Roman’s muscles were burning as he blocked the attack, catching the down-swinging blow at the hilt. He pushed back, threw his assailant off balance, and swung out his leg to send him sprawling. Without pausing for breath, he followed through, swinging his sword to stop mere inches from the fallen man’s throat.
“I yield,” the man said, chest heaving. “Also, fuck you, Your Grace.”
Roman grinned and sheathed his dull practice sword, offering an arm to help the man to his feet. “My only goal is to help you improve, my dear Toby. By pointing out the weak points in your defense. Repeatedly.”
“Thanks ever so, royal pain-in-the-ass,” Toby said, letting himself be pulled to standing. He stretched, wincing, and picked up his fallen weapon. The other men of Roman’s squad surrounded them, patting Toby’s back with sympathy and slapping Roman with what were framed as claps of victory but were probably harder than they needed to be. Roman brushed his hair out of his face, his bright red curls turned dark with sweat. One of the men tossed him a damp cloth to wipe his face, and he caught it with thanks.
Roman and his men were chatting and planning their next training session when a servant entered the yard.
“Your Grace, your father requests your presence.”
Roman immediately broke off from the group. “Is it an immediate request, or do I have time to make myself presentable?”
“His Majesty is aware that you were in the training grounds, and it is not an urgent matter.”
Roman, cleaned up and outfitted in his dress uniform, knelt before his father’s throne, waiting to be spoken to. He felt a slight trickle of sweat on his neck, and he spared a moment to hope that he wouldn’t sweat on his face as well. He would hate to have the makeup he’d carefully applied get smeared. Yes, his scars were common knowledge, and weren’t ever fully made invisible even when he caked on concealer and foundation, but he knew his father preferred it to be less noticeable. His father, and most everyone else too.
He wondered, not for the first time, if his brother would continue to require Roman to wear makeup once he ascended to the throne. He was never quite sure how Remus felt about the whole process.
He looked up under his lashes to see Remus inclining his head to speak into their father’s ear, advising him on some court matter. It appeared he’d been to the castle barber today - his hair was neatly shorn and perfectly shaped. Not a single strand blocked the view of his defined cheekbones, round chin, or his smooth, unblemished skin. Ideal, without flaws. He looked just as one would expect him to, the future Face of the Kingdom.
Currently, he was frowning. He looked up and seemed to notice his brother kneeling.
“Roman, thank you for coming. Father and I need your advice on the next advance.”
Roman rose, finally, and walked over to the map spread on the table by the throne.
“We expect the vanguard to be entrenched at the top of the mountain, but we might be able to draw them out with a flank attack-”
“But we’d run the risk of getting pinned down by their artillery and archers-”
The three royals broke into a flurry of strategy and tactics, Roman giving an on-the-ground view from the thick of battle to his father and brother’s eagle’s-eye-view. He noted more than one moment where his father urged bold, aggressive, and risky strategies that made Remus hesitate. But each time, the crown prince agreed with his father’s methods. Through the involved discussion, a battle plan was crafted.
“I expect well of you both,” the king said, nodding decisively. “We will meet on the peak in three day’s time. Gather your men and arms.”
Roman and Remus both bowed to their father. Roman waited a moment to allow his brother to exit the throne room before him, but walked by his side through the hallways leading to the family quarters.
“Are you quite alright, Reme? You seemed distracted in council-”
“I’m fine, Ro,” his brother responded, cutting him off. “It’s just another battle. Good night.” He entered his room and shut the door behind him with a thud.
“-no need for such theatrics, Your Highness, it’s just another battle.”
Remus stared up at the general, hardly aware of the tears on his cheeks or the vomit still lining his mouth. He was 12, on his first trip with his father to the battlefield. He hadn’t been prepared.
His tutors had spent years stressing the need for the royal line to fight alongside their men. The glory of war was the glory of generals, directing and rallying troops, inspiring hope and righteous fury from the front of the charge. Remus, as heir, must be the generals’ General. Plain in speech, getting directly to the point. Curt. No fancifulness, lest he be distracted. He was instructed on how to be the perfect leader, the perfect soldier, and one day the perfect king.
But what they hadn’t told him was the reality that all soldiers knew: there is little glory on the field of war. There was the Cause at home, of course, a grand narrative that justified sending the troops out for King and Country, a declaration of glorious purpose and righteous smiting.
But on the field?
There had been the initial clash, of course, the charging of lines against one another. But that was where the resemblance to the theory Remus had been steeped in ended. He’d been brought to a battlefield and saw the charge, heard the horns and drums, and at first, his heart had swelled with the glory of which he’d only heard of.
Then he saw the aftermath. He saw the wounded scattered around like leaves after a storm, limbs detached and bloody like some terrible mockery of dolls, the flies buzzing over blown-out heads… he had barely made it out of the command tent before he started to vomit, long and hard, until he was heaving with nothing left to retch.
But the generals, and his father, had merely frowned and scoffed at his immaturity. Why did he dwell on this? It was a fact of life and war. He wasn't to mind it. He was to do his duty.
So Remus cleaned his mouth and pushed those sights to the back of his mind. They were to be expected, as part of the cleanup. No need to think about the wounded and marred.
Roman, the younger twin, was much older when he was brought to battle. He saw small skirmishes first, before the carnage of all-out war. But the sheen of glory faded for him too.
Remus remembered the voices of the public as they brought Roman home on a stretcher. The country’s champions were only supposed to lead, not get hurt. Or if they must be hurt, it wasn’t supposed to be in lasting or visible ways, they were supposed to at most suffer some injury, bravely soldier through, and return home triumphant in a sling. Why couldn’t Duke Roman have been properly injured, those who sat at home in their solars asked. A broken arm. A leg. Something that would heal and look dramatic doing it. Soldiers, especially noble ones, were expected to recover without a mark to show for it. Once the war had left the public consciousness, the injuries should have vanished, too. “Better to have been a martyr than to return home like that,” they whispered.
Not that Roman ever had a chance.
He’d been born with facial markings. Skin that looked almost painted with a pink mark, a wine stain imbued in the tan skin of his face. He looked wrong, the whispers said. Wrong for nobility. Certainly wrong for royalty. Imagine if such a one had been born the elder. How could such a one lead the nation, be the culmination of the bloodline and the clear face of morals that his people needed?
The king and queen had known of the double heartbeat, known that two children were on their way at once. And the nation and family knew, of course, that Remus was the elder, if only by half an hour. What a relief it was to know that the proper heir didn’t have such a deformity. The royals announced them both at once, hadn’t proclaimed each birth separately as was sometimes done. But then, of course, that was surely because of the queen, may she rest in peace. The midwives and servants didn’t speak of that day. Out of respect for her memory. A day of both joy and sorrow. King and country lost their beloved queen. But they gained the sons of the nation. Duke Roman, who served in battle honorably and mostly well. And Prince Remus, who was soft, and smooth, and blemish-free. A proper heir.
And he never returned from battle with injuries so dire they would leave unmistakable scars.
Three days later, Remus sat astride his charger, waiting for his father’s signal. The army’s flags snapped in the brisk wind, and he heard the creak and jingle of tack and armor around him as the soldiers shifted in place, maintaining formation as they waited.
The horn sounded, and Remus lifted his morning star with a yell and kneed his horse into a charge, soldiers streaming beside and behind him.
The fight was a blur. Remus remembered moments like the new technology of moving photographs, brief clips only a few seconds long. Catching a blow from an enemy horseman on his shield. Swinging his mace low and alongside his mount, catching a footsoldier from behind. Seeing Roman, bright in a white jacket that would soon be stained as he and his force streamed down a hill to join the fray.
It was just another battle. He played his role in the plan well, and their army won. He sat on a bench outside the command tent, cleaning his weapon and listening to reports. The victory was resounding - the only enemy soldiers not killed had been captured. The day was theirs.
Remus looked across the battlefield as one of his advisors continued to report. The ground was churned by the hooves of hundreds of horses, where it wasn’t obscured by bodies or fallen weapons. He found his eye caught on one lone body at the base of the hill from where he sat. An enemy soldier, now defeated. That's all the man should have been to him. Right?
But he couldn’t look away. He couldn’t. The man’s head was bloody, the wound jagged and terrible and... and it matched his morning star. The punctures, the dent, they matched the pattern perfectly. He’d just cleaned it - the blood and mud and matter had taken so much effort to clean. And there was where the blood had come from, that young man’s head, now part of the carnage, lying in a tangle of the fallen like logs ready to be burnt.
Remus’ hand started to shake, morning star still in his grasp.
“Your Highness? Are you alright?” the general asked.
Remus nodded, still shaking, and tried to flash the man a reassuring smile. His mouth split open, but it stretched too wide, too far, too fake. He started to laugh, air forcing itself out of his lungs in staccato bursts. The general’s eyes widened with nervousness, and he looked around them for someone else, anyone else to help.
Remus’ laugh went on and on, humorless and shrill. He couldn’t stop himself.
“Can't think about it, you know!" he cackled between laughs. "Can't dwell! It's a fact of life!"
The general backed away, heading for the other tents that housed the king and the other leaders.
When they returned to the hilltop, Remus was gone, without a trace. All that remained was a morning star, abandoned in the mud.
Two weeks later, the king paced the throne room fretfully.
“We fear the worst has happened to the Prince,” the king said. “An ambush, perhaps? Some straggler who escaped our forces, desperate for one last kill? Perhaps they recognized him and mean to ransom him, but wouldn’t we have received a demand letter by now? He’s clearly noble, anyone could tell that from a glance, why haven’t we received word? What shall we do without our heir? What will become of our nation?”
Roman stood at attention, silent. He had not heard from his brother either, but from the general’s report, he was far less optimistic that something so simple as kidnapping had occurred. But his father wouldn’t hear of it.
They hadn’t made an official announcement to the public, besides half-hearted excuses. But the rumors had begun, whispers noticing Prince Remus’ conspicuous absence. Only Duke Roman had presided with the King at the victory procession. How could the Prince allow “feeling under the weather” prevent him from attending? What was wrong?
Roman’s fingers beat an anxious rhythm on his sword hilt as he watched his father pace when they were both jolted by the loud slam of the throne room door opening.
In the doorway stood… well, it appeared to be Remus. But Remus had… changed.
His hair was long and straggly, and dyed a sickening swamp green. Metal spikes pierced the cartilage of his nose and ears, sprouting out like a mockery of armor. Studs were embedded in his cheeks. Black tears were inked under his eyes. His lips were painted a screeching shade of neon green, and when he smiled wide, they saw that his tongue had been disfigured, split into two.
They both stared, but Roman was the first to speak.
"Remus?" Roman asked. "I- we were so worried, what happened?"
"Oh I just got my head out of my ass, brother dear! Didn't want to be like all you shitheads anymore!" Turning to the king, the prince grinned lopsidedly "Daddykins, didn't you miss me? Did you have to slaughter children by yourself or did you bring ickle Romeo with you?"
"Remus!" Roman interrupted, shocked. "We don't-"
"Oh but we doooo!" Remus sang. "Me and Daddy do! We do our doody , don't we, Pop?"
The king finally spoke. "What," he demanded flatly. "Have you done to yourself."
Remus fluttered his eyelashes. "Oh I just stabbed my own face! Professionally, of course. almost as professionally as you with your broadsword. Not nearly as much blood, though, I know you'd be disappointed."
The prince approached the throne, heedless or because of the way the king recoiled from him.
"Hope I can still be your little boy, though, Poppy! Hope I can fill your big dick shoes! Can't you just wait for me to take on our glorious legacy? Aren't you delighted to hand off that big ol' crown to you eldest son?!"
"Let you be the face of the kingdom, looking like that? " his father said coldly. "Let you rule, when you have clearly abandoned all we hold dear?” The King rose, pointing past Remus with a finger that shook with rage. “Get out of our sight. We have only one son."
Remus grinned widely, and Roman realized with a sickening start that he hadn’t seen his brother smile this much since they were children.
“Whatever you desire, dearest darlingest popsicle!”
“Out!” the king roared, and Remus obeyed, his cackling laughter echoing back through the halls.
The king breathed deep, chest heaving as he calmed himself.
The duke swallowed the lump in his throat to answer, “Yes, Father?”
“We name you Crown Prince, sole heir to our throne and fortune. We disown and disname the former Prince Remus. The realm places its full trust in you, our son.”
Roman knelt, hearing the unspoken end of the sentence. Don’t you dare fail.
“I thank you for this honor, father. I will serve to the best of my ability,” he said graciously.
The king took a medallion on ribbon from the wall - the sunburst seal of the royal house, only worn by kings and direct heirs. He placed it around Roman’s neck. “We- I know you will, Roman. I know you will be all that our country needs you to be.”
King and newly-named-prince made eye contact. The king’s eyes blazed, with anger and grief and unspoken warning: Don’t fuck up, like he did.
Roman bowed his head, lest his father see the heartbreak in his eyes.
You were what fucked him up.
Roman was introduced to the kingdom as the future king. It was not quite the joyous affair that Remus’ coming-of-age had been, not when the king spoke as if the former prince had died, when the announcement of Roman replacing him was practically perfunctory. When Roman had sat at his vanity for a full hour as the artists worked to cover up his birthmarks and battle scars. And for what? It wasn’t as if the kingdom didn’t already know that he was… imperfect. Marred. Flawed.
But appearances, his father told him coldly, must be maintained.
Roman was the heir, unable to be disowned too, not when the king had no more options. He needed the king’s advisors and generals to respect him if he were to ever properly reign. He needed the nobility to support him. He needed to get the ones in power, the Noble Council, to see past his face, to believe in his ability to rule despite his impurities. But he knew they would never be ignored.
Hadn’t he grown up with the whispers? Hadn’t he seen how others who were injured or disfigured be dismissed from court altogether? Hadn’t he watched as the mere rumour of a nobleman’s secret tattoo pushed him out of the public eye in shame? When a pair of clip-on earrings were scandalous just by resembling a body modification, what hope did Roman and his birthmark have to be accepted?
But he smiled, and waved, and spoke with the oldest generals, and accompanied his father to court days, and filled his role as heir. In battle, he was pulled into a higher level of command, no longer directing just his contingent of soldiers, but entire armies. He and his father led the charges still, of course, but he no longer trained with his men. His missed them, as he’d missed the relative privacy of being just a Duke instead of Prince. But it was his duty.
It had been months since Remus’ disownment when another major battle came to pass. The king brought Roman to the field with him, keeping him involved in the planning for the entire process. Roman was pleased to discover that the generals actually respected his strategic and tactical contributions - it seemed his closeness with his direct force had given him a keener sense of the risks and rewards of maneuvers that the command tent often lacked. That day, though, his father seemed a bit distracted. It didn’t seem to interfere with his reasoning or fighting, though. Not until the height of battle.
And then the King saw him. A young man with a morning star. It was a common-enough weapon for nobility, but... the boy had smooth skin and no scars and no piercings and he fought well, methodically and with only the required level of ferocity. He was a once-familiar sight on the field, one who had been there every battle until now.
And the king just... snapped.
He charged down the hill, ahead of the signal. Alone. It was unwise. Roman saw his father charge, tried to warn him back, tried to call to him and break through the distraction.
The King probably could not have articulated why he charged. It was out of anger, yes, but was it anger at the boy for being a reminder? Anger because of what he lost? Anger at Remus for no longer looking the way the young man did, for no longer being what the king had wished him to be?
He would never get a chance to explain.
The boy saw his danger. So did three of his fellows. The king brought no backup. He fell.
Roman continued the fight. What else could he have done?
The boy had frozen him too, a shadow from the past, one with a smile that Roman hadn’t seen on his twin’s face in years. Remus’ smiles had been growing stiffer ever since they were 12, pasted-on grins that never reached his eyes. And the last time he’d seen him- it had been even more unfamiliar. Manic. Pained. He’d laughed, but with no true amusement.
Even as he performed the steps of his role as heir, Roman couldn’t rid himself of the thought that the lack of genuine happiness in his brother’s face could only have been due to the king himself and the weight Remus had borne as the Crown Prince.
Roman ascended in the wake of his father’s death with that same weight, grown heavier through guilt and shame and the bitter knowledge that none of this was ever supposed to be him.
Roman had to be king. There was no one else. His father had been an only child. The next closest relatives were two different third cousins who were quite proud to be in the line of succession. If Roman wasn’t king, the country would fall into a civil war of family against family, fighting for the ‘truest’ claim to the throne.
The nobility accepted the necessity of his reign. That didn’t mean they were happy about it.
Whispers followed him through the halls, stopped suddenly as he entered the audience chamber, rumbled around him when he took his weekly rides through the capital city. He wanted to be an accessible king, one his people knew as more than just a bloodied general returning from the field. He even spent a single afternoon hoping that with enough exposure to his face and his scars, the country might grow to see past his appearance.
It was a foolish hope. Prejudices that have been passed down for over five generations don’t melt away because of one king, much less one who gained power under less than ideal circumstances.
And yet, it didn’t change his determination to be a presence in his people’s lives, not just a face seen from a distant castle balcony. After much cajoling and convincing of his personal guard, Roman began spending evenings mingling in the capital city restaurants and taverns. As a commander, he’d learned how best to let his soldiers get used to him, and he used this skill again across town, night after night. He would sit near the corner of the bar, or at a less-traffic corner of the dining room, or at the end of a shared table. He would eat quietly, only speaking when others greeted him, seemingly very focused on his food alone. And slowly, his fellow diners got over the shock of seeing their king among them and start chatting about their lives, their children, their heartbreaks and dreams. He would listen and nod and quietly pay their tabs, then leave before they got too embarrassed or self-conscious. And when it was commoners, it worked well. With the nobility, or the higher classes of commoners that desperately wanted to be nobility, he had to fend off the comments. Usually, it was surprise that his birthmark and scars were really that obvious. Or passive-aggressive comments about how it was “wonderful how cosmopolitan the Noble Council is these days.”
Roman would just grin and bluster and respond, “Royalty’s more than skin-deep, darling.”
It was just charming enough to satisfy most, or at least end that line of conversation, and he could go back to being a silent listener. But when eyes lingered on his birthmarks or traced down the long line of stitching scars down his cheek, he couldn’t help but flinch internally, preparing himself for the darts and daggers of judgment. The sting of disapproval never really faded, no matter how many times he endured it with a smile.
He risked it, one night, to go to a place he’d only heard about in hushed tones. It was a scandalous place, certainly not one that any self-respecting noble would be caught dead in. But Roman was desperate with hope. So without telling anyone, not even his bodyguard, he slipped out of the castle to visit Au Naturel.
The sign had been vandalized recently, bright red spray paint across it like blood splatters, but what could be expected when a slur was reclaimed with such audacity? Roman hesitated on the threshold, but surely it would be far worse to linger there on the street and risk being seen for minutes versus the seconds it would take him to enter or exit. With a deep breath, he walked inside.
The first thing he saw was a bouncer, a hulking man with navy blue hair and glasses. He stared down at Roman’s identification papers critically, eyebrows barely twitching in recognition of the kingdom’s regnal name. Roman tried to avoid staring, but the man was pierced in dozens of places, with visible tattoos curling out of the collar of the sensible black turtleneck. But he didn’t look distraught or distressed, just cool and collected.
Roman fought back a shiver of excitement as he reclaimed his papers and was welcomed into the heart of the bar with a wave.
He’d expected dim lights, maybe a smoke-obscured room, something out of the speakeasy fictions he’d read about in the edgier forms of media. Instead, there were golden lamps that lit everything well, and bright neon signs that threw off a rainbow of lights from the walls. The rainbows were reflected back off the many piercings in the crowd, off shiny gelled hair, even off prosthetic limbs. Roman had expected a huddled crowd of solidarity, of societal misfits in their one safe space. Instead, he found a party of delight, with faces that were all relaxed and at ease instead of just in temporary relief.
He shuffled to the bar, avoiding eye contact, a bit overwhelmed and unsure how to start mingling.
A smiling bartender greeted him. They had a mohawk, dyed in blues and purples with glitter sprinkled through like stars. They wore a lipstick of a startling bright shade of pink that contrasted with their tan skin. A huge silver hoop dangled from one ear lobe, accompanied by spikes around the cartilage, and they acknowledged Roman’s quiet request for a gin-and-tonic with a wink. As they turned to the racks of drinks, Roman realized with a start that their skin was perfectly smooth, besides the alterations. No visible scars or marks or even freckles, and the mesh shirt they wore meant much more skin was visible than normal. And yet, they were here. As they returned with Roman’s drink, they asked, “First night, hun?”
Roman nodded. “It’s not exactly what I expected.”
The bartender leaned, tilting down tinted glasses to fix Roman with a look. “What do you mean, babes?”
“I- the way people talk, I’d expected the folks here to be much more… I’m not sure. Bitter?”
“If there’s one thing I know about ‘people’, it’s that they always expect and want outcasts to be as miserable as they believe we ought be. But the owner puts a lot of effort into making this more than just an escape. She wants it to be an oasis. And she seeks out newbies to make sure they know it’s safe to just be here. Here, lemme introduce you, I think you’ll like her.”
Roman nodded his agreement, and watched the bartender flit and weave through the crowd, greeting people and they went. They were apparently a favorite, with patrons squeezing their shoulder or kissing them on the cheek as they passed. They only paused once, when they reached the stoic bouncer from the entrance. He was sitting in a booth, apparently on break, ignoring the room, until the bartender touched his shoulder gently and he turned to look at him with a smile lighting up his face. They exchanged a brief kiss, and then the bartender was sliding into a door labeled ‘Employees Only’.
Roman let his gaze roam. Everywhere, there thronged people with piercings and tattoos and colored contacts, and they all looked happy. He even saw others with scars and birthmarks like his own, but no one stared at them or seemed to care. And they couldn’t all be lashing back against trauma like Remus had, right?
“Welcome to Au Naturel, kiddo! I’m Patton, the owner.”
Roman turned to see a bright smile and an outstretched hand. The owner was like no one he’d ever seen. The majority of her skin was a dark, rich brown, but it was interrupted with splotches of pale skin. And where the skin was light enough to see, it was speckled with light brown spots. She was the kind of face that nobility put on dramatized posters of the ‘less fortunate’, those who were born with so many impurities that they clearly couldn’t hope to be any more than the lowest rung of the serving class. But here she stood, bright teeth flashing at Roman in the club she owned, in an atmosphere of pure joy that she’d created. A silver chain around her neck held a ring and a magenta charm affirming her pronouns.
Roman shook her hand gently. “It’s good to meet you, Patton. I’m Roman.”
“Oh, I know! Thank you for gracing my humble establishment with your presence, Your Majesty. I was a bit surprised when Remy told me who was sitting at the bar- I wasn’t sure if your facial marks were really as obvious as the gossips say.”
Roman cringed internally. He’d been recognized, clocked by bartender and owner, and he’d been here barely 20 minutes. The common refrain rolled off his tongue with the perfect intonation of repetition. “Well, royalty’s only skin-deep, darling.”
Patton blinked. “Oh- oh, Your Majesty, pardon me, I didn’t mean to offend.”
Roman faked a smile with practiced ease. “No offense, my lady.”
“No, I- I meant, I assumed they were exaggerating your appearance from just some small beauty mark, because I had assumed anyone who looked like us wouldn’t be allowed to ascend to the throne. I’m delighted that you’re real! And you have these beautiful marks of the gods’ favor, just like me, and you’re our King without having to cover them!”
Roman blinked, started to speak, then blinked again. “Marks of what?”
Patton grinned and sat next to Roman. “Of the gods’ favor, of course! You and I, we were painted in the womb, blessed with more than one color, claimed by more than one patron. Some people get just freckles, a smattering of kisses. Some get a beauty mark, a touch or two. But you and I, they couldn’t bear to refrain, and look at me! I got a whole big hug, from top to toe.”
Roman did look. And he found he got more and more confused by the second. Because here was this woman, multi-colored, a floppy fro bouncing in dark curls with strips of light blonde among them, speckled with freckles along her pale patches of skin. She was everything Roman had been told was impure, imperfect, pitiable- and yet, she was the most gorgeous creature he’d ever seen.
“I’ve… never thought of it that way,” he said softly. “Particularly with…” he trailed off, pointing to his scars.
“I don’t really trust the gossips on the news- how did you get these, King Roman?”
Roman traced the line on the back of his hand, remembering. “It was a particularly bad battle. A young soldier whose fellows had fallen on either side of him had a knife hidden in his belt. I was arrogant, back then, just foolish enough to believe that the norms of the battlefield would always be respected, that the separations of class meant anything in the melee. So I was caught completely unawares by the blade, thinking the young man was just a commoner and so no real threat. I was lucky, though. I survived.” Despite how the Noble Council reacted on my recovery.
Patton’s eyes softened. “I am glad you survived, Your Majesty. And gladder that the prejudices of some against your tapestry didn’t prevent you from becoming King.”
Roman ducked his head. “Thank you, Patton. And please- call me Roman.”
She giggled. “Oh, how scandalous, little ol’ me on a first-name basis with the King! At least let me comp your drink first!”
Roman felt his cheeks heating up as he watched her laugh, curls bouncing. “Please, I’m sure you pay more than your fair share of taxes already. Let me. Consider it a subsidy, if you must.”
Patton tilted her head, contemplating the royal man sitting in her bar. “If you insist, my liege,” she said with a sly smile.
Roman was sure he was visibly blushing now, but caught the bar owner’s hand in his. Brushing his lips against it, he looked up into Patton’s wide, blue eyes. “And insist I do.”
Patton was quiet for only a moment, before her face split open in a bright smile. “Oh, I like this one. I think we’ll just have to keep you.”
“Kidnapping a king? Now who’s being scandalous?”
“You can only kidnap someone if it’s against their will,” she replied with a wink.
Roman was saved from having to respond by the bartender returning. “Ooohh, Patty, I knew you had expensive taste, but flirting with actual royalty?”
Patton blew a kiss to her employee. “You would know, Remy.”
Roman realized he’d yet to let go of Patton’s hand, but didn’t feel particularly inclined to change that at this particular moment. Until Remy responded, “If even the absolute disgrace of the Dormions clan can recognize royalty, anyone can, but go off I guess.”
Roman turned. “You’re that Remy? Remington?”
Remy grimaced. “Yes, unfortunately. I was going to change my name entirely but Lo already got it tattooed so…”
Patton smacked them lightly. “No lying to new friends, Rem.”
“Fineee, I like the name if not the fam.”
Roman fiddled with his glass. “I- I’ve only heard the court gossip, but-”
Remy rolled their eyes. “Oh yeah, they love me. Perfect little first son completely wrecks and malforms himself and refuses to fit in the box we made for him! Which, while irritatingly misgendering, is all true. I came here on a dare once, tried to sneak in the back-”
“And then they met Logan!!” Patton interjected, hands cupping her cheeks in delight. “And it was love at first sight!”
“More like lust at first sight-”
“But then it became love, let me have this.”
Remy grinned fondly at their boss. “Yeah, it did. Lo was one of the first times I’d seen a real person with body mods outside of the PSAs and I had no idea how attractive they could be. I met him, we went off to-”
“Have a nice chat,” Patton interjected primly.
“Of course, Pat, I chatted at him for four straight hours,” they responded with a wink to Roman. “And then I had to come back and I started to get to know Patty here and the regulars and well... My parents were wrong about literally everything. Including thinking I was their son. But obviously, they didn’t love having that pointed out to them, so…” they trailed off with a shrug.
“Dramatic disownment, Patton hires you, you get your own tattoos and piercings?” Roman supplied.
“That’s about it, yeah.”
Roman looked around the room, the warm likes and mingling crowds. “I can see why you fell in love with it all so easily, why you wanted to have a place like this to call your own community.”
Patton reached out and squeezed Roman’s hand. “It’s yours too, now, Your Majesty- Roman. Please, feel free to come back whenever you like.”
The king was still hesitant to return. What if the other patrons hadn’t been as comfortable with his presence as Remy and Patton had been? What if he’d been spotted by less understanding people and they were waiting for his return to catch him in the act? And yet, he knew he needed to go back to Au Naturel. He’d learned so much in just one night, had his mind opened to so many different interpretations of the societal expectations that had plagued him his whole life. He couldn’t bear to never hear that again, to go back to the Noble Council and ignore the echoes in his brain that whispered “marks of the gods’ favor” whenever he looked in a mirror.
So two nights later, he steeled himself and made his way back to the bar. The same bouncer was at the door.
“Logan, was it?”
The man’s eyes narrowed, but he nodded.
“It’s good to see you again.”
His brow unfurrowed, and he nodded again, this time with the slightest hint of a smile stretching out his pierced lips.
Roman smiled back, and entered the main room.
He made his way over to the bar more confidently this time, but was distracted by the crowd from looking at the bartender as he ordered.
“Oh holy fuck shit heck fuck?”
He turned to see a much younger bartender with dark black hair, bright purple lipstick, and hoop earrings staring at him wide-eyed and a bit panicked.
“Uh, sorry, have we met?”
The young man just stared and continued to swear under his breath until he took a deep breath and called out, “Remy?”
They returned from the far side of the bar and saw Roman. With a wave, they said, “Hey there, Majesty. Gin and tonic again?”
Roman nodded as Remy turned away, arm around the young bartender’s shoulders. It didn’t stop him from hearing their quiet conversation.
“You could have warned me that the actual king might come in-”
“I thought you were exaggerating! Or talking about a drag king-”
“Okay fair, but Patton agreed with me-”
“I thought he was humoring you!”
“Logan backed me up!”
“...he just smiled at you. He does that all the time.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t fully prepare you, Virge. I didn’t know if he’d come back.”
“He’s not going to- we’re safe, right?”
“Look at him, of course we’re safe. And also Patty charmed the pants off him, we’re fine.”
“I mean, maybe, Pat doesn’t kiss and tell.”
Roman started to blush and realized it was probably time to indicate that their conversation wasn’t secret. “I’m right here,” he cut in. He smiled as both bartenders turned to face him. “Patton is indeed quite charming, but I believe I’ve retained my pants.”
Remy smirked, not missing a beat. “So far, anyway.”
Roman tried not to color further and was saved (or ruined) by the appearance of Patton himself. “Remy, are you poisoning Virgey’s mind again?”
The young man grimaced. “Sorry! Virgil’s mind,” Patton corrected, sliding into the seat next to Roman. “Good to see you again, Roman.”
“It’s good to see you as well, Patton. It’s alright that I’m back?”
“Of course it is!”
“Because if I’m making anyone uncomfortable, I don’t want to take this space away from them-”
Patton laid his hand over Roman’s on the bar. “This space is for you, too, Your Majesty. I think in some ways, those like us born into noble families need it even more. Not to say that anyone has it easy, but…”
“But it’s expected that lower classes are ‘imperfect’,” Virgil said, returning with Roman’s drink. His mouth was twisted into a bitter line. “And when you’re not, you never get to be yourself again.”
Roman looked at him curiously. “I confess, I have only been allowed to mingle with mixed classes in my command. What do you mean, if you don’t mind talking about it?”
Virgil looked at Patton with a question in his eyes. Patton smiled. “He’s safe, Virge. Promise.”
Virgil nodded and reached up to his ears. He removed his hoop earrings, showing that they were clip-ons and that his ears were unpierced. “According to this crap system, I’m ‘perfect’. I don’t have birthmarks or discoloration or even freckles. Which means of course I’ve been banned from getting tattoos or piercings or dying my hair. I keep this stuff here with Rem, because it’s the only place I can wear it without my parents getting… upset.”
Roman frowned. “They don’t hurt you, do they?”
Virgil laughed hollowly. “They never hit me, perish the thought, that might cause bruises. Or scars. But you may have noticed, nothing about this damn value system accounts for things like, you know, mental health. Or being well-fed. As long as it doesn’t go as far as like, hair falling out or jaundice.”
“But why enforce it?” Roman asked. “The families I know, it’s to maintain their status and reputation…”
Virgil clipped his earring back on, fiddling with it nervously. “If I’m being generous, it’s a hope thing. That if I can just look refined enough, I’ll be seen by a noble or someone who wants the status of a ‘perfect’ partner and be whisked up into a life of luxury. If you ask my parents, they’d say they’re trying to help me get a better life.”
“But you don’t agree with that.”
“Not for a fucking second. Sure, I believe they believe that. But they refuse to see how shitty it is in the meantime and explode at me when I object.” He adjusted his hoodie, playing with the zippers on his wrists. “This is the only place I can cover myself up this much. They want me to show off as much ‘perfect’ skin as possible, so I can be spotted. Even in the middle of the fucking winter. And even if I wasn’t freezing, it makes me a target. People hope for that Scarella story even if they don’t admit it. It’s like those people who enter the lottery constantly, hoping that with a fancy enough schedule of plastic surgery, one day they’ll be part of the beautiful people. So when they see someone who’s already smooth… they resent it. And they want to ruin it.” He wrapped his arms around himself, shivering despite the thick hoodie. Patton reached out and squeezed his elbow in reassurance, earning a weak smile.
Roman was quiet in contemplation. Sure, he knew it was the most classic trope in media - someone with a Pure Heart (as shown, of course, by their unblemished skin) was seen among the unclean masses and swept away into the sunset by a generous benefactor. He’d fantasized about it himself when he was younger, that someone would see his worth and help him fix his skin so that his outside could look like his inside. After his injuries added to it, though, he’d given up entirely. But to know that the trope caused such harm to people like Virgil…
“I’m sorry I haven’t done more to fix this, Virgil,” Roman said quietly. “I have influence and power, I should and I will.”
Virgil flashed him a wry smile. “I think you’re doing a lot by just appearing in public without covering up your scars, really. I don’t think it’s gonna change fast, but with your help, it might start changing.”
“But you’re at risk and it won’t be fast enough for you.”
“Yeah, I am,” Virgil said with a shrug. “But I don’t need to be protected. With all due respect, Your Majesty. Rem & Lo keep my stuff for me, Pat makes sure I can still make it here, and I’m earning my own money to get out of my parents’ house. I have a plan to earn my own freedom. So don’t change all this shit for me. Change it for everyone else.”
Roman nodded. “I promise, I will.”
Virgil raised an eyebrow. “I mean, I believe you’ll try…”
Roman raised his hand, pinkie outstretched. “I will. I mean it.”
Virgil smiled, but linked his pinkie too. “You swear?”
They shook solemnly, before both starting to snicker and laugh, Patton joining in too. But none of them doubted Roman’s determination, all the same.
Roman returned to Au Naturel multiple nights a week for two weeks straight before he finally managed to ask.
“Pat, how did you manage to open this place? And keep it open, despite, well, everything?”
The response was a melancholy grin as Patton fiddled with the ring on the chain around their neck, right next to their pronoun charm.
“I got a loan from my late fiancé, Diego. He was the son of a noble house.”
“Late? I don’t mean to cause you distress, dear Patton, you don’t need to talk about this if it will be painful-”
“No, no,” Patton explained, reaching out for Roman’s hand. “I- I want to talk about him. Because he was a wonderful man and remains a wonderful memory.”
Roman nodded in understanding and squeezed their hand reassuringly as Patton began to explain.
Diego, too, was one of a pair of twins. His brother was named Cedric, and they were identical in almost every way. The one way they weren’t was Cedric’s eczema. Their faces matched, their laughs sounded like echoes of each other’s, but Cee had red scratchy scales that grew and faded but never fully vanished, and Dee had none.
And according to Diego, Cedric was better. Smarter, kinder, more optimistic, a faster friend to those he met. Yet society valued Diego more because of a condition that could only be treated, never cured.
“And so Dee became a huge advocate for us ‘imperfect’ folks,” Patton said softly. “He used his smooth face as an entry into places we’re barred from, tried to use the family money and influence to change discrimination policies. But, well. One man can only do so much.”
Roman nodded somberly, in perfect understanding.
“There used to be underground meetings of people like us, the underbelly of the city. We rotated locations and kept moving to avoid the zoning laws that made it easy to kick us out at anyone’s request. We’d found Cee and invited him, and he brought Dee too. And I- oh, he was the first person who looked at my skin and saw a work of art,” Patton said with a misty smile, hugging their own torso at the warm memory. “And he had the idea of using his name, using their family’s money to establish this place. They couldn’t take the title away from me if it was under his name too, so after only a couple months of dating and falling madly in love, we got engaged. The deed is technically still under his name, which means it’s secure, and the city can’t take it back.
“But then the household draft came through, three years ago. I was safe,” Patton said with a wry twist to their normal smile. “It called for one son per house, and my family doesn’t acknowledge me as a son those times I want them to, much less for the state. Not that they know where to find me anymore. But - their family wanted to send Cee. Because he was more ‘expendable’. And they didn’t tell Dee until he was already gone off to war. Of course, I was scared for them both, but I knew how important Dee’s brother was to him, so when he said he needed to get to the front immediately, I didn’t hesitate. I gave him the money and advice from my friends here who’d survived previous wars. He listened to it all, then went off to go save his brother.”
Patton paused, a tear creeping along their cheek.
“I’m so sorry, Patton,” Roman said gently. “He didn’t make it back?”
“Neither of them did. Dee threw himself in front of a blow to shield Cee, but it wasn’t enough.”
Roman hesitated, then hugged them firmly. “I’ve lost so many of my soldiers, but it never gets easier. I can’t imagine what this loss has felt like to you.”
Patton hugged back. “Thank you, Roman. It’s been years, but remembering-”
“I know. It’s perfectly normal, my dear.”
Patton smiled up, eyes still shining with unshed tears. “Thank you for listening, Ro. It means a lot.”
“Anything you need from me, Pat. I’m here.”
The next day, Roman quietly requested a meeting with the head of the zoning board of the city, and used the royal seal to confirm Au Naturel ’s deed to not just Diego and Patton but to anyone Patton ever decided to transfer ownership too. A copy of the document found its way, without fanfare, into the files at the bar. Roman never brought attention to it, nor did Patton, but a golden drink was left at Roman’s typical seat that never appeared on his bill, and a portrait of the nation’s first scarred King found its way to hanging among their other icons above the rows of bottles.
And then, one night at Au Naturel, there was a new customer who most had never seen before. Or at least, they hadn’t seen this face before. But Roman had.
The former prince turned. He’d added more tattoos since the last time Roman had seen him, lines of red drops down his neck to his bare arms. His hair was spiked into a faux-hawk and it almost hit Roman as he turned to face him.
“Is that the golden boy? Romano Cheese Man?”
“Reme, it’s been months, I’ve-”
“Stop right there.” Remus interrupted. He held up a finger topped in an elaborately manicured nail. “Don’t you dare say you’ve missed me, Roman Candle. I haven’t been hiding, you could have found me.”
“I looked!” Roman insisted, reaching out to grab his brother’s arm. “I tried to look, at least, but Father and the generals forbid me to leave the castle-”
“Ooohhh, is the royal baby disobeying orders tonight?” Remus asked, eyebrows dancing.
Roman frowned. “Not exactly, not when there aren’t any…” He looked for any flicker of understanding and found none. “Reme. Have you not heard?”
“Heard what, that the country is just sooooo pleased to have just forgotten the embarrassment that was the old crown prince? Didn’t need to check with the town crier for that one, queen bee.”
Roman squeezed Remus’ arm, a lump forming in his throat. “Brother-”
“Don’t you call me that!” Remus snapped. “I’m not in the family anymore, don’t you remember anything-”
“Father’s dead, Remus!” Roman practically shouted. Remus went silent, eyes wide. “Father died and I have to be the goddamn king now, and I’ve been looking for you for months but no one wants to acknowledge you still and you left me to rule alone.” Roman’s voice cracked on the last word, and Remus stopped trying to pull away. His eyes darted around Roman, taking in the signet ring, the badly-concealed bags under his eyes, and the tear coursing down the royal cheek.
“...how did he die?”
Roman took a shuddering breath. “In the field. He charged alone, after an enemy soldier who looked just like you- well, you three years ago.”
“Did you charge with him? Trying to get back that old shell of a royal? It was never real, brother, just a bundle of neuroses wound so tightly they acted like a person-”
“I know that, Remus! You think I didn’t see how much he pushed you? You think I didn’t know what being in the field did to you?” The other patrons of the bar had edged away, giving the brothers space, while Patton watched nervously without moving from her seat at the bar. “Reme - all I ever wanted was to be able to help. I trained so hard in the hopes that maybe you would be able to sit out for a battle or two. Get a break from the violence. But he didn’t want me, didn’t want the charge to be led by this,” Roman said, gesturing at his own face. Tiredness showed in every inch of him as his shoulders slumped. “And look where that got him. He’s dead, I’m leading anyway, and both his sons are miserable.”
“That’s where you’re wrong, Ro. I’m not miserable. I’m wonderful,” Remus replied. “I can do whatever and whoever the fuck I want to, now. No one breathing down my neck, no one saying I’m improper, no blood on my hands except for what I choose to be there.” He lifted his arm, showing off his tattoo, the line of red drops marching down his bicep and forearm and returning back up the inside of his wrist and elbow.
Roman looked down at the marks, blinked, and looked back up. Green eyes met green, as identical as the day they were born. “Are you really?”
Remus scoffed. “Of course I… well. I’m happier. Happier than I was. Wacky, isn’t it, I think my incredibly violent and restrictive upbringing may have given me some issues.”
“But you’re not just… I don’t know, bursting at the seams, doing whatever you think Father would have hated for the sole sake of knowing he would have hated it?”
Remus paused. “Hey, I didn’t come here to have my someone dig through my head, I only wanted someone to give me head-”
“What, it’s true!”
“We were having a moment-”
“And I was planning on a different kind of moment!”
Roman frowned at his brother, ready to keep arguing, but instead, he started to laugh, and Remus did too, and soon there were just two very similar-looking men leaning on the bar, wheezing with laughter.
Roman wiped his eyes. “You really are happier.”
Remus smiled. “I really am. I’m… still working it out. What’s terrible by his standards versus the society’s. Which society standards are probably actually shit and which make sense. I don’t understand it all. But I will.”
Roman impulsively flung his arms around his twin. “I believe in you, Reme. Just, please- don’t leave me to do this alone?”
Remus pushed Roman a bit back, holding him by the arms. “I’m not coming back to the palace, Ro. I can’t do that. I don’t want to.”
“You don’t have to. But you’re still my brother. As long as I’m the head of the family, you’re part of it. And I…” Roman looked back at where Patton was chatting to other patrons. “I have a lot to learn about what our society is doing to people. We both have a lot to learn, and unlearn. Can you help me?”
Remus grimaced. “Of course I’ll be your brother, but…”
“It doesn’t have to be official- no ‘advisor’ or any title unless you want one. But dammit, if you don’t deserve the crown’s money after all you had to do in its service- any land you want, any title, any income, say the word and it’s yours, Reme. Just, please... don’t shut me out.”
Remus looked down, and back up. He raised his hand and traced Roman’s birthmark lightly. “Can I get this as a tattoo on my face, too?”
“Is that a yes?”
“Well, twins should match, shouldn’t we?”
Roman smiled, understanding perfectly. “Yeah, twins should match. Scars and all.”