less than Prince Shōta’s hand in marriage, and the resources of all Sukāfu at his disposal when - not if - his challenge for throne of Musutafu was rejected by the courts. It was a steep price, and all the court knew that they were damned one way or another - without the Prince, and with the Queen unable to bear another heir, the throne would be given way to distant relatives to the east, those with little to no knowledge of the traditions and ways of the north - and with Tomura, their people would be thrown to their deaths in a senseless war.

But there was never truly a choice. For all the Queen and King disapproved of their heir’s manners, they still held some semblance of concern for him, and their royal pride would have never allowed that the lives of their lowliest peasants be valued higher than their own child.

Toshinori could only bite his tongue and lead the progression of Lord, Queen, King, and assorted guardsmen to the tower rooms of the prince as ordered. He claimed his place near the head of the Prince’s bed, standing at attention as had grown customary and watched the lord warily. The chair that typically sat near his side had been moved, by the servants no doubt, and he made a mental note to speak with them later, about the importance of insuring the Prince’s chambers were in order when visiting members of the nobility - even distasteful ones, such as Tomura - visited.

The lord, however, did not seem to notice. Rather, his gaze was fixed on the Prince, who lay flat on his back, a few stray strands of his thick hair falling into his face. With quick, abrupt steps, he crossed the distance from door to bedside, and stood, looking down into Prince Shōta’s sleep-slack face.

“I always forget what a pretty thing you are,” he murmured, voice carrying just enough to insure that all could hear. Toshinori stiffened, back straightening enough that his already intimidating height was pronounced, and hoped his stare didn’t convey the disdain he so dearly felt. The lord didn't seem to notice however, focused was on the man whose waking would make or break his ability to seize the throne of Musutafu. One of Tomura’s pale hands planted itself on the side of Shōta’s pillow, as if seeking to block an impossible escape, and the other cupped his chin, tilting his head to bare the slim column of his throat he seized the Prince’s mouth in a vicious, deep kiss. From the door, where the others waited, it would have been difficult to tell what was going on - only Toshinori, standing guard, and Tomura himself saw what he was doing as he sunk his teeth into Shōta’s lips and forced his mouth open for a wet, lustful kiss, his fingers dug hard into the contours of his jaw to hold the limp prince still.

Toshinori felt as if he were the one caught in a curse, as if the sight were the product of a waking nightmare, and his earlier rage was nothing to the inferno that swept him now. He could not look away from the lewd, disgusting parody of affection and love that was happening before his eyes, the newest disgrace his sleeping Prince was forced to endure.

He stepped forward, intent on hauling the lord off. He could stand to see Shōta handled like a slab of unfeeling meat for not a moment longer, and he would take any and all punishment that might come. Such a wretched creature could never be the one who held Shōta’s heart. He reached out, long fingers digging into the fabric of Tomura’s coat, but before he could drag the man away, the sound of sputtering reached his ears, and he looked back at the scene on the bed.

The Prince’s eyes were open, burning red with the power of his magic. His eyes, and the writhing, furious movements of his hair, were the only things that Toshinori could make out, for it was his hands that were the source of the sputtering, wrapped tight and vicious as they were about lord Tomura’s throat.

Toshinori could only stare in slack jawed astonishment as those hands - callused from years of handling weaponry and tools, scarred by the use of objects unbefitting royal flesh - climbed higher, dug in without losing their grip, and forced Tomura’s head away from Prince Shōta’s face. The sputtering had become desperate gasping as stifled breaths tried to fuel a body being slowly strangled.

Vaguely, Toshinori was aware of noise, of shouting and cries of alarm as those at the forefront of the room recognized the danger, but his gaze remained fixated on the prince, whose red eyes had shifted from Tomura, to looking over the room at large, only to settle on Toshinori. There was confusion in those eyes, and a level of fear he had not thought to prepare for, as the stories of true love’s waking spoke of happiness and comfort, and never of a panicked assault.

He swallowed and pushed down his shock and confusion, the faltering tide of his rage - any and all emotion that could stand in the way of stopping this mistake before it was too late. His voice was gentle, words spoken quietly, as he looked into the turbulent emotions filling that crimson glare. “It would be best if you released Lord Tomura, my prince. You - you must be quite confused. We can explain, if you would but let him go.”

For what was surely only seconds but felt like some of the longest moments of his life, Prince Shōta simply stared back at him, unmoved and unmoving. But then - finally - he relinquished his grip, hands falling from Tomura’s throat so that the man could stumble back.

“What,” he snapped into the sudden silence, glaring as all eyes, save those of the frantically gasping lord, fixed warily on him. “What are you all doing in my chambers? Why exactly did you think it wise to stand and watch as a stranger took liberties with my person?”

The harsh words stung, as they were meant to. Prince Shōta sat up, and the blankets slid until they bunched loosely about his waist, and shifted so that one arm remained braced in the pillows, bearing his weight. The passion had left his face, leaving little expression save contemptuous disdain. To most of those watching, it was as if the Prince had never been cursed at all, his manner as strict and blunt as it had always been. Toshinori wondered if he was the only one who could see through the mask, who did not have to guess at the strain he was under, if he was the only one to see the white, shocked pallor that bleached what color should have risen in those hollow cheeks, the faint trembling in the arm that was taking so much of his weight. His prince was as calmly put together as a fox before a hunting party.

The Queen scoffed, and in doing split twain the tension that had gathered so heavily in the room. “I should have known. Only you would be frustrating enough to try and strangle your true love.”

There was tittering, and a round of laughter floated through the watching crowd, chasing the last of their wariness away. There was a stir of motion as people began to depart - a few moving to ensure that the visiting lord had not been badly damaged in the waking of his love, but still more choosing to take their leave altogether, pleased to have had the opportunity to witness the birth of new gossip - gossip that they would gleefully commit to sharing, now that the Queen’s taunting words proved she was not displeased.

Soon, only a handful of the original party remained - Toshinori himself, Kurogiri, the silent King, the unrepentant Queen, and of course, the lord Tomura himself. The young man rubbed at his throat, his scarred lips turned upwards in an expression Toshinori could only classify as smug, and the guard, though bitter at the reasoning, found he could not fault him. What manner of man would not have been pleased to prove he held Prince Shōta’s heart? Quickly though, he found his attention drawn back to the Prince, and the aggravation that filled his next words.

“My what ?”

“There’s no need to play the fool, my son,” asserted the King, his tone dismissive. “You may have been enjoying your privacy, but a sleeping curse isn’t something even that stone heart of yours could play tricks on. Why you thought you’d have to hide your little dalliance with Tomura here is beyond me, but your secrets have caused us a rather extreme amount of worry.”

“Play the - sleeping curse - little dalliance -” Shōta cut himself off, holding up a hand for silence as he dragged in breath after breath, as if he were the one who had been nearly strangled. When he spoke next, there was a semblance of calm that clung to his words. “Would someone with sense care to speak clearly for the uninitiated? Clearly all of you - even those I’ve scarcely laid eyes upon - know more about my life than I do.”

Toshinori took the bait. It was he who deserved to face the Prince’s wrath, as it had been his failure to stand against the threat that had allowed for this situation to begin with. He curled the fingers of one hand into a fist and drew his arm towards his chest, and bowed low, until his back was perpendicular to the floor. He did not look up when he spoke, eyes fixed on the floor - it was hard enough to speak around the shame tightening his throat. He did not think he could bear to look Shōta in the eye and explain that it was his negligence that had caused Shōta to lose so much of his time on top of the secret of his love.

“Due to my carelessness, you fell victim to a powerful sleeping curse some four months ago, your highness. We have searched far and wide for the one who could break the curse and it was the love that you and Lord Tomura hold for one another that allowed his… kiss… to wake you. He has negotiated for your hand in marriage, and I am certain that you will be happy.”

It was hard for his voice not to break when he spoke those last words, for him to push aside envy that such a disgraceful person held Shōta’s heart, but he managed. He would not judge his prince, not after all he had given him, not when he deserved love and happiness, even - especially - if it was not with him.

And it was for the best that he had not looked, that his voice remained bright and hopeful as he spoke, for Shōta's voice was soft when he responded, soft enough that a man less familiar with him may not have even heard the menace that underscored his every word. “I see. Thank you, Sir Toshinori, for this most succinct explanation. Escort Lord Tomura and his guard to their quarters. I need a word with my parents.”

 

It was not long before the royal family of Sukāfu was alone, the Queen and King standing united against the furious glare their son aimed in their direction.

The Queen spoke before Shōta could even contemplate getting a word in edgewise, meeting his harsh stare with her own. “I simply do not understand you, Shōta. What benefit have you gained from hiding your true love from us? What pleasure do you find in embarrassing our kingdom? Was it not enough for you to idle your days away with merchants and clerics rather than taking your place in court, you had to fall in love with a warmongering bastard child, and leave negotiation for your marriage in his hands?”

His father said nothing, but his eyes were cold and hard with disappointment, his arms crossed in a silent demand for answers.

Shōta stared at the two, looking from his mother to his father, and realized that he saw nothing loving in their faces. The furious words that had been on the tip of his tongue died, as he realized there was no point. He could spit all the harsh truths he wanted, could condemn them with all the strength of his being, and they would never care, because they did not love him. Oh, they would tell themselves that it was love they felt for him - they would even tell him that it was love in their eyes when they looked upon him - but looking at them now, realizing that he had lost months of his life to a sleeping curse and that now when he was awake they wished only to berate him, he knew the truth.

There would be no point in arguing his case. There was no reason to tell them that he did not love this lord that they had trotted out before him, that they had let slobber atop him with such forceful lust that even now his lips ached from the indignities, because they would not care. They would rather believe that he had taken leave of his senses and carried on some secret romance than acknowledge the truth in whatever he said.

“It’s what happens when you spend too long trying to see the best in the wrong people” he said finally, long after it was appropriate to respond. His father was looking at him with bare contempt - his mother in barely concealed disappointment. He shook his head and shoved back the blankets still concealing his legs. “I was wrong. I don’t want to talk to you after all.”

“Excuse me?” His father demanded, but Shōta was no longer listening. He was concentrating instead on swinging his legs over side of the bed, on looking about for the boots he had spotted the previous night, on ensuring he looked some manner of appropriate so that he could leave. “Where do you think you’re going? You owe us answers, boy and - “

“I am returning to my chambers, and to my cats. As I said earlier: it appears you know more about my life than I do.”

The boots were by the door. That was convenient, for it meant that he could slide them onto his feet without stopping his exit, and he did just that, ignoring the cold words his mother spat, and the frustration that dripped from his father’s demands. The only thought that registered in his mind was that he had sent Toshinori away for nothing, and thinking of Toshinori only brought the entirely unwelcome sensation of guilt.

He shouldn’t have snapped at him.

He knew that. He had known, even as he was snapping orders, that his anger was misdirected. Of all the people in that room, Toshinori had been the only one he wasn’t angry with, and yet somehow, Toshinori was the only one he’d forced to bear the brunt of his temper. He’d wanted the man gone, so that he could rage at his mother and father in peace about the base indignity of it all, without the guilt of knowing his knight would be stuck there until released, wanting to be anywhere but witnessing the confrontation.

Well. He’d gotten what he’d wanted there - Toshinori had not been forced to silently watch the confrontation. Instead he’d been snapped at and sent on a useless errand as if he were some disobedient dog, and Shōta’s stomach was still twisted with guilt.

Wonderful, how things worked out.

For a moment, he wished he’d never been woken at all - he’d rather dream of sweet summer blossoms and the sun rising over head than face this nonsense - but it was a wish held only for a moment, and then thrown quickly aside. Remaining trapped under a so-called sleeping curse would have helped no one, particularly not Toshinori, who seemed to hold entirely too large a portion of guilt over something that Shōta was certain would turn out to have been his own fault.

His feet carried him onward without thought or input, until he founds himself quite suddenly looking up at his own door, exactly where he’d wanted to be. He could hear his cats calling for him, or at least, for food, through the thick wooden door.

For the since leaving the summer blossoms that haunted his dreams, he smiled.

The moment he stepped through the door, no less than three sleek bodies began to wind around his legs, climbing over his boots and clinging to his legs with sharp little claws. They were hungry, yes, but happy too. He grinned at them, unable to resist sinking to his knees and inviting them to hop onto his shoulders and into his arms. Even the deepest worries didn’t seem as bad with his cats mewing in his ears, demanding food, toys, and most of all, attention.

He would feed them first, and see to it that four months - four months , no wonder little Rin wasn’t so little anymore, she was a full year old now - of absence had not scarred them, and then, then he would find Toshinori and together they would find out what was going on.

 

The sun had set by the time Toshinori returned to the castle grounds. There was no more work for him to do, no more aid to be offered - the people of Sukāfu Castle Town were settled in their homes and tucked away for the night. There was nothing else he could do to stave off the inevitable, thought that didn’t keep him from trying -  he glanced across each courtyard and garden he passed in hopes that somehow would need aid or and offered cheerful greetings to each guard and servant he walked by, hoping that the sight of him would bring to mind some forgotten need. But all was well, and the news that Prince Shōta was awake meant that spirits were high.

His heart rejoiced with them, for even the prince’s anger could not deaden his joy that the man was awake to feel that anger, but his thoughts were heavy and distant, buzzing like the onset of a storm. When the last footsteps had faded and he alone stood in the castle halls, he stopped, and let them come.

In his mind’s eye he saw again the kiss that had woken his prince. He saw again the passion that had so enraged him, and what had then seemed like wanton disrespect showed itself clearly as intimate familiarity. Prince Shōta had woken angry, but that was hardly strange - the man often attended to his duties until late into the night and then spurned the waking hand that roused him in the morning.

And yet Toshinori had woken him for years, and never had he once borne the brunt of the violence he had seen today. Strangulation was not the reaction of a man familiar with the one waking him.

Toshinori knew that he was biased - he knew that he loved the Prince, but he also knew that his feelings would never be returned and that he would never confess. Shōta was a young man, brilliant and kind, the heir to a powerful throne. He deserved far more than a simple knight, ailing and past his prime, and Toshinori had never seen reason to place the weight of his feelings on him. He knew that he was biased, but that did not mean his concerns were without merit. And so though Toshinori had seen the lord of Gensui wake the prince with his own eyes, he could not help but doubt the truth of what he’d seen.

Prince Shōta was a blunt man, the type who acted on his desires and saw no logic in denying his passions. It did not make sense that he would have found love, let alone true love and not raised the topic of marriage to the court. If nothing else, he would used the subject as a chance to prepare the handful of children he taught for the time when their own year of searching would come, and they would be expected to seek true love.

It simply made no sense. But even excusing that, if he had kept the truth of his love to himself, the search for the one who could wake the sleeping prince had ceased to be a secret months ago, and it was a journey of not two weeks hard travel to reach Sukāfu from Gensui. Lord Tomura had offered no explanation as to why he had come now, and not when the news was first announced, and Toshinori doubted he ever would, for he could imagine no good reason for a man to let his love languish under a curse while holding the cure.

He could think of many reasons a desperate and power hungry noble would seek such a promise, but the power if the sleeping curse complicated any possible dreams of lucky conquest. The laws of magic itself ascertained that a price be demanded for the breaking of a curse, and Shūzenji had made it clear that only true love would satisfy the ancient beast that had been this curse. Toshinori could not believe that a babbling man-child like Tomura could have found a way around such laws.

Which left him where he had started, filled to the brim with suspicion and concern and no evidence that any trickery had taken place.

The old knight sighed and sagged against the nearest wall, weary and wary and afraid that perhaps his envy was clouding his senses after all.

No flash of insight had come to him as he worked, no secret key had fallen at his feet to unravel the mystery of what he had seen.

Perhaps it was a sign - a sign that he needed to put aside his fear and speak to his prince directly.

Toshinori inhaled slowly, letting the thought settle within him, let it calm the last shreds of his nerves, the remaining sparks of his anxiety with the surety of its truth. He would accomplish nothing like this, hiding in empty halls and twiddling his thumbs like a hapless child. He needed to face this directly and speak to his prince honestly, express his worry and seek answers.

It was presumptuous to think he might be owed access to his Prince’s innermost thoughts and rationale, but presumption seemed the theme of the day.

With a flex of broad hands and long arms, he pushed himself away from the wall and resumed his walk, strides purposeful and long now that he had made up his mind. Now was not the time to mourn a broken heart or swallow back silent love.

Now was the time to do his duty, and see that his prince was well and happy with the future that stretched before him.

 

At the very least Shōta could count on his cats to be as uncaring about the reason for his waking as he wished his parents had been. They frolicked about him eagerly, nipping at his fingers, and clawing at the legs of his pants in an effort to be carried. He had intended only to ensure that they were well and not neglected for his long and unintended slumber, but cats had a very particular way a foiling one's intentions. He sat with them for what surely must have been hours, stroking soft fur and scratching pointy ears, avoiding all thought of what he must do.

It was not that Shōta was too proud to apologize. If that were the case he would have gotten over himself by this point and gone to fetch his captain. No, it was uncertainty that held him captive and kept him from decisive action. It had been four months, an amount of time he could at this point only imagine through the change in his smallest kitten’s appearance. The reality of the time that he had lost was only now beginning to settle and though he did not regret walking away from his parents, he did wish he had more information.

What all had happened in four months? What was the state of his kingdom and just as importantly, his students? Who all had been brought before him, and how many had failed that a foreign stranger had been allowed to paw at him so?

What had been the trigger in the first place, and how could he have been such a fool as to allow himself to fall prey to the curse he had avoided for so many years?

And how - and this was the question that kept him from reaching out, that left him seated at his balcony, kitten in hand and cats in lap, staring out at his kingdom from the balcony - how had a stranger woken him with true love's kiss?

He wasn't fool enough to believe that his parents, callous as they were, would have accepted such a claim through anything other than witnessing its fulfillment with their own eyes and more than that, he had been unfortunate enough to experience that kiss with his own lips. It had woken him certainly, and he wasn't certain how it was that anyone would have been able to do anything but wake to such a disgusting act, but he felt no love for the man who had kissed him, a man whose name he still did not know.

That fact alone should have been more than enough for the kiss to fail.

And yet here they were.

“It just doesn't make any sense,” he told his cats with a sigh of aggravation. “If it were true annoyance’s kiss required to break the curse, certainly that sloppy act would have been enough to wake me. But how could I possibly have true love for that man? I have truer love for the pillows that I lay my head upon for those wasted months than I do for that man, and yet I am to accept that he is the one who woke me? And for that matter, even if I did fall asleep in those strange quarters, why did no one return me to this place where I would have been comfortable?”

The three cats answered his questions with little mewls and nips of his fingers, their way of saying they wish to be released back into the very bedroom he was referring to.

He huffed but stood to grant their wish, brushing aside velvet curtains so that he could open the balcony door. He froze before he could complete the motion though, for on the other side of the expensive glass stood his captain.

Prince Shōta stared and Sir Toshinori stared back, neither moving to touch the door for a long moment. It was not until the cats, uncaring about the sudden an awkward reunion, yowled that the prince shook himself from his stupor and opened the door, granting them free reign of his quarters once more.

Toshinori swallowed heavily and Shōta could not help the way his eyes tracked the movement of his throat, thoroughly distracted from his thoughts.

“My prince,” Toshinori began when it must have become clear that Shōta himself would not, “I apologize for the intrusion, particularly as you are so newly wakened, but I do not believe this matter can wait. I must speak with you about your betrothed.”

Shōta scowled at the mere mention of the man, his momentary paralysis giving way what he hoped was a much more down to business attitude.

“It is a good thing then, that I must speak to you of the same. Who is he, from what lands does he hail, this man who has become my betrothed?”

From the look on the captain’s face, that was the last thing that Toshinori had expected him to question. Bright blue eyes had gone wide and his mouth fell open and what should have looked ridiculous painted only the spitting image of a shocked cat. Had he been in a better mood, Shōta would have enjoyed it, but as it was his obvious shock was only another source of frustration.

“A name, please,” he repeated in a voice as stern as steel.

“You do not - my prince, how do you not -” Toshinori began, stumbling over his words with obvious confusion. It was a feeling that Shōta shared in, but would not, at the moment, indulge.

“Toshinori. It has been a long day as it is, please. Do not make me ask again.”

At his harsh and tired tone, the captain shut his mouth with an audible click. It was clear that he was gathering his thoughts for his eyes cast about for anything other than the prince to fix upon, and bony fingers tugged at his long bangs.

Finally, he spoke. “He is Tomura of Gensui, bastard son of the emperor who rules to the east of these lands. He arrived on horseback this morning, accompanied by a protective detail of a dozen men and one captain, and demanded your hand in marriage as well as the backing of Sukāfu’s military forces for his campaign against Musutafu should he successfully wake you. While the majority of the Court wished to reject his suit in respect to the high costs that would come if his attempt to wake you succeeded, your Royal mother and father felt that prioritizing the lives of peasants over you wasn't an appropriate course of action.” A pause followed this careful stream of words as his Captain seemed to take stock of all that he had said and found himself satisfied with the amount of information he had shared. “Clearly, they were right to take the risk. Lord Tomura awoke you when no one else could.”

Shōta grimaced at the oblique reference to the kiss he was so uncertain of and snorted in disagreement. He shook his head, dark hair away with the motion, and turned his stare from the man beside him to the kingdom stretched out before him. “The life of one man, even if that life is my own, is not worth the war you’re describing. The empire to the east has been our ally for generations - that mother and father even thought, let alone agreed, to breaking such an alliance bewilders me.”

“They were worried,” Toshinori said quietly, and there was something in his voice that drew Shōta’s gaze from the view and back to his lanky figure, that drew his thoughts away from the risk and danger stretching before them to the man at his side, the man who had long been by his side. “We were all worried. None of us ever considered there might be a time when you, of all people, were the one incapacitated.”

When you, of all people . Shōta did not dare to consider all that those words could mean. He drew his knees to his chest instead, making room the other man and silently offering him a seat.

Toshinori accepted, and soon enough his long-limbed figure was folded down beside him, and the ever-present shadows of his face seemed deeper in the night air. He was stiff and the prince knew he was at least partially at fault for that.

Shame rose in his gut at the thought, and the feeling crystallized his resolve. “A part of me wants nothing more than to deny that they could ever have been worried. Their words today certainly showed nothing of the sort.” Here, he paused, and could not contain a dry and brittle laugh. “And yet, I have snapped at you not once, but twice today, and in neither case have you deserved my anger. I owe you an apology - you don't deserve to face the brunt of my temper.”

Toshinori was silent and Shōta continued, “I have no doubt that you carried out your duties to me to the best of your abilities and I would be a stupid man to not see that you are blaming yourself for what was undoubtedly my own damn fault. I'm sure my temper hasn't helped with that. I know that this is not what you plan to discuss, and believe me we shall indeed speak on this Tomura of Gensui who is supposedly my true love, but -”

“My prince, I say this to you in as respectful and obedient a manner as I can: were I so delicate as to be scarred by the first snap of your tongue, I would have never survived long enough to become captain of your guard,” Toshinori interrupted, and it was Shōta’s turn to shut his mouth. “You were newly and rudely awakened from a curse, and I was the one who volunteered to face your wrath. I can't imagine the the state of mind the curse must have left you in, or what terrors may have haunted you.”

Shōta could only stare, and he felt foolish when when he corrected the other man. “I dreamt mostly of summer blossoms and kittens. Am I really an ass that often?”

He knew that he was blunter than most, and that he preferred to speak plainly rather than cloud his intentions with flowery language, but he hadn't realized - hadn't thought - that he given such a harsh impression of himself to his most loyal companion.

“Rarely without just cause,” Toshinori responded easily, and Shōta felt the answer came a touch too quickly. “You aren't of an unreasonable nature, Shōta; it doesn't bother me. Now, it makes sense that you would dream of kittens but what is a summer blossom?”

He was changing the subject - or at least, correcting the course of the conversation - and Shōta chose to allow it.

“Summer blossoms are a variety of flower from the south that blooms only in the long days of summer. Their color is a brilliant yellow and they can grow to enormous heights. Those in my dreams easily towered above me - perhaps your height? I believe that in the south, they are called sunflowers.” He frowned as he spoke, thinking back to the dream. “They were among the only constant, for every dream revolved around the blossoms, and there was something off about them. They were sickly or damaged, perhaps, stooped and listing.”

A sigh of exasperation followed the explanation. “I’ve seen these flowers but a handful of times in my entire life. Why they could feature so prominently in my dreams, I have no idea. Kittens at least make sense; I have three of them.”

Toshinori spoke then, a contemplative note to his voice. “I was raised in Southern lands, and sunflowers are thought of as happy omens, a sign of warmth and prosperity.” Shōta watched as a frown came to his features, the expressive face conveying his discomfort even before he continued to speak, and it was clear he did not entirely believe this own words. “Perhaps… perhaps it was a sign that you will be happy with Lord Tomura after all. It would make sense that the flowers would carry significant meaning when the presence of kittens reflects the curse itself.”

It was a startling claim for the captain to make, and Shōta was thoroughly caught off guard. He too made no effort to hide his doubt, brows furrowed. “Reflective of the curse? That's a stretch; if anything I would think it reflects that I like cats.”

He found himself oddly disappointed, for he would not have guessed that, after all of these years, Toshinori was still just as suspicious of his favorite animal as so many others in the kingdom.

But Toshinori's response did not align with that of a superstitious man. He looked at Shōta with an expression that the prince could only identify as dismayed and confused. “My prince, you were cursed because of a spell embedded in the claws of a cat; don't you remember? It scratched you.”

Of course he remembered the scratch - it wasn't often that he found a strange creature in his quarters, but - “It can't have been that kitten; it scratched me here, in my quarters. I'll admit I don't remember much of the event but I certainly wasn't in the guest quarters when it happened.” It had been a small scratch - he didn't even think he’d bled, and he doubted that could have been the cause of the curse four months ago, not when he clearly so recently recalled sleeping at least a day in the quarters where Tomura had kissed him.

 

“... My prince, you fell under the curse here. I found you lying as still as the dead on this very balcony.” Toshinori gestured at the floor beneath their feet, and his eyes were caught on the spot where he’d found his prince. “The kitten lay atop your chest and your hand was bleeding from the scratches. We moved you to the other quarters after the healers confirmed you had succumb to the curse; it seemed less invasive that you sleep there, rather than have every would be lover invade your private rooms.”

He was doing his best to hide his concern, but it was unsettling to think that Shōta could be having difficulty with his memories - there were already four missing months, and the man didn’t need the loss of yet more time.

But Shōta did not look confused or uncertain. His face was set with stubborn determination, and his furrowed brow had not lifted.

“That’s impossible,” he said flatly, “Because I woke in those quarters long before he forced that kiss on me.”

The enormity of the moment - of the thought - caught Toshinori’s breath, and he coughed hoarsely, covering his mouth with one hand. Despite his wracking body he didn’t look away from the Prince, and waved away the hand that reached out for him,  hoping his startled stare would convey his need for more information.

Luckily, it worked, and Shōta continued with, “I woke in the morning, with the sun streaming in from a window, and drank a glass of water by the bedside before going back to sleep. I noticed I was in the wrong quarters, but I was too tired at the time to think about it. When I woke next, I went to the washroom and saw the bastardization of my appearance this beard has caused, and decided sleeping was the better part of valor. So if you’re saying that I was moved to those rooms after the sleeping curse was cast, then I wasn’t cursed when Tomura kissed me.”

The prince seem to realize the enormity of that statement at the same moment that Toshinori did, his voice trailing off and his tired eyes opened wide.

“If I wasn't cursed, then it's no wonder that thought overly handsy fool woke me up. It's not true love, it was just random chance,” His voice rose, exultant, and a genuine smile spread across his face, a simple quirk of the lips rather than one of the manic, toothy grins he was known for. “That leaves the question of who actually woke me, but the options couldn’t be much worse.”

Toshinori’s own lips had parted in a broad smile at Shōta’s enthusiasm, and hope rose bright and warm in his chest like buds lifting before the dawning sun, but hearing this comment broke the spell his prince’s enthusiasm had cast, and reality - or logic, which was Shōta’s domain and had always been his - demanded he address it if no one else would. “It had to have been Tomura,” he said reluctantly. “You have had no other suitors for a week, and self-sufficient as you are my prince, even you couldn’t survive a week with just one glass of water at your disposal. If you woke - it must have been a dream.”

Things were not as they had been when their search had first begun. There were not bodies clamoring to be the one that could break the prince's curse and Tomura had been the last to answer the call. There was no one.

Unbidden, his thoughts tracked back to that night where he had sat in his own despair and kissed his prince’s hand, but he shook the selfish thought aside. This was not his moment and he had not woken the prince. Now of all times was not the moment to confess his selfish love.

What difference would there be between he and Tomura if he capitalized on this moment of weakness, when his prince was so desperately grasping at straws and seeking salvation, to confess his love?

Shōta shared with him because he felt safe doing so, because he trusted him to give the advice he needed and not just what he wanted, and his heart tore and ached at the thought of confessing his gentle act now, of framing himself as savior and lover now, when Shōta seemed fit to do anything to avoid the fate that lay in his near future, the marriage he did not want and the marriage bed that so disgusted him. He could not taint that with his own desire. He could not .

His distraction cost him, and he missed the moment where in which Shōta had begun his rebuttal, only the rising tones of his voice and the passion that filled his words reaching him, “- nothing in that man that could inspire thoughts of summer blossoms and whimsical settings and brilliant suns warming the ever present and cold nothingness all around me.

“I know it doesn't seem to make sense, and I'm sure I'm missing pieces of this puzzle but I don't love him and he doesn't love me. I don't need another patsy of my family trying to convince me to fall in line and just hope that the best will come if I follow the path laid out for me, Toshinori. I need you , I need my friend , to help me figure this out so I can stop it.”

It was a long speech on a night characterized by long speeches. It was more words, with more passion, than he had heard leave Shōta's lips in more years than he cared to count, and the desperation that clung to those words shamed him.

What was he doing?

This was not a moment to let his own fear and doubt rule him. This was not the moment to take over his Prince's role in their usual arguments to advocate for the devil, but to be himself and fan the flame of hope that had long since burnt to ashes in his own chest. No, this was not his moment to confess but it was also not his moment to falter.

“You're right, and I'm sorry,” and the words escaped him breathlessly, his hands reaching for the loose strands of his hair and tangling in them, tugging and tugging as he tried to contain himself, as he tried to find words that could help instead of yet more self-flagellation.

So much rode on this moment, on this night, on this conversation and he could not help but feel the weight of it all. If they did not find an answer tonight then he knew in the pit of his stomach that in the morning the lord of Gensui would have long since set aside doubt and put away the fear that the prince's hands about his neck had inspired and demand what he would claim was owed. He would demand Shōta’s hand in marriage and the backing of their armies and the court would have no choice but to agree for that had been the deal, that had been their promise.

But he was only a captain, a disgraced knight with nothing to his name but a legend already frayed and a body that was more trouble than it was worth and a heart that could offer nothing save love. He did not know what to do, could not find the right path. He was here but what was that worth, when he had nothing but himself to offer?

“You're right,” he repeated again and a smile, tremulous and weak but genuine rose to his features as he did. He had never had anything but himself to offer and it had been enough before. It would have to be enough now. “What are we going to do?”

We, not you, not his prince alone but the two of them together in this, his support no longer hesitant but rather freely offered.

The silence that followed was heavy with consideration and the heaving bulk of potential, and Toshinori was patient as he waited for an answer, knowing his prince was weighing options and words and risks and that what he needed now was time and faith and trust.

"Would it be inappropriate for me to take a nap?" Shōta asked rhetorically, clenching his own fists.

Toshinori’s breath caught, horrified laughter exploding from him, racking his body with force enough that again he broke into a fit of coughing and breathless wheezing. The weight of the moment seemed to flee the almost blasphemous comment, and thought not nearly enough time had passed that it could be appropriate to laugh at such things, he could no more have stopped his response than he could have slowed the rise of the sun. “Have you not slept enough?”

"Obviously not. Have you seen my face? I caught a glimpse of myself, in the mirror. I look as exhausted as I ever have, before someone with a grudge against my family besmirched some sad little kitten's honor and put me to bed these last four months.” Shōta snorted and when he lifted a hand to scratch at the thick growth of beard that had transformed his scruffy appearance into something admittedly foreign and strange, Toshinori could not help but stare at the flex of tendon and muscle that the motion required, at the extent of his arm moving of their own volition and it struck him once more (how many more times would it strike him so) that his Prince was awake and alive.

Awake and alive and exhausted and for the moment it was if he had never slept at all. Some of the tension, tension that had dug deep into his muscles when he found Shōta lying there on the floor and that he had thought would never leave, ever to be another aspect of a body in near constant pain, released at the thought. The experience had changed them, was still changing them, but it had not changed everything.

“I think it's the beard,” he offered, trying to hide his sudden smile. “Somehow it makes you look even more tired.”

Shōta rolled his eyes, still picking at the long, curling hairs of the beard that had taken over the lower half of his face. “Of course it does. Life forbid that this growth do anything but make me look worse. Too bad it couldn't scare off Tomura.” His face darkened, and Toshinori watched the worry steep back into his face, saw the dimming of his eyes and mourned the loss of his smile.

“It would take more than a beard for your face to frighten a man, my Prince. Particularly not when it doesn't look that bad. It's just odd, I suppose. For all the stubble that you so frequently let grow, I’ve never seen you with a full beard,” He said, trying to recapture the lighter mood.There was no luck though - the prince’s face had become flat and distant again, and it was obvious his mind was elsewhere.

“I need more information. I need to know more about this curse and how it works and what exactly it required to break it. Do you have the answer? You said earlier that Shūzenji saw to me while I slept. Was there insight that she could offer?” Dark eyes turned to him and Toshinori shivered involuntarily at the weight of that heavy stare.

“She did - she said that his version of the sleeping curse was older and more strict than what’s usually seen today, and that the only thing that would break it was true romantic love, mutually felt and pure. She wasn't able to tell us what pure might mean though - there were too many interpretations for her to confidently pick just one.”

Shōta snorted. “True, pure, and romantic love, and so the best anyone could think of was to allow any and every available noble in the land to come and press their face to mine? I’m suddenly glad I’d already wasted my first kiss.”

Toshinori glanced at the ground, feeling color rise high in his cheeks. In that light, it was hard not to acknowledge how ridiculous the idea had seemed, even knowing he’d voiced just such a concern himself. He couldn’t hide his own misgivings about the plan now, when he spoke of it to his prince. “Once Lord Hizashi and Princess Nemuri failed, none knew what else to do but hope that you, in your desire for privacy, had kept your love a secret somewhere beyond the castle walls. It wouldn’t - well, it wouldn’t be the first time you’d hidden critical details about yourself.”

He’d looked up with the last words, tone more pointed than he’d meant, and now it was the prince’s turn to scowl at the ground, a twist to his lips that Toshinori could only call a pout.

“That was different,” he grumbled, “And you know it. Besides, hiding a small detail about my health is vastly different from hiding a true love. One is irrelevant, the other breaks curses. If nothing else I’d have told you about it. But to get back to the point - this proves it wasn’t Tomura who woke me up, because I’ll be damned if there’s any sort of love between the two of us, let alone a ‘pure and mutual’ one.” The hint of a pink tongue flicked out, touching the swollen flesh where brute teeth had bitten down.

Toshinori couldn’t help but agree; in his mind’s eye he saw the kiss Tomura had forced on Shōta again, and he felt the same as he’d felt in the moment - there was nothing pure or true about such a vicious mockery of affection. Especially when it was forced upon his prince, a man all had assumed would be unable to intervene of his own volition.

“It also brings us back to where we started,” he sighed, “Because someone did. Is there - ah, well, Prince Shōta, is there anyone that you - that you hold affection for in - in that way - “

His mind returned again to his own kiss, stolen in the dead of night, his chapped lips against Shouta's knuckles, and how his heart had ached as he looked upon his prince and longed for nothing more than to speak to him once again. He did not doubt the one-sided nature of his love, and he could only hope that whoever it was that held his prince’s love was truly worthy of him. At the thought, and acknowledging that he must move past this if they were ever to find a solution, he spoke again, more confidently.

“You know, or I would hope that you know, that I would not judge you for love, of all things, and there must - there must be someone that you love, someone who’s kiss - and love for you - that you sought to return.”

He was proud of himself for the smooth and level manner in which he spoke, for he hoped it betrayed nothing of his own feeling. This moment was not about him.

Shouta was silent, uncharacteristically so, but as Toshinori watched his face took on a pinkish hue. He watched as the prince inhaled, held that breath, and then released it slowly. His flush did not fade. Finally, he looked up and met Toshinori's gaze.

“The only one that I can of think who meets those qualifications is you.”

It would have shocked him less to be struck by lightning, and the captain froze, staring at Shōta with an expression that was undoubtedly made hideous by confused disbelief. He didn't blink. He didn't move or speak. He didn't think he could breathe. He was dimly aware that his mouth was hanging open.

“M-me?”

“Don't act so shocked,” Shōta said sternly, flush deepening by the second. He spoke through teeth clenched and lips turned down. “It can't be that surprising. You're the only one who's ever cared for me as a man first and a titled, land owning, money sack last. But it can't have been you because you would have told me if you kissed me. You don't return my feelings and that's fine. But I don't know who else it could have been, not unless Shūzenji was wrong about what it took to break the curse.”

There was something sad and wistful in his voice at that, and the look in his eyes was vulnerable, bitter and soft and vulnerable. It was a look he had seen in his own eyes far too often. Again, Toshinori’s heart clenched, but this time he knew - or at least hoped he knew -  what to do to soothe it.

He leaned closer and reached for his Prince's hand with long, fingers and he could not hide how they shook. Shōta allowed it, allowed him, and with no resistance, he cupped that hand between both of his own in an echo of that night, that helpless, despairing night, when he had not wanted to leave and it hoped for nothing more than to see dark eyes open and hear that tired voice chide him.

“I did,” he said with a hard swallow. “A full night before Lord Tomura arrived, as I sat at your bedside, I kissed you, on the hand, as one does when one… when one leaves the presence of royalty. And, and I hoped but… you didn't wake.”

There are so many things that he could have said, so many words and hopes and dreams and anxieties, the weight of years of love that even now he can't believe could possibly be returned, but those are the words he chose. He spoke because his Prince's eyes were hurt and sad and because though he wanted nothing more than to fix it, all he could offer was failure.

Yes, he had kissed his prince.

And yes, he loved the man.

But no. He had not woken him. He had not broken the curse. He was not, could not, be the one.

He could not meet his gaze. He could not, not now, not at this moment, not if he ever wanted to finish speaking, meet his gaze.

“I wasn't thinking, when I did it. I love you, but I have never, would never, presume to think you could return the feeling. All I was looking for was a reason to put off my departure for another moment.So I took your hand," and he curled his fingers about Shōta's until he was presented with a fist, and the echo of that night was complete, and he bowed his head, "And I kissed you."

And again, he did, the faintest press of lips, the gentlest expression of his love.

“You kissed me,” Shōta breathed softly, and now Toshinori looked up, and finally their eyes met. The prince repeated, stronger, desperate. “ You kissed me.”

He repeated himself as well, that quietly devastated truth, “You did not wake.”

“But you kissed me, and I dreamed,” Shōta argued now, and his fingers tightened about Toshinori’s own, as if he feared that he might lose him if he let go (or perhaps that was projection, perhaps that was Toshinori’s own fear, for his fingers gripped tightly too.) “The first and only thing I dreamed of then, the first spark of life and color in that empty void and it was you.”

Toshinori paused, looking into those hopeful, wanting eyes, and he started to shake his head, only to falter. Where Shōta’s confidence grew with every word his captain’s shrunk, and when he spoke it was his turn to whisper. “You said it was a flower you dreamed of, my prince.”

“And it was - they were , but it was you. Who else would it be, what other omen, but you, with your warmth and your proud back standing tall, who else could be the summer blossoms, the sunflowers , with their golden petals and weathered stems that offered me shelter in my dreams, but you? It was you.” His grip was tight, his eyes fervent and warm and hopeful, “It was always you.”

And it was all he had ever wanted to hear, the words sweet and honest and bluntly eloquent in the manner that only his prince had, but his lips were sweeter, when they met Toshinori’s own.

And Toshinori, who had fought dragons and armies, brigands and bandits, his own body and the aching of his heart, did not fight this, losing himself in the press of their lips and the warmth of their hands touching, in the shelter they find in each other. When it ended and they drew back only so far that their foreheads touched and their eyes could meet, there was a broad smile on his lips, and a smaller but no less sincere one on Shōta’s.

For a moment, there was just the two of them, and this.

And then -

“We don’t have to deal with Tomura fairly, do we? I vote that we just throw him out and find a better use for our time.”

“Prince Shōta, no .”