David sees them for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon.
It's his sacred twenty-minute break, the one time of the day that no one bothers him—the palace staff reverently refer to it as God's Time, and David doesn't correct them. It really is easier to hear the still, small voice of God in his heart without bustling politicians and meddlesome advisers everywhere. But God waits for no man, and when He does talk, David knows he had better ignore the entire world and listen.
So this break is, in fact, for David himself. He goes up to the palace terrace and collects his thoughts, tries to make sense out of the day's dilemmas. The light breeze brings the sounds and smells of the city, and his gaze wanders the streets following cars and people; he lets Shiloh wash over him.
As he closes his eyes, he hears grunts coming from somewhere close, and tracks down their source in a reflex: two men are having sex by a pool on a nearby terrace.
David is no innocent, nor is he a prude. He was in the army, after all, and he's walked in on his fair share of mutual combat jacks. He's never had a problem with homosexuality, but Silas's vicious diatribes on the subject are hard to forget, so he almost looks away with a grimace. But something about the loud abandon of these two men that grabs his attention; he watches.
It's mesmerising—gorgeous, even, the synchronicity of their bodies, and how they grab at each other in spasms, hands desperate, wet and slippery. David barely remembers that feeling. His first love has long since become platonic companionship; he's married to his best friend, and has neither the time nor the inclination to find someone else. To make matters worse, he's the king, so few would refuse him; but the very idea of abusing his position sickens him.
One of the men has his face buried in the other's throat. David should look away. He envies them, almost wants to be them, to lose himself in another person and not feel torn by the exhausting love he has for the entire country. It is a parent's love, overprotective and unwavering, consuming him whole. David, the king, shines more than ever; David, the man, hasn't had a chance to surface in years.
But now, suddenly, he wants, and the strength of long-suppressed human urges surprises him.
He doesn't even know what it is that he wants. It's enough that he does, enough to remember that that there is blood rushing through his veins, that beneath the crown there is more than an idea, more than malleable clay in God's hands.
One of the men kneels up and meets David's gaze across the distance; for a moment, David can't breathe, heart racing with a sudden rush of adrenaline. The man doesn't look away, and doesn't pause, frowning with almost angry determination. His movements grow more forceful and erratic; his partner lets out broken, half-sobbed moans, barely keeping a hold on the pool rail behind him.
Throughout the whole thing, the man's eyes don't stray from David once. For a moment, David could've sworn there was a strangely familiar, knowing smirk lurking behind that beard—but David can’t place him at all.
David is hard, painfully so, and there's an unspoken challenge in the man's eyes.
But no. No. David is king; he has to be dignified, he can't indulge in public indecency, for heaven's sake. He has a duty to his people, to his God, to himself—he can't do this. This is wrong.
He tears his gaze away from the couple and leaves the terrace, shame and embarrassment burning deep inside him. He doesn't understand what just happened, and doesn't want to; it won't happen again.
David is distracted all afternoon. He doesn't recognise himself, doesn't know how to deal with the overwhelming confusion in his mind. He hasn't been truly confused in a long, long time. David has always had a strong inner sense of right and wrong—steering him in the best directions, helping him dodge traps and temptations, keeping him from makes the worst mistakes. In time, as his responsibilities grew, he came to realise that this is God’s voice inside him; he depends on it, and it never fails to point the way when change comes along.
But now the ground's shifted beneath his feet, now he’s truly tempted for once—and God is silent.
Maybe Silas was right: maybe same-sex attraction is a sin that God cannot tolerate in His chosen leaders.
He has dinner with Michelle that night, and it takes her maybe half a second to see through him.
She falls silent halfway through a rant on the latest changes in research funding applications and frowns. "What's wrong, David?"
"Nothing," he answers, too quickly, and stuffs bread into his mouth to cover it up. She just looks at him. He swallows; she waits. "I don't know," he says, shoulders slumping. "I don't know."
She drops her napkin on the table, walks to him and starts rubbing his neck affectionately. "Talk to me," she says, stroking his hair. He leans his head on her stomach and takes a deep breath. He misses being in love with her at times—misses the sense of completeness that went along with their easy physical affection, how simple and wonderful it felt to wrap his arms around her. But more than anything, he's glad they still have this. He would've lost his mind without Michelle by his side.
He thinks of the two men by the pool and wonders if it can ever be possible to find a new passionate relationship. He remembers the rush he'd felt watching them, and feels the heat again now; his eyes drift shut.
The silence in his heart is deafening.
Michelle's hand on his hair stills. "David?"
He has no idea how to put this into words. It's not a possibility he's so much as considered before, but if anyone can help him wade through this, it's Michelle, so he tries. "If I... Do you... Have you ever... I."
She takes a step back and searches his face. She smiles. "Oh, okay, this is a sex thing."
He doesn't know what to say.
"Use your words, David," she prompts gently.
"I had...impure thoughts today," he says stiffly, and Michelle's eyebrows fly up. "And God won't speak, and I remember the things Silas said about Jack." To Jack, even. The words stir up awful old memories, and a chill of pure terror run down David’s spine. He doesn't know if this is a sin God can forgive.
More than anyone, David knows that one wrong step is all it takes for a chosen one to lose God's favour. Someone somewhere could be anointing the next king right now.
He doesn't want to turn his back on his calling and his kingdom for this—if abstinence is what God wants of him, he'll give up on any and all future relationships. There's nothing he won't sacrifice for the sake of Gilboa—at this point, there's little he hasn't already sacrificed.
"I think that was just Silas talking," Michelle says kindly, reaching for his hand. "Do you really think God would judge anyone for that?"
"I don't know," David chokes. He wants go back to this morning, when he knew who he was; when being king of Gilboa was all he knew, all he ever could be. He can't do this.
She tilts his chin up. "Have you asked? Or are you too scared to listen?" His terror must show in his eyes, because her voice softens as she cups his face and says, "David—He loves you. Just ask."
David shakes his head.
Michelle sighs. "Jack called today," she says, having long since learned when to pick her battles with David. "He's finally come back to Shiloh."
David glances up at her. For some reason, his stomach lurches with the surprise. Jack's been travelling around the world for over four years now, under the guise of...David doesn't even remember. Their contact with Jack has been reduced to infrequent phone calls, dry Secret Service reports and the occasional tabloid candid.
"I told him we'll have an official welcome back reception this weekend," she continues. "But he said he's attending court tomorrow."
They were never the best of friends, but David is surprised to realise that he kind of misses the man.
"Great," he says, smiling, and he means it.
David and Michelle are sharing a laugh at their previous audience's chaotic resolution when the announcer calls out, "His Grace the Duke of Geva, Jonathan Benjamin," and after a slight pause, adds, "and Nathan Levine."
Michelle rises at once and rushes forward to hug her brother, but David is frozen in place. Jack has changed, he notices, dumbfounded. He's tanner now, and somewhat bulkier; his hair's grown, and he's sporting a well-trimmed beard.
David would not recognise him if he weren't told this is Jack—had not, as a matter of fact, recognised him just the previous day, when he'd watched Jack and this Nathan fellow going at it by the pool.
But judging by the mirth in Jack's eyes, he had recognised David well enough—and knowing him, he won't hesitate to use it against David at the worst possible moment.
David feels himself flush. This is quite easily the most mortifying moment of his adult life.
"Welcome home, Jack," he says gruffly, trying to sound more composed than he feels.
Jack's smile morphs into a full-blown grin. He definitely knows. "David! It feels like we haven't seen each other in ages."
David flinches. "You...look different."
"And you haven't changed at all," Jack counters, amused by David’s discomfort. He gives a smooth, quick bow to accompany the apparent flattery—it's probably the least deferential bow David has ever seen.
David doesn't know what to say; he can barely look Jack in the eye right now. He throws Michelle a desperate look, and she comes to his rescue.
"Who's your friend, Jack?" Michelle asks. The peculiar emphasis she puts on "friend" makes it clear that she's guessed what David already knows about the nature of Jack and Nathan's relationship.
"This is Nathan," Jack says, motioning for the man to step forward. Jack's hand rests lightly on his back—just enough to make a statement. "I met him in a little town just a couple of hours from Port Prosperity." David lights up at the mention of his homeland. "He's a prophet, actually."
David shoots up out of the chair to examine Nathan up close. He sure looks the part: he's got the same faraway look in his eyes that Samuels did, the same irresistible aura of authority.
"God told him to come to you," Jack continues, "and of course I had to do everything in my power to help him get here."
Nathan holds out his hand. The moment David shakes it, his every hair stands on end, and his stomach lurches. Yes, Nathan is most definitely a real prophet. Joy blooms inside David, and he breaks out into a grin.
A prophet, after all this time—a gay prophet, at that! God's sign could not have been clearer. An enormous weight lifts off of David's shoulders, and he almost hugs Nathan out of sheer relief.
"It's an honour to have you in Shiloh, Nathan," he says sincerely.
Nathan smiles, warm and honest. "It's an honour to meet God's beloved."
Michelle is smiling too. "Your timing could not have been better, Jack," she says, arm still entwined in her brother's. "David could use your advice."
Jack arches a politely incredulous eyebrow.
Only people who know Michelle very well can see the deviousness behind her angelic grin. "He's been thinking of taking up chess." A muscle in Jack's jaw twitches. David feels a fresh wave of panic coming at him—he has no idea what Michelle's planning, but he can tell he won't like it one bit. "And knowing how proficient you are, I'm sure you two will have a lot to talk about!"
"Of course," Jack says with a stiff bow.
"Oh, you two should stay for dinner!" Michelle announces, and walks away to instruct a nearby staff member to make the necessary adjustments.
Jack and David share a look.
"I have no idea what she's up to," David warns him in an undertone.
Jack rolls his eyes, but thankfully holds back any comments about David's persistent inability to function in court, king or no.
Well, David sure hasn't missed Jack's condescension—at all.
The next day, David makes up an excuse that sounds silly even to his own ears to go up to the terrace in the afternoon.
He's not sure why. He's obviously not going to watch Jack and Nathan—it would be even more inappropriate now that he knows who they are. Now that he's spent an entire evening dining with them, even, seeing them exchange easy touches and real smiles.
He's glad that Jack's happy; he’s visibly far more relaxed and less angry after spending years away. He hasn't lost the sarcasm or the smugness in his voice, and, well, he probably still thinks he's better than everyone else, but at least he's not as miserable about it.
It shouldn't be a surprise to see Jack alone in the pool this time, but David's still startled. He averts his eyes at once: Jack is swimming naked. He has every right to be, of course; the mansion is his by birthright, and only his prolonged absence had prevented David from making the connection yesterday.
Well, Jack must've interpreted David's presence as a challenge—and, naturally, he refuses to back down first. David has no such compunctions. He's about to turn around to leave the terrace when his personal cell phone rings. All of ten people have this number, and it never rings unless it's an emergency; he picks up at once, not sparing the caller ID a glance.
"I'm flattered, really," says Jack's mocking voice, and David grimaces. Of course. "By all means, keep spying on me from across the street."
"I didn't mean to—"
"Oh, please." He laughs. "Never took you for the type, though."
David isn't sure what "type" he's referring to, but he's still mortified. "Jack, I'm so sorry. I won't—"
"I said it's fine."
David waits for the other shoe to drop. There's always another shoe, with Jack.
"Well, Nathan doesn't know—unless you want him to?" He can tell Jack's grinning, and he doesn't know if that's an honest offer or smug mockery—probably both. "I could get him up here right now, if that's more to your taste." Oh yes, definitely both.
David swallows. He's wildly out of his depth. "No."
"Mm, that's good." He takes a deep breath, and David's eyes involuntarily seek him out. Jack's lounging by the pool now, skin glistening with water droplets, stretching lazily under the sun. David watches, mouth going dry and slack; the slow, sensuous movement seems to take forever, and David realises Jack's putting on a show. The thought is dizzying. "I'm not sure that kind of thing's exactly conducive to a good working relationship," Jack says, and David can't even remember what they were discussing.
"Yeah," he croaks.
Jack laughs softly. "Tell your assistant to pencil in a chess lesson for tonight."
David blinks. "Chess?" he asks, but Jack's already hung up and returned to the pool.
He pockets his phone and watches Jack doing laps for several minutes before snapping out of it and returning to the day's affairs. He clears his schedule for the night, just in case.
David has no idea how he got to this point, but he now knows he has a serious problem on his hands.
David isn't sure what he's expecting, but Jack entering his quarters unannounced, chessboard in hand, is most definitely not it.
"I know nothing about chess, Jack," he says. "I know how the pieces move, and that's about it."
"Michelle says you need advice from me," Jack retorts. "Rumour has it honesty's the new black in King David's court—my particular skill set is not in high demand here. So chess it is."
There's a dare in his voice. If David confesses chess is not what he wants, Jack won't mind at all—as long as he asks.
David is silent.
"After Michelle's announcement, every other visiting dignitary will be challenging you to a match," Jack continues after a beat, unperturbed, putting the board on the coffee table. "I won't stand by and let you to bring shame to Gilboa."
"I'll let them all win," David says with a grin. "They'll love me."
"They'll think you're treating them like idiots." Jack rolls his eyes. "They'll hate you."
He sets the pieces, and gestures for David to sit. He complies, bewildered.
Over the next few minutes, David finds out that Jack's a strangely intense chess player, and it never takes him more than a handful of moves to defeat David—whose attention isn't even on the board, anyhow. After three losses in a row, he starts actually looking at the board before playing instead of just moving whichever piece happens to catch his eye. Jack hums his approval.
"You need to have a strategy," Jack says, toppling David's king for the fourth time. "Pay attention to the big picture. Think ahead."
"You have no subtlety," he says, the seventh time. "Stop telegraphing your moves."
By the tenth defeat, David's growing restless, and Jack, sourer. "I'm not cut out for this," David says. "My mind doesn't work the right way."
"With God whispering moves in your ear all the time, you're always blind," Jack says savagely. "You think God will care about the little people, the little things? Social issues, budget negotiations, legislation minutiae? God is thunder and war and grand gestures, David—not commodity prices, not environment reform. The only reason your kingdom hasn't fallen to pieces is that you have Michelle by your side to think of all these things. You're king; it's high time you learn to work out the full picture for yourself."
"But this is chess," David points out, "not politics."
"Everything is politics," Jack says, and stands up. "The sooner you understand that, the sooner you learn to play the game."
He leaves without another word. David has never been more confused.
Nathan becomes a fixture in court, neatly slotting into the space Samuels left vacant—David hadn't realised it was there, but he finds Nathan's presence reassuring. They talk of home, at times, of growing up in bustling Port Prosperity. They miss their families, the food, even the jokes; Shiloh is the melting pot of Gilboa, a new city with inhabitants from all over the country, and no regional identity to speak of, and it feels oppressively artificial at times.
Nathan is refreshingly human, for a prophet—Samuels had always seemed far too above such human trivialities. David often forgets about having seen Nathan with Jack that day on the terrace; his focus was, and remains, all on Jack. He doesn't think of Nathan as the man that shares Jack's bed every night, barely even sees them together these days—that's probably deliberate on Jack's part, somehow.
And as for Jack—well. Jack's still swimming almost every afternoon, and David still goes up to watch whenever he can. He doesn't mind being on display for David, and he always makes sure that he's alone on his terrace in the afternoon. But they don't talk about it, not even during their biweekly chess meetings—which, oddly enough, really are all about chess. They talk about politics, too, and David suspects that Jack's passing on lessons on power that he learned from Silas.
They're not exactly friends, though, and most days David isn't even sure Jack likes him at all; everything they do is dance carefully around each other, testing the waters, watching, wondering.
Their eyes meet from afar in the afternoon, or across the table in the evening, in moments of carelessness; David feels himself shiver, flush, and there's no mistaking the intent behind Jack's heated gaze. It lingers on David's arms, at times, or on his chest—at times, even on his bed, or on the nearest flat surface. That always derails David completely, makes him lose his grasp on the game or discussion at hand. Jack smirks, but doesn't say anything, doesn't touch David.
It's a waiting game, and David's not embarrassed to admit that he's losing. He wants, every day more and more desperately, but still not enough to find the words to ask for it. He tries looking elsewhere, but the king of Gilboa can't exactly prowl the capital's gay scene, so he ends up downloading porn. It's a complete failure: he's so out of practice that he manages to get a virus, and the palace IT chief gives him a very, very knowing look.
David's indecision gnaws at him, but it feels safer this way—most days, he barely even feels guilty about spending time with Nathan while thinking of Jack. David tries to tell himself that he's not doing anything wrong. It's better this way.
The standstill doesn't last long.
David and Michelle are sitting together at a charity event when he sees them: Jack and Nathan are tangled together in a corner, doing nothing more than kissing, but it's still a punch in the gut. David can't help but stare, track the casual way that Nathan's hand roams Jack's arms, resting on his neck like it belongs there. David hasn't seen them together in months—he hadn't realised it would feel this dreadful.
He has no way to justify the anger that overwhelms him. He doesn't begrudge Nathan, but he does envy him, and it feels like Jack's openly flaunting what David can't have just to drive him mad. Of course Jack knows what he's doing; Jack always knows how much he's affecting David these days.
David tries to look away, but can't. The kisses appear but lazy prelude, and images flood his mind—some remembered, some fantasised, some brand new. Nathan can do anything he wants with Jack, and David—David is nothing more than a coward.
Suddenly, Nathan leans away from Jack and looks at David curiously, tilting his head to the side. David tries to look neutral and disinterested, and probably fails; Jack looks from one to the other, rolls his eyes, and walks away, Nathan not far behind.
Following David's gaze, Michelle nudges him and asks gently, "Is it Jack or Nathan?"
David takes a deep breath. He's never put it in words, not once—not even when he takes himself in hand at night, alone, mind running wild. But this is Michelle; he can't lie to her.
"Jack," he says, finally, and it’s a confession, sharp hurt and relief all at once.
Michelle's hand wraps around his and squeezes. "Oh, David," she says, and thankfully, there's no judgment in her voice—he hadn't realised he's been worried about this until now—just warmth and sympathy. "What now?"
He shrugs. "Nothing."
"In all the years I've known you, you never hesitated to follow your heart. Why now?"
David's lips curl in a sardonic smile. Goodness, he's been spending too much time with Jack. "I'm not sure it's my heart I'd be following."
She laughs, unperturbed. "Well, then, your dick could do worse. What about Nathan?"
"Doesn't know, I think. There's nothing to know; nothing's happened. Nothing will happen."
"Right," she says, smiling. "I know that look, David. You've already decided."
He grimaces, but doesn't disagree. Sensing that he needs a distraction, she drags him to the dance floor.
Jack and Nathan don't return to the gala that night.
The next morning, Nathan strides into the audience room with a thunderous expression; his righteous anger is a terrible sight to behold, and everyone scurries out of his path. David follows Nathan to the nearest office and shuts the door behind them.
"Let me tell you a story," Nathan says, visibly trying to control himself and failing. "There were two men in one city, one rich and one poor. The poor man had—"
"Nathan, I'm sorry," David interrupts.
"How dare you covet the only thing that is mine?" Nathan growls, and David winces as if slapped. He's never had the anger of a prophet turned against him—he's never had God this furious with him.
But he only has himself to blame: he'd always known he was doing wrong, but he'd wilfully ignored the warning in his mind.
"I haven't—" he tries, because he really has done nothing concrete, just—
"You have sinned in thought if not in deed! Shame on you, David Shepherd! God raised you from nothing, He gave you a princess, and a crown, and all of Gilboa to care for—and yet you covet that which does not belong to you. Your wife's brother, at that! You have sinned greatly, David, and you should beg on bended knee for the Lord to forgive you."
David's blood runs cold. He hadn't realised God would view his conduct as disrespect, too—but of course lusting after the prophet's boyfriend was a dreadful idea. There is no question of whose side God is on.
"I'm sorry," he repeats, dejected. What else can he say? He can hardly claim he hadn't been able to help himself; he can't claim he hadn't known. He can only feel like the worst human being on earth, and hope that someday God and Nathan will forgive him.
Nathan gives him a look of supreme disappointment, and leaves without another word.
David collapses on the nearest chair, and buries his face in his hands.
David doesn't even know how to begin to atone. He confines himself to his room for the day to seek guidance, tries to read and pray, to no avail; either God is too furious to speak, or David is too nervous to hear. He's still pacing around the room by the time Jack gets there.
Jack takes one look at him, grimaces, and turns on his heel. "Call me when you're done with your crisis of conscience," he says over his shoulder as he leaves the room.
"No—Jack, come on," David calls out. Jack turns to face him, annoyed, and David guesses that Nathan talked to him, too. He sets aside his own crisis for the moment to ask, "Are you all right?"
"Never better," Jack says, forcing a grin. "Chess?"
David examines him for a moment—the tightness around his eyes, the tension on his shoulders—before squaring his shoulders and saying, "No, we're talking about this."
"No, we're not," Jack counters. "Unless by ‘talking’ you mean ‘fucking so hard I won't remember my name, let alone the spectacularly bad day I've had’ no, David, we're definitely not talking tonight." David's eyes widen at the straightforward phrasing; Jack seems amused. "You know, if you're old enough to do it, you're old enough to say it."
"I know, that's not—Jack, we can't. Nathan—"
"—broke up with me in a godforsaken volley of curses and threats of fire and brimstone," Jack says, rubbing the bridge of his nose, looking pained. "It was just unpleasant enough to turn me off messing with God's chosen ones entirely, so don't worry, your precious virtue is safe."
"It's not my virtue I'm worried about," David snaps. "Look, I can't say my intentions were exactly good, but I never meant for all this to happen."
Jack throws him an unpleasant grin—one David hasn't seen in years. Something inside him twists painfully. "Well, what were your intentions, then?"
David fixes him with a level stare. He's done shying away from this. "I want you," he says simply, and Jack's eyebrows rise in surprise. "I'm not...in love with you or anything, I don't know what it is I'm feeling exactly, but it's not as...pure as it was when I fell in love with Michelle. It's a lot more complicated, and sometimes I'm not even sure I actually like you all that much—but I do want this, and I know I've been a coward about it, and I'm sorry. Now everything's ruined, and Nathan's hurt, and God's angry—I don't know how to atone for this, because I'm not even truly sorry. For any part of it."
Jack clearly doesn't know how to react to this: he looks like all this talk of feelings is about to make him break out in hives. He eventually find an acceptable angle, and says, "You do know that it's not God that's angry—it's just Nathan."
"No. No, Nathan made it quite clear—"
"Yes, because he was angry."
"No, but—he's a prophet of the Lord, Jack, God told him about us, he can't—"
"Oh, he most certainly can, and he did." Jack laughs. "How can you still be this gullible? What the hell, David, think about it for a second! God didn't tell him anything. He saw you watching us last night and made a few good guesses."
David shakes his head stubbornly. "I coveted someone who belonged to someone else, and—"
"Everyone covets, it's part of being human." Jack rolls his eyes. "The terms of my relationship with Nathan were mine and his to respect." He steps even closer, arms bracketing David against the wall, and snarls, "And I don't belong to anyone."
David's heart hammers in his chest, the closeness of Jack's body destroying what little grip he had on the situation. Jack's here, within reach, no longer something to yearn for from afar, to fantasise about. He's wanted this so much lately that right now it's impossible to remember why it's supposed to be a bad idea.
"Jack," he breathes out, and tries to get the jumble of thoughts in his head into some semblance of order. Jack is single now, there's no real reason to stay away—God won't get any more or less mad if David goes through with the sin he's been mulling over for weeks now, will He?
"Has God told you to stay away?" Jack asks, his face inching closer by the second. "Is He saying anything now?"
"N—no," David says, voice breaking when Jack's lips brush against his neck.
"And now?" Jack asks, voice low and amused, his breath hot on David's ear.
"God," David says, eyes fluttering shut, and the back of his head hits the wall. He feels Jack's laughter against his neck, the scrape of teeth near his throat, the unfamiliar beard scraping his skin, and he just can't think anymore—he's not even trying to.
Jack's thigh slides against his, pressing, teasing, and he prompts one more time, "Mmm?"
If this is wrong, if it is indeed a sin, he and God will have to find a way to deal with this later—because there's no way David can resist it at this point.
David gives up. "Fuck it," he says sincerely, reaching for the back of Jack's head to bring him closer, bringing their lips together at last.
There’s a surge of warmth inside him. Yes—this feels good and right, and David suddenly knows, he knows, that God is still on his side.