The thundering sound of their horses' hooves filled the forest, drowned out only by trees being knocked away by their pursuer. Yuuri was right behind Wolfram, allowing the better horseman to lead them through the thick. Despite the sharp turns Wolfram took, though, it sounded as if the attacker was gaining on them. Yuuri couldn't bring himself to look behind.
"I told you!" Wolfram howled to Yuuri. "I told you not to poke it!"
"It wasn't supposed to be alive!" shouted Yuuri, slightly panicky. He yanked on Ao's reigns, following Wolfram's sharp left.
"You poked it!" continued Wolfram, ignoring Yuuri. "You poked it with Morgif, and then you threw a rock at it!"
"It was a swamp!"
"You didn't listen to me! You never listen to me, stupid wimp!" If Wolfram hadn't been clutching his reigns in something akin to desperation, he probably would have been pulling his hair in frustration. Or creating a fireball. Or strangling Yuuri. Instead, he spat curses at Yuuri that he would have found insulting if he didn't deserve them.
Yuuri risked a glance over his shoulder. The swamp monster was slithering quickly after them, trees falling and crunching like toothpicks underneath it. The brush just sort of disappeared as the gooey, slimy thing slid over it, absorbing branches, leaves, and unaware wildlife into its murky form.
"And now it's going to eat us!" There was a rising note in Wolfram's voice. He didn't really sound afraid, just grossed out and irritated. "And it's all your fault because you suck!"
Yuuri had a feeling Wolfram got that phrase from Murata. At any other time he would have sighed in resignation. This time, however, his heart was pounding and he was much too excited to let something like that slip. "I suck? Me? Excuse me Mister-High-and-Mighty-Pervert—"
"Pervert!" Wolfram practically shrieked. He flung a furious look at Yuuri, teeth bared. At times like these, he really did look like a wolf. Wild eyed, teeth bared, hair mussed from the wind. "I'll kill you!"
"Like you could!" Normally Yuuri would just let Wolfram's verbal attacks slide off him. But there was a swamp monster trying to eat them. His offense could be excused.
"I could easily take down a weakling like you, wimp!"
"Weakling, wimp, amateur, God, can't you get a little more creative?"
Yuuri wasn't sure how Wolfram was able to conjure a fireball up like that while riding at such high speeds, but somehow he managed to heave it recklessly towards Yuuri. Of course, Wolfram had thrown it wide. He wasn't trying to hurt Yuuri, just warn him. Yuuri yanked his horse to the side, and the fireball slammed into the swamp monster.
It shrieked. Yuuri wasn't sure how since it didn't seem like it had a mouth, but the sound made his skin crawl. There was an acrid smell of burnt swamp thing, and part of it seemed to shrivel into itself. The blob stopped for a moment, wriggling in agony. Both Yuuri and Wolfram pulled their horses to a halt, watching the swamp monster writhe.
"We should have tried that earlier," said Yuuri.
But the goo wiggled and jiggled and devoured another tree, and seemed fine again. In fact, it looked larger than before. Both boys somehow recoiled atop their horses. It made a belching sound as it shivered and advanced towards them, slower this time, more cautious. Their horses backed up.
"Try it again, Wolfram," Yuuri instructed. Wolfram nodded sharply and brought his hand up, conjuring a fireball larger than Yuuri had ever seen. He reared his hand back and heaved it as hard as he could.
"You know, you'd probably make a good pitcher," Yuuri mused as the fireball connected with the swamp thing. It lurched back and screamed, reminding Yuuri of a lion roaring and someone raking their fingernails down a chalkboard at the same time. Both he and Wolfram flinched and reached up to cover their noses. Burning swamp thing did not smell pleasant.
And then suddenly there were five swamp monsters.
"Ack," said Wolfram.
"Oh, God," said Yuuri.
"Smart thinking, wimp!" Wolfram growled, turning his horse back around to flee once again. Yuuri spurred his horse to follow him, but three of the five monsters charged forward, keeping pace with him. One lunged and Yuuri flung his sword out wildly. "Stay close!" Wolfram ordered, urging his horse to run faster. Yuuri knew it wasn't right for them to force their horses like so, but to stop was unthinkable.
To his surprise, though, Wolfram stopped in front of a lake. He leapt off the horse's back and led her to the side. The horse, trained for battle, stood completely still. Yuuri could see the fear in her eyes, though. "Follow me!" Wolfram ordered, and Yuuri mimicked him, hurrying into the water.
"So, what's the plan?" Yuuri asked, excitement making his heart do wild things.
"You don't have a plan," Yuuri said, flatly.
Wolfram shot him a dark look, before cupping his hands together. Fire shot from his palms, and the biggest lion Yuuri had ever seen walked on the water beside them. It loomed. Steam rose from under its paws, make it look even more formidable. If anything, Wolfram was good at theatrics.
"Okay," Wolfram said, panting slightly. It was hard for him to conjure up such a beast when surrounded by water. But the swamp things refused to enter the lake and just sort of bounced on the shore. "Okay. So their weaknesses are fire and water, right? We're good. We can do this."
"I appreciate your belief in me, Wolfram, but that's easier said than done!"
"Don't be such a wimp! Just do it."
"When?" Yuuri yelped, half tempted to hide behind the confident blond.
"When I say so!"
Yuuri nodded jerkily, and Wolfram flashed him a quick look accompanied with a small smile. And then he flung his hands forward and his lion roared, leaping onto the swamp things and catching them in his mouth. The swamp things screamed.
He faltered for a moment, unsure what to do. But Wolfram was depending on him, so he kicked up some water. Wolfram squawked as he was splashed and the droplets gathered into a ball of water and floated up in front of Yuuri.
Wolfram shot him an uncertain look, but Yuuri was concentrating on the sphere. He focused on that strange, thrumming power and reached forward, grabbing the water from the air. With careful aim, he heaved it at the monsters. It caught one of them in the center and the monster sort of melted.
"Good job, Yuuri!" Wolfram shouted, throwing his own fireballs towards the monster things. Yuuri grinned wildly, recklessly, absurdly proud of himself and flattered by the compliment from Wolfram. Wolfram didn't pass out praise freely, and Yuuri knew that when Wolfram paid a compliment, one should not take it lightly. So he didn't, and embraced it happily.
Their combined efforts caused the swamp things to retreat quickly. The two boys, so caught up as they were in their battle, shouted taunts at the monsters until they disappeared into the forest.
"We did it, Wolfram! High five!" Yuuri crowed, lifting his hand. However, Wolfram stared at him in confusion, with a hint of dread tightening the corners of his lips. The triumph had washed away from his face.
"What's that?" asked Wolfram, staring at Yuuri's hand as if it was going to bite him.
"Well, er, it's an Earth custom where you smack hands together," Yuuri explained, still grinning. But his smile fell when Wolfram went ashen and splashed quickly to the shore, swinging onto his horse's back.
"Let's go, Yuuri." Wolfram's voice was harsh and Yuuri deflated, bemused. They rode back to the castle in silence, the triumph of defeating the swamp thing long gone. At the castle gates, Wolfram stuck around long enough to make sure Yuuri was safe off his horse and away from any possible danger before tearing off into Blood Pledge Castle.
Gunter liked sitting with Gwendel while Gwendel knitted because it was amusing. Most of the time he was sit and gush nonstop about whatever popped into his mind and Gwendel would develop this interesting little twitch and double his efforts. Sometimes the two would just sit in companionable silence, lost in their own thoughts.
It was one of those rare moments where the two sat without saying anything; Gwendel knitting, Gunter staring out the window and dreaming about things past. They both jumped in surprise and reached for their weapons, however, when the door to Gwendel's office slammed open and a blond fireball burst in, yanking Gwendel out of his seat.
But Wolfram didn't let him finish. He dragged his older brother, who had his knitting needles in one hand and his sword in the other, outside of the office. "Sorry," Wolfram said unapologetically, before storming back into Gwendel's office and slamming the door behind him.
Gunter, who had sat back down when he realized there was no threat, was shocked when Wolfram dropped to his knees and buried his face against Gunter's legs, arms tight around his head. Gunter stared down at him with wide eyes, and was struck with a feeling of unfamiliar familiarity. He felt like a mother, with her heartbroken son hiding himself in the folds of her dress. Except he wasn't wearing a dress, and Wolfram wasn't his son.
"Wolfram, what's wrong?" Gunter asked gently, hesitantly running his fingers through Wolfram's hair. It was purely instinctual.
But Wolfram didn't answer. Gunter frowned and tried again several times, kindly questioning and consoling. His lips twisted when Wolfram refused to say anything.
"Okay then, why me?" Out of all the people Gunter expected Wolfram would turn to for comforted, he was—not even on his own list. Gunter had always thought Wolfram would run to Anissina before him.
Wolfram didn't even look up. His voice was muffled. "Because you're a warrior." He paused. "And you're the only one I know who really shows his emotions."
It all seemed to click for Gunter, and he smiled wryly. To turn to Gwendel or Conrad at a time like this would be unthinkable. Conrad may have understood, but to Wolfram that would be the ultimate humiliation. Gwendel, however, would be completely unsympathetic at this show of emotion. Gunter was the obvious choice.
"Would you like to tell me what's wrong?"
Wolfram finally lifted his head up to look at Gunter, and though Gunter had always seen Wolfram as the spoiled prince, his stomach clenched in sympathy. All the color had drained from Wolfram's face. And though his eyes were dry, they were filled with pain.
"The stupid wimp tried to formally break the engagement," explained Wolfram slowly, as if he were trying to choose the right words. "I mean, I guess I expected it all this time. I just didn't think he would actually do it." And then his face crumpled a bit, and he dropped his head back down on Gunter's lap.
Gunter flinched a bit. Everyone was sort of waiting for this to happen. There was a pool going around the castle. Gunter guiltily realized he had lost his bet that the two would confess to each other before the end of the year. Still a bit ashamed of himself for participating in such low activities, Gunter resumed running his fingers through Wolfram's hair.
"How did he try to break it?"
"He wanted me to slap his hand," Wolfram mumbled. "He wanted it to be a mutual thing."
Gunter's hand paused in the middle of Wolfram's hair. "Could it be he didn't realize what he was doing? You must remember that his customs are different from ours, and I haven't taught him that particular ritual yet." He didn't tell Wolfram that he hadn't explained that ritual to Yuuri because he was too afraid that Yuuri would use it.
"Even if he didn't know," Wolfram said, still slowly, "now that he does, or will—" He let his sentence drop off, obviously not wanting to voice his concerns.
The door to Gwendel's office opened, revealing a bemused Conrad with a concerned Yuuri and an annoyed Gwendel behind him. He felt Wolfram tense and move to pull back. Gunter made eye contact with a surprised Yuuri for a second, before sending a burst of wind towards the door and slamming it shut again.
On the other end of the door, Yuuri narrowed his eyes. There were more wrinkles to Gwendel's forehead and Conrad frowned a bit.
"What," said Yuuri, "was that about?"
When Wolfram raced into the castle, Yuuri had of course followed. But the blond was quicker and Yuuri had lost him. He spent several minutes scouring the castle before nearly running into Gwendel, who was standing out side of his office with his sword, knitting needles, a half finished baboon-thing and a frown. Conrad had been standing beside him, looking at the door with his head cocked to the side. When he finally got the story out of the two, Conrad had agreed to open the door, only to have it slammed back into his face. The image of Wolfram hiding against Gunter's legs had burned into his retinas.
The door opened again and one of Gwendel's dolls walked out. The three flinched back in repulsion. It reminded Yuuri of a horror movie. Chucky, maybe.
"Your majesty," the doll squeaked out. It looked like it could have been a plushie of Gunter. Either that, or a bipedal horse. "Gunter requests for a moment alone with Wolfram." And then the doll crossed his arms and stood guard at the door. None of them dared to defy it.
"Your majesty," Gwendel said. There was a slight strain in his voice. Yuuri looked up in interest. He couldn't tell if it was because one of Gwendel's dolls had come to life, or if it was because Gunter was in what seemed to be an intimate position with Wolfram. "What happened?"
Yuuri waved his hands, as if trying to brush away the accusatory words. "Nothing! Wolfram and I just defeated this swamp monster thing and I tried to give him a high five!"
Understanding dawned on Conrad's face and Gwendel looked puzzled. "Yuuri," Conrad said gently, "you just asked Wolfram to break your guys' engagement."
Yuuri's eyes went huge. "W-What? No! I mean, I didn't! At least, that's not what I was intending to do."
Conrad pat his shoulder comfortingly. "I know." And of course he did, since he was familiar with Earth's customs. But to Wolfram, Yuuri must have looked like an insensitive jerk. "But now that you know, what do you plan to do?"
Yuuri found he had no answer.
The whispers began shortly after.
"I hear His Majesty finally broke off his engagement with Lord von Bielefeld."
"That's not what I heard! I heard Lord von Bielefeld caught His Majesty cheating on him!"
Conrad hummed and leaned between the two soldiers. "I heard that Lord von Bielefeld was pregnant with triplets."
"Really?" the first soldier said in surprise, before turning to see who had interrupted them. Both soldiers jumped.
"You do know that this is treason, right?"
Both soldiers knelt to the ground, foreheads practically touching the cold stones. Yuuri sighed. "Let them be, Conrad."
"Of course, Your Majesty."
The soldiers darted off and Yuuri sighed, tangling his fingers in his black hair. "They're not the only ones, you know. The kitchen maids are having a fit."
"Seems like Gunter possibly lost some money."
Conrad coughed discreetly into his fist. He didn't tell Yuuri wagered the same as Gunter and had therefore lost a bit of change, himself.
"Conrad, I don't know what to do."
"Problems with the heart are always challenging, Your Majesty."
Yuuri shot a dark look over his shoulder at Conrad. "Quit being cryptic."
"Your Majesty." Conrad sighed. "I can't give any advice to you on this one. What matters is what's here." He poked Yuuri lightly on the chest. "But I assure you, no matter what decision you make, Wolfram will always be by your side."
"Because it's his duty, right?"
"Possibly," said Conrad, still smiling. "But not just because you're his king. You are also his friend."
Yuuri stared at the wall for a moment, before turning to look at Conrad with a grimace. "That was really cheesy, Conrad. Like, really bad."
Conrad just smiled.
Wolfram may possibly have been avoiding Yuuri. Yuuri, of course, couldn't be sure, since he hadn't seen Wolfram the entire day.
"I'm going to go for a walk," Yuuri said after dinner. He was met by no resistance, and was a little surprised when Gunter didn't even look up from his dessert. Gunter must have taken his encounter with Wolfram to heart, because throughout the entire meal he had said barely two words.
At the exit, though, Yuuri tripped over Yosak's outstretched leg.
"Hey!" he yelped. Yosak smiled.
There was a cigarette dangling between his fingers, and Yuuri raised his eyebrows in confusion, crouching near the much larger man. "What's this?"
"I think it's called a Marble."
Yuuri grinned and sat beside the larger man. "Or Marlboro. Those things aren't healthy for you, you know?"
"Oh yeah?" Yosak raised his eyebrows. "Not healthy for me, or not healthy for humans?"
"Huh. Good point. Anyway, where did you get that from?"
"Conrad brought me back a box the last time he was on earth. He said the cowboy reminded him of me." Yuuri laughed. He could sort of see that. "So I gave one to Anissina to have her copy it, and she's been my Marble maker since then."
"Marlboro," Yuuri corrected again. "It's a type of cigarette." At Yosak's confused look, Yuuri waved a hand in dismissal. "Anyway, I've got a problem."
"Oh yeah?" asked Yosak with a cheeky grin. Yuuri scowled at him.
"Yeah. With Wolfram."
"No surprise there."
Yuuri dutifully ignored the jibe. "I'm sure you've heard about our misunderstanding."
"You mean, that you've finally grown a pair and let Wolfram go?" At Yuuri's offended and chastising look, Yosak added, "Your Majesty."
"I hadn't intended to!" Yuuri protested, rubbing his temples.
"Well, isn't it better this way?"
Yuuri looked up at the sky. It was funny how the stars on earth were so different than the ones on Shin Makkoku. "No. I don't think so. Well, I don't know. Wolfram's pretty hurt."
"Give him more credit than that. Princess Hothead is more durable than you think."
Yuuri's lips twitched. "Princess Hothead? Has Wolfram ever heard you call him that?"
"Nope," Yosak said, then exhaled a long string of smoke towards the sky. "And I think it might be best for him not to. Ever. Anyway," he waved his hand, tendrils of smoke following the cigarette, "you shouldn't worry about him too much. I mean, he'll probably be hurt, but Wolfram is a soldier before anything else. Including your fiancé."
Yuuri turned these words curiously over in his head. "So you're saying that if I break the engagement with Wolfram, he would be fine given time."
"Time heals everything, including broken hearts. Besides, don't you think it would be more kind to Wolfram if you let him go instead of leading him on?"
"Ah, I guess, but..."
"'But'?" Yosak turned to look curiously at Yuuri, eyebrows shooting up. "Don't tell me you've developed feelings for Wolfram!"
Yuuri glowered at Yosak. "Look, all I wanted was like, five minutes to figure things out on my own. And I do like Wolfram. A lot. I mean, I have fun with him! Even when he's calling me a wimp or painting with that awful smelling gunk. But it was like, 'Hello, my name's Wolfram—HEY LET'S GET MARRIED!' But—"
"'But'?" Yosak repeated again, staring at Yuuri with rapt interest. He had a feeling Yuuri hadn't told anyone this before.
"But I'm not, you know, a hundred percent sure if I love him or not. I just think that, well, marrying him might not be the worst idea ever."
Yosak's grin slowly widened. Like Conrad and Gunter, he had bet that Yuuri would be married by the end of the year. It looked as if he would be getting his money back, and then some.
"So you want to give him a chance," said Yosak, sounding maybe more cheerful than necessary.
"I don't know. I guess? I mean, I'm not exactly going to go jumping down his pants or anything." Yuuri looked a little green at the very idea. Despite his attachment to Wolfram, sex between men just didn't sound appealing to him. It wasn't as if he didn't give it a try. Back at home, he had looked at some very—choice websites and they just didn't do anything for him.
But he had also looked at websites designed for heterosexual audiences and those didn't really do much for him, either.
Truthfully, the very idea of sex didn't sound very appealing. Inserting tab A into slot B just wasn't an exciting prospect. And the idea of any tabs coming near his slot just sent him into a full body cringe.
"But," he continued, forcing those thoughts out of his mind. "I could. I don't know. Not mind spending the rest of my life with him." He said this all in a rush.
Yosak's eyes were glimmering and Yuuri leaned back in shock. "That," Yosak said slowly, smile huge, "is the sweetest thing I've ever heard!"
"Er. Uh. Yes. Of course." Yuuri coughed discretely into his fist. "Anyway, how am I supposed to—you know—if Wolfram won't even speak to me?"
"Well," Yosak said, "a gift out of love is always a good way to start."
"Oh yeah?" said Yuuri, brightening a bit.
"Yeah," Yosak said. And then he waved his cigarette at Yuuri.
Yuuri's eyes got huge. "You mean—"
Yuuri had to clarify. "You and—"
Yosak nodded again, grin tugging at his lips.
Yosak nodded for the third time, Cheshire grin nearly splitting his face.
"Oh," squeaked Yuuri. "I never would have known."
"I know," said Yosak cheerfully. "It's because I'm the very image of masculinity."
After his conversation with Yosak, Yuuri went straight to Gwendel's office.
"Gwendel!" He announced his presence by slamming the door open. Gwendel was holding his knitting needles and was still working on the baboon thing. Yuuri paused.
"Is that Gunter?"
The glare Gwendel shot Yuuri was absolutely unforgiving, and he shoved his project in his desk. "Haven't you ever heard of knocking?"
Yuuri waved away his protests and sat across from Gwendel. "I need your help."
Gwendel couldn't help but to look interested.
Around the middle of the night, Wolfram crawled into Yuuri's bed. He had prevailed for as long as he could, but in the end found himself standing in front of Yuuri's bedroom door with his pillow and an old pair of pajamas. He had abandoned the pink nightie because it made him think of Yuuri and his desperate attempts of winning the Maou's affections and had thrown on a pair of old green pants that may have once belonged to Conrad.
Wolfram made sure to curl up as far away as he could from Yuuri, even though he knew that if he ever fell asleep he would end up on the other side of the bed, anyway. But since sleep evaded him, he doubted there would be much problem.
"Wolfram?" Yuuri's voice was groggy and disoriented. "What time is it?"
Wolfram shrugged and didn't answer verbally. The bed creaked as Yuuri shifted to face Wolfram.
"Go to sleep, Your Majesty," Wolfram said as coolly as he could. It was hard, since Yuuri was breathing on his neck.
"I tried waiting for you, but I guess I fell asleep."
"I'm only here for your protection, Your Majesty," said Wolfram, snuggling deeper into his pillow.
"Stop calling me that," Yuuri said around a yawn. "Hey, you're not wearing that nightgown." There was an odd catch in Yuuri's tone that Wolfram didn't really understand.
"I found it unnecessary."
"Huh. What do you mean?"
Wolfram sighed. It looked as if Yuuri wasn't going to shut up any time soon. "If you must know, its soul purpose was to try and make me more desirable for you, since you seem to be only attracted to women." He turned around. "So—"
The words caught in Wolfram's throat and he choked on them, shooting into a sitting position. "Yu-Yuuri!"
"So!" Yuuri said rapidly, blushing brightly. "I was really confused when you got mad at me for no apparent reason and when I found out what was wrong went to a couple of different people to ask them what was up. I got some advice and Conrad said you'd still love me no matter what—" which was a gross abbreviation, but whatever, "—and Yosak said something like I should give my heart as a gift. So I went to Gwendel to try and knit you something—I started on a hat, but it looked kind of like a scarf and there was this big hole in the middle and—"
"Yuuri," Wolfram cut him off. His eyes were huge. "You're wearing a bow."
Yuuri nodded silently.
"And that's all."
"Well, I'm actually still wearing my underwear, but—ack! Wolfram!" Scandalized, Yuuri yanked the blankets back down when Wolfram tried to check. "When I asked Gunter to help me he said that the best gift I could give was myself, so I thought..." Yuuri trailed off and laced his fingers together in embarrassment. "Well."
Wolfram dropped his head and looked down at his own hands. He was sure his cheeks were bright red.
"I really didn't know that custom, Wolfram. I swear. And if I did, well, I wouldn't have—" Wolfram saw from his peripheral vision Yuuri shrug. "I didn't really want to break up with you, you know. You should have asked me!"
"Well, it's not as if you weren't trying to shove me away every minute anyway!" Wolfram's head shot up, and Yuuri slapped him.
It was a gentle smack that sort of ended in a caress after. But Yuuri pulled his hand away too quickly, face bright red. "Now everything's back to normal, right? You'll be my fiancé again?"
For the second time that night, Wolfram found himself speechless and wide-eyed.
"I mean," Yuuri flustered, "not that I want everything strictly back to normal, per se, but rather. I mean. Want to give us a chance?"
The hopeful look on Yuuri's face made Wolfram's heart clench. He swallowed a couple of times.
"I admit I'm kind of terrified of sex," Yuuri continued, face starting to fall a little at Wolfram's silence. "But I like you. Um. Possibly more than I should. And I guess I wouldn't mind trying it with you." Yuuri looked mortified. "One day. In the far, far future."
Wolfram ended their conversation by tackling Yuuri back into the bed.
"Wolfram! I said in the future!" Yuuri yelped, panicking. But Wolfram just buried his face against Yuuri's shoulder.
"Shut up, wimp."
Yuuri slowly relaxed into his pillows, smiling slightly. To him, that sounded like, "I like you, too."
Wolfram sighed with relief against Yuuri's skin. Yuuri had finally admitted he liked Wolfram, their engagement was now set in stone, and it looked as if he was going to get his money back from that stupid bet he lost with those kitchen wenches.
Life was good.