For as long as he can remember, Kiyoomi’s always seen the little red wisps. They wind around people’s pinky fingers, loosely extending directly towards a second person. Eventually, he learns these are the red threads of fate, and he also learns no one else can see them.
It’s one of his earliest memories: The Empress preparing for a royal tour with his older sister to visit the dissatisfied daimyos, leaving him and his brothers behind at the palace. His nursemaid hushing him to sleep that evening, pushing his worries aside with the story of the old man on the moon.
“Every person is born with someone meant just for them, and every night the man on the moon finds these people and ties invisible threads to them so they may find their way to each other. You never have to worry about being alone, Ouji-sama.”
He looks down at the string in his own hand, which extends directly west, disappearing through the walls of his room. He wonders if the person from the other side is a Princess from another land or if she’s one of the many noble daughters and resolves to put it off of his mind. At this age, he has more things to worry about, like how long his mother would be away or whether Hibarida-kensei would finally bring him under his tutelage tomorrow.
He doesn’t tell anyone about the threads he sees.
This proves to be the right decision for the insight it gives him of court politics. As the fates wind around the nobility, Kiyoomi sees and understands. Loyalties and relationships are made bare for him, revealing the world beneath the lies and polite veneers. It makes it easy for him to choose the friends to keep close and the enemies to snub; unfortunately, with how vicious and cruel the nobility can be, the latter happens more often than not, and he’s left with a small circle of friends.
When a number of the nobility turn their back on the throne to side with rebelling samurai, he’s a little proud to see no one he’s decided to put his faith in joins them. It reaffirms his ability to read the threads and the connections around him, and if Motoya chalks it up to a god-given intuition, well… he’s not that far off, really.
He thinks nothing of his own thread. He understands fate is inevitable; nothing changes the threads except for death. Even then, it only grows shorter until it becomes a stub hanging lifelessly down someone’s finger. No new connection replaces it, so there’s no point in worrying. What’s meant to be will be, and fate will bring the person Kiyoomi’s destined for to his door eventually. All he needs to do is wait.
Apparently, he doesn’t have to wait long. When he’s twelve years old, the Seisei Taishogun visits the palace with his family in tow, bowing low enough to touch the tatami as he greets the Emperor in one of the receiving halls. He’s not in the grand armour he’s always painted in, but his posture and the way he holds himself say plenty about his status. With thick brows and a strong jaw, he looks every bit the mighty warrior shogun he’s acclaimed to be.
Kiyoomi watches the proceedings through the cracks of the screens in one of the connecting antechambers. He’s not meant to be anywhere near this part of the palace, but he’s quiet enough that his handlers let him get away with this once in a while. The arrival of the venerated shogun piqued his interest when their retinue arrived last night in fancy carriages, throwing the palace staff into a frenzy.
They say he brought his twin boys who trained under the honourable Norimune-sensei’s care, and they’re growing up to be rising stars in their generation. They say the boys might even be a match for Kiyoomi, who has blossomed under Hibarida-kensei tutelage. So Kiyoomi is here, peeking through the wooden screens and heavy curtains in the Seiryuuden to see whether they would be his destined brothers-at-arms or destined enemies.
He finds far more than he expected. Miya Hiromu is respectful and polite as he introduces his family. His thread is wound securely around his beautiful wife, a lady from a family deeply tied to the Imperial line which is a great relief to Kiyoomi who had never met the shogun before and is mistrustful of court gossip about his loyalties. There are countless Emperors in the past who have been chained under the control of the shogunate behind the scenes, stripped of any real power to do anything meaningful; in fact, his family has only recently reclaimed that power during the end of his grandfather’s reign when politics began to favour diplomacy over military might.
That the current shogun seems tightly intertwined with the Imperial line means he must be loyal to the throne then, and maybe his sons would be too. If he was lucky and good relations are maintained between their families, the Empire could be looking at three generations of internal peace and stability.
But more than that, when his gaze falls down to the threads on the twins' hands, he ends up following one straight to his own. Atsumu or Osamu, he wasn’t paying attention, but one of them is his other half. Brothers-at-arms, then, Kiyoomi thinks, relieved. He doesn’t have many expectations for fate and destiny, but at least it isn’t tying him to someone who would usurp his family.
Better yet, it seems like fate’s even being kind with this match. Kiyoomi has two older brothers before him in line for the throne, so he isn’t expected to inherit the responsibilities of the heir and the spare. A shogun’s son is a perfect match for someone of his standing, and if they’re as loyal as he suspects, then his story won’t be one of tragic star-crossed lovers nor hindered by duty.
This is good, he thinks, smiling.
Not even a day later, he completely takes back his initial assessment when he properly meets them for the first time. He’s practising alone when a voice startles him into falling face-first into the floor of the dojo.
“Whoa! Your katas are really freaky!”
From the ground, he follows two sets of feet leading up to a pair of twins. One has the courtesy to hide his laugh behind his sleeve, but the other one meets his glare, grinning shamelessly.
“Just because the forms aren’t what you’re used to doesn’t mean they’re wrong,” he snaps, getting up to dust himself off. Court etiquette demands he be nicer than this, especially to the shogun’s sons, but his ears are burning far too hot for him to care much about giving them respect.
“I didn’t say they were wrong. I just said they were creepy,” one of them says, and dread and disappointment drops like lead in his stomach when he sees it’s the twin at the other end of his thread.
“Stop it, ‘Tsumu. You can’t just call the Prince freaky,” the other chides.
Atsumu. The first-born son and his apparent soulmate.
“He’s a prince? He doesn’t look like one.”
“What’s a prince supposed to look like then?” Kiyoomi asks.
Atsumu scrunches up his face in thought. “More regal? Crown Prince Kiyoshi looks like he could beat me up easily. Aren’t you supposed to be all dressed up?”
“I’m training,” he points out, looking down at his simple hakama. They’re a little worn on the edges, fraying at the hems, but he doesn’t think he looks shabby. Perhaps only a little underdressed next to the twins in their formal kimonos. “I can beat you up right now if you want a demonstration.”
“With those katas? I don’t even think you could beat ‘Samu with that. I thought you had the esteemed Hibarida-kensei teaching you?”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean? You wanna go?!” Osamu snaps.
“I am Hibarida-kensei’s student, unlike you. That’s why you can’t recognise the art with whatever barbarian training you have,” Kiyoomi spits.
“That barbarian training protects most of your Empire,” Atsumu humphs arrogantly. “You’re a bit ungrateful and really mean, aren’t you? That’s not very prince-like.”
Already, Kiyoomi knows their personalities are going to clash, and he’s appalled that fate has tied him to a sinking ship. All the things that made Atsumu a good match — his status, lineage, relationship to the throne, and the power he’ll inherit — now look like bright red flags, large enough to conceal the threads of fate.
“Bold of you to be running your mouth in front of your prince,” he growls in a warning.
“You have my permission to shut him up. I won’t say a thing,” Osamu promises, and Kiyoomi decides he’s his favourite twin then and there, fate be damned. “Or maybe, if we let him run his mouth in front of Hibarida-kensei, he’ll get kicked out and get sent back home.”
“Sent back? What do you mean?” Kiyoomi asks.
“You don’t know?” Atsumu explains, “We’re here to learn from Hibarida-kensei too. It won’t do to have the future shogun be incompetent with the sword!”
Kiyoomi blinks in surprise. “You’re going to be living here?”
More than that, Osamu tells him they're here to study statesmanship and diplomacy too in preparation to lead the shogunate. They’ll be learning from all of Kiyoomi’s tutors, sharing all his classes and living only a few compounds away within the greater palace walls.
“I’m just going to apologise in advance for my brother,” Osamu sighs just as Atsumu says, “Maybe you can learn a thing or two from us about how to properly execute those katas.”
Maybe they really are meant to be rivals. Maybe these twins are really destined to usurp his brother’s throne in the future. He can’t see any other end to this, as everything about Atsumu right now rings of the stories of puppet emperors and military superiority, from his cocky face to the disrespectful way he speaks.
At twelve, Kiyoomi looks at the line connecting him and Miya Atsumu and wonders about the workings of fate.
At thirteen, Kiyoomi realises — no, he knows fate has cheated him. It really did deliver his other half straight to his door, but he’s nothing like he was promised. This is his other half? The person he’s meant to be with for the rest of his life? The one person in the whole world that fits him perfectly? Miya Atsumu?
Atsumu is rude and brash, loudmouth already making good on its promise to bring trouble. He’s everything Kiyoomi expected when they first met and worse. Maybe it’s fate trying to exact some balance into the world. On paper, Atsumu was the perfect match for him, hailing from a respectable family and well within his status. He needed to have some flaws, and clearly, it’s his spectacular personality.
The other children are afraid of him. Kiyoomi’s never seen him threaten to abuse his status, but his natural arrogance and lack of patience for anything that isn’t fighting must seem intimidating to the pampered sons of nobles and merchants. It’s for the same reason they avoid Kiyoomi himself, muttering in hushed voices and masking their dislike in seemingly deferential bows.
Somehow Atsumu takes this mutual apprehension as a sign of camaraderie. He follows Kiyoomi around, chasing him through the various compounds and sometimes even to his mother’s courtyard in the inner palace. They’ve toppled a number of rock structures this way, to the irritation of his mother’s handmaidens and the groundskeepers who had to clean up after their fights — this is an important distinction that Kiyoomi is quick to correct when adults call them games. It’s more than a little concerning that the adults aren't alarmed by the animosity between them or that they can’t see what a tyrant Atsumu is promising to grow into past his fake bashfulness and charm. This is probably how empires fall: big doe eyes, batted eyelashes, and the shortsightedness of adults.
For his eldest brother’s sake, Kiyoomi resolves to stay vigilant. He refuses to give Atsumu an inch, learning how to give back just as good as he got. He parries blow after blow against Atsumu’s bokken long past when Osamu would have folded already, reads two books for every one Atsumu finishes, and always runs one step ahead when Atsumu chases.
Kiyoomi used to be able to lose him through the flower gardens where the wisterias have grown into trees, branches carefully pruned and guided so the blooms fall down in a maze of curtains. In the centre of it all is a great tree that has been there longer than even the Empress Dowager can recall, whose branches are thick enough for Kiyoomi to climb. There, he can lose himself in the small world it creates. The garden is his favourite place in the palace, so of course, Atsumu learns it like the back of his hand.
Kiyoomi keeps a finger between the pages of his book to mark his place. He looks down from his perch on the tree to Atsumu down below. “What do you want?”
“Kuroo-san and the others are having an informal archery contest in the Baraku-in right now! Come watch me win,” he says, grinning wide.
“No, I have to finish reading this.” He turns back to his book, dismissive. “And so do you too, if you’ve forgotten.”
From his periphery, he sees Atsumu pull himself up on one of the neighbouring branches, settling his side against the main trunk so he can look at Kiyoomi fully. “It’s so boring, though,” he whines. “I don’t know why we have to learn about the petty grudges between clans. That’s their problem. Can’t they just fill us in when they ask for help?”
“It’s not petty if it lasts for generations. What are you going to do if the Ukai clan asks for a supply of coal?”
Atsumu shrugs. “Give it to them if we’re storing a surplus?”
“No,” he sighs, shaking his head in disappointment. “Most of the coal in Inarizaki Castle is provided by the Nekomata. Some generations ago, the clan head swore never to supply them with anything, and all the succeeding heads since have inherited this oath. If you gave them the coal, you’d anger the Nekomata. You’re better off sending them here to the Imperial Palace since we get coal from various sources.”
Atsumu scrunches up his face and scratches his head. “Argh! That’s too complicated to remember!”
“Well, you have to if you’re going to be shogun.”
Resting his head on one hand, Atsumu says, “Well, that’s why I have you!”
“Like I’ll have the time to be responding to all your letters,” he sneers. “Besides, it takes days to send one letter to Inarizaki Castle from here. What if the matter’s urgent?”
Atsumu picks at the bark by his feet, no longer meeting his eye. “It won’t take long if you’re already there. You could move to Inarizaki Castle, I think you’d like it...” His voice trails off into a low murmur.
Kiyoomi makes a mental note to check with the physicians later because there’s a weird feeling in his stomach and he realises he’s been reading the same passage over and over again for the past minute. “Are you hiring me to be your minister? Am I to be the first prince called to be of service to a shogun?” he says through the discomfort.
“Of course not! I just mean, you could choose to live there, if you want. Or not. It could just be a winter home, or a summer one, if you want to get away. I’m just saying you’re welcome…” Atsumu stutters, prattling on faster with every word. “...there’re gardens there too, mostly pine and oranges, but we can plant wisterias and plum trees if you want. There are already some plums all around this quiet pond, and it could be your new favourite spot...”
Experience has taught him Atsumu isn't going to leave him alone once he’s babbling like this. Between that and how lightheaded he feels, Kiyoomi sighs and resigns himself to not finishing his book today. So he snaps it shut and hops down.
“C’mon, maybe we can still catch them at it if we hurry.”
He breaks into a run without waiting for Atsumu.
“Cheater! You got a head start! Cheater!!”
Despite how hard they tried to outrun each other, they're only able to catch the tail end of the tournament where Wakatoshi takes the win. Atsumu whines about missing a good fight and needles Kiyoomi into a tournament of their own afterwards. They both drag Osamu to referee for them.
Atsumu’s general arrogant disposition is unfortunately warranted because he really is quite skilful with a katana and bow. He is, however, abysmal with a yari, and as it turns out, he’s also a sore loser.
He glares up at Kiyoomi who has the yari’s pointed tip lodged in the ground next to his head. He grabs a fistful of gravel and throws the tiny rocks at the prince. Most of it falls back down on himself, and he groans.
“Three-zero,” Osamu calls from the sidelines, resting on the engawa while they fight in the small inner garden between the twins’ apartments.
“Why are you even so good at this stupid thing?!” Atsumu growls, batting off Kiyoomi’s offered hand to get up by himself.
“I practice, same as you. I’m just naturally better,” he answers, dodging a half-hearted kick.
“Why do you even learn? Martial arts, I mean.” Osamu asks idly, snacking on the bowl of fruit he got from who knows where.
He and Atsumu turn to look at him in confusion.
“Well, you’re a prince, aren’t you? Don’t you only have to learn how to read, write, paint and all the diplomacy and good governance stuff? ‘Tsumu and I won’t be doing our jobs if you ever end up in a battle.”
“But he’s good at it?” Atsumu tilts his head to one side, still confused.
Osamu gives his brother a flat look. “You can’t possibly be expecting him to fight in your army?”
“I don’t think I’m even allowed to fight in anyone's army,” he muses.
“Can’t he just learn and practice because he’s good at it?” Turning to Kiyoomi, Atsumu adds, “You like it, don’t you? You smile more when you’re fighting or when you win something.”
Atsumu flushes, pink dusting his cheeks. “H-How do you not notice?! He doesn’t smile often! He has a resting frown face.”
“I don’t look at him as much as you do,” Osamu says flatly.
“It’s not weird! I have to! H-He… He has really freaky wrists! If you’re not paying attention to him, you won’t notice the weapon’s trajectory!” he explodes, his flush deepening. “And wait, what are you— Hey! I didn’t get the umeboshi for you! Stop eating them!”
“You don’t even like these. You got them for ouji-sama over here, didn’t you?” Turning to Kiyoomi who approaches him, he asks, “I can have some, right?”
His stomach flutters at the sight of the bowl, and that’s a bit weird, because he had a full breakfast before this so he shouldn’t be hungry enough to be rumbling. He seizes the bowl from Osamu and pops a couple into his mouth, suckling at the tartness of it. “No, I’m hungry.”
Atsumu, ears now red enough to be steaming, angrily snatches the bowl back and marches off towards his room. “You can’t have them anymore!”
Kiyoomi frowns. First, he insults his face, then his wrists, and now he takes the umeboshi. Atsumu is such a sore loser, but because of that, Kiyoomi entertains the thought that maybe, just maybe, with how competitive they both are, they may actually get through their fate without sinking.
“What did Atsumu do now?” Motoya asks without looking up when Kiyoomi bursts through the sliding doors and into his office. This, and all the surrounding offices, belongs to the Ministry of the Centre, which oversees the palace apartments, military correspondences, and interviews with the Emperor.
At fourteen, Motoya has already begun shadowing his father and taking some duties onto himself like receiving important mail and being the Emperor’s aide in ceremonies.
Kiyoomi is much freer in comparison. He is welcome to listen and observe morning court now, but most of the time, he opts to advance his training. He’s almost ready to trade the bokken for a real katana. His Father has already promised him the famous blade Doryoku once Hibarida-kensei deems him worthy, for all the effort and dedication he put into his training.
Perhaps he would have it already if he didn’t have a menace distracting him every day.
“He’s extra insufferable today, commenting on my penmanship! My penmanship! As if his own doesn’t resemble squirming worms of spilled ink.” Kiyoomi drops down in a chair in exhaustion.
Motoya rolls his eyes at the dramatics, but Kiyoomi’s too far into his rant to notice. “He also stole my attempts at painting and accidentally,” he says this with a sneer, “drops them into the pond. He dove in to save some, but there’s no salvaging them. He’s such a child! He can’t handle the fact that he’s got the artistic talent of a rock and that Iizuna-sensei likes me better.”
“Your paintings? The ones of your sister?”
“Yes,” he huffs.
His sister married years ago, and while her husband wasn’t her soulmate, Kiyoomi wasn’t worried because they were a good match. Both their threads were just small stubs hanging off their fingers. He didn't belong to her, but at least he didn't belong to anyone else anymore either.
He doesn’t know when it happened, but one day when he was younger, he realised he could already see the end of his sister’s string, trailing on the ground after her like a snake. Over time, it grew smaller and smaller, leaving only a few inches to hang. He thinks fate was merciful, at least, sparing her from loss and grief — she never knew her other half, and you can't lose what you never had. When he first met her husband, his thread was already in a similar state. He doesn’t know if he was given the same mercy, but he looked to be a good enough man who would do right by her.
But she hasn’t been back to visit since her marriage years ago before the twins even arrived. Her return in time for her birthday is exciting, so he has plans to surprise her with a portrait. The copies Atsumu ruined were his attempts at practising.
“Did you tell him that was your sister?”
“No?” He replies, confused.
“I don’t think he realised that,” Motoya says slowly, like that means anything.
“Why is that relevant?”
Motoya shakes his head and sighs cryptically. “Never mind.”
Kiyoomi narrows his eyes. In the years he’s come to know Atsumu, he’s developed a sixth sense for when someone looks like they have something over him. Recently, he’s been getting that feeling around Motoya a lot, sometimes Osamu.
“Well, you were going nowhere with your gift idea anyhow, so maybe you can abandon that plan and just buy her a normal gift.”
He groans. They’ve been over this already. She’s been sending him passive-aggressive letters about how he’s being so distant lately and how he was keeping things from her. He hasn’t. At least, no more than usual, but he’s taking it as a sign that he needs to put a little more effort into her birthday.
“If you’re determined to get her something more personal, why don’t you try cooking her something simple the next time she comes to visit. I hear Osamu’s spending some time in the kitchens with the cooks, maybe he can teach you something.” There’s that sly look on Motoya’s face again that makes Kiyoomi feel like the butt of an inside joke.
But that was actually a good idea. There’s not much skill required in cooking, right? All he has to do is cut a few vegetables and throw things into a pot or something. It’s just knowing what to combine, or something. In any case, he’s good with a tanto so a cooking knife shouldn’t be that different, he thinks.
“I don’t like the tone of voice you used there, but I’m not going to call you out on it because that was actually a really good suggestion.”
“It’s a brilliant suggestion. Go find Osamu and let me know how Atsumu takes the personal cooking lessons,” Motoya says, waving him off.
Kiyoomi spares him a disdainful look but goes off to search for Osamu without another word.
He checks their apartments, the nearest kitchens, the koi ponds and the dojo hoping to catch Osamu alone. When he doesn’t find him, he gives up and follows the thread leading him to the garden with the pagodas.
Atsumu spots him before he does. “Omi-ouji!”
The twins are having a meal in one of the pagodas overlooking a lotus pond, surrounded on all sides by ginkgo trees. A small red bridge leads to the stone steps at its entrance where a couple of servants hover, ready to assist at any time.
He should find comfort in the fact that Atsumu offers him some respect in the company of palace staff but even the way he says his title feels a little derisive, and Kiyoomi winces at the volume of his voice.
Ignoring Atsumu, he walks up the pagoda, stopping next to Osamu to ask if he can teach him how to cook.
Osamu’s chopsticks pause mid-air. “Cook what?”
“Um.” Kiyoomi didn’t really think this through and has to pause to think for a moment. “She likes kubotsuki?”
“She?” Atsumu pipes in, tilting his head.
“Sure.” Osamu shrugs. “There’s not much to it if you just mean assembling it all together. When?”
“When are you available?” Kiyoomi appreciates how easygoing Osamu is, and once again wonders if his thread didn’t get caught on the wrong twin in the womb.
“Tomorrow morning, before practice? The kitchens should still be empty then.”
Atsumu fidgets. “Empty? Just the two of you together?”
“Thank you, Osamu. I really appreciate this since someone wrecked my original plans this morning.”
Osamu scoffs. “Someone’s been wrecking my life since birth.”
“I’m right here. Can you both stop ignoring me?!” Atsumu snarls, hands thrown in the air in exasperation.
“I wish it were that easy to ignore you,” Kiyoomi quips back.
“I can’t believe I was going to ask you to sit with us for a nice meal but if I’m just going to get ignored, then forget it,” Atsumu says, turning his nose up.
Osamu snorts. “You act like I can’t invite him to join us myself. You’re free to leave anytime, though, “Tsumu.”
“And it’s not like I can’t have the same thing delivered to my rooms. The food here might have gone bad with proximity to you,” Kiyoomi adds.
“I hate the both of you,” Atsumu wails. “Why are you ganging up on me like this? Is this because I handed both your asses to you earlier?”
Kiyoomi rolls his eyes and moves to leave, but Atsumu catches his sleeve. “Ugh, sit down, already. You can have my umeboshi, and I think there’s still some fish left?” Atsumu directs the question to the nearest servant who nods. He waves her over to set a place for Kiyoomi.
He really can have the same things brought to his rooms, but he sits down on the empty seat anyway and lets himself be served there. “Thank you for the food.”
The food really must have gone bad in proximity to Atsumu because Kiyoomi doesn’t have much of an appetite and he doesn’t even register what he’s eating. Instead, he takes in the way the sunlight filters through the fluttering golden leaves of the ginkgo trees behind him, and the way it shrouds Atsumu in a gilded halo.
Like this, Kiyoomi thinks he can see how he might lead the shogunate someday. Because even bickering with Osamu, Atsumu knows just how to rile people up and make them care about anything and everything. They’re arguing about whether the blade cutting the fish matters, if using something like a tanto instead of a cooking knife would affect the taste. Kiyoomi knows nothing about cooking, but here he is, invested in the outcome of a debate that should never have gotten as heated as it is.
No amount of exposure can dim this. Osamu had his entire life to get used to Atsumu but he’s still getting drawn into a pointless argument, looking more and more determined to go down with his point that yes, the blade matters with every minute.
Kiyoomi can only imagine what this might look like on a battlefield, with more important things on the line and causes people already care about. How much brighter will their spirits burn with Atsumu at the helm?
With every month of their acquaintance, he’s thankful Atsumu fights by his side and feels more assured that fate hasn’t pitted them against each other.
The next day, he wakes up early to follow the path leading to the kitchens. The stone lanterns are still lit, their soft glow muted in the early morning light. As promised, the kitchen is still empty save for one person, humming and setting ingredients out on the table.
“What are you doing here?” he asks, startling Atsumu into fumbling with a jar.
“Uhh? Teaching you how to prepare kubotsuki?”
“I asked Osamu to teach me, not you. Where is he?”
“What do you mean? I am Osamu.” He blinks innocently.
Kiyoomi gives him the flattest stare he can muster and keeps at it until Atsumu finally squirms.
“Ugh!” he cries. “How can you even tell?! You didn’t even give me a second to fake it! You knew right away!”
Unfortunately, even without his thread giving him away, he just knows. If pressed, he’d say Atsumu just gives off the cockiness and self-assured confidence of someone who has always gotten what he wants in life. By all accounts, Osamu lived the exact same life but somehow managed to maintain some humility or at least some semblance of it in comparison to his twin.
Maybe it's the way Atsumu holds himself. Under the soft rays seeping through the windows and paper screens, his eyes look more golden than usual. Every time he catches sight of them, they always seem to glow bright, baring Atsumu’s soul wide open to him. The pool of emotions there paints a mosaic that Kiyoomi can’t quite parse yet, but it looks vaguely familiar.
Perhaps he’s seen it on Osamu somewhere, but the closest thing he can think of is when Osamu’s having a particularly good meal. It doesn’t have quite the same intensity, but the contentment there is similar.
Even without the threads of fate, he knows it’s Atsumu because Osamu has never looked at him like that. Only Atsumu gets this look, and it appears randomly too. Sometimes when they spar, sometimes when they’re just taking a leisurely stroll, other times like now, when he’s impersonating his brother, surrounded by a bunch of ingredients and utensils Kiyoomi doubts he knows the names of.
“So? Where’s your brother?”
Atsumu looks away, shifty. “Eh. He must’ve forgotten or overslept? I didn’t check. I thought he’d be here already. But we don’t have to wait for him! I’ve seen him do this a million times. I can teach you.”
Kiyoomi really doubts it, and he says as much.
“Just try it! You can show ‘Samu when he finally wakes up, and he’ll correct you if you do anything wrong,” Atsumu huffs, exasperated.
“Fine,” he gives in. “Have it your way.”
For what it’s worth, Atsumu does end up surprising him when it’s clear he actually knows what he’s doing. He shows him how to roll the fermented fish into balls and by the time he’s walking him through how to prepare the aemono, Kiyoomi actually starts being confident with this whole plan.
“So, uh. You never said what this is for. Seems like a lot of effort from a Prince.”
“It’s for my sister’s birthday. She’ll be coming by to visit soon,” he explains. “Originally, I planned to paint a portrait of her, but you’ve seen the paintings. They’re not very good.” He throws Atsumu an accusatory look.
“Sister! The Princess!” Atsumu’s head perks up, looking equal parts enlightened and relieved. “Yes, they were terrible portraits of her. It doesn’t do her justice at all. Almost looks like an entirely new person, even.”
Kiyoomi scowls. “It’s not like you can paint any better, shut up.”
Atsumu lets out a loud belly laugh, and it’s such an ugly, infectious sound that it makes him snicker as well.
“ATSUMU! WHAT THE FUCK.”
They both snap their heads to see a disgruntled Osamu, robes and hair in complete disarray, panting by the door. “You tied me up and gagged me! Are you insane?! When the maids came in, they thought I was attacked and almost sent for the guards! I’ll fucking get you back for this, you piece of shit.”
He really ought to be more concerned. But, more than anything else, it’s Osamu's typically polite demeanor cracking with every curse and swear he hurls at Atsumu that makes him burst back into giggles, which sends Atsumu himself into another fit of laughter.
“You can kindly shut the fuck up too, Ouji-sama. You’re partly to blame for the lengths this idiot goes to,” Osamu snarls, lunging at his brother.
They eventually get things done. It comes at the price of a couple of knocked down shelves and broken pots, but he learns how to assemble kubotsuki eventually.
The day Princess Kiyonori returns to the palace is the same day Kiyoomi suspects fate does actually have an idea about what it’s doing and not simply stringing him along.
This is mostly because Atsumu takes one look at her and trips on thin air.
“Y-You look… Really… Uhh,” he babbles, blushing profusely as his sister giggles.
Atsumu shuts up and refuses to look anyone in the eye after that. It’s the most behaved Kiyoomi’s ever seen him in private.
Of course. Kiyoomi doesn’t fault him. He’s perfectly aware of how his sister looks to other people. She’s more mature, softer and far less acerbic than he is. Her long black hair falls in silky waves over her shoulder, fringes held back with opulent hairpieces. She has a beauty mark under her eye and under her lip, forgotten memories of where she was loved the most in her past lives.
She’s delicate where Kiyoomi is firm, soft where he’s mean, looking demure and shy where Kiyoomi looks prissy and haughty. So when Atsumu makes a blubbering red fool of himself in front of her, he’s really not surprised.
They’re sitting in his favourite spot in the flower garden. In the background, spring has coaxed the flower buds to bloom a bright pink against rich green leaves. He had someone set up a small table there for a small birthday meal ahead of the formal banquet later. The kubotsuki he painstakingly prepared once more under Atsumu’s instruction and Osamu’s critical eye was laid out in a spread.
“This is Miya Atsumu and Osamu,” he introduces, gesturing to each of them respectively. “Osamu taught me how to prepare it for you,” and at the expectant look Atsumu throws him, he reluctantly adds, “...with Atsumu’s help.”
The twins bow respectfully. “It’s good to meet you, Oujo-sama,” Osamu says for the both of them, because Atsumu still hasn’t wrangled the concept of speech yet to say anything coherent.
“It’s good to meet you two too. I’ve heard so much about you, but mostly from Motoya. Unfortunately, Kiyoomi is either terrible at writing letters or denser than he looks,” she says, laughing at Kiyoomi’s glare. “I must thank you for the food as well. It looks lovely.”
“I also helped!” Motoya pipes up. “I gave him the idea for it. You don’t know what I spared you from.”
Kiyoomi swats at him. “Shut up. No food for traitors. Who knows what you’ve been telling her!”
“Yeah, yeah. We’ll leave you two to catch up. It’s good to see you again, Oujo-sama,” Motoya says with a final bow, taking his leave and the twins with him. Atsumu throws them several glances over his shoulder, eyes frantically flicking between the siblings.
Kiyoomi rolls his eyes at him.
“So,” his sister starts, settling down and picking dishes off the plates to place in her bowl. “They seem nice. He seems nice.”
“If you mean Osamu, then yes, he is very pleasant. Atsumu, not so much,” Kiyoomi grumbles. “He’s the one that was red in the face and making an absolute fool of himself.”
“I gathered,” she says, drily. “He might have just been surprised. We do look very alike.”
“He has a twin brother. Looking similar is something he should be very familiar with. But enough about him. How are you?”
All the humour falls from her face. “Not good,” she sighs, distraught.
Kiyoomi immediately stiffens in alarm. “What’s wrong? Is it the baby? Is this why you haven’t been back until now?”
“No, no, the baby is fine. It’s nothing like that,” she explains. “There’s been more and more unrest from the neighbouring daimyo. I haven’t been back because I’ve spent the last few years trying to pacify them all, but it’s been fruitless. Now I’m just hoping I can get some help from other bakufu...”
With the Empire’s rule stronger than ever before, the barbarians have become less and less of a threat over the decade. Consequently, the samurai have become less important with every peaceful year that passes. More and more of the daimyos who gained power and status from their samurai are dissatisfied with the reign’s peaceful agenda and the burgeoning relationship the Empire is building with its neighbours. What once were small grumbles of dissatisfaction years ago has now caught fire, and his sister has been trying to put it out without much success.
He listens to her story and by the end of it, he’s resolved to roping the twins and Motoya in her politicking later.
The last-minute planning session takes place in his apartments a few hours before the banquet. They have a list of important attendees sorted into helpful, needs convincing, and useless. There's a good list going in helpful already, but those are the ones already aligned with their cause and who would be more likely to approach his sister than the other way around. The useless pile is, however, just slightly longer. They're sorting through the unsorted nameplates to see which ones they can convince to tilt the side in their favour.
“Nekomata might be sympathetic to her plans. He doesn’t typically meddle, but his clan has that long-standing feud with one of the rebelling daimyos,” Motoya says, placing Nekomata’s name under the middle column as everyone nods in agreement.
Kuroo is a friend and easy enough to talk to, and he’s been building more influence within his clan as of late. It’s a little ironic, given that Kuroo himself is from a samurai clan serving the Nekomata, but he’s been raised around the palace with his little reclusive bocchan who happily delegates all his responsibilities to him. As far as their generation is concerned, Kuroo’s an honorary noble. Their clan has also been growing with increased exports from trade agreements, so it would be in Kuroo’s best interest to work with them.
“Hmm, Oikawa may just be a rich merchant, but he’s ruthlessly ambitious. With the right incentives, he might be willing to act as a mediator or at least he can agree not to sell them supplies,” Atsumu adds.
Kiyoomi recalls charming smiles and flirtatious winks that rack up a harem of women wherever he goes. He also recalls following the man’s thread to the grumpy samurai guarding him. “No. Not Oikawa. He’s more sympathetic to the samurai than you think.”
“What makes you say that? I’ve never seen you speak to him,” Atsumu challenges.
“I just know. He’s in love with that samurai that shadows him.”
Three sets of brows go up in surprise. “ Oikawa? Most likely to have five wives, Oikawa? Most likely to die from feuding wives, Oikawa? That Oikawa?” Osamu asks, incredulous.
“Yes. Just trust me on that.”
Motoya hums. “Kiyoomi’s intuition is pretty good about these things. I’m inclined to believe him, as ridiculous as it sounds.”
Atsumu narrows his eyes at Kiyoomi suspiciously, but he doesn’t press. “Okay. So that just leaves us with Hoshiumi, Ushijima, and Nekomata then for convincing.”
“Hmm. There’s Kageyama,” Osamu offers, lifting the nameplate.
Atsumu groans, flopping down on the table. “No. Please, no.”
Osamu is unsympathetic. “You could probably convince Tobio to talk to his father.”
“You want me to sell myself off?! What kind of brother are you!”
Kiyoomi rolls his eyes and reaches over to put Kageyama’s name in the middle column. “You’re being dramatic. You just need to go a few rounds with him and correct his katas. It’s not that hard.”
“Why don’t you do it then?!”
“Because he’s not the one the kid has a crush on,” Osamu teases, and that shuts Kiyoomi up, whatever response he had on his tongue is replaced by the feeling of cotton.
“It’s not a crush!” Atsumu screeches, throwing frantic looks at Kiyoomi. “It’s not a crush,” he insists.
“I don’t know why anyone would have a crush on you,” he manages through the uncomfortable dryness in his mouth. Atsumu’s thread ties him to Kiyoomi whereas Tobio’s stretches far into the east. Whatever crush the boy has will be fleeting.
“I don’t know how you’ve convinced that kid you’re the greatest swordsman to ever live, but you have,” he continues. “You don’t even need to butter him up anymore. Just tell him flat out to convince his dad to our cause in exchange for training under you.”
As the final nail in the coffin, Kiyoomi says, “Look. I’d— My sister would really appreciate it. I’ll let her know or you can tell her yourself.”
On cue, Atsumu goes still and colour fills his face.
All things considered, it was a pretty successful evening. His sister leaves with promises of aid and support for the skirmishes in the east, and Atsumu earns himself a little protégé that trails after him like a lost puppy. Shadowing them in the dojo is fine, but the kid sticks to them like glue everywhere else too.
Atsumu has taken to pulling Kiyoomi into alcoves and corners to get some peace, and Kiyoomi learns he's a little claustrophobic, especially when Atsumu's around. His heart beats so loud it's a wonder Atsumu doesn't hear it when they're pressed so close together.
Avoiding the Kageyama boy has put Atsumu so on edge that sometimes he drags Kiyoomi to hide even when the boy isn't there. It happens so often that Kiyoomi thinks he'll go into an early grave if he has to share another small space with Atsumu, so he very reluctantly offers to share his spot in the flower garden; at least there they aren't pressed for space and forced to hide in close proximity, and Tobio will lose himself in the maze if he tries following them.
They spend longer and longer hours together there — to hide from Tobio of course, and only to repay Atsumu’s favour.
The summer of his fifteenth year brings with it the return of the shogun to the palace for a meeting with the Emperor. Kiyoomi's sister only bought them time, not a solution; the rebellion continues to spread and it's gotten bad enough that the shogun arrives looking grim, and he bickers with the other ministers and officials behind closed doors for most of his visit. The twins are excited to see their father, but neither of them mind that he has his hands full. They’re distracted enough by the person the shogun brought along.
The moment their father is ushered away by the ministers, Osamu breaks into a run to tackle the boy stepping through the Shoumeimon. The thread between them gets shorter with every step he takes, winding around the boy when he crushes him into a hug, tackling him down the gate’s steps.
“Oof, heavy, what are they feeding you here?”
Atsumu jogs up to him, Kiyoomi following along. “It’s good to see you, Rin! How’s everyone from home?”
Greeting Kiyoomi with a bow, he introduces himself as Suna Rintarou from a daimyo clan neighbouring Inarizaki, one close enough to be raised alongside the twins on castle grounds.
“Nothing you don’t already know about since I know you read my letters over Osamu’s shoulder,” he answers. “Kita’s hair is far less grey without you there.”
“C’mon, I’ll show you to our apartments! You can have the servants send your stuff to the room next to mine,” Osamu says, excitedly pushing Suna along.
Later, they bring him around on a tour of the greater palace compound, pointing at places where funny things happened, like the roof with the loose shingle that tripped Atsumu into tumbling down on a group of ladies-in-waiting.
Or the precious bonsai Osamu accidentally knocked over and probably killed. The groundskeeper is still on the hunt for the perpetrator, but Kiyoomi likes Osamu enough not to tell. This is still a sore subject for Atsumu, whom neither Kiyoomi nor Osamu have any compunctions about tattling on.
In turn, Suna tells Kiyoomi anecdotes about the twins when they were younger.
He tells him about how Osamu accidentally domesticated an owl once after feeding it some crickets and fish. It began to seek him out at night, and before long, Osamu found himself with a pet. The owl, he reports, is doing well under Kita’s care. In fact, it’s being fed so well that it brought a horned owl friend with it, so now there are two of them frequenting the kitchens regularly.
He also shares the story of when Atsumu almost set fire to his rooms when he tried to light a brazier but sneezed so hard that it was knocked over. The floor underneath the tatami is apparently still scorched even now. Atsumu swears the mark is shaped like a cat’s head but neither Osamu nor Suna seem to agree.
“Bah, you both lack imagination,” Atsumu exclaims. “Omi will agree with me when he sees it!”
“When?” Suna says, a slow and knowing grin spreading across his face. It eerily reminds him of Motoya, if his cousin was meaner about it. With the way Atsumu launches himself to wrestle Suna yelling unintelligible things, Kiyoomi very briefly feels sorry for Atsumu and swears to do everything in his power never to let Suna and Motoya meet.
(Because fate clearly has it out for Kiyoomi and can’t rest until it gives him a hard time, Suna and Motoya do meet and get along too well. Who knows what they even have to bond about, but Kiyoomi catches them sharing exasperated looks and eye rolls way too often for comfort.)
In the days that follow, Kiyoomi learns three things about Suna himself.
First, he’s very good at shogi.
Second, despite his small build, he also knows his way around a kama and kyoketsu-shoge.
And finally, he’s in love with Osamu, and Osamu has no idea.
He learns that last bit from Atsumu.
Suna joins them for lessons in the morning, but he and Osamu go off to disappear somewhere as soon as they're free. Sometimes it’s back to their rooms to play shogi. Other times, it’s to walk around the ponds.
They are by one now, throwing food at the ducks and talking quietly by themselves. Kiyoomi can vaguely see their figures as he climbs up the guard tower built along the walls of this garden compound. His thread leads him to the top, where Atsumu is spying on them through the window.
“You’re being very creepy,” he says in greeting.
“Shut up, Omi-omi. 'Samu always ends up doing something stupid around Suna, so I’m here to catch him at it.”
He stops beside him, and they watch in silence for a while. He doesn’t really know what Atsumu expects to happen because Suna and Osamu are just sitting and chatting idly from what he can see.
“Suna’s in love with him,” Atsumu says, apropos of nothing. Glancing to the side, Kiyoomi catches the brief wistful look on his face, but it’s gone in a flash.
He hums. “I gathered.”
“'Samu doesn’t know.”
That is surprising, and it must show all over his face because Atsumu laughs. “Right?”
“You won’t tell him? He clearly feels the same.”
“Suna would eviscerate me,” Atsumu shudders. “He’s caught up in their status difference.”
Kiyoomi’s confused. Suna’s father is a daimyo and a high-ranking member of the bakufu. “What difference? That shouldn’t be a problem for them.”
Atsumu groans. “Ugh, I know! But, you’ve seen how Suna is at shogi, he overthinks.”
“All the more reason for you to tell Osamu, so he can make the first move,” he presses.
“To be honest, I’m not really that inclined to help him out on this when he's already so lucky his feelings are returned,” Atsumu grumbles. “It’s his fault for being so oblivious when Suna’s painfully obvious already. What more does he have to do before 'Samu gets a clue?”
He sounds bitter about it, and Kiyoomi recalls how selfishly Atsumu can hoard the things he finds precious. “Are you afraid they’re going to leave you behind if they get together?”
“No, it’s not that. I don’t really care if they do,” Atsumu scoffs, rolling his eyes. He nudges Kiyoomi with his arm. “Plus, I have you, don’t I?”
He looks at where their hands rest on the windowsill, at the short thread running in between, and knows that’s not what he means.
Belatedly, Atsumu realises what he just said, and he sputters, going red to the roots of his hair. “I-I just mean you’re my best friend, so I don’t care if they leave me behind. Because I have you— as a friend !”
“Am I?” he teases, mostly to see whether Atsumu can get any redder.
He can. “Shut up. You know you are!”
Atsumu nudges him again, harder this time. “So?”
“You’re supposed to say it back, Omi-omi!” he whines.
“This isn’t a confession. Why do I have to say anything?” But Atsumu whines and pouts some more, so Kiyoomi gives in. “You’re mine too, happy now?”
“Your what?” Atsumu prods. “Your loyal servant? Your dashing protector?”
He huffs and turns around like he’s about to leave. “Good bye, Atsumu.”
“Sorry, sorry!” Atsumu laughs, grabbing his sleeve to keep him there, so he stays.
In the distance, he sees a gaggle of geese approach Osamu and Suna, perhaps drawn by the grains they were throwing. The geese are far less friendly, and Suna laughs as they surround Osamu.
Kiyoomi looks to see if Atsumu caught Osamu’s predicament, but he wasn’t looking there anymore. His eyes were trained on the windowsill, at the small space between their hands.
“I am, you know,” Atsumu adds softly. “All those things. Servant, protector, best friend. Yours.”
Kiyoomi stares at the short thread running between them. Not yet, he thinks. But fate paved the way for them, so it’s only a matter of time.
The shogun leaves after a week, looking slightly less grim than when he arrived. He converses with Hibarida-kensei, and the praises make the twins glow.
“You’re training hard,” he says to them, patting their heads. “You’ll need to get stronger to protect your home and the Empire.”
Atsumu sniffles. “I’ll do my best, father.”
Osamu nods behind him, also a little wet in the eyes.
The shogun mounts his horse, trotting to where Suna and the rest of the travelling party were waiting by the Suzakumon. They watch him go, and Kiyoomi grips onto the fabric of Atsumu’s back in comfort.
Somehow, Kiyoomi learns to live with the twins. He and Atsumu still fight and compete with every chance they get, but there’s a little less bite to their squabbles now, and Kiyoomi sometimes even finds himself seeking out his company.
The route to their apartments in the palace is a familiar one to him now, and he learns little things that can help him control or at least mitigate Atsumu’s chaos. For example, he learns that letting Atsumi get the final score in a tie makes him less likely to ask for a rematch; or that the easiest way to get Atsumu to do him a favour is by asking Osamu first.
In turn, Atsumu learns the quickest way to his apartments in the inner palace. The key, he says, is in the stone statue of a tanuki by the southern wall which he can use as a step to bolt over it. He also learns which guard towers would be empty around the same time his least favourite tutors would come looking.
Somehow it’s become Kiyoomi’s responsibility to hunt him down, and basks in Atsumu’s perpetual confusion over how easily he finds him. He shamelessly calls it an unfortunate gift, and he’s not lying, not really. It is quite the gift that he can simply let fate lead the way.
His life becomes so routine that Kiyoomi forgets this is temporary. That is, until the twins fall into their biggest and longest argument. When he’s sixteen, the twins don’t speak for nearly a month. No one knows what it’s about, only that a fight broke out between them and Hibarida-kensei himself had to tear them apart.
The scratches and bruises healed in a couple of days but the rift between them feels larger than ever.
Kiyoomi ignores it as best as he could until he can’t.
He knows Atsumu is a good fighter. He’s parried his blows a thousand times by now. They can go for hours rotating weapons before exhaustion creeps in and one of them falls.
This new Atsumu, however, is reckless, easy to anger, and even easier to beat.
He falls flat on his back for the third time that hour, Kiyoomi pushing the extended tonfa against his throat.
Atsumu growls and shoves him off. “Again,” he demands.
“No. This is enough. You’re worthless to me like this. Find someone else to spar with,” he says dismissively, spinning the tonfa back to the natural hold.
“God, grow a heart, will you, Omi?” Atsumu snaps back. “This is why you don’t have friends.”
“Is that the same reason you don’t have a brother anymore?” The words leave him before he could think about it.
The silence that follows falls heavy on Kiyoomi’s shoulders, but he doesn’t yield. He can’t find the words to take it back. He bites his tongue so hard it bleeds as Atsumu shakes his head at him, disbelieving, and wordlessly packs up his things. He leaves the dojo, slamming the door shut behind him.
Kiyoomi still tastes blood in his mouth as he camps outside Osamu’s door later.
He ambushes him when Osamu rounds the corner, pointing an accusatory finger at his chest. “You need to fix things. I’ll make it an imperial decree if I have to.”
Osamu scowls. “Only the Emperor can do that, so I don’t need to do anything.”
“He’s picking fights with everyone,” Kiyoomi hisses.
Osamu scoffs. “He’s always picked fights, what’s new? Did you finally have enough of his shitty personality?”
Kiyoomi has long made peace with Atsumu’s personality. Maybe it’s divine retribution for his own terrible attitude, but that’s not the point. “You’re supposed to be the bigger person here, Osamu.”
Osamu glares, pushing him off. “I’m always the bigger person. That’s why we’re fighting.”
Osamu throws open the doors to his room and Kiyoomi follows him inside. He hasn’t been here in a while, but it looks strikingly emptier than before. The little trinkets that used to be on the shelves or hanging on the walls are gone. “What…?”
The words make no sense to him.
“Our education here is almost done. We were only meant to stay here for a couple of years to learn as much as we could. We were always meant to go home eventually.”
Home. Inarizaki. That’s right; they’re a year older than him. They have lands and soldiers to manage, and just as Kiyoomi’s old enough to attend morning court with the Emperor, Atsumu and Osamu are old enough to take on some of their father’s duties.
“Atsumu—?” Atsumu is the firstborn son. He’s meant to inherit his father’s title, and the best place for him to do that is back home.
“Someone has to go home to actually put those lessons into practice. Especially with the rebellion spreading further west.”
There’s a lump in Kiyoomi’s throat that seems to be growing larger.
“...and it’s not going to be that idiot. So yes, I am the bigger person here, stepping up to be responsible again . What more does that unreasonable asshole want? Does he think we can traipse around here forever? I’m leaving to appease our father, so that ungrateful piece of shit can stay.”
Swallowing the lump, he can breathe easier now.
“Do… Do you want me to convince Atsumu to go with you?” he tentatively offers, because a distressed Osamu looks exactly like a distressed Atsumu and it makes him uncomfortable.
“Unbelievable,” Osamu says, shaking his head incredulously. “You’re both unbelievable. No . That’s the last thing I want you to do. Yes, staying here is an honour. I do like it here, but Atsumu just likes it more, for reasons he doesn’t have the guts to admit yet.”
Wistfully, he continues, “I also don’t mind going home, I miss it and the friends we have there if I’m being honest. This?” Osamu spreads his hands and gestures towards Kiyoomi and the room. “This is Atsumu’s life. Not mine. That little shit should be thankful I’m buying him a few more years.”
“He doesn’t have to stay, if being away from you upsets him so much,” Kiyoomi says, and if his voice cracks, he blames it on puberty.
“Atsumu’s just throwing the same fit he had when our parents first left us here. Do you remember how impossibly rude he was? He’s not good with being left behind or at dealing with change. He’s probably also panicking now that he has a deadline. Anyway, the silent treatment will be good for him, to get him used to not having me around. He’ll get over it eventually.”
Deadline? He doesn’t know what Osamu’s talking about, but it reminds him that he doesn’t really have one himself. The thread won’t break even if they’re miles apart. It will continue to stretch until it eventually pulls them back together again. He doesn’t know why he was even worried.
But if Kiyoomi could feel this discomfited by the brief suggestion of Atsumu leaving, he can hardly imagine how Atsumu must feel when he’s never been apart from Osamu for more than a couple of days. Guilt festers in his gut when he recalls his harsh words earlier.
“Can you… Can you teach me how to prepare the fatty tuna before you go?”
“Sure, c’mon.” Osamu rolls his eyes, jerking his head towards the door. “We can go now, before they get busy for dinner.”
Osamu leads them to the kitchens where he nods to the staff he’s grown friendly with. He shows Kiyoomi where they keep the food and ingredients he needs and demonstrates how to cut and prepare the fish to Atsumu’s liking.
It reminds him of the last time they were in the kitchens like this. The memory makes the air feel a little more sombre, but without Atsumu hovering in the background, the food preparation goes pretty smoothly and with far less damage to the kitchens. Under Osamu’s careful tutelage, he makes one fatty tuna dish that looks and tastes quite similar to Osamu’s.
“Thank you,” he says, sincerely grateful. Osamu may not be his other half, but he’s an irreplaceable friend nonetheless. Oftentimes more of a friend than his actual other half. Kiyoomi thinks he’s going to feel a bit lost without Osamu being the calm and steadfast presence keeping them grounded.
“I think I’ll take this to Atsumu now. He won’t miss you as much if he knows I can make this for him whenever.”
Osamu blinks, mouth opening and closing, looking a little dumbfounded.
“Because I know you, I understand what you’re trying to say,” he says, finally finding the words, “but wow you really sure know how to make a guy feel wanted.”
Kiyoomi flushes. “I didn’t mean it like that. Of course, he’s going to miss you, that much is obvious. I will too, of course.”
“Yeah, yeah, but he won’t have time to be missing me because he’s got you, I got it already,” he ribs, shaking his head in disbelief. “Just go to him already, sheesh.”
Kiyoomi purses his lips and wisely doesn’t say anything more in case he digs his own grave even deeper. He leaves the kitchens, fatty tuna in hand, and lets the thread guide him to Atsumu.
He finds him curled up into himself in one of the empty guard towers.
“Go away,” Atsumu says at the sound of his footsteps, head buried in his arms that rest on his knees.
He approaches tentatively, sitting beside him close enough for their shoulders to touch.
“You deaf now, Ouji-sama?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it.”
“Okay,” Atsumu says into his arm, still curled up. “Now go away.”
“It was a stupid thing to say,” he continues anyway. “You’re always going to have a brother. Just because he’s going away doesn’t mean he stops being your brother.”
The plates clank against the stone floor when he sets it down and the noise makes Atsumu peek up a bit.
“Things don’t have to change that much. I can make you fatty tuna like Osamu makes them whenever you want. Here,” he nudges the plate closer. “Try it. It should taste close enough to the real thing.”
Atsumu blinks out the tears from his eyes and looks between Kiyoomi and the plate in wonder. “You… You made this? For me?”
He clears his throat. “Choosing to stay here doesn’t have to be difficult.”
He feels his face burn, but Atsumu doesn’t see it from the way he bursts into tears. “Omi!!! Omi-omi. Omi. Omi. Omi!”
“You are such a baby. Aren’t you supposed to be older?” he says, wiping his tears with his sleeve.
Almost five years to the day they arrived at the palace, Osamu clears his room and packs up his belongings, returning home. Atsumu puts him a brave face in front of everyone that day but bawls into Kiyoomi’s shoulder later.
At eighteen, Atsumu’s looks and skill with the sword finally surpass his terrible personality.
The Seisei Taishogun takes notice of Hibarida-kensei’s many praises and one day when plum blossoms are falling, he sends a gift to Atsumu. It arrives carefully wrapped in fine silk. Atsumu is almost reverent when he unties the knot keeping it together, revealing a sleek box made of thousand-year-old cedarwood in such a deep grey-brown colour it almost seems black.
He lifts the case to expose a katana sheathed in a beautiful red scabbard, capped with a golden pommel to match the blade guard that’s imprinted with the fox pattern typical of the Miya shogunate. The scabbard’s body is painted black but the light, fine grains running through it betrays the precious Empress Tree it must have been carved from. The knob coiled by its mouth is dyed the same deep red as the sleeve around the handle.
The blade inside is even more beautiful. Atsumu brings it close to his eye to trace the ridge and to look for specs of dust, but even from where Kiyoomi’s standing from behind, he can tell the quality of craftsmanship from the rippling temper lines and shiny, reflective polish.
Musubi is carved into the flat side of the blade just before the hilt. It’s a beautiful name for a beautiful katana.
Atsumu brings it around everywhere and polishes it almost obsessively, despite never having used it before as he still uses his usual bokken daily. Even so, he searches for months to find just the right kind of oil to clean Musubi with, eventually settling with a particular clove oil whose stench makes Kiyoomi’s nose scrunch.
Atsumu always laughs when he catches him doing it and has taken to mirroring his face to tease him. “You sure you aren’t a princess with how dainty you are, Omi-omi?”
Each time, Kiyoomi makes sure to pummel him extra hard in their next spar.
But with all the preening Atsumu does, and without Osamu there to seem nicer in comparison, the noble girls and parents of the court finally take notice of Atsumu too.
Predictably, this all feeds straight into his ego.
He wiggles his brows and throws Kiyoomi a smug grin each time he gets a marriage proposal. “I’m a real catch, you know, Omi,” he crows.
Kiyoomi only rolls his eyes. You’ve already been caught, he thinks, twisting his hand to tug on the thread.
“You jealous yet?”
“No,” he answers honestly.
“Well you should,” Atsumu pouts, bitter.
What’s he supposed to be jealous of? Proposals and offers from random people are meaningless to him. He doesn’t want anyone else, and he won’t get validation from anyone else. He doesn’t even understand what Atsumu himself gets out of them. He rejects them all indiscriminately, so it’s not like he ever knows who he’s rejecting, or the kind of person interested in him.
They have this same conversation multiple times and it goes the same way, but things start to shift when, a year later, Kiyoomi’s the one receiving proposals and dodging ministers left and right, offering their sons and daughters.
They’re more persistent about it as well, some going as far as to petition the Emperor during court. His Father only laughs and passes the offers to Kiyoomi to later awkwardly reject.
Atsumu doesn’t seem to take it so well.
“They’re all so shameless! How many times do you have to say no before they get it? Do you need an Imperial Edict to be left alone?”
“It’s fine. This is to be expected. I’m the last shot they have in this generation for ties to the Imperial Family.”
Atsumu scoffs. “You’re really getting a big head out of this, aren’t you?”
There’s an edge to his words that takes Kiyoomi aback. “Excuse me?”
“Don’t read too much into it. They don’t actually like you. You said it yourself, you’re just their ticket to Imperial influence.”
“Why the hell are you getting so worked up about it? It’s my business, not yours.” And because Kiyoomi always gives as good as he gets, he throws Atsumu’s words back at him, “You jealous?”
Atsumu’s mouth snaps close, knuckles clenched white. He throws the bokken down and stomps off without another word. He sees neither hair nor hide of Atsumu for a while after that, but he doesn’t look for him either.
Why should he? He doesn’t feel guilty at all, because first of all, Atsumu’s slighted pride is not his problem; and secondly, it’s groundless too. The ministers are persistent, but they’re all the same people. Atsumu still gets more different marriage offers in general, so it’s absolutely stupid of him to be competitive about this.
He ignores the silent treatment for the rest of the week until Hibarida-kensei firmly tells him he needs to put a stop to this, because he neither has time nor patience to be catering to Atsumu’s requests to be trained separately. He’s a little miffed to be the one made to clean up the mess, but he channels Osamu as best as he can and tries to be the better person.
Unfortunately, because of Kiyoomi’s previous track record for finding him, Atsumu has graduated from sulking in the palace to sneaking out to the taverns in the city. He banks on the fact that it’s much more difficult for Kiyoomi to sneak out when he has guards trailing after him the moment he nears the gate leading out to the city.
So Kiyoomi simply doesn’t sneak out. He confidently leaves the palace with guards in tow looking for his idiot. He will likely get a strongly worded — but still respectfully restrained — missive from one of the ministers tomorrow about the formalities and procedures he broke by going out into the city without notice, but that’s a problem for another day.
He has much more pressing things to worry about, such as the fact that he doesn’t, in fact, find Atsumu in any of the taverns. Instead, their thread leads him down the red-light district, and his stomach churns the deeper in he goes. Perhaps sensing his increasing discomfort, his guards tell him to stay behind but a combination of dread, doubt, and anger simmering in his gut makes him stubbornly push forward.
Their retinue finally stops at a small entertainment house, and several bystanders are looking at him in fear. He doesn’t know what kind of face he’s making, but he must look frightening right now.
He certainly feels livid when he barges into the room and finds Atsumu lounging about with the oiran draped by his side. Atsumu spits out his drink all over her when he sees him.
“Are you here to study or to be a whore?” Kiyoomi spits, his words laced with all the venom that slowly boiled inside him on the way here. “This tantrum ends today, Atsumu. If I see you here again, if you make me go here again, so help me I’ll pack your bags myself.”
Atsumu’s face goes pallid despite the empty bottles around him. “Om— Ouji-sama— I—”
He doesn’t wait for his explanation. He leaves Atsumu there to rot in the shameful hole he dug himself in.
His fury lasts for days, and Atsumu is wise enough not to try to approach him. Kiyoomi tactfully ignores the looks Hibarida-kensei sends him and somehow steers clear of the topic through what has now become private lessons. The continued silence between them fuels the rumours of their tense rivalry, but contrary to what they say, Kiyoomi isn’t planning Atsumu’s murder or hatching some nefarious plot to send him back to Inarizaki in shame.
In fact, he pointedly doesn’t think of Atsumu at all or the intensity of his anger. He steers clear of the entire compound that holds Atsumu’s apartments, avoids the training grounds whenever he’s not needed there, and even resists hiding in the flower gardens where Atsumu usually finds him.
Instead, he spends his time by duck pond throwing grains across the water. Sometimes he forgets himself, and he throws with all his strength as if he can just cast his anger and all his feelings away like this. He swings his arm like it can dislodge the stupid thread that chains him to fate’s machinations.
But the thread holds strong, and it’s only a matter of time before Atsumu finds and corners him there, approaching with a basket of fruit as a peace offering. “Plums. Fresh, unfortunately.”
Kiyoomi stares him down, refusing to say anything.
Atsumu gulps and takes a deep, fortifying breath. “I’m sorry. It’ll never happen again. Nothing happened, first of all. I was only there to drink. The oiran, you know, they’re just entertainers—”
Atsumu feels Kiyoomi’s glare go frosty and wisely cuts off his excuses. “Right. Yes. Point is, never happening again, I promise you.”
He lets Atsumu squirm for a few more moments until he’s satisfied. Only then does he take the offered fruit and sits down on the grass.
Atsumu plops down next to him, their knees brushing. “I’m sorry for what I said too, before.”
Kiyoomi plops a few plums into his mouth. They were tart, but not as tart as they could be if dried. The juice is cloying on his tongue as he says, “You didn’t even have to be jealous.”
Atsumu’s hand stops midway into the basket. His whole body goes still. “What? What do you mean?”
“You still have more marriage proposals than I do. The ministers are persistent, yes, but they’re all the same people. I’m not the one getting offers from foreign lands and who knows where.”
Atsumu melts in relief, his body flopping to lean his whole weight against KIyoomi’s side. “Oh my god, Kiyoomi.” His breath is warm on his shoulder and some of his stubble scratches at his neck.
“Right, so you’re still winning if you’re being competitive about it. I still don’t care either way,” he says, stiffly.
Atsumu huffs another laugh against him and he feels it all the way down to his toes.
Later, when half the basket is empty and Atsumu’s head is still on his shoulder, he repeats himself in a soft voice. “Nothing happened, there. Nothing’s ever happened. They’re not… There’s no one else. I promise you, Kiyoomi.”
Kiyoomi’s seventeen when he finally accepts that maybe fate knows what it’s doing. There won’t be anyone else for him too.
“You know, the tales of Princes sneaking out to walk amongst the commoners like this usually ends with him getting killed,” Kiyoomi mutters drily. He’s twenty, and to an unsuspecting eye, he looks like every other tourist visiting the city for the festival. They both left the expensive robes and sashes back in the palace, and he has a rough scarf covering the lower half of his face.
Atsumu helped sneak him out of the palace compounds for the fun of it despite the fact that at this age, Kiyoomi was a master swordsman who could go wherever the hell he likes. Where that is, apparently, is in a crowded street in the Imperial City surrounded by stalls on both sides. Atsumu leads the way, weaving them through the throng of people and pointing out all the good stalls he remembers when he scouted the place yesterday.
“You need to stop listening to those terrible stories, Omi-omi.” He seems to find enjoyment in dropping the honorifics in public. Their disguises offer him the excuse to drop the formalities, and he’s milking it as much as he can. Kiyoomi only huffs at his antics and continues to trail after him, letting the thread guide his way.
They stop by a merchant’s stall, displaying crates of various teas. Atsumu points at one and says, “Osamu swears by this, claiming it puts him to sleep like a baby. It’s his favourite.”
“Your friend has a good eye, sir!” says the merchant. “This is specially imported because doctors and nobles swear by its calming aroma.”
Atsumu turns a smug grin at him, looking as if he discovered and developed the tea himself. “You haven’t been sleeping well, right, Omi-omi? You’ve got all those dark circles under your eyes, I might start calling you Omi-oni soon.”
Atsumu raises a finger, poking his brows just as Kiyoomi scowls on cue.
“You’re so predictable, Omi-omi,” Atsumu laughs. He orders a bag from the merchant who is understandably dumbfounded when he’s instructed to deliver it to the palace. “Have them send it to the Miya apartments.”
The merchant bows low and thanks them profusely, finally getting an inkling that his two customers were more than they seem. Atsumu and Kiyoomi wave him off and quickly step away before they gather any more attention.
“I thought you were buying them for me,” Kiyoomi says without thinking and purses his lips when he realises the opening he gave.
“Oh? A bit presumptuous of you, don’t you think?” Atsumu teases.
Years of experience tells Kiyoomi the best thing to do in this situation is not to engage. He pays no mind to Atsumu’s nudging and prodding, and it pays off because Atsumu huffs and says, “Of course they’re for you, who else is going to drink it? But telling him to deliver it to your courtyard would just be announcing who you are, wouldn’t it?”
“We could probably take on any attackers,” he says.
“And let everyone here witness and fall in awe of your skill?” Atsumu asks, indignant. “We can’t have you gathering fans like this. You don’t need the public support anyway.”
“Fans?” he repeats, bemused. “My brother has loyal followers. I’m just a swordsman.”
“Tell that to all the people begging to be your disciple every day,” Atsumu grumbles. “I already have to compete with wannabe swordsmen and noble daughters over you, don’t make me fight off everyone else in the Imperial City as well.”
Warmth blooms in Kiyoomi’s chest as it tends to do more and more often these days around Atsumu. “You’re being ridiculous. You don’t have to fight for me, don’t forget you’re meant to swear fealty to my brother.”
“Over, not for,” Atsumu mumbles under his breath. Raising his voice, he says, “Yeah, I better not have to fight anyone over you. Otherwise, I’m not sharing all that good tea anymore.”
“You’re not having it delivered over to me? I thought it was a gift.”
“It is,” Atsumu insists, nodding his head. “One you can only claim in my humble abode. Don’t worry, my apartments are always open for you, so make sure you come by often, okay?”
Kiyoomi shakes his head and laughs at Atsumu’s antics. He’s a regular visitor already, coming by almost every day, and they invariably end up arguing about one thing or another. Their raised voices regularly startle the staff who fan the rumours of their great rivalry. It’s gotten to a point where some ministers have pulled him aside to advise him about simply steering clear of Atsumu for the sake of his brother’s future relations with the shogunate.
He waves them off every time, assuring them he had a perfectly amicable relationship with Atsumu, but they never seem convinced.
They continue leisurely strolling through the main street when something catches Kiyoomi’s eye, drawing him to a stall selling various jewellery. There’s a nice jade tassel on display with a figure of an intricate fox carved into the face of its amulet. It reminds him of the stylised foxes around Musubi’s guard.
“Are you interested in this yellow jade, sir? This stone has many properties. Aside from good luck and good fortune, it also brings wisdom in silence and tranquillity to its owner. This stone will bring joy and happiness and can reveal our connections to each other,” the merchant explains.
Connections. It’s perfect for Musubi.
Kiyoomi sees the irony in all of this. He can see all these threads linking people together while Atsumu remains completely oblivious to everything, and yet he’s the one with that katana. Most of Kiyoomi’s problems would go away if this yellow jade really could reveal the threads of fate to Atsumu, but first, it has the insurmountable challenge of bringing silence and tranquillity to the man.
Kiyoomi buys the tassel anyway.
“Omi-omi! Don’t just disappear like that. Tell me when you stop next time. You almost gave me a heart attack when I thought I lost you,” Atsumu scolds, appearing beside him.
He left Musubi back in the palace as its gold carvings and ostentatious scabbard would immediately betray their status. Instead, he has a random katana strapped to his waist probably pilfered from the armoury; it’s where Kiyoomi stole his from, anyway.
“Here.” Kiyoomi hands him the tassel. “It’s supposed to give you good luck. Maybe if you hang it around Musubi you can finally beat me in a match.”
Wide-eyed, Atsumu looks between the tassel and Kiyoomi, confused. “W-Wha?” he sputters before his brain finally catches up to him. “What are you saying? I already beat you fair and square!”
“If I recall correctly, I’m leading by six points since our last match?”
“That’s just six points! I can recover twice that in our next match. Don’t make it sound like you’re that much better than me!”
“Am I not?”
They bicker all the way to the end of the street before Atsumu drags him in front of a food cart with boiling pots of some kind of stew on the counter. The broth is suspiciously foggy and tinted orange but the autumn wind blows its delicious aroma right onto Kiyoomi’s face, and his stomach growls.
Atsumu chuckles at the sound and orders for them both. The stew is apparently unagi, and Atsumu swears up and down it’s the best he’s ever had. They find a small table by the cart and wait for their food to be served.
“You know, sometimes Princes sneak out and get saved by a dashing hero. Other times, they sneak out and inadvertently save some beauty from a tragic fate. You need to find better stories like this, Omi-omi. Not everything is tragic.”
“You’re telling me I’m going to find the love of my life here?” He doesn’t gesture, but the point is made. There are at least three crying children in the background, an angry customer haggling with a disgruntled vendor a few stalls away, and the chair Kiyoomi’s sitting on wobbles on uneven legs. “I may only be third in line, but I still can’t be marrying some commoner.”
Atsumu hums. “Oh? Who would you deem worthy enough to marry, then?”
“Someone noble, ideally from a loyal military clan to consolidate Imperial power,” Kiyoomi repeats the drivel the ministers spout regularly now on the topic of his marriage. He’s heard the spiel enough times to repeat it word for word now.
“If you weren’t beholden to them.” Atsumu elaborates, “If you had the freedom and no responsibilities, who would you choose?”
Kiyoomi doesn’t like this line of questioning because it’s a pointless hypothetical. He is beholden to his duties, and his soulmate is from a loyal military clan. There’s no point in considering any other scenario.
“My answer doesn’t change. Someone from the military clans,” he says.
“What if the ministers make you marry from the rebelling daimyos? To pacify the unrest? Or to a foreigner to negotiate alliances?”
“They won’t, because they know it’s a pointless endeavour. One marriage isn’t going to quell years of dissatisfaction with the samurai’s dwindling power. The court is better off if my marriage reaffirms the Imperial Family’s support of the diplomatic regime.”
“Are you really determined to marry for convenience?! Even in this hypothetical?” Atsumu groans. “Don’t make it sound so perfunctory, Omi! This doesn’t have to be a duty!”
“That’s not what I said at all! What’s your answer then?” he snaps.
Atsumu goes a little red in the face, looking away and mumbling to himself. Kiyoomi kicks him under the table. “Speak up.”
“I said, I’ll marry for love! Sheesh.” Atsumu’s face is properly red now and he refuses to make eye contact. He retaliates with a kick of his own but doesn’t draw his leg back after it hits Kiyoomi’s shin.
“That’s a cop-out. Your answer is no better than mine.”
“Yes, it is! I’m only going to marry the person I love; status is entirely coinci—immaterial. Whereas you’re saying you’ll take anyone with the right title!”
“As if you have a choice in the matter.”
“I do! Mine’s a choice, not duty.”
Doubtful. Atsumu as the firstborn son of the shogun has even less of a choice than Kiyoomi. There’s only a handful of other people that would be even remotely appropriate or acceptable. “So, you’re telling me you’re going to marry outside your station?”
The heat has spread to Atsumu’s ears now and his flush only gets darker. “ No . I- I mean. If I marry, it won’t be because our ranks dictate it. It’ll be because I love— that person.”
“Then I don’t see the difference between our answers.” Kiyoomi’s tired of being hounded about marriage. Both his oldest brother, the Crown Prince, and his sister are already married with several kids each. His second brother is happily engaged too. There’s a surplus of heirs around, so he doesn’t see the need to rush him.
The thread laying stark on the table already brought to him the person he’s meant to be with. He doesn’t feel the ministers’ urgency to start looking for an appropriate match because there’s no one more appropriate than the shogun’s first son. Fate already gave him Miya Atsumu.
Atsumu just isn’t ready yet. He still needs his ego stroked by the admirers that follow him around, by the perfumed ribbons he receives, by the daily offers of marriage he declines.
They still regularly bicker and compete over the smallest things. Kiyoomi’s cutting and Atsumu emotional. Sometimes they don’t talk for days after a bad fight. Atsumu is irresponsible and Kiyoomi has too many responsibilities.
Fate already gave him Miya Atsumu, but neither of them were ready for each other yet.
“Do you, then?” Atsumu asks. “Have someone you love, or even like, I mean?”
“Do you?” Kiyoomi throws back.
A prolonged silence follows, neither willing to be the first to break it.
The cook eventually interrupts, popping up with their order in hand. “Unagi for two!” he calls, carefully placing two steaming bowls on the table. “Long, prosperous lives as long as these noodles for both kind sirs.”
Neither of them bring it up again, but Atsumu’s leg continues to rest against his and Kiyoomi lets it.
The idyll doesn’t last.
In the winter of Kiyoomi’s twenty-second year, the political unrest boils over and the daimyo’s rebellion spreads west. Honour compels Atsumu to return to defend Inarizaki Castle, so Kiyoomi sits in his waiting room, watching his messy room slowly go barren.
Atsumu’s best calligraphies, some poems, scripts, even a painting Atsumu stole from him when they were kids, they’re all taken down from the walls. All the small trinkets he accumulated over the years are carefully stored in chests. What little books and scrolls he must have had are probably carelessly thrown aside somewhere.
Kiyoomi watches him pack away every piece of himself. The only thing left on display is Musubi, still perched securely on the stand above an ornate dresser.
“You don’t have to take everything back with you. There are hundreds of apartments in the Imperial Palace, we aren’t so poor we can’t afford to keep this one for you even when you’re away.” He sulks but doesn’t pout, no matter what Atsumu says.
“Everything here is important, Omi-omi. I don’t really want to leave anything behind in case I suddenly miss it.”
Kiyoomi pointedly picks up the painting of his sister he did when he was still learning, one eyebrow raised. It looks like a child’s painting, because it is, and it’s one of his earlier attempts at painting her too. All the lines are shaky, making her hair look curlier than it is, as curly as his even, and his strokes then were too bold to capture her soft feminine lines, giving her a stronger jaw and nose.
Atsumu grabs at it and clutches it to his chest. “Like I said, important.”
“I can always send whatever you need.”
“Not everything,” he mutters bitterly under his breath, carefully putting away the painting and the pieces of his armour. When they’re wrapped as best as he can, he turns and gives a worried look towards Kiyoomi who still sits in a daze. “Be careful, okay?” he warns, “You need to watch your back, Omi.”
“Shouldn’t I be saying that to you? You’re the one going off to battle,” he replies, blankly staring at the yellow jade tassel hanging from the scabbard. Good luck and good fortune, the merchant had said.
“Yes, but we both know the real battle is here in court.” Atsumu approaches, kneeling to meet Kiyoomi’s eyes. “Omi.”
“I’m the third son, they have more pressing things to worry about—”
“Kiyoomi,” Atsumu interrupts, leaning forward. He takes both of Kiyoomi’s hands between his calloused ones. The red thread is tangled all around their hands like fate trying desperately to keep them together.
“I know how this goes. I’ve heard enough stories. Whatever happens— Whatever they say, you have to believe me when I say my family would never betray the Imperial line, okay?”
It feels like a heavy curtain fell over them, making his hands feel clammy between Atsumu’s grip. “My Father would never believe rumours like that. He has full faith in the shogun’s loyalty.”
“And you, Omi?” he asks, stepping closer.
“Of course, I… You…” Kiyoomi stutters. Atsumu is so close, he can probably count the lashes on his eyes. If he leans an inch closer, their noses would touch. “You…”
“I’m yours, Kiyoomi. The daimyos have their samurai and Emperors have their shogun, but I swear Musubi and I are yours, Kiyoomi.” He says, bringing their hands up and placing a long, lingering kiss on his knuckles, reverent.
“You must know. All this time. To you… I...”
“When you come back,” Kiyoomi interrupts abruptly, his voice cracking as it passes through the heart caught in his throat. He coughs, looking away. “When you come back as victors, you can petition the Emperor for a reward. A title like your father’s, more land or…”
He feels his face burn and Atsumu’s touch has become electrifying. It’s a battle to meet his gaze again, but when he does, he’s consumed by gold fire. There’s fierce determination in Atsumu’s eyes, his grip now so tight it’s almost painful.
His gaze flickers to Kiyoomi’s lips, and Kiyoomi forgets how to breathe when Atsumu slowly leans in, stopping only when there's a hair's breadth between them and lingering there for what feels like an eternity. It's an offer, one Kiyoomi neither has the courage to take nor the selflessness to refuse.
Atsumu sighs, and lets go of his hands to softly cradle his face, tilting his head to place two kisses right on the moles above his brow instead. It feels so familiar, like a lingering instinct from a past life.
“Wait for me, Kiyoomi.”
So Kiyoomi waits.
He waits by the warm brazier inside his room, looking outside the window as the snow covers the courtyard in white. Even under piles of blankets, he feels cold.
In the mornings, he waits in the grand audience hall, keeping an ear open for news and reports during morning deliberations. Motoya has taken over most of his father’s duties as one of the Emperor’s equerries in the Ministry of the Centre and receives most of the missives addressed to the court. His cousin relays these reports and in these moments, Kiyoomi holds his breath as he hears of Atsumu’s leadership of the vanguard, of body counts and injuries, of battles won and battles lost.
Military concerns are typically left to the shogun to manage, but the unrest has gotten to a point where even the Imperial Palace can’t remain distant. In these matters, he becomes his brother’s adviser, directing the acquisition and allocation of supplies and levies. On days when that isn’t enough to quell his anxiety, he trains with the palace troops hoping every hit they learn to block and every block they overcome is another victory for Atsumu.
When the sun returns and the grass turns green again, he spends his afternoons waiting under the wisterias like he used to, as if Atsumu is only minutes away from finding him and dragging him to another function. He’ll look wistfully at the red thread leading straight west, disappearing past the garden walls like it did when he was a kid, except this time he knows where it ends.
This is where Motoya usually finds him these days, passing on the private letters with Kiyoomi’s name on the front. It’s never signed, but they always come attached to the messages from the Seisei Taishogun smelling like soot and the clove oil Atsumu uses to polish his weapons. It doesn’t smell as obnoxious as it used to, and he wonders when he stopped minding the scent and started finding comfort in it.
My father commented on my sudden addiction to umeboshi. I still don’t like how they taste, but they’re a little comforting now.
The daimyos are getting harder to predict and my father’s barely keeping his temper in check. On the bright side, I’m getting better at using the spear. I could probably beat you now. Spar with me when I get back?
The wisterias are blooming and they remind me of the Imperial Gardens. I never understood why you liked them so much, but I’ve found my own reason to appreciate them. Sometimes, I think if I part the flowers, I’ll find you there. I
There’s an old lady here that makes really sour strew. You would definitely like this. I wrestled her for this recipe for you, so just as a head’s up, I might be coming home with a new title about conquering old ladies. You better accept me anyway!
Home. By all accounts, Atsumu’s already home. Those are his ancestral lands he’s defending. The palace is not his home, for all that he has private rooms here that are still being reserved for him even now. Kiyoomi gets it, though. The palace is his home, but it hasn’t felt like it for a while.
Sometimes, when there’s a messenger heading there or Imperial Guards being sent as reinforcements, Kiyoomi will respond.
I have the maids serve me some tuna now. One of the cooks has found a nice way to prepare it so it’s tangy. You won’t like it.
A travelling merchant arrived at court. I got some nice silks for your mother and the tea you mentioned Osamu liked. They should have received the gifts before you get this letter.
The Kageyama boy you used to bully has joined the Imperial Guards. Will you be pleased to know I beat him easily when we spar? He improves drastically with every match, however. Come back soon if you don’t want him to surpass you.
They say the rebellion will surrender soon. They can’t keep this up for much longer.
IThe court eagerly waits for your return. I’ll make sure Father replaces your new title with something better. You only need to claim it.
He hears nothing after sending that last letter, but that’s no surprise. If court gossip is to be believed, the addition of Imperial Guards to the shogunate’s forces would have already suppressed any rebellion. Atsumu would likely be on his way back already bringing the good news himself.
Kiyoomi is twenty-three when his wait finally ends. A messenger soldier suddenly enters the morning court one day, bowing low before the throne with a rolled-up scroll in hand.
“Your Majesty. A message from Inarizaki.”
Motoya approaches the messenger and reads the letter. Their eyes meet when he looks up, but he doesn’t have the excited look Kiyoomi always imagined he would on this day. Instead, there's horror in his eyes as he reports:
“The Seisei Taishogun’s regiment was ambushed on their way back to Inarizaki. He and his first son, Miya Atsumu, fell in battle. Miya Osamu now leads the shogunate.”
Kiyoomi’s ears ring. He feels his blood run cold and his chest cave in.
You never have to worry about being alone.
There won’t be anyone else.
Wait for me, Kiyoomi.
The words echo in his ears, vicious in their mockery.
He looks down in betrayal at the red thread still tightly wound in his finger. It’s still leading west, but where does it end now? How long until he only has a red stub hanging from his finger? Will it be as short as their time together?
He doesn’t understand. There was nothing standing in their way, not rank, not loyalties, not duty. So why did things turn out like this?
Fate promised him Atsumu, a partner in life and the other half of his soul, so why is he now standing amidst a cacophony of distressed murmurs from dozens of ministers, officials and advisers, feeling so, so alone?
He feels his throat seize. Where once Kiyoomi had his heart lodged, now he only feels bitter, acidic bile. His hands shake, recalling Atsumu’s hold over them just before he left. The phantom touch is cold.
Fate promised him a lifetime together, and he got it. He just wasn't aware that lifetime would be so short. Perhaps he’ll fare better in the next.
Komori must have cleared his schedule or made excuses for him because no one bothers Kiyoomi after that. He’s absent-minded for days, only going between his courtyard and the flower gardens.
He’s not aware of much else, but Osamu must have arrived a few days after the messenger. Who knows how long he was harangued by the court, playing the part he never expected to play, but Osamu eventually finds him hidden away atop the branches.
Kiyoomi isn’t prepared for the familiar face parting the curtain of blooms like a cruel imitation of everything he dreamed of for months. He has to shut his eyes and turn his head away, but even the timbre of their voice is similar.
“I’m sorry, my presence probably makes it worse for you right now.”
“Don’t be stupid. I can’t imagine how you must feel.” Of all people, Osamu would understand the hollowness, the all-consuming void from having your other half ripped from you.
Who feels more bereft, he wonders. Osamu was robbed of someone he's had his whole life, and Kiyoomi was robbed of someone he should have had for the rest of his.
“I’m not gonna lie and say it’s good to see you, but I’m glad you’re here, Osamu.”
Osamu approaches the tree tentatively, carrying Musubi and a cloth bag with him. “I brought some stuff for you, stuff that’s yours.”
Kiyoomi drops down to join him on the grass, gingerly taking the katana from Osamu. He trails his hand along the jade tassel and finally lets the tears fall.
“He always said he and his sword were yours,” Osamu says, softly. “He was always rubbing that amulet too.”
Untying the rope holding the bag together reveals an assortment of familiar things, each one more difficult to swallow than the other.
The letters he sent, their old calligraphies, the failed portrait, several other things he either gave Atsumu or Atsumu stole from him. Choked sobs tear out of his chest and he crumples down under the weight of the grief.
The tears fall in streams; months of waiting and anxiety, days of confusion and anger, and a lifetime to go pouring out of him in a torrent.
Osamu lifts the painting. “He brought this with him everywhere, even to the encampments. He’d tell people it was a portrait of the most beautiful person alive, and you can bet he was endlessly mocked for it. He never said who, but you should know by now he’s never looked at this and seen your sister.”
Kiyoomi’s shaking now and every word from Osamu wrings the sobs out of him.
“Please,” Kiyoomi finally manages, shaking his head and covering his ears. This means nothing. Would knowing who he carries around with him everywhere change the fact that he’s gone? It changes nothing. “Don’t…”
He doesn’t need this. He can’t hear this. He knows what Osamu wants to say, but he's already lost enough. He lost a rival and a best friend. He doesn’t have it in him to lose anything more.
Osamu puts a gentle but firm grip on his arm, prying it away from his ear. “Just because neither of you admitted it doesn't make it any less real. Both of you danced around it for years, and for what? Why? Pardon the insolence, but I’m not doing this for you, Kiyoomi-ouji. There are letters there, ones he never sent because he said getting to say it in person would be a reward. He was ready to rush over here to finally tell you.”
Kiyoomi weeps harder, gasping at air like it can feel the hollowness inside him. He holds Musubi close to his chest, hoping to borrow some of Atsumu’s strength to bear Osamu’s next words.
“He really loved you.”