Actions

Work Header

Holiday, oh, holiday

Work Text:

Summer hits the city like artillery bombardment: sudden, unremitting, brutal.

David wakes up in it one morning at the end of May, mouth ashy, muscles cramped, teeth caked with grit. Naked, although he doesn't remember undressing during the night—his skin sticks to the cheap sheets he'd bought at a discount store near the Veteran's Hospital.

He peels himself out of bed, and for once is glad that the water boiler for his shower never works.

By the time he dresses and leaves for work, he feels dirty again. The seething, teeming miasma of Shiloh's streets has only thickened, and David slogs through waves of it: meat guts and dog shit sauteed on the asphalt, car and truck and bus exhaust pluming up in the breezeless air. Some days, he takes the subway from his distant neighborhood — "you're not gonna find a better bargain, tell you that much," the landlord had said when handing David his keys, his eyes greedily fixated on David's dress uniform — but often he winds up getting lost, resurfacing miles from where he started. He steps over a grate, still suppressing the irrational fear that the toe of his loafer might catch in the holes, and is slapped by a burst of warm, dank air from below.

Someone's thrown the morning's paper in the trash. "HOT DOG," a photo of a poodle in sunglasses. David slides two fingers under the stiff collar of his uniform, plucking it off his neck; he licks his fingertip and tastes sweat.

Most mornings, the guards who wave him into the Palace complex greet him with a joke, their salutes half-mocking, a smile that David returns. Today, though, there's no one waiting for him; he swipes his rank and ID badge over the electronic sensors, and the gate swings open.

The courtyard bustles with a half-dozen black sedans idling, orange Gilboan flags limp against antennae. Porters scuttle, laden with suitcases and boxes, dragging file cabinets. David sidesteps out of someone's way, and a luggage cart almost runs him down where he stands. He jumps back, lands on his ankle wrong and bites back a curse.

"You're late."

Thomasina's fingers close over his forearm.

David's stomach leaps, unpleasant. "I am?" He hasn't eaten since last night, a fish fry from the closet-sized restaurant across the street from his building. "I didn't see anything on my calendar, last night. Was — who's expecting me?"

Thomasina lets him jabber until his throat runs dry. Her lips, curved as cleanly as the facade's arches, tense at the corners.

"I'm sorry." David licks the corners of his mouth. Swallows.

"This way, please."

Her heels on the flagstones, gunshot-precise in their rapport.

David shambles behind her, his shoulders inching up to his ears. He tries to piece it together, but the heat slows his thoughts, retards his mental review of yesterday, as if he were viewing his own recent past through the bottom of a pint of late-season lager. Press briefings at nine-thirty, noon and three; an interview with the Queen's current favored magazine at two; a design committee meeting for the memorial commemorating the Gath hostages' successful return.

And wasn't that last one fun: two generals who'd been in fatigues before David was in diapers; three tenured art professors from the Royal University of Gilboa; the Court portraitist; Reverend Samuels; David and Prince Jack. Jack, who arrived five minutes late and dared anyone to comment on it. Throughout the meeting, he barely spoke more than David (who didn't speak at all), but he drenched his intermittent commentary with such green-tipped acidity that David was sure he saw even the most holy Reverend wince.

Two hours, sixteen artists' renditions, all hewing to the same basic motif: David, youthful and virile in contrapposto, hands balled in defiant fists, staring down an imagined Goliath in the middle distance. Jack, crumpled in a heap at David's feet, or prone behind him, eyes closed and limbs splayed in so delicate a composition that the Crown Prince and Heir to the Realm might well have been sleeping, not bleeding from a head wound. In one, they were both naked.

A blast of air conditioning greets David's blushing cheeks as he follows Thomasina inside the main Palace building. She sails through the commotion with barely a flicking glance back to make sure David's keeping up. He tries his best, mumbles apologies when he topples over a clothes rack.

David expects to go right, towards Council chambers and an undoubtedly unhappy King, but with a dip of her head to a pair of guards, she leads him up the stairs and left — the Residence.

On his second day in Shiloh, David purchased an unofficial map of the Royal Grounds from a trinket-hawker by the South Gate. David meant to send it home to his brother Josiah but kept it, nailed it to the wall above his nightstand. At home, he liked to look at maps in the garage and imagine places he'd likely never visit. Now, living in Shiloh, wilting in the first summer heat, he likes things that, like maps, remain the same after you leave them.

They stop in front of a closed door, unnamed on David's coarse spread of canvas paper. He looks to Thomasina.

She nods once, and turns away.

The doorknob is cool in David's palm when he turns it. His feet stumble a little at the lush carpeting, and it's darker in here, too — as if the royal family can slow the pace of dawn to their leisure. David can see the drapes, pulled back, but there's a light scrim suspended over the windows, rendering everything a strange, buttery blue.

"It's about time you showed up."

The back of David's neck seizes up; he whirls around.

Jack, lounging on a couch — David can tell, just by the way that the leather gives against his lean frame, how expensive it must be. He's drinking from a cheap cardboard cup, the kind the minimart near David's apartment sells coffee in. How could anyone drink coffee in this weather, is David's first thought, and then fresh on its heels, maybe it's not even coffee…who knows, with Jack.

"Thomasina said you were expecting me." He tries to pitch it as both a question and a statement at the same time, and falls halfway between either — plaintive, uncertain. Childish, worst of all.

"I would've thought a good soldier like you would be here at daybreak."

"The Media Liaison Office doesn't open until eight-thirty," David says. "If you need something —"

"Storm King." Jack takes a long draught, throat muscles clenching.

"Pardon?"

"Storm King Island," Jack repeats. "Have you ever been?"

David shakes his head. "I've never been south of Saltaire."

"Yet," Jack says. He drains the remnants of his cup, wiping his lips with the back of his palm. "We leave in half an hour."

The cup sails past David's head. David doesn't flinch. He hears it ricochet into a waste basket.

Jack quirks an eyebrow.

"We — as in, you and me?" David senses it's his turn to speak.

"Summer court." Jack stretches his arms above his head, leans back. "My father's favorite excuse to skive off work and go sun himself like the man of leisure he so desperately wishes he could be." He looks to David. "You've been summoned."

Summoned. "But I have work."

"You'll give your briefings from Gavaudun Palace. It's all been arranged – the whole Government's picking up and heading out."

David feels like he's walking down the face of a hillside, momentum pulling him down too fast to stop himself. It's the same feeling he's had ever since he first came to Court.

"I haven't packed," he says, blinking.

"It's been taken care of." Jack rolls his eyes. "You know, they do mean it as an honor. Plenty of hoi polloi would hack off an appendage to get the hell out of Shiloh in the summer."

"No, of course." David nods, shakes his head, and feels like a jackass for attempting both. "Is—will the whole royal family be going?"

Jack's lips curve up into a smile — not a pleasant one, although David's seen from all the pictures how handsomely the Crown Prince smiles when he wishes.

"Easy, tiger," Jack says. "Try not to make a mess on the carpet."

Jack keeps grinning, long after David's dropped his gaze to his shoes.

 

—+—

 

Jack's car is just like everything else about him: sleek, powerful and more than a bit intimidating. David just assumed he'd travel in some middle management coach bus, but Jack had insisted, leading him by the arm out to the garage, bantering with the attendants as they waited for one of the valets to bring up the silver convertible from its spot.

"Wow." David can't even feel ashamed of his awe. This is. "What model is this?"

Jack laughs, slides on his sunglasses. "Don't be crass." He catches the keys that the valet throws to him, metal clinking against his rings. "I had this one custom-made. Hop in."

David runs his fingers over the hood, gentle. He imagines that the heat reflected back at him is its pulse, the gentle thrumming of the engine a contented purr. "What kind of an engine does this have?"

"A very big one," and he didn't hear her, didn't even realize she'd be…. "To compensate for certain other deficiencies."

"Watch your mouth." Jack kisses his sister's cheek, lofts her carry-case into the backseat. "You're making the country mouse nervous."

Michelle's smile turns to David, and he feels as though the tendons of his knees have been sliced clean through. Radiant in a pale yellow shift dress, she quirks her head. She's so beautiful, David thinks, that it hurts to look at her.

"Ah," he says. "Hi."

"You're not wearing your uniform all day, are you?" Michelle touches his shoulder, light. "David, you'll melt."

"I—" David can feel each of her fingertips against him.

"Come on." Jack revs the engine. "I've got a bet going says we beat the caravan by an hour."

Michelle tucks herself into the car behind Jack, white calves flashing. "You say that every year."

"And every year, I get closer." Jack looks to David, eyes opaque behind his sunglasses. "Come on, Shepherd." He gestures to the passenger seat. "Be my right hand man for the day."

Michelle stifles a laugh.

David loosens the noose-like clamp of his tie, swallows. He opens the door.

 

—+—

 

They take the Crown Road out of Shiloh, dashing through the city's narrow canyons at a pace that dizzies David. Jack's blithe behind the wheel, barely pausing for red lights, concocting insults for other drivers that would've made even David's platoon leader blush.

"Shouldn't you be more careful?" David grips the dashboard. "I know there are cameras." Traffic sensors at every intersection, installed by the Ministry for Public Safety last year; David read about it in the papers.

"Oh please, Shepherd." Jack's laugh rings out through a hairpin turn. "They've got more photos of me than the paparazzi do."

"And that's saying something." Michelle flicks Jack's ear with her thumb and forefinger; David prays to a god whose existence he's recently had reason to question that they not flip over.

They cross Serenity Bridge out of the city at eighty miles an hour. David drove this same bridge some three months ago, with the military escort that brought him to the Palace. Eighteen hours removed from the Front, and he was still seeing artillery flares every time he shut his eyes, like the after-flashes of cameras. He remembers thinking that the arching steel struts of the bridge looked like handcuffs.

Jack lets go of the wheel with one hand to fiddle with the radio, jumping from station to station until Michelle thwaps him in the back of the head. He settles on a rock station, the blaring electric guitars announcing their passage into the countryside.

The traffic is light but there are other cars on the roads. Jack seems to delight in antagonizing them, weaving around trucks and gunning his engine just to stop someone from merging in front of them. David wonders if the Queen hired a race car driver to teach Jack to drive. Then again, it seems like the sort of thing that Silas would take pride in doing himself.

"Pull over," Michelle calls out, about an hour into their journey. She leans forward, gesturing at a roadside diner on the shoulder. Pam's. Her hair whips around to brush against David's shoulder.

"Didn't you learn to go before you leave the house?" Jack says, but puts on his right blinker anyway. He crosses three lines of traffic in a single go, and parks the car in between two pickup trucks that are probably older than any of them.

Michelle hops over the door, not bothering to open it. "We always stop here," she says, turning to grin at David. "They make the best burgers in the whole country."

Jack gets out, tossing his keys and catching them in the same hand. "We're never going to beat the royal caravan at this rate."

"Then I guess that means you don't want us to bring you back anything," she says, and grabs David's hand. David's mouth goes dry. He hopes his palms don't sweat too much.

"Cheese, no onions!" Jack calls after them.

Michelle places the order at the counter from a massive woman who seems either unaware or unimpressed by their identities. David suspects they've just met the infamous Pam. Somehow, during his musings, Michelle manages to sweep in and pay for the meal.

"I really think that was supposed to be me," David says, balancing three sodas in his arms.

Michelle opens the wax paper bag and takes a deep inhale of its contents. The smell of burgers and melted cheese, fried onions and grease, hits David in a wave and brings with it memories of grilling with his brothers, feeding scraps to the dogs under the table and lighting illegal sparklers after dark.

The three of them eat together on top of a picnic table by the parking lot, where there's a bit of shade. David puts his jacket in the back of the car, rolls up his sleeves and unbuttons the top of his dress shirt. Jack steals half of David's fries without any attempt at subtlety.

"You know, sir, I think you're rich enough to buy your own fries," David says.

"Sir?" Michelle snorts up some of her Coke.

Jack fixes them both with an arch look, but the grease shine smudging his lower lip ruins it. David feels an odd tingling in his fingers, resists the urge to wipe it away. "You know, I could leave you both here to fend for yourselves."

"David would figure something out." Michelle gestures with the remains of her burger, pops it in her mouth. Says, around a mouthful of sesame seed bun, "He's good in a crisis."

"He certainly is." A shadow crosses Jack's face, some expression David doesn't know how to parse. He wants to say something, deny it maybe, but Jack gets up then, wiping invisible crumbs off his legs. "Go wash your hands before you get back in the car; I don't want burger smell stinking up my upholstery."

David and Michelle both watch him walk away. Michelle puts her hand on his shoulder, but for once, David doesn't feel anything from her touch.

 

—+—

 

David starts to smell the ocean once they turn off the Crown Road. He remembers the map of Gilboa that hung in his high school civics classroom. The country looked like a seahorse to him: the northern border with Gath a spiky crest of demilitarized zones and conflicting claims; the spiny mountains to the east forming the country's backbone; and along western coast a long chain of islands stretching all the way to Storm King, the curving tail.

Traffic slows to a crawl on the bridge that leads to the west, but the sea breeze cools them and they keep the top down.

"You know this means they beat us," Michelle says. She's stretched over the back seat, her ankles dangling over the side of the car.

Jack drums his fingers on the steering wheel. "Not necessarily. This could be traffic from the drawbridge going up to let a ship through."

"Could be both.... What do you think, David?"

David starts. He hasn't participated much in the conversation over the last few hours, preferring to let their conversation wash over him. In Shiloh, he almost never sees the them together, with their separate roles in the whirring machinery of the royal family: the Prince and his work with the Ministry of Information, the Princess and her pet causes. It's silly, but sometimes David forgets they're siblings, that they must have had the same childhood rivalries and shared secrets as his brothers.

Somewhere in between leaving the city and reaching the coast, though, they've settled into a pattern that David can tell is well-established: he teases her and she parries back; he says something outrageous and she fakes offense. She mocks his careless driving; he calls her a mirthless old crone. Until now, David wasn't sure if they remembered his presence, but he didn't mind.

He sits up, looks ahead at the snaking line of cars, to the side at the gleaming breast of Elysium bay.

"They're there," he says.

Jack snorts. "You sound pretty sure of yourself."

"Well," David points at a cluster of black dots on the horizon, "if they're not, then I think those news helicopters are pretty lost."

Jack pushes his sunglasses off his face, squints. "Oh, fuck me."

David meets Michelle's gaze in the rearview mirror. She winks at him.

"Maybe next year?" she offers.

"Maybe you should get out and swim to Storm King," he says darkly.

David tries to hide his smile. "What was the bet?"

Jack pulls his sunglasses back down. The car crawls forward another fifteen feet. "What?"

"You said you had a bet going. What did you bet?"

Jack's jaw changes shape. Squares itself. "That's none of your concern, Shepherd." He leans on the horn, lets off a long blast to no effect.

David looks back at Michelle again, hoping for a clue of what he's done wrong, but she's looking out at the water. David senses that he's overstepped his bounds, wandered somewhere he's not welcome. He thinks of the doors at the palace -- for every one that opens to him, it seems there are four more that remain locked. He's not even sure he wants to know what's behind them all, but this silence feels wrong, hurts like a joint out of its socket. More than anything, he wishes there was something he could say to push it back into place.

It takes half an hour to cross the bridge. Jack stares straight ahead at the back of the car in front of them, revs the engine ruthlessly. Michelle gives a little sigh of dismay, her head tucked against the door.

"I don't know how to swim," David blurts out.

"What?" Jack slams the brakes. The cars behind them loudly express their displeasure.

"I never learned how to swim," David says. "My brothers all learned in the pond behind our house, but I was always too scared. Um. I've never actually seen the ocean before?"

"Oh, David." Michelle sounds like she's speaking to a small child, but at least she's speaking. "That's perfectly all right."

"That's pathetic," Jack cuts in, and David would be hurt, but there's a little bit of wicked glee back in his tone again. "Didn't they teach you in basic?"

"My unit was rushed through after Gath broke the autumn accord," David says. "We only had four weeks of training before we went to the Front."

"And my father wonders why we couldn't win the war." Jack shakes his head, changes lanes without signaling. "We'll get you a life jacket to wear at the beach."

"Jack."

Jack waves his hand over his shoulder dismissively. "What are those rubber inflatable armbands called? Swimmies, we'll find you swimmies that match your trunks. You can start a new fashion trend."

Michelle gives an aggrieved sigh, Jack sticks out his tongue at her, and David exhales.

 

—+—

 

"David."

Someone's hand curls around David's shoulder, fingers soft through the fabric of his shirt. He turns into the touch, sighing. He's warm all over, like he fell asleep on the kitchen windowsill at home, the dog at his feet and a loaf of bread in his mother's oven.

"Hey, sleeping beauty."

David cracks an eye open. Jack's smile is very close, and David smiles back -- he can't not, with Jack's eyes bright and his cheeks ruddy from the sun.

"Are we here?" David mumbles.

"Almost." Jack pats his cheek, and steps away. "Since we're already late, we decided to make one last stop."

"Where are we?" David sits up fully, stretching his arms over his head. He looks around: an empty parking lot, sand between the cracks in the asphalt. Michelle has her back to them, walking along the white line of a parking space like a balance beam, a tightrope.

"Come see for yourself."

Jack offers his hand to Michelle and she takes it, swinging their clapsed hands together and setting off across the parking lot towards a set of steps. David rubs sleep from his eyes and hustles to catch up.

They're waiting for him at the top of a flight of steps, and now David can hear it -- like the rumble of a crowd or the roar of a plane engine, but nothing like either of those either, bigger and quieter at once. The sun is in his eyes, their shadows grown to three times their height, but even without seeing, David knows where he is.

He stands a little behind Jack and Michelle. They both turn to him, and it's Jack who offers his hand. David takes it. They walk down the wooden steps to the beach together.

The wind here is almost as strong as in the convertible on the highway. David feels the ends of his shirt flap against his sides. The beach is deserted, but the bone-white sand bears traces of people -- footprints and half-destroyed sandcastles. The fattest part of the sun straddles the horizon, and the orange reflected onto the water is the same color as the Gilboan flag.

Michelle sinks to her knees, and Jack tugs David down as well. Birds wheel above them in elliptical orbits, diving into the spray and climbing back up into the sky. Jack takes off his shoes and rolls the bottoms of his trousers. Digs his feet into the sand.

"We used to come here when we were kids," Michelle says. "There's a sandbar, out on the left."

"It's on the right," Jack points. "Where the whitecaps are."

Michelle tosses her hair. Some of it gets in David's mouth. "We both learned to swim on that sandbar."

"We used to stand on it, and he'd take a couple of steps back, and say, 'Swim to Papa, Jack! Come on, swim to Papa.'" Jack snorts. "Of course, he'd be walking back the whole time, so no matter how close you got, he was always a little bit further out of reach."

A gull lands a few feet away from them. Hops closer, its glassy eyes fixed in its swiveling head. David's never liked birds, ever since Eli claimed they were all really just dinosaurs in hiding. He waves a hand, and it flies away, screeching reproachfully.

"He always let us catch him eventually, though," Michelle says thoughtfully.

"Eventually."

They watch until the last colors bleed from the horizon and the first stars punch through the sky.

 

—+—

 

Weeks later, David is still finding sand in his shoes, his socks, the creases of his knees.