Turn on the news.
Nimeuh looks up from her book when her phone buzzes, wondering whether she wants to interrupt her quiet evening in, and texts Balinor back, because it's even odds whether he wants to show her something cool or whether he wants to make her depressed about the state of the world. Why, are you on it? Discovered a new species of dinosaur in our back yard?
A second later, it buzzes again. Turn on the news, please.
The “please” is the thing that clues her in that it isn't just Balinor reiterating his statement, and she blinks at Ygraine's name on the display. It isn't that she never hears from her, but they talk less now than they did when they were in uni, and it's been a while since they had the chance to catch up, since Ygraine has been busy with diplomatic events and Nimueh was busy with a new girlfriend who is now an ex-girlfriend. Something wrong? she texts.
Balinor's reply comes before Ygraine does. The princess is involved in some kind of scoop, better watch it now than on YouTube later.
Nimueh turns on the TV, flips it to the BBC, where the news anchor is saying, voice full of repressed excitement, “—to Catrina Tregor with the Princess of Wales, who requested an interview for today and has asked us to keep the contents hush-hush until just now, when we air it exclusively here on the BBC.”
I just want you to see, Ygraine texts right as her face fills the screen. She looks tired, always does, always has, but she's smiling as the camera pans out to show her sitting in a comfortable little interview room with Catrina Tregor, who's wearing a white suit and the expression of a hyena when faced with a particularly tempting piece of meat. “Hello, I'm Catrina Tregor, here with Crown Princess Ygraine, who's requested this interview. Hello, your Highness.”
“Ms. Tregor,” Ygraine acknowledges. Her hands clench in the folds of her skirt, a nervous motion she told Nimueh once that publicity staff have been trying to train her out of for years. “I'm aware this is unorthodox, and I thought about calling a press conference, but what I wish to discuss seems to call for a more intimate setting.”
“Does that mean you have an intimate matter to discuss with us, your Highness?” The reporter leans forward, and Nimueh knows she's very good, that Ygraine probably requested her, but Ygraine also looks pale and nervous and Nimueh doesn't know what about an interview could make her look like that. “There are constant rumors of your possible engagement, of course,” she says in leading tones. “The Duke of Essex is always the frontrunner of the pack there.”
Ygraine relaxes slightly at the mention of Uther, who she is inexplicably fond of. Nimueh has never seen the appeal. “No, Uther is a dear friend, but I won't be marrying him.”
Catrina's eyebrows go politely up. “Is there someone else, then? His friend Edward Gorlois was widowed, I know the two of you are friends ...”
“I'm not here,” says Ygraine with a touch of annoyance, “to announce a romantic relationship, let alone a marriage. My announcement does touch on the subject, however. You're going to have to bear with me, I'm afraid.”
“By all means.” She's probably annoyed too, if Nimueh is any judge. Nimueh can't blame her, having a deliberately evasive subject when the subject is the one to call the interview has got to be frustrating. “Very well then, Princess Ygraine, what did you come here to say to us today?”
“I want to preface this with the announcement that I'm here with the full blessing of my mother the Queen, that our family and our staffs have fully though about the consequences of what I'm here to discuss today, and that you can feel free to ask me about these consequences and I'll answer as honestly as I may.” Ygraine is relaxing, now, into well-rehearsed words. Nimueh saw her rehearsing when they were at uni, sprawled out on her bed while Ygraine stood in front of a mirror with a supernaturally pleasant smile on her face and sounded out problematic words and phrases until they flowed smooth. Nimueh does the same, now, when she has to talk to groups.
Are you watching? Ygraine texts her, while her past self swallows and looks down at her hands, still fisted in her skirt.
“Thank you for your assurances, your Highness.” The reporter smiles, and it doesn't make her look less sharp at all. Nimueh thinks she would like her, if they met in person, if Ygraine weren't so obviously nervous in her presence. “You seem nervous. Is there anything we can do to put you more at ease?”
“That's very kind, thank you, but I'm afraid I must simply say it, and it will be better afterward.” Ygraine relaxes, all at once, bringing her hands to clasp together in her lap, and Nimueh's gaze lingers on the wrinkles left in the fine fabric of her skirt. “I'm here to say that while I understand the public's concern with my marriage, I'm bound to disappoint them. I'm not going to marry the Duke of Essex or Lord Gorlois or any of the other names they have matched me with in the press, and that is very simply because I do not intend to marry a man.”
Nimueh almost throws her phone across the couch, because she doesn't trust herself to text anything coherent. She knows what's coming, she knows, and she presses her hands to her mouth and thinks of herself, sixteen and sitting in the country and wishing, wishing, wishing for something like this to happen, wanting it so badly that it's shaped the rest of her life. “What do you mean, your Highness?” says Catrina Tregor, but surely she knows as well.
“I mean, Ms. Tregor, that if I marry, I will marry a woman—or, I suppose, it will be a civil partnership.”
“Is this ...”
“I'm coming out, yes,” says Ygraine, so measured and calm that Nimueh knows how scared she must be, and she doesn't look at the camera so pointedly that she must want to, and Nimueh's phone buzzes on the other end of the couch, and then buzzes again ten seconds later, and Nimueh can't move, can't pay attention to the reporter's first few protestations of surprise or anything but the way Ygraine is so still up there on that camera, and so brave, and the treacherous thought, the one she really shouldn't be thinking: she did this for me.
“I want to make it clear,” Ygraine continues, a little stronger and a little less steady, “that I'm not doing this because I've been in a secret relationship and I wish to come forward with the woman. I never thought it was fair to ask a woman to keep that kind of secret, and I want to come at things as honestly as possible.”
Catrina Tregor has regained control of herself. Nimueh envies her her poise. “Why the timing of this announcement, then, your Highness?”
“It was time. We finally had a strategy, and everyone involved was as prepared as possible. I'm afraid the answer isn't any more interesting than that.”
Tregor clears her throat delicately. “And, I hate to ask this question first, but there will be those who ask: what about the succession?”
“Both of my brothers are quite capable of providing me with an heir, and if I and my future wife desire, there's the option of artificial insemination. The Duke of Essex has offered his services on that front, so while I will not be marrying him he may enter the line of succession anyway.”
Nimueh manages to move her hands, but only far enough to cover her eyes. Hearing Ygraine talk about being impregnated by Uther is not at all what she was expecting five minutes ago, but everything has changed rather a lot in five minutes. Her phone is still buzzing. Balinor? Ygraine, wanting to talk without giving her time to process? Alice or Gaius, worried? It's impossible to say, and she can't make herself move any more.
They're still talking on the screen, about the Church of England, about the Queen's response (the Queen isn't a warm woman, but Nimueh has met her a time or two, when she came to visit her daughter and Nimueh couldn't think of a quick enough excuse to avoid her, and she knows how much she loves Ygraine), about Ygraine's romantic prospects, and Nimueh finally lowers her hands again just in time for Ygraine to say “I don't know if finding someone right at this moment is wise. She would be subjected to a great deal of media scrutiny.”
“There isn't someone already, then? I was asking after the wrong people, I see now.”
“No, no. As I said, I wouldn't date anyone in secret, this had to come before anything else.”
Catrina Tregor leans forward like she's trying to invite confidence. “That doesn't mean you don't have anyone in mind, though. Lady Annis, perhaps? The two of you are quite close ...”
“No, I do adore Annis, but she is as straight as may be, at least as far as I know.”
“A school friend, perhaps?”
Ygraine is crumpling her skirt again, a pleasant expression on her face, that of someone dealing patiently with teasing she doesn't much care for but doesn't care to stop it with impoliteness either. “You're the first person outside Buckingham and Clarence House who's heard about this, Ms. Tregor. Do give me a few days before I find a girlfriend, will you?”
Tregor at least has the grace to look abashed at that, and she sits back in her chair, no longer trying to get a girly chat out of Ygraine. Good. Ygraine hates it when people ask about her love life and her clothes when she does a lot more that nobody pays attention to, even when they're quite happy to ask Tristan about the army and Agravaine about his business degree. “As long as you do let us know eventually,” she says in a poor imitation of her joking tone from before. “Shall we talk the business of it, then? What kind of impact do you expect this to have on the monarchy, especially in an age when royalism is shaky at best?”
Nimueh turns off the television. She knows Ygraine will have important and thoughtful answers to that, that other questions will be asked and need answers, but she needs to breathe, and she can't do that with Ygraine up on her television screen announcing that she's a lesbian, neatly avoiding questions about whether she's in love with anyone in particular, being so brave, being the role model that Nimueh would have killed for when she was a teenager.
It takes her a while to reach out for her phone. Seconds, minutes, she isn't quite sure. It's quiet in her flat, nobody pounding down her door in the rain because she doesn't live in a romantic comedy, and Ygraine is probably holed up at home with her brothers or Uther or Annis, since the press will be stalking her more than ever. When she goes to her phone, it's overflowing with texts: Balinor, Ygraine, Ygraine again, Balinor, Alice, Balinor, Gaius, Ygraine twice. While she stares at it, she gets another: Uther.
She looks at that, because she's curious what he has to say to her about this. Her last exchange of texts with him, weeks ago, was just exchanging logistical details about when he should meet her to ferry her to Clarence House to see Ygraine. Today, it's two simple words: She's worried.
Nimueh doesn't answer him. He probably doesn't want an answer. Either he's surprised and giving up any final hopes he had for Ygraine marrying him (Nimueh doesn't know if Ygraine doesn't know or is just too polite to mention that Uther is in love with her. And that Nimueh is, in as much as she ever let herself be), or he's too busy concentrating on her and on the inevitable press phone calls he's getting about possibly fathering the next heir to the throne out of wedlock.
Instead, she looks through her other texts: Alice asking if she knew, Gaius asking if she's heard from Ygraine, Balinor's surprise and grudging respect and growing worry for Nimueh, and Ygraine … I wanted to tell you, says one text. Are you angry? says another. And then the last two: Are you okay? followed seconds later by Please call when you can.
Nimueh gets up and puts the kettle on, texting people back in order of ease: I didn't know to Alice, Had a few texts to Gaius, a string of exclamation points and near-panic to Balinor, who texts back almost immediately with an offer of drinks that she turns down, and then she looks at her conversation with Ygraine. They haven't texted in a few days, which is fairly normal when they're both so busy. Their last conversation was about some ridiculous movie Ygraine is trying to convince her to watch, and the difference is astronomical.
She doesn't call until the kettle's almost boiled, while she's fiddling around with her tea bag and the sugar. Ygraine picks up almost immediately, which means she really must want to talk to her. Most times, an announcement this big would mean she would have to be talking to the press almost constantly. Nimueh can't blame her in the least for doing this through an interview and not a press conference. “Hello,” says Ygraine, with all the nervousness on her voice that wasn't there on the television.
“I don't know what to say,” says Nimueh. “I don't … I have some idea, maybe, but I'm still in shock, you're going to have to help me.”
“I wanted to have you here for this, so you would be able to talk to me in person. I wanted to tell you before you heard on the news, but I couldn't, and if you're angry or hurt, I'm sorry.”
“I'm … I don't know what I am. Baffled, I suppose. I may come around to being hurt later. I doubt I'll make it to angry.” Nimueh swallows and turns the heat off on her stove. “I would have helped, you know. If you told me. I actually do it for a living, Ygraine, you don't know what this is going to mean to my kids, to my co-workers.”
“I know. I know, and I am sorry. I know you could have helped. I wanted to do it on my own—well, as much on my own as I could. I didn't … it would have been complicated for you to be involved.”
Nimueh pours out the hot water into the mug, watches it start to turn comforting brown. “Complicated.” She doesn't make it a question, keeps as much emotion out of it as she can, just lets Ygraine hear the word she used.
“That was a horrible thing to say, but I don't know how else to say it, without saying too much, or too little, or the wrong thing. I don't want to have this conversation on the telephone.”
“But you didn't want to have it with me there either.”
“I was being a coward. Can you forgive me? I'll send a car, if you like, or you can come tomorrow, I want to talk to you but it isn't fair doing it on the phone.”
“You're mad if you think I'm going to make it past the press tonight, or that any car you send out will make it out and return with its paint job and its passengers unmolested.” Nimueh sighs and stirs her tea with a spoon, putting in a cube of sugar as she goes. “Just tell me, Ygraine. If you wanted to talk to me you must want to say it, and if it's so important to say in person you should have ...”
She stops, and Ygraine makes a soft noise, not quite a sigh. “I should have invited you to watch the broadcast, or told you years ago. I've known forever. It's just taken me a long time to make the decision, and I shouldn't have let you find out through the news.”
“I don't know what to say to you. I really wish I did.” She closes her eyes, taps the fingers of her free hand against the counter a few times. “I'm proud of you. I should say that much first. You've done an amazing thing, and this is going to mean so much to so many people, it means so much to me.”
“What if I came to you? Nimueh—Nim. I want to see you. I can get out somehow, Uther and I will figure something out.”
Nimueh stills her hand, and she asks the question that she isn't sure she wants the answer to, because she thinks she knows what it is and it will only bring up more questions. “Did you do this for me?”
“I did it for me, but if you asked, you must at least be aware that you factored into the decision.” Someone talks in the background on Ygraine's end, and then her voice comes through muffled, like she put her hand over the receiver. A second later, she's back. “Tristan says he'll drive me to you. Uther can leave, make a big show, the press will follow him, and Tristan and I can leave pretty soon after.”
She should say no. The press is going to be hunting for Ygraine, and even if she's thought out how to get to Nimueh's flat she can't have thought out how she's going to get back in the morning. She's barely out, and Nimueh thinks she knows what she's coming here to say, and it should be a bad idea. Nimueh should tell her to stay, tell her they'll talk tomorrow, when her security staff has figured out something safe. But she thinks about Ygraine's hands leaving wrinkles in her skirt on the television, about how much her voice wobbled when she picked up the phone. “Come, then,” she says. “Be careful about it, though. Turn back if it's too bad.”
Ygraine breathes out on the line. “Thank you. I'll be there as soon as I can.”
“Neither can I.” Ygraine doesn't let her pull away when she tries, arms wrapping more firmly around her neck, and Nimueh gives in to it. “Security is loitering in the diner across the street, but none of the press is tailing us and Tristan says he's going to flirt with a reporter or two so they'll concentrate on him.”
“You can have tea, if you want it,” says Nimueh, into Ygraine's shoulder. “I've been periodically reheating the kettle just in case.”
“No, I think … I think we just ought to talk, don't you? No use sitting around and waiting and you seem to think I'm traumatized, or maybe it's just you being upset, but I've been preparing for this for months. It's a relief, but it was planned for. It was … if I'm nervous now, it's about you. About this conversation.”
Nimueh finally does pull back, and Ygraine lets her. “Let's talk about it on the couch.”
Ygraine has told her a hundred times how horrendously ugly her couch is, but she admits it's comfortable, and she slumps a little with relief when Nimueh ushers her over and sits them both down, slinging an afghan Alice knit her over their laps. “I don't know quite where to begin,” Ygraine says after a few moments.
“Well, you could start with the fact that you're asking Uther to impregnate you, that's an interesting bit of information.”
“Ugh, I'd rather not talk about that, actually. At any rate, I don't want to have an heir right yet, not until I've found someone to marry. I think I've caused enough scandal for any royal's life.”
“It's going to be an ongoing scandal, I think.” Nimueh sighs and smooths the afghan on her lap. “You've got to tell me, Ygraine. There isn't anything to do but tell me. Do you want me to ask the right questions? I can.”
“I suppose it's a matter of what question you want me to answer first.”
Nimueh folds her hands and looks at Ygraine, who isn't looking at her. That feels like more of a compliment than it should, because Ygraine was trained never to look away from people she was conversing with, her whole life, and it means she's comfortable with Nimueh, if not with the discussion they need to have. “Why you didn't tell me before, I suppose. Uther knew. Your family knew. Some of your PR teams knew. Anyone else?”
“Annis guessed, I think.” Ygraine's face twists into something that isn't quite a smile. “There's a reason I never drank much around you.” Nimueh doesn't ask again. Ygraine remembers the question. “This is the answer that sort of leads to everything tumbling out at once.”
“If you don't want to tell me tonight, if you've been through enough difficulty already, that's okay. I want an explanation at some point, maybe I'm not entitled to one but I think I deserve one anyway, but if you can't do it tonight, you can—”
“I didn't tell you because if I'd told you, it would have led to me making other confessions too. I … I want to preface this by saying, and I hope you know it already, that you are such a dear friend to me, that I never want you to do anything you don't want to, or even that you aren't sure of.”
“I know it.”
Ygraine finally turns to look at her properly, leaning forward until she can rest a hand on Nimueh's knee, pausing there for a second while they meet eyes and she thinks of how to say what they both already know, or at least suspect. “I didn't tell you,” she finally says, every word carefully chosen, “because I wasn't ready to come out before. Not to you, to everyone.”
“And telling me would necessitate telling everyone because?”
“I suppose I could take the easy way out and say that it would mean so much to you that I would end up convincing myself to come out to the nation before I was ready—and yes, I know you would never pressure me either, but it was a little bit of the reason, knowing how much it would mean to you and how difficult you would find it to keep it from your kids.” She sighs. “Mostly, though, it was because I couldn't tell you something but not everything, and I already said on the television I would never make someone into my dirty secret.”
Nimueh closes her eyes, breathes, opens them again. “You skipped a step or two there.”
Ygraine looks down again. “Yes, I know, but I think you know what I mean anyway.”
The temptation is there to make Ygraine give up dancing around it and just say it, but perhaps Ygraine has been brave enough today, perhaps Nimueh can be kind and say it for her, and if she's wrong she can be corrected. It still takes a moment to clear her throat so she can force the words out. “Telling me you're gay would have necessitated other confessions, you're saying.” Ygraine nods. “Confessions that might lead to us having to be in a relationship in secret—which would have made me unhappy, so for what it's worth I'm as grateful as I am hurt.”
“If you'd said yes.”
“Did you really think I wouldn't? Everyone I know has known I would, for years. I won't … I never let myself love you, because there wasn't ever a chance before today. But I think I could.”
“Well. I do love you. And that's why I couldn't tell you.” Ygraine breathes out hard, like even now it's hard to say. “You don't have to decide anything tonight. Being my girlfriend wouldn't be—won't be—easy. The press will be out for blood, and maybe it's just as bad getting together in the immediate aftermath of this as it would have been to keep you a secret before, but I'm more willing to do it this way.”
When Nimueh doesn't answer right away, Ygraine lifts her hand away from her knee, but Nimueh captures it back. “I'm trying to decide what to say,” she says after a moment. “If you were any normal woman, of course I would say yes, but Ygraine, you're the Crown Princess, and you just came out today. Are you saying this because you have to tell the whole truth at once, or are you saying it because you're actually ready to be with me?”
It's a relief when Ygraine stops before she answers instantly, more of one when she looks away again to think, to make sure. Ygraine has never been given to impulsive decisions, not from the day Nimueh met her, in the common area of their dormitory three weeks into their first year at uni (when Nimueh had made a note to avoid the princess as much as she could, and they both thought that was funny a few years later when Nimueh admitted it). “I don't think,” she finally says, “that I would have been ready to come out before I was ready to be with you. The two have been sort of inextricably linked for the last few years.”
“You say that as though you aren't in much the same boat.”
Nimueh laughs a little, can't help it. “I suppose that's a good point. Can you blame me, though? You're a princess from a fairy tale, only you're real, and you wanted to be friends with me. Could anyone possibly resist?”
“This is going to be hard, Nimueh. This isn't a fairy tale, I don't think fairy tales come with paparazzi and dating the first openly gay royal in quite some time. It's going to be hard, and you're going to end up involved in a lot of things that will make it harder to keep up with your work, to have a private life, to do … well, anything, really.”
Nimueh raises her eyebrows. “You don't think I can advocate for LGBT youth in that public a position? You don't know me very well.” She takes Ygraine's hand and squeezes. “I'm not going to be great for your public image. This goes both ways, you know? It won't be easy on either of us. People would have swallowed your being gay easier if you had fallen for Annis or one of the other posh type.”
“Unfortunately, you're stuck with me.”
“And you're stuck with me.”
Ygraine bites her lip and looks at her. “Are we going to do this, then? Are we going to try? We can try to keep as private as we can until the scandal dies down a little, it doesn't feel like I'm keeping you a secret if we're both doing it for privacy and not out of fear.”
“It's a little out of fear,” says Nimueh, but she knows she's smiling. “I want to try. I want to tell the press to go fuck themselves, because you should be able to date whoever you please without it being a matter of national policy.”
Ygraine laughs, lifting her free hand to cover her mouth. “Oh, God, don't tell the press to go fuck themselves.”
“I wouldn't make your life difficult like that, don't be daft. But you don't have to do everything for the country, or the press. You can do this for you.”
Ygraine moves her hand, reaches out for Nimueh's face, rests it on her cheek, and both of them are silent and still for a moment, frozen where they are. “You aren't a duty. You're just Nimueh. And I would like to kiss you.”
Nimueh kisses her in answer, leaning forward across the small space between them and catching Ygraine's mouth with hers. They're still holding hands, and Ygraine's lips are just as soft and perfect as Nimueh always imagined they would, tasting faintly of the lip gloss she's probably been biting off her lips since whenever she applied it, before she went on that camera and told Catrina Tregor what she's been keeping secret all this time. She's probably kissing too hard, her nose mashed into Ygraine's cheek, but all Ygraine does is sigh into the kiss, her mouth opening against Nimueh's, her kisses not quite clumsy but still a little unsure.
Nimueh pulls her in closer and keeps kissing her until she relaxes, until Nimueh risks leaning back and Ygraine follows her down instead of taking it as a signal to pull away.
They're only interrupted by the sound of Nimueh's phone buzzing against the kitchen counter where she left it, and they pull apart to smile at each other even though Nimueh doesn't get up to check it. She's fairly sure that whoever is contacting her can't be saying anything as important as this, and to prove it she slides the loosened scarf off Ygraine's hair, which falls down around her face in a lovely blonde curtain. Sometimes Nimueh looks at Ygraine and wishes she were a painter.
“Should you get that?” she asks in a rough whisper, a tone Nimueh has never heard from her before.
“No, it's probably only Balinor. I'll text him later.” She wraps her arms more securely around Ygraine's waist. “You're staying the night, aren't you? So you don't have to risk the press getting after you?”
“Yes, that was the plan.” Ygraine kisses her quickly, like she can't help it. “I'm not ready for much more than this tonight, but I'll stay here, on the couch, and I'll prove I can cook omelets in the morning. And in the meantime, we can do this, and maybe watch a movie? Not the news, if I watch the news tonight I'm going to work myself into a state.”
Nimueh smiles. “Sounds wonderful. Though I feel I should state for the record that the only reason I'm entertaining the notion of you sleeping on the couch is just because the image is so incongruous.”
“I don't imagine I'll feel the need to sleep there often, but tonight I'll be pleased to, even if you laugh at me.”
Nimueh kisses her. “I couldn't possibly laugh at you. I love you, you know. You were amazing, earlier. I didn't watch the whole thing, but I saw enough to know how amazing you were, and how brave. I am so lucky you decided you love me.”
Nimueh grins and pulls Ygraine in to kiss her again, ignoring the sound of her phone buzzing once more. Whoever it is can wait.
Her phone is still on the counter, and she browses it. There have been texts from what seem like half her acquaintance: co-workers talking about the early impact on their work and whether Nimueh thinks Ygraine would be willing to come into the center where they work (yes), her mother asking if she knew (her mother won't get an answer), Alice and Gaius being nosy, Tristan saying he wishes them well, even Hunith, one of the volunteers at the center, saying how happy she is about it all. Most of the texts are an increasingly annoyed series from Balinor, though, and she reads them through with a smile on her face, stopping at the most recent, sent at one: If you're going to keep ignoring me, I at least hope you're fucking the princess.
Don't you wish you knew, she texts back.
“Nimueh?” Ygraine asks, voice sleepy and rough. “What are you doing up?”
“Just checking on you,” says Nimueh, because it's at least part of the truth. She was checking on Ygraine, and her phone, and on the street outside, making sure they aren't being staked out by the press. All is quiet, and she's glad for the little grace period they have.
“Still sure?” Ygraine asks then, because she knows Nimueh well enough to know the question needs asking.
“I'm sure,” says Nimueh, and means it. “Go back to sleep. You owe me an omelet in the morning.”
“I love you,” mumbles Ygraine, already more asleep than awake, and Nimueh whispers the same while her breathing evens out again, and grabs her phone and a glass of water to take back to her bedroom.
Her phone buzzes just as she's about to drop off to sleep herself. Congratulations, Balinor has texted, and Nimueh falls asleep smiling.