Jack is well acquainted with failure. He knows the feeling of wanting without having, of starting without finishing, of trying without succeeding.
He has never failed quite so spectacularly as he failed at kingship, but it still seems like it should be familiar. Navigable. Instead, when Thomasina closes the door behind her, all he can do is stare after her, his breathing loud in his ears.
He can’t think why he isn’t dead. Why isn’t he dead? If he’s failed at this, he should be dead.
“Jack?” Lucinda says. “Jack, what is it? What is going on?”
Lucinda. Right. He breathes slowly, pulls himself together. This isn’t the hardest thing he’s done today. “You heard Thomasina, love.” The tone is automatic, indulgent and sarcastic at once; he hears it like it’s a long way away. “My father needs an heir from us, and we’ll stay here until he has one. After which I couldn’t say. You might be allowed to leave.”
“Jack!” Lucinda steps closer, forcing his attention. “Your father’s king again?”
That focuses him. “Where have you been?”
“In hiding,” she says. “Where the security put me? I thought you—“ but she shakes that thought away, lifts her chin and says, “I was in a room for hours, and then Thomasina came and wouldn’t tell me what was happening.”
“Ah,” he says slowly. “My father is cruel as usual. Well. He has returned, he has retaken the throne, he has refused my request for death, and here we are, ready to beget the next generation of Benjamins for his use and abuse. I wonder if he remembers that we aren’t actually married yet?”
“I—“ she says. “No. No! I won’t be locked up in here, I haven’t done anything wrong—“
“You will recall,” he says, “that in this building, those words mean nothing.”
She goes to yell and hammer at the door. Jack goes to the bed, falls back to look at the ceiling. Then sits up again, because the second he relaxed even that much, his eyes started to fill.
Weakness, always. And nowhere to hide it, here. Maybe he can lock himself in the bathroom, and solidify his shame by sobbing on the floor next to the toilet, with the sink running like that’ll mask the sounds.
Lucinda might not even notice; she’s still yelling. “It won’t work,” he tells her, but she’s not listening.
Why couldn’t he just be dead?
He should’ve been long ago, when he thinks about it: rescued from enemy hands by an obnoxious blond miracle; saved again by that miracle becoming a killer; throwing himself in front of an actual bullet for his actual father—weak even in his betrayal, after all—and treason against that same father, survived only by virtue of his seed.
So it’s David’s fault, then, for being David. If he hadn’t faced down a goddamned tank to save Jack’s life, it could all have been over then. His father and mother would have mourned him, the kingdom would have mourned him, and his father would no doubt rule Gath entire by now, angered and grieved as he would have been, or seemed to be.
And Joseph would still be alive.
And Michelle could be queen after his father died, and that would be that for Gilboa, probably. Unless William had gone ahead and made her the puppet instead.
Moot, in any case. He’s still alive. Why, he absolutely cannot say, because if there was ever anybody whose existence was absolutely fucking pointless, it’s Jack Benjamin. If God ever chooses to speak with him, He can start with that.
Meanwhile, he’s still alive, and with no purpose—none but to fuck Lucinda, and she doesn’t look to be in the mood.
For lack of anything else to do, then, and in preference to the bathroom, he stands up and goes over to her, where she’s wound down and is sobbing against the door.
“There’s nothing will change their minds,” he says, in the voice he uses with her in public, affectionate and gentle. “You’d have to change his mind, and I can tell you now, you don’t have the power to do that.”
She straightens, and turns to look at him. “This is your fault,” she says. “You condemned us both.”
She takes a shaky breath, and then another. Looks around the room. Focuses on the bed, and he watches her remember what Thomasina said, and cast a wary look his way.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “You have nothing to fear from me. Remember?”
“This is the first I’ve been glad of it,” she says, and turns away. It’s the only time he can remember her turning from him of her own will.
After a moment, she curls up on the far side of the bed, on top of the covers, still in her dress. After another moment, he hears her start to cry.
He sets his back to the door, and slides down to sit on the carpet. Looks up at the ceiling, and listens to her weeping.
The next morning, Lucinda showers in the attached bathroom, dresses in the clothes waiting for her in one of the closets, and eats the breakfast delivered on a tray by four silent armed guards, none of whom Jack recognizes. Then she says, “Jack.”
Jack has neither slept, nor showered, nor changed, nor eaten—nor wept, which he supposes is a point of pride, or some close relative of it. He is sitting across from her at their small table, however, and he says, “What?”
“I don’t know your parents as you do,” she says. “I know they say that the king’s will is iron, but is it true? Do they truly mean it, and they’ll keep us in here until we produce an heir? Or could they be swayed? By us, or by someone else, or by time?”
“Lucinda,” he says, “I have no fucking idea.” He’s never sworn around her before, but she doesn’t flinch at the profanity. He wonders where she learned to tolerate it; he deliberately chose a woman with no close male relatives living. He’s learned his lesson from his father’s errors, much good it’s done him in the end.
“You have to have some idea,” she protests. “You’ve lived with them your entire life.”
“And never have I been able to predict my father’s favor,” he says. “My mother’s has supported me in the past, but it runs dry of late. Perhaps she will not stand for this, or perhaps my father will think of some use for me, and we will be let out and made to pretend that nothing happened.” Her face twists even at that; he misses Katrina, suddenly, who would have understood. “Or perhaps we will never leave this room again.” He shrugs. “Perhaps if we give them an heir, they will release you, at least. Though I doubt very much you will have the raising of it.”
Lucinda rubs her hands over his face; it’s a gesture he’s never seen her make before. Too conscious of her image, or of her makeup. In here she has neither.
“Why did I do this?” she says into her hands. “Why couldn’t I just have loved you from afar? What sort of idiot was I, to marry into the royal family?”
Same kind of idiot he used to meet every day; sees something shiny, wants to hold it in their hand. People reach out for them on the street sometimes, to touch royalty with their fingertips. Even Michelle learned to ignore it, eventually. They have to live with it; there’s nothing in Gilboa shinier than they are.
Except David, now. Lucinda should have fallen for him—brilliant, blond, straight David. Jack wonders where he is now, if the counter-coup has tilted Silas’ favor back again, wonders if he's alive or dead, wonders if he wants him to be alive or dead. Hard to say. If he's dead, that's Jack’s revenge, for declaring friendship and having it turned on him. On the other hand, if he's dead, that’s Silas’ revenge as well, and one less burden for Silas to bear.
No, he thinks, he wishes David Shepherd a burden on his father the likes of which nobody could hope to bear. He hopes David shows up at Silas' door with a fucking army one day.
David would probably let Jack out, too, the more fool he.
On the third day, Lucinda sits down across from him at the table and she says, “Thomasina said that your father wants us to give him an heir.”
“That is what she said,” Jack agrees.
“That child would be taken from us and raised by Silas to despise his father,” she says. “It would be born out of coercion, into coercion. And,” her voice shakes a little, “if it were healthy and strong, its existence would mean that ours was no longer necessary.”
“Correct on all points,” he says. “And further: Silas might decide he wants more than one. Just in case.”
“Silas,” she says, and her voice has smoothed out, and it is harder than he has ever heard it, “should learn that he cannot always get what he wants.”
He smiles. But, “Silas will never learn that,” he says. “And any attempt to teach him inevitably turns around into a painful lesson to the one trying.”
“No more painful than having a child ripped from our arms and turned against us from infancy,” she says. “Do you agree?”
She’s wary again. “I’m not going to rape you,” he says. “I have never been successful at thwarting my father’s plans, but the trying is becoming a habit by now. We can resist, and see what effect we have. I wonder how long it will take him to try something other than locking us in a room together.” Drugging the food, maybe. He decides not to mention that.
She nods, once. “Thomasina also said that you—that you couldn’t stand the sight of me,” she says, stumbling but determined. “Was that—was that true?”
“No,” he says, firm, and watches her relax. “I don’t want you.” She lifts her chin and bears that, and he goes on, “I’ll never love you. But I don’t hate you. Although now that we’re trapped in a small room together, I’m not making any promises for the future.”
“I still love you,” she says, quietly. “I don’t think that will change.”
Jack doesn’t have any argument to make for or against—he’s seen firsthand how long people can hang on to him, and he’s also seen how quickly their adoration can turn to hatred. “Thomasina thinks that that will make you happy to be locked up in a room with me, and nothing to do but fuck for my father’s pleasure,” he says.
“Thomasina is wrong,” she says.
“Glad to hear it,” he says.
That evening—as though she’s rationing out the conversation, only one question every six hours, to keep them going as long as possible—she says, “Why do you have a habit of thwarting your father?”
“Trying to,” he corrects. “You think my father puts up with opposition from the likes of me?” He gestures behind him, to the bounds of their prison. “And the answer is, because he has always thought me a disappointment of a son, and I have always wanted to prove him wrong.” He smiles, and it hurts. “How do you think I’m doing?”
She doesn’t smile back, but then, he wasn’t expecting her to. “I watched the last day of the Shepherd trial,” she says instead. “I saw what he called you.”
“Oh, yes,” he says. “That’s right. A king can’t be a faggot. And a faggot can’t be a king, I guess we’ve all now learned—”
“Stop it,” she says.
“Why?” he says. “Because it’s true?”
“You would have been a good king,” she insists.
“Shut up,” he snaps, and she flinches. And shuts up.
That night, he waits for her to fall asleep—both of them on the bed now, hovering on opposite edges, and sometime soon he’ll lose interest in her sensibilities and just get as comfortable as he likes, but apparently that isn’t tonight—listening for her breathing to even out, holding his own breath against any betrayal of sound.
When he’s sure she’s out cold, he breathes out, slow and long, and like always, the tears come so fast it’s shameful. He pants silently, mouth open, as they slip down his temples to wet his hair, around the pain in his chest.
Really, he thinks, now that he’s fallen as far as he can, he should be able to cry in daylight. What pride has he left? But he can’t; he won’t. Instead, he catches another silent breath, and shudders in the dark.
They fall into a routine, after that. He joins Lucinda in her rationed conversation—after their discussion of kingship, which went so very well, they fall into harmless, useless topics. He learns more about her family in the first week than she’s ever told her before; it’s nice to hear it from her, rather than reading it in the background check.
The rest of the time, he broods. He's excellent at brooding; he only regrets that there’s no alcohol in the room whatsoever, so he can't finish as he should, by drowning it all in a sea of expensive whiskey.
He’ll never be king. That’s a strange thought, for all he’s had it before. It used to be shrouded in fear, and he would shy away from it the second he thought it. Now—well, it’s happened. He has tried, and failed. No lesser authority than God Himself has looked down on Jack, and refused him.
That’s it. He will never be king. He repeats it to himself, silently, and is never sure if it quite sticks.
Lucinda endures his silence, and eventually finds a pen and paper in one of the bedside drawers, and writes. He doesn't ask to look at it, or even look at it when she's in the bath. It doesn't matter, after all. None of this even feels real; it’s as though they’re in limbo. He wonders sometimes how long it will take for the feeling to fade, and what will happen when it does.
Thomasina comes after two weeks. She says, "The king bids me tell you, you cannot wait him out. He has nothing to lose by keeping you in here until you rot."
"Tell him thank you," Jack says. "His consideration of our situation is surely appreciated."
Thomasina regards him, heavy-lidded, and says, "You'd do best to cooperate with the king, Jack."
"Do not presume to tell me what I would do best," Jack says; the words are automatic, but the sentiment is sincere. Surely now that he has fallen to the lowest depths, has reached the moment of his certain death and passed it by, has learned that not even God cares for what he does or does not do, his actions may be his own, more than they ever were when he was the adored and idolized prince. No one is watching; he will do as he fucking pleases.
Thomasina leaves eventually.
"I never liked her," Lucinda says from her chair across the room.
"Thomasina doesn't need to be liked," Jack says. "She serves the family, and that is all she needs. I'd be surprised to learn that she eats as other mortals do. She subsists on my father’s approval."
"She has that look," Lucinda says slowly. "Of the unreal."
"Like us, you mean," Jack says, tilting his head back. He wonders if he retains it. There's no one else here to look at him, now, and he doesn't want to know what Lucinda thinks.
"Different from you," she says, "but of the same family. Do you suppose I would have taken it on, if we'd been married as planned?"
"No idea," Jack says. "Did you want it?"
"I don't know," she says. "I wanted you."
He notes the past tense. If she falls out of love with him, will their stay be more bearable, or less?
Silas comes after a month has passed. The door opens for what should have been dinner, and there stands the king, silent. After a long moment, he steps inside, and the door closes behind him.
"Lucinda," he says. "How have you found your stay so far?"
"Without break in pattern or monotony, sir," she says. "Books would be welcome."
"Perhaps after I have evidence of your cooperation," he says, and dismisses her with a turn of his head, settling his eyes on Jack. "And you," he says. "I've given up on your ever learning a thing about your place, your duty, or your respect for your king. But I'm willing to allow you to say something for yourself, if you so wish."
Jack looks at him, and feels himself smile—the smile he never used to use on his father, but now, after all, what can be done to him?—and says, "Is your throne secure again, then? Did Gath take their tanks home in peace?"
"My throne is secure as it ever was," says Silas. "Did you doubt it?"
"And David Shepherd?" Jack asks. "Glad I saved him now, no? He brought you back, he gave you your throne. Does he sit by your side?"
"He sits nowhere in this kingdom.” Silas’ face is stone. "I do not need a farm-bred boy to sit by my throne."
"Of course you don't," says Jack. "Just to put you there."
He wonders for a second whether his father will hit him—he never has before; he's never needed to before—but the moment passes and Silas says, "I have thanked God, every night this last month, that you showed your hand too soon. Gilboa is spared your rule, and is grateful for it. As is her king."
"I would never have ruled," says Jack, and it tastes bitter in his mouth, but he has had a month of certainty, and so he might as well say it out loud, and own it. "I know that now. God does not favor me. But you had better watch your back, for he favors other than you, now, too."
"Words," says Silas, and turns for the door. "Enjoy your years in here," he says, as he opens it. "They will not change."
The door closes behind him. "I wonder if we'll get dinner also," says Jack after he’s gone, "or if we're meant to subsist on his words alone. Pity they’ve no substance."
"He is not sanguine," says Lucinda. "And he hates you. I didn't quite believe it, before."
"Believe it," says Jack. "But now that my life is over, there's nothing he can take from me, anymore." He sits on the bed, leans back, and thinks about that. It's true. God has spoken—Jack cannot be king. His father does not forgive betrayal, and so his father's approval will never again be his, not even in small measure, and any expression of it will be a worthless lie, given forth for some practical purpose. For the first time in his life, he can look at his father and want nothing.
He breathes, and it's easy. And strange.
The next week is odd. Light and unreal. Jack spends his time in thought still, but not brooding; he is trying to reorganize his mind. His life till now has been about what he wanted, and how to get it, and what he feared, and how to avoid it. Now he wants nothing, and fears nothing. Who is he, then? He can’t be himself, who was a creature made entirely of want and fear.
Lucinda speaks even less than he does, now; she has almost filled up her notebook, and begins to look worried as she runs out of paper. "Do you think I'll get another, if I ask?" she asks Jack, the seventh day after his father's visit.
"I don't know," he says. "If you ask, you're showing weakness."
"I don't care about that," she says, and so she asks, that night. The guard says he'll have to ask Thomasina.
Jack must not have changed as much as he had thought, because he still doesn't understand how not to care about showing weakness. That's comforting to know: if he lost all of his flaws, he’d probably disappear entirely.
After three days of waiting, Lucinda is refused a new notebook. She wonders aloud if this is some extra tactic, to give them a small indulgence and then take it away.
"Probably," Jack says. "Try writing on the walls. There's plenty of space."
Lucinda looks as though she's considering it.
"I wouldn't be able to help reading it, though," he adds.
"You haven't read any of it yet?" she asks, disbelieving.
"No," he says. "Your words are your own. I don't need them."
She's silent at that, and they go to bed that night without speaking. There's no special consideration of each other's space in bed anymore, though they never touch. The bed is big enough to prevent it. If his father were serious, Jack thinks, he would have given them a twin.
He starts awake that night, late, unsure what woke him. Lucinda breathes quietly in bed next to him, separated by a good foot of mattress. He turns over—and freezes. Reverend Samuels is standing above him.
"What," he starts, and then pushes himself up to sit before continuing, "What are you doing here?"
"I have a message for you," Samuels says. "You are under God's eye."
"What," he says again, flatly.
"He has a use for you, Jack," says Samuels.
"Now?" Jack says. "After all my efforts have come to nothing, after His silence has rejected me so thoroughly I could not mistake its intention?"
"Now," says Samuels.
"I don't believe you," Jack says. "My father has enlisted your help, hasn't he. You're going to tell me that I need to sire a nice little heir for Silas. Or maybe for David, if David's to marry my barren sister."
"Your sister is not barren," says Samuels, "and God does not require an heir for Silas. You, in any case, were not created to father one, were you."
Jack's breath shudders out, and he can't breathe in again to answer. If God says—if this is real—
"You have been held prisoner for forty days and forty nights," says Samuels, "and God has judged it long enough. You have a purpose to fulfill. Tomorrow morning, the door will be unlocked, and the guard will be gone. You and Lucinda can leave. She may go where she wishes, but God will show you your way."
"What," Jack says again, bringing up a hand to rub hard at his eyes. When he lowers his hand again, Samuels is gone.
He stares at the spot where he stood, disbelieving. There wasn’t anywhere near enough time for Samuels to have gone out the door, and Jack would've heard the door shut, anyway. He vanished into thin air.
This has to be a dream. His father dreams of God sometimes, Jack knows, and he's wondered occasionally how many of those dreams were real visions, and how many might just have been dreams. He's had weirder dreams than this, anyway. Any second now, he's going to wake up.
He waits, and the clock reads 2:35 AM, and then 2:50, and then 3:30, and he's still awake. And it continues to creep forward, and he continues to be awake, until it's 4:30, and the sky is just barely starting to lighten. And then he hears footsteps outside, and the low murmur of voices, and then silence.
He gets up and tries the door. It isn't locked.
He wakes Lucinda up, a hand to her mouth. "Get up," he says. "We're leaving."
She blinks. "What do you mean?" she says. "How can we—"
"God came to me," he says, and the words sound familiar and foreign both, something he has heard all his life, but never said aloud. "I had a vision. We can leave."
She stares, but sits up. "Really?"
"Really," he says. "I guess it runs in the family after all. Put some clothes on."
They get dressed, quickly, and Lucinda snatches up her notebook while Jack opens the door to the empty hallway. Lucinda stands on the threshold for just a moment, as though she can't believe it isn't a trick—for once in his life, Jack is filled with certainty that this isn't a trick—and then she follows him out into the hall.
The room they're in is one of an anonymous many in the guest wing of the palace, and Jack's had the run of this place since it was built. He can find his way out, and he can do it without being seen, especially at this hour of the night.
Except—they come around a corner, to a hallway that should be empty, that should be leading straight to the passageway that isn't guarded, or hasn't been ever in the past, and there's a serviceman waiting. Jack has a moment to despair—maybe it was a dream after all, only his subconscious remembering that the door hadn't been locked after dinner the night before—when the man snaps around to look at them.
He stares at Jack for a second, his eyes devouring like they always were, like hundreds of others' have been, and he says, "Your Highness."
His voice is ragged. It sounds just like it used to in bed. Jack smiles. "Stu," he says. Lucinda has frozen next to him. "We were just leaving."
Stu takes a shaky breath. "Yes, sir," he says. "What can I do?"
For the first time in a long, long time, Jack thanks God. "You can find us some money and supplies," he says. "And you can arrange for Lucinda to be taken where she thinks it best that she go. I would suggest somewhere out of the country," he says to her. "And quickly."
"Can I not—" she starts, and then stops.
"No," he says. "Besides. You're best free of me, anyway."
"Do not presume to tell me what is best for me," she says, hard, sharp, and too quietly for Stu to hear. Jack takes a step back, surprised. "But I will go," she finishes. "Because it is best for you." She turns to Stu. "A cab," she says. "I have a friend in the city, I think not so obviously close that she would be watched, who can get me out. And I have relatives in the east, away from Gilboa."
"Thank you," he says, and he thinks it's the first time he's said the words to her, who has sacrificed her entire life to be near him, and in the end hasn't even gotten that.
He turns back to Stu. "We'll be just in there," he says, inclining his head toward the passageway. "Can you do as I asked?"
"Yes, sir," says Stu. "Yes."
The wait should be excruciating—he should be wondering if Stu is as loyal as he claims, if anyone can in fact be that loyal, if getting up close and personal with the royal cock is enough to inspire him to betray a royal order. People are unpredictable, after all.
He isn't worried, though. He stands with an arm around Lucinda—she's clinging like she used to, like she stopped doing so quickly inside their prison; maybe she's thinking about how they'll be parted forever in a few minutes—and waits without fear.
Stu is back in thirty minutes, with food, clothes, and money, in two bags for each of them. "Here you are, sir," he says. "Ma'am," to Lucinda. "There'll be a cab waiting.”
"Excellent," Jack says. "Turn your back while the lady changes."
They put on the bland traveling clothes. Lucinda puts her hair up, messily, so strands hang in her face and obscure her features. Stu turns back around when they're done, his eyes back on Jack's face. "Your Highness," he says. "Thank you for trusting me."
"Thank you," Jack says, for the second time in an hour, "for being trustworthy."
"I would never betray you, sir," Stu says.
Jack glances at Lucinda, and she reads it—they have, at last, begun to know each other well enough—and looks away. Stu gets one last kiss; when Jack pulls back, his eyes are closed.
"Goodbye, Jack," he says.
"Be well, Stu," says Jack, and pulls Lucinda down the tunnel with him.
They come out into daylight, and a cab waiting in the street. Stu gave them hats and sunglasses; Jack puts the hat on and saves the sunglasses for later in the day, when they'll be less conspicuous. He turns once they see the cab, keeps his face averted.
"I love you," Lucinda says to him.
"Still," Jack says. Maybe that's the real miracle here. Maybe God favors his mother as well, and whatever it is that's in them is real, and not just the mythology of kingship.
"Still," she says. "Be well. Be safe. I would see you again, if I ever can."
"I doubt it," he says. "But. Be well and safe yourself."
She tilts her face up, and he gives her a kiss. She puts a hand to the back of his head and takes as much of it as she can. He lets her; she's suffered enough for his sake, and never even got to sleep with him.
He waits until the cab has taken her away; he does hope she is well, and that she gets over him quickly. Distance will probably help.
When she's out of sight, he looks up and down the road. "Well?" he says. "Are You going to show me the way or not?"
And then, just to his right, he sees a flicker of movement, and when he looks, there's a butterfly. It flutters down to alight on the pavement, facing away from him, toward the north. He stares at it.
He used to scrutinize butterflies, as a child, watch them so carefully, yearn for them to alight on him, wanting to be the sequel to his father's story. He got over it, eventually; he's spent years deliberately ignoring any butterfly that happens by, because whatever they're doing, it's nothing related to him.
This one sits calmly in the middle of the street, its wings moving slightly up and down, waiting. He turns north, and takes a step, and another. The butterfly waits until he's even with it, and then takes off again, flying in a little loop, and then directly over to him. His heartbeat is in his ears.
It doesn't come anywhere near his head. Instead, it hovers around his hand, as though waiting, and when he finally turns it over to see what will happen, it lands directly in the center of his palm, tickling just slightly.
His breath is coming in harsh pants, rasping in his ears. The butterfly stubbornly continues to be real, against all fucking odds.
He doesn't know how long he stands there, but eventually the butterfly takes the air again, and flits off toward the north. He starts to walk.
Eventually, he manages to get himself a car, and continues northward by back roads, wary of his father's search parties. Nothing tells him to stop, so he keeps going, keeps going until he's approaching the border.
"Clever," he says to himself, as he passes the point where he could be headed anywhere but Gath. "Very clever." Silas can't get to him in Gath, when he might be able to reach anywhere else; he has long, long arms.
He beds down for the night before he crosses the border; he'll go in the early morning again, before dawn when watch is the coldest and the most boring, the best time for sneaking around for any reason.
He dreams of Samuels.
"Why now?" he asks in the dream, which he would hesitate to do in reality, for fear of the answer. "Why does He want me now, when he never did before?"
"Now," says Samuels, in his slow, deliberate way, "you are ready to listen."
He wakes up and thinks, oh yes. Because his whole life has been destroyed, so he has nothing better to do. "Thanks," he says to the stars above. God remains unapologetic.
Getting past the border patrol is laughably easy. People happen to be looking the other way; patrols are at the far end of their route, his footsteps remain silent, with no accidental broken twigs or kicked pebbles. He wonders if this is what it's like for David all the time.
He has to move carefully through Gath, but not so carefully as through Gilboa; the common people of Gath have likely not spent evenings glued to their televisions watching his face, nor scanned the crowds on visits to Shiloh in hopes that they would see him or his sister out on the streets. They might know his father's face well, to despise it, but dressed down, his hat pulled low and his face dirty, he doubts he will draw too much attention here—and, in fact, he does not.
He only makes a brief stop to buy supplies in the first town he sees, anyway; he doesn’t want to press his luck too far. When he sets out, he sees a butterfly resting on a tree, and he goes that way. It occurs to him to wonder if the butterfly is just a butterfly, but—well, God is unlikely, at this late date, to be angered by Jack trusting in him too much. He angles northeast as the butterfly indicates, and quickly ends up in a forest.
He takes a risk by hitching a ride on the back of a truck up a winding road into the trees; the driver never notices he's there, and he hops off without seeing a single other vehicle. After the truck vanishes around another curve, he stands in the middle of the road and turns in a circle.
To the east, the sun is falling at an angle through the underbrush. It looks like a pathway of gold.
Jack glances up. "This is incredibly unfair," he says. "Don't get me wrong, I appreciate it, but I would have appreciated it a lot more fifteen years ago."
Silence. He starts off into the woods.
He walks for half a day or so, getting further and further away from anything that looks like civilization, until he comes over a broken-down wooden bridge across a barely-there creek, and finds himself looking across a clearing at David fucking Shepherd.
He lets his head fall back, and glares at the sky. “Really?” he says.
David hears him, or hears something, and turns. The look of astonishment on his face, at least, is a thing to be treasured.
Jack steps forwards. “The future king,” he says. “Sadly lacking in a court, I see.”
Of all the things David was not anticipating, Jack freaking Benjamin showing up on his doorstep—his metaphorical doorstep—might top the list. Silas Benjamin, he’s been half-expecting, and he was ready for guns or gifts or speeches, any and all. Michelle would have been both unsurprising and incredibly welcome. Even Rose—well, if Rose showed up here, he would know that he was screwed, but he probably wouldn’t be surprised; he learned during his time at the palace that Rose is everywhere and knows everything.
And yet, here Jack is. It reminds him of the first time he came home and found a princess in his apartment, right down to not knowing what the hell to say.
“What are you doing here?” he says finally. Not very intelligent, but it’s what he wants to know.
Jack raises an eyebrow. “God didn’t tell you I was coming? How inconsiderate.” He steps forward again, until he’s come right up to David. David looks over his shoulder, wondering if there’s a strike squad, or perhaps an army, coming behind him. He doesn’t see anybody. “I couldn’t tell you,” Jack continues, “since I didn’t know where I was going or who I was meeting until I got here. Led by butterflies and sunshine; it’s so poetic I could vomit.”
It definitely sounds like Jack, so he’s probably not hallucinating. “God brought you here,” David says, not sure what, exactly, this is supposed to mean.
“Keep up, Shepherd,” Jack says. “Look.” He points; there’s a butterfly coming across the clearing. Jack turns his hand so it’s palm-up, and the butterfly settles on it. “Not quite a crown,” he says, with that so-familiar bitter twist of his mouth, “but then, I wasn’t expecting one.”
David’s never known exactly how to handle Jack; the prince doesn't operate under rules that David understands, and he doesn't act logically or predictably or anything like a normal person should. David’s seen enough of the palace to understand why, he thinks, but it doesn’t make it any easier to know what to say to him.
"So God wants you to help me," he tries cautiously. If it weren't for the butterfly, he wouldn't believe it, he doesn't think. Jack has three or four motives for everything he does, and he's fickle as the wind most of the time, even when he means what he says.
Does God want David to trust Jack? There's a weird thought. Maybe David’s fallen out of favor.
"I doubt he brought me here to kill you," Jack says. "He seems to like you. More than he does my father, of late."
"How is your father?" David wants to know. He's finally accepted that God wants him to replace Silas one day, but he's not sure how he's supposed to know when. Or how.
"Couldn't say," Jack says, casual and layered like always. "Only seen him once in the last couple of months, and that was just so he could remind me what a traitorous disappointment I am."
"He put you in prison, I'm guessing." David's surprised Silas didn't kill him. And—glad. He is glad. Jack is strange and uncomfortable, bitter and violent, but David's saved his life twice, and he wouldn’t want that wasted. And—he doesn't want Jack to die. It would be the loss of something unique, he thinks. Strange and uncomfortable and unique.
Jack smiles again, and it's even more discomfiting than before. "Oh, he did worse than that. Couldn’t do away with the royal line, after all." He explains, and David feels himself recoiling.
"That's horrible," he manages. "That's—rape." He tries to think how to ask if Jack—
"It is that," Jack agrees. "Or it would have been, if we'd gone through with it. Which we didn't, if you're curious. Didn't touch each other once after the door closed behind us."
David shakes his head a little, trying to get rid of the mental image. But he still has to ask, "How long were you in there?"
Jack's smile widens. "Forty days and forty nights. And then God set us free. And sent me here."
"She got away. Until I hear otherwise, I'm assuming she's fine. Although God may not have favored her as he favored me, I don't know."
He sounds so nonchalant. But David knows that that’s an act. Doesn’t he? He knows that Jack can be smiling on the outside and breaking on the inside. The question, he guesses, is how to tell.
Well, now he has time to start figuring it out. “Are you alone?” he asks belatedly.
Jack spreads his hands. “Left my entourage at the hotel. You can accommodate them, right? The dancing girls can be particular.”
“Right,” says David. “My tent is this way.”
“Lay on, MacDuff,” says Jack.
David doesn’t get the reference, but he decides not to ask. Instead, he heads back over the hill to the hollow where he’s set himself up.
Jack takes one look at it and starts shaking his head. “Oh, no,” he says. “No.” He walks around it once. “Did you even have a survival course in basic training?”
“Of course we did,” says David, defensive. “But it was basic. I wasn’t special forces, I wasn’t an officer until your dad made me one. I can set up a tent, but that’s about it.”
“I should’ve remembered from the last time we were up here,” Jack says. “Okay. Time to learn some of the rules of camouflage.”
So David ends up spending the afternoon moving his tent, hauling brush around, burying some things, putting other things up trees, and basically being Jack’s slave. He puts up with it because it does away with the weirdness: snapping out orders, Jack looks more cheerful than David’s seen him since—well, since before the last time they were in Gath together.
And after a couple hours of work, he has to admit that from certain angles, his camp is basically invisible. “Thanks,” he says. “This is a big improvement.”
“Don’t thank me until you’ve got a latrine dug right where I’m standing,” Jack says. David thinks about making Jack help him, but the work feels good, and he doesn’t want to provoke Jack’s temper quite yet. Time enough for that later, after all.
“Do you have a tent?” he thinks to ask, as the late afternoon sun starts to slant through the trees.
Jack grins. “Nope,” he says. “Guess we’re roommates. Don’t worry, I’m used to it by now.”
David thinks again about Jack’s confinement, and suppresses a shudder. “No problem,” he says. “It’s strange, being all by myself out here. I wouldn’t mind the company.”
That arrests Jack, for some reason, leaving him looking at David like he’s said something completely inexplicable.
“What?” David asks.
“I just don’t understand you,” Jack says.
“You’ve said that before,” David says. “I’m not very complicated, you know.”
“You’re not very—you have no idea,” Jack says, and oh yes, there’s the temper. “Other people pick a side and they stick with it, or they know what they want and they side with whoever can give it to them. You—” he makes an indecipherable gesture, “you side with my father and me even after we betrayed you, you betray me for my father after I saved your life, and then you abandon my father and welcome me with open arms. You think you’re a simple man, but from where I’m standing, you make no fucking sense.”
“The well-being of the kingdom is more important than I am,” David says. “Than any of us. And I wasn’t choosing your father over you,” though at the time he would have, he doesn’t say, “I was choosing him over your uncle.”
Jack stills at that, and his smile is slow and bitter, bitter as gall. “Yes,” he says. “That’s true, isn’t it.”
It hurts to look at him. David looks anyway, and waits, because there’s nothing anybody could say to lessen any of it.
Jack doesn’t let it go on long, of course, which is almost worse; his smile turns ironic and he says, “And none of us are laughing now, are we. Not even my father, I tell you that with confidence. He lies awake nights thinking of your return.”
“A return I have not planned,” David says.
“Well,” Jack says slowly. “We’re going to have to work on that, aren’t we?”
David doesn’t know if he’s heartened or frightened by that prospect. “At least I’m better hidden now,” he offers. “Though I’ve been here forty days and nights myself, and apart from you, no one’s come through yet.”
“David,” Jack says. “The absolute first rule of stealth camps. Assume someone will.”
“I bow to your superior knowledge,” says David.
“As no one will be bowing to my anything else anymore, I’ll take what I can get,” says Jack. The irony is thick, but the pain seems to have entirely disappeared.
Talking to Jack is enough to give someone whiplash. David doesn’t know what to make of him. He really doesn’t.
They eat a cold supper—David is starting to forget that there was ever any other kind—and retire early to the tent; Jack at least has a bedroll with him, which means that David won’t have to find out how Jack would respond to David offering him his.
They stretch out next to each other in the dark; David isn’t at all tired yet, and he can see Jack’s eyes glinting, still open. “I’m glad you’re here,” he offers.
“I’m glad I’m here too,” Jack says, too thick with irony to be quite sincere, and sure enough, follows it up with, “Particularly considering the alternative.”
“Did Lucinda—was she all right?” David asks. He never once spoke to her, but he remembers thinking she looked too nice to be marrying Jack.
“She didn’t snap under the strain, if that’s what you mean,” Jack drawls. “But she didn’t come out the better, either. She still loves me, though. Maybe if she can get over that, she’ll be all right.”
“She loves you,” David says. “Do you—?” Insofar as he’d ever thought about Jack's betrothal, he'd assumed that it was political, but he'd hoped, once, that maybe Jack had chosen self-indulgence in this one, most appropriate arena.
Jack’s voice sharpens. "Haven't you figured it out? You heard my father at your trial, didn't you?"
"Your father said a lot of things at my trial," David says. "I was a little afraid for my life at the time—"
"Did I ever say sorry about that?" Jack asks, and David can hear the ironic smile in his voice now. "Sorry about that. I don't know what's appropriate to make up for attempting to frame you for treason."
"You saved me at the end, and then again from the firing squad, so I think we can call it even," David says. And then remembers. "He called you a—" he doesn't want to say it.
"He was right." Jack’s voice is entirely unreadable, now. "So no, I don't love Lucinda. That's not how God made me."
"I saw you with girls," David says cautiously, remembering.
Jack shrugs, a rustle in the dark. "I've been with lots of girls.” He shifts, comes up on one elbow. “More than I can count. Let me tell you: it doesn't compare."
David thinks about that.
“Am I making you uncomfortable?” Jack asks, with a little bit of a vicious twist in his voice.
“No!” David says. “God, no. I mean, one of my brothers is—no. No problem. It’s fine with me.”
“Right,” says Jack. “Of course it is. All right, well, now that I’ve told my secrets, I’m going to sleep. Goodnight, Shepherd.”
David lies awake, though—he thinks Jack does, too, although it’s hard to tell—thinking about it. So Jack’s gay. It’s not like David minds—his brother Sam is gay, and maybe sometimes he’s gotten a hard time about it from everyone else, but nothing serious. No one would ever have suggested he pretend he wasn’t.
But Jack was going to be king. He would’ve had to marry, to father children to rule after him. And Silas, well. Even if he weren’t the kind of man to call someone a faggot, he would have insisted his son carry on the line, David is sure. And the queen—well.
It’s possible, David thinks, that he understands Jack a little bit better, now.
“How long have you known?” he says into the dark.
“Forever,” Jack answers instantly. “Do you know how many nights I spent praying it wasn’t true? Asking God to change me? My father ordered me bury it, and I tried. But God wouldn’t change me, and I couldn’t change myself, so here I am, the faggot prince.”
“Don’t say that,” David whispers.
“Shut the fuck up, David,” Jack says, and turns over to face away. “Go to sleep.”
Eventually, David does.
He wakes up to Jack leaving the tent; it’s still dark outside, so he rolls over and goes back to sleep, wakes up again at a more decent hour, a little after dawn.
He comes out of the tent to the smell of food. Jack has a fire going, and he’s cooking sausages over it. He grins at David when he sees him. “Dry wood, so it isn’t likely to smoke much, and the flame’s small. Extremely low chance of detection. You want breakfast?”
“Yes,” says David. He’s been hesitant to build a fire, but if Jack “Hide your pack under a pile of leaves” Benjamin thinks it’s okay, he’s going for it. “Thanks.”
Jack shrugs. “Even I’m not cruel enough to cook myself breakfast and make you watch me eat it.”
That wasn’t what David meant, exactly, but he has the feeling that Jack knows that. “I’m just going to—” he points.
He visits the latrine, and then the creek to shave, and when he comes back, Jack hands him a sausage sandwich on toasted bread with something leafy and green poking out. “Thanks,” he says again, and takes a bite. “Really good,” he says around his mouthful. It’s true.
Jack shrugs, and takes a bite of his own sandwich. “Just don’t ask for eggs.”
Once they’re fed, dressed, and washed, and the fire’s been completely stamped out and the remains eradicated, and the rest of the food packed up, and everything looks exactly as it had the previous night, Jack sits on a rock (the one that’s the perfect height and shape to sit on, of course, leaving David to stand or use the one that’s awkwardly low to the ground; he sits) and says, “So, what do you do all day out here? Forty days and forty nights, you have to have a routine or something.”
“I’ve mostly been thinking, actually,” David says. “Making notes.” He pulls out his notebook, waves it as proof. It only occurs to him a minute later that he’s probably guaranteed that Jack’s going to get hold of it and read it. Oh well; it’s not like it’s his diary.
Jack is looking at him. “Thinking. For forty days.”
“I had a lot to think about,” David says. Accepting that you might be meant to depose the king and take his place takes some time, and trying to figure out how to do that, exactly—and how you’ll rule, once you’ve done it—takes a lot more. But he hesitates to say any of that to Jack, of all people.
“I just bet you did,” says Jack, and his quirked almost-smile suggests he’s aware of all of it already, anyway. “Still. Lucinda were locked up in a room together for forty days with nothing to do but think, and meanwhile you’re up here doing it voluntarily. We should’ve changed places.”
“Your father wouldn’t have kept me locked up, this time,” David says. “Especially after I hit him.”
Jack’s eyebrows go up. “You punched my father?”
David nods. He’s ashamed of himself, in retrospect, even though Silas hit him first, even though Silas might have choked him to death if David hadn’t defended himself. “I think that’s an automatic death sentence.”
“I wish I’d been there to see it,” says Jack, shaking his head.
No you don’t, David doesn’t say. “Anyway. I really had to leave the country after that.”
“And you came out into the wilderness to think on your return,” Jack says, his smile sliding back to his face. “And do you have anything resembling a plan, then?”
“Not—really,” David admits, feeling himself flush. “I was mostly thinking about—if I really wanted this. If I could do it. What kind of king I would make.”
Jack’s smile doesn’t waver an inch, and still David wants to bite his tongue. “Fair, just, and merciful,” he says, “beloved by his people. God’s fair-haired child. Deposer of the evil tyrant, savior of the land—”
“Stop it, Jack,” says David. “I wish I didn’t—” he stops.
“No, you don’t,” Jack says softly. “God’s laid His hand on your head, and you don’t wish that away, do you?”
“No,” David acknowledges. It sounds heavy. “No,” he repeats, “I don’t. If Silas is no longer the king God wants, if He wants me instead—then I want to be a good king.”
“Right,” Jack says. “Well. That is something to think about. And,” he looks around, “having seen every inch of your camp, I don’t think you’re quite stocked for planning a revolution. So before we discuss your future rule of Gilboa, I’m going to go into town and get some more supplies—do you even have any money? Of course you don’t—and put some thought into the real problem, which is how to get you there in the first place. I’ll be back this evening. You stay here and—keep doing what you’ve been doing.” He rises from his rock with a dismissive look, and vanishes rapidly into the trees.
David waits a minute, then sinks down into his place. Thinks about feeling bad, but doesn’t. Jack knew what he was getting into.
He does hope that Jack will actually come back. He will, David thinks. Probably. Eighty percent chance, he thinks. Maybe eighty-five.
Jack comes back at nightfall. “Food, water, camp stove,” he says. “Fuel for the stove. Another notebook, and pens. Alcohol.”
David can’t help a smile. “Thanks.”
“The alcohol isn’t for you,” Jack says. “And,” he flourishes two newspapers. “Now that there’s peace, certain places carry Gilboan news as well. Surprise: my father’s rule is solid, fair, and just, and there’s no word of my mysterious escape.” He tosses the paper at David. “Haven’t looked at the Gath news yet, but I’ll bet it’s just as much bullshit. Fortunately, as someone who’s often known both what the press does and what the press doesn’t, I’m well able to detect the smell.”
David unfolds the paper; there’s just enough light to read. The front page is about some new park opening in the center of Shiloh.
“Distraction,” Jack says. “Tell them things they’ll like so that they forget about the things they don’t. Sometimes it even works.”
“When I’m king,” David says, and stops abruptly. So many of his thoughts these last days have started with those words, they slipped out without his thinking.
“Go on,” Jack says.
“The press will really be free,” David continues. “I’m tired of reading lies in the paper.”
“They’re vicious animals,” Jack says, tonelessly. “And you can’t control them once you set them loose.”
David shrugs. “It’s not like I haven’t gotten used to them printing bad things about me already.”
“You really have no idea,” says Jack. “But it’s up to you.” He smiles suddenly. “You have to worry about them more than I do, now. Maybe I’ll write a speech—a very detailed speech—and give it to a reporter I really, really like, the next time I’m in Gilboa. When you’re king.” The last words are measured, deliberate, but he doesn’t hesitate, and his smile stays in place.
“Say whatever you want,” says David. “As long as it’s the truth.”
“Oh, it will be,” says Jack. His smile widens a little.
“Do you—” David hesitates for a second, and then decides to hell with it, and continues, “Do you have anyone? Other than Lucinda, I mean. A real relationship.”
Jack’s smile vanishes. “No,” he says.
David wants to apologize, but he doesn’t think he’s done anything wrong.
“I did,” Jack says after a second. “Joseph.”
“Joseph,” David repeats slowly.
“My mother had him killed,” Jack says.
David’s mouth opens. Nothing comes out.
The smile comes back, sharp enough to cut something with. “While we’re being truthful,” he says.
“I’m sorry,” David manages finally.
“So am I,” says Jack.
They have a cold dinner—the stove will have to wait until it’s light out, so the glow won’t be visible to anybody around. Eventually, the tension fades, although David can’t stop thinking about it—his mother had his lover killed, his mother killed his boyfriend, no wonder Jack is so insanely fucked-up, with Silas for a father and a mother who would murder someone her son loved.
He wonders, not for the first time, how Michelle came out as well as she did. Silas treated her like a treasured possession, and Rose like a disappointment, which David would have said was the exact opposite of Jack’s situation, but no one seems to have been killing her boyfriends behind her back.
Of course, Michelle is straight. He still can’t believe they would—no, he can. He knows what they’re like.
It occurs to him that maybe Jack protected her, took some of this on so that she wouldn’t have to. He can’t think how to ask about it, though.
Jack waves him off when David asks if he’s ready for bed, and stays outside the tent when David goes in, sitting in the dark with the bottle of whatever it is he bought. David leaves him to it.
The next morning, Jack is outside again when David wakes up, cooking breakfast over the camp stove and showing no evidence of a hangover. David can’t tell if he slept at all; he didn’t wake up to Jack coming in or leaving, at least.
“All right,” Jack says when they’ve finished eating. “Time to make some actual plans. Let’s start with Gath, because you’re here, and as my father’s extremely successful counter-coup demonstrated, aid from Gath can help you right to the head of the boardroom. “
Jack, it turns out, knows a hell of a lot about the political situation in Gath, though he cautions that, unreliable newspaper evidence aside, his knowledge is a month and a half out of date.
“This is why I didn’t think this was a good idea,” David says after a solid forty-five-minute rundown of political and military personalities, conflicts, alliances, and wheels within wheels. “I didn’t know about any of this. I don’t know how to deal with any of this. If it were up to me, I’d just talk to the premier and try and convince him I’d be a better king than Silas. He likes me.”
“Everyone likes you,” Jack says, with a faint aura of disgust. “All right, fine, you can do that, and I’m sure you’ll have no trouble convincing him that the sky is full of rainbows and we’ll all ride unicorns into Shiloh. The problem is dealing with all of the people who won’t like that you’re in his favor. As you might recall from your time in my father’s.”
“Yeah,” David sighs.
“Also,” Jack adds, “whatever five or six ulterior motives he has, beyond liking you, for lending his aid to your coup attempt. No one but you ever does anything just because they think it’s right. And maybe that’s why God wants you to be king, but unless God’s planning on brainwashing everyone who’s on your side, you won’t stay that way for long if you’re going to be that naïve.”
“I hate politics,” David says to the sky.
There’s a brief pause. “Maybe you’ve got it wrong,” Jack says to him. “Maybe you aren’t actually favored by God. Maybe this is your punishment.”
“Maybe,” says David. “But hey, at least He’s sent me you to help.”
There’s another pause, and when he looks back down, Jack is giving him an unreadable look. “Right,” Jack says finally. “At least.”
They work carefully through the situation in Gath as Jack knows it all day, making notes in Jack’s notebook. “Remember,” Jack says at one point, “any of these people could be out of favor, or dead, or have switched sides. Politics moves fast.”
“Just talking about it like this is helpful,” David says. “I’m not used to thinking about things this way.”
“How did you last ten minutes in Shiloh?” Jack asks him incredulously. “Was it God? It must have been God.”
“Most of the time it wasn’t an issue,” David says. “Either your father liked me, or he didn’t. When he liked me, I was fine. When he didn’t, I was framed for treason or sent on a suicide mission. In retrospect, it was very simple.”
“Stop sounding like you miss it,” says Jack. “It’s not to your benefit to have your life and freedom in the palm of someone else’s hand, no matter how pleasant it may be to cede the decisions to someone else. Don’t you like making decisions? You certainly decided enough things when my father would rather you hadn’t.”
“I did that because the alternative would have been worse,” David says. “The treaty needed to happen. The rebellion needed to be stopped. If I hadn’t done anything—” He shrugs.
Jack rubs his eyes. “Okay,” he says. “That’s it. We’re done for the day. It’s going to be too dark to write soon, anyway.”
David makes them dinner with some relief.
They talk of nothing fraught while they eat, the terrain and the local towns, where best to go so people won’t look at you askance and remember you after you leave, what supplies are available where. After dinner, Jack pulls out his bottle and offers it to David.
“I thought this wasn’t for me,” David says, taking it anyway.
“I’ve decided to be merciful,” Jack says.
Getting drunk is kind of a relief. David hasn’t had a drink since he’s been up here, figuring that all alone in enemy territory with a sacred calling from God probably wasn’t the best place for it. It’s nice to forget all that for the moment, and just down shots straight from the bottle.
“Last time I got you drunk, it was so I could get pictures of you with loose women, tarnish your shiny image,” Jack tells him, after the level’s gone down a few inches.
“I guessed that, actually,” David says. Or, if not the specifics, the general intent.
“And you didn’t even sleep with anyone,” Jack says. “Too in love with my sister?”
“Basically,” David says, staring at the bottle. “It didn’t feel right.”
Jack’s mouth twists at that, and he takes another shot. “Of course not,” he says. “Wouldn’t want it to feel wrong.”
“Is that what it’s like for you?” David asks, unwisely maybe, but the whiskey’s taking effect by now. “With women?”
Jack shrugs. “What’s right and what’s wrong?”
“You know,” David prods. “You said it didn’t compare.”
“Curse my careless tongue,” says Jack, without any force. “Yes, I did, didn’t I. Well. It’s not like it’s wrong, exactly.” He tips his head back, looks up at the stars just starting to show through the trees. “It’s like it isn’t real. Like it doesn’t count. I’d look into their eyes, and they’d be drowning in me, coming apart when I touched them. But for me, it was,” he shrugs. “Physical. And barely that. Sometimes I imagined I was somewhere else, which when you consider the efforts people went to, to hold my attention—” he shakes his head. “Some of them were truly impressive. But it didn’t matter.”
“And with men?” David can barely hear himself.
“Men,” Jack repeats on a sigh. “Have you ever fucked a man?”
“No,” David says. “Is it really that different?" He hears the curious lilt in his voice, and his face heats.
Jack grins, and David winces a little. “Wondering what it’s like?” he asks. “Try it. Sometime. Just once, to see.”
"No thanks," David says firmly. "Michelle and I—"
"Oh, yes," Jack says. "Right. Because no one who wants my sister has ever wanted me too." David shifts a little, and Jack laughs. "It’s more common than you’d think, I promise. Remember Claudia?"
"From the club?"
"Oh yes. She was in love with Michelle when they were at school, but Michelle is Michelle, and so she had to settle for me. And there are those who’ve tried for Michelle when it was me they wanted, though of course they didn’t get very far.”
“Did Michelle know that was what was happening?” David remembers her story of her first kiss.
“Hardly.” Jack takes another drink. “Mostly it was boys who wanted to pretend they were straight, and thought the girl twin would be a solution to their…difficulty. She should’ve gone for it, she could’ve had a nicely chaste relationship with a socially appropriate boy, kept up with all her projects and paid him almost no attention at all.”
“She deserves better,” David says.
“Sure,” says Jack. “And she got it, for a little while, for who better out there than David Shepherd?”
“For longer than that,” says David. He looks at his hand.
“I saw that,” Jack says. “Married in the eyes of God, are you?”
“We are,” David says. “Samuels witnessed it.”
“Of course he did,” Jack says. “Well. I’m glad my sister has gotten what she deserves at last.” He blinks twice, only just visible in the fading light, and then again.
“What about you?” David says softly. “You deserve better, too.”
Jack laughs once; it’s ugly. “Joseph deserved better,” he says.
David thinks about how to protest that, can’t come up with any way that won’t probably make Jack angry, and goes with, “What was he like?” He’s curious, after all, about who would catch and hold Jack’s interest.
“He was—” Jack shakes his head. “He was an idiot. Couldn’t keep his head down, couldn’t leave well enough alone. Couldn’t take no for an answer—God knows I told him to get lost enough times. I should’ve meant it earlier, maybe he’d have learned to listen.”
“What happened?” David asks.
Jack shrugs. “He was going to tell the world. Couldn’t have that.”
“He should’ve been able to,” David says, suddenly, uselessly angry. “You should’ve been able to.”
“Spare me your moralizing,” Jack says. “It’s not going to bring him back.”
“When I’m king,” David says, “it’ll be different. I promise you.”
“Would you please shut up,” Jack says, bringing a hand up to his eyes. He rubs his forehead like he has a headache.
“Why?” David says. “Why don’t you want to hear it? I’m going to make it better.”
“And I wouldn’t have!” Jack shouts at him, hand coming down. His eyes are furious. “I would have married Lucinda and fathered royal babies and nothing would have changed, because changing it would have been impossible, and now here you are, just saying it like it’s nothing.”
“It’s not nothing,” David says. “It’s your life. It’s who you are.” He remembers—and understands, for the first time—what Jack had said to his father, when he was asking for death. You won’t let me be what I am.
Jack slumps back against a tree. “I hate you so much,” he says.
It didn’t take long, after David met Jack, to learn that it was best to ignore about half of what he said, and keep going as though it hadn’t happened. “What your father made you do,” he says, “that was the sin. What your mother did—”
“Let’s not talk about my mother,” Jack says. He sits up. “Let’s not talk about either of my parents. How about we talk about my sister?”
David winces—he should have anticipated that Jack would punish him for bringing this up. “How about not,” he says.
“No, really,” Jack says. “Because it’s an honest-to-God miracle, you know. If you were anyone but you, I wouldn’t believe she’d actually unbent and slept with you. Was it beautiful?”
“I mean, with you and her, it must have been. Tender and loving and gentle.” His smile is sharp enough to cut someone. “Wasn’t it?”
David takes a calming breath and decides that if he’s going to get out of this with his skin intact, surprise might be the best tactic. So he says, “Actually, it was unbelievably hot.”
Jack’s eyebrows almost hit his hairline. It’s worth the way David can feel himself blushing.
“And beautiful,” he adds.
Jack toasts him. “Well done. I warn you, though, this isn’t a game you can win.”
“That was my only move,” David says.” I’m surrendering now. Please don’t ask me anything else.”
Jack’s smile glints in the semidarkness. “But I’ve always been so curious,” he says. “We’re twins, we have to be the same in some respects. Since there’s nothing to speak of outside of bed—”
“I don’t agree,” David says hastily. Jack raises his eyebrows, inviting elaboration. “You’re both—determined, you’re incredibly smart, you want to do good in the world, you care about the people, you’re really good-looking—”
Jack starts to laugh.
“It’s true,” David says.
“I didn’t realize you’d paid such attention, though,” says Jack. “It’s very flattering of you. Really.” He’s still half-laughing. It transforms his face, into something David doesn’t think he’s seen before. Jack never used to have cause to laugh like this, without any calculation behind it.
“I’m glad you’re here,” he says impulsively.
Jack manages to smile and frown at him at the same time. “I heard you the first two times you said that. You don’t need to keep repeating it.”
This time he doesn’t mean for his sake, David wants to say. This time, he means it for Jack’s.
He doesn’t, though; he doesn’t think Jack would appreciate it. “Hey, you never answered my question,” he says instead.
Jack smiles, and this one is more familiar, the suggestive tilt of his mouth. “What question was that?”
“Is it really that different, with a man?” David feels awkward, suddenly, and takes a quick swallow of whiskey to combat it.
Jack laughs again. “You want to know so badly. Well. Yes, David, it’s different. They don’t taste sweet, they don’t feel soft. It’s hard to pin a man down, and sometimes even if you try, you can’t.” He takes the bottle away from David, and drinks. “And if you can, well.” He smiles.
David looks away, looks back, and then looks away again. God. When he smiles.
Jack’s fickle, he reminds himself. He’s fickle and unreliable and weak-willed, he has the best of intentions and the worst of results. David should keep him at arm’s length.
“I can get more graphic,” Jack says, “but I’d hate to shock your delicate sensibilities.”
“Save it for later,” David says. “God only knows how long we’ll be in this forest.”
Jack tilts his head back. “I cannot believe you,” he says conversationally, and it takes David a second to realize he’s not talking to David, he’s talking to God. “Your ultimate design was to have me come sit in the forest and get drunk with David Shepherd? Maybe you’re too much even for Him,” and now he’s talking to David. “If you give Him a headache anything like the one you give me, I’m not at all surprised He wants me here. As a mitigating factor, you know.”
“I’m surprised you’re sitting here getting drunk with me, if all I do is give you a headache,” David says, without rancor.
“Well, it’s not like I have anything better to do, anymore,” Jack says, and toasts God with the bottle.
“What if you did?” David asks, more quietly than he meant to.
Jack looks at him. “First, I won’t. There is nothing better than following God’s command, is there? And as this is the first and only time He’s chosen to command me, and He’s commanded me to come keep you company in the middle of the forsaken forests of Gath, I’ll stay here until He tells me to do something else.”
It’s simpler and more sincere than David can remember Jack ever being since they met. “And second?” he asks.
“Second—even considering other temptations, there’s nothing I want anymore.” Jack waves a hand, as though to communicate the indescribability of the state. “No one’s going to be offering me any kingdoms. My father will never forgive a betrayal like the one I committed. My mother—” He shakes his head. “I seek not my mother’s approval. Not anymore.”
“What about Michelle?” David can’t help but ask.
Jack’s smile quirks again. “Michelle is on your side,” he says. “And Michelle and I—” he seems to consider. “We rarely intersect,” he says slowly, “but I would not let her be hurt. So take care that you never are on opposite sides, I suppose. That might test my loyalty.”
“Noted,” says David. “But you don’t have anything to worry about. If we were against each other, I’d let her win.”
“Of course you would,” says Jack. He hands over the bottle, and stands up. “All right. That’s enough. I’m going to bed.”
“Goodnight,” David says, caught off guard. “I’ll—sit out here a little while longer.”
Jack just nods, and vanishes into the darkness. David looks down at his hands.
Maybe God does want him to trust Jack. Whether God wants it or not, though, it looks like that’s what’s happening.
Jack never used to confess things under the influence of alcohol; he was so used to his secrets, so practiced at swallowing everything down deeper inside when he drank, that he was never afraid of being indiscreet.
David, obviously, circumvents all rules and breaks all traditions. David, who is suffering from a hangover this morning, thus proving that he’s mortal, at least.
“Drink some water, and then we have work to do,” Jack says sadistically. David groans.
“How can we have work to do? We don’t have a schedule.”
“We’re on God’s schedule,” says Jack, “and nothing is of higher priority than our mission. Do you disagree?”
“Fine,” David says. “I’ll get up. You’d better be making breakfast, though.”
“Your wish is my command,” Jack says.
He toasts bread and slices fruit for breakfast, because he’s not quite sadistic enough to inflict sausage on David right after waking up. “Don’t get too excited about the cooking,” he says as he hands a plate over. “I’m limited to a very select group of dishes that are easy to prepare over a camp stove.”
“Oh,” David says, and then, with the indiscretion of early morning, “I thought your father taught you.”
Jack gives that the short laugh it deserves, and makes himself some more toast.
“Sorry,” David says after a second.
“Don’t apologize, for God’s sake,” Jack says.
“Why not?” David asks. “I should’ve known better than to ask that, and I’m sorry I did. Silas should’ve been a better father to you, and I’m sorry he wasn’t.”
No one should have to listen to this. Jack ignores him, and pulls his toast back and yanks it off the fork, even though it’s still basically warm bread. He finds the strawberry preserves he’d bought for too much money in town.
“None of that was your—”
“Stop talking!” It rings loudly in the empty forest. Jack opens the preserves and starts looking for a knife.
“Okay,” David says, after a long silence. And then, because he’s apparently constitutionally incapable of not, he adds, “Sorry.”
Jack spreads strawberry preserves on his warm bread and shoves it at David. “Just eat that.”
David takes it, and Jack starts toasting himself another piece.
Against all expectations and odds, they actually have a productive day. David’s former job as the military liaison to the press means that he knows some things, at least, even if they’re mostly lies, and Silas’ confidence means a few more. Jack does his best to explain, in simple words, the difference between what David was told to tell the press and what was actually happening, insofar as he was aware of it.
That goes fairly well, and David even seems to understand the need to keep military secrets from the general public, hallelujah. Then they move on to the economy, and David starts getting upset.
“Your uncle held the treasury hostage? Why?”
“That, they did not tell me, but now I suspect it was because of the peace talks. CrossGen is indispensible to the country, and they depend on military contracts.” Jack leans forward on his rock, rests his elbows on his knees. “And they have an incredible amount of power, and they like to use it. Did you know the blackout happened because my cousin Andrew was upset at not being issued a dinner invitation?”
“What—no, all right, I won’t be shocked. Okay.” David rubs between his eyes. “How? Why can this happen?”
“Long, long ago, when my parents made the country…” Jack knows more about all of this than he’s supposed to, but one thing he’s always known is that information is valuable. He likes knowing more than people think he knows.
William was better at that game, though, and that cost him—what it cost him. Though no one, of course, is as good at it as his mother.
“Okay,” David says when Jack’s finished explaining Gilboa’s original power base, still rubbing his forehead. “Okay. I get why it’s necessary to reward people who help you, but why did it stay that way? Why was William still able to do all of this, thirty years later?”
“First, power is like money: the more you have, the more you make. Someone like my uncle only needed a start, and after that, he was self-perpetuating. He wasn’t going to give any of it up.” Jack snags a bottle of water from his pack; he feels like a professor lecturing. “Second, better the devil you know. With all that power consolidated under William, my parents could muster it just by influencing him. If it had been spread out among a whole group of unknowns, the tide would be more difficult to turn.”
“Didn’t work out well for them in the end, though, did it?” David points out.
“Well,” Jack says. “They are back there in the palace. And we are up here, and William is God knows where. And with him gone, so is the plot.”
“Fair point,” David acknowledges. “So, who should my Williams be? Your cousin doesn’t sound too, uh, dependable.”
Jack laughs. “Andrew? If you were the type of person to have people killed, I’d tell you to have him killed.”
“That’s not funny, Jack,” says David, but he sounds more resigned than outraged.
“Keep your eye on him, anyway,” Jack says. “I’ll put it in language you’ll understand: he’s a creep.”
“Got it.” David nods.
The sense of power Jack is getting is heady—he’s telling David things, and David is listening, and is going to act according to Jack’s advice. This must have been William’s high, the behind-the-scenes power, the ability to talk to the right person and make things happen.
And the fact that it’s David—David will argue with him, if he thinks Jack’s wrong. He won’t blindly do whatever Jack says, and he won’t get furious or vindictive if he doesn’t like it. He’ll do what he thinks is right.
He’s such a good person. It’s horrifying. And yet, transcendent.
They spend a week discussing the situation, the ins and outs, the people David knows at court, and the things he doesn’t know about them, and the people he doesn’t know, and the things nobody knows about them. Economy, infrastructure, political unrest, military strength, personal loyalties.
On the seventh day, Jack declares a day of rest, and a trip for groceries.
“I’ll go this time,” David volunteers.
“Sure,” Jack says. He could use a real break, without a day of walking through the woods—everything is too overgrown to even consider getting themselves something with wheels—and some time to exorcise his David-headache. He wishes they were somewhere more urban; he could use an anonymous crowd and some high-decibel music.
So he gives David some of his money, and an admonishment to use it wisely. “I promise I’ll come back with alcohol,” David says.
“See that you do.” Jack’s reclining on the widest and lowest of their rocks. He waves a hand, regally. “And get apples if you can find any.”
“As my prince commands,” David says.
“I’m not your prince out here,” says Jack.
“You’re always a prince,” David says, and he’s gone before Jack can think of what to say to that.
He spends the day deliberately lounging—and wishing for an audience; he’s always lounged best when there was someone to watch him do it—and thinking about David, and whatever it is they’re trying to do here.
He’s committed to it, because God has committed him, but he’s starting to think that he might, given the opportunity, have committed anyway. David has—whatever he has, whatever makes people look on his face and smile helplessly, grant him his wishes and tell him their thoughts and somehow fail to kill him when killing him is clearly the only thing to be done.
He wonders, suddenly, if what David looks like is what his family looks like to outsiders. If he has, natural and entire, what Jack’s mother worked and schemed to build, sculpted and shaped for just that effect.
Depressing thought, that, if Jack is just like the thousands of peons over the years who’ve pressed forward, shouted, reached to be seen, heard, touched by royalty.
But David, of course, has the substance, rather than just the form, and Jack learned that when he visited David in prison. When David had said, I’m just doing what you’d do, Jack, and Jack had wanted to shout at him, No. No, this is not what I’d do. I would and have done differently, because sane people do not kiss the hand that kills them.
But David’s—whatever—is what’s going to get them through this. God’s favor will see him through, and his own quality will bring the people after him. And his unrelenting goodness will keep him from becoming another Silas.
It could work. It probably will work.
Jack tries to recall the last time he was this optimistic about a plan, and can’t. He’s always been certain he would fail, even when he was equally certain he’d succeed.
“I hate him,” he says to the sky. He doesn’t get a response.
David gets back before nightfall, laden with purchases. He’s found apples, and he bought butter and sugar, too, and so before it gets dark, he lights up the camp stove and fries apple slices for them.
“This is such a display of wholesome farm-bred lameness as I have never seen,” Jack says, waiting for his plate to cool before he tries anything.
“What?” David says. “You’ve cooked us breakfast every day for a week. How is this different?”
“It’s fried apple slices, that’s what makes it different,” Jack says. He tries one. It’s amazing, of course.
“How is it?” David asks, eyeing him with a hint of a grin.
“Fine,” says Jack, and then after a second, because he is trying to be a better person, lately, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” David says, beatific.
It’s not anything like a fair fight, obviously. But when was Jack ever in one of those? The odds are always stacked somehow.
He blames God. For creating a man so disgustingly perfect, and first leading him to Jack, and then Jack back to him. He wonders what God expects. Is this the design? Or is Jack supposed to show his character, exercise some willpower and live in virtuous and platonic admiration?
Until and unless God sends an unmistakable sign to that effect, Jack thinks, he’s going to discount that option.
They pass another week, this time on topography—David bought some maps in town—troop lines, hideouts, tank routes. David traces the route that he took with Silas and their northern reinforcements.
“Must be weird,” Jack says, because he can’t stop himself. “That you put all of that effort into putting him back on the throne, and now you’re trying to unseat him again.”
“I brought him back because your uncle was—” David stops, glances at him.
“Was running the country with an iron fist, with me as his puppet, yes,” Jack says tiredly. “You’ve mentioned him before without getting squeamish.”
“I just—” David laughs a little. “For the first time, I feel like I should apologize for unseating you. When I’m not even sorry I did it, at that.” He looks at Jack, sidelong under his lashes. It’s ridiculously charming. “But, for you, for what you wanted—I’m sorry. That you couldn’t have that.”
“You are so God damned noble,” Jack says. “Don’t you ever get tired of it? Don’t you ever just want to punch someone until you can’t hold your arm up anymore? Does that never happen to you?”
“I did that,” David says, and Jack blinks. “To your father.”
Jack looks at him. “You said you punched him. You didn’t say you beat him.”
“To be fair,” David says, “he beat me first. And he was using a poker.”
Jack looks away. “I’m sorry.”
“No, wait,” says David. “I was apologizing. I’m almost sure that’s what was happening.”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Jack says. “You never do anything wrong.”
“I lied to your father about being with Michelle,” David says.
“He would’ve tried to murder you. No, wait,” Jack says, “he did try to murder you.”
“I still swore to him that I could keep nothing from my king. I lied to his face.”
“Trust me,” says Jack, “if that’s the worst you’ve got, I’m not impressed.”
“I singlehandedly screwed up the treaty with Gath because I couldn’t keep my mouth shut?” David tries.
“The treaty with Gath was screwed up because they’d decided beforehand it would be screwed up,” Jack says. “What you did, ultimately, was convince them to unscrew it, which literally nobody else in the country could have done.”
David starts laughing, ruefully. “You’re making me feel bad for trying to do the right thing.”
“I can’t believe you lived among us for months and nobody’s succeeded at that before now,” Jack says. “You’re like a miracle.” It comes out a little too seriously.
David shakes his head. “No,” he says. “You’re the miracle.”
“What,” Jack says, unamused.
“You and Michelle,” David says. “You survived that household—those politics—your parents, and all the people currying your favor, and giving you things, and your—and Joseph, and you still want to do good. You’re trying to do the right thing just as much as I am, it’s just—”
“No, David,” Jack says, “I was not trying to do the right thing. I was trying to take the throne because I wanted it. I betrayed my father because I was afraid of him. It was not because I had sat down and thought about it and concluded that I would serve the country better than he would.”
“But you did think that,” David says.
Jack tips his head back against a tree. “Ultimately, yes.”
“Would you have done it if you thought your father was a just, fair, and merciful ruler? Honestly thought that?”
Jack breathes. “I don’t—think so. It’s hard to be sure. My uncle was very persuasive.” He laughs a little. “And, as it turned out, I am easily persuaded. And deluded.”
“Jack,” says David, and Jack lifts his head and looks at him. “I believe in you,” he says. “You’re a good person. I honestly believe that.”
Jack’s breathing speeds up. “Excuse me,” he says, polite as at one of his mother’s state dinners, and gets up and away into the forest as fast as he can.
He’s breathing too quickly when he starts, and by the time he’s surrounded only by trees, he’s panting, harsh, gasping breaths that leave him light-headed.
Calm down, he orders himself. He can take a breath. A long one. Another.
David fucking Shepherd thinks he’s a good person. He laughs a little; rubs at his eyes, and his hands come away damp.
Maybe it’s the rose-colored glasses of the idealist, the man who wants goodness and righteousness to fill the nation. Except that isn’t David’s flavor of idealism; the only man he was ever blinded about was Jack’s father. If he thinks Jack is good, he has reason.
This is impossible. Who could expect Jack to endure something like this? Someone like that?
A butterfly lands on a wildflower next to his foot. Oh, yes.
“Hey,” David says, when he gets back. “Ready to work?”
“Yes,” Jack says cautiously, and sits down. David opens up a map, and doesn’t say anything else about it.
I hate him, Jack thinks. It takes more effort than it usually does.
Jack thinks about breaking out the alcohol that night, so as to have an excuse, but if he’s really a good goddamn person, he wouldn’t do something like that, would he?
Which in itself is enough to make him cringe at himself a little, but he shelves it all to think about later, and instead, when they’ve eaten dinner, and darkness is just falling, and they’re sitting outside their tent, Jack says, “So I’ve been thinking about what you said this afternoon.”
“Okay.” David seems slightly wary.
“And you don’t, quite, have the whole picture yet. I think it’s not a fair judgment if you don’t have all the necessary information, don’t you agree?”
Now he looks exasperated. “Jack, unless you’re about to tell me that you’re secretly here as a spy for Silas—”
“The fact that you never even considered that, before now, is something we should address, actually, but no,” Jack says. “This is something else.”
“Then,” David spreads his hands, “lay it on me.”
There will never be a more perfect opening than that, so Jack swallows back the reflexive laugh and leans in, no hesitation.
He tastes amazing. Jack is completely unsurprised.
And he kisses back. His mouth moves against Jack’s; his lips part just a little; he makes a small noise when Jack flicks his tongue along them, and just barely inside his mouth. It’s intoxicating, and Jack can’t help but press the advantage, lean in further, taste deeper.
Jack breaks it off abruptly, leaning back. “So?” he says, slightly breathless, a big part of him furious with himself for giving that up.
David takes a long breath, blinking. “So what?” he says. “I’m not going to assess your moral character differently because you kissed me.”
“—and yet, I was so sure that you would, somehow,” Jack says; the words are automatically flippant, no thought behind them at all, because his thoughts are bound up in David’s mouth, his scent, his skin.
“Well,” says David, “why did you do it? Are you seducing me for some nefarious purpose?”
Jack leans back. “I want so badly to be able to say yes,” he says after a long pause. “But—no.”
“Okay,” David says. “So why, then?”
“Because I want you,” Jack says, and David lets that hang in the air, until Jack adds—weak, weak, but here he is out in the forest with David Shepherd, he can cave if he wants to—“and you’re—well.” Maybe he can’t say it after all. “Mostly, you’re awful.”
“Thanks.” The smile’s not visible in the falling darkness, but Jack can hear it.
“You’re welcome. Awful, and—brilliant.” He stops.
“Okay,” David says. “You’re not a bad person because of that.”
He’s going to start tearing his hair out soon. “Fine. Quid pro quo, then. You kissed me back. Don’t tell me you were just being polite.”
“No,” David says. “I want you.”
Jack inhales sharply.
“And,” David continues, “you’re amazing. Strong, brave—and kind of awful.”
Jack had been tensing up, but he can’t help but laugh at that last. “So,” he says.
“So,” says David, and takes his hand, and kisses it in the exact center of the palm. Jack shudders. “I don’t know what I’m doing, but—”
“Well,” says Jack, “I’m used to that.”
“Hey,” David says. “Just—tell me if I’m doing anything wrong,” and he leans in to kiss Jack again.
He tastes just as good the second time, and Jack laughs into the kiss, dizzy and amazed.