His first impression of the Crown Prince of Tortall is that he is the type of boy that his mother would call handsome. He does not look like his cousin at all, doesn’t share Gary’s brown hair or eyes that would indicate their relation, but has bright blue eyes and long dark hair, boyishly cut.
“Jon, these are my friends. Raoul, Francis and Alex.” Gary smiles, indicating in turn. The Prince surveys them all closely, eyes lingering, and he feels a jolt in his stomach when the Prince looks at him. This boy would be his King.
“I don’t understand this!” Jonathan cries, throwing his pen across the room. Alex watches the small ink droplets splatter across the stone of the walls, and sighs, lounged across Jonathan’s bed.
“I figured you didn’t, seeing as you came and begged me for help.” He says dryly, tugging the ball of crumpled parchment out of Jon’s hand and leaving it on the desk. He offers Jon his pen and unscrews the inkbottle, leaving the lid ajar, and looks closely at him.
“Are you going to be patient and pay attention now?” He asks, smirking as Jon scowls. “It’s easy if you just understand how it works.” Jonathan sighs petulantly, and Alex rolls his eyes.
“You’re being a spoilt brat, Jonathan. When you’re King you can hire people to do this for you, but the masters will still punish you now if you don’t do it.”
“But I have you to do it for me now as well as later, so why should I bother?” Jon smirks, and Alex gets up, gathering his books and walking to the door.
“Alex, wait.” He pauses, and Jon walks towards him, his hand closing warmly about his wrist. “Please, Alex. I can’t do this without you.” He sighs as Jon walks him to the desk, and sits, opening his etiquette book as Jonathan picks up his pen and begins scribbling equations, a small smile on his face. They work silently until Jon sighs loudly, and Alex looks at him.
“I’m fine.” He waves a hand. “Keep learning about Copper Isles delicacies.”
“Liar.” He looks down at the problem, taking the pen and pointing at a place on the parchment. “You have the wrong equation. And so you’ve substituted the wrong values here, here and here. “He holds the pen out and Jonathan takes it, their fingers brushing.
“So like this?”Jon asks, and Alex studies the scribbled problem.
“Exactly. The rest of the problems follow that pattern, so you should be fine. The bell will go soon, and I’ve still got a few more pages to go. I’ll look over it at breakfast for you.”
“Thanks, Alex.” Jon smiles warmly, grabbing his hand and squeezing it lightly. “I’ll owe you one.”
“Night, Jon.” He smiles back, and leaves, his hand tingling.
The room is stuffy, but he is not the only one flushed with embarrassment and frustration. His left hand is curled slightly, lightly around the tight muscle of Jon’s bicep, his right hand clasped tightly, sweaty in Jon’s hand, Jon’s other hand resting barely on his waist. The Prince has grown into his full height, still shorter than Gary and Raoul but towering over himself and Alan, and he can fully appreciate how tall Jon is, standing with him like this. The lute begins to play softly, and the etiquette master begins to clap out a beat. The room fills with soft mutters and exclamations of pain, and he looks at his feet, following Jon’s movements and the one –two – three – four beat that echoes through the room. It’s easy enough to follow, keeping careful time with Jon’s feet movement, and he relaxes enough to grin at the Prince. He can hear Alan’s cursing several couples away, dancing awkwardly with Raoul, and he chuckles softly, stopping when Jonathan’s foot crushes his.
“Sorry.” Jonathan mutters, and he grins awkwardly. Alex smirks back, and the music shuts off. The etiquette master begins moving along couples, scolding their footwork and movements. The music begins again, and the etiquette master sighs.
“Keep your heads up, pages! Ladies do not want you to admire their shoes!”
Jonathan chuckles lightly, and Alex looked up, focusing his attention on Jonathan’s eyes. They sparkle with laughter, mesmerising, and he loses track of his footwork.
“You’re supposed to let me lead.” Jonathan says, joking disapproval in his tone, and Alex cannot help but scoff, glancing down at his feet before regaining the beat. It doesn’t work.
“You have to let me lead.” Jonathan says impatiently, wincing as their feet collide.
“It’s harder than it looks.” He replies quietly. Jonathan stiffens slightly, before brushing it off with a smile.
“I do need more practice then you, you know.” Jonathan says with a laugh.
“I know. I don’t envy you the practice in the least. The Prince has to dance with all the eligible ladies, whereas we’re lucky enough to dance with only the pretty ones.”He smirks back, and Jonathan laughs softly.
“Alex!” He tears his gaze away from Jonathan’s, feeling disappointed. Alan and Raoul are standing apart, scowling, and Alan strides over.
“Jon, I can’t dance with this insufferable oaf any longer. You’ll swap with me, won’t you? Surely Alex is finding it just as hard to dance with you.”
“I feel like I’ll trip over Alan any minute and at this rate, my feet will be dough by the time Alan has finished pounding them to pieces.” Raoul says, staring in annoyance at them.
“We weren’t having any trouble at all, were we?” Jon asks, grinning. Alex drops his hands and grins back.
“Must be just you two that have such trouble.” He offers a hand to Alan, bowing, who takes it with a grateful sigh, and as Alan steps on his foot he can’t help but look wistfully towards Jon.
“Jon’s got it.” Raoul coughs out, spluttering, and pushes away the tea that Gary forces upon him. “Jon’s got it.”
He can’t help but think of how hoarse Raoul’s voice is, the first thought, how shaken they both look, the shadows underneath both their red-rimmed eyes and he knows he can’t look too different himself, isn’t expecting Francis to appear and persuade and coerce Raoul into drinking some tea or brandy for medicinal purposes. But then it sinks in, word by word, and he watches from a distance as Gary and Raoul’s faces fall in recognition and his fingers form sweaty fists clenched into the bed sheets, and he closes his eyes and breathes out a curse.
“Pray.” Raoul says roughly, and Gary pulls out a tankard.
Alex closes his eyes again and squeezes his fists tightly, swallowing. Jon couldn’t die. Francis wasn’t supposed to die, but Jon could not die. He had so much more to do. He couldn’t. He couldn’t. He was the Prince. He couldn’t die if they were all surviving. He wasn’t just Jon, he was so much more. He was hope and a Prince and he couldn’t die if he was still alive and hadn’t done anything to stop it. Couldn’t do anything to stop it.
“I would’ve come with you.” He leans lazily against the door, watching as Jon folds tunics messily and stuffing them into his saddlebags.
“If that’s your way of saying Jon, I’m glad you came back from being foolish safely, I’m glad to be back.” He grins, his teeth flashing against his suntanned skin.
“Of all the foolish things –“
“I’ve heard, funnily enough. From Uncle Gareth, Myles, Ali Mukhtab, Lord Martin twice by myself and once with Alan and more times than I remember with company in unsubtle hints, an ear boxing from Gary and that might just be it."
“Why Alan?” Alex asks bluntly.
“Alan was the only one completely insane enough to come with me and not knock me out the second I stepped into the Black City.”
“That is most likely true.”
“Probably would’ve been over a lot quicker if I’d had you and your sword. But then we all would be dead if Alan didn’t have the Gift. We wouldn’t have come back without it.”
“We owe Alan a lot then.” He says quietly.
“I think I always will.”Jonathan replies, and Alex walks over and embraces him tightly.
“I’m glad you’re back safely.” He whispers, and turns and leaves.
He has the first Ordeal. Roger has kept him hopping at loose ends for the past three weeks, doing menial jobs and errands that don’t make sense, but he knows this is just Roger’s way of distracting him, and it helps in a small way, because he is not worried about his own Ordeal, he is deathly scared for Jonathan.
He is not scared for himself until everyone hugs him after lunch, and Jonathan stays behind, shifting awkwardly from foot to foot. He closes the door and Jonathan wraps his arms around him tightly, and his own arms have just closed around him when Jonathan pulls away, and Jonathan walks to the door, before turning and walking back to him.
“Come back safely.” He says, before turning and closing the door behind him, the lock clicking into place. He closes his eyes and sits down, running his hair through his hands, and he realizes that he may not return and if he does, the Chamber could still easily break him.
Never good enough, always being second best.
He tosses and turns the night before Jonathan is due to sit his Ordeal, Jonathan’s voice from his own Ordeal echoing through his head.
The same images flick through his head, and he awakens covered in sweat, the final words still embedded in his head.
Someone is always better than you, Alexander of Tirragen. Someone will always be better than you, and no matter how hard you try, you will never be the best. You will always be beaten.
He pulls off his nightshirt and grabs a fresh one from his trunk, splashing his face with water from the washbasin and opening the door. He walks quickly and undisturbed through the corridors, until he hammers softly at Jonathan’s door. He hears rummaging around and Jonathan appears at the door, sleepy confusion on his face.
He grabs Jonathan’s shoulders and pulls him closer, planting a hard kiss on his lips, before turning and walking away.
“Alex? Alex!” Jonathan hisses after him, but he doesn’t turn back.
“Girls are just infuriating!” Alan cries, pacing angrily around the room. Alex lounges in a chair and watches, amused, as Alan rants.
“You know, Gary and Raoul fought a duel over her glove. Her glove. It’s as though they think she has the touch of the Goddess or something but the entire Court in enamoured with her. But her glove. It’s as bad as giving a handkerchief as a favour. Gary and Raoul are best friends, they’re so close, and I can’t understand how a girl could tear them apart like this.”
Alan flops into a chair and looks questioningly at him, and he can’t help but think that Gary and Raoul were not always best friends, that he had been closer to Gary than Raoul, that Raoul was closest to Francis before Alan came along and ruined their dynamics and before Francis had died.
“One day, young Alan, you’ll see. You’ll be just the same after one of the Court ladies, panting in their wake, taking delight in fanning them and providing them with the slightest bit of cooler air.” He smirks as Alan stands and furiously begins pacing again.
“Never. Delia keeps asking for me, it’s like she knows that I don’t dance to her tune and Jon forces me to do it like it’s practice and I need to keep giving her a good impression. I can’t picture doing that for any girl, or anyone. And I think Jon’s the worst, he was sketching her the other day, and forcing me to listen to his poetry, and did you know that he couldn’t think of a word that will rhyme, with Delia? I suggested liar, and he made me repolish his armour because he wanted it to be sparkling, probably so Delia could see her reflection. Girls are just infuriating.”
“Princes are too.” He mutters softly, and Alan turns from the other side of the room.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing. I heard your archery wasn’t up to scratch the other day. Did you want to go practice? It will help your frustration.”
He doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he can’t help it. He can see the fear creeping into Alan’s eyes, and he just wants him away, wants him to stop and stop being so close to Jon and Gary and Raoul and he can’t remember how many nights he’s gone to any of their rooms and they’ve all been empty and he knows that he’s busy with Roger but they seem to be together on their own more, and it hurts that he’s been replaced.
And it’s too easy to take it out on Alan until the door crashes open and he hears Alan’s yelp of pain and he realises what he’s done.
He is bitter when he visits Roger, bitter and dwelling too much on a single Midwinter kiss and wishing that there wasn’t this awkwardness between himself and Jon and that there wasn’t a look here and there that makes him crave for it to happen again.
He mentions he feels like an outsider, with them, now, and mentions offhand how good Alan has become.
Roger’s eyes narrow and he asks if Alex is still better than Alan.
It irks Alex to know that he is no longer sure of where he stands. Only that he wants things to change.
If only slightly.
If only for another single Midwinter kiss.