When he was little, barely as tall as one of the dogs that watched the flocks, Yuuta had nightmares of giants and fires, of people screaming and hands swooping down to tuck him under an arm, just as neat as Ojii carrying a lamb. He'd wake up, jaw aching from trying not to cry out—making noise was bad, although he didn't know why—damp with sweat. For a long time he tried not to bother anyone with his night terrors, but one night he woke Sae up with his whimpering.
"Hey," Sae whispered, voice pitched low, "what's wrong?"
Yuuta shook his head, afraid to say anything. Sae was older than he was, and even if he hadn't laughed at anything Yuuta had done yet, Yuuta didn't want to tempt him to start now.
Sae cocked his head, like a dog trying to puzzle out something. "Bad dream?" he guessed.
Yuuta nodded, shy.
Sae's smile gleamed in the low light from the coals on the hearth. "Figured. C'mere." He patted his blankets.
Yuuta crawled over, dragging his own blankets behind him, and let Sae tuck him in close. That was better, and he snuggled into the comforting warmth of the other boy. He didn't remember the dreams he had the rest of the night.
After that, if he had a bad dream, he crawled into Sae's blankets, and let the other boy's steady breathing lull him to sleep, until he found that sharing a bed with Sae was good for keeping them away entirely.
Even after he grew past the age of nightmares, he never quite lost the habit of curling up with Sae for reassurance.
When he was big enough, Ojii stuck a crook in Yuuta's hand and sent him out with Sae and the sheep and the dogs, along with a wallet of food and maybe a bottle of barley tea, if Ojii felt generous, and told them he'd see them home at dark.
It was easy work. The sheep weren't inclined to stray very much from their pastures, and the dogs kept the ones that were from getting too far away, most of the time.
That meant he and Sae could do what they wanted, and they did, running free through the green hills, wrestling each other until they were breathless with laughter, grimy from rolling around in the dirt and pelting each other with whatever came within reach. Afterwards they'd sluice off in one of the springs that came bubbling up from under the earth, and devour the bread and cheese Ojii sent them for their noon meal, and when the sun got warm in the afternoons, they might doze in the shade of a tree, or practice with their slings, knocking the leaves off branches or hunting rabbits to take home to Ojii, until the sun started sinking and it was time to herd the flock back to their pens.
Ambling home with the sun turning the sky red and gold, with the sheep making quiet sounds as the dogs chivvied them along, with Sae matching his longer strides to Yuuta's shorter ones, Yuuta couldn't imagine how life might get any better than this.
There was the time that the pack of wolves started picking off members of the flock. The winter was colder than usual, harder than any Yuuta remembered, and it kept most folk snugged away in their houses, safe behind thick walls and sturdy doors. Ojii mightn't have begrudged the wolves a stray sheep here or there, because Ojii was like that, gnomic and sure that everything under the sun had its place and purpose. Then the wolves took off one of Ojii's best rams, and that was the end of Ojii's patience.
They put their heads together—Ojii and the older boys, and left Yuuta out of it, even though he was getting to be a big boy himself—at least twelve years old, by his count. They got together their slings and spears, Ojii unearthed a sword that looked funny in his hands, and Bane carried along the bow and arrows that he practiced with all the time, and they took turns keeping watch over the flocks. Yuuta stayed home and minded the fires.
The wolves were canny, though, and stayed away, and everyone's tempers got short from the lack of sleep, while Yuuta sulked and fretted that he wasn't allowed to take part. Sae knew that he was sulking, and when a whole week had gone by and it was starting to seem like the wolves had moved on, he told Yuuta to sneak out after him and Bane, and be quiet about it.
Yuuta did, thrilled about the adventure, and crept after the two of them as stealthily as he could. He and Sae had made a game out of stalking each other through the bushes, and he was good at it, and Bane never knew he was there.
Ojii knew, though, and when he caught Yuuta slinking back in the next morning, he gave Yuuta a thrashing he never did forget, and Sae too, for encouraging him.
(The farmers a couple of valleys over eventually killed the wolves when the pack tried to raid a farmstead. Yuuta was always disappointed, afterwards, that he didn't get a chance at them himself, although he could admit, privately, that his sling wouldn't have been much good against a hungry wolf.)
There came a point when he started to think that it wasn't such a good idea to crawl into Sae's bed to sleep anymore. Davide gave him a funny smile when he caught them one morning, and Bane elbowed Sae, laughing about something that Yuuta didn't quite understand but made Sae catch Bane in the ribs with an elbow that knocked the laughter right out of Bane.
All Yuuta knew was that his chest ached in a funny way when he looked at Sae, laughing against a bright sky, and that he was having dreams that he couldn't quite remember when he woke up, and maybe it was better to stay in his own bed instead of crawling in with Sae.
Sae didn't say anything about it, and neither did Yuuta, and things went on like that for a while, funny and distant between them, until the spring day they had to go find a fool ewe that had wandered off and gotten lost. They went off to look together, leaving Davide with the flock, because that's the way they'd always done it.
They didn't talk much while they tracked the ewe—just the occasional comment to each other as they searched. That was okay, though; they didn't always need to talk to each other.
It took a long time; the sun started going down before they found the ewe, and they were too far from home to make it back before dark. "Camp?" Sae suggested.
"Sure," Yuuta said, because it wasn't like this was the first time they'd spent the night outside together. He scrounged up the wood for a fire while Sae scouted out a nice little niche in the hillside for their camp.
They ate their dinner quietly, talking about the places they hadn't looked yet for the damnfool ewe, and when they were done, they banked the fire carefully. The night was turning cooler than the day's sun would have promised, and Yuuta eyed his thin blanket doubtfully.
"We should double up," Sae said, putting it into words for them both. He grinned at Yuuta and patted his bedroll. "C'mere."
It was only for one night, and Yuuta couldn't see what it would hurt. He added his blanket to Sae's, and they curled up together. The ground was still cool, and the blankets still weren't quite enough, but since they didn't have anything better, it would have to do.
Yuuta didn't expect to sleep, but he dropped off eventually, to dreams of a missing sheep and Sae bounding after it, graceful as the wind in the trees, and Sae's eyes on his, blue like the sky, close to his like they were wrestling, only they weren't wrestling, they were—
Yuuta jolted awake, breathing fast, acutely conscious of the warm body under him and the tightness between his legs—oh. Oh.
Then, to complete his embarrassment, Sae said, very softly, "Yuuta?"
The sudden heat in his face stung in the chilly night air, and he stuttered an apology, tried to roll away. Sae caught him and held him. If it had been anyone else, Yuuta would have fought to get away. As it was, he froze, even when Sae pulled him back down, until he whispered, "I'm sorry."
"You don't have to be," Sae told him, and drew his chin around, and made it all make sense by kissing him softly.
They stayed warm for the rest of the night.
They wandered home two mornings later, Sae carrying the ewe's lamb over his shoulders and Yuuta tugging the stubborn beast along. Maybe they hadn't needed to spend the second night out, but Yuuta caught a pair of rabbits with his sling for their supper, and they both wanted time to share this new thing without anyone else to interrupt them.
They were laughing over some joke that Sae had made when they crested the hill that led down to Ojii's ramshackle farmhouse. Sae was the first to stop laughing, because he saw the horses—fine ones, decked out in bright colors, finer beasts than any of the drayhorses common to the farms around them. "What on earth...?" he murmured, when Davide came out of the house, running to meet them.
And as easily as that, Yuuta's world ended.
It wasn't something he'd thought about before, this matter of kings and kingdoms. He hadn't thought much of anything beyond the borders of Ojii's range, except maybe of the village where they drove some of the flock once a season, to sell it off, and where they took the bales of wool from shearing season.
Now they were telling him that the usurper who'd stolen the throne from the former King of Seishun had been overthrown. Now his brother (he had a brother?) had taken the crown back, and wanted to bring his younger brother (that was him, Yuuta thought, dazed, trying to make himself believe it) who'd been secreted away, kept safe by loyal retainers (Ojii was a retainer? to the king?) during the usurper's reign home.
Yuuta shook his head at them, these brightly-colored messengers, elegant in Ojii's shabby little house. They were wrong, because there was no way that he was—that he—there was no way.
But Ojii was nodding along with them, and had a bundle made up, already waiting for him, and just like that, they took him away.
The last thing he saw, twisting around in the saddle of a horse that jittered underneath him (because it knew he didn't belong in its saddle, clever thing), was Sae staring after their little procession, looking as lost as Yuuta felt.
The courtier they sent for him, Oishi by name, tried to be kind, although Yuuta wanted none of it, and did his best to tell Yuuta about this man who was both the king and his brother. The king spent years in exile, forging alliances and honing his strength to overturn the usurpers. Yuuta had spent the past twelve years herding sheep. His brother had spent them fighting.
Yuuta could not imagine what he would have to say to such a person.
They rode through land that became less and less wild, more and more domesticated. Fields gave way to pastures, which gave way to farms, and then the farms became fewer and the villages—towns—more plentiful. Finally, they came to land that is more buildings than fields, and Yuuta's eyes ached for the sight of a tree that wasn't stunted or hemmed in by stone. They stopped at an inn, and Oishi spoke quietly to the innkeep.
The next thing Yuuta knew, he was being scrubbed within an inch of his life, and someone had attacked the mop of hair on his head, trying to comb it out. They gave it up as futile after half an hour of swearing on his part, and cut it off short.
When they finally let him dress again, it was in unfamiliar clothes that constricted his movements, and they stuffed his feet into shoes that didn't fit and pinched abominably. Oishi looked him over and pronounced him fit to meet the king, and they rode on, through streets that were paved over rather than being honest dirt, past the crowds of people—more people than Yuuta had ever seen in his life.
He hunched his shoulders against their stares, and prayed to wake up, but he didn't, not even as they rode through a gate that pierced thick walls, and servants ran to take the reins of their horses. He continued to hope as they took him through a maze of hallways that left his head spinning, and didn't stop, even when they ushered him into a room and bowed to the slender man sitting on a massive chair. "Yuuta," the man said, softly, and rose to hug him.
They stumbled through a reunion—this man, Shuusuke, lean and dangerous behind his smiles, even if he thought he hid it—and him, Yuuta, nothing but a shepherd dressed in clothes that didn't suit him. Yuuta hoped that Shuusuke would look at him, realize that he'd plucked up the wrong boy, and would send him home again.
Instead, he called for servants to make Yuuta comfortable, and clasped his hand before they took him away. "Welcome home, little brother," he said.
The worst of it was that Yuuta could tell how kindly it was meant.
Yuuta had rooms now that were bigger than Ojii's entire house, and fine clothes, and servants who watched him constantly, doing things for him before he even thought to want them. He had a companion, a tutor to teach him all the courtly manners he'd never learned while tending sheep.
He had an income of sorts from estates he hadn't realized he'd possessed, and wasn't likely to see any time soon, given how reluctant to let Yuuta out of his sight his brother seemed to be. Ojii had taught Yuuta numbers, but not numbers like these. The amounts made his head spin and didn't seem real, not even when he put them into practical terms: how many acres of land, how many flocks of sheep, how much feed all this wealth might buy him.
He had a sister, too, Yumiko, who'd been forced to marry the usurper to make his claim to the throne more legitimate, and whose face was grooved with premature lines. Yuumiko and he had even less to say to each other than Yuuta had to say to his brother the king; after the first awkward interviews, Yuuta left her to herself to brood. Perhaps she wanted out of this life as well. His tutor, Mizuki, whispered that she had been fond of the usurper, perhaps fonder than she ought to have been. Then he hushed himself, and told Yuuta to forget that he'd said anything, and refused to talk about anything but table manners and dancing for a week.
Yuuta didn't forget. He didn't say anything, either, and eventually Mizuki relaxed enough to tell him other tidbits of gossip. Yuuta didn't know what to make of them, but tucked them away regardless.
He had a sister-in-law, too, the Tachibana princess his brother had married during his exile, because her brother's army was a strong one. Ann and Shuusuke seemed to get on all right, though, and Yuuta envied them their ease with each other. In another season or two, he'd have a niece or a nephew, by the looks of things.
And sometimes, if he could get away from court, from the crowds of eyes that followed him, the people who wanted his time and his attention for whatever good they thought it would do him, Yuuta had what pieces of the sky he could see from his windows. Of all the things he had now, Yuuta thought these were the most precious.
His brother was fond of hunting, and took Yuuta along often. It was a treat to be out of doors, even though he sat in the saddle like a sack of oats (according to his riding instructor) and was no good with the weapons they wanted him to use. He fumbled with the bow, and even more with the spear, until the courtiers tittered behind their hands, and Shuusuke suggested he just ride with them.
Yuuta wanted to challenge them all to a round with the sling, and see how many of them could drop a rabbit at fifty paces, but kept his peace, and jounced along after them until the saddle had beaten him sore and his horse's ears were flat against its head, and it was time to retreat back to the castle.
Still, his brother's eyes were sharp, and he drew his horse up one fine afternoon, and waved off their attendants. "Are you not happy?" he asked, after a moment.
Mizuki had coached him time and again on how to answer questions from the king. Yuuta ignored those lessons and looked up at the endless arch of blue above them. "No," he said.
When he looked back, Shuusuke was frowning. "What do you want that you don't have?" And his eyes promised that he was a king, and that anything Yuuta asked would be his.
Yuuta's heart thudded in his chest, hard enough to hurt. "I want to go home," he told his brother.
Shuusuke frowned. "You are home."
Yuuta's heart fell, and he stayed silent, eyes dropping away from Shuusuke's face.
"You are," Shuusuke told him again, fierce. "Watching sheep chew their cud all day is no job for a prince."
"I never asked to be a prince," Yuuta said, eyes fixed on the pommel of his saddle, which was embossed with intricate patterns.
"You might try to be grateful for all I've done for you," Shuusuke told him, and spurred his horse ahead.
Yuuta rode after him, dutiful, and didn't dare ask for anything else.
There were women at court, and some men too, who looked at him like he was a lamb and they were the wolves who wanted to eat him up. Yuuta did his best to ignore them—and was doing a damn good job of it, even if he did say so for himself—until Mizuki had to go and ruin it by telling him that it was okay if he wanted to take a lover, as long as he was discreet about it.
He said it tentatively, eyes not quite meeting Yuuta's. That was the only thing that kept Yuuta from losing his temper completely. Mizuki had been almost a friend to him, and Yuuta made himself be gentle when he said, "I'll bear that in mind, thank you."
In the wake of that, the two nights he spent curled up with Sae, oblivious to the cold ground and colder air, seemed so long ago that they must have been a dream.
"The king of Rikkai is coming to visit us," Shuusuke told him, one evening when they were having a quiet family dinner. Yuuta didn't think anything about it, preferring to think about how dinner at Ojii's house would be going, loud and filled with arguments and laughter rather than the quiet clink of china and silver, and the rustle of servants moving around the table. Then his brother added, "He's bringing his sister with him."
Yumiko put down her spoon and blotted her lips. "How old is she now?"
"Old enough," Shuusuke said. That was when Yuuta realized that Shuusuke and Yumiko were both looking at him, two pairs of blue eyes assessing him.
"No," he said, before he could stop himself. "No, please." And he stopped himself, not sure what to say that might stop this from happening.
But Shuusuke wasn't being his brother, for all the trappings of a quiet family meal. He was being the king, weighing out matters of state as he buttered a roll, and he said, lightly, "We'll have to see what comes of the visit."
Ann's eyes were warm, looking at him with pity from her seat at Shuusuke's side. Yuuta knew, looking at her, what was likely to come from this state visit, and knew that there wasn't anything he could do or say to stop it.
What was worse was realizing that he might have passed the point of caring.
The king of Rikkai's retinue was huge, and the his (and his sister's) visit drew nobility from all around Seishun—nobles Yuuta had never seen before, and Mizuki warned him that he might expect not to see again until the next grand state event. The whole castle had been turned upside down for the occasion, cleaned and polished until even the grey stone of the walls seemed to shine. The halls themselves were filled with people in bright silks and jewels, laughing behind their hands, plotting with and double-crossing each other, all for the sake of advancing themselves just a little further.
Yuuta himself moved through the fuss in a daze. His brother and Yukimura spent their time hunting together and amusing themselves with the hawks, attending spectacles and pageants put on for Yukimura's benefit, and presiding over balls that lasted until dawn began to turn the sky gold. If they were conducting business at the same time, it wasn't in any way Yuuta could see.
He was tasked with squiring the princess around to all the same events, and did so awkwardly, no good at making small talk or at performing any of the tasks she seemed to expect from him. She rode better than he, and laughed at the plays when he didn't understand the jokes, and moved like a gazelle on the dance floor where he could barely keep himself from stepping on the trailing hem of her fine gowns. Yuuta wondered what she reported back to her brother the king, and what their respective brothers haggled about behind their smiles.
The Yukimuras had been visiting for a little over a week, and were set to stay another fortnight at least, when a new buzz ran through the court. Yuuta caught snatches of it in passing: I thought Sakaki held the title now? was paired with What made him decide to come to court now? which tagged along on the heels of Isn't he a little... odd?
He didn't pay it any mind until the next time his brother sat in open audience, and the heralds announced the lord of Rokkaku's entrance. He looked because everyone else was looking, and so he didn't miss the way Ojii stumped into the grand hall, leaning on the gnarled cudgel he'd carried all the days Yuuta'd known him. The only concession he seemed to have made to being at court was putting on a new smock.
Yuuta stared, because this couldn't have been anything real, with the vague thought that he was going to hate himself when he woke in the morning. He stared even more when he realized that it was Sae who his dreams had put trailing after Ojii, and at least his dreams had the good sense to make Sae look as uncomfortable in court clothes as Yuuta himself was.
Something buzzed in his ears—it was the whispering of the courtiers as Ojii marched up to the throne and executed a creaky bow to the king. Sae peered around the hall like he was looking for something in particular as Ojii and Shuusuke exchanged words with each other. As Ojii managed another bow just as rusty as the first, Sae's gaze lit on Yuuta, and he broke out into an enormous grin.
Yuuta forgot about the princess on his arm and the hundred pairs of eyes that were watching, and smiled for the first time since the morning they came to take him away.
He didn't remember crossing the floor to Sae, or the way his brother covered his eyes, or the shocked sounds that the court made as the foreign king and princess stared. All Yuuta remembered was how good it felt to throw his arms around Sae's shoulders and kiss him, and how Sae caught him up and kissed him back, just as clumsy and unpracticed as Yuuta himself, because it felt like finally coming home.
And somehow, despite the strain on diplomatic relations between Seishun and Rikkai, and Shuusuke's exasperation with him for not having said something sooner, they contrived to live happily ever after.