It was familiar in her hands. The rhythms: up and down, up and down, across the wide expanse of the court's polished floor. The wood of the handle, adolescent hands wrapped tight around it, the ghosts of remembered callouses on her (his) hands. The basketball hall was empty and echoing with the sounds of his (her) feet against the polished floor. And that sound, that sound too, brought it back. Brought old ghosts close enough to touch. Hiroki remembered
autumn leaves whirling through the air. The boy with the blonde hair in the empty hall holding the broom like a like a sword. Grasping the handle with his (her) hands, feet splayed in the stance that he'd watched Dolgerg take against his opponent. He and Bart had spent countless afternoons peering through windows, impatient for their own turns. Their brother had caught them, and sentenced Glen to cleaning the arena, but as the rhythmic sweeping brought him over the spots where the soldiers had stood he left his task and took up the stance. The broom was oversized, made for a man's hands, but if you could learn to swing a broom, you could learn to swing a sword, and if you could learn to swing a sword—
"Glen!" someone called from the doorway. He toppled, fully extended in mid-swing. The boy in the doorway had golden hair and laughing eyes. Bart. "Glen," he said--
--"Glen", said Hiroki. "Glen. Glen." She watched her face in the mirror, tasted the name on her tongue. Foreign and familiar at the same time. She shook her head, short strands of hair flying every which way, and pressed her forehead against the glass. With a quick motion she tucked the weight of it behind her ear and pressed at the newly puckered skin of the scar. Hiroki remembered--Glen remembered--the sharp pain of it, and the warmth flooding down his neck. There was a scurry of approaching feet, and then someone said--"Hiroki!"
She hurriedly pulled her hair back around her face and turned around with a smile. "Moto," she said, trying to still the fluttering of her heart. Her fingers were drawn back to her right ear and she yanked them back down, grabbing the edge of the sink. She kept her head carefully angled away from Moto as she waved away his concern. "Eh, I'm fine. I just wanted a drink. Shall we go?"
Moto blinked. "Oh. Sure." Hiroki drained a glass of water and picked up her bag, careful to keep on Moto's right side. "I think I'm going to grow out my hair."
"Glen!" said the princess.
He turned. Veronica-sama stood in the stable door, and a moment later a disgruntled Rida appeared at her shoulder. Glen dropped the broom and straightened, acutely aware of the dirt on his face, his ripped shirt, and the all-pervading smell of dung. He probably stank, but Veronica-sama was beaming like it all she could smell was flowers. That said, it was probably true. Every time they met, he was aware of her distinctive scent, till he could recognise her by the smell of it alone. She swung forward, her skirt hitched up above from the dirtied straw. A curtain of hair slipped down, and she raised one hand from her skirt to hold it out of her eyes. "Glen! What are you doing?"
"Ah..." he glanced down at the broom lying by his feet. "Cleaning, princess."
She gave that glowing laugh of hers. "Why? I want to go for a walk. Wouldn't you rather come with me?"
He felt himself flush a little, then laughed. "Well. It's punishment, for losing my earring. It's fine, though. I used to do this all the time. Before I was allowed to practice sword work, I had to clean the courtyard."
She reached forward and grasped his hand in both of hers, regardless of the filth. Before he or Rida could react, she brought it up to her eyes and stared at it, prodding at the calloused palms, then laid her open hand in the air beside his. Leaning over it, she compared the two. Her hair fell in a curtain around her face. Her hands were like milk and unblemished. With a frown, she reached over and grabbed Rida's wrist, examining all three next to each other. "Ha! Your hands are the same." Rida squeaked out a protest, but was too stunned to pull away as the princess slid her grip down to twine their fingers together. The three of them stood in a line holding hands as Veronica beamed at them both, like the groups of children Glen had watched when he was young. Her grip was so soft but so firm.
Hiroki first met Minami in the days after they began school together. She'd been aware of him in the background, had seen him talking to Kamioka from class 2. But the first time she saw him, really saw him, was after school one day, when she had cleaning duty. She had gone to fetch the class log, and when she returned he was standing by the window, alone in the room. In profile, something about him looked familiar, and something in her answered. Then he heard her and turned around, smiling sheepishly. "Ah... sorry," he told her. "I couldn't find my pen."
She had recovered from--whatever that was, and retreated into her teasing smile. "It's fine. I'll help you look. I'm on duty anyway. Ah! You still don’t know my name, right?" She hesitated, smiling, then held out her hand.
After a moment he took it. "My name is Minami Harusumi. I hope we can be friends."
She tossed her hair back and laughed, ignoring the slight twinge in her chest. "So your name’s Minami. My name’s Hiroki Yuu. Nice to meet you, Minami! You are very straightforward, aren't you?"
There were footsteps in the hall, and a moment later Takao appeared. She blinked at them standing there together, and Hiroki had to laugh. She said to Minami, "this another friend of mine," and he said, "hello".
He heard it from one of the serving girls, and hadn't paid too much heed. But when Bart came to find him up on the hill in his secret haunt, followed by an army of squires, it forced itself to the forefront of his mind. Still, Glen didn't have the space to think about it (Veronica, married) as he reassured the squires that he wasn't in love with the princess, or afterwards, when they all got roaringly drunk.
But: late, much later that night, Bart's voice came reaching over in the darkness. "Say, Glen… Just because you weren’t aware of it, can you really say that… you and the princess aren’t in love with each other…?”
Glen reached a hand up and made a fist, grasping a sky of invisible stars. There was a pain in his chest when he brought it down to his lips, unclenched his fingers and blew as if to scatter the millions of lights he had caught. And Bart, watching, waited for an answer. "I don't know.” His mother, his father. “Just what is the love between a man and a woman… is it what I have… with the princess…?”
From the darkness beyond them came the low snuffling of one of the squires snoring in their sleep. "Like a pig," Glen huffed. "Cotton?" But the weight in his chest was still there, and a moment later it was matched by one on his arm as Bart leaned over to look at him. He met his brother's eyes, so familiar, and reached for his hand. "Glen," his brother said, and he closed his eyes against it. Against the unbearable darkness of the room; against Veronica's bright smile and the swing of her dress, the silk of her hair; the too-vivid stains of blood on the snow and that cold heavy pain in his chest; Dolgerg's sneer, his mother's scent; the feel of the broom and the sword in his hands; against his brother's wide eyes, wondering.
“It makes me”—“laugh. ‘A woman of low birth is sure to covet wealth and status, is she not?’ And you think I would walk the same path as my abused mother?” But there was a new feeling in her chest, different to any he had felt before. Was it pain? He lifted his hand to the sky again, brought the fistful of stars to his heart. Breathed. He let his fingers uncurl, unable to tell whether he burnt from the heat or the cold. “That will never be…”
They must have slept. The next thing that Glen remembered was the sound of surprised priestesses falling over moaning prostrate knights. Bolts screamed through his brain as in the distance, Bart attempted to rise to meet Lilly and promptly collapsed again. Cotton was throwing up in a corner, and someone threw a cushion at him. Figures in Church robes appeared like ministering angels, handing him water as he blinked at them through bleary eyes. Bart appeared, looking disgustingly fresh despite the excitement of the night before, dragging him to his feet.
They were made to clean the room later. But despite the moaning and grumpy faces of several of the squires, there was a lightness in the air that had not been there before. Glen and Cotton horsed around, playing at dueling with their brooms, while Bart stood in the doorway and smiled.
“It wasn’t a lie though, was it? I know that you aren’t the real Veronica.”
"Oh? And why do you think that?" Her lips, stiff and cold, barely moved to spit the words out; the movement made the scratches at her throat sting. Moto looked frightened. Hiroki felt her hands shaking and curled them into fists at her sides. Takao (Rida) was calm and unreadable as always, but Minami--
Minami was smiling.
When the door had swung open and the two of them entered, she'd felt the tension in the air and, without really knowing why, prepared herself for... something. S/he'd never quite got along with Rida, but had trusted her to look after Veronica (had, before this), but Minami... Something about him set her on edge.
What was it? The unreadable look in his eyes, the smooth inconspicuousness of his presence. How he seemed to quietly know everything. How he moved. That damned look in his eyes. That smirk.
She had liked him before. She had enjoyed his straightforward sincerity, had teased him for liking Takao. And now she was afraid of him. She, Glen, had always hated being afraid. He stepped towards her and she tried to control her features, and she wasn't wholly surprised when he said, "I don’t ‘think’. I know. You see… We’ve met the real Veronica."
Beat. Stay frozen. Force a smile. "Oh really? You knew that, and you still let me go?" Don’t let the desperation in your voice shine through as you say, “so who’s the real Veronica, then?”
"That’s still a secret. Veronica’s horribly—shy, you see."
Don't react, don't react. "What?” Hiroki asked, her eyes locked on Minami's. Something ran down her spine as he gave a cold, still smile. "Where did that authority, that immense pride go? In both the past and the future, she is just a doll that can only despair. I can’t blame her, though. She did have to go through the war like that." That smile. “We admired how much you acted just like Veronica. Hiroki—why don’t you become the ‘real’ Veronica? In Veronica’s stead establish the kingdom here once more!”
Hiroki remembered. Remembered a time long gone, a world away; remembered dying in the snow. The cold that erased the shock and the pain of Glen's wounds. The thought of Bart, laughing as they sparred with brooms, his eyes alight--a world away. She tucked her hands behind her back, not wanting Minami to see them shaking from the cold or the fear or the freezing, burning anger. Her voice, carefully level, spoke. "… If… I do so then… what about the real Veronica?”
Oh, the ice in Minami's smile. "I would kill her."
Veronica had snatched him from his rounds to take him riding to a hill where they could watch the sun set. Her hair had fallen from its ornate structuring as she tilted her head towards him, laughing. In the background, of course--"Haruko," said Hiroki. "Rida Razarasare. You--you're okay with this?"
Her unreadable stillness--was she born with it, or had it been perfected over dozens of years? The moon to Veronica's sun, always calmly prepared, now meeting Hiroki's eyes and saying, "I follow Veronica-sama’s will."
"And you call this serving your princess? You’ve fallen low, daughter of Razarasade!" There was no hiding the shaking anymore. It was building beneath her skin, demanding release. She whirled into motion, grabbing the nearest object and aiming it at Minami (still, still smiling, damn him) and yelled, “I am Zerestria’s Fang, leader of the warrior’s house, son of Belbania! Moto! You said you were me ally. Fight with me. I cannot afford to let these two go free. I will protect Veronica-sama!”
Blind with two lifetimes worth of rage, she ran forward, barely registering surprise at realising she held a broom. It somehow made sense. “Minami, just who the hell are you? Answer me!” There was a blur of motion and Takao appeared in front of her, catching her strike with her baseball bat. She registered the girl’s spare hand appearing in her line of sight, a bloodied tissue pinched between her fingers, but she didn't stop. Somewhere in her brain she heard Minami shouting, "Haruko, sto—!" but her lunge didn't stop until a huge blast of magic propelled her backwards.
There were footsteps. The broom was still in her hands. The pain was familiar from years of childhood beatings, and she was almost surprised when the figure who appeared above her was not Dolgerg. She forced out, “I will never yield to mere intimidation!”
He crouched down. She'd always liked Minami, liked his genuineness and his smile. His smile had seemed familiar. It wasn't there now. And when he spoke, the words made awful, awful sense. And she could not believe it. "I am Veronica."
Cold. It was so cold, alone in the snow. Is this death? Slats of light as they chased each other with brooms held high. Am I dying? Bart? Bart, pray for me.
'Pray for me'--words spoken teasingly, in jest, as they emerged from the classroom contemplating the upcoming English test. Glen had never quite been one for classroom learning (and had the bruises to show for it). Hiroki remembered, smiling wryly, Bart kicking him under the desk as he stared out of the window and daydreamed of battles. Bart had been the tutors' darling.
"What was that?" somebody suddenly said, and the half the class turned round. "What?" someone said--and then it flashed again. (And in her/his head: again, and again: that violent light and rush of energy; screaming and falling masonry; just hints of it, flashes.) Her lips shaped the words, disbelieving--but this is the wrong world!--but somebody else gave it voice. Gave it life. "Magic."
She did not fit into his conception of the universe. Her hand, through the silk of the handkerchief, was gentle but firm. Glen tried to move away, awkward and embarrassed. "You’ll get sullied!"
"Isn’t it a waste? Losing this much." She looked at him. “Blood is not to be washed out of a garment.” Glen felt a moment's pang in his heart, memories of his mother (and his father) making it hard to breathe. He was distantly aware of onlookers arriving: a woman with a sword; figures in white, some familiar, one very much so. The audience felt obscene. "It’s regrettable that you’re only treating me like a tool."
Surprise and hurt warred for dominance on her face as she withdrew. Through the rush of awkward embarrassment and the lingering pain that followed, he was aware of Bart thrusting forward and kicking him in the shin. "Apologies, my lady. This is my brother Glen. He's a new squire."
The princess said: "Glen."
"I lost my earring in the bush," Glen explained, and then bowed to cover his mortification. More figures in white moved between them as Bart hustled him away, but he caught a last glimpse of her standing, smiling, alone in the crowd. Blood dotted her dress. He looked away, straight into Bart's glaring eyes. "What were you doing? She's the Princess, fool!"
Glen gave a weak laugh. His knees were shaking. "Fool. I suppose. So... that was Princess Veroinca? She's pretty." Pause. "Um. Did I just...?" He bent his head against his brother's shoulder, past caring about his bleeding ear. "Oh my God."
"Fool," said Bart again, in a voice of chidingly amused sympathy.
"Bart," Hiroki whispered, her forehead pressed against the glass. The bathroom was empty. She said their names. Veronica. Bart. Her fingers lingered on her torn ear for a long moment before with a savage yank she pulled a curtain of hair forward to cover it. Like this, she always wore her hair like this. It shouldn't be too hard; s/he'd spent years watching Veronica's every move, every gesture and each expression that passed across her face. Her face. It shouldn't be too hard, she told herself, straightening; but walking out that door was the hardest thing she'd ever done.
When the moment had come, the light bursting bright from the classroom opposite, her reaction had been instinct built on years of subconscious planning. The magic that had flipped her new world upside down had knocked her legs out from under her. Floored, she was filled with uncomprehending disbelief, and fear, and wonder, and (worst of all) hope. Veronica. Bart. Years of training as a squire; years of practicing sword work with a broom; years of sitting in the back of the classroom going over and over hypothetical situations in her head--it all failed her, fled her in the moment when the impossible hoped-for became undeniably real.
But in the chaos that followed she withdrew into herself and carefully reordered everything she knew. It wasn't much, but it was better than allowing herself to dwell on that hope/fear/anger that simmered within her chest. Veronica, she thought, and didn't allow herself to think past that.
So when fight between Moto and Nanaura broke out in the corridor, she had allowed instinct to carry her forward past the place where logic dwelt. Hiroki spoke the words: "I am Zerestria’s Princess Veronica." Her head was cocked at just the right angle, her smile just right. She was aware of every inch of her woman's body, how she held it in the echo of Veronica's own stance. It was almost effortless. She could hardly focus on her surroundings. She was drowning, alone; she was lost.
The confused mass of people surrounding her gradually fell into a hushed awe. Moving as though in a dream, Hiroki passed through all their questions with a numb ease, performing Veronica for all the world to see. Would she see it? Would she see it and know? Her eyes caught on Moto, standing confused at the back of the crowd, her lips forming questions, and a wry camaraderie bloomed briefly in her chest. A moment later, that was pushed aside as Takao, pale and earnest, dived through the crowd. "Veronica-sama! Veronica-sama, I am Rida of House Razarasare."
"Rida?" She reached out and wrapped her best friend in an embrace, trying to still the thrumming of her heart. "Rida! I’m so happy to see you!" Over Takao's shoulder, Hiroki caught sight of Minami hovering at the edge of the crowd. She smiled at him as she detached herself, avoiding Takao's (Rida's) quick and troubled glance. She heard Nanaura: "Say, Harusumi. Who are you?"
He rubbed the back of his head and smiled sheepishly. "Ah, I’m the same as Zeze. I don’t really know yet… Ah, but I know I’m Zerestrian, at least.” He glances over at where Hiroki and Takao both stood. “So beautiful—wise—with such a dignified manner. The smiles you let drop from time to time are like roses! To be able to serve out Veronica-sama… makes me very proud!”
She reached out and touched a finger to his chin, as Veronica would have. His relentless stare was at odds with his smile, but she kept a light tone as she said, "I know. I’m honoured as well.”
Veronica. Bart. She searched each person's eyes, wishing and hoping and feeling desperately sick. Minami had departed but Takao still stood by her side, her presence as Rida a familiar and unmovable rock from which she only departed to slip off to the bathroom. Staring at herself in the mirror, head pressed against the glass, she murmured, "well, if I can convince her," and laughed. It was painful in her chest. Veronica. Bart. Swinging her hair into place, she left the empty bathroom and pulled Veronica on again.
The Princess had always been like a sun that drew others into orbit around her, and Hiroki found she didn't need to do much to have the others fall into their familiar paths again. God knows what she would have done otherwise. So, smiling serenely, she let the conversation flow around her with a tilted head and occasional laugh. It was only later in the evening that her attention snagged on something in the present moment and held. "If we’re talking about a guy… Veronica-sama has one too, doesn’t she? A guy she wants to see," Nanaura said.
"Huh—wait—eh. What was that?" burst Moto.
“Everyone in the castle knew about it, more like it was an open secret, you know?" Nanaura smiled. “About Glen Schreiber, a squire like me.”
They both glanced over at Hiroki, who smiled vaguely but didn't say anything. Takao was leaned against the wall by her side, so she kept her expression under control even when she turned away, showing none of the inner turmoil, the confusion, the longing she felt. Glen's name rang in her ears, though, sending her stomach rolling. The voices suddenly cut into nothing as Hiroki remembered: that. Those words. Those awful, nauseating words. I will kill you, Glen Schreiber. She put out a hand to steady herself against the wall. “Ha, how nostalgic!” feeling anything but.
Takao glanced at her quizzically.
"Oh," said Hiroki.
"What was it like?" asked Bart. The two of them were sitting with their backs propped against teh wall, legs stretched before them. Glen was still in bandages. "What was what like?" he asked, playing for time.
"Um. Snowy. Painful." He shivered. "Cold."
Bart cast a glance towards the fire, which Glen had built up roaring before they settled down. He didn't say anything, just leaned to the side, and his arm against Glen's was a blessed warmth. Glen cleared his throat. "I thought... I didn't think..." He stopped. "I wasn't expecting to ever be warm again."
Bart's shoulder moved against his in an infinitesimal shrug. "Your mother was making you a scarf," he offered. "It has stripes."
Glen snorted. "Thanks, brother." The pain in his chest wasn't going to go away, but it had slowly become more bearable. He cleared his throat again. "Yeah. Thanks."
"Ah," said Bart, scuffing his boot against the floor. "You're welcome. And if we go to the kitchens, maybe Hilda will give us some of those cinnamon buns I saw her loading into the oven." He pushed onto his feet and offered a hand to Glen to haul him up. "Come on, brother."
Come on, brother.
"I am Veronica."
Hiroki could only say, "That’s a lie!" Because, because. He couldn't.
His eyes narrowed. "It is not a lie! You’re the one who made it complicated in the first place!"
She pushed herself up on her aching arms, shaking her head; shaking. "No, no." Light-headed. Over his shoulder: Takao, still and silent, watching. Rida Rashadare. I serve the Princess. Pain in her head. Do you, do you serve, Rida Rashadare. Hiroki remembered. Faces and voices blurred together. 'I like you.' 'Oh my gosh. I like you too.' Smiling. Pain. Magic, flash, cold. "Where’s your proof?" she demanded.
His expression was (familiar, oh god) indignant. "Ryuuji knows about Veronica’s magic... no." He looked away and spoke measuredly. "You’ll know if we talk. At the castle, weren’t we always together?”
Familiar, oh god. Helpless, she looked to Takao, who nodded. "It's true," she said, her focus fixed on Minami.
Oh god. She weakened, and something within her collapsed. There was too much to deal with right now. So instead she clambered to her feet while they explained that if she had answered wrongly they would have got rid of her, nodding her head woodenly. Her fingers were still in a stranglehold around the familiar wooden handle of the broom. Minami (Veronica?) had loosened, but there was still a new and unfamiliar edge to his movements. She watched him and Takao, who asked, "Yuu… you are the Belbania family’s…?" Hiroki, reeling, tasted that dear name in her head: Veronica, and, unbidden, followed--
Bart. "Bart!" No no no no no no no no. "Bart?"
"What was it like? Glen."
"Snowy. Painful. Cold."
His rigid fingers. The blood pooling. The awful cold of him.
The wound in his middle: awful, unmagical. A last goodbye, then? No, not yet. Don't leave me yet, my brother, I'm not ready--I'm not ready, my dear--
"--Bart," Hiroki said. Takao and Minami, standing together, opposite her, smiled. Glen's chest twinged. His hands tightened around the broom handle. There: it is done. She says it again: "I'm Bart Belbania."
"Bart!" Minami cried, rushing forward through the debris. He grabbed Hiroki's hands, holds them up between them. "Bart, I'm so glad." His fingers were warm against hers and his smile was that of--
--Princess Veronica. Barefoot, dripping wet, regal as ever--the princess, standing there, cool as could be, among the guards. Water from her sopping hair pooled around her feet. Somehow, before anyone could react, she had made her way before him and now stood with both his hands in her own. Her eyes stared into his. "Allow me to apologise," she said, and he blinked. "I do not think of you all as tools.”
"Um," said Glen. "Um. I know."
Veronica—well, glowed. “Thank goodness!”
"Princess," said Rida, appearing at her elbow looking disgruntled. "Princess, please, let's go." Veronica gave him a last smile before submitting to her woman's administrations, and Glen, hands still damp with perfumed bathwater, could only watch bemusedly as Rida led the Princess away.
Glen had spent his whole life being afraid, but this was something new. Hiroki felt herself crumble (like the ground must have beneath his (her) (their) feet, oh god, oh god, no no no). Moto caught her. Shock after shock had weakened her barriers, for this final wave to knock her down.
Minami had called himself Veronica, but she could not bring herself to believe. To one way or another let go of the hope that had been propelling her all those years. But she hadn't expected it to hurt so much. And Glen had been a coward and a fool. She drew strength from Bart and watched, couched behind his name, as her world changed around her.
It was Zeze, in the end, who drove it home. "Minami is Princess Veronica," he said. Hiroki, mouth still half-open in argument, stopped and looked at him, protests stilled on her tongue. Regardless, Zeze--fun-loving, forgetful Zeze--carried on. "I still don't know who I am," he said, "but I remember, Princess Veronica telling me that she would protect the castle. I think that's why Minami cares so much about this school." His eyes dropped from the horizon and he looked at Hiroki, shrugged. "I guess he's trying to make up for what happened last time."
Glen had always hated the cold, but Veronica was like the sun. She shone with life and heat. Her eyes, her smile, her steadfast confidence. The last flimsy constructed doubts fell away. Hiroki forced herself to confront the truth through the fogged pain.
Minami. Straightforward, honest, earnest Minami; devilishly clever, quietly wonderful. Standing in the corridor, ice balanced on his head--no, Veronica wouldn't have hesitated, either. And the way he looked at you, the way he moved through life so lightly. Other pieces flew into place, and she could no longer deny them: Kamioka's gossip about him, the notebook full of once-familiar words, Takao's unwavering devotion. His whispered smile. Veronica's smile.
The truth was a landslide; the first. The second came before Hiroki was back on her feet, and neither she nor Glen had ever felt fear quite like this before.
She ran. Towards her friend, towards her princess, towards Minami and Takao and Rida and Veronica. Adrenaline rushed in. Hiroki remembered it all too well the bitter taste of it, remembered--
--sleepless nights. Gasping awake, adrenaline tearing sleep apart. Low stone ceilings turned into prisons or the lids of coffins. Death waiting in the darkness. Painful; cold.
At some point he stopped trying to sleep. Instead, he took to wandering the castle grounds at night, and found himself wandering towards the light in the Princess' windows. Their nighttime rendezvous became natural and effortless, and it seemed nothing to tell open himself up to her. Perched on her windowsill, baring his blood, his past, his soul. Veronica always had a fire going. He was so grateful for her, and it lightened his heart
and she could barely breathe as they came staggering forward, arms wrapped around each other. Her legs buckled. They were covered in mud. The air fled her lungs, and it took long breathless seconds of gasping to manage to shout, "Minami! Haruko!" and throw herself forward
over the prone body of his brother. The blood his sticky against his palms as he presses his hand against Bart's neck and desperately seeks a pulse. Is it just his imagination that supplies
the warm and living beat of his heart beneath her fingers. Hiroki is ready to shake, to sob. He is stretched out beneath her, vulnerable as if in
sleep, lying across the bed, hair splayed in a golden nimbus. Glen tugs the quilt to cover her bare shoulders and smiles to himself, a smile which fades as he remembers the new visitor the castle is expecting, and his brother's words: do you
like her? Hiroki asks. Minami tips his head back and says without pause, "yes". Hiroki blinks. Smiles a little to herself. He's an odd fish, this one, but sitting with him is peaceful. She feels an inexplicable urge to unburden herself to his quiet earnestness, to completely lower her
"--guard!" Bart yells. "Now block!" They are dancing up and down the empty practice hall, broomstick-swords in hand. They'll be great knights, someday; you'll see. Everyone will. They love each other, after all, more than they love warm cinnamon rolls and swimming and their proud family crest. Together, they'll be able to do anything. But as Glen darts about and spars, he feels a queer reluctance bloom to life in his chest. They've spent their lives talking about the enemies they'll face, the deadly sharp swords and the princess they'll protect with them--but for a moment, Glen wants it to never come. He never wants to leave this sunlit hall, the swirling leaves outside; never wants to exchange for a sword's thick hilt the rough wood of the broom handle in his hands. Never wants to stop seeing the light of his brother's dear eyes; never grow scarred and battle-weary; never discover the truth of his blood; never need anybody else. Never lie dying in the snow, or in the bowels of a falling castle stuck through the gut like a pig. Standing there, laughing with Bart, Glen simply wants it to last forever--
--but then s/he wakes. Confused and scrambling, s/he tries to clutch those sunlight days in his hands like autumn leaves, but they fall through the fingers. S/he lifts a hand and stares at it through the blur of tears. It is calloused from the wood of the ever-trusty broom, but still too small to warp around the forever that s/he wants to protect. Painful. Cold. S/he doesn't know who s/he is anymore. Past and present and future collide (Veronica? Bart?); a whirl of colours and memories. Hiroki Yuu; Glen Schreiber. Who am I? I am cold, I am dying in the snow--and jerked to the present, to Minami crouched over her, to Takao's careful smile; Veronica, the sunlight turning her hair to gold; the castle falling; Bart. Curled up tight as the night marches on towards morning, Hiroki remembers.