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Temple and Shore

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Kazuki turned a slow circle, taking in the room he and Yuu had been assigned. It wasn't very large, though it was large enough for the two rolled futon he could see tucked into a corner, even with the low desk sat beside the open shouji. They were on the outer side of the guest hall, their room faced out towards the ocean cliffs, though they were far enough up and away from the shore that he could almost forget it was there entirely, but for the far distant shimmer at the horizon. Stepping out onto the nure'en, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, but it didn't help him know what to do next. Yuu had vanished almost as soon as they had been shown this room and he still couldn't feel Ryuji's presence at all. Which was annoying because if he had offended the dragon, then how was he supposed to make amends like this? He still didn't even know what it was he was supposed to have done wrong

“You wanted me here, I'm here now what?” he grumbled to the air, but even that was not enough to get a response from his supposed spirit guardian. This was ridiculous and yet what else could he do? Scowling up at the layered grey clouds a moment, he silently cursed this turn of his fate. Until he became aware of a presence in the room behind him. Scrambling awkwardly to his feet, he was perversely annoyed to see it was only Yuu.

“Back are we?”

“Figured paper and sealing wax would be helpful, since you need to write to your brother Teru so he doesn't get any crazy ideas,” Yuu said with a casual shrug, depositing the items on the desk. Kazuki hesitated - his original plan had been to stay silent, but Teru wouldn't know he wasn't at the capitol like this, wouldn't know where to find him.

“I'll be writing to your father myself, there's no point in not writing him.”

Kazuki couldn't help a low snort at that. “You don't know my family,” he said, reluctantly settling himself at the desk. Takuro would obey their father, mostly, but Teru and Jun would need to hear from him before they would believe he was all right. If he phrased the letter just right, Yuu wouldn't recognize the threat, but Teru and Jun would and build an alliance to go to war to get him back.

:You can't honestly think that is the answer, little one.:

“... that's what it takes to get you to come back to me?” he growled, anger boiling in the pit of his stomach. Ryuji coiled about his shoulders, offering no apologies for his actions, his tail curling around Kazuki's arm.

:Too much anger in you.:

“Gee, wonder why that might be,” he muttered.

:You need to be here. To let go. Anger is poison, you must let it go. For the sake of Ise, but for the sake of Shizu, too.:

“You ruined my life!” he shouted, hating the tremor in his voice at the end.

“Kazuki....”

“Leave me alone! All of you! Just leave me alone!!”

A flicker of hurt across the bond and then Ryuji was gone, the link between them empty once more. Dashing the frustrated tears from his eyes, he was surprised to see the room was empty again. Yuu's military training, he supposed. Whatever, he didn't care, he just wanted to be left alone.

Except that was a lie, too. Because all alone there was nothing to distract him from the thousand thoughts swirling through his head. He stripped off his shirt, frantically searching his skin for the mark. And then stood in front of the mirror, staring for a long time at the dragon tattoo wound around his upper arm. It was smaller than Yuu's tattoo, colored exactly the same as Ryuji, but he had no idea what it meant, if anything. Well, other than he couldn't be a prince of Shizu like this. Not that he had wanted to stay a prince, of course, but.... A whole future of choices, ripped away from him in an instant. It wasn't fair and he pulled his shirt back on if only to keep from having to see the tattoo he had never wanted.

A thought and he hurried to remove the rings from his lip before stepping closer to the small mirror hung on the wall. But like Yuu had said, the holes were healed open now, like the ones in his ears. If he left the rings out long enough, the holes would eventually close, but.... Like a puppet with cut strings, he collapsed to the floor, bitter tears stealing down his cheeks. And still he was left completely, utterly alone.

~*~*~

Down the hall, Yuu paced an empty room, a winding dance around Ryuji and Suzuya as the agitated dragons did much the same. It wasn't like Kazuki's upset came as any sort of surprise to him, of course, he had been seeing it (and expecting worse) for days now. The agitation of the dragons, on the other hand.... Stopping short, he huffed a sigh and ran a hand through his hair.

“Suzuya....”

:He's in pain, deep pain. If he would let Ryuji help....:

:He won't listen. He refuses to accept the truth.:

“Neither of you have been particularly gentle with him on that point, you know,” Yuu grumbled, glancing back towards their room. “He's in pain and you two keep telling him to suck it up, think of the big picture. Maybe right now he can't, ever think about that?”

Another sigh and he hiked himself back up to the head monk's office, hesitating before knocking on the door again. And then hesitating again when the monk invited him in.

“That didn't last long,” Master Hidehiko said, a gentle smile crinkling around his eyes. Yuu could only sigh, startled to find both Ryuji and Suzuya pushing past him. And though he couldn't hear it, he was certain both dragons were trying to blab everything at once.

:CHILDREN!:

Yuu rocked back on his heels, startled by the appearance of a familiar large dragon, green as the pines in winter dusted with snow.

“I'm sorry, Master Hidehiko, Lord Yutaka,” Yuu said, bowing deeply to them both. “My consort is....”

“Quite upset, from the sounds of it, but that was expected,” Hidehiko said with a slight nod. “Grown to an adult and yet still a child, never trained to it, not as you were.”

“I wouldn't say he's....”

“Of course you wouldn't,” the monk said with a slight shake of his head. “He is your consort, your first duty is to him. I, on the other hand ... my first duty is to the dragons who protect Ise. Ryuji was right to bring him here, teaching is what we do, but first we will –.”

“You will do nothing, Hide. As usual.”

Yuu glanced up at the unexpected addition of the temple's co-leader, Omi. Ten years since he had last been at the temple, and yet she looked exactly the same, beautiful yet remote. Untouchable.

“Omi, really....”

“We all sought this, we were taught from childhood about dragons and bonds and their importance to Ise. This Kazuki knows none of it,” she said, cutting off the older monk with a look.

“Besides,” she added a beat later, something almost devilish in her sudden smile, “if he's the child you claim, then he is under my jurisdiction, not yours. Takako and I will handle it. But in the morning. For tonight, dinner and then rest. For you both. Ryuji and Suzuya can stay here while you show him around the temple. As we have no scholars with us right now, please enjoy your privacy.”

“Thank you, Mistress Omi, Master Hidehiko. I should ... I should get back to him.”

Another low bow and he let himself out of the office. The afternoon had nearly swept past them, they had just enough time for an unhurried but not too leisurely tour of the temple grounds and then it would be time for dinner. And after that ... well, perhaps it would have to depend on how dinner went.

~*~*~

Kazuki looked up at the light knock, surprised Yuu had even bothered. And surprised again at how quickly the prince was kneeling at his side, cupping his cheek.

“Kazu, what is it, what's wrong??”

“... be honest with me, how long were you in Shizu? How long was my father lying to me?”

Yuu sat back on his heels at that, frowning slightly. And then the look passed, replaced by a curious mix of sorrow and guilt.

“I first approached your father as an authorized representative of the Ise crown about a week ago, but we had already been in the kingdom ten days at that point,” the prince confessed. “At no time did I tell him I was the crown prince, nor did he tell me he intended to give us you. The way he'd talked, I had been expecting a daughter or niece or perhaps an older grandchild.”

“I'm the last of his unwed children,” Kazuki said, shivering. “My two eldest brothers, Takuro and Teru, they have children now, but the eldest daughter is only six. My father may be a heartless ass, but....”

“I'm sorry,” Yuu said again, but it didn't feel any better this time than it had the last.

“Come on,” the prince said a moment later, getting to his feet. “The temple's co-leaders have instructed me to show you around. By the end of that, it should be time for dinner, all right?”

“I ... I don't....”

“It's just us and the usual monks right now. That's why this hall is so quiet, they don't have any outside guests here at the moment.”

Kazuki was still hesitant, but Yuu took him by the arm and he was too tired to really resist his gentle persuasion, even though he really didn't want to be seen by anyone else just then.

“So this,” Yuu said as he guided him down the hall, “is the visitor's hall. There was a time when more were allowed to try for dragons, the hopefuls would live here before and during the trials. Now it is mostly used by visiting scholars and those of my family seeking a dragon. So not much used at all these days. Hiro and Natsu are quartered down that way and this is the public bath for this hall. The hot spring is artificial, but after the last few days, a hot soak after dinner might be nice?”

“Y-yeah,” he heard himself stammering in agreement. When Yuu let him go, he headed straight for a wash basin, grateful for the cool water to wash the tears from his face. Yuu didn't say anything, waiting quietly for him to be done before resuming the tour.

The temple complex was bigger than Kazuki had been expecting. The main hall could have easily accommodated several hundred worshipers, and yet something about it said it had not seen such a gathering in some time. A handful of smaller shrines encircled the main building on three sides, leaving the east open to the rising sun. He recognized some of the names Yuu mentioned, but others were a mystery.

Yuu glossed over the monks' living quarters and stable, walking him through one of the meditation gardens to the library that looked, to Kazuki anyway, less like an archive and more like a school. More gardens surrounded the sprawling building and it felt like it would be easy to get lost in such a place.

“The last time I was here, this was my favorite part of the temple. You could spend a lifetime in this place and still not have read everything. This is the main reason non-monks come here now, this is the most extensive archive of historical and scientific documents in the kingdom, maybe even several kingdoms.”

“I've certainly never seen or heard of an archive this large,” Kazuki conceded.

“When I was here before, there was always at least one or two researchers here, studying something or other. I was really surprised to hear we're alone right now.”

“What, um, what all am I here to study?”

“The dragon lore, I imagine. Ryuji is probably making suggestions, but Mistress Omi and Lady Takako will explain it to you tomorrow. For now, at least, they're in charge of your learning.”

“Women? I thought this was a monastery...”

“What, you think women can't be monks?”

“I ... well ... I guess I hadn't thought about it that way....”

“Some of the sisters call themselves nuns, but there's not really any difference,” Yuu said, shrugging. He lead them around to a side garden with a wooden bench, encouraging Kazuki to take a seat.

“Have you written to your brother yet?” Yuu asked.

“No....”

“You really need to. When Suzuya claimed me ... I was living here from just before my ninth birthday until the summer of my twenty-second year. Obviously it was different for me, I was just a kid, but this isn't the sort of thing where it's a couple of days and we go home. I don't know what it's going to take to make your dragon satisfied, but it's probably going to be months. At least.”

Kazuki shuddered and bit his lip to keep from crying yet again, hanging his head just in case. It felt weird, naked, with the rings out, but....

“Kazu,” Yuu said softly, catching one of his hands in both of his, “what can I do to make this less painful?”

He bit down harder. The truth was there was nothing Yuu could do to make this better. Even if they weren't already betrothed by the will of the dragons – dragons! – there was no way for Kazuki to return to his old life now, his planned future. And that hurt more than even the bite had.

“... you took out the bite,” Yuu murmured, as if he had only just noticed.

“It's useless, isn't it? Everything that's happened ... I never had a chance at all, did I?”

“If it bothers you that much, you don't have to wear it. Father hasn't worn his since he and Mother ascended to the throne.”

“W-wait, wait, your father...?”

“Remember? I told you before,” Yuu said, lifting a hand to briefly cup Kazuki's cheek. “Mother was firstborn, the throne is properly hers. Father came from outside the clan, once Mother accepted him, he wore the bite as a crown consort.”

Right, Yuu had mentioned that before, in the carriage. Had that been only yesterday? It felt like far longer than that now.

“Kazuki, you are my promised, not my prisoner. Tell me what I can do to help you be happy.”

“I ... I don't know,” he admitted at last, bitter tears sliding down his cheeks. Yuu shifted again, folding arms around him in a gentle hug, and this time he didn't resist. He hated feeling this weak, crying all the time, but since he couldn't seem to stop it.... At least Yuu wasn't mocking him for his weakness.

When the tears finally stopped, Yuu squeezed him tight and pressed a quick kiss to his forehead before handing him a handkerchief to dry his face.

“We should probably get back to the guest hall so you can freshen up for dinner,” he said softly, no pressure. “I'd ... I'd like it if you would wear the bite for awhile longer, but if you really can't stand it....”

“I thought you said it doesn't matter,” he said, frowning.

“It doesn't, not really. Either way, you're still my consort, it's just ... with it, people will instantly recognize you as royalty, as my consort. It ... might make for less trouble, that's all, at least for now.”

Kazuki sighed heavily. He recognized the sense in what Yuu was saying, but....

“Our two kingdoms are very different,” he mumbled, pushing himself up to his feet. “But I guess ... if you think it's that important....”

“Do you still have the rings I used? And then tomorrow we can get different jewelry if you want.”

“Should still be in the room,” he said, still feeling conflicted about everything. “Any other piercings with secret meanings I should know?” he asked, glancing sidelong at Yuu again. The prince only had his ears pierced a few times and while he remembered black disks in Hiro's lobes, he couldn't remember seeing anything at all on Natsu. On the other hand, a prince and his two closest bodyguards were hardly representative of an entire kingdom, right?

“Not in the way the dragon's bite is, no. Gauges like Hiro's tend to be associated with our military officers, but it's a matter of personal choice and some civilians go through the process, too. Some couples will get matched piercings or matched tattoos, but even that is a matter of personal aesthetic, as long as it doesn't involve dragons.”

Kazuki nodded again, surprised at how quickly they had returned to the guest hall. He washed his face again, but he didn't think it had really helped.

“Come on,” Yuu said, drawing him back towards their room, “I have just the thing.”

Curious as he was, he silently sat where directed and then just watched as Yuu dug through his own bags, mumbling something to himself. A noise of triumph and Kazuki could only sit there in shock as the prince produced an entire cosmetics kit. In fact, he was so startled, he couldn't even form a coherent sentence as Yuu started prepping his face.

“I ... what ... you....”

“Nothing fancy, just enough to keep Lord Yutaka from scolding me for not taking better care of you,” Yuu said with a little chuckle. “Sometimes, I think him and Lady Takako got their humans mixed up.”

“Wh-what?”

“Sorry, bad joke. Master Hidehiko and Lord Yutaka have been together since before Mistress Omi was born, it's not like the wires could have actually gotten crossed or anything.”

“Then ... Lord Yutaka and Lady Takako ... are dragons?”

“Well yeah, this is the Dragon Temple,” Yuu said, chuckling, applying some sort of concealer with a surprisingly light touch.

“I thought only your family....”

“Is allowed to try, more or less, yeah, but not everyone bonded to a dragon actually tried for it, yeah? Sometimes monks find themselves bonded, it's something the dragons do for whatever reasons of their own.”

Kazuki wasn't sure he understood, but then again, it didn't sound like Yuu really understood it either. And then his prince was done painting him, that small smile that give him butterflies on those plush lips.

“Rings?” Yuu asked and Kazuki blinked a few times in confusion before he remembered what he meant. Getting up, he went to the mirror to fumble the rings back into place. They felt cold and almost heavy, an unwelcome reminder of everything he had lost in the last week.

:Because you are looking at them the wrong way.:

He tried not to sigh, feeling Ryuji settling on his shoulder, but it didn't work.

:Always so negative,; his dragon chided. :Much good will come from this, you'll see.:

When he turned back around, Suzuya had stretched herself across Yuu's shoulders, much to the prince's obvious amusement.

“Come to fetch us to dinner? All right, all right, we're coming.”

The two dragons chirped and then just like that they were gone again, though he could still feel Ryuji through the bond. He was hungry. Again.

“Not sure I'm ever going to get used to that,” he confessed, shaking his head.

“Give it time and you will,” Yuu said, grinning again. He was probably right, but ... it was a little hard for him to accept right now. His mind was still prone to tripping over the fact that dragons were even real, never mind that he was now bonded to one himself. Hopefully, maybe, being at the temple would help.

~*~*~

Kazuki had never been much of a fan of state dinners. That this one was being hosted by monks didn't stop it from feeling just as stuffy as the dozens of formal dinners he had attended in the past. Master Hidehiko seemed a kind and fatherly type while Mistress Omi scared him half to death. He was definitely not looking forward to having to work with her.

Other then a brief appearance by Lord Yutaka, the dragons were almost conspicuous in their absence. He could feel Ryuji's hunger, and yet the little dragon stayed away. He didn't understand it at all.

As soon as protocol allowed, he took his leave from the dining hall, pocketing a napkin full of shredded vegetables. Almost as soon as he stepped outside, Ryuji was on his shoulders, head stuffed down his jacket for want of the treats the dragon knew he was carrying.

“All right, all right, give me a second,” he said, chuckling a little as he made his way into a side garden. Finding a bench, he sat down before spreading the napkin in his lap. Ryuji squeaked happily and scampered down his arm to help himself to the cabbage, carrot, and pickled beet sticks. More happy noises soon accompanied the dragon's crunching and Kazuki couldn't stop a low laugh.

“If you're so hungry, why weren't you at dinner?”

:Master forbade it. He said it would be too cruel.:

Kazuki didn't understand that, but he wasn't going to argue with him either.

“Is this going to be enough?” he asked instead.

“There'll be more by the time we get back to our quarters,” Yuu said, stepping out of the gathering darkness. “After this, we'll be eating most of our meals in the guest hall's dining room, rather than with the brothers and sisters. The temple just accepted a new class of hopeful students, master Hidehiko has asked all dragons not bonded to teachers to keep as low a profile as possible for the next month or so, while the students adjust.”

That made a little more sense, especially if there were students harboring a wish to be bonded to a dragon, thinking that coming here to study would be enough to get around the restrictions.

By the time they returned to their quarters, a small meal had indeed been laid out and the two dragons quickly set about devouring it with happy trills and loud crunches. It was amusing, if a little messy, juices and sauces dribbling from whiskers and beards, and he was pretty sure those two were both going to need baths of their own by the time they were finished.

“Shall we leave them to it? I did promise you a hot soak after dinner, we should probably get down there before Hiro and Natsu get back from dinner if you want any sort of quiet for your bath.”

Kazuki wasn't quite sure what that meant, but he nodded along anyway. At least Ryuji finally felt happy again.

He had almost forgotten about his dragon tattoo until, in the middle of scrubbing himself, he felt Yuu's touch on his arm. And flinched not unlike a frightened child.

“Sorry, it doesn't still hurt, does it?”

“N-no, it's never hurt, I just ... you startled me.”

“Ah, well, this isn't what I was expecting,” Yuu said, lightly tracing the lines of the tattoo with one finger. Kazuki shivered, silently scolding himself to focus on what the prince was saying, not the feel of his touch.

“What, um, what were you expecting?”

“A placement similar to mine,” Yuu said, flexing his tattooed arm as if to demonstrate. “A soldier's placement and design. In battle, I can call Suzuya through the tattoo, powering my attacks. But this? This is a scribe's mark, I think. The circle is closed, there's no way to direct the energy outwards.”

“I ... I'm not sure what that means,” Kazuki said, trying not to think about the fact that they were both naked. If Yuu could talk to him like this was completely normal, no big deal, surely he could do the same.

“See how she flows down my arm?” Yuu said, holding up his arm to show what he meant. “Her energy flows through me like so, her strength moving through my shoulder and out my arm. With yours, the way his mouth is pointed at his own tail, there's no outlet, the power loops back in on itself, stays within you.”

“Is ... is that a bad thing?” he asked, almost afraid of the answer.

“Of course not,” Yuu reassured him, that boyish smile setting off a hundred butterflies in his stomach. “It doesn't even mean that you can't learn to fight, if that's what you want. I'm just not sure how you would call him to your defense like this. But then again, that's why we're here, right? So you can learn from a proper teacher.”

Kazuki nodded again, taking another deep breath to try to settle his nerves. It might have worked better if it hadn't been followed by the sound of approaching voices.

“Come on,” Yuu said, still with that same charming smile, “rinse off if you're ready and we'll get into the heated pool ahead of them.”

Anxious as he was, he tried not to show it as he followed Yuu further into the public bath. The artificial hot spring looked surprisingly natural, even with the enclosing walls. Irregularly shaped stones, some larger than his whole body, lush greenery, and the smell of the ocean all hit him at once. This was not at all what he had been expecting.

Kazuki couldn't help a low sigh as he settled on one of the underwater benches, closing his eyes. The water was almost too hot, making it pretty much perfect for easing muscles cramped from too many days in that cursed carriage. He didn't even notice Yuu getting into the pool until firm hands started massaging his shoulders.

“Too much tension,” Yuu murmured, half scolding, and he could hardly argue against that. “But it's going to be better now, yeah?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Kazu....”

“I know,” he sighed. “I'm being sulky and negative.”

“You still haven't told me how I can make things easier for you,” Yuu said softly and Kazuki started to repeat that he didn't know when Natsu stepped into the room, a towel wrapped around his waist, but that was all.

“Room for two more?” the guard asked as Hiro walked up behind him, his own towel tossed over his shoulder. Kazuki felt his cheeks turning deep red as he looked away, though not before he could see Hiro smirking.

“It's a public bath,” Yuu said, apparently used to this sort of thing. Another cultural difference then? Kazuki certainly wasn't used to this sort of casual nudity, though from the way the other three were acting, he might have to get used to it.

“He's cute when he blushes.”

“Natsu....”

“Is it just the cheeks or does it go up into the ears, too?”

“Hiro!”

Kazuki was torn between wanting Yuu to tell them off and wishing he could disappear. How utterly mortifying.

“I'd say ignore him,” Yuu said softly, though not so softly the other two couldn't hear, “but he'd probably take that as a challenge.”

“What can I say?” Hiro said and Kazuki could all too easily picture him smirking. “I know I'm hot.”

“Do remember that's my consort you're trying to get all hot and bothered,” Yuu scolded. Kazuki felt himself renewing his wish to be able to just vanish.

“You say that like it's a bad thing. Not like I'm actually trying to seduce him away from you, boss. If he's a little flustered, you'll be the one to benefit later, yeah?”

“Hiro!”

Definitely wishing he could just disappear. And yet the way everyone was acting so casual about it, as if it was natural and expected for him and Yuu to be having sex....

“Keep this up and that blush is going all the way down to his toes,” Natsu said. Kazuki hid his face in his hands, for what little good it might do him, wishing he had the strength to just get up and walk out.

“... his tattoo's different,” Hiro murmured. Half panicked, Kazuki dropped his arms back under the surface of the water. But though Hiro was frowning, it was confusion rather than anger or accusation. That ... maybe that was a good sign?

“One of the monks we met this afternoon, Ayame, has a tattoo like that,” Natsu added. “He said it was rare, maybe one bond in fifty. Though he may have to change that number now.”

“We'll have to remember that for tomorrow,” Yuu said, nodding thoughtfully.

“What, um, does he do?” Kazuki asked, pleased that he managed all that without squeaking.

“When we met him, he was gardening,” Natsu said. “But he also said if we needed help in the library, he would be happy to help, so I'm guessing that's his usual thing.”

“The gardens, the kitchen, and housekeeping are shared rota, all monks and students are expected to work those chores in between their other duties,” Yuu explained with another little nod.

“... are we going to be expected to do the same?” Kazuki asked, worried again. Cooking he could do, after all he had planned to make a life for himself doing that, but he wasn't so sure about the rest of it. He had been raised a prince, even if he had long since planned to leave that life behind.

“I was when I was here before, but that was different,” Yuu said, shrugging. “Did anyone say anything to the two of you about it?”

“When I registered us at the office,” Hiro said, indicating himself and Natsu, “they quoted a daily rate for room and board. Of course once I explained the nature of the situation, he translated that into work hours per week. Apparently they have some heavy labor projects they've been saving up that should be enough to keep us square for as long as needed.”

“Probably more than square, to be honest, but I'm fine with it,” Natsu added with a light grin. Kazuki still wasn't sure what that meant for him.

:You won't be forced to do anything you truly cannot,: Ryuji soothed, though his dragon opted not to join them physically. :The monks teach that manual labor is good for meditation and humility. That no one is superior to another simply by birth, that all humans have the same needs, come from the same roots.:

It wasn't that Kazuki necessarily disagreed, but....

“You're supposed to be relaxing,” Yuu scolded softly, nudging him gently. “Stop worrying about what hasn't happened yet, yeah? Let tomorrow take care of itself. Relax.”

“You know what's really good for relaxing?”

“Hiro....”

“I'm just saying!” Hiro said, laughing. “You're practically at the opposite end of the building from us, keep quiet enough and we'd never have to know.”

“You did say consort,” Natsu added. “I'm pretty sure it's expected.”

Kazuki could feel himself blushing yet again at the realization that the two guardsmen were suggesting he and Yuu have sex. Not just that, Natsu was implying that everyone around them was already expecting him and Yuu to be having a sexual relationship already. It was embarrassing!

“Only if it's what you want,” Yuu murmured, lips brushing against Kazuki's ear. It was enough to make him flinch and blush even more.

“Oi, no starting in the hot spring!” Natsu scolded. Kazuki wondered if it was possible to die from shame even as he watched Yuu throw some sort of gesture at his guard, probably rude. And then arms were sliding around him, pulling him into Yuu's lap, and Kazuki felt so overwhelmed he didn't know what he felt anymore. Other than bare skin sliding against his own in a way he hadn't felt in weeks. Kazuki squirmed in spite of himself, until the arms tightened around him.

“Might want to stop that,” Yuu mumbled. It took Kazuki entirely too long to figure out what the prince meant, and only his tight hold kept him from bolting in shame.

“If I didn't know better,” Hiro said, “I'd think Shizu had some sort of taboo against two men having sex. Or is that another thing that only the lower classes do?”

“Nah, can't be that, he had a boyfriend,” Natsu said casually. “Maybe he's just shy?”

“Maybe the two of you have teased him enough for one day,” Yuu suggested.

“Oh come on, Boss, I haven't even properly propositioned him yet!” Hiro said, smirking. Kazuki could feel his ears burning with the way the guardsman was making no secret of checking him out and he pulled in on himself to try to escape.

“Hiro. Enough,” Yuu said, all amusement gone from his tone. Hiro put both hands up, then leaned his head back against the rim of the pool and closed his eyes. Kazuki was surprised when Natsu actually got out of the pool a beat later – and hated himself a bit for the way he couldn't seem to take his eyes off the man's ass – quickly tying on a towel before bringing another one over to the pool.

“For when you're ready,” the guard said softly before bowing and leaving. Kazuki snuck another glance at Hiro, but his eyes were still closed. And still he hurried to get into the towel, barely resisting the urge to bolt for the room he and Yuu had been assigned. Not exactly the relaxing bath he had been wanting. Maybe it would be better to just give up, call it a night? There wasn't a whole lot of room and he was confused by his own surprise when Yuu still put what space he could between their futon. After the way he had acted in the bath ... and yet this was better, right? This was what Kazuki wanted ... wasn't it?

“Kazu....”

Kazuki nearly startled out of his own skin at the brush of fingers to his cheek, blushing at the shy smile on Yuu's lips.

“No matter what anyone else says ... don't feel like you have to push yourself, okay? I get it, you're still mourning the life you lost, you don't even really know me. But when you're ready – when you're ready, Kazu – I'll be here, okay?”

Kazuki pressed his lips together and nodded, then hurried into his own futon. Yuu didn't say anything else before turning out the light and Kazuki prayed the other wouldn't notice him crying himself to sleep.

~*~*~

Yuu slipped away before dawn, unsurprised when Natsu stepped out of the shadows to walk with him down to the guest hall's kitchen.

“He didn't sleep with you last night, did he?” Natsu asked after setting a coffee pot to brewing.

“Natsu,” Yuu scolded, picking out a couple eggs for their breakfast.

“Did you at least tell him that Hiro's inept flirting isn't just about getting a reaction out of you?” the other man asked, arching an eyebrow at him.

“He's in a difficult enough place right now,” Yuu said with a sigh. “If I didn't think it would make him implode, I'd ask us to be moved in with the monks. Shizu is too different from Ise, I'm trying to do this as gently as I can, but he's really....”

“We're here now,” Natsu said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Be his consort, not his teacher. Let the dragons and the brothers and sisters deal with teaching him the things he needs to know.”

“I'm just worried that Ryuji's method of teaching is going to be dump everything on him at once and force him to sink or swim,” he confessed with another sigh.

“Might not be such a bad idea,” Natsu said with a thoughtful hum. And though Yuu had already told him that they shouldn't, couldn't be doing this, he still felt himself drawn into those arms, the soft touch of calloused fingers against his skin.

“How much longer are you going to keep denying yourself, Yuu?” Natsu asked, his hand sliding up Yuu's back.

“Natsu, I told you before, we can't,” Yuu said, each word strained. “He won't understand.”

“Then you need to explain it to him,” Natsu said harshly. “Before I do.”

Yuu fisted his hands at his sides, listening as Natsu stomped out of the kitchen. Closing his eyes, he started counting backwards from ten, but only made it to seven before arms slid around his waist, a familiar head resting on his shoulder.

“I'm sorry, love, I shouldn't threaten, it's not my place,” Natsu whispered. “But you do need to explain things to him. Soon. Or it might be Hiro doing it and you know how that will go.”

Yuu grimaced, but Natsu had a point. Hiro would explain things all right, but in the bluntest and therefore worst terms possible. And that was assuming Ryuji didn't just dump everything on his poor consort as soon as he woke up.

“Want me to make breakfast while you wake him up with a morning blowjob?”

“Natsu!” Yuu protested, swatting the arms around him even as he couldn't help laughing. “I already told him I wasn't going to push, that I would wait for him to be ready, to get there on his own terms.”

“Which brings me back to my original question: how long are you going to keep denying yourself?”

“He's expecting a monogamous relationship. Shouldn't I at least try to give that to him? After everything I've taken from him?”

“Your people are expecting something else. And when they see your Consort is male, they'll be expecting it even more.”

Another heavy sigh. Natsu wasn't wrong, but surely there was room for compromise. He just wasn't sure what that compromise would be.

“All right, all right,” Natsu said, squeezing him and brushing a kiss to his cheek, “we'll make breakfast together, but then you really should talk to him. Bring him breakfast in bed, he'll like that.”

“Don't have to be so pushy, you know,” Yuu grumbled, but there was no anger in him even in spite of the words. Unless things had changed significantly in the last ten years, days at the temple started early and Kazuki would be expected to be part of that. Better for him to be roused by Yuu and breakfast than whatever Mistress Omi or the dragons might have in mind.

~*~*~

Kazuki hadn't been all that eager to wake up, but the smell of freshly brewed coffee was almost enough to change his mind. It was certainly enough to get him upright.

“Dawn comes early here on the coast,” Yuu said as he offered him a steaming mug with an apologetic smile.

“Some reason you're waking me with the birds?” he asked, clutching the mug close and savoring the aroma. Cream, sugar, and a hint of cinnamon? The dragons must haven gotten in on this for Yuu to have made it just the way Kazuki liked it.

“The temple's day is set to the sun, I thought you'd appreciate breakfast with me over morning prayers and thin porridge with the brothers and sisters.”

Yuu wasn't wrong, but he couldn't help a soft snort. He wasn't sure how long he had actually slept, but his head was more than happy to tell him it hadn't been nearly enough. Especially with the crying that had preceded it.

:I told Takako you aren't feel well. They will come after lunch instead.:

“... one of you could have told me that, I would have let Kazu sleep longer,” Yuu grumbled softly. Kazuki had to bite his lip to keep from laughing at the way Ryuji just snorted, though from the look on the other man's face, Suzuya was having some private words with the prince.

:There's so much you need to learn, it's a shame you humans are not like dragons, born with great knowledge.:

“I suppose that's why we have libraries and schools,” Kazuki said softly, sipping his coffee slowly, the better to savor each drop. He would not have expected a monastery like this to even have coffee, he couldn't help thinking this had to be some form of special treat, a last indulgence before he started his studies in earnest.

They ate in relative silence, but it felt comfortable rather than awkward. Kazuki couldn't really think of anything to say, not that he felt a pressing need to fill the space between them with words, either. A couple of times he thought Yuu was about to say something, but then the man would change his mind. It was a little strange, but Kazuki wasn't sure if he should say something about it or not. Probably not.

“So if Mistress Omi isn't coming until after lunch ... what do we do with the morning?” Kazuki asked as they finished breakfast. He watched as Yuu dithered for a bit, toying with a napkin.

“Sorry, I feel like there are things you and I should probably discuss, I'm just not sure where to start,” Yuu confessed after a moment. “Like you said yesterday, Ise and Shizu are two very different kingdoms.”

:There is an easier way....:

“Ryuji, I don't think –.”

Whatever Yuu had been about to say, Kazuki never heard it.

~*~*~

Yuu swore softly as he watched Kazuki crumple into a dead faint.

“Dammit, Ryuji, I was trying to tell you no,” he grumbled, going to his consort to make Kazuki properly comfortable, make sure he hadn't injured himself.

:You said yourself that there was too much.:

“That doesn't make this way better,” he countered. “You're assuming this is going to work and I'm not all that sure it will.”

To his surprise, it was Yutaka rather than Ryuji who materialized to nuzzle at Kazuki's head. Getting up, he was less surprised, then, to see Master Hidehiko quickly striding through the gardens.

“Master Hidehiko,” he said, bowing respectfully as the man stepped up into the apartment.

“Well, it wouldn't have been my first choice either,” the monk said, kneeling beside Kazuki to check his breathing. “And he's going to have one hell of a headache when he wakes, but once he feels up to it, I'll do a standard assessment to see how much he's able to access. Humans are not meant to learn this way, we might not have achieved much.”

“But he'll be okay?” Yuu asked, trying not to hover.

“Should be. The faint was to protect the consciousness from the rapid influx of information. This isn't the first time I've seen something like this.”

Yuu sighed heavily in relief, a laugh catching in his throat an instant later when both Suzuya and Ryuji flooded him with reproach for ever thinking either of them would let serious harm come to his promised. Perhaps they were right, but fear was not known for being rational. And still he worried, settling with Kazuki's head cradled in his lap. If Ryuji had indeed shared everything about Ise with the young prince ... would he even understand any of it? Or would he see only a list of alien traditions and feel betrayed once more?

He wasn't sure how long they sat like that before Kazuki stirred with a low groan. Yuu froze for a second, then helped Kazuki sit up.

“Steady,” he murmured. “Here, drink this, it'll help.

Another groan, but Kazuki didn't resist, though he did need help to actually drink the tea. More surprising was the way Yutaka sat himself in front of them, studying them both with bright green eyes.

“Prince Kazuki, how do you feel?” Hidehiko asked gently.

“Hurts,” the younger prince mumbled, rubbing his temple. “Too much noise in my head.”

Ryuji materialized with a little squeak, curling around Kazuki's neck and rubbing his cheek with his head. A sigh and Kazuki slumped against Yuu's chest, catching him off guard. But only for a moment and then he was cradling him close, stroking fingers through his hair.

“Yes, well, everyone was worried for you,” Hidehiko said with a small smile. “If you're feeling up to it, I need to ask you a few questions, okay?”

“Um, okay....”

“What year was Lord Ishihara first bonded?”

“Year 1624 in the old calendar, year 1 of the new.”

“How many are currently bonded?”

“Twenty-three.”

“What is the significance of a dragon's color?”

“There is none,” Kazuki said, sounding surprised, his eyes flicking between Ryuji and Yutaka. “How do I know any of this?”

“Your Ryuji acted a bit rashly. What is the purpose of the Consort's Blade?”

“I ... a bodyguard, but ... more?”

“I would have been surprised if you had gotten a full understanding of our culture, considering even my own Yuta gets confused by our strange human rituals even after all this time,” the monk said, grinning warmly. “So limited to imperfect dry recall. Still, not bad for a dragon not bonded to a human before.”

“Does this mean ... what does this mean?” Kazuki asked, looking surprisingly small and frail.

“Well, for starters, Ryuji and Yuta are agreed that you need to stay here yet. Just because you know how to do a thing doesn't mean you're any good at it. You have the Scribe mark, you'll be taking lessons from Ayame starting this afternoon. You'll stay with us until he's satisfied with your training. But before any of that, the two of you have things to discuss. Yuu, I'll see you this afternoon.”

Yuu nodded, all too aware of how Kazuki had moved away from him. Reading the tension in his consort was easy. Understanding what it meant was another matter entirely.

“Kazu....”

“I have a hundred things in my head right now and none of them make sense,” Kazuki said, his voice brittle. “What ... what have you done to me?”

“Not me, Kazu. Ryuji thought he could just give you the knowledge of our culture, but it doesn't really work that way, yeah?”

“The Ise nobility are a sack of polygamist pigs, I can't believe my father agreed to this. I....”

Kazuki staggered to his feet and turned to run. Without thinking, Yuu jumped up and grabbed his arm, getting a swing at the head for his efforts.

“Don't touch me!” the younger man screamed at him even as he was dropping his arm.

“Kazu, please....”

“No! I won't hear your lies!” he yelled before stumbling out of their apartment. Yuu hurried after him, only to be stopped by Natsu tugging him into another room.

“Natsu!”

“No, love, let him go,” his guardian said softly, lips brushing against Yuu's ear. “Hiro's trailing him, he's too angry and hurt to face you right now, it was written all over his face.”

“Natsu....”

“You know Lord Ryuji will keep him safe from any physical danger and Hiro has the advantage of not being you. Let him get this out of his system with Hiro.”

Yuu slumped in Natsu's arms, forced to admit defeat. He was so tired of seeing that look on betrayal on his Kazuki's face, but worse was knowing this wasn't going to be the last time.

~*~*~

Kazuki had no idea where he was going, surprised to find himself stumbling through knobby cedar and high grasses until something gave way and he fell to his knees. Sand. He wasn't sure how he had gotten from the temple to the beach, but he was definitely in high dunes, a cold wind whipping through the reedy grasses all around him. He tried to get up, but his ankle refused to support him and he went down with another pained yelp. This was bad. He had no real idea where he was or how far he was from the temple. The high grass offered him some protection from the wind, but it was also higher than his head even sitting up as tall as he could. He had no way of finding his way back, no way of making himself visible to others, and he was already halfway to freezing. He was screwed.

:You must be –.:

“Shut up! Leave me alone! I hate you!!”

The dragon that manifested was easily the size of a house and this time he was actually solid, forming a perfect scaly ring around Kazuki that was both warm and protected from the wind. The heavy scent of temple incense wafted over him as the dragon nosed his leg.

:Just twisted, you will be fine.:

“I hate you.”

:Yes, you said that before. Hiro is coming.:

“I don't care,” he muttered, hugging himself tightly. His life was in ruins and for what?

“Lord Ryuji, are you going to let me in or should I just climb over you?”

“Go away!” Kazuki shouted. Still, he wasn't surprised to see Hiro climbing over the top of Ryuji's coils, dropping down the other side like a cat. He scowled at the man, but Hiro was undeterred, crouching down at his feet. He picked out the injured one too easily, Ryuji had to be helping him. Certainly Kazuki refused to say a single word, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from crying out in pain when Hiro pulled off his boot.

“Yup, sprained,” Hiro said, pulling a rolled cloth bandage from his pocket. “You're lucky I was about to ask Natsu for a morning sparring match.”

Kazuki clenched his teeth, refusing to rise to that bait. And yet Hiro didn't seem to mind, pulling off Kazuki's sock and then unrolling the narrow cloth.

“So ... want to talk about it?”

“No,” Kazuki snapped, scowling still, but Hiro kept his head bent to his task.

“Might help.”

“Stop. Talking,” Kazuki muttered, hissing in a breath in spite of his intentions.

“Talking helps,” Hiro replied. Kazuki hated to admit it, but the man had a skilled, delicate touch. Didn't make anything about this better.

“As if you could possibly understand.”

“You'd be surprised,” the other man said softly.

“How could someone like you possibly understand what I'm feeling?” he countered, anger and hurt leaking into his voice.

“You've been angry and hurt since the day we met. Angry at your father for selling you to a kingdom you don't even know anything about. Angry at Aoi for lying to you about himself. Angry at everyone for taking you away from the man you loved. Hurt that you didn't even get to say goodbye. How's that for starters?”

Kazuki kept his arms firmly crossed over his chest and refused to answer. Hiro finished wrapping his ankle and when he looked up there was ... he wasn't sure what he was seeing in the other man's eyes. Not pity at least, he wouldn't have been able to stand that, but ... something.

“Yuu said something, what was it?” Hiro asked, but Kazuki didn't want to talk about it, instead focusing on getting back to his feet. It hurt and he wasn't convinced that ankle would actually support him if he tried to walk on it, but he needed to get away.

:No.:

Ryuji's head swung around until Kazuki was face to snout with his dragon.

:Sit. Down.:

Kazuki scowled and crossed his arms over his chest again. Scales scraped against scales like the rattling of chain mail as Ryuji lifted himself up higher to scowl down at him.

:Sit. And talk to him.:

“I would rather die,” he snarled. He wanted nothing more to do with Ise or dragons or any of it. If they weren't going to let him go, then....

Hands like steel vise grips closed on his upper arms and hard lips pressed against his own in a kiss that was both angry and demanding. And completely unexpected.

“Don't you ever say something that fucking heartless, that thoughtless again,” Hiro said as he gave him a little shake. “Do you ever think of anyone besides yourself? Just what kind of prince are you?!”

“Who the hell do you think you are? Let go of me!” Kazuki snapped.

“Blade and Shield do more than just protect from physical threats, you spoiled little brat. In Ise, everything – everything – is done in threes. Natsu's stepped back because of you, and you treat his sacrifice like dirt. You aren't worthy of being Yuu's Shield, of being his anything, you spoiled little.... Thank the gods Lord Ryuji brought us here, you'd bring shame to the entire Shiroyama clan acting like this in the capital!”

“I didn't want any of this!” Kazuki spat back, trying to twist free. Pain flared through his leg as his ankle gave out and he buckled, only Hiro's grip keeping him upright. A snort and Hiro's hands shifted, the soldier easing him down to the cool sand.

“Spoiled brat,” Hiro muttered. “You're a damn prince, how about you start acting like it!”

“I was free! I wasn't going to be a prince anymore!” Kazuki shouted back at him, hating the tears he could feel leaking down his cheeks. He pulled his knees up to his chest, trying to hide behind them. It didn't work. Hiro grabbed his chin, forcing him to meet angry eyes.

“Is this how a prince of Shizu behaves? Sulking, hiding, blaming the universe as he wallows in his own selfish pain?” the soldier asked, a note of disdain in his voice. “I thought the Shizu were better than this. Maybe we should have gone to Kai instead.”

Kazuki couldn't help a low snort at that. There was no way his cousin Yuuki would ever, could ever be what these people wanted.

“I won't do it, I won't betray my faith just because the Ise nobility have no morals,” he muttered.

“Oh, do you have a womb you haven't told us about?” Hiro countered.

“W-what?”

“You're betrothed to the crown prince. How exactly are you going to give him the heirs he needs?”

Kazuki pressed his lips together, having no good answer to that.

“As I said, everything in Ise is done in threes. The more you try to fight our traditions, the more you'll exhaust yourself for nothing.”

Kazuki huffed, scowling at his knees. And then something Yuu had said seemingly forever ago sprang back to the front of his mind. Dropping his knees to the sand, he scowled at Hiro yet again.

“Just how much lying have all of you been doing? In the coach, right after the Yamada attack, he made it sound like he'd be fine with me having a woman lover as long as I kept her hidden, secret. And when I told him about my boyfriend – something he apparently already knew even though I'd only ever told Teru anything about it – he supposedly changed his mind, said he couldn't stand to let another man take 'his' place. So which is it?”

“It's not that simple,” Hiro said, finally settling on the sand across the limited space from him.

Make it that simple,” Kazuki growled. Huffing, Hiro picked up a broken reed and started drawing lines in the sand between them.

“In Ise, a prince or princess is usually allowed some measure of input on whom he or she chooses for consort, but the rule of three still applies. If a prince chooses a princess or a princess chooses a knight, her husband takes the role of Blade and there's no problem. When a prince chooses a man or a princess chooses a woman, the union is held open for a year and a day for the right third to be found and the marriage registered as a triad. In triad, all children belong equally to all three parents, regardless of the coupling that produced the child.”

“That's....”

“In Ise, we believe true love is blind, separate from the body. More, that the love of two is strong, but stronger still when it is made into three,” Hiro said, illustrating his point with a triangle in the sand. “And only in dynastic unions does biology figure into the equation at all because of the need for heirs.”

“So even if Yuu and I are only attracted to men, the crown will demand we add a woman to our marriage?”

“Within a year and a day of your wedding ceremony, yes,” Hiro said, nodding.

“That's ... that's....”

“Heavy is the weight of the crown,” he said quietly. “Yuu will find someone you can both honor as wife. And you will each have your own Blade and Shield. Three, three, and three,” he added, drawing more triangles.

“What if I don't want ... any of this?”

“Are you a prince or aren't you? Consort's Blade and Consort's Shield are bodyguards of the highest order, first and foremost. There is no rule saying you have to be sleeping with either of them.”

“And that's what you and Natsu are? Yuu's Blade and Shield?”

“Yes, since shortly after he started military training. It's why we're allowed to call him Yuu instead of Prince Aoi. And yes, we've had sex, all three of us together, even. We are closer than brothers and we share everything.”

“Everything....”

“Well, everything but you, unless you choose otherwise,” Hiro said, still frowning at him. Kazuki shivered, pulling his knees up to his chest once more. This was madness, how could he be expected to live with all of this? He understood sacrifice, he did, but this was too much, he wasn't cut out for this, this was a mistake.

Warm silk slithered around his neck, yet when he looked up, Ryuji's grey bulk still lay coiled about them. Looking down, he was startled to see Suzuya peering up at him.

“I can't,” he said to those glittering eyes. “It's too much, I can't do it.”

:Yes you can,: the little dragon said, her voice almost like a sigh. :You can, love, I know you can. Maybe it was unfair to put everything on you at once, but you can do this. Precious heart of my beloved, you are stronger than you think.:

“How about we trade,” Hiro suggested softly. “Just for a few days.”

“Huh?” Well now he felt like an idiot. And yet Hiro didn't call any attention to it.

“You and Natsu. You stay with me this week, Natsu stays with Yuu.”

“But the monks....”

“Are monks. Even if they notice, no one's going to comment on it, it's not their place. It's not much, but maybe the space will help?”

Kazuki chewed at his lip, feeling the hard metal moving against his skin. He really only had two options: live through this madness or die. But could he really do it, could he really take his own life, knowing countless others would die as a direct result?

“... I need to write a letter to my brother first.”

Hiro nodded, scooping Kazuki up into his arms a little too easily. Curse the man for having arms that made him feel safe, protected. Was this what it was like for Yuu? Maybe he didn't really want to think about that.

~*~*~

Yuu looked up sharply, but of course it was Natsu, Suzuya had already told him to expect this. Didn't make him feel any better about it, though.

“He's that pissed at me?” he asked softly.

“I think he's just angry at the whole universe right now,” his Shield said, setting aside his bag for the moment to instead wind arms around Yuu's waist. “But he's writing a letter to his brother Teru, that's something, yeah?”

“I guess,” Yuu mumbled, sighing as he leaned into Natsu's arms for a moment. “... I should probably let you get to work....”

“There's no rush, it's not like the work is going anywhere.”

“Natsu....”

“You are still my Protected, are you not?”

Yuu sighed and let himself lean even more into Natsu's arms. He would ask that....

“Until Death parts us, yes. But I still don't think we should....”

“No, of course you don't,” the other man said with a low chuckle, brushing a kiss to his cheek. “One step at a time. Who knows, he might yet surprise you.”

“That wouldn't be hard at this point,” he muttered with a little disgruntled snort. Natsu didn't say anything, only hugging him closer and kissing his cheek again. It felt ... safe. Natural. But was it right?

“... tell me I made the right choice?”

“From what Mistress Suzuya says, you made the only choice,” Natsu soothed. “Give Hiro time to set him straight, let him come to you.”

“And if he doesn't?”

“He will. The dragons chose him for you, he'll come, just give him time.”

Well, he couldn't very well argue with that logic, could he? Hiro might be blunt, but things couldn't get any worse than what Ryuji had already done. Maybe Hiro's bluntness was what Kazuki needed. The dragons knew it was the only thing that had gotten through his own thick skull a time or two.

“... do you think Hiro will ask to be Kazu's Blade when this is all over?” he asked, hating that the thought had even occurred to him. He would do it, of course, give up Hiro completely if it was what Kazuki needed from him, but he would hate it.

“No, love, no I don't,” Natsu said, brushing another kiss to his lips. “Hiro's far too attached to you to ask you for that, you must know that by now.”

“Why do I sense a 'but' coming?”

But if Kazuki can shed his bigotry and closed-minded notions about limited love, we still may have to share him. I've seen the way your Consort looks at him, he's been curious since that first night.”

“I can live with that if you can,” Yuu said with a soft hum.

“I am but your humble Shield, my liege, I will live with whatever you command.”

“Oh shut up,” Yuu play-growled, lightly shoving Natsu away from him. “Go the hell to work, you brat!”

“As you command, my liege,” Natsu said with an elaborate bow. If Yuu'd had anything to throw at him, he would have. Instead, he settle for meaningless threats, knowing he would never act on any of them. Natsu was far too precious to him even now.

~*~*~

It took Kazuki three tries before he felt he had the right words for his brother. He probably should have asked Yuu about the letter Ise's Crown Prince had already sent to the Shizu Crown, but he wasn't ready to even just look at the man right now, let alone talk to him.

And still he hesitated to actually seal his own letter. Maybe he wasn't happy with this situation, but since the point was to avoid an international incident, maybe he should ask Hiro to take it to Yuu first? Of course the problem there was Hiro wasn't actually around - after setting him up with paper and ink, the guard had gone to fetch Kazuki's things and then left for whatever work detail he had agreed to do to pay for his room and board. Kazuki had appreciated the solitude up to now, but....

:Ayame is here.:

Kazuki swore softly as he scrambled to his feet. Great, not only had he missed lunch, he had no idea when dinner would even be. And he wasn't ready at all for whatever it was the monk was going to be expecting of him.

“It's all right, my lord, I came early,” the monk said with a polite bow. “I thought perhaps we could share lunch. Do you cook at all?”

“Quite a bit, actually,” he said, feeling particularly defensive.

“No offense was intended, Highness,” the monk said with another small bow. “Shall we see then what the kitchen here has to offer?”

Kazuki shoved down his lingering dark mood and nodded. Getting angry with the monk who was charged with being his teacher was hardly a productive use of his energy.

“So,” Kazuki said as they sat down to a simple meal of rice and vegetables, “what is it that you'll be teaching me?”

“My Sono tells me your Ryuji gave you a memory imprint?”

“I guess that's what it is?” Kazuki replied, still uncertain of the jumble in his head.

“Then my primary purpose will be teaching you in what it means to be a Scribe,” Ayame said, rolling up his sleeve to reveal his own tattoo, a black dragon with silver-blond mane and whiskers and silver-capped blood-red horns, the tattoo encircling Ayame's right forearm just the way Ryuji appeared on Kazuki's arm. It was a little surreal, but then a lot of things at the temple felt at least a little surreal. At least Ayame actually looked like a proper monk, other than the tattoo, bookish and yet otherworldly. Quite a few of the brothers – and more than a few of the sisters – he had seen at dinner last night had looked to him more like soldiers than monks.

“And what does that mean?”

“You have the imprint. You tell me what you think it means,” Ayame replied with a small, secretive smile. Kazuki frowned to himself. When Hidehiko had asked him questions earlier, the answers had just come to him, but now.... He felt like he should know, but the only scribes coming to mind were those from home and he knew that wasn't quite right. Why couldn't he just remember the right answer now?

“Father's scribes are archivists, taking note of important events and managing inventories, transcribing laws and proclamations, and preserving documents and histories. But I don't see how being bonded to a dragon could help with that, so I'm guessing this means something else.”

Ayame's soft laugh caught Kazuki by surprise. He watched as the monk made an obscure gesture with his arm, the air thickening first into a mist and then into a solid black dragon. Red eyes glittered as the dragon seemingly danced down out of the air to take a seat on the table. He was bigger than Ryuji had been the first time he had seen him, perhaps twice the size of the palace cats, and yet the table seemed to hardly notice his weight. Something about the way the dragon sat made Kazuki think he was quite a bit older than either Ryuji or Suzuya, though he wasn't sure what or why. And yet he didn't understand. What did any of this have to do with his becoming a Scribe?

“My Sono,” Ayame said, resting a hand on the dragon's back, “remembers every word of everything we have ever read, every word of every document any and all of his humans have ever read. Until you, I was the only Scribe currently here at the temple. And yes, being Scribe means I have been in charge of our library and school, just as the Scribe before me was. It is a rare gift, a special calling. Rare has been the time that this mark has appeared more than twice in a generation.”

“No offense, but I don't think I can just stay here,” Kazuki said, frowning a little.

“Neither am I in any way ready to retire,” Ayame agreed with a light laugh. “Our dragons give us strength to better protect Ise. Most of the dragon bonds are soldier marks, we train our brothers and sisters in martial arts suited to them.”

“Warrior monks?”

“Some. All are taught the basics of combat, some are called to other disciplines. Healers, teachers, even craftsmen and artisans. Our being people of faith does not stop us from having other interests and callings.”

Kazuki fell silent, wondering if this was actually a cultural difference or if he had just never given much thought to the lives of the monks in the few monasteries in Shizu. There was a lot he didn't know, about his people and those in other countries. He might have been told once, but so far removed from the chance of having to rule, he hadn't really cared. Now suddenly he was being thrust into a position for which he felt entirely unprepared.

“Ryuji will help you study and learn, my prince. though not, we hope, with further imprints.”

“Are imprints really that bad?”

“There's always a risk of something going wrong,” Ayame said, sighing a little. “And because you didn't learn the information, you lose the ability to access some or even all of the imprint over time. Sometimes it comes back as easily as reading a book on the subject, but more often it just disappears. Which is happening to you, we will just have to wait and see. And teach the two of you to talk to each other properly.”

There was something in Ayame's smile that made him bristle, but the monk either didn't notice or was pretending not to for some reason. Neither option particularly sat well with him.

“You take a far too adversarial view of things, my student,” Ayame said as he poured them both some fresh tea. “Life is not a zero sum game. Prince Aoi will not love you less for having room in his heart for others, just as your feelings are not diminished by having other loves. Each time we love is different because each person we love is different. It's foolish to say a first love is less valid just because we have found a second or third love. Do you love your parents any less for having other loves in your life?”

“That's different,” Kazuki grumbled, not sure he was liking this. He had already gotten a version of this lecture once today, he really didn't want to sit through another. And yet something about Sono's red eyes kept him from doing anything more than squirming in his seat.

“The Crown has no doubt dispatched the rest of the Prince's personal guard, along with additional members to serve you as well, though there is little enough need for it here,” Ayame continued a beat later, as if it were a natural progression of their conversation. “Regardless of what might be said when they get here, the titles of Consort's Blade and Consort's Shield are at your discretion, it is up to you to name them.”

“And how am I to do that when I don't even know anything about what the titles mean?”

“Consort's Shield is an enhanced version of a captain of the guard. He – or she, if you like – will be in charge of your personal security, travel with you everywhere, and always be positioned as last line of defense. In most cases, Consort's Blade takes a more active, offensive role. If there were to be an attack against your residence, for example, your Shield would be at your side while your Blade took charge of the vanguard.”

“In most cases?”

“Blade, Shield, and Protected is a common form of triad among nobles,” Ayame said with a light shrug. “In some arrangements, it happens that one Protected's Blade is another Protected's Shield. The oaths are compatible, if rarely taken together.”

“Isn't there already an assumption that I will name Prince Aoi as my Blade?”

“Not really, no,” the monk said with another shake of his head. “At current, as my understanding stands, the expectation is that you, he, and your wife will have separate Blades and Shields, three sets of three. It is the usual way in your circumstances.”

“I wouldn't have thought something like this would happen often enough for there to even be a usual way.”

“Do the Shizu not embrace the full diversity of love?” Ayame asked. Kazuki closed his teeth on a knee-jerk response, recognizing it for what it was. When it came to the Shizu royal family, sexuality and marriage were two separate things. Kazuki had never doubted his own preferences, but when he had been called to serve his people, he had been prepared (resentful, to be sure, but prepared) to marry a woman just as his brothers all had before him. Then again, despite the rumors, he had never thought of his brothers as being anything but attracted to women.

“Love is a luxury the duties of state do not always allow into our lives,” he said instead.

“So it is,” Ayame agreed, to Kazuki's surprise. “Still, in my experience, the dragons are better matchmakers than most humans. If you will allow it, love may yet surprise you, my lord.”

Their lunch complete, Ayame stood and bowed. It took Kazuki several seconds to realize what was happening, scrambling to his feet.

“Wait, you're leaving?” he asked, glancing around quickly to confirm that Sono had already vanished.

“For now,” the monk said with a small smile. “I do have other duties to attend, Highness.”

“But....”

“I'll send an acolyte down in a bit with the books you will need to read to begin your training. And the rest we can discuss tomorrow.”

Kazuki couldn't very well argue with the monk who was now his teacher. Stifling a sigh, he watched the man walk away for a long moment before turning back towards the room he was now to share with Hiro. And the letter he both did and didn't want to send. How much simpler his life had seemed just a week ago! Now ... now everything felt uncertain.

~*~*~

Kazuki actually squeaked at the feel of hands on his shoulders, turning and swatting at the laughing Hiro while trying to ignore the wobble of his unsteady ankle.

“Asshole!”

“As if Lord Ryuji would allow anyone who meant you harm this close,” the other man said, remarkably unrepentant. “I'm impressed you made it this far out on that ankle, but we should get back. Dinner should be ready soon, probably before you can hobble back.”

Kazuki sighed in spite of himself, glancing out over the ocean again spread out below him. It was surprisingly peaceful here, even with the low roar of the ocean breaking against the base of the cliffs. He could see why a temple had been founded here.

“How far are we from civilization anyway?”

“There's another inlet on the other side of that prominence, a deeper one,” Hiro said, turning Kazuki towards the cove. “The city of Mie is there, half a day from the temple by fast horse. It's one of our two major ports.”

“R-really? That close? But....”

“There's virtually no iron in these hills anymore, all the heavy industry moved elsewhere,” Hiro said with a shrug. “Mie thrives off fishing and trade goods, especially sea trades. You'll likely come here to travel by ship to Shizu. The capitol is about three days inland by royal carriage.”

Kazuki shivered again and hugged his jacket tighter to himself, suddenly chilled. He'd had no idea they were so close to a large city, it almost didn't seem possible.

“And mail?”

“Not sure for standard mail, but your dragon can deliver a letter anywhere you can show him in the blink of an eye. Did you finish writing to your brother then?”

Startled, Kazuki gaped at Hiro a moment before trying to poke at Ryuji, wondering why the dragon hadn't told him that himself.

:You didn't ask:

A huff, but he didn't really want to chew out the little dragon just then and risk Hiro getting the wrong idea.

“Come on back to the temple,” the guard said with a gentle smile. “You're cold and dinner will be ready soon.”

“I'm not sure....”

“If you need to eat in our room, you can, but you still need to eat. Come on.”

Maybe it shouldn't have, but it surprised him how easily Hiro was able to read him. But there was also something almost comforting in it. He wasn't ready to break bread with Yuu yet, but staying out here wasn't much of an option either. Especially not when the guard scooped him up off his feet, carrying him like a new bride.

“H-hey!”

“I'm the one that found you with your twisted ankle this morning, remember? I know how little you have left in it by now. Don't worry, I doubt anyone else will notice.”

Kazuki felt himself blushing again. Hiro was probably right, but he still hid his face against the other man's shoulder. At least he felt safe. It was something he didn't feel often enough anymore.

~*~*~

Yuu frowned when he saw Hiro enter the dining hall alone. Well, perhaps it had been too much to expect Kazuki to be ready to forgive him already. And still it stung, to be rejected like this.

“I told you, give him time,” Natsu scolded. “Half a day is not giving him time, love. Especially not when he and I already agreed to a week-long trade.”

“I ... you did?” he asked, aiming an inward glare at Suzuya for not telling him that part.

“I made the suggestion,” Hiro said, settling at their table, “but I insisted he had to ask Natsu himself.”

“He wanted to make it indefinite,” Natsu added, sighing. “I told him, as your Shield, I couldn't accept that, but that we could see how he felt in a week. Whether or not he understood, he agreed.”

“Oh I'm fairly positive he still doesn't understand at all,” Hiro said with a shake of his head. “But that's why we're here, right? So he can learn?”

“Aa,” Yuu agreed. “I just wish I knew how much time we have.”

:Time enough,: Suzuya chirped, slithering down his arm to shove her whole head into his rice bowl.

“Oi! I was still eating that!”

The way her whole back half was wiggling not unlike a happy puppy, he couldn't really stay mad at her. Time enough. It wasn't a proper answer, but it was the only one she would give him, repeating it each time he silently asked her for more. It wasn't much for guidance, but they would make it work, he supposed. They had to, the Joseon would make their move eventually.