Wounds of the Heart
"Tadaima!" says Yuri, grinning happily.
His advisors surge forward, babbling their joy at his unexpected return. All except the Great Sage, who stands and backs up to give them room, and Wolfram, still kneeling in four inches of water. Murata throws Wolfram one undecipherable look before he climbs out of the reflecting pool and walks toward Ulrike. Wolfram watches him with resentment. Murata must know what is wrong, if anyone does. Why isn't he speaking up?
Gunter reaches Yuri first, twittering on about his joy and his devotion to His Majesty. Naturally, he knocks Yuri over again. Gwendal hauls him off so Yuri can get out of the water at last. Conrart, with his usual efficiency, has procured a set of towels and hands one to his king. Everything seems normal.
Wolfram knows better. In his mind, he replays the last few moments – his stunned joy at seeing Yuri again, the roiling emotions he could only express with his traditional insults and accusations, and Yuri's usual response, "Stop calling me that!" All perfectly normal to anyone watching … but Wolfram hadn't just been watching. He had, as usual, grabbed hold of Yuri, the better to insult him, and so he had felt the way Yuri's whole body flinched as if he had been struck when, for the thousandth time, Wolfram named him a wimp.
Perhaps feeling that flinch is why only Wolfram heard the desperation in Yuri's automatic reply. It is certainly why he hangs back now, watching his king, his fiancé, his friend. Yuri's joy at being back in Shin Makoku is unfeigned, but not – not quite – whole-hearted. No one else has noticed. Perhaps not even Yuri himself.
Wolfram's eyes dart to Ken Murata once more. Murata, too, is studying the happy reunion. Light flashes from his glasses as he glances toward Wolfram, his face expressionless. In a moment more, he nods, once, as if satisfied, and turns away.
What the hell is that supposed to mean? Briefly, Wolfram considers leaping up and following Murata to demand an explanation. Good sense prevails; demanding information from the Great Sage is useless. He will say what he wishes, when he decides the time is right, which is never as much or as soon as anyone else would like.
Well, if the Great Sage won't tell him what is wrong with Yuri, Wolfram will figure it out on his own. He's not stupid, and after all this time, he knows Yuri better than anyone else in this world except perhaps his brother Conrart. He can do this.
He straightens up and joins the others rejoicing in the return of their king, but a part of him stands aside, weighing Yuri's every word and look. He can feel Yuri's mounting tension, and he snaps and glares. Gwendal and Conrart exchange a look and back off; Gunter takes a second and more pointed glare. Wolfram knows they are humoring him because they know how much he missed Yuri, but right now he only cares that the strain he felt growing in Yuri has eased a little.
For the rest of the day, through the long ride to Covenant Castle, the enthusiastic greetings, and the celebratory dinner that follows, Wolfram does his best to protect Yuri, though he does not quite know what he is protecting Yuri from. He is not even sure that he is not imagining things. Not until late that night, when he once again sneaks into his fiancé's room, to find Yuri curled in an unhappy, wakeful ball in one corner of the big canopied bed.
Wolfram stops short. Yuri is never awake when he comes in. Never. "Why are you still up, wi–" He cuts the word short, remembering the flinch, but too late. Even in the dim light, he sees Yuri tremble. It cuts his heart. "Go to sleep," he says roughly. "You know Gunter will have a mountain of paperwork for you tomorrow. How are you going to do it if you're exhausted?"
Yuri gives a small nod. Not knowing what else to say, Wolfram lies down. "And don't hog the covers!" he tells Yuri. He feels another small, unhappy nod, and his heart bleeds. He wants to ask what is wrong, to offer his own life to fix it, but he has a feeling that might make things worse. So he lies helplessly waiting for the sound of slow, even breathing from the far side of the bed, knowing that he will not be able to close his eyes until he is sure that Yuri has fallen asleep.
He waits a long, long time. Finally he hears a soft whisper, barely more than the breath he was listening for. "I didn't think it through."
Wolfram turns over. "Think what through?" he says to Yuri's back.
"Coming back," Yuri says.
Wolfram's heart clenches. Would you rather have stayed there? Are you going away again, this time forever? He cannot draw breath enough to ask the questions, and in a moment, he is glad he did not.
"I missed everyone so much," Yuri goes on, and Wolfram breathes again. Until Yuri continues, "I didn't think what coming back would mean."
"It means you're home," Wolfram says uncertainly.
"It means I have to be king." Yuri's voice cracks, and Wolfram realizes he is crying. "I have to be king, and I know I'm going to screw up. Again."
Wolfram's mouth goes dry. He thinks he knows where this is going, and he doesn't like it one bit. "Again?" he croaks despite himself.
"You know," Yuri says sadly. "You're the one who died, after all. Because of me. Because I screwed up."
Wolfram stares at the curve of Yuri's shoulder, silhouetted against the lesser darkness of the starlit room, and tries to think what to say. Being dead wasn't so bad? But I got better? Well, it all worked out? "You saved me," he says finally. "You saved us all."
"What if I can't, next time?" Yuri says in a dead voice.
Wolfram's emerald eyes widen in the dark. He recognizes the note in Yuri's voice. He has heard it before, in the voices of men returning from war -- men who left both comrades and hope dead on the battlefield. He heard the same note in Conrart's voice, after Lutenberg. He never thought to hear such desperation and despair in Yuri's, and it shakes him to the core.
"I'm just an ordinary Japanese high school student," Yuri continues. "I tried to tell you all that, right from the start. I'm average. Mediocre." He chokes. "Limitless mediocrity, that's me."
"Who told you such nonsense?" Wolfram says angrily.
"Soushu," Yuri whispers after a long, long pause.
"And you believed him? That evil, treacherous, hate-filled …" Wolfram does not know whether he is more outraged by Soushu's words or Yuri's idiocy in accepting them. "You wimp!" The word slips out before he thinks, and he winces in sudden understanding, even before he feels Yuri's shudder.
"He may have been evil and treacherous, but that doesn't mean he was wrong," Yuri says in that same dead voice. "After all, you've always thought the same thing, haven't you? Wimp. That's what I am."
Wolfram bites his lip until it bleeds, wishing he could take back every one of those thousand or so wimps he's flung at Yuri in the past year. Well, at least nine hundred of them, anyway. "It's not the same thing at all," he snaps. "You may be a wimp, but you've never been a mediocre wimp."
To his surprise, Yuri laughs. It's not much of a laugh, more of a choke, really, but it's better than dead despair. Then Yuri takes a deep breath and rolls to face Wolfram. Starlight glints on the tracks of his tears. "Wolfram. You died because of me. Because I was too much of a wimp to stick to my job. I got distracted and moved my hands, and let Soushu take your heart and Conrart's arm and Gwendal's eye, and you died." His voice breaks. "How can you forgive me for that, any of you?"
You're our king. Wolfram doesn't say it. He knows Yuri won't understand. Yuri thinks that a ruler must be worthy of loyalty and service, and he has always, always worked his hardest to earn what is already his by right. It is one of the reasons everyone loves him, and one of the things that makes him a great king. "You made a mistake," Wolfram says instead. "But you risked your life to fix it. You saved all of us, all of Shin Makoku. The whole world, even. How can we not forgive you?"
Yuri gulps and buries his face in the mattress. It is a moment before Wolfram realizes that he is crying again. He lays a comforting hand on Yuri's shoulder and waits. After a while, the sobbing slows. "I shouldn't have come back," Yuri says, and his voice is desperate again, though not quite as desperate as before. "If I hadn't come back, you could have picked a new Demon King. Somebody who already knows about history and giving orders and magic and riding and not picking up sporks and, and … stuff. Somebody who won't get his friends killed."
"Yuri." Wolfram gives Yuri's shoulder a shake, to keep him from starting to cry again. "You know, after you … left, my uncle Stoffel asked Mother to go back to being Demon King. She said no, that she wasn't fit to follow you. Even Raven agreed with her. He said that there will probably never be another Demon King as great as you."
"They don't get it," Yuri says bitterly. "I'm not a great—"
"No, you don't get it," Wolfram interrupts. "You don't have to be the greatest Demon King there ever was." Because you already are, even if you can't see it. "You just have to do better than Mother and Stoffel would. That's not so hard."
There is a moment of silence, and then a watery chuckle. "Even a wimp like me can manage that much?" Yuri says, sounding far more like himself.
"Right." Beneath his hand, Wolfram feels the knotted muscles relax, and gives a tiny sigh of relief that for once he has found the right thing to say. Slowly, carefully, he slides his arm around Yuri, ready to retreat at once if he feels the slightest resistance.
There is none. Yuri only relaxes a little more, sagging against Wolfram as fatigue starts to replace despair. "Maybe you're right. I guess – I guess I have to try, don't I? Since I came back. But--"
"No buts," Wolfram says firmly. "You just do your best. We'll all be here to help whenever you need us."
"I'll always need you," Yuri murmurs, already half asleep. "Thanks, Wolfram."
Wolfram's arms tighten around Yuri and hold him, comforting and protecting, until the emotionally exhausted Demon King sleeps at last. Even then, Wolfram does not let go. He studied for a time with Suzanna Julia von Wincott herself, and he remembers the wars and the injured men quite clearly. He knows that wounds of the heart take the longest to heal, and leave the deepest scars.
There will be more nights like this one, he is sure. Soushu's evil whispers won't be purged completely by a few bouts of tears. But at least now he knows what they are fighting, he and Yuri. He knows, too, that they will win. Yuri is stronger than he thinks he is, and Wolfram has endless reserves of stubbornness. Together, given time, they can beat anything.
"Wimp," he whispers fondly, thinking Yuri too soundly asleep to hear.
The Demon King stirs. "Don't call me that," he mumbles, and burrows back into the comforting warmth of Wolfram's shoulder, fully asleep once more.
In the darkness, Wolfram smiles. He has won the first battle. This time, Yuri didn't flinch.