Emma giggled as Alyssa dragged her into her room.
"Shh, they’ll hear you!" Alyssa hissed, her voice shaking a little as they went through the all too familiar routine and she closed the door, locking it. "You’re not exactly supposed to be in here."
"Sorry," Emma whispered. "I do try, you know I do."
Emma pushed Alyssa towards the bed, her hands undressing her with a swiftness that betrayed how many times she’d done so before.
"I love you," she said, and Alyssa finally relaxed when they reached the bed and Emma laid her down on it.
"Will always love you," she murmured back, putting everything she felt into those words and praying Emma would believe her as she pushed down the familiar guilt of keeping them a secret. Instead, she focused on the buttons on Emma's blouse, on the feel of skin on skin, on the right amount of pressure in the right angle and then she couldn't focus on anything.
"Your mom still hasn't let up, then?" Emma asked as they came down, both of them crawled under the covers, their heads close. Everything with Emma felt intimate, and it gave Alyssa a headrush just to lie here with her.
"Not exactly. Even yesterday, I had to listen to a whole tirade about how David was the perfect child and why couldn’t I be more like him?" She buried her face in Emma's shoulder, trying to inhale strength from her partner. "Just one day I’d love to tell her, why, mom, your dreams have come true, I have become more like David. I’m into girls, just like England’s golden child."
It felt so weird to say it out loud. Even with Emma, things had just happened, there had been no conversations beforehand. Emma hadn't asked if she liked girls or anything, she'd just asked if Alyssa liked her.
Alyssa had always avoided labelling herself. Even when she started seeing one of her friends in high school, even when she realised that she liked girls, not boys, even then she had expertly avoided having the conversation with herself about how that meant she was not straight.
Not being straight was, after all, not an option for the Princess Royal.
Emma's giggle broke through her musings.
"Can you imagine her face, though?"
Alyssa could, all too well, but in the dark of night with Emma next to her, it didn't seem so scary.
"She’d die of a heart attack before she could kill me," she laughed. "She’s so set on me proving I’m perfect so dad will make me first in line."
Emma turned to face her, her hands playing with Alyssa's hair.
"Can he even do that?"
"Theoretically, sure. He’d have to denounce David though, and there’s absolutely no reason why he would. Of course, mom likes to pretend that issue doesn’t exist. No, it’s alllll me. Just me. If only I were a better person. If only I weren't so selfish that I wanted my own life. If only I could be everything the English people wanted me to be, and do it with a smile."
The tears came without her even noticing, and Emma pulled her close. Alyssa cuddled into her girlfriend's side, so grateful that she was there, that she wasn't alone.
"You’re okay, Lyss," Emma whispered, her hands stroking Alyssa’s hair. "I’m here."
"You'll stay with me, whatever happens?" Alyssa’s voice was merely a whisper and she wasn't sure if she was even allowed to ask this of Emma, if maybe dragging her into this life was the most selfish thing she'd ever done, but she needed to know. She couldn't do this without her.
Emma put a hand on her chin and softly forced Alyssa to look her in the eyes.
"I love you, Alyssa." She pressed a kiss to Alyssa's forehead, her cheeks, the tip of her nose. “We are forever, you and me.”
Not long after, she fell asleep in Alyssa's arms. Alyssa would have to wake her up eventually, kick her out before the morning came, but for now, she enjoyed the feel of having her close.
This couldn't last forever, she knew that. She had forced Emma back into the closet, and she hated that she'd done that. It wasn't any fun here, where things were dark and you could never truly be who you are and the best parts of yourself had to remain hidden.
She wasn't strong enough to face her mother, not yet. Maybe she'd learn from Emma's strength by pure osmosis. Maybe she'd never get there, and Emma would get sick of it and leave, and she'd be all alone with her mom and never available father and not-exactly-brother for company.
Just the idea of that happening had her crying again and she huddled closer to Emma, wishing with all her might for her to stay, for someone to come and swoop in and save the day, for a solution to fall in her lap because this hurt, and she was so, so sick of hurting.
"It's okay, Lyssa," Emma murmured, still half asleep, trailing a hand over Alyssa's back as she sobbed. "You're okay."
“What is the meaning of this?”
Alyssa’s mom tossed the paper on the table, the picture on it as uninformative as the headline, though the journalists obviously thought otherwise.
“Princess Alyssa’s knight in shining armour: boy or girl?” it screamed below the fuzzy and dark record of her evening out, an accusing circle drawn around her partner for the evening. Alyssa swallowed back the bile that threatened to come up and forced her heartrate to stay calm. It had all gone so perfectly last year; it had been the one night in their relationship they had been able to be free, to be just the two of them, without having to hide. Doing it again this year had been a given, and it had seemed perfectly safe.
The costumes had been Emma's idea, going as themselves but in heightened form. Alyssa had dressed up as a sort of Disney princess, with a long elaborate gown and a tiara on her head. She had rolled her eyes at it, at first, but seeing the glow in Emma's eyes as she had put it on had been enough to convince her. Emma had made herself a knighting costume, opting for cloth instead of any harder armour-like substance to make it a little easier to wear for an entire evening, and included a sort of helmet to hide her face.
And Alyssa had to admit, it had felt amazing to go out as a princess and her bodyguard and still be completely incognito. They had a wonderful evening without a care in the world. The club was so exclusive that paparazzi were not allowed, with bodyguards keeping even the perimeter clean, and everyone knew to keep their pictures private.
Or so she had thought. Alyssa picked up the paper and a quick scan showed that apparently some idiot had shared pictures of their night out on Instagram, with Emma and Alyssa in the background in one of them. Before she could start reading the article proper, her mother interrupted her.
“'During what appeared to be a romantic evening out, princess Alyssa was seen celebrating Halloween. No one could confirm the identity of the person behind the helmet and people are busy speculating on the gender of her lovely knight.'”
She must have read the article a thousand times to be able to quote it word for word. Alyssa only partly listened to what her mother was saying, her eyes glued to the picture, and she couldn't completely prevent a small smile from showing on her face.
"Alyssa, this is serious," her mother admonished. “Apparently, some people claim to notice the swell of breasts underneath the costume. While that is obviously ridiculous, we do want to nip this in the bud lest people get the wrong idea.”
Alyssa numbly nodded, her eyes still stuck on the picture. It would probably be the one and only time a picture of her and Emma wound up in the papers, and a ridiculous part of her wanted to frame it. It was evidence that their relationship existed, that it was real, that she was more than who she had to appear to be.
This is who I am, she wanted to scream, and nausea threatened to overwhelm her as she realised what her mom was saying, but she pushed it down.
“What do you suggest?” she asked, ever the good girl.
Her mother beckoned someone closer from a nearby room, and Greg walked in the door.
“Greg has offered to be your pretend partner for now,” her mother said. “He’s similar enough in build to whomever it was you were gallivanting around with last night that he'll convince the public nothing's gone wrong.”
Gone wrong. Right, like she had, obviously.
"I will also get you a new PR team to make sure these things don’t happen again. You can’t just live your life the way you want to, Alyssa. You’ve got a responsibility to the crown and to the public and I’ve let you do your own thing for too long."
Greg gave her an apologetic smile, and Alyssa wondered what he got out of this. Did her mom pay him? Did he have a secret crush on her and hope this would end in a relationship? Did he just need something to do on a Friday night?
"I will leave you two alone to get acquainted."
Her mother left the room, leaving her and Greg in an uncomfortable silence.
"You are my new PR team?"
Alyssa looked disbelievingly at the four people currently standing in her private sitting room. Had someone duped her mom? This group didn't look like they could handle a school prom, let alone the PR of England's princess.
"Yes," the one who had introduced himself as Barry said.
"What’s with the tone?" That was Trent, the only one who came even close to the stiff and upper-class attitude Alyssa had always associated with her mom. Things would have made a little more sense if he had been the leader, but even that didn't appear to be the case.
"It’s just that... you’re not really my mother’s type."
That was an understatement. Dee Dee seemed to be wearing sequins (sequins!) and the whole group was smiling. Actually smiling and it seemed genuine, that was what confused Alyssa the most. Her mom's people didn't smile. Ever. They gave you tight-lipped looks that were meant to imitate smiles but mostly radiated disapproval and superiority.
"We come highly recommended," Dee Dee said.
"Oh, I’m sure." They would have to be, to come through her mom's screening, especially looking like this. Was Angie not even wearing pantyhose? Who were these people and how did they get here?
"So. Tell us everything." Barry sat down on one of the sofas, waving with what Alyssa assumed was an NDA. "We can’t tell anyone what you tell us. The public, other staff, your mom…"
"Wait. My mom?" Her mom had agreed to this?
"Yes. So any secrets you’re keeping from her, we need to know. We’re here to help, and we can only do that if we know whatever it is you’re hiding." Barry looked at her as if he expected her to spill everything right then and there.
"I don't keep secrets from my mom." The reply was automatic, unthinking. She didn't trust this group yet, and she would pour over that NDA to see whether they really couldn't tell her mom. She did not put it past her mom to bring in such a convoluted clause that this team just hadn't realised they would have to tell her everything until it was too late.
"Oh sweetie, of course you do. You’re a teenage girl." Angie sat down next to her on the couch.
"I’m twenty," she protested.
"That’s still practically a teenager." Dee Dee waved her words away and sat down on the other side of Alyssa.
"You can trust us." Trent said, and he sat down next to Barry. Alyssa was practically surrounded now, and yet it didn't feel threatening at all.
"This is what we do." Barry said, and he reached forward as if to pat her knee until he thought better of it and sunk down in the couch again. "So, your mother would like for you to come across as straight as an arrow. Could you tell us who your knight was?"
Now Alyssa did feel trapped as she looked from one to the other.
"No," she said, calling upon all her training in poise and attitude and grateful when she heard her voice emerge as clear and unshaking as she had wanted it to. She forced her hands to stay still on her lap, trying to show absolutely no sign of how nervous she was, how much she had to hide.
"Why don't you trust us?! We're here, aren't we?"
"It's okay, Dee Dee," Barry said. "We just need to give her some time to get used to us. Let's reconvene tomorrow."
The group stood up as one and Alyssa breathed a sigh of relief. By tomorrow she would have thought up a cover story and things would fall into place again. She had been blindsided today, but tomorrow she would be prepared.
They left one by one, each murmuring some words of encouragement as they left the room. It was Barry who stood still for a moment, handing her the NDA and saying: "Girl, even if you're as queer as a football bat, we've got your back."
"I've had our lawyers look it over."
Alyssa and Emma were walking through the gardens. Technically she didn't need her bodyguard inside the perimeters of the palace, but her mother had always encouraged her to be careful. Taking Emma on a stroll wouldn't look too suspicious, though her mom had admonished her more than once for being too friendly with the staff.
"I didn't ask them specifically about the mom clause, of course, but I did ask them to relay to me in layman's terms what it says."
"And?" Emma prompted as they sat down in one of the gazebos, hoping for some protection from the biting autumn wind.
"It's true. Everything I tell them is strictly confidential. Even mom would have to go through a court order to get at their records."
Alyssa wished she could rest her head on Emma's shoulder as they were sitting side by side. She longed for the intimacy that seemed to come so easy to other couples, and she knew Emma did as well.
"Technically, they're in my employ," she continued. "While dad's the one who's paying them, the name on the contract is mine. That's why mom had me sign a whole bunch of stuff before they came here."
She put down a hand between them on the bench, where Emma immediately covered it. They had become experts at the kind of small touches that would look accidental if observed and were easily undone when they noticed the warning signs of anyone else coming their way. Alyssa looked at their hands, the yearning for more suddenly so visceral she couldn't help the next words from tumbling out of her mouth.
"I want to come out."
Emma gasped, her hand tensing and relaxing as if she didn't know whether to squeeze Alyssa's hand or break contact altogether.
"Are you- What-" Emma laughed and took a couple of deep breaths, then started again. "Why now?"
Alyssa, feeling daring, turned her hand palm side up and threaded her fingers through Emma's.
"Because now I've got a PR team?" she offered.
"That's not exactly the first one your mother hired to work on your image," Emma pointed out dryly. "When Ms. Flaherty was here earlier this year, you didn't act like this."
"Ms. Flaherty was an old crone who wouldn't even know what being gay meant," Alyssa muttered. "She would probably have complimented me on my good cheer and asked me why the public would have to be informed of me being happy."
"Or she would have said you were too old for a cotillion."
"Didn't you already have your coming out when you were sixteen, Your Royal Highness?" Alyssa imitated her former PR manager, and they dissolved into laughter.
Just when they had come down a little, rain started pelting down on the roof, the surprise making them jump and start laughing again.
"Should we-?" Emma asked, but Alyssa shook her head.
"Why would we? It's sort of dry in here, and I like being here with you when no one else would be crazy enough to venture outside. Makes it feel cosy and intimate." She could feel the blood rushing to her cheeks and tried to duck behind her hair.
"Oh my God, Alyssa, are you blushing?!" Emma laughed as she pushed her shoulder into Alyssa. "One would think you were a mumbling virgin."
"Shut up," Alyssa laughed. "Sex is easy, okay? That's behind closed doors and in my room and safe. This is... This feels more daring, somehow. And I know that's ridiculous because it's just a freaking gazebo, but being intimate with you in an open space does make me feel like a sixteen year old gearing up for her first introduction to society."
She turned to face Emma, grabbing her hand in both of hers.
"And that's why I want to do this," she said. "I want these moments. I want to take you to all the boring parties I have to attend and be able to actually talk to you instead of just yearningly look at you from the other side of the room. I want to be with you, now more than ever, because..."
How could she explain to Emma what seeing that picture in the paper had done to her? She let go of Emma's hand and stood up, putting her legs in motion in the hopes that it would help her think.
"You know that picture in the paper?" she asked.
"Alyssa's knight in shining armour?" Emma asked, and Alyssa nodded.
"Yeah, that one. When mom threw it at me and started on her thing about how the public would get the wrong idea and we would need to set the record straight-"
Emma giggled and Alyssa threw a glove at her.
"I'm trying to tell you something," she laughed, and Emma held up her hands in surrender.
"Then stop making amazing puns," she smiled. Alyssa levelled her with the sternest look she could muster, and Emma made an exaggeratedly serious face. "I'm listening."
Alyssa took a deep breath, sitting down on another bench to give herself the space she needed to think.
"I didn't hear a word of what she said. All I could do was stare at that picture, and it suddenly occurred to me that that would be the only picture of us to ever appear in the paper, and I couldn't breathe. I don't want that for us. I want the speculations on our relationship, and the pictures of every stupid event we attend. God, I even want the 'is she cheating' exposés that Rhayna and David keep getting exposed to. I want that special edition dedicated to our wedding."
Emma made a strangled noise, and Alyssa looked up to see tears falling down her cheeks.
"Emma? What's wrong?"
She rushed to Emma's side, kneeling before her as she tried to replay her words. What had she said? Was it the cheating thing? Of course she didn't think Emma would cheat, she-
"You want to marry me?"
"You want to marry me?" Emma repeated, and Alyssa still didn't understand why she was crying.
"Well, yes," she said. "I love you, Emma. And that's what I dream about. A big wedding with you in a beautiful white suit and me in the most elaborate dress my mom could find, and okay, I might not exactly dream of the paparazzi or the media attention, but it's not as if I'm going to notice any of that with you by my side."
She sat down on the ground, ignoring the cold seeping into her.
"Do you-" Alyssa shivered, more from what she was saying than from the autumn air. "Do you not dream about it?"
She felt so small, sitting on the stones of the gazebo, and Emma wouldn't even look at her. Maybe she'd seen this all wrong. Maybe her feelings weren't reciprocated in the way she wanted them to, maybe she was just a diversion, a perk of the job.
"Dream about it?" Emma let out a humourless laugh. "Alyssa, you can't even look at me in public. We can only go out together when we've made ourselves absolutely unrecognisable. I always figured we came with an expiration date, that one day you would marry someone like Greg and I would have to walk away, for both of our sakes."
Alyssa swallowed, playing with a thread that had come loose on her coat.
"Are you crying because you don't want to marry me and you don't know how to tell me?" She forced the words past her lips, not sure she wanted to know the answer, but needing to ask it anyway.
"Alyssa, you're not listening to me," Emma softly admonished. "For the past eighteen months I have tried to convince myself that having half of you was enough. That having to hide with you was a small price to pay for getting to hold you, for being allowed to love you."
Alyssa looked up at her, tears in her own eyes now.
"I am so s-"
Emma put a finger on her lips.
"I get it," she said. "I understand why you had to hide. My parents kicked me out when I told them, and you stand so much more to lose. But it does hurt, every day. To hear you say right now, matter-of-factly, that you envision a future in which that is not true anymore, that you have even dreamed about a future in which we would stand up in front of everyone and tell them we love each other and promise to stay together for the rest of our lifes? It's like all those dreams I never dared to dream are suddenly unfolding before my eyes."
She got up from the bench and sat down next to Alyssa, pushing her down so the both of them lay on their backs on the ground, their hips touching.
"What are you doing?" Alyssa giggled, getting up on her elbows to look at Emma.
Emma closed her eyes, and Alyssa fought hard against the overwhelming urge to kiss her right now, to show the love she felt welling up inside of her, the pressure building until she thought she couldn't take it anymore.
"I can hear you worrying," Emma said, pulling at Alyssa's sleeve. "Come on, lay down with me."
Alyssa swallowed and did as she was told, closing her eyes.
"We'll convince the Church of England to accept gay marriage," Emma started. "I mean, the whole reason they exist is because some guy wanted to divorce his wife and the pope wouldn't let him, so as Head of the Church I'm sure you can change their minds on this as well."
Alyssa giggled and nodded.
"Sound like a plan."
"So we will have this big church wedding. You'll have a wonderful bouquet of pink roses, sweet peas and lilies. You'll have a train so long people will have to go out of their way to make room for you, because you will finally be allowed to take up space."
Alyssa wiped away a tear that had started rolling out of her eyes.
"Marcie will make the most beautiful white suit for you," she continued their fantasy. "With a tie as pink as the flowers on my bouquet. We will blind the entire church with our dazzling whiteness and we will bring light into the living room of every girl who is growing up with a parent who won't let them be who they are, of every woman who is struggling to live her truth because she thinks there's something wrong with her."
She turned towards Emma, finding her looking at her with so much love in her eyes that it took Alyssa's breath away.
"I want that," she said. "I'm coming out."
Alyssa locked the door behind her, offering an apologetic smile to her team but no explanations. Surely they were used to having all kinds of conversations behind closed doors, and she just had to make sure that no one, least of all her mom, would walk in on this.
She nervously wrung her hands together and leaned against the windowsill. Her team was sitting on the couch, looking at her expectantly, and Alyssa took a deep breath (she had practised this in her room, over and over again).
"I'm gay," she said, shaking all over but the words loud and clear. "And I want to come out."
"We can do that, of course," Barry said immediately.
"Are you sure?" Dee Dee asked. "Because no offence, but you look like you might topple over at any moment."
"I'm sure," Alyssa said. "I've just... never said it out loud before."
She almost did faint as reality caught up to her and she realised that she had just come out to four people and no one had yelled at her, no lightning had come down from the sky to burn her to a crisp, the house was still standing. Trent was by her side before she could fall, and he helped her to one of the couches.
"Sit down," he said. "Let us talk this through."
"First of all," Barry said, clasping his hands together. "Thank you for trusting us enough to be the first to tell this to. I know a thing or two about coming out and I am really proud of you for taking this step."
"I am tired of hiding," Alyssa said, and before she could lose her nerve, amended, "We are tired of hiding."
Angie practically jumped up from the couch in glee.
"So. The knight. Who is she?"
Alyssa wished she could prevent the blush from crawling up her cheeks. It was just that she'd never spoken about any of this before, and these people, this amazing, wonderful group that her mom had hired and would fire on the spot if she knew what they were talking about, were treating her like it was the most normal thing in the world.
"Emma Nolan," she whispered.
"Your bodyguard?" Dee Dee sniffed her nose in disapproval but was immediately stared down by Barry.
"What?!" she added. "Her mom will hate that."
"My mom will hate everything about this," Alyssa said, on less shaky ground now it was Emma she was defending. "Emma is the most wonderful, kind and brave woman you will ever meet. Why wouldn't I fall in love with her?"
"Why indeed," Barry said.
"The public will love this." Trent stood up from the couch, pacing the floor. "We could use that photograph from Halloween, emphasize the fairy tale aspect. Inspired choice, by the way."
"Thank you. It was Emma's idea."
"We could get Joy Davidson, she's a friend of ours, to write the article." Barry joined Trent in the brainstorming, and Alyssa relaxed a fraction. They seemed to have run with this idea. "We should probably add an insert about the Church of England's stance on homosexuality, so at least the people who care about the royal religion won't have anything to complain about. Would Emma be okay with a double spread, you think? It will be easier to take for the public if they are presented with a relationship."
"I think so?" Alyssa nodded. "This whole thing was about us not having to hide anymore."
While Barry and Trent started talking amongst each other about the finer points of the article to be written, Dee Dee moved closer to Alyssa.
"Are you sure about this?"
Alyssa nodded, shook her head, nodded again. "Will I ever be?"
"Maybe not." Dee Dee looked at the men, at Angie who had joined the conversation. "The less you have to lose, the easier it is to come out. Don't tell Barry I said that, because he would kill me for suggesting he had it easy. He hadn't, of course, he hasn't spoken to his mother in thirty years. But that's my point."
She turned back to Alyssa.
"You're a princess. If your parents disapprove, you stand to lose everything, your status, your access to money, your entire life could be completely wiped off the map as if it hasn't meant anything in the first place."
"I know all that," she said, her voice wavering a little. "I do. But you think holding on to all of that on a lie is any better? You think spending my every day, from waking up to going to bed, terrified that someone will find out, is comfortable? I'm not living the cushy life. My mom has very set ideas on who I should be and how I should behave, and I can never measure up to them, no matter how hard I try."
"I'm not saying this to hurt you." Dee Dee tentatively put a hand on Emma's knee, as if she wasn't sure it was the right thing to do. Alyssa smiled at her, the physical contact helping to ground her a little to this moment. "I just want you to think of what you're giving up."
"I haven't made this decision on a whim." Alyssa smiled at Dee Dee and righted her back. "I know my mom will hate me. My father might disown me. The public might drive me out and who knows, I might end up like Lady Di."
"What could be worth all that?" Dee Dee looked like she really didn't understand, but for Alyssa, this conversation had made everything crystal clear. She was giving up a fantasy, sure, but it was a fantasy that took everything out of her to maintain it. Emma had showed her there was a better way.
Joy Davidson didn't look like she was getting the exclusive of her career. Her handshake was firm, her voice quiet but clear and she seemed genuinely interested. In a corner of the room, Barry was sitting as some sort of buffer, just in case there were questions they didn't want to answer, or Alyssa changed her mind.
She shared a look with Emma, who seemed to be vibrating in excitement, and she knew she was not going to change her mind. This was finally it.
"So, how did you two meet?" Joy had set up her recorder and leaned against the back of her chair.
"I started working for Alyssa some three years ago," Emma said. "I still remember that very first assignment, or at least, I remember Alyssa's part in it. I couldn't tell you where we were or what we were doing, but I can still very vividly recall that I could not keep my eyes off of her."
"It was a benefit for a children's hospital." Alyssa smiled, remembering that night. "I hated getting new bodyguards. Still do. There's something really intimidating about someone you've never even met following your every move, but with Emma I felt at ease immediately. As if we'd known each other forever."
"How did it turn into more? Because that seems like a complicated situation."
"Oh, God, it was." Emma laughed. "I knew I liked her about... six months into my assignment? But aside from the usual I don't even know if she's into girls, there was also the fact that I worked for her, and that she was the freaking princess. I didn't exactly plan on falling in love."
"We became friends," Alyssa said. "She was the first of my bodyguards who was close to me in age, and one day we started talking about the book I was reading. When my mother scolded me for being too familiar with the staff, I had a look at the rules and regulations."
"Technically, our bodyguards are in the employ of the state," she continued. "While Mr. Hawkins would always listen to our personal concerns, there was no reason for him to listen to my mother more than to me. He's not the type to be intimidated by status. When I was sure what we did couldn’t hurt Emma, we kept spending time together, talking about the classes I was taking, the series I was watching."
"It truly does sounds like a fairy tale." Joy looked at the two of them, seemingly riveted by the story. "When did things change?"
"Victoria's Wedding." They said simultaneously, and they smiled at each other.
"Princess Victoria from Sweden?" Joy asked, clarifying.
Alyssa nodded. "It was such a wonderful day. Weddings don't usually get to me, but that one was gorgeous, and I might have drunk just a little too much of the red wine."
"We had somehow ended up on the balcony. It was quite cold, so no one else was venturing outside, but there we were. And I just knew, this was my chance. I might never get another one." Emma laced her fingers through Alyssa's and smiled.
"She turned to me and said 'Alyssa, I have a crush on you.' I had no idea what to say to that. It was the first time anyone had ever told me such a thing!"
Joy chuckled. Emma smiled as if the thought of that night made her feel as warm and fluttery inside as it did Alyssa.
"I would also blame the wine, but I was on duty, so I wasn't drinking." The three of them laughed, and even Barry snickered from his back corner. "For long moments, Alyssa didn't say anything. She just stared at me, unblinking, as if she thought that if she did blink, I would disappear."
"Were you out then?" Joy asked. "To anyone?"
"I was," Emma said. "I came out when I was sixteen and haven't hid it from anyone since. So Alyssa would have known I was gay, even if I had no idea whether she was."
"I knew I liked girls, but I liked to pretend I didn't," Alyssa said. "Being gay was not exactly part of my plan, or the plan my mother had laid out for me. I figured if I'd just ignore it, I'd find a guy who I could tolerate enough to marry. It wasn't until that night that I realised I didn't want to settle for that. I wanted love."
Alyssa could feel the tension slipping from her shoulders as Joy looked over the notes she'd brought. She knew she'd be back to doubting her decision again - Barry had assured her that was a natural part of the process - but for now she was comfortable with it. With Emma by her side she could do anything.
"What made you want to come out now?"
Emma squeezed her hand as Alyssa thought of how to answer that question. In their preparation, Barry had urged her to avoid the word marriage. Joy would edit it out if she did slip up, but it would be easier for everyone if she just didn't mention it. The Church of England did approve of civil partnerships for gay couples, but not marriage, and though she wasn't religious herself, she still had the image to uphold.
"I realised I want to spend the rest of my life with Emma," she eventually said. "I don't want to hide her away as some dirty little secret. I want to love her, loudly, so that she will never have to wonder about how I feel."
She smiled at Joy.
"This is my story. And I'm so happy I finally get the chance to tell it."
"Don't just stand there, Alyssa, come on in, sit down."
Alyssa walked into her mom's sitting room, her nerves fraying as she sat down on the edge of one of the couches. Though she had come here for the express purpose of coming out to her mom, to make sure she didn’t found out through the paper that would arrive tomorrow, she suddenly wasn't sure if she could.
"How was your date with Greg?"
Alyssa couldn't help the smile that broke out on her face. She had told Greg today it was the last outing they would go on, and he had looked so relieved she'd almost been offended. Turns out, he had fallen in love with a girl over the past few weeks and hadn't known how to break off this arrangement her mother had roped him into. They had spent the rest of their allotted two hours talking about Ilona, and what he could do to ask her out.
"Oh, what a pretty smile," her mom said, and she put down her needlework. "You know, I talked with your father about this, and we agree that he would be a great match for you. He's of good standing, well respected among the people who matter, and judging by that smile, a lovely boy to be around."
Alyssa blinked. There was so much to unpack in that sentence she didn't know where to begin. Her mother had talked with her father? They wanted to marry her off? Good standing?
"Mom, I know you're the queen and all, but you do realise we don't live in an actual castle, right?" Alyssa asked, hoping the tremor in her voice would be mistaken for humour instead of the anger it was. "You don't need to marry me off to the neighbouring prince to expand your territory. And he's not some kind of horse for you to judge by his breeding."
To her surprise, her mother only smiled.
"Defending your future husband already, how sweet."
She picked her needlework back up, as if for her the conversation was over.
"You talked to dad about this?" Alyssa asked, suddenly unsure of the whole reason why she had come here. If it was so important to her mom that she would even talk to Alyssa's father...
"Of course I talked to your father about this." Her mother looked up, focussing all her attention on Alyssa. "When your father betrayed us, when he picked that bastard child over you, I promised myself one thing. I would never do that to you. I would do anything in my power to help you grow up, even if it meant being stuck in this palace for the rest of my life."
"Why didn't you never-" Alyssa tried to find the right words to ask a question she had been wondering about since forever but had never known how to ask. Maybe it would be good practice for what would come later. "Why did you stay?"
"Your father's advisers strongly advised against divorce," her mother said. "It would look unseemly, and it would ruin his reputation. Mine as well, of course, since you don't just dump the king. There are consequences. But most of all, I wanted to give you the best life I could. I knew that if I stayed, you would get every chance possible. I devoted my life to you, Alyssa."
That last part was a familiar refrain. It had often seemed to Alyssa as if her mother had stayed just to be able to use it to force Alyssa into doing anything she wanted. Your mom's made sacrifices, so dazzle that diplomat, smile at the reporters, marry the guy.
"Mom, marrying Greg won't make me happy." Alyssa took a deep breath, gathering all her courage. It was now or never. "I need to tell you something."
"I don't want to hear it." Her mother put down her needlework, got up out of her chair, turned off her reading light. She wouldn't look at Alyssa, as if she thought that if she didn't look, whatever her daughter had to say would disappear. Did she somehow know what Alyssa was going to say? Had she always known, and just hoped that ignoring it would make it go away? "You're too young to know what you want. You don't have to marry Greg right away, of course. That wouldn't look good either, you've only been dating for a couple of months. Just give yourself some time, open up your heart to let him in."
"Mom!" Alyssa said. "Please. Listen to me."
Her mother walked out of the room, not turning around to face Alyssa once, not even when she asked, "Will you close the door when you leave?"
"Mom!" Alyssa shouted, but her mom was already too far gone to hear her.
"I'm gay," Alyssa whispered into the sitting room. "I'm gay, I'm gay, I'm gay, and I wanted to tell you before you found out from someone else."
She angrily wiped away the tears that had started falling out of her eyes. Maybe she should go tell her father, but really, why would she? It's not like he had ever shown any interest in her life. It was her mom who had raised her. She was the one who mattered. She was the one who loved her.
Why was Alyssa going against all that?
She was doing the right thing, wasn’t she?
The sitting room was quiet, filled with the aroma of breakfast and tea. Alyssa cradled the warm mug in her hands, her stomach not feeling up to eating anything, no matter how good it smelled. She wasn't hiding per se, but she was definitely hoping not to be there when her mother read the paper.
She had wanted to ask her PR team, to ask Emma, to sit with her this morning, but she thought she'd have to face this alone. Face the consequences of her actions. After all, a princess shouldn't do anything she wasn't prepared to follow through on. This was her burden to bear.
The spoon in her cup rattled a little and Alyssa forced her hands to still. She tried a breathing exercise one of her teachers had given her long ago, when she had had a blackout during a test and had gone into a full-blown panic attack.
In for four, hold for four, out for eight...
The morning seemed to drag on, but her tea hadn't even cooled yet when she heard her mother's voice in the hallway.
"Alyssa Marianna Greene." Her mother came barging in, waving the paper in the air. "What is the meaning of this?"
Alyssa stood up, flicked some non-existent crumbs off her dress, and faced her mother.
"I am living my truth, mother," she said. "I wanted to tell you yesterday, but you didn't let me speak."
"You are not. Gay." her mother said through gritted teeth, as if she thought the sheer force of her will could change Alyssa. She threw the paper on the table, the thump of it accentuating her anger.
"I am, though." Alyssa’s eyes flickered towards the table; she really, really wanted to know what the article looked like. She had read it, of course, and picked the photographs, but she needed to see it in print to make it real.
"You had that fling with Nicholas, remember? And a few years on there was Zach."
Alyssa had to think hard to even remember that first one.
"Mom, I was four," she finally said, exasperated. "You can hardly call that a 'fling'. Besides, you can't really think my judgement at that age should follow me into adulthood. Unless you want me to start eating sand again as well?"
Alyssa's mother sat down, her hands shaking as she put them in her lap.
"And Zachary?" she asked. "I know he was your first kiss. You told me!"
Alyssa sat back down opposite her mother, suddenly feeling a little sorry for her. Alyssa had had years and years to come to terms with this (and it hadn't been easy). Surely it made sense that her mom didn't immediately get it.
"You're not the only one who can arrange a fake relationship," she gently explained. "When you thought I was dating Zachary, I was actually dating Anna. She was his twin sister, remember? She wasn't out yet, not beyond anyone but her brother and me, and he didn't mind being our beard. She was my first kiss."
"I can't believe you hid this from me all those years." Her mother looked up. If Alyssa had expected tears, she was sorely disappointed. The fragile woman she had seen just moments before had disappeared. There was only anger in her mother's eyes, her hands clenched into fists. "Why did you never tell me?"
"I was scared. I knew you wouldn't approve."
"You can bet your bottom dollar I don't approve!" Her mother's voice bellowed through the sitting room and Alyssa was five years old again, feeling small as her mother told her all the things she was doing wrong. "I didn't give up everything for you to scorn me like this. A two-page spread! What were you thinking? Never mind, don't tell me, you obviously weren't thinking. How do you think your PR team will get you out of this one, huh? And the bodyguard. Of all people, did it have to be the bodyguard?"
Her mom was panting by the time she was done, her face red with anger. Alyssa was still searching for something to say, anything, to defend herself or Emma, when she heard the familiar booming voice of Barry in the hallways.
"Ah, thank God they're here." Her mother stood up to let the PR-team in. Alyssa looked at them with wide eyes and Barry winked at her reassuringly. "I called them immediately after I was done reading that... monstrosity."
She made a swooping gesture with her left arm, inviting the team to sit down. Angie sat down next to Alyssa, and she immediately felt a little stronger, a little better. There were people on her side, even if her mom thought they were on hers.
Once everyone was seated and had their own cup of tea - her mother was nothing if not a gracious host - her mother dropped the paper in the middle of the circle Alyssa's couches made.
"Please tell me you can do something about this."
An icy silence settled over the living room. Alyssa wondered if her mom could feel it, or if her righteous anger burned too hot for the cold to break through. Angie put a hand on Alyssa's right knee, and she smiled in thanks.
"Mrs. Greene," Barry said, his posture screaming with how tense he was, and Alyssa wondered if he was trying to keep from attacking her mom the way she was. "You hired us to boost your daughter's reputation, did you not?"
"That's right," she said. "To save her from any of the uncouth rumours that were going about."
"And you gave us carte blanche," he continued. "And Alyssa the reins. Did you not?"
"I thought she was ready to assume that sort of responsibility." She prodded the newspaper with her foot, as if it was some sort of cockroach. "Apparently, she was not."
Alyssa shifted in her seat, her anger swirling inside of her, trying to break free. Still Angie's hand rested on her knee, trying to calm her down, or maybe just trying to keep her from speaking up. It felt cowardly to let Barry do this, but she was also so very, very grateful for his help.
"Mrs. Greene," Barry said, not even a tremor in his voice to imply he was scared of how she would react. "That article you've been so colourfully referring to, was our idea, not Alyssa's."
Her mother sputtered with rage, apparently unable to get any words out. She looked at Trent imploringly, as if she thought he knew better, he would tell her Barry was joking, this was all a mistake and of course they would fix it.
"Are you on social media, Your Majesty?" Trent asked.
Her mom shook her head. "Nothing good can come from that kind of cesspool of idiocy."
"Well, it's where your people are," Trent said. "And after this morning’s newspaper, Alyssa has been trending. That means a lot of people have been talking about it."
"I'm sure they have." Her mother scoffed. "I can only imagine what they've come up with."
"Of course there are a few idiots." Dee Dee rolled her eyes. "But most of what has been said is positive. People are welcoming their princess with open arms, as the woman she is."
Alyssa could feel her heart beating fast. She hadn't really thought beyond the scope of her mother, but this was insane. People were welcoming her?
"On Twitter," Barry explained. "People use hashtags as some sort of signifier of what they're talking about. These hashtags are small phrases that everyone who's discussing the same thing uses. Alyssa currently has three trending hashtags, #AlyssaIsOurQueen, #OurPrincessIsGay and, my favourite one, #BetterThanADisneyPrincess."
Alyssa started crying and laughing at the same time, hiding her face in Angie's shoulder who had wrapped an arm around her.
"You're okay," Angie whispered. "This is really happening. People love you. They always have, and this isn't going to change things."
"That doesn't really change my view of the intelligence of people who use social media." Her mother's voice was cold and Alyssa shivered. She had always known her mom wouldn't approve, and she had thought she was ready to face it, but it hurt so much worse than she'd ever thought it would.
"Among the ones who have been complimenting our lovely princess on her bravery and authenticity," Barry said, "are our very own prime minister, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and Princess Victoria from Sweden, who has said she is delighted to have played even a small role in getting our favourite couple together."
He turned to Alyssa then, as if dismissing her mom completely.
"A lot of people are admiring you for what you did. I know this wasn't about you becoming an icon, but I'm afraid that is what has happened. You have a choice, of course. You can ignore the buzz, hide away until the next big thing in gossip country has arrived and just live on life as you've done. That's a valid choice."
Alyssa lifted her head. "What's the other thing?"
"There is no other thing." Her mother stood up from her couch, trying to reassert her dominance by sheer physical presence. "I forbid you from doing anything to boost this idea. Mr. Glickman, your team is fired."
Barry stood up as well, following her mother to the door of the sitting room. But when she motioned for him to go through it, he stayed still, opening the door for her instead.
"Your Majesty," he said, and in his tone it didn't sound nearly as respectful as it had done when Trent had said it. "You can't fire us, since you're not actually our employer. You gave the contract to Alyssa, gave her the control over her own life, as you should have done."
"Obviously not." Her mother scoffed and turned towards Alyssa, anger in her eyes. Before she could say anything, Barry stopped her with a hand on her arm.
"Your Majesty, if I may." He waited until she had turned back to him and Alyssa could breathe again. "I know you're angry and confused. I know this is difficult for you. But think of your daughter. Think of everything she had to go through, everything she had to risk, to do this. You think she would do that on a whim? For something that might not even be true? Your daughter deserves your respect. Please don't do anything you might regret because you feel thrown into the deep end. You might lose her forever."
Her mom looked back at Alyssa, and Alyssa righted her back, gathered all the courage she had left. She could do this. She looked into her mother's eyes, allowing her to make any comment she wished. She knew she had done the right thing.
"We'll talk," was all her mother said, and she left the room.
Immediately Alyssa sagged down, all the tension draining out of her. She started crying again, from relief and hurt and all the other emotions swirling through her. Her team rallied around her and she felt safe. Protected.
"Thank you," she said, to Barry, to all of them, to the people who had taught her that being herself was a possibility. "What's the other thing I could do?"
Barry hunched down before her couch. "We've gotten a lot of requests from LGBTQIA organisations for royal support, for speaking engagements. You can lean into this, become a face of the movement, help people accept themselves and the people around them. I know it might not-"
"Yes," said Alyssa as she wiped her tears away. "Yes, yes, yes! I want to do that. I want to do all of that. I want to show the world that we exist, that we are okay. I want to help people make it through their coming out, and I will fight for a world in which it's not a thing anymore. I don't even care that it will make me the Gay Princess. I want all of that."
She smiled. "But first, I want to see my girlfriend, who I can now finally, truly, call my girlfriend for all to hear and see."
Alyssa stood in her dressing room, trying on the different dresses her stylist had picked out for her. It was the Saturday evening they had been preparing for for weeks, and though she had been looking forward to it, right now the evening loomed before her as if it was her execution.
"It's just a benefit," she told her reflection. "You've done loads of these before."
Of course, this was the first one after she had come out as gay, and it was the first one for a LGBTQIA organisation, and it was the first time with Emma by her side not as her bodyguard, but as her partner. But other than that, she’d done thousands of these.
She had to sit down for a bit, trying to force her breath to calm down. She wished her mom was here; she wished her mom wasn't being so stubborn and stupid, that she'd finally realise that she loved Alyssa with Emma. They had the conversation about Alyssa not being able to help that she was gay, and about how this could be good for the family, and she thought her mom did try in her way. But she didn't give her anything beyond the most tentative approval, didn't give the support or love Alyssa so desperately needed on a night like this.
"Go with the purple one." Angie slipped into the room, closing the door behind her as she critically eyed Alyssa's dresses. "It will go well with what Emma's wearing."
The tears came without warning as she tried to smile in thanks.
"Oh, sweetie, you're okay." Angie wrapped her in her arms, slowly swaying them from side to side. "I know it's scary. I know tonight is probably the most frightening evening of your life, and who knows who you'll be on the other end of it. But you know what?"
She let go of Alyssa to be able to look her in the eye, her determination feeding Alyssa the strength she craved.
"You do know who will be with you. There's a woman in your sitting room in a gorgeous suit who is waiting to take out her girlfriend on their very first public date. You think she's not nervous? Of course she is. Things that you are used to are new and strange for her; the benefit, the stylist, the limousine. But you know what gets her through?"
Alyssa shook her head.
"She knows that you will be there. After so long of hiding, aren't you ecstatic to finally let go of all that secrecy?"
"I just..." Alyssa sat down on one of the stools, her thoughts racing with all the things that could go wrong, of how this could turn out to be the worst possible decision she'd ever made.
"Are you having second thoughts?"
Alyssa hopelessly shrugged. She didn't know what she was feeling at the moment. Angie looked at her pensively, then turned towards the door.
"I think I know who can help you." Before she left, she threw one final look at Alyssa. "You look beautiful."
The room was quiet without Angie there, and Alyssa took a couple of deep breaths. She knew she couldn't let Emma down now, couldn't let the world down. But there was just so much pressure weighing down on her. She'd thought she'd be floating by now, but instead she was dragging her feet, unsure of what to do. She changed into the purple dress Angie had indicated and stared at herself in the mirror.
"Sit down." She hadn't heard Barry come in but obeyed without question. "Let me do your hair."
Their eyes met in the mirror, and Alyssa felt some of the tension she had been holding slip away.
"When I was in college, I had this friend. We hit it off, enjoyed spending time together. I loved him; not romantically, but he was one of the most important people in my life." Barry expertly started doing up Alyssa's hair. "When I came out as gay, that friendship ended. Severed, without warning, without any indication of why he thought it necessary. He didn't talk to me anymore, ignored me when we sat next to each other, asked for a transfer when one professor put us together for some kind of group activity."
"I am so sorry," Alyssa whispered. Barry smiled at her in the mirror.
"It hurt," he said. "It hurt like a bitch. And for a while, that was all I could feel. That pain, that rejection, of this one person. It made it hard for me to see all the people who still loved me, the people who were willing to prop me up. It was the Gay-Straight Alliance that finally showed me that there were people in the world who didn't hate me for who I was."
"I didn't pick this benefit just because I think LGBTQIA organisations could really use some royal support. I think you could use their support as well." He skilfully arranged the last of Alyssa's curls. "Let them love you, princess. You deserve it."
A tentative knock on the door had Alyssa turn around, only to find Emma standing in her door opening.
"I couldn't wait any longer," she said with a smile on her face.
"You look..." Alyssa got up from her chair and walked over to Emma as she tried to find the right words. She eventually went with 'stunning', hoping her eyes could convey the rest of the admiration she couldn't put into words. She'd hardly seen Emma outside of her uniform before, and never in a tailored suit that made her eyes pop. She leaned closer to Emma, suddenly feeling daring.
"Shall we just skip the whole benefit?" she whispered. "I'd love to get that suit off of you."
"Alyssa!" Emma laughed, and swatted at her hip. "Flattery won't get you out of this, you know."
They laughed, and Alyssa's heart soared at the sound of their laughs mingling in this wide open room, where everyone could hear, and they didn't have to hide.
"Did you know they gave me my very own bodyguard?" Emma looked torn between liking it and hating it and Alyssa gave her a quick peck.
"I am grateful to them," she said. "I would do anything to keep you safe."
They exchanged happy smiles and Barry approached them.
"Your limousine is waiting for you outside. Remember, ignore the people who boo at you, and smile at the ones who cheer you on. There will be people who hate you outside, and that will be tough." He smiled at them as he righted Emma's tie. "But once inside, you'll be surrounded by people who feel strengthened by your very existence, and who will be more than happy to invite you into their community."
Alyssa swallowed. "I'm not sure I'm ready."
Emma squeezed her hand.