Watching the beautiful scenery roll past outside his carriage window, Charles sighed heavily. The crystal blue sky and gleaming water did nothing to reflect his mood, which would have been better suited to leaden clouds and persistent drizzle. Charles heaved another sigh, grateful that he at least had the carriage to himself rather than having to travel with the King and Queen. It was bad enough that his mother and step-father had agreed to this without his consent in the first place; being confined to a small area with them for the duration of the journey would have been torturous.
Logically, he understood that there were much worse situations in which he could have found himself; he wasn’t being denied access to food or shelter or, heaven forbid, his enormous personal library. He was retaining all of the luxuries that came with his title of Prince of Westchester, and realistically probably gaining quite a few more. Still, he couldn’t shake the dread that had been living in the pit of his stomach like a lump of indigestible meat ever since he had been called into his stepfather’s study four days ago.
“Sit, Charles,” King Kurt ordered when his stepson appeared in the doorway. Charles obeyed instantly, knowing all too well how fragile the King’s hold on his temper was at any given moment. His mother was sitting in an armchair slightly off to the side of her husband’s desk, examining the intricately engraved wineglass she held rather than meeting her son’s eyes.
He sat on the hard wooden chair opposite the King’s desk, posture impeccable as ever thanks to almost two decades of lessons, and awaited whatever information that had been important enough for him to be summoned to the King’s personal study rather than relayed by some staff member.
“You are, I hope, aware of the financial state that your late father left this kingdom in?” Kurt began. Charles gritted his teeth at that; while it was true that the kingdom was deeply in debt by the time of his father’s death, it was due to several bad investments that had been suggested by his advisor and closest friend. That advisor had been none other than Kurt himself, who had promptly taken the crown upon his father’s death, Charles having been too young to ascend the throne himself at the time. Instead of reminding Kurt of this fact, he merely nodded minutely, lips pursed tightly. His mother also remained silent on the topic; she had been as instrumental in Charles’ father’s downfall as Kurt, and had married Kurt a mere week after the end of the required mourning period.
“I have been presented with a method through which to relieve the crown of your father’s debt, which I have accepted.” Charles could barely contain his surprise; Kurt was much more prone to contributing further to the kingdom’s debt than attempting to alleviate it. Still, the words had filled him with hope; large swathes of the kingdom had fallen into destitution after his father’s death, and he had always dreamed of it being returned to its remembered glory of his early childhood.
“I am delighted to hear that, your Highness,” he had learned quickly that informality towards his step-father was a surefire method to trigger Kurt’ temper, “but may I ask why I am being involved in this matter?” He had never before been consulted on matters of state, and although it piqued his pride, he honestly rather liked it that way, preferring instead to sequester himself in his library or wander the grounds than engage in the often-tangled politics of the land.
His question caused a slow smile to spread across Kurt’s face; unpleasant at the best of times, his smile made him look slightly like a predator who had just cornered its prey. He immediately regretted the question, a sick feeling gripping his body. Nothing that made Kurt smile that way would be welcome news.
“The royal family of Genosha have approached me with an offer. An alliance, if you will,” Kurt said, his predator’s grin still spreading across his face. Once again, Charles was surprised; Genosha and Westchester had never had many dealings in the past. While Westchester tended to stay removed from the trade disputes and often all-out wars between its neighbouring kingdoms, Genosha was often at the centre of them. Genosha’s often-radical politics and strong military presence were a direct contrast to Westchester, and as such the two kingdoms tended to mostly ignore each other’s presence wherever possible.
“Their alliances with the neighbouring kingdoms are tenuous at best, and they’ve presented a most… agreeable deal,” Kurt continued. “They wish to make an alliance with Westchester, and in return they have agreed to pay off the debts of the crown.” If possible, he had sat up even straighter at that; he didn’t know the exact amount that the kingdom was in debt by, but he knew that it was a very considerable sum. Whatever Kurt had offered in return, it must have been monumental; Westchester didn’t control many trade routes or have much in the way of precious minerals or unusually fertile land, so what on earth could it be that would warrant such an offer?
“What conditions did they have?” He asked eagerly, “What sort of alliance are they proposing?”
“A marriage alliance, Charles,” Kurt told him, and at first he didn’t understand. He had no siblings, nor any cousins that were well-placed enough for this level of alliance. His aunts and uncles were all married, as was his mother, which only left…
“No. No. That can’t be… You don’t mean…” He gaped at his stepfather, reduced to uncharacteristic speechlessness with shock. Kurt’s sickening smile was all the confirmation that he needed. He had turned to his mother in horror, hoping that this was some sort of sick joke that his stepfather was using to torture him, but she continued to studiously examine her now-empty wineglass, refusing to acknowledge him.
“You are to be married to Prince Erik of Genosha in a month’s time. We leave for Genosha tomorrow to begin the preparations for the wedding. You may go.” And with that, he was dismissed. He left the study in a complete state of shock, walking mechanically back to his rooms. Married in a month. What was he going to do?
The answer had been nothing at all. Charles had simply let it happen, too shocked to protest, watching as the carriages were packed for their journey. He had climbed unprotestingly into the carriage, let the door be shut behind him, and watched as Westchester’s snow-capped mountains faded beyond the horizon. Charles hated himself a little for going along with this betrothal, but in the end his common sense had won out over his horror at the prospect. This would be a good thing for his kingdom; who was he to refuse the chance for the kingdom to be rebuilt due to his personal feelings?
Still, the prospect of his upcoming marriage hardly filled Charles with delight. He had never met Prince Erik, and wouldn’t until the wedding itself; Genoshan wedding customs dictated that the betrothed parties did not meet until the wedding. Charles supposed it was to prevent one or both of them from taking one look and running; it would be a little harder to back out once the wedding itself was in progress. Charles begrudgingly admitted that it was a good system; his own first instinct had been to do exactly what this setup circumvented.
He knew precious little about his husband-to-be; initially due to his lack of interest in the nobility of other kingdoms, and then due to denial. Maybe if he didn’t learn about Prince Erik, he wouldn’t have to admit to himself that this was actually happening. All he knew was that they were roughly the same age, and that the prince was rumoured to be very handsome. This should have been a comfort, but Charles was too used to people fawning over nobility and exaggerating their every good trait to believe it.
He could make a guess about his character though, and it was hardly an appealing prospect. Genoshans were much more combative than the gentle, scholarly people of Westchester, prone to settling disputes with violence rather than diplomacy. They were a proud people, and often very wary of outsiders, to the point of outright hostility. His future husband was likely to a prime example of these traits; proud, aggressive, and cold.
Charles rested his forehead against the glass of the carriage window as the castle came into sight in the distance, picking fretfully at the fraying cuffs of his old travelling clothes. Too late to back out now.
Thanks for all the kudos and kind comments so far, you guys are the best (not to mention great for my ego...)
Special thanks to LieutenantLiv for noticing my Westchester/Westeros slipup in Chapter 1 - bet no one can guess what I'm reading at the moment!
So without further ado, onto Chapter 2...
Erik stormed out of the castle, still fuming from his conversation with his parents. He had always understood what was expected of him as the prince, and had carried out his duties well, if a little sulkily, but marriage? Not only that, but marriage to a man that he had never met, and knew nothing about save his name? Prince Charles of Westchester. Erik scoffed to himself as he trampled through the perfectly-manicured castle flowerbeds, not particularly caring if he left the flowers crushed and twisted in his wake.
He knew a little about Westchester from his history lessons, although not much due to its tendency to stay removed from major conflicts. It had produced many of the greatest minds of the last century thanks to its extensive education system, but contributed little in terms of trade or military presence. It was likely, then, that the prince of such a place would be some sort of staid diplomat, too passive and well-trained to be able to form a single opinion or original thought for himself. The very thought made Erik shudder. He had always been opinionated at best, and pig-headedly blinkered at worst. How could he be expected to spend the rest of his life with a stuffy, lifeless academic who parroted back any opinion he was told he should have?
Erik was so immersed in his bitter train of thought that he almost stormed straight into the the castle’s lake. He had spent much of his boyhood here, learning to fish with his father while his mother sat on the banks and cheered them on. He has always wanted to dive in, to splash around in the cool shallows on warm summer afternoons, but it had been forbidden, both in terms of propriety and safety. The lake’s surface was smooth and glassy, reflecting the trees that grew up along one of its banks and the fluffy clouds gently scudding across the blue sky. Erik wanted to break through the calm surface of the water, to scream at the sky until it turned the same tumultuous grey as his mind, to uproot the trees that serenely waved their branches at him from across the lake.
Barely noticing what he was doing, he removed his boots and waistcoat, leaving him just in a loose shirt and trousers, and started purposefully towards the vast expanse of water. He picked up his pace as he neared the water’s edge, and made a surprisingly graceful dive into its depths. The water was shockingly cold, especially considering the warmth of the day, but it filled Erik with a bitter sense of victory all the same. They could marry him off as part of their stupid political manoeuvrings, they could take away his freedom to find someone he truly cared for and his right to fall in love, but he would be damned if their half-remembered scoldings would stop him from going for a stupid swim in a stupid lake.
Erik was so wrapped up in imagining all the scathing retorts he could produce were he to be found and challenged that at first he didn’t notice when the tendril of seaweed got caught around his ankle. It came to his attention rather swiftly, however, when he realised that he couldn’t move any further, anchored to the lake bed by the particularly stubborn piece of vegetation. Cursing angrily, he twisted in the water and plunged beneath the surface to better see what had interrupted his small act of rebellion. The seaweed had become wrapped around the buttons at the hem of his trousers and was thoroughly tangled, and the plant itself was too tough to be pulled apart by Erik’s hands alone. The more he struggled with it, the tighter it became wrapped around his ankle, only causing him to tug harder. The effort made him reflexively gasp for air, and he realised too late that his head was still beneath the surface of the water. He choked and spluttered, trying to rid his airways of the water but only succeeding in taking more in while his limbs flailed helplessly. He faintly heard the sound of shouting, the words let it go sounding distorted and broken through the water. Suddenly the pressure of the seaweed around his leg ceased, and his head broke the surface of the water, aided by a strong pair of hands wrapped around his arms pulling him backwards towards the bank.
Equal parts disoriented and furiously humiliated, Erik turned to snap at his rescuer for daring to lay a hand on their prince as he was deposited unceremoniously on by the lakeside, but the words stopped short in his throat. In front of him was a young man of roughly his own age, a little shorter than Erik, looking utterly bedraggled. His dark hair was plastered to his forehead, and his clothes were clinging to his body in a way that Erik very pointedly did not stare at. However, it was his eyes that halted Erik’s furious diatribe; they were the most startling shade of blue, almost matching the bright summer sky above them. They were wide and beautifully framed by dark eyelashes, and full of concern. Erik felt the sudden need to apologise, the justify himself, to make amends to this stranger for putting himself in such a stupid situation. Erik’s gaping must have concerned the stranger, whose expression softened still further.
“Are you alright?” he asked in an unfamiliar accent, kneeling next to Erik, who was still sprawled in an undignified heap on the ground. He moved as if to touch Erik’s face, then clearly thought the better of it and retracted his hand, instead busying himself with fidgeting with the soaked, fraying hem of his shirt. Erik tried to reply, but instead coughed up a surprising amount of water, spluttering loudly. His rescuer slapped him roughly on the back to encourage the last of the water to vacate Erik’s lungs, and Erik tried to ignore the heat of his skin through the thin, drenched material of his shirt. Instead of trying to speak again, Erik nodded to answer the man’s question, and gestured towards him in an attempt to ask the same in return.
“Me? Oh yes, I’m fine, don’t mind me. I rather like swimming. Not so much having to rescue people though. Not that I minded rescuing you!” Erik was somewhat charmed by this reply, admiring the flush now adorning the man’s cheekbones as his voice trailed off endearingly. Get a grip Erik, he told himself firmly, you’re betrothed, this is hardly the time to go developing a crush on… whoever this is. Erik realised with a jolt of surprise that he didn’t recognise the man, despite knowing every member of the nearby nobility and household staff by name. Was he new? Erik didn’t know of any new recruits, but it was possible that he had missed something, he supposed. He clambered to his feet, glad to find that his little misadventure hadn’t resulted in any injuries, and offered an attempt at a smile to the man in front of him.
“That’s, um, good to hear. Sorry, I don’t recognize you from around the castle. Are you new here?”
“I only arrived today, as a matter of fact. I take it you’re from here then?"
Erik was startled to realise that the question was genuine; this man had no idea who he was. His first instinct was to introduce himself as he had always been taught how to do – a firm handshake, confident eye contact, giving his list of titles with the air of nobility that had been drilled into him since birth. Something about the man made Erik reconsider though. He seemed friendly and disarming, certainly brave enough to rescue a stranger in distress, and his eyes were captivatingly earnest and trusting. All in all, the sort of person that Erik had always wanted to know; someone that could be his friend. The closest he came to a friend was his manservant, Azazel, and even then he couldn’t truly talk to her without the barrier of his title between them. The spirit of rebellion, the same one that had gotten him into this mess in the first place, rose up in Erik as he offered his hand to shake.
“I work in the castle, actually - I’m an apprentice to the blacksmith in the armoury here.” The lie came easily to him; he had spent much of his boyhood in the armoury, watching the blacksmith forge weapons from metal, hypnotised by the blow of the hammers and the glow of the fires. In another life, he would have liked to work there, to bend the metal to his will and watch it take shape into swords and shields and armour.
The stranger took his hand, skin warm and smooth against Erik’s palm, and shook it firmly. The contact made Erik’s skin tingle, and he ignored the sudden racing of his heart in his chest.
“How wonderful! I’m afraid I must seem very dull in comparison to you; I help to handle the King’s horses. Much less fire, and much more shit,” he said, wrinkling his nose, “and sadly, I do mean that literally.” His laugh sounded like a bell, cutting through the warm afternoon air like birdsong.
For a second, Erik was confused; he knew for sure that there were no new stablehands in the castle, having spoken to the horse master just that morning. Then, everything clicked into place; the unfamiliar accent, the mutual lack of recognition. He was part of the entourage that had arrived this morning, the one bearing his soon-to-be husband. Erik felt his heart drop to the floor at the reminder of his now-sealed fate as he struggled to keep his expression neutral.
“My name is Francis, by the way,” the stablehand added. The name jarred Erik; it didn’t seem like it should belong to this man, sitting on him like an ill-fitting jacket.
“Max,” replied Erik, giving the first name other than his own that popped into his head. After all, even though Francis was under the impression that he was a blacksmith’s apprentice, giving his real name would be sure to arouse at least some suspicion in Francis’ mind. Erik felt a moment of guilt for lying before pushing the feeling away; being the prince had left him with no-one resembling a close friend, and he was desperate to be able to form at least one friendship before he was consigned to a life of misery, married to a man he knew nothing about.
“It’s so very charming to meet you, Max,” Francis said warmly. He smiled broadly, and Erik was momentarily dazzled by how very beautiful his smile was. He felt an answering smile involuntarily tug at his lips, probably giving him the countenance of a particularly bemused shark. A cool breeze blew across the lake, and Erik became abruptly aware of his soaking clothes, still plastered to his skin and sending a chill deep into his bones.
“I should probably get dried off,” Erik said, gesturing vaguely towards the pile of clothes still abandoned a little way away from the lakeside. “As should you, for that matter. Don’t want you to catch a cold.” Erik was surprised by how concerned he sounded; compassion towards strangers had never been his strongest suit, but he found himself genuinely concerned about Francis’ wellbeing.
“Yes, splendid idea. I should probably be getting back anyway, I might be missed. I’ve got things to do, people to see, horses to take care of, stableboy things, you know…” Francis waved his hand unhelpfully and he tailed off, a little red in the face. However, his expression quickly rearranged itself into one of mischief. “Besides,” he said with a smirk as he began to turn back in the direction of the castle, “there might be more blacksmith’s apprentices around here that need rescuing from the evil clutches of some seaweed.” He gave Erik a cheeky wink and walked away without another word, his laughter still ringing across the space between them. Erik could only stare at his retreating back in awe as he left, most definitely not admiring his very shapely ass that was being accentuated by his damp trousers. Mutely, Erik gathered his clothes, pulled his boots back on, and began the trek back through the castle gardens.
Charles leaned heavily against the wooden door of his room and slid down it, somewhat dramatically, until he was sitting on the floor. He gazed at the tapestry hanging on the opposite wall without really seeing it, instead replaying the events that had just transpired in the castle gardens. He had just wanted to go for a walk, acquaint himself with his new surroundings, and perhaps find a secluded corner in which to bemoan his fate to himself; instead, he had encountered the most attractive human he had even laid eyes upon and promptly lied to his face about who he was.
In his defence, the lie was well-intentioned; he hadn’t wanted to add to the young man’s humiliation at having to be rescued by revealing that he’d been rescued by a member of the visiting royal family. The fact that Charles had been able to help him at all was a sheer fluke; a combination of his fondness for swimming as a child and the fact that he was carrying a pocket knife with him that could hack through the vegetation that had been entrapping the rather flustered-looking blacksmith.
The chances of him ever running into him were slim to say the least, and that at least provided Charles with a level of solace. He hated lying, and hardly relished the thought of continuing his charade. He’d tried to stray from the truth as little as possible, using his middle name to introduce himself and telling Max that he had arrived that day with the Westchester royal family, but attempting to pass himself off as a stableboy was a stretch at best. He enjoyed being around horses and riding was one of the few things he enjoyed about his life in Westchester, but he knew precious little about the proper care of horses, or indeed the role of a stableboy in general.
Charles shook his head in a feeble effort to dislodge his train of thought; running into that one particular servant again out of the hundreds in a castle this size was somewhat outwith the realm of probability. No, Charles would be content with remembering Max’s pale green-grey eyes creasing at the corners as a wide, toothy grin had overtaken his face. He was sure that the image would give him solace in the future - a single bright, untainted memory to bring warmth back into his heart long after his fate had been sealed by this damned marriage.
Ever prone to dramatics, Charles sighed heavily and pouted to himself for a minute before contemplating his damp, algae-stained travelling clothes. He could hardly dine with his mother and step-father (Charles still refused to think of them collectively as his parents) while still smelling faintly of pond vegetation, so he rang for his servant, Raven. Raven had been his best friend growing up, and while the huge difference in their social classes had driven a gulf between them over the last few years, they remained rather closer than Charles’ mother strictly approved of.
She appeared in the doorway that joined his sitting room to the bedroom, her blonde waves silhouetted by the last rays of the setting sun streaming through the window. She took one look at his damp hair still plastered to his forehead and his wet travelling clothes and let out a rather undignified snort, utterly failing to cover her amusement. Despite her status as a servant, she had never quite managed to summon the level of quiet respect that she was expected to show the Prince; it was this fact that allowed her and Charles’ friendship to thrive.
“Do I want to know what happened?” she asked as she began to draw a bath for him, utterly unfazed as Charles began to peel himself out of his clothes. They had been friends for too long for either of them to so much as blink an eye at the other’s nakedness.
“Probably not,” he replied. Even though there had been nothing strictly wrong with his interaction with Max, he felt the need to keep it close to his chest regardless. A lifetime of being watched by the whole kingdom had left him very protective of the little privacy he could manage. He stepped gratefully into the warm bath, relaxing as Raven washed his hair. They chattered quietly about nothing of much importance while he bathed and dressed for dinner, trading comments about the warm Genoshan climate and the sundrenched scenery, so different from the cold mountains and stark landscapes of Westchester.
Dinner time came round far too early for Charles’ liking, and only his good breeding and respect for the castle’s carpets stopped him from dragging his feet the whole way to the dining room that had been set up in the north wing of the castle for their visit. Dinners with his family had hardly been joyous occasions to begin with, but since the betrothal things had gone from bad to worse. Queen Sharon had sunk even further into drinking, far preferring contemplating her wine than acknowledging her son, while King Kurt had taken to making snide comments about Charles’ impending marriage at every opportunity.
Charles straightened his back and brushed a wrinkle out of his waistcoat before entering the dining room, determined not to give anyone a fault to latch on to. He was surprised to see that Kurt was absent, and his mother was sitting in an alcove next to the window rather than at the table. Perplexed, he approached her quietly, and was surprised to see lucidity in her eyes when she glanced up to acknowledge him.
“Hello, dear,” she said somewhat absently, as if this wasn’t to first time she’d voluntarily addressed him in longer than Charles cared to think about.
“Hello, mother,” he replied cautiously, settling himself at the opposite end of the alcove.
“The King can’t make it for dinner this evening, he has ever so many important things to be getting on with. You can fend for yourself, can’t you darling? Send that awful Raven girl down to the kitchens to get you something.” Charles almost opened his mouth to defend his friend before realising that it would make no difference; he’d learned that lesson many times before in his youth. “Oh yes, and make sure to keep out of everyone’s way until the wedding. You do tend to say the most distressing things to people darling, and we really can’t have you causing trouble. The servants will take care of the wedding, take care to stay out of their way won’t you? Lovely, lovely,” she patted his knee gingerly, then rose, forcing Charles to rise with her out of decorum. She proceeded to sweep out of the dining room without a further word, leaving in her wake the faint smell of wine and musty perfume, not to mention a very confused son.
Charles blinked at the door through which his mother had disappeared, startled into a rare silence. That was the most his mother had spoken to him in one go since… well, since his father died. To his surprise, it didn’t fill him with joy, or with anger, or pain or rage, just a strange emptiness that seemed to be haunting him more and more of late.
At least one good thing had come from the conversation; Charles hadn’t been expecting to have to be deeply involved in the logistics surrounding the wedding, but being told on no uncertain terms that he was to actively stay out of it was a relief. He wasn’t sure that he would have been able to keep his composure if he had to attend countless planning sessions, and his rather acerbic tongue may have ended up being unleashed on a few occasions. Yes, it was definitely better that he heed his mother’s advice (and the thought of his mother actually providing useful advice nearly made Charles laugh out loud in the middle of the empty dining room) and stay quietly out of the way for the next few weeks, merely showing up on the day to say the words that needed to be said. Perhaps he could find a nice reading nook to curl up in where he could lose himself in his books until reality came knocking.
Charles was feeling significantly more cheerful by the time he reached his rooms again; in fact, if he set aside the slight issue of his unwilling betrothal, he could possibly even make the next few weeks actively pleasant. He almost rang for Raven to scout out the kitchens and see if she could find him something to eat, but suddenly his mother’s dismissive words, that awful Raven girl, were echoing in his ears and he couldn’t bring himself to do it. His mother had always hated Raven, tolerating her only because Charles’ father had taken her in as a young orphan to be a member of the household staff, and it would put somewhat of a dent in Queen Sharon’s image as a generous philanthropist to throw her back out onto the streets again after his death. It hadn’t, however, prevented her from being coldly rude towards Raven, or strongly disapproving of her friendship with Charles.
Instead of calling for Raven, Charles pulled off his too-stiff, overly embroidered waistcoat, throwing it haphazardly onto the bed, and set off through the winding stone corridors to search out the kitchens on his own. It couldn’t be too difficult to find the kitchens, he reasoned to himself as he navigated his way through the castle. After all, he had a decent sense of direction and, failing that, a charming smile that never failed to get him any assistance he needed. He had been told upon his arrival by the rather severe-looking housekeeper, an icy blonde by the name of Miss Frost, that all of the servants’ quarters were in the east wing, so he headed in that direction in the hopes of finding the kitchen there.
However, after a good half hour of getting himself hopelessly lost in what felt like a labyrinth of identical corridors and passageways, he had to admit defeat. This area of the castle seemed to be oddly devoid of servants, and Charles had no idea how to even begin finding his way back to his rooms. Eventually, he spied a door up ahead that was slightly ajar, a soft yellow light spilling out from its edges.
He peaked into the room, cautiously at first, but then with open delight when he realised that he had managed to stumble across a tiny, beautiful library. He pushed the door open further, mouth hanging open as he took in the room. It was only large enough for a few armchairs and a table, a roaring log fire recessed into one wall while the others were taken up by large wooden bookcases. A large window above the fireplace looked out over the castle gardens; in the distance, Charles could see the last of the sun’s rays glinting off the lake that had featured in his afternoon’s adventures. He was so entranced by the room that he completely failed to notice the man sitting in one of the armchairs until he coughed quietly.
Charles did an almost comical double-take trying to identify the source of the noise before realising that it came from the armchair facing away from the door, which was high-backed enough that it had completely hidden its occupant from Charles’ view. He was about to splutter out an apology until a familiar figure unfolded itself from the chair and rose to greet him.
“Francis?” Max sounded almost as startled as Charles felt, his eyebrows high on his forehead, which was creased with surprise.
“Oh! Hello! I’m terribly sorry, I think I may have gotten myself a little turned around, I was looking for the kitchens and I rather lost my way.” Charles willed himself to stop babbling, an old nervous habit of his, but couldn’t quite stop himself, hypnotised by the warming of Max’s expression.
“The kitchens? Why are you looking in the west wing for the kitchens?”
“This is the west wing?” Charles asked, dismayed. Apparently he had been labouring under the delusion that his sense of direction was rather better than it actually was. With a sudden shock, he remembered that the west wing was reserved for the royal family, and thanked the heavens that he had run into Max before he had managed to accidently barge into any rooms containing his future in-laws or, heavens forbid, his fiancé.
“Like I said,” Max seemed more amused than annoyed, his lips quirking up into an entertained smirk at Charles’ obvious distress. He gestured to the armchair opposite the one he had been occupying. “Do you want a seat while you contemplate your geographical failings, or would you rather stand there gaping?”
Charles closed his mouth rather self-consciously and took the offered armchair, sinking into the soft seat gratefully. He had been wandering the castle for far longer than he had intended and his legs were aching. Max settled back into his previous seat and offered Charles the same wide, toothy grin as he had at the lake, and Charles tried to ignore his heart skipping a beat at the sight.
“I see you’ve recovered from your near-death experience,” Charles said, enjoying the flush that spread across Max’s cheekbones in response. It suited him, softening his strong jawline and sharp features, and bringing out the slight twinkle in his pale eyes.
“Luckily enough, I seem to have acquired myself a guardian angel,” Max replied, and Charles felt his own face redden in response. “Albeit one with a terrible sense of direction.”
“It’s not terrible, the corridors here just all look the same!” He protested a little huffily, unable to disagree with Max’s comment but unwilling to let it slide.
“Maybe to an outsider they do,” Max allowed, “but honestly, do they not teach you what direction the sun rises and sets in back in Westchester?”
Charles opened his mouth to reply rather angrily until Max’s massive grin alerted him to the fact that he was being teased. Instead, he harrumphed good-naturedly and cast his eyes around the room again, unable to quite believe his good luck that he had not only run into the one person he knew in the castle, but also in the room he was most eager to find. He took in the large volume that Max had clearly been reading before Charles had interrupted him; it looked like a history of Genoshan politics, and Charles marvelled for a second at the literary resources available to a mere blacksmith’s apprentice before his thoughts were sidetracked by the sight of a chess board tucked behind one of the bookshelves.
“Do you play chess?” Charles asked excitedly, and he let out a most un-prince-like giggle when Max nodded in response. He clambered out of the armchair to grab the board and the box next to it which contained the pieces, and set them out on the table between their chairs. He hadn’t had a good opponent since his father had died; his mother and Kurt had neither the time nor the inclination to play him, and Raven had never taken to it.
The game began, and he quite forgot about his abandoned search for food, about his impending marriage, about Kurt’s mocking, about his mother’s disinterest. He was lost in the thrill of playing against a real opponent (and a good one at that) and the twinkle in Max’s eye whenever he managed to take one of Charles’ pieces. They played in comfortable silence mostly, save the occasional passing comment about the game, but Charles felt happier and more relaxed than he had in a long time.
The game continued until long after the last of the sun’s rays had sunk over the horizon, ending in a very narrow victory for Max. Charles looked up from the board in delight when Max announced the checkmate, and said, “Max, I think this may be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”
Max’s answering smile seemed to illuminate the whole room.
Erik woke to brilliant sunshine streaming through his bedroom window, illuminating the dust motes dancing lazily through the air. He smiled widely at the sight, then caught himself, puzzled. He had always been a morning person, but never necessarily a cheery one. With a lurch of his heart, he realised what had put him in such a good mood this particular morning.
Francis. Francis, who had managed to stumble into his private library the night before, his huge eyes beautifully illuminated by the setting sun and pale skin glowing in the firelight. Francis, whose unbridled joy at finding himself surrounded by so many books had made Erik’s heart skip with an emotion that he wasn’t quite ready to acknowledge yet. Francis, who had played him at chess until the early hours of the morning and eventually fallen asleep while contemplating his next move, curled up in the armchair next to the fire like he belonged there.
Erik had been tempted to just let him sleep there, reluctant to move him when he looked so peaceful, but in the end practicality had won out. It wouldn’t do any good for a foreign servant to be found in the royal quarters, especially not in the Prince’s personal library. Reluctantly, Erik had shaken Francis gently by the shoulder and escorted him back to the main entrance hall, at which point his friend had insisted that he could find his own way back to his rooms from there. Erik had attempted to protest, worried that Francis may get lost again, but had been informed quite firmly, although not unkindly, that his assistance wasn’t required. Under the power of those blue, blue eyes, Erik had been powerless to argue.
In the light of the morning, however, Erik began to realise the corner that he was backing himself into. He had already had to spin several more lies to Francis to keep up his charade; hastily-constructed explanations about apprentices being able to use royal libraries for evening studying spilling from his mouth to justify his presence in a wing of the castle that neither of them should have been in. He had considered simply coming clean and confessing to Francis about who he was, but the lure of Francis’ uninhibited conversation and gently teasing manner were too strong for him to risk losing. After all, he reasoned, it wasn’t like they would be able to spend any time with Francis after the wedding; the royal contingent from Westchester would be departing after the conclusion of the celebrations.
He briefly wondered if Francis would see him on his wedding day; would he be in the crowd of onlookers and well-wishers outside the church when Erik emerged with his new husband on his arm? He barely supressed a shudder at the thought. His evening of playing chess with Francis had been the longest he’d managed to go without thinking about his impending marriage since he had first been informed about it, but the knowledge was back again and weighed as heavily on his heart as ever. He pulled the bedcovers more tightly around himself to ward off the chill, despite knowing that the cold spreading out from his chest had nothing to do with the temperature in the room.
Erik was strongly contemplating simply not moving from his bed for the whole day until he heard a familiar sharp knock on his door. It seemed that his emotional turmoil was insufficient to dissuade Azazel from his morning routine of helping Erik dress and preparing his breakfast, and Erik was a little glad of it. At least this way he could retain some semblance of normality. He slipped out of bed and answer the door, nearly getting a smack in the face for his efforts as Azazel went to knock again on the door that Erik had just opened.
Azazel had been a solid fixture in his life since he was thirteen, when his parents had decided that he required a manservant as opposed to the nannies he had had since birth. His temper, still a little too hot now at the age of twenty-two, had been fiercely uncontrolled in his younger years, and he had burned through a stream of manservants in quick succession, all of whom had quickly given up on trying to help the angry boy. Azazel, however, had been coolly unimpressed by Erik’s teenaged fits of rage, his ruddy face impassive other than a single, raised eyebrow. His apparent disdain had startled Erik into compliance, and Azazel had remained by his side from then onwards. They were hardly close in the conventional sense, but there existed between them a sense of camaraderie that was the closest thing to a friendship in Erik’s life.
Azazel brushed past him into the room with only the barest hint of a bow; in anyone else, this impertinence would have been unforgivable, but Erik was so used to it that he barely batted an eyelid at it. The day that Azazel actually followed royal protocol would be the day that Erik ate his hat.
Erik was barely listening to Azazel’s low, rough voice as he outlined the prince’s tasks for the day while setting up his breakfast; most of his duties consisted of being seen at state events, looking princely and important. Erik would much rather spend his days riding horses or reading or wandering the streets of his kingdom, but at least in recent years he had learned to control himself enough that he managed to look passably interested in whatever affair of the state he was required to be at. However, his attention was caught by the mention of his imminent tour of Hammer Bay with the royal guard. In the flurry of activity surrounding his betrothal, Erik had quite forgotten about the one aspect of his princely duties that he genuinely enjoyed.
The tour of Hammer Bay was partly ceremonial, but also had a very practical purpose. While the people enjoyed seeing the royal guard, decked out in the magenta livery of Genosha, parading through the cobbled streets on horseback, it also provided the royal guard with an opportunity to inspect the walls surrounding the city which protected them from intruders. Genosha had too many political enemies for them to let their security become lax, especially considering the proximity of the city to the castle itself. Erik had been participating in the tour since he was old enough to ride a horse, and it was one of the few events he was allowed to attend on his own. He loved the freedom of it; even though he was surrounded by the royal guard the whole time, it was the closest that he got to being able to escape the castle. He revelled in riding through the winding lanes and alleys of the city, hearing the cheering of the people, his people, as he rode past, resplendent in the uniform of the military that he would never be permitted to actually serve in.
He donned that uniform now; he had never quite taken to the particularly offensive shade of magenta that formed most of the outfit, but accented with matte black and silver, it looked imposingly regal. From a distance. Maybe. At least he didn’t have to wear the odd helmets that marked the royal guard; their strangely-shaped face holes had always looked rather ridiculous to Erik, not that he would tell anyone else that.
Fully dressed and fed, Erik left his rooms and made his way down to the stables. There, he exchanged a few words with the horse master, a burly man by the name of Logan with oddly styled hair and a gruff manner who Erik had never quite managed to take a liking to, before mounting his horse and joining the royal guard in the palace courtyard. It was a beautiful day; the sunshine that had woken Erik had not dimmed in the slightest, but the cool breeze, never far away considering their proximity to the sea, ensured that the day did not become too uncomfortably warm.
Erik’s thoughts were normally delightfully blank when he was in the saddle, simply allowing muscle memory to keep the horse moving and himself seated. However, today he was distracted, his thoughts flitting consistently back to Francis as the journey down to the walled city of Hammer Bay began. Erik was long used to the panoramic views from the hill that the castle was situated on, showing the city spreading out below, the sea a glistening aquamarine beyond it, but now it awed him as it never had before as he imagined Francis’ reaction to such a view. There were stretches of the water that were almost the same shade as Francis’ eyes, and Erik had the sudden urge to bring Francis here so that he could compare the colours himself.
Erik spent the rest of the tour half-distracted by the way that Francis invaded his train of thought at any given moment; someone in the waving crowd had a similar hair colour, while someone else’s eyes crinkled in the same way when they smiled widely at the passing horsemen. There was a stray dog in a doorway, and it was all that Erik could do to not stop and pick it up just to bring it back to the castle and see Francis’ reaction to its floppy ears and caramel-coloured fluff. They passed a bustling fish market; Erik wondered if Francis had had an opportunity yet to sample the seafood that Genosha was famous for. It was just as well that the guards found no faults in the city walls, since Erik was far too distracted by comparing the red of a bunch of flowers in someone’s window to the shade of Francis’ lip when he bit it while contemplating his next chess move to have noticed.
By the time they returned to the castle Erik was exhausted and ravenous, thanks to the increasing heat of the day and the long ride. He dismounted from his horse rather less gracefully than he would have liked, scanning the stables for a familiar crop of dark auburn hair. Francis was a stablehand after all; maybe he would be there to meet the incoming party? The stables were devoid of his familiar figure however, so Erik began wandering back to the castle, hoping to maybe acquire himself some lunch.
He was just passing the entrance to the rose garden when he heard a rustling noise. He turned to identify the source of the noise, but saw nothing, so he shrugged it off and was just about to turn back when he heard it again.
Erik startled; that wasn’t the sound of a small animal rustling around in the hedgerows.
Erik frowned for a second before realising that it was Francis’ voice that he was hearing, meaning that he was the Max being called.
“Francis? Where are you?”
His question was answered when he was softly thwacked on the head by what appeared to be a small lump of flying bread. He bent to pick it up, then looked up, only to see Francis sitting quite happily in the lower branches of a nearby tree with a large wicker basket and an even larger grin.
“Hello, my friend!” Francis greeted him cheerfully, swinging himself down from his perch to land next to Erik with a thump. Erik felt a smile stretch across his face at Francis’ sudden appearance, his heart beating just a little faster.
“How did you know I was going to be here? Actually, why are you here? Shouldn’t you be in the stables?” Francis coughed, rubbing the back of his neck before he answered.
“I didn’t know actually; I was on the way into the gardens for a rather nice picnic lunch when I just happened across you.”
“You just happened across me… While perched in a tree?”
“I like sitting in trees! You get a good view… Are you laughing at me?” Erik was indeed laughing at him; Francis was significantly shorter than him, and Erik couldn’t help but be amused at the thought of Francis needing to sit in a tree to get a good view of his surroundings. Francis spluttered indignantly as Erik continued to chuckle at his expense, clearly having identified the reason for Erik’s amusement.
“I’m not that short!” Francis protested, which only set Erik off into further peals of laughter, his earlier exhaustion forgotten in his mirth. Francis stuck a surprisingly pointy elbow into his ribs in retaliation, and Erik responded by squirming away and sticking his fingers into the sensitive flesh of Francis’ waist. Francis let out a very undignified noise that was somewhere between a squeak and a screech and attempted to do the same back to Erik, only to find that Erik was holding him at an arm’s length, his superior height keeping Francis from reaching him. Francis huffed dramatically before throwing his hands in the air in defeat, a mock-pout on his face.
Still wheezing slightly from laughter, Erik picked up Francis’ basket, which had been dropped in the kerfuffle, and started meandering through the gardens, trusting that Francis would follow. He did just that, slipping into step beside Erik as if it was the most natural thing in the world. They walked mostly in companionable silence until the found a bench set back into a hedge with a nice view of the rose beds. Francis sat rather huffily on one end of the bench while Erik sprawled in a somewhat less dignified manner on the other end, leaving just enough room between them for Francis’ basket.
It turned out that Francis had packed a veritable feast; more than enough for two people, even considering that one of them had been riding all day. The munched on it happily, Erik mostly in silence while Francis chattered away about the flora and fauna of Westchester and how it compared to Genosha. Erik supposed that he must have spent a lot of time around animals and outside as a stablehand, although the extent of his knowledge was really quite extraordinary. Maybe, Erik mused as he bit into a peach and watched Francis gesturing excitedly at a passing butterfly, Westchester had a better education system in the lower classes than Genosha. They were well known for their focus on academia, after all. With a jolt of guilt, he remembered the lies he’d told Francis about the reasons for his own education and access to books, but he quickly shoved it down again. It was for the best.
Francis had given up on his upright seating on the bench, and was now lying on his stomach on the path, inspecting some bug or other that had made its home in the soil of the rose bed. Erik felt another involuntary smile spread across his face at Francis’ unrestrained fascination with the small, shiny beetle, and joined him in lying on the ground. Eyes shining with excitement, Francis passed him the insect, which he had managed to tempt into his hand using a small piece of fruit as bait. He was very earnestly explaining to Erik how it abdominal structure was different from its Westchester equivalent, but all Erik could focus on was how very beautiful he looked like this, bathed in sunlight with sticky peach residue and mud on his hands, eyes wide and alight with excitement.
Eventually, the day became too cool to stay out and so Erik reluctantly returned to the castle, although not before promising Francis that they would meet in the same place the following morning for a repeat of their chess tournament from earlier. And if there was a glowing sort of feeling in Erik’s chest for the rest of the day that made him feel pleasantly dizzy and caused a huge smile to break out on his face at any given moment, well, that really could have been caused by anything.
First of all, I'd like to thank all of the lovely people who've read this fic so far! Special thanks to all the wonderful people who have commented, you guys are too kind and it means so much to me that you take the time to comment.
Secondly, I am so sorry for the delay in writing this chapter - real life has been getting in the way somewhat! Updates may be a little spaced out for the next month or so, but after that things should be back to normal (I hope).
Hope you enjoy the chapter!
They were in the tiny library where their first chess match had taken place, but their current game had long since been abandoned. Instead, Charles was pinned against the bookshelf, sandwiched between old, dusty tomes at his back and a very eager blacksmith plastered along his front. Max’s mouth was hot and insistent against his neck, and all Charles could do was tip his head back, mouth half-open in a silent gasp, and surrender to the sensation. One of Max’s hand was trailing up and down his side in a way that he would normally find irritatingly ticklish, but now it was sending tingles down his skin that were anything but unpleasant.
His eyes flickered shut when Max’s teeth scraped sharply at the sensitive skin at the base of his throat, his small, ragged inhale loud in the otherwise silent room. Max pressed closer into him, their bodies crushed together from shoulder to hip, Max’s thigh slotted between Charles’ legs. Charles had one arm wrapped around Max’s waist, keeping them locked together. His other hand was buried in Max’s thick, soft hair, then tracing the sharp planes his face, then grasping his shoulder, then scrabbling helplessly against the shelf behind him as Max sucked on the skin he had just bitten.
He hitched one of his legs around Max’s narrow hips, and the surprised noise Max made in return nearly drew a rather more embarrassing noise from Charles’ throat. Max raised his head and stared intently into his eyes for a moment, their pale blue-grey colour piercing even in the low light, before kissing Charles with a dizzying intensity. The hand that had been delicately tracing his side now had a tight grip on his hipbone as they kissed, but their free hands tangled together surprisingly gently against the books next to Charles’ head. Just when Charles thought he couldn’t stand it any longer, Max’s hand released his hip and began to trail slowly downwards…
Charles woke with a gasp, his head spinning as he sat up too quickly in bed. As soon as he realised what he had been dreaming about, his head dropped into his hands as he groaned out loud in frustration. If he was being perfectly honest with himself, he knew that he’d been painfully attracted to Max since the moment he set eyes on him, but he’d been rather purposefully avoiding indulging in any fantasies that he knew could never come to fruition. Apparently his subconscious had other plans.
He stayed in bed until any evidence of the nature of that particular dream had subsided, then quickly dressed and made his hair at least vaguely presentable before slipping out of his bedroom door. It was quite a feat, managing to escape his rooms without alerting Raven, but it was a skill he’d managed to hone over the years.
He had contemplated telling Raven about Max almost every day since they had arrived in Genosha, but each time he tried he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. While Raven was his friend and they had shared many secrets growing up together, the risk of word getting back to the King and Queen was too great for him to confide in her. There was no doubt in his mind that they would prevent him from seeing Max again purely on account of the difference in their social standings, and that was assuming that they were only under the impression that he and Max had conversed occasionally. If they knew about how close they had grown… Charles didn’t want to contemplate the potential consequences of them knowing that their son was in… was best friends with a blacksmith.
The sun was still rising as he slipped through the gate to the rose garden and settled himself on the bench where he and Max had eaten their picnic the day before. He’d been rather pleased with his plan to surprise Max with lunch, but managed to overlook the fact that he had no idea where the forge in the castle was, or where Max spent his time when he wasn’t working metal. Luckily, his plan to perch in a tree to get a good view of the castle’s main entrance had paid off, with Max wandering directly under that very tree within a few minutes.
They’d spent a wonderfully tranquil afternoon exchanging information about the plants and wildlife of their respective homelands, which led into tales of various boyhood mischiefs. Charles had laughed himself silly at Max’s tales of being scolded in an increasingly high-pitched voice by his mother for trying to swim in the very lake Charles had rescued him from when they first met. Charles in turn had shared his own story about how an attempt to run away from home had led to his father having to rescue him from a small island in the middle of a lake that had been frozen over when he’d crossed it, but had begun to thaw before he could get back.
It felt good to be able to share stories about his father; Kurt only allowed his name to be mentioned if it was directly followed by either a curse or a comparison in which Kurt came out the winner. As a consequence, Charles had quickly learned to keep his memories of his father locked away in a tiny corner of his heart that hadn’t seen the light of day for twelve long years. Of course some of the details of those memories had to be altered before he could tell them to Max (he could hardly keep up the pretence of being a stablehand if he added that his father had had to run out of a meeting with the heads of state of several neighbouring kingdoms to rescue Charles, who at the age of four screamed every time anyone other than his father came near him), but just being able to talk so freely about his childhood had been enough.
He was so deep in thought that he almost fell off the bench in shock when Max appeared before him, chessboard tucked under his arm and his customary half-smirk on his face. Charles could feel a fierce blush forming over his face as he struggled to regain his composure, images from his dream that morning popping into his head at unhelpful intervals.
“Good morning my friend!” Charles said, his cheerful tone sounding just a little forced as he pointedly refused to look Max in the eye.
“Good morning, Francis.” Max’s voice was smooth and rich with the accent of Genosha, and Charles could happily spend all day listening to him talk.
“Are you ready for a rematch? I won’t go easy on you this time.”
“You can go as hard as you like, Francis, I’m sure I can take it.”
Charles nearly choked on air at the suggestion thick in Max’s words and tone. His mind scrabbled to process what he had just heard, and he had almost managed to convince himself that he was merely misinterpreting an innocent phrase until he saw the slow, hot smirk spreading across Max’s face. It was easily the most arousing thing that Charles had ever seen.
Charles rubbed the back of his neck, a nervous habit since childhood, and hunched over the chessboard to begin setting up the pieces before he could say or do anything that he shouldn’t. As much as he wanted to respond to Max’s flirting in kind, he couldn’t ignore his impending wedding, and he refused to entertain the thought of betraying his country by indulging in any indiscretion. His betrothal may have been entirely against his will, but that didn’t mean that he could go around falling into bed with another man. Charles gave himself a mental shake to rid himself of the direction his thoughts had taken, and smiled up at Max, hoping that his expression looked at least somewhat normal.
“We’ll see about that.”
Charles hoped that he had managed to sound coolly detached and perhaps a little superior, but judging by the look on Max’s face, his naturally flirtatious manner had crept though unchecked. Charles ducked his head to avoid meeting Max’s steady, intense gaze that reminded him just a little too strongly of his dream from the night before, and moved his pawn to start the game.
They played for most of the day, sometimes in silence but more often engaged in conversation, quite often abandoning their game entirely in order to further debate the finer points of the poetry, architecture, and foreign policies of the surrounding kingdoms. They were well-matched, both quick-witted and highly intelligent, and Charles found himself laughing in delight on several occasions when Max provided a sharp rebuttal to one of his points, enjoying the thrill of having an intellectual equal. The fought more than they agreed; Max was far more reactionary and harsh than Charles’ more measured, serene outlook, but somehow they seemed to complement each other rather than clash.
One such debate, a discussion on the relative merits of their kingdom’s policies on interference in foreign affairs, became particularly spirited, their outlooks clashing magnificently in almost every way.
“No Francis, you’re deliberately twisting my point! I’m not saying that every kingdom should involve itself in any conflict it happens across for no good reason, I’m saying that there are plenty of very good reasons to do so that you are completely overlooking due to your frankly hopeless naivety! The whole purpose of political alliances is that you come to each other’s aid; holding yourself aloof from conflicts doesn’t make you morally superior, it weakens your relationships with your neighbouring kingdoms and marks you as an easy target. Pacifism is not the route to safety and security for the kingdom; a good military and effective alliances are!”
Max was gesticulating so wildly that their chessboard was in real danger of being knocked flying into the hedgerow. The sun had only recently emerged from the clouds it had been intermittently hiding behind all day, glowing off his tanned skin and brightening his pale, intense eyes. Charles had lost track of the point Max was making several minutes ago, distracted by the warm copper strands in his hair and how the normally smooth cadence of his voice turned rougher, his accent more pronounced, when he was so unself-conscious, too wrapped up in his argument to notice.
Charles felt a sudden lurching feeling in his chest, like he was momentarily weightless, like he was no longer under the influence of gravity. When the world had re-asserted itself, it felt like everything had shifted, like instead of Charles being pulled toward the centre of the planet, he was instead anchored to the beautiful, passionate, ridiculous man in front of him. Max, with his goofy smile that made him look like a shark out of water and his ridiculously detailed knowledge of military history and his unreasonably strong opinions on the best types of cheese (come on Francis, hard cheeses barely count as cheese at all!) and his love of chess, had well and truly stolen Charles’ heart.
He had been trying to deny it, trying to ignore the gut feeling that he’s had since the start that this was something new and special and incredible, but it was no use anymore. He was in love with Max. Dizzyingly, indescribably, infinitely in love with him. It was all he could do to stop himself blurting out the words there and then, sitting cross-legged on the grass in the bright mid-afternoon sunshine over a half-finished game of chess.
The words were almost out of his mouth before he remembered why he couldn’t say them. Could never say them, could never even admit out loud to another living soul, much less scream it at the top of his lungs like he wished he could. He was betrothed. Betrothed to a man he had never met, never even seen. All the love in the world couldn’t undo the simple fact that Charles could never be with Max. If Max were a prince, then maybe… Charles dismissed the fanciful train of thought as soon as it occurred to him. Ifs and maybes could only make everything hurt more, and imagining far-fetched situations in which he could be with Max would only break his heart even further.
The bubbling elation he had felt in that glorious, eternal moment of falling in love was gone; in its place was an empty, sick feeling in his chest where his heart had been just moments before.
“Francis? Are you alright?” Max’s voice was low and concerned, a sharp contrast to his passionate ramblings of the last few minutes.
Charles didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He was in love with this boy, ridiculously so, and it was hard to look at him without surrendering to the great swelling of joy and adoration inside him; however, the pain was equally close to the surface and threatened to pull Charles under into its merciless riptide at any second.
Charles forced himself to nod, to continue with their chess match despite the fact that he was now losing abysmally, to respond to Max’s questions and smile at his jokes. A lifetime of being prepared for royal duties had instilled in Charles the ability to appear to be enjoying himself even when he was miserable inside, and for the first time Charles was thankful for his upbringing.
Their tournament continued well into the evening, and Charles slowly began to regain his spirits. He could never be with Max, this was an unavoidable fact; however, Charles had always had a knack for seeing the best in every situation. The thought of cutting ties with Max now was simply unbearable, so he simply resolved not to do so. He would continue to keep Max in his life for every last moment that he could, keeping his love under wraps for both their sakes. It wasn’t an ideal solution, but the alternative was unthinkable, and so Charles did not think about it. He would bathe in the sunshine of Max’s smiles, glory in the sharpness of his mind and in the surprising gentleness of his soul that lurked underneath his often-prickly demeanour, and he would ignore their impending separation with all of his might.
He would love Max until the end of his days.
Apologies for the delay in getting this chapter up! Hopefully the fact that it's a bit longer than normal will make up for that. Thanks as usual to all the lovely people who comment and leave kudos on this fic, it really does brighten up my day!
Erik’s day wasn’t going quite as he had planned it.
He had fully intended to spend the morning in the library reading (or, if he was being entirely honest with himself, staring blankly at a page while thinking about Francis.) Instead, he had been summoned from his room at a frankly ghastly hour in the morning by his mother, who insisted that he had to get fitted for his wedding outfit right this instant. Erik had only barely held back a rather sharply-worded suggestion about just where she could go stick his wedding outfit, but in the end he knew that his mother was about as excited about his upcoming nuptials as he was.
Queen Edie was a good mother in most of the ways that really mattered; she was kind and gentle and loved her son more than anything else in her life. Sadly, she was also a good queen, which meant that the country she and her husband ruled came before what she wanted, and if her country needed a strong marriage alliance with Westchester, then her son would get married whether he liked it or not.
His mother kept a strict watch over him as he was measured and appraised and had fabric swatches pinned all over him like he was a mannequin, the look in her eye brooking absolutely no argument. Thankfully, she was equally as stern with the flock of tailors surrounding Erik.
“Don’t be ridiculous, he’s not going to be wearing magenta. He’s a prince, not a flamingo!”
“But Your Majesty, the royal colours…”
“I don’t care about the royal colours, my son is not going to look like a demented bird of paradise at his own wedding.”
Erik experienced a fleeting moment of extreme gratitude towards his mother until the words his own wedding passed her lips. Standing in the middle of the room surrounded by tailors was hardly an unusual way to spend the morning in the life of a prince, and Erik had been doing an excellent job of not thinking about exactly what occasion this particular outfit was being put together for. So much for that plan. His only consolation was that at least he wasn’t spending time here when he could have been with Francis, who was apparently stuck helping out in the stables all morning. They were meeting that afternoon though, and the thought was enough to keep Erik from outright scowling at everyone in the room.
After what felt like, and quite possibly was, hours of discussion on what colours he and his fiancé, who was currently being fitted for a matching outfit in the next room, would be wearing (green for Erik and blue for Charles; apparently the colours would match both of their eyes, although Erik strongly suspected that Charles’ eyes would look practically grey in comparison to the sapphire of Francis’), Erik was finally allowed to leave. He slouched back to his room, back aching from having to keep such perfect posture while he was being measured, and sank face-first onto his bed with an aggrieved sigh, half-heartedly punching a pillow for good measure.
“What’s got you in such a good mood today?” Azazel deadpanned from the doorway. Erik nearly jumped out of his skin; Azazel was uniquely talented at appearing noiselessly exactly where you expected him least. Erik grumbled wordlessly into his pillow in response.
“Come to think of it, you have been in a better mood than usual these last few weeks. Looking forward to your wedding that much, eh?”
Erik threw a withering glare over his shoulder at Azazel’s smirking face, but he couldn’t deny that there was a kernel of truth in his words; ever since he met Francis, he had been far happier than… well, probably then he’d ever been in his life. For all his snark and insolence, Azazel wasn’t stupid, and he must have noticed the change in Erik’s demeanour. Erik considered, just for a moment, disabusing him of the notion that it was his impending marriage that had had such a profound impact on his mood, before realising that would mean explaining why he was so happy all of a sudden. Instead, he simply made a hand gesture at Azazel that he most definitely would not have made had his parents been able to see him, and was answered with a low snort.
“Oh, and by the way,” Azazel said over his shoulder, almost as an afterthought, as he left the room, “If my wedding was next week, I’d probably work on communicating by methods other than grunting and using my fingers. Although come to think of it…” Erik leapt from the bed and shut the door firmly in Azazel’s massive, lecherous grin.
The words next week, not to mention the not-so-subtle image Azazel had so kindly supplied him with, rattled around Erik’s brain for the rest of the morning. It wasn’t that he had forgotten that the wedding was so soon, but hearing it out loud was something else entirely. This time next week, he would have a husband, a husband with whom he would be expected to consummate a marriage. He shuddered at the thought, trying his best to block out the image of Francis in place of his fiancé, which made him shudder for an entirely different reason.
The sound of the clock striking noon startled him from his reverie. He cursed to himself as he struggled to pull on both of his boots simultaneously; he was meant to meet Francis at noon, which meant he was running late. He just had time to remember to strip off his waistcoat (he strongly suspected that blacksmiths didn’t wear waistcoats, let alone ones made of finely embroidered silk) before hurtling out of the door and down the corridors that lead out to the gardens. He headed straight for the rose gardens that he had begun to think of as theirs, skidding slightly on the damp grass and nearly landing in a sprawling heap at Francis’ feet.
Even though they had seen each other practically every day since they had met, the sight of Francis’ face still stole Erik’s breath away. His skin had an almost ethereal glow in the sunshine, contrasting stunningly with his dark hair and red lips. It was his eyes though which, as usual, entranced Erik. They were beautiful all of the time, of course, but the way that they crinkled up slightly at the corners when Francis smiled that small, secret smile that belonged to just the two of them was beyond beautiful. It was all Erik could do to not kiss him right there and then. Instead, he settled for returning Francis’ smile and reaching out to touch his shoulder in greeting.
It was only when a whinny broke the tranquil silence around them that he realised how long they had been standing smiling at each other like idiots. Erik looked around for the source of the noise, and was startled to see two horses tied up to the gates, serenely grazing on the grass. Clearly he had been so focussed on Francis that he hadn’t even registered their presence. He could feel a blush rising up his face as he coughed self-consciously and removed his hand from Francis’ shoulder. The movement seemed to startle Francis out of whatever daze they had both been in.
“Good afternoon, my dear friend,” Francis said, and Erik was sure that he must have imagined the tenderness in his tone, like dear friend meant something else entirely.
“Horses?” Erik asked, a little more gruffly than he had intended to. He was sure that there was meant to be more to that sentence, but Francis’ presence seemed to have the effect of scrambling his brain.
“Yes! I thought that we might go for a ride this afternoon,” Francis told him brightly. “Actually… Do you ride?” His friend’s face fell at the words, like this problem had only just occurred to him. Erik supposed that working as a stablehand probably meant that you assumed everyone knew their way around horses as well as you did.
“I very much enjoy riding, actually,” Erik assured him. “Everyone in Genosha rides.” This, at least, wasn’t a lie; riding was somewhat of a national pastime and almost everyone in the country was at least competent on horseback, a fact that Erik was suddenly very grateful for.
“Excellent!” Francis’ eyes lit up in excitement as he swung himself into the saddle of the smaller horse with what seemed to be practiced ease. Erik swallowed dryly as he tried to ignore thoughts about what else Francis would be welcome to swing his thighs over, and mounted the other horse with somewhat less aplomb than usual. It felt strange, riding a horse that wasn’t his own; he supposed that the horsemaster would hardly allow a stablehand to just borrow Magneto for the day. He was barely seated before Francis dug his heels into the horse’s side and set off at a brisk pace towards the shady, secluded gardens at the edge of the castle grounds. Erik watched his retreating figure, graceful and carefree, and felt his heart constrict with something that felt an awful lot like… love. Somehow the sudden realisation that he was in love with Francis didn’t come as a shock. Deep down, he knew he had been in love with him for a while now, at least since their first chess match in the rose garden. It wasn’t so much of a realisation as an unmasking of a feeling that had already taken root deep inside him. Still, he allowed himself to bask in the feeling for a few moments before setting off to follow Francis.
Late afternoon found them sprawled on the grass beneath a towering cherry tree, its branches a riot of bright green leaves and pink blossoms. Every now and then a flower would be dislodged by a gentle breeze and drift down to land on the ground. The balmy air was relaxing, and their conversation had settled into a gentle, companionable silence. Erik glanced over at Francis, and couldn’t help but smile when he noticed that a blossom had fallen into Francis’ hair, a splash of pink amongst the sun-kissed mahogany. Francis’ eyes were closed, enjoying the sun on his skin, and Erik couldn’t help but trace over his features hungrily, gazing at him like he was a fresh stream and Erik a man who was soon to be denied the taste of water. The realisation that this was not far from his true situation brought Erik back to his senses sharply, the sensation not dissimilar from a hard punch in the gut.
Erik shook his head as if to dislodge the contentment that had been happily spreading throughout his body like a soothing bath after a long day’s riding. The movement caught Francis’ attention, and he propped himself up on his elbows to survey Erik thoughtfully. Erik stared at the bark of the tree, willing himself to memorise its rough texture rather than let himself meet Francis’ intense blue gaze. It was, however, a futile effort, and Erik blurted out the first question he could think of to bring himself back to reality, to remind himself of why letting himself love Francis was only going to end in heartbreak.
“So, what’s Prince Charles like then?” Erik asked, almost immediately regretting the question, afraid to know the answer. As far as he knew, Francis didn’t even know the prince; he’d certainly never mentioned him before. Francis chewed his lip thoughtfully and Erik stared at it, losing his train of thought as he watched Francis’ already too-red lip to turn an even redder shade under his teeth. I could be the one to do that Erik thought, before rapidly dismissing the thought, hoping Francis hadn’t noticed the blush that was sure to be spreading across his cheekbones. Erik was so wrapped up in trying to banish thoughts of removing Francis’ lip from his teeth and replacing them with his mouth that Francis’ voice startled him when he replied.
“Honestly?” Francis asked, looking up at Erik through his eyelashes like he was about to impart a great secret. Erik nodded, swallowing the ball of nervous tension that had just made itself known in his throat. “He’s an arrogant fool. Likes doing things his own way, even if he knows it’s going to hurt people in the long run. He’s naive to the point of idiocy; he’s so wrapped up in his own ideals that he won’t see the world for what it really is, and he never learns. He’s stubborn and he’s privileged and he’s…” Francis trailed off, looking both ashamed and defiant, as if he was daring Erik to say one good word about the prince, as if he was likely to. Everything that Francis had told him confirmed his deepest fears; he was betrothed to an arrogant, idealistic idiot that would make not only a terrible king, but an abysmal husband. Any hope that Erik might have been clinging on to that his predicament was at all salvageable withered and died.
Francis must have seen the defeat in his expression, because he reached across the space between them to rest his hand on Erik’s knee and squeezed gently.
“Hey, don’t look like that, it’s not like you’re ever going to have to deal with him! Once this wedding,” Francis’ voice sounded oddly choked on that word, but Erik hardly had time to ponder over it before Francis was continuing, “is all over and done with, he and Prince Erik will be going back to Westchester. You’ll probably never even meet the man!” Erik managed a laugh that sounded a little too bitter, even to his own ears.
“I guess not,” he replied, trying as hard as he could to sound casual. Judging by the expression on Francis’ face, he wasn’t particularly convincing. In an effort to distract his friend before he questioned Erik’s sudden change of mood too closely, he clambered to his feet, brushing the grass off his trousers as he rose, and offered his hand to Francis to help him up. Francis took it gratefully, and it took all of Erik’s strength to not intertwine their fingers and keep Francis tethered to him as they began to walk aimlessly through the gardens, the horses following dutifully behind them. They walked in thoughtful silence, Erik trying valiantly to keep himself from remembering Francis’ evaluation of his future husband. He had known for weeks now that whatever this Prince Charles of Westchester was like, he would never measure up to Francis, but to hear his defects laid out so plainly…
He had barely been paying attention to where they were going, and so he was surprised to find himself by the banks of the very lake that Francis had pulled him from when they first met. Had that only been three weeks ago? It felt like a lifetime.
Francis, clearly having had enough of Erik’s introspective mood, grabbed his hand and, with a mischievous laugh that made Erik’s heart melt a little, dragged him bodily into the lake and proceeded to splash him full in the face with water. Erik spluttered as he cleared the water from his eyes and mouth, then narrowed his eyes at Francis before unleashing a veritable tidal wave of a splash in his direction in retaliation. It drenched Francis completely, his hair dripping and shirt stuck to his skin in a manner that reminded Erik so strongly of their first meeting that it stole his breath for a second.
Francis had clearly realised the similarities too, and his laughter tailed off, replaced with a silence thick with emotion. Erik hadn’t even realised that they were moving closer to each other until they were so close they were almost touching. Francis’ eyes were darting from Erik’s eyes to his hair to his chest, eventually settling on his mouth for just a few seconds longer than could be brushed off as accidental. Erik could feel his heartbeat pounding in his ears, his hands shaking as they rested on the surface of the water that lapped around his waist. He couldn’t stop staring at Francis, couldn’t tear his eyes away if his life depended on it. He lifted one hand to rest it on Francis’ shoulder as it had been earlier in the day, but it felt far more intimate now with their faces so close together, the heat of Francis’ body leeching through the drenched fabric and sending shockwaves down Erik’s arm.
Francis lifted his eyes to meet Erik’s steady gaze, and the hope shining in them was almost heartbreaking in its sincerity. Erik raised his other hand, which was still shaking, to gently cup Francis’ cheek, and Francis sighed quietly and let his face lean into Erik’s touch. Francis reached up to push a lock of hair out of Erik’s eyes where it had fallen during their splashing fight earlier, and the tenderness of the touch broke the floodgates that Erik had built in his mind. He leaned forward, closing the scant few inches left between their faces, and let his eyes drift shut as their lips finally met.
The kiss was short and simple, barely any more than their lips brushing against each other, but it was so laden with emotion that Erik felt like it must have been their souls connecting, not just their mouths. He felt more than heard Francis’ shaky inhalation as they parted, before Francis’ hand moved around to cradle the back of Erik’s head and pulled him in for another kiss. This kiss was different; it was intense and all-consuming and when Erik felt Francis’ tongue sweep across his lips, he parted them helplessly, moving his hand to grasp the small of Francis’ back instead of his shoulder and pull him closer. They eventually parted, both panting slightly, and rested their foreheads together as they regained their breath. Erik let his hand trail gently down the side of Francis’ face, tilting his chin up so that he could look him in the eye. Francis’ expression was almost dumbstruck, for once completely speechless as he stared at Erik as if he was trying to communicate directly into his mind. When Francis spoke, he sounded almost startled by the words coming out of his own mouth.
“I love you.”
Erik stared at Francis, almost unable to believe what he had just heard. Francis loved him. Francis, who was clever and funny and compassionate and exuberant and witty and perfect, loved him back. Erik could feel a wide grin, the one that his mother didn’t like him using in polite company because you look like you’re about to try and eat someone, love, and you’re frightening the ambassador’s daughter, spreading across his face in response.
“I love you too, you know.”
Francis let out a loud, delighted peal of laughter, and it was the best sound Erik had ever heard. He sealed their lips together again as he lifted Francis out of the water in a tight hug, spinning them both around until they were laughing too hard to continue kissing. Still holding Francis tightly around the waist, Erik waded out of the lake and deposited Francis on a sunny patch of grass before collapsing down beside him. He hadn’t realised how careful he’d been to keep a respectable distance between them until he no longer had to, and he couldn’t resist draping an arm over Francis’ waist and pulling him closer until they were nose-to-nose.
“I love you,” he told Francis again, just because he could, punctuating each word with an exaggerated kiss; one each cheek and one on the tip of his nose. Francis blushed an adorable shade of pink and ducked his head so that Erik’s chin was balanced on the top of his head with Erik’s nose buried in his hair. Erik inhaled softly, relaxing into the scent; somehow, he managed to smell of the rose garden and old books and that drink made with dried leaves that was so popular in Westchester. Erik was so wrapped up in the feeling of having Francis in his arms at long last that he barely registered his next words until he had already spoken them.
“Run away with me?”
Erik wanted to take the words back as soon as he’d said them. Why on earth would Francis run away with him? How could he even begin to explain why they would need to run away in the first place? What possible answer could Francis give other than a resounding and highly confused no? Why did he have to say that? Why did he have to ruin this new, beautiful thing between them by being so thoughtless? Why?
Francis’ answer was so simple that Erik almost failed to process it at all, but when Francis lifted his head so that their gazes could lock, there was no denying the certainty and the love in his eyes.
“I…” Erik found himself struggling for words, his mouth opening and closing uselessly. “You should know…” He trailed off again, unsure. Francis loved him; surely the truth about who he was would have to come out sooner or later? He opened his mouth to confess, to spill his soul to Francis and pray that he would be forgiven for his lies and his deceit, when suddenly the image of the fabric his mother had picked out for his wedding outfit that morning flashed to the forefront of his mind. He was meant to be getting married in less than a week. Married to a foreign prince he’d never met before, who was most certainly not the stablehand lying in his arms at this very second. If this had any hope of working, he couldn’t stay in Genosha. He had to leave, get away from this castle and anyone who might recognise him, before he could risk telling the truth. He hated the thought of continuing to lie to Francis, but the thought of this all going wrong and crashing down around his head was worse.
“There’s something you have to know but I… I can’t tell you. Not yet. I promise I will tell you, but we need to be far away from here before you can know. I’m so sorry to hide this from you, but you’ll understand once I tell you. Will you still come away with me?” Erik was expecting confusion or fear or judgement in Francis’ eyes, but for some reason there only seemed to be… relief?
“There are things you don’t know yet about me either, Max, but those are worries for another day. And of course I’ll still come with you – you’re not getting rid of me that easily, not after I’ve only just got you!”
Erik laughed out loud with relief; he couldn’t even bring himself to wonder what it was that he didn’t know about Francis yet. Francis could secretly be a thief or a highwayman or an imposter from a neighbouring kingdom for all he cared. Francis loved him, and he loved Francis, and that was all that mattered.
They stayed wrapped together on the bank of the lake for a long time, kissing and staring and talking quietly with their heads bent together so that their foreheads touched. Eventually, the skies grew dark and the cold wind picked up, chilling them to the bone through their still-damp clothes. Erik reluctantly disentangled himself from Francis and stood up, immediately intertwining his fingers with Francis’ when he stood too.
“I’ll meet you back here at midnight, yes?”
“Of course darling, don’t worry. I’ll be here, ready to start on our little adventure.” Francis’ eyes sparkled at the thought of their adventure, as he’s taken to calling it; it sounded a little less suspicious and a little more romantic than escape. They walked quickly back up to the castle before parting at the rose garden gate so that Francis could return the horses to the stables. Erik bent down to capture Francis’ lips in one last kiss before squeezing his hand gently and then letting go. The lack of physical contact between them left him feeling oddly bereft.
“Midnight,” he said firmly, and let his hand stroke down Francis’ face once more before he tore himself away and practically skipped back to the main door of the castle. He was almost giddy with love and the promise of running away with Francis in just a few hours. Just a few hours and then he could escape from his impending marriage and find himself a new life, one where he could have Francis by his side.
The thought of giving up his old life didn’t exactly thrill him; for all he complained, he did rather enjoy quite of few aspects of royal life, and the thought of never seeing his parents again hurt more than he would care to admit. Still, if it was a choice between that and Francis…
A thought occurred to him just as he passed the door to the King and Queen’s chambers. What if he didn’t have to choose? There must be other ways to make an alliance with Westchester, surely. And his mother was hardly happy at the prospect of marrying off her only child, even if she saw the political sense in it. Maybe if he just told her, she would understand?
No-one had ever accused Erik of being an optimist, but he was suddenly filled with conviction that this would work, this must work. How could it fail? He knew he could do his, for himself and for Francis and for their future together. He straightened his shoulders and knocked on the door, a secret knock he and his parents had invented years ago when he was a little boy so that they would know that it was him knocking and not one of the servants.
“Erik? Come in, love,” his mother answered from the other side of the door, and he entered, full of determination and the hope that he didn’t know he even possessed until he had met Francis. His mother was sitting in her usual armchair by the fire, his father settled in a window seat behind her.
“Are you quite alright? You looked quite flushed, dear. Sit down,” Edie gestured to the unoccupied chair opposite hers. Erik sank into it and took a deep breath, then told his parents the whole story. How he had met Francis, their regular meetings, the chess matches, the long conversations, how he had fallen in love so strongly, how he was loved so strongly in return. He laid out his plans for how else they could form alliances with Westchester; trade deals, military support, financial assistance, everything that was promised already but simply without the marriage aspect. Surely that had to still be a good deal for everyone involved?
It wasn’t until he reached the end of his speech that he saw how stony his parents’ expressions were, and dread suddenly flared in his gut. Surely he couldn’t have misjudged the situation that badly? He looked expectantly between his parents as the silence stretched on, willing them to turn to him and say we’re so happy for you, of course the alliance can still stand without the wedding, let’s throw a banquet in honour of Francis and welcome him to our family, but instead his father walked over to him and placed a heavy hand on his shoulder, his expression impassive.
“Erik, you know that’s not possible. The marriage is essential to the whole alliance; King Kurt was utterly insistent on the matter. The contract has been signed. I’m sorry about your Francis, but the wedding must go ahead. We don’t have any choice – Genosha needs this alliance, and if you’re going to rule it someday, then you need to understand that we make the decisions that are best for Genosha, not best for ourselves.”
Erik looked desperately up into his father’s face, hoping against hope that there was even a scrap of doubt in his eyes, but all he saw was King Jakob, immovable and implacable as if he was at a war council. He turned to his mother, fear and guilt creeping up his throat and strangling him, and saw that despite the tears in her eyes for her son’s plight, she too was resolute.
Maybe he could run away anyway, Erik thought wildly. Maybe he could still sneak out tonight and escape with Francis like they had planned. They might need to run further away or wait longer until he could tell Francis the truth, but they could still make it work. This wasn’t the end, couldn’t be the end.
Azazel suddenly appeared by the door; when his parents had summoned him, Erik couldn’t say.
“Please escort my son back to his rooms, and make sure he doesn’t leave them until the wedding,” Jakob told Azazel heavily.
“No. No. Father, please, please don’t make me…” Erik knew that pleading with his father would make no difference, but he couldn’t stop the words spilling from his mouth in desperation.
“I’m sorry, Erik. I wish it could be another way, but I just can’t risk you jeopardising this alliance.”
And with those parting words, Azazel escorted Erik from the room and shut the doors behind him. Erik considered making a break for it, but deep down he knew it was useless. Azazel said nothing as they walked through the corridors, and Erik was hardly disposed to try to make conversation. He felt hollow inside, numb. He wondered vaguely if he was in shock, before realising that he wouldn’t know how to tell even if he was. Francis would probably know.
Erik barely registered being back in his room until he heard the door bolt slide shut, sealing him into his room. He stared blankly out of the window at the gathering rainstorm, and realised for the first time that he had no way of getting a message to Francis. Azazel wouldn’t leave his post guarding the door, and there were no other servants around at this time of the night. Francis was going to be waiting out there for him in, Erik glanced at the clock, half an hour and Erik wasn’t going to be there to meet him. Was he going to think that Erik had changed his mind? That he had abandoned him, that he hadn’t meant it when he had declared his love?
The rainclouds chose that moment to release their deluge, and Erik sank hopelessly onto his bed, his head in his hands. He stayed that way for a long time, listening to the rain pour down as the seconds ticked by.
Charles was pacing in restless circuits around the lake when the bells tolled midnight. He had a pack slung over one shoulder filled with what he hoped were the essentials; a few blankets, a change of clothes, and all of the gold he could find in his room. It wasn’t much, since he hardly needed to carry cash around with him on a daily basis, but he hoped that it would be enough to get him and Max some food and maybe passage on a ship to some distant country. He wondered where they would go – he could of course use his royal connections to guarantee them a warm welcome anywhere they chose, but if anyone so much as suspected who he was… Well, he’d be carted back to Genosha and married off to Prince Erik before he could draw breath. No, he’d need to hide his identity for the rest of his life. Somehow, trading royal life for Max didn’t seem like a bad deal.
He flopped down under a tree to try to shelter a little from the persistent rain; it had started not long before he snuck out of his rooms past a sleeping Raven, and had continued relentlessly ever since. Charles wondered idly if it was a bad omen before dismissing the idea. They were so close; surely nothing could go wrong now?
He scanned the grounds for Max’s familiar figure, but he could barely see his own hand in front of his face through the combination of the rain and the darkness. The only light left on in the castle was streaming from a single window high up in the west wing. For a second Charles thought it might have been the library where he had stumbled across Max just after their first meeting, but the shape of the window was wrong. If he had to guess, Charles supposed it was probably a bedroom, although why anyone would be awake at this time was a mystery to him.
Charles stared at the light in the window until he lost track of time completely, all the while fighting down the gnawing feeling in his gut that told him that Max still hadn’t appeared, and that the chances of him doing so were growing slimmer with every passing minute. Occasionally, a figure would pace past the window, but other than that distant movement, the whole world seemed to be frozen in place, the rain slowing to a gentle dripping off the leaves of the trees. The clouds were still thick overhead, blocking out the light of the moon and stars, and no breath of wind stirred as the night dragged on.
Charles was roused from his absent staring by the sound of the bell chiming three in the morning. Three hours late. He could still be coming, Charles reassured himself, but he couldn’t keep the edge of panic out of his mental voice as he resumed his pacing around the lake. He might just have been held up. Maybe the clock in his room was wrong. Maybe he had to wait for someone to fall asleep before he could sneak out past them. Maybe he was trying to sneak down to the kitchens to get them some food and got lost. Maybe…
Maybe he wasn’t coming. The thought hit Charles like a vicious jab to the gut, and he doubled over, choking on the almost physical pain of it.
Their little adventure, he’d called it just that afternoon, basking in the warmth of Max’s smiles and his certainty of their love. Max didn’t seem to have noticed that the jovial nickname was covering up the very real fear in Charles’ voice, that he was desperately trying to mask the nerves that were vibrating throughout his whole body at the thought of leaving behind his family, basically abandoning his country and ignoring his sense of duty for a shot at a life that he had never even allowed himself to dream of before.
It didn’t seem so much like an adventure now. It seemed like the naïve dream of an idealistic fool. That was how he’d described himself to Max that afternoon, so sick of the superficial, thoughtless praises showered on him by the court that it was a relief to voice his own flaws out loud for once. He hadn’t expected to prove himself right so soon. Likes doing things his own way, even if he knows it’s going to hurt people in the long run. Well, he’d certainly managed that, even if the only person hurt by this was himself.
He wondered which of his flaws it was that had driven Max away, had made him go back on his promises and declarations and leave Charles abandoned in the dark. He scanned back over his memories of the afternoon, pulling apart their every interaction, desperate to find where everything had gone wrong. Had he seen through Charles’ lies, realised exactly who and what he was? He’d been so careful, constructing excuse after excuse to explain his absences while he was being fitted for his wedding clothes. A vision of the beautiful waistcoat of sapphire blue silk (“It will complement your eyes quite beautifully, your Majesty,” the tailor had told him) swam before his eyes, and the feelings of panic and dread began clawing their way back up his throat again. Not only had he somehow lost Max, he was also utterly trapped in the arranged marriage that had begun this whole mess. Charles shuddered violently, pushing the thought away. He had been far too careful, there was no way that Max had discovered the truth in the few hours since they had last seen each other.
A sudden, awful thought occurred to Charles. Did Max not love him? He had been so sure that Max felt the same, so unable to keep his feelings to himself any longer, but could it be that he had spoken too soon? Maybe Max simply repeated the sentiment back to him to avoid embarrassing him; was it possible that he had misjudged the situation so very badly? If his heart had been on the verge on hammering out of his chest before, now it felt like it had stopped entirely as a wave of cold horror swept over him. Max didn’t love him. That was the only explanation – he hadn’t wanted to tell Charles directly that he didn’t love him, and had instead set this up to let him realise it for himself. Charles couldn’t tell who he hated more; Max, for not telling him upfront, or himself for not seeing it straight away. But Max had looked so in love, sounded so certain, kissed him with such joy…
Charles felt his shaking legs finally give way as he sank to the ground, head in his hands as the wet grass soaked through his clothes. He realised that, in a twist of cruel irony, he was at the same spot as he had dragged Max out of the lake when they had met. Except everything had changed now – where it had been bright and warm, it was now pitch black and the chill of night had well and truly set in.
The only light was from the single window in the castle, and Charles realised with dull certainty that it must be Prince Erik’s room; only the prince and his parents actually slept in that wing, and the king and queen’s chambers faced out over the front of the castle, not back across the lake. Charles eyed the window dispassionately and, as if on cue, the distant figure of Charles’ fiancé paced past the window once more. If Max was well and truly lost to him, then it seemed that this man really was the be his husband in less than a week’s time. He would marry the prince because he had no other option; because it was the right thing to do, as it had been all along. Charles would go through with the wedding, smile dutifully as he was eternally bound to this stranger, and he would live forever with the secret knowledge that he had lost the only person he could ever love.
With that thought, Charles stood, straightened his shoulders the way that his mother had always taught him to, and walked back to his rooms. He made sure to walk quietly so as not to awaken anyone, and kept his breathing deep and slow to stave off the tears that burned at his eyes. He heaved in a huge, shaky breath when he finally slipped through the door to his rooms, and nearly leapt out of his skin when he saw the faint light reflecting off a pair of eyes watching him from the chair in the corner.
“Where exactly have you been, Charles?” Raven’s voice seems torn between anger and amusement as she rose, hands on her hips.
Charles opened his mouth to lie, to tell her that he had been sleepwalking or went on an insomnia-inspired wander around the castle, but all the came out was a strangled cry and the flood of tears that he had been holding back since he had realised that Max wasn’t coming. Raven’s expression immediately softened into a look of worry as she hurried over to his side, pulling him into a tight embrace. Charles buried his face in her hair as he cried, massive, gut-wrenching sobs tearing themselves from his throat as he began to shake.
Raven pulled him over to the chair and all but pushed him into it, perching on the arm so that she could continue to hold Charles, stroking his hair gently until he had regained his breath enough to speak.
“Tell me what’s wrong, Prof,” she murmured, using her old nickname for him from when they were children and Charles had enjoyed lecturing her on his day’s lessons like a tiny, pompous, eight-year-old professor.
“I… I had a friend. A good friend. We had a… a falling out. And now he’s not my friend anymore.” Charles knew that his attempt to hide what had really happened was pathetic at best, but even now he couldn’t bring himself to share the whole story.
“Oh, Charles. This wasn’t just a good friend, was it?” she asked, her voice full of unbearable pity. He mutely shook his head before a fresh wave of tears arrived, trickling down his face to fall on his hands, clasped uselessly on his lap. Neither of them needed to say out loud how hopeless his situation was; Raven had worked for the royal family for long enough to know how implacable they were on matters of royal protocol, and therefore how precisely non-existent the chances of him getting out of an arranged marriage were. Instead, she simply sat with him in silence as the sun gradually began to rise over the horizon, glistening off the tears that still rolled slowly down Charles’ face.
The next several days passed in a haze of despair for Charles; he ate and slept only to avoid Raven’s alternating cajoling, pleading and threats of bodily harm. Leaving his room was out of the question; everything in the castle made him think of Max, and his fragile sense of composure couldn’t withstand the barrage of emotions that entailed. Instead, he spent his hours curled up silently in the armchair, staring unseeingly at the wall and trying in vain to not think about anything at all. Not about Max, not about the wedding, not about Prince Erik, and not about the bleak future he was about to embark on. However, as much as Charles wished otherwise, time progressed unfeelingly onwards.
The wedding drew inexorably closer.
I am so sorry for all this angst - things will start looking up for our boys soon! Next up, the wedding...
The day of the wedding dawned clear and sunny. The servants murmured to each other that it was a good omen, that it signified blessings on the marriage. Gardeners hurried in and out of the palace with armfuls of flowers to decorate both the church and the palace, blossoms spilling from their arms to drift on the balmy breeze and settle on the lawn. The storms from earlier in the week had disappeared, replaced by a delightful warmth that seeped through every stone in the palace, brightening even the dingiest of hallways.
Erik did not notice the weather.
He stood motionless in the centre of his bedchamber, unresponsive to the chaos all around him. Two servants were busy laying out his wedding clothes on the bed, fussing over the details and ensuring that not a single crease could be found in the fabric. A terrified-looking young scullery girl was trying to remove his breakfast dishes (the food still mostly untouched) from the room without being barged into by Azazel, who had been charging around the castle for the best part of two days, ensuring that every detail of the upcoming celebrations was accounted for.
Erik only stirred from his blank staring at the opposite wall when the motion around him abruptly stopped. He glanced up listlessly to find all the servants deep in bows or curtsies; his mother was standing in the doorway, already outfitted in the regal splendour that was expected of a queen. The sunlight glinted serenely off her crown, sending tiny rainbows dancing across the room.
“You may leave us for the moment,” she told the assembled staff, all of whom disappeared more quietly than Erik could have thought possible considering the hubbub of only moments earlier. Only Azazel stayed, although he retreated to stand guard outside the door. Erik imagined this was rather more to do with providing extra security rather than any wish to avoid eavesdropping on a private conversation.
Edie perched cautiously on the edge of Erik’s bed, careful to avoid disturbing the clothes laid out there. She reached out a hand gently towards her son, and Erik took it, albeit rather sullenly.
“Erik, liebling, your father and I are so proud of you,” she began, using the endearment from the old Genoshan language that she had bestowed on him since childhood, but Erik’s thunderous expression put paid to any attempts to finish the sentiment. Erik couldn’t find the words for the hurt and betrayal pulsing through his veins, resentment at the thought of his parents’ pride and the price he had paid for it clear on his face. Edie sighed softly and released his hand, and began twisting one of the rings around one of her fingers. It was a nervous habit that Erik recognised from his youth; the same one she had displayed so often when attempting to deliver a lecture about proper princely behaviour at the cost of her young son’s independence.
“This is for the best. You know it is. I truly am sorry about… About the sacrifices you’ve had to make, but you must not dwell on them. Genosha needs this of you, and one day you will understand why this is the right path.”
The spasm of pain that crossed Erik’s face at the word sacrifices did not go unnoticed by either party, but it remained unacknowledged, as if voicing the true nature of what Erik had been forced to give up would make it all the more painful for him. At least his mother knew him better than to attempt to suggest that he may find love in his soon-to-be husband; Erik doubted that his pitiful self-restraint could have borne that. He was struggling enough to hold in the shaking rage that had ravaged his heart and mind for days now.
Clearly aware that Erik had no reply for her other than cold eyes and forced, too-steady breathing, Edie rose, gently traced Erik’s cheek with soft, apologetic fingers, and then left wordlessly, still every inch the queen even in her pain.
As soon as she left the room, the servants came bustling back in as if they had never left, returning to buzzing around Erik like a particularly stubborn swarm of insects. Erik resumed his doomed staring match with a particularly ugly wall sconce.
All too soon, Azazel informed him that the inevitable could not be delayed any longer; it was time to get ready. Erik moved like a puppet on a string, lifting his arms and legs when required, simply allowing Azazel and the tailor to dress him, pointedly not looking at the clothes he was wearing. He didn’t want to see the green waistcoat, embroidered subtly with the Genoshan coat of arms in green and gold thread, or the black coat that went over it, the decorative brocade heavy across his shoulders. He stood motionless and impassive while the pale gold cravat was knotted expertly around his neck by Azazel. He had always tied his own cravat in the past, more to needle Azazel than anything else, but even his familiar back-and-forth mock rivalry with his manservant couldn’t induce him to crack the faintest smile.
“Time to go, sir,” Azazel said somewhere in the vicinity of his ear, and Erik startled at the proximity. Azazel simply smirked at him, clearly proud to have managed to elicit some reaction, and nodded towards the clock, which did indeed show that it was time for them to be leaving. Erik nodded once, hollowly, and began the descent to the front gate, where a massive golden carriage awaited him.
Erik had always hated the carriage; it was ostentatious in the extreme, and surprisingly uncomfortable to boot. Still, he climbed in with as much grace as he could muster, and managed to wave at some of the servants who had come to the gate to watch him depart for the church. He scanned their faces desperately, wondering if he might glimpse Francis somewhere among them, both hoping and dreading seeing his face. However, he was nowhere to be seen.
Erik settled back into the seat as the carriage began its short climb up the hill to the church. The next time he sat in this carriage, it would be with his husband. With Charles. He noted with dull surprise that the thought didn’t even disgust him anymore; he simply couldn’t bring himself to care. They could marry him off to a porcupine for all he cared. This Charles could be wonderful or he could be awful or he could be anything in between (although Erik couldn’t help but feel that awful was a more likely option) – Erik would not, could not, even begin to love him. Not when Francis was still somewhere out there in the world.
Not that Francis would so much as look at him now, not after what Erik must have put him through. A wave of anger and self-loathing threatened to engulf him, but there was no satisfaction left in torturing himself over how he had ruined the only thing he had ever wanted. It was all he had done ever since the night everything had gone wrong, and his rage and despair had utterly hollowed him out.
The carriage came to a slightly ungainly halt outside the church. The white-washed stonework seemed to glow in the sunlight, and the climbing vines that had decorated the front of the church for as long as anyone could remember had flowered for the occasion, the blood-red petals contrasting beautifully with the rich green of the vines themselves.
Erik climbed out of the carriage, unsure whether the sudden rushing in his ears was the distant call of the sea or his own pulse, uncomfortably loud in his head. He took a deep breath and waved at the crowd; it seemed as if all of Genosha was waiting for his, cheering and screaming their joy. He attempted a smile, but a small grimace was the closest he could muster. Hopefully they would assume he was merely suffering from a small case of the wedding jitters; it would hardly do for the whole country to become a spectator to his misery.
For the first time, Erik wished that someone could have accompanied him on his journey to the church. However, that was not the Genoshan way; both parties must enter into the wedded state unaccompanied, to represent them leaving behind the ties of their life before matrimony. Erik had always thought it a rather harmless tradition, if a little nonsensical, but as he walked down the path to the church he rather wished that the wedding traditions of his country weren’t quite so isolating.
Instead of the main door, Erik entered through a side-gate on the right of the church, which brought him into a small room. Its only features were a dusty, ancient-looking chair in one corner, and an intricately-carved door directly facing him. The door, Erik knew, lead into the main building of the church. An identical room on the opposite side of the church would currently contain his fiancé. An aisle connected the two rooms, with an altar at the exact mid-point where the ceremony itself would take place. A second aisle, at right-angles to the first, lead away from the altar to the main door, where newly-wedded couples would exit and begin their lives together.
Erik glanced at the chair in the corner before dismissing it in favour of pacing around the room. He had barely completed his third lap around the room when he heard the door begin to creak. He immediately stopped in his tracks, heart hammering. He turned so that he was fully facing the door, and clasped his hands behind his back to hide the fact that they were shaking. The door opened.
The first thing that Erik became aware of was that the church was a lot wider than he had previously noticed; it seemed like a very long way from his room to the altar. He squinted to try to see his almost-husband in spite of himself, but all he could make out were colours, no details. The figure at the other end of the church was dressed almost identically to him, but with sapphire blue in place of green, and silver where Erik had gold. He appeared to have dark, chestnut-brown hair and pale skin, and the combination felt like a kick in Erik’s gut.
Great. The universe tears me away from Francis, and then makes me marry someone that looks a little like him from a distance. That’s wonderful.
Erik’s thoughts were bitter as he began to walk ever closer to his fate. The approaching prince was shorter than Erik had expected, but walked with an unnervingly familiar gait.
Okay, so he has the same hair colour as Francis. The same skin. The same height. The same way of walking. What sort of cruel joke is the universe trying to play on me here?
Anger was starting to bubble up in his gut, burning away his earlier nerves. How could he be expected to marry this man, when every new detail Erik could make out only served to remind him more of the love he had lost? He could feel his nails biting into his palms as he walked, and the pain distracted him from the overwhelming sense that this was all so incredibly unfair. He chanced another glance at Prince Charles, determined to stamp out any notion that he and Francis could share any more than a passing resemblance.
Erik stumbled and nearly tripped over his own foot.
His brain felt like it had been completely emptied out, wiped clean of everything but Francis’ name. He could barely keep placing one foot in front of the other, and he was sure that his mouth must be hanging open in shock.
The only thing that kept him from simply stopping was the look of pure shock reflected back at him in Francis’ eyes. His blue, blue eyes, so unlike any that Erik had ever seen before, gazing at him from that familiar, beautiful face as if he was terrified that Erik could disappear between one breath and the next.
They came to a stop at the altar at the same time, eyes still locked. Erik wished he could understand the emotions that seemed to be flashing through Francis’ eyes too quickly to register; there was complete shock, of course, but also pain and anger and hope and… love. There was definitely love, and that was all Erik needed to know.
He extended one hand, shaking more than he had been even as the door had opened, and Francis’ cool palm slid into his, their fingers tangling together as if they were built to fit together. They turned to face the officiant, an ancient, wizened old man who had presided over royal weddings, births and funerals for as long as Erik could remember.
“Your Royal Majesties,” he began in his weak, cracked voice, with a bow towards where Erik knew both sets of royal families were seated, “ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today to witness the union of Erik Magnus of House Lehnsherr, Prince of Genosha, and Charles Francis of House Xavier, Prince of Westchester…”
Erik risked a glance out of the corner of his eye at Fran...Charles, who was glancing back at him with what could only be described as a slightly sheepish grin. Suddenly, Erik’s heart felt lighter than it had since they had agreed to run away together. Charles was Francis. Francis was Charles. Everything was going to be alright, because they were together now. There were explanations to be given and apologies to be issued and lost time to be made up for, but in that moment it didn’t matter at all.
Erik barely even noticed the rest of the ceremony go by, but apparently he and Fr-Charles had adequately managed to parrot back the appropriate phrases because the next thing he knew there was an enormous cheer and the officiant was announcing that they were married, and may kiss.
Erik turned to face Charles, and gently cradled his head in both of his hands before leaning down to kiss him. Charles’ soft hair brushed against his fingertips as Charles leaned into the kiss, sighing gently against his mouth, and Erik wondered if it was possibly to simply float away with the amount of happiness bubbling inside him. The kiss was soft and quick, barely any more than a prolonged brushing of lips, but it tasted like love and victory and joy and hope all rolled into one.
They turned to face the congregation behind them, their fingers interlocking once more as they began the walk down the aisle towards the doors. The doors had been flung open wide, and the bright summer sunshine flooded into the church, filling the air with the sweet scent of flowers. The cheers of the crowds outside were almost deafening even at this distance, and the church bells were peeling joyfully overhead.
They emerged out into the open air to the sound of even more raucous applause and a sudden shower of petals, which fell to rest in both of their hair. Erik raised his hand to wave at the crowds, beaming, and he was sure that he looked like a different man from when he had entered the church an hour earlier. Beside him, he could feel Charles also waving at the crowds, his smile wide and welcoming. Erik saw with a sudden clarity how his sunny, enthusiastic, engaging Francis would make (did make) the perfect prince – charming and handsome and with that smile of his that could melt a thousand hearts. Erik felt a burst of pride in his chest as he gazed at his husband.
He was so caught up in gazing at Charles that he almost fell when Charles tugged on his hand to indicate that they should probably make their way to the carriage that awaited them at the end of the path. They walked slowly, shaking hands and receiving well-wishes from the people as they went, their hands still clasped between them all the while. Erik handed Charles up into the carriage, and climbed in after him, closing the door behind him.
Erik let out a long, shaky breath as the carriage pulled away, and then chuckled.
“Well that was unexpected!” He regretted his words as soon as they left his mouth – after all that had just happened, that was the best he could manage? Charles let out a weak laugh.
“Yes, it was hardly what you had planned to happen,” he said, and the slight edge to his voice caught Erik’s attention. He frowned, and took one of Charles’ hand between both of his.
“Francis- Charles, are you alright?” he asked, fear flooding through him once more. This was what they had wanted… Wasn’t it?
“I… Yes, well… I mean…” Charles was refusing to meet his eyes, and Erik felt the panic he thought he’s left behind when he’d recognised Charles at the church making its way back into his throat. “It’s just rather unfortunate, is it not? That you decide that you don’t want me after all, and then you get stuck with me all the same…”
It felt like someone had reached into his chest and crushed his heart in their fist. Erik suddenly realised that the smile he’s seen on Charles’ face as they left the church – it wasn’t the result of happiness or love. It was for the people, a mask carefully cultivated to show the them what they wanted to see. Erik had been so overwhelmed with joy, he hadn’t even considered that Charles might not be feeling the same. But he was wrong and Charles thought that Erik had abandoned him through choice, that he no longer loved him…
“Charles,” Erik said, his voice low and fierce, “I love you. I love you with everything that I am and everything that I ever will be, and this last week has been hell. Please believe me, love, I tried to come for you that night, but I was stupid and careless and I thought that our love could overcome anything. I thought that if I told my parents, they would understand, they would let us be together, but they didn’t and I’ve been locked in my rooms ever since and I can’t even possibly tell you how much it hurt me to watch the hours tick past and know that you were out there waiting for me and I couldn’t come to you and all I could think of was how lost and abandoned you must have felt. I’m so sorry liebling, please forgive me.” At any other time, Erik would have been embarrassed to hear himself babbling, but he couldn’t bear to leave the words unsaid for any longer than was absolutely necessary.
Charles looked up at Erik, finally meeting his gaze.
“You really wanted to run away with me? You didn’t change your mind? You didn’t lie about loving me?” His voice was very small, but brimming with hope.
“Never, my love. I would never lie…” Erik broke off mid-sentence with a self-conscious laugh, “I would never lie to you about anything other than secretly being a prince?” he said, gesturing weakly at the opulence of the carriage surrounding them.
To his delight, Charles let out an undignified snort of laughter that quickly dissolved into a highly contagious fit of giggles. Soon they were both utterly helpless, clutching onto each other with laughter as the absurdity of the situation finally began to sink in. They barely managed to control themselves by the time the carriage came to its customary jerky stop outside the castle, nearly throwing them both off their seats and risking setting off a fresh round of hysterics. They composed themselves quickly, straightening their clothes and smothering the last few giggles that threatened to escape.
“Are you ready?” Erik asked Charles, one hand on the door latch and the other intertwined so tightly with Charles’ that he could feel Charles’ wedding band digging into his skin. Charles nodded, beaming at Erik as if he was the most incredible thing he had ever seen. Erik leaned down to press a quick kiss against Charles’ mouth, but Charles’ free hand threaded itself into his hair, pulling him closer and deepening the kiss. Erik let go of the door handle to cradle the back of Charles’ neck as Charles’ tongue gently pressed against his lips, and he opened them eagerly. A giddy rush spread through him when their tongues brushed against each other, gently exploring each other’s mouths and making Erik’s head spin.
They eventually parted, both slightly out of breath, and the love shining in Charles’ eyes was so strong that Erik could have cried from gratitude and relief that he hadn’t lost Charles for good.
“I love you,” he whispered, and Charles’ lips, even redder than usual from kissing, quirked upwards into the smile that Erik knew was reserved just for him.
“I love you too, Erik,” Charles replied, and the sound of his name in Charles’ voice nearly made him weak at the knees.
Erik opened the carriage door and they stepped out into their new lives together, hand in hand.
One more chapter left to go, and then the story will be all wrapped up! Thank you so much to everyone who has read, kudos'd and commented, you guys make all the hard work worth it.
The click of the door latching behind them was quiet, but it seemed almost deafeningly loud to Charles’ ears after the revelry of the wedding feast that had dragged on until the early hours of the morning. The feast had passed in a blur of music and food and introductions to seemingly every member of the Genoshan court; Charles had barely registered any of it. The only thing that kept him grounded was the feeling of Erik’s hand tightly intertwined with his own, refusing to let go even for a moment. Their hands were still locked together now as they took in the room; the suite was almost impossibly grand, second only to the King and Queen’s own, and every surface was adorned with candles, casting an almost ethereal glow.
A large, four-poster bed occupied part of the room, the heavy curtains resplendent in the Genoshan colours and contrasting beautifully with the warm, dark wood that formed the frame, intricately carved to resemble twisting vines. A fireplace with two surprisingly comfortable-looking armchairs faced the bed, and between them was a glass door that Charles guessed must lead out onto a balcony.
“The balcony has a beautiful view; you can see right out over the lake during the daytime,” Erik informed him, clearly noticing where Charles’ gaze had landed. It was the first time either of them had spoken since they left the feast, and the sound of Erik’s voice so close to his own ear set off a trail of goosebumps down Charles’ neck.
“The lake?” Charles asked, proud when his voice came out far steadier than he was expecting. “We must be on the same side of the castle as the library then,” he mused, mostly to himself.
“No, the library’s in the south wing… Oh wait, you mean my library! Yes, we’re just a floor above it actually.”
“Your library?” Charles asked, the pieces starting to slot into place in his mind.
“Yes, ah, you may have come across my personal library, the one attached to my rooms, when you got lost that time,” Erik told him, looking somewhat sheepish.
“So you mean to say that I was in the prince’s private library, with the prince, and I had no idea?” Charles was torn between being amused and absolutely mortified. He had always prided himself on his quick wit and sharp mind, and the sudden realisation of all the obvious clues he’d missed was utterly humiliating. He could feel the blood burning in his cheeks as he dropped gracelessly into one of the armchairs, pulling his hand away from Erik’s in order to hide his face in both hands. Instead of occupying the other chair, Erik dropped to his knees next to Charles and patted the top of his head in an awkwardly endearing manner that made Charles melt a little inside.
“Not to make you feel worse, but you believed me when I told you that apprentices could use the royal libraries after hours?” Erik’s tone was only softly mocking, but Charles glared at him from between his fingers all the same.
“I thought that Genosha just had a surprisingly admirable education system for apprentices!” Charles defended weakly, giving Erik another baleful glare when Erik’s face twisted into wry amusement.
Clearly satisfied that Charles wasn’t about to have a mental breakdown any time in the next few minutes, Erik rose and folded himself elegantly into the other armchair, his long legs stretched out so that their ankles tangled together. The physical contact was simultaneously unsettling and reassuring, and Charles lifted his head from his hands to see Erik staring at him with a soft smile that made him feel oddly vulnerable.
Now that the connections were starting to be forged in his brain, Charles started to realise more and more of the things that had never quite added up about “Max”; his obviously high level of education, his clothes, which were both far too fine and far too clean to belong to an apprentice blacksmith, the fact that he only ever seemed to be needed at the armoury at the same time as Charles’ fittings for his wedding clothes… It was almost embarrassingly obvious in hindsight.
“We’re both complete idiots, aren’t we?” Charles finally said, leaning back in his chair to better watch Erik’s face as it split into a magnificently toothy grin.
“Absolutely. I mean for one thing, Francis? Who could ever look at you and think your name was Francis? Charles suits you much better,” Erik said, his eyes roving across Charles’ face and body appraisingly.
“It’s my middle name, so it was the first name that popped into my head! Mind you, I’m quite glad you didn’t opt for the same strategy, Erik Magnus.” Erik winced playfully at the mention of his middle name.
“Low blow, Xavier, low blow. Max was the name of my first horse, actually.”
“Just as well you went with Max, I’m not sure I ever could have fallen in love with someone called Magnus,” Charles informed Erik, trying to make his voice sound as serious as possible, although judging by Erik’s chuckle, it wasn’t overly effective.
“Speaking of horses, do you know anything about horses at all, Mr. Stablehand?”
“Very little,” Charles informed him cheerfully. “Although I daresay more than you know about blacksmithing.” Erik nodded agreeably at the assessment, his eyes crinkling at the corners in a way that made Charles want to lean across the space between them and kiss him until neither of them could remember who they were, let alone who they had pretended to be. He was about to do just that when a crease began to form between Erik’s eyebrows, a frown settling in across his handsome face.
“Erik?” Charles asked, and for the first time since the carriage ride away from the church, his traitorous voice wavered.
“I asked you… before I knew who you were, I asked you what Prince Charles was like. What you were like. You told me that you were arrogant and stubborn and that you hurt people… Charles,” Erik’s voice was suddenly forceful, “you don’t honestly believe these things about yourself?” Erik’s forehead was so deeply creased that Charles was worried that it would never smooth out again, and the urgency in Erik’s voice was almost frightening.
“I didn’t say anything that wasn’t true, Erik,” he began, holding up a hand to stem the denial that was clearly on the tip of his husband’s tongue, and tangling their fingers together once more. “I’m not always the easiest person to get along with, as a lot of people will happily tell you. I can be condescending and insensitive and, yes, I do hurt people by failing to acknowledge the reality of a situation. Look at us! I know that, somehow, against all the odds, we’re together, but as far as we both knew, this was doomed from the start, and we both decided to ignore that and risk breaking both of our hearts. I guess we’re more alike than I thought we would be.” He almost laughed, pressing his lips to Erik’s hand, revelling in the ridiculous twists of fate that had bound them so irrevocably together.
Erik, however, didn’t seem appeased. “You’re perfect, Charles, and your flaws don’t detract from that.” Charles wanted to protest the contradiction, but now it was Erik’s turn to steamroller over any denials. “You’re nothing like what I thought you would be. I always thought that people from Westchester were stuffy, and passive, and cared more about books and retaining their neutrality than about their people. Charles, you care more than anyone I’ve ever met, and if that means that you look for the good in people and situations more than you should… There’s no way I can hold that against you. Besides, both of us fell in love with each other while thinking we were engaged to someone else, so I can hardly blame you for that.” Erik’s eyes were warm as the side of his mouth quirked up in a self-deprecating grin.
“I thought Genoshans were all violent and proud and fearsome,” Charles admitted quietly, more than a little embarrassed to be confessing his prejudices. He searched Erik’s face for a trace of offense or anger, but instead all he saw was amusement glittering in Erik’s eyes.
“Are you saying I’m not fearsome?” Erik demanded, trying to sound indignant but failing miserably, let down by the grin overtaking his entire face. He stood abruptly, and before Charles knew it, had picked Charles up out of his own chair as if he weighed nothing. Charles squeaked in alarm (a fact that he would later contest – princes did not squeak) and threw his arms around Erik’s neck in an attempt to prevent him from falling out of Erik’s arms. The movement brought his and Erik’s faces very close together, and Charles was suddenly very aware that this was his wedding night, and what that entailed.
Erik seemed to have abruptly come to the same realisation, and their laughter trailed off, replaced only by the sounds of their breathing. It felt like the whole universe had frozen in place, leaving only the two of them, spiralling ever closer together like a planet being pulled inexorably towards a black hole. Their eyes locked, bright blue staring into pale grey-green. The moment stretched out for what could have been a small eternity, and then suddenly they were both moving at once, their mouths crashing together.
It was hardly the most dignified kiss, but Charles could hardly bring himself to care, his heart pounding as their lips slid together frantically, the angle that Erik was holding Charles at making it difficult to face each other fully. He distantly registered that Erik was moving, but it wasn’t until he was falling through the air onto the soft mattress that he realised that they had moved over to the bed. A thrill of nerves shot through him, but as soon as Erik lay down next to him, they dissolved into anticipation. Erik reached out to thread a hand through Charles’ hair, and then they were kissing again, pulling each other as close as possible, limbs tangling together. Charles rested one hand on the back of Erik’s head, and let the other one wander, brushing down Erik’s arm, then delicately tracing across his waist. Erik’s breath hitched as Charles’ hand brushed across a hipbone through his shirt, and suddenly Charles was very aware of how many layers they were wearing, and how much he wanted rid of them.
He pulled Erik so they were sitting upright, mouths still sliding against each other in a way that was making Charles more than a little light-headed, and started pushing Erik’s jacket off his shoulders. A small, distant part of his brain told him that he should probably feel bad for throwing the very beautiful piece of clothing across the room quite so unceremoniously, but the much larger part of him was a lot more interested in the fact that Erik was now brushing soft, teasing kisses up and down his neck. Charles arched his neck involuntarily, his breath sounding more like gasps now, and he could feel Erik smile against his skin before he licked a stripe up his neck. Charles’ head was spinning, the path that Erik’s tongue had traced up his neck almost burning, as he reached out to untie Erik’s cravat. He gave up on the third attempt, his hands shaking too hard and his brain far too distracted to complete what should have been a simple task.
Unwillingly, Charles batted Erik’s head away from the sensitive spot he had just discovered behind Charles’ ear. Erik looked devastating – the colour was high in his cheeks and his eyes were dark and glittering in the candlelight. Charles took a few steadying breaths, trying not to focus on how Erik’s hair was already in tousled disarray.
“Sorry, I couldn’t undo your… While you were doing…” Charles gestured vaguely between them, hoping that Erik would be able to infer the words that his brain was failing to provide him with. Erik smirked, just a little, before reaching up to untie his cravat, although Charles would see the slight tremor in his hands which suggested that Charles was hardly the only one so affected by their kissing. Charles stared unabashedly as the silky material came undone, slipping off and revealing the base of Erik’s throat. It was only when Erik started reaching for the hem of his shirt that Charles realised that he was still fully clothed, and he scrambled to remedy the situation, shedding his jacket, cravat and shirt in quick succession. He turned back to Erik as soon as he was done, and the sight of him nearly knocked the breath completely out of Charles’ lungs.
Erik was lean yet toned, his chest and stomach well-defined without being overly-muscled. His slightly tanned skin glowed golden in the candlelight, the contrast with Charles’ porcelain complexion obvious when he reached out a hand to rest on Erik’s chest, just above his heart. He pushed gently until Erik was forced to lie back on the bed, and Charles followed, propping himself up on his elbows. He ran one hand down Erik’s side experimentally, and a bolt of arousal shot through him when Erik let out a tiny gasp as Charles’ hand trailed back over his sensitive hipbone. He brushed his hand back over it again, this time with a little more force, and was rewarded with a loud, shaky intake of breath from Erik, whose eyes had slid closed, his head tipped back into the pillow. Charles’ hand started wandering further, smoothing across Erik’s flat stomach and up across his chest again, circling around Erik’s nipples repeatedly when the action elicited a sharp gasp.
It wasn’t until Charles sat up to straddle Erik’s thighs and give himself more unrestricted access to Erik’s body that he noticed how hard he had grown, but he was suddenly very aware of his cock straining against his trousers, achingly hard. He couldn’t help but brush his hand across the bulge in his trousers, and he hissed through his teeth at the hot pleasure that laced through his veins at the friction. He glanced down to see Erik staring up at him, eyes glassy with lust, his mouth hanging open slightly as he pulled in harsh, uneven breaths.
Charles leant down and kissed Erik, hot and desperate, their tongues sliding sinuously against each other as their hands grasped at sweat-damp skin. Charles could feel himself getting pulled down into the mindless desperation that Erik’s kisses seemed to induce in him, so he pulled away regretfully. Erik looked like he was about to protest until Charles started sliding down the bed until his head was level with Erik’s groin.
He brought up a tentative had to brush across the straining bulge in Erik’s trousers, and was rewarded with a sound from Erik that could only be described as a whimper. Charles took a deep breath to push down the arousal that was threatening to remove all of his higher brain functions, and pulled down Erik’s trousers and underwear until his cock sprang free. It was hard, slightly leaking pre-come, and was one of the most enticing things Charles had ever seen. He leaned forward to lick the pre-come off of the head, and couldn’t help but smirk slightly at the sound of Erik’s gasp. He took the base in one hand and began slowly pumping as he licked the head again, and then took the head in his mouth.
Erik stopped breathing entirely, and for a second Charles was concerned that he had done something wrong, but then one of Erik’s hands threaded through his hair whilst the other gripped the bedsheet tightly, and Charles risked moving his head slightly. Erik bit out a muttered curse and tightened his hand in Charles’ hair, and Charles took that as encouragement to keep going. He soon lost himself in the rhythm of bobbing his head up and down, his hand working the base of Erik’s cock while his tongue traced up and down the shaft, flicking harder at the spots that made Erik gasp loudly, his breath hitching as his free hand scrabbled for purchase against the bedsheets. Charles’ cock was almost painfully hard now, and he pushed his trousers and underwear off one-handedly, almost moaning at the relief. He rutted slowly against the sheets as he sucked lightly on the head of Erik’s cock, not wanting to come yet but unable to completely deny himself the tingling pleasure that was curling up his spine and heating his blood.
Charles glanced up through his lashes to see Erik staring down at him, looking utterly wrecked, his chest heaving with exertion as the blush that had started on his cheeks spread down his neck and across his collarbones. Charles bobbed his head one last time, taking Erik as deep as he would go, and Erik came with a strangled noise somewhere between a shout and a gasp. Charles swallowed the hot liquid, licking the last of it off Erik’s cock before moving back up the bed to kiss Erik desperately.
Erik looked slightly like he’d just been hit in the face with a shovel, and Charles would have found it incredibly endearing if he hadn’t been so achingly hard. Erik groaned into his mouth at the taste of him on Charles’ tongue and rolled them over so that he was pinning Charles down. Charles gasped as Erik started kissing his neck once more, licking and sucking and biting his way down to Charles’ collarbones as he began to roll his hips, rubbing against Charles in a way that was positively sinful. Charles could feel the last vestiges of his self-control slip away, and he rocked back against Erik’s hard stomach, feeling his breath hitching with every thrust. He could feel his orgasm building, his muscles tensing as everything other than Erik and Erik’s face and Erik’s body and the way Erik was moving against him fled his mind, replaced only by burning hot pleasure.
He came suddenly, a cry ripped from his throat as his vision whited out and his head fell backwards onto the pillow. He could feel hot come coating his stomach, but moving to clean it off felt like far more than he was currently capable of. As if he’d read his mind, Erik grabbed one of their discarded shirts from the floor and wiped the worst of it off both of them before lying down next to Charles. They laid on their sides, just staring at each other for several long, serene moments before Erik’s shark-like grin spread across his face, and Charles couldn’t help his answering smile.
They stayed like that until their breathing had evened out, heartrates returned to normal. Charles couldn’t help but stare at Erik, the sharp planes or his face and body providing a stark contrast to the softness in his eyes. Erik was staring back, his eyes never settling in one spot for long, drinking Charles in in a way that would have been uncomfortable if anyone else did it. How long they lay there, Charles couldn’t tell, but the candles were beginning to gutter out by the time either of them moved.
Erik brought his hand up to Charles’ face, his fingers tracing softly across his cheekbones before ghosting down his arm to tangle with his hand. Erik stared at where their fingers were intertwined with a soft smile, and Charles realised that he was gazing contemplatively at Charles’ wedding ring. He had barely registered it being put on during the wedding, much less looked at it, far too overwhelmed with love and fear and despair and Erik.
He brought his hand up to rest on the pillow between him, pulling Erik’s hand along with him, and gazed at the solid proof that he and Erik were married. It was made of soft, brushed silver, with a vein of gold twisting through the centre. Charles couldn’t see Erik’s ring from the angle he was at, but he was suddenly sure that it would be identical, but with the metals reversed.
“You know, I barely remember the ceremony at all,” Erik’s voice broke the quiet that had enveloped them, soft but still startling enough to make Charles jump a little.
“Me neither,” Charles admitted quietly, a sudden sadness that he couldn’t even recall the moment that he became Erik’s husband making itself known in his heart. Erik, however, seemed positively gleeful, grinning widely and pulling Charles up off the bed. Charles followed, confused but willing to go along with whatever idea had just put a gleam in Erik’s eyes. Erik tugged him over to wardrobe lurking in the corner, throwing some soft-looking clothes that Charles thought might have been his own at him, and barely giving him time to haphazardly dress himself before tugging at his hand again, this time towards the balcony.
Erik flung the balcony doors open, and Charles belatedly registered that the sun was starting to rise. They stepped out onto the balcony together, hands clasped tight while the first rays of the morning painted the sky in brilliant pinks and oranges, glinting off the lake serenely. Charles would have been content to gaze out at the view forever, but Erik pulled gently on his hand so that they turned to face each other, both of their hands clasping together between them. Erik gently slid the ring off Charles’ finger, ignoring his noise of protest, and instead folding his own ring into Charles’ palm.
“Charles, I swear to you that I will love you now and tomorrow and every day until my last. I swear that I will be there for you at every stage of our lives together, the good and the bad, never leaving your side. You are the other half of my soul, Charles, and I would move the heavens and the earth for you. I pledge to you my heart, my soul, and my life. I take thee as my husband.” Erik slid Charles’ ring back onto his finger reverently, tears glittering in his eyes. Charles’ breath caught in his chest, his hand trembling slightly as Erik raised it to his mouth to kiss the ring he had just placed there.
“Erik, I promise you that my love for you will never fail, never falter, through all the years we will spend together. I promise that I will love you, cherish you, and comfort you, fearlessly and forever. I promise that you will never be alone. I pledge to you my heart, my soul, and my life. I take thee as my husband.”
Charles slid the ring onto Erik’s finger, and smiled through his tears at Erik, who was staring at him like he was the only thing that mattered in the world. Charles kissed his husband’s ring, and then stretched up on his tiptoes to press his lips gently to Erik’s, arms winding round his neck as Erik’s curled around his waist. The kiss was short and gentle, and Charles pulled away to rest his head on Erik’s broad, warm shoulder. Their right hands intertwined, and as if as one, they began to move in slow circles across the balcony, waltzing to the beat of their hearts.
Behind them, the sun rose.
And that's a wrap! Thank you so much to everyone who has read, kudos'd and commented on this fic - you're all wonderful and I definitely could not have done this without you!