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Elizabeth Liones is a precocious child - so much becomes apparent at an age where other babies still learn to walk.

Her first word is not mommy or daddy. It is not a monosyllable one like no or a baby exclamation of excitement.

It’s a name.

Not either name of her two adoring sisters, not the name of her nursemaid, not the name of her precious plush toy.

The owner of the name is not even a member of her immediate family. The times she has been in his presence in her two years of life are too few for her baby mind to remember. Or rather, they ought to.

Her father, having born witness and sworn an oath on her health and happiness the day that he was gifted with her by the ruins of a county, is, while startled, deep down not at all surprised when he hears of his daughter’s extraordinary feat.

The one graced with the attention of the youngest princess is also decidedly unsurprised when he visits her the next time and has her bubble his name in butchered syllables in his face. What he is surprised by is when she kisses him soundly on the mouth.

Babies, being curious and affectionate creatures, and Elizabeth, being raised in a loving environment, are daily bestowed with kisses, and it is also her daily routine to sloppily press her lips to her mother’s cheek, on her father’s beard, on her sisters’ faces, so it is not a surprise as such.

It is just odd, see, because babies have the shortest of memories and the knight in question is often occupied outside of her sight. He ought to have been a stranger to her that day, and she gave him the same affections she gave her family.

This was only the beginning.

The princess started to read books with an adorable little frown of concentration on her face as soon as she was able to flap heavy tomes open on her own. And it is started to read books, not started learning to read.

She started to toddle out of the care of her guards and maids as soon as she was able to stand on her own feet for more than five minutes at a time once she looked up from the floor of her room where she was kneeling on a plush carpet studying a heavy tome of pictures to see the blue sky outside. Sometimes, she was a truly terrible child to take care of, yet other times she was the most pleasant of angels.

The times she disappears are regular, patterned, and it does not take long at all for the staff to catch on that if the princess is gone, if the leaders of a specific order of knights is in the castle (on the grounds, in the city – the range of her apparent sixth sense grew with age), she could always be found with him. In his arms, clinging to his back, watching him play with sticks with her sister’s future guardian knight, hiding behind the curtain of the room he was being briefed in for his next mission, or giggling as they sat in the grass.

The knight, an unusual feature at first but now so fixed a facet of the castle that even his appearance stopped registering as strange some time ago, always takes perfect care of her, is slightly apologetic to the staff when he hands her back, but never does anything to discourage the princess from sneaking away to see him, much to her nurses’ ire.

Today however, Head Maid Milda, responsible for Her Royal Highness Elizabeth ever since the Queen’s passing, does not retrieve her from a familiar scene on this sunny day of summer.

Truly, she huffs, that child. Her Highness had disappeared on her, causing intense worry in her wake, for her usual goal after sneaking away was on a mission, and had been for quite some time, she was quite sure. It was after all an unofficial policy to inform her as soon as the man was announced to return. Milda in fact had entire schedules and contingencies by now, all fine tuned to different situations where the Princess might be struck by fancy of escaping, and one day she would succeed in keeping her Highness in place. But she needed the advance warning when to expect the Sir Knight back to even have a chance.

Today is not that day. Today the princess disappeared hours before Milda was informed to expect the knight back in the afternoon.

And the princess stayed gone for the entire rest of the day, not haunting the Sir Knight’s footsteps as he enters the castle to report, and the worried frown pulling his brows together told her that he had in fact not seen the Princess yet either when she confronted him.

Now Milda was respectable woman of many responsibilities in the royal household and could not lay siege to the knight in expectancy of the princess. Besides she had more than enough faith in the Princess to turn up on her own if the other maids could not find her and for the knight to return her if he came across her. Milda spent the rest of the day tutoring the elder princesses in the fine womanly arts of stitching and appropriate demeanor much to the joy of one and the vexation of another.

It is evening now and, quite fed up waiting, for truly Princess Elizabeth has duties even at her age, and she went to personally fetch the girl from the Knight Tower’s roof, where she had been informed the knight and the princess had been seen last.

He must be teaching her about what lies beyond the hills, turning her head with stories of far lands, bringing forth smiles brighter than any, as he always does she assumes.

But that is not what she finds when she ascends to the roof.

The sun is sinking, the sky burning an intense orange, and a warm breeze disturbs her skirts.

Her Highness is sitting on the battlement, her legs dangling innocently over the edge. Her knight leans next to her.

It would not have been strange had they been watching the sunset, for it is a truly beautiful one. Instead the princess’ face is tilted upwards, sliver strands of hair flowing in the air, eyes glowing with an unsettling, electric intensity as she stares at her knight. The knight, armor glinting silver in the light and darkly in the shadows is meeting the princess’ stare just as intensely.

Were Milda a woman inclined to sentimentalism or drama, she would have noticed the charge in the atmosphere, the depth of their expressions, and the dried tear tracks on both faces. She would have noticed the masks struggling to fall into place as the sound of her steps brings disturbance.

“Sir Meliodas,” she speaks, pursing her lips in displeasure. “The princess always is to be returned to my care two hours before sundown. I thought we had an agreement.”

(The mask finally settles at the sound of her voice.) “Oh right, now that you mention it – would you look at that, it’s already this late. Time to go to bed, princess,” he says tilting his head and smiling as he lifts Her Highness away from the danger of falling to her death. Her Highness doesn’t smile, but swings her arms around his neck with force and buries her head in his shoulder with stubborn persistence. She does not let got. The knight makes no attempt at putting her down, instead carrying her all the way down the tower, into the castle, into her chambers while enduring and calming the Head Maid’s ire in turn.

When it is time to set the Princess down, he presses a lingering kiss to her head behind the maid’s back, and meets the little girl’s eyes for a moment in which they exchange an entire conversation.

Reluctantly, she untangles from him motion feeling like her skin turning to ice where she is no longer touching him. It hurts, burns with love, longing,  and despair at once. But she is careful, and strong, and knows better than to make a mistake when heaven and hell itself are against her.

She is alive. And that is strange. She does not dare to test her fortune by breaking the fate dealt to her. There is no knowing who might be watching, waiting, who might notice that she is awake and alive. Still. It would take so little.

She is four years old, and over three thousand. Hardly more than a toddler in body, her mind that of a woman forged in sunlight, meadows, fire, war, and death.

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Princess Elizabeth chews her lips as she carefully peeks over the edge of the wall. Her feet dangle in the air as she peeks down on the other side. Her beloved is doing what he does best, fighting with swords, and his opponent is her eldest sister’s future guardian knight. The sound of wood clashing on wood fills the air with a rhythm that is far too familiar to her.

There, she thinks, strike there.

Gilthunder doesn’t. He gets a smack on the head.

Elizabeth bites down a giggle. She is four, easily amused and easily distracted, and she is over three thousand and an experienced combatant. She’s been in Gilthunder’s place not too long ago, had gotten teased, had gotten angry, and had (re-)learned a lot. All her training and power and expertise didn’t save her in the end. It never does.

But strangely, she is still alive.

She’s always remembered, it’s been over two years since she her mind matured enough to comprehend-

Incredibly, she’s still alive.

Merlin has her theories, but Elizabeth suspects that her state is little more than a hiccup. A lucky strike. An accident. A collision of random factors that had an odd result.

It scares her now, but not as much as it had terrified her then.

(...maybe, so long as she doesn’t use her powers-)

She watches him, his hair glinting gold in the sun, his gestures easy (and admires how much control in necessary to allow for that easy) and voice warm. The words wash over her. She sees the light in his eyes, and wonders how it can be that she is the goddess of the two of them when he is everything.

Being a child is very difficult. It had never been before. Habit has her eyes trace him in a way a child should not be looking at anyone, but her mind processes it differently. Her heart still lodges her throat regularly at the sight of him, though.

Magaret thinks it’s nothing different to how Elizabeth adores other people around her.

Veronica is a bit disgusted, a bit amused, and a lot indifferent.

Her father is displeased in the way all fathers are when their daughters stop belonging to them. To be fair this father of hers had had warning from the moment he became her father, but he probably didn’t expect it so soon. And in the end fathers are still fathers.

Her Beloved’s comrades think her cute and annoying in turn. Elizabeth often smiles at them, giggles, and sticks her nose up. They have him on missions, and during training, and the most of every day, really. They can share him in whatever little time is left.

“What are you smiling about?”

She looks at him, he looks back at her, smiling as he settles down on the wall next to her while her sister and Gilthunder stammer around one another.  There are shadows in his eyes, those of permanent fear that must be in hers as well, but they are also lighter, because she is here and she lives.

“You,” she tells him truthfully. “And about how to slip out of my room tonight. I overheard Sir Zaratras say that you have a mission coming up soon.”

He crosses his legs, resting one elbow on a knee and his head on that hand as he grins at her. “You know, hearing you say that while being six is really, really strange. I have to rewire my entire brain to not jump on the obvious implication.”

She pats his knee. “Don’t worry, this is a temporary affliction.” Pause. “For me.”

He snorts, as unimpressed with that as he ought to be. His lack of height has been a problem for him, for them, precisely never. Not so with his youthful appearance, but Elizabeth has very little understanding for how anyone can mistake him for a child. To her it had been perfectly obvious three thousand years ago and all hundred six times that she met him since that he was not a boy. At first glance, always.

“...I was thinking of starting to practice,” she admits eventually. Leaning against him, she intertwines their fingers. She doesn’t look at him but feels him still. “Not my magic,” she clarifies, but he remains still. “Just a bit of practice with a spear. Not even real training.”

For a long moment he remains frozen, but then he exhales and his body slumps a bit, relaxing. “I’d rather you didn’t. I can protect you on my own.”

But he isn’t always around, and while that is something that could and would change at the slightest hint of a threat towards her, there’s also no reason not to. None at all except the slight chance that if someone looks down from upstairs, notices her, and starts to reset the gears. But on the other hand, their lives are never peaceful - neither of them are willing to bet that the rest of the pattern is also coincidentally disturbed.

(It runs down, in the end, to what gives her a greater survival chance.)

And while she might never have to fight if she is with him, a body trained to the peak of physical conditioning does give her defense and resilience.

They both know this.

“But if you think that’s best...”he trails of, sighing, and runs a hand through his hair. “I’ll speak to Baltra about it. He’s gonna give me hell again...”

Elizabeth grins innocently up at him. He narrows his eyes at her.

“Don’t think I don’t know what you did,” he warns. “I’m gonna remember and make you pay for it twice over. In fact,” he leans so close that their noses are almost touching. (It’s a most platonic closeness, which is unbalancing.) Impish light dances in his eyes but his expression and voice are foreboding, “you better hope he says no.”

She pats his cheek affectionately, not at all intimidated, but it’s a poor substitute for if she were older they’d be kissing now.

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Elizabeth is running through the capital, her bare feet pounding on the cobble stone. Her tiny body protests the harsh demands she has of it, but that’s the last thing on her mind ever since she woke up this morning, on the day of the festival, and sensed the subtle traces of tension lingering in the air.

At breakfast her sisters hadn’t seemed to notice anything, and neither had her father even though Elizabeth had studied him for any hint with hawk’s eyes. Unless he is a much better liar than she ever knew, he doesn’t know anything and doesn’t sense anything either – she had considered then that it’s only her. Meliodas was to return this day from an extermination (she argued about that with her father – troll or no, they deserved to live), and she had resolved to speak to him, to see if it really was only her imagination...

It wasn’t only her.

A crash sounds in the distance, the ground under her feet shakes with the vibrations of heavy impact to strongly that she almost tumbles off her feet.

A plume of dust rises above the buildings into the blue sky, powerful, powerful magic is heavy in the air, so thick that for a moment she feels tall, weary, and despairing at the never-ending strife that was caused by the very first of her many, many sins. It feels like war.

Except there is no enemy.

The earth swells and answers Diane’s will, and powers that only in comparison to Meliodas’ handpicked comrades are like sparks extinguish as Holy Knights perish.

The people of the capital scream around her as they run away. It’s like a fog of pain and panic that continues to distract her and squeeze her heart with fear in resonance. When she almost gets trampled by rushing feet, she ducks into the shadow of an alley and gasps for breath, taking a moment to seek, search, to feel.

Her throat closes, something like sickness knotting her stomach.

It’s unmistakable.

The Holy Knights of Liones are fighting against the Seven Deadly Sins.

The flimsy of a dress that she’s wearing, just one of the many layers that were supposed to make up her beautiful festival attire is dusty and the skirt torn. She had done that herself, when she -

- the Sins-

-traitors-

-evacuate-

-the Grand Master-

- needed to run. Even her personal guard had not been fast enough to catch her. Guards that had been sticking closer today than usual, that have been more alert -

She needs to find Meliodas. Whatever is going on, it’s bad.

More than, going by the sound of clashing metal that are carried by the wind from indistinct directions. The bright stars of the most powerful warriors this country has ever seen continue to move apart. They aren’t trying to regroup. Or to fight.

Are they...running?

Something is so very, very wrong, and Elizabeth has to see him. They need to decide what to do now, clear up what happened, stop this, because it is wrong -

(They are criminals, all of them. They can easily be cruel and ruthless, can easily kill. And they are terrifying. None more so than her Beloved. But that doesn’t make a person. She would know. It doesn’t define them.)

(Diane is playful and nice when she isn’t temperamental from jealousy. Elizabeth braided her hair once and there had been tears of happiness in her eyes.)

(Ban is reckless and mischievous, so easily entertained, so easily drunk and the best friend Meliodas has had in a long time. Elizabeth can’t help but love him for that alone.)

(Merlin, the little sister, the witch of science, the big sister, the careful care she never dares to openly display hidden in small gestures and acts.)

(-King with the kind heart and great care towards any child he comes across-)

(-Gowther, the soul so fragmented and hidden inside that armour, so full of desire to understand, to connect -)

(-Escanor is endearing awkward after dark, and so bright and strong that Elizabeth thinks that he is someone who might even be able to protect Meliodas-)

(Their strength and heart in spite of the deeds in their pasts is what makes them truly great, truly kind.)

They can’t be fighting against this country that gave them a chance, that gave them a home. The kingdom can’t be fighting against its greatest protectors.

Something is wrong.

Elizabeth is determined to make it right. She can do this. She is princess. She might be only a child, but this much at least -

- the Holy Knights are obligated to listen to her. The Deadly Sins (are technically too, but they are criminals) know her, so that alone will give her a chance -

Her head snaps around, up and away and into the distance.

Just now, her Beloved’s energy flared like a pitch black star. She takes off running into the direction, tries not to lose track of him as he damps down on his energy between flares, no doubt trying to disappear from the sixth sense.

But not from hers.

Never from hers.

If she could not tell the location of the man who holds her heart as securely as she holds his, she would know that she is trapped in a nightmare. Hopefully he senses her too, but it might be that he is too busy fighting for his life. In that case -

Biting her lips, she briefly misses the shoes she had discarded for speed as her next step burns from the torn skin at the soles at her feet. She pushes on, for every moment that she loses is another one where a life might get extinguished in needless conflict.

Why are they fighting?

Tears sting in her eyes -

- the wall in front of her explodes. Stones burst through the air. She throws herself down -

- fire flares in her shoulder, over her arms, a blow forces the air out of her lungs -

- her head bangs into the ground, and she gasps desperately -

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Elizabeth wakes up.

Her sister jerks back, nearly falling over as she startles from the force with which she sits up.

“Elizabeth!” Veronica cries, stool crashing into the ground and Veronica throws her arms around her. “Don’t ever do something like that again, you hear me! We were so worried!”

“...Veronica?” Her voice is hoarse, like like lack of use, and painful, like a cold. No. Her fingers fingers drift up to her throat. Bandages.

Like wounds.

Knots strangle her insides, a foreboding feeling crawling up her spine. What happened? What – it was -

She untangles herself from her sister’s hold, managing to look Veronica in the eyes. “...what happened? Veronica?”

Her sister’s eyes darken. “Nothing you have to worry about. It’s gonna be fine.” She tries to smile and pats Elizabeth’s head, fingers brushing though her hair with affection. “You’re gonna be just fine. Father and Margaret will be so relieved to have you finally awake.”

Elizabeth’s throws back the sheets and swings her tiny legs over the side, inciting protest from Veronica. But before she can slip to her feet, her body protests and for the first time she takes note of the many, many bandages peeking out below her night dress. Her arms, her legs, her hands. A touch says even her head, and that she’s finding it difficult to move in addition to the dull pulse of pain every time the muscles in her torso twitch…

She swallows dryly, eyes seeking Veronica, who is silent and grimly angry as she watches Elizabeth take in her condition. “...Veronica?”

A scowl twists Veronica’s face. When moments pass without reply, Elizabeth looks around.

She is in her chambers, in her bed, but it looks like the healers have taken up permanent residence by the many vials and tonics, the extra table laden with herbs.

She’s hurt.

“Where’s Meliodas?”

Because she knows her Beloved, and there is nothing short of total war that would keep him from her side, from the city, and even then it’s a toss up.

Veronica’s face blackens like a storm. Again, she tries to hide it, sitting down on the bed next to her. “Listen, Elli.” She puts an arm around her shoulder, and Elizabeth leans into her, listening. Cold still climbs out of a deep part in her heart that no love of her family can warm. “That guy – best just forget about him. He’s just bad news, I told you.” Veronica presses a kiss to her temple. “You won’t ever have to see him again, don’t worry.”

Nightmare.

Hell.

Curse.

Her fists clench, the room spins, and nausea sits at the back of her throat.

She looks up at her sister, smiling brightly, and it’s one of the biggest lies she’s ever told in three thousand years. “What happened?” She asks again, insisting. When Veronica still hesitates, she pushes out her lips in a pout, “if you don’t wanna tell me, I’m gonna find Father and ask him. And I’ll get up from this bed.” Which, obviously, she isn’t supposed to and Veronica doesn’t want her to.

(You never know who’s watching. They might be watching now. For a reaction. For a hint. To damn her.)

Veronica tells her.

Elizabeth ends up seeing her father anyway.

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Fields of the dead.

Next to her father she stands before the rows and rows of graves honoring the valiant defenders of the kingdom against the Deadly Sins. Her hand is warm in his.

“Do you understand, Elizabeth?” he asks her somberly. When Elizabeth first saw him after she woke up, she was so shocked she believed it must have been a decade that she slept, because it seemed as though he had aged years. A great weight presses down on his shoulders.

She nibbles her lips. “I do, Father.”

She wishes she could deny it.

But she knows better.

The Seven Deadly Sins are criminals, always have been and trusting them was a mistake. They are cruel, and vile, and possess strength so monstrous they can not be human. And Meliodas is the worst of this bunch that he picked to lead.

She knows this, better than anyone and better than even her father thinks.

He is more than capable of slaughtering masses of soldiers. Of ordering his team to do the same. He is even capable of betrayal.

(Danafor, one of her many books read, the former Kingdom of Danafor, erased in a single instant.)

After such horrible deeds, of course the Crown has no choice but to condemn him and his team.

Elizabeth feels tears tickle in her eyes and pulls her hand out of her father’s grasp. They are accompanied by a whole platoon of guards, three times as many as it used to be, but her father has them stand down with a sign as Elizabeth approaches the grave closest to her.

Kneeling down before it, she places the flowers she brought on the ground and reads the name. Sir Disus, the inscription reads. She wonders if his was one of the lives she felt fade, if his was one of the lives taken by her Beloved. Or if he died after she was already passed out. She wonders how he died, if he cried for his loved ones.

Tears tickle down her face, drip into the soil at her feet and her heart aches.

So many people are dead. If only she had been there, if only she had been stronger, older, she could have prevented this.

She wasn’t able to do anything.

Now they are all dead and Meliodas is gone.

(He will be hunted now, forced to fight and kill if he were to be discovered. If he returns to the capital, if he is even within two miles of her -)

Chapter Text

(She misses him.)

(She always misses him.)

(It starts the moment he leaves her sight and doesn’t stop until she can feel his skin on hers, close, close, but never close enough.)

(As a princess, regardless of her age, she is fated to see very little of her country. Her heart always tells her to go with him, princess or no.)

(Like it told her to take his hand, goddess or no.)

(Two months after the assassination of the Grand Master of the Holy Knights, she lies awake in bed, curled up and digging her fingers into her arms as she hugs herself around the place where her heart is supposed to be. It isn’t there, of course. She gave it away, and that’s why it hurts.)

(She misses him.)

(His smile, his unruly hair of gold, the way he picks her up and swings her around. The delight he takes in the curious sensation that for once he is the taller one.)

(Not for the first time she wonders how he ever endures. He isn’t dead, just gone, yet that ache. How much must he suffer every time he meets her, and loses her and meets her again. If only she could die forever...if only he were allowed to rest…)

(She misses him.)

(Two months isn’t that much, really. He’s been away on missions longer. But always had she known that he would return one day soon. She had that to look forward to.)

(Now the only thing in her future is a life without him. And death.)

Shoving her sheets back with trembling, weak hands, Elizabeth climbs out of her bed and pulls back the heavy curtains. Sliver light flows into her chamber from a cloudless nightsky. From here, she can see the Knight’s Tower, the old castle before this one had been built. There are pieces blown out of it from tip to bottom and not a single light burns in windows that used to be filled with warmth. Second window from the right on the seventh floor from the top used to be Meliodas’ chamber. The others the rooms next to his. The first from the right, his office. There is no light burning there.

Cold wind brushes over her skin, making her shiver with its autumn chill. When did she open her window? Climb to sit on the edge?

She looks down.

Her chambers are near the top of the castle, only two more stories above her before the building arches into a steep roof. At least fifty meters to the ground. A fall from this height would kill her.

There is no Meliodas here to catch her.

Her throat closes off painfully. Shifting her weight forward, she lets herself slip. Her fingers catch the ledge she just sat on, and her bare feet find purchase between the brickwork.

It’s the middle of the night. One mistake would kill her.

Elizabeth climbs down, one careful move after the other.

By the time she manages to get soil under her feet, the moon finished at least a quarter of it’s journey.

She’d have to hurry.

Dodging the patrols and guards is no easy feat and were she anyone else, there is little doubt she would have been captured. As it is however, she has experience over all of them, even if not magic, so it is a simple thing to detect the knights' energies that they don’t bother to hide and slip around them. It helps that they do not expect to be on the outlook for anyone as small as her – that’s what the guards outside her doors are for.

She leaves the castle grounds like a white clad ghost, slipping from shadow to shadow and ducking between alleys.

Standing before the looming, abandoned tower, feet numb from the cold, breath puffing in the air, Elizabeth steels herself to repeat her escape in reverse. The Knight’s Tower is still declared forbidden ground, and so long as the investigation into the Deadly Sins’ treachery and the Grand Master’s death continues, it will stay like that. Unfortunately that means that the security on the outside is all the more intense.

Her fingers twitch with nerves before she steels them. There are four guards posed at the entrance, and additional guards all round the walls regularly. Patrols mach past her hiding space clock – and counterclockwise. She licks her lips. Not a mice would get inside like this. The space in front of the entrance was reduced to rubble two months ago and now it is wide open, without any where for her to hide.

Careful to not make a noise, she withdraws and thinks.

Usually a distraction would help in a situation like this. She’s alone. She doesn’t have a distraction.

Then, she thinks fiercely, something else will have to do.

For a brief moment, she considers, watching her palms and how easy it would be to have them spark. She would risk death just for this. Is it worth it?

Yes.

No.

For her, yes, always.

But not for him. Her life – it’s not hers, it hasn’t been hers in a long time.

Every time she remembers, there is only one thing she can do: Stay alive as long as possible. Don’t take risks. Don’t be reckless. Be careful. Don’t leave his side. (Though the last one, she had tried half a dozen times, if only so that he wouldn’t have to see – always in vain.) It’s the least she can do for him.

Her hands lower.

Something else…

Then it comes to her.

It had been more a year ago now, on his birthday. (Or what they – she- celebrated as such.) At the time she still had had daily schooling to go through, behaviors to learn, skills to acquire, and Head Maid Milda was more attentive than usual, and had retrieved her from Meliodas already twice that day. It had gone so far that the doors had been locked, knights had been put on watch, and Miss Milda had seemingly not even blinked. Elizabeth had escaped again still, faking tiredness and need for early sleep, only to climb out the window not unlike today.

He had known, of course, that she was no longer in her chambers, just as she does always know where he is when he is in the city. So he had come out to meet her, but because it had been winter, they hadn’t been able to stay outside despite the warm cloak and a bit off hell fire to keep her warm. As a diamond ranked knight, Captain of the Seven Deadly Sins, he could not be seen carrying the third princess anywhere after dark except back to the castle, which would have defeated the purpose.

So he had grinned, winked devilishly, and led her to a set of stones that with the right pressure, in the right place shifted enough that they could be pulled out to reveal a hidden passage.

Elizabeth wracks her memory. Where had it been?

She wanders the streets, studying the buildings, the shadows. The all looked familiar, but not that particular kind of familiar.

A look up reveals that her time is running out. (The growing numbness in her limbs gets ignored. It’s not, after all, that if she returned and warmed herself up in bed that the coldness in her heart would disappear as well.) She approaches the problem from a different angle. Where would a secret entrance to the most well armed building in the kingdom be logically hidden?

No, that isn’t right, is it?

The Tower used to be the castle. So. Where would the secret entrance to the castle be located?

A way making for easy, fast, safe escape?

She smiles and heads towards the Lané, the river cutting through part of the city.

Judging the distance to the city walls, to the old castle, considering the many water-gates that disturb the flow, it doesn’t take her long to find streets that look the desired kind of familiar. Now, a place where some boats are tied at any time of the day…

She finds her treasure not long after, struggling to pull the plate of stones out of the ground. Her fingers are weak and soft, her body not strong enough to lift the weight but she had planned for that on the way and picked up a plank found a study piece of wood behind a crafter’s workshop.

Using it as leverage, the slap of tones gets lifted and then shoved to the side to reveal a pitch black hole with steep stairs. Pulling the stones back into place behind her, she is left in complete darkness, not even the moon able to give her light.

A hand on the wall, the other extended in front of her, she sets a quick pace.

Her sense of time falters, but by counting her heartbeats she still has an estimate, and soon she notices the qualities of the stones beneath her hands and feet change. Smoother, less cold, the air less stale. Not long thereafter she detects the faintest of breezes tickling her nose.

More attentive now, and slower, she slides a hand each against the walls on either side, tapping quietly with her fingers for just the right vibrations of hollow space. This takes surprisingly long, and she wishes she had paid better attention when she was with Meliodas, but he had been carrying her, his face so close, there had been more important things to focus on. Like the warmth of his skin.

(Fierce ache at the memory almost has her stumble. Hollowness claws in her chest.)

But once she finally does find the exit, Elizabeth knows her goal is almost within reach.

She emerges to fabric swishing in her face.

Her heart almost stops, but then she notices the musty smell and heavy texture. A curtain. Right, the entrance on this side had been hidden behind a curtain.

She knows where she is now, and orientation comes easily. There is not a candle burning in the entire building though, and to navigate the corridors she needs at least that much. She has neither a candle nor a flint, which leaves her with the only choice to choose corridors with windows that let moonlight in.

Normally, when sneaking, that would leave her dangerously exposed to discovery, but since there are no lights to throw her shadow at traitorous angles and she is too small for her white dress to be spied from the ground once she makes it past the first floor…

At the ground floor the knights are still a danger, their sharp senses more than able to pit up on her breathing if she doesn’t muffle it, or on the patter of her feet if she is careless. She won’t be. She has experience over all of them, has done something like this dozens of times before. Nonetheless swallowing a lump of nerves, she tip toes forward, heading towards the nearest staircase. 

Only on the third floor does she dare take a breath that is more than almost none-existent. From here on, she hurries up, counting the stories.

Finally, she stands in front of her goal just as the sky is starting to turn gray.

This corridor being without light, it is her touch and the faintest bit of light from outside that reveals the wooden door to be in splinters.

Her heart twists. This isn’t how it used to be. This isn’t like her memories, and that hurts.

The inside of the chamber reveals to be even worse. It looks like a knife-sharp tornado went through, cabinets fallen of the walls, the closet in pieces. The mattress is slashed and the pillow torn to shreds, white feathers spread all over the room.

Tears sting her eyes as recent memories overlap with the present, the chasm gaping and indifferent.

The bed he slept on, the window he often sat against is broken, the weapons decorated against the walls are gone, his treasured liquor cabinet…

It’s all brutally destroyed.

Who did this? Who did something so horrible?

But of course it’s not horrible. He’s a traitor, and a criminal, and even if they don’t know how much they hit the nail on the head, he’s a demon to all of the people who would have come here.

Why did she come here for?

What had she been hoping for?

He isn’t here. There was no way he would be here, miraculously waiting for her, to greet her with a smile and two fingers and a Yo, Elizabeth.

 She shouldn’t have come here.

If she thought his absence had been painful before it’s nothing compared to now.

(How can she live with this?)

(The answer is: she can’t. If she were able to, she wouldn’t be in the miserable cursed state that she is in in the first place.)

Her drifting eyes catch. Something dark pools on the ground. Is it…?

Sniffing and running a hand over her eyes, she picks it up.

Texture that is almost soft rests between her fingers. She knows this from memory alone, her hands having long since lost that fine-tuned feeling. Pressing it to her face, she breathes in.

It doesn’t smell like him anymore.

How could it? It’s been two months.

But she presses it against her as if it were him, desperate and suddenly weak. Her knees give out and she lands in a sobbing mess on the cold stone floor (he didn’t believe in carpets). Her breath clogs in her swollen throat, her eyes burn and her heart pulses with agonizing emptiness as she cries.

(She misses him.)

(She needs him.)

(...how does he ever do this? Live without her? He isn’t even dead and she is in this state.)

By the time she gathers herself enough to turn her thoughts to returning, the sky in alight with dawn. In an hour, people would expect her to wake up and climb out of bed. But not even the threat of discovery can motivate her to move any faster. It’s too late anyway.

She lingers, takes in the chambers in better light, remembers him in them. There, telling her about this nice set of daggers he found in some monster’s layer. There, sitting with her on his bed to read picture books and fill them with his experiences of the sights, plants, locations, promising to take her to those she hasn’t been to before, so that they may experience it together. There, shuffling through his closet without a care for order, mumbling in annoyance.

Elizabeth pauses.

Looks down at the red tunic in her arms.

Everything that might have been some hint or other was taken. But clothes...there’s nothing conspiracy-like about clothes.

She sniffs, clutches the tunic in her hands and starts to root through the remains of the closet. It might mean nothing to everyone else, but to her her looting is worth more than the entire royal treasury.

Another tunic goes over her head, shoes too big go on her feet, one over another three belts get tied around her child waist. Leggings don’t fit her unfortunately, but wearing most of his clothes means she has her arms free to carry the rest.

It’s not Meliodas.

But it’s something.

As she makes her way back, down the tower, into the secret passage, she thinks it’s not much, but it has to be enough.

It has to be. She doesn’t know what else to do.

(She takes off the clothes, stashes it all in the passage before she climbs out on the other side. It wouldn’t be right after all, to allow the princess to wear anything at all associated with a traitor, never mind his clothes. She’ll come back for them in the night.)

(When she finally arrives back as the castle, hell awaits her. Worried father, worried sisters, agitated knights, disappointed and angered Milda. Elizabeth takes the scolding, knowing she deserves them and more, but she can’t help it, and it’s not enough to get her to stop.)

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Her birthday is approaching and Elizabeth fakes sickness with all her heart.

Her stomach turns on itself at the very thought of what awaits her – she hadn’t been prepared, she hadn’t known. That there is a ceremony to celebrate royal children surviving childhood is something she had known, of course, having seen her sisters being celebrated, but that was the city wide celebration. Not the private ceremony before it, restricted to the child in question, the ruling monarch and the mother (or a stand in) and the Great Holy Knight(s).

This morning, Head Maid Milda had taken her aside to walk her through what would be expected of her, what she was to do, what awaited her, and to get measured for her dresses. The nausea and fear she felt in that moment had not at all been faked, something that Miss Milda has a near clairvoyant ability to see through, and it had been enough to return her to bed and keep her there until now.

The Horn of Cernunnos.

Elizabeth rolls over, sheets pulled up to her chin, curling into a ball.

A lost treasure. A formerly lost treasure. That was capable of communicating with the goddesses. That is now kept in secret by the kingdom of Liones and where members of the royal family are paraded in front of to ask for a blessed life and to express gratitude for having lived through dangerous sicknesses, through the difficult times of childhood.

It might have never answered before, but she is not optimistic enough to consider that the artifact is a fake when everyone capable of detecting magic identifies it as genuine. No, most likely the silence is due to her (former) fellow goddesses simply not bothering to reply. After all, humans are beneath them. After all, they are pure and perfect and absolute, beyond fault. There is no reason at all to lower themselves to respond to mortals or even just to acknowledge their gratitude. It is only natural that humans be grateful to them, be awed by them, for they are holy and supreme.

It sickens her to think she was once part of them. If she hadn’t met Meliodas she would be just like them.

(She is herself. She learned, she looked, was willing to give a chance, she changed.)

(But the seed, to be just like them, arrogant and cold, is still inside her, and it disgusts her.)

She can’t go before that horn, speak to it, and say thank you.

So she is faking sickness. The healers have already come and gone, found nothing wrong with her, but every time she can read on people’s faces that they think she ought to be well, all she needs to do is think about that horn and what would happen if she were to be seen by it. Her face would pale, her pulse pick up, and her limbs weaken.

Something like that had been underneath her feet the entire time.

Her head spins with wild thoughts, ideas and theories, one more ridiculous than the last to escape this future. And unlike her eventual death, this is something she can escape.

In a week from now…

She is lucky, she supposes, that preparations for her celebration have already started and that postponing it isn’t reasonable. Not when there is still a week of time for her to get better. By the time it becomes clear that she won’t be in a state to participate, it’ll be too late. Meals cooked, flowers picked, nobles invited, neighboring kingdoms’ delegates hosted.

But for that to happen, for the princess to be excused from festivities of that kind, when the eyes of their neighbors will be on her, she must be in a condition that will really make it impossible to participate. She must be unable to even get up.

Thoughts spin. One week. That much time she has to plan and that long her scheme must remain undiscovered…

Or could she simply ask her father not to be part of the ceremony…?

She tries to imagine how the conversation would go. He’d be concerned, wouldn’t be opposed to it, but he’d ask her for a reason.

What was she supposed to tell him? What could she tell him?

I can’t go before a tool communicating with the Celestial Realm because they might notice that the curse placed on me by their queen had a hiccup. Even if he would believe her, and he might, he’d still know. She doesn’t want him to know, doesn’t want him to look at her like she is already dead, to see the agony in his eyes that he will lose her and that there is nothing he can do. Moreover, she can’t afford for him to know. Her state is a secret between her, Meliodas, and Merlin, and the latter only because she is too sharp to hide from. But they never spoke the truth out loud, never made it explicit, and they guard their thoughts with the greatest care.

Her father isn’t able to shield against mind readers. 

And with a goddesses horn right under her feet…

No, she can’t speak about it. She can’t risk this blessed, extraordinary life on that.

She wants to be happy for more than just the precious few moments she is ever allowed with him.

Maybe that makes her selfish, maybe that makes her a bad person for being unable to trust the man who took her in, raised her, loves her, for being unable to even give him an explanation.

But she wants to live.

She doesn’t want Meliodas to lose her again this soon.

And for him, always him, she’d…

She rolls over, turning her back to the window, her eyes glance over her dresser, her many cabinets, her closets, her desk and many books, the table with chairs currently laden with fabrics from which her special dress is supposed to be made. Pretty dresses for pretty princesses.

In a box under her bed, all of Meliodas’ old clothing is stored. She wears them at night, when she walks into town, when she practices with a blunt, wooden spear. They are still too big for her, but she is growing, without him to be there, and that knowledge weights heavily on her.

It’s been more than two years since she last saw him.

Her ninth birthday.

Day after day, she has to force herself to get up.

Her sisters are precious and a blessing, Gilthunder and Griamore are pleasant friends, and her father is dearly loved. Her life is not an unhappy one, far from it. During the day, when she chats with Veronica and Margaret over breakfast, or sits in her father’s office with him to discuss reports from all over the kingdom, when she has educational debates with the Head Maid, she can almost forget. Routine is safe, simple. She can laugh, and smile and skip in delight, can press kisses to her father’s cheeks and bathe in the sun.

But she catches herself searching with extended senses for his presence. She walks through the courtyard, and expects him to be lazing in the grass, hands behind his head, eyes closed, as he waits for her.

Nine years old. Once she is older, once she is an adult…

That’s what she consoles herself with. And it works.

But at night, alone in the dark, its a pulsing ache that won’t let her sleep. If she dwells on it, on what it means, on that he is gone from this life where she remembers and knows him, the pain drags her down.

Ninth birthday. Unless she does something, it’s going to be her last. There won’t be a future with him.

(She waits until night, climbs out of her window, sneaks into the garden, picks herbs and plants that are anything but herbs, climbs back inside, and chews on the leaves in a particular order. The next morning her skin is feverish and clammy.)

(Another six days to go.)

(She climbs out again, choosing a different method of poisoning herself this time. The healers are after all the best in the country, and one day of noting symptoms is already too much.)

(Another five days to go.)

(Her Margaret and Veronica sit by her bedside, reading her stories, now that it is reasonable sure that whatever she has isn’t catching. She is sorry to make them worry, and does her best to seem as healthy a possible for them, and prays in her heart that one day they may forgive her.)

(Four.)

(Her father sits by her bed, holding her hand, the lines on his face deep. Because of her. Guilt crawls under her skin. Don’t worry, he says, you’ll get better soon. There is nothing our healers can’t make better. She squeezes his hand with a smile and says that she doesn’t doubt it. To prove that she isn’t all that bad off, she asks, as she always does when she can’t read reports herself, if he’s heard of Meliodas.)

(Three.)

(Her father called in a druid to examine her. The healing magic fills her body, purges this night’s unhealthy plant mix from her body and leaves her no choice but to go back to acting the part. The druid, a woman of middle age with long, pale hair frowns at her, almost in confusion, and mostly in concern. But she leaves.)

(Two.)

(The castle fills with guests. The smell of freshly backed bread wafts in through her window, the sweet fragrance of of sugar complimenting the season’s flowers that have been brought to her room as congratulations, as get well wishes, as tokens of respect. A man comes to visit her, a scholar she has only seen in passing before, and he treats her kindly as he asks a wealth of questions of her as she once again lies in bed sick from new plants. His enquirers start innocently enough, gradually becoming more personal and more private. How does she feel about this and that, what does she want from this and that, if she closes her eyes, pictures darkness, what comes to mind? Is she lonely? It takes her an embarrassing long time to conclude that he is a mind healer. The druid must have concluded, quite rightly, that once she does not get better even though her body is purified of harmful influences, that the cause of her sickness must lie in her mind.)

(One.)

(Tailors come and take her measurements. Work that they ought to have had an entire week for must be rushed now. Elizabeth feels cold, because that means her fate is still set. Unless she escapes, tomorrow will be her last day.)

(Zero.)

(There was no helping it. Once, more than two hundred years ago now, she was an expert on poisons of all kind. It had been a trait learned from an old witch and had served her well as she used the knowledge and turned it to medicine instead of killing tools. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t mean she hadn’t learned how to kill with it. Having prepared for the possibility just in case, the tonic with a slow killing poison and its antidote have been prepared and stored in the box under her bed. She’d have preferred to use a poison that only brought her to death’s door, but she hadn’t had the month she’d have needed to pickle berries, extract fluids from snakes and pick herbs under the full moon. Already her food is tasted for poisons even though her symptoms switch too fast for it to be one, the healers will not be baffled by this. If she has to accept that it will look like an assassination attempt, she’ll deal with the fallout later.)

Chapter Text

Fighting with consciousness, Elizabeth drifts in and out on waves of pain. Her insides burn. Her breath comes too hot and too short while her body is wracked by shivers.

She coughs. Immediately hands brace around her shoulders and liquid is set to her lips. Her throat burns as she swallows.

When she opens her eyes, she only sees blobs of faded color before a strangely darkened background.

“Princess Elizabeth!”

The voice is familiar, and she turns her head to the side, hoping to...to what?

Whatever she swallowed has strong effect, and her lips burn with coldness while the fire in her insides gets slowly doused. Her vision clears up.

A candle is burning at the side of her desk, and Head Maid Milda is standing next to it, worrying a handkerchief between her hands. One of the castle’s healers sits next to her bed. Both of them look exhausted and worn down.

“...Miss...Milda…? Healer...Gotfried…?”

“Princess, oh thank goodness!” Elizabeth is alarmed to see the strict lady dab at her eyes.

“Princess, can you tell me how you feel?” The old healer asks, leaning forward. He examines her eyes, checks her temperature and makes note of both. “Are you in pain? Do you have a headache, can you tell me what your chest feels like?”

Elizabeth’s eyes glaze over and it take a long time to gather enough of her spirit to comprehend the words, even longer to formulate the answer. She swallows and licks her lips before she attempts to speak. “I am well, Healer Gotfried. What happened?”

The Healer makes more notes before he glances shortly at her. “You were poisoned, Princess.”

“Healer!” Miss Milda exclaims in warning.

“No, Head Maid, the princess has a right to know. She is wise for her age yet also still very much a child. She must know to take more care,” the man says sternly, speaking to his writing hands. His white hair glints orange in the light of the candle.

It’s night.

For some reason Elizabeth’s heart lifts at that thought. Then she remembers.

Her eyes widen. “What happened to the celebration?” She tries not to let her voice sound too eager.

Miss Milda’s face softens. “Do not worry yourself about this now, dear. I’m sure everything will work out just fine.”

Yes, it will.

She never wants to do this again.

Elizabeth looks at her with big eyes. “Where is Father? I wanna see him.”

The woman hesitates. “I’m sure His Majesty will be overjoyed to confirm your return to consciousness himself in the morning…”

Elizabeth tears up. “But I wanna see him now. Please, Miss Milda.”

Her teacher and nanny folds. “...very well. I shall see if he is willing to be disturbed. Do not leave the bed, Princess.” The door closes behind her and suddenly the atmosphere becomes tense as she contemplates her next best move.

Her stuffed bear, Sir Mel, lies next to her and Elizabeth picks him up as she shifts to lean against the head of her bed and settle him into her lap. From underneath her lashes, she studies the healer.

He continues sitting next to her, writing in a notebook. His expression is severe and intense. “Um, excuse me, Healer Gotfried?” He looks up at her with an undecipherable stare. “Can I, perhaps, have something to drink?” After a long moment, he nods and stands to turn to the table where a pitcher of water stands.

Elizabeth has seconds.

Her fingers slip into Sir Mel’s seam’s and come in contact with a smooth surface. The cork sealed viral lets itself be pulled out with little effort and Elizabeth winches at the pop as she pulls it out, turning her back to Healer Gotfried just in case, she quickly downs the thick liquid in the vial before stuffing it back into her bear.

Glancing at the healer, she sees him staring at her, and for a moment her heart lodges in her throat. She smiles. He doesn’t say anything, so maybe he hadn’t seen what she did. And even if he did, so long as he doesn’t ask everything is fine.

“Here, Princess.” He hands a class of crystal clear water.

“Thank you.” The liquid slips down her throat with the greatest of ease, cool and calming, but not with the effect of the substance that she was given when she first awoke. She just hopes it wasn’t a tonic that reacts badly with her own antidote, because that would be worse than the poison she took in the first place. Handing the glass back, she smiles. “When will I be well again?”

The healer’s eyebrows furrow. “We shall see, Princess,” he comments, and says nothing more.

With a disappointed little huff, she lets herself fall back into the pillows.

She’s such an actress, such a liar.

Lately, she’s been lying more and more. Not just about big things, like this, but in the small things, every day. To hide her feelings, to not let is slip out who, what and how different she is, and though it is to protect herself, she still lies. To her sisters, to her father, to the Head Maid, to everyone she comes across and who cares about her. She wonders if one day she won’t even recognize herself when she looks in the mirror, and feels sick at the thought.

(One of the many things she feels sick about these days.)

(If only she had never been brought into the royal house, she think sometimes. The only thing she gives them is misfortune.)

The door bursts open with a bang. “Elizabeth!”

Her father stands in the door, panting, looking at her as though she is the rising sun, a divine blessing. So much care and love is in his gaze as stumbles to her side, grasping her hand, that tears spring to her eyes. Before she knows it, she finds herself sobbing in his arms, feeling so wretchedly guilty and miserable. The fabric of her nightdress becomes wet at her shoulder with her father’s tears.

Never again. Never again will she hurt him like this.

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“Let me look at you, my precious darling.” Big hand on her shoulder, one settling on her cheek.

Teary smile. “I’m well, Father. Healer Gotfried took well care of me.”

Nod. “And he will be rewarded.”

Sniff. “Father, I’m sorry. I’m sorry, I’m so, so sorry.

Head patted.

Tiny hands clutch the thick fabric of a deep red robe. “I’m sorry, because of me, the festivities, the ceremony, the people….after all the effort you made.”

A deep laugh vibrating. “Don’t you worry, my dear. We extended the festival. I’ve arranged it so that it is week of celebration. There is still plenty of time for you take part in it and I’m sure the goddesses will forgive us for the delay. I mean, it’s not like they ever even seem to care!”

Ice. Deep, mind and bone searing ice.

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There is no time. It was already early morning when she woke up, and the hours of rest that is afforded to her now are precious and far, far too little. Her body is still weak from the sickness she brought upon herself, but it is nothing compared to the sickness of her spirit that infests her. For the first time in her existence, she truly feels like the sinner she is made out to be.

What an ungrateful, disgracing, helpless, ruthless and selfish little brat she is.

How did her beloved ever live with this, knowing that the things he did were wrong but being unable to erase them from his past, and worse, knowing things were wrong and doing them regardless.

It’s so strange - many lives before this one, she didn’t feel like Goddesses Elizabeth caught in a storm. She didn't feel it with the intensity of a flashback. Now it's already twice within three years. To be fair, never before had she been awake for this long. But she still remembers, and it didn’t happen.

The Goddess, caught in a storm and walking into a sea of blood and sin because it was the only path available to her.

Sins.

Meliodas must have been feeling nostalgic to name his team that.

Or perhaps it had been fate.

The sky is dawning, already she can hear the noise of a waking capital through her open window. Quickly she stuffs Meliodas’ clothes into a pillow case. After hesitating for a moment, she runs over to the closet and tosses in two of her favorite dresses. She pulls on leggings, a tunic and comfortable boots. Her hair gets tied in a loose ponytail.

What else.

Her jaw clenches, realizing that what she has available in her chambers leaves her ill prepared. She slips on richly colored dress befitting of a princess, with wide, flaring skirts. Dresses like that aren’t made to be put on alone, but it can’t be helped, and it’s not like anyone other than Miss Milda would dare comment on the princess’ state.

A dash to her dresser later, she has a pendant in her hand. It was a gift for her fourth birthday and displays an emblem of both his and her family crests. If her father had known that, he’d have kicked Meliodas to the other side of the country for the next year, and they had both known it. The devilishly glint in his eyes as he gave her this right under her father’s nose…

She swallows. It’s one of her most treasured possessions. It’s also the only thing that she feels truly belongs to her, not the skin of this princess that she is posing as.

Next she jabs the sharp point of a feather onto parchment and pens out what she feels. Her regrets and guilt pour out of her hand like a water fall and in the end she has to reread it twice to make sure she didn’t let anything slip. With Love, Elizabeth she signs and puts the feather down. It feels like a rip in space, suddenly unbalancing. Is she really doing this? Really, really doing this?

She feels sick, and hesitation suddenly nails her in place more securely than a time-out spell.

Would it really be that bad to just open up and speak? Her father would surely listen. Doesn’t this life and this family that has given her so much bliss deserve at least that chance?

It wouldn’t even take much. All she’d need to was put Meiodas’ clothes back under her bed, change back into her night robe, burn the letter, crawl back into bed and sleep until late morning. No one would even know about the ugly deed she’d almost committed.

She takes a step forward, to do what she doesn’t know, and hesitates again.

Outside, the sky slides into rose.

She doesn’t have time!

She dashes over to her pillow case, buttons it up, and ties it with a string into the belt she is wearing under the dress. Letting her wide, wide skirts fall over it, it is entirely concealed from sight, even when she walks.

Her throat closes and her heart beats like a drum, painfully heavy.

Straightening, she marches over to the door and steps through them, finding, as expected, an unreasonable number of holy knights guarding her. She smiles up into their startled faces. “Good morning!”

“Princess,” the leader speaks, surprise evident on his face as much as reluctance. “Good morning. Where are you off to?”

She giggles. “I’m hungry. I feel like I haven’t eaten in days!” She blinks innocently. “Do you want to accompany me down to the kitchen?” As though they aren’t duty bound to not let her out of their sight.

They trade glances over her head. In the end, the leader smiles at her the strained sort of smile of people who want to say something but can’t. “Lead the way, Your Highness.”

She does, using a narrow servants’ passage that, going by the muffled curses and rising irritation, is almost too small for the knights.

For them the trip a few stories down is more exhausting than it had any right to be, adding in that it is nearly shift change and is early morning, she suspects its near torture for them to walk into the heavenly smelling kitchen with her.

The cooks stop and stare, delight at her presence, and are all too happy to give her as much food as she asks for. Relishing in the sensation of warm bread in her mouth, she hums in enjoyment as she eats before her knights’ eyes. Once she has had her fill, she gasps in apparent discovery. “Oh no, how rude of me! Are you hungry too?” She claps her hands innocently as she looks at them. Then, before waiting for a reply, she walks over to the nearest cook and requests half a dozen fresh loafs of bread, gesturing animatedly to her knights standing awkwardly at the entrance, which makes the cook soften in sympathy. She gets an arm full, but before she returns to them, she walks by the spices cabinet and takes out a deeply red viral.

Before she hands the knights their reward, she sprinkles the powder over it generously with her back turned to them. Each knight gets one, then she smiles happily to the uncomfortable men, “all at once! Say ahhh!”

They bite into the bread, not really having the option of turning the princess down and way too hungry to think of deception. She waits a beat. As they start to splutter, turn red and look for water, Elizabeth steals away as stealthily as never before.

Once she has ducked outside the kitchen, she grasps under her skirt, picks up her pillow case, and starts running. She’ll have a thirty second head start, maybe.

Within the narrow servants’ corridors that is more than enough time to loose them. Considering that she doubts the men will immediately sound the alarms when they discover her missing – due to injured pride, due to underestimating her, due to having no idea what she is planning – it’ll buy her some time still. Once she stumbles into the gardens, struggles out of her dress, drops it, and runs into a different direction. She dodges servants when she can, relying on them being to busy to recognize her or to bother stopping her when she can't. Her pillowcase is awkward to carry, heavy now with the backed goods that jumble around inside. She regrets that she didn’t have a backpack.

Time, time, time.

To escape from the castle, with it on permanent high alert due to the festivities and the many guests is a feat more difficult than ever before. In the end, she backtracks into the courtyard and drops silently onto a carriage from a first floor window as it passes by. It carries barrels, and given that it’s leaving it’s obvious that they are empty.

Elizabeth is still small enough to fit inside with her pillowcase. Pulling the lid back into place behind her, the heavy smell of alcohol quickly invades her nose.

She desperately hopes this body isn’t so much of a lightweight that it’ll get drunk from smell alone.

The sound of horseshoes meeting cobblestone along with the creaking of wood is her only companion even as she tries to listen for noise on the outside. Occasionally, the barrel jolts as the carriage halts or speeds up, and once she even heard voices which had her heart thundering inside her chest.

What if they check even wine carriages at the gates? What if she doesn’t clamp down on her energy well enough? What if she is found?

Excuses line up in her head. Determination has her instead consider ways to incapacitate someone in a moment of surprise. However if a Holy Knight opens her barrel, she’s caught.

So she listens carefully, feels the vibrations travel from the ground through the wood against her skin. Cobblestone still. The entire capital has cobblestone roads, so that is not surprising. But she thinks she can feel more than just this wagon or a couple others.

Considering the passage of time, it might as well be that the streets are packed already. If so, that will make stealing away unseen difficult. Not so much that no one sees her, a girl with platinum hair but not at all dressed like what a princess is expected to wear, but that no one sees a girl crawling out of a barrel on the back of a cart.

Elizabeth bites her lower lip in thought.

For now she decides to wait and see.

It pays off.

Eventually, the road seems to change and the pull of gravity shifts a bit. The capital is build in a very slight valley, so now that her weight gets dragged backwards, there is no doubt that they are outside. She must have been lucky to catch one of the few merchants who delivered their goods from outside of the city.

Deciding she needs to know for sure, she lifts the lid just enough to peek out. The city walls loom over her, imposing.

Outside.

Shakily, Elizabeth lets the lid drop and leans back against the wall. Burying her head in her filled pillow, she cries.

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Very obviously, Elizabeth is a child. Moreover, she is a child traveling alone, and once notice from the castle goes out that Princess Elizabeth is missing, she will be the first people think about.

So she avoids civilization. It’s not a problem. To say that she knows how to survive the wilderness is a broad understatement, and even her age makes it only a little bit difficult.

The bread she carries will last her at least a week if she is careful, and besides that nature is in bloom and she can easily pick berries and herbs to help her body recover from the sickness. The only issue is water, meaning she has to find a river or a lake or such and she accomplishes that by following the tracks of animals. Animals always travel to water with astonishing regularity. All she has to do if follow.

A runlet is finally her reward and she thirstily lifts water to her mouth.

Now she has only two problems left. One: the pursuers that are eventually bound to look for her. Two: Meliodas, when he hears she’s gone missing.

There is nothing she can do about the latter but hope she will find him first. Concerning the first there is also not a great deal she can influence, but one such thing is pressing putrid smelling berries between her palms and smear them on her skin to mask her smell from tracking hounds.

Against clairvoyance magic there is nothing she can do but put distance between her and the mage, and she should be well covered by that since mages usually have not more range than a couple miles, Merlin being the obvious exception.

Calling up a mental map of the kingdom (if he even is in this one), Elizabeth decides on a direction and destination. The rest of her first day she spends marching through the underwood.

Chapter Text

Meliodas crushes a couple steins in his grip when he first hears.

Beer splashes onto the floor and the patrons he was just serving interrupt their very interesting chat to stare at him, at the broken objects in his hands, his expression, and pale.

He chuckles, smoothing his face over. “Looks like they were a bit old.” Picking the broken fragments up, he inspects them. “I wonder if I hit drink-and-runners over the head with them one too many times...” he muses. “I’ll bring you new ones,” he tells the poor men who have to struggle to get over instinctive terror. “They’re on the house, sorry about this.”

Meliodas turns, heading back behind the bar to make good on his promise, but his ears remain in place. Conversation picks back up.

“- she’s just gone, they say. I heard it from my brother in law, who heard it from his uncle. Just gone, without a trace. The entire capital is in uproar about it.”

“I thought she was sick. The king especially changed tradition just so that she had time to recover, didn’t he?”

“- yeah, but apparently it wasn’t just that. A sickness, and now she’s gone? If you ask me, there’s someone out there after the princess, that’s why she was first under lock and key, and then.”

“- then she’s gone. And someone succeeded.” A thoughtful hum. “You know, you might be on to something...”

“Don’t know why they’d want a third princess, though,” a third man adds in from another table. “If it were me, I’d have gone for the first. That’s where the value usually lies.”

“...that’s true.”

Oops, would you look at that, Meliodas almost crushed the beer bottle. Careful, careful, throwing a tantrum is not going to help.

With a smile he delivers the drinks to the men. “Here you go, have go. It’s from Traia.” The men exclaim their thanks, and Meliodas waits for them take a swallow before he slides down in an open chair, smiling openly. “You know, I couldn’t help but overhear...what was that about Princess Elizabeth?”

He gets all the information the men have.

So, Elizabeth is gone, as in missing, not dead. His eyes slide over to the board at the wall of his tavern. Hilariously inaccurate wanted posters stare back at him. Perhaps he will soon get another one worth of pinning up.

His fists clench. Elizabeth.

Excusing himself from his guests for a moment, he steps out and breathes in the still warm night air.

Elizabeth.

The stars mock him as they shine down.

Calm, he tells himself, and recalls Danafor. Or rather, the crater that was left once he calmed down. (Not regained his senses. Guiltily, he never lost them. Not even in the deepest, darkest moment.)

Nothing he can do.

Heading back inside, he tends to the laughing, drinking and speculating men. Occasionally even the Seven Deadly Sins are brought up - If they were behind the missing princess. Ha. He wishes.

Once he waves the last man out the door in the early morning hours, he crosses the tavern with a sharp stride and throws open the door to the kitchen. “Hawk! Tell your mama we’re moving tonight.”

The pig blinks, interrupting his feast on the leftovers. “I thought you said we’d stay here for a week or so.”

“Change of plans,” he says cheerfully. “Come on, up you go. We’re a bit in a hurry.”

Hawk huffs. “Fine, just let me finish this -”

Meliodas kicks him. “Now.”

Hawk sniffs, entirely unaffected by the violence done to his person. “Okay, okay. Really in a hurry...what bit you in the ass...” he mutters. “Where to?”

“Straight south.”

Hawks snout falls open. The human expressions on a pig are never going to get old. “That’s in the direction of the capital. Did you finally lose your marbles?”

Meliodas keeps his irritation internal with the skill (never ease) of long practice. “Yup. And if you’re still questioning me in five seconds, I’m gonna lose them so much, roasted pig is going to be my dinner.”

Eeping, the swine darts around his legs and out the door. Moments later, the building starts to shake.

He never wanted to leave her.

But Bartra was so good to her, and she had a family she loved so dearly, and was loved in return. He’d been able to see that from the very beginning. Otherwise he would have never handed her over, king or no. Elizabeth had him, always and forever. She had the care of family not even a fragment of the time as often. She more than deserves to stay there, grow up happy and well cared for. Still does.

What other choice did he have but to leave her.

It was more important than what Meliodas wanted.

Her safety is more important than Bartra’s happiness, though. Also more important than the stability of a kingdom or two.

.

.

.

.

.

The rumor-mill is working overtime. Elizabeth goes from brutally murdered to put-into-eternal-sleep to kidnapped by a love-struck foreign prince to kidnapped by lowly bandit for ransom to tragically sick to tragically passed away to sacrificed to a dragon within the space of a single conversation.

She’s the only thing people talk about. She, and the extend of the consequences.

Someone suspects war on the horizon.

Another says it’s a bad omen for the harvest.

It’s suggested that her biological parents aren’t dead after all and want her back and the princess went, leaving the kingdom in a bind to how to explain it without losing face. That’s a good one, Meliodas judges, if it weren’t for the fact that her mother lay in a pool of her own blood as he picked baby Elizabeth up.

He cleans mugs and arranges ale for good display.

Another night, another day of hard work and filtering through rumors.

Meliodas blinks. His hands still.

Carefully, he tunes all distractions out, first ears, then smell, then sight, then touch. He’s darkness, always, even when he’s calm and controlled and masks himself as human.

The flickers around him vary from earth fresh after rain to rough touch of wood, to smell of dough. Farmers, carpenters, bakers for so long that their craft seeped into their very presence. Hawk, the curious mix of wide blue sky and smell of food. Hawk Ma, touch of earth and solid.

Beyond that, the local village. The fields, the little burst of life that signify animals and that he can’t be bothered to pay attention to.

Beyond that, in what must be the moor five miles to the east some stragglers. Blink, one of them gone into death.

Beyond that, ten miles of distance if his senses don’t trick him…

He must be wrong.

A jolt to his body tears him out of intro-perspective and Meliodas nearly take the hand off. “Hey barkeeper, I said one more, weren’t you listening?”

Melodas fishes the stein shoved in his face out of the air. “Sorry, but not possible. I’m closing up early tonight.” He claps his hands to get the attention of the rest even over the noise of loud conversation. “Hey people! Everyone had fun? Good, cause it’s time for you to go home! Please leave your money, or else I’m going to string up your hide on my door!”

Grumbling and protests greet him. Meliodas ignores them. What are they going to do? There’s no reason for them to stay. If he says it’s closing time, he’s not going to serve anyone anything. Get violent? Well, he’s carrying a sword in open view to discourage that. People don’t come to bars armed usually after all. Could lead to deadly accidents, falling on your own sword, stuff like that.

He tsks as the men take more time to shuffle out than he has readily available. Hawk comes shuffling out of the back rooms. “We’re closing early? What’s going on? I still wanted to eat some scraps!”

“Yeah, not now,” Meliodas replies absently. His inner senses have latched on to something and aren’t letting go even when he’s multitasking. “Watch the tavern, I’m going out.”

“What? Hey, Meliodas! You can’t just – hey, wait I said!”

Ignoring Hawk’s shout, his feet reduce distance to nothing as he runs, and it takes him hardly five minutes to cover ten miles of ground. His sword clangs against his back he comes to a halt and listens.

It was there, just for a moment, he’s sure.

Turning his focus inwards, he take the many, many walls he’s constructed down by one by one. Careful, not too much. He doesn’t want to level the forest. Or leave a trace of himself behind for any passing Holy Knight to freak out over.

It’s as difficult as separating a spark from a roaring blaze. Near impossible. But, ha! He’s had nothing but time. He lets a spark out.

The response is instantaneous.

Melodas darts off, dodging around trees and startling wildlife. His feet burrow prints into the soft earth until they don’t anymore, and he can feel it in the air now. Death. Ruin. Miasma.

Pulling a face, he steps through mist invisible to ordinary eyes but deadly nonetheless. The bodies of small animals litter the ground. Birds fallen out of the air, rabbits dropped dead, squirrels hanging dead in trees.

The origin of this ruin is easy enough to find, mostly because it has in place of survival instincts the desire to hunt, kill, rip, tear.

A growl reaches his ears, deep and dark and distorted seconds before something launches itself at him from the underwood. Meliodas sidesteps, shoots out a fist. A squelching noise and a whimper cuts off the growling. Wetness splatters as he pulls his fist out, fingers clenched around a single organ, and the dull thud as a body hits the ground is the last sound breaking the dead silence of the dead forest.

Meliodas observes the creature. From the looks of it, it used to be a wolf before it had two snouts, an uneven count of eyes and paws too small to bear the hulking mass of predator.

Hmm. Ate something wrong?

Given that this place is infected with its presence, this must be its territory, so there might be a hint to how the animal caught the demonic energies.

He shakes the blood off his hand and drops the heart to the grass beneath his feet. Only one heart, of course, it isn’t a real demon, but the sort of energies it needs to get into contact with to mutate like that oughtn’t be in left in the world.

(Fraudin.)

Sighing, he glances around. Dead animals, trees that would recover, wilted foliage, and no real hint as to where this wolf might have had its layer.

...it’s gonna be a long night isn’t it?

.

.

.

Meliodas starts by using Counter Vanish on the miasma, then extends his senses, fine-tunes them to this area and searches out the pockets of dark energies still left.

Mutilated corpses. Mostly of animals that are half eaten, but he also finds a shredded torso. And excrement. Can’t forget that because of course it's saturated with darkness.

He burns all he comes across until not even dust is left with the darkest, purest flames he can create.

There’s some hilarious irony hidden in this, isn’t there? Former Holy Knight, former Grand Master of Danafor, former leader of an age’s most powerful demons, former heir to the most feared throne in existence, and he squats in a forest at night, setting literal shit on fire.

Imagining the face Ban would make has him smile. But it quickly drops. Thinking of his team reminds him that he still isn’t any farther in his investigation. What happened that day? Discovering Zaratras’ body he remembers, and the twist of fury in his gut. After that things get blurry. The tower surrounded. Giving the order to split up and flee...

The rumors he caught about that day are brutal and bloody, but the worst thing is that he really can’t deny them. Not only because the flickers he has agree, but also because he knows he and his team are well capable of what they stand accused off. Short of murdering Zaratras of course. Friends aren’t murdered. It’s an unofficial rule of the Sins or something, he’s sure.

They were set up, that’s fairly obvious. By whom is the question. It must have been someone with the authority to order Holy Knights around, else an army of them wouldn’t have ambushed them. The obvious suspects for that are the current Great Holy Knights, Hendrickson and Dreyfus. But Dreyfus was Zaratras’ brother and Hendrickson wasn’t in a hurry to gain more power.

Else, it might have been someone who could cause such orders being given, and that leads the eye to the royal family or the nobles.

Cutting the king from the list of suspects is easily done. Hell, he’s the one who made Meliodas gather criminals worthy of being called Deadly Sins in the first place.

The princesses were all too young to command such. Nobles then?

Melodas isn’t really familiar with Liones’ court, so he has no idea how the land lies there, but one thing is sure.

There’s definitely a connection. Somewhere.

Call him paranoid but to think that the strongest warriors of the kingdom (and Britannia) are forced into hiding, rendered virtually powerless, rendering the kingdom vulnerable while demonic influences increase all across the land is a bit too coincidental for his taste. Factoring in that Bartra foresaw the Ten Commandments revive…

Well, getting the Seven Deadly Sins out of the way is obviously attractive to many, demonic influences being only a small fraction.

But that still leaves him at a loss on what the hell happened and what the hell he is supposed to do. Even if he gathers the others, what are they supposed to do?

Topple the kingdom for real?

Awkward.

Meliodas sighs. Whatever. Just knowing where the others are should be enough so that he can easily get them assembled if he were to need them…

Like, say, for a situation in which Elizabeth were to disappear…

But they’re too good at hiding!

If the one behind Elizabeth’s disappearance is the same one as the one forcing them into hiding...heads are not going to roll. He’s better than that. (Well, maybe one or two heads…) The reasons someone would want Elizabeth, third princess, are after all few and between. 

A twig snaps behind him.

Huh, must not have been paying attention. His eyes drift up lazily as he tilts his head over his shoulder.

And freezes.

He is over three thousand and he’s traveled far and wide, has witnessed beauty that even hundreds of years later poets still sing about. He’s seen treasure and the most brilliant of diamonds, has bathed in twilight more breathtaking than a blow to the chest.

She trumps it all effortlessly. Never between heaven and hell can there be something more captivating than her, bathed in the light of his dancing black flames and the silver of stars. She is the most beautiful thing to ever grace the world, so very beyond all that is mortal that even he starts to believe in the divine.

She always has this effect on him.

Every time, and every each time again. The moment his heart recognizes hers she might as well be center of the universe. Be she dirt covered, blood splattered, humiliated or in metal armor.

This time she’s none of those things.

Her eyes are wide and blue, her lips parted as she stares at him. Vaguely, he must be sure he looks just as shocked.

“...Meliodas…?”

Distantly, he notes that her voice is a bit lower than when he saw her last. She’s also taller, by a head, and don’t children grow quickly.

Her hair is tied in a loose knot, and she wears a tunic instead of a princessly dress, though it might be a bit big for her. There is not a bruise on her skin.

Something inside him breaks at that.

She’s alive, and well, and he didn’t fail her.

“E...lizabeth.”

She smells the same. The touch of her skin on his is the same. The warmth of her small hands as she winds them around his shoulders. The softly caressing touch of energy under her skin entangling with his abrasive, rough counterpart. The care and love in her gestures as she clutches him and shakes.

He buries his head in her hair, feeling it tickle his skin like the wings of a butterfly. He has to lock his muscles in place, lest the trembling emotion in him make him lose control and crush her in his grip.

Elizabeth.

Elizabeth.

“I missed you. So much!” She chokes in his ear. “I missed you!”

His body feels alight and numb at the same time, it’s like he’s coming apart at the seams. Elizabeth.

“...yeah,” he strangles out. “Me too.”

.

.

.

.

.

“What are you doing here?” He breathes, eyes closed, basking in her presence.

Her forehead rests against his and her breath fans over him as she replies. “I felt you. I was looking for you, and then I felt you. I ran, it felt like eternity.”

I didn’t feel you, he doesn’t say. He was otherwise occupied, but that is no excuse. But there is also no need for an excuse. She is here, with him. He is here, with her. Nothing else matters.

Her hands rest on his shoulders, his are wound around her waist. He can feel her heart beat against his, stumbling and fast. “Who took you?” Who does he have to kill.

It shocks him when she gives a light giggle. “No one,” and he can hear the smile in her voice, happy and worn down at the same time. “No one at all. I took myself.”

What a strange picture they must make. Wilted nature and dead air, he on his knees swallowed by blackness and she, silver and divine inside out, head tilted down against his. His soul aches for her even as she is with him now, but it’s finally, finally bearable again. He doesn’t open his eyes to take her in, just lets himself absorb her being. “Why?”

Now she hesitates. It's obvious in the little twitch the second finger of her right does against his shoulder, spelled out in the little breath she sucks in a bit faster than normal. “There’s something in the Capital that’s a danger to me,” she admits, before adding shyly, “And...I missed you.”

Emotions swell. How can he love her so much? How can feeling so much be possible? Where is place in the entire world for so much? Surely, there must be a limit.

Drawing his eyes open at half-mast, he allows himself a glimpse of her. Her eyes are closed as well. Their noses almost brush. The moon came out and her hair fairly glows. “I love you.”

Her lips curve in a smile, deep and warm and happy. Her eyes flutter open, deep blue almost black in the night. “And I you. More than anything.”

Unwillingly, the corners of his mouth twitch. She shouldn’t. If she didn’t, if she never had...they wouldn’t be here. He’d be dead, killed by absence of her as surly as divine fires could. She’d be formless, weak, falling apart, or maybe dead as well.

It should be better. Anything should be better than this never-ending torment.

But how could anything compare to even an instant of what they have between them?

He’d walk through purgatory for her, she’d turn her back on anything she ever knew for him.

(Feeling like this, the strength to get up again and again, to keep trying, keep defying, to keep reaching out for that one hand that matters no matter what loss and horror finds them in between – that is the core, the true sin they carry. What their parents could not bear to tolerate.)

This love of theirs is their curse and their salvation.

Chapter Text

“WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN, YOU PIG BASTARD?! Do you know how long I -”

Elizabeth squeals. “Oh, it that -?” She all but tackles Hawk, patting him, hugging him. “It’s a talking pig! How adorable!” Meliodas glowers, not yet willing to part with her even a meter, but the beaming smile she gives mollifies him before he can decide to kick Hawk to the other end of the hill. “Where did you find it?”

“It found me. That’s Hawk.”

“Who the hell is this girl?” Hawk demands, stomping his hooves as he tries to get Elizabeth off him. To his credit he tries for an entire thirty seconds before giving up. “What did you bring her here for?” Just then, Elizabeth finds a particular spot behind his ears and all protests fall numb. “She can stay!”

“That’s Elizabeth,” Meliodas replies. The light of the day takes the magic away, but he’s stuck dumb that she really is here. He can’t take his eyes off her. The red tunic she wears suits her well, even if it is clearly a few sizes too big and has to be fastened with a belt. Her white leggings also seem too big...wait a minute. “Elizabeth...are those my clothes?”

She beams at him, looking up from spoiling Hawk. The light dusting on her cheeks doesn’t escape him, though. “Stole them myself,” she admits.

Urgh. This is all wrong. She can not be nine years old. That’s just no fair. He may be a demon but even he has lines he doesn’t cross, damn it, and being attracted to a kid is wrong in all those ways that he never, ever crossed (he’d rather killed them) and would not start crossing now. Words like that should not be coming from her right now. Kid, kid, kid. Clearly he can’t just see Elizabeth. He must see a kid. That’s kind of important.

(Difficult, but again he’s got a whole lot more self-control than half the kingdom combined. So she’s a kid. No matter what comes out of her mouth. He can deal with that.)

She grins at him, slyly, mischievous, and he knows she’s caught on to him.

He gives her his best unimpressed face.

“Your name is Hawk, yes? It’s nice to meet you. I’m Elizabeth. I hope we can get along,” she smiles at the pig, scratching his head.

“Not a problem,” Hakw declares. “But really, who’re you anyway? You look like a kid. Why would you follow this guy home?” A derisive nod in Meliodas’ direction. “Did you get lost or something?”

“How about a welcoming feast, Elizabeth? I can make you grilled pork,” suggests Meliodas casually.

Hawk eeps.

Elizabeth giggles, patting the stupid boar’s head as he hides behind her. “You can’t cook, Meliodas.”

“I’m willing to try.”

“Please don’t,” she says sweetly. “I don’t think my stomach could bear it.”

They smile at each other, gazing and getting lost like the fools they are.

“Okay! No really, who are you Elizabeth?” Hawk says loudly. When did he move out from behind Elizabeth? Suspiciously Hawk glances between them. “What is going on here?”

Meliodas rolls his eyes. “None of your business, little piggy.” Turning his back, he starts cleaning up the tables. Evidence of the night’s costumers is everywhere. The monotonous, repetitive swiping is good for his sanity.

(Taking his eyes off her came natural, born from practice, but once they are off it was difficult to keep them there. His every sense is tuned in to her, clinging, confirming that she really is here, that she stays.)

“I’ve known Meliodas for a long time,” he hears her voice speak softly. “I always planned on seeking him out again when I was older, but circumstances made it so that I had to come now. Please don’t worry about it.” ‘It’ being the clearly strange atmosphere between them that Hawk picked up on after about, oh, three minutes in the same room as the two of them.

This is going to be difficult.

“If you say so,” agrees Hawk dubiously. Silence, then the pig ends up trotting past him into the back rooms, muttering, “you’ve sure picked up something strange this time,” to Meliodas in passing. “I’m catching up on sleep now, don’t bother me!”

After the door closes behind the pig, Meliodas turns around. Mid morning light seeps through the windows, yellow and warm. She hasn’t moved from where she has sat down to pet Hawk, frozen as she stares blankly after him. “...Wandle…?”

(You’ve sure picked up something strange this time.)

(Liz stared at the bird, unimpressed.)

Meliodas sighs, dropping the cloth into the sink. “I think so. That was my first impression as well. But. I can’t really tell. Unless its you, I never know for sure.”

Her eyes flash to his. She picks herself up, fists clenching. “This happens to you often? That you meet -”

“Not often, no. Occasionally a stranger might remind me of an old comrade. Sometimes there’s this weird sense of deja’vu I can’t place.” He shrugs.

Her face twists, pained. “I’m sorry.”

If there was anything she needed to be sorry about, it’s definitely not that. “It’s nothing. Pleasant surprises but no more.” What does it matter, it’s not like he can do anything about it.

Sorrow visibly drags her spirits down. Biting her lip, she picks up the bag she had with her which, now that he looks, seems to be not so much as a bag as a pillow case.

Meliodas wonders if there is something she has to say about this revelation. This is after all the first time he ever mentioned it.

She does, speaking to her pillow. “Every time I feel as though there can’t possibly be anything more they could do. I’m always wrong.” Her lips twist bitterly. “I wonder if mother dearest has any idea of what she did. Maybe she never had any emotions in the first place. How else could she justify having a hand in this?”

Well. “I can’t speak for her but the bastard has enough understanding of emotions to know how to press my buttons and take delight in it. About the only thing he can do. He’s petty like that,” he jokes. Understating and making light of it is pretty much the only thing he can do when it’s about his father. That, or pretend he doesn’t exist. 

Elizabeth smiles weakly, recognizing his attempt and lets the topic of life and death and can’t-change-it-anyway go. “Where do I sleep?”

“My room is on the second floor, first door on the right.”

She grins. The pillowcase in one arm, she drags his head down and plants a kiss on his cheek. It’s not sensual, just a simple gesture of affection. “I’ll be right back,” she promises as she bounces up the stairs.

Meliodas stares after her, wondering not for the first time how he ended up a love struck fool.

Picking up the cloth again, he goes back to swiping tables. He’s still got a lot to clean up before he can open tonight, and he’s got to do some shopping during the day so there’s no time for cleaning. Mentally he makes a list of all the things that still need doing. Having been...delayed in the forest until mid morning upset his routine.

Hmm.

Anyway, Elizabeth is with him, not planning on returning to the capital so there is no need to continue south. At all. Maybe tomorrow after they went shopping Hawk Ma can relocate. That might be the wiser choice than to hang too close to the capital with the missing princess…

A day off to spend with Elizabeth sounds good too. But on the other hand -

“Who are you planning to murder?” Her voice interrupts his musings teasingly as she skips down the stairs.

“Your father.”

He glances at her from the corner of his eyes to see her lips part, appalled.

He looks at her seriously.

“Meliodas!”

Another moment, then his lips crack a grin. “I’m not kidding, you know. I was just on the way to pay him a visit.”

Her mouth works. She splutters. “I – you can’t just – he’s my father!”

Eyebrow ticking up, he says, “so? It would have been his own fault for misplacing you. He kind of accepted that responsibility when he took you in.”

She gapes at him. And shrieks. And throws herself at him. With a tackle his back lands on the floor. But she is laughing. “You’re so mean! I can take care of myself!”

Somewhere deep inside, something twists and settles as he watches her delight. A strain he hadn’t noticed before eases, letting him fall back into internal balance. He catches her wrists. Normally, there’d be a spark between them now.

He very carefully doesn’t let that habit get the better of him and instead decides to tickle her until she is breathless and rolls off him.

Together, they lie on the floor of his tavern, staring at the wooden ceiling. Soft light flows through the windows, birds chirp outside. Her quick breath is the only sound interrupting the silence. She giggles. “I can’t believe you’re running a bar.

“What’s so odd about that?” He asks defensively.

Another giggle, louder this time. “Let me rephrase. I can’t believe you’ve never run a bar before.”

“...what do you mean by that?”

Her body shifts, rolling over so that she is resting her head on her hands as her elbows prop her up. She smiles innocently. “You’ve got three passions. Me. Swords. And alcohol. Yet looking at how your time is split between them...”

Unspoken remains the many issues of her in that list. He huffs. “I like drinking. Selling isn’t the same.”

“But it’s close.”

No, not that much.

He turns that over in his head. Where does lie the reason that he’s never done this before? “Well, you’ve never run a bar either, have you?”

“I've run an inn.”

“That’s not the same.”

“I think it’s close enough.”

“But unlike me and bars, there’s nothing that you particularly like about inns.”

She considers that, dipping her head in acknowledgment. “True. There’s nothing I particularly like about bars either, mind, but I guess I can learn. It’s yours after all.”

He hums, chest warm. Rolling over, he mirrors her position. “That reminds me. What’s your favorite hair-color?”

She blinks. “Excuse me?”

“Well, the Third Princess is missing. She also has rather telling bright hair and is still a kid. How many fit that description, you think? We’ll need to do something to disguise you.”

“Oh.” Her head tilts, eyes thoughtful. A strand of hair falls over her shoulder. “I hadn’t thought about that. Blond.”

“Blond.”

A graceful smile widens her lips as her hand reaches out to tangle into the strands at the side of his face. “Blond.”

His cheeks heat up. He groans. “Okay, I think we got to make a rule. No flirting until you are of flirting age.”

“It’s not flirting! It’s just the truth,” she protests. In retaliation he shoots her a heavy glance. Her face pulls into a chagrined grimace. “But I get your point.” They stare at each other. “This is going to be difficult, isn’t it,” she ponders.

“No kidding. But blond hair should be doable. Will be less obvious too, what with your natural color being so light.”

“We can also pose as siblings then,” she speaks thoughtfully.

Meliodas chokes.

The hand tangled in his hair moves to poke his cheek. “Not like that.” She shudders. “But, I mean. If we tell people that it might be easier to pretend when there are others watching.” Pause. Grimace. “Never-mind, suggestion redacted.”

“How about we think about a cover story later,” he says, trying to wipe the image of Elizabeth in one line with his brothers away. “More importantly, do you have clothes? What did you bring in that bag of yours?”

Her eyes cut to his, narrowing. Thoughts dance behind her eyes and he has a bad feeling about them. That feeling settles into dread when she smiles brightly. “Clothes would be great. I’ve got a couple dresses but no leggings and no fitting tunic. Also; I want a lance.” For self-defense.

He nods in acceptance. It’s not like he can stop her. It’s not like stopping her will keep her safe. “That lance we can take care of later. Clothes first. I think the village here has some pretty basic stock.”

Silence.

It would be so easy to just sink into this bliss of having her in his life and forgetting everything else if only for a day. A sigh heaves from his body. “We also still need to talk about what’s so dangerous in the capital. Is it going to come after you? Was there someone targeting you?”

Elizabeth’s face falls, smooths over and becomes blank. She shakes her head. “It’s nothing like that. Have you heard of the Horn of Cemunnos?”

“Yeah. Somewhat. It’s supposed to be some lost artifact able to contact the Goddess Realm or something. What about it?” His voice sours.

Goddesses are never a happy thing to think about with the one obvious exception in front of him.

He may have ended up fighting more on their side than on his own Clan’s, but there is no love lost between them. They rank, in fact, even higher on his personal list of dislike than the demons.

Demons after all were pretty justified in their enmity towards him – he’s a traitor, no two ways about it.

Whereas with the goddesses, while his kill count of them is too high to remember, he’s never even done anything personal to them.

War is war, nature is nature, and if they wanted to complain about his slaying of them – him doing his job – then they ought to complain to their supreme leader for not doing better politics, for landing them in a state where murdering each other was the one and only correct response to coincidental meeting.

It was horrible, yes, and he has the blood on his hands, but it wasn’t personal. And for a race that claimed such moral superiority, they were cruel and petty in their every interaction with him and everyone else, humans, fairies and giants included. Their poison, he’d found, was only whiter than the demons’, not less corrosive.

Because of Elizabeth all the grievances he has with them are personal. In addition, it was them who betrayed her not the other way around like it was with him and his clan.

If there is a tool out there capable of contacting the Goddesses Realm...well, he’d make great effort to never have to go near it.

“That horn is a secret treasure of the royal family,” says Elizabeth sadly. “It’s in Liones. Even worse, it’s part of a ceremony all members of the royal family have to go through. I don’t think anyone takes praying to the horn seriously, but it’s still tradition. I couldn’t get out of it.”

… “Do you know where it’s located? Maybe next time I’m in the city I’ll pay it a visit,” he says lightly.

Elizabeth’s face is dark. “Maybe you should.”

Meliodas flips to his feet, needing a distraction before he decides south is the way to go after all. “Okay. I think I should go shopping now.”

Sighing, Elizabeth climbs upright. “I think that’s a good idea. I’ll continue cleaning up here, then.”

He pauses. “You sure? There’s a bathroom upstairs. It even has warm water. And you look like you need sleep.”

“No.” She sets her jaw. “I’m not going to bed without you.” Or doing much of anything other than keeping at close eye on his presence.

Yeah, neither would he. The fear of loss clings persistently to every separation. “I’ll hurry then.”

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He’s a pretty special pig, if he may say so himself. Not that he has any idea why, mind. Why other pig don’t speak is just as much of a mystery.

Anyway, he’s made of the kind of material that lets him eat even Meliodas’ disgusting products, and that’s worth quite the badge of honour.

Being the First Knight of the Order of Scrap-disposal, his authority on scraps is second to none.

He is also, less significantly, serving as Meliodas’ breaks. As in, he pulls the breaks. The moron.

Meliodas learned this by now. Anything that Hawk says goes.

(That the idiot still does whatever he wants is therefore obviously not a reflection on Hawk’s effectiveness but solid evidence of pigheadedness.  Really, the idiot.)

(Just what was Hawk thinking, waiting until that human in armor that just popped out of thin air wakes up.)

As such Hawk needs to be able to read Meliodas’ mind to predict when a stupid thought is about to occur. Frankly, he’s kind of glad that the mind reading doesn’t go smoothly despite Hawk’s best attempt. He has a feeling that whatever is going on in that head of his is better left unknown.

Still, he’s had practice at recognizing the warning signs when he sees them so he ought to have been able to prevent Meliodas picking up some innocent little girl and dragging her down into the deplorable depths of his company.

That’s what he thought at first anyway.

Now, he may not be the brightest boar in the pen, but he’s still pretty smart.

There’s obviously something he’s missing about this. And it’s not just the girl being an old acquaintance.

When they stare at each other when they think no one else is watching, the air becomes thin and he, the brave knight of scrap-disposal, beats a hasty retreat, feeling like he’s intruding. This happens more often than either of them know, Hawk thinks.

Most shockingly, whatever he’s missing seems to be kind of very fundamental. He hadn’t known Meliodas could be teased! What a failure!

(Hawk is taking close notes as he studies Elizabeth’s tactics, but somehow he has the feeling if he ever tried them he’d get a blank look before being tied to a stake…)

Speaking of whom, Elizabeth is wonderful. A real blessing. A true angel! She’s so kind, so nice, so caring. She’s way too good for Meliodas’ womanizing company.

Speaking of which, it’s not really womanizing Hawk’s learned. He doesn’t quite know what put the realization in his head, but there’s a difference to womanizing that other men do. It’s like...he observes but doesn’t really see. Doesn’t care? Which would be weird, because then why look at all.

But it’s not ‘womanizing’, because if it were, brave and bold Elizabeth would hit him over the head and hang him out to dry for sure.

...again, Hawk isn’t quite sure how he knows this.

…….he must be missing something.

Like, kind of, “hey, Elizabeth.”

The way too sweet human leans out of the kitchen. Actually paying attention and looking at him when he talks! Hawk will never get tired of this. “Yes?”

“You wouldn’t happen to be Princess Elizabeth, would you?” The missing person poster pinned up on the wall together with the wanted pictures of the Seven Deadly Sins (Meliodas’ private joke) is the only addition that has been made on the board since the Boar Hat existed. Hawk had figured it must be kind of important, especially given how on edge Meliodas had been when the princess’ disappearance had been hot news a month ago. But he hadn’t expected this.

 The girl on the poster looks very much like what Elizabeth looked like before she cut her hair and dyed it a lackluster, not nearly as pretty yellow.

Elizabeth follows his stare to the sketched image. After a moment, she comes to stand by him. “Oh,” she says. “Why yes, I am. Do I really look like that?” She ponders, studying the paper intensely.

Hawk takes a deep breath. “MELIODAS! Come here you bastard!”

Chapter Text

The candles burn low.

His eyes ache from the strain of focusing on too little letters for too long. It doesn’t help that his concentration continues to escape him.

Always, his eyes are drawn to the paper sitting at the very edge of his desk. He doesn’t even have to hold it to see the words spelled out by his daughter’s hasty hand.

Dear Father, Margaret, Veronica. A blotch of ink flows into the last letter of Veronica’s name, so unlike his youngest conscientious and neat usual writings. I don’t deserve your forgiveness, I am so, so sorry. I am a failure as a daughter and sister, but I have to leave. I want you to know that this isn’t a decision I make lightly. I must leave. There is a reason that makes this necessary, however I can’t give it to you. Please do not worry about me. I have a plan. Be angry, hate me, regret that I ever came into your family, but please don’t feel guilty about my leaving. If I weren’t who I am, there would be no danger to me and I would have been able to stay. I love you. I already miss you. You must know, surely, that even in a hundred lives, there is no better family than you.

His eyes sting from that line every time.

Elizabeth loves them so much, but she still left. She loves them, knows that they love her, and they didn’t fail her in that. But she still left. Fled like a criminal, like hunted prey.

It’s not all that difficult to put together after all.

He met Meliodas for the first time when he climbed out of the crater that used to be their neighboring kingdom. A small one, yes, but wealthy and well defended one. In great part that was thanks to their Grand Master. The very same person who said about a baby, to strangers, with a broken heart in his eyes my woman.

Even in a hundred lives.

His so very clever daughter. Whose first word was Meliodas’ name.

Meliodas, who had him swear an oath on Elizabeth’s happiness and well-being, who only gave her up on the condition that he be around to protect her.

In hindsight, Baltra feels it’s bloody obvious.

You must know, surely, that even in a hundred lives, there is no better family than you.

If, disguised as platitude, there is actually some truth in that, it would explain explains so much. It even makes Baltra fairly sure of where he could find his daughter now.

After all, Baltra hadn’t found himself with bodies piling up in front of his door from his soldiers’ attempts to stop Meliodas from holding a blade to his throat.

Elizabeth is probably with him right now.

On one hand, it relieves him more than he can say. On the other he wants to wring Meliodas’ neck for stealing his daughter.

Meliodas won’t bring her back.

Baltra could try to fetch her, but he doesn’t know where Meliodas is either.

The indecision that he doesn’t even know if he should try tears at his soul. Elizabeth left. Out of her own volition. Baltra has no idea why. There is a danger to her, she wrote. Baltra has no idea why. Why her? He doesn’t even know what makes his daughter so special, he just knows that she is. It is easy to see. What was so important that he even received a vision just so that she become his daughter?

Baltra had never asked. Even if pulling answers out of Meliodas wasn’t more difficult than moving a stubborn mule, he doesn’t know if he would have even wanted to know. She is his daughter. He loved her from the moment he first held her. What father wants to know about the future of his daughter unless it means that she will be happy and live peacefully?

Had he asked Meliodas, had he actually gotten an answer, there is no way that would have been what he would have been told.

Secrets of his daughter’s past lie hidden from him, but clearly not from her if she knew to keep them. To look out for them. To notice them when no one else in the entire castle did. Something that is so dangerous to her, she swallowed poison. Baltra hadn’t wanted to believe that at first, but the viral had been found in her plush bear and Healer Gotfried had seen her swallow the content.

That is not something he can tell his other two daughters. They must never know how desperate Elizabeth must have been without them noticing.

But why. He doesn’t understand why.

Does it have something to do with Zaratras’ murder?

Who murdered the Grand Master?

The slaughter of Holy Knights in the Seven Deadly Sins’ wake does not speak for them.

But Meliodas gathered them to fight and win the renewed Holy War they cannot escape. With that on the horizon, there is no reason for him to do that. Had it been not under his orders but still one of the Sins, Meliodas would have tossed them at Baltra’s feet himself.

His temple pulses. Perhaps it would be time to visit the healer again. They must surely have something to deal with the monarch’s pains.

The door to his study bangs open, almost giving him a heart attack. “Your Majesty!”

Baltra half rises. “Steward Alfred! Surely you have not forgotten your manners!” As befitting of a steward, the older man can usually never be seen with even so much as a hair out of place.

The man coughs awkwardly, face flushed and forehead glinting with sweat. He sketches a hasty bow. “My apologies, Sire. However this came across my desk...”

An envelope in his hands that Baltra hadn’t seen before is offered up to him and slid over the desk. Baltra doesn’t look down at it yet. “Why are you even up still? It is unusual to find you working deep into the night.”

“There are a lot of matters to attend to,” his trusted steward says simply. “We couldn’t keep the princess’ disappearance from the people and they are restless. Many a reports have reached my ears of people believing to have see her, or of demands what the crown is to do now. Not a few consider Princess Elizabeth’s, ah, possible kidnapping a sign of weakness in the crown. Were the truth to come out...”

It would be worse. A princess running from the crown. A third princess! What else but as s sign of horribly rule would it be interpreted as? The truth is something that must be hidden at all cost.

For the sake of his kingdom, he had even considered declaring her dead.

But what if she isn’t with Meliodas? Then declaring her dead would leave her in far greater danger.

His fingers tease open the envelope. It’s surprisingly thick. Many folded papers are inside. The quality isn’t like the common one that farmers or villagers would be able to afford to write on.

It’s soft to the touch, almost like silk but less liquid-like. He recognizes it as dragonfly paper – a precious resource that can only be won by cutting a fermoa tree’s trunk into hair thin pieces, and even then only at high speeds. Not even Holy Knights are capable of such precision for the large number of identical swings that is needed.

In fact, now with Zaratras dead, only two men come to mind who have so completely mastered the sword. One is Dreyfus. The other is Meliodas.

To my dear father, reads a familiar script. For long moment he believes his eyes must be finally deceiving him. The other papers caption My dear sister Margaret and My dear sister Veronica.

Fingers shaking, he pulls out the one addressed to him.

Chapter Text

So, it turns out the princess ran away from home to be put to work in a dirty tavern. She’s a nice girl, but clearly she must have weird taste. If Hawk were her, he’d never ever exchange heavenly feasts for the butchery that Meliodas calls cooking. Then again, since she’s been here she’s the one that does the cooking, so no one will ever hear a word from him.

What if she decides to go back to the castle and leave him with only Meliodas’ cooking?! He’d never survive.

(Not to mention what would happen to Meliodas. The princess had only been there for a month and already they’d had a body to bury because some bastard thought that just cause she worked in a tavern she was fair game and touched her. A child!)

(Hawk had never, ever seen Meliodas that furious. Not that the uninformed man had known that, mind, or that observers would have guessed at his mood until the man was already one hand down.)

(Elizabeth had been furious with Meliodas for that.)

(It had resulted in the novel experience of Hawk and Meliodas being on the same side of an argument.)

(Hands off the girl is the number one rule of their establishment. Or all bets are off.)

(Meliodas had also never smiled as often – genuinely – before Elizabeth came.)

(He might be a right bastard, but he does deserve to smile. So Elizabeth had better stay.)

Still, princess or no, Hawk still has the feeling he is missing something very obvious. It doesn’t matter for the most part and Hawk quickly learns to ignore it. There are more interesting things to apply his mind to, like walks with Elizabeth and chatting about what herb results in what taste and which plant smells like it would be a good addition to the latest recipe they are putting together.

Soon Hawk forgets what it was like without Elizabeth. That she is technically a princess and that they are making themselves guilty of treason by keeping her also slips his mind.

(He’s already guilty of being acquainted with Meliodas anyway, so a runaway princess is just the cherry on top.)

Hawk is convinced Elizabeth is magic. She makes everything better! Food! Meliodas. Food! Business. Food! A real treasure.

She’s also kind of terrifyingly brave. Hawk wishes she had the good sense to take cover in the fifth row like Hawk.

Instead she insists on practicing with the lance Meliodas carved for her daily. Against Meliodas.

(Suicide instincts there.)

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“I think it’s better not to get too close to that, Elizabeth,” squeaks Hawk, noon sun burning down on them as Hawk Ma was forced to halt in the middle of the road.

Elizabeth hums in acknowledged of his worry but doesn’t stop approaching the creature.

It looks to be a bear by form alone but that’s about as far as the similarities go. The sickness that hangs around it, the putrid color of its fur, the fact that it isn’t squashed into paste despite Hawk Ma stomping on it when it attacked her…

The familiarity of it is unwelcome and instant. It rises from the depths of her memories with a whole slew of associated emotions. “And?” she asks, leaning over Meliodas’ shoulder as he squats down to inspect the corpse.

“What else? It’s definitely a hit.” Magic rises under his skin, the dark kind that he does his best to hide and keep buried under assimilated energy. With a flick of his finger the bear is set alight.

Hawk squeals in fright somewhere behind them.

“The poor thing. That’s the third one this year,” Elizabeth observes quietly.

Her beloved stands, ruffling his hair. He replies to her unspoken concerns. “It’s strange. I didn’t hear about any unnatural creatures like this when I was still with the Holy Knights, but in recent years...I know your father predicted a new Holy War, but this sort of contamination shouldn’t be possible with the seal still in place.” His hand trails up to grasp the hilt of his broken sword, as if subconsciously confirming its presence. “Unless….”

“...the seal is naturally getting weaker?” She completes his thought for him, voice sad.

She can all but see the weight of three thousand years and that horrible, horrible conflict coming down on his shoulders. Winding her arms around him, she presses her cheek to his chest. His hand immediately fall on her back, warm and safe. “The seal is powerful but no spell in unbreakable. It can’t have been easy to put into place, and to keep it there...I find it difficult to believe that there is no maintenance needed.”

“There might be,” he replies, vibrations of his voice in his chest caressing her cheek. “But why would we know.”

They had both been dead as it was put in place and who in their right mind would trust him with the delicate works of the lock that keeps his Clan and family locked up?

She laughs a bit at the irony. When knowledge gets lost over generations, when people forget and neglect who else but him, who doesn’t die, and her, who always returns, could ensure the continued stability of the greatest piece of spell-crafting ever created? She turns her face into his shirt, breathing in his smell. “You know I almost started to believe that this life might be different. But instead what might become the greatest conflict in three thousand years looms over us.”

For a while he says nothing, resting his chin on top of her head. The black flames fade once there is nothing left of the bear. “Maybe there is something else going on. It could be the seal getting weaker. That would be a reason why your father foresaw the Holy War starting again. But it wasn’t a wild animal that killed Zaratras. Something else is going on. Many things are going wrong. They might be all connected. They might not be.”

She blinks at that, startled, and pulls back a bit to look into his face. “...that’s true,” she says slowly. “What can we do?” What aren’t they already doing? Searching for the remaining six of his team, investigating rumors of unnatural sightings and disposing of poor animals infected with energy they weren’t meant to bear, keeping ears open.

Eventually, they untangle and he grasps her hand as they walk back towards Hawk Ma, who stopped her nervous trotting. Hawk fell asleep where he waited. She can’t help a fond smile at the sight. “He’s adorable.”

“He’s a pain,” Meliodas says, letting go of her hand to pick their friend up without him waking.

Chapter Text

The sight from the castle is beautiful. It displays the marvels of the kingdom all around.

Margaret sighs, tugging her hair behind her ear as she stands in the window of the highest tower. A letter from her sister flutters in her hand as wind tears at it, an ever-present reminder. 

If only she had had the courage to escape.

She could have fled and then, like Elizabeth does, write letters. She could have informed her father of the sin his newest Grand Masters committed. Then Gil would not have to fear for her, she not for him, and he would not have to tolerate the presence of that horrid woman or smile at his father's murderers. 

Regret sits heavy on her tongue. 

She still remembers the day it all started like it was yesterday.

She had wanted to surprise Gil, so she had waited in the Knight’s Tower (Lady Merlin’s research lab, as the diamond knights used to joke). But unlike usual, Gil had not come to the tower that evening, and before she knew it, it had become nighttime. No one had come looking for her, since unlike Elizabeth she had always taken care to inform her father and Madame Milda of her whereabouts. They had assumed she had stayed over at Lord Zaratras’ mansion that day, to join the festival together on the following, when in truth Margaret had never made it out of the tower that evening. She had wandered about looking for Lord Zaratras to request an escort home when she had stumbled upon the scene of his murder.

Heart in her throat and tears of fear in her eyes, she’d sneaked out through a hidden passage the moment she was sure she’d be undiscovered and had found Gil. 

Unlike her, Elizabeth had run. 

Margaret wonders if Elizabeth had stumbled upon a similarly devastating secret. Perhaps her illness had been the Grand Masters’ attempts at silencing her.

Margaret trembles. The kingdom stretches before her, but she feels small, weak, and imprisoned. What if they try to go after Veronica next? Or her father?

But if she does something, Gil might be…

Tears drip from her eyes, down her cheek, and fall down, down, down until they get lost in the wind. They never even hit the ground. If only Margaret could do the same. Escape like that.

She looks at Elizabeth’s letter again. She almost can’t believe her ten-year-old sister wrote this. Between every line Margaret finds herself and her feelings for Gil. Whoever this ‘companion’ is, Elizabeth is clearly in love with them.

Margaret hopes they are a person worthy of her sister, and that they will make her happy once Elizabeth realizes this. What greater bliss could there be in life? What else could Margaret possibly want for her precious littlest sister?

My dear sister Margaret, says her sister’s voice in her head. Please do not worry, I am well. I hope you and Gilthunder are as well. I have not heard anything yet, but have talks of engagement already begun? Marry the person you love and be with them forever – the happiness is something you so very much deserves. However much easy loving him is, I am sorry I am not there for you for the difficulties. It makes me a bad sister surely, but I have instead spend this early summer tending to a doe and her fawns. The birth was a terrible strain on the mother and one of the fawns, a truly beautiful animal, had been born with weak leg. Nature is beautiful but also cruel. If we had not been there, the child would have died. My companion showed the greatest of care with them, even building a stable for them in the woods...

 

Chapter Text

“Hey, Elizabeth, where are you going?”

She blinks at him, sitting on the bed she for some reason insists on sharing with Meliodas. “I’m going with him.”

Hawk’s jaw drops. “Why would you do that?! Are you crazy? It’s, like, colder up there than the Ice Queen’s breath!” The windows are already frosting over and they’re only at the foot of the mountain! But Elizabeth is indeed pulling on one pair of socks after another and the pair of boots waiting are definitely of the solid, warm kind.

“I’m not letting him go alone,” she tells him simply, smiling. “Besides, it’s ore for my lance.”

Hawk dashes to her, putting his head in her lap as he wails. “Elizabeth! Reconsider! Why do you need a lance anyway? It’s not like even the deepest, darkest demons from the pits of hell stand a chance against Meliodas! There’s no need for you to have a weapon!”

“Nice try,” Meliodas cuts in from behind him. “You’re just too afraid of the ghost stories to stay here alone for a couple days.”

“I’m not afraid!” Hawk protests. How dare he! “Rumors that people getting close to the mountain get their energy sucked out of them and are doomed to wander forever as an ice zombie are not enough to scare me, the Great Knight of Scrap-disposal!” Meliodas stares at him blankly. “I’m just...concerned about Elizabeth,” Hawk insists.

Elizabeth giggles, patting his head in gratitude. “I’ll be perfectly fine. Like you said, I have Meliodas with me.”

“But it’s an evil mountain!”

“The mountain is not evil,” she protests, smiling. At the same time Meliodas says casually, “so I’ll blow it up if it tries something.” He walks over to the wardrobe and shuffles around in it for a while.

They are gaping at his back.

“Meliodas,” Elizabeth exclaims eventually, caught between laughter and disapproval. “You can’t just blow up a mountain! It doesn’t belong to you. Think about all the animals living on it and the rivers that spring here.”

“….You know, Elizabeth, somehow I don’t think that’s what you should be concerned about,” Hawk muses. “But nice!” Hoof curling in a human gesture, he gives Meliodas, who emerges with a thick cloak in his arms, a thumb up. They exchange a look of manly understanding. Or at least that had better be what Meliodas wants to tell him with that look. “I like it. If it touches Elizabeth it’s fair game.”

“Hawk!” Trying to scold him though her laughter, Elizabeth shoves his head out of her lap. “Stop teasing me! Both of you!”

...well, if she wants to think it’s only teasing – He harrumphs. “Whatever. You better hurry up though. The leftovers won’t last for more than two days. If you leave me here to hunger, I’ll tell Ma to get moving.”

“Huh,” says Meliodas. “You know, you could just take Ma down to the mouth of the valley and come back in two days. It’s not as cold there. It’ll probably be more comfortable for her too.”

Hawk stomps his hoof. “Don’t be silly, you swine. What if you come home earlier? I can’t just let Elizabeth wait out in the cold.”

The blond moron shrugs. “Suit yourself. Here Elizabeth.” He tosses the cloak on the bed. It’s so heavy the mattress dips under it.

“I thought this was yours?”

“You need it more. I’ll take this.” In his hands, a beautiful red orb the size of his palms gleams.

Hawk splutters. “Hey! If you take that, then how’s the house going to stay warm?! I don’t wanna freeze to death!”

“Just kidding,” he grins, and tosses the stone at Hawk in an underhanded toss. Hawk dives and his belly slides over the floor to catch it. “Wow, nice catch!”

“You swine bastard!” Hawk screams. “How could you! These things are fragile! Do you know how much this thing is worth?! It’s more money than your stupid tavern makes in a year! Why the hell did you take it out?!”

“So just put it back,” Meliodas says easily, folding his hands behind his head. “We wouldn’t want the cold to come in now, would we?”

Hawk screams a shout of utter frustration at him before dashing out of the room into the building’s heart to shove the heating crystal back into place. Oaths and curses echo in the tight space he has to wiggle into. Who’s damn idea was it to make the mage box so inaccessible? Damn Meliodas. After long struggles, he finally succeeds in clicking the red stone back into the space next to a blue one and a yellow one.

“We’re leaving, Hawk!” Shouts Elizabeth’s sweet voice. “Take care of the Hat for us!”

Then they are gone, and Hawk is stuck in a chute. He huffs hot breath out of his nose. Those inconsiderate pig bastards. Why does he put up with them?

...at least it’s warm down here.

…what if it’ll become too warm?! He’ll become a roasted pig!

Chapter Text

My dear sister Veronica, it starts.

It always starts like that.

Veronica stares down at the – the letter and has to fight the impulse to tear it to shreds. Only, it wouldn’t be that easy, because the words are not actually written on paper. In fact they are not written at all. They are stitched with bright and different colors into linen.

The origin was investigated, of course, but the threads are not special, not specific enough to narrow down Elizabeth’s location.

As always, I apologize for not being with you and for not providing you with a better explanation. I deserve your anger, but please, do not forget that you bear no fault. It was my decision, and mine alone, and I did not make it without due consideration. But I know you, sister. You do no believe me, do you? I wish you would, but until we meet again I cannot make you realize this in person. And we will meet again. Of this I have less doubt than ever, it continues. Every letter always starts the same. An apology, a plead. But the promise is new.

Something hot stirs in her belly at the thought and her hands twist the linen sheet. She imagines meeting Elizabeth again. The muscles of her arm and hand tense in anticipation of a punch.

The girl that abandoned them, ran away. Left them. Without even giving a word of goodbye. Without giving them a reason. Or a chance. It hurts. 

The same girl that bothers sending messages all over the year, telling of her life and inquiring of hers, spending all the effort so stitch out a letter what would on paper be three pages long. The awkward way of connecting one pattern to another tells her it’s undoubtedly Elizabeth who stitched this too. It was a little habit of hers that Maid Milda never could rid her of.

The second spring has passed now, and I wonder. Do the cherries in the garden still bloom as prettily as they did? I remember the time we collected the blossoms in hope of spreading the sweet smell all through the castle. Oh, how we were scolded for that! This year I did not see many trees in bloom, for not a lot of blooming trees are growing in this place. There are most delicious fruits, however. My companion tells me that they are a sort of nut, but I did not believe him. What nuts have liquid stored inside? They are fruits that prefer to grow in warm climate, I am told, and usually can only be found outside of Britannia, in the hot, hot lands to the south. I am most grateful that this one place is one of exception, for what would I have done without this delicious taste in my life? Perhaps one day we could travel to this place together? I would love to show it to you. This is, however, how I spend my spring. I refused to be moved until I had cleaned all the trees of their treasures! Given that they are most filling, it took weeks and by the time we rejoined the more populated lands, petals were drifting in the wind. I regret missing out on the beautiful sight, but as I gave in to gluttony I had a lot of time on my hands and thus I chose this medium for my letter.

As she read, a smile unwittingly climbed on her face and Veronica hurries to wipe it off before she starts on the next paragraph. Her sister left. Veronica is angry with her. That she seems to be happy almost makes it worse. She'd never begrudge Elizabeth her happiness, but what about them? Does she not miss them? Does it not hurt her? Does she not care?

With the hole Elizabeth left in their family, every day is another reminder.

Do you still enjoy playing with swords more than with needles? Is Griamore still following your every step? I always thought it was cute. Have you sparred with him before? I’m sure it would be most interesting an experience, especially if you continue to do so in the coming years.

Veronica frowns. What is that supposed to be about? Sparring? With Griamore? That guy is still around quite often for someone in apprenticeship, but Veronica doesn’t really see a reason. Of course he’s better than her. It’s not like she likes physical exercise to be good at it – she does it because it’s fun. Why bother sparring? She’s seen knights do it. They get hurt, it’s intense and seems kind of like a pain.

And what is that comment about the ‘coming years’? Is something going to happen then? Her mental schedule of important events tells her nothing. What does Elizabeth want to say?

Strange.

I’m sure it will interest you that I have found a teacher to instruct me in the ways of fighting. It’s for self-defense only, of course, and I still have much to learn. But he is very talented and I shall enjoy this very much. Especially in the coming years. Don’t tell Father, but I wish I were older. It would make my lessons most diverse. My companion meanwhile has found a lance for me. It is most beautiful, made of precious ore. I believe the Holy Knights’ weapons are made of the same material?

A shudder runs down Veronica’s spine at the thought of Elizabeth with a weapon. Something is very offsetting about it. And terrifying. But on the other hand, whoever this companion of hers is seems to take good care of her.

She wonders if this person, male or female, even knows if she is Princess Elizabeth. The image that rises to her mind shows a faceless figure in wordless shock and awe as Vernoica comes to take Elizabeth away with her. Fanatic apologies would have to be involved too, because if not for this person surely Elizabeth would have come back to the castle by now. How else would she find something to eat? Or a bed to sleep in.

Please give everyone my love and apologies, with love, Elizabeth.

Like very letter, it is signed with her sister’s name as well as the stamp of a symbol. Veronica recognizes it from a pendant that was most dear to her sister. Having never paid much attention to jewelry, Veronica doesn’t know where it came from, but since she hasn’t seen it anywhere else she concluded it might be from Elizabeth’s birth family. If that’s what she wants to use as her own personal crest…

It’s a circle intersected by a three bladed pinwheel.

“Elizabeth sends her love,” Veronica speaks tonelessly.

Maid Milda turns on the spot and she pretends that the woman isn’t dabbing at her eyes. When she turns back around, the woman is impeccable, hands on hips. “That is no excuse, Princess Veronica. You still have not finished the embroidery you were supposed to complete two days ago.”

Veronica tosses Elizabeth’s letter to the side. It lands on the round desk next to Veronica’s armchair. “So what? I don’t see why I even need to know that anyway. I’m a princess. If I want pretty patterns on my clothes I buy them like that or pay someone to make it for me.”

“It is befitting for a woman to do so herself! One day your husband -”

“My husband?!” Veronica feels her face flush. “I’m not marrying anyone!”

It’s as if her protests aren’t even heard. “- might ask you for blessings to carry into battle, then what will you do if you can’t stitch it into his clothes? It is because you are a princess that this is a skill that cannot be neglected! Look, even Princess Elizabeth realizes this!” Snatching up Elizabeth’s letter, she runs a finger along a line. “See, this loop here – it looks smooth but that is only -”

Internally Veronica screams in frustration.

Why is it that even away from the castle, free and not regularly wrestled into lessons on ladyhood Elizabeth is still better at it than her?

Veronica’s sister is crazy.

(...sometimes Veronica thinks Elizabeth had the right idea.)

(...sometimes Veronica wishes she had been born into a lower family. Not peasants, but maybe lower nobles. Then she might have had the freedom to train as a Holy Knight. Or to do whatever she wished with her life, and wouldn’t have to learn how to be a good wife.)

Chapter Text

Autumn’s breath is cold as it blows over the lake, causing ripples in its wake. Forest colored in rich yellows and reds, a young girl sits on a moss covered boulder, staring out over the water. In the distance, on the other side of the lake, smoke rises from pretty little houses. A bit to the left, a curiously steeply build house has its roof peek out from between the tree tops.

The girl, a strangely short lance strapped to her back, sighs, rolling a red orb between her palms. Why can’t she do this?

“Okay, Elizabeth, try again,” she murmurs to herself. “It can’t be that difficult. Even this crystal can do it. Surely you can too.”

Her blue eyes fall shut. Her breath evens out. A cease forms between her eyes as she concentrates. Feel it, she tells herself. The touch of magical energy in the crystal. Sense how it stores warmth from the air.

She breathes. She feels. Her senses observe until she has memorizes the feel of every tiny little change between sunlight outside and concentrated heat inside like the back of her hand.

Then she tries to replicate it.

Nature is always rich with energy – with magic. The fairies, being born from the love between a tree and a wind, connect with the magic in both so deeply, a fairy can never be sensed in a forest. Meanwhile the giants believe that magic is innate only to mother earth itself for that is the only magic they, even with hundreds of years of training, will ever be able to perceive. Being aware of that natural magic however is a skill only few humans posses, which is curious considering that of all the races it is the humans who can connect with all of the elements' natural magic. Among them there are in fact only the reclusive druids, whose entire culture is founded on this skill, who can experience nature like that. The rest of the humans prefer innate magic over any other resource. 

Elizabeth, having been a druid twice, and a goddesses before that, has all the knowledge she needs to reach out and touch that natural magic. She can sense it easily enough, but when it comes to the second step all her expertise – it just fails her!

Carefully, carefully she picks a beam of sunlight hitting her skin, visualizes is in its length, feels its energy, then tries let it flow into her. Sink into her limbs. Spread inside her body. Light her up with its presence. She imagines the tickling of magic underneath her skin -

Gone.

Her eyes flutter open. The sun is slowly dipping under a distant hill. Since she closed her eyes the shadows of the surrounding trees have stretched to just swallow her, cutting her connection more thoroughly than a bucket of water to the head could have. 

She sighs. Another failure. Briefly she considers trying again, this time picking something a little more resistant to change, like stone beneath her, but it’s already late.

Another day of failure.

Smiling a bit foolishly, she pushes her legs under her body and starts to rise. Her limbs feel cold, a bit stiff from sitting in one place for too long, but it’s nothing a couple stretches don’t take care of. Finally she dusts off her leggings and jumps down from the boulder, landing in a crouch. The grass is wet to her touch as she leans on a hand for balance. A chill sits in the darkening forest, the air crisp with growing cold.

Shivering, Elizabeth hurries down to the shore of the lake and circles around the crystal water. It reflects the twilight sky like a mirror, and not for the first time is she enchanted by the beauty of this world. It makes it almost worth returning again, and again, and again.

Eventually she turns right, away from the water, along a small steam and follows it until a round house wearing a pointed hat-like roof emerges from between the trees. Home. Steam curls out of a chimney.

She slips in though the front door, calling out a soft greeting.

“Elizabeth! Welcome back!” Hawk greets her, dashing out of the kitchen. He looks a bit panicked. Does she have to rescue him again? “How was it? Did it work?”

Patting his head, she laughs self-disparagingly. “I thought I was onto something today, but it slipped before I could be sure. I’ll have to try again tomorrow.”

“I know you can do it,” declares the pig. “You can do anything you set your mind to!”

She smiles. “What did you fight about this time?”

Hawk freezes, then huffs, stomping his hoof. “He’s an idiot, I don’t know why you put up with him.”

“What was that?” cuts in Meliodas, coming out of the kitchen. Uh-oh. It’s like he has a sixth sense for when someone insults his cooking, and she knows that in Hawk’s case he does it at least fifty percent of the time for the fun of it.

“Nothing!” Hawk squeaks. “Just complimenting your fine taste.”

“Is that so,” he says, smiling easily. “You want to come try? I’ve got a new recipe I want a second opinion on.”

Hawk squeaks and dashes out the door.

Elizabeth looks after him. She cuts a glance over at Meliodas. “Can’t you let up a bit? I think he’s starting to get nightmares.”

He grins innocently.

Meliodas and Teasing. Best friends forever. She heaves a put upon sigh. Somehow it’s a lot less charming when she isn’t on the receiving end of it – and no, stop thinking about that Elizabeth!

“I’ll go get changed,” she says, passing him. The urge to touch him is almost overwhelming, but she can’t. Not in an atmosphere like this, where the static between them can explode by the merest spark. She’s a kid. Betrayed by her own body…Since she doesn’t sense his eyes flowing her every move, it’s crisis averted, but if her body doesn’t start to mature soon, her mind is going to go mad.

When she comes back down dressed in a blue and pink waitress uniform of sleeveless long shirt and three-quarter leggings, Hawk has also returned, starting his evening shift by eating whatever it is that Meliodas tried to make.

Who is sitting in one of the stools, tossing the heat crystal she’d left there up and down casually, face unreadable. It’s an obvious wordless prompting to her however, and Elizabeth sighs. “Not yet, but soon I think.” Losing her first fight with her instincts this evening, she steps up behind him, leaning her head on his shoulder and resting her palms against his back. She swiftly closes them into fists instead of letting them roam over his back, which makes it her fist victory. The material of his vest is surprisingly helpful in keeping this hug chaste and innocent, and she thanks it for that. In years she’ll be cursing it for that very same reason -

He hums, the sound traveling into her from her fists and her chin, making her tingle, and his hand reaches up to her cheek -

“I don’t get what you’re trying to do with that thing, Elizabeth,” pipes up Hawk, who’s obviously finished with the failed product. Hawk is a blessing. One day (hopefully soon) she’ll not be happy with his timing, but for the moment all she is allowed to be is grateful. Meliodas’ hand, the one that isn’t still tossing a fragile, valuable piece of crystal, drops and clenches on his tight. “I mean, I get it’s for magic, but don’t people usually just hit each other until magic comes spitting out? Not that you should be hit! I’ll kick anyone who tries! But isn’t it kind of backwards to sit still instead of, you know, actually doing something?”

Elizabeth leans away from Meliodas, the act almost physically painful, and she needs to take a few steps away to make her hands let go of him too. Picking up Hawk’s dish and putting it in the sink is a welcome excuse to do that and distract her hands further. “If I were trying to use normal magic, yes, but I’m trying to draw on nature.”

“Huh?”

“It’s like what your mother does to dig herself into the earth so quickly and without anyone noticing they are now standing on the back of a giant boar. She doesn’t uproot the local fauna if she doesn’t want to either. She does that by connecting with the magic of the earth and moving with it.” There is some more involved in what Hawk Ma does so casually, and Elizabeth still wonders what sort of creature Hawk Ma is in truth. She’s obviously not just a boar.

Hawk stares at her, little eyes blinking blankly. “...I could just ask Ma to dig you a hole if you want one...” he proposes eventually dubiously.

Elizabeth startles into a snicker. “Thank you for the offer, Hawk, but that’s not really...”

Meliodas snorts, eyes amused. “Haven’t you ever thought about how your mother does what she does?”

The adorable boar shrugs. “Not really. It’s not that special. She just digs a hole. What’s that got to do with Elizabeth and sitting still?”

Elizabeth smiles widely. “Let’s try it a bit differently. You know that every person has their own, different, internal magic, right? The difference is just in how much and how well they can use it – if at all.”

Hawk puffs out breath in almost visible clouds. “Hey! Everyone knows that! Don’t take me for stupid! I’m the only knight in this house, you know! I outrank all of you!”

“Speaking of rank, I heard ham is ranked pretty popular lately,” tosses Meliodas in as if on cue, because he of course can’t let that stand. So long as Hawk keeps giving in so easily, he’s not gonna change that habit soon either. Maybe Elizabeth should talk to Hawk about that…? Later.

“The thing is,” explains Elizabeth to the pig hiding behind her legs, “Think about me like moss. If I can suck in water from my surroundings, I don’t need to use my internal reserves. It’s just turning out to be more difficult than I expected.”

“But why don’t you just use your own?” puzzles Hawk. “It sounds like that’s the easier one. I mean, if Holy Knights can do it...” He says ‘Holy Knights’ as if they were just barely worth cleaning up after his fellow pigs.

She giggles. “Holy Knights are the elite of the kingdom, you know. That’s actually a pretty high bar.”

“Well, yeah, but, you know,” the pig cuts a speaking, pointed glance sideward at Meliodas as though to say if he managed it can’t be that great. “So why don’t you?”

… “It’s not safe,” she decides to divulge eventually. “My innate magic is pretty unique and if I used it...people might find me. And not nice people.”

Hawk draws back, properly alarmed. “We can’t have that! You belong here! If someone wants to take me they’ll have to do it over my dead body.”

Please not.

“I know, Hawk,” she crouches and gives him a tight hug. “Thank you. But I’d rather you didn’t become roasted pig, so I’ll have to figure this other magic out.”

“...I don’t wanna be roasted...”agrees Hawk. Then he peeks out of her arms, stuffing his snout between her right arm and the right side of her chest. “Hey, Meliodas! You’ve got to help her! You know how to do this magic stuff!”

So adorable. They bicker, insult each other, threats to life of one party and derisive comments are part of the course for them, yet Hawk knows him so well, even though the only thing he’s ever seen is Meliodas-the-bar-master and Meliodas-the-poisoned-animal-slayer. A silly grin is on her lips. She loves them so much.

She sees Meliodas tip his stool to two legs, arms drawing behind his head, gaze lazily on the ceiling. “I might as well try to help her digest her food and last I checked the only person who eats food half digested is you. You can’t show her how to walk on all fours and expect that to be it either. It’s not that simple, Hawk.”

While Meliodas is definitely a master of the skill she is working so hard on – had been since before she met him, in fact, and needed to be nowadays or else might as well shout demon here! – there’s nothing he can teach Elizabeth. Elizabeth had the skill once herself. The issue is just of opening her new body up to it, and it is really turning into an issue.

“Oh...”says Hawk, “...I guess it’s a good thing Elizabeth has us to protect her, right.”

Meliodas tips his chair down, letting his elbows drop to his knees and propping his head up on his hands. “Not just for now.” The smile he gives her is so warm and tender, Elizabeth feels like her heart blooms too big for her body. Her eyes drop, unable to hold his gaze, big smile on her face as her cheeks heat.

(She loves him. Every little thing, every little habit. Even his most annoying quirks become endearing, his silliest ideas cute. His every gesture is entrancing and captivating. Every ugly or dark moment is spellbinding. She’s so far gone, it’s not even funny, and she keeps falling deeper.)

Meliodas gets up, puts his stool orderly in place, and moves to stand behind the bar. A moment later, Elizabeth gets herself back together and takes notice as well. Picking up a tray, she faces the door and puts a polite smile on her face.

“Welcome to the Boar Hat,” she chirps when the door swings open and the first customers of the evening pool in.

Chapter Text

The king is...upset.

Hendrikson rests with his hands behind his back, legs spread a shoulder’s width apart at attention, keeping his line of sight straight and not following the king as he paces agitatedly in front of them.

To his right, Dreyfus mirrors his position as they are getting chewed out like misbehaving little boys.

At first Hendrikson had wondered what the king would want them both for, and it had given him an uncomfortable twist to consider that he might have found out -

But this is not about Hendrickson’s...unsanctioned research, or about Dreyfus abandoning his duty to save a friend.

How is he doing anyway? Hendrickson observes the one he shares office with from his peripheral vision. The close watch he kept on his friend never revealed anything suspicious and even now in close quarters there is nothing that hints at the creature that crawled under his skin.

Was it even still there? Had it died? It had seemed fairly weakened. Almost killed, if he remembered right. (By the captain of the Seven Deadly Sins, and isn’t that interesting to contemplate.) Dreyfus is anything but weak willed. It might have passed away without notice. (What a shame.) But then again, it might not have. Considering moral and upstanding Dreyfus conspired with him to murder his brother…

Hendrickson would love a chance to study his fellow knight up close, but that is one temptation out of his reach. Besides, he’s not far enough in his studies yet that a life-specimen would be of value. His experiments are still in the unstable state, clearly showing that his knowledge on demons and their ilk is far from perfect.

And if he were to desire any such thing, there is someone else he could get his hands on with far less political maneuvering…

That one is far more important anyway. After all while he knows what (might) sleep in Dreyfus, that ‘what’ is still unverified with the other. It might be far more productive to have that one – if what Hendrickson suspects is true.

“- you are Holy Knight! It is your purpose to protect the kingdom! If it’s just securing trade routes, I don’t need elite warriors! If it’s just to provide security any solider would do! You are Holy Knights to fight what others can’t! And you two are the Grand Masters!” The King shouts at them, furious. For all that His Majesty is about as capable of posing a threat to him as a stray cat, for a moment Hendrickson feels suddenly reduced to the lowly apprentice he once was, humbled and in awe of the leader who gives a failure of a druid like him a chance.

The king holds power in a different way – Hendrickson had forgotten that. Something dark curls inside him at the thought. He can’t afford to be careless like this. If he were to be discovered, it would surely mean the end of his ambition, not just the temporary hindrance as he had stated to let himself believe.

The king was capable, had led Liones through war in his youth and ruled for over thirty years of peace. He must be sly, cunning, and determined to manage that, as is obvious by him shouting at men who could bring down the castle with a flick of their swords.

“It’s bad enough that I have to hear about this from my runaway daughter. What have you been doing that a little girl discovered more than the knight order of an entire kingdom?! You didn’t think to mention how the situation keeps escalating?! You didn’t think I would have to know?! These are matters of the kingdom’s security! Give me a better excuse!” Fist smacking on his desk, the king stares at them with burning eyes.

The king’s study seems small, the air thin. Hendrickson clears his throat. If he doesn’t salvage this situation...“Sire, with all due respect. There has not been much to report. The increase in sightings is only slight, and half the time when we send a knight to investigate it turns out to be a case of exaggeration. Villagers wanting a knight to take care of wild animals and the like.” The other half, though…

“But the other half it is not,” cuts the king in coldly. “Even half of the time is too much. I gave you the order to root out, exterminate and eliminate the origin of these creatures! Far from delivering on it I have to, I repeat, hear from my runaway daughter, THAT THE HOLY KNIGHTS OF MY KINGDOM HAVEN’T GIVEN A LICK OF EFFORT! That she felt the need to investigate herself BECAUSE YOU HAVE NOT!”

Silence. Hendrickson stares straight at the wall behind the monarch and doesn’t dare say anything more.

Dreyfus picks up. “My Lord, I mean no offense. I have only the highest of respects for the Lady Elizabeth, however she has not been heard from in years. It pains me to ask this of Your Majesty, but are you sure the information comes from here. With all due respect, I can imagine no situation more perfect for an ambush than to report a removed location of suspicious activity -”

“BE SILENT!”

Dreyfus’s words get stuck almost visibly in his throat. At the twitch of anger and humiliation in his jaw, Hendrikson has to suppress a smirk.

The king breaths angrily, his tone of voice indicating that he will not tolerate being questioned again. “Here is what you need to know. Elizabeth has been writing letters regularly. There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of this. Moreover I have reason to believe she is in the presence of an expert on this matter.” Eyes narrow, he stares them down in warning. “Meliodas of the Seven Deadly Sins.”

Hendrickson freezes. Next to him Dreyfus stiffens.

“Let me tell you in this instance that Meliodas has reasons to be loyal to this kingdom that go beyond rank and authority. As for the case of your predecessor’s murder, he has no motive and no ambition. Someone,” the king says lowly, ominously, “clearly saw the danger in him and his order - Our most powerful warriors, our seven man army. Once I find out who, I’ll have their head put up on spikes for the world to see. Know this, Grand Masters, and act accordingly: We are not in peaceful times.”

Hendrickson stands, chilled. Sweat beads in the nape of his neck and tickles down. He doesn’t dare to breathe.

This – the king knows this much. He -

- he told them this.

He’s kept this knowledge secret for six years, and the tells them now. He trusts them.

“Understood,” speaks Hendrickson crisply. “I shall take a contingent and head to the site personally. May I ask for the location Princess Elizabeth specified?”

He knows already, of course, had since the chilling moment where the King mentioned ‘abandoned research facility in a mountain’ in his rant, but in this dangerous game, where the stakes have suddenly been upped exponentially, he can’t even allow a hint.

The king waves with a hand at his desk, at the letter he had previously waved in their faces. “Do so. Dreyfus. I want a reworked system of patrols on my desk. Tomorrow.”

As the king fires orders at the other Grand Master Hendrickson picks the paper up. It seems to be made of a strange material, not even white.

...is it a leaf?

...it must have been treated with spells to expand in size and to not rot.

Interesting.

It seems that the third princess is up to fascinating things while she spends her time in the presence of one of the most powerful...creatures in Britannia. This trace of magic under his fingertips is clearly not Meliodas’, though there are certainly some similarities.

Meliodas’ magic (not the shadow underneath) feels like crystal clear ice and reflective water. Full Counter is truly a fitting name for it for it blocks even passive attempts at reading him.

The one who modified this leaf...Hendrickson narrows his focus. The sky. Warm sunshine. Princess Elizabeth’s face comes to mind effortlessly, happy and delightful, rounded in childhood’s innocence. The magic feels shockingly like a druid’s. Almost. If it weren’t for that potential for impurity of, if he has to build on a weather metaphor, sudden rain. It’s the magical touch of a normal, cheerful human. If an exceptionally talented one.

Disappointing. He’d thought, perhaps, that she was-

On a different note, had the princess remained, perhaps he could have had her, as mere third heir, be taken into Knight Apprenticeship. A tool like that would prove invaluable in light of the recent revelations…

He must hurry.

My dear father, he skims over the greeting and the first few personal comments to it saddens me that a matter like this has come up, but I truly believe it can no longer be ignored. Over the years it has come to my and my companion’s attention that strange, unnatural beasts have appeared in the land. But it was not until this day that we discovered the true depth of this deplorable occurrence. In the mountains to the east of the Capital, following the Path of Gandalf from the south towards the Great Plateau, a steam runs through the trail of an avalanche from the west. Upstream, in the shadow of a great boulder glittering with blue minerals in the evening, a cave opens. Though perhaps cave is not the right term, I trust you will understand what I mean as I describe it.

The mouth seems to be indeed natural made, inside the walls smooth over and show clear evidence of man’s touch. They seem of older origin, perhaps half as much as a millennia. Many tunnels grow from a central chamber and following one, we came across dastardly discoveries of a more contemporary nature. Cages, filled animals or the corpses of them, and yet others that were filled with these beasts. We also discovered tools that leave no doubt that this plague that has started to spread about our land is of man’s creation.

The young princess is right about that. She is sharp for a young girl, but then again, she had always been.

Demons are violate and malicious creatures, their very nature abhorrent. To study them, to know how to defeat them, to make their strength his own he needs to understand them and the effect they have on other beings first. Transplanting tissue had seemed like a wonderful idea. Denser muscles, stronger bones, faster recovery. Yet the failures had been numerous. No matter how much or how little tissue he uses, the results are always the same. Madness, mutation. And when it isn’t, he doesn’t understand why. Even the seemingly stable results – those that he had let go to test in less stable environments – reject the procedure eventually and mutate.

The failures, quite honestly, are frustrating.

I plead with you to follow my descriptions and set an end to these devilish deeds.

Hendrickson doesn’t enjoy it, but it is necessary. If he only he knew what he did wrong in his experiments. Or if he had, say, a successful, stable specimen to work backwards from…

He must hurry.

If the princess is indeed with Meliodas, perhaps they are still in the area.

Chapter Text

“Merlin, Gowther, Ban, Escanor, King and Diane. Where can those guys possibly be...” Meliodas muses, staring at the yet again updated wanted posters. A new year, a new sketch. It’s kind of ridiculous. His own is so inaccurate, he doesn’t even have to use a fake name anymore and could stand right next to it without anyone connecting him to the Captain of the Seven Deadly Sins. Elizabeth gets a real kick out of that. She hasn’t stopped giggling since the new batch came out.

She can’t even look at it without falling over.

(She’s adorable when her cheeks are flushed from laughter and when she has to lean on the counter to struggle for air.)

He appreciates Hawk’s hilarity a lot less.

The others’ pictures are probably just as inaccurate.

Gowther for one isn’t his armor no matter what he tried to make everyone (including himself) believe.

Merlin and appearances are a random mix at best whereas King is a freaking fairy. They are shape-shifters.

Escanor is impossible to mistake, if only because he does neither understand the concept of subtlety nor would ever lower himself to pretending to be someone else. During the day, that is.

Of all of his guys, he’d have thought Diane and Ban to be the easiest ones to meet up with. Diane isn’t exactly inconspicuous due to size alone -not to mention everything else-, and Ban just doesn’t care about anything other than drinking and entertainment and Captain’s Orders.

In short, Meliodas is kind of shocked by how damn good they all are at hiding. For guys who were all on death row (or the equivalent) despite their monstrous abilities when he recruited them, they are astonishingly good at not landing there again. He really underestimated them, didn’t he?

But then again, his perspective is kind of screwed. Rare are the times when he doesn’t have to look after someone in one way or other and Elizabeth taught him that not having a hand in place at all times can easily be fatal. Even to the strongest.

...he may have been overprotective…

(The most ridiculously strong people in generations, so far beyond ordinary mortal reach that a sparrow would have a better chance at eating a fox than harm coming to them, and he looked out for them.)

...and that is a thought he wants out of his head right now.

He may count three thousand plus years, but he does not ever want to be looked at as some kind of senior or elder or, hell forbid, as someone’s parent. Especially not by some guys who are almost as big freaks of nature as him. He’d lose his mind if there was no one left in the world to treat him like an equal, and if the most powerful don’t, then who would?!

Meliodas decides that being framed for murder, called a traitor, and hunted across all of Britannia is one of the best things to have happened to him, definitely.

He definitely needed the distance.

...but to be fair, the most dangerous group of knights the kingdom has ever seen, the most vile criminals of the age...are together a crazy bunch of explosive characters that would put court jesters to shame, so maybe it’s not him.

But this brings him back to the point. How are those guys staying hidden?

He’s talking about people who get drunk before/on missions, can’t concentrate in life and dead combat because they are blushing too hard, smash a mountain to bits in a temper tantrum, wouldn’t know social interaction if it went up to them and introduced itself, chuckle creepily about experiments any hour of the day, and who’d rather commit regicide than lower their head.

Seven years of looking, and Meliodas is starting to believe he won’t find them until he starts to blow something up and they stretch their necks to look for the fun fireworks.

He’s talked with Elizabeth about this problem at night, curled up in bed, and she’d found that hilarious too.

(I’m happy for you, she’d said. Palm on his cheek, eyes glowing in the dark. That you’ve found such wonderful comrades. After so much time.)

(She’s right, of course, but they are temporary. He fears loss, and pain, and unlike Elizabeth, every connection he makes is fated to be swallowed by death and end there. He knows that at the beginning of every encounter.)

(The fact that Ban is immortal and can’t even be touched by age, that Merlin has been around for a long, long time, that fairies and giants have long lifespans, that Gowther doesn’t even have a lifespan doesn’t change anything about this instinctive defense.)

(He cares for them, of course he does, they’re his friends and comrades, but if they were to die...he’d be pissed and revenge would be sweet, but then he’d be able to move on. He can’t allow himself to think of them as something more than a temporary relief from loneliness.)

He’s tried searching for them for years now, inside and outside of Liones. Maybe it’s time to try something less subtle than listening to bar-talk, but on the other hand, there is no hurry.

Anything but, in fact.

He’s got the Dragon Handle, he’s got Elizabeth, the seal hasn’t broken (he’d know) – even if it might be weakening- and once a bigger threat comes into play all allies are (more or less) in place. Maybe. He doesn’t have to identify them, is the point, and he doesn’t have to convince the kingdoms of the danger, Baltra has that well in hand.

...there’s no hurry.

And Meliodas certainly doesn’t mind living out lazy days with Elizabeth. And a talking pig.

Chapter Text

“Gilthunder.”

He kneels. “Yes.”

“Your performance has been exemplary. Your determination is a shining beacon. Your countenance incorporates all that a Holy Knight should be. Despite your youth, there are few who compare to your power and in years to come I foresee you shall be without equal. Until then, however, learn leadership and let yourself be guided by your betters. Your eyes discern evil, your mouth speaks the truth, your heart is filled with righteousness, your sword purges evil, I bestow upon you, Holy Knight Gilthunder, Son of Zaratras, the rank of Wisdom and Perseverance  – Diamond.”

Gilthunder keeps his head lowered, displaying nothing but the greatest respect for the living pinnacle of mankind in front of him (the easier to hide his expression).

“Rise, Holy Knight,” the Great Knight’s voice gains warmth as it continues. “Nephew, from now on we are equals. Let there be no formalities between us.”

Gilthunder rises. “As you wish.” He says nothing more, keeping his face even, his sight straight and impassive. If he allowed himself an expression, it would not be one tolerated and that would not do. This lethal game he plays is far too delicate, the stakes far too dear to risk a slip.

Dreyfus smiles warmly, putting a hand on his armored shoulder. “I’m sure my brother would be proud.”

As if his murderer would know. Gil bites his tongue. “Thank you, Uncle.” After a carefully measured amount of time – just the right to imply appreciation for the sentiment – he steps back, and back, and into the row of knights lines up in the throne room.

The next knight steps forward and kneels. Hendrickson take this one, speaking of virtues and morals and determination while Dreyfus stands back, at attention and benevolent.

Once Hendrickson is finished, the freshly promoted Platinum Knight falls back in line, and the next takes his place. Hendrickson and Dreyfus exchange place, and noble deeds are listed anew. On and on it goes.

Behind the Great Knights the king sits on his throne, watching the proceedings with an unreadable gaze. But Gil’s eyes drift to the king’s left. Throne slightly smaller, her presence noble and delicate, sits Margaret. She is stunning, but Gil keeps his expression even, doesn’t let his eyes linger on her for too long. The two thrones next to her are empty.

Margaret tries to let no thoughts show on her face, but Gil knows her well enough to see the slight cease around her eyes that speaks of worry in the same was that the tension in her clasped hands speaks of displeasure.

She didn’t want him to be promoted. He will be in more danger.

No one before him as ever managed to reach the rank of Diamond as young as he – nineteen. He is lauded a peerless prodigy, the next Grand Master in the making. Gil would argue that the difference between himself and anyone else merely lies in motivation. To protect Margaret he must be strong. There is no one else. He must be strong to defend her when their chains are snapped, and to slay his father’s murderers when the time comes. Until then he must be useful.

From his observations it is not clear if either Dreyfus or Hendrickson are aware of the Court Magician’s acts, though Gil rather suspects not. Magician Vivian is deplorable and dishonorable, but she is not stupid and Gil can see no reason to promote him into the highest position of power and authority someone of his age can reach when they know he is only loyal under threat of Margaret’s life.

Some testing of waters will have to be his next move, cautiously, carefully.

Unless he is much mistaken, there is a subtle tension between the two Great Knights and the king (about utilizing the knights’ kingdom internal and foreign policy respectively, Margaret believes), as well as between the two knights themselves.

It sickens him to think where this might go (there is no one to stop it), but that is beyond him - his focus must be on the Grand Masters. It would be best for the kingdom and the Holy Knights as a whole if Dreyfus and Hendrickson were to come to an agreement soon, but Gil obviously can not rely on them taking that choice. And if it comes to fractures, he must be aware of where the dice fall.

What side is Vivian inclined to? If he, youngest Diamond Knight and son of the previous, shows signs of choosing one over the other, will they start hinting at Margaret’s safety? Will they not? Will they imply the hold Vivian has on her?

Lord Meliodas, what would you do?

The reply is instant.

Focus on protecting Margaret.

The ceremony comes to an end with a speech of the king. Gilthunder tries to keep his attention respectfully on him, but his eyes keep sliding. Margaret meets his eyes solemnly, evenly. It is not a true expression. Anyone watching would think that it means nothing that her eyes just happen to cross Gil’s, for even princesses must leave their eyes somewhere and there is no telling warmth in her expression.

But Gil knows she wishes to speak with him as soon as possible.

The king dismisses them with an order to join the festivities. It is the day of the National Foundation Festival again. To have it coincide with knighting ceremonies bolsters the kingdom’s moral. Gil can see the importance of it, but that does not make this day or this achievement any less bitter.

Before he can steal away, a hand land on his shoulder and he is pulled aside by his uncle. One half of his father’s murderers. “Walk with me, Glithunder.”

Wordlessly, Gil does, falling into step.

“You have worked harder than anyone, Nephew. I am truly proud of you,” the man says as they walk through the castle’s corridors. This way leads not to the courtyards but instead into a tower. His uncle’s castle office, perhaps?

“Not as hard as Griamore. His devotion and determination are truly admirable. It is merely unfortunate that his ability Wall is more difficult to master.”

Dreyfus nods. “But master it he must. He will, of this I have no doubt. Now that Princess Veronica has joined the ranks of the apprentices, he is to be doubly motivated, I am sure,” comments the man lightly.

Acid twists inside Gil at the thought of Veronica in the knight forces. How could he possibly face Margaret if something were to happen to her little sister?

“True,” he concedes on the outside. Internally he resolves to catch his cousin and drill the importance of not letting Veronica out of his sight into him. Somehow. And if he has to use threats himself.

“These matters aside however, you are a Diamond Knight now Gilthunder. The position comes with responsibilities of many natures. Tell me, are you aware of the matters with Marakia?”

Marakia, the kingdom to the north of Liones, wildly known for its towering mountains and difficult navigation. Their royal house is one of great renown. In the past there have been many skirmishes, however due to long efforts of King Baltra, the border has been peaceful for as long as Gil has been involved with the knights – ten years now.

“Word is that His Majesty wishes to sign a peace treaty.”

Dreyfus inclines his head. Instead of continuing straight, Dreyfus leads the way up the circling staircase to the castle’s north tower. “The rumor-mill is as accurate as always I see. A relief that even is tumultuous times some things stay the same, I suppose. However there are some more details not leaked yet. I wish to have your opinion on them.”

“I see,” observes Gilthunder neutrally. Internally his thoughts are racing. “I was not aware that it was allowed to share specifics of a not yet authorized document with those not involved in the negotiations.”

The wooden door to the tower’s top is heavy and thick. It creaks as Dreyfus pushes it open and hold it for Gilthunder to step through. The sight the tower reveals is breathtaking as always. The land stretches out on all sides, softly rolling until it rises into hills and mountains to the north. Golden fields stretch to the west and a powerful river glitters before the walls to the south. The west fills the sight also with farming lands, but they are dotted with pockets of forests.

“Beautiful, is it not?” speaks Dreyfus, tone melancholy and touched.

“Yes,” replies Gilthunder simply.

“It is this land and the people that we are tasked with protecting. And they deserve out protection without reserve, don’t you think?”

“Indeed.”

Wind blows though Dreyfus’ hair as the man turns north. “That is why I find myself troubled, Gilthunder. We are not the only ones aware of the beauty of this kingdom, yet the king would have us disarm so easily to meet an enemy’s terms and leave this land defenseless to treachery. I admire his peaceful intentions, yet I do not trust Marakia in the same way. Surely there must be some middle ground. What are your thoughts?”

Gilthunder doesn’t swallow, doesn’t twitch while on the inside Gil can only helplessly watch. So it has come this far. Forgive me, Margaret.

Opening his mouth, Gilthunder speaks.

As soon as feasible he escapes the clutches of his uncle, citing some previous obligations. Dreyful laughed good-naturedly as he send him on his way,  requesting that Gil deliver his greetings to Margaret.

Now safe in the corridors of the castle, Gil allows himself to breathe. Dreyfus knows about Margaret. Or at least he knows something. It might have been teasing.

He puts those thoughts on ice. They don’t help him now and without further frames of references he can’t interpret them: but that isn’t important right now. Margaret is.

His feet carry him through the castle at flying speeds even though he takes care not to appear too hurried. Inside the stupid crow at least can’t watch him.

With a festival outside and a warm summer day blessing the kingdom very few people can be found inside. One of them is Margaret and he finds her in the princesses’ library. Sitting in an armchair at the window, sun lighting her hair and making her skin glow, she looks truly divine. Gil swallows, struck by her beauty.

“My Lady,” he greets, only allowing a minimal amount of care to seep into his voice. That abominable creature will be watching somewhere. It doesn’t matter. They have learned to converse between them without words. So Margaret know to read affection and apology for his lateness in the tilt of his head. 

“Lord Gilthunder,” she returns, closing her book. The title reads Land Survey and its People. So Elizabeth has written another letter. That almost makes him smile. “Congratulations on your promotion.”

Her tone of voice makes him want to winch. But it is necessary. The risks to him do not matter. And besides, the more time he spends bettering himself, the less he has to endure Vivian. “Thank you. It is all thanks to Lord Hendrickson and Lord Dreyfus.”

I hate them, he tells her. I almost did something today.

The edges around her eyes soften. Her words remain formal. “I do not doubt their guidance is a great blessing.” You did well. “One can only hope that Veronica will see it as such as well.” I’m worried for you and her.

“Princess Veronica has always shown a strive to excel.” Not quite true. “She has the King’s spirit.” She’ll do fine with training. “The princess’ admittance to the knights will doubtlessly strengthen our spirits and unity. I have no doubt she can unite them behind her.” It might be good for Veronica to learn the arts. If she can get them on her side, they will defend her.

“I shall have to trust your word on this, Lord Gilthunder.” Perhaps you are right. “Certainly I shan’t have to worry about her being stolen away in the gray of the morning.” Elizabeth did the right thing. I wish Veronica would too if the situation calls for it.

“I will see about tightening the guards around the apprentice quarters nonetheless.” I’ll see what I can do.

The corners of Margaret’s mouth twitch. Gil wants to sweep to her and see if he can cause he to really smile. Margaret’s gaze drifts outside the window sadly. “Were Elizabeth here, I wonder what she would have to say to the celebration. It seems to be becoming more exuberant every year.”

“Her Highness Princess Elizabeth would be right in the middle. Or perhaps she might have joined you here, as I remember the only reason she was ever distracted from her studies was Meliodas, the Sin.” Gil smiles internally. It had been quite difficult to focus on blocking correctly when a tiny princess sat of to the side and attempted to glare at him for stealing her favorite knight. That had earned him quite a few bumps.

No getting distracted by girls during battle, Little Gil. Be they pretty or scary.

Dear Mother Earth, he hopes the little princess is well.

Margaret turns her gaze away from the window, expression curious and thoughtful. “...he was, wasn’t he? ...you could even say that my sister was... quite obsessed with him, no?” But she isn’t speaking to him, merely thinking aloud. A cease forms between her delicate brows, focus getting lost. After a long moment she seems to come to a decision, standing up abruptly. “I believe we will have to cut this short, Lord Gilthunder. It just occurred to me that I still have other obligations.”

The same thing he said to Dreyfus. He almost cracks a smile. Instead he steps out of her way, holding the door open for her. She inclines her head politely, moving past him, and the air electrifies as she enters his personal space. Instantly he’s too hot, his knees feel weak, and when he catches a whiff of her smell it’s as though his mind has been set on fire. It takes all he has to not reach out and brush his hand over her bare shoulder or tug hair behind her ear. It’s sheer agony.

But then she through the door, away from him, and it feels as though the world has started to move again. In all the wrong ways. Before he turns to walk the corridor in the opposite direction, he catches a glance of her face. She’s looking at him. As much as she can while pretending not to. Her cheeks glow with the color of roses.

The same emotion he feels is mirrored in her eyes.

Regret. Longing. Love.

Just focus on protecting Margaret.

How could he do anything else? Gilthunder forces his legs to move and his back to turn. One step after the other. One. Two. Three. Five. Don’t listen to her feet, don’t picture her elegant stride. Seven. Ten. Fifteen. Around a corner and in a different corridor.

His heart seems to be painfully loud in his chest, begging him to turn around. To catch up with her. To sweep her in his arms.

He exits the castle through the main gate, easily allowing himself to get swept away by the masses of people passing by. The city is loud and vibrant, just the distraction he needs. People see his armor and give him a berth unlike in his childhood where people saw Holy Knights and called out to them with friendly greetings.

Once, he remembers, there had even been a parade in honor of the Seven Deadly Sins. It’s one of his clearest memories. The people had cheered, thrown flowers…

For the life of him, he can’t pinpoint when the knights started to get treated differently though he can well see the continuous cause. What would his father say?

Never mind.

What would Lord Meliodas say?

Chin up, Little Gil. If you’re a knight, you got to stand by it. You do your duty and people will see that.

Yes. That is all he has ever aspired to.

One day, maybe, he will have that. But for now the only hope he has is that he might find the Seven Deadly Sins. Alive.

An arm slings around his shoulder. He almost takes it (and the pint the arm is holding) off before he recognizes Hauser’s familiar boisterous laughter and manages to relax. “Here you are, you broody rock! Come on, it’s party time!”

What are you doing?”

“What am I doing? Gil come on! You’re the main attraction of this party. You’ve got to let loose some! I bet it’s even written somewhere in the knight code – Gilthunder has to drink and dance at parties or else he shall have to take early morning shift ten weeks in a row or something!”

Gil pushes the arm strangling him away. “I’ll take the morning shift then.”

“Gil~” Hauser whines. A grown man. Holy Knight. One of the most promising even. And he whines like a kid. “Here, take at least one!” A pint from the second hand is shoved in Gil’s face.

He sighs. This is his best friend. He takes the drink. Hauser cheers in triumph and finally starts to respect personal boundaries again. But the way he looks Gil up and down is not promising.

“You know what, lose the armor! It’s scaring off all the ladies!”

Again, this is his best friend. Why?

Chapter Text

Hawk does the obvious. Screech like a fury and headbutt the bastard away from innocent Elizabeth.

Meliodas lands on the ground with a thud and doesn’t try to get up. Hawk looms over the disgraceful ass. “How could you?! You pervert! To Elizabeth! I never would have thought you’d think so low! You can’t just kiss a little girl! What sort of abuse of trust is that?! And don’t you dare try to talk your way out of this! There’s no-”

A soft hand settles on his head as Elizabeth crouches down next to him. “Thank you for looking out for me, Hawk, but you really don’t need to.” She’s speaking to him, but her eyes are on Meliodas (who seems oddly stunned, staring dazedly at the ceiling) and they are devilish! Hawk never saw that much mischief in them before. Her smile is...sweet like always. But something about it makes Hawk want to be anywhere else.

Suddenly Meliodas sits up. Eyes narrowed he leans into Elizabeth’s face. “You did that on purpose,” he accuses.

Elizabeth smiles innocently. Standing, she straightens her short, short skirt. “What did I do on purpose?”

Meliodas’ eyes track the motion as though pulled by a magnet before they jump up to her face. “All of it! This. Your new ‘sleep fashion’. Your new uniform! Those comments!

“Payback for all your teasing,” Elizabeth says simply.

Meliodas’ jaw drops and his eyes widen. Hawk is so very, very gratified to see an expression like that, it’ll be one of his happy memories from now on. He’s completely lost what they’re talking about, though. Something weird is going on between them. Again.

This time it involved kissing. “You kissed Elizabeth,” he accuses, not prepared to let that go. His hooves stomp. If that bastard tries it again, Hawk will kick him across the village.

Meliodas ignores him. He’s busy staring at Elizabeth from his cross-legged position from the ground. “...you’ve really been planning this, haven’t you?”

“I was due a lot of payback,” says Elizabeth, smile growing, eyes on Meliodas.

“Hey!” Shouts Hawk. “Don’t you go off in your own world. We still have an issue here!”

At once, they glance at him, as though suddenly reminded of his presence. Hawk huffs. Elizabeth breaks into a different smile. Fonder. “It’s not an issue, Hawk. You really don’t want to know the details.” She pauses. “I should have locked the door...”

“I was seduced.” States Meliodas flatly over her mumbling. There might be a bit of awe growing on his face.

What.

….what?! As if -

Wait, wait – Wait!

Why isn’t Elizabeth denying it?!

Hawk turns big eyes on her as though he had never seen her before.

Elizabeth. Seducing. Meliodas.

Elizabeth smiles, tugging a strand of hair back into place that had fallen out of order during -

No!

“Elizabeth, how could you?! Not this guy! You can have someone better.” Hawk has to free her from this madness. She’ll regret it for the rest of her life! “What are you thinking!”

“There isn’t,” says the wonderful little girl who freed Hawk from horrible food and who isn’t so little anymore. Her eyes flicker away from him to settle on Meliodas. Meliodas gazes back.

They might be having an entire conversation. They might just forget a world outside of them exists. They might just be -

“Nooooooooooooooo!” Hawk bursts into tears and dashes out of the building. He runs as far as his little legs can carry him and as far as his broken heart can motivate him.

How could Elizabeth be interested in Meliodas of all people?!

She’s far too good for him! How could she betray him like this?!

Wait.

Hawk comes to a stop so quickly, grooves form.

Waaaaait.

Since when had this been going on?

Hawk considers what he knows about the mating habits of humans, reflects on the interactions between Elizabeth and Meliodas since she arrived and comes to the conclusion that -

Melting into a little puddle of goo sound like a good idea.

His pure, innocent Elizabeth! He couldn’t protect her from the path of evil.

A gasp tears from him.

Did he just leave Meliodas and Elizabeth alone? When Elizabeth was just the one to seduce Meliodas?

Hawk spins on the spot and dashes back. Shouting wildly, he bursts through the door for the second time that day, terrified of what he might find.

They are cleaning.

Elizabeth scrubs the floor, Meliodas the tables.

Now Hawk melts into a little pile of goo.

(Little piggy basking in relief that he is, he doesn’t notice the thick-enough-to-cut atmosphere, the red on both their faces, the more-wild-than-usual hair or the barely concealed looks they keep stealing.)

(Hawk will also live better never, ever knowing that Elizabeth’s new sleep fashion consists of the shirts of Meliodas that she brought with her from the castle that only just reach to mid-tight anymore, that she had the new uniform especially made with Meliodas’ preferences in mind and been wearing it for months, that she has been dropping flirty lines for weeks, that she started to swing her hips just so, that she’s been using her entire repertoire of double meanings, that she leaned in his space licking her lips and staring with hooded eyes at him after touching him casually all day to just get him to finally break.)

(It also remains a secret that if Hawk hadn’t been screeching like a fury as he returned that he would have run into the same scene for the second time that day.)

(On a different note, Hawk’s extra vigilance pays off: Meliodas’ sudden handsiness being something that he must protect Elizabeth from. As he succeeds in that, he naively assumes that’s it, that he succeeds in defending Elizabeth’s virtue. Elizabeth even says that she’s grateful for his efforts! He teds to forget that Meliodas is not the only guilty party, and that when Elizabeth says she can take care of herself, she does not, in fact, mean that she ties Meliodas up in a rope at night to make him keep his hands to himself, as Hawk mistakenly believes.)

(The assumption is not one either of them want to correct. No need for Hawk to escalate in his attempts. He’s quite persistent enough already.)

Chapter Text

“Out of the way.”

“I cannot, Lady Veronica.”

The princess’ lips twist. “So I’m Lady now, am I?”

Griamore wants nothing more than to sink into the ground and plead for forgiveness, and it is not even him who gained Veronica’s ire.

“My apologies,” offers the guard dispassionately.

“I don’t want your apologies. I said I want to see the archives.” She takes a threatening step forward into personal space, sword at her hip clinking yet regal and powerful and awe-inspiring with her presence.

The soldier shifts uncomfortably but most impressively doesn’t budge. “You need authorization, Princess.”

Back to Princess. Griamore can see Veronica narrow her eyes to slits. “That’s right, I’m your princess. That’s all the authorization I need! I’ve been in there before, which you would know if you weren’t such a novice!”

The guard quakes. His partner stands stiffly and does not come to his rescue. Griamore, having stumbled upon this scene following Veronica’s voice, does. Clearing his throat, his presence is noted for the first time.

Only when around Veronica do people not notice him at first glance. She is far too passionate and overwhelming, even someone of his statue just fades into the background. “I do believe I know where this, er, misunderstanding” - Veronica levels him with a heated glare at that, he almost falters - “stems from, Your Highness. Holy Knight Apprentices do not posses the required authorization to enter the archives.”

“I see,” says a smooth, soft voice that does nothing to disguise the sharpness beneath it. The second Apprentice, long dark hair flowing down her back, rapier at her side, is one Griamore sees often in Veronica’s presence. Guila, he believes. “You are confused as to which rank to follow,” she continues, speaking to the guard, who nods stiffly.

The way Veronica’s face colors is most distracting, yet Griamore manages to stay on task. “Let them pass.” Startled glances fix on him. He resists the urge to fidget. “If there are complains, tell them that I gave authorization.” Just barely he manages to skirt around the word permission. Veronica would have had his head.

The guard seems all to relived to have this excuse to back off. Together with his partner, he disables the wards and they swing the double doors open.

Veronica stalks through, glowering, her friend following more smoothly.

“Griamore. What are you doing?”

Griamore blinks. It appears that without his permission his feet have carried him after them. Retreat! But just now he senses the wards snap back into place with the doors’ locks. He feels his face flush and fixes his eyes on the shelves behind the incensed princess glaring up at him. They give his melting brain an out. “...I thought to offer my assistance, Princess. What concern brings you here?”

With an irritated click of her tongue, the princess whirls away from him. “It’s none of your business! Leave.”

“Princess, I do no mind,” speaks the other young lady. Her face is smiling but it is an expressionless one. “It’s not like this matter is a secret, or even just restricted to the Holy Knights. It seems to me, at times, that all of the kingdom already knows...”

“Guila…”Veronica’s tone softens, coloring with something that strangely seems like sympathy. It must be the first time Griamore had ever heard it.“...that’s...”

“Like I said, I do not mind. Any assistance is appreciated, especially that of someone more experienced and familiar with knights than us,” she says primly. Facing Griamore, she adds, “My father, Holy Knight Dale, has gone missing. It is said that he abandoned the mission and fled.”

Dale. The traitor. “I heard of him,” says Griamore as neutrally as possible.

The man’s daughter gains an air of grimness at what he can’t hide, and Veronica starts to positively boil even as she crosses her arms. The stare she turns on him is… something inside of him wishes to die right then, for having been judged so poorly by her.

“We’re looking up the mission and the reports,” says Veronica coldly, looking down on him even though he is so much taller. “Even if it weren’t my friend’s father, what reason does a Holy Knight have to abandon the kingdom?” demands the princess of him, and he has no answer under her royal sight. “Someone who has family waiting for him,” she adds, quieter, with something like pain in her eyes. “Why would he leave?”

Princess Elizabeth. Eight years, and it hurts Veronica still. How could the Princess Elizabeth -

“I understand,” says Griamore. “The old mission reports are filed in order and stacked as according to the mission’s objective. What was it?”

“My father was on a scouting mission, I believe. In the north.”

“Then please follow me.” Leading the way, Griamore contemplates how wrong this is. Veronica is a princess, she should not be burdened with the sorrow of loss or hardship. That a lowly knight dares to question her authority merely because she is learning the arts of a warrior is insulting. It is true that Holy Knights should have no reason to betray their oath – Holy Knighthood is the very pinnacle of respect and purpose that can be reached. Even without noble blood.

Yet the Seven Deadly Sins committed high treason, Princess Elizabeth fled (a truth which he only knows due to his friendship back then with Veronica), and even a Holy Knight abandoned his duty.

Unwittingly it reminds him of what Glithunder said to him last year. About watching that Veronica does not go astray. It had incensed him then, and still does. He had not spoken a civil word with Gil since, they had not spoken at all, but his cousin catches his eyes sometimes when they cross paths, and a warning always sits in them. 

Time passes quickly as they flip through mission reports and run references, sitting around one of the many available tables between the shelves. Griamore had collected Holy Knight Dale’s past missions and searched for hints, but at the end all he discovers is a faultless record. Not even a word of complain was said about him or by him.

Griamore cannot understand it.

Veronica and Guila find nothing of suspicion about the mission itself either. A scouting turned into skirmish. It would make (some) sense, perhaps, had Dale fled the combat as it is human instinct to fear, but the knight had never been marked a coward. Moreover, it appears that the fighting had already ended in victory when he seemingly stumbled off the battlefield, and killed everyone who approached him.

It doesn’t make sense.

“Excuse me for asking, Apprentice Guila. Did your father give any indication…? Before he went on the mission perhaps? Any sign of dissatisfaction?”

“Griamore!” growls Veronica.

Guila shuffles notes in front of her. “I have thought about it before, and there was no indication at all. The only thing he mentioned was that he was being summoned, so he left early.”

“Not unusual,” he has to agree. “This is troubling. To think that the search squads have not returned...” Griamore considers. “Perhaps I will request the chance to join the next one and see if Dale can be captured.” Because deserters are hunted down, killed. The Seven Deadly Sins pose the only exception to that, having proven too strong to stop when they fled Liones, and too good at hiding since.

Veronica’s head whips around. “You would do that?” Her friend is watching him intensely as well. For the first time he catches a glimpse of her eyes and is startled to see they are blue. 

With all his will, Griamore ignores what it makes him feel that Veronica would look at him with hope. “It is a Holy Knight’s duty. For the knight who Dale was as well, this matter deserves to be closed.”

“I would most appreciate it, Holy Knight Griamore,” states Guila, without falter. “If an end could be found. In one way or another.”

For a girl, even one training to be a Holy Knight, to request that her father be killed if the situation calls for it – what bravery. No wonder Her Highness Veronica considers her worth of her time.

“Guila! Is that really okay? He’s your father!” protests the princess, the caring heart she hides so frequently appearing.

“He is a shame to our family and the kingdom. If it proves necessary, I would not hesitate to slay him myself.” The young women lock eyes. “Princess. I am loyal to the kingdom and its people. I will do what must be done to protect them. Do you not feel the same?”

Veronica half rises from her chair. “That’s not – of course I am! But it isn’t right that you would have to choose between your family or your loyalty!”

“I don’t,” says Guila simply. “I know your joining of the knight training is part of a political agreement and for the ease of the people, but you said you wished to succeed and one day retrieve your sister from her kidnappers, right? It has been years, what will you do if Princess Elizabeth does not wish to return?”

“Apprentice Guila!” Griamore growls, angered. The sight of Veronica staggering if hit and the curve of her shoulders as she leans with both her hands on the table makes him want fight kingdoms in her honor and destroy whatever dared to harm her.

“Apologies,” she says, face impassive.

Veronica whirls and sets a fast pace marching away. “Hey, open up!” She bangs on the closed doors and even before Griamore manages to catch up with her is she gone through, stomping through the corridor behind.

“Princess!” Griamore hurries, trying not to crowd her but unable stand leaving her alone. “Princess Veronica, please. Your friend -”

“Shut up!”

“...I’m sure Princess Elizabeth -”

“I said, SHUT UP!” Veronica roars, her sword flicking out in a round swing.

Flinching back, shocked, he is untouched, but it feels as though she cut him nonetheless.

“You don’t know what you are talking about! You don’t know Guila at all, and you don’t know Ellie! Don’t you dare speak to me as though you do!”

“Forgive me, I didn’t mean to imply-” he hurries to say, but she doesn’t listen, instead glowering at the floor. One hand is balled in a fist and the other still holds her sword, both at shaking with restrained emotion.

Snarling, she turns her back to him, but doesn’t start walking. As she speaks her shoulders shake and Griamore can only pray it is with fury for he does not know what to do if it were tears. “It’s not like I haven’t considered it! It’s been years! Ellie is fifteen by now. If she wanted, the could have returned. But she doesn’t! Do you understand, Griamore?! Guila is right. My sister does. Not. Want. To. Come. Home!”

Words gets struck in his throat. More than anything he wants to reassure her, but the skin of his chest tickles still where her sword had almost cut him. He’s a Holy Knight, one of the best this kingdom has to offer, and he has never felt so helpless.

A tiny voice in the back of his head that is drilled with military commands and habits notes that it is fortunate they are alone as the truth behind Elizabeth’s disappearance is still a state secret.

“Just the other day,” Veronica continues, voice small, tense. “I got another letter from her. It’s the usual nothingness about life and apologies. If she can lie about one thing, how am I to know everything she told isn’t a lie. What if she isn’t happy at all, what if she doesn’t want to see us again? If she were truly sorry, she would have come back. Or told us why. Or, I don’t know, offered to meet us anywhere in the kingdom! I would have gone! She’s my sister!”

Never before had Griamore thought he could feel like this, but he can’t forgive Elizabeth. If he were to come across her one day, he’d bring her back or die trying. The Princess Elizabeth is in the wrong. Her continued absence can’t be excused. Neglecting her duties to the kingdom and more importantly to her family is shameful for an individual of her line.

“Margaret keeps becoming more distant, Father’s health declines and he has not named an heir. My choices have been taken from me as a tool for politics! ...I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to think anymore, Griamore.”

And he finds his knees folding under him before he can think, the princess’ back his only sight. The stones under his knees are cold enough to feel even through his closes, but it means nothing. That they are in a mere corridor means nothing. That any moment anyone could stumble upon them and play witness is beyond him. “I swear to you, Princess Veronica. On my life. I will serve you for the rest of my days, take your orders above all, and defend your life with mine.” His life, to please her.

The princess says nothing, he does not gaze upon her figure, sight on the floor, head lowered. He does not know what she thinks or feels. He is unworthy of such knowledge. To be allowed to stay in her presence is more than enough.

“...tch. Griamore, you fool. I’m not -”

“- you are worth serving,” he cuts in, the last contradiction he will ever offer her.

Chapter Text

“Must you be doing this again? Seriously. In this cold?”

Ignoring the pig covered from head to tail in thick scarves, a young woman eyes her opponent. In one hand a short lance – no longer than her arm from tip to hilt – is held while the other arm is kept in position horizontally in front of her torso, optimizing flow of motion.

Opposite of her, ten meters away, with a stick in one hand and up to his knees in snow, a young man, most often mistaken for a boy, observes her in turn with cool assessment.

The sky overhead is heavy and gray with impending snow, threatening to thicken the already carpeting blanket on the land.

The pig, upon not receiving an answer harrumphs, dares to set his hooves on the snow. And promptly sinks into it, getting entirely swallowed. Backpedaling in shock, the pig swears and scrambles back onto the wooden landing in front of a warmly lit house.

Neither of the two people even flicker they eyes at him. Muttering, the pig heads back into the house, leaving the fools to be fools and letting them worry about getting customers from the village stretching below the hill they are on.

On an unknown signal, the girl’s lance snaps forward in a low swing instead of a stab, blowing snow up in its wake. Visible to the normal eye only through the whirling flakes, a blast of power shoots towards the boy.

Said boy narrows his eyes and flicks his stick at the last possible moment.

The whirling snow turns on itself and races towards the young woman at twice its original speed. She closes her eyes. Then, when getting buried in snow and blown over by the force seems to be unavoidable, she stabs with her lance.

For a moment nothing seems to happen, the chaotic whirl of wind and snow freezing in place. But before the snow can settle back into a blanket, it is reversed yet again, doubling its speed and power as it descends on the boy.

He flicks his stick again.

Not a breath in between, it shoots back, almost a horizontal cyclone now.

The young woman tosses her silver lance away. Instead she holds out both her palms, closing her eyes again, a delicate furrow of concentration settling between her brows. Wait. Wait. The magic must be upon her, must touch her, she must be with it -

Now!

Her eyes glow with determination as she lets her senses engulf the offensive magic, and there, in the depth of it, in the very fabric of its make up, find the connection between the particles and the energy, and between the energy itself, and strike them all at once!

The magic blows her over, tearing her feet of the ground and pelting every exposed bit of skin with wet flakes. A mix between a scream and squeal escapes her as some slip up her shirt. So cold!

It disturbs her concentration and makes her mess up on the twist of motion around her center of gravity. Oh no! She’s gonna land head first -

- tugs in her legs, changing her momentum to prevent at least that -

- at the same time, a firm touch against her hip, spinning her -

“Ooof!”

- not head first in the snow. But the combined result of correcting herself and getting corrected is counterproductive and Elizabeth shrieks as they tumble into the snow.

Not all is cold, her head pillowed by an arm, but snow slipped up and down her shirt, making her wiggle as she quickly sits up, pulls her pullover and jacket away from her body to make it fall out. Better the cold air for a moment than wet clothes.

“Urgh,” she mumbles. “Stupid snow.”

“I don’t know, I’m thanking it right now,” says Meliodas, grinning brightly as he, of course, gets a view of her bare stomach as he lies under her. “Can’t say I’ve ever gotten a show in the snow, but I’m always open to suggestions.” Hands trailing up her thick, thick clothes covered tights, up to her hip, the indirect touch is as intimate as if she were wearing nothing. One hand stays there, keeping her straddled across his stomach, while the other climbs higher, slipping under the clothes she’d just reflexively jerked down.

His hand, while cold, leaves fire in its wake.

Elizabeth feels her blood heat, their accidental positions suddenly suggestive. In her mind she already leans down, answering his touch by pressing her lips to his. It doesn’t help that she can feel the rough calluses of his hand against her bare skin, or that she wants to run hers from his palm up his arms until she can rest them on his chest. And it definitely doesn’t help that she knows what that feels like

The tips of his fingers touch the underside of her breast and for a moment Elizabeth loses the ability to think. Her body heats, she’s suddenly wearing too many clothes.

He’s still smirking, but his eyes are shades darker.

Her hands have developed a life of their own when she wasn’t looking and have started pressing down on his chest.

Damn this man and the effect he has on her. Just a touch, just a smile, or a smirk, or anything – why is he so unfairly attractive?

Elizabeth gives in. Sealing her lips to his for a heated, mind-searing kiss she loses sense of time. And surroundings. And anything, really. All except him. 

But clarity returns for an instant when they shift to align better, lips breaking apart to puff white clouds into the cold air. Their movements dislodge the snow stacked higher than the current height of their heads, bathing them both in cold.

Elizabeth whines, her frustration mirrored by Meliodas’ groan as they sit up.

It’s a lost effort trying to get rid of all the snow on her now, but the melting drops on her skin are a good way to not get lost even as Meliodas reaches to brush a frozen strand of hair out of her face, his hand lingering tenderly on her cheek on its return. Elizabeth leans into the calloused palm, her eyes half closing. With a bit of pressure he has her leaning forward, letting his forehead rest against her shoulder.

Her arms wind around him, one drawing through his hair, never ever wanting him to move.  Sitting awkwardly half buried in snow, the sky an icy blue above them and surrounding bare trees, the winter’s sun still high they must make an odd picture in their embrace. She loves him so much in these quiet moments that it hurts.

“We’re not getting anywhere like this,” he muses, amused smile in his tone. The warm air of his exhale tickles against her ear. “Though, at least, you managed Full Counter twice.”

Elizabeth sighs. “That doesn’t help me much. Full Counter isn’t my magic, I can’t use it on more than the magical equivalent of a strong breeze and I’m never going to be able to use it in a fight anyway. Counter Vanish has more applications outside of battle, but it’s so difficult.”

Meliodas hums against her collarbone. “It is the more advanced technique. But that’s not the what I meant.” He turns his head a bit so that she can meet his serious eyes, but he’s not moving his head from her shoulder. “I meant sparring. You getting some real fighting experience. I’m all for our distractions but not when it’s your ability to defend yourself that’s on the line.”

Knowledge and training of many lifetimes only helps her so much when her body has none of the reflexes, when her mind as to relearn all the intricate complexities of magic. She’ll never be as powerful as him – never had been, no one had – but she needs to be strong enough to defend herself against people, against monsters for long enough that even if they outclass her, she manages to stay alive until he comes for her. Protect herself and she protects him. Her body needs to be able to bear being enhanced by magic, she must learn how to be fast and how to deal with speed in someone else. She needs to be agile and quick of mind. (That’s how they live - anything to ease the suffering of the other.)

Reaching that level is not easy despite her advantages.

“I could always train on my own,” she suggests without much enthusiasm.

He snorts, his hair tickling against her chin. “No. I’d be watching you anyway. Meditating with nature’s magic is one thing, sharp and point objects are something else.”

They can never know what sort of dangers linger in the world for her and that makes it further difficult to train for. It’s just hard, you see, when the world is literally out to kill her. One hundred and six times has she died, always violent, always before his eyes. Unfortunately falling on her own sword (or lance) is more than possible. He’d be fast enough to catch her, but only if he were nearby and only if he payed attention. And if he does...well. Elizabeth knows what she feels like when she watches him exercise.

Just being able to use magic means nothing if she can’t use it in dangerous situations – battle, avalanche, storm, a mugging – and since she can’t use her innate magic (for her own safety), she has to train herself to use the other type of magic quickly and actually has to practice spells instead of just willing her magic to fall into the correct form.

He sighs, hand sliding from her cheek to around her waist, hand resting on her hip. “I think we might have to close the Boar Hat for a while and do a training camp or something. One without any spell practice. Just to focus on physical conditioning.”

Contrary to popular belief it’s not like people can’t learn the magic another is born with. It just takes so much more effort and the results are often hardly five percent as efficient as the original, people hardly bother.

Elizabeth’s talents always lie in the defensive, never wanting to hurt, and Full Counter should fit into her arsenal, being classified of one as the highest known spells in terms of defense in addition to the master of it being with her. However it unfortunately doesn’t, being intensely difficult even in controlled environment, but since she’s already learned it, she insisted to Meliodas he teach her Counter Vanish as well. Counter Vanish, when applied right, can be the difference between a hopeless situation and a simple one and thus is of immense tactical value to her.

It’s a hundred times more difficult than Full Counter. But the merit is undeniably there, which is why they practice it every day as a warm up before sparing.

...today they didn’t even get as far as a single exchange of fists before they getting...sidetracked. (Not that their distractions always land them in bed –  just the other day it was a hide-and-seek tickle fight which was, in some way, still training- but it’s always a distraction.)

“How would that work?” She asks, honestly baffled, leaning out of his hold a bit to see his expression. “It’s not like the lack of time is the problem.” More like lack of self-control.

Meliodas grins at her. “Well, if we had more time and didn’t have to be ready for opening every day we’d get more practice in even with our ‘distractions’.”

Heat rises to her cheeks as she smacks him lightly, wicked light in his eyes making his meaning very clear. “Or we could just invite a third person” - who isn’t Hawk, because Hawk always runs away around the time that Elizabeth starts drilling holes into solid rock and that’s when they’re barely starting - “to act as a chaperon.” Elizabeth pictures that idea for a moment – it might actually work.

Meliodas’ expression is blank in a way that she knows to read as irritated. But, and her lips quirk fondly, he manages not to voice his immediate rejection of the idea. “...but where would we find such a third person?”

Point. Who could they trust to watch what they can do?

The list is exactly as long as the list of his missing teammates. Whom they are still looking for.

Reluctantly she untangles herself from him, getting up, before she holds out a hand and pulls him to his feet. The simple motion ends in a chaste kiss that has her toes curl in delight. “How about we make it a Rule for the time-being? Might be worth a try. “

She clings to the wet spots in her clothing freezing against her skin to not get caught up in doing this for the rest of the day. She needs to get dry. He needs to dry. They have a tavern to introduce to the village and money to make.

Chapter Text

Gil is training.

Vivian can’t tear her eyes away, even though she is physically at the other end of the castle and her physical eyes are trained on a notes in front of her.

Then, far too soon for her tastes he starts swinging his sword up and down in a simple set of cool down katas. Her crow watches his every move obediently until he disappears inside the tower, no doubt going to clean himself up…

“Sorceress Vivian?”

She squeaks and almost tips out of her chair, her panicked fluster causing some of the sheets on the table to flutter to the ground. She scrambles to catch them, her magic preventing them from getting damaged. With that woman it wouldn’t be strange at all to have some sort of trigger go of if someone disrespected the research -

With a sigh of relief she’s able to gather them in a stack and put them back on the table, drawing as much dignity around her as she can before she turns to face her visitor. “Grand Master Hendrickson. Is there something I can help you with?”

He smiles at her benignly, thankfully overlooking her disgraceful display with the same patience and tolerance he grants that makes him so popular. “Have you managed to decipher the research yet? I believe you mentioned you were progressing...?”

For one horrible moment her mind blanked, Gil still too prominent in her mind before she manages to dredge up a triumphant grin, and then her thoughts are off, spinning. “Indeed I did. I meant to submit a formal report for the office of Grand Holy Knight to process...” she trails off, awaiting his reply. If it’s what she thinks it is…

Hendrickson nods thoughtfully, and gives her another smile, saying, “I don’t believe you need to put it into writing. Dreyfus has more than enough to  do, you know how he is, and I prefer verbal updates.” The look he gives her seems to have no hidden intent, but the very fact that he came to seek her out, here, in the Boar Sin’s old lab, when it is well within his right to simple summon her to him…

Vivian smiles slyly even as internally she puts yet another puzzle piece into place. They don’t really like each other, do they? Hendrickson and Dryfus. They put up such amiable faces in public, but behind the scenes it’s looking very different, isn’t it. “I suppose I could explain the crystal’s function to you now…shall I still submit a report to Lord Dreyfus or will you speak with him in private?” She enquirers innocently. How much longer will it take him to break, she wonders. How thin is he willing to let the pretense get?

He may have most of Merlin’s research, but she is the only one who could possibly decode it. And there is only so much that Hendrickson can hold under her nose and write off as ‘investigation of the Seven Deadly Sins’ before she gets too curious. She got too curious a while ago, and he must be made to understand that she will not be used without knowing what the end goal is. She is no one’s tool. She did not spend years under that woman learning all she could about magic to be degraded to a tool used at someone else’ convenience.

Something in his eyes sharpens. For a long, intense moment, his gaze pierces her, staring right down to her soul. Instinctively she reaches with her magic for her staff, the immense power of this man intimidating her despite her having expected it and having prepared herself. But she manages to restrain herself and her staff, leaning against the wall next to the door, doesn’t even twitch. Not giving a reaction is how she will win here.

Hendrickson sighs deeply and the almost unnoticeable pressure lets up. “I see that I’ve been trying your patience. I apologize for that, Vivian, but you must understand that this is an important matter.”

Now they are getting closer. What is ‘this’ she wonders and flicks her hair a bit. “Of course, Sir Hendrickson. I understand that. However you must know that there is only so much I can do when I lack the context.” Tell me what you are up to and I can do more.

Of course if he doesn’t, she’ll take longer with whatever objects of Merlin’s he wants identified next. Same for deciphering some of the more dubious files her (horrendous) teacher had to leave behind.

If Hendrickson doesn’t break, perhaps Dreyfus still will, despite ever so much claiming that he had no interest whatsoever in black magics and forbidden topics. (Vivian has less of an idea what Dreyfus is up to, the man not requiring her services as often as Hendrickson, but he is up to something.)

Vivian will not be left behind in the powerplay of these two powerful men. Power, authority, means, being her own master, Gil – she will not risk that becoming collateral.

He laughs lightly. “You know, maybe you are right. I suppose as the great Merlin’s apprentice you would know better than anyone how to, ah, reach satisfactory results.” Vivian has to suppress an angry twist of her face at the mention of her (hopefully) late teacher, the message received. You’ll get what you want but don’t push me, he says.

“That woman indeed taught me a lot.” Not about experiments or the like, Vivian had never been interested, and she can only decode the woman’s notes because she knew her character, because Merlin tended to be neck deep in her latest project and was only teaching Vivian on the side, like a secondary, half-forgotten accessory. Vivian picked up only a fragment by osmosis, which is not something Hendrickson or anyone needs to know. Ever. “I would like to say she would approve of her teachings being applied for the sake of the kingdom, but...” her being a traitor, well.

A peculiar smile twitches around Hendrickson’s lips, before it falls a way and he offers her his arm, ever polite and gracious. “Would you be available now? There is a matter that I would like a second science-inclined opinion on...”

Vivian takes his arm and imagines it’s Gil in his place, and oh, would that be wonderful! If only Gil would look at her like he looks at Margaret, if only he would treat her like Hendrickson does, if only he would see her as who she was instead of a comrade-in-arms who is forced to show him the right way. Oh, if only that petty little princess never existed, then Gil would be hers.

Hendrickson guides her through the castle, and they exchange meaningless words, always cautious of eavesdroppers. You never know when the walls might have ears. Or when the animals might be more than they appear. She would know, synchronizing her eyes with her crow only to find it staring at the castle, meaning that Gil is somewhere inside the castle. Mood already souring, she checks though her magically altered mantis’ to, as expected, find Gil and Margaret in each other’s company in one of the upper floor gardens. She sharpens her attention on them, but they exchange no words. Still, how they look at each other. Those lingering gazes! Vivian deserves those, not that spoiled little brat! They’re hers! Gil is hers!

Her focus is so consumed, she almost doesn’t notice when Hendrickson presses his hand against a stone, and a secret passage opens up in his study.

Crystal-lights ignite to reveal a staircase leading down. Hendrickson doesn’t smile anymore, his expression cold and reserved as he offers her to go first. In private there’s no need to keep the facade up. Right.  Gulping, Vivian descends the stairs deeper and deeper and deeper. The air chills and the faintest trace of magic that she can make out makes the hairs on her skin rise.

Something like excitement, something like a thrill makes her smile and hasten her pace. If this is what she thinks it is, that so called ‘Goddess Amber’ that she only just managed to tickle the purpose out of might become very much important indeed.

Chapter Text

“Sorry to keep you waiting. Here you go! Meatpie, as ordered.”

“...”

“I know it doesn’t look good, but it tastes fine,” Meliodas says. “She cooked it.” His thump points over at the door to the kitchen where Elizabeth is just coming through, untying her apron.

“Trust me,” says Hawk, carrying a tray filled with mugs to the table on his back. “You’d want to run if he’s the one who cooked it. Elizabeth makes pure heaven in comparison.”

The two men gape. “...a talking pig?”

Meliodas fishes the alcohol off Hawk’s back while the men are still recovering from shock. “I’m quite well known for my roasted pig though, if you wanna try it…”

“I meant you’d want to run to it, of course,” Hawk corrects himself faultlessly. As if.

“If you say so...,” says the man to the right, picking up a fork. One bite later… “oh, this is great! Who’d have thought that something that looks like crap could taste so good?”

“You’re right!” The other one agrees quickly.

Snorting, Meliodas leaves them to it.

“It’s Elizabeth who made it, Heinrich!” A man from a different table calls over, laughing. “Let me tell you a trick. If you see food that looks like the art of a painter, give it to the pig. On the other hand if it looks like that,” he nods at the dish, “it’ll be good. The Boar Hat’s good-bad combo these two are!”

Roaring laughter explodes all across the tavern. Elizabeth, carrying a new round on her own tray, catches his gaze, eyes wide glowing with mirth, the tilt of her lips teasing. As she passes him, he slips his hand under her skirt and squeezes.

Her feet miss a step and he has to spin fast to catch both her and the tray.

The guests blow on their fingers in sharp whistles. “Nice catch!”

“Clumsy Elizabeth makes her return!”

“Don’t give up, Elizabeth-chan! Keep trying!”

“You can do it!”

Elizabeth’s cheeks are red, from anger, embarrassment and from the fact that the one hand he has on her subtly teases its thumb against the side of her breast in public. The smirk he gives her is utterly dark and wicked for an instant that is too fast for any observer but her to see before he lets her regain her footing and hands her the tray back. Her narrowed gaze from under her bangs as she straightens her clothes promises retribution.

Then she takes the tray from him and brings it over to the table that requested it. Meliodas can’t help staring after her for a moment, eyes intense.

Theirs is an easy, familiar routine.

He can’t help but tease her, his youthful appearance allowing him to do so in ways that anyone looking five years older than him would be shunned for. With him, most people don’t even notice when his touch on Elizabeth slips, when he trails his eyes intensely up her body. She does. She can’t protest it either without drawing attention to it. Which is precisely why she's so flustered and irritated by it in the first place. That’s why he does it, and she knows it - it never ceases to get an interesting reaction from her.

Okay, maybe it’s not quite true that she can’t get him back, because the way she suddenly changes her walk, or lets her hair expose her neck when she knows he’s watching is definitely not a coincidence, but then again, this is their routine.

It’s fun and thrilling.

“They’re new in town,” he hears one of their ‘regular’ guests say to Elizabeth as she hands them their drinks. “Heinrich and Johan – the women caught them when they were over in Nibel and brought them back.”

“A strong grip they have, our Bernia women!” Hoots another man, causing a new round of laughter.

The aforementioned Heinrich turns red, while the presumed Johan chimes in dreamily, “yes, what a grip….”

“Congratulations,” says Elizabeth warmly. “Who are the lucky ones?” Her head tilts. “Or the lucky one?”

For a moment she stuns the men into silence before jeering laughter explodes.

“Hear, hear!”

“Nice one, Elizabeth-chan!”

“Something you wanna tell us, Johan, Heinrich?”

The two men are frozen. But then Johan starts cracking up, throwing back the entire mug of beer in one go. Well, if he’s marrying into the Bernia community, he’s got to be able to do at least that much, Meliodas thinks, amused. He thuds a refill down on their table. “On the house!”

Heinrich is still recovering from the blow Elizabeth dealt him, but Johan grins wide. “Thanks, young hard-working waiter!”

Meliodas sighs. “I’m the owner of this bar, you know. The name is Meliodas.”

The man’s gray eyes round. “Really? Like the, you know,” his voice lowers conspiratorially and darts to the blackboard at the wall. “Criminal?” As though just mentioning the name would call forth the troupe in question.

Meliodas wishes; at least he’d have found them then. “Exactly like that. I am him after all, the evil, evil Captain.” His joking tone makes Johan and everyone else take it and run with it.

It’s kind of pathetic that the kingdom’s intelligence is that horrible, but it’s also one of the greatest ongoing jokes he’s had, like, ever.

“Like you were even born then!” Is joked at him in return, setting off another round of laughter.

“It’s true that I don’t really know a lot about them,” he say, “care to fill me in?”

“You forget already, Meliodas?” Erik, the man from the other table, pokes. “You have a brain like an old man, don’t you? When you were here a year ago and us men, we pooled together all of our knowledge to fill you in on the darkest day to haunt the Capital!”

Meliodas shrugs. “No, that I remember. But that was about the thing ten years ago! Ancient history. I meant more recent stuff.”

The merry atmosphere in the tavern flickers as two dozen men trade glances. Elizabeth mouths subtle at him, cleaning dishes behind the bar. He smiles cheerily back. Hawk happens to step on his feet.

“Well, they’re dead, aren’t they?” Voices one of the younger men. Meliodas knows him as an apprentice to Bernia’s bindweed brand, though the name doesn’t come to mind. “It’s been ten years.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” counters another. “Those men...no creatures. They were said to be monsters - could they die just like that?”

Form there on, the conversation is running on its own, leaving the staff to eavesdrop. Gaining information in a bar is so simple, it should be criminal. All they have to do is occasionally toss thoughts into the conversation to hear what all in attendance have to say about it. So with a prompt of, “if they’re alive, they’d be hiding then wouldn’t they” the discussion easily steers into information that only locals would know about.

“- you don’t think that the Thunder Peak’s monster is -”

“ - nah, Holy Knights came a couple of years ago, don’t you remember. A dragon made its nest there they said -”

“- passed by Forest of White Dreams in the north, it’s so remote. I heard even Holy Knights don’t come out of it -”

“ - we went around it’s borders once, main route was blocked by a flood, on a delivery to Vaizel. Let me tell you, it’s creepy. I felt it trying to swallow me, no sane man would -”

“ - speaking of Holy Knights, I heard there’s an inspection tomorrow -”

“- good that we have them, they’re taking care of everything -”

“- the king’s illness -”

Crash!

“Oh no, I’m so sorry!” Mugs rolling over the edge of a table, rare red ale from Marakia spilled all over, Elizabeth fumbles for a cloth, hurrying clumsily through the tavern. The men she spilled on wave her off, forgiving her easily and laughing as she turns red from her mistake.

Meliodas fills new mugs with the same and brings it to the table in her stead, leaning around her as she swipes the cloth over the liquid. The knuckles of her hands are white and she uses way too much force.

“Here ya go, sorry about that.”

“It’s fine. Elizabeth-chan is such a hard-worker, anyone can make mistakes.” The man looks down at Elizabeth, smiling. “Really, don’t worry about it, Elizabeth-chan. You can make all the mistakes you want. I don’t think anyone could be angry at you.” He winks. Elizabeth lifts her head to give a brief smile in return but her heart isn’t in it.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the tavern the conversation about the king never stopped.

“-hear he can’t rule anymore.”

“Yeah, he’s been sick for a while they say.”

“So does that mean we’re now ruled by the Princess? The eldest. Margaret, was it?”

“She took the blow of her father’s health hard. I heard they haven’t seen her in public since. And everyone knows Princess Veronica is training for knighthood.”

“It’s good that we have the Holy Knights. They’re taking care of everything.”

“Yeah, especially with the war now.”

“...I can’t believe we’re at war again. If King Baltra were well...”

“...it’s been a long time coming, though. The recruiters have been coming more frequently, trying to tempt our young.”

“Yeah. My boy came back sprouting about glory and swords one day. As if I’d just let him give up the family trade!”

“Let’s hope then we’ll crush Marakia soon. Or it’ll spread to us. My father used to tell, back when King Baltra was young -”

Elizabeth diligently swipes up the ale, wrings the cloth out over a bucket and doesn’t look up. There’s nothing telling about her internal turmoil unless one knows her well. If she were to look up, surely her eyes would give her away.

His emotional response at seeing her hurt will do nothing. Instead he...stores it. A pitch-black abyss is inside him, always, at any moment. It takes everything Meliodas feeds it, and right now he feeds it his rage at seeing her hurt, and his protectiveness since its the wrong instinct when there is no threat. Once she finished cleaning up and the conversation about the king went onto different topics, he takes the handle of the bucket from her, gently easing her fists open.

With a look at Hawk they agree the pig will manage the business for now, and Meliodas can guide Elizabeth out of sight, a hand in the small of her back. He closes the kitchen door behind them, the noise of the tavern immediately dimming and the smell of food strengthening.

“...my father...” Her breath hitches, voice tight.

Meliodas chooses to say nothing, taking both her hands and rubbing his thumps over her clenched fists. They open to his ministrations, twisting so that their fingers intertwine, and clench again. He keeps up the comforting motion, waiting.

“I...” Her gaze is locked in the vicinity of their feet. “I...abandoned him.” Her voice cracks.

“Your life was threatened. Still is,” he says simply, calmly.

Her head jerks sharply. Denial, disagreement. Anger at herself. “He’s my father. He took me in, loved me, cared for me.”

“He did.”

“He’s sick. How could I not be there. What sort of daughter does that make me?!” Her voice rises in pitch, gaining a hysterical edge as guilty wrangles a victory from her. “I -” She breaks the thought off, breathing harshly. “I knew. When I left, that I would give up any right. To them. If they so said. But, I - I left them as though I owe them nothing. I knew something could happen. I know I did. I should have been there -”

“Don’t say that,” he says sharply. “Your life is everything.”

“To you -”

“Yes! But do you honestly think, that if Baltra had known, he would have wanted you to risk your life just to stay?!”

“I could have told him! I should have trusted him more!”

“But you didn’t.” Meliodas states flatly. “You regret that. Do you regret leaving and coming here as well?” 

“No!” She very nearly shouts, shoving against him with their connected hands. He stumbles back, their still interlocked limbs pulling her into the motion. His back thuds into a wall, her body against his, and remains there. Her chest leans against his. Hands pressed to the side, her head leans against the wall over his shoulder, breath coming harsh and loud. He doesn’t move, letting her rest like this even as his heart twists painfully.

Anything for her, even if it means letting her go. If it means being second. If it means never having her. (That will never happen, he knows, down to the marrow of his bones, no matter that it would be their salvation.) His blood thunders in his ears.

Eventually her body loses some of its tension and melts into him. Her head turns, breath now directing coming against his ear. “Not you,” she whispers through a closed throat. “I’ll never regret you,” and she sounds close to tears at the admission, knowing that it damns them just as he does. “I love you. I love you so much. I can’t be without you, I would have gone mad. But he’s my father. I've done so little for them, only caused them hurt, and now Father is - and Margaret. If Veronica trains with the knights, then...” she trails off, voice dying. 

The guilt that had been building for years is eating at her, boiling over at the thought of the man who had loved her like a daughter lying on death's bed without seeing him again, without ever properly apologizing in person. Yet, at the same time, she has no suggestion what they should do. The risk is great. 

Meliodas looks over her shoulder, not even resting his chin on it. Behind her the small kitchen of the Boar Hat, the home he built for himself when he once again lost all (but her life), a place with ten years of memories with Hawk and seven years with her. Memories of lifting her up to reach the cupboards and of watching her hum as she tested new receipts fill his mind. Of tasting her creations and of Hawk crying over her first leftovers. He remembers pressing her up against the sink, trailing hot searing kisses on her neck, her gasp and how she ached against him. The herbs drying from the ceiling they picked together in spring, and he remembers her smile as the sun lit it.

This is all he stands to lose.

It means nothing in face of her pain.

“So then lets go see him.” His head moves to press his mouth to her neck, a simple comfort for them both, breathing in her scent. His lips curl into a smile he knows she can feel. “I owe him an apology for stealing his daughter anyway.”

Her body stills then starts to quiver. She presses her face in the junction between his shoulder and neck. A sob tears from her, tears dripping into his shirt. Her voice is ragged, tone desperate. “I love you.

Chapter Text

“Ta-dah! What do you say Hawk? How do I look?”

“It’s great, Elizabeth! Suits you really well!”

A look at the other one.

“...It’s...I’m sorry, Meliodas. I never knew how much you looked like a kid.”

Scowl.

Hawk is on the floor, hysterical laughter rolling him back and forth.

Meliodas glowers murderously at him. “How fortunate for you then that your disguise is simple.” Out of nothing his hands are occupied by an object that he uncoils, letting part of it thud ominously on the floor. “Livestock.”

.

.

.

.

“-you don’t understand – we were requested -”

“- all commercial visitors have had their rights suspend. If you keep insisting -”

The light gasp of a woman reaches his ears and Hauser has his feet change direction without a conscious decision. “Surely that can’t be! We were especially – we’ve come all this way – please, I beg of you, let me speak with the kitchen staff! I assure you, this pig was requested!”

“No outsiders are allowed inside the castle. I warn you, the dungeons are not kind to women.”

“Okay,” cuts Hauser in, “what is going on here?”

There’s a beautiful young woman pleading with the castle guards and emergency situation or no, what kind of knight would he be if he ignored a lady in distress.

The guards turn, expressions angered under their helmets before they recognize him. “Sir Hauser! Sir!”

“Yeah, yeah, lets not all be that stuffy,” he waves the salute away, wordlessly telling them at ease, as he eyes the pair laying siege to one of the castle’s side entrances. A young woman like the voice told him – a stunning one, crystal blue eyes and smooth skin, tall and voluptuous body - along with someone who can only be her kid brother, clad in what seems to be rather provincial farmer clothes. She, a faded red dress going to her knees; he, loose three-quarter leather trousers fastened with suspenders over a beige shirt. “Okay, lets hear it. Why did you come here? You’ve got to have heard that this is not a good time. If it’s just something like wanting to sell your stock, I’m sorry, you’ll have to go.”

Clasping her hands before her ample chest earnestly, the young woman shakes her head. Light blond hair flies with the motion, caching the light. Hauser feels himself fluster as two small hands grab one of his and blue eyes plead with him from under short bangs. “Oh, but this is what I’ve been telling these good men. We’re not here to sell this one,” clearly indicating the pig held on a leash by her brother, “in fact it’s already been generously been paid for! We came to deliver it in person, you see, because our pigs are special. We feed them healing herbs and waters purified by the druids in the north-east. We were told to hurry, you see – our pigs are said to have healing qualities, and with his majesty in bed...” she trails off, unwilling to speak of the terribly subject weighting down all of the kingdom. “I’m sure someone on the kitchen’s staff must have forgotten to inform these good men of our arrival.”

Healing pig meat? Well, why not. And it’s not like the cooks know that healthy food isn’t going to return the king to the throne. Only good judgment would do that – or Princess Margaret acquiescing to the knights decision that the king can no longer be allowed to hold office, in which case they'd get a Queen.

Hauser doesn’t know how Gil does it – being in love with the Princess and still arresting her father; never-mind the princess herself. But that is why Gil is as trusted and reliable as he is – he is dutiful above all else.

But that leaves Hauser in a predicament here. He could just send the pair away, pig paid for or not. But then again that would upset the cooks, perhaps make them suspect that something is up – it’s strange enough already that the king's usual manservant is kept away and that knights guard his doors twenty-four-seven. Also then again, it would waste the cooks’ care, and Hauser feels rotten enough already for being part in what is, technically, a coup d’eat, even if it was done for the sake of the kingdom.

Sighing, he scratches his hair, but he’s decided already. Honestly, it’s not like he has anything better to do. “I understand. Thank you for your hard work, I’ll take if from here.” He moves to take the rope from the kid, noticing the strange expression appearing on both the farmer’s children faces then. “What?”

“Nothing much,” says the boy, voice surprisingly mature. He smiles easily up at Hauser. “Just that this one is quite uneasy around strangers. You might get some trouble with it if we don’t lead it right up to the pen. Pen, I mean, since I’m assuming dinner’s almost ready, so no need for this guy in the kitchens today.”

Hauser looks down. “It seems to be well behaved.”

“It isn’t.” A pause as all eyes watch the pink animal stand perfectly calm between them. “It isn’t,” the boy grits out, and suddenly the pig’s eyes blink rapidly (as if it remembered something, but that’s silly) and it starts tugging and jerking on the rope, squeaking wildly.

Hauser holds it with ease, laughing. “I see what you mean now, but don’t worry. I’ve got it. I’m a Holy Knight, you know!”

The pretty young woman gasps, eyes alight with wonder. “Really? A Holy Knight?

Puffing out his chest, he casually displays his physique, smilingly teasingly. “You don’t think I look it?”

A pretty blush rises to the young woman’s face, her eyes darting away. “I wouldn’t presume...though you do have a noble air...”

Grin sneaking on his face, Hauser leans forward. “There’s more noble about me than just my air. Care to find out what else?” Cheeks redden more -

“Okay, that’s far enough.” Suddenly Hauser’s view of pretty girl is interrupted by her brother, everything about him screaming bored except the eyes. Which are cold and unamused. There’s also a sword (with a peculiar handle) strapped to his back – dangerous times and all – that might suddenly be worth noting. “We’ve still got places to be, so if you don’t mind, Sir Holy Knight….”

“I’m sorry, Sir” giggles the pretty, pretty girl. From behind she swings her arms around her brother’s shoulders playfully and presses a kiss to his cheek. “I prefer short men.” She winks.

“Ah,” Hauser leans back, obediently backing off, grinning. “I understand. Well, I wouldn’t want to be in the way. Maybe if you hurry you can enjoy the rest of the evening as a date,” he jokes with her. “You know where to find me if the company gets boring.”

The boy huffs, uncrossing his arms and letting them disappear behind his back. An intense red burst on the girl’s cheeks as her arms around her brother stiffen. “Ah – thanks, but I...I don’t think it’ll be necessary.” She smiles, flustered. “I’ll – you know what, I think we better get going now. You must have better things to do.” Taking her brother by the hand, feet attached to pretty calves all but running. “Bye!” She shouts over her shoulder at him.

Hauser blinks. “Hey! Wait! What’s-” she disappears in an alley “...your name...”

The guards at least have the dignity not to snicker, though when Hauser shoots them a look amusement is in their eyes. “Here you are laughing,” he grumbles, “but I didn’t see you doing any better, you know.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Sir Hauser,” says one of them primly. They only dare do that because he’s known for making friends with everyone, even knights and lowly guards, probably even drank a couple with these very guys one time or another. They’d rather run themselves through on their own spears than take that tone with Gil, though.. “We were merely doing our job. There was not a chance for either of us to be turned down.”

In other word you got to try but you still lost possibly with an to her little brother addendum.

Hauser groans. “Yeah, yeah, whatever. At least I got to talk to a pretty girl. That’s better than shouting at her, don’t ya agree, tomorrow’s dinner?” Speaking at a pig doesn’t exactly make sense, but Hauser doesn’t care. Tugging the animal along, he waves over his shoulders at the guards -

Wait.

His eyes follow the rope from his hand to the sling around the pig’s neck…?

“It’s gone!”

.

.

.

.

“That was cruel, Elizabeth. Giving that poor man hope.” Meliodas sighs, mock-disappointed.

As they continue to duck and weave through the evening’s travel, Elizabeth giggles and squeezes his hand. “Oh, but it was so worth it to see your face when I did. And his – he thought I was only playing along with my little brother.”

Meliodas shakes his head. Inside a narrow alley, barely more than half a meter across and cluttered with rubbish and broken boxes. A cat flees them as he stops and pulls her against him. His back to the wall, hands on her rear, he enjoys the sight as she squeaks in surprise and blushes genuinely (not the fake one she gave the knight). Overhead the sky is orange, but in this place the shadows are already so long, no one would see them if they weren’t looking.

He frowns at her, smirk twitching in the corners of his mouth. “No really, toying with man’s heart, I must have been a bad influence.”

Coyly she brings her face close to his, watching him with dark, wide mirth filled eyes. “Bad influence? Why, I never knew you had such an interest in your fellow men.”

Meliodas snorts into her neck. It shouldn’t be funny, but it is because in three-thousand years he’s never had even a passing interest in anyone else, and even his lovers from Before are blurred to the extend that he only knows they existed. Throwing him and men into that context...yeah, it’s funny. “You know, that Holy Knight was right about one thing.”

“...what?” asks Elizabeth breathily, his wandering hands distracting her almost to the point of blanking her mind.

“We’ve still got some time to kill. Till Hawk can open us the entrance. Any idea of what to do until then?” He teases, knowing his eyes to be glinting with merciless mischief.

Elizabeth trails her hands up his arms, over his shoulders, tracing the form of his muscles underneath until her palms settle on his chest, watching him with hooded eyes. “A couple...”

Meliodas grins. “Funny so do I.” One of his hands travels up her side, over her hip, thin waist, and her breasts to do something about the bothersome high neck of her countrywoman’s dress. “After all, Baltra’s got to know what I’m apologizing for.”

Red blooms in her face and down her neck, as delightful a reaction as he always gets when them becomes a topic for more than just them. That it’s her father only makes it worse, but he doesn’t give her a chance to splutter protest, his lips latching onto her throat.

A satisfied hum fills him when she exhales shakily on his name, her hands flying to his head, carding into his hair.

“We...gotta go back to the inn first,” she reminds him weakly, struggling for breath as his teeth graze over a sensitive spot, leaving marks all over her neckline. After a moment longer, she pulls back a bit, just enough to continue her thought while Meliodas drinks in the sight of her flustered, dazed appearance. “We...still gotta change and I don’t want to see you in these-” she gives a frustrated, adorable pout, tugging at his horrible, horrible clothes. That he had only just managed to forget about. “- for longer than I have to.”

Kissing her once, he allows some space to grow between them – as much as it can in an alley this narrow anyway. “I don’t think I’ve ever been as much of a kid as these make me look like.” With distaste he pulls on the suspenders. It’s a necessary disguise, he knows.

He’s Meliodas, the monstrous leader of the Seven Deadly Sins. People expect him to look like he’s in his twenties or thereabout (what a joke). In the capital, where people who actually know what he looks like, who he is personally acquainted with, who may have served with him - they also all either expect him to have at least grown a little or to carry an aura that makes people think man before they think child when they look at him. Passing himself off as childish and young as he can is probably the best disguise short of glamors, and those get detected by the castle’s wards. Doesn’t make dressing like a kid any less humiliating.

Hawk will hold this over him for years.

Together they return to the room in an inn they have rented for a night, walking through streets and between buildings they have not seen in ten and seven years respectively. The Capital of Liones (also called Liones) has not changed a lot. The streets are packed, people hurrying from one end to the other. Buildings have been added to, gaining more stories as the population increased. The smell of city life is penetrating. Spells of many kind are worked into the foundation of buildings, into the stones under their feet and into the doors of stores. Some are for stability, some are of practical uses such as directing rainwater to follow its channel, others ward against waste. It’s delicate spell-work, a sign of Liones’ wealth and education that magic can be found in every inch of its Capital’s streets.

They pass a showcase displaying tiny water dragons jumping from bowel to bowel, though hoops, and tiny fire dragons fluttering from candle to candle, and even Meliodas has to stop and stare for a moment to admire the art. They are fanciful decoration for the rich, he imagines, not beyond a purpose of lighting difficult-to-reach chandeliers or watering plants, but it’s not easy to make elements take this form and keep it.

Elizabeth giggles, following his gaze. “Were you also just reminded of Merlin?”

No, though come to think of it… “I think she was done with dragons of this size about thirty seconds after she was born,” he comments dryly. “But I wouldn’t put it past her to make some like these to guard her labs or something and chew on everyone who tries to interrupt her experiments.”

Elizabeth laughs. Letting go of his hand, she leans on her knees to get a closer look through the window. “...I think I want one of these...”

“Hmm? How come?”

Tugging a strand of hair (a very, very light blond shade) behind her ear, she shoots him a look from the corner of her eyes. A smile tugs at her lips. “If we could get theses to help with cleaning and washing...”

Hmm. Meliodas flips through the possibilities. Less time spent on cleaning would mean more time for something else. But on the other hand, they wouldn’t be able to use them so long as patrons are present, which is the time where they already manage to do most of the dishes. Also, it’s not like they spend that much time on scrubbing the floors, an activity which together with washing is actually mildly therapeutic. Yet again, less time spend on that would be more time he could spend on Elizabeth…

Her sigh interrupts his mental debate. “It’s a shame we can’t buy it...”

“If everything goes well we can stop by here tomorrow and we could.”

“Hmm. But we don’t have the money,” points Elizabeth out, stopping her examination to take his hand again and tug him along. He follows without protest. She glances back over her shoulder at the store once, a pout on her lips.

“...do you really want one?” Meliodas asks, ticking an eyebrow up. If she really does, he could -

“No, I don’t think so,” she sighs. Over them, the sky is growing dark and the streets are becoming a little less packed. The subtle tension that has been like an undertone all day is more obvious now. People walk more briskly, tension to their shoulders and the way they avoid looking at patrols and even the occasional Holy Knight speaks volumes. “They’re a cute idea, and would be fun to play with I think. But...they’re just toys.”

Without any real function, is implied in that, without a real purpose. They’re just something to have. A luxury. Something without true value. Temporary.

What’s so bad about that sits on his tongue, but he bites it back. Luxuries and material stuff in general are temporary and so easily lost. For Elizabeth, who looses all she builds and all she owns and all she works and sweats and bleeds for again and again in periods that last, at most, thirty years, material objects are...tools.

He at least can carry things from one life to the next, and were she to ask, he would keep things for her and return them to her next incarnation, but without memories the value would not be the same.

Meliodas knows her reasoning because he offered before. A ring, a hair-clip, a pair of shoes, maybe even a house she loved. He’d have kept it all for her. She said no.

But that shouldn’t have to mean she can’t take delight in the things she has at the moment. He’ll remind her of that somehow.

They reach the inn, a small thing near the outskirts but away from the gates given that security tends to be tighter around it. The room is small, just barely big enough for a narrow double bed, but it does have a bathroom attached and that matters quite a lot for what they have planed. The matron welcomes them back, handing them the key to their room and then hurries to continue serving dinner with her two daughters.

They take a trey with dinner up to their room, preferring to eat in private over the bustling pub below. Dinner is a brew, not as thick as Meliodas remembered Liones-soup to be like. The quality of food is always a good indication of the state of a place, so while it seems that the capital itself is still well off, it does feel the effects of the actions they’ve seen as they traveled here. Food rationing, fortifications being built, standardized rerouting.

Sitting cross-legged on the bed, Meliodas stirs the soup on his plate, thinking. Baltra’s illness, the sudden shift to more active war preparations, the actual war exploding with their neighbors even though they all ought to be shoring up resources and men power for when the seal is going to break…All these recent changes in additions to the things they noted over the years – demonic infections, someone experimenting with demons, the growing aggressiveness of magical creatures – don’t paint a nice picture. Tonight they will hopefully get some answers from Baltra. They had better be good ones or Meliodas is going to jump to his own conclusions.

“Do you think he’ll be okay?”

Breaking out of his thoughts, he sees Elizabeth frown forlorn out of the window, plate forgotten in her lap. The view of the castle is obstructed by other buildings, but the castle being as high as it is, is visible from everywhere in the city, this place being no exception. “Hmm, sure. Hawk is annoying most of the time, but he isn’t stupid. Or incompetent.” He smiles wryly, thinking of all the times Hawk’s presence saved him from the dark, horrible place in his head just by being himself. “Besides, he just got to pretend to be a pig and that’s not really difficult.”

“But what if he gets caught? And locked up?” Elizabeth frets, nibbling her lower lip.

“Then he’ll break out. Just think about it, Elizabeth,” he smirks. “Before meeting Hawk, would you ever have thought the livestock could be a security risk? What would you have done if you had found a pig wandering the grounds at night?”

Her head tilts, hair falling over her shoulder in thought before she breaks into a grin. “Let it be. Or returned it to the pen if I didn’t have anything better to do.”

“So would I,” he admits, shrugging without shame. “After Wandle and Hawk not anymore. But just thinking about looking at every fly or spider or cat as if it were a spy makes me feel like an idiot. The problem is not going to be him. It’ll be us. We won’t be overlooked.”

“Hmm. We did some espionage in Danafor, but I haven’t since...” She chews the inside of her cheek. “I hope I’m not too out of practice.”

Liz. The memory of her is painful, still, always, even with her right in front of him. The days in Danafor were happy, simple, in a way they hadn’t been in a long time. If he could allow himself to think about it, he’d think that that played a part in why he broke so spectacularly with her death. But he can’t think about it. That way lies madness. “If you are then so am I. Don’t know if you remember, but the missions Baltra gave us didn’t really call for subtlety.” Opposite of, in fact. Edinburgh ups his ruined kingdom count to two in just the last two decades (though he can’t take credit alone). Then there was the notable happenstance with the troll queen and the ancient druid ruins she made her nest in. The mess with the dragons on the borders to Camelot also doesn’t bear thinking about.

The Seven Deadly Sins were given the most dangerous, most high risk and most unreasonable missions. Combat missions, all of them. They were a hammer. They came and only rubble was left in their wake. Or dead bodies.

Elizabeth smiles fondly at him, intertwining their fingers and running her thump over the back of his hand. “I do remember that you kept treating the messes you and your friends got into like a joke. I don’t think I’ve seen you having as much fun as you had with them in millennia.”

Meliodas opens his mouth to protest, closes it, tries again, and fails. His brows pull together. “I don’t know if I would call it fun...”

“Oh, don’t doubt it. You got to drink whenever you wanted, you got to do things your way, had little responsibility, and the bit that you had basically ran itself.”

“Hey now, that isn’t true! I’ll have you know that getting the guys all focused on the same thing was a damn trial every time!”

“Hmm. But that is the extend of your complains,” she points out reasonably. “And I know you. Leadership, when you actually care about it, comes easy to you.” An eyebrow rises at him in challenge as though to say anything else?

He doesn’t pout. He’s far too enchanted by her heart to be upset about such things as losing an argument. Instead he smiles, bring their hands to his lips to press a kiss to her knuckles and he watches with a tender gaze as her cheeks color by such a simple gesture. “You know, reminiscing about the old days wasn’t what I had in mind when I said we had time to kill.” Her face instantly blushes, more than confirming that her ideas had not run along that line either. “Good thing I already left those.” He looks pointedly at her neck where the lovebites he left just earlier mark her skin.

Elizabeth’s second hand flies up, brushing over them. Her expression glides from embarrassment to irritation to fondness and back to embarrassment. Untangling their hands, she rises from the bed, setting her plate (still half filled) back on the tray which rests on the windowsill. “I think I’ll change now.” Studiously, she avoids even glancing at him, face still red. Meliodas is content to watch her as she moves across the small room, picking through their bag for a change of clothes, before she disappears in the bath.

Then, with a sigh, his eyes drift in the direction of the castle. Orange has completely fled the sky by now, but it’s still bright enough that he can identify the towering building. “Really, Baltra, what are you doing…?” He mutters under his breath. The king is a good man, wise even without his magic, and definitely not a chore to serve. Still, if it weren’t for the fact that this time is a seriously dangerous one and that gathering allies is a must, Meliodas would have wanted to live a few years just ignoring the annoying little messes humans tend to make every couple generations. After all, he’d just spend a few decades in knighthood and served for more than one decade as a Great Holy Knight, meaning that he’d had his fill of politics and court, especially since it had ended in such a catastrophic way.

Honestly, Meliodas had been anything but inclined to take up the same duties again, but then Baltra had come, had give Elizabeth a home, and predicted the revival of Meliodas’ oh so dearly missed family, and he’d suddenly had an actual purpose beyond a nebulous goal he didn't know how to accomplish. 

If the situation somehow had turned so bad that civilians had to be pressed into service, that a war with Marakia had to be started (just – why?) why hadn’t the king called the Sins to duty? To fight such horrible threats that would necessitate all the things going on is the reason the Seven Deadly Sins were founded. So why hasn’t he heard anything? About said threats? And it’s not like Baltra believes they are guilty of murdering Zaratras – Elizabeth told him – so why? Meliodas can’t make sense of what’s going on in the kingdom right now.

Well, whatever.

Slipping off the bed, Meliodas pulls the curtains closed and digs through their bag and pulls out his night-clothes. Once he’s changed into them, he’s black from head to toe. The only skin showing is from his chin up to his hair, high collar of the skin-tight suit pulled up. A black piece of fabric also goes over his hair, concealing the rather telling brightness of it. A look in the reflection of his broken sword identifies him as, no two ways about it, Black Ops. It feels rather silly, standing dressed like this in a brightly lit room, but he digs a bit around in his memories and the right mind set comes.

Strapping the sheath back on, Dragon Handle in place, he’s ready for some espionage. Has been a long time since he’s really bothered with it, a couple centuries at least, back when being an information dealer had struck his fancy...

The door to the bathroom opens, and out steps Elizabeth. Meliodas’ eyes drag up her form without his permission, from the way her flat shoes mold over her calves, over the fabric clinging to every curve of her legs and tights, to how it hides nothing of the form of her hips, to how the upper half of the outfit hugs her waist and flares out with her chest. The way it lies on her collarbones leaves him able to trace them even with her closes on. From there it climbs up her throat where it puts the fine line of her neck on display as though she were wearing nothing.

When he finally drags his eyes up to her face, his smirk is firmly in place, just waiting to see her blush at his very obvious appreciation of clothes that hide nothing.

Instead his mouth dries from the way her eyes finish her own journey up his body. There’s no blush on her face growing, her eyes too dark as his lock with hers. He wants to lick his lips to do something about the sudden dryness of them.

Elizabeth’s teeth pull on her lips as she visibly struggles to regain her focus and Meliodas has to look sharply away while he still has some coherent thought. It’s suddenly too hot, the room is too small and the air is all but sparking with desire. Even with his back turned to her, he feels every motion she makes as though she’s right before his eyes.

“So,” Elizabeth clears her throat roughly as the sounds of shuffling fabric cuts through the charged silence. Putting her clothes into their bag, probably. “Um. What time is it?”

Meliodas’ body is systematically locked in place and it takes a moment before he manages to gather the control needed to unlock his voice and voice only. “Around curfew, I think. Downstairs is a lot quieter than before.”

He senses her nod even though there’s meters between them and he has his back to her. His ears catch the faintest sound of her hands tying a bandana over her bright hair. Then she moves back into the bathroom, the count of her steps telling him that she’s inspecting her reflection.

“...say, don’t you think it would have been better to dye my hair a darker color after all?” She asks him hesitantly. In his mind’s eye he can see how she turns her head to check how well her hair is hidden by the bandana and her clothes. The image isn’t as tempting and Meliodas breaths out through the nose, relaxing.

“Your hair is one of your most identifying features. If we get seen or, you know, confronted, your identity might be enough to keep this from blowing up.” Not to mention that if Princess Elizabeth is reaffirmed with long sliver hair, people would look at Waitress Elizabeth with long blond (red or brown) hair and not make a connection.

“...if you say so...” After a moment, she returns to the main room, and this time they are both more on guard, not letting eyes wander lest attraction explode into want. His regard of her appearance is critical, ticking off a mental checklist. Skin covered, no loose fabric that could get caught somewhere or make noise, nothing bright that would make her glow in the dark. She has her lance (so very short it is not longer than her arm) also wrapped in black fabric to seal the pearly gleam of it.

Black Ops.

Yay. Meliodas sooooo loves Black Ops.

He blows out a breath through his nose. “If we head out now, we’ll be with the stragglers – the patrols will be on guard.”

“But we’ll need time if we want to sneak through the entire city and into the castle and to Father’s chambers,” counters Elizabeth. “Besides, better too early to our meeting with Hawk than too late.”

Meliodas hums. Truth is, there is no right or wrong for a mission like this – it’s all situational, all conjuncture. Sure, there are odds that can be calculated but in the end those factors are all dependent on luck, the state of mind of patrols they have to avoid and unforeseeable circumstances that can always throw a wrench in a plan. “’kay, let’s go then,” he shrugs.

(If they go now they won’t be locked in close quarters with each other – they still have potentially some time, yes, but not that much time. It’s also not the best idea to go physically spend into a difficult mission. Yeah, definitely better to go now.)

Elizabeth kills the light, standing closer to it, and Meliodas pulls the curtain to the side. Once the window is open, their bag tossed outside and hidden behind a crate for later retrieval (or not – they have several of such bags stashed through the city. After all, they need a change of clothes for later), the game is on.

Chapter Text

“Finally,” hisses Hawk annoyed, smuggling them in through the kitchen’s chimney. The castle being the large, more or less rectangle like building is built one story on another. With the kitchens being on the ground floor to allow for easy deliveries of supplies and firewood and the like, the chimney can’t reach through the building to exit on the roof. That would be just stupid.

Instead the smoke produced by the oven is led through a curving vent to be expelled at the side of the castle, a literal hole in the wall so to speak. Now, normally the wood in the oven would be simmering all night through the five or so hours where the kitchens aren’t used because it would take far too long to heat a construct that stretches ten meters long every day anew. That would make infiltrating through it impossible unless one is equipped with magic. And magic gets detected by the wards. But if there is someone on the inside to turn the oven off...well.

Slipping though shaft leaves them ash covered and smelling like food, but it is only mildly hot.

 “Do you know how how horrible it was to wait here? I can still smell the swine they made for dinner.” Hawk shudders, the motion audible not visible as it is a night with clouds and no light reaches inside the kitchen through the barred, tiny windows.

Meliodas’ eyes adjust to the darkness nonetheless with little trouble, needing light to see in the dark about as much as mule or a bat.

“Sorry about that, Hawk. The security is incredibly tight. We almost didn’t even make it here. Without you we would have been stuck,” confesses Elizabeth. 

Hawk harrumphs. “Obviously. This is the Capital, you know. I thought you’d know that, having tried to topple this place once. I can’t believe I’m doing this...I had better get paid well for this!” 

Meliodas rolls his eyes while Elizabeth smothers a smile. Her hand is connected with his, she being far less able to see in the dark as he guides her along to the kitchens’ entrance. “You’re one of a kind, Hawk.”

The door is locked, but that’s easily solved, and it eases open without a creak. In the corridors' light crystals worked into the walls allow them to see. Those crystals are another sign of the kingdom’s wealth. When these crystals, which can be replaced with torches, are getting sold its a clear sign that money is needed.

Another point on the growing list of peculiarities. If it was so important to store provisions, wouldn’t it have made sense to import them – maybe the royal treasury is enough for that at the moment but...it wouldn’t be for long. Why demand food from the people? 

The corridor is free of guards, though that won’t be that way once they reach the staircases. While Elizabeth helps Hawk dress in black (plus socks so that his hooves won’t make noise) Meliodas cuts his visual and auditory senses off, searching. There are bright flickers of powerful magic all over the castle – Holy Knights – and smaller presences indicating non-magic using knights or guards. For civilians he doesn’t even bother filtering, them being way too many and also not awake at this time of the day, and also having less of a presence than the very, very magic embedded walls.

In particular he’s looking for Baltra, though, and...doesn’t find him, which is not worrying. He’s king, so his chambers would be warded especially tight with the kingdom in this state. And if he’s somehow sick that might do enough to throw Meliodas’ read off as well. Not to mention that Baltra was never particularly strong…

(If he had hours, he might be able to locate the king without taking a single step, but frankly the old-fashioned way is faster. Besides, it’s not as though they don’t have an idea where he is.)

“Hehehe,” puffs Hawk. “The super boar is now ready to do the impossible. I’m even dressed!” Hawk makes a noise that’s disturbingly close to a giggle.

Elizabeth puts a glove-clad finger to her lips and shushes him with a smile.

“Good,” says Meliodas quietly, “because there’s a patrol coming from the right. We’ve got a minute.”

Inside the castle Elizabeth leads the way, melting from one shadowed corner to the next, her knowledge of the castle and its layout much more developed than his. Most of the time they take the dark, not crystal equipped servant’s passages to pass from one floor to the next or to avoid more prominent parts of the castle, like the offices.

If Meliodas were still employed by the castle, he’d be running drills just like this to see where the security holes are. Seems like Hendy and Dreyfus are slacking off.

It must take them hours to reach the floors where the royal family’s chambers start. Meliodas wouldn’t even have noticed, but Elizabeth points it out, nibbling her lips in worry because the lack of security around here is very, very obvious. No patrols, not even guards placed in front of the rooms Princess Margaret lives in. The rooms seem abandoned, in fact.

The king’s quarters are another two floors up, and there, finally, are some poor sods stuck on the night-shift. One floor above the princess’ Meliodas knocks the first two guards stationed along the corridor they emerge in out, taking half a second each. The bodies they drag through a door and tie up with the guards’ respective belts.

Because it would be troublesome if a patrol noticed the lack of them on the next round, that unfortunately timed squad of two joins the first two in dreamland. The fact that these are Holy Knights makes no difference in the speed with which they go down.

Meliodas just makes sure to hit them over the head an extra time once they are down to ensure they stay there for the time being before him, Elizabeth and Hawk continue to sneak towards the king.

(Meliodas still can’t detect his presence, even though they’re in a fifty meter radius now and that means that the wards the king is behind are good.)

The fact that they make it in front of the king’s chambers says kind of a lot about everything – here, they don’t bother anymore hiding the bodies.

Something is very, very wrong.

Elizabeth, steel and determination in her face, knocks on the double doors. “Father? Can you hear me? Are you there?” It’s night, the king ought to be asleep. Meliodas picks up the sounds of fabric shifting almost immediately nonetheless. “...it’s me. Elizabeth. I’m coming in.” She puts her hands on the handles and pushes them down. They do not budge.

“...Eliz...abeth?

The corridors are empty, all security taken out just for this.

His beloved sucks in a breath. “Father? Father I am here. Can you open the doors?”

On the other side of the door, the noise of a person shuffling out of bed tells what they can’t see. “Elizabeth? Is it really you?” The king’s voice comes through the thick doors muffled and weak. Sick.

Tears gather in Elizabeth’s eyes. “Yes, Father. It’s me. I heard you were – I came to see you. Please, open the door.”

Under Elizabeth’s hands, the handles rattle but do not move. “Elizabeth, my dear child,” says Baltra, sounding tired and worn. “I’m so happy, but I can’t. The doors are...sealed. I can’t open them, I have tired.”

Well, well, well.

“...you are locked in, Father? Not sick?” questions Elizabeth, voice going suspicious. “What is going on?” Silently, she steps back, giving Meliodas place to work. He places a hand on the door, closes his eyes and reaches out with his magic against the energy infused in the wood.

“It’s the Holy Knights,” Baltra says, sounding old, voice rough. “Hendrickson and Dreyfus. ...even Glithunder. They...said it’s because my decisions leave us vulnerable, but...there’s more, I can tell. I think...I might have been a fool,” admits the voice of a once proud, strong man who now just sounds broken. “I trusted the wrong people.”

Elizabeth’s fists clench. “Father...I don’t know what you mean, but I know this.” Pause. “Faith is never a mistake.” Her voice rings, pure and clear, her conviction like a physical extension of her as it reaches out and touches hearts.

“...Elizabeth...” comes Baltra’s voice, a touch of weakness in it. Meliodas doesn’t need to see him to know what sort of expression is on his face. It surly mirrors Hawk’s and so many before. “...you’ve become...so wise. All grown up, my little daughter...” And now there are definitely tears in the king’s voice. Pain. “I wish I could eyes on you, see how much you’ve grown...”

Meliodas clears his throat loudly. “You might want to step away from the door, Baltra. I’m gonna blow it off the hinges.”

Silence. “...Meliodas, is that you?”

“Sure am. Can’t let Elizabeth do dangerous stuff all on her own, now can I? Are you away from the door yet?”

More silence. The waves of disapproving father all but seep out from the slits between the stone and the door. Well, if he can do that, the king doesn’t seem to be that badly off. “...thank you for taking care of my daughter.” That must have been painful to force out.

And because Meliodas is a bad person, he says cheerily. “Oh no, it was my pleasure.” He pulls the handle of his sword. “But seriously Baltra, I’m gonna cut the door.”

“No.” The king states, sounding much more like his old self. Kingly. What a bit of irritation can provide… “Please do not. I cannot flee.”

Meliodas pauses. Tilts his head.

“Huh?”

Elizabeth steps forward, putting her hand on the door. “Father, what are you saying? You can’t stay here! If the kingdom – there’s someone taking the kingdom from you, then -”

“Elizabeth,” the king speaks, heaving a shattering sigh. “The kingdom has already been taken from me. Even if I were to be freed of this place, as it is now, there is nothing I can do. No authority I have. Elizabeth, my knights have turned against me. I have failed.”

“No, Father. No. You have not.” Elizabeth states after barely a moment of consideration. She doesn’t just protest – she evaluated and came to a conclusion that built the foundation of conviction. “I have traveled the land. I know our kingdom. I know the people. You have made them happy. No single person has something bad to say about you! They are worried about your health!” Her lips purse, a note of anger entering her tone. “Ever since you’ve been...sick hardship for the people has increased terribly. The adolescents have been taken, the foods confiscated, the elderly been put to work – you must take back the throne!”

Really good thing that they bothered to clear out the floor of soldiers. But Meliodas feels that this mission is no longer so simple. His thoughts spin.

“How?” Questions Baltra simply. “Even if I were to get out of here, my health is not the best and the knights chose this because they thought is was best. Even against my protests.”

Elizabeth flounders, and her father, sensing it, continues. “If the situation is truly as dire as you say, something must be done. But I lack the means, my dear. I have lost the trust placed in me.”

“No.” Elizabeth shakes her head stubbornly. “I don’t believe that at all. Out on the land, the people believe in you. I’m sure all of Liones does. They believe you are sick. Do you think the...the Great Holy Knights would bother telling such a lie if the people no longer followed you?!” She demands hotly. “If you speak, people will listen! Then the truth can’t be hidden!”

Silence. Touched, this time, and weary. “And then what? I cannot push our kingdom into civil war, Elizabeth. Something great is coming, and we can’t be weakened by fighting among ourselves. My magic, Vision, foresaw -”

“- the Ten Commandments. I know about that, Father. But that is no reason to just abandon your kingdom to an unjust hand! If we do not stand united, with conviction and heart, if the livelihoods that we are trying to protect are miserable, then why should anyone bother fighting in the first place? Father, you gave this kingdom peace and happiness. It is that kingdom that the people will want to protect, not one fraught by war.” Elizabeth declares, palms flat against the wood as she could reach through and take her father and shake him until he realized. “Father, you have a duty!”

Silence. Hawk hops back and forth, uneasy. “Do they have to argue here,” he whispers to Meliodas, who shrugs. Soldiers taken out or no, they don’t have that much time to take it easy.

Meliodas gives it another couple seconds, then smiles brightly when no further argument comes. “You heard her Baltra. You’re coming with us, if you want to or not. Step away from the door. Elizabeth,” he adds, prompting her to move behind him.

A few paces away, Meliodas lifts his broken blade, considers the amount of power he felt in the barrier and swings.

The blast blows through stone walls as through they were paper, tearing deep grooves into the floor.

In the moments after, boulders and pieces of the floors above them come crashing down. The floor breaks away in pieces and Meliodas crowds Elizabeth and Hawk back against the door. Which still stands. Shit.

“Wha….?” Breathes Elizabeth, hands digging into his shoulder. “What just – I though you – what happened?”

Meliodas stares half uncomprehendingly and half wrong-footed at the destruction. If his reflexes were any less sharp, if he hadn’t been on high alert, Elizabeth would have been harmed. Hurt. Wounded. By -

“That looked...I mean felt like – did the wards -like Full Counter -?!”

“Elizabeth! Elizabeth! What happened! What’s going on?! Answer me! What happened?!” Baltra pounds against the door, barely audible over the crashing and thundering of walls still breaking to pieces in a chain reaction on the rest of the floor.

“Did they reflect my attack back? Looks that way, doesn’t it?” He mumbles. Because. Well. Fuck.

Unfortunately, as his mind races around Full Counter and tries to combine it with wards one particular spell comes to mind. Immediately.

He wishes it didn’t.

For a breathless, heart-stopping instant it seems as though the entire ceiling is going to come, up to and including all the stories above them, but then the rumbling starts to settle as the spells in the building kick in, stabilizing the structure.

Deathly quiet creeps in instead. Like the calm before a storm. Like ground zero before lightning strike.

“Perfect….Cube…?” breathes Elizabeth, dazed, voice small.

Fuck. It.

A spell of the Demon Clan, unparalleled in the abilities to contain and secure and utterly unable to be broken by physical or magical force. It’s a horrible tool used by mages of the demon clan to great delight to torture and torment chosen victims as they die with an audience that wants to save them – but that’s just the field mages. It’s real use was far more subtle, used in the demons’ realm as a tool of power to teach both superiority and obedience. The idea is based actually on Meliodas' Full Counter and is to this point the only spell that ever managed to combine solidify its effect into a stable form.

(He’d looked at it as a curiosity then, a bit bored and mostly disinterested. But Gowther had found the idea fascinating and not let go until he succeeded. He’d regretted the fact that he had later, and so had Meliodas.)

Needless to say, Meliodas has some familiarity with it.

So does Elizabeth.

As the final nail in the coffin, the castle comes awake – from the courtyard through the hole blasted in the outer wall shouts become audible.

Elizabeth shakes off the shock first, spinning on her heel to face the king’s chamber. “Father! Father, I’m fine. We’re okay!” Briefly she nibbles her lips before firming up. “But we can’t break the ward. Do you know who cast it? Do you know where they are?”

The warning bell starts ringing all throughout the city in a matter of seconds bringing with it a rush of shockreelinghorrorconfusiondon’twanttofightthey’llkillmeZaratrasdeadwhatishappening. Every last Holy Knight in the city will be out of bed and in armor in a matter of moments.

Meliodas can all but hear the shock from inside the king’s chambers. He’d like nothing more than to imagine the look on Baltra’s face if the situation weren’t as shocking to him.

Really. A ward he can’t break through? A spell he can’t destroy? A freaking wall standing in his way?

A sour twist turns his lips.

Suddenly Hawk makes a noise caught between terror and despair, crumbling into a pile.

Meliodas follows his gaze.

Well, well, well.

“Run, Hawk!” he shouts, spinning and taking Elizabeth’s wrist. Her body jerks as he tears her away from her father, Baltra pounding against the doors and shouting something, but he can’t focus on that.

Yells follow them immediately, armor clanking. Bolt of magic fly left and right. He shoves Elizabeth ahead of him, spins, and slashes the Dragon Handle. Invisible and too fast to see or sense, the slash reverses all momentum of the magic – whatever form it may take – that comes in contact with his own magic.

Full Counter!”

For the sake of the building and the king, Meliodas hopes the stability spells can take a beating, cause those Holy Knights sure didn’t hold back. The corridor (and the empty space where walls and floors and ceilings used to be) goes up in a marvelous explosion of magic. There’s some lighting, he muses, and some water. Painful combination that. Well. Not his pain.

“Father!” Elizabeth shouts, almost taking a step past him into that direction, hand reaching, ignoring Hawk squeaking, “you can’t go back there, Elizabeth!”

Meliodas steps in front of her, taking her hand again. “Come on, we’ve got to leave!”

“We can’t! Meliodas, my father!”

“Are you a mage? Cause last I checked neither you or I could break Perfect Cube! And if we don’t get out of here now, we’re going to join him!” He takes her wrist again, and takes off running. On an impulse he decides to break down a door to their left, locates the window, and jumps out. Hawk, hooves and stubby legs clinging to him like a leech, screams with treas running down his eyes.

Within a split second, he sheathes his sword and latches with the now free hand onto a window sill. It causes their falls to change into a swing that has Elizabeth break through the windows of a story below, feet first. He lets her hand go to give them a chance to not land in a tumble and his own feet find purchase on the sill. Hawk drops from him in a dead faint and Meliodas catches a hoof with hardly a thought.

Hopping down, he glances out and up carefully, then down, noting that no one has poked their heads out of the window yet and that below them more and more Holy Knights start to appear as tiny glinting spots of armor, orange in the light of torches. It keeps getting louder as well, shouts reaching up and -

“If we don’t get out of here fast, they’ll have the castle sealed off,” he notes, outwardly calm while on the inside his thoughts are racing. What a mess. 

“We can’t.” Elizabeth climbs to her feet, frown harsh.

“Baltra is -” he sets to remind her, adoring of her stubborn persistence even as it makes him want to beat his head against the wall.

“I know that,” she cut him off, biting her lip. “But – I,” she shakes her head, tries again more firmly. “They imprisoned Margaret. Father said at the end.”

Meliodas’ eyebrows shoot up.

Well. Well, well, weeeell.

What a mess.

….Hmmmm? Attempted assassins aren’t usually thought to escape to dungeons, now are they….?

He smiles at her slyly. “Prison break, huh?”

Elizabeth’s flush is well visible to his eyes but she merely tilts her head to listen better, one hand finally pulling the lance from her back. “How are we going to get down there?”

“Hmm. I’d give it two minutes before the little knights conclude that we didn’t end as pancakes on the ground and find us.” Lazily, he swings Hawk (passed out) over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. “The castle is flooding at the moment, probably. So, no sneaking.”

“How are our odds?” she asks simply as she takes position at the door of this washroom chamber they landed in.

“Depends on how much bloodshed you’re fine with,” he offers in return. Not that he doesn’t care – it’s just he values his clean hands and or the amount of bodies at his feet a lot less than he values her wants.

“None,” she says predictably.

“Pretty bad then,” he concludes.

In the near absolute darkness he sees her nibble her lips, eyes narrowed in thought. “I may have an idea...”

Chapter Text

At first she stares uncomprehendingly at the cold wall her face is almost touching as she lies curled up on the cot, her body tense as she wonders what could have awoken her in the middle of the night.

But then gravel tickles down on her as the walls shake and she sits up with a jerk, pulling the flimsy sheet up to her chest, back pressed against the wall. Through the barred window in the door, crystals in the corridor give her just enough light to see, but there is nothing out of the ordinary. No dark shadow, no looming danger.

Against her back, the wall trembles. A muffled boom echoes through the prison shortly after, and again, and again.

Her shoes she’d been allowed to keep and she’s grateful for it as they shield her from the cold of the floor as she slips her feet down, sheet wound around her body like a cloak. 

As she makes her way to the door she peers outside, trying to catch a glimpse of what was going on. “Excuse me!” She calls, but no one answered.

She is the only one in this cell, in this entire block of the dungeon, not even guards posted at her door. It could have been her sister, Gilthunder or one of the Grand Masters arranging this for her, and she’s grateful, not wanting strangers to bear witness of her most vulnerable state, but right now she wishes she’d had the foresight to request a means of communication.

The last time she heard booms like that, the invisible cage she’d been trapped in for a decade had been replaced by a visible one.

Margaret closes her hands around the bars and rests her head against it, forcing her eyes closed as she tries to calm her heart. There is nothing she can do. Nothing that matters to her here. Nothing she has to do. All she can do is wait, endure, and rely on the mercy of strangers to even tell her what time it is.

For someone they say they want to be queen, they sure keep her isolated, she notes.

When Grand Master Hendrickson had come, Veronica with a guilty, lowered expression behind him, and told her that her father had proven to unreliable, that the Holy Knights could not condone his actions anymore, that she please come along with them, she had been shocked. But not as much as they probably thought she was – her only worry had been for her father and how Veronica could side with the knights.

Then they had locked her in here, told her they would want her to be queen if they could trust her to lead them right, and left. She’d seen Sirs Dreyfus and Hendrickson since, the former a great deal more apologetic than the latter but Margaret doubts they have any intention of letting her succeed her father.

More than likely, it is a lie told to the less rebellious knights to let them keep some believe that participating in this is not treason. Margaret cannot tell them this. The eyes on her are there at any time and the condition for her to live had been made clear. Do not oppose me.

That horrid witch is one of Hendrickson’s most trusted. Thus Margaret cannot oppose him.

She would if she could – start by talking to the guards bring her food, inquiring about the outside, request visitors she would then also talk to. She’d start to build a foundation, she’d even cooperate with the Grand Masters, do what they need her to do – she would have been able to use that. She’s a princess. Of course she knows politics.

But she can’t.

She must wait and wither away, helpless, useless, like a poison sullying her dear Gil’s actions.

Despair claws at her spirit like a persistent virus. She’d never realized how much freedom she still had until it was taken away.

Another boom shakes the building and Margaret tries very hard not to think about the mass that could tumble down on her. “Excuse me!” She calls again, her voice shaking.

No reply. The heavy door at the end of the corridor remains sealed shut and cold.

Margaret shivers, warps the sheet around her more tightly and returns with heavy feet to the cot.

As she slumps on it, her fingers brush something hard and her hands lift a thick, leather-bound book. It’s too dark to see even the cover, but she knows what’s on it like the back of her hand. It’s chronic of the land, detailing it’s history, it’s provinces and characteristics.

When they were little, she and her sisters, before Ellie had run away, they’d often read this book together, each with their favorite pages and places they one day wanted to visits. When they first looked at the illustrations together, Elizabeth can’t have been more then three and she had read Veronica’s favorite page out aloud since Veronica’s hadn’t been able to read yet, and Margaret remembers how very astonished she’d been. If she remembers right, the page had been about the Thunder Mountains to the east of the kingdom of Kentaburey where dragons are said to live. Veronica had wanted to go and get one for a pet.

Well, she finally gets her wish. The Holy Knights have dragons in their care.

Margaret’s favorite had been the High Lakes not far from the capital, praised for their clear water and rare flowers.

Elizabeth’s, a strange child even then, had been the small ocean-trade country of Danafor.

Their wishes for the future, visualized in pretty pages and illustrations had not stayed the same, and over the years Margaret is sure between the three of them they picked every entry at least once. Sometime along the way, Veronica no longer found dreams in books interesting when she could instead explore and drag poor Griamore behind her, and the way the remaining two sisters looked at the book changed.

She remembers poking at pages with Elizabeth and giggling as they whispered where they’d want to be married, or have a country residence, where they’d run away to spend a romantic weekend. Gilthunder for her, Sir Meliodas for Elizabeth, their guilty unspoken secret even after the day where everything went wrong.

With a sigh she runs her palm over the cover, feeling along the decorations and ridges of engravings. It was so simple back then.

Veronica had given this book to her during her last visit, stubborn and unapologetic of the actions she is complicit in, but worry badly concealed in her eyes.

Tears sting her eyes but she pushes them back. Crying is not a humiliation she will grant Vivian. The witch will find no sign of weakness in her, nothing she can take advantage of.

At the sound of the high screech of badly maintained hinges Margaret straightens, standing up again. She refuses to meet anyone entering her cell from lower ground as she keeps her eyes on the door.

Clanking of armor plates and the thundering of metal boots against the floor tell her it’s more than one knight entering the corridor. She stiffens her spine, tilts her head at a regal angle and waits just out of reach of the door. The pace of the steps is hurried. This too is something she has learned to pay attention to in the last weeks. The unspoken signs people don’t even notice they make. Not by seeing, but by hearing.

She stands and waits, forcing the knights to make the first move as she is shrouded by the dark of the cell.

“Princess Margaret,” one of two knights says as the door swings open. “Come with us.” A torch they carry spends light and makes the shadows dance, and Margaret puts her feelings on ice lest anxiety and fear give her unease away.

She purses her lips and stares the one offering her their hand down. “I was not aware my freedom was extended to reach outside of this chamber. Are you acting on the Grand Masters’ orders?” It’s unlikely that this play will gain her any information -

“Assassins have invaded the castle. Your father was already targeted. It is of utmost importance that we bring you to safety, Princess.” States the second knight formally, offering her a half bow.

“Is my Father well?” she demands as the strides between the knights, not taking the offered escort and continues down the corridor, waiting for them to fall in line. She might be their prisoner but they also want her to be their queen, so this much she is allowed to do and she cannot bear the thought of giving any of the traitors the honour of escorting their princess.

Fall in line the knights do and they catch up to walk in front and behind her before they even reach the door at the end of the corridor. “Oh yes, quite,” says the first knight, something in his voice that even the distortions of the helmet cannot hide. “The wards on Baltra’s chambers are quite powerful.”

“The King,” corrects Margaret sharply.

“Yeah, sure, the King,” nods the knight in front of her, hardly even pretending to listen as he holds up a hand, gesturing for her to wait. The second knight’s hand lands on her shoulder, reinforcing the order.

The first knight presses his body against the wall, easing the door open to take a guarded glance outside.

Margaret swallows, tension suddenly hitting her. At once the danger is very real. Out there something might be after her life and not just threaten it.

The knight slips through, disappearing and low voices become audible as they whisper. Not a moment after, the door gets pushed open and the second knight guides Margaret through.

Her steps freeze, eyes falling on the crumbled form of the two guards (that she assumes) usually watch this door. She wants to reach out to them, check if they are hurt, but confusion halts her concern.

There’s a pig. A pink, black-dressed pig standing and... whispering with the first knight. Margaret stares, flabbergasted. The pig’s eyes leave the knight to settle on her and it says – says! - “Are you sure that’s the princess? She doesn’t look like much.”

“Hawk!” Hisses the second knight, voice now very obviously female, hand still on Margaret’s arm. “This isn’t the time. Do you hear someone or not?”

“Hmpf! Of course I hear something. The castle is crawling with those damn stick waving swines!” It’s eyes shift and foots nervously from left to right while pretending to be brave.

Margaret’s fists clench in the fabric of her dress in an effort to ignore the bizarre sight before her. “How many enemies are there?” she tries to inquire politely. “How come they’ve managed to penetrate our defenses?” Because that is worrisome. As princess, it is a concern above her own health.

“Don’t break your head over that, Princess,” replies the first knight quietly, waving them along, up the stairs while the second knight says sadly, “it’s all just a big misunderstanding, I’m sure. I can’t believe that the ranks of Liones’ Holy Knights are filled with traitors.”

The dungeons are situated directly below the castle. Margaret remembers having been terribly afraid as a little child of being near the staircase leading down, it having seemed like a dark pit wanting to swallow her, and the silly fear had never really faded. Now, climbing those very stairs up closer and closer towards more familiar rooms – home – leaves her in both parts eager and reluctant, afraid of what might have changed while longing for familiarity.

Before they even manage to come within sight of the exit, the knight in front of her darts ahead, steps shockingly silent. When Margaret, the pig, and the second knight catch up, there are only more bodies to be found, no trace of who might have attacked them. It pools ice in her veins.

She follows the lead of them as silently as she knows, heart in her throat. The knights guide her through rarely used corridors, have her duck into shadows when running into other knights is inevitable and they pretend to be just two more traitors securing the castle.

At the back of her mind, Margaret wonders what Sir Hendrickson thinks of this development – the usurper being usurped. Where is he and what does he plan on doing? How does it involve Margaret since he’s already bothering securing her?

She’s so absorbed in her anxieties that she doesn’t notice until it’s too late.

“Uff, here you go, Princess.” The first knight says, depositing a barrel in front of her. A barrel tied with a thick rope around its width, the rope being held in the Holy Knight's hand, Margaret has the impression of a horribly bright smile under that bulky metal helmet.

She looks uncomprehendingly between the barrel and the knight.

They are crouched between shoulder high hedges of the garden, steps of countless other holy knights audible as they walk through corridors leading into the castle adjacent to the garden. 

The second knight tilts her body in a way that might be apologetic, saying quietly. “Please, this is the easiest way. ...it might not be pleasant, but...”

“I do not understand,” states Margaret, staring. Another barrel – what are they doing standing around in the garden? - sways as the pig jumps into it, hooves scabbing thanks to the black socks it wears only silently against the wood. They can not be expecting her -

Sighing with his whole body, the first knight picks her up, one hand muffling her squeal and puts her into the barrel with little delicacy. Then, before Margaret can protest, he pushes her head down with surprising force, making her legs fold under her awkwardly as she falls. Over her head, the lid is put in place.

Creaking alerts her to bolts being pushed into place.

Margaret’s head spins as it tries to keep up and then her entire body is spinning and fumbling as the barrel she is in gets picked up.

This is like a kidnapping!

Her heart stops as the thought occurs to her.

What if it is a kidnapping? In fact, hadn’t it bothered her that it seemed a bit easy that Hendrickson lost his power so easily? What proof have these two given her that they are acting on his orders?

Wasn’t it peculiar that they only come across the bodies of knights (which she presumed to be taken out traitors to Hendrickson), never any allies, and the bodies always just after one of her acclaimed rescuers disappeared for a short while.

Panic starts to rise and Margaret tries to push the lid off, but as she assumed it is stuck – then as she takes a breath to scream it gets stuck in her throat as she suddenly becomes weightless.

A scream escapes her, choked by a loud splash and the thud as her barrel was dropped in water.

It’s narrow and dark and she can hardly think through the haze of panic invading her mind. She’s getting kidnapped!

Another splash sounds, and waves rock her prison. Margaret tries very hard to gather enough breath to finally scream, but she can’t seem to gather it, her chest heaving without her control. Another splash. And another.

Then she gets dragged downwards. Underwater.

She knows where she is, now, and how they plan to escape the castle with her.

The castle, being the one building in the city that must lack nothing of course has running water. It’s courtyards are many and varied, private gardens and even a pond with clear water. What people don’t really know is that between the outer and inner castle walls, one of the archaic wells used to water the gardens connects to an underground arm of the Lanè. Margaret once read that it had tactical purposes, back before the castle was made into the castle and was used as a primary stronghold of the kingdom.

And now here she is: In a barrel, getting carried along with the current until they make it past the castle walls.

But it’s impossible. Dread sits like lead in her veins. If such a way of entering or exciting the castle existed, it would have been closed. The only reason it isn’t, she recalls the line perfectly clear with rising terror, is because it’s impossible to dive that long – air would run out!

Her breath is hot, shallow and more than desperate. Is it just her imagination or is the air already getting thin?

Is this how she dies?

Will her last time of seeing Gil be a memory of bitterness and unspoken regret?

Veronica, her father. Elizabeth.

Is this what her life amounts to? Being useful as leverage but not worth enough to bother rescuing to that witch?

-

the lid gets opened.

Margaret looks into a dark sky obscured by an even darker shadow, who winches at her tear-strained face and ghastly expression. “Oops. Terribly sorry, should have given you a warning. You okay?”

What.

“I’ll have to make it up to you later I guess,” the man in armor – no, he isn’t wearing armor anymore, just black, soaked clothes – takes her arm and pulls her upright. Margaret’s legs nearly fold under her and she has to steady herself against the edge of the barrel she is still in to not collapse. Which she refuses. “You guys okay?” He questions, turning his head to look somewhere to her right, attention slipping from her entirely.

A voice in the back of her mind yells at her to scream, but she’s still shocked that she’s alive, unable to believe it. Her eyes fasten on the man, watching him as he helps his accomplice out of her own barrel. She is still in armor and as Margaret watches, the woman pulls her helmet off.

Bright, bright hair identifiable even in little to no light – light from flickering flame torches marking the handrail of a bridge over the Lanè, which they ended up a dozen meters next to – spills over the shoulders of this female kidnapper, and Margaret’s heart jumps into her throat.

No.

The man, shorter than the woman, gives a flirty, light comment as he aids the woman in getting rid of her armor, hands wandering. She dumps the disguise in the river, melting into the darkness with her black clothes just as the man.

“Man, they’re impossible,” speaks a voice sourly next to her. “Can’t that guy ever stay on topic?” the voice continues to grouch, sounding long suffering. The pig has moved to stand beside the barrel Margaret’s lover half is still inside off. The pig is speaking to her. Making conversation with her.

“Excuse me,” she stutters, “what -? Just – Who -?”

“I’m Hawk,” the pig introduces itself smartly. “And you’re Princess Margaret. I’ve heard a lot about you. Hope you can cook, and you had better treat pigs well, or we’re going to have problems.”

Margaret flounders. “I don’t – I. Who are you? What are you?”

The pig grunts. It might be intended as a sniff. “Weren’t you listening? I said my name’s Hawk. I’m the Grand Master of the Order of Scrap-disposal. Those two morons over there are Elizabeth and Meliodas, my followers.”

What.

“You know Hawk, that would be a lot more convincing if your legs weren’t still shaking from running too much. You’ve got to do more exercises or someday you’re gonna end up as barbecue,” quips the man, folding his hands behind his head as soon as he stops his inappropriate touches. His tone is light but the darkness doesn’t allow for more than an outline of him, never mind an expression, but his hair is indeed blond. “We’ve got to get going – it’ll be more difficult to get out the more time passes. I bet it’s already difficult for a mouse to get in.” He walks casually past Margaret, leading the way into a pitch black alley between the houses, waiting expectantly at the mouth of it. 

Margaret’s eyes are nailed to the woman however who is fixing a weapon and holster to her back. Her features are just as difficult to identify, but she thinks she might be young.

(No. It’s just her mind playing tricks on her, making her see things she wants to see.)

“Elizabeth?”

Elizabeth, and really, Margaret can’t deny it when the woman – the girl! - looks up and gives her a smile. The clouds just pull back and the moon give Margaret light to see her expression. “I’m sorry for using such a trick, Margaret, but we couldn’t think of a better way.” Elizabeth approaches her, she who is still standing in a barrel like a fool, and takes one of her hand in both of hers. Her smile is sweet and apologetic. “Do you think you can put up with a bit more sneaking before we can catch up?”

Margaret opens her mouth and closes it again, no words coming out as her mind is blanked by the fact that this is Elizabeth.

Elizabeth, who she last saw seven years ago. Elizabeth, who is grown up, but whose gentle caring is still the same. Elizabeth, who just broke into and out of the castle. Elizabeth, who stands before her dressed like a common thief, with a weapon to her back that she seems to know how to use. Elizabeth, who ran away and got away. Elizabeth, who was safe

Suddenly Margaret remembers. Her second hand clasps Elizabeth’s. “You can’t be here,” she says intently, desperately. “It’s dangerous. If they find out -” With a drop in her stomach, she looks around. Untangling from Elizabeth she puts some distance between them, all but waiting for a shadow to lash up and swallow her whole. “You have to leave me. You don’t know – you can’t be seen with me. I’m dangerous.”

Elizabeth frowns. “What are you talking about, Margaret? There’s no way we’ll just leave you to be imprisoned again.” A brief smile quirks her lips, eyes flickering to the side, at the other person present. “And I don’t think there’s anyone who could take you if you’re with us.”

The pig, which Margaret had all but forgotten about, huffs. It’s hoofs paw against the cobblestone. “I can totally understand that Meliodas’ is not everyone’s first choice, but he’s still better than prison, Princess. If you’re scared of him, don’t worry, I’ll protect you!”

Margaret shakes her head, taking another step back from them. The commotion at the castle seems to grow louder. “That’s not it. I thank you for coming to save me.” She looks at the short man next to an entrance to the shadows, clasping her hands and bowing. “Thank you for taking care of my sister, Sir Meliodas, but I can’t. There’s something -”

“If you mean that creepy bug following you around,” the former knight interrupts, “I already took care of it. Didn’t like that we stuffed you into a barrel and seemed like it wanted to rise a fuss, and we couldn’t have that.” He hums thoughtfully. “So it wasn’t some last ditch protection, good to know I suppose. But we really do need to get going.”

Margaret’s mind shorts out.

Taking her hand, Elizabeth pulls her along into the shadows, smiling in relief when Margaret doesn’t protest.

The Capital is waking up, the noise and explosion at the castle causing alarm to spread all through the city. Windows light up, people peek out their doors to exchange murmurs with their neighbors. Curiosity and alert makes them more attentive, but Sir Meliodas, Elizabeth and the pig are cautious and careful, ducking around corners, behind carts, slipping over roofs. They have to dodge Holy Knights with increasing frequency and effort. At one point, they sneak onto a courtyard that was turned into a stable for horses and dig through the straw outside the pen to emerge with a change of clothes.

Elizabeth offers Margaret a leggings. “I hope it fits. The original plan was just to sneak in and visit father, we didn’t expect that we’d have to break someone out.” She nibbles her lip, worried, while Margaret is still trying to gather her thoughts. Everything just keeps happening so fast.

Is she free now? If that thing is gone, is she free now?

Margaret’s still too much in shock to even realize that she is a princess and never even so much as put a hat on unless she was in absolute privacy, let alone leggings. Sir Meliodas and the pig stand guard the yard’s entrance (one of them slipping clothes on over all the black while the other struggles to simply get out of all the black), the gate only just big enough for a wagon while Elizabeth stays with her.

“...I can’t just take your clothes, Elizabeth,” Margaret manages to gather eventually as she tries to get used to the garment. She hasn’t ever worn pants, and leggings were something from the sparse adventurous days of her childhood. “If you specifically prepared a change, then you need it, don’t you?”

Elizabeth giggles quietly, slipping a simple dress over her head. “Not exactly. The plan we had – it was based on us just going in, meeting Father, and then going out again. We hid some clothes in case we had to blend in and didn’t have a chance to return to the inn, but that idea is truly lost now. Everyone will be on look out.”

Margaret doesn’t understand, but she can’t think well enough yet to formulate a question. Is she free? Is she not? Can she really, truly escape? What is happening, is this real?

Once they’ve finished changing, Sir Meliodas stuffs all the black clothes they don’t need anymore back into the straw. “Think you’re up for a long run with Hawk, Elizabeth?”

“Of course,” Margaret’s sister smiles, straightening her skirt. “Hawk and I get along well.”

The pig beams at her, “I can totally run on my own, though. I bet I’ll even leave you behind,” he says.

Sir Meliodas snorts quietly. “Sorry Princess,” he says to her, grinning apologetically, “it’s going to get a bit rough once we get near the gate. Hopefully not sooner. Whatever happens, though, please don’t scream.” He doesn’t wait for a reply, picking her up with one hand under her knees, the other around her back before jumping up the three stories of the courtyard’s building like they are nothing. Margaret muffles a yelp by biting her tongue.

Elizabeth lands light-footed next to them, the pig in her arm. Margaret’s eyes round in shock, but before she can properly wrap her head around Elizabeth doing things like that, Sir Meliodas dashes near silently over the roofs, the city blurring around her. It feels like an instant later when he just suddenly drops and Margaret has to, yet again, stifle the noise that want to escape from her.

Her knees are shaking when Sir Meliodas lets her down. Elizabeth touches down in an elegant crouch, the pig hopping from her arms, and is only slightly out of breath. Thanks to the torches – meaning they are next to one of the main streets – Margaret can see Sir Meliodas pressing a finger to his lips. With his left, he quietly eases the sword out of its hilt, revealing its broken blade. That hasn’t changed.

Elizabeth takes her hand as Sir Meliodas carefully approaches the street, the shadows pulling more and more away from him. His eyes gleam sharply,  clanging of armor and low voices from what can only be Holy Knights growing ever closer -

- he disappears.

Margaret has barely time to gasp before he already reappears, somehow three Holy Knights propped up above his head, unmoving.

He sets them down, eerily quiet despite their clunky armor, and starts to strip them.

Elizabeth squeezes her hand, head tilted and smiling. “Best disguise,” she says so quietly it might as well have been a whisper in the wind. Her hand lets go of Margaret’s and she starts to help Sir Meliodas take the armor off. They are not -

...they are.

...the armor doesn’t fit her, and Margaret has a hard time even standing with the weight of just a helmet and a chestplate. Elizabeth seems to deal better with the weight, but her feet even with boots on must be far too small for the armor's foot pieces as well. Sir Meliodas is even worse off, all the parts too big for him, though he doesn’t let it bother him, making a picture that is difficult to take seriously, and Margaret can’t even be surprised.

Worst of all, the pig gets dressed in some of the remaining armor parts as well.

They cannot be serious.

But they are, because Margaret finds herself being led casually out into the street, now dressed to blend in with the often individual styles of the Holy Knights. And Holy Knights are the only ones who have permission to be out this late, and who are meant to be around, searching for the infiltrators.

...as they pass the first, then the second, then the third group of Holy Knights in short order, and they don’t even even give them a second glance, none of them even suspicious about the pig, Margaret’s racing heart and the voice that already prepares excuses for when they are eventually discovered quiets in astonishment.

They...aren’t questioned?

The part of her that is pure princess is incredulous at the hole in the security, but the part of her that is pure Margaret wishes more than anything that Gil weren’t stationed outside the Capital so that she would have a chance to see him. Take him with her.

She’s escaping!

It starts to sink in, and makes her doubly nervous again. If she’s gone, then Gil will be free. If they don’t identify Sir Meliodas, then he’ll have no idea who took her and she’ll worry him deeply. But he’d come looking for her, and once they find each other again, away from the danger of the Capital, and there they’ll be free.

And if they do identify Sir Meliodas...then Gil can rest at ease. What would the witch do then, though? Margaret is anxious and terrified, because Vivan knows that the Seven Deadly Sins did not kill Sir Zaratras. But does she know how much admiration Gil has for them, and Sir Meliodas especially? Would she know that Gil would know that by being with Sir Meliodas Margaret would be safe, and not in a different sort of danger?

She doesn’t know, and it almost makes her want to turn around and stay here, but she remembers Gil telling her, in the darkness of her cell with the bars separating them how much the Holy Knights are changing. What they are doing now. What, by implication, Gil will have to participate in to avoid any sort of suspicion that he knows.

It’s Margaret’s life being used against him that forces his hand. If only she is gone, then…

She must believe that. What is the alternative?

“Halt! Identify yourselves! No one is allowed to proceed past this point.”

Margaret freezes. The owner of the voice is a powerfully built knight, a mace strapped to his hip, and he hold up a hand warning them against approach. Behind the knight five others stand guard to let no one pass, and behind them the city’s closed gate reaches above their heads. Margaret swallows, trying her best not to tremble even as she can barely gather a thought from nervousness. She tries to follow Elizabeth’s lead, tries to stand easily, tries not to let her hands tremble and she has to twist them in the fabric of her dress.

“Hey,” Sir Meliodas greets in acknowledgment. “Good work everyone. We’re Holy Knights Mel,” pointing a thumb at himself, “Lisa,” waving a hand at Elizabeth, “Marge,” indicating Margaret. “Plus a mascot.” The pig. “We’ve come with new orders from the Grand Holy Knights. Seems like they caught the assassins, but they’re suspecting they had back up.”

The body language of the man remains confrontational, the other five also watching them seemingly casually but still with attention. It rises the hair on Margaret’s arms, but as much as act is difficult to keep up, it’s nothing compared to the ten years of lies and secrets and deception that she has behind her.

No, it will not be her who fails at convincing these knights. She is a princess, they are knights, and she has lied in the face of her own father, an executioner's blade at her neck. Knights have nothing on that.

Her fingers relax, fabric of her dress falling back into place and she shifts her weight faintly to stand more comfortably. She is not afraid. She has nothing to hide.

Two lies she can tell in her sleep.

“I don’t know any Mels or Lisas or whatever among the Holy Knights,” the man states suspiciously, hand on the hilt of his weapon. “You have proof you say who you are? You have written orders?”

Sir Meliodas tilts his helmeted head in a way that conveys surprise, his tone offended. “Do you think the Grand Masters had time to find a scroll, ink and feather, and to sign, in a situation like this? When the king was almost murdered, part of the castle blown up, the city in unrest – when traitors might be waiting just outside the wall to help their fellows escape? Are you serious?”

One of the knights at the gates shoots a suspicious look into the darkness beyond, but the big knight only hardens his stance. “Nonetheless. Nothing against women, but there aren’t many of them reaching our rank. We are doing our job questioning you. Would you like to explain to the Grand Masters that we slacked our duty at the mere word of strangers?” His voice is gruff and clipped, echoing a bit through the metal of his helmet.

Margaret’s stomach drops. Is it not going to work?

Undeterred, Sir Meliodas puffs out his chest impatiently, and snaps, “listen here buddy. It’s not our fault you don’t know us, we’re new, and if you continue to question us, you can explain to Sir Hendrickson why we didn’t bag the entire troupe!” His tone is sharp, with now an echo of hardness that is used to being obeyed to somehow salvage this bluff.

And it works.

The other knight’s confrontational aura mixes with consideration. “Perhaps we can strike a compromise. What are your orders?”

Sir Meliodas bristles still, pressing onward as the first sign of weakness. “Search outside the city walls. If we have a real problem then there might be a mage, or someone else capable of magical transportation. Or maybe just someone watching horses. We’re to find them and find them now. Do you understand what a disaster it would be if they got away?”

The other knight grumbles. Under his horned helmet his expression is not visible either, but if it were, it would be pinched, his tone sharp. “I cannot in good conscience allow you to pass. However orders must be obeyed.” He takes his helmet off, revealing a powerful jaw, chopped blond hair and hard cheek bones in combination with, indeed, an unhappy expression. “Listen, I’m gonna send out three of mine to search, and the three of you stay here with me, and we’ll see about identifying you.”

Sir Meliodas stares – or maybe glares – up at the man two times his size, before deflating. “Agreed. The mission comes first.” He crosses his arms and sniffs. “I haven’t heard seen your before either – what’s your name? - I get that’s concerning when there aren’t this many Holy Knights in the Capital.”

The other knight smiles tightly. With a flick of his hand, three knights behind his back start to get moving. “I’m Sapphire Rank Holy Knight Dan. Have been in service for over ten years now. I must say, I thought I knew all female knights. Are you from the New Generation? Maybe I’ve seen you before in passing.”

Margaret has no idea what that means, but the curious (suspicion lurking behind his eyes) look he shoots Elizabeth and her obviously expects them to take off their helmets and introduce themselves properly. There are distinct ways for Holy Knights to identify each other that Margaret knows off and her palms become sweaty with the thought that there might be some unofficial ritual that she is going to mess up in the next few seconds and thus blow their cover. Six Holy Knights, all on guard to take threats out, even if two of them are now pulling the gate up, simultaneously feeding magic into the wards to open them.

It’s not going to work.

They won’t let them pass.

They aren’t going to get out like this. What is going to happen? Are they going to attack them? Is Sir Meliodas going to start a fight? Can they break past the wall’s wards? If it comes to a fight, there are going to be more Holy Knights in a matter of seconds (Holy Knights can move fast, and they are patrolling the streets).

Elizabeth steps up next to Sir Meliodas, hands going to her helmet. She lifts it, slowly, before smiling sweetly up at Sir Dan. Her light hair all but glows from the various light, and her delicate, unmarked face is unlike any Margaret had every seen on any Holy Knight.

Sir Dan’s eyes widen, obviously not expecting such a pretty girl, or such a young one, and Elizabeth takes a step closer, now within arm’s reach. Tucking her helmet under her arm, her lips quirk. “I’m indeed New Generation, honored Sir Dan,” she says slowly, sweetly, innocently. Margaret wants to take her by the shoulders and lock her in a room until she learns what appropriate behavior is. “It’s a wonder we have not made acquaintance yet. Can you think of a reason?”

He gapes at her and his eyes flicker, against his control, up and down. Margaret can all but see all thoughts derailing, and indignation immediately fills her to the bones. How dare he look at a princess like that. It doesn’t matter that Elizabeth plays her beauty up, a Holy Knight’s not allowed anything but the most courteous behavior towards their liege unless explicitly allowed to otherwise. Not even Margaret’s guards had treated her with anything but the honor she deserves, despite how twisted it was with her behind bars – they hadn’t even dared to look at her most of the time.

“Sir Dan,” she states quietly but with authority that expects to be obeyed. “Such behavior is unbecoming. Control yourself or I will be forced to report you.”

With widened eyes Elizabeth stares at her, taken aback. She blinks a couple times before her lips slowly curve in a small grin -

“You are not Holy Knights,” Sir Dan declares with a certain sort of finality, guard visibly pulling up that Elizabeth’s trick had managed to lower, he pulls his weapon out -

- like a bucket of ice, Margaret reality forces its way back to the forefront of her mind, armor holding her stiff even as she wants to tense -

- eyes dart to Sir Meliodas, who was between Elizabeth and her, and is gone -

- Sir Dan draws a breath to call alarm, Margaret sees in slow motion -

- and a chocked gurgle escapes him, eyes rolling in the back of his head. He slumps, and Margaret braces for the explosive clatter his armor is going to make -

- the big knight doesn’t fall to the ground. A hand at the back of his neck holds him half collapsed, like a puppet with cut strings before Sir Meliodas carefully lowers the knight. Not a noise is made, and that she can’t see Sir Meliodas’ face makes it surreal and scary.

“The gate is open. Let’s go,” he says briskly, picking Margaret up again like she weights nothing. She has barely time to realize that the other knights are also still forms on the ground before the world blurs. Her arms wrap around Sir Meliodas’ neck on instinct and a gasp escapes her, but it’s swallowed by the wind, which howls in her ears and robs her breath even with the protection the helmet provides her.

What seems like entirely too long later, the sense of motion slows, though when Margaret opens her eyes, she can see nothing. It’s black everywhere, the moon above swallowed by clouds and only a the barest hint of brightness behind them.

Sir Meliodas sets her down, and her legs give out under her. Carefully, Sir Meliodas helps her sit down in what feels like grass, chuckling warmly. “Alright there, Margaret? It’s gonna get better. Just take a breather.”

She manages to stammer something in reply, trying not to let the ground spin, and takes the helmet from her head to breath fresh air. It’s summer but the air is cool with the touch of night.

Sir Meliodas’ armor clatters as he moves away from her, and another different clatter allows her to pinpoint the location of her sister.

She allows herself to be so undignified as to lay down, the cover of darkness given an illusion of privacy, moist grass tickling her bare skin.

Margaret thinks Elizabeth might be sitting down also, but she can’t tell for sure. Her sister’s breath is audible, though, and fast. “That was – more difficult – than I thought,” she gasps.

Sir Meliodas hums thoughtfully. “Probably the armor. You haven’t run carrying Hawk before either.”

The pig harrumphs. “It’s not my fault! If you had come up with a better plan, Elizabeth wouldn’t have had to carry me.” Then his tone changes to concerned, “are you okay, Elizabeth? This idiot didn’t demand too much of you, did he?”

Elizabeth chuckles weakly, still out of breath. “Of course not, Hawk. It’s just – I’m not used to this. I’ll...just need a moment.”

“Take is slow,” says Sir Meliodas. “We’ve got that much time. Now that we’ve got a few kilometers between us and the Capital we aren’t going to be found that quickly.” With a smirk in he tone he adds, “they need to get orders after all, and I’m sure Little Hendy and Dreyfus are busy enough with the mess we made of the castle.”

“...we couldn’t save Father.”

“...but we know he isn’t too bad of and we gathered some important information,” Sir Meliodas counters and it sounds like he flops down as well. “Who’d have thought Dreyfus and Hendrickson would ever stage a coup...”

“...you were friends with them, weren’t you,” Elizabeth questions sadly with a quiet voice. Her breath is more even now, and Margaret too feels like the ground is less likely to walk out on her as she sits up.

“Yeah.” Pause. “I guess people change, ten years is a long time. Wonder why they even bothered. If either of them wanted to be king, this is a roundabout way of doing it,” he says lightly.

Slowly Margaret’s eyes adjust a bit more to the darkness. She can see outlines now. The pig wiggles in place. “Hmph. Here I thought Holy Knights were supposed to be defenders of justice and stuff. How disappointing. I was thinking I’d get to see some real heroes finally. No wonder you ran away if that’s what Liones is like, Elizabeth. By the way can someone get this armor off me? It’s annoying.”

“Liones didn’t used to be like that, Hawk. Back when I was still living in the castle, everyone was really kind and gracious. Sirs Hendrickson and Dreyfus too – they were conscientious, kind and admired. I can’t fathom what could have happened to turn them against Father,” Elizabeth says sadly. Metal clatters and Margaret thinks she can see the outline of Elizabeth removing it from the pig.

“...it’s not true,” Margaret finds herself saying.

“What?” Says Elizabeth while Sir Meliodas’ head seems to tilt curiously in Margaret’s direction.

For ten years the words have been stuck in her throat, her closely kept secret, yet here, in the darkness, in a place that might be so far removed from civilization that not even a road exists, the words spill from her lips. “Sir Hendrickson and Sir Dreyfus have been traitors for a long time. On the night before the National Foundation Festival ten years ago I saw how they killed Sir Grand Holy Knight Zaratras.” She swallows, her throat closing up and for a moment she finds herself that small girl, hiding and watching in horror as a great man was killed by his most trusted. “They are who framed you and the Seven Deadly Sins, Sir Meliodas.”

Once more she is thankful for the darkness, it shielding her from the expressions on her sister’s face and her beloved’s most admired. But the silence lingering in the wake of her words is heavy and painful.

Sir Meliodas tugs of the armored gloves that are far too big for him and tosses them next to him. “Dreyfus killed his own brother?”

“...I’m very sorry.”

“I see.” His tone is unreadable.

Silence, then, “...if you saw it, then why did you never say anything?” Comes Elizabeth’s voice, small and filled with emotion that Margaret can’t identify. “...did you think we wouldn’t believe you? That I wouldn’t – was I that bad of a sister? Even then?”

Margaret shakes her head. Her fingers dig into the earth, clinging to it to suppress the tremble of her limbs. “If anything I’m a failure. Despite being princess, I’ve allowed the destabilization of the kingdom for my own selfish reasons.”

“...Margaret.”

Margaret takes a deep breath. “That day, I went to see Gil. And I told him what I saw. But someone overheard us, that vile sorceress Vivian, and she forced us to keep quiet. Gil always has a familiar of hers following his every step, the same as the creature you slew that followed me Sir Meliodas, and it has kept us both silent and obedient.” Her heart aches and the guilt of ten years weights on her shoulders now more than anything, seeing what has been birthed by it. Her father. Veronica. The kingdom. Even Elizabeth. “If only I had been willing to risk his life...” As she should have. As princess, she it is her duty to place the well-being of the kingdom, the king and the crown before her own desires, let alone over the life of a single boy. She should have spoken up the very same day the Sins were declared traitors.

But she couldn’t. She just couldn’t risk Gilthunder’s life.

No matter what she had to trade in for it or what she had to give up. She doesn’t care how much of a failure of a daughter or a princess it makes her, or what people may think of her. In a world without Gil, what reason is there in living?

At some point Elizabeth found her, and now presses their bodies together in a tight hug. As Margaret’s fingers come in contact with Elizabeth’s back, she finds to her shock that her sister is shaking. The chest plate Margaret is still wearing is in the way, but Margaret hugs Elizabeth back as tightly as she can -

“I’m sorry,” Elizabeth chokes, voice thick with tears. “I should have noticed. I’m so sorry, Margaret, but I was so wrapped up in my own heartache, I didn’t even -”

A sob tears from Margaret’s lips, and her own tears swell like a broken dam. All of a sudden she can’t stop crying and breaks down in her sister’s arms, face pressed into her hair and tears dripping into her clothes. For ten years she suffered in a living hell, and now that it’s finally over, there’s nothing holding her – forcing her – up anymore.

There’s nothing to lose by showing weakness.

Margaret allows herself to cry.