It had all been so easy for him before. He woke up at dawn every morning, exercised, went to his study, stayed there until stars started to blink into the darkening sky on the horizon. At this point he would go to dinner, then to his room to knit or read quietly for a few hours, retiring before the moon was even properly up. There had been no mad adventures to enemy territory—except when there were, out of necessity, for war or peace or things of immediate consequence. Nothing was done on foolish whim.
Rigidity suited Gwendal. It didn’t allow for things to get complicated. It didn’t allow for anything to fall out of his control. It didn’t allow for that offbeat thump of his heart to mean anything besides a visit to the infirmary for a quick physical. It didn’t allow for change unless he wanted it.
He used to sleep well at night. Running the country’s military was stressful business, but love was worse, and the closest thing he had to falling in love were the stray cats he fed table scraps to in those few unstructured minutes he somehow never managed to schedule out, those in-between times where everything could happen.
“And this is Yuu-chan at his fourth birthday party,” Jennifer cooed. “Shouri wanted him to wear the blue but it was such a special day! It had to be the yellow.”
“He looks very…” Gwendal ran a finger along the lacy edge of the dress in the photo, “um.” Cute.“Mom, stop showing those to everyone!”
Jennifer eyed the rising blush on Gwendal’s face and took the photo out of the album. “I have extras,” she said with a knowing wink.
“You should come visit us more often, Gwendal. I’m sure Yuu-chan would like it.”
“Mom, I said stop showing him those!”
Yuuri showed up in the middle of Shin Makoku’s summer wearing a down jacket and the woollen hat Gwendal had knitted for him oh, such a long time ago. Murata, more sensibly dressed, said something about how he’d tried to tell Yuuri that the seasons wouldn’t correspond and then the Maou had answered with something along the lines of how he refused to jump into a pond in the middle of December without a coat on. Then there was something about a bathtub, Gwendal couldn’t hear over the racket Greta made as she leapt at her father like it had been years instead of weeks.
“Gwendal’s teaching me how to knit,” she informed him. “You said last time that it’s cold in that other world right now so I’m making you a scarf. What’s in the bag?”
“Presents,” Yuuri replied without missing a beat, “In my world it’s the time of the year where people give presents to each other.”
“There better be one in there for me,” Wolfram said, edging closer to the trash bag full of brightly wrapped gifts, “I’m your fiancé.”
“Of course, there’s one for everyone.” Yuuri started for a chair, looked down at his still damp clothes, sat on the floor instead. He began to rummage through the bag. There was a book of fairytales for Greta, something lacy and frilly for Wolfram that Yuuri hastily explained had been picked out by his mother, a new baseball glove for Conrad who accepted it with a shy smile and quiet thank you.
“This one’s for you, Gwendal.” Yuuri rushed over to the chair where Gwendal had been reading, ignoring the cozy little domestic scene his brothers and the king created. He handed Gwendal a lumpy green package, soft to the touch. “Open it,” the boy Maou said, grinning, his cheeks still red from the cold of his home. Gwendal wondered if the skin was still cool.
Yuuri looked at him expectantly, so Gwendal tore at the paper. Skeins of multicoloured yarn tumbled into his lap, softer than anything he’d ever felt, a rainbow of pale pastels. He rubbed a piece between his fingers.
Yuuri’s smile looked like it would split his face in half. “It’s baby yarn, they make it softer than the normal kind. Do you like it? I know you like knitting but then I thought maybe I’d buy the wrong kind of stuff, but mom says that if you like making toys then this is probably pretty good.”
“Yeah, it’s fine. Thank you.”
Yuuri breathed a little sigh of relief and bounded back to the pile of gifts sitting in the middle of the floor. Gwendal looked down at the yarn and then to his king, kneeling beside his daughter, finally shrugging off the heavy jacket but still wearing the woollen hat from forever ago.
It had been so much easier when Yuuri half-forgot he existed.
Gwendal was an adult, a full-grown Mazoku of high rank and noble bearing. He was not a hormonal youth, nor some lecherous pervert who got off on thinking of attractive young men in frilly dresses. He was not even the sort of person who thought about attractive young men at all, in fact, no matter how cute they acted or how sweetly they smiled at him for no reason at all.
So, whoever the man in the bath was, wearing Gwendal’s face, sliding slick, soapy hands over himself while he thought of his king splayed out beneath him, those too-large eyes clouded over, begging please, please, Gwendal, more, I want more…
Whoever he was, he certainly couldn’t have been Gwendal.
“Conrad thinks you’re in love with me,” Yuuri said out of the blue one morning when Gwendal came to inquire after a misplaced set of military expenditure estimates. “I thought he was probably wrong but he’s usually really good about picking up that kind of thing.”
Gwendal said nothing.
“He says you look at me funny when my back’s turned. And you keep that picture of me Mom gave you beside your bed. He wasn’t snooping,” Yuuri quickly amended, “he was looking for you one morning and happened to see it, so that’s how he knew. And, uh,” the boy king played with the ballpoint pen he’d brought from home, so much easier to sign with than a quill, “I’m not mad or anything like that, Gwendal, I just want to know if it’s true.”
Gwendal turned away. “Think what you like.”
“Gwendal,” and there was a creak, and then too-thin fingers curling around his right shoulder, “it’s okay to say what you really feel. You don’t always have to worry about how your feelings are going to inconvenience others. If you want something you should try to grab it.”
“Is that some sort of permission, your Majesty?”
“What?” The slender fingers snapped away from Gwendal’s shoulder. “No! I mean, I just–”
“Then I don’t see why we are continuing this pointless line of inquiry. You are trying to convince me to do a thing that, if my brother’s guess is accurate, is something you don’t actually wish for me to do.”
“But is it? Accurate?”
Gwendal walked out, shutting the door firmly behind him.
Dinner had come early that evening, or night had come later, he couldn’t be bothered to check a clock to discover which it was. It wasn’t yet quite dusk when Gwendal slipped through the kitchens and outside, past the little herb garden the cooks kept for fresh seasonings and the maids tended for soothing chamomile, wandering through the neatly kempt gardens proper until he finally reached the rubbish pile, hidden in a discreet corner between the outer wall and the stables. The half-wild stray cats lived there, pawing around for scraps of food or, if they were lucky, some manner of rodent living amongst the trash.
The cats came running as soon as they saw Gwendal turn the corner by the stables. He’d fed these cats, and their parents, and their grandparents, since he was a boy. They filled up those empty pieces, where the edges of his plans didn’t quite fit together. He’d been visiting them a lot lately.
“Here, kitty kitty,” he mumbled as he knelt down, quite unnecessary, the cats would leap on him even if he didn’t say a word, even if he didn’t bring them a scrap of anything. The kittens bounded towards him, clawing their way up his legs and his back, purring like they’d missed him desperately and weren’t just looking for the table scraps they could smell in the basket he carried. And who knows? Maybe they had.
Gwendal fished a plate of scraps out of the basket, ignoring the soft footsteps he could hear treading the ground behind him. Soon Yuuri was crouched next to him, hand out to a playful tabby, letting it nip at his fingers.
“There sure are a lot of them, aren’t there?”
Gwendal kept his eyes forward. “Yes.”
His body was tensed. He should take his things and go back to the castle without another word, courtly manners be damned. In the castle, Gwendal could function. In the castle, Gwendal had his life arranged in advance. In the castle he could pretend that offbeat thump of his heart was a biological malfunction, irritating but harmless. Out here, under the darkening sky, were the in-between times, the space where the cracks of his life failed to meet, the place where everything could happen and he couldn’t stop any of it.
“You know,” and Yuuri looked at him now, “everyone thinks that Conrad’s the nice one, but you’re just as kind, in your own way. Just these guys are the only ones who really know, huh?” A smile. “Them and me, I guess.”
He already knew. They were alone, not a foot of space between them, and no one but he and his king to know his failure, his embarrassment, his rejection. Yuuri had never looked sweeter. Gwendal wanted to try, and there were a thousand reasons why he shouldn’t, and he was related to two of them.
It was everything and nothing like Gwendal had imagined, those few times he’d allowed himself even that. Yuuri neither begged for more nor pleaded for him to stop, only clung tightly to him, those thin fingers digging into Gwendal’s back, his hair, his shoulders. Soft sounds in the back of Yuuri’s throat, pleasure or pain or both, he couldn’t tell, he didn’t care.
He was floating, he was drowning, he thought of nothing but the places where their skin touched, hot, tingling, everything a bad romance novel will say it is but more, so much more, some word on the tip of his tongue too big to make out. Everything was empty space, in-between time, and it didn’t frighten him in the least. The knots that had been building up in his chest and his gut and his thoughts all came apart in a violent rush, and suddenly the tension and the heat and the heavy, unbearable ache were gone, gone, gone, and Yuuri was smiling and Gwendal was Gwendal again.
He laughed, short and bitter. Yeah, right.
Gwendal stood, brushing dirt and grass from his jacket. “I’m going back now. Will you being staying with them, Your Majesty?”
“Oh?” Yuuri looked up, bit his lip, said nothing. There wasn’t anything to say. “Yeah, I guess will for a bit.”
Gwendal called over a nearby guard and instructed him to keep an eye on the king. “I’ll tell my brother where you are,” he said.
“Yeah,” and now Yuuri kept his eyes forward, “okay.”
He used to sleep well at night. There hadn’t been this ache in his chest and knot in his stomach and these thoughts creeping along inside his skull, half-formed and dark and they hurt, they made him sting and bleed like they were constructed of jagged glass tearing at his brain and scratching bright red lines behind his eyelids.
The closest thing Gwendal had to falling in love was asleep two floors up, next to his brother, and everything else was in between.