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but my lungs feel so small

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One

The war breaks out on a quiet, sunny afternoon. Later you would ponder at the irony of this, at the ‘quiet before the storm’. Not a cloud had been visible on the sky, but there was no denying the chaos, the absolute destruction of it.

The intricacies of war is something you do not know much of. You’ve been told it starts quietly, that war never begins with the trading of blows and bloodshed. In truth, you never really quite understood what that meant, but then you suppose you weren’t meant to. Politics wasn’t on your curriculum, traded out with sewing and painting and other useless commodities. 

But still, you’d heard about the unrest to the south, the rumors of dissent and the anti-capitol posters. You’d wondered, at the time, if that was what people meant. If you could trace back to the first protest, the first whisper of treason, would you be able to pinpoint the exact moment a war became an inevitability? 

The capitol gates come crashing down with an explosion of gunpowder and debris. 

There are certain things you have been taught since you were very young. About bloodlines and family, about diplomacy and about religion. But not about ruling , because that will never be your burden. Women are not Kings, and Queens are not rulers. And though your father loves you greatly and teaches you things you’re not supposed to know, you are acutely aware of your place. 

So when the chaos unfolds and your guards leave their station at your door, it doesn’t surprise you. It stings, but it’s not unexpected. For a moment you wonder if you should bolt the door and hide in a closet, but in the end it feels futile. You make for your bed instead, adjust your dress as you sit down on the edge of it. Hands in your lap, gaze straight ahead out the window. 

And you wait. You’re not sure what you’re waiting for; for salvation or damnation. For someone to stab you through the heart or tell you it’s all right. Come what may , you tell yourself. At least I will greet it with dignity.  

But whatever it is you might have expected, it is not this: 

“Princess,” Oikawa Tooru's usually pleasant tone is low and hard when he rips open the double doors to your bedroom. Had his voice not already been so familiar you might have jumped, scared for your life and whoever was attacking the castle. From your window you could see smoke. The young Kingsguard steps into your room without a care, dragging mud and filth into your hand embroidered carpet. 

Dark red stains your invaluable decoration, and for a mind-splitting, insane moment that’s all you can think about. For a moment that’s all that matters. You’ll yell at the brunet and stomp your feet, he’ll roll his eyes and bite out an apology and all will be well in the world. 

Until Oikawa stops directly in front of you, silver sword glistening red, that is what you believe. A delusion, but a comforting one. 

“Princess,” he repeats, a tad softer. Oikawa Tooru always struck you as more of an aristocrat than a knight. He seemed to favor soft cotton to clunky metal, never looked more official than he strictly had to. He had a silver tongue that could impress anyone who wasn't prepared for it, he spoke in eloquent tones befitting a noble more than a servant. But there; in your bedroom, blood dripping onto your carpet and with people screaming outside, air thick and dark and panic rising rapidly in your stomach, Oikawa looked like a knight. “We have to leave. Now.”

 


 

From a bag slung over his shoulder, Oikawa produces a brown, tattered robe. He throws in your face without even looking at you, barking at you to put it on. It is too large, the hood almost completely obscuring your vision, but when you open your mouth to tell him as much, he’s grabbing your hand and pulling. 

When Oikawa wants to, he can be delicate. You have seen him doing the dance of nobility, the subtle smiles and gentle words. Barely there touches and graceful bows. He plays it like a game, like they’re all just pieces on a board, and he plays it well. 

But never with you. He’s stiff and short and plainly uncomfortable in your presence and you don’t believe you can remember a single instance where he’s ever touched you willingly. The contact is strange and alien, even with his rough leather gloves as a sort of barrier between skin. He holds your wrist too tightly, pulls at your arm too hard, almost sends you tumbling down the spiraling stairs leading down, down, down from your chambers and to the main hallway.

It’s quiet. The outside is roaring; screams and warcries and the crack and pop of burning wood. The outside sounds like a battlefield. Like a war zone. But the inside of the castle, of your home, is quieter than it's ever been. No hustle and bustle from maids or snickering between guards on duty. It’s eerie, how easily you can hear your own thoughts, how loudly the echo and bounce between the walls. 

“What about my father?” you ask, because it is the natural thing to do. Oikawa might be tasked with protecting the royal family, yes, but it is your father who resides at the top of that list. As you gather your thoughts, eyes focused on the royal crest adorning Oikawa’s cape, you realize how preposterous it is that he is here, rather than wherever his King is. 

“There’s no time.” 

No time. It sounds ominous, like a warning, like a promise. 

“Where’s Kenma?” 

“Princess, I—”

“Where’s the rest of the guard?”

Oikawa stops. He inhales loudly through his nose, turns and grasps at your shoulders. There’s frustration visible between his brows, a sort of emotional display that seems entirely uncharacteristic. “Not. Now.” And he sounds so serious, his voice teetering on the edges of panic, that you don’t question it. There’s the sound of an explosion that makes the floor rumble and vibrate, and Oikawa curses. 

You stare down the hallway, gaze lingering on all the things that made up your childhood. Skipping along the carpet, curtsying each and every decorative suit of armor. Playing hide and seek with Kenma only to realize he had given up and found a book to read instead. At the far end of the hall is a large, wooden door. You think of your father sitting on his throne, his new wife next to him. 

Somehow you have the distinct, tragic feeling that you’ll never see any of it again. And then Oikawa is dragging you after him again, pulling you in the opposite direction towards the servant’s chambers. There’s not a single place in your castle you haven’t explored, so you know where you’re going; you know about the secret hatch and the tunnels out of the castle. You’ve never seen them yourself, but Iwaizumi told you about it when he started training and living at the castle. 

He told you there were ghosts and monsters down there. That used to scare you, but as you stare down the abandoned halls of your childhood home, you figure there are ghosts and monsters everywhere. 

Oikawa glares at corners, his ears twitching with every sound and echo, opens the servant’s chamber, and pushes you inside before entering and pulling the door shut; carefully as to not make a sound. Then it’s completely silent. The servant’s chambers are empty, tables filled with half eaten meals and pillows on the floor. Abandoned in a hurry. If you close your eyes, you can see them, the maids and the guards scrambling to get to their feet, to make their escape. 

You wonder how long you were sitting up in your tower, quietly awaiting your death or your savior. Time seems to move too fast or not at all. You take a step, feet unsteady, and you fall. The floor is cold, hard as you brace yourself with your palm. A pained hiss slips between your lips before you can think to choke it down, and after a dizzying moment you realize your hands are wet. 

“Princess,” Oikawa steps to you, his voice somehow distant and unclear. “Don’t look.”

Don’t look. Don’t look. His voice echoes in your head as you take a steadying breath, raising shaky hands to stare at your palms. There’s not a lot of light, just the few candles that haven’t yet burnt down and the dying fizzle in the fireplace. But the color of blood is unmistakable, the liquid running like crimson tears down your arms and coloring the fabric of your dress. 

“Don’t look,” he repeats, but it’s too late. You’ve looked. And once you see everything as it is, you cannot unsee it.

For a moment you feel like you’ve gone insane. Like you’ve been sleeping all of your life and finally — finally — you have woken up. You look back up at the humble dinner table and you see splinters of wood, a crack in the sturdy wood. There’s red everywhere. You look at the pillows on the floor, ripped open and feathers mixing with the blood on the floor. There’s someone sleeping on the couch in the corner. No. Not sleeping. Dead. Gone. 

And you hear the distinct crack in your brain as everything falls into place. 

Denial is a powerful thing. In some ways it’s amazing how much you can ignore for the sake of your sanity. Likewise, it’s amazing how viscerally your mind pulls you back into reality, how quickly the fog lifts once you see what’s really there. You want to go back. To traverse the winding stairs up, up, up, to sit back down on your bed and wait. To slip back into ignorance and contentment until whatever evil has invaded your walls takes you. 

“Fuck,” Oikawa curses, kneeling down to put his hands on your face. His face is stony, paler than you remember it. There’s a smudge of red across his cheekbone. You want to clean it off. You want to close your eyes. You— you can’t breathe and for a moment you think he’s choking you. You feel fingers coil around your neck and squeeze, throat hurting and ears thundering with the sound of rough, hard breaths that you cannot recognize and you can’t breathe and you can’t think and oh my god who is the body is it someone you know? Your mind is swimming and Oikawa is still choking you and—

He slaps you across the face with a loud crack ringing in your ears. Your cheek stings and your vision goes blurry for a second. There’s a loud, sharp noise that must come from inside your head and for a second everything goes black. You can hear rapid, raspy breathing in your ears, the sound so loud it might as well be inside your head, so loud it almost blocks out Oikawa’s string of curses.

“Breathe,” he says, gloved thumbs pressing into the skin of your cheeks. There’s a high-pitched tinge to his voice that sounds suspiciously like panic, and the syllables come out shaky when he repeats the word. “Breathe.” You’re hyperventilating, edges of your vision dark and uneven. “I don’t want to knock you out, but I will.”

“But I— I can’t—”

“You can,” he tells you, and it’s clear in his tone it’s not meant to be encouraging, it’s a demand. “You can and you will. You’re going to close your eyes, you’re going to count to ten, and you’re going to snap out of it.” And you listen, because there’s no room for refusal. Your sanity hangs in tattered threads, dangerously close to breaking and surrendering to the darkness completely. You close your eyes, and you think. You think of your sixth birthday, when you got your first tiara. 

“Come on,” Oikawa urges, less insistent and more coaxing now. Gloved fingertips draw soothing circles into your skin, coarse and leathery, and for a brief moment of clarity you manage to funnel all of your attention at that. Not the bony, cold talons digging into your neck, puncturing your air pipes and clawing at your skin, not the sting of a slap that spreads heat across your face; just the slow, calm circles at your cheekbones.

You think of falling asleep during one of your father’s meetings. You think of your father, sitting upright and proud on his throne. Ten beats of your heart and you open your eyes. When you blink you realize he wasn’t choking you at all, that that assumption makes no sense in the first place when his hands are pressing into your cheeks. 

“There you go, good girl.” 

Oikawa gets up, drags you with him. You don’t feel good. You feel like you have to throw up, like your head is going to explode. The calm in your chest feels like a temporary, make believe thing. A cage made up of ribs wrapped around a bundle of panic and pain. But the look on Oikawa’s face is one of hurry and determination and there’s nothing else. There’s nothing else. There’s nothing else. Madness takes up residency in your mind, sits itself down in a chair in the corner. It can wait, it tells you, it’s not in a hurry. 

He crosses the room, kneels down to feel the stone on the floor. For a moment you’re confused, worried that maybe you’re not the only one going insane, but then he starts picking up bricks, quietly muttering to himself. Brick by brick by brick, floor gives way to reveal a hatch.

Oikawa swipes a hand across his forehead, leaving a stripe of red there. “Let’s go.”

And that’s it. That’s all there is.

 


 

The underground tunnels are a relic of the past. A necessity from decades and decades and decades ago; built in secret as an escape plan back when Kings were cruel and loyalty was a chain around the neck of the people. Your father had told you this when you asked him about it, years ago, after Iwaizumi had first revealed the existence of the tunnels. Why not just block them, you’d wondered, if they were no longer needed? Your father had considered your question, leaning back in his plush chair. He’d hummed in that way he did; the sound low and grumbling and strangely soothing.

You’d understand it when you were older, he told you after a moment of silence.

Your steps echo and mix with the sound of dripping water. The torch in Oikawa’s hand crackles and pops and fizzles. The front of your dress is a mess of red and brown blotches from your attempt to clean your hands of the blood you’d slipped in, your palms hurt from your fall and you think that you can’t really understand anything. Least of all the cryptic words of your father.

You wonder if he’s dead. If he’s bleeding out in the throne room or if his head is on a pike already, being paraded around a conquered city. The thought makes insanity bubble back up in your chest and you repress it. Not now.

Think about something else , you tell yourself, keep your gaze firmly in front of you. No looking back. 

Oikawa walks at a brisk pace in front of you, doesn’t ever look back. amber hues lick at the curls of his hair and his cape lies limp at his back, smattered with bloodstains and grime. His sword shimmers with the torchlight, the steel blinking back at you with every step that he takes. It looks alive, almost; a killing machine. 

You do not know his exact age, but you know that Oikawa can’t be much older than yourself. He came to court a young boy, an orphan like most of the young hopefuls who come to lay their lives out in front of the king. Lost his parents in a surprise attack from the south, you’re told. Like so many other young boys and girls. Most of the boys who come begging for a chance to fight get sent to the orphanage, but not Oikawa. He was different, even then. 

“Have you heard the story of the little King and the Lionheart?” You ask, and your voice sounds strange, unfamiliar. You don’t know why you ask that, considering the dozens of questions that swim at the top of your head, but when you open your mouth, that’s the one that comes out. 

You think he must not, because it’s a children’s story that originated in the capitol, and somehow you doubt that children brought up to be knights and warriors were told bedtime stories. 

He doesn’t reply anyways, so you’re left to guess. 

My mom—” it stings to mention her, even now, even when she’s been dead for a decade. “She used to tell me the story every night. It was my favorite.” If Oikawa is paying attention to your words, he doesn’t let on. But it’s comforting to speak, somehow, and you keep talking. 

“In the story, the King is just a young boy from the capitol. He gets kidnapped by traveling thieves and locked in a cage. This was at the beginning of the First War, and capitol children got stolen all the time, sent to the southern shores and sold for slave labor. But one night, while his captors were asleep, another boy appeared. He managed to steal the key from one of the sleeping thieves and let the King out of the cage.

“The two of them ran from the thieves together, hiding in trees and mud until they were sure they weren't being followed anymore..” you trail off, distracted by the sound of a cannon from above you. Your heart is pounding loudly in your throat, muscles in your jaw tight as you breathe through your nose. In the back of your mind, you can see the picture book; cradled in the arms of your mother and angled so you could see the drawings. A young boy with an illuminated crown, another with a sword and a lion shaped helmet. Your fingertips ache and itch, longing to touch the spine of the picture book just one more time.

“I used to imagine I was the King,” you admit. “Waiting for Lionheart to whisk me away on adventures.” 

“But Princesses aren’t Kings,” Oikawa says, and he’s looking at you then, over his shoulder. 

“No,” you agree, clutching at the front of your dress. You feel cold.

“And there are no heroes, either.” 

You don’t know how to respond to that, so you say nothing at all. Oikawa looks at you like you’re supposed to infer something important in his words. 

But you don’t understand it. You just don’t understand it at all. 

 


 

Light is fading when at last you make it out of the tunnels. Twilight orange embraces the dark blues of the night sky above you, stars twinkling in welcome as you tilt your head back to look at it. You had wondered where the tunnels would lead you, where you’d end up when you could finally inhale fresh air again. 

You’re in the fields outside the city gates, much further away than you’d imagined. Along the right side, the whole wall has crumbled, leaving a giant gap in the city’s defenses. In the growing darkness, everything looks charred, like someone has just set the whole thing on fire. There’s smoke; so much smoke. It reaches for the sky in thick pillars, even the aftermath of the battle that has happened there desperate to get away. Your stomach feels heavy. Behind you, Oikawa shifts. 

He throws his bag on the ground and starts rummaging through it. In the distance you can hear the sound of cannons. For a moment you think you’re going to turn around and be greeted by a rapidly approaching cannon ball, but when you look over in the direction of your castle, it’s plain to see what the enemy — whoever they are — are aiming for. 

You slept in your parents’ bed until you were six; far longer than you’d be willing to admit now. When you at last decided you were a big kid now and needed your own bedroom, you were given a false sense of privacy in the form of the adjoining secondary room next to the royal bed chambers. 

And you were happy there, for a while, until you hit another milestone age and decided you were an adult — decidedly, you were not, but who could deny a fifteen year old with a stubborn mind — who needed her own space. At the time, you’d been grieving, mourning your late mother and you wanted to be alone. Away from advisers, away from maids and guards, away from your father. 

The Princess Tower, they ended up calling it, the highest tower of the castle. It used to be for concubines, when having one — or two — was the norm. You wonder, in retrospect, how many advisers your father had to argue with to allow you the tower even with the part connotations. 

The Princess Tower topples over, crumbles as a cannon ball crashes into the bottom part of the tower. Just a few hours ago, you and Oikawa were running down the stairs. Just a few hours ago you were sitting on your bed, contemplating your end. Your breath hitches as the second cannon ball hits the tower and sends it falling. 

It feels oddly personal, like someone in the crowd of the enemy wanted to hurt you directly. Your tower falls to the ground, taking a side of the castle with it in the process. It’s gone. Your bed, your dresser, your clothes, the carpet Oikawa had tainted with dirt and blood. All your memories of your mother. All your tiaras, your jewelry, your diaries. The inside of your chest feels empty.

“Why did you save me?” You ask, blinking rapidly to suppress frustrated, angry, desperate tears. You don’t want to cry. If you start crying now you won’t be able to stop. “Why not my father, or the Queen?” 

Oikawa looks at you like he’s trying to figure out a puzzle, his mouth a thin line and his brows furrowed. He looks a mess, but he still looks like an aristocrat; strangely out of place. He throws a garment at you, a simple eggwhite dress.

“Put this on,” he tells you, and you think you can hear something like exhaustion in his voice. He starts pulling off his own garments; gloves and cape going first before he starts unbuttoning his overshirt to reveal chainmail. 

“What— right here?”

“Right here.”

“But I—” 

“I swear—”

You clamp your mouth shut, at once extremely frustrated with him. You know that Oikawa doesn’t like you, that what he’s done for you tonight is more than you ever could have expected of him. But he’s so annoying. He acts as if you’re a child, as if you’re a reluctant obligation he can’t wait to be done with, and if anything you feel like you deserve a bit of compassion. Oikawa glares at you with an expression you suspect mirror your own. Stubborn.

You can be stubborn, too. “You’ll have to help me,” you tell him, calling his bluff. It has an immediate effect; his face reddening and his eyes widening. You let him stew in that for a moment, in the implication. It’s childish and inappropriate and not at all the time for it, but it feels like a win nonetheless. “With the corset.” A moment of confusion and Oikawa slips back into his guarded, almost blank expression. There’s a slight downwards turn of his lip that you relish, even as he moves behind you to undo your corset. 

If you’re being honest, you’d kind of expected him to make quick work of the thing. There are rumors about Oikawa at court; about the pretty Kingsguard with the silver tongue. If any of those rumors were true, you don’t think he’d be taking so long. You hear an exasperated sigh, hot air tickling the back of your neck and leaving goosebumps in its wake. 

“Stupid—” Oikawa yanks at your body in an attempt to untangle knots and you supress the urge to giggle. He makes it a point to turn around when he’s done, allowing you to quickly pull the dress off and put on the new, much simpler garment. You mark it down in your head; you: one, Oikawa: zero. After waiting a beat of your heart longer than needed, you tell him you’re done, and he turns back, eyes traversing the length of your body quickly before nodding. 

The eggwhite dress is light, easy to breathe in. It stops at your calves, only barely covers your shoulders. It’s much less modest than anything you’ve worn before, feels more like a summer night gown than something you’d wear in public. You touch the fabric, and it’s soft, a gentle caress against your palm. It feels as if you’re wearing nothing at all; nothing weighing down on your shoulders or squeezing at your middle. 

“Your jewelry, too,” he tells you, handing you the now empty bag. “Put it in here.” Then he’s pulling his shirt off, upper body naked and exposed. And you’ve seen half naked men before, knights and guards on the training grounds during summers too hot to train in full getups. But never so close; close enough to make out the ridges and outlines of bones along shoulder blades and spines. Oikawa is lean; slim and filled out in a way that seems almost contradictory. As if his bones want to escape his skin. There are small scars and marks here and there, a bump on his shoulder, a line across his back. You wonder where he got them. 

“It’s rude to stare, Princess,” he’s smirking, and it’s your turn to heat up with embarrassment. Your ears burn, a guffaw pushing itself past your lips before you can stop it. You divert your gaze, intently staring at the open bag as you remove ornate pieces of jewelry one by one. Plucking memories from your fingers; each ring a token, a gift from someone you don’t think you’ll ever see again. You’ve never truly considered that you could be a vain person, but looking at your plain hand, you’re not so sure anymore. 

Who are you without all of your riches; without the rings handed down in generations and the pendant from your mother? Without the golden tiara on your head, without your titles and your pretty dresses? Without your father and without your kingdom? 

“You didn’t answer my question.”

In your mind, the dead body in the servant’s chamber is Iwaizumi. You can’t quite get the image out of your head, the impossible conviction that the body belongs to someone you once knew. For some reason, as you watch your tower in the distance, crumbled and broken with all of your belongings, all of your memories trapped within it, the thought brings you comfort.

When Oikawa doesn’t answer for a while, you turn to look at him. He’s in casual attire now, a brown shirt and dark pants. Night is approaching with hurried steps, light fleeing the sky and leaving only a dark abyss painted with stars. You can barely make out Oikawa’s frown as you hand him back the bag. For a moment you think he’s just not going to respond. 

“Because you’re the only one left.”

You swallow.

Then there’s nothing. Nothing left at all.