Pete doesn’t answer the man before him. How can he? All his thoughts cry out without words, the childish tone of want threading through each sound. How is he to greet the man he once called friend, the man he must now see as his enemy? How is he to look at Patrick, knowing the ways to make him laugh just as well as he knows the ways to invade his lands?
Patrick stares, his eyes as steady as the sky; Pete, like the dawn, breaks beneath it.
“Forgive my shock. It’s… It’s been too long,” he says, his words stale as he stumbles back and gestures uselessly at the desk beside Patrick. “Will you take a seat? We can discuss the reason behind your visit. I can have someone fetch us a drink, maybe some food. Did you eat? Would you like—”
“I’d like you to remember the war we’re fighting,” Patrick says, head tipped to the side, both his lips and his eyes toying with something like mockery. “Forgive me if I’d rather not grow too comfortable in your presence.”
Pete stills, his body stiff as Patrick steps forward. He’s small— has always been smaller than Pete— but his shadow takes up the whole room, the window behind him like a flame as he stands against the daylight. A small dagger hangs at his side, revealed subtly as his cloak sways back, and his hands are solid fists swaying beside him, his knuckles as white as the snow outside— as white as the snow they used to play in together.
Does Patrick not recognize him? Does Patrick not care to acknowledge the brief past they shared?
“My apologies.” It sticks to Pete’s tongue, unnatural and afraid. He pauses, uncertain of how to address Patrick. Does he call him by his name, by one of those silly nicknames he created years ago? Or is he simply a prince? Is he a stranger now?
Patrick stops before Pete as Pete raises his hands in apology. His eyes flicker, dancing across Pete’s fingers like a flame, before hardening once more.
“You wear my ring?” It’s soft but enough to have Pete dropping his hands, staring at the band still wrapped around his skin like a brand. Patrick’s breaths grow harsh, his cheeks pink as he sneers at Pete. “You wear my ring while slaughtering my people? Is that the kind of man you are?”
Patrick’s pained tone is like blood in the water. It’s something real, something tangible; it’s emotion from a man who refuses to show any.
“Don’t imagine you know what kind of man I am,” Pete snaps, though he draws his hands behind his back. “It’s been years, Patrick.”
He doesn’t mean to spit out the name but, if he does, it’s only because he can’t stand the bittersweet taste of something he hasn’t let himself think for so long.
On his tongue, though, Patrick’s name is still sugar, despite the sour beneath it. It’s still gentle, still delicate.
It’s still enough to have Pete’s stomach twisting in knots, even as Patrick steps away with a small scoff.
“Years are not the measure of loyalty or knowledge,” Patrick says. “And I do know you. I know you have a son, kept hidden and safe at your palace. I know his mother is hidden there, as well, and that you mean to marry her. I know your father has commanded you to lead this invasion. I know more than your people do and, yet, I’m on the opposing side.”
“How on earth would you know any of that?” Pete asks, wide-eyed and feeling as if his brain has been scooped out and placed before him. “Where would you—”
“I keep track of the people in my life,” Patrick says cooly. “Have you done the same?”
Pete hasn’t, and the realization strikes him in the same way Patrick’s declaration had. He doesn’t know if Patrick’s married or if he’s become a father. He doesn’t know who Patrick calls his friends or if he’s still as alone as he was when they were young. With his breath caught in his throat, Pete realizes that he doesn’t know if Patrick still loves the mountains, if he still plays in the snow. He doesn’t how he sounds when he laughs, how he looks when he smiles.
He doesn’t know how it sounds to have Patrick say his name. And something about these facts has Pete gritting his teeth and putting up his walls. Here he stands before someone who can name his secrets without a hint of remorse. Pete’s undressed before him and anger is the easiest way to cover shame.
“You have no right to speak to me in such a way,” he snaps, circling Patrick like a predator stalking its prey.
“Don’t tell me about my rights,” Patrick shoots back, wrists twisting as if wishing to grab the knife at his side. His head twists to follow Pete, his eyes never once backing down. “Not when you’re fighting to have them taken away.”
“You think you can march into enemy lines and accuse me of being so cold, so cruel?” Pete’s mouth runs off without him. He’s outside his body, watching as he scowls at Patrick and threatens to shout. “I could have you killed within minutes.”
“And will you?” Patrick asks, unwavering in his own rage. “You’ve already taken my land and threatened my people. Will you come for my life, as well?”
“Do you want me to?” Pete asks, though the very thought of such a thing burns him from the inside out. He looks at Patrick's fists if only to keep from losing himself in the familiarity of his eyes. “Do you want me to be this monster you so clearly think I am?”
“Pete, I just want this war to end!” At last, Patrick yells, face red and arms tossed out. There’s a scuffle outside the door, Andy or some soldiers listening in, but Patrick doesn’t stop. “My people are suffering— unjustly so. Their homes are burning and they’re afraid. My nation is under attack for no better reason than a conspiracy. You are killing innocent people all because you believe someone in this kingdom killed your mother and that—”
“Don’t.” Pete stops moving, frozen in front of Patrick as he leans in towards him, Patrick’s breath warm on his skin as Pete invades his personal space. “Don’t you dare speak about my mother.”
He half expects Patrick to lash out, to grab hold of his blade and force Pete away.
The other half thinks only of the young boy he once knew and, as Patrick’s eyes soften and his shoulders fall, that’s the half that wins.
“I’m sorry,” Patrick says. “The Queen was always kind to me and I respected her greatly. I remember how close you two were and… I’m sorry.”
“You’re sorry,” Pete says, his voice hollow as he steps away. Though it’s gone quiet now, his eyes turn towards the door and windows; he wonders who might be listening in as his spirit threatens to snap in two. Stinging eyes and tight throats are not the characteristics of a prince. Pete turns away, jaw clenched as he walks past Patrick. “Come with me.”
There’s no reason for Patrick to follow— if anything, there’s every reason Pete should find a blade through his back the second he turns it— but the shuffle of steps behind him isn’t as surprising as it should be.
The back door’s hinges creak as Pete leads Patrick outside, sneaking through a scorched path that was once a garden, following a trail to the reassuring rush of the river. Pete glances behind him as he walks, marking any changes in Patrick’s features as the town falls further behind them. Does Patrick recognize this land? Does he know these waters?
Will he mourn when Pete’s people claim it as their own?
As they reach the river’s bank, Pete twists the ring on his finger and pretends the air— cool, crisp, and sharp— is clear enough that Patrick can see him without the stains of battle and war.
“No one can hear you now,” Pete says, letting his hands fall to the side as he looks up at Patrick. “No one but me so, please, don’t put on any acts. Whether or not it’s been years, I knew you once. I’d like to believe that I still do.”
Patrick doesn’t meet his gaze, too busy taking in the nature around him. For someone raised in the heart of this nation, he watches trees like they’re new, eyes wide and shimmering with a magic not even Pete can understand. His fists soften at his side, his breaths ease. He catches the wind on his lips as he smiles— softly, sadly— and, then, he looks to Pete.
“I don’t know if we’re more than strangers now but you’re right— there was a time when we were friends.” He says the word with greater ease than Pete can think it, letting it slip into the dialogue as if it’s innocuous, as if it doesn’t haunt Pete that it’s only something they used to be. “I’ve lost friends before. I’m sure you understand. Betrayals and lies and secrets and— You and I, we don’t live in a world where we are meant to have friends.” Patrick pauses, his eyes as watchful as the air around them. “I’ve lost friends in many ways but I’ve yet to face any on the battlefield. Don’t make this something I have to do.”
Pete’s mouth dries as he shakes his head, shrugging uselessly. “I’ve spoken to my father, Patrick. He won’t change his mind and I’m in no place to go against him. If he—”
Patrick cuts him off with a laugh like roaring waters, tumultuous in its sudden coldness.
“So you’re fighting a war you don’t believe in?” He asks, hands on his hips. The gentle look from before fades into something cool, something distant— it strikes Pete worse than any blow. “Do you expect me to believe that’s any better than what I already thought?”
“I expect you to understand.” Emotion pulls Pete’s voice into a tight line, his muscles tense as defensiveness rushes into his veins the way they did when he was a child too young to know better. He shakes his head, biting back weaker words— words meant to lie down and beg Patrick to just be that little boy with him again. Play in the snow, sneak into his room— do anything other than make him feel like he’s failed the only friend he’s ever had. “It’s my role as his son and as my kingdom’s prince to do as I’m told. Isn’t that something you understand? Isn’t that why you’re here now?”
Pete doesn’t mean to yell but his words rise with each breath he takes, his hands thrust out in dramatic gestures as he pleads for understanding.
Patrick draws back, his own body stiff as he snaps back.
“I’m here to ask for the war to stop,” he says. “I’m here because I want all this madness to end .”
The cold sticks to Pete’s skin. His words are a frost on his tongue, ice dripping free from his throat but refusing to melt even as it touches the heat of his lips.
“Wars aren’t won like that,” he says.
Patrick refuses to back down. “They can be.”
How naive, Pete thinks. How foolish, and how wrong. Patrick’s always been younger, always been the one dodging away from play-fights and talk of battles. He’s always been so pure.
But, now, he stands before Pete with a knife at his hip. He stands with flames in his ocean eyes, sparks on his tongue. And, as Patrick inclines his head towards Pete, Pete thinks of the time when they were children.
Was that such a long time ago?
“What would you have me do?” Pete asks.
“Take the throne,” Patrick spits. “If you’re as good a man as you believe yourself to be, you’d see how mad this has all become. Your father has you waging wars due to rumors he created. Surely, any prince would understand that wasting resources to fight a coward’s war is—”
“You would do well not to speak against my father,” Pete says, voice only trembling because he finds little to disagree with in Patrick’s words.
Patrick turns his head sharply to the side, his cloak shifting once more to pull back against the blade at his hip. His smile, however, is the sharpest thing he carries when his eyes flick back to Pete.
“And you would do well to open your eyes and see that a man that sends you blindly into battle is no father at all.”
Pete rushes at Patrick before recognizing the intent in his mind, the hilt of his sword suddenly in his hand as acid slips free from Patrick’s tongue, burning through the ice and snow that had created a barrier between them. He dips and weaves beneath Patrick’s flailing arm, Patrick’s eyes wide for only a moment as Pete’s sword slashes down to rest at the base of Patrick’s throat.
There’s no technique in the way Patrick fights back, no footwork or delicate flick of his wrist as he frees his own blade and turns, Pete stumbling forward from his own momentum. The flat of Patrick’s dagger clashes against the edge of Pete’s, shrieks and sparks of metal crying out around them. Pete winces and turns to face Patrick again, meaning to speak or strike; Patrick, however, is quicker than Pete could have anticipated.
Patrick’s fist and Pete’s jaw, enough to bruise and enough to have Pete see stars when he shuts his eyes. Patrick’s hand around his wrist, grappling against Pete’s hold on the sword. And, then—
Patrick’s blade. Pete’s throat. Pete stumbles back until he’s against a tree, until Patrick’s a shape of bright eyes and dark sneers before him.
Pete lifts his chin. The tip of Patrick’s dagger is a kiss against his throat.
“The knights will find you,” Pete whispers, as if afraid his words will be the weight required to bring the blade into his skin. “The war will only worsen if you do this.”
“You’ve not seen my people, my lands,” Patrick says, his voice as low as Pete’s. He presses into Pete’s skin— not enough to draw blood but certainly enough to still his breaths. “The war cannot become any worse than it already is.”
Though they stand in the cold, beneath the wind and clouds, Pete’s face grows hot with a feeling he cannot name— fear? Shame? Something that stirs when he sees the simmering warmth in Patrick’s eyes?
His hands form fists at his side, useless as the sword lying at his feet. He shifts, watching the way Patrick’s chest heaves with each breath.
“So you’ll kill me?” He asks. “Answer blood with blood?”
Patrick’s silence burns.
But the way Patrick pulls the dagger back— the way he swings his arm, the way the blade whistles through the air— is chilling.
The moment the edge touches his neck, it stops. And Pete opens his eyes, unaware he had shut them.
Patrick’s cheeks are flames, and his breaths are smoke. He holds the dagger still, positioned beside Pete’s throat, caught before cutting too deeply into his skin.
“Next time,” Patrick says, shaking, “my aim may not be so easily controlled.”
Patrick pulls the dagger back, lines of red caught on the edge. Still, Pete doesn’t move until Patrick’s turned away.
“My people will find you here,” he calls out. “And what do you think they will do?”
Patrick pauses for but a moment, shoulders tense. He doesn’t turn back, doesn’t speak; his blade hangs at his side once more, and he reaches for it, tucking it into a hidden carrier Pete had not seen before. Then, the blade hidden, he continues to walk away.
Pete doesn’t call after him a second time, raising a hand to his neck and wincing at the sticky blood he finds at the side. It’s a shallow cut, barely more than a scrape, but there’s still a sting when he presses his fingers to the wound; there’s still a pain when he considers Patrick’s demands.
It’s Andy who finds Pete minutes later, knights behind him with their swords drawn. Pete doesn’t move from the tree, doesn’t stop looking at the rise of the mountain at his side.
“Sire,” Andy calls out. “Is everything alright?”
“I suppose that depends on the definition of the word,” Pete says, slowly bringing his eyes to the blood slowly drying on his hand.
“I didn’t quite catch that,” Andy says with a small frown. “You’ve been wounded. Is there anything you would have us do?”
The request is clear— is there anyone for them to hunt down? Pete’s lips quirk into a grin he doesn’t quite understand. When he shakes his head, the cut from Patrick flares.
“Only that you would ready my horse,” he says, finally pulling from the tree and turning to face the others. “I’m returning to speak with the king.”