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For As Long As I Remember, We've Been Told We'd Someday Wed

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Jake was 5 years old when he learned that he was betrothed. Though it took him a few more years to learn what “betrothed” actually meant. His mother tried her best to explain that one day he was going to get married to the princess of another kingdom and unite their lands.

Even though he was the prince of Brooklynne, Jake didn't care about unity. He didn't want to marry her. Girls were gross. And he’d never even met her. When he raised this point to his mom, an idea struck her, though not one Jake liked any better.

That summer, Jake met his future wife, Princess Amy of Ninenne. And he hated her.

They couldn't be more different. For one, Amy wrinkled her nose at Jake when he played in the dirt. She asked his mother for more books she could read. Jake couldn't read yet, so he thought she was just showing off. He couldn't believe they had to spend the whole summer together.

The next summer, Jake went to Ninenne and spent three months in Amy’s kingdom. The plan their parents had made was that the children would switch off spending summers in each other’s kingdoms until they both turned 21, when they would marry. Both children were thoroughly disgusted by the plan. Neither Jake nor Amy wanted anything to do with the other, let alone marriage.

 

Jake was 10 when he learned that Amy could shoot a bow and arrow almost as well as he could.

“I am really good,” Jake boasted.

“Well I am also really good,” Amy assured him. “My dad taught me and he is the most skilled archer in all of Ninenne.”

“Pshaw,” Jake lamely replied. “I taught myself and I’m amazing, so…”

“Fine. Then prove it,” Amy challenged.

“Gladly,” Jake replied, confidently.

They’d set up the range in the gardens behind Jake’s castle. They were closely followed, as always, by Jake’s lackey and best friend, Charles.

Jake volunteered to go first, shooting nearly perfectly. He was young, but he was already good.

Amy smirked at him, assuring him she’d hit the bullseye. As she set up for her shoot, Charles mysteriously disappeared. Amy pulled back on the bow, perfectly aimed until she sneezed at the moment of release. Her arrow barely made it on the target. She whipped around, wondering why she sneezed when she saw Charles running away from the range, a dog trailing behind him. She turned back to see Jake laying on the ground laughing. He could tell by the look in her eyes that she was contemplating shooting him in that moment.

 

Amy was 12 when she learned that Jake would do just about anything he could to annoy her, including following her around and asking her questions about nothing.

“Where are you going?” Jake asked, following Amy through her castle.

“None of your business,” Amy retorted.

“That's not how you should talk to your future husband.”

Amy turned around, glaring at Jake. “I told you never to talk about that. We agreed.”

“Yes, it was the only thing we agreed on. But you always react and it's always funny.”

Amy rolled her eyes, turning back around and heading toward the library. Hopefully Jake wouldn't ruin her perfect spot. In the midst of all the books, there was a window seat perfect for cuddling up and reading a good book. It was Amy’s bliss. But naturally, summers spent with Jake meant her bliss was ruined.

She tried ignoring him as she read, but his constant questions were too much to ignore.

It became a pattern, a pattern she could tell amused him.

 

Jake was 17 years old when he learned that Amy could drink him under the table. He was under the delusion that the summer before, he’d beaten her. But he was incredibly wrong.

They sat in a pub in the village close to Amy’s castle. Jake was nursing his first ale as they sat in silence. Amy raised her hand, asking the barkeep for a second drink. Jake gaped at her. “What are you doing? Have you ever heard of pacing yourself?”

Amy shrugged. “Sorry that I can handle my drinks,” she retorted. Jake was confused by her comment until she explained. “You really think you actually beat me last summer?” Jake started to sputter, but Amy spoke over him. “I clearly saw you passing half your drinks to Charles. The more he drank, the sloppier you both got. That water you call ale in Brooklynne is nothing. You didn’t beat me. I just stopped drinking.”

Jake stared at her in disbelief. Yes, he and Charles had attempted some sleight of hand to attempt to beat Amy, but he never thought she’d noticed. How had she not called them out? “Fine,” Jake said after a long pause. “Rematch.” He chugged the rest of his ale quickly, slamming his mug down on the table. “Now we’re both one in. Scott?” He said, turning to the barkeep. “I’ll have a second too.”

Scott chuckled. “Challenging this one? Good luck. She can handle her drinks better than most of the men here. Although, after a few she does get a bit odd,” he said, trailing off.

“Hey!” Amy yelled, affronted.

“No, I know what you mean,” Jake agreed. “She likes to dance after three.”

Amy gaped at him, clearly wondering when he ever found out that information. Scott laughed. “Yes. And after five, I’ve seen her challenge men three times her size to an arm wrestle. She’s pretty confident for a drunkard.”

“I am not a drunkard!” Amy defended.

“Well, not yet,” Scott agreed.

Amy rolled her eyes as Jake laughed. Soon enough Scott brought them both their second ales and wished them luck, leaving them to their bets. Despite the competition, neither was drinking too fast. Jake was still trying to nurse his. He was afraid that Amy really would out-drink him. He was busy contemplating how embarrassing that would be when he noticed a weird look on Amy’s face. He turned to see what or whom she was looking at. He spotted a broad shouldered man with sandy hair in the corner of the tavern.

“Ahh, and who is that?” Jake asked jokingly.

“No one,” Amy said quickly and defensively.

Jake turned back to look at her, sensing the unease about her. “Okay, so really, who is that? Do you like him?” Amy glared at him. “Oh damn, you do. So who is he?”

Amy rolled her eyes and sighed. “His name is Teddy. We’ve done some school together. He’s a really great guy. But...nothing, you know, ever happened.”

“Why?” Jake asked stupidly. Amy stared at him like he was an idiot. She gestured to him pointedly. “Oh right, we’ve been betrothed since we were five.”

“Yeah,” Amy sighed. “Doesn’t leave a lot of room for school romances.”

“Well, we could always invite him to come drink with us,” Jake offered.

“Because that wouldn’t be weird. Me, the guy I like, and my intended,” Amy retorted.

Jake nodded sadly. “You’re right. It would be super weird.” The two sat in a brooding silence for a moment. Jake sighed. “You know, I know our parents meant well, especially for the kingdoms, but did they never consider what would happen if we didn’t get along?”

Amy looked back at him with a sad expression. “I guess they thought that if we spent enough time together, we’d have to get along.”

“Well we showed them,” Jake said with a laugh. Amy chuckled dryly. After a lengthy silence, Jake spoke again. “Just promise me that we will never force our kids into an arranged marriage.”

Amy choked on her drink, staring at Jake in horror. “What did you just say?” She shook her head in disgust. “Did you just say ‘our kids?’”

Jake stared at her blankly. “Amy, they’re marrying us off to unite the kingdoms. I’m sure they expect us to have kids.”

Amy silently gagged, slightly offending Jake. Sure they didn’t get along, but he wasn’t that bad. “I guess I’ve just never thought of that. It’s hard enough to think about the fact that they expect us to marry.”

“It’s not like they really gave us a choice,” Jake reminded her.

She shook her head slowly. “You’re right. They didn’t think it through.”

They stared at each other gloomily for a moment. Jake plastered on a smile, raising his mug of ale. “To our mutual misery,” he toasted.

Amy chuckled, raising hers in toast as well. “And to unity of the kingdoms.”

“I still think we should merge names and call it Brooklynne Nine-Nine,” Jake insisted.

“And for the hundredth time,” Amy began, “I’ll remind you that it’s called Ninenne and not Nine-Nine. That would just sound stupid.”

Jake rolled his eyes. “You’re no fun.”

Amy smirked, raising her mug for another drink. Jake slowly raised his, remembering their bet of who could outdrink the other.

When he woke up the next morning, there were definite black spots in his memory. Jake stumbled into the dining room, finding Amy hunched over the table, staring angrily at her juice. She looked up and saw him approaching. “Good morning, Jacob,” she basically yelled.

Or Jake was so hungover that it just seemed like she was yelling. “Please stop talking,” Jake pleaded. “What the hell happened last night?”

Amy sat a bit straighter in her seat, a smug grin on her face. “What happened was your ass got out-drunk.”

Jake groaned as he threw himself down in a chair. “How bad was it?”

“I think you got to about seven,” Amy said with a grin.

“You didn’t do much better,” Terry said, looking at Amy as he entered the room. Terry was the head of Amy’s security and basically Jake’s hero since they were kids.

Jake laughed haughtily. “I knew you weren’t that great.”

“How bad was it?” Amy asked with a grimace.

“Jake passed out at seven. You got to eight. Then you attempted dressage with a random horse and ended up jumping it into the pond behind the tavern,” Terry informed them.

Jake leaned back in his chair, his hand on his stomach as he laughed hysterically. “Damn I wish I’d been conscious for that.”

Amy shook her head in shame. “That's why my dress was wet…” Amy muttered to herself. “Well I guess Eight-Drink-Amy is not a very good equestrian.”

Jake was still laughing. “I guess not.”

Terry chuckled at the two of them and walked out talk to one of the servants. Amy looked over at Jake with a conflicted look on her face. “What?” Jake asked.

“I do remember something that we talked about…” Amy hinted.

“What’s that?”

“About future generations and arranged marriages,” she reminded.

“Oh right,” Jake said, swallowing harshly. “Look, I didn’t -”

“You’re right. They don’t need that. Our kids can marry whoever they please,” Amy agreed.

Jake looked at her, surprised. “You said “our kids” without gagging. I’m impressed.”

Amy laughed. “I’m getting there.”

They raised their juice in a silent toast to each other.

 

Jake was 18 when he got the shock of his young life. He was pacing around his room, waiting for his mom to enter and tell him that Amy was there. It was already a couple of days later than they’d expected her. Jake had happily had a few extra days to himself. During the summer before, Jake and Amy had reached an amiable state in their dislike of each other. Neither one of them were any more enamoured with their arrangement. But by the time Jake had left Ninenne, they were at least friendly. Jake wouldn’t say they were friends, but they seemed to have an understanding between them. Neither wanted it, but they’d have to put up with it anyway.

He threw himself back down on his bed, enjoying what was surely the last few hours of freedom before he had to entertain Amy all summer. A knock at the door signaled that his mother was entering. He flipped over on his bed to look at her. Rather than seeing her excited expression that usually announced Amy’s arrival, he saw a look of dread.

“Mom, what’s wrong?” Jake asked, jumping up off his bed.

His mother shook her head, shock clearly overtaking her. “I just wanted to let you know that Amy won’t be coming this summer.”

Given his mother’s upset state, Jake tried to keep his excitement to himself. “Why is that?”

Karen looked down at her son. “King Victor...died.”

“What?” Jake asked, sharing his mother’s shock. “How? He’s so strong and...young.”

Karen continued to shake her head. “No one knows. They said it was natural causes. But he was so young.”

“I’ve spent so many summers there,” Jake thought aloud. “I can’t think of anyone that would want to hurt him. That would be crazy.”

His mother nodded. “I know. But anyway, with all that going on, Amy won’t be coming this summer. Which I’m sure is just marvelous for you.” Jake broke eye contact with his mother. “But I can’t imagine what she’s going through. She lost her mother so young, and now her father too. It’s times like this when people need friends, people they can count on,” Karen said with a pointed look.

Jake nodded guiltily. He did agree with his mom. He had no idea how he would handle it if his mother died suddenly.

Within a matter of days, Jake and his mother were boarding a royal ship for the swiftest travel to Ninenne. They planned to pay their respects to King Victor, a fair king who’d left way before his time. They were among hundreds if not thousands of people planning to do the same.

Jake saw Terry looking as morose as he’d ever seen him. Jake couldn’t wrap his mind around it. Just the summer before, he’d been there and the king was healthy and happy. How was he dead? Jake scanned the crowd, trying to find Amy. The funeral was held at night and candles and lanterns barely gave off enough light to show Jake where Amy could be.

His mother was shuffling him out of the throne room when Jake finally caught a glimpse of Amy. She was sobbing silently, trying desperately to appear queenly, but shaken by the death of her father. Jake felt an inexplicable urge to run to her and hug her, to stand there with her as people from all over Ninenne paid their respects to her father and to her. He shook his head, wondering where it came from before he took one last look at Amy. Little did he know that it would be the last look he’d have of Amy for three years.

 

Jake was 21 years old when he learned he was going to see Amy again. He had no idea how the entire thing came about. Jake was sitting at breakfast, feeling like it was a normal day when his mother sprang the news on him.

“Oh by the way, this evening, Amy will be arriving,” she said in passing as she turned the page in the book she was reading.

Jake gaped at her though she had no eyes for him. “Excuse me, what now?”

Karen finally looked up at him. “Amy is returning to Brooklynne tonight. It was always the plan that when you were both 21 that you’d -”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Jake said, cutting her off. “I know what the plan is.” He shook his head, hoping to calm himself. “So she’s just showing up out of the blue?”

Karen merely shrugged, turning back to her book. “She sent a letter, she plans to arrive after sundown.”

“What is supposed to happen then?” Jake asked, panic setting in. Was he expected to propose to her? Was their 16 year long betrothal finally coming to a head? He hadn’t seen her in basically four years. What was supposed to happen? Jake could feel himself starting to sweat. He’d never panicked like this before, but he was in full panic mode. He stood up from the table before he’d even touched his breakfast. Not knowing what to do, he walked straight back to his room, beginning to pace the familiar route. Without realizing it, in the last three years, he’d forgotten that he would have to marry Amy. He relished the idea of a future of his choosing and suddenly that was being ripped away. Even if he never truly had it.

Jake was laying down on his bed hours later, still wondering over the upcoming events, when his mother entered his room. Without speaking, she walked over and sat in the chair at his desk. She never spoke, she just watched him. Finally, Jake sat up, staring at his mother. “I know why you did it, why you made your arrangement with King Victor. But you guys really didn’t think it through. What if this isn’t what we wanted?”

Karen nodded slowly. “Your father was an only child. I married him because I loved him, not because he was due to be king. And when your grandfather died and your father was to ascend to the throne, I was right there with him even though it wasn’t really what I wanted. And then your father ran. And rather than have a fight for the throne, I took over. I took the power that I married into. I knew that you deserved the chance to rule your kingdom and I was not going to let anyone take that from you. So me being Queen was never my intention. It certainly wasn’t what I wanted. But sometimes we have to do things that we don’t want to do if it’s for the best for the people.”

“And you really think that me marrying Amy is for the best of the people?” Jake asked.

“Ninenne is our greatest trade partner. We are allies. But neither Ninenne or Brooklynne are particularly big or strong kingdoms. There are other surrounding kingdoms, that if we were divided, could defeat us. So yes, I think that it is the best for the people that these two kingdoms be united. Victor and I did not make this arrangement lightly. Neither of us fancied the idea of subjecting our children to an arranged marriage. We’d certainly hoped that having you spend your summers together would facilitate a closeness between the two of you.”

Jake scoffed. “The only thing Amy and I ever agreed on was that we dreaded summers.”

Karen laughed softly. “I don’t think that’s quite true.”

Jake stared back at his mother. “What do you mean?”

“You and Amy have surprisingly similar views in certain things. Such as how you want to rule a kingdom. For never apparently talking about it with each other, you have shockingly similar opinions,” Karen informed him. “You’re both strong willed people who would do anything for the people they loved. You’re both intelligent and kind and thoughtful of those you’ll one day rule.” She looked at Jake knowingly. “You’re more similar than you think. And I believe that if you and Amy had ever been able to look past your determination to hate each other, you’d have been able to see that too.”

Jake looked down at his feet and shook his head. “We weren’t determined to hate each other,” he mumbled. “We just never got along.”

“Yes, but how hard did you really try?”

Jake’s head shot up as he glared at his mother. “We were kids. You expect kids who fight and say and do stupid things to each other to suddenly mature into adults in love with each other? That’s not gonna happen.”

“Well, you were children who saw each other every summer. You spent most of your days with her, either entertaining her by my request or annoying her for your own enjoyment,” Karen reminded him. Jake laughed in spite of himself. “I guess one day I thought that you’d realize that people change. You aren’t always going to be the kids that you were at 9 years old. You can grow and mature. And theoretically, you could do that together.”

Jake stared at his mom, thinking through what she said. “I know you’ve changed in the last few years,” Karen assured him. “You’ve worked hard to get yourself ready to be king one day. And you’ve spent time doing things that you not only enjoy, but that will make you a better man.” She fixed Jake with a knowing look as she stood. “You don’t think there’s the chance Amy has grown up in the last four years too?” She picked up the skirt of her dress and swept out of his room, leaving him with nothing but more things to ponder.

By the time nightfall had approached, Jake was at least open to the idea of seeing Amy again. Charles had stopped by with helpful ideas. He suggested that even though it was the end of the summer, Jake should invite her to stay and they should spend a few months like it was the summer. They should spend time together the way they used to. Jake was not necessarily a fan of the idea, but if he was going to marry Amy, he realized he’d have to spend time with her at some point.

In spite of himself, Jake dressed in his finest attire. If he was going to make a second first impression, he was going to make it a good one. He thought about what his mother had said. Four years had changed him and helped him grow. Certainly Amy, with all that she’d been through, had been the same way. Maybe after four years apart, they’d finally be compatible. Jake wanted to at least try to get along with Amy. And that was certainly new.

Jake hated that he almost felt nervous. Of course, people were making way too big a production out of their reunion. His mother had him waiting behind a closed door off of the Grand Ballroom. He assumed Amy was in a similar position if she had arrived. Surely there would be more people than necessary inside the Ballroom, ready to witness their reunion. Jake had heard chatter throughout the years of their 21st summer and how fateful it would be. If fateful meant a big production and sweat, Jake was unimpressed.

~~

“You look beautiful,” Terry assured Amy as they stood outside the doorway to the Grand Ballroom. “Of course you always do,” he said with a kind smile.

Amy smiled back, nodding her head to him. “I honestly don’t care what I look like,” she admitted. “You and I both know we’re only here as a favor to Queen Karen. She and my father made this arrangement years ago. I at least want to be here in person to complete it.”

“So what are you going to say?” Terry asked, a glimmer of hope in his eyes.

“Terry, I’m not here for any kind of proposal. We have bigger things to worry about than the kingdom of Brooklynne and their lovely prince,” Amy reminded him. “I’m here to honor a deal and that is it.”

“Oh come on, you aren’t at least curious to see what’s become of Jake in the last four years?” Terry asked impatiently.

Amy rolled her eyes. “I spent thirteen summers with him, Terry. There wasn’t a lot of change during those times.”

Terry shook his head with a knowing grin. “Sure, but you know, these are big years to grow. Ages 17-21 are big years.”

“Look, just remember that as far as anyone else knows, everything in Ninenne is fine,” Amy replied, changing the subject.

“I’m not going to blow your secret, Amy,” Terry promised her. “I haven’t yet and I won’t now.”

Amy nodded quickly. “Thank you, Terry. I really don’t know what I’d do without you. I couldn’t have gotten through these last few years without you.”

Terry smiled sadly. “Don’t worry about it. You’ll never have to try to get by without me.”

Amy turned back toward the door to the ballroom. She nervously ran her hands over the front of her dress. While she wasn’t nervous about seeing Jake, she was incredibly worried about people discovering the secret she’d been keeping for the past three years. A lot had changed in her life since the last time she’d seen Jake. She didn’t expect him to understand it and she didn’t plan to share it with him. Her plan was simply to see Jake and Queen Karen, thank them for all the support over the years, express her interest in continuing to be allies, and then getting the hell out of there. She had no interest in marrying Jake. Her father may have made a decision for her as a young girl, but she was in charge now.

Amy briefly heard a trumpet playing in the ballroom. For a brief second, Amy wondered if Jake hated all the pomp and circumstance of their reunion as much as she did. She ran a hand quickly through her hair before the doors opened ahead of her. There were more people waiting in the ballroom than Amy would have expected or wanted. Terry was several paces behind her as she walked slowly into the room. She looked up and across the vast ballroom, Jake was entering as well. He was dressed his kingdom’s colors, displaying medals and ribbons for all to see. Amy hated the part of her noting that Jake looked pretty good. It didn’t matter. She would never want to be with Jake no matter how attractive he was.

Jake reached the center of the room at about the same time Amy did. They paused in front of each other, both silent, wondering what to say first. Charles popped up beside them, bowing messily to them. He stood next to Amy, gesturing to Jake. “Princess Amy, I’m sure you remember my dear friend -”

“Jacktractive,” Jake said loudly, quickly shaking his head afterward.

Amy gaped at him. “Did you just call yourself Jacktractive?”

Jake scoffed. “No.” He shook his head again, waving his hands in the air. “It is I, Prince Jake.”

“Yeah, it’s only been four years. I didn’t forget the thirteen summers we spent together,” Amy assured him. “I still know who you are. Do you need a reminder that I am Amy?”

If Amy had to name the expression gracing Jake’s face, she’d say it was embarrassment. But she knew Jake and therefore knew that nothing, even being a complete idiot, embarrassed him. It must be something else. “Sorry, it’s just weird seeing you again. I mean you’ve changed a lot. You’re like really pretty.” Amy wondered if she was supposed to be touched by that comment or not. Jake stepped closer to Amy. “So how is this supposed to work? Should we like...get married?”

Amy shook her head, looking around at all the people gathered for what they thought would be a momentous occasion. It only helped make up Amy’s mind. She would not be marrying Jake. Amy reached out and patted Jake on the shoulder. “Don’t you worry your pretty little head about that, alright?” She turned back to look at Terry, giving him a secret nod. Amy then turned to Karen. “I’m sorry, but things have changed. It was a mistake for me to come here. I came as a way to thank you for your support, and I hope for continued support between our kingdoms. I appreciate what you and my father tried to do with your arrangement, but things have changed in my kingdom. As the future Queen of Ninenne, I’m afraid I can’t uphold the arrangement.” Karen nodded sadly, but seemingly understandingly. Amy turned back to Jake. “Guess you lucked out after all,” she said before turning back toward Terry.

Jake grabbed her arm quickly, pulling her back to him. “Wait, what do you mean?”

“You never wanted any of this to happen anyway. And now I have the power to call it off. I won’t be marrying you, Jake. You can be sure of that,” Amy said, perhaps a bit harshly, as she pulled her arm back and strode from the hall. She could hear Jake sputtering his confusion in her wake, but Amy paid him no mind. She needed to get as far away from Brooklynne as she could before the sun rose. She and Terry made quickly for the boats, prepping immediately for their return to Ninenne.

~~

Jake stood in the middle of the ballroom, staring at the place where Amy had just been. Granted, Jake wasn’t anywhere near prepared to even see her again. But with the sudden way she entered, rejected him, and then swiftly left, Jake was feeling confused. He could hear the chatter of the people around him, but he ignored it. What was the point of even coming if she was just going to turn around and leave five seconds later? Was she contemplating going through with the arrangement but then he was a jackass who couldn’t speak properly so she called it off?

He had to admit that it wasn’t his finest moment. But he was blindsided by seeing her again. It wasn’t until he was standing in front of Amy again that he realized that he’d actually missed her in the last four years. For all his life, he’d dreaded the time he spent with Amy. But now, he couldn’t understand why he was mad that she was gone. Charles walked over and placed a hand on his shoulder. Before Charles could even utter sympathetic words of encouragement, Jake shrugged off his hand and strode out of the hall the same way Amy had.

Jake didn’t know what his plan really was, but he followed his instincts. His instincts led him to the stables where he found his trusty horse. His instincts had him riding off into the night, ready to find answers. He told no one where he was going and foolishly took nothing with him. His determination to understand what had happened, or why he felt so hurt, had him rushing off to Ninenne to get answers from the one person who could give them to him. Amy.

He knew several routes to get there. The fastest was by boat, to sail around the land rather than trekking through it. But Jake didn’t have a boat, just his horse, McClane. He threw the hood up on his cloak and set off on the quickest route by land for Amy’s castle. Jake was honestly shocked when it was only late morning as he arrived at the castle. That was easily the fastest he’d ever made the trip. But he wanted answers to questions he didn’t even know how to ask. There was no time to stall.

Everyone recognized Jake. He’d spent enough summers in Ninenne that everyone knew his name and his face. Getting into the castle was not a problem. Jake was marching off toward the South Wing, where he knew he’d find Amy, when he was apprehended in his mission to see her.

“Terry!” Jake greeted, drawing out the other man’s name. “So good to see you, Man! We didn’t have time to catch up last night.”

Terry smiled curtly. “Jake, what are you doing here?”

“Look, I just need to talk to Amy. Where is she?” Jake said, looking around desperately for her.

“She’s in council,” Terry answered. Jake looked back at him confused. “She’s in the process of taking over the running of the kingdom. She meets with certain people to learn how that is done. She meets with them basically every day.”

“Boring,” Jake muttered. He looked back at Terry. “So when does she get out?”

“Probably around nightfall,” Terry replied matter-of-factly.

“Nightfall?” Jake exclaimed. “Come on.”

“It’s very important. It’s why we had to hurry back,” Terry explained. “How did you get here so quickly? Did you take a boat?”

Jake shook his head sullenly. “No, I stuck to the shoreline and rode my horse,” he informed Terry.

Terry looked impressed. “You must have really been hustling.”

Jake shrugged. “I guess.”

“Why is that, you think?” Terry asked, a grin stretching across his face.

“I just don’t understand what happened,” Jake maintained. “I mean yeah, I was kind of an idiot, but she just walked in and then left. Nothing about the last four years. And even if she didn’t want to talk about her, she didn’t even talk to us. Why even come at all? Why get everyone’s hopes up?”

“Get everyone’s hopes up?” Terry echoed back.

“I mean like my mother and the people who have backed the dumb arranged marriage the whole time. You know, those people,” Jake insisted.

“Sure, sure, those people,” Terry fakely agreed.

“I’m actually pretty exhausted,” Jake said with a sigh. “Do you think it would be alright if I went up to the room I stayed in here and waited for Amy to be finished with council?”

Terry nodded kindly. “I think that sounds perfect. I’ll make sure Mrs. Smith knows you’re back in the castle. I’m sure she’ll be all too happy to whip something up for you.”

Jake smiled happily, thinking fondly back on all the amazing meals that woman had made him. Jake nodded, heading off toward a room he knew the path to all too well. He sat down on the bed, going back over the events of the last 24 hours. He laid down and quickly fell asleep, too exhausted to even take off his boots.

He woke hours later with beams of light streaming in through the windows. Jake noted that the sun must be getting low in the sky. A waft of delicious smells greeted him, alerting him to the presence of Mrs. Smith’s potato pancakes and a goblet of hot chocolate. Jake quickly scarfed both down, having not eaten in almost a day. Noting that he still had time to kill before Amy was finished with her meetings, Jake decided to take a stroll around the grounds. Even though he’d dreaded his time away from home, he’d always loved the castle and the grounds. If he’d had to spend his time somewhere else, it couldn’t have been a better place.

The sun was close to setting when Jake neared the lake behind the castle. Sun beams shone on the surface of the lake, nearly blinding him at the right angle. Jake walked around the edge, not giving anything much notice. His mind was preoccupied with his concerns. He wanted to know why Amy was so quick to judge and therefore to quick to leave. Jake also had to admit that he was mad at himself for making a terrible second impression. He couldn’t help that when Amy entered the room he was a bit gobsmacked by her presence. A lot had changed in four years.

Jake saw a swan nearing the edge of the lake. He furrowed his brow as he looked at it. He’d spent so many summers there, but he’d never seen a swan on that lake. Occasionally there were geese before King Victor chased them off angrily, to the echoes of Amy and Jake’s belly aching laughs. Light continued to fade from the sky as Jake watched the swan. It was oddly stiff, almost seeming fake. Jake wondered if it was a fake swan when its head turned and looked in another direction.

Jake sat by the lake, appreciating the peacefulness of it as the last of the sun left the sky. As he was getting up to go find Amy, Jake took one last look back at the bizarre swan. Curiously, a light started shining below the swan, moving up and encompassing it. Jake stared in a mix of wonder and fear at the sight before him. The light swirled around the swan, lifting the bird into the air as the light grew brighter. Jake raised his arm to shield his eyes. Suddenly, the light faded and Jake lowered his arm, stunned to see what the swan had become.

“Amy?” he asked incredulously. Her head whipped over to see who spoke her name. Fear crept into her features, her mouth dropping open. “What the hell was that?”

Amy stood there staring at Jake, looking both confused and scared. “Jake? What are you doing here?”

“I came here to talk to you about last night,” he explained. “What just happened? Is your council in the lake? Is it magical? Is it with animals and you have to turn into an animal to be part of the council? Are you a witch? How did I never know this?” Jake asked a million questions, occasionally answering them himself. “No, wait, you couldn’t be a witch. You’d have cursed me as a kid.” He paused, staring at her. “And I’d probably have earned it.”

Amy shook her head, seemingly in confusion. She didn’t even acknowledge his comments. “Jake, you can’t be here.”

“Amy, what is going on?” Jake asked, stepping closer to her. She backed away with her hands raised like he was the one who’d just transformed from a bird into an old friend.

“You shouldn’t be here,” Amy basically repeated.

“Well I am,” Jake exclaimed. “So why don’t you tell me what is going on? Why were you a swan? If I even saw that correctly…”

“Let’s just say you didn’t see it correctly and move on,” Amy tried.

Jake stared at her with a knowing look. “Amy,” he said softly. “You can trust me.”

He saw in her eyes the moment she believed him. She nodded slowly, walking over to a bench near the water. She took a deep breath as Jake sat down next to her. “This is my curse,” she said simply.

“What?”

“My father didn’t die of natural causes,” Amy began. Jake’s stomach sank. “He was killed by a man aiming to take over the kingdom. And he wanted me out of the way, but he couldn’t stage an accident for me, because that would seem too suspicious. So he cursed me. By day, I’m a swan, by night, I’m me.”

Jake stared at her in horror. “Wait, so you’ve been living like this for three years?” Amy nodded sadly. “How?”

Amy turned to Jake. “The first year, I was filled with grief over my father’s death. I didn’t really care. I knew I was supposed to care about the kingdom, but all I cared about was trying to find the man who killed him and cursed me. And then I spent a good amount of time where I just gave up. I didn’t know how to change my circumstances. And now that I’m older, I’m almost at an age where I need to take the throne. So I’m motivated again to find this man and stop him, but it’s kind of hard when I spend my days as a bird. Which is I’m sure why he cursed me. But I don’t really know how to break it. I mean, I have an idea of one way, but it’ll never work.”

Jake pressed further. “Well what is it? It’s worth a shot.”

Amy looked at him sadly. “An act of true love,” she answered simply.

Jake closed his eyes and groaned. “And it’s not like you know who your true love is because you spent your whole life betrothed to me,” he replied defeatedly. Jake opened his eyes and looked over at Amy. “I’m really sorry.” Amy nodded understandingly. “But look, we’re gonna do everything we can to break this curse once and for all,” he promised.

Amy stared at him skeptically. “We?”

Jake nodded confidently. “Yeah, we,” he answered. “You have Brooklynne as an ally. Might as well use it.”

Amy chuckled. “Jake, I have no idea where to start. In three years, I’ve tried or thought of a lot of different things and none of them have ever panned out.”

“Yeah, but two heads are better than one,” Jake insisted. He picked up Amy’s hand in his. “I promise you that I will help you break this curse, one way or another. We’re gonna find the man that did this to you, and we’ll break the curse and make him pay.”

“You found out about this curse like two minutes ago,” Amy stated. “How are you so ready to accept it and fight it and whatever?”

Jake shrugged. “I don’t know, honestly. But I know that if I was in trouble, even as much of a jackass as I am, I’m sure you’d help me.”

Amy stared at Jake with a smile on her face and hopeful look in her eyes. She leaned in and hugged Jake. He noted that it was the first time they’d ever hugged where their parents hadn’t encouraged it first. Amy pulled back, holding Jake’s shoulders. “Thank you,” she said earnestly.

Jake nodded. He rubbed his hands together. “Now let’s go break a curse.”

~~

 

Chapter Text

Amy felt more nervous than anything else as she and Jake strode back inside the castle. It had been three years since someone else found out her secret. At first she was terrified that Jake discovered it. But his reaction proved that maybe Terry had been right the night before. Maybe Jake had changed in the last few years. Amy shook her thoughts from her head as she walked toward the dining room.

Terry found her quickly as she walked through the door. “Listen, Jake is here.”

Jake walked through the door right behind Amy. “Yeah, she knows.”

Amy nodded. She stepped closer to Terry so the people setting the table wouldn’t hear. “Also, he knows.” Terry looked confused. “He knows .”

When Terry still looked puzzled, Jake clarified it for him. “I know about council.” Amy looked back at him, shocked at his ability to be discreet.

Terry’s eyes went wide. “What? I thought you were sleeping.” He looked over at Amy panickedly. “I didn’t tell him. I promise.”

Amy reached out her arms to comfort Terry. “Don’t worry, I know you didn’t tell him. No one told him. He...saw it happen.”

Terry glared at Jake. “You were supposed to be in your room!”

Jake held his hands up in defense. “Whoa. Sorry, I woke up and I was bored. And I’ve always loved the grounds here and so I went for a walk. I didn’t realize I was about to stumble upon some huge secret. I just wanted to stretch my legs!”

Amy could tell Terry was about to launch into a longer rant so she stepped in. “Look, I’m actually okay that Jake knows.”

“You are?” They said in unison.

Amy chuckled to herself. “I really am. It makes me feel motivated again.” She looked back and forth between the guys. “We need to break this. Once and for all. I can’t keep living like this. I mean this isn’t living.”

Terry nodded solemnly. “You’re right. We let this go on too long.”

“I mean we’ve tried to figure it out several different times and just kept hitting walls,” Amy reasoned. “But this time, we have to think it through.”

“Maybe it’ll help to have some fresh perspective,” Jake offered.

Amy smiled at him. “That’s a good attitude,” she joked. Amy walked over to the table and sat down in her seat. “I’m going to eat and then I’m going to hit the library,” she said confidently.

“So it’ll be a regular evening for you?” Jake asked as he sat down next to her.

Amy smirked. “Admittedly, yes. But the reading materials will be a bit different.” Jake nodded, already tucking into the food in front of him.

So that night, after they finished their dinners, Amy, Jake, and Terry wandered up to the library and pulled out any books about curses they could find. Granted, the reserve on that subject was incredibly small. They sat there, reading out passages, theorizing, and then going back to the books.

And that started being their regular habit. They’d eat dinner and then retreat to the library. Slowly, Jake and Terry became nocturnal (like Amy had basically already been for three years). They’d spend their nights trying to find out as much as they could about curses in hopes that they could find the trick to breaking the specific one on Amy.

As they sat in the library, a few weeks into their new pattern, Amy slammed her book shut angrily. Jake looked up, his shock clear on his face. “I cannot believe you would treat a book that way,” he joked.

Amy flashed him a ghost of a smile. She was mad. They’d been working diligently for almost a month to figure out how to break the curse and they were as close to breaking it as they were three years ago when it was cast. “I’m just mad.”

“You’re completely allowed to be,” Jake replied. He shut his book delicately. “I really can’t imagine what it’s like.” Amy shrugged. He cleared his throat. “I mean, uh, what is it like?”

Amy stared at him. “What? To be a swan?” Jake nodded hesitantly. “Um, it’s kinda hard to explain. I mean, I can still think and process things as a swan. But it’s not like I can talk. Usually I just tuck into a specific tree and sleep through as much of the day as I can.”

Jake nodded, seemingly unsure of how to reply. He looked over at Terry where he stood by the bookshelves against the far wall. Terry was trying to search for a specific book.

“He feels guilty,” Amy stated. Jake turned and looked back at her, a confused expression on his face. “He’d never say so, but I know he does.”

“Why? Because he’s your head of security?”

“Basically,” Amy confirmed. “It happened the night before I was supposed to leave for Brooklynne so Terry had gone home already. He didn’t used to stay all through the night like he does now. And he always got the summers off when I would go to Brooklynne. So he’d gone home to start his three month long vacation. And my dad was killed and I was kidnapped and cursed. He came back here and has barely left since.”

Jake looked sad. “Terry’s such a sweet guy. I could totally believe that he feels guilty about it all.”

“He was the first person I found after I came back,” Amy told him. Jake looked confused. “I don’t remember anything after seeing the man standing over my dad’s body. He somehow knocked me out and kidnapped me. I stumbled back in the castle, unsure of where I’d been or even how much later it was. I found Terry first to tell him that I thought something happened to my dad.”

Amy sighed as she recalled the events of three years ago. She looked up at Jake to see him listening raptly. “Terry dragged me up to my room and told me that my dad had died. I told him immediately that someone had killed him. And somehow, Terry believed me. We still had no idea that I was cursed at that point. And then the next morning, I was a swan. Terry was the only person I trusted to tell. And for a few days, we were the only people who knew. But then Mrs. Smith wondered why I wasn’t taking meals during the day, so Terry swore her to secrecy. I don’t know what lie she told the rest of the kitchen staff, but none of them even seem like it’s weird anymore. Then of course, we informed Percy, our head proclamater. Well, that’s what he likes to be called. Anyway, he needed to be told so he could have the right story to tell when people wondered why the princess didn’t do anything except at night. And those people, aside from you, are the only people who know this whole thing.”

“Wow,” Jake sighed. “I’d be touched if I hadn’t found out by accident,” Jake said with a laugh.

Amy chuckled as she reached out and laid her hand on Jake’s arm. “I may not have chosen to tell you, but it has been nice having your help.”

Jake gasped. “My goodness, is that an honest to God compliment?” Amy glared at him. “Sorry, but we both know those weren’t very common in the last 16 years.”

“Well maybe you weren’t proving to be useful in the last 16 years,” Amy retorted.

“Fair point.” Jake blew out a breath. “Only problem is, I don’t feel like I’m being very helpful now.”

“It helps to have a new perspective,” Amy offered.

“Except I’m doing nothing with it,” Jake said, wallowing. Suddenly, he jumped up, pacing back and forth behind his chair. “Okay, so we’ve been thinking about how to break the curse. And that’s basically it. We need to go about this from another direction.”

“Like what?”

“Like who did it,” Jake said, stopping and looking at Amy. “I mean we both know that there are only so many books in this library on curses. So why don’t we also look into who could be the person behind this all?”

It was an interesting point. Amy had only ever thought of him in terms of killing her father. She really didn’t know who it could be. That was why they’d never pursued that trail before. But maybe that was also why they’d never broken the curse. She nodded thoughtfully. “That might not be a bad idea.” She looked down at the books in front of her on the table. “But I still want to look into breaking the curse too. Because I think the best option would be trying to break it on our own and not involving whoever cursed me.”

Jake nodded in agreement. “That’s a good plan.” He sat back down, opening his book back up. With a grin on his face, he looked back up at Amy. “You know, I think this might be the most we’ve ever gotten along. You should have gotten cursed a long time ago.”

Amy reared back, anger filling her as she was ready to go off on him. He fixed her with a knowing look. “Amy, it was a joke.”

She sat back in her chair, nodding slowly. “I know.” Jake stared at her with a pointed expression. “Okay, I didn’t know for sure. But I get it. It isn’t terrible getting along.”

~~

Jake woke up and rather than jumping up to get dressed and leave, he just laid there for a while. He certainly had a lot on his mind. It had been a month since he’d arrived back in Ninenne and they weren’t making any headway on helping Amy. Jake had no idea why he felt guilty about it. It wasn’t like he cursed Amy. But as he turned his head and looked out the window, he couldn’t help but realize that as he laid there, Amy was somewhere as a swan.

Jake laid there, trying to think about their problem. He felt like he was missing something. They’d covered so many different types of curses but he felt like there was one that they hadn’t seen yet. He had no idea what it would be, but something was tugging at his mind. They’d talked about potions, verbal spells, wands, cloaks, and many other types of curses.

Suddenly, he sat up quickly in his bed. “Amulets!” he yelled to the empty room around him. Jake jumped out of bed, throwing on his clothes and running from the room to go find Terry. He found him sitting at the table in the dining room, Mrs. Smith pouring him a glass of juice.

“Jacob,” she greeted sweetly. “Why don’t you sit down and eat with Terrance?”

Jake nodded, sitting down next to Terry. “Sure, who am I to turn down some of your amazing food?” he replied kindly. She smiled fondly and walked toward the kitchen to get another plate. Apparently not long into Amy’s curse, they’d stopped keeping the kitchen staff around during the day since they weren’t needed. Mrs. Smith had promised she could handle whatever meals needed to be handled during the day on her own. It also cut down on less people finding out about the curse.

“Terry, I had an idea,” Jake informed as he waited for his food. Terry looked up curiously. “It’s been bugging me. I kept feeling like there was some kind of magic we hadn’t found yet but that I knew existed. And then it hit me. It’s amulets.”

“You think that’s what they’re using?” Terry asked. “You think Amy has to wear one? Why wouldn’t she just take it off?”

“No that’s not what I mean,” Jake clarified. “Maybe that’s how they use their magic.” Terry looked at him curiously. “I know there’s a lot more to find out. And I think I know where to get it.”

Jake waited until sundown to reveal his plan. Amy stared at him curiously as he mentioned amulets. “Amy, remember when you used to read in the library at my castle and I used to go in there and annoy you?”

Amy looked at him with an annoyed expression. “Yes, I definitely remember that.”

“When we were like 14, I read some book to you about amulets,” he recalled to her. “I don’t know how I thought of it, but I remember exactly what that book looked like. It’s somewhere in the library back home.”

“You really think this would be helpful?” Amy asked, a weird tone to her voice.

Jake nodded assuredly. “Absolutely.”

“Sounds good,” Terry agreed, excusing himself to go talk to Percy in another room.

Amy was biting her lip nervously when Jake turned back to her. “What do you think is wrong with me going to get this book? It’ll be like a one day trip. I’ll go get it and leave immediately.”

She sighed. “I don’t know, Jake.”

Jake stared at her critically, wondering what she was concerned about. He’d made the trip between Brooklynne and Ninenne plenty of times in his life. Amy was looking down at her feet when Jake realized what could be troubling her. “You think I won’t come back,” he stated.

Amy looked up at him, a vulnerable look on her face. “What?”

“Amy, is that what you think? Do you really think I’d leave and not come back?” Jake questioned.

She shrugged as she crossed her arms defensively. “I don’t know.” He kept staring at her, daring her to voice her concerns. “Okay, fine, yeah. I’m worried you won’t come back. I mean this is a lot, Jake. And you didn’t ask for this pressure of freeing me from whatever this is. You just jumped in without thinking about it fully. So maybe you saw this out and you want to take it.”

Jake’s mouth hung open as he listened to Amy. He stepped closer to her, reaching out and grabbing her by the shoulders. She looked up at him. “Amy, I promise I’ll come back. Look, I know that we’ve never been the best of friends, but...honestly I feel closer to you now than I ever have before. And I may not want to marry you,” he added with a laugh, “but that doesn’t mean I want you to live like this. I told you I would help you break this curse and I intend to keep that promise.”

Amy stared at Jake as tears swam in her eyes. She threw herself forward, her arms wrapping around Jake. He leaned into the hug, wrapping his arms around her. “Thank you, Jake,” she breathed into his shoulder.

He rubbed his hand up and down her back comfortingly. “What are friends for?”

Amy pulled back and looked at him. There was a lot she looked like she wanted to say but didn’t. She opened her mouth and closed it again. “Well, have safe travels.” Jake nodded. “And you know, that’s your home. If you don’t want to rush in and back out, I wouldn’t blame you. What’s a few more days?”

Jake shook his head at her with a grin. “I’ll see you either tomorrow or the next day. All depends on how long it takes me to find the book and get back on my horse.”

Amy smiled, nodding her head. “Do you want to take the Camila? It’s the fastest ship in our fleet.”

Jake smirked. “I always forget that your dad had a ship named after your mom,” he said thoughtfully. He looked back at Amy. “I’ll be good with McClane. It’ll be good to get him out and stretch his legs.”

Amy nodded nervously. “Well, just be safe, okay?”

Jake drew an x over his heart. “Cross my heart,” he replied. Amy bowed herself out to go to dinner as Jake headed toward the stables. Terry found Jake before he made it to the stables.

“Hey, Man,” Terry called. Jake turned around and looked at him. “Percy was running late so I was wandering back to the dining room when I overheard a pretty heavy conversation between you and Amy.” Jake rolled his eyes. “That was some very sweet things you said to Amy.”

“Gee, thanks,” Jake deadpanned.

“However, I think it was a lie,” Terry continued.

“What?”

“Oh, I believe that you want to help Amy, I do. But I don’t believe what you said about not wanting to marry her,” Terry informed him with a grin.

“Excuse me?” Jake said, gaping at Terry. “Why is that?”

“What was the first thing you did when Amy turned you down? You came all the way here...to her.”

Jake scoffed. “Please, that wasn’t because I wanted to marry her. I just...wanted to know...why.”

Terry smiled smugly. “And you haven’t left her side since you got here.”

“I promised to help her,” Jake reminded him.

“I can’t imagine how 15 year old Jake would react to learning that you were willingly spending time with Amy,” Terry mused.

“You’re being ridiculous,” Jake called as he walked for the stables.

“Or I’m just saying the things you haven’t let yourself admit yet!” Terry called back.

Jake shook his head as he walked to get McClane and head back to Brooklynne. But a fascinating thing happened as he rode back to his kingdom; he couldn’t get his mind off Amy. He kept wondering what she was doing. Other times he’d wonder how they’d break the curse. Sometimes his mind went too far and wondered what they would do once the curse was broken. Halfway through his journey, Jake stopped McClane and shook his head. He talked himself down. These thoughts were only in his head because Terry put them there.

Or were they there for another reason?

Jake spent the rest of the trip back to his home fighting with himself about Amy. By the time he was approaching the castle, the sun was on the rise. Amy will be turning back into a swan right about now . Jake groaned as Amy popped into his head for the millionth time on that trip.

After leaving McClane in the stables, Jake didn’t stop to see anyone else before he headed for the library. He was between the third and fourth floor when he heard his name being called. Jake turned around only to see his best friend Charles racing after him.

“Jake! Where the hell have you been?” Charles called as he ran at Jake, hugging him tightly.

Jake patted him on the back. “Sorry to just disappear, bud. I’ve been in Ninenne.”

“Ninenne?” Charles asked. Jake nodded. “With Amy?”

Jake sunk a little. “Yes, but I know where you’re going with this, Charles and it’s not-”

“You’ve been with Amy for the past month?” Charles asked again, waggling his eyebrows this time.

Jake recoiled. “Yes, but it hasn’t meant anything. I’ve just been helping...her with some...trouble in the kingdom. Strictly platonic. I mean, you know I find Amy gross and disgusting.”

Charles nodded with a grin, looking like he didn’t believe Jake. Jake wondered if he even believed himself anymore.

Jake rolled his eyes. “Look, I need something from the library. You’re welcome to help me if you want.” Charles nodded, falling in line with him.

As they reached the fourth floor, Charles went the wrong way. “Hey, I’ll meet you there!” Jake nodded and rushed off to the library. There was no time to worry about what Charles could be up to.  

Jake was rushing through the library, trying desperately to find the book he’d read seven years before. There was a voice in his head telling him that he was grasping at straws. But Jake thought back to that summer. It had been very hot that year, hotter than usual. So more than ever before, Jake and Amy had tried to stay inside. That of course meant that Amy tried to shake Jake and went to the library. Jake, however, got great pleasure from annoying the hell out of Amy. He remembered he’d found Amy near one of the windows. So he’d grabbed a book off one of the shelves nearby and sat down right in front of her, reading loudly about magical amulets and the magic they can grant to the wearer.

Jake wound around to those shelves near the windows and looked slowly through each shelf. He felt like he had to be getting close when he heard Charles call his name again. “Back here,” he yelled.

“Well hello, Jacob.” Jake looked over to see his mother looking at him crossly.

“Hey, Mom!” he replied, drawing out both words nervously. “What’s going on?”

“A question I’d like to ask too,” his mother retorted. “Where the hell have you been for the last month, Jacob? You just disappeared!”

“Look, Jake, I know it hurt when Amy rejected you, but-” Charles attempted.

“Shut up, Charles,” Jake sighed. “Look, I’ve been perfectly safe in Ninenne. And I’m headed back there once I find what I’m looking for here.”

“What have you been doing there?” Karen questioned.

“I’ve been helping Amy,” Jake answered vaguely. Karen stared at him, demanding more explanation with just an expression. “They’re having some problems over there and I’m trying to help her.”

“Why did you even go there after they left?” Charles asked. “I feel like there’s a reason.”

“It doesn’t matter why I went there,” Jake groaned.

“No, it doesn’t,” Karen agreed.

Jake looked at her with a surprised expression. “Thanks, Mom.”

“Oh, don’t for a second think I’m not still mad at you. But I want to know what these troubles are in Ninenne.”

Jake sucked in a breath. “Yeah, that’s the thing. I’ve been sworn to secrecy. I can’t tell you guys.”

“Why not?” Karen demanded. “I’m the Queen of Brooklynne. Surely she’d want my help. That’s why we’re allies.”

“Well, the Prince of Brooklynne is enough to help out,” Jake assured. Karen and Charles fixed him with curious stares. “Look, I wish I could tell you, but I promised her that I wouldn’t. Please don’t make me break that promise.”

Karen looked at him critically before nodding her head in agreement. “Well, I guess I can’t stop you. But you better let me know if you need me,” she said, pointing her finger at him.

Jake nodded with a smile. “I promise, Mom. And I’ll do you one better. I’ll promise to be safe.”

She smirked, reaching out her hand and patting him on the face. “Good boy.” She turned to leave the library. “Let me know when you’re leaving, please.”

“Will do!” he called as he turned back to his search.

“So what are we looking for?” Charles asked.

Jake described the book to him, remembering loosely what it was even called. Naturally in the seven years since he’d last read it, the book had been moved. A few years back, the entire library had been reshuffled and reorganized. It took a few hours, but with Charles’s help, he finally found it. Jake dramatically kissed the book as he found it. “Really wish I hadn’t just done that,” he muttered to himself. Jake turned to Charles, hugging him. “Thanks, Man. I promise I’ll try not to flake on you.”

Charles nodded understandingly. “Eh, you’re with Amy. You’ll be doing more important things.”

Jake shook his head. “Really?” He rolled his eyes and walked from the library.

~~

It was only a couple hours until sunrise when Jake made it back to Ninenne. He walked through the castle, trying to find Terry and Amy. As he passed the hall with the large fireplace, he found Terry asleep in a chair. Deciding not to wake him, Jake started to leave the room. “Amy?” Terry muttered, waking up.

“Nope,” Jake replied. “Just Jake.”

“Oh, gotcha. How long have you been back? Have you seen Amy?” Terry asked.

“I just got back. Wait, did you lose Amy?” Jake questioned.

“No, she’s somewhere in here. She didn’t feel like being around people, so she hid herself,” Terry explained. “She did that a lot as a kid too.”

“She hid herself?”

“Yeah, she seemed off when you were gone. Sadder.”

“Hmm,” Jake replied. He didn’t know what to make of that. Quickly, Jake left to go find Amy. She wasn’t in her room, so Jake set off for the library. At first glance, he didn’t see her there either. He started to leave the library when he heard a book hit the floor. Turning around, he started scanning the room to see where Amy could be hiding. Suddenly he remembered where Amy used to hide in the library in her castle.

Walking over to the mobile bookcase, Jake pulled the shelf back, revealing the closet-like room where Amy was sitting.

“Jake!” she called. “How did you find me?”

He walked in and sat down next to her chair. The room was tiny. It only fit one arm chair and a table next to it with a lantern. “I wouldn’t have even remembered about this place if I hadn’t heard you drop a book. I couldn’t see you anywhere but I knew you were here. Then I remembered all the times you hid from me.”

“Yeah, until you hid in the stacks and watched me come in so you could figure out where I was going,” Amy recalled fondly.

Jake laughed. “What can I say? I was a smart kid.”

“Sure. You could also add annoying,” Amy teased.

“Well no one ever said I wasn’t,” Jake offered. They laughed together.

“So how was your trip?” Amy asked casually.

Jake dug through his satchel still hanging off his shoulder. He pulled out the book, handing it to Amy. “You tell me.” She smiled as she started rifling through the pages. “Although I did get in trouble with my mom and Charles for bailing for a month.”

Amy looked over at him. “I told you that you could stay.”

Jake fixed her with a blank stare. “I told you I didn’t want to. If I’d have wanted to say, I would have. They understood when I told them why I was there.” Amy’s eyes went wide. “I didn’t tell them. I just said I was helping you with some problems in the kingdom. They have no idea the real reason.”

Amy breathed a sigh of relief. “Okay. Thank you.” Jake nodded. “So let’s see what’s in here.”

~~

It took them a few days to fully get through the book Jake had brought back. Amy wasn’t sure it was any more helpful than any of the other books they’d already read. While it was interesting, it didn’t really give any ideas on how to break her curse. They’d tried so hard to figure out all they could about different types of magic and ways to break those curses or spells, but unless they knew which type was on Amy, it was all pointless.

Amy sighed, looking up from the book in her lap. Jake was asleep against the book he had been reading. Even for being basically nocturnal, they did get kind of sleepy during the nights. Amy couldn’t begrudge Terry or Jake for the times they fell asleep. She couldn’t help but watch Jake as he slept. He wasn’t even in a comfortable position, but he still looked so peaceful. She shook her head as she thought about all the differences in their relationship now versus the last time she’d spent a summer with him.

She looked back on that summer almost fondly. For one, it was the last summer she’d had with her dad. But also, she and Jake had actually had some good times together. From the night in the pub where he’d tried to outdrink her, they’d shared an understanding. Somehow they became friendlier with each other. Jake spent more time trying to make her laugh than trying to annoy her. Granted, he’d always tried to make her laugh over the years, but that year, he’d actually accomplished it more often.

The next summer, Amy still didn’t want to go to Brooklynne, but she didn’t dread it as much as she’d expect it to. With school wrapping up, she wouldn’t let herself evaluate why she might be looking forward to seeing Jake. But then her dad was killed and she was cursed and she didn’t see Jake again for three years. If Amy hadn’t been on a mission to get in, break off the betrothal, and leave as quickly as possible, she might have taken the time to really notice how handsome Jake had become. Or how tall he’d gotten. If she hadn’t left so quickly, she could have spent more time with him and realized that he’d grown kinder in the years that had passed. Or she could have realized how much he’d matured into a caring and thoughtful person.

But she’d fled from Brooklynne that night. As Amy watched Jake sleep, she mentally noted that she was thankful that Jake chased after her. Aside from his help, she was thankful that she got to see all these new sides of him. Jake was a much better man than she’d initially thought he was when he blurted out “Jacktractive” and awkwardly asked if they should get married.

Amy looked back at her book quickly as Jake started stirring. He yawned and picked his head up, looking over at her. “Sorry I dozed off.”

Amy shrugged. “No worries. You probably needed it.” Jake smiled and nodded thoughtfully. “Besides, I love reading and this stuff has trouble keeping even my attention.”

Jake chuckled. “Well I’m glad I’m not alone.” He closed the book he’d formerly been using as his pillow. “If it’s okay, I think I’m going to change directions.” Amy furrowed her brow, unsure of what he meant. “There’s no use in finding out how to break all these different curses unless we know which one he put on you.” Amy nodded in agreement. “So I want to do what I said before and look into who did this.”

“You think we’ll be able to figure it out all this time later?” Amy asked, worried of his answer.

“Of course,” he said confidently. “I’m not saying it’ll be easy, but I think if we went about it the right way, we can do it.”

“And what’s the right way?”

“You don’t think it could be someone who worked in the castle, do you?” Jake asked.

“No, of course not,” Amy replied.

“How can you be so sure?”

Amy sat back in her chair, thinking back on her father. “Because after my mom died, my dad was even more protective than usual. He was always very careful who entered the castle. The people who were hired to work here were extremely checked out. He once told me that after he lost my mom, he wanted to make sure that anyone who was around me wouldn’t be dangerous. He was incredibly cautious.”

Jake stood up, pacing in front of the table. He had started doing this a lot when he had something he was thinking about intensely. “Okay, so we look elsewhere. Could there be a person that was close in line for the throne and thought it would be fun to get your dad and you out of the way?”

Amy thought about that. “I don’t think so. I met with all those people not long after my dad died. I don’t see them making a play for the throne. They were all very supportive of me taking over little by little. I think they were happy to be in line but not actually have to take over the throne.”

“So you definitely think this is someone trying to take over the throne?” Jake asked. Amy nodded. “They must be playing the long game.”

“Maybe they’re waiting long enough for it to not be suspicious if I eat it,” Amy reasoned. Jake scrunched up his face at her suggestion.

“Maybe rather than finding him, we draw him out,” Jake offered.

“How so?”

“He would probably panic if you made it look like you were actually taking over the throne. So we make it look like you’re making preparations to do just that,” Jake explained, a devious grin on his face.

“And how would I do that?” Amy asked.

Jake sat down, deep in thought. Suddenly, he slapped the table, looking at Amy excitedly. “Oh I’ve got it.” Amy nodded for him to continue. “You throw a ball. You call it a coronation ball. Make it a very public thing, and I bet it’ll draw this guy out.”

Amy stared at Jake, thinking about his suggestion. It certainly seemed like a promising idea. “That’s actually a really good idea.”

Terry walked back over sleepily. “What’s a good idea?” he asked through a yawn. Jake and Amy took Terry through their conversations and ideas on how to draw out the perpetrator. Terry nodded approvingly. “That does sound like a good idea. Especially to gain you favor with the kingdom.” He smirked as he looked at Amy. “Plus, you could invite Teddy.”

Amy closed her eyes in embarrassment. “Teddy?” Jake asked. “That guy from the tavern?”

She was close to just trying to drop the conversation when Terry replied. “Yeah. Amy thinks he’s her true love.”

Amy grimaced, trying to gauge Jake’s reaction. She didn’t know why his reaction mattered to her. But she couldn’t deny that at first, shock seemed to cross his face. And there seemed to be a flash of hurt on his face before his poker face was up and he plastered on a grin. As Amy watched Jake’s reaction, it occurred to her that it had been a really long time since she’d thought of Teddy. She’d only mentioned him to Terry right after she was cursed.

“Well, if you think this Teddy is your true love,” Jake began, “why didn’t you invite him over for a makeout session years ago to see if it broke the curse?”

Amy shook her head disgustedly. She didn’t like the way Jake phrased his comment. But more than that, she seemed opposed to Jake discussing Teddy. “He joined the army. He’s been on the other side of the kingdom for a few years now. The tavern was the last time I saw him.”

“Well I happen to know that he’s returned to the village,” Terry said excitedly.

“How?” Amy asked.

“I saw him when I was at the market with Mrs. Smith the other day,” he explained.

“Well great,” Jake replied, seemingly strained. “Hopefully we can throw this ball together in time for him to still be here.”

“Oh he’ll be here for five months,” Terry answered, still with an excited tone.

Jake looked close to rolling his eyes. “You talked to him?” Amy asked.

“He recognized me so we chatted a bit.”

Jake stood back up, walking over by one of the windows. “I still think it’s worth coming up with other ways to find this guy.”

“Teddy?” Amy asked.

“No,” Jake scoffed. “Apparently Terry knows just where to find him.” Amy chuckled. “I mean the evil villain.” He leaned against the wall and looked back at them. “Maybe we need to go looking for him.”

Amy wondered why Jake had so suddenly turned on his idea of a ball. He was so sure that it would draw out the man who’d cursed her. But now he was looking for other ways to do that. Amy tried her best not to evaluate what that could mean. He’d been on board until Teddy was mentioned. “So where do we look?” Amy asked.

“I don’t know. You tell me,” Jake challenged. “I mean, you know your kingdom. I’m betting it’s somewhere close. Maybe in one of the nearby villages so he could monitor you.” Amy and Terry nodded, encouraging him to continue. “I’d be willing to bet it’s somewhere you wouldn’t go. So is there some place that even if you haven’t been there, you’re just scared of it? A place that you just avoid?”

Terry was suggesting shadier places throughout the kingdom but Amy was focused on something else. It was a feeling that had been plaguing her for years. She’d never realized what it meant until this moment. It was like continually having a dream and never remembering it in the morning but keeping the feeling of dread. She stood over and walked over by Jake. She wasn’t looking at him, but out the window to a faraway place. Amy’d never thought of this in her human form. The fears she had as a swan rarely carried over once she transformed back. “I know where he is,” she whispered as she stared out the window.

She felt Jake approach her side. He looked out the window with her, as if she saw him. “Where?” he asked gently. “And how?”

“It was what you said,” she told, turning to look at him. “It was brilliant. A place where I’m scared to go.”

“Well where is that?” Terry asked.

“He’s at the Winter Castle,” Amy stated confidently. She felt it in her bones that he had to be there. Nothing else made sense.

“Why do you think that?” Jake asked. Before Amy could answer, he continued. “Also, you have a Winter Castle? How come I’ve never been there?”

“Well you always came during the summer,” Amy reasoned. Jake looked confused. “It’s up in the mountains.”

“Wait, so you go there when it’s winter? That doesn’t make sense,” Jake wondered aloud.

“The real reason we didn’t ever go was because my dad stopped going there. It was basically shut down after my mom died. That was her favorite place and my dad couldn’t face going there without her,” Amy explained.

“So why are you so confident that he’s in the Winter Castle?” Terry asked getting them back on track.

“Because when I’m a swan, I have the freedom to fly wherever I want, right? I mean, I don’t, but I could. For some reason when I’m a swan, I’m always scared to go anywhere near the Winter Castle. It’s just this lingering fear I always have when I’m in that form. And I never thought of it until Jake said that,” Amy said, looking back out the window.

“So you think he’s camped out there?” Jake questioned. Amy looked back at him, nodding. “Then I guess we need to check it out. How far a journey is it?”

“Wait, you think we need to go there?” Amy asked, starting to feel nervous.

“I think that’s a good way to know who we’re up against,” Jake offered. “We could go in disguises so he wouldn’t know it’s us. Ooh, we could say we’re on a mission from the future Queen because she’s planning to take back the castle.”

“Jake, I don’t think we want to piss him off,” Terry replied, a concerned look on his face.

“We have to draw him out somehow,” Jake countered.

“I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” Amy said just above a whisper. “But, we’d have really good disguises.”

“We will,” Jake promised with a smile.

“Why do you look so happy?” Amy questioned.

Jake shrugged. “This feels like the first lead we’ve had. That makes me happy.”

~~

The ball began rolling on both of their plans. As Terry was having invitations sent out for the ball and Jake was meeting with a woman who could help them with authentic disguises, Amy couldn't help but feel optimistic. It was the first time in a long time she’d truly felt that way.

“So she’s the head of the costume department for the largest theater troupe in the kingdom!” Jake bragged. “And she is happy to help us!”

“Wait, what did you tell her?” Amy asked.

“That the future queen needed to go somewhere but she wanted some anonymity. I then added that I’d be going with you and that I am well known in this kingdom as well,” Jake explained. Amy nodded approvingly. “And she will be here at 7:00 to meet with us.” Jake sat down in a chair across from Amy. “It's nice that it's getting dark earlier now. We have so much more time to do things.”

Amy chuckled. “I suppose.”

“So where’s Terr-Bear?”

Amy shook her head as she laughed. “He’s finalizing the invitations. He’s been working really hard on these. He designed them himself.”

“Damn. Go Terry,” Jake said with a laugh. He looked up at her, a hesitant look about him. “So when do you want to do this?”

“Do what?”

Jake fixed her with a blank stare. “Do what? Do the potentially dangerous task of going to the Winter Castle to see what we can find!”

“Oh right. That,” Amy said in a small voice. She didn't tell Jake this, but she was nervous about it. “I don't know. We could wait until after the ball. See if that draws him out.”

Jake stared at her with a questioning look on his face. “The ball isn't for another month. What if we could figure more about before the ball? What if we could break the curse? What if the ball could truly be a coronation ball?” Amy sank down further in her chair. He made good points. She didn't know how to tell him she was scared.

Jake fixed her with a look that seemed like it went right through her. “Amy, if you’re scared, it's not like you’re going to be alone. I mean,” he sighed, scooching forward in his chair, “it is a pretty high risk trip if he’s there and realizes who we are.” Amy nodded sadly. “But you will be with one of the most skilled archers of our time,” he added with a large grin.

Despite herself, Amy grinned back. She shook her head. “He’ll have magic, Jake. What's a bow and arrow going to do against that?”

Jake walked over, kneeling down in front of her chair. Taking both her hands in his, he said, “Amy, I promise I won't let anything happen to you.”

She felt tears stinging her eyes. There was something vulnerable about Jake in that moment. He looked like he was making a solemn vow. And it was to protect her. She didn't know how their years of hating each other had come down to this. But she knew as she gripped Jake’s hands back that he would uphold that promise. “Okay,” she breathed. “Let’s meet with this lady in a couple hours and then we’ll decide how quickly we need to go.”

Jake nodded, standing back up and releasing her hands. “Sounds like a good plan.”

~~

As it turned out, the lady Jake had found was incredibly impressive. She gave them expert disguises and even taught them how to put them on themselves. Jake decided to wait for Amy to tell him when she was ready to make the trip. Night was falling the very next night when Amy found Jake after she turned back.

“I think we should go,” Amy stated shortly.

“Already? I thought you were worried about it,” Jake asked.

Amy sighed. “I’m always going to be worried about it. But I think we should make a plan and go do it before I talk myself out of it again,” she added with a laugh. “Look, I thought about it all day and I think we with these disguises and our own smarts, we’ll be able to pull it off.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to do,” Jake offered.

Amy smiled kindly. “I know you don’t. And I really appreciate that. But we need to do this. So let’s see how long it takes us to make a concrete plan and then the next day we’ll do it.”

They sat down to talk through their ideas for the plan. Shockingly, they seemed to agree with each other on each new point of the plan. Amy drew up a point by point schedule, including travel times for both of them, applying disguises, entering the castle, how long they planned to be there, and their trips back.

The ride to the castle on horseback would take Jake several hours. Amy was going to fly there during the day and meet Jake. By the end of the week, Jake and Amy felt comfortable enough with the plan to decide to run it.

Jake was sitting in an oversized chair by the fireplace when Amy found him. “You should sleep,” she instructed.

Jake looked up at her curiously. “Why’s that?”

“You’re going to be riding all day tomorrow. You need your sleep,” she reasoned.

He nodded thoughtfully. “Well then by that measure, you should too. You’re going to be flying all day tomorrow.”

“Well I was actually about to go to bed,” she confirmed.

“So now you’re being my mom and sending me to bed too?” Jake joked.

Amy laughed. “I suppose I am. Karen was a good role model.”

Jake rolled his eyes and stood up, walking with Amy towards their respective rooms. They paused, turning to each other before going their separate ways. “So we said you’d get up at 5:00?” Amy asked nervously.

Jake nodded. “Yep. That’s the plan.” He looked over at Amy, noting her nerves. Drawing her in for a hug, he said, “Ames, it’s going to be okay. We’ll get through it.”

Amy pulled back and looked at him with a scared look in her eye. “And what if we don’t?”

“Then I’ll avenge your death or go down trying,” Jake offered, jokingly. He honestly felt pretty confident about their mission.

Amy looked offended. “Why am I the one dying?”

“I’m not-I just-” Jake was floundering. “You’re gonna be fine. Okay? We both are.” Jake patted her on the arm with a smile before turning to head to his room.

Jake didn’t sleep well during the night. As confident as he felt in the mission and as often as he’d reassured Amy, he was starting to feel nervous. When 5:00 hit, Jake got out of bed and prepared for a long day’s journey. He wished that he could go with Amy instead of going separately. But that just wasn’t possible. Jake sighed as he looked in the mirror. It was going to be a trying day. The closer he got to leaving, the less confident he became. Was he leading Amy into a trap? Did he have any right to be demanding they do this? If something happened to Amy he knew he’d never forgive himself.

Shaking his head to shake out his thoughts, Jake walked out of his room and down toward the dining room. He choked down a small breakfast before heading to the stables. He walked in to see Amy waiting for him by McClane. “Morning,” he called.

She looked over, surprised to see him. “You’re earlier than I expected,” she mused.

Jake shrugged. “I couldn’t really sleep. Or eat. And I figured an early start wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.”

Amy nodded in agreement. “Jake, are you nervous?”

“What?” He asked in a high pitched voice. “Nervous? What, you think I’m nervous because I couldn’t sleep or eat? That was just because I’m not used to sleeping at night anymore or eating this early. That’s all,” he lied.

Amy stared at him critically. She looked like she was going to say something important. Clearing her throat, she asked, “Do you have your map?” Jake nodded, patting his satchel. “A snack?” Jake nodded again. “Your disguise?”

“Amy, I have everything I need. And I have your disguise as well since you can’t carry it,” Jake replied assuredly. “Look, I’ll admit, I was a little nervous but we’ve thought through everything. It’ll be quick in, quick out of the castle. We just need a look at him, really. We can do this.”

Amy took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay, I trust you.” She pulled Jake in for a tight hug. “Please be careful.”

Jake hugged her back. “You do the same. Fight your swan instincts. I know it’s going to be hard to fly toward the place you fear, but you can do it.”

Amy smiled sadly at Jake. “Yeah, okay.” She looked over at his horse, patting him one last time. “You should get going.”

Jake mounted his horse, taking one more look at Amy before setting off into the darkness. He was near the castle gates when he ran into Terry. “Hey!” Jake called.

“Setting off for the Winter Castle?” Terry asked. Jake nodded. “Well be careful. There are some rough roads on the way there.”

“Noted. Thanks, Terry,” Jake replied.

“Hey, and also,” Terry continued. “Take care of Amy.”

“You don’t have to tell me that.”

“Oh I know I don’t, since you’re in love with her,” Terry said with a big grin as Jake rolled his eyes. “But this isn’t going to be easy for her. So just...take care of her.”

“You gotta stop saying stuff like that, Man. But yeah, I’ll watch out for her,” Jake promised.

“I know you will. Safe travels, Jake. I’ll see you when you get back.” Terry waved Jake off as he headed out of the castle grounds.

It took Jake a long 11 hours to get to the Winter Castle. Between stops and the rough roads Terry’d warned of, it had taken more out of Jake than he’d expected. There was a small village at the foothill of the mountain where the castle was tucked. Jake meandered there for a bit before making the final trek up to the gates where he was set to meet Amy.

He and McClane waited along a wall, keeping them hidden from view of the castle. Jake leaned against his trusty horse as he watched the skies for signs of Amy. The sun was starting to set, so she should be there soon if she planned to make it the whole way by wing. Not ten minutes later, Jake saw a beautiful white bird flying gracefully through the sky. When it got close enough, the bird landed right near Jake. He nodded his head at the bird. “Hey, Swamy.”

As the sun set behind the mountains, Amy transformed back into herself. “Swamy? Really?” she asked critically.

Jake shrugged. “Swan-Amy. Swamy. It’s brilliant.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Jake replied, digging out their disguises. He helped apply Amy’s and she did the same for him. They donned cloaks they’d taken from the launderers in the castle. They were the official cloaks of those who worked for the throne. “You look nothing like you.” Jake said confidently.

“You don’t either,” Amy replied. “I guess that means it’s go time.”

“Okay, now remember, leave the talking to me,” Jake insisted.

“Wait, why is that a rule? Because I’m a woman?” Amy asked, scandalized.

“God, no. Because he might know your voice.” Jake took Amy’s silence as agreement.

The walk to the doors from the gates was a long one. Jake could feel his nerves ramping up again. He had a strong urge to reach out and hold Amy’s hand. But he didn’t. He balled his hands into fists and trudged on, hoping that they could end this mission quickly and without any harm to either of them.

“Okay, so if we’re officials from the Queen, appraising the Winter Castle for her, and have no idea that there could be someone living there, we wouldn’t knock, right?” Jake asked as they approached the door. Amy nodded, keeping her silence going.

Jake and Amy pushed open the doors, revealing a grand entryway that was a bit grungy. Jake could tell that when it was cleaned and kept up, the place was gorgeous. No one was in sight in the entry. They walked on ahead up a flight of stairs. Amy was directing from memories of being a very little girl. The place seemed mostly abandoned. Jake started to wonder if they’d been wrong when they heard someone yelling.

“Who’s there?” yelled a voice from a floor above.

They’d just reached the third floor when they stopped. “We’re representatives from the Queen,” Jake called back. Heavy footsteps echoed above them, carrying down toward them. Amy shot Jake a look of terror, before steeling her demeanor. A man in a long black cloak appeared at the foot of the stairs in front of them.

“There is no Queen,” he said angrily.

“Well not yet,” Jake replied casually. “Her coronation isn’t for a month or more now.”

“Her what?” the man spat.

“Well she is finally of age to take the throne,” Jake reminded him. “After the tragic loss of the king, may he rest in peace,” Jake added, “She’s been preparing for years to take the throne. And it is finally time for her to do that. She sent us here to appraise the Winter Castle for damages. She’d like to make it functional again.”

The man’s eyes grew wide. “Someone lives here now.”

“Yes, unfortunately it seems that way,” Jake answered. “However, this is property of the royal family and thus, it is their decision what to do with it. Not some squatter’s.” Jake hoped he wasn’t saying too much and pissing the man off. “Could I ask your name sir? I’d like to make sure we can relocate you to somewhere good.”

“Pembroke,” the man muttered.

“Ah, well, Pembroke, as lovely as it is to talk with you, we have to go appraise the rest of the castle. We need to make note of how much is going to have to be fixed up before the castle can be functional again,” Jake insisted, nudging Amy away from Pembroke.

“Don’t you dare touch anything of mine,” Pembroke yelled after them. “If you do, you’ll regret it.”

Jake froze. With a sudden clarity, he recognized that voice. Quickly, he shook his head and carried on after Amy. But now he was certain, they’d found the man who’d cursed Amy and killed her father.

Jake kept it to himself as they wandered up to the fourth floor. He wanted to wait to share this with Amy when they weren’t in earshot of the man. Amy poked her head in each room. Jake was certain that she wanted to get out as quickly as they could. Most of the rooms were empty or had covered furniture. It looked like Pembroke didn’t use much of the castle. They looked in a room which only helped confirm that this man had indeed cursed Amy. All around the room were potion ingredients, glowing orbs, even a cauldron. There were countless magical artifacts sitting in front of them. Jake wondered if one of them controlled Amy.

“What are you doing in here?” Pembroke yelled.

Amy and Jake wheeled around to look at him. “We’re, uh, appraising the castle. We had to look in each room.”

“Well you’ve looked in this room, so get out,” Pembroke demanded.

Amy and Jake nodded, exiting the room. Jake had decided that they’d done enough “appraising” for the day. “We’ll be contacting you, sir, to see about your relocation. Thank you for cooperating with us. The Queen appreciates it as well.”

Jake could see the glint of fire in Pembroke’s eye at the mention of the Queen again. He was losing his chance at the throne.

Amy led them quickly out of the castle. They were silent until they got back to where they’d tied McClane. “It’s him,” they said in unison as they took off their disguises. They both looked at each other with shocked expressions. “Wait, how do you know?” they said again in unison.

Amy waved her hands. “You go. I’m more curious of how you could know.”

Jake looked back up at the castle. “Why don’t we go somewhere else and talk about this. I don’t feel safe talking about it here.” Amy nodded agreeably and they both jumped on McClane and headed away from the castle.

They stopped three villages away from the castle. Amy kept insisting to go further. She didn’t want news of the Princess being close by to get back up to castle. What if he figured it out. Jake obliged and kept going until she felt safe enough to stop.

They sat down in a small tavern with very few people in it. If anyone recognized her as the Princess, they certainly weren’t saying anything.

“Okay, so how do you know it’s him?” Amy pressed.

Jake thought back on the last summer he’d been in Ninenne. “It was our last summer together. We were here. Mrs. Smith always was great to me and would fix something for me anytime I got hungry. Which was pretty often. So one day she made me some soup and I sat in the kitchen eating it. She had to leave to go run an errand and I was alone in the kitchen. I heard two people enter and they were fighting. So I picked up my bowl of soup and I went in the corner. One of the people was your dad. The other was Pembroke. I recognized his voice from that fight. I don’t know how, but I did. I don’t know what they were fighting about, but I remember Pembroke was threatening your dad. He wanted something from him and your dad wouldn’t give in. And I remember the last thing I heard Pembroke say before he stormed off was that your dad would regret it. He said he’d take everything your father loved.”

Amy sat back in her chair, stunned by the revelation. “Oh my God.”

“Yeah,” Jake agreed. “But I mean, it holds up. I mean what did your dad love most? You, your mom, this kingdom. Presumably living. He killed your dad. He cursed you. And now he’s living in your mother’s favorite place, carrying out his evil works as he plots to take over the kingdom.”

“Holy crap,” Amy muttered. “You’re right.”

“So how did you know?”

Amy sat forward in her seat. “It was his necklace. It glowed kind of green. The night my dad died, I don’t remember much. I was pretty focused on my dad laying there unconscious with a man standing over him, but I remember the necklace. He was leaned forward so the necklace was hanging in the air off his neck, glowing in the darkness. It was the last thing I remember noticing before he knocked me out.”

“Damn,” Jake breathed.

“Here’s what I don’t get,” Amy wondered aloud. “If he’s after the kingdom, why hasn’t he taken it yet? I mean it’s been three years.”

Jake sat there thoughtfully. It was a good point. “Maybe he didn’t plan to curse you. Maybe he planned his take down of your dad for years and then you got in the way of his plan. So maybe it’s taken him years to try and figure out how to get around you and the curse and take control of the crown.”

“Maybe he planned to frame someone for my dad’s death,” Amy pointed out. “Maybe he was going to pin it on someone who’s still around the castle. But since this person isn’t out of his way, he can’t get to the throne.”

“That’s not a bad theory,” Jake offered. “Except for the part where he’d think that he could just get by you easily. If you hadn’t been cursed, he’d have had to fight you like hell.”

“He wouldn’t have had to,” Amy realized. “I was supposed to be in Brooklynne. I was two days late. I was finishing up school work and it took me longer than usual because I was dragging my feet. Everyone knew I always left June 1st. But that year, I was leaving June 4th because of school. I should have been gone. He went June 3rd to kill my dad, pin it on someone in the castle, and take the throne without me there. But I was there.”

“Whoa,” Jake whispered. “That actually seems pretty plausible.”

They sat in silence for a while, nursing their drinks and thinking over the events of the day. Finally Amy sighed. “I miss my dad.” Jake looked up at her with a sad expression on his face. “This is the closest I’ve ever felt to breaking this curse. And I’m scared of what’s going to happen when it does break.”

“What do you mean?” Jake pressed.

Tears were filling in Amy’s eyes. Jake reached out and held her hand on the table. “My dad died three years ago, but I’ve never really gotten the time to process it. I’ve spent my days as a swan and my nights as...I’ve never really gotten the time to know what it’s really like without my dad. I wish he could tell me what to do about all this. I mean how do we even know we’re doing the right thing?”

“Amy, I think your dad would be really proud of you,” Jake offered. “Your dad would be proud that you haven’t let the kingdom go to crap. That you are actively fighting for yourself. And who knows if anything is the right way to do something like this? But at least you’re trying. You haven’t given up on taking your rightful place. You haven’t given up on your fight to break your curse. If your dad were here, I don’t think he’d have much to offer in advice.”

Amy smiled as tears rolled down her cheeks. “Thank you, Jake. I appreciate that.”

“I always loved your dad,” Jake mused. “I mean I didn’t want to marry you or anything,” he continued with a laugh,  “But I always wanted your dad to be my dad. Especially given my crappy dad. And I think your dad knew that. Every time I was here for the summer, he’d sit me down at different times and he’d impart his wisdom on me. Your dad was who I always had in mind for the kind of king I wanted to be one day.”

“That’s really funny,” Amy commented. “I always admired your mom. She just did it on her own when it wasn’t even her burden to bear. I thought that was awesome. She cared more about the kingdom than her own interests.”

Jake smiled at her comments on his mom. “I guess we had pretty good examples, didn’t we?” Amy nodded thoughtfully. “Weird that it was each other’s parents.”

Soon their conversations were steered away from heavy topics to ones that were easier. They spent a while in the tavern, talking as if it were any other day. Jake, without consciously trying to, kept making Amy laugh. He smiled every time she laughed, hoping he was making her feel better.

Amy looked around the tavern, noting that it was growing emptier and emptier. “Maybe we should find a place to stay.” Jake nodded in agreement. There was a place just down the street where they could stay according to the barman.

Amy and Jake hurried off in search of the place. It was later than they’d expected. They walked in to find a man close to sleeping behind the desk. “Ahem,” Amy called, trying to get his attention. The man jumped to attention, belatedly realizing it was the princess standing in front of him.

“My goodness, you’re Princess Amy,” he said astoundedly.

Amy nodded with a sweet smile. “Yes, and we were hoping to find rooms for the evening.”

The man looked down at his book before looking up at them with a sour expression. “I’m afraid I only have one room left.”

“Of course,” Jake muttered. Amy elbowed him.

“But I can go kick someone out of one for the Princess,” the man offered.

“No!” Amy yelled. “Sorry to yell, but no, please, that won’t be necessary. We’ll just take the one room.” Jake stared at Amy with wide eyes.

“Alright Your Highness,” he announced, holding out a key. “Here you are. Last door upstairs on the left.”

“Thank you, Sir!” Amy said, shaking the man’s hand. Then she and Jake went upstairs to their room. “Okay, I’m sorry, I know this is weird.”

“It’s fine,” Jake assured her. “I just won’t sleep. I’ll keep watch.”

“What?” Amy asked exasperatedly. “You have to ride back all the way tomorrow. You need sleep.”

“Well who is going to make sure no one comes after you?” Jake questioned.

“You really think that’s going to happen?”

Jake threw his hands up in the air as Amy unlocked the door. “Who knows, Amy? But I don’t want to be the reason that you get hurt.”

“I’m not going to get hurt. And you need sleep, you idiot, so we’re both going to sleep,” Amy insisted.

“What, in the same bed?” Jake pointed out.

Amy turned around and looked at the singular bed in the room. It was big enough for both of them, but with sparing room between them. Amy turned back and looked at Jake. “Yes,” she said confidently. “We are mature adults and we can sleep in the same bed without it being weird.”

Jake felt unsure of her point but he agreed nonetheless. “Okay, you take the far side,” he commanded. She looked at him curiously. “That way, I can be between you and the door in case someone comes in. And I can  have an eye on the window in case someone comes in that way.”

Amy shook her head confusedly. “Whatever,” she said as she walked around to the side he’d demanded she take.

Jake laid down on the bed, trying to stay as close to the edge as possible. Amy sighed as she laid down next to him. She turned to her side and looked at him. “Do you really think we’ll be able to take him down?”

Jake turned onto his side to see Amy’s face closer than he expected. He swallowed quickly. “Um, yeah, I do.” Amy nodded, curling down under the covers. She was still on her side, still facing him. As he laid next to Amy, he heard every comment Terry and Charles had made about Jake loving her. He tried to fight the thoughts from his head as he laid there staring at her.

Sleep evaded him for a while. He heard Amy’s breathing even out as she finally found sleep herself. Jake laid there for a while, wishing sleep would find him. He’d begun to lose track of how long he’d been laying there when Amy moved in her sleep. She cuddled into Jake’s side, wrapping her arms around his torso, her head next to his shoulder. Reluctantly at first, Jake reciprocated the gesture. He wrapped his arm around Amy, curling her even more into his side. Trying to ignore how comfortable he felt, Jake finally fell asleep.

He woke in the light of the morning to a cold bed. Amy was nowhere to be found. He looked out the window and registered that she would already be a swan and was likely flying home. Turning to get out of bed, he saw a note in Amy’s handwriting on the nightstand. Sunrise is coming. I’ll see you at home. Safe travels! -Amy . Jake smiled as he read the letter from her. Every time he was going somewhere she made sure she wished him safe travels at least once. It was a sweet gesture that hadn’t eluded him.

Slowly, Jake got ready to leave again. He wondered how far along Amy already was. She, of course, didn’t have to stick to the land like he did. It was another long day, but he and McClane finally made it back to the castle. It was after sunset when he left his horse in the stables and walked to find Amy or Terry.

Amy was sitting in the entryway. Her leg was bouncing, making Jake believe she was nervous. At the sound of his footsteps, Amy looked up, a relieved expression on her face. “Oh thank God! There you are!” She yelled, running and hugging him quickly.

“Sorry, I got a later start than yesterday,” he explained.

Amy nodded. “Understandable. It was a long day yesterday,” she agreed with a smile.

Jake hated how happy it made him that she seemed so happy to see him. Terry walked into the room holding envelopes above his head. Amy and Jake turned to see what he was making a fuss about.

“Good news, everyone!” Terry called excitedly, gesturing with the envelopes. “Our first RSVPs have come in for the big ball!”

“Ooh,” Amy replied, moving closer to look at who had responded. Jake followed suit.

“We have 15 people who’ve already RSVP’d,” Terry exclaimed. “This is going to be awesome!” The three of them were filing through the envelopes curiously. “And would you look at that, Amy. Look who RSVP’d immediately. Teddy!”

Jake felt a knot form in his stomach. “Oh great!” Amy answered, seemingly happily.

Jake feigned a yawn. It wasn’t much to feign, he actually was pretty tired. “Well, I’m going to head up to bed,” he announced. He didn’t want to stick around for more Teddy talk. Though the ball had been his idea, he hadn’t been excited about it since Terry suggested they invite Teddy.

“What?” Amy asked, looking up from the RSVPs. “You haven’t even had anything to eat,” she pointed out.

Jake shrugged. “I’m just really tired. It was a...long day.” He trudged away from Amy and Terry.

Amy caught his wrist before he could get too far. “Jake,” she said as he turned back around. “Are you okay?” she asked scrutinizingly.

Jake nodded. “Yeah, just tired.” Of hearing about the guy you think is your true love , he finished in his head.

Jake slowly made his way up to his room, throwing himself down on the bed. For the first time in his life, he felt like there was something missing. He stretched out his arms and realized he missed having Amy there. Jake actually evaluated why he felt so off every time they brought up Teddy. And he came to one conclusion: Terry and Charles may be right about his feelings. It’s not that he didn’t want Amy to break her curse, it’s that he didn’t want Teddy to be the one to break it. Jake knew exactly when it was that his feelings of dislike somehow morphed into a friendship with Amy. But he had no clue when his feelings of friendship turned into more. Some time over the last couple of months, Jake had developed feelings for Amy.

He’d been spiraling over his feelings for Amy for a while when he heard the door open. Jake slammed his eyes shut, deciding to just feign sleep instead of talking to whoever came in. The person seemed to think he’d be asleep anyway. They were moving very quietly. He heard them set something down on the table at the end of the bed before moving slowly up to the head. A hand reached out, fingers running slowly through his hair. “Goodnight, Jake,” she whispered, patting his head before she left.

Once the door closed, Jake opened his eyes, sitting up and looking around the room. Amy had brought him a plate of food for whenever he woke up. And sweetly said goodnight even though she thought he couldn’t hear her. As he processed each kind gesture, the knot in his stomach loosened some. Jake laid back on his bed, sighing. “Crap,” he muttered to himself. “I’m in love with her.”

Chapter Text

Without really meaning to, Jake had started keeping to himself. During the days, he pitched in to help Terry, Mrs. Smith, and Percy prepare for the ball. Slowly, more and more people started returning to the castle during the day. It was starting to feel the way it always had when Jake visited for the summer. People were bustling around, getting things done. Jake smiled as he thought of the castle and the kingdom returning to its full glory. Of course, then that usually led him to thinking about his role in it all after the curse was broken. He’d ride back to Brooklynne, alone and sadder than he’d have ever imagined leaving Amy could make him. But he had accepted that once her curse was broken, Jake’s role in her life would go back to being minimal. After all, she’d broken off their betrothal. They would go back to being allies, and likely, that would be it.

That was why in the evenings, Jake ate a quick dinner and made some lame excuse to hide away for the rest of the night. Phasing himself out of spending time with Amy would make it easier when he left her. When she had her true love and didn’t need him anymore. The only problem was he desperately wanted to be around her. During the day, he wished he could spend time talking to her. And yet at night, he hid from her, too afraid of the pain of being around her. He figured she probably noticed, but he didn’t know how to stop. He didn’t know how to be around her at all. The realization that Jake loved her had hit him like a rock. Of course he loved her. He’d be an idiot not to. For the first time in their lives, they’d been spending time together just them. She wasn’t Amy, the girl Jake knew he’d have to marry even if he didn’t want to. She was just Amy, his friend. He was finally able to see how wonderful and charming Amy was now that he wasn’t blinded by his anger at having his choice taken away. He could make his own choices now. And he knew he wanted to choose Amy. The only problem was that Amy didn’t want to choose him.

~~

Ever since coming back from the Winter Castle, Jake had been noticeably absent. At first, Amy just assumed he was freaked out by their mission but didn’t want to admit it to her. But as the days went by and he continued to avoid her, she wondered if there was more to it. Some nights, she’d stand outside his room, trying to find the courage to knock. It never came to her. She felt like he was purposefully avoiding her and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t figure out why. As far as Amy remembered, they’d had a fine time together. She couldn’t remember saying anything he took the wrong way.

Amy slammed her book shut in a huff one night as she continued to think about Jake. Even reading wasn’t taking her mind off of it. For easily the tenth time, she walked over and stood in front of his door, trying to summon the courage to confront him. After about a minute, she gave up, deciding to go see if Mrs. Smith was still in the kitchen.

Amy wandered the familiar route to the kitchen. She was on the third stair from the top when she heard two people laughing. One of them was Mrs. Smith. And as Amy rounded the corner at the bottom of the stairs, her suspicions were confirmed: the other was Jake.

“Amy,” Mrs. Smith called in a warm greeting. “Come join us! I’m teaching Jake how to make souffles.”

Amy blew out a laugh in disbelief. “Really?” Amy asked, settling herself in on a stool at the island. “Why’s that?” Amy could see Jake visibly tensing from across the island. She wondered (for easily the millionth time) why she was having this effect on him.

“Well I was making some practice souffles because I want to make some for the big ball next week. So then Jake wandered in, hoping to score some food and it turned into a cooking lesson,” Mrs. Smith explained with a big smile. “Lucky for you, we have room for another student.” Amy smiled back at her, sitting up straighter on her stool as she would in an actual class. Amy tried to not look at Jake but her efforts were fruitless. It had been weeks since she’d really spent time with him. She was hoping if she stared at him long enough, she could figure out why he’d been so distant.

“Oh no,” Mrs. Smith muttered to herself. Amy snapped her head back over to look at Mrs. Smith. She remembered she was supposed to be learning and not staring at the side of Jake’s face. He’d been paying attention. Or maybe he was just intently ignoring Amy. Mrs. Smith looked up at the both of them. “I forgot to grab some ingredients. I need to go grab some things from the garden. You two wait here. I’ll be right back.”

“Do you want me to go?” Jake quickly volunteered. Amy rolled her eyes. Anything to get away from her.

“Of course not, Dear,” she replied. “No offense, Jacob, but I’m not sure you’d know the right things to pick.” Mrs. Smith smiled cheekily as she bustled from the kitchen.

Amy expected Jake to make some pithy remark about actually being a bit offended but instead she was met with silence. It’s what she really should have expected. About a minute had passed before Amy finally found the courage she’d lacked all the times she stood in front of his door. “Okay, what the hell, Jake?” she yelled, without censoring.

Jake looked over at her, shock coloring his face. “Excuse me?”

“I don’t get it. You’ve spent the last three months here and we’ve gotten closer and become friends and then all the sudden you just...disappear. I don’t get it.”

Jake opened and closed his mouth a few times before he said anything. He swallowed harshly. “I’m just...rehearsing my part for after the ball.”

“What?”

“I mean we’re all getting ready for the ball during the day,” Jake started to explain, “I just figured it would be easier if at night I got ready for my part after the ball.”

Amy tried to understand what he was saying but she was still at a loss. “I don’t get it.”

“What use am I going to be around here once you break your curse?” Jake reasoned. “I mean the only reason you’ve kept me around is because I promised to help you. And I intend to do that, but what role am I going to have after that’s done? Silent ally. So that’s what I’m practicing.”

Amy shook her head, holding back her anger. “Wow. So that’s what you think of me? You think that all I want from you is your help and then you’re going to be dead to me once I’m free?” She chuckled dryly. “And here I thought we’d made so much progress in how we thought of each other.”

“What use am I going to be to you?” Jake asked bluntly. “Terry’s the brawn. You’re the brains. You’ll be free to rule your kingdom. Plus you’ll have your true love. Where do I even fit into that picture? I don’t.”

“So you’re just going to ditch us?” Amy asked, wishing she could find the right words to say to him.

Jake sighed. “It doesn’t feel like it’s going to be me doing the ditching.” He looked down at his feet before standing up. “Tell Mrs. Smith I didn’t feel like eating anymore. I’ll catch another lesson from her later.” He started to walk away.

Amy grabbed his arm as he came around her side of the island. “So what? You’re just going to keep isolating yourself?”

Jake looked down at her with a sad expression. “Amy, you’re going to have everything you want. You’ll have your curse broken, your kingdom restored, and your true love. You don’t have to pretend to care about me.” He wrenched his arm back and walked out of the kitchen.

“But I do,” Amy said to the empty kitchen. She covered her face with her hands as she tried to think of a way to prove to Jake that she cared. He seemed pretty stuck in his idea that she was only using him to break the curse.

Amy heard someone’s footsteps as they came down the stairs. She hoped it was Jake coming back to actually talk to her. But of course it wasn’t. Mrs. Smith walked in with a basket of varied produce and a smile on her face. She always had a smile on her face.

She looked around and up at Amy. “Where’d Jake go?”

“He couldn’t stand being alone with me so he turned down the offer of food,” Amy informed her. “That’s a pretty big indicator.”

“Don’t be mad at him, Sweetheart,” Mrs. Smith advised. “He’s just sad.”

“Sad?”

“Well sure, you’re going to have all these wonderful changes in your life. Changes for the better,” she reminded. “And at the end of that, he’s going to have to go home to Brooklynne with his tail between his legs, sad that he didn’t end up getting what he really wanted.”

“And what is that?” Amy wondered aloud.

“Well isn’t it obvious? I mean he’s been so devoted to you-” she cut off when she saw Amy’s confused expression. She stammered as she attempted to cover what she said. “You know, you and your curse. He’s been so devoted to helping you break it. Anyway, I’ve said too much. It’s time for me to get back to cooking. So the first step to a souffle is-” she started before Amy interrupted.

“Wait! You know something,” Amy accused, her finger pointed at Mrs. Smith.

“I know that the key to a good souffle is silence,” Mrs. Smith joked. Amy glared at her. “Look, it’s not like he ever said anything to me. It’s just obvious.”

“What is?” Amy tried, hoping she could get some logical explanation for Jake’s behavior. Every one she’d come up with had seemed ludicrous.

“Sweetie, if you don’t know, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to tell you,” Mrs. Smith replied with a sad smile. “But I do know this. I know that he is a sweet boy with a good heart and a bottomless stomach,” she concluded with a laugh. “And I know that he’s been worried for the last three months that he won’t actually be able to help you. And I think that scares him. You can take from that what you want.” Amy nodded thoughtfully. “Now I’m going to get back to my souffles. Are you going to join me or take the time to mull over things?”

Amy smiled at Mrs. Smith’s knowing comment. “If it’s alright, I think I’m going to mull over things.”

She nodded happily as she cut up her ingredients. “I figured that would be the way to go.” Amy stood up to leave the kitchen. “Oh, Amy?” Mrs. Smith called when Amy was at the bottom of the stairs. Amy turned back around. “Be gentle with him. I know how badly you want to know what’s going on in his head, but underneath that tough exterior, there’s a heart that is easily broken. Do what you have to do, but be delicate with him. There’s a reason he’s acting the way he is.” Amy opened her mouth to grill Mrs. Smith for what she knew, but she held up a hand, stopping Amy. “I don’t actually know anything for certain. But I think I know.”

“And you won’t tell me?” Amy asked again.

“It’s not mine to tell,” Mrs. Smith replied sadly.

With a curt nod, Amy turned to go back up the stairs. She had half a mind to go find Jake and see what more she could get out of him. But in the back of her head, she could hear Mrs. Smith’s warning. Be gentle with him . Amy had no idea what that really meant. The best idea she could come up with for Jake’s behavior seemed too implausible for her to even voice to herself.

~~

The next day, Jake was helping set up the Grand Ballroom for the ball. It was in five days and the castle was abuzz. He was helping put a table in the right place when Terry strolled up to him. “Hey Jake, can we talk?”

“Sure!” Jake replied cheerily. “What’s up Terr-Bear?”

“You know how the last time you were here, you ended up going four years before you saw Amy again?”

“Yes. Are you saying that’s how it’s going to go after the ball?” Jake asked, not sure what he wanted the answer to be. Maybe four years without seeing Amy could help him get over her.

“No,” Terry answered quickly. “But you know how after we didn’t see you for four years, we marveled at how much you’d grown. At what a cool guy you’d become.” Jake shrugged. “You’re losing that, man.”

“Buh-what now?”

“Dude, you’ve been so great the last few months and now we’re in the final stretch and you’re tanking it. Why are you avoiding Amy? Why are you acting like a baby and hiding?” Terry interrogated.

Jake stood there, at a loss for words. It had been a long time since anyone had scolded him like this. “Oh now, Terry,” Mrs. Smith called from behind Jake, saving him from answering. “You know why he’s acting this way. It’s because he’s clearly in love with Amy and he doesn’t know how to tell her.”

Jake spun around to glare at Mrs. Smith. He looked back and forth between her and Terry. He pointed his finger at one, then the other. “You two spend way too much time together.” He turned back to Mrs. Smith. “I get that enough from him. I don’t need it from you too!” He exclaimed. “I swear, if you didn’t provide me with the most amazing food, I would…”

Mrs. Smith stared at him, waiting for him to finish. “You’d what, Dear?”

Jake shrugged. “I don’t know. I kinda lost my train of thought there.” He shook his head. “Look, can you both just stop it with those comments. If I really loved Amy I’d tell her.”

“Would you?” Terry asked, staring Jake down.

Jake didn’t know how to answer that. His statement had obviously been a lie. He did love Amy but there was no way he was ever going to tell her. “I’d like to think so,” Jake answered evasively. “But it doesn’t matter anyway. In five days, in all likelihood, Amy will have found her true love and it wouldn’t matter even if I did feel that way.” He looked around the room at all the pieces being put into place. “I’m just here to help.”

Jake ignored Terry and Mrs. Smith’s sad expressions as he walked away to help Percy with a podium. As he went about his day, he realized that Terry was right. He was being immature by avoiding Amy. But he was trying his best to protect himself. Once his part in all this was done, he would be the last thing on Amy’s mind. She may be upset that he’s not talking to her now, but once she’s in true love bliss with her beloved Teddy, she’ll be thrilled he’s not talking to her. As much as he wanted to sit with her for a whole evening and absorb the time they had left together, Jake really didn’t think he was up for it.

~~

It was the night before the ball and Amy was filled with a nervous energy like never before. All throughout the castle, people were scurrying around, carrying out last minute preparations. For a second, Amy let herself be optimistic. This time tomorrow, I could be free of my curse , she thought to herself. Honestly though, she didn’t believe it. It seemed too good to be true. There was no guarantee that the curse would be broken tomorrow. There was no guarantee that the curse would ever be broken.

Suddenly, the castle felt too stifling. Amy walked out into the moonlight and stared out across the lake. Looking up at the sky, she realized it was the first night she’d gone outside in a long time. She spent so much of her day outside, she chose to spend the time that she could inside the castle. For some reason that night, the outside was calling to her. The open space with the moon above made her relax. She didn’t feel cramped or pressured.

Sitting down on a bench by the lake, Amy began to think back to nights spent like this with her father. Jake had said that her dad would be proud of her if he could see what she was doing. She wanted to believe that was true. Would he really be proud that she spent three years cursed because she was too weak to break it? Would he be proud that she still had no true idea of how to break it? Would he be proud that she spent her days as a bird, dreaming about what life could be like if she could be human again? Amy wasn’t so convinced. She wasn’t the one who’d held the kingdom together. It was Terry, Percy, and Mrs. Smith who somehow kept things running. What did Amy know of running kingdoms? Maybe it was too soon to take the throne. She could always skip the ball.

Amy felt a drop hit her chest. She hadn’t even realized she was crying. So much was changing so quickly. The plan was basically for everything to change in one night. And the most overwhelming part of it all was that the one person she wanted to talk to about it wouldn’t even be in a room with her. The tears continued to fall, Amy not even bothering to wipe them away.

Amy knew Jake would have a good insight on how she was feeling. The fluency that he had in reading her honestly astounded her. She didn't want Jake to leave. For the first time, she'd found someone that helped make her a better person. She liked the person she was around Jake. It hurt that he was so sure she would shun him when all was said and done. He clearly couldn't feel the same things she felt if he hid from her this desperately. He couldn't feel the same way if he kept swearing she’d toss him aside. Sometimes she just wanted to shake him. Apparently that held on from their summers together.

Amy heard footsteps approaching. She turned quickly, instinctively raising a hand to wipe her tears. It was like she'd summoned him with her thoughts. “Oh, sorry,” Jake muttered before starting to turn back. He did a quick double take of her. “Are you crying?”

Amy almost laughed. “Oh, now you want to talk to me, huh?”

Jake sighed, hanging his head slightly. “You’re right. I’ve been…” he trailed off. “I’m sorry for how I’ve been behaving. I guess I don’t always react to change well.” He looked up and met her gaze. “But forget about that for now. What’s wrong?” Amy stayed silent, trying to figure out how to articulate everything she was feeling. “Look, I get that I’ve been kind of a jerk. If you want me to leave, I will,” Jake offered, turning back for the castle.

“No, please don’t!” Amy called, reaching her hand out.

Jake nodded, walking closer to her. There was plenty of room on the bench with her, but Jake sat down on the ground next to it. He cleared his throat. “So do you want to talk about what’s wrong?”

Amy sighed, drawing her legs up onto the bench and wrapping her arms around them. “I’m just...overwhelmed. I mean I know that if everything goes as planned tomorrow, a lot of good things are going to happen. But it’s just a lot. I don’t...I don’t know if I’m even ready to be queen. I mean for the last three years, I’ve been living half my life as a bird. That’s not exactly queenly.”

“That’s not exactly your fault either,” Jake reminded her.

She nodded in agreement. “I’m just not ready.”

“Well what do you want to do? Not break the curse?” Jake asked bluntly.

“No, of course I want to break the curse. I just don’t want everything to change. I mean, I want some things to change, but not everything . You know?”

“I think I do,” Jake admitted. “But look, Ames, you’re gonna be ready. It’s not like you’ve been spending half your life asleep. You’ve still been you. You’ve still been able to plan things or note things that need to be changed. I mean you must have at least some plans for what you’d like to do.”

“I guess,” Amy replied blankly.

“I’m sure if you really thought about it, you’d know at least one thing you wanted to do.” They sat there in a heavy silence. Soon, Jake stood up, brushing off his pants. “It’s a big day tomorrow. I better get some sleep.” Amy nodded. “Night, Amy.”

“Night, Jake.”

~~

Jake was laying in bed an hour later, unable to sleep. No matter how hard he tried, his brain wouldn’t turn off enough for him to sleep. He’d given up on trying to sleep when the door started to open. Jake looked over quickly, instinctively pulling his covers up just a bit more. He was shocked to see Amy walking in his room. Without saying a word, she walked around and laid down on the other side of his bed on top of the covers.

“Uhh...hey, Amy. What’s up?” he asked awkwardly.

Without looking at him, she replied. “Can you promise me something?”

“Is it something that won’t be weird that you’re asking me while we’re laying in/on my bed?” He joked.

Amy chuckled. She turned her head and looked over at him. “Can you promise you won’t ditch me?”

“What?” Jake asked, shocked by her favor.

She sighed grandly. “I never expected a day to come where I treasured your friendship, but somehow here we are. And I know that you keep saying that you’ll be gone after the ball because there’s no place for you, but there is! You’ve become my best friend Jake. I know neither of us saw that coming, but honestly, I couldn’t have gotten to this point without you.”

Jake was staring at her, unable to speak in reply.

“I don’t want you to just go on back to Brooklynne and have us just be allies. Or just be people who used to spend every summer together. You’re important to me and I want you to promise me that you’ll stay a part of my life,” Amy continued. “I know I probably seem crazy right now, but everything is about to change and I want to make sure that this,” she motioned between them “this new bond that we’ve developed isn’t one of the things that changes with everything else.” She looked at him pleadingly. “Can you promise me that?”

Jake felt a huge lump in his throat as he tried to swallow. “Yeah,” he choked out. He nodded as he tried to gain more of a voice. “Ames, I promise.” He felt a grin grow on his face. “But you know, friendship is a two way street. You can’t expect me to do all the work to maintain our friendship because you’re a Queen and I’m just a Prince.”

Amy threw her head back in laughter. “Yeah, because that’s how I see that going. Sure.” She looked over at him with an intense look. For a moment, Jake felt like he couldn’t breathe. “I’ve missed you,” she admitted in a small voice.

Jake felt guilty. For all of his self preservation, he’d forgotten to take Amy’s feelings into account. He looked back at her and nodded. “I’m sorry.”

Amy shrugged. “It’s okay. I’ll punch you for it later,” she joked. At that point, Jake expected her to get up and say something about seeing him at the ball, but she didn’t. She laid there and looked up at the ceiling. Jake took that chance to stare at her. “I did think of one thing I’d like to do,” Amy said suddenly. Jake had to scramble to realize what she meant. She looked over at him. “As Queen,” she clarified. She was referencing their talk an hour ago. “I want to turn the Winter Castle into a shelter. I want people who need somewhere to live or somewhere to hide to be able to go there. I don’t need two castles. But someone else may need a place.”

Jake gaped at her. “That’s a really great idea.”

She smiled back at him. “You actually gave me the idea.”

Jake laughed in reply. “What?”

“Oddly enough it was when you were talking to Pembroke. You mentioned that the royal family would have him relocated. And it somehow made me think about people needing to be relocated,” Amy explained.

“Well then I expect some credit when it happens,” Jake joked. “Maybe a plaque or something.”

Soon they fell back into the rhythm they’d shared for the past three months. They continued to talk into the night. It was like they were catching up on all the talking they’d missed when Jake was avoiding her. As laughter filled the air, Jake kept waiting for a sense of sadness to fill him. But it never did. It was enough at that moment to just be with Amy, laughing and talking and sharing in each other’s lives. As she was animatedly telling him a story, Jake realized that his promise to her would be easy to keep.

Jake had no idea when they fell asleep. He woke up while it was still night, Amy laying asleep on top of the covers next to him. He tried his best to pull at least one layer out from under her so he could cover her. She only ended up partially covered. Jake was moving to lay back down when he took one last look at Amy. If everything went as planned, this would be the last time they’d get a moment like this. He continued to stare down at her, taking in her beauty, thinking of her charm. As he looked at her, he thought of every single thing he loved about her. “If only it were enough,” he whispered to himself. He pushed the hair out of her face before laying back down to try and sleep more. Jake knew that when he woke the next time, he’d be alone. She would be a swan for the last time. He chanced one last look at her before closing his eyes, wishing that he had more time for them to be like this.

~~

Jake was packing all that he’d acquired in his time in Ninenne the next morning. He was doing his best to ignore every instinct he had and instead actually fold his clothes. There was a knock at the door, interrupting his progress. “Come in,” Jake called, turning toward the door.

Terry smiled as he walked in Jake’s room. He furrowed his brow as he spotted the open trunk on Jake’s bed. “What are you doing?”

Jake looked at the trunk and then back at Terry. “Packing. You know, it's amazing how much stuff I gathered for coming here with just the clothes on my back.”

“Yeah, well I was grossed out when you wore the same borrowed outfit for like two weeks. I kept “finding” you new clothes to wear so you’d not be so disgusting.” Terry admitted. “So you’re packing. To go where?”

Jake stared at him blankly. “Brooklynne…you know...where I live.”

“You’re just leaving?” Terry asked, a sad expression crossing his face.

Jake sighed, looking down at his feet. “I can't stay.” Terry gave him a look, encouraging him to elaborate. “I’m gonna stay for the ball and make sure the curse gets broken, but after that, I...I just can't stay.”

“Okay. But why? Don't you want to see the benefits of all your work?” Terry wondered aloud.

“I think you know why I can't stay.” Jake was hoping that would be enough to say. Terry clearly wasn't letting him off the hook though. “You’ve been right, okay?” Jake sighed deeply. “I love her,” he admitted quietly. He saw Terry’s face soften. “And the idea of seeing her blissfully happy with Teddy is driving me insane. I can't be here for it. So after the ball, if the curse is broken, I’m leaving.”

“Jake,” Terry said softly, sympathetically. “There’s no guarantee that Teddy is actually her true love.”

“Yeah, well I certainly doubt it's me,” Jake retorted with a dry laugh.

“You never know,” Terry crooned annoyingly.

Jake rolled his eyes. “Look, I want the best for Amy. But I also want the best for me. And watching her be happy with someone else is going to be painful. I can be happy for her from afar.”

“Have you told her?” Terry asked, surely already knowing the answer.

“Have you told Sharon?” Jake countered.

“Sharon?” Terry recoiled at the tables being turned. “What do you mean by that? Sharon and I are just friends!”

“Sure, Terry, sure you are,” Jake replied knowingly. “You forget that I’ve gone with you to the market and seen the way you purposefully head straight to her stall.”

Terry scoffed at Jake. “Yeah, because we’re friends.”

“Okay, Bud,” Jake said with a pat on Terry’s shoulder. “Whatever you have to tell yourself.”

“Jake, I think you should tell her before you just leave,” Terry advised.

Jake turned and looked back at his trunk. “I don't even know how I’d do that.” Feeling the urge to get out of the room, Jake turned back toward the door and toward Terry. He saw the look on Terry’s face. “No, that wasn't me asking for advice!” He stared up at the man he’d admired for years, feeling like he was saying goodbye. “I really appreciate all you’ve done for me over the years, Terry. I’ll miss you when I’m back in Brooklynne.”

“You know you’re welcome here anytime, Jake,” Terry reminded him kindly. “You’ve turned into a fine young man. And I feel confident in saying that you’ll make a great king someday.”

Jake fake sniffled. “Don't make me cry.” Jake pulled Terry in for a hug. He stepped away from Terry and towards the door. “I have an errand to run, but I’ll be back to help with any last minute details.”

Terry nodded, walking out of Jake’s room with him. Getting out of the castle might just be what Jake needed.

~~

Nerves suddenly hit Jake as he stood in front of the mirror, dressed in his same royal clothes he’d worn the night Amy came to Brooklynne and called off their betrothal. As he ran a hand over the navy jacket, he tried to think about why he was nervous. He was fastening the gold buttons when it hit him. The goal of today was to break the curse. What if that was harder than just finding Amy’s true love?

Or maybe he was nervous about Amy finding her true love.

He shook his head, hoping to find clarity before going down to welcome all the guests they’d invited. Hundreds of people had received invitations and all of them had said they were coming. It was proving to be a very elaborate affair. Granted, Jake had been to a fair number of elaborate affairs back in Brooklynne. This one just had a bit more riding on it.

Looking back in the mirror one last time, Jake shrugged, deeming himself good enough before leaving his room. He went down to the Grand Ballroom, curious to see how he could help put the final touches on the event before people arrived in twenty minutes’ time. Everything looked beautiful. The flowers were gorgeous and matched the draperies hanging from the ceiling. The food being set out nearly made Jake drool. He wished he could try some samples. A chuckle rang out from behind him, making him turn. “If you’re hungry, Dear, I have some extras down in the kitchen,” Mrs. Smith informed him. “You’re more than welcome to some.”

Jake smiled kindly at her. “You are far too kind, Mrs. Smith. I think I’ll manage.”

She nodded happily before she stood still, appraising him. “You look very dashing, Jacob. I think you might turn a few ladies’ eyes tonight,” she said with a mischievous wink.

Jake laughed, shaking his head. “Like I said, you are far too kind.”

“But there’s only one lady’s eye you want to turn,” she finished for him.

Jake rolled his eyes. “Do you and Terry talk about everything?”

“I was going off all the looks I’ve seen you give her over the last three months. Are you saying there’s been an actual admittance of feelings?” Mrs. Smith asked playfully.

“I...I think I should go find Terry and see where he wants me for the ball,” Jake replied evadingly.

“I’m going to take that as a yes,” she called after him.

Jake shook his head, mostly to himself, as he walked away to find Terry. Everyone looked like they were getting into place for the guests to arrive. It was forty minutes till sundown. The plan was to have everyone there, happily eating and chatting when Amy transitioned back. She’d quickly change and make a grand entrance. Admittedly, they did not have much of a plan in place if the ball actually drew out Pembroke. With all the guards in place, Terry reckoned he’d be crazy to try and make a move during the ball.

Terry and Jake were positioned at the doors to the Grand Ballroom. They were in charge of welcoming the guests into the room. When Jake stepped up next to Terry, he started whistling. “Someone looks dapper!” Terry teased.

Jake gave a small bow of his head. “Well, I try,” he joked. “I figure it’ll help me look the part of “Royal Ally from Brooklynne” wearing my official royal uniform and all.”

“Plus it’s the only clothes that are truly yours,” Terry added.

“Joke’s on you because I’m taking all the clothes you gave me back to Brooklynne,” Jake reminded him.

“You really do look very handsome,” Terry said again. “I’m sure Amy will approve.”

“Please stop,” Jake begged.

Thankfully, the first guests started to arrive, making Terry talk to them instead. They seemed so nervous and excited to be coming to a royal ball. Jake and Terry pointed them around, giving them an idea of where to proceed. More and more people arrived, quickly filling the ballroom. Jake was so busy greeting his own people, he didn’t see half the guests that arrived. The numbers coming in were starting to decrease.

“I’m just saying,” Terry said, continuing their conversation from long ago. “It’s worth telling her how you feel.”

“When would I even do that?” Jake asked, motioning to the ball. “I’m leaving in the morning.”

“You’re being weak,” Terry accused.

“Well everyone’s weaker than you, Terry,” a voice said from behind him. Jake grinned as he saw her and as Terry spun around wildly.

“Sharon?” Terry asked in a high pitched voice. “What are you doing here?”

She smiled, looking around him to Jake. “Well when you get personally invited to a royal ball, you can’t say no.”

Terry turned around and looked at Jake. “You did this?”

Jake shrugged. “Thought I’d give you your chance.” Jake stepped closer to him, putting a hand on his arm. In a low voice, Jake said, “You know, if all goes as planned, you’d probably have a lot more free time. And I have a pretty good idea of what you’d like to do with it.” Jake shot him a knowing look. “Now, why don’t you go show Sharon all the parts of the ball that you planned? I can handle the stragglers.”

Terry shook his head at Jake with a smile. “Okay.” He turned back to Sharon. “Sorry about that. Would you like me to show you around?” he asked, extending his arm. Sharon happily took it. As they walked away, Jake heard Terry say, “Can I just say, you look beautiful tonight.

Jake laughed as he turned back to the door. It seemed like most of the guests had already arrived. Percy walked in after a few minutes, telling Jake, “That was our last carriage. If anyone arrives after that, they can certainly show themselves in, I think.” Jake laughed, going to mingle with the guests.

He was at the table, finally getting some of the food when he was approached by someone. “Prince Jake, right?” a male voice said from behind him. Jake turned around and his stomach sank. It was Teddy. Jake was 99% sure of it.

“Yeah,” he replied shortly. “And you are?”

“I’m Teddy,” he answered. “I used to do some schooling with the princess.” Jake nodded understandingly. He felt like a jerk, but he didn’t really want to encourage conversation. “If you don’t mind me asking, what are you doing here? I heard Amy called off the betrothal.”

Jake swallowed harshly. It felt like Teddy was trying to find out his odds with Amy. “Yes, she did, but I’m here as a friend.”

Teddy laughed. “A friend? I always thought she hated you. The things she used to say after the summers you’d spend together.”

Jake felt his fist tighten at his side. He didn’t want to punch Teddy. That would make a scene. But with the way he was talking, it was hard not to hit him. “Well things change,” Jake said lamely. “We spent a few summers off, away from each other and then when she came back and, uh, called off the betrothal, we ended up spending some time together and grew a lot closer. We both grew up a lot,” Jake said, hoping to make Teddy feel a little of the jealousy that was currently coursing through him.

“So you’re not still a human marvel?” Teddy asked.

“What?” Jake asked, completely confused.

“A human marvel who could talk out of his ass instead of his mouth,” Teddy explained with a laugh. “At least that’s how Amy always used to put it.”

Jake plastered on a tight smile, adopting a fake laugh. “Yeah, we were all pretty dumb as kids. Things change when you grow up and get closer to ruling a kingdom. You learn more about people. You get better at reading people. I know for a fact that Amy has gotten better at that too. You might be interested in that. Anyway, I should go. I helped plan this entire ball with Amy so I should make sure everything else is running smoothly. I promised her I’d keep this side running. Excuse me,” Jake said, trying to get out of there as quickly as possible before he made a scene.

He was wandering aimlessly through the crowd when Terry found him. “Hey, Jake!” he called. Jake walked over in his direction. “There were some late comers that I think would interest you.” Jake looked at him with a confused expression. Terry pointed over to the door to the ballroom.

“My mom? And Charles?” Jake asked, shocked to see them here. He weaved quickly through the crowd to go see them.

“Jake!” Charles cried, wrapping his friend in a hug. “It’s so good to see you!”

“Yeah, it’s good to see you too,” Jake replied. “But what are you guys doing here?”

“Well we heard that there was a big coronation ball in Ninenne,” his mother informed him. “I figured as the Queen of Brooklynne, I should be here in support.”

“Yeah, that was kind of why I was here,” Jake explained.

“There’s no reason both of us couldn’t be here, Jacob,” Karen insisted. When Jake had been talking to Teddy, a knot had started to form in his stomach. As he listened to his mother, it got even tighter.

“Well then come on in,” Jake said, motioning toward the ballroom. “The party’s hopping.” His mother smiled sweetly at him as she swept forward into the room. Charles made to follow her but Jake pulled on his arm, holding him back. He looked at Jake questioningly. “Look, I’m happy to see you, Charles, but remember the trouble in Ninenne that I told you about last time I was in Brooklynne?” Charles nodded. “This is kind of a final play of sorts to end that. That’s why you guys weren’t invited.”

“So do you want us to go?” Charles asked, looking like it was the last thing he wanted.

Jake shook his head. “No, of course not. You’re already here. Just listen to me. My mission for tonight was to look after Amy and make sure she was safe. I don’t want to have to worry about my mom as well. So I need you to look out for her, okay? I mean, I know my mom can take care of herself, but still.” Charles nodded. “If I find you and tell you it’s time, don’t let her out of your sight, okay?”

“Of course. I’ll make sure I’m on her like a fly in honey,” Charles promised.

“That’s a weird way to say it,” Jake said through a grimace. “That’s my mom.”

“Sorry.” Charles shook his head shamefully.

Jake wrapped his arm around Charles’s shoulder. “No problem. Let me show you around. You’ve got to try some of Mrs. Smith’s food. There’s a reason I’ve been talking about it since I was six.” Charles gasped excitedly as they walked further into the ballroom.

Everything seemed like it was going well. People seemed happy as they chatted with each other, enjoying food and drinks, and even dancing. It wasn’t until Jake was milling through the guests that he realized something was wrong. “Where’s Princess Amy?” he heard one guest say to another. Suddenly it hit Jake that it was later than planned for Amy’s entrance. He looked out the window. It was way past sundown. Amy should be ready by now. She was always prompt.

Jake tore through the crowd, not caring if he bumped into people. He scoured everywhere to find Terry. He couldn’t find him. Jake pulled out a chair at the edge of the floor, standing on it to see over people. He spotted Terry exiting the ballroom with Sharon. They were all the way across the room. Jake ran around the crowd of dancing people, trying to get to Terry. “Terry!” He yelled as he got closer to the door. He skidded to a stop at the stairs when Terry turned around.

“I was just showing Sharon around the castle,” Terry commented.

Jake cleared his throat. “We’ve got a problem.”

“What kind of problem?” Terry asked, clearly wanting to spend more time with Sharon.

Jake tried to think quickly. “A swan problem.”

Sharon looked confused, but Terry realized quickly what Jake meant. “Oh God,” he muttered. Terry turned to Sharon. “Look, Jake and I need to take care of this. I’ll find you back in the ballroom, alright?” Sharon looked at the both of them skeptically, but agreed, walking back toward the ballroom. Terry waited till she was out of earshot before he began interrogating Jake. “What happened?”

“It’s later than she should be,” Jake informed him. “Think about it. So much time has passed. We were just distracted. She should have made her entrance by now.”

Horror covered Terry’s face. “You’re right. Crap. I was so busy talking to Sharon that I didn’t even realize.” He bolted up the stairs, Jake right behind him. They ran into her room but no one was there. “She’s not here.”

Jake walked over to her wardrobe. “She hasn’t even been here,” Jake mentioned. He ran a hand over the red ball gown Amy had been planning to wear. “Her dress, her jewelry, her crown, it’s all still here.”

“Do you think it’s possible she didn’t turn back?” Terry asked, scandalized at the thought of it.

“I don’t know. But whether she’s Amy or a swan, we’ve got to find her,” Jake said urgently, his nerves rattling up again.

“Okay, I’m going to run down to the armory and armor up to go search for her,” Terry decided. “I need you to run down to the ballroom and inform Percy and Mrs. Smith of what’s going on. They need to distract people so they don’t get suspicious. Okay? Then go to the armory and get your own weapons. We’re gonna find her.”

Jake nodded his understanding and the two men tore from the room, running in opposite directions. Jake sped through the castle, taking a back way down to the ballroom. He found Percy first, informing him quickly. Percy agreed to pass the word on to Mrs. Smith so Jake could go help find Amy quicker. As Jake ran towards the door, he spotted Charles. Jake pulled his arm, getting him closer. “Remember what I told you about if something went down?” Charles nodded with a concerned expression. “It’s that time.”

“I’ll make sure she’s safe. Do what you’ve gotta do,” Charles whispered back, pushing Jake toward the door.

Jake ran off toward the armory. He grabbed a bow and a quiver full of arrows. Though his weapon of choice was the bow, he strapped a sword around his waist as well. He wanted to be as prepared as possible. Jake had no idea where to go or where Terry had run off to after getting armed. Making up his mind quickly, Jake ran off toward the lake.

Jake was approaching the side of the lake, when he spotted Terry on the opposite bank. He ran around the water trying to catch up to Terry. “Hey!” Jake called through his panting. “Find anything?”

Terry turned around and shook his head sadly. He looked back at the tree by him. “I can’t remember if it’s this tree or another tree that Amy usually tucks into during the day. I checked both. Neither show any sign of her. Or of a struggle.”

“Well maybe that’s because she didn’t put up a fight,” a voice said from behind a tree a few yards away. Jake and Terry jumped, both reaching for their weapons. “Looking for me?” Pembroke asked, stepping out from behind the tree.

“Nope,” Terry replied quickly. “We were just looking for our friendly neighborhood swan.”

“Yeah, and instead we found a vulture,” Jake added.

Pembroke laughed darkly. “The Vulture. That’s got a nice ring to it. I like that.”

Jake rolled his eyes. “What are you doing here?”

“Oh, I think you know, Princey. I’m here for the Princess. I’m here for my kingdom. It’ll never be hers. You see it was always supposed to be mine,” Pembroke informed them. “The whole swan curse was never part of the plan. She was supposed to be gone.” He walked closer to them as he talked. Pembroke pointed at Jake. “She was supposed to be off with you. Half a day’s journey away at best. I was going to take out the king and overtake the kingdom all before she could get back to claim the throne. Of course, she wasn’t in your little kingdom. She’d stayed behind and walked in to find me standing over her father’s body. I had no choice but to do something. So I knocked her out and turned her into a swan while I tried to think of what to do. The next day, I turned her back and returned her to the castle, the curse just waiting for the next sunrise. I figured with the curse, it wouldn’t take long for me to swoop in and take the kingdom.”

“It’s been three years. What’s your definition of “long” then?” Jake pointed out.

“Yes, well, there was one small hitch in my plan,” Pembroke admitted. He turned and looked at Terry. “You.” Terry looked over at Jake with a confused and concerned expression. “You announced to the kingdom that the Princess was in mourning and that she likely wouldn’t be seen during the day. You were covering up the curse for the people. Slowly, you and your staff made more and more announcements to quiet any concerns about the Princess’s ability to run the kingdom. My window began closing. So I’ve spent the last three years trying to formulate a new plan to take the kingdom. And you two handed it to me on a silver platter.”

“Wait, what?” Jake asked, his fingers flexing on his bow.

“A coronation ball. All I had to do was kidnap the princess again and show up for my own coronation ball,” Pembroke relayed. “If I tell them that the almost Queen ran away and died trying to escape her fate, surely they’d believe me.”

“Not now that you’ve told us,” Terry retorted. “All we have to do is stop you.” Terry took aim with the bow he had. An arrow was pointed directly at Pembroke’s chest.

“Wait, no!” Jake cried. “We don’t know where Amy is.”

“Oh she’s...around,” Pembroke said with an evil grin. “I wouldn’t expect to see human Amy any time soon. You see, I’ve perfected the curse. Now she can’t even change back at sundown. She’s a swan forever.”

Jake’s heart sank. They had to find Amy. He looked all around, hoping he could get some sort of clue as to where she could be, even as a swan. The moon was emerging from behind a cloud as Jake looked up to the skies. There was a flash of white in the sky that Jake registered as a wing. Amy was still there, flying around toward the castle.

“Maybe you think that,” Terry yelled back at Pembroke. “But you’re going to have to fight us to get to the throne.” Terry shot an arrow at Pembroke that he deflected with magic. A bright flash shot at Terry, but he dropped to the ground in time. Jake thought he could tell where Amy was planning to land. He took off toward the other side of the lake, hoping he could find her some shelter while they tried to take care of Pembroke.

Jake’s eyes were on Amy, flying gracefully through the sky. As he ran, he tripped on a rock, falling quickly before jumping back up to keep going. He had to get to Amy. She was getting lower in the sky as he caught up to her. The fight on the other side of the lake was still continuing. Jake could hear their yells all the way on the other side. Looking over, he realized they’d given up on magic and weapons and were fighting with just their fists. Jake looked back up to see Amy just above him. With a flash, she turned back into a human, falling steadily from her position in the sky.

Jake attempted to catch her, falling over as she fell on top of him. “Amy?” he cried, as she was scrambling off of him. They both stood up quickly. “What happened?” He looked over to the other side of the lake where the fight was still continuing.

“His necklace is an amulet,” Amy said immediately. “That’s how he has his power. She looked over at the fight. “Terry must have hit it enough for me to change back.”

“Which means that when it regenerates, you’ll turn back,” Jake finished. “We don’t have much time. You have to get out of here. You’re too defenseless as a swan. You have to get as far away from him as possible. Go somewhere he wouldn’t expect. Go to Brooklynne. No one is at the castle. I’ll come find you and we can figure out another way to break his damn curse. Just go!” Jake insisted.

Amy nodded, clearly thinking through things. She reached out to him. “Jake,” she started.

“You have to go!” Jake stepped forward, taking her face in his hands. “We can handle this. You have to focus on getting out of here.”

Amy reached up, holding Jake’s arms. “What if you can’t? Maybe you should come with me.”

“Go to Brooklynne,” Jake advised. “I’ll come find you.”

Amy’s face contorted, her hands tightening on Jake’s arms. “If you destroy the amulet, he shouldn’t have power over me.” She looked at Jake desperately. “I can feel it. I’m about to change back.”

Jake pressed his forehead against hers, looking her in the eye. “Go. Fly. Get as far away from here as you can, you hear me?” Amy nodded against his head. With a flash, her hands weren’t holding his arms anymore. She was a swan in front of him, taking flight again.

After a moment of watching her fly away, Jake took off for the side of the lake where Terry and Pembroke were still fighting. He loaded an arrow in his bow and took aim as he ran toward the fight. A warning shot zoomed right past Pembroke’s head, embedding in the tree behind him. Pembroke looked over quickly at Jake’s approach, sending a bolt of light right to him. Jake dropped to the ground, narrowly missing getting hit. Terry snuck up on Pembroke, punching him hard in the head. Jake got closer as he loaded his bow once more. Pembroke recovered and the fight continued.

Terry had his strength and Jake had his bow, but Pembroke had magic. Each time Jake or Terry got close to Pembroke, they’d have to dodge some spell he shot at them. They were matched evenly.

Until they weren’t.

Terry went in for another close attack while Jake tried distracting Pembroke. Terry’s punch landed, but Pembroke shot a bolt at him, grazing his arm. Terry fell, clutching at his bleeding arm. Jake was loading his bow as he saw Terry fall. He fumbled with his arrow, unable to load it properly. Jake looked up at Pembroke a split second before he saw Pembroke hold up his hand to aim at Jake. Jake knew he more than likely wouldn’t have the time to dodge this one. He was trying to aim his poorly loaded bow when there was a flutter of wings in front of him, taking the full force of Pembroke’s curse for him.

Suddenly, in a flash of light, Amy’s body was laying at Jake’s feet. “Amy! No!” Jake cried, ignoring Pembroke, ignoring the fact the he could be killed at any moment. He knelt down next to her, trying to gently shake her. No matter how many times he yelled her name or tried to get her to move, she was limp, lifeless. Tears were flowing down his face before he could even explain what had happened. He picked up her body, holding her against him.

The sound of a punch was the first thing to draw his attention. Looking over, Terry had knocked Pembroke unconscious. “The amulet,” Jake said to Terry. “That’s how he had his power. Break it.” He looked back to Amy, tears still streaming down his face. “I promised her I’d break it. I promised her and I failed.”

Terry knelt down next to Amy, the amulet in shards in his fist. “I can’t believe it,” he whispered.

Jake leaned down, putting his forehead against Amy’s. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I failed you. You deserved so much better than this. You were supposed to live and to be happy again. I’m sorry I couldn’t break your curse.” He didn’t know what inspired him to do it, but before Jake pulled back, he placed a small kiss on Amy’s forehead. Jake sat up, placing his head in his hands as his tears continued to fall.

“Oh my God,” Terry breathed. “Jake, look!”

“What?” Jake looked up at Terry pointing down at Amy. He didn’t know what Terry was so excited about until he saw Amy’s fingers move. “What’s happening?” Jake stared at Amy, hoping against hope that she could be actually waking back up. Slowly, her eyes started fluttering open. Jake and Terry both breathed a sigh of relief. “Amy?” Jake asked softly, bending down to be nearer to her.

She looked back and forth between him and Terry. “What happened?” she said in a raspy voice.

“True love’s kiss,” Terry replied in awe, looking at the two of them.

“Wait, what?” they asked in unison.

“That’s what that had to be. Amy, you were dead. But you’re not anymore. It’s true love’s kiss!” Terry exclaimed.

“But Amy was already a human before you smashed the amulet,” Jake pointed out.

Amy was looking to both of them for answers. “Of course,” Terry said softly. “She flew in front of that curse for you. She broke her own curse with an act of true love. And then you broke the curse that she took for you when you kissed her forehead. It was true love’s kiss. True love saved the day.”

“So you’re saying…” Amy started, trailing off.

Jake looked down at her and then back at Terry. “You think that we’re…?”

Terry smiled widely at the two of them. “It’s the only thing that makes sense. You’re each other’s true love.”

Jake and Amy looked at each other skeptically. Jake shrugged, still trying to process everything. “I mean...I guess that makes sense.” Slowly, he helped Amy sit up. “Are you feeling okay?”

She looked thoughtful for a moment. “Yeah, I feel fine, I guess. I’m just really confused.”

Jake laughed dryly. “I think that makes all of us.”

“I’m not confused about anything,” Terry asserted. “I stand by my earlier statements.”

A low groan from the base of the tree drew all of their attention. Pembroke was stirring. Terry pulled him up, holding both his hands behind his back. “Well, Pembroke, it looks like you failed,” Jake said smugly. He pointed at Amy. “She’s alive and well.” Amy nodded confidently.

“Yeah, all thanks to true love!” Terry added happily. Amy and Jake shook their heads humoredly. It seemed like neither of them had really bought what Terry said. “Now come on you pond scum, it’s off to the dungeons with you.”

“Maybe add some extra shackles and chains to make sure he stays!” Jake called after Terry. Terry nodded back as he stalked away toward the castle.

Jake looked down at Amy, still so relieved that she was alive. Suddenly he thought about Terry’s advice from earlier in the day. Maybe it was time Amy knew how he felt. Jake helped Amy stand up and steady herself. “Are you okay?” he asked again. She nodded happily. A long silence hung between them. “Look, Amy,” Jake started. “I’m really glad that you’re alive...because there’s something I really want to tell you.” Amy nodded encouragingly, a hopeful look in her eye. “You’re an idiot,” Jake said bluntly.

“Excuse me?” Amy asked, clearly shocked by his statement.

“I told you to get as far away as you could and what did you do? You flew directly into a curse that killed you,” he explained heatedly.

“Umm, I’m sorry,” Amy retorted. “I saved your damn life.”

“Who cares about my life?” Jake cried. “You’re the one that matters!” Amy stared at him with an intense look in her eye. Jake thought back through what he said. He nodded slowly. “There, uh, may be another reason why I’m glad you’re alive. A fairly significant reason.”

A smile slowly crossed Amy’s face. “Really?” Jake nodded sheepishly. He hadn’t even really expressed his feelings but he was still embarrassed. “Well there may have been a reason why I flew in front of that curse for you,” she admitted, the same sheepish look on her face.

Jake felt dumbfounded. “Seriously?” Amy laughed and nodded. “Well, huh,” Jake replied lamely. They stood there, close together, staring each other down, both unsure of the next move to make.

“Do you think maybe we should…” Amy started hesitantly.

“Yes, absolutely,” Jake replied quickly, wrapping an arm around Amy, and kissing her. Her hands slowly moved up his arms, wrapping around his neck as she reciprocated the kiss. They were entwined with each other, sharing (at least to Jake) a long awaited kiss. As they parted, Jake leaned his forehead against Amy’s, both their eyes still closed. Amy wrapped herself closer around Jake as she started to giggle. Jake pulled back to look at her. “Are you laughing? Amy, right after you kiss someone for the first time is not the best time to laugh,” Jake reminded her, trying to salvage his pride.

Amy laughed harder, reaching up to hold his face in her hands. “No, it’s not that! I promise!” She leaned in and kissed him quickly to prove her point. “It’s just that I was starting to say do you think we should go back in the castle. But I liked your idea a lot better,” she insisted.

“Oh,” Jake realized. “Yeah, maybe we should. You’re not exactly dressed for a ball.”

Amy looked down at the simple clothes she was wearing. “Not quite.” She leaned up again, wrapping her arms around Jake to kiss him once more before going into the ball. Jake held her close, relishing the fact that he was able to kiss Amy. Too soon, they broke apart, heading back inside to get Amy ready for the ball.

Jake touched up his own appearance while Amy got ready quickly. He was waiting outside her door when she walked out. Jake was blown away by how amazing she looked. She held her arms out. “How do I look? Queenly?”

Jake smiled, feeling happier than he had in a long time. “Ames, you look amazing.” He stepped forward and straightened the crown on her head before holding out his arm to escort her to the ballroom. She leaned her head against his shoulder as they walked.

Running into the ballroom, so he didn’t miss her grand entrance, Jake found Terry and Sharon quickly. Sharon was fussing over the slash on Terry’s arm. Jake could tell it hurt, but Terry was trying to brush it off. Suddenly Percy was standing in front of the crowd on a balcony above them. “Ladies and gentlemen, it is my supreme pleasure to introduce to you, Princess Amelia of Ninenne.” Applause burst through the crowd, gasps and cheers accompanying it as people got their first sight of Amy that night. Jake smiled proudly as he watched how elegantly she moved, how regal she appeared.

“People of Ninenne,” Amy called from the balcony, “It is so wonderful to be here with all of you this evening. I’m so terribly sorry for my lateness, believe me it was not by choice. It is part of a larger story that will shed light on the events of the past three years in the kingdom. In the coming days, I fully intend to share this story, to share the truth with you all. But tonight is a night for celebration. I am excited to be able to take the throne of Ninenne and be the leader of this wonderful kingdom. I plan to learn from those who came before me and also fair rulers from other lands.” Jake saw Amy give a secret nod to his mother. He looked over to see his mother beaming. “I plan to listen to the needs of the people and be a Queen for the people, more than ever before. If you’ll join me in this journey, I think we can make Ninenne a happy environment for everyone. Thank you for being here with me!”

The applause echoed through the hall at a deafening rate. Jake stared up at Amy, proud of her and everything she, Terry, and Jake had been able to secretly accomplish in the last few months. It was hard to believe that it was finally all over.

~~

Amy took genuine pleasure in speaking with all the people at the ball. She managed to find at least a few minutes to talk to almost everyone. Mrs. Smith was pushing food into Amy’s arms when she was approached by someone else. “Amy!” he said excitedly. Amy turned around to see Teddy standing before her.

“Teddy,” she said halfheartedly. “How are you?” As happy as she was to talk to everyone, Amy was starting to feel exhausted. Her ability to fake it was beginning to wane.

“I’m even better now,” Terry answered with a weird smile.

“Great! I hope you’re enjoying yourself,” she replied quickly.

Teddy stepped closer. “I can’t believe Prince Jake from Brooklynne is here. He said you were friendly now. If I recall, you used to hate him.”

Amy looked over, spotting Jake talking happily to Mrs. Smith. She turned back to Teddy. “Yes, well things change.”

“Funny, that’s what he said.”

“Oh you talked to Jake?” Amy asked.

“Yeah, I think the poor guy thinks there’s still a chance,” Teddy replied with a boisterous laugh.

“I’m sure he would, since I did in fact give him that idea,” Amy retorted, straightening herself up to full height.

“I thought you hated him. You called off the wedding,” Teddy sputtered.

“I did. But then I had the opportunity to see the real Jake and you could say I changed my mind.”

“I always thought there was something here,” Teddy wondered, motioning between them.

Amy smiled sadly. “I used to too, but I’m afraid there’s just not anymore.”

Teddy looked confused. Amy felt a hand at her back. She turned and saw Jake standing next to her. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but Percy was hoping to speak with you, Amy.” Amy nodded quickly.

“It was nice to see you, Teddy,” Amy said politely.

Teddy stared at them with a perplexed and angry look on his face. “I just don’t see it,” he said, pointing to the two of them.

“Yes, well what matters is that we do,” Amy stated matter of factly. “And I happen to love him, so I suppose that’s that.” Amy grabbed Jake’s arm and steered him away from Teddy. When they were near the door to the entrance hall, Jake pulled Amy out of the ballroom. “I thought Percy needed me.”

“He does,” Jake confirmed. “I just wanted to say something just us.” Amy nodded, encouraging him to continue. He reached up and grabbed both her hands. “I love you too.” Amy squeezed his hands back, smiling so hard her cheeks hurt. “Okay, now go find Percy.”

She shook her head with a laugh. Standing on her tip toes, she planted a kiss on Jake’s cheek, squeezing his hand once more before she left.

About an hour later, Amy found Jake again, leaning her head against his shoulder. “What’s up?” he asked, looking down at her.

“I’m so tired. I don’t know how many more people I can talk to without falling asleep,” she confessed.

“I think you have the right to be tired,” Jake offered. “I mean you did die today. I feel like that probably takes it out of you.”

Amy laughed, wrapping her arm through Jake’s. “That’s very true.” She felt Jake kiss the top of her head. “Would it be bad if I snuck out?”

“I don’t think so,” Jake replied. “I’ll go find Charles and we can cause a distraction so no one knows you’re leaving.”

“If I recall, you two are pretty good at those,” Amy said with a tired laugh.

“You bet we are. I’ll go find him! You go sleep!”

Amy watched as Jake wove through the crowd to find Charles. She continued watching as the two of them walked up on the balcony and gathered an audience and started telling jokes. Amy was laughing at one of them when Jake looked over at her. He widened his eyes and tilted his head toward the stairs. She nodded and smiled before slipping out of the room, hopefully unseen.

It was the middle of the night when Amy woke for the first time. She looked around the room, wondering what made her wake. She noticed Jake asleep in a chair next to her bed. He looked incredibly uncomfortable. “Jake,” she whispered, poking him roughly.

He startled quickly, nearly falling from the chair. “What’s wrong?” he asked through a sleepy voice, looking around in a panic.

“What are you doing?” Amy wondered aloud. “Why are you in the chair?”

Jake looked over at her, finally understanding that nothing was wrong. He settled further down in the chair as he answered her. “I was just nervous, with Pembroke being in the castle. I thought I’d keep an eye out.”

“I thought Terry was my head of security,” Amy joked. “That chair must be really uncomfortable.” Amy moved over in her bed, pulling back her covers. “Just come over here.”

Jake stared at her for a long time. “I don’t know.”

“You can still keep an eye out,” Amy offered. “But it’s way more comfortable. You can have your back to the door and an eye on the window just in case. Wasn’t that what you said at the inn?”

Jake shook his head at her, a small grin appearing. He sighed. “You’re right. I am uncomfortable.” He stood up slowly, climbing in the bed next to her. They’d shared a bed a couple of times now. Amy felt no shame in curling in next to him. He was supposedly her true love anyway. She felt herself falling back to sleep contentedly as Jake wrapped an arm around her.

Amy was in that sweet spot between sleep and waking. She felt herself still curled against Jake. For the first time in a long time, she felt utterly content. Amy was happy to just lay there except that someone kept shining a light in her eye. No matter how she shifted, she couldn’t really get the light from her eyes. Finally, Amy opened her eyes to see who could be doing this. Amy looked over and sat bolt upright. “Oh my God!” she yelled.

Jake sat up quickly, still sleepy. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s the sun,” Amy said in amazement. “The curse is really broken. The sun is shining and I’m still me! I’m not a bird!” Amy looked over at Jake in awe. He had a goofy grin on his face. She threw herself at him in a hug. “It’s all over. For real.”

Jake ran a hand up and down her back in a soothing motion. “So what do you want to do on your first day as a human in three years?”

Amy pulled back, elation coursing through her as she looked at Jake. “Is it too cheesy to say I just want to spend it with you?”

Jake smiled. “That’s way too cheesy.” Amy laughed, laying her head on his shoulder. “But the good thing is that I think I can arrange that.” Amy picked her head up to look at him. With a brief smile, she leaned in and kissed him quickly.

Jake jumped out of bed. “You get dressed. I’m going to go make some arrangements.” He leaned back over the bed and kissed her again before leaving the room.

Mrs. Smith and Terry joined them for breakfast outside in the sun. Amy ignored the food on her plate as she leaned her head back, letting the sun wash over her face. Jake kept making secret references to whatever plans he’d made with Terry.

A few hours after breakfast, Jake was blindfolding Amy and helping her into a carriage, still not saying where they were going. Amy tried to get it out of him, the entire journey there. He wouldn’t budge. She appreciated the sentiment, but was not the biggest fan of surprises. When the carriage stopped, Amy tried to figure out where they were before Jake took the blindfold off. “Do I hear the ocean?” Amy asked.

“You’re a spoilsport,” Jake said blankly. He pulled off her blindfold to reveal a gorgeous cliffside overlooking the ocean.

“Wait, is this…?”

“The same place Terry brought us for a romantic picnic when we were 15? Yes, yes it is,” Jake confirmed with a laugh. “I don’t know what made me think of it. But I remembered how much we were bugging him that summer with all our bickering and insisting that we wouldn’t ever love each other and Terry brought us here thinking it would shut us up.”

Amy laughed at the memory. “Except that we didn’t appreciate the effort and just bickered over the picnic.”

“I knew eventually it would happen,” Terry claimed, walking over from behind the carriage, carrying a picnic basket.

“Sure you did,” Jake replied, following him out closer to the edge of the cliff.

Amy stood there, watching them set up a gorgeous picnic for her first day as a human. She felt tears sting her eyes. Her first sniffle was what made them look over. Jake looked concerned. Amy walked over to them, sitting down on the blanket they’d laid out. They both sat down with her. Amy took one of each of their hands. “I can’t thank the two of you enough. Truly. I would be a swan right now if it weren’t for the two of you. Terry, you’ve been my rock for three years. You put your entire life on hold to make sure I was protected. You are such an amazing person. And I’m firing you for the next six months.”

“What?” Terry exclaimed.

“You deserve a break. There are other people who can be my head of security for the next six months. And from what I hear, you may have a good idea of what to do with your time. Something about...Sharon?” Amy teased. She watched as Terry glared at Jake who stifled a laugh.

“And Jake,” Amy said, continuing her speech. “You came into this unwittingly and committed immediately to helping us. To helping me. I never thought I’d be able to rely on you so completely, but it’s gotten to the point where I trust you more than most people. You were so important to this effort and I can never thank you for all you did to help me and my kingdom.” Jake smiled, squeezing her hand in reply. “Anyway, enough sappy stuff, right?” Amy joked. “Let’s get to picnicking. I think we all deserve a break!” Terry and Jake cheered in agreement.

The three of them sat there for hours, chatting aimlessly for the first time in months. There were no books to read, no spells to research, no curses to break. It was simply three friends, enjoying a relaxing time they finally had achieved.

~~

Jake stayed in Ninenne for another month. He had no immediate plans to return to Brooklynne until Queen Karen showed up, demanding he return to his kingdom. With a roll of his eyes and a sigh, Jake had agreed. On the last night before Jake left, he and Amy spent the whole night just the two of them. They dreaded being separated, but they both knew it was going to happen eventually. All talk of the future had been put off after the curse broke, with them instead just choosing to stay in the moment.

That night, though, as they sat eating a romantic meal together, Amy brought it up. “So how is this supposed to work? Should we like...get married?”

Jake stared at her, dumbstruck. “Uhhh…” he replied less than articulately. He saw a grin form on Amy’s face. “Wait, a minute. That’s what I said the first night you were back in Brooklynne. You’re making fun of me, aren’t you?”

Amy burst out laughing, tipping her head back in her laughter. She reached out and laid a hand on her arm. “Yes, I am. But I have very limited time left to do that face to face. It just won’t translate well over letters.”

Jake grabbed her hand, still glaring at her. His expression softened as he ran his thumb over her hand. “You know that is something I’d like...you know someday.” Amy smiled. “It’s just weird because we spent our whole lives knowing it was going to happen. And now that we get to choose it for ourselves, I don’t want to rush it, you know?” Amy beamed, nodding in agreement. “Now I want our future wedding to be about us , not about the unity of the kingdoms. How does that sound?”

Amy squeezed his hand, nodding emphatically. “I completely agree. There’s no rush. We’re both really young.”

“Exactly!” Jake agreed. “So young.”

They finished their last night together blissfully happy with each other. Many long kisses were exchanged and lots of tears were shed before Jake saddled up McClane and finally headed back to Brooklynne.

As Jake wrote a letter to Amy a few weeks after he’d been home, he realized the funny thing about separation. He’d fully meant what he’d said about waiting to get married. But the longer he was away from her, the stronger the urge to propose grew. Amy had made a short royal visit to Brooklynne a few months after Jake had left. And while she did carry out the traditional parts of a royal visit, the main purpose was to visit Jake. He almost proposed while she was there. But he remembered how strongly she’d agreed when he said he wanted to wait. So he didn’t propose.

It took another two months of letters back and forth and random little day trips between them before Jake couldn’t hold off any longer. He surprised Amy by coming to Ninenne unannounced. She seemed thrilled to see him. It took her away from the extensive coronation planning that had been going on. They happily caught up on the goings-on in each other’s lives. Terry had just returned to work and Amy confessed that she was relieved. Apparently he and Sharon were officially a couple much to Jake and Amy’s delight.

“He just seems so happy,” Amy expressed as they walked arm and arm around the grounds. “It’s what he deserves.”

Jake nodded in agreement, too busy going over his plan for the hundredth time. He felt the ring box burning in his pocket. They were out walking by the lake. Jake realized they were nearing the same place where he’d found out she was a swan, where he’d promised her to break the curse. They were directly across from the place where Amy flew in front of him, shielding him from a curse that would have killed him. They were directly across from where they found that they were indeed each other’s true loves.

Jake slowly let go of Amy’s hand, dropping down on one knee. Amy turned around curiously, surprise covering her face as she saw him on one knee. Jake pulled the ring box out of his pocket and opened it. He saw tears fill her eyes and he desperately hoped he could make it through this. “Amy, almost seventeen years ago, my mother told me I was going to marry you. And I thought it was the grossest thing ever.” Amy laughed through the tears falling down her face. “And we spent every summer together and I still thought it was the grossest thing ever. But then one day I got to spend time with you by my own choice. I got to see you for the amazing woman that you are, not the lame girl I once thought you were. I got to see you as a funny friend rather than a rival. I got to know you for who you truly are. As a selfless, witty, amazingly kind person. And by getting to know the real you, I fell in love with you. I realized that I don’t want to spend my life with anyone else but this wonderful person. So...will you marry me?”

Amy smiled brilliantly. “Of course I will!” She dropped down to her knees in front of him, kissing him deeply. When they broke apart, Jake slid the ring on her finger. She looked down at the ring in awe. “Oh my God. Jake, is this…”

“Yeah, it is.”

Amy looked up at him, confusion coloring her face. “I don’t understand. How do you have my mother’s engagement ring?”

“Your dad left it to me in his will,” Jake explained. “I think he planned to give it to me on his own but he included it in his will in case something happened before he could.” Amy gaped at him. “He wrote me a letter that went with it. He said that the love between your mom and him was strong and eternal and that he hoped that kind of love would follow to the next union.”

Amy stared down at the ring, shaking her head, fresh tears coating her cheeks. “I can’t believe that.” She looked back up at Jake. “And you’ve had it this long?” Jake nodded with a shrug. She stared at him, so many emotions reflected back at him. “I love you so much.” Jake leaned in to kiss her again.

~~

They were married at sea, neither in Brooklynne nor in Ninenne. The future king of Brooklynne married the Queen of Ninenne in a small, intimate ceremony. It was just as they’d planned. Their wedding was about them, not about their kingdoms.

The kingdoms eventually became united, though they were not renamed Brooklyn-Nine-Nine. No matter how hard Jake tried, he couldn’t get Amy to agree. Though they were one kingdom, Brooklynne and Ninenne were separate provinces, run by the same king and queen. Fairly and justly, just as they'd always strived.

One boy and two girls expanded Jake and Amy’s family. And though they’d ended up choosing to marry each other, Amy upheld Jake’s promise. Their children married for love. There was never another arranged marriage. Karen often liked to remind them that their arrangement was actually a success. And Jake and Amy had to admit that their enduring love was certainly proof enough.