He had stopped.
It was too bright, too much light that it was almost blinding. He tried to speak to convey his discomfort, but all that came out of him was a loud cry…
Wait, he was…crying?
Then from somewhere above him came the sound of excited voices.
"It's a boy, my lady!"
"Oh, he's beautiful!"
He could feel himself being handed ever so carefully to another pair of arms.
"He has your face, my lady."
"He'll no doubt grow up to be as beautiful as you!"
A delighted laughter rang above him. He felt soft hands ghosting over his face.
"What shall you call him, my lady?"
There was a pause. Then a voice came, happy and comforting:
"Wolfram. His name is Wolfram."
He liked the sound of that and he settled into the warmth provided to him by this unknown pair of arms, already forgetting about his long journey.
Forgetting about a life he had once led as a new one began.
The festival was over.
Shori stood with Murata before the window of an empty classroom, watching the now vacant school grounds as the last of the students traipsed out of the gate. Aside from the two of them, only four people remained in the premises – Yuuri, Wolfram, Damien, and Saralegui. The four had broken into two unlikely groups – Yuuri and Saralegui were seated on a bench, under a tree, while Damien and Wolfram were walking along the empty booths, examining their contents with perfunctory interest.
"Shibuya looks happy," Murata observed, breaking the silence.
Shori couldn't help but scowl. "Not for long. Wolfram's going, isn't he?"
"Yes, but Shibuya knows, and he looks fine with it."
"Fine now," Shori pointed out. "But what if Wolfram fails and his soul is still destroyed in the process? What happens then?"
Murata shrugged. "I think Lord von Bielefeld wouldn't fail. Now that he had Shibuya's assurance that he'd be waiting, he has a very good reason not to fail."
"You really are a romantic," said Shori, slightly amused at the idea of a sage who was more sentimental than intellectual. He let out a deep breath. "I just hope that Yuuri knows what he's doing. He just seems too in love with Wolfram that I'm not sure how he'll cope with his fiancé going away. I mean look at that…that scene earlier…"
He trailed away. Murata chuckled, seeming to also remember that scene being referred to. After Yuuri had run off, Shori and Murata had taken a walk around the school, looking for him. They eventually saw him beside a window, standing much too close to Wolfram…and then he was kissing Wolfram…and then…
If Shori had been near enough, he would have done something to catch the two boys' attentions. Of the two, Yuuri should have known better. Being the one from Earth, he should know perfectly well that kissing a guy in public was…was just not something that other people were accustomed to seeing. But no. Shori could see that it was even his precious little brother who was making the move that he had to wonder for a moment whether Yuuri had already lost his mind.
Some students saw what Yuuri and Wolfram were doing, and Shori could only groan helplessly. And then others looked up too and saw everything, and Shori just knew that the damage was done. Yuuri's high school life would be ruined by that one single occurrence. Perhaps ruined forever.
"Yuuri had just turned his school life into a living hell," commented Shori.
Murata, however, had a different opinion. "I wouldn't say that. The boys were indeed shocked to the core, but the girls were at least a little more open to the idea. Take Sawada-san for instance…"
"Even so…" Shori persisted, but Murata cut him short.
"Your brother looks happy, doesn't he? Isn't that enough for now?"
Shori returned his gaze to Yuuri, noting the radiance in his smile, and in the end, he had to agree. He huffed and nodded grudgingly, but still he couldn't help but qualify his agreement with an emphatic, "For now."
Murata smiled and said wisely, "Now is as good a time as any to be happy."
"You always have an answer to everything, don't you?" Shori asked amusedly.
"I am a sage, Shibuya's older brother."
"Fair point, my little brother's friend."
And they left it at that, both deciding – even without saying it out aloud – to just let everyone be happy.
Even just for now.
"I never did apologize for what I said the last time."
Damien turned to his companion, wondering what he could possibly be referring to. And then he remembered that the last time Wolfram and he were together, they were at the Ryuzoku camp, arguing about things that all seemed so trivial now.
He said, "Forget about it. I should apologize too for…er…insulting the Maou in front of your face before…"
Wolfram smiled. "We were both so mad at each other that time, weren't we?"
"I was more frustrated," Damien answered. "I know I accused you of confusing me with him, but by then, I also started to realize that I was desperately trying to be like him just so I could get you to like me."
Wolfram blinked at the confession. "I like you—"
"Don't say things like that," Damien interrupted disapprovingly. "I'm really just starting to get over…er…you, and I don't want any reason for me to relapse into my old obsessive ways…"
Wolfram chuckled. "You make me sound like a disease…" Then the boy grinned at him meaningfully. "So…have you found your cure then?"
"What?" Damien didn't understand for a moment, then he saw his companion's eyes flitting over to Saralegui. "What? No!" he quickly denied, his voice rising. "I—we—come on—you can't possibly—"
Wolfram placed a placating hand on his shoulder to stop him. "I didn't say anything…Ryuzoku."
The last word was uttered so carefully, mimicking Saralegui's tone and manner of delivery that Damien blushed to the tips of his hair. "No," he said again, but much softer and weaker this time.
Wolfram laughed at him.
"I guess I should thank you Sara."
Saralegui glanced at the boy seated next to him and asked, "Thank me for what?"
"Wolf told me that you helped him make up his mind to come here today," Yuuri answered. "He said that he'd almost decided to leave Blood Pledge Castle without saying goodbye, until you managed to convince him. Although I'm really curious…how did you do that?"
Saralegui smiled. "We dueled."
Yuuri straightened up. "You did? Who won?"
Saralegui couldn't stop himself from laughing, remembering that same question uttered by somebody else some hours earlier, but he subsided long enough to answer, "Off the record? I'd say he did." Mentally he added, 'In every way.'
The Maou's eyes were back on Lord von Bielefeld, watching the boy from afar, and for that instant, Saralegui allowed himself to brood. He watched Lord von Bielefeld with a mixture of jealousy and interest, thinking how truly lucky he must be to have the love and affection of two good men. For a brief moment, Saralegui allowed his true feelings to surface, acknowledging the resentment that was bottled up inside him for so long – resentment at the fact that he wanted what Lord von Bielefeld had.
Family. Friends. Love.
Startled, Saralegui turned to Yuuri, discomfited at the realization that the Maou must have seen the yearning and vulnerability on his face. He quickly turned away, raising his shields in the process, reminding himself that the things he wanted were way beyond his reach.
Besides, tomorrow, he would be sailing back to Shou Shimaron. Back to his kingdom. Back to being a king. And Saralegui knew that he needed to shove all thoughts of family, friends, or love to the deepest corner of his mind. He would be alone again. He had always been alone.
"You don't have to do things on your own, you know," said Yuuri suddenly, as though he knew exactly what was bothering him. "We're friends and allies now, aren't we? You can always count on me. And I'm sure Damien will tell you the same thing."
Saralegui couldn't speak for a second. Then despite himself, he smiled. "Friends. Yes, I know."
Friends. Saralegui kept that in mind, telling himself that perhaps it wasn't too bad to have even just one of the things he had always wanted.
Even just one.
"Speaking of the Ryuzoku," Wolfram said, changing the topic, "what do you think should I do with them?"
"I think they all want a quiet life," Damien answered. "If you'd talk to Emil, you'd see how desperate they are for peace…"
"I know," Wolfram sighed. "But since they played a huge part in the destruction of Bielefeld Castle, I cannot just take them there with me…"
"How about ordering them to the wild?" Damien suggested. "Isn't there a protected portion of the Mazoku territories that are reserved for dragons?"
"The Dragon Valley," Wolfram said thoughtfully. He had been there once, when Yuuri had first insisted that he needed to see a dragon with his own eyes. They ended up having a very eventful encounter with a group of poachers, when they rescued a baby dragon from their grasp. Wolfram suddenly wondered whether that baby dragon had finally grown up.
"I could perhaps ask Yuuri…" he said after a second's consideration. "But I'm not sure how the nobles would react to that…"
"If it's only temporary, I don't see any reason for them to disagree," Damien said. "I'm sure they'd prefer that than to having the dragons within sight of the capital."
Wolfram nodded, seeing the logic in the suggestion. Then he couldn't stop himself from asking, "You don't find it weird at all that I…I mean that I…took over…the Ryuzoku?"
Damien clarified, "You mean if I'm mad at you for killing Ryuu?"
Wolfram's face darkened at the boy's candor. "Yes."
"No," said the other boy. "And I told Yuuri the same thing."
Yuuri. Wolfram noted the use of the name and he observed, "You all seem to be getting along well. You and Yuuri. Even Saralegui…"
"Long story," said Damien, smiling. "Yuuri and I…well…it took us so long to finally get past all that animosity…" The boy glanced at Wolfram and added with a wink. "For obvious reasons."
"Should I be flattered?" Wolfram asked good-humoredly. He went on before Damien could reply, "What about Saralegui?"
"The Shinzoku?" said Damien, refusing to use the Shou Shimaron king's given name. But there was no trace of enmity in the boy's tone. Rather, the way he uttered the word made it even sound like a pet name.
"He still confuses me sometimes," Damien continued. "He can be terribly cryptic. Case in point – he supported my bid for the Dai Shimaron throne despite the fact that he clearly wanted to unite Shou Shimaron and Dai Shimaron so badly."
Wolfram considered that, and unconsciously, his gaze traveled to Saralegui. Something about the Shou Shimaron king had changed, Wolfram noted. He didn't know exactly what it was, but…could he be…?
He glanced back at Damien with a knowing smile. "Well, Saralegui need not worry so much about that. Besides, if he really wanted it so badly, there is another way to unite Shimaron…"
Wolfram told him, and Damien quickly turned red.
Yuuri watched his fiancé talking with Damien, and he frowned. Wolfram seemed to be teasing Damien about something. At least Damien was blushing furiously, while Wolfram was laughing unabashedly.
"Jealous?" Saralegui teased, catching his eye.
Yuuri shook his head. "No. I think it's good that Wolfram has established a friendship with another human, aside from me. And besides, he is laughing again."
"And you're really just going to let him go on his own?"
"I don't think I could ever really tie Wolfram down," Yuuri answered with a small smile.
"And you're really fine with that?" Saralegui asked dubiously.
"For the most part," said Yuuri. "Besides, I do have responsibilities. We all do. We all have to rebuild everything that was destroyed in the war. But once I'm done and Wolfram hasn't returned yet…well, he didn't expressly forbid me from going after him."
Saralegui didn't speak for a while. Then he said softly, "You two really are something."
Yuuri didn't comment on that, opting to return his gaze to Wolfram and Damien. After watching the two for a few more seconds, he stood up.
"You know, I am jealous," he told his companion. "Let's go break them apart now, shall we?"
Damien was still blushing, and the redness in his face intensified when Yuuri and Saralegui joined them. Yuuri's hand immediately went around Wolfram's in a subtle show of possessiveness.
"What are you two talking about?" Yuuri asked.
To Damien's relief, Wolfram answered, "Oh nothing."
"So I could steal you away now?"
Wolfram smiled and followed Yuuri's lead. But before he left, he gave Damien a significant look and said, "Just think about it."
"Think about what?" Saralegui echoed when the two other boys had gone.
Damien groaned. "Nothing really. It's a stupid idea."
Saralegui looked interested. "Are you going to tell me or do I have to force it out of you? Your choice, Ryuzoku."
Damien made a face. "It's really nothing. Wolf just said that…marriage between the rulers is as effective as any in unifying Shou Shimaron and Dai Shimaron…" He took one look at the other boy's expression and muttered, "I told you it's a stupid idea."
Saralegui took a moment to answer. Just when Damien thought that the other boy wouldn't respond to that at all, Saralegui flashed his usual cryptic smile at him.
"Yes," the Shou Shimaron king agreed. "It's a pretty stupid idea."
"Marriage?" Yuuri asked, eyebrows raised. "Damien and Sara? Come on, Wolf…"
"Is it really too impossible?" Wolfram challenged.
"Well…I don't know. But they just don't seem to get along well half of the time…"
"We never did too, before. Remember?"
Yuuri considered that for a moment. Then reluctantly, he nodded in agreement. "We turned out okay though."
"Because you stopped being such a wimp," Wolfram said fondly.
"And you stopped being such a brat," Yuuri shot back.
Wolfram smiled, leaning over to kiss him. "I really am going to miss you."
The sun had gone down and darkness was starting to set in. For some reason, Wolfram had insisted on going back to the other world after the day was over, and looking at the skies, Yuuri thought that it must be about time. He wanted to go back too so that he could see Wolfram off properly, but Wolfram had declined, saying that he wanted to say his goodbyes here on Earth.
"I will miss you too," Yuuri said, kissing him back. Then he smiled. "You know, maybe we should be the ones getting married."
Wolfram looked surprised, then he laughed. "Maybe."
Yuuri was suddenly hopeful. "Maybe when you return?"
Wolfram's smile slipped, and his face turned thoughtful. "Yuuri…"
"Just maybe?" Yuuri pushed.
Wolfram looked at him for a long period before nodding. "Maybe. When everything is over."
Yuuri refrained from asking what Wolfram meant by that, knowing that he would never get a straight answer anyway. Wolfram was being very secretive about his destination after settling everything in the Bielefeld territories, and not for lack of trying but Yuuri hadn't been able to get the boy to tell him anything about that at all.
So at the moment, Yuuri contented himself by leaning forward and kissing Wolfram again, holding onto him while he still could, until the entire world faded away, and only the two of them were all that mattered.
Blood Pledge Castle seemed quieter in the days that followed, after the departure of all the refugees and soldiers from Shou Shimaron and Dai Shimaron, the leaders of the Noble Houses and their entourage, as well as the dragons and their riders.
After saying goodbye to Damien, Saralegui, and Wolfram on Earth, Yuuri stayed behind to spend a little quality time with his family. It wasn't really too bad, considering that he had a still-guilty Shori to boss around, but after two days of living like a normal Earth teenager again, Yuuri felt himself getting restless. After all the action and stress of keeping a kingdom together through a war, Yuuri found normal teenage life to be a little drab.
Yuuri soon returned to a nearly empty castle, and for a brief instant, he felt daunted at the huge responsibility that awaited him, not quite knowing where to start. There were towns to rebuild, people to talk to, and a towering pile of documents to peruse and sign.
Gunter and Gwendal took some of the less important things off his hands, but even with their help, Yuuri still felt that he was being pulled into a thousand different directions all at once. Everybody seemed to need him. Everything seemed to require his attention.
But Yuuri readily welcomed his new hectic days, finding that having so many things to do kept him from dwelling too much about the departure of one other person. Wolfram was predictably gone by the time that Yuuri returned to Blood Pledge Castle, and although they had parted in excellent terms, Yuuri found his thoughts straying more and more to his fears that the boy might never return.
There were moments when all Yuuri wanted to do was sneak in the middle of the night and set off for Bielefeld Castle. There were times when he'd feel an insatiable yearning at the pit of his stomach for just another second to be with Wolfram. There were instances when he'd feel the urge to leave everything behind just to be with his fiancé, but at the last minute, he'd always manage to stop himself somehow, just enough to think rationally.
He could do this. He could wait. Wolfram had done it, had waited three years for Yuuri to admit his feelings for him. He should be able to pay Wolfram the same courtesy.
Yuuri sighed, his mind leaping to another thought. Should he have agreed to let Wolfram go? Perhaps if he had argued or even demanded…the boy might be forced to stay. Yuuri winced at the word. Forced. On second thought, he didn't want to drive Wolfram into doing anything against his will.
Besides…if their situations were reversed, Yuuri was fairly sure that Wolfram would never attempt to tie him down. The memory of a day roughly a year ago – when he had finally defeated Soushou and was faced with the choice of leaving Shin Makoku for good – served as a perfect example. Back then, he had feared that Wolfram would throw a fit at his imminent departure, but to his immense surprise, it was the boy who told him to go. It was Wolfram who reminded him of his family who was waiting on the other side, who understood his burden enough to not try to hold him back.
Yuuri sighed again, pushing the letter he'd been reading away from him, giving it up as a bad job. His interest and focus on the job at hand had dissipated anyway, as they always did when he'd get too caught up in his musings. He looked out of the open window, wondering what Wolfram was doing right now.
The door was open, admitting a surprisingly large group of people – Greta, Conrad, Gwendal, Gunter, Lady Cheri, Yozak, Anissina…
Yuuri eventually lost count. He stood up, wondering worriedly whether something bad had happened again. Conrad smiled to reassure him.
"I just wanted to check if you're okay," his godfather explained. "But surprisingly a lot of people came to do the same…"
"I'm fine really," said Yuuri, slightly flustered at all this attention. "I'm not…"
"Oh I am so going to clobber Wolfram when I see him next," cried Lady Cheri theatrically. "Leaving us – Heika especially – like that…"
"It's okay. We talked before he—"
"I understand that he's needed in the Bielefeld territories," chimed Gunter, "but he's your fiancé. He should stay by your side always…"
"Thank you Gunter, but really, I'm—"
"Wolf will come back, won't he?" asked Greta worriedly. "Soon?"
"I'm not really sure but he—"
"I could not believe that you allowed him to go that easily," said Gwendal in disapproval. "Granted that he was exonerated, but he still has a lot of questions to answer."
"I know, but—"
"I do have a new invention," Anissina interrupted. "It's called the 'Transport-Anyone-Back-Into-Blood-Pledge-Castle-kun' but I think I will have to test it out on Gwendal again. The last person I used this on ended up somewhere in the desert…"
"Er, thank you Anissina-san, but—"
"So that's why Ryan went missing," commented Yozak. "But could that be actually used on—?"
Yuuri had had enough. "Everyone," he said firmly, "Please. Wolfram and I have talked about this. He will return, okay? So just…just go back to whatever it is that you have been doing until he comes back."
"For how long?" Conrad asked on behalf of everyone in the room.
"I don't know," said Yuuri honestly. "We'll all just have to wait, alright?" He smiled to set everyone's mind at rest. "I'm really okay. Besides…if Wolfram were here, he'd just yell at all of us for worrying too much about him."
Everyone seemed to get his point, but all still looked a little doubtful. Without thinking, Yuuri blurted out, "We're getting married. When Wolf returns."
There was a stunned silence. Then everyone seemed to be speaking all at the same time.
"Married?" Lady Cheri squealed. "Oh my! Why didn't you tell us earlier?"
"Dear Shinou," remarked Gunter, face turning white then red then green. "Heika, you actually asked Wolfram…?"
"But this is wonderful news!" exclaimed Anissina. "I'd finally get to use my—"
"No, no inventions Anissina," Lady Cheri said. "I want everything done the right way—"
"What can I do to help?" asked Greta, stars sparkling in her eyes. "Oh! Could I—?"
Yuuri smiled, turning faintly red at his friends' enthusiasm. He tuned the others' voices out of his head as a fragment of his last conversation with Wolfram reverberated through his ears.
"You know, maybe we should be the ones getting married."
Yuuri could still not believe that he'd had enough courage to suggest something like that, but then it had been roughly four years since he'd strayed into this world. Surely that was time enough for him to absorb the kingdom's culture and social norms…
"Maybe when you return?"
Yuuri frowned a little, realizing just now that Wolfram hadn't explicitly said yes. What was it that Wolfram said…?
"Maybe. When everything is over."
Okay, that really wasn't a 'yes.' And that really wasn't even a real proposal. Should he have bought a ring at the festival? Or slapped Wolf again? His mind whirling with a hundred different concerns, Yuuri sighed and just shrugged it all off in the end, deciding that it really didn't matter. He'd come up with something should Wolfram protest, which Yuuri knew, was highly unlikely anyway.
So in the meantime, it wouldn't really hurt to be prepared with the actual wedding. Besides, it would give the others – Lady Cheri and Greta, especially – something to do, something to look forward to, in the days to come. Something that would fill in the void created by Wolfram's absence.
Yuuri smiled to himself. 'Maybe' was the best answer he had at present. Although it was a lot less desirable than a 'yes,' it was at least much more uplifting than a 'no.'
It was all he had. It was all that Wolfram offered him. But Yuuri took it with a willing heart – because despite the uncertainties of the future, and the fact that all he could hold on for now was a series of maybe's that might or might not come to fruition – he could find strength in the conviction that Wolfram loved him.
And to Yuuri, that was all that mattered.
End of Part 1: The Soul Hunters
A/N: Yes! The end. Thanks to everyone for supporting this story, especially those who stuck with this story until the very end! I know I left some questions still unanswered, but it was necessary for the development of the plot of the second part.
This entire story was initially comprised of three parts – The Soul Keeper, The Soul Hunters, and The Soul Breaker. But after completing the outline for the first part, I found that two parts would be more than enough.
I'm going to take a break before working on Part 2, but I'm fairly certain that it will be a WHOLE lot shorter than Part 1. In the meantime, I'm going to go over all of the chapters and edit errors in grammar, spelling, structure etc., if any, so drop me a line if you happened to notice something.
I'll also return to being a semi-regular reviewer and "force" others to continue writing their own stories as well. I might also take the time to act on some of the story requests I've been receiving. (To SangLeGuira, I've laid the groundwork here for that DamienxSaralegui story you requested for earlier. Will try to see how that will turn out. :) Thank you for your speedy reviews.)
Please review if you haven't done so yet! Happy New Year everyone! See you again!