When David saw the king -- the king! Out there in that little patch of dirty scrub ground men were dying to defend! -- he almost didn't know who he was. He'd seen the king of course, on television, and he thought once he'd seen him in the hospital after his father died. But the man in person was at once so much larger than ordinary life and so much smaller than David expected that he just sat there, dumbfounded, as the king whipped past to crouch over the wounded man David had brought back from Gath territory.
"That's Jack Benjamin," his brother said. David, confused, stared straight ahead and tried not to think about how he smelled of fear-sweat and blood and piss, the unique smell of combat. "You saved the king's son."
David had looked on the man in the tent, dehydrated and confused and wounded, and thought he was beautiful regardless; now he looked on the prince, the warrior son of Silas Benjamin, and knew his life was touched by deity.
Of course, most of the time, when someone was touched by G-d, it drove them mad.
The first time he saw the prince after that, he was standing in a room in the palace, unsure why the king had brought him here. He was salivating after a piano (what a rube he must seem like) and the prince was...abrasive. Abrupt. He said all the right things, he seemed grateful that David had saved his life, but he did it in such a backhanded way that David regretted coming here.
It wasn't like Prince Jack didn't have a point. David had stolen his thunder, rescuing him. He got the sense Jack would have preferred to be a martyr. He got the distinct sense Jack didn't like him.
But he was beautiful. And David, out of duty and respect, loved him as he loved the king, and was humble before him.
"I'm not even sure why I'm here," David admitted, when the conversation seemed to have run out.
"Technically so I could give you a tour," Jack said, and then, with honest ruefulness, "An hour ago."
David wanted so badly to be friends with this man, wanted to see what his soldiers saw (because everyone in the army knew that Jonathan Benjamin was beloved of his men), that he blurted, without thinking, "Do you like piano?"
"Huh?" Jack asked, completely derailed.
"I -- I play," David said, gesturing at the piano. "But I don't want to without permission. It's a Broadwood Grand. Eighteen forty-eight. It's older than the building it's standing in. Worth more than I am, probably."
Jack's lips tilted in a dry, brittle smile. "You want to play it."
"Yes. Very much. If that's okay."
"Sure," Jack said. "Your prince gives you permission. In fact, we command you to play for us."
David's smile was more genuine as he sat and tapped out a few notes, then launched into Liszt. He saw the naked shock on the prince's face for just a moment, and then he covered it well; he leaned back, slung one leg over the other, and sat in indolent attention while David played. There was a certain satisfaction in impressing a prince.
Eventually, David saw him stand. Jack gestured at a woman in the doorway to stay silent -- the princess, his sister -- and then sat down next to David and started playing over him. David tripped in the melody, startled, but recovered and took his cue from his prince, transitioning into a strange, swingy duet that had been all the rage some fifty years earlier, when the Broadwood Grand was a hundred years old. It was popular to teach to children, now, and the prince played like a schoolboy, but David didn't mind.
For a second, a minute, a passage, they were just two boys showing off -- the prince entertaining his sister, the soldier indulging a friend.
What had he done, David wondered. How had he found himself here, with the prince laughing at his elbow and the princess smiling at him from across the room?
And what price was he going to pay for this moment of peace?
That night at the reception, Michelle Benjamin was almost as wonderful in David's eyes as her brother, but he couldn't bring himself to hold up the facade as closely as he usually did. Because she was wonderful, but Jack was so handsome in his dark red shirt, so bound to his duty, and so sad, and he still smiled with a tiny, hopeful little look every time David caught his eye.
He wondered if he dared. The penalty if he was wrong was strikingly high, but the reward if he was reading this correctly --
Well, it would be covert, but worth it. He liked Jack, and he thought Jack liked him, and he sensed both of them could use an ally on this battlefield, which was very new to David. He wasn't sure who the enemy was; perhaps the king, though that was treason. But there was an enemy, and Jack did not shine brightly enough to fight off the dark alone. David could lend him some light. He had plenty to spare tonight.
He almost slipped up when the king said, "Just tell me what you want and it's yours."
I want your son, David thought, and his eyes flicked over the crowd, but he forced himself not to stop on Jack. He lighted on Michelle instead.
"Ah," said the king, following his gaze. "Half my kingdom it is."
"I don't like to use anyone this way," David said softly, as he danced with the king's daughter and the flashbulbs popped. "but I need to ask you a question."
Michelle smiled at him, knowing and resigned. "My brother."
"Am I that obvious?"
"Only to someone who's watched someone else hide it for years."
"So -- "
"So," she agreed. "But I understand why you couldn't ask to dance with him. It's discreet of you."
"Well, I have to be."
"Maybe, but the effort's still appreciated."
"I try," he said. "I don't always succeed."
She leaned in, a seduction but an act, and said in his ear, "Succeed, if it's him. Don't ever fail him. Usually when they do, they just get paid off. If the hero who killed a Goliath hurt Jack, I'd have to rip him apart with my fingernails."
He glanced down. Her nails were sensibly trimmed, blunt, and clean.
"Help me," he said, as entreating as he dared.
"My father handed me to you for a dance," she pointed out. "What makes you think he wouldn't give you to my brother as a gift?"
David considered this, and then a faint smile lit his face.
When the dance was over, he walked Michelle back to the king, who chucked her gently under the chin (she looked irritated) and said to David, "So? Have you considered what actual gift you want?"
David squared his shoulders as Michelle abandoned him -- not that he blamed her, but he did suddenly feel very alone again. "I like to think I served your son well in the war, sir."
"No sirs, I told you."
"I'd like to be assigned to the Prince."
There was the barest hint of skepticism in the king's eyes, but it was gone quickly.
"My son is not returning to the front," Silas said. "He's being posted to Shiloh."
"Regardless, s -- regardless," David corrected, dropping the sir, "I take my responsibilities seriously."
"And my son is your responsibility?"
"It would seem so," David said, more boldly than he intended. "I was sent to him for a reason. I wish to go where Jonathan Benjamin goes, and make sure my efforts to save him weren't wasted."
The king frowned, but after a second of chin-tucked contemplation, he nodded.
"Who knows. You might be a good influence on the boy. Jack," Silas called, and Jack left the side of some beauty he'd found, slouching over like he was being called for KP. "David has asked to be put on your staff."
"I told you, I don't want to stay here," Jack hissed. "My place is at the front with my regiment. What's left of them."
David shifted, uncomfortable when faced with his king and his prince having a domestic.
"Political expediency -- " Silas began, but Jack interrupted.
"Fuck political expediency!"
"Political expediency aside, you don't seem particularly stable enough to be leading men right now," Silas said, steamrollering over him. David blinked. Jack looked like he'd been slapped, but also like that wasn't exactly a new experience.
"It doesn't matter," David interrupted, and both of them looked at him like he was a fly they'd forgotten was there. "Where you go, I mean," he said to Jack, trying to salvage this. "It doesn't matter to me whether you're here or at the front. If you're in combat you must need aides, support staff. If you're here, you'll need...political help." You need a friend, he tried to telegraph. Stop fighting him in front of everyone and let me help you.
Jack's mouth hung open just slightly. David couldn't quite read what was on his face.
"We'll discuss it in the morning," Silas said. "Jack, why don't you introduce this young man around, he's spent all his time so far with the Reverend and then with me."
Jack did, to his credit, introduce David to all the younger members of court, and he did it without making fun of him, which David appreciated. The others clearly thought he was a hick grunt from the back country, but Jack was the leader and every time someone tried to make fun, Jack shut them down. David stayed quiet, for the most part, listening to the others talk, dodging the offers of cigarettes when they spilled out into the courtyard to cool off.
"We're gonna post-party," Jack said around midnight, as the reception was winding down and people were beginning to leave in large black-and-chrome cars. "There's a club that'll put us in the VIP room, they always do. If you're fast you can ditch the tux and we'll hold a car for you."
"I think I might go to bed," David said. "I'm tired, and your father wanted kind of an early start tomorrow."
Jack looked almost offended, like he thought David was trying to ditch him.
"I don't really like clubs," David explained.
"There isn't a lying bone in your body, is there?" Jack asked, looking fascinated.
"There's a few," David said. "But I don't see the point, most of the time."
To his shock, Jack leaned in and kissed him, right there in the dark courtyard alcove, twenty feet from where Silas was wishing people good night. To his greater shock, he found himself unwilling to break the kiss.
He told himself that this was the prince; that he hadn't meant to go this far (a lie) and that he could be court-martialed or killed for what he was doing. It was just so hard to care.
"Fine," Jack said, leaning back. "Go, sleep like a boring asshole. I'll see you in the morning."
David just stood there, stunned, as Jack jumped into a large, garishly accented stretch hummer and slammed the door after him. A moth fluttered down from a nearby street lamp, brushed past David's cheek, and flew away.
The next few weeks at court were just -- they were traumatic and strange, wonderful and terrifying. David knew his learning curve was going to be steep, but he had no idea just what a mess he had inherited when the king appointed him head of the prince's security detail, which apparently also came with press officer duties. It didn't seem as though he was expected to go out with Jack at night -- there were plenty of guards on that shift -- but the sheer crazy of palace life sometimes wore on him.
And it was hard, hard to have been kissed just once by the king's son and then hear the rumors about him and this woman or that, and the softer, more delicate whispers about what those women masked. There was one morning he saw a young, fine-featured blond man leaving the prince's room at daybreak. Another time, in the shower room after a soccer game, he saw bite-marks at the place where his shoulder joined his neck, but around the back, where you would only bite if you were --
He flushed and turned away. He couldn't initiate; even now, now that he knew, there was too much risk if he was unwelcome. Maybe Jack had just done it as a taunt. Maybe Jack too thought he was a hick playing at being a courtier, and was just kind enough not to rub it in.
Oh, but he couldn't believe that. Jack was just such fun, and when his father wasn't around he lost his brittle, razorlike bite. He invented games to play during target practice, and games to play during the endless receptions the palace always seemed to have. He hung around the kitchen, joking with the cooks and stealing fruit, and he brought David apples like they were a gift. He brought him apples, David sometimes thought, like they were the first apple stolen from the tree at the center of the garden.
Sometimes David felt guilty they weren't at the front, that he was enjoying himself while soldiers suffered and died, but having the burden lifted from his shoulders for just a little while was such a relief. As it turned out, Jack had his own light to lend -- just a different kind from David's.
Jack appeared to have at least faked embracing his residency in Shiloh. In particular, he hung around Michelle and helped run interference with their father when she needed to work, and he lured her out into the courtyard with him and David when she needed a break. David, who had thought Jack was beautiful, now liked him because he was a genuinely likeable person, with his father's charisma and then some to spare. Michelle lit up around her brother, and she was all smiles for David, too.
And David came to secretly despise Silas, who bit at Jack like he thought pain would make him great, whose cruelty seemed to drive the most destructive of Jack's habits.
Silas was a good king. He was simply a terrible father.
David prayed to have anger removed from his heart. He prayed to be saved from such intense dislike of his king, and in darker moments he prayed not to love Jack quite so much, not to care so deeply about a man whose duty would never let David have too much of him. But the signs he had back were always the same: he'd have to fix what he felt himself.
You are meant to be a leader of men. What can you conquer, if not your own heart? the signs asked.
Though sometimes, he thought they asked him how he could lead others, if he could not let his own heart lead him.
David found Jack one day, in a corner of the palace way high up, where nobody ever went but the birds. He had a bottle of the thick, high-proof wine they made just on the Shiloh side of the border from Gath, wine David was familiar with from neighboring farms. Men said it made you sing, and when you stopped singing it made you see angels.
He didn't bother asking. He just slipped down the wall next to Jack and sat there, quiet, trying somehow to soak up the other man's pain.
Jack let his head slide sideways onto David's shoulder.
"It's not even him," he said, without David asking. They'd had this conversation once or twice already. He offered the bottle to David, and David took it and set it aside. "It's this whole fucked up country."
"That's a lot for one person to fight with," David said. Jack snorted.
"He says to me, you know, he says, you're gonna be king. You're gonna have the ultimate power of the rule of law in your hands. I mean, he doesn't say that part, that part's implied," Jack meandered, waving a hand. "He says I'm gonna be king, but once I am king, once I am literally the most powerful person in Shiloh and who knows how powerful Shiloh will be by then -- once I rule, I can't be the way G-d made me. I can't be that way now, even, because I'll be king someday. But if He made me that way, why do I have to hide it to be king?"
"Maybe when you're king you can change the laws," David offered. He had thought this once or twice. He wasn't the only man in the army who preferred men, or who made no distinction between the genders, and had to hide it.
"Maybe most people are small-minded dickfaces who'd dethrone me," Jack groaned.
David shrugged with the shoulder that wasn't holding up the prince's head. He couldn't deny it was true. "Maybe you'd be happier not being king."
"Fuck, of course I'd be fucking happier not being king."
"Then why bother?"
Jack blew air through his lips. "Tradition. Duty. The off-chance I really could change things. Because otherwise I'm useless. I don't know."
David's heart broke for him, and he turned his face, resting it in Jack's hair. "I'm so sorry, Jack."
Jack heaved another sigh. "You're my favorite, David."
David smiled, pleased. "Don't tell my brothers, but you're mine, too."
"My whole life is a lie. Maybe you just like the lie. Lots of people just like the lie."
"Not your whole life," David said. He hummed a few bars of the duet they'd played, his first day in the palace. "Not even most of it. Maybe some people like the lie, but I don't see enough of it to know."
"What makes you special?"
"What makes anyone special?" David asked. Jack blew a raspberry for his philosophy. "Outside the palace, you think people just see the tabloids, the gossip shows. You think people think you're this...weird, trashy thing that inevitably comes with being famous. But I've lived outside the palace, so I know what we see. You're a war hero, Jack. You're our prince. Your subjects aren't stupid -- small-minded sometimes, maybe, but not stupid. They love you. G-d is bigger than your father and He makes your goodness shine through the lie Silas makes you tell."
He raised a hand to cradle Jack's head against his shoulder. He ruffled his fingertips through Jack's short hair, affectionate -- brotherly, he told himself.
"There are only two people who don't see your light," he murmured. "Your father, and you."
"Now you're just stroking my ego," Jack said, but his voice cracked.
"Yes, that's me all over," David agreed, low and soothing. Jack made a sound like a sob, choked off in the middle, and then another. "Shh. It's all right. It doesn't matter. Some truths are greater than men."
Jack snuffled into his neck. "Crying on the servants. This is humiliating."
"I'm not your servant."
"Then what are you?"
"I'm your friend. At least, I thought I w -- " David began, because maybe he was overstepping his bounds, but Jack raised his face sharply and kissed him.
It was gross. It was almost more accident than anything; Jack's nose knocked into his, which hurt, and his face was wet, and he was congested enough that his breath rattled in his nostrils when he tried to breathe through them. David leaned into the kiss like a drowning man catching a rope, clutching the back of Jack's neck to keep him still so he wouldn't pull back.
Jack sighed into his mouth and climbed into his lap, David pulling his knees up to pin him there, and when they did finally stop kissing long enough for Jack to breathe a snotty inhale, David pulled his head down to his shoulder again, kissing his neck.
"David," Jack said wetly against his skin. "David. Like the apple tree."
David grinned. "The apple tree, Jack?"
"Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest," Jack answered. "Your fruit is sweet to my taste."
David, daringly, tipped Jack's chin up and kissed him again. "I recognize the verse."
"If you don't want -- "
"The winter is past," David said. "The rains are over and gone. The season of singing has come, Jack."
Jack's face was like a sunrise.
It took Thomasina two hours to find them, and by the time she had, they'd separated and were on their way down the stairs at any rate. Jack had wiped his face, the red fading from his eyes, and was at least mostly sober when she encountered them on the stairs.
"Your father wants a family dinner," Thomasina said to Jack. She glanced at David. "Family apparently includes you, if you're free."
"Good," Jack said, a little more sharply than perhaps he intended. Thomasina gave him an eyebrow. "From now on, where I go, David goes."
David filled with warmth, pleased at his new responsibility. If it was now his job to see to all of Jack's happiness, that was good. Someone ought to.
"Well, that'll be a change," she said drily, but she smiled a little, too. "Be discreet, children, and be happy."
"Thank you, Thomasina," David replied, taking the blessing for what it was.
"We won't get a blessing from my father, you know," Jack said, as they went down to dinner.
"There are higher things than your father that ordain us," David replied confidently.
Many years later, it was said that the Prince had benefited from David's steady hand, that the serious young soldier from the border had reined him in and taught him manners. Maybe it was true; certainly Jack's club days were over soon after David arrived at court, and the wine was much safer as well.
There were whispers, of course, about how close the two men were, and less accurate whispers about why. But most people said, if they said anything about the prince and his chief of staff, that there were no two better friends in the country than Jack Benjamin and David Shepherd.
The strangest thing to David was that it was undoubtedly true. The bed he shared with Jack, the duties of prince that he had his hand in, even the conflicts with Jack's father -- they were all a part of who he and Jack were. Not many were as pleasant as the mornings he woke with Jack sprawled over him, demanding royal privilege with a laugh and a caress that belied his narcissism. But before all else, strange and sacred, David was his friend.
If he smiled a little more warmly when Jack introduced "My friend, David Shepherd," with one hand gesturing to some new diplomat and the other resting casually in the small of David's back, well, only Jack knew for certain why.
Like an apple tree among the trees of the forest
Is my beloved among the young men.
I delight to sit in his shade,
And his fruit is sweet to my taste.
See! The winter is past;
The rains are over and gone.
Flowers appear on the earth;
The season of singing has come.
Song of Songs 2:3, 2:10