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Takao was scared to reach out and touch Minami sometimes, half-afraid that if she did, he would simply dissolve into fine golden dust and she’d be left gasping in the aftermath, choking on it. Protecting Minami came to her naturally, out of a longstanding habit, and the same pull of destiny that had bound her to a Princess inside the castle made of stone and light. Minami’s smile was just like hers, too, except when it was not , and he directed some of them at Takao often enough to make her feel displaced.

She was Rida. She was always going to be Rida. There was no strict division between her and Rida the way Minami was able to separate Veronica from himself – from habit and a sense of self-preservation, she surmised. But Rida and her goals aligned so neatly that she wasn’t sure if she needed to separate herself. Rida felt more like an addition rather than a separate existence to her. She cared about Minami, wanted him safe, and those were exactly Rida’s thoughts as well. Protect the Princess at all costs.

Minami wasn’t exactly a princess , but then he was. He was her when he wished to be, and he’d revert to being Minami Harusumi as if someone had flipped a switch. It did not make him any less precious. And so Takao hefted her baseball bat over her shoulder like she meant business, and voluntarily kept guard outside rooms when Minami dealt with this and that – her job wasn’t to make decisions. No, her job was to keep him safe.

Though she was one of the few people who felt the least amount of internal discord and mental strife from her past self’s memories than the others, that did not free her from the looming shadows of nightmares and lingering trauma from the war. She couldn’t remember her death at all, only the gut-wrenching knowledge that she had failed to protect Veronica to the end.

It was her greatest failure – one that she was not going to repeat if she could help it.

So she put the appropriate distance between her charge and herself, to make sure she could guard him from all sides, and took her duties very seriously. The fact that Minami Harusumi was also her boyfriend became a concept she could contemplate when at home, unable to occupy herself with his safety, burning with the sting of her shortcomings.

Princess Veronica had always been an existence so far removed from her that she couldn’t even imagine asking for more than she’d already been given.

She really couldn’t, not when there was Glen’s issue to consider. No matter how good Minami was at keeping the two lives apart, love wasn’t something that could be so easily compartmentalized and set aside. She could see it in his eyes when he looked at Ootomo, and that spoke volumes about how he’d feel if Glen were to turn up again in this life.

A part of her – a small, petty and hideous one – wished that Glen would never ever reappear in their lives, regardless of the promises made.

Even if Veronica claimed she and Glen had never been in love – Rida knew better – and even if Minami reassured her that he, Minami Harusumi, loved Takao Haruko here and now, a part of her was always scared to hold him too tight, to linger too long too close.

Rida’d had absolutely no chance at Veronica’s heart as she had been too stoic to understand her own feelings and act upon them. Takao had realised her feelings and reciprocated Minami’s just before Rida returned to her, which was ultimately a good thing. Now Takao could stay next to him all she wanted. There were still too many people who could legitimately take Minami away, still. Ootomo could, so could Eugene, whenever Zeze remembered himself, and worst of all, Glen.

Destiny was far too strong for Takao to resist and it had already begun to move.

 


 

Though she had reassured her mother, she wondered if it was easy to accept fate if one were resigned to it from the very start. She was not, even though she knew there was no escaping it in this life. She was born to a family of Knights, one that had served the royals as bodyguards since time immemorial. One of a girl with discord in her heart wasn’t enough to change the system. She belonged to the Razarasare house, and this was her destiny. She couldn’t fight it, but it was harder to accept than she had imagined in the small of the night. Now, when faced with the reality of being bound together with a master for life. For someone she’d be expected to lay down her life.

It had been easier when Veronica was no more than a concept in her head. The real person wasn’t what she’d been expecting at all.

Veronica was a vision. Clad in a silken cerise gown, her long blond hair fluttering gently in the wind. Rida’s chest tightened with something not quite apprehension. And then Veronica smiled .

That, Rida concluded, was decidedly unfair.

Accepting an inescapable fate was much easier if you wanted it. Veronica hadn’t even done yet to earn Rida’s loyalty yet, but Rida knew, without a shadow of doubt, that she’d die for this person. Had Veronica only been a man, Rida could have at least mistaken it for love at first sight.

 


 

Veronica’s eyes were warm in the firelight. It reflected gently off her pupils and gave Veronica an otherworldly look. As if she wasn’t quite real. Rida had to suppress her natural instinct to reach out and make sure that Veronica was right there. Solid and warm. Real.

Sensing the gaze upon her, Veronica turned to look at her with an inquisitive expression. There was still a hint of pleased smile lingering at the corner of her lips – an aftereffect to the news of the arrival of clergy from the monastery. The place where Veronica had grown up, with the people she had spent her childhood. Rida wasn’t sure what the cloying feeling crawling up her throat was, but she dismissed it in light of Veronica’s painfully visible joy. She had so few reasons to smile like that, and while the Princess was a naturally cheerful person, her burdens were too many to count. Rida should have been glad to see her act her age.

Rida wished for a whole lot of things.

That day when Veronica insisted on taking a bath together, Rida only put up token resistance. It was pointless to argue with the Princess, and Rida did not mind as much as before. Still, it was the principle of the thing, and Rida was a woman bound by many. They tucked their limbs in the small, wooden bathtub, Veronica’s smooth, wet skin sliding against her and Rida closed her eyes, resting her the side of her head against the stonewall. Firelight flickered in one corner, giving the room a soft, warm orange glow, and Veronica was cast in half shadows.

Rida pretended not to see the naked expression on her face, so she kept her eyes shut purposefully. Didn’t pretend to notice when Veronica took her hand into her own, squeezing her fingers once and then simply holding onto them.

“Prince Eugene will be here soon,” she heard Veronica say into the quiet of the night, broken only by the lapping of water.

Rida nodded. She had heard as much a few days ago.

“I’m not unhappy,” Veronica said, fingers lax in Rida’s palm. “I always knew something like this was going to happen.”

“As you say, your Highness.” No one was immune to the cruel pull of destiny. Not even a royal like the Princess.

“I’ve heard that Prince Eugene is a good man.” Veronica sounded a little dubious and Rida decided not to tell her what she had heard amongst the knights. “Well, I won’t get my hopes up in any case.”

Rida cracked open one eye and regarded the vulnerable slant of Veronica’s mouth. It was strange to watch the Princess act unsure of herself – but she, too, was human, and it was a privilege to be confided in. That the Princess trusted her enough to talk about her worries. Rida felt warmth that had nothing with the hot bath they were sharing.

I’ll protect you , Rida thought helplessly, knowing that it was her oath, so it had to go unstated. But also the fact that there was no way she could protect Veronica from her to-be-husband, if things did go bad between them. Would she knock down Veronica’s door and snatch her out of Eugene’s arms? She could imagine it: brandishing her sword in the face of a foreign dignitary, dyeing the blade red with blue blood of Moswick, clutching Veronica close to her chest. And then –

Then what, asked her traitorous mind.

The idea of making the Princess happy was too grand for her to entertain on her own. Maybe someone like Priest Carlo Verbrand could make Veronica happy, just by being there next to her – Rida had no such delusions about herself. Besides, she wasn’t sure what exactly her heart wished for, except to stay by Veronica’s side to her dying breath. To protect her, shield her with her own body, so that not even a hair of her golden head would be harmed.

Rida lifted her hand to her face, erasing the traces of her momentary weakness under the pretext of washing her face. Veronica certainly seemed to buy it.

The day of Veronica’s wedding was unusually bright and cheerful. They were married in the chapel, with Priest Carlo officiating the wedding. But as sunny as it was outside, the inside of the cathedral was almost as tense and gloomy. Sunlight poured through the tinted glass in red and blue hues, lighting up Veronica’s pure white gown. Her shoulders were set, visible under the veil, and Prince Eugene barely hid his distaste for the entire affair. It made Rida want to punch him in the face, not knowing just how lucky he was, and not appreciating the same.

She sat next to Glen Schreiber during the feast, not wanting to gaze upon Veronica’s tight smile for a second longer. She had no desire to see her Princess’ eyes so lacklustre. Glen poured her a generous amount of mead and they both nursed it while pretending to watch the feast. Words weren’t necessary between them, each perfectly understanding the acute sense of loss and helplessness the other felt, though perhaps not the depth of it. Between the two of them, they managed to make a sizable dent in the castle’s supply of alcohol, though Rida barely felt anything anymore.

And then right at the end, just as she had achieved the right amount of numbness to soldier on, Glen gave her a lopsided, bleary-eyed smile and said: “At least you can be next to her every single day.”

Rida considered it and then pursed her lips, wondering if the feeling like she was being knifed through her heart really a cause for celebration, but she kept her observations to herself.

 


 

Veronica was asleep propped against a tree as golden sunlight streamed through the branches overhead. Rida tried not to look too long as Veronica’s silhouette instead of her surroundings, keeping her guard up at all times. Prince Eugene was still around, probably wandering around the palace gardens to pass his time – Rida didn’t really care. She was more concerned by the person sitting on one of the castle walls, watching them from his vantage point. His golden hair was unmistakable, so was the taut look on his face. Rida’s fingers itched as she tore her gaze away from Veronica and scanned the area for any possible threats.

After another minute of inactivity, her eyes rested on Veronica again and she noticed Veronica scrunching her nose a little, shivering from the sudden gust of wind. Rida shrugged off her sun-warmed jacket immediately and covered Veronica with it, fingers brushing off Veronica’s soft curls away from her shoulders. She was cold to touch. Rida’s fingers curled over the curve of Veronica’s shoulders as she crouched over her, momentarily forgetting herself. Veronica twitched under her touch, jolting her back to the present and she let go.

When Rida straightened and went back to her post, she caught Glen looking her way, face unreadable. Rida stared straight ahead, unwilling to lower her gaze. After a beat, Glen gave her a close approximation of a smile and turned away. Just as well, Rida thought and gripped the hilt of her sword harder to forget the feeling of Veronica’s warmth from her skin.

 


 

Dust clogged her throat. Her clothes were splattered with blood and her arms ached from having been fighting for so long, but she barely felt it. So maybe it wasn’t dust after all. Rida brushed her face with the back of her hand, pushing away damp bangs and blinked. She had no idea how long the fight had been going on for, and how long it would be before the defences crumbled completely and the castle would be flooded with Moswick soldiers. Right now they were trickling in at a steady pace, but Rida knew for a fact that they would be overrun sooner or later. Though the castle housed Veronica, it did not quite have an army of its own. They would all be dead before any help arrived.

Rida swallowed around the hard lump in her throat and followed behind Veronica, not really seeing anything other than her back. She needed to protect Veronica – at least that much should be within her power. The limitations of her body weren’t so overpowering that she couldn’t keep her oath.

The castle shook from another impact, the arches around them crumbling from the force of it. Veronica went down on her knees and Rida huddled over her, shielding her with her body and hoping that her flesh and blood would be enough. The shaking stopped eventually, dust streaming from the roof coming gently to fall over their shoulders. Rida coughed and pulled away to check on Veronica’s injuries. She hadn’t sustained anything new, so that was a relief. As she went about pressing gently on Veronica’s ankles, a warm hand covered hers.

She looked into Veronica’s eyes, clear but brimming with pain. Words lodged in her throat as she cast about what to say. She knew that Veronica was capable of protecting herself if it came down to a magical battle, but something like a collapsed ceiling would still do her in. So she would stay right by Veronica’s side. She turned her fingers so she could hold Veronica’s hand and stood up, pulling Veronica back to her feet.

“I know you don’t really need my protection, but I’ll stay with you. If you’d let me.”

Veronica squinted, rubbing the dust out of her face and cleared her throat. “I never said you should leave . Just,” she paused, raising her hand in an abortive gesture towards Rida’s face. “I don’t want to watch you die.”

Oh.

“Because we are friends too, aren’t we?” Veronica asked, voice soft and young. “I don’t want to lose you, Rida. If this was a better world, if none of this had happened. If he hadn’t betrayed us all, we could have spent the rest of our lives together.” Veronica’s forehead touched hers, skin burning hot, and Rida could feel the unrestrained fury and desperation swirling inside Veronica’s frame.

“I’m sorry.”

“You shouldn’t be. This isn’t your fault.”

“That doesn’t matter.” Veronica tugged her hand away and stood on unsteady legs, eyes burning fiercely with her fiery will that now turned on the cause behind this destruction. Veronica had wished to lighten Rida’s burdens, but there was no way Rida could do the same for her. All she could do was to stand with her, as long as possible.

Everything around them was slowly falling apart: soon, the castle they both called home would be turned into rubble, and before that happened, Rida needed to get Veronica to safety. Bring her wherever she needed to go. It was the last duty she could perform for Veronica. If she could bring her one step closer to her goal, it would be enough. Until that time she would stick close to Veronica.

And only death, then, would do them apart.

 


 

The dusk cast purple-orange shadows across their desks, so familiar during daytime, but now converted into an alien, uncanny space with the displacement of light. Haruko stared at the beam of light resting comfortably over Minami’s black hair, making it glow. All around them were familiar faces: Hiroki, Ootomo, Midou and Teshimano. The ones who knew that Minami was Veronica, even though Teshimano was from Moswick, Haruko trusted him tentatively . Ootomo was going over a few details with Midou, probably related exclusively to the Church, in the background, while Hiroki and Teshimano played a casual game of tic-tac-toe, and Minami stared unseeingly at the blackboard. The same blackboard that had been defaced with Eugene’s challenge not long ago, and then filled in with Veronica’s reply. Haruko’s gut clenched unpleasantly – this certainly wouldn’t end well.

“You think they will reach out to us again? Is it really Eugene?” Midou asked, breaking the boundaries of us and them, and simply reverting to being Minami’s friend again.

Minami crossed his arms and considered it. “I would say so. They aren’t following Eugene’s orders, so they must be desperate to land one of the royals.”

If , Haruko thought, a little glumly, there were only two royals involved after all . She did not voice her thoughts, having had a long practice of keeping her silence. She was a bodyguard, had been one of the best, and a bodyguard was a shield. Her opinions – as Takao Haruko might be valuable, but when she was there to protect Minami, she held her peace. The baseball bat was a solid weight against her side, and she ran her hand over its wooden surface, drawing strength from it.

“Hah,” Teshimano said, inking out an X in the box. “Do they think they can just sway a royal to their side like that? By endangering everyone.”

“Maybe Eugene would be swayed, you never know,” Ootomo interjected.

Teshimano gave a careless shrug and waited for Hiroki’s next move, tapping his pen against the edge of the desk rhythmically. But Hiroki wouldn’t be hurried no matter how loudly he did that. After waiting for a few more moments for Hiroki’s next move, he continued, “I don’t want to be a part of all this, and yet I still get dragged around by the nose by one of you.” He looked at Minami pointedly. “I wonder how you keep your lives straight, really. I’ve been trying hard to stay out and it’s still so difficult.”

“It’s difficult,” Minami said, voice low and measured. “It’s difficult until you come to a point. I’ve had had years to get used to it, and I’ve realised something rather important.”

They waited as Minami seemed to consider his words, and as usual, everyone – even Hiroki – had abandoned their respective task to hear him out. The power of royalty, the presence and personality to draw someone’s attention and keep it held, Minami, despite being a normal Japanese teenager, still possessed it in ample quantities. Haruko realised she was holding her breath, so she let it go, exhaling softly into the fading light. Right before the moment Minami was done gathering his thoughts and resumed speaking:

“If our situations were reversed, if Veronica was here and Minami Harusumi was the one who had died, what or who do you think would be her first priority?” He asked, almost rhetorically, before continuing as if addressing a class,  “Her people. Her castle. The ones under her protection. Harusumi’s revenge could wait, the lives under her protection cannot. It’s the same for me: this school is like my castle now, and maybe,” he paused, cheeks gaining a bit of colour uncharacteristic of Veronica, “Maybe you guys would think that this is arrogant of me, but I can hardly help it. Though, I suppose that letting go of our past would be akin to wasting our deaths back then – but falling into the same mindset and continuing in the same vein is wasting our lives right here and now. So if I focus entirely on what was important to Veronica back then, I’ll let what is important to me right now slip away.” His gaze shifted then, sliding surreptitiously towards Haruko.

And Haruko –

She felt heat crawl in her cheeks, unbidden, as she was pinned under that warm regard, that open display of Minami’s feelings. That love – the love Rida had not been able to find inside Veronica’s gaze for herself, but had craved it subconsciously. Haruko lowered her eyes, trembling, as she felt something slot into place inside her chest. It filled her up and glowed brightly, like the entire universe expanding within her: a veritable supernova of the stars reflected in Veronica’s eyes at night.

Minami was right. He was absolutely right, but for the part where what Rida held most important wasn’t in conflict with Haruko’s desires. Rather, Haruko’s real wish was an extension of Rida’s, one that she had not been able to name while she had still drawn breath, but had passed it on to Haruko anyway. And Haruko cradled it within her palms, gentle and unhesitating, surrounding it with her own feelings, so that one could no longer tell where they came from. It was her attempt to separate them that had put the distance between her and Minami, so if she embraced it, and let it grow, she could build a bridge to him. Because she knew deep down that Minami was right there halfway, waiting for her.

So Haruko lifted her chin to meet Minami’s gaze still trained upon her, and she smiled.