You fidget in your seat.
“Hubert, what have I told you?” your father says.
“Right. Sorry.” You stuff your hands underneath your calves. It makes them go to sleep, but at least you don't bite your nails, or crack your knuckles, or tease the hem of your shorts loose again: bad habits that start to come out when you're feeling nervous.
Not that you're entirely sure why you're nervous. But you're sat in the chair in front of Aston's imposing desk-- normally, your troublemaker brother's favourite spot-- and you can't shift the heavy feeling laid in your stomach that you've done something wrong.
“I've already spoken to Asbel about this. But I know I can trust you to tell the truth, Hubert.”
Your stomach twists. You hate it when your father plays this card. When you tell the truth, Asbel gets mad. When you lie, your chest tangles into knots.
Plus, you're really, really bad at it.
“I mean, you can't look anyone in the eye when you do it,” Cheria had told him, before patting him on the back. “That's a good thing. You ought to stop letting Asbel drag you into trouble with him.”
Was it the marbles you'd forgotten to put away? Or the pigeon Asbel had touched, since you weren't supposed to touch wild birds, or--
“I wondered if there was anything you wanted to tell me, Hubert,” your father says.
“Um.” You hazard a guess. “I'm sorry... I left my books in the kitchen?”
Aston shakes his head. Bzzt. Wrong answer. The disappointment radiating from him crumples your insides like paper in a bonfire, blacking and curling in on itself.
“Frederic said he saw you and Asbel in the garden this afternoon. I wonder if you could explain.”
Asbel had dragged you away from the homework your tutor set you to play knights in the garden, except that once again, you got stuck playing the princess. Which mostly involved a lot of sitting around while Asbel vanquished dragons and hacked at bushes (to be honest, you're unsure of the appeal Cheria has for the thing, really).
Mostly, you stick it out for the end.
Asbel emerges, victorious, Aston's sword in hand and sticks in his hair, the landscaping rather worse for wear after the dragon attack.
The dragons are all vanquished, your Highness Princess Huberta, he tells you, which makes you glad your other friends aren't around. They tease you enough for not being enough of a boy, which frustrates you a way you can't quite put into words because you are a boy, so why do you have to prove it?
There's a feeling of anticipation in your throat as Asbel climbs your tower (read: the low branch of a magnolia tree-- not too high, because you're not great with heights). He shuffles along the branch to you, hooking his legs around yours to help keep his balance.
Asbel picks a magnolia blossom.
A token for my lady.
The flowers are all in bloom, the fragrance pungent and heavy. Asbel shuffles closer to press his lips to yours.
A kiss for the hero.
Your brother curls a protective arm around your waist so you don't fall. His lips are soft, and something unfolds in your chest, warm and bright as honey.
When he pulls away, his lips pink from kissing, you find the magnolia crushed in your hand, fingers sticky with pollen.
Dread lodges in your chest.
Again, Aston repeats: is there anything you want to to tell him?
You bite your bottom lip. Those games are just pretend. Make-believe.
Aston exhales a small sigh, visibly disappointed.
“Very well. Frederic said he saw you and your brother... kissing... in the garden.” It costs your father an effort to get the words out. His lips catch on the word, kissing, as though through a lure caught in his lip.
Your hands have gone numb.
“We were playing. Asbel wanted me to be the princess.” You find yourself blurting the first thing that comes to mind.
“I should have gathered,” Aston says, and Hubert can feel it coming on: yet another diatribe. The last few years, Asbel can't do anything right. “Hubert, you don't have to listen to everything your brother says. He's a bad influence on--”
Your interjection startles you and your father both. You resist the urge to clap a hand over your mouth. Heat rises to your face. Your fingers are tingling. “I mean-- it's not Asbel's fault. I wanted him to. It felt good.”
Immediately after you've got the words out, you realise you've said something you shouldn't have. Before he can clear it away, you catch a snatch of an expression on your father's face, contorted with disgust.
You'd always thought it was just a game you and Asbel were playing. Kissing practice for when you were married. Though the marriage and practice part was quickly forgotten. When Cheria had whispered in your ear- breath tickling your neck-- that one day, she wanted to marry Asbel, you'd had that crumply curling insides feeling once again.
Oh, you think.
Caught up in your thoughts, you don't notice your father has stood. Removing the impartial desk from between you, he sinks onto a knee. “Hubert. Look at me, please.”
You force your eyes up.
“Hold out your hand.”
When you see the wooden ruler in his hand, you know what's coming. For a moment, you think about resisting, keeping your hands buried under your legs, but then Aston says, “Hubert,” and you make yourself do it, biting down your bitter tears.
“You know I hate doing this,” your father says, as though it makes it any better.
Three sharp raps to the soft flesh on the palm of your hand, setting the numb and stinging flesh alight. Aston raises the ruler once more, but halts when he sees the silent tears running down your face, pooling on your bitten stinging lips, still sore from kissing.
Then he does something unexpected: pulling you into a brief but tight embrace.
You remember your father hugging you when you were a younger child, but since you started getting older, he lost that tactility. Sometimes, especially behind his desk, he seems so stiff, a cardboard cutout of the father you remember.
Your anger and hurt evaporate against the force of that embrace, and find yourself clinging back.
When Aston pulls away, he leaves one hand, gripping your shoulder.
“I don't want to hear about this happening again, alright Hubert? Brothers don't do that sort of thing with brothers.”
You agree, because there's little else you can do.
But you can't meet his eyes. And as you're sent away for bath and bed, you slip a hand into your pocket, stinging fingers curling around the browning remains of a magnolia.