Title: Queens and Kings and Queens and
Rating/Warnings: PG-13, for language
Summary: Spades-ish AU, Arthur/Alfred. In a small, war-torn kingdom, desperate times force desperate measures, especially when love is involved.
Author’s Notes For vocahetafan13 on the usxuk comm on livejournal's Secret Santa, and the recipient’s lovely prompt, In order to protect the person most precious to him, Arthur/Alfred will bear any weight on his shoulder, no matter how heavy it is. I’ve turned the players and their positions on this Spades-ish stage a little bit onto their heads, but don’t worry -- all will become clear in the end. Thanks bunches to my betas, liete and whymzycal! Still, I touched it last.
Queens and Kings and Queens and
Finally, they’d left Arthur alone. He walked over to one of the gilded mirrors lining the walls of the royal chamber, trying to see if he looked like a king. He didn’t. He looked like a hollow-eyed fool. Even adjusting the crown didn’t help; no matter how he shifted it about on his head, it never looked like it belonged there.
But then, he’d only been King for ten minutes -- perhaps he would grow into it? Though it was more likely the crown would shrink to fit him. War had shredded the -- now his -- little kingdom of Besschia until hardly anything was left. The bombing hadn’t yet reached the capital, but it was only a matter of days.
War or not, however, Besschia needed a king, and whether he’d wanted it or not, Arthur was that king. The title came complete with a lead-heavy burden of duties to learn and perform. Time was of the essence, and Arthur supposed he’d spent enough of it staring into a mirror. He was straightening the collar of his ceremonial robe one last time -- it was still a tad blood-spattered -- when he heard a handle-rattling commotion at the door.
“Don’t think you won’t let me in,” someone was shouting, and even through the heavy wood of the door, the voice sounded achingly familiar. Arthur ached so much that, for a moment, he considered hiding in the closet.
“But sir--!” another voice cried. There was a heavy thump and a crack, as if someone had thrown themselves bodily against the door.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Arthur said, giving up all thoughts of hiding. He strode over and unlocked the door. He had to jump out of the way as it swung inward and spewed forth a red-faced and disheveled Alfred.
“They weren’t gonna let me in to see you. Me!” Alfred bitched, glaring at the royal attendant who stood outside the door, wringing his hands.
“Well, you’re here now,” Arthur said, shutting the door in the attendant’s face. He glanced at Alfred and then glanced away, unable to look him in the eye. Even ruffled and angry, Alfred looked wonderful. He looked welcome. He looked familiar and safe. Dangerous.
“I thought you were kidding when you told me you were sixth in line for the throne,” Alfred said after a moment.
“Yes. Well, you always think everything is a joke,” Arthur said. He risked another glance at Alfred and saw his eyes narrow. He was wearing a very nice, very tailored black suit, which he was ruining by yanking his cravat into a limp circle at his neck.
“So now you’re a king, you’re going to be an even bigger jerk?"
Arthur sighed. On this of all days he was being nasty to Alfred, the one person he could be himself with in his time of direst need. His best friend. Who meant a great many things to Arthur, not that Arthur could or would ever tell him.
“Pardon. I’m -- I’m a little on edge.”
Alfred breathed out a small hah. He flopped into a delicate-looking, white painted chair. “That’s an understatement. You’re about to faint or explode, ain’t you?”
“Aren’t,” Arthur said automatically. Then he grinned, just a little. Alfred had always known him best. They’d been friends since … well, for years. Since their school days at Suits, when they’d been unlikely companions: Arthur, a scion of the loftiest aristocracy, and Alfred, a younger son of lower gentry. Arthur had been pompous and studious and focused, and Alfred had been more of … everything else. Stronger, more athletic, faster, and more gregarious. More impetuous and more likely to make friends, or lose them. Somehow he’d kept Arthur and Arthur kept him back, because Alfred could always jar him out of a funk with some outrageously direct truth.
“When were you gonna tell me?” Alfred asked.
Arthur was silent for a moment. “You know …” he began, and swallowed at the knit-browed concern on Alfred’s face. He fiddled with the ridiculously large chain watch that was part of the king’s ensemble. “You understand … my cousin Jack Yao was king for less than a day. They never even had time to announce his accession in the papers …”
“So are they gonna announce yours?”
“They tell me they have the assassin in custody.”
Alfred blew out a purse-lipped breath that ruffled the fringe of fair hair hanging over his spectacles. “Well, shit,” he said.
“That’s 'Well, shit, Your Majesty,' to you,” Arthur said.
“Ha ha. Well, shit, Your Majesty.”
“That’s more like it. Oh, Alfred.” Arthur raised his hands, palms out, as if imploring Alfred or preparing to hug him. But then he saw that the gesture made the bloodstains on the fur at his wrists more visible. So he lowered his hands to his sides. “They came to my house this morning. This -- it’s only happened this last hour. And now I must be on my way to a meeting with the king’s -- my -- advisors. It’s a matter of the utmost urgency. So I have very little time to spend with you--”
“Let me go with you.”
The thought was tempting, but … Arthur shook his head. “I cannot. It’s to be a war meeting, and there will be state secrets and--”
Alfred waved that off. He stretched out his legs and tugged at the hem of his jacket. “I’m going. You can tell them I’m your personal assistant. Tell them … I don’t care. Tell ‘em I’m the Queen.” His gaze up at Arthur was smug.
“Hah. A quickie wartime marriage?”
“If you’re asking,” Alfred said, and his eyes were so blue behind his spectacles that Arthur had to look away.
“You'll need to smarten yourself up,” he said, and turned away. He gave himself a few moments to breathe, to let his chest loosen so his stomach could stop strangling his heart and drop back down to where it belonged. Then he walked to the door. He didn’t look back, only heard the footsteps as Alfred followed him out.
The upshot of it was that they were royally fucked.
So much had happened in the last few days, strategically and politically, that Arthur’s brain whirled with developments, the moves and counter-moves that classified this game of War. Besschia was surrounded and outnumbered. All the neighboring kingdoms had been affected by the Bastonian King Ivan’s push for power: King Ludwig of Rosen was missing and his Queen Kiku was dead; Ludwig’s cousin Roderich had left his family and joined with King Ivan in his assault against both Rosen and Besschia.
And King Ludwig’s own brother Gilbert, who by all reports had disappeared months ago, was brought in to Arthur’s meeting room. His hands were tied behind his back, and there was a fanatical gleam in his red eyes.
“He killed Hees Majesty,” said Arthur’s Holy Bishop of Romenia. “Perhaps more than one Hees Majesty in the last few days. He says that he has a message to impart, but would not speak of it until Hees current Majesty was present.”
Arthur stared at Gilbert. He was a black knave, and a deadly one. “So you are allied with King Ivan, now?”
“Hah!” Gilbert sneered. “I’m allied with myself. King Ivan paid me. I delivered my own brother Ludwig to him, you know -- alive -- and it made me very rich.”
Such brotherly treachery was not unusual. Most of the royal families were so intertwined that any war pitted family members against each other: the exact opposite of the peace those earlier marriages had sought to attain.
Alfred spoke up from behind Arthur. “Can I just behead him right here? Will anyone care? Do we really wanna hear what he has to say?”
Really, Alfred has no subtlety, Arthur thought. He raised his hand to silence any further opinions from the personal assistants’ peanut gallery. “I think … we are not in a position to do anything of the sort.”
“You are so wise, Majesty,” piped up Sir Feliciano.
“That’s right! Heh heh,” Gilbert said.
Arthur could hear Alfred’s indrawn breath, the one he was taking before spouting more undiplomatic and belligerent nonsense. To forestall it he jabbed a pointed index finger in the air. He felt more than heard as Alfred clamped his mouth shut.
When he was certain there was not to be another outburst, he lowered his finger and looked at Gilbert. “What is your message?”
“It’s easy, really.” Gilbert managed to look relaxed in his chair despite being bound to it. “Go to Bastonia and give yourself up to King Ivan. It’s the same terms he offered my brother: he promises to stop the bombings and rule your tiny little kingdom with a firm but gentle hand. Whether you live or not depends on how well you treat his hand, heh.”
Alfred gasped. “Screw that. That’s a lie, Ivan would never keep him-- Lemme at him--”
“Silence, Alfred!” Arthur shouted and turned to glare. Alfred was standing, and his knuckles were white where he was clenching his hands into fists. He was glaring back. But Alfred had to learn that he was not in charge here. “Master Jones. If you cannot be silent unless called upon, you will have to leave.”
Alfred bit his lip and pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose until their lenses reflected the glare of electric candlelight and Arthur could not read his eyes. Then Alfred’s lips curled up on one side.
“Pardon me, Sire. But I’ll be back,” he said, and with a few long-legged strides, he was out the door.
Arthur released a breath. He waved vaguely at Gilbert. “Get this joker out of my sight. And watch out for … well, be cautious.”
“Sire,” Bishop Romenia murmured. He gestured the guards to untie the laughing Gilbert from the chair and lead him out the door. Arthur clasped his fingers before him on the table and looked around at his advisors.
“Is there no chance to call on King Francis for help?”
A very pale, tall, and bespectacled man -- Arthur didn’t remember his name -- answered. “No. Spies tell us he’s barricaded in his diamond mines until this is all over. He is waiting to see who emerges victorious.”
“I see,” Arthur said.
Over the course of the next hour or so, more options for saving their kingdom were raised, discussed, and discarded. With each solution that was shot down -- no matter how reluctantly -- Arthur’s heart sank, even as his resolve grew. He’d been brought up to know his duty. He was the only one who could save his people if not his kingdom, and he knew he had the fortitude and fearlessness to do it. And after all, he’d never really been meant to be a king, had he?
So eventually it was decided, and the meeting was adjourned, and Alfred never returned.
For the second time that day, Arthur, alone, stared into the mirror in the king’s -- his -- private chambers. He stared until he could see the threads of steel in his heart reflected in his own eyes, for that steel was what would keep him, or at least his people, alive. His personal fate was unimportant. What he would accomplish was not.
“Don’t think I won’t kick your ass,” he heard a voice say from outside the door, and his heart managed to fly and plummet at the same time.
He stared at himself a second or two more, just to make sure that he was stone, he was Decision personified, and then he unlocked the door and stepped away from it.
A few moments later Alfred rushed in again, looking nearly as flushed as he had a few hours earlier. “I made it!” he cried.
“You made it,” Arthur said. He kept his expression solid and blank, and tried to decide if the gleam in Alfred’s eyes was mania or desperation or relief. Perhaps it was all three.
“So you’re going?”
Alfred’s lips curled up again, edging his expression into territory that was definitely manic. “So you’re just going to surrender yourself and get killed for it?”
Arthur hmphed. “No, I’m not going to surrender myself and get killed, idiot. I will read the situation -- something you’ve always been terrible at -- and then I will do my duty. Whatever that entails.” He crossed his arms over his chest to hide his heart, to fortify it.
Alfred’s smile softened into a look of relief. They knew each other, and what each other never said, too well: Arthur missed him already. But then Alfred took one step closer and Arthur fought the urge to step back. He held his ground, for he had already been over this in his head: he was Determination. And it was unfortunate, but friendship, caring for an individual, touching them or not touching them, and sharing one’s burdens with them -- these were luxuries in which he could no longer indulge.
“Can I go with you?” Alfred asked, his voice low.
Arthur could feel the sigh of breath on his lips when Alfred spoke. “Well, then. I guess this is goodbye. For now.”
Arthur’s determination was for shit, because he wanted to hug Alfred, to kiss him, to have just one chance, just five minutes, to show Alfred all the things he’d ever thought about him. He lifted his hand, not stone but mere putty, for he was going to feel the warmth of Alfred’s face against his palm and his lips and--
There were several cracking thumps against the door, as if someone were swinging a club against it. Arthur wanted to break their skull with their own weapon, if that were so.
“Go away!” he shouted.
A thin, plaintive voice answered through the door. “But, Your Majesty, we are to escort you to the courtyard to meet the honor guard-- “
Arthur sighed. “I can find my own damned way. They want me alive. Nobody will hurt me here.”
“But Your Majesty--!“
“Leave me be! Am I the fucking king or not?” Arthur could hear a strident note entering his shout, one he’d never heard in his own voice before. He must have inherited that along with the crown.
Whatever the case, the person responded to the voice. “Sire,” it said. Arthur could hear footsteps retreating down the stone floors of the hall.
Alfred flushed pink, or perhaps he’d already been pink and Arthur had only half-noticed in his own haze of yearning, and Alfred’s new and obvious desperation was only making it worse. When Alfred spoke, his voice held a shrillness that Arthur had never heard before. It was a day for firsts, so very many of them …
“You know, they don’t even care about you like I-- Your own guards won’t even know you, except for the damned crown! They’ll take you to die, and they couldn’t even pick you out of a crowd right now.”
“That’s what the crown is for,” Arthur whispered.
That time, Arthur was the one who took the final step closer. Their first kiss was wonderful and beautiful and painful. Alfred’s lips were soft -- they’d always been beautiful -- and the low moan in the back of his throat matched Arthur’s, a happy release of years of longing. It was all the more painful for being something that was soon to be snatched away, never to be given again. Arthur wrapped his arms around Alfred’s neck and tried not to shake, though it wouldn’t have mattered; he could feel Alfred’s fingers trembling as they caressed his back.
Alfred’s tongue in his mouth was bitter like tears. His head swam when Alfred pulled away, all too soon.
No, it wasn’t swimming, it was floating, spinning down to blackness like his thoughts were a whirlpool. Alfred smiled a little.
“No, you-- They’ll get--” Arthur managed to say before his tongue turned to rubber and his knees gave out. Alfred caught him in his arms and held him up like an unwilling dance partner.
“Ha ha! Don’t worry about Gilbert Weillschmidt. I wrung his neck with my own hands.”
Alfred dragged Arthur to the closet. Arthur had been right: it would make a lovely hiding place. Alfred laid him gently on the floor and yanked something very official-looking off a hanger and bunched it up under Arthur’s head.
“And don’t worry about King Ivan. I’ll take care of him, too.”
Arthur’s hands wouldn’t work, couldn’t stop Alfred from removing his crown and placing it atop his own head.
“How’s it look?”
If Arthur had been able to speak, he would have told Alfred to take off the crown this instant because it looked too right on him, and the crown was the signature on a death sentence. He would have begged Alfred to stop because losing his own life would have been better than losing Alfred.
Alfred patted Arthur’s cheek and then began to walk backwards out the door. Just before he shut it, he winked. Or at least Arthur thought he must have.
“Don’t come after me. When I get back we’ll discuss which one of us is gonna be the Queen here. Ha ha!”
Of course I’m going to come after you, idiot, Arthur thought but didn’t say, because the world was swirling to sparkly gray, and then it was gone.
Thank you so much for reading! Comments, concrit, all are so very appreciated.
End Notes: Bêche is one French for “spade,” though not necessarily a card suit. I just liked how it sounded when changed to “Besschia.”
* Rosen is German/Swiss for “heart.”
* Bastoni is a word for “clubs” (don’t know what language)