The day before his coronation, Brayden wakes up sick to his stomach.
“Good morning, Mr. Hudson,” Valtteri announces, parading into his room with his nose in his phone, scrolling. “Princess Janice will be joining you for breakfast in the small dining room in half an hour. I thought we could squeeze in one more dance lesson this afternoon before your final fitting at three. Which will give you plenty of time to get ready for the formal dinner with the family.”
Valtteri takes a breath, meets Brayden’s gaze.
In response, Brayden slips down until his head is completely covered by his comforter.
“Don’t do that.”
“If I’m not hungry, can I skip breakfast?” he asks from under the covers, stomach still a little queasy.
A sharp jab to his side gives him his answer. “I don’t think the princess would take very lightly to that. Get up, Mr. Hudson.”
“You are less than forty-eight hours away from becoming a prince. Please act like it.”
Brayden flips the covers off his head, blows his messy hair out of his eyes. “Why are you being so mean today?”
Valtteri seems to force his shoulders relax, his face staying firm. “You’re on a very tight schedule until the coronation. The longer we spend arguing about it, the further behind you fall.”
“This isn’t arguing,” he says, sitting up with a huff. “We don’t argue.”
Valtteri blinks and slips his phone in the front pocket of his suit jacket. “Have you tried on any of the clothes that were sent over before Christmas?”
“No.” Brayden scrubs his hands over his face, rolls his neck until it pops. “They’re not really my style.”
“You don’t have a style,” Valtteri says, flinging open the doors to the ridiculous walk-in closet and riffling through hangers.
Brayden rolls his eyes at Valtteri’s back. “I’m sure you know how to fix that though, eh?”
Valtteri tosses a crisp white button-up and a pair of dark navy pants on the bed next to where Brayden is still sitting. “Pick a belt that matches the shoes.” He drops a brown pair of oxfords on the floor by Brayden’s feet. “Twenty minutes, Mr. Hudson.”
Brayden grabs his phone off the charger on his way to the bathroom, relishing the soft click of his bedroom door as Valtteri makes his exit. He splashes his face with water and considers texting Slater to swing by the manor on his way home from class and help him escape all of this.
But he’s less than 48 hours away from being a prince.
This is the kind of stuff he signed up for. The kind of stuff he was born to be a part of. In a way.
Valtteri’s picking out my clothes now, he sends to Tyler, knowing he’ll get a kick out of it.
His phone buzzes with his reply almost immediately. Bout time someone shows you how to dress.
Brayden smiles to himself, catching his reflection in the mirror. His hair’s a disaster and he’ll need to tidy up his facial hair before tomorrow night. He doesn’t look princely, but hopefully that adjective grows on him once he becomes a Point.
A Hudson -Point.
He gets a text from a different number and smiles: Docs said I should be good to go tmrw nite btw.
It calms something in him, finally knowing all of his friends will be there. He doesn’t think he’d be able to do this if they weren’t.
Better make sure Tyler got you a suit, he sends back to Jake. This thing is white tie.
“Valtteri is going to murder me,” Tyler says into the phone, speed walking down the street toward the suit shop Ondrej recommended. “If I can’t get this suit in time.”
“This place makes wonderful suits,” Ondrej says. “And it’s not every day they get called upon to make something for a royal ball.”
Tyler didn’t even know there was a step above black tie, if he’s being honest, until Bray made sure they had read the fine print on the invitation. He had no idea there was a collar and a cummerbund-thing with buttons, a coat with tails . He’d had to get everyone black shoes and pants that were hemmed properly, which was so much worse than the time he tried to get everyone matching t-shirts for a frisbee golf team. Like, exponentially worse.
Thank god for Ondrej.
“I’m trusting your whole millionaire philanthropist’s son thing to move mountains, here.” The bell on the door jingles as Tyler rushes into the shop.
“Just hand the phone over.”
Tyler does, shrugging at the confused look on the suit maker’s face. He watches the older man nod along to whatever it is Ondrej is saying, flipping open a little notebook and taking down the specifications Ondrej is, no doubt, rattling off like a pro.
“I can have it done by noon tomorrow,” the man says.
Tyler fist pumps and takes his phone back. “You are the absolute best,” he tells Pally. “I’ll text you when I’m heading over. Yeah. Okay. Mhmm. Bye.”
“I assume you would like me to charge this to the royal account?” the old man asks, looking a bit put upon.
“That would be great,” Tyler replies with a bright smile, handing over the card Bray entrusted to him.
It’s been a flurry of work since Christmas, getting all the parts and pieces that they need for the party, but Tyler has never felt so accomplished. They’re all going to look amazing .
It’s a beautiful day for it being the end of December, bright blue sky and little puffy clouds with just a hint of a chill in the air. All of the Christmas decorations around town are still up: wreaths on lampposts and colored lights around windows and doors. Tyler takes the long way to the bus stop, popping into the diner on the corner with fake snow painted on their windows.
“Are you eating or just here to bother me,” Slater asks with a smile.
Tyler settles at his usual table. “I think I see a slice of pie with my name on it.”
“D’you get Jake a suit?” Slater plates up a slice of cherry pie, dolloping a heaping pile of whipped cream on top.
“Yup. The coronation is saved!” Tyler crows dramatically. “Jake will not look like a sore thumb tomorrow night by the grace of royalty money and Drej’s vast connections.”
“Well that’s one less thing to worry about, I guess,” Slater says, clearly still worried about something.
He sighs and falls into the booth. “I got a C in algebra.”
“C’s get degrees, right? That’s still passing.”
“I know, but…” he trails off, sighing. “I wanted to be better.”
Tyler sets his fork down and pushes his half-eaten pie toward Slater. “Go on.”
“I already ate a piece,” he confesses. “If I have any more, I won’t fit into my suit.”
“Oh shut up and eat the pie.”
Slater drags his finger through the whipped cream before getting up to go check on the couple of tables he has. Tyler checks his phone and finds a text from Ondrej.
When are you coming back? I have a surprise for you.
His toes curl in his shoes. Ondrej’s surprises are the best. 30 mins, I’m heading for the bus now.
He lays a five on the table and scrambles to his feet, rounding the counter where Slater’s putting on a new pot of coffee to hug him from behind.
“Listen to me,” he says into his shoulder. “You are so smart and so good. One C isn’t going to break you. You’re too strong for that. I’m proud of you for making it through this semester, okay?”
Slater’s head bows. “Yeah.”
“Now buck up, we’ve got a party to go to tomorrow! You love parties!”
Slater groans, slipping out of Tyler’s arms.
“You know I’m telling the truth.”
Slater smiles all soft and crooked before shoving Tyler toward the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Tyler jingles the bells on the door obnoxiously as he heads for the bus stop.
Ondrej is waiting for him on the couch in the lounge, flipping through a glossy magazine. His feet are bare and the shirt he’s wearing has a deep collar, showing off far too much of his skin.
“Hey,” Tyler says, crawling into his lap.
Ondrej smirks and drops his reading to pull Tyler into a kiss. “Everything went well with the tailor?”
“Yeah, it was perfect.” He sighs into another kiss, this one lingering. “Is this my surprise?”
Ondrej smiles against Tyler’s lips. “No. Come upstairs.”
He takes Tyler’s hand and leads him through the house. They go up the curved staircase, Ondrej stopping every few steps to lean Tyler against the rich mahogany handrail and kiss him.
Tyler doesn’t think they’re ever going to get to his surprise.
“Just down here,” Ondrej says, pulling him down the hall and around a corner.
The room he stops in front of is huge, covered in clean, white tile and painted a soft grey. It’s the most beautiful bathroom Tyler’s ever seen.
“You’ve been doing so much the past few days.” Ondrej leads him over to the massive, free-standing tub. “I thought I could spoil you for a bit.”
Tyler licks his lips. “In the world’s largest tub?”
“Yes,” he says, turning on the taps. “In the world’s largest bathtub.”
Tyler lets himself be undressed, one piece of clothing at a time. Ondrej takes his time, first slipping his jacket off his shoulders and then doing away with the shirt underneath. It’s cool in the room and Tyler’s skin breaks out in goosebumps when Ondrej drops to his knees to work on his shoes. He presses a kiss to Tyler’s hip as he works his jeans down over his thighs.
“And these?” he asks, looking up at Tyler from his knees.
Tyler nods and Ondrej takes his boxers off. He’d be embarrassed by his half-hard dick if Ondrej’s eyes didn’t go so dark at the sight of it.
Back on his feet, Ondrej takes Tyler’s hand to steady him as he climbs in. The water is perfectly warm, only coming up to his hips for now. Tyler sighs and leans back to get comfortable. “Are you coming, too?”
Ondrej smiles. “In a moment.”
He grabs a black bottle from a shelf by the sink and pours a few drops under the running water. The gentle flowery smell hits Tyler immediately as bubbles bloom in the tub.
He watches Ondrej get undressed, hungry for every inch of new skin he exposes. His pants cling to his muscled legs. “Just rip them off, come on ,” he whines, impatient to have Ondrej next to him.
The water is up to his chest by the time Ondrej steps in and turns off the taps. He settles with his back against the other side, their legs twining under the water. He lifts one of Tyler’s feet and presses his thumbs into the arch of it.
“Oh god,” he groans. “That feels so good, don’t stop.”
Ondrej seems pleased with himself. “Are you excited for the party tomorrow?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I dunno. I’ve never been to something like this, you know?” He sinks lower into the sudsy water, bubbles sticking to his chin. “But I’m so happy for Bray.”
“He’s going to be a wonderful prince.”
“Yeah.” Tyler sighs as Ondrej switches feet. “He’s got that heart of gold. Boy next door looks. Prime prince material.”
“The city will love him, I’m sure.”
Tyler hums in response, eyes getting heavy. “Might fall asleep in here.”
Ondrej’s laugh is soft and sweet. “I will make sure you don’t drown.”
“D’you nap in here?”
“There was one time,” he starts, dropping Tyler foot back into the water. “That I was exhausted from a particularly busy week and fell asleep almost the moment I was in the tub. I woke up with a mouthful of bubbles, flailing around like a drowning cat.”
Tyler giggles into the bubbles. “I’m glad you survived.”
Ondrej’s smile is disarming and Tyler has to climb across the tub, splashing water up over the side, to press a kiss to it. “I’m gonna sound crazy,” he warns. “But I am absolutely in love with you.”
He leans into the hand Ondrej places on his cheek and waits.
“You have my heart, as well.” His thumb brushes just under Tyler’s eye. “For as long as you’d like it.”
Tyler kind of thinks forever sounds like the perfect amount of time.
“Let’s start from the top,” Valtteri says, picking up the turntable needle and setting it down at the edge of the record, starting the classical melody over again. “You will enter fr--.”
“From the top of the ballroom, descending the stairs slowly and with purpose,” Brayden recites. “I will make eye contact with as many people as I can in the crowd, smiling the whole time. At the bottom of the stairs I will be met by my esco--.”
“Have you chosen an escort, yet?”
Bray frowns. Normally, this would be an ideal situation for Slater. He makes a great date, what with his charming smile and ability to talk to literally anyone. He looks great in a suit, too, but it’s not like Brayden could just uninvite other-Bray. He can’t just commandeer Slater and put him into the spotlight with him. No one would believe they weren’t together and the tabloids would go crazy if they caught a whiff of Slater’s boyfriend on the side . Brayden could practically read the headlines now:
ROYAL SCANDAL: NEWLY MINTED PRINCE BRAYDEN DATES HARLOT – BRINGS SHAME TO ROYAL FAMILY
“No,” he confesses. “I haven’t.”
Valtteri’s face goes through the five stages of grief. “You told me you would pick an escort weeks ago. The coronation is tomorrow .”
“I’m sorry, I can’t just pull a boyfriend out of a hat!”
“I never asked you to date someone, I asked you to find someone to stand next to you in pictures and have a dance with! You cannot just pick someone from the crowd, Mr. Hudson. The first dance is something that is expected of you and every other royal who is presented to society and I will not let you ruin tradition simply because it doesn’t suit you.”
“Then you do it!”
The music fills up the spaces of their silence until it, too, falls quiet.
“You have until this evening to give me a name to add to the guest list,” Valtteri says with finality. “Someone will bring you your clothes for the final fitting. Dinner is at six. Good day.”
Brayden watches him turn on his heels and briskly leave the room, disappointment settling like a stone in his stomach. Fuck. “ Fuck !”
“What the fuck !” Jake startles when pair of suited men crash into his hospital room, efficiently checking all of the corners and curtains and the empty bathroom he shares with no one.
He feels the need to cover himself more fully and tucks his sheet up to his chin, hoping they don’t rip it off him to make sure he’s not hiding someone in his bed.
“Clear,” the taller, blonde one says.
His partner nods. “Clear.”
The men leave as quickly as they came, replaced by someone much smaller, a ball cap pulled low over their eyes.
“Sorry about all that,” Bray says, settling into the chair Yanni usually sits in. “They’ve gotten more ridiculous in the last couple of days.”
Jake exhales and his heart rate monitor starts to slow. “I’m just glad I wasn’t asleep. I might’ve shit myself.”
“I should have texted.”
Jake lowers his sheet, smooths it out around his hips. “It’s fine. Not like I’ve had many thrills the past few days. You getting cold feet?”
“Is it that obvious?”
“I’ve known you a long time.” Jake shrugs and fiddles with the TV remote.
Bray sighs. “It’s really, really scary,” he confesses. “There’s so many little things I can fuck up that would ruin the whole tradition of it. I’m not even a prince yet and there’s a thousand things I’m expected to live up to. I’m…I’m just a kid from Moose Jaw. I’m doing the best I can but what if that’s still not good eno--.”
“I’m gonna stop you right there,” Jake cuts in. “Before you start hyperventilating or like, vomiting. You’re going to look ridiculous in the penguin suit they’ve got for you. So will I. So will Tyler. Slater’ll probably pull it off but, come on. We’re all outsiders. And we’re all going to be there for you. Three weird ass looking penguins cheering you on.”
Bray is nibbling on his bottom lip, worrying it between his teeth.
“So what if you miss a step while you’re dancing some six-hundred year old waltz, what are they gonna do, kick you out of the family?”
Bray’s whole face falls and Jake puts a hand up before it gets any worse. “ Of course they’re not going to kick you out, are you kidding? You’re going to be a Point in like, T-minus-twenty-four-hours. No stopping it now.”
There’s still something eating at him, Jake can tell. The way he’s slumped in the chair, rubbing his palms over his legs. The line of tension still sitting stiff on his shoulders. “What’s up, bud? What’s the real reason you’re here?”
Bray picks at something on his finger as he purposefully doesn’t meet Jake’s gaze. “Valtteri asked me to pick an escort like, a month ago. And I…didn’t.”
“Does Valtteri know you aren’t bringing anyone?”
Bray lets his head fall back to rest on the chair. “I think he’d be happy if I pulled someone off the street at this point. I can’t waltz by myself.”
“Okay,” Jake says, tossing his sheet away. “Teach me how to waltz. I’m your date.”
“I’m serious.” He throws his legs over the side of the bed and gets to his feet. “Help me unhook this thing.”
Bray jumps up and untangles Jake’s arm from the wires. “What about Yanni?”
“He doesn’t even exist anymore, right? So, I’m just your childhood friend with a shady past. Come on,” he says, pulling Bray toward the open space by the foot of his bed. “Show me your smooth moves.”
“You don’t have to do this,” Bray says as he settles one of Jake’s hands on his shoulder. “You’re still hurt.”
“Nah.” He hides a grimace when Bray lifts his bum shoulder up higher than expected. “I’m all good.”
“Waltz me,” he insists, straightening his back to match Bray’s posture.
They move around the small space by Jake’s bed, careful to mind the machines and wires. It’s not too hard with Bray taking the lead. He’s humming a tune Jake doesn’t know but it helps keep a rhythm.
“You’re not half bad.”
Bray smiles. “Don’t let Valtteri hear you say that. He’s repeatedly told me I’m the worst dancer he’s ever had to train.”
“What’s his deal?”
Bray’s movement stutters and he nearly steps on Jake’s bare foot as they lose their flow. “Huh?”
“He just seems so stuffy and terrible,” Jake says, dropping his arms. “Like he hasn’t relaxed a day in his life.”
“I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him outside of a suit but he’s not as bad as he puts on.”
Bray shrugs. “Like, he’s not nice sometimes. But he’s always kind.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“He just…” Bray throws himself down into the armchair. “I don’t know how to describe it. He’ll tell me I’m a terrible dancer but he won’t stop working with me until I get the step. He makes me feel like I’m not a failure.”
“And?” Jake knows there’s more. He’s got nothing better to do than to wait Bray out.
Jake frowns when Bray’s personal bodyguard, Adam, knocks on the doorframe as he pokes his head into the room. “Sorry to interrupt but, uh, Mr. Filppula called. He wants to remind you that there is a curfew for a reason.”
Bray grabs his phone out of his pocket to check the time. “I’ve still got an hour.”
“He’d like to insist that you get at least eight hours of sleep tonight and make you aware that breakfast is scheduled for seven-thirty sharp.”
Jake doesn’t want to do the math, but he knows Bray is cutting it close. “Go on. Go get your beauty rest. And tell him you’ve got a date, that’ll cheer him up for about thirty minutes, don’t you think?”
“Yeah.” Bray looks pretty unhappy about the whole thing. “You sure you’re good to go?”
“I wouldn’t fucking miss it.” He pulls Bray into a tight hug. “Not for anything.”
Jake lets Bray cling to him for as long as he needs, rubbing a hand up and down his back and between his shoulders. “Everything’s going to be perfect tomorrow,” he whispers in the fluff of Bray’s hair. “Absolutely perfect.”
Brayden is sweating.
He’s been pacing around the dressing room for thirty minutes, done up in his dress pants and shirt and jacket lined in gold. He keeps fiddling with his solid gold cufflinks, each set with a sapphire the size of a gobstopper. The bowtie sits loose around his neck, the same gold that lines his jacket.
He’s sweating and he feels like a peacock.
A soft knock at the door focuses him. “Mr. Hudson?” Adam asks.
“Yeah, come in.”
He does, shutting the door firmly behind him. “Are you about ready? Valtteri says nearly all the guests have arrived.”
Brayden’s stomach flips over at the thought, his palms instantly going clammy. “I, uh, yeah. Yeah, I’m ready.”
Adam smiles at him, moving into his space. “Except for this, eh?” He takes the untied ends of Brayden’s tie and curves them around each other until it’s a proper bow. “There.”
Brayden steps in front of the decadently framed mirror centering the room and checks his reflection for anything out of place. The suit certainly makes him look the part. “Have you seen the room?”
“Are there a lot of people?” he asks, straightening his cuffs one last time.
“No more than usual for these types of things,” Adam assures him.
That does nothing to calm his nerves. “Great. Let’s do this.”
The walk from the dressing room to the entrance of the grand ballroom is short, barely enough time for Brayden to give himself one last pep talk and pray he doesn’t trip down the stairs.
Tony, one of the palace guards, is waiting for them at the doors. He’s wearing proper white gloves that look stark against the golden handle of the ballroom door. “They’re ready for you, sir.”
Brayden nods and goes through the checklist Valtteri made him recite at the beginning of each lesson: one big, deep breath, exhale slowly, straighten the back, chin up, and walk.
“Princess Janice of Tampa and the entire Royal Family is honored to present to the public, for the first time, Prince Brayden Hudson-Point.”
Applause roars in Brayden’s ears as he steps up to the edge of the staircase. There are hundreds of people in the ballroom, all dressed to the nines and clapping for him. He smiles the way Valtteri taught him – soft but bright – and reaches for the sleek golden rail with his left hand to begin his descent.
He spots Slater in front of Braydon and Tyler next to Ondrej. Jake is closer to the bottom of the stairs, ready to step in and take a spin around the dance floor, his collar flat and bow tie looking perfect. They all look so good in their suits. Tyler’s wearing a sapphire blue vest that catches the light of the chandeliers. Slater’s hair is the tamest it’s ever been.
They all showed up.
Not that he ever had a doubt they would, but. Brayden purposefully breathes again, feeling only a little light-headed.
Halfway down, he makes polite eye contact with as many people as he can, nodding gently in a few different directions. Princess Janice is in the very back of the room, watching from a tall-backed golden chair. Brayden smiles and nods at her as well.
A light dusting of dread crawls up his spine as the last few stairs arrive. He knows the waltz, which way to turn, and where to place his hands. He knows Jake will follow him wherever he puts him. He knows it’s going to be fine.
“Prince Brayden is accompanied tonight by his escort, Mr. Valtteri Filppula.”
Brayden’s whole body lights up and he nearly slips down the final step.
Valtteri is suddenly there, at the bottom of the stairs, pale grey tuxedo adding to his already ethereal presence. Brayden’s brain short-circuits. In all the scenarios he played out in his head, all the ways tonight could have possibly gone, this was never a probable option.
No matter how badly he wished it were.
The applause trickles off until there’s nothing but silence and Valtteri. Brayden licks his lips, steels himself, and offers his hand.
It’s an eternity before Valtteri places his own hand in Brayden’s palm, warm and dry. Brayden leads him to the center of the floor and curves his free hand under the cap of Valtteri’s shoulder: closed position. Politely intimate.
The chamber orchestra starts then, and it’s the same song they practiced to for hours on end. If Brayden keeps his eyes on Valtteri, he can almost imagine they’re back there, just the two of them.
“What are you doing?” Brayden whispers a bit harshly.
“Exactly what I want. Quit talking.”
Brayden has way too many other things to do before unpacking that statement, but he makes sure to memorize the way it makes his heart skip a beat and his legs go a little tingly. He takes his first step, moving Valtteri to the right and exhales when he’s receptive to his lead.
Valtteri lets himself be spun around the lavish dance floor in perfect waltz posture and with a hundred times more grace than Brayden will ever have.
He thinks they probably make a nice picture.
Valtteri smiles, just ever so slightly, as Brayden pushes him away to spin. He’s not sure if he imagines the space between them grow smaller when Valtteri places his hand back on Bray’s shoulder.
Brayden thinks he’d like it if there were no space between them at all.
The music changes key and Brayden loses his train of thought as more couples join them on the floor. He’s thankful not to be the center of attention anymore and does one more cycle of steps before politely ending their dance.
“Thank you,” he says, still holding Valtteri’s hand and shoulder.
“It was nothing.” Valtteri drops their position, stepping back to put a proper amount of distance between them. “Shall I get you a drink for your toast?”
“Sure, uh, yeah. Thanks.”
Bray watches him weave between the crowd with practiced ease and almost decides to follow him but then Jake is crashing into him from behind with Slater and Tyler in tow.
“Not a disaster, eh?” Jake says.
Bray punches him in his good shoulder. “Did you plan that?”
Tyler’s giggling. “You think we could have gotten that man to do anything he didn’t want to do?”
“He needed the barest of suggestions before he was putting on his dancing shoes,” Slater offers.
“You guys are the worst .” Brayden’s cheeks flush, heat rushing to the tips of his ears.
“Shut up, you love us,” Tyler says. “Now go give your speech. Your champagne is waiting.”
Bray follows the direction of his eyebrow wiggle and finds Valtteri standing at the edge of the dance floor with two glasses. Taking a deep breath, he crosses the mass of waltzers to reach him.
At the first clink of a glass, the room spins to a halt.
Slater watches Bray step up onto the platform they made for him and clear his throat. He’s a mild shade of pink but nothing too much. Slater nudges Jake to stand in front of him, he’s going to need a front row seat to this.
“Good evening,” Bray begins. “Thank you all for coming tonight. I’m…I’m not much of a speech-giver, which is why this will be very short.”
The crowd gives a soft laugh.
“I never expected to be standing here, never in my wildest dreams. This isn’t really my scene. But I hope you all can grow to accept me and that I can grow to fill your expectations. I am truly honored to be a part of this family and will work every day to live up to what being a Point means.”
Polite applause fills the space and Bray blushes a deeper pink.
“With that being said, I have a bit of business to take care of. Something that’s very important to me, something I didn’t think should wait.”
Valtteri trades Bray his glass of champagne for a very official looking document. Slater almost can’t contain his excitement. He’s been keeping this secret since they all found out Jake was going to be well enough to attend the ball. It’s been the hardest thing he’s done in the past 48 hours, not spilling the beans.
“Recently, a very good friend of mine got shot.”
Jake looks to Slater, his eyes wide, and Slater nudges him to pay attention.
Bray continues. “He was doing something he shouldn’t have been doing for probably some really wrong reasons. But even then, he was kind. He put someone else’s life above his own at great risk to himself. In some circles that’s called bravery and selflessness. In our circle, we told him he was an idiot.”
The crowd laughs a little harder at that one.
“He was lucky. The bullet hit him in the shoulder and some really wonderful doctors were able to patch him up. There have been many times in my life I thought I was scared, but none of them matched up to the way I felt sitting in that hospital waiting room.”
Slater feels Braydon lean down from behind him, tucking his lips against his ear. “What’s going on?”
“Just wait,” he whispers back.
“Jacob Montgomery Dotchin isn’t a hero by many definitions, but to me and my friends and the person he saved that night, he is a good man. Because of this, my first act as a prince was an easy one.” Bray turns the official document around so the crowd can see it. “I’d like to present Jake with an official royal pardon for the past he’s lived and the mistakes he’s made at the hands of other people. Other people he was too kind to call out on their bullshit.”
Slater’s pretty sure he can see a vein popping out of Valtteri’s forehead. This is great.
“It’s a clean slate, a fresh start, and something we all deserve sometimes. So, uh, I hope you use this wisely, bud.”
The crowd spots Jake easily, turning and making space for him to step up to the podium and accept his pardon. Slater and Tyler are probably clapping and cheering too loud for such a formal event but this kind of thing deserves it. Jake deserves it.
Bray is gentle when he hugs Jake, careful not to squeeze his shoulder too hard. Jake, for his part, looks dazed with a big smile spread across his face.
The violins start playing again, blending into the crowd’s applause and chatter. The space in the center of the room clears out and Slater grabs Braydon’s hand before he can escape. “One dance? Please?”
Braydon softens and lets himself be pulled toward the small orchestra. Slater doesn’t know any of the songs but it’s easy enough to sway to. “Have I told you how handsome you look in that tux?” he asks, playing with the little curls on the back of Braydon’s neck.
“I believe you have.” He smiles. “Tyler knows how to make a guy look good.”
“Not too hard to make a 10 look like a million bucks.”
Braydon ducks his head. “You’re on your game, tonight, eh?”
“It’s a special occasion.” Slater takes Braydon’s hand and steps away from him, twirling. He doesn’t expect to be pulled back and dipped with such finesse. “Braydon Coburn, have you been hiding dancing skills this whole time?”
He leans down to kiss Slater instead of giving an answer. Slater can live with that.
“Such a romantic,” he says once Braydon’s settled him back on his feet.
“Only for you.”
He straightens Braydon’s bowtie. “You wanna grab a drink and walk around?”
Braydon nods and follows Slater. They both end up with some kind of fancy light beer that the bartender pours into a chalice.
“Bit much, eh?” Slater asks as they head for the courtyard.
“I think beer bottles would cramp the style of this shindig.”
“Oh, for sure. I’ve just never drank beer out of something so pretty.” He examines the glass and spots a gold cuff around the short stem. “You think that’s real?”
“I don’t think the royal family is quite that rich.”
They find a stone bench to settle on. It’s tucked behind a row of severely trimmed bushes, quiet save for the trickling fountain at the center of the garden. The stone is cold and it seeps in through the thin fabric of Slater’s pants when he sits. “Cheers.” He clinks his glass to Braydon’s.
“To Prince Brayden.”
Slater takes a hearty sip. “Now we’ll be able to tell you two apart by more than just a letter.”
“Oh? I’m not going to be Other-Braydon anymore?”
“I think you’ve officially been upgraded to just Braydon.”
Braydon’s smile blooms soft and sweet and Slater has to lean over and get lips on it, swallow it up. It’s so easy to be like this with him, they’re just good together.
Slater pulls back, brushes at the hair over Braydon’s ear. “So I, uh, I was going to wait until we got home tonight but,” he says, pausing to make sure Braydon’s listening. “I quit my job.”
“What?” It’s a gentle question, even if his eyes do go wide in surprise.
“I thought a lot about it. About us. And,” he takes Braydon’s hand, squeezes. “I want more of you. I…I want to take my time with you.”
“Slater.” Braydon’s thumb drags along his knuckles.
“I do. And I know I’ve been impossible about this, about settling down with you. Making this permanent.” Slater looks up, holds Braydon’s gaze. “You’re the best thing I’ve ever had and it’s not fair that you’re making all the effort.”
“But your job. And what about school? You can’t drop ou--.”
Slater presses his fingertips to Braydon’s lips. “Bray got me a job,” he says with a smile. “A day job with hourly pay and benefits. Apparently having a future prince as a reference opens some doors. He even let me have his old polos.”
Braydon beams. “That’s so great. I…I am so proud of you. And happy . You deserve so much.”
Slater’s heart does a little backflip and he can feel himself blush. He’s practically buzzing with the rush of joy. “And, uh, I was wondering. With the boys all kind of going their separate ways, if your offer was still on the table? Of living together?”
“Absolutely, Slater. Yes. ” He pulls Slater into a hug, holds him tight. “You can move your stuff tomorrow. I’ll hire someone.”
That makes Slater laugh. “You don’t need to hire someone for what amounts to probably four boxes of stuff. I’m not bringing the floor mattress when you have a Tempurpedic.”
“I just want you with me. I don’t want to wait.”
Slater takes a breath, waits. But the fight or flight response doesn’t come. “Yeah, me too. For the first time in my life, me too.”
Their kiss feels like a freefall, like he’s jumped out of an airplane with no parachute. Braydon catches him, his warm hand wrapped around the back of his neck grounding him. “I love you,” he whispers against Braydon’s lips, tilting their foreheads together.
“I love you, too.”
“Do you see that woman over there?” Ondrej asks, swirling his glass of expensive bourbon. “In the blue dress.”
Tyler follows the incline of his head and spots her. “Yeah.”
“Her name is Caley and she’s the lifestyle reporter from the Times. She’s been watching me most of the night and I have a feeling she’d like to have a chat.”
Tyler shrugs. “Cool.”
“About us.” Ondrej takes a sip of his drink.
Tyler doesn’t choke on his champagne but it’s a near thing. “Why?”
Ondrej pulls Tyler toward the wall, boxes him in. “I haven’t dated anyone in many years and as you know, I’m the son of a very prominent philanthropist in the city. The two of those things makes me an interesting target of…rumors. As you also know.”
“But this is about Bray. This whole party is for him , why does she care about us?”
“Maybe she thinks you’re pretty,” he says with a devilish grin.
Tyler shoves at him. “Shut up.”
“What I’m trying to ask,” Ondrej continues, face falling serious again. “Is if you would be against me telling her we’re together. On the record.”
Tyler remembers how it felt seeing his picture in that magazine, even if it was just his back. Even if they didn’t print his name or anything about him. He remembers what it felt like being put there for everyone to see, for everyone to comment on, without even being asked.
But Ondrej’s asking.
Tyler takes a long sip of champagne. “It’s not that I’m…ashamed or anything. I’ve honestly never been happier than I have been the past few days, the past few months.”
“There’s no but, I don’t think? I just…I’m me. I’m a slutty bartender at a low-brow bar who barely makes rent each month. I’m a nobody. I’m, well, I’m kind of trash. Compared to you.”
“I thought we already went over this,” Ondrej says, very patient like always. “You are everything I have ever wanted and I wouldn’t ask to put your name next to mine in a newspaper hundreds of thousands of people read if I didn’t think the world of you.”
Tyler blinks up at him, trying to put what he’s feeling into words. “Is it normal to be scared like this?”
“Of course.” Ondrej caresses Tyler’s cheek, cups his jaw. “We can wait, if that is what you want. But I want to tell the world about you one day.”
Tyler nods. He knows Ondrej would wait if he told him to, that he would wait for as long as Tyler needed. Months or years of dodging paparazzi and neither confirming or denying questions, seeing rumors about them in magazines. Exhausting. “No, it’s okay.”
“Put my name next to yours.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want you to do this just because I want t--.”
Tyler rocks up on his toes and kisses him, swallows up his words. “I’m all in, okay? I love you.”
“I love you,” Ondrej says, smile breaking out across his face.
“Hey, whoa, there you are,” Jake says, butting into their perfect moment without any shame. “Bray wants to talk to us.”
“Now?” Tyler asks. “I’m kind of in the middle of something.”
“I mean, I guess I could ask him to wait.”
Ondrej laughs. “Just go, I’m going to find another bourbon and a table to claim. You shouldn’t keep a prince waiting.”
Tyler huffs but kisses Ondrej one more time before letting Jake pull him away. “Seriously? This better be good.”
“Don’t be selfish.”
Tyler would normally snip something back but he catches sight of Slater and Bray and decides to hold his tongue.
“Okay, good. You’re all here,” Bray says. “I did a thing that I don’t know if I should have done but suddenly being royal gave me all this money and I didn’t know what to do with it. My first thought was to split it with you guys.”
“Bray…” Slater says.
“No just, hear me out. We’re all terrible with money and any large amount of it would probably just get us all in trouble so I was thinking about like, gifts I could buy you guys. Nice things that are important. And all I kept coming back to was the house.”
Tyler’s eyes go wide. “You didn’t.”
“I did,” Bray announces. “I bought the house. It’s ours. You don’t have to find new roommates or move out. You don’t have to pay rent. I’m gonna fix everything we’ve been putting off, get new appliances in there, and like, a big couch and a dining table and stuff. I want to make it a home, even if you decide to leave. I wanted to have a place that was still ours.”
“You sappy son of a bitch,” Jake says, throwing his arms around Bray.
“Is it too much? Am I being stupid?”
“Not at all,” Tyler says, fitting his arms around Bray’s waist.
Slater rounds out the hug from behind, settling his chin on top of Bray’s head. “It’s perfect.”
Bray takes a deep breath, sighs. “Good.”
“You don’t have any other surprises tonight, do you?” Jake asks. “I don’t think I can take anymore surprises.”
“No.” Bray chuckles. “No, this is it. I swear.”
Jake’s the only one who goes home that night, taking a royal car Bray insisted on. He undoes his bowtie and unbuttons his shirt in the backseat, checks his phone. His royal pardon sits in the seat next to him, rolled up and tied with a golden ribbon. What a wild night.
The porch light is on when the car pulls into the drive.
“Thank you,” Jake says to the well-dressed man who opens the car door for him.
The house doesn’t look any different, but it feels strange to let himself into it knowing it’s his. Knowing that no one can come and kick him out. That even if Tyler moves in with Ondrej and Slater leaves him for the suburbs, he still has a home.
“You’re back early,” Yanni says, leaning out of the bedroom they’ve made theirs. He looks soft in an oversized t-shirt and sweatpants that are too long for him.
Jake hooks his keys by the door, smiles. “Everyone turns into a pumpkin at midnight, didn’t you know?”
“That makes sense.”
“Did you have a good night?” Jake asks, striping out of his elaborate jacket and folding it over his arm. The shiny black shoes are next to go, kicked toward the pile already by the door.
Jake pulls his shirt out of his pants, finally feels less like a penguin. “I wish you could have been there. With me. Bray was amazing.”
“He told me what he was going to do,” Yanni says. “The pardon.”
Jake pulls the rolled-up piece of paper from his jacket pocket before tossing it on the back of the couch. “Clean slate.”
“Guess that makes two of us.”
“What should we do with our second chances?” Jake steps into Yanni’s space, crowds him up against the doorframe.
“I can think of many things.” Yanni brushes Jake’s shirt off his shoulder, traces the tender spot where the bullet hit him. “But I want you to know that no matter what I do, I do not think it will ever make up for what you’ve done for me.”
“It’s the truth.” His eyes flick up to meet Jake’s gaze. “I didn’t know what would happen if I found you again. This is all so much more than I could have hoped for.”
“Everyone deserves a second chance.”
“I can not wait to spend mine with you.” He bounces onto his toes to take Jake’s mouth in a kiss.
Jake walks them toward the bed, able to maneuver through the room with his eyes closed, lips still pressed to Yanni’s. They tumble gracelessly onto the bed, situate themselves easily: Yanni on his back with Jake settled in the space between his thighs.
“Wait,” Jake says, suddenly. “Should I be calling you Vincent?”
“Please do not.”
“But you’ve got a new name now! New driver’s license, passport, birth certificate. Yanni doesn’t exist. I should call you Vinny. Vince? Mister…how do you say your last name again?”
“Lecavalier. And don’t… just stop talking and kiss me. You’ve ruined the mood.”
“So pushy, Mister Le-cav-a-yay.”
Yanni rolls his eyes but Jake gives him exactly what he wants.
Standing in the middle of the royal ballroom that’s covered in fallen confetti, empty drink cups, and glasses of champagne, Bray smiles. He’s done a lot of good in less than 24 hours since becoming a real live actual prince. Prince Brayden. Prince Point. Prince Hudson-Point.
“What are you thinking about?” Valtteri’s calm voice startles him.
“How lucky I am.” He turns to find the other man as dressed down as he’s ever seen him, tie a little loose around his neck, jacket unbuttoned. He’s not even wearing a pocket square anymore.
Valtteri picks up a glass off the nearest table, sips the champagne in it. “Sometimes,” he starts. “I look at you and think the same thing.”
The breath catches in Bray’s chest. “I-is that why you let Slater and Jake talk you into dancing with me?”
Valtteri places the champagne glass back on the table. “Not entirely.”
“Then why?” Bray barely whispers.
“Because.” Valtteri takes Bray’s hand, holds it up like they might start waltzing at a moment’s notice. “The thought of you dancing with anyone else made me jealous. Unbearably so. It was selfish of me to think such a thing but when your friends came to me, when they asked, I thought that perhaps it wasn’t just me who thought about it.”
“It’s not,” Bray blurts. “Valtteri, I swear. It’s not just you.”
Bray can feel the warmth of Valtteri as the space between them grows smaller. “This isn’t proper, you know,” Valtteri says.
Bray bites his lip, really makes up his mind. “Have I ever been proper a day in my life?”
Valtteri leans closer, the hand not currently occupied coming up to cradle the back of Bray’s head. “You make a very convincing argument.”
Bray meets him halfway, crashing together in what feels like years of buildup. Months of tension. Days upon days of being forced into close proximity and not being able to do anything about it.
“Oh god, I’ve wanted to do that forever,” Bray says.
Valtteri presses another kiss to Bray’s lips. “All good things are worth the wait.”
Slater wakes up in the world’s softest bed to the smell of coffee and something sweet. Braydon’s there, propped up next to him reading the newspaper like the adorable old man he is.
“You should take a look at the Lifestyle section,” he says, indicating the bit of newspaper separated out from the rest.
Slater grabs it and immediately recognizes the couple in the photo above the fold. “Holy shit.”
Newly Crowned Prince Point Plays Prince Charming at Coronation
“That’s Bray and…”
“In the royal ballroom.”
“Holy shit . Oh my god, where’s my phone?” He scrambles to get out of the blanket burrito he’s made for himself, nearly falling flat on his face. “Braydon, where is it? No one reads the paper, I need to tell them! I have so many questions !”
Braydon has the audacity to laugh at him. “Probably still in your jacket pocket, babe.”
“What an unhelpful place for it to be!”
His fancy suit jacket is hung neatly by the front door, phone in the left pocket. There’s just enough juice left to send off a text to the group chat: GOOD MORNING Y’ALL, BRAYDEN HUDSON IS A ROYAL HARLOT.