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wear it like a crown | crave

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Denmark in early fall was approximately twenty degrees and overwhelmingly sunny. Connor hadn’t expected ice floes and snow drifts, being that it was late September, but he was deeply annoyed that he needed to pack sunscreen. He could already feel freckles forming across the bridge of his nose. As he gathered his thoughts and prepared to pass through customs, he idly wished he’d packed a hat.

Mitch nudged Connor’s shoulder as they collected their suit jackets and prepared to disembark. His ridiculous headphones were around his neck, tinnily playing something with a heavy bassline.

“Excited?” Mitch asked, stretching. His fingers brushed the roof of the plane and his back audibly cracked.

Mitch and Connor were the only Canadian nobility on this trip, the rest of their cohort rounded out with scientists and career politicians. Mitch had been working with Ottawa on environmental policy in Toronto and on his family’s estate, so he actually mostly fit within the group. Technically he was second in line to his father’s duchy, but his older brother was in good health and Mitch had thrown himself into government work. Technically, Mitch outranked Connor by a good bit, but they’d gone to school together, and there was only so much formality you could use with someone after you’d seen them vomit up an entire bag of gummy worms and a can of cola during a sleepover.

“At spending a month in Denmark to argue the United States into actually signing this environmental treaty?” Connor said dryly. “Not really. Getting into the royal library and working on my thesis? Sure, that’s exciting.”

Mitch snorted. “Nerd.”

“Sorry, which one of us studied statistics at university?” Connor argued. He pulled his computer bag over his shoulder, yawning widely. “Glass houses, Marns.”

“My degree is useful.” Mitch gestured widely for Connor to head down the aisle first. “Yours is in mythology and literature.”

“And yet we’re both on a diplomatic trip to Denmark, so who’s really the loser here?”

“You’re my aide,” Mitch said, but he let the topic drop as they made their way down the gangplank.

They weren’t the first ones off the plane, but they were close to it. As such, they were immediately flagged down by a slim brunette woman in a pantsuit. She had a Canadian flag pin on one lapel, so Connor was relatively certain she was one of the embassy staff.

“Lord Mitchell Marner of Markham?” she asked, holding out a hand. Mitch nodded and shook her hand cordially; she turned to Connor. “The Honorable Connor Brown of Ebitocoke?”

“That’s me,” Connor said. “You are?”

“I’m Cammy Whitehall, from the Canadian embassy. Are you both ready to go, my Lord, sir?”

Mitch grimaced. “Just Mitch and Connor, please. And we can wait for the rest of the envoy. Didn’t the embassy plan for us to head out in a motorcade together?”

“We really can’t wait,” Whitehall told them. “We did plan that, but the palace rearranged their schedules, and we just got word that the ambassador is on his way now to formally introduce you both to the Queen Dowager. It’s a lot earlier than we’d planned, so they sent me to collect you.”

Mitch grimaced. “We’d better not keep them waiting, then. Customs?”

“Expedited. Come on, I’d like to keep us vaguely on schedule.”

Connor could see Mitch folding himself up into the charismatic lordling he could be. It was half the reason Mitch had been assigned this trip, even as a second son. The other unofficial reason they weren’t talking about, but it had almost equally to do with how likeable Mitch was. An openly bisexual noble marrying the openly gay Danish king would be a stunning political move. Even if no one was saying it out loud, it was definitely part of the reason Mitch had been chosen.

Connor was mostly there because he and Mitch worked well together, in both politics and as good friends. Mitch had filed the request for Connor to be his official aide on the trip the day he’d gotten the assignment. The request had been approved almost immediately, a minor miracle in the slow machine that diplomatic missions could be.

Connor generally didn’t mind being Mitch’s aide. He had a decent memory for faces, once he’d actually met someone in person, and he liked shuffling through notes and dossiers and highlighting the crucial information Mitch needed. It was kind of like being in university and composing a report, except this included classified information and had an immediate impact.

The first day of meetings was really just getting to know the other conference attendees and posing for photographs with other noble delegations. Connor couldn’t help Mitch much there, other than warning him about unflattering angles and taking notes of people’s names. And shoving hand sanitizer at Mitch at regular intervals, because there was a lot of international germs and hand shaking going on and no one wanted to spend the first week of a conference bogged down with the flu.  At a guess, Connor figured he’d met close to two hundred people that day, and shook all of their hands.

“It's like the first day of school,” Mitch muttered under his breath. “Glad we're done with that. Oh wait; you're supposed to be teaching a class and instead you're here.”

Connor wrinkled his nose, the only retaliatory gesture he could really make at this point. “I’d have taken the semester off either way.”

The rest of their delegation had caught up with them a few hours after they’d met the queen dowager, and by then Connor had already dealt with more snide comments about his hair than he really wanted to deal with. There’d been an official check-in process, with security badges issued and photos not unlike mugshots taken for the security badges themselves.

It was a long day, was what Connor meant.

They’d finally been shown to a suite of rooms in the palace, a half-dozen rooms connected to a central area with a lounge and a kitchen. It was part of the palace meant for long-term visitors. They weren’t a large delegation--nine people, two of whom would be staying with family or friends of the embassy rather than at the palace proper, and one spouse--and so rooms were divided up fairly quickly.

Connor dumped his computer bag with relief, and then dug through his suitcase.

“How are you awake right now?” Mitch demanded, popping his head in through the door frame. “Get some sleep, Brownie.”

“I was going to find the library real quick,” Connor said, pulling a half-dozen books out and shoving them into his computer bag. “I’ll be back in like, twenty minutes.”

“Uh-huh, sure,” Mitch said, knowing Connor far too well.

Unfortunately, every wing of the palace looked exactly the same, with no indicators or signs directing the traffic inside the building around. Submerged in the midst of a post-flight stupor, he was trudging around without any sense of direction, almost running headfirst into people that looked just as surprised to see him as he did them. His reaction time was delayed large in part because in his dedication to finding an out he had no response to the world around him. Maybe if he’d actually found the time to get a good night’s sleep he would be able to appreciate the beauty of the rooms, the brass doors enclosing so many hidden treasures he’d probably never get to access.

He descended down a flight of stairs, his book bag smacking his thigh with each step. This looked like a more well-used hallway, cleanly lit, and there was a guard standing near the middle of the hallway by a pair of doors.

Connor headed that way, hoping for at least directions.

There was a tall brunet man standing by the double doors discreetly labelled BIBLIOTEK with a bronze plaque. He wore the clean military uniform of the active royal guard, navy blue trimmed in red. Connor couldn’t identify any of his awards or badges, but it definitely looked impressive.

Hvem er du?” the man asked, then caught sight of Connor’s conference badge, helpfully bordered with dark blue to indicate English as a preferred language. “Who are you?”

Connor fumbled for the badge and his passport, nearly dropping his bag in the process.

“Here for the conference?” the man asked. He had a nameplate identifying him as Premierløjtnant Matthews, which didn’t seem like a particularly Danish name. He flipped through Connor’s passport and blinked in surprise. “Pardon me, sir. I wasn’t expecting any of the Canadian nobility to be in this wing.”

Connor flushed. “I was hoping to track down a few books,” he admitted. “Can I, uh, can I go in?”

Premierløjtnant Matthews returned Connor’s passport and badge, smiling a little. “Go on, then.” He paused, as if internally weighing something, and then spoke again. “I like your bag. Your pins are good.”

Connor looked down, trying to remember what pins he had on his bag. There were only two of them--a Canadian flag crossed with the bisexual pride flag, and the Ebitocoke seal. They were lapel pins he’d stuck to the bag’s strap when he was in a hurry.

“Thanks,” Connor said, flushing a little, and pushed the library doors open.

The library itself was a beautiful set of rooms. The palace branch of the Royal Danish Library was small, but had a selection from the main library’s collection. More importantly, it had a satellite desk that could set up appointments for diplomats with the library’s main offices and departments, and that was what Connor was looking for.

He did spend some time admiring the intricate carvings on the shelving and the blown-glass lamps anchored to the walls, though. It was a gorgeous place, dimly lit with lamplight and the city skylines through the windows. There weren’t many people present: a single librarian that Connor could see, busily reshelving books, and one or two occupied desks tucked in along the stacks.

Poking around, Connor couldn’t find anyone he felt comfortable disturbing, so he went for the closest person he could find: a tall, red headed man hunched over a desk, rubbing at his eyes and scrawling away at a pile of papers.

Hej, hej--hej, undskyld mig.” He cleared his throat to remove the raspy texture scraping the vowels. A headache was budding behind his eyelids, fatigue shrouded over his expression like a veil. He couldn’t have looked less enthused to the man, who made something as simple as lifting his head a grievance as he made it apparent. If he took note of Connor’s irregularities he chose not the voice them, turning back to the stacks of paper floundering about on the desk in front of him.

It left Connor in an unwelcome predicament, unsure if he should prod again and see if the reception changed or waste time scanning the aisles for discrepancies in book titles using his limited comprehension of Danish vocabulary. In an English library the latter might be a more productive use of his time while he waited but here it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. He mustered the courage to take a step forward and clear his throat again.

Hej, kan du hjælpe mig med at finde noget?” The words sounded obscured, like he’d thrown some mutated, foreign grasp of French into a blender with infused internet translating program and emulsified it, leaving a performance with more to be desired. Say what you will about his procrastination regarding language classes, but Mitch’s impromptu Danish phrases and greetings looked to have covered all the bases as far as he concerned. This was a different ballpark entirely.

It was meant to be a simple question but the man clearly found it humorous, his stony expression splitting in half as his eyebrows jumped up. A flush worked its way up Connor’s neck and spiralled to his cheeks.

The expectation always was that he’d make a fool of himself but this was pushing things a little far. More than ever he wished he could access the gardens and dig a hole to bury himself in, squirrelled away from any future public interactions.

Kan jeg hjælpe dig?” The main replied. Connor’s mind helpfully blanked, diving headfirst into unknown waters. He could recognize help and I. Can I help you, perhaps.

Uh, ja--kan jeg hjælpe dig. Ved du hvor det danske folklorearkiv, uh--paladsbaserede kontor er? Dansk Folkemindesamling? Ville jeg kunne udfylde en tidsbegrænset anmodning om nogle af de, um--English--engelske sprogbøger?” The crooked pronunciation hooked into his tongue and pulled, furthermore when the man arched up like he’d been scalded. Not that he could blame him, there were more holes in his language studies than a barnacle cluster. He just wanted the fucking book.

Kan jeg få et glas vand?”

He didn’t understand, and said as such with one of the phrases he definitely did actually know. “Jeg forstår ikke.”

Kan jeg få et glas vand?” He made a sipping motion. Oh. He was asking for water. Shit, Connor’s mind reeled. He’d probably said the wrong thing. Or maybe the man was insinuating he wanted to drink himself out of the conversation. In any case, that’s one thing they could both agree on; this was becoming tedious.

It’s not like there would be a public drinking fountain in a fucking palace so Connor cut to the chase, kneeling over so that he could pull the unopened water bottle from inside of his carry-on. It wasn’t the disgusting lukewarm-kind of temperature yet but it wasn’t ice cold either. He hoped the man didn’t have a preference. Beggars can’t be choosers, as his mother always said.

The contents of the bag, a smeared mirage of dictionaries, official documents, and books bulged out in every direction. He could see the man ogling them from his seat, rubbernecking the disorder with mild intrigue. Clearly, he wasn’t expecting his request to come encased in plastic and quite literally shoved into his hand, but he didn’t deny the offering when Connor stood to his full height and passed it to him.

The label, while torn up near the bottom-half, was still legible enough to decipher from a look. The man made quick work of water with the tiniest semblance of hesitation but went to great lengths to study the words scribbled on the plastic. Something clicked in his expression, like a string wrung tight in his forehead was given slack.

The man’s head pivoted, locking into place as he hummed at Connor. “Thank you, I was rather thirsty,” he said, in accented but perfect English. Connor was flabbergasted, he recoiled.

“Wait--you--you speak English,” he said, anger broiling at the skin of his ears. “What the fuck you speak English.” And he had the audacity to laugh at Connor for trying to be authentic, fucking hell. Royal protocol expected him to respond with courtesy, but he was at the end of his rope.

“I do,” the man said. He raised an eyebrow, as if daring Connor to say anything about it. “But we are in Denmark, and generally we speak Danish here.”

Connor closed his eyes and took a deep breath before speaking again. “So you can direct me to the library’s palace office, then. In English.”

“I could.”

“You could,” Connor said flatly, when it became apparent the man wasn’t going to say any more. “Would you please give me directions, then?”

“I could, but they’re certainly closed at this hour.” The man shuffled his papers, clearing a space at the table. “And you’re in the wrong building entirely.”

Connor groaned. “Really?”

“Really, puttemus,” the man said. Connor didn’t recognize the word, but he figured it probably was something along the lines of idiot. “Who are you, anyways? How’d you get in here? This wing is usually restricted access.”

Connor shuffled his bag and held out his hand to shake. “Oh! Uh, Connor Brown. I’m with the Canadian embassy. One of the palace aides showed me in? Tall, brown hair. I didn’t catch his name. I was hoping to put in an information request and pick up a few texts before the environmental conference starts this next week.”

The man rose, and shook Connor’s hand with a firm grip. He held onto Connor’s hand for a solid minute longer, studying Connor’s face.

“Pleasure,” he said, and nothing else. He still didn’t let go of Connor’s hand.

Connor shifted his weight from foot to foot, waiting for the man to introduce himself. When he didn’t, Connor figured he was missing some kind of Danish social etiquette and decided to just ask. He’d made enough of a fool of himself trying to speak in Danish anyways.

“Who’re you?”

The man blinked, and dropped Connor’s hand. “Ah. I’m Freddie, uh. Freddie Andersen.”

“What are you working on, Freddie Andersen?”

Freddie gestured at the table. “Paperwork. If, ah, if you’d like, you can leave me a list of the books you needed and I’ll see if I can get them delivered to the embassy.”

“Oh! Are you the librarian here, then?”

Freddie chuffed out a quiet laugh. “Well, it is my library,” he said, nonchalant, like he wasn’t sitting amidst an abyss of knowledge, surrounded on all sides by decades-old literature.

One thing was certain, he could do worse than befriend the local librarian, especially if it meant having a confidant inside the palace walls that he could communicate with.

“How important do you have to be to get a gig at a library like this?” he found himself asking, idly bringing his hand down the various book spines deckered out on the cart. The material was well loved, his fingertips not caked with dust when he pulled them away. It was hard to believe in a place like this, where the monuments were historical beyond belief, that something as insignificant as a common book would be kept in such beautiful condition.

In all honesty, it just made him want to get his hands on all of them. Have something finite in his hands that wasn’t some second hand copy he’d wrangled out from the university library. For what it was worth, the eight hour flight was probably worth it.

“Very,” Freddie said surely. “Usually we extend the same requirements to our visitors but you appear to be the exception.” Fuck, if he wasn’t a pompous ass.

“Har har. I find that hard to believe, seeing as how easily I got in.” He pointed a finger at the ginormous brass doors keeping them confined inside. “Look, are you going to help me get the books or am I denied that privilege?”

“Depends. Are you going to be nice to me? I thought Canadians were supposed to be all loving and jovial.”

Connor snorted. He was getting the hang of the banter between them, feeling comfortable enough to really tease. “Yeah, we save that for when we’ve slept in the last forty-eight hours.”

“Oh, smukke,” he mocked, in much too small a voice for how broad he was. “You think you have it rough? It’s been months since I slept more than five hours a night. Forty-eight hours is a luxury in comparison.”

“Librarian’s life that rough, then? I mean, I can’t blame you. If I ran my own library I’d probably would forget to eat. I’d live off of devouring the words or something spiritual like that,” he said, bending his fingers to produce distinct air quotations.

Freddie stiffened, raking a hand through his hair as he reclined back in the chair.

“Lots of books,” he said, almost under his breath. “Lots to read. You know.”

The response cut off any continuation Connor could hope to tack onto the conversation end, leaving them to twiddle their thumbs as the ambience of the room succumbed to the miscellaneous background noises; the whirring desk fans and wheels squeaking as they carted goods up and down the halls.

“Here,” Freddie said gruffly. He shoved a piece of graph paper across the desk, and a pen. “Write down the books you need, and I’ll see what I can do.”

Most of the paper on the desk had the royal seal at the top. Connor hadn’t figured the royal family would have time to read all that much. The graph paper seemed to be the only thing that wasn’t letterhead, paperwork, or stationary.

“Thank you,” Connor said, and dug out his phone to find his list, tucked away in his phone notes. He only got the first few titles copied down before his back complained at being hunched over; he dropped to his knees and hummed happily at the better angle.

Next to him, Freddie made a choking noise. Connor glanced up.

“I haven’t got any more water if you’re about to die,” he said lightly, grinning. “Hey, if you think of anything you’ve read that’s on the Poetic Edda and epic poetry in general, I’d be glad to get my hands on it.”

That caught Freddie’s interest. “You don’t want environmental science texts?”

Connor paused in his writing. “No? Why would you--”

Freddie’s cheeks were flushed red. “Ah, from your bag. You had--about the conference, you said, you were here for the summit?”

“Oh. Yeah, I am. This is more personal reading. I’m collecting research materials for my thesis.” Connor was wracked with a huge yawn. “Whoa. Sorry. Guess I’m more tired than I thought.” He scribbled down another couple of titles, hoping Freddie could read his handwriting.

“Forty-eight hours, you said?”

“Yeah. Overnight flight, and a full day of meetings before I got, well. Here.” Connor smiled up at Freddie, hoping for pity points. “Could you give me directions to where the Canadian envoy is staying? I’m half sure I can get back there, but I’m not totally certain I won’t fall asleep in the hallway if I get lost. You heard my Danish, I can’t really ask for directions.”

“Yeah, that’s the understatement of the century.” Freddie rolled his eyes. “Your escort didn’t give you the grand tour? Or did you sneak away before they could finish to come bother me?”

“Meetings. All day. No time for a grand tour.” Connor shrugged. “And I have no sense of direction anyways. I’d just get lost.”

“What a shame that’d be. Looks like you’d have to get used to eating those books. You look like the type to have expensive tastes.”

Connor looked down at his poor excuse of formal attire, the blazer tugged to inconspicuously hide the ketchup stain underneath. He couldn’t tell if Freddie was being serious, his voice tinged with wit but expression the complete opposite. It came off like he had just thought of some absurd joke in his head and couldn’t say it aloud, so he tried desperately to mask it with a smile. It didn’t exactly work; he looked not intriguing but of the same ilk.

“Me? Nah. Book and a cup of coffee and I’m good to go.” Connor yawned again. “Maybe a nap.”

“Conflict of interests there--no wonder you’re still up.” He eyed Connor from head to toe. “Look, as much as I’m happy to indulge your literary needs, you look dead on the spot. Do you want someone to show you back?”

Connor, practically swaying on his feet, couldn’t come up with a snarky reply. The allure of being inside the library had faded, leaving him exhausted with only the discussion keeping him from passing out.

“You have that kind of pull?”

Freddie rolled his eyes. “I’m sure I can find someone, smukke. Wait here.”

Connor watched him leave, leaning on the edge of the desk. Connor wasn’t sure how long Freddie was gone, but he was gently shook out of a doze by a warm hand.

“You really do need some sleep,” Freddie said lightly. “Come on. This is Matts. He’ll walk you back.”

The brown-haired man from earlier reappeared in the vicinity of Freddie, but was practically dwarfed in comparison. There was a knowing smirk dancing on the corner of his lips, but Connor was far too dizzy with sleep to press him. Lethargically, he helped himself off the desk and stumbled in the direction of the two men, trying to wipe the sleep out of his eyes with his pointer finger and thumb.

He had little memory of what happened after he’d talked to the librarian, besides trudging through the iridescent halls with all the grace of a two legged rhinoceros. He had not a care for the location of his luggage or Mitch and the remaining Canadian delegation and that was large in part due to him being on the threshold of passing out. He threw himself head first into the first available bed, without bothering to change or snuggle under the covers, and promptly succumbed to a deep sleep.

When he woke up, it was to tapestries and filigree decorating the perches on the walls, the sunlight filtering in through the glazed windows. He yawned, hearing his jaw click as the muscles were stretched, the blurry shapes of his vision focusing into furniture. There was a smirch of grogginess from the jet lag still obscuring this thoughts in heavy sheets, but it only made standing more liberating. He stretched his arms back just to wipe away the smog in front of his eyes.

His vision was still skewered, but the bouquet of flowers had to be new. They fanned out in a starburst-like array in many colours and spilled over the edge of the porcelain vase. The decals on the body weaved in every direction, shimmering in the morning light. Accompanying it was a stack of books all varying in size, some more aged than others. A musty smell radiated from them like steam.

Connor blinked, rubbing his right eye with his thumb. He didn’t remember them being there when he fell asleep, but it wasn’t like he was searing his memory with images of the room’s accessories and knick-knacks when he was half-asleep. Still sleep-drugged, he inched close enough to read the cover of the book on the top of the stack.

His mind fumbled with the inscription but he instantly recognized the title. It was the first edition that came to mind on the list he’d painstakingly researched when he’d been given the assignment. And there it was, somewhat saturated from exposure to sunlight for many years but still in optimal condition and thankfully not sequestered away in the depths of the library’s casing.

Shit, the librarian was good. He mind floundered for a second before the name came to heed, as did the description of the broad shouldered ginger.

Freddie. Huh. Wow, was he efficient. And apparently he had access to his room. And was there. When he was asleep. Or maybe it had been Matts, the escort? It would certainly explain the flowers. It was likely a Danish custom for dignitaries and he couldn’t help but be charmed at the thought.

The back of his neck was hot and sticky, his blazer tossed half heartedly at the end of the bed. Today the foreign dignitaries were expected a formal welcome, probably one with trumpets and bowing and a grand entrance from the king that was anything but modest. His phone helpfully informed him that he had an hour to shower, comb back his hair, and find something presentable you wear without sweat and ketchup stains, and hopefully not wrinkled beyond belief.

Mitch would kill him if he messed anything up by looking uninterested or lacking maturity in his mannerisms.

The ensuite was nicely renovated, the tile cooling Connor’s soles as he trudged in the direction of the sink, aiming to splash his face with water. It took some coaxing and fidgeting to work his way through the shower but he finally got hot water out of the nozzle without breaking the thing in two, which he considered a small victory.

Dressed up in a nice suit with only a few wrinkles to dampen his appearance, even he could admit he looked, well, nice. Royal appearances like this definitely weren’t the expectation for someone of his caliber. He looked more important than he felt; just a side piece to stand beside Mitch and look pretty while he took advantage of the library’s resources. He hoped the library’s hours would be flexible so he could visit in-between meetings.

Mitch was outside his door when he opened it, knuckle raised like he was about to knock. His normally windswept hair was combed to the side, with definitely a touch of foundation to hide the worst of his persistent acne. At Connor’s interruption he looked relieved, his forehead smoothing out.

“Oh thank God. I wasn’t sure if you were in here or--”

“Yeah. I got in late so everything’s all over the place,” he said, kicking away some of his luggage that was spilling out on the floor so Mitch could enter.

“Huh, I seen you’ve been busy,” Mitch said, eyes zoning in on the fort of books. “Nice flowers you got there.”

“Thanks, though I’m sure yours are nicer.”

“Mine? I didn’t get any flowers. My room’s been nothing but stuffy and aristocratic. I almost suffocated sleeping in those blankets. How does anyone around here manage?”

“It’s called culture, Mitch,” he said, pitching his voice to mimic their advisor. “And maybe they were accidentally sent to me.”

“It’s called impractical,” he said back. “And yeah, maybe.”

Connor swiped his wallet and phone from the end table and hastily left the room, mentally apologizing to whoever next saw his mess of bedsheets and pillows.

The main hall of the palace was intricate in its entirety, the tiles populated by parties of delegates, natives and the swarms of photographers. Their camera shutters clicked away, prompting both Mitch and Connor to straighten their backs and put on their media faces. A perfectly crafted facade overcame the Canadians, the group moving as a unit as they approached the designated meeting spot: the top of the stairs nearest a podium where it guaranteed a good shot for the Danish’s local media.

Connor had been through more than a few royal meet and greets, from his family’s status as a Toronto-based noble clan meeting the Canadian crown, and in state visits as Mitch’s aide to the UK and Sweden. He knew how they went: the important noble members of the party were shuffled forward for individual photos, and then there would be a larger group photo with the entire delegation, and everyone would smile and pretend not to be bored to tears. Almost certainly the monarch would have an aide to tell him who each person he was greeting was, and why they were there, and everyone would pretend he already knew who they were, on and on.

Connor wasn't nervous per se, but he always felt trepidation at the beginning of the summons. Too many eyes on him at once. His mind helpfully supplied the many wrongdoings that could occur--impoliteness and the use of gestures their embassy had determined were rude and should be avoided at all cost. The congested traffic of people parted like the Red Sea as they approached, them too anxious at the sight of foreign royalty.

No one wanted to be the dick that messed up the whole facade.

Connor, as a rule, liked to stay towards the middle of the group. Close enough to the front that he could fulfill his official role as Mitch’s aide, but enough in the pack that he wasn’t always awkwardly at the edge of photos. The downside of that rule was that it sometimes took a little shuffling to see important things, like the entrance of the king.

For a moment, all Connor could see was a cleanly pressed, military blue suit and red sash, and the glimmer of military medals. All pretty standard things for a monarch to wear. A flash of red hair, not dissimilar to Connor’s own, was a little more unusual, but expected.

Then the woman in front of Connor shifted her weight, moving a half-step to the left, and the bottom of Connor’s stomach dropped out.

King Frederik XI was Librarian Freddie.        

Connor’s heart stilled, his chest clamped down until the bars stifled his exhales. The conversations they'd had combined with the crushing guilt made him want to slam his head into solid cement.

He’d informally addressed His Majesty.

He’d sworn at His Majesty.

Shame striped his cheeks in thick red blotches, he ducked his head down to stop any ensuing eye contact. A mantra of swearing repeated itself over and over again in his head, not giving him nearly a second to recuperate from the backlash of the revelation. God he was so fucking stupid. He moved back into the group, hoping he’d just be another face in a sea of them, and started thinking of ways to get himself quietly removed from the envoy and sent back to Canada, hopefully before the fucking king of Denmark managed to remember his name and face.

Mitch was speaking in the background again, walking up the stairs to shake Frederik’s hand under the pretense of political forethought. His strides were calculated, not too wide or too spaced, but the determined speed to make him look eager but not desperate. Frederik cautiously waited on his perch until Mitch had pulled up beside him, neck craning down just to get a glimpse of the lord’s soft brown hair, before shaking his hand once more, this time from a side perspective that let the cameras get a shot of it without the podium blocking its place. A few cheers met their arrival, subduing the nervous smile Mitch was sporting underneath that persona of his.

Frederik tolerated the smiling and waving for a few moments more before bending slightly to murmur something to Mitch, who was still in close proximity to him. A flood of relief took over Mitch features and before Connor could even begin to dissect what he could’ve said he was being hustled forward to join them. That wasn’t part of the dignitary agenda. He was supposed to shadow Mitch, not walk beside him like an equal. Their titles were vastly sparse in similarities and yet, he was walking up close, inches away from Frederik who was watching him like a hawk, probably in disdain.

Well, if he was going to find some way to embarrass Connor for his sleep-deprived debacle there was nothing better than doing it in front of the media, to the open ears of Danish population. Connor just hoped he’d get it over with.

But despite taking probably ten or more official photos with His Majesty and Lord Marner, Connor was being positioned on Frederik’s other side as if to take part in the festivities. One of his ginormous hands clamped on the edge of Connor’s waist to tug him in closer, and behind his well-placed smile Connor squeaked out in protest. He couldn’t verbally state his discomfort though, posing for a few more camera flashes before Frederik let go and Connor power walked to Mitch’s side to hide behind him.

Frederik followed, as if tugged on a string. The corners of his lips were curled up in amusement.

“Fancy seeing you here again, Connor Brown.” Mitch’s head turned as if on a swivel.

“Wait--you two know each other?” he questioned, peering up at Connor from over his shoulder with intrigue.

“You could say that,” Frederik said. “Did you get the books alright?”

“Y-Yes, thank you. Uh--I'm so sorry if I offended you at all yesterday. Honestly, I had no clue and I was jet lagged and--God. I apologize,” he said, words escaping like vomit as he tried to save his own skin. Frederik was laughing his reply off with a good-natured chuckle, the stony facial expression wiped in their presence for their eyes only.

“On the contrary, you were rather amusing. Nice to see someone with a sense of humour around here. Were your accommodations to your liking?”

Mitch cleared his throat. “Yes, Your Highness. Our quarters were incredibly beautiful. I very much liked the flowers.” Freddie’s eyebrows quirked upwards.

“You two share a room?” he questioned. Mitch flushed to the tips of his ears.

“N--No, I, uh,” he chuckled nervously. “No that wouldn't really be appropriate for someone of my stature. Me and Connor are best friends, you see. We’re here for the conference together.”

“Ah,” his expression cooled. “He told me as such yesterday. I look forward to participating in our discussion. Hopefully the books help, smukke.” Mitch’s eyebrows hiked up but Connor chose wisely not to comment on Frederik’s playful jabs and courteously smiled back, nodding in agreement. If anything, it made Frederik’s smile wane as he returned back to being the brick wall he’d been impersonating earlier. The staff looked ready to show them to the conference hall, fingers twitching and lips dry as they gaped at the display.

They wasted no time bidding the King goodbye as they made to clamber down the stairs in their polished shoes, costumes, and doll faces. There was some mumbling in the back that kept washing over Connor’s psyche, egging him to look back just once and determine if Frederik was watching him with thin-hidden disgrace.

He ended up not having to assume, the steps spoke for him. He’d reached the bottom of the stairs when Frederik interjected again, in front of the media no less.

“Will I see you back at the library this evening? It would be a pleasure doing business with you,” he said.

“Of course, Your Royal Majesty.” Frederik frowned.

“Please, just call me Freddie. I like it better.”

Connor’s face flamed red, and he hoped fruitlessly that there weren’t going to be photos of this. Unfortunately, half the Danish media seemed to be gawping at him, while the other half was gawping at the king, so Connor figured that was a pretty lost cause.

“What the fuck was that?” Mitch demanded in a low hiss once they were dismissed from the main hall. Freddie--King Frederik, fuck--had watched Connor nearly the whole time. Connor had thought he would melt into the floor from embarrassment. “When did you meet His Royal Majesty?”

“When I went to the library last night,” Connor said. “I thought he was the librarian. He said it was his library and introduced himself as Freddie Andersen.”

Mitch winced. “The Royal Library is...technically his library, yeah. And I think he called himself Freddie Andersen when he attended university. It was in the dossier. Fuck, Connor. That was--” Mitch trailed off, apparently at a loss for words.

“I thought I was going to pass out when I realized.”

“I thought he just wanted another ginger in the photos,” Mitch offered, and the tension broke, just like that. “Ok. We can use this.”

“We can?”

Mitch punched Connor in the arm. “Uh, yeah. The King of Denmark wants to work with you personally. He gave you flowers. He’s into you. We can use this.”

Connor made a face. “I think he was just being nice to the foreign idiot.”

“He was definitely flirting,” Mitch said. “I mean, just flirt back, is all. You don’t have to sleep with him or anything.”

“I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”

“Come on, a little flirting eases the way so much in international diplomacy. Flatter him. Bat your eyelashes--actually, don’t, I’ve seen you do that. Be charming. Maybe we can get more done if he’s working closely with you.”

“You think?”

“Worth a shot?”

Evening found Connor back in the library, dressed down instead of up. His U of T sweatshirt was comfortable, and if the King of Denmark wasn’t into sweatshirts and jeans then it wasn’t Connor’s problem. The late evening air was cooler than Connor had expected, and he was glad for his sweatshirt’s warmth.

Connor found an empty table and spread out. He set a timer on his phone--half an hour for official work, then half an hour for personal work. He put his headphones on and started writing out a rough outline of the day’s proceedings by hand.

He settled into the rhythm of the work fairly easily, checking his notes on his phone. This set of handwritten notes would get transcribed and fleshed out, then signed by Mitch and archived along with the original notes. The complete set of reports and notes would be synthesized into a report of the entire trip, then put into the public archives of the Royal Canadian Library.

It was a boring part of Connor’s job, but he was good at it. It kept track of all the important events of a diplomatic mission. Connor hated doing it less than Mitch did, which generally meant he took it on as much as he could.

He was almost through the last round of formal introductions--an endless list of names and titles, with notes about where to find photos of Mitch’s handshakes--when a hand appeared on his shoulder.

Connor jerked, yelping, his pen skidding across the page. He fumbled to get his headphones off and turn.

“Sorry to startle you,” a deeply familiar voice said.

Connor scrambled to stand so he could properly greet the Danish king.

“Don’t worry about formalities,” Freddie said, laughing. “Sit. Mind if I join you?”

Connor eyed his spread of books and papers, his laptop lying closed on the table. “If you don’t mind the mess.”

That got another smile from Freddie. “I really, really don’t mind.”

Connor brushed aside some of his work and sat back down, folding one foot under himself on his chair.

“What are you working on?” the king asked, looking genuinely interested.

Connor flushed. “Uh, diplomatic write-up. I’m logging the day’s activities.”

“I’ll assume I’m in that?”

“You did call me out in front of the media and your court, so yes,” Connor retorted. “It’s pretty boring.”

“And you need a copy of…” Freddie paused and picked up a book from the top of Connor’s stack. “...The Elder Edda Revisited: Past and Present Performances of the Icelandic Edda Poems to do that?”

Connor grabbed the book back from him, only realizing he’d yanked a book out of the king of Denmark’s hands when one of the guards posted nearby made a surprised noise. Since Freddie was grinning at him, Connor decided not to worry too much.

That is for my thesis, and I’ll work on it once I finish this.”

“You never said what your thesis was on, exactly.”

“It’s kind of boring,” Connor hedged.

“I’m sure it’s not.”

Connor sighed. “Don’t say I didn't warn you. Alright, elevator pitch. It’s on, uh, well, the performative aspects of the Eddas and their evolution through the centuries, since the Elder Edda is, well, a thirteenth-century manuscript, and of course it’s been told orally for even longer, but recently elements have become parts of popular culture with the Marvel universe using demigods like Thor and Loki, as well as authors like Rick Riordan and Neil Gaiman making them accessible to a younger set of readers who aren’t exposed to the original poetry. I’m arguing that the performative aspects and the stories themselves are evolving in the way the original texts indicated--I’m boring you, aren’t I?”

“Not at all.” Freddie leaned forward, bracing his weight on his elbows. “What got you so interested in Norse mythology? Is your family Scandinavian?”

Connor snorted. “Nah. We’re Irish and English before my great-great grandfather emigrated to Canada, where he was honoured a title for services to the Canadian crown.”

“That doesn’t explain the interest in Norse mythology.”

Connor could feel a flush spreading over his cheeks. The tips of his ears felt hot. “I grew up on the Marvel comics,” he hedged. “My older brother really liked the Thor ones, and I picked that up from him. And when the first Marvel Thor movie came out I started noticing all the other stuff that included Norse mythology that came out, and...yeah. Also, Chris Hemsworth might have been a bit of an awakening for teenage me.”

Freddie gave Connor a considering look. “How old were you when that came out, then?”

“Ah, seventeenish.” Connor tapped his fingers on the table, quirking a smile at Freddie. “I was a bit...dense as a teenager, you might say. Thought all my hockey posters was just teenage athlete hero-worship. Figured it out a bit later.”

Freddie leaned back, relaxing into the chair. “Which hockey players?”

“Well, team Canada, obviously--oh, shut up,” Connor said when Freddie made a disappointed noise. “I’m Canadian, did you expect me to cheer for Germany?”

“Well, Denmark is clearly the superior team.”

“Yeah, tell that to our Worlds and Olympics records. No, but I grew up a Leafs fan, being a Toronto kid.”

“I didn’t know you were from Toronto.”

Connor chuffed out a laugh. “I’m not, really. Etobicoke--my family’s holdings--is part of the GTA, and I went to school in Toronto proper.” Connor’s phone chimed suddenly and they both jumped. “Shit, sorry.”

“Do you have somewhere you need to be?”

“It’s just a reminder to take a break.” Connor checked the time, and flipped his phone onto the table, face-down. “How about you?”

Freddie blinked. “Ah--”

“I mean, I know the official biography. But if you were introducing yourself to a total stranger--”

“Like you, last night?” Freddie teased.

Connor fought the urge to stick out his tongue. “Like me last night. What would you say?”

Freddie took a long moment to consider, and Connor waited patiently. “Hm. Well, I now work in foreign politics and domestic Danish law. I grew up here in Copenhagen for the most part, even though my family spent a lot of time in Aarhus and Gråsten.”

“I’ve never heard of Gråsten. Is it nice?”

“It’s a very small city, only about 4,000 people. My mother loved it. It was my father’s favorite place in the world before he died.” Freddie smiled, a little sadly. “Let’s see--I attended primary school here in Copenhagen, and did three years at a boarding school in Stockholm, and then two years of university in the US--Harvard--but I came home after my father died and finished my degree here. International Law,” he clarified.

“Did you follow any sports as a kid? Or while you were in the US for school, I guess.””

“Hockey, actually,” Freddie said with a lopsided grin. “It’s not popular here, but I loved it. I played goalie on a youth team.”

“Goalie, really?”

“I think they wanted the heir as padded as possible, but I loved it. My dad played goalie, and my youngest brother is a goalie now, as well. Bit of a family tradition.”

Connor grinned; common ground. “I was a forward as a kid.”

“No kidding?”

“Yeah, Mitch--uh, Lord Mitchell Marner, he’s on this trip--he and I played mini-myte level all the way up to bantam. I played juvenile, but he had to drop out for family responsibilities.”

“Anyone waiting for you at home?”

“Nah, just my parents. And a very, very grumpy old cat.” Connor stretched. “As much as I’m enjoying this conversation, I really do need to finish this before I forget everything that’s happened today.”

“I apologize for interrupting, then.”

“Don't,” Connor said impulsively. “I can't imagine you get to just be a person a whole lot.”

“You're not wrong.” Freddie's expression was soft and a little wry. “Do you plan on working here most evenings?”

“For the duration of the conference and if there's no evening engagements planned.” Connor gestured at his books and papers, and his laptop, humming quietly in sleep mode. “There's always work to be done.”

“A universal truth. Would you mind if I joined you, then?”

Connor blinked. “I'd assume you have better things to do with your time.”

“Maybe. But I'm as invested in this summit as you are, and I'd like to talk to someone who gets the technical side and the diplomacy side, and that seems to be you.” Freddie shrugged. “I've talked at you long enough, and you have work to do.”

Connor returned to his notes, wondering if he should file this conversation as something of diplomatic note.

♔ | ♔ | ♔ | ♔

Freddie was easy to talk to, and Connor found himself conversing with the Danish king frequently. There had been a diplomatic meeting where Connor had sent increasingly sarcastic messages to Mitch on their IM system--unprofessional, perhaps, but the American representative was grating on Connor’s nerves and unprofessional was better than punching the man in the face--and Freddie had also been in attendance, though he’d been quietly pulled by an aide halfway through.

Afterwards, an exhausted Freddie found Connor working through his day’s diplomatic notes.

“Did that meeting end as badly as I thought it would?” Freddie asked, dropping into his usual seat at what had become their usual table.

Connor made a face. “Sweden made a dent, I think, and Mitch deployed his polite disappointment expression, but we all know the Americans.”

“I never asked,” Freddie said. “You and Lord Marner are both so young; why did they send you on this trip?”

Connor rolled his eyes. “You’re not dense.”

“Pretend I am,” he said, inching closer to hear Connor better.

“We’re young nobles, in the age range of you and your siblings. The career diplomats do the real work. We look pretty and make friends.”

Freddie looked a bit disheartened at that. “Selling yourself short, aren’t you?”

Connor snorted, leaning back so that his chair tilted. “Duty of the second son.”

“What?” Freddie’s lips curled downwards. “I'm not… familiar with what you mean.” Nevertheless, he was leaning in, attention piqued by Connor’s involvement in the conversation.

“We’re both second sons. It's an old tradition about the duties of each successive son. It usually goes one to land, one to country, one to god. We just both went diplomacy rather than military.” Connor shrugged. “Marns can talk the talk, but...I shouldn't be telling you this. It's nothing for you to worry yourself with.”

“It's interesting.”

“It's old tradition that doesn't make sense anymore,” Connor countered. “Not when church and state are separated. Not when daughters can inherit.”

“And yet you followed it?” Freddie asked.

“Well. Some traditions can have their uses.”

They fell into quiet, each working on their own papers.

Freddie broke the silence abruptly. “Would you care to join me and my siblings at an informal dinner? I think you’d get along well with them.”

Connor looked up from his notes, surprised by the sudden shift in conversation topic.

“Oh, uh--when?”

“Tomorrow night?”

“Wow, short notice.”

Freddie’s cheeks were red when Connor really looked at him, and so were the tips of his ears. It was kind of nice to be around someone who flushed as easily as Connor. “It’s nothing formal--my siblings and a few friends. If you don’t want to come--”

“No, I’d love to--I’m just surprised at the invitation, is all. Should I bring Mitch?”

“If you’d like. Auston would love to see him.”

“Then we’ll be there. Dress code?”

“However you’d like to come.”

However you’d like to come was not a helpful guideline when dressing for dinner. Connor was relieved to find a dress shirt and slacks the status quo once he and Mitch arrived.

Connor wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but it wasn’t what they found: a dozen and a half people circulating through a suite of rooms with the doors thrown wide, and foil pans laid out on a kitchen counter.

Freddie found them quickly enough, looking well at ease.

“Lord Marner,” he said a bit formally. “Uh--Mitch, sorry. I’m glad you made it. Elsebeth Nissen has been working with refugee migration and resettlement, and wanted to pick your brain about Canadian immigration policy.”

Mitch lit up. “Really?”

“I can introduce you--”

“That’d be perfect.”

Connor followed a little awkwardly as Mitch bounded across the room after Freddie to meet a short blonde woman. She and Mitch immediately dove into an empathic conversation--in French, weirdly enough--right after Freddie introduced them, leaving Connor to watch in awe.

Freddie drew him away, grimacing apologetically. “I’m sorry--Nissen has been trying to get in a room with Marner for two weeks now, and I promised her I’d try to make it happen.”

“You’ll have to introduce me to some new people, then,” Connor said. “It’s good to meet new people. It’s what diplomacy is about, isn’t it?”

Freddie laughed, and offered his elbow to Connor. Connor took it, a little baffled. Freddie introduced Connor to multiple people: Danish nobility who had grown up with the princes and princess and who had remained close friends; high ranking aides who had become close friends and confidants; and Freddie's own siblings.

The princess royal was nothing like Connor expected. For one, upon seeing him she immediately threw her arms around him, nearly knocking him to his feet. It was not at all the introduction he expected from the only Princess of Denmark over the age of six months.

“I’ve heard so much about you,” she exclaimed, standing on tiptoe to press a light kiss to Connor’s cheek. Connor could barely even blink. “Call me Amalie. I’ve been dying for someone not half as boring as my brothers.”

Freddie had abandoned them with a mutter about drinks the second Amalie had ambushed Connor, so no help was coming from that direction.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Connor tried, still trying to process.

Immediately, Amalie deadarmed him. Connor could see the family resemblance now.

Amalie had the same copper hair her older brother did, though hers was long and left loose. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she was also dressed down, in sneakers, jeans, and a striped t-shirt. It was a little disarming; until this point, he’d only seen formal portraits of her, or photographs from public appearances in carefully arranged clothing.

Amalie,” she insisted. “Freddie talks about you all the time. I feel like I know you already. You grew up in Canada, correct? And studied in Toronto?”

Connor blinked. “Um, yeah. I did. I studied Global Literature and Mythology.”

“Oh, you’ll love Margarithe. Sebby’s wife.”

It took a moment for Connor to realize Sebby was the Crown Prince Sebastian Alexander, Freddie's younger brother and heir.

“I will?”

“Oh, yes, she worked in the National Gallery before she met Sebby. She focused on pre-Christian art.”

“Are you terrifying Connor, little sister?” Freddie came up behind Connor and gave him a wine glass. “Don't scare him off.”

“I was just telling him about Margarithe’s research.” Amalie took the other wine glass Freddie was holding. “Thank you for thinking of your nearest and dearest sister.”

“My only sister,” Freddie corrected with a smirk. “Maybe I spat in that.”

Amalie took a sip, raising an eyebrow. “Too late, we already share DNA. Blame mother for that. Have you told him about the library at Marselisborg?”

“I hadn't got the chance.”

Amalie turned to Connor. “The library is willing to send books we request to the library there. Margarithe loved it. It’s what got her through her doctoral degree.”

“Talking about Marselisborg?” another voice asked, also in English. “It’ll be awhile until we can get back out there.”

Connor turned and recognized Freddie’s younger brother, the Crown Prince Sebastien. He had the royal family’s ginger hair, and was even taller than Freddie. It was somewhat strange being around so many fellow redheads.

“Oh!” Sebastian said, stopping short. “You must be Connor. Freddie’s been talking about the Canadian envoy for awhile now. I think he’s just glad someone else will take the ginger jokes from us. I’m Seb, by the way.”

“We all call him Sebby,” Amalie put in. “Or Sebas.”

Seb made a face. “I think I get to pick a more grown-up nickname now that I’m a parent, so--”

Amalie muttered something in Danish. The only word Connor understood translated to prince, but judging by the way Seb sputtered and Freddie snorted, it was less than polite.

Amalie and Seb immediately started squabbling in rapid Danish.

Freddie gently steered Connor away from his bickering siblings. “Sorry about that. They’ll be like that for awhile.”

Connor wasn’t really sure what the polite response was to seeing the Crown Prince and the Princess of Denmark arguing with each other like children was, or the response to having the King of Denmark himself apologize for it. Finally, he settled on saying “I think all siblings are at least a little like that.”

“I’d assume so.” Freddie smiled. “All three of mine are like that.”

Suddenly, there was a loud squawk and a blur of red hair hit Freddie from behind. Freddie made a startled noise and scolded the blur in Danish; from what Connor could tell, that must have been Valdemar, the youngest prince and Freddie’s youngest brother. Standing next to Freddie made the little prince look even tinier in comparison, especially considering how youthful his face was when he looked up.

Valdemar was all chubby cheeks and smiles, eyes filled with glee at seeing Freddie in the flesh. The same reddish brown hair was evident in the both of them, in Valdemar’s case curling over his eyes and springing about as he jumped between the two of them to give his older brother an official hug.

Storebror!” he said, voice cracking. Connor almost lost his composure there, not only because of the adoring look Freddie was giving the kid but also the images his imagination conjured up of a much younger Freddie with a voice just as tiny.

“C’mere you,” Freddie said, one hand messing up Valdemar’s hair and pushing him forward so that he had to lean on his heels.

In response, Valdemar let out a piercing laugh, jumping up and forcing Freddie to catch him so that he could pummel his shoulders. The fact that Freddie had been deep in conversation barely seemed to faze Valdemar, but while some of the local residents looked perplexed, even annoyed, Connor found nothing but endearment.

Something about seeing Freddie pretend to weight lift his little brother and spin him around, ducking his avoid his punches made his heart swell. If he didn’t know any better, they could be father and son. The love was clearly there. He didn’t doubt that Freddie would have taken on a surrogate father role after his own father passed away, but seeing it live and in person completely changed his perspective.

Freddie looked so at peace. His forehead wrinkles were smoothed out, eyes scrunched up and lips finally forming a full smile. It looked good on him.

Connor ducked away to let Freddie and Valdemar converse in rapid Danish, and went to find either Mitch or some food.

He settled in at a table with a plate filled with what he was mostly certain was a type of meatball-- even though it kind of resembled a small hamburger patty to his Canadian eyes--served with potatoes and cabbage. He was alone:  Mitch had been chattering away at the woman Freddie had introduced him to, and they’d been knee-deep in immigration/emigration policy.

Connor had heard plenty about immigration and emigration rooming with Mitch in college, so he’d left them to it. It was nice to take a bit of a breather and have some food anyways, and look around at the small gathering of people.

He was halfway through his plate when Sebastian found him and sat down with his own plate of food.

“You’re a new dad?” Connor asked, groping for a conversation topic.

Seb beamed and immediately abandoned his food in favor of his phone. “Yes! She’s called Josefine. She’s a little over six months old.”

Connor dutifully oohed and aahed over the photos Seb showed him.

“She’s a little too young for gatherings like these,” Seb said, when they’d looked at enough photos of a terribly small human. “Sometimes we bring her, but then everyone wants to hold her, and she gets cranky when she’s passed around too much. She’s with my wife now--they both decided on an early night. You’ll get to meet them both soon, though, I’m sure.”

Connor wondered when that would be, given that there was only a week left of the conference. Maybe there was some sort of photo op with the royal family that the baby princess would be attending, and that was what Seb meant.

Seb kept going, not leaving Connor time to ask any clarifying questions, so it didn’t really matter anyways.

“Do you have any nieces and nephews? Or baby cousins?”

Connor shook his head. “No, none. A few friends have had children, but I’m still the youngest in my family.”

“Vald was relieved when Josefine was born, but he’s still really the baby of the family,” Seb said. “You like kids?”

“I guess. Not sure I want my own, but I like playing with other people’s and giving them back.”

“Sounds like Freddie’s feelings on the matter. And Amalie’s.” Seb took a bite and chewed quickly. “So you’re studying the Eddas?”

Seb was a good conversationalist, even in a second language. He had a good grasp on the Eddas and Norse mythology as a whole, and he was willing to let Connor ramble with a few pointed questions for clarification.

That was how Freddie found them a good while later, food abandoned. They were discussing--not arguing, discussing, because Connor refused to argue with a crown prince--the relative value of literature in its original language versus translated literature, having abandoned the topic of the Eddas entirely.

“Harassing my guest there, Sebby?” Freddie introduced himself, taking Connor’s empty glass from him out of politeness.

Connor wanted to give a polite explanation but was far too immersed in the conversation topic to break eye contact with his opponent.

“Your guest has very differing opinions on international literature. We are...having an educated debate on whose viewpoint is better, that’s all.” He took a long sip from his glass, breaking eye contact with Connor to smirk at his older brother.

“I trust you’ll be kind then, please don’t scare him off,” Freddie said.

Connor scoffed, but was ignored amidst the the two and their non-verbal sibling communication. As an outsider, he was completely lost.

“Scare him off? Me? I’m just giving him a taste of being with the family, nothing more. Besides, he’s got guts, I’ll give him that.” He playfully batted at Connor’s shoulders, which only partially gave up for his absurdly wrong opinion. Though for the moment, Connor gave him enough courtesy to smile back.

“What are you two even arguing about?”

“Your brother is wrong,” Connor said flatly. “On about four different counts.”

Freddie covered a laugh while Seb rolled his eyes.

“I like this one,” Seb announced, out of nowhere. Connor figured he was just ending the conversation before he admitted he’d lost. He got up and clapped Connor on the shoulder. “Good talk. I think I see Cecile over there and I should probably go say hello.”

With Freddie having returned to Connor’s side, Seb was able to excuse himself with a quiet bow and depart to fill the remainder of his glass with more of the red wine Freddie had brought Connor earlier.

Connor watched his confident stride almost the entire way before Freddie took his brother’s abandoned seat with little hesitation. “Sorry about him.”

Connor rolled his eyes. “His opinion on global literature is wrong, but I don’t dislike him.”

“You just dislike that you were losing,” Freddie teased.

Connor kicked him gently under the table. “I was winning.”

“Keep telling yourself that.”

Connor returned to his food, which had since gone cold. After a minute, Freddie laughed quietly.

His arm obscured Connor’s vision, pointing out something a ways off.

“Look. Valdemar insisted he could stay awake the whole party. He’s fallen asleep.”

Connor smiled, seeing the young prince curled up in an armchair, his head tucked into his arms. It was easy to see how genuinely Freddie loved his younger brother, despite their significant age gap.

“How old is he?”

“Thirteen. But he had a long day at school, and hockey practice after. I’m surprised he made it this late, honestly.”

“Should we wake him?”

“No. He and Amalie share this suite of rooms. I’ll carry him to bed in a moment.”

Connor blinked in surprise.

Freddie turned to Connor, his lips quirking up in a wry smile. “Something I said, puttemus?”

“Just surprised you’ll carry him yourself. It’s sweet!” Connor hurried to add. “But it’s your party. I’m surprised you’d leave.”

Some of the tension drained out of Freddie’s expression. “Ah. No, it’s really Amalie’s party. I won’t be gone for long, really.”

“Need any help?” Connor asked before he could stop himself.

Freddie broke into a wide grin at that. “If you could open doors, I’d be indebted.”

“I’d be glad to help.”

“Then I’d be glad to accept.”

When Freddie scooped up his little brother, he was gentle. He supported Valdemar’s head in the crook of his own neck, cradling Valdemar not unlike an oversize baby.

“That door there, please,” Freddie said, jerking his chin. “Then the second on the left.”

Valdemar’s room looked completely unlike anything Connor had expected. It was a bizarre mix of regal furnishings and teenage boy touches, right down to the hockey posters tacked onto beautifully detailed walls.

Freddie stood at the side of the bed, balancing his little brother in the crook of his right arm as he used the other to peel back the blanket. Connor beat him to it, scooping Freddie’s hand in his own and returning it to Valdemar’s unmoving shape as he replaced the effort with his own, stripping the mattress enough for Freddie to set him down. Valdemar made a series of sniffles, each louder than the last, but otherwise did not wake. He looked bone tired.

“Thank you,” Freddie said, hand resting on the hinge of Connor’s shoulder. “Usually I have to do that alone.”

“That explains the biceps, eh?” Connor made a playful jab at Freddie’s arm, laughing when Freddie hit him back.

At the noise, Valdemar stirred, mumbling something in sleep-slurred Danish. Immediately, Freddie hushed Connor and whisked the two of them out of the room, leaving his little brother to sleep in peace.

“People used to think he was my son,” Freddie said, once they were out of hearing range. “Nevermind that my mother was very visibly pregnant with him. They said a lover of mine left him here, and ran away, and left my parents to claim him as theirs.”

“How old were you?”

“Fifteen. But after my Pappa became ill, and then passed, I’ve been like Valdemar’s dad, I suppose. I’m closest with him of all my siblings.”

“It’s cute.” Connor shoved at Freddie a little when Freddie raised a skeptical eyebrow. “It is! You care so much for all of your siblings.”

“They’re family.” Freddie put a hand at the small of Connor’s back to guide him down the hall. “You’re close with yours?”

“Mmhm. I only have the one brother. Jeff. He’s--about your age, actually. He’s set to inherit from our dad, but we’ve always been close. He got engaged his past summer.”

“And the wedding?”

“Early spring sometime. I can’t remember the exact date.”

Freddie’s smile was sweet. “Are you part of the wedding party?”

“Groomsman,” Connor answered. “But I'm sharing best man duties, really.”

“I was Sebas’ best man,” Freddie offered. “And godfather to his daughter. He knew it would mean a lot to me.”

“Because you won’t have kids of your own?”

Freddie looked startled, but he nodded quickly. “I love Josefine more than just about anything,” he admitted. “She was the tiniest human I’d ever seen. Can’t believe they let me hold her so soon after she was born.”

Connor had spent some time googling the Danish royal family when it became apparent he was going to be spending a lot of time around the king. He’d had access to formal dossiers, but those were lists of facts and accomplishments, and less a sense of why the Danish royal family was so beloved by their citizens.

King Frederik XI was the first openly gay monarch to not abdicate his throne in the modern era,  and had set off a quiet constitutional crisis when he’d come out. Gay marriage had been legal since the 1980s, long before romance and sexuality had even been a thought in Freddie's head, but it was still an unprecedented strain for the monarchy.

The entire country--citizenry and congress--had handled it with aplomb as they tried to figure out if this was the end of the Danish monarchy and if any of Freddie’s children--either adopted or through a surrogate--could be legitimate heirs.

Freddie had settled the debate in what Connor had learned was the most Freddie way possible: by opting out. He named his brother Sebastien his heir, then his brother’s legitimate children, then his sister Amalie and her children, and passing to his youngest brother Valdemar in the worst possible situation.

“The royal line will carry on,” Freddie had said in Danish. The clip Connor saw had been dubbed over in a crisp English accent, but there was nothing that could dim the regal set to Freddie’s shoulders. “There will be kings and queens of Denmark after me, as there have been kings and queens of Denmark before me. I, like many before me, am placing my duty over my personal desire for children. Maybe--I hope I will find a husband in time, but I will not have children of my own. Instead, every child of Denmark, every son and every daughter of our land, can consider themselves my child, to be cared for and protected through my service to our country.”

Connor wondered how much that decision weighed on Freddie’s shoulders. As they returned to the party, he decided not to ask.

♔ | ♔ | ♔ | ♔

Mitch seemed to be enjoying himself on the trip as much as Connor himself was. Mitch thrived in diplomatic situations, making friends with a cheerful ease Connor almost envied. The whole set of diplomatic behaviors came naturally to Mitch, who made friends everywhere he went with his bright enthusiasm for almost any topic put in front of him.

Connor had known Mitch for years, so he didn’t feel threatened by Mitch’s scores of new best friends. Mitch was like that--everyone wanted to tell him everything about themselves. In university, Connor had once watched in stunned awe as Mitch debated toilet paper manufacturing processes with a near-stranger for forty-five minutes and then had proceeded to walk away with a phone number and a date to boot.

In Denmark, only one person seemed to affect Mitch as much as Mitch affected him--one Auston Matthews, personal aide to the king.

“He’s just really nice,” Mitch mumbled when Connor teased him about it. His cheeks were starting to flush red, which was strange for the usually shameless Mitch. “Like. God. He’s charming.”

“That’s what people usually say about you,” Connor pointed out. He spun his pen lazily through his fingers. “Did you ever ask how a Dane got a name like Auston Matthews?”

Mitch buried his face in his hands. “His great-grandfather was an American who came to Denmark between the world wars. His dad studied in the US in the eighties, and met his mom, who’s Mexican by birth but was a naturalized American citizen, so Auston had to renounce his dual American citizenship through her in order to serve in the Danish military. He’s basically fluently trilingual, considering he grew up speaking English, Danish, and Spanish in turns.”

Connor blinked. He hadn’t gotten more than a handful of words out of Matthews, and somehow Mitch had gotten a whole biography and a family history to boot.

“When did you have time to even talk to him that much?”

“He brought me coffee when he was off duty,” Mitch admitted, peeking at Connor through his fingers. “You were at the library. We...talked for awhile.”

Something about the way Mitch lingered over the word talked made Connor narrow his eyes in suspicion.

“Please tell me you didn’t fuck the King of Denmark’s top aide in a supply closet.”

“We made it to my room!” Mitch protested. “We made it to a bed and everything. I know it was a bad idea, but he was so sweet.”

Connor had heard Mitch describe hookups--both male and female--in a lot of terms, but he’d never heard sweet before. “You are incredible,” he said flatly. “Did he tell you about his family before or after you slept with him?”

Mitch’s cheeks were still red. “After. We talked until like three in the morning.”

“Good job, Romeo. Master seduction skills you got there.” Even still, he swatted at him playfully. “Good for you, though.”

Mitch shoved at Connor. “Shut up.”

“If you're happy, I'm happy,” Connor said. “Seriously. When was the last time you liked someone this much?”

“Shut up.” Mitch rested his head on his hands. “It’s not like it’ll last once we go home. But it’s nice to have someone, even if it’s only for a little bit. I just know distance isn’t something I can do, is all.”

Connor pulled Mitch into a hug. “Yeah. I know. But you’ll have good memories.”

“The best memories. He’s talented with his--”

“I don’t want to know!”

Of course, things couldn't stay perfectly idyllic, even as the conference achieved its aims and the Canadian diplomatic party had been beyond successful in establishing a personal connection with Denmark. They were running out of time, and Connor had been putting off his goodbyes.

Connor and Freddie were cocooned by the ambience of the library, the flat quiet not only from the night’s embrace but the dispelled staff that took their echoing footsteps with them. All that remained was the occasional pen scribbles and hums emitted from Freddie as he poured himself almost effortlessly into the task at hand. His determination was admirable.

Connor could continue reading but his mind was over concentrated with the information intake from a long day’s work. He fully anticipated sleeping the majority of the plane ride home tomorrow but living the moment with a friend like Freddie on his shoulder was not tangible without the circumstances of the visit. He wouldn’t get an opportunity like it again. He made sure to cherish the sensations, the scents, the sounds, the unspoken energy bubbling between them.

“I’m going to miss this,” he said, the words forcing themselves out of his mouth. Freddie looked up. “It’s so beautiful here. You must feel so honoured, to live in a country like this.” His mind drew images of the gardens, the morning commute on the backs of bikes, and high spirits inside local taverns.

By all means, it was nothing you couldn’t find in Canada, but the culture was so different here that he couldn’t help but yearn to relive those moments, swaddled by all the adoration and warmth the country has to offer. Some of the emotion must have leaked onto his face, because Freddie was looking at him like he’d hung the moon, cheeks digging into his eyes as he smiled.

“You look like you’re reminiscing,” was all he said. Connor could see him taking in deep, steadying breaths.

Connor gulped, “well, it’s true. Going home is going to be losing it all.”

“Don’t miss me too much, puttemus. I’ll always be here.” Freddie leaned forward to take one of Connor’s hands in his, running his rough fingers over the back of his palm. “Denmark will always be your home.”

“It’s just--here I don’t feel like I’m under so much responsibility. I know I’m not one to complain--you’re a king and I’ve been distracting you--but when I’m here I feel happy. I’ve seen the books and the room and all the beautiful sights and I’m just going to go home and be met with a wasteland and all those expectations.” His arms unfolded as if his wingspan, slipping out from Freddie’s grasp.

“I know how you feel,” Freddie said. “That’s why I like you. We understand each other. If it pleases you, I see no reason why you cannot stay in Denmark.” He pushed his chair back and stood, glowering down at Connor. It compelled him to follow Freddie’s lead, pushing his hair back with one hand so that his vision of the man was not obscured.

“I’m--I’m flattered but I can’t. I have sworn an oath. Canada is my home,” he said, voice shaking.

Freddie nodded. “I understand. It’s difficult to change. But I know you Connor. I know you. And maybe it is fate that brought you here. Maybe you are meant to stay.”

“What?” he asked, but Freddie was already positioning them, pulling something from his pocket with attuned tenderness.

When his hands unfolded, in its place was a pendant. Not just any pendant: it was glittering, inset with jewels and delicate artistry that was soft on the eyes but brilliantly captivating. Connor couldn’t look away as it was placed in his hands.

“Connor Brown, your company has meant the world to me and I’m so glad I met you and--I wanted to give you this.” Freddie’s voice was pitched, jaw clamping down until his teeth gritted together. “It’s--um, my personal seal, and--I want you to think of me when you wear it. Denmark will always be your home.” When he finished his confidence returned, cheeks glowing with colour and a small smile wrapping around the lower half of his face.

It was beautiful piece of jewelry, and incredibly thoughtful. Gift exchanges weren’t rare but this? It was in another ballpark entirely. It resonated with Freddie in every crevice, an ornamental sculpture of the times they spent together.

Connor beamed up at Freddie, turning around and reaching around to return the pendant so that Freddie could slip it on.

The man’s hands were still shaking as they pulled the clasps together, setting the cold metal on the plane of Connor’s chest. It was not cumbersome nor easy to ignore, just the perfect settlement of homely despite its aristocratic roots. Connor brought one hand up to cradle it, still finding little details even minutes after receiving it.

“I don’t know what to say,” he said, “Thank you, this--this is so beautiful.” Connor felt his heart grow two sizes. Freddie leaned in, arms coming up as if to embrace him, and he followed the tune of the song, only realizing half-way that Freddie’s head was dipping too low for a hug, and the hands that should have grappled his shoulders were coming up to grab the sides of his face to angle it upwards.

Their lips were inches apart when he came to the realization, but by then the damage was done. Connor’s mind couldn’t compute the basic function of breathing, let alone springing away. The quirky, bubbly feeling inside of him was replaced with cold dread that grew across his lungs like icicles. He stood as still as a mannequin, letting Freddie use his mouth, hands still gripping his cheeks and pressing them close together.

The pendant was burning his chest, his throat. He felt devoid of oxygen and not necessarily because of the kiss. It was all so overwhelming, crashing over his state of being like a inky black tidal wall and scraping away the good memories resonating inside.

Eventually, Freddie did pull away, but not by much. His hands dropped to Connor’s shoulders where they held him still, not giving him the opportunity to yank himself back and out of the threat of intimacy.

“I’m so happy you said yes,” Freddie said. He looked happier than Connor had ever seen him, eyes crinkling at the corners with a wide, bright smile.

The congestion inside of Connor’s vocal chords gave way and his confusion manifested in an well-executed “what?” He cleared his throat. “Wait--what exactly did I say yes to, just for clarification?” His voice was so tiny. It scalded him when Freddie chuckled, a sound once so comforting now the equivalent of a drop of molten copper on his skin.

“Marriage,” Freddie said. “So you can stay here, like you wanted. I meant to ask you earlier, but--”

“Is this a joke?” Connor choked out. His thought process devolved to get it off, get it off. His hands flew up behind him and grabbed the chains binding him to Freddie, the metal clasps dragging him down to his fate. He was desperate, overcome with the ferocious instinct to get the intruding article away from him and out of sight. It couldn’t, wouldn’t erase what he’d agreed to, but it would stop shaving away the walls he’d so carefully built up.

In his rush to remove the pendant Freddie’s hands had shadowed his, holding them still so that they wouldn’t damage the locked promise. Connor fought them with well-reasoned intent, wanting nothing more than to break the chain and throw it across the floor. He likely would have been successful, had Freddie not intervened when he did.

“Don’t--you’ll break it,” Freddie said, voice dark. It was if he realized the cost of his decision. “I thought you said--”

“No,” Connor replied in tandem, shaking his head back and forth, palms clammy. “I--there’s been a misunderstanding. I have to go.” The pendant was still constraining him but it was Freddie that was the real danger. Freddie’s adoration had dripped away, leaving behind a pale complexion that was devoid of, well, everything.

It was a blank canvas, and it was giving Connor its full attention. The pieces had clicked, he’d realized it wasn’t mutual. They both stared at one another, trying to work out what to say, what to do. What could be said, after a proposal like that? After a rejection like that? Connor felt as if he could vomit his stomach out on the pristine tiles.

Freddie was the king, and Connor had just turned him down.

“I have to--I--I’m sorry.”

Connor pushed Freddie’s hands away, yanking at the thin gold chain in the process. Some imperfect link split apart and the pendant tumbled to the ground in between them.

“I’m sorry,” Connor said again, and fled. Stormed down the aisles housing bookcases that looked ready to topple on him. Threw open the doors, almost running over Auston in the process as he scrambled to escape to the sanctity of his room.

♔ | ♔ | ♔ | ♔

The Canadian delegation was a quiet group the morning they left Denmark. Some of them were hungover from the final night bar crawl, others herds of economists that had done the obvious and pulled an all-nighter to catch up on their findings, but all were dreading the long flight.

Connor was still reeling from Freddie’s confession and proposal the night before, and his total disbelief and how entirely he’d misread the situation. It felt like a bad dream--he still wasn’t convinced that it actually happened. The skin of his neck was too tight, still as rough as charcoal after tearing the necklace off.

Mitch mother-henned Connor, because he was a good friend, but Connor hadn’t been able to find the words to explain the situation without sounding like he’d lost his mind. They both knew something was ary between them, something rotten, but no amount of probing Mitch pulled out of his ass could justify a long-winded explanation from Connor. He was willing to bet his lips would remain shut for the duration of the ride home before he reached a breaking point and had a meltdown--something he was not anticipating.

The airstrip was abnormally windy that morning, the pink and orange hues not wiped from the sky yet and only masked by a shallow overcast. Bleary-eyed and yawning, the Canadiens walked head down in the direction of the aircraft, some with their carry-on luggage thrown over their shoulder half-heartedly. Others actually used the vessels provided to store their belongings, manners not lost on them even in their exhaustion.

It was much too early to take a flight, but at least there was light at the end of the tunnel. The last thing Connor wanted was to spend any more time in Denmark so long as he had the king adorning his love for him with pretty little trinkets. The awkwardness that would ensue them meeting in the hallway or library by mistake would be too much to bear, and he distantly wondered if Freddie himself would be grateful for the early departure.

Even despite the loose ends and mixed messages, Freddie was both a scholar and a friend. No one deserved the embarrassment of a marriage proposal being turned down; Connor wouldn’t wish it on his worst enemy. He simply mourned the fact that their friendship wasted away because of the admittance of feelings.

It wasn’t cemented enough beforehand to let them continue as friends. The whole time Freddie had misread everything and it meant everything was founded on a lie. A misrepresentation of emotion that screwed them over at potential cost of the mission.

He’d just tucked his carry-on in the overhead compartment when a woman appeared in the mouth of the plane. Short, but she made up for it with an abundance of muscle that flexed as she approached Connor and Mitch’s aisle with opaque determination. It would have been a dead give-away of her position and allegiance even if it weren't for the Danish Royal Guard uniform she wore with thinly-veiled regality.

She stopped beside him, waiting for the overhead to close and for Connor’s attention to become ensnared with her presence. Behind her, an entourage of men took post around the respective exits.

“The Right Honorable Connor Brown?” She spoke in English but her voice was heavily accented. Despite her eyes being a deep shade of brown their pierced at Connor, sending a multitude of chills down his spine.

Stomach sinking, Connor’s first thoughts descended into a flurry of accusations and worries, among those most concerning Freddie. If he was inclined to take revenge for Connor’s rude display there was no better way of doing so then accusing him of a crime. Still, it could also be a simple misunderstanding and with that in mind, Connor found the strength to straighten his back and look her in the eye.

“That’s me,” he said, feeling his forehead crinkle in confusion. “Can I help you?”

She widened her stance and clasped her hands behind her back. “By order of His Royal Majesty, King Frederik the Eleventh of Denmark, you are requested to disembark and return to Amalienborg Palace.”

Connor opened his mouth and closed it, trying to figure out what was going on. Beside him, Mitch looked as confused as Connor felt.

“Am I--am I being arrested?”

The woman held his gaze. “No, sir. But His Majesty does require your presence.”

“He hasn’t done anything,” Mitch protested.

She inclined her head at him. “Perhaps not. But it does not do to keep His Majesty waiting.”

Mitch laughed, but it was devoid of humour. “His Majesty can’t just--demand his presence--”

“We’re still in Denmark,” Connor interrupted, voice low. “He’s the sovereign here. I don’t--I don’t know if I can refuse.”

“He is a Canadian national,” Mitch insisted, pushing to his feet. “Unless you’re arresting him--and he’s a diplomatic envoy of the Canadian crown--so unless you’re arresting him, he’s within his rights to leave.”

“His Royal Majesty requests Mr. Brown’s presence, and any attempts to leave the country will be stopped with reasonable force.”

“So you’re arresting him--”

“Mr. Brown’s presence is requested--”

“I’ll go,” Connor said quietly, hating that everyone on the plane was craning their necks to look at the spectacle. “Mitch, collect my bags in Toronto, okay? I expect I’ll be on a flight out tomorrow.” That was probably wishful thinking, but he was going to maintain a positive outlook on this. “It probably has to do with my research.”

“This is insane,” Mitch snapped. “Absolutely not.”

“We can’t risk the summit’s accomplishments,” Connor said. “I’ll go.”

“Then I’m coming with you,” Mitch insisted.

“He only asked for Mr. Brown. Lord Marner, you are to remain here.”

“Like hell I am!” A few passengers gasped audibly at his tone of voice but Mitch appeared too angry to care. “If you’re taking Connor then I’m coming too. Otherwise, forget it!”

“You’ll have to extend your travel visa if you do, sir.”

Mitch practically snarled. “Then I’ll do it, just get me off this airplane.”

Connor couldn’t feel anything below his chin as he mechanically rooted above to collect his belongings and stuffed his earphones in his back pocket. People were rubbernecking the entire incident nakedly, not sparing them even a minute of privacy. In the sanctity of King Frederik’s orders the entire delegation had lost their voices--save for Mitch, whose voice was getting steadily louder and higher in pitch.

He was likely hallucinating but it looked darker when he exited the aircraft, the clouds encompassing the remains of the sun and plunging the whole airstrip into a murky, wine coloured stretch of concrete. Since boarding, a circle of vehicles had edged their way close to the plane like a pack of wolves closing in on their prey.

His heart was beating in his throat and it had him moving in a haze down the stairs and headed in the direction of one of the many black vehicles parked out front, escorted by the surge of guards that saw it fit to follow him as close as humanly possible.

His laptop bag, which was slung over his shoulder, was promptly removed by one of the men in the passenger seat of the closest SUV. They didn’t even stop to hear out his panicked rebuttals, walking with jurisdiction in complete, unfathomable loyalty to Frederik’s orders. Connor was stuffed into the backseat of one of the surrounding vehicles, but not the one with his laptop bag or the luggage being removed from the body of the plane. Instead, it was the smaller, more compact one with the woman standing out front, face contorted in a small frown.

“Come on, we should not keep His Majesty waiting,” she said, opening the back door to reveal a black interior with tinted windows, the colour bleak and wholly unsatisfying. Connor hesitated, the hospitality he was used to complete devoid and lacking here. It was like jumping into a lake of freezing cold water.

“I--What about Mitch?” he asked, looking back at the plane. Mitch was still held up in the mouth, having an explosive argument with the men crowding the entrance. It looked as though they were trying to keep him from leaving.

“Lord Marner will be escorted following your arrival at the castle. You are given priority.”

The trip back to Amalienborg was both the longest car ride and the shortest trip Connor had ever been on. If anyone had answers as to what he was being summoned for, no one was willing to give them. His phone, powered off for the flight and stowed in his laptop bag, was out of reach and out of use to him.

Freddie was waiting for Connor in his study. Connor’s military escort showed him in and the door closed behind them with a muted--but still ominous--click.

“There you are,” Freddie exclaimed, pushing to his feet, and drew closer to Connor.

Connor braced himself for a punch or a slap, some punishment for rejecting and humiliating the king, but Freddie only pulled Connor into a hug and helped him out of his suit jacket.

“What’s--what’s going on?” Connor asked as Freddie hung Connor’s suit jacket on the coat rack in the corner.

“I know the Canadian delegation was pressuring you to return to Canada,” Freddie said, returning to his chair. “Sit, sit. I’m giving you an excuse to stay. You can tell your university you were given a research grant here.”

Freddie looked pleased with himself, but Connor’s head was spinning.

“But--why?”

Freddie leaned back in his chair, limbs loose. “Sit, smukke. We can sketch the plan for our wedding. We’ll be stuck with red and white as the color scheme, but that's not so much of a limitation, really. Amalie had some ideas she was sure you'd like--”

“I already told you no,” Connor said, starting to feel trapped.

“Yes, because of your sense of duty. It’s alright though--it’s okay to have something for yourself sometimes.” There was an earnest look on Freddie's face that Connor was starting to hate. “Didn't you tell me that?”

Connor took a half-step backwards, holding his hands up as if that would create more space between Freddie and himself. “I have to go home. I can’t stay.”

“Of course you can. Your quarters are already made up. I’m certain the University of Copenhagen would be thrilled to have you. Perhaps as an exchange student officially, so you don’t lose any progress on your degree. But that’s why you’re here now, so we have time to figure it out.”

“I--I can’t deal with this.” He threw his hands down, backing away from Freddie as much as he could before he backed into one of the ornate bookshelves, sending a few books careening off the edge and wobbling on the floor. “You’re crazy. This is crazy. We’re not even from the same country. You don’t even know me.”

Freddie got to his feet and followed Connor across the room, looming tall in Connor’s vision.

“But I do. Connor, I’ve met so many people, had so many proposition me in the hopes they would change my mind. Yes, it’s cliche, but in all my years on the throne, I’ve never met another you. You can’t just leave. Not now,” he said, reaching for Connor’s hands again. Connor yanked them away before they got too close.

“I’m just one guy. There’s a million like me out there if you’re looking. I-It just won’t work, okay? I’m sorry.” He made strides back towards the study door but was intercepted by Freddie, who’s expression was looking more pinched by the minute. His movements got a little more desperate, shoulders hunched and his hulking mass overtaking Connor.

“I know you’re doing this out of obligation. I would too. But if you don’t let yourself live, well, there’s no point, is there?” he laughed. “You said it yourself. You love Denmark. We could make a home for ourselves here.”

“But I don’t want a home here, I-I can’t have a home here. I live in Canada. I’m from Canada.”

“Look, if it’s because I’m king we can work around that. You don’t have to take on many duties. You can have the library all to yourself--read to your heart’s content. You can have whatever you want.”

Connor pulled at his hair. “What the hell did I do to make you think I was interested in marriage?”

Freddie tipped his head to the side, forehead furrowing in confusion. “What do you--everything! I introduced you to my family--”

“--as part of a diplomatic dinner--

“You helped me carry my brother to bed--”

“Yeah, because I’m nice!”

“--you danced with me--”

Connor’s cheeks flamed. “Because you asked me and it’s rude to turn someone down in public like that! Everything I did was from a friend to a friend; as part of the negotiations, really. That’s why I’m here, to accompany Mitch and then go home. I can’t get married.”

Freddie still had an indulgent smile on his face, which was really starting to get on Connor’s nerves. “Well, obviously not. The Folketinget hasn’t approved yet, but--they will, I promise.” Freddie took a step forward and laid his hand along Connor’s cheek, his thumb sweeping along Connor’s cheekbone. “You don’t have to keep pretending you don’t want this. It’s just you and me, sweetheart.”

Connor batted Freddie’s hand away. “I don’t know what I have to say to convince you that I really didn’t mean to lead you on, but I’m not interested.” Connor gripped at Freddie’s wrist, willing him to understand. “I need to go home. The semester starts in three weeks, and I’m teaching two classes. I need to finish my thesis--”

“You could have your pick of universities here,” Freddie shot back. “Connor, please. Stop pretending.”

“I’m not!” Connor said, and shoved at Freddie’s chest. “Freddie. Please. Listen to me. I don’t want to marry you.”

For whatever reason, it sunk in that time, and Freddie took first one step back, and then another, his face paling.

“So was this just a joke the whole time?” His voice was raw. “Were you just--leading me on? Some elaborate game with you and--and Lord Marner? Is that why you’re here?”

“No--no Freddie, listen to me. You have to listen to me. I’m happy being your friend. We can still talk, but marriage.” He exhaled. “Marriage is just a bit too far, don’t you think?”

“I didn’t think so! I thought--I thought you actually--You may not have said it but I knew you wanted it. That we worked so well together.” He was advancing again and that height difference that had once been a measure of security was now beating down his composure. Connor was scared not because of the threat of violence but more the reality crashing down on him, bringing up every instance of them communicating and laughing at it with scratchy little voices.

“No,” he said, finally. “You thought we worked well together. It wasn’t necessarily true. You just wanted it to be.” He reached up to grab Freddie’s shoulder and push him back, but it was like steadying a brick wall. All it did was send Connor sprawling out, legs spread as he worked to steady himself.

Freddie was silent for a minute. He adjusted how his body was positioned as his face worked to convey what was likely the tsunami of different emotions colouring his thoughts. Connor stepped aside, prepared to walk around him and out the door.

But despite the inner workings likely pulling Freddie down, Connor’s resistance was met with another shove back. Now the man’s face was hardened with untamed anger, raw conviction at the decision Connor had made. Connor gathered his wits, anticipating a fight, but could only stand by and witness as Freddie reached into his back pocket and retrieved something small enough to cup in the middle of his palm.

It was the pendant, rolled up in a neat ball and sizeable, mobile. Still as beautiful as ever. Connor’s hands worked autonomously to grab his neck, startled as if he had been choked. He may as well have been--the thought of wearing it sent sizable wracks through his spine.

Freddie tossed it at the desk table, lacking much forethought so it seemed. It let out a tiny chime when the body made impact with the hard material but was otherwise unscathed. Connor watched it long enough to assure himself that he wouldn’t be dressed in it again--the physical image binding him to Freddie weighing too heavily on his conscience--before looking back.

“It’s yours. Take it or leave it, I don’t care. It doesn’t change the meaning. I’ll just have to work a bit harder.”

“What do you mean--” Before Connor could finish his sentence Freddie was finally, blessedly backing up and giving him some much needed space. The relief was short lived because his departure from the room was followed by the deafening sound of the door closing behind him and Connor was hit with the realization that he had no fucking clue where he was or what to do then.

He could smash the room to smithereens. It would be a nice calling card. But as much as Freddie was a dick Connor did happen to represent Canada. And if he thought he was in trouble before it would be nothing compared to then. Freddie would have an actual reason to prosecute him using the fullest extent of the law. And he needed to get home. He needed his phone to call Mitch.

Which meant leaving the room, and coming face to face with a few of the guards posted outside that probably overheard the entire conversations. Their faces betrayed so discernable bias beyond the everlasting royal facade they were expected to wear and combined with the posture they looked almost eerie. Watching but never interacting, Connor could at least get a crack out of his bodyguards at sporting events.

Navigating the wing without Freddie was hard enough but then one of the guards decided following Connor was the best course of action, which of course unnerved him more than it probably should have. Judging by his previous thoughts of vandalism and assaulting royalty he likely wasn’t the best candidate to sit still and look pretty in a palace full of valuables. But it still spooked him.

He’d turn a corner and the man would follow. Every step, every door he opened was mocked. And he wasn’t making any progress in the direction of his room either. In order to get this far you needed some measure of security, a guard to open the door or proof of your identity. Usually getting in was the hard part and leaving was as simple as walking out.

Not here. Nope. It felt like every other set of doors he tried wouldn’t budge. He looked stupid, walking around with his tail between his legs, breathing bordering on hyperventilating as he rushed around looking for the tiniest indication of an out.

Without technology he was as blind as a bat and even if he made it out would have to book a flight and find his luggage, all while escorting a member of the royal guard that had Freddie’s seal all over the place. A power struggle was already imminent and worse yet, he had no reason to believe anything he said to Freddie even stuck.

Eventually he had to turn around, feasibly understanding that walking around like a moron got you nowhere. He made his distaste known by bumping shoulders with the guard as he retraced his steps up, back towards the study with somewhat precise accuracy. Nothing had changed in his departure. The halls were still achingly empty.

And that fucking pendant was still on the desk.

When Freddie returned from--wherever it was he had gone--Connor had chosen his plan of action. If Freddie thought Connor was interesting, he was going to be the dullest, quietest version of himself he could be, and maybe all of this would blow over.

Connor's sense of time was thrown by both the early morning and the lack of sunlight; Danish winter was clearly beginning to set in and it was increasingly apparent how far north they really were.

Freddie came in quietly, looking around the room suspiciously like he expected to see everything smashed and broken.

Connor was sitting at the desk, sketching on a blank piece of paper he’d found in an unlocked drawer. The pendant still laid on the desk.

“Are you alright?” Freddie asked. He had Connor’s computer bag over one shoulder, even though it looked noticeably less full than usual. Connor wondered if his laptop was even in the bag at all.

“Yes, your Royal Majesty. Thank you for your consideration, sir.”

Freddie set the bag down. “Connor.”

Connor looked up and smiled politely, knowing it didn’t reach his eyes. “Sir?”

“What are you doing?”

“Sketching, sir. I’m afraid I’m a poor artist, sir, but most books here are Danish, sir, or French.”

Freddie leaned on the desk and pressed a cool palm to Connor’s cheek. “Not that, puttemus. Calling me sir.”

Connor cast his eyes back to his drawing. It was a poor rendition of the study’s bookshelves, but it wasn’t like there was a wealth of potential subjects lying around.

“Connor,” Freddie tried again, a little more saccharine. A thumb brushed at the corner of Connor’s eye. “Look at me, sweetheart.”

Connor glanced up, keeping his expression blank and formal.

“Never call me sir again,” Freddie told him, a hint of steel in his voice. “Call me Freddie. Why are you doing this?”

“To make sure there are no confusions or assumptions of familiarity,” Connor said. “Please let me go.”

Freddie’s hand retreated, his perturbed expression wiped clean in favour of a more placid one that did little to quell the anxieties inching up Connor's spine. Freddie’s eyes were boring into Connor’s own, the uncontested determination almost pulling Connor’s plan up by the roots. There was no motivation to play the stiff, yielding subordinate if Freddie had already found him out.

“You don’t have to pretend to be someone you’re not for me,” Freddie said. “I love you for you, the real you.”

“You shouldn’t,” was all Connor said, smiling until his cheeks hurt. “You could have anyone you want, Your Royal Majesty. But if you should care for me, then I am in no position to reject you.” He tipped his head down in respect, but Freddie was clearly not in the mood to play games. A hand wretched his head back up.

“Connor, you’re acting difficult.” Freddie’s patience was visibly wearing thin, the corner of his mouth twitching. The tension spread to his eyebrows as his face tightened up.

“I’m acting how you want me to, Your Royal Majesty,” Connor said, not bothering to hide the underlying acid in his inflection.

“Do not call me Your Royal Majesty,” Freddie half-snarled.

Connor made an effort to reclaim his pencil but Freddie swiped it from his hand and held it out of reach. The hand bracing the king against the desk was gripping the wood flanking the desk’s edge with intensity.

Connor leaned back, clearing his throat. “Can I have my pencil back then please, my Lord?”

The only answer was the sound of the pencil snapping in Freddie’s hand, and it was also the only warning before Freddie advanced on Connor with not a second to pause. The chair was tipped back, prompting Connor to lunge forward out of instinct to grab ahold of the desk, therefore hunching over. The change in position left him vulnerable, open for Freddie to bend over and toss Connor over the meat of his right shoulder.

The initial impact left Connor winded, the air forced out of his lungs in startling bursts. Shoulders were by nature pointy but Freddie’s looked broad enough to soften any damage they could potentially do. It felt like his esophagus was bruised, protests leaving his mouth in a squeak as his head spun. The change in direction was nauseating to say the least.

He couldn’t say any experience lived up to being hoisted around like a doll in His Majesty’s private study, but the opportunity for mischief reared its head the second they exited into the hall. Physicality-wise, he was no match, but that didn’t mean he was going to go down quietly.

Du køkkenvask!” he shouted, legs thrashing in different directions, both attempting to make impact with the man’s stomach. “Lad mig gå, din kongelige lærebog!

It got them a few looks from the staff still operating under the cover of night, though the life guards still made no effort to communicate beyond basic grunts. Freddie made a noise underneath, but it was so indistinct and muffled that Connor could tell if it was a laugh or a scowl. Either would be preferable; it meant he was getting some kind of reaction. That what he was saying wasn’t falling on deaf ears.

Freddie ended up clipping Connor’s shoulder on a wall when they turned a series of corners, which was likely meant to be perceived as a warning of some sort. Instead of paying attention and going quietly, Connor only threw his head back.

Jævn sked, rødt, lille, gult!” His voice was a borderline wail but it still wasn’t deterring Freddie. The looks from others persisted but only continued to anger Connor as they stood by and did nothing. In a moment, the plan to play silent and sweet was lost on him.

He made his second effort to kick at Freddie, trying to arch his back so that he could rear up and go after his neck. Of course, considering their predicament the only weapons he had were his nails and teeth, and despite the close proximity of Freddie’s face the thought of biting was nothing but revolting. It would probably egg him on; having rough hickies would just further the delusion.

He tried once more to kick him in the abdomen, that time getting enough mileage to do sustainable damage. He was half-afraid Freddie would double over and take Connor with him, but the only thing it forced was a change in position. Connor ended up having to cling to Freddie’s shoulders just to avoid hitting his head but before he could take advantage of the freedom a hand was coming from behind him and pushing him up by his ass to return him to the position he’d been in earlier.

Connor yelped, more out of surprise than mortification, though the latter soon became apparent as a red flush worked its way up his neck and settled on his cheeks. He tried to lift himself up but didn’t have the upper body strength to hold himself, not to mention the palm followed and only gripped tighter to assure the owner that Connor couldn’t squirm free.

He expected more maturity coming from the literal fucking king of Denmark, but unlike the nouns he’d thrown about the suspicious behaviour didn’t turn any heads. The people walked on as if their ruler wasn’t trying to cop a feel out in somewhat-public.

They disappeared down a few corridors that all looked the same before Connor’s energy was officially drained. He dangled behind Freddie like dead weight, fully intending to slow him down as much as possible. The same people kept showing up, the windows the same build, and they could have been walking in circles or maybe the palace was just that big.

Connor had nothing to offer but relief as they blessedly stopped in front of a grand set of doors that opened to unveil what was probably some luxurious room decked out from ceiling to floor in expensive displays of grandeur. Connor couldn’t see from where his back was turned, and he genuinely had little to no interest in what living quarters he was being tossed in.

He wasn’t tossed onto the bed but not placed nicely either. It was somewhere in between the two, the mattress firm but still bouncing slightly at the additional weight added to the body. Unlike in the previous room, the comforter and blankets here were soft to the touch and not scratchy as a result of the patterns and various emblems weaved into them. The guest bedrooms were made with likely constructed nationality in mind, this room more comfort.

Freddie was panting above him, the physical exertion not lost. Connor made one last effort to kick him away to distance him from the mattress. Freddie didn’t try to fight back and finally gave him the space he needed.

“--get some sleep, sweetheart. I’ll see you in the morning.” And just like that, he left, leaving behind a baffled and exhausted Connor.

Connor pushed himself up, and tried the different door handles. One led back out from where they’d come in; one was a closet; one was a bathroom; and one led to an adjoining bedroom that Connor could only assume was Freddie’s.

He poked through the closet--empty, except for hangers on the rack--and jumped in surprised to find someone dropping off his suitcases. He made to question them, but they were gone the minute they deposited the belongings in a pile on the floor.

Connor had been stuck in his stuffy formal clothes all day and could feel bags weighing down his eyes. Yes, he could make an effort to slip out unnoticed or meddle around in Freddie’s room, but not only was he exhausted but he sincerely doubted anything he did at this point in time would be effective given the circumstances.

He clung to the only familiar aspect in the room--his baggage--tearing them open to find a clean shirt to wear to bed. He wasn’t too finicky when it came to bedroom attire but with Freddie in such close proximity he was willing to layer up in a winter coat should it mean it deterred any late-night advances. The blankets didn’t feel like enough protection; he felt as though he’d wake up right back where he started from.

Eventually, though, he drifted to sleep, to the hum of city traffic outside the window and the whir of a desk fan.

Connor woke in the middle of the night to someone tucking the blankets around his shoulders and pressing a kiss to his forehead. Sleepily, he rolled over and burrowed deeper into the covers, and dreamed of falling.

♔ | ♔ | ♔ | ♔

When Connor woke up, he was content to luxuriate in the soft warm world of bed covers and pillows. There was nothing but pleasant, sleep-fogged contentment. He patted his hand out, searching groggily for his cat Mr Samuelson, who liked to sleep near Connor's head on whatever pillow he could lay claim to. Connor had missed him deeply in Denmark, and waking up to a purring pile of fur had been one of the things he had most been looking forward to.

Except—Connor sat bolt upright, suddenly wide awake and very conscious of the fact that not only was his cat not curled up in bed with him, but he hadn’t even managed to leave Denmark the day before. He scrambled out of bed and grabbed for his laptop bag.

Among Connor’s things was his phone. It was entirely out of charge and conspicuously exactly where he’d left it, despite the rest of his bag having been clearly rifled through. Connor had no doubt it had been inspected and potentially bugged while it had been out of his hands.

That was okay. Connor really only had two--maybe three--phone calls he needed to make, and he didn’t particularly care if the Danes overheard what he had to say.

Connor plugged in the phone and went to wash his face and clean his teeth while he waited for the phone to power on. He was on edge the whole time, waiting for someone to come in and take his phone away.

No one did. When he powered it on at a wonderfully dim 3% battery charge, he had a barrage of texts from Mitch and a handful from his family. Not many other people had this phone number, so he hadn’t exactly been expecting to see a little red 99+ over his messages icon.

Connor shuddered to think of the mess his work phone was probably in, but that phone was very definitely missing.

He thumbed over the messaging icon and started trying to sort through the mess. The bulk of the messages were definitely from Mitch.

He scrolled through the Mitch messages first; the volume made them seem all the more urgent. As he flicked back to the oldest unread message, he started getting a general idea of what Mitch had thought happened. There was confusion, and outrage, and betrayal.

It really wasn’t a hard decision for Connor to hit dial and hope that Mitch answered the phone.

Connor needn’t have worried. Mitch answered after only a ring and a half.

“Connor!”

“Mitch, hi. It’s me.”

“Connor,” Mitch said, voice tiny through the phone. There was a hint of relief there, and the kind of crabbiness that happened when Mitch hadn’t gotten any sleep in 48 hours. “Where are you? You're not in the quarters we had earlier.”

Connor looked around. “I'm in a room.”

“Well, thank God you're not outside. What room, Connor?”

“Well, there's a bed here, and a very nice view of the river.”

Connor could practically hear Mitch’s hand scraping down his face in frustration.

“Connor.”

“Yeah?”

“Where, exactly, are you? Are you in the palace? Danish prison? A Hilton in Copenhagen? Give me something to work with here.”

Connor looked around the room. “If I had to guess, I'd say I'm in His Majesty's personal quarters. Probably in his bedroom. Or the adjacent one.”

There was a moment of silence from the other end of the line, then: “Connor?”

“Yeah?”

“What the hell are you doing there?”

Connor's patience snapped. “Well, if I had to take a wild fucking guess, I'd assume it had to do with His Majesty's marriage proposal to me.”

Mitch sputtered in the other end of the line. “I don't even know where to start with that.”

“And you think I do? What's going on, Mitch?”

“We’re, well--I’m trying to get you out of there, but negotiating with these people is impossible! King Frederik won’t listen to reason!”

Connor sighed. “Let me guess, he assumed I somehow agreed to his stupid marriage proposal by having the nerve to just be friendly. Seems to be the story around here right now. And you’re one to talk--you were the one that got me into this mess in the first place!”

Me? What--”

“Connor, you should play along with Freddie. No, it’s not dangerous or anything, it’ll help us,” Connor adjusted his voice to mock Mitch’s stupidly low pitch. “Look where that’s got us. I just want to go home, can you guarantee me that much?”

Mitch was quiet. “I’m trying. I can promise I’m trying. But they’re limiting my contact with the embassy and home, and--you said it yourself. He’s saying you agreed, and unless I can prove you didn’t--it’s my word against his, and there’s no one listening to me in the first place.” Mitch sighed, the phone making it sound tiny and staticky. “I promise I’m not leaving you here.”

“So what can we do now, Mitch? Do you want me to get a confession out of him? Because he’s pretty sure I agreed.”

“Just--just play along. Don’t do anything to piss him off just yet.”

“Playing along’s what got us here in the first place!” Connor protested.

Mitch’s voice was remarkably steady. “Connor, If you’re sure he’s in love with you then you have nothing to fear. It’s not like he can spring anything worse than marriage on you right now.”

“I’m sure I could think of a few things,” Connor said darkly. He flopped back onto the bed and stared at the ornate ceiling.

“Okay firstly--” a deep voice could be heard on the other end of the line, though it wasn’t Mitch. It clearly grabbed his attention because he quite nearly abandoned the phone in favour of responding in a bout of arguing that set the other man off. Connor sat back up and waited on the other end with trepidation.

Okay, okay I’m coming.” Mitch’s voice returned to full volume. “Sorry, Connor, I’ve got to go. Sit tight, man.”

Connor hung up and stared at his phone, debating if he wanted to make that second phone call to the Canadian embassy in Denmark. He didn’t get the chance, since there was a quiet knock on one of the doors. Connor hands rushed to stash his phone under his pillow, thumping it down to assure it was out of sight and mind. He straightened himself, running a hand through his hair, and then assumed the most inconspicuous position he could.

“Yes?” he called.

The door between the adjoining bedroom opened, too well-maintained to creak. Freddie entered, looking stunningly human in plaid pyjama pants and a threadbare t-shirt advertising a youth hockey team. Part of Connor idly wondered if HC SPARTA PRATHA was Freddie’s childhood team, or if it was one of his siblings’ teams. Either way, it had no reason donning the king’s body anywhere outside of his bedchambers.

Freddie looked entirely too meek as he was, meaning Connor was on the defensive as he pulled up closer. “Good morning,” he said, and sat on the edge of the bed. “Did you sleep well?”

Connor raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

“Really. Did you sleep well?” Freddie reached out and smoothed out Connor’s hair. “I wasn’t sure if the blankets would be too heavy for you, but old palaces are hard to heat properly, especially in the winter.”

“It was fine,” Connor said shortly. Freddie’s hand still rested on Connor’s shoulders, fingers playing with the short soft curls behind Connor’s ears.

“Are you hungry?” Freddie asked. “Do you want breakfast? We can get whatever you want brought up.” He was smiling, the look on his face nothing short of dopey. “There’s still time before the day really has to begin.”

“A cup of coffee would be nice.”

The smile started to slide off of Freddie’s face a little. “Are you sure that’s all?”

“I have some granola bars in my bag. I don’t need anything.”

“Are you--you’re sure?”

Connor made sure to keep his face blank. “I just said I was, didn’t I? I’m sure you have work you need to get done. I don’t want to keep you.”

“I assure you, it’s of no trouble,” Freddie tried to continue, but Connor’s patience was wearing drastically thin.

“I said I’m fine,” he replied. “If that’s all, then you best be going. Probably have more important things to do than heckle me.”

Connor flopped back down on the bed, letting the pillow underneath cradle his head. He wanted nothing more than to pass back out; let his eyelids shut and take him away from this land and its absurdly dense king keeping him hostage.

But when he opened his eyes again, he was still in the room, and the man was now hovering above him, edging close like he was welcome on the mattress. His weight was making Connor slide in his general direction.

Connor grabbed fistfuls of the sheets, restraining himself from pushing Freddie away from what he had unofficially declared his personal space.

“Connor,” Freddie started, voice deceivingly sweet. “You’re my guest. Please let me do something nice for you. Nothing is more important than making sure you are comfortable and happy.” He smiled just enough for his dimples to become prominent, but Connor wasn’t fooled.

“If that’s the case, I’d like my laptop back please.”

It hung the conversation in a tight noose, the carefree adoration on Freddie’s face draining away. This time, he didn’t say anything, hands falling to his lap.

Connor inched closer. “I need to work on my thesis.”

“Later,” Freddie said, eventually. “Let’s just focus on breakfast for now. What would you like? I can ask the chefs to prepare whatever you want.”

Nothing really sounded appetizing at that period in time, even though his stomach was rumbling and there was an ache forming a hole in his belly. Connor felt like any food he swallowed would be vomited back up before he could make it to the washroom--anything solid, that was.

“Yogurt,” he blurted out. “Yogurt and an apple. And coffee. That’s my final answer.” He squeezed his eyes shut.

Freddie sighed to himself, but thankfully stood up and off the bed to walk back in the direction of the door he’d entered through. “Yogurt and an apple. If you say so.”

“I do say so,” Connor told him, and watched in satisfaction as the door clicked shut behind Freddie.

♔ | ♔ | ♔ | ♔

It wasn’t that Connor hated Denmark. It would be really easy to hate Denmark, with the events of the past few days. It was more that he hated being held against his will--his passport was suspiciously missing from his laptop bag, as was his spare phone charger and his laptop itself.

A helpful palace aide had offered to bring Connor any book he wanted, but Connor didn’t have much motivation to really work on anything, not to mention there wasn’t much he could do for his thesis without his laptop.

He’d been followed by a guard once he’d tried to leave the king’s suite of rooms--and wasn’t that a weird feeling, to technically not be a prisoner and yet be a prisoner anyways? He wondered what the guards thought of their assignment, what Freddie had told them.

So Connor didn’t really leave the suite of rooms, and he didn’t do much to entertain himself beyond sitting and thinking and trying to puzzle a way out of this with everyone’s dignity and pride intact. The last thing he wanted to do was cause an international incident--and the second to last thing he wanted to do was spontaneously get married.

He ended up spending a lot of time in the study attached to the suite of rooms, flipping through the books there and sketching the courtyard outside the window. Once Freddie had discovered Connor’s love of sketching, a fine, linen-bound sketchbook had appeared, along with a set of pencils and fine-line pens.

It was there Freddie found him, tucked into the window seat with a pad of paper. Connor’s throat was sore from crying the night before, and it wasn’t like he was talking to a lot of people right now, other than Mitch and Freddie himself.

He dutifully ignored Freddie’s entrance in a pitiful attempt to sustain some of his dignity, but Freddie was making it difficult to look away. He was so big that regardless of where he stood he blocked out a field of Connor’s vision and rather than interrupt, stood still and waited for Connor to acknowledge his presence which was easier said than done.

Connor held the firm belief now that dealing with Freddie was like dealing with a school bully: if you ignored them they’d eventually have to give up.

But Freddie wasn’t going to take no for an answer, not when it came to getting Connor's attention. When Connor turned his head away, Freddie pulled a chair up to scoot closer, sharing the open space in front of the window between the two of them. Their knees brushed together, Freddie taking up more and more of Connor’s personal space until it was impossible to focus on anything but the king’s presence.

“What do you want?” Connor asked finally, tired.

“Are you bored?” Freddie responded. It sounded like a genuine question but he was smiling like an idiot, which took away the authenticity. He was so clearly smug about having Connor there, about keeping Connor away from his friends and family for going on a week now.

“Yes, I’m bored,” Connor snapped. “I’m bored of being held prisoner, my liege. If that is all, I’d like to get back to watching the trees.” Maybe if he wished hard enough something would explode on the castle grounds and he could have that momentary sense of satisfaction he’d been devoid of up until that point.

Freddie’s smiled only widened. He patted Connor on the shoulder and stood, leaving Connor behind in the quiet, otherwise empty study.

Connor made a few half-hearted attempts at sketching the courtyard, but he’d already sketched it yesterday and there were really only so many iterations he could do without wanting to roll his eyes back into his head. He doodled a little border around the edge of the paper, seeing how many little loops he could draw without overlapping or running out of space.

Some indeterminate amount of time later, the door creaked open again. Connor didn’t bother looking up; the only person who came in here was Freddie.

Maybe he should have, because the next thing he knew there was a tiny, indignant ball of fluff in his lap, meowing angrily.

“Oh!” Instinctively, Connor reached out to steady the puffball and keep it from wandering off his lap and straight onto the floor.

“This is Bygul,” Freddie said, smirking a little. He had another kitten sitting on his shoulder. “And this is Trjegul.”

Connor’s jaw dropped. “You’re kidding.”

Freddie smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “A little. This is Sif and Loki; they’re some of the barn kittens that live in the stable. They’re old enough to be separated from their mother now.”

Connor stroked underneath the little kitten’s chin and it melted into the touch, purring. “Oh, you’re a sweet little thing.” It was like holding a warm water bottle, but fuzzy, animated, and wriggling. With his fingertips pressed to the kitten’s chest, Connor could feel the tiny heartbeat that rested there.

“You said you liked cats,” Freddie offered, settling back into his chair and dislodging his kitten from his shoulder. “I thought Sif and Loki might help with your homesickness some.”

“Who’s a cutie, you are, yes you are,” Connor cooed, deciding to ignore Freddie entirely. The kitten in his lap--he wasn’t sure if it was Sif or Loki, but it was a damned cute cat either way--leaned heavily into his fingers. “Hi, honey, I’m Connor, you don’t care, but I’m Connor.”

“I take it you like them,” Freddie said, smugly. The kitten in his big hands was tumbling about, deciding to attack Freddie’s thumb when it tried to stop the little legs from kicking out and looking for purchase.

In a moment of selfishness, Connor scooped up the kitten and joined it with the one on his lap, giving himself a moment to bask in the lapful of fluff he was subject to.

“Oh, they’re so cute. I love them,” Connor said, scratching the smaller one behind her ears. It didn’t really pay him much heed, more interested in gnawing at his shirt buttons, little tail wagging.

Freddie’s hand closed over Connor’s, forcing him to look up and again get that full, bright smile. Fuck, Connor was still angry, but he wasn’t going to get angry in front of the kittens. If they were going to be trapped in this damn castle together then he was going to be the best cat-dad he could be.

“Thanks,” he said, hesitating at the rear-end of the word because of how Freddie brightened. He didn’t want to give the king any ideas--two kittens was nice, ten was going to be a problem.

“I knew you’d like them.” Freddie leaned in half-way but Connor did not meet him, looking up with wide eyes.

He was hard-pressed to give a kiss when Freddie hadn’t earned it, and he was still pissed beyond belief, regardless of the kittens.

Thankfully, Freddie just brushed his lips against Connor’s cheek and settled back to watch Connor play with his new furred friends.

♔ | ♔ | ♔ | ♔

Connor expected Freddie’s siblings to play the role of the messenger, and living in an adjacent room didn’t help that fact. He was perfectly content with just loving his two new cats and ignoring the whole Danish population, but there were only so make excuses he could cook up under two suns.

Amelie was the first to pay a visit with some delicacies the cooks had been serving for a diplomatic dinner, all pint-sized and able to fit on a small porcelain plate. She presented it with a caution so unbecoming of her role, and when Connor didn’t budge from his little blanket bundle, snug as a bug and not wanting to accommodate the colder temperature of the room.

She mentioned something about Freddie being an idiot, which did wrench a laugh from him. The more she found out, the angrier she got, until she up and abandoned him to the room. That night, he heard both her and Freddie arguing in the hallway, concluding with Freddie slamming the bedroom door behind him strong enough for the hinges to shake.

Connor grabbed the closest available cat and tried not to cry.

Sebby talked sports, but Connor couldn’t even feign interest. He rolled over and sat back, details going in one ear and out the other. He appreciated the company, for what it was hope.

Valdemar was the most successful, having overheard about Amelie and then barging into his room with an armful of European chocolate bars and delicacies that he threw onto Connor’s bed. His English was choppy at best, hard to understand, but they had a mutual agreement to sit back and chip away at their findings. It was a good peace offering.

It helped that Valdemar was a kid. Connor couldn’t say no to his baby face, nor his generous offers to hug it out.

From what Connor could tell through casual comments made by Freddie and increasingly exasperated texts from Mitch, there was a heated but otherwise private argument going on about Connor’s residential status in Denmark.

Freddie was doing his best to be sweet to Connor, but there was also a possessiveness there that made Connor shiver; Freddie still had Connor’s passport and was denying Connor access to the Canadian embassy.

Unlike Freddie, Mitch said plenty to Connor about the negotiations. Connor still had to read between the lines, though, because Mitch clearly didn’t want to make the situation any more precarious. Things still slipped, though.

(“I’m pretty sure he’s using Matthews to get close to me,” Mitch had said over the phone, sounding exhausted. “He’s stonewalling me for meetings, starting off with ridiculous demands and barely letting me negotiate down--I’ve tried everything to figure out what he wants, and he seems dead set on marrying you.”)

So Connor tried to settle into a status quo, mindful of how fine a line they all had to be walking right now. Of course, Freddie seemed to have no such concerns, monopolizing Connor’s time and helpfully providing Danish for Beginners textbooks.

And then, of course, there were the early morning excursions.

Connor was rousted into wakefulness by someone shaking his shoulder.

Vågn op, Connor,” a familiar voice was saying.

“Wha’tms’it?” Connor slurred out, entirely disoriented. He rolled over and smushed his face into the nearest pillow, away from whoever was trying to wake him.

“Four-thirty in the morning,” the person said.

Connor whined and batted at them ineffectually. “G’way. Sleep’n.”

The person kept shaking him, so Connor finally cracked open his eyes to peer at the interloper. The first thing he saw was Freddie, already dressed in a soft grey sweater and clean, dark blue jeans.

God morgen!” Freddie said, altogether too cheerful for four-thirty in the morning. “Up you get, off we go.”

“No,” Connor whined, but let Freddie pull him out of bed. Freddie thrust an armful of clothes at him, and Connor stumbled into the bathroom to fumble them on.

The clothes were a clean white button down and a deep blue sweater, soft as anything, with jeans to match Freddie’s. When he emerged from the bathroom, having splashed cold water on his face, Freddie held out a pair of socks and leather boots in butter-soft leather.

“Please tell me we’re not going horseback riding before the sun is even up,” Connor said flatly.

Freddie just smiled. Connor groaned, and put the boots on.

When he was fully clothed, he grabbed his phone from the bedside table and gestured at Freddie. “Alright, take me on your nightmare before-dawn adventure.”

Freddie held out his elbow for Connor, and with a sigh, Connor tucked his hand into the crook of Freddie’s arm, allowing himself to be escorted.

It was the pre-sunrise twilight out, and the palace grounds were dappled in pale pink light, along with the yellow of artificial light from the buildings and street lamps. At the stables, two horses were tacked up, and Freddie thanked the groom in crisp Danish.

“No guards?” Connor asked in English; his Danish was steadily strengthening through exposure, but he still refused to speak Danish to Freddie on principle.

“We won’t be leaving palace grounds,” Freddie said in return. “Do you need a hand mounting up?”

Connor rolled his eyes. He greeted his horse--God, his horse, he couldn’t believe Freddie had gotten Connor a horse, like he was a six-year-old spoiled brat who needed to be impressed--with a gentle stroke down her neck and mounted up. He was getting better at this whole horse thing, slowly.

It didn’t mean he was any more confident when Freddie quickly picked up the pace, his horse assuming the follower position and picking up a trot that had him clutching the reins for dear life. The few training sessions he’d had five or so years ago did little to prepare him for actually riding a horse outside of royal appearances and he was seriously regretting not paying attention, especially so when they departed from the steady stone road and made a turn into the foliage.

He could see a path parting the trees where the garden was meticulously groomed, but while it wasn’t unkept it was still wild to an extent. Also thorny. Dark. Damp. He ducked down to avoid getting hit in the head with a branch and yanked on his horse's reins to slow her down so that he could focus. Freddie was already several paces ahead of him, making progress on the hill that sprouted out from the ground and had Connor falling back on his saddle.

It wasn’t anything he couldn’t control, the brambles and undergrowth parted to grassy clearings and sparse trees littering the beautiful landscape. Freddie’s heels kicked into his horse from up ahead, making a clicking noise and loosening the reins so that she could escalate into a canter. Connor gulped and mimicked the action, but didn’t give his horse nearly as much rein to work with. She stumbled in her attempts to speed up, yanking him forward and nearly out of the saddle.

“Shit, sorry!” he said, to the horse. He let the leather reins slip through his hands and finally, she could pull ahead. While he was happy to be keeping up, the change in speed alongside the loosening control was adding unnecessary stress to his already over-encumbered morning.

Thankfully, they didn’t ride for too much longer after that. Freddie slowed down after a few minutes of shooting ahead, when Connor’s stomach has sufficiently cramped up as much as humanly possible. His head was aching when Freddie finally, gracefully pulled to a stop up nearby a foggy lake.

Freddie dismounted first, with a grace to his carriage that Connor envied, a little. He still had issues getting off a horse without falling on his face.

It turned out he didn’t need to worry about that, since Freddie immediately turned to help Connor dismount, hands warm on his waist.

“Take the bag and go sit on the dock,” Freddie said, already starting to rummage through the pack on his horse. “I’ll be there in a moment.”

It wasn’t like Connor was going to be much help in securing the horses, so he went to sit on the dock. Freddie joined him a few minutes later, the horses carefully secured.

“What’s so important you had to haul me out of bed so early?” Connor asked after a moment of quiet.

Freddie just smiled and took the bag from Connor. He produced a gleaming silver thermos and a set of camping mugs, and a paper bag stained with grease.

“Do you want cheese on your egg sandwich, or not?”

“Um, cheese, I guess.”

Freddie passed him a toasted sandwich wrapped in a napkin, still warm. He poured coffee--black, of course, because as good as Denmark’s coffee roasts were, the whole country hated milk in their coffee--into the cups, and they settled into a peaceful quiet.

“Why are we here?” Connor asked, a sip into his coffee and a bite into his sandwich.

Freddie just smiled. “Eat your breakfast.”

Unnerved, Connor settled in to his food, eying the lake warily.

Suddenly, across the lake, an eerie sound rang out and Connor nearly dropped his egg sandwich.

“What--”

Kulning,” Freddie said. “Just listen.”

It took a moment for Connor to process, but he began to understand what he was hearing was a human voice, echoing across the river. There was a faint jingle of cowbells, as presumably, the herd started to move towards the singer.

Connor couldn’t see the shepherd singing, but he imagined they weren’t all that far off, even though a voice performing kulning definitely carried. He turned to look at Freddie, unable to express his awe at the beauty and the sound of it. This was a hundreds-year-old tradition, and in the misty early morning, Connor felt lost in the magic of it.

He found Freddie watching him, eyes soft as he sipped at his coffee.

Connor inhaled sharply, struck with a sudden image of a hundred years like this, of Freddie watching him like nothing was as beautiful as he was, even surrounded by the raw wild beauty of Danish nature and the eerie magic of traditional singing surrounding them.

“I thought you’d like that,” Freddie said when the last echoes of the kulning faded away. He looked smug, and Connor was actually okay with that.

“God, it was--that was incredible.” Connor gestured out towards the lake. “Is that--does that happen all the time?”

Freddie took another long sip of coffee. “It’s not universal throughout Denmark, but this particular herd does. We share palace grounds with a few organizations that are preserving Danish culture, and the kulning is recorded regularly and compared to other herding methods. If you’re lucky, you might hear someone play the trombone instead.”

Connor had taken an unfortunate bite of egg sandwich and choked a little. Freddie patted him on the back.

“Sorry, a trombone?”

“There was one week last year--” Freddie started, and went into an explanation of the various ways cows could be herded via music. Connor listened, a little stunned. Eventually, Freddie looked at his watch and cursed. “We should head back,” he said, gathering up the thermos and cups.

“Do I have to get back on the horse?” Connor whined.

Freddie nudged him back towards the horses. “How’re you going to get better if you don’t practice?”

“Here’s a thought: I don’t want to get better.”

“Stop fibbing,” Freddie said. “Come on. You can go back to sleep once we’re back at the palace.”

“You just gave me three cups of coffee,” Connor protested. “I’m not going to sleep for a week.”

Freddie rolled his eyes and helped Connor mount back up. “You can sit with me while I work, then.”

For whatever reason, that didn’t seem like as bad of as an option as it might have before.

♔ | ♔ | ♔ | ♔

Connor did end up sitting with Freddie in the study after their ride. Connor curled up on the window seat--now his favorite place in the suite of rooms--idly sketching while Freddie chipped away at a stack of paperwork. Connor was mostly certain it was a pile of cards and certificates congratulating Danish citizens on hundredth birthdays and fiftieth wedding anniversaries, but the typeset was quite small and in Danish, and he didn’t quite care enough to ask.

“Your friend Marner is persistent,” Freddie said lightly once he’d finished one stack of papers. “He’s very attached to you.”

“He hasn’t seen me in over a week,” Connor countered, turning to look at Freddie instead of out the window. “The last time he saw me I was being escorted off the plane by a military escort.” He spread his hands wide, gesturing helplessly. “If he saw me in person, I think it’d go a long way to reassuring him.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Connor bit his lip, and thought of what he had to offer. “How about--for every minute I kiss you, I get a minute with Mitch,” he said finally, hoping he was reading Freddie right.

Freddie eyed him. Connor felt stripped bare, like Freddie saw him and everything he was, and found him lacking.

“Are you and Mitch--”

Connor held up a hand. “You can stop with what you’re implying right there. Mitch is one of my best friends, and nothing more.” He softened his tone of voice when he saw Freddie take a half-step away. “I want to see my friend, Freddie. Someone who speaks English as their first language.”

Freddie didn’t looked convinced. “Are you sure?”

“I wouldn’t offer if I wasn't sure.”

“What made you change your mind?” Freddie asked, watching Connor with solemn hazel eyes.

Connor shrugged. “This morning,” he said, looking down. “You looked at me like I was something special.”

Freddie stepped forward, and Connor stood up to meet him, letting himself get backed into the desk.

“You’re absolutely sure.”

“Absolutely.”

Connor sat on the edge of the desk, Freddie crowding in between the vee of his legs. Connor had used this move on girlfriends before, but had never been on this side of it, not with someone’s hands skimming up the outside of his thighs. He couldn’t help shivering at how warm and how close Freddie was.

“Are you certain?” Freddie asked, one hand high on Connor’s thigh and the other fitting around Connor’s waist.

In response, Connor ducked his head and kissed Freddie’s shoulder.

“Not what I meant by kissing, puttemus.” Freddie’s chest shook with quiet laughter, and then a gentle hand was tipping Connor’s chin up.

Connor had expected Freddie to roughly slip him tongue immediately, but this was a simple brush of lips, of Freddie crowding in and rubbing delicate, light circles into Connor’s thigh.

It was, by all accounts, a stunningly average kiss. Connor wanted about a hundred more of them.

Freddie nipped at Connor’s bottom lip and pulled back.

“Is that your best?” Connor teased. He stuck his tongue out at Freddie, and almost immediately got pulled back in for another kiss, deeper this time.

Connor liked kissing. This was a good kiss too; Freddie was attentive, one hand at the nape of Connor’s neck and one hand warm around Connor’s waist.

The kiss was long and languid, with not even the fan running in the background to hide the wet noises of their mouths. Freddie slid his tongue along Connor’s bottom lip with a hint of teeth, enough to make Connor gasp.

Connor lost track of time in that moment, in this moment of intimacy. He didn’t, however, forget the purpose of offering a kiss in the first place.

“So can I see Mitch?” Connor asked, a little breathless. He was sure his cheeks were flushed, and he felt more than a little dishevelled.

Freddie’s expression shuttered for just a second. Connor waited for Freddie to renege, but instead he got a tight nod in return.

In thanks, Connor tipped his head up and offered another kiss.

No matter how Freddie felt in that moment, he accepted the kiss and turned it into another slow make-out session. Connor wasn’t complaining.

While he waited, all Connor could do was fidget on the edge of his seat, right hand toying with the seam that had furled out from the chair. It was very childish for someone of his stature, but the anxiety was making him claw at anything within reach. If he was outside, he’d be plucking the grass.

Freddie’s announcement had come after a day of ignorance and Connor’s desperate pleading, and chosen to be relayed at the crack of dawn when Connor was burrowing his way through a bowl of corn flakes, making him choke on one of the only foreign delicacies he had access to there. Connor’s face-splitting grin was matched by a grin of Freddie’s own, which faded into brief annoyance that was not lost on Connor as he talked animatedly about Mitch.

He was contemplating swiping a book to keep himself busy when the large front doors were first disturbed, succeeding the sound of footsteps clicking down the halls. Connor’s posture turned rigid, neck craning forward to get a first glimpse for when the mouth of the room opened and he was allowed to leave his seat.

The second Mitch saw him, he made to bolt like a startled deer, shoulders hunched forward in anticipation of pursuit. Unluckily for him, Auston was a step too close and was able to wrench him back before he made any discernible progress, dismissing Mitch’s whine with a grunt of his own. The two were supervised by a stiff-lipped Freddie, who, despite their mutual agreement, was less than happy to be accommodating the duo inside his study.

His disapproval was lost on Mitch, who only had eyes for Connor. From his seat at the table, Connor could see him bouncing his knee, shoulder spastically jerking back and forth to test the strength of Auston’s grip. Unlike Freddie, Auston looked somewhat amused underneath his frigid mask of professionalism, the curl of his lip and bouncing eyebrows all traitors to his facade.

Even though Auston managed to hold Mitch back, Freddie was just far enough away that Connor could slip out of his seat and dart closer to his friend.

Mitch swept Connor into a tight hug the second they were close enough. Connor sagged into the hold, appreciating being near his best friend.

“Hey,” he mumbled.

“Hey,” Mitch said right back. “You holding in there?”

“Surviving. I’ve missed you.”

“Same,” Mitch said, and squeezed tighter.

A polite cough pulled them apart, reluctantly. Separated, Connor could see the exhaustion and stress etched into every line of Mitch’s normally cheerful face.

“Would you like a seat, Lord Marner?” Freddie offered.

“Mitch, please. And yes, that'd be good.” There was an evident tension brewing between them, made disturbingly apparent by Mitch’s shortness. He sat opposite Freddie, Connor opting to stay beside him. As expected, Freddie looked disheartened at that.

“Connor asked to see you,” Freddie established plainly, seating himself cordially. “Whatever you have to say, now is the time to do so.” Auston moved behind him, steady, as if moved by a conveyor belt. His eyes were bolted into Mitch as well.

“Can we get some privacy?” Mitch asked, but Freddie was shaking his head before he'd even finished the final word.

“Some meeting,” Mitch muttered under his breath. “We'll Connor, I'm in contact with the embassy and we’re working on a solution. If you hold to your word I see no reason why we can't renew your travel visa and get you back to Canada.”

“They won't renew it.” This time it was Auston that spoke. “You still have no proof that what you say is true.”

“Shut it,” Mitch hissed. “I promised Connor we were getting out of here and I'm going to keep that promise whether you like it or not Frederik. Mark my words, we’re getting out of here.” If he was trying to intimidate Freddie, it had no visual impact that indicated it was successful. He was as quiet as ever.

Then, Freddie smiled. “What if Auston returned to Canada with you, Mitch?” Freddie offered, and the Canadians at the table froze in stunned horror.

“Sorry, what?” Mitch managed.

“Auston’s a perfectly good aide. And if Connor is happy here, why ask him to leave?”

Auston seemed entirely unbothered by the idea; Connor wondered if that had been the whole point of this meeting, why Freddie had conceded to it in the first place, if trading Connor for Auston was the entire end goal. Either way, it had him twisting back and out of reach, chair screeching noisily behind him.

“What-” he began, but Mitch beat him to the punch.

“Unlike you, I don’t kidnap people to get them to like me,” he snapped, foregoing all kindness and giving Connor a look into what negotiations must have been up until that point. Freddie responded expectedly, nose scrunching up as his shoulders inched up.

“It was only an offer, Mitch, please sit down.” Mitch shook his head.

“If you’re insinuating I should replace Connor with your aide, you’re severely mistaken. I came here with Connor and I am leaving with Connor.” His hand extended in Connor’s direction, though Freddie had already secured his arm around Connor’s waist to keep him rooted. Auston had also sprung into action, clutching Mitch’s elbow to keep him from moving forward.

Freddie cleared his throat, pushing Connor back more so that he could take his place, creating a physical barrier between the two Canadians.

“Whether you like it or not, this is how it will be. So accept my offer or leave.”

Connor tried to look over Freddie’s shoulder, if only to see Mitch’s reaction, but Freddie was using his elbow to keep them separate. Out of sight and out of mind, Connor could only guess. The only thing it did was make him want to run out and get between the both of them before something serious ran amok.

“No!” Mitch shrieked, foot stomping down on the delicate tiles. “And you, why aren’t you protesting this? He’s practically trading you away for some--some nobody from Canada. You should be furious!” Connor crouched to look out from under Freddie’s arms, noticing that Mitch had whirled around to confront Auston head-on.

Auston looked as composed as he always was. “I do as I am asked. If I am to go to Canada with you, then I would do so without question,” he said. The hand around Mitch’s elbow creeped down to take his hand and pull him away from the hulking mass that was Freddie. “You can’t deny that it would be nice.”

Mitch yanked his hand back, Auston tumbling after him because of the momentum. “Never! That’s not nice, that’s slavery. How could you expect me to turn my back on Connor like that?”

“Mitch,” Connor spoke up, but it went mostly ignored by the remainder of people still in the room.

Their voices continued to rise, Freddie and Mitch spitting back at each other in increasingly incensed tones. Auston looked resigned; Connor figured he’d been subject to far, far too much of this over the past weeks.

He stood, slammed his hands on the table, and yelled at the top of his lungs “enough!”

The room quieted immediately. “You,” Connor said, jabbing a finger at Freddie. “Sit down.” Freddie started to protest, and Connor glared. “I am not done, so sit down.”

“Connor--”

Connor whirled on Mitch. “You sit down, I know you know better than to yell in a diplomatic meeting.”

Slowly, both Freddie and Mitch sank back down to their seats. Auston leaned back, looking somewhat amused.

“I can’t believe what I’m seeing from the both of you,” Connor snapped, turning on Freddie immediately. “Auston is nothing but loyal to you, and you’re trying to take advantage of that by treating him like something to be traded for, and I can’t believe you’d think so low of Mitch or I that we’d accept something like that as reasonable.”

Freddie flushed red across the tops of his cheekbones, either in anger or embarrassment. Connor was past caring.

“I don’t care if you’re the king of Denmark, that’s scummy, and low, and I fucking hate hearing that you even thought of that as a halfway reasonable option.”

“But you like it here,” Freddie interjected. “And Auston has expressed interest in serving at the Danish embassy in Toronto. It works out.”

“You can’t trade people in a one-for-one trade,” Connor hissed. “Like, holy shit, that’s not okay.”

“I know, I know. But if Auston wants to go I’m not inclined to stop him either,” Freddie said, trying to salvage something to put together an argument.

“Then he can go, but not in exchange for me!” Connor turned to point at Mitch. “And you! I know you know how to behave better in diplomatic meetings and to not let personal feelings get in the way. If you weren’t able to keep your head, it was your responsibility to step aside and let someone else negotiate.”

Mitch glared at his lap, but didn’t try to defend himself, used to Connor’s brand of rage.

Connor finally turned to yell at Auston. “And you,” he snapped. “How the fuck do you consider being traded to another country in exchange for a hostage a duty to your country? I’m fucking done with all of this, all of you. I am immensely disappointed in the poor choices you’ve all made, and you’re going to start fixing it, now.”

Freddie’s jaw was dropped open slightly, gaping at Connor’s sudden burst of determination. Mitch was slumped back in his chair, sulking. And Auston--Auston was laughing.

“Goddamn,” Auston said, shaking his head. “I knew you were perfect for Freddie, but--it’s good to have it proven. How do you want to do this, Connor?”

Connor sunk into his chair. “I guess we start from the beginning, then.”

Connor hadn’t exactly been expecting to get anywhere with negotiations once they were all in a room together; Freddie and Mitch seemed to be both solidly determined to not let go of Connor, the issue of Auston notwithstanding. They finished the meeting slightly closer to understanding what needed to be on the table and what needed to be off limits.

Then Auston took Mitch back towards the diplomats wing and left Connor with Freddie.

“Do you hate it here that much?” Freddie asked, voice quiet.

Connor rubbed his eyes. “No,” he said, tipping his head back to avoid having to look at Freddie. “But I hate having the choice stripped away. You've been sweet. I like you, I've always liked you. But not being given any other options is a hard thing for anyone to accept.”

“Auston really does want to go to Canada,” Freddie said. Connor could hear the scrape of a chair against the floor, and then a warm hand laid against his cheek. “He's enthralled by your Mitch.”

“Then that's something for them to work out, without your meddling or offering me as a trading chip.” Connor opened his eyes to see Freddie watching him solemnly. “I want to be furious at the way this happened, but I'm also glad I got to have these honest moments with you.”

“Have you reconsidered my offer?”

Connor chuffed out a breath. “As sweet as you are, the answer is still no. Not as long as you have my passport and insult my friends into arguments, or try to trade for me like I'm a thing.”

Freddie looked away. “But you wouldn't even consider me if I hadn't,” he said. He wasn't mumbling, but his voice was pitched low. “And you were considering it for a time, there.”

“Who says I’m not?” Connor said. “But I can’t consent to anything if you don’t give me any other choices.”

♔ | ♔ | ♔ | ♔

Freddie really was too damn fond of early morning excursions out into the cold, Connor thought, wrinkling his nose and squinting into the sunlight and the snow.

He couldn’t see straight, let alone direct a horse up a tundra-esque wasteland without misstepping once or twice. Or twenty times. The reins were his lifeline, his grip white-knuckled as the bleary mish-mash of shapes blurring his vision slid by at a snail’s pace. Freddie took the lead, Connor only able to distinguish him and his horse because it’s eyesore of a red chestnut coat stuck out like a sore thumb against the barren landscape.

He had no idea what Freddie held against a good night’s rest, but if he was going to continue waking him up at the asscrack of dawn to jump on the back of a horse and face the elements he better have something euphoric waiting on the sidelines to jolt him back to awareness. Otherwise, Connor really would have to dig his heels into the sand and put up a decent fight before Freddie took to hoisting him over his shoulder. It was hardly fitting to be outside, sucking in bouts of freezing air that penetrated his lungs when the coffin that was his bedsheets laid open, smoldering, and there to clamp down on him and rock him to sleep. But no, he was here wiggling his fingers in his gloves to keep them from locking up and the blood from draining to his feet where they sat unceremoniously in the stirrups.

They reached their destination without much fanfare, Freddie having to dismount and yank at his skinny-jean clad legs to get his attention. He could only muster a weak grunt, feeling the big hands work up his thigh and grope at his waist. It was too reminiscent of a damsel in distress novel adaption to be anything but humiliating to Connor, because he may be stiff and bone-tired but he wasn’t stupid; he could get off a horse. Plus, Freddie’s little royal entourage had tagged along after their morning yodelling stunt, which added layers of mortification for every single thing he did. He didn’t realize how much he took pestering Freddie for granted until the Danish officials turned their noses up at him simply leaning on Freddie to stumble out of their chambers like he was pissing in their cereal or something.

Well fuck them, he had this. Patting Freddie’s shoulder to let him know, his boots stood up him up in the saddle as his legs unfolded and lifted him up. It dutifully woke him in the process, and he was able to use Freddie’s upper torso as a leaning stick so that he could twist himself around and back up and off. Freddie nevertheless supported him and kept one arm around his waist as he passed the reins off to the closest guard chaperoning them.

Unfortunately, seeing as how the snow was sticking to the ground and the temperatures were below zero there wasn't much to see. It was the same lake in all its glory, but lacking the man serenading cattle with voice nor trombone. It was a disk of ice now, banked by a rock shield and weeds frozen stiff, like something out of a Bob Ross portrait.

He sucked his bottom lip in and gave Freddie a stale look, hoping he would elaborate. Freddie’s red cheeks puffed up, but he didn’t verbally respond and blew him off in favour of walking back to his horse. Connor trailed behind him, using his shoulders as a windblocker to keep the worst of the windchill from setting into his skin, and seeing him unlatch the tie around his saddlebags and yank out a pair of white skates. Then another. Hockey skates, the first set well-loved and the second brand new from the looks of it. The laces were still bow-tied and the tongue not bent beyond belief.

Freddie tugged down the knitted scarf obscuring his mouth so that he could speak. “Thought you’d like to have a little leisurely skate,” was all he said.

“Oh really,” Connor said, flatly. “And here I thought this was some proposed hockey match in disguise.”

“I didn’t want to embarrass you on the ice, puttemus. What kind of suitor would I be if I stopped your every shot?”

“You could just let me score. Isn’t that what relationships are all about, compromise?” He took the skates in one hand, the pair dangling and bumping into each other. Freddie rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, whatever. C’mon, get with it.” He slapped Connor on the ass and had him trot over to a breach in the rock shield that was broad enough to support a human being sitting on it. A perfect, nature-made bench that looked less than comfortable but was a fine makeshift hockey stall for the occasion.

But it was easier said than done. His feet were already half-frozen and to get his skate on he’d have to take his boot off. And the coat Freddie had bought him--and subsequently forced him to wear--was puffy and hard to move around in. Both forces combined and had him trying to yank his right boot off by the heel as he panted against the skin of his stomach rolling and keeping him from bending over farther. He had to look like a turtle placed ceremoniously on its back; Freddie sure found it funny.

“Here, let me,” he said. Connor huffed a bout of cold breath at him.

“I can tie my own skates.”

“I’m not saying you can’t,” Freddie said, already helping him out of his boots. “But it’s easier if you have help. You can tie mine.” Connor rolled his eyes, too groggy with sleep and the dullness of the biting cold to protest beyond lifting his socked foot up and away from Freddie as he tried to shove it into a skate.

Eventually, they did make some discernible progress--Freddie upheld his side of the bargain and let Connor crouch in the snow and soak through his jeans to tie his skates for him--and like that, they were out on the ice.

Though wobbly at first, it was riding a bicycle in that he had to find his stride and then he was taking off. It wasn’t like using the freshly-cleaned arena ice down by Lake Ontario; this place was choppy and ungroomed, very much a struggle to navigate. But that almost made it more fun, more mystical, even reminiscent of smuggled trips to friends’ cottages as a young kid where they would conquer the ice for themselves. He was laughing before he knew it, weaving in and out of the little ice-potholes and clumps as he teased Freddie with friendly jeers sprinkled into the conversation.

“Are we actually playing hockey, or are you too chicken?” he called out, squealing when Freddie shifted gears and skated in his direction with incredible speed. Connor made his best attempt to get away, skates clicking before Freddie barreled into him from behind and swung him around in a circle, feet leaving the ice as he fought against the two arms circling his chest that resembled steel bars.

Connor managed to break free by threatening to slice Freddie’s thigh open with his skate blade, then turning around so that he was skating backwards. He crouched down and put his hands on his knees, sticking his tongue out.

“What’cha gonna do, eh? Bet you’re too slow to keep up.” He juggled his shoulders for added emphasis, hearing Freddie’s throaty laugh accompany his taunting. Freddie made to follow him around the bank, but his delighted expression was cut short by the ground falling out from underneath Connor.

He knew it was the ice before anything else, the cracks having said enough. Freddie’s face had absolved to pure panic, two hands shooting out to steady Connor from making any sudden movements.

“Just--Just don’t move Connor, I’m coming over, okay?” Connor was sucking in air faster than his lungs could circulate it, the cold temperature nipping at his esophagus. The shock was so deeply set that he was scared to blink, let alone try and move, thank you very much Freddie. But as the man hulked closer, it soon became apparent that the ice wouldn’t hold both of them.

“Freddie, don’t come any closer,” he said, finally finding his voice. “I’ll come over to you.”

“No, it’s not safe! Let me help you.”

“Stay the fuck over there,” Connor snapped, and took a deep breath. “Unless you want to take a swim with me, stay over there and don’t crack the ice any more.”

“Connor,” Freddie said, looking desperate.

Connor closed his eyes and worked to remember what he’d learned as a child on how to get off of cracking ice. He slid to his knees carefully, trying to distribute his weight more evenly along his forearms and his shins, and started inching towards Freddie, keeping half an eye on the ice. He listened for more ice cracking, and mostly heard the sound of his own breath.

He managed to make his way a few agonizingly slow shuffles towards safety when Freddie took a hesitant step forward, and then another, and then there wasn’t ice below Connor at all.

Connor’s first thought was cold, and his second thought was fuck. He fought against the instinct to take a deep breath against the bracing cold, and thanked every star he had that the ice had just slipped instead of actually cracking underneath him. He was pissed at how soaked his clothes were, though.

“You are a fucking asshole,” he managed as soon as he was certain the ice wasn’t going to dip any lower. “I told you not to get closer.”

Freddie at least looked appropriately guilty, although his expression was definitely approaching panic.

Connor kicked a little, getting his body horizontal, and did his best to wiggle forward without putting too much weight on any one point on the ice. He swore mentally the whole way, very deliberately shimmying forward, hating how fucking freezing it was and remembering very vividly why his parents had frowned on pond skating until the ice was very, very firmly frozen.

Once he was mostly out of the water, he carefully rolled towards Freddie, at which point Freddie grabbed Connor’s wrist and yanked him forward the last few inches onto entirely steady ice. Unfortunately, the added pressure did wonders to the already-formed cracks and Connor’s body hitting the solid ice was enough to further the split until the threat of falling through again was very much apparent. He was sure he’d be trapped under this ice this time, and his breathing escalated into hoarse pants, the panic chilling his blood into shards of ice that stabbed at him as he fell forward.

The ground underneath him did slant, and he did feel himself slip back, prompting his nails to hook into the cold ice surface to stabilize himself. The ice between his fingers splintered, the first indication of the water seeping up through his skates and soaking through his socks. The tinge of cold had him crawl forward as best he could, only craning his head back when a chilling splash echoed and the shouts from their guards sufficed as background noise.

He steadied himself on his elbows and knees, the first survey of the scene behind him revealing a very wet Freddie, hair plastered to his skull, trying to wade out of the below-temperature water. A shocked whine tore itself from Connor’ throat without permission, one hand reaching out as if he could levitate Freddie out in the water and in his general direction. Truth be told, he didn’t know what he could do that would affect the situation and not pull him under to.

The panic was settling in around the guards too, who had swarmed on the ground farthest from to them and had started to exchange heated orders about how to assess the situation and how to get around the bank without disturbing the ice’s foundation further. Connor’s trembling had already escalated to a full-blown shivering that had absolved his whole mental stability.

All he could think about was Freddie. Freddie under the ice, likely coming down with hypothermia. The weight of his damp clothes sucking him under as if his leg was attached to a ball and chain. When the man did surface, it was with a pitiful gasp that couldn’t have been more desperate. It was painful to hear, worse to see his face contort and misshapen as he made a momentary split-second connection with Connor, and his eyes dictated everything.

Triangular shards of ice jutted out, the gaps between them revealing the fast-moving current that was engulfing Freddie’s lower half. For a second, he was frozen by the display, couldn’t even process how he himself was in danger because of the visual image. Then, his mind resumed operating, and he realized that this was going to be a very quick death if he didn’t do something.

Freddie was trying to get to shore, but whenever he grabbed onto a block of ice it would break away and send him back under again. Connor crawled around on his hands and knees, trying to find a good vantage point to ground him from, shouting assurances to make sure Freddie could hear him and follow his vibrato to safety. Not that it mattered, Freddie was clearly under chock shock, flailing as his options quite literally gave out from under his hands.

“Freddie!” Connor shouted, one hand extended. “Both hands. Get both hands other here.” He patted the ice underneath him, the colour of which was not a milky-blue white like the ice near Freddie and instead what looked to be much more solid that could support the excess weight.

Freddie treaded water for a second, one hand pushing the red hair up and out of his eyes as he assessed where Connor is, and then slowly, gratingly slow, waded over. Connor backed up to put less strain on the ice, even though he wanted nothing more than to run over and yank him out. He could only watch, helplessly, as Freddie clutched at the ice and began to pull himself up.

There was no doubt that Freddie was getting tired, but he still had the energy to lash his legs out and shimmy onto the ice, arms spread out like a starfish as he rolled away from the scene of the crime. Only then did Connor actually manage to get his hands on him and drag him away from the pit of water gurgling from the belly of the lake.

If Freddie was heavy before, it was nothing compared to the excess weight from the water pulling him down and making him nearly immobile. It was a race against time and the elements, the frigid air quite nearly lethal with every second Freddie’s clothes and articles soaked through and pressed against his skin.

It was torturous, but in that moment he was swelled up with a toxic concoction of anticipation and adrenaline that made him invulnerable to someone so trivial. All he cared around was dragging him to shore, blocking out the sound of the boots making their way towards the fallen king with intent to serve. It was difficult trying to navigate with only skates on, but the telling crunch of the snow underneath him already made it easier to keep gritting his teeth and bearing through it.

Freddie dropped like dead-weight, entire body jittering and lit alive as it worked overtime to replace the heat the ice-cold water had absorbed when he’d fallen through. Connor was running purely on a diet of instinct and safety-manuals as he furiously stripped Freddie off his skates and scarf. Anything that could be easily removed was thrown in various directions, Connor not even finding it in himself to be embarrassed as he unbuttoned Freddie’s shirt and worked tirelessly to get the damp cloth away from his skin.

By then, the guards had finally found a safe path to the both of them, shouting nonsense on Danish that Connor had no grasp of and little care for. In his desperation, he’d begun throwing his own clothes off and onto Freddie, laying on top of him to transfer some of his heat over. Freddie was colder than the earth when their skin touched, which immediately had Connor press himself more firmly, hands wrapping around Freddie’s skull to keep the heat from escaping there.

He’d screamed when the guards tried to tear him away, because he was so invested in protecting Freddie that any interruption was agony. He couldn’t even process that they too were wanting to help, because he was restricted to tunnel vision where other people became black silhouettes and the only thing he could see was Freddie’s shivering form spread out across the snow, curled up in a ball like a baby.

Connor was much too small to resist the guards when they lifted him up, but he could stand idly by and watch with clenched fingers as they resumed what he had started and get him towards his horse. Only once they were sure Connor wouldn’t fall flat on his face did they release him and let him run up and press himself to Freddie’s side.

His lips were already turning blue, eyes bloodshot. Connor’s organs ached at the sight of him. At the fact that he had caused it. The only thing he could do was hold on tight and murmur into Freddie’s skin around the hands and limbs of the guards shepherding him forward. Together, they hoisted Freddie up onto his horse.

Connor followed suite without permission, the only thought lingering on the edge of his conscience being that he stay by Freddie’s side throughout the endeavour. It was something incredibly important for the both of them; he couldn’t imagine letting him go. Gratefully, he took the excess cloaks and furs and hats and piled them on top of Freddie, and only once he was sure the man was fully clothed did he lean forward and hug him snug to his chest.

He couldn’t hear what Freddie said next over the commotion, but he did feel the one very cold and blistered hand not grippling the reins steady over his own and squeeze back.

Freddie was much too quiet, even for himself, following the slip and fall. They’d had their fair share of cafe cuisine and hot chocolate exchanges waiting for the ice to thaw from his eyelashes and even then, he’d kept his distance. Connor had thrown blanket after blanket on him and tried to appeal to his every need but there was nothing he could do that the multitude of maids and servants couldn’t.

Outlandish it may be, but he was still reluctant to let Freddie out of his sight. He’d be damned but the floor panels looked unstable and yeah, Freddie was a big guy. That was dangerous enough and fuck, he was such an idiot. It was his fault Freddie was shivering in his arms, nursing some herbal tea the cooks had passed off when they saw him walk through the door.

Freddie took to his separate bedroom as soon as they reached the wing, but Connor was less enthusiastic. He knew Freddie didn’t lock his door, so a few minutes after settling in and changing into suitable pajamas, he knocked on the conjoined door. No answer.

Freddie was buried under the covers when he entered. Wordlessly, he kicked his slippers off and squirmed in next to him, fully intending to share the heat. Freddie looked on, perfectly aware of the situation at hand but making no move to stop him. Connor looked him in the eye and hoped it said enough.

From that night on, they shared the king’s quarters. Freddie began to smile again, opened up about the fear present on Connor’s face and his fear of death, and threw an arm over Connor out of protective instinct. Sure, now it meant the cats would often bug the both of them in the middle of the night, but it was worth it to see Freddie smile again and offer more dates at the library reserved for just the two of them.

♔ | ♔ | ♔ | ♔

Everything was going well. Too well. A week later, his phone chimes with Mitch’s designated ringtone and he picks up.

“Hey Mitch,” he said, and listened. Mitch was sweet and generally good at breaking bad news, but no amounts of apologies or well-wishes could stop Connor from dropping his cell phone.

That’s where Freddie found him hours later, knees tucked to his chest and cheeks damp with tears.

“You missed dinner, sweetheart,” he said, but Connor did not respond.

“Connor?” he prompted again.

“My mom’s not doing so great,” Connor finally admitted. His voice felt rough.  “She had ovarian cancer when I was little. It’s why I don’t have any little siblings.”

“Was it bad?”

That got a wry twist of the lips from Connor. “All cancer is awful. They caught it pretty early, so she was lucky. She went into partial remission, so there was always a chance it would grow again. Jeff told Mitch it’s back.”

Freddie’s gaze was unnervingly calm. “How bad is it this time?”

Connor sighed, pushing his hands through his hair. “It could go either way. We have a good doctor, but the fact that it’s back…” Connor scrubbed his hands down his face. “I don’t know. None of us do. It could be nothing. It could be everything.”

Freddie rubbed his hand down Connor’s back. “I’m sorry, sweetheart.”

“Yeah,” Connor said, putting his head back down. “Me too.”

“What’s she like?”

“My mom?”

“Yeah. What’s she like?”

Connor picked up his head to see Freddie watching him with a steady gaze. “She’s--she’s my mom, I guess. She ran track in high school, and she met my dad then. She hated him for awhile, and they split up for university. They met again after she got her degree, and then it was--really fast. They got married within six months of starting dating. But for most of my life, she’s been my mom, you know? She did a lot of charity administrative work.”

Freddie kept rubbing calming circles into the small of Connor’s back; Connor moved into the touch. “How’d they meet?”

“My dad pulled something in his rec hockey league. It changes every time he tells the story. But my mom was his physiotherapist, and I dunno. The way they always tell it they just fell in love right away.”

“Yeah?” there was a small smile on Freddie’s face. “Love at first sight?”

“No, they--they knew each other before. But it always felt like they were in love, you know? When I was little they’d just talk for hours and hours, and sometimes me and Jeff would sneak off to play past our bedtimes because we could hear them talking downstairs and we knew we wouldn’t get caught.”

“You love her a lot, huh?” Freddie asked softly.

“She’s my mom,” Connor said helplessly. He turned and buried his face in Freddie’s sleeve. “I dunno what I’d do without her.” He scrunched his hands in the hem of his sweater, feeling exhausted and shaky. “It could be nothing. I just--I have to believe it’s nothing, and she’s going to be fine.”

♔ | ♔ | ♔ | ♔

Freddie was quiet the day after their conversation about Connor’s mom. They had a quiet lunch together, Freddie spending plenty of time just watching Connor.

“Everything okay?” Connor asked, setting his water glass down. “You’re a little off.”

“Just savoring the moment,” Freddie said quietly. “I should be asking if you’re okay, with your mom and everything.”

“Jeff will keep Mitch updated. If it gets bad--” Connor sighed, shaking his head. “We’ll figure something out.”

Freddie pushed back from the table and held his hand out. “Dance with me?”

Connor blinked at him in surprise.

“What?”

“Just--dance with me, please?”

Connor shook his head in disbelief, but leaned into it, letting Freddie’s hand linger low on his waist. “I’m used to leading,” he warned. “I might step on your feet.”

“If you think that’ll deter me, you’re mistaken.”

Connor let himself drift into the rhythm of swaying back and forth with Freddie, letting Freddie lead as they drifted around the room.

“Sir,” Auston’s voice interrupted quietly, bringing their steps to a halt.

Freddie turned to Auston and nodded. He reached into his shirt pocket and withdrew something.

“This is for you,” he said, handing it over. It was an envelope, embossed with the royal seal but otherwise unaddressed. Freddie laid a kiss on Connor’s forehead and left the room, leaving Auston to hover.

Connor slit the envelope open, wary. He pulled out two sheets of paper and stared at them, uncomprehending.

“What?”

“His Royal Majesty wishes for you to return home to be with your mother,” Auston said crisply, as if that made the plane tickets make any kind of sense. “You leave on the next available flight. Your belongings will be returned to you in the next Danish diplomatic pouch to Canada. Please come with me, sir.”

Connor kept staring at the paper, as if they would magically explain themselves. “He’s just...sending me away?”

“Family is important to His Royal Majesty,” Auston said. “He believes you should be with yours. Come with me, sir. Lord Marner is already at the airport.”

Really, there wasn’t anything else for Connor to do but follow Auston.

Mitch was already sitting at the window seat when Connor boarded the plane, having been ushered through security via an accelerated line, and bustled onto the already-full plane.

“Jeff said she was doing okay,” Mitch said quickly, before anything else. His expression was tight, but it was good to see him again without rage marring his expression. “He didn’t want to scare you.”

“Well, I’m pretty damn scared.” Connor stowed his computer bag in the overhead storage bin and sat down heavily. “God, just...this on top of everything else this year?”

“At least it got you headed home,” Mitch offered. “

“Something feels off about it,” Connor said. “I don’t know what I’m feeling about any of this.”

Mitch put his head on Connor’s shoulder, and Connor eased into the familiar contact. “You don’t have to,” Mitch said. “All you have to do now is get ready for take-off.”

Connor’s mother was waiting when the town car dropped Connor off. The Brown’s home was less castle and more elegant Victorian manor; it was wildly different from anything Connor had seen in Denmark. It was so totally and completely home that Connor cried to see it.

Mom was in the sitting room with the door cracked, watching the front door. She swept him up in a hug with all her strength and refused to let him go.

Connor melted into the hug. She looked much like she had when he’d left, maybe a little thinner, maybe a little less hair. Chemo hadn’t left her in too much pain for a deep-pressure hug, which every part of him loved. He clung to her as much as she clung to him.

“You are going to tell me everything,” she said when they finally drew apart. Her eyes were glimmering a little with tears. “Come on, sweet boy. Your father’s asleep. We’ll have the kitchen to ourselves.”

The manor at Etobicoke had always had a relatively small staff, primarily to help with guests and visitors, and to maintain the sheer size of the house. For as long as Connor could remember, there’d been a cook, a butler, and a maid, none live in. There’d been a live-in nurse too, when Mom had been sick the first time. The kitchen was dim at this hour, though, any staff clearly having gone home for the night.

His mom pulled tea bags down from a cabinet and set the kettle on, shooing Connor towards the little table tucked against the wall. He skirted it and instead went to the cupboard by the industrial fridge, taking out a box of cookies he knew was always stashed there.

Mom set two mugs on the counter; not the plain black mugs they used for company, but the chipped, hand painted set Connor and Jeff had made when they were four and eight respectively.

As she poured hot water into the mugs, she nodded at him solemnly. “Tell me what was really going on. None of this sudden-study-extension nonsense. If my son is a spy, I’ll need to know so I can make up suitably ridiculous lies at the Rotary club.”

Connor startled into laughter. “Not a spy, Mom. Just a really weird chain of events I’m not even sure I’m processing totally.”

He ripped open the Oreo packaging and accepted his mug from his mom.

It took Connor awhile but he got through the story in fits and starts, pausing for a cookie or two and for his mom to ask a clarifying question. He told her everything, from the delegation’s arrival in Denmark through getting to know the king to Freddie’s marriage proposal and everything that had come after.

His tea was cold by the time he finished, and his mother’s cup was empty.

“I can’t figure out why he’d change his mind,” he said finally. “It doesn’t fit with everything else I know about him.”

“I think it does,” his mom said. She got up to add hot water to Connor’s teacup and to get a glass of cold water for herself, along with one of her pain pills. “He lost his father young. And you know how people react when the word cancer starts getting thrown around. They start thinking of death. He’s trying to love you, in a lopsided sort of way. He wishes he could have been with his father more, so he’s making sure you get to be here with me.”

“You’re not dying.”

“Not if I can help it, no,” she said, sitting back down. She swallowed her pill with a grimace. “God bless modern medicine, but to hell with those horse pills.”

Connor couldn’t help but smile, and she smiled back. “What do you think I should do?”

His mom swirled her ice cubes around in her glass. “There’s a lot at play here. As your mother, I want you safe and as far away from him as possible. There were so many ways he could have acted, and acting in your best interests--in your wants and needs--was never something he actively did. I want you away from that country, and to let their monarchy handle their own nonsense. They might have a gay King, but that doesn’t entitle him to you, in the same way that our straight Queen isn’t entitled to any man she comes across.”

She took a sip of water while Connor ate another Oreo.

“As Baroness of Ebitocoke and a peer of the realm, I can see how it would be good for Denmark and Canada both. We have a solid relationship, but it never hurts to have ties by marriage. Get new blood into the European Houses, challenge a few norms. It would make a statement about the twenty-first century, and who the nobility are in there here and now. On a personal note, from what you’ve said--you have complimentary temperaments. It would be a good matc, if we were the sort of people to arrange matches anymore.”

“The long and short?” Connor asked, watching her expression.

She sighed. “I question his reasoning when he refused to let you leave, and when he tried to trade that Matthews fellow for you. On the other hand--you’re clearly sweet on him, and once you told him to knock it off, he did. I don’t know. I really don’t.”

Connor took another Oreo.

“There are things the realm takes from us,” she said, after a long pause. “And there are things the realm gives us. We have duty taken from us, forced on us, and in exchange we are honored and given responsibility. Plenty of life’s difficulties are taken away from us, but there are new challenges given to us in exchange. Love was not always a luxury we were allowed to have. I was lucky with your dad, and I hoped for you, but--your paths will always be difficult, won’t they? It’s a decision you’ll have to make, if you think he’s right for you.”

♔ | ♔ | ♔ | ♔

Life at home quickly resumed to normal, but there was an undisclosed tension between Connor and Jeff that Connor wasn’t entirely sure wouldn’t implode. His older brother looked increasingly stiff, spending many nights at the family estate but never engaging in conversation and always remaining a quiet witness to the events that took place. His eyes were always attached to Connor, digging for something that wasn’t apparent on the surface.

Connor had just gotten his mother to sleep and crept outside her rooms when Jeff intercepted him, eyelids heavy. He steadied Connor with a squeezing grip around his elbow.

“Connor, a talk?” he asked, thumbing the ring around his finger. He looked just as weary as Connor felt.

“Yeah?”

“Your room, or the kitchen?”

Connor sighed, knowing this would probably take awhile, if Jeff didn’t just want to chat quickly in the hallway. “Kitchen. Your room is probably still closed up, isn’t it?”

“Wanted to give you the option.” Jeff shrugged, spreading his hands wide. “Maybe you’d rather be in your room, I dunno.”

“Yeah, well.” Connor slumped down the hall, Jeff following.

“How’re you holding up?” The heating vents came on behind Jeff as they hit the stairs, forcing him to speak louder so that he could be heard. Either way, it was such a generic question that it threatened to fall on deaf ears anyways.

One of Connor’s hands moved up to rub at his eyes. It felt like concrete blocks were attached to his feet. “‘m fine, why?”

“You just seem different. Mom told me what you were up to over there but I already knew most of it from Mitch.”

Connor was moving towards the kitchen, pulling out an empty bowl and a box of cereal that he didn’t look at for more of a second.

“So?” He poured some before Jeff’s hand steadied him again.

“I’m just saying,” Jeff paused, eyes downcast, “you don’t have to feel compelled to do anything.”

“Of course not, that’s why I am came back,” Connor said, but it lacked the heat it’d come with in his head.

“Yeah but, like, if he changes his mind or wants to force you to come back--”

“Freddie wouldn’t do that.”

“--you don’t have to do anything. I’ll punch him before I let him hurt you.” Connor shook him off to continue pouring to the cereal, but inside, his heart swelled.

“He won’t hurt me,” he mumbled to himself, eyeing the lucky charms sticking out against the bowl’s inherent whiteness, hunger lost on him. What he said still stood firm though.

“But if something happens, fuck it, we’ll always have your back. I’ll beat him up for you, don’t you worry.”

“I don’t think that’s necessary but, thanks.” He smiled. Jeff brought him in for a one-armed hug.

Connor slumped into the embrace; it was good to know that even if he had no one else on his side, he’d always have his brother.

♔ | ♔ | ♔ | ♔

Now that he was home, Connor spent a lot of time walking outside in the gardens with his mother. They had long chats about just about everything they could think of; Connor was incredibly close with his mother, and this newest health scare just made him want to spend more time with her, if possible.

Connor had planned to spend the fall and early winter teaching and researching for his thesis, but his extended stay in Denmark had thrown those plans out the window. He’d have had to take a leave of absence anyways, as it turned out, with his mother’s illness.

Instead of teaching, then, he spent his days personally escorting his mother to and from doctors’ offices. He played cards with her while she sat through rounds of chemo, and took diligent notes when each successive doctor issued caretaking notes.

He didn’t see much of his friends, which was a shame. Mitch was tied up in mountains of paperwork and policy in Ottawa, while his university friends were buried in coursework, and his nobility friends asked too many prying questions about his time in Denmark. It was good to spend time with his family again, and he’d spent more than one day entirely in bed, smoothing his hand down Mr Samuelson’s back and idly playing games on his phone.

It was a December morning, crisp and clear, when the universe delivered him a curveball. He’d taken his mother to her OBGYN and had been summarily dismissed.

“There are some things a mother doesn’t want her son present for,” his mom had told him tartly, bussing him on the cheek and pushing him back towards the car. “Jeff will pick me up for lunch. Go enjoy yourself.”

Connor had dawdled on his way home, not wanting to linger in an empty house. There was, after all, a limit to Mr Samuelson’s patience. He’d stopped for coffee at a local shop, and had gotten caught up talking with the staff, some of whom he’d met previously doing charity work. Two ill-advised cups of coffee later, he was bringing home a takeaway cup of tea and a box of danishes to share with the manor staff. He came in the back door, cheeks flushed with the cold, humming to himself.

Mariel, the cook, stopped him and whisked the box of pastries out of his hands. “You’ve a guest,” she said, going for his coat buttons next.

Connor batted her hands away and unbuttoned his own coat; Mariel might have known him since he was four, but he definitely knew how to handle his own clothing now. “I’m not expecting anyone.”

“It’s a young lady,” she told him, hauling the coat off of his arms and pushing him down the hall. “Well-born, but only called herself Miss Andersen, and a friend of yours. I wouldn’t have believed it if she hadn’t had one of your sketchbooks and your luggage from this summer along with her.”

Connor paused, the bottom of his stomach dropping out. The only Andersens he knew were the Danish royal family themselves, and he was sure nothing good could come of the Princess Royal herself appearing at his family home.

He managed to get his hat off before Mariel was shoving him through the door into the formal sitting room.

Sure enough, the Princess Royal of Denmark was sitting on a loveseat, looking entirely out of place in a bright red sweater and jeans, an equally red cap pulled over her strawberry blonde hair.

“Connor,” the princess said, rising to her feet. “Pardon my intrusion. It's good to see you again.”

Almost automatically, Connor dipped into a bow. “Your Highness. Um. Hello. We weren't expecting you. We’re not prepared for a princess, ma’am.”

She snorted indelicately. ”Warning anyone would have defeated the point. And call me Amalie, please, you know me.”

“If you insist.” He settled into a seat when she did, stripping off his gloves. “Can I offer you a drink?”

Amalie declined with a graceful wave of her hand. “No point in small talk,” she said. Her accent was familiar; Connor hadn’t heard the like in almost a month. “We both know there’s too much a mess to bother with the weather. Which is lovely, by the way.”

Connor had really been hoping this wasn’t going to be what he thought it was, but it wasn’t looking that way. “What, um, what brings you here?”

Amalie grimaced. “My brother, if you can believe it.”

Connor felt his expression shutter, suspicions confirmed. “Ah.”

“He doesn’t know I'm here. He’s probably figured out I'm in Canada, and not Sweden, but there's not much he can do about that.” Amalie leaned forward. “I know this is...uncomfortable for all of us, but I'd like to put his case forward. Frederik is...bluntly put, an idiot.”

Connor couldn't hide his startled laugh.

“You agree, then. He’s an idiot who did something stupid, and he should beg your forgiveness.” She rolled her eyes, looking more like an eighteen year old arguing for her brother's love life than the third in line to the Danish throne. Connor figured that was what she really was. “He was...different when I was little. We didn’t expect Pappa to die when he did. Freddie shouldn’t have become king for decades.”

Connor kept quiet. He knew his Danish political history now, but none of it excused Freddie’s behavior.

“He clings, now. Fought tooth and nail when I decided to go to school in Sweden. He never learned how to flirt like the rest of us, either.”

Connor tilted his head to the side, waiting for her to go on.

“I’d understand if you never returned to Denmark, but I'm asking you to consider it. God knows I’d never return anywhere that tried to keep me against my will. But for my sake, and Vald’s, and really, for Freddie’s--he's miserable, Connor. He loves very strongly when he lets himself, and I believe he’d let himself love you.”

“Let himself?”

“You know what I mean,” she teased. “He has so much on his plate. Watching him just be normal with you--it was nice for us too. Not that you should feel obligated to do something for us but, for what it’s worth, we loved having you with us.” Amalie shrugged, her shoulders rising to meet her ears with an elegant ease. “But we must admit you were hurt by him, and that is something we can never truly make amends for.”

“I--alright,” Connor said, somewhat at a loss for words. “So this is--what, an apology?”

“A formal apology from the Danish crown, yes,” Amalie said, leaning forward. “We have a signed letter and everything. I also personally brought the rest of your belongings, and a few gifts from the rest of us.”

That gave Connor pause. “Sorry--what?”

Amalie beamed. “Well, it’s almost Christmas, isn’t it? Everyone sent along a Christmas present for you. Well--not Freddie. He didn’t know we were doing it, and he’d certainly have blocked any attempts if we told him, so there’s nothing from him. Margarithe sent an assortment of books. All in Danish, I’m afraid, but she said there weren’t English translations available, and she thought they’d help your research. We put them in with your suitcases, since they were somewhat heavy."

Amalie reached into the bag beside her, and produced a few smaller packages. “Let’s see--Sebby sent a copy of his masters’ thesis, and a Danish for Beginners textbook--I promise he likes you, but you knew that already--and my mother sent an assortment of hand-knitted sweaters. She didn’t make them,” Amalie clarified, as if she sensed Connor’s horror at the idea of wearing a sweater hand-knitted by the Queen Dowager of Denmark. “They’re traditional Danish knits, though. My boyfriend sent an engraved pen--I had to talk him down from a national team hockey jersey. I brought you socks.”

Connor had to take a moment to process that. “Socks?”

“I give everyone socks for Christmas,” she said. “Family tradition. Oh! And Vald sent you a t-shirt for his team, and a game puck. And a frankly ridiculous amount of flødeboller.”

Connor had to smile, remembering afternoons sitting with Vald and working their way through a bakery box of flødeboller before someone tracked them down. Vald’s English was much better than Connor’s Danish, but Connor had helped edit Valdemar’s English homework assignments more than once.

“You didn’t have to bring me anything,” Connor said, even though he was already eyeing the flødeboller box.

Amalie reached over and smacked him. “It’s Christmas, you silly. We all like you and wanted to send something.” She smiled brightly. “Now, tell me how you’ve been and I’ll tell you about how Sebby nearly broke his foot trying to feed Josefine in the middle of the night and has had to hide his cast from the press for almost two weeks now.”

Connor let her draw him into a conversation, not realizing how much time had passed until a knock on the door drew his attention.

“Connor,” his mother said, coming into the room. She accepted Connor’s elbow and let herself be escorted into the room, her head scarf wrapped around her head and braided across the top. “Who’s this?”

“Ah, Mama, this is--”

“Amalie Andersen,” she said before Connor could introduce her as the princess, stepping forward to offer her hand. “I met your son while he was in Denmark. His views on the cultural effects of the Eddas into Scandinavian culture, and particularly Danish culture, were fascinating. I was in Toronto to visit a friend and I thought I'd drop by to see how his progress was going.”

Connor's mother shook Amalie’s hand. “Are you also studying the Eddas, then?”

“No, but my oldest brother has a fascination with them, and I got dragged into it by extension.” Amalie smiled brightly. “It’s wonderful to meet you; Connor mentioned you were a lovely woman when I first met him, and I’m glad to see it was nothing but the truth.”

“Flattery will get you anywhere,” Connor’s mother said. “Connor, are you going to show Miss Andersen around Etobicoke, then?”

“If she has time.”

“I actually need to go sooner rather than later,” Amalie said. “I have business to attend to in the city proper. Connor, think about what I said, alright?” She lifted onto her tiptoes and laid a kiss on his cheek. “It was good to see you. And a pleasure to meet you, Lady Brown.”

He saw her out the door with a hand on the small of her back, watching as her vehicle pulled away from out front and back onto the road.

“Well,” his mother said from behind him. “I certainly hope you were polite.”

“Mama?”

“It’s not every day a princess comes to Etobicoke,” she said lightly. “And if you breathe a word of this to your brother he’ll probably try to fly to Denmark and fight the whole royal family, so I suggest we keep this secret.”

Connor hid a smile in his sleeve. “Yes, Mama.”

“Now, you’ll be telling me everything,” she said. “Your brother won’t give me details about the wedding and it’s killing me, so you’d better fill my need for gossip.”

♔ | ♔ | ♔ | ♔

Connor stayed through Christmas and Jeff’s wedding, turning Amalie’s words and his mother’s advice over in his head.

He liked Freddie, was the thing. If they’d met while Freddie had been studying abroad, or if Freddie had been a commoner or a lower noble, Connor would have very happily agreed to a date. If Freddie had outright asked Connor out, even as the king, Connor wouldn’t have hesitated very long before agreeing.

But there had already been so much confusion between them. Freddie had pushed so hard at Connor’s first and second refusals that Connor now hesitated to consider reopening communication.

So Connor had these two things in his head. The easy choice would be to box up all feelings and to never set foot on Danish soil again--not Greenland, not Denmark proper--and never get the sweet Freddie he’d gotten to know again. The harder choice would be to return and try to build something, and hope it didn’t backfire.

Eventually he made a choice.

Mitch went with him, but only as far as Copenhagen itself. They had a room booked at a hotel, which was where Connor stared at his phone and tried to will himself to dial.

“I’d have thought they’d have flagged your passport,” Mitch said from where he was lounging on the bed. “It’s a minor miracle the Danish military haven’t already been by to collect you again.”

“They probably flagged my diplomatic one,” Connor said absently. “We both used our personals to enter the EU through Belgium. They won’t know we were here to come get me.”

“Fair,” Mitch said. “You gonna call, or what?”

♔ | ♔ | ♔ | ♔

The royal family was not in Copenhagen, as it turned out. Auston Matthews, however, was.

♔ | ♔ | ♔ | ♔

It was profoundly strange to see Auston Matthews, Premierløjtnant of the Danish Royal Guard, out of uniform. That might have had more to do with the ripped skinny jeans in January, or the leopard print button-down underneath his peacoat, but Connor wasn’t judging him.

Okay, he was judging, but mostly for the way Mitch and Auston visibly checked each other out for a full thirty seconds.

“Um, hi,” Connor said when the sexual tension got a bit too high for his taste. “Thanks for meeting us.”

“Huh? Oh. No problem. I’m on three-week leave, so I was still in the city. And it’ll make my life easier. His Majesty has been...in a mood, since you left.”

Connor blinked. “Translation?”

“The word I would prefer to use is technically treason,” Auston said flatly. “And I like my job.”

“So he’s been a nightmare.”

Auston quirked a smile at Connor; it was annoyingly charming. “More like he misses you and he’s been taking his loneliness out on everyone around him.”

“He never tried to contact me,” Connor said.

“He wouldn’t have, and anyways, Her Highness ordered everything regarding you to go through her,” Auston said. Connor still couldn't get over his idea of casual clothes. “Freddie could technically override her, but Amalie told him he’d been obsessing.”

“To be fair, he kind of was,” Mitch put in.

Auston shrugged. “Not arguing.” He rolled his eyes. “Anyways, the Royal Family is based out of the winter palace. If you’re willing to drive a few hours, I'll take you there, no problem.”

Denmark sparsely changed since his last visit, beyond the new storefronts opening and the airstrip being given a new wing. Snow had fallen thick, but was cleared on the main roads, making for easy passage.

The drive was long, but Connor was content to hear Mitch and Auston chat in the front seat. Upon arrival, he was happy to see familiar faces, the drivers, door attendants, and most important, Auston bridging the international gap with wide smiles. The relief that he was back on their native soil was more than obvious.

There wasn’t a wordy reunion between him and Auston--bad blood and unresolved conflicts--but they were civil enough to keep to themselves and have the conversations remain neutral. He couldn’t be more relieved to see the van pull up to the royal family’s winter home.

“He’s missed you,” Auston said. “But he wanted you to be happy, and--he was worried for your mother. After he found out Amalie went to see you, he didn’t talk to her for a week.”

“Jealousy?”

Auston shook his head. “Anger. He didn’t want you to feel like he’d send friends to harass you until you returned. He wanted you to make a choice on your own, and if that choice was to stay away, then that was a choice you made.”

He couldn’t tell if Auston blamed him or not, but the self-induced judgement alone was choking him. He wasn’t about to play victim or vice versa, but it felt cruel just up and leaving at such a crucial point in the relationship. Freddie was always there for him, even to his detriment, and he couldn’t muster the strength to call.

This study had fewer books and less dark wood, but it looked very similar to Freddie’s study in Copenhagen. The man himself was at the desk, looking exhausted as he shuffled through documents.

“A visitor, your royal majesty,” Auston announced, moving aside so that Connor could get a better look. The crumpled excuse for a king in front of him made his heart pound.

Freddie didn’t even look up. “Not now, Matts,” he said, voice solem and lacking much emotion beyond grief. Connor deflated upon hearing the stark weaknesses in it; a king who’d been beaten down too many times and stopped getting up. To think he was responsible cut him deep.

“No time for me, then?” Connor asked, stepping forward to make room for himself.

Freddie’s head shot up. “You--”

“As I was saying,” Auston said, smirking. “The Right Honorable Connor Brown of Canada, son of the Earl of Ebitocoke, to see you, sir.”

Freddie was already up and moving across the room, pulling Connor into a crushing embrace. “You’re here,” he whispered into the skin behind Connor’s ear. His raw strength threatened to take Connor off the ground, and as both of them came to the realization Freddie made it a reality. Connor was a few inches off the ground, squirming in his grip, but not out of discomfort.

“Yeah, I’m back.” He buried his nose into Freddie’s throat. “I missed you.”

They made a slow descent down as Freddie kneeled, taking Connor with him. The once large and intimidating man was now making little sniffing noises, like a kitten. Connor would try to rearrange himself and Freddie would just hold on tighter. They were in their own little world for a while, blind to the court moving around them and Auston’s speculative looks.

After the phase of reconciliation there came excitement where Freddie perked up, his speech almost slurring as he fought to explain all that had happened. A rush of events flew at Connor, some spoken in such eloquent Danish that he couldn’t hope to understand, but he nodded along anyways. Just hearing Freddie’s voice, the deep rumble like a boat sailing over waves, was relaxing. Was another form of home.

He let Freddie lead him up and away from the study in the direction of the bedrooms, as his equal, and Connor obliged without protest.

♔ | ♔ | ♔ | ♔

Only a week in and they’d adopted their old routine, like nothing had ever changed. Freddie refused to talk about the period of time where Connor had left, instead focusing on the present. Although he was likely overburdened with royal affairs and ministry, Freddie never faltered from keeping Connor busy. They practically slept in the library.

On one hand, he was relieved. On the other, he wanted there to be change. He’d left at such a time of crisis that he wanted Freddie’s responses and outlook towards him to change. After all, his departure had been a big moment for both of them.

It was the same pendant. Connor didn’t know why he’d ever expected differently.

“Maybe you should explain this time,” Connor said, only half-teasing. “Make sure we’re on the same page this time.”

Freddie chuckled. “Alright, puttemus. This is a pendant with my seal. It’s not an engagement ring, but a promise I’ll ask once the Folketing has issued their approval. The chain is long so you can hide it or display it as you wish. Would you like to wear it?”

Connor nodded. “Put it on me.” He dipped his head so Freddie could fasten the chain, and then caught Freddie for a kiss. “I’ll say yes. When you ask, I’ll say yes. I need to finish my studies before I take on consort duties, but ask and I will agree.”

“You’re sure?”

“Things will have to be different,” Connor said, biting his lower lip.

Freddie leaned in and kissed Connor again. “How so?”

“I get to leave when I want. My own rooms, separate from yours. I finish my studies before we marry. And if it stops working, we talk.”

“Of course,” Freddie said, reaching out and twining his fingers in the chain. “Anything you want.”

“What if I said I wanted you to carry me to bed, would you accommodate me?” Connor let his eyelids fall shut just the tiniest bit, attempting to look as coy as possible to compliment what he was saying. Freddie mirrored the notion, putting both his hands on Connor’s hips to slide him closer to the edge of the desk.

Connor opened up his arms, expecting to be bridal carried and maybe swept off his feet in some grand gesture of love. He wasn’t wrong for thinking a romantic like Freddie would want the fairytale ending with the eventual exchange of vows and a touch of the lips. In some faithful recreation of all those old historical documentaries he’d watched as a kid, he wouldn’t mind relaxing into their shared bed with maybe a plate of grapes beside them to munch on as they listened to the patter of the rain hitting the trees outside, shutting his meetings away for some other day.

Freddie technically did all of that in spades, only, he ducked before Connor could wrap his open arms around his neck and lodged his broad shoulder into Connor’s chest instead, forcing an oof out of him as he realized he was slumped up and over Freddie’s back with a grand view of the floor spread out beneath them.

“Fancy meeting you here,” Connor said to Freddie’s ass. He gave it a friendly pat with the hand not gripping the back of Freddie’s shirt. Beneath him, Freddie rumbled with laughter.

Freddie smacked Connor’s ass in return. Totally unprofessional and equally wonderful, in Connor’s opinion. At the very least, the copious laughter ripped from his throat in reply reminded him that it was the happiest he’d been in years.