Pairing: Yaotome Hikaru/Okamoto Keito
Summary: A barmaid reached across the counter giving the other man his food. When he reached for it, the sleeves of his shirt brushed back revealing dark tattoos. The marks interweaved seemingly floating against his skin, the patterns shimmering in the low light. Hikaru’s eyes followed them up the arm to the stranger’s neck where the patterns tickled the edge of his collar.
Notes: Finally! The third chapter, but it marks that this story is slowly coming to a close. For now, enjoy~
It was hard to take his eyes off the mountains the closer they loomed. Their majestic white caps scraped the top of the clouds, disappearing into the depths with each passing day. The caves they sought weren’t far into the mountain range, taking over the southern portion. Their mirrored walls were known to confuse travelers and were a final resting place for many who dared to seek the treasures rumored to be hidden within.
Chinen had his own horse making their travel quicker. Keito remained an ever remindful presence of their travels to Hikaru. His body pressed close to Hikaru’s, hands gripping firmly to his waist and stealing the very breath from his lungs. Even when they were gone, hands focused on Keito getting off of Hikaru’s horse, he could still feel the ghost of their weight as he drifted off to sleep that night.
“Chinen and I will search for Yamada,” Yabu had said during their final night in the forest.
“No, we’re all going together,” Hikaru said.
“I mean this in the nicest way possible, but you’re an idiot,” Yabu said, earning a snicker from Chinen. “I’m sure Yamada has spelled a few of these caves to keep unwanted visitors out, and you’re just foolish enough to fall for it when I have my back turned. You’re too precious to me to lose.”
“But you’re putting me on babysitting duty?” Hikaru asked. He paused while sharpening his knife. “Doesn’t seem like I’m precious if I’m watching over the kid.”
“I don’t need a babysitter,” Keito said. “And I’m not a kid. I’m twenty-three.”
“Really?” Chinen asked, his head peeking up from over the fire. “What season were you born in?”
“Good,” Chinen said, disappearing once more. “I was born in winter, and I should always be the child in the group.”
“We’re getting distracted again,” Hikaru said, rubbing his temples. “The point is we’re sticking together to find Yamada.”
“No, we’re not,” Yabu said. He leaned back against the tree he was using as a chair. “Both you and I know the mountains are a lawless part of the country. Those that go in don’t always make it out. If they get so much as one whiff of royalty from Keito they’ll steal him from under our noses.” He rummaged around his bag for his spell book. “It’s safer to keep both of you under lock and key while Chinen and I find Yamada. Also, do you care to remember what happened the last time we were here?”
“I don’t remember,” Hikaru muttered.
“I’m guessing he nearly died,” Keito said, earning a glare from Hikaru.
“An avalanche,” Yabu said. He skimmed through the pages until he found the spell he was looking for. “Someone was arguing with our guide and nearly caused a deadly avalanche in the middle of winter. This time around,” he tapped the page, “I’m going to spell both of you in a cavern so neither can leave and no one can enter without knowing the entrance to the cave.”
“You shout one time that someone is being a brat, and you get a prison sentence.” Hikaru rolled his eyes. He knew there was no point in arguing, but part of him hoped he could still change Yabu’s mind. “I’m not the same man I was back then. I’m smarter.”
“Would you like me to spell your limbs together so you can’t move?”
“House arrest it is,” Hikaru said almost a little too quickly. He returned to sharpening his blade. “Let’s enjoy our time together, Keito.”
They settled in the first cave they found, the mirrored surfaces sparkling in the light of the fire they created. Chinen assisted with stocking firewood while Yabu focused on spelling the outside of the cave, fingers reading the complicated texts and mouth muttering the forgotten language.
Hikaru knew better than to disturb his friend when he was working on his magic. Yabu’s specialty was wordless magic, needing only a thought and a flick of his wrist to cast, but the more powerful the spell, the more concentration it took. The more concentration, the more Yabu used his voice, and Hikaru remembered the last time he disturbed Yabu when he was speaking a spell. It was another memory he preferred to forget.
With the flick of his wrist, Yabu closed his spell book, and Hikaru felt the air around them crackle with an energy only magic could provide. It was a warning that only darkness and misfortune lay before them before it disappeared, allowing them to breathe once more.
“Once you go in you won’t be able to leave unless Chinen or I come to retrieve you,” Yabu said. He put his spell book back into his bag. “It shouldn’t be more than a day or two for us to find him. Until then, try not to kill each other?”
“You said you guys weren’t trying to kill or sell me,” Keito said, his eyes growing wide.
“It’s a joke,” Hikaru said, rolling his eyes. “We’ll be good, don’t worry.”
It was quiet without Yabu, far quieter than Hikaru cared to admit. For five years he had travelled with the mage, scouring the open earth for the lost duke. Even the nights they had spent in silence, minds picking over the clues they had discovered that day, were ones he enjoyed. It was like losing a limb without Yabu around.
Being around Keito wasn’t bad. The kid was awkward, but he was endearing. Several times Hikaru caught him opening his mouth, words at the tip of his tongue, before he shut it and went back to reading one of the books Yabu had left him.
Yabu had driven the conversation between the three of them, dragging them both unwillingly into conversations about gossip he heard when he went to resupply in a town or random songs he remembered from traveling bards as a child. More often than not it led to a bout of bickering between him and Hikaru that had Keito laughing behind his hand.
“I’ll start dinner,” Hikaru said, getting up. Yabu had left them most of the supplies used to cook with and taken most of their bread and cheese. It wasn’t as if Yabu would be able to start a stew while out searching. He was worthless when it came to cooking. Chinen as well, from the stories he told.
A loud thump and a yelp distracted Hikaru from searching through their packs of food. Eyes darted back to Keito as he pulled the book from the fire and stomped on it to remove the flames.
“He’s going to kill me when he sees what I did,” Keito said. He flipped through the pages to assess the damage. From what Hikaru could see only the edges had been burned.
Hikaru found a hunk of meat and a few carrots that didn’t look too mushed, perfect for roasting. “He’s not going to kill you.” He grabbed a pan out of one of the packs, sticking it deep within the flames. “Though it makes me wonder how you survived for nine years and weren’t killed from tripping over something.”
“I wasn’t alone,” Keito said. “I had guards watching me, a man and a woman, so we wouldn’t stick out.”
“At least the king was smart when he exiled you,” he said. He stuck a hand over the pan and, satisfied with the heat it was radiating, placed their meat and chopped vegetables in it to sear. He sprinkled coarse salt over it all. “Would have expected that he’d send you out with two men and you’d stick out like a sore thumb.”
“Our king is far more clever than we give him credit for,” Keito said. He shuffled closer to the fire and where Hikaru was working. “We were supposed to pretend to be a family, and it was fun. We would eat and work together. At night, they would tell me stories of their families back home.” He sat down, pulling his knees closer to his chest. “Their kids were around my age.”
Hikaru didn’t know what to say, so he focused on the meal he was preparing. He turned their meat over carefully with a fork, pulling his sleeves back so the nipping flames wouldn’t catch it on fire.
“They were charged to watch over me until death,” Keito continued. “Can you imagine that? Not ever being able to see your husband and wife again? Having to live a lie for the rest of your life and never see the person you truly love?” He grabbed at his pants, scrunching them in his grasp. “They only wanted what was best for me. They tried to find me a girl to settle down with, to begin my life outside of royal court, but I,” he turned his head towards Hikaru, eyes filled with something Hikaru couldn’t quite put his finger on, “I just wasn’t interested in girls. I could only think about their families and what they were missing in their own lives.”
“They knew what they were getting into when they were given the position of your guardian,” Hikaru said. He turned the meat over once more, mouth watering. It would be his best meal yet, and he hoped Keito would enjoy it as well. “You can’t blame yourself for everything. After all, it was your parents that put you in this position to start.”
“But they didn’t know the outcome,” Keito said. “My parents didn’t know I would be cursed from their actions, and even then how could I be responsible for tearing two families apart?” He looked away, back into the depths of the flames. “So on my twentieth birthday I lied. I said I was going to the market to buy myself a knife as a present, and never returned.”
“Just because you left them doesn’t mean they’re living happy lives in the capital now,” Hikaru said. He hopped up and returned to the packs, procuring their plates to eat off of. “They’re probably exiled because they failed their mission.”
“Even then,” Keito said, uncurling himself. “They still have their families now.” He accepted his plate of food from Hikaru. “You and Yabu will do the same once my curse is broken. You’ll return back to your families and live out your lives.”
Something pinged within Hikaru’s heart, reminding him of what had been. A gentle hand, a warm hug. The tears that flowed after one final embrace. The darkness that remained once that light burnt out.
His first instinct was to throw the plate in his hands, but he couldn’t do that. He couldn’t waste good food. So he stood, eyes dark.
“That’s where you’re wrong,” he said, trying to keep his voice as even as he could. “Not everyone has a family to return to.”
He grabbed his pack and stomped deeper into the mirrored cave, leaving Keito and the fire to themselves.
Hikaru woke in the middle of the night, body shivering from the cold. The cold winds of the mountains had sunk deep within the caves, and he only had the clothes on his back to keep him warm.
He sat up, bones cracking from sleeping on the rocky surface. He grabbed his belongings, his pack he had used as a pillow and his dirtied plate from dinner, and walked the path he marked back to their base camp at the mouth of the cave.
Keito was still awake, curled into a ball once more and he jumped when he saw Hikaru round the corner.
“I’m sorry,” Keito said.
“Get some sleep,” Hikaru said. He threw his pack to the ground and grabbed one of the saddle blankets to wrap himself with for more warmth.
“Sleep,” he said, as sternly as he could without snapping. “We’re not talking about this tonight.”
Morning came far too quickly, the sun’s rays peeking around the bends of the cave. Hikaru struggled to find his words, to tell the story so few knew.
The palace had been Hikaru’s life for as long as he could remember. When he was young, far too young to know any better, he had always tried to follow his brothers to their apprenticeships with the royal blacksmiths before his sister would grab his ear, dragging him back to the warmth of their little home. His mother would chuckle, pat his head, and tell him to be good for the neighbors as she left with his sister to wait hand and foot on the royal ladies that day.
They had long days, coming back tired and full of soot from working over hot flames and feet aching from standing all day, but they were a family. Happy and healthy, and Hikaru often forgot they lacked a true man in their life to ground everything. His father had never been in his life, walking out on their family before he was born. His brothers were the only male role models he needed.
Their bond could not stay together forever. Once their apprenticeships were done, his brothers sought to open a shop together. With many blacksmiths crowding the streets of the capital they made plans to leave and work in a new city. They bid their mother goodbye and left Hikaru with one of their prized creations, a knife they melded together as a sign of their strength and knowledge.
“Keep it close,” the elder said, wrapping Hikaru’s tiny fingers around it. “You’re the man of the house now. Use it to protect the ladies.”
The year Hikaru turned thirteen he started his apprenticeship in the palace’s kitchen, and his sister left to begin her life with a butcher a few towns over. Their once full and bustling house had dwindled quickly, and the light that had shone in his mother’s eyes slowly died with each passing day. He cooked for her, told her stories of when the five of them had been together, but it only cause the blackness to increase.
It was easy to be jealous over the royal children. Their cheerful screams and laughter radiated through every hallway and the outside air. They were the lucky ones, always by each other’s sides, never worrying about whether one would leave or stay. They took their meager lives for granted, and Hikaru knew that they would never work a day in their lives to support themselves. Everything would be handed to them on a silver platter.
The worst was a little duke who clung to the edge of his mother’s skirts. He never spoke much, just followed his royal relatives around, laughing at their games but never joining in unless the game was explained to him first. He was foolish. He was the furthest thing from a born leader, and every moment Hikaru saw him he held back the urge to smack him. Nothing good came about from striking royalty. It only ended in a whipping for harming those far, far above him.
The summer of his sixteenth birthday Hikaru lost his mother. He held onto her hand as she passed, a tearful smile on her lips. Whether from a broken heart or the darkness clouding her lungs, he wasn’t sure. Only one thing was certain: he was alone.
Hikaru had never been good at expressing his feelings. He hid his pain and broken heart behind a locked door, so that no one knew how deep his emotions went. He threw himself into his work, not letting anyone see what clouded his eyes. He didn’t want to see the pity the cooks and handmaids gave him as he passed. He knew what they whispered, for it was always the same. The poor boy, hardly a man and living for himself. Someone should call his brothers, his sister, anyone to collect him and raise him to adulthood, but no one stepped forward.
He remembered when the curse had been placed, how the whole palace stood still that one day. The tension seeped through the stone walls, suffocating anyone that dared walk in. He remembered the look on the kid’s face, one that had always been wrapped in his mother’s skirts, as he looked back on the palace once more before walking out of the keep. So sad, so full of mourning, his hand wrapped around one of the guardsmen who was to watch over him.
Something struck within him that moment. They were the same, torn from their parents and not by their own choice. The actions of those around them had altered their destinies and thrown them into an entirely new path. The anger that had once consumed Hikaru when he gazed upon the duke disappeared, and he was filled with a new conviction. He would not allowed Keito’s family to remain separated, for death did not tear them apart. He would help the broken boy return home.
“You don't have to tell me, if you don’t want to,” Keito said softly. He sat next to Hikaru, their thighs brushing. “It has to be a difficult story to tell if it angered you that much.” He covered one of Hikaru’s hands with his own. “Tell me when you’re ready. Although, I would like to know the story of how you and Yabu met.”
Hikaru’s hand felt like it was on fire. His skin burned on every inch Keito touched, and he could hardly look the younger boy in the eye.
“It’s a long story,” he said, setting aside his brother’s knife he had been playing with. He looked across the cave, but the mirrored walls showed a scene he didn’t wish to see. His face far too red for his liking, and Keito’s gentle face looked at him with questioning eyes. “It involves a pair of knitting needles and some cabbages, and Yabu tells it far better than I do.”
Keito laughed. “Seems like it’s a very strange story.”
“It is, and I can’t mimic the shopkeeper like Yabu does either,” Hikaru continued. “There’s something the way that Yabu yells ‘my cabbages’ that I can’t touch. It’s the whole reason why we met Yamada the first time, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
“You guys are really close,” Keito whispered. He leaned his head onto Hikaru’s shoulder, and Hikaru felt his body freeze at the sudden contact. “It makes me a little jealous, if I’m being honest.”
“I wouldn’t be jealous over that,” Hikaru muttered. He took Keito’s hand in his own, massaging the top of it. The hem of his tunic was pushed up, exposing the tattooed cattails hidden beneath it. “Yes, Yabu is the only family I have, and I would be lost without him.” He paused for a moment. “I don’t know where I’m going with this at all, and it’s probably only making you feel worse.”
Keito nodded, his hair brushing against Hikaru’s neck. “I’ve just never had friends outside of my family before. I’ve met children from the countries surrounding our border, but I was always too scared to talk to them,” he said, softly. “It sounds dumb, but you and Yabu are the closest things I’ve had to friends.”
Something brushed against Hikaru’s thigh, drawing his attention up to Keito’s face. He wasn’t used to being this close to another person. His heart skipped, beating in an irregular rhythm he didn’t think was possible.
“I haven’t said this at all, but I’ve been meaning to,” Keito said, biting his lip. His eyes were shining, so big and pure they drew Hikaru into their depths. “Thank you for everything. If it wasn’t for you and Yabu I’d still be wandering the country, trying to make something of my life.”
Everything Hikaru had bottled during the previous weeks was slowly chipped away. His anger, his annoyance was picked at until only crumbs remained. He cared for Keito, wanted to see him succeed. His young adult life had been dedicated to finding this one kid, and now Keito was before him.
“Keito,” Hikaru muttered.
His heart hurt the more he looked at Keito. The more he wanted to hold him and try to erase some of the pain he had experienced in his hard life. If only for a moment, he wanted Keito’s life to return to an easy one.
Horses hooves pounded against the rocky earth, and they jumped apart. Hikaru scrambled to his feet, running to the entrance of the cave where Chinen was dismounting off his stead.
“Good news,” Chinen said, dusting himself off. “Ryosuke wasn’t as hard to find as we thought.” His smile irked Hikaru, so full of pride. “Let’s pack up and head out. We still have a long day’s ride to his home.”