David made it as far as Ramah on the inner border of Gath when his spirit failed him.
He found an abandoned cabin in the woods, dilapidated and smelling of mold. He dropped his pack in a dry spot, hastily undid the buttons of his shirt, and tried in vain to breathe.
He gulped huge, aching sobs of breath and sorrow, curled on the damp wooden floor. It felt as though all was lost, that he was lost, that there was nothing for him but exile. He yearned for Michelle, to hold her in his arms again, to have some relief in her presence.
He lay there for he knew not how long, until the weak autumn sun came through the window pane and the Republican soldiers began their dawn test-fires.
Slowly he rose, resting his back against the old crumbled fireplace, staring at the dirt beneath his nails and the rot beneath his feet. When the sun had come to shine between the broken halves of the roof, he turned his face to the half-shrouded sky and called out to God.
"Why?" he asked, his voice broken and small even to his own ears. "What have I done to displease you? I took your omen, I served your king, and I would have done so even if you hadn't called me to serve. I honored you with my family, I honored you with my obedience, I honored you with love and fealty. Do I truly have your favor, when everything I loved is gone from me!"
His shout, too loud in this enemy land, rang out through the trees, sending the thrushes scattering into the day.
"I have no wish to be king," he said, exhausted with loss. "What would you have from me, that you sent me here?"
There was no reply, no gentle touch of the divine he had known once before, only the sound of the swallows and the wind and the distant rumble of military transport.
David sagged, and he started to think of his thirst and hunger, when a phone rang.
He let out a noise of surprise and scrambled for his pack. He'd left his own phone in the mansion, knowing it could be tracked, not risking it even for Michelle.
It wasn't a ring; it was the notification of a text message, and when David had found the phone--a pre-paid phone, familiar from the corner markets in downtown Shiloh--he hesitated a moment before reading it.
Curiosity won him over, and he opened the message.
Who is this?
David frowned, looking at the unfamiliar number. He looked in all the different places on the phone, but there were no other numbers, no missed calls. It was, seemingly, a brand-new phone, activated for the first time.
His thumbs hovered over the keys, and, sucking in a wary breath, he typed, You first.
There was no reply for a long time, and David forcibly set aside the phone, digging through his pack, coming up with a squashed energy bar and half a liter of water. He'd fled without any sort of plan, without any idea of what supplies he'd need, only a knowledge that Silas wished for his imprisonment if not death, and Samuels' belief that Gath would keep him safe.
He did not fully believe the last to be true; David was sure that all of the Republic of Gath, just like that of the Kingdom of Gilboa, had seen his face when he took down the Goliath tank this year. Gath knew him and wanted him dead as vengeance.
As he was readying himself to find water and perhaps trap something, the phone beeped again. I am a fool.
David had half a mind to turn the phone off, seek food and water and start planning how to get through Gath to some more friendly place, but as his thumb hovered over the "off" button, a movement from the broken window caught his eye. It was a butterfly, gold and black.
A shocked breath punched out of his chest, and the phone nearly fumbled from his fingers. He closed his eyes for a moment, heart pounding. "Okay," he whispered. "Message received."
We are all fools, he typed, fingers shaking slightly. You no more than anyone.
The next text came swiftly. That is untrue. Today I am the prince of fools.
David gripped the phone and swallowed a curse. It must be him. It had to be him. Who else would it be?
Jack? he sent back.
WHO THE FUCK IS THIS, came seconds later.
If I tell you, will you tell your father? David typed, feeling the risk he was taking deep in the marrow of his bones.
David, Jack replied.
Before David could even start a new message, the next came. David, you moron, why are you talking to me? I will get you killed.
I will get myself killed, David typed. It's a skill I'm acquiring pretty quickly since I encountered your family.
Try since birth.
David paused, looked at the lowering sun in the sky and sighed.
I have to go, he said.
Please come back.
I will try, David said. I don't know how long this phone will last.
He turned it off and tried to remember how his brothers had taught him to trap small game.
Some days, the messages from Jack were the only thing that kept him going. David set his sights on Nob, the neutral city-state accessible through the southern forests of Gath. He had to track his way through, staying off the main road, and it was more challenging than any military training had prepared him for. He lost weight, starting to see the fine bones of his hands, and grew some semblance of a beard. He bartered day laboring for bread and broth, sleeping in stables and barns of the homesteads far from the cities.
He was not the first man with a Gilboan accent to travel this way.
David asked about Michelle, but Jack was quiet on the subject, almost dodging. David had made up his mind to ask about her again, pulling his phone out of his pocket. He was sitting beneath an apple tree, counting the weeks since he had been home, and the phone buzzed in his hand.
I prefer men, it read, and David frowned. They'd been talking about the King's refortification of the southwestern border, and what it might mean for a winter skirmish; this was a non-sequitur, though Jack's tended to be dark threats to his father's staff rather than simple statements of preference.
The guys are fun to hang out with, David typed, though he felt silly when he sent it.
The reply was delayed; David looked at his watch and wondered if Jack had been called to an afternoon tea and excoriation with his mother.
I mean I prefer fucking them.
David blinked. Well. That..actually wasn't too much of a surprise. And whatever standard the royals were held to, being gay was less political in the rest of Gath. Hell, the old region that used to be Carmel still held a pride parade every summer, and the government turned a blind eye. And David couldn't pretend he didn't know of a few communal combal jacks, out on the border during downtime.
And besides all that, his mother had always taught them to treat others as they wanted to be treated. That had always seemed a sensible thing to do to David--at least until he got involved with the House of Benjamin.
David felt like a moron, which basically was true for this entire conversation.
David, you are precious. Anyone else would be calling the news outlets. You just take it in.
Did you mean it, David typed, when you said that day that you were my friend?
The reply took some time to come, and David trudged down the hill towards the farm that seemed to maintain the orchards he was walking past.
More than I could have possibly known at the time.
Well, I mean it too. What you like or who you are doesn't change that.
I, came the reply, but it seemed to be cut off, and Jack didn't reply again for two days.
In Nob, David was able to find a job under the table shearing sheep. For combing the wool, he got a roof over his head and a rough mattress, three squares a day for as long as the wool lasted. He was grateful, most of all for the shower, and he used the coins he earned to buy a razor and newspaper. Page 1 was news of the Nobites, something about a religious festival he skimmed. Pages 2 and 3 held news of Gilboa, and Gath, and he stared for a long moment at Silas, looking hale and resolute with Rose at his arm. Behind him was Jack, looking down at the ground, a civilian suit rather than his dress blacks on.
KING SENDS SON TO NEW MOON FESTIVAL was the headline, and David read with shaking hands how Silas was sending Jack to Nob to witness the festival as part of the accord of neutrality between the states.
He was here. Jack was here. David pulled his phone out and saw there was a new message waiting for him.
Come to the stone of Ezel at 00:30 tonight if you are here. I don't have much time.
I will be there.
David was useless the rest of the day, and the sheepsteader with kind if exasperated eyes, said, "Go, go. Come back tomorrow. There will still be plenty of woolwork for you to do."
He thanked her gratefully, and spent the rest of the day walking the city, keeping an eye out for butterfly insignia. He marked all the gates of the Nob Fort, though the city hadn't seen war in years; they refused to entertain any part of their neighbor's war, even to host peace talks. They welcomed their visitors of state as hospitality demanded, but Gilboa's wrath and Gath's dogged persistence was of little interest to them.
At midnight, the crowd and buzz of the festival were at its height. The stone of Ezel, shrouded by ancient cedar trees and half-covered in moss, was as secluded and private as it could be on the night of the New Moon Festival, and precisely at half-past David walked up to the stone.
One moment there was shadow, and in the next there was Jack. David was seized by grief, and he grasped Jack in a full body hug, pulling him in close and tight and breathing wetly into the fabric of his suit jacket.
Jack held him back just as tightly, and when David pulled back to speak, Jack kissed him.
It was a chaste kiss, just the press of lips against his own. It was nothing more than what his mother would give him, leaving for school, and David closed his eyes for the briefest moment before breaking it off.
"I'm in love with your sister," David said, looking Jack straight in the eye, still embracing him as a brother.
"I know you are," Jack said. "I hope you'll forgive me that I'm a little in love with you."
David cupped the side of Jack's face and said, "There's nothing to forgive."
Jack looked down for a moment, and said in a half whisper, "I swear, to you and your god, no matter what happens, we are friends."
"I swear it too," David said, and felt a soft brush of wind against his face, an acknowledgement.
They broke apart, and sat on the bench set in the stone, whose inscription read, To those who must depart those whom they love, this stone is dedicated. David trailed his fingers in the moss-covered letters.