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To My Favorite Liar

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Twelve years old, a fine layer of dirt covering him from head to toe, Pete runs. Are his feet touching the ground as they cross the grass and trails of his kingdom, he wonders? Is the sky watching as he becomes a dark-haired streak beneath it, curls dancing with the wind when he laughs and shakes his head? He feels as if he may lift up into those clouds at any moment. He feels as if the world is his, the way they always say it will be.

His father regularly tells Pete about palaces and castles and courts and balls, a future his hands are not yet big enough to grasp. His tutors and the noblemen’s children will say the same, call him by titles rather than names. Even his mother, gentle as she is, dresses him in the vibrant gold shades of their nation, warns him against acting out. To everyone, he is a prince.

But, today, to Patrick, he is not.

Funny, he thinks, how it takes another prince to free Pete from the reality of the same title. At the same time, racing after Patrick— a few years younger, a few inches shorter— introduces Pete to the very grandeur he’s sure they mean when people tell him he will one day rule. Happy without consequence, hands reaching for whatever he wants, he imagines this is what it means to be king.

Patrick stops before him in the palace gardens of Waerloga, a nation name he is far better at pronouncing than Pete is; it’s fair, though, because Patrick still has troubles announcing his own nation’s name of Attorsceada. Surrounded by flowers as vibrant blue as his eye, a sky as pale as his grin and air as sweet as his voice, he holds his hands out, palms towards Pete, and shouts.

“Waerloga!” It’s half-babbling, the kingdom spoken in a hurried tone. “I cast a spell on you!”

Pete stops suddenly, gripping his chest the way he’s seen men do when caught by magic, a skill Pete’s practiced but not perfected. If he were as high and mighty as others around the palace, he might tell Patrick that he looks silly with both hands held out— everyone knows only one is necessary— or that it’s only a rumor that the kingdom’s name is a magic word. He could fix his posture, tell him of how palms glow and how the light hurts to look at. But Patrick’s smiling and he thinks he’s doing it right and Pete could never say anything is wrong about that. He falls to the ground instead, laughing through his dramatic shouts.

“You’ve got me!” He cries out, on his knees. From here, Patrick seems to shine, the sun behind him with a glow like gold. “What spell have you cast?”

“You will do what I say.” Hands on hips, Patrick steps forward proudly, cheeks bunched up around his smile as he tries to bite it back. He takes his role seriously, nodding at Pete before pointing sternly at him. “I want to help rule Waerloga.”

“Only if I get Attorsceada,” Pete says, breaking character to tease Patrick with his proper pronunciation. Patrick, youthful innocence emphasized by snark and rolled eyes, nods again.

“Well, duh,” he says. “We’re going to rule both of them together .”

And it is obvious when he says it like that. They are both destined to be kings, after all. Pete dreads the idea but it’s more tolerable if he can envision Patrick by his side. Perhaps in another throne like his mother sitting next to his father. Perhaps if he teaches Patrick magic, then he will be allowed to be a king here, too.

Pete’s seen, though, what magic can do. He may not be able to access his own yet but he knows of the way it burns through walls, the way it tears through bone. He’s looked at armies all lit with light in their hands and thrown up from the inevitable fire sure to follow the sparks.

Pete’s a child but even now he knows Patrick’s too naive for wanting any of that.

“Pete?” Patrick asks, head dropped to the side as he stares down. “Did my spell work?”

He sounds so truly disconcerted that Pete has no choice but to fall over completely, face first in the grass at Patrick’s feet.

“It worked so good I died,” he tells the dirt, listening to Patrick’s soft snickers above him.

“No, Pete, no!” Patrick falls to his knees beside Pete, poking deep into his ribs until Pete’s curling away, batting at Patrick’s hands as laughter replaces his breaths. “I didn’t mean to do that! I’m gonna have to use magic to bring you back to life now!”

Magic. Magic. Magic. It all comes back to magic.

For once, Pete would like to pretend none of it exists. No castles, no titles, no magic .

He doesn’t have the words to say this, doesn’t know how to try. Each thought bubbles into the back of his throat and fades away like fog, disappearing before he knows what it truly means.

No matter. There are easier ways to distract Patrick.

Hands around Patrick’s neck, pulling him down with an exaggerated roar. He gets Patrick back for the attack on his ribs, rolling them around as he rubs his knuckles deep into Patrick’s hair. Soft and a shade darker than gold, Patrick’s hair fits nicely beneath Pete’s hands as they wrestle, shouting out meaningless sounds. Kicking and hitting and messing around, all with smiles on their faces.

See, Pete thinks? This laughter, this warmth, is a magic Patrick needn’t worry about finding. He carries it with him and Pete’s more than willing to remind him.

“Patrick,” he says, plucking a stray blade of grass from behind Patrick’s ear. “Patrick, I think—”

“Peter, you know better.” Hands at Pete’s shoulders and arms, tugging him to his feet. His mother’s voice fills his ears— not disappointed or upset, simply embarrassed as Patrick’s parents tug him away, too. “This is not how we treat our guests.”

Patrick’s parents are tight-lipped, scolding Patrick with heavy gazes and stern grips around his wrist.

“I’m sorry,” Pete says. “We were only playing.”

Patrick murmurs his own apologies, caught in his parents' hands. For a moment, Pete stares at how the sun still delights in Patrick’s hair though his head is bent in shame; for a moment, Pete wonders at how the pinkness of his cheeks can be so warm.

“The young prince will be returning home with his family today,” Pete’s father says behind him, something unsaid in the certainty of his voice. Patrick and Pete both glance up at him, their silence nothing but stunned.

“Oh,” Pete says at last before turning his head to look at the other king and queen— David and Patricia, eyes like Patrick’s but missing the smile within. “Will you be back soon?”

Queen Patricia startles as if not expecting such a simple question, cool green eyes lifting to look at Pete’s parents.

“I suppose there will always be meetings to have and agreements to make,” she says in the same tone Pete’s father used— a thick layer of false sincerity hiding something underneath. Pete tenses though he doesn’t quite understand why, hand gripping his mother’s skirt as he steps back. “It’s good you two get along. I’m sure the people will appreciate that one day.”

“Mommy,” Patrick says, his voice small and cheeks red when he looks up to her. He’s not much younger than Pete— and, more often than not, he acts older than him— but, now, Pete’s chest swells with the same feeling he gets when looking at the maid’s kittens or when listening to common children play. Warm and tingling, he smiles at Patrick’s wide blue eyes. “Is there time to say good—”

His question is answered before it’s completed. There are people from Attorsceada with flickering flames in their eyes, servants and workers, that surround their royals and warn them that they should leave soon. There are leering waistcoated men from Waerloga whispering in Pete’s father’s ear, women in pale dresses pulling gently on his mother’s arm.

There are people Pete doesn’t care about taking him from Patrick, the air suddenly thick with a tension he doesn't understand.

And, as Pete is lifted by his father and rushed inside, there are people taking Patrick away to his home, too.

<><><> <><><> <><><>

He doesn’t see Patrick again for another year. Perhaps one day he can pretend such distance doesn’t bother him. For now, however, he spends time pouting and whining and wondering what’s so special about Patrick’s kingdom that he stays over there so long. Wouldn’t he rather be here, with magic? Wouldn’t he rather be here, with Pete?

When he finally hears the cries and trumpets of Patrick’s arrival— earlier than his parents had said, interrupting Pete in the middle of his magic lessons— he rushes to his feet.

He runs.

Patrick came when there was sun last time but, today, there is a dusting of snow across the land, pale bright flakes that glitter only once Pete has his eyes on Patrick again. Sharp winds and biting cold have always been unfavorable.

That is until Pete has seen Patrick among it. His nose and cheeks have gone a delicate shade of pink, rose petals upon his pale skin, and flakes gather on his eyelashes like gems. His hair’s flat beneath the wet, and he’s bundled in a jacket that makes his middle as round as one of Pete’s horses. He shifts awkwardly, hands shoved deep into his pockets, and then he looks at Pete.

Pete can’t explain the way Patrick’s eyes make him warm, the way he bursts like sun at the sight of his smile or the sound of his voice. They’ve met only a few times before— hardly enough times to truly lead to friendship— but Pete still prizes each visit, each second. Perhaps it has to do with the way Patrick looks at him with such curiosity and intrigue it burns. Like he can see the magic beneath Pete's skin, though there are years before this will become close to true. Pete knows Attorsceada doesn’t practice magic the same way; he wonders why, then, he feels spellbound by Patrick’s presence.

He could say these things— his mother has been teaching him to use his words— but that would be boring and, besides, there’s no time to waste on silly thoughts like this. Instead, Pete does the one thing that makes sense.

He launches himself at Patrick and, together, they fall to the ground.

Patrick cries out Pete’s name but the angered sound fades into laughter as Pete presses his cheek against Patrick’s, sharing warmth and shivering from the coolness of Patrick’s skin.

“I missed you so much,” Pete complains, pulling back to look at Patrick properly. He’s not changed as much as Pete had feared he would, though there is a new scar across his brow that makes Pete wince. He has the same smile, the same laugh. He has the same gentle hands when he brushes snow from Pete’s hair.

“Sorry,” he says, the word flavored by his smile. “I missed you, too.”

Pete swears he can feel something in his chest begin to glow. Some might call it magic but Pete has another name for it entirely.

“Peter,” his mother says, more exasperated than she is upset. “Do you really believe that’s necessary?”

“Oh, I’m alright, Your High- er, Your Majest- um.” Patrick tilts his head back to look up at Pete’s mother, a small bashful smile on his face. “How should I address you? I’m sorry, I don’t want to offend.”

Pete’s mother looks back down at him, an indecipherable expression on her face, before she shakes her head with a laugh that Pete recognizes as enamored.

“You’re a friend of my son’s. Dale should work fine.” She smiles at Patrick once more before the look fades and she focuses back on Pete. “My god, Pete, please. Can’t you stand?”

“I suppose.” Pete should probably be embarrassed by the stern look his father is giving him from the other side of the gates, caught in conversation with Patrick’s parents, but he can’t be bothered. He stands, shaking snow from his head, and then reaches to help Patrick up. Patrick’s grip is light when he takes Pete’s hand but the touch makes Pete smile all the same.

“It’s cold,” Patrick says, taking his hand back once he’s properly stood up. He rubs at the snow melting on his lips, wiping the droplets away with a faint frown. Pete imagines the cold Patrick must feel on his mouth, on his hand. He thinks of the dampness and how snow tastes, thoughts that appear without his calling them.

He turns his head, nose wrinkled and cheeks warm though he can’t quite say why.

“I think your parents will be talking with mine for a while,” Pete says because that’s what always happens. Meetings between the neighboring kingdoms, conversations about things Pete can’t define but knows are important. He knows they’re not always good but they bring Patrick so he sets aside his reservations and hopes for this visit to last longer than others. “Come on, I’ll show you where you’ll be staying.”

The two slip away like a pair of thieves, sliding past the gatekeepers and sneaking away from the servants pacing the grounds. Stepping inside is, for once, like entering independence. The king and queen of both kingdoms are outside, exchanging formalities and discussing plans. Pete, however, grabs Patrick’s wrist and tugs him through the halls until they’re almost running— until they’re almost flying.

How is it only Patrick makes him feel like this?

“Do you even know what the meetings are about?” Pete asks as they run, feet sliding across the tiled floors, slick from the snow on the bottom of their boots. He stops short in front of the bedchamber Pete had insisted they prepare for Patrick. A bit smaller than the one his parents will be in further down the hall, this one is closest to Pete’s room. His parents had hated the idea of letting guests keep so close to him but Pete had hated any other option more. “Is there trouble?”

“Honestly?” Patrick asks, hands on his knees as he catches his breath from running. He stares into the bedchamber, eyes widening fractionally at the heavy blankets and tapestries Pete had helped set up. He turns back to Pete, blinking as if to reset his vision, and the corners of his lips form something that is almost a smile. “They don’t tell me much about that. Probably because I’m such good friends with you.”

Friends. The word has Pete standing taller, chin lifted as he beams.

“Your things are in the carriage still, right? I’ll get them while you make sure the room’s okay.” Pete’s off and hurrying down the halls before Patrick can insist he won’t need anyone to grab his bags for him. He laughs to himself with Patrick’s frustrated shouting in the background, picking up his pace in case Patrick decides to chase him down.

He stops, though, when he hears someone say his name.

Down a corridor he’s not yet passed, the corner of it sharp and shadowed, there are whispers. Two or three voices speaking like wind, hushed but not enough.

“Peter’s grown too close to the other prince,” someone says with no small amount of haughtiness. “I’ve heard advisors have spoken to the king about this but—”

“But they’re children.” Another voice, less hostile than the last. “They shouldn’t have to worry about the future just yet.”

“You forget that their future is the future of the kingdom,” the first voice returns, angrier than before. “And if our prince insists on befriending Attorsceadans— foolish and helpless pests — then he should be aware of its consequences.”

“You’ve just never liked Attorsceada,” a resigned third voice falls in, tired and moving towards Pete. “I agree that future tension is inevitable but that’s precisely why we’re having these meetings. Let’s just wait and see what comes of it.”

Pete presses his back flat to the wall as the trio walks past— knights and soldiers cooped inside due to the weather. His skin crawls from their words, from the cruel way they spoke of Patrick’s people. It clenches around his chest, hot and tight, and he bites down on his tongue to keep from lashing out.

They’re stupid, he tells themselves. They don’t know how wrong they are. One day, Pete will be able to show them, to tell them. He’ll trade out lessons and training for a coronation and orders people will listen to without laughing. He’ll live up to the claim he has on this kingdom, the birthright that flows through his blood— as it flows through Patrick’s.

One day, Patrick, too, will be king. Pete’s not dumb; he knows about wars and battles and the need for more land, always. He knows why his father is so intent on teaching Pete the right way to swing a sword, why his magic training lasts so long. He knows what people want.

But those people will not always have control over him.

And, when the time comes, he will fight only for peace.

He will fight for people like Patrick.

<><><> <><><> <><><>

That night, standing in the doorway, the moon staring in from the windows in the hall behind him, Pete watches Patrick. He envies the way the blankets fall upon him, the way the night embraces him. He envies how easily Patrick sleeps, how simple his breaths are. He almost feels bad when he steps inside, the floor groaning softly beneath his feet.

As always, Patrick wakes. Pete stills, the way he does whenever they do this, and holds his breath as if this will be the time Patrick sends him away. He watches Patrick stretch out against the white pillows, his skin nearly as pale. Patrick’s eyelashes press deeper into his cheeks before opening, slowly, floating away from his eyes. Confusion, heavy and fat, crawls onto his face, sinking in the way Pete’s embarrassment does to him. Chest aching, he waits.

Then, Patrick looks at him and smiles as softly as light.

“Nightmares,” he says, not a question. Pete shrugs stiffly. It’s not an answer and it’s not a good lie but he’s burdened Patrick with his nightmares before; it’s bound to become an irritation at some point.

“Maybe I just missed you,” he says, not meaning to sound as petulant as he does. A deeper heat blossoms on his cheeks but Patrick simply laughs.

“We spent all day together. I don’t think I’m that special.” Patrick’s moving over and petting beside him before Pete can correct him. “Come on, then. You know I don’t mind.”

No, Patrick never minds. It’s another one of those magical things about him.

Now that permission’s been granted, Pete rushes to Patrick’s bed, burrowing beneath covers and sinking deep into the pillows with a sigh. His mattress is softer, his pillows bigger, but Patrick’s here. He feels better already.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Patrick whispers, lying on his side and facing Pete. Images flash through Pete’s mind— bright lights and tears— and he shakes his head, both to dislodge them and to answer Patrick’s question.

“Tell me about Attorsceada,” he says instead, staring at the ceiling until shadows seem to swirl. He closes his eyes.

“Um, okay,” Patrick says and Pete can feel him settling back down. “There’s nothing new, though.”

“It’s been a year,” Pete says, almost whining. “There has to be something. And, if not, then just say what you did last time. To make sure I remember.”

Patrick laughs and Pete smiles at the sound.

“Well, the mountains, right? I told you about the mountains,” Patrick says. “I guess they’re covered with snow now… We left so that we wouldn’t be caught in any blizzards or storms. But they’d be all white, clouds hiding the tops.”

Pete tries to imagine it. Waerloga is no stranger to hills and mountains but Patrick always insists that his are taller, his are higher. His kingdom’s further inland than Pete’s, Waerloga known for coasts and seasides. While Pete can describe every shade the ocean may make, Patrick has the same ease in describing the sky.

He pictures a palace nestled among nature’s own towers, hidden among the trees and sun. He pictures the trails that Patrick says he runs along, the hunting grounds and training lands. Swords glimmering beneath a cloudless sky, armor shimmering like stars in this hidden land.

Waerloga is the kingdom with magic but Pete’s always been more fascinated with Patrick’s home. He knows it’s only because Patrick’s there that he finds it so enticing. What world creates something like him?

“Oh! And I didn’t forget this time!” Patrick interrupts Pete’s fantasies, scrabbling over him towards the table propped beside the bed, candle wax stains yet to be cleaned. A knee finds Pete’s gut, a forearm brushes his cheeks, and Pete grunts, wondering just what could be so important. “I couldn’t find any pictures that were small enough to pack but I did find this. Will that work?”

Picture. Of course. Pete sits suddenly, nearly colliding his head against Patrick’s in his haste.

“Let me see it,” he says, trying to pry Patrick’s fist open. “I want to see it!”

On his last visit, Pete had asked Patrick for something of his home, for something that will help him understand the beauty Patrick speaks of. He’d imagined a painting like the hundreds that cover his own kingdom but that’s not what Patrick holds. Giggling and kicking Pete away, Patrick finally opens his hand.

The ring is too big for either of them, seeming to weigh down Patrick’s hand with its size. Silver as the colors on Patrick’s flag, shadows deepening the darker colors, it winks up at Pete as Patrick lifts it between his fingers, showing off the width and thickness. It’s not unlike the ones Pete’s father has, the elaborate jewelry that speaks of his rank. This ring, though, doesn’t have jewels or gems or other shining things— it has mountains. Carved into the metal, there’s a scene of mountains and villages among it, so detailed Pete grabs Patrick’s wrist and tugs closer for a better view. The windows in the homes whisper of families within; the trees around them rustle with a wind Pete cannot feel. He brushes his thumb over the intricate design, shivering when the figures press back against him.

“Patrick,” he says as Patrick pushes the ring towards him. “Patrick, I can’t.”

“Yes, you can,” Patrick says. Though Pete’s not looking at him, he’s sure Patrick’s rolling his eyes. “It was a present for my last birthday. I have a lot more, don’t worry.”

Patrick sounds like he’s lying and Pete accepts it the same way he accepts the ring— smiling so not to laugh breathlessly, looking down so not to overwhelm himself with the sight of Patrick’s eyes.

“You’re a good person,” Pete says, holding the ring tight in his fist. He can’t imagine ever being grown enough to wear it but, for tonight, he plays with the idea, something swimming in his stomach when he imagines Patrick’s ring around his finger. “I’ll find a ring for you, too, okay? Then, we can be even.”

“We don’t need to be even,” Patrick says with a small laugh. “But it’s a nice thought.”

Yes. Yes, it is, Pete agrees. Patrick wearing a ring from Pete? It makes him feel happier than the last thought had.

He shuts his eyes as Patrick goes back to talking, naming animals and plants that could very well be fake for all Pete knows. He tells stories of his life this past year, celebrations and holidays and festivals. He talks about everything Pete wants to know.

As Pete falls asleep, his mind drifting into that place of fiction and dreams, he strains to hold onto Patrick’s voice.

He’d like to hear him in his dreams for as long as he can.

<><><> <><><> <><><>

The shift from child to man isn’t an easy one. Four years pass like they might be nothing but every day is something new. New lessons to take, new words to learn, new feelings to have. Pete reaches the age of seventeen like a young boy reaching for apples too high on the tree; everything is out of his grasp.

Though it’s not as bad as it had been when he was fourteen or fifteen, Pete still roams the halls and gardens and guest bedchambers like a spirit. Meetings have stopped; Pete’s feelings have not.

Patrick was here when they were children. There must be something of him left.

Even now, hiding from a meeting debating whether or not he’s at the proper age for finding a lover, Pete finds himself looking for whatever it is that is missing from him. He searches for Patrick in the grass they rolled through and the dirt they once misplaced, running his hands through plants as if they may remember him, as well.

He returns to his feet with nothing but the ring on his hand, the frown on his lips.

When he turns back towards the palace, his eyes find the window of the room that he once called Patrick’s. It doesn’t comfort him the way he might have hoped.

The people say the sudden silence between Waeloga and Attorsceada is a blessing but those people are not within the palace walls. They don’t see the maps Pete’s father rummages through each night, nor do they hear the insistence in his mother’s tone when he asks for the king to remain calm. Even now, grown and aware, they keep their secrets from Pete. He doesn’t understand why Attorsceada’s name on his father’s tongue makes him feel sick but he does know it’s not a feeling he likes.

Just as he doesn’t like that it’s kept him from Patrick.

Pete drops his gaze back to the dirt, grateful that the brown earth is all he sees beneath the grass. He knows Patrick’s home has more lakes and rivers, and that Patrick used to talk of water so pure he could see his own face reflected whenever he peered in. If Pete were to look into those waters, what would he see now? Dark hair taunting his attendants with the mess of it all, finger combed long after it’s been styled and arranged just so. Skin tanned by the long summers of his home, covered with rich fabrics and gems. Eyes still young, still naive.

A prince hoping for another nation to be safe, fearing for a kingdom other than his own.

His attachment to Patrick isn’t something he can explain even to himself, the definition of his feelings caught up in childish words and embarrassing sounds. He was just his first friend, that’s all; he was just the first person to see him as only Pete.

That’s all.

It’s an old habit of his, these lies. But they’ve worked this long. He’s willing to see how far he can take it before it breaks.

<><><> <><><> <><><>

The night’s barely begun and Pete already knows it won’t matter. The people here are present by obligation or unfounded hopes, all riding the same train of believing their attendance makes them worthy of the wealth they display so proudly tonight.

Pete shuts his eyes against the ballgowns and splendor. Only when all is still can he remember Patrick.

And Patrick, of course, is the only reason he bothered to show up. Pushing the messenger to send an invitation to the royal family of Attorsceada had been troublesome but he had done it all the same.

Perhaps it’s foolish to hope Patrick would show up now but Pete’s still young in his own eyes and he allows himself the mistake. Lingering back by his parents, eyes searching the crowd, he waits.

He always waits.

When his parents shove at his back and tell him to join the dances, he’s still seen nothing. His heart deflates with each song that passes, each new face that tries for his good graces. He’s just a kid, he thinks. Still seventeen, still too small for the crown everyone’s waiting for him to wear. Why do they care so much for him now?

He’s in the middle of ignoring a rather persistent duke when the image of red-brown hair sticking to a pale neck catches his eyes. He pulls away and he knows it’s rude but he doesn’t care, can’t care. His palms are already sweating as he winds his way through the crowds, the band preparing to play another song. People find partners with happy smiles and smirks; Pete reaches out, looking for—

No one. He’s not here.

The girl, though, is easier to see once Pete’s passed through the crowd and can look at more than the inch or so that he glimpsed before. Her hair’s a similar shade as the one Pete dreams of, stacked atop her head with stray strands sticking to her skin. She seems as if she was placed here for Pete, her dress just the right shade of blue against her pale form. Turned the other way, she’s laughing at something another girl said. If he ignores the higher pitch, he can pretend she has the same melody in her voice as someone else.

“Oh. Oh, Prince Pete,” her friend says, stepping back to fall into a quick curtsey. This girl does the same, though her eyes remain curiously on Pete’s face.

They’re the wrong color. A pale brown. Pete clears his throat and looks to her wrist.

“What is your name?” He’s never sounded this uncertain with Patrick but the smile on his face feels as if it may look real.

“Elizabeth,” she answers. It’s not close to the name he likes but maybe, he decides, that’s a good thing.

“That’s a lovely name,” he says, meeting her eyes once more. She cocks an eyebrow at him; it’s close enough. “Would you like to share the next dance?”

<><><> <><><> <><><>

“It doesn’t need to be now but you do need to consider the idea of marriage. If the people see you are serious about your responsibilities here, they will have greater respect for you. What are you doing now to earn that?”

Pete keeps quiet as his father speaks, jaw tight as he stares out the window over his father’s shoulder. The garden outside has given way to flowering trees and nests balanced precariously on branches. He watches birds fly to and from their eggs and wonders how it is they find the way back so easily. They fly further than he’s ever been, don’t they? It’s not as fair as he’d like it to be.

“Peter!”

“I’m listening,” Pete says, not meaning to snap but not regretting it either. “The ball was just last night. Do you expect me to be wed by now?”

“We simply expect you to, well, expect it.” His mother, at least, has a kind tone. It doesn’t ease him as easily as it should.

“And I will do that later.” He looks back out the window. The birds have flown off again.

“You will do it when we say,” his father says. “I don’t understand your stubbornness against this.”

“And I don’t understand this at all,” Pete says with a sigh. He shoves away from the table, ignoring his parents’ disapproving frowns. “It will happen, I promise. But it won’t happen simply because you believe it will bring me favor.”

He makes for the doorway. He doesn’t know where he intends to go but, now, anywhere else sounds better than here.

“If I may ask, son,” his mother calls out once more, “is there a reason for your uncertainty in this matter?”

Pete tenses. He’s old enough now to know what words to use, what his feelings are.

He bites them back and walks away.

They are not words worth sharing.

<><><> <><><> <><><>

Who’s stolen the years from Pete’s youth? Who’s hidden the childish glee?

It’s only three years since the ball, only one since his mother’s death. He’s twenty years old and he fears he should never feel free again.

He wonders, now, if this is what it means to be royal. Did his father’s heart once beat openly before closing back up— a heart that’s now a husk, a trembling mess of muscle and grief? Did his mother once laugh as hard as he did only to learn to hide it away?

Has Patrick learned to do these things, as well?

That last answer doesn’t matter. If there’s one thing Pete’s learned, it’s how to forget about Patrick.

He was a childhood friend, nothing more. A childhood crush and only that.

Besides, he has other people to look to now.

“Andy, can you ask Elizabeth to meet me later? By the trees past the gates?” He asks as he tugs gloves on. They’re thick enough to keep him warm in the cooler air outside, a season before the snow; they’re loose enough to hide the ring stuck around his finger, a ring he only keeps to remind himself of past friends.

Andy sighs, folding his arms. “I’m an advisor, not a servant.”

“And I appreciate the extra tasks you take on,” Pete says, smiling. Andy shakes his head but his smile lets Pete know he’ll do what he’s been asked. “And you’ll make sure that—”

“I’ll stay with him while you’re away,” Andy says, already anticipating Pete’s next request. “Honestly, as if I’d leave your son alone. He has all of his father’s mischief.”

Pride swells in Pete’s chest and he nods gratefully. “I won’t be long.”

Andy doesn’t appear to believe him but he waves him off anyway.

Pete takes the long way to the trees, avoiding the garden but only because it gives him time to think. He has no doubt that Elizabeth will beat him there, even if he has the headstart. She tends to be frustratingly punctual. Pete’s learned to appreciate that.

He hasn’t, of course, yet learned to fully appreciate her in the way she deserves. After he learned that she was carrying his child, he and his mother moved her into the palace as one of his mother’s ladies-in-waiting— or, at least, that’s what everyone was told. Only Elizabeth, Pete, and his mother knew the truth behind the position. Pete imagines his mother kept the secret because she expected him to marry Elizabeth. He supposes he’ll never know her true intentions; regardless, it’s kept the two of them and their child safe.

Is it wrong to not love her, he wonders? He’s tried and failed over the years, a humiliating fact. He’s offered her apologies and excuses; she’s returned understanding and acceptance.

“All I want is for our son to have the best life possible,” she’s said. “And I’ve a feeling you want that, too.”

And, so, she stays. She stays and their son is raised as a prince without the burdens and rules Pete had faced. He doesn’t know if he’s doing the best thing but it feels, at least, like it’s right.

Now, another question has appeared in the opposite direction. Something that is the best thing to do but doesn’t feel quite right.

Reaching the trees— thin and scattered and losing their leaves— he sees Elizabeth. She’s a good friend and a wise woman; the second ring in his pocket burns. If he marries her, his father may accept it and he’ll have gained his approval. If he marries her, he’ll know it’s someone he trusts.

But it won’t be someone he loves.

“Pete,” Elizabeth says, turning and catching his eye with a smile. “You asked me to meet you here?”

Pete’s mouth is dry, his muscles feel tight. “I did.”

Though no one’s told him to do this, he feels caught with no way out. Elizabeth would rule the kingdom graciously, kindly; his son would be taken care of. And Pete will have fulfilled a duty he’s put off for too long, a duty his mother never saw completed.

“Elizabeth, I…” He chokes on the word and pauses, reaching slowly into his pocket. It’s an informal proposal but once she says yes, as he’s sure she will, he can go to his father. They can organize a public one, introduce the people to their future queen. Elizabeth’s a noblewoman— it would be questioned but accepted. There’s no way for this to go wrong, no way for this to end in hurt. “Elizabeth, I—”

“Your Highness!” One of his father’s men, racing towards Pete with a distraught expression painted across his face. “Sir, sir, your father—”

His father, sick with grief and mad with regrets. Pete feels sick as he turns, hoping his eyes hide the fear he feels.

“What about him?” He asks. “Is he alright?”

“Yes, but… but, sir…”

“Spit it out, then!” Pete snaps, his stomach a storm. “What’s happened?”

The next words are few but they still the air, as certain as ice and snow.

“Your father,” the messenger says. “The king has declared war on Attorsceada.”