Fandom: Kyou Kara Maou.
It wasn't exactly hate at first sight.
When Wolfram von Bielefeld was very young he regarded his little-big-brother Conrad with much the same affection as his toys. Like the stuffed sand bear that Wolfram slept with at night, Conrad was big and squishy and rather nice to hold onto. Even better than the sand bear, Conrad could give Wolfram piggy-back rides and show him neat things like the colony of bugs living under the flat rock in the garden and the dragons that sometimes flew across the sky. Conrad knew how to do things, like color within the lines and fly a kite and hold a wooden sword so that it looked like real steel, and he was always happy to help his younger brother do the same. Always patient and helpful when they played together, Conrad was Wolfram's favorite companion. He adored Conrad.
Wolfram had never met Conrad's father, but besides Mother and Conrad himself, nobody at the castle seemed to like him very much – not the courtiers, not Gunter, and especially none of the von Bielefeld uncles. Big-big-brother Gwendal (who was impatient with Wolfram and often very scary and who never wanted to give him rides or show him how to do things) seemed to hate Conrad's father the most. "Ah, well, Wolfie," Mother said after one of Gwendal's outbursts, "Gwen thinks I should've given up men entirely after his own father died. Now, you wouldn't want Mother to be alone, would you, dear?" Wolfram frowned and shook his head, because being alone sounded very, well, lonely. "And besides, Wolf, darling – if I gave up love, then your brother Conrad wouldn't be here, and neither would you! That would be awful, wouldn't it?" Wolfram nodded adamantly, though he didn't really understand what Mother was trying to say. The whole thing didn't make any sense. If Conrad's father were anything like Conrad himself, he was probably very nice, too, and rather fun. But it wasn't as if Wolfram could ask Mother what all the fuss was about, for she never said anything bad about any of her husbands, not Gwendal's father, not Conrad's, and not his own, even though Lord Bielefeld was never around the castle these days, not since Mother had become Maou.
One thing everyone at the Castle did seem to agree on was that humans were the enemy, and quite inferior to the Mazoku, the Demon Tribe. The humans did terrible things, it was reported, committing awful atrocities during the never-ending war between them. Wolfram didn't think he'd met any humans, but from what he'd heard from his tutors and the courtiers and especially Gwendal, he knew that if he ever did meet one he should not hesitate but pull out his sword (wooden or otherwise) and smite it down. The Demon Tribe were the good guys, after all. Everybody knew that.
Not long after Lord Bielefeld stopped coming to the castle entirely, Conrad's father surprised everyone by returning for a visit, and Wolfram learned the awful truth.
"Yes," Conrad said, standing tall and proud. "My father is a human."
Wolfram's eyes grew wide. "What? Then you—" He felt the prick of tears. "That means you—"
"That's right," Conrad answered, nodding. "I'm half Demon and half human."
"You're not! You're not! You're Conrad!"
"Of course I'm still Conrad, silly," Conrad said, smiling at him with that familiar, kind face Wolfram had always adored. "This doesn't matter, does it, Wolf?" He reached down to ruffle his brother's hair.
Wolfram batted Conrad's hand away. "Don't touch me! Don't you dare touch me, you dirty human!!"
You lied to me!"
"Nobody lied to you, Wolfie," Mother began, but Wolfram wiped a sleeve across his eyes and stepped away from his little-big-brother. "I hate you, hate you, hate you!" With Conrad and Mother calling his name, he fled the chamber. Mother ran after him, but he wouldn't listen and locked the door against her, and buried his head under his pillow and wept furious, bitter tears.
After that there was only one person in the castle Wolfram called "brother." The other one he referred to as "Sir Conrad," or "Lord Weller," or "that damned half-human." Conrad would always look at him sadly, but Wolfram didn't care. It was Conrad's fault, anyway, for lying to him.
And if he missed playing with Conrad, or sparring with him, or standing with him, their arms around each other, watching dragons flit across the evening sky, he wouldn't permit himself to feel anything like affection for that lying human, not ever again.
It wasn't hate at first sight, but it was hate now.
The war between the Mazoku and the humans had been going on for longer than Wolfram had been alive, and there was no sign it would ever end. Gwendal had already been tested by battle, and proved himself an able leader, and Wolfram could hardly wait until he was given his own command. Mother (like the von Bielefeld uncles) was adamant, however, that he was still too young. Wolfram chafed and fretted under their rules, and hoped the war would continue until he was of age to participate in it.
He was used to seeing Gwendal ride off to his various battles, but when Conrad assembled his ragged band of fellow half-breeds and prepared to ride to war, Wolfram refused to come down to the courtyard. Instead, he watched from his bedroom window as Mother embraced her second son warmly, clutching him to her bosom a long, long time. Gunter fussed and worried and stuffed Conrad's saddle bags with sweaters and scarves and a brand new dagger, and dabbed at his eyes as he walked away. Gwendal frowned a little more deeply than usual and didn't hug his brother, but then Gwendal never hugged anyone. But Wolfram saw him clasp Conrad's arm and say something in private to him, and pat him on the back, his hand lingering there for quite a while. Throughout the goodbyes Conrad smiled politely, his face expectant, as if he waited for something to occur. When that something did not come, Conrad's eyes scanned the courtyard, peering into every corner, looking into every face. And then his gaze turned upward towards the castle windows and found Wolfram there, and locked onto him for what felt like an eternity.
Heart pounding, Wolfram tore his gaze away and shrank back from the window. Conrad dropped his head, and wheeled his horse through the castle gates, off to fight for the Demon Tribe in what everyone knew was a hopeless cause. What was Conrad hoping to prove? That he was as good as any Demon? That he was loyal to them?
Hah! As if Wolfram would ever believe Conrad was completely loyal, with that half-human blood of his. Let him go, and good riddance, too he thought, and then immediately felt a strange pang, as if something had been pulled from his chest. Never mind. Without Lord Weller there the family surely would be better off.
"What are you doing up here?" It was Lady Anissina von Khrelnikov, who'd come into the room so silently he hadn't heard her step. "Didn't you want to say your farewells in person?"
"Why should I?"
She folded her arms and frowned at him. "Sometimes you're even sillier than Gwendal, Wolfram. You might never see Conrad again. What if he gets killed? Have you thought about that?"
He hadn't. He hadn't dared think Conrad might die, even though he'd convinced himself it would be better for all of them if Lord Weller stayed away forever. The thought sent a chill through his bones. "He won't die," Wolfram declared, turning away.
"I hope to Shinou you're right. You are the most stubborn person alive!"
Anissina flounced out of the chamber. Suddenly the feeling in Wolfram's chest became so painful there was nothing to do but grab a bunch of blue flowers, the ones mother had named for her second son, knocking over the vase in the process, and run down to the courtyard with them. By now Conrad and his men were only visible as a cloud of dust, but a carriage was following behind them and Wolfram put on a burst of speed to catch up to it. "Here!" he panted, thrusting the flowers into the hands of the passenger. "Make sure he gets them — Lord Weller! Hurry!"
The young man stared at him a moment, then smiled and nodded. The carriage rumbled away.
As the dust settled Mother picked another armful of blue Conrad-Standing-Tall from the garden and placed them in a vase by her bed, where she lay weeping until after dinner. Gwendal went to his study and started knitting alarming-looking animals. Gunter sighed piteously and languished on the settee in the drawing room, his arm flung over his eyes. The servants were strangely silent and stayed out of everyone's way.
As for Wolfram himself, he drifted aimlessly from room to room, slamming doors as he went. When he realized he was shivering uncontrollably, he went back to his room to sit by the fire, but still his shivering did not cease, no matter how close he sat, or how high he stoked the flames. The castle suddenly seemed enormous and dark and empty.
When Conrad returned from battle, grievously injured, most of his men dead, he was attended by the finest surgeons in the land. Mother spent most of every day beside his bed; Gunter made it a point to visit often, reading to him and passing on bits of castle gossip. The Maou's oldest son shifted awkwardly in Conrad's room, speaking in fits and starts about how the war was going, his voice as gruff as ever, but once Conrad fell asleep Gwendal tucked one of his unrecognizable knitted creations beside his brother's pillow. Everyone in the castle, from the stable hands to the Maou herself, spoke in voices filled with awe and respect of Conrad's heroism and his sacrifices. Conrad had left the castle as the half-human son of the Maou, but he was welcomed back as the Lion of Rutenberg, a hero to the entire Demon Tribe.
Conrad Weller was loved by everyone, it seemed, and only Wolfram felt left out. He told himself it shouldn't matter – Lord Weller might be a hero, and he might have suffered bravely, but that didn't change the fact he was half-human and thus not equal to a full-blooded Demon. But even as he thought those familiar words, he felt ashamed.
As Conrad healed, Wolfram often found himself outside his chamber door, though he rarely ventured in. A large ruffian named Yozak Gurrier lingered there as if he were Lord Weller's guard dog, though no one would've harmed a hair on Conrad's head. Gurrier's looming presence was another reminder of the futile battle from which both men had returned. Wounded himself, the man looked every bit the barbaric half-breed he was. And so Wolfram hurried past Conrad's guarded door, catching only brief glimpses of the injured hero within as he lay pale and drawn, swathed in bandages.
One night, after Gurrier had been persuaded to go to the kitchen for some dinner, Wolfram quietly approached Conrad's room and opened the door. He stood awhile watching as Conrad slept, listening to the roughness of his breath. "Little-big-brother," Wolfram whispered, unable to hold back his words. Conrad stirred in his sleep and Wolfram backed away.
"Why not go in?"
Wolfram jumped. It was Yozak Gurrier, holding a blanket under one arm and a pillow under the other. "Wh-what are you planning to do with that?"
Gurrier raised an impertinent eyebrow. "Sleep, of course."
Gurrier gestured at the floor. "Right here."
"Because he's my captain," the big man said. "And my friend. I'd die for him." He dropped the bedding on the ground. "So, you didn't answer me, kid. Why don'tcha go in? I know he'd like it if you did."
"You shouldn't speak to me with such familiarity," Wolfram sniffed. "You half-human trash have no right to–"
"So you're the famous Wolfram." Gurrier spread out the blanket and settled himself on the ground with a small wince. "He used to talk about you all the time."
Wolfram blinked in surprise. "He did?"
"Yep. He worries about you. Look – he's your brother, so go in. If you're worried, don't be. He'll be all right, you know."
"I know that," Wolfram muttered. "And you shouldn't sleep here." He turned and retreated as fast as he could, feeling Gurrier's stare all the way down the corridor.
Conrad recovered, but he was no longer the affectionate person Wolfram remembered. This Conrad said little, and looked past those who spoke with him with a thousand-yard stare. Nearly every one of his men had perished, and it seemed Conrad could not understand why he had survived. And, too, there was the sad matter of Susanna Julia von Wincott. Everyone knew Conrad had loved her with an adoration borne of chivalry and devotion, and now she was dead, too, killed by the same war that had claimed Conrad's men. His bitterness over her death, and the deaths of his men shadowed his every move, echoed in his every word.
Of all the people in the castle, Wolfram felt that bitterness the most. For while Conrad remained courteous to his mother, Gwendal and Yozak and civil to everyone else, he seemed not to notice Wolfram at all. They'd pass in the corridor and Wolfram would summon up the will to address him, but Conrad would avert his gaze and pass in silence.
"It seems so unfair!" Wolfram plopped down on a garden bench and began to pull leaves off the closest bush.
"You think Sir Conrad's being unfair?" Gunter sat down on the bench across from him and pushed his long silver tresses over one shoulder. He leaned over to pluck a flower – "Secretive Gwendal," as Mother had named it – and tucked it behind his ear. "That's certainly interesting, Lord von Bielefeld."
Wolfram frowned. Gunter only addressed him by his title when he was angry with him, but what right had he to be angry? "Of course he's unfair. I'd decided to accept Lord Weller as my brother again, even if he is half human – after all, he is a hero, and that has to count for something, doesn't it?"
"Indeed it does," Gunter murmured, but Wolfram thought he detected a note of sarcasm in the elegant voice. "I should say it counts for quite a lot."
"But, see, that's it! He won't talk to me, and I'm ready to tell Conrad that I…how I…" He stopped abruptly, unsure how to finish.
"How you what, Wolfram?"
"Well, that I, that he…That is…" Wolfram tugged his uniform tunic into alignment and cleared his throat. "Well, I'd tell him that though he isn't a full Demon, I suppose he's worthy of being my brother, and he should stop being so standoffish to me."
"Ah." Gunter leaned towards him, and there was no mistaking the glitter of anger in his eyes. "And have you asked yourself if you're worthy of being the brother of Conrad Weller?"
And with those words Gunter whirled and departed, pale hair and cloak whipping behind him, leaving Wolfram with his mouth agape.
The Maou was more absent than present these days, choosing to gallivant about the countryside in search of love rather than attend to her duties. The frown lines between Gwendal's eyes grew deeper and deeper as he completed the work his mother should have done, while sending Gurrier on secret missions and laboring over knitting that never turned out quite right. Gunter flitted and fussed and sighed and scolded everyone indeterminately, and worked himself into a tizzy over the tiniest problem. Anissina terrified everyone with her unpredictable experiments, filling the castle with noxious fumes and occasionally setting her chambers on fire. Conrad stayed in his room or disappeared into the Temple for long periods of time, and rarely spoke to anyone. To Wolfram the entire kingdom felt as if it were under a dark cloud.
Wolfram didn't know when it was decided, but one day he was informed that Conrad was leaving, going to do the Great One's bidding in another time and place. The details were sketchy. It seemed Ulrike would open a portal…somehow…and Conrad would step through and arrive…somewhere…on a mission of the utmost importance. Wolfram scarcely had time to react to the news before the day of Conrad's departure was upon them.
The last night before Conrad was to leave, Mother (who surprisingly was at home), Gwendal, Gunter, Anissina and Wolfram sat morosely around the table, eyes shifting toward the one vacant seat. Everyone picked at their food except Anissina, whose healthy appetite never faltered.
Mother put down her fork and dropped her chin into her hand with a sigh. "Poor Conrad. I don't know why he prefers to eat in his room, tonight of all nights."
"He almost always eats in his room these days," Anissina noted.
Wolfram snorted. "It's so rude."
"You know why he doesn't come to meals, Wolfram," Gwendal muttered. "And it's a damn shame, too." Strangely, Gwendal seemed to be glowering at him, which Wolfram found very peculiar and not a little terrifying.
"What?" He clenched his fist. "What are you trying to say, brother?"
"Oh, hm, everyone," Gunter interjected quickly. "Have you tried the wine? It's extraordinary."
"Isn't anyone going to bring dinner up to Conrad's room?"
"Stay out of it, Anissina."
"I will not, Gwendal, and if you had any sense, you'd do something about this."
"I'll have one of the servants do it," Mother began. "Gunter, please ask—"
"I'll do it."
Everyone stopped eating. Four pairs of eyes turned in Wolfram's direction.
"Wolfram? You want to—"
"I said I'd do it, Mother," Wolfram barked, throwing down his napkin and pushing back his chair. "And I shall."
And thus he found himself outside Conrad's room, balancing the tray of food in one hand, his other hand poised to rap upon the door. Wolfram paused, his hand mere inches from the heavy wood. What on earth was he thinking? Why hadn't he left this to the servants? It was wrong, impossibly wrong, for Wolfram von Bielefeld to be waiting hand and foot on…on a…
The door swung open so suddenly Wolfram nearly dropped the tray.
"Wolfram?" Conrad stood in the doorway, and ran a hand through dark hair which desperately needed a trim. He was not in uniform but in commoner's clothes – no, that wasn't quite right, Wolfram realized; they were clothes that looked odd, as if they belonged in another place or time–
Oh, of course. Conrad was dressed for his trip to…"somewhere else."
"Why are you…" Conrad began, but stopped. His eyes, which for a moment had shown warmth, became distant. "Never mind."
Wolfram felt his insides lurch, that familiar pang stabbing his chest. "You didn't come to dinner, so I–" He thrust the tray forward. "Here."
Conrad took it silently, but backtracked into the room and placed it on a table. "I'm not hungry, actually."
"Suit yourself," Wolfram said gruffly. He turned to go.
"It's nothing," Wolfram said tersely. "It doesn't mean I–" His heart was suddenly thudding in his chest. "I mean, it's just because you're leaving and you should eat something. That's all. That's all it is."
"I know." Wolfram looked up. Conrad's expressive mouth was pulled into a taut line. "I know it doesn't mean anything to you, Wolfram." The line softened. "But it does to me."
The beating of Wolfram's heart was so loud now it filled his ears. Surely Conrad must hear, surely Conrad must know—
Suddenly terrified, Wolfram felt the throbbing grow within him and tears begin to overflow, and fought to contain himself. His throat tightened. He had the overwhelming urge to fling himself bodily into Conrad's arms, but stubbornly held himself still, swallowing until he regained control. "Why does it have to be you for this mission?"
Conrad shrugged. "It's Shinou's will." His mouth twisted. "And a soldier always does as he's ordered, doesn't he?"
A cold hand wrapped itself around Wolfram's heart. "I wish," he heard himself say, "I wish you didn't have to go."
"Of course!" said Wolfram, sparking with anger. "Look, brother, I'm sorry if I–"
"–Wolfram, do you know that's the first time you've called me that since you were little?"
"I–" Wolfram dropped his head. "Please, Conrad," he muttered, cheeks flaming. "Don't go."
Conrad stepped into the corridor and closed the door behind him. He placed his hand on Wolfram's shoulder and let it linger just a moment. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm afraid it's too late."
Soul sinking, Wolfram watched his brother walk away until he turned a corner and was gone. "I'm sorry," he whispered to the empty corridor. "I'm sorry, Conrad. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
Time passed in its usual paradoxical way. Ulrike had told them that in this new place, this "Earth" where Conrad had gone, time would pass more slowly for him than it did for them. But in Shin Makoku days dragged into weeks, and the weeks spanned a month and then two while everyone waited for Conrad's return.
When word came that their long wait was over, the family gathered in front of the castle to watch him ride through the gates. At long last the drawbridge lowered; a lone horse whinnied and danced through the opening, a rider on his back. The morning was just dawning over the far hills beyond the castle gates, and it seemed to Wolfram as if Conrad were emerging from the sun itself. He rode closer, his familiar features coming into view, and Wolfram was stunned to see the dour, unresponsive soldier had vanished, and in his place was a man calm, steady, and smiling.
Conrad was back. The real Conrad had come home.
Wolfram felt his heart soar for the first time in months. Before he could question his own actions, he was running down the steps into the yard, even before Conrad could dismount. He raised his arms, to fling them around his brother, and then…
He stopped himself, skidding to a halt on the dusty ground. His pride would not let him show how much he'd missed Conrad, how happy he was that Conrad had come back.
But if Conrad noticed his faltering excitement, he gave no sign. For the first time in many, many months, he turned a delighted grin toward Wolfram, grabbed him and pulled him into a hug that nearly asphyxiated him. "Wolfram," Conrad said in his ear, "I'm so happy to see you. I'm so happy to be home!"
Time slowed and froze. Something, Wolfram thought, something peculiar is happening to me. Despite the chill of the morning, the moment Conrad wrapped his arms around him Wolfram felt instantly warm – no, it was more than that; he felt flushed, as if his entire body had caught fire. And as Conrad spoke those words, his warm breath tickling Wolfram's ear, Wolfram felt a distinct shiver course through him, a tingling that ran straight down and nestled in his most private places. With equal parts astonishment and horror, Wolfram registered the sensation for what it was, as he instantly responded to Conrad's touch in the most embarrassing way possible.
His adolescent body had been hinting at this sort of thing for some time, but never in his wildest dreams had Wolfram imagined his first undeniable erection would be for Conrad. It was unbelievable! Thankfully, Conrad moved on after a final squeeze, grabbing his mother and whirling her around, then clasping arms with Gwendal, and allowing Gunter to pound him on the back delightedly. Wolfram heard words like "success" and "wonders" and "mission" and "Earth" and "Maou," but scarcely noted them. He curled himself into a comma, willing the horrifying proof of his disgrace to subside. His joy of the moment shattered and fell away, replaced by terror. This could not be happening. Oh no. No, no, no. He could not possibly – he would not feel desire for–
But he did. Oh, how he did.
Apparently he no longer hated Conrad.
As life returned to normal in the Great Demon Kingdom – or at least as normal as it could be with an unpredictable and willful Maou – Wolfram tried to come to terms with the fact his feelings for his little-big-brother had changed in the most disturbing way. He who once had recoiled at the very idea of living with a half-human, now could not bear to be separated from him for even an hour. He found reasons to accompany Conrad everywhere, hunting, sparring, tending to their horses, visiting Shinou's temple, or simply strolling in the gardens. If Conrad noticed Wolfram dogging his every move, he said nothing about it.
For Wolfram, constantly being in Conrad's company was both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, he recaptured the joy he'd had as a child, because Conrad was still kind and funny and helpful, but now he was also wise and worldly, and every word he said felt important. On the other hand, their constant companionship only fueled the heat growing in Wolfram's heart and loins.
But what was he to do? His pride told him his yearnings were unacceptable for any number of reasons. First of all, he was pure-blooded Mazoku, while Conrad's blood was sullied by a human father. Secondly, they were both males, and while that didn't usually matter in Shin Makoku, Wolfram had never considered the possibility of such an attraction for himself. And finally, they were siblings, even if they only shared a mother. Was this right? Was this lawful?
For the first time in his life, Wolfram sought counsel in books, carefully examining huge texts on the history, laws and traditions of the Demon Tribe. Gunter, clearly delighted with Wolfram's new-found scholarship, dubbed him an excellent pupil and preened as if he were personally responsible for young Lord von Bielefeld's sudden lust for learning. Well, it was lust, all right, but the learning was only a means to an end.
But Wolfram found little help in his research. Despite a clearly open-minded acceptance of all sorts of liaisons, Mazoku tradition frowned on the intermingling of human and Demon kind. And the tomes said nothing at all about love between siblings. Nothing. Not a word. So Wolfram found himself back where he started, with no answers, and no guidance.
The truth was, he was afraid to act, for fear of rejection or ridicule. He could not bear to be made a fool of in love, or in anything else, for that matter.
And so the days went by. Wolfram stewed in his own inaction, and his lust simmered and boiled like a teakettle left too long on the flame. But as with most teakettles that boil too long, the contents transformed into steam and dissipated into a cloud of hot air. Wolfram grew cranky again, and frustrated, both with himself and with Conrad, for not noticing and not taking action himself.
It really was hate at first sight as far as Wolfram was concerned.
Wolfram detested Yuuri from the moment he laid eyes on him, and was not shy about letting him know. The impertinence of this interloper, unable to speak their language, without any social graces, so very awkward and clumsy and stupid, the child of a demon servant and a lowborn human tramp—
The family stared in horror as Wolfram’s hand went to his left cheek. "You slapped me!"
The dark-haired boy glowered at him from angry black eyes. "You insulted my mother!"
"Who cares about your stupid family! I've never been so insulted in my life! I don't care if you are a double-black! You're no Maou and you're no Mazoku!" With a cry of rage Wolfram swept the table clear of dishes; cutlery and china flew everywhere, crashing to the ground in a cacophony of metal and breaking glass. Behind him he heard gasps and stirrings of alarm from the others, but his blood was up. Go ahead, he thought, glaring back at Yuuri. Pick it up. I dare you!
And Yuuri – clumsy, socially awkward, unknowing Yuuri, picked up the knife, and turned it in Wolfram's direction.
Wolfram bared his teeth.
The rest, as they say, was inevitable.
Drenched, exhausted, at wit's end, Wolfram pounded through the corridors, leaving squishy footprints behind him, seeking the one person, and one person alone, who could make sense of this horrible day.
The door at the end of the corridor opened. Conrad stood there, perfectly composed, a calm expression on his face. "Wolfram?"
This time Wolfram did fling himself into his brother's arms, and buried his face in Conrad's broad chest. "Conrad! I – he – we – what do I do now?"
"Shh," Conrad soothed, closing the door. "Please calm down, Wolfram. Everything will be all right."
"All right? How can anything be all right? That wimp proposed to me and beat me in a duel, and now we're engaged! It'll never be all right again!"
Conrad led him over to the bed and sat down beside him. "It'll be fine. Such engagements are acceptable, you know. You might look upon it as an honor."
"Yuuri is a very fine young man, and I'm sure he'll be a very fine Maou–"
"Wolfram, you needn't–"
"Don't you understand?!" Wolfram shoved Conrad hard and stared at him, eyes blazing. "I can't be his fiancé!"
"Wolfram. These things can be worked out. I’m sure if you give it time, you'll discover—"
"Because – because–" The frustration and longing of many years crested and overflowed. Without another word Wolfram grabbed his brother by the shoulders and dragged him close, pulling their mouths together into a passionate kiss.
Conrad tasted like warmth and spice and comfort and fire and happiness, and for a moment Wolfram lost himself in the joy of the sensation. Gradually, though, he became aware that something was amiss, and his excitement began to abate. Slowly releasing his grip on Conrad’s tunic, he sat back, his face flushed, his breathing heavy. There. He’d done it. He’d finally done what he’d wanted to do for a very long time. And now Conrad would have to–
That's what was wrong. Conrad had gone very, very still. There he sat, his clothes disordered, his lips reddened from the kiss. "Ah." He cleared his throat. "I see. So this means—"
"What do you think it means?" Wolfram rolled his eyes. "Conrad, you idiot! I love you!"
"Oh, Wolfram," Conrad said, smiling in a way that made Wolfram weak in the knees and yet somewhat uneasy. "You don't really mean it."
"I do! I'll never love anyone else but you, Conrad!"
"Don't say such rash things. You will. I know you will."
"Believe me," said Conrad softly, his hand carding softly through Wolfram's hair. "You may not think so now, but there will be someone you care for much more than me, and love much more fiercely. And when you find that person, the two of you will be together always."
"No, Conrad!" Oh, no, he was crying again, and didn’t seem to be able to stop. "It's you, only you! You need to take responsibility for me!"
"Yes! Don't you see? I thought I hated you, but I was wrong. You're not demon tribe, and you're not human. You're you, Conrad. You made me love you, and now you need to love me back!" He folded his arms and stared pugnaciously at his brother. "You have to!"
"Dear Shinou, but you're relentless," Conrad murmured. "I think I'm a little afraid of you."
"Don't change the subject!"
"But don't you see, Wolfram? I do love you." Conrad's warm hands cupped Wolfram's face, and his thumbs wiped away the streaks of wetness from his cheeks. It seemed Conrad's eyes glittered with unshed tears as well, and Wolfram felt his heart swell so much he thought it might burst. "Remember this, Wolfram," Conrad said in a soft voice. "You've given my heart back to me today. I do love you, too, and I will always love you, no matter where life takes me, no matter what battles I must fight. We can never be separated, you know, no matter how far apart we may be, or who comes between us. We’re brothers."
"But Conrad! I don't want to just be brothers! I love you! I want to be with you–!" Wolfram wiped his sleeve across his eyes to mop the tears.
Conrad chuckled. "You remind me of when you were a child, when you do that."
"I'm not a child!"
"No," said Conrad. He looked at Wolfram with affection, and then pulled him into a tight hold. "You're not a child. You're old enough to be a soldier, and you're old enough to know about love, and I won't diminish what you've said, or make light of your feelings. Do you know how many years I suffered, knowing you hated me?"
"I didn't mean it, Conrad, I swear I didn't–"
"Ah, but you did," Conrad said, "but that doesn't matter now. You've given me this gift, this wonderful, priceless gift of your love, and I would gladly…" He shook his head slightly, letting out a sigh filled with longing. "Never mind." Conrad released his hold and looked him in the eye, one hand clasping Wolfram's neck, the other tracing his trembling lip. "Shinou has set our destinies, and mine is to serve the Maou, and yours is, perhaps, to be his consort. There's no use in regret. So let's love each other, and never be torn apart again, but let's be the soldiers we were trained to be, and follow the destinies we've been given." Conrad's warm brown eyes were grave as he regarded Wolfram's face. "Can you do that?"
"I don't know. I don't think I can. I want you so much, Conrad!"
"You're stronger than you think, Wolfram. You're stubborn, too. You can do anything you set out to do, or have anything you want."
"In that case," Wolfram whispered, clinging to him desperately, "be with me…just this once?"
Conrad took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "You never give up, do you?"
"No," said Wolfram. "I never do. And I never will."
Conrad peered at Wolfram appraisingly through half-lidded eyes. And then he smiled, that tender, wonderful smile that spoke of kindness and warmth and love, and Wolfram felt the burden he carried lift from his shoulders and dissipate into the air.
"Oh, Wolfram," Conrad said softly. "Come here."
Many years later Wolfram turned in his huge four-poster bed and watched the chest of the person beside him rise and fall in deep sleep. Affection coursed through him. "You'll catch a cold, if you're not careful." He hitched the blanket a little higher to ward off the winter chill that crept in through the window. "Huh. You sleep like you haven't a care in the world," he murmured, half-chiding. "And maybe you don't. That's awfully silly of you. Good thing you've got me to look after you."
He stifled a yawn. Time to sleep, if he was to be in fine shape tomorrow for those annoying trade negotiations. And then there was that nagging business with Mother's upcoming wedding, and the new addition to the castle he had to oversee–
Wolfram spooned around the warm body beside him, leaning over to plant a soft kiss on the sleeper's cheek. He sighed into the darkness. It was true that peace was harder than war. At least in a war you could pull out a sword and fight, and fighting was part of his nature, just like being relentless, and stubborn. But he was learning to be peaceful, just as he'd learned what it felt like to love and be loved by the person you were meant to cherish.
And for that, Wolfram reflected, I have you to thank, Conrad. You were right, and you taught me everything, including how to love freely and fiercely and fully.
"I'll always love you, little-big-brother," he whispered into the darkness, as he did every night of his life.