Remnants of a Voice and a Smile.
Dan Hiri's first letter to summon him arrived a few days alter Wolfram's tenth birthday. In the letter, his father narrated a few of his most recent adventures (because even if they had barely seen each other in almost fifteen years, his father sent him letters faithfully) and then said that, if he wanted and Celi agreed, he'd be waiting near the human border down the west for a week – it took at least three days to get there – that he should take his sword and a few more vital things, and that he should be prepared to be away of Shin Makoku for at least six months.
Gwendal had been livid. "Stupid human!" He muttered angrily, face frowning. "Calling you like that as if he didn't know you've responsibilities!" And then he had stalked away, muttering under his breath about needing yarn and Anissina having taken his needles away.
Wolfram's father had just raised an eyebrow before he stood up, going out of the room without another word, nor for his wife or his child, just like everytime Dan Hiri was mentioned. Meanwhile, Celi had been just looking at him, and then she sighed.
"You really want to go, don't you?"
Conrad hesitated for a second, looking at the sadness hidden inside his mother's eyes, and then towards the words his father had sent; he didn't dare to look towards Wolfram's confused expression before he nodded.
Celi sighed before standing up. She leaned softly, kissing his forehead and cupping his face before she smiled and gave a faint nod.
"I'll tell Günther to make the arrangements."
After giving Wolfram a kiss too, Celi walked out of the room. Conrad wasn't fooled by his mother's smile and he felt the guilt settling deep in his throat at causing her sadness. All that before he felt his baby brother's hand close over the hem of his jacket, looking up at him with wide, confused green eyes.
Trying to swallow even more guilt, Conrad smiled, picking up Wolfram and setting him against his hip, brushing a few bangs away from his eyes.
"Wolfram, you're already a big boy, right?" Conrad gave a soft grin, trying to think of a way to break the news to his baby brother that he wasn't going to be near him for months, when just staying away for a day or two made them both over clingy. The idea was almost enough to make him cry, after all. "Big like big brother, right?"
Wolfram's eyes were still confused, focused on him, small fingers playing with his jacket, starting to pout. "Little big brother, why was mama sad?"
"Well…" Conrad trailed off until he reached Wolfram's room, sitting down on the bed. Wolfram was still holding unto his shoulders, not taking his eyes off him. "Wolfram, I've told you about my father, remember?"
Wolfram gave a small nod, but said nothing else. Conrad tried not to squirm and instead smiled. "He wants to see me; I'm going to go on a journey with him."
At that, Wolfram did smile, eyes lit with adoration. "Really? A trip? Like big brother's trips?"
Gwendal - who had started his military training four years ago - had started going out in relatively-safe campaigns, and he frequently brought back small presents for Wolfram of the places he visited and Wolfram, as every small kid, was very fond of these. Conrad made the mental note to try and bring as many souvenirs as possible for his baby brother, but he nodded, smiling.
"That's right. A training trip, just like big brother's."
"When're we going?" Wolfram asked. Before Conrad could answer, heart plummeting towards that place where all the guilt was growing alarmingly fast, like fungus, Wolfram had squirmed off his lap, running towards a his toys and picking an armful before dropping them on the mattress, smiling and heartbreakingly excited. "I'm taking these!"
"Wolfram, no…" Conrad swallowed, kneeling over the floor, turning his brother towards him again. He cleared his throat and tried to smile. "I'm the only one that's going. The trip is too long for –"
"No!" Wolfram's face broke down, tears swelling over his eyes and then spilling over Wolfram's cheeks, his lower lip trembling. "I want to go too! Little big brother, don't go!"
The guilt gnawed at him again, heavier than before, even as he gathered Wolfram in his arms and the boy held on tightly to him, sobbing against his chest.
"You need to stay here to take care of mother," Conrad added hopefully but Wolfram's sobs didn't stop, nor his hands released his jacket.
Feeling like the world's worst brother, Conrad held Wolfram softly, rubbing his hand over the small back and hair, pressing kisses on top of the blond locks.
"I'll be back soon, Wolfram, I promise. You won't even realize I'm gone."
After having been gone for almost four years, opening his eyes and finding the clear, deep blue skies of Shin Makoku was like getting back part of his soul; Conrad closed his eyes, taking a deep a deep breath as he smiled at the sky, thinking 'I'm home. I'm home.'
He was a little surprised at how four human-years, four years lived in a place like Earth, could go so fast, while in four mazoku-years so little seemed to have happened, despite Julia dying, or his absence in the world.
It was both a terrifying and humbling discovery, to walk through Blood Pledge Castle halls again after having met the baby who was going to be their Maou in a few years, praying for Yuuri to have some of Julia's kindness and wisdom in him.
Once he got to the courtyard where the soldiers where training, Conrad couldn't help but give a – somewhat – surprised smile when he saw Wolfram parrying.
He berated himself for being surprised; he should have expected it, after all. Wolfram had been anxiously waiting to start his military career and he had finally started it by the end of the war; four years after that, it would have been obvious to expect his brother's technique to improve.
When it seems that the other cadet, a young man that was probably around Wolfram's age, was advancing, making Wolfram take a few steps back, Conrad worried and thought of stepping out of the shadows if the 'casual' sparring that he supposed it was got too heated – Shinou knew that Wolfram didn't know how to restrain himself even when he should – but the blond mazoku surprised both him and his adversary by dodging and leaning over the floor, just enough so that he could knock the balance of the other teen with the flat of his sword and take advantage of that to point his sword directly to his throat.
It had been one of his favorite moves, Conrad reminisced while he tried to convince his eyebrows to get down from his hairline, when he had been the equivalent of Wolfram's age. But it was a move that, despite looking fancy, rarely worked in a real battle situation so he had mostly done it for shows, every now and then when he had decided to indulge his ego (he had been young and reckless, once upon a time); to know that Wolfram had used that particular move, made him wonder just how many other moves his younger brother had copied and hadn't displayed, that particular set of thoughts leaving an unpleasant taste in his mouth.
The taste increased when he tried to think of a way in which he could tell his brother that and not get Wolfram to decide that, in order to spite him, he was going to do them more often.
He was startled out of his thoughts by hearing the cheers of the cadets that had been watching the practice; the small group that was surrounding the prince was looking up at him with no small amount of respect, even the one that Wolfram had defeated didn't seem angry. Wolfram seemed pleased, too, the starts of a smirk – as close as Wolfram usually got to a smile when there was people watching him – playing over his lips, giving nods here and there even as he dried his sweat with a towel one of the other teens had handed him.
"You've improved a lot, Wolfram," Conrad called once the cadets had gone, not wanting to embarrass his brother; Wolfram wouldn't care that there were other people before lashing out at him, and the least he could do was to avoid him a bit of that.
"I'm not a stupid half breed that has been sitting on his ass for the last four years, traveling to Shinou knows where!" Wolfram huffed, leaving the towel around his neck even as he glared towards him, even when there was a small amount of worry leaking into his displeased tone; even smaller, the hints of an 'I missed you!' that, Conrad convinced himself, was implicit.
Conrad gave a faint nod, instead focusing over the small ways the blond had changed over four years. He worried over a dark stain on Wolfram's trousers and when Wolfram shifted, favoring the injured leg, Conrad took notice of a tear over it, as well as the wound that hadn't stopped bleeding, and bit on the urge to tell Wolfram to go with Gisela immediately so he could get it healed.
"It was, indeed, a great fight. Are you okay?
"Of course I'm okay! Why wouldn't I be?" Wolfram clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, pushing by his side; Conrad was relieved to notice that, despite the wound on his leg, his limp was barely noticeable. "Stupid human."
Conrad accepted the insult with a the kind of sighs people give upon accepting an unexpected storm, although his relief did increase when he saw that Wolfram was walking down his way towards the infirmary.
Conrad tried very, very hard to not be amused (or at least to hide his amusement as much as possible) as he watched Wolfram triple-check that Greta had everything she could possibly need, as if instead of going to spend a few days at sir Brischella's house she was going all the way down to Cabalcade (and he dreaded autumn, when that trip was going to happen, since princess Beatrice had extended an invitation for her birthday party).
"And be sure that you-"
"Say 'please' and 'thank you' and 'would you mind?' and be certain to pick up after myself because even if I'm a princess I shouldn't cause other people more trouble," Greta recited, before she pulled her puppy eyes. "Are you sure it's okay if I go?"
Conrad hid his amusement behind a cough; not too long ago, it had been him the one getting that look from his younger brother, and it had been him the one reciting what Wolfram should or shouldn't do when he had been preparing to go in one of his trips.
Wolfram swallowed; Conrad was ever so glad that he wasn't in his brother's place, because he had a long story of his resolve not faring well against puppy eyes and Greta was proving that she was a master. Wolfram finally shook his head and smiled; after all, it had been him the one to suggest that perhaps it'd be better if Greta spend a few days over the von Voltaire lands, so that she wouldn't be as reminded of Yuuri as she currently was doing over the castle.
Although she wasn't the only one missing their kind hearted king.
"Of course it's okay," Wolfram said, kissing Greta's forehead as he walked her towards the carriage. "Be careful?"
Greta's giggle carried on the wind, even as she wrapped her arms around Wolfram's waist to hug him tightly before his brother helped the girl over the carriage, and Conrad bid his farewells silently, moving to stand up next to Wolfram as they watched the carriage part. Wolfram was smiling, waving silently at Greta's promises of coming home soon; Conrad risked a glance towards his brother and confirmed his suspicion, Wolfram's eyes were deep and sad. Not because Greta was spending a few days away, at least not completely; mainly it was because Yuuri had gone too, and they weren't sure when he'd come back, if he ever did.
Conrad kept a sigh and moved a hand to Wolfram's shoulder, squeezing softly. It still gave him a pleasant surprise when Wolfram didn't reject his touch, even more when he actually acknowledged it like he was doing, giving a faint nod even as he sighed.
Conrad repeated the squeeze before deciding to try his luck again; he couldn't, perhaps, hold his younger brother as he had done when Wolfram had been a little boy and kiss the pain away, but he could try his best to be there for the young prince.
He wasn't, after all, the only one that missed Yuuri, and Conrad could relate all too well to the idea of resigning yourself to the fact that you, perhaps, were never going to see your loved one again.
"Do you have some free time, Wolfram?" When his brother turned to look at him, rising an eyebrow, Conrad took his hand of his shoulder, smiling. "We've all been so busy with the reconstruction that I'm starting to feel my arm a little stiff."
He lamented his poor choice of words when Wolfram's eyes immediately went towards the arm that he could've lost, but he smiled at his brother. Wolfram finally huffed, turning towards the inner courtyard without another word. Conrad smiled, shaking his head before he followed Wolfram's lead.
Conrad realized it had been a while since he and Wolfram had last parried when the handicap he mentally gave him diminished with each thrust, save and move his brother made. Not only that, he wondered when it had been that Wolfram had finally stopped copying his style and had started developing his, something that would compliment his Maryoku instead of burdening it.
Once he finally disarmed Wolfram, they both were sweaty, dirty and completely out of breath. When Wolfram collapsed on the floor, Conrad followed suit, feeling better than he had in weeks; for the smile that was threatening to form over Wolfram's lips, he wasn't the only one.
"You've improved a lot!" Conrad complimented. Wolfram seemed to try to raise his chin, but Conrad thought he seemed rather pleased, instead of haughty.
"I had to! With that good for nothing wimp–"
Conrad didn't bother hiding his sigh when he saw Wolfram's face fall down after his own mistake and he felt impotence settling down once again; even if he couldn't stop his brother from being hurt, even if he needed those experiences to grow up, the part of Conrad that had been terrified and frozen after the Shinou had taken Wolfram's heart still wished there was a brotherly way of making everything better.
"I wish it had been me," Conrad said finally, shaking his head and looking towards the sky, hoping that the Great Sage had been wrong, that he and Yuuri found a way to come back to Shin Makoku. He looked back when he felt Wolfram's eyes on him and he smiled, shrugging one shoulder, elaborating. "I wish it had been me the one that had stayed away, so that His Majesty would've been able to stay here."
Wolfram looked at him as if he had grown another head before he huffed, rolling his eyes and standing up.
"Stupid. As if you going away forever would've been better," Wolfram said, dusting his trousers, and Conrad stared for a moment, unsure that he had really heard what Wolfram had said.
Then Wolfram turned and offered his hand to help him up; there was a soft, hesitant, almost hidden smile deep in his eyes, the kind of smile that Wolfram had stopped giving him once he found out he was half human.
Conrad was unable to stop the smile that covered his lips as he accepted his hand, squeezing softly. He felt Wolfram squeeze back, briefly, for a moment, before he let go, huffing.
"Come on! You were the one that wanted to practice," Wolfram huffed once more, turning around to take his stance. Conrad looked at him for a moment before he smiled to himself and he moved to take his stance too.