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but my lungs feel so small

Chapter Text

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.

Chapter Text

Two

Kageyama Tobio sits up with a start with the sudden sound of hurried footsteps and rushed breaths. The sun is hot, soothing and caressing him into a lazy state, dozing off in the early hours of midday, but Hinata calls his name with fervency and suddenly he’s wide awake. For the last few months it’s been quiet, but the southern villages know better than to grow complacent. There is paranoia etched into Kageyama’s bones, he doesn’t think he could breathe easy even if he tried. 

Hinata stops in front of him, hands on his knees as he catches his breath. The ginger’s skin is gleaming with sweat; he must have been running all the way from the village. Kageyama braces himself for bad news. There’s seldom any other kind, these days. 

“There’s—” Hinata huffs, hand clutching at the front of his shirt as he tries to gather his words. “There’s news from the North.” 

Kageyama’s heart hammers in his chest. At once there are all these small moments swimming to the forefront of his mind. The farmers who left the village months prior, rallying to the call of an unknown rebel handing out flyers in the street. His parents whispering about a new law that would take even larger portions of their agriculture for even less compensation. A few weeks ago when he heard commotion from the Blacksmith’s house late at night. 

Something’s happening, he’d told Hinata at the time. Something strange is going on

“What news?” He asks, uncertain if he wants to know the answer. Hinata reaches into his bag, hands Kageyama a flyer. ‘Remember the unlawful burnings’ the flyer says, letters bold and demanding. It sends a shiver down Kageyama’s spine, the reminder that not more than twenty or so years ago was the Summer of Witches; the burning of women accused of witchcraft. It was a controversial thing at the time, his mother had told him, a sort of sorrow to the tones of her voice. A Royal Decree with a list of names and a list of demands. Men and women alike dragged out of their houses, the women tied to pyres and lit on fire. 

Kageyama has never seen a witch, has never heard of anything resembling witchcraft. He’s visited Hinata’s mother’s apothecary, has seen all the concoctions and brews designed to cure illness and ailments, but he can’t really reconcile that with something that deserves punishment. There’s something like resentment that grows in his stomach, the painting made to commemorate the event hanging in town hall glued to the inside of his eyelids. 

“I don’t understand,” Kageyama admits, brows furrowed as his eyes scan the paper for some sort of hidden clue. 

Hinata looks around as if he’s about to commit treason. “Someone led an army marching on the Kingdom.” 

And it might as well be treason, for how quietly he whispers it. It might as well be treason for the way it makes Kageyama’s stomach gallop, his heart pounding at his rib cage.  Kageyama doesn’t particularly care for politics. When there are gatherings and elections in the main square, he’d rather not show up and enjoy some peace and quiet by the bay instead. But it’s impossible to escape the cruelties of the Kingdom, even if you turn a blind eye and avoid it as best you can. 

It was hard the year it was so hot all of their crops died and Kageyama’s family was taxed for not bringing in what they were supposed to. It was hard when Yachi left for the capitol and never returned. It was damn near impossible Daichi was recruited by the royal guard. When they sent him back in a casket. 

So maybe it is treason, and maybe it is wrong, but when Hinata breathes through his nose as if to prepare himself for the words he’s about to say, Kageyama feels something akin to excitement flicker at the pit of his stomach. 

“The King is dead.”

 


 

Reality hits you in waves in between comforting lulls of peace and quiet. It hits you when you reach towards your throat to toy with the pendant you wear around your neck only to remember it’s not there anymore. It makes your chest feel strange and heavy, squeezes at your heart until you feel dizzy. It’s like a tangible, visible thing, reminding you that you are alone. 

Reality stalks you through the thick of the Lowroad Forest, stepping on twigs and whispering into your ears. The trees grow close here, shutting out most of the sun even when it burns the brightest. You’d been told that the Lowroad was the most dangerous place for a young princess to wander, that these woods were occupied by thieves and murderers. It certainly fits the bill; the quiet so loud it feels like you’ve gone deaf and the road disappearing into darkness both in front and behind you. It’s like you’ve stepped into another realm, someplace dark and hidden from the world. Somewhere not even the birds or animals can follow, somewhere just for you, Oikawa and your mind.

It was the safest option, Oikawa had told you, and realistically you know he’s right. By now the news about the capitol must have traveled into every far away corner of the map, carried by the dark wings of message birds and repeated in every village both near and far. Even in your new attire you feel as if you stick out like a sore thumb, as if wealth and privilege leaks out of your pores and you can’t imagine the Kingsroad would be the most discreet travel option. 

But that doesn’t mean you don’t find the Lowroad Forest creepy. 

“Did anyone get out?” You ask Oikawa the second night, watching as the knight fiddles with sticks and leaves to set up a fire. When you reach to drag fingers through your hair, you get caught on tangles and grimace to conceal the wince. Not that he’s watching, not that there’s anyone to really see you in the less than pristine state you find yourself in. There’s mud on your dress already, dried dirt making patterns and shapes in the fabric. You wonder whose dress this was once, how Oikawa got a hold of it. Was it a token from a woman he’d courted, did he steal it from the maids’ chamber? 

Was the owner still alive? 

“I don’t know,” Oikawa replies curtly through gritted teeth. There’s tension between his brows, and you divert your gaze. Something squeezes at your chest, makes you feel ashamed, as if you have no right to even look at him. 

You stare at your shoes instead, brown and leathery and a size too big. You can feel your feet protest, blisters pulsating against the coarse texture of the inside of the boot. Identical to the ones Oikawa was wearing, you suspect he’d gotten them from the barracks. 

“Lev was on leave,” you mumble, going down the list of names in your head. Lev. Miya. Sugawara. The new recruits, the ones barely out of training. Then there was Tsukishima. Bokuto. Yamamoto. Iwaizumi. Were they all dead? “He was going back West to get married.”

Kenma was smart, he would have seen the danger before they even tore down the walls. Maybe… 

“How’d you know that?” Oikawa’s voice is carefully neutral, but you can hear the resentment fizzling underneath. Whenever you leaned out of your window to watch the knights train, Oikawa would be easy to spot. He was the one who laughed the loudest, who teased the most. The biggest ego in any room, Miya had said once, and you’d laughed because coming from him that was quite the insult. You wonder which Oikawa is the mask; the one you used to see around the castle, or the one you’re seeing now. 

You don’t know which you’d prefer. 

“He told me,” you reply softly, images of the tall, silver haired knight-to-be swimming to the surface of your mind. Lev had always been the easiest to talk to, the young man carrying his heart on his sleeve, unbothered by the politics of the court or the implications of speaking freely with royalty. You remembered how his face used to light up whenever he mentioned the fiance waiting for him at home. “He promised he’d send me a letter.” 

Oikawa looks at you, seemingly unsure whether to be surprised or disbelieving. 

“Do you think that changes anything?” He asks, but the tone of his voice does not imply he’s looking for you to answer. “Just because you lowered yourself to mingle with the lower classes, do you think that makes you any better?” He sounds angry, disgusted, and all of his implications feel like slaps across the face. You do not think you’ve said anything particularly offensive, but then it seems Oikawa takes offense at most things you do or say so far. 

Maybe he’s grieving, too. Maybe the thunderous ache that haunts your chest and drums at your ribcage at any given moment is present in his as well. You want to believe that, selfish as it might be, because his judging eyes and accusing tone would tear you limb from limb otherwise. 

“I don’t— I don’t understand,” you whisper because you don’t; you don’t understand why he’s so angry at you, you don’t understand why he saved you, why you needed saving in the first place. You don’t understand what’s happening, what’s gonna happen in the future. And reality washes over you again, crashes into you like a tidal wave. You’re alone. You’re all alone with a man who looks at you as if he wishes he’d left the capitol without you. You crumble inwards, imagine yourself sitting on a soft bed surrounded by all your belongings and by people who care about you. For a moment you swear you can feel the soothing, comfortable presence of your favorite knight.

You feel a bit lighter, a bit safer.

Oikawa scoffs. “Of course you don’t.”

He says it as if he’s disappointed, but not surprised. In the corner of your mind, Iwaizumi is smirking.

 


 

The bark of the big, thick tree trunk claws at your back, pain pressing into your shoulder blades as you watch the sky change from baby blues of morning to a more vibrant shade of day. Behind you is the Lowroad Forest, dark and ominous and scary. In front of you, the unknown. You’re disoriented, unsure of which way you came from, which way you’re going.

You think back to your geography lessons. The capitol takes up the center-northern parts; only mountains and snow further north. Inhabitable. The Lowroad Forest and Kingsroad; the first splitting to lead either East or South, the latter West or South. The Great Sea and the fishing villages to the South. You had never visited any of them, even though your father had promised to take you all around the world.

Oikawa clears his throat, pulling you out of your thoughts. He looks at you sort of strangely, as if he’s afraid you’re going to lose it at any moment. You wonder how you look, with your unwashed hair and your filthy dress. You’ve taken off your shoes while you rested, feet aching and full of blisters that feel like they have hearts and hurts of their own. 

When did you last eat a proper meal? A warm one? As if on cue, Oikawa hands you a small loaf of bread that makes your stomach growl in protest. The bread has hardened, feels like a rock in your hand. You look back at Oikawa who is tearing his own loaf in half, pulling the soft, fluffy bits from the core of the bread and pushing them into his mouth. He looks every bit as reluctant as you feel. 

“We’ll stay here,” he tells you, gaze traveling down your legs as he takes another bite. You mimic his actions, tearing bread apart with more difficulty than you’d be willing to admit, and pretend you do not feel exposed and vulnerable by the way he pauses on your feet. It feels as if you’re eating air, does little to nothing to quell your hunger. “For a few hours.”

“No,” you mutter, pulling your legs closer to your body and hiding them under your dress. The strain of tired muscles makes you wince. “I can keep going.”

“Whatever you say, Princess.” 

But Oikawa sits down, leans back to let the sun illuminate his skin. There doesn’t seem like there’s room for discussion, and you’re too tired to argue anyways, so you let it go. 

There was something about the way he addressed you that always felt like an insult. As if your title was something shameful and embarrassing, as if each time he called you Princess he was pointedly deciding not to call you by your name. 

When you were a child, you never had much issue befriending the guard. They cooed and laughed fondly at your pristine manners and polite curtsies, welcomed your visitations with open arms and large smiles. They let you hold their wooden practice swords and defended you from imaginary dragons. There weren’t many other children in the castle, and the guard became your playmates. 

And when Kenma — the shy son of the pursekeeper — arrived with his family, even he could not resist your charms. You spent your childhood adored and well loved, thinking yourself a star in anyone’s eye. ‘That’s my daughter’ your father would say, fondness in his voice and warmth in his eyes. ‘Our most beloved little princess'.

But not Oikawa. Never Oikawa. He resisted your attempts at conversation as if you disgusted him, glared as if your very being was a personal offense to him. Even when he got anointed, even when your well-being became his duty you couldn’t shake the feeling that he despised you.

“I don’t think you should call me that anymore.”

It’s hard to know who you really are with no one around to tell you anymore. Your picture perfect world lies in shambles and the one Oikawa is painting with his reluctance and his angry words leave you confused and unsure. You don’t think you’re much of a princess at all. There’s nothing left to be a princess of. Oikawa looks at you, confused, and you clear your throat, focusing intently on the swaying of grass next to him on the ground. 

“We’re bound to meet other people on the road, you should make a habit of calling me by name instead.” 

You can’t quite manage to keep the challenge out of your voice, and by the looks of it Oikawa takes notice. But he doesn’t say anything, because he knows you’re right; you’re running away for a reason and you doubt Oikawa wants the wrong people to know who it is he’s traveling with. Your name is common enough, a popular choice for baby girls born after your own birth. When he shrugs and mutters a quiet ‘right’, you can’t help the petty feeling of victory in your chest. 

 


 

“You slapped me,” the words escape you before you can think to stop them as you’re staring at the back of his head in the darkness. The ground is hard and wet, the complete opposite of the softness you're used to at night, and the only thing you have to cover yourself is a thin jacket Oikawa had thrown your way when he saw you freezing. For a moment he doesn’t reply, and you wonder if he’s sleeping. But then he twists to look at you, and you don’t think he’s slept at all since the castle was attacked. He sighs, thumb and index finger squeezing at the bridge of his nose as he blinks. The way he’s lying you can see his collarbone glistening in the moonlight. He looks beautiful, but unsettling. Dark circles below his eyes, skin translucent in the night as he seems to ponder what — if anything — to say.

“You were panicking,” he settles on at last, his voice raspy and low, but strangely devoid of the resentment he usually can’t help tinting his tone with. You’d almost forgotten how pleasant his voice sounds when he doesn’t sound like he hates you. “And we were running out of time.”

“And physically hurting me would help how?” It feels dangerous to argue when he’s not already poised to attack, as if you’re ruining a moment that could be something other than tense and uncomfortable. But you’ve kept your words and your thoughts locked behind your lips for days and there’s electricity buzzing inside your bones and you can’t help the annoyance in your own voice. 

Truthfully it doesn’t matter. It had been scary and painful and it hadn’t helped at all, but in the grand scheme of things it meant nothing. But there are so many things that threaten to break out of your skin, so many hurts and fears that burn and ache underneath the surface and this one, at least, you can articulate without sobbing like a child.

And Oikawa doesn’t seem to care, he only watches you with tired eyes and a slightly down-turned lip. You wonder if he remembers how to smile; he who used to smile so much, so brightly. You wonder if you remember how to smile, if you can ever twist your mouth into that shape again without feeling like a fraud.

“Would you do that with a man?”  

Oikawa snorts. “I would’ve punched a man.”

You hum. It’s not exactly the answer you were expecting, but at least it’s honest. And maybe nuance and comfort was too much to expect of someone raised to be nothing but a guard anyways. 

“Does it bother you that your first instinct is to hurt someone?”

Oikawa laughs. It’s a hollow sound, and when it makes you shiver, you’re not sure why.

 


 

“Who did it?” 

Oikawa sighs, as if he's tired of your questions. As if you've asked a dozen times already. In truth you've been too scared to, have kept it bottled until it threatened to spill. It makes no sense, you think. Even if there were disagreements in the kingdom, you can't for the life of you figure out who could mobilize a force like the one that tore down the castle. You can't understand how they'd do that without alerting the capitol.

“Did what?” 

“Don’t play stupid,” you hiss, and suddenly you’re angry. You’re frustrated and desperate and tearing at the seams, insanity clutching at your brain like an illness. “Who tore down the walls? Who broke into the castle? Who killed everyone I’ve ever known and cared about?!” 

Your voice is too loud, too uneven. It echoes into the night and makes you cringe with how unhinged you sound to your own ears. You want to curse your companion, for saving you, for leaving everyone else, for treating you so carelessly; you’re not even sure which of his transgressions makes you the angriest and it all just melts into a ball of unreleased tension that makes the hairs on your body stand. 

Oikawa diverts his gaze and it’s strange because he doesn’t strike you as the person to avoid confrontation or hide uncomfortable truths. The way he’s hesitating makes your throat close up.

“I don’t know,” he says. He still won’t look at you. 

He’s lying. 

 


 

There were moments when you could almost forget all the insanity. You sit with you back against a tree, eyes closed and mind carefully blank. You listen to the birds and breathe in the smell of summer. And it feels real. No smoke, no screaming, no pain. The ache of your feet feels like second nature now, doesn’t hurt as much as it reminds you of reality. 

But then; 

footsteps, the sharp crack of a broken twig. A deep sigh. And; “Princess,” Oikawa mutters, pausing for a moment too long. He still hasn’t been able to say your name. Not even once. You open your eyes and there’s something sort of strange to his face. His chocolate curls sway gently in the wind, skin sun-kissed and illuminated in the afternoon glow. “We have to keep going.” 

“Where are we going?” You ask, realizing you haven’t even thought to until now. 

Oikawa hesitates, hand fiddling with the strap of his bag. 

“To my hometown.” 

 


 

To the East of the kingdom lies a quiet village, a place mostly untouched by the rumbling undertones of war and chaos. Houses made of dark wood, delicate swirls and spirals carved into them to create beautiful decorations, tall trees heavy with ripe fruit and fields rich with wheat. 

It’s as if this little corner of the world exists in its own bubble, free from conflict and politics. An older woman sits on her porch, a half finished garment nestled in her lap as she dozes off in the heat. Two tall men spar with wooden swords, sweat gleaming on their foreheads. The tallest one knits his brow in concentration, the other one smiles as if he’s already won, as if he’s a step in front of his competition. 

“Wakatoshi!” 

The taller man stops mid-swing, turns to let his eyes follow the sound of his name being called in frantic tones. A third man runs up to the first two; raven hair bouncing with his steps and a letter crumpled in his closed fist. The woman has woken up, too, and is making her way over to the young men. There’s something in the air. Message birds don’t travel to the East often. 

The new arrival leans over, hands on his knees as he catches his breath. The tallest — Wakatoshi — wipes his brow. 

“What is it, Tetsurou?” He asks, voice deep and even, the gleam of sweat the only proof of physical exhaustion visible on his tall, wide frame. “News from Tooru?” 

An excited sort of tension blankets the others as the dark haired man nods, hands Wakatoshi the letter. His eyes flit over the words quickly, onlookers waiting with bated breath. Wakatoshi breathes through his nose, drags a hand through his hair and folds the letter before tucking it into his chest pocket. Not for the first time, the man is both impressed and worried at how easily his friend finds trouble.

“Tooru’s coming home,” he tells the others, and the reaction is immediate. The older woman looks like she’s about to faint from relief, wetness visible in the corners of her eyes. Tetsurou grins so wide it looks like it must hurt. Wakatoshi’s sparring partner tries to look unaffected, but gives himself away with the shakiness of the breath he releases. It is good news, they can all agree. Long awaited and dearly welcome. Wakatoshi hands Tetsurou his practice sword, turns to the woman. 

“Come, Auntie,” he tells her, a gentle hand at her back. “He will be here in less than two weeks, there is much to prepare.” 

“Hey!” His sparring companion calls as Wakatoshi guides the woman back towards the porch she slept on. “This means I won, you know!” Wakatoshi ignores it, and the snickers that follow from both of the men. He feels something like anxiety grow in his chest, and it’s a wholly new, uncomfortable sensation. Quickly, he concludes that he doesn’t like it. It makes the summer feel too hot and the sun too light, drops of sweat resembling spiders as they travel down the back of his neck. 

“‘Toshi,” the woman murmurs once he’s closed the door. He marches over to the fireplace, steps echoing in his head. The coals from the morning fire are still glowing slightly, and Wakatoshi fishes out the letter from Tooru and throws it onto them. He blows on it twice, watches as the paper lights on fire. He feels more at ease as soon as he sees it burn. “‘Toshi,” the woman repeats. She touches his shoulder, and Wakatoshi has to will himself not to flinch. “What was in the letter that upset you so?”

Wakatoshi swallows, considers for a moment if he shouldn’t tell her. For as long as he has known her, Tooru’s aunt has been worried about his nephew. Wakatoshi wonders if she sees her brother in him, but concludes just as fast that she just cares too much, having raised him and Wakatoshi both since they were too young to remember. And because Wakatoshi never quite managed to lie convincingly, least of all to her, he tells her the truth. 

“He’s coming home,” he reiterates, because he thinks she might need to hear the reaffirmation. And maybe he needs to say it, too. “But he’s not alone.” Tooru’s aunt looks confused, but doesn’t prod. She waits patiently for Wakatoshi to find the right words, to articulate himself in a way that doesn’t cause more panic than it needs to.

“He’s with the princess.”

And he doesn’t need to say more, because they both know what that means, they both know what lies between the lines of his statement. Oikawa Tooru is coming home. And he’s bringing war with him.

Chapter Text

Three

Oikawa did not cry when his parents died. He doesn’t remember much about it, but he remembers that he didn’t cry. He remembers bodies littering the village, small huts crumbling and crops trampled. He found his aunt kneeling next to a woman with long, brown hair. She was weeping; loud sobs shaking her entire frame. 

“Don’t come any closer,” she had told him as he made his way over, voice uneven and weak. Unrecognizable almost, so different from the carefree, melodious way she used to speak. Oikawa’s legs had carried him over, despite her protests. He felt something like a pull, like a spell that kept him going. “Don’t look.” 

But Oikawa looked. His eyes transfixed to the body cradled in his aunt’s arms, he felt his stomach turn to ice. And just like that, everything changed. 

His father’s body was harder to find, hidden beneath the corpse of an enemy; a water warrior from the south. There was a gash on his face that made him look inhuman, but the locket around his father’s neck was unmistakable. Oikawa was an orphan. And he didn’t really even understand what that meant.

“You’re so brave,” his aunt told him a few nights later, her hands digging into his shoulders as they watched the funeral pyre. He could see Ushijima Wakatoshi on the other side, the taller boy red in the face and biting his lip. He looked skinnier, somehow; hollow in a way. Like he’d been crying out everything that used to fill him up and was left only with an empty exterior. Oikawa envied him, though he recognized how unfair that was. Oikawa still had his aunt, his back pressed against her front as the fire raged before their eyes. Ushijima had nothing.

“You're such a brave boy,” she repeated, but Oikawa wasn’t sure she was really talking to him at all. “Courageous, just like your parents.”

Courage. It sounded like such a good thing, like it should’ve been a positive emotion. But the feeling grew and festered, coiled around Oikawa’s bones and made his body heavy. It wasn’t a good thing. It certainly didn’t make him feel good. Courage, Oikawa learned, was awful. But he nursed the feeling, let it take up residence within him, and when the Royal Guard came to ask for volunteers a few months later, Oikawa was the first to step forward. 

 


 

“Is there no other way?” You ask, anxiety playing with your nerves as you stare nervously in front of you. It looks like a beast; a huge wooden monster ready to swallow and consume you. “There must be a way around it, right?” 

You hear Oikawa snort behind you. “You could swim.” 

So that’s a no, you’re assuming, inhaling through your nose and eyeing the boat distrustingly. There’s no way that something that big should be able to float. A row of oars stick out from each side of the boat like the legs of a spider, and you swear you can hear the creaking of old, rotting wood ringing in your ears. Oikawa comes up next to you and you’re offended to see that he looks better, more refreshed than he’s done since the attack on the castle. Something about the fresh air, you suppose. 

Oikawa is from somewhere in the East. You’d known this already because your teachers had told you about the Southern Rebellion; water warriors trekking from way down south to wreak havoc on the Eastern villages. The East was peaceful, no mobilized forces or active guard. That made them easy targets. They were also the region most loyal to the kingdom. All the more reason to strike them down, send the capitol a message. 

The regions are more independent now; they all abide by the laws from the capitol and follow the trade treaties, but there’s no real alliances anymore. Not out in the open anyway. Your father always trusted the East and distrusted the South. You suppose some wounds don’t easily heal. 

The Eastern region is separated from the rest by sea. A large, dangerous body of water as thick as an ocean, running from the north east corner of the map and reaching to join the Southern Sea. The currents are unruly here — or so you’ve been told — and the sea creatures even more so. A lump forms in your throat, making it harder to breathe easy. You never learned how to swim. 

You’re once again reminded of the story of the King and Lionheart. In the story, the King falls into the north east sea — in the story it is named the Serpent Sea, though no one really calls it that anymore — and he is pulled down into the black void, choking on salt water and surrounded by unthinkable monsters.

Lionheart had dived after the King without hesitation or fear, and somehow he had slain the giant serpent living in the sea and saved the King. 

The sound of a horn breaks you out from your thoughts, and you feel your body tense up. The sound of horns usually just means one thing, you’d learned in your lessons. Signaling disaster and destructions, warning the people to lock themselves inside to avoid storms and tornadoes and unknown assailants. The sound tears through your ears and makes the hairs on your body stand, and for a moment you’re frozen in place. 

“Time to board,” Oikawa says, eyes on you as he nods towards the boat. Sure enough, there’s a man wielding a large goat horn standing on deck, his chest puffing up as he readies himself to blow the horn once more. No dangerous storms in sight, no armies running to kill you. You force yourself to breathe, embarrassed by your own reaction. Your feet will not move. Anxiety roams your body like a marching band of ants, and when Oikawa steps towards the boat, you wonder if you should just refuse. Maybe, if you raise your voice and complain loudly enough, your fear will sound like regal indignation and Oikawa will cave. It’s a big maybe, an embarrassing thought, but it’s tempting. 

He looks at you, and your thoughts must be on plain display; Oikawa’s left brow rises on his forehead and he looks like he wants to laugh. “Are you scared?”

“No,” you reply, way too quickly. Fingers find soft fabric as you clutch at the front of your dress, if only to make them stop shaking. “Are you?” It’s a childish retort that doesn’t sound as scathing as it had in your head. Oikawa’s brow rises further, as if it is trying to escape his face. Understandable, you think to yourself.  

He rolls his eyes and the horn sounds again. 

“Come on,” he says, and this time you follow, if only to prove him wrong. 

As soon as you step onto the boat, your body feels off-kilter and unreliable. You feel like you’re swaying, your feet firmly planted on the wooden floor but body finding no way to anchor itself. 

In the drawings you’d seen of boats, they were never this large. In The King and Lionheart it was a small wooden thing that could barely even fit the two boys. Lionheart was rowing while the King scouted ahead, keeping watch for threats. This one looks like it could fit fifty people easily, and it’s a wonder it’s even able to float. Your adviser back at the castle had told you about the ships traveling from north to east to transfer guard recruits or goods harvested in the far eastern villages. You suppose this must be it. In the back of your mind you swear never to tell anyone you thought he was talking about boats like the ones in the story, just longer in size. 

“They use these ships for guard recruits coming to or from the capitol,” Oikawa tells you, his voice echoing your thoughts. “The squadron that was supposed to be on this one never arrived, so there was space for us.” The implication hangs in the air, sends shivers down your spine.  You wonder what people are saying about the capitol, about the coup. If you asked around, maybe you could find some answers, since Oikawa insists on being unhelpful.

The brunet Kingsguard sends a pointed look your way. 

“Don’t talk to anyone.”

Oh, so he’s a mind-reader, too, now. You exhale through your nose, and inwardly curse him as you follow. If he notices the daggers you’re glaring at his back, he doesn’t let it on. 

Most of the crew on the ship seems to be older men from the eastern region. They’re tan, muscular and rugged, nothing like the dainty nobility of the capitol. There’s one man with a scruff beard and an eyepatch who looks like a pirate. He stares you down as you board the ship, his visible eye gliding up and down your body in a way that makes you uncomfortable. There’s a woman who looks like she might be from the South sitting by a makeshift table who eyes you suspiciously. You feel as if you reek royalty. As if everyone can tell immediately that you don’t belong, that you’re on the run. 

At once you feel like a caged animal, like a prisoner. It’s a strange thing to feel as the wind caresses your cheeks and the smell of the ocean tickles your nose, but it’s how you feel regardless. The further you get from the capitol, the less you feel like yourself. Freedom is a strange concept; you’ve been hiding behind the capitol walls ever since you were a child and you don’t know what to do with the sharpness of the sun or the sensation of the wind. You think this must be what it feels to have no obligations. To have shoulders unburdened, to have no strings attached to your limbs. It’s a foreign thing, and you don’t know that you like it. Fear has a tight grip around your neck. You’re just an imposter of whoever you used to be. 

“There’s a room in the back,” Oikawa’s voice is somehow reassuring amidst it all, something known in all of the strangeness surrounding you. “It’s the Captain’s chamber, but he’s willing to let us have it for the night.” You don’t miss how he’s fiddling with the bag containing your valuables and you’re not so naïve that you don’t know how people get what they want in this world outside your castle. It doesn’t matter anymore, you suppose. You feel heavy, bones aching and eyes swollen. 

“Okay,” you muster. He glances at you. You wonder what he sees. Whatever it is, it must make him uncomfortable, because he clears his throat and slings the bag over his shoulder, eyes not quite willing to meet yours. 

“It’s just one night, we will arrive at the Eastern Coast in the morning.” 

You shrug. Does it matter? The horn blows one final time and the crew gets to work. 

It’s like a chaotic but coordinated dance; one man pulling a rope while the other ties another. At least three different men are shouting commands as crew members run around the deck to oblige. It sounds like they’re speaking a whole nother language; using phrases and terms you’ve never heard of. Suddenly you’re reminded of the banquet for your eighteenth birthday. 

Kenma’s father had gone completely red in the face looking at the list of expenses, Kenma himself had looked slightly nauseated by the thought of the size of the event. Your father had been laughing. Nothing but the best for my little girl . But you were not little anymore, you’d reminded him. You were an adult now, ready to take on the world and everything in it. At the time you’d really believed that. 

Your father had gifted you your mother’s tiara, telling you she was your age when she herself got it. He’d touched your cheeks lightly, taking in your appearance and the jeweled headpiece sitting lightly on top of your hair. There had been a fondness there you’d never seen before, a wetness to his eyes that made you think he was reliving some sort of long lost memory. 

The ship leaves port. Oikawa watches as the docks grow smaller and further away, and there’s something in his expression that strikes you as odd. 

 


 

The captain’s chamber is a small room. There’s a mirror on the wall, a chamber pot and a bed. A small bed pressed against the wall with a window, and not much else. A chair and a desk that looks like it was hastily cleaned, ink stains fresh and still wet, glistening at the top of the polished wood. 

“There’s only one bed,”  you mutter, because what else is there to say? Everything in the room is pretty unremarkable, but the bed, you feel, is kind of a valid topic of conversation. Oikawa turns to look at you with exasperation in his expression. 

“Yes.” 

Annoyance creeps up your spine, rattling your bones on its way up. You hate this. You hate that he’s like this. 

“How is that going to work?” Is all you can manage, the questions silly and pathetically obvious. You’re not a stranger to the opposite sex and you’re not a prude. You used to have sleepovers with Kenma all the time as a child, and you’re used to guards staying close during the long hours of the night. 

But it’s not the same. It’s nothing compared to sharing a bed with a man who hates you, a man who’s known in the way that he is with women. He must see the reluctance on your face, because he grimaces, dropping his bag to the floor and stepping over to the bed with loud, demonstrative steps. He takes one of the three pillows on the bed, places it in the middle of the bed. He claps his hands very loudly and looks back at you. 

“That’s how it’s going to work.” 

He glares. “Or would you rather sleep with the rest of the crew in the back? I’m sure someone would share their bed with you if you asked.” 

His voice is venom and you hate the sound of it.

“Has anyone ever told you that your personality is entirely unpleasant?”

Oikawa laughs, a crisp and humorless thing. “Most people find me very pleasant,” he says, and the emphasis and the smugness of his grin feels suggestive in a way that makes your face heat up. You scoff, trying desperately to fight the embarrassment and the intrusive thoughts that grip at your brain.

“People must not know what you’re really like.”

He raises a brow, glares at you for a moment. You expect him to throw an insult your way; he’s got venom in his eyes and a frown on his face that sends shivers down your spine. Instead, Oikawa plops himself down on the bed. It creaks under his weight and he tilts his head, shadows dancing over his face as the ship sways peacefully on the water.

“And you think you do?” He settles on, a rhetorical question with much less poison laced in the tones of his voice than you expected. There’s something sad in his voice, something you can’t seem to put your finger on. He lowers his eyes, gaze seemingly glued to the inside of his hands. He looks lonely, then, and for a moment you find yourself feeling sorry for him. You ponder at Oikawa and his masks. You remember when you were young, when Oikawa first got knighted. He’d been tall, an arocratistic face with an armor of glimmering silvers. Chocolate curls bouncing with every step, face serious until it didn’t need to be anymore. 

He’d regarded your father with as much admiration as yourself, stars twinkling in his eyes as the King tapped him lightly on each shoulder with a ceremonial blade. A moment later, a shadow had crossed his face and his gaze had been completely empty. 

“I don’t,” you murmur, realizing you’ve been quiet for too long. You watch as Oikawa looks away, a deep scowl on his face. Whatever fragility had been in the moment it was gone, traded in for icy distaste. You swallow. “I don’t think so at all.”

There was a time when you thought that you wanted to, when Oikawa was a peculiarity you’d wanted to unravel. The notion seemed like less and less of a possibility.

 


 

It’s hard to settle in the company of someone who acts as if it would burn them to touch you. You lie pressed up to the wall, nose squished and cold against the wood. If you were to turn around, you bet you would see Oikawa’s back partially obscured by the pillow between you, his limbs dangling from the bed as he put as much distance between you as possible. Not that you objected, not really; you had no particular want to be close, but you had to admit that it hurt your ego to be treated as if you had some highly contagious disease.

Not for the first time, you wonder why he hates you so much. When Oikawa first came to court, you had tried to befriend him. The noble kids were annoying; they spoke with fake accents and acted like spoiled brats and bathed you in compliments so fake it made your stomach turn. You preferred the company of the guards, of Kenma, of people who didn’t treat you like some sort of valuable commodity. So when Oikawa, a young boy not far from your own age, had moved into the barracks, you’d been hopeful, curious. 

You’d learned quickly that Oikawa didn’t care for your attempts to befriend him. He rejected your offers to play hide and seek and he avoided your company like the plague. One time you’d tried to bring him treats from the kitchen and he’d knocked them out of your hand, the freshly made goods spilling all over the castle floor. Iwaizumi had arrived not long after, transferring from the orphanage due to his natural skills in sword fighting, and you’d made a friend out of him instead.

Iwaizumi … Your chest ached with the memory of him, breath catching in your throat before you could stop it. Oikawa must hear it too, because you feel the mattress shake as he shifts ever so slightly. You want to pretend you’re asleep. You doubt he’d care to ask anyways, if anything he’d probably just been rattled by the sudden sound coming from behind him. You don’t want to speak, but you do it anyway.

“The body in the Servants’ Chamber,” you murmur, so quietly you’re not even certain you can hear your own voice. Oikawa shifts beside you, but you don’t trust yourself to turn and look. “Was it Iwaizumi?” 

There’s silence. 

“Princess— 

“Just tell me, please,” you whisper, ashamed of how needy your voice sounds, how close you are to begging. The knight sits in a corner of your brain, observes you with watchful eyes. Hollow, somehow, like he’s not really there. Which— he isn’t, of course, you haven’t gone completely insane. But still. It’s eerie and uncomfortable how he flickers and disappears sometimes, how his eyes sometimes seem like dark, endless pits instead of the warm and pretty olive you remember. “I can’t stand not knowing.” 

A moment passes, and then another one. You think Oikawa is refusing to tell you, that he’s once again withholding information you feel you have the right to know. But then he sighs, and you feel your ears twitch in response, heart pounding with anxiety as you wait impatiently for his answer. 

“Yeah,” Oikawa relents, his voice low and slow and careful. He sounds like he doesn’t want to speak, like he’s biting his tongue on every word. “someone needed to stay behind, to make sure the hatch to the tunnel remained undiscovered. So you could escape.” 

In your mind you’re back at the Servant’s Chamber. The room is dimly lit and slippery, fire crackling in the fireplace and walls dripping with thick, red liquid. You feel it between your fingers, creeping down your neck, seeping into your skin. On the couch in the corner, Iwaizumi is sleeping. No— not sleeping. There’s no slow rise and fall of his chest, no color in his face. The walls are closing in and—

“Princess.”

Oikawa’s voice rings in your head, snapping you out of a waking nightmare. You will yourself to breathe easy, tell yourself the wetness on your face is a trick of the mind. If you convince yourself you’re not crying, maybe it will become true.

“So it’s my fault.” 

The man besides you exhales, and suddenly the bed feels all the more smaller, too cramped for two bodies desperate not to touch. You feel as if you’re expanding, growing beyond the limitations of your body, as if your very being is exploding. 

“It’s not,” he tells you, sounds almost reluctant to utter the words. As if he doesn’t believe them himself. You feel sick. 

“I need some air,” you whisper, taking advantage of the knowledge that Oikawa knows nothing about comfort and feels uncomfortable around you in your more emotional states. He looks like he wants to say something when you sit up, pushing yourself over him to get out of the bed. “I’ll— I’ll be back in a moment.”

And then you’re fleeing. It feels as if that’s all you do, these days. 

 


 

A dark, clear night sky greets you as you step on deck again. It’s quiet, no men yelling commands or engaging in spirited games anymore. A tall shadow looming over the steering wheel is the only sign of people you can spot, and you hurriedly walk in the opposite direction towards the front of the ship where he can’t see you. The splashing of waves is the only sound you can hear, the thundering somehow soothing as you try to work yourself down from anxiety. 

Far behind you now you see the shapes of somewhere you used to live. Barely visible in the night, illuminated only by the full moon hanging in the sky, you wonder if you’ll ever step foot on familiar land again. Ahead of you is Oikawa’s home. The Eastern villages. Before Oikawa was knighted he used to return every summer. Recruits with no real purpose had that luxury. You wonder what it’s like, but the question doesn’t excite you like it would have back when you were just the princess and he was just a knight you wanted to befriend. It does little to soothe the growing voices in your head. You grip at the railing as if to steady yourself, and when you exhale the sound echoes into the night.

It’s your fault. There’s no denying it, not even with Oikawa’s weak refusal. In your head you see Iwaizumi ushering maids and servants down the hatch, brows knitted in concentration. You see him closing it, taking care to conceal it properly, and taking out his sword. You close your eyes and grief takes hold of your bones as if it’s been waiting for the right moment to strike. It squeezes your heart and rattles between your ribs, wreaking chaos on the inside of your body as you let yourself cry for the first time since your escape. 

You fall to your knees, slide slowly to the floor with hands still gripping at railing above your head. Fingertips dig into wet wood hard enough to hurt as you try to convince yourself to breathe steady. There’s a hurt in your throat that feels like it wants to rip out your vocal chords, a sort of earth shattering sensation splitting your chest wide open. Self-sacrifice. How very Iwaizumi of him. How very selfless. And for what? You can’t confidently find a single reason for anyone to lay down their life for your sake, and if anything you think Iwaizumi would be much more capable of dealing with whatever is going to happen when the regions find out about the coup. 

“... you okay?” A light, feminine voice tears through the barrage of self loathing echoing inside your head and for a moment you think you’ve gone mad. You blink, inhaling cold sea air in a deliberate, slow intake of breath. When you tilt your head up towards the voice, you see a pair of worried blue eyes, a head of dark hair and a pale face. It’s the woman, you realized, the one who had been looking at you when you boarded the ship. “Oh dear.” 

Her face twists as she takes in your appearance, no doubt noticing the tears still slowly descending from eyes to chin in a steady stream. She hesitates for a moment, glancing around as if looking for an out, and stretches out her hand. You take notice of her long, elegant fingers, rings adorning three of them. You remember the Southern Peace Envoy that came to court once. They also wore rings like that. “Here, I’ll help you out.” 

Oikawa had told you not to talk to anyone, and you suspect people from the South ranked at the very top of that list. But your skin itches with the longing to be comforted, voice ready to burst if prompted. You wanted someone to ask you how you were doing, to look at you with something other than contempt. So with a glance at the woman’s face and her outstretched hand, you reach and grab it. A smile paints her pretty face, lip curving ever so slightly. She helps you up with a surprising amount of strength and for a moment you feel unsteady on your feet. She must notice it too, because she doesn’t let go, fingers clasped around your hand with a solid grip. It’s warm. You wonder when the last time someone touched you like this was. All you can come up with is Oikawa’s steel grip. It’s not a comforting thought. 

“Thank you,” you mutter, awkwardly staring at your joined hands. At the sound of your voice, the woman’s grip seems to tighten slightly. With your free hand, you wipe away the proof of your childish outburst. “I’m sorry.” The woman’s smile widens, her head tilting slightly as she watches you with hooded eyes. She’s tall, you realize, a full head taller than you. Her shoulders are wide, arms visibly muscular beneath her thin shirt. You’ve heard that even women can be fighters in the South. You wonder if she’s one of them. 

“What might you be crying for, little one?” The woman asks, her accent thick now that you know to take notice of it. Distinctly southern in the way she rolls her rs. She takes a step closer, her chest directly in your line of sight. She looms over you like a shadow and at once an unsettling feeling creeps down your spine. She pulls at your hand. “Might it be for your fallen kingdom?”

You freeze, air stuck in your throat as you stare at the woman in front of you. Her expression doesn’t change except the smallest hint of an upwards cursing of her lips as you realize the meaning of her words. “What?” 

“Do not play stupid with me,” she says, effectively cutting off whatever question you might have asked. Again she tugs on or arm, bending over you to appear even more imposing. “I have been following you since the capitol. You cannot lie to me.” 

Fear catches up with you and leaves you frozen in place. You were right, then, you realize; she’s a water warrior from the South. A part of a dangerous, merciless kind of people who fear nothing and kill without remorse. They are said to be skilled in both ranged and melee fighting, wielding their fists as easily as a sword. Her eyes glint with something dangerous, a sort of expression you’ve seen before in every second of eye contact with Oikawa. 

She hates you. For some reason, this woman hates you like you killed her mother right in front of her and you do not doubt she’ll kill you without hesitation. 

“Has your knight abandoned you, little one?” She whispers, a gleeful tint to her low voice. She squeezes your hand so hard it hurts, only squeezes harder when you make an attempt to get out of her grip. “He did not seem to like you much. Not a stupid boy.” 

“Please,” you stutter, your own voice sounding foreign to your ears. “I haven’t done anything, please let me go.” 

The expression on the woman’s face changed immediately. Brows knit and mouth form a deep frown, nose scrunching in what looks like disgust. You wonder if you could yell, if you could shout for help. But the woman is pushing you backwards, shoving at you until your back hits the railing and her eyes are daggers. 

“Do you see the moon?” She glances up, pushes your upper body so that it bends backwards over the railing. You feel like you’re going to fall over, heart leaping up your throat with the sensation of nothing at your back. “It is at its peak. This is when the helmsman goes to get his second in command to take over the wheel.” 

“The sea is kind tonight, the ship will manage for a few minutes. Maybe they will have a little chat. We have the deck to ourselves, little one.” 

Her voice is syrup, her eyes hooded as she leans over you, her chest against yours in a way that would have made you uncomfortable had you not been so terrified. 

“Why are you doing this?” 

For a moment she softens, gazing down at you with something indecipherable in her eyes. She lets go of your hand, keeps your body caged beneath her own as her hand slides up your body to lock around your neck. Only slightly first, her thumb pressing at the front of your throat almost experimentally. Then she squeezes, her rings cold against your flesh and nails digging into skin. You’re reminded of your panic attack in the Servants Chamber, of madness and fear and walls covered in blood. 

“For my King,” she hisses, and her voice is somehow filled with both reverence and disgust as her breath fans over your face and her hands coil around your neck. Her grip is strong, no hesitation in her fingers as she squeezes life out of you. It takes only seconds for your vision to blur, black spots obscuring her face from view. 

And strangely, you feel at peace. The fear has faded into a dull ache, pain nothing but a concept of the past. It’s not the dignified death you’d envisioned, but it is close enough. You’re tired, your legs giving out and body kept up only by the body pressed against yours. You’re tired, and you want to sleep. You want to see your father, your mother. You want to see Iwaizumi, to hear his voice and feel the comfort of his touch, the touch of someone who doesn’t despise you. 

But just as you have readied yourself to welcome death and meet your maker, the hands around your neck disappear, replaced by a callous hand grabbing at your elbow and pulling you forward. You wobble on your feet and fall against the pull, clashing into a warm body. You hear a laugh, feel an exhale against your cheek. It feels, almost, like relief. 

“The brave knight appears,” the woman says, wonder in her voice. And sure enough, when at last your eyes regain the ability to focus, it is Oikawa’s tense face that meets you. His arm is snaked around your back, gripping at the side to keep you standing. In his other hand, his sword, shimmering in the moonlight and pointed at the Southern woman. She raises her hands, palms towards you in a disarming matter. “I have no weapon on me.” 

Oikawa glances at you, and where you expect to find rage you find instead something that looks suspiciously like worry. He’s surprisingly gentle when he leans down to drop you to the floor, and you can’t quite contain the shock in your face when he looks you over a second time. You’re reminded, distantly, that he always was your father’s favorite. 

“Good,” he says, his voice dark and raw in a way you’ve never heard it before. “That will make things much easier.” 

And he lunges. 

Oikawa is quick on his feet and precise in his movements. He charges the woman at full speed, sword angled towards her chest. But she is faster, dodging back and bowing to retrieve a dagger hidden on a strap on her leg. She blocks his swing with an ease that seems impossible, sweeps her leg to knock him off his feet. He steps back, charges again, swinging his leg back to kick. It’s a dirty move, one that catches her unaware. Clearly she had thought she was the only one with underhanded tricks. His foot connects with her stomach, and she is knocked back, staggering as a hand reflectively goes to her belly to soothe the pain. 

But this is not a training fight, and the opening only spurs Oikawa on. He knees her in the face, knocks the dagger out of her hand. In one fluid motion he has sheathed his sword, grabbed her by her hair and dragged her over to the railing, bending her over. It’s over as quickly as it began. You had always known Oikawa was a skilled swordsman, but as you watch with wide eyes, it strikes you that you had no idea the extent of his abilities. It’s like he’s a beast, a monster, and when he looks over at you with wild eyes, he might as well be. 

“Do it,” the woman sneers. “You don’t have it in you. Soft boy.” 

She’s wrong. Oikawa exhales through his nose, and with a swift push, the woman is falling off the ship and into the dark abyss of the sea. You release a breath you didn’t realize you were holding. She hits the water with a splash, and she is gone. Your head swims with the images of sharp toothed fish and long, slithery sea serpents. 

“Are you okay?” 

The question is so unexpected, so uncharacteristic compared to everything you’ve experienced with Oikawa so far that you forget how to lie. 

“No.” 

You’re not okay. You don’t know if you’ll ever be okay. You just stared death in the eyes and you’d greeted it like an old friend. That alone terrifies you, but not as much as Oikawa standing in front of you and not yelling at you for not doing as he told you. 

He sighs. “Yeah. Let’s go.”

 


 

The rest of the night is spent in uncomfortable silence, your face pressed against the wall and a pillow between you. You wonder what Oikawa is thinking. You wonder if he’s killed someone before. You wonder if he ever considered not looking for you. 

“Thank you.” 

He doesn’t respond. Maybe he is sleeping. Maybe he is ignoring you. It’s hard to know. Is tonight going to change anything? Why hadn’t he yelled? Your head feels too heavy, too full of questions that seemingly have no answers. You feel like you’re never going to be able to sleep. 

You’re gone within minutes, drifting into a softer more forgiving world with no pain, no suffering and no dead bodies. 

 


 

Ushijima Wakatoshi feels the early comings of a stress headache tickle at the bridge of his nose. Horseback riding has never been his forte, and being sat on one of the tall, stubborn creatures has always been enough to make him a little nervous. He’d never admit it out loud, of course, because he knows better than to encourage Tetsurou’s mocking grin, but it’s an actuality he’s silently accepted. 

But the instability of sitting atop a galloping horse is not the source of stress, not today. In the near distance, Wakatoshi sees the docks. Even this early in the morning it’s alive with traders and fishers and wives waiting impatiently for their husbands to come back home. A trade ship lies anchored to the docks, people spilling out to greet concrete land beneath their feet. 

Tooru is on this ship, Wakatoshi knows. It’s a reminder of summers past, of all the times before Oikawa became a knight when Wakatoshi would greet him in this very spot. Four times a year at first, then two when he went into knighthood. Very rarely after he got anointed. Tooru has always been Wakatoshi’s best friend, even with the distance put between them. No— ‘best friend’ is not intimate enough a term. Tooru is his brother. Wakatoshi wonders how it will feel to see him again after so long. 

But the knight is not traveling alone, and thus the rumbling pain that gathers beneath Wakatoshi’s forehead. 

With the two horses safely bound to a pole, Wakatoshi steps onto the docks to greet his friend and the Princess of the entire Kingdom. He feels that the title doesn’t matter any more, not in the circumstances that Tooru had described. It’s a useless thing that he thinks he should stay away from, lest he offends the girl. But still, tension nips at his skin as he recognizes Tooru’s brown head of hair and the seemingly permanently fixed frown on a pretty face. 

“Ushijima,” He says, because even though he might not want to admit it, Tooru is a knight now, first and foremost. It had stung, at first, but Wakatoshi comforts himself with the thought that if anything it’s a sign of respect. 

“Tooru,” he responds, because Wakatoshi is not a knight. He has no use for formality. 

And then Wakatoshi comes face to face with the princess. She looks like a fragile thing; her dress dirty and her shoes replicas of the ones Tooru himself is wearing. He’d seen drawings of her before in family portraits painted into official posters, but if he were to pick her out of a crowd, he would not be able to. She looks nothing like the regal beauty she’d been touted as. She looks tired. She looks scared. She doesn’t quite manage to keep eye contact as Wakatoshi looks at her, her gaze falling to her feet after just a moment. There are deep circles underneath her eyes, and her skin has a sort of sickly shade to it. 

It reminds him of how Tooru had looked when his parents died. And at once, Wakatoshi feels for the princess with such fervency and intensity that he wants to embrace her. It’s not a very common compulsion, but he remembers how Auntie had held him in the long nights when his own parents passed and he feels a sort of kinship with the girl, status differences and all. She looks like she could need a soothing hand, gods know she would not have gotten it from her companion. 

“Hello,” is all he can muster up by way of greeting, any other word seemingly stuck in his throat. Wakatoshi has always been told he’s an awkward ineloquent person. He supposes some things never change. 

The princess tenses for a second, her hands grasping at the front of her dress. “Hi.” 

Her voice is slight, uncertain. Inwardly, Wakatoshi hopes Tooru has managed to reign in his blatant dislike for the girl and the royal family to stop and think of everything she has lost. Somehow, he doubts it.

Ushijima Wakatoshi sighs. He thought he would feel easier, more at peace as soon as Tooru was back on familiar soil. Looking between the two of them, it dawns on Wakatoshi that the trouble has just begun.

Chapter Text

Four

Kenma sits on the floor of a cold and wet prison cell, and he wonders how in the hell his life turned out like this. He hears the echoing, empty sound of water dripping onto stone; the only sound he’s heard for days, and he thinks he’s going insane. Whenever he closed his eyes he could visualize his father so vividly he had opted not to close them anymore, lest he lose his mind. 

So when a tall figure pauses before him, looks him up and down with dark, sorrowful eyes, Kenma thinks he cannot be blamed for thinking it a figment of his imagination. 

“My boy,” the specter of Kenma’s father murmurs quietly, a sort of pain to its voice that makes Kenma want to vomit. It’s too human, too real, too uncomfortable for Kenma to really emotionally deal with. He leans his head back against wet stone, sighs as he takes in the vision of the man he once admired the most. “When did you become so stubborn?” 

There’s a hint of a sigh tucked between his father’s somber tone, as if Kenma had turned out not at all the way he was intended to. It makes sense, he supposes, considering all his father wanted was for Kenma to follow in his footsteps. Count coins and all that. It didn’t strike him as especially inventive, and Kenma had always felt he was meant for something different. 

Though not, he admits, rotting away in a cell in the castle he considered his home. That had been a surprise, and an unwelcome one at that. 

“Must be that wild princess,” his father’s ghost muses, fingers curling around his beard as if he was some sort of villain. He might as well be, with the distaste in his voice at the mention of the princess. His lost friend, his confidante. Perhaps you were a bad influence, a stick in the wheel of all of his father’s plans for him. More the reason to mourn your loss, Kenma thinks, and he feels his shoulders slump even if he doesn’t consciously release the steel grip he has on his nerves. “Just as bad as her vile father.” 

And the veil lifts, uncovering a truth that Kenma sorely wished to keep himself from recognizing. There is no ghost standing in front of him, because Kenma’s father — the pursekeeper, the king’s right hand man — is not dead. In fact, Kenma would venture to guess that his father was in higher spirits than he’d been in ages, despite the look of cruelty and malice crossing his face as the pursekeeper mentions his deceased lord. 

For a moment Kenma relents, closes his eyes and lets himself revisit the moment when his life changed. An army of unknown men marching on the throne room, his father pushing him back to shield him. The King rising from his throne. Kenma has heard people recount moments of tragedy before, has heard the phrase “it happened so fast” more times than he can count. 

In his mind, everything happens in slow motion; the sea of warriors parting to reveal a young man with an angry face, Kenma’s father addressing him like an old friend. The King’s expression blank as he reaches for his sword. 

An impossible crack of thunder erupting, seemingly from nowhere at all. The sky is blue and sun hot, but inside the castle there’s a storm. The bolt hits the King in the chest and he is flung backwards as if thrown off a horse at full speed. It’s impossible, it’s insane, but no matter how much he tries, Kenma can see no other explanation. The young stranger’s fingers seem to fizzle with energy, poised in a snap above his head. 

Kenma’s father steps over, and he bows to the stranger. 

“The Kingdom is yours, my lord.” 

Kenma opens his eyes and looks at his father. He sees nothing of the man who raised him in the dark gaze staring back. He sees only a traitor, a murderer. 

 


 

When you were a child, horseback riding used to be one of your favorite things. Riding bareback through the fields outside the city gates, a distraught guard in tow, the wind against your face. Sometimes your mother would join; sit herself underneath a tree to watch you as you rode. Whenever your mind takes you to the most comforting moments of your life, that’s what you see: your mother casually leaning against a tree while a nervous guard tries to keep up with your horse. 

After the South's attack on the East, you weren’t really allowed outside the gates anymore. You’d still trot around the training grounds, sitting more proudly and more appropriately on your steed than before, and your mother would watch, stars in her eyes as she praised and cooed, applauding with every leap of the horse. 

Then she died. You didn’t see much of your horse after that. 

So it is strange, then, that it is when you are on your way to that very Eastern village, riding with the boy who arrived in the capitol following the attack, that you feel that wild sensation of exhilaration once more. Oikawa’s body is stiff behind you, but not so much in the way that he usually is stiff whenever you’re around. His hands reach in front of you to grasp at the horse’s reins, his arms effectively a cage around your body. You feel the shape of muscles around your arms, the beat of a heart against your back. The closeness is almost as exhilarating as the horseback riding; especially when you find no trace of Oikawa’s usual reluctance. 

Maybe he likes horse riding, too. Had he not hated you so much, maybe you could have asked. As it is, you spend the hours-long ride in silence, your body stiff and tense and aching in short time. It’s been too long since you spent any significant amount of time on a horse and your muscles complain loudly in the form of pulsating hurt. 

To take your mind off the pain, you glance instead around you, taking in the unfamiliar scenery. You’ve always been told that the capitol was chosen because of its strong structures and rich architecture. Before the castle town was built, there was nothing but plains in the whole central part of the kingdom, and if history is to be believed that’s why the castle was built there. To serve as a landmark, easy to admire from even far far away. It must have helped that there was no need to tear down forests or ruin farm land, you think, but practicality rarely makes it into the history books. 

The East is the heart of the kingdom’s agriculture. Forests rich with herbs and flowers used in medical potions, fertile lands to sow and reap and sow again. Fruits, grains, cattle, it all comes from the East. They weren’t bred for war here, you think. Unlike the capitol and the South, seemingly endlessly locked in silent feuds and violent clashes, the East was a place of peace and growth. 

And it showed. Over the course of the next hours you ride past orchards filled with red apples and purple plums, you ride past no less than three of the biggest farms you’ve seen and endless fields. The people are tan, they’re strong, and they look happy. Whether it’s a family playing with a flock of sheep, a woman calling for her husband to come in for supper or an elderly man collecting a harvest, every person you pass seems unburdened, content in a way that’s so unfamiliar it’s striking even when you only get a glimpse from afar. 

You wonder if Oikawa started out that way, too. It’s almost impossible to reconcile that the Oikawa who glares at you like he wants you to disappear is the same that was born in such a bright, loving place. You wonder why he left. You wonder if he would tell you if you asked. 

Somehow you doubt it.

 


 

Oikawa’s hometown is a marvel. It is a small, open field of cute little houses and patches of soil. It’s lush greenery and deep brown wood. It’s such a simple, unassuming sort of place that you almost can’t believe it’s real, that someone like Oikawa would spend his childhood here. 

And as if to alleviate this doubt, one of the children playing near a cottage — assuming drawing circles and shapes into the hard ground could be considered playing — lifts his head with the sound of horses and gets up from his position on the ground. 

“Tooru!” The boy yells, arms flailing and mouth a wide open grin. It’s the most affectionate tone you’ve heard the knight’s name spoken in, and it feels weird, uncomfortable. As you ride, more people seem to notice. They come out of their houses to greet the three of you. Ushijima sits up straight on his own horse as if it’s the only posture he knows, as if slouching was an impossibility. Oikawa inhales loudly into your ear, the sound stutter-y as he pushes air back out. 

He sounds nervous, but you cannot believe that. You wonder when he visited these people last time. As a recruit he would not have been allowed many days off, and with the time it takes to travel there is no way he could make it in that short amount of time. When he became a guard it would have become a bit easier; he was on official duty then, and official knights got free time thrown their way. After all, no one dared attack the capitol, right?

You feel like a commodity; some rare, collectible object Oikawa’s been able to snag at a cheap price. Anxiety creeps up your spine, locks your muscles and bones into a tense position. You feel like you’re nude and vulnerable, trying not to pay attention to the stares and the whispers. They know, you realize. They know who you are. What happened to your father. What happened to the kingdom, how you’ve got nothing to you name but the last remaining tokens tucked away in Oikawa’s tattered bag.

You arrive at the innermost house of the village, furthest away from the traveling road. It’s a tad bigger than the rest, stands a bit taller and feels a bit newer. You’re reminded of the pillagers coming here years ago, robbing Oikawa of everything he had. 

Or not quite;

A woman who looks undeniably like your royal knight steps out of the house. Her hair is the same, gorgeous brown in color; muted by age but still warm and soft-looking. Her face is the same as his; far more aristocratic than the usual inhabitants, like she doesn’t truly belong. She looks like she could be his mother, though you know she can’t be. She presses her hands against her face as if in disbelief, half-walks, half-runs to meet the trotting horses as they approach. 

The horses stop and Oikawa slides down effortlessly behind you, leaving you to grasp at the reins to not fall over and off the horse. The knight takes long steps towards his relative, his expression blank but his pace betraying emotion nonetheless. The woman speeds up to meet him, her arms open to embrace him as soon as he’s close enough. She repeats his name, her voice soft and soothing like a doting mother. Oikawa doesn’t say anything, but he seems to melt into her touch somehow, as if he’s been holding his breath all the way from the kingdom. Maybe he has, in a way. The woman murmurs too quietly for you to hear, rubs circles into Oikawa’s back. The scene is so mesmerizing you don’t even register Ushijima coming up next to you until he clears his throat. With reluctance you tear your gaze away from the reunion of family and look at the tall, expressionless man instead.

“I’ll help you off,” he says, extending a hand towards you. You wonder if he’s being polite because he feels like it or because he feels bad for you. There’s no way to tell by the way he looks at you, nor the tone of his voice, and you’re left guessing. You have a feeling that’s a commonality with the man. But whatever it is, you’ll take it; it’s better than Oikawa’s cold stares and icy words and even if Ushijima is awkward and stiff as you reach for his hand and let him help you off the horse, your mumbled ‘thanks’ is genuine all the same. 

Once you’re off the horse, the woman seems to finally register your presence. She lets go of Oikawa and almost pushes him to the side as if to get to you faster, and before you’re able to properly react she has you in the same steel grip hug as she’d just had Oikawa in. 

“You poor thing,” she whispers against the side of your face, her voice soft and low as if her heart was breaking on the syllables. “You must have been so scared. You’re safe here, I promise.” You cannot remember the last time you were hugged like this. Your father was a good one, but not very partial to physical affirmation, and your best friend was a bookish introvert who would rather stiffly shake your hand than touch you in any sort of meaningful way. You’re reminded of your mother and her inclination towards casual touches; fingers through your hair, the back of her hand gently caressing your cheeks, and you want to cry.

She holds you until you feel the tingle of awkwardness creep along your skin, and even then she doesn’t let go. You get the sense that this woman — whoever she is to Oikawa — knows about suffering. There’s something in her adamant, forceful closeness that feels too much like understanding rather than simply sympathies. And you suppose that must be true, if her likeness to your sour knight is anything to go by. You wonder how much pain this village has seen, how small and insubstantial your own must be in comparison. 

“Auntie,” Ushijima’s low, rumbly voice breaks the silence, the woman’s smooth, gentle touch at your back coming to a stop. She lets go of you as if reluctantly and when you look at Oikawa, he is avoiding your gaze. You wonder if you’ve offended him again, if he is angry at the attention you’re getting. His jaw twitches. You must be getting better at reading him. “We should get inside.” 

The woman — she must be Oikawa’s aunt, you realize, because there is no way she is related to his tall friend — sighs, gives you a once over as if to make sure you’re not falling apart. As if her touch was the only thing keeping your broken parts together and you’re ripping at the seams without the support of her surprisingly strong arms. 

“Right,” she replies, but she doesn’t sound happy about it. “I had hoped we could wait.” A pause. She seems to be weighing her words carefully, arms crossed and eyes closed as she considers. “But a letter came this morning and I think you both need to see it.”

There’s an uneasy feeling in your chest, seeping through your ribs and squeezing your heart. Oikawa’s aunt looks sad and apologetic. Ushijima looks the same as he’s done since you met him, but he also looks completely different; hesitates in a way that feels uncharacteristic even to you. Something is happening. 

Something terrible is happening. 

 


 

Oikawa’s aunt’s name is Makoto but she insists that you call her auntie. The look on Oikawa’s face when she tells you this lets you know right away that you will not, under any circumstance, call her that. She leads you into her home, a hand at your back as she does, glances around almost conspiratorially before closing it behind her. 

It’s a cozy place, a big open room with a kitchen in one corner and a fireplace with a table and couch in the other. The walls are a deep, warm brown, and each side of the room has doors you assume lead to a bathroom and a bedroom. Almost everything is made out of wood; the walls, the furniture, the flooring and roof. One of your advisers had told you this was a staple of the East; earthy colors and wooden architecture. That’s why it was so easy for the South to devastate them all those years ago; all they needed was a flame. 

You try not to think of it. Thinking of the tragedy that cost Oikawa his parents feels almost like sacrilege in this house.

Makoto guides you over to the fireplace, motions for you to sit down on the couch. She sits herself down next to you, Oikawa opting to lean against the nearest wall and Ushijima standing in the middle of the room as if he can’t really find a way to make himself comfortable. You wonder what they know that you don’t. It’s hard to guess at, considering you know nothing at all. You want to ask, but your mouth is covered in syrup and forming words feel like an impossible task.

Oikawa, thankfully, takes it upon himself to break the silence. “So?” he asks, voice clipped. He looks uncomfortable in a way that feels entirely unfamiliar. It’s as if he doesn’t like this, this collision of worlds, as if your presence in his home is nothing but an unwanted virus. “What’s this letter, then?” 

Makoto glances at Ushijima, then at you. At once you feel like a fragile doll; all porcelain and easily breakable parts. When Makoto opens her mouth, it is you she’s addressing, her gaze watchful as she speaks in soft tones. 

“We have a contact in the capitol,” she explains, speaking slowly as if you’re hard of hearing. She’s stalling, you think, waiting until she absolutely has to to tell you whatever news it is they have received. She turns her attention to Oikawa for a second; “he got out okay, he’s on his way back.” If that particular piece of information is of any importance to Oikawa, he doesn’t show it. Makoto turns back towards you, takes your hands in her own, a thumb pressed against the back of your hand. “But he— I’m sorry. Your father is dead.”

Realistically, this isn’t a surprise. It would have been stupid to stage a coup and leave the king alive. You’ve spent every second since your escape from the castle thinking this, convincing yourself that the more you think it the less hurtful the confirmation would be, but there’s still a sort of painful crack resonating from somewhere inside your bones and the breath that leaves you comes out in a stutter. Makoto watches, eyes scanning your face for any sign of a breakdown, but you reel it in, force the pain and the anxiety and the grief inwards. Not here. Not now. Not in front of these unfamiliar faces. 

“And?” You manage, desperate to be done with it. There’s no way this is the only news; it barely counts as news at all. There’s more, something somehow worse than the fact that you’re now not only an orphan but the sole carrier of a royal bloodline that has persisted for centuries. “What else?” 

Makoto inhales through her nose, lets go of your hands in favor of fishing out a folded piece of paper from a pouch by her hip. She hands it to you and you accept it with a hand that shivers more than you’d like to admit. It feels like unfolding a secret, as if you’re going to be faced with some ugly, unbearable truth once you uncover the content of the folded piece of paper in your hand.

You remember the first time you modeled for a portrait. It was before your sixth birthday and you had been bored out of your mind sitting still while the artist painted away. He’d chide you for your relaxed pose; the slouch of your back unbecoming for a little princess. Stop playing with your dress, stop getting distracted. Five hours of grueling boredom and nothingness. The picture had been nice enough, though not nearly worth the hullabaloo that was the unveiling party. 

Your mother had loved the portrait, cried like a baby at the unveiling. Now I can remember you like this forever , she’d said, hands combing through your hair as she admired the artwork. My beautiful princess, my precious daughter . It had been worth it, then, and the next time you had to go through the process again you’d made sure to sit a bit straighter, smile a bit brighter. 

It feels wrong, misplaced, twisted; to see your own portrait on a wanted poster. Dead or alive . 100,000 gold to the person to bring you back to the castle, dead or alive. That’s the value of your life according to whoever saw it fit to rip it apart. There are spiders creeping along your veins, venom running cold where your blood should be, and when you look up from the wanted poster you think you must look it too for how all three pairs of eyes are looking at you. 

“I know it’s a lot to take in,” Makoto says with a gentle squeeze at your shoulder. There is too much sympathy in the tones of her voice, like you’re a lost child or a wounded animal. Maybe you are. “You are safe here, I promise.” 

You don’t feel safe. Truth be told you’ve never been disliked before, with the exception of a certain royal guard. And even then Oikawa was easy to avoid. Now you seem to be surrounded by enemies; the water warrior on the ship, the aforementioned guard and now the people who killed your father. You miss having a friend. 

“Your contact,” you manage to finally form the words, carefully maneuvering your way around syllables that sound wrong in your head. “Did they say anything else? Anything at all?” 

Again there’s the exchange of looks, the careful guarding of expressions. Makoto’s words might be soft and her touch soothing, but you realize then that you’re still an outsider. They want you to trust them, but they don’t know if they trust you yet. 

“I’m sorry, sweetheart,” she replies, a moment too late for the response to be natural. “That’s all there was.” And you want to believe her because even if you just met the woman you believe she’s nice. That her touches are true and her motives noble. You want to believe that. 

But you don’t. 

 


 

Makoto tells you you will be staying in her bedroom while she will stay with a friend. She doesn’t accept your refusals and waves away your comments about being a bother. She doesn’t particularly seem like the kind of woman you’d want to argue with, so when your third attempt at rejecting her offer falls flat, you relent and thank her for her kindness instead. 

Oikawa… is not as enthused. Truthfully when Makoto tells him he’ll be staying under the same roof as you he looks like he wants to puke. In turn you also feel the urge to vomit, to rid yourself of all the negativity, all the anxiety balled up in your throat. There’s some back and forth, you and Ushijima blatant outsiders to the way of family bickering and after some terse words from the both of them, Makoto drags the knight outside, the door slamming behind them. 

So then there’s two: you and the tall giant of a man standing awkwardly in the middle of the room while the voices of Oikawa and his aunt can be heard from behind the wooden door. It must be nice, you think, to be so comfortable with someone that you’re free to argue. To know that no matter how much you curse the other they will always love and care for you. 

“I am sorry about Tooru,” Ushijima says to break the silence. It is strange to hear someone refer to him by his first name, it makes him seem less like a knight and more like a normal person. Less like someone who threw a woman overboard just a night or two ago. “Try as Auntie might have, she never managed to instill in him some manners.” 

He says it with a sigh, with a sound of pure, genuine disappointment. It’s a comical, unexpected display of emotion and despite yourself and your dreary thoughts you find yourself smiling. Just a little, but it’s enough. At least you’re still able to. 

“I don’t understand why you can’t just stay here your damn self,” you hear from the outside, Oikawa’s voice closer to a growl than anything else. 

“How am I going to protect her if someone comes? Tooru, stop being so selfish, this is bigger than you’d ridiculous prejudice!” 

There’s silence. Ushijima glances at the door, clears his throat. “He will settle down.”

A bitter laugh escapes you before your regal politeness can catch up to you. The thought of Oikawa ‘settling down’ and starting to treat you like an actual human being seems as possible as your father walking through the door. “He’s kept it up for as long as I’ve known him,” you retort, even though you didn’t actually mean to say it out loud. The words fall out as if you would explode if they were to remain unsaid. “I’m sure he’ll resent me until the day I die.” 

More silence. It seems they must have stopped arguing outside. Ushijima opens his mouth just as the pair re-enter the house with Oikawa looking glum. You can practically hear Ushijima’s mouth snap shut, whatever response was resting on his tongue lost to the world. 

Just as well, you think. Whatever he was about to say would have been either hurtful, or a lie. 

 


 

Night comes and you lie in a bed. Not as soft as the one you slept in when you were still the darling princess of the realm instead of a refugee in hiding, but leagues better than rocks at your back and hard mattresses on rocky boats. It smells vaguely of cinnamon and lavender and the blankets are not itchy and the pillow curves perfectly around your head. You feel your bones ache, your muscles whining and your eyes struggle to stay open, but still you cannot sleep. 

Your father is dead. In your mind you keep replaying the last time you talked to him; him and the queen sitting across you during breakfast proudly proclaiming they were expecting a child. A son, the queen had said with an unshakable confidence, her jeweled fingers caressing her belly. A king. The look on your father’s face had been one of absolute adoration. He had always wanted a son. An heir, a successor. You would marry some prince or some noble son, but this hypothetical child would carry on the legacy of the kingdom. 

That thought had been one of bitterness and relief, the two conflicting emotions fighting in the pit of your stomach. 

You wonder if they’d known what was about to happen, if they had any inkling at all how fast things would fall apart. 

You’re all that’s left now. What does that mean? Does it mean you storm the castle and demand justice for the fallen king? Do you rally the masses and become a ruler? Do you hide away in a far away eastern village until the end of your days? Do you ride into battle on a pure white steed and reclaim the throne? Or do you surrender yourself to a conqueror and perish like the rest? 

This never happened in the stories. In the stories the King returned home with his trusted Lionheart, their presence enough to strike fear in their opponents. In the King and Lionheart’s story, nobody died. 

You don’t know. You don’t know, you don’t know, you don’t know. 

The morning comes and you’re not sure if you’ve even slept at all. 

 


 

You’ve always been told that the East was the softest of the nations. The South has their water warriors and the capitol their Royal guard. Even the West has a sort of organized army, though you can’t recall what they’re called. The East, though, never seemed to raise their sons to fight. At least according to your history and geography teachers. They rely on trade and agriculture, keeping peace by offering wheat and livestock. They make themselves important; a neutral people open to trade with anyone offering enough coin. 

As you watch Ushijima and Oikawa spar, you think your teachers must have been wrong. 

Watching the knights spar used to be one of your favorite pastimes. Certainly it was more interesting than listening to the same recollection of wars that happened centuries before your birth for the third time in a month. Sometimes the knights would pretend to fight for your honor, Lev would curse his opponents as evil villains from far away lands, loudly and with a laugh proclaiming he would keep you safe. Iwaizumi would take on the role as villain — though, you must add, not voluntarily — defending against Lev’s energetic blows with a steady hand and a laugh that echoed in the training area. 

The tourneys were even better. Serious fights with something at stake. Prizes, glory, merit. The bread and butter for a young knight during peaceful times. Lances and horses, sword fighting, hand-to-hand combat. As far as you can remember, Oikawa had won every single one. 

So, you think, there must be something the East is keeping hidden from the rest of the world. Ushijima fights with a strength that seems inhuman. He moves on feet much lighter than his tall, thick frame should allow, parries blows with calm, collected precision. It’s a sword fighting style you could recognize anywhere, even if Oikawa wasn’t there to mirror it. 

It’s hot. The sun is dominating a clear, blue sky, and the two men are sweating. You had found it strange that the first thing they would do after being reunited after such a long time was spar, but looking at them you think there must just be some things you cannot understand. It’s clear as day that there’s something intimate, something secret and important in the two of them clashing swords. Some shared language in the clinking of steel that you’re not privy to. 

How nice it must be, to have someone to share something with. Makoto sits next to you on the bench, stares at the two men with adoration radiating from her very being. Lost, almost, in this moment. This small, inexplicable moment in time. You wonder if they’re thinking about the future, if they’re scared like you are. You think they must not be, and you’re jealous. You’ve been scared since the moment the capitol gate fell. 

“Ushijima’s parents died the same as my sister and her husband,” Makoto tells you suddenly. You didn’t ask, though you’d assumed as much, but it seems Makoto wants to tell you anyways. “They’ve both lost so much.” She tears her gaze from the two of them to look directly at you. “We all have.”

There’s some meaning in her words, something hidden between the lines. We’re the same, she’s telling you. We’re all the same. And though it’s terrible and selfish and maybe a little evil, it comforts you. You’re an orphan now; like Oikawa, like Ushijima. You’re not so different, you’re on common ground. You doubt Oikawa would see it that way, but at least you do. 

Maybe Oikawa’s been feeling this awful, never ending pain all this time. Maybe that’s why he hates you so much. 

“Does it ever stop?” You whisper, terrified to find your voice quivering and cracking at the syllables. Makoto’s hand finds your back, palm rubbing soothing circles against tense nerves and throbbing bones. 

“No,” she admits, as if she’s reluctant to do so. “It doesn’t. But it becomes easier. With time.” 

Time. What a muddled concept. You feel as if just yesterday you were bickering with Kenma over old scrolls in the library. You feel as if you haven’t seen your father in ten years. Time is nothing but a tangled mess of threads with no meaning coiling around your brain and making your head hurt. 

“What happens now?” 

You know the answer before she even opens her mouth to respond, because you’ve seen this play out before a dozen times in history lessons that seemed so unimportant at the time. War doesn’t start with the trading of blows or the death of a ruler. It starts with quiet words of discontent and whispers of rebellion. And though you feel so far away, so disconnected from it all, you know you’re standing in the middle of it, in the middle of war. Makoto knows it too, they all do. They might be considered neutral here in the East, but conquerors seldom care about neutrality. 

“Now we prepare for the worst,” she tells you at last, hand still pressed against your back. “And we hope for the best.” 

And the dam breaks. Her words feel like a confession, like a declaration and all at once every single moment hits you like a wall of bricks. Like the princess tower falling, falling, falling to cover you with crumbled stone. Like the images in your head of your father and the queen bleeding out in the throne room. Like Oikawa slapping you in the face, staring coldly at you, like the resentment of a woman from the South trying to kill you for having the gall to even exist. 

Fear and grief and terror bubbles at your skin and blocks your airways and when you open your mouth to breathe it comes out in a loud, stuttering cry that scratches at your throat like blades. Makoto moves quickly, pressing her body to your side and wrapping her arms around your trembling frame. It’s warm and comforting and confusing and it only makes you cry harder. You press your face to the crook of her neck, let yourself be enveloped in the embrace of a woman you barely know while you weep loudly and relentlessly over your losses. 

Makoto whispers comforting lies against your skin, rocks your body back and forth like she’s soothing a child. You certainly feel like one, like a lost, inconsolable baby. You feel like the orphans who came to court begging for a purpose. You feel like the knights grieving over lost limbs and the end of their glory days. It consumes and overwhelms you, submerging you in this thick, black fog of despair, and once your head finally clears you’re not sure that you know how not to cry anymore. 

Anxiety prickles at your skin like needles, your chest constricting in this strange, uncomfortable claustrophobic way that makes it hard to breathe. You’re vaguely aware that you’re making a scene, that you’re in perfect earshot of not only Oikawa and Ushijima, but probably the whole neighborhood, too. It’s not a very Royal thing to do, crying so loudly and pathetically for anyone to see. Your mother always told you that female royalty smiled in public and cried in secret. 

But truthfully you’re not sure if you’re even royalty anymore, not really sure what that term even means.

There are no more sounds of clashing steel, no more glimmers of silver reflecting sunlight. It’s as if even the birds have stopped singing and the wind ceased to blow, everything in existence pausing to take in the sight of the last living Royal breaking like a twig beneath a boot. 

“Good girl,” Makoto whispers against your forehead, her lips pressing a gentle kiss to your skin. “That’s it, let it all out.” And though Makoto never had any children of her own, she sounds as maternal as anyone has ever done. For a moment you’re able to close your eyes and pretend it’s not the barely-familiar woman holding you so tightly while you ride out the last waves of a cry bordering on hysteria, but your mother instead. 

I miss you , you think, leaning into her touch. I need you. I miss you so much. I’m so alone, I’m so terrified . And in your mind your mother smiles, pets your hair gently and you don’t feel as alone anymore. 

 


 

“Will she be okay?” 

Wakatoshi’s voice is low, brows knitted as he glances over at the door to Makoto’s home. Makoto herself sits on the porch, stares up at the dark blanket of the night sky above them. The princess had fallen asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow, spent and tired after what must have been a much needed breakdown. Makoto thinks about her sister. About her fallen friends and neighbors. About the tragedy that hangs over every shoulder in the village. Is anyone okay? She’s not sure. 

“She’s stronger than she looks,” she replies with confidence. “There’s something in her, she just needs to realize it.” 

Wakatoshi turns to look at his adoptive mother, at the woman who raised him. Truthfully, the princess reminds him of her. So she must be right, he thinks, though he’s not entirely sure what she means. Makoto’s mouth curls into a smile. 

“And Tooru?” 

A sigh. A common response. Stupid, headstrong Tooru. Tooru who holds grudges for wrongs he’s made up in his head. The combination of him and a fragile princess feels dangerous, like a storm brewing on the horizon. Wakatoshi trusts Makoto, especially in the matters of her nephew, but in this particular set of circumstances he feels uncertain. “If it is protection she needs I will stay. I don’t think Tooru is the right choice.” 

“No, it has to be him. She needs stability.” 

At that, Wakatoshi cannot repress the urge to raise an eyebrow. The concept is understandable enough, and had Tooru been less… well, Tooru , he might have agreed. As it is, Wakatoshi thinks the princess would have more stability left alone than with Tooru’s hostility. 

“He’s the only one she knows,” Makoto elaborates after a moment of silence. “And once Tooru grows out of his childish tantrums, they’ll both benefit from each other’s company.”

At once, a scene flashes before Wakatoshi’s eyes; just a brief sort of moment he barely even registered as it happened. Tooru is a brilliant fighter, better than anyone in the village. He started early, worked tirelessly. Swung wooden swords around until his breath came in loud, raspy gasps. Tooru wasn’t born with skill, he acquired it. When they were both children, Wakatoshi easily overpowered him, blessed with a taller, wider frame even then. Oikawa was a slow learner, but a stubborn one. And once he got the hang of it, he beat Wakatoshi every time. Too observant to fall for tricks, too agile to let anything slip through his defenses. 

When the princess started weeping, Oikawa almost let his guard down, almost made himself vulnerable to an attack. Something uneasy churns around inside Wakatoshi’s stomach. 

“I hope you’re right.”

Chapter Text

Five 

The tidings of war come on the wings of a raven. A skirmish, it is said, had broken out on the plains near the capitol, a clash of unknown forces and stragglers fleeing the mysterious conqueror residing in the broken castle. 

It had been a short fight, barely any ruckus at all, but the implications, the importance of it all sends chills down Semi Eita’s spine. He knows Oikawa came riding into town with a woman only five days prior. He knows that the woman has spent most of her time hidden inside Aunt Makoto’s house. 

Semi reads the letter thoroughly, then he reads it again. His eyes skim the paper five times, just to be sure. No chance, it says. The stragglers had no chance. Slaughtered like animals. It’s a declaration, Semi thinks. A threat, or a promise, or both. Paranoia seeps into his skin, fear drumming against his bones. He turns the paper and his blood freezes cold. 

Oikawa Tooru left for the capitol to become a knight. Even after all these years the memory is crisp and clear as the day it happened. To keep the East safe, he’d said when he first left, the sentiment echoed in every visit. To make sure nothing like the tragedy that took so many lives ever happens here again. Makoto had rejected the idea, of course. He was too young, too idealistic, he didn’t know what he was getting into. 

In truth, Makoto was the naïve one. The boys of the East became adults even before they knew that that meant. And in the end, Oikawa left. To serve the kingdom, to keep them safe. 

Semi inspects the portrait on the back of the letter he has received. The princess is a pretty girl, he muses. The crumpled paper makes her nose look oddly crooked and her face strangely narrow, but even so the blue blood in her veins shine through even on the surface of a wanted poster. 

Oikawa has spoken about her sometimes when he’d visited the East, the girls all curious about how it was to be a princess and the boys wondering if she was as beautiful as the rumors said. There was some resentment there, plain in the tone of Oikawa’s voice whenever he talked about her, answering questions but never elaborating more than absolutely necessary.

Distaste for the Royal family was not uncommon, especially among those who had lost something. Ushijima was a realist, he knew that the deaths of his parents were a circumstance, a message to the royals rather than blood on their hands. Oikawa, on the other hand, was an emotional man. He needed someone to blame, and who better than a privileged family unfamiliar with the realities of life? But still, there was something in his reluctance to talk about the princess that made Semi wonder. 

And then he saved her life, risked it all to bring her safely to his home. Curious, Semi thought. 

How ironic. Oikawa Tooru left to keep the East safe, and he brought back the one person who will undo all of his efforts. 

 


 

It takes two days to get used to the overwhelming, aching feeling that squeezes at your chest. It washes over you like the crashing tide in the darkness of the night, fades gently and almost without you noticing it. It rears its ugly head when you’re chewing on a piece of bread, and ebbs while Matoko tells you old stories about Oikawa and Ushijima. 

When your mother had died you’d been inconsolable for weeks. Her death was not so dramatic, not so crucial that it turned the lives of thousands on its head, but it shook you to the very core and took something from you that you don’t know you’ll ever get back. She’d been sick, growing weaker by the day, and when she finally passed the word that echoed in the minds of her doctors, of your father was ‘finally’. Finally she was free of the pain, finally she could rest. 

You did not share that sentiment. To you, your mother’s death was the death of your innocence, the loss of a safe haven. It’s strange, but the feeling in your chest as you think about your father is so different; a numbing, overwhelming thing but not such a physical and relentless hurt that it cripples you in the same way. You wonder if somewhere along the way, you’d broken. 

Maybe it’s a good thing.

It takes two days to get used to it, but it takes four to overcome the shame of your breakdown and enough to show your face to anyone but the motherly owner of the bed you’re hiding in. 

Oikawa is sitting on the couch when you exit the bedroom, a crumpled up blanket lying by his feet and a book in his hand. He doesn’t strike you as the type to read and it’s an odd sight. It’s quiet and domestic and for a moment it’s almost easy to forget that your family is dead and that you are in hiding. He doesn’t turn to look at you when you close the bedroom door behind you, and you don’t expect him to. Truthfully you didn’t expect him to be there at all, had expected him to be outside, training. 

There’s something special about the sunlight in the East, it feels and looks warm in a way you cannot fully explain or comprehend. When it peers through the windows it isn’t merely a bright, blinding light; it’s soothing and golden and magical in the way that it hits surfaces. It blurs Oikawa’s edges and makes him softer, evening out the sharper, more dangerous parts of him. In this light you can pretend he doesn’t despise you. In this light you can find some sort of private common ground with him.

“Why?” The question escapes your mouth before you can think to stop it. Oikawa sighs, closing the book with a loud thudding sort of sound as he turns his upper body to look at you. There are circles underneath his eyes, a sort of paleness to his skin that makes you think he’s had as much trouble sleeping as you.

“Why what?” His voice is sharp, but not as laced with toxicity and distaste as you’ve gotten used to. He looks exhausted. 

“Why did you save me?” You’ve asked him this before, but somehow it feels like an appropriate question. Why did he make the dangerous trip to your tower that day, why did he smuggle you out of the castle? Why did he go through the trouble of taking you to his home, what are you supposed to do here? “Twice?” 

Oikawa’s mouth is a grim line as he regards you, eyes scanning your awkward position near the bedroom door. Your legs feel like they are chained to the spot, you can’t find a comfortable way to keep your hands. 

“It’s my job, isn’t it?” He replies, not quite willing to look you in the eyes. “To protect the Royal family and whatnot.” 

“Does it matter? No one would have known or cared if you didn’t.”

Oikawa closes his eyes, exhales loudly and pinches the bridge of his nose. You have the distinct feeling that he’s trying very hard not to snap, that he has gotten strict instructions of how to behave. There’s a restraint in his posture and the way his jaw twitches that makes him look docile, almost, a tenseness to his brow that would’ve made you feel bad had you not been of the mind that he most certainly could not suffer from learning some tact. 

“I don’t really know what you’re asking me. Would you rather I just left you there?” 

You pause, surprised to find yourself unable to answer his question. You think back to the moment on the boat when you thought you were going to die. You think further back, to the moment before Oikawa stormed your room and you both fled the castle. You think about the dull ache in your chest, of the dreams about your mother.

And then you think about Makoto. About Ushijima. About Oikawa. About the female water warrior. About all the people who suffered because of the actions of your father. Knowingly or not, the Royal Family has been the cause of so much pain, so much heartache. You wonder if you even deserve to be safe, you wonder what it costs the people protecting you. You wonder if you’re worth it. 

Oikawa is still looking at you, as if waiting for an answer. His mouth is curled into a frown and he looks, above all else, tired and fed up. You wonder if he’s slept, if he finds it as difficult a task as you do. Maybe he’s scared. He’s not a stupid man, he knows what brining you here means. He knows that his village has suffered the wrath of the South once already. He knows better than anybody. 

“I don’t know.”

And still, he saved you. You make a decision right then and there to stop antagonizing him so much. As a naive princess you had been offended at his rejection of your friendship and you suppose you never quite managed to recover from the hit your ego had taken upon realizing not everyone would worship the ground you walked on. But Oikawa had still saved you. Despite his personal feelings he had risked his life for yours, was still risking everything by taking you to his home. For that, you think, he deserves your respect. 

Even though you still can’t answer his question. 

 


 

The brothel has been quiet. On a normal day Yachi would be halfway through a workday and skimming through guest lists already, but today she is sitting in Kiyoko’s office, chin resting against the palm of her hand while she watches Kiyoko sift through stacks of paper. There is no sound outside, no drunkards roaming the streets, no loud holler from the pub next door. The capitol is a ghost town. 

“It’s quiet,” she remarks, for the lack of anything else to say. Kiyoko’s eyes drift from a line on the document she’s reading, regarding the blonde for a moment before responding. 

“Not for long,” she says, and it sounds ominous. She’s right, of course, because things never stay quiet for long. Yachi is from the South, she knows how these things go. Things will stay calm for a time while the intruders make their little victory runs around the throne room, stroking their egos and congratulating each other on a plan well executed. The citizens will hide in their homes, groups of water warriors patrolling the streets to remind them that they are captives even as they bolt their doors and hide in their closets. 

Then they will become restless. The warriors will get bored of the lack of resistance, the people will riot. Blood will be spilled. And men will seek out the brothel once again. Yachi doesn’t miss the smell of sweat and alcohol, but she misses the steady stream of information. Yesterday her only client had been a young soldier from the South, a scared boy in need for comfort more than sex. He’d cried in Yachi’s lap, lamented the murders he’d committed earlier that day; a group of townspeople fleeing the capitol but caught just outside the crumbled walls that used to protect the capitol from outsiders. Try as Yachi might, there was not much information to gather from him, and so she assumed the role of courtesan instead, patting him on the back and letting him cry until he felt well enough to straighten up and resume his façade of a strong, emotionless warrior once again.

He’d reminded Yachi of Hinata, in a way. Too soft for war, too soft to refuse. Yachi missed home. She missed cool waters and the smell of the ocean. She wondered if they thought she was dead. She hoped they did; it would be easier that way. Better dead than a turncoat. 

“I only have one more client today,” she tells Kiyoko, though surely the woman already knows. The dark haired brothel owner hums. It’s a soft sound, a low and smooth note of a song that only she and Yachi knows the lyrics to. When you deal with darkness and shadows it’s important to learn a few extra languages. Kiyoko knows which client she’s talking about. She knows because Yachi would never keep a secret from her boss, her savior. 

“Be careful,” she murmurs, not looking at Yachi as she speaks. Her voice is low, soft, barely above a whisper. “The walls have eyes.”

This was true even before the raid on the capitol, but it’s even truer now. Water warriors and spies from the South have techniques the other regions could only dream of, and though Yachi knows of them, she doesn’t think she could do anything about it, should someone deem it fit to uncover her secrets. 

Yachi feels something cold run down her spine. Usually she’s the one watching, always keeping an eye out for news, for dirt, for any info that might come in handy someday. She’s not used to being watched.

 


 

War begins. There is no eloquent or poetic way to announce it. It is simply that: war begins. Or rather, you suppose, war continues. It escalates from treason and treachery, turns into the spilling of innocent blood. 

A friend of Ushijima and Oikawa is the one to announce it, having received a letter from some source of theirs still residing in the capitol. You want to ask who, but you’re scared to. So you just listen instead, taking in every word out of  Semi Eita’s mouth as he retells what he’s been told. 

The eastern sun is hot, but somehow there’s icy cold running in your veins as Semi Eita tells you about your home. Crumbled towers, blood in the streets. No one knows the identity of the culprit yet, but they know he personally took your father’s life. Bragged about it, his head paraded around the streets at night while you were too busy fleeing to even think about him. 

Restlessness is spreading. Citizens tired of being held captive rage against their captors only to be cut down. Families try to escape in the night only to be dragged back inside. Water warriors marching in the streets of the capitol. 

So it’s the South. The revelation doesn’t come with much fanfare, because realistically it was the only option. Oikawa is tense as he listens, Ushijima’s expression does not change. 

“They’re coming here,” Semi Eita says, his voice more even than the rhythm of your heartbeat. He looks at you, and you wonder what he sees. He must know that you’re the reason the water warriors are turning their eyes towards the East. Does he hate you for it? It would be hard to blame him. “They know you’re here.”

That’s the only time he addresses you throughout the entire conversation. The men talk among themselves, discussing strategy and possible outcomes. They could come from anywhere, realistically. The South might be their home but the warriors were known to travel. It is not uncommon to see dozens of them on the roads between the North and South. Even you know this, and the only water warrior you’ve ever seen is the one who tried to kill you on your way here. 

In the end the plan is simple. It’s the only one they have, the only way to preemptively squash the South’s wishes to catch them unaware. They must surprise them back. Their source has guaranteed them that no one knows about their correspondence. This is curious, you think. So it’s someone on the inside, someone in the castle. Then, you suppose, even the South have their traitors. Whatever the case might be, the plan is this: 

Oikawa will lead a group to meet them. Not a large number of people, because that would be suspicious. It might be just what the South wants, to leave them vulnerable in the village by luring them away with false information. 

“Had we known how many, this would be a lot easier,” Oikawa grumbles, sounds more annoyed, more tense than usual. This is his Royal Guard face, you realize. Serious, calculated, unfeeling. You’ve always heard that a good knight was one who could turn their humanity off completely. Oikawa does it well, but then you never really know what his face, what his true unconcealed self, looks like. He seems to contemplate for a moment, his gaze wandering from somewhere in the distance to meet yours. He holds it for longer than you expected, and when he finally looks away it seems he must have reached a conclusion. “Ushijima, Semi. Pick five men you believe in. Kuroo will stay here.” He looks at you again, his mouth pulled down into a deep frown. “Just in case.”

There’s warmth in the pit of your stomach. You’re not sure why. You’re terrified, you’re overwhelmed, but still; there’s warmth in the pit of your stomach. Ushijima and Semi both nod, discussing between themselves as they turn to leave. You expect Oikawa to leave with them, but he stays, standing in front of you with a tense posture and a serious expression. It feels as if he’s got something on his mind, that the tightness of his jaw keeps him from saying something he wants to.

You open your mouth, but Oikawa seems to find his voice. 

“Shut up,” he says, quickly and in a rush of breath that probably sounds less firm and intimidating than he intended. For the most part, Oikawa sounds tired. It takes you off guard, both the tone and the words themselves, and for a moment you cannot do anything but stare at him and remind yourself of your earlier promise to be less harsh. 

It’s going to be harder than you initially anticipated. “I didn’t say anything.”

“You don’t have to, it’s written all over your face,” he tells you, the biting tone back in his voice. He regards you for a moment, looks you up and down like he knows something you don’t. Like he’s got some sort of inside information into your mind to know what you were going to say before you said it. “I don’t have time for your self-sacrificial bullshit right now.”

And it stings. The nonchalance with which he says it, with the words he uses and the tone of his voice; it stings. And yet, you can’t deny his claim either, because haven’t you spent the last few days thinking just that; that this village would be safe without your presence, that maybe the right thing to do would be to surrender to whoever wanted you so badly?  

“I can see the wheels turning,” Oikawa remarks. “Don’t.” 

“Wow,” you exhale, sarcasm thick in the tone of your voice. He’s right, of course, because somehow Oikawa always manages to hit the nail on the head. “You must know me really well, huh.” Bitterness leaves a nasty taste on your tongue. There’s no one who really knows you well anymore. Not truly, not really. Even you’re confused, unsteady; uncertain about who or what you’ve become. 

Oikawa clicks his tongue, looks away. He sounds defensive when he says; “You’re just easy to read.”

“I didn’t realize you could read,” you snap back, and the normalcy of it, of the trading of insults that almost feel like banter, makes you relax, eases the tension in your shoulders ever so slightly. Oikawa snorts, shaking his head and rolling his eyes, and you’re not entirely sure if you’re imagining it, or if he’s looking a smidge more relaxed himself.

“Kuroo will protect you,” he says, apropos of nothing. “He’s reliable, just do as he tells you. Stay in Auntie’s house.” He starts walking, his steps long and determined as he paces over to the house. There are swords leaning against a wooden rack by the stairs to the porch. Oikawa’s is easily recognizable, a shiny silver with the royal emblem engraved onto the hilt among humble steel swords. 

“I want to go, too,” you tell him as he’s picking up his sword. “They’re coming here because of me. I want to fight.” 

For a moment Oikawa just looks at you. You expect him to easily throw some kind of insult your way, but he says nothing. His brow furrows as if he’s contemplating your words, as if he can’t really understand what you mean. You suspect your request might have caught him unaware, that he hadn’t expected you to make this offer. Not the omnipotent creature he likes to imagine himself as, then. The part of you that’s petty and competitive feels a pang of victory in your chest.

“No, you don’t.” He says it with such authority he almost reminds you of your father. “Don’t be stupid.” 

“I’m not—”

“Have you ever held a sword before?” Heat rises to your face, because even without the annoyingly self righteous tone in his voice you know that the question is wholly rhetorical. Of course you haven’t. Even if you wanted to, you were never allowed to train with weapons. Your birthday presents were jewels and dolls, not toy swords. “You’d just be a burden. Stay here. Don’t cause problems.”

It seems as if the only thing you’re doing these days is causing problems. Being a burden. You have no response to offer, no counter-argument to his claim, so you say nothing at all. You grit your teeth as he sheaths his sword, looking at you one last time as if to gauge whether or not you’re going to obey his orders. What a reversal of roles.

“Are you gonna do as I told you?” He asks, his voice neutral as he stares you down. You do not like that he speaks to you like this, like you’re some disobedient child in need of reprimanding. 

“Fine.” 

“Good.”

You watch as Oikawa gets on his horse and you feel a strange sort of unease in the pit of your stomach. Although there’s no love lost between the two of you, you find yourself scared for him. You find yourself clasping your hands together in a prayer directed towards no one in particular, fingertips trembling as Oikawa disappears into the distance. 

Please come back safe

And so, with no fanfare, no warhorns and no speeches; war truly, really begins.

 


 

Yachi Hitoka came to the capitol to be a maid at the castle. When she was a child she always dreamed of being a princess, of living in riches and sleeping on soft, silky beds. She would play pretend with Kageyama and Hinata, a bucket on her head as her crown and a stick as her scepter. She would boss them around, make her voice as commanding as possible, but Yachi never was particularly commanding. 

As it turns out, she wasn’t particularly good at being a maid either. She was clumsy, forgetful. She misplaces laundry and never quite remembered the order of cutlery. She only lasted four weeks before she was kindly, but firmly let go from her duties in the castle. 

Truthfully, Yachi was a terrible maid. But she found something else, something she was very good at. 

She wandered the streets for some time, sleeping on benches and stealing from bakeries. For all her clumsiness, Yachi was still from the South, after all; she was quick on her feet and knew how to go unnoticed. She found out that if she just fluttered her eyelashes and spoke in a softer voice, men would give her whatever she wanted. She was exotic, a fragile flower from the South. And so she went, for a while, flattering her way into sleeping in stables and exchanging kisses for food. 

And then Kiyoko found her. Gave her a home, a place to belong. All she had to do was work. For a while she worked the desk, keeping lists of customers and scheduling “appointments”. There were no brothels in the South, no sex work that she knew of. Men in the South took what they wanted, they did not pay for it. And until she was assigned with cleaning up the rooms, Yachi had no idea what was going on in them. 

“We offer company,” Kiyoko explained when Yachi finally asked. “For some that is someone to listen to their complaints, for others it’s… more than that.” But Yachi didn’t have to worry, Kiyoko assured her, her only job was to clean rooms and keep track of schedules. 

That was not enough. Yachi had spent most of her life being a passive presence, too afraid to rock the boat or make unnecessary noise. She found that here, homeless and unknown in a city that was not her own, she had nothing more to lose.

Most of Yachi’s clients were young knights. Awkward men who were too busy pretending to be warriors to care for romance and courting. They wanted release, they wanted closeness, and then they wanted to go. There was one that always stuck in Yachi’s mind for days, one particular knight that never seemed like such a simple creature. 

At first he came for sex. It was quick, rougher than she was used to, and he left immediately after, barely even telling her goodbye. No lingering, no unnecessary platitudes. Yachi decided that she liked him, though she did not expect him to come back. 

And then he did. He returned with — to Yachi’s big surprise — an apology. For being so rough, he said, for being so careless. He had a lot on his mind, he said. Most knights do, Yachi replied, because it was true. He had laughed, then, shaking his head. If only you knew, he had muttered. And Yachi wanted to know. He was more careful that time, as if some of his worries had eased. As if he was feeling lighter. 

He left with a promise to return. Yachi found that she wanted him to. She even found herself counting the days. 

When he saw her the third time, he told her he was scared. He had made a mistake, something he could not take back. Something that could get him killed if it went wrong or kill someone else if it went right. Yachi felt her heart ache for this nameless knight as he broke down and wept in her lap. He grasped at her skin like she was hiding some profound truth beneath it, and no matter how much she pried, he wouldn’t tell her what he had done. 

Not until he came to her the seventh time.

“I have to tell you something,” he’d said to her, lying on his side next to her naked as the day he was born. Yachi had been surprised by the sudden conversation starter; the knight had never been particularly talkative the times before. “If I don’t tell someone I will lose my mind.” 

“Okay,” Yachi had responded, because there was nothing else to say. She had been curious, of course, wondering about his outburst the second time he saw her. Not just because it was in her nature, in her very job description, but because despite herself, Yachi had begun to care about this stoic, strange knight. So she turned to look at him, signaled to him that she was giving him her full attention, waiting for him to speak. 

And he did— boy did he speak. He told her unspeakable, dangerous things, words of treason of the highest degree spilling out from between his lips. He had been feeding information to the South, he tells her. Selling secrets and providing ways for them to infiltrate the capitol. He had been in contact with a man holding a very personal grudge against the king. The man was going to come to kill him. Him and everyone he cared about. 

Yachi didn’t ask why, because she knew at least a hundred different answers to that question. She didn’t ask if he knew she was from the South, if that was why he was telling her this. Yachi just listened as the knight spiraled, his voice cracking over each confession. He talked until his voice was hoarse, until he didn’t have any words left to speak, and once he was done he stared at Yachi, waiting for a response. 

“Do you regret it?”

The knight nodded, his face serious. “So many innocent people are going to get hurt. Because of me.”

“Then you need to tell someone.”

The knight regards Yachi with suspicion when she enters the room, his gaze steely and his mouth a grim line as she closes the door behind her. He has this sort of tense air to him, this dark cloud of bitterness hanging over him every time he comes to see her. She hadn’t expected him to be able to visit so soon after the coup, but then again she supposes his privileges are a bit different than other citizens. 

He’s never told Yachi his name, but that doesn’t bother her. She doesn’t need her clients to be open with her, if she needs information she’ll find it regardless of their secrecy. His was easy to find, but Yachi figures it would benefit her to keep that particular fact to herself. 

She wonders what he thinks of himself now that it’s all said and done. She wonders if he’ll be able to live with it. 

“You told someone,” she says by way of greeting. In truth she doesn’t really know what to say. She doesn’t know where things stand, how fragile his mind is. “Did your friend make it out?”

He glances around as if nervous. Yachi supposes he has all right to be. “Yes.” 

He looks like he wants to say something else, but quickly closes his mouth. He opens it again, closes it, opens it. 

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he settles on, after much consideration. He beckons her over with his hand, and a part of Yachi is relieved. As much as she enjoys being in the know, having all the information and knowing more than the rest, with this particular client there are other things she’d rather be doing. She can’t stand the tragic look on his face whenever he talks about the people he wanted rescued out of the castle before the coup. The part of Yachi that doesn’t really mesh with her job and makes her feel possessive cannot stand the sound of his voice when he talks about her . “That’s not what I came here for.”

Yachi’s mouth curls into a smile. What a silly story, she thinks to herself, approaching the knight. The prostitute who fell for the knight. The prostitute who fell for the traitor. The prostitute in love with the knight in love with the princess. At least here, he’s all hers. At least now, in the moment before reality washes back over them, there’s no one, nothing else that matters.

Yachi stops in front of the knight and she stands face to face with Royal Guard Iwaizumi, the man who made the assassination of a king possible.

Chapter Text

Six

“Tooru,” Ushijima speaks up just as they’re passing a quiet town just outside the Central East. Oikawa feels his posture stiffen, a subconscious response to being addressed directly that he can’t quite seem to shake from his time in the castle. He feels so far away from his childhood friend, his brother in everything but blood. From Ushijima and his aunt and everyone else from his childhood home. He wonders if the person who left the village to become a soldier even exists anymore. 

He glances to the side, takes in the sight of his tall friend. More often than not, Ushijima is described as stoic. Unfeeling, unsympathetic. That’s the visage that Ushijima Wakatoshi hides behind. It serves him well, because above all else Ushijima prefers his privacy. He has his own skeletons and secrets and he would prefer for them to stay hidden. 

Unfortunately for him, Oikawa could always read him like a book. 

As such, when the man’s brows furrow and he opens his mouth, it is no surprise to Oikawa that the words that come out are “you need to be kinder.” Ushijima always wants Oikawa to be kinder. More forgiving, softer. Because for all the stoicism and the blank expressions, Ushijima feels a lot. Oikawa thinks it must be overwhelming at times, to see and feel the pain of someone else so strongly. 

“So you keep telling me,” he replies, because he has no other answer. Ushijima frowns and Oikawa hates whenever emotion shows itself plain on his friend’s face, this means he’s not giving up as easily. Maybe if Oikawa just took off on his horse right now he could escape from this conversation that he desperately does not want to have. Somehow he doubts it.

Ushijima exhales, the sound somehow loud enough to make itself heard even over hooves against the ground. “It is not like you to be so cruel.” 

The accusation stings. No, Oikawa thinks, it is exactly like me. You just don’t know who I am anymore. 

“Man,” Semi rides up on his free side and inserts himself into the conversation. Great, Oikawa thinks, now he’ll never get out of it. “She must’ve done something nasty for you to be holding such a grudge.”

And so the guessing game starts. Was she mean to the servants? Did she make a face at the lower class citizens? Did she make ridiculous demands to the staff? No, Oikawa replies, barely even listening to the questions. No, Oikawa remembers you as an enthusiastic, kind princess with a genuine interest for her people. That part he doesn’t say out loud, because it would make him look bad, and Ushijima is already looking at him with that judgey face of his and Oikawa doesn't think he could stand it if his expression turned into full blown disappointment.

The truth, and Oikawa didn’t want to talk about it because it truly, really revealed what kind of person he had become after moving to the capitol, was that Oikawa was jealous. Ever since he came to court a young boy with delusions of grandeur, he had viewed the princess as soft, weak and entitled. She was entitled to being weak, to being soft. She lived in such a way that she could allow herself unburdened shoulders and nights of safe sleep, because that was the kind of life she led, the kind of privilege she took advantage of. 

He had hated her almost instantly, hated the natural upwards curve of her mouth and the soft, unmarred quality of her skin. He had wondered if she’d ever lifted anything heavy before, if she’d ever felt the ache and strain of too much weight put on her shoulders. He’d doubted it. And his resentment only grew. Before long, he had built up this image of her in his head, this caricature of royalty that he used to hear about from the anti-capitolists in the outer villages and poorer part of the capitol, and he could no longer distinguish this image from reality.

It only got worse when they grew older, when she started interacting with the guard. She’d attend training lessons, observing sword fights with large, shimmering eyes and excitement plain on her face. She’d form connections with his friends, invading his space and tainting it with her presence. She coveted his life. It was plain on her face that as she aged she became too large for the life she was confined to. She longed for excitement, fantasized about battles like in the fairytales she loved so much. It disgusted him. She coveted it because she didn’t need to live it. Had she known what it was like she would have been ashamed. 

Oikawa knows that his resentment is misguided, targeted at someone who for all intents and purposes do not deserve it. But bitterness is potent, it grows and festers inside him and if he’s being completely honest Oikawa needed someone to hate. Even as he grew into adulthood, as he fought by the side of the Guard and protected a king he did not believe in, he held onto that hatred. He blamed the princess for his sorrows and he felt better about it. 

And why not? Why not, when she relished in lavish dinners and luxurious fabrics while his people struggled to survive on the little they could gather? People in the East would never know the softness of silk or the sensation of a filled stomach. Oikawa held onto his resentment and nurtured it, each bite of savory meat turning to ash in his mouth, each glass of wine poison in his veins. 

He played the political game, lobbied for support by flirting with influential wives and complimenting rich husbands. He did it well, too, but found more often than not that what the rich wanted and what they were willing to give usually did not match in value. Oikawa knows what his reputation at court was; the pretty knight who would bed men and women both for money. Nothing about it was true, of course, but that rarely mattered when it came to gossip. 

And even for that, he blamed the princess. Guilt by association. For the curious glances and the careful attempts at friendships. He wanted her to leave him alone, to let him stew in his hatred and prove him right. He needed her to be the devil he had made out of her, to be just as foul and vile as his image of royalty. 

Even now, he holds onto it. An image and resolve that crumbles more and more each day, that threatens to take him down with it on its way down.

“She’s like us now,” Ushijima says, breaks Oikawa out of his mental prison before he manages to spiral completely. Oikawa knows what he means, because Ushijima never speaks in uncertain terms. He says what he means and means everything he says. She’s an orphan, like them. She’s lost, like them. But Oikawa thinks it’s wrong to compare the two because Oikawa never knew comfort to have it ripped away from him. In the back of his mind a voice tells him that maybe that’s a point for her , a point for Ushijima’s argument. Oikawa has learned how to silence that voice. “She needs support.” 

Everyone needs something, Oikawa thinks. That doesn’t mean he’s willing to give it. 

 


 

Kuroo, unlike anyone you’ve met in the East so far, seems to be a largely unburdened man. He lives with his parents in the house he was born in, enjoys the life he had picked out for himself and seems not to take this whole war thing too seriously. It’s strange, in a way, to be around someone who doesn’t look like they haven’t slept for weeks. Stranger still, to be around someone who doesn’t treat you like a fragile porcelain doll poised to break at any given moment. 

Makoto sits in a chair on the porch, knitting away at what looks to be the beginnings of a sweater. Her fingers look stiff, working around the tools and yarn with some difficulty, and you cannot really blame her. How tragic it must feel, to have your surrogate son return only to dispatch again soon after. Marching into war with no reassurances or words of comfort. You want to tell her it’s going to be fine, but you can’t seem to find the words. Maybe you’re not the right person to say them. 

“Come on,” Kuroo grins. He might be the only person in the village able to, you think, his mood not at all soured by the ominous tension resting over the place like a blanket. It’s admirable, in a way. A fresh and comforting sort of presence in all the doom and gloom you’re surrounded by. “You’ve got to have some embarrassing stories about him!”

This has been the topic of conversation ever since Kuroo arrived at the door and demanded you keep him company. Too nice a day to just sit inside, he’d claimed, but you think most days in the East must be too nice to sit inside, technically. You have to admit, though, it's refreshing to be asked about something that’s not your decadent life as a princess. Most of the time people seem too interested in your life to care about you as a person. 

“I’m sorry,” you murmur, watching with interest as he picks up a sword, weighing it in his hand. You wonder if it’s heavy, how it must feel to wield a weapon sharp enough to kill. “I don’t really know him that well, he looked like he did well most of the time.” 

Kuroo scoffs. It’s not the answer he wanted. “Of course he did. Stupid Oikawa.”

The more you stay in the East, the more Oikawa’s attitude makes sense. People speak freely here, free of the shackles of propriety and courtesy. They are not afraid to tease or argue, they treat each other as equals no matter their relation. You find yourself feeling jealous of this simple life, blurry images of tight corsets and silver tongued politicians swimming to the top of your head. 

It’s unfair. The East has seen pain you could never imagine until recently. Unbeknownst to you, the people have been suffering. All the while you’ve been sitting in your comfortable castle, too ignorant to even consider that not everyone had a life as easy as yours. No wonder Oikawa hates you. 

“Does everyone in the East learn to fight?” You ask, curiosity sizzling underneath your skin as Kuroo flicks the sword around in the air demonstrably. “Ushijima said Makoto was a warrior when she was young.” 

Makoto makes a sound that sounds a lot like a muffled laugh from her spot on the porch, and when you look back at her there’s a small smile gracing her face, fondness making her skin glow and her posture seem a bit straighter. There’s something like pride in her stance, something that feels so unfamiliar it’s almost strange to look at. You can’t really imagine Makoto with a sword in hand, but something about her reaction makes you think it must be true. 

“Of course,” Kuroo says, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. “Everyone should at least know how to defend themselves, right?” He frames it as if it’s a sure thing, as if it was just a fact of life. The way he says it makes you think that it must be, but it can’t, because you don’t know how to defend yourself. All your life you’ve been told that your life was not yours to keep safe, that your life was in the hands of the kingdom, the royal guards and your father. Agency. Freedom. Freedom to live, to fight, to die. That seems to be what they believe in the East, and it sounds, to your surprise, like utopia. 

“I never learned that,” you mumble, bitterness making itself known in your voice. Truthfully you’ve never wanted to. Violence was for the common folk, your father used to say. Barbaric tendencies do not run in the genes of royals. But then, was it not your father who ordered the raid on the South all those years ago? Who recruited orphans into armies and made soldiers out of grieving children? You feel like a vile daughter, a traitor to the crown, for even thinking about these things, but Kuroo spins his sword around, the steel shimmering in the sunlight and somehow the sight emboldens you.

“Could you teach me?” 

 


 

Night comes with no conflict. So far the roads have been quiet, the scenery peaceful and the tension thick. Oikawa knows better than to let his guard down, knows that more likely than not the water warriors are planning their next five moves even before initiating their first. He knows that they prefer to overwhelm their opponents, coming in prepared and from all angles. They are not as organized as the Royal Guard— arguably, no one is, was— but they are still a force to be reckoned with. 

“Tooru.” 

Ushijima’s voice is low, the rumbly tones of his name sending shivers down Oikawa’s spine. Paranoia creeps down his spine like a spider, and the brunet realizes he might be holding on to his knightly habits too hard. 

“Ushijima.” 

He mimics Ushijima’s dull tone, lowering his own voice several octaves to match it. Ushijima makes a dissatisfied sound that makes Oikawa’s mouth curl into a grin. 

They have taken to an inn, rooms divided into pairs. Oikawa swears he can hear Semi snore from two rooms over. Gods, he wishes that was him. Instead, he’s stuck with Ushijima and his tendencies towards heartfelt midnight conversation. The least favorable aspect of the large man. 

“What happened in the castle?”

Oikawa knew it was coming. He knew both because Ushijima is a strangely curious creature and because despite his cool, emotional exterior the man fancies himself some kind of people knower. He asks because he wants to know and because he thinks Oikawa needs to talk about it. Maybe he’s right. Maybe talking about it will erase the image of blood and bodies from the forefront of Oikawa’s mind. He doubts it, but at this point it could not hurt.

So Oikawa tells Ushijima everything, recounts every moment that makes up the beginning of what might end up being the bloodiest war of known history. All the big and small moments that contributed to it, details Oikawa didn’t even take notice of until after the fact. 

He starts with Iwaizumi. 

“Iwaizumi was from a town between the South and the capitol. One of those small countryside towns.”

Oikawa doesn’t bother naming the town. It doesn’t exist anymore. It was burnt to a crisp, every citizen erased from memory over the course of a night. Well, almost everyone. Iwaizumi Hajime was found in the rabble, a crying child discovered by the guards patrolling the ruins of what had been his home. They had brought him back to the castle, the royal family taking his under his wing. He was to be raised a knight, a personal protector to the king’s darling daughter. 

“The Summer of Witches,” Ushijima pipes in, connecting the dots. They were all young when it happened, the eradication of homes, women dragged out of their homes and doused in spirits to make them catch fire quicker. There had been small towns and villages scattered around the kingdom back then, said to inhabit powerful witches that could bend reality to their will. Thunderbolts created from something as simple as the snapping of fingers, forest fires lit with nothing but the chanting of words. 

The East was spared, for the most part.

“That is cruel,” Ushijima says. “They murdered his people and raised him to be their shield. I did not know the king was that callous.” 

And that, Oikawa thinks, is the most mind boggling part of it all. Oikawa hates royalty. He hates them by virtue of their blue blood, hates them for their cruelty and thoughtlessness when it comes to their people. In his mind he sees the king as a chess player, the kingdom his board. But the truth is twofold. The truth is that the king was both executioner and the extended hand. He slayed his enemies with his left and fed the poor with his right. 

Oikawa has seen the king cry over his people and make ruthless commands. He vividly remembers the queen’s funeral, the king no longer a king but merely a grieving husband. The conflicting images mess with his head and Oikawa doesn’t know what to tell his friend. 

“Well, he’s dead now,” he whispers. “It doesn’t matter what he was.” How he will be remembered depends on who wins this war

“And this Iwaizumi, he’s the reason?” 

Oikawa twists and turns, his stomach churning as he looks for the right words. He starts by telling Ushijima something he already knows; Iwaizumi became Oikawa’s roommate and sparring partner as soon as he arrived at the castle. They were close in age, Oikawa already had basic training and could pass on his knowledge. Not many boys had the opportunity to grow up in a castle, even if they spent most of their time in the Servant’s Quarters. The two became fast friends. Inseparable. Not even Iwaizumi’s annoyingly close relationship with the princess could get between them. 

But clearly, treason could. Oikawa feels his chest tighten as he reluctantly revisits the moment he knew his friendship with the uptight but reliable guard would never be the same. Iwaizumi had spoken in quick words, the confessions seemingly exploding out of his chest as if he needed to get them out before they expanded beyond his body. He had been feeding information to some rebel king in the South. A fellow victim of the burnings, a young man appealing to the part of Iwaizumi who resented the king. 

“By the time he told me the rebel army was already marching on the castle, lurking just outside the gates.” 

“And he wanted you to get the princess out safe.”

Oikawa doesn’t speak. He wonders if Ushijima is judging him. If he’s thinking him a coward. If he had been quicker on his feet, maybe he could have alerted the guard, mobilized a counter attack. If Oikawa had not taken the easy way out, maybe the king could have been alive. He feels as if he cannot breathe. 

“Tooru,” Ushijima speaks after a silence that seems to stretch out into hours. Oikawa’s head hurts. He can’t seem to make himself look at his friend, too afraid of what he will see in the lines of his face. “Tooru. You did the right thing.” 

Oikawa Tooru cries. He hopes Ushijima doesn’t notice. 

 


 

The sensation of a sword in your hand, the weight of metal straining muscles you haven’t really ever used, is a strange, exhilarating thing. Kuroo shows you stances, makes you practice defenses over and over and over again. Even as Makoto is serving dinner you feel as if the sound of steel clashing will echo in your head forever. 

Your arms are aching. Even holding the spoon, dipping it in the stew and bringing it up to your arm makes your body scream in resentment. Makoto points out how tired you look and reminds you to do the stretches she’d shown you once you finish dinner. 

“You look different,” she says, watching you from the other side of the table. There’s a smile in the tone of her voice. “The Eastern sun agrees with you.” 

You think she must be right. You feel different. You feel lighter, freer, like you’ve unlocked something you didn’t know was tucked between your ribs. Between the aches of loss and anxieties about the future, you feel the budding, warm feeling of hope. In every ache of pain of your body you feel stronger, more like a real person. 

“Thank you, Makoto,” you tell her, with feeling. “Thank you so much.”

She regards you for a moment, eyes flitting over your face as if trying to read between the lines. Whatever she finds she must be content with, a smile spreading on her lips as she reaches to help herself go another serving of stew. She murmurs your name in soft tones, and you think it must be the first time someone’s spoken to you like this since the castle fell, the first time you hear the syllables of your name not in echoes of distant memories but in the present moment. 

 


 

The men Semi and Ushijima had chosen to take with them return from a quick sweep of the area in the dark of the night. The youngest has a black eye, the tallest a broken nose. They all have scratches, there’s blood spatter painted onto their faces and the youngest looks like he wants to pass out, throw up or both. The people in the East prepared for the worst, but hoped for the best. They knew how to fight, but weren’t ready to kill. Oikawa can see it in their faces, the dwindling sense of innocence and ignorance being replaced with harsh reality. He’s seen it in every knight, every guard that came after him in the castle. Wide eyed idealism turning into hard lines and ragged scars. 

There were four water warriors, they tell him, lying in wait just west of the traveller’s inn. Three women, one man, all four of them older and more experienced than the easterners. By all accounts, the young boys should not be standing in front of Oikawa right now, least of all with such minimal injuries.

The road is silent. Something uncertain and terrifying is brewing in Oikawa’s chest. Something that makes his heart speed up and his head hurt. 

“We need to get back,” he realizes the truth as he opens his mouth to speak. He’s unhappy to find that his voice comes out in shaky, uneven tones. Ushijima stops beside him, mouth in a grin, serious line. “This is just a distraction.” 

They haven't gotten too far from the village yet, their ride away from it leisurely and slow. Oikawa does calculations in his head, but cannot come up with any concrete answers. If they ride immediately and without stop, they can be back in a matter of hours.

He hopes that's fast enough.


 

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. 

Your skin is gleaming with sweat, body hot and aching as you clumsily parry Kuroo’s blows. He’s going easy on you, but you feel with each successful block, each correct move, he starts holding back less and less. This knowledge spurs you on, keeps your motivation high even as your muscles complain. Later you would lament your ignorance; the aches of voluntary work nothing at all compared to the pain of battle.

War breaks out, splits the world open, and everything changes. 

It’s a young boy who tells the news, his breaths ragged and loud as he comes running towards you and Kuroo. He inhales, sounds like he’s got trouble doing so, and it takes him three attempts to really get the words out. 

“They’re-- they’re coming,” the child says, terror in his voice. The reaction is immediate. Kuroo curses, grabs the child’s hand and yells for you to get inside. Makoto bolts up from her chair, hand firmly grasped at your shoulder before you even have time to react. Her other hand covers yours, prying the steel sword out of your grip.

“Let’s get inside,” she says, and though she tries to keep her voice calm and even there’s a storm brewing inside her chest, as visible and obvious as if her body was translucent. The East has been quiet since the attack that took the lives of Ushijima and Oikawa’s parents. You were told about the squabbles between the North and South, the internal conflicts between the bigger families in the West, but after the South’s attack on the East, not much happened on that side of the kingdom. They wanted to be left alone; to lick their wounds and rebuild as best they could. It must feel like a cruel repeat of the past, as Makoto drags you inside, yells for you to hide underneath the bed until she calls for you. Her fingers dig into your skin as she shakes you lightly, asks if you’re listening.

Are you? For a moment you think your brain must have ceased working. You can hear the distant roar of horses and war screams, a tell tale sign of Southern water warriors. For a moment you’re back in the castle, sitting on your soft bed and waiting for the end. Warm fingers creep up along your sides, grasping at your face and rubbing circles along your cheekbones. Makoto whispers your name once, repeats it a bit louder. You blink, inhaling sharply through your nose, exhaling deeply through your mouth. 

“Are you not staying?” There’s a sort of pathetic quality to your voice that sounds dangerously close to begging and you feel nauseous. 

“No, dearest,” she says, softness in her tones as she brushes something wet from underneath your eye. “But you are safe here, I swear.” 

“That’s not--” that’s not what you’re worried about , you realize. Makoto caresses your face, soothes you with comfortable lies, tells you to bolt the door after she leaves and to not open it for anyone. You don’t want her to leave. You want her to be safe.

But she leaves. And you’re alone. The war cries roll over the village like a flood, enveloping the peaceful quiet in chaos. 

 


 

Oikawa doesn’t remember the last time the South attacked the East. Not, at least, in detail. He remembers the sound of it, the cries of children and the thundering roar of the water warriors’ chants -- an intimidation tactic he’s well familiar with by now -- and he remembers the inside of a wooden closet. The clothes had smelled like his mother, the fabric soft against his skin as he hid in the darkness. He remembers the aftermath, the burnt down houses and the bodies littering the ground. He remembers his mother’s skin, cold against his small fingers. He remembers not being able to breathe. 

He’s seen countless fights after that. He’s led attacks on rebel groups and killed more people than he has had the sanity to count. The smell of blood is familiar, the chaos of violent clashes of swords second nature. 

Still, there’s something eerie, something not quite right, about the sight that greets him as he rides back into his village. There are three dead bodies by the gate. One water warrior, two of his own people. A wheat crop right outside has been lit on fire, burning brightly, crackling loudly in his ears. 

“Semi,” he yells, whipping his head back so quickly he thinks his neck might snap. “Take your men, put the fire out.” He barks out commands as if he was back in the guard, his head cool in a way that feels almost empty as he jumps off of his horse and unsheathes his sword. Ushijima comes up next to him, looks down at him with eyes on fire. 

No words need to be spoken. The two of them rush into the eye of the storm. 

 


 

You pace around the living room for what feels like hours. There are screams outside. Crying, cursing, incoherent sounds that makes the hairs at the back of your neck stand. You want to cry, but it feels like there’s no more fluid left in your body. It’s wrong. It feels wrong, cowardly, despicable. Most of the people out there don’t know who you are. Some of them will die because of your presence. And there you are; locked and relatively safe behind a bolted door. 

You were never taught how to rule. That was not your job. You’ve been acutely aware all of your life that your specific brand of royalty has been limited to how you look and how you talk. Use the right words, speak in soft tones, smile at the right people. Maybe you’d marry someone who could benefit the kingdom. But never rule. Never fight. Never be anything but a symbol, a commodity, a pretty face. You think about Oikawa, who knew how to fight before you knew how to read. You think about Makoto, who seems to know everything. 

Maybe your father was wrong. Maybe you have more uses than serving as a bartering chip for peace. There’s a rack of weapons near the fireplace. Decorated swords and elegant pickaxes. Heirlooms, Makoto had told you when you asked. Relics from the part, weapons once used to defend the East from conquerors and invaders. You walk over to them with brisk, long steps, fingers itching and mind reeling. Your gaze lands on the smallest weapon of the bunch, a delicate sort of sword that looks as beautiful as it is deadly. You wonder what the history behind it is, what the engravings mean, where the colorful stones on the hilt originated from. 

You hope Makoto will forgive you for taking it. 

 


 

Oikawa scans the area, pierces the shoulder of a water warrior with his sword without even looking at him. Fighting a warrior of the south is like a dance. It’s been said that they train in the water, using the weight of the currents to strengthen their bodies. They strike quickly, move even quicker, clad in thin clothing that allows for free movement. They must think themselves invincible, to be running around with no armor. Water warriors are of a singular purpose, to attack with no mercy and to kill with no hesitation. 

Too bad Oikawa is quicker. He dodges a knee aimed at his crotch, punches the warrior in the nose with his free hand. The warrior recoils, clutching his broken nose with a groan. Oikawa scans the area again. Kuroo is to his left a little ways away, bleeding from a wound on his arm. It doesn’t look deadly so Oikawa does not linger there; Kuroo can take care of himself. Ushijima is fighting two warriors somewhere behind Oikawa, and he’s easy to spot. Concentration pulls at his brows, but he looks unharmed. 

Semi and his men have stopped the fire and are joining the fray, the numbers evening out between the battling forces. Another water warrior goes down and Oikawa feels the flicker of hope in his chest. 

And then he spots Makoto, dragging two children after her and dodging blades as she goes. Oikawa knows his aunt is capable, even in her older years. He knows because she used to be the fiercest warrior this village had ever seen, back when fighting was a necessity rather than a surprise occurrence. But Oikawa sees no sword in her hand, only sees the crying form of two small children. Both brunette, splashes of red and black coating their faces and clothes. One of them is taller than the other, he’s the one who cries the loudest. Makoto is perhaps a capable fighter, but she, too, is of a singular purpose. To protect, to cover. 

Oikawa sees the water warrior charge towards them, and he screams.

 


 

The sound of metal clanging together feels completely different in war than in practice. The warrior puts all of his weight in his swing, his sword shivering against the steel of your own weapon. You can hear Makoto gasp behind you, your name uttered in a mixture of shock and terror. You can imagine what her face looks like. You don’t want to see it. 

“Makoto, get inside.” 

And at once it’s not your own voice you’re hearing, it’s your father’s. Loud, bouldering, commanding, like your father had sounded during council meetings and declarations. The warrior seems to pause, pondering over your presence for a moment, and you chance a glance behind you to look at Makoto and the two children. 

She’s bleeding from a gash across her face, blood running down and pooling at her chin like a river. It looks worse than it is, you tell yourself, because if you didn’t you might’ve thrown up right then and there. Later. You can panic later. The children, thankfully, seem to be more scared than injured. The sight makes you want to cry. They remind you of a Royal guard and his best friend. You think Makoto must feel the same, her arms wrapped around the two boys with a mother’s strength. 

“Makoto.” The older woman’s gaze snaps to yours, her face paler than you’re comfortable with and her expression wild like a scared animal. “Inside. Keep them safe.”

Makoto scrambles to her feet, looks very much like she’d like to object, but instead she yells; “look out!” and you do not have time to convince her anymore. The warrior has regained his posture, swinging his sword towards you at a speed that seems entirely inhuman. You dodge, but just barely, knees hitting the ground with a painful crack in your ears. You feel your heart beating in your legs, teeth grinding together to keep yourself from crying out. A door slams behind you and you hope, beg, pleading with whatever deities your father believed in, that Makoto and the children are safe. 

Realistically, you know that you have no shot against a trained warrior from the South. Your first run-in with one had been a one-sided one at best, and this time they come with war thrumming in their veins and bloodlust at their teeth. You barely know how to hold a sword correctly, your small victories in training luck more than anything else, and the only thing you can do is to stall for time. Hope that Oikawa and his group will have realized where they’re really needed and are riding back already. 

The war has made a mockery of your propriety, leaving you with nothing but empty gestures and an identity crisis. You hold onto a sword you don’t know the history of, and you don’t have the faintest idea how to survive a war; none of your lessons ever prepared you for this. You wonder about your father, about your friends at court. About Kenma in the library, about Iwaizumi and his sword training. All of it, gone in an instant. All you’re left with is Oikawa; Oikawa and his scowling face. All you can do is stall, stall and hope he arrives before it’s too late.

The warrior grins, recognition flashing across his scarred face. Fear runs laps around your stomach, heat ignited in your veins.

What you lack in strength , Kuroo had told you, you gotta make up for in cleverness . You were always praised for your intelligence at the castle. Breezing through books and acing tests, you’re not sure how booksmarts can help you against someone bred to kill. The warrior swings his sword arm back, and your heart slams against your ribs you’re afraid it might leap out of your chest. Without thinking you do the first thing your body can think of and you spit in his face. 

The warrior recoils, grimacing as the liquid hits his face, and you take the momentary lapse in attention to kick him in the foot as hard as you can. He loses balance, tumbling towards you. You grab at his hair, pulling and jerking him to the side as you both fall. The sword falls out of your hand as you hit the ground, and the warrior grabs at your shoulder, clawing into the fabric of your dress. You make a grab at his face, fingernails digging into him until your digits hurt and you feel skin give way beneath your grip. The warrior screams in pain or in anger, his fist swinging towards your face. You recoil, your hold over him loosening and he seizes the opportunity as if it was his plan all along, legs twisting and hands shoving until you’re trapped under him. 

Droplets of red runs down his face from jagged claw marks, drips onto your face as the man smiles triumphantly. 

“I’ve got you now, Princess,” he hisses, his accent identical to the woman who tried to kill you on the ship days and lifetimes ago, slaps you in the face so hard you hear a loud, disgusting crack ringing in your ears as his palm hits your cheek. He does it again, harder, and you taste copper on your tongue. Your head is spinning and you try flailing underneath him, but he’s got you caged between his strong legs and only laughs at your desperate attempts at freedom. He makes a fist with his hand and you hear a crunch as it makes contact with your face. You scream. There’s pain coursing through your veins, something wet and hot running down your face. Your nose is pounding, pulse beating like its own separate heart and you’re certain he must have broken something with his punch. “The King will be so pleased when I tell him I was the one to end your life.”

You feel yourself drifting, choking on blood and tears. The warrior grabs for your stolen sword, admiring its handiwork for a moment. He licks up the length of the sword, eyes on you as he does. It’s a vulgar, arrogant move, a show of power. He drags a hand across his face, bends down to mix his own blood with yours. His touch hurts; his fingers pressing into your skin and sending jolts of pain from your nose that runs down the entire length of your body. You wince, a gasp forcing itself out of your mouth on its own volition. His face is so close you can feel his breath against your face, can see every detail of his scarred and scratched up face. His eyes are pitch black, hate so potent it seems to radiate off of him. You’re dead. You’re going to die. The thought is so clear, so plain and obvious you can’t even gather up enough sanity to fear it. 

“Long live the True King,” the water warrior whispers against your face, righting himself up and clutching the hilt of the sword in both of his hands. He raises it above his head, tip pointing down towards you. 

You close your eyes, image of Makoto strangely the first thing your near broken mind can conjure up. You hope she’s safe. You hope help is coming. You wish you could have thanked her properly.

The last thing you hear before you fade completely is the sound of Oikawa’s voice, calling out your name.

Chapter Text

Seven

Iwaizumi Hajime wanders the rubble of the fallen princess tower. It’s all he does these days, he feels like, whenever duty does not keep him elsewhere. He’s uncovered broken tiaras, torn up dresses, the remnants of a room he knew like the back of his hand. She’s safe, he reminds himself, spotting something colorful hidden underneath the broken remains of the Princess’ bedroom. She’s got to be safe. He got the message out in time. The courtesan promised she would send it immediately. 

He calls the blonde woman that -- a courtesan -- because it sounds less crude, less traitorous than her real title. The meaning, of course, is the same, but if he uses that word he thinks he might truly break down. He tries to tell himself that he’s just doing what any lonely, broken man would, that there’s no one really to betray anymore anyways. But the feeling lingers still, filth and grime hanging onto his soul in a steel grip. His reckoning will come. But not yet. There’s still so much he has to do.

He bends down to pick up the object, fishes out the remains of a children’s book. The King and Lionheart. His heart aches. The Princess’ favorite story. She would listen to it over and over again, Iwaizumi had no doubt every maid in the castle knew it by heart.

Childhood nostalgia drifts over him as he opens the tattered book and lets his gaze wander across the pages. The other boys used to tease him for having to play with the princess. They’d used to ask if he had to put on a dress and have tea parties, the louder of the litter practically rolling on the floor with the thought. Truthfully he’d been more than a bit apprehensive when the head knight had told him he had a special mission to keep the princess company; it didn’t sound very knightly, after all. 

But the princess never wanted to have tea parties. She never wanted to play Queen and Squire either, another popular pretend game for young girls. Maybe because the princess didn’t have to pretend; the imaginary lives in children games her reality already. No; the princess only had one thing on her mind when it came to the subject of playtime.

“You can be Lionheart, I’ll be the King!”

Iwaizumi swears he hears her voice in the echoes of the fallen castle. If he’s quiet he can hear the remnants of hurried footsteps, the trail of laughter following her down the hallways. She would make a paper crown out of folded paper, the head ornament too big for her head and too light to stay on when she ran. Iwaizumi would do his best to follow, always one step behind her. Always watching over her shoulder for her.

“But you’re a princess,” Iwaizumi would reply. Like clockwork, the same comment whenever she asked to play. He was a bit older, after all, a bit smarter, a bit quicker. If he was being honest, he wanted to play the king. Wanted to know what it felt like, just once. “You can’t be king.”

Any lesser person might have been discouraged from a truth like that. As they grew they would both discover just how true it was, how deep it could cut. But they were not yet adults, not yet burdened by cruel tradition and hard to swallow truths. The princess would merely grin, hands on her hips as she proclaimed:

“I can be whatever I want!”

And Iwaizumi believed it. How could he not, when she spoke with such unwavering confidence? If she was right, then maybe he, too, could expand beyond the constraints of his low birth and useless name, and become someone who mattered. 

Iwaizumi lets the book drop back to the floor. The image on the cover is like branded to the back of his eyelids, he wished he could just forget it all. What does it matter that he played with the princess when they were children? That he watched her grow and grew beside her, that he was prepared to kill or be killed for her? He was the one who held her when her mother died, the one who comforted her until she fell asleep every night for weeks after. But what does it matter? 

He feels a storm raging inside of him, a black and dark and desperate thing that grows and grows and grows. He fishes out a piece of paper from his chest pocket. 

Dead or alive

Iwaizumi needs to get to work. 

 


 

You’re drifting in and out of consciousness for what feels like weeks. One day you wake up and Makoto is standing over you with a wet cloth in her hands. She peers down at you with worry in her face and tears in her eyes, whispers about what a good, brave girl you are, leaning down to wash your face with the cloth. It’s cold. Makoto tells you to go back to sleep, so you do. 

Next time it’s Kuroo, biting his thumb and staring down at you as if you had just grown an extra arm. When he sees that you’re awake he bolts out the door, yelling something you can’t make out. By the time he returns you’re already closing your eyes again, too tired to keep them open. 

“You can’t keep giving her dreamless drought, there are others who need it.” 

“She needs it, too.” 

There are voices. You don’t know which day it is, if it’s evening or morning or how long you’ve slept. All you know is that your body is floating and your eyes won’t open and there are voices speaking all around you. The first one you cannot recognize, though he sounds angry. There’s a loud sigh, a tsk, and the second voice — you would recognize Makoto anywhere by now, you think — hisses something too low for you to hear. 

“More than our own people? What has happened to your priorities, Makoto? When did you become a sympathizer?” 

“She is our people. Now get out.”

There’s silence. Nothingness stretches on for hours, days, years and when the unfamiliar voice at last grumbles a low ‘fine’, followed by the sound of angry footsteps you’ve all but forgotten the conversation all together already. Makoto’s disembodied voice exhales loudly, accompanied by the sound of creaking wood. 

You feel fingertips brushing through your hair, nails massaging your scalp carefully. It’s a comforting feeling, though you wish it didn’t feel so distant, as if her touches were ghosts flittering across your skin. 

“How is she?” A third voice speaks, familiar and strange all at the same time. Not low enough to be Ushijima, not airy enough to be Kuroo. It’s as if he’s speaking through gritted teeth, more frustration in the tones of his voice than worry. 

Makoto hums, the sound drifting into your head like a song you’ve forgotten the words to. It vibrates through your body and caresses your skin. You wish you had the power to open your eyes, to move at all. “The fever has broken. She’ll be fine.” There’s a long pause. “Don’t frown like that, Tooru, your face will get stuck that way.”

The voice — it doesn’t sound quite like Oikawa, you think, but you suppose it must be — grumbles lowly, says something that cannot possibly be very nice. 

“It’s time to let this go, Tooru,” Makoto murmurs, and her voice is impossibly soft. At once it feels as if you’re eavesdropping on something very sacred, something you have no business listening in on, but you cannot move, cannot speak, cannot sleep. There is nothing else for you to do, and so you just lie there, listening. “She didn’t kill your parents. She risked her life to help us. What more must she do for you to give her a break?” 

Oikawa doesn’t respond. You hear a door open and close, and silence stretches on once more. 

“Ah,” Makoto exhales, but it’s not a tired sound; it sounds like relief. Her fingers get back to working on the knots in your hair, fingertips gently pressing against your scalp. “He’s coming around,” you wonder if she knows you can hear her, if she’s expecting a response. “Just you wait.” 

“Get some rest, sweetheart. It’s time to wake up soon.” 

And so you fall into darkness once more, lulled to sleep to the sound of soft hums and the sensation of loving human contact. 

 


 

Oikawa is there when you wake up. He sits on a chair in the corner of the room, his arms crossed over his chest and his gaze steady and hard as he stares you down. Not, you admit, the most comforting sight to see after spending god knows how long suspended in some medicine induced half-comatose state. He looks like he’s about to lose his head, like he’s a cauldron dangerously close to boiling over; steam practically blowing out his ears. 

He says nothing as you sit up, pushing yourself upwards on your hands. There are small jolts of electricity inside your bones, tiny sizzles of thunder underneath your skin as you force your body back awake. You wonder what you must look like. Hopefully it’s not as horrible as you feel. You feel like that one time you decided to be rebellious and steal an expensive bottle of peach spirits from the kitchen and woke up so sick and nauseous Iwaizumi had called for the doctor and woken up half the staff. The pain is still there, lingering in the back of your head like a reminder, but it’s more an afterthought, a dull ache rather than a torrent of strikes across your face.

You’re okay. A few cuts and bruises, a hand that won’t quite stop shaking and a broken nose, but you’re okay. For all intents and purposes you should be dead. Oikawa makes a sound as if to remind you of his presence. Maybe, you think, it would’ve been better if the water warrior had done you in.

Oikawa— Oikawa is angry. It’s a concept that shouldn’t really be as worrisome; Oikawa always seems to be at least somewhat peeved, always tense and frustrated. This, though, is an entirely different beast. He gets up, tramples over to the bedside, stares you down. His jaw twitches dangerously, as if he’s about to unhinge it and eat you alive. It would be preferable over his yelling. Alas, you’re not so lucky.

“I told you no.” 

His voice is stern, low and carefully controlled. It’s that simmering sort of anger, the kind that conceals itself beneath a thin, transparent layer of calm. It’s not a look you’re used to on Oikawa, and it feels a whole lot more frightening than his more upfront, blatant distaste. 

“I just wanted to help,” you mutter, clenching and unclenching your fist. Your joints feel tired, unreliable. It’s as if you’ve been sleeping for weeks, as if your hand can’t quite remember how to work anymore. "You’re not my--”

“Here, I am . You don’t even breathe unless I give you permission. And when I tell you no it means fucking no .” 

His voice rises as he speaks, all of his words pushing themselves out of his mouth in an exhale, all hurried tones and rushed breathing. It sounds as if he had to physically restrain himself not to scream at you, and you feel very small. You feel insignificant, like an ant or a fly or any other just as worthless creature. “I don’t--”

“No!” Oikawa cuts you off and he really is yelling now, his voice shrill and loud in a way that sounds entirely unfamiliar. He’s red in the face as he looks over you, gaze hard and stony and you’re not even sure he’s actually looking at you anymore. “We’re not in your castle. This isn’t fucking play pretend. This is war and your actions could have killed someone!”

My actions saved someone , you think. He’s being unfair. Your lip quivers with frustration and you want to yell back. You saved someone. He wasn’t there and you were. Resentment grows thick and heavy in your chest and you feel an urge to cry. 

Images and sensations flood your senses, screams and faces flashgun before your eyes like still images. You were scared. The terror still holds a firm grasp against your bones, reminding you with every beat of your heart how close you came to dying. “I-”

“You need to stop being a spoiled brat and grow the fuck up! This will not happen again. I will fucking chain you to the bed if I have to!”

His shoulders rise and fall quickly, moving to the rhythm of his breathing. Unbridled rage was not a thing in the castle. Your father spoke his grievances in low, cool words and your mother never spoke them at all. This sort of explosive, dangerous anger feels like an assault on your senses, overwhelming you as you’re still waking up and trying to cope with the fact of war. 

Oikawa looks like he’s hurting, as if the anger is eating him up and setting him on fire. As if the only way to deal with the overwhelming feeling is to scream. It’s a look you would recognize anywhere, one you used to see in the mirror. Tears well up in your eyes and you bow your head. It’s too much. You haven’t yet had the chance to process the state you find yourself in, the danger you’d put yourself in and the crushing, frightening reality that this one clash of swords was just the beginning and you’re already getting yelled at, reprimanded for going against your self-preservation. It’s not fair.

Oikawa leaves before you can find the words to respond, slams the door behind him as he exits Makoto’s house.

 


 

The day passes with no more incidents. Your stomach is churning, throat thick with tension and anxiety as Oikawa’s words repeat inside your head. Makoto comes by, a bright red wound marring her face but her smile radiant all the same. She cries into your shoulder, thanks you over and over and over again, tells you how proud she is, how brave you were. You apologize for taking her sword and she laughs, tells you that it’s yours now. You don’t really know what you’d need it for. 

She doesn’t mention Oikawa nor his outburst, but she avoids the topic in such a way that you know she must be angry over it. It’s a deliberate sort of avoidance, you wonder if it’s for your benefit or her own. 

Kuroo and Semi come by later, Kuroo with guilt painted all over his face and dripping down his hunched shoulders. Semi — who you don’t know at all, not really — looks uncomfortable, caught between thanking you or chiding you. You wonder if they all heard Oikawa yelling at you, if that’s why they’re treating you as if you’ve got some sort of highly contagious disease. Kuroo promises to be a better teacher from now on. You’re not entirely sure what he means. 

Ushijima finally enters after a knock just when the sky is changing from warm pinks and oranges and into a deep blue. He’s carrying a tray in his hands; a cup of steaming liquid and a bowl of delicious smelling porridge. You’re tired of the stream of people coming and leaving, most of all you want to be left alone, to sleep and forget, but his presence is welcome nonetheless. There’s something soothing about Ushijima’s quiet being, something that makes you feel warm and comfortable when he approaches the bed. 

He looks like there’s something on his mind, and after some consideration he opens his mouth, forgoing any sort of greeting to instead address the elephant in the room. 

“Tooru is..” He hesitates, seems to chew over a few words in search of the right ones. You haven’t known Ushijima for long, but he never seemed like a person to carefully consider his words; he seemed more like someone who attacked the conversation head on. This hesitation feels out of character, like he’s practicing a new skill. The gesture is nice, if unnecessary. You know quite well how Oikawa feels about you. Which is why the tall man’s next words take you by surprise. “He gets angry when he’s worried.”

You scoff, the sound pushing past your lips before you can stop it. Ushijima places the tray of food and tea on your lap and pauses by your bedside. He’s got a cut through his eyebrow and a purple mark at the side of his jaw, but compared to you he seems to have gotten out of it easy. Not such a big surprise, you think, when he actually knows how to wield a sword and strike to kill.

“I’m sure that’s not what that was,” you tell him, raising a hand to grab the spoon on the tray. It’s still shaking; small, ticklish vibrations coursing through your veins. You mutter a low thank you, reaching with your other hand to still the other’s shivering. Maybe he won’t notice. You peer up at the man, and the look on his face is hard to decipher but the furrow of his brow is not. His gaze is trained on your hands, mouth slightly pulled downwards at the edges, but then, that’s just how he looks most of the time. 

“I’m sure he doesn’t think that either,” he replies, shaking his head ever so slightly. There’s something like latent frustration in his voice, like he’s had this conversation a million times already and is getting sick of reciting it. You feel shame burn in your throat and you can’t find it in yourself to keep looking at him. You must be a royal through and through, you think. Only taking and taking and demanding until there’s nothing left. 

“I’m sorry,” you whisper, putting the spoon back on the tray. Suddenly, you’re not at all hungry anymore, your stomach nothing but a black hole filled with nothingness and hurt. Wood scrapes against wood as Ushijima grabs the nearest chair and pulls it towards the bed. He sits down, exhales through his nose. His mouth is a grim line but you find no resentment in it.

“What are you sorry for?” He asks, and there’s a sort of softness to his voice that you did not expect. It catches you off guard, your self-deprecating words stuck in your throat as you open your mouth. It’s not a rhetorical question, that doesn’t really seem like Ushijima’s thing. There’s only openness in his expression and he waits patiently for your response. 

“It’s my fault this happened,” you start, and once the dam is broken and the words are spoken out loud you can’t stop them; all of your fears and insecurities and guilts falling out your mouth, flowing like a river. “The water warriors wouldn’t have come here if not for me. People wouldn’t have gotten hurt. I--” your voice cracks and you blink away the wetness in your eyes. You cannot keep crying. You feel empty enough as it is, if you keep crying there will be nothing left inside you. “I shouldn’t be here. I’m cursed.”

The King in your children’s story was the same; cursed by a witch the day he was born. Doomed to be weak, to be followed by tragedy wherever he went. Maybe that’s what you are. You desperately wish for the boy king’s courage, but you think that maybe you haven’t earned it. The boy king went on countless adventures, he learned to be brave by attacking his fears head on. The boy king wasn’t alone; he had Lionheart. 

“You’re not,” Ushijima speaks with such conviction it’s hard not to believe him. “You saved Makoto and those boys. You did more than was expected of you, everyone knows that.” You open your mouth to protest, but Ushijima raises a hand. “Everyone.”

Ushijima sits with you while you eat, not really speaking but just keeping you company even so. When you finish eating he reaches over and you think he’s going to take the tray back, but instead he grabs your hand — it shakes, vibrates with electrical currents running underneath your flesh — and holds it tightly in both of his own. 

His palms are warm in a way that reminds you of the eastern sun. Soothing, heat caressing your skin as he presses his thumbs against the back of your hand. “You will be fine.” 

And he lets go, your skin immediately missing the heat of human contact as he takes the tray and nods before leaving. 

It’s not until you’re lying on your side, desperately trying to sleep, that you notice your hand isn’t shaking anymore. 

 


 

The sun has disappeared behind the horizon, stars trailing behind it like a shimmering cape across the sky, when Oikawa deems to make another entrance. You’re not entirely convinced he means to initiate another conversation, but the bedroom door is wide open and you lock eyes when he enters the house, stopping awkwardly in the doorway and staring for a moment before stepping over and invading your privacy for the second time the same day.

“What do you want now?” You snap, not in the mood to get yelled at again. Oikawa stands a few steps from your bed, looks more pensive than you’ve ever seen him after he grew out of the awkwardness of adolescence. “Can’t you see I’m trying to sleep?”

Trying-- and failing hopelessly. It seems your brain has decided you’ve already slept more than enough, and you’ve been reduced to counting lines and crack in the wooden ceiling in the hopes that you’ll bore yourself to sleep. Granted, Oikawa doesn’t need to know that. 

Oikawa clears his throat. “Let me see.” He stretches out his hand towards you, stares you down with an expression that looks apprehensive and uncertain. 

Excuse me ?”

“Auntie says there’s something wrong with your hand,” he elaborates impatiently, as if you should’ve easily understood that that was what he was talking about. “Show me.”

“It’s fine,” you snap, hands fisted into the fabric of your blanket. You know that somewhere in that thick skull of his, Oikawa knows how to behave. You’d seen him at the banquets and events at the castle, bowing his head and speaking in soft, careful, polite tunes; you know there’s chivalry in him deep, deep down. It’s easy to forget, so you manifest a picture of it in your mind, just to know you’re not insane. He grimaces, steps over and makes a grab for your hand. “I said it’s fine!”

He pulls at you, jerks your arm towards him as he presses his thumbs along your veins. The sudden contact makes you shiver, the proximity unfamiliar and strange. Your skin breaks into goosebumps, heart thudding loudly against your ribs as his fingers work their way up your arm. He hums, eyes hooded as his gaze follows the shape of your arm. “Auntie said she was worried there was something wrong with your muscles, but it seems to be fine.”

“I already told you that,” you mutter, brain telling you to tear your arm away from his grip but your body completely frozen. He doesn’t let go either, not when his hands stop their ascent up your arm, not when he makes a sort of disgruntled noise at your tone. For a moment there’s only that; the blanketed silence that follows the night sky and Oikawa’s surprisingly gentle hold on your arm. Then he sighs, lets go and sits down on the chair Ushijima had occupied hours earlier.

So he’s not leaving then, you figure. Honestly you had expected him to flee the room as soon as he had gotten whatever it was he wanted out of you, but it appears he’s not finished quite yet. He leans back in the chair and you take the opportunity to study his face a bit closer. Before the clash in the village he had looked half dead, tired and pale. Even in the darkness you can see a distinct change, vibrance at his brown curls that wasn’t there before. He’s got bruises and scratches in his face, a tiny wound that looks like it will scar across his nose, but there’s purpose in his face that you couldn’t find there before. He crosses his arms, regarding you as if trying to assess you.

“Kuroo says you wanted him to teach you to use a sword.”

Heat rises to your face, defenses rising even before you notice the lack of mockery in his voice. You look down at your hands, preparing yourself to be reprimanded or discouraged. 

“You’re weak,” Oikawa tells you, voice flat and matter of factly. You grit your teeth, shame making your body tingle uncomfortably. Your flesh feels like a cage, bones growing too large to fit beneath your skin. “You don’t have the stamina.” 

“I know,” you mutter, because what’s the point in trying to deny it. You have no physical strength, no knowledge or technique. You survived by chance, not by talent. You know, you know, you know. It still feels cruel to be told so bluntly. “You don’t need to tell me.” 

Oikawa disregards your complaints with a click of his tongue, as if your lack of confidence is anyone’s fault but his. Arrogant prick. “If you want to be useful it’s going to take rigorous training, you can’t do it half way,” he says, words slow and deliberate as if he’s still mulling them over even as he speaks. “Kuroo is a terrible teacher.”

“I kno— what?” Your brain catches up and you cut yourself off. You’re not entirely sure, but it almost sounds as if he’s allowing you to keep practicing. At least that’s what you think; Oikawa of course cannot just simply say that, because obviously that would be too simple. He furrows his brows, exhales through his nose. 

“And you need to eat properly. Not those small half-servings Auntie’s been complaining about.” 

“Okay…” 

Oikawa looks away, seemingly suddenly extremely occupied with admiring the drapes. Usually he’s been quick and concise when speaking to you, as if he wanted to make sure you knew what he meant and felt at any given moment so he could be done with the conversation faster. You feel like you know where this one is heading, you heart thumping in your chest with the possibility of it, but it’s hard to tell when he’s talking around it so much, speaking as if he doesn’t really know how to progress the conversation, like he has to listen to the sentences inside his head before uttering them out loud.

He clears his throat. 

“Your nose,” he begins, and you cut him off with a disgruntled sound that makes him jump ever so slightly in his chair. He’s on edge, you notice, tense and careful in a way that feels so uncharacteristic it makes you feel weird. 

“What about my nose?!” You bark defensively, all too aware of the fact that the center of your face must be all kinds of blue and yellow. It still hurts like hell, it probably looks even worse. And even if you haven’t showered in days, can’t remember the last time you looked into a mirror, you feel self conscious. Your father used to say that all the royals had the same nose. Now you didn’t even have that anymore. 

Oikawa recovers with an eye roll, getting up from the chair and tilting his head. The tension dissipates, replaced with your annoyance and the apparent glee he’s getting from it. Back to normal, then.

“You should sleep on your back while it’s still healing,” there’s something devilish in his eyes that looks all too familiar. You do not like it. “Don’t need it to get even more crooked.” 

Your first instinct is to hide your nose behind your hand, reminding yourself at the last second that you probably should not touch it. Your second one is to curse him out, but the insult sounds more like banter and you’re left stuttering like a fool, caught too much by surprise with the turn of events to come up with any sort of clever response. 

A self assured grin graces Oikawa’s features; it’s similar to the one you’d seen often back at the castle, the one he wore whenever he said something particularly scathing or when he won a sparring match. The Oikawa you remember doesn’t exist, at least not entirely. That’s something you’re starting to come to terms with, even as the transition is strange and unfamiliar. 

Maybe this is Oikawa unmasked. Rude and snarky and sometimes cruel. It’s hard to distinguish between all of his different masks, but this one at least feels somewhat genuine.

“Every morning at sunrise. If you’re late even once you’ll never touch a sword again.”

Oikawa closes the door behind him and you’re left staring wide eyed at space he just occupied. 

You think Oikawa Tooru just promised to teach you how to sword fight.

 


 

Things are changing. You feel it thrumming beneath your skin, the sort of physical excitement that comes with the knowledge that something has been set in motion. It’s different from the ache in your joints or the way your muscles scream at you when you retreat to your bed in the evening, but it’s there, and it’s prevalent.

You’ve never really had a routine before, not beyond your lessons in etiquette and geography, anyway. A princess in peaceful times needs not to worry about time or structure, she needs only know which spoon to eat her pudding with. How to brush her hair so it falls just right. What dress to wear when diplomats from far away lands come to speak with her father. Be pretty and be quiet. 

When Makoto has deemed you well enough to start moving around she presents you with a new pair of clothes. The dress Oikawa had gotten you lies torn and filthy in a corner, but you can’t quite get yourself to throw it away. It serves as a reminder, and you have so very few of them nowadays. But you don the new outfit you’ve been given, and exchanging a white dress for dark pants and a turquoise shirt. Makoto also hands you a soft bundle that turns out to be a sweater you’d seen her knit away on, and you have to bite your lip not to cry at the gesture. 

And then you start training. 

Oikawa is by far a more stricter teacher than your one session with Kuroo had been. He spends the whole first day hammering stances and positions into your head, jerking and pulling at your body like a doll until he’s satisfied. By the time Makoto calls for you to come in and eat, you haven’t even touched a sword yet.

On day three he kicks your ass repeatedly for five hours, nagging at your for every single tiny mistake you make. And you make a lot of them. Your confidence is crumbling, patience dwindling with each smack of Oikawa’s wooden sword against your body.

“This is unfair!” You groan, massaging a sore shoulder as you help Makoto clean the table after dinner. Oikawa is sitting by the table with his chin in his hand, eyes scanning a piece of paper that arrived earlier in the day and a large map rolled out on the wooden surface. “How am I supposed to win against someone with that much experience?” Makoto just hums, because by now she knows better than to engage with this sort of conversation. Oikawa snorts, because he can’t help himself.

“I’m sure when the water warriors come back they’ll take one look at you and say ‘oh hey, she looks inexperienced, let’s send our weakest recruit’,” he mutters with an eye roll, not even looking up from his map to send you one of his self righteous glares. You grit your teeth, because you know he’s right. There are no weak recruits among the water warriors, and if there were even they would be leagues ahead of you skillswise. 

“But I can’t beat them,” you hate admitting weakness to Oikawa of all people. If Ushijima hadn’t been so busy with his own business you could have spoken to him, expressed your emotions freely and let his calm, logical empathy soothe you. As it is you’ve barely seen the top of his head at all since he visited you while you were recovering, the tall man leading his own training on young men from the surrounding villages. Turns out loyalty and solidarity is a big thing in the East; as soon as the towns and villages around Oikawa’s had heard of the invasion they came running, stumbling over themselves to offer help and support.

You can’t be any worse, you think. Not when you’re the reason they have to fight. Oikawa raises his head to look at you. You feel like you’re walking on pins and needles, not comfortable enough to let your guard down and relax your shoulders. Things are calmer, more cordial, sometimes you even think Oikawa might have stopped despising you as much as he’s always done, but then he looks at you a certain way and you’re reminded that a decade of hatred doesn’t disappear in a moment and that you’re not even sure he’s helping you out of own volition or because he’s being told he has to. Every step of the way you worry you might have stepped wrong, that he’ll recant his promise to teach you and make good in his threat to tie you up inside instead.

The moment never comes. The frown on his face looks like an entirely subconscious thing rather than a grimace of malice. He looks back down on his map, scribbles something on a piece of paper. A low hum comes rumbling from the back of his throat, an unhurried, relaxed sound. The sound carries, pushing against your skin and vibrating in your bones. You shudder, hope that no one notices.

“Then you’ll just have to figure out another way.”

It is late at night you suddenly realize what it is he means. Behind your eyelids you can see the struggle with the water warrior clear as day; retracing every step, every movement you’d made. You had been able to gain an advantage somehow, stalled enough to distract and surprise him.

You jolt up, Kuroo’s words echoing in your ears. If you can’t overpower them, you have to outsmart them. There’s no way you can compete with a water warrior in strength or brute force. But maybe, if you’re lucky, you can catch them unaware.

 


 

A southern war horn echoes in the distance, warning of another inevitable clash. 

At once, Ushijima is next to you, hand on your shoulder. You still haven’t won against Oikawa once, haven’t even really come close. But your body no longer aches every evening and your grip on the hilt holds strong even against Oikawa’s blows against your sword. Are you ready? You don’t think so. Not at all. There’s a ball of anxiety curled up in the pit of your stomach and a tenseness to your muscles. A lump in your throat forces you to breathe with your nose, but you clench your fists and force yourself not to show how frightened you are. The last thing you want is for Oikawa to change his mind.

Ushijima hands you your sword, the one you’d gotten from Makoto. You turn the thing around in your hand, mesmerized by the way it shimmers in the sunlight. It’s a pretty thing, if murder weapons could be pretty. Slim and light and deadly. It’s the only thing you have to call your own. You glance up from it, meeting Oikawa’s watchful gaze. His mouth is a thin line. 

He nods.

Chapter Text

Eight

 

When Akaashi enters the Master bedroom, Lev is pacing. His silver hair is a mess atop his head, seemingly from how much the tall man is running his fingers through it, and Akaashi thinks that if he doesn’t stop soon he’ll make permanent footprints into the pale blue carpet covering the floor. He stops when Akaashi clears his throat, his shoulders tense as he observes the man. Lev seems to be deep in thought, which is a look Akaashi hasn’t seen on him all that much, a look that would be funny had the situation not been as dire. As it is, there’s nothing humorous about the situation at all. In fact it’s about to get even less so. In his hand, Akaashi has a piece of paper. If it were up to him he’d throw it into the fireplace before giving it to the young heir. 

“Did you find her?” Lev asks, impatience and worry giving his usually perky voice a sort of shaky quality. Akaashi frowns. 

“She’s in the East,” he replies, because his job isn’t to give his opinion, but to gather information. He might disapprove of Lev’s passionate attempts at finding the lost Princess, but it is not his right to refuse. Not for the first time he wishes Bokuto was still here. “With a Royal Guard.”

“The East?” Lev looks surprised, turns around to stare out the window for a moment. Dark clouds blanket the sky, a low rumble from the distance whispering of the storm that is about to hit. Akaashi pulls his wolf fur a bit tighter around his body. The West has been cold lately, colder than usual. The snow beneath his feet feels hard and unmoldable, the heavens dark and foreboding. Akaashi isn’t a particularly superstitious man, but he feels a sort of uncertain rumble against his bones as Lev hums loudly. Never a good sound, that. “Oikawa?” 

Akaashi doesn’t know what the prince is talking about. He rarely does, but this, at least, feels less like nonsense and more like something he just isn’t privy to. There was a time when he couldn’t imagine not knowing something about the western crown prince, but then, Akaashi had never imagined Lev would accept the capitol’s offer to host him as a knight either, all those years ago. It was an old tradition, the King taking in the princes from the neighboring regions to mentor them and teach them whatever they needed to rule their respective people. Ever since the Great War, none of the princes had accepted the request, and Akaashi suspected the offer was more a formality than anything else. 

But Lev, of course, accepted. To the frustration of his father and the terror of his mother, he had set out to live in the capitol at sixteen. Only months after he left had they heard back, shocked to find that not only had he gone to the capitol, he had requested the King kept his identity hidden and let him train as just a knight. It was stupid and dangerous, so perfectly Lev that Akaashi was surprised none of them had suspected it of him.

Lev only returned a few months ago, when the King suddenly passed away from an unknown illness. Akaashi had the feeling he wasn’t going to stay long, despite all the things that were expected of him now as the sole heir to the throne. ‘Alisa can be queen,’ Lev had said upon his return. ‘She’d do a much better job than me anyways’. He’s not wrong, Akaashi thinks, but as much as Alisa is his sister, as much as she is the diplomatic, educated and royal between the two, Alisa is not a contender. 

The princess must be a true character, Akaashi muses, to have made Lev change his traditional ideals so much. 

“What do you want to do?” Akaashi asks, though he fears the answer. Lev does not reply, merely walks over to the desk in the corner. He bends over, haphazardly reaching for paper, ink and pen. Tension and anxiety thrums inside Akaashi’s rib cage. He watches as the western prince scribbles something on a piece of paper. 

“The ravens aren’t safe anymore,” he mutters, back turned to his most trusted advisor. Akaashi has been Lev’s shield for as long as he has been alive. Even when they were children he knew he would always do whatever it took to keep Lev safe. Even when Lev was far away and his royal blood hidden, Akaash would make covert visits to the capitol, confer with the King and make sure of his prince’s safety. He worries, now, that Lev will be the death of him. 

Lev finishes his writing, steps over to Akaashi with quick, hurried steps. He hands Akaashi a letter sealed with the western royal sigil, and Akaashi feels cold run down his spine. 

“I trust you,” he tells Akaashi, with warmth and confidence in his voice. Lev isn’t much one for seriousness, and the vote of confidence is a rare occurrence that feels, somehow, ominous. “I need you to take this to the East. Tell them the West stands with the Princess.”

 


 

“... doesn’t make any sense!”

You stare down at the jagged, red line across the inside of your palm. It follows your heart line almost to perfection, rests below it like a hot, red echo. When you were a kid a woman had visited from the South and taught you about palm reading. She has taken a long look at the upper line, humming and cooing as she inspected it. As if she saw something hidden there, something more than just skin. 

You’re lucky, she had said. You’re going to be loved fiercely. 

“Just because you don’t understand it—”

You hadn’t really understood what she meant at the time. You were already well-loved. You had said as much too upon retelling the old woman’s words to your mother. She had started getting sick by then, spending most of her time safely tucked underneath heavy blankets. Her face was red, as if she was tired. As if she had been running a marathon. Your mother had laughed; a melodious sound like bells and wind chimes. You would understand it when you got older, she’d promised. 

To be honest you still didn’t really get it. You stare at the scar across your palm, and it feels like an omen.

“Hey!” Oikawa barks, snapping you out of your thoughts. Your gaze lifts, attention immediately on the scar he himself is brandishing across the bridge of his nose. You wonder how many more you’re all going to collect before this is over. “Are you even paying attention?”

“No,” you admit with ease, leaning back and looking between the brunet and his black haired companion. They both look heated, as if they’ve been physically brawling instead of just shouting at each other. “I zoned out when you started arguing about spices.” You don’t even know how the conversation got there, how a discussion about sword technique devolves into a screaming match about food preferences. All you know is that Oikawa prefers the food in the capitol, and Kuroo considers that blasphemy.

“You agree with me, right?!” Kuroo points at you with vigor and enthusiasm. “The food is much better here than in the capitol!” It’s such a trivial thing, but he makes it sound like his opinion of you will change drastically depending on your answer. You glance between the two men, both of them staring intently at you. 

“I could have sworn there was something important going on right now,” you mutter. The map of the kingdom lies forgotten in front of them on the table, chess pieces scattered across it. Rumors have it the South is setting up camp in the ruins of a castle to the east of the village. A long forgotten, ancient sort of thing that hasn’t been used or thought about for decades. If this is true, Oikawa had said, they need to be stopped before they can get properly situated. Part of the reason why they have had the upper hand on the South until now is because they are restricted by travel. They don’t have all their tricks handy. If they set up a camp that will all drastically change. 

Oikawa clears his throat, looks almost a bit embarrassed. “Right,” he peers down at the map, fingers playing with a chess piece. 

You feel bad, then, for accosting them. It’s not often you see Oikawa drop his Royal Guard mask, maybe you should have let them be. Let them pretend for a moment that death in the form of an army of water warriors wasn’t knocking on their doors. Shame crawls along your spine and you feel like an asshole. The moment has passed and the boys are back to discussing how to approach the southern camp.

Eastern scouts have been surveying the area for a few days now, taking note of how many water warriors arrive and with how much equipment. At first it didn’t seem like such a big deal, until a caravan seemingly filled to the brim with weaponry appeared two nights ago. The location is too close to the nearby villages. They could be hiding in the outskirts even now, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. 

Oikawa will put together a team to push the water warriors out. If the East is able to turn the tides here, seize the ruins and claim the weaponry from the south, it could make or break the war on this side of the map. Show the South that they might have the castle, but they’re not getting anything else.

It sounds, to you, like willingly stepping into a trap. But you don’t say this because more likely than not everyone’s already thinking the same. And trap it might be, it’s still the best chance at an advantage. A part of you wants to volunteer, to finally feel like you’re doing something worthwhile in return for the safety and protection the East has provided. Logically you know that any suggestion you’d make would be relentlessly shut down by your knight. 

How the tables have turned. Here it might as well be Oikawa who is the prince and you his royal servant. It’s an odd thought, but strangely relaxing. All the responsibilities rest atop Oikawa’s broad shoulders, unburdening your own and letting you breathe a bit easier. You think it might have always been like that, that your royal responsibilities have been pretenses at best and that the burden weighing solely on the people around you, but it always felt like you were caged. Tied down, balancing weights and responsibilities as you tiptoed on fragile lines. There’s nothing to care about anymore, nothing but the things in front of you. 

Oikawa says your name. By the tone of his voice it’s not the first time, the expression on his face one of impatience and annoyance. It’s strange, hearing your own name in the timbre of his voice; you cannot quite get used to it, nor the shiver it sends down the expanse of your skin.

“Sorry,” you stutter, embarrassed to find five sets of eyes staring at you. Truth be told you’re not sure what you’re even doing here, you never get a say in any plans or any meetings anyways. ‘Stay here and stay safe’. That’s been your only job ever since arriving in the East. You’ve been allowed to join the fights that break out whenever the South gets cocky, but even then you can tell Oikawa doesn’t like it. You glance down at the scar across your palm, reminded suddenly of his loud lecturing after that particular clash. You think he should be grateful, even if it was a less than stellar idea to knock a blade out of a warrior’s hands with your bare hands. “I’m listening.”

Oikawa rolls his eyes, but continues even so. “You’ll be going with Ushijima on the left side,” he says, launching into a detailed plan as he moved chess pieces across the map to demonstrate. Your brain seems to stop working for a moment, the sound of his voice distant as you mull his words over.

“Wait,” you cut him off. He doesn’t very much like that, it looks like; his jaw snapping shut and brows furrowed as he glares at you. “Me? I’ll be going with Ushijima?” Disbelief makes your voice uneven, shaky and nasal as you point a finger at yourself and then at Ushijima. Ushijima says nothing, but both Kuroo and Semi hide grins behind their hands behind him. Oikawa sighs, puts the chess piece he was holding back down on the table. You’ve never been particularly good at chess, boasting an impressive 0-18 against Kenma back at the castle, but the queen is an easily recognizable piece nonetheless. 

“Unless you’d rather stay here,” Oikawa replies curtly, his eyebrow raised and his voice dripping in sarcasm. You feel your heart hammer in your chest, something like pride and excitement threatening to boil over inside your body. It must show on your face, because Oikawa makes that sort of grimace he always does when you do something he doesn’t approve of. “You don’t have to look so happy. This isn’t a vacation.” 

“I know,” you breathe, hiding the upwards curve of your mouth behind your fingers. “I know. Thank you.” You glance over at Ushijima’s neutral face. “I won’t slow you down, I promise.” Ushijima nods, but he says nothing. Makoto looks like she wants to throw up, her face tight and pale. 

(“The head chef used to make these hazelnut cookies,” you murmur once the meeting is over. The others have already left; arguments about food all but forgotten and replaced with other quarrels. Oikawa sits on the couch and ponders over his map, and you’re not quite sure why you’re reminded of the question about cuisine from earlier. It feels important, for some reason, like you have to get this confession off your chest. “Me and Kenma would sneak into the kitchen and she’d always give us some. I miss her food.” 

Common ground and agreements between the two of you are few and far between. It feels significant to mention when they happen. Oikawa glances your way, only for a moment, before he looks back down at the map. You wonder if he dreams about it, if he can see the lines and drawings of his when he closes his eyes. He must have stared at it for hours. 

“I know,” he replies just as you’re getting up to leave for your bedroom. The softness in his voice surprises you, makes you do a double take. His expression hasn’t changed, but it looks like there’s some heat in his face that wasn’t there before. “Me too.”

You can’t quite get the image out of your head and you fall asleep thinking of the dust of a blush painting Oikawa’s cheekbones a soft pink.)

 


 

“I’m sorry you got stuck with me,” you tell Ushijima as the two of you ride out of the village. Ushijima glances at you without much of a change in his expression, rolling his shoulder as he assesses the state of you. No wonder, you think. You feel like a completely new person. No valuable rings or necklaces, no dresses or crowns. You’re wearing a practical outfit made out of hand-me-downs, your skin agreeing finally with the Eastern sun, your hair hidden beneath a hood. You wonder if anyone from the capitol would even recognize you without all your token royalties. “I’m sure it would’ve been better for you to be paired with someone else.” 

“I asked for you,” Ushijima replies, not missing a beat. Your sword smacks against your side in tune with the horse’s pace and your heart speeds up with the revelation. He asked for you? Why? Even though you feel your body changing and adapting, you’re nothing compared to even the freshest, greenest young man in the East. You wait for him to elaborate, but he never does. 

“Really?” You prompt, blinking at him. As much as you’re getting used to his quiet, stoic disposition, it’s impossible to really get completely accustomed to his inability to understand certain social cues. It goes against all the rules of socializing you learned at the castle, having to be so direct and speak so frankly with someone. “Why?”

“You’ve made big improvements,” Ushijima tells you squarely, not even looking at you as he talks. The way he speaks makes it seem less like a compliment and more like a general statement. “And if something happens I will get you to safety no matter what.” He says it with something that could have sounded like confidence had you not known Ushijima well enough by now. In his mind, and his tone, you know he simply considers this a fact, and you take comfort in it. 

“Thank you,” you murmur, grateful that it is him you get to share your first real taste of what war means.

 


 

Everything goes sideways very fast. 

The clouds rumble in a loud crack of thunder above you, rain obscuring your vision as you whip your head around. There are people everywhere. Eastern men and women battling water warriors on all sides. You see a body hit the ground, but you cannot make their form out clear enough to know if it was one of theirs or one of yours.

There’s yelling everywhere. Loud echoes piercing through the night in screams of pain and howls of death. You smell blood, the stench of burning flesh and exposed skin making you nauseous and dizzy.,

This is war. This is what you’ve read about in the history books, clangs of steel against steel, loud yells of victory as someone claims another victim. This is the stuff your nightmares are made out of. Death hangs around you like a blanket, fear thick and heavy in the air.

No, no, no. You can’t see familiar faces anywhere, only Ushijima right next to you with his weapon in hand and mouth curled into a sneer that looks almost uncharacteristically feral.

“Wakatoshi!” Kuroo comes running towards you, his sword glistening red as he slashes through a water warrior’s chest. There’s a pool of blood expanding on his stomach, seeping into the white fabric of his shirt. You can’t be sure if it’s his own or someone else’s, your breath catching on a gasp as he comes closer. Ushijima pulls your hood further down your face, his frame a tall and comforting sort of presence next to you even in the midst of chaos. 

They knew you were coming. Even though you had been so careful, traveling in the darkness and abandoning your horses miles ahead. There’s no other explanation. You can’t see Semi anywhere. You can’t see— 

“Where’s Oikawa?” There’s panic in your voice, octaves shrill and painful as the words force themselves out of your mouth in an exhale. Kuroo’s jaw twitches, his face pale as death. You make a move to run, adrenaline pumping through your veins, but Ushijima grips at your arm, pulls you back to him with a force that causes your joints to snap uncomfortably. His fingers dig into your skin through the soft fabric of your shirt. Oikawa’s shirt. The one Makoto had given you because it doesn’t fit anymore. The garment burns against your skin as if it’s about to catch fire. 

“They got him,” Kuroo’s voice is uneven, shivering and weak as he reaches you. He clutches at the front of his shirt as if trying to keep his body from falling apart, as if his fingertips were needles sewing parted flesh together. “They took him into the ruins.”

 


 

“Hajime.”

Iwaizumi Hajime’s blood runs cold. He never quite can get used to the emotionless, airy voice of his new master, much less when it’s saying his name. He turns to face his King, the young man’s face pale and soft, illuminated by torches dancing against the walls. It feels as if he’s never alone. Iwaizumi had been hoping to be able to sneak down to talk to Kenma, to tell him the Princess was alive, maybe pray for forgiveness or ask for advice, but every time he steps close to the staircase someone seems to stop him. Most of the time it’s another guard or the Pursekeeper-turned-right-hand-of-the-king. Not today, though. This time it’s the conqueror himself, the man grinning pleasantly as he watches the Royal Guard turned traitor.

“You seem to be very interested in the prisons,” the conqueror remarks, head slightly tilted as he glances at Iwaizumi’s hand on the door handle. “Is there someone you would like to talk to?” It’s not so much a question as it is an accusation, and though Iwaizumi didn’t grow up in the South, the tone is easily recognizable. For all their differences, he finds that the South and the Capitol are more alike than they think.

Of course , Iwaizumi thinks; he knows . Of course people are keeping their eyes on him, following his every move. He might have been the key to the coup, but he was still, in their eyes, a part of the Royal Guard, a part of the enemy. Iwaizumi wondered what he’d look like in his own eyes, should he ever dare to step in front of a mirror. Trying to speak to Kenma was a fool’s errand, more dangerous than his rendezvous with the blonde courtesan. 

“The Princess’ friend,” Iwaizumi says, tries to keep his voice as even as possible. “Kozume Kenma. I wanted to try getting something out of him. He might know where she would have gone.” Of course, Iwaizumi knows where the Princess is, prays for news every time he visits the brothel. He finds himself going more and more often, sleep coming more easily to him in the arms of a woman he does not know the name of than in his own quarters. The castle is haunted, he thinks. His sins and guilts following him wherever he goes.

The usurper king’s grin widens, his face split in half. He’s a sinister man. Iwaizumi has no pretenses about what it is he has done, he knows that he’s the reason the strange man now holds the most powerful seat in the country. And maybe he’s just trying to rationalize, to lessen his guilt, but he swears the king was not as unhinged, his eyes not as wild and his laughter not as vacant when Iwaizumi first met him.

Not that it matters. Iwaizumi is not delusional, he knows his own actions have been fueled by nothing but anger and revenge. He hated the royal family, and now they are gone. The king and the queen and their unborn son, all lying in tatters and pools of dried blood in the throne room. He can pretend all he wants that he’s been acting in the interest of the kingdom, that he’s dethroned a tyrant who deserved his fate, but as much as he resented the man who took him in, he knows better than to lie to himself. He wanted the king dead because he hated him. Nothing more, nothing less. 

Now everyone in the kingdom is paying the price. 

“No need,” the new king pats Iwaizumi on the shoulder, Iwaizumi’s skin breaking out in goosebumps and body freezing at the touch. “We know where she is. In fact, we’re anticipating her capture in a matter of days.” Iwaizumi feels spiders and snakes creep along his spine, fear and anxiety playing with his nerves as he takes this information in. No. No, no, no. This is not what he wanted. He wanted her safely away for long enough for him to find a way to get to her. He wanted Oikawa to keep her safe until he could come whisk her far, far away. 

“I figured you could go,” the king says, voice low as he leans closer, peering into his eyes as if he could see Iwaizumi’s very soul. “Bring her back to me.”

 


 

“You sure this is the guy?” The voice is low, accent thick and heavy and bouncing between the walls as Oikawa regains consciousness. His body feels like it’s on fire, cold air hitting his chest and back aching as his brain shakes his mind awake. When did he pass out? He cannot remember. How long has he been out? He cannot tell. Something slick and wet slides down his sides as he moves his hands, the clanging of chains echoing loudly in his ears.

“He fits the description,” another voice echoes and bounces against the inside of Oikawa’s head, somehow scruff and feminine at the same time. Oikawa can taste blood on his tongue, cold steel biting into his wrists and keeping him from falling to the floor in a crumpled heap. He’s got no strength left in his body. The back of his head is throbbing and his limbs are shivering, straining against the compulsion to just fall apart. “The rest of them will be here soon to get him out, just you wait.”

So he’s been caught. Oikawa tries to open his eyes, but finds that it makes little difference. The room is dark and his vision blurry and he can’t make out any finer lines or recognizable details anyways. 

As he thought, it was a trap. They had probably suspected the Princess to travel with him, planning to take them both in one fell swoop. Good thing he left her with Ushijima; he’d know what to do, he’d make the rest of them retreat before it was too late. Granted, Oikawa hadn’t planned on being captured himself, but he supposes in the grand scheme of things it was the best possible outcome. He hopes Semi and Kuroo managed to get away, the last he remembers Semi didn’t look very well off. He’d probably lose his right arm. 

Oikawa has been a guard longer than he’s been an adult. He knows that with responsibility comes consequence, that with calling the shots comes making mistakes that might cost lives. He’s learned to put aside his emotional sensibilities and succeed in his endeavors, self-preservation keeping him alive even in the most dangerous of situations. 

He’s not entirely sure how he’s going to get out of this one.

 


 

The table is quiet. It’s quiet in the sense that all sound, all words seem to have been ripped out of your throat, like the room itself is surrounded by a deafening type of magic that makes even the birds outside keep their beaks shut. Between Semi’s missing arm and the bloody bandages wrapped around Kuroo’s stomach, you’re not even sure what to say. Between Ushijima’s deep frown and Makoto’s sleeping form on the couch -- she’s clutching the blanket even in her sleeping state, you wonder if it smells like her missing nephew -- it seems that no words could begin to make sense of anything at all. Your hands are shaking.

It’s a devastating loss, even if you detract the injuries of the people around the table. You do not know the names of the fallen Easterners, but you’re sure they echo in the minds of your companions. Their shoulders sag, burdened by grief and guilt, and truly, honestly it feels like you’re in the middle of war. 

Ushijima had had to drag you away from the ruins, slinging you over his shoulder as you squirmed and fought against his grip. You can’t stop seeing Oikawa when you close your eyes. Even when you blink to offer your tired eyes a moment’s respite you see him, beaten and bloodied. Dead. Like Iwaizumi in the Servant’s Chamber, like your father. Like your mother in her bed, like Kenma and Bokuto and everyone else. You’re back in the castle, then, Oikawa dragging you down the spiraling staircase and through the empty halls. He’d saved your life. He’d saved you in the castle and with the warrior woman and in the first clash between South and East. Over and over he had put himself in danger, put aside his personal distaste to keep you safe.

And you? You’d turned with your tail between your legs, fled back to the safety of a warm fireplace and a warm bed. Shame rises like bile in your throat and you want to cry. You wanted to be a part of this war; you got your wish granted and look where it got you. Coward, your brain hisses. You’re supposed to be the last living royal, but you can’t even open your mouth to comfort the people who have sacrificed everything for you.

“We have to--” you start, feel your tongue stumble over the words. None of them even raise their heads to look at you, their gazes firmly planted down on the map spread across the table. Oikawa’s map. All of his carefully laid plans, nothing more than worthless words on pieces of paper. “We have to get him out of there.”

“No,” Ushijima is the first to respond, his voice firm and low. There’s a raspy sort of quality to his voice, like he is on the verge of tears, like he’s already weeping. His refusal stings, because if even Ushijima has given up, Ushijima who loves Oikawa like a brother, then is there even really hope? 

“We can’t just leave him,” your own voice is a mess of shaky syllables and stuttered sentences, but you cannot find it in you to care. “He would’ve--” He would’ve moved mountains to save his loved ones. You disagree with Oikawa on a great many subjects. You don’t understand his antagonistic behavior, you don’t understand his hot and cold attitude. You don’t understand his tendency towards sarcasm and insult, nor his moments of softness. But you know, without even really knowing how you know, that Oikawa is motivated by love for his people. You know that’s why he became a knight, why he made such a good Royal Guard. It’s colored in every action he takes, every moment of golden sun and quiet moments you’ve seen in the East. 

And suddenly it hits you that maybe despite all his crudeness and his mean glares, Oikawa is a better person than you. That the kindness he shows is not a right or a natural disposition, but a conscious stance he has taken despite the cruel realities of his life. Being nice was never an active choice for you because you’ve been surrounded by kindness all of your life. Oikawa, when he is kind, chooses to be. And maybe that’s much grander than your self-righteous pride in your own sense of goodness. 

You don’t know much about war tactics, but you know that leaving people behind is the way of the capitol. If you become a burden you are on your own. In the history of the great wars, no one remembers the names of the prisoners of war anymore. No one came to get them. They rotted away in prison cells and underground tunnels, alone and abandoned.

You blink, at once reminded of a seemingly trivial piece of architectural knowledge you learned years and years ago.

“They have every advantage,” Ushijima says, voice flatter now, as if he’s exhaled all of his grief and is left with nothing but emptiness beneath his ribs. The pace of your heartbeat speeds up as the gears start turning inside your brain. “If we face them head on they will wipe us out.”

“Even if he’s still alive, walking back in there is suicide.”

You feel as if you’re unraveling a puzzle, tension sizzling underneath your skin as you put together revelations piece by piece. In the old days, all of the regions were ruled by their own kings. They all had their own royal blood, their own armies, their own rules. The first great war is often referred to as the ‘Clash of Kings’, and was the beginnings of the central capitol’s rule. The East shed their royalty and bowed to the capitol, while the South disagreed and the West mostly ignored it all. They tore down their own castle, leaving the ruins as a reminder of another time.

“Then we don’t face them head on.”

All castles were built with secret escape routes; underground tunnels for when royalty was a chain around the necks of the people. You’re reminded of ghost stories and hasty escapes, the smell of gunpowder and a gloved hand gripping at your wrist as you leave your childhood home behind. 

Your fists are not shaking anymore. Your head feels clear as the summer sky as you stare wide eyed from Ushijima to Kuroo to Semi. They stare back with questions displayed plainly in their faces. Your heart rumbles in your chest, beating against your ribs like a war drum of its own. You exhale, mouth curling into a smile.

You’re going to save him. You’re going to save Oikawa.

Chapter Text

Nine

He wakes to the sound of snickering voices. Oikawa feels the sound as if it’s being breathed against his skin, bones vibrating and skin crawling. His knees are bruised and his arms tired; numb from stretching too far for too long.

“Hey, Kageyama, that’s cheating!”

Oikawa does not know how much time has passed. The prison cells of the old castle are situated underground, no windows to allow sunlight in, and no one has offered to let him know. He sees nothing but dark grey stone and damp floors, hears nothing but water and the prattling of his capturers day in and day out. He thinks he might go insane. His capturers sit on a table on the other end of the room, playing a card game that must be native to the South. They haven’t spoken to him once since they came, but he supposes it’s better than the taunting words and heavy lashes from his previous guardians.

His current guardians are called Hinata and Kageyama. He knows this because the shorter one -- Hinata, a skinny ginger boy with a face that looks wholly unsuited for war -- talks in a very loud voice and never seems to stop. The taller is less talkative, more sneering, but it’s a mask of aggression with cracks and crevices in it; fear shining in his eyes whenever he turns to glance over at Oikawa as if checking if he’s still there. As if he could go anywhere with chains around his wrists and ankles, with deep cuts making his entire body ache. 

The pair of them had not taken up the whip even once after arriving, and for that Oikawa is grateful. There’s not much skin left of his back and he doesn’t know how much more he can take. He’s cold; his shirt in tatters and sticky with blood, but his body is on fire. His wounds are burning, scalding his flesh and ravaging every part of exposed skin left on him. He feels dizzy and unsteady, chains clanging uncomfortably in his ears every time his body does an involuntary jolt as he wakes from his half-asleep state. 

Could  he make the young men let him go? They don’t look like the typical water warriors, barely even look like Southerners at all with their soft faces and relaxed shoulders. They must not take him very seriously, leaving him with two green boys who barely even paid him attention at all.

“You should let me go,” he tells them, voice scraping against rusty vocal cords and a sore throat. The shorter man jerks as if frightened, cards falling out of his hand and littering the dark, filthy floor. He stares wide eyed at Oikawa, seemingly surprised there’s any life left in him at all. His dark haired companion frowns, grip around his own stack of cards tightening until they bend between his fingers. “Someone is going to come for me.”

It’s a lie, of course, because he had given strict orders of what to do in a situation like this. In the back of his head Oikawa sees Ushijima’s unhappy face, the downwards curl of his mouth and the deep furrow of his brow. Yet another proof that Oikawa no longer belongs fully to the East; they would never leave someone behind. Oikawa feels nauseous, bile and guilt filling his stomach and making him clench his teeth together. He hopes he doesn’t have a concussion. 

“Duh,” the shorter southerner tsks, bending down to pick his cards back up from the grimy floor. “That’s the whole point.” 

Oikawa knows. He knows why he’s being kept alive, caged like an animal. It doesn’t take a genius to guess that the South has no real interest in Oikawa himself, that he’s being used as bait or as a bargaining chip. First they’ll wait for them to come back, and if they don’t they’ll start removing fingers, toes, other easily removable limbs to send as warnings and threats.

He prays you’re not as big a fool as the South thinks you are. 

 


 

You stare down at the map, finger balancing the white king chess piece over the drawn picture of the ruins. The top of the piece’s crown digs into your skin, the bottom wiggling dangerously underneath your finger as you wiggle it back and forth. You think your head might explode if you think any harder, and the more you sit there the more you realize that it takes more than a good idea to initiate a rescue mission. You can’t face them head on, but you need to get as many of them away from the ruins. You need to find the hatch that leads into the castle ruins, but you can’t get caught snooping around. 

Then there’s the matter of the layout. You have no idea where the tunnels lead, you might end up walking right into a group of trained water warriors. Time feels like a tangible thing. It clings to your skin and pushes at your back, every movement of the sun and voice from the outside of Makoto’s house a cruel reminder that time passes. Time will keep passing. For every moment of reconsideration, of hesitation, the chances of a successful rescue grows smaller and smaller. 

You’re not a tactician. It’s painfully clear that you’re out of your element, wading in the darkness, looking for answers without even really knowing the questions. You’re drowning in maps and chess pieces and gruesome images that won’t leave your brain alone, won’t give you enough time to focus . How are you going to mobilize a force strong enough to keep the Southern warriors distracted for long enough for you to find Oikawa inside the ruins of a castle you’ve never seen the inside of? There will be someone guarding him. Can you kill them? Do you have it in you to kill? You don’t know. You don’t know anything. Frustration hovers close, heavy on your shoulders.

Makoto sits with you, silently keeps you company for hours on end, caresses your arms and puts food in front of you on the table. Ushijima is nowhere to be found most of the time, Semi practices sword fighting with one arm. Time passes.

 


 

Oikawa wonders if he’s going to die. Even when Oikawa’s been faced with life threatening disasters in the past, he’s always been confident he was going to live through them. He had a purpose, after all, a larger goal he had to achieve. He couldn’t afford dying, would do anything he had to to keep himself alive. 

What a fucking idiot he is. Walking right into the Southern forces as if he stood a chance. He’d been off his game, too; eyes wandering the battlefield as if he was looking for something. Someone. He doesn’t know when he changed so much. 

He’s reminded, suddenly, deliriously, of hazelnut cookies. Of watching from a distance as recruits flocked around a young girl, of a stupid fairytale about a boy king and his trusted companion. He’s reminded of Iwaizumi confiding in him that he’d been chosen as the princess’ shield. Of his friend murmuring his romantic intention with soft tones and flushed cheeks. And for a moment, it’s comforting. He supposed this is what people do when they’re about to die; they reminisce about their life and wonder of the possibilities. No harm, he thinks, in indulging in it if he’s going to meet his end anyways. 

Until it takes a turn, twists into horrible memories of blood and fire, of standing face to face with the King who failed to protect his family and pretending not to hate him. Of the first time he killed a man, of the first time someone at court offered him money for his body. Of his palm smacking against an unmarred cheek and of loud sobs, of a private smile hidden behind elegant, royal fingers. 

Oikawa wants to cry. He feels the foundation of his belief system crumbling all around him. He had always told himself that if he was going to die it would be with no regrets. Now there’s nothing but regret residing in his hollow bones, nothing but shame and guilt knocking against his rib cage. He feels himself spiraling, the voice of insecurity screaming at him inside his head.

He swears that if he lives this he will be a better man, like Ushijima told him to. Kinder. He curses every deity he can think of, he prays and begs and makes impossible promises to holy spirits he does not believe in. 

None of them respond. 

 


 

Akaashi Keiji arrives at sunset. It feels daunting, in a way, stepping into unfamiliar soil completely alone, not at all sure what’s waiting for him in the near future, but the East is beautiful and the village tranquil, and he soothes himself with the smell of flowers and agriculture. He’s never been in the East, never stepped away from the winters of the west to truly know what summer feels like. The air smells fresh in a strange, hot way that seems almost like the antonym to the freshness of snow and cold. 

He slides off his horse, and the soil is soft beneath his feet, cracking and crunching under his booth. 

There aren’t many people outside, but he supposes that’s a given considering the rumors he had heard on the way here. Scuffles between the East and South happening more and more often, people burying their loved ones and hiding away inside to grieve. If he turns his head he can see the hints of freshly dug graves on the fields outside the village. If he closes his eyes he can hear the wails of mothers missing their sons. He thanks himself for his forethought of sending a small army after him despite Lev’s insistence that this was a peaceful mission. Akaashi doesn’t think peace is an option anymore. He just hopes the army gets here before the next clash. 

Akaashi is reminded of the history of the Great Wars. It had been a subject that deeply interested him in his youth, the Clash of Kings, the epic battle for power. The west had stood neutral then, claiming no allegiance to any side or position. They had kept their trade routes open and cooperated when asked of them, but at the core the west ruled itself. They didn’t care that a man on a throne in the central kingdom called himself the true king. They had kings and queens of their own. 

It had set a precedent for how the west deals with conflict. They have an army that’s more than capable, but that focuses solely on defense. They don’t patrol the trade routes and they don’t impose on villages. The western kings never took stances that leaned towards one region over the other. Neutrality. Such was the legacy of the western kings. 

But not Lev, apparently. Barely even a king yet and already breaking tradition. It feels like an omen, and Akaashi does not like it, even as he walks into an eastern village that smells wonderfully of flowers and peace. He does what his lord demands, but he does it with reluctance tugging at his bones and winds urging him back home to the comfortable cold of the west. 

The first person to greet Akaashi is missing an arm. There’s suspicion in his voice as he asks who Akaashi is and what he is doing here. Akaashi fishes out Lev’s letter, the envelope stamped with the Royal insignia of the West. 

“I’m here to see the Princess.” 

 


 

Hinata feeds Oikawa soup with a wooden spoon as Kageyama watches with repulsion in his steely gaze. It’s a routine at this point, but it doesn’t make it any less humiliating. Oikawa — who used to be the proudest, the best — getting fed by his enemy. It’s a strange gesture, the soup Hinata’s own meal and not at all something meant for Oikawa’s needy mouth, and the look on Hinata’s face might as well be wide open for how blatantly he displays his pity and compassion. 

Kageyama had told him not to do it the first three times. After that it seems like he gave up, though he stares at Oikawa as if he’s a dangerous animal. It makes no sense at all. Oikawa accepts the food because he has no choice; his stomach is screaming and his body feels as if it’s starting to consume itself, but he doesn’t understand this kindness. Is he being tricked? He remembers hearing about brainwashing; about torturers switching between wielding a weapon and offering a hand to confuse their victims, to force their guard down and make them susceptible to anything they want. He sees none of that in Hinata’s soft, round face. He sees only pain, only guilt and sadness. 

“I’m not giving you any of my food,” Kageyama warns with a tsk as Hinata scrapes along the bottom of the bowl to fill the spoon with meat and vegetables. Hinata hums, but he doesn’t reply. “You’re just wasting it.” Kageyama wants a reaction, wants to make his friend see sense. That much is apparent in the way he spreads these small comments around. Why feed a dead man, rather than keep yourself full? Oikawa thinks that maybe Kageyama doesn’t understand it. A boy caught between the compassion of friendship and lessons learned in the South. It reminds Oikawa of himself.

Oikawa hears, suddenly, the sound of wood creaking. It’s a low sound, barely distinguishable over the echoes of the two water warriors now bantering in loud voices; Hinata arguing for humanity as he scrapes the spoon against the bowl with more force than necessary and Kageyama almost yelling as he barks back about enemies and duty. Oikawa’s eyes follow the sound, flickering back and forth to make sure the southerners don’t notice. 

Sure enough. In the corner of the room, somewhere not too far behind Kageyama, a hatch hidden beneath a rug opens. Only barely at first, Oikawa thinks he can see the shimmer of two eyes peeking into the room from the slim crack where the hatch is opened. His heart is pounding in his chest. Time seems to stop for a moment, voices slowing down until he can’t hear them anymore as Oikawa watches, transfixed, the hatch closing before bursting open.

And then, everything happens very fast. 

You spring out of the hatch, something sharp and shiny in your hand as you sprint towards the nearest body. There’s a rush of action and movement as the southern boys react; Hinata’s head spins around, Kageyama grabs for the sword sheathed at his side. But you’re faster. Somehow, impossibly, you’re faster.

You grab the taller man by the hair, dagger gripped tightly in your other hand. Bringing it to the southerner’s throat you yank at the man, pulling him one step back, gaze planted firmly ahead to stare at the shorter guard. Oikawa can barely recognize your voice when you open your mouth to speak, and he wonders for a moment if all sense has left him completely and rendered him insane. 

“Don’t scream,” you hiss, the sharp edge of the dagger biting into skin as red drops ooze from a cut on the water warrior’s neck. “There’s no one left to hear you anyways. Everyone’s dead.” 

Oikawa thinks you must be bluffing, but the ginger takes a staggering step backwards, the soup bowl dropping from his hands as he throws them up in surrender. The remainder of the soup spills across the floor. Curious, Oikawa was under the impression that it was every man for themselves in the South, that camaraderie only went as far as fighting and dying together. It’s apparent that the ginger wants his companion unharmed, that there’s more than just a warrior’s solidarity in the way his face pales and his mouth quivers. 

“Where’s the key?” You bark, bending the dark haired man’s head backwards as you speak. “Give me the fucking key!” 

There’s no sign of the princess Oikawa knows in your expression, only wild and feral rage that reminds Oikawa of his own demons. 

“Kageyama,” Hinata’s voice is uneven. He hasn’t moved from his spot right in front of Oikawa, and the brunet can see the younger boy shivering. His eyes are wide, unblinking, fingertips twitching as he clears his throat. “Give her the key.” Oikawa must be wrong, but he thinks there’s something like relief in the tattered tones of the ginger’s voice. Kageyama scowls, Adam's apple bobbing in his throat as he swallows, reaches down to conjure a key from his pocket.

“On the floor,” you hiss, hand and dagger steady against his neck. There’s command in your voice, your tone carrying and echoing against the damp walls of the dungeon. Kageyama does as he’s told, because what else can he do against such a formidable enemy. The sound of metal clangs in Oikawa’s ears and it sounds like freedom. It’s the most beautiful sound he’s ever heard. Your eyes flicker down to the key, bounce between Oikawa and Hinata, scanning the empty prison cells.

“You,” you stare at Hinata. The boy stiffens, seemingly not expecting to be addressed directly. “The chains on the other wall. Tie yourself up.” Hinata doesn’t move, he stands completely still. As if frozen in time, paralyzed, he just stares at the wound on his friend’s neck and breathes heavily. “Now!”

Hinata scurries, almost falls over as he half-runs over to the chains on the other wall. For a moment there only sound echoing through the room is the sound of the southern warrior chaining himself to a wall, a shuddered breath as he wraps his wrist in cool metal. It’s almost funny, this change of roles. Oikawa stands passively rooted to his spot, hurts and pains forgotten in favor of admiring the confidence radiating from your skin, the cool and collected expression on your face. He can’t believe it. How humbling, how bizarre. 

“I’m not going to kill you,” you murmur, guiding Kageyama’s head around towards the table they always sit at. “But I need you to sleep for a bit.” And you put a force Oikawa did not know you possessed in your arm as you push Kageyama’s head against the table, his face hitting the wood with an uncomfortable thunk . His body goes limp as he falls to the floor, his weight all at once too heavy for your arms to carry. Hinata’s chains clang loudly as he reaches, moves to run over only to be stopped by his self imposed constraints.

You inhale in such a way that it sounds like you’ve been holding your breath, turning to stare at Oikawa. Your eyes are wide like you can’t quite believe what you’ve done.

And then you’re bending over to pick up the key, running over to Oikawa’s side.

You cry as your fingers work on releasing him from the chains. Your hands are shaking, shoulders vibrating, teeth biting into your bottom lip as if you think it would make a difference, as if Oikawa can’t already see the steady stream of liquid running down your cheeks to gather at your chin and plop down onto your garments. It’s not the first time he’s made you cry, he laments, watching silently as you unlock the cuff around his left wrist. 

Probably will not be the last, either. The ginger water warrior is all but forgotten. He makes no sound other than a rattling of chains, and Oikawa cannot find it in him to care about either of them. You’re here. He can’t believe it. His ribs grow and expand until he feels as if they will burst through his flesh.

“I’m so sorry,” you whisper, not quite looking at him as you move to his right side. There’s a fragility in your voice that he’s never heard before, something that doesn’t sound like pure sadness. He’s not sure what you’re apologizing for, in any case. Just a few weeks ago he couldn’t have imagined you apologizing or thanking him for anything in the world. “I’m sorry I took so long.” 

“How long?” He asks, somehow unable to speak in full sentences. He can smell you, the scent of flowers and sun so strong, so overpowering against the dank musky smell he’s gotten used to in captivity that he feels his mind cloud over. Or maybe it’s just the pain, small jolts of electricity running through his veins with every shallow breath he takes. 

You pause, fingertips resting against the calloused, bruised skin of his hand. The touch sends warmth coursing through his body, a comfortable sort of heat that makes him feel heavy. 

“Two weeks,” you respond, voice so low he can barely hear you. “A man from the West arrived, did you know Lev’s their Royal heir?” You’re blabbering now, brows furrowed as you return your attention towards the cuff on his wrist. He can hear the uncertainty, the adrenaline in your voice; stuttering over syllables and uneven octaves.“He— he wants to fight with us. They sent twenty men. Arrived earlier this morning.” It’s too much information at once, Oikawa’s tattered mind cannot process it, but he listens to your voice as you prattle on, lulled into a peaceful sort of state that makes him want to close his eyes. “Hey, don’t fall asleep.”

Your hand is cold against his cheek, eyes searching his face intently. “You’re pretty warm.” Oikawa wonders when you became so resourceful, when you decided to prove him so thoroughly mistaken. He leans into your touch, pretends not to notice the way your hand seems to twitch. “Gods, I’m so sorry. I should have--” you blink, clearing your throat. “I should have come sooner.”

You shouldn’t have come at all, Oikawa thinks. You should have been a good little princess and stayed put like you were supposed to. Oikawa has never liked it when people do things he doesn’t expect them to. He fancies himself a people knower, has picked up on human behavior after all of his years at court. More than that he thought that royalty was something useless, a burden for the people to bear while the royals sat back and enjoyed the fruits of their labor. He thought you were a lazy, entitled, selfish moron like the rest of them.

As it turns out, he doesn’t know you at all. He thinks at first that you must have changed a lot over the course of your stay in the East, that sleeping and living with common folk and without your riches has fundamentally changed how you think and act. You stare at him with wet eyes and quivering lips, and you look exactly the same as when you were a kid. You look exactly the same and completely different and Oikawa realizes that it’s not that you’ve changed, it’s that he has. 

Oikawa’s hands are free. The shackles and chains hit the wall with a loud, uncomfortable clang that makes him jump. You mutter an apology and move to unlock the cuffs around his ankles. There’s determination in your brows and tension in the way your teeth bite down on your bottom lip. Oikawa leans back against the wall, his back complaining and his hands lying numbly in his lap. 

He doesn’t see an entitled princess anymore. Not the caricature he made up in his head and not the girl who chased him relentlessly in his youth. He sees Makoto in the worry of your bottom lip, he sees Ushijima in the furrow of your brow. He sees a broken nose and one of his old shirts. He sees himself. He sees, for the first time, he thinks; you. 

And maybe it’s the pain and the insanity speaking, but he can’t find it in him to hate you anymore. 

You pull a dark brown cloak out of a backpack, wrapping it around Oikawa’s beaten, half naked body. It’s such a strong sense of deja vu that Oikawa wants to laugh, but his throat is closed up and as tension leaves him exhaustion hits instead. He wants to sleep, to sink into a soft mattress and pretend nothing bad has ever happened. 

“I’ll send someone for those two,” you mutter with a glance over at the unconscious Kageyama and chained up Hinata. The latter seems to have given up, is hanging limply in his chains and sobbing weakly. Oikawa still cannot quite believe you were able to overpower them, even if they did seem less dangerous than the rest. “Maybe…” you pause, exhaling through your nose as you get up from the floor, dragging Oikawa up with you with a grip that sends shivers down his spine. “I don’t know. Maybe we could find some common ground. Figure out what’s going on in the capitol.”

You look directly at Hinata as you say this, your mouth a grim line as you seem to observe the southerners for any clue or reaction. The corner of your lip twitches.

Oikawa staggers on tired legs, two weeks on his knees making him wobble dangerously. You react quickly, grabbing his upper arm with one hand and pressing a steady palm against his chest. The touch hurts, somehow, and Oikawa thinks he must be more beaten up than he had initially assessed. 

“Are you okay?” 

“No.” 

Oikawa slings his arm over your shoulder, leans his weight against your side with a sigh. You stiffen beneath him, Oikawa swears he can feel your heartbeat through your skin, the vibrations echoing through your whole body and slamming against him. Or maybe it’s his own heart. He cannot be sure. 

He feels warm.

 


 

The smell of fresh air and sensation of sunlight on his face feels like a completely unthinkable concept. Oikawa takes a deep breath as they exit the ruins, eyes squinting against the light and body shivering under the scrutiny of the sun. Sure enough, as you’d said, there are men Oikawa does not recognize; pale skinned, white haired soldiers in flowing capes that look way too hot for the East and faces that look different in a way that feels almost inhuman. Tall and gangly and all too familiar. Clearly, these are soldiers from the West. 

Ushijima stands next to a dark haired pretty faced man, his eyes widening as he spots the pair stumbling out of the hatch just outside the castle ruins. A clever plan, Oikawa has to admit. Using the western soldiers as an element of surprise while the princess -- the price herself -- walks right into the ruins undetected. Risky, but clever. A part of Oikawa that he doesn’t really understand swells with pride.

Ushijima walks in long steps, too slowly to be called running but too fast to be considered a casual walk. He looks like he doesn’t really know what to say, his bottom lip quivering dangerously. Looking Oikawa up and down, he clenches his fists and clears his throat. “Welcome back.”

Oikawa grins. “Thanks.”

He’s still got his arm coiled around your shoulder, does not move even when a stronger body offers itself to keep him up. Ushijima watches, because that’s what Ushijima does. Oikawa ignores it, relishes in the moment of victory. The ruins have been seized; water warriors imprisoned or dead all around him, western soldiers sweating in their capes and Ushijma’s skin glistening in the eastern sun. It feels like a turning point. There’s a straightness in your spine and a pride in your posture that reminds Oikawa of your father. Remarkably, the comparison does not make him angry; it is not your father the King he’s seeing, but your father the brilliant leader.

His skin is buzzing with excitement. 

“You did a good job,” he tells you, noticing with delight how his compliment seems to fluster you. You avert your gaze, bite the inside of your cheek, seemingly uncertain of how you’re supposed to react. No wonder, he thinks. Maybe he really is changing. Maybe you’re both changing. Maybe his aunt was right.

“I’m just repaying a favor,” you mutter. “Don’t let it go to your head.” Or maybe he’s just confused and soft headed from the amount of pain he’s in. He laughs, and though it hurts his throat and lungs to do so it feels like a liberation. Like a beginning.

And then he turns around. The feeling disappears like the sun disappearing behind thick, dark clouds. The shape of a man is barely visible in the distance, partly hidden by a tree. For a moment, Oikawa cannot breathe.

The brunet royal guard recognizes the shadow before his brain can register completely; the shape of his mouth and broadness of his shoulders so known and familiar the name pops into Oikawa's head before his mind fully catches up. Iwaizumi. The traitor himself stands partly hidden behind a tree, his gaze following you as you hold onto Oikawa’s tired body. 

Oikawa wonders what his plan was. To storm in and be the hero, rescue the princess and reveal himself in one fell swoop? Maybe he thought he could redeem himself, correct his mistakes and keep your favor even after everything he’s done. Oikawa feels nausea and rage fight for the prominent spot in his stomach, and it’s with resentment and possessiveness both he grabs your chin and pulls your face towards his. 

In retrospect, when he is safely tucked underneath warm blankets and his wounds are cleaned and dressed, he will wonder what the hell he was thinking; what possessed him to twist your face around and press his own against you. He’ll remember the feeling of air ghosting over his skin as you exhale through your nose. He’ll mull it over and re-experience the moment a dozen times, more questions popping into his head for every time he sees the scene behind his closed lids. As it happens, all he can focus on is this: he feels your body stiffen against his as he presses his lips against your own, feels every pair of eyes on him as he closes his eyes and breathes in. You taste like riches and royalty on his tongue. Like something undefinable and refined and soft, like something he can’t quite put his finger on, something he’d like to explore until he understands it. He must be going truly and honestly mad.

Whatever, he thinks. He can claim insanity later if need be. He breaks away to the sound of stutters and complaints falling out of your mouth, but Oikawa’s attention lands solely on the disgraced knight hidden in the shadows. Iwaizumi’s eyes are large and his face wide open. Oikawa thinks he can see his fists shake all the way from where he’s standing. 

Yeah , Oikawa thinks, bitterness and anger poisoning his mind even as his lips are tingling in a strange, unfamiliar way. You’re too late

Chapter Text

Ten

Iwaizumi feels like throwing up. It’s a common state of being these days, anxiety rumbling around his stomach and swirling the contents of it until it feels as if they’re forcing themselves up his throat. He felt like throwing up when the king died, when they beat Kenma half to death before throwing him in a prison cell. He felt like throwing up the first time he slept with the blonde prostitute, the second and third and forth times.

But it’s not the same. Iwaizumi has always been able to at least somewhat justify his own actions. Even when they were wrong, reprehensible and awful, at least there was some explanation for his behavior, some grander idea that made it okay, kind of. Whenever that familiar wave of self loathing and nausea hit, he had the defense ready. 

Iwaizumi stares out the window of the inn, but as much as he tries to focus, he cannot see anything but the sight of his best friend kissing the girl he’d loved since he was a boy. Iwaizumi knows Oikawa, despite how they suddenly find themselves on opposite sides of a war, he knows what the hard look on Oikawa's face meant. It was a gaze Iwaizumi had seen the brunet level towards many a noble in his time. Even the princess herself -- just thinking about her makes Iwaizumi’s heart ache -- had been on the receiving end more than a few times. Iwaizumi thought himself immune to it. Even as he brought forth the comings of a new great war he had thought Oikawa, of all people, would understand him. Maybe even, in some secret quiet place inside his chest, agree with Iwaizumi on some level. Maybe they would be allies.

Now, though, Iwaizumi understands that there is no chance for that. Not when Oikawa has stolen his loved one and turned his back on him. He turns around to walk over the creaky floors of his rented room, sitting down on the bed with a soft thud as his body hits the soft blanket. There’s a piece of meat and a jug of milk on the bedside table. ‘On the house’ the owner had said, and Iwaizumi had not been able to reject, though he felt that if he tried to eat he would definitely vomit. They were celebrating the arrival of western soldiers, the victory against the southern warriors. As Iwaizumi had been standing downstairs waiting for his room to be sorted, he had heard people talking about the events. They had taken prisoners, they had killed at least a dozen water warriors. They had rescued captives, gotten their hands on unique southern weapons. A victory through and through. And the wildest thing, people said, about the whole ordeal; they said the person behind it was the lost princess.

Iwaizumi closes his eyes, but he is plagued by the image of Oikawa’s arm around the Princess’ shoulder, of their faces coming closer and closer and closer until there is no gap between them. He can’t. If he thinks too much about it he swears he will die. He can’t deal with it. He knows he will have to. Knows he will have to deal with a great deal of things. The southern king will not be happy knowing about this defeat. Less so knowing people are starting to hear about the Princess thriving and alive in the East. She would become a symbol now, a shining beacon of hope for everyone not bending to the will of the South. 

And if the shocking, unprecedented involvement from the West was any indication, there were a lot more dissenters out there than the southern king had expected. Iwaizumi needs to go back. He needs to figure out what to do next. Nothing is going as he planned at all. He was going to be with you now, not Oikawa. Oikawa was supposed to go back to his home and stay there, to bow his head and be safe while Iwaizumi ran away with you into lands far away from the kingdom. He feels all of his hopes and dreams fall apart, ripping at the seams and blowing away with the wind. What would you even do now if he approached you? If he told you he was still alive, if he offered to take you away.

Iwaizumi blows out the candle next to his bed and finds himself enveloped in darkness. He stares at the ceiling and aches for the warmth of another human body. He feels himself slipping out of his skin, disappearing into thin air. He can’t close his eyes, can’t revisit the images that haunt his head anymore without going out of his mind. He thinks he might lose himself completely. Like he’s falling; down, down, down into an abyss of dark water and deafening silence.

He thinks about his choices. Riding into the eastern village and laying down his sword, accepting whatever punishment deemed appropriate for his betrayal. Building up trust all over again, doing the right thing and redeeming himself in the eyes of god. Riding back to the capitol, committing himself fully to the southern cause, forgetting about the princess he once longed to be loved by, visiting a blonde woman in a brothel and asking her name.

Running away from it all, shedding his name and his legacy and starting over again.

Iwaizumi falls asleep and dreams about being held. Warm fingertips tracing the lines and scars of his chest, lips pressing against his shoulder and up his neck. There’s a voice murmuring in his ear, teeth biting into his earlobe. He can’t hear what the voice is saying, but he can tell it’s meant to soothe and relieve him. He clings to the body of a woman he can’t recognize, cries and prays and asks questions he knows he won't get answers to.

But he wakes up with clarity nonetheless, and as Iwaizumi leaves the inn the next morning, he knows exactly what his purpose is; he knows exactly what he has to do.

 


 

The first two days no one but Ushijima are allowed into Makoto’s bedroom, where Oikawa is resting.

And on its own it makes sense, you suppose, because Ushijima is his closest friend, his brother. Because there’s something about Ushijima’s presence that seems to radiate comfort and warmth, and because you think that there are probably things that happened in the two weeks Oikawa was captured that he does not wish to tell anyone else. Not even Makoto, who spends the first day pacing and nervously peeking at the door as if she’s afraid of what’s going on behind it. You tell yourself that you don’t care. You don’t have the time to, not when Lev’s army is waiting for commands, not when there are southern prisoners to take care of. Not when people seem to look at you as some sort of hero all of a sudden. 

But you do care. You wonder why Ushijima looks so tired whenever he comes out of Oikawa’s room. As if just the sight of Oikawa is enough to take the wind out of him. Ripped skin and colored flesh springing to the forefront of your mind, you can’t blame him for the deep, purple shadows beneath his eyes. Ushijima cared about Oikawa on a level you don’t really understand as a single child. 

You glance at the closed door for the tenth time in as many minutes. You wonder what Oikawa would think about the way people look at you for advice, the way they treat you like the thing he hates the most; like royalty. Most of all you wonder about his actions when you got out of the ruins. The mere memory of it makes your face heat up and the hairs stand at the back of your neck. You can’t stop thinking about it. Every time you close your eyes you’re transported back to the moment Oikawa’s face closed in on yours, his lips chapped against yours and his breath hot on your face.

That was your first kiss. The thought makes you want to cry. You’ve imagined it so many times, hours spent fantasizing and daydreaming about handsome knights and princes from far far away. You don’t have room for daydreams anymore, but still you hadn’t quite imagined you would get such a big first in such a small, insignificant way. Chances are Oikawa doesn’t even remember; that if he does he’s regretting it. He’d been half dead, delirious from pain, mind clouded by whatever he’d been going through in the ruins. It wasn’t what you wanted. It wasn’t what you dreamed of.

The door to the bedroom slides open, and you can’t quite help the way your gaze is drawn towards the slight opening in the door, heart in your throat as you crane your head to get a better view. But just as you think you can see the silhouette of caramel brown curls, Makoto calls your name. You spin around, embarrassment burning at the tip of your ears as she regards you with a curious expression. You think she might tease you for how blatantly obvious your peeking was, but she merely greets you with a lopsided sort of grin.

“The western knight is asking for you,” she tells you. Right. You have responsibilities now. Responsibilities and duties that are a lot more important than the strange, uncomfortable fluttering in your chest and the childish notion of a stolen first kiss. You force the thoughts, the lingering remnants of lips upon your own, out of your mind and get up from the couch to follow Makoto out of the house. 

(You don’t even notice the eyes of a certain brunet following you as you go.)

 


 

Oikawa sits on a bed that smells too much like you and he wonders what the fuck he’s going to do now. With the help of his friend’s healing hands he feels — for the most part — physically fine. He can’t quite escape the ghostly sensation of whips across his back and boots against his stomach, but he feels, at least, like his body is cooperating to repair his broken bones and mend his ripped skin.

His mind, on the other hand, is on the verge of insanity. He doesn’t think Ushijima’s soothing fingers can do anything about that. 

The aforementioned man stands near the door, watches Oikawa with a tilted head and a curious gaze. He hums in a low, knowing tune, the sound vibrating in his throat. He sounds as if he’s just figured out a secret. If so, he should tell Oikawa, because he can barely think straight. He must have been more out of it than he thought, to have pulled a stunt like that. Now that he’s thinking back on it he realizes that while he might be able to write it off to everyone else, he can’t do anything about how much it fucks with his own head. 

Oikawa has been an adult his whole life. He’s never had time for frivolous things. He’s been a flirt, sure, but never because he wanted to. While his fellow knights went to whorehouses, Oikawa spent his free time in the barracks, getting in extra practice. While he danced with fair and bright eyed noble ladies, he penned papers to send home in his mind. He’s never cared about romance, he’s dedicated everything he possessed within the cage of his skin and flesh to making the best life he could for his family. 

In one fell swoop, it seems he has messed everything up. 

“You look conflicted,” Ushijima’s voice is low and rumbly, but not as concerned as Oikawa would like. There’s something that could pass off as humor tucked between the syllables of Ushijima’s normally bland tones, and Oikawa has half the mind to throw a pillow in his face. He frowns instead, refusing to meet Ushijima’s gaze. “You seem to have changed your mind.” Ushijima doesn’t elaborate, doesn’t really need to. Everything about Oikawa has changed. Every fiber of his being, the very driving force keeping him afloat all those tiring years at the castle.

Now he barely knows who he is anymore.

“I haven’t,” he snaps, because admitting it out loud is way above what Oikawa has the mental capabilities of doing. If he keeps himself from admitting just how much he’s changing, if he represses it hard enough, maybe he will be able to revert back to his normal state of being sooner or later. Preferably sooner.

 


 

It’s strange to watch Akaashi Keiji speak. It’s strange because the only thing you have to compare him with, the only red thread tying your fates together, is Lev. And Akaashi seems to be the complete opposite of Lev on all counts. What an impossible thought, what a strange turn of events. Lev Haiba, clumsy, average knight; the newly appointed leader of the west. The sole reason Oikawa isn’t still stuck inside the ruins of an old castle, chained and bound by your enemies. The man who can potentially turn the tides of this entire war.

“I think you should go to the west,” Akaashi tells you, arms crossed as he watches you from across the table in the makeshift camp the westerners have created right outside the village. A tent and borrowed furniture donated from the villagers, it looks just like how you’d pictured war meetings in all the stories you read as a child. It would be exciting, had not Akaashi’s words frozen every muscle in your body. 

Needless to say, this suggestion was not at all what you had expected. “I’m sorry, what?” 

Akaashi clears his throat, his brows furrowed as he seems to consider his words. He looks like a Royal himself, you think. A pretty face and a slim physique. Even in the heat of the East he wears a big cape made of fur, clasp at the front the sigil of western royalty. He looks much more like a king than Lev ever did. 

“I think you should marry Lev.” 

You feel as if your jaw unhinges from your face and falls onto the table, mouth hanging open as you struggle to grasp this sudden proposal. It’s not the stupidest thing, you think. Realistically speaking it would look very good; the princess everyone thought was dead and the newly crowned king of the western region. It would solidify the west’s position as your supporters, send a clear message to both the enemies of the south and the people waiting for a leader to rescue them from a tyrant. It’s probably the best option, the one that would provide the clearest way to victory. Lev is nice, you don’t think he would make the worst husband in the world. 

Still, it doesn’t sit right with you. 

“Have you— did Lev make that proposal?” 

“No,” Akaashi admits. “Lev knows nothing about ruling, he couldn’t have come up with it if he tried.” He says it with a sigh, with the tone of someone who had had to deal with Lev’s eccentric thoughtlessness one too many times. It’s a marvel to listen to a servant speak so frankly of his lord, and you can’t quite manage to hide a smile. “But he respects you and he wants to help you. He will agree.” 

You wonder. It’s certainty, and god knows you could use some of that right now. It’s a stable position in this mess of uncertainties and questions without answers. It’s putting your people before yourself, doing your duty as the last living Royal of the kingdom. But the feeling in the pit of your stomach is not one of calm and resolve, it’s one of apprehension and anxiety. When you try to imagine yourself next to Lev, his face keeps distorting, changing, morphing into features so distinctly not Lev it makes your skin crawl. 

“It’s not an easy choice, I’m sure,” Akaashi says, his voice distracting you from the dangerous spiral of your thoughts. “Though I can promise you you will be well cared for in the West. Just consider it.” He rises from the table, a subtle way of telling you your meeting is over. You follow suit, pushing yourself up from your chair to find your legs slightly shaky. “But I remind you that we don’t have all the time in the world.” 

It’s a cruel but necessary reminder. You swallow nervously, nodding to Akaashi as he regards you with a neutral expression not betraying whatever it is he’s feeling about his offer and your reaction to it. “I will sleep on it,” you tell him with confidence you do not possess in truth. “Thank you.” 

You leave the tent, feeling lost. 

 


 

You’re so caught up in your own thoughts that when you re-enter Makoto’s home you don’t even notice Oikawa lying on the couch. You walk in a straight line, gaze unfocused and right ahead of you as you make for the kitchen. Why? Where are you going? You’re not sure, but you press your hands against the wood of the dinner table as if you’ve just ran a marathon, breath coming in a deep sigh as you stare out the window.

Marry Lev, huh. Now there’s a thought. Somehow, unwanted memories or a hand on your chin and lips against yours invade your mind. Nope. You shake your head, bidding your brain to focus on the problem at hand. If you’re being honest, a marriage to the western royal is the best possible option. Your position in the capitol is basically non-existent, and having them as allies not only in war but in marriage would be… you sigh. “Oh boy.” 

You hear a sound from behind you and you jump, spinning around to be faced with Oikawa leaning up on his elbows. He looks much better. There’s color in his face, a sort of vibrant hue to his skin that makes him look almost brand new, as if he didn’t just spend two weeks cooped up in a prison cell. There’s a relief in your bones that makes you deflate a little, the sight of him oddly soothing. You haven’t seen him since Ushijima basically carried him to bed after returning to the village.

“You look like your head is about to explode,” he remarks, an eyebrow arched high on his forehead as he seems to regard you like some sort of mystery. As if he could read your mind if he just looked hard enough. You feel weird. Are you supposed to talk about it? Are you supposed to mention the thing that happened ? You can’t imagine how, considering you can’t even bring yourself to actually call it what it is in your mind.

“It’s called thinking,” you retort instead, because falling back to insults and banter seems to be the easiest way to respond. “I understand it might be a difficult concept for you to grasp.”

Oikawa’s mouth twitches, but he doesn’t take the bait. Which is… unexpected. “You were with the western guy, right? What did he say?”

You hesitate. Talking about this strange, indirect proposal with Oikawa feels wrong somehow. You find that you don’t really want to mention it to him, even though it’s probably the right thing to do. Between the two of you, Oikawa is the one who knows about war, about politics. He’d know what the best decision was. But you don’t want him to. You don’t want him to tell you what he inevitably will, which is to go ahead and accept.

You don’t know why. You don’t want to think about it. You lean against the kitchen table, edges of your mouth dragging down into a frown. “The west will send more soldiers,” you start instead, because at least that’s safe. At least that doesn't make you feel as nauseous. “Honestly I have no idea how to do this. I don’t think I was meant for war.” 

Oikawa looks at you and you feel vulnerable, as if your skin was made entirely out of air, flesh translucent and your organs on display. 

“You won at the ruins,” he replies, surprising you with a softness to his voice that makes you almost crane your head towards him to hear it better. “A stupid plan, by the way. But it worked, right?” There’s an underlying meaning to his words, something that sounds suspiciously like ‘you saved me, right?’ 

“That wasn’t really me, I didn’t do much.” 

“Well who was it then? It sure as hell wasn’t Ushijima.” 

“It was pure luck. They didn’t anticipate that we knew about the tunnels.” 

Oikawa rolls his eyes, looks annoyed as he falls back on the couch. “ You knew about the tunnels.” 

The tips of your ears heat up. Oikawa paying you a compliment was weird enough; him insisting on it was entirely unexpected, out of character. 

“Is this what praise sounds like from you?” You ask before you can stop yourself, the teasing in your tone too casual, too playful. Unbidden memories force themselves back into your mind, Akaashi’s voice like a foreboding, disembodied echo. You should marry Lev

“Yeah,” Oikawa mutters. “Don’t get too used to it.” 

You think that you would like to get used to it. You don’t know where that thought comes from. 

“He thinks I should marry Lev,” you blurt out, the thought too big and too frightening to keep locked behind your lips anymore. Oikawa doesn’t look at you for a moment, his brows furrowed as he glances to the side. He doesn’t look surprised. You can’t read his face well enough to know what he’s thinking. 

“Yeah?” 

It’s all he says, his voice neutral in a way you’ve never heard it before. Oikawa is a creature driven by emotion. He’s got a temper that flares and flickers like a bonfire. He’s not like Ushijima who might look the same no matter if you tell him bad or good news, who you need to watch carefully to decipher. Usually Oikawa’s feelings are worn on his sleeves. That was something you could always count on, even when the result was rarely a positive for you. Now, when you need it the most, Oikawa has apparently learned to keep himself on lock. 

“Yeah,” you mutter weakly. “It’s a good deal. Unifying the west and the capitol, putting me in an actual position with the nobles. They won’t take a solitary queen seriously, not after a war.” 

“Guess so,” he says. Your frown deepens. 

“Lev’s not a bad choice. It’s not like…” your voice catches in your throat and you have to blink away wetness in your eyes. You want to cry. You want to cry so badly and you don’t even know why. Despite your romantic ideals and daydreams, you have always known the reality of your position. To marry someone well suited for you no matter what they were like, to smile and be a pretty princess no matter what you felt. “It’s not like royalty marries for love anyways.”  

Your legs vibrate like they want to give out, and you step around uncomfortably just for something to do, pacing timidly across the floor, staring at the walls.

“You agreed then?” He says, his voice oddly clipped. 

“No,” you murmur. “I don’t know. It’s the right thing to do, right? It should be an easy decision. But it’s not.”

Oikawa doesn’t respond. At first you think he’s just thinking of something to say, but as the moments creep by it becomes apparent he’s not planning to talk at all. At once you feel stupid for confiding in him. He doesn’t care, of course he doesn’t. Why would he? Even if his behavior has bettered significantly, you’re still just a pain in his ass, a duty he can’t seem to rid himself of. Probably he’d be more than happy to see you shipped off to the west, married off to some prince in a far off winterland. Probably he’d rest easy, unburdened by your presence.

Later you’ll be embarrassed by the following outburst, lying in a bed that no longer smells like you’re used to, overanalyzing every second of what happens next. But you’re so emotionally rattled, so overwhelmed by the last few days, by Akaashi’s offer, by the feelings and anxieties bubbling up beneath your skin that even as you’re opening your mouth fully aware that you should keep it shut, you cannot seem to help yourself.

“Maybe it doesn’t mean much to you,” your voice is louder than you want it to be, pitch embarrassingly high as you take in his relaxed position on the couch. At once you’re angry. Unfair. It’s so unfair how unbothered he is when you’ve been stressing and agonizing for days. “but that was my first kiss!”

Oikawa puts his book down with a sigh, leveling you with a bored expression. “So? It was my first, too.”

For a moment, his words shock you into silence. You’re reminded of everything you've ever heard about Oikawa at court; about his flirting and dalliances with maids and heiresses alike. It’s hard to believe a man with a reputation like that has never kissed anyone before, but it’s such a strange thing to lie about. You blink, staring at him. He stares back, no mockery visible in his expression at all. It’s like he’s daring you to question him, daring you to take the bait. To call him out and be the vile person he’s always thought you were.

You decide not to. 

“So?” You repeat instead, fist shaking as you fight against the urge to fall through the floor and escape from the conversation you started. “I—” I wanted my first kiss to be with someone who loves me, you think, but the words won’t come out. I wanted it to be someone who cared, someone who wanted to kiss me. Not someone who can’t stand me, who did it because they were delirious from pain. “I don’t have much left to take and you took it from me.” 

There’s only quiet. Oikawa looks at you with furrowed brows, seems to be contemplating what you’re saying. You’re angry and sad and frustrated, all your emotions threatening to spill through your eyes as you blink away angry tears. 

Oikawa seems to make up his mind, gets up from the couch and approaches you with quick, long steps. It catches you off guard, makes you step back until you hit the wall behind you, and suddenly you’re trapped, caught between wood and Oikawa’s tall, imposing form. He puts his hands on each side of your face and hooks his fingers behind your ears. It’s a strange sense of deja vu when his face comes closer, closer, closer, his nose brushing against yours and his breath ghosting your skin before he closes the distance and presses his lips against yours. 

It doesn’t make particularly much sense, but sense seems to leave you with every passing moment as his mouth moves against yours. He’s an aggressive sort of kisser, the type who seems to have something to prove in the way his thumbs press into your skin and his body pushes against you. It’s hard to breathe. It’s hard to think, and after a moment it seems Oikawa becomes impatient, breaks away for a moment with a whispered “just shut the fuck up.” 

You want to complain but he is on you again within a second, angrier, hungrier, more demanding. His hands travel down your neck, your shoulders, grasping at your hips to make you move towards him. He’s trying to say something, you think, but you’re not sure what. 

You decide to just listen. 

Your hands have minds of their own it seems, moving to coil around his neck and pull at soft strands of his hair. Oikawa groans into your mouth, gyrates his hips against yours and there’s an explosion of sensations you don’t understand going off in the pit of your stomach. He parts his mouth, catches your bottom lip with his teeth, bites down hard enough to make you whine and licks at the spot as if to soothe it.

It’s not at all like the kiss outside the ruins, like the actions that seemed more like a tired afterthought than a planned move. Oikawa moves his mouth with purpose, presses his body so tightly against yours that you feel like you’re about to meld into one body. His tongue skirts the entrance of your mouth for a moment before entering it and you feel as if you’re catching fire. His tongue licks at the inside of your mouth as if he wants to explore every part of it, as if he wants to taste the innermost parts of you. It slides against your own in such a way it makes your legs weak, your arms tightening around his neck for support.

Your mind is swimming, lack of oxygen making you feel almost heavy, but you can’t push him away because you think somehow this is a defining moment. You can’t push him away because you don’t want to. Something is brewing in your chest, something just outside your grasp of understanding. You want to trap the feeling between your hands, to hold it close and examine it until you understand it. Just a moment more and— 

Oikawa is the first to step back, his chest falling and rising at a rapid pace as he seems to be gasping for air. He stares you down, his face and ears hot red and just as you’re about to open your mouth to say god knows what he spins around, marching to the front door and leaving without a word or even as much as another glance in your direction. 

He leaves you with your hand above your heart, palm pressed to your chest to feel the unsteady, hurried rhythm of the organ caged inside your rib cage. 

You’re more confused than ever. 

 


 

Oikawa slams the door behind him, heart pounding in his chest as fresh air hits his face. Suddenly the eastern sun is very hot, scalding his skin and burning his face as he hides it behind his hands. What the fuck is he doing? Is he an idiot? His mind is running ten miles an hour, the logical part of his brain wrestling with whatever madness seems to have taken up residence inside of him. He feels as if he’s about to burst out of his skin. There are too many things going on beneath his flesh, too many feelings rattling around his ribcage. 

His lips are tingling, fingertips itching to a painful degree. He can’t think. He desperately needs to come up with some logical conclusion to what he’s just done, but he can’t, his senses overwhelmed with smells and sensations he can’t recognize. He feels ice at the bottom of his stomach, dread lurking beneath a chaos of emotion. Because he’s just made a fool of himself. Not because of the strange, constricting feeling at the prospect of the princess leaving to marry a prince in the west. Not at all.

He wants to go back. He wants to rewind time to before he got captured, before he got rescued by the person with the least reason to save him. To a time when his life was simple and his fundament strong and impregnable.

“Tooru?” Ushijima’s voice is strangely muted, blocked by some invisible wall around him. Oikawa peers ahead from between his fingers, coming eye to eye with his tall friend. Ushijima looks worried.  “Are you okay? Your face is red. Are you in pain?”

Yes, Oikawa thinks. He’s in pain. He’s hurting all over and he wants to disappear completely. But he doesn’t think there’s anything even Ushijima can do to fix the affliction he’s suffering from. 

“I’m fine,” Oikawa lies through gritted teeth. “I’m good.” There’s a heavy weight lingering where your arms had been wrapped around his neck a moment ago. He feels as if it might drag him down into an abyss that all of a sudden does not seem as unwelcoming as he thought before. 

He shivers despite the heat and he cannot think. Maybe that’s a blessing. 

 


 

Hinata sits in a cage. A wooden thing of wheels and iron bars. He feels very much like an animal, like a bird or a bear or some exotic commodity. He sleeps on a hard wooden floor with nothing but a blanket, he’s feed twice a day, a bowl of porridge pushed through a latch in the door by a woman with a large scar across her face.

He hasn’t seen Kageyama since the ruins. He doesn’t even know if he’s alive anymore. Hinata wants to cry, but southern boys never cry. At least that’s what he’s told. 

Suddenly, he misses Yachi. Whenever he was sad she would take his head in her hands and push it down onto her lap, running fingers through his hair and speak softly into his ear until he didn’t remember what he was sad about anymore. Hinata never wanted this war. He never wanted Yachi to go to the capitol, never wanted to put a sword in his hands. He doesn’t care about the kingdom, Hinata only cares about the soothing sound of the sea and the quiet warmth beneath a tall tree. 

He’s dozing off when he hears a woman clear her throat in front of his cage. Even the subtle sound is recognizable; the voice echoing in his head during long sleepless nights in his little prison. He opens his eyes and comes face to face with the princess. There’s a sort of somber look on your face, as if you’ve just gotten bad news. No wonder, he thinks. There’s rarely any other kind these days.

You touch your hand to the bars of the cage with a deep sigh, and Hinata feels jolts of electricity run down his spine. 

“I’m sorry about this,” you tell him, taking him by surprise by sounding entirely genuine. “I wish there was another option. This doesn’t look comfortable. Do you need a pillow?” It looks and sounds like you’ve been crying, edges of your eyes red and swollen. Hinata is reminded of the words you uttered to the prisoner they were guarding. Common ground. He wonders if you meant it. He wonders if that’s possible, 

“No,” he replies, because kindness is more often than not a concealed dagger, and though Hinata might be perceived as soft he is not stupid. You frown, fingers grabbing around the bar so tightly your knuckles whiten. 

“Oikawa said you fed him. You didn’t have to,” you glance around as a trio of western soldiers pass by dressed in their ridiculously thick robes. It seems to Hinata as an entirely impractical thing to wear in this climate, but he knows exactly why. Posturing. It seems some things are the same everywhere. “In fact I’m sure people would’ve preferred if you didn’t. Thank you.”

“Where’s Kageyama?” Hinata asks, ignoring your gratitude. If you’re so thankful, he thinks, maybe you’ll at least have the decency to answer his question. 

“Your friend? He’s fine,” you lean back, looking far away as if in the direction of the dark haired southerner. “He’s angry, but he’s fine. I promise.”

There’s no real reason to believe you, but there’s a sigh tucked between your words that seems impossible to fake and god knows Hinata has expressed the same sort of verbal eye roll when talking about Kageyama before. He wants to ask a million questions but he cannot settle on one. 

“I’m really sorry about hitting his head,” you mutter with honesty. As if you know what he’s thinking. As if you weren’t on different sides, as if you haven’t killed allies of his. “I had someone look at his wounds and it’s gonna be fine.” 

He thinks you sound guilty, when he had expected you to sound triumphant. Not only had you saved your lover — Hinata assumes, the intimacy of your touches reminding him of his own parents — and secured an important victory against the south, you had been able to take prisoners. Leverage. Bargaining chips. Disposable fodder to rile up the troops. 

“What now? Will we be publicly executed?” Hinata has heard the rumors about the brutality of the capitol. Even compared to the rough ways of the south, they had sounded like tyrants in every story he was told as a child. Your eyes widen, scandalized, and you let go of the iron bar to take a step back. 

“No!” You exclaim a bit too loud. You lean back in, regarding Hinata carefully. How strange. Hinata has always been told horror stories about the capitol. The corrupt and evil royals, their cruel rules and wicked ways of treating the people. There’s none of it in your face, not even a hint. “No,” repeat, softer. 

“Actually, I was hoping we could talk.” You lean your forehead against the iron bars, face determined and confident as if you didn’t look a hair’s breadth away from a breakdown just a few minutes ago. Hinata feels himself shiver, even as eastern heat surrounds him on all sides. “I want you on my side.” 

“I want you in my army.”

Chapter Text

Eleven

Ushijima has always been a people watcher. He’s not extremely knowledgeable when it comes to the inner workings of human beings, but he feels that when he’s able to watch from afar and without intruding on their personal space, it’s easy enough to understand what they’re thinking. At least in a broad, general sense. 

So Ushijima knows that when he chances upon a positively burning Tooru, face as red as ripe tomatoes and hands frantically trying to cover up the evidence, something has happened. He knows that Tooru comes out from Makoto’s house, the house you entered no more than twenty minutes ago. He knows that Tooru is wrestling with some unresolved emotion towards you that he can’t quite cope with yet. He knows that Tooru has already slipped up once, that he is prone to slipping up when left unguarded. 

So it’s not so hard, then, to figure out what has got him so upset. Tooru has hated the royal family like it was a personality trait. It has been the most sure thing about him since there was sureness in him at all. It must be hard, Ushijima thinks, to have your beliefs so thoroughly smashed. Ushijima decides not to point any of his out, of course, because Tooru is the type of person who needs to figure things out on his own. If Ushijima simply tells him he’ll just reject and refuse and the whole process will take even longer. Ushijima is used to observing from a distance, he doesn’t mind the wait. 

But he can’t quite help the smile on his face as the shorter man slips past him. 

Ushijima is unsurprised to see you in a similar state of distress when he enters, your fingertips to your lips and your gaze unfocused as he clears his throat. You jump as if you hadn’t even noticed him coming in, embarrassment burning bright in your face. 

“Ushijima!” You exclaim, your voice a pitch too high. “I, uh, didn’t expect you to come. Is everything alright?” 

“Yes,” Ushijima replies, and he feels something warm fill his stomach. Happiness is hard to come by these days, and he revels in the feeling. “I wanted to check on you. You’ve kept busy.” 

You laugh in a rush of released breath. “I could say the same for you, I feel like I’ve barely seen you since the ruins.” You glance away as in entranced in a memory. Ushijima’s mouth twitches. It’s endearing, he thinks, to see the two of you tiptoe around it so much. 

“I heard some rumors,” he starts, uncertain of how to breach the topic. For all the joy he gets from seeing you and Tooru dance around each other, he feels a sort of pain at the pit of his stomach about the prospect of a proposal from the west. He doesn’t deem himself a politically inclined sort of guy, but even Ushijima knows that this proposal would be a benefit to everything you’re fighting for. “About an… offer from the western royal.” 

You sigh, sinking onto a kitchen chair as if you can’t keep yourself on your feet anymore. “Yup,” you chirp. “It’s pretty great, on paper.” Great on paper doesn’t sound to Ushijima — and truthfully he considers himself more practical than anything — like a very romantic reasoning for a marriage. It’s different for royals, he realizes, because they must always have their people’s best interest in mind, but you strike him as a romantic and he feels his heart ache for you. 

“But?” He urges, because he does not want to push. 

“But I don’t know if I’m that selfless,” you admit, shame tinging the tone of your voice. There’s a quiver to your bottom lip — it’s swollen, he notices, feels kind of like a creep for noticing such an intimate detail — and not for the first time Ushijima feels the overwhelming urge to give you a hug. To soothe your sorrows and wipe away your tears. You remind him so much of Tooru it pains him. Duty hanging over both of your shoulders like a death sentence. 

“Is it selfish to want to find your own way?” 

You stare up at him as if the question is outlandish. And sure, it’s a bit more emotionally charged than his usual exterior, but you must know by now that despite his appearances Ushijima cares very deeply. You’re not hard to care for, after all. 

“It is for me.” 

Your voice is but a whisper, a quiet admission as your fingers grasp at the back of the chair as if you need a lifeline. 

“Why?” 

“Because I’m a royal. I can’t think about myself, especially not now,” you’re on the edge of rambling, voice quick and uneven as you speak. Ushijima can practically see the oncoming crisis on your face. “We need allies and leverage against the southerners. We don’t even know what awaits us in the capitol.” 

Ushijima sees the pain and frustration on your face, hears it in the cracked syllables of your voice. You’re trying to talk yourself into it, eating your wishes and feelings and dreams for the sake of your people. It’s a noble concept, but Ushijima does not agree. 

“Do you not think that you have a duty to your people to be happy? Unhappy kings make violent rulers, maybe it’s time for something new?” 

Tears roll down your cheeks as you cry quietly. For more reasons than the prospect of marriage, Ushijima thinks.

 


 

You remember reading books about the Great Wars and something dawns on you. It’s not a pleasant thought but it’s the thing that makes the most sense, you think, sitting by the kitchen table of Makoto’s home. You’re the only one inside, the men outside training and Makoto busy with treating wounds and fretting over the strangers in her village. She seems to have taken a liking to Akaashi in particular, something wistful and nostalgic in her face when she looks at him. 

You’re trying to prepare your argument to let the two southern warriors out of their cages. So far, though, your mind seems to insist on taking you to entirely other places. 

During any of the Great Wars the kingdom saw drastic spikes in childbirth shortly after the war’s conclusion. Why is that, your teacher would ask, looking at you from behind her thick, round glasses. What made a war such a fertile time compared to peace? Truthfully you had no idea, the subject matter way above your maturity levels at the time. You’d shrugged your shoulders and waited for the teacher to reveal the answer. 

Because people were scared. Scared of dying without a legacy to leave behind. Scared to die not having felt the loving embrace of another body. It had been a confusing concept at the time, you couldn’t really imagine people feeling very romantically inclined while people were dying all around them. 

It makes sense, though, you realize. ‘If I'm going to die I want to have experienced this first’, ‘if I don’t survive this I want my name to live on through someone else’. Humanity was such a fickle thing, extinguished so easily. People wanted something that felt in some way permanent or important. 

You understand, then, why Oikawa had kissed you. He had spent his life protecting a crown he didn’t believe in, too busy trying to achieve some sort of impossible goal to actually live a fulfilling life. And after his imprisonment in the ruins, his brush with death and mortality, he wanted his own mark upon the world, no matter how small or insignificant. It just so happened that you were the closest one to do it to. This knowledge makes it easier to understand his actions, but somehow you feel heavy. You can’t really afford to be a romantic anymore. 

You still feel a painful twinge of disappointment in your chest, try as you might to ignore it. Ushijima’s words echo in your head. You don't know that you have it in you to be revolutionary. 

“So this is where you’ve hidden yourself,” Makoto’s soft voice breaks you out of your thoughts, her hand on your shoulder before you even notice she’s entered the house. You turn to face her and you’re immediately greeted by the cruel, jagged scar on her face, the awful reminder of the first time the south made their mark in the East during your stay. You wish you had been faster back then, more confident and sure in your steps. 

You suppose not much has changed. You’re still uncertain, insecure. You still feel the intense need for guidance and hand holding, like a child not ready for their parents to let go of the reins of the horse they’re sitting atop. 

“Sorry,” you mumble awkwardly. “I didn’t notice you coming in.” 

“I bet,” she counters, peering down at you with all the motherly affection in the world. It’s a gaze that fills you with warmth and goosebumps both, something so completely strange and unfamiliar and familiar all the same. “You must have a lot on your mind.” 

“Too much,” you admit. “I’m not made for this.” 

“I don’t think that’s true at all. I think this is exactly what you were meant to be doing. This is exactly where you were supposed to be.” 

She squeezes your shoulder and gives you a smile full of confidence. Even with the ugly, red mark on her face, Makoto is radiant. She must be the bravest woman you know, her honest belief in you so tangible you feel as if you could reach out and touch it. No one has ever had such blind faith in you. You don’t know if you’ve earned it. 

Is this where you’re supposed to be? Here, in the East, sacrificing peoples’ lives just to let you avoid something that in the end might be inevitable anyways? 

“I’ve known Lev since he came to the capitol,” you tell Makoto. “I didn’t even know he was western royalty until Akaashi arrived here. He just came as a boy wanting to be a Kingsguard, I thought.” You remember him fondly as a new recruit, all long limbs and cheery enthusiasm. “There used to be this tradition where the princes of all the regions came to the capitol to train under the king. Learn from him, seek guidance. Apparently he wanted to honor the tradition.” 

For a while Makoto doesn’t reply, only looks at you with a searching gaze. She seems to want to peer into your very soul, and you feel the need to hide. 

“Do you want to marry him?” She asks. “Do you think you could grow to love him?” 

“No,” you answer, the response coming so quickly, so easily it surprises you. “Lev is a great man. But…” but not for me, you want to say, and it sounds so silly, so selfish you can’t finish the sentence. “But if not Lev then who? I would have to marry someone anyways, when all is said and done the kingdom needs a king.” 

“Are you not enough?” 

You don’t think so. Makoto waits for an answer but your jaw feels like it has been locked in place, teeth gritted and tongue too big for your mouth all of a sudden. 

“Did you tell Tooru about this?” She asks, the question catching you off guard and sending jolts of electricity through your body. You hope she doesn’t notice the way you stiffen, posture straightening so abruptly you feel your muscles complain. 

“Why?” 

“I’m just curious what he’d have to say,” her voice is a pleasant hum and it’s a lie so blatant she doesn’t even attempt to cover it up. “He knows a lot about these matters, after all.”

You’re reminded of fingertips digging into your hips, of teeth scraping against your bottom lip, of soft curls between your fingers. Don’t, you warn yourself. Don’t get caught up in thoughtless dalliances of war. It will only hurt in the end. 

“He didn’t say anything at all.” 

 


 

Oikawa is annoyed. It’s a completely unearned feeling, and he’s aware of that, which makes him even more annoyed. He feels like he’s back in the capitol; sitting around a round table with several other knights discussing strategy. A map lain out on the table, the room — or tent, as the case might be — illuminated by flickering candlelight. And Oikawa is annoyed. 

You’re talking to the western leader of the guard, leaning slightly over the table as if to look imposing. He doubts you’re doing it on purpose, but Oikawa recognizes the stance your father used to have when addressing a knight or adviser personally. Leaning forward with palms down on the table, signaling to the person that they had his full attention. Makoto sits to your right, Ushijima to your left. As if they were some sort of protection squad. 

He feels left out somehow. He hasn’t spoken to you since the incident, making sure to retreat to Makoto’s house late enough that you’ve gone to bed already and leaving before you can wake up. It’s awkward. He feels like ants are trampling his skin, sending shivers down his spine and ruining his concentration. He watches your lips move and feels a sort of pleasantly painful thud in his chest.

Apparently, you want to recruit the captive southern soldiers, have them fight for you rather than against you. Oikawa has seen you in front of the cages, seen you speak to the ginger southerner in particular, but he admits he had not expected this to be your plan. Maybe he should have, maybe it’s the only logical explanation you’d been spending so much time with the allies of those trying to kill you. He’d have thought you less naive by now, but evidently he’s mistaken.

“How do we trust them?” Akaashi asks, surprising Oikawa by not being as vehemently opposed to the idea as himself. “They have no reason not to betray us.” It’s of course the most logical response, though Oikawa honestly expected a blank refusal rather than a counter question. 

You lean back in the chair, jaw tight as you seem to weigh your options and search for the best response. “One of them gave Oikawa food while he was captured,” you tell them. It’s true, it had struck Oikawa as strange to be treated with any sort of kindness during his imprisonment in the ruins. He doesn’t think that’s enough to consider them allies. “I asked him why and he said he had been recruited against his will. They don’t want to be here more than any of us.”

That strikes Oikawa as interesting. The way he’s been told of the South they’re born with weapons in their hands and bloodlust on their teeth. Ravenous fighters of no other purpose. He’s reminded of the pair guarding him, how they spent most of their time not looking his way, not touching any weapons. How easily they had succumbed to your threats. 

“When this war is over I plan to unify our regions once more. That includes the south. Having southern allies, listening to their perspective,” your voice is calmer than he’s ever heard it, reasoning clear and tone steady. You sound like a ruler. A visionary. The thought scares him. “I think these things are crucial for a good future relationship.” 

There is silence. All eyes are trained either on you or on Akaashi. Realistically, there’s nothing he can do if you’ve already made up your mind; not only are you stubborn to a fault about your convictions, you are being hailed as the future of the kingdom. The last royal, the heir to the throne, the rightful queen. You might talk as if you’re asking for permission, but if you wanted to you could just order them all to do your bidding. Oikawa isn’t sure if it’s courtesy or naivety that keeps you from doing so. 

“They will need to be guarded,” Akaashi says, effectively yielding to either the confidence in your face or your unspoken political power. “This is very risky.” He looks uncomfortable with the idea — Oikawa doesn’t blame him — and several eyes look nervously in his direction.

But Oikawa knows, even before he looks at you, that you will be having a small, private smile gracing your features. That every tiny victory feels like a testimony to what you’re able to achieve. Sure enough, when he glances your way you’re looking down, a coy sort of twist to your mouth adorning your face.

The truth hits Oikawa like a punch.

“And my proposal?” Akaashi asks, as if asking for someone’s hand in marriage on someone else’s behalf was just the way of doing things. Maybe it is, Oikawa doesn’t know how royalty handles these things. He knows they marry for status and mutual benefit, that if they’re lucky they might grow to like each other over the years. He remembers your mother, always standing one step further away from the king than necessary. 

He hates it. He hates the thought of you going to the west, feels nauseous just with the thought of you marrying Lev. It won’t be the same as your parents, because Lev is a nice guy, he won’t hurt you or be cruel. If anything Oikawa thinks between the two of you it is him who might fall as the years go by. It’s not a bad idea as far as royal weddings and political unions go, but Oikawa feels possessiveness tingle at his fingertips, an unbidden, unusual impulse to slam his palms on the table and declare this wedding deal off. 

He sits completely still, stares out into the air and holds his breath. He feels trapped, betrayed by his own body and his own mind. His heart beats rapidly against his ribs, his fingers digging into the fabric of his pants. How ironic. It must be the gods toying with him, he thinks, having a laugh at his predicament and pointing at his idiocy for realizing so late. He glances up at you and somehow he can’t hear anything. Your mouth is moving but he doesn’t know what you’re saying. He only knows that you’re wearing one of his shirts, that your skin is practically glowing with the exposure to the eastern sun.

He only knows — and he curses this knowledge, wills it away and it persists, grows stronger, pulsates against his skin and rattles his bones — that he’s in love with you. 

It scares the absolute shit out of him. Too late does he realize he didn’t even hear your response to Akaashi’s question. Fuck.

 


 

Oikawa enters the house in the evening. It’s a bit strange to see him wandering in through the door, considering he’s been going to painstaking measures to avoid seeing you as much as possible recently. He pauses in the doorway, looking at you as if he’s forgotten himself, as if he didn't think you’d be there, clearing his throat as you watch him from the top edge of the book you’re reading. 

The book was a gift from Lev, supposedly. A first edition copy of the children story you loved so much as a child. A complete collection of the child King and Lionheart’s adventures. You’re sitting with your legs up on the couch Oikawa usually sleeps in, fireplace crackling and bathing the living room in a soft, orange-yellow light. Outside the sun is setting, giving way to a clear sky of stars and a full moon. You feel kind of like a child again. Reading your favorite stories underneath a blanket, dreaming yourself away into magical worlds and dangerous adventures. 

You always wanted to be the king. To make important decisions and own your own fate. To command rather than be commanded. There’s excitement in your stomach as you read the stories and realize you’re close now, close to being what you always wished for. Only one pesky decision away from being a fully realized, independent, real person. 

Oikawa paces with long steps until he’s standing in front of you. In this light he looks softer than in the harsh sunlight of the day. His edges are blurred with the warm hues of fire, his scars less visible and his skin glowing. His brows are furrowed as he looks down on you. It looks like he has something to say, like his tongue is curling inside his mouth and refuses to cooperate. 

“I don’t think you should go to the west,” He says suddenly, looking directly at you. There’s something strange in his face, something like terror or reluctance gripping like claws at his face, as if he’s speaking entirely without meaning to. You close the book and lay it in your lap, giving him your full attention as you wait for him to elaborate. He must clearly be meaning to, considering his mouth keeps opening and closing like a fish. “You show a stronger image if you defeat the south without political promises. Lev will help you anyways, it’s not like their help depends on marriage.” 

It sounds like he’s been thinking about it, his reasoning rehearsed and his voice coming out a tad faster than his usual tempo. You don’t know how to respond. You’re not used to getting unsolicited advice from him, not in this close and personal sort of way. It makes you feel strange, makes you remember things you shouldn’t and put importance where there is none. You cling to your earlier conclusions, if only to keep your face from heating up. 

“Oh,” you reply, unsure of what else to say. “Okay.” He stands there uncertainly as if he’s waiting for more, as if there’s something really obvious you’re supposed to respond to his outburst. You blink, but find no words to say. If you’re being honest you’re still far from deciding what to do about the proposal. You keep going in circles, arguing against your own points until you’re not sure what it is you really want anymore. You’ve tried telling yourself that you don’t need a western union to win the war. You’ve reasoned that marrying Lev would be much better than some power hungry noble. You’ve argued that you’re the last living royal, that you should make your own rules. 

It seems, after going back and forth a dozen times, that there is no right or wrong answer. You don’t know. Maybe Oikawa is right, maybe you should just let him tell you what to do, leave the burden on his broad shoulders so you don’t have to make any decisions. 

He glances from your position on the couch he usually inhabits to the book he reads lying on the table. You realize, with embarrassment creeping up your spine, that you’re intruding on his space.  

“Sorry,” you murmur. “I’ll go read in my room.”

“No,” Oikawa responds quicker than you expected him to, his tone hurried as the word leaves his mouth. He looks embarrassed, entirely a different creature than you’ve seen him before, but doesn’t take his eyes away from your gaze. There’s something in his expression that makes you think he’s making decisions in his head even as he’s speaking. As if even he can’t know what he’s about to say until the words leave his mouth. You feel a sort of fizzle of electricity, tension making the hairs on the back of your neck stand. It’s not an uncomfortable feeling. "it’s fine.” 

Then, in a lower voice, less of the insistent bravado and the refined confidence. “Stay.”

(For a while the two of you just read in silence on one end of the sofa each. Oikawa reads from the same book he’s been reading since you arrived in the east, you relive your childhood memories through the pages of a gifted children’s novel. It feels… domestic. Normal. It’s the most normal thing you’ve done since you lost your home and your family, maybe even since your mother died. 

At least, that is, until Oikawa murmurs your name, making you look up from your book. There’s something like vulnerability and fragility in his face -- it must be a trick of the light you think, because the Oikawa you know is not vulnerable nor fragile, he is sharp and hard and edges that hurt -- and he puts his book away before taking yours and laying it carefully on the table. There are occasional crackles and pop from a dying fire and your insides feel like bursting. He leans over, placing one hand on the backrest of the couch and another on your cheek. His chest presses against yours and he kisses you. 

And though it might be the third time, and though you might have told yourself not to care about it because apparently this is just the kind of thing that happens during wars, you cannot refuse the way your body reacts. You expected it this time, but the way your body responds is undeniable. His mouth catches you in a gasp and it is slow and painful and thunderclaps and butterflies. His entire body is on top of yours but you feel light and airy as if your soul is threatening to float away. It’s a comfortable weight, his legs tangling with your own as you open your mouth to let his prodding tongue in.

You expect him to escalate, to cross a boundary, to let his hands wander, because that is how it goes, right? There is no innocence, no carefulness in war. But he doesn’t. Oikawa kisses you senseless, kisses you stupid, kisses you until you can’t remember your name or your worries or something as silly as a proposal of a political marriage. And then he kisses you some more. He doesn’t leave in regret when he retracts his body like you expect him to, only picks his book back up and resumes reading without a word. 

You have no idea what just happened. You have no idea what’s going on. There’s an incessant flutter of beautiful caged birds trapped behind your ribs and you don’t know what that is either.)

 


 

The first thing Iwaizumi does when he returns to the capitol is paying the brothel a visit. He’s never showed up without notice before, but the dark haired owner welcomes him nonetheless, and he only has to wait a few minutes before his blonde friend waves him into a room. He wastes no time with niceties, too riled up to keep up appearances and playing nice. He gets undressed quickly, pulls the courtesan into his arms and presses his lips against hers as if his life depended on it. She responds with enthusiasm, like she always does, and Iwaizumi closes his eyes, like he always does. She’s not his princess, she’s not the same height, the same build, does not have the same cadence in her voice, but Iwaizumi is good at pretending. 

He lets his hands wander down her body, squeezes her breasts until she sighs into his mouth, digs his fingers into the flesh of her ass until she whines. He knows her well, knows all of her sensitive spots and secret desires, and as he pushes her towards the bed he makes use of this knowledge like he’s picking a lock. She’s completely at his mercy, melting in his hands, and as Iwaizumi conjures up the image of the woman he loves in his head he feels that he’s able to relax.

The courtesan is dressed in light fabrics, easily removable. He pulls her nightgown over her head and trails his fingers down her front. She shivers and arches up to meet his touch, hands around his neck and fingers tangling in his hair. He kisses down her neck, teeth biting into the flesh right where neck meets shoulder, licks the spot after. His index fingers hook around her underpants, pull them down without much thought. Her breath hitches when his fingers curl into her and she whispers something that sounds like ‘I missed you’. At once, Iwaizumi is angry. He doesn’t want her to talk, only wants her to play to his fantasies. He sits up, glares down at the naked courtesan beneath him.

“Turn around,” he demands. She stares up at him for a moment, doubtlessly taken aback by his cold attitude and uncommon command. But the courtesan does as she’s told. “On your knees.” He slaps her across the ass and she gasps, seemingly half in pleasure half in pain. Her upper body sinks into the bed, ass in the air as Iwaizumi unbuckles his pants. He pushes into her with a quick motion, slides inside her with ease and familiarity. She moans and grasps at the fabric of the linens covering the bed, hides her face in the mattress and pushes her body against him.

It’s a new position, and Iwaizumi can’t help the groan as he sheathes himself in her completely, fingers digging into the soft flesh of her hips. He can’t see her face like this, and it’s easier to pretend. If he closes his eyes it is not the blonde courtesan he’s burying his cock in, not her body he’s clawing into like his life depended on it. With his eyes closed he can wrap his hand around a handful of hair and pretend that it’s yours. 

He leans over your body, thrusts into you with force, relishes in the sound of skin against skin. He whispers sweet nothings into your ear, bites on your earlobe, licks down your spine. He wants to consume you. Every inch, every small detail of the map of your body, he wants to commit it to memory. The courtesan whimpers in the sound of his name and the spell is broken. Iwaizumi stops, opens his eyes to be greeted by skin covered in red and purple. 

He grabs her by the hips and thrusts. Hard, rough, fast. He watches her writhe beneath him, turning her head to get a glimpse of him. Her face is red, eyes glazed over, mouth open as she moans louder, louder, louder. She tries to twist and reach for him, fingers more like claws eager to mark and wound, but Iwaizumi puts a hand on the back of her head and forces her back into position. 

He comes inside her with a groan, body jerking as he ruts against her, riding out his orgasm. The blissful, cloudy feeling subsides quicker each time. Now he’s left mostly with a gross and filthy sort of emptiness, staring down at the place him and the courtesan connects. He takes a moment to catch his breath and then he grabs her by the hair and pulls her up. 

She whines, but doesn’t protest. Probably she thinks this is part of it, a lead up to round two. Maybe a week ago it would have been. Her body is hot and slick against his, covered in sweat and sex and who knows what else. She leans her head backwards to ease the pain of her hair getting pulled and Iwaizumi stares at the fucked out, pleasant expression on her face. 

“Yachi,” he says, because Iwaizumi can also uncover secrets if he wants to. Maybe she thought she had the upper hand being the only one with any information. “If you double cross me again I will slit your throat.” He pulls at her hair again, demonstrably. “Do you understand?” He’s not angry anymore, a dull sort of emptiness taking residence in his bones. He was when he realized she’d given information to southern forces. Not about him, because Iwaizumi knows she never would. But about something more important, something that mattered even more. 

Yachi had wanted the princess dead. Iwaizumi knows why. He lets go of her hair and Yachi cries. She begs for forgiveness, swears honesty, and confesses things she should keep to herself. Iwaizumi hands her a test in the form of a letter meant for the East. It’s a complicated thing, he thinks, loving someone so deeply and still feeling the way he does about the courtesan. He doesn’t think it’s love, doesn’t even know if it’s romantic, but it had cracked and splintered his heart when he realized her betrayal all the same. 

He hopes he can trust her. He needs to.

Chapter Text

Twelve

Ushijima Wakatoshi has always been a little different. When he was a child he cried a lot; feelings and emotions too overwhelming for him to truly comprehend spilling out in the form of water rolling down his cheeks. He cried when he was happy, bawled when he was sad, unable to truly understand all of the things rumbling around beneath his ribs. 

A sensitive child, people said. They said it with love and with affectionate tones, but Ushijima sensed the question behind it, the wonder of why the child wept so much, so freely. He didn’t mind, it was easier for him to release and rid himself of the uncomfortable, heavy feeling of too many emotions trapped under his flesh. Ushijima was content with it. 

And then his parents died. Ushijima cried until there were no more tears left in his body, and then he never cried again. And he felt better for it, too; muted almost, as if he had rid himself permanently of some part of his emotional anatomy. 

“Ushijima.” 

Ushijima looks up, comes face to face with his childhood friend, his brother. Tooru looks more vibrant these days, more attentive, more like a real person. Ushijima remembers when Tooru was more a ghost than he was a man, when he’d speak in monotones and walk without purpose. He’s happy his friend seems to have found something to believe in again. 

Apparently, he thinks to himself, Makoto was right. You exit the house a moment after Tooru, in an attempt to be less obvious, he supposes. It doesn’t work, because Ushijima knows Tooru better than he knows himself. Something has happened, something that has lessened the tension between Tooru’s brows and given him back the soft glow of his skin. As far as Ushijima remembers, Tooru has reserved his love and affection for a few people only. He respects his fellow easterners, but he loves only his family. Makoto and Ushijima. And now you. It’s blatant in the way Tooru watches you go, eyes moving to follow as you make your way over to the southern prisoners. 

The way he lets himself get caught tells Ushijima that Tooru must have finally come to terms with it, that he’s stopped resisting and given in. It was faster than he had expected, though Ushijima supposes that’s a good thing. He probably should not say this, though, and risk embarrassing the brunet. Tooru’s ego was always quite fragile. 

He wonders what the shorter man could think if he could read Ushijima’s mind. Probably nothing good. Ushijima smiles at the thought, ignores Tooru’s comment about it and joins his friend for sword training. 

It’s already evening when Ushijima finally retreats to his home. A family house that has been in his family for generations, it is nice to see people in his space again. Makoto has already gone to bed, but there’s a distinct smell of food coming from the kitchen, a treat left by his surrogate Aunt for him to enjoy. Most of adult life he’s spent here alone. It was easier that way, to keep the family secrets hidden and under wraps. He hopes he won’t have to for much longer. 

He sits down at the table and grabs the spoon placed neatly next to a bowl of steaming soup. His hand shivers and jerks, as it is wont to do these days, and for a moment he can’t do anything but quietly sit and observe as his limb protests. There’s no hurt there, no physical injury, but his hand reacts to some phantom pain nonetheless and Ushijima sighs. 

 


 

“You know,” Hinata leans his head against the iron bars of his cell, wild, orange hair peeking out between as he observes you on the ground in front of him. “In my village they said you were vain and stupid.” You laugh, throwing your head back at his comment. It’s a nice day, the sun beaming and the sky clear. There’s a sort of peaceful quiet over the town that makes you feel at ease, that lets you forget all your worries and troubles for a blissful moment.

The last few days you’ve been speaking to the southerner. You tried talking to the other one, Kageyama, but he has not been as receptive as his friend and if you’re being completely honest his dark stares kind of scare you. Hinata is a soft boy, a kind heart and a big smile and he is nothing like what you've been told to fear about the warriors of the south. 

“I probably was,” you admit, thinking back to a time of pretty dresses and decorated crowns. Rings and necklaces and drops of sapphire dangling from your ears. The only thing about it you miss is the necklace your mother gave you. You wonder if Oikawa still keeps it hidden somewhere or if he’s traded it for something more practical. You try not to care about it. “In the capitol they say all southerners are born with weapons in their hands.” 

Hinata grimaces. “Not me,” he says with something between humor and distaste in his voice. “If anything I think I was born with a fishing rod in my hands.” You hum. It’s true that the south is the leading source of fish and pearls. It makes sense that they must have people who specialize in obtaining them. But it’s strange to imagine a people so known for their volatility doing something so… domestic. 

“Then how did you end up here?”  

You hand him a peeled apple and he accepts it with a muttered ‘thanks’. He bites into it as if he hasn’t eaten for days, as if apples are his favorite fruit, as if he’s parched. You wait for him to finish eating, lean back on your arms to look at the sky above you. There’s not a single cloud in the endless, bright blue sea over you, but you suddenly feel heavy, tense. There is this strange, uneasy feeling in your stomach, this sort of foreboding thing that makes you shiver despite the heat. 

Hinata takes a big bite of his fruit, regards you carefully as if trying to read your mind. You wonder if maybe you’ve asked something too personal. He leans back against the iron bars behind him and the position looks uncomfortable. You hope you can get him out of there soon. 

“Tradition,” he says with a shrug. There’s this quiet resignation in his voice that you recognize all too well. You exhale. What a cruel thing. 

“Yeah,” you mutter. “I guess none of us really have a say in our futures.” We just do what we’re told and hope it works out . There’s silence, for a time, Hinata watches you while he eats his apple, and that is all there is. 

“You’re really not what I expected,” Hinata says at last, reiterating his earlier statement in a soft murmur. If circumstances had been different, maybe the two of you could have been friends. You imagine an alternate reality where the world is at peace and you spend your summers in the south. You imagine growing up with scabbed knees and laughter. You have half a mind to tell him about it, chest aching with the desire to make fantasy a reality. 

But you hear a loud scream and the hopefulness of dreaming falls away to terror. Head twisting to follow the sound you see eastern villagers running from the direction of the fields, and you know before anyone even comes close enough to speak that war is at your doorstep once more. 

Your first thought is that Oikawa and some other eastern boys have been patrolling that area all day. Your second is that Hinata and his friend are not safe in their cages. You get to your feet so fast it makes you dizzy, Hinata lurching forward to grab at the iron bars and stretch his head in the direction of the sound. 

“Hey,” he says, a shiver in his voice. “What’s happening?” 

You bite your lip, considering your options. Your sword hangs heavy at your hip, the weight of it suddenly ten times as pronounced as if it wants to announce its presence. You turn to the ginger with wide eyes, making a split decision as you look at him behind his bars. You hope you won’t regret it later. 

“I’m gonna get the key. I’ll let you out.”

 


 

Ushijima has a secret. It’s a dangerous thing, a burden he will carry to his grave, something only Tooru and Makoto knows the truth of. Sometimes it feels as if honesty is threatening to spill out of his mouth, sometimes he fears that he will blurt it all out without even meaning to. It’s a horrible thing, something tearing at his bones and ripping at his skin.

He thinks he might be cursed. Ever since the south descended on the East all those years ago, Ushijima has worried that maybe it was all his fault. He’d heard about village raids both before and after, about burnings and stakes and the summer of witches. He stares down at his hand, watches it tremble. It’s a dangerous thought, a road he knows better than to travel too far down. But still, he thinks about it sometimes, about the smell of death and smoke, about the bodies littering the village that used to be a safe haven. 

Actually, he amends in his mind as he stares down at the pale white parchment lying on the table in front of him, Ushijima has multiple secrets. The knight from the capitol, the one Tooru has spoken about, sent a letter that arrived in the early hours of the morning. Ushijima has not shown it to anyone yet, because rather than just the usual information about southern men traveling from the capitol to fight, there is a personal note on the bottom.

I’m coming. I will take the princess somewhere safe.

Ushijima frowns. He crosses his arms and stares down at the letter as if it will reveal some secret, hidden meaning in the text if only he stares long enough. He feels like he should tell Tooru. He feels like he shouldn’t. It complicates everything, and things were finally starting to calm down. Most of all Ushijima wonders who this man is really on the side of; he played an integral part in the coup on the castle, but he tasked Tooru with saving the princess and has been sending them information by raven. Loyalty is second nature to Ushijima and he can’t say he understands or trusts the ambivalence displayed in the knight’s actions. He leans back in the chair, staring up at the ceiling. He should ask Makoto.

But then he hears it. A sound that rattles him down to the bones, a sound that has been haunting his nightmares ever since he was a child. He hears the scream of a vaguely familiar eastern man, the warnings and rushed exclamations telling people to get away. Someone yells for their mother, he hears the desperate cry of someone’s name. Ushijima is on his feet before he can stop to consider, and then he is out the door. 

 


 

The sun shines brightly, blinds you as you twist around to assess the situation. You can’t find Oikawa, nor Ushijima or Makoto. You’re surrounded by unfamiliar faces and loud noises, your senses overwhelmed as you clutch onto the hilt of your sword. You glance at the cage Kageyama used to reside in. The door hangs open but the two of them are nowhere to be seen. You wonder if they ran. You hope they did. 

It’s strange. The blue sky and the bright sun feels like such a stark contrast to the battle raging below it. You’re reminded of your mother’s funeral. The weather had been great that day, too.

You feel a heavy weight crashing into you, like someone just threw a bag of bricks your way. You lose balance, start to topple over, but a long, thick arm wraps around your stomach and keeps you up right. Ushijima peers down at you, a thin line of red blood dripping down the side of his face. His brows are knit as his arm jerks slightly around your body. 

“Are you unharmed?” He asks, as if he didn’t just save your life. You cling to the front of his shirt for dear life, eyes wet with tears as the overwhelming feeling of gratitude and fear both crash over you like a tidal wave. 

“Yes,” you reply in a whisper. “Are you?” 

“Yes,” he lies. It’s a bad lie, a terribly concealed untruth as he clutches to you as if you’re the one keeping him up and not the other way around. He must see the disbelief in your face because he straightens up, loosening his grip around you. “I have seen worse. Don’t worry.” But you do worry. War is here again and you don’t know which faces you have seen for the last time and you worry. You’re scared. 

“Ushijima,” you whisper, unsure of what you’re even going to say. You feel his body tense against yours, his heartbeat vibrating through his skin and breath coming out heavier than you’re comfortable with.

“I’m fine,” he tells you, probably intending for his voice to come out more even than it does. He’s hurt, you need to get him out of here. You wrap an arm around his back for support, not missing the way he leans against you as if relieved. “It’s fine,” he repeats, but the side of your body that presses against his is getting wet and sticky and you’re too afraid to look down at it.

“I know,” you murmur, but your grip around him tightens and you start making your way towards the houses on the other side of the village. Makoto will be there, you reason. She’ll know what to do.

You don’t get that far. Your slow walk is interrupted by a tall, broad shouldered man wielding a sword. There’s a scar across his face, a look of pure anger in the furrow of his brow. His garb is light and easy, signature of the confident water warriors. You scramble, letting go of Ushijima in favor of grasping for your sword, but you’re off-kilter, unfocused, too late. He raises his sword, angles the sharp edge towards you and before you can properly react Ushijima pushes you out of the way. You hit the ground with your palms down, small stones and sticks poking at your skin and making you ache. You want to scream, the water warrior’s sword descending on Ushijima’s tall but somehow uneven form.

There’s a warm light, and for a moment you’re completely blinded.

A translucent, illuminated shield appears at Ushijima’s arm out of thin air. It’s an impossible, beautiful thing of heavenly light and blinding beams, and you think you must have gone insane. He looks like a storybook hero, a magical shield poised to reflect anything that tries to smite him down. His face is covered in soft, white light, his expression strangely at peace even as the sword descends to meet his shield. 

A loud clang proves the vision a real, tangible thing and the sword recoils back. The water warrior looks stunned, the tall, muscular man taking a step back. 

“That’s impossible,” he says, accent thick and voice barely loud enough to hear. The shield flickers as if threatening to disappear, and Ushijima grits his teeth with an almost animalistic growl. He looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before. He looks determined and passionate and angry. He looks like he’s glowing. It’s magic. Actual, honest to god magic. You forget to breathe, forget where you are. Ushijima’s hand jerks in a way that feels all too recognizable and suddenly everything clicks. Why no one was allowed into Oikawa’s room after the ruins, why Ushijima seems to carry so much weight on his shoulder. Everything you’ve ever heard about magic fills your head at the same time. There’s nothing volatile or dangerous about him, only a bright light and soothing warmth. You want to cry, hit all at once with the sheer weight of Ushijima’s secret.

The water warrior seems to recover, arm poised to attack once more. The shield is not going to hold. You see the way the edges of it are starting to blur and evaporate, the way Ushijima’s hard and determined expression gives way to pain. He needs to move. To run. To dodge somehow. You want to push him away, to grab his arm and throw him to the side, but fear has seeped into your bones and you cannot move. 

The look on Ushijima’s face terrifies you, the soft curl of his lip and smoothening of his harsh lines. Resignation. Tears rush down your cheeks as the water warrior’s sword descends once more and the illuminated shield breaks. 

 


 

Hinata runs. He steps over a body, almost trips in an arm as he clutches a set of keys in his hand. The cold metal digs into the skin of his palm and heart pounds against his ribs. He has no idea what to do. Get Kageyama out of the cage, then what? Run away? Rejoin the water warriors and hope they forgive them for getting caught and losing their most important prisoner? Join the princess and her hopeless fight against an enemy she has no idea about and no chance against? He doesn’t know. He wants to be home. He wants to sit by the edge of the water, feet dangling and sun caressing his face. He wants to lie in Yachi’s lap and cry over everything they’ve lost. He wants to tease Kageyama for something insignificant and silly. He doesn’t want any of this.

He finds the cage, finds Kageyama gripping at iron bars and yelling at an older woman. “Kageyama!”

The woman turns, and Hinata recognizes her by the scar in her face and the inherently maternal look about her. He’s seen the princess talk to her. She stares wide eyed at him, mouth open as her gaze falls to the keys in her hand. The steel grip around the hilt of her sword tightens.

“How did you get that?” She hisses, pointing the tip of her blade at Hinata’s hand. 

“The princess,” Hinata responds, finds his own voice completely alien to his ears. 

“Where is she?”

“She said she was going to look for someone.”

The woman exhales, lets her sword hand fall a little. Kageyama’s staring at them both, and Hinata wonders what he said to make the woman yell so much. Probably nothing good.

“And what are you going to do?” The woman asks. There’s both tension and warmth in her voice, like she’s trying to both warn and reassure him to do the right thing. Hinata has never had to make any decision before, it has all been laid out in front of him from the very start. He’d get drafted into the warriors and fight for whatever cause they had regardless of what he thought. He’d take over his mother’s apothecary if he survived the draft time. His home has never been one of choice and personal opinions, the south lived and breathed as one unit, the usurper king at the head of it all.

What a wonder, that the first time someone asks him his opinion it is the people he’s been fighting. The people who imprisoned him, the people fighting under the banner of the number one enemy of his own ruler. Hinata glances over at Kageyama, but there’s no answer to find in the face of his dark haired friend. Kageyama’s mouth is a frown and his eyes thin slits underneath deeply furrowed brows, but there’s no way to tell what that means. That’s just how he looks. For once, the decision, the choice, is all up to Hinata. 

And he thinks it might change the rest of his life.

“We will fight with you.”

 


 

Iwaizumi feels terror chase down his spine. He pushes past fighting southerners and westerners, looking for familiar faces in the masses. Sometimes he’ll walk over a brown haired body lying face down in the mud and his heart will stop. He wants to stop and roll each of them over, but his legs keep moving and he just hopes that he’s not stepping on the body of the man he used to consider his closest friend.

He has no idea what he’s doing. He runs across the eastern village and does not participate in any fighting. That’s not what he’s here for. He has no idea which side he’s supposed to fight for. He looks for you in the mess of people and with each second that passes fear takes up a larger and larger spot in the pit of his stomach.

“... shijima!” he hears a familiar voice somewhere ahead, and his heart leaps into his throat. You’re close. You’re here. You’re alive. His body and mind kicks into something like a survival mode and without even considering the ramifications, Iwaizumi runs towards your voice. He hears you pleading, begging, repeating a name he does not recognize, and there’s pain and hurt in your voice and Iwaizumi hears nothing else. No more clanging of swords, no more screams of people dying and fighting around him, the only thing he can hear is the sound of your voice; sobs and cries that make him want to vomit.

He finds you on the ground, arms wrapped around the body of a large man. The man looks pale as death, his eyes closed and a smatter of blood decorating his jaw. He can’t tell if the man is breathing or not, but he can tell he’s someone you care about. You sound like you’re on the verge of a panic attack, breath coming out in jagged, loud hitches and voice rambling to the point of insanity. Your fingers dig into his chest, body rocking back and forth as you repeat the man’s name over and over.

For a moment Iwaizumi is brought back to the day the castle fell. He imagines what would’ve happened if he never told Oikawa, if he let everything play out as it was supposed to. He imagines you cradling your father like that, grieving the loss of your family in front of all of the southern forces to see. He feels sick. He feels the complete weight of everything wrong he’s ever done. A southern warrior wielding a sickle approaches you from behind, seeing her chance to end you while you’re too focused on something else. Iwaizumi makes a decision that’s not really a decision at all but that feels like something important, something significant. He can’t tell where it will lead, but he unsheathes his sword and catches the warrior woman unaware, impaling her on his weapon.

He hopes it’s the last time he double crosses someone over the course of this war.

The woman falls to her knees with a loud, disgruntled gasp, blood sputtering out of her mouth as she stares at Iwaizumi. She is, at the very least, not someone he knows. Just a nameless warrior, a casualty of war. Maybe that’s not supposed to make him feel better, but somehow it does.

He looks over at you again, gaze tearing away from the woman as she falls to the ground completely.

You’re staring right at him. Eyes wide and mouth open, you stare as if you’ve seen a ghost. As if you’ve gone completely insane. He doesn’t blame you, feels the fragile tethers of his sanity snap and break as the moment drags on. All of a sudden he realizes he has no idea how you’re going to react. He has no idea what you know, what you’ve been told, but he can guess, by the look on your face, that you certainly did not expect seeing him.

Your voice is a weak, broken sort of sound when you finally open your mouth, and Iwaizumi feels his heart break. 

“Iwaizumi?”

Chapter Text

Thirteen

Ushijima’s burial is a quiet affair. It makes sense, a small funeral pyre and lowered heads, a humble sort of thing that fits the man at the center of it all. You’re standing at the side, mouth curled down in a frown as you watch Makoto gather her bones in a fragile bundle, skin and nerves working overtime trying not to break down. You don’t need to see her expression to know how she feels, the hollow, heavy sensation of loss takes residence between your ribs and claws at the innermost corners of your tattered soul. You feel that sensation every day, carrying the weight of grief on your hunched over shoulders every moment you’re awake.

Your mother, your father, your friends. Ushijima. Iwaizumi. You bite the inside of your mouth, brows knit and furrowed. Only Iwaizumi is not dead, is he? If you raise your head you will see him on the other side of the funeral pyre standing next to Oikawa, a bit skinnier than before but very much alive. Very much the reason your father is dead. In some way, the reason Ushijima is dead, too. You blink, angry tears making your vision blurry. You do not want to taint the moment with the grieving of the man you thought Iwaizumi was, not when there is a tangible, mind numbing sort of loss huddled on the inside of your body already.

The fire in front of you crackles and pops in a low sort of unassuming way, as if it doesn’t want to disturb you with its presence. The inside of your throat feels scratchy and sore and you cannot get the image of a bright, shimmering shield out of your mind. Another death to add to the talley, another cut into the battered organ beating in your chest. You want to break down, to scream and break things and throw tantrums. You look around, etching the faces of strangers weeping into the back of your mind. So much sorrow, so much destruction. This village only knew peace before you came here. You feel like a parasite. 

At once you know what you have to do. If you’re hoping to win back your kingdom, to retake a throne that wasn’t ever meant for you, to be a ruler..

You need to start acting as one.

 


 

Iwaizumi Hajime was your first crush. A picture perfect knight in shining armor; a kind and handsome young knight who helped his peers and respected his superiors. When he arrived at court he’d been living in an orphanage since he was very young, and you don’t think he really truly knew how royalty worked. He treated you like a person, like something more than a trophy or an inconvenience and maybe that’s why you fell for him so hard, so fast. You remember fantasizing about it, about the love story of the princess and the shield; an impossibly tragic, tragically beautiful love. 

It was the most exciting thing you could imagine. An impossibility, but that was the core of it, right? You already knew the path you were destined to walk, but the silly, romantic idea of true love against the odds made every step a bit easier.

Until you got older. You had sort of assumed that the feelings would fade as you grew into your role as a princess and as the marble art piece of royalty. You met with many suitors over the course of your teenage years; some of them handsome and cruel, others humble in appearance and soft in demeanor. Some were hard passes, some were okay. There were one or two of them you could even kind of imagine yourself with, if you squinted hard enough.

But they were not Iwaizumi. And the crush didn’t fade. It blended into the background, ebbed and flowed among the pressure of royalty and resentment of your nonexistent role in the hierarchy of your own life, but it persisted. He was a safe haven, a comforting presence in the monumental chaos that was your life and even when the sensation of your emotions stopped overwhelming your senses it was nice to know it was always there. 

That he was always there.

Iwaizumi Hajime stands before you in the wooden house you’ve made your home and you wonder how you ever loved him. It is as if the wild and intense hatred you feel somehow reaches the entire backlog of your life, erasing every moment of comfort and affection you felt for the man. Next to him stands Oikawa and if you’re being honest you can’t stand to look at either of them. 

You remember them at the castle. Inseparable friends, always sparring together, always talking in low voices muttering words not meant for anyone else. You’d been jealous, you remember. Of both of them. Iwaizumi for penetrating the wall you couldn’t seem to, Oikawa for taking up your friend’s time. You’re so angry you feel like throwing up. Betrayal coats the inside of your mouth, the taste sour on your tongue. You hear Oikawa saying your name and the sound makes you grimace. 

Throughout the war you’ve been comforted by the fact that violence never came easy, that death was a last resort not an inclination you had. For the first time in your life you feel like you have the will and the want to kill. It’s a scary thought. 

“Just let me explain,” Oikawa says and if you weren’t so angry you might have considered his soft voice an attempt at de-escalation, at comfort. But as it is, all he sounds is pathetic. 

“Explain!” Your own voice sounds like someone else’s entirely. Octaves above your register, cracking over the syllables as you choke back a laugh. It’s like you’re watching the scene unfold outside your own body, like you’re just an onlooker rather than an active participant. “I think you have had more than enough chances to explain.” 

Like when you asked about the body in the Servant’s Chamber. Like when you were squeezed against the wall of a boat traveling towards the East. Like all the times he berated you, looked down on you, made you feel lesser than him for your blue blood and Royal birth. Like when he— you blink, all too aware of your wet eyes. 

Iwaizumi opens his mouth and you raise your hand in a gesture that feels so like your father it makes you uncomfortable how easy it comes to you. 

“Not a word. I swear I’ll—” ten thousand threats lie on the tip of your tongue and not a single one sounds dangerous enough. “Get out.” 

Oikawa’s mouth is curved in a deep frown. Iwaizumi looks like he wants to cry. Good, you think. You hope they’re suffering. Oikawa looks like he wants to say something, but he thinks better of it and instead grips Iwaizumi’s bicep in a tight grasp, leading him out of the house. 

And then you’re alone. Truly, honestly alone. 

 


 

“He betrayed his people to save you,” Makoto tells you with a heavy voice. She sounds tired, like there’s not much more to her, like she’s about to fall into deep slumber and never wake up again. Her eyes are red-rimmed and swollen but you have not seen her cry once. Maybe she’s got no tears left to cry. You know that feeling all too well. 

She’s the first to visit you after the funeral, after you told Iwaizumi and Oikawa to leave. You don’t know where they went, what they’re doing, but you can’t summon the will to really care. You’re not sure how long it’s been, but you know that when Makoto came knocking with food and wine in a basket your stomach was howling. 

You’ve never had alcohol before, but the dreamy, floating sensation is nice. Your head is clouded, thought too far away to reach and you think that’s just what you need right now. Maybe Makoto needed it too. 

“He’s the reason I needed saving  in the first place,” you counter, chugging the red liquid so fast it almost makes you gag. The taste is stronger than anything you’ve drank before, it takes some getting used to. “He’s the reason my father is dead.” 

Makoto looks conflicted. Like she’s biting her tongue. You wish people would just stop, that they would be honest with you. 

“I think there are many things about the world we’re too small to understand,” she tells you, regarding you with kind and tired eyes. “About the South, about the conflicts of the kingdoms.” She pauses. “About your father.” There’s an implication there that makes you want to yell at her. Your anger and grief wants to throw something, to chew her out for implying something so vicious, for speaking ill of the dead. 

What if he was the one who killed Ushijima, you think. Would Makoto be so quick to forgive then? You don’t ask, of course, because you’re not that cruel, but you’re cruel enough to think it, to let the bitterness of the question deep into your bones.

You can’t. Words get caught in your mouth and for the tenth time in as many minutes you feel like crying. 

“Nothing can justify what Iwaizumi’s actions have brought. Nothing.

“I agree. But we can try to understand it. Not forgive,” she quickly interjects when you open your mouth to protest. “But understand. Aren’t we all results of our circumstances? And he did save you. And he did betray his people. Time and time again, every time he penned a letter he risked his life.”

You don’t think that counts for much, but you’re too tired to argue. You don’t want to talk about Iwaizumi. 

“Ushijima,” you murmur instead, staring at the fireplace. The fire crackles and pops much like the funeral pyre and in your mind you see a brilliant, shining shield. “He— he saved my life. He did something. Something impossible, but—” you turn to look at Makoto. She’s looking right back at you, mouth curled downward in a tragic frown. “He knew magic. Didn’t he?”

“I mean it’s insane, but that’s what it was, right?” You’re rambling, feeling more and more unhinged with each word that comes out of your mouth, but you can’t stop talking. “My hand, too; he somehow took away my injury. Right?”

Makoto sighs, a sort of wistful look on her face. “Wakatoshi…” she says his name as if remembering some fond memory. Something that makes her want to cry and laugh all at once. You think you understand how she feels. “He was very special. When he was young he thought was cursed.” You try to imagine Ushijima as a child, but find yourself coming up empty. He had this air about him, like he’d come to life a fully grown adult. “He had healing abilities, yes,” Makoto confirms after a pause. “Like his mother had.”

“Magic,” you whisper, more to yourself than to Makoto. “I can’t believe it.” You stare at your hands, palms up, and try to imagine being able to soothe pain with just a touch. “I don’t understand why you don’t hate me.” Thinking about Ushijima makes you ache. In the grand scheme of things he was worth so much more than you; he could have done incredible things with his gift if he hadn’t died protecting you. He thought he was cursed, but you must be the cursed one. Leaving nothing but death and destruction in your wake. Makoto’s hand comes to rest at your shoulder, squeezing it until it hurts. She doesn’t speak for a long time, but the touch is comforting despite the way her nails dig into your skin. She inhales loudly. 

“All these burdens are not yours to bear,” she tells you, and it’s enough to kick the air out of your lungs. Something like forgiveness, like acceptance, and you don’t know what to do with it. Do you even deserve it? “We made our own choices. When Tooru fled with you, when I took you in. Wakatoshi, too. Those were our decisions. Now you have to make your own, too.”

She’s right. All this time you’ve let yourself be led. You’ve let others make the decisions for you. Even with the Western proposal you considered just putting the choice into Oikawa’s lap, just so you wouldn’t have to decide on your own. It has to end. 

And Makoto, like the mother that she is, pulls you against her and embraces you. She lets you cry against her, a hand rubbing circles into your back as you weep quietly. She cries too, you can tell, her body quivering and convulsing with grief as you both just sit there for an eternity. 

(“Tell me about Ushijima,” you ask her, eyes closed as she caresses the side of your face, plays with your hair. “Tell me how he was as a child.” 

And Makoto does. She tells you about a soft, gentle boy who loved his mother. About a boy too tall for his age and too kind for the realities of the world. You cry when she tells you how his parents died, laugh when she retells his first attempts with a sword. You feel your heart pound against your ribs, eyes hurting and mouth trembling with every word, every detail of Ushijima’s life. Makoto’s voice is strong and even throughout the entire tale, pride in her voice as she tells you about two boys who became brothers in all but blood.

It’s catharsis. You silently promise never to let his life be forgotten. 

“Try to forgive Tooru,” Makoto whispers, her voice somehow distant as you feel yourself slipping into sleep. “He’s miserable.” 

And despite your fading consciousness, you feel your heart break.)

 




The tension is tangible; heavy and thick and suffocating when Oikawa enters the house the next evening. You’ve kept busy the entire day, surrounding yourself with people and making sure you’re never alone. Hinata and Kageyama seem to be adjusting as well as one might expect, the former more so than the latter. They’re both slightly paranoid being let loose around a village full of people they’ve been raised to consider their enemies and they keep mostly to themselves, but Hinata in particular does not seem to waver. He’s taken an interest in agriculture, tentatively watching as easterners worked the fields.

Akaashi is getting antsy waiting for a response to his proposal. He tries not to pry, tries not to overstep, but you can tell nonetheless by the way he seeks you out for seemingly no reason, keeping close as if using his very presence as a reminder that you have yet to offer any reply. You think he wants to return back to the West as soon as possible. Maybe he misses his young king. Maybe he’s terrified of what Lev might do if left alone for too long.

Whatever the case, the sun is setting when Oikawa finally corners you, so to speak. You can’t see him from your position on the couch, but you can sense him standing by the door watching you. You suspected he might seek you out when the opportunity presented itself. In fact, you have prepared for it the entire day; have written monologues in your head and orchestrated entire arguments while going about your day. At the time it had felt like a good idea, but when he actually enters the room and clears his throat your nerves are just a bundle of frazzled jolts of electric currents and you find that you’re just angry.

“I saw you talking to Akaashi,” he says by way of greeting. You frown, willing yourself to sink deeper into the couch. You thought you’d kept pretty good control over his not so subtle stalking throughout the day, but you did not see him when you were talking to Akaashi. You hum, determined to keep your composure. Oikawa pauses, seemingly not sure how to proceed. It’s awkward. It reminds you of days at the castle, of tiptoeing around a man who hated you for no reason you could discern at all. Oh, how the tables have turned, you think bitterly. You hear Oikawa sigh deeply, his footsteps heavy and loud in the silence as he moves from the door to approach you. 

“Hey,” he says, stopping in front of you. He stares you down, but you can’t decipher the look on his face. A few months ago you suspect he would’ve been angry, dissatisfied over not being treated in a certain way. But as much as things feel like they’ve regressed to some irreversible point, they’re not the same. The look on Oikawa’s face is conflicted, caught somewhere between frustration and sadness and guilt. The part of you that remembers his lips on yours and the sensation of butterflies in your stomach wants to just relent then and there, to forgive and forget and pretend that nothing has changed. You can’t. You’ve made up your mind and you have to stick to it. “If you’re mad, just tell me.”

“Does it matter? It is done, regardless of what I think of it, no one factored in my feelings or mental state when it happened anyways,” you wish you didn’t sound so bitter, so vulnerable and angry, but you are. You feel small, too small for your body, for the world, and you can’t stop yourself from feeling that way no matter how hard you try swallowing it. Oikawa doesn’t reply, though you see his jaw twitching as if he’s biting down his words. “You knew the whole time. Who else knew? Did Ushijima know? Makoto?” 

He diverts his gaze and it’s as good an answer as anything he might have said. You feel deflated, hollow, skin clinging to empty bones. It feels obvious, then, how Oikawa truly sees you, how stupid and naive you really are. He saved you, brought you to his home, earned your trust. Propped you up as a ruler fighting in the name of the East. You get up from the couch, skin sizzling with tension as you come face to face with him. 

How tragically pathetic, the two men you ever loved both betrayed you so easily. It hurts to look at him. 

“You know, for someone who claims to hate the Royal family so much, you sure know how to act like them.” 

You try to walk past him, desperate to get away, but Oikawa grabs you by the arm, keeps you in place. “Please,” he says, and you swear there’s a sort of crack in his voice. You stare at him, and he has never looked more vulnerable. He looks at you like he means it, like he’s tearing at the seams. Maybe it’s just your delusional mind trying to appease your wishful thinking, maybe you’re just seeing things that are not there. You’re too angry, too hurt to have a conversation with him. You know that if you try to you’ll just end up saying something you won’t be able to take back. 

So you don’t. 

In all of your encounters, Oikawa has been the proactive one. The one leading the dance, taking the reins, catching you by surprise. You haven’t minded because truly you were never raised to be a proactive person; you were raised to bow your head, follow the lead and look pretty doing it. You twist your arm out of his grip, planting your hands firmly on each side of his face and tug him down. 

There are not many things in your life you feel completely in control over. But at least there’s this. Oikawa's mouth is open in surprise when it meets yours, and for a moment he seems to be completely stunned. It’s kind of awkward, kind of scary, but you’ve come this far and you can’t really back down now. You tug at him again, move your lips against his, eyes closing more because you can’t stand to look at his surprised face anymore than anything else. 

He recovers quicker than you anticipated, arms reaching around your waist and pulling you close as his mouth starts moving. He licks at your bottom lip, cages you against his body as if he’s scared you might change your mind or disappear altogether. Your skin is on fire. It’s such an overwhelming sort of emotion you don’t know where to channel it, and you bite down on his lip, hard. He groans in response, fingers digging into your skin and the feeling grows. All of your anger and frustration melts into this strange, volatile ball of fire in your stomach and though you might be naive and inexperienced, you know what it means.

Suddenly you’re reminded of lessons you had as a teenager. You remember a stern, old woman telling you about… womanly duties . She was the one who prepared you for your time of the month, who told you about consummation. At the time you had been a hopeless romantic, and the whole affair seemed like such a horrible prospect. Tradition, the woman told you, dictates that once a royal wedding comes to a close the royal couple retire to their chambers to consummate the marriage. The woman, of course, is expected to have kept pure, and part of the tradition is to take the bedding from the wedding night and preserve it as a token. The implication was clear. She even added in a horror story about a woman who did not bleed on her wedding night. Oh the terror, the absolute horror when the help came in the morning after and the sheets were as pristine and white as the night before. 

You step back, pulling Oikawa with you. Fumbling backwards in the direction you think the bedroom is, hands toying with the neck of his shirt. 

“What are you doing?” He mumbles against your mouth, stumbling along as you pull. 

“What does it look like?” You retort, giving his shirt an extra tug as if to accentuate the point. He stares down at you, standing his ground. You feel as if you’ve been doused in cold water, horrified that maybe you’ve misread some signs. “Do you.. Do you not want to?”

“Are you insane?” He says, and you’re not sure what he means. He leans down, kisses your cheeks, your nose, your mouth. “I, uh, I thought you were mad.”

“I am mad,” you tell him, and at once you feel completely exposed. You feel naked and transparent in a way you’ve never felt before. Being honest and genuine was never an option for you, not when you were a princess and not when you were a runaway. Truth is a weapon, and you’ve been taught to wield it well. “I’m so angry I’m about to burst. I’m so sad I feel like if I start crying I will never stop. It’s just-- it’s too much. I can’t, right now. Please.” It’s an important moment, and you don’t want to spend it fighting with him. You don’t tell him that.

“Okay,” Oikawa whispers, leaning down once more to put his mouth on yours. Slower now, more deliberate. Like he’s trying to ease your worries, make you forget your troubles. He can’t, of course, because there is too much, too much going on inside your head. But it helps. In small, inconceivable ways, it helps. And if only for a little moment you are at peace. Oikawa’s hands drop to your waist, sneaking underneath the hem of your shirt and his fingertips are on your skin, pressed against your stomach. It paralyzes you for a moment, the touch so foreign and fantastical you can’t even think straight. Oikawa nudges you carefully, tentatively, pulls you out of your thoughts. He kisses you lightly, featherlight, as if he’s afraid to break you, pushes you gently past the threshold to the bedroom. 

All of your life you’ve been told that you’re a prize to be won. To be conquered, to be taken. Oikawa lets his hands wander, pushing your shirt up your body. He’s not taking anything from you, you realize. It’s not this huge, important thing that someone can steal away, that would reduce your worth. His fingertips trace the curves of your breasts and you shiver. And you want more. You want more, you want him everywhere and it’s such a powerful feeling and it’s your own decision and in that moment you feel like the most powerful person in the world. And it doesn’t matter if it’s just a war thing, if it’s just this byproduct of the fear of death and tension of impending battle. It’s the world. Oikawa removes your shirt completely, looks at you like you’re an invaluable masterpiece and it’s the entire world.

“You’re—” Oikawa catches himself, swallows his words as if he wasn’t aware he had started to speak. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” you murmur, your stomach burning as you grasp onto the front of his shirt, pulling him with you as you sit down on the bed. Your heart is pounding as Oikawa stands before you, grabbing his shirt by the hem and pulling it over his head. You’ve seen shirtless men before, watching the knights practice in the yard during hot summers. Even the man standing in front of you right now. It’s different, though, when it’s just for you. When it’s private. When he takes your hands and places them on his chest, leans over to climb on top of you on the bed. You feel his heartbeat against your palm. Hard, fast, erratic; just like your own.

His exhale comes as a shiver across your skin, fanning over your face as he bends down to kiss you. The silence is too loud, your bones too big, your skin too hot. You feel his skin beneath your fingertips, muscles tightening and tending at your touch. You want to commit it all to memory, to trace every line, every scar, every inch of skin with your hands. His own creep up your sides, one hand cupping your breast fully and squeezing with an unsure hand. 

You’re on even ground here, unlike when he’s teaching you to fight with a sword or when you’re a princess and he’s a knight. You’re just you and he’s just Oikawa. And when you press your pelvis up against his and he exhales sharply into your mouth before retaliating by grounding against you even harder, you’re equals. And it’s nice. It’s scary, but it’s nice. 

You’ve read romance novels before, you know how sex works. You know about the frenzied passion of long lost lovers and impossible partners, about the rush of lust and the heat of lovemaking. Somehow it’s not at all like that. Somehow it’s just a slow and steady sort of thing. You explore the expanse of Oikawa’s stomach before letting your hand travel down to the waistband of his pants, he presses sloppy, wet kisses to your cheekbone, your neck, your shoulder. You press your palm against his erection and he groans against your skin, bites into your flesh and breathes through his nose. You repeat the action, harder, and he curses. He kisses down your neck, your collarbone, your breast, tongue dragging over your nipple and eliciting a gasp out of you that drags itself along your throat. 

He must like that, you think, because he does it again, thumb playing with the other nipple as he puts his mouth on your breast and sucks. You arch your back up in a completely involuntary movement and you feel his teeth around your hardened nub. There’s an ache in your abdomen that only seems to grow more impatient and you close your hand around the shape of his cock, feel it twitch under your touch. You want him to slow down, to hurry up, you want time to stop completely and let you wrap your head around the moment properly. Oikawa continues his descent down your body, leaving a trail of kisses down your stomach. 

He pauses at your hips and you grab at his shoulders, tension makes your skin fizzle and buzz with electricity as he moves his hands to undo the buttons of your pants. He slides them down your legs, his breath hot against your abdomen. You’re nearly naked, as bare as you’ve ever been in front of anyone before. You thought that would make you feel vulnerable somehow, but instead you feel empowered. He hooks his fingers in your underwear, pulls it down and you’re exposed. His mouth moves down, licking and sucking and prodding at flesh and skin with careful enthusiasm. 

He licks at your entrance and you moan, fingers digging into the flesh of Oikawa’s shoulders as if to anchor yourself. It’s like nothing you’ve ever felt before, like flashes of lighting and a mix of pale greens and blues and yellows behind your eyelids. He’s emboldened by your reaction, repeats the gesture with more force. Broader strokes, up and down your cunt until he hits a spot that makes every muscle in your body tense and spasm. 

“Oh god,” you exhale, voice cracking. Oikawa makes a sound that sounds almost like a laugh, and if you weren’t so distracted by his wicked tongue you might have reprimanded him for it. 

And then— he inserts a finger, the digit sliding easily into you, lubricated by your own juices. It’s a strange feeling, somehow filling and uncomfortable all at once. It makes your head clouded and your breathing uneven and Oikawa pauses, looks up at you. It’s such a filthy sight, his head between your thighs, his face red and his eyes dark. 

“Are you okay?” He asks, his voice low and raw. “Does it hurt?” 

“No,” you reply, embarrassed to find your own voice stuttering. “Don’t— don’t stop.” You hope you don’t sound as needy as you feel. If you do, Oikawa has the grace not to mention it. He buries his face between your thighs, goes back to his ministrations as if he wants nothing more. He slides his finger almost all the way out of you, slides it back in. It feels a bit less intruding, a bit more pleasant, and you jerk your body against him. He repeats the action. Faster and faster, licking and sucking and biting at your cunt while he moves his hand. 

“More,” you plead, head too filled with clouds to register how you sound, and he inserts another finger. You gasp, shuddering, feel yourself clamp around his digits. It’s filling, but it’s not enough. You want more. You want him. “Oikawa,” you whisper. “Please. I need you.” 

Later you might regret how desperate you sound, how dangerously close you are to spilling words and confessions you really do not need to voice out loud, but Oikawa groans against you and it does not matter. He removed his fingers from your cunt and you find yourself missing him. He props himself up, staring at you like he can’t quite believe it. He’s back on top of you in a matter of seconds, body pressed against yours and mouth on yours with a hunger that seems almost uncharacteristic. You can taste something foreign on his tongue. Yourself, you realize. Your own juices. It’s a strange thought, but you don’t have time to dwell on it, not when he grinds his erection against you and bites at your lip. 

You grab at his pants, fingers sneaking past the waistband and he lifts his body enough for you to reach the buttons of his pants. He helps you get the garment off, his underwear disappearing with it and then it’s just skin against skin. You move your hand to close it around his cock and he groans, dick twitching in your grip, it’s hard and veiny and new and the sound he makes when you stroke it makes you want to do it more. 

“Tooru,” he says, his voice husky. His face is right above yours, noses touching as he looks down at you with hooded eyes. “Call me Tooru.” 

You’ve never called him that. It feels too intimate, too personal. Only his closest friends and family call him that. It feels like a monumental thing for him to ask you. You, of course, can’t but oblige. 

“Okay,” you murmur. “Tooru.” It feels odd on your tongue but Oikawa smiles and that’s all that matters. He slides a hand down between your bodies, grabbing his cock over your hand and maneuvering it towards your entrance. 

The feeling when he enters you is incomparable to the sensations of his fingers. It’s an overwhelming sense of being filled. Too much, too tight, too big. You wince, and he tenses immediately. 

“You okay?” He kisses you beneath the eye, on the nose, on the side of your mouth. You nod, gritting your teeth. It hurts, aches. “We don’t have to—”

“It’s fine,” you interrupt him, gripping at his shoulders. “Just give me a moment.” He looks at you like he’s afraid. Like he’s uncertain of what to do or how to proceed. You lean up to kiss him, to distract you both as your body adjusts to him. His skin is hot, as hot as your own, and you feel like you’re on fire. “Okay,” you murmur against his lips. “I’m fine. You can— you can move.”

He goes slow at first, unsheathing himself almost completely before grinding back into you in careful motions. It’s strange at first, feeling yourself filling and expanding, muscles clamping around his cock as if your body doesn’t want to be without him. You get used to it faster than expected and then it’s not enough. Not enough friction, not enough pressure. You slide your hands down his back, pressing fingers into his skin to urge him to move faster. He presses haphazard, wet kisses all over your face, whispers your name into your skin like a prayer. 

You feel powerful. More, more, more. You press against him, mirror his movements and he groans, loudly. You want to cage him in your arms, never let him go. The word ‘love’ lies at the tip of your tongue, wants to spill, to be let go, to be breathed into existence but you swallow it, not wanting to ruin the moment. He moves faster, thrusting into you with the sound of skin slapping against skin. Your arms coil around his neck pulling him as close as you can, his skin coated with a layer of sweat as he breathes heavily against you, muscles tensing with every thrust. 

You want to remember this. The overwhelming, intense feeling of him, the way he bites at you, claws at you, buries himself into you like he knows nothing else. The way his smell mingles with yours and his sounds echo in the darkness. No matter what happens, you’ll remember this. “Tooru,” you murmur, and he looks at you. And it’s the world. The entire world, captured in the moment your eyes lock and he looks so bright. He kisses you, slowly and with meaning. It doesn’t match the fervor in his body or the way his hands grab at you with hunger. It makes you forget yourself, makes you melt. 

“I can’t,” he near whimpers. “I’m gonna—”

“Don’t stop,” you tell him, your own voice a complete stranger to your ears. “Don’t stop.” And he doesn’t. He moves to grab your hips and pounds into you until all you see is white and he releases a long, guttural groan, jerking and twitching against your body. He grabs your hand, intertwining his fingers with yours hard enough to hurt. 

The aftermath is a sweaty, sticky mess and two bodies gasping for air. Oikawa rolls to the side, one leg slung over yours, still clasping your hand. He doesn’t let go. You don’t want him to. 

“Can I.. can I stay?” He asks, and even with what you’ve just done it’s the most vulnerable, intimate he’s ever sounded. 

“Yeah.” 

He curls up on your side, his free hand guiding you towards him as he plants a kiss to your forehead. 

He’s asleep within minutes. 

 


 

Getting free from under Oikawa’s body without waking him up turns out to be somewhat of a difficult task. The first attempt sees you more tangled in his long limbs than before and the second leaves you snug enough to almost fall asleep yourself. There’s an ache in your body that doesn’t feel wholly unpleasant and it takes all the willpower you’ve got to leave the comfortable warmth of the bed and Oikawa’s embrace.

God if your etiquette teacher could see you now. Sleeping with a commoner. The thought makes you smile despite yourself, despite the looming knowledge that this is probably the last time you’ll ever be here, the last time you’ll feel free in the way that having sex with Oikawa made you feel. You glance over at his sleeping body while getting dressed, entranced by how soft his features look when not burdened by a furrowed brow or a frown. He looks so young. You find yourself rooted to the spot, watching him quietly for a moment wishing you could stay. And then he stirs and you’re reminded that you’re on borrowed time as it is.

With one last glance at the man sleeping in your — his, actually, you remind yourself; this was his before you came here and will be his again once you leave — bed, you exit the room and the house and you exhale.

 


 

It is dark outside, night blanketing the eastern village. The air is crisp and almost cold, but you feel hot, smoldering, burning up from the inside. You follow the lights coming from the western tent, feeling very much like you’re walking towards your own beheading. It’s not so bad, you tell yourself. Lev is a friend, a thoroughly good person, you will be happy enough in the West. You’ve always wanted to travel, to see all the edges of the world, and at least you won’t be alone. 

Hinata and Kageyama sit on the ground outside of the tent muttering among themselves. They look up at you when you approach them; Kageyama with a tentative but much less hostile look than the first time you tried to speak to him after his capture, Hinata with what can only be described as compassion. He’s not the most clever guy, you’ve concluded, but he’s strangely attentive. There’s no doubt in your mind that he knows that this is not what you wanted.

Hinata gets up, dusting off the back of his pants and confirms your suspicions. “You don’t have to do this, you know,” he tells you. “There’s other options.” He doesn’t list off any options, and you both know why. This is the best, the easiest, the surest way to win back the capitol without bloodshed. Without drama. You will face much less scrutiny with Lev by your side than you would alone. 

And if you’re being honest, you just can’t stand the thought of staying, not anymore. 

“It’s fine,” you wave it off, blinking rapidly three times. “I’m fine. Thank you for coming with me.” Kageyama looks like he might object to that, but he doesn’t get the time to, because Akaashi chooses that moment to emerge from the tent, a candle in his left hand. 

“I thought I heard voices,” he says. He looks a bit tired, a bit rough around the edges. “Are you ready to go? Have you said your goodbyes?” Akaashi had not questioned why you wanted to leave at night when you asked him to, and for that you appreciate him. You wonder if he knows, if he understands, or if he was just being courteous. It doesn’t matter, you suppose, you’re still leaving. Leaving Makoto, leaving Oikawa. 

You hope it might finally bring some peace to their village. The western soldiers will stay until the war is over, to keep them safe and to keep an eye on the traitor they are housing. You’re not sure what to do about Iwaizumi yet and you intend not to figure it out until you absolutely have to. Just thinking about him makes you feel ill. 

“Yeah,” you reply, sucking in as much of the eastern air as your lungs allow. Maybe, you think, for the last time. “I’m ready.” 

Chapter Text

Fourteen

Kenma is let out of the prison cell by a tall man with an angry mouth and a mocking pair of eyes. Decidedly Southern in the way his body seems to default into harshness and rough handling, Kenma feels his shoulder croak uncomfortable as the man grips it and pulls. He’s nothing but a rag doll, tired bones unused to activity, muscles and nerves more a commodity than a useful tool in his body. The man doesn’t seem to care, just drags him up the stairs without a word. 

How long since Kenma has been in a part of the castle that doesn’t smell like wet stone and looks like a monochrome nightmare. He’s momentarily blinded by the bright sunlight peeking through crumbled stone, mesmerized by the vibrancy of the red carpet beneath his feet. The part of Kenma that is deeply pessimistic didn’t think he’d ever see any of it again. The part of Kenma that is a realist thinks that seeing it again now must be a bad omen. 

“Where are you taking me?” He asks the stranger, because what’s the point in staying coy, in staying silent, if he’s being paraded into his death anyways? His voice is hoarse, throat scratchy as he speaks for the first time in however long it has been since his father last deemed to visit him. The Southern man turns to face him, fingers cutting into the skin of Kenma’s arm as his mouth turns into a vicious sort of grin. 

“The King wants to see ya.”

 


 

Oikawa wakes up, and he’s alone. He reaches for warmth, for the company of another body in a bed that smells like you, like him, like a mingling of fragrances that makes the hairs on the back of his neck stand, but he comes up empty. The spot next to him is cold and he tries to calm the slow rise of panic that churns around his stomach. You’ve gotten up before him, he tells himself, probably he’ll find you reading on the couch or outside with Makoto. It’s fine. Everything is fine. 

Actually, Oikawa reconsiders. It’s better than fine. His body tingles with an exhaustion he has never experienced before, and if he closes his eyes he can still feel the sensation of your hands on him. He curls into the covers, hides his face in the pillow and inhales sharply. He wonders how things will change now. He wonders what it means. He wonders what that hot, burning feeling in his chest is, if he could articulate if properly if he tried. 

For a while he just stays there, last night’s happenings flickering in the back of his mind as he lies there with his eyes closed. There’s a word at the tip of his tongue, one he doesn’t think he’s ever said before but that suddenly feels like it takes up the space inside his bones. He’s tired, sleepy. He’s just overreacting, he tells himself. He knows he’s not. 

And then there’s a knock on his door. Quick, hard raps of knuckles against wood that can’t be anyone but Iwaizumi. Oikawa would recognize him anywhere. And suddenly there’s lead in his stomach, the beginnings of a headache pinching at his temple. What a fucking mess. Oikawa doesn’t know what to do, what to think, how to navigate between you and Iwaizumi. He understands your anger, frankly he’d expected it to be even more ferocious, he supposes even away from the castle your first instinct is towards restrained fury. 

Just like your father. Iwaizumi keeps knocking and Oikawa exhales through his nose, lets his hands drop to his sides as he stares up at the ceiling. He doesn’t want to get up, not yet. As long as he stays here, in the afterglow, he can pretend there’s nothing else. Once he gets up he needs to keep dealing with the situation and he does not want to. Maybe if he just lies completely still Iwaizumi will go away. 

“Oikawa!” Well, Oikawa thinks bitterly, pushing himself up as he hears the opening of a door and stomping of boots. There is something in Iwaizumi’s voice that gives him pause, that makes him nervous, and suddenly he feels naked, not only in his state of dress but in the way his soul does flip flops and his bones feel completely bare. 

Iwaizumi stands in the doorway to the bedroom with a distressed, panicked expression on his face. His mouth is wide open as he takes in the sight of his former comrade. Oikawa wonders what Iwaizumi is assuming, if the hurt on his neck is as visible as it feels. He feels defiant, almost, protective over the exhausted feeling in his bones. He wonders if that makes him a bad friend, knowing that Iwaizumi has loved you for far longer than Oikawa has even been able to think of you without grimacing. 

But then, Oikawa supposes, treachery might rank higher than a simple betrayal. 

“What?” The question comes out far more defensive, far more aggressive than he intends to, and it strikes Oikawa that he’s angry at him. Angry at him for leaving Oikawa with the responsibility of knowing what was happening without anyone to confide in. Angry at him for leaving it to him go pick up the pieces. Angry at him for reappearing and expecting to be welcomed with open arms. 

Iwaizumi’s jaw twitches and something tells Oikawa they will never be the two inseparable knights they once were. He grieves that knowledge for a moment, but when Iwaizumi finally decides to speak, Oikawa’s mind goes blank.

“She’s gone. Akaashi and the southern boys are gone, too. She left.”

 


 

The streets are restless. Yachi stares out her window and she feels like something is happening. The southern guards are not patrolling as much and tentatively people are trying to return to some sort of faux normalcy, common folk pretending that there isn’t a tyrant in the castle, that there isn’t blood on the streets. Every day the streets get cleared of rubble and slowly the stores and bakeries open for business once more. But Yachi is a southern woman, not some brainless capitol idiot. She knows. She feels it. 

She sees the way the southern guards are moving, how they walk with confidence rather than to intimidate now. They’re getting comfortable, they feel like they have won. There’s no doubt in her mind that they know the princess is alive out there somewhere, no doubt they have noticed the disappearance of a certain King’s Guard. Yachi wonders if Iwaizumi’s betrayal comes as a surprise to the king, or if he expected it all along. If the rumors are true, Yachi would place her bets on the second option. 

But of course, Yachi is not a betting woman, and she knows better than to believe in rumors. She’s just a courtesan, just a whore. So Yachi does what she does best, she spreads her legs and opens her mouth and she digs for answers like only she can. 

“Come back to bed,” the southerner beckons, breaking her out of her thoughts. Yachi looks over her shoulder to assess him, a young, green boy not ready for the hardships of a hostile takeover. It had been easy to make him talk, and once he started he seemed unable to stop. Yachi exhales through her nose, bitterness coating her tongue and leaving a sour taste in her mouth. He’s not very clever, not very stimulating. 

She misses Iwaizumi. She feels like an idiot for thinking that.

“My poor soldier,” she coos, stepping over to him. “You must be very stressed.” She grabs hold of his anatomy, finds that he will say almost anything as long as she keeps him entertained. A simple boy. He makes a low sound, brows furrowing with her touch. “Tell me your troubles.”

And the southern soldier does, to his credit, tell Yachi his troubles. And Yachi, to her credit, does not outwardly react. 

Even if she feels like throwing up.

 


 

Oikawa wonders when a home becomes a person. It’s something he’d heard from Makoto over the years, something he never really paid any mind to. The village was his home, no matter where he lived, no matter how long between his visits. He would always feel the most at ease under the heat of the eastern sun, sleep the best inside of houses made of trees. Makoto would smile and shake her head in that way she always did. He’d understand when he was older, she’d tell him. Oikawa would scoff. He was already plenty old. 

The eastern sun feels somehow too cold and too hot at the same time, the sunlight too harsh in his eyes and the air too crisp in his nose. He feels off-kilter. Wrong. Out of place. Like he’s not where he’s supposed to be. Like he’s not doing what he’s supposed to do. And Oikawa thinks he understands, finally, the saying that home is where the heart is. 

He just wonders where his has gone off to. 

“Oikawa,” Iwaizumi says, hand on Oikawa’s shoulder. Oikawa feels the touch as if burned, hates the way it sizzles against his skin. But he doesn’t move, doesn’t yank himself out of Iwaizumi’s grip even though he wants to, and it’s only the lingering sort of sympathy for the man that used to be his closest friend that keeps him from doing so. “I need to tell you something.” 

Oikawa isn’t sure that he can handle more devastating news in one day, his chest heavy and empty with the loss of your presence. He feels untethered, one step away from insanity. Iwaizumi takes in Oikawa’s lack of a reply and he seems to take it as encouragement to keep going. 

“Do you remember the rumors at the castle? About the king?” 

Oikawa feels annoyance pricking at his temples. Of all times to bring up castle gossip. At least some things never change. “You’ll have to be a bit more specific than that.” 

Iwaizumi frowns as if he doesn’t want to open his mouth, reluctance locking his jaw tightly shut. “The one about the southern concubine.” 

This gives him pause. Oikawa stares out into the air, taking in the sight of his village. It feels wrong, strange without you there. Without Ushijima. All of the constants of his life, ripped away just like that. He wonders when he started regarding you as such a necessity. He wonders if it would’ve changed anything if he noticed it sooner. 

Probably not. Oikawa shakes the oncoming self-pity that comes creeping along his spine. There is no time for it now. Maybe later, when he’s alone. Instead he furrows his brows, thinking back on the rumor Iwaizumi had found it fit to bring up.

Oikawa does remember whispers of a southern concubine. The lover the king had taken before the birth of the princess, before the queen started getting ill. The concubine that got pregnant and exiled. The one whose village just happened to be targeted during the summer of witches. Oikawa never questioned the validity of the rumor because in truth it didn’t matter. With or without it, Oikawa would have despised him, respected him, wrestled with the impossible coexistence of these emotions. 

“Why are you bringing that up now?” 

 


 

Kenma finds himself in front of the throne for the first time in what must be months but feels like decades. There are dark stains on the carpet and Kenma feels sick. It feels as if he’s standing in some sort of strange alternative reality, some nightmare he cannot seem to wake up from. 

On the throne he sits, the man who killed the king and usurped his kingdom. He is younger than Kenma expected, not as visibly southern as the man Kenma had seen in his mind back in the dark cell. He’s tall, that much is blatant even with his slouchy posture. Tall and skinny and dangerous. He leans his head on his fist, stares down at Kenma with a sharp glare and a mouth twisted into something wicked. Even his brows and the way they furrow scream danger. Kenma has never been in the presence of someone so terrifying. 

And he had heard the rumors from other prisoners, from the guard Iwaizumi, from his own traitorous father. Frankly, Kenma had through it wouldn’t have mattered anyways. A usurper is a usurper, after all. But Kenma looks in the usurper king’s eyes and he sees you. The exact same shape and the exact same color. It chills him to the very bone to see the cruelty in them. Kenma looks at the shape of his nose and he sees the king. The aristocratic arch of it looks nothing like any southerner he’s ever seen. Even the pale brown color of the young king’s long hair — braided and slung over his shoulder, the most southern thing about him — reminds him of royalty.

So it’s true. The bastard boy from the south; the king’s illegitimate son. His own flesh and blood who slayed him. There is not enough air in Kenma’s lungs for him to properly breathe, for him to take in the information laid plainly out in front of him. The illegitimate prince leans forward on the throne, glares at Kenma with a gaze made out of pure intimidation. 

“So this is your son,” the conqueror says, eyes firmly locked with Kenma’s even as he addresses his father who is standing to the right of the throne. Kenma refuses to look at him, would rather pretend he is not there at all. Kenma’s father makes a sound of affirmation, a sort of shiver playing with the notes of his voice. Kenma laments, his father never had much of a spine. “And he knows my dear sister well?” 

Kenma blinks, taken aback from the present tense in his sentence. He was under the impression that you died in the coup, crushed by rubble and thrown out with the rest of the bodies. Not once has he heard anything to the contrary. Until now. “She’s alive?” 

The question is out of his mouth before he can choke them back down, and the soldier keeping him on his knees knocks his armored fist across the back of his head. Kenma falls to the floor completely, gritting his teeth and fighting the urge to throw up. He’s grown too weak, he had no power left and though the punch was nothing but a warning it makes him dizzy.

“Atsumu,” the usurper chides, his voice bored and laced with a sigh. “Be nice to our guest.” It makes him sick, it makes him want to shout. Guests, he says, but Kenma has been living in the castle for most of his life. 

“Please, Takumi,” the pathetic voice of Kenma’s father stutters. Kenma feels his jaw tighten as he’s dragged back up in a kneeling position. “He’ll tell you whatever you want to know, just let him eat and sleep. Please.” The southern tyrant named Takumi hums, leans back against the metal of his stolen throne. 

“Of course,” he says, and his voice is silky smooth and just as dangerous as before. There’s a smirk toying with the edges of his mouth that makes him look diabolical, that makes shivers chase down along Kenma’s spine. “I’m a gracious host, of course the boy needs rest.” He jerks his head and the soldier he called Atsumu forces Kenma back on his feet. 

“We’ll have a little chat later, won’t we?” It sounds like a threat and Kenma finds his mouth sewn shut. Takumi’s grin widens, the edges of his mouth razor sharp. “Then we can talk about the princess.”

 


 

Yachi holds the letter in between her hands, stares at it like she could put it on fire with nothing but sheer willpower. The envelope is thick, undoubtedly multiple pages long, but she supposes a traitor knight in love has a lot to say to his beloved princess. 

She wants to throw the letter away. To rip it up, to throw it into the fireplace. She almost did, the night she got it, offended and jealous when comparing it to the few words Iwaizumi had to spare for her. 

‘I’m so sorry.’ 

What a pathetic, awful thing to say. Yachi isn’t sorry, isn’t regretful. And any apologies Iwaizumi has he can keep to himself. She is used to men thinking they can take from her, that they can do onto her something that matters. That they can leave impressions on her as easily as they can leave marks. 

Yachi chooses who can hurt her. And despite Iwaizumi’s sorry excuses and weak words, she chose him. She’ll stand by that, even if he doesn’t want her to. And so she doesn’t tear up the letter to the princess, even if she wants to. She doesn’t scream and cry and throw tantrums, even if her chest is on fire. 

“I’m sad to see you leave,” Kiyoko says with genuine affection in her voice. The brothel owner hands Yachi a satchel and a cape, watches as Yachi readies the horse. Kiyoko has been a good boss, Yachi will give her that. But she suspects the thing that the raven haired mistress will miss the most is the money. She doesn’t say that, out of respect for the woman who saved her. “You will always have a home here.” 

Yachi hums. She’s not quite sure she has a home anywhere. “Thank you.” 

Oh well. It is what it is, Yachi muses. Leaving the capitol is not so bad, not with all these southerners running around the streets. Yachi can’t even count the times she would see the back of a ginger head and wondered if it was Hinata who just came out of another whore’s room, or the times she’d heard a loud voice and sworn it was Kageyama. The capitol is full of ghosts and it was time to move on. 

And Yachi had always wanted to see the snow anyway.

 


 

Lev paces in front of his bedroom window. It’s not an activity he finds himself doing very often, the tall silver haired soon-to-be-king more of the touch-and-go type of personality. Pacing restlessly implies deep thought, contemplation. More often than not, Lev has people do that for him, and doesn't really need to worry himself with tasks that require much effort on his part. It’s not that Lev is stupid -- though his sister might try to argue this point -- more so that the young royal is extremely pampered. He gets his way, he smiles and offers polite compliments and people do the hard work for him.

That’s just how it is to be a prince, Akaashi would excuse with a sigh that implied he didn’t necessarily agree with it as much as he tried to express. Lev’s job was to bring comfort and peace to his people, the crown was essentially just a figurehead position. It was the politicians and the well educated scholars who made the decisions and made the laws. Lev lived on whims and impulses, not on structure and forethought. It was a whim that brought him to the capitol at sixteen, an impulse that made him search for the princess after the coup. Not some well thought out plan to empower the west or give them more political sway with the capitol.

With that in mind, Lev thinks, it’s even more ridiculous that the role of ruler could not go to his sister, who actually had political interest and geographical knowledge in spades. He thinks, sometimes, that the least he can do is make an effort to honor her intelligence by not being a dummy king. 

And so, Lev paces in front of his bedroom window. 

Akaashi will be returning west, will be arriving any minute. Bringing with him a runaway princess and southerners turned traitors. Truthfully, Lev had expected Akaashi to take the situation into his own hands and make his own decisions. It’s sort of a given that his advisor (no matter how much Akaashi denies this role and insists he’s nothing but a sword and shield to be wielded, Lev knows better) and protector would take any precautions he deemed necessary to keep the west safe in the political eye. In that regard, nothing in the letter that lies on his desk surprises him very much. 

He’s not even mad about the proposal. He’s just surprised about the response. 

The prospect of marrying you is not exactly an unwelcome one. It’s not at all unheard of for princes and princesses from the west to appeal to the capitol for arranged marriages. Realistically this would have been Alisa’s job had the capitol had a prince to marry her away to. It was always an option Lev had to consider, even when he was hiding in the capitol as a lowly knight. And you’re nice. He’s seen you with servants, with the knights, with your family. You’re a sweet girl, if a bit sheltered, and he’s sure you would be a good wife. 

He didn’t, however, think you as the kind of girl to let go of your romantic hopes and dreams. Lev distinctly remembers the way you’d look at a certain knight in the castle, he remembers the feeling that you’d move mountains to make a relationship with him possible. Maybe the coup and the death of your loved ones have hardened you. Maybe you will show up at his doorstep a whole new person. Lev hopes not, hopes there’s still some of you left despite all the tragedy that seems to have followed you. 

The door to his bedroom opens with a high pitched creak and in walks Alisa Haiba. Dressed in greys and silvers and covered in fluffy wolfskin, she looks a picture perfect replica of their mother. Regal, dignified, a true western royal. Next to her Lev still feels like a gangly, unsteady teenager. He supposes he will have to grow up now.

“So it’s war, then,” Alisa says by way of greeting, her voice not betraying any sort of agreement or disagreement. Lev exhales, watches as his sister sits down on his bed. 

“Do you think it’s a mistake?” Lev asks before he realizes how needy he sounds. Damn. He had resolved not to count on her expertise anymore, to put some faith in his own supposedly innate ability to lead. “Am I in over my head here?” 

Alisa laughs, and it’s a reassuring sound. At least he’s not completely fucked, then. “No,” she shakes her head. “The west has always stood with the capitol. A union like this is the perfect political play. Akaashi really is something else.” Lev wonders about the sheer weight of the admiration in her voice, but he’s long since decided it’s not his business. Alisa is a grown woman, she can make her own decisions. “But what do you think about it? I didn’t think you’d want a political marriage.” 

Lev feels heavy. Of course he didn’t. As nice as you are, ‘nice’ is not the main characteristic he’d imagined in a spouse, Royal or not. But Lev thinks about everything that’s been lost. He thinks about all the boys he trained with, all the servants who fed him during his stay at the castle. All of them gone in an instant, caught up in whatever feud it is the capitol and the south are drenched in now. And he thinks marrying someone who is nice despite not being the love of his life is a small price to pay.

“Well,” he shrugs. “Mom didn’t love dad at first either.” Alisa smiles fondly at that, the story of their parents a tale told many times by both the two of them and by the older members of the castle staff. An incredible tale of a king who fell for a servant, who spent the better part of the year trying to court her despite their social standings. Their mother would tell young Lev and Alisa that she had immediately discounted their father as some pompous, arrogant royal who thought he could get anything he wanted just for the sake of his high birth. Needless to say, she had not been impressed.

“I don’t know if you’re as romantic as dad,” Alisa tells him with mischief in the melodic tone of her voice. And Lev can’t really deny this, he doesn’t think he’d have it in him to grow a garden of blue roses. Not even accounting for the harsh climate of the west or Lev’s non existent understanding of gardening, that level of dedication is far beyond his limited attention span.

The winter garden still blooms in a private section of the castle grounds, Lev has heard Alisa has spent a lot of time there after the death of their father. He wonders if she feels closer to them there.

For a moment the siblings sit in a comfortable sort of quiet, Alisa on his bed and Lev on the windowsill, both of them doubtlessly thinking of their departed parents. Lev had somehow imagined they would live forever. The castle feels hollow without them.

And then there are voices outside. Loud hollering, cheers, Lev swears he can make out someone yelling Akaashi’s name. He twists his head to look out the window so fast he swears he hears a crack in his ears. Sure as shit, there he is. Akaashi comes riding through the gates, followed by six or so other riders. He sees a head of bright orange hair he doesn’t recognize riding next to a cloaked figure. It’s you. He knows it. His stomach does a strange sort of flip flop and the breath he releases comes out in a stutter. 

“Well,” Alisa comes up next to him, hand squeezing his shoulder. “I guess we’re about to find out.” 

Lev laughs. It’s a nervous, uncertain sound. “I guess we are.”

Chapter Text

Fifteen

You look at the reflection in the mirror and you don’t recognize yourself at all. Western fashion has always been one of your favorites, ever since you were young. Neutral colors of greys and browns, tears of glass and crystal adorning the dresses like tiny droplets of frozen water dangling from the seams. Your hair was a project on its own, so tangled and messy after months of not giving it proper attention, it’s a wonder Alisa’s maids even managed to get it into the elegant updo, though you can’t help but cringe at the soreness of your scalp and the memory of sighing maids tugging combs through your hair.

But a gorgeous dress and pretty hairstyle aside, you do not look like yourself. And what a jarring realization that is. It’s like you can’t even remember who you were when this was your life; warm baths and beautiful clothes and maids attending to your every need. Things are not as formal in the west, Alisa’s maids seem to be as much her friends as her helpers and the architecture of the castle is far older than the capitol’s, but still. You’ve spent the last months unlearning how to be a princess, and now you need to re-learn it all over again. 

On your bed, on top of the red velvet cover, lie your old clothes folded neatly. One of the maids had tried to take it away, telling you she could throw them away for you, but you couldn’t. You peer at the humble stack of clothing, a dark pair of pants and a white shirt. The only things you have left to remember the East by. 

(That’s not completely true. There’s also the hollow, empty feeling in your bones, the feeling that you’re missing some essential part of your anatomy, but you convince yourself that’s something else.) 

“Oh!” The door opens without a knock and you twist your head to look at a well dressed, slightly uncomfortable looking Hinata. He looks odd in western clothes, disappears slightly underneath the signature wolf skin cape of the western army. “Wow.” He exhales, looking at you. You peek down at your silver dress, feel a bit out of place with your scarred hands clutching at the soft garment. 

“It’s a bit… much, huh?” At once you feel coy and embarrassed, heat rising to the tip of your ears. You remember Hinata’s comment about vanity and stupidity. A sentiment echoed in the resentment and the cruel gazes from every southerner you’ve clashed with. A sentiment echoed in the tight jaw and grimaces on the face of a knight sworn to protect you. You swallow, a name and a feeling clogging up your airways and making it hard to breathe. You can’t think about that. Hinata closes the door behind him, enters the room fully. There’s a grin on his face that makes you feel a bit lighter. 

“I think I understand all those rumors about you now,” he says with a twitch of his mouth and heat pulsates in your cheeks. You think he’s paying you a compliment but it makes you feel so guilty you can’t even look at him. “You look very pretty.” His voice is softer, more genuine, and you keep your gaze firmly to the side, staring out the window. 

“Did you just come here to flatter me?” You mutter, suddenly realizing you’ve lost all your polite tact. You’re used to being complimented, to be called pretty. At least, you used to be; pretty words thrown after you back when you were just a princess. It’s a foreign feeling, it’s strange and you don’t have the words anymore to just reply in kind like you used to. 

“Actually,” Hinata approaches, moving to sit down at the desk near the wall. The legs of the chair screech along the floor and you make a move to sit opposite him on the bed. It’s soft, the same thick sort of mattress you yourself used to own back in your princess tower. Gods, how that sounds in your mind now; a whole tower dedicated to you. What a selfish, entitled child you were. “I wanted to check up on you.”

Not for the first time you get the sense that Hinata is more intuitive than you initially gave him credit for. There’s some sort of emotional intellect that hides behind his easy personality, and you’re not entirely sure you can hide from him. You’re not sure if you have the skill, or the energy. 

“I’m tired,” you admit, choosing your words carefully. “It’s weird being in a castle protected by knights again.” That’s about the extent of what you’re able to reveal without laying yourself too bare. You feel like you’ve been ripped apart, like you’re just a pulsating wound left untended. You miss Makoto. You miss Kuroo, Semi, every easterner you can’t remember the names of. You miss Ushijima, you miss him like a limb. You feel his hand on yours if you close your eyes and you wish you could have traded places with him. You miss… 

(In your mind, behind your eyes and locked inside your trembling body, you see a hand traveling down skin. You feel lips on your face, on your stomach, on the inside of your thigh. You hear a repetition of your name, over and over and over again and your chest hurts. Your lungs feel so small, too small to contain any air at all. Your heart feels so big, too big to be contained by the cage of your battered ribs.)

“Hey!” Your own voice sounds like a stranger, too loud and too high to even resemble your own octaves. Hinata seems to jump a little, the young man seemingly still in thought wondering how to reply to your admission. Probably trying to find the appropriate words of comfort. He won’t find any, and so you don’t feel bad for interrupting his train of thought. “I’ve heard that there’s a huge library here. I was gonna check it out, do you want to come?”

You can’t sit in this room anymore. Not when the carpet looks so similar to your old one. Not when there are clothes on your bed that smells like the East. You need to do something or your mind will overtake you and destroy you completely. 

Hinata looks like he’s trying to figure out your intentions, but he nods after a moment and says no more. For that, you’re grateful. 

 


 

Every clink of metal makes the bundle of irritation nestled in Oikawa’s chest grow larger. He grips around the hilt of his sword, swings it with too much force, teeth gritting as he hears the grunt from his sparring partner. He’s distantly aware that he’s fighting with intent, with viciousness not appropriate for training, but he leans on his leg and swings again, heart in his throat as he just barely misses the flesh of Iwaizumi’s shoulder. 

“What the fuck!” Iwaizumi yells, attracting the attention of nearby onlookers, distancing himself from Oikawa’s reach. “Are you trying to kill me?” 

“No,” Oikawa replies, but he hears the lack of conviction in his voice and knows that Iwaizumi must do it, too. He forces himself to relax his sword arm, glares at his companion. It’s too much. The resentment is too prevalent, too present at the forefront of his mind. He can’t pretend that everything is the same, not when you’re not there and Ushijima is six feet in the ground. Buried, never to be seen or heard from again. It’s all Iwaizumi’s fault. 

Truthfully, Oikawa had not cared that much when the castle got invaded. Maybe he should have, maybe the ease with which he pushed it aside should have been a warning sign. But it was easy not to care when he had spent all of his life resenting the crown. In some small part of his soul maybe he had even celebrated it. It was an idiotic thing, of course, because in the grand scheme of things of course a coup would mean war. Even if he hadn’t gotten you out, even if the East had not gotten involved, the west would have. It would always have ended in devastation. But at the time, Oikawa had not cared. 

Now though, it hits him like a horse charging him at full speed. It’s Iwaizumi’s fault that you’re gone, that you’ve ran off to marry fucking Lev of all people. It’s his fault that Ushijima is gone, that Semi is missing an arm. If Oikawa squints hard enough and thinks for long enough, it’s even Iwaizumi’s fault that Oikawa has these awful, gut wrenching feelings for you in the first place. 

And sure, this southern royal bastard would have made a move sometime anyways. By the way Iwaizumi had spoken of this Takumi it does not sound like he would have given up his vengeful quest to dethrone the King no matter what. But Iwaizumi could have been on Oikawa’s side. Oikawa desperately needs someone to be on his side. 

“If you have something to say, just say it,” there is a sort of defiance in Iwaizumi’s voice that pisses Oikawa off. Like he’s the one who’s done wrong somehow. He knows why, of course, because if there’s one thing about Iwaizumi that hasn’t changed one bit it’s his pathetic crush on you. And though it seems he would rather die than bring it up, Iwaizumi knows

(The part of Oikawa that is cruel, vindictive and mean spirited wants to rub it in his face. The part of him that wants to keep you to himself, that aches and hurts and grieves your quiet departure is the only thing keeping his mouth shut.)

“If you haven’t gotten it through your thick skull by now,” Oikawa retorts with venom, watching as Iwaizumi’s face twists with every word. “Nothing I say will make any difference.” 

“You hated the king just as much as I did,” Iwaizumi says, throwing his sword to the ground out of what looks like pure frustration. “Don’t pretend you’re so much better than me.” 

“Yeah, I hated him but I didn’t have him fucking killed!” Oikawa throws his own sword, the weapon meeting the ground in a loud, uncomfortable clang. “What a great fucking way to show your devotion to your dream girl!” He doesn’t mean to bring you up but suddenly all he sees is red, all he sees is your crying face, all he hears is the sound of his name in your voice and he cannot stop himself.

“Don’t!” Iwaizumi warns, taking long steps to get in Oikawa’s face. There is anger in the furrow of his brows, a furious tremble in his voice. He grabs the front of Oikawa’s shirt, grip tight and threatening. “Don’t you talk about her!” The cruel part of Oikawa relishes in the blatant pain in his old friend’s expression. 

“You’re the reason she left,” he spits, grabbing Iwaizumi by the shoulder and leaning closer. “What the hell did you expect? You really thought she’d just forgive you after this? Are you insane or just stupid?” There are a thousand insults at the tip of Oikawa’s tongue, a thousand things he wants to say, but Iwaizumi chooses that exact moment to punch him in the jaw and after that, there are no more words. 

Oikawa stumbles back, hand on his chin. He hears a loud noise echoing inside his skull, grits his teeth and stares at Iwaizumi for a second, stunned by the sensation of pain. But pain is second nature to a knight and he recovers quickly, lunging at his former co-knight. His fist connects with the side of Iwaizumi’s face and the latter grabs at Oikawa’s clothes to send them both tumbling to the ground. Iwaizumi flips them, gains the advantage, and retracts his arm to swing at him again. Oikawa blocks with his arms, goes for Iwaizumi’s ribs. 

Iwaizumi growls and it’s an inhuman sort of noise. Oikawa unsteadies him and tries to twist them over. He feels the taste of blood in his mouth, hears yelling from somewhere around them. Iwaizumi pulls his hair, headbutts him right in the face. Oikawa retaliates, hitting Iwaizumi in the nose. He manages to get on top of him, locks him between his legs, punches him twice in the face before he’s getting pulled back. 

Only then does he register Makoto screaming. 

“Stop! I will not have more violence,” her voice is several octaves louder than her usual tone, uneven and bordering on a panic. “Get it together, you are not children!” Despite himself, Oikawa wrestles against Kuroo’s grip on him. He feels absolutely feral. Makoto yells his name and only then does he stop, his breath labored and his heart beating out of his chest. 

“You stop this shit right now or I swear to god.” 

Oikawa has never heard her so shaken, so angry. He watches as Iwaizumi gets up, face bloodied and beaten. He wants to cry. He wants to run away. Kuroo leans more weight on him. 

“Hey buddy,” he murmurs. “It’s okay. Just relax.” 

Oikawa doesn’t know how. He doesn’t fucking know. 

 


 

Hinata has never been much of a reader. He’s skimmed through his mother’s apothecary journals and medicine books, but truthfully it never really interested him. He just never really understood what was so compelling about words on a page. Yachi would ruffle his hair and tell him he was adorable whenever he pointed it out. In retrospect, he doesn’t think that was as much of a compliment as he took it as. 

You seem to be the complete opposite. Hours pass with the two of you in the western library — a monumental thing of a room, Hinata thinks there must be at least one copy of every book in the world in the large room; rows upon rows of books lining the walls — and you barely say a word, too preoccupied with flitting between bookcases and pulling out old tomes. He wants to ask if you’re looking for something specific, but he’s almost afraid to disturb you; you haven’t looked relaxed once since arriving in the west and he doesn’t want to ruin it. 

But his patience is wearing thin. And there is something Hinata has been wondering about. 

“Hey,” Hinata leans on his hands, watches with interest as you glance up from a book — supposedly it’s about the origins of a children’s story you used to read as a child — to look at him. He doesn’t really know if bringing up this topic is a good idea, but Hinata is a curious creature and he can’t stop himself. “I’ve been wondering. Why did you only ask me and Kageyama to come here with you?” 

You blink, brows furrowing. “Who else should I have asked?” 

Hinata feels like that’s a pretty obvious deflection. It only serves to pique his curiosity. “I thought you and that Oikawa guy were pretty close.” 

He doesn’t say what he actually thinks, because it’s become obvious that it’s a sore subject and despite his curiosity Hinata doesn’t want to hurt your feelings. He had assumed at first that you were lovers, but clearly it was not quite so simple. For a moment a shadow passes over your face, like you’re remembering something you’d rather forget. Whatever was going on between you and the brunet ex-soldier must be complicated. 

“Not at all,” you murmur, fingers toying with the pages of the book in front of you. There’s a softness to your voice that doesn’t quite match the melancholy look on your face and not for the first time Hinata feels sorry for you. “We could barely stand each other.”

Hinata remembers when Oikawa was their prisoner. It’s not something he likes to think about, something that sends chills down his spine and makes him nauseous, but he remembers. He remembers the look on your face, how your hand had trembled when you threatened Kageyama, how you’d cried while unlocking the chains around the man’s wrists and ankles. But even clearer, Hinata remembers how Oikawa had looked, how he’d leaned into your touches and relaxed at the sound of your voice. A totally different man than the half-dead, slumped down heap he was for the two weeks they’d kept him locked up. 

Nothing about it had looked like “barely standing each other” to him. 

“Wow,” he exhales, leaning back in his chair. Hinata has never been in love, but he’s seen it happen. He likes to think he’d recognize it. “You must be really oblivious, huh.” 

“I— what?” 

“So this is where you’ve ran off to!” The bright, slightly too loud voice of the western ruler himself cuts through the quiet of the library, and suddenly Lev is standing near the table with a wide, toothy grin. If you’d been a surprise as far as royalty went, Lev Haiba was a culture shock. He was a ball of endless energy and enthusiasm, entirely too trusting and entirely too accepting. When you’d told him about Hinata and Kageyama he had not even batted an eye, simply welcomed them with a smile and ushered them towards the barracks for warm clothes. They’d been given rooms, meals, the freedom to walk wherever they wished. 

Hinata wasn’t sure if he was kind, or if he was just an idiot. But he had decided quite quickly that he liked Lev in any case. 

“Oh,” you glance up at the silver haired royal, and Hinata doesn’t miss the relief in your voice, nor the eagerness as you continue, seemingly more than happy to put an end to the previous conversation. That’s fine. Hinata thinks he’s gotten his answer anyway. “I’m sorry, I should have let someone know I’d be here.” There is a trained, restrained sort of politeness to your tones, and Hinata can see the mask slip back on. So this is royalty, he thinks. 

It doesn’t suit you at all. 

Lev waves his hand as if to dismiss the apology, his own expression unguarded and open. The west must be very different from your own upbringing, Hinata concludes. There are no masks, no fake platitudes when the western royal speaks. 

“I expected you to be here anyway,” Lev says with fondness in his voice, glancing around the quiet library. “It’s about time someone makes use of this room!” He laughs at that, sounding somewhat like he’d just made a joke at his own expense. “But, uh, I was hoping to speak with you in private,” he glances over at Hinata apologetically, muttering a low ‘sorry’. 

Hinata shrugs, figures he should find Kageyama anyway. His friend has not acclimated very well, spends most of his day brooding in his room. He makes to move out of his chair, but just as he’s about to leave, a western guard enters, and Hinata pauses. 

“There’s a woman at the gates,” the guard says, sounding almost winded. “She says she’s here to see the princess.” 

 


 

Makoto is not a stranger to death. Her own husband died in a scuffle between eastern villagers and a wandering band of thieves. A pointless, insignificant sort of thing. The kind of thing that won’t ever be mentioned in any history books. She lost her sister, her brother in law, a number of her friends, in a more significant but no less traumatizing way. She carries them all within her heart, greets all her ghosts with a smile on her face because truly; what else can she do?

(It’s been years, it’s been decades, but Makoto still wakes up to the smell of ashes sometimes. She wonders if she’ll ever forget what the crackling of burnt houses sounds like.)

For the first time, Makoto feels completely untethered. She sits down in the grass, bottle of wine in hand, stares at the freshly made tombstone with Wakatoshi’s name on it. 

Makoto never had her own children. Not because she never wanted them, it simply never happened. But Makoto had kids. Oh, she had sons, she had daughters. She took in anyone who needed a supporting hand, she embraced anyone who needed to be held. It’s her passion. Makoto feels the best, feels the closest to her husband, feels the most whole, when she is able to love someone. 

And she loved Wakatoshi like nothing else. Tooru was her own flesh and blood, there was something unbreakable, something unconditional there. No words, no thoughts needed. Wakatoshi craved love, he craved affection as if he fed on it. Even as he grew into adulthood he leaned into touches, he sought out understanding, and Makoto wanted to give him the world. She wanted to give him everything. 

Makoto doesn’t cry. She takes a swig of her wine, she feels her heart break, but she doesn’t cry. She’s made it a point not to cry here, where she feels the closest to her lost loves. She feels herself enveloped in the presence of everyone she’s ever missed, she feels the touch of her husband and the comforting presence of her adopted son and she wants them to know she is okay. 

(She’s not. She will never be. She will miss them and grieve them for the rest of her life. When she tucks herself in at night the dam breaks and she grieves loudly, endlessly. But not here, not where she can feel them. She’s happy here.)

She sighs. “You should see Tooru, he’s a damn mess.” Wakatoshi always knew Tooru better than anyone. Better than Makoto ever could, try as she might. Wakatoshi had some sort of crazy insight into the storm that was Tooru’s head, they balanced each other out and kept each other tethered. And Tooru; hard headed, stubborn, emotional Tooru, he needed Wakatoshi like one needs their lungs to breathe. The boy will never admit to it because that is not the sort of thing Tooru says out loud, but it has always been an understood thing. Wakatoshi knew, Makoto knew. She’s not sure if Tooru did. 

And then her heart breaks all over again and Makoto grieves not her lost loves, but her stubborn nephew. Tooru has always been a difficult child. One who held grudges, one who ate resentment for breakfast. He seemed to have mellowed down after his return to the east following the coup of the capitol  -- no doubt, Makoto thinks, due to the influence of a certain princess -- seemed to find his footing and grow out of his reckless anger. He was alone again now, in a way that Makoto had no chance to alleviate no matter how much she wanted to. She tries to remember the last time he lashed out like he had against his knight ex-friend but she comes up empty. Just remembering the look of them, wrestling on the ground as if they had the intent to kill, sends shivers down her bones. She wants to blame you for it, to curse your name and your kingdom and thank the heavens you were finally out of the east.

But of course, she can’t. Not when she’s been privy to your self loathing and your heart in the way she has. Makoto wants to hate you because that would have been easy, but she misses you instead. She wishes you hadn’t left. For both her sake and for Oikawa’s.

Makoto leans down, her back creaking and groaning as she crumbles, upper body tucked between her bent legs and she breathes. Feet steady on the ground, pointy knees towards the sky. Loud, hard inhales and exhales, breathing exercises from way back when she would run for miles and swing swords. Makoto prides herself on her mentoring, on her calm demeanor and cautious optimism. 

“I miss you,” she says, and she’s not sure who she’s talking to anymore. It could be Wakatoshi. It could be her husband, her sister, her long gone friends. It could be you. She feels all of her losses like knives to her chest and she takes in that feeling, lets it consume her for a moment. Sorrow and grief clutches to her skin like clawed hands making quick work of her useless body, reaching into the nooks and crevices of her bones, seeps between her ribs. “I love you.”

And Makoto sits back up, her eyes rimmed red and her lip curved upwards. She feels centered again, less like tatters and more like a body. She collects the pieces of her broken heart and puts it back together, because there are still things to do. Bridges to mend, people to help. And Tooru needs her now, more than he’ll ever admit. She steals another glance at the row of lost loves in front of her. 

Makoto breathes in and the air is fresh as it seeps into her lungs, reinvigorating and refreshing and full of life.

“Thank you.” 

 


 

Yachi was not made for this weather. She comes to this conclusion very early into her travels towards the west, cold nipping at her skin and snow blinding her eyes. She doubts the southerners would even know how to fight in such a climate, how they’d move in the snow or if constricted by warm clothes. In that sense, she supposes, the princess was clever for retreating to the western royals. 

She wonders if she’ll even be allowed past the gates, if the princess will even see her. Would she recognize Yachi if she saw her? Yachi doubts it, she wasn’t at the castle for long anyways, she barely even met the princess back then. Only once did their paths truly cross; a night not long before Yachi was expelled from her position. 

And Yachi remembers that night, because it was the first, the only time she had felt true kindness shown her way in that wretched place and realistically she knows that if anything the princess is at heart a good person. It doesn’t stop her from despising the royal daughter, but it does make her feel at least a little bad for doing so. 

(“Oh gosh,” the princess had said, stumbling upon an exhausted Yachi crying over a stained blanket. She couldn’t get the stain off, no matter how hard she’d tried. “Why are you so sad?” Truthfully the blanket had little to do with it at all, merely it was the one wrong thing that had broken the dam. Yachi was more idealistic back then, less callous. In that moment the world was just a quiet night, stained blanket and the comforting voice of someone who cared enough to ask.) 

When Yachi at last arrives at the fort that is the western castle, she states her business with the princess and watches as the guards exchange worried glances. So they think it’s a secret, then. Yachi doesn’t know who provides the usurper king with information now that both her and Iwaizumi have turned coat, but she knows they were not the only ones willing to trade words for gold. She hopes they’re smart enough to realize that, if they plan to have any chance against the man sitting at the central throne. 

After a quick discussion among themselves, the guards seem to conclude that one girl cannot possibly do too much damage and they let her in. If she had wanted to she could have slit both of their throats before they even realized what was happening, but she decides not to tell them that. They lead her into the castle in silence, and Yachi tries not to let herself be impressed by the sheer grandeur of the architecture. It’s just a building, she tells herself. It doesn’t matter what it looks like. Even the capitol crumbled, for all its splendor and defenses. 

Yachi is led into what looks to be a dining room, and one of the guards leaves, presumably to announce her presence to whoever it might concern. The entire castle seems to be made of cobblestone, the walls dark and gray and covered in beautiful drapery. There are lanterns and torches lining the walls, a big fireplace taking up almost an entire wall. It looks less cold and dreary from the inside, the grey almost perfectly complemented by the reds and browns of textile and wood. 

It’s not what she expected from the notoriously cold west, that’s for sure. 

She sits there for what feels like an eternity and she realizes that she has no idea what is going to happen now. All she’s really been asked to do is to deliver what she assumes is a gross, heartfelt letter from the man she’s herself hopelessly infatuated with. She assumes Iwaizumi’s reunion with the princess did not go the way he had dreamed it would. Somehow that makes her happy.

The doors open with a creak and Yachi freezes. In the doorway stands a curious collection of people. There’s the guard from earlier, in his monochrome uniform and with his bland, unremarkable face. There’s the western king, Lev Haiba, all long limbs and impossibly silvery hair. There’s a pretty, dark haired man with such striking features it’s hard to look away from him.

And there you are, the famous princess of the central kingdom. You’re just like she remembers you, but somehow not at all. Yachi, try as she might, could never really forget the look on your face the night she met you in the castle. Unyielding optimism, blinding enthusiasm. There was something about you that just gave off the impression that you had never seen a single sad thing in your entire life, that every moment of your life had been full of love and affection. There is something haunted in your expression now as you look over at her, brows furrowed as if you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at. 

But there, right next to you, something that makes Yachi’s heart stop, pause and speed up to an impossible rhythm. She can’t believe it, she must be seeing wrong, she must be losing her mind--

“Yachi?”

Hinata.

Chapter Text

Sixteen

To say that Iwaizumi feels a surge of apprehension as he sits down next to Oikawa would be an understatement. The brunet is resting, staring at the fireplace with a wet cloth pressed against his face, does not even turn to look at Iwaizumi when he enters the house, nor when he takes a seat on the opposite side of the couch. They’re like strangers. In retrospect, Iwaizumi supposes he should have expected the reaction, Oikawa never was good at handling emotion, but it’s still awkward land to thread, and Iwaizumi doesn’t want to fight anymore. 

The side of his face hurts like a motherfucker and his knuckles ache. Had the mood not been so somber he might have made a joke about Oikawa’s hard head and thick skull, but as it is he suspects it’s not really the time for humor. 

“Tooru,” Iwaizumi says, the first name of his most once most trusted friend a foreign word on his tongue. When they were younger they always called each other by first names, back before they officially became knights. Tooru sounds like a young boy who would crawl into bed with Hajime whenever he had nightmares. Iwaizumi isn’t really sure either of those boys exist anymore. But he needs them to, so he tries, despite how the name twists and stings in his mouth. “What’s going to happen to me?” 

Oikawa leans back, relaxes his shoulders and exhales in a way that makes it sound like he’s deflating. Iwaizumi chances a glance over at him, sees the way his eyebrows seem to unfurrow ever so slightly. A good sign. Maybe. “I don’t know.”

Before the coup, Iwaizumi and Oikawa never really fought. They argued, sure, they bickered. There was this one time Oikawa was really annoyed and elbowed Iwaizumi in the face and despite the brunet’s insistence Iwaizumi still doubts it was really an accident. But they never fought. Never disagreed on a fundamental level. Iwaizumi doesn’t know if there’s any way to come back from this. 

(There’s this part of Iwaizumi that wants to yell. He closes his eyes and he sees Oikawa kiss you. He closes his eyes and he sees Oikawa in the bed you used to sleep in. He doesn’t— he doesn’t know how to come back from that.)

“What the fuck were you thinking?” Oikawa asks, breaking the silence when he seems to figure out that Iwaizumi doesn’t know what to say. On one side, Iwaizumi is thankful, but on the other… he does not know how to have this conversation. 

He knew it was coming, of course. Sooner or later he would have to talk about it. He had hoped he could prepare a bit more for it, but no time like the present, he supposes. Iwaizumi swallows, stares down at his hands. What the fuck, indeed. Iwaizumi remembers meeting Takumi during a raid on a southern village, one of his very first missions. The future conqueror had been younger then, less consumed by his plight; he seemed almost like a revolutionary. 

It was just what Iwaizumi had needed at the time. Just the right kind of guy to stoke the fires of resentment in his chest. He was charismatic, alluring, intelligent. And for a young man looking for a reason to rebel, Takumi was a king. It started out as just a curiosity. Iwaizumi let Takumi flee instead of detaining him. Sent him some money here and there. They exchanged letters. 

He doesn’t even remember when he started sending castle secrets to the southerner. He doesn’t even remember how it started. Did Takumi ask? Did Iwaizumi offer? The transition was so smooth, Iwaizumi doesn’t know. He just remembers telling Takumi of his hopeless feelings for the princess, he remembers Takumi promising that if he ever became king he’d make sure the two of them could be together. Iwaizumi hadn’t thought much of it at the time.

“You know how sometimes things just like,” Iwaizumi pauses, considering his words. How does one explain their part in an insurrection? “It just doesn’t feel real until it happens. In my mind I guess the king would just die and then Takumi would take over and that would be it,” it sounds so stupid when he says it out loud. He sounds like an idiot. To think that the murder of a king would go unchallenged. To think a bastard prince with bloodlust dripping from his teeth would merely dispose of his father and not cause trouble otherwise. “The king was a cruel man. He deserved it. It was justified.” 

Iwaizumi doesn’t grieve for the king. He only grieves for how it hurt you. He never wanted you to know, but of course you would. You knew as soon as you saw him in the East. 

“I’m not the one you need to convince of that,” Oikawa mutters with resentment. Maybe not, Iwaizumi thinks. But he wants to. He wants Oikawa to be on his side. To understand his reasoning. To agree with him. But he knows what Oikawa means, what he’s trying to get at. You loved your father, and Iwaizumi is not sure you would ever forgive him for his part in his death. He doesn’t even know if you’ll ever be able to look at him again. What happens if you are able to defeat Takumi and take the capitol back? Would you send troops to the East to find him, to publicly execute him for his role as informant? 

Or would you just ignore his existence for the rest of your days, leave him to rot in the East? Iwaizumi thinks that Oikawa must be thinking something along the same lines, a deep frown etched into his battered but otherwise handsome face. It’s an expression he has not seen on Oikawa often, it’s too emotional, too unguarded, too raw. And Oikawa, for all of his volatile emotions and wild temper, never was one to let his more vulnerable sides on display. It scares him. Iwaizumi wants to ignore it but instead he opens his mouth and asks a question he does not want the answer to. 

“Are you in love with her?” 

Oikawa leans his head back, closes his eyes and sighs like he’s lamenting the answer. For a moment it doesn’t even look like he’s going to reply, and maybe Iwaizumi is better off that way anyway, he thinks. But then the brunet laughs that hollow, humorless laugh of his and that, more than anything else, is an answer. “Seems like it.” 

And because Iwaizumi knows Oikawa better than he knows himself, he already knew that. He knows that despite his reputation at court, Oikawa is conservative with physical affection. He reserves it only for those closest to him. And while that kiss outside the ruins might have been more to piss Iwaizumi off than anything else, Oikawa would not have done it had it not meant something.

(The heartbroken look on his face when Iwaizumi told him of your disappearance and his mopey, angry demeanor ever since only served to solidify what Iwaizumi already suspected.)

“Wow. That’s fucked,” Iwaizumi mutters, because he doesn’t know what else to say. He doesn’t know if he has the right to say anything at all, his anger evaporating as if into thin air as he deflates, sinking into the plush backrest of the couch. “Doesn’t that break some kind of like… guy code?” 

“You’ll forgive me,” Oikawa replies curtly, not looking at Iwaizumi at all. It’s still too soon for jokes, Iwaizumi supposes. 

“I guess so,” he says, because he’s still alive. He’s still breathing, still free, still has a chance — maybe — to redeem himself. As months of tension melts away from his muscles and releases its grip on his nerves, Iwaizumi feels like he could forgive anything. Even as his heart breaks all over again. “What about her?” 

Oikawa makes a frustrated sort of sound, drags a hand over his face and through his hair. 

“I don’t know. I thought she might. But now she’s marrying Lev fucking Haiba, so who knows.” 

Iwaizumi thinks that accepting the western proposal might have been your idea of revenge. Not first and foremost, of course, because it is a sound strategy at the end of the day, but if what Iwaizumi has heard is right, you were prepared to look for other venues until he arrived. And Iwaizumi knows you better than Oikawa does, he knows how petty you can be. 

He’s just not sure if it’s revenge aimed at him or if it’s aimed at Oikawa. Maybe both. Anger has never been your forte, though pettiness and silent treatments has. He remembers one time he accidentally spilled grape juice on your favorite dress and you didn’t speak to him for a week, only talking to him again after retaliating by drenching all of his white shirts in a bucket full of grape juice, leaving stains all over his sheets. But you were never explosive, never loud. A byproduct of royalty, Iwaizumi supposes. He’s never seen you so outwardly, comfortably pissed as you were after the funeral. 

“Serves you right,” Iwaizumi says at last, fingertips tracing the lines between the buttons on the armrest of the couch. “You never were very nice to her.” Oikawa tsks, but he doesn’t protest. Iwaizumi glances at him and he swears there’s something like regret in the furrow of his brows, in the curl of his mouth. If this was years ago, he would have thrown something at Iwaizumi for his comment, made some sort of disparaging remark.

“Yeah, well,” Oikawa snaps. “You haven’t been very nice either.”

So Iwaizumi guesses some things never really change all that much. He’s grateful for that, though the comment stings. Less so than a punch in the face, Iwaizumi decides, grimacing as he massages his chin. “Yeah.”

Maybe they could both just live in the eastern village Oikawa calls his home until they had to run. Depending on the western army, the southerner problem might even solve itself. Iwaizumi does not believe that, but it’s a pleasant thought. They could exchange swords for axes and hoes and tend to the land. Take care of Oikawa’s aunt. Never kill another person again, never live the terror of war and conflict. You would marry your western royal and live a decently content life, far far away.

“Do you think there’s a way to fix this?” 

Oikawa turns and looks at Iwaizumi. Fully now; both eyes focusing on Iwaizumi,  his mouth set in a neutral line. He shrugs. 

“There has to be.” 

The fireplace cracks and pops and after a time, Oikawa’s aunt enters with a pot of stew. They eat in silence, Iwaizumi notices how Oikawa handles his aunt like she’s a thing of porcelain, notices how her eyes are rimmed with red. 

There has to be. There just has to. 

 


 

Lev corners you just after breakfast, reminding you that he had something to talk to you about in private. Truthfully you are more interested in the southern girl who arrived from the capitol, but you suppose there’s not much to be done in that situation either. Hinata and Kageyama had essentially dragged the woman to their room, whispering in low voices. You’re pretty sure you saw Hinata shed a tear. 

You don’t blame them. Seeing a loved one again after so long must feel like finally being able to breathe. You wonder if you’ll ever get to experience it. With a thick swallow you shake the thoughts out of your head. There’s no reason to be melancholy now, you made the decision all on your own. You left with the intention never to see any of them again. To wallow in the ache of missing them now would be nothing but useless self-pity.

You learned how to breathe all on your own. And even if the art is somewhat lost on you now, you’ll be able to re-learn it again. So you smile at Lev, taking the hand he extends to you, and you follow. 

Lev brings you outside and not for the first time you’re blinded by the sheer whiteness of the west. Soft snow blankets the ground, boots crunching pleasantly as the pair of you walk across the yard. Lev looks truly like a king here, his skin inhumanly beautiful and his hair impossibly silver. Looking at him like this it’s almost unbelievable to think you had never understood how much he didn’t fit in in the capitol, how you never realized the truth of his heritage. He looks like an immortal being, like every depiction of a god you’ve ever read. Tall, sculpted, perfect. Like new snow. Untouched. 

He brings you to a secluded spot, a glass house in a corner of the yard. You’ve heard rumors of the western castle’s winter garden, a declaration of love from the late king to his beloved. Seeing it with your own eyes is nothing short of a marvel. 

Blue roses are the signature of western beauty, a peculiarity of the snowy kingdom. They were extremely popular in the capitol, you remember seeing them often at the castle. And no wonder, with such a romantic tale associated with them. Lev must be very proud to have this be part of his legacy, you think. 

“Wow,” you exhale, unable to tear your gaze away from the flowers as Lev guides you to a carved bench overlooking the garden. “This really is pretty.” Lev’s grin is wide enough to split his face, pride in the edges of his mouth as he takes a seat next to you. He puts a careful distance between you, a polite, proper sort of space open on the bench. It’s very cordial, very typical, very unlike the automatic invasion of space you'd gotten used to in the east. 

Lev hums pleasantly, his eyes sweeping the garden with a fond sort of expression on his face. At once, you envy him for his upbringing. Your father had spoken of the west sometimes. Rarely in front of you and mostly positive, because the west has always been his closest allies, after all, but you heard the sort of muted distaste in his voice when he spoke of the royal family of the west. They were not as occupied with rules of propriety, he’d say. The king even married his maid. It was unheard of. But no one, not even your father, doubted that they loved each other.

The same could not be said for your parents. 

“Is there a reason you brought me here?” You ask, desperate to steer your mind away from such thoughts. You’ve done well to repress it your whole life, closing your ears to the rumors and whispers plaguing the castle, no reason to stop now.

“Ah, yeah,” Lev mutters, as if he’d forgotten. Sometimes one might really wonder if there was anything but air in that pretty head of his. “I guess I just thought we should talk about, uh,” he pauses, makes some sort of uncomfortable grimace. It’s not hard to guess what he’s trying to get at, nor why he’s reluctant to do so. In your mind Lev is still the silly boy knight living in the barracks and training with the other knights. It’s hard to see him as a future husband. You don’t doubt he’s got similar thoughts about you. “About our situation, as it is.”

“Our situation,” you echo, voice imitating the way your maids would sound when they read you ghost stories when you were a child. It’s so surreal, to sit here in this beautiful garden with a man you consider a friend at best and talk about a marriage neither of you really want at all. “Akaashi said it was his idea. How do you feel about it?”

Lev laughs, a soft and airy sound. “For a guy who refuses to be called an adviser he sure comes up with some crazy ideas, huh!”

You’re not entirely sure what the tone of his voice suggests, but it makes you wince. 

“I mean,” he continues, noticing the way you cringe and fall into yourself. “It’s the way it works, right? Even without all of this it was always an option,” he says it with a shrug, as if it was obvious. And you suppose it is, but somehow you hadn’t really considered it like that. “I’m more curious about what you think, though.”

“Well, I’m here, aren’t I?”

The corner of Lev’s mouth twitches, as if he’s caught you in a trap. “From what I heard, Akaashi didn’t think you’d take the offer. He said you had your eyes on someone else.” If he’s being purposefully vague to spare your feelings, you choose to ignore it. You open your mouth to protest, but no words come out. Honesty is the foundation of a good relationship, your mother used to tell you. Royalty would mean giving up a lot of things for a good marriage, but if you could find someone you could at least be honest with, you could form bonds, forge a partnership. Honesty is a strange concept. You’re not sure if you’re even honest with yourself, most of the time. 

“I don’t know,” you respond at last, not quite able to meet his gaze. “It’s not really the time to get caught up in stuff like that. I made my choice.”

“What does Oikawa think about that?”

The name and the casual way he phrases his question knocks the air out of your lungs, an exhale ripping itself out of your mouth before you can compose yourself. What, indeed? Your sanity rests on a foundation of carefully structured thoughts and perceptions. You had told yourself before you left that it didn’t matter what Oikawa thought, that it didn’t matter what he felt. You’ve spun up a narrative where he doesn’t care, where your intimacies were born out of a need to feel something that isn’t loss and pain. But what ifs wreck your brain and corrupt your mind, Lev’s question burrowing into your head and leaving splatters of doubt in its wake. 

“I don’t know.”

“Sounds complicated,” Lev murmurs with feeling. You shrug. Everything is complicated. The intricacies of Oikawa and the feelings you fight to suppress are the least of your worries.

“If that’s what you’re worried about there’s no need,” you tell him. “I didn’t make this decision lightly.”

“I’m worried about you,” he says, not missing a beat. He says it like an automatic response and since it’s Lev you can’t but believe him when he says it. “Even if this isn’t like… what any of us really wanted I guess, I don’t want you to regret it. Or resent me for it.” And he doesn’t sound like silly, stupid Lev anymore, or like a prince pretending to be a king. Lev sounds like a grown man who has thought about this thoroughly and you feel bad, then, for putting that on him. “If this is what you want to do then we will, but then… I’d ask you to try for real. Not just for show.”

He chooses his words carefully, makes sure not to sound demanding or forceful. It’s not an unfair ask at all, it’s actually much more reasonable and level headed than anything you might have thought to say in terms of the less than ideal union. “And I mean, if we can’t be,” he pauses, exhales through his nose, seemingly wrestling with how to word himself. He gesticulates in the air as if to fill the space of the words he can’t make himself say. “I at least want us to be friends.”

You think this is his attempt at a proposal. It’s a bit weird, a bit practical, but considering the situation it’s the best thing you could ever imagine. You smile, and you find that it’s genuine. 

“Yeah,” you tell him. “I’d like that.” 

And Lev’s returning smile is radiant. 

He reaches into the inside of his wolfskin cape, pulls out a small wooden box. You’d always wondered what your engagement ring would look like, how you’d feel the first time you saw it. The ring is a beautiful silver jewelry with a modest, blue stone that reminds you of the western roses. And what does it matter that it’s a bit awkward, that Lev laughs as he removes it from the box and your fingers tremble as he slides the ring on your finger. 

It’s nice. It’s not at all what you want, but it’s nice.

 


 

Hinata realizes very quickly that the girl who left the village years ago is not the same as the one in front of them now. Sure, Yachi still keeps her hair the same way, still has the same southern traits and still speaks in the same voice, but it is clear as day that whatever it was she did in the capitol all those years has changed her to an almost unrecognizable degree. She seems reluctant to speak about it, and Hinata gets the sense that prying would not be appreciated. He collects the curiosity that rumbles and creaks inside of his ribcage and he assumes, instead, the role of a thankful friend finally seeing someone they’ve missed a whole lot. It’s not a hard role to play, after all.

It’s hard, though, to keep a conversation going. Kageyama is no help -- which, honestly, is not that much of a surprise, but Hinata would really appreciate it if he stopped brooding soon -- and Hinata does not know what to say without bringing up where Yachi has spent the better half of a decade. Why didn’t you send any letters, he wants to ask. Why didn’t you let us know you were still alive? Why didn’t you come back for Daichi’s funeral? But there is something haunted and frightening about the look in Yachi’s eyes and Hinata isn’t sure he wants to know the answers. 

“So you two are turncoats now, then?” Yachi asks, the question direct and the cadence of her voice flat. It’s not really a question, nor an accusation, it’s just a statement. Just an observation. Yachi knows that neither Hinata nor Kageyama ever really had much of an interest in the feuds between the south and the capitol. She has to know because when Yachi decided to leave to work there, the two of them were some of the only ones who did not chew her out for it. And by Yachi’s own appearance, it appears at least their allegiances -- or lack thereof -- is something they have in common. 

“Not like we had much of a choice,” Kageyama mutters, and the bitterness seems to lack direction. Hinata thinks that Kageyama isn’t sure who he is mad at. Hinata understands. Sometimes he’s angry at himself, other times it’s the south. Or the princess. Or the world. 

“Yeah,” Yachi mutters, her chin resting against her palm. “What do you think about the princess?”

At that, Kageyama leans back in the plush chair, sinks into the furniture as if announcing his departure from the conversation. Hinata had asked him the very same thing the first night they spent in this room. He had gotten pretty much the same response. Kageyama doesn’t know. He doesn’t want to know. Kageyama just wants to go home and pretend the war isn’t happening. Hinata doesn’t blame him, but he will have to snap out of it sooner rather than later. Maybe he can talk to Yachi about it. Truth of the matter is;

“She saved us,” Hinata says with confidence. “After we failed our mission in the eastern ruins.” There is no doubt in his mind that this is the case. Had she not appealed to the easterners they would have executed them. Had they left them to the southerners they would have executed them. Maybe they didn’t get to choose their allegiance, but Hinata does not regret it. “And she’s nice. I feel sorry for her.” 

Yachi seems to consider. Hinata wonders if she ever met the princess during her stay at the castle.

“What about the capitol?” Hinata finally asks, because he cannot keep the question under lock anymore. There are a thousand questions he will respect Yachi enough to keep to himself, but this one he needs the answer to. He had posed the same question to many a water warrior during his short stay in the southern army, but had never gotten a real answer.  He was too green, too new, not reliable enough. In retrospect, maybe not a bad decision on their part. But Hinata needs to know. “Who killed the king?”

 


 

Takumi sits opposite Kenma. The table is long, almost comically so, but still the blond man feels that he is way too close to the conqueror than he feels comfortable with. Between them is an impressive amount of food for the amount of people at the table. A whole chicken, a tray of potatoes, several cups of gravy, two bowls of vegetables. Takumi eats with ease, leans back in the chair as he puts a knife and fork to his meal. Kenma stares down at his own plate, food carefully arranged and strategically placed. Kenma spent most of his adolescence in this castle, he spent most of his meals around this table. He recognizes the handiwork of the kitchen staff. 

So some people are still alive, then. At least there’s some comfort in that. Though, admittedly, Kenma does not have much of an appetite. He does not remember when and what he ate the last time that wasn’t dry bread or leftovers thrown to the floor of his prison cell, but Kenma looks at the delectable dinner plate and feels nauseous. Aside from him and Takumi only two almost identical looking guards occupy the dinner room. It feels hollow, almost. Too much space for all this silence. He can hear Takumi’s knife against the plate as if it’s inside his head.

“Not hungry?” The usurper king addresses him casually, as if one would a friend. There is a sort of relaxed carelessness in his voice that sounds almost eerie despite -- or maybe because of -- the cheeriness of it. “And here I had the staff prepare your favorite dish and everything.” The half-royal pouts, his bottom lip sticking out even as his eyes flash with mockery so potent Kenma can see it from the other side of the table. 

“You said you wanted to talk about the princess,” Kenma says, struggling to keep his voice even. Takumi leans forward, his braid slipping over his shoulder as he does. Kenma has not been able to stop thinking about it. Even after he was taken away from the throne room and escorted to his old bedroom all he could do was lie on his bed and stare at the roof, thinking about the implications of it all. He wants to speak to his father. He wants to speak to Iwaizumi. The princess is alive. He knows it. He feels you suddenly like a physical thing in his chest.

Takumi stares. Kenma stares back. Again he is struck by the appearance of this southern king; the angular shape of his face, the sharpness of his jaw. He’s wearing something he must have stolen from his father’s chambers today, a deep purple robe with pure white trimmings, black pants and a white shirt. There’s almost nothing southern about him at all, then. Only pretty royalty and regal heritage. Even the vicious twist of his mouth bears the semblance of his father. 

“Eat,” the king commands, taking a large bite of chicken himself as if to accentuate the demand. “Then we’ll talk.” 

He means to torture him, Kenma thinks. To make him nervous, to drag it out and lower his defenses. But Kenma has nothing to lose anymore. He has no reason to be quiet, to be timid, to let himself be intimidated. He tells himself this, but he still has to grab at his own wrist to keep his hand from shaking as he clears his throat. There is a reason Takumi has deemed to give Kenma back some of his privileges. There’s a reason he’s once again allowed to sleep in a bed and enjoy proper food after being forgotten in a cell for who knows how long. And Kenma does not think it is because of his father’s pathetic begging or out of the kindness of his heart.

“No,” he says, feeling a lot less confident than he wants to. “Tell me now.”

Takumi regards him with a tilted head and a curious look on his face. It’s hard to tell if he’s impressed or annoyed, the same playful grin still present, sharp teeth still peeking out from behind his lips. He slumps back in the chair, lifts his feet in an effortless move and slams them down on the table so hard the plates and cutlery shivers with the impact. 

“Fine,” he says, but it sounds not like giving up, rather like allowance. His presence is overwhelmingly domineering, even relenting sounds merely like handing out crumbs. Like he’s doing Kenma a kindness. It makes sense, then, how this unruly king has garnered so much support in the south. “She escaped with a guard called Tooru Oikawa through an underground tunnel and has been hiding in the eastern kingdom.” Kenma’s heart leaps and he exhales as if he’s been holding his breath for months. Maybe he has. He’s so elated, skin buzzing with this new information, he doesn’t even stop to consider how strange it is that Oikawa would be the one to get her to safety. 

“We tried to retrieve her, but it seems she has escaped my clutches once again.”

Thank god, thank god, thank god. Kenma almost doesn’t care about anything else, he’s so thankful, so relieved he almost cries right then and there, in front of the awful king-killer. “I see.”

“Yes,” Takumi clicks his tongue. “Such a shame. I would so like to reconnect with my dearest sister.” Sarcasm drips like venom from his tongue, a true show of distaste and hatred finally making itself known with the enunciation of the pet name he uses for you. “You know her quite well, yes?”

It feels like a trick question, and Kenma doubts his answer is really needed at all. There is no doubt in his mind that Kenma’s father has already supplied any information Takumi would find interesting or usable in regards to his relationship to you.

“Why?” There is really only one reason that your relationship matters, and Kenma does not like the implications of it. He doesn’t like the way Takumi’s mouth curls into something even more sinister and frightening, the way his eyes darken as he stares into Kenma’s soul. Kenma is not sure if the way the candles in the middle of the table flicker and dance is a reality or a trick of his mind, but he feels his throat close up as fear and apprehension grips at his windpipe. 

“Why?” Takumi’s voice is smooth as butter and sharp as a knife. “You’re going to help me meet her, of course.”

Chapter Text

Seventeen

You stare down at the pale brown envelope, gaze following the lines of your name written in ink. You would recognize that handwriting anywhere. Nausea rises in your throat and your hands tremble with the impulse to just rip the letter up and stomp on the pieces. In front of you Yachi clears her throat, shifting on her feet. 

“I will leave you to it,” she says, her voice far more hesitant than her general being — such as you’ve seen it, so far — gives the impression of. The blonde woman turns to leave, and by reflex you grab her wrist with one hand, Iwaizumi’s letter crumpled in your other fist. 

“No,” you murmur, speaking too softly, too carefully. As if you’re addressing an injured bird. You can tell she doesn’t like it, her nose scrunching and her mouth drooping into a frown. “I wanted to talk to you.” 

Reluctance makes her entire face twist, but Yachi obeys, turns back around to face you. You feel very much like you did at the castle when you were little, when every word you said could be taken as a command if it came out wrong. “I mean,” you amend, letting go of the woman’s wrist. “If that’s okay with you.” 

For a moment she seems to consider you, eyes traveling across the lines of your face and the way you hold your hands stiffly in front of you, clasped together in a pose that seems to be ingrained into your muscle memory. Good old-fashioned royal propriety. It’s equal parts comforting and equal parts sickening. 

“Of course,” Yachi replies with restraint, a muscle in her jaw twitching as her gaze drops from your face to the letter crumpled in your hands. You have the distinct feeling she doesn’t like you. A common feeling, these days. You motion for her to sit down, taking a seat on the edge of your bed as Yachi seats herself on the chair next to your desk. 

You don’t know what to say to her. There are so many things. You want to ask her about Iwaizumi, because you have the feeling she knows him. You can tell by the way her eyes linger on the letter, by the fact that he even trusted her with it. You want to ask where she went after her short time of service at the castle. If she remembers meeting you at all. Most of all you just want someone to talk to. Someone who isn’t Lev, someone who hasn’t already seen all the most broken parts of you. 

But you don’t think that kind of vulnerability is something Yachi would be open to. And you don’t know if you have the right to demand it of her. 

“Princess,” Yachi prompts, her shoulders dropping as she seems to force peace into her bones. She looks like she lives with tension wrapped around her throat. At least that you can relate to. 

“Sorry,” you mutter in response. “I have so many questions and none of them feel appropriate.” 

The blonde inhales through her nose, her brows furrowing with annoyance. “Just ask anyways.” It sounds like maybe Yachi is tired of being treated with careful fingers and gentle touches. Like she knows all too well how lightly people thread around her. Maybe, you think, the two of you are more alike than you had initially thought. 

You consider, taking inventory of every question rummaging through your head, searching for the one to ask.

“You know Iwaizumi?” You decide, paper prickling at the skin of your palm. You wonder if she knows who he is. Beyond his face and his friendly facade, you wonder if Yachi knows the darkness, the deceit that lurks there. She nods, her mouth a thin line. “Well?”

Yachi gives a laugh. A bitter thing, an uncomfortable sound. “Better than most,” she says with irony. “Or not at all.” You must look confused, because she stares at you for a moment as if wondering whether or not to elaborate and at last she opens her mouth and says “I’m a whore. He came to the brothel.” She says it with confidence and without shame, laying herself bare in front of you to watch. There is pride in her face, nose turned up as she watches for your reaction. 

You’ve never heard a single positive thing said about the prostitutes of the capitol. Not about them and not about the woman who houses them. You’ve heard that they’re good with their mouths. That they’re filthy, evil seductresses. There was a committee of women who requested the king to outlaw the practice as a whole. Homewreckers, dirty. All these words you’ve heard in relation to these women and not a single one you can bring yourself to think when looking at the woman in front of you. There is a certain kind of strength to Yachi, a certain pride that makes you jealous. At once you’re impossibly impressed with the woman and her resolve. 

At once you’re deeply ashamed, knowing it was her expulsion from the castle that led her down that road. You wish you’d done something more to find her back then. 

“Oh,” you exhale. You’re not sure what to say without coming off as judgmental or patronizing so you decide not to try. “You’re the one he’s been sending letters through.” It’s pretty smart, if a bit simple. If you were to stage a coup and violently take over a kingdom, you sure would have kept an eye on the double agent who helped you do it. There probably were not a lot of chances for Iwaizumi to send out traitorous letters to the East. 

You still don’t understand why, but at least you know how. 

“What do you think, then?” You ask, biting down on your bottom lip. “About him?” The question doesn’t feel like a necessity, because Yachi is here and not in the capitol. She traveled by horse on a road she’d never walked before to deliver this letter you can’t get yourself to open. She kept him a secret when exposing him could have made her rich. You do not understand it, but there must be something there. 

Yachi’s mouth is tight and it looks like she might be gritting her teeth. There’s an apprehension to speak that makes you wonder, but you let her take her time, even as your shoulders sag with the weight of her silence. 

“Why are you asking me?” Yachi counters. “From my understanding you have known him for much longer than I have.” There’s a bitterness in the tone of her voice that sounds like venom and it makes you cringe. 

“Even so, it seems like you know him better,” you murmur, and maybe you’re just desperate for a reason not to be mad anymore. You’re so tired of being angry, of being resentful and hateful. It just feels like loss all over again every time you curse his name. “I’m starting to think I didn’t know him at all.” 

“Maybe you should read the letter, then.” 

“I can’t,” you admit. “I’m scared to.” You're scared the letter will make you want to forgive him. You’re scared it might make you hate him more. 

“Are you in love with him?” The question comes out of the blue, gives you pause for a second. But you look at Yachi and maybe it’s not so random after all. Maybe she’d been wondering ever since she sat down, maybe that was why she regarded you with such contempt. You envy her, then, for being so loud, so proud about her emotions. Hinata is much the same, wears his most precious thoughts on his sleeves, speaks his thoughts freely in a way you can’t even think to understand. Maybe you can learn from them. 

Maybe here’s a good place to start.

“No,” you reply. “I thought I was, but—” but you’ve experienced love in all its volatile glory, in all its heartbreaking wonder and whatever you felt for Iwaizumi it was not that. Maybe it could have been, had things ended up differently. But it's not. “No. I don’t. But he is— was very important to me, once.”

Yachi looks you up and down as if to gauge the truth of your statement. She seems to be chewing on the inside of her cheek, gaze contemplative as she watches you. Little by little you feel the tension drift out of the room, you feel Yachi warming up to you ever so slightly. You want to ask if she’s in love with him. If she thinks he’s redeemable. But the peace seems fragile and you don’t want to risk it. You have a lot of other questions anyways.

“Can you tell me about the south?”

Yachi sighs, a light shake of her head, but she leans back in the chair in a more relaxed position and she relents. She tells you about her village, about Kageyama and Hinata as children, about fishing and sunbathing and summer festivals. By the end of it you’ve all but forgotten about Iwaizumi and his letter.

And you think you understand Yachi a little better.

 


 

Kenma sits in his room. It’s like sitting in a bubble, in this small space where time does not exist and the war has not yet sunk its claws. His bed is as soft as it has ever been, the desk coated with a thin layer of dust but otherwise unchanged. The book he was reading right before the coup lies on top, Kenma can’t even remember the title, can’t get himself to walk over and check. 

He feels as if there are vines keeping him still. Like he can’t move without great strain, without exhaustion seeping into his bones. He’s scared, he realizes. Every second nothing happens is another second something terrible might take place. He doesn’t know what Takumi wants to do with him, how he’s going to use him to get to you, but he knows it’s approaching. He doesn’t know if he’s going to be able to resist. Could he forfeit his life to keep it from being used as bait? He doesn’t know. He never was the brave one, the bold one. He was the smart one, the careful one. The one who acted meticulously rather than quickly.

What he would do for some thoughtless bravery right now. As it is, the vines creep up Kenma’s spine, coil around his neck and limit his breathing. He knows that the blond guard called Atsumu is standing outside with orders to detain. He knows that the guard will not hesitate to put a blade to Kenma’s body should he try to run. Kenma is fed, his body is regaining motor functions, he can see the sun and smell fresh air, but in a way he’s still imprisoned. 

It’s a waiting game. And Kenma is good at games.

 


 

You remember when your father married the queen, your stepmother. It was this extravagant, opulent sort of thing, a celebration lasting for days. The castle would be open first for just the most important politicians and nobles, a private event sparing no expense. The finest silverware, the most beautiful flowers, dishes so impressive and complicated you do not even remember their names. Then they would open the castle for the upper class, do the whole thing over again. Some of the more prominent knights would be let off duty to enjoy the festivities and the food, there would be performances and speeches. And finally, an event for the masses. 

The west is not so extravagant, but god they are meticulous. There are so many traditions, so many customs, so many decisions to be made. They ask you about food, about flowers, about your favorite hymns, your favorite holy chapters. What kind of color scheme do you want, what sort of dress design, how many courses would be appropriate? What kind of wine do you drink, or do you prefer other spirits? 

They tell you about western tradition, about how they tie ribbons to their wrists at the wedding, a physical manifestation of their lives linked together. The ribbon is to be worn for a full twenty-four hours after the wedding, and is then preserved as a memorabilia for years to come. You wonder if Lev keeps the ribbon his parents wore. 

You look over at him, and he looks as bored as you feel. It’s hard to be enthused about a marriage when war is all around. You tell yourself that is the only reason you cannot focus as the planner enthusiastically shows you samples of different invitations, beautifully penned letters you cannot pay attention to long enough to read.

At least there is comfort in that, in your shared disinterest. It makes you feel less awful as you watch Lev stifle a yawn and grin sheepishly your way. If anyone notices they have the grace not to mention it. Your own mouth curls into something that is slight but genuine and you feel a tad lighter. Lev’s words echo in your head, his simple request for an honest attempt. You glance down at the jewelry decorating your ring finger and you think about the East. 

You wonder if you will be able to honor his wishes. 

The head planner launches into yet another painfully detailed description about seating arrangements and it seems Lev reaches his limit. He claps his hands a bit too loudly, the smack of skin echoing against the walls of the room, all pairs of eyes turning sharply to look at him. 

“I think that’s enough for now,” he says cheerily and with no shame. “We’ve all deserved a little break, don’t you think?” 

“But, your grace,” the planner tries his best not to sound indignant, but it doesn’t quite work. There’s a furrow of his brows and a frown taking his features and he looks a bit red in the face. “There’s a lot to be—”

“Yes, yes,” Lev cuts him off with a wave. “I know. But the wedding is still far off and I would like some fresh air. As riveting as seating arrangements are,” he can’t quite conceal the sarcasm in his voice and the planner looks about ready to snap his pen in half. “I think we can save some for later.” 

The planner seems to want to argue, but Lev rises and several others shuffle to their feet, eager to follow suit. It’s an amusing sight and you hide a smile behind your palm, careful not to offend. As the planners and florists and coordinators file out, Lev comes to stand next to you. 

“Come,” he prompts, holding out his hand. “There is something I’d like to show you.” 

You blink, taking his hand. The rose garden had been an excellent sight, but you cannot remember any other oddities worth this level of excitement from your knowledge about the western fort. “What?” 

Lev’s grin widens into something delightfully true and honest. Maybe he’s just that excitable, or maybe he really has something incredible to show you. 

“It’s an early wedding gift,” he says cryptically, fingers squeezing yours as you give him your hand and allow him to lead you. “I think you’re gonna really like it.” 

 


 

The news of the royal engagement comes with the wings of a raven on a sunny afternoon. Oikawa holds the announcement tightly in his hand, the paper crumpling at the edges with his steel grip. It’s a strange thing, a sort of mish mash of different messages. It’s the first public word from a princess some assumed were dead, it’s a declaration of your intentions, a promise to whoever might be waiting for your return. A message of hope. 

If Oikawa didn’t hate it so much it made his skin feel too tight, too thinly spread across his bones, he might have been proud of you for it.

“I didn’t know her name was that long,” Semi muses with something like humor in the tones of his voice. And it’s true, your royal name is a list of surnames almost comically long, but then Oikawa has been around royals all of his life and the mouthful that is your name is the least of his worries. He exhales, cannot find any words that don’t sound bitter and resentful. Semi pats him on the back. “You good, buddy?”

No, Oikawa wants to say. He’s not good. Far from it. He feels like he’ll never be good again. The irony is so stupid, so palpable it makes his skin crawl.

“But is this a good idea,” Makoto murmurs, breaking Oikawa out of a thought pattern that can only spiral. “Doesn’t this basically just announce where she is to the south?”

“That’s the point,” Iwaizumi replies and Oikawa feels crowded. Kuroo, Semi, Makoto, Iwaizumi. They stand around him as if ready to catch him when he inevitably crumbles. Makoto with a soft hand on his arm, Iwaizumi with a reluctantly straight back. Kuroo grimaces as if he’s about to throw up and Semi seems not to want to remove his hand from Oikawa’s shoulder.

Iwaizumi is right, of course. Oikawa’s jaw tightens. 

“It’s a challenge,” he elaborates, hoping his voice is less croaky than it sounds in his head. “The western fort is one of the safest places in the world. Not only because of the walls or the soldiers, but the climate. Most southerners haven’t ever even seen snow, they wouldn’t know how to fight there.”

Makoto hums, seemingly impressed. Oikawa has to admit it’s a ballsy move, but not one that surprises him. In one fell swoop you’ve declared your intentions to take back the capitol, riling up the masses of people still in support of you, still opposing the south from the safety of their homes. You’ve strengthened the bonds between the west and the capitol by publicly declaring a union, you’ve taken the pressure out from the east as the southerners remaining will retreat to plot a way into the western fort.

You’ve shown a middle finger to both Oikawa and Iwaizumi, telling them both that not only do you not need them, you do not want them. Oikawa never really thought he’d find common ground with Iwaizumi in anything after the coup, least of all in Iwaizumi’s pathetic pining. Oh, how the tables have turned.

“Maybe,” Makoto murmurs, pressing fingers into the skin of his arm. Not for the first time he curses her intuition, her uncanny ability to always know what he’s feeling. Oikawa doesn’t want comfort or soft words, he wants to lie down in a bed that still vaguely smells like you and hate himself until he falls asleep. “You should go.”

Oikawa scoffs. 

“If I was wanted in the west I would have been there already,” and he cannot say it without bitterness coating the inside of his mouth. Maybe it sounds too needy, too obvious, but at this point the sympathetic glances are too much, too intrusive and Oikawa doesn’t have the will nor the energy to hide his wounded pride anymore. What does it matter? It’s all over now anyways.

“Don’t be petulant, Tooru, it doesn’t suit you.”

Oikawa’s jaw twitches with the urge to spit out an insult. A few months ago he would have. He would have yelled and screamed and thrown objects. He’s been tempered, he thinks, tamed. He feels your influence even as his heart breaks all over again like a handprint on his chest. 

Makoto speaks again, clearing her throat and rubbing at his arm as if to soothe. “If you don’t want to go then don’t. But they have requested representatives from the east for the wedding. And I think you should go.”

There is a suggestion that hangs in the air. Something preposterous and treasonous and absolutely insane. Makoto wants him to declare his feelings, to make an attempt at stopping you from going through with the marriage. It’s not the first time she implies or outright states as much; Makoto has made it abundantly clear what she thinks of this sacrifice you’re making. 

Oikawa swallows. In his mind he can see your face, can hear you whispering his name.

 


 

To your surprise, Lev takes you out of the castle grounds. Beyond the fortified gates and further into the western landscape, the two of you ride on strong western horses for what feels like at least two hours. The weather is good; the sun shining brilliantly and the sky blue and clear, but it is cold. The further west you travel the colder it gets and you’re grateful for Lev’s insistence upon mittens and scarves. Winter bites at your nose, pinches at your cheeks, but you feel light.

You would never tell Lev, but castles have started feeling claustrophobic and you have longed for a getaway since the day you arrived. 

After some time you arrive at some old ruins; ancient western architecture. There are crumbled walls and and half-torn down towers, a staircase that seems to lead into the ground itself. Even as it is almost completely hidden beneath a thick layer of snow, it looks grand, almost, in the way that historic places feel. The knowledge that something was here once, that something happened, feels significant. 

But you’re not entirely sure why Lev had wanted to bring you here. 

He must see the confusion on your face because as he steps to your horse and holds out a hand to help you down, he grins. “I remember you were really into that old story, right? The King and Lionheart?”

You blink, taking his hand and letting him guide you down. His hand pauses on your hip even after you’re safely on ground and he looks at you, tilts his head as if in thought. It’s the closest the two of you have been since your arrival and you feel nothing at all. Nothing like the whirlwind of conflicting emotion every time Oikawa was near enough that you could see the speck of color in his eyes, nothing like the wildfire across your skin when he touched you a little too intimate for friends. 

You wish you did. It would be so much easier to just love Lev. 

“I, uh,” you mutter, clearing your throat. Lev let’s his hands drop, regards you with an unassuming smile. “Yeah. I’m surprised you remember. You gave me that book as well, when Akaashi came to the east.” 

Lev laughs pleasantly and offers his arm. You take it, let him lead the way to whatever it is he specifically has in mind to show you. “I don’t think I could forget it even if I tried,” he admits, nudging you playfully in the side. A thornless jab at your insistence of making the knights play out your childish fantasies, no doubt. You feel your face heat up and you groan with embarrassment. 

“Why do you ask?” You decide to ask in favor of begging the ground to swallow you whole. Lev leads you to the staircase descending into the ground and you see that there’s actually a hatch there. There must have been a castle here once, you think. One of those small ones royalty used to use for vacationing back before the Great War.

“Well,” he muses, letting go of your arm. “Did you know that it’s actually based on a true story?”

You blink, taking in what he’s telling you. Your first instinct is to accuse him of trying to fool you, because how can a story so fantastical have any roots in reality? How can a children’s tale from the capitol be true, and how could that have anything to do with the ruins surrounding you? But then, if there’s anything you’ve learned since the fall of the capitol, it is that the world is filled with unexplainable, fantastical things. Like a princess wielding a blade and rescuing a knight. Like forging friendships and alliances with people made to be your enemies. Like falling in love.

Like a shield made out of pure light, like fingers warm with the power to heal. 

Lev must see the skepticism on your face, because his grin only widens. Like he’s about to show you something incredible, something that is bound to change your mind. He jerks his head down in the direction of the hatch, motions for you to follow him. From the inside of his cape he produces an old, large key that he uses to unlock the hatch. It does so with a loud click, the wood and metal groaning as Lev pulls it open. 

You stand behind him, peering into the room with what you hope looks less like wide eyed anticipation and more like subdued interest. It’s dark, impossible to see anything down the stairs past the first three steps. Lev pulls out a tinderbox with flint and steel and makes quick work out of lighting a nearby torch on fire. He uses the torch to light the one one the opposite side of the staircase and hands it to you. 

And down you go. The way down is damp, slippery and smells like moss and wet stone. You hear the dripping of water, the echoes of your steps, the sizzling of fire. 

“What is this place?” You ask, curiosity bubbling out of your mouth. 

“My dad said it was a hiding place,” Lev replies easily, an arm looping around yours when you almost trip over your feet. He murmurs a low ‘be careful’, but is otherwise undistracted as the two of you walk down. “According to legend Lionheart lived here after the coronation of the King.” 

And that makes sense, you think, despite your efforts not to believe his words with no proof. Your books always talked about how Lionheart was a free spirit, not to be shackled down by royal duty. You always thought the ending was a bit strange, that despite his affection for the King, Lionheart would not have wanted to stay at court.

“The King would sneak away to see him as often as possible,” he continues as finally you reach the end of the staircase and you’re led into a large, open room. Lev walks around deftly in the dark as if he’s been here a hundred times before, lighting torches along the walls and revealing the room bit by bit. “So it was their own little sanctuary, of sorts.”

It’s like a study, you realize. Bookcases filled to the brim lining two of the walls and ancient memorabilia hanging over a large fireplace. It looks untouched, almost, as if no one has been in here for hundreds of years, as if time does not exist here. There’s a red carpet across the floor, a large, wooden desk, a ratty old couch. But most remarkably;

In the middle of the room there’s an intricate glass case on top of a small metal table. You walk over on uncertain feet and you see that inside there is a sword. Just barely you can make out an intricate design, a phrase or something written in an ancient language. You remember your favorite story about the King and Lionheart, when the King was finally learning how to fight on his own. He had melted down his illuminated crown, the metal used to craft a magical sword that yielded only to him and his kin. 

This is it. Suddenly all doubt in your mind evaporates, replaced with a sort of overwhelming wonder as you lean down to stare at a relic of your childhood fantasies. 

“This is...” you start, but words get caught in your throat. Lev moves to stand beside you, his arm against yours. You barely even notice his presence, too preoccupied with the sword in front of you. 

“Yeah,” Lev says. Then he laughs, a quiet, almost embarrassed sound. “I used to play with it when I was a kid,” he admits. He puts his hands on the sides of the case, lifts up the glass to reveal the weapon in all of its glory. Putting the glass on the nearby desk, he reaches for the sword, picks it up with ease. As if it’s not an incredible, invaluable object. As if it isn’t sacrilege just to stare at it. Your breath catches. 

“It’s super light,” he remarks, swinging the sword around as if to demonstrate. “Like a feather. Do you wanna hold it?” 

It’s like he’s asked you if you want to hold his first born. Your shoulders tense, heart caught in your throat as you stare at the sword. “I— can I?” It feels wrong, but your fingers itch. Just touching it, just holding it for a moment, that can’t be too bad, right? 

Lev nods with a grin, twists the weapon to hand you the sword properly, pointing the hilt towards you. You pretend your hand isn’t shaking as you reach for it. 

The reaction is instantaneous. As soon as your skin comes into contact with the fabled sword, the letters engraved into the blade light up in a flash, the metal emitting and impossible heat. You gasp and Lev takes a step back, wide-eyed. Distantly you hear him curse, but it’s hard to hear anything over the loud heartbeat echoing in your ears. The rest of the blade lights up, glows like the sun itself.

“Holy—” Lev gasps. “It never did that when I touched it.”

And at once you feel incredibly powerful, as if the very force that runs through the metal of the magical sword courses through your veins. Like you’ve been reinvigorated, like you’ve slept for twenty years and have just woken up with all the pent up energy in the world. You feel so strong, so powerful you want to cry.

You think about your childhood fantasies, how you always pretended to be the King and made Iwaizumi be your Lionheart. How you dreamed of being whisked away on epic adventures. How you’d felt like the useless child King being rescued by the brave hero Oikawa when the castle came crashing down. 

Maybe you’ve had it wrong this whole time.

Maybe you’re not the King. Maybe you’re Lionheart instead. You turn the sword around in your hand, watching with breath held as it flickers and glows. 

Princesses aren’t Kings, Oikawa had said, ages ago.

But maybe you can be the hero. 

Chapter Text

Eighteen

Over the next few days, your head is filled with so much information it feels like it might burst. Lev insists that you take the fabled king’s sword back from the ruins with you, and you gather the courage to ask to bring a selection of the books from Lionheart’s study as well. You bury yourself in the literature, so consumed by this new knowledge you barely even remember to go to sleep. 

Hinata has visited several times, at first prompting you to get some fresh air, some snacks, some socializing. He’d given up after a while but he still came by to sit with you and ask questions sometimes. You want to ask him how he’s reconnecting with Yachi, but somehow you always seem to forget when he’s actually there. Lev comes by with fruits and tea and the idea of a king catering to anyone at all is so unheard of it would’ve made you laugh had you not been too preoccupied with reading old diaries and tomes about forgotten arts. 

Words are magic, you’ve learned. According to Lionheart’s notes and the literature he possessed you could do anything with the right words. Like creating fire out of thin air, like healing broken bones. Like creating shimmering, illuminated shields to save others from harm. Words and intentions. Those were the pillars of magic. 

In the very beginnings of the world, Magic was a common thing; an innate ability to create possessed by everyone. Everyone spoke the same language, knew the same words, believed in the same gods. They used magic to cultivate fields, to quickly finish laboring tasks, to save lives. 

But as time and generations passed, Magic became rarer and rarer. Not because the ability to use it disappeared, but because language, culture and norms were changing, and with it, Magic started to phase out of culture. Some places more than others. You suspect that politics played a part, considering the rumors that magic flowed freely in the south, that there were shamans and soothsayers around every corner, while in the capitol magic was nothing but a children’s story or a cautionary tale.

To use magic, one has to train hard: it’s not so simple to control the currents of creation sizzling in your bones, especially, you suspect, not for a people who for the most part does not believe in it anymore. And sure, you can wield this pretty sword, but you don’t know what to do with it. It glows obediently every time you pick it up, but you suspect there must be more to it than that. There’s this strange fizzle at your fingertips, this itch in your throat whenever you touch it and you have the distinct feeling that there’s more

And so you read on. Until the early hours of the morning, until your eyes can’t focus on ink and paper anymore. And then you read a little bit more. 

According to The Basis of Magic, an impossibly thick tome with language so complicated you can barely even decipher it, magic comes from the Ancient People and their language, and a person's ability coincides directly with their knowledge of the original language; the Old Tongue. They used certain words as triggers for certain spells and poured their knowledge into powerful instruments to use at their disposal. 

Novice magic users would yell the words to activate the spell, putting their soul and their vocal chords both to use in summoning lightning from the sky or fire at their fingertips. The more skilled warlocks didn’t even have to utter anything, their intent and willpower enough to set a forest ablaze. At the back of the book you find a nifty little list of old words and a summary of how they were used, but saying them yields no result. No matter how loud you yell them or how low you whisper, there are no sparks at your fingers, no fire in your palm. 

There has to be intent, the book tells you, but you don’t know what that means . You take a long sip of the by now cold tea Lev has left for you on the desk, massaging your temples with tired fingers. 

You’re going to find out. 

 


 

Yachi finds the western prince pacing outside your door. She hasn’t really spoken to him since her arrival, but she’s heard him more than enough to know that the tentative body language and the contemplative look on his face is out of character. After all, Yachi has spent the last couple of years learning how to read faces and gestures, has studied the silent language of touches and unsaid things enough to know what hesitation looks like. 

When she was younger, Yachi idealized the royal family. Unlike most of her southern peers she found the idea of money and riches and pretty dresses romantic, alluring. She wondered what it must be like to never want for anything. As soon as she had arrived at the capitol she’d realized how mistaken she’d been in that assessment of royalty. There was nothing romantic in the way the queen always seemed to linger one step behind her husband, nothing alluring in the way you seemed more like a caged bird than anything else. It’s not entirely the same, now, because Lev Haiba was so kind, so decent it practically shone through his skin. 

But cages were still cages, Yachi thought, even when they were beautiful rings made out of pure white gold and brilliant blue stones. 

She better turn, Yachi thinks, before the western royal notices her staring. She has the distinct feeling he’d try to talk to her if he did and she’s not sure her corrupted soul could handle his presence for prolonged periods of time. So she turns, and the prince’s voice cuts through the silence like a knife. 

“Oh,” he exclaims, and Yachi freezes. “You caught me, huh?” He sounds embarrassed, as if she’d caught him doing something unsavory, and when Yachi turns there’s a bashful sort of grin on his face. Yachi wonders if the western royal knows how not to smile. 

“Not at all,” Yachi inclines her head awkwardly. There are a lot of different kinds of men she’s learnt how to deal with. Nice ones aren’t near the top of that list at all. “I’m sure if not you it would have been Hinata standing there.” 

And it’s true. You’ve been hiding away with your magical sword and your heavy books for days, barely peeking outside of your room at all since you first discovered it. Yachi can’t blame you. In the south magic is a known thing, even if it’s still a secret. Hinata’s own mother has some talent in restorative magic, and there was this shaman who came by the village in the summers to show off his magic tricks. Even in the west, to Yachi’s knowledge, they at least recognize the truth of its existence, even if they don’t practice the art anymore. But the capitol has spent decades weeding out the magic of the bloodlines and Yachi is sure you grew up hearing stories about how magic is an evil practiced only by the enemy. 

How funny, really, that you yourself would have some latent proficiency in the old art. Yachi wonders what the king would have thought about that. 

Lev seems to consider what to say, his brows furrowing and his mouth a thin line. Yachi feels like she might catch on fire if she stays in proximity for too long, her legs itching to take her back to Hinata and Kageyama’s chambers. 

“Maybe you can talk to her?” Seems to be the idea that the western prince settles on and Yachi exhales through her nose. Her first instinct is to politely decline and her second is to just turn away and run in the opposite direction. “I’m sorry,” Lev elaborates. Yachi tries to remember the last time someone apologized to her for anything. “I’m sure you don’t wanna get involved but I don’t think—” he grimaces as if admitting some sort of grave shortcoming. “I don’t think I’m really someone she wants to talk to right now.” 

And Yachi can’t remember a king who cared about what someone else really wanted. Maybe that is why instead of following her instincts, Yachi heaves a deep sigh and pinches the bridge of her nose, ignoring the sort of pleased jolt in her stomach at the way the pale prince’s face lights up at her defeat.

“It’s going to cost you,” she says, only half a joke. Lev touches her shoulder and she jumps, despite herself.

“Thank you,” he mutters and he sounds so happy, so genuine that Yachi might take it as all the payment she needs. 

God, she has gotten soft, hasn’t she?

 


 

It takes a solid two minutes before you notice that Yachi has entered the room. She watches as you read through an impossibly thick book with a ratty, old cover, your brows furrowed and your bottom lip caged behind a row of teeth. Yachi clears her throat and you jump in your chair, eyes widening as your head jerks in her direction. You look like you haven’t slept properly in weeks and it strikes Yachi that the fascination about magic might not be the primary reason you’re cooped up like this. 

If there’s one thing Yachi has learned as a prostitute in the capitol it is that people, for the most part, don’t really just want sex. Even the more vulgar men, even the women with their secretive desires, they come to Yachi to be seen. To be heard. For the isolated time they spend within her chambers and within her embrace, they feel like someone’s truly seeing them for who they are. It’s hard work, it’s thankless work, but Yachi has become quite the master at understanding human desire even beyond the sexual. 

For all the parading and the concealment you’ve been practicing while Yachi has seen you, you’re almost embarrassingly easy to read. Yachi never had any ambition or desire to become a therapist. Even less so after she came face to face with the cruelty of man and realities of life. She would have been more than happy just minding her own business and taking care of her own. But compassion is a compulsion and Yachi has found that indulging in it has been the most effective way to dull the ache.

“Your grace,” she mutters, stopping just a few feet away from your hunched over form on the desk. You must notice the uncharacteristic softness in her voice because you blink, looking up at her with something like confusion in your eyes. “You look tired. Maybe you should take a break.”

“Did Hinata send you to check on me?”

Yachi grimaces. No real point in lying, she thinks. “The prince.”

You make an ‘ah’ sound and lean back in your chair, exhaling as if the mere action of moving makes your bones hurt. Maybe it does. For all the plush softness and beautiful furniture littering the western fort, the chair does not look all that comfortable for extended amounts of times.

“I thought I heard him outside earlier,” there’s something like a hollow laugh playing with the edges of your voice, some lazy attempt at masking the hint of a yawn as you speak. “You can tell him not to worry.” Yachi sighs. The soldiers she used to get visiting her from the castle had always been much the same; always hiding behind pleasantries and polite platitudes. You had to dig a bit deeper to get them to open up. Not much, though, because they were always tearing at the seams, always one sigh away from a mental breakdown, but enough to make them think speaking was for Yachi’s benefit rather than their own.

“Can I?” Yachi probes, taking a seat on your bed. She watches as you twist your body around to face her, your face falling slightly. Yachi wonders if people at the castle ever asked beyond niceties. If her own limited experience was any indicator, probably not. 

“Princess,” Yachi pauses, wonders about how to approach. At first she’d assumed you were pining over the knight, wrestling with the realization of his involvement in your father’s demise. The latter, for sure, but the former, not so much. Hinata had told Yachi about some brunet knight who had whisked you away from the castle during the coup and even Kageyama was convinced there was something going on between you and him.

If Kageyama had noticed it must have been pretty darn obvious. Yachi had thought she’d be happy to know that you had no real interest in Iwaizumi, but the hollow feeling in her chest never subsided and Yachi figures that maybe she’ll just have to live with it.

“I don’t have any opinion of you, so whatever’s on your mind can’t change it.”

Maybe it was her lack of tact that got Yachi kicked out of the castle, she thinks, grimacing at the harshness of her own words. For a moment you just stare at her, wide eyed, and Yachi thinks maybe you’ll just kick her out. Have her removed from the western fort, leave her to fend for herself beyond the gates. But then you lean your head back and you laugh, a loud sort of explosive sound that catches Yachi so by surprise that she clutches at the blankets on your bed, her chest tightening.

“I guess that’s true,” you murmur, closing the book on your desk and leaning against the backrest of the chair. “Is it that obvious?”

Yachi shrugs. “I’m good at reading people. Occupational hazard.”

“Makes sense.”

You’re stalling. Yachi crosses her legs, leans back on her palms and regards you carefully. Just a gentle nudge, then. 

“Hinata mentioned a guy, Oikawa? Is that what’s got you so messed up?”

The reaction is instantaneous, the name making you cringe and divert your gaze. It hits a nerve, and Yachi can’t help but wonder how it must be, being engaged to someone you’re not in love with. She wonders if it feels anything like sleeping with men for money. 

“No,” you admit after a moment of silence. You chew on your lip, considering Yachi as if gauging her trustworthiness. “You were at the castle before my mom died, do you remember her at all?” The question catches Yachi off guard, it’s not at all where she expected the conversation to go. It’s true, of course, Yachi did see the queen before she passed. She was a shell of a woman already then, plagued by an illness no one quite could figure out. Yachi had heard she passed away just a few months after Yachi herself got kicked out. 

“Yes. Why?”

“Well,” your fingers tangle into the soft, silver fabric of your dress and you inhale. Exhale. “Can I tell you a secret?” Yachi nods, though she feels, suddenly, like maybe she’s bitten off more than she can chew. Pining over men you have no hope being with she can understand. Royal secrets might be a bit over her paygrade. “I think— well. I have been remembering her lately. In my mind she was always this bright, smiling figure. Full of warmth. But then…”

There were rumors about the king’s bad temper at court. It was something murmured in low voices and spoken of only in places royalty never wandered, but Yachi heard all about it. It wasn’t something she ever doubted, it didn’t really strike her as an impossibility with how the south had been treated over the years. The king seemed a pleasant man whenever Yachi saw him at court or dinners, when you were present. He had a reputation as a doting father, a man who spoiled his princess rotten with one hand and ordered the execution of prisoners of war with the other.

It is obvious, then, the thoughts you’d been struggling with since arriving in the west. At once, Yachi feels nauseous. What a terrible thing, to have your foundation crumble so thoroughly. 

“I suddenly remembered this one time my mom came into my room when I was a kid. She had this dark, purple mark on her face and she looked like she’d been crying. She didn’t know that I was awake so I just closed my eyes and let her embrace me. She was shaking.”

There’s a sort of empty, hollow look on your face. As you talk about this darkness, this filthy secret you’ve been keeping even for yourself your eyes grow wider and wider and Yachi feels her throat close up.

“I didn’t really understand it at the time, I thought she was just sad,” you confess, shame lining the tone of your voice. As if the intricacies of adult life was something you were supposed to understand back then. “But I think she was scared of him. Of my dad.” 

“Is that your secret? That’s nothing, you were a child,” Yachi tries, finding her own voice lacking. It’s too much, too heavy. Yachi had always sort of assumed that you knew, that you were just turning a blind eye to it because that was a privilege royalty had. 

“No.”

 You pause, mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. “I haven’t seen anyone grieve him. Not a single person. And it made me think… he was really bad, wasn’t he?” 

Ah, so that’s what it is. It makes sense, Yachi thinks, and you had to realize at some point that although a violent coup is a step too far, there were reasons your father was a target in the first place. Reasons beyond the power he wielded. “Yeah.” 

“Yeah,” you sigh, and you blink a few times as if you want to cry. How could you not? It strikes Yachi that despite her initial dislike of you and her current neutrality, you might have deserved more credit. “I realized that while I was in the East. And I still loved him. I still miss him. Maybe he deserved to die, maybe it was for the best, but he was everything to me. Doesn’t that make me a terrible person?”

And Yachi understands. More than ever she feels for you, empathizes with you. Because she, too, loves a terrible person. She feels the ache dull and the feeling subside and when she rises up to walk over and wrestle your hand out of the steel grip it has on the front of your dress and clasp it between her own… 

Yachi breathes like it’s for the first time.

 


 

When you wake up it is with Yachi’s arm hanging loosely over your waist and only then does it dawn on you that you’d fallen asleep crying against the almost-stranger. God, you feel bad. Between the two of you your troubles must seem like nothing at all, and you haven’t once even asked Yachi if she has anything troubling on her mind. You will have to remedy that, you tell yourself, carefully extracting yourself from under her arm not to wake her up. She probably needs the rest too, you think, having spent the time in the west cooped up with two southern boys.

The blonde southerner looks peaceful in her sleep. She curls up on her side, hugging the blankets close to her body to compensate for the sudden loss of human contact. You’ll let her sleep for a while longer, you decide, tip toeing over to your desk and your abandoned studies. 

You feel lighter, somehow, despite the clump of pain in the pit of your stomach. So, your father really was an awful person. You had suspected as much when you had seen how easily everyone moved on after his death in the east. Of course you never expected anyone to grieve like you did, but as far as you knew the east was on good terms with the capitol. There should have been some recognition, some sorrow. But no. 

It feels like you’ve been a child all of your life, like you woke up this morning drenched in adulthood. You wonder why no one told you. In retrospect you think Makoto might have wanted to; there are conversations and words you didn’t think about at the time that feel different now somehow. Oikawa’s hatred certainly makes more sense. Even, somehow, Iwaizumi’s actions. And that’s what messes with you the most. You don’t want to understand. You want to be back in your bedroom, back at court, back to a time before you knew the truth about your family. 

You wonder if he loved you, or if you’re wrong to even think about that at all.

You inhale. Breathe, you tell yourself. You’re learning how to breathe. And so you push the thoughts about your father out of your mind and open The Basis of Magic once more.

Everyone has the potential for magic because it feeds off of natural energy present in every living being on earth. What made warlocks so much more powerful than others back when magic flowed freely was their innate ability to channel that energy. Others had to compensate. To be willing to expend more to achieve what they wished to do. Intent . Magic didn’t come for free. If handled wrongly it could take too much of your energy and give you all kinds of physical side effects. Headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, nose bleeds. Coma. Death. It was something to handle with care, to use with purpose. 

So what is your purpose, then? In truth you don’t know. You wanted to take back the kingdom from the southern conqueror, but you’re not even sure if you have that right anymore. Would anyone want you to? Maybe the southern king just did what everyone already wanted to. No wonder you hadn’t been able to do anything with such a shaky conviction.

From your bed Yachi makes a tired sound and you’re thankful for the distraction. You slap yourself lightly in the face with both palms against your cheeks. It’s no use wallowing in self-pity anymore. You’ve come way to hold yourself back now. If avenging your father and your family’s pride can’t be your purpose, you will just need to find another one. You twist your head to the side to look at the magical sword leaning against your bed. There’s a reason it reacts to your touch. You just know it. Conviction. Intent. You feel a sort of exciting buzz at your fingertips. And then—

The jolt of electricity makes your nails ache, a sort of pleasant pain coursing from the tips of your fingers and along your veins, shooting down your arm and you jolt in your chair. For a moment you think you’ve imagined it but then it happens again. Yellow, sharp light bounces between your fingers and you jump to your feet, the chair scraping against the floor before falling with a loud crash. Behind you you hear Yachi gasp, the woman probably woken up by the sound.

“I—” you stutter, twisting to look at Yachi, her stunned expression mirroring your own. You feel like you’re on fire, pure energy sizzling through your entire body. The ball of lightning spins peacefully in your palm, the manifestation of pure power seemingly finding a stable, comfortable spot there. What a sight. It’s like you’ve pulled lightning right out of the sky and captured it in the palm of your hand. “I did it.”

Yachi breathes out a laugh. A nervous laugh, a terrified laugh, an excited laugh. You look at her and she echoes all your emotions, looks at you as if seeing you clearly for the first time. It feels special. You might not know Yachi all too well, but you’re glad she’s the one who’s here to witness this strange, powerful moment. You’re glad you told her about your troubles. You’ve never had many friends, but it’s starting to feel like she might become one of them. You hope so. You look at Yachi and you grin. She grins back.

“You sure did.”

Chapter Text

Nineteen

You’ve just spent three hours outside in the snow, training against one of the dummies in the courtyard, when you come across a red-faced Hinata and a slightly droopy-looking Kageyama. You’d heard their murmurs down the halls and curiosity had made you follow the sound to find the two southern men just outside the door to their room with a bottle in each hand. 

“What the—” you blink, looking at the pair of them as they jump, both of them quickly hiding their hands behind their backs as if you hadn’t already seen what they were carrying. You can’t quite decide if you’re horrified or impressed with their gall and your voice is a low whisper when you duck your head towards them and hiss, “are you guys stealing alcohol ?!”

Hinata snickers, and to your surprise even Kageyama grins, stars in both of their eyes as the bottles clink against each other behind their backs. 

“The west is known for their spirits,” Hinata says as if that’s anything like an excuse or explanation. And it’s true that aside from their beautiful roses, one of the main imports from the west has always been their alcohol. A clear liquid of something called vodka known for its strong smell and even stronger effect. “We’re playing a southern drinking game,” he elaborates, bringing the bottles back in front of his face, giggling them in front of you. “Wanna join?” 

“Aha!” Another voice comes triumphantly from down the hall, and when you turn you see Lev sauntering towards you with a finger pointed right at the two men in front of you, both of whom go pale. Their smiles drop and Kageyama grimaces. “I heard some rumors about some guests poking around the cabinets!” 

Lev, of course, does not look the least bit angry. In fact, he looks intrigued, stopping right behind you and knocking his shoulder against yours playfully. “Didn’t expect my fiancé was in on it, too, though.” 

“Hey, I just stumbled upon them, too,” you defend, hands held up in surrender. Lev grins down at you with pearly whites on full display. Again you’re struck by how grown up he has become; all broad shoulders and long legs and beautiful jewelry. A silver crown on his head and colorful rings on his fingers. And again you’re struck by the fact that you feel nothing romantic when you look at him. 

Lev looks like he wants to say something and the southern boys look like they want to flee as fast as possible, but then the door flies open and out peeks Yachi’s red face. 

“Hey, idiots,” she hisses, her eyes so firmly focused on her friends you don’t think she’s even noticed you or Lev. “What the hell are you standing around here for? Get back—” you clear your throat and Yachi whips her head around, wide eyed. She stares at you, then at the guilty expressions on her friends’ faces, then at Lev. “Oh.”

“Oh,” you echo teasingly, watching as the embarrassment creeps up her face. All three southerners suddenly look very guilty and very caught, and it takes an incredible amount of self control not to bust out laughing. It feels so normal it’s almost entirely bizarre. Like you are just friends who got caught sneaking alcohol into your rooms. Like you’re not princes and princesses and natural enemies but just normal people. 

“I heard something about a southern drinking game,” Lev leans over to look Yachi directly in the face and it strikes you as weird. His mouth curls into something softer than his usual grins and his gaze seems to linger. Strange. “Mind if I join?” 

And that’s how you get roped into a drinking game with two southern warriors, a western prince and a prostitute of the capitol. 

Which kind of sounds like the beginning of a joke, now that you think about it. 

 


 

Iwaizumi finds Oikawa sitting by the kitchen table of Makoto’s cabin with a curled up piece of paper in front of him on the table. The brunet’s brows are furrowed and his mouth is curled into a thin lipped frown. A common way to find him these days, if Iwaizumi didn’t think it would get him in trouble he would’ve made a joke. Hey, if you frown too much your face will get stuck that way . Maybe it already has. It’s hard not to sympathize with him despite the inherent competitive pang in his chest. When Iwaizumi thought as a teen that he wished Oikawa would understand how he felt, he didn’t mean it so literally. 

He wonders if Yachi did as he asked her, if she’s in the west now with you. He wonders if you read his letter or if you threw it away. He wonders if it would change anything one way or another. Probably not. The western soldiers stationed in the east haven’t detained or killed him yet, at least he supposes he can take that as a win.

Oikawa might not want to admit it, but he wants to go to the west. There is no doubt in Iwaizumi’s mind that he would have followed you to the highest mountains in the north had you asked him to, and frankly that thought is a bit scary. Oikawa has always been a creature priding himself on his selfishness. He acted in the best interests of himself and his loved ones only, even at the castle. To see him pining like a little puppy makes it all the more obvious to Iwaizumi that whatever feelings the brunet has for you they’re stronger than he wants to admit out loud. That and the fact that this is the third time in as many days Iwaizumi has stumbled upon his friend staring holes into the wedding announcement let’s Iwaizumi make a pretty confident guess that had Oikawa just followed his instincts he would have been halfway to the western fort by now. 

It’s a bit unsettling to see him so pensive and hesitant. Oikawa is a hard worker and he knows it. He’s always had the philosophy to chase the things he wants without shame or hesitation. He’s always been nothing if not confident. It dawns on Iwaizumi that--

“Are you scared?”

Oikawa jumps as if just noticing Iwaizumi’s presence, his frown deepening as he straightens up in the chair. He can’t quite seem to make eye contact, his gaze instinctively pulled towards the crumpled ball of paper on the table.

“Of what?” He snaps, and the tone of his voice is so transparent it makes Iwaizumi want to laugh. Oikawa had a reputation at court, Iwaizumi remembers. He was perceived as a flirt, as a player. He played the game well, smiling and charming anyone he came in contact with only to insult them behind their back. There were rumors too, whispers about how he’d sleep with married women and men for money. One time Iwaizumi even heard a maid tell a steward that the brunet knight was a concubine to the king. 

None of it was true of course. A mixture of the image Oikawa had wanted to exude and the stereotypes of easterners. He wore them like a badge of honor, relished in the attention. But Iwaizumi never heard him talk about anyone. He never participated in the conversations about whatever pretty ladies resided at the castle at any given moment. Truthfully Iwaizumi had kind of thought Oikawa didn’t have the emotional range to fall in love. Clearly he’d been wrong in that. 

Iwaizumi shrugs. “I just thought you’d jump at the opportunity to go to the west.” If he’s being honest, he had been hoping for it. Oikawa going to the west, no matter what for, was the best shot he had at seeing you again. Oikawa stares at him and Iwaizumi has the distinct feeling that the brunet is biting his tongue, choking on something either too honest or too hurtful for him to say out loud. 

“Why?” He asks instead, leaning back in the chair in a blatantly fake show of relaxation. He tries to look casual, unbothered, but his shoulders are too stiff, his mouth too narrow for it to look real. “If she wants to marry Lev then who am I to judge? Let Makoto and Kuroo go.” He crosses his arms. “Whatever.” 

Iwaizumi resists the urge to roll his eyes, but only barely. 

“You’re right,” he replies, shrugging. The thing about Oikawa is that you can never tell him what to do. He’s so ridiculously stubborn that any attempt to gently persuade or politely convince will be answered with stone hard resistance. No, instead what you have to do is just a simple trick of reverse psychology. “Lev is a much better fit anyways.”

“They’d have pretty kids,” Iwaizumi relishes in the absolute look of horror in Oikawa’s face. Maybe it’s cruel to be so happy about his friend’s suffering. But then again Oikawa is lusting over the love of his life and Iwaizumi supposes it’s better to just feel a little vindictive rather than punching him in the face again. “nothing like your unfortunate face.” 

“And hey, lots of pretty eastern girls here. Wouldn’t it just be better for you to settle down here with some nice farmer’s daughter or something?”

Oikawa shoots up from the chair, his face pale and curled into a grimace as if the very notion makes him nauseous. And it’s kind of funny, Iwaizumi thinks, that despite the wedge between them and the passage of time, Iwaizumi knows he can count on Oikawa’s childishness. The brunet stomps past the kitchen table, grabs the crumpled up piece of paper and crushes it in his fist. Their shoulders knock together when Oikawa passes Iwaizumi and Iwaizumi wonders why in the world he’s helping his competition get the girl he himself wants. 

He’s sure he’s going to regret it sooner rather than later, but in that moment, with Oikawa angry and impassioned and red in the face, Iwaizumi thinks it might be worth it. Oikawa marches over to the door, flinging it open and twisting his head to look at Iwaizumi. The eastern sun shines on his face and he looks, for a moment, like the boy Iwaizumi once knew. 

“We’re going to the west.”

And well, if Iwaizumi’s intentions are less to help his friend and more to see his princess again, that’s just for him to know.

 


 

If there’s a place in the castle Kenma never imagined he’d ever sit, it’s behind the king’s desk. The desk is made out of wood from the oldest tree in the kingdom, a monster of an oak in the back garden. It’s sturdy, it’s decorative, it’s a thing of beauty. He remembers when he was a child and the king used to sit there, Kenma’s father standing behind him while the king wrote decrees and letters. The chair’s pillows looked so soft, a deep purple fabric with golden patterns, the chair’s wood from the same big oak. Even the paper looks luxurious, golden trimmings on the edges and the royal seal at the bottom. There would be no mistaking where a letter written on paper like that comes from, and Kenma supposes that’s kind of the point. 

It’s uncomfortable. Not the chair, the chair is wonderful, perfectly soft and firm and backrest at an angle that forces him into a good posture without straining his back. But the thought of it. The knowledge that he’s sitting in a spot he wasn’t meant to send shivers down his spine. 

The southern warrior who brought Kenma out of his cell stands near the opening in the wall where a door used to be next to a near identical looking man, both of them looking bored more than anything. What a privilege, he thinks, to be afforded boredom in a time like this. Kenma has the distinct feeling that the southerners in the castle feel unstoppable, like they have breached the final frontier and are standing alone on the top. He can’t really blame them, because what else is there, really? What is left? 

A single, solitary princess with no political experience, no combat training, no army to fight for her. For all intents and purposes, it sounds less than threatening. And yet, despite the odds and the statistics — and he normally finds comfort in odds and statistics, the predictability soothes him — Kenma finds himself believing in you. There’s this rumbling feeling in his chest that feels dangerously like hope, the sensation growing and expanding with every step he takes in this torn down castle he used to think of as his home. Not even Takumi standing behind him, a large hand on Kenma’s shoulder, fingertips digging into the fabric of his shirt, is enough to dissuade him. Maybe he really has gone insane.

Takumi hums, a low, smooth sound. He looks around the room as if it’s the first time he sees it, eyes skimming over ruined drapery and half destroyed furniture. On the left wall there are two portraits, one of the first queen and one of her, the king and the princess. They used to be in the main hall, Kenma remembers, but they were taken down when the king took a new wife. It would’ve been disrespectful, his father had said when Kenma asked why. A ghost hanging over the new queen’s shoulder at any given moment. Kenma remembers thinking that ghosts lived in hearts, not in paintings. But he never said that. 

He always wondered, though, what happened to the paintings.

“Did you know,” Takumi’s voice comes from behind him. “My mother was her personal maid.” Kenma turns his head to look at the southerner. Takumi stares at the first queen with contempt, as if the queen herself was the cause of all of Takumi’s mother’s sorrows.

“There were rumors,” Kenma mutters, reluctant to engage the southern king in conversation, least of all about the sordid gossip about his mother. The pen in his hand feels like an anchor, cold steel against his palm keeping him tethered. Takumi scoffs, a mutter of ‘I bet’ low in Kenma’s ear. 

“She got sick not long after my mother was exiled, right?” Takumi let’s go of Kenma’s shoulder in favor of sauntering over to the paintings. He tugs on his braid absentmindedly, cocks his head to the side. The queen’s unexplainable illness was a well known thing. The king had spared no expense, importing doctors from all over the kingdom and promising large amounts of money to anyone who could find a cure. 

Obviously, that didn’t work out. Slowly she got worse, weaker, bleaker. Not a single doctor could figure it out. Kenma even heard the king brought in soothsayers from the south in his desperation to save his wife. 

(That being said, he wasted no time finding a new one, Kenma has to wonder how much the king truly cared.)

“Such a shame,” Takumi mutters. He reaches up to touch the painting, tracing the lines of the queen’s face with his index finger. Kenma hears a low fizzle and fire erupts from where he slides his finger down the artwork. Just a small, self contained sort of thing, a long arch of hot red burning until he presses his palm against the painting and the whole thing goes up in flames, frame and all. “Southern poison works very slowly, did you know that? In fact a lot of southern warriors ingest small doses of it for a year after they enlist to build up a tolerance.” 

Takumi turns back to look at Kenma, malice shimmering in his eyes. Not for the first time, Kenma is faced with the realization that the man in front of him, though he might possess traits that remind him of you, is a being of pure evil. He watches the painting go up in flames, a distant memory of your smiling face in the back of his mind. You had loved that painting. 

“For someone with low tolerance or poor health, though, the poison is a death sentence,” Takumi explains with a wide grin. “Do you know why I’m telling you this, Kozume Kenma?” 

Kenma swallows. He nods, finding that all words seem to have left him. 

“Good boy,” Takumi steps back to stand behind him, both hands on his shoulders gripping so tightly Kenma’s muscles spasm. “Now, write the letter. Just as I told you.” 

 


 

Southern drinking games are, as it turns out, not for the faint of heart. The rules are pretty simple, you take turns guessing three facts about the current subject. For each fact that turns out to be true, the subject takes a chug of their drink, for every wrong guess the guesser takes one. 

Being a public figure, a princess of the capitol with a documented upbringing, turns out not to be the most advantageous thing in such a game. Your head is spinning, body tingling in a pleasant sort of way. Kageyama and Hinata both lie on the floor, snoring so loudly it’s a wonder the room’s not shaking. Or maybe it is, you can’t quite tell. 

Kageyama was the first one to fall, the dark haired southerner a surprising lightweight. He’d already been louder, more animated when you met them in the hall and it only got worse — or better, depending on your outlook — the further into the western liquor you got. You feel like you’ve made a breakthrough with him, finally. Finding kinship in things like favorite tastes and times of year. You think you must have misjudged him the first time around. 

A commonality in your dealings with the south, it seems. You’re not sure if the burning in your face is just a side effect of the alcohol or a sense of shame. 

Hinata was the second to give up, though to his credit he lasted longer than you expected him to. He was a loud drunk, a dance-on-the-table, singing-off-key sort of drunk. He was also a terrible guesser and open book, you think he must have drunk half a bottle entirely on his own before throwing in the towel. He sleeps soundly against Kageyama on the floor, arms and legs tangled in his friend as if drawn in by the body heat. You wonder if southerners are just much more touchy than what you’re used to, the feeling of Yachi’s arm over your waist in the morning swimming to the forefront of your mind. 

Speaking of Yachi— 

The blonde southerner is currently engaged in some conversation with Lev, the two of them red in the face and leaning slightly towards each other. You’re too dizzy in the head to fully focus on what they’re talking about, but you don’t need to. Their body language speaks for itself. You had thought there was something strange about the way Lev had looked at her before, but it all makes sense now. Lev always did strike you as emotionally impulsive, a love at first sight sort of person. It’s almost a bit funny. The prince and the prostitute. 

Somehow it makes perfect sense. Somehow you’re happy about it. It makes you feel much less guilty about your own selfish desires, makes you feel less sorry for your strictly platonic love for the man you’re supposed to marry. Maybe you should tell him you don’t mind if he has a concubine. You know it’s not the way of the western royalty to take lovers other than your partner, but you want him to be happy. Lev is giving you the world, the least you can do is giving him a shot at happiness. 

As much as royals in an arranged marriage can be happy, in any case. 

Yachi laughs at something Lev says and touches his arm. Maybe you’re getting ahead of yourself, you think. Maybe your drunk brain is concocting things that don't exist, looking for signs to alleviate your own troubled emotions. You push yourself to your feet with some trouble, grimacing at the way the room spins. 

“You look a bit unsteady,” Yachi remarks, her voice free of that sort of restraint it’s usually covered in. 

“Yeah,” you murmur with slight embarrassment. “I’m gonna excuse myself, I think.” 

“Let me follow you to your room,” Lev moves to get up and you quickly wave your hand at him dismissively. 

“Please, I can find my own room! You guys enjoy yourselves!” You hope you don’t sound as overly enthusiastic as you sound in your head. If you do, they both choose to ignore it, the pair of them trading glances as you make your way to the door. 

You fall asleep the moment your head hits the pillow and you enjoy a dreamless sleep. And maybe that’s even worth the splitting, horrible headache you endure the whole next day. 

 


 

Oikawa accepts his aunt’s hugs and hair ruffles, he shakes Semi’s hand and ignores Kuroo’s comments. He tells them that no, he’s not going to the west to stop the royal wedding, because this is not a fairytale and despite how they all seem to think he’s got a flair for the dramatics, he’s not at all that crazy. He’s simply going because he wants to see things through. He’s been with you since the start of your journey and he wants to make sure you end up on the throne safe and sound. 

None of them seem to believe that this is the sole reason for him going. Not Makoto, not Kuroo, not even Semi. Not even Oikawa himself. Iwaizumi had asked if he was scared, and Oikawa supposed maybe he was. He has no idea what’s going to meet him in the west. Will he even get past the gates? 

Maybe it would be better if he didn’t. Despite you and him not getting along well in the beginning, Oikawa had started to feel some kind of kinship form between you. His own romantic feelings aside, he felt like you were becoming a team. For you to leave without him, you must have been really, really mad. He can’t blame you, of course, he can only hope it’s something he can fix. 

“Everything’s going to be fine, Tooru,” Makoto murmurs, gently stroking his cheek as he readies his horse. Oikawa doesn’t wanna hear it, not in that pitiful tone of voice. He inhales. “I’ll keep the boys here safe while you’re gone.” 

Despite himself, he hopes Makoto’s right. Oikawa looks over at the horse next to him, watching as Iwaizumi struggles with the saddle. After all, not only is he crashing your wedding, he’s bringing the guy who made you leave the East in the first place. 

 


 

It takes a week to get control over the electricity coursing through your veins. One week. Seven days, hours daily of practice, five almost-accidents. You think Lev is still scared to come out to the training grounds again after you barely missed him with a lightning bolt three days ago. But one week. One week of heavy sleep, headaches and one instance of a nosebleed and you are getting a hang of it. The notion that you might have some talent for magic after all feels like pride. Like there’s something you can do. Like you really can be a hero. 

You think you understand now what the sword is. Whenever you’re holding it it feels like the magic flows freer within you. Like it doesn’t take up as much energy to use. The blade itself is impossibly sharp even after all these years and the light strong enough to illuminate an entire forest at night. It’s a valuable weapon, especially if you learn to use it while casting magic. 

And that is what you’re practicing when it happens. You’ve discarded the wolf skin cape, traded out pretty dresses for the shirt and pants Makoto had given you in the East, and you’re wacking your sword against the training dummy as if it was your biggest enemy. It’s hard to concentrate on hitting in the right spots while summoning up the energy to produce magic, too overwhelming to get right most of the time. 

You’re in the middle of charging up electricity in your fist when you hear a branch break somewhere behind you and reflexes and paranoia both makes you twist your body around and aim the bolt of lighting blindly towards the sound. Energy sizzles through your entire body and shoots up your spine as adrenaline sets your body on fire. You see a brown head of hair and a body throw itself to the ground, a loud curse in a voice that sounds all too familiar. Your heart thrums against your rib cage as you sheathe your sword and carefully approach the intruder crouched on the ground. 

“What the— you’ve learned some new tricks, I see,” Oikawa Tooru gets on his feet, knees of his pants wet from crouching in the snow and his nose and cheeks dusted red with cold. “Hey.” 

And he looks at you in a way that you can’t understand, in a way he’s never looked at you before and even though you’re angry and completely horrified to see him you can’t help the way your breath catches at the sight of him. 

“Hey.”