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Sacrifice

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Watching David Shepherd waltz through life was an exercise in masochism.

Only an idiot could fail to see the hand of God over the damned kid; and Jack, whose life was rather blatantly bereft of God's blessing, envied him something awful.

For instance: after Jack's failed coup d'État, Shepherd had fled the palace before Silas could imprison him. The king had put a price on his head, but for some reason, no word of this reached the village of Nob before David visited it and there obtained food, money, and weapons from the sheriff's department under the guise of being on a mission for the newly reinstated King Silas.

And: on the other hand, news of David's fall from favor quickly reached Gath, where he was welcomed by the government with open arms, deemed a defector and a potentially deadly weapon for use against Silas.

And: a year later, when another peace treaty between the two nations was drafted in secret, Silas demanded Shepherd's imprisonment and extradition from Gath. Luckily, David had sneaked into Gilboa to visit his family at the time, and the many thorough searches for him in Gath territory were in vain.

And: weeks after that, when Gilboa-hating Gath soldiers staged an ambush against Silas, Shepherd had come out of hiding to save the king yet again. Much to the king's annoyance, David returned to Shiloh a national hero.

And: everyone now loved David more than ever—everyone—and no matter what political ploys Silas and Rose invented, Shepherd always came out of each one stronger and unscathed, his reputation remaining untarnished. The only impropriety David had ever committed was fucking Michelle, and even that was revoltingly vanilla. Silas's grip on the nation was slipping, and David's rising star shone more brightly than ever.


And: like the rest of the country, Jack found himself succumbing—ever so slightly and very much unwillingly—to the irresistible charisma surrounding David Shepherd.

**

At first, Jack tried to tell himself that paying close attention to David was nothing more than a politically sound move—which it was. Silas and Rose were clearly terrified of the apparently undefeatable Captain Shepherd, who effortlessly eclipsed them without even realizing it.

The only leverage the Benjamins had against David was Michelle; he'd openly professed his love for her time and again, and their illegitimate son, Absalom, was a well-kept secret to which only Rose, Michelle, David, and Jack were privy. Rose had tried to use her closeness with Absalom to shame David several times, with little success; the child barely knew his father, who had spent most of the toddler's life in exile or prison.

Silas often spoke of marrying Michelle to other men, particularly Paul Ash; but he loved her too deeply to condemn her to a lifetime of unhappiness. If David's girlfriend had been anyone but the king's favorite daughter, she would have been murdered years ago to crush his spirit—but in this, too, was David fortunate.

If Jack made an effort, he could see what Michelle saw in David: he was rather handsome, in his own uptight, too-good-to-be-true way. Jack didn't like them naïve and self-righteous, but his taste had never coincided much with Michelle's.

Jack had seen them together once, and the image had stayed with him long after the inadvertent voyeurism. David touched Michelle with adoration, as if she were pure and delicate; Jack had known his sister for long enough to be certain that this was not the case. Jack still remembered the look David's face had held as he'd pressed his lips to her shoulder, moving with rather impractical gentleness. Michelle seemed to accept it—the romantic in her probably reveled in Shepherd's old-fashioned sexism—but Jack was of the firm opinion that no relationship that boring could be enjoyable to either party for long. David was a nice guy, sure, but he was not gentle; if anything, he was raw and honest to the point of rudeness.

Jack tried his damnedest not to dwell on his sister's hypothetical bedroom frustrations. After all, he was in no position to criticize anyone's relationship: his empty-headed trophy fiancée was on the pill against her knowledge, and he only took her to bed when he tired of her nagging.

Sex with Lucinda gave him no pleasure whatsoever. When Jack stopped to think of whom he was fucking and why, he lost what little excitement he'd built up through fantasizing with eyes firmly shut, failing to even bring himself off, let alone arouse Lucinda in any way. She thought stress had rendered him impotent, and he was fine with her thinking that. Jack used to dream that she would one day leave him; but the king, vengeful as ever, convinced her that all Jack needed was love and support to get him through this rough patch, and she dutifully obeyed.

The only person in court with an actually interesting life was Shepherd. Admiring his unfailing talent for escaping Silas's traps became something of a hobby for Jack—who, granted, had little else to occupy his time. He had not counted on becoming somewhat sympathetic to the gullible hick; but he trusted this vague commiseration wouldn't affect him in any way.

However, politically-minded Gilboans were subtly but very decidedly dividing themselves into supporters of Silas and supporters of David. The king had few enthusiasts, and Jack hadn't counted himself among those for years now; joining Shepherd's camp was the logical choice.

Jack, of course, was heir apparent in name only; he was no longer an eligible contestant for the crown. As time went by, he slowly realized that not only was kingship not the path for him—he could see how it had changed his father, and he dreaded what it would do to David someday—but it was also one Jack himself no longer wanted.

**

The terms of Jack's subtle imprisonment dictated that, excluding official parties and mandatory galas, he was allowed one evening out of the palace per month. He was released under Thomasina's hawklike supervision, with strict instructions not to engage in improper behavior. In time, he learned to stop feeling sorry for himself and enjoy the blissful one-night holiday from his damned fiancée.

That month, he chose a bar in downtown Shiloh, where he could remain incognito in the half-light and drink all night. Jack was about to order a refill when a voice spoke up behind him, "Hello, Jonathan."

All of Gilboa knew not to refer to Jack by his given name; he wheeled around to face the idiot, and was startled to see a scrawny, sandy-haired boy who couldn't be older than sixteen.

"I don't know how you were allowed in here, kid, but I honestly don't care. Leave me alone, will you?"

"Not yet," the boy said soberly, taking a seat next to him.

It was only then that Jack met his gaze: the boy's eyes were bottomless, almost vacant, and powerful. He'd known Reverend Samuels for too long to mistake that look.

"A prophet," he spat, not bothering to hide his disgust. The kid hadn't even learned to control his gift yet, by the looks of it. "Aren't you too young to be here anyway? What, did God smite the bouncer so he wouldn't card you?"

The boy predictably ignored Jack's teasing. "The Lord has a message for you."

The prince snorted, remembering all too well the last time God had bothered to give him a slap on the wrist through Samuels. "Funny how He only does that to mock me when I'm knee-deep in shit, isn't it? Thanks, but I only get one day off per month, and I have zero interest in getting told off by a god—who clearly has it in for me, by the way—through a kid whose balls haven't even dropped yet."

"My name is Nathan," said the prophet, unperturbed. "And yes, I'm fifteen; but the Lord sees neither age, nor face—all that matters is that one's heart be pure."

"Mine sure isn't," Jack retorted, wishing with all his heart that he lived in Gath, Austeria, or any other country where God didn't have the last word in all State and private matters. Jack couldn't in good conscience ignore a prophet, and they both knew it.

"Jonathan Benjamin," Nathan all but roared, in that same thunderous voice Samuels used when he got really pissed, "I am here on the Lord God's orders, and you will listen."

Jack swallowed dryly, intimidated. It was pointless to play games when talking to a prophet of the Lord, so Jack said honestly, "I just don't see why He'd bother with me, that's all. I'm not cut out to be one of His men; my father reminds me of that at least once a day." He thought of the righteous anger in Samuels's voice: You are not the one he wants. Certainly, if Jack hadn't been sure at the time whom God wanted, he had no such doubts now. "I'm no saint, you know, and I'm definitely not David Shepherd."

"You may not be David, and you may have betrayed Silas, Jonathan, but the king betrayed the Lord; you are more in His favor than your father ever will be again. The Lord has a plan for you; all He needs is for you to stop struggling against it and open your eyes. There is nothing in David's destiny you should envy."

Jack could imagine the hardships Shepherd would face: how easily the damned Boy Scout would sail past them; and how impossible they would be to anyone lacking David's anointment.

"No, I don't suppose there is," he admitted.

Nathan's gaze did not waver as he added, "Or hers."

It took Jack's alcohol-addled brain a second to process that. His mind flashed back to David's lips on Michelle's, and he understood. Once Silas was out of the picture, David and Michelle would be widely recognized as a perfect couple, and the kingdom's love for her would only add to their adoration of David. He did not envy the pristine live she would have to lead as queen, or the boredom of spending one's entire life serving God's chosen king. Jack himself would be obsolete by then, of course, entirely removed from power.

It was ironic that his little sister should be the only Benjamin allowed to remain in a position of power, sure, but at what price? No, he did not envy Michelle, either.

He nodded. "Or hers, yes."

"You will soon have to make a choice, Jonathan, and that will be your sacrifice; it may be difficult to accept it at first, but if you make the right decision, you will never regret it."

"Wow, that's not vague at all," said Jack, smirking. He was treading dangerous territory, and right now, he didn't care one bit.

"The Lord has a purpose for you," Nathan repeated. "He is pleased that you are learning to accept David Shepherd."

"Ah." Jack gave this some thought, and tried not to find the prospect displeasing. He'd started to think of David's future kingship as an inevitability; that helped him come to terms with it. "Shepherd really will be king, then?"

Nathan smiled. "You already know the answer to that," he said, and disappeared into the crowd behind them.

Intrigued, Jack put his glass of whisky on the table and repeatedly re-examined Nathan's words. He could make neither head nor tail of what God was asking of him, but this was the first time he'd heard someone talk of a divine purpose for his life.

Well, if nothing else, it was interesting to have a new enigmatic prophet in town.

**

A few days later, news came to Shiloh that Gath was developing a high-tech weapon of unparalleled power in the city of Endor. Silas was concerned, fearing that Gilboa's old enemy was taking advantage of their truce to prepare yet another surprise attack against the kingdom's borders. The king needed further intelligence, and he needed it quickly; his informants in Gath knew nothing but rumors. He was alone with Jack when he received the news, and asked his son for ideas.

Jack thought of Nathan's words, and of David's quasi-mythical invulnerability. Despite Silas' tyrannical rule, Jack felt no animosity toward Gilboa herself, and did not wish to see her fall to Gath.

"You could send Shepherd," he suggested, knowing Silas would think this stemmed only from Jack's ill-will toward David.

"Nonsense," the king promptly replied, as expected. "If he succeeds, the people will dote on him even more than they already do, if that's even possible."

Jack thought quickly. "Then you don't tell anyone of the assignment until it is finished. But if he fails, father—even if he somehow returns—and there's war, you can place the blame for any disadvantage related to this new weapon, no matter what it is, on him."

The prospect was certainly tempting; Jack saw his father weigh the two possible outcomes. The king's resentment of his son in no way outweighed his selfish desire to see Shepherd dead. In Jack, for better or for worse, Silas had a son to cherish, to worry over, and to reprimand; in David, Silas saw nothing other than a better version of himself from thirty years ago.

Much to his agony, Silas could not force David to make the same mistakes he had. The boy had done no wrong by God or man so far, and his only crime was following the Lord's will to the letter. Silas envied his youth and judgment, and nothing more, for in all else they had been equally blessed. Jack, on the other hand, would never suffer the weight of God's choosing, and was therefore much less of a threat.

"Well, he is extraordinarily lucky," Silas conceded, and Jack almost snorted. Luck had nothing to do with it, and they both knew it; but God's blatant favoritism was never discussed in the king's presence.

At last he nodded. "Thank you, Jack."

It was the first time the king had accepted a suggestion of Jack's since the coup. But there was no one present to witness it, and the idea consisted of sending David off to near-certain death; there was no merit in this small victory, and Jack felt almost guilty for being proud of it.

**

David returned three weeks later, with the weapon's specs and fabrication instructions in hand. Silas, mercurial as ever, was delighted to have the information, but decided to send David to jail—the king supposedly feared David had a secret alliance with Gath, a lie so transparent even the most loyal of Silas's followers weren't fooled.

A clearly suicidal council member pointed out to the king that David should remain free in order to give army scientists better information on the Endor facility. While he and Silas argued the matter, Jack slipped out of the room to talk to David.

"They're debating whether to arrest you for saving Gilboa for the umpteenth time," Jack announced, with surprisingly little bitterness.

David shook his head, incredulous but not shocked. "Well, it's been a few months since I was last sent to jail. I was starting to miss it."

"You should have a name plate on your cell door or something," Jack said. This was the friendliest conversation the two of them had had in a long time; he'd forgotten that Shepherd, stick-in-the-mud though he was, could joke on occasion. The prince was weary after hearing Silas's lengthy diatribe on the subject of Shepherd's hypothetical treason—this amicable conversation with David was unexpectedly refreshing.

David sighed and sat on the bench by the door, burying his face in his hands. "I wish he didn't hate me so much," he confessed, voice muffled and desperate. Heavens, he still hadn't learned not to be open and honest with everyone; if it weren't for God's protection, David would've been eaten alive at court years ago. "I wish the Lord didn't want me to stay here when I'm so clearly despised by everyone."

"Being king is a difficult job," Jack said, shrugging. "He sees you as a threat, and he will continue to do so for the rest of his life. You will never be entirely welcome in Shiloh while my father rules."

David offered him a half-grin. "I wasn't much more welcome here when you were king, you know."

It was a bold move; no one referred directly to Jack's coup these days, since Silas had had all records of it erased. But David probably didn't even realize it—like an idiotic child, he said whatever came to mind. Amused, the prince arched an eyebrow and said, "If I remembered correctly, you were scheduled for execution when I took over and saved your life."

"That's true. Thank you."

David pointedly did not mention how many times he'd saved Jack's life, but the silence that ensued spoke for itself.

"I don't want to be king," Jack said, changing the subject. The unspoken "anymore" would've been more truthful; but Jack was not David Shepherd. Nevertheless, he confessed, for the first time since his failed takeover, "I don't think I'd make a very good one anyway."

"True," David agreed. When he realized his faux pas, he was flustered, and quickly amended, "No—damn, I'm sorry! I mean, you—look, I'm sure you could be an excellent king if you really wanted to. I just kind of, well, I doubt you ever will." He paused and went through his last sentence, double-checking it for more unintentional insults. "Want to, I mean." he added.

Jack couldn't help a sardonic smile. "Well, if you're ever king, we can all look forward to you stuttering like that in all your public speeches," he mocked. "It should be fun to watch."

David seemed troubled, as if the joke had hit a little too close to home for comfort.

The prince was intrigued, and decided to provoke him further. "What, do you honestly think everyone doesn't expect you to be king of Gilboa someday?" he asked, keeping his voice calm and neutral.

The casualness of his tone and posture seemed to disturb Shepherd even more, and Jack stored this curious reaction away for later examination.

Unfortunately, a council member opened the door at that moment and ordered security to arrest Shepherd, who followed them without resistance.

Jack made a mental note to question David more thoroughly at the earliest possible convenience.

**

Shepherd was released from prison about a month later, when Gath launched an offensive from Port Prosperity and the army needed a morale boost to go to war.

For once, David's legendary good fortune seemed to abandon him; he was heavily injured in battle, but insisted on leading the defense himself nonetheless. Reports from the field were dismal, and not in the least optimistic about Gilboa's chances to withstand the attack; Silas' counselors were at a loss.

To top it off, his son grew deathly ill suddenly; Michelle took the boy to every specialist in Gilboa, to no avail. She wrote to David, who, torn between his duty to a child he hardly knew and his country, had to choose an unsatisfactory middle ground: he promised to Michelle he would return to Shiloh as quickly as possible.

Touched by his sister's misery, Jack took Nathan to Michelle's apartment in the city, where the child lay delirious, burning with an inexplicable fever.

"David's son is sick," he said accusingly in hushed tones, pointing to Absalom's bedroom. "And he's losing the battle. What the hell? Has God forsaken him? What's he done wrong?"

The prophet hung his head. "The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away," he said soberly.

"But David's done nothing wrong. Nothing!" Jack growled. "He's David fucking Shepherd, for heaven's sake, what could God be punishing him for?"

"He has a choice to make, Jonathan—that's all I know. The Lord's relationship with David is his own; I'm not privy to their dealings."

Jack growled. "And why punish Gilboa? What's she to do with David's hypothetical shortcomings?"

"Gilboa is David's in the eyes of the Lord; she will suffer for him while his heart is torn. Once he has made peace with his God, He will spare her."

Jack had learned to recognize a lost battle when he saw one. He threw a defeated glance at the bedroom, and asked softly, "Will you pray for the boy, at least?"

"Of course," Nathan said, following the prince into the bedroom.

He did not say that prayers were useless, but Jack guessed as much on his own.

**

Absalom died before David could return from battle, and Michelle was crushed. She isolated herself from the family, accepting only Rose's company.

Jack had never seen anyone suffer so deeply; his sister became but a shell of her former lively self, shunning all comfort. Queen Rose said Michelle would need a long time to grieve alone, and refused to have Shepherd brought from Port Prosperity early. Her earlier distaste for David grew exponentially—he had abandoned her only daughter in her time of need. Jack knew his mother well enough to see that Rose would never bow her head to David, God's choice notwithstanding.

David was informed of the child's death in the front, and made no immediate attempt to return to Shiloh. Gilboa won the war two days later; only then did he come back to the capital. He was welcomed into the palace by Jack, who was now the only household member who did not harbor a deep resentment of David.

"So what does this mean?" Jack asked Nathan over the phone that night. "The kid died and we won the war. Did he made the right choice or didn't he?"

"He did."

"So why did the kid die? Was it an either-or thing? Child or country?"

Nathan sighed. "This child's birth was not God's will. David could not be a good king if Absalom were to live."

"That doesn't even make sense," Jack snapped, frustrated. "He was a two-year-old boy!"

"God's will is unfathomable, Jonathan," the prophet replied. "You should not question it."

Jack thought of his sister's wretchedness, and of the guilt David would certainly carry for the rest of his life. God, he decided, was a cruel bastard.

He hung up on Nathan, who did not call back.

**

A few weeks later, David came clean to Michelle about the choice God had offered him: he could either abandon the army to see Absalom, in which case the country would be overrun, or stay in Port Prosperity and succeed in saving Gilboa.

She could not rationally begrudge his choice—he had not known Absalom would die, and she, too, loved Gilboa—but neither could she look him in the eye after their son's death. She blamed God more than David, really—and though he shared her pain, he could not abide by her blasphemy. They argued about this time and again, desperate to blame someone for their senseless loss; it was ugly and hopeless. At first, they were both too immersed in sorrow to see that their relationship would not survive the strain, but Rose was quick to interfere and point that out to Michelle.

When Michelle told Jack about this, she had already decided to leave the city, trying her best to distance herself from memories of Absalom. It was easier to flee than to try to understand David's choice, which she would never be able to accept. Jack and Rose accompanied her to the airport; afterwards, as per her instructions, Jack told Shepherd of her departure.

He saw David cry for the first time that day.

**

Months passed. Jack had news of his sister from time to time, but she did not return; David, on the other hand, grew more serious and immersed himself in State affairs. He slowly started to learn (or, rather, to try to learn) the ropes of political manipulation, but it was not his forte. Jack could see that he was trying too hard, and felt truly sorry for him. The man hadn't even been allowed time to grieve; his slave driver of a God had probably ordered him to tend to Gilboa without a second thought as to Shepherd's evident misery.

Silas could not fathom a reason for Michelle's leaving, and no one offered him an explanation, but he was pleased to see that she and Shepherd were no longer together. He mocked David for it on occasion, humiliating him in public for being unable to keep the only good thing he'd had in his life. David never reacted to these taunts; his jawline tensed and his lips pressed tightly together, but he didn't say a word. Jack reflected that, if nothing else, the ordeal had taught Shepherd forbearance.

"I've sacrificed everything I am for this country, because I thought that was what He wanted from me," Jack said to Nathan one day. "But apparently He just takes and takes, with no regard as to who deserves what. Is He not supposed to be fair? What kind of justice is this?"

How had this happened? Since when was he prone to argue with the Lord to defend David?

"This will pass, Jonathan," the prophet repeated, as he had many times in the last few months. "God needs David broken so He can mold him to His will."

"Michelle was the only person David cared about in the world," he said, and immediately remembered the strangely affectionate Shepherd family. Okay, so maybe that was an exaggeration, but his point was still valid. "It's not fair."

"Michelle was never destined to be his wife—not if he is to be the king God wants him to be. David always knew he would have to choose his path someday," Nathan explained, and suddenly caught himself. "I'm not sure I was supposed to tell you that." He closed his eyes and uttered a silent prayer; when he opened them a minute later, he looked sad and chastised. "Shit," he muttered.

Were prophets allowed to swear? Jack was suddenly overcome with pity for Nathan—who was, prophet aside, a mere fifteen-year-old boy. He had not had the opportunity to enjoy Shiloh's nightlife, to pass out drunk time and again, to experiment with all kinds of drugs and generally fuck up his life. Being a prophet probably meant he felt God's presence in his mind at all times; Jack couldn't imagine a more miserable calling.

"What's your mother's name?" Jack asked out of nowhere, curious.

Nathan seemed to guess his trail of thought easily enough; he rolled his eyes and grinned. "Don't feel sorry for me, Jack. I chose this for myself."

"But how can you choose it when you haven't even experienced the other side of things? Living in sin can be fun, you know."

Nathan shrugged. "That's the tragedy of all choices, isn't it? We can never know what would've happened otherwise. That applies to me as much as it does to anyone else." He looked Jack straight in the eye. "I think David knew exactly what he was doing when he stayed back with the army. I think he knew his son would die, and that he would lose Michelle. I'm not saying he wanted these things to happen, but he knew the price he would have to pay to save his people, and he made his choice with a heavy heart. Michelle will be happier without him, I can assure you that; and David will be a better king for it."

The prophet glanced upwards apologetically—maybe God wasn't too keen on him disclosing this much about David, but it was too late now.

With these revelations in mind, Jack suddenly didn't know whether to consider Shepherd a monster or a remarkably selfless man. He was probably both, much like Silas had once been.

"Every day, David faces choices that can doom or save his kingdom, and he knows it. He needs a friend, Jonathan; and I think there's no one more qualified than you to be there for him."

"Me?" Jack snorted. "Shepherd needs someone good in his life, Nathan. Which is to say: not the biggest jackass in all of Gilboa."

Nathan shook his head. "No, I'm pretty sure you're exactly what he needs."

Jack's phone rang, calling him for a council meeting he had forgotten all about; swearing, he said goodbye to Nathan and rushed to the palace.

**

Halfway through the meeting, Silas asked Jack for his opinion on the closing of an oil drill north of Shiloh. Jack sighed inwardly, knowing that his father would take the course of action he opposed, as usual; he made a case for shutting down the drill, and the king took great pleasure in calling him out on his idiocy.

Jack often wondered how many council members noticed these dynamics—if they agreed with Silas's assessment of his intelligence, or lack thereof. Most of them seemed to despise Jack for his betrayal of the king; others probably pitied him, thinking him an easily manipulated half-wit.

And then there was David, of course—who was, incidentally, looking at him with a rather peculiar expression.

No. David was looking at him, really looking, with the sort of fierce stare Jack disciplined himself to ignore these days—the sort he'd never imagined he'd receive from David, of all people.

Jack was baffled. How long had this been going on? Why had he never seen it before? Jack thought back on everything Nathan had said earlier that same day—could this possibly be what he'd meant? God would never sanction such a desire, would he? To consider it was already a dreadful sin; Silas had said as much more times than Jack could remember.

But then again, since when did God deny David anything he wanted? And if God agreed, who was Jack to refuse?

Jack's curiosity had always been stronger than his self-discipline. He turned his gaze to David, who (of course) did not flinch or look away. His eyes were honest in their intensity, and Jack couldn't mistake David's intentions if he tried.

A better man would have thought of Michelle right then—she might return someday; and maybe David was just looking for a rebound—but selflessness had never been among Jack's many qualities. His brain was already in overdrive: David writhing under him, moaning; David helpless, begging, adoring. Yes. A smile tugged at the corner of Jack's lips; he allowed himself to fantasize freely for the first time in years, and it was almost too easy to let his mind run away with him.

Surprisingly, David was the first to break eye contact. He reached for a glass of water and drank it, trying to turn his attention back to Silas. Jack watched his Adam's apple, his jawline, his lips, not caring if his gaze betrayed lust. He wanted David, and he would have him; and if this was indeed a sin, well, that only made the whole affair even better.

Shepherd had probably never taken a wrong step in his life. He was God's pristine little boy, without a single blemish on his record. More than anything, Jack wanted to be his flaw, his weakness, the one person who caused him to stray from the correct path; and not even the prince was sure whether any genuine affection lay behind this sudden yearning.

The Lord might ignore Jack and think him unworthy of kingship, but Jack would have the future king on his bed instead—and the irony almost made everything he'd gone through to get here worth it.

**

Jack followed David into the hallway after the meeting, determined not to let him get away.

"David!" he called out, and, ever the Boy Scout, Shepherd froze in his tracks and waited for the prince to reach him.

"Hey, Jack."

David was embarrassed now, shuffling his weight from foot to foot and having difficulty keeping his gaze away from the floor—excellent. Jack had no wish to relinquish the upper hand here.

"Come to my office. We should talk."

"Er." David winced. "I really—"

Jack touched Shepherd's arm with careful premeditation. It immediately tensed, and Jack's smile betrayed his smugness. "No, I insist."

**

Jack's office hadn't been used for actual State business since his brief stint as almost-king. There were guards at the door, of course, ostensibly for security; in reality, they, like all the prince's polite jailers, were under orders not to allow Jack opportunity to conspire against Silas again.

They did not hesitate to allow David to enter, however; a private meeting between him and Jack would intrigue the king, but not worry him.

As usual, David would not sit until invited; Jack issued no such invitation.

"We're both outcasts," the prince began as soon as he closed the door behind them. "I'm not sure which of us my father less desires to see in his palace."

This opening surprised Shepherd, who was clearly not expecting the conversation to be about power struggles. Jack marveled once more at how, despite spending years in court, David had learned little about politics.

"I know you probably despise me for betraying my father."

"No," David said, after a moment's reluctance. "I understand why you did it."

"I was not a mere puppet in my uncle's conspiracy," Jack clarified, because for some reason he thought it important for Shepherd to know. Jack was evil; he had chosen to go against his father every step of the way. Associating with the prince would taint David irreparably—Jack was only giving him fair warning. "I wanted my father dead; I had no wish to see him continue ruling this country."

David frowned at the bluntness of Jack's words, but he did not move away, and Jack continued, "He is a bad king."

"God chose him," David said, and it sounded like a formula so oft-repeated that it had lost all meaning.

"He was a good king once, but he's lost track of everything—you know it too, don't deny it. He is no longer the man God chose; and God's favor has moved away from him."

David's eyes widened slightly in alarm, realizing where the conversation might be going, and Jack quickly pressed on, "There are many things about court you don't know—things no one will ever teach you. I can help; heaven knows I have little else to do these days."

At least the years had taught David some suspicion. "Why?" he asked, and Jack was slightly relieved.

"I don't mean to conspire," Jack said, raising his hands defensively, "but if anyone can stand up to my father these days, it's you—even if you choose not to, surely you know you can."

David nodded reluctantly, and Jack grinned.

"If I ever had God's favor and the people's love, I have long since lost them; but unlike my father, I have chosen not to resent you for it."

He took a step closer to David, all but pinning him against the door.

"We should work together," he said, hand outstretched in the narrow space between them.

David, bless his heart, actually hesitated. He swallowed with difficulty, gaze flickering between the prince's hand and eyes. David's tongue involuntarily darted out to lick his lips; Jack would've laughed out loud at the revealing motion if he weren't so focused on staring David down and drawing him in—but Shepherd, damn him, was attractive enough to be a distraction from the purpose at hand.

"I don't know what that would entail," said David, as if his words were the result of some consideration and not a clumsy attempt to stall.

Jack deliberately let his eyes wander to David's lips before replying, "That's up to you."

Unexpectedly, David's soft gaze turned to steel, and his posture straightened. "I'm no fool, Jack," he said, and the prince nearly groaned in frustration. He had been too forward—it had been too much, too soon, and now David was intimidated.

"I've been used by your father too many times to not be wary of the House of Benjamin's plots," David continued stiffly, and Jack began a mental litany of all the swearwords he'd ever known. "I won't let you manipulate me as you once did—if you wish something of me, you should be straightforward about your motives."

For a moment, Jack was confused, thinking David had somehow misunderstood his intentions. But then, in a horrible flash of clarity, he understood that Shepherd would never do a thing unless Jack asked—no, begged him to betray Michelle, admitted that he wanted it as badly as David himself clearly did, and acknowledged that they were both willing to risk hell to have this.

Shit, the boy actually had learned a thing or two in court.

Jack was not ready for so complete a humiliation. He shrugged, turned around and walked to the window. "I only wanted to help you," he said coolly, without facing Shepherd. "But if you think you're better off on your own, by all means go on." Jack couldn't help a smirk as he added, "I would never want to mislead you."

David had the gall to look disappointed. It made sense: they'd both gambled here, and lost.

"Okay, then," he said, neither accepting nor denying the offer. He fled the office without another word.

The prince looked out the window, exasperated. The clear blue sky seemed to mock him. "I'm sorry," he said under his breath. "I didn't really mean to steal Your golden boy away from You. Well, no, I did. But I should've figured You wouldn't let me touch him."

Right then, a bird flew past the window, singing, and Jack's eyes widened.

He suddenly remembered something Nathan had said a long time ago—something about a choice Jack would have to make, wasn't it, right before he made an apparently random comment about David?

Oh, hell no.


**

There were definite advantages to having a prophet of the Lord on speed dial.

Nathan picked up before the first ring. "Hello, Jack," he said.

"Pride," Jack said at once. "That's what He wants me to sacrifice, isn't it? Apparently staging a disastrous coup against my father and living in house arrest for years wasn't enough humiliation for Him! He now wants me on my fucking knees for David fucking Shepherd."

He didn't know if the crude double entendre was lost on Nathan, but he didn't care. The boy gave no indication one way or the other, anyway; his voice was firm when he replied, "Yes."

Jack ran his hand through his hair, at a loss for what to say. It was freaking bizarre to hear God Himself ordering him to engage in lewd acts of sodomy.

"Are you sure I didn't misunderstand or something? Because really—"

"The Lord knows your heart, Jack. He knows your strengths and your weaknesses, and He only wants to strip off your arrogance in order to make you a better man. Swallow your pride and do what He demands you do."

Great. Now God was using innuendo, too.

Nathan laughed, and Jack had the creepy feeling the prophet could hear his every thought, or maybe it was only God who could; whatever, metaphysical crap had never been his forte.

"I hope you give this matter some thought. Pride was your father's downfall," Nathan said, now serious. "Take care that it does not become your worst failing as well."

"You're saying—you're actually saying that this is a test of my, my strength of character or something? I can't believe this."

"Yes."

Jack snorted. "God has a wicked sense of humor."

"The Lord loves you, Jonathan," Nathan said gently, and Jack remembered something Samuels had told him years ago. God is not your father, the Reverend had said. And more importantly, your father is not God. Not everything he says and does will be right by the Lord, and he does not always listen when the Lord speaks.

So Silas really had been wrong to suppress Jack's gay relationships all these years; even God thought so. In the end, the prince's destiny was apparently limited to going on all fours for the future king.

Jack couldn't deny that that now seemed a more entertaining prospect than ruling Gilboa would ever be.

"All right," he agreed. "I'll do my best to obey."

**

He ran out of the office, asked the guards for the direction in which David had gone, and followed, hoping there was still time to catch Shepherd before he left the palace.

Everything made sense now: all these months Nathan had subtly been shoving him in Shepherd's direction, with remarkable success. Jack had begrudgingly learned to admire the man; perhaps he even felt some affection for David now, though he still thought of him on occasion as a holier-than-thou hick with a God complex.

Jack found David standing in the palace garden and froze; he had given no thought as to what he would do next. Hearing his approach, David turned to look at him, puzzled.

"Hello," Jack said, and David arched his eyebrows.

"Hello," he echoed, waiting for an explanation for the prince's sudden arrival.

Jack took a deep breath. "I want to help you. I think that is my place—for now, at least—and I've never been very good at obeying divine commands, but I'll try this one for now. If you're okay with that, I mean."

David seemed even more confused.

Nathan had said God wanted to see Jack humiliated; no less than that would suffice, apparently. Blatant honesty and complete mortification were in order—and Jack had come too far to back down now.

"Look, I'm not my sister, and I'm completely fucked up," Jack admitted, speaking as quickly as he could to get it over with. "But I kind of really want you, and I could be completely out of line, but I don't think you're opposed to it. I think you're an idiot most of the time, and quite frankly, your taste in clothes and your table manners are appalling—but we could learn some things from each other. Apparently God thinks it's a good idea for me to offer, or so my prophet friend tells me—I don't know why on Earth He's so damn nosy, by the way, but I guess being close to you means accepting that the Lord interferes in every little thing in your life, and you let Him. So yes, this is me offering. If you want this, I'm game." Jack grimaced and crossed his arms. "And I really hope God is pleased, because this is the single most humiliating moment in my life."

David burst out laughing—Jack wasn't sure he'd seen him laugh since Michelle's departure—and the entire situation became far too uncomfortable for Jack's liking.

After checking that no one was eavesdropping, David took a deep breath and said, "You asked me once if I thought I would ever be king of Gilboa." The non sequitur befuddled Jack, who stared at him in disbelief. "Look, I know, I'm not the best conversationalist in the kingdom—you've mentioned it a few times. Bear with me for a second."


The man really was pretty terrible at giving speeches; Jack had no idea how long it would be before David came around to his point. "And you couldn't by any chance give me a direct reply before you start rambling about politics?"


"Jack, you know I have nothing against the idea," David said impatiently, running his fingers through his hair. "We were both there in your office a few minutes ago, right? I do have a point here, hang on."

Jack grinned, relieved. "All right."

"A few years ago, the first time I came to the palace, I saw butterflies."

"Butterflies?" Jack asked, frowning. "You mean like—"

"A crown, yes—your father saw them, too, and I think he's hated me since." David frowned at the ground, lost in thought. "I was terrified; I thought there had to be some kind of mistake. The Lord didn't speak to me directly until many months later, at which point he said I would one day have to choose between having a family with Michelle and ruling the kingdom."

Jack nodded; he was aware of all this already, but David didn't know that.

"In the Battle of Port Prosperity, I had to choose to come back for Absalom or to save the country—He told me I couldn't have both. I couldn't place my son's life over the entire kingdom's, so I stayed. I knew I would lose Michelle, because He'd told me I would never be a great king with her by my side. I was stubborn at first, but in the end I accepted it." David was silent for a few seconds, and then he lifted his gaze to meet Jack's, resolute and powerful. "But He said something else then, too. He said He would give me someone else—someone better, who would give me a lot more trouble than Michelle, but who would be a far better fit than she. I didn't understand it then, but I think I do now."

The fact that God might have said something to Shepherd about him had never occurred to Jack; it was a sobering thought. Jack hadn't assumed this hypothetical thing of theirs, whatever it became, would be anything more than temporary—but apparently David disagreed. It really shouldn't have come as a surprise to Jack; David never did anything half-assed, after all.

In the end, though, Jack was pretty sure he trusted David's judgment, his stupid luck, and his stupid, nosy God.

"Okay," he said with a smile, trying his damnedest not to panic.

Without further ado, David stepped forward and kissed him, no longer caring if passersby saw them.

It was not particularly mind-blowing, but Jack was surprised by how real it felt. He hadn't shared a kiss he actually meant in years—not since Joseph, and even then desperation had always weighed too heavily in his mind at all times. But there was hope here, and the tangible prospect of something good and lasting.

Honestly, it was slightly terrifying.

"We'll be fine," David said against his lips, sensing Jack's tension.

Jack thought of Nathan, of David's faith and God's promises; he couldn't help relaxing. His sacrifices paled in comparison to David's, but they had both given up much to be there; right now, they both deserved this. Jack was completely certain that their lives were in Someone's attentive hands—and if God didn't much care for Jack himself, he doted on David enough to protect them both.

"I know," he said, and he meant it.

**

Epilogue

**

On the opposite side of the garden, the guards Klotz and Boyden watched Jack and David's interaction from afar. They didn't bother hiding their surprise when the two men suddenly started kissing—and averted their eyes after a few minutes, when it became clear that both Shepherd and Jack had forgotten they were out in the open.

"We should probably warn the king," mused Klotz, who had no intention of doing so.

Boyden risked another glance at the pair, and flushed. "I'm pretty sure the king wouldn't much enjoy catching Captain Shepherd with his pants down," he said. "We should probably just make sure no one wanders to this side of the garden."

Klotz nodded. They started patrolling in earnest, and used their radios to check that the king, the queen, and Princess Lucinda were all occupied within the palace walls.

"Prince Jack and Captain Shepherd, huh?" Boyden breathed out, still a bit stunned. "It's a weird match. I didn't even know they were friends!"

"Stranger things have happened," replied Klotz, who was a man of the world and had heard rumors about Jack Benjamin's reputation.

Boyden faced him, raising an eyebrow in disbelief. "Really? Stranger than Captain Shepherd happily taking one up the ass in the palace garden for all and sundry to watch? Can you imagine the look on King Silas's face if he saw them?"

The prospect horrified both men so thoroughly that they fell silent, and patrolled the garden with renewed dedication.

Klotz and Boyden had no reason to worry; in this, as in all things, David's proverbial luck kept him and Jack safe, hiding them from prying eyes until they chose to be discovered.

(The look on Silas's face when he found out was indeed very memorable.)