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You Want It Darker

Chapter Text

We're not done 'til we say it's over.

We won't fade away.

- Tomorrow Never Dies, 5 Seconds of Summer

 

The jets were screaming across the lilac sky, trailing smoke as they fired missiles at each other, trying to knock enemy fighters out of the clouds and into the carnage below.

The roar of artillery fire was deafening to the soldiers fighting down on the Boneflats, sending them flinching instinctively for cover as the last surviving Claritan regiment scrabbled to reform under the heavy fire they were sustaining.

Ashton could barely breathe past the choking smoke as he scraped himself out of the dirt. The deep grazes on his palms were stinging from where he'd thrown himself down to avoid a blast of lightning cast by one of the enemy soldiers and the adrenaline felt like it was boiling his blood in his veins as his magic begged for release.

The soldiers from Tenebris definitely had the upper hand and Ashton’s heart clenched unpleasantly in his chest as he watched one of his comrades crumple beside him, water overflowing from his orifices as he drowned on dry land, eyes bulging and lips parted in panic as he was murdered by one more faceless Tenebran soldier.

Ashton wanted to help him but there was nothing he could do now. He was no medic and his fire magic was ill-suited to healing. The man's limp form was jerking on the parched grass, nothing but the whites of his eyes visible as the water leaked like poison from the corner of his mouth.

Ashton hated water magic more than any other ability, mostly because it was so painfully effective at reducing his own powers to little more than coiling steam.

It was absolutely brutal... but Ashton should have been used to brutal by now. He'd been fighting in this war for well over a year and the carnage was something he saw every day, no matter the mission or the battle.

There was no reason why the death of this one soldier should shake him up so much now, especially when he took into account all of the enemies he had been forced to kill himself.

The man had stopped twitching now and, as he finally stilled, Ashton realised with a jolt that perhaps his best friend Laura would have been able to help save him. She was the best healer he knew but she'd been swallowed up by the battle some time ago and he could only pray that she was safe, wherever she had ended up.

One of the generals nearby was shouting for the troops to pull back, his voice tight and strained as the words sent the panic flaring to life in Ashton’s chest.

The chaos seemed to unfold before his dazed hazel eyes as he stared in horror at the Tenebran fighters making one last desperate push, forcing the Claritans back towards the cliffs where escape would be impossible as their bullets slammed into hastily cast forcefields.

As he watched the grim realisation settling on the faces of the strangers fighting beside him, Ashton knew this was their last stand. The end was near and it didn't matter how desperately they had fought for their lives; for their loved ones; for their great country.

They would still be killed. They would still become just a little more dust covering the hungry ground of the Boneflats.

The war would be lost today and the nation of Claritas would fall... unless Ashton could put his terror and anger to good use, and buy them time for reinforcements to get here. The idea frightened him beyond belief but he was the Crown Prince and his parents had sent him here to set a good example to his people; to save as many souls as possible and turn the tide of the war.

This was Ashton’s duty and his heart-stopping panic didn’t come into the equation now. There was no time for something as human as fear.

His trembling palms left blood streaked on his dirty cheeks as he rubbed his face, trying to calm himself with little success.

The enemy soldiers were pressing closer now, crackling with confidence and power. The air was alive with their abilities: lethal sparks of electricity coiled around knuckles; flames licked menacingly at clawed fingers; choking vines erupted from the baked ground to force the weakened regiment back against the rocks.

The Tenebrans were toying with them now that they were sure victory was a certainty and Ashton’s rage filled him as he burst from the safety of his ranks, his eyes alight with his desperate need to do the right thing as one of the Claritan jets crashed to the ground, streaming fire and twisted metal.

Ashton reached for the flames instinctively, coaxing them over to coil around his outstretched hand as the fireball burnt brighter and hotter. He kept feeding it with his terror and anger, uncaring of how exhausted he was now as he drained himself of energy.

It was the only way to hold the Tenebrans back. No matter how painful, he had to stop them. There was no other option.

“Ash!” a painfully familiar voice shouted warningly and it sounded like Laura, faint enough that she must have been far back in the crowd but had still seen his reckless display of power. “Ash, no!”

Ashton couldn’t afford to listen to her now; not when he might finally have found a way to cow the Tenebrans into submission. The fireball was roaring in the air above him, the heat blistering as the Claritan soldiers pushed themselves further back against the cliffs to escape the burn of it.

Only the Crown Prince remained unscathed as he held it aloft, safe in the knowledge that it was impossible for him to harm himself with his own ability; only draining himself of energy and power could hurt him now.

Ashton took a step forwards but, before he could send the ball of flame hurtling down to scatter the Tenebrans, a bullet slammed into the ground near his feet. It kicked up a cloud of dust and that distraction was his downfall. His concentration broke and the weight of the immense fireball was suddenly crushing as his knees weakened under him, his eyes widening in alarm.

The colour drained from his face when he realised he’d gone too far and he swayed suddenly, barely strong enough to hold himself upright as the hungry flames seemed to contract above him, tightening into something unquestionably lethal.

He’d fed it so much of his power that it had grown dangerously volatile and there was no way on all of Cerasus that Ashton could regain control of the fireball now.

There was nowhere for it to go.

His knees hit the ground as the magic in his veins reached boiling point and he felt like he was floating away as the soldiers on both sides seemed to hold their breath, the sudden silence jarring after the constant barrage of machine gun fire and the whine of jet engines.

“I’m sorry,” Ashton breathed as his hands fell to hang limply by his sides, his heart jerking horribly in his chest as the fireball surrounded him for a moment, completely encasing him in flame.

It exploded like a bomb, a wave of fire and pure magic rolling out with the force of a pyroclastic flow. It tore the armies apart and Ashton barely had time to feel the dread rocketing through him at the realisation of what he’d done when he heard a low rumble as the cliffs crumbled apart behind him.

The few survivors were screaming as the boulders crashed down onto the Boneflats, crushing and deadly. Anyone still able was running now, desperate to escape from the rockslide Ashton had caused as he slumped there helplessly on the scorched ground. He didn’t even have the strength to look up as his death approached.

Above the rising booms of the boulders falling around him, he thought he heard Laura calling his name.

After that, Ashton’s awareness became limited to agony and terror, and the burn of his flames licking at the brittle grass around him as his bones snapped like twigs beneath the weight of the rocks.

An indiscernible amount of time passed, broken only by pain and blood, and terrible numbness. The sizzle of forcefields shattered the ringing silence, accompanied by the grunts of soldiers whose abilities gifted them superhuman strength as they hauled the rocks from the broken body of their Crown Prince.

The last thing Ashton remembered beneath the blinding pain was Laura’s frightened face looking down at him, her tear-streaked cheeks smeared with blood and ash, and then -

Everything was gone.

Chapter Text

We found our way back home,

Let our cuts and bruises heal,

While a brand-new war began,

One that no one else could feel.

- Mars, Sleeping At Last

 

There was no rushing healing.

Ashton had heard those words more times than he cared to admit over the last six months and he hated them with a passion. Whenever he became disheartened with his gruelling physiotherapy or the frustrating absence of his old magic, someone would pipe up in a deliberately sympathetic voice just how brave he was being on this difficult journey.

Privately, Ashton wondered how they could call what he was experiencing a ‘journey’. That sounded too positive; too much like something with an end in sight… and there was no happy ending for him. This was karma, kismet, destiny. This was the hand Fate had dealt him for murdering so many people in a war there had been no business fighting in the first place.

There had been no glory or honour. No greater good.

Just death and horror, and haunting nightmares that refused to stop plaguing him.

Sometimes, Ashton felt like he’d never stopped fighting at all. He still saw the sun-bleached grass of the Boneflats whenever he closed his eyes. He still tasted the smoke and blood whenever he let his guard down.

The magic under his skin was almost gone now, burnt out the day Ashton had foolishly tried to save his regiment by channelling all of his rage and terror into power. He'd regretted it ever since when his good intentions inevitably turned out bad.

His act of unintentionally violent magic had wiped out a dizzying number of soldiers fighting on both sides of the war, the scale of the tragedy so harrowing that a ceasefire had been called while the fighters collected their dead.

The media would have pounced on anyone who committed an atrocity of that magnitude - war or not - but the fact that it was the nation of Claritas’ golden boy only served to make their ghoulish stories so much more popular.

The pictures of Crown Prince Ashton lying broken at the heart of the blast zone would circulate on every comms channel for months, the white grass of the Boneflats stained with blood and charred flesh.

When Ashton had woken up weeks later in the medical bay back at his family’s palatial estate in the capital city of Aureum, the guilt he felt had been almost as suffocating as the hatred radiating from the media. The Prince was only alive because of the quick thinking of his closest friend Laura and she had come under a lot of scrutiny for her actions in choosing to save Ashton over however many other hundreds who had been severely wounded that day.

Ashton would never forgive himself for the suffering she must have inevitably gone through while he was unconscious. Laura had been training to be a healer since she was a child, eager to follow in her parents’ footsteps by serving the royal Irwin family however she could. Ashton had grown up with her and the idea that anyone had been cruel to the eldest Hemmings sibling while he was unable to defend her had caused him almost as much anguish as his injuries did.

Even despite Laura’s best efforts, Ashton had still almost died on that fateful day. After his fiery powers had engulfed him, he had been left weaker than a lamb and the rockslide had been impossible to avoid. It had torn across the Boneflats like a storm and Ashton’s spine had been badly broken during the crush.

Only Laura’s stasis spell had kept him alive long enough for a more powerful healer to be summoned but she’d almost drained herself of energy in the process. There were pictures of the pair lying slumped together on the cracked ground, her hands blistering with burns from the searing heat of the Prince’s skin, his expression vacant and unknowing of the carnage spread out like a gristly flower around him.

Ashton was sure he would never forgive himself for implicating Laura in this mess. All she’d wanted to do was serve her country and keep him safe, and he’d thrown her unceremoniously into the spotlight of a desperate nation who were hungry for anything they could tear apart to smother their own suffering.

A fragile truce had been declared after the ceasefire but it was tenuous at best and no one on either side of the war truly believed that peace would last. There was too much resentment now; too much anger and bitterness for the fighting just to be dismissed, at least without a suitable alternative for the people of each nation to channel their emotions into.

A heavy sigh escaped Ashton as he clung to the parallel bar he’d been provided, glowering balefully at his surroundings as he tried to find the courage to let go of the cold metal. His muscles were already protesting the continued abuse but he forced himself to release his grip as he struggled to take a few steps without the support.

He was exhausted, the sweat beading on his skin as his curls stuck to his forehead and his t-shirt clung to his back but he refused to give up. He just wanted to get out of this damned hospital room but that wouldn’t be possible until the medi-tech had properly taken hold and, with the remaining dregs of his magic swarming beneath his skin like a mass of wasps, that wasn’t likely to be quick.

“Aren’t you supposed to be resting?” a wryly amused voice asked from behind him. Ashton jerked his head up guiltily, his cheeks flaming at the sight of Luke Hemmings leaning casually against the doorframe, his caramel-coloured curls tumbling across his forehead as he watched his childhood best friend curiously.

“No,” Ashton mumbled, straightening his shoulders and trying to pretend that he wasn’t on the point of collapsing right now. “Niall wants me to get up every hour and spend quarter of an hour walking around. I’ll never get back to normal if I don’t do that.” Luke’s blue eyes softened as he sidled towards the older boy, his hands buried in the pockets of his jeans as his teeth sank uneasily into his bottom lip. Things had been awkward between them for a while now, long before Ashton had woken up back home after bringing two armies to their knees single-handedly, and the Crown Prince wasn’t a fool, no matter what the media were saying. He knew exactly what had caused his relationship with Luke to take a turn for the worst.

They’d dated for a little while - almost two years ago now, although it felt like a lifetime ago - but they’d been best friends for as long as he could remember. It had always been Ashton and the Hemmings siblings against the world, and that would probably never change, no matter how much water had flooded under that particular proverbial bridge.

Luke and Ashton had broken up over a year ago, back when the older boy and Laura had turned eighteen and been called to fight in the war against the Tenebrans. At sixteen, Luke had had to stay in the relative safety of Claritas and, despite the younger boy’s bitterness at feeling as though he’d been abandoned by them, their split had been amicable enough.

Secretly, Ashton was fairly certain the pair were better-suited to remaining just friends anyway. They’d always got along best platonically and the only reason they’d even tried dating in the first place was that they’d both come out at the same time, and figured that they may as well give things a go together. Their relationship had always been missing something though and it hadn’t taken long for the Crown Prince to realise that no magical ability on all of Cerasus could force romantic love where there wasn’t any.

Ashton had tried so hard and he’d hated himself for feeling like he was letting Luke down, especially when he cared about him so much. He’d almost been glad when he’d been called away to fight because at least that had given him a reason to leave without looking like a coward but, somehow, that had only made him hate himself more because… damnit, Luke was one of his best friends and Ashton loved him - would probably always love him - but not in the right way.

Ashton loved Luke the same way he loved Laura, like a sibling, and anything else felt wrong.

“I swear medi-tech is more exciting than any magic,” the younger boy murmured, his blue eyes softening as he took in the shaky steps the Crown Prince was taking without the help of the bar. “You wouldn’t even be able to stand up if Niall hadn’t been smart enough to come up with that nifty bit of kit. It’s amazing.”

The ‘bit of kit’ Luke was referring to was a complicated invention that curved like a flower petal around each damaged vertebrae, strengthening and repairing until all of the physical damage was completely healed. The kit had been designed by Niall Horan, the best healer Claritas had to offer and a friend of the Crown Prince too.

Niall’s exceptional skills were only deepened by his ability to empathise with his patients and understand exactly where they were feeling pain. It was often a harrowing experience for him but he would never have countenanced pursuing a different career path. All Niall ever wanted to do was help people and make them feel as comfortable as he could, and that was why he had happily accepted the challenge of building the medi-tech for Ashton during the long weeks he’d spent in a coma after the final battle.

Niall would never give up on anyone.

Luke was hovering closer now, his fingertips pressing deliberately into his thighs like he was trying to keep from reaching out just in case the older boy wobbled. Ashton was glad when Luke refrained as he struggled back towards the hospital bed he hated so much. Even walking this short distance was easier than it had been the week before and he knew he was physically healing. He just needed to be given the chance.

“I want to go home,” Ashton said softly, before he could think better of the words. It didn’t seem to matter that he was already on his family’s estate, just a ten minute walk from the royal apartments on the top floor of the sprawling complex. He felt about a million miles removed from his normal life and he knew his injuries weren’t the only factor to blame; not when he still saw the Boneflats every time he closed his eyes.

Luke sat down beside him hesitantly, keeping a deliberate space between them although their fingertips brushed where their hands were resting on the blankets. There was no spark when they touched; no electricity… just the comfortable familiarity of a best friend he’d known since childhood.

“You can go home soon, Ash,” Luke murmured, his earnest blue eyes gentle and sad. He glanced around the room helplessly, clearly searching for a subject change and alighting on one after only minimal searching. “Hey, why’s that window boarded up? I’m sure it wasn’t like that yesterday.”

“It wasn’t,” Ashton said dully, his heart sinking in his chest as he started on the stretches Niall had assigned him to work on building up his muscles again. “Someone threw a brick through the window.”

Someone had already been called to fix it and Ashton hated so much that it was a perfect metaphor for the hatred a large number of the population still felt for him after the unimaginable death toll he had caused on the Boneflats. The Crown Prince of Claritas was held in disgrace, either inspiring loathing or terrified awe, and it felt like it would never end.

“It’s okay though, Luke,” the older boy added reassuringly when he saw the shock saturating his friend’s face. “Dad assigned guards to search for who did it.”

“You mean the cameras didn’t catch them?” Luke asked anxiously, his teeth sinking into his bottom lip so hard it went bloodless. Ashton wanted to stop him from hurting himself but he wasn’t sure he was allowed anymore. The younger boy reached to entwine their fingers tightly and Ashton felt a lump rise in his throat as he stared down at the floor, feeling more lost than he ever had.

“They were wearing a mask I think,” he said quietly, shrugging and relishing in the fact that it no longer caused him pain. “At least it didn’t hit me the way they wanted.”

“Your dad should’ve sent Laura to track them down,” Luke joked weakly, still looking shaken up. “She’d yell at someone for even looking at you funny so I dread to think what she’d do to some bastard chucking bricks at you.”

They shared a moment of soft laughter before Ashton’s shoulders slumped as a soft sigh escaped him.

“How is Laura?” he asked quietly, his hand trembling a little in the younger boy’s comforting grip. It was rare for Luke to visit without his older sister being present too and Ashton was determined not to waste the opportunity, even if he did miss her warm demeanour as she tried to cheer him up from the countless slumps he’d found himself in since returning from the war. “She always insists she’s fine but… I don’t believe her. I’ve seen the shitty things people are saying about her on the comms channels. They’re so horrible to her for saving me instead of the others...”

Ashton’s hazel eyes were glassy with tears as his voice trailed away and he shook his head slowly, still in awe of how self-sacrificing she had been in her desperate efforts to keep him alive. Her healing was a lot less precise than Niall’s delicate handiwork since her baptism of fire had very much been in fixing up battle wounds but she’d done such a good job that day, even at the expense of her own health and reputation.

The burns she’d sustained from the Crown Prince’s burning skin had left terrible scarring on her hands, even despite Niall doing what he could to lessen it, and Ashton could tell by the fingerless gloves she often wore that she was self-conscious of the injuries, especially when people viewed them so negatively because of what they symbolised.

Laura didn’t deserve to feel bad for trying to keep her best friend alive. She’d already suffered so much after the countless traumatic injuries she’d healed out on the Boneflats and, now that she was home again, the bad press she constantly received for saving the Crown Prince who had caused such unimaginable devastation was the last thing she needed.

“Laura is doing a lot better than she was,” Luke said after a long, long moment. “She was in a state while you were sleeping but… well, she’s feeling better about things now. Niall sat with her I think; helped her get to the bottom of what she was feeling. He’s a good guy.”

Ashton watched his friend with soft eyes, feeling a little of the tension leak from his aching muscles as he finally received the reassurance he’d been so desperate for. He was glad to hear that Laura really was feeling more positive now, especially when she seemed uninclined to share her problems with Ashton the way she always had done in the past, and he couldn’t deny his relief that her brother and Niall had been there for her during such a difficult time.

As the Crown Prince looked at Luke, he was struck by just how similar the younger boy and his sister appeared. They shared the same blond hair and blue eyes but Luke’s expression was infinitely more unhappy. He always looked sad these days - had done for the last few years if the older boy was being honest with himself - but there was something more pronounced about the misery buried in Luke’s pale face now; something that made it look like he was silently crying out for help.

“Laura’s been trying really hard to act like she doesn’t give a shit what people are saying about her.” The younger boy shrugged, his teeth worrying at his bottom lip again as Ashton stroked his thumb soothingly over his friend’s knuckles. “She doesn’t want to give anyone the satisfaction of knowing they can hurt her, y’know? Not when she knows she did the right thing.”

Luke gave his hand a gentle squeeze and Ashton sighed heavily, glancing once more towards the boarded up window and the patch of floor where the shards of broken glass had glittered so menacingly the night before.

“She’s braver than me,” the Crown Prince murmured as he stretched his back out hesitantly, his teeth gritted against the unpleasant ache. Luke tangled his fingers together in his lap when Ashton’s hand slipped from his, watching the older boy with exhaustion and sadness evident on his pale face.

“She’s braver than both of us,” the younger boy muttered but his eyes were intent on Ashton’s face and he seemed to realise that the pain in the Prince’s expression wasn’t just because of his injuries. “Laura doesn’t blame you, Ash. How many times does she have to say that before you believe it’s the truth?” Luke bit his lip suddenly, his face tightening even as his tone became softer. “Maybe when you accept that you’re not to blame for what happened too, yeah?”

“Tell that to the people chucking bricks through my window,” Ashton breathed quite certain that his voice would crack if he spoke any louder. The knot of unshed tears was rising chokingly in his throat now and he swallowed hard against it, his eyes prickling at how badly he was hurting. “I think you’re one of the only people who doesn’t hate me.”

Luke’s face crumpled at the tears spilling down the older boy’s face and he pulled him into a hug unthinkingly, his heart aching when Ashton’s shaking hand fisted in the back of his jumper to keep him close. Luke was trembling when he carded his fingers lightly through the Prince’s honey-coloured curls and it felt so safe to be held in the younger boy’s arms again that, for a moment, Ashton almost forgot anything had ever changed between them at all.

A sudden knock on the door sent the pair of them separating sharply and Niall looked awkward when he entered the room to the sight of Luke straightening his jumper as Ashton flattened his hair clumsily. The healer was quick to paste a sunny smile across his face though and, when the Prince finally looked up at him with tears streaking his cheeks, Niall was kind enough not to comment on it.

“Afternoon, you two,” the older man said, smiling weakly as he ran a pale hand through his tousled brown hair. His gaze flickered unconsciously to Luke’s suddenly-blushing face and Niall’s lips twitched as he refocused on Ashton.

“I want to go home,” the Prince said stubbornly, predictable as always.

“Show me you can walk up and down the stairs alone, and then I’ll let you leave,” Niall said apologetically as he buried his hands in his pockets. “But until then, you’ll have to stay here, I’m afraid.” He took in Ashton’s slight pout and rolled his blue eyes fondly. “You always were a terrible patient, Ash; you know that?”

“I’m the Crown Prince,” he said sulkily, clearly trying to cheer Luke up. “You can’t talk to me that way.”

“Course I can, Irwin,” Niall said with an easy shrug. “You should’ve heard some of the stories Lukey was telling me while you were sleeping. I’ll never be able to take you seriously again.”

Luke’s face split into a broad grin, his warm eyes crinkling as a laugh escaped him, and it wasn’t until that moment that Ashton realised just how sad his friend had looked before Niall’s sudden appearance. He wondered what it meant for a moment before he realised that it had nothing to do with him at all anymore.

He’d upset Luke enough over the last year and Ashton had no intention of making things any harder than they needed to be now. His friend deserved so much better than that.

Niall and Luke were still grinning at each other when the Prince climbed laboriously to his feet. He crossed the suddenly silent room falteringly, grimacing a little although he made it in one piece. He had to lean against the wall for a moment to catch his breath but he remained standing and he was proud of himself for that.

Luke sighed unhappily as he watched his friend. Niall just looked tired.

“Where are you going, Ash?” the younger boy asked heavily as he rose from the bed, standing shoulder to shoulder with the healer.

“The stairs,” Ashton said with another shrug. This one ached a little but he refused to let the slight pain show on his face. “I’m going to climb them on my way out of here.” He squared his jaw, his hazel eyes flashing with determination as he shot the hospital room one last baleful look. “I’ve had enough. I’m going back home.”

*

Tenebris was always cold in winter but this year was particularly bitter.

Calum was shivering as he hunched up in his thick black coat, his eyes watering at the biting wind as he stood immobile in the graveyard. It was Clifford Memorial Day and the gloomy atmosphere that always accompanied the occasion hung heavily in the air, as choking as the smog that coiled poisonously through the twisting streets of Effervo’s more lawless districts; home to the drug laboratories and black markets, right there in the heart of the capital city of Tenebris.

There was a man reading a poem at the front of the shivering crowd, his quavering words lost in the wind, his form appearing shrunken as he stood between the weathered graves of Daryl and Karen Clifford, two influential Tenebran politicians who had been assassinated fourteen years before. They were survived by a single son who was the object of Calum’s attention right now.

Michael had been his best friend for as long as he could remember and Calum would forever be grateful for the older boy’s high status, awarded to him by his deceased parents. Without it, Calum was in no doubt that his father King David of Tenebris would have refused to allow the two to spend any time together at all.

The quivering man was still working his way through the poem but the Prince barely paid him any mind. He was more focused on the heat of Michael’s shoulder where the older boy was leaning against him, heavy and needy, like he badly needed his best friend to lend him strength. Calum reached for Michael’s hand, uncaring of how it might look to the press or the devious politicians gnawing at their heels as the Prince stood at the front of the crowd of mourners.

Michael gripped his hand like a lifeline as the cracks in his armour finally began to show. A tear rolled down his cheek and he squeezed his emerald eyes shut in panic, hating the idea of showing weakness now, especially when the reporters were circling like vultures, so desperate for anything they could make into a story.

Showing emotion in Tenebris was never the smartest idea – unless of course you wanted to be mocked and treated like a child for the foreseeable future – so Calum couldn’t exactly blame his best friend for looking quite so anxious at the prospect of breaking down in front of the cameras broadcasting this grim event for all of the ghoulish Tenebrans across the nation.

“Watch this, Mikey,” he breathed, leaning close enough that his lips brushed the older boy’s sandy-coloured hair. Michael glanced at him in teary-eyed confusion and Calum smirked a little as he raised his free hand subtly at his side, his fingers twisting lazily together as he collected the moisture from the air using his abilities.

He gathered the water vapour until he had a good-sized droplet in his palm before he sent it flying through the cold air into the quivering man’s face with a casual flick of his fingers. The man looked mildly perturbed as he glanced towards the cloudless sky in bewilderment but persevered with his tedious reading regardless and Calum frowned, his eyes narrowing a little as Michael began to smile beside him.

This simply wouldn’t do at all.

Calum coaxed more water into his palm this time, adding to it until it was closer to the size of a plum now and definitely too big to just dismiss. He glanced over at Michael cheekily and saw his best friend’s poorly-suppressed delight as his emerald eyes glittered with mischief, and the Prince had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from sniggering when he saw his older sister Mali watching him suspiciously where she was standing on his other side. Her expression was equal parts amused but disapproving and she had to cover her shocked laughter with a cough when Calum delicately sent the ball of water hurtling into the mind-numbingly boring man's face.

The man spluttered loudly in shock as he dropped his now-soaked poetry book onto the grass and Michael let out a snort before he could stop himself as he tried to keep from giggling at his dead parents’ memorial service, lest the media smear him over the comms channels for his ‘lack of propriety’ again.

“Stop trying to waterboard him, you little shit!” Mali hissed, her brown eyes sparkling with amusement as she failed to glower at her brother. Calum kept his gaze fixed firmly ahead, hoping that the dimples creasing his cheeks weren’t obvious as he tried not to chuckle at the sight of the harried-looking man squelching off to get dry.

The Prince stiffened suddenly when he felt something sharp prickling his ankle and he looked down in surprise, a grimace creasing his tanned face when he saw the thorny vine erupting from the muddy grass. It was coiled painfully around his leg, just loose enough not to draw blood although that might change if Calum foolishly tried to escape.

He gritted his teeth when he finally found the courage to raise his head, his heart clenching unpleasantly in his chest when he saw his father watching him coldly from the other side of the graves, his expression nothing short of murderous. Clearly, David had noticed his son's poor behaviour and Calum felt like a little kid under the weight of the disappointed looks his parents were shooting him.

He pressed his lips together so hard they want bloodless as he nodded fractionally and, after a moment, the thorny vine sank back into the mud, leaving a single shallow scrape behind on the Prince’s skin, like a warning.

Michael’s hand slipped into Calum’s and the younger boy leant entwined their fingers firmly, grounding himself against the unease bubbling in his stomach at the icy anger on David’s face. He didn’t regret his silliness though; he couldn’t when it had so successfully dried the tears from Michael’s eyes.

Calum would never stop trying to make his best friend happy, no matter how dire the consequences might be. He’d made that promise to himself when he was just five years old on the night when Michael’s parents had been killed and the little sandy-haired boy had fallen to pieces. Calum had spent the next few weeks doing everything he could to make Michael smile again – sharing his toys and tickling him with his water droplets, and impressing the older boy with his clumsy but enthusiastic cartwheels – and seeing those sunny smiles spreading across his best friend’s face again had been the best feeling in the world.

Calum had never once stopped trying to make Michael Clifford happy.

He was going to keep his promise for the rest of his life.

His father’s anger felt less significant in the face of his love for his best friend, no matter how frowned upon it might be in Tenebris. Their society as a whole was cold and unfriendly, in sharp contrast to all of the sordid details of everyone’s lives being smeared over the comms channels, and the royal Hood family were even icier, setting a high standard for all the Tenebrans who longed to be as detached and unemotional as their rulers, wrongly assuming that it would finally make them contented.

If the press could see what went on behind closed doors – the pulsing veins and roaring anger; the choked sobs and ominous threats – their stories would have disappointed the nation because the Hoods weren’t emotionless robots at all. They were just as dysfunctional and emotional as everyone else, no matter how hard David had tried to stamp it out of them.

Calum was lost in his thoughts and the throbbing of the cut on his ankle when Michael nudged him gently to get his attention. It appeared that the ceremony was over now and the Prince was glad of that; relieved to get out of the cold and hopefully spend the rest of the day doing something more pleasant to take Michael’s mind off his grief.

The wind picked up as the majority of the crowd started the slow trudge back up the steep hill towards the citadel, skirting around the graves where they jutted like broken teeth out of the muddy ground. Michael had drifted closer to his parents’ final resting place now, his head ducked like he was listening to something that no one else could hear.

Calum hovered nearby, his gaze flickering anxiously between his best friend and the hungry expressions of the paparazzi lingering by the fences, clearly desperate to come close enough for a good picture. Fortunately, Mali’s cold expression kept them from approaching and, for once, the Prince was glad of his sister’s reputation for being an ‘ice queen’, no matter how much it hurt her feelings, because at least it kept them from interrupting Michael’s mourning.

It did make Calum worry about Mali though. He knew she wasn’t exactly happy – quite honestly, that seemed an impossible feat in his family – but she didn’t normally look quite so despairing. The Prince sidled closer to her, his bottom lip pinched between his teeth as he hooked his chin over her shoulder. She scowled at him weakly without moving away so he decided to count that one as a win.

“What’s wrong, smiley?” Calum asked, tactful as ever. He’d given her the nickname when he was little, mostly because she glared at him about ninety five percent of the time, and she could tell by the twinkle in his chocolate brown eyes that he still thought he was ridiculously amusing even now. Mali’s scowl deepened as she folded her arms tightly over the expensive coat she was wearing, her painted lips pursed unhappily.

“Nothing to do with you, peanut,” she said before suddenly wavering, like the lie hadn’t come as easily as she’d expected. Calum tilted his head to one side inquisitively and his older sister rolled her eyes, a huff of breath escaping her. “Fine,” she said heavily, her shoulders slumping a little. “I broke up with Ashley this morning. Are you happy?”

“Why would that make me happy?” Calum asked softly, more than a little hurt. She sighed and he felt a little of the hurt bleed away, aware that she hadn’t meant to snap at him. He pressed a brief kiss to her shoulder, not lingering since he didn’t particularly want to end up plastered across the comms channels tomorrow for daring to show his family member affection, and Mali drew away unwillingly, her eyes grateful and unusually soft as she gave her brother a gentle look.

“It’s been coming for a long time,” she said with a half-hearted shrug. “Ever since Ashley went to fight on the Boneflats and I didn’t. I thought things would be okay when she came back but… they’re not. I don’t know how to fix it.”

Calum wasn’t sure what to say but he still felt bad that he couldn’t make things better for his older sister. She deserved to be happy too, just like Michael did, and he cared about their wellbeing a lot more than his own. He always had done.

Maybe Calum could find Ashley and talk to her about what had happened. Maybe he’d be able to make her see sense.

“Don’t go interfering, peanut,” Mali said warningly. “If I catch you sticking your nose in, I’ll –” She broke off suddenly, her jaw squaring as she quickly stared down into the grass, and Calum didn’t have to look to realise that his parents were crossing the graveyard towards them.

“Calum,” David said coldly, his footsteps unnervingly silent as his wife Joy lingered beside him, her fingers wrapped like talons around his muscular arm. “Come to my study as soon as you’re back in the citadel.” There was a self-satisfied glint in his eyes that was distinctly unsettling. “I need to speak to you.”

David left without waiting for an answer, his dark gaze blank as he swept away in his fur-lined black cloak, and Calum barely managed to resist rolling his eyes at his father’s theatrics as he watched the older man leave. The cut on his ankle giving a phantom throb and Calum’s frown deepened as the paparazzi’s cameras began to flash blindingly at the wary expression on his face.

Mali stepped in front of him smoothly, blocking her little brother from view while he got himself back under control.

“Go now,” she murmured, glancing worriedly after her parents before her eyes flickered to the press, slavering over them like bloodhounds. “I’ll look after Mike until you get back.”

“Thanks, smiley,” Calum sighed, running his fingers through his dark curls as he shot his best friend one last concerned look. He could feel the blood running down into his sock now and he bit his lip, wincing at the feeling. “I’ll come and find him in a bit.”

He trudged up to the citadel alone, his shaking hands buried deep in his pockets as the fear in his chest began to tighten. He was starting to grow quite concerned about the hint of smugness he’d seen glinting in his father’s eyes because that was never a good thing. The last time David had looked quite so arrogant, Tenebris had declared war on Claritas.

By the time Calum reached his father’s study, the sinking feeling in his chest had turned to dread. The passageway leading to David’s private quarters was narrow and damp, and the flickering candlelight doing little to alleviate the shadows. Calum didn’t understand why his father refused to have electric lighting here or the technology so commonplace throughout the rest of the citadel. He supposed it had something to do with his father’s paranoia and the fact that it would be harder to spy on him if all he had was paper in locked drawers. That way, there was nothing for the press to hack into. That way, he couldn’t be held accountable for his actions.

The man guarding the door remained stoic when Calum raised his shaking fist to knock but the Prince was careful to avoid making eye contact. Quite honestly, he didn’t trust any of his father’s men as far as he could throw them.

“Enter,” David called, his harsh voice splintering the tense silence that had fallen. The door creaked when Calum pushed it open and he wondered why his father didn’t have the hinges oiled; wondered if that was for the drama too. Once again, he barely managed to resist rolling his eyes as he came to an uncomfortable stop on the other side of his father’s desk, his brow creased in a frown.

“You wanted to see me?” he asked awkwardly, his eyes flickering longingly to the narrow window set high in the stone wall. He wanted to escape so badly he could taste it; wanted to be hidden in the privacy of his rooms with Michael and Mali, where he could finally be himself again.

“Sit down,” David said sharply, his voice cutting roughly through his youngest child’s thoughts. “Now, Calum. I don’t have all day.”

Calum sank down into the leather seat silently, his fingers digging into his thighs beneath the desk as he took a calming breath, his muscles tensed nervously. He hated being in here so much. It would always remind him of being reprimanded as a little kid, back when he’d been too small for his feet to reach the floor. He hadn’t been too young for punishments though; David had always been more than happy to deliver those.

The thought had barely crossed the Prince’s mind when his father carefully adjusted one of his ever-present black gloves, the action clearly premeditated. The effect was instantaneous. Calum found his frightened eyes instantly locked on David’s hands, his heart pounding with fear as he recalled the King’s terrifying ability: he had the power to absorb another’s magical powers and life force simply by touching them.

Calum had lost count of how many stolen abilities David carried with him and now wasn’t the time to dwell on them. Not when his father had just sneered as he carefully slipped the gloves off, setting them neatly on the desk beside him. He began to drum his bare fingertips menacingly on the table and Calum swallowed audibly as he finally met his father’s eyes, the threat in them clear.

The Prince would sit quietly and listen to the King. There was no other option.

“Tell me, Calum, what do you know of the Elevare?” David asked, cutting straight to the point. His spoke as bluntly as the Tenebran architecture of the citadel and the younger boy was grateful for small mercies. At least there was no need to dance around their words now.

Oh,” Calum blurted, surprised by the topic of conversation. “It’s a tournament, isn’t it? An old one hosted between Tenebris and Claritas… but the rules were lost, last I heard. There hasn’t been an Elevare for a century.”

“Very good,” David said slyly. “And do you know why no one has tried to revive the tournament, my son?”

Calum shivered at the glint in his father’s eye, shrugging uncomfortably as his fingernails dug into his skin through the expensive material of his suit. He’d found it to be a good way of grounding himself over the years but it almost meant that his thighs were peppered with half-moon scars that never completely faded away. Calum thought maybe he’d have them forever.

“No one wants to risk unleashing the curses,” he said softly, his teeth sinking into his bottom lip nervously. “Plus… if I remember correctly, the tournament ends in the death of one of the champions. That’s why the scrolls were lost in the first place, right? It was barbaric.”

“Not quite,” David disagreed but his tone was mild. “We’ve held the scrolls all along, down in the vaults below the citadel.” Calum’s eyes widened in shock but he was smart enough to hold his tongue and his father looked approving for a moment. “Word has been sent to the King of Claritas and his court, explaining that some of our best archaeologists stumbled upon the scrolls while they were excavating a catacomb on the outskirts of the Boneflats between our two great nations.”

His lips twisted around the words and the contempt on his face was painfully apparent as he flattened his bare hand suddenly on the desk, making his son flinch back in alarm.

“Naturally, the fool believed me,” David sneered. “He was so desperate for the tournament to be revived. Anything to end the war and encourage international cooperation once more.” He laughed as he spoke, a harsh cold sound, and the Prince felt ill as he looked at the poorly-suppressed glee on his father’s face, his features so achingly similar to his son’s.

Calum couldn’t comprehend the fact that David had let the war go on for so long when there was such a simple way of ending the fighting. The Elevare had always been used to avoid conflict in the past, largely because of its binding magical contract which prevented war between nations while the tournament was running, and the fact that David - and his father, and quite possibly his father before him - had let it go on for so long, purely because the Tenebran royal family benefited from it was incredibly distressing for Calum.

All of that carnage and death… and for what? Money? More power? A way of reducing the Tenebran population and, hopefully, the poverty plaguing their cities?

David made him sick but Calum wasn’t suicidal enough to tell him so. His furious hatred blazed in his damp eyes though and he wasn’t strong enough to keep it hidden. He wasn’t even sure he wanted to anymore.

“I received word from King Fletcher today,” David continued, his tone silky now, like a spider luring a fly into its web. “Fortunately for us, he agreed to the new condition I requested.” That sent warning bells ringing but the younger boy was too emotional to risk opening his mouth now, lest something unforgivably stupid escape him. David’s eyes flashed as he watched his son, almost like he could tell what he was thinking. “It’s time for the Elevare to begin again, Calum, and it’s time for Tenebris to win.”

The cut on the younger boy’s ankle was itching now and he bit his lip against the sting, his dark eyes locked on his father’s. His father clearly wanted this tournament to go ahead a lot more than he was letting on and Calum knew that could spell out nothing good.

“How does the Elevare benefit Tenebris?” the Prince asked softly, hating that he didn’t understand and that his father was withholding so much information from him. The King leant back in his chair as he gave his son a considering look, his eyes narrowing.

“There are a number of reasons,” David drawled as he rested one arm casually over the arm of his chair. It left his hand dangling in the empty space between them and a tongue of flame licked at his fingers when he clicked them idly, the fire curling across his knuckles before he extinguished it in a little puff of smoke. It was just one more stolen ability and it reminded Calum uncomfortably of the disgraced Prince of Claritas for a moment, drawing a shudder from him as he coaxed the moisture from the air, feeling the water droplets sliding comfortingly over his palms.

“On the surface, participating in the Elevare once more will award our nation the glory we have long deserved,” David said simply. “Claritas will be stamped into the dust and all because of their hubris in thinking that their country is any match for ours, even in something as simple as a tournament they've foolishly agreed to participate in.”

“What about below the surface?” the Prince asked recklessly, still dwelling on his father's ominous choice of words. “What's your real motive for wanting the Elevare’s revival?”

“Very good, Calum,” David said quietly, his eyes cold despite the smile curving his lips. “I want revenge.” He bared his teeth as he spoke, looking every inch the icy vampiric monster he always tried so hard to portray.

“During the last Boneflats War, the Claritan Crown Prince murdered my brother Thomas.” David's anger had been simmering under the surface until this point but it rippled out of him now, the polished wood between his bare palms slowly icing over. “I won't rest until Prince Ashton is dead. The tournament is how we will finally get close to him.”

Calum didn't point out that his father granting his son permission to fight in the war would have been a much easier way of getting close to the Prince. He just sat there staring at his father in horror as the pieces slowly began to fall into place.

“But… there's no way of knowing that Ashton will compete,” the younger boy said helplessly, his dark eyes wide. “He's hated, dad. Why would they want him to be their champion?”

“That was my only condition,” David said with a sudden air of grace, like the rage had frozen inside him once more, ready to be unleashed the next time he explosively lost his temper. “I explained to the King of Claritas that the only way the Elevare could go ahead is if the Princes of both our nations competed… and, as I told you earlier, the fool accepted.”

Calum's heart felt like it had stopped beating in his chest as he stared at his father in stunned silence, his chest tightening with panic.

“No,” he said weakly as his nails sank into his thighs, deep enough to hurt. “Dad, please don’t make me…” A lump rose in his throat that he could barely breathe past and he hated himself so much when his eyes burnt with tears. “I don’t want to die,” he choked out as the cut on his ankle throbbed. “Please, dad, please –”

“Silence,” David snapped, his gaze fiery as he leant closer across the desk. The Prince flattened himself to the chair, not wanting to be within touching distance of his father’s lethal hands. “I don’t care what you want, Calum. You are going to do this.” The ice David had left on the desk was melting now and the younger boy coaxed the water towards him like a comfort blanket as a tear slipped down his cheek to join the rest of the droplets cradled between his palms.

“Don’t humiliate yourself by begging,” David said, his voice hard as stone. “This is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for, isn’t it? The chance to finally prove your worth… and all you have to do is avenge your uncle. That should be an easy choice.” His eyes became even darker then as his lips curved into the barest hint of a smirk. “Unless you’d rather Michael took your place in the tournament?”

No!” Calum cried, his panic choking him as he stared at his father in alarm. Michael was far too unpredictable to take part in the Elevare, especially if he was feeling angry or frightened. His electrical abilities were volatile at the best of times and he was as likely to hurt himself as his competitor. Calum couldn’t live with himself if he knowingly sent his best friend into danger like that.

David watched the play of emotions on his son’s face with a careless detachment, wearing a sneer as though he’d expected the younger boy to react in this manner.

“You will compete, Calum,” he said coldly. “But you can stop snivelling quite so pathetically. I can assure you that the tournament will work in your favour.”

Understanding dawned in the Prince’s eyes and David’s smile turned colder still.

“You mean… we’re going to cheat?” Calum blurted out, feeling wretched but unsurprised by this turn of events. His father rolled his eyes scornfully as he settled back in his chair once more, looking unbearably smug.

“Let’s just say I wouldn’t like to be that murderous Claritan Prince once the tournament begins,” he sneered with such a vicious glint in his eyes that Calum actually felt sorry for the stranger whose actions had killed his uncle.

“But, dad –”

“Claritas have already accepted the new condition and the wheels are in motion,” David said simply, his tone unapologetic. “You will kill Prince Ashton, Calum. I don’t care how or when but I want him dead. If an opportunity arises during the first three challenges for his death to look like an accident, you take that chance without hesitating. That way, Claritas is disqualified and Tenebris is granted automatic victory… but if no such occasion arises, you will kill him during the final challenge, son. I want him dead.”

The silence in the study was excruciating as the Prince struggled to calm himself, aware that he had no choice in the matter. David was too powerful and Calum was too much of a coward; that much was painfully apparent.

“Don’t disappoint me.” David’s tone was unnervingly gentle as he reached across the desk to wrap his fingers around the younger boy’s wrist, his grip unbreakable. “Tenebran champion or not, I know you don’t want to make me angry.”

Calum was too afraid to speak.

His father hadn’t touched him – skin against skin like this – in almost two decades and it made him shudder. Calum held his breath as his panic burnt him like acid, his eyes locked on where the King’s hand was wrapped like a manacle around his wrist. He waited to feel the terrifying numbness spreading through him as David leeched him of his magic and his life force but it never came.

Somehow, the knowledge that his father had simply wanted to frighten him hurt far worse.

“Are you really so afraid of me, Calum?” David asked softly as he took in his son’s unusually pale face. “You know I learnt your abilities from you when you were a child… and look at you now. Still alive to tell the tale.” The words should have sounded jovial but the King had little practice in expressing kindness. His broken edges were far too sharp for that.

He released the Prince slowly, one finger uncurling at a time, and his expression was thoughtful as he allowed a bead of water to well up in his palm, just to prove that he could. Calum glared at the droplet as his chest heaved with anger. The water didn’t belong in his father’s hand. It was Calum’s magic and it had been taken from him.

Dimly, he wondered how many times David had stolen power from him over the years, in tiny increments so that it was unnoticeable… and then Calum wondered how strong he might become if he escaped from the King’s grasp.

“I think we’re finished here,” David said with a note of finality in his voice. His shoulders slumped suddenly, like he was carrying a heavy weight that no one else could see. “You're free to go, Calum,” he added as he smeared the water from his palm carelessly with the pad of his thumb. “Just don't tell anyone what we've discussed today. The official announcement of the Elevare's revival and its champions will be soon enough but let's not ruin the pageantry before then.”

Calum couldn't leave the study fast enough, almost stumbling into the doorframe on numb legs in his haste to escape from the room. His head was spinning with everything his father had told him and he felt sick as his nerves twisted his stomach into knots. The tears had dried sticky on his cheeks and he wiped them away disgustedly as he finally slowed to a walk once he reached his own quarters, not wanting to cause worry by bursting into his room looking so anguished.

Michael was waiting for him on the younger boy’s bed, one arm tucked behind his head as he watched something trivial on the comms screen mounted on the wall. The sound of canned laughter greeted Calum as he gratefully pulled his bedroom door shut and Michael looked over owlishly, his emerald eyes still a little red from his earlier crying as he shot his best friend a worried look.

“Mali only just left,” the older boy said by way of greeting, his expression a little wary as he took in the way Calum’s hands were faintly trembling. “Ashley stopped by and Mali, like, totally freaked out. I don’t get why.”

“They broke up this morning,” Calum said dully as he slumped down onto the mattress beside Michael. “She told me after the memorial but I didn’t have a chance to speak to you.”

“Oh.” Michael frowned as he settled back down hesitantly on the bed again, his arm wrapping easily around the younger boy’s shoulders as Calum burrowed into the comforting warmth of his side. His chocolate brown eyes fluttered shut when the older boy began to lightly stroke his dark hair and the Prince sighed heavily as the last of his fear drained away.

“Did your dad want to talk to you because of what you did at the memorial?” Michael asked softly, his voice worried as he pressed his lips chastely to the younger boy’s hair. “Because if he was angry, I’ll go tell him it was my fault, Cal. You were only trying to cheer me up.”

“It’s fine, Mikey,” Calum murmured, keeping his eyes shut as a lump rose in his throat. “You can just hug me instead. That’ll more than make up for it.”

“Well, alright,” Michael said doubtfully as his arms slipped comfortingly around the younger boy’s waist. “Can’t have my Princess being sad.”

“Stop calling me Princess,” Calum grumbled into the warmth of his best friend’s neck. The words made him laugh though, as he was sure Michael had intended, and he felt less tense as he snuggled closer, tucking his face safely beneath the older boy’s neck.

Lying like this together now reminded him of their younger years for a moment; reminded him of their bumbling first kisses and the clumsy touches they’d shared in the dark hours. It made Calum ache; not because he missed their relaxed intimacy but because he suddenly realised just how old he felt.

They’d both grown up without him realising it and the realisation frightened him enough that, for one bewildering moment, he almost wanted to kiss Michael again, just to see if the older boy would still let him. The thought hadn’t crossed Calum’s mind in years and he pushed it away harshly, not indulging the idea for even a second. Things weren’t the same between them anymore and the Prince needed to keep himself in check, no matter how comforting their old intimacy might seem through rose-tinted glass. There was no point in complicating things.

Calum’s life was hard enough already.

“You look really shaken up,” Michael pointed out nervously, his green eyes softening as he looked down at the younger boy with concern plain on his pale face. “Was it really that bad talking to your dad?”

Calum shivered, his eyes falling shut as he remembered the frightening feeling of his father’s fingers clamped down on his wrist. His skin burned just remembering it and he bit his lip hard enough to hurt as he focused on the water filling the glass on his bedside table, drawing it easily into his waiting palms. It was cool and comforting, and he relaxed as he rolled it into a ball, holding it up to the light so that it cast rainbows on his bed sheets.

“Cal?” Michael prompted softly, when no response seemed forthcoming.

The Prince tensed as the ball of water returned messily to its glass, leaving splashes across the wood.

“Can’t talk about it,” Calum mumbled as he rolled over, tucking his head stubbornly beneath his best friend’s chin to avoid eye contact. After a moment, Michael stroked his back gently through the coat he hadn’t yet got around to removing.

“That’s okay, Cal,” he murmured, his mouth pressed into an unhappy line now that he knew something was definitely upsetting his best friend. “You don’t have to tell me.” Michael pressed another chaste kiss to Calum’s curls, lingering as though he hoped his love would be enough to make the Prince happy. “You know I’m here for you no matter what,” the older boy added suddenly, almost fiercely loyal, like he was daring someone to try and part them. “That’s never going to change.”

Calum smiled and, for the first time since he’d returned to his bedroom, it finally warmed his eyes.

“You just need to take your mind off things, Princess,” Michael said with a lazy shrug, looking relieved now that his best friend no longer appeared to be on the verge of tears. He curled his hand into a loose fist as lightning crackled between his fingers, bright and dangerous. Michael held Calum’s gaze with his head cocked to one side, looking far too innocent for the deadly electricity twisting across his knuckles. “You in the mood for a little storm, Cal?”

Calum grinned without meaning to as the relief flooded through him like the tide.

“Always, Mikey,” he promised as the thunder began to rumble overhead. “You know I love the rain.”

*

Ashton had always found Claritas most beautiful in the starlight but he barely noticed its magnificence tonight. He was too angry, the rage curling in his stomach like the flames he’d once used to tear armies apart. His father stood beside him patiently, remaining silent as he allowed his only child to seethe at what he had just been told, as was his right.

The Crown Prince’s future had become suddenly perilous and King Fletcher had no wish to make this situation any harder than it needed to be. His only child had suffered enough.

“So I have to compete then,” Ashton said flatly, unable to meet his father’s eye. They gazed out over Aureum together in lieu of speaking, taking in the twinkling lights of the city centre beyond the toughened crystal walls of the palace. The Claritan royal apartments were at their backs, as luxurious as the Prince had dreamt of during his long stay in the hospital. Ashton thought he might want to scream.

“I know this is less than ideal, Ash,” Fletcher said softly, the hazel eyes he shared with his son nothing short of beseeching. “Believe me, I know you deserve to rest after everything you’ve been through and I wish so badly that there was another way but… this is our only option. It’s the only chance we have of uniting our countries without unnecessary bloodshed.”

Ashton didn’t care that his father was speaking sense. He hurt too badly to be reasonable – both inside and out – and the idea of humiliating himself in front of a nation that already despised him made him feel sick.

“I’ve only just learnt to walk again, dad,” he pointed out bitterly as his hazel eyes welled with furious tears. “My competitor will have an unfair advantage.”

“You’ll have to work even harder, Ash,” Fletcher acknowledged sadly, his expression chagrined. “I’m sorry it has to be this way.”

“That’s not fair and you know it!” Ashton snapped, his eyes flashing angrily as his hands curled into fists. Sparks rained down onto the flagstones but he barely noticed the burn of his magic igniting inside him for the first time since that earth-shattering day on the Boneflats. He was too upset.

“Fairness doesn’t come into it,” the King said softly, his expression tightening with pain. “We’re trying to end a war.”

Fletcher’s lips were downturned with sadness as he settled his hand gently on his son’s shoulder. He relaxed visibly when Ashton leant into his touch with a sigh, his eyes falling shut when his father’s arms wrapped securely around him, keeping him safe against the darkness.

“Do you trust them, dad?” the Prince asked in a softer voice, his eyelashes sticky with tears as he clicked his fingers together experimentally, trailing sparks through the dark air. “Do you honestly trust the Tenebrans to keep their word?”

“We have no choice but to trust them,” Fletcher admitted uncomfortably, his expression crestfallen as he gazed out over the city with his son held safely to his chest. “They’re stronger than us.”

Ashton’s sudden flash of anger took him by surprise as his hands curled around the stone balustrade of the balcony. Flame rippled up his arms, white-hot and unexpected, and Fletcher had to step back sharply to avoid being singed, his eyes wide as he stared at his son in shock. The Prince was panting a little as he gazed down at the fire in surprise, his heart aching in his chest.

His magic had flared back to life again, reborn from fury and fear. That seemed oddly fitting now that he was being flung into the Elevare. Fury and fear were what would hopefully keep Ashton alive.

“Calling Tenebris stronger than us is a dangerous notion to spread,” the Prince said quietly, forcing the anger from his voice although he couldn’t quite keep from hissing the words. “That attitude is why we almost lost the war.”

“Or perhaps it’s what kept us wary enough that we survived instead,” Fletcher countered lightly, apparently unwilling to be offended by his son’s words when he knew they were only the product of fear. “There’s little point in underestimating your enemies, Ash. Surely you understand that, especially after everything you saw in the war.”

Ashton’s heart clenched unpleasantly in his chest as he folded his arms over the balustrade, leaning forwards so that he could peer down into the gardens below. They were beautifully well-kept thanks to Mr and Mrs Hemmings, and his eyes roved over the few flowers still growing in the dead of winter. He wondered how they found the strength to break through the cold ground and bloom in the freezing air. Ashton wished he knew their secrets.

“I’m sorry the tournament has fallen to you to deal with, Ash,” Fletcher murmured as he reached out, settling his palm gently on his son’s back, right over the thick scar that stretched the length of the Prince’s healing spine. They both shuddered. “You already carry far too much.”

Ashton shrugged awkwardly, not trusting himself to speak past the lump rising in his throat although the silence quickly became unbearable.

“I should’ve known you were going to give me bad news,” he grumbled to break the tension that had fallen, his words lacking any heat at all. “Why else would you call me out onto the balcony? You only ever bring me here when you’re going to say something serious.”

Fletcher let out a snort of surprised laughter, the action so undignified that Ashton couldn’t help the giggle that escaped him as his hazel eyes crinkled with amusement.

“Am I really that predictable?” his father demanded, his lips curving into an unconscious smile as he relished the rare happiness on his son’s face. Ashton’s joy died quickly these days so Fletcher was determined to appreciate it for however fleeting a moment.

“Definitely,” the Prince said warmly, his eyes glittering. “But don’t change, dad. I like that about you.”

He glanced around at their familiar surroundings; the fragrant flowers climbing up the trellis on the wall behind them and the sparkling water cascading from the fountain in the gardens down below. His shoulders slumped suddenly, like all of his sadness had overwhelmed him again. Behind him, Fletcher sighed softly.

“The last time you brought me out here, it was to talk about the war, wasn’t it? About the need to set a good example.” Ashton laughed like broken glass, his eyes stinging as a fresh wave of tears boiled over. He rubbed them away with his knuckles, his jaw set against the shame he could feel searing inside him. “That sure backfired, didn’t it?”

Fletcher pulled him into a hug, his arms wrapping warmly around his son as he rocked him gently in his arms. His hand settled in the Prince’s honey-coloured curls and Ashton let out a breathless sob against the fine tunic his father was wearing, his face pressed into the expensive material the way he’d hidden himself as a little kid whenever he got upset.

“You did the best you could do, Ash,” Fletcher murmured when he finally drew back, cradling his son’s burning cheeks gently between his palms. “The way you’re feeling now… it’s awful but it’s understandable, especially after everything you’ve been through.” The King wavered, his eyes softening as he let their foreheads fall to rest together. “I’ve fought on the Boneflats too,” he reminded his son gently as a shiver ran through his broad frame. “So believe me when I say that what you’re feeling now - this survivor’s guilt - will lessen in time. You just have to give yourself the chance.”

Ashton leant into his father’s palm with a shaky sigh, his eyes falling shut as a tear rolled down his overheated cheek.

“You’ll feel strong again, the way you did before,” Fletcher promised, his voice soft, his words nothing but wishful thinking. “Don’t stop fighting, Ash.”

Ashton appreciated his father’s words but he wished they weren’t necessary. He’d been struggling enough already and the sudden stress of having to compete in the Elevare felt like it would be enough to grind him to dust if he wasn’t careful. The Prince hated it; hated the tension and the fear, and the sheer unfairness of the situation.

He couldn’t understand why nothing was ever easy.

Ashton just wanted a quiet life.

Chapter Text

No, I don't want to talk about myself.

Tell me where it hurts.

I just want to build you up, build you up,

'Til you're good as new,

And maybe one day I will get around fixing myself too.

- Atlas: Two, Sleeping At Last

 

The camera flashes were blinding the moment Calum set foot on the airstrip behind the citadel. The jet idled on the tarmac nearby, sleek and inviting; a safe haven from the rabble of journalists currently circling the Prince and his fellow travellers like vultures. Their luggage had already been loaded into the cargo bay by servants – and there was a lot of it, considering how long they’d be staying in Claritas – so it wasn’t like Calum had a lot to worry about as he led the way across the even ground. He just needed to avoid tripping over or shouting anything obscene at the reporters if they inevitably refused to back off. His father didn’t want bad press now, especially when the world was about to receive the announcement that Calum would be the Tenebran champion in the Elevare.

His step faltered as the reality of that crashed over him but Mali’s hand curled firmly around his arm through his ever-present black coat, her expression completely flat behind the large sunglasses she was wearing to hide her emotions from the press. The long skirt she wore swirled around her legs as the Hood siblings strode along, her blood-red leather jacket wrapped around her to fend off the chill of the wintry evening.

Their mother had insisted she wore something more fitting of a Tenebran Princess – namely, practical trousers and a plain coat; clothes that were functional without being eye-catching, similar to the outfit Calum had donned – but Mali was nothing if not stubborn. She’d inherited her dramatic streak from their father and that, coupled with the fact that Ashley had undoubtedly come down to bid her ex-girlfriend goodbye, meant that Mali refused to leave her quarters looking anything less than a famous comms personality.

Calum might have been impressed if he hadn’t been so focused on walking without tripping, as well as keeping an eye on Michael who was looking increasingly pissed off at the shouted, barely-veiled abuse he was receiving from the press. They loved making him lose his temper; loved writing insulting stories painting him as an aggressive orphan with no self-control, furious at the world and everyone in it.

Any passing acquaintance of Michael’s knew that the articles were nonsense but Calum knew it upset the older boy all the same, even if he did refuse to talk about it. Michael let other people's opinions scrape away at him until his nerves were raw with it; until his lightning crackled so close to the surface that he threatened to burn himself out.

“Made it,” Mali breathed, looking equal parts wary and relieved as they reached the steps leading up to the jet. Her hand came to rest firmly on the metal railing as she began to climb, her expression soothed by the cool steel. Her metal-bending abilities meant she always felt most at home like this, surrounded by iron, gold, bronze... It was why she wore so much silver jewellery; not for fashion but for protection; to be adeptly manipulated into armour or a weapon if necessary.

Mali trusted no one – with the exception of her brother, Michael, and Ashley – and that was painfully evident in the metal panels sewn into the insides of her clothes; the metal chains encircling her tanned wrists. Calum was fairly certain his sister went nowhere without a handy armoury hidden inside the folds of her dresses. She was one of the most formidable people he knew and he was endlessly grateful that she was fighting in his corner instead of against him.

Calum wouldn’t have lasted five seconds.

He was halfway up the steps himself when he realised Michael was no longer behind him. The Prince turned his head so sharply his neck cracked, his dark eyes narrowing when he saw the older boy’s tensed shoulders and he stalked angrily towards the waiting paparazzi nearby. The camera flashes were quicker now, like they’d spied another opportunity to make Michael their front page, and Calum cursed under his breath as he jumped down the steps, landing easily on the balls of his feet before he hurried to close the distance between the jet and his best friend.

“Don’t, Mikey,” Calum murmured when he was close enough, his hand settling firmly on the older boy’s shoulder through the oversized grey hoodie he was wearing. “C’mon. Back to the jet. Don’t give these bastards another headline.”

It was probably already too late – Michael’s cheeks were flushed with anger and his eyes were glittering wetly as his shaking hands curled into fists – and Calum’s heart sank as he nudged his best friend up the steps ahead of him, not wanting to risk the older boy wandering off to finish his fight.

“They were talking about my parents,” Michael spat as he stamped into the jet, his pale face set into a deep scowl as he threw himself into the closest seat. “Asking me why I was laughing at their memorial. It’s been two fucking weeks! When are they going to drop it?!”

The doors slid shut with a satisfying hiss behind the Prince, effectively silencing the reporters as the flash of their cameras finally dimmed. Calum bit his lip hard as he sank down into the chair across from his best friend, the unease clear on his face when he pushed his sunglasses up to rest on his curls. Michael’s laughter had been completely his fault that morning and he felt terrible for it, even if he had been trying to cheer the older boy up out of kindness.

“Need me to waterboard someone else?” Calum asked lightly, aiming for a joke because he wasn’t sure how else to fix this. “I reckon there’s enough water in the jet to drown at least half of them before someone stops me.”

Michael’s lips twitched into a weak smile as he reached to hook their ankles together and the Prince relaxed visibly, grateful that he’d been forgiven.

“I hate travelling by jet,” Mali announced from across the aisle, her face the picture of grouchiness as she sank down further into the plush seat she’d selected, already buckled in securely. Calum shot her a sympathetic glance, aware that she was by no means exaggerating. His sister had hated travelling this way since childhood after a quick flight to a neighbouring city had resulted in terrible turbulence and their jet almost being flung out of the sky.

Calum was too young to remember it luckily but Mali had never forgotten. She couldn’t stand to fly without taking something to knock herself out these days which seemed the safest option all round, especially taking into account her metal-bending abilities and the way a person’s powers could fluctuate if they were feeling a particularly strong emotion.

Without the little bottle of sleeping pills Mali was fishing out of the pocket of her leather jacket now, flying with her would be quite dangerous.

“Good evening, Your Majesties.” The crackly voice of their captain sounded over the speakers and Michael looked vaguely pitying as Mali swallowed one of the tablets dry, wincing at the feeling. “Is everyone bucked up and ready for take-off?”

“We are,” Calum confirmed. “Ready when you are, captain.”

The fear on the Princess’ face was plain as she gripped the harness tightly but her expression became determined when she caught her brother’s gaze and she nodded firmly, her jaw squared, as stubborn as ever. It meant so much that she had agreed to accompany him on a transcontinental flight, even though the journey to Claritas would take at least four hours and she was likely to hate every minute of it.

“Love you, smiley,” Calum murmured, just for her. Her lips twitched, even as her eyes began to droop at the strength of the drugs. They weren’t strictly legal but – banned or not – anything could be obtained with relative ease in Tenebris if the seeker had enough money, and the Tenebran royal family had plenty.

“Love you too, peanut,” she murmured, her voice little more than a breath. “You two be good.”

Michael stuck his tongue out in response and she smiled as she passed out, her head lolling back against the headrest as her long dark hair tumbled down around her shoulders. Calum sighed softly as he settled back against the seat, rubbing his face with both hands like he could force his weariness away. Michael kicked his boots off, stretching his leg out to poke his best friend in the knee with one sock-covered foot.

“So, Princess,” the older boy said with a slight smirk. “Excited to play champion?”

Calum scowled at his best friend, vaguely considering putting his sunglasses back on in order to better ignore him before he realised Michael would just laugh at him for it.

“You should call me ‘Princess’ in front of my parents once we’re back in Tenebris,” the younger boy said with a shrug. “See how quickly mum and dad have a meltdown.” His dark eyes flickered towards the tinted windows when he felt the jet picking up speed beneath them and he sighed before he could stop himself, his shoulders slumping. “Let’s not talk about the tournament. I’m fed up of seeing those damn holograms advertising it on every street corner. The Elevare hasn’t even started yet and I’m already sick of it.”

“Seriously? You’re not even a little bit excited?” Michael frowned a little as he leant forwards in his seat. “You like people watching you, Princess,” he pointed out, his eyes twinkling knowingly. “This should be your dream.”

“Well, it isn’t,” Calum said bitterly, folding his arms tightly across his chest as he huddled up in his coat, perpetually cold. “Why would I be excited about this? All that’s going to happen is that I’ll make an arse of myself on camera and then probably end up getting killed too… so no, Mike. I’m not excited in the slightest.”

“Stop being such a drama queen,” Michael said loftily, rolling his eyes as he stuck his feet up on Calum’s seat, crossing his legs at the ankle. The Prince didn’t even thinking about shoving him away – he knew exactly how stubborn his best friend was – but he did make sure Michael saw him glowering, just to avoid any confusion about whether or not the younger boy was in a bad mood.

“You won’t get killed,” Michael said in a softer voice, poking Calum in the thigh with his toes again. “The tournament is different now, isn’t it? They explained that in the announcement. It’s been modernised so the challenges have changed. That means no battle to the death at the end, yeah? It’ll just be about besting your opponent.”

Calum’s heart ached as he took in the earnestness on his best friend’s face. He wished he could tell Michael the truth about the conversation with his father: that Calum had been sworn to kill the Claritan Crown Prince no matter what.

“Do you think the media will be this bad in Claritas?” the older boy asked suddenly, pulling a face as he glanced out of the window at the wisps of cloud slipping by in the growing darkness. “They’ve been unbearable lately.”

“Probably,” Calum muttered unhappily, his muscles tensing. The press had been a nightmare ever since the Elevare had been announced and – no matter how wryly amusing he found it when they begged him for his opinion on who he thought the Tenebran champion might be – they still managed to grate on his last nerve.

Maybe the worst thing was that he knew the press were about to get a lot worse too. The moment that found out Calum was competing in the Elevare, he knew they’d stop at nothing to plaster him across every comms channel for even the tiniest misdemeanour. His life was about to become downright hellish.

“We’ll have bodyguards though,” the Prince tacked on as little more than an afterthought. “If things get too bad, I’m sure they’ll step in.”

“Will they be Claritan?” Michael asked uncertainly, a slight frown marring his features. He looked uncomfortable at the prospect and Calum was quick to reassure him, his palm settling comfortingly on the older boy’s leg through the torn black jeans he was wearing.

“Definitely not,” the Prince said, letting out a huff of uneasy laughter. “You know mum and dad would never allow that. The bodyguards are Tenebran. They flew out to Claritas yesterday with some members of the royal council, at dad’s request.” He shrugged half-heartedly, his dark eyes tired as he took in the worry hardening Michael’s face.

“Don’t worry, Mikey,” Calum said gently. “There’ll be people watching out for us while we’re there. You’ll be safe.”

“I want you to be safe too,” Michael mumbled, his cheeks heating a little. He’d never been very good at accepting his emotions, let alone voicing them, and the younger boy appreciated it a lot in that moment, even if it wasn’t a promise he could make.

To tell the truth, Calum wasn’t as concerned by the dangers the Elevare presented as he perhaps should have been. He truly believed his father when David insisted that the tournament would be rigged and the Prince was sure that would be enough to keep him safe. After all, he was supposed to kill the Crown Prince and Calum couldn’t exactly do that if he was dead, could he?

David wouldn’t sacrifice his son just for revenge.

“Whatever happens will happen for a reason,” Calum said with another of those self-deprecating little shrugs, his tone mild enough that it was sure to piss the older boy off. “At least we finally get to leave Tenebris though, right? I never thought the day would come. We barely even leave the capital.”

“Well, let's try and enjoy this experience then,” Michael said wryly, the bags under his eyes smeared like bruises as he bared his teeth in one of his signature ferocious grins. “Going on holiday is always fun. I don't see why this should be any different.”

“Of course it'll be fun, Mikey,” Calum said loftily as he swept his dark curls out of his eyes. “You're with me.”

The next few hours were spent reading, playing games on their comms, and trying to outdo each other by finding the very worst photos of them taken by the paparazzi. When Calum finally had to concede defeat after a particularly magnificent photo of an incredibly sunburnt Michael scowling at the photographers like a furious tomato, he deemed it time to put his comm away. He’d snorted with laughter enough that he was wary of waking Mali up and the stress on his best friend’s face had finally bled away into contentedness. It was a rare enough sight these days and Calum was glad that Michael seemed so relaxed now, especially when the older boy loped over to slump down in the seat beside the Prince, his head coming to rest easily on the younger boy’s broad shoulder.

“We should research your opponent,” Michael declared, even as his fingers flew across the keypad on his comm as he typed in the Claritan Crown Prince’s name. “We can’t have you going into the tournament unprepared. You’ve got to make Tenebris look good!”

Calum fought against the now-familiar surge of guilt whenever Ashton was mentioned, hating the panic fluttering in the confines of his ribcage as his fingers bit into the arm of the chair. His father’s words haunted him whenever he closed his eyes; the cold certainty flooding the icy lines of the King’s face as he insisted that his son had no choice but to murder his opponent in a tournament put in place to end the fighting between their countries.

Calum wondered how David could be so short-sighted… and then he wondered why he hadn’t been strong enough to say no in the first place.

Michael was quiet beside him, his bottom lip drawn between his teeth as his tired eyes scanned over the newsfeed on his comm. He was still snuggled up against his best friend’s side, his bleached blond hair fluffy where it was tickling the hard line of Calum’s squared jaw.

“It’s kind of sad really, isn’t it?” the older boy murmured as he tapped on an article comparing the differences between Ashton before and after his tour in the Boneflats War. “Y’know, with everything that’s happened to him,” Michael clarified needlessly when the Prince remained silent. “I get that what he did was… well, terrible but… look at him. Just look at him.” The older boy waved his comm in Calum’s face vaguely threateningly. “He looks broken, doesn’t he? It’s awful.”

They were both quiet as they looked at the photos, comparing the infectious grin and sparkling hazel eyes in the first picture to the grim reality of the second: the tanned face strained with pain and fatigue, and the hollowness in the Crown Prince’s gaze. The photo had been taken through a window, showing a hospital room of some sort, and Calum felt cold anger unfurling inside him when he realised just how unreasonably invasive the press seemed in Claritas.

They’d tear Michael apart if he lost control here, ripping him into bloody chunks the way they’d already ruined their own Crown Prince.

Calum felt a lot like he was going to be sick.

“Ashton’s fallen a long way,” the younger boy allowed eventually, his tone uneasy as he fought to swallow past the lump rising in his throat. “I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes.”

It didn’t feel like enough but Calum didn’t have the words necessary to articulate how distressing he found the article. He couldn’t wrap his head around how awful the older Prince’s life must have become since returning from the war because… fuck, to go from being the nation’s golden boy to an outcast, vilified and tormented by the people who had once sworn to love him was terrifyingly sobering.

Calum wasn’t sure he’d cope if that happened to him; if the planned cheating and his father’s cruel orders came to light.

Michael was already reading the next story by now, his brow creasing further with every word he read until Calum had to fight the urge to smooth the older boy’s frown away with his fingertip. He didn’t want to look at the articles anymore. They were setting his blood boiling in his veins because even Calum - a total stranger - could tell that the bile the journalists were spilling was nothing but lies. The writing was painfully biased, and he couldn’t understand why anyone believed the rumours and gossip being peddled so savagely… and then he remembered that this was the boy who had killed his kind uncle Thomas and hundreds of others besides, and any softness in Calum’s chest was stamped out like embers.

Ashton didn’t deserve his pity and the Tenebran Prince certainly wasn’t going to give it to him.

Calum had enough to worry about without wasting emotional energy on a murderer who hadn’t earnt a single scrap of his sympathy.

Michael must have felt his best friend tense up because he glanced over nervously, his bottom lip turning bloodless as his teeth returned to torture it. He’d left a water bottle discarded on the seat across from him and the liquid was churning inside it, swirling violently in time with Calum’s heartbeat.

“Cal?” Michael murmured, his green eyes widening a little when he saw the anger burning dully in his best friend’s eyes. The Prince clearly needed a distraction and the older boy was quick to provide one, although in his stress, he possibly didn’t choose the best subject change.

“I know you said you don’t want to talk about the tournament but… I just have one more question,” Michael said softly, biting uneasily at the side of his thumb as the water in the bottle finally stopped simmering. He waited for Calum’s weary nod of assent before he pushed on, heartened. “Why is it you and Prince Ashton competing this year? Why aren’t we following tradition and having the commoners participate instead?”

His voice twisted around the word ‘commoners’ as a hint of bitterness welled inside him and he sighed as he drew away a little, his arms coming to wrap around himself in the baggy hoodie he was hiding in.

“It was my dad’s decision,” Calum muttered uncomfortably as his cheeks flushed. “It was the only condition he had when he spoke to King Fletcher: that the two Princes represent their nations.”

A heavy silence hung in the air between them and Michael sighed, his expression faintly knowing as he twisted in his seat to fix the younger boy with a hard look.

“This is about uncle Tommy, isn’t it?” Michael asked bluntly, the informal nickname rolling easily off his tongue after growing up in the citadel as an honourary Hood. The older boy had long since been considered family and Thomas had always had a soft spot for the orphan when he’d been alive, maybe even more so than his own nephew. Calum could see it in the sadness reflected in his best friend’s soft green eyes.

“Mikey…” Calum’s voice trailed away helplessly and the unhappiness on his face must have been answer enough because the older boy stilled, his frown deepening as the Prince’s fingertips dug into his thighs, hard enough to bruise.

“Stop it. Cal, stop it,” Michael chided gently, his expression saddening as he reached to take his best friend’s hands gently between his own, even as the realisation dawned on his ashen face. Across the aisle, Mali stirred in her sleep and Calum closed his eyes tightly against the unpleasant prickle of tears.

“Your dad wants you to beat Ashton as revenge, doesn’t he?” the older boy murmured unhappily, his thumbs rubbing the Prince’s knuckles comfortingly as he peered into his best friend’s face. Calum shrugged silently, unable to speak past the guilt he could feel surging inside him like a tidal wave. He hated that it was necessary to lie to Michael in order to keep him safe but he knew this was the only option. He had to protect his best friend; had to keep him in the dark about David’s dangerous plan, even if lying to Michael did make Calum feel like he was being scraped raw because it was the one thing he’d always sworn not to do.

“I think so,” the Prince confided quietly, unable to look his best friend in the eye. “Maybe… maybe if I can do this for him, he’ll finally… finally...” He broke off suddenly, unable to speak past the lump rising in his throat as he realised that there was a glimmer of truth in his words after all.

David had been right that day in his study. All Calum had ever wanted was to feel accepted by the King; to finally prove himself so that his father might show him the love he craved so desperately that he ached.

Michael wrapped his arm wordlessly around the younger boy’s shoulders as he pressed a soft kiss to the Prince’s curls, cradling Calum’s trembling hands carefully in one of his own in an effort to keep his best friend from hurting himself again.

“I love you,” Michael whispered, even though it would never be enough to fill the hole in Calum’s heart that David had carefully hollowed out over the years. “Mali loves you. We always will.”

The sky was inky black outside and Calum exhaled shakily when Michael kissed his cheek, a watery smile touching his lips when he leant more heavily against the older boy, dark curls against bleached blond locks. Calum’s hands slipped free when Michael’s other arm slipped around him too and he huffed out a laugh when the older boy drew him into a tight hug, uncaring of the way the armrest was digging into their ribs. Calum turned his face away into his best friend’s neck, breathing in the comfort smell of home lingering on Michael’s skin.

“Love you too,” Calum mumbled, cheeks pink as he wiped his tears away subtly with his sleeve. “Can we talk about something else?”

“Sure we can,” Michael said softly as he finally released the younger boy from the tight hug. His expression remained undeniably soft as he took Calum’s hand, entwining their fingers securely as the older boy folded himself up more comfortably in the chair. It was hard to believe Michael had a whole storm roiling under his pale skin at times like these, when he looked softer than the clouds floating past outside.

Calum was so glad Michael let him see behind his mask.

“What do you think Claritas will be like?” the older boy asked curiously, making his tone as lighthearted as possible in an attempt to keep the Prince from sinking further into his misery. Calum held Michael’s hand tighter, biting his bottom lip as he thought about the strange new country they would be spending the next six months in.

“It seems very different to Tenebris,” the younger boy admitted after a moment, his mouth quirking into a growing smirk. “Supposedly they’re all about fancy food and flashy clothing, right? So I figure it’ll just be a country of lazy, extravagant peacocks.”

Michael snorted with wry amusement at his best friend’s scathing tone, rolling his eyes fondly.

“We’ll be able to run rings around them, Cal,” the older boy said smugly, his shoulders rising in a lazy shrug. “They won’t know what’s hit them when we arrive.”

“Don’t be too cocky,” Mali said out of nowhere, her reprimand making them both jump as they looked over at her in surprise. She must have woken up while the pair of them were talking and Calum’s cheeks heated at her stern expression. “It’s not smart to make presumptions like that or you’ll only be setting yourself up to fail.” She straightened up in her seat, her dark eyes flashing as she tucked her long hair behind her pierced ears. “Just because the Claritans have pretty feathers doesn’t mean they won’t pack a mean punch.”

Calum tensed, folding his arms across his chest as he glowered down at the floor. He’d never exactly relished being chastised by his older sister - no matter how relevant her words might be - and he bit his lip hard as he wondered why the topic had struck such a nerve with him.

Deep down though, he thought he probably knew the answer. He’d always been bitter about the differences between their two nations whenever he saw those sparkling images of Claritas on the comm channels; always hated the fact that while Tenebris had some of the richest people in Cerasus, it was also home to the very poorest. The Tenebrans didn’t waste money or resources on luxuries; not when the basics would do just fine. It was this attitude that had allowed them to gain the upper hand during the war… but it had also made them harder and colder than any other nation on the planet.

The captain’s voice crackled over the speakers suddenly, cutting through the strained silence that had fallen between the three of them as he advised his passengers that there were about to begin their descent towards Claritas. Calum’s heart clenched in his chest as the nerves seared through him once more, his frightened eyes locking with his sister’s across the aisle as Michael gripped his hand tighter, clearly able to pick up on his best friend’s fear.

“Don’t underestimate your opponent, Cal,” Mali murmured, her knuckles whitening with how tightly she was gripping the harness as the jet began to descend. There were city lights sparkling below them and Michael gazed through the toughened glass in awe as his palm came to rest against the window, leaning closer like he was so desperate to start exploring.

“I thought the Elevare was about encouraging international relations and making friends,” Calum said pointedly, his eyes locked on his sister’s face. Mali’s gaze softened a little as the lights outside loomed closer.

“They're still enemies, peanut,” she said seriously. “So try not to forget that because they certainly won't.”

Her eyes glinted as she watched him and he tensed, his hands curling into loose fists at the suspicion he could see in his sister’s expression. He was starting to worry that she’d been awake for longer than he’d realised and, when Mali saw the wary defiance in her younger brother’s face, her eyes narrowed. She was blatantly scrutinising him and he panicked for a moment that she’d been awake long enough to hear him lie to Michael about the reason he’d been chosen as the Tenebran champion.

Mali had always been able to tell when he was being dishonest and, although there was no way of knowing for certain that she’d overheard their conversation, he was quite sure by the hardening of her expression that she didn’t trust her brother.

Calum would have to be careful.

*

Ashton rushed his breakfast, shovelling in spoonfuls of yoghurt and berries so quickly that his mother looked quite concerned as she sat across from him, forgetting her own toast in the face of her only child possibly choking to death on unchewed fruit.

“Slow down, love,” Anne murmured, one delicate eyebrow rising behind her blond hair. It was still loosely plaited from bed and she looked soft with sleep, one elbow resting informally on the table. “No one’s going to steal your breakfast from you.”

“I’m running late,” Ashton explained around a mouthful of strawberry. “I’m meeting Laura and Luke this morning. We’re going shopping for some last minute things before the Elevare’s Opening Gala tomorrow night.”

“Your dad and I need to speak to you before you leave this morning,” Anne warned him before her face softened, becoming worried and sad. “Is this the first time you’ve gone out in public since -”

“Yes, mum,” the Prince mumbled, his cheeks heating as he looked away, focusing on scraping the last of the yoghurt from his bowl. His healing spine gave a phantom throb as he straightened up in his chair with a grimace. “It’ll be fine though. I’ll have my friends with me.”

He was already halfway to the door when Fletcher appeared, looking unusually grave for so early in the day. His hair was greying at the temples and the lines around his eyes deepened when he gave his son a tired smile.

“Can we have a word with you before you leave, Ash?” he asked as he sank down into one of the chairs at the dining table. It was quiet in the royal apartments, the balcony doors shut tight against the cold morning air.

“Sure, dad.” Ashton returned to the seat he’d just vacated hesitantly, his hazel eyes narrowing a little when Anne pushed her plate of toast away unfinished, almost like she’d lost her appetite. “Has something happened?”

“Nothing new,” Fletcher said carefully, pausing to exchange an unhappy glance with his wife. “Ash, that day in the hospital room when the brick was thrown through your window -”

“I told you I didn’t see anything,” Ashton said heavily, his teeth gritted as he tried not to remember how hopelessly lost he’d felt when he was trapped in the hospital. Anne reached across the table to take her son’s hand, her soft eyes growing damp at the pain on his face.

“We’ve received intelligence regarding the incident and we believe we know who was behind it,” Fletcher explained, his tone hesitant as he watched the Prince carefully. “Ash, while you were unconscious, there were a number of similar incidents that… well, we decided to keep quiet about. You had enough to be dealing with and neither of us wanted to scare you.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Ashton demanded weakly, his hazel eyes widening in shock as he pulled away from his mum, his hands falling to tangle anxiously in his lap. Both of his parents were watching him silently now, the unhappiness clear on their expressions as the panic dawned on their son’s face. “If that day with the brick wasn’t an isolated incident, you should’ve warned me! How else could I keep myself safe?”

“Your magic hadn’t resurfaced yet, Ash,” Fletcher said gently, his hazel eyes sad. “You wouldn’t have been able to defend yourself and we believed we had the situation under control -”

“They threw a brick through my window!” the Prince cried, his voice rising as the temperature in the room rose in time with the flames beating below his skin. “It almost hit me!”

He pressed his lips together hard before anything else could escape him, hating the prickle of tears in his eyes as he flattened his palms on the table, fighting to keep the fire inside. He didn’t want to snap at his parents when he felt like this. He knew he wasn’t really angry at them; he was afraid and he hated how vulnerable it made him feel.

“Ash, love…” Anne’s eyes were brimming with tears and he winced when he slowly withdrew his hands to see the scorch marks on the table underneath.

“I’m sorry,” Ashton whispered past the lump rising in his throat. “I’m sorry, both of you. I know you did what you thought was right.” His heart ached when they both reached for him at the same time, their hands covering his fist like they could carry his worries themselves.

“You said you found out who was responsible?” the Prince asked quietly, his stomach churning unpleasantly at the anxiety coursing through him. He wished he hadn’t eaten his breakfast so quickly earlier. He wished he hadn’t got out of bed this morning in the first place.

“It’s a group who call themselves the Purgatio,” Fletcher explained, his eyes still wary as he took in the way the younger boy was trying to calm himself. “According to the reports we’ve received, they were formed over half a year ago, when the truce was declared and the Boneflats War came to an end.”

“And they’re angry because of… because of what I did?” Ashton shuddered, fighting not to recall the searing flame and the devastating rockslide, crushing everything in its path. “Is it because of the deaths I caused?” He spoke in little more than a whisper, still unable to process the absolute carnage he’d caused by losing control of his magic. “Is that why they were trying to hurt me?”

“Not at all, Ash,” Fletcher murmured as he squeezed his son’s hand gently. “The Purgatio are angry because the fighting ended. They’ve been declaring over the comms channels that they stand for Claritan independence, hence them reacting so negatively to the end of the Boneflats War. They hate the Tenebrans and they don’t want our nation having anything to do with Tenebris, and that’s why they’re so angry at you, Ash. They blame you for the war ending.”

“So… they’re basically just xenophobic?” The Prince pulled a face, looking disgusted for a moment before the anxiety coiled tighter around his lungs. “If they already hate me and the idea of our nations working together, the Elevare must be a pretty sore point for them, right?”

“Exactly,” Anne said quietly, her expression just as grave as her husband’s. “That’s the reason we’re so concerned about how the Purgatio will react once they discover that you’re the Claritan champion, love. We’ve tried to take every measure we can to keep you safe.”

“Your mum’s right,” Fletcher agreed, his shoulders slumping a little as he relaxed fractionally. “It’s why we’ve taken further precautions to keep you safe, especially now you’ve healed enough to leave the estate for the first time. Now, we know you might not be thrilled about this but we have to be practical about the situation, Ash. Your magic definitely isn’t as powerful as it used to be and, until you return to full strength - and the Purgatio are stopped once and for all - we don’t want you to be unprotected, especially outside these walls.”

“What are you saying?” Ashton asked, his hazel eyes narrowing as his gaze flickered uncertainly between the King and Queen.

“We’ve hired you a bodyguard, Ash,” Anne said hesitantly. “She’s here to keep you safe and… well, I’m afraid you're not really in a position to decline. The council were quite insistent that your safety is ensured.”

The Prince pursed his lips as he processed his mother’s words, quite certain that the measure of assigning him a bodyguard wasn’t just to keep him safe from the Purgatio who seemed to be thirsting for his blood. He was fairly sure the council had requested it as a precaution too, just on the off-chance that Ashton lost control and exploded again. Maybe it was to keep other people safe from him... because he was dangerous now; because no one could trust him not to accidentally flare up and kill a couple of hundred more innocent people.

“Her name’s Sierra Deaton,” Fletcher said tentatively, taking in the tightening of his son’s expression with growing sadness in his eyes. “She possesses powerful ice magic and, if memory serves correctly, she served in the army around the same time you did. You’ll be able to bond over that. She’s signed all the necessary paperwork too - anything she witnesses won’t be passed on to the press. You can trust her.”

“She’s waiting for you out in the hallway,” Anne added with a soft smile, clearly hoping to end the conversation before her son could lose his temper again. “We thought you might like to meet her by yourself since you’ll be spending so much time together.” Her soft eyes twinkled as she spoke, as though an idea had just occurred to her. “Maybe you two can introduce yourselves on your way downstairs to meet Laura and Luke. I’m sure Sierra will get along with the three of you like clockwork.”

Ashton bristled uncomfortably as he rose from the chair, his long fingers easing the tangles out of his hair awkwardly as a sigh escaped him. He didn’t want to be babysat by someone - especially not a veteran of the Boneflats War who had undoubtedly witnessed the the havoc he’d unleashed first-hand - but he knew there was no point arguing with his parents; not when their kind faces were so stern. It was better to just accept their decision and try to make the best of a probably-terrible situation.

That was what the Prince had been doing his whole life after all.

He straightened his shoulders as he ventured out warily into the hallway, bracing himself when the door clicked shut quietly behind him. He saw a figure moving in his peripheral vision and swallowed down the nerves he could feel as his heart pounded in his chest. He was afraid she would hate him, especially if she’d seen the things he’d been forced to do during the war. He was afraid to see the painfully familiar coldness in her eyes that so many people hid behind when they addressed him these days, struggling to conceal their disgust.

She was smaller than he’d expected, barely reaching his shoulder as she planted her feet in front of him, dressed in a red leather jacket and black jeans. She looked to be a few years older than him and would have been distractingly pretty if the Prince were that way inclined, and he blushed a little when he realised he’d simply been standing there gawking at her.

“Miss Deaton?” he asked awkwardly, extending a hand for her to shake, only to grimace when a flame licked anxiously at his fingers. Her dark eyes glittered with amusement when he dropped his hastily-curled fist quickly to his side, his cheeks flaming hotter.

“Sierra will do just fine,” she said firmly, her tone surprisingly warm. “It’s good to finally meet you, Ashton. We served in the same regiment, so I’ve been told.” He was pleasantly surprised that she didn’t use his title; it made him feel more like they were on equal footing and he smiled a little without meaning to as some of the tension leaked from his shoulders.

“My father spoke very highly of your abilities,” the younger boy said with a crooked smile. “Ice magic, right?”

“Spot on,” Sierra agreed as her painted lips curved into a smile. Her long dark hair was drawn back into a low ponytail and she smirked as she wiggled a hand at him teasingly, her fingertips growing frosty. “Freezing bullets mid-air was my speciality.”

“I remember your work,” Ashton said honestly, his eyebrows rising as he realised just how impressive his new bodyguard’s powers were. “You could shatter guns just by freezing them, couldn’t you? It was incredible.” It was all coming back to him now and he knew the awe must have been evident in his expression because she blushed a little, dropping her gaze as she rubbed the back of her neck uneasily.

“Anyone would’ve done the same,” she said with a half-hearted shrug although she couldn’t quite keep the pleased smile from her tanned face. “Although I appreciate the admiration, Your Majesty. It does wonders for my ego.” She gave a sarcastic little bow and he laughed before he could stop himself, his hazel eyes warmer than they’d been in weeks.

He liked her already.

“I’m about to head into central Aureum with my best friends,” Ashton said when she seemed content to simply watch him, her dark eyes twinkling. “From my father’s instructions, I assume this means you’ll be accompanying us?” She looked a little awkward for a moment, burying her hands in the pockets of her jeans as she gave him a wan smile, and Ashton became quite certain that this was her first time working as a bodyguard. The last of his unease slipped away as he bumped her arm lightly with his elbow. “You seem funny and fairly sarcastic so I’m sure they’ll both like you, Sierra. Let’s go meet them, yeah? I’m more than ready to get out of here.”

He was almost skipping as he descended the stairs, his heart light in his chest as he spotted Luke and Laura Hemmings waiting for him in the entrance hall. They lived in an apartment with their parents on the lower floor in a residence specially assigned to the groundskeepers of the estate. They’d lived there their whole lives and Ashton was so glad of it because the Hemmings siblings made his life infinitely better. He’d barely reached the marble floor at the foot of the stairs when he was bundled into a tight hug. He caught a brief glimpse of Laura - her long fair hair and sparkling blue eyes; the hint of tattoos inking the pale skin beneath her flannel shirt; her scarred hands and the brightly-coloured nails she favoured to distract from the old injury - before she tucked her face away into his neck, drawing him even closer.

“I missed you,” she said fiercely as his hand came to settle gently on her back. “I can’t believe it took you being appointed a champion of the damn Elevare for you to hang out with us again!”

“I’ve been in a bad mood,” Ashton said in a small voice, shrugging awkwardly. “I didn’t want to bring you guys down.”

“Silly,” Laura murmured, her expression softening as she drew back to look up at him. She smelt nice, like the flowers she coaxed so easily from the ground with her abilities, and he squeezed her hand tightly, his heart aching a little as he realised just how much he’d missed the older girl. “We love you no matter what, Ashy. Don’t be a stranger.”

Luke appeared behind his older sister, his arms wrapping easily around her shoulders as he settled his chin lightly on the top of her head. She scowled at him as his lips twitched into a weak smile, never thrilled that her baby brother could make her feel so small, but the affection in her eyes shone clearly as she momentarily caught her sibling’s gaze and Ashton couldn’t have suppressed his fondness if he tried.

“It’s good to see you again, Ash,” Luke said softly, his caramel-coloured curls falling in front of his eyes when he ducked his head shyly. He still seemed a little awkward even now, despite the years that had passed since their relationship had ended, and Ashton hoped so badly that things would start to feel normal between the pair of them soon. He hated being the cause of the younger boy’s unhappiness.

“Who’s your new friend, Ash?” Laura asked curiously as she shot the newcomer a slightly wary smile. Sierra was hovering awkwardly nearby with her fingers twisting uncomfortably behind her back and Ashton blushed when he realised he’d simply left her lingering there alone.

“This is Sierra,” the Prince said with an awkward little wave of his hand. “She’s here to make sure I don’t explode into another fireball and burn the palace down with her fancy ice magic.” Laura and Luke exchanged wide-eyed glances as they considered the implications of this, both of them wincing at their friend’s forced laughter, and Ashton shrugged half-heartedly, his gaze flickering fleetingly to his bodyguard’s face.

Sierra was blushing now - so clearly, Ashton hadn’t been far off the mark when he’d guessed that the council might have ulterior motives for assigning him a bodyguard - but it made the Prince feel better for some reason. At least with Sierra beside him, he didn’t have to worry about accidentally causing harm to the people around him. She was like a shield almost; her ice the perfect remedy for his volatile flames.

“Let’s get out of here,” Ashton said hopefully as he led the way towards the doors, the promise of fresh air and new surroundings luring him like a moth to a lantern. “I’ve been stuck in here enough to last a lifetime.”

“I bet you’ll be glad to make a fool of yourself in the tournament then,” Laura said with a sly smile. “If you’re so excited to get out in public again.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” the Prince scoffed as he trotted down the shallow stone steps leading down into the gardens. A light breeze stirred the flowers nearby and he inhaled deeply as his eyes fluttered shut for a moment, just appreciating the feeling of the warmth on his skin. A chirp of birdsong sounded from nearby and he looked towards it, his lips curving into an unconscious smile when he saw the tiny wren singing proudly from its new vantage point on Luke’s outstretched hand.

Birds had always liked the youngest Hemmings child - something to do with his air abilities, maybe, although no one had ever been able to work it out for sure - and they were one of the only things guaranteed to smooth out the ever-present frown on Luke’s forehead as his worries ate away at him. He loved songbirds; loved mimicking their music and stroking their soft feathers with his fingertip. It was beautiful to see and - no matter how awkward the younger boy might behave around his ex-boyfriend - Ashton would never stop appreciating moments like this, when Luke’s sudden happiness shone like the sun breaking through the clouds overhead.

Their eyes met for a moment and the Prince smiled faintly, relaxing a little when the younger boy’s lips curved up weakly in response. Ashton took heart in that, hoping it meant that their friendship was still salvageable.

He missed Luke the way he’d missed his magic; the way he missed unbroken nightmare-free sleep and living without fear.

He hoped the younger boy never forgot how important he was to the Prince, no matter how difficult things felt between them nowadays.

Ashton hoped he found a way to make things right again, before the sadness in Luke’s eyes swallowed him whole.

*

Luke was quiet in the transport on the way into Aureum. The roads were unusually empty and he let his cheek rest against the cool glass as the vehicle carried them down the sun-dappled streets. It was a warm day, the sky a pretty cornflower blue as wisps of cloud drifted overhead. They passed bubbling fountains and rich estates nestled between the rolling fields, and the heady scent of roses wafted into the transport through the partially-open windows as Luke let his fingertips dance in the wind, manipulating it so that a flurry of flower petals flew in their wake, carried on the breeze.

The closer to central Aureum they drove, the more modern the buildings became, until it was more common to see sparkling glass and gleaming metal than the fine white stone the palace was built from. The holograms situated on most street corners usually advertised different products but, during the last week, they’d switched to promoting the Elevare and Luke shot them a wary look as his gaze flickered back towards Ashton where the older boy was sitting across from him, smiling serenely as they left the palace far behind them.

Sierra sat in the seat beside the Prince, her dark eyes more calculating than they’d been back at the relative safety of the estate as she clearly worked hard to identify any potential threats. He wasn’t sure how he felt about having a stranger intruding in their personal lives but he knew Sierra wouldn’t have been assigned if it wasn’t necessary. He just hoped she’d be professional enough to keep her new position private in the coming weeks. The press were already having a field day after pictures of the Prince learning to walk again had surfaced; Luke couldn’t imagine how cruel they’d be if they discovered he needed a bodyguard because he lacked control of his own magic.

“Are you excited for the Opening Gala tomorrow night, Ash?” Laura asked from beside her brother, tucking a lock of hair behind her pierced ear as she watched the Prince fondly. She’d missed him a lot more than she’d let on earlier and Luke glanced at her guiltily as he fidgeted in his seat, feeling bad for the number of times he’d gone to visit Ashton while his older sister was busy training as a healer.

He knew she’d understand; would never resent him for spending time alone with the boy who had once been his very best friend… but Luke wasn’t sure he understood himself why he had been drawn back to the medical bay like a magnet, day in and day out, even when the Prince was still unconscious.

Maybe it was the calm atmosphere of the hospital room or the lack of tension he’d felt between himself and Ashton while the older boy was still sleeping… or maybe it was something else; something Luke was too frightened to dwell on, for fear of stumbling upon the emotions he’d tried so hard to bottle up and bury… but like a message in a bottle thrown out to sea, the tide had carried it straight back again and, deep down, Luke knew exactly who had been luring him to the medical bay every day…

It was Niall Horan, with his kind eyes and warm smiles, and the way he made Luke forget about the cuts lining his skin. Niall could make the younger boy laugh when he didn’t even feel like smiling and Luke would never be able to put into words how important that was to him; the fact that Niall made him feel seen when it sometimes felt like no one else even looked at him.

“If you two are still up for coming to the Gala with me, it’ll be slightly less horrific,” Ashton allowed, his words jarring Luke from his thoughts as a blush stained his cheeks. He’d forgotten his sister had even asked a question in the first place and hurried to look attentive, his face only burning hotter when he saw Sierra quirk an eyebrow curiously at him. “I still don’t really want to go though. Events like this are always a bit full-on and this is going to be even worse once everyone finds out I’m competing.”

“It’ll be okay, Ashy,” Laura said firmly as the transport finally rolled to a stop along one of the main streets. It was still relatively quiet for so early in the day but she could already see a cluster of photographers lingering by the entrance to one of the more popular gardens in the area - clearly hoping for a glimpse of a celebrity or person of interest out on a morning run - and Laura’s face darkened as she straightened up in her seat, taking in the worry tightening Ashton’s expression.

The Prince looked frightened at the prospect of venturing out in public for the first time since he’d returned from the Boneflats War in disgrace - almost like the reality of it was finally starting to sink in - and Luke’s face softened as he reached out to nudge Ashton’s foot gently with his own. It broke the tension that had fallen; made the Prince smile weakly as he unbuckled his seatbelt determinedly and reached to open the door.

The cries of his name started the moment they recognised him and Sierra grimaced as she slipped out of the transport first, squaring her shoulders against the onslaught of sound assaulting their ears. Ashton was visibly tense beneath his denim jacket as he followed her, bristling defensively when he processed the horrible things being shouted at him in an effort to gain a reaction.

The usual insults and disparaging remarks had been replaced by much nastier comments, and Luke paled when he saw the Prince wincing as each barb hit home. The colour drained from Ashton as he recoiled at the cruel remarks, flinching when they ridiculed him for the way his magic had burnt itself away, leaving him weak and useless. His face crumpled when they declared that he was no better than a cold-blooded killer for the unnecessary deaths he had caused on the plains and Luke reached for the older boy’s shoulder unthinkingly, his palm a comforting weight as Ashton leant back into it with a shaky sigh.

“Back off!” Laura said sharply as she stepped in front of the Prince, her stance undoubtedly protective as Sierra turned to make sure her new charge was coping with the verbal abuse he was receiving. Her tanned face fell at the shudders tearing through Ashton and she bit her lip when she saw the sparks tumbling from his fingertips, a clear warning sign of something worse to come.

The press were still being cruel and Laura stepped towards them angrily, apparently uncaring of the risk she was putting herself at in the face of her best friend’s pain.

“This is your Crown Prince and he deserves your respect!” she snapped, her kind eyes narrowed and cold with anger. “I don’t see you talking to other war veterans like this!”

“Well, the others didn’t wipe out half of their own army with friendly fire!” a sharp-tongued journalist retorted harshly before his smile darkened. “There’s a headline there, don’t you think? The Fire Prince with his friendly fire, slaughtering his own people out of sheer incompetency.”

The flames coiled white-hot around Ashton’s shaking fists as though on command and Luke stepped back sharply, his heart clenching unpleasantly in his chest at the panic flaring to life in the older boy’s eyes. Clearly, he still didn’t have proper control of his magic but Luke kept the worry off his face with difficulty. If worst came to worst, he trusted his own air abilities and Sierra’s ice magic to avoid any casualties but… fuck, he wasn’t stupid. He knew how awful this situation looked and he dreaded when the inevitable recordings were released on the comms channels later in the day.

It had been bad enough before the war, when people had simply tried to guess which Hemmings sibling the Prince was dating or why he hadn’t attended a certain event… but now that they were trying to tear him to pieces because they didn’t want to focus on their own grief, things were about to become a hundred times worse.

“How timely,” the journalist murmured although there was a definite tinge of regret in his expression now. He clearly hadn’t realised that the Prince’s magic was returning to him and the sudden silence that had fallen over the rabble of reporters was noticeable as they all finally began to realise that crowding Ashton while he was distressed enough to burst into flames wasn’t a very sensible idea.

“C’mon, Ash,” Luke murmured, his voice soft as his trembling hand returned timidly to the older boy’s slumped shoulder. “Don’t let them upset you. They’re not worth it.”

The flames flickered out in drifting coils of smoke and Luke exhaled softly as his arm slipped around Ashton’s waist, lending his friend silent strength when the Prince leant against him wearily. Sierra was already looking for somewhere secluded they could go to give Ashton space to calm down and Laura looked calmer as she drifted closer to the boys, one hand rising to stroke the Prince’s back soothingly as the trembles finally stopped tearing through him.

“The Fire Prince will be back at his glitzy parties soon enough,” the same journalist said spitefully as the first reporters began to trickle away. “Those months of recuperating haven’t made him smile more, have they?” There was an awkward buzz of laughter but it quickly died when Ashton straightened up, shrugging gently out of his friends’ hold before he strode closer, taking satisfaction in the way the press drew back fearfully.

“What regiment were you in during the Boneflats War?” the Prince asked the journalist in a tone of false interest, his lips curving into a cold smile when the older man shuffled uncomfortably, remaining stubbornly silent. “Oh, you didn’t enlist? How good of you to serve your country.” His hazel eyes flashed in the morning sunlight, revealing the horrible numbness that had unfurled there during the fighting, and the journalist shuddered before he could stop himself. Ashton stepped back, satisfied.

“That’s what I thought,” he muttered before he turned away, taking in the visible relief on his companions’ faces. “Let’s get out of here, you guys,” he suggested, too tired to hide his exhaustion. “We have better things to do than listen to this crap.”

Ashton strode off in the opposite direction, his hands still clenched into fists as Laura hurried to catch up with him, shooting a smug look at the straggling reporters over her shoulder. Sierra followed the pair at a discrete distance, her expression grim although she managed a weak smile when Luke fell into step beside her, his hands buried in his pockets.

“You didn’t get burnt, did you?” she asked softly, glancing back to make sure the reporters had left and relaxing visibly when she saw that they were gone. Luke shook his head tiredly, his heart still aching in his chest as his pulse finally returned to normal.

“Nah, got out the way in time,” he mumbled, feeling bad for even mentioning his friend’s lapse of control. “I’m Luke, by the way,” he added suddenly, blushing a little. “That’s my sister Laura. I just realised we didn’t introduce ourselves back at the estate earlier. Sorry about that.”

Her face softened at his awkwardness and she shrugged easily, her step a little lighter as she glanced up at him, smiling like she didn’t mind in the slightest that he’d forgotten his manners.

“Oh,” she said suddenly, eyes widening a little. “There’s a pigeon on your shoulder.”

Luke snorted weakly, his eyes flickering towards the bird as his lips curled into an unconscious smile. It chirped at him in greeting and he reached towards it, a huff of laughter escaping him when it pecked his finger affectionately.

“Does that happen often?” Sierra asked, still eyeing the pigeon warily although some of her amusement bled away as she finally relaxed after the tension of their conflict with the reporters.

“Which part?” the younger boy countered. “The birds or Ash going to pieces?”

“Either,” Sierra replied, shrugging helplessly as her teeth sank into her bottom lip, the concern plain on her pretty face. The pigeon cooed softly and she frowned at it in surprise. “Are you controlling it, Luke?”

“Nope,” the younger boy said honestly, reaching up once more to gently stroke its plumage with his fingertip. “Birds have always been attracted by my air abilities. I can’t keep them away.” His blue eyes flickered automatically to his sister and the Prince where they were wandering up ahead, and he sighed quietly when he realised that his friend’s new bodyguard was still waiting for an answer.

“Ash has panic attacks a lot these days and they usually manifest like that,” Luke said heavily, his shoulders slumping enough that the bird took off into the air, startled by the wave of sadness that had crashed over him. “He has done ever since the war. The attacks are getting more dangerous with his magic returning though.”

“I can imagine,” Sierra said quietly, her tone thoughtful as she scrutinised the Prince silently, her expression sympathetic. “The war did a number on all of us.”

“Except me,” Luke said bitterly, his gaze dropping to the floor shamefully as he sloped along behind Laura and Ashton. “I was too young to help. I had to stay behind; let everyone fight the battle for me.” He jammed his lips together hard, forcing himself silent before anything else self-pitying could escape him. He didn’t know why he was revealing all of this to a complete stranger. He didn’t even know why she was still listening to him.

“I think the war did a number on you too, Luke,” Sierra murmured, her dark eyes growing sad when he finally met the older girl’s gaze. “You look like you’re raining inside.”

Luke’s lips parted but no sound came out as he stared down at her in shock, the unwanted prickle of tears making itself known as a lump rose in his throat. Laura turned around automatically, her fingers tangled with Ashton’s although her face fell when she saw how upset her little brother looked as Sierra bit her lip unhappily.

“The boys are sad, Sierra,” Laura declared as she approached them, wrapping an arm warmly around the Prince’s waist before she drew Luke into a one-armed hug too. “That means we need milkshakes,” the fair-haired girl added, her tone solemn. “They always cheer up when we get milkshakes.”

“I’ll have to bear that in mind,” Sierra said, exchanging a rueful smile with Ashton although her face fell when Luke quickly averted his gaze. He found he couldn’t quite bring himself to look the older girl in the eye and it only became more awkward after the four of them had grabbed their favourite table in the milkshake place they’d always enjoyed visiting before the Boneflats War had begun.

Their conversation automatically returned to the Elevare as they sat together in the corner and Luke listened silently as he sipped his drink, no longer in the mood to contribute to the discussion. Laura and Ashton seemed fixated on the fact that the Tenebrans had supposedly arrived the night before, their words saturated with nerves and excitement, but Luke couldn’t relate to them right now. He felt too numb, the way he always did whenever he finally let himself recognise the deep ache he could feel inside him.

Luke felt strangely detached as he looked at his two closest friends, taking in the way they were leaning against each other as they laughed at some sarcastic remark Sierra had just made about the Tenebrans. Luke had been like that once, full of laughter and light, without the fear and his terrifying feelings for Niall plaguing him so painfully.

Ashton glanced up suddenly and sobered when he saw the younger boy’s pale face, clearly able to detect some hint of the turmoil Luke was trying to bury under his skin. The Prince cocked his head to one side curiously and, when Luke managed an incredibly unconvincing smile, Ashton sighed as he reached across the table, his fingertips dancing briefly over the younger boy’s knuckles, soft as the breeze Luke loved so much.

“How’s your milkshake, Ash?” the younger boy asked softly, fighting for some normality so that the Prince could enjoy his first trip out of the estate. “As good as you remembered?”

“Chocolate milk is always good, Luke,” Ashton said but his expression was warmer now and he looked less anxious as a smile touched his lips.

For just a moment, when the sunlight caught his honey-coloured hair and his hazel eyes sparkled, he was still the golden boy that the nation of Claritas had adored so much. The image faded when the sun slipped behind a cloud; made his face look harder and colder, but the love was still there. It was buried now, hidden under hurt and betrayal for the people who had turned against him so quickly but, in time, Luke thought the Prince might thaw again.

At least, he would if the Hemmings siblings had any say in the matter.

“Where shall we go after this?” Laura asked as she finished her milkshake, her fingers unfurling idly to reveal a daisy growing in her palm. She tucked it into Ashton’s curls and he snorted, the fondness in his eyes unmistakable as he shot the older girl a warm glance.

“I’m only keeping this in if you grow Luke a sunflower for his hair,” Ashton said, looking quite delighted with himself when the girls giggled and even Luke cracked a wan smile.

“I think a sunflower might be a bit heavy to wear in my hair, Ash,” the younger boy pointed out wryly, sticking his tongue out when the Prince gave him an irritatingly radiant smile.

“You’ll never know until you try, Luke,” Ashton pointed out loftily before he paused, his bottom lip pulled between his teeth as realisation dawned on his face. Laura exchanged a look with her little brother, a faint smile curving her mouth as she watched the Prince uncertainly.

“What are you thinking, Ashy?” she asked carefully, looking equal parts wary and excited.

“Everyone’s calling me the Fire Prince now, aren’t they?” Ashton said slowly, his fingertips rising to brush the daisy where it was tucked into his curls. “And, well… I have an idea.” He held his breath for a moment, smiling nervously at his three companions. “I thought I might dye my hair before the Opening Gala tomorrow night. Really give them all something to talk about.”

Ashton looked unusually confident as he straightened up in his seat, his lips twitching into a smirk as he took in the curiosity on Sierra’s face and the way the Hemmings siblings had exchanged grins.

“What colour were you thinking, Ashy?” Laura asked, her tone deceptively casual as her eyes sparkled with excitement.

The mischievous grin spread across Ashton’s face without his permission as he brushed his curls out of his face with a casual sweep of his hand. He was clearly determined to make his comeback with a bang and all his friends could do was wait on the sidelines, and hope that it wouldn’t be a literal explosion this time.

“I’m dyeing it red,” Ashton said, bold as anything. “Red as flame.”

Chapter Text

Knew he was a killer,

First time that I saw him.

- …Ready For It?, Taylor Swift

 

The bathroom looked like a bloodbath when Laura was finished and Ashton grimaced at the hair dye splattering the porcelain. He hated making unnecessary work for the servants and he knew his parents would rightfully be irritated with him… although maybe they’d be angrier at what he’d done to his hair. He wasn’t supposed to make any long-lasting changes to his body without consulting them first because it might look bad in the press but… damnit, the nation already thought the Prince was terrible. A bit of hair dye couldn’t make things worse.

“We messed up my bathroom,” Ashton said meekly as the nerves fluttered in his stomach. His curls were still covered with a towel at the moment and he was dreading seeing how much the colour had taken. It didn't exactly help that the Opening Gala was only in a few hours either so if his hair looked horrendous, there wasn’t much he could do about it now. He just had to hope that it would all work out.

“This is art, Ashy,” Laura said firmly as she rubbed gently at a bit of hair dye staining his forehead with the pad of her thumb. “Art isn’t supposed to be neat.”

“I’m taking the towel off,” the Prince decided, even as his breath caught in anticipation. “Remember I love you, Laura, just in case this looks awful and I never speak to you again.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic,” Laura teased as she tugged the towel free, tossing it towards the laundry basket as she watched her best friend fondly. “You know it’ll look good no matter what.”

Ashton let out the breath he’d been holding as he stared at his reflection in the mirror, his hazel eyes widening with pleasant surprise at the way the scarlet curls were tumbling down across his forehead. His dimples creased his cheeks when he smiled and Laura relaxed visibly, letting out a relieved giggle.

“I like it,” he said in disbelief, his eyes sparkling as he ran a hand through his damp hair hesitantly. The strands were startling bright as they slipped between his fingers and he couldn’t keep the grin from spreading across his face as the last of his tension slipped away. His best friend had done a brilliant job – apart from possibly staining some of his forehead too – and he was so grateful.

“You don’t have to sound so shocked!” Laura huffed but he would have to have been blind to miss the warmth in her expression as she failed to suppress a smile. “Finish your hair quickly before we start on your war paint, Ashy, okay? Then we can get into our pretty clothes.”

Ashton did as he’d been asked and, by the time he finally left the dye-splattered bathroom, Luke was lounging on the Prince’s bed in his shimmering pearl grey suit while Laura sat at the vanity, applying a final coat of blossom pink lipstick.

“I like the hair, Ash. You look like you’ve been attacked though,” Luke said as he eased his fingers ruefully through his own caramel-coloured locks, his blue eyes drifting thoughtfully over the stained t-shirt Ashton had been wearing in the bathroom. The dye looked like blood now and the Prince grimaced a little as he shrugged out of the ruined garment, his cheeks heating when Luke spluttered awkwardly and turned away.

“Sit here, Ashy,” Laura called, successfully breaking the tension that had fallen as she indicated the cushioned seat she’d just vacated. “We’ll do your war paint next, right? Then your suit… and then some pretty flowers.” There was no question that Laura would be using her ability to create beautiful adornments for Ashton and Luke’s outfits. She often grew them little flowers that perfectly matched their clothes, to the point where it almost felt strange for the Prince to leave the estate without such a decoration now.

No one thought it out of the ordinary. In Claritas, it was expected that everyone dress up in their finery, and the more glimmering baubles, the better. The Claritans weren’t unassuming people and Ashton was sure he would have looked more out of place if he hadn’t done his best to ensure his outfit was eye-catching.

He settled down in front of the mirror hesitantly, relieved when he barely felt any ache in his back at all thanks to Niall’s remarkable medi-tech. Laura leant against the vanity, careful not to crease the pastel-coloured dress she’d changed into for the gala. The gown was beautiful, the long skirt light and floaty, and streaked in soft blues and pinks, the golden undertone reminiscent of a sunrise.

In the mirror, Ashton could see his suit lying ready on his bed beside Luke. At first glance, the material appeared to be an inky black but, upon closer inspection, it was almost iridescent in the light, revealing a rainbow buried just below the surface that reminded the Prince faintly of spilt gasoline.

“I thought gold would complement your suit best,” Laura said as she daubed the glitter liberally across the younger boy’s cheekbones. Ashton sensibly kept his eyes shut, relaxing further under her careful hands as she readied him for all of the cameras he would no doubt face tonight. “We’ll do your nails gold too, okay?” she added before she raised her voice a little, glancing over at her little brother. “You can have silver nails, Lu. I’ll do them for you after.”

She was true to her word and, as time went on, the Prince hid all of his vulnerabilities behind the mask Laura had constructed him. The older girl hadn't been kidding earlier when she'd called the glitter war paint. With every swipe of smoky eyeliner or pearly white flower she tucked into his vibrant curls, Ashton felt like he was wearing armour and that was only cemented when he finally slipped into his suit.

He gazed at himself in the full-length mirror silently, aware that he felt every bit as nervous as he had done that first day on the Boneflats, no matter how silly that sounded. It didn't seem to matter that his bulletproof vest had been replaced with silk or that his helmet had been traded for fiery red curls and hairspray.

His heart was still fighting to beat right out of his chest beneath the gleaming medal his father had insisted he wore to commemorate his tour in the Boneflats.

Ashton felt like a ghost now, dressed in the clothes of a boy who would never exist again.

He felt like the Prince he’d been before the war had destroyed him.

A knock on the door jarred him from his grim thoughts and he looked up automatically as Luke trotted over to answer it, his suit perfectly tailored to accentuate the elegant sweep of his long limbs. By the way his cheeks heated as he stammered a little at whoever was waiting outside, it could only have been Sierra and Ashton bit his lip as he watched the younger boy worriedly. Luke had seemed to get on well enough with the Prince’s new bodyguard at first but she had obviously managed to upset him somehow and Ashton hoped they’d be able to smooth things over. He wanted the people he cared about to be happy.

“Evening, Sierra,” Laura said cheerfully as she appeared beside her brother, her long fair hair gleaming as it cascaded down her back in gentle waves. “You look pretty tonight.”

The older girl smiled shyly as she glanced down at her outfit, taking in the short sparkly black dress she had donned beneath her ever-present leather jacket. Her hair was loose tonight, the colour of chocolate as it tumbled down around her shoulders. Her eyes twinkled when she took in Ashton’s freshly-dyed curls.

“Thank you, Laura,” Sierra said warmly as she smoothed her skirt. “This dress is my favourite because it has pockets. Y’know, if you need any chewing gum tonight, just hit me up. I’ve got like three packets with me.”

“I wish my dress had pockets for chewing gum,” Laura pouted, making Luke roll his eyes as he clearly tried hard not to be awkward around the Prince’s bodyguard tonight.

“Your dress looks like a sunrise, tiny,” he pointed out smugly, his lips curving into a smirk when she scowled at the nickname. “You can’t have everything.”

“Shut up, lofty,” Laura retorted. “Good things come in small packages.”

“Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?” Luke said airily as he grinned down at her. “Your head barely reaches my shoulder.”

“I’ll bite your ankles if you keep on like this,” his sister vowed. “You know I'm scrappy.” Her eyes sparkled with amusement when Ashton made a big show of stepping between the pair of them, his fine suit shimmering in the light.

“Try not to kill each other before we get there, guys, okay?” he teased, smiling a little nervously. “There'll be enough veiled threats tonight I'm sure.” He caught Sierra's gaze for a moment, relaxing a little at the calm expression on her face as she silently reassured him that everything was under control. “We should leave now before they get into one of their famous fights, Fearless Protector. I don't want loads of mangled flower petals getting blown around my room again.”

Sierra snorted at the silly name she’d been given but she looked pleased with herself as she swept an arm towards the hallway outside, her purple-painted lips curving into a broad smile.

“Right this way then, Your Illustriousness,” she said playfully. “Your carriage awaits.”

*

He’d only been in Claritas for a full day and already Calum didn’t trust it. Everything was too fake; too bright and polished, like a little glitter would be enough to hide the cracks spreading ominously underneath.

The transport rolled to a smooth stop outside the Lumen Centre and Calum regarded it with wide eyes, surprised by how much bigger it was off the comms channels. Even the architecture was outlandish in Claritas and the Prince felt himself sneering just a little at the building’s awkward sloping appearance. One side of it started very low – no more than a single storey – but as it sprawled across the verdant grass, it soared up into the sunset, towering above a deep, crystal-clear lake. One wall of the building was made entirely from glass and the various lights inside the centre were reflected on the surface of the water outside, the sight strangely beautiful as the sun set.

The Lumen Centre was used to host a variety of events, from award shows to film premieres, and Calum had never truly believed he’d ever step foot here himself. He could see the awe reflected back at him on Mali and Michael’s faces when he glanced at them, and it made him feel immeasurably better, even as it sank in just how far away from home he really was. At least he didn’t have to go through this alone. A footman stepped forwards to open the car door and Calum stepped out carefully onto the pale gravel, expertly ignoring the flashing cameras and the shocked gasps as he waited for his loved ones to join him. In sharp contrast to the press, the footman didn’t react at all to the sight of Tenebran royalty standing before him and, if he was surprised by their unexpected appearance, he was far too professional to show it.

Calum’s sequinned suit was glimmering in the camera flashes and he shot the flashy material a baleful look, still uncertain as to how his sister had forced him into the flashy garment. It was probably as revenge after she’d heard him and Michael complaining about Claritan fashion on the jet but… damnit, the older boy wasn’t dressed up like some bejewelled clotheshorse! Michael had been allowed to escape with simply well-tailored trousers, a white shirt unbuttoned at the collar, and a charcoal grey blazer with tiny shards of opal stitched into the cuffs and lapel, glinting faintly in the approaching dusk.

Calum tried hard to appear calm and self-assured as he led the way into the building, marvelling at the plush carpets and the silk wall hangings. Everything was so much starker in Tenebris – especially in the citadel – and he could hardly believe the Claritans spent so much money simply on making their surroundings beautiful.

The Lumen Centre felt too shiny and alien for the Prince to let his guard down; nothing at all like the dim, damp, cold passages of his home that he had grown so used to. Calum didn’t trust it here – not the smiling staff in their red waistcoats or the laughing guests; the clinking of glasses or the soft music wafting out to greet them from the big doors thrown open up ahead – and the hairs on the back of his neck refused to lie flat as the anxiety coiled in his veins.

Calum had never felt more like he was surrounded by predators.

He continued to hate the sequin-covered monstrosity he’d been forced into, at least until the three of them finally entered the main room where the Opening Gala was being held. Many of the guests were already present, all of them enveloped in glittering swathes of fabric encrusted with gemstones and precious metals; with gleaming ornamental weapons and elaborate headdresses, and lavish cloaks trailing on the polished wooden floor as they mingled together beneath the twinkling chandeliers.

It was like nothing the Prince had ever seen before and he immediately felt underdressed. Beside him, Michael looked like he wanted to crawl under a nearby table and hide until the night was over.

“Still smug that your outfit is so understated?” Calum murmured out of the corner of his mouth, nudging his best friend lightly with his elbow. Michael simply gawped at him helplessly and the Prince’s lips curved into a smirk. “Bet you regret not wearing a tie now – and hey, what do you know? I just remembered how much you teased me earlier for wearing something that sparkles. How much do you wish you were wearing a sequinned jacket right now?”

“Shut up,” Michael snapped, sounding vaguely strangled. One of the staff members was approaching them now, dressed in the tell-tale velvet waistcoat as she weaved between the guests, clearly intent on guiding the newest arrivals to their table.

“You should’ve taken my advice when I suggested wearing a pretty ball gown,” Calum said innocently and Michael reached to elbow his best friend back, the movement obvious and clumsy enough that the Prince snickered as he stepped smartly aside.

“Piss off, Princess,” Michael scowled, just as Mali shot them both a death glare and harshly whispered: “Stop behaving like children!”

Of all of them, the eldest Hood sibling was the only one who had truly come to the gala prepared. She fit in with the other guests seamlessly, the easy confidence rolling off her in waves as she followed the staff member to their assigned table near the stage. The boys trailed behind her like ducklings, their eyes wide as they took in the crowd of nobles, celebrities, and famous politicians from both nations surrounding them.

Calum had to make a conscious effort not to stand on his sister’s gown as she strode across the polished wood in front of him. Her dress was made from a beautiful ruby-coloured silk that made her skin glow, the cloth plated with leaf-shaped scales of reddish gold and copper, the metal doubling up as decoration and armour. Her plentiful jewellery was rose gold plating steel, pretty to look at but more than tough enough to act as a weapon if the wolves surrounding them proved hungry.

The dress was tight-fitting and she turned many heads as they finally reached their table, the long split in her skirt revealing an expanse of tanned skin as she came to a stop behind her chair, back straight and head held high as the attention she was attracting rolled off her as harmlessly as raindrops.

A dark curl had already escaped from the elaborate updo she'd spent almost an hour creating but even that managed to look artful as she sank down gratefully into the seat when it was pulled out for her. Her painted face was sculpted into a carefully serene smile as she crossed one leg casually over the other, revealing the intricately-fastened ribbons holding her heels in place.

A waiter appeared carrying a tray of drinks and Calum almost slopped his all over himself in his haste to accept a glass. He was sure it would be alcoholic – after all, they weren’t in Tenebris anymore – and he was desperate for anything that might calm his nerves a little. A tiny voice in his head that sounded a lot like Mali warned him against getting drunk though and he forced himself to sip the drink slowly as he sank back in his seat, simply relieved that he hadn’t stumbled over any celebrities on his terrifying walk across the crowded room.

Most of the tables around them were already teeming with people but there was one nearby that was still empty. Calum’s pulse raced when he realised that this was very likely to have been kept aside for his competitor and his stomach twisted unpleasantly as he processed the fact that he was about to be faced with the boy he’d been sworn to murder.

No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than the room suddenly fell silent as the Claritan Prince arrived with his entourage. The tension in the room became abruptly suffocating but Ashton showed no signs of being bothered by it at all. He cut through the sea of staring faces with all the confidence of the King he’d been born to be, his high cheekbones sparkling with glitter under the lights, his newly dyed hair a stunning crimson. His suit was tailored perfectly to his muscular form, his movements slick as an oil spill.

Calum’s mouth had gone dry.

“Cal, it’s him!” Michael breathed excitedly, his comment needless as he watched the Crown Prince approaching with wide green eyes. Calum swallowed audibly beside his best friend, his lips parting just a little when Ashton drew closer, carefully avoiding eye contact with anyone in the room, lest he lose his nerve.

The Prince was accompanied by three companions, all of them dressed to the teeth. A small girl in a leather jacket walked close behind him, an easy smirk curving her lips as she sauntered along behind Ashton, dark hair tumbling around her shoulders as she watched the other guests cautiously. She was flanked by two pale fair-haired siblings, both wearing flowers in their hair as they watched over the Prince protectively, their blue eyes fiercely loving.

The girl was pretty, her makeup painstakingly coordinated with the beautiful dress she’d donned. Mali watched her appreciatively as she breezed past and Calum suppressed his smile as his gaze flickered to the pretty girl’s brother beside her.

His caramel-coloured curls were strewn with pale blue flowers, too immaculate not to have been the product of a powerful magical ability. The boy was tall and broad but something about the uncertainty of the way he carried himself made him look years younger, and that wasn’t helped by the profound sadness glistening in his ocean-blue eyes as they flickered unhappily towards the Prince.

Absently, Calum wondered if there was unfinished business between the pair and found that he didn’t like that thought very much.

Ashton was much closer now - near enough for Calum to see the smoky eyeliner he was wearing and the golden varnish painted on his nails - and the fearlessness the Crown Prince was fighting to exude would have been perfect if he’d been able to keep his fingers from trembling. It made the older boy seem more human somehow - less like a murderer who deserved retribution and more like someone who needed to be taken care of - and Calum’s heart ached as he shakily raised his glass, downing the rest of his drink unthinkingly as the alcohol burnt his throat.

Ashton met his gaze as the four newcomers finally reached their table and Calum stared back at him silently, taking in the mournful hazel eyes and the older boy’s heart-shaped mouth before the Crown Prince turned away, cheeks heating. The moment was broken and Calum was left to slump back in his seat silently, his pulse roaring in his ears as he fought to keep his expression unreadable.

He had no idea what had just happened but he knew it could mean nothing good.

*

The Tenebran Prince was watching him.

Ashton had been sitting at the table for almost twenty minutes now and Calum had barely looked away, his chocolate brown eyes burning as he stared at his competitor over the rim of his glass. The younger boy’s gaze was making Ashton blush and he hated so much how fragile he’d become since the war; hated the fact that even someone simply watching him was enough to make him feel raw as he dwelled on everything they could have been thinking about him… how dangerous or useless he was, maybe, or the unfairness of him surviving the end of the Boneflats War when so many had lost their lives because of his actions.

It felt like the blood would never be washed from his hands and Ashton pressed his lips together hard as he sat there rigidly under the sparkling chandeliers, determined not to lose control now. It had taken a long time for the conversation to pick up again after he’d made his entrance and he refused to give the other guests a reason to judge him tonight. They’d condemned him enough already.

“That boy’s watching you,” Luke said accusingly and, before Ashton could wearily point out that he’d spotted that the moment they entered the room, he quickly realised that his friend wasn’t talking about his staring contest with the Tenebran Prince. He was talking about his sister and the fierce-looking boy with the bleached blond hair instead.

“Really?” Laura asked, her blue eyes flickering towards her admirer shyly before she fussed with her hair, growing another beautiful bloom to tuck into the long locks. “Did I smudge my makeup? Is he staring because I look -”

“Beautiful,” Luke interjected, softening a little although he shot the other table a distrustful look. He reached out gently, his palm coming to rest protectively over his older sister’s as he smiled at her faintly. “You’re always beautiful, tiny.”

Ashton’s lips curved up softly at the fondness on Laura’s face and he looked away, his hazel gaze dropping to the drink he’d been given as he tried to relax in an effort to gain at least some enjoyment from his first official outing since the war. The announcement of the champions would be taking place in around half an hour - if the program for the evening was to be believed anyway - and Ashton wanted to appreciate the relative calm he could feel now because he knew, the very moment his name was announced, that his world would change irrevocably once more.

The press would never let him have a moment of peace again.

He sighed as he looked up, his fingers curling loosely around his glass as he took a sip of the fruity liquid, his tongue darting out to sweep over the sugar-rimmed glass. He almost choked on his drink when he saw Calum staring at him with his lips slightly parted, a blush heating the younger boy’s cheeks as he swallowed reflexively, his gaze flickering down to Ashton’s mouth.

“Oh,” the older boy breathed, his eyes widening a little as he set his glass down on the table unsteadily, his heart racing in his chest. He sucked his bottom lip into his mouth unthinkingly, savouring the taste of the sugar. He watched in disbelief as Calum’s shaking hand sent the remnants of his drink spilling across the table and, when the Tenebran Prince swiftly used his water abilities to keep the liquid from ruining anyone’s clothes, Ashton didn’t even remember to feel wariness the way he usually did around such magic.

He was too captivated by the way Calum’s gaze felt on his skin, almost tangible as the younger boy watched him, both of them blushing now. Ashton felt dizzy with it but he forced himself to inhale deeply, his tongue darting out to wet his lips as he deliberately dropped his hazel gaze, playing with the ice cubes slowly melting in his glass.

He wasn’t sure what he wanted to happen - could anything even happen, given the situation they were about to find themselves in? - but he knew he liked the feeling of Calum watching him. He thought he might quite like Calum to do some other things too but, before Ashton could truly spiral down that dangerous path in a crowded room, his bodyguard decided to take pity on him.

“Hey, Your Illustriousness,” Sierra murmured wryly as she subtly caught his attention. Ashton dragged his eyes away from Calum as the blush in his cheeks deepened, resisting the urge to bury his flaming face in his hands when Sierra simply raised an eyebrow curiously. “Aren’t your parents coming to this shindig tonight?”

“They can’t,” Ashton said with a weak shrug, relieved that the topic of conversation had successfully taken care of his… problem. “There’s a council meeting tonight to discuss some trade deal gone wrong. They couldn’t miss it.” The older girl was watching him sympathetically now and Ashton folded his arms loosely across his chest, not liking how vulnerable it made him feel. “Doesn’t matter anyway,” he mumbled, smirking slightly as he forced himself not to look back at Calum. “I’m sure if I trip over when they call my name out, they’ll definitely get to witness the disaster over the comms channels.”

“Sure they will,” Sierra grinned, dark eyes sparkling and irritatingly knowing as she took in the lingering blush on the younger boy’s cheeks. “Videos of that would circulate for weeks, Ash. Better try not to stumble, eh?”

“Thanks for your help,” he said sourly, even as the smile fought its way across his lips. “I thought Laura and Luke were bad enough alone but now there’s three of you to taunt me! I’ll never live anything down again.”

Ashton whiled away his last minutes of peace with his best friends, giggling at Laura’s attempts to grow enough daisies to make a chain taller than her brother. It was funny to watch and the dimples creased the Prince’s cheeks enough that his face almost ached with how much he was smiling. He saw his own fondness reflected back at him in Sierra’s eyes and he was incredibly glad that she was so easy to get along with. He could see himself being friends with her for a very long time.

“Stop blowing the daisies off the table!” Laura hissed at her brother when he subtly flicked his fingers, the small gust of wind he had summoned sending the flowers fluttering up into the air. “You’re such a pain!”

“Well, you’re showing off,” Luke said lightly, shrugging like it made perfect sense. “Plus, my ability doesn’t make anything pretty so I’m very jealous.”

“Every bird wants to be your friend, lofty!” Laura pointed out, clearly trying not to laugh as her eyes sparkled. “Don’t you remember that day at the wildlife park where all of the flamingos wanted to love you? That’s so much better than flowers!”

“Are they serious?” Sierra asked, her words a little muffled behind her hands as she tried hard to keep herself from giggling. Ashton rolled his eyes fondly.

“Yep,” he said in a long-suffering voice. “In a second, Luke will bring up the fact that - at the age of seven - Laura got into a disagreement with our science teacher about a certain type of sapling. This poor guy made the mistake of telling her she was wrong in front of everyone so, to prove a point, she grew this colossal tree right in the middle of the classroom and the entire ceiling collapsed on us. It was absolutely magical.”

“Wow,” Sierra murmured, apparently impressed. “Remind me never to piss Laura off.”

“- and anyway, your ability is still better than mine!” Luke continued sulkily, unaware of the fact that Ashton and Sierra were laughing at them. “Don’t you remember that time when you were seven with the tree, tiny?! The worst I could do at school was blow all of the test papers off the desks!”

“As if you would’ve done that!” Laura argued but she was positively beaming now. “You’re the biggest goody-goody I know!”

Before their argument could descend into chaos - probably with one or both of them trying to prove just how much property damage they could cause with their abilities - the lights over the tables dimmed as a man strode out onto the stage.

He was dressed in quite possibly the most ridiculous suit Ashton had ever seen.

The ensemble was covered in tiny crystals of every colour, creating a veritable rainbow that shimmered under the lights as its wearer danced out into the centre of the stage, his arms spread in greeting.

“Good evening, everybody!” the man called excitedly, his voice amplified by the microphone clipped to his sparkling white shirt. For the first time, Ashton noticed just how many cameras there were pointing up at the stage and he swallowed hard in the semi-darkness as the nerves began to make themselves known once more. “What an exciting night this is! I’m sure you all know why we’re gathered here today but just in case anyone stumbled in here off the street and ended up quite lost -” He paused for the polite titters of laughter he received before continuing. “- let me just explain what tonight is all about for the people watching us at home.”

His green eyes were glittering with excitement, his face magnified on the huge comms screen stretching across the wall behind him, displaying the same footage that was being broadcast live across Cerasus.

“Welcome to the Opening Gala of the Elevare!” the man said, smiling winningly into the cameras. “My name is Harry Styles, comms personality and rising star of the music world.” He received a bigger laugh then although, privately, Ashton wasn’t sure it was intended to be kind. Harry paid it no mind though, simply smiling brighter into the camera as the spotlight shone down on him. “Tonight at the gala - in the next few minutes in fact! - I will have the pleasure of announcing the Claritan and Tenebran champions who will be competing against each other for glory in this esteemed event… but first, a commercial break.”

Ashton barely had time to roll his eyes at how blatantly mercenary the Elevare’s sponsors were when a member of staff appeared beside his seat, tapping him lightly on the shoulder as she leant in.

“You’re to come with me, Your Majesty,” she said softly. “We need you backstage when your name is announced.” Her gaze flickered towards where Sierra had started to rise and she shook her head apologetically. “Sorry,” the woman added sincerely. “Only you, Your Majesty.”

“Right,” Ashton mumbled, his chest tightening a little as he rose shakily, his eyes flickering frantically towards his friends. Sierra reached out to squeeze his hand and Luke gave him a hesitant smile as Laura leant over to press a daisy gently into his hand.

“For luck,” she whispered, the pride on her face impossible to miss. “You’ve got this, Ashy.”

“Thanks,” Ashton smiled, taking a deep breath as he turned to face the member of staff still waiting for him. “I’m ready. Please lead the way.”

“Of course,” she said politely. “Follow me, Your Majesty.”

As she weaved quickly between the tables, he glanced across the shadowy room and spotted Calum rising too, ducking his head to murmur goodbye to his companions. The Tenebran Prince cut an impressive figure as he momentarily passed in front of the screen, and Ashton pressed his lips together hard when he took in how tall and muscular Calum looked as he followed his own member of staff out of sight.

Ashton rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly as he slipped through a door being held open for him, aware that the embarrassed flush was spreading down his throat. With his newly-dyed red hair, he’d look like a tomato if he kept this up and that definitely wasn’t how he wanted to appear on camera. He needed to appear cool and collected, the way he should have been all along.

The Crown Prince glanced down at the daisy lying in his palm and took a deep, calming breath.

The fire in his veins was sluggish tonight and, for once, Ashton was glad that his powers seemed to fluctuate so much since the surge on the Boneflats. The last thing he wanted to do was explode again during a live broadcast to a sickening number of people.

He could hear Harry’s voice now, rising with excitement and glee as he informed the audience that the champions were about to be announced.

Ashton tucked the daisy into the breast pocket of his iridescent suit, right over his racing heart.

He would be fine. He could do this.

He’d survived so much worse before.

*

Calum had never seen anyone as flamboyant as Harry Styles before and he couldn’t quite tear his disbelieving gaze away from the small comms unit mounted on the wall nearby. He’d been abandoned momentarily in an empty brightly-lit corridor, filled with nothing but the screen broadcasting the Opening Gala, a number of closed doors, a wilting potted plant, and a water cooler, the contents of which did go some small way to soothing his frayed nerves.

Beneath the glaring lights, Calum’s heart felt like it was trying to beat right out of his chest. His eyes were locked on the screen as Harry pranced under the lights, briefly explaining the updated rules of the tournament now that the scrolls had been rediscovered. He learnt that each new challenge would only be announced after the completion of the previous task, so as to keep the public interested while ensuring that the champions only had a limited amount of time to prepare.

Calum wasn’t sure how fair that was but he knew there was no point protesting. The powers that be wanted good comms broadcasts and as much profit as they could make from a tournament designed to end the war between their two nations. Nobody gave a damn how daunted and uneasy Calum felt at the way the Elevare was unfolding… and especially not his father, who had arranged for him to be sent here in the first place; who hadn’t even bothered to come to Claritas to support him.

The sudden flare of anger the Prince felt was enough to send the water in the cooler bubbling violently behind him and he grimaced, his stress only worsening when one of the doors nearby opened and a familiar figure stumbled into the harsh lights of the corridor.

Ashton’s hair looked even brighter this close up, the curls a striking blood-red as he leant one shoulder against the wall, a heavy sigh escaping him. He stood with his back to the Tenebran Prince, apparently unaware that the younger boy was even standing there, and Calum took just a little too much pleasure in causing the water in the cooler to churn loudly enough that Ashton spun round in alarm, his pretty eyes wide with shock. The smoky liner edging them was subtle, just visible enough that it made the hazel pop in the glaring lights of the bulbs.

Calum’s heart skipped a beat when Ashton held his gaze, the older boy’s expression undecipherable for a few moments before he frowned slightly at the shameless display of Calum’s water abilities.

“Way to scare a guy,” Ashton muttered irritably as he folded his arms defensively across his broad chest. “You could’ve just said hello…”

“You fought in the war,” Calum pointed out bluntly, his dark eyes still locked on the older boy’s handsome face, almost like he couldn’t look away. “Don’t tell me you’re scared of a little water.”

“Stop it,” Ashton said heavily as his hands curled into loose fists, the golden nails momentarily hidden from view when they bit into his palms. “I’m not going to argue with you. I don’t even want to be here.”

The older boy was almost baring his teeth now and Calum wasn't sure why he’d thought bating such a dangerous individual was a good idea except… fuck, Ashton looked even prettier when he was angry, cheeks flushing pink under the glitter, hazel eyes twinkling beneath the lights.

Calum was enraptured.

“Too much of an angel to start a fight with me?” he murmured as his teeth sank into his bottom lip. Ashton watched the movement automatically, blushing hotter, and Calum smirked before he could think better of it. “I bet you’re not as righteous as you like to pretend.”

Ashton clenched his jaw, his eyes narrowing as the temperature in the corridor rose. Calum’s smile tightened just a little as he drifted closer to the water cooler, making sure its contents were within easy reach should he need to defend himself, even though this tension was his fault to start with.

He wasn’t sure why he was trying so hard to enrage Ashton like this… except, well, maybe that wasn’t true. His father’s threatening words kept circling in his mind and he knew he wouldn’t have a hope in hell of achieving them if he was this soft for the Claritan Prince. Calum needed to make them hate each other; needed to remind himself of all the reasons why he was supposed to loathe Ashton... but he couldn’t stop himself from looking at the older boy’s lips.

“You know what I’ve done,” Ashton said coldly, even as his eyes gleamed damply in the bright lights. “I can see it in your face… so don’t call me fucking ‘angel’, Calum. I can assure you that couldn’t be further from the truth.”

The younger boy watched him curiously, his heart fluttering at the way his name sounded in Ashton’s mouth. There was a definite sheen of tears in his hazel eyes and Calum felt guilty for a moment, taking in the little white flowers woven through the older boy’s hair as he looked up at the Tenebran Prince defiantly.

“Well, nobody’s perfect, Ashton,” Calum said, holding the Crown Prince’s gaze as steadily as he could manage when his heart was fluttering so pathetically in his chest. “Even angels fall.”

“Just cut the crap,” Ashton muttered, looking down at the floor. “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.”

“That’s a bold assumption to make,” Calum pointed out, smirking weakly. “I might be the smartest person you’ve ever met, angel.”

Ashton rolled his pretty hazel eyes scornfully, taking a measured step closer - to kiss him or hit him, Calum wasn’t sure - when the stage door nearby opened to reveal a staff member grasping a clipboard. She beckoned the pair over, gesturing for them both to be quiet as she led them swiftly onto the wings of the stage where they were still hidden from sight of the audience.

“- and now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for,” Harry was proclaiming dramatically as he opened a golden envelope in his hands. “It’s time to announce the champions of the first Elevare in a century!”

The staff member had disappeared now, leaving Calum and Ashton standing alone in the shadows. A drum roll sounded and the Tenebran Prince grimaced as his heart began to race unpleasantly in his chest. The older boy looked frightened beside him now and Calum reached for his hand unthinkingly, giving it a comforting squeeze.

Ashton gasped at the unexpected contact and Calum’s breath caught in his chest when the Claritan Prince gripped his hand tighter, almost like he was afraid to let go. Their eyes met and Calum felt a lot like he’d just been struck with one of Michael’s lightning bolts because… fuck, there was no way he could kill Ashton. It didn’t matter that this was the boy who had murdered his uncle Thomas because… because he was smiling at the younger boy now and his hazel eyes were glitter-soft, and Calum couldn’t do it. He couldn’t.

There was nothing on all of Cerasus that could persuade him to hurt the Crown Prince; not even his father’s threats.

“Here goes nothing,” Ashton murmured when Harry read their names out and the room went into uproar.

Calum laughed softly, his chocolate brown eyes crinkling through the darkness.

“I think this is going to be fun, angel,” he said.

That time, the older boy didn’t admonish him.

In fact, as the Claritan Prince led the way out onto the stage to a blinding riot of camera flashes, Calum thought he glimpsed Ashton smiling.

*

Michael was possibly a little bit drunk. The alcohol had burned away his nervousness and the threat of the press had faded to little more than a passing worry now, fluttering on the fringes of his consciousness.

The opals glittering on his blazer looked so pretty in the dim light and Michael brushed them gently with his fingertips. His mother had always worn an opal necklace and he was glad he got to carry this part of her with him now, when he'd travelled so far away from home… but he couldn't deny that he was already enjoying his time in Claritas.

No one would judge him here if he wanted to wear something sparkly or brightly-coloured to reflect the lightning crackling under his pale skin. He liked the fact that he could drink alcohol legally here too since it was something he'd always wanted to try - especially since it was banned in Tenebris - and that thought was at the forefront of his mind as he threw back the last of his drink, wincing at the burn.

“Slow down, Mike,” Mali murmured, her eyes still locked on the stage where her little brother and the Claritan Prince were standing before the staring crowd. “You'll make yourself sick.”

“You don't know that!” Michael disagreed vehemently, wondering if his flaming cheeks were as red as they felt. “You're not allowed to drink either.”

“I've drank with Ashley before,” the older girl said quietly, her eyes dropping to one of the rose gold bracelets encircling her wrist as she manipulated it with a careful twirl of her fingers, twisting it into a beautiful vine instead. “Her brother used to sneak in wine before she left…” She faltered, her expression growing pained. “I don't want to talk about this anymore,” she muttered, her tone too sad to be sharp. “Pay attention, Mikey. They're about to sign their names on the contract.”

Michael straightened up in his seat with difficulty, making a silent vow to follow the older girl's advice and refrain from over-indulging on further alcohol, at least until after the feast.

Mali was right though. Calum and Ashton were standing on either side of Harry now, their expressions apprehensive as they peered at the scroll that had been unfurled, suspended in mid-air in front of them. It was ridiculously theatrical and Michael might have been impressed if his expression hadn't suddenly darkened at the sight of the wicked blade Harry had just withdrawn from his glitzy suit.

“If he goes near Cal with that thing, I'm electrocuting him,” Michael said fiercely, jumping a little when Mali lay a soothing hand on his wrist.

“You're like an overprotective mama bear,” she said fondly, her eyes warm. “They have to sign their names in blood, Mikey, remember? This is a very old tournament and some of the rules are unavoidable, even grisly ones like that.”

“But why blood?” Michael mumbled, his cheeks definitely growing hotter as he swayed dizzily.

“Because it's binding,” Mali replied, looking a little tense now as she glanced up in time to see Ashton wincing as he closed his fist around the blade before he pressed the quill against the wound. “The Elevare’s magic is ridiculously powerful, Mikey. That's why it's impossible for a champion to quit the tournament once it's begun. They can't leave once they've signed their name on the contract.”

Michael bit his bottom lip painfully hard as he watched Ashton signing his name on the scroll, the Claritan Prince’s forehead creasing as the blood rolled unpleasantly down his wrist. Witnessing that was the moment when the dangerous reality of the situation finally sank in and Michael’s heart began to race with fear.

Historically, the tournament had always demanded blood and, no matter how much everyone insisted that the Elevare had been modernised to avoid unnecessary bloodshed, some magic was too powerful to break. What if the old magic won out?

When Calum grimly stepped forwards to sign his name, Mali gripped Michael's hand tightly enough that it ached as the camera flashes became blinding. The pair exchanged a frightened look and the older girl’s lips pressed together tightly as she struggled to keep her emotions hidden. Her dark eyes flickered towards the nearby cameras warily and Michael bristled when he realised that their reactions were undoubtedly being recorded for the comms channels… which meant that all of Tenebris had just witnessed the boy they loved to hate so much looking so frightened that he might be about to throw up.

Now that Michael thought about it, he sort of did feel sick actually. Maybe he wasn’t going to drink any more alcohol tonight after all. Maybe he’d just stick to water instead.

“Why do I feel like this isn’t going to end well?” Mali murmured, her brow creasing as she watched her little brother shaking hands with his competitor. The two boys lingered together onstage, their fingers entwined as they exchanged a long look that had Mali’s eyebrows rising rapidly. Michael was too tipsy to process what it meant now. He just wanted to get away from the cameras pointed at his face; the same damn cameras that had been following him around ever since the anniversary of his parents’ murders several weeks before.

The two Princes were ushered off stage, already being led away towards the first press conference of what was likely to be many, and Michael watched curiously as the dark-haired girl who had accompanied Ashton followed them at a fast pace, her expression determined. That left the two fair-haired siblings sitting alone at the table and, after a moment of drunken consideration, Michael decided that the best course of action was definitely to go and introduce himself.

“Mikey? Where are you going?” Mali asked, rising too as she watched the boy who had long-since felt like a brother to her stumble off through the guests. The large screen was already displaying a brightly-lit area where the press conference was taking place and, as the lights in the main room slowly returned to full power and cast Michael’s shadow across the polished floor like ink, the Princes’ faces filled the screen as they waited to answer the reporters’ questions.

“What about the Elevare are you most nervous for?” a journalist asked and Michael glanced up at the screen as he sidestepped a minor celebrity wearing more violet-coloured feathers than he’d ever seen in one place before. Calum forced an awkward laugh for the benefit of the audience but was saved from trying to think of an answer when the Claritan Prince cheerfully offered: “Well, I can’t swim so I’m hoping none of the challenges will be water-based!” Calum looked scandalised upon hearing this, presumably because of his abilities, and Ashton giggled, stunning most of the gala’s guests into silence.

From what Michael had learnt during his research, the Crown Prince of Claritas wasn’t one to offer his emotions easily and, even in the pictures of the older boy grinning that Calum and Michael had seen on the jet, the smile had never touched Ashton’s eyes. There was nothing reserved about him now though, even despite the horde of journalists currently picking at him like vultures, because his dimples were creasing his cheeks and his hazel eyes were crinkling endearingly.

“He should smile more,” Michael said smartly as he came to a stop at the siblings’ table, instead of saying something reasonable like ‘Hello’ or ‘It’s nice to meet you’. Both of them looked up at him in surprise and Michael decided to make it worse. “Ashton,” he clarified, shrugging casually. “He should smile more. He looks a lot more likeable when he smiles.”

The blonde girl’s eyebrows lowered dangerously as she watched him, tilting her head to the side silently like she was daring the stranger to continue. Her brother had less restraint and his pale cheeks flamed with blood as he straightened up in his seat, his piercing blue eyes flashing angrily. He fixed Michael with a very dirty look that didn’t quite have the intended effect thanks to the ridiculous number of flowers that had been lovingly tucked into his caramel-coloured curls.

“Well, did you ever consider that maybe Ash doesn’t have a whole lot to smile about?” the younger boy asked coldly, his palms flattening on the tablecloth as a breeze tousled his hair. Michael wasn’t sure where the wind was coming from - maybe one of the glass doors had been thrown open - but he shivered a little as he frowned down at the younger boy, watching when those blue, blue eyes flickered towards the screen where Ashton’s face was momentarily displayed as he answered another question.

“Do you fancy him?” Michael asked. The words left him before he could think better of them and he bit his lip when the younger boy’s face immediately crumpled. Even his shimmering grey suit was rippling now as the breeze twisted around him and Michael took a stumbling step backwards, more drunk than he’d realised. Maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea after all.

“What did you just say to him?!” the blonde girl demanded, her tone disbelieving as she rose sharply. Her dress stirred around her as she got to her feet and he looked down at the garment unthinkingly, taking in the perfect flowers adorning her skirt and the little crystals glittering on the bodice. “Hey, you creep!” she snapped suddenly as her face flushed an angry red. “My eyes are up here!”

“Sorry, your dress is just really pretty. We don’t have stuff like that back home.” Michael’s frown deepened, jaw slackening and lips parting like he was thinking hard before he remembered the point he’d been about to make. “Oh yeah,” he mumbled, pointing an accusatory finger at the younger boy while Mali hurried over as fast as her high heels would allow. “You’re really defensive, buttercup. I figured maybe it was because you wanted to make out with him or something.”

“Michael!” Mali hissed as she strode up behind him with a face like thunder. “Shut. Up.

“Is this delightful guest a friend of yours?” the blonde girl asked frostily, her painted lips pressed together as she shot an unhappy glance towards her brother’s downcast expression. “Because if he is, I’d really appreciate you taking him far, far away from us.”

“I’m so sorry about this,” Mali said sincerely, shooting Michael death glares when he squared his jaw at her belligerently. “He’s never like this. I think maybe he’s had a bit too much to drink but I’ll take him back to our table now and -”

“Don’t apologise for me, Mali!” Michael said sulkily. “They’re just grouchy because I said buttercup over there probably wanted to sleep with Ashton!”

“Stop it, Mike!” Mali gasped, looking nothing short of appalled as she made a silent vow never to let him drink alcohol ever again.

Michael was so busy glaring at her that he didn’t even see the blonde girl moving before the contents of her glass rained down over him, plastering his bleached blond hair to his skull as he spluttered indignantly.

There was a moment of absolute silence - accompanied by a sudden worrying flurry of camera flashes - before Michael swayed, gripping the edge of the table hard as his brain finally caught up with his mouth.

“Shit, sorry,” he blurted out stupidly, blinking hard as some of the alcohol dripped into one of his emerald green eyes. Mali and the two fair-haired siblings were staring at him in disbelief now and he blushed, trying to fight the urge to bluster defensively since there was no doubt at all that he was in the wrong here. “I’m really sorry,” he repeated, rapidly becoming mortified. “I think I might be, like, way more drunk than I thought I was? Also, I don’t have much of a filter anyway and now I’ve drank alcohol for the first time.” He grimaced as his stomach twisted unpleasantly. “Is there somewhere to be sick here?” he added weakly. “I think I might be sick.”

The blonde girl groaned, shooting a pleading glance at her brother which was unfortunately ignored when he harrumphed indignantly and turned away, his arms folded tightly over his broad chest. Mali bit her lip anxiously as she twisted one of her dark curls around her finger, her eyes flickering around the room helplessly.

“I’ve never been here before,” she admitted, her tone undeniably apologetic. “I don’t know where the bathrooms are.”

“Oh, for goodness sake!” the blonde girl said heavily as she unwillingly circled the table, her fair hair floating around her shoulders as she fixed Michael with a hard look. “I’ve been here before. Come with me and I’ll show you the way.”

“Thank you,” Michael said meekly, falling into step beside her sheepishly as she led the way back through the crowd towards the silk-hung corridor they’d entered through. Behind them, Mali immediately began to apologise to the younger boy for her friend’s behaviour and Michael’s shoulders slumped guiltily.

“Why’d you call Luke ‘buttercup’?” the blonde girl asked suddenly, her tone more confused than angry now. Michael shrugged awkwardly, pouting a little at how sticky his shirt felt where the liquid was seeping through into the material. The guests around them were blatantly staring as he passed and his shoulders tensed as he squelched along beside the older girl.

“Your brother has blond hair,” Michael said, several moments too late as his drunken brain struggled to keep up. “Couldn’t think of anything else. It was very spur of the moment.” His pout deepened as he shot the pretty girl a sorrowful look. “This stings my eyes,” he objected and she sighed softly, looking exhausted now.

“Well, you deserved it,” she said but the heat had gone from her words now. “Don’t bring that up again, okay? Luke’s already feeling bad enough about their break-up. He doesn’t need you rubbing salt in the wound.”

“I was only joking,” Michael mumbled, unable to meet her gaze when her blue eyes flickered to his face. “I didn’t even know they’d dated. I just wanted a reaction.” His blush returned in full-force as he regretfully recalled another embarrassing moment which he definitely needed to apologise for. “I promise I really wasn’t staring at your boobs earlier either,” he added earnestly. “Not that I wouldn’t because I’m sure they’re amazing but… well, I wasn’t. Your dress really is pretty. Do you think my suit is pretty? I chose one with opals. I love opals.”

He jammed his lips together hard before he could start talking about his mother and the blonde girl watched him curiously, her eyes a lot softer now as her mouth curved into an unwilling smile.

“Your suit looks great,” she said kindly. “The opals are a very nice touch.”

Michael beamed at her, still swaying a little drunkenly as his tongue darted out to wet his lips.

“What drink is this?” he asked suddenly. “It tastes good.”

The girl giggled before she could stop herself.

“It’s sparkling wine,” she told him, rolling her eyes with something that was almost fondness as they finally stepped out into the cooler air of the corridor “Your name’s Michael, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” he said, smiling crookedly at her. “What’s yours, pretty blonde girl?”

“I’m Laura,” she said as the smile fought its way across her lips. “Laura Hemmings.” She hesitated, giving him a sympathetic look as a trickle of red wine dripped down from his hairline. “I’m sorry I threw my drink in your face,” she said awkwardly.

“That’s okay,” Michael said honestly as he gave an easy shrug. “At least we’re talking now.” He smiled as the blush heated his cheeks. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you all night.”

*

The press conference seemed to take forever but it wasn’t as bad as Ashton had initially feared. A healer had fixed up the cut on his palm before he’d been forced out in front of the cameras and another drink had been pressed into his hand which was definitely a positive. It helped having Calum beside him too, with his surprisingly sharp sense of humour and pretty eyes, and Ashton was glad he didn’t have to go through this alone. The Tenebran Prince had made even the most boring questions amusing and the older boy found it difficult to keep a straight face whenever he made the mistake of catching Calum’s mischievous gaze.

“That’s all we’ll have time for today, everyone,” the staff member who had been hosting the conference announced. The older man was sweating a little under the bright lights in his red velvet waistcoat and Ashton knew he couldn’t look much better in his iridescent suit. He badly needed some fresh air, and he couldn’t wait to escape from the cramped room full of cameras and reporters. “Your Majesties, if you’d like to follow me, I’ll show you both to your seats for the feast.”

Ashton followed him gratefully, not even having to turn around to know that the younger boy was following him close behind. He could feel Calum’s dark eyes on his back, resting on his broad shoulders and crimson curls.

Ashton let out an unconscious sigh of relief when they stepped out into the relative privacy of the corridor, inhaling the fresher air deeply as a little of the tension bled out of him. Calum elbowed him lightly when he fell into step beside the older boy, his eyes crinkling as he shot the Claritan Prince a sly grin.

“Can you really not swim, angel?” Calum teased, snickering to himself as Sierra fell into step beside them, shooting the Tenebran Prince a curious look before she smiled up at Ashton.

“Hey, Your Illustriousness,” she said with just a hint of sarcasm. “Is this punk bothering you? Need me to get rid of him for you?”

Calum snorted with laughter, only to glower when Ashton carefully kept his gaze fixed on his bodyguard.

“He wishes,” Ashton smirked. “Hood thinks he’s superior just because he’s got water abilities.”

Calum pouted a little bit but didn’t get the chance to respond because the staff member had just led them back into the chandelier-lit room where the Opening Gala was being hosted. The guests applauded the return of their champions and Ashton blushed a little, almost tripping over in his haste to reach his assigned chair and escape - even momentarily - from the watchful gazes of everyone staring at him.

His eyes widened when he realised that his and Calum’s friends were already seated together at the champions' reserved table, all of them looking far too companionable considering they’d never met before this evening. The fierce-looking boy’s shirt was stained with wine now but he was sitting next to Laura with his chin propped up in his palm, watching the fair-haired girl with dreamy eyes. Calum’s sister had seated herself next to Luke too who looked slightly overwhelmed - if pleasantly surprised - with the way the evening had turned out. She seemed to be complimenting the sparkly silver varnish on the youngest boy’s nails and Ashton’s expression softened as he watched the rare happiness shining on his ex-boyfriend’s face.

It was lovely to see and the Prince thought this whole tournament might be worth it if it made Luke happy again, even just for one night.

“Excuse me, angel,” Calum murmured as he eased past, making Ashton blush when he realised he’d been blocking the walkway. His cheeks only heated further when he felt the younger boy’s palm momentarily resting on his hip and he almost fell into his seat, certain that his face was glowing the same colour as his scarlet hair.

Calum settled down smugly in the seat opposite him, sitting next to Laura who shot him a cautious glance before offering a hesitant smile which the younger boy was quick to return. It made something in Ashton soften - especially when Mali cracked a joke and Luke let out a soft peal of laughter - and, after that, the Crown Prince stopped worrying.

Whatever happened in the Elevare would happen whether he fretted or not so there was little point in dwelling on it. At least he had his best friends with him. The situation felt a lot less frightening when he knew he didn’t have to struggle alone.

The first course was brought out quickly and Ashton picked at it, still too keyed-up to have much of an appetite. He was more focused on subtly watching Calum instead, a faint frown creasing his brow as he stole glimpses of the younger boy whenever he thought he could get away with it.

The Tenebran Prince was nothing like he’d been expecting.

Ashton had been taught from a young age that the best way to lead a nation was by example; that it was wrong of him to expect his people to do anything that he wasn’t willing to do himself. He’d always been aware that the royal Hood family didn’t behave in this way. The Tenebran heirs had never gone to fight in the Boneflats War and that was just the last in a long line of reasons that proved they were selfish rulers.

While the Claritan royal family had set a good example by sending their Crown Prince to fight, the Hoods had sent their commoners as bullet fodder to preserve their own lives. The Tenebran King and Queen were incredibly self-serving and, although Ashton had been taught to think of the entire family in that manner since he was barely old enough to walk, it felt necessary - if strange - to re-evaluate that assumption now.

Mali didn’t seem selfish, at least from what he’d seen of her interactions with Luke as she gently coaxed him from his shell… and Calum? He’d gone out of his way to invoke a reaction in the Claritan Prince; to make him smile and laugh, and feel.

When he looked up and caught Calum watching him curiously, Ashton wondered if maybe he wasn’t what the younger boy had been expecting too.

The rest of the meal was interrupted by the Tenebran Prince’s sparkling chocolate brown eyes and the slight smirk tugging at his lips and, when Ashton finally declared that he was leaving for some fresh air before dessert was served, he wasn’t surprised in the slightest when Calum rose fluidly too, his lips curving into a hopeful smile.

“Back in a bit,” Ashton murmured, squeezing Luke gently on the shoulder as he slipped past a cautious-looking Sierra, heading for the balcony which overlooked the lake. The younger boy easily kept pace with him, his dark hair fluffy where it was curling sweetly around his ears.

“This is a nice spot,” Ashton said shyly, his hazel eyes sparkling in the soft lighting as he pushed open the glass door. “I think you’ll like it. There’s a great view of the water.”

“Better try not to fall in, angel,” Calum said lightly as he grinned. “Unless you want me to jump in and save you, of course. Although let me just tell you this: there are definitely easier ways to get me shirtless.”

“Calum!” Ashton gasped, sniggering despite himself as he smacked the younger boy weakly on the arm, only to blush when he processed just how muscular the Tenebran Prince was. “We’ve only just met!”

“So?” Calum countered brazenly, his eyes twinkling.

They were standing closer than they needed to, the younger boy’s arm pressed warmly against Ashton’s as they leant against the stone balustrade together, gazing down into the lights reflected on the water.

It was cool and peaceful out here in the darkness, and the Claritan Prince let out a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding as he rested his head on his folded arms for a moment, some of the humour bleeding away to be replaced with exhaustion.

“You okay down there?” Calum asked wryly, his tone a lot softer than it had been back in the gala.

Ashton tilted his head sideways wearily, his overheated cheek resting on the cool stone as he watched the taller boy out of the corner of one hazel eye.

“I’m okay,” he said and it surprised him a little to realise that his words finally felt true. “Are you?”

“Sure,” Calum said, shrugging easily, the emotion in his eyes undecipherable. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

Despite the younger boy’s self-assurance, he still looked a little overwhelmed as he glanced down at the healed cut on his palm, already fading to a scar.

Ashton felt exactly the same and he sighed softly as he straightened back up, bumping Calum lightly with his hip.

After a moment, the younger boy nudged him back, his full lips curving into a smile.

“You think you’re cute, don’t you, angel?” Calum said accusingly but his chocolate brown eyes were glittering.

“I know I am,” Ashton joked but the words didn’t feel like a lie when he noticed the way the younger boy was gazing down at him.

Calum huffed out a soft laugh, not denying it.

“This tournament’s definitely going to be an adventure, isn’t it?” he murmured as the smirk returned to his lips. “How could it not be with you as my all-powerful nemesis?”

“Stop trying to butter me up,” Ashton said, his heart fluttering in his chest at the fondness twinkling in Calum’s warm eyes.

“Why? Is it working?” the younger boy teased, leaning in closer now, their faces near enough that the Crown Prince could have counted every single one of Calum's dark eyelashes if he’d been brave enough to close the distance between them.

“Maybe,” Ashton admitted, biting his bottom lip to hide his smile as he brushed teasingly past Calum, heading back inside. He paused in the doorway though, unable to stop himself from throwing a flirty glance over his shoulder. “You’ll have to wait and see.”

Chapter Text

All my flowers grew back as thorns;

Windows boarded up after the storm.

He built a fire just to keep me warm.

All the drama queens taking swings;

All the jokers dressing up as kings;

They fade to nothing when I look at him,

And I know I make the same mistakes every time;

Bridges burn, I never learn; at least I did one thing right.

- Call It What You Want, Taylor Swift

 

Spring swept across Claritas early that year, filling the palatial estate gardens with sweet-smelling flowers. The two champions had begun training for their first task in earnest, aware only that the challenge would be a test of physical and magical endurance.

To cut a long story short, Calum wasn't looking forward to it. He'd always found it stressful to demonstrate his abilities in front of anyone who wasn't family or a close friend but he knew he had to be feeling a lot more confident than poor Ashton. The Claritan Prince was still in gruelling physiotherapy for his wounded spine and he had yet to regain complete control of his fiery abilities.

Ashton must have been absolutely dreading the first challenge. He never admitted it though; he was far more focused on pushing himself as hard as he could in an effort to build up his old strength.

The personal trainer they'd been assigned had long-since given up telling the older boy to stop over-exerting himself. She'd gone to Niall instead, fetching the healer who had fixed Ashton up after the Boneflats War in the hope that perhaps the older man might be able to talk some sense into his stubborn friend.

“Ash?” Niall asked tentatively, catching Calum's attention where he was running on the treadmill. The Tenebran Prince looked round, frowning when he saw how hard Ashton was panting as he doubled-over in front of the mirrored wall. He'd been lifting weights and he'd clearly pushed himself too hard. His red curls were plastered to his furrowed brow with sweat and his shirt had long-since been discarded, revealing the thick scar stretching achingly down the length of his spine.

The weights that Ashton had discarded on the floor nearby weren't anything too impressive – Calum could have lifted them easily – but he knew the older boy was still hurting, even if he was too proud to admit it. A ragged sound tore out of Ashton – possibly a frustrated sob – and Calum bit his bottom lip hard when the Crown Prince stormed out of the room, knuckling his tears away roughly as he slammed the door shut behind him.

After a moment, the personal trainer decided to go after him, a frown on her face as she gathered up his t-shirt and water bottle before slipping out of the gym. Calum's heart ached a little bit when he heard the unmistakable sound of crying coming from the hallway and he grimaced, turning up the speed on the treadmill so that he could distract himself from his remorse with the burn of exercise.

Every moment he spent with Ashton made him feel worse about himself. He couldn't stand the fact that he'd agreed to his father's horrible plan, especially when there was no doubt at all in his mind that the Claritan Prince didn't deserve to be punished. He'd suffered enough from his actions that day on the Boneflats and Calum didn't even mean his physical injuries or the anxiety that plagued his every moment.

The self-loathing in Ashton's lovely eyes was impossible to ignore and it made something bitter well up on Calum's tongue as a lump rose in his throat. He didn't want Ashton to hurt anymore; he wanted him to take care of himself instead but how could Calum preach that when he'd agreed to kill the older boy?

He had no idea how to manage this situation but he knew it was a matter of weighing up which choice would destroy him more. He either continued to build Ashton's trust in order to enjoy the fragile softness growing between them, even if it was at the risk of incurring his father's wrath and having his magic stolen from him against his will which would ruin any chance of Calum's happiness... or he kept his promise to the Tenebran King; followed through on the plan to kill Ashton, finally earnt his father's love and respect, and hated himself for the rest of his life... providing he could get away with it in the first place.

Calum didn't like either option very much. Why wasn't there an option where he got to be happy? Why couldn't he care about Ashton and enjoy a healthier relationship with his father? It wasn't fair and he hated the situation he'd found himself in. He swore he was going to find a way to resolve this if it killed him... and all he could do was hope that it wouldn't.

Calum slowed the treadmill down with a heavy-heart, wiping sweat from his forehead with the bottom of his t-shirt before he reached for his bottle. He took a deep swig, appreciating the coolness of the liquid as his abilities soothed a little at the water. He could see out of the window from here, towards the fountains and the vast flowerbeds, and he smiled faintly when he caught a glimpse of Michael and Laura wandering together as the blonde girl pointed to something on the horizon.

They'd been spending an increasing amount of time together over the past month and Calum was glad of it. He hadn't seen his best friend look so care-free in a long time and, when he compared the way the older boy was now to how devastated he'd been in the graveyard on Clifford Memorial Day, it was impossible not to feel content at the positive changes.

Calum didn't like thinking back to that cold day in Tenebris though. It reminded him too much of that suffocating conversation with David in his study and Calum shuddered as his eyes flickered down to his ankle, his gaze zeroing in on the scar his father had left on the tanned skin when his son had dared to try and make his best friend happy in public.

He wondered vaguely what his father would do to him if he knew that his son had kissed Michael; made him spill over his fingers and bite his neck to keep his moans muffled in the dead of the night, back when they'd been too young and horny to consider the implications of their actions.

Not for the first time, he considered just how angry his father would be if he ever learnt the intricacies of Calum and Michael's friendship. The Prince would find out one day if he ever had a death wish. David deserved to feel one modicum of the discomfort he had inflicted on his only son and, if offering up the details of his past relationship with Michael was the best way to go about it, Calum wasn't against wielding those old memories like a weapon.

He took another swig from his water bottle, his dark eyes drifting away from the sunlight shining in through the window. The personal trainer still hadn't returned to the gym and he bit his lip as he glanced worriedly towards the closed door, growing more concerned for the Claritan Prince with every passing minute of his absence.

Calum flinched when he glanced to the side and found Niall watching him, leaning against the far wall with his arms folded loosely across his chest. He cocked his head at the younger boy curiously and Calum flushed as he turned away, slowly increasing the speed on the treadmill so that he could build up his momentum again.

“Can I ask you a question, Calum?” Niall asked calmly. He was still lounging against the wall, dressed in faded jeans and a hand-knitted navy cardigan over a loose white t-shirt. His dark hair was soft where it was tumbling across his forehead and Calum felt silly for feeling so defensive at the older man's gentle words. There was nothing remotely threatening about Niall's tone or posture but the Prince couldn't quite shake off the feeling that he wasn't going to like whatever the healer was about to say.

“You can ask,” Calum said unwillingly, keeping his eyes fixed on the view of the gardens in front of him. “Doesn't mean I'll answer.”

Niall hummed in response as he pushed slowly away from the wall, ambling a little closer. His teeth were worrying at his bottom lip and his expression was unusually serious as he came to a stop, lingering on the very edges of Calum's field of vision.

“Why do you always feel so guilty whenever you look at Ashton?”

Niall's words felt like a kick in the chest and Calum's knuckles whitened where he was gripping the bar of the treadmill. The water in his bottle bubbled audibly, betraying him, and Calum's lips pressed together hard as he purposefully kept his gaze fixed on the window. Laura and Michael were kneeling down in the grass now as the blonde girl pointed out different flowers, and Calum tried to distract himself with how surprising their blooming friendship was but he couldn't when Niall had just taken a deliberate step closer.

“I don't know what you're talking about, Horan,” Calum snapped, sounding years younger with how high his voice had become in his stress. He gritted his teeth, forcing himself to inhale deeply so that the burn in his chest felt less urgent. He kept waiting to be ridiculed for showing his emotions but it never came and he had a moment to appreciate the fact that he was no longer in Tenebris before he properly considered Niall's words, feeling a sinking sensation as the puzzle pieces finally began to fall into place.

“You're an empath, aren't you?” Calum realised as his blood ran cold in his veins, his hand shaking when it shot out to turn down the speed of the treadmill.

Empaths weren't trusted in Tenebris. They weren't allowed to set foot within Effervo - let alone in the citadel - and the Prince was glad of it. Anyone whose abilities allowed them to determine a person's emotions was considered an act of violation there and Calum knew his terror must have been tangible because Niall looked taken aback by it.

“Normally people just laugh at me when they discover my abilities,” the older man admitted as his brow creased with confusion. “I've never had someone look like they were going to pass out before.” He bit his lip suddenly, his blue eyes remaining fixed on the Prince's face. “Breathe, Calum.”

“Get away from me,” the younger boy croaked, his bottle toppling down onto the ground when the liquid inside jerked violently in time with his racing heart. The lid couldn't have been fastened properly because the water flooded out, rising rapidly to coil between the Prince's trembling fingers.

“You know I can only get a hint of your emotions, right?” Niall said gently, his tone placating. “I can't read your thoughts or anything.” He gave the younger boy a funny look suddenly, his lips downturned as he recalled the question which had started all of this in the first place.

“People feel guilty for lots of different reasons, Calum,” Niall said quietly. “I'm not going to judge you for yours.” The healer still looked infuriatingly unruffled and the Prince gaped at him as the water finally stopped twisting in his palm quite so viciously. Niall gave him a soft look as he buried his hands in his pockets, his shoulders slumping a little under the weight of their conversation.

“I’m gonna go make sure Ashton is okay,” the older man said as he turned away. The gym was silent now, save for the gentle sound of the droplets hitting the floor as the water trickled harmlessly through the Prince’s fingers, and Niall paused in the doorway, not turning back to face the younger boy.

“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, Calum,” the healer said gently. “Even if it feels like you don’t have a choice.”

Niall left then, shutting the gym door quietly behind him as Calum stared at his retreating back in shocked silence.

His heart felt too large for his ribcage and the water droplets still clinging to his fingers offered no comfort at all.

Calum didn’t know what to do.

He simply continued to stand there, his jaw hanging slack, his hands shaking at his sides. After a moment, almost mechanically, he simply dried his damp palm on his shorts – rubbing hard enough that the fingertip-sized bruises on his thighs ached – before he increased the speed on the treadmill again. He ran as fast as he could, until the sweat was stinging his eyes and his muscles were protesting the ache.

Through the window, Michael and Laura were still kneeling together in the gardens, both of them laughing as Luke ventured outside and was immediately bombarded by a flock of overly-friendly pigeons.

The sun was shining and the world looked golden outside but Calum felt cold.

*

It was a beautiful, warm day and Laura was glowing a little bit. She’d always liked spring and being surrounded by flowers always made her feel content but she knew the real reason for her happiness was stretched out on the grass beside her.

Michael was more relaxed than she’d ever seen him, his blond hair floppy, his emerald eyes calm as he lay with one arm folded casually beneath his head. Security had been heightened since the Tenebran royalty had come to stay for the Elevare and the press were no longer allowed even close to the palace. It felt nice – if strange – to simply exist without the necessity of hiding her emotions and Laura could see that same contentedness in Michael whenever she caught him watching her fondly.

His t-shirt was a little rumpled from the position he was laying in and it meant that a narrow strip of his pearly skin was on show. Her gaze kept drifting back to it whenever her mind wandered and she sort of wanted to know if it was as soft as it looked but, before she could do something she might regret, her brother sloped out into the gardens too, successfully distracting her.

His progress towards them was slowed by the sheer number of birds circling him with their chirping songs but he was smiling so Laura wasn’t too worried as her gaze drifted habitually back to Michael. He was peering up at the wisps of cloud overhead with a curious expression on his face before his lips curled into a little smile.

“Do you see that cloud?” he asked eagerly. “It totally looks like a dragon.”

“You better hope it’s not an actual dragon,” Laura teased before she saw the wary look he shot her and hurried to soothe him. “Only joking, Mike. There haven’t been dragons in Claritas for thousands of years.” He stuck his tongue out at her to hide his relief and she smiled faintly, aware that her cheeks were heating as she tilted her head back to join him in gazing up at the sky. “I still can’t see where you’re pointing.”

“There,” Michael said gently, reaching up with one pale hand as he shot a single spark from his fingertip. It blazed a soft pink as it drifted up into the vast blue and Laura felt the wonder saturating her expression as she watched it burn out. The younger boy had gone a little red at her reaction and Laura’s hand slipped to cover his in the grass before she could think better of it.

“You’re right,” she agreed calmly, even as her heart raced at her own daring. “It does look like a dragon, Sparky.”

Michael let out a startled laugh at the nickname and Laura flailed internally when he hesitantly entwined their fingers together, his expression undeniably soft. He didn’t seem at all disgusted by the burns marring her hands. He just looked tender instead.

“The pink is a pretty colour,” Laura offered gently, still thinking about how beautiful his powers were when they manifested. Michael hummed, looking pleased with himself as he struggled clumsily into a sitting position. There was a blade of grass caught in his hair and Laura removed it unthinkingly, something melting in her chest when he leant into the touch for a moment.

“My sparks haven’t been pink in a long time,” Michael admitted as his gaze fell to rest on the grass they were sitting on. Laura grew a daisy there and he smiled faintly as his fingertip drifted to stroke the petals. “The sparks change colour depending on my mood.”

“So what does the pink mean?” the older girl asked curiously as she watched Michael admiring the daisy. He still wouldn’t meet her gaze.

“It… it means I’m really happy,” he said hesitantly as the blush coloured his cheeks. He stroked her knuckles briefly with his thumb when she bit her lip at his words and she gave him a faint smile, sad that it had obviously been so long since he’d felt content.

The sound of chirping was louder now and Laura glanced towards the flock of birds circling her brother with mild amusement before her comm buzzed in her pocket, distracting her. She dug it out of her jeans with difficulty, painfully aware of how clumsy she felt under Michael’s gaze as her eyes skimmed over the message.

“You’re frowning,” he said softly. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” she said slowly, even as her teeth sank nervously into her bottom lip for a moment. “Niall just messaged me to say that Ash got upset during training. I think I better go get him.”

“That’s okay,” Michael assured her when he heard the note of apology in her voice. “Need me to come with you?”

“No, it’s fine,” Laura said quietly as she tucked her hair behind her ears. “It’s probably easier if I go alone. I can calm him down better without an audience.” She got to her feet swiftly, leaving Michael sitting on the grass beneath her. “You can stay here and keep Luke company instead, Sparky,” she added innocently as a grin curved her lips.

It was clearly a test and she only confirmed this when she raised a single eyebrow at the younger boy, clearly daring him to argue. Michael simply propped himself up on his elbows and smiled back at her though, refusing to do anything that might threaten their budding friendship. Plus, if Michael was being honest with himself, he still felt terrible for making Luke feel bad on the night of the Gala and even the hangover he’d suffered through the next morning hadn’t felt like penance enough.

“Fair enough,” Michael said as he crossed his legs under him, relaxing a little when he saw something soften in her eyes. “Catch up later?”

“Sure,” Laura said in a warmer voice as she took a step back, already drifting towards the best friend who needed her so much. The birds congregating around her brother let out another series of squawks then and she smirked a little, eyes glittering. “Make sure Luke doesn’t get carried away by pigeons again,” she added sweetly before she started back towards the palace in earnest.

“Again?” Michael repeated blankly before his green eyes widened. “Laura, did you say ‘again’?!”

She laughed as she marched back inside – so he hoped that meant she was joking – and Michael watched her go with a mixture of fondness and exasperation. He wasn’t sure how well his attempts at wooing her were going but he was willing to keep trying. No one else made his sparks glow pink the way Laura did – not even Calum or Mali these days – and the pursuit of his happiness seemed like a worthy cause, no matter how much effort it took to succeed… and if happiness came to him in the form of the groundskeepers’ daughter with her flowers and sparkling eyes, who was he to question Fate?

Shadows began to dapple the ground as the birds circled above and Michael looked up, smiling a little awkwardly as Luke came to a stop in front of him. They’d reluctantly spoken a few times since that night at the gala but there’d always been other people present and it had never been out of choice. The younger boy sighed audibly, his change of mood apparently tangible as the birds fluttered down to land on the grass surrounding him. A blue tit landed on his broad shoulder, its feathery head almost the exact same shade as Luke’s sad eyes as it cheeped mournfully. He stroked it with a fingertip, one foot tapping unhappily on the grass as Michael gazed at the birds hopping around him in bemusement.

“Hey, buttercup,” Michael said, his tone a little rougher than he’d been intending. There was a crow crouched nearby, one beady eye fixed on his pale face as its beak parted to release a harsh cawing sound. Luke’s expression darkened a little as he fixed the older boy with a distrustful look.

“Where’s my sister?” Luke asked as he folded his arms across his chest, creasing the loose-fitting shirt he was wearing. The flowing material was white and airy, patterned with tiny pink flowers and jade green leaves. The garment was just one more example of how pretty Claritas looked on the surface and, for a moment, Michael found himself wishing that he could be like that too, although his cheeks heated when he realised that Laura already looked at him like he was something special.

“She had to go inside to see Ashton,” Michael offered, several moments too late as he rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “She said I should keep you company instead.”

“Great,” Luke sighed, his tone bitter although he didn’t seem to have the energy to argue. He simply sat down on the spot of grass his sister had just vacated instead, his chin resting in his palm as he hunched up as small as he could make himself. The sun was burning brightly overhead, unusually clement for so early in the year, and Michael wondered briefly if Luke was too hot in his long-sleeved shirt before he was distracted by a flap of wings as another bird joined them from the surrounding treetops.

“You don’t normally seem to attract quite this many birds,” Michael commented hesitantly, trying for a weak smile when Luke wearily met his gaze. “Do they like your aftershave or something?”

The younger boy let out a grudging huff of laughter but the sound died quickly.

“No, I don’t think that’s it,” Luke replied, sounding more tired than angry now. “I just haven’t been outside this last week.” The blue tit fluttered down into his palm and he smiled, soft and sad. “I guess they missed me.”

“Well, you can’t blame them,” Michael said, shrugging easily although he smiled a little when the younger boy looked up at him in surprise. “Most people get annoyed with pigeons pestering them all the time but anyone can see that you love them. It’s really sweet.”

Luke looked mollified – if slightly stunned – by the turn the conversation had taken. He shuffled a little closer, careful not to hurt any of the birds surrounding him as he shyly offered his palm to Michael where the little blue tit was safely perched.

“You wanna hold her?” Luke suggested softly. This was clearly an olive branch being extended and Michael wouldn’t have said no even if he’d been terrified of birds; not when he so badly wanted to make up for upsetting Luke the night they’d met.

“Okay,” Michael mumbled, biting his bottom lip nervously when Luke reached for his wrist, lifting it gently and turning it so that his palm was facing upwards. The little bird hopped trustingly into his hand and Michael cradled her safely, looking quite overwhelmed until he felt something unpleasant dripping onto his skin. Luke spluttered with quickly suppressed laughter and the older boy sighed heavily as he gave the blue tit a weak scowl.

“She pooed on me,” Michael said in a tone of mock sadness. “I bet you told her to, didn’t you?”

“I would never!” Luke exclaimed but he was definitely giggling now and his wide blue eyes were glittering with mirth. “Come back to mine, Clifford, c'mon. Can’t have you walking around like that for the rest of the day.”

“None of them ever poo on you, buttercup,” Michael said sourly but he couldn’t quite stop himself from smiling at the amusement saturating the younger boy’s face.

“Well, that’s because they actually like me,” Luke teased, taking far too much delight in the situation. “Now come on – up you get! I’d give you a hand but I don’t particularly want to get myself all dirty.”

“Stop enjoying this so much,” Michael said darkly but his sparks were still glowing pink beneath his skin and he was relieved that the sadness had been momentarily extinguished from the younger boy’s eyes. “Stop laughing at me or I’ll leave a handprint on your pretty shirt.”

“You wouldn’t dare!” Luke gasped, even as his pale face crinkled into a smile. “Hey, if you’re nice to me, I might even show you this new game I got on the comm before I send you back to the mercy of the birds again. Have you ever heard of Intergalactic Raiders?”

“Yes!” Michael cried excitedly, almost tripping in his haste to follow Luke back to the palace. “I’ve been waiting to play that game forever but it’s not out in Tenebris yet. Have you seriously got a copy of that game just lying around at home?” He shook his head in disbelief when Luke offered him a bashful nod, the younger boy’s shoulders straightening as they stepped into the cool interior of the palace, leaving the birds behind. “Damn, is that why you spent the last week inside then? Because if it was, I’m jealous.”

Luke’s expression tightened fractionally as he fiddled with his sleeve but, although his smile faded, it didn’t completely disappear.

“Nah, I didn’t want to play it alone and Ash hasn’t been in the mood lately,” he said in a tone of forced indifference, shrugging weakly. “I was waiting for someone to join me.”

“Well, it looks like it’s your lucky day then,” Michael said lightly as he followed Luke down the corridor, looking around curiously as his trainers squeaked on the marble floor. He’d never been this way before – the guests had all been given rooms on the upper floor with the Claritan royalty – and he was glad the Tenebran bodyguards that he and the Hood siblings had been assigned allowed their charges free reign within the estate. This wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun if a sweaty forty-something year old man had been sloping along behind them with a bored expression on his face, trying to keep Michael out of trouble.

“I hope you don’t mind losing the game terribly, buttercup,” the older boy announced when Luke tugged him to a stop, snorting with laughter when he glanced down at where Michael was holding his dirty hand awkwardly away from his body.

“Interstellar victory or not, I think you’ve already lost today, Clifford,” the younger boy pointed out smugly as he opened the apartment door. “Now try not to touch anything, okay? Mum will get mad if you smear bird poo on the wallpaper.”

“Couldn’t you just get a servant to clean it up?” Michael pointed out, only half joking. Luke gave him a funny look, tilting his head to one side curiously as he processed the older boy’s words.

“My family more or less are servants,” he said slowly as a frown deepened on his forehead. “Why’d you think we’re allowed to live here? My mum and dad are employed by Ash’s parents. They’re the groundskeepers, remember?”

“Yeah, I know,” Michael said defensively, cheeks heating a little. “I guess I just… forgot.” He shrugged uncomfortably. “We’re not really meant to talk to the servants in Tenebris. David doesn’t like it.”

“Really?” Luke bit his lip, looking a little worried by this information. “I don’t think I like Tenebris.”

“I don’t blame you,” Michael muttered, feeling the tiredness in his bones for a moment. “I don’t really like it either.”

*

Evenings were Laura’s favourite times, especially on the days when she’d spent her afternoons studying to be the best healer possible. She’d given her daily reading a miss today after Niall’s message and had spent the time trying to cheer Ashton up instead, painting his nails a pretty lilac colour while she fed him little broken bits of the cookies her mum had made that hadn’t quite survived being removed from the baking tray.

He’d calmed down surprisingly quickly, especially considering the state he’d been in when she’d found him crying in the corridor outside the gym, too angry at his own body letting him down to do much more than kick the wall when she’d asked him what was wrong. She hadn’t reprimanded him for it though because there was no point; not when the first task of the Elevare was looming so close. It would be taking place the day after tomorrow and Ashton was naturally terrified; that was the reason he’d reacted so recklessly in the first place.

“Was Ash okay earlier?” Luke murmured from beside her, seemingly reading his sister’s mind. The pair were sitting snuggled up together on the sofa in their apartment, tucked under a blanket their mum had made as the comms channel broadcast to the dark room.

Their parents had gone out tonight for a meal so Laura and Luke had attempted to feed themselves, something which usually yielded interesting results since they weren't exactly confident chefs. The older girl smiled fondly as she pressed a brief kiss to her little brother’s curls, sleepy in the comfortable warmth of the room.

“He cheered up pretty quick when I gave him chocolate chip cookies,” Laura reassured him, watching the younger boy dotingly when Luke yawned sleepily, looking very much like a kitten. “By the time Sierra came to get him, he was fine again. Didn’t show any flames at all this time… although I guess that might not be a good thing if his abilities still aren’t back to normal yet.”

“He’ll get there,” Luke said heavily, his tone concerned as he leant closer into his sister’s side. “Just maybe not in time for the first task.”

He looked so worried that Laura was quick to distract him, not wanting him to slip into one of his slumps again.

“He’s getting along well with Sierra though, isn’t he?” she asked softly, keeping her voice purposefully light. “It feels like she’s sticking with him because she actually cares, y’know? Not just because Ash’s parents hired her.”

“I think you’re right,” Luke said at length as some of the unease faded from his eyes. He tucked his head beneath her chin, folding himself up as small as possible when Laura's arms came to wrap safely around him. She dropped another kiss onto his caramel-coloured curls, his hair fluffy and soft when she carded her fingers through it gently. He still smelt exactly the same way he had done when he was a baby and it made her heart feel too big for her chest as he burrowed down beneath the blanket.

“We used to sit like this when we were little, lofty,” she murmured, her voice soft in the darkness. “Do you remember?” Luke nodded silently and Laura smiled, the memories bittersweet as she realised just how cruel time had been to them. “You used to give me pretty things that the birds brought you,” she continued quietly. “Shiny coins and little twigs with berries on. They used to go all over the carpet and mum would get annoyed but you never stopped bringing me them. I still have them in a box somewhere. I wish I remembered the last time you gave me one.”

They both laughed softly but the sound was distinctly watery and it faded quickly in the shadows.

“You used to be such a happy little boy,” she murmured, unthinking in her exhaustion. Luke tensed in her arms and she sighed softly, biting her lip. Her brother always looked so sad these days and she knew deep down that he was depressed, and that was why it hurt so much that he didn’t feel like he could talk to her anymore.

They’d shared everything together when they were younger but Laura refused to force him to confess whatever was making him so miserable. Demanding the answers to questions he wasn’t ready to respond to would only push him away and losing her little brother was the last thing she wanted.

She would just have to stay by his side instead; to prove that she wasn’t going to abandon him, no matter how hard things got. Luke would always be able to depend on his big sister. Laura had made that promise to herself the day he was born and she hadn’t broken her word yet, so why start now?

“I wasn’t expecting to see you and Mike together earlier,” she said, kindly offering a subject change without drawing attention to the sheen of tears in Luke's distressed eyes. “I guess my incredibly shrewd plan worked after all.” Luke snorted weakly, which was probably the closest thing to a laugh she was going to get tonight.

“It wasn’t subtle, tiny,” the younger boy muttered, shrugging half-heartedly. “It was kind of fun though. I guess Clifford’s not the worst person on Cerasus.”

“Wow, that’s big of you,” Laura teased, her tired eyes twinkling. “Maybe you could be a little kinder to him. You already beat him at your game today. He’ll have no confidence left at this rate.”

“He’s your boyfriend; not mine,” Luke disagreed flippantly, not entirely joking. Laura eyed her brother warily, unable to jokingly respond when his words had sent her heart racing so fast in her chest, no matter how much she wished that wasn’t the case. She’d tried to dislike Michael after that night at the gala – probably out of some misguided loyalty for Luke if she was being honest with herself, especially since he’d never considered not dating Ashton despite the strain it could have potentially put on her friendship with the Prince – but she couldn’t help herself.

There was something captivating about Michael that kept drawing her back; a bond that had been forged between them when they’d realised just how much they shared. On the surface, they were both such different people – one the orphan of two famous politicians, the other the daughter of servants – but they’d both known hardship; had both suffered loss and grief as the press gunned for them, ridiculing and smearing them because they didn’t behave the way they were expected to.

“You don’t know what you’re talking about, lofty,” Laura said softly, the words coming far too late. Luke just looked at her, his blue eyes fathoms deep as the expression on his face became indecipherable.

“Don’t lie to me,” he said, sending a reprimanding whisper of wind to send her hair fluttering over her face. When she didn’t scold him for it the way she usually did, he pressed his lips together hard at the proof of her dishonesty. “I know you far too well for that.”

He went to bed then, leaving her sitting alone under the crumpled blankets, and Laura shivered, so much colder without him. She smoothed the pad of her thumb hesitantly over the back of one burnt hand, feeling the rise and fall of the scars as she heard the gentle click of her brother’s bedroom door closing.

Maybe Luke wasn’t the only one keeping secrets about matters of the heart.

Maybe it was a family failing.

*

The next morning dawned bright and cold as the anticipation drifted through the empty corridors of the palace like fog.

Ashton’s heart was pounding painfully fast before he'd even reached the gym and he gritted his teeth against the anxiety he could feel coiling in his empty stomach, hunching up as small as he could in his sweatpants and hoodie.

The Tenebrans’ arrival had been an excellent distraction from the plaguing panic attacks he'd suffered since waking up from his coma but all of the suppressed dread was rising inside him again like a wildfire now, charring him to dust.

He slipped into the gym silently, glad that he'd managed to escape down here without Niall or the personal trainer following him. His red hair was soft beneath his hood, the colour reflected in his flushed cheeks as he shut the door swiftly behind him. He leant against it for a moment, just breathing as he closed his exhausted eyes and tried to stem the anxiety before it had a chance to dig its claws in.

His heart clenched uneasily in his chest when he realised that he wasn't alone in the room after all and he grimaced when he saw Calum watching him, his dark gaze gentle when it was just the two of them alone with no one to impress.

“Morning, Ash,” the Tenebran Prince murmured from where he'd been stretching by the window, staring out at the mist. The early morning light made him look unusually soft as he turned to face the older boy fully and Ashton felt the lump rising in his throat with something like panic.

He couldn't keep his emotions in check no matter how hard he tried and his shoulders slumped as the boiling tears trickled shamefully down his face. He hated how weak he felt; hated that the younger boy could undoubtedly see exactly how pathetic he was but he couldn’t help it. No one truly understood how he felt anymore… no one but Calum.

Ashton lost control slowly, his knees weakening beneath him as his face crumpled. He was too tired to hold himself together now; too stressed and hurting, and afraid of how unsettled his life had become. He felt the way he had that night on the balcony with his father for a moment; felt like he was about to be crushed to dust by the sheer weight of his own stubborn pride.

“Oh, angel,” Calum murmured, his dark eyes softening when Ashton sank down onto the floor, still leaning against the door. After a moment of hesitation, the younger boy drifted over to sit beside him, his muscular arm slipping easily around the Claritan Prince's shaking shoulders. “Why the tears?”

Ashton’s skin felt too tight now, stretched so thinly over the fire burning in his bones that he couldn’t hold it back anymore. A panicky sob tore out of him as the flames rippled bluish-white across his knuckles and the colour drained from his face at the sight of them, so close to Calum's unprotected skin. His fire hadn't burnt this hot since that day on the Boneflats and he felt like he was going to be sick when the younger boy flinched beside him, one tanned hand shooting up to shakily snatch his water bottle out of the air when it hurtled towards him.

Calum didn’t pull away from him; not even when the flames licked high enough that Ashton’s wrists were scorching too, obscured by the curling tongues of fire. He coaxed the liquid from his bottle instead, gathering the water into a sizable sphere in his palm before he lowered it to gently douse the flames licking at Ashton’s trembling fingers.

As the fire sputtered out and the steam coiled away into nothing at all, Calum pressed his lips gently to the older boy’s curls, lingering there for just a moment too long. No one had ever smothered Ashton’s flames like that before, without being patronising or exasperated, or downright cruel. Calum had extinguished them like he was trying to keep the Crown Prince safe; like the risk meant nothing at all if he could calm the older boy down again.

Ashton’s head hit the door as the tension bled out of him, his hazel eyes sliding shut in exhaustion as the tears rolled down his face.

“I'm sorry,” the older boy whispered, his words little more than a breath. “I'm so sorry, Cal.”

Calum hadn't looked upset earlier when he'd been in very real danger but he looked miserable now, his dark eyes growing damp as he reached shakily to cradle Ashton’s overheated cheek.

“Do I need to fight someone for making you cry?” the younger boy asked as lightly as he could manage, not even mentioning the fact that Ashton’s magic had once again acted like it had a mind of its own because he didn't want to make the Crown Prince uncomfortable. Calum was too kind for his own good.

“No one made me cry,” Ashton admitted, rolling his eyes at his own ridiculousness as he dried his face with the too-long sleeves of his hoodie. He was blushing now and Calum's gentle gaze definitely wasn't helping. “It’s… honestly not a big deal. I’d probably just ramble for ages. You don’t need to hear that.”

“What if I want to hear?” Calum countered softly, his gaze warm as he stroked the older boy’s cheekbone gently with the pad of his thumb. “We've got time. Fire away, angel.” His eyes twinkled faintly as he offered a crooked smile. “No pun intended obviously.”

Ashton huffed out a watery laugh, slumping a little as his head came to rest in the warm curve of the younger boy's neck.

“Idiot,” he whispered, not even having to look to know that the Tenebran Prince was smiling to himself. “I don’t wanna make you sad, Cal,” he blurted suddenly, his muscles tensing as the guilt twisted inside him. Calum just shrugged as he hooked his chin easily over the older boy's shoulder.

“We're not leaving here ‘til you talk to me so I'd start speaking if I were you,” the younger boy said firmly. “Then I'm taking you for our last pre-Elevare breakfast, yeah? We'll get muffins or something. It'll be great.”

Ashton’s expression tightened despite how nice that sounded and Calum softened as his teeth sank into his bottom lip.

“Is that what's wrong?” he asked gently, his chocolate brown eyes growing serious. “Are you frightened about tomorrow? Because if you are, dwelling on it won’t help, Ash. It’s out of our control and whatever happens will happen for a reason. There’s no use being scared of it.”

“I’m not scared of the contest,” the older boy disagreed weakly. “Not really anyway.” He’d fought in the war after all; had seen the most horrific things that still haunted him every night when he tried to sleep. A silly tournament - even one broadcast to an entire planet of people who were openly hostile to him - couldn’t possibly measure up to that; to the sight of people being torn apart in front of him; to the soul-crushing, devastating agony he’d felt upon realising just how many lives he’d stolen by his own lack of self control.

The Elevare was nothing if it kept Claritas and Tenebris from going to war again. Ashton would happily participate with his eyes shut.

“Then why are you so frightened?” Calum whispered, his fingers digging into his thigh as he gazed at the older boy anxiously. His shorts had rucked up when he sat down and Ashton could just make out dozens of tiny purplish bruises scattering the tanned skin that had been revealed, each the size of the Tenebran Prince’s fingertips.

“Have you ever heard of the Purgatio, Cal?” Ashton tried to be subtle when he reached to take Calum’s hand, entwining their fingers together firmly so that the younger boy wouldn’t hurt himself again. He watched the confusion grow on Calum’s face with something like sympathy, especially when he saw a flicker of recognition that was followed quickly by fear. “I guess you’ve heard about them on the comms channels?”

“A little bit,” Calum admitted softly. “They’re fighting for Claritan independence I think.” His face twisted into something a lot harsher as he shook his head at their blatant discrimination towards his own nation. “They hate the idea of Tenebris and Claritas working together, right?”

“Right,” Ashton agreed faintly, his face paling. “Just before the Elevare was announced, the Purgatio threw a brick through the window of the medical bay where I was recovering.” Calum had gone very still beside him but the older boy forced himself to continue as the anxiety coiled like red-hot barbed wire around his heart. “That was the most recent time they tried to hurt me. Several other incidents were reported too but… well, those were while I was still in a coma after… after what happened on the Boneflats.”

The Claritan Prince shuddered, closing his eyes as he focused on the cool air filling the room and Calum’s arm wrapped comfortingly around him, keeping his flames at bay. The colour had drained from the younger boy’s face now and he was holding Ashton closer, almost like he was afraid to let him go, lest the Purgatio appear at that very moment and snatch him away.

“They hate me because I ended the war,” Ashton said heavily. “That’s why I’m not allowed out of the estate without Sierra.” He saw the dawning realisation on Calum’s face and shrugged ruefully as he raked a weary hand through his crimson curls. “She’s the best bodyguard I’ve ever had, to be fair,” he added, smiling weakly. “No one else calls me out on my shit with quite that level of sarcasm. Sierra’s like Laura without the filter.”

Calum laughed but the sound was noticeably strained and he looked tense as his gaze flickered furtively towards the windows, where the mist was still cloaking the gardens outside. It would be a bright day later, once the fog had burnt away, but for now the world still seemed mysterious and faraway.

“That’s why I’m scared though,” Ashton murmured with a note of finality, his expression saturated with shame and love. “I’m worried that the Purgatio are going to try something at one of the tasks; that someone I love or… or even someone who hates me is going to get hurt… and it’ll all be because of me, Cal.” His eyes were damp again, the lump in his throat hard to breathe past. “All because of my fucking awful magic -”

“Your magic is beautiful,” Calum interrupted fiercely as he wrapped his arms warmly around the older boy’s waist, drawing him closer. “It’s beautiful, angel,” he repeated, the honesty in his eyes blazing. “Just like you.”

Ashton’s heart was racing in his chest now, trapped inside the confines of his ribs like a hummingbird as his lips parted at Calum’s words. He felt dazed as the younger boy’s fingers tangled gently through his curls, his pulse roaring in his ears when his trembling hands came to settle on Calum’s broad shoulders. They were breathing the same air now, close enough that their noses brushed as the tension between them sparked like electricity. Ashton’s eyes fluttered shut when he tilted his head, his heart rising into his throat as Calum leant closer, his thumb smoothing over the older boy’s cheekbone, his full lips just a hair's breadth away.

When the door was pushed open suddenly into their backs, Ashton almost headbutted Calum in his haste to get out of the way and they were both sniggering sheepishly as Sierra appeared in the doorway. She regarded them both with wide eyes, taking in their flushed cheeks and the faint smell of burning in the room. Ashton’s curls were rumpled where Calum’s fingers had tangled through them and they were panting a little bit.

“Okay…” she said slowly, clearly trying hard not to smirk. “I’m not even going to ask.” She coughed to hide a laugh at the startled expressions on their faces, eyeing them appraisingly as they tried hard to act nonchalant. “I only came down here because your mum asked me to check on you, Ash. She couldn’t find you this morning so she was worried.” Ashton opened his mouth to apologise but Sierra beat him to it, her expression softening as she smiled faintly. “I should’ve known you’d be with Hood.”

She ducked out of the gym then, winking at Ashton almost imperceptibly as Calum drifted closer, his dark eyes crinkling with the grin he was trying to suppress. The older boy glanced over at him coyly, his cheeks heating a little as he flattened his red hair clumsily. Calum reached to tuck a curl behind his ear and Ashton’s stomach fluttered excitedly as he straightened the younger boy’s t-shirt with trembling hands, unable to keep himself from touching him.

“You said something about muffins, Cal?” he asked innocently, glancing up through his long eyelashes. Calum smiled dazedly, his lips pressing together like he couldn’t believe his luck.

“Sure I did,” he murmured, his fingertips lightly grazing the older boy’s jaw before he unwillingly drew himself away. “C’mon then, angel. Breakfast time.”

Calum started towards the door with a crooked smile on his lips, not even turning around when he reached out behind him, waiting for the Crown Prince to take his hand.

The older boy blushed as he darted after him, entwining their fingers firmly in the calmness of the morning, and Calum didn’t mention it.

He just squeezed Ashton’s hand tighter.

*

This was the lowest Luke had felt in a long time.

He was surrounded by his friends, all of them laughing and smiling as they enjoyed their last night together before the first task, and he felt like he was untouched by it. This was how he’d felt when everyone had left him to fight on the Boneflats, too young and helpless to be of any use to the war effort. His loving parents had done their best to fill the void in his heart but they worked so hard to keep him fed and clothed that they hadn’t been present very much, and for those two lonely years, Luke’s only unfailing company had been his birds.

The sun was already beginning to set and there was a definite tension in the air as the hours until the first challenge slipped away like sand. The grass was soft under Luke, still warm from the heat of the day, and he pressed his palm flat to the earth like he could draw a little of that warmth into his own heart but it didn’t work. Maybe nothing would.

A burst of laughter sounded from nearby and he jumped, startled. It was Mali and Sierra who had chosen to sit closest to him, their dark eyes glittering as they cackled at whatever they'd just seen on Mali's comm. They were going through pictures of some of the more ridiculous costumes worn during the Opening Gala and usually Luke would’ve enjoyed their animated conversation but he didn’t have the energy to join in tonight.

His sister was sitting nearby, predictably with Michael. They both kept shooting Luke hopeful smiles and, although he couldn’t quite keep himself from wearily returning them, his heart wasn’t in it. Laura was painting Michael’s nails for him and, although the younger boy seemed to be trying to act like he wasn’t thrilled, Luke could see through it easily.

Prettiness was scarce in Tenebris and Michael looked delighted at this unexpected turn of events, especially when Laura grew a little purple flower and tucked it fondly into his bleached blond hair. His cheeks were dusted a soft pink now and he beamed at her when she murmured: “There, Sparky. Now you’re perfect.”

Luke’s heart ached. He truly wasn’t jealous – after all, no one deserved to be happier than Laura, at least in his eyes – but it hurt that she was keeping her feelings from him when she was so obviously falling for Michael. Maybe the worst part was that Luke knew he couldn’t really blame her; not when, deep down, he’d been doing exactly the same thing himself.

Laura didn’t know that he was falling in love with Niall as inexorably as a landslide; that, no matter how hard he tried to keep himself from falling, it was impossible to escape. Luke didn’t want to fall in love again. He didn’t want to feel that sandpaper scratch around his heart, reminding him agonisingly of the way he’d felt after Ashton had left him, when he’d wrongly assumed that the younger boy was in agreement that their relationship should remain platonic… the day he’d cut Luke’s charred heart out of his chest and left to fight, only to return a year later in broken, unfamiliar pieces.

Ashton was sprawled nearby now, his head cushioned on the Tenebran Prince’s lap as Calum stroked the older boy's curls lightly, his soft eyes fixed on the fiery locks. He hadn't been able to keep his hands off him all night and Ashton wasn’t much better, his long fingers twisted loosely in the younger boy’s t-shirt like he wanted to keep him close.

Laura was taking requests for flowers now, her eyes sparkling as she demonstrated her abilities to the general awe of everybody present. Luke watched her lovingly for a little while, gratefully accepting the daffodil she passed him before her attention was caught by Michael earnestly asking her the story of how her magic had first manifested.

“I was… I think maybe three or four,” Laura said thoughtfully, shrugging as she pressed a tulip wordlessly into Michael’s hands. “Mum and dad were working in the gardens, and I kept bringing them flowers; just daisies and things. I think they thought I was just picking them at first but then the flowers got bigger, more exotic… and then dad spotted me round the corner growing a giant sunflower about twice as tall as me.”

She grinned at the memory, blushing at the way Michael was watching her, his emerald eyes glitter-soft beneath the sunset.

“That’s enough about me though,” Laura declared as she passed a deep red rose to Mali, whose eyes sparkled with excitement. “What about you, Mike? How did your magic first manifest?”

It was a perfectly reasonable question but Calum and Mali visibly tensed, and Laura bit her lip when Michael shot her a sad smile, her blue eyes tightening when she couldn’t work out what she’d done wrong.

“I don’t want to talk about that tonight,” Michael said quietly, his expression remaining soft when he reached out hesitantly to lace their fingers together. “It’s a sad story.”

Luke dropped his gaze when he saw the tenderness unfurling on his sister’s face, feeling almost like he was intruding on a private moment… like he’d been shut out of another important moment in his sister’s life. He could feel himself losing her all over again but, this time, there was no war to blame; just the fact that she was fearlessly falling in love, the way he never could.

When he became quite certain that he was about to cry, Luke got to his feet, unable to stand staying here for a moment longer. His arms were stinging beneath the sleeves of his jumper and the sadness inside felt like it was going to drown him if he stopped frantically treading water, almost too tired to carry on.

They were all watching him now, their expressions ranging between confusion and concern, and Luke couldn’t escape fast enough. He hoped he was out of earshot when the first exhausted sob tore out of him but he wasn’t sure. He wasn’t certain of anything anymore.

“Luke?” a voice called but the wind rippling around him muffled the word and he wasn’t sure if it was Laura or Sierra who had spoken. He just ran instead, stumbling over the grass with no clear destination in mind until he realised he was craving safety and solitude, and then there was really only one place left for him to go.

He ducked into the trees edging the palatial estate gardens so that he was out of sight, weaving between the trunks until he reached the colossal, hollowed-out oak tree he’d always hidden in when he was a kid. The leaves rustled violently as he approached, the breeze emanating from him unusually forceful as the birds scattered from the branches, for once abandoning him instead of trying to offer comfort.

The sky was already almost dark overhead when Luke slumped down onto his back inside the tree. It was a bit of a tight fit now – he wasn’t a little boy anymore, that much was certain – but he could still just about squeeze in and it was just as soothing as he remembered. He could see the first stars overhead, half-hidden between the crown of branches as the tree continued to grow, even despite the gaping void inside it.

Laura had kept it alive for Luke over the years, feeding it her magic whenever she happened to pass by, because she knew how much her brother loved his hideaway. She just wanted to make him happy.

Luke didn’t know why he felt so sad that he couldn't breathe instead. He felt it churning inside him like a storm, until the wind was twisting around his fingertips and the tree was creaking in protest, and he couldn’t see the sky as the branches whipped viciously overhead. Perhaps Luke should have felt scared but he didn’t because this was the only time he truly felt calm anymore; when the world around him had descended into chaos, it made him feel like his own life might not be shattered beyond repair.

“Is there room for one more?” an achingly familiar voice asked softly. Luke looked up sharply to find Niall looking understandably windswept, his nose red with the cold, his dark hair in disarray as he lingered by the entrance into the trunk. There was a leaf nestled in his fringe and he was shivering a little but it was clear that he had no intention of leaving.

The wind stopped and the tree calmed. Niall’s face softened.

“Hey, Lukey,” he said gently as he wriggled inside to join Luke. The younger boy’s sadness must have been perceptible enough that the empath had sensed it back in the palace and Luke flushed when Niall settled down opposite him, sitting cross-legged so that their knees brushed lightly in the shadows.

He didn’t mention the fact that Luke's anguish had led him here like a lighthouse – there was no need when they both knew what Niall’s abilities allowed him to do – but the older man’s expression remained undeniably soft as he reached for the younger boy’s hand, giving it a comforting squeeze.

A tear slipped down Luke’s pale cheek but he gave Niall a watery smile, not quite able to hate himself when the healer was looking at him like that, with so much affection and kindness.

“You feel cold,” Niall said softly, clearly intending his words in more ways than one. “Come inside with me? We can watch your favourite comms channel and I’ll feed you ice cream.”

“Ice cream is cold too, Ni,” Luke pointed out but he was smiling a little now, even as he dried his eyes clumsily with his sleeve.

“Chocolate then,” the older man said easily, shrugging. “Something sweet.”

You’re sweet.” The words escaped Luke unthinkingly but, before the colour had a chance to drain from his face, Niall’s expression became pleasantly surprised. He dropped the younger boy’s hand in favour of drawing him into a warm hug and Luke melted into it without meaning to, a shaky sigh escaping him as he buried his face in Niall’s neck.

“You’re gonna be okay, Lukey,” he promised. “I can feel it.”

For just a moment, Luke thought the older man might be right.

He felt less lost in Niall’s arms.

Chapter Text

They used to shout my name; now they whisper it.

I’m speeding up and this is the

Red, orange, yellow flicker beat

Sparking up my heart.

- Yellow Flicker Beat, Lorde

 

Today was the day.

Mali had barely slept, her nerves scraped raw for what her little brother and his new friend would have to suffer through today. Her imagination was overactive enough that she had tried to avoid watching old footage of previous Elevares – the sheer brutality of the historic challenges would never cease to appal her – but it had been impossible to avoid it completely. There were holograms advertising the tournament and broadcasting the footage everywhere she turned, and Mali’s nightmares had returned with a vengeance as she pictured all of the harm that could come to Calum as he represented their nation.

The Tenebran King and Queen had arrived in the jet this morning, making a clear statement that they would only be setting foot in Claritas for the shortest possible time. It showed incredibly poor manners – especially during a time when peace was so fragile – but Mali didn’t have time to judge her parents for their blatant rudeness because, the very moment the passengers stepped off the jet, her heart tore itself apart in her chest.

They’d brought a number of guards with them but her eyes instinctively settled on Ashley, taking in the younger girl’s determinedly calm expression as she lined up on the tarmac, dressed in the signature black button-up and combat boots of the Tenebran Royal Protectors. There was a pistol holstered at her waist, and the fingerless gloves she had donned left her hands free enough to adeptly manipulate rock and stone.

Clearly, Ashley had got a new job while Mali was away and it kind of hurt that she hadn’t been made aware of this decision. They still messaged occasionally – granted, less and less as the days went by – and it stung that the younger girl hadn’t told her she’d become a royal guard… that she had signed her life away to be just one more dangerously powerful weapon in the King and Queen’s armoury.

It had only been a few months since Mali had last seen her but the younger girl seemed different now… older maybe; more tired. She hadn’t been the same since returning from the Boneflats War but a little of the old Ashley had still remained, lingering in her sparkling eyes and the scrunch of her freckled nose whenever she grinned at Mali –

But Ashley hadn’t smiled at the older girl in a long time and the grimness seemed to have engulfed her now, eating away everything of the girl Mali had fallen in love with until Ashley was hard and cold underneath, just like the rock she loved so much.

“C’mon, Smiley,” Calum hissed from beside her, his dark eyes soft but serious. Michael bit his bottom lip nervously as he watched the pain rippling across the older girl’s expression. “Mum and dad are waiting for us. Quick now or it’ll look bad.”

Calum was jittery as he ushered his sister and Michael across the tarmac, clearly unable to forget that the last few hours before the first challenge were slipping away from him like the tide going out. He looked afraid and excited, ready to burst out of his skin at the slightest provocation.

Mali’s bracelets tightened around her wrists automatically as she fell into step beside Calum, the metal a comforting weight as she allowed the presence of her two favourite boys to soothe her apprehension. As they left the relative privacy of the entranceway they’d been lingering in, the sudden camera flashes quickly proved that the press had been granted admittance for this state visit. Ashley’s eyes flickered to Mali’s face and the older girl fought against the blush threatening to heat her cheeks, instead allowing the gentle warmth of her magic to ebb through her.

The bracelets melted down her arms to cover her knuckles instead, threading intricately between her fingers until her knuckles were bristling with ornately spiked metal, razor sharp and incredibly unsubtle. She couldn’t have been more obvious about her feelings for Ashley if she'd simply proclaimed them to the watching crowd of photographers and journalists – all of whom were looking between her and the newest guard with shrewd looks, since the pair had never exactly been subtle – but Mali clenched her fists and knew that this was better.

After all, she’d inherited her dramatic streak from her father and was well aware that the press would report on her past relationship with Ashley regardless of her reaction. At least this way, they would have something worthy of writing about.

“Knuckle dusters?” Michael murmured out of the corner of his mouth. “Really, you terrifying woman?”

Mali straightened her back and tried to suppress the sly smile curving her lips when Calum gave her newest creations an approving look.

“Shut up, Mike,” she said firmly as she strode ahead, her confidence returning as the bright metal gleamed in the sunlight.

“Yeah. Shut up, Mike,” Calum repeated smugly, winking at his best friend when the older boy gave him a dirty look. “They’re the perfect accessory for any Princess.”

“Then why don’t you have any?” Michael asked sweetly, narrowly avoiding being elbowed in the ribs when Mali raised one metal-clad hand threateningly.

“Not in front of the cameras, boys,” she said smoothly as they approached the King and Queen, all three of them sobering visibly as the humour slipped from their faces to be replaced with wariness. “There’ll be plenty of time for that later.”

*

The atmosphere in the transport was painfully strained.

Calum’s leg was jiggling as he sat in the window seat, his chest tight as his fingernails bit roughly into his thigh. Michael was slouched in the middle seat, his earphones cutting out the noise of the transport as he played a racing game on his comm, his green eyes glued to the screen. Mali was slumped beside him as she listened to music through her headphones, staring out moodily at the landscape flying by outside. She’d been silent ever since she’d stepped into the vehicle and left Ashley behind, and the hard set of her jaw – along with the continued existence of the metal spikes decorating her knuckles – proved that she was more upset than she’d let on.

Calum’s parents sat in the seats opposite him, both of them unchanged despite the months that had passed since he’d last seen them in person. His mother was dozing, her face gentle in sleep as she tried to regain her energy after the jet flight. Her head was resting lightly on David’s shoulder and he looked unusually soft for a moment, at least until his dark eyes flickered over to his son.

Calum bristled under his father’s heavy gaze, his heart clenching anxiously in his chest as his nails dug in harder. He didn’t like the way the King was watching him, so knowingly but also disapproving, like he could tell his plans had already gone awry. David’s dark eyes narrowed at the defiance on his son’s face and he leant closer in his seat, his ever-present black gloves come to rest lightly on his knees, his fingers flexing in a blatant threat.

“Tell me, Calum, do you recall our conversation in my study before you left for Claritas?” David demanded but he pressed on before his son had time to answer, his hands curling into fists. “It’s just that, after seeing those pictures of you with your supposed rival at the Opening Gala, it seems more as though you planned to seduce him than execute the plan we discussed.”

“You mean the plan you discussed,” Calum muttered, his heart rising into his throat when his father’s eyes flashed to his paling face. There was a moment of tense silence before the Prince squared his shoulders, refusing to be cowed by the growing rage in the King’s eyes; not when he was asking Calum to hurt Ashton... and not when David had never had any intention of loving his son, regardless of the Fire Prince’s survival.

“Ah,” his father said slowly, his expression flickering towards appraising now although the disgust lingering in his features was undeniable. “So you’ve succumbed too, just like your uncle Thomas. Your end will be slower though, I imagine. Prince Ashton seems like the sort of barbaric soul who likes to play with his food before he eats it.”

“Then you really know nothing about Ashton at all, do you?” Calum countered, the barest hint of a smirk touching his lips although his eyes remained cold. “I won’t hurt him, dad. I’ll do everything I can to win the Elevare and bring glory to Tenebris… but I won’t cause him any harm. He doesn’t deserve it.”

“He killed your uncle!” David snapped, loudly enough that Joy stirred for a moment before dropping back to sleep again.

“He killed a lot of people, dad… and so have you,” Calum said in a softer voice, aching and raw now although he refused to let his emotions colour his words. Michael’s thigh was a warm comforting weight pressed against his own and Calum exhaled shakily as he dragged his fingernails away from the bruises he’d pressed into his skin. “That doesn’t mean either of you aren’t worthy of forgiveness.”

“I don’t need forgiveness,” David sneered, his voice dropping to a threatening murmur. “He really has you wrapped around his finger, doesn’t he? Is your head so easily turned?”

“Ashton hasn’t turned my head,” Calum said sharply, his hands trembling as his pulse roared in his ears. “You might be my father but you really don’t know me at all, do you?” His eyes widened as he realised what he was saying and he pressed his lips together hard, heart pounding. He never would have dreamt of speaking to his father before he’d been announced as champion of the Elevare and they both knew it. Something had changed between them – some rift which might one day become uncrossable – and Calum was powerless to stop it.

“Foolish boy,” David said softly, his tone almost gentle as he settled back in his seat. His fingers laced together and the Prince let out a shaky breath. “You’ve never been able to lie to me, my son. Your heart is very much on your sleeve. That’s a weakness you inherited from your mother.”

Calum turned away stubbornly, pressing his cheek to the cool glass of the transport as Claritas slipped by outside. They’d long-since left Aureum behind and the landscape became rugged as they neared the arena, built out on the rocky outskirts of the coastal city of Gravenwick, where the ancient building had stood for millennia. It had been purpose-built to hold the Elevare tournaments, colossal enough to seat over a hundred thousand spectators, all of whom would be staring at the two Princes in just a few short hours while the rest of Cerasus watched the live planet-wide broadcast.

Calum’s heart rose into his throat and he could barely breathe past it as the bruises on his thighs ached, throbbing in time with the rising roar of his pulse. For a long moment, he wished he could have completed the journey with Ashton instead, basking in the older boy’s pleasant company and sparkling hazel eyes as they playfully teased each other, filling Calum’s stomach with excited butterflies.

They felt like they were full on bats now, huge and leathery as they battered clumsily inside him, threatening to make him lose his lunch. He’d never known nerves like this before and his leg was jiggling worse than ever now, at least until Michael reached out blindly to rest his palm on the younger boy’s knee, his gaze still locked on the screen of his comm. Calum closed his eyes, his hand shakily covering his best friend’s as he took a steadying breath.

He would be fine. He would be strong and brave and proud because he had to be; for his nation, for his father, and for himself. He had no other choice.

His teeth sank into his bottom lip when the transport finally rolled to a stop outside the arena. A barricade had been set up to keep the press out and Calum was grateful for that as their driver spoke to the guards at the checkpoint before their vehicle was granted passage. Security measures had clearly been heightened in the wake of the Purgatio’s threats and the fact that none of the journalists or photographers could approach them was an unexpected benefit. Calum wouldn’t have to worry about Michael losing his temper or Ashton being upset by the reporters’ cruel words.

Calum could simply try and get himself in the right headspace to compete instead, no matter how difficult that felt in the tension of the transport. He could simply stand there in the sunshine – basking in the warmth that he rarely enjoyed in Tenebris – and breathe in the sea air, as soft as water.

His heart felt light with it as he exited the transport, too far away for the distant camera flashes of the press to bother him at all. He didn’t care when Michael and Mali were standing protectively on either side of him; when he could see the beautiful blue ribbon of ocean stretching across the horizon a few miles away, more tempting than anything… except perhaps Ashton.

Calum’s gaze settled on the older boy automatically and his eyes widened a little as he processed the fact that the inexorable pull he felt towards the Crown Prince was stronger than the lure of the ocean. Calum was well and truly screwed, and the worst part was that he couldn’t even bring himself to care when he was fairly certain that Ashton felt the same way.

He thought briefly of the bluish-white flames licking across the older boy’s trembling knuckles; his vibrant red curls soft between Calum’s fingers as the older boy leant closer, his head tilted to kiss him and… fuck, Calum couldn’t regret his dangerous words to his father for even a second; not when he held Ashton’s scarred heart in his palms, cradled like something precious… not when the older boy was finally starting to trust him.

Ashton wasn’t too far away now, standing with his back to everyone else – his shoulders tense with nervousness – as he threw fireballs up into the air to burn off steam. They soared across the empty blue, burning away with a crackle as the smoke coiled, and Calum was utterly in awe of him, his dark gaze locked on the Crown Prince as he worked so hard to regain control of his powers.

Sierra lingered nearby, closer to him than the rest of the guests as they began to enter the arena through yet another checkpoint. The older girl was dressed once more in her red leather jacket as she hovered behind Ashton, her fingertips glowing white with frost as she hesitated, trying to give him freedom he deserved while still being ready to keep him safe should the need arise.

When one of Ashton’s fireballs seared into the air with a vivid blue flame, everyone lingering outside the arena went silent as they stared up at it in awe. His magic was truly returning to him now, as surely as the tide, and Calum joined them in marvelling silently, at least until his gaze flickered to his father and his heart threatened to stop beating in his chest.

David was gazing at the strength of the Crown Prince’s abilities with an undeniable hunger in his eyes, so greedy for the sheer power crackling through Ashton’s veins. Calum tried to reassure himself with the fact that his father would never countenance sullying himself with the magic of someone he hated so much – especially after Ashton had inadvertently caused the death of the Prince’s uncle Thomas – but Calum couldn’t quite keep his fear at bay as a surge of protectiveness rocketed through him.

He vowed to himself that he wouldn’t let David lay a single fingertip on Ashton.

Calum was going to keep the older boy safe, whatever the cost, and his determination only served to highlight just how gone he was for the Crown Prince, even after just a few months of knowing him. Ashton had made such a mess of Calum without even trying but... god, the younger boy couldn't resent him for it. He was too lost in trying to unpick the mystery of the Claritan Crown prince who continued to prove time and time again just how different he was to Calum’s initial expectations, and to the way the media portrayed him… because Ashton was soft and vulnerable, and he wouldn’t hurt a fly if he had any say in the matter.

He was just about the worst choice Calum could possibly make but it was already too late to turn back. The Prince could feel how soft he was for Ashton without even trying. Calum’s heart sang with it.

“Oh dear,” Michael said in a stage whisper when he noticed his best friend's preoccupation. His words startled Calum enough that he jumped noticeably and the older boy rolled his eyes, the fondness undeniable as Calum unwillingly tore his gaze away from Ashton. “Let’s leave Lover Boy to it, Mali. He’s gone all heart eyes again.”

Laura was standing nearby and Calum wasn't surprised in the slightest when Michael immediately made his way over to her, dragging Mali by the hand (which, fortunately, was no longer covered in razor-sharp metal). Laura's eyes sparkled when she noticed their approach and, despite the distance between them, Calum thought she might have been complimenting Michael's burgundy shirt. This was only confirmed when she grew a tiny flower with the same colour petals and tucked it carefully through his buttonhole.

Michael blushed the colour of a tomato as Mali smirked at the exchange, both of them comfortable now that David and Joy had already been ushered into the arena. Calum would need to go inside soon too and, as that thought made itself apparent, the happiness seeped out of him like the air from a balloon. Almost as soon as the nervousness unfurled inside Calum,

Ashton turned like someone had called his name. His hazel eyes settled gratifyingly on the Tenebran Prince and he cocked his head for a moment, the concern on his face outweighing any anxiety he felt as he ambled over, Sierra trailing behind him.

“Hey, Cal,” Ashton said with a weak smile. “Nervous?”

“Definitely,” Calum agreed, grinning faintly although he felt calmer when Ashton was looking at him like that, with so much kindness in his lovely eyes. “Guess it's time to bite the bullet, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Ashton breathed, teeth worrying at his bottom lip as he looked down at his hand, letting one last tongue of blue flame lick across his knuckles before he extinguished it easily. “I think I'm ready as I'll ever be.”

“C’mon then, angel,” Calum murmured, his words soft enough that Sierra couldn’t hear. “Let’s get this over with.”

He led the way towards the side entrance where the champions and their guests were slowly being admitted through the checkpoint. There was a facial recognition system as well as a metal detector and Calum gritted his teeth at how long the monotonous procedure was likely to take, especially judging by the length of the queue. His leg was bleeding under his trousers – he could feel the material sticking to his thigh where his nails must have broken the skin earlier – and he winced a little, even as something warm unfurled inside him when Ashton leant subtly against him, his lips brushing chastely over the younger boy’s shoulder.

Michael winked at Calum in a decidedly un-subtle manner from where he was lined up in front of them, his green eyes glittering as he glanced down at the pretty flower Laura had grown for him. She was lingering beside him, her long fair hair in a neat plait which she idly twisted as she looked around her with interest, taking in the shiny corridor they were waiting in. It had been revamped just like the rest of the arena – a necessity since the Elevare would be attracting so much public interest and the Claritans liked nothing more than to be eye-catching.

Luke seemed to have got the memo too. He was standing in front of his sister, dressed in a black velvet jacket over a mostly unbuttoned shirt made from pearly grey silk. His leather trousers were tucked neatly into a pair of bronze-coloured boots that Mali was definitely staring at longingly from where she was queueing beside him.

There was a dark-haired man lingering next to Luke too, his blue eyes undeniably soft as they rested on the younger boy's face. Luke's shyness seemed to melt away in their company and Calum watched the three of them fondly as Luke gesticulated at something, the rings on his fingers catching the bright light of the corridor as he laughed at a joke the dark-haired man had told.

Calum found it hard to be scared of Niall these days, despite how anxious the older man’s presence had made him that day in the gym when he’d proved that he had empathic abilities. It still didn’t feel comfortable for Calum – still felt just a little too much like violation – but he knew Niall now; knew that the older man would never use his powers to cause harm. Niall was a good person, golden to the core, and his incredible talent in healing had gifted Ashton with the ability to walk again. Calum would thank Niall for that one day, once he’d plucked up the courage... although, judging by the faint grin the healer suddenly flickered his way, maybe the older man already knew how he felt.

Calum wouldn’t put it past him and he smiled back grudgingly, his heart still racing in his chest as he truly began to realise just how different Tenebris and Claritas were. What was frowned on in one nation was welcomed with open arms in another and it felt like he was never going to get used to it… and then he wondered if it mattered anyway. At least he was here, showing his face and trying to learn about Claritan culture. That was more than any of the other Tenebran royals had done over the last century.

From beside him, Ashton let out a shaky sigh as he tensed up, clearly growing agitated and more nervous than ever at the length of time it was taking to get past security. His hazel eyes flickered warily over his shoulder as he glanced towards the blue sky outside and it was painfully evident that he was growing anxious about something – maybe the tournament, maybe the Purgatio, or maybe something else entirely – and Calum frowned as he wrapped his arm warmly around the older boy’s waist, uncaring if anyone noticed now. They were surrounded by friends and family, and the press weren't allowed in here... and Ashton needed the comfort. Calum wasn't going to deny him that.

He could feel the older boy's scar faintly through the black t-shirt he was wearing and he smoothed his palm over it soothingly, his cheeks heating a little when Ashton stared up at him in shock, full lips parting. Calum just smiled crookedly, his dark eyes twinkling, and kept his palm resting there lightly until Ashton leant back into the contact, relaxing visibly. Clearly, people generally avoided acknowledging the injury that had almost ruined his life but Calum refused to do that.

The Crown Prince’s scars and dangerous past were part of him after all and, since Calum liked all of Ashton, he didn’t see the point in ignoring the aspects that might have made him uncomfortable or sad. That was no way to repay the boy who made him feel like his heart was too big for his chest.

Calum wanted Ashton to feel beautiful, damnit, and he was determined to make it happen.

Ashton deserved to love himself… and if this realisation and the softening in Calum’s chest was too frightening to consider right now, that was okay too. There would be plenty of time to work out what the Prince might or might not be feeling but that definitely wasn’t now, just an hour before the first task of a tournament that had already changed his life forever.

Calum needed to get his game face on.

He needed to win.

*

Ashton couldn’t stop blushing.

Ever since Calum’s palm had settled lightly on his skin out in the corridor, his cheeks had been as red as the roses Laura liked to grow so much. Sierra had slipped away once they’d filed inside to go through security and he’d been glad of that. She seemed so adept at noticing when he was experiencing a particularly strong emotion – and, okay, sure, maybe that was one of the reasons Fletcher had hired her – but Ashton still didn’t particularly relish having her smirking at him whenever she caught him watching Calum like all of his dreams had just come true or something. His emotions frustrated and confused him, and he felt more than a little embarrassed by just how gone he was for the younger boy but, unfortunately, Ashton didn’t appear to be able to control them. It seemed he was going to fall for the younger boy no matter how hard he resisted… and the Crown Prince had never been very good at resisting the things he desired.

Ashton wanted Calum so much that he ached with it. He had done since the very first night they met.

The changing rooms were a blessed relief after the crowded corridor but the silence was a little awkward as Ashton struggled into the outfit he’d been provided for the tournament. It was rather more tight-fitting than he was used to and he was trying not to look down at himself as he struggled with the zip, grimacing at the alien feeling of the material stretching across his limbs.

He cursed when he realised he couldn’t twist to pull the zip up, his back faintly protesting the movement. His cheeks flamed as he unlocked the cubicle he’d hidden himself in and stamped out into the changing room, only to stare wordlessly when he bumped right into Calum’s chest. The younger boy’s muscular arms came to wrap around him when Ashton’s momentum almost sent him tumbling and the Crown Prince couldn’t keep himself from blushing when he peered up at Calum shyly, his teeth sinking into his bottom lip.

“Sorry for walking into you,” Ashton said softly, carding his fingers lightly through his red curls. The younger boy’s eyes tracked the movement, his swallow audible with how close they were standing.

“Sorry for making you jump,” Calum countered, his eyes twinkling like he wasn’t blushing too. “I was coming to see if you were okay actually, angel. You were grumbling kind of a lot.”

“It’s this hideous suit,” Ashton muttered, trying not to notice the way that Calum’s was hugging his muscular form quite so beautifully. “I can’t do the zip up with my stupid back like this.” He was pouting a little bit but it slipped from his face when the younger boy looked down at him curiously, his lips curving into a slight smirk.

“That’s pretty easily fixable, Ash,” Calum pointed out, his arms still wrapped warmly around him. Ashton let his forehead come to rest hesitantly on the Prince’s broad shoulder as the embarrassment darkened his cheeks. He shivered when he felt the gentle brush of Calum’s fingertips in the small of his back as he took hold of the zip and his face burnt hotter when Calum gently eased the zip up, taking a little longer than was probably necessary as he relished in the feeling of them standing so close like this.

“There we go,” Calum murmured but he didn’t step back. He kept his palms resting comfortingly on the older boy’s waist instead and Ashton wasn’t inclined to pull away. He liked the feeling of Calum’s hands on him, warm and secure, like he was trying to keep the Crown Prince safe. Calum made all of his worries feel so far away.

“Thank you, Cal,” Ashton murmured when he finally raised his head, hoping very much that his cheeks weren’t the same colour as his hair. “I can’t believe this is what they were measuring us for.” He picked at the material with distaste although he definitely felt mollified now that his suit was no longer flapping around quite so ridiculously. “Isn’t it just the worst thing you’ve ever worn?”

“Quite possibly,” Calum agreed as he unwillingly released the older boy, his lips curving up into a tired smile as he sank down onto the bench nearby. “But they’ve presumably been designed like this for a reason, right? Even if they do look like wet suits.”

“Dad told me they’re supposed to absorb kinetic energy,” Ashton offered, shooting his outfit a weak glare all the same. “That way, if we fall or something, we won’t get hurt so badly… which isn’t exactly reassuring.”

“They are ugly though,” Calum admitted.

“Very ugly,” Ashton agreed, his hazel eyes warming when the younger boy huffed out a laugh although the amusement didn’t quite warm his tanned features. The Crown Prince was struck suddenly by how weary Calum looked as he sat there, almost like the two hour drive to Gravenwick had taken something from him.

“Maybe the next challenge will be some sort of fashion show and then we’ll actually get to wear something pretty,” Ashton joked lightly, relieved when Calum’s lips curved up into a smile. The older boy did a silly little twirl in his horrible outfit, beaming when he heard the Prince’s breathless burst of laughter. Calum’s chocolate brown eyes quickly returned to Ashton’s face when he realised he’d been caught checking the older boy out and Ashton hummed contentedly, reminded of the night at the gala for a moment when he’d realised just how much he liked the feeling of Calum watching him like he was the only person in the room.

Ashton wilted a little when his eyes flickered down to where Calum’s fingers were digging into his thigh, hard enough that it must have hurt. The younger boy jerked in surprise when Ashton gently took his hand between both of his own, his thumbs smoothing over the palm soothingly as he pressed a brief kiss to Calum’s fingertips. The older boy’s hazel eyes remained soft and the Prince blushed, hanging his head as the bruises throbbed beneath the material.

“It’s not my fingers that hurt,” Calum joked weakly when he felt Ashton’s lips lingering there. The older boy smiled a little sadly as he considered that although his eyes glittered with what might have been mischief when he released Calum’s hand, freeing his own so that he could stroke teasingly over the warm skin of the younger boy’s throat, coaxing a shiver from him.

“Well, I can’t kiss your thighs here, Cal,” he teased softly. “Anyone might walk in.”

When the younger boy simply blushed hotter and bit his lip to hide his smile, Ashton raised an eyebrow curiously, unable to completely suppress his smirk.

“Oh, you’d like that?” he murmured, hazel eyes sparkling under the lights. “That’s worth remembering.”

He sauntered towards the door then, leaving Calum sitting there with his cheeks burning hotter than the flames simmering under Ashton’s skin. The electricity between them was undeniable now, so irresistible and enticing, and the Crown Prince could feel the heat of it melting his heart in his chest… but he’d be damned if he was going to confess how he was feeling now, right before what could well be one of the most important events of his life.

Ashton needed to be focused and that meant not getting painfully caught up in the beautiful boy still languishing on the bench behind him, no matter how lovely he was.

“C’mon, Cal,” the older boy called from the doorway, trying to sound strong but probably sounding needy instead. He eased his fingers through the red curls Calum loved so much, a smile crinkling his face when the younger boy hurriedly closed the distance between them. “We better get moving.”

“What about a kiss for luck?” the Prince asked hopefully, his chocolate brown eyes glittering.

“In your dreams,” Ashton teased but he couldn’t quite stop himself from pressing his lips briefly to the younger boy’s cheek, dangerously close to the corner of Calum’s soft mouth. “Now c’mon, Cal. We’ve got a planet of people ready to watch us make fools of ourselves. We can’t keep them waiting.”

*

Ashton had never felt smaller in his life.

The arena might have looked large from the outside but the floor space itself was dizzying in its immensity. There were over a hundred-thousand pairs of eyes pinning him to the spot as he stood trembling beside Calum at the starting line, his hands curled into fists as he stared blankly ahead, fighting to keep his breathing under control.

The camera flashes had been blinding when the champions first stepped onto the arena floor but they’d faded now that the broadcast had begun, the cameras panning over the numerous obstacles the pair were expected to race through in order to win the challenge.

It was all a frightening blur to Ashton, his world reduced to jagged rocks and jets of flame; to crashing waves and the threatening whisper of unnatural wind swaying the long rippling grass that had presumably been grown to inhibit their movements. Ashton was almost certain that he would fall flat on his face the moment the task began but he was trying to hide how terrified he felt; trying to appear even a fraction as confident as Calum did beside him, standing gazing out over the arena with something that might have looked like mild amusement if his dark eyes hadn’t been flickering about quite so frantically.

Ashton didn't feel brave in the slightest but it didn't matter. No one could tell the difference from this distance; not even his friends and family would be able to see how badly he was shaking from the VIP area, although the photographers and reporters filling the press box just above the starting line might have a better chance.

All Ashton could do right now was keep his head up, his shoulders strong, and his back straight; to radiate pride, the way he’d been raised… to keep going and see this through to the end, no matter how much his heart was threatening to shred itself apart in his chest.

He could see a worrying number of healers hovering around the edges of the arena – Niall included – along with a handful of people whose abilities allowed them to create forcefields should the need arise. Sierra would be around somewhere too, keeping an eye on the Crown Prince although she had been warned not to interfere, especially after the champions had signed their names in blood on the binding magical contract.

The grimness of the healers’ faces worried Ashton but he tried to focus on them rather than the closest spectators sitting in the stands around him. He was too frightened to see the inevitable hatred saturating their expressions, especially after all of the bile the press had been spewing once he’d been announced the Claritan champion. The pictures of the aftermath of his explosion on the Boneflats had been circulating again and Ashton felt raw under the crushing gazes of the onlookers, certain they must hate him. He couldn’t blame them for it though; not after the things he’d done during the war. Ashton hated himself too.

Psst.”

The sound jarred him from his thoughts and he glanced up in surprise, his cheeks heating a little when he saw Calum looking at him worriedly. The younger boy cocked his head to one side, his dark curls soft where they were falling across his forehead as he watched the Crown Prince inquisitively. Ashton shrugged fractionally, nodding as a weak smile touched his lips.

It felt good to know Calum cared about his happiness, even if they were about to compete against each other in front of the entire planet. That didn’t mean Ashton’s brief fluttering of warmth was worthless though. It was the little things that mattered most sometimes – like Calum’s dimples creasing his cheeks and not the crushing weight of the Elevare – and that was worth holding on to.

With Calum by his side, Ashton knew he’d get through this somehow.

A sudden hush fell as a spotlight burst into existence, illuminating the figure of a man clad in an impressive number of glitter-encrusted silk flowers who could only have been Harry Styles.

“Welcome, everyone, to the first task of this year’s Elevare, the Impedimentum!” he cried into his microphone, his voice amplified around the arena, ringing out loud and clear over the murmurs as everyone stared at his outfit in stunned disbelief. Even in Claritas, the man’s wardrobe was legendary and Ashton felt a weak smile curving his lips when he glanced over at Calum, taking in the vague fondness on the younger man’s face as he watched Harry with amusement.

“For those poor folks who don't know me, I am Harry Styles – comms personality, your commentator for all things Elevare, and the newest contestant on A Starlet In Claritas. Yes, that’s right, everyone! I was picked! You can tune in tomorrow night to watch me win the first round and start down the path to becoming the first openly gay male starlet in this fine nation. I repeat, tomorrow night -” He faltered and the muffled sound of grumbling could be heard before he continued with a slightly sullen-sounding: “Okay, anyway, back to the task at hand – if you’ll pardon the pun!”

Ashton groaned softly, rolling his eyes although his face softened when he saw Calum biting the inside of his cheek, clearly trying not to laugh.

“Right, now as I was saying,” Harry continued, flicking his long dark hair back with a perfectly manicured hand. “In the arena below us, at the very start of a wide array of dangerous and difficult obstacles, our two handsome Princes are waiting to begin the Impedimentum. The goal of this task is for the champions to complete this obstacle course in the shortest amount of time, while avoiding the booby traps and making it through the challenge in one piece! The champions should aim to display their magical prowess, grit, bravery, and resilience, and any other adjectives they might be able to think of… although I imagine their main goal is to avoid being smeared on camera in front of millions of people. That one’s a free tip for you from me, boys! Good luck – because you’ll certainly need it.”

The tension in the arena was rising now, infecting Ashton as the adrenaline started to course through him. His chest felt tight, his hazel eyes widening as the enormity of the situation finally began to sink in. Beside him, Calum was bouncing on the balls of his feet, excited and invigorated by how absolutely terrified he felt, like he’d never known an atmosphere quite like this one before.

“If everyone will look at the comm screen, you’ll be able to see a countdown in the bottom corner. Do you all know what it’s for? I’ll tell you what it’s for!” Harry’s eyes were sparkling, magnified times a thousand by the enormous screen behind him that was displaying the live broadcast showing all across Cerasus. He was clearly enjoying himself. “This countdown shows the last thirty seconds ticking away before the first Elevare task in a century begins! Our judges are ready, the healers are on hand, and our champions are clearly raring to go!”

The watching crowd cheered, the sound rippling around the arena as Ashton exchanged one last wide-eyed glance with Calum, his heart rising chokingly into his throat. Ashton watched with bated breath as Harry counted the last ten seconds out loud, his voice echoing strangely as the lights in the arena brightened, focusing on the two champions as they tensed, preparing to launch themselves over the starting line.

“With only a few seconds left to go,” Harry began, his tone saturated with excitement and pride. “Our countdown has reached zero so, without further ado, let the tournament begin! Champions, on your marks, get set… go!”

The klaxon sounded and Ashton threw himself over the line, already racing down the gentle slope as fast as his legs could carry him although his movements were severely hindered by the long grass. It wrapped lovingly around his ankles, doing its best to trip him as he fought it off with little bursts of blue flame, cursing the enchanted plants under his breath although he was sure Laura would have been fascinated by them. Calum was faring much the same beside him, his tanned face twisted with annoyance as he tore his way through the weeds, using brute force to clear a path for himself.

Ashton was out of breath by the time he made it to the bottom of the slope, trying to avoid looking up at the comm screen and seeing his own face – already flushed with over-exertion – displayed back at him, along with the timer counting the seconds passing with worrying speed.

There was a small meadow stretching up ahead, fit to bursting with vibrant electric blue blooms that Ashton recognised instantly. His step faltered as he slowed, his teeth sinking into his bottom lip at the sight of so many mortifern flowers in one place. The carnivorous plants were absolutely lethal, secreting an incredibly potent acid that had been harvested and used frequently during the Boneflats War. They were native to Claritas which would explain why Calum was still sprinting towards them without fear and Ashton’s heart felt like it had stopped beating in his chest as he watched the younger boy fling himself headlong into the flowers.

There was a split-second – before Calum threw his first water ball in an effort to flatten the closest blooms – where Ashton could have warned him against it… but this was a contest and he had Claritas’ honour to think about. The Crown Prince pressed his lips together tightly, no matter how guilty he felt, and watched in horror as the flowers soared up into the air, growing tenfold as they absorbed the magic.

Ashton welcomed the distraction for what it was, so desperately grateful that Laura had taught him so much about plants during their childhood because it had saved him from making Calum’s mistakes. The younger boy was struggling free of the thick stalks now, his suit already singed in places where the acid was burning through the thick material. The mortiferns swayed around him, their petals snapping shut as the acid spewed down onto the ground below.

The flowers surrounding Ashton were still dormant, barely reaching waist height and in stark contrast to the plants tormenting Calum. The Crown Prince was so grateful he hadn’t used his flames to burn a path, no matter how tempting it might have seemed. The mortiferns thrived off magic but he knew that if he moved slowly, weaving between the stalks and trying to keep the acid welling inside the blooms away from his skin, he should be able to make it through unscathed.

“- and now Ashton is in the lead!” Harry was crying excitedly. “The Tenebran champion is at a clear disadvantage with this obstacle but he seems to be recovering quickly! Calum looks a little worse-for-wear but the healers are approaching and – oh, Calum doesn’t seem to want their help. He’s still racing off after his competitor!”

The words sent a thrill of something searing through Ashton’s veins and he sped up as much as he could, finally breaking free of the last mortiferns with only minimal burns. Calum was lagging a little behind him, clearly in pain from the various acid burns he’d sustained to his torso and arms but he still closed the distance between them with relative ease, his longer strides and Ashton’s aching back quickly levelling the playing field once more.

Beyond the meadow, there was a narrow strip of desert that quickly gave way to a rocky barricade stretching up achingly high into the evening sky. A wind swept across the expanse of sand, the dry heat drawing a panting gasp from Ashton as he raced towards the towering stack of rocks. The closer he got, the more it became apparent that the barricade was clearly the work of someone with powerful abilities. The stone was twisted into unnatural shapes, providing just enough convenient handholds that the champions could be expected to climb it without falling to their deaths.

Ashton was just beginning to wonder if there was a way around it instead of struggling over the top when Harry’s voice piped up once more, helpfully alerting the Princes to what could otherwise have proved a missed opportunity.

“For those watching at home, if you look carefully, you’ll be able to see a shining medallion suspended over the barricade. The first champion to reach this will be granted an additional ten minutes during the second task which could be the difference between winning or losing and – oh, would you look at them go?! They’re like a pair of mountain goats!”

Harry’s statement attracted enough laughter that Ashton could hardly hear himself think as he worked on hauling himself up the rocky barricade. He trembled with adrenaline as his fingertips bit into the stone, the muscles in his back screaming at him as he scrabbled not to lose his footing, his spine aching at the stretch. Calum was struggling beside him, his teeth gritted with pain from his burns in the seconds before he dropped suddenly, falling the few metres he’d climbed back down onto the sand below.

His suit absorbed the impact the way it had been designed but he was still winded and the crowd gasped in shock as Ashton froze. He clung to the rock, staring down in horrified silence with bated breath until Calum slowly pushed himself slowly to his feet. The younger boy shot the rocky barricade a dark look before shaking his head in disgust and limping off parallel to it, clearly deciding that he would make do without the ten minute bonus time being offered for the next challenge.

Ashton’s relief made him feel dizzy as he scurried up the last few boulders, the sweat sticking his red curls to his forehead as the hot wind wrapped around him, tearing at his suit as it threatened to drag him down onto the sand far below. He gritted his teeth and fought against it, snatching the medallion out of the air with a burst of exultation before he slipped it hastily around his neck, already biting his lip as he tried to work out the best way down.

Calum was ahead of him again, bouncing once more on the balls of his feet as he gazed out over the next obstacle. The rocky ground stretching before him seemed relatively harmless at first, if a little perilous to traverse, but Ashton withdrew that statement when a sudden burst of flame erupted from between the rocks. Calum flinched visibly, his muscles bunching tighter and tighter with every pillar of fire rocketing upwards. Ashton watched it play out silently, still struggling against the wind as he bided his time, trying to work out the pattern between the tongues of flame. It seemed to be a puzzle of some sort and the Crown Prince watched it for a moment longer from his vantage point, counting each searing column of flame as it roared up into the crackling air before he felt ready to begin his descent from the barricade.

It was quicker on the way down – mostly because it was more of a controlled fall now that he trusted his suit to protect him – but it still jarred his back painfully when he landed on the sand and he winced as he limped towards Calum, his hazel eyes locked determinedly on the amber flames. His own fire crawled across his fists as he came to a stop where the sand met the cracked rock, his magic burning a stunning cerulean as the medallion rested against his chest, right over his fiercely beating heart.

Calum must have worked out the pattern of the flames already because he darted forwards unexpectedly over the uneven ground, drawing a gasp from the watching crowd as he leapt over one of the cracks, narrowly avoiding being burnt to a crisp. There was little time between the bursts of fire and Ashton already knew there was no way he’d be able to make it across without injury; not with the way his back was hurting as the baking lights shone down on him, making him squint wearily.

“- another near miss for Calum there! Ouch – that one looked like it hurt!” Harry commented wryly. “Now we can see Ashton approaching the obstacle. He's clearly thinking hard and – ah, everyone might want to duck for cover. Let’s hope we’re not about to get a repeat of the Crown Prince’s party piece; am I right, folks?”

The crowd laughed jeeringly but Ashton did his best to ignore them as he extended a trembling hand, focusing on the heat of the flames as they erupted into the air. He could control them; he knew he could. He'd learnt his own limits the hard way at the end of the Boneflats War and he knew he'd never make that mistake again, no matter how easy it was to slip up and feed his fire too much energy.

Ashton was going to pass through safely and prove them all wrong because, quite suddenly, that was the only thing that mattered anymore.

He approached the columns of flame cautiously, getting used to the strength of them as they fought against him. Ashton calmed, his hands no longer shaking as he twisted his wrist, coaxing them into a sizeable fireball which he kept floating in the air above him. Without the flame, the cracks in the rock simply seeped smoke now and Ashton clambered across them easily, becoming suddenly aware that – aside from his panting breaths and the roar of the flames above his head – the arena had fallen deadly silent.

Even Harry’s commentary had stopped now, his face pale and wary behind the sparkling flowers as he watched the Crown Prince’s careful trek across the rocks, his movements slowed by the fireball. Every time Ashton reached another crack in the stone, he lured the flames up to join those already coiling above him and, whenever he was far enough away from the previous fissure, he released any fire that was no longer a threat to him.

It was a methodical system and meant that at no point was he likely to over-exert himself the way he’d done during the war, even if it was frustratingly time-consuming. Calum was already nearing the far end of the obstacle and Ashton gritted his teeth as he slowly closed the distance between them, not wanting to rush and lose control, even if Sierra was most likely lurking close by with her ice magic at the ready.

He knew he was safe when Harry started his commentary again, sounding enthusiastic and excitable once more as the relief coursed through him, and Ashton knew exactly how he felt. The crowd were murmuring now, no longer scornful but appraising as he finally released the last bursts of fire back safely into the cracks slashed across the rocky ground.

Ashton stepped onto the packed earth with a great sigh of relief which quickly caught in his throat when he finally let his gaze travel to the next obstacle waiting for him. It was the last one by the looks of it and his heart sank at the sight of the lake stretching out in front of him. It was deep and dizzyingly vast, and the water was churning violently, the heavy waves slapping against the ground as Ashton took a scurrying step backwards, his face paling.

He'd always insisted he hated the water which was why he’d never learnt to swim but that wasn't the truth; in all honesty, he was simply terrified of it. The very idea of floating suspended over who knew what was enough to send him panicking and he couldn't stand the idea of the entire planet watching him have a meltdown over the idea of swimming now. It made him feel sick.

Calum was already cutting easily through the waves, his abilities allowing him to shoot straight through the water like a bullet although – when he jerked suddenly to a stop, the wave that had been carrying him abruptly motionless with a mere flick of his fingers – the older boy definitely took notice. A scaled ruby-coloured tail had just flicked out of the water ahead of the Tenebran Prince and, although Ashton had no idea what kind of creature it might belong to, by the way Calum’s face had drained of colour as the crowd crowed in fearful delight, it seemed to be the mortifern situation in reverse. Clearly, it was better if Ashton didn’t risk going near the water at all.

The lake seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see but… surely there had to be a way round it. Calum hadn't been forced to climb the barricade after all and Ashton would drown if he ventured into the lake, sea monsters or not. There had to be an alternative route and he searched for it frantically, tuning out Harry's gleeful commentary as his eyes finally settled on a narrow dusty track leading around the outskirts of the lake.

The water was churning more violently along that side, clearly home to whatever horrifying creatures were lurking in its depths, and Ashton gritted his teeth as he set off at a run, his back aching with every jarring step as the burning lights glared down on him.

The crowd let out a sudden gasp, indicating that either Calum had encountered difficulties or the sea monster had finally shown itself but there was no way of knowing for sure; not when Ashton’s pulse was roaring so loudly in his ears that the rest of the world seemed silent. He paled as he pushed himself harder, too frightened to risk turning back as he hurtled across the muddy ground, cursing when he realised how dangerously slippery it had become as he ran closer to the lake.

He only sprinted faster when he reached the section where the waves were breaking most aggressively against the shore, his heart rising into his throat as he kept his hazel gaze locked straight ahead. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flicker of red scales under the surface; the blink of an enormous yellow eye that narrowed as he passed. Ashton shot a fireball at the emerging scale-covered limb without slowing, his panic lending him wings as he flew past the lake, leaving the lethal waters far behind him.

Calum had long since reached the shore but his injuries had definitely got the better of him now and he was barely jogging as he staggered up the final slope, his hair plastered to his skull, his movements once more inhibited by the long rippling grass that had made their descent at the start of the Impedimentum so arduous… but even despite the weeds and his burns, Calum would reach the finish line long before Ashton did if the Crown Prince didn’t do something to slow him down.

With barely a thought, Ashton flung his hand out and twisted his fingers, watching with satisfaction as a burst of blue flame snaked out in front of him, searing easily through the long grass as it cut off Calum’s path to the finish line. The younger boy stumbled to a stop, his eyes widening with shock for a moment before they narrowed as he turned to face his competitor, the barest hint of a smirk touching his lips.

Ashton had used the Prince’s momentary surprise to hurry closer but his face was paler as the pain rocketed through him, worsening with every step. When Calum threw his own palm out in answer, Ashton was too exhausted to do much more than flinch when a sudden wave of lake water crashed over him, throwing him off his feet.

He cursed as he smashed down onto his back, all of the air driven from his lungs as he slid painfully down the slope, his trembling fingers tearing uselessly at the grass. The pain in his spine was more urgent now, his eyes prickling with angry tears as he watched Calum hurtling up to the top of the hill, tearing at the weeds wrapping around his legs as he fought through them with renewed vigour.

Ashton tossed one last weak flame after the younger boy but it was no good. Calum extinguished it with a frustratingly lazy wave of his hand, the water spraying out from his fingertips and reducing the Crown Prince’s magic to steam. Calum didn’t even grace the older boy with a second glance as he sprinted over the finish line and Ashton cursed as he rolled over painfully onto his stomach, struggling onto his hands and knees in the wet grass. The only benefit of Calum half-drowning him was that the enchantment holding the plants no longer seemed to be working because the grass was docile now... unless it already knew that he'd lost the challenge. What was the point in trying to throttle him when he’d already humiliated himself in front of the planet?

Dimly, Ashton realised that the crowd was cheering for Calum, a hundred-thousand voices echoing deafeningly around the arena as his pulse finally calmed enough for the roar of blood to quieten. He could almost feel the shift of focus as the spectators watched Calum instead of him and that gave him the strength he needed to get his feet under him, a pained sound tearing itself free when he tried to straighten up. He’d definitely be spending the night in Niall’s medical bay but he couldn’t even bring himself to care when he was hurting this much.

One of the healers was approaching him tentatively now but Ashton shook his head sharply, refusing to show how vulnerable he felt until he’d finished this damn challenge once and for all.

The grass remained meek as he lurched up the hillside, his teeth gritted against the pain as his sweaty hair fell down into his eyes. His cheeks were streaked with tears and mud, and just a little blood, and his hands trembled with adrenaline and sheer exhaustion. He felt tired enough to sleep for ten years once this gruelling task was finally completed and the thought of rest – and hopefully some very strong pain relief – was what gave Ashton the final push he needed to limp over the finish line.

Almost the moment he’d finished the task, his knees gave way and he crumpled, doing nothing to save himself. He would’ve fallen flat on his face if a pair of arms hadn’t wrapped securely around him and he glanced up blearily at his saviour as they lay him down gently on the ground. He couldn’t make out who it was with how bright the lights were overhead; all he could see was a shock of dark hair and Ashton frowned groggily, too exhausted to force his eyes open wider.

“Cal?” he mumbled, his cheeks heating a little when he heard a gentle huff of laughter.

“Not quite, Ash,” a familiar voice said warmly and it took Ashton a moment to place it.

“Hey, Niall,” he mumbled, eyes sliding shut again. “I messed my back up.”

“You did a bit, yeah,” the older man said wryly. “You did great though, Ash… although really, jumping down from the barricade like that? You missed being my patient that much?”

“Shut up, Niall,” Ashton grimaced although he smiled a little when the dark-haired man unzipped the back of his suit, his palms settling lightly on his sore back. Warmth seeped through the muscles and Ashton relaxed as the pain faded. “Thank you,” he murmured, his cheeks heating a little when the older man zipped his suit back up, reminding him of the moment he’d shared with the Tenebran Prince before the task had started. “Is Cal okay?”

“On the whole, I think so,” Niall replied as he helped the Crown Prince into a sitting position. “He’s just getting healed himself although I think he wants to come over here. He just got told off for trying to escape.”

“That sounds like Cal,” Ashton admitted, laughing a little although he bit his lip nervously when he finally risked getting to his feet again. He was stunned when the crowd cheered for him too and his cheeks heated up embarrassingly when he turned in time to see Calum limping over, still sore and aching, and smiling his crinkly-eyed smile all the same.

“I’ll leave you two to it,” Niall muttered, patting Ashton briefly on the elbow. “Come to the medical bay tonight though, okay? We’ll make sure you did no lasting damage.”

With that, the healer departed, leaving Ashton to face Calum with a strange cocktail of guilt and eagerness flooding through him. The younger boy looked just as bone-tired as the Crown Prince but his dimples were still creasing his cheeks when he came to a stop in front of Ashton, his dark hair drying fluffy under the heat of the lights.

“Good job, Cal,” the older boy said warmly, pleasantly surprised that he felt no bitterness at all. “Knew you’d do amazing.”

“You gave me a run for my money,” Calum said fairly, his dark eyes twinkling. “What was with those bloody flowers though?! Damn, angel, give a guy some warning next time.”

“Not a chance, curly,” Ashton said smugly, reaching out to touch the younger boy’s soft hair before he thought better of it with so many eyes on them. “Can’t go helping my rival, can I? This is a competition after all.”

“So fraternising with the enemy is out of the question?” Calum asked innocently, his long eyelashes fluttering. Ashton huffed out an unwilling laugh, his cheeks heating as he blushed.

“You better hope the cameras can't pick up what we're saying,” Ashton said softly. “Or you’re in so much trouble.”

“Is that a promise?” Calum asked instantly, one hand settling on his hip as he cocked his head curiously. The older boy swallowed, his stomach filling once more with butterflies even as the weariness he could feel threatened to overwhelm him.

“I was sort of hoping you’d be able to tell me that actually,” Ashton murmured, his fingertip trailing teasingly over the younger boy’s chest as he sidled past him. “Maybe we should discuss this later, curly, without all these cameras. They might be a bit much, even for you.”

Calum pretended to be offended although the redness of his cheeks ruined it somewhat and Ashton grinned as he ambled away, heading for Sierra where she'd just appeared in front of him.

“Nice one, Your Illustriousness,” she said gleefully as he closed the distance between them. “Awesome job with the fire back there. I’m really proud of you.”

“Why thank you, Fearless Protector!” Ashton replied, almost giddy with relief now that the challenge was over. His dimples were creasing his cheeks so deeply that it ached a little. “I’m very glad I didn’t blow everyone up again.”

“Yeah, that would’ve sucked,” Sierra said solemnly although her eyes were still sparkling with pride. “You look like crap, Ash.”

“I feel it,” he said heavily but he was still smiling. “Can we leave now?”

“I think the judges need to do their thing first,” she said hesitantly. “Although it does seem a little redundant in this case. It seems mean pitting you against Calum when he has such long legs. You had no chance in a running race!”

“That’s how everyone will remember this terrible loss,” Ashton said, laying a hand dramatically over his heart as he let out a weak giggle. “Crown Prince Ashton failed because of his tiny legs.”

He was still grinning when Harry stepped down onto the arena floor, looking more fabulous than ever as his sparkling outfit glimmered under the lights. He was clutching another golden envelope - this one presumably containing the name of the champion who had won the challenge, not that anyone was in any doubt - and Ashton tuned out a little as he stood there before the judges, his hazel eyes flickering automatically towards Calum.

The younger boy was watching him too, his dark curls fluffier than ever, his bottom lip trapped between his teeth. His cheeks flushed prettily when Harry called out his name and the Tenebrans in the arena went wild, and Ashton couldn’t help himself when he reached to shake Calum’s hand, holding on for far longer than the situation warranted as the boys grinned at each other.

“Not bad, curly,” he murmured, his voice almost lost beneath the roar of the crowd. Calum smiled as the last of the reservation in his eyes melted away, leaving the chocolate brown shining underneath. He glowed under the blinding lights and Ashton was powerless to tear his gaze away from Calum’s beautiful face.

All he could think of was his lips brushing the younger boy’s cheek; Calum’s fingertips trailing teasingly across his skin; the heat in the Prince’s dark eyes on the night they’d first met.

He swallowed audibly, the flush spreading down his throat as he took a deep breath, willing himself to keep calm. Calum’s gaze flickered down to track the movement of his broad chest and Ashton’s smirk was impossible to suppress when the younger boy bit his lip again, his hands clenching reflexively at his sides like he was trying to keep himself from reaching for the Crown Prince.

Calum cocked his head to one side curiously when he caught the older boy’s gaze and Ashton hummed, pretending to consider it for a moment before he nodded fractionally as the butterflies in his stomach went wild.

The next quarter of an hour passed in a blur of applause and smiling faces; of healers ensuring they were uninjured and hydrated; of their friends and family rushing down to congratulate the pair of them before they were bundled back towards the changing rooms, ready for showers and clean clothes.

The hot water beating down on Ashton’s upturned face did nothing to calm his racing heart but he tried to keep his cool as he washed the grime away, relishing in the feeling of being clean once more. He could hear Calum showering in the cubicle next to him and it worried him just how distracting he found it; the thought of all that tanned skin, stretching uninterrupted for miles as the Prince’s hands slid over his skin and… fuck, Ashton wanted Calum to touch him like that.

He bit his knuckle to keep his whimper in but he wasn’t quick enough and he cringed when the water next door cut off suddenly. There was a moment of silence before Calum’s voice could be heard, muffled thanks to the panel separating them: “You okay in there, angel?”

Ashton’s hands were shaking when he turned his shower off too, his hazel eyes widening when he heard the creak of Calum’s cubicle door swinging open. Ashton reached for his towel clumsily, his heart pounding as he wrapped it around his waist, hoping it would do a good enough job of covering him. His red curls were damp, his bottom lip sore from how hard he’d been biting it.

He was blushing before he’d even opened his own door, his trembling hands knotted in the soft material of his towel as he dragged his gaze across Calum’s chest, taking in the water droplets clinging to the toned muscles before his eyes settled on the younger boy’s flushed face.

“Ash?” Calum whispered, like he was hardly daring to hope.

Cal,” Ashton whined and, somehow, that was all it took.

He wasn’t sure who’d moved first but the end result was the same: Calum’s fingers tangling reverently in the older boy’s wet hair as Ashton stretched up on his tiptoes to kiss him. It felt long overdue which might have explained why Ashton already felt so hot and he couldn’t resist parting his lips for Calum, so easy for it as the Prince walked him slowly back against the wall, his tongue stroking into the older boy’s mouth.

“Just say no if you want me to stop, angel,” Calum murmured when he broke away to breathe, his dark eyes glitter-soft as he gazed down at Ashton, taking in the Crown Prince’s parted lips and panting breaths. Ashton’s hands were resting warmly on the younger boy’s shoulders, a shudder running through him when Calum’s palm rubbed gently down the length of his scar, not scared at all of the old injury that had sent so many others running for the hills.

Calum looked at Ashton like he thought he was something beautiful; not someone to be feared or scorned.

“Please, Cal. I don’t want you to stop,” Ashton breathed, his voice breaking when the younger boy sucked a kiss into his throat, his tongue swiping hot over the skin. “Please.”

“I’ve got you, angel,” Calum whispered, his hand still smoothing comfortingly over the older boy’s spine as Ashton pressed up against him, wanting him closer. “You’re safe with me.”

He spread his palms greedily over Calum’s lower back, his cheeks heating with colour when he realised that there was no lock on the changing room door. Anyone could walk in and see them like this, tangled together against the wall with the younger boy’s fingers in Ashton’s hair and the older boy’s tongue sliding into Calum’s mouth, and the reality of someone catching them like this drew a moan from Ashton, the sound weak with lust.

“Cal,” he whimpered, voice cracking when the younger boy’s hands smoothed over his chest, his fingers dragging warmly over the tanned skin. “Cal, someone might see -”

“Yeah? You wanna stop?” Calum murmured, his hips rocking forwards teasingly for a moment as Ashton’s head hit the wall. A broken sound escaped him as his shaking hands fell clumsily to the younger boy’s waist and his cheeks flamed when he accidentally knocked Calum’s towel loose. It dropped down onto the damp tiles but the Prince didn’t seem bothered in the slightest, even despite the scars on his thighs... not that the older boy could blame him. If he’d looked the way Calum did naked, he would’ve been shameless too.

Ashton whined low in his throat when the younger boy pressed closer, clutching the Prince’s hips like he’d fall down without the contact. His eyes fluttered shut when Calum ducked down to kiss him, his fingers tangled in the vibrant red curls as his tongue slipped into the older boy’s mouth.

Calum’s hands on his skin felt like heaven and it was all Ashton could do to keep from moaning when the younger boy’s fingers drifted under his towel, his palms gliding smoothly over the older boy’s trembling thighs.

More,” Ashton pleaded, his eyes falling shut when the Prince dropped down to his knees in front of him with a smirk curving his full lips. Ashton’s heart felt like it was trying to force its way free from his ribcage with how hard it was pounding and he whimpered when the younger boy’s thumbs stroked over the sensitive skin of his inner thighs as he leant forwards to kiss Ashton’s hip. “Fuck, Cal, please.”

Calum grinned as he tugged the older boy’s towel away, his tongue darting out to wet his lips.

“Thought you’d never ask, angel.”

Chapter Text

I couldn't tell you why,

But I'm yours until I die.

- Fire Up The Night, New Medicine

 

A week had passed since the first task and their world had changed irrevocably once more. The Purgatio had attacked one of the busiest transport hubs in central Aureum and the city had ground to a halt as the Claritan Constabulary renewed their hunt for the ringleaders of the group who had now been branded as terrorists. Even within the walls of the palace, the air crackled with tension and the grimness had infected everyone, leaving them tired and stressed.

Laura spent most of her time in the gardens whenever she could escape from her healer training, much more comfortable under the vastness of the sky than trapped in the apartment, listening to the reporters on the comms channels detailing the Purgatio’s attack in horrible detail as her parents worried in low voices.

The sun was setting overhead now and the fiery skies smouldered as Laura lingered on the bench, her head bowed as her fair hair tumbled down around her shoulders. She was cold now after so long not moving but she was trying to hold off going inside for as long as she could, enjoying the breeze and the scent of pollen as she fiddled uneasily with the hem of her jumper.

The scars on her hands were painfully apparent in this light, even despite the fingerless gloves she was wearing, and she sighed heavily as she looked down at them, a frown creasing her forehead as she fought not to remember their making… but it grew harder with every passing day now, especially when the Purgatio were so active, and the news channels were drifting once more towards carnage and fear. Laura didn’t want to live through that again. She wasn’t sure she could.

The breeze stirred the tulips scattered through the grass around her and she watched them fondly for a moment. They hadn’t been present when she’d slipped outside after dinner but she was proud of how beautiful they were, each one a different rich hue as the sun finally sank beneath the horizon.

The soft sound of footsteps reached her ears and Laura turned her head sharply, relaxing when she saw that it was only Michael. He looked unusually timid as he picked his way towards her through the tulips, taking care not to crush any of them in the semi-darkness. His blond hair looked soft tonight, his emerald eyes tired and strained, just like everyone else’s in the palace.

She wanted to smooth the sadness from his features but she wasn’t sure it was possible, and something softened in her chest when she took in his chipped nail varnish and the way his oversized denim jacket fell down over his hands, making him appear smaller than he was.

“Evening, sparky,” Laura said softly as she tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “What colour are your sparks tonight?”

Michael smiled faintly as he dropped down onto the bench beside her, faintly amused by the now-familiar question. The older girl often greeted him like this nowadays and Michael had found that he quite liked it. No one else asked how he was feeling in such a casual manner, without making him feel ashamed or embarrassed, and the awe he felt lingered bittersweet in his face as Laura watched him, her heart aching as it became apparent once more just how emotionally isolated he had become after a childhood spent with the Tenebran King and Queen.

Michael twisted his fingers in the cool air hesitantly, trailing reddish-violet sparks that sputtered out before they touched the tulips. They were a very pretty colour but, by the slight tensing of the younger boy’s shoulders, Laura assumed they didn’t indicate anything particularly positive.

“Hungry?” she guessed jokingly, her voice soft. Michael huffed out a breathless laugh, hesitating for a moment before his head came to rest on the older girl’s shoulder, his soft hair brushing the underside of her jaw.

“Nervous,” he corrected softly. “Scared.”

“Why?” Laura whispered, her blue eyes sad as she took in the hastily-suppressed emotions simmering just below the surface on his pale face. All his life he’d been taught to hide his feelings and it hurt to see him struggling against those teachings now, his emerald eyes just a little too damp as he twisted on the bench to face her.

“I want to… to…” Michael’s voice broke off and he shot her a helpless look, clearly floundering. He seemed unused to someone paying him so much attention without expecting anything in return and it drew a sigh from Laura as she reached out cautiously, laying her palm gently across his overheated cheek.

He squeezed his green eyes tightly shut, revealing soft lavender lids as he swallowed audibly, his trembling fingers twisting in his lap. Laura smoothed her thumb soothingly over his cheekbone and he shivered in response, his long eyelashes fluttering when he braved meeting her gaze again.

“I want to kiss you,” he confessed, the words fast and small, like he was afraid she’d laugh at him if he spoke with more conviction. He looked ashamed and Laura's shoulders slumped a little as she reached up with her free hand to gently cradle his face, the touch soft enough that he calmed.

“Oh, Mikey,” she breathed as her long hair fluttered in the wind, her blue eyes growing damp. “You can kiss me. I’ve wanted it for weeks.”

A little shocked sound escaped him in the moments before their lips met and Laura sighed into it, her fingers tangling gently in the short hairs growing at the base of his skull. Michael kissed the way he laughed; so bright and bursting with joy, like the warmth inside him was overflowing.

The first stars had flickered to life when they finally parted, both of them blushing and breathless as their foreheads came to rest together. Neither of them were quite ready to break the contact just yet and Laura was glad she wasn’t the only one who felt strangely lost now that they were no longer kissing. She could see the same burn in Michael’s pretty eyes, still so close to her own, and she hummed as she stroked the pad of her thumb lightly over his bottom lip, relishing in the fact that she was actually allowed to do this now.

Michael had a pretty mouth, she decided, even if he did occasionally use it to make unnecessary comments which would probably have been better left unspoken. He couldn’t help it though. All his life he’d bottled everything up until it exploded out of him and, if Laura could ease that pressure even a tiny bit, she owed it to Michael to try. He was the only one who made her feel quite this relaxed and safe, even when the rest of the world was on fire around her.

Laura wanted to make his sparks glow pink again; wanted to fill him with happiness and not bitterness; wanted him to feel treasured the way he deserved to be.

“More than adequate, sparky,” she murmured, eyes twinkling. “Y’know, if you wanted to kiss me again, I totally wouldn’t hate that.”

Michael’s smile spread across his features like treacle, sweet and slow, and impossible to resist. He pressed a shy kiss to her lips, his emerald gaze glittering in the starlight as he bit the inside of his cheek, trying to keep from grinning.

“I’m so glad I flounced out of the apartment in a strop,” he muttered, smiling sheepishly. “I never would’ve been brave enough to do this otherwise.”

“I think you’re plenty brave,” Laura disagreed warmly as she reached to smooth his hair back from his forehead. He allowed it, his cheeks heating a little when she stroked his scalp lightly with her fingertips. “Why didn’t you wanna be inside tonight, sparky? Did something happen?”

Michael shrugged half-heartedly, his teeth worrying at his bottom lip although his nerves seemed to have deserted him now.

“Cal’s been in a weird mood since Joy and David left this morning,” the younger boy said hesitantly. “He disappeared after dinner so he's probably with Ashton somewhere… and Mali’s being grouchy because her ex-girlfriend Ashley has been assigned as some sort of bodyguard for the Hood siblings which… y’know… is kind of awkward.”

“She’s not your bodyguard too?” Laura asked curiously, a faint frown on her face. Michael smiled humourlessly as his emerald gaze dropped down to the flowers swaying gently beneath them.

“I’m not royalty, Laura,” he said without making eye contact, his tone bitter. “I don’t think I matter enough to warrant that.”

“Well, you should do,” the older girl said softly, trying to hide how upset she felt at the unhappiness saturating his expression. “You matter a lot, Mikey. You always have done.”

“It’s not important anyway,” he said quietly, clearly uncomfortable with the conversation. His pale cheeks were flushed with blood when he forced himself to meet her gaze, his blond hair soft as it fell back down over his forehead. “I just didn’t want to stay inside with all the drama tonight. I’m too tired to try and keep everyone else happy.” He hesitated, biting his lip guiltily like he was worried he sounded cruel. “Do… do you ever feel like that?”

“All the time,” Laura reassured him softly. “Sometimes you just need to look after yourself instead.”

Michael didn’t respond but his head returned to settle gently in the curve of her neck and the older girl let out the breath she’d been holding, her hand trembling a little as she reached to tangle their fingers together securely. She pressed a soft kiss to his hair and Michael snuggled closer as the night sky darkened overhead, unwilling to leave any space between them at all.

“You were having a bad night before I came over, weren't you?” he asked suddenly, his words seemingly coming from nowhere at all. Laura glanced down at him in surprise, one eyebrow rising curiously.

“How’d you work that one out, sparky?” she murmured, unwilling to confirm his suspicions. He had enough to be getting on with without worrying about her as well… although maybe he’d do that anyway. Maybe she should give him the choice instead of keeping her emotions a secret, the way she’d done with Luke.

“Your gloves gave you away,” Michael said softly, his fingertip gently brushing the knitted material covering her scarred hands. “You only wear them when you’re feeling shitty about yourself.”

Laura blinked at him wordlessly, unsure of how to respond. He’d hit the nail on the head there and had proved himself to be a lot more perceptive than she’d given him credit for, and she eyed him silently, taking in the worry lingering in his pretty eyes and the indentations his teeth had left in his bottom lip.

“I don’t feel like that now,” she said honestly, leaning over for one last lingering kiss. “That’s thanks to you, sparky.”

She tugged the gloves off determinedly, stowing them in her pocket and gasping softly when Michael caught her hands gently between his own, raising them to brush his lips lightly over her knuckles.

“You’re the loveliest person I’ve ever met,” he murmured, his eyes damp with tears. “My mum would’ve loved you.”

“Well,” Laura said faintly, her heart rising into her throat. “If your mum was anything like you, I probably would’ve loved her too.”

Michael gave her a watery smile, squeezing her hand gently as a tear slid down his cheek. Laura was kind enough not to mention it.

“Are you cold?” he asked sympathetically, the question taking her by surprise. “You look cold.”

He’d already shrugged out of his jacket before the older girl could do much more than shrug and she smiled fondly when he draped the warm denim around her shoulders, his thumb stroking briefly over the nape of her neck.

“We should get you inside,” Michael said softly, wrongly assuming that Laura’s shiver was a product of the plummeting temperature and not him touching her skin. “You wanna come back to our apartment?” he suggested shyly, his cheeks heating as he scuffed the toe of his trainer in the grass. “We could watch a film if you like.” He bit his lip suddenly, his eyes meeting hers before they flickered away nervously again. “Cal won’t be around but Mali’s there and… well, I think she could do with the company tonight.”

Laura softened from within the confines of his denim jacket, her lips curving up into a soft smile at the affection lingering on his pale face.

“They’re really like your family, aren’t they?” she realised, her hand painted silver beneath the moonlight as she reached to stroke his cheek gently. Michael shrugged bashfully.

“They’re all I’ve got left,” he said honestly, his words bleak but his tone undoubtedly loving. His smile grew when Laura tangled their fingers together firmly, his emerald eyes glitter-soft in the darkness.

“I’ll come over to watch a film on one condition,” the older girl said lightly as she rose from the bench, holding the denim closer when it threatened to slip. “Do you have good snacks at the apartment?”

Michael relaxed visibly, a soft laugh escaping him although he was quick to rearrange his expression into something more serious.

“I have the best snacks,” he said solemnly, even as his eyes sparkled with mischief and fondness. “Will you do me the honour of accompanying me?” he asked teasingly and Laura couldn’t have resisted even if she’d wanted to; not when he was watching her so hopefully.

“C’mon then, sparky,” she agreed, her smile lighting her face. “Lead the way.”

*

They’d been doing this for a week now and Calum was sure he’d never tire of it. He loved the sounds Ashton made when he arched up under the Prince; loved the older boy’s hands slipping clumsily over his ribs as their hips rocked together, gasping into each other’s mouths in the moments before they fell apart.

It was already dark outside, the stars glittering across the velvet black as Ashton slumped down against the younger boy’s chest, still shivering weakly at the pleasure burning through him. Calum closed his eyes contentedly, one arm slung lazily over the Crown Prince’s scarred back as Ashton pressed a chaste kiss to his shoulder, his hazel eyes sparkling through the darkness.

“That was fun, curly,” he said, giggling breathlessly when Calum patted his bum. “We should do that again sometime.”

“Should’ve known you’d like that,” Calum grinned, covering his eyes with his wrist for a moment as he inhaled heavily. “You’ll have to give me a minute though, angel. You’re insatiable! You’ve tired me out.”

“You have nice hands,” Ashton said, shrugging innocently as his kiss-bitten lips twitched into a smile. “I can’t help that, Cal.”

“Well, there’s plenty more where that came from if you’re good,” Calum murmured slyly, his dark eyes glinting through the shadows when Ashton snuggled up beside him, tucking his head neatly beneath the younger boy’s chin.

“I’m always good,” Ashton said dismissively. “How could you ever think otherwise?”

Calum rubbed his hand gently down the warm skin of the older boy’s back, dropping sleepy kisses to the red curls as the Crown Prince let out a soft yawn. The only light in the room came from a tank set against the far wall, the clear water casting faint ripples on the ceiling as the shimmering fish inside explored their brightly-coloured coral reef.

Ashton watched the tank for a moment, his pretty eyes reflecting the flickering colours as Calum gazed down at him in wonder, his heart too big for his chest. Ashton hummed with satisfaction when the younger boy’s palm smoothed down his spine, his thumb stroking each vertebrae as the Crown Prince stretched out against him, utterly content.

It was quiet in Ashton’s bedroom, at least until his comm chimed on the bedside table and Calum passed it to him wordlessly, not wanting the older boy to stretch and hurt the healing muscles in his back. Ashton’s face creased when he read the news headline scrolling across the screen and he shivered as the colour drained from his face.

“Angel?” Calum asked tentatively, his teeth sinking into his bottom lip as he watched the anxiety blooming on the older boy’s face. “Angel, what is it?”

“The Purgatio…” Ashton’s words sounded slightly strangled, his hazel eyes panicked as his comm dropped onto the rumpled sheets through limp fingers. “There… there was an attack.”

“I’m sorry, Ash, I thought you’d heard,” Calum said sorrowfully, his gaze soft as he reached for the older boy’s hand. His heart ached at the agonised tears sliding down Ashton’s cheeks and he wished so badly that he could make things right again but… he didn’t know how. “They attacked the transport hub this morning, right?” the Prince asked softly, just for something to fill the silence. “It was horrible.”

“There’s been another attack,” Ashton said faintly as his shaking hand tangled in his curls, leaving them in disarray. “It’s really close to here, Cal. They hit the Lumen Centre.”

He lurched off the bed suddenly, a ragged gasp tearing out of him like he couldn’t stand to be trapped in his bedroom anymore. The balcony doors swung open silently under his shaking hand and Calum felt small where he was still kneeling on the bed, one trembling fist knotted in the blankets as the anxiety tightened around his lungs.

The water in the fish tank was churning violently behind him and Calum forced himself to take a deep breath as he scrambled to his feet, rubbing his temples for a moment as he focused on uncoiling the magic boiling in his veins. The bubbling water calmed to gentle waves and Calum let out a weak sigh of relief, padding out onto the balcony behind Ashton where the older boy was peering towards the horizon, his face grey with dread.

“I can see it from here, Cal,” Ashton said bleakly, shaking badly as he pointed towards the faint flicker of flames burning on the horizon. There were various aircraft arriving at the scene now, their searchlights cutting through the darkness as they searched for survivors and any members of the Purgatio who might have remained on the scene.

The Prince wrapped his arms gently around the older boy’s waist, their warm skin pressing together against the chill of the evening as they both stared at the destruction. Calum ached as he thought about how many people must have been caught up in the attack; as he remembered the smiling staff in their horrible waistcoats and how happy he’d felt that night when he’d been lucky enough to meet Ashton.

“It’s quite late,” Calum whispered hopelessly, his heart breaking in his chest. “Maybe no one was at the Lumen Centre when it was hit?”

“There was a premiere tonight,” Ashton breathed as his eyes slid shut against the boiling tears. “I was invited but I… I didn’t want to go.” He shuddered as a sob tore out of him, his words weak with anguish. “The Purgatio planned this well.”

A sizzling sound broke the devastated silence that had fallen and Calum flinched as he held the older boy closer to his chest, his dark eyes widening as he searched for wherever the noise was coming from. Ashton’s shoulders slumped as he turned in the younger boy’s arms, exhausted now as he pressed a weary kiss to the Prince’s shoulder.

“It’s just the forcefields, Cal,” he said heavily, his eyelashes spiky with tears. “The guards will be strengthening them with charms... until the danger has passed.”

Calum looked up curiously at the older boy’s words, watching as the air itself seemed to ripple overhead, the spells powerful enough that the sky was left shining faintly purple as the sizzling sound slowly faded away to nothing. The hairs on the back of Calum’s neck rose with the strength of the energy crackling in the air overhead and Ashton seemed small in his arms, a soft sigh escaping him as his arms wrapped securely around the younger boy’s waist.

“We need to go inside,” Calum said softly, his face crumpling a little when the scent of smoke reached them faintly on the breeze. “It’s too cold out here, angel. You’re shivering.”

“Who cares if I’m shivering?” Ashton muttered, hiding his tears in the warm skin of the younger boy’s chest. “People have died, Cal.”

“And you won’t be one of them,” Calum replied, surprising himself with his fierceness. “Not if I have anything to do with it. Now come inside before you freeze to death.”

Calum kept his arms wrapped securely around the older boy’s waist as he led him back into his bedroom, nudging the balcony doors shut with his foot before he slumped down onto the bed, drawing Ashton stiffly down with him. Calum eased the blankets over them with difficulty and, after a moment, the Crown Prince finally let himself relax.

His damp cheeks glimmered in the light from the fish tank and Calum thumbed the tears away gently, feeling a lump rise in his throat at the sadness on the older boy’s face. He couldn’t imagine how awful it must feel to survive a war, only to be greeted with the same carnage back home too. He wanted Ashton to stop hurting but he wasn’t sure that was achievable tonight.

Maybe all he could do was hold the Crown Prince close enough that he wasn’t alone when he fell to pieces.

Maybe their shared anguish was all Calum could hope for.

He wasn’t sure what he’d expected when he’d flown to Claritas for the Elevare but it hadn’t been this: lying heartbroken on the Crown Prince’s bed with a sobbing Ashton Irwin in his arms, full of fear and self-loathing… but there was love too, smouldering just below the surface, and Calum was determined to keep it burning.

No matter how dark things got, he was going to be the light that brought Ashton back home again.

Calum was going to keep him safe.

*

The news of the Purgatio’s latest attack had left Niall on edge.

His apartment was silent, save for the comms screen mounted on the wall in his tiny kitchen currently playing a news bulletin. The grim-faced reporter was detailing the destruction of the Lumen Centre and Niall looked down at the meal he’d been preparing distastefully before he tipped the food shakily into the recycling bin. Somewhere between hearing the death toll and learning that the terrorists had escaped detection, he’d lost his appetite.

The palatial estate gardens looked dark through his window and Niall gazed out at them for a moment, fighting not to comprehend what the flickering amber light on the horizon meant as his arms came to wrap around himself protectively. He knew there were hospitals and medical centres much closer to the Lumen Centre than here but he still wondered vaguely if he’d be called in to help. He bit his lip as he glanced unwillingly towards the comms screen where the first footage from the scene was being broadcast across Cerasus.

The building was a mess of mangled metal and shattered glass, and Niall felt faintly sick as he switched the screen off, his pained blue eyes sliding shut for a moment. The carnage reminded him of the Boneflats; of that soul-deep ache he’d felt at watching people get hurt and being unable to save them, no matter how much it tore him up inside.

Niall couldn’t stand to watch other people suffering, especially when it was within his powers to heal them.

A soft knock on the door startled him and he approached it warily, surprised that he had an unexpected visitor so late at night. He wasn’t especially worried – enough guards filled the corridors that his safety was all but assured – but he was still frowning weakly as he reached for the handle.

He could sense the person on the other side; could feel an echo of their loneliness and the deep ache they felt that indicated they’d been unhappy for a long time. There was an underlying warmth though; a gentle burn of love and the fear of craving something frightening, and as soon as Niall identified this, he already knew who was waiting for him on the other side.

“Hey, Lukey,” he murmured as he pulled the door open, softening at the sight of the younger boy’s damp hair and tired eyes. “How’re you doing, darling?” The pet name rolled off his tongue unthinkingly but he felt Luke’s surprised happiness before the pretty blush heated the younger boy’s cheeks so Niall didn't worry too much.

“I… I don’t know,” Luke said honestly, shrugging half-heartedly before he folded his arms protectively across his chest. “I just heard the news and…” He fell suddenly silent, biting his bottom lip hard as his cheeks flamed hotter. “I just came here without thinking.”

“You’re in your pyjamas. You’re not even wearing shoes,” Niall said lightly, aiming for a teasing tone which fell woefully flat as he opened the door wider, beckoning for Luke to come into the warm.

“I was scared,” the younger boy admitted quietly, embarrassed but earnest. “You always make me feel safe, Ni.”

Niall’s heart felt too big for his chest as he turned away to lock the door securely, aware that Luke’s gaze was fixed on his back. He could feel the younger boy watching him as he processed Luke’s tangled emotions; the nervous butterflies and the hopefulness, and the hastily suppressed urge to reach out for the older man… to hold him closer… to kiss him -

Niall blinked in surprise, carefully schooling his expression into something milder as he turned to give Luke a tired smile. His unexpected house guest still looked shaken up by the evening’s events and Niall figured that was why his emotions were running so high right now. Luke just needed someone to take care of him.

“Why don’t you go and make yourself comfy?” Niall suggested quietly, his blue eyes soft as he took in the way the younger boy was shivering. “I’ll find you something warmer to wear and make you a hot drink, yeah? Would that help?”

“It would,” Luke murmured, his shy smile hidden as he bit his thumbnail nervously. “Thank you, Ni.”

“Anything for you, Lukey,” Niall said unthinkingly, the words true even if they maybe shouldn’t have been. “I won’t be long.”

He left the younger boy sitting cross-legged on the sofa, his fingers tangling uneasily in his lap as he glanced out at the faint purplish tinge of the forcefield stretching overheard. It didn’t take Niall more than a few minutes to fetch a spare hoodie and brew the younger boy a mug of tea but he still felt bad for leaving Luke alone, especially when he could sense how anxious he still was.

“There you go,” Niall said, bundling the hoodie up into a loose ball before he tossed it at the younger boy. It mussed Luke’s hair up and he squawked indignantly before a crooked smile tugged at his lips, burning the sadness away for a moment as he struggled into the warm garment. “Let me just grab your drink. Then you’ll warm up in no time.”

Luke went pink when Niall sat down on the sofa beside him, their blue eyes meeting for a moment before the younger boy dropped his gaze timidly, tucking his face away into the confines of the hoodie. He inhaled deeply and Niall felt the moment when Luke identified the scent as ‘home’ with a jarring feeling in his chest that threatened to take his breath away.

“Drink your tea, Lukey,” the older man said weakly as his heart fluttered at how ridiculously easy it was to work out what the younger boy was thinking. Niall hadn’t been lying to Calum that day in the gym when he’d insisted that he couldn’t read thoughts. Usually his abilities only allowed him a brief taste of what someone was feeling but Luke’s emotions were reaching him with astonishing clarity, and Niall wondered why that was.

The younger boy was watching him owlishly over the rim of his mug, his cold feet tucked beneath Niall’s thigh as the older man patted his ankle comfortingly. Luke was burrowed warmly inside the hoodie now, looking smaller than the healer would have believed possible as he let his head come to rest lightly on Niall’s shoulder.

It was quiet in the living room, the lamplight golden as the quiet sound of footsteps could be heard briefly from one of the corridors upstairs. The blanket from the back of the sofa was soft when Niall draped it carefully over their legs and Luke hummed in contentment as he snuggled closer into the older man’s side, his lips brushing chastely over the healer’s shoulder for a moment, fleeting enough that it could have been passed off as an accident if Niall hadn’t felt the thrill sending the younger boy’s heart racing in his chest.

“Lukey,” he said faintly, his eyes widening although he kept his gaze fixed on the night sky through his window. “Lukey, what are you thinking?”

“Can’t you guess that for yourself?” Luke asked softly, his tone taking on a mischievous note as he cocked his head curiously. “I thought this was your area of specialty.” The younger boy seemed so much more comfortable now and, for just a moment, the healer remembered that evening when he’d found Luke hidden inside the tree; remembered the younger boy’s tear-streaked face and the way his voice had shaken when he’d called Niall ‘sweet’.

“My abilities don’t work the same around you,” the older man said hesitantly, his brow creasing a little when Luke held his gaze, his caramel-coloured curls falling messily across his forehead as he warmed his hands on the mug.

“What do you mean, Ni?” he asked quietly, his tone perplexed. “You can’t tell what I’m feeling or…?”

“No, Lukey,” Niall said, his gaze dropping to the faded blanket as his teeth sank nervously into his bottom lip. “I… I can feel so much more than I ever have before.” He fell silent though, not wanting to say anything else in case Luke realised how the healer felt and wrongly assumed that he owed Niall anything.

“Does that mean… wait, can you tell what I’m thinking?” the younger boy asked curiously, not looking frightened but captivated instead.

“Flashes of it,” Niall admitted uncomfortably, his cheeks heating a little when he met the younger boy’s awed gaze as Luke shakily set his mug down on the coffee table.

“Tell me, Ni,” he murmured as his trembling hands reached to cover the older man’s. “Tell me what I’m feeling.”

Niall watched him helplessly for a moment before he took a deep breath, trying to calm himself as he focused on the trust in the younger boy’s beautiful eyes.

“You feel tired,” he began quietly, his tone soft. “You couldn’t sleep last night because… because you were upset...” Luke paled a little when the older man’s voice trailed away but he was still holding Niall’s hands tightly and the healer felt a lump rise in his throat as he delved deeper, his heart aching at what he discovered. “You… you stayed up late because you…” Niall broke off, a tear sliding down his cheek as he identified the sharp stinging pain emanating from the younger boy’s wrists and the bitter twist to his expression.

“Oh, darling, no,” Niall breathed when Luke crumpled, burying his face in his shaking hands. The shame searing through the younger boy was painful and Niall cringed at the strength of it as he drew Luke gently into his arms, not knowing how else to comfort him.

A wind whistled through the room, growing with the younger boy’s anguish as it stirred the blanket and rustled the pages of a magazine left lying on the coffee table. The breeze tousled Luke’s curls messily and Niall smoothed them down as best he could, murmuring soft nothings under his breath as his palms came to settle lightly on the younger boy’s arms through the hoodie he’d borrowed.

It was easy for Niall to locate the cuts now that he knew they were there and, although the knowledge that they were self-inflicted was terrible, the wounds were easy to heal. It was a simple matter to push the warmth of his magic out through his palms and Luke gasped quietly as he felt the stinging pain fade to nothing at all.

He rolled the sleeves of the hoodie back with shaking hands, his golden eyelashes spiky with tears as he stared down at the pale skin of his wrists in shock. Only the barest hint of silvery scars could be seen now and Niall wanted to feel happy that the younger boy looked so wonderstruck but he ached too badly at the knowledge of what Luke had done to himself.

Niall covered the younger boy's bare wrist gently with his palm, not missing the way Luke shivered as he leant forwards to rest his forehead on the healer’s shoulder.

“Do you really hate yourself this much, Lukey?” Niall asked weakly, his cheeks still sticky with tears as he stared down miserably at the faint scars crisscrossing the younger boy's arms. He was so caught up that it startled him when Luke gently touched his jaw, his fingertips brushing the warm skin fleetingly before his courage failed him.

“I don't remember to hate myself at all when I'm with you,” Luke breathed, his words almost too soft to hear. “Sometimes you make me want to love myself instead.” He smiled suddenly, watery and small. “Told you that you made me feel safe, Ni.”

He was still resting in the older man's lap, his head tucked neatly into the curve of the healer's neck as he sighed at the relaxing feeling of Niall gently stroking his back.

“Do you get lonely living here by yourself, Ni?” Luke asked quietly, the question taking him by surprise as much as Niall. The older man shrugged uneasily, his mouth turning down at the corners.

“Sometimes,” he said carefully, his brow creasing. “Why do you ask?”

“Because I get lonely too,” Luke said, like that much wasn't painfully obvious from the scars lining his arms. He seemed to be holding his breath for a moment before he released it in a gust, his tired eyes sparkling faintly. “Maybe we should be lonely together.”

“Oh yeah?” Niall murmured, smiling weakly. “What did you have in mind?”

“Sleepover?” Luke seemed to be trying to play the suggestion off as a joke but Niall hadn't been exaggerating at how attuned he was to the younger boy's emotions and he could have detected the gleam of hope from a mile away.

“You mean… you want to stay here tonight?” he asked hesitantly, leaving his dark hair rumpled when he rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly. “You're sure? I'm… I’m kind of boring, Lukey.”

“You're not. Don't say that,” Luke chided gently, the sheer fondness he could feel taking the older man's breath away for a moment. He looked so adamant that Niall's lips twitched into an unconscious smile at the younger boy's determination.

“We'll, if you're sure, Lukey,” he said slowly. “Make sure you tell your parents though, yeah?”

Luke flushed, looking nothing short of offended.

“I'm not a child, Ni,” he said pointedly, his expression wounded.

“No, you’re not,” Niall agreed without missing a beat. “But there’s just been another attack, remember? You don’t want them worrying about you unnecessarily.”

“Okay,” Luke said softly, looking mollified. “I guess you’re right.” He reached into his pocket for his comm, tapping out a quick message as his pretty eyes flickered across the screen. Niall couldn’t tear his gaze away, too caught up in the rosy undertone of the younger boy’s skin and the way he smiled shyly when he noticed the older man watching him.

“I noticed something else you were thinking too, Lukey,” Niall said suddenly, before he could overthink it. He was no longer afraid of sharing his growing feelings because all this evening had done was highlight just how badly Luke needed to feel loved… and Niall could give him that. He certainly wanted to anyhow. “You… you want me, don't you? I felt it.”

The silence was broken by the younger boy's shocked gasp as he stared at the healer with wide eyes. His face paled as he tensed, clearly bracing himself for rejection, and Niall reached to cradle his cheek wordlessly, smothering his own trepidation because Luke was so much more important. He needed the older man to be brave.

“I want that too, darling,” Niall said softly, smiling sadly at the stunned disbelief growing on the younger boy's face. “This doesn't have to change things though. I want you to be happy and comfortable over everything else so please don't think I'd ever expect anything from you, okay? I just want to take care of you.”

“Well, what if I want to kiss you?” Luke blurted out before his cheeks flamed scarlet. Niall smiled, his heart skipping a beat in his chest at the want burning in the younger boy’s eyes.

“Has to be your choice, Lukey,” he said calmly, giving an easy-going shrug.

“And what if I want you to make other choices?” Luke asked in a softer voice, his implication clear by the blush spreading down his throat as he swallowed reflexively. His hand twitched like he wanted to reach for the older man but had lost his nerve and Niall laced their fingers together firmly, his blue eyes sparkling.

“Slowly, darling,” he cautioned gently, still smiling. “We have all the time in the world.”

“I want you now,” Luke mumbled, his emotions a confusing whirl of guilt and desire. The older man leant closer, pressing a soft kiss to the younger boy’s forehead when he felt the fear freezing him too. Niall lingered, his fingers still combing gently through Luke's soft curls as he used his empathic abilities in a way he usually avoided: to project his feelings instead of trying to read someone else’s so that the younger boy would know he wasn’t alone.

Luke gasped when he felt it, fluttering like a butterfly on the fringes of his consciousness; all of Niall’s warmth and fondness wrapping tenderly around him, impossible to mistake for anything but what might one day become love.

The surprised sound that escaped the younger boy was unbearably sweet but Niall’s smile hadn’t even touched his lips when Luke closed the distance between them, his pretty eyes falling shut as he drew the healer into a clumsy but enthusiastic kiss. Niall melted into it for a moment, his hands rising to tangle lightly in the younger boy’s curls as Luke’s arms wrapped around his shoulders, still pillowed comfortably on the older man’s thighs.

“Relax, Lukey,” Niall murmured when the younger boy drew back to breathe, two spots of colour high in his cheeks as his heart raced. His lust and surprise were painfully apparent, and Niall stroked his back soothingly, pressing his lips fondly to the caramel-coloured curls. “Let’s not rush into anything, darling, okay? We can take as long as you need.”

“I need you,” Luke said honestly as his eyes sparkled in the lamplight. “For as long as you want me.”

“Always then,” Niall said, smiling faintly when the younger boy’s fingers threaded gently through his dark hair. “I’ll always want you.” He brightened for a moment, an impish glint entering his eyes. “After all, I can't very well be lonely alone, can I?” he asked teasingly.

Luke rolled his eyes before his grin softened; became sweeter and more sincere as he coaxed the older man into a lingering kiss, tender and sure, like a promise.

*

Mali had grown so used to being someone Ashley loved that it felt strange to feel so uneasy around her now. Her heart still raced whenever their eyes met but it was accompanied with nerves this time around and it was distinctly unpleasant.

She hid her unhappiness behind her mug, taking a sip of coffee as she drew her feet up under her on the sofa, keeping her gaze carefully averted from her ex-girlfriend. It was easier to ignore her now that Michael had brought Laura back to the apartment and Mali was grateful for that as she watched the pair of them sitting snuggled up together nearby. A film was playing on the comm but they were both largely ignoring it, more focused on their entwined fingers and murmured conversation as they passed a bag of sweets between them.

Mali hadn’t been sure what to make of the eldest Hemmings sibling at first but Laura was definitely growing on her, especially now that she could see how content she made Michael. Happiness was an all-too-rare emotion for the younger boy and it meant a lot to see him so comfortable now, even in the wake of another of the Purgatio’s attacks.

“You weren’t kidding about having good snacks,” Laura smiled, laughing softly when Michael popped another sweet into his mouth before letting his head fall to rest on the fair-haired girl’s shoulder.

“I wish they made these in Tenebris,” he said wistfully. “I’ll have to take a shipment back with me when we leave here. I’m not sure I can live without them now.” His expression soured at the mention of returning home and Mali filed that away for reflection later, taking a thoughtful sip of her drink as her eyes flickered to the film playing on the comm.

It was a romance she’d watched with Ashley when they’d first started dating, long before the Boneflats War had torn everything apart, and the Princess winced as she remembered that evening they’d spent together; the lingering touches and the way Ashley’s dark eyes had fluttered shut when Mali had finally garnered enough courage to kiss her for the first time.

She glanced towards the younger girl unconsciously, her heart aching when she found Ashley gazing back at her, her expression inscrutable as she sat stiffly in the armchair opposite. Her pale skin shone faintly lilac in the light of the forcefield through the window, her hair no longer a stunning aqua but dark now, just like the rest of her.

Ashley was like a slate that had been wiped clean and Mali was powerless to bring her back, no matter how much it hurt.

The younger girl was still dressed in her uniform, her mouth turned down unhappily at the corners as she watched the pain rippling across the Princess’ face. It made a lump rise in Mali’s throat and she fought it down, her dark eyes prickling as she dragged her gaze frantically back to Michael and Laura.

“What are you two talking about?” she asked, her tone just a little bit desperate. Ashley stiffened out of the corner of her eye and Mali pressed her lips together hard, trying to focus on the shifting metal of her bracelets and not how badly she wanted to cry right now.

“Laura was just telling me she’s never seen this film before,” Michael said with a shrug, his lips curving up faintly at the fair-haired girl although his brow creased when he noticed how miserable Mali looked. “I was surprised because I thought everyone had seen ‘Love Comes Knocking’ but apparently not.”

“Well, sorry to disappoint, sparky,” Laura joked softly, looking a little awkward although her expression remained fond. “I was on the Boneflats at the time. We didn’t exactly have time for film nights.”

“Oh.” Michael bit his lip, paling visibly as he scratched the back of his neck. “I’m sorry, petal. We don’t have to talk about this if you don’t feel like it.”

“I don’t mind,” Laura said quietly, giving a half-hearted shrug although she was blushing visibly as she tilted her head at the younger boy. “Did you just call me petal?” Her voice was soft and incredibly fond, and Michael flushed crimson as he shot her a panicked glance.

“Um,” he said intelligently, his bleached blond hair sticking up messily where he’d raked his fingers through it. “I mean I… I just… uh… sorry?”

“Didn’t say I didn’t like it, sparky,” Laura pointed out quietly, worrying at her bottom lip with her teeth. “I really don’t mind talking about the war with you though. You make me feel okay about it somehow… so you shouldn’t worry.”

Michael was still staring at her silently, apparently coming up blank at how to respond to the kindness she’d just shown him after what he was viewing as a mistake, and the Princess liked watching the wonder in his eyes as Laura gave his hand a comforting squeeze. The pair looked like they needed to be alone.

“I’ll wash these cups up,” Mali said awkwardly, gathering their empty mugs from the table and carrying them swiftly towards the kitchen counters edging the opposite wall. She tensed a little when Ashley sidled after her, clearly not wanting to be left alone with Michael and Laura as they quietly began to speak once more.

“You need any help?” Ashley asked softly, her short hair barely brushing the line of her jaw as she watched Mali leaning heavily against the counter.

“You’re our bodyguard now, Ash,” Mali said sharply, hating the way the nickname rolled so easily off her tongue. “You’re not a servant.” The younger girl was still watching her, her lips pursed as a frown creased her brow. The Princess sighed softly. “It’s only two cups. I’m perfectly capable.”

“I brought yours out too actually,” Ashley said helpfully. Mali rolled her eyes, unsure whether to smile or cry.

“Three, then,” she amended heavily as she dropped the cups into the sink, opting to wash them by hand rather than use the dishwasher since that might at least keep her distracted for a few minutes. Mali hung her head as she waited for the water to fill the bowl, her dark hair tumbling down to hide her face as Ashley leant against the counter beside her, the tension between them undeniable.

Mali could just make out Michael and Laura’s voices over the noise of the tap, still holding each other’s hands as the fair-haired girl quietly explained how she’d ended up on the Boneflats. It seemed a mixture of her desire to do the right thing and her determination to support Ashton through anything, regardless of the danger.

“Luke wanted to fight too,” Laura continued, her tone growing sad now as Michael pressed a chaste kiss to her hair. “He was too young and… and he won’t talk about it but I know he hates himself for not going. He feels like he’s let everyone down.”

“I’m sorry, petal,” Michael breathed, only audible because the sound of the water falling had finally ceased. “But… he’s a bit happier now, isn’t he? Niall seems to be doing a good job of cheering him up.”

“Yeah, he is.” Laura frowned for a moment before she shrugged, her features smoothing as she smiled at him. “Did you know Niall was the one who fixed Ash up so that he could walk again? He’d been serving in the medical branch just like me; he got transferred back early when they brought Ash home. Niall’s the best there is.”

“Then I’m glad he could be there,” Michael said but there was something in his tone that sounded faintly pained now. “I… I know how Luke feels, I think. It never sat right with me that I couldn’t do my bit for the war effort.” Laura must have shot him a quizzical look because Michael sighed, his words coming out muffled for a moment like he was biting his lip. “David and Joy… well, they never would’ve risked their kids’ lives - not even mine - for victory. All of us wanted to go but… well, they said no.” His voice dropped then, almost too soft for Mali to hear. “I guess they’re selfish but… it feels wrong to think that of them, especially after everything they’ve done for me.”

Michael wasn’t saying anything she hadn’t thought herself before but it stung to hear those words said out loud. The metal of her bracelets slipped down to her fingertips, twisting into spiked claws that did very little to make her feel better. Ashley was staring at her now, her dark eyes widening with shock and… pleading?

Mali didn’t understand why and her confusion must have shown on her face because the younger girl softened, her palm settling on the Princess’ arm for a moment, uncaring of the bubbles clinging to her tanned skin.

“You never told me the reason you didn’t join up,” Ashley said weakly, her eyes gleaming wetly when Mali pulled away from her, still too proud and stubborn to admit the truth even now.

“You never asked me,” she said instead, because being prickly and defensive was easier than being vulnerable.

“Mali -”

What?!” the older girl demanded, hissing the words because she didn’t particularly want to air her dirty laundry in front of Michael and Laura. “You thought I was too lazy? That I didn’t care enough? I fucking love Tenebris, Ashley! If you think I didn’t beg my parents to let me go with you then you didn’t know me after all, did you?”

“Mali, please, I’m sorry -”

“It’s too late!” Mali snapped, cringing when she realised how loud her voice had risen. Three pairs of eyes were locked on her tear-streaked face now and she grimaced as she dried her hands mechanically on her jeans before grabbing her comm from the counter. “I’m going out for a walk. Don’t follow me.”

“I’m supposed to take care of you,” Ashley whispered, her voice thick with tears.

“Well, Calum’s already disappeared somewhere,” Mali said nastily. “You’re not doing a very good job, are you?”

Ashley flinched, even though she must’ve been able to tell that the older girl was only being harsh because she was upset.

“Tear my head off if you want, Mali,” she said softly. “I’m still coming with you.”

Mali strode out into the corridor outside without looking at her, her long hair fanning out behind her as she stalked away. Ashley kept step with her easily, passing the older girl her jacket wordlessly when the Princess shivered. Mali slipped her arms through the sleeves with a grunt of thanks, embarrassed and upset, and hating how strained things felt now.

Once upon a time, she’d imagined that she’d be with Ashley forever; that they’d spend the rest of their lives together, so in love that nothing else mattered. Ashley had always deserved to be loved like that but circumstances had torn them apart and… and here they were years later, shoved together like two mismatched puzzle pieces that would never fit together again, no matter how hard they tried to force it.

“I wish I hated you,” Mali said unthinkingly, her feet faltering beneath her when they reached the entrance hall. It was cold and dark outside, the purplish hue of the sky ominous when the reason for it was taken into account. “I wish I hated you so fucking much, Ash.”

“But you don’t?” Ashley murmured, her tone almost hopeful. A breathless sound escaped Mali; half sob, half laughter.

“I could never,” she said helplessly. “Doesn’t matter how hard I try.”

She’d loved Ashley since she was fifteen years old; since the younger girl had had braces and terrible hair, and the worst fashion sense Mali had ever seen. She’d loved Ashley with her awful taste in films and her weird food choices, and the mischievous streak in her that always used to get Mali into trouble when she was younger, back before she’d learnt to be smart enough to hide her misdemeanours.

“You’re crying?” Ashley asked weakly, her face crumpling. “Fuck. Never thought I’d see the day.”

“You bitch,” Mali whispered as the tears boiled over, her metal claws twisting into bracelets once more as she reached for the younger girl unconsciously. “I never cry.”

A sob escaped her, shattering the silence, and Ashley drew her into a tight hug. She still smelt the same - like toothpaste and perfume; like Mali’s one last safe haven - and they clung to each other like their lives depended on it as the Princess tucked her face away into Ashley’s neck.

“I missed you too, Mali,” the younger girl said wryly, tearful and kind, and suddenly unchanged by the years that had passed. She stroked the older girl’s hair gently, one arm winding warmly around Mali’s waist as she rocked her for a moment, just relishing in their closeness. “More than you’ll ever know.”

“When you were fighting,” Mali began, her voice little more than a breath as her hands trembled where they were fisting in the back of the younger girl’s jacket. “You were all I ever thought about. I missed you, Ash... every single day you were gone, I missed you.”

Mali’s loneliness faded a little when Ashley held her closer, tight enough that the sharp ache in the Princess’ chest no longer took her breath away with the pain of it. The older girl sighed softly in relief, relaxing as the last of the fight bled out of her in the circle of Ashley’s arms.

Mali still felt sad and angry, but at least she wasn’t alone now.

Maybe she never had been.

Chapter Text

I'll take my bow; I won't make a sound.

I whisper truce as the ashes hit the ground.

Hush, love.

No, I'm not what you think that I'm made of.

I'm a story, I'm a breakup;

Just a hero on a bridge that's burning down.

- Scars, Boy Epic

 

The moon was full tonight, shining brightly down onto the palatial estate gardens, its light unhindered by the wisps of cloud carried overhead on the breeze. Calum’s silhouette was tense where he stood out on the balcony, his arms folded over the stone balustrade as Ashton watched him sleepily from the bed, the blankets still rumpled around his bare waist as he sighed quietly.

There was something playing on the younger boy's mind; something that Calum wasn't telling him. He’d been growing increasingly short-tempered as the second task approached – only two days away now – and Ashton wondered what aspect of it was causing the younger boy so much worry.

He padded towards Calum hesitantly, wincing a little when the door creaked as he joined the Prince on the balcony. Calum stiffened when he realised he was no longer alone, the muscles rippling in his back as he shivered at the chill. He remained stiff for one stubborn moment before he relaxed unconsciously in the older boy’s arms, a heavy sigh escaping him when Ashton’s chin came to rest securely on his shoulder.

“It’s cold out here, curly,” the Crown Prince murmured as one palm rose to settle warmly on Calum's chest, right over his racing heart. He stifled a yawn as best he could, his crimson curls tickling the underside of Calum's jaw when he cuddled closer. “Why don’t you come back to bed?”

“No point,” Calum muttered, his voice rough from misuse. “Can’t sleep anyway.”

“What’s wrong, Cal?” Ashton asked softly, his tone unhappy. The younger boy shrugged jerkily in response and Ashton sighed as he took an unwilling step back, shivering in the cold. “Is it being with me?” His voice was bleak as he bit his bottom lip hard, almost like he was afraid of the answer. Calum turned to face him slowly, his dark eyes widening with some emotion that the Crown Prince was too tired to identify.

The silence stretched to breaking point and Ashton folded his arms tightly across his bare chest, fighting to keep his face from crumpling at what he saw as rejection.

“Maybe you need a night in your own apartment, Cal,” he said quietly, his hands trembling a little although he hoped the younger boy couldn’t see in the darkness. “I can’t remember the last time you slept there.”

Calum reeled back like he’d been slapped, his eyes gleaming too bright in the shadows as he turned away again, squaring his shoulders. His eyelashes were growing spiky with tears and a lump rose in Ashton’s throat when he realised that his words might have been misconstrued too.

“You don’t want me here,” Calum said flatly, a statement rather than a question. The words were saturated with more hurt than Ashton would have believed possible and he sort of wanted to cry himself when he saw the shudder running through the younger boy's frame, like he was fighting not to cry. “If you needed space, you could have just told me –”

Ashton closed the space between them with a sigh, wrapping his arms once more around the Prince’s chest. He pressed a lingering kiss to Calum’s shoulder, cuddling him for long enough that he was certain his voice would be reasonably steady when he finally spoke again.

“Of course I want you here, curly,” he said softly, his hazel eyes blazing with sincerity when Calum risked glancing tearfully back at him. “I’m just worried about you. I know how much you love Mali and Mike, and you haven’t been spending any time with them these last few weeks. I just… I want you to be okay. You deserve to be okay but you’re hurting instead… and I don’t know how to help you.”

“You don’t need to help me,” Calum mumbled, his cheeks flushed with embarrassment as he twisted in the older boy's arms to wearily return the hug. He was shivering a little, his head bowed enough that it was easy for Ashton to press a kiss to his fluffy hair. “I should be the one helping you. You’re dealing with a lot more crap than I am, angel. What we’re going through doesn’t even compare.”

Ashton pulled a face, making it quite clear just how much he disliked Calum downplaying his own problems, even if it had been drummed into him growing up.

“Well, regardless of whether that’s true or not,” he began pointedly, his hug tightening a little when Calum pressed a barely-there kiss to his cheek. “You’re still allowed to be upset, Cal, and you definitely shouldn’t hide it. You’re not in Tenebris now, remember? You’re safe here.”

Ashton’s palm rose to cradle the younger boy’s cheek, his heart breaking when he saw the tears welling in Calum’s lovely chocolate brown eyes. He was still trying to hide his emotions even now as his hands dropped down to form fists at his sides and Ashton sighed quietly as he realised just how deeply ingrained this behaviour was. It would take years to heal all the damage and it made him angry that this was culturally acceptable in Tenebris; that there was a whole nation of people so terrified at the thought of sharing their emotions.

“You’re allowed to be upset,” Ashton repeated softly, his tone earnest enough that Calum’s shoulders slumped, even as the fear continued to burn in his eyes.

“I’m really not upset,” the younger boy forced out through gritted teeth. “I’m fine.”

“Liar,” Ashton said quietly, his expression remaining fond despite the sadness he could feel. “Look at the fish tank.”

Calum stared at him in confusion for a moment before he glanced up, his cheeks flaming at how violently the water was sloshing about inside, in time with the frantic pounding of his heart. The poor fish had taken shelter amongst the coral and the Prince’s fingernails automatically dug into his thighs as he struggled to calm himself.

“Sorry, Ash,” Calum whispered, his expression twisting with pain and what might have been self-hatred. He winced when he broke the skin and Ashton squinted down through the darkness, his heart aching when he saw what the younger boy was doing to himself.

“Hey,” the Crown Prince chided gently, his brow furrowing with concern. “Hey, stop that.”

Calum’s hands were trembling when they fell to hang limply by his sides and Ashton entwined their fingers carefully, a lump rising in his throat as he leant to press a soft kiss to the younger boy’s collarbone. Calum sighed shakily, abruptly exhausted as the fight bled out of him. He looked so fed up and Ashton knew he could make him feel better; knew Calum wouldn’t feel so fragile if he relaxed, unwinding for long enough that he forgot his worries for a little while.

“Sorry,” Calum repeated weakly, his voice little more than a breath. “I’m sorry I keep secrets from you. I don’t want to. It’s just… hiding things is all I know.” He shrugged half-heartedly, sniffing as a tear rolled down his cheek. “I'd tell you how I felt if I could. I promise I would.”

“You already do,” Ashton said honestly, his tone soft as he smoothed the younger boy’s hair back with a gentle hand. When Calum scoffed weakly, the older boy silenced him with a brief kiss. “Don't snort at me, curly. You do tell me how you’re feeling sometimes. I mean it.”

When Calum simply looked confused, Ashton gave him a gentle smile, stretching up on his tiptoes to kiss the soft skin beneath the younger boy’s ear. Calum shivered in response and the older boy hummed with satisfaction, giving the Prince's hands a comforting squeeze where he remained gently cradling them.

“What about when I’m touching you?” Ashton murmured, a faint smirk curving his lips when the younger boy’s breath caught in his throat. Calum was staring at him with something like awe now, his cheeks heating up as he processed the words. “You always tell me when I’m making you feel good, don’t you?” the older boy continued innocently, grinning a little when the flush of colour spread down Calum’s throat as he swallowed audibly. “You tell me how much you love my mouth… my fingers…” Ashton stretched up to suck a bruising kiss to the younger boy’s throat, drawing a whine from him. “You tell me when you want my lips wrapped around you, don’t you? Always tell me how good it makes you feel.”

Angel,” Calum whined, his eyes darkening.

“Let me make you feel good now,” Ashton whispered as he released the younger boy’s hands in favour of drawing him closer instead. He settled his palm warmly on the older boy’s hip while the other slipped down to palm him gently through his boxers, drawing a ragged gasp from Calum as his eyes fluttered shut. “Let me make you feel beautiful again… because you are, Cal. You always have been.”

“Please, angel,” Calum breathed. “Want that so bad.”

“I’ve got you,” Ashton murmured, his words humid against the Prince’s neck as he pressed another lingering kiss there. “I promise.”

His palm slipped round to the small of the younger boy’s back, brushing over the dimples there fondly as he eased his free hand into Calum’s underwear, curling his fingers loosely around his bare cock. Ashton tightened his grip when Calum let out a soft moan, his toes curling on the flagstones as he leant back heavily against the balustrade. His face looked so beautiful in the moonlight, his tanned skin shining like silver as the pleasure flooded his expression.

Ashton trailed kisses over the sensitive skin of Calum’s throat when he threw his head back, his lips parting around moans as they spilt from him like water. He was already panting, his hips rocking into the older boy's fist as he shuddered at the teasing strokes of Ashton's palm.

The chocolate brown of Calum’s eyes sparkled in the starlight as he watched the older boy through barely-open lids, his eyelashes fanning out across his cheekbones. The pain was gone from his face now, replaced with lust and something too delicate to name.

“Fuck,” Calum mumbled breathlessly when Ashton began to jerk him off faster, his pretty eyes widening. The younger boy’s full lips were soft against the Crown Prince’s shoulder when he leant to suck a bruise into the warm skin and Ashton groaned quietly in response, rolling his fingers over the tip of Calum’s cock and coaxing a moan from him as he fucked Ashton’s fist clumsily.

Up until that moment, the palatial estate gardens had been silent save for Calum’s panting breaths and the slick noise of the older boy’s fist but the unexpected sound of footsteps passing beneath them was undeniable. Ashton’s hazel eyes glinted when Calum bit his lip to suppress a moan, his cock swelling as he leaked pre-cum over the older boy’s fingers.

Clearly, Ashton had hit the nail on the head that day in the changing room when he’d joked about Calum wanting someone to spot him. It was painfully evident in the pleasure rippling across the Prince’s flushed face as he gasped loudly into the darkness and Ashton leant closer as he kept the movement of his fist steady, his lips curving into a smirk when Calum gazed at him helplessly, so turned on that he could barely speak.

“It’s the guards,” Ashton said in what might have been a conversational tone if he hadn’t been half-hard himself, his eyes glinting when the younger boy let out a choked moan. “I’d be quiet, curly, or they’ll have to investigate… unless you want them to hear you, of course…” Calum tucked his flushed face out of sight, his whole body shuddering in time with the jerks of Ashton’s fist as he whispered to him. “Gonna make more of those pretty sounds, Cal? Gonna tell them how good I make you feel too?”

Ash, fuck,” Calum whimpered, a broken moan tearing out of him when Ashton’s free hand slipped to his chest, his fingertips trailing teasingly over the younger boy’s nipples. The Prince’s hips were jerking now, his eyes damp with tears as the heat coiled irresistibly inside him, settling in his scarred thighs.

The footsteps were closer than ever, the muffled voices growing louder as the guards passed directly below them. Calum’s eyes fluttered shut in embarrassment when Ashton made him whine, the sound needy enough that the guards faltered in confusion, and the older boy swiftly silenced the Prince with a deep kiss, sucking on Calum’s tongue and muffling his moans as he fell apart.

Ashton stroked him through it, his hazel eyes softening as the younger boy shuddered in his arms, whimpering softly at the overstimulation. His dark curls were fluffy around his flushed face, his cheeks damp with tears when the older boy’s hands came to rest warmly on his hips. Ashton stretched up to capture Calum’s lips in a softer kiss, lingering there until the younger boy’s breathing had steadied.

“Hey, curly,” Ashton said softly, opting to ignore his own lust in the face of ensuring that the Prince felt okay again. “How was that?” Beneath his slightly teasing tone, he needed the validation and Calum didn’t disappoint.

“It was perfect,” he said honestly, rubbing the back of his neck with something like awe on his face as he pressed a soft kiss to Ashton’s jaw. “You were perfect, angel. I feel… I feel really good,” Calum admitted shyly.

Ashton stroked his trembling thighs gently, his palms lingering comfortingly over the bruising.

“Good,” the older boy said softly, a small smile spreading across his face as he rested his cheek sleepily on the younger boy’s chest, listening to his heartbeat. “That was the plan.”

*

There was something different about Luke.

Laura couldn’t put her finger on what exactly had changed but he seemed lighter somehow, a smile curving his lips as he led the way through the palatial estate gardens. The sun was shining overhead, his caramel-coloured curls falling gently across his forehead as he crossed the grass, heading for the hollowed-out oak tree he loved so much.

He was wearing a t-shirt for once, the pale skin of his bare arms shining pearly beneath the sunshine as one of his beloved birds fluttered down to land on his broad shoulder. Laura smiled a little as she watched him, enjoying the way his ocean blue eyes glittered with warmth when she fell into step beside him.

“We haven’t spent time together like this in ages,” Laura noted as they stepped under the treeline. She drew her cardigan tighter around her when the shade made her shiver a little, her expression softening when she caught him watching her with something like regret on his face.

“It’s okay, lofty,” she said quietly, her tone sincere. “I think we’ve both been pretty busy this last month… but there’s nothing stopping us from making up for lost time now, is there?”

“Apart from the second task tomorrow,” Luke said lightly as he settled down cross-legged on the dusty ground. The trunk stretched up familiarly around them and Laura rested her palm on the bark for a moment, feeding it a burst of her magic to keep the tree growing for her little brother.

“I don’t want the others to go to Tenebris,” Luke said suddenly, his voice small enough that it took Laura a moment to even process he’d spoken. He was frowning down at the ground when she turned to face him, gently stroking the pigeon’s feathery head with his fingertip as he gnawed anxious on his bottom lip. “Why does half of the stupid tournament have to be a four hour flight away?”

“Because the contest is all about international cooperation,” Laura said mildly. “It’s only natural that both nations would be expected to host the Elevare.” She sighed, not liking the worry prematurely lining his face when he looked up at her hopelessly. “I know you know this, Luke. We studied it in history.” She sat down beside him with only mild difficulty, smiling wistfully as she realised how much time had passed since they'd fit in here so easily as children. “What’s worrying you about it?”

“I just… I don’t want to lose my friends again,” Luke whispered, apparently embarrassed by the sheen of tears in his eyes as he dropped his gaze, scratching idly at the pale skin of his wrist and startling the bird away. “It was bad enough during the war.”

Laura reached to tangle their fingers together when she noticed the raised red lines his nails had left behind, a lump rising in her throat when she noticed what looked like faint scars littering his wrists. She’d never seen them before - but then, Luke never usually wore short sleeves - and she fought the tears down with difficulty, aware that now wasn’t the time to mention this when her younger brother finally seemed to be feeling less lost.

“You won’t lose them, Luke,” Laura said, her voice slightly choked with the emotions she was struggling to contain. “Ash mentioned the other night that he wanted us to go with him. I’ll catch him later and see if he’s had a chance to ask his parents yet, okay?” She held her brother’s gaze, waiting until he’d managed a watery smile before she squeezed his hand comfortingly. “It’s all gonna work out, Luke,” she murmured. “I promise.”

He leant closer, letting his forehead rest lightly on her shoulder as she dropped a kiss onto his curls.

“I heard Niall’s coming to Tenebris too,” Laura added, her tone more tentative now. “There’s a shortage of healers there – or there was, the last I heard – and I know Fletcher and Anne wouldn’t trust anyone else with Ash.”

“Niall’s going away too?” Luke breathed, his damp blue eyes widening. Laura thumbed a tear from his cheek gently, her expression soft.

“Ash will bring us with him, lofty,” she said firmly. “I’m sure of it.”

Luke slumped down onto the dusty ground with a sigh, stretching out as much as he was able as Laura drew his head into her lap, smoothing his curls comfortingly. He seemed more relaxed now and she was grateful for that, even if her heart was aching at the sight of the red scratches fading on his pale skin.

“Niall healed you, didn’t he?” she whispered before she could stop herself, her eyes prickling with tears. “He fixed you up?”

Luke closed his eyes, apparently too tired to argue or lie. He didn’t even pull away and Laura comforted herself with their closeness, so relieved that she hadn’t lost him to his own pain.

“You knew I was hurting myself?” he asked, his words so soft that she could barely hear him over the sound of birdsong from the pigeons roosting in the trees around them. Laura covered his wrist lightly with her palm, a soft sigh escaping her when she noticed that they were both shaking.

“No,” she said quietly, her heart in her throat. “I never recognised what was happening and… I’m sorry for that, Luke. I’m so sorry. I only ever wanted to keep you safe.”

“Don’t cry, tiny,” Luke murmured, pushing himself clumsily into a sitting position so that he could tangle their fingers together. “So many nights you helped me without even realising it… and now you don’t have to anymore.” He gave a half-hearted shrug at the confusion on her tear-streaked face, his expression softening. “Niall… Niall helped me look at things in perspective and… well, I don’t feel like that anymore. Maybe I will again one day or maybe this is it but… he changed something in me, Laura. I don’t feel so raw anymore.”

“He’s your Michael, isn’t he?” she whispered, her cheeks heating a little at the knowing smile he gave her although she felt no shame. Over the last few weeks, she’d become aware of just how hard she was falling for Michael but it didn’t scare her in the slightest; not when she knew he felt the same way.

There was no point in hiding her emotions anymore. She could see the evidence of how dangerous that was in the faint silvery scars lining her brother’s skin and she swore to herself that she’d never lie to him again. Their relationship had been built on trust and love, and hiding parts of herself – even if they were the parts she was afraid of – was a poor way to repay him... and yet, he'd done the same to her, hadn’t he? He’d kept his secrets and sank even deeper into his despair, and she'd been powerless to help him because she'd been kept in the dark.

It stung to realise that but Laura let the pain out in a sigh, not wanting to bottle things up anymore. She’d never heal if she hid herself away… and neither would Luke. He’d looked up to her all his life and she didn’t want to set a bad example now, when he was so vulnerable and desperate to feel happy again.

She was glad they’d seen through each other’s lies but mostly she was disappointed in herself for not realising what her little brother had been struggling with from the very beginning. Hiding their emotions had caused so much damage and pain, and she was determined never to mask what she was feeling ever again.

Quite suddenly, it struck her just how strange it was that the Claritans ridiculed the Tenebrans for striving to appear emotionless when, really, the two nations weren’t so different after all. It seemed that everyone needed time to heal, regardless of the country they called home, and Laura hoped so badly that the Elevare would give them the chance they deserved to make good.

The people of Cerasus deserved an end to their suffering… and so did Luke.

He was smiling now, finally. It warmed his expression and made his eyes sparkle, and he looked like a little boy for a moment, overflowing with laughter and happiness, and life. He was still Laura’s favourite person on the planet. She loved him so much that her heart felt too big for her ribcage.

So…” she began teasingly, her eyes gleaming. “You and Niall, huh?”

Luke grinned, cheeks flushing.

“No comment,” he said smugly, managing to remain looking demure until Laura tickled him and he almost head-butted the trunk in an effort to escape. Laura was giggling as she wrapped her arms around his waist, preventing him from fleeing. He froze when her fingertips settled on his ribs – a clear threat of even worse tickling – and she took great delight in planting a gigantic kiss on his nose, making him pout as he rolled his eyes fondly.

“Be quiet,” he said grumpily, even as his lips threatened to twitch into a smile. Laura beamed at him.

“I haven’t said anything yet,” she pointed out. “You’re just proving my point, lofty.” Her face softened though and she couldn’t have suppressed her smile even if she’d wanted to. “I’m happy for you, Luke,” she said gently. “I really mean it. I think Niall could be good for you.”

Luke’s cheeks were still pink but he was no longer trying to escape. He seemed calmer instead, his blue eyes twinkling with something too precious to name.

“Being with Ni… it doesn’t feel like when I was with Ash,” Luke admitted, smiling faintly as a pigeon fluttered down to join them. He hummed softly when it landed on him, nestling into the warm curve where his neck met his shoulder. “Niall makes me happy, Laura… happier than I’ve felt in a really long time. I don’t hurt anymore.”

His sister watched him fondly as he sat there with his legs crossed beneath him, the bird cheeping on his shoulder as the breeze playfully tousled his curls.

He hadn’t seemed so carefree in a very long time and it was wonderful to see him shining so brightly now.

There were no words for how happy Laura felt watching him heal.

*

Ashton woke to a wave of unexpected pleasure washing over him.

Before he’d even opened his eyes, he was moaning softly, his hands falling to settle in Calum’s dark curls where the younger boy was buried between his thighs. The sun was just beginning to rise outside, the early morning light spilling in through the glass doors leading out to the balcony. Ashton's eyes fluttered shut when he felt Calum’s tongue curling teasingly into the slit, whining brokenly as his hips started to jerk.

Cal,” the older boy groaned, his voice rough with sleep and lust as the Prince’s dark eyes flickered up to his face. Calum hummed in response, the vibrations coaxing a whimper from Ashton as his cock leaked. He was already nearing the end and he couldn’t stifle the needy whines pouring out of him when Calum rolled his balls gently in his palm, reaching to stroke one fingertip teasingly over the older boy's hole.

The fire in Ashton’s stomach tightened until, with a broken moan, he fell apart beneath the younger boy’s hands, slumping down onto the mattress as the pleasure washed over him. Calum sucked him through it, lingering there with his tongue still swirling until Ashton was whining and shuddering at the overstimulation, his hazel eyes damp as he nudged the younger boy shakily away. Calum crawled up to lie beside him, flopping down as his cheek came to rest on the Crown Prince’s shoulder. Ashton was still panting weakly but he looked satisfied now and the shivers tearing through him had stopped. Calum pressed a chaste kiss to his cheek, hiding his smile in the older boy's crimson curls.

Ashton snuggled into the younger boy’s side warmly, too tired to do much more than that. It was slowly dawning on him that the second challenge was taking place today but it was hard to feel nervous when he was being cradled so safely in the Prince’s arms and he let out a soft sigh, relaxing fully against Calum’s muscular chest as any remaining tension bled out of him.

“Was… was that okay?” the younger boy asked shyly, his tone a little worried. “I just… I mean… you were lying there and you looked so beautiful and I just… um…”

“Don’t fret, curly,” Ashton interrupted, stretching to press a soft kiss to the Prince’s full lips as his cheeks flushed pink. “That was probably the best way to wake up ever.”

“Good,” Calum breathed, forgetting his own lust for a moment as he watched the fondness sparkling in the older boy’s pretty hazel eyes. The magnitude of Calum’s feelings for Ashton scared him a little bit and he was quick to change the subject, his voice taking on a teasing lilt before the affection he could feel shone too brightly in his gaze.

“Good luck today, angel,” Calum murmured, his dimples creasing his cheeks as he smirked a little. “You’ll need it.”

“Oh yeah? Gonna wipe the floor with me again, curly?” Ashton asked lightly, one eyebrow rising teasingly. “Good luck with that. I have my bonus time, remember? Maybe I’m going to beat you instead.”

Calum rolled his eyes fondly, leaning over to kiss the older boy silent as he tangled his fingers lightly in the older boy’s curls. His tongue stroked over Ashton’s, making him shudder in the younger boy’s arms as he moaned at the taste of himself in the Prince’s mouth. Calum reached down lazily to stroke his flushed cock, a soft moan escaping him which only deepened when Ashton weakly batted his hand away so that he could touch him instead.

“Shower?” the older boy suggested mildly, his eyes twinkling when the younger boy bit his lip. “Think it’s time to return the favour, curly.”

“Worried about your sheets?” Calum asked, aiming for a teasing tone although it missed the mark somewhat when his breath caught as the older boy rolled his fingers playfully over the head of his cock.

“Stop being so argumentative,” Ashton muttered, pretending he wasn’t amused by it as he reached for the younger boy’s hand, entwining their fingers together. “Now c’mon, curly,” he said softly, pressing a brief kiss to the Prince’s jaw. “Let me make you feel good.”

Calum almost tripped over in his haste to follow the older boy towards the shower.

Ashton was kind enough not to mention it.

*

The two hour journey from Aureum to Gravenwick was doing a very good job of lulling Ashton to sleep. After the thoroughly enjoyable morning he’d spent in bed with Calum, the Crown Prince was quite drowsy now although he hoped he’d perk up by the time they finally reached the arena. He was sure the adrenaline would do a good enough job of injecting some energy into him but, for the moment, he was content to simply relax and enjoy a rare moment of calm with his parents.

“You seem a lot less nervous this time around, Ash,” Fletcher noted from where he was sitting opposite his son, his fingers entwined with his wife’s. “Last time we made the journey to Gravenwick, you were so jittery that you could barely sit still. Sierra had to put you out twice if I remember rightly.”

Ashton huffed out a laugh, glancing over to where his bodyguard was dozing in the seat beside him, her cheek resting against the cool glass.

“I’m definitely less stressed now,” the Crown Prince said, smiling wryly when his mum reached out to pat his knee. Fletcher watched his family fondly, dressed in another of his fine tunics even despite the burning summer heat outside. “I think all the training I’ve been doing has helped me too,” Ashton said thoughtfully as he settled back more comfortably in his seat. “I feel stronger than I have in months.”

“We know how hard you’ve been working to build up your strength again, love,” Anne said warmly, her eyes glittering with pride. “We’re so proud of you, Ash.”

“We truly are,” Fletcher agreed, his voice softer now. “You’re turning your life around, Ash. You’re representing Claritas in the Elevare and building relationships with people who were once our enemies, and… well... I feel safe in the knowledge that you’ll rule Claritas one day when I’m gone. You’re growing into a wonderful man, Ash. I couldn’t think of anyone better to represent our great nation.”

A lump rose in Ashton’s throat and he swallowed past it with difficulty, giving his dad a watery smile as Sierra stirred beside him, sighing in her sleep. Anne’s face softened as she watched her son struggling to contain his emotions and she took pity on him, quickly changing the subject.

“Are you excited for the celebration tonight, love?” she asked, smiling fondly. “It’s all anyone’s been talking about.”

“I am,” Ashton said, still a little choked up when Fletcher reached to clasp his hand for a moment. “It should be a fun way to celebrate the end of the first half of the Elevare. I’m glad I won’t have to use it as an opportunity to say goodbye to Laura and Luke either.” His eyes blazed with gratitude as he looked between both of his parents, more thankful than he could put into words. “I’m so happy you’re letting them come to Tenebris with me. I don’t think I’d be brave enough to spend half a year there without them.”

“I think you’d be surprised what you’re capable of,” Anne said although her expression remained warm. “Of course we’re sending them with you though, love. What kind of parents would we be if we didn’t do everything possible to make you comfortable and happy?”

“Well, it means a lot to me,” Ashton said honestly, his hazel eyes soft. He saddened for a moment as he thought of Calum and Mali; their tense silences when their parents were discussed or the way Michael looked between the pair of them miserably sometimes, like he knew something Ashton didn’t. “Having you two as my parents makes me luckier than a lot of people.”

“Such flattery,” Fletcher teased, his eyes twinkling as he nudged Anne, lowering his voice to a stage whisper. “I’m sure he’s only saying this so we’ll extend his curfew at the party tonight.”

“I still have a curfew?!” Ashton demanded, laughing despite himself at his parents’ matching smirks. “I’m a champion of the Elevare! I don’t need a curfew!”

“Let us be your parents for just a little bit longer, love,” Anne said lightly, her eyes soft. “We won’t be able to meddle in your affairs so easily once you’re in Tenebris. We have to irritate you just a little bit more before you leave us.”

Ashton’s lips twitched into a faint smile, equal parts sad and happy at the prospect of leaving Claritas behind in order to compete in the second half of the Elevare. He was more relieved than he could put into words that none of his friends would be left behind this time and he let that thought comfort him when the anxiety of leaving his parents threatened to overwhelm him.

“You’ll have fun at the party regardless of what time we drag you home,” Fletcher said, his smirk proving that he probably had no intention of making Ashton come home before midnight. “Just remember to indulge as much as possible, okay? You won’t get so many excuses to eat rich food and wear sparkly outfits in Tenebris so don’t waste the opportunity.”

“Oh, I plan to make the most of tonight,” Ashton said with a shrug, his tone becoming just a little sarcastic as he continued to speak, grinning crookedly. “I’ve been meaning to show Calum some Claritan culinary delights for quite a while. The party this evening seems like a good time to showcase that.”

Fletcher nodded in agreement, his eyes drawn to the window where a glimpse of the sea was visible beyond the rocky terrain. Anne remained watching her son though, a slightly knowing smile curving her lips as she watched him curiously. Ashton squirmed a little under her gaze, desperately hoping that his cheeks weren’t heating up.

“So,” she began, smirking a little. “You and Calum seem to have been getting along splendidly lately.” Her eyes flickered to the sleeping bodyguard for a moment and Ashton bit his lip, trying not to smile awkwardly in his embarrassment. “Sierra’s been at a loose end recently, Ash. Have you actually left your bedroom these past few weeks?”

Ashton spluttered, cheeks flaming although he did his best to appear unruffled. Fletcher was smiling through the window, clearly trying to hide his amusement as Anne raised an eyebrow curiously, clearly enjoying herself if the wry expression on her face was any indication.

“Of course I’ve left my - I mean, we aren’t -” Ashton pressed his lips together for a moment, taking a steadying breath as he stared pointedly out at the sunny afternoon, refusing to make eye contact. “I’ve been training at the gym every single day,” he said loftily, hoping his voice was steady. “And if Calum happens to accompany me on those occasions - and you choose to interpret that in any way other than platonic - I can neither confirm nor deny.”

“So you and Calum are -”

“Nope,” Ashton interrupted her, definitely blushing now as he searched frantically for a subject change. “I wonder what Harry will wear during his commentary tonight,” he said, grimacing a little that that was the only topic he’d thought of. “Do you think it’ll have sequins or flowers? Maybe a bit of lace to shake things up a bit?”

“Well, I’m sure we’re all eager to wait and see,” Anne said, her eyes twinkling just enough that Ashton wondered for a moment if there was a double-meaning to her words; namely, his potential relationship with Calum.

“Do you know something?” Fletcher said suddenly, his tone thoughtful. “I’ve been watching A Starlet In Claritas this season and Harry’s actually a very good contestant. I’ve voted for him three times now. I’d quite like to see him win.”

Anne watched her husband tenderly, biting her bottom lip to keep from laughing at how earnest he looked as he began to relay to them just how talented Harry had been during his audition for the show. Ashton watched the pair of them fondly, his dimples creasing his cheeks as he smiled at them.

He’d miss them so much when he flew out to Tenebris, even if they would be joining him to watch each challenge, but he didn’t argue about the necessity of leaving his country behind. His parents needed him to do this; needed him to represent their nation and bring glory to Claritas, and he’d do whatever the King and Queen asked of him without question.

Ashton loved his parents more than he could put into words.

He just wanted to make them proud.

Chapter Text

Do you feel like a young god?

You know the two of us are just young gods,

And we'll be flying through the streets with the people underneath,

And they're running, running, running.

- Young God, Halsey

 

“I still hate these ugly suits,” Ashton complained from where he was struggling into the garment by the benches. Calum smiled smugly as he padded out of one of the cubicles, his hair damp from the showers.

“Well, you should’ve taken my advice then,” the Prince said smugly, his dark eyes twinkling a little when Ashton shot him a weak scowl. “The suits are way easier to get into if your skin is wet first.”

“No thank you, curly,” the older boy said haughtily, trying hard not to smile. “I don’t think showering first is a good idea. You’ll only end up chafing.”

“I will not chafe!” Calum protested, snickering although the sound cut off sharply when someone rapped on the changing room door. It creaked open and a familiar face appeared, their expression deceptively innocent although a smirk was clearly fighting to break free.

“Who’s chafing?” Michael asked sweetly, ducking swiftly when Calum threw his towel at him as Ashton let out a snort of laughter. The Prince stuck his tongue out sulkily and Michael grinned, looking less innocent by the second. “I only came to wish the two of you good luck,” he pointed out, eyes twinkling. “And this is how you repay me? By throwing things at my head?”

“To be fair, you do make the idea of throwing things at you very appealing,” Calum said with a shrug. “You can hardly blame people, Mikey.”

“That’s mean,” Ashton said, giving Calum a reprimanding poke on the nose as his lips curled into a sly smile. “Don’t be mean to Mike, Cal. Luke already keeps beating him at that stupid game they both like so much. Don't make him feel worse than he already does.”

“You’re as bad as each other!” Michael exclaimed, pretending to be offended. “I come in here out of the goodness of my heart and all I get are insults!”

“I’m sure Laura will find a way to make you feel better,” Calum said, huffing out a laugh when Ashton elbowed him lightly in the ribs, his expression reproving. “What? Anyone with eyes can tell that the pair of them are –”

“You’re just as bad, Princess,” Michael said pointedly, eyes narrowing a little even as his lips curled up in amusement. “You and angel over there aren’t as subtle as you’d probably like to imagine.”

Ashton spluttered, turning away to continue struggling with the zip of his suit because it was easier than watching Calum’s face flush the colour of a tomato. He blushed himself when the Prince reached automatically to help him fasten the garment, trying hard not to remember the last time they’d been in this situation because… damn, thinking about Calum’s hands on his skin and the soft kiss he’d pressed to the corner of the younger boy’s mouth was dangerous right now. It didn’t matter that Ashton might not hate the idea of someone catching him when he was turned on because… fuck, this was Michael and that was far too weird.

Catching Calum’s gaze for the briefest moment, he could see his own thoughts reflected back at him; the awkwardness of the situation and the burn of something lust-driven still stubbornly smouldering in the younger boy’s pretty eyes.

“Thank you for just proving my point,” Michael said smugly but, despite the bite to his words, his expression was nothing but fond as he watched his friends. His words made them both jump and he rolled his eyes, opening his mouth to make what would presumably be another barb before his comm chimed in his pocket, startling him.

“Oh,” Michael murmured, sobering visibly as he read the message before he glanced up at Calum, biting his lip nervously. “Apparently your dad is waiting for you outside, Cal. He wants to have a chat about something before you go out there.” Michael hesitated before sliding the comm back into his pocket, sighing softly. “I… I think he’s pissed that your comm is switched off,” the older boy said apologetically. “Sorry, Princess.”

Ashton watched uncertainly as Calum straightened his shoulders, inhaling deeply. He looked like he was preparing for a fight and the anxiety burning in Michael’s eyes as he watched his best friend stride towards the door of the changing room did nothing to make the Crown Prince feel any better.

“You think he’ll be okay?” Ashton asked nervously once Calum had gone, his voice small. Michael sighed as he dropped down onto the bench beside the older boy, his lips downturned unhappily.

“I hope so,” he said quietly, his expression fiercely protective. “But we’ll look after him if he isn’t.”

Michael gave his hand a comforting squeeze and, although it took Ashton by surprise, he was quick to tighten their grip as his teeth worried at his bottom lip.

“Nervous for the challenge today?” Michael asked softly, presumably just to change the subject. Ashton shrugged, smiling weakly as he rubbed the back of his neck.

“Not really,” he said honestly. “Calum already knocked me on my arse in front of the entire planet. It can’t get much worse than that, can it?” He grinned suddenly, his hazel eyes twinkling. “And besides, we’ve got the party tonight, haven’t we?” he added. “I want to leave Claritas with a bang.”

“Heading to Tenebris in a blaze of glory, eh?” Michael asked with a silly wink. The older boy laughed in response, running a hand through his red curls ruefully as he stretched out his back, hoping it would be less painful than last time.

“Definitely,” Ashton said firmly, his lips curling into a grin. “No one will forget this party in a hurry, Michael. I think we can be sure of that.”

*

Calum stepped out into the corridor with a heavy heart, his jaw squared as his dark eyes settled on his father. David was waiting for him a short distance away, his expression inscrutable as he tapped one foot on the ground, arms folded across his chest.

“Come to wish me good luck, have you, dad?” Calum asked with a forced smile, unsure where the sudden burst of confidence had come from. It reminded him of their conversation on his first trip to Gravenwick for a moment; reminded him of the frightening realisation he’d come to as it sank in just how irreparably their relationship had been damaged since the Prince had been announced as the Tenebran champion.

“Quite,” David said coolly, his dark eyes narrowing a little as he took in the defiance on his son’s face. Calum tried to subdue the glare he could feel settling on his features but it was difficult when he remembered the fight they’d had in the transport after he’d refused to follow through with his father’s plan. Calum had offered the King forgiveness and David had flung it back in his face, and that was something the Prince was unable to forget.

They watched each other in silence for a moment, both of them simply staring before Calum took a deep breath, uncurling his fists with difficulty.

“Do you have something to say to me, dad?” he asked heavily. “Because if not, I need to finish getting ready. The task starts really soon.”

“Calum,” David ground out, gritting his teeth like that word alone was difficult. “I… I have an offer for you… and I need you to listen to me. I’ll only say this once.”

The Prince stiffened, his back pressing subtly against the wall as he eyed his father warily. When the King remained silent, Calum’s anger flared to life in his chest. He glanced up and down the corridor nervously before taking a hesitant step closer, bristling visibly as he scowled at the older man.

“If this is another ploy to get me to agree to hurt Ashton, you’re wasting your time,” Calum hissed, his voice cold. “I wouldn’t harm a hair on his head.” A lump rose in his throat as he recalled his father’s awful plan and the horrific thought of a world where Ashton no longer existed, and the Prince fisted the tears from his eyes fiercely, startled by what was almost hatred burning in his chest.

“If you force me to hurt him,” Calum said slowly, his dark eyes glistening wetly. “I’ll never forgive you, dad. Not for as long as I live.”

“Well, that’s where my offer comes in,” David said sharply, looking a little affronted by his son’s vehemence. “But before I continue, let me stress the importance of you winning the Elevare, Calum.” His gaze was frighteningly piercing as he looked down at his son, his gloved hands curling at his sides with the force of the emotions he was suppressing. “My offer is simple, Calum. If you beat Ashton – if you stamp him into the dust and make it clear that Tenebris is the true winner of the tournament – then I may be willing to overlook your part in the plan we previously discussed.” He watched the glimmer of hope growing in his son’s eyes with poorly-disguised satisfaction, his lips pressing into a thin smile. “Do we have a deal?”

Calum watched him uncertainly, his fingertips digging into his thighs automatically before he remembered the sadness he’d seen in the Crown Prince’s face the night he’d caught the younger boy hurting himself. Calum let his hands fall to hang limply by his sides with difficulty, taking a deep breath as he tried to consider his father’s offer from every angle.

“You mean… if I win the Elevare, Ashton doesn’t have to die?” the Prince asked after a long pause, hardly daring to hope. David’s eyes flashed.

“Not quite, son,” he said flatly, leaving no room for argument. “But you won’t be the one to kill him.” “Dad,” Calum breathed, his eyes brimming with tears as the cold determination flooded his father’s face. “Dad, please. You don’t have to do this. Ash is -”

“Oh, your uncle’s murderer is Ash now, is he?” David asked silkily, his eyes hardening. “I won’t let him ruin you too, Calum. I’m doing this for your own good.”

“You’re ruining my life! That’s what you’re doing!” Calum cried, cringing as his voice echoed around the corridor. His eyes were definitely boiling with tears now and he blinked them away frantically, terrified that a reporter might slip past security and spot him losing control just minutes before the second task.

The sound of footsteps approaching became apparent and Calum bit his fist to keep his sob in, hating the fact that David looked just as mortified as his son in the moments before he schooled his expression into something much blanker. Calum copied him, feeling like a child as he stared up at his father helplessly, his eyes widening in horror when a member of staff rounded the corner.

David drew his son into his arms swiftly, the movement tense and awkward as his gloved hands settled firmly on the Prince’s back. The embrace was completely alien and, although almost everything in Calum wanted to pull away – a tiny part of him wanted to cling on and never let go – the Prince allowed the hug because he knew it served a purpose. It gave him a chance to control himself; to smother his emotions and dry his eyes, and catch his breath once more.

The staff member passed them without incident and Calum drew away the moment his father’s hands slipped from his back, his flushed cheeks damp with tears. He made to storm back into the changing room but David grabbed his arm, the touch threatening even despite his ever-present gloves. Calum shuddered in his grip, his eyelashes spiky and damp as he glared at his father.

“Try your hardest to win, son,” David said warningly before some of the tension leaked from his shoulders. “And… good luck out there. You made Tenebris proud last time. Let’s try for a repeat of that, shall we?”

Calum tore his arm free from the King’s grip, his face heating when he noticed the water cooler nearby for the first time. The liquid inside it was churning noisily and he dried his eyes roughly with the sleeves of his stupid suit as he struggled to calm himself, fighting to keep the misery and pain from his expression. He half-ran back into the changing room, only gathering his wits enough to slow down when the door swung shut behind him.

Ashton and Michael rose from the bench when they saw him, both looking concerned enough that Calum realised he hadn’t done a good enough job of hiding his distress. The Crown Prince approached him hesitantly, his eyes widening a little when the closest shower released a sudden cascade of water nearby, clattering noisily onto the floor. Michael hurried to fix it, aware that it would only upset Calum further if it continued to snake across the tiles because his best friend would view that as evidence of his weakness.

“Hey now,” Ashton murmured, his voice soft as he cuddled the younger boy to his chest, biting his lip when the Prince’s expression crumpled. Calum wrapped his arms around the older boy tightly, hiding his tear-streaked face beneath Ashton’s chin as his trembling hands settled on the Crown Prince’s scarred back. “Deep breaths, curly, c’mon now. Dry those pretty eyes.”

Michael chose that moment to reappear, joining their hug with barely a moment of hesitation as he pressed a chaste kiss to his best friend’s dark curls. Calum calmed a little as they held him close but he still didn’t feel brave enough to raise his head; not when his eyes were stinging with tears as he dwelled on the horrible reality of Ashton being murdered by the Tenebran King.

All Calum wanted to do was keep the Crown Prince safe.

It would kill him if something hurt Ashton.

“Cal?” Michael asked softly, his tone undeniably worried. “Cal, what happened?”

Ashton was watching the younger boy fearfully, his hazel eyes damp and wide with concern when the Prince simply shook his head, his lips pressed together tightly.

Calum couldn’t bring himself to answer. He was scared he’d burst into tears if he spoke now… and besides, they both knew him too well. They’d see his guilt in seconds if he looked either of them in the face.

Calum shook his head again, keeping his eyes tightly shut as he forced a smile he didn’t feel.

“I’m fine,” he said weakly, his words choked around the lump in his throat. “Everything’s fine. I’m just nervous.”

“Well, you needn’t be,” Ashton said softly, his tone a little wounded at the younger boy’s blatant lie although he was clearly trying to hide it. “You already beat me last time. Start as you mean to go on, right?”

Ashton headed for the door then, his shoulders slumped with dejection, and Michael sighed when Calum withered in his grip, his cheeks sticky with tears as he watched the Crown Prince’s retreating back in dismay.

“You’re not gonna go after him?” Michael asked uncertainly, his brow creasing into a confused frown when Ashton slipped silently out of the room, presumably heading towards the arena floor. Calum bit his lip, his heart aching in his chest.

“No time,” he whispered, hating himself. “I’ll… I’ll talk to him later... once I’ve got my shit together again.”

Michael sighed, pursing his lips unhappily.

“I really hope you know what you’re doing, Cal,” Michael said softly, his green eyes concerned as he gave his best friend’s shoulder a gentle squeeze. Calum leant into the touch for a moment, exhaling shakily as he finally got his breathing back under control.

“Me too, Mikey,” he murmured, still unable to look the older boy in the face. “More than you know.”

*

The screams and cheers of the crowd were barely touching Ashton today.

He felt small under the harsh lights, his nerves and sadness threatening to take his breath away as he stood beside Calum on the starting line. Each contestant had been given a rucksack and placed before an arch of vines, and Ashton eyed the verdant greenery warily as he clutched the medallion hanging around his neck, feeling the thrum of power beneath his fingers. He recognised the plants that made up the archway after long summer walks with Laura and he bit his lip as he identified the claustra flowers blooming on the vines. The petals caused skin irritation that would gradually become worse – especially after prolonged exposure – and Ashton was careful to keep his distance from them, biting his lip uneasily when he glanced over and saw Calum watching the flowers curiously.

“Don’t touch them, Cal,” Ashton muttered, his words barely loud enough to be heard over the sound of the crowd taking their seats. “They’ll burn your skin.” The Crown Prince turned away before he received an answer, squaring his shoulders when he felt the younger boy’s gaze settling on his face. Ashton felt pathetic that his feelings had been so easily hurt by Calum hiding behind his defences and he pressed his lips together hard as he stared up towards the commentary box, silently pleading for a distraction so that he could avoid getting upset on a planet-wide broadcast.

Fortunately, he didn’t have long to wait.

The volume of the crowd quietened as a spotlight shone down and, with his usual flourish, Harry Styles strode out into the commentary box. His hair had grown longer since the first task, twisted into elaborate ringlets as he waved a bejewelled hand at the spectators. He was dressed in a navy blue suit, the shimmering material interrupted with sparkling silver moons and stars which seemed to emit a curious glow beneath the piercing beam of light.

“Welcome, one and all, to the second task of the Elevare, the Venari!” Harry cried, his voice amplified around the arena as he spread his arms in greeting. “If the knowledge of my existence has somehow escaped some poor souls in the furthest corners of Cerasus, I’m Harry Styles – your host for the tournament, fashionista and baker of truly excellent cupcakes, and quarter-finalist of A Starlet In Claritas!”

A murmur of laughter rippled through the crowd and, apparently cheered by this, Harry stepped to the edge of the commentary box, the constellations on his suit slowly drifting across the material as a shooting star soared across one of his lapels in a burst of silver glitter.

“Right, enough about my achievements!” he declared in what he probably hoped was a modest tone, sweeping his dark curls out of his face with an elegant wave of his hand. “Let me explain to you all the intricacies of the Venari. If you look down towards our dashing young champions below, you’ll see that they’ve both been equipped with some rather snazzy rucksacks – unfortunately not from my own fashion range although I certainly suggested it. Does anyone know the reason for these bags?”

Harry paused like he was expecting an answer before his signature grin lit up his face, sending his green eyes sparkling.

“By the end of the next hour, those rucksacks should be fit to bursting with magical artefacts and weapons, all of which will benefit our champions during the fourth and final challenge,” Harry announced. “My friends, to put it simply: the Venari is essentially a scavenger hunt. Our contestants must race each other across the arena floor to locate as many items as possible in under sixty minutes, preferably without stumbling into any traps along the way - and remember, champions, it would be unwise to let your guard down. The stakes are higher than ever!”

Ashton gulped as he listened to that, exchanging a brief nervous glance with Calum as he tightened the straps of the rucksack where it was dangling from his shoulders. The medallion on his chest was heating up a little now, lifting on the chain as it drifted closer to the archway. Clearly the enchantment was growing stronger as the seconds ticked away and Ashton felt the hairs on the back of his neck rising as he curled his hands into fists, taking a deep steadying breath.

“As I’m sure you all remember from the exciting Impedimentum challenge, our Claritan Crown Prince will be granted early entry today,” Harry reminded the spectators. “Now, if you’ll all look to the comm screen where the live broadcast is being displayed, you’ll be able to see a countdown in the corner.” Harry gestured to it grandly as he spoke, his glittering blue nail varnish sparkling beneath the lights. “As soon as the task begins, the countdown will activate, enabling us to keep track of how much time our champions have remaining as they gather as many powerful items as possible.”

The lights above the arena floor illuminated suddenly, making Ashton and Calum squint. The crowd gasped in shock as it became apparent just how much had changed since the first task and the older boy felt his heart sinking as he tried in vain to peer through the twisting vines that made up the archway, desperate for some small glimpse of what they were about to be up against.

“Without further ado,” Harry began, his words filling the arena. “Ashton, please approach your archway. The medallion should react with the vines and – Aha! You’ve been granted passage.” The flowers around the arch withered and the Crown Prince relaxed as he stepped closer, no longer worried about the petals burning his skin.

“Your ten minute bonus time starts now, Ashton,” Harry declared, a smile curving his lips as the Crown Prince stepped through the archway into the shadowy glade beyond. “Good luck.”

The flowers bloomed around the archway once more and, as the vines blocked any escape attempt, Ashton caught a brief glimpse of Calum’s frightened face staring back at him before the arena was hidden from sight.

He exhaled shakily at the sudden silence, fighting to keep the fear from his expression as he squared his shoulders warily, peering into the gloom. He knew there’d be cameras hidden all over the place and that was why he tried his hardest to appear confident. There was no way on all of Cerasus that he’d give the press any material to hold over him at all – especially not footage of the Crown Prince cowering in fear because he didn’t like being stranded alone in a dark forest.

Squaring his jaw, Ashton stepped forwards into the shadows, his boots cracking the twigs beneath his feet as he hefted the rucksack higher on his shoulders. He couldn’t hear Harry’s commentary from the arena floor and, although he understood the reason for this on an objective level - being able to hear what his contestant was doing, and vice versa, would put them both at a disadvantage - it did nothing to put Ashton’s nerves at ease.

The forest stretched out sinisterly around him, the ground rising in jagged cliffs and plunging into narrow ravines as a deep river cut through the landscape, the water lapping at the banks. The magic in the air was tangible, the enchantments crackling around the Crown Prince as goosebumps rose on his skin.

As Ashton gazed about him at the gnarled trees pressing in, he felt the dread rising inside him like a wave. An hour to explore this place felt like nothing at all but he knew there was no point wasting the extra time he’d been given. It would be mortifying if Calum’s archway opened and the younger boy found Ashton standing frozen to the spot, too cowardly to step off the path.

Damnit, Ashton had fought on the Boneflats! Why should he be scared of a little enchanted forest?

He slipped beneath the foliage with more confidence, his stride lengthening as the shadows swallowed him whole. The trail forked up ahead and Ashton slowed, biting his lip as he considered both options nervously. One path led dangerously close beside something that looked suspiciously like a mortifern - although surely that couldn’t be the case with this much magic in the air, unless someone was trying to do the champions serious damage - and the second trail was interrupted by a gigantic web spanning between several trees. The mysterious strands were thick and glistening with something that smelt acrid enough that the Crown Prince decided to risk the wrath of the mortifern, figuring that it was wiser to deal with something he was familiar with than whatever mysterious creature had created the web.

Ashton skirted past the mortifern warily, taking care to avoid the acid welling inside the carnivorous plant as he pushed through the undergrowth beneath his feet. The scent of the bloom brought him back to the Boneflats for a moment; reminded him of the danger of harvesting the plants and how brutally the flowers could burn if he was reckless enough to let them touch his skin.

Ashton’s heart rose into his throat as he slipped safely past, his eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness as he crept deeper into the woodland, opting not to use his flames to light the way in case there were any more mortiferns lurking in the trees. A brief burst of cheering sounded suddenly, sending his pulse roaring in his veins as his heart clenched in panic, and he knew instinctively that Calum had just been granted entry into the forest too.

Ashton needed to move faster.

He was weaving between a cluster of trees with awkwardly low-lying branches when he stopped suddenly, his attention caught by a glimmer of silver in the darkness. He peered over, his eyes widening when he spotted a wicked-looking dagger tucked inside the hollow of one of the trees nearby. Claustra flowers coiled threateningly around the trunk but, since there were no mortiferns in sight, Ashton figured it would be safe enough to burn the flowers away, provided he held his breath so as not to inhale any of the smoke since that would undoubtedly damage his lungs.

The roots of the trees were submerged beneath stagnant water and Ashton only realised this after he’d stepped closer, cringing as it sloshed over the top of his boots. It seemed deeper in places - he even thought he could see fishes flickering beneath the surface - and he bit his lip as he gripped one of the overhanging branches tightly, wriggling closer to the dagger as he prepared to summon a flame.

He was already reaching towards the nearest claustra flowers when a sudden scratching sound caught his attention. A small dark-furred animal scurried into view and, after catching a brief glimpse of red-rimmed eyes and pointed fangs, Ashton felt his heart sink in his chest. It was a mordere - a vicious little rodent with a painful (although fortunately nontoxic) bite - and he cursed when he saw it, silently hoping that it had been fed recently so that it wouldn’t try to take a chunk out of his flesh.

“Easy,” he breathed, feeling increasingly stupid when he realised that all of the spectators were probably jeering at him right this second for trying to reason with the beast. “Easy now.”

The creature’s claws appeared, biting briefly into the bark, and Ashton was already deciding that perhaps the dagger wasn’t worth the effort when the mordere leapt at him, snarling fiercely as its claws tore his cheek, sending him staggering backwards.

Ashton hit the water with a cry, completely disoriented as he sank like a stone. He’d been expecting it to be shallow but… fuck, it seemed to stretch on for miles as the inky shadows crept up to meet him. No amount of thrashing would help either; the roots were too closely packed to allow him any chance of an easy escape and his lungs were screaming at him for air as he plunged down, reaching uselessly towards the surface.

The panic inside threatened to consume him as the freezing water numbed the burning pain of the claw marks on his cheek. The bubbles drifting towards the surface as the last of Ashton’s oxygen supply escaped him seemed to be mocking him and he struggled with renewed anxiety when his feet hit the muddy bottom, the reeds twisting themselves tightly around his ankles.

Ashton struggled but it was no use. It seemed that no one was coming to save him and he was already out of air.

He was as good as dead.

*

The confidence Calum had exuded during the Impedimentum was long gone.

Something about the Venari felt a lot more frightening and he felt like a little kid who should never even have considered participating in the Elevare when he crept through the archway, heeding Ashton's advice as he slipped beneath the mysterious flowers.

The first task had seemed easier; maybe just because it had been a chance for Calum to prove his strength and show off how hard he’d trained… but this challenge didn’t seem the same somehow. He’d have to be shrewd and alert; would have to consider every option carefully before he took any chances.

The hour stretched ahead of him painfully and Calum felt sick with nerves as he glanced over his shoulder uncertainly, hating the way he felt like he was being watched by whatever was lurking in the forest. He wished he could’ve gone in with Ashton at the same time; wished the atmosphere between the pair of them wasn’t so strained after Calum had shut him out again, right after promising he wouldn’t.

His fingers itched to bite into his thighs but he kept his hands curled into fists, trying hard not to hurt himself when he knew how much it upset the people he cared about. Unfortunately, that line of thought inevitably led to David and Calum’s heart ached in his chest as he recalled their conversation in the corridor; remembered the unnatural feeling of his father’s arms wrapped around him and the tears boiling in Calum’s eyes when David told him that he was planning to kill Ashton in order to keep his son safe.

As the trees soared up around him, Calum realised that it didn’t matter in the slightest that he’d won the first task. He needed to win this one too – needed to win every challenge – but the Crown Prince had the upper hand this time after being granted early access into the forest. Calum knew Ashton was smarter than him too; quicker and sharper, and even more fiercely determined to do well after he’d lost the Impedimentum.

Maybe it didn’t matter how hard Calum tried today. Maybe there was no way he could win the Elevare; no way he could bring victory to Tenebris and convince his father to let Ashton live. Maybe Calum had lost the battle before he’d even begun.

Movement in the undergrowth nearby jarred him from his thoughts and, as the Prince’s dark eyes settled on a frighteningly familiar web blocking the path ahead of him, a growing rumble sounded, like many heavy feet striking the ground. Calum turned and ran, his blood as cold as ice in his veins, his boots pounding over the rotting debris scattering the floor as he tried to keep from falling.

The heavy steps slamming against the cracked earth were louder now and Calum didn’t let himself slow, not even when his path took him past one of those awful flowers that had caused him so much agony during the first task. He slipped past it as quietly as he could, his heart pounding with panic as he heard a screech behind him; heard the creak of a tree falling as something huge forced its way after him.

Calum lost it in a grove of trees, wading through the thick mud before he dragged himself up into the branches. Climbing the trees was a thousand times easier than climbing the rock wall during the first task – it definitely helped that he couldn’t see the audience watching him – and Calum took shelter there until the creature below had blundered away. He was about to descend when he became aware of a low humming noise and, frowning in confusion, the Prince’s gaze alighted on a flask tucked into the foliage above him.

His heart skipped a beat with excitement when he reached for it, his eyes widening at the subtle warmth emanating through the metal. He brought it closer to his face, peering at the contents curiously until he identified it as liquid fire which he knew would be invaluable during the final challenge. It would take away the advantage Ashton’s abilities gave him.

Calum stowed the flask carefully in his rucksack, relaxing a little as he finally began to feel an echo of the confidence he'd felt during the Impedimentum. He climbed back down onto the muddy ground cautiously, his gaze furtive as he scanned his surroundings to ensure that he was alone.

He was just trying to decide which direction to go in next – the ‘away from the mortifern’ went unsaid – when a noise shattered the silence around him. It sounded like a cry of pain – it sounded like Ashton – and, as the dread welled inside the Prince like poison, he heard a faint splash, followed by an ominous silence.

“Fuck,” Calum cursed, hurling himself through the mud in pursuit of the sound as he reached out with his abilities, trying to locate the water source. Clearly the older boy was in trouble and Calum forgot the competition in a heartbeat, already searching desperately for the Crown Prince because Ashton needed him. The task would have to wait.

Calum broke through the treeline, his boots splashing in sudden puddles as he approached a cluster of trees with low-lying branches. Deep claw marks slashed the bark and he avoided those areas as best he could, his heart pounding unpleasantly in his chest as he looked around frantically. Ashton was nowhere to be seen and Calum leant against one of the closest trees heavily, struggling to calm himself as he reached out once more with his magic.

He froze in horror when he sensed how much deeper the rippling water became around the roots of the trees; when he detected the tiny bubbles bursting on the surface which could mean nothing good. Calum stumbled closer, taking care to keep one arm looped around a branch overhead as he extended a hand, focusing on the tiny waves breaking against the tree trunks as he identified the violent movement far below the surface.

Ashton was trapped down there – maybe even drowning – and Calum’s heart felt like it had stopped beating in his chest when he focused on the body writhing below the water, curling his hand into a fist and wrenching it upwards. Ashton should have shot up with force – that was how it had always happened before, on those rare occasions when Calum had had to use his powers to save someone during a childhood of playing by the lakes in Effervo – but nothing happened.

Ashton remained below the surface, unable to swim… unable to breathe.

Calum could feel the resistance as something fought to keep the Crown Prince from floating to the surface and… fuck. Fuck. There was only one thing he could think of that might help the older boy but it was so dangerous. Calum would exhaust himself; might even end up joining Ashton drifting limply in the current but… no. This was the only way and it was a sacrifice the Prince was more than willing to make.

Ashton had suffered enough. Calum couldn’t stand by and let that happen again.

He couldn’t. Ashton needed him.

Calum plunged his hand through the surface like a knife, exerting as much energy as possible as he forced the water apart. It fought him with every centimetre he gained but he kept pushing it anyway, his desperation lending him strength as he panted. With one final wave of his hand, he sent the parted water flooding out in opposite directions, forceful enough that one of the nearby trees fell with a mighty crash as the floodwater slipped away, revealing a gorge cutting between the twisted roots.

Ashton was lying crumpled at the bottom, his skin splattered with mud and blood, his ankles bound with reeds. A horrible choking sound escaped him as he coughed up water but at least he was breathing and Calum let that thought comfort him as he clung to the branch over his head, his legs dangling for a moment before a wave of exhaustion overwhelmed him.

He let go unthinkingly, dropping like a stone before he hit the ground by the Crown Prince’s side. His suit absorbed most of the force but it still winded him and, for a moment, they simply lay there side by side, both of them breathless and teary-eyed as their heart rates finally returned to normal.

After a moment, Calum pushed himself into a shaky sitting position, wincing at a dull throbbing pain he could feel in his wrist where he’d hit the ground. He tore away the reeds wrapped around Ashton’s ankles as gently as he could, swallowing past the lump rising in his throat when the older boy’s gaze settled on his face. There were bruises marring the skin underneath the reeds and Calum looked up at the Crown Prince unhappily, taking in the way his crimson curls were plastered to his head as he shivered at the freezing water soaking him.

“Thank you,” Ashton croaked, coughing again as he gasped for air. There were tears trickling down his cheeks, carving a path through the mud and blood smeared across his ashen skin, and Calum reached for him unthinkingly, his hands trembling as he cradled the older boy's face gently between his palms.

“Are you okay, angel?” Calum murmured, the pad of his thumb smoothing over Ashton’s uninjured cheekbone soothingly. The older boy shrugged, huffing out a weak laugh that only managed to sound small and frightened as he leant into the contact.

“Thanks to you, curly,” he breathed, his eyelashes spiky with tears as he let their foreheads rest together for a moment of comfort. “Fuck, I really need to learn how to swim.”

“I’ll teach you,” Calum said, giving him a watery smile as a tear slipped down his own cheek. “I promise.”

The cut on the older boy’s cheek looked more painful than Calum had initially realised and he winced at the sight of the claw marks on Ashton’s skin, biting his lip as he glanced over his shoulder for the healers who had been present during the Impedimentum. There was no one in sight today and Calum glared accusingly at the silent forest, the puddles rippling as his anger grew.

“Where the fuck are the healers?” the younger boy snapped, his voice tight with rage and fear as he watched the blood welling sluggishly on the cut marring Ashton’s cheek. “Someone should’ve come to help you!”

“Well, Harry said the stakes were higher this time,” the Crown Prince muttered, shrugging uncertainly as a shiver ran through him. “Maybe this is what he meant.”

Calum smoothed Ashton’s hair back shakily, trying to convince himself that the older boy was alright as his heart clenched painfully in his chest at the prospect of losing him. He couldn’t cope with the fact that Ashton had almost been killed; couldn’t comprehend the awful reality of losing the Crown Prince in any situation at all, let alone such a horrific one before Calum had even had a chance to apologise for upsetting the older boy.

The aching love he felt for Ashton hit him like a lightning bolt and Calum felt like he was going to fall down when the older boy met his eyes, his beautiful face so gentle beneath the mud and the blood. The Prince forced his emotions away, deciding that he couldn't possibly dwell on them now, especially not on a live broadcast in front of the entire planet.

He needed to focus instead. He needed to keep his wits about him so that neither of them ended up getting killed.

“You would've died if I hadn't turned up,” Calum said faintly, frightened by the truth of his words as his bottom lip wobbled. “You’d be dead right now… and it’s just for their entertainment, isn’t it?” He jerked his thumb angrily in the vague direction they’d arrived in, hating every spectator who’d sat and watched this happen. “This is all just to keep everyone from being at each other’s throats.”

“Cal, I’m okay,” Ashton whispered, apparently unsure of what else to say. His hazel eyes were growing damp once more as he drew the younger boy into a tight hug, pressing his lips subtly to the Prince's neck. “You saved me. I promise I’m okay.”

“We need to get out of here,” Calum said softly, clambering to his feet and extending a hand to help the older boy up. He realised too late that it was the wrist he’d injured during the fall but he didn’t care. Calum’s pain had never meant less to him than it did in that moment. He’d saved Ashton and that was all that mattered.

“Did you see that web back there?” the younger boy asked suddenly, his face draining of colour as he remembered the sound of the many-legged creature chasing him through the shadows. When Ashton glanced up at him nervously, his lips parting a little in surprise at the fear on the Prince’s face, Calum couldn’t stop himself from wrapping an arm around the older boy’s waist to keep him close. “There’s a fucking saeva on the loose in here, Ash, so try to stem the blood if you can, okay? You don’t want it scenting you.”

“What’s a saeva?” Ashton asked fearfully, blotting the cut on his cheek frantically with his sleeve as he racked his brains for his biology lessons back at school. Calum sighed, shaking his head grimly.

“Think giant, ten-legged spider with fangs longer than your forearm,” he said unhappily. “That way, you’ll only be a little bit surprised if you’re ever unlucky enough to encounter one.”

Ashton tensed, biting his lip hard as he pressed closer to Calum’s side, clearly frightened.

“Will it try to kill us?” he whispered, his hazel eyes wide with nervousness.

“Maybe,” Calum said honestly. “But saevas don’t like fire… so provided there are no more mortiferns lurking in our vicinity, you should be able to scare it off pretty easily.”

“Okay,” Ashton murmured, letting a curl of bluish-white flame lick across his knuckles as he curled his hand into a fist. “That means it’ll be my turn to keep you safe instead.”

“Let’s just hope it isn’t necessary,” Calum muttered but his words were largely ignored as Ashton stilled beside him, squinting into the shadows. Something was reflecting the firelight back at them and, as the Prince watched in confusion, Ashton’s expression suddenly brightened as he darted closer, taking his warmth with him.

“I’m lucky it was this tree that fell down,” the older boy said, his voice still a little rough from coughing as he approached the trunk. “There was something inside that I was reaching for when that mordere tried to rip my face off.”

“Oh yeah?” Calum asked curiously as he drifted after Ashton, cradling his injured wrist to his chest. “What’s that then?”

“It’s a dagger,” the older boy said with a shrug. “Had this really nasty blade on it – sort of curved I think? I’ve never seen a weapon like it before.”

The words made something uneasy unfurl in Calum’s chest but it wasn’t until he saw Ashton reaching for the dagger – his bare skin a mere hair's breadth away from the gleaming metal – that the Prince realised where he’d seen the weapon before.

DON’T!” Calum shouted, his heart in his throat as he eyed the older boy in horror. His outburst frightened Ashton so much that he stumbled and almost knocked the blade anyway, and Calum felt like he couldn’t breathe until he’d dragged the older boy to safety, his arms wrapped firmly around the Crown Prince before he dropped him like hot coals, not wanting to give the press anything further to use against them.

“Don’t touch it,” Calum repeated, his tone breathless and pleading as he took in the doubt burning in Ashton’s hazel eyes. “Please, Ash. Just… just don’t.”

Calum had grown up in terrified awe of the dagger. It was usually locked away securely in a case in his father’s study and there was no way on all of Cerasus that it could have ended up here by accident. The metal was dangerously enchanted – even a single drop of blood drawn from the blade spelt instant death for the unlucky victim – and Calum felt sick that Ashton had almost touched it; couldn’t stand the thought that he’d snatched the older boy from the jaws of death, only to potentially lose him to a scratch the size of a papercut.

“Please, angel,” Calum said softly, his wrist aching worse than ever as he watched the Crown Prince beseechingly, his heart pounding at the way Ashton shot the dagger a curious glance. “Please don’t. It’s not worth it.”

“Are you hiding something else from me?” Ashton asked quietly and, although his tone held no venom, his words still made Calum flinch.

“No, I’m not,” the younger boy snapped, trying to hide his hurt. “If I was, I would’ve let you touch that blade, wouldn’t I?” He sore wrist dangled limply at his side as he bit his lip, trying to calm himself so that he wouldn’t let anything dangerous slip out. “I just… I’ve read about that weapon,” he said eventually, his tone awkward and uncertain. “Even the tiniest cut from it is enough to kill you – I’m not kidding; it literally causes instant death – but sure, I was obviously just telling you for some other nefarious reason.”

Ashton slumped, rubbing the back of his neck uncomfortably as a sigh escaped him. It seemed that the atmosphere was making him twitchy too and Calum exhaled heavily, trying to let his frustration out. He didn’t want to fight with Ashton, especially not after he’d just got him back again. They didn’t have time for this.

Calum dread to think how much of their hour had been wasted since the challenge had begun and he refused to waste more precious time now.

“I don’t want the dagger, Ash!” he said fiercely, trying desperately to make the older boy believe him. “I’m not lying to you just so I can snatch it up when you’re not looking, okay?” Calum shouldered his way past, snatching the weapon carefully from the hollowed-out trunk before he launched it away by the hilt, sending it hurtling into the undergrowth. “Please just trust me, angel. We’re both better off without this dagger anywhere near us.”

Okay…” Ashton regarded the younger boy with wide hazel eyes, biting his lip a little as he seemed to realise just how serious the Prince was. “Sorry for doubting you.” He shrugged uneasily, grimacing a little at the worrying emptiness of his rucksack. It made Calum think of his own for a moment and all he could feel was gratitude that the liquid fire hadn’t been unleashed when he’d fallen.

“You're kind of hot when you're mad, curly,” Ashton snickered suddenly, apparently keen to break the tension that had fallen as he elbowed the Prince lightly in the ribs. Calum scoffed, rolling his tired eyes fondly.

“Just alert the whole world to us,” he muttered but it was hard to be annoyed when Ashton was watching him like that, with so much gratitude and relief.

“Thank you for keeping me safe, Cal,” the older boy murmured, his expression softening as he noticed how hard the Prince was still breathing. Calum’s lingering anxiety must have been painfully evident because Ashton gave him a long look, his hazel gaze undeniably gentle.

“We’ve used up a lot of our time,” he said hesitantly, kicking at the mud beneath his boots shyly as he ducked his head. “You wanna work together this time, curly?”

Calum smiled, his dimples creasing his cheeks as he gave Ashton’s hand a brief squeeze.

“Yeah,” he said slowly as some of the tension bled from his shoulders, the relief plain on his face. “I'd like that a lot.”

*

Ashton could barely get his rucksack zipped shut by the time their hour was up and Calum's was in much the same state. They’d split every item they found between them, ensuring that neither had more of one sort of weapon or armour than the other. They’d agreed silently that they would draw this challenge, both of them almost defiant as they methodically scoured the drenched forest, sloshing through the floodwater Calum had displaced as they searched for magical artefacts. Luckily, their joint exploration had proved incredibly fruitful.

An illuminated path appeared to guide them safely out of the forest once their time was up and, as the sound of cheering and Harry’s commentary greeted them for a second time, Ashton exchanged a wry smile with Calum, his eyes glittering in the dimness, the blood drying in a dark streak on his cheek.

They were both weighed down with the various items they’d discovered and, as they walked, Ashton ran through them in his head, silently calculating which would prove most useful in the final challenge. Between them, they’d found leather armour, powerful guns that shot both bullets and lasers, wickedly-pointed spears and lances, gleaming rapiers and scimitars, powerful shields and charmed sabatons to increase speed, enchanted necklaces and gauntlets, magical cloaks and throwing knives, crossbows and grenades, and even flasks containing spells – blinding sun to render the victim momentarily sightless, inky darkness to smother the opponent’s senses, and many others that were so obscure Ashton had never heard of them before.

He felt uneasy as he considered just how lethal the contents of their rucksacks were. Ashton had a sword tucked into a sheath encircling his waist now, a gun once more holstered at his thigh as the flasks clinked menacingly in his bag. Beside him, Calum wasn’t much better, carrying a sharp spear over one shoulder as his injured wrist dangled uselessly at his side, his fingernails dirty with mud and blood.

“You okay, angel?” Calum murmured as the pair of them slowly approached the judges. They remained as impassive as they had the first time but Harry seemed jittery beside them, the light-up stars on his suit swirling to mirror his excitement as he looked between the two champions knowingly.

“Mostly,” Ashton said with a weak shrug, hoping the cameras couldn’t pick up what he was saying. “I just… I hate thinking of using any of the things we found today against you. It was bad enough on the Boneflats when it was enemies but… you’re you, Cal. I couldn’t hurt you for anything.”

Ashton fell silent at the sheen of tears in Calum’s eyes, swallowing audibly past the lump in his throat.

“I know I hurt you today anyway,” the Crown Prince breathed suddenly, fisting his eyes fiercely to hide any evidence of tears from the press. “I’m sorry for walking out before the task when you were already upset… and I’m sorry for being suspicious about the dagger. I know you were only trying to keep me safe. I’m… I’m very grateful.”

“I know you are,” Calum said honestly, smiling tiredly as he hefted the spear up higher on his shoulder, the metal gleaming in the light. “It’s kind of why I stick around.”

“Because I’m grateful?” Ashton asked lightly, his tone teasing. Calum grinned.

“And because you’re powerful, funny, beautiful…” He counted them off on his fingers, wincing a little at the ache in his wrist although he didn’t seem to care. “You make me want to do better, angel,” he said quietly, his voice softer now. “You make me want to be better.” He shook his head slowly, apparently in awe. “You make me want to be…”

Ashton leant against Calum subtly as they stopped before the judges, largely tuning out Harry’s commentary although the older man was clearly curious about their relationship and digging for information. Calum simply smiled at their host blandly while Ashton stared down at the grass, more focused on the heat of the Prince beside him than the muttering judges sorting through the various magical artefacts the pair had returned with.

A shocked gasp rippled through the crowd when the judges declared that the two champions had gathered exactly the same number of items and the meaningful look on Harry’s face seemed to multiply tenfold as he deliberately stared between the pair of them. Ashton’s cheeks heated as he sidled awkwardly on the spot and Calum cleared his throat, holding Harry’s gaze as he brushed the back of the Crown Prince’s hand gently with his own.

“So…” Harry drawled into his microphone, his words a little kinder than Ashton had been expecting. “It seems our two champions have been working together, a feat that's previously been unheard of during the Elevare! Anything to say for yourself, boys?”

“I have something to say,” Calum said sharply. “Why were there no healers present? Ashton almost drowned and I’m fairly certain my wrist is broken. We could’ve done with some help.” The last word was twisted and bitter, and the Crown Prince’s eyes widened when he noticed the water churning violently inside the judges’ cups.

“Luckily, we survived,” Ashton interjected, his knuckles brushing Calum’s soothingly as he fixed Harry and the judges with a cool stare. “I don’t see why anyone should be unhappy that we worked together. This way, no one will have an unfair advantage during the final task… and, of course, there’s the added bonus of the planet getting to watch a Claritan and a Tenebran joining forces – the very picture of international cooperation. Isn’t that what the Elevare is supposed to be about?”

The crowd broke into murmurs as the judges exchanged uncertain glances and Harry smiled slowly, nodding a little as he conceded the point. Ashton didn’t care in the slightest what the rest of the world thought of him anymore; not when the Prince was standing taller beside him like the words had strengthened him.

Ashton couldn’t turn against Calum if his life depended on it, no matter how much was at stake.

He was so soft for the younger boy that it scared him.

The only saving grace was that he knew the Prince felt the same way about him.

Ashton could see the love shining blazingly in Calum’s beautiful eyes.

It burnt like the sun.

Chapter Text

I lose my voice when I look at you.

Can't make a noise though I'm trying to

Tell you all the right words;

Waiting on the right words.

- Black Butterflies & Déjà Vu, The Maine

 

Laura looked at herself curiously in the mirror, her teeth worrying at her bottom lip as she smoothed the dress Mali had persuaded her to wear for the party tonight. It had taken ages to put together, the skirt painstakingly patterned with real flower petals in blacks, yellows, and reds. It was possibly a little on the nose and definitely a far cry from her usual style – her parents had both exchanged wide-eyed looks anyway – but Laura was determined to feel proud wearing it.

The dress had been created in very loud support of Ashton who, to this day, was still being nicknamed the Fire Prince for his actions on the Boneflats. Laura dwelled on that as she adjusted the skirt, her fingertips brushing over the petals in their garish shades. The harshness of the colours was softened by the flowers and the fine golden jewellery Mali had crafted for her only helped further, the burnished leaves and vines coiling delicately around her wrists as they gleamed in the light.

Her long fair hair cascaded down her back, brushing the pearly skin where the material had been cut away, only making the dress more striking. It was definitely more to Mali’s tastes than her own and Laura felt her uncertainty growing as she fiddled nervously with a lock of hair, taking in the ruby-coloured flowers she’d twisted into the loose curls Luke had meticulously created for her earlier in the evening.

Maybe she should have gone with something prettier and floatier for the party. Maybe she’d walk in and the press would find something else to criticise her for.

No sooner had the thought crossed her mind, a soft knock on the bathroom door sounded. Laura blushed as she grabbed the closest thing to her – it happened to be eyeliner – and began to apply some with a little more haste than was probably wise, mostly so it wouldn’t look like she’d simply been standing there staring at her reflection in silence.

“Can I come in?” Michael called through the door and Laura gave a small smile, even as she bit her lip at the unevenness of her makeup.

“Sure, sparky,” she replied distractedly, leaning closer to the mirror as she tried to wipe away a smear of eyeliner. Her hands were still shaking a little from the nerves she’d felt watching the second task a few hours earlier so expecting her makeup to be perfect had probably been unrealistic to begin with.

After watching the horrifying moment when a bleeding Ashton had plunged into the water and not resurfaced, and then to have the stress of Calum potentially burning himself out in an attempt to save the older boy before snapping his wrist – all while the entire thing was being broadcast across the planet – definitely helped Laura put her concerns into perspective.

At least both of the boys were okay now though. Niall and Laura had fixed them up afterwards, and that was all that mattered.

Michael poked his head around the door endearingly, his emerald eyes widening when they settled on her dress. She watched his reaction nervously, visibly relaxing when he grinned at her, his expression approving.

“If I could wolf whistle,” he began seriously. “Now would be the perfect time to do that.”

“Oh, be quiet,” Laura huffed but she couldn’t quite stop herself from laughing as he closed the distance between them, his hands settling lightly on her hips. His blond hair looked softer than ever tonight, flopping down over his pale forehead as he glanced down excitedly at the outfit he’d chosen. The tight blue jeans suited him but Laura was utterly in love with the shirt he was wearing. It was one of the garments they’d picked together on a shopping trip the week before and it made her so happy to watch Michael embracing Claritan culture, wearing pretty clothes even though he’d been raised to think they were unnecessary.

“I like the pattern on your shirt,” she said softly, her fingertips brushing the daisies embroidered across the material. “You want some flowers for your hair too?”

Michael considered it for a moment before a small smile touched his lips.

“Just one please,” he said hesitantly, his expression shy. “Thank you, petal.”

Laura tried to ignore the blush heating her cheeks as she grew him a daisy, tucking it neatly into his soft hair. Michael preened a little and she lowered her gaze, giving him the privacy he deserved to enjoy this. She pressed a kiss to his cheek instead, lingering there and smiling at the contented hum that escaped him as he turned his head, their lips brushing.

“Are you doing glitter again?” he asked, his green eyes sparkling and hopeful. “If you are, can I have some too please?”

“How can I say no when you ask so nicely?” Laura said teasingly, her lips curving into a smile as she reached for the little pot of glitter Luke had left on the sink. “Go sit on the edge of the bath, sparky, okay? Or it’ll go everywhere.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said smartly, ducking when she attempted to bat him lightly round the head. “Hey, don’t mess up my daisy!”

“You know I could just grow you another one, right?” she pointed out, one eyebrow rising. Michael huffed, trying to hide his smirk.

“Well, sure you could… but I like this one, see?” He covered it protectively with his hand, smiling smugly. “It’s my favourite daisy ever. I’m never taking it out.”

Laura’s smile softened as she smeared the first streak of golden glitter over his cheekbone and he fell silent, watching her owlishly. She liked how much he seemed to be enjoying this; liked the confidence he exuded when he wasn’t wearing plain black clothing. It didn’t seem to bother Michael that he wasn’t dressed like everyone else; that he didn’t fit in with Tenebrans or Claritans completely. He didn’t care that Luke was wearing pretty flowing blue robes that looked like the ocean while Ashley would be attending tonight wearing nothing but a simple black suit. Michael had found a style that suited him – functional the way he’d always favoured but pretty enough that his clothes made him stand out in a positive light for once – and Laura loved watching his self-confidence blooming.

“The gold goes well with your dress,” Michael noticed, his eyes fluttering shut for a moment as the older girl rubbed the pad of her thumb gently over his pale skin, leaving a trail of glitter behind. His cheeks heated suddenly, only managing to highlight the pretty lavender of his eyelids as he leant into her palm for a moment, still avoiding her gaze. “I… I feel really lucky to have you beside me,” he mumbled, embarrassed but sincere. “I think everyone else will realise how lucky I am too… when they see you looking so beautiful tonight.”

His eyes opened in surprise when she ducked down to kiss him but they quickly slid shut, his hands rising clumsily to cradle her cheeks as he sighed into it. The kiss was soft and warm, and Laura felt safer than she ever had as she looked down at him, his eyes sparkling brightly beneath the lights.

He was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.

His gaze had dropped to her dress again, his expression impressed and curious as he touched one of the flower petals. There was something else shining in his face too and it took her a moment to identify it as pride.

Laura smiled softly, her heart full in her chest as the trembling of her fingers finally ceased.

There was no need to be frightened anymore.

Michael made her feel brave.

*

The Caelum Assembly Building was almost as spectacular as the Lumen Centre. It was situated on a wide avenue opposite a beautifully-tended park and Calum gazed out over the neatly-manicured lawn for a moment, releasing a soft sigh. He could sense the crystal clear water filling the fountains even from here and he tried his best to let it soothe him, cradling his bandaged wrist gently where it was still aching a little after his fall earlier in the day.

He didn’t feel totally comfortable being here tonight, especially when he recalled what had become of the Lumen Centre. The atmosphere was undeniably tense as he they left their transports behind, heading towards the red carpet that had been rolled out to greet them.

Calum’s comm chimed in his pocket and he grimaced, not even bothering to check it. The news bulletins were being updated all the time tonight and had been ever since the Purgatio had posted a threatening video detailing just how angry they were at the result of the second challenge. It seemed that they - like Harry - were also of the opinion that drawing in the Elevare was impossible without the champions actively working together and, naturally, the Purgatio were vehemently opposed to this.

The threats had made Calum feel sick at first but he was doing his best to ignore them now, not wanting to ruin tonight when it was supposed to be about celebration. Ashton looked similarly determined beside him, the claw marks on his cheek still a livid red although the wound had been healed by Niall so there was no risk of infection or further bleeding.

Mali strode along on Calum’s other side, dressed in a burnt orange dress, the chiffon flowing like water around her as the sun began to set behind the Caelum Assembly Building. Her makeup was immaculate, the rose gold of her jewellery gleaming beneath the fiery skies overhead.

Sierra led the way towards the security point, her dark hair swept back into a ponytail and her features arranged into a cautious frown. She’d donned a high-necked black dress that just reached her knees over the tights she was wearing, the long sleeves stretching down over her fists as her boots clicked on the flagstones.

Ashley stuck close behind her charges, dressed in a suit of a similar cut to Calum’s own as her eyes swept over the avenue warily. She remained grimly silent but the dusk was far from quiet. Michael seemed to be doing his best to fill the evening with nervous chatter and Laura’s expression was undeniably fond as she held his arm, her head resting on his shoulder. They both seemed a lot more confident tonight, dressed in unusually bold outfits that weren’t their usual style. Michael especially caught Calum’s eye and he was happy to see his best friend experimenting with fashion in a way he’d clearly longed to do for years.

If nothing else, the Prince was glad the Elevare had gifted Michael the chance to find true happiness. That meant more than Calum could put into words.

Luke and Niall brought up the rear, their fingers tangled together shyly as they followed their friends towards the security point. Luke’s flowing blue robes looked shimmery beneath the sunset, his curls shining as he ran his fingers through them hesitantly. The older man’s suit was a lot more subdued, a simple navy blue with sapphire cufflinks the colour of the younger boy’s eyes. They seemed happy together and Calum offered them a brief smile before his attention was captured by Ashton bumping him lightly in the ribs with his elbow.

“You look so good tonight, curly,” the older boy murmured, hazel eyes twinkling as he took in the emerald velvet suit the Prince was dressed in. “Hope I have the chance to get you out of those clothes later.”

Calum let out a surprised bark of laughter, his chocolate brown eyes crinkling as he pointedly raked his gaze over Ashton’s own outfit, lingering on the ruby-coloured suit and the gemstones decorating his lapels. His tanned skin shone like gold in the sunset, his dimples creasing his beautiful face so perfectly that it took Calum’s breath away for a moment.

“That’s funny,” the younger boy said softly, his lips quirking into a smirk. “I was thinking just the same thing about you.”

The camera flashes began as they waited to pass through the checkpoint and Calum sighed heavily, the anxiety tightening in his chest when he saw the press crowding against the barriers. Ashton hooked their little fingers together subtly, a faint smile growing on his face when Calum visibly relaxed against him although the younger boy couldn’t quite stamp out the concern he felt for the Crown Prince.

The older boy looked so tired in the harsh light of the camera flashes and Calum bit his lip worriedly. It seemed that no amount of glitter or eyeliner would be enough to hide the exhaustion Ashton was fighting, and Calum only hoped he could hold himself together until the end of the Elevare.

It was horrible to see how drained the older boy was now, especially when the Prince realised that Ashton had never really had a chance to recover at all. He’d come back from the Boneflats War in broken pieces and, the very moment he’d scraped himself back together and learnt to walk again, he’d been flung into a dangerous tournament that was only scraping away more of him… and yet, here he was, smiling and holding Calum’s hand, his hazel eyes blazing with life.

Ashton was the strongest person the younger boy had ever met and he felt so proud to have the Crown Prince on his arm like this, regardless of what the press would inevitably say. Calum wasn’t frightened of his growing feelings for Ashton anymore; he hoped he could use them to convince his father to let the older boy survive instead, preferably before any more lives were needlessly lost.

“Took long enough,” Mali muttered when the group were finally allowed through the security checkpoint and into the main corridor of the Caelum Assembly Building. “Guess we’re fashionably late, right?”

“As if you wanted anything else,” Calum pointed out, ducking the weak swipe she sent his way. “You wouldn’t mess my hair up, smiley,” he pointed out, grinning wearily. “You spent long enough fixing it earlier.”

“Well, you made it limp with all that dirty forest water,” Mali said grumpily. “I’m not a miracle worker, peanut. You're lucky it has any volume at all.”

The pair were still squabbling when the group finally entered the main room of the party. Again, Calum was struck by just how similar it was to the Opening Gala in the Lumen Centre and he shivered, reaching automatically to take Ashton’s hand. The Crown Prince levelled him with a fond look as they were guided towards one of the large circular tables edging the dancefloor, the gems on his suit sparkling beneath the chandeliers.

“Tonight is about celebrating, curly,” he reminded Calum softly, his hazel eyes gentle as he drew his chair closer to the younger boy's. “We’ve survived the first half of the tournament and now we get a couple of weeks rest before we fly to Tenebris. This is supposed to be exciting!” Ashton tilted his head to one side curiously, clearly trying to work out the best way to calm the Prince down. “You’re not looking forward to the second half of the Elevare?”

“I’m not looking forward to going home,” Calum corrected miserably. He accepted a drink passed to him by a waiter with a mumbled thanks and Ashton sighed, biting his bottom lip worriedly.

“Well, let’s find something else to celebrate then,” the older boy suggested warmly. “How about all the friends you’ve made since coming here? Or how well you’ve done during both tasks?” His eyes twinkled suddenly, his lips quirking into a smile just mischievous enough that Calum held his breath. “Of course, there are other ways of celebrating,” Ashton continued innocently as his hand settled on Calum’s thigh beneath the table. “Ways that are a lot more fun than a boring old party…” His voice trailed away suggestively and Calum grinned, downing his drink.

“Do you even have to ask, angel?” he murmured, tongue darting out to wet his lips. “Of course I want that.”

It didn’t take them long to locate the restroom and it was blissfully empty when Ashton dragged Calum into the closest cubicle, both of them giggling as they reached for each other. Their lips met and the older boy sighed contentedly, his fingers twisting gently through Calum's hair as the younger boy pressed closer.

The fear and stress of the day bled away when the Prince wrapped his good arm around Ashton’s shoulders, his teeth lightly grazing the older boy’s bottom lip before he deepened the kiss, drawing a soft whine from Ashton. The Crown Prince was panting a little bit, his hands trembling slightly as they slipped inside Calum’s velvet jacket, palms spread warm and possessive over the white dress shirt the younger boy was wearing.

Ashton groaned at the feeling of Calum’s tongue stroking over his own, the warmth in his stomach tightening when the Prince finally let his hips rock forwards to meet Ashton’s. The burn of pleasure left them both gasping and Calum’s head was spinning as he clung to the older boy, the heat between them rising as they lost themselves in each other.

A surprised sound escaped Calum when the older boy’s fingers fell to the button on his trousers, his trembling hands clumsy as he eased them down. Ashton knelt carefully on the tiled floor, stroking the tanned skin of the younger boy’s thighs teasingly as he pressed a kiss to the Prince’s hip. His hazel eyes sparkled when Calum let out a soft moan at the sight of him, his hips jerking when the older boy curled his fingers hesitantly around his cock.

“Look so good on your knees for me, angel,” Calum murmured, his head falling back against the wall when Ashton’s full lips parted around his cock. His red curls were twisted around the younger boy’s fingers, his tongue sliding hotly over the shaft as Calum let out a ragged groan, his knees weakening beneath him at the beautiful sight Ashton made as he hollowed his cheeks, moaning around the younger boy’s cock.

The heat bubbling in the Prince’s stomach grew more urgent when the older boy began to bob his head, his pretty eyes fluttering shut as he worked to get more of Calum’s length into his mouth.

“Ah, fuck,” the younger boy groaned when Ashton’s tongue slid teasingly over him, his expression undeniably smug even as his lips stretched around Calum's thick cock. The Prince’s hands were shaking when they settled once more in the older boy's hair, his fingers smoothing the crimson curls tenderly as Ashton’s gaze settled on his face, his eyes burning with lust. “Such a good boy for me, angel.”

The Crown Prince hummed contentedly, the vibrations coaxing such a desperate whine from the younger boy that it only encouraged Ashton to draw out more of those beautiful noises as he took him deeper. Calum let loose a sound like he'd been hurt when he felt Ashton's throat fluttering around his cock, losing himself in the wonderful feeling of the older boy’s tongue running over him as the tears began to leak down Ashton’s flushed cheeks.

He was touching himself - it was evident in the tensing of his arm as he fucked clumsily into his fist - and that only brought Calum closer to the edge as he moaned brokenly, biting his knuckle in an effort to stay quiet. Ashton’s throat was so tight around his cock; so hot and perfect and… fuck, when he swallowed around him, that was all it took.

The pleasure saturating Calum’s face as he climaxed was enough to finish Ashton off and he came into his hand with a muffled groan, half-choking around Calum's cock as he shuddered against the younger boy. For a while, the only sound in the cubicle was their panting breaths as Ashton knelt there on the floor, aching a little from the cramped position but too weak from his own orgasm to risk trying to stand just yet.

“Fuck,” Calum breathed, looking slightly stunned as he smoothed his thumb gently under Ashton’s eye, just skirting the edge of the cuts inflicted by the mordere. The older boy shivered, letting his forehead fall to rest on Calum’s hip for a moment as he got his breath back. His eyes were still watering and he thumbed the tears away ruefully, his lips a little swollen as he pressed his smile to the younger boy’s thigh.

“Need a hand, angel?” Calum asked lightly, extending his good arm and grinning crookedly when he helped the Crown Prince up, pressing a soft kiss to Ashton’s lips. The older boy turned away to clean himself up and Calum watched him fondly, his chocolate brown eyes crinkling when Ashton shot him a shy smile over his shoulder, like he hadn’t just been down on his knees with Calum’s cock in his mouth.

“How long do you think we’ve been in here?” the younger boy asked curiously when Ashton turned back to face him, straightening his clothes with a pointed look on his face before Calum took the hint and sheepishly righted his own trousers.

“Not sure,” Ashton replied, blushing at how rough his voice sounded before he let out a breathless laugh. “Must’ve been a while though. The music’s playing properly now. We’re missing the dancing.”

“You care about the dancing?” Calum asked curiously.

“Not really,” Ashton said easily. “I only care about you.” He’d intended the words as a joke but the sincerity slipped into his tone without his permission and the sudden silence showed that he wasn’t the only one who’d noticed it.

“Ash,” Calum said weakly, his lips parting in shock as his trembling hand settled on the older boy’s flushed cheek. “Ash, I -”

The door swung open outside and the sound of soft laughter reached them, shattering the silence that had fallen. Ashton grimaced a little when he heard the sudden unmistakable sound of kissing but the soft moan that sounded sent guilt rippling through him as the couple outside slipped into their own cubicle.

“That’s Luke,” Ashton breathed, looking absolutely mortified by this discovery. He pressed his lips together hard when Calum’s eyes flickered to his face, not looking unhappy exactly but definitely not thrilled either. Clearly he’d had his suspicions about Ashton and Luke’s past, and to have it confirmed now just felt horrendously awkward.

“Let’s go,” Calum murmured, giving Ashton’s shoulder a brief squeeze to show that there were no hard feelings before he unlocked their cubicle as silently as possible. The older boy didn’t move behind him, his face pale now as he bit his bottom lip hard, his hazel eyes growing damp. Calum reached to entwine their fingers securely, his expression vaguely pitying as he towed the Crown Prince quietly out into the hallway.

“Angel?” Calum murmured once the door had swung shut, his brow creasing with concern as the older boy’s shaking fingertips rose to brush over the cuts on his cheek. “Why’re you -?”

“I don’t love Luke anymore,” Ashton said fiercely, his eyes blazing too brightly with unshed tears. “Not like that. I never did.”

What?” Calum breathed, feeling out of his depth even as his heart began to pound when he remembered his realisation that afternoon in the forest: the lightning bolt as his feelings for the Crown Prince became painfully apparent. “Why… why are you telling me that?”

Even to his own ears, he sounded faintly panicked and Ashton sighed, his shoulders slumping bitterly as a fiery curl tumbled down across his forehead.

“I think you already know,” the older boy said softly but Calum didn’t - couldn’t - answer.

*

“This is nice,” Michael said softly, his green eyes sparkling as he gazed down at Laura. They were circling slowly together on the edge of the dancefloor, his hands resting on her waist as her arms wrapped warmly around his neck. He dropped a hesitant kiss to her fair hair and Laura blushed as she rested her cheek on his chest, her reaction so sweet that he couldn’t resist holding her closer.

The song changed to a slower one and he hummed contentedly as they swayed together, just basking in the atmosphere as he glanced around to see what had become of his friends. Ashton and Calum were ordering drinks at the bar while Sierra weaved her way over to them, while Mali was tucked away in a corner with Ashley, both of them murmuring together as the Princess let her palm fall to rest on the younger girl’s thigh. Smiling faintly, Michael’s focus returned to Laura, his lips curving up warmly when he saw her upturned face as she watched him.

“You look happy tonight,” she said softly, her tone saturated with affection. “It’s really lovely to see, sparky.”

“Well, I’m with you,” he said easily, grinning when she rolled her eyes fondly. “Plus, there’s no parents here tonight to breathe down our necks. We can let our guards down a little.” He grinned suddenly, crooked and a little sad. “Not that I really have to worry about that.”

“I think we all needed tonight,” Laura said but a touch of concern coloured her expression as her fingertips stroked through the short hairs at the base of his skull. “We don’t have to talk about parents tonight, Mikey. Not if it’ll make you sad.”

“I’m with you, petal,” he repeated, soft and gentle as his eyes twinkled. “I’ve never felt less sad in my life.” Michael couldn’t help the soft burst of laughter that escaped him when she tried to suppress the wide smile threatening to break across her face, so happy that he’d made her look that joyful.

He twirled her playfully and she giggled as she stumbled back into him, clinging to his daisy-patterned shirt as his hands returned to her waist.

“Don’t spin me again!” she pleaded when he grinned mischievously. “Not in these heels. I’ll end up falling over and then you’ll have to carry me dramatically away so I can die of embarrassment in peace.”

Michael’s eyes drifted over her and she shivered, thrilled.

“I can totally pick you up,” he announced, eyes glittering.

“Don’t even think about it!” Laura warned him but she was still laughing and Michael loved watching her face light up; loved the way she looked at him… like he was someone worthwhile almost… like he wasn’t lost.

“I want to tell you about my parents.” The words were out of his mouth before he had a chance to stop them but… he kind of didn’t want to. He’d hidden himself away for so long now and he had no wish to hide from Laura too. She made him want to be honest, both with himself and the rest of the world as well.

“Mikey…” Laura bit her lip nervously but she couldn’t quite hide her curiosity and Michael took heart from that. “You… you shouldn’t feel like you have to tell me anything… but if you want to talk about it, I’d love to hear about the people who created someone as wonderful as you. They must’ve been incredible.”

“They were,” Michael said softly, smiling a little. “What I can remember of them anyway.” Laura’s brow creased at the sadness shimmering in his eyes and he pressed a kiss to her forehead, smoothing the frown away. “Do you remember that day out in the gardens before the first task?” he enquired, the words seeming to come out of nowhere. “You asked me about how my magic manifested and… well, I was too scared to tell you then.”

“You said it was a sad story,” Laura said hesitantly, biting her lip. Michael freed it with his thumb, his expression gentle.

“It is… but it has a silver lining too,” he said quietly. “If that night hadn’t happened, I’m not sure my magic ever would’ve manifested itself so strongly… and that was definitely when my friendship with Calum was cemented. I’ll always be grateful for that.”

Michael fell quiet for a moment, his forehead coming to rest on Laura’s shoulder as they circled together, her skirt swirling gracefully around them. One hand rose to smooth through his sandy hair and Michael looked down at her silently, his green eyes damp and loving as she held him a little closer.

“Talk to me,” she suggested softly, her tone gentle and warm when it became clear that he badly needed the confirmation that she truly cared about what he had to say.

“I guess you could say, I was something of a late bloomer,” Michael murmured, smiling sheepishly although the expression faded as he drifted away in her arms, losing himself in the memories for a moment. “My parents never found out what ability I possessed. For a while, I think they thought I had no magic at all.” He shivered and Laura stroked his arm soothingly, holding him closer when his breath escaped him in a shaky sigh. “My parents were famous politicians - Karen and Daryl Clifford. They were all about trying to encourage relations between Tenebris and Claritas; about trade deals and improving immigration policies and... well, I guess a lot of people didn't like that. They were assassinated when I was five years old, on the drive back from an event. There was a bomb in their transport and -” He broke off, the colour draining from his face although he calmed a little when Laura’s palms slipped to cradle his cheeks, her eyes damp with tears as she held his gaze, unflinching despite the force of his pain.

There was something about it that made him feel stronger and he inhaled shakily when their foreheads came to rest together, his eyelashes spiky with tears as she wrapped an arm around his waist, still cupping one cheek comfortingly.

“The night they died, I’d been staying at the citadel with Cal and… and when they told me, I just lost it. I couldn’t process what they were saying and… and I remember feeling like I was gonna burst, right? Like there was something huge under my skin that felt like it was going to explode… and then… well, it did.”

Laura had gone very pale as she looked up at him, her expression saturated with concern and affection as he searched her face for the strength he needed to carry on… to finally let go of all the pain he’d been holding in for most of his life.

“I’ve never created a storm like it since. I’m not even sure I could now but… there was so much raw emotion that… fuck, I almost tore the room apart.” Michael shook his head dazedly, his emerald eyes far away as he watched the scene playing out in front of him. “There was so much lightning and thunder, and everyone was too scared to come near me but… but Cal was recklessly brave, even back then.”

Michael closed his eyes, remembering the overwhelming relief he’d felt when the little boy had crawled over to him, his cheeks splattered with rain and reddened with wind as the storm clawed at his exposed cheeks. Calum hadn’t cared though; he’d just pushed through it and curled up beside Michael on the carpet, thumbing the orphan’s tears away and cuddling him tightly until the storm passed.

Joy and David had found the little boys lying together once the lightning had burnt itself out, Michael’s swollen eyes gritty with tears as Calum held him, his tiny arms wrapped securely around the older boy’s waist, his soft face tucked away into his best friend’s neck.

“I think Cal saved my life that night,” Michael whispered, unaware that the tears had escaped him until Laura brushed them away gently with shaking fingertips. “I’ll owe him forever for that.”

“You don’t owe him at all,” she said gently. “He did it because he loves you, Mikey. I don’t know Cal very well and even I can see that. He’d never want you to feel like you owed him. He just wants you to be happy.”

Michael turned his head, pressing a kiss to her palm as her words sent something calm unfurling inside him.

“I didn’t wanna talk about my mum and dad the next day,” he continued softly. “Cal took me out into the gardens instead and… and I tried to use my magic again. He helped me; made me feel like it could be something fun and exciting… and not the product of losing mum and dad.”

The kindness in her eyes was making a lump rise in his throat and Michael had to look away, focusing instead on the flowers decorating her skirt and the polished wooden floor beneath their feet. If he stopped talking now, he was sure he’d never feel strong enough to say this again. It was now or never.

“I remember… I remember how strange it felt to finally have magic because… well, I’d always thought I didn’t have any,” he said faintly, his eyes fluttering shut. “Everyone else my age had been practising honing their abilities and I’d always been stuck on the side-lines, thinking I had no powers at all… and then to realise I was that powerful…” There was no pride in his voice - only shock and something that sounded like bone-deep exhaustion. “It never felt like enough though,” he whispered, his voice breaking. “I used to think every night that… that even if I was that powerful… well, it didn’t mean anything. My parents had still left me.”

“Mikey, that wasn’t your fault,” Laura said tearfully, looking very much like her heart was crumbling in her chest as she reached to tangle their fingers together tightly. Michael’s lips parted at the display of solidarity because, for the first time after hearing those words said on hundreds of occasions, he was finally starting to believe them.

She was still holding him, not even swaying to the music anymore as the other guests parted around them like waves against a rock. They were steadfast together, and Michael felt calm and steady in her arms.

She was his safe harbour.

“You’re not leaving,” he realised, his tone nothing short of stunned. “You know everything about my shitty past and… you’re still here.”

“I’m not going anywhere,” Laura promised, giving him a watery smile as she gazed up at him, her apparent nerves fighting with the fondness in her eyes. “I’m kind of a little bit in love with you, sparky.”

“Only kind of?” Michael teased, even as a tear slipped down his flushed cheek. Laura huffed, laughing softly as she stretched up to brush a kiss to his jaw, uncaring of the dancers around them.

“What colour are your sparks now?” she whispered, her voice soft and choked with tears.

Michael twirled his fingers silently, still looking stunned. Golden sparks spilt out onto the wooden floor and he gazed down at them in shock, his jaw slackening as she stared in awe.

“What does gold mean?” she murmured, looking so beautiful under the lights that he could barely breathe.

“I’m not sure,” he breathed, his hands trembling. “But I think it might be love.”

When he gently tilted her head up and kissed her on the lips - right there in front of all the cameras and the other guests - Michael had never been less scared in his life.

No one had ever been able to make him feel like that before.

He thought Laura might be magic.

*

Ashton just wanted to go home.

It had been a very draining day - both physically and emotionally - and all he wanted to do was crawl into bed and hide from the world. He wasn't sure what hurt most: his ego after the entire planet had almost watched him drown, the livid cuts on his face that even Niall hadn't been able to heal completely, or the fact that his almost-confession to Calum had been received with so much apparent terror.

Although none of them had been pleasant, Ashton thought it might be the last option that stung most.

He knew Calum felt guilty too and maybe that was the worst part. He kept catching the younger boy watching him sadly whenever he thought Ashton was distracted, his chocolate brown eyes a little damp, his lips parting silently around whatever words he was too afraid to say.

By the time they were leaving the party, all of them exhausted and some more than a little tipsy, Ashton was desperate to break the tension that had fallen. A number of the other guests were leaving too and the Crown Prince's gaze roved over them, searching for someone to strike up a conversation with.

When his eyes alighted on none other than Harry Styles ambling along nearby, the wave of relief he felt shocked him. The older man was dressed in a purple silk suit paired with a sunshine yellow shirt that should have looked garish but somehow managed to appear striking instead.

“Evening, Harry,” Ashton called in a tone of forced cheer, bristling when Calum shot him a wary glance from where he was wandering along beside him. “Did you enjoy the party tonight?”

“Hello, boys,” Harry grinned, either unaware of the tension between the champions or unbothered by it. “It's definitely been a good night - although you two are looking a little worse for wear. This tournament is really doing a number on you, huh?”

“You could say that,” Calum muttered darkly, cradling his sore wrist with a weak scowl on his tired face. Harry shot him a sympathetic look and Ashton sighed, biting his lip as his hand twitched awkwardly, unsure whether to try and comfort the Prince or not. Quite honestly, he wasn't certain Calum would appreciate it tonight and it felt like giving up when his arm remained hanging limply at his side.

“I hope there's no hard feelings about today's task,” Harry said suddenly, his brow creasing a little. They were already halfway down the corridor, the night air slipping in to cool their skin as they approached the security checkpoint, and he seemed keen to get his point across before they parted ways. “We wouldn't actually have let either of you die - our sponsors just wanted us to up the stakes and the drama was great for the broadcast.”

Calum turned away, his lips pressed together flatly as his good hand curled into a fist. He couldn't put into words how angry he felt hearing those words - hearing their terror and pain downplayed because it made for good ratings - and he knew Ashton felt the same when he caught sight of the forced smile fading on the older boy's sore face.

“I did mean to ask you both something though,” Harry added in a quieter voice, leaning a little closer to them. “You really didn't see any healers on the arena floor? Not one?” The Crown Prince shook his head and Harry bit his lip, looking uneasy. “That doesn't sound safe.”

“Maybe someone scared them away,” Ashton muttered, trying for a weak joke. Harry laughed quietly but he still looked uncomfortable and Calum just felt faintly nauseous because, as he processed those words, he remembered his conversation with David before the task and... fuck, maybe this was what his father had meant: that while Calum would no longer be required to murder the Crown Prince, the older boy's death was still the King's goal.

Calum felt sicker than ever as he processed that, his stomach clenching unpleasantly as he considered the implications. Having no healers around had not only threatened Ashton's life but Calum's too and, if David was truly prepared to endanger his own son in his efforts for revenge, who was to say he wouldn't try again? That he wouldn't do something worse next time?

Calum needed to look into this; needed to speak to a healer who should have been present at the arena today but... damnit, it was too difficult without attracting unwanted attention. Even more frustratingly, Niall hadn't been on duty today so the Prince couldn't ask him if he'd received any threats or noticed anything untoward. He was at a loss before he'd even begun.

“There were mortiferns in the forest too,” Calum added, just to smother Harry's nervous laughter at Ashton's weak joke. “Just while we're talking about things that are unsafe.”

Mortiferns?” Harry demanded, his expression stunned. “No way! The arena was absolutely crackling with magic today - no one would have signed that off!”

“Well, someone clearly did,” Ashton pointed out. “I saw one too.” His hazel eyes widened suddenly as he exchanged a frightened glance with Calum, shivering. “Harry, are you saying that someone is tampering with the tournament?”

“I couldn't say for sure,” the older man said hesitantly, his expression souring with unhappiness. “But I think it would certainly be worth looking into.”

They stepped out into the night and Ashton wrapped his suit jacket a little tighter around him, the hairs on the back of his neck rising at the intense worry colouring Harry's expression. Calum looked pale beside him, his complexion ashen as the darkness pressed down on them.

Sierra was walking a few feet in front of them, looking just as tense as she'd done on the walk towards the Caelum Assembly Building earlier in the evening. Her focused expression was mirrored on Ashley's face as she guided Mali out into the shadows with a hand resting on her elbow, her lip drawn between her teeth.

“Do you think someone's been meddling with the competition, Cal?” Ashton asked softly, his voice low enough that Harry couldn't hear them. Calum shrugged uncomfortably, still pale and nervous-looking as his fingertips fell automatically to his thigh. Michael and Laura were laughing at something behind them, the sound much too happy for the anxiety twisting itself tightly around Ashton's lungs.

“Angel,” Calum said weakly, his frightened eyes welling with tears. “Angel, I have to tell you something.”

The younger boy was cast in shadow by the number of transports lining the avenue and Ashton peered at him through the darkness, his heart rising into his throat at the hint of guilt rippling across the Prince's face.

“Cal?” he asked uncertainly, his voice small and scared. “Cal, what do you know?”

Out of nowhere, a bullet slammed into the wall inches from Ashton’s head, the bang ringing in the sudden shocked silence as he processed what had happened in disbelief. His hazel eyes settled automatically on Calum - on his panting breaths and terrified eyes, and the way he was reaching automatically for the older boy as his panic consumed him - and then one of the transports nearby exploded in a roar of amber flame and the world erupted into chaos.

The force of the explosion sent lethal shards of metal and chunks of brickwork flying in all directions. In that moment, it was a good thing that a number of their group had been sent to the Boneflats because it meant that reacting to an ambush was instinctive.

Ashton flung his hand out automatically, twisting the scorching flames into a plume that seared the night sky instead of their flesh. His eyes widened as the acrid scent of the smoke caught in the back of his throat and he couldn’t keep himself from coughing when Ashley clenched her fist, sending the flying bricks to little more than dust.

“Mali!” Ashton shouted, his voice cracking as he fought to keep from choking, his fingertips alight with blue flame. She looked up at him in horror for a moment before she snapped out of it, her hands rising shakily to keep the largest shards of metal from tearing them apart. The transport was a smoking wreck, the flames licking at the torn upholstery as Ashton backed up against the wall, keeping Calum sheltered safely behind him.

Sierra stepped protectively in front of the Crown Prince, her fingertips white with ice as she glared through the smoke. She flinched when a sudden volley of bullets ripped through the air, shoving Ashton bodily over the broken wall behind them as he dragged Calum with him, the younger boy so paralysed with fear that he simply let himself be hauled over too, crying out weakly as they hit the ground.

Laura’s expression was more grim than afraid as she held Ashton’s gaze for a moment, wiping blood from her split lip uncaringly with the back of her hand. Michael was crouched behind her, his emerald eyes wide with horror as the sparks crackled from his fingertips, reddish-violet with fear and stress.

Mali and Ashley were still on the other side of the wall. The Princess had torn the metal doors from some of the surviving transports and was using her abilities to manipulate them into a hasty barricade which would hopefully be enough to hold off their enemies until help arrived. The bullets were still flying thick and fast though and, when another nearby vehicle erupted into a choking cloud of fire and smoke, it quickly became clear that it wouldn’t be enough.

“Fuck this,” Laura hissed, raising her head warily over the wall before she threw a hand out, fingers splayed. The trees on the other side of the avenue uprooted themselves with deafening creaks, crashing down onto the shooters hidden in the parkland with sickening cracking sounds as she bought them more time. She looked horrified with herself - after all, she was a healer and harming others would never sit well with her - but Ashton reached for her hand blindly through the smoke, squeezing it comfortingly.

The guards were beginning to stream outside now and, although the frequency of the bullets flying had definitely lessened, the surviving shooters proved deadly proficient. Ashton felt sick as he watched them being torn down and the nightmarish sound of them dying wrenched him straight back to the Boneflats.

The only thing keeping him grounded at all was the Prince’s trembling body hidden beneath his own. Calum was shaking almost violently, his dark eyes squeezed tightly shut as the tears boiled down his cheeks, cutting through the dust and blood. There was a shallow graze above his eyebrow which seemed to be his worst injury, at least until Ashton looked down and saw what had become of his already-damaged wrist. It was bent sickeningly and the older boy’s stomach clenched with nausea when he realised that must have been his doing when he’d dragged the Prince to safety over the wall.

Ashton cradled his cheeks gently, horrified at the state the younger boy had got himself into while the Crown Prince had been trying to keep the flames back. Calum’s eyes were rolling like he was about to pass out, his breathless pants rasping out of him as he clung to the older boy, more terrified than Ashton had ever seen before.

Nearby, Michael didn’t look much better and the Crown Prince couldn’t blame either of them. He knew they’d never been exposed to a situation like this before but, while Mali seemed to have taken to defending her friends and family with a shocking intensity, the two younger boys were sitting ducks as the carnage left them frozen with fear.

The screeching sound of protesting metal shattered the quiet as Mali gathered every scrap she could find, building on the barricade she was assembling in an effort to stop the bullets. She was clearly hoping that her friends would be able to make a break for the relative safety of the Caelum Assembly Building but, before Ashton had had time to consider the logistics of this, a sudden cry of horror filled the night.

The sound had come from the Princess. Mali’s expression was dismayed, her dark eyes wide with fear and overflowing with tears as the bullet slammed into Ashley’s shoulder, sending out a fountain of blood. The younger girl spun with the force of it, flung to the ground like a ragdoll as the metal Mali had been holding clattered to the ground with a deafening crash, leaving them all unprotected.

Michael cried out in horror as Mali threw herself down beside Ashley, her hands growing slippery with the younger girl’s blood as a sob tore out of her. The Princess wasn’t even thinking about the shooters hidden behind the fallen trees now; not when the girl she loved was bleeding out in front of her.

Sierra cursed as she clambered over the wall in her torn dress, launching herself past the girls on the ground as she threw her palm out, sending a slick blanket of ice through the parkland to keep their enemies from attempting to cross the space between them. With barely a moment of hesitation, Ashton went after her.

“Watch Calum,” he pleaded to Laura as he hauled himself over the ruined brickwork too, throwing himself down onto the tarmac immediately to avoid a bullet.

“Ash, no!” Laura cried as he tore off after his bodyguard, the words bringing him right back to the Boneflats for a moment, reminding him painfully of the day when he’d almost burnt his magic to nothing and had taken a sickening number of lives… but Ashton wouldn’t lose anyone else today. He was determined to avoid that.

This close, he could see the figures moving in the trees, some of them backing away at the sight of the Crown Prince closing the distance between them. He threw his hand out, sending fire snaking around them in an ever-decreasing loop as he hemmed them in, keeping them from escaping while Sierra worked her magic.

She was breathing hard beside him, her eyes burning with fury as her palm flew out again and again, freezing them where they stood. Their bodies hit the ground with jarring thumps, only their heads and shoulders free of the ice as they struggled in vain.

Ashton let the fire burn away to nothing with a click of his fingers, his nose dripping blood as he let out a shaky sigh. Sierra leant against him for a moment, her eyes still flickering around nervously although she seemed a little less tense now. She was sure a few of their enemies had escaped but, for the most part, they’d done well catching this many surviving shooters, especially when it seemed likely that they were members of the Purgatio.

“Not bad, Your Illustriousness,” Sierra said breathlessly, managing a weak smile that Ashton shakily returned.

“Could say the same to you, Fearless Protector,” he murmured, relaxing visibly when the sirens of the Claritan Constabulary rose above the cries of pain and fear. This situation would be in their hands soon and, as the Crown Prince processed that, Sierra patted his arm gently, getting his attention.

“Go back to the others,” she said softly, her eyes remaining fixed on her prisoners. “They need you.”

There were bodies littering the ground as Ashton made his way shakily back across the avenue, his red curls limp with sweat, the blood on his face drying in streaks. He checked every fallen guard he passed but none of them were breathing and he kind of hated himself for the relief he felt when none of them proved to be anyone he recognised.

“Luke?” Laura’s voice shattered the quiet and Ashton’s heart stopped beating in his chest when he heard her panic. “Has anyone seen Luke?” Her breath hitched, her words coming out choked as she let out a sob. “Luke!” Ashton almost fell in his haste to reach her, his arms opening automatically as she threw herself against his chest. “I can’t find him,” she wept, her trembling hands fisting tightly in the back of his jacket as he smoothed her hair comfortingly. “He’s gone, Ash. Where is he?”

“I’ve checked all the bodies, Laura, and he’s not there,” Ashton whispered, afraid his voice would break if he spoke any louder. “He’ll be with Niall somewhere, yeah? Niall will have kept him safe.” He drew back for a moment, resting one palm on her cheek as she drew in a ragged breath, her eyelashes spiky with tears. “Laura, Niall isn’t here right now and Ashley’s bleeding. She needs your help.”

“I can’t. I’m not good enough,” Laura breathed, her face paling as she stared up at him fearfully. “I haven’t finished my training. I’m not -”

“You’re incredible,” Ashton interrupted, his tone soft but firm. “I watched you heal a hundred people a day on the Boneflats and their injuries were a lot worse than this… but if you don’t help her now, she’ll bleed out. You have to hurry.”

“Right,” she whispered, tucking her hair behind her ears shakily as he gave her a gentle nudge towards the fallen girl. “I can do this.” She knelt down on the tarmac beside Mali, her hands trembling as she pushed Ashley’s jacket aside, reaching closer to cover the wound with her palms. The healing would be nothing pretty - battle magic never was - but it would hopefully buy the bodyguard enough time before a more experienced healer showed up… before they found Niall, wherever he was.

Ashton’s growing worry was interrupted by Harry emerging from behind the low wall with a torn suit and a bloody gash on his palm. He seemed a lot calmer than the Crown Prince had been expecting - maybe Harry had served in the army too - and, when the commentator asked if there was anything he could do to help Laura, Ashton turned away, content that Ashley would be well looked after.

“Ash?” The voice was soft and frightened, and the Crown Prince turned to it automatically, his heart clenching when he saw Michael’s ashen face as he peered warily over the wall. “Ash, I don’t know what to do.”

“What is it, Mike?” the older boy asked softly, trying to appear calmer than he felt when he saw the anxiety burning in the younger boy’s frightened eyes. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s Calum,” Michael choked out, his eyes damp with tears as he glanced down anxiously at something out of sight. “He can’t breathe.”

Ashton vaulted the wall so fast he felt dizzy, his breath catching in his throat at the state of the Prince. He was curled on his side, his broken wrist cradled to his heaving chest as he panted shallowly, his dirty cheeks wet with tears. The realisation of what was happening hit Ashton like the transport exploding all over again and he felt sick as he combed Calum’s dark hair back gently, hating the way the younger boy flinched, only curling up tighter.

“Has he ever had a panic attack before?” the Crown Prince asked quietly, his eyes welling with tears.

“I… I don’t think so,” Michael murmured, looking shell-shocked. “Ash, I don’t -”

“I’ve got this, Mike,” the older boy said softly, his tone reassuring. “Go and see if Laura’s okay for me, yeah? She needs you.”

“Okay,” Michael breathed, sniffling as he brushed a tear away, rising shakily. “Okay, Ash.”

Once the younger boy had gone, Ashton eased himself down onto the ground beside Calum, his heart aching at the panicked sobs tearing out of the Prince. He cowered when the Claritan Constabulary's transports finally arrived, the sound of the sirens only managing to frighten him more as he tucked his face out of sight.

“Hey, curly,” Ashton murmured, leaning closer through the dust although he was careful not to touch the younger boy again, not wanting to scare him. The only response he received was a frightened whimper and Ashton’s concern grew. “Cal, can you look at me? I need you to look at me.”

It seemed to take Calum an age to raise his head but he managed it, his face flushed, his lips bitten bloody. There was dust in his hair and the graze about his eyebrow was still welling blood but Ashton was more worried about his wrist. There was no time to focus on either injury though; not when the younger boy’s breaths were coming so shallowly that he was barely scraping in any oxygen at all.

“Hey, beautiful,” Ashton whispered, his voice as soft and soothing as he could make it, his heart breaking in his chest. “It’s over now, curly. I promise it’s over. You’re safe.”

A sob tore out of the younger boy, the sound weak and cracking as he coughed on the dust, still lying slumped on his side.

“Dying,” Calum croaked, his eyes sliding shut as he clawed in another desperate panting breath. A tear slipped down Ashton’s cheek at the sight but he fought against the pain rising inside him, more focused on saving the Prince from further distress.

“You’re not dying, curly,” he said gently, his hazel eyes soft when Calum shot him an anguished glance. “You’re having a panic attack but you’ll be fine. It’ll pass soon, I promise.”

Ash…” The Prince’s voice trailed away, his hands trembling badly as he reached for the older boy. Ashton shifted closer at once, carding his fingers lightly through the younger boy’s curls and relaxing visibly when Calum calmed a little at the gentle touch.

“How can I help, curly?” Ashton murmured, his thumb rubbing gently through the dust covering the younger boy's soft cheek. “What do you need?”

“You,” Calum gasped raggedly, the shame on his face painful to look at as he gazed up at the older boy pleadingly.

“That’s okay, Cal,” Ashton breathed, choked up as a lump rose in his throat. “Can I hold you? Would that help?”

“Please,” Calum begged, breathless and vulnerable. “Please, Ash.”

“C’mere, curly,” Ashton said softly, opening his arms for the younger boy to curl up in his lap. He wrapped an arm securely around Calum’s waist, dropping a kiss onto the matted curls as he held the Prince closer, being mindful of his wrist. Calum curled his good hand in the front of Ashton’s suit, anchoring them together as he tucked his tear-streaked face away into the safety of the older boy’s neck. He was still sobbing, the sounds weaker and coloured with exhaustion now, and they only encouraged Ashton to hold him closer.

Slowly, Calum calmed. His breaths came a little easier, the tremors tearing through him slowing with every soothing stroke of Ashton's palm smoothing over his spine. His dark hair was sticking to his forehead, his eyelashes spiky with tears as he reached for the older boy, only to pale visibly when the agony in his wrist made itself apparent once more.

“Hurts,” Calum choked out, his face crumpling at the agony he could feel. Ashton bit his lip unhappily, his hazel eyes flickering towards the chaos of the avenue as he searched for help. The blast had damaged enough of the wall that he could easily see the others and he felt shocked that the few remaining layers of bricks had been enough to provide them with any cover at all.

From his vantage point, he could see Laura rising shakily from where she’d been kneeling on the tarmac, her dress in tatters. Her hands were streaked with blood but Ashley – despite being white with pain – was no longer bleeding out and the relief crashed over the Crown Prince like a wave as he watched Mali stroking her hair lovingly. Even despite her anxiety, Laura had done enough to save Ashley and the pride Ashton felt was mirrored on Michael’s face as he drew her into a tight hug, stroking her hair as she leant against him, her eyes falling shut in exhaustion.

She was still crying and Ashton’s heart ached because he knew exactly how she felt. Not knowing what had become of Luke and Niall was horrible, especially with so many bodies lying broken across the avenue, but he had to hope that the two had found somewhere safe to hide; that they’d avoided the explosions and the shooters, and everyone else who constantly seemed to wish Ashton and his loved ones harm.

“Hey, give them some space!” Harry’s shout cut through the clamour of the Claritan Constabulary dragging members of the Purgatio into their transports and Ashton jerked in surprise, instantly hating himself when the movement jarred Calum’s broken wrist and tore a pained whimper from him.

Harry’s shoulders were squared as he stormed across the tarmac, sending a gathering crowd of journalists and photographers scattering. It occurred to Ashton suddenly that he didn’t know what Harry’s abilities were but, judging by the way the reporters were almost falling over themselves in an effort to move further down the road, it was undoubtedly something impressive.

The cameras were still flashing though and Ashton could see the tell-tale red lights that meant some of them were recording, probably broadcasting this live to the comms channels right now. Ashton turned away in disgust, focusing on the younger boy still cringing with pain in his arms instead. Quite honestly, he had more important things to worry about: namely, finding someone to heal Calum.

Michael met the Crown Prince's gaze over Laura's shoulder and answered his wordless plea for help with a grim nod. He ducked his head as he murmured to the girl in his arms and she looked over at once, her expression chagrined when she saw the pain lining Calum’s face where he’d tucked his head under Ashton’s chin.

Laura hurried over, sniffing hard to keep from crying when Michael took her hand, uncaring of her blood-stained fingers. She clambered over the wall in her torn dress, her expression softening as she knelt down in the dust in front of them, relaxing a little when Michael’s palm came to settle warmly on her bare shoulder.

“Got yourself into a scrap, have you, Cal?” she murmured, giving him a watery smile. “Need me to fix you up?”

“Hey, Laura,” Calum breathed, limp now as his head lolled onto Ashton's shoulder, like his exhaustion was more pressing than the pain. “My wrist hurts.”

“Yeah, I can see that, sweetheart,” she said softly, her movements gentle as she carefully rolled his sleeve back to expose the blackish bruising underneath. She hissed in a breath, shooting him a sympathetic look when he winced at the feeling of her fingertips lightly probing the broken bone. “Good news is I can fix this pretty easily,” she announced, biting her lip nervously. “Bad news is… well, it’s gonna hurt like hell.”

“Already does,” Calum groaned, squeezing his eyes shut against fresh tears. “Can’t get much worse.”

Laura pursed her lips, looking as though she didn’t entirely agree with this, but she was kind enough not to correct him.

“Hold his arm steady please, Ash,” she said quietly, watching to make sure Ashton angled the Prince’s arm the way she wanted before she turned to Michael, her expression rapidly growing guilty. “I… I’m gonna need you to straighten his wrist, Mikey,” she said apologetically. “Just while I repair the fracture. Otherwise it won’t heal right.”

Michael shot her a fearful look before his gaze flickered to his best friend’s face, taking in the tear tracks and the graze still dripping blood on Calum’s forehead.

“But… but that’ll hurt him,” Michael stammered, his emerald eyes wide. Laura hung her head, staring down unhappily at Ashley’s blood where it had dried on her hands.

“Yeah, I know,” she said heavily, unable to hide her misery. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, petal,” Michael said quietly, his jaw squaring with determination. “You’re doing this to help Cal. I’m very grateful.” He took a deep breath, his shoulders slumping when Calum managed a watery smile, so weak in Ashton’s arms that he seemed to have no fight left at all. “You ready, Princess?” Michael asked softly.

“As I’ll ever be,” Calum breathed, his hand hanging limply in Ashton’s gentle grip as he held his best friend’s gaze. “Get on with it, Clifford,” he said, gritting his teeth in preparation for the pain. “I’m not made of glass.”

Calum screamed when Michael straightened his wrist, thrashing in Ashton’s hold as Laura's fingertips returned to his bruised skin, her tear-filled eyes narrowing as she concentrated. The agony must have faded quickly because the tortured sounds tearing out of Calum’s throat subsided into choked sobs as he went limp in the Crown Prince’s arms, his reddened eyes sliding shut as the weariness overwhelmed him.

Mali almost fell in her haste to reach them, alerted to the fact that her brother had been injured by the heart-wrenching sound of his cries. She stumbled to a halt, her expression confused but relieved when she realised that he didn’t seem to be in life-threatening danger.

“Cal?” Mali asked quietly, her voice tight with fear when he barely had the energy to raise his head. “Peanut, what happened?”

“Snapped the bone in his wrist,” Laura said grimly, her pale face pinched with exhaustion as she sighed heavily, her hair messy where she’d been tangling her fingers in it. “He’s all healed up now.”

“Thank you,” Mali said shakily, her eyes damp with tears as she reached to stroke Calum’s cheek with trembling fingers. He leant into the touch, a soft sigh escaping him as Ashton dropped a kiss to his curls, rocking him gently.

“How’s Ashley?” Calum asked, his voice little more than a breath as he pressed his face to the comforting warmth of Ashton’s neck. Mali’s breath escaped her in a relieved sigh.

“She’s doing much better, thanks to Laura,” the Princess said quietly, her tone nothing but grateful. “It seems I have her to thank for a lot of things tonight.”

“Laura’s great,” Calum mumbled, so tired he could barely keep his eyes open now. “Mikey could do worse.”

“Stunning praise,” Laura muttered, smiling weakly as she smoothed her thumb lightly over the torn skin on his forehead, stemming the flow of blood. Sudden movement in the doorway to the Caelum Assembling Building caught her eye and, looking up, her expression quickly became stunned as she lurched upright, her hand flying to cover her mouth.

The security point was in shambles now, the metal detector lying fallen on its side as the area was cleared to make room for medical supplies, and stumbling through the organised chaos were two painfully-familiar faces. Luke’s robes were torn, his blue eyes wide with panic as he searched the crowd frantically, Niall’s shaking hand gripped tightly in his own. They were both covered in dust from the explosion but, aside from appearing badly shaken up, they seemed unharmed.

“Laura?” Luke called desperately, his eyes wild as he scanned the passers-by anxiously for his sister. “Laura!”

“Luke!” she cried, waving to get his attention as she scrambled back over the wall with Michael’s help. Her brother closed the distance between them in seconds, a relieved sob escaping him as he strode close enough to sweep her into the safety of his arms.

“Where were you, lofty?!” she demanded tearfully, her bloodied fingers twisting in the back of his robes to keep him close. “I was so worried!”

“I… I was in the bathroom,” he blurted out, looking suddenly awkward as Niall appeared beside him, his eyes already scanning their surroundings to see if there was anyone who still needed healing. “Um… all evening…”

Laura stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment before her nostrils flared, her eyes brightening with anger and – possibly against the odds – humour, probably a product of her dizzying relief.

“Do you seriously mean to tell me that you two were making out in the bathroom this whole time?!” She slapped Luke weakly on the chest and, after a moment of consideration, gave Niall the same treatment. He accepted it stoically, his expression sheepish although he reached for Luke’s hand unashamedly. “I thought you were both dead!”

Laura didn’t seem to realise she was crying again until Luke drew her back against his chest, pressing a kiss to her long hair as Niall squeezed her shoulder soothingly.

“We’re both fine, tiny,” Luke said softly, his own eyes damp with tears as he hugged her tightly. “I’m sorry you were frightened.” He paled suddenly, biting his lip. “You weren’t hurt, were you? Everyone’s safe?”

“We’re fine now,” she whispered, the shaking of her hands surprising her although she supposed it shouldn’t have. She'd been practical earlier when the situation had called for it but, now that they were out of the woods, the shock was creeping up on her slowly. “Ashley got shot but… she’s okay. I managed to save her… and Calum’s wrist broke again but I managed to heal him too.”

She swayed suddenly, utterly exhausted after the energy she'd used healing people, and when Michael appeared to slip an arm warmly around her waist, she’d never been more grateful for anything, with the exception of her brother standing healthy and safe in front of her.

“Everyone okay?” Sierra called as she approached them, looking absolutely bone-tired now that her adrenaline had bled away. Laura nodded wearily and Sierra relaxed, patting the fair-haired girl’s arm as she glanced at Luke and Niall, taking in how shaken the pair looked. “We need to move back,” she warned them, raising her voice a little when Harry looked over curiously too, his face pale and streaked with dust. “One of the Constabulary’s officers said there’s something suspicious strapped under one of the transports. They’re going to blow it up I think. They want people as close to the Assembly Building as possible.”

“You got it,” Laura said softly, keeping one hand resting over Michael’s on her waist although she reached for her little brother too, drawing him closer to her. “Let’s go make sure Ash and Calum know what’s going on.” She frowned suddenly, biting her lip. “Did anyone see where Mali and Ashley went?”

“They’re checking Ashley over inside I think,” Michael said quietly, still trembling a little although he seemed a little calmer now that his friends were no longer panicking. “C’mon, petal,” he murmured, brushing a kiss over Laura’s dishevelled hair. “Let’s get you somewhere safer.”

Harry walked with them, his arms wrapped tightly around himself as the chill of the night pressed in. The concern on his face soured into something colder when the press were shunted down the avenue towards them and, although he seemed to understand the reason for these safety precautions, it didn’t make him any happier that the reporters would now have the perfect view of the champions and their friends.

Their frightened, blood-stained faces would be plastered across the comms channels by tomorrow morning, and Harry’s anger made him square his shoulders as he stepped purposefully between the press and the champions, trying to buy them a little privacy.

Ashton watched all of this happen with a grim expression on his face, still carding his fingers gently through Calum’s dark curls as the younger boy clung to him, his pulse finally beginning to return to normal.

“Did you hear what Sierra said, curly?” Ashton asked, pitching his voice as calmly as possible. “There’s gonna be another explosion in a minute, okay? But it’s nothing to be scared of - there are officers with forcefield abilities to contain it. It’ll just be loud.”

The officers were walking down the middle of the avenue now, clearing the remaining stragglers away from the transport parked innocuously at the far end of the road. For a moment, the only movements were the flickering shadows as the flashing lights of the Claritan Constabulary vehicles illuminated the tarmac.

Then, with a great roar, the transport exploded into a ball of flame. It seared at the purplish confines of the forcefields, amber and deadly, and when the shield was lowered, the smoke billowed out into the night sky in a choking cloud, leaving the obliterated remains of the vehicle lying broken in the road.

Calum flinched violently when the explosion detonated, hiding his face in the Crown Prince’s neck as he bit his lip hard to keep his frightened sob in, his tears beginning to fall anew. He’d cried all of his eyeliner away and he seemed small now, hunched up in the older boy’s arms with bruise-like circles under his exhausted eyes as he began to tremble once more.

Slowly, Calum seemed to become aware that their friends were surrounding them. Michael was kneeling down beside them, leaning against Laura’s legs as she stared defiantly at the flames, her fingers firmly entwined with Luke’s. Niall’s chin was resting on the younger boy’s shoulder, his arms wrapped warmly around Luke’s waist as Sierra stood beside him, patting Ashton’s hair comfortingly where he was sitting by her feet.

Even Harry was close by, still doing his best to keep the strongest of their emotions hidden from the cameras trained on their every move.

The Crown Prince only had eyes for Calum. He wasn’t even thinking of the bodies lined up nearby or the members of the Purgatio who had been locked away in the Constabulary’s transports; not when Calum was crying against his chest, his newly-healed arm wrapped around the older boy’s shoulders as he clung to him, uncaring of the way they were undoubtedly being recorded right that second.

“Angel,” the Prince breathed, his dark eyes reflecting the last of the fire as it burnt itself away into nothing. His hands were trembling, his cheeks damp with tears as his lips parted at the tenderness on the Crown Prince’s face. “I need to tell you something.”

“What is it, Cal?” Ashton murmured, his fingertips brushing the younger boy’s jaw gently as he leant closer to hear him over the crackle of flames.

“I love you,” Calum said, shaking. The fear in his eyes was overwhelmed by the sincerity and he didn’t seem to care that his words were being broadcast across the planet. “I love you, angel. I couldn’t die and not tell you that.”

Ashton could barely see past the tears blurring his eyes but that didn’t stop him from twisting to cradle the Prince’s face between his palms, his thumbs smoothing through the dust and dried blood, the affection on his face painfully clear.

“I’m not letting you die at all,” Ashton promised and when he kissed Calum then, he didn’t care that the whole world was watching.

Calum was his family.

Everyone else would just have to get used to it.

*

The next couple of hours passed slowly.

Everyone who had been present on the avenue was interviewed by the Claritan Constabulary and checked over by an experienced medic before they were granted permission to leave, and by the time they’d finally been loaded into a transport to take them back to the palace, Calum could barely keep his eyes open.

He dozed against Ashton’s shoulder on the short drive back, relishing the lack of pain in his wrist as the older boy held his hand, dropping awestruck kisses onto his cheek whenever his emotions overwhelmed him.

Several sets of parents were waiting for them when the group staggered into the entrance hall, and Calum greeted Joy and David tearfully, too drained to even process the shock he felt at receiving two hugs from his father in one day. Being embraced by his parents was a strange but welcome sensation and he felt even calmer when Mali joined the hug too, pressing a kiss to the Prince’s forehead.

“You look so tired, Cal,” she said softly, like she wasn’t exhausted herself. “You should go upstairs and rest. We can all catch up in the morning before mum and dad fly home, yeah?”

“That’s a good idea, darling,” Joy said quietly, the worry fading from her face a little at the sight of her two children standing before her. “Make sure you go straight to sleep.”

“Perhaps shower first,” David interjected, his weak attempt at humour so unusual that Calum shot him a wide-eyed look, even despite his weariness. “There’s rather a lot of dirt in your hair.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Calum replied, his lips twitching into a faint smile as he rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly, unsure of how else to respond. He was saved the bother by Ashton catching his gaze, his red hair limp as his hand settled on the bannister leading up the stairs. He cocked his head curiously and Calum went to him at once, with barely a mumbled goodnight to his family.

He was too tired for pleasantries.

He’d almost lost so many of his loved ones tonight that hiding away from the world with Ashton seemed like the best plan in the world when his nerves still felt so raw. He took the older boy’s hand unthinkingly, their fingers entwining as the Crown Prince led him up the stairs, and it was only when they reached Ashton’s rooms that Calum finally let his guard down.

His torn suit jacket slipped to the ground through shaking fingers, his hands trembling so badly that he couldn’t undo the buttons on his shirt. Ashton moved to help him, his movements sluggish now as the weariness settled over him although his hazel eyes remained focused on Calum’s face.

“How’re you feeling now?” the older boy asked softly, concerned. “Panic attacks are horrible at the best of times but the first one’s always the worst.”

Calum shrugged, more ashamed than he could put into words as he recalled the state he’d got himself in to tonight, while everyone else had been trying to save people.

“I’m just… embarrassed,” the younger boy muttered, looking increasingly mortified. He shook his head as words failed him and Ashton softened, his palm rising to cradle the Prince’s cheek.

“You have no reason to be,” the older boy promised. “Everyone loses their shit in a firefight for the first time. It’s a horrible, horrible situation to be in.” He hesitated, his brow creasing when he noticed at the self-loathing on Calum’s face. “Curly, think about the magic you performed today. You saved my life and almost drained yourself in the process and… fuck, no wonder you felt a bit delicate tonight! No one can blame you for getting upset. You’ve been through more today than a lot of people go through their whole lives.”

Calum relaxed a little, slumping forwards as his forehead came to rest on the older boy’s shoulder.

“How’d you always know exactly what to say?” he murmured as his arms wrapped warmly around the Crown Prince’s waist. They were both sweaty and sooty, stinking of smoke and fear, and they’d definitely need to shower before they slept. For now though, holding on to each other felt more important.

“Guess I’m just too smart for my own good,” Ashton murmured, his soft laughter fading quickly in the silence of his bedroom. The water in the fish tank was calm tonight and he stroked Calum’s back soothingly, pressing a kiss to the healing graze above his eyebrow. “There’s something I’ve been meaning to tell you too,” the older boy said suddenly, his tone tentative and cautious. Calum stilled in his arms, his heart racing when he heard the older boy swallow audibly, like he was fighting nerves.

“I love you too, curly,” Ashton said quietly, his hazel eyes fiercely loving when the younger boy gazed at him in disbelief. “I think I have since the beginning.”

Calum leant down to kiss him with a choked sob, his sore eyes already overflowing with fresh tears as he wrapped his arms around the Crown Prince, holding him closer. Calum had never felt this vulnerable before but he almost forgot his fear existed when Ashton was kissing him like this, so tender and warm, and utterly comforting.

“I love you,” Calum breathed against his lips, his eyelashes spiky with tears, his eyes glittering when the older boy only hugged him tighter. “I love you, I love you, I love you. I’ll never stop.”

Calum had never been so emotionally vulnerable before but he was glad the first time was with Ashton.

He wanted them to stay like this for the rest of their lives.

Chapter Text

I know there’s somewhere better,

‘Cause you always take me there.

Came to you with a broken faith;

Gave me more than a hand to hold.

Caught before I hit the ground.

Tell me I’m safe; you’ve got me now.

- Take Me Home, Jess Glynne

 

Ashton dressed in darkness.

Several days had passed since the Purgatio’s attack outside the Caelum Assembly Building but his body still ached with it. Despite this, he’d been trying to remain positive by keeping a smile plastered on his face for his friends and family but, on a day like today, that simply wasn’t possible.

Usually in the weeks leading up to the Boneflats Remembrance Day, it would plague his every waking hour but, with Calum and the Elevare to focus on, Ashton had remained blissfully unaware of it approaching, right up until his parents had tentatively mentioned it during dinner the night before.

There would be a ceremony today. Mourners would line the streets and a solemn parade would pass through Aureum, with the Claritan royal family and their Tenebran guests leading the procession. It would be broadcast live across Cerasus, along with choice footage from the battle – the jets roaring, the crisp uniforms, the moment the ceasefire was declared – and, this year, it would be worse than ever.

Ashton had missed the last Remembrance Day because he’d been fighting on the Boneflats himself, adding to the carnage and the death toll, and hating himself for every life he took.

Reliving that today would be horrific but he knew he wasn’t alone. The surviving members of the Claritan army not currently away fighting would walk behind him but even that didn't offer any feelings of comfort or solidarity. The Crown Prince was certain the soldiers hated him after his actions had taken the lives of so many of their friends and family, and he knew it didn’t matter that his intentions had been honourable. He was still a murderer, even if he had been able to forget that for a little while. The rest of Cerasus certainly hadn’t.

A lump rose in his throat as he struggled into his shirt, shuddering the way he always did when the material brushed against the thick scar on his spine, reminding him of the horrific mistake he’d made. He hated feeling so self-pitying but it was hard to avoid when the guilt he could feel was crushing him to dust.

He sank down onto the edge of his bed slowly, his shirt still unbuttoned, his red curls tangled from tossing and turning the night before. He buried his head in his hands when the tears boiled over, hating himself for this show of weakness, even if Calum was still sleeping beneath the blankets behind him.

For a while, Ashton let himself cry quietly. He'd been holding it in for so long now, convinced that he didn’t deserve to feel misery when he’d caused so much devastation to other people’s lives but… fuck, he was only human after all. There was only so much he could take.

He was just congratulating himself on managing to cry silently when Calum proved that he wasn’t as subtle as he liked to think. The Prince rolled closer over the mattress, his arm snaking warmly around the older boy’s waist as he pressed a kiss to the small of his back, right over the scar hidden beneath his shirt.

“It’ll be okay, angel,” Calum murmured, his voice rougher than usual with sleep. “I’ll be with you today, yeah? You don’t have to go through this alone.”

Ashton’s breath escaped him in an embarrassing sob, his fingers twisting roughly through his curls as he struggled to speak past the anxiety knotting itself around his lungs.

“I don’t deserve comfort right now, okay?” he choked out, his hazel eyes overflowing with bitter tears. Quite suddenly, he couldn’t keep his sobs in anymore and he hated how frightened he was of the inevitable headlines once the general public started watching footage of his part in the final battle again. The press would stalk him like bloodhounds and Ashton still had the scars from the last time they'd tried to tear him apart. He wasn't sure he could survive that again but... fuck, suffering like this was what he deserved.

Even Calum’s love wasn’t enough to make him feel better about today.

“It’s all my fault,” Ashton said dully, his flushed cheeks sticky with tears. “I made everything so much worse and –”

“Oi,” Calum interrupted, his gaze softening as he pushed himself up into a sitting position, shuffling closer so that he could bracket Ashton warmly between his thighs. “You can’t shoulder the blame for an entire war, Ash, and it would be silly to try.” He hooked his chin over the older boy’s shoulder, pressing a soft kiss to the fading claw marks the mordere had left on his cheek. “You don’t have to carry everything by yourself.”

“I have to try,” Ashton breathed, his shoulders slumping. The Prince’s arms wrapped once more around his waist, his bare chest warm against the older boy’s back where they were resting together.

“Actually, you don’t,” Calum pointed out kindly, sleep-rumpled and loving as he smoothed his palm comfortingly over the older boy’s ribs, trying to make him feel okay again. “You’ve got a whole lot of people who love you, angel. Try not to forget that.”

He smoothed Ashton’s curls back gently, pressing a lingering kiss to the back of his neck. It made the older boy shiver and, heartened, Calum drew the Crown Prince down onto the mattress with him, his hand slipping into the confines of Ashton’s shirt as he stroked the warm skin soothingly.

Cal,” the older boy whined weakly, his cheeks still damp with tears even as he pressed a kiss to the corner of the Prince’s mouth. Calum drew him closer, his hand sliding up Ashton’s back to tangle gently in his red curls as his lips trailed across the older boy’s throat, teasing enough that he trembled with anticipation.

“My clothes are gonna get crumpled, Cal,” he said pitifully, drying his eyes with the back of his hand. “It’ll look bad.”

“You're only half wearing a shirt, angel,” the younger boy pointed out, his expression soft. “You do make a good point though. Maybe we should take it off.”

Ashton groaned when he felt Calum’s teeth lightly grazing his throat as he helped the Crown Prince out of his shirt, his fingertips brushing teasingly over the skin. The older boy tilted his head to one side in the hope of receiving more kisses, his hazel eyes falling shut in contentment when the Prince leant closer, even as Ashton’s fingers twisted fretfully in the blankets.

“The ceremony –” he began, his breath catching when Calum bit down lightly, sucking a bruise into his neck.

“– isn’t for hours yet,” the younger boy said softly, his tone a little smug when Ashton shuddered at the feeling of Calum’s hot breath on his skin. “We have time.”

“Okay,” the older boy breathed, his resolve weakening as he relaxed under the gentle kisses the Prince was scattering across his shoulders. He turned his head, his hazel eyes glinting in the shadows as he held Calum's gaze. “Want you, curly.” His voice was soft, his hands shaking a little. “Want you so bad.”

“Want you too, angel,” Calum whispered, pressing a softer kiss to the older boy’s throat, his chocolate brown eyes glittering with affection. His fingertips slipped into Ashton’s boxers and he stroked the warm skin lightly, the touch teasing enough that the Crown Prince shuddered, his hips rocking back against Calum’s as a soft whine built in his throat. “What do you want me to do, Ash?” His voice was low with promise as he helped the older boy out of his boxers, his expression nothing short of reverent. “How can I make you feel good?

Ashton rolled over to kiss him, still shaking a little as he reached for Calum’s hand and brought it down between his legs, feeling a thrill when the younger boy seemed content to go with the flow. He shuddered when Calum’s fingers wrapped around his cock and they both groaned when Ashton drew the Prince’s fist up clumsily to where he was already leaking at the tip.

“You make the prettiest sounds,” Calum murmured, biting his lip at the soft moans escaping the older boy when he relinquished control, crumpling the blankets in his fists as he succumbed to the pleasure. Calum watched with satisfaction as Ashton's eyes fluttered shut, a broken whine escaping him when the movement of the younger boy’s fist quickened.

“You’re such a good boy for me,” Calum said softly, loving the way the older boy melted against him at the praise. Ashton’s forehead fell to rest on the younger boy’s shoulder, his lips parted around weak moans as he watched his cock gliding through the tight circle of Calum’s fingers.

“I love you, Cal,” Ashton breathed, his eyes growing damp again as he realised how lucky he was to have someone as wonderful as the Prince in his life, especially after everything he’d done wrong.

“I love you too,” Calum promised but his expression became knowing when he raised the older boy’s chin gently with his free hand, his dark eyes soft. “You’re still thinking too much, angel,” he murmured, leaning closer to capture Ashton’s lips in a soft kiss. “Let me help you forget.”

*

Laura’s mum had made the blanket when she was a little girl, back before Luke had been born. The patchwork quilt was faded and worn with age by now but Laura still loved it, especially on days like today when she badly needed the comfort.

Watching the Boneflats Remembrance Day broadcast had never been easy. Hearing the death toll and watching the footage had upset her enough when she was younger but, after having served during the war herself, the horror of it was enough to leave her trembling.

She’d barely slept last night and the exhaustion was eating away at her now as she snuggled further under the blanket, leaning against Michael’s side. Luke had crept into her room in the early hours of the morning, apparently able to hear her frustrated sighs through the wall judging by the worried expression on his face. He’d slipped under the blankets with her wordlessly, his arms wrapping warmly around her as he stroked her hair in an effort to keep her calm.

She looked across at her little brother now, taking in the unhappiness in his eyes as he watched the Remembrance Day broadcast on their comms screen. The only thing keeping the anxiety simmering under her skin was Michael’s arm wrapped around her, his lips lightly brushing her hair as he patted her knee comfortingly through the blanket.

The grim-faced reporter on screen was gesturing to where the parade through central Aureum was about to begin and Luke bit his lip unhappily when a clip of the final battle was played, the footage shaky and crackling as whoever was holding the camera began to run.

In the armchair beside his, Ashley grimaced, looking away with a soft sigh. She still hadn’t completely healed from the injury she’d sustained and she looked small where she was curled up on the cushions, her pale face free of make-up, her dark hair soft and free of product as it fell across her frowning forehead.

She’d turned up with Michael half an hour earlier, looking sheepish and awkward as he nudged her into the apartment ahead of him with a hand resting comfortingly on her good shoulder. She was still heavily bandaged under her jumper and she moved stiffly as Laura guided her to a chair, pleased to see that her little brother had already started boiling water to make their guests hot drinks.

No one commented on Ashley’s unexpected presence and she seemed grateful for their easy acceptance. It was clear that Michael had taken pity on her, not wanting his friend to be left alone while the Hood siblings were leading the procession with Ashton and his parents.

“How’s your shoulder healing up, Ashley?” Laura asked quietly, relieved to tear her eyes away from the harrowing footage on-screen. The younger girl looked over in surprise, a hesitant smile curving her lips as she offered a half-hearted shrug.

“It’s not too sore,” Ashley said thoughtfully, her eyes soft. “Thanks to you.” She shivered a little, holding her mug closer to her chest as her gaze dropped to the steaming liquid inside. “I’d be dead if it wasn’t for you.”

“Nonsense,” Laura said softly, her tone firm. “No friend of mine is getting killed on my watch. I can promise you that.”

Ashley glowed at being referred to as the older girl’s friend, her lips pressing together to hide her smile. This was a side to her Laura hadn’t seen before and she was glad she was privy to it now, even if it was in less than ideal circumstances, with mourners filling the comms screen and the boys watching the broadcast with grave expressions.

“Hey, look,” Michael said suddenly, his tone coloured with excitement as he broke the quiet that had fallen. “It’s Cal and Ash!”

Laura followed his gaze, her lips curving up weakly when she saw the two Princes filling the screen. They were standing side by side in inky black suits, their expressions grave as they stared out over the crowd gathered to watch the procession. Mali stood beside them, her dark outfit interrupted only by her silver jewellery glinting in the light of another overcast day as she squared her shoulders apprehensively.

When the first speaker stepped up to the podium on the stage to recount their personal story of serving on the Boneflats, Ashton began to fidget, clearly distressed as his gaze dropped to the ground. He grew tenser with every word – that would have been evident over the comms screen even if Calum hadn’t been glancing at him with poorly-disguised concern every few seconds – and Laura knew her brother and the others had noticed it by how quiet they’d become.

Sierra had been sent along to protect the Crown Prince and she was standing just behind him now, her eyes trained on his back although they widened when the speaker began to recount their experience of the day the ceasefire was declared after Ashton had triggered the rockslide.

Fletcher and Anne Irwin looked similarly troubled where they were standing beside the podium but there was nothing they could do during the broadcast; nothing that wouldn’t make their son look volatile and tragic. Sierra took a hesitant step closer, paling visibly when the faintest flicker of blue flame licked at Ashton’s trembling fingertips… and then Calum took his hand, lacing their fingers together firmly, uncaring of the danger or what the rest of the world might think.

Ashton calmed at his touch and, as the fire flickered away to nothing, the camera focused on the pair for a moment, Calum’s expression fiercely defiant as he tightened his grip, refusing to let go. When neither made any move to release the other, the camera panned slowly to Anne who was preparing to begin her own speech and – accompanied by everyone else in the apartment – Laura let out the breath she’d been holding.

“Fuck,” Luke breathed, his face pale as he exchanged a wide-eyed glance with his sister. “Ash almost just… Fuck.”

“I know,” she murmured, her chest tight with anxiety as she recalled the dangerous blue flames burning so close to Calum’s skin. “Ash hasn't been so close to losing it in months. I thought he felt better now.”

“Maybe he does,” Michael interjected quietly, still watching the screen with wide eyes although he let his cheek rest gently on Laura’s hair. “Everyone’s bound to have blips sometimes, no matter how good their control is. That’s how it works with my lightning anyway.” He blushed a little, glancing up hesitantly and relaxing when he saw the fondness on Laura’s face as Ashley nodded her agreement, looking faintly proud. “Ash is under a lot of stress at the moment too,” Michael continued, his tone more confident now. “Especially with the Purgatio targeting him like this... and then to have the pressure of competing in the Elevare on top of all that… well, it would be enough to scrape anyone's nerves raw.”

“That’s true,” Luke said quietly, his blue eyes flickering back unhappily to the comms screen as the Queen finished her speech. Her husband stood behind her, his hand resting on her shoulder as his gaze scanned the crowd, his brow creasing at some of the signs that were being brandished. None of them made it clearly into the broadcast but, if Laura squinted at the crowd in the background, she thought she could make out the phrases ‘Fire Prince’ and ‘traitor’, neither of which boded very well for her best friend.

The stage was bristling with security guards, all of them grim-faced as they guarded the royalty facing the crowd. Despite the Tenebran King and Queen leaving the country the day before, their children had remained behind and the Claritan royals would do everything possible to ensure the safety of their guests.

Privately, Laura wondered if this wasn’t some sort of show of strength too. Perhaps the royal council were hoping that a display of stealth and power would be enough to intimidate the Purgatio into surrendering or, at the very least, not launching another attack. Stranger things had happened after all.

“They’re still holding hands,” Ashley noted when the camera panned over the Princes once more. “Y’know, it’s kind of sweet. I’ve never seen Cal like this before and I've known him for... what? Six years now?”

“Give or take,” Michael said with a shrug. “You’re not wrong though. I’ve never seen him like this either.” He looked wrong-footed suddenly, like he wasn’t sure how he felt. “I guess he meant what he told Ash the other night then. The wicked Princess has discovered that he did have a heart after all.”

“Meanie,” Laura said with great dignity, elbowing him lightly in the ribs. “He’s your best friend, sparky! Don’t sulk because you have to share him.”

Michael stuck his tongue out at her and Laura grinned, leaning closer to press a soft kiss to his cheek. Ashley watched them fondly for a moment before her gaze returned to the screen, a wistful sigh escaping her when she saw Mali standing there with her head held high, her long hair fluttering in the breeze.

The only person not smiling was Luke.

He looked small as he huddled up in the armchair, his gaze fixed on the screen where the gathered royals were finally stepping down off the stage to lead the procession through the streets of Aureum. Calum and Ashton’s fingers were still firmly entwined, and Laura wanted to be happy that they appeared to be in this for the long haul – that they weren’t ashamed to hold each other close in broad daylight; that Calum’s words on the night of the party hadn’t been the product of desperation and adrenaline – but it was hard when Luke was wilting like that, his shoulders slumping as his arms wrapped around himself protectively.

She thought she understood why he looked quite so dejected too because, despite her brother and Ashton no longer being romantically interested in each other, it had to hurt that they’d never been public like this. Their relationship had always been kept a secret and, no matter how much Laura loved Ashton, she would never agree with the way he’d hidden his feelings for Luke, even if it had been because he was afraid of what the press would say.

It was no wonder her brother felt resentful now, when Ashton had finally found the courage to tell the world how he felt about Calum. Laura couldn’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t have felt bitter at this situation.

“Hey, lofty,” she said, raising her voice a little to be heard over the sound of the broadcast. A number of jets were flying over the solemn procession on the comms screen, trailing golden and white smoke behind them to reflect the royal colours of Claritas. Her brother looked up curiously and she smiled faintly, hoping to cheer him up. “Are you seeing Niall today?”

He shrugged but it was impossible to miss the way he brightened at the mention of the older man’s name.

“Maybe I’ll go bother him now,” Luke said thoughtfully, his lips curving up into a faint smile. “Will you be okay here, tiny? I know watching this makes you feel bad.”

“I’m okay,” Laura promised, heartened that he was so considerate. “I'm not on my own.”

“We’ll look after her,” Michael promised, his arm still wrapped securely around her shoulders. “Go and have fun, Luke.”

“Yeah,” Ashley agreed with a tired grin. “We’ll try not to ruin the apartment while you’re gone.” The smile faded a little once he’d left and her expression became inquisitive instead as she turned to face the others, wincing a little when the movement pulled her shoulder. “Niall is the empath, right?”

“Right,” Michael agreed, watching her carefully as his thumb stroked the warm skin of Laura’s neck. “He’s a nice guy, Ash.”

“Why are you –?” Ashley looked perplexed for a moment before her words trailed away as her cheeks heated. “I don’t have a problem with him, Mike! I know some Tenebrans can get a bit jumpy about empaths but… I was genuinely just curious. That’s why I asked.”

“Well, you understand why I had to check,” Michael said awkwardly, aware that Laura was watching him in confusion out of the corner of his eye. “After the way Calum reacted when he first met Niall, I can’t be too careful.”

“It was that bad?” Ashley asked, wincing good-naturedly as she ran a hand through her cropped hair, her teeth worrying at her bottom lip.

“The pair get along well enough now but… yeah, it wasn’t good,” Michael said heavily, flushing faintly when Laura muted the broadcast, much more interested in their conversation. “Calum totally freaked out; said he really embarrassed himself. It's a good thing Niall was so relaxed about it.”

“I don’t get it,” Laura admitted with a frown. “Why don’t Tenebrans like empaths? They’re the same as anyone else. It’s just one more type of magical ability.”

“Well… it’s kind of a long story,” Michael said uncomfortably. “Empaths haven’t been welcome in Tenebris for almost half a century now. They're banned from living in Effervo, the capital city, and they get an automatic prison sentence if they set foot within even a mile of the citadel, regardless of how good a reason they might have.”

“That’s horrible,” Laura said softly. “What happened to make the Tenebrans so... so distrustful?”

“Think about what you know of Tenebris,” Ashley said quietly. “Emotions are always hidden, right? The more emotionless you appear, the stronger you seem... and that disguise is rendered useless whenever an empath is near. There's nothing to hide behind.”

“There’s more to it than that though,” Michael admitted hesitantly, tensing a little when both girls turned to watch him inquisitively. When Laura realised that Ashley looked confused too, her curiosity grew. “This is a secret, okay? Neither of you can tell anyone else. I only know because Calum told me a few years ago.”

He bit his lip, taking a deep breath to calm his nerves although he relaxed when Laura reached for his hand.

“Around two decades ago, the King’s younger brother Thomas was abducted,” Michael explained grimly. “They were anti-royalists and they didn’t want the Hood family reigning Tenebris any longer. They wanted information on the security around the citadel; on David’s routines and habits. They wanted to assassinate him and seize control themselves.” His voice became softer as he continued to speak, his gaze falling to settle on his fingers entwined with Laura’s. “But… well, their plans changed.”

Michael shuddered as he remembered the night Calum had told him the truth; the sheen of tears in the younger boy’s eyes and the whispered words that frantically cut off whenever a guard passed in the corridor outside.

“The leader of their group was an empath; a man from the outer edges of Tenebris with a chip on his shoulder after the way the nation treated those with empathic abilities. He decided it would be better to send Thomas back in broken pieces instead and… and that’s what he did. He took his mind apart; tore away all of the strength and the ice Thomas had built up over the years when he’d been fighting to appear strong for his nation…”

Ashley gasped, her face crumpling as she processed his words. She’d known Thomas well, both because he was Mali's uncle and because they'd served together during the Boneflats War, but she'd clearly never been privy to this information. Laura looked upset at the younger girl’s obvious misery, fiddling with a lock of hair nervously as her soft eyes flickered to Michael’s face, apparently trusting that he was about to give the story a happy ending... but there was no happy ending. Not in Tenebris. Not for Thomas.

“Uncle Tommy came back home broken,” Michael said in little more than a whisper. “He'd always been known as the best of the Hood family – the strongest, the coldest, the shrewdest – but all of that was gone. He was… he was soft instead. That’s how everyone described him after. It was like all of his fight had been stolen.” He sighed bitterly, his lip almost bloodless with how hard he was biting it. “Mali was only a baby when Thomas came home and Calum hadn't been born yet. Neither of them ever knew their uncle as anything but a kind, bumbling man who was hidden away in the citadel. Even when I moved in with them, we never knew there was anything wrong. It just wasn't spoken about… but then, nothing’s spoken about in Tenebris, is it? That’s the problem.”

His eyes were bright with anger now, his cheeks flushing with colour as his hands curled into fists.

“That’s the worst thing about Tenebris. There are all these horrible secrets and then, when they inevitably come to light one day, you're expected to just accept it; to hide your emotions and pretend everything's fine, and it's… it’s fucked up. It’s so fucked up because… because now empaths everywhere are being discriminated against just because David blames the lot of them for the actions of one man. He’s blaming tens of thousands of innocent people with empathic abilities for taking his brother away... when really, if he’d just tried to get to know Tommy again instead of writing him off as a lost cause, he would’ve loved him as much as we did. He would’ve realised Tommy had never left at all.”

He didn't realise the tears prickling in his eyes had boiled over until Laura brushed one away gently with her thumb, her expression twisted with sadness as she leant her head against his shoulder. Ashley held his gaze, her jaw squared unhappily although she forced a faint smile that didn’t warm her features at all.

“You were always Tommy’s favourite,” she said quietly. “Mali used to whine about it all the time. She said he bought you better birthday presents than everyone else.”

“Well, you can’t exactly blame him, can you?” Michael teased, giving her a watery smile. “I am literally the greatest person on all of Cerasus.”

“With such an under-inflated ego too,” Ashley retorted, rolling her eyes amusedly. “I commend you, Mike. It’s hard to imagine how you manage to stay so grounded.”

“You've been hanging around with Mali for too long!” Michael protested, the whine audible in his voice. “Stop picking on me!” He glanced over at Laura, clearly hoping she’d step in to defend him, but he sobered a little at the thoughtful expression on her face. “You okay, petal?” he asked gently. “Did you have a question?”

“Maybe,” Laura said hesitantly, her tone delicate. “I think I get why Calum and Mali were so wary now... but how come you weren't, Mike? Didn't David and Joy raise you too?”

“I guess I have my parents to thank for that,” Michael said with a shrug. “I’ve never really thought about it before but… well, I travelled with mum and dad a lot when I was younger. They had so many political conferences they spoke at all over Tenebris and they usually took me with them. I met all kinds of people there – including empaths, who had never done anything wrong but were still treated badly. It… it kind of resonated with me, I guess. My magic still hadn’t manifested then and I got bullied for it at school, and I think my parents were trying to show me that even in the face of adversity like that, I could still make something of myself. It was... it was really cool of them.”

He was a little choked up by the end of his explanation and Laura squeezed his hand comfortingly, not liking the thought of anyone being mean to Michael at all.

“That makes perfect sense, Mike,” Ashley said once she’d carefully considered his words, her hand rising to rub her aching shoulder distractedly. “In a way, serving during the Boneflats had the same effect on me. It was the reality check I needed to wake up and realise that they were people just like me; people with families and fears and… and pets. They weren’t anything to be scared of, in the same way that someone who can manipulate fire or water or metal isn’t frightening. The ability is only as dangerous as the person wielding it and it’s far past time the Tenebrans learnt to accept that.”

“Exactly!” Michael agreed vehemently, his green eyes shining. “If more people thought the way you did, Tenebris would be a better place.” Laura bit her lip suddenly, her chest tightening with anxiety.

“But… Niall’s flying out to Tenebris with us soon,” she gasped, her eyes widening. “Won’t it be dangerous for him?”

“Cal said his dad has spoken to Ashton’s parents about this,” Michael said with an uneasy shrug. “They’ve explained that Niall’s the best healer they have and there’s no way the second half of the tournament is going ahead without Niall by Ashton’s side… so I guess arrangements have been made.”

“He’ll need security though,” Ashley said unhappily, biting her lip hard. “And he can’t go out alone. That would be far too dangerous.”

Laura felt a sinking feeling in her chest as she considered the implications of this. She grew more wary at the prospect of travelling to Tenebris with every day that passed and this new information had done nothing to make her feel any better about it. All she could comfort herself with was the fact that she could see the place Michael had grown up and hopefully get to know him better in the process.

Thinking about the distant nation in any more detail than that was too frightening to consider.

On the comms screen, the camera was panning over the mourners now, showing the sheer scale of the crowd who had come out to watch the procession. It looked eerie with the sound muted, each silent face twisted in grief or shock or even pride, and they all fell quiet to stare. The hairs on the back of Michael’s neck rose when the image zoomed out, showing just how many people had gathered to watch the royal family pass through the streets.

They seemed shockingly vulnerable suddenly and Michael felt a little sick, badly wanting the Hood siblings and Ashton back where he knew without a doubt that they were safe. He desperately hoped that the Purgatio wouldn't be foolish enough to scale an attack today, especially under the watchful eye of so many security guards. He just wanted his friends to come back home.

“I… I do have one more question actually,” Laura said suddenly, her voice very soft. She pursed her lips as she tried to consider the best way to phrase what she wanted to ask but, even when she quietly spoke again, she remained uncertain. “I never knew King David had a brother before today. He’s never been mentioned on any of the comms channels.” She looked uncomfortable, her cheeks heating a little even despite the soft look Michael shot her. “What happened to Thomas in the end?”

Laura had been expecting the answer to come from Michael so it came as a surprise when it was Ashley who spoke instead.

“Thomas served alongside me during the Boneflats War,” she explained before her dark eyes grew damp, her lips pressing together unhappily. “He was… he was killed by Ashton.”

“It’s true,” Michael said softly when Laura looked at him anxiously, her lip drawn between her teeth. “There was never a proper funeral because we never recovered his body. There was only ash.”

“That’s terrible,” she breathed, feeling utterly drained after the unexpected weight of the conversation. “I’m all for forgiveness but… well, I can’t imagine befriending someone who had taken a loved one away.” She felt guilty as she spoke but the words were the truth and she didn’t bother denying them. If someone hurt Luke or one of her parents, she wouldn’t be able to give them the time of day, let alone her friendship. “I mean… Calum’s fallen in love with Ash. If I’d known what you’d all been through, I never would have imagined that we’d end up as close as this.”

“We aren’t our mistakes,” Michael said quietly, his voice firm. “Anyone can see that Ashton never meant to do what he did. You only need to watch the footage once to see that.”

“I’ve never watched it,” Laura whispered, looking away as a lump rose in her throat. “It was awful enough in person.”

She bit her lip suddenly as it occurred to her that, if Michael had seen the footage of Ashton exploding in flame and causing the rockslide, he must have seen the aftermath too: must have seen Laura fighting to save his life while the skin of her hands peeled away… the way she’d screamed in pain even as she tried to keep him alive with her stasis spell.

He’d never once asked her about it, not wanting to make her uncomfortable or unhappy, and she loved him so much in that moment that she thought she might burst from it.

Almost like he could tell what she was thinking, Michael’s hand slipped to cup her cheek and she leant into it gratefully, her eyes falling shut when his lips lightly brushed her forehead.

“Love you,” Laura whispered and Michael’s blushing face creased into a gentle smile.

“Love you too,” he mumbled, still sheepish but undeniably happy. He perked up suddenly, his emerald eyes glittering as he scrambled up from the sofa, tucking the blanket back around her hastily when she shivered at the cool air. “I know what’ll make you feel better!” he declared excitedly. “Those amazing sweets you guys have here!”

He bounded off into the kitchen to search for them and Laura watched him go fondly, glancing over in surprise when Ashley rose from the armchair, still moving a little stiffly from her injury as she slumped down onto the sofa beside the older girl.

“Mike’s a sweetheart,” she said quietly, catching the older girl’s gaze and holding it for a moment. “You look after him, okay? He deserves it.”

“I know he does,” Laura said gently, her tone warm although her smile quickly became teasing. “Looks like Mikey doesn’t have just one over-protective sister in his life then.” She giggled when Ashley pretended to be offended, her blue eyes crinkling when the younger girl leant against her unconsciously, looking more relaxed than she had done since landing in Claritas.

Laura thought perhaps her and Ashley might end up close friends after all.

*

The strike came out of nowhere and Niall felt his lip burst against the stranger’s knuckles as his knees folded beneath him. He hit the ground hard, a low groan tearing out of him as he felt his attacker’s anger and smugness dancing on the fringes of his consciousness. The cruel emotions were quickly lost beneath his pounding headache and, by the time Niall finally managed to lift his head, the stranger had already vanished from sight.

He pushed himself off the ground with a muffled curse, spitting blood as his lip stung at the abuse it had been subjected too. He shuddered at the taste in his mouth as he checked warily that none of his teeth had been knocked loose, his whole jaw aching as he used the wall nearby to claw himself upright.

Niall hadn’t been hurt like this in a long time but he supposed it shouldn’t have surprised him. With the way tensions had been mounting recently, an attack like this should have been expected, especially on Boneflats Remembrance Day when emotions were running so high. It had always been like this growing up and he’d known since he was a kid that people were scared of things they didn’t understand, and unfortunately it just so happened that his empathic abilities fell into that category.

Niall had been knocked around for his magic more times than he cared to admit - both from strangers and the people who should have taken care of him - and there was no reason for him to feel so shaken up now. That didn’t change the fact that he did though.

He thought the Purgatio might be to blame for this latest attack, especially with how notorious they were becoming lately, and the dangerous confidence they were exuding seemed to be inspiring many other people to embrace their own wickedness.

It had been the same when Niall had watched the broadcast of the ceremony earlier. Even on the comms screen, it had been painfully apparent that there was a sinister undercurrent this year that had been vastly different to the processions in the past. It had no longer seemed to be an occasion for grieving and celebrating the lives of the soldiers, but of fear and hatred instead.

People had been holding up signs in the crowd, many of them threatening Ashton or cursing the Elevare’s revival, and Niall had been so uncomfortable watching the parade that he’d had to switch the broadcast off in the end. Unfortunately, all that had done was leave him alone with his thoughts and the conclusions he had drawn hadn’t been at all pleasant.

He couldn’t quite shake off the realisation that something in the Purgatio had fundamentally changed over the last few months. The terrorist group seemed so much more organised than they had done when they’d first posted their angry rants on the comms channels and their attacks were carried out with terrifying efficiency nowadays.

It didn’t matter how often the Claritan Constabulary insisted that the ringleaders of the Purgatio had been captured the night they’d attacked the Caelum Assembly Building. Something about it didn’t sit right with Niall and he was certain someone else was pulling their strings, providing them with funds and important information so that they could better pick their targets.

The longer he dwelled on it, the more terrified he became because - while he was unsure of what their next move would be - he was absolutely certain that it couldn’t end well for him or the people he cared about.

The Purgatio had hit close to home too many times already.

A drop of blood running down his chin jarred him from his thoughts and Niall grimaced as he was reminded of his current predicament: leaning bleeding against a wall a few streets away from the palatial estate after he’d foolishly assumed that a post-lunchtime walk might be a pleasant way to calm his nerves. Apparently he’d been wrong.

He pushed himself away from the wall with a low groan, his head spinning at the throbbing pain he could feel as he stumbled over the pavement, leaving a trail of blood splattered behind him. The soldiers guarding the security checkpoint seemed shocked at the state he’d managed to get himself into in a relatively short amount of time but Niall made up a lie about losing his footing and they seemed content to drop it as they granted him passage to the estate. The guards were vigilant and on high alert, and there wasn’t time to fuss over a busted lip and a bloodied face, no matter how unprovoked the attack might have been.

He trudged miserably across the grass, feeling thoroughly sorry for himself as the doors to the entrance hall swung open. He was alerted to Luke’s presence by the sudden excited cawing of several different species of birds flapping out of the trees and he smiled weakly at the sight of the younger boy stepping into the sunlight, immediately regretting it when his lip began to bleed anew.

“Hey, Ni,” Luke called brightly as he approached. “I went to look for you in your apartment but you weren’t –” He broke off with a gasp, his eyes widening in horror when he noticed the blood. He closed the distance between them in seconds, his pale face growing blotchy with how upset he was at the sight of the older man's injuries.

“Ni?” he whispered, his eyes gleaming wetly as his shaking hands settled on the healer’s slumped shoulders. “Ni, what happened?”

Niall shrugged, his cheeks flaming with embarrassment as the shame inside started to make itself known once more. Maybe it was time for him to bite the bullet and learn to defend himself. It didn’t matter that the idea of hitting someone – even in self-defence – made him feel guilty. Clearly the rest of the world wouldn’t show him the same courtesy.

“Got hit,” he mumbled, wincing at the stinging pain in his lip. “Doesn’t matter.”

“Yes, it does,” Luke disagreed, sounding choked up as he drew the older man timidly into a hug. He sighed softly when Niall relaxed in the warm circle of his arms, his cheek falling to rest on the younger boy's broad shoulder.

“Getting blood on your shirt, Lukey,” Niall said guiltily, his bruised face throbbing with pain although it felt less urgent when he felt a hand gently stroking his dark hair.

“I don’t care,” Luke breathed as his lips brushed the older man’s forehead gently. “I don’t care about anything but you right now.” He drew back after a moment, his trembling hand rising to cradle the healer’s cheek as his gaze settled on his sore lip. “I don’t understand why someone would want to hurt you, Ni.”

“Just who I am as a person I guess,” Niall muttered, cringing when his poor joke fell painfully flat. He sighed, his chest tight with anxiety and humiliation. “I don’t know, Lukey,” he said heavily as he withered in the younger boy’s gentle grip. “Probably because I’m an empath. That’s usually enough.” He bit his lip automatically, his face crumpling at the bright burst of pain he felt as the blood rolled hot over his skin. “You know how people are about things they don’t understand.”

“That’s no excuse,” Luke said weakly, his eyelashes spiky with tears as he stroked Niall’s jaw lightly with his thumb. He didn’t seem to understand that this was something Niall had suffered with his whole life: either downright scorn or physical violence, all because his abilities were invisible and, therefore, frightening.

“This feels like being at school again,” Niall admitted as he gestured to his sore face. He tried for a weak laugh but it fell flat when a tear rolled down his cheek and Luke looked like he was going to cry when he pulled the older man into a tighter hug.

“Can’t you heal yourself, Ni?” he whispered, his words warm against the healer’s neck. Niall shook his head, his eyes falling shut.

“Magic doesn’t work that way,” he said with a shrug, his voice quiet beneath the cawing of the birds. “It’s the same way Ash’s fire doesn’t burn him. You can drain yourself by burning out your magic but you can’t cause yourself harm or heal a wound on your own body... not when that's where the energy feeding the magic is coming from in the first place.”

“You’re smart,” Luke said and, although it looked like he was trying hard to smile, he was still fighting tears. The breeze had grown stronger as he became more distressed and Niall's hair was fluttering in the wind now, his eyes watering at the chill as the birds scattered back to the safety of their treetops.

Niall wrapped his arms warmly around the younger boy’s waist and Luke calmed against him, flushing a delicate pink as he smoothed his fingertips softly over the older man's cheekbone.

“You’re such a beautiful person, Ni,” Luke murmured. “You're like sunshine. You don't deserve to be hurt.” He ducked down to kiss the healer’s cheek and Niall sighed softly as the last of the shame bled out of him. “Come back to mine,” the younger boy suggested, his tone earnest. “Laura can heal you up in no time at all.”

“Okay,” Niall breathed, his eyes softening when Luke took his hand carefully, uncaring of the blood that had dripped onto it as he entwined their fingers. “Thank you, darling.”

“Nothing to thank me for,” the younger boy said firmly, his lips curving into a gentle smile. “I just want to keep you safe.”

They walked back to the apartment together in companionable silence but Niall felt strangely comfortable, especially when his headache began to ebb and he became more attuned to Luke's emotions fluttering at the edges of his consciousness.

He became aware of the worry and the relief first, both of them warring for precedence as the younger boy held his hand a little tighter, his jaw squared like he still felt troubled. There was a trace of something softer underneath though; something warmer and inviting enough to fall into that could only have been love.

Niall would have been able to detect it even without his empathic abilities because, when he looked into the younger boy’s beautiful eyes, he saw his own emotions reflected back at him. He wasn't ready to voice them yet though; not when he could still feel a hint of Luke's uncertainty when his sticky poisonous love for Ashton refused to completely wash away. It was dwindling though – they both felt the truth of that with every kiss they shared – and as it drifted out like the tide, Niall watched the sadness in Luke’s eyes fading.

He wasn’t bitter that the old love still lingered either because he knew exactly how that felt. He'd been hurt in love himself when he was younger and it felt suffocating sometimes, like it would never get any better. Niall was so glad he’d been proved wrong about that and he was happy Luke was beginning to learn the truth too.

The younger boy glanced over at him with a sparkle in his eyes that hadn’t been there before and, as their gazes met, Niall felt an overwhelming burst of love that seemed to come from both of them at once.

“Wow,” he murmured, dazed. “What a lot of emotions you’ve got there.”

Luke huffed out an embarrassed laugh, clearly trying to look haughty although the smirk curving across his blushing face didn’t quite meet the mark.

“Well, I’m very tall,” he said lightly, his blue eyes fiercely loving. “Lots of room for emotions in these stupidly gangly limbs.”

“I like your limbs,” the healer said sincerely. “And the rest of you. That’s not bad either.”

Luke giggled, slinging his arm comfortingly around the older man’s shoulders as Niall leant against him, unable to completely suppress the painful smile stretching across his face.

He was so glad he’d fallen in love with the bright joyful boy beside him but he was even more grateful that Luke had fallen in love with him too.

That meant more than anything in the world and he couldn’t have suppressed the happiness shining in his eyes if he’d tried.

By the time they finally made it back to the apartment, both of them had brightened considerably. Luke let them in without ceremony, toeing his trainers off in the hallway and encouraging Niall to do the same before he led him into the living room, the sofas and armchairs currently taken over by Laura, Michael, and – surprisingly – Ashley.

“Hey, buttercup,” Michael said brightly when Luke appeared in the doorway although he frowned when he saw the state of Niall’s bloodied face. “Fuck,” he breathed, biting his lip hard. “Who do I have to punch for hurting literally the nicest guy in existence?”

Niall smiled sheepishly in response, wincing a little at the throb of pain this caused.

“Not sure,” he said honestly, leaning heavily against Luke when the younger boy slipped his arm around him once more. “Someone super pissed off I guess?”

“Damnit,” Laura said unhappily, folding back the blanket she’d been sitting under and patting the sofa cushion beside her. “C’mere, Niall. Let’s fix that pretty face.”

She rolled her sleeves up as he slumped down beside her and he caught the briefest hint of tattoos before his gaze settled on her scarred hands. He felt a familiar prickle of guilt as he looked at them because he’d never been able to heal them completely, no matter how many times he’d tried. There was so much scar tissue that it was shocking she could use her hands properly at all and he felt a sudden surge of pride when he realised that she was still becoming an incredibly talented healer, even despite her disfigurement. He genuinely couldn’t have asked for a better student and he knew his admiration for her had showed on his face when she blushed, ducking her head shyly as she tried to get her smile under control.

Luke sank down onto the arm of the sofa behind Niall, smoothing his dark hair back softly as his sister reached for the older man’s face, her fingertips tracing lightly over his injuries. Niall closed his eyes when he felt the strange warmth blooming across his skin as his bottom lip healed, the damaged cells repairing themselves as the sharp stinging eased to nothing at all. The ache of the bruises faded next, first dulling before disappearing completely, and he hadn’t realised how badly his jaw had been aching until the pain was gone.

Niall let out a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding, relaxing back against Luke with a soft sigh as the younger boy dropped a kiss onto his forehead which was thankfully no longer throbbing either.

“Thank you, Laura,” Niall said softly, cracking a weak smile when he saw Michael and Ashley watching the display of healing magic curiously. “Sorry for bursting in like this. I hope we didn’t interrupt anything.”

“Not at all,” Laura said warmly, her eyes softening when Luke disappeared momentarily to get some wipes so that he could clean the blood off the older man’s face. “We were actually talking about empaths so your arrival is quite appropriate.”

“I see,” Niall murmured, unsure of what to make of that. “Well, that is a topic I’m rather familiar with.”

“I’m sure you are,” Michael smiled but his expression saddened a little when Luke reappeared, starting to gently work away the dried blood streaking Niall’s pale skin. “Unfortunately, you turning up like this sort of proved a point we were just making.”

“About?” Luke asked curiously as he turned to face the others, his hand settling protectively on the older man’s shoulder.

“About how it’s not only Tenebran empaths who are treated badly,” Laura replied grimly, her expression disheartened as she took in Niall’s newly-healed face. “There seems to be this idea in Claritas that – because empaths are officially awarded equal rights and opportunities – they aren’t at a disadvantage but, in reality, that doesn’t seem to be the case at all.”

“I mean… you got hit for just walking down the street and minding your own business, right?” Luke pointed out, his brow creasing in distress. “That sounds just as dangerous as the outright distrust empaths experience in Tenebris.”

“Attacks aren’t exactly common here, especially so close to the capital,” Niall said softly, unable to meet their gazes when he could already feel their pity rippling on the air. “Most people just treat empaths with scorn instead, y’know? And that’s manageable. We’re used to it. I’m used to it… but it would be nice to be able to talk to people without having to fight to be respected.” He sighed quietly as his fingers twisted together uncomfortably in his lap. “In that regard, I’m luckier than most. At least I have my healing abilities too... but it doesn’t make much difference in the end. If people don’t like me for something I can’t change, there’s no point trying to convince them I’m worth their time.”

“It’s a flaw in society,” Ashley said quietly, her words taking him pleasantly by surprise. “It’s so ingrained that empaths aren’t to be trusted – that they should be avoided or ignored whenever possible – that… that trying to break out of that mindset is actually incredibly difficult… but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t push against those norms.”

“You’re right,” Michael said firmly. “Niall, you’re our friend but even we need to get better at showing the world that empaths are just the same as everybody else.” He faltered suddenly, biting his lip as the guilt welled inside him, and Niall felt it on all sides as the others bristled uncomfortably too.

They seemed to realise that they hadn’t been treating him fairly and, although it was undeniably painful, he was glad they understood the truth now. He usually wasn’t included when the group decided to hang out and the fact that he’d been invited along to the party the other day was a huge deal to him because it was the first time they’d chosen to involve him in something like that.

Before Ashton had got hurt, Niall had barely been acknowledged by them, even despite living on the estate too. The only person who had been dependable in their shy smiles was Luke as he trailed after Ashton and Laura. He’d always had a soft spot for Niall and that had been evident even in those early days, when Niall had had no friends at all.

He was glad the others were beginning to accept him now though. It had taken the slow course of Ashton’s spine healing and Laura studying under him before he had been viewed as someone they might like to be more than acquaintances with but his patience had paid off in the end. He didn’t have to feel so bitterly alone anymore, and he’d never have the words to voice how grateful he was that they’d shucked societal norms and decided to give him a chance.

“Y’know, if we’re gonna be allies for empaths, we need to try harder… do better.” Michael’s expression rippled with determination, his cheeks flushing pink as Laura watched him fondly, her smile proud. “I have so many followers on my comms account – probably because people hope I’m gonna say something stupid that they can laugh at me for but… but damnit, I’m gonna start posting about this topic. There needs to be a conversation about it. I mean, what fucking century are we in now?! Treating anyone like this isn’t okay, let alone the people on this planet who have to deal with the most shit – specifically, their own and everyone else’s too.”

“You feel very strongly about this,” Niall realised, eyes widening in surprise. Michael huffed out an awkward laugh, scratching the back of his neck as he offered a half-hearted shrug.

“I just… I don’t like people being bullied,” he said quietly, his tone sincere. “There’s never an excuse for that.”

Niall felt a bit tearful as he processed the fact that his friends – real friends – were genuinely this passionate about making the world a better place for him and everyone else with empathic abilities. A lump rose in his throat at the overwhelming fondness he could feel in the room and he sniffed, drying his eyes with his sleeve subtly.

“We’re going to have to love you and leave you now,” Luke declared, apparently able to sense that the older man was on the brink of losing it. He didn’t need empathic abilities to work that out either; just a kind heart. “C’mon, Ni. Think it’s time you saw the wonders of my beautiful bedroom.”

“He means ‘messy’,” Laura said helpfully from her blanket nest on the sofa, her gaze soft as she watched her brother taking Niall’s hand gently in his own. “But off you go, you two. Don’t let us stop you.”

Luke told her affectionately where she could shove her insinuations and Michael sniggered into his hands as Ashley rolled her eyes skyward. Laura just grinned, her fondness all too tangible in the air. Niall felt her joy resonating inside him when Luke's thumb rubbed soothingly over his knuckles and he gave the younger boy a watery smile, his heart too big for his chest.

Luke clicked the door shut softly behind them and Niall caught a brief glimpse of a blue bedspread, white floaty curtains, and a pile of folded laundry waiting to be put away before the younger boy appeared in front of him, his caramel curls soft as they fell across his forehead.

“You’re like sunshine,” Luke repeated, his voice little more than a whisper, and when he pressed the older man gently against the wall and kissed his worries away, Niall almost forgot he’d been hurt at all.

The younger boy had always had that effect on him though.

Luke was wonderful.

*

Calum hadn’t felt so drained in a long time.

The Boneflats Remembrance Day service had been gruelling that morning and trying to keep Ashton calm in front of thousands of unfriendly eyes had been no easy task, especially when they’d spotted the cruel signs in the crowd. Privately, the Prince thought those were what had pushed Ashton over the edge and sent his fire burning free, and he tensed as he recalled the blue flames licking dangerously at the older boy’s fingertips.

There was a burn on Calum’s palm now, small enough that he’d been able to hide it from the Crown Prince on the transport ride home, but it had been starting to sting over the last few hours. He knew it was his own fault too. Taking Ashton’s hand - even when it was wreathed in flames - had been instinctive and he had no one else to blame for his recklessness.

Perhaps this burn would serve as a reminder that Calum often had the propensity to act without considering the consequences… or maybe it would be just one more secret he kept from the boy he’d fallen in love with.

Unfortunately, the latter seemed a lot more likely because there was no way on all of Cerasus he’d share the fact that the Crown Prince had accidentally caused him pain. He couldn’t stand to see Ashton upset again.

A heavy sigh escaped him as he stood on the balcony, in his own apartment for once instead of Ashton’s. He liked the room he’d been given here a lot more than he did his own bedroom back in the citadel and he felt sad that he only had a week left here in this beautiful city, even if the mounting tensions were taking the shine off things.

It was Ashton’s birthday tomorrow night and they’d planned a party for him which would hopefully make the Crown Prince feel more positive. He deserved to feel happy and that was what Calum wanted more than anything. He would’ve gone to ridiculous lengths to keep the smile shining on Ashton’s face.

He folded his arms loosely over the stone balustrade, gazing out over the dark gardens towards the distant twinkling lights of Aureum where they were visible through the toughened crystal walls of the palace.

Thinking about Ashton made him feel strangely safe and he let himself sink into that feeling, focusing on the older boy’s sparkling eyes and soft crimson curls, and the way his dimples creased his soft cheeks when he giggled. After a moment though, he remembered Ashton’s face flushed and wet with tears instead; remembered the horrible way his breath hitched when he was fighting sobs and how hurt he’d been the day of the second task when Calum had kept secrets from him.

He thought of his father’s threats and David’s ravenous desire for revenge, and how his grief for Thomas outshone every other aspect of his life. He remembered the lack of healers in the woods and the Lumen Centre bombing, and how the Purgatio had almost killed Ashton that night after the party, and how it all seemed far too neatly linked to be coincidence.

Quite suddenly, Calum wasn’t sure he felt safe after all.

He sighed even more heavily this time, the force of it sending him slumping forwards as he buried his head in the crook of his elbow.

“That was a big sigh,” Mali said from right behind him, startling him so much that his heart felt like it had stopped beating as he whirled to face her. “What’s up, peanut?”

“Apart from the heart attack you just gave me?” Calum gasped, still clutching his chest as his pulse slowly calmed. “Nothing at all.” He narrowed his eyes suddenly, taking in how shifty she looked as she held her hands behind her back, clearly trying to appear innocent. “How did you break into my room, smiley?”

She grinned, sweeping her dark hair out of her face with a lazy wave of her hand.

“Metal locks and metal abilities,” she listed, counting them on her fingers. “It’s like they want me to get through locked doors.” She shrugged as her grin widened, her eyes sparkling in the shadows. “I’m glad you and Ashton weren’t up to anything in here though or this would’ve really backfired on me.”

They both paused to shudder delicately at the idea of Mali barging in on them and Calum pursed his lips, folding his arms across his chest as he leant back against the balustrade, shooting her a quizzical look.

“What’s wrong, smiley?” he asked softly. “You wouldn’t have come here this late otherwise.”

“Maybe I just wanted to see my baby brother,” she said pointedly, one eyebrow rising dangerously. “Is that a crime?”

“No,” Calum replied. “Not if you don’t have an ulterior motive.”

“Ouch. Harsh words,” Mali muttered before hesitating, her teeth sinking into her bottom lip as she took a hesitant step closer, coming to lean beside him. “Look, I… I don’t really know how to say this so I guess I’ll come right out with it: I know you’ve been hiding something, peanut. Something big.” Her brow creased when he looked away, refusing to meet her gaze. “I know you too well. Did you really think I wouldn’t notice?”

Calum’s anxiety tightened like barbed wire around his chest and he pressed his lips together hard, remaining stubbornly silent. His glare was weak when Mali’s hands came to rest on his tensed shoulders, her expression surprisingly gentle.

“It’s something to do with dad, isn’t it?” she murmured, taking the fear rippling across his face as confirmation. “That conversation you had with Mikey on the plane - you know I wasn’t sleeping then, right? I heard what you said about dad wanting you to bring glory to Tenebris and… well, with the tournament being reinstated after the scrolls were mysteriously found so soon after uncle Tommy’s death… it all just feels a little too convenient to me, peanut. It sounds like dad’s trying to manipulate you into exacting his own revenge.”

“Mali,” Calum choked out, his dark eyes widening as the panic in his chest tightened. “You can’t tell anyone, okay? Mike hasn’t realised the extent of it and… and I can’t have anyone finding out about this, okay? I can’t. I spoke to dad and he was willing to change the plan if I win the tournament but -”

“The plan?” Mali asked sharply, her eyes narrowing. “What plan, Cal?”

A cool breeze picked up and her hair stirred on the wind as her grip tightened on his shoulders, preventing him from escaping.

“Dad… dad wanted me to kill Ashton to avenge uncle Tommy,” Calum admitted, his words a little strangled with how desperately he was fighting to keep his emotions in check. “He… he threatened me. I think he would’ve taken my magic if I didn’t agree but… but as soon as I met Ash, I knew I couldn’t go through with it.”

“So what now?” Mali asked weakly, her concern evident in her tone as a tear slipped down her brother’s cheek. “I know dad, peanut, and I can’t imagine he just dropped this and gave up.”

“He didn’t,” Calum said miserably, his hands shaking as they rose to wrap around Mali’s wrists, keeping her close to him. “He said he’s looking for other ways to get what he wants without involving me but… but no matter what, he won’t let Ashton survive this. There’s no chance of that at all.”

He let out a sob suddenly, the onslaught of emotions escaping him without his permission as he doubled over in her grip, crying too hard to remain upright. Mali pulled him into a tight hug, pressing her lips gently to his forehead as she stared down at him in dismay, clearly completely out of her depth.

“I don’t know how to fix this,” Calum gasped out, his vision blurry with boiling tears. “It doesn’t matter whether I win the contest or not. Dad wants Ashton dead… and, deep down, I know he wants me to be the one to kill him. That was his plan from the beginning.”

The panic was crashing inside him with the force of a tsunami now, tearing apart all of the defences he’d built up over the years until he felt like a frightened child underneath, scraped raw and bloody as he trembled, too weak to fight anymore.

“You didn't actually consider killing Ashton though, did you?" Mali demanded, her tone nothing short of horrified. She wasn’t hugging him anymore and he shook his head wordlessly, the guilt inside roaring to life inside him when he recalled the first night he’d met Ashton at the Lumen Centre. Calum had done everything he could to antagonise the Crown Prince; to make him angry and hateful so that it would be easier when the time came to kill him and… fuck. Fuck.

Maybe Calum had been capable of committing such a terrible act since the beginning.

Maybe he was as twisted as his father after all.

“I just want dad to love me,” Calum sobbed out and he hated himself for letting those pathetic words escape; hated himself with a strength that crippled him as it choked the breath from his lungs.

Down in the gardens below them, Luke froze in horror as he stared up towards the balcony.

Calum’s words trickled through him like icy water dripping down his spine as he stood there helplessly, the wind ripping through the trees as the birds launched themselves up into the dark sky, screaming into the night.

Luke didn’t know what to do.

Chapter Text

Make my world go black.

Hit me like a heart attack.

Knock me flat on my back, yeah.

Just keep doing that,

That thing you're doing there.

Brush me with your hair, I swear,

I don't know how long that I can last.

Make my world go black.

- Black, Dierks Bentley

 

“You’re really not going to tell me why I need to dress up?” Ashton asked sourly, trying to keep the smile from touching his lips.

“Of course I’m not!” Laura declared, smirking wryly. “What kind of a surprise would it be if I gave you advanced warning?!”

They had this conversation every year so, at this point, Ashton could safely assume that a birthday party was inevitable. He liked to stick to their script though; liked watching Laura’s eyes sparkling with happiness as she tried to remain dignified; liked the way she wrestled him into whatever formalwear she deemed suitable while he pretended he didn’t know what was going on.

He welcomed the normality of their annual tradition and he could tell she did too, especially with how nerve-wracking the rest of their lives had become over the last few years, what with the Boneflats War and the Purgatio doing everything they could to terrify them into subservience.

“Y’know what? Take that jacket off. We’re changing it to a fancier one,” Laura announced, stirring him from his thoughts. She clapped her hands when he simply watched her in confusion, her eyes sparkling with fondness as he wriggled out of the faded denim and into the new garment she was proffering. “Gotta have you looking gorgeous for the press, haven’t we?”

He smiled wryly as he processed that, unsurprised that his birthday party this year would also be doubling as a publicity event for the second half of the Elevare. He understood the need of ensuring the Claritans remained interested in the tournament, especially since the champions would be flying out to Tenebris in a week, but he sort of wished it wasn’t necessary. His birthday parties had always been private occasions in the past – just his family and his closest friends – but he understood the need for change this year. He’d deal with it.

“So where is the party this year?” he asked innocently as he adjusted the red velvet jacket he was wearing, making sure the collar sat right.

“It’s downstairs,” Laura said automatically before flushing the same shade of rose as the silk wrap she was wearing over her flowing black dress. “You’re so sneaky! It was meant to be a surprise.”

“You’ve never exactly been subtle,” Ashton pointed out, his tone undeniably fond. He cocked his head to one side curiously though, his teeth worrying at his bottom lip. “Normally the party is hosted somewhere else, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, well…” She sighed, shrugging uncomfortably. “After what happened at the Lumen Centre and the Caelum Assembly Building, it seemed safer not to risk it.”

Ashton accepted that with an uneasy sigh, biting his lip as he sank down heavily onto the edge of his bed. Laura closed the distance between them, her palm rising to cup his cheek fondly.

“How’re you doing, Ash?” she murmured, her blue eyes narrowing a little when he glanced at her sheepishly. “Tell me the truth.”

“I’m… I’m doing okay,” he said honestly, giving a half-hearted shrug. “I’m getting there anyway.”

“You’ll be fine,” Laura said softly, flattening a crimson lock of hair gently as he looked up at her. Her smile grew when he stuck his tongue out and she laughed, poking him lightly on the nose. “Bit of glitter on that face of yours and I think you’re good to go, Ash.”

“You love your glitter,” he noted fondly, his hazel eyes falling shut in contentment when she stroked his cheekbone lightly with her thumb.

“I love you,” she corrected and, for a moment, it reminded him of those long dark evenings on the Boneflats, huddled up together in the shadows as they waited to see if they’d survive the night. That year had made them closer than they’d ever been and Ashton gripped her hand suddenly, overcome with fondness for her.

“I love you too,” he said lightly but, beneath his teasing tone, he meant it more than he could put into words. “No matter what.”

She tossed the pot of glitter in his direction on her way towards the door and he smirked, catching it reflexively.

Red glitter?” he asked, grinning. “This is new.”

“Sure,” she agreed. “To go with your nails. Can’t have you clashing, can we?” She hesitated suddenly, smoothing her flowing black dress as she fixed him with a nervous look. “Red’s still your favourite colour, right?”

Ashton laughed, running his fingers through his scarlet hair ruefully.

“It most certainly is,” he agreed, eyes twinkling. “Why? Is red a theme this year?”

“Stop asking me questions!” Laura insisted, her painted lips curving into a smile. “I’ve told you too much as it is!”

*

Michael had spent a very enjoyable afternoon with Laura, Luke, and Niall. They’d been decorating the venue for Ashton’s birthday party and he surveyed the room proudly from his vantage point by the buffet table now, pleasantly surprised by how much fun it had been.

They were in one of the palatial estate’s larger rooms on the ground floor but it was almost unrecognisable now. The walls had been draped with flowing scarlet silk and lanterns had been scattered artfully around the room, the panes of glass rich reds, oranges, and yellows that created a beautiful glow. Music was playing from the speakers, and a space had been cleared amongst the tables and benches to make an impromptu dance floor for the guests.

“You guys really went above and beyond with the decorations,” Calum murmured from beside him, looking around appraisingly as Michael puffed out his chest, feeling very proud of himself. He was wearing a red silk shirt that made his skin shine the colour of pearls – at least, it did if Laura was to be believed – and Calum frowned as he glanced down at his own outfit, picking at his black shirt doubtfully as his gaze drifted over the roses blooming on the material.

“I don’t think I wore enough red,” Calum said, his brow creasing as he eased his fingers nervously through his dark curls. “The invite said to wear lots of red.”

“You look good, Cal,” Michael said honestly as he shrugged, green eyes sparkling. “Stop worrying so much.”

Luke was standing on the far side of the room now, his expression dark although Michael wasn’t sure why since the younger boy hadn’t appeared to feel particularly unhappy during the afternoon; just distracted and quiet. Mali and Ashley were fawning over him which seemed to be going some small way to cheering him up, and he perked up even more when Niall appeared, wrapping his arms warmly around the younger boy's waist as he dropped a kiss onto his caramel-coloured curls.

Fletcher and Anne had already settled themselves at a table nearby, and the rest of the seats were gradually being taken by acquaintances of Ashton’s who the Tenebrans had not yet been introduced to. The smiling faces of the guests were offset only by the press where they were lurking in one corner, clearly ready to photograph anyone who stepped through the doorway.

Calum bit his lip as he sidled a little closer to Michael, uncomfortable with the wary look Luke had just shot him after catching the Prince’s gaze. Clearly something was on Luke’s mind but, before Calum could properly consider what that might be, Ashton made his appearance.

Laura appeared first, pushing open the doors with flourish and stepping back to allow Sierra to enter before the Crown Prince ambled into the room, pretending to look surprised although it was clear by Laura’s fondly irritated look and his sniggering that he’d expected this all along.

The cameras began to flash and Calum’s jaw dropped as his gaze settled on Ashton, his dark eyes widening in awe at how incredible the older boy looked. Ashton’s red velvet jacket had jet black cuffs decorated with swirls of golden thread that matched the garment’s gleaming buttons. He wore a red and black leopard print shirt underneath, tight enough that it left very little of his muscular torso to the imagination, and Calum's mouth went dry just watching him as he took in the way the ripped black jeans clung to his thighs as his polished black combat boots caught the light.

He looked every inch a Crown Prince, even despite the fact that his ensemble was more casual than some of the outfits he generally wore to occasions such as this. He’d mixed a more militant style with the sort of high fashion usually better suited to Claritan formal occasions but somehow it actually worked and… fuck, it suited him so perfectly.

Calum couldn’t wait to get him out of those clothes tonight.

“Close your mouth, Princess, or you'll catch flies,” Michael muttered, smirking visibly when the younger boy struggled to tear his gaze away from Ashton, his cheeks flushed. “Like the birthday boy’s outfit, do you?”

“I’d like him in anything,” Calum said faintly, blushing hotter when Michael chuckled in response.

“But you’d prefer him in nothing,” he said, patting his best friend on the shoulder. “It’s okay, Cal. I’m only judging you a tiny bit.”

“I've seen the way you look at Laura, Mikey,” Calum pointed out with a smirk. “You don't get to judge me at all.”

*

Luke had barely slept last night.

He’d tossed and turned for hours mulling over what he’d heard the Hood siblings discussing, and by the time dawn had arrived and the sky had begun to brighten, he’d been no clearer on what to do.

Even despite the fear he’d felt at hearing the Tenebran King’s plan, Calum had done nothing but take care of Ashton in the six months he’d been here. He’d saved the older boy’s life during the second task; had taken his hand on Boneflats Remembrance Day when the Crown Prince had been seconds away from bursting into flame during a broadcast; had made Ashton happier than Luke had ever been able to do... but none of that meant anything if Calum cast that aside to curry favour with his father.

Luke’s eyes narrowed as he watched the pair across the room, his heart clenching unpleasantly in his chest. Calum’s arm was wrapped around Ashton’s waist now, his full lips brushing the older boy’s blushing cheek as the Crown Prince beamed, apparently uncaring of the cameras. Harry had just appeared from the throng of colourfully-dressed guests to wish the Claritan champion happy birthday and Luke felt a pang of fear when Calum’s palm settled on Ashton’s hip, casual and possessive.

“Lukey?” Niall murmured from the seat beside him, his expression rapidly growing concerned. “Darling, are you alright?”

Luke barely heard him. He was too caught up in the dismay he felt at King David's sinister plan and the appalling idea of Ashton being killed to avenge the death of a man the Crown Prince had never intended to hurt in the first place. Something kept him frozen in place though, too afraid of the potential repercussions to alert the authorities because… what if he’d misunderstood the situation? What if Calum and Mali really were fighting to keep Ashton safe against the wishes of their father?

He didn’t want to jeopardise that because then… fuck, if anything did happen to the Crown Prince, it would be all Luke’s fault. He would have scared away Ashton’s fiercest Tenebran protectors – the two people who knew King David better than anyone and would be best placed to predict his next moves – and Luke wasn’t sure he could live with the reality of having that much guilt on his conscience if the worst happened. He didn't want Ashton to get hurt again.

“Lukey, what’s going on?” Niall asked softly, not a demand but a plea. The table they were sitting at was unoccupied aside from them and the healer’s expression was troubled in the soft lighting. “You haven’t looked away from Ashton and Calum all night and… I don’t understand why.” He lowered his voice, his blue eyes beseeching as he reached to take the younger boy’s hand. “It’s not jealousy,” Niall said gently. “I can feel that… so what’s going on? Why are you so upset?”

Luke held his gaze, his cheeks flushed as his eyes sparkled damply in the fiery glow of the lanterns.

“I went for a walk late last night and I… I heard something I shouldn’t have,” he breathed, his heart racing in his chest as he tightened his grip on the older man’s hand. “And now… now I’m scared someone I care about is going to get hurt.”

Niall was watching him uncertainly, growing rapidly concerned by how distressed the younger boy had grown as he fought against his tears. They both seemed to become aware of the cameras surrounding them at the same time and Niall frowned faintly as he rose from his seat, drawing Luke up with him.

“Let’s go and get some fresh air, darling,” the healer suggested gently, his palm settling soothingly on the younger boy’s shoulder as he began to guide Luke towards the exit. “We can talk outside.”

Laura caught up to them before they could make their escape, her face flushed from dancing and alcohol as she looked between the pair of them knowingly. Her rose silk wrap was sliding off one pale shoulder, her eyes glittering as she glanced over towards Michael where he was chatting to Calum and Mali. Luke tensed, his teeth sinking into his bottom lip.

“Not off to hide in another bathroom, are you?” Laura asked teasingly, just a little too drunk to notice the way her brother had bristled at the sight of the Tenebran Prince.

“Cut it out, tiny,” Luke muttered uneasily, his pale face pinched with stress. “I can’t do this now.”

Laura took a step back uncertainly, a frown growing on her face as she tucked a lock of hair shakily behind her ear.

“What's up with you today, lofty?” she demanded, her tone too soft to be angry. She just sounded hurt instead and Luke slumped where he was leaning heavily against Niall’s side. “You’ve been grumpy all day. Why are you in such a weird mood?”

“I… I can’t tell you,” Luke whispered, his chest tightening with panic as he considered what might happen to his sister if she let slip the things he’d overheard the Hood siblings discussing. He was sure David would be furious if he discovered that others knew of his dangerous plan and Luke couldn’t stand the idea of the King's reaction, especially if he harmed Laura in his anger.

She’d had to deal with enough crap from the press and the general public after she’d chosen to heal Ashton at the end of the Boneflats War in lieu of countless other soldiers. He wouldn't drop this unbearable weight on her too, no matter how much she begged him.

“More secrets?” Laura asked quietly, her voice almost lost beneath the music. “Seriously, Luke? That didn’t end so well last time.”

His hand slipped to cover his wrist unconsciously, despite the fact that there were no cuts hidden beneath his clothes, and he swallowed hard against the lump rising in his throat. The stinging pain he could feel in that moment had nothing to do with his old scars and everything to do with the guilt rippling through him.

“Not now,” Luke repeated, hating himself. He wanted to cry when he looked up in time to see Ashton and Michael approaching, both of them watching the Hemmings siblings warily as Laura stared at him with a wounded expression. Michael looked hurt when Luke took a sharp step back and Niall sighed softly at the Crown Prince’s narrowed hazel eyes as he watched his best friends unhappily.

“What’s going on here?” Ashton asked, biting his lip as Sierra appeared beside him, her gaze fixed on the photographers lingering nearby. “You guys aren’t having a good time?”

“We are,” Niall assured him in as warm a tone as possible. “Lukey here just needed some fresh air. We were about to slip out for a few minutes now.”

“Oh, okay,” Ashton said softly, glancing between the fair-haired siblings uncertainly as Michael reached for Laura, his arm winding comfortingly around her shoulders. “You better go then. Luke does look a bit flushed, now that you mention it.”

Luke blushed hotter under his gaze, his eyes welling with tears once more although he fought them down, refusing to dwell on Calum’s words when the subject of them was standing in front of him like this.

“You sure you’re okay, Luke?” Ashton asked quietly, his hazel eyes soft as his palm settled on the younger boy’s shoulder. “You know you can tell me if something’s wrong.”

“I know, Ash,” Luke breathed, leaning back into Niall’s warmth when the older man brushed his lips lightly against his caramel-coloured curls. His heart ached when he saw Calum making his way through the crowded room towards them and he looked up at Niall helplessly, his panicked eyes apparently betraying more than his words ever could.

“C’mon now, darling,” the older man murmured, his palm firm on the younger boy’s hip as he began to guide him away. He hesitated though, glancing back in time to see Calum wrapping the Crown Prince up warmly in his arms. “Sierra, could you spare a moment?” Niall asked on a whim, his tone quiet, his blue eyes faintly urgent. “We need a quick word with you.”

“Alright,” she said with a shrug, glancing around the room warily before she fell into step with them. “It’ll have to be quick though. I need to watch Ash. You know how easily he gets himself into trouble.” The joke fell flat and Sierra's eyes narrowed when Luke sniffled pitifully, still clinging to Niall's side. “Let’s go outside,” she said firmly.

It was cooler in the corridor, the music muted through the heavy closed doors. Luke’s hands were shaking and Sierra's concern seemed to be growing with every murmured reassurance Niall sent the younger boy.

“Tell me what’s wrong,” she said quietly, her dark eyes nervous. Luke swallowed past the lump rising in his throat, grateful for the warmth of Niall’s hands in his as he drew strength from the older man.

“I… I overheard something last night,” Luke confessed, his voice weak in the dark corridor. “Someone was talking about an attempt being made on Ashton’s life.”

Sierra stiffened, her fists whitening with ice as her hands curled up tightly, her dark eyes widening.

“Who was it?” she asked sharply, her tone colder than usual in her alarm. “Luke, you have to tell me who it was.”

“I… I don’t know,” he whispered, his heart speeding up when Niall glanced at him doubtfully, apparently aware that the younger boy was lying. “I couldn’t hear who said it but… I knew I needed to tell you. I didn’t know what else to do.”

The tears were prickling in his eyes again – partly fear for Ashton but also the guilt he could feel when Sierra calmed herself with a conscious effort, reaching to give his hand a squeeze – and Luke cringed when the first one rolled down his cheek, burning and shameful.

“You did the right thing, Luke,” Sierra said gently, her worried gaze flickering to Niall’s uncomfortable expression before she refocused on the younger boy as he hurried to dry his cheeks with his sleeve. “I’ll keep an even closer eye on Ash, okay? I'll talk to his parents about it. Just try not to worry too much, yeah? He's the Crown Prince. Unfortunately, this sort of thing kind of comes in the job description.”

“Thanks, Sierra,” Niall said quietly. “Better let you get back to Ash, yeah?”

She nodded silently, her lips pressed together anxiously for a moment before they parted around a quiet sigh at the younger boy’s exhausted face.

“I’ll do everything I can to keep Ash safe, Luke,” she reassured him softly. “That’s why I’m here.”

“You’re here for much more than that,” he interjected tearfully. “You’re our friend.”

Sierra looked touched as she headed back into the crowded room and Luke watched her go with a fond look on his face, relaxing a little as he processed the fact that she would now be working even harder to keep Ashton safe.

“What do you wanna do now, Lukey?” Niall asked softly, bumping the younger boy gently with his elbow. “Go back to the party?”

Luke turned in his arms, pressing a warm kiss to the older man's jaw.

“Not really, Ni,” he murmured, shooting him a watery smile. He blushed when Niall's lips lightly brushed his cheek, his blue eyes fluttering shut when the older man's hands came to settle comfortingly on his waist. “Actually, I think I wanna get you out of those fancy purple trousers,” he admitted, sighing contentedly when Niall's lips trailed teasingly across the sensitive skin of his throat.

“Oh yeah?” the older man murmured, his eyes sparkling. “Would that cheer you up?”

“Maybe,” Luke said, smiling sheepishly. “It's worth a shot.”

“Alright then, darling,” Niall agreed warmly, a grin tugging at his lips as he entwined their fingers. “Lead the way.”

*

After a couple of hours had slipped by, Ashton had grown more than a little tipsy. Everything was pleasantly fuzzy and he felt safe tucked beneath Calum’s arm, his head resting on the younger boy’s shoulder as he stole glimpses of him. The Crown Prince was doing his best to watch him subtly – enamoured with the sparkle of his dark eyes and the soft curve of his cheek whenever he smiled – but the younger boy looked so beautiful in the amber glow that Ashton couldn’t help staring.

“You alright down there, angel?” Calum murmured, his eyes crinkling fondly as he dropped a kiss onto the older boy’s nose. Ashton blushed, his red curls falling forwards messily as he let out a soft giggle, possibly drunker than he’d realised.

“You look really pretty like this, curly,” he mumbled in lieu of answering and Calum smiled, looking pleased with himself.

“So do you,” he said softly, his fingertips warm where they were lightly brushing the older boy’s cheek. “All that red glitter suits you.” His gaze drifted down to the tight-fitting shirt Ashton was wearing beneath the velvet jacket and his eyes darkened. “You look fucking incredible tonight, angel. So, so gorgeous.”

Ashton drew him in for an enthusiastic kiss, his fingers winding clumsily through the younger boy's curls as Calum's lips parted with a gasp. The kiss deepened naturally and Ashton felt dizzy with how desperate he felt as he pressed closer, a needy sound escaping him when the younger boy’s palm settled warm on his leg. He shivered when Calum’s thumb slid teasingly over the sensitive skin of his thigh where his jeans were ripped and things were just getting interesting when Sierra cleared her throat from nearby, startling them apart.

“Hey, you two,” she said quietly, a little embarrassed. “Maybe not here, yeah? Unfriendly eyes and all that…”

Sierra stepped in front of them protectively, squaring her shoulders against the camera flashes as Calum unwillingly drew away, flattening his hair with shaking hands. Ashton grimaced a little at the reminder of the press although, after the Prince’s declaration that night outside the Caelum Assembly Building, it was probably a little late for subtlety.

Ashton mumbled his assent and Sierra nodded silently, stepping back against the wall nearby as her eyes continued to drift over the guests. She looked uneasy and he might have been more worried about it if Calum hadn't chosen that moment to hook their ankles together beneath the table, a mischievous smirk on his lips.

It made Ashton want to kiss him again and, in his slightly inebriated state, he wasn’t sure he’d even care that everyone around him would be able to watch. He’d like that anyway, probably. He was proud that he could make Calum look at him like that, so shamelessly lustful and desperate for more.

Ashton wanted more too. He had done ever since he’d walked in earlier and the Prince had gazed at him like he was the only other person in the room. He wanted Calum so much he was burning with it.

The party was still going on around them, the music loud over the sound of laughter and chinking glasses but, abruptly, Ashton had never cared about anything less than celebrating another stressful year of his life.

“Bored,” he declared, smiling widely.

“You’re bored?” Calum repeated, trying to frown although it didn’t really work when he was grinning like that. “But it’s your birthday party, angel.”

“And I’m bored,” Ashton said, shrugging half-heartedly. He shivered when Calum’s foot slipped a little higher, swallowing audibly as he forced himself to draw back, his expression faintly teasing. “Wanna help me celebrate upstairs instead?”

The Prince laughed softly, the sound sending a shiver of anticipation running through Ashton as he bit his lip, leaning closer.

“Maybe,” Calum said playfully, his eyes sparkling. “But if we leave now, I can’t eat any more of these fancy sweets. They don’t have these in Tenebris.”

“Then we’ll bring some with us,” Ashton replied, grabbing a handful of them there and then, and making Calum snort with laughter. “That way you’re not missing out.”

Calum’s expression softened suddenly and, for just a moment, his chocolate brown eyes shone a little too brightly, almost like they’d welled up with tears. He reached for the older boy’s hand and Ashton squeezed it comfortingly, his heart racing in his chest.

“I’m never missing out when I’m with you, angel,” Calum said quietly. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

Ashton rose wordlessly, smiling past the dampness in his eyes as he circled the table to draw the younger boy closer. Calum's arm slipped around his waist, his lips brushing the Crown Prince's neck, and the contentedness that began to burn inside Ashton then felt like it would never go out.

“Hey, Fearless Protector,” he said, just loud enough to be heard over the music. “I’m gonna go to bed now, yeah? So you can have the rest of the night off.”

Sierra relaxed a little as some of the tension leaked out of her shoulders.

“Alright,” she said quietly, apparently too on edge for their silly nicknames tonight. “Look after him, Hood, okay? Don’t let him fall down any flights of stairs.”

“Hey!” Ashton protested weakly, adopting a wounded tone as he shoved the handful of sweets into his back pocket. “I’m not that drunk!”

“If you say so,” Calum sniggered, his expression growing decidedly fond when the older boy entwined their fingers, towing him away through the crowd. The faces passed in a blur as Ashton sped up, almost tripping over himself in his haste to drag the younger boy somewhere more secluded. Calum followed him willingly enough, an indulgent smile on his face when the older boy finally stumbled out into the corridor, his expression jubilant in the moments before the Prince drew him in for a hot kiss.

“Bedroom, angel,” Calum murmured against his lips. “Now.”

Ashton couldn’t get up the stairs fast enough, clumsy with lust and alcohol, and the love filling his chest like sunlight. Calum pushed him against the door once they reached his bedroom and it clicked shut behind them as the younger boy ducked his head to suck kisses into the warm skin of his throat. His tongue swiped out to soothe the sting of his teeth afterwards and Ashton might have been embarrassed of the whines escaping him if Calum hadn’t reached down to palm him through his jeans.

His free hand slipped round to squeeze the older boy’s arse but he paused unexpectedly and his sudden huff of laughter might have offended Ashton if he hadn’t realised what had struck the younger boy as so amusing.

“That’s the sweets in my pocket,” the Crown Prince said, his tone a little sour. “We should take them out probably… before they melt.”

“Good idea,” Calum said with a deliberately innocent smile. “Maybe we should eat those first, yeah? After all, you went to so much trouble to bring them with us.”

He sauntered away towards Ashton’s bed, a lazy grin tugging at his lips as he flopped down onto the mattress, one hand tucked behind his head. The older boy’s cheeks were flushed as he followed the Prince, his hazel eyes dark in the bright light of his bedroom as he came to a stop at the edge of the bed. The curtains leading out to the balcony were open tonight, the gardens cast in shade far below. If anyone was outside and happened to glance up, there was a chance they’d be able to see whatever was about to happen and Ashton pressed his lips together hard to keep his moan in as he processed that, his cock twitching in his jeans.

“Still holding out on me with those sweets?” Calum asked teasingly, his eyes sparkling when the older boy dropped them beside him shakily. “I was starting to think you weren’t going to share.” He unwrapped a chocolate carefully, holding Ashton’s gaze as he took it into his mouth with obvious satisfaction. His tongue darted out to swipe over his bottom lip, his mouth sweet with chocolate when he coaxed the older boy down for a brief kiss that made Ashton moan.

“You want a sweet too?” Calum asked softly, his teeth grazing the older boy’s skin when he ducked his head to mouth at his neck. Ashton shivered, a whine building in his throat when he felt the younger boy’s fingertips brushing over him playfully where he was trapped in his jeans. “You can if you’re a good boy, angel. You wanna be a good boy for me?”

Please,” Ashton groaned, his eyes fluttering shut when Calum’s hands slipped away again, leaving him achingly hard.

“Oh, you do?” the Prince asked, his eyes sparkling. “Take your clothes off for me then, angel, yeah? I promise I’ll make it worth your while.”

Ashton took a clumsy step back, so desperate for Calum's touch and praise that he was shaking as the heat coiled in his stomach. He pushed the red velvet jacket off his shoulders carelessly, the garment tumbling onto the ground as his trembling fingers made slow work of the buttons on his tight shirt.

He liked the feeling of Calum's gaze on his skin and the world at his back, and he groaned when he noticed the younger boy's dark eyes tracing over him, taking in his panting breaths and the hard line of his cock in his torn jeans as he shuddered at the feeling of his own fingertips sliding across his stomach.

Ashton whimpered softly when he struggled out of his tight trousers, relishing the momentary friction when the denim dragged over where he was leaking in his boxers. He shivered when he removed his underwear too, goosebumps rising on his skin as he stood there in nothing at all, long fingers curled loosely around his hard cock, scarlet curls messy as he watched the younger boy with dark eyes, his cheeks burning.

“C’mere, angel,” Calum murmured, spreading his legs on the mattress so that there was space for the older boy to crawl closer. “Here’s your prize.” He swiped one of the chocolates off the bed with a smirk, his eyes sparkling as he fed Ashton the sweet off his fingertip, but he couldn't quite hold his groan in when he felt the older boy’s tongue hot against his skin.

Ashton hummed contentedly at the taste of the chocolate as he drew back although his eyes fluttered shut when he felt Calum's fingertips toying with the tip of his cock. He sank back onto the mattress easily when the Prince pushed him down to kiss him, their tongues stroking together, sweet as sugar. Calum’s muscles shifted under the older boy’s palms, his full lips soft as they trailed down Ashton’s throat, teasing and warm.

The Crown Prince whined when Calum began to roll his nipples lightly between his fingertips, his breathing growing ragged as the younger boy sucked hot enthusiastic kisses across his stomach. Ashton’s cock was hard enough that it was arching away from his body by now, flushed a pretty red that drew Calum’s gaze in the moments before he settled down to taste him.

Ashton moaned brokenly when the damp heat of Calum's mouth engulfed him, his back arching as the younger boy pressed his hips back down onto the mattress. He felt so exposed like this, his bare chest heaving as Calum – still fully dressed – worked on making him fall apart. It made Ashton’s eyes prickle with tears but he’d never been so turned on in his life.

He became aware slowly that he was crying, his flushed cheeks sticky with tears as his trembling fingers weaved through Calum's soft curls. The younger boy moaned when Ashton's grip tightened in his hair, the vibrations drawing a sob from the Crown Prince as the lust inside threatened to boil over.

Ashton raised his head with difficulty, moaning when he saw Calum’s head buried between his thighs, his lips stretched around the older boy’s cock. He shuddered at the feeling of Calum’s tongue swirling over him and his thighs began to shake as he slumped back down onto the mattress, his head still fuzzy with alcohol and lust.

“Want you to fuck me.” The words slipped out before Ashton had a chance to properly consider them and he flushed scarlet when he realised what he’d said. He groaned weakly at the loss of Calum’s mouth when the Prince drew back in shock, his jaw hanging slack as Ashton's cock fell to rest on his thigh, saliva-slick and leaking.

“What?” Calum blurted out before blushing, apparently embarrassed with himself. His hand shook a little when he reached to cradle the older boy’s cheek, his dark gaze surprisingly earnest as Ashton covered his eyes with his wrist, looking ashamed. “You’re drunk, angel,” he said softly, his thumb smoothing comfortingly over the fading scars on the older boy’s cheekbone. “I don’t think tonight is the best time. I don’t want you to do something you’ll regret.”

“I would not regret it!” Ashton grumbled but he was distracted when Calum stretched up to kiss him gently, a soft sigh slipping from the older boy’s lips as he slumped down onto the bed. “You don’t want me?” he asked softly, his hazel eyes sliding shut.

“I do!” Calum said earnestly, his teeth worrying at his lip. “More than you know, Ash, but I don’t wanna hurt you and… right now, I kind of feel too drunk as well, yeah?” He sighed, still looking uneasy although he relaxed when the older boy met his gaze uncertainly. “The first time we go all the way, I wanna be able to look after you properly, the way you deserve.” Calum’s expression became hesitant when Ashton seemed content to watch him owlishly and his chocolate brown eyes softened. “Have you even done that before, angel? Because I haven’t... so I kind of want it to be special. I don't want us to rush it.”

“I haven’t done that either,” Ashton admitted, one hand sliding over his chest suddenly, like he felt self-conscious. Calum unbuttoned his own shirt with shaking fingers, leaning to drop a soft kiss onto the older boy's lips as he tossed the garment onto the floor. His jeans joined the rose-patterned shirt quickly and the Crown Prince relaxed visibly when Calum was finally naked too, his dark curls in disarray, his lips swollen from kissing.

“Love you,” Ashton offered shyly, shivering when Calum settled down warm in his arms, their bodies pressing comfortingly together.

“Love you too,” the younger boy murmured, pressing a kiss to the underside of Ashton’s jaw as his hand drifted to stroke the older boy’s cock where it was still resting against his thigh. Ashton shuddered, a soft whine escaping him when Calum began to suck a bruise into the sensitive skin of his throat. “I have another idea we can try,” the younger boy said quietly, his eyes twinkling. “I think you’ll like it.”

“Curly?” Ashton asked softly, his lip drawn between his teeth as his hazel eyes glinted. “What’re you gonna do to me?”

“Want me to finger you?” Calum asked, the words soft and fast, almost like he wanted to speak before he lost his nerve. He relaxed visibly when Ashton moaned, nodding his head jerkily, and Calum pressed his lips together to hide his relieved smile as he leant closer for a kiss. “You have any lube, Ash? Don’t wanna hurt you.”

“Yeah,” Ashton mumbled, blushing noticeably as he rolled over to grab it from the drawer in his bedside table. He rolled his eyes when Calum smirked at him, sticking his tongue out with what he probably hoped was great dignity as he settled back down against the pillows. His expression softened a little when the younger boy hesitated and Ashton’s lips quirked into a crooked smile. “I’ve tried this before myself; you know that, right? I was just… very bad at it.”

Calum laughed quietly, the sound sending Ashton’s heart racing in the quiet of his bedroom.

“You couldn’t find your sweet spot, angel?” he asked lightly, his playful tone making the older boy groan as his cock twitched against his stomach. Calum’s palm smoothed over it teasingly and Ashton gasped, already more turned on than he cared to admit.

“Didn’t have the chance,” he said breathlessly, whining when the younger boy’s thumb stroked over the tip of his cock. “Came the second I got my finger in…” The words embarrassed him but he kind of liked it, especially when Calum groaned in response and reached to fist himself, his dark gaze locked on Ashton’s flushed face.

“You’re so hot, angel,” the younger boy breathed, his chocolate brown eyes sparkling. “So, so gorgeous. I can’t believe you’re mine.”

“Only yours,” Ashton promised, his eyes fluttering shut as he stretched up to kiss him. Some of the red glitter had found its way onto Calum’s face too and the older boy watched him fondly for a moment, at least until he heard the sound of the lube being uncapped and shivered with anticipation.

“Lie back, angel,” Calum murmured, one palm smoothing comfortingly over Ashton’s ribs. “Just relax, yeah? It’ll feel so good.”

“You promise?” the older boy asked softly, his voice surprisingly small. He shivered and Calum leant down to capture his lips in a gentle kiss, his expression nothing but fond.

“I promise,” he breathed against his lips. Calum deepened the kiss when he reached to stroke the older boy’s cock again, swallowing Ashton’s weak moans as their tongues stroked together. For a while, they stayed like that, only kissing as Calum fisted the older boy’s cock, his fingers rolling over the head teasingly with every jerk as Ashton’s lust burnt through him.

Calum waited until the Crown Prince was soft and pliant beneath him before he moved further, allowing one lube-slick finger to trail lightly over Ashton’s hole. He knew the older boy liked this; remembered it from the morning of the second task when he’d woken the older boy with a blow job and his fingertip had been the catalyst that made Ashton fall apart.

The older boy whined beneath him when Calum circled his hole gently, stroking over it as he tried to get him used to the sensation. Ashton was panting softly, his cock leaking over the younger boy’s fingers as he gazed up at the Prince in something like awe, his hazel eyes shining, his eyelashes spiky with tears. His full lips dropped open around a soft moan when Calum finally pushed his finger inside and Ashton shuddered, his eyelashes fanning out over his glittery cheekbones as he sucked in a ragged breath.

“Relax,” Calum cautioned him quietly, dropping his head to scatter kisses over the older boy’s throat as he allowed his finger to sink a little deeper. Ashton opened around him easily, the muscle stretching to accommodate him as he gasped out Calum’s name like a prayer, his head falling back against the pillows.

The slight burn Ashton had initially felt at the intrusion faded quickly and he moaned into the younger boy’s neck as his cock leaked at the feeling of Calum’s finger sliding deeper. The pleasure washing over Ashton was making him pant now and he was too far gone to be embarrassed by the broken sounds escaping him. His hips rocked back unconsciously as he searched desperately for more, a weak sob escaping him as his scarlet curls fell messily into his eyes. Calum stroked his hair back fondly, his chocolate brown eyes glinting when Ashton gasped suddenly, his back arching up off the mattress as the younger boy's fingertip brushed against something that made him see stars.

The Prince kept his fingertip stroking over the older boy’s prostate, the pleasure rendering Ashton speechless as Calum rocked slowly against his thigh, his soft cheeks flushed with colour as he hung his head for a moment, trying to calm his breathing. He was embarrassingly close to finishing just from watching the older boy’s lust rippling across his beautiful face and Calum moaned without meaning to when Ashton’s cock swelled in his fist, his balls drawing up tight to his body.

His muscles were fluttering around Calum’s finger with every thrust now, his thick thighs twitching as he threw his head back to reveal the love-bites the Prince had sucked into his throat. The red curls that Calum loved so much were fiery against the white pillows, his sparkling hazel eyes heavily-lidded as he gazed down at the younger boy with his lip held between his teeth in a useless attempt to keep quiet.

Pre-cum shot out over Ashton’s tense stomach muscles like pearls when Calum pressed a little harder against his prostate and the older boy let out a broken sob as he clenched down, his cheeks flaming at the tell-tale wet sound of Calum’s finger fucking into him. The mixture of vulnerability and pleasure bubbling in his stomach was enough to steal his breath away, and Ashton’s whimpers grew weak with lust when he felt the younger boy’s thumb working over the soft skin behind his balls.

Calum's hips were jerking as the heat settled in his thighs, his dark eyes damp with tears as he ducked his head to kiss the Crown Prince. He let his teeth graze over Ashton’s bottom lip before he sucked his tongue into his mouth and the older boy fell apart beneath him with a muffled cry, his hole clenching around Calum's finger as his cock twitched between the warmth of their bodies. His trembling fingers pressed bruises into Calum's shoulders when he held the younger boy closer, a groan escaping him when the Prince grinded down harder against his thigh, shooting cum over the warm skin as he shuddered at the pleasure coursing through him.

For a long moment, the only sounds in the room were their panting breaths and the distant bubble of the fish tank as the waters calmed in time with Calum's racing heart. Ashton looked stunned where he was lying against the younger boy’s chest, a little sticky and probably in desperate need of a shower although he seemed content to lie still for now. The Prince smoothed his palm down the older boy’s back gently, tracing the shape of his scar like a comfort blanket as Ashton relaxed against him with a soft sigh.

“Good?” Calum asked eventually, weary and content as he pressed his lips lightly against the Crown Prince’s forehead.

So good,” Ashton mumbled sleepily, his mouth curving into a tired smile that made Calum’s heart melt in his chest. “I love you, curly,” the older boy added, his hazel eyes soft in the moments before they fluttered shut. “More than you know.”

“I love you too,” Calum said quietly, awestruck by the rush of emotion he could feel as he stared down at Ashton’s beautiful face in wonder. “Happy birthday, angel.”

Ashton let out a contented sigh as he snuggled closer, already more than half asleep, and Calum felt the moment his heart healed in his chest as he cradled the older boy safely in his arms.

He hoped he got to keep Ashton close like this for the rest of his life but, mostly, he prayed that this moment would last forever.

Calum never wanted tonight to end.