Yuuri was back.
It shone on the servants, their busy chatter brighter than ever, those quick fleeting smiles less hopeful and more reassured when they greeted the nobles and waited on the guests. They'd put up a good front during the last few months, when many in the castle were prone to lash out rather than be cheered up, or to send the well meaning maids on their way with a noncommittal wave before sinking back into the sullen mood that permeated the air. Now those servants were validated. The Maou was back and all of their efforts to maintain a cheerful demeanor were rewarded. They'd never quite believed the king had left forever, and so viewed his eventual return as a matter of course. He was the 27th Maou of Shin Makoku. Of course he would not have abandoned his throne after serving for such a short reign.
Even Ao was different. His rider had been back for less than a week, too little time to have slipped off to the stables for a visit, let alone out for a ride that wasn't necessary. Somehow the horse still knew. He stood peacefully in his fancy stall, eyeing those who passed with a careless sort of interest. A mere week ago, he'd have rushed to push his head over the stall door, too dignified to cry out because he was, after all, a king's horse. He'd have caught Wolfram's sleeve if he could, and pulled it delicately until he was given some bit of attention. Now he was content to watch as another horse was chosen and led out of the stables.
Those in a position of power were naturally affected the most. Gwendal had less paperwork to do. He wasted no time ridding himself of the excess workload he'd acquired, so that he could focus on the more pressing issue of their faltering alliances. Their allies were not stupid. During the last few weeks they'd begun to suspect what those at Blood Pledge castle had hoped to keep from them, that the Maou had not simply left on another of his extended, but regrettably routine, absences from their world. Gunter had danced around their inquiries, doing his best to underplay the urgency of the situation, while Gwendal worked to strengthen their current treaties before the news spread. Now they were busy reassuring their allies, inviting the most recalcitrant ones to come to the castle and see for themselves that the Maou had returned, just as they'd been saying he would. Yuuri's return was as casual as if he'd never expected anything to change while he was away, so convincing him not to mention that he'd never planned or expected to return was a simple thing. Everyone was careful not to reveal what might have happened had his unexpected return been even a short month later, Shinou forbid the state they would have been in had he never returned.
Everyone was affected, whether they were validated, relieved, or simply happy to see their lovable king come home. Greta certainly fell into the latter category, throwing off her increasing depression and bouncing back with all the spirited resilience of a child too faithful and innocent to believe her father had truly intended to abandon her forever. With no more need to constantly monitor the child, Anissina was once more darting around the castle in preparation for another of her cross country women's liberation trips. Cecilie was determined to throw a celebration party for the newly returned king, which would conveniently double as a reception for those stubborn allies who had to see the Maou for themselves. And Conrad, who'd so soberly returned to his full time training of the foot soldiers and cavalry, was once more doubling as a baseball coach and running mate to the Maou and those who'd quickly begun to lose interest in the new sport just as it was about to take off as a regular pastime.
For Wolfram, nothing had changed. Or rather, everything had changed a second time. Yuuri's departure had meant the end of their engagement. Not officially, since there was still the need to maintain a front for those skittish allies. But as far as his duties were concerned, he'd gone back to training his elite guard, screening new candidates, and avoiding the castle as much as he had before he'd suddenly become the Maou's fiancé. As the third son, his responsibilities were few and relatively unimportant to the court. He'd been one of the few to leave the castle during those first months, drawn to look over the Bielefeld holdings, running border patrols and sweeps that had been relegated to Conrad's men when Yuuri had been ensconced in the castle. The only change after his brief stint as Yuuri's fiancé and personal guard was that he was more familiar with other lands, and the dangers to be found there. He introduced drills using hoseki. With more human allies than he could stomach, it shouldn't be difficult to find volunteers capable of using, and more than willing to use, those stones against his squad. He would have preferred to experiment outside Shin Makoku, where the real battles would take place and being able to use maryoku on human territory, against esoteric magic, would be essential. Unfortunately Gwendal and Gunter, and Conrad besides, contrived to keep him close enough to the castle that he could continue his front as 'fiancé to the soon to return king' until further notice. Now that Yuuri really had returned, it was no longer a front.
His soldiers watched him with varying degrees of wary doubt as he readied his horse and led them out of the courtyard. Only two of them had really known him before the engagement, the rest had come to expect his infrequent presence. These latter had taken the last few months' training poorly. He couldn't say they were lazy, precisely. They were not. They simply had grown accustomed to irregular training, spirited and violent, when Yuuri had done something particularly insulting, short and distracted, when Yuuri was about to take one of his unnecessarily dangerous excursions outside of Shin Makoku. He supposed they'd grown skittish of him, wary of his random mood swings, because they'd never seen him any other way. And the only Maou they'd ever served was too much a pacifist to bring them on his trips, forget using them in actual combat. For all that, they were dedicated soldiers, all but one of them skilled in majutsu, and loyal to a fault. He was proud of the progress they'd made these last few months. To see them suddenly revert to watching him as if they expected he would run off or explode any second now was infuriating.
True, he would eventually have to resume his place at Yuuri's side, most likely as soon as everyone finished assuring themselves that the king was really back, but that shouldn't have affected his squad like this. Their daily existence wouldn't change so much whether Yuuri was back or not. They'd continue to be trained by his second and third in command, who followed his orders whether he was present personally to oversee them or not. Few of them had ever seen Yuuri, and that only a few times immediately following the engagement when he'd been foolish enough to sneak the new king outside the castle himself. Most of the excursions took place on human lands, and so his squad had no use as guards to the king. That was unlikely to change, even with his new training regimen. And it wasn't as if any of them had ever spoken to Yuuri, not even Lukas and Daniel, who'd known Wolfram before he was old enough to control his own maryoku. Whether Yuuri was back or not should make no difference to them. Yet even those two were watching him with hooded eyes.
Well, then. He'd just have to prove through actions what not even his own mother believed through words. He'd changed to suit the engagement, and again after Yuuri left. He wasn't going to change yet another time just because Yuuri was back. Resuming his duties to his squad had been an embarrassing demotion after being important for so long. He'd borne enough pitying stares these last few months to last a lifetime. Did they really think he'd become the Maou's fiancé for the position? That he'd suffered the humiliation of being ignored and pushed away every single day just so he could have a title? Fiancé to the king. Certainly it was a lofty title to follow his name. But he'd been perfectly satisfied not having a title. Being useful was far more important than that. Whatever Yuuri thought of the way he'd forced himself on him, never leaving his side meant he was the foremost shield between the Maou and the rest of the world. Conrad and Gwendal might have protected the king from distant threats, but Wolfram knew he'd saved his life more than once just because his position as fiancé gave him constant access to the king. That was the only reason he might have regretted losing the position. He'd lost some of his usefulness when he was suddenly without a fiancé to protect. Anyone who thought he'd held the position out of romantic interest was a fool. Which included his brothers.
His mother had known better. She was partly to blame for the engagement, after all. She'd spoken to him after Yuuri's seemingly final departure. His brothers had avoided him with ill disguised pity, uncomfortable in the face of what they saw as a broken heart. Cecilie had never been that romantic. No, she'd purposely sought him out because she knew his tears had nothing to do with the unexpectedly sudden end of an unrequited love, and everything to do with his pride. Standing there, watching him go, he'd been struck with the stunning realization that it was all for nothing. Yuuri had gone to resume his life on Earth, Wolfram would go back the castle and resume his life, everyone would go back and there was no point to any of it. Had Shin Makoku gained from Yuuri's stint as demon king? They'd gained numerous alliances, all of which were based solely on the leadership of a young half human boy who was now gone forever. Those alliances would not hold. If anything, the humans would be even more resentful at having had their hopes raised by someone who'd never intended to make a commitment. Shinou was gone. There would be no more hand picked Maous to lead the country. They'd gained nothing but a moment of peace and a lifetime of regret. And Wolfram had urged Yuuri to go, needing vindication and proof of what he'd known all along, that Yuuri didn't care, not about him, or Greta, or even the country itself. What did he have on Earth besides a family he rarely saw and a life where no one needed or even noticed him?
Wolfram hadn't expected him to go. When it came to other people, Yuuri was selfless to a fault. Here was an entire country, an entire world that needed and relied on him. There was his daughter, who was too young to understand choices and too old to not know when she'd been abandoned. He'd expected Yuuri to make another selfless decision and stay. And so when he'd gone, forever, Wolfram had finally realized that he'd never understood Yuuri at all. He never would. He hadn't expected Yuuri to think of him, but he'd been certain Yuuri would think of everyone else, at least of Greta and Conrad. Only Yuuri hadn't thought of them, or he'd thought of them and chosen to put himself first, with their dishonest blessings. And since Wolfram had been the first to urge him to go, did that make it his fault? What was the point of the last year? All of their efforts and pain, he'd thought it was for Yuuri, for themselves, for their future. Had it all been for Shinou? For the release of a spirit all of them had taken for granted for so long that he didn't really mean anything to any of them? It was all one more pointless adventure to place in the library, where it would be taught as a history lesson with no true relevance to the present.
Gwendal and Gunter had the role of making Yuuri's brief reign mean something. They'd dedicated themselves to the task of holding onto the changes Yuuri had wrought for as long as possible. A year, two if they were exceedingly lucky. Conrad was more pragmatic. He'd done the selfless thing Wolfram had expected from Yuuri. He'd gone back to his old life without thinking of himself, glad for Yuuri's happiness no matter what that meant to everyone else. And Wolfram had followed his example.
It was far more difficult for him than it was for Conrad. He wasn't selfless like that. He'd lived his life thinking of himself because he knew that if he didn't, no one would. That first night in his own room was a relief tinged with resentment. He no longer had to humiliate himself, forcing his way where he wasn't wanted. He wouldn't have to listen to the whispered speculations about his virtue, which most had given up for compromised as soon as the engagement was made known. And yet he'd been plagued with resentful reminders that Yuuri hadn't even known he had his own room. The entire encounter with the Bearbees was due to Yuuri's attempt to relocate him. Where did Yuuri think he'd slept before the engagement? He'd been relieved to wear enough clothes that if there were summons during the night he'd be able to fight without being completely exposed. Yuuri had never once appreciated that thrice blasted nightgown, which Cecilie had quietly promoted to put his homophobic fiancé at ease by letting him pretend it was a girl in his bed. Had Yuuri never thought it strange that a soldier would own such a thing? Wolfram was certainly no Yozak. Yuuri had never considered that the reason he slept so restlessly was because his dreams were disturbed by the presence of someone who didn't like him in the same bed. Shouldn't Yuuri have noticed that when they traveled and he had his own bed, he woke up in the exact position he'd fallen asleep in? If Yuuri hated sharing a bed so much, why had he never suggested having twin beds moved into his room? They'd had twin beds often enough during their travels for Yuuri to know he wouldn't have complained about an arrangement like that. But Yuuri had never asked, and he couldn't ask without swallowing his pride. He didn't sleep at all that first night. The second night he began a campaign to forget that became easier with each passing day.
Now Yuuri was back and everyone was expected to revert as if he'd never left.
Two days after Yuuri's return, his mother had caught him outside his bedroom door. He'd been expecting her. Gwendal had given him uncomfortably pointed looks during dinner, going so far as to open his mouth when he made no effort to follow Yuuri to his room. He'd known what his brother wanted to say, just as he knew that Gwendal was too repressed to actually say it. So his mother was the one to follow and stop him before he could disappear into his room for the night.
"Why, you're behaving just like a scorned lover," she sighed happily. "While terribly romantic, it's hardly effective if you don't express your displeasure to your fiancé yourself."
"I don't care," Wolfram snapped. "He never meant to come back. Why should I have to crawl after him just because he changed his mind? It's only a matter of security, anyway. Post more guards on the door! Have Weller-kyo stay with him, if you're that terrified of letting him sleep by himself. I doubt either of them would mind that."
"Oh, my poor dear," Cecilie simpered, wrapping her arms around him and all but suffocating him in her half exposed cleavage. "Your jealousy makes you absolutely adorable. You know your brother has no plans to steal your fiancé away from you."
"I'd kill him if he did," growled Wolfram. He didn't bother to struggle against the embrace. "That's not the point. I've already destroyed that abominable nightie, so there's no use in me sneaking into his bed. It never had any effect on him, anyway, aside from making him avoid me even more. I'll stand watch myself, if you insist, but I refuse to do any more than that."
"That's your stubbornness talking," she murmured, speaking into his hair as it were. "He thinks you're angry with him. You have every right to be angry and hurt, and if you'd just look at him you'd see that he's sorry. He considers you a dear friend, whom he misses as much as you've missed him."
Wolfram ducked free at that. "We're not friends - he doesn't even know me! He's made an attempt to know everyone but me, and I'm satisfied with that. But not if I'm expected to continue this farce of an engagement. He doesn't want it! I never wanted it!" His furious expression was tainted by confusion, seeing her sad smile. "Even you don't want it, or you'd never have pushed that ridiculous duel with Elizabeth. Why do we have to keep doing this? He's a wimp. He'll marry whoever you tell him to - with pleasure if you'd just pick a female for him to slobber over!"
"Now, Wolf-chan," his mother said, shaking her head, "you know why. I'd hoped dear Elizabeth would be the turning point, but it was already too late. You'd already fallen in love with him. I want you to be happy. Despite what you seem to believe, your brothers also want you to be happy."
This was too much. His frustration snapped along with his voice and he pressed back against the door with a quiet emotionless whisper. "I'm not happy. I never was and you know that. Tell me to do it for the kingdom, for Yuuri's sake, and I will. Don't tell me to do it for myself. If you want me to be happy, you'll leave me alone. Until he breaks the engagement, I'll continue to follow him outside of this kingdom, as is expected of me. Here, he has more than adequate protection. There's no need for me to hover over him every second of the day when he's inside his own castle. Now if you'll excuse me, my squad is going to meet a new hoseki user in the morning and I didn't get much sleep last night."
Despite what he'd told her, he hadn't gotten much sleep that night, either. Now, seeing the way his men were watching him with wary eyes, he wished he'd simply left her in the hall without speaking at all. His eyes felt heavy and he was far too tired to deal with those looks without snapping. They were expecting him to snap, to leave Lukas in charge of the trip and storm off to find his cheating fiancé the way he might have done a few months ago. He wouldn't do it. Yuuri was undoubtedly being overly friendly with someone at this very moment, one of the maids, one of his brothers, Gunter, someone who was most assuredly not his fiancé. And it was an insult on him in the eyes of anyone who saw it. But everyone in the castle already knew the engagement was a joke. They were accustomed to Yuuri having interest in everyone except his fiance. He'd salvage what was left of his pride when the guests arrived and he had an appearance to uphold, dragging his loose fiancé away from whatever lovelies the dignitaries inevitably brought with them. Right now he had more important things to focus on.
"Philipp," he said sharply, with a pointed look at the fidgeting brunette who'd tensed so much his horse was walking with its neck bowed. "Stop worrying the bit before your horse throws you off. If you require additional riding lessons, report to Weller-kyo when we get back. Some time with the infantry will teach you not to disrespect your mount."
The boy blushed and loosened his overly tight hold on his reins, the horse immediately shaking its head with relief. Wolfram turned back around and spurred them into a faster pace. He'd reserved a field not far from the city for their drills. The newest hoseki user would meet them there. He'd had considerable trouble finding powerful humans willing to train with them, natural considering the goal of their training was to withstand the one defense humans had against maryoku. The last one had been a mere child by human years, eager to help with his promise of compensation. She'd been harrassed by her neighbors into quitting despite the poverty stricken family's need for money. He'd been annoyed but not very surprised by that, and when she'd offered to find a replacement, he'd rewarded her as well as if she'd stayed on herself. It was the least he could do. This sort of training should have been done years ago. He had Yuuri to thank for his new awareness of the threat posed by human magic users. That was one of the few benefits of their engagement; his travels taught him things that his brothers never thought to mention to him, or didn't realize themselves. For all that they'd never seen battle, his squad was the first line of defense as far as maryoku users went. They'd more than live up to that name, if he had any say in it.
Wolfram was avoiding him.
Yuuri hadn't noticed at first. He'd been so shocked to find himself back that his first order of business was to strangle Murata half to death for not telling him he had the ability to cross worlds sooner. All of those weeks of sorrow and regret, wishing he'd had more time to consider his decision, that he hadn't been faced with abandoning his world without so much as a goodbye to his parents, and Murata had simply let him suffer without so much as hinting that he could do it on his own.
He'd thought about Greta first. She'd never understand. How many years would it take before she finally got over having been abandoned by yet another parent? That led him to Wolfram. Would he continue raising Greta? He'd adopted her because of their engagement. Did that mean he'd marry someone else and continue raising her as his own daughter? Somehow he couldn't picture that. Wolfram had never shown interest in anyone, not even Elizabeth, who'd been in love with him to the point of obsession. It was easier to imagine Wolfram raising her alone, bitterly in the shadow of the one who'd abandoned them both. He could see Wolfram closing himself off over the years, and Greta drifting away until she spent more time with Anissina and Conrad, possibly even Cecilie.
He thought of Conrad every time he played, wondering what would become of that baseball diamond the men had worked so hard to make for him. Would they keep playing in his memory? He imagined the smoothly tilled dirt growing wild with weeds, Conrad's mitt lying on a shelf with dust graying its smooth sheen. The sport would be a bitter reminder. He kept having dreams of Wolfram playing on the team opposite him, and he wondered why he'd never tried to interest him in his favorite hobby.
He had nightmares about the war he'd only heard glimpses of. A war that lasted for years and took the lives of loved ones on both sides. He saw Cecilie and Greta crying together as they received news of the brothers' deaths, Blood Pledge castle in ruins around them. Cimaron often played a huge part in these dreams, the constant reminder of Belal, who'd been left crazy but very much alive and in charge of a nation.
Murata didn't mention Shin Makoku during those weeks, except in fondly playful reminders of the good times he'd had and the friends he was glad to have had the chance to meet. Shori kept his hopes alive with talk about the lake in Switzerland and the possibility, once he'd assumed the position of Earth's Maou, of one day crossing dimensions without Shinou's power. It was also his brother who made him reconsider things he'd made a habit of never thinking about, namely Wolfram, his possession, and the events leading up to it.
"I thought he was seducing me," Shori admitted from his desk, while Yuuri sat on the edge of his bed. "It was very disturbing."
"I bet," said Yuuri. "I'm pretty sure he's gay. Or bi," he added, thinking of Elizabeth.
"That's not what I mean," Shori said, in a unwaveringly direct tone. "It was disturbing because I was tempted, not just by the power he offered, but by him."
Yuuri's eyes widened at this blunt admission. He shifted uncomfortably and stumbled for something to say to that. "Well, he does look like a girl. He dresses like one, too, when he's - erm, sometimes he does." And he blushed furiously when Shori gave him a pointed look.
"I wasn't seeing him as a girl," said Shori. He frowned and adjusted his glasses. "I may have to reevaluate my sexuality to include forward young men."
"Erm, uhh, oh," Yuuri said intelligently, his eyes too wide in his red face. If he'd been in Shin Makoku, this was where he'd have made a quick escape. His brother's sharp gaze kept him pinned in place.
"Yes. Which makes me wonder, why didn't you notice your lover slipping away in the middle of the night? Conrad mentioned that the two of you had been sleeping together for over a year in that world." Shori's eyes narrowed dangerously, torn between his possessive brother complex and the disturbing fact that he'd nearly had an affair with his little brother's fiancé, albeit while said fiancé was being controlled by someone else.
"That - it - agh, it was an accident!" Yuuri blustered. "He's the one who kept getting in my bed - I tried kicking him out, but he kept coming back. And it's not like we ever did anything, half the time I ended up getting shoved to the floor so we didn't even share the bed, really. The only reason we were engaged so long is because it's normal for guys to do that over there, at least, that's what everyone said. I never met any gay couples, but no one ever looked at me funny when they found out we were engaged, so, so I guess it's really common over there." And he frowned, forgetting his frustrated embarrassment for a moment. "I wonder why I never met any gay couples if it's so common. Not that I looked, just that...it's kinda strange that I didn't see any no matter how many kingdoms we visited. Maybe because they were mostly human kingdoms..."
"Humans have a shorter life span," said Shori. "Mazoku generally have less need to mate for the sake of offspring, so they rarely bother with official marriages. You know the original reason father married mother was so they could have children. Most of the mazoku working for Bob prefer quiet relationships, regardless of sex. It's no different here than it is there, we just lack countries offering gay marriages because the laws were set in place by humans and we mazoku saw no point in changing that."
Yuuri's expression faltered. "I thought mom was being eccentric when she said he proposed on the fifth date..."
"No. Which is why she threatened divorce so often when you were still in skirts and pigtails."
"Shut up," Yuuri grimaced. "Don't remind me of that." The pictures were bad enough. He was glad he didn't have many actual memories of wandering around publically dressed as a girl. And it reminded him of a skimpy little pink nightie that showed way too much flawless pale skin. Talk about disturbing.
"You made a very pretty little girl," Shori said, with a completely straight face. "I'd much rather see you married to a spirited young man, than an old pervert."
Yuuri gaped and sputtered. "Why is it automatically a guy!"
Shori blinked soberly, raising an eyebrow. "Because you cling too tightly to your homophobia to be straight." He turned back to his computer with a parting, "Don't worry, by the time I'm powerful enough to be Maou of Earth and open a portal for you, you should be mature enough to stop lying to yourself. You're still a little boy, after all."
He'd gone back to his room with a beet red face and ignored his older brother for the rest of the week. His first instinct was to shove the conversation away, just as he'd done to everything 'fiancé' related since the engagement began. He tried that and it seemed to work for the first day. Then he had an immensely disturbing dream where he walked into his room in Blood Pledge castle and found Wolfram in bed with his brother. And instead of immediately waking in a cold sweat and shuddering from the traumatic images, he'd stormed over and 'rescued' his fiancé from his evil perverted older brother. He remembered the rest of the dream so clearly that he'd blushed the duration of the following day and dreaded falling asleep that night for fear of a repeat. Suffice it to say after that day he was convinced that short discussion with Shori had made his brother's potential bi-ness rub off on him. He welcomed the war dreams after that, because while they left him torn up inside, they didn't back him into a corner and shove his tenacious denial down his throat. Why had Wolfram's ridiculous nightgown bothered him so much? Because it was too blatantly tempting for even a supposedly homophobic skirt chaser to ignore. And Yuuri had never been homophobic, thank you very much, evil older brother, he simply balked at the idea of a guy treating him the way he imagined girls would want to be treated by him. He'd never seen two gay guys interact and the idea of being treated like a girl reminded him of his childhood. His immediate response was absolutely not.
By the time Murata gave him that unexpected shove back to Shin Makoku, Yuuri had already started to consider what he'd do when he met Wolfram again. It would be years in the future, when Shori had taken over Bob's company, and Yuuri had graduated from college and had time enough to help him experiment at the lake. He'd be older then, and surely their combined maryoku would eventually be enough to open a portal. He imagined Wolfram would be older too, whether he looked it or not - he still wasn't sure how the passage of time compared between the two worlds. He saw their meeting as a tentative one between two mature adults who'd once been close friends. They'd get to know each other again and see where things went from there. Greta would be married, possibly with children of her own, and she'd support them, urging their reconciliation despite Wolfram's stubborn pride and Yuuri's clumsy apologies. It would be like those sappy girly movies, with him playing the part of childhood love coming back to take back what he'd given up on in his foolish youth. There would be no lengthy joke of an engagement with one chasing the other, just two adults fitting together comfortably, and they'd grow old together because Yuuri would stop aging when he hit adulthood, just like Conrad had, and they'd raise their grandchildren and great grandchildren and everything would be the same as it was before he left except they'd be older and they wouldn't fight anymore.
All of those whimsical thoughts seemed incredibly stupid now. Wolfram was ignoring him. He was still in high school, Greta was still an adorably clueless little girl, and Wolfram was as hard to talk to as ever. The only thing that matched his predictions was the lack of fighting. Wolfram wasn't talking to him outside of family meals, and then only when Yuuri spoke to him first. Wolfram hadn't shown up in his room, or even in Greta's when he took time out from the mountain of catch-up paperwork signing to visit their daughter. Cecilie assured him they were still engaged, and that her youngest son was just being his usual stubborn self because he was too proud to admit how much he'd missed him. Conrad, when Yuuri tentatively asked him if Wolfram were angry and waiting for an apology, had smiled and touched his shoulder and told him that there was nothing to apologize for. He'd only been gone for a few months. Yeah, that was a long time, but no longer than the time he'd come back to find himself in the middle of an attack by unknown assassins. Except this time no one had expected him to come back. Ever.
Wolfram deserved an apology, whether he was waiting for one or not. He'd already apologized to everyone else. Greta cried when he apologized to her. She held tight and made him promise to never do it again. That was a promise he was going to keep no matter what. She also confirmed some of his fears. Wolfram had visited her regularly during his absence, but she'd spent more time with Anissina and Cecilie than her father. Yuuri wanted to be resentful of that. He couldn't be, because when he thought about it, Wolfram had kept Greta constant company during his irregular absences in the past, and they'd both made a habit of leaving her behind to be tended by Anissina during their journeys to other kingdoms. He decided they had to sit down and find her a more suitable baby sitter, someone who was hired solely to take care of her, and not a servant or friend taking time off to keep an eye on her when there was no one else available. Neither of them could be a stay at home parent, they had too many responsibilities, and even if Anissina had been a suitable role model for an naive child - which she wasn't, in his opinion - it wasn't right to keep expecting her to take care of their daughter. The problem was, in order to talk to Wolfram about the idea, he'd have to get him alone. The last two days he'd never even seen him outside of dinner. Wolfram must have been taking lunch somewhere else.
He frowned at the stack of signed documents to his left. It didn't seem to be growing at all and he felt too guilty and relieved to be back to not tackle the make-up work as quickly as possible. They needed stamps here. Maybe if he explained the concept to Anissina she could design one using his signature. That wouldn't make the paperwork that much quicker, since he'd still have to attempt reading them before signing, but it would save his wrist a lot of pain in the long run. And it was more efficient when he went away from the castle and Gunter or Gwendal took over his duties. They could sign it in his place, using the stamp, and the paperwork requiring the king's signature wouldn't stack up so much while they waited for his return. Gwendal should appreciate the efficiency of an idea like that. Just as long as he didn't recognize it as a blatant attempt to skirt all that wrist-cramping busy work. And speaking of wrists, his was starting to hurt something awful. He rotated it, cracked his knuckles, and grimaced at the loud pops. It made him wonder if Shori ever feared carpal tunnel working on the computer for such long hours. That made him think of the silly dating games Shori played when he wasn't using his computer for work. Which made him think of Wolfram. His thoughts were definitely going in circles these days. Time for a break.
Gwendal looked up when he entered his office with the signed papers in his arms. His eyes flicked from the stack of documents to Yuuri's face, and a wrinkle developed between his dark eyebrows. Yuuri knew that meant Gwendal approved and was too...Gwendal...to let that approval through as an actual smile. Yuuri made his own smile twice as bright to make up for Gwendal's overly sober demeanor.
"I'm taking a break now," Yuuri said, in a bold tone that said he was informing rather than asking permission.
Gwendal stared for a moment, that crease holding firm on his brow, and gave a sharp nod. Another of his decisions during those 'when I finally find a way back there' brainstorming binges was that as long as he was king, he'd start acting like one. He'd do his work, no matter how mind numbingly boring it was, until he thought he would snap. And then he'd stop for a while before resuming again. No more sneaking out when Gunter wasn't looking, nodding off when he'd been left to sign papers without someone standing guard over his shoulder, and absolutely no using Conrad, Greta, and Wolfram as an excuse to slack off. Not that he could use Wolfram as an excuse when he didn't even know where he was. Yeah, he really needed to talk to him before he got so distracted he wrote the wrong name on one of the documents like a schoolgirl doodling her crush's name all over her homework. He couldn't stand having someone upset with him and the fact that he couldn't even apologize was driving him crazy.
"Do you know where Wolfram is?" asked Yuuri. His kingly stance faltered when Gwendal's eyes flicked up and locked on his. He fidgetted, quickly explaining away his reason for asking. "I wanted to talk to him about getting someone to watch Greta full time. It's no good leaving her with whoever's handy when we can't be here, and I'm sure Anissina's got a lot more important things she'd rather be doing."
Gwendal continued to stare at him for a long moment, then dropped his gaze back to the work stacked on his own desk. "Gisela could recommend someone. She should be in the stables. One of the foals hasn't been taking milk this week."
"Oh, okay." Yuuri blinked uncertainly. "But I should probably talk to Wolfram first, you know?"
"He won't be back till this evening," said Gwendal, not bothering to look up from his work. "His squad's training outside the city today."
Gwendal's tone said there was something he didn't like about that. Yuuri couldn't tell if it were the training itself, that the training was outside the city, that it would last till evening, or that Wolfram hadn't bothered to mention it to his fiancé. He hoped it was the latter. Conrad didn't seem to think there was anything Yuuri should worry about with Wolfram not speaking to him. Yuuri found it disturbing. He wanted to believe Gwendal thought it was something to worry about, too.
"I see," Yuuri sighed. "Well, I'll let you get back to work. Thanks!" He paused in the doorway and flashed a bright smile over his shoulder. "I'll definitely have all that paper work finished by this weekend." He then disappeared, in a hurry to get out of range before Gwendal could say anything to spoil his optimistic mood - like reminding him that by this weekend there would probably be a fresh stack of work to do whether he finished what he currently had on his desk or not.
The return to the castle took much longer than their departure. Wolfram led the way at an easy pace out of consideration for the two incapacitated members of his squad, one of whom was seated woozily behind him. The new hoseki user was very different from the young girl who'd recommended him. Giro Reinhild had short spiked white hair and an overly sober glower that reminded him too much of Gwendal. He suspected the man also had a soft spot for cute little children, considering the one who'd recruited him as a replacement. Reinhild was also admirably strict and considerably more powerful than the girl had been; having brought his own hoseki, he used them with a skill that made Wolfram doubt his back story. He'd run the name past Gunter before allowing his squad to do another drill with the man. As it was, he had no one but himself to blame for their current condition. He'd ordered Reinhild to gradually increase the magic until he gave the word to cease, and he had done just that. Unfortunately his own stubborn pride had led him to resist much longer than was safe for some of his men, none of whom would willingly speak up to remind him that he was the leader for a reason. He was supposed to be more responsible than that.
The young man behind him swayed with each fluid step the horse took, one arm propped on the back of Wolfram's shoulders with his head ducked in the crook, his other arm wrapped loosely around Wolfram's waist. Wolfram kept a tight hold on the second arm. Daniel was riding at his side and would warn him if the man passed out and threatened to slip from the horse, but Wolfram wasn't taking any chances. Besides, Daniel had his own incapacitated soldier to watch out for. Wolfram knew it was a morale booster for the younger members of his squad to see how weakly Lukas was seated, doubled behind his third in command. That would be a point to tease him over after they recovered; for all his experience, Lukas had behaved every bit as stubbornly as Wolfram himself and now he was paying for that. Having suffered sea sickness his entire life, Wolfram had nothing but sympathy for the two drunkenly dazed men. He'd still take part in the teasing of Lukas because, as his second in command, Lukas was the one who should have reminded him to stop before half of his squad was almost too weak to guide their mounts back to the castle. If it hadn't been for Daniel, who had more than his share of pride to make up for his lack of foolhardy stubbornness, they would have ended up spending the night in the field.
Despite having let the drill run too long, he knew it was a good practice session. Even the weakest of his squad had remained conscious, and Reinhild had used two red hoseki the size of his large fists before Wolfram was forced to concede for the day. He still hadn't managed any form of shielding against the magic. He didn't know if that would even be possible. The point was to build a tolerance, and they were certainly progressing on that front. He hoped Reinhild's background would check out because finding another hoseki user with that much strength who was willing to stay in the city would be next to impossible. If he did come out clean, the next step would be actual duels against the magic, at an increasingly closer range so the trial would be double; withstanding the activated hoseki and retaining enough concentration to control their magic at the same time. Once again he resented Gwendal's stubborn refusal to let them cross the border into human territory. Maybe they weren't ready for that at the moment, but it was only a matter of time. And with Yuuri's return they had more than enough human allies with unused land that it shouldn't be difficult to find one willing to permit his small group entry. Any strengthening of Shin Makoku's forces was a benefit to allies, after all. Still, it would be a while before they were finished with the training they could do on their own land. He'd raise the issue again when they'd reached that point. A small demonstration for Gunter and Gwendal should be enough to prove his point. Neither of them had as much resistance to the mere presence of hoseki as even the weakest of his squad now had. Yes, a demonstration would be just the thing. And if either of the men became sick, well, that wouldn't be so bad, either.
"Ah," Daniel called, his quiet tone forcing a garbled groan from the boy behind him, "I don't like your smile, Captain."
"You would if you knew what I was thinking," Wolfram smirked.
Daniel nodded sagely, the movement earning him a weak punch to the shoulder that he firmly ignored. "You could always share."
"I could," agreed Wolfram. But he wasn't going to and Daniel knew better than to ask. It was one thing to insult his brother in his thoughts, and another to say it aloud in front of his men. He tilted his head, addressing his swaying passenger in a quiet tone. "Can you handle a trot to the castle? Five minutes at most."
"Yes, Captain," came the thready response, followed by a slight tightening of the arm around his waist.
Wolfram sniffed at the title. He wasn't a captain and likely never would be. Daniel had coined the term, his calm influence on the group such that whatever he said they automatically repeated. So long as they didn't use it in front of anyone outside their squad, Wolfram wouldn't complain. He turned an amused look on the two riding to his right. "Are you going to slow us down, Lukas?"
The boy raised his head high enough to glower through sweaty bangs, his tone thick and droll, "No, Captain."
"That's what I like to hear," Wolfram said, his voice loud enough to carry to the entire group. "There are no weaklings in my squad."
There was an immediate affirmative, even from the boy behind him, and Wolfram grinned as he picked up the pace. They weren't the elite for nothing. Each one of his men was handpicked and each one would hold his head up to the bitter end, no matter the odds. Even the newer members who were so wary of his temper were loyal at the end of the day. That was more important than anything.
He slowed when they reached the courtyard, immediately calling out to the stablehand who came to meet them, "Fetch Gisela."
The man looked them over with wide eyes and ran off without asking any questions. Wolfram watched him for a moment. That was enough to spot Yuuri across the way, playing catch with Conrad. The scene was so familiar, something he hadn't seen in so long, that he stared for nearly a minute before he realized Yuuri was staring back at him. He gave a grudging nod, only because he'd never ignored Yuuri in front of anyone who wasn't family and had no intention of starting now. He bit back the furious 'cheater' that tried to spring from his mouth. There was no point. If everyone at the castle knew their engagement was a fraud, that included his squad. He turned his attention back on his men. They were waiting silently for him. He dismounted carefully and reached back to help his passenger to the ground. Daniel followed, and then the others. The most fit of them took care of the horses, leaving him and Daniel to support their burdens across the yard. The boy beside him was turning pasty white, biting his lower lip with an expression Wolfram recognized instantly. His own stomach roiled at the thought. He told himself firmly that if the boy threw up on him it would be his own fault. He would not yell at him. And he absolutely would not throw up with him. No matter how much he wanted to.
Yuuri ran over to them and paced alongside him, "What happened?"
"Nothing," Wolfram snapped. Yuuri was paying more attention to him than he was to the obviously suffering boy hanging off his shoulders. For some reason that annoyed him. "We were training."
"You're bleeding," Yuuri protested, staring at his stained uniform with the same expression the stablehand had given him.
"I'm not," Wolfram said sharply. Was Yuuri making an effort to embarrass him? The soldier beside him gave a stilted lurch and Wolfram's throat tightened. The boy was definitely going to vomit. Not here, not in the courtyard in front of startled servants and his fiancé and Conrad, who, for some unknown reason, was watching with blatant amusement in his eyes. Wolfram stopped in his tracks and gave Yuuri an embarrassed frown, his voice coming out thick due to the nausea roiling in his stomach. "I'll explain later."
He dropped to his knees and pulled the sick boy's arms over his shoulders with a muttered, "Up." The boy gave a feeble protest that Wolfram ignored as firmly as he was ignoring the sick taste creeping up into the back of his throat. The kid could throw up on him as soon as he got within lunging distance of a bedpan. Not here. He knew this was his own fault, but that didn't make him any more willing to be sick right here.
Yuuri took a few steps, his mouth open to offer his help because honestly Wolfram didn't look much better than the poor boy he was carrying. Conrad caught him before he could speak, laying a heavy hand on his shoulder. Yuuri glanced back and was startled by how calm Conrad looked, as if he wasn't the least bit concerned. When he looked back again, Wolfram had already disappeared into the castle.
"Don't worry," said Conrad. "It's nothing a little rest and some help from Gisela won't cure. They're training to resist hoseki," he explained, when Yuuri gave him a doubtful look. "Those with high maryoku suffer debilitating nausea at close contact, remember? A person might cough up blood if the exposure is prolonged, but there isn't any permanent damage." He gave a smile, letting that amusement spread from his eyes to his mouth. "They've been working on this since you left. Wolfram knows what he's doing. You can bet that whatever mistake he made today, he won't be making again. He takes good care of his squad."
"Oh," Yuuri blinked, sending another look at the door.
He turned to look at the boys exiting the stables. They looked back as they filed past, some of their expressions wary, but just as curious as his own. All of them appeared exhausted, too pale, and a few had as much blood splattered on the front of their uniforms as Wolfram had. It reminded him of the first time he'd seen Wolfram's "elite guard" and wondered, only half jokingly, if they'd been chosen because they were all young and pretty. The last one to exit the stables was the only one who didn't look as if he'd just been through a day of torture. He was a full head taller than the others and looked almost as old as Shori. Yuuri didn't have to ask to guess this was the token half-mazoku member of the squad; hoseki wouldn't have bothered him no matter how long the training lasted. He did wonder, though, why he hadn't helped support one of the two incapacitated boys. The boy stopped and bowed respectfully, and Yuuri decided not to ask. It was probably the sort of thing that would make Wolfram angry with him.
"Heika," the boy greeted, "Weller-kyo."
"How was the training?" asked Conrad.
"Good. We have a new hoseki user. Much better than the last one."
"Too much better?" Conrad ventured, that amusement dancing over his eyes again.
"Possibly," the boy said. "The Captain's going to check him out."
"Nothing to worry about, then," smiled Conrad.
The boy gave another half bow and wandered off across the courtyard.
Yuuri stared after him. "Why didn't he go in with the others?"
"He's one of mine," said Conrad. "He can't quite match swords with Wolfram, but hoseki has no effect on him, so he's very useful in the squad. They never go out without him now."
Yuuri shot him a disbelieving look. "Wolfram asked for one of your men? Willingly?"
Conrad laughed and prodded him towards the castle. "I assure you, he didn't enjoy a moment of it. But, yes, he did. And despite Florian being one of my men, he's quite tight lipped about what goes on during Wolfram's training. Just between you and me, Heika, I think he has a crush on his new 'Captain.'"
Yuuri stopped in surprise, whipping around to stare in the direction the older boy had gone. Conrad gave another soft laugh and patted his back.
"Don't worry," said Conrad. "I doubt you'll ever have to worry about Wolfram being unfaithful."
"I wasn't worried," Yuuri said quickly, his tone just shy of an outright pout. "It's just...weird, is all. Ordering around someone who has a crush on you? That'd be really awkward. And don't call me Heika, Nazukeoya."
"Ah," Conrad smiled. "I'm sorry, Yuuri. It should be safe to go after him now," he nodded, with another light prod toward the door. "You might want to hurry, though, if you plan to catch him before dinner. I doubt he'll be making an appearance tonight. Hoseki has about the same effect as a ship, where Wolfram's concerned."
"Oh," Yuuri grimaced.
In that case Wolfram probably wouldn't be in the mood to talk to anyone tonight, let alone him. But it couldn't hurt to check. Probably. And if Wolfram chased him off, he'd just try again tomorrow. Even Wolfram wouldn't be stubborn enough to take his men out again after dragging them home so exhausted. He gave a cheerful wave to Conrad, feeling more hopeful than he had since he'd first realized his fiancé was avoiding him. It wasn't until he stepped into the hall that he realized he had no idea where in the castle Wolfram had gone.