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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.”

Chapter Text

It takes little over a year for Pete to learn how to win a war. He learns how to assign missions to knights and soldiers, how to arrange battalions for maximum effect, how to set right the wrongs his father claims Attorsceada has done.

Invading the nation had been easy with the bursts of magic coming from his best knights’ palms. Lightning and thunder shook the barriers on the nation’s borders, crumbling them and their guards to dust as Pete’s army marched through. Fire in his soldiers’ eyes, storms in their chests, they took any village and town they could.

Pete never meant to learn any of this but, at least, it lets him learn other things, too. Like how to delay long enough for the women and children to flee; like how to strike an opponent without taking his life. He learns how quickly fires burn through a home and how much time he has to sneak a family out from the flames. He learns how to hide his name, his face, his title.

He learns to play both sides, trading loyalties for a sense of security within his soul.

When he and his soldiers finally reach a town in the mountains, battlefields away from Waerloga, Pete stops. Masses of land like sleeping giants spread out before them, dusted with a soft layer of snow and a thick blanket of the darkest trees. Air damp with evergreen scents and fog fall onto Pete like a whisper of something he’s forgotten to believe, homes nestled against the hills like nature itself created them.

Pete’s heart turns upside down and he reaches for the ring still wrapped around his finger. 

“This village is halfway between my family’s palace and Attorsceada’s,” he says. “We will stay here until we have a certain plan on how to advance. Go let the villagers know of this. Tell them they may live so long as we may stay.”

The knights don’t take too kindly to the idea at first but do as they’re told, riding ahead and spreading the news.

Pete keeps back. He supposes his knights assume it’s because he’s the prince and needs to be protected until they can be certain all is safe.

Really, Pete’s watching the world around him and imagining how it would look if carved into the side of a ring. 

It’s exactly as someone once said it would be.

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

As it does all things, war changes the shape of Pete’s little mountain town. 

It only takes a few weeks for Pete’s people to settle into the village— a place named Freod. The knights deprive the villagers of their weapons and pile them into the place that has become Pete’s home, a building that appeared to have once been a hostel. Displaced locals have been moved towards the center of the town— caught and kept, prisoners within the place they once called home.

And the fire. God, the fire.

It starts as magic as soldiers practice in the fields outside the village— the place where the people grow their food, now just barren patches of burnt land— and they quickly learn how easily the flames can catch on the wooden homes. A ring of furious heat had surrounded the village for two nights, kept alive by drunken knights until Pete had demanded they put it out.

No matter— the damage had already been done.

Pete stands on the edge of the town now, having returned from a trip to gather messages from his father. Charred into the earth is the blackest shade of ash, so stained it won’t budge beneath his boots as he kicks. It extends like ink on a page, tendrils pulling at the snow and begging it to melt. He stares at the way it encircles the village, disappearing behind buildings that, too, carry the marks of the fire on their backs. 

Snow still falls around him but Pete’s skin is far too hot as he thinks of what his people have done.

“They’d be all white,” he whispers to himself, a childish voice in the back of his mind. “You said the mountains would be all white.”

Pete can’t help the way he bends to lift a handful of snow, the icy sensation lost on his gloves before dully sinking into his palm. He can’t help thinking of the way it once dusted across fine pale hair or the way it melted on two soft lips.

He can’t help much of anything these days, it seems.

The snow falls from his hand and he’s careful not to step on the burned border as he makes his way back into the village. No use dwelling on the past— not when there are soldiers watching, anyway.

“Peter,” Andy, his loyal advisor to the end, calls as Pete nears the place he refuses to call his own, the building with too many empty rooms in a village with too many homeless citizens. “Any word from the king?”

“None that matters,” Pete says, brushing Andy’s bothered look aside. Truthfully, a letter hangs heavy on the inside of Pete’s jacket but he does his best to ignore it. In the year or so since the start of the war, his father’s supposed madness has only grown; it’s easier for Pete to turn his eyes from such a thing. “Will you not worry? We’ve made it so far without him— our luck will not change now.”

Andy’s nose wrinkles as if the words have offended him. “Other units have made greater progress in the time since we’ve settled here. I’m no soldier but I’d assumed we’d be gone by now.”

“And give up the control we have here?” Pete raises an eyebrow, pausing outside the hostel doors. Soon, soldiers will hear of his return and come with the same questions. Pete had hoped for some rest before that but Andy seems intent on wasting time. “Don’t forget how far I’ve led us. Distance isn’t everything. Tell me, what would we do if we were to storm the capital now? It’s taken us months to make it halfway. Don’t imagine the rest of the journey will be any easier than that.”

“Well, then, should I imagine how easily your army’s restlessness can turn to revolt?” Andy asks in a low voice, leaning towards Pete in a way few can. “We caught men sneaking into the village last night, Peter. A doctor and his aide— no one important and, yet, your knights seemed ready for the kill.”

Pete’s heart leaps to his throat, his pulse suddenly alert. “Did they—”

“No one was killed, as you ordered,” Andy reassures him. “But this peace won’t last for long. You want to pretend this village can be protected from all else but that’s simply delaying the inevitable. You’re creating an eye of the storm and it’s only a matter of time until the winds shift.”

He sounds like the king and it’s enough to shut Pete up. The last time Pete was home, his father had spoken senselessly to the throne beside him as if the queen was still there. When Pete had made his presence known, his father turned and declared the necessity for the war.

“We have reason to believe an Attorsceadan was behind the murder of your mother ,” he had said, striking Pete into his core. “As her son, it is your duty to avenge her.”

As her son, Pete feels more right to mourn and miss her but he'd learned long ago that such things aren’t his to have.

And, so, he nods.

“We will win this war,” he tells Andy, back straight and eyes certain. “If nothing else, believe that I won’t let us lose this war. Not for anything. You have nothing to be frightened of.”

“Trust me,” Andy says, “I’m not afraid. But if I ever do feel any fear about your actions… That should be when you worry, too.”

Andy turns to leave before Pete can scold him for speaking in such a disrespectful tone, his jaw tight as he walks away. It’s an action echoed in Pete’s tense muscles, his fists white-knuckled at his side.

When Andy shows no sign of returning, Pete goes into the hostel.

It’s the same as it was when he left, walls covered with maps of Attorsceada’s lands, and windows covered lest anyone dares to spy on the prince. Lines mark the maps— symbols denoting battalions and plans, others referring to natural landmarks or villages still in the way— and they appear more like doodles than anything tactical. Still, Pete pauses before the largest and most prevalent map— the one of Attorsceada’s capital.

The palace, circled and starred, rests in the heart of the city, protected by walls and the sturdy homes of Attorsceada’s people. There are rumors of a moat— as well as rumors of mountains taller than Pete could believe, air so thin one could hardly breathe— but these have yet to be confirmed. So many things have been left unconfirmed; Pete’s riding into battle on luck and chance.

He places his hand against the map, against the palace. He imagines he can feel it thrumming back against his palm— a heartbeat he has no right to name.

“We will win,” he whispers. “We will win and everything will be fine.”

Pete shuts his eyes and the hastily drawn castle disappears into the dark. 

The pulse of the map, however, remains.

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

Water drips free from between Pete’s fingers, melted snow returning to the stream Pete’s found suitable enough to wash his face in. He tries again, lifting water to his face and flinching at the biting cold. This time, he drops it on purpose and watches the ripples extending towards the other edge of the brook, circling each other like snakes eating their own tails.

Feeling sick, Pete stands and looks away. 

His eyes follow the sounds of cursing and shouting, his soldiers messing around in the distance. It’s harmless this time, a mere game of magic that Pete, too, would play when he was a child. Two players lighting sparks in their palms and high-fiving, trying to shock the other first, it’s a popular form of entertainment.

It’s a good distraction, for a moment, and Pete smiles as he watches the amount and intensity of sparks grow with each second, eventually ending with men falling back on their asses upon losing a round. It’s all normal fun, despite the bitter banter that goes around.

It’s the childish grins, however, that cause Pete’s own smile to fall.

He hasn’t yet had the chance to teach his son how to play such silly games, isn’t even yet certain how strong his son’s magic is. Elizabeth has written to Pete about the lessons she’s teaching him and, Pete imagines, he should be grateful for such updates. But, though Elizabeth is the mother of his child, he can’t quite find the heart to accept that someone else is teaching all this to his son.

He should be home. He should be watching and playing and instructing. He should be with his family. 

He should be anywhere but here.

There’s no escape without dishonor, however, and Pete only leaves to return to the hostel. If he sleeps, he won’t notice his son’s absence or his own sorrow.

Andy, though, has other plans once Pete arrives at the building.

“Oh, god’s sake,” Pete says, pausing before Andy and the two guards flanking him. They block Pete from the front door, stern expressions keeping Pete in place. “What have I done now?”

“Nothing,” Andy says, a more biting remark hidden beneath his tongue, no doubt. “Do you remember the doctor I told you about? The one who came into town just a few nights ago? He’s here, and he wishes to speak with you.”

“The doctor?” Pete’s eyebrows furrow together and he can’t help the way his nose wrinkles at the thought of any upcoming conversation. “Should I be concerned?”

“He had no weapons when we searched him, and there will be guards,” Andy reassures him. “He was wounded by the soldiers who attacked him, however. I imagine he’s here to complain. He wouldn’t be the first.”

Pete rubs his eyes, a headache forming behind them. “And, with my luck, he won’t be the last. Very well, then. Let’s hope he’s quick. Wait out here, will you? There’s no need to terrify the man further.”

Andy’s mouth twists into familiar disapproval and, for once, Pete doesn’t blame him. Marching into a closed area with a stranger from the other side isn’t the greatest plan he’s ever had but he knows how his guards are. They’ll fight before asking their questions, accuse innocents of crimes before a word has been shared. It’s all done with Pete’s wellbeing in mind, he’s been told, but he can’t have any more blood on his hands. Not today, at least.

And, so, with the smallest flare of magic in his palms, he goes inside.

Pete doesn’t see the man until the door swings shut behind him, the shadows somehow framing the stranger in a more flattering way than the light had. He’s dark, caught in a cloak that covers his shape, the hood of it hanging loosely beneath his longer hair. Back turned to Pete and eyes on one of the room’s many maps, he keeps his hands at his side, loose and relaxed. This is not the posture of a man who’s been harmed and terrorized; it’s that of a soldier waiting for his turn to strike, confident that one more blow is all he needs.

When he speaks, it’s with the same calm tone.

“Your maps are wrong,” he says. “We have more mountains than you know.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t— I don’t understand,” Pete says. The man’s voice lingers in his mind like the glaring imprint of the sun behind his eyes. It hurts to think of but it isn’t his to forget. 

Paired with the copper shade of his hair, Pete almost feels he can place a name to such a voice.

“No,” the doctor says, laughing lowly beneath his breath. “You wouldn’t.”

“Did you come only to mock me?” Pete asks, stepping forward with heat growing on his palms— magic rushing to defend his dignity. “Because if that is the case, then I assure you that no doctor—”

The man turns.

All magic flees from Pete’s being, drawn away like water in a tide. The man— the stranger, the friend— watches him with eyes like fire, hotter than any magic Pete could call.

“No doctor, indeed,” he says. His hair hangs loosely over his ears, longer than it was before; his eyes blaze with an ice that burns, colder and bluer than Pete’s ever seen. A recent cut tears down his cheek from his temple— a souvenir from Pete’s soldier’s, no doubt. Still, the angry red line only serves to accentuate his pale skin, his smooth features. 

Pete feels himself begin to shake. “You are—”

“I am Patrick Stump, son of King David and Queen Patricia, Crown Prince to the throne of Attorsceada,” he says, chin raised in defiance. Oppose me, if you dare , his eyes seem to say; discover whether you should call me enemy or friend . “And I have come to demand an end to this war.”

 

Chapter Text

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?”

“I—” 

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.”