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The first thing he becomes aware of is the warmth by his side, the weight pinning his arm to the bed. Alberu blinks the tiredness from his eyes, staring blankly at the shadows cast on the ceiling by the sun streaming in through the window. The curtains aren’t closed like they usually are. 

He turns his head and wrinkles his nose when he’s met with a mass of red hair, a few strands tickling his face. He can’t help the way his lips curl up slightly at the sight of Cale sleeping in a chair next to the bed, using Alberu’s arm as a pillow. 

So that’s what the weight was.

He shifts slightly, about to reach out with his left hand and wake Cale up so he can regain control of his right arm, only to freeze when Cale groans, opening his eyes and squinting through the sunlight that alights directly on his face. 

Alberu can’t help the chuckle that escapes him when Cale glares at the window like it’s personally offended him, though he regrets it a moment later when his dry throat protests. Cale’s head whips back around to stare at him, wide-eyed, and for a second, Alberu is afraid that his head will fall off his neck.

“Oh,” Cale breathes—a sound soft and quiet, as though he hadn’t meant to let it out. “You’re awake.”

Alberu smiles, at a loss of what else to do, and squeezes the hand that still rests in his right. Cale glances down at their joined hands with mild surprise, though it quickly morphs back into practiced indifference. 

“Do you want water?” he asks, looking back up at Alberu’s face. He would look completely unfazed if not for the slight redness of his cheeks. He doesn’t let go.

Alberu nods, because the dry itchiness of his throat is starting to bother him. Cale releases his hand, standing from the chair to go over to Alberu’s desk. Alberu wrinkles his nose at the large pile of paperwork sitting on it and watches as Cale pours a glass of water from the pitcher sitting next to it. 

Alberu wonders if he’d imagined the way Cale’s hand had tightened around his slightly before letting it go.

“Here,” Cale says, shoving the glass of water in Alberu’s face while he levers himself up until he’s sitting straight. “Drink slowly. You’ve been unconscious for a week.”

And the first thing that Alberu thinks at that isn’t anything about his kingdom and how it’s probably fallen into shambles without him—no, his first thought is oh, how the tables have turned. He wonders if the poison had done anything to his brain.

“Thank you,” he says, when his throat doesn’t feel like it’ll crack when he tries to use it.

Cale sits back down and leans back with his legs crossed, his hands clasped on top of his knees. For a moment, Alberu wishes that Cale had returned to holding his hand instead—it’s woefully empty and cold. But he banishes the thought as quickly as it had come. It’s not the time for that. 

“I took the liberty of firing that poison tester,” Cale says matter-of-factly. “Or, well—I strongly recommended that the king fire him. You don’t need fools who will fall over themselves to do anything a pretty girl asks of them.”

Alberu raises his eyebrow. “They didn’t execute him?” You didn’t call for an execution?

“Being stupid is not a crime,” Cale says, smiling that smile that’s too wide and too bright. “And gross negligence is not grounds for an execution. Let’s just say that he won’t be able to find a job anywhere in the kingdom.”

The former employee’s reputation is probably shattered, now; Cale has most likely used his wide network of connections to spread rumors of unreliability and incompetence. He’ll suffer in poverty until the day he dies. Cale is incredibly thorough, probably the most vicious to those he calls his enemies—and anyone who threatens those he cares about falls under that umbrella. 

Alberu can’t help the smile that grows to match the one on Cale’s face.

“And how has the kingdom been in my absence?”

Cale’s smile morphs into a smirk. “Your brothers have taken over some of your duties,” he says, which is enough to make Alberu feel a sense of foreboding. He brings a hand to his forehead as though it’ll stave off the impending headache.

“Oh no,” he says, in a voice that isn’t completely insincere, “have they done anything big?”

How much damage control is he going to have to do?

Cale barks out a laugh. Alberu finds himself relaxing before Cale says anything more, his hand dropping back to his lap, and—he thinks, sometimes, about how dangerous it is to have so much trust in someone that he already knows nothing could’ve gone wrong if they’re not acting like the world is on fire. But he can’t quite find it in himself to stop trusting this man who gives and gives and doesn’t ask for much in return.

“Don’t worry,” Cale says, “I separated your paperwork and gave them all the ones that seemed unimportant.”

Oh, thank god. While his brothers aren’t incompetent fools, Alberu still doesn’t trust that they won’t inadvertently ruin the things he’s managed to do so far, whether purposely or accidentally.

You are a blessing in disguise, he wants to say, but instead he grins widely and says, “As expected of the great Hero of—”

Cale lunges forward and grabs the blanket from his hands to shove it in his face. After a brief struggle, Cale finally allows Alberu to come up for air, sitting back in the chair and crossing his arms over his chest. Alberu smirks at the look on his face, but elects not to say anything to incite Cale’s rage again. It’s harder to cut someone off when you’re not separated by a communication orb.

Now that he’s done taking stock of his situation, though, he takes a moment to scan over the other man. There are bags under Cale’s eyes, and his skin looks paler than usual—his hair isn’t as impeccably done as it normally is, either. Alberu frowns.

“You look worse than I do,” he says, though he’s not quite sure if that’s true. It probably is, though. Cale looks like he’s gotten five hours worth of sleep total for the past week or something. “And I’m the one who was poisoned.”

Cale waves a hand dismissively. “I’m fine.”

Alberu catches his hand, brings it down between them. He stares at Cale steadily, and the red-haired man really must be as tired as he looks, because he relents all too easily.

“Really, I’m fine.” He sighs. “Now that you’re awake, you can go back to your princely duties, and I can finally get some sleep.”

Alberu pulls him forward, turning onto his side and shifting back. “You can sleep now,” he says, still holding on to Cale’s hand.

Cale raises an eyebrow. “In your bed?”

“Yes.”

“With you?”

“Well, it is my bed. And you wouldn’t force a poor poison victim out of their own bed, would you?”

Cale huffs out a laugh that sounds half-amused, half-relieved. “I might,” he says, though he doesn’t make any move to push Alberu off the bed when he finally gives in and slides under the covers.

It doesn’t take long before Cale’s breathing evens out, his forehead resting on Alberu’s collarbone. Alberu finds his own eyes falling shut soon after, comfortable in a way that he’d never been before. He almost opens his eyes again when he hears the door open, though he relaxes when the familiar voices of Cale’s strange traveling party reaches his ears.

“—finally sleeping—”

“—come back later—”

“Raon, no—”

It sounds as though one of them tries to stop the dragon from getting closer and possibly waking them up, but—  

“Weak humans shouldn’t stay up worrying about crown princes,” Alberu hears above his head, before something lands gently on his shoulder and burrows under the blanket, curling up between him and Cale. Two agreeing meows later, and there are cats curled up on top of them.

The door clicks shut. Alberu listens to the steady breathing of the man sleeping next to him, feels the way the dragon’s chest expands and contracts in sync. It’s warm. Safe.

He sleeps.