white rose; farewell.
The first petal falls on the dawn of their departure to Teer Fradee.
It tickles in Constantin’s airways as he follows his cousin and their bodyguard toward the ship waiting for them at the harbor. He trails behind a few steps, tries to clear his throat, rubs at it as he feels as if something were lodged in it, irritating him with every breath he takes until the urge to cough has him doubling over.
He raises a hand to his lips to smother it, not wanting to alarm Tristan. As his shoulders shake with the force of his coughs, he feels something expelled from his esophagus into his mouth, past his lips as he spits it out onto his palm. When he pulls back, he sees it.
A single white petal, as if plucked from a rose.
His shock lasts only for a moment; resignation is quick to take its place. Constantin is only surprised it took this long for the disease to blossom in his lungs, when he has been suffering from its cause for nearly his entire young life.
He balls his fist and shoves it into his pocket while he looks up to face his cousin with a smile.
Tristan and Kurt have stopped walking a few feet ahead and have both turned to look at him in worry and in question.
“Are you alright?” Tristan asks, frowning with concern as he takes a step toward him, then stops, hesitating. “If you are unwell…”
They both know he can’t delay this trip, but if Constantin were to reveal the flower petal Tristan would falter, and he cannot afford to. His mission is too important.
So Constantin continues to smile as he says, “How could I be unwell after such a gallant rescue from the clutches of brigands? Don’t worry, dear cousin, it was only something stuck in my throat. Harmless, I promise.”
Stuck in his throat like the words he spits out only in his sleep as he’s overtaken with feverish longing tormenting his dreams, waking to his body left trembling in its aftermath. Over the years they built up inside his throat, inside his lungs until they finally bloomed, yet even now he still cannot say them, and so they will pour from his mouth in petals instead until he suffocates.
It is a disease of his own making, one which will unmake him in turn, but as Constantin looks at the concern in Tristan’s face, in his eyes, he does not feel the panic at the thought of his impending death.
Dying for his love, he thinks, is not a terrible way to go.
He cannot keep the secret for long.
Such is the predicament of being confined to a ship with his cousin for months on end. It is inevitable, though Constantin does his best to keep Tristan from finding out for as long as possible.
Whenever he feels another one of his coughing fits coming up, he excuses himself to the deck and finds a quiet place where he can throw up the petals over the edge, pretending as if he is vomiting from seasickness.
It’s the captain who sees through his lie, first.
A month into their journey, Constantin manages to escape his cousin who has been fussing over him endlessly. Tristan’s attention has only increased the pain in his chest with every delicate touch to his face to check for fever, every soft word spoken for comfort, every look tender with worry for him. It is a miracle Constantin has managed to dodge the doctor aboard the ship for so long, muttering excuse after excuse, but he has run out of options.
He escapes his cousin from below deck and dashes up the stairs as he barely manages to stifle the urge to cough and spew the petals that have gathered in his gullet—he’ll spit out five at a time, now, and they’re multiplying with every week that passes—while bolting for the nearest railing.
In his hurry he doesn’t notice Captain Vasco standing several feet away, looking out over the sunset during a rare quiet moment aboard the ship. All Constantin cares for is to spit out the petals clogging his lungs before he chokes on them, and so he throws them up.
They flutter down into the foamy surf of the waters below while Constantin hangs over the railing for a moment to catch his breath. When he straightens up, he notices a figure standing nearby from the corner of his eyes, and as he looks up to meet the Vasco’s surprised gaze, he freezes in place.
“Captain.” Constantin wipes the wetness off his lips, still feels the urge to cough because he can feel them inside him now, the roses that have settled there and grow with every passing day. “Please, don’t tell my cousin.”
Tristan will find out eventually, there’s no way he won’t, but knowing the truth will break his heart and Constantin wants to stave that possibility off for as long as possible.
A complicated expression passes by on Vasco’s face, but before he can say anything, they’re interrupted by Tristan who emerges from the lower deck moments later, looking around before he spots Constantin and heads straight for him.
“You should really see the doctor.” Tristan stands beside him and places a hand on his shoulder; Constantin’s chest aches. “Seasickness shouldn’t last for this long. Don’t you agree, captain?”
Constantin meets Vasco’s eyes with a pleading look, and for a moment Vasco seems conflicted before his features smooth out again and he says, “Perhaps a visit might help.”
He shoots Constantin a pointed look, but speaks nothing of the rose petals that have fallen into the sea, swallowed by the waves.
It is a small mercy, one that does not last for long.
Tristan finds out in the dead of night.
Constantin doesn’t even make it to the railing this time. He doubles over halfway there, collapsing onto his knees on the hardwood boards of the deck as the petals come pouring from his lips. His whole body shakes as he’s wracked with his coughs, chest tight and he’s barely able to breathe, gasping for breath as he spews it all out, a dozen petals spreading out over the ground.
The white of them almost seems to glow in the moonlight, as if it were mocking him. Taunting him with its purity, shining bright even from tainted lungs, from a tainted heart.
“Constantin, there you are!”
He hears Tristan’s voice, grabs at his chest, at his shirt as Tristan’s footsteps approach and he knows he can no longer keep his secret, even though he tries, tries to curl up into himself to hide away from the world.
“I saw your bed was empty, and I thought…” The footsteps halt behind him, a long pause stretching into the air. When he hears Tristan’s voice again, it is quiet, disbelieving. “Are those… that can’t be…”
The wind blows across the deck, sweeping the petals away as they scatter and Constantin can’t hold it in anymore.
He weeps, and Tristan is kneeling down in front of him within an instant, clutching at his shoulders to steady him, but his grip is too tight and Constantin can sense his desperation.
“Who is it?” Tristan begs to know, does not lash out at him for lying, for keeping this from him this whole time, and Constantin can’t even bring himself to look at him. “Please, Constantin, tell me who it is! Maybe we can—”
“It’s no use.” Constantin wraps his arms around himself, shivering as the wind blows colder, and then he lies through his teeth. “I… I left him behind. In Sérène.”
Tristan’s hands squeeze around his shoulders, before he pulls Constantin to him and embraces him, holds him tight while Constantin’s tears soak through his shirt and his chest hurts with every sob, but he doesn’t care. He wraps his arms around Tristan, clings to him for dear life even as he knows it’ll kill him that much quicker, make it hurt so much worse.
“We’ll find a way,” he hears Tristan speak into his ear, but it sounds distant, as if he were hearing it underwater. “I promise, Constantin, I won’t let it take you. I won’t.”
If only he knew.
The doctor onboard the ship sees right through his lie, and tells him as much the moment Tristan is out of the room to give them some privacy.
“If the object of your affections were truly left behind in Sérène, the disease should be slowing down considerably,” the doctor notes sharply. “Instead, it’s accelerating. As if you were in their presence every day.”
Constantin says nothing, sitting there on the wooden chair with his fingers grabbing at the fabric of his trousers as he averts his gaze from the doctor’s perceptive stare, before she finally relents with a sigh.
“Your Highness,” she speaks with warning in her voice, “I don’t think I need to tell you that prolonged exposure to the person causing this will only lead you to an early grave. Whoever it is, I suggest you distance yourself from them as soon as we dock tomorrow morning. Many people have been known to live out long lives by avoiding—”
“That won’t be possible.”
There is no argument to be had, and the doctor recognizes as much as she takes in the resolute look in Constantin’s eyes. She sighs, offering a recipe for a potion known to slow the buildup of petals in his lungs; medicine that will only last so long. Once the disease is in its final stages, nothing will be able to stop it, save for the only known cure.
A cure Constantin knows will forever be out of his reach.
“I am sorry.” Sympathy is all the doctor can offer. “Truly, I am. But there’s nothing else I can do.”
To Tristan, he tells a different story. One in which the disease is already slowing down, where his prospects are quite good all things considered, where it shouldn’t impede his daily life all too much. Tristan seems relieved, but still concerned, insists on hovering by Constantin’s side for the remainder of their journey.
The petals clog up his lungs, and yet, Constantin cannot be without him.
When they arrive in New Sérène the next day, Constantin is grateful for the distraction. That’s what it is, after all. A fleeting amusement to occupy himself with as his death draws nearer. He doesn’t see the point in taking the medicine that the doctors who come out to greet him offer him, rejecting it out of hand.
Not even the islanders have the cure for this; unlike the malichor, they too are vulnerable to this particular disease. Their cure is the same as is everywhere else; either the victim’s affections are returned, or they die a slow and agonizing death.
But even knowing all this, Constantin doesn’t want to stay away from Tristan. They must part once they arrive in the city out of necessity, a brief reprieve that feels like a breath of fresh air to Constantin’s tortured lungs, but it only pains his heart as a consequence. No matter whether he is with or without Tristan, it seems Constantin is destined to suffer.
His cousin departs all too soon to bring news of Constantin’s arrival to the other governors, as well as assist a young islander woman come to plead for their aid to prevent a war as the daughter of the head of her clan.
Constantin feels the distance the moment Tristan departs, because in his absence he can breathe easier, widening the intervals between his coughing fits, can hide it better from the rest of the world.
Yet all he wants is Tristan by his side.
He counts the days for his cousin’s return, ignores the way it aches every time he thinks of Tristan. The few moments Constantin gets to see him in between his travels as his cousin hunts down the secrets of the island are a reprieve for his soul, but not his body.
All things considered, Constantin manages to hide his illness quite well from the nobles at his court; aside from the coughing and the trouble breathing, Constantin is the picture of health. He is even able to sleep better while Tristan is gone, not woken up so often by having to throw up more petals, always spreading across his bed and making a mess.
Weeks pass and once Tristan finally returns to New Sérène after a particularly long mission that kept him away, Constantin—even though he knows how dangerous it is—cannot hold back.
He embraces Tristan, pressing his face against the crook of Tristan’s neck. Tristan freezes in surprise, but only briefly before he returns the hug, just like he did that night on the ship, fingers tangling briefly in Constantin’s hair and Constantin doesn’t care if his lungs bleed over.
He can imagine of no better way than to die than in Tristan’s arms.
Just as he thinks so, he feels a sudden surge well up in his throat.
Constantin pulls away from Tristan, though he still clutches at Tristan's coat with one hand while the other tries to press over his mouth to keep the petals at bay, but it’s no use.
The rose petals spill from between his fingers, a dozen or more, and Tristan cries out for him in alarm while Constantin stares down at the mess of petals and notices something different as he gasps desperately for breaths, the pain in his lungs sharper than ever before.
His palm is smeared with blood, splatters of it coloring bits and pieces of the white petals red.
Maybe soon he’ll be coughing up red roses instead.
“Constantin!” Tristan holds onto him, holds him steady, but it hurts to see that look on Tristan’s face. That pained expression, the helplessness in his eyes. “Why isn’t the disease slowing down? Didn’t you say—”
“I lied,” he confesses through wheezing breaths, and then his legs give out.
Tristan catches him, calls out for a doctor. One of his companions goes to fetch one while another—Kurt, ever steady—helps support Constantin from his other side.
He and Tristan assist him to sit down on his throne while Constantin tries to breathe, but it doesn’t help. He starts coughing again, throwing up more white petals stained with even more red, fluttering down from his lips and hand onto his lap while Tristan watches on in growing despair.
The doctor they bring him can do nothing but offer him the same medicine as before, to temporarily lessen the disease’s effects. At this point, there is nothing else to be done.
“Constantin, what aren’t you telling me?” Tristan asks, pleads with him, on one knee in front of Constantin’s throne, reaching out to brush a bloodied petal from Constantin’s hand and takes it in his own, clutching it so fiercely, so desperately. “Why did you lie to me?”
“Because there’s nothing you can do,” Constantin replies wearily, voice grating against his throat as he speaks, and Tristan’s jaw sets.
He rises to his feet. “Everyone, out.” Turning around, he looks over at the room. “Including the guards. Out. Now!”
Constantin is too shocked at his cousin's uncharacteristic outburst to protest, watching as everyone else present hesitantly leaves the audience hall when the governor doesn’t contradict the legate’s order.
Once the last person has left, a guard who closes the doors behind him, Tristan turns to look at Constantin again with pure torment in his gaze.
He steps up, standing in front of Constantin, and cups Constantin’s cheeks in both hands. “Who is it?”
Constantin’s eyes flutter shut at the warmth of Tristan’s palms against his clammy skin, feels the telltale tightness in his chest making it harder to breathe as more petals build up in his lungs, in his throat.
“Please, Constantin.” Tristan’s voice is barely above a whisper. “Tell me.”
Constantin places one hand over one of Tristan’s, taking a careful breath through parted lips, painful and difficult. “No one that can help.”
He feels something warm press against his forehead, hair tickling against the skin, a warm breath against his mouth. “If I could take your pain…”
Constantin opens his eyes, finding himself staring into Tristan’s, glistening with unshed tears. He reaches out, caressing Tristan’s cheek with his fingertips, cherishes the touch even as that gaping maw of longing inside him ever widens. “You being here is all I need.”
Tristan gazes back at him a moment longer, before he briefly closes his eyes, and his expression shifts into determination as he pulls away from Constantin, as if having made a decision.
Bewildered and slightly panicked, Constantin watches Tristan step down from the throne, turning his back. “Tristan? What is it?”
The line in Tristan’s shoulders is so tense Constantin thinks he can almost see them trembling, and then Tristan shakes his head. “I shouldn’t…”
“Tristan,” Constantin calls out to him again, alarmed. “Talk to me. What—”
“No.” Tristan shakes his head again. “No, it’s… it won’t help.”
“How do you know that it won’t?”
Tristan turns around to face him again, moves forward again, one foot on top of the steps to Constantin’s throne, but then he halts, hesitating there on the edge like he’s physically being pulled in two different directions, leaving him frozen.
“Because I’m not…” He trails off, the words choked up in his throat.
Constantin’s heart skips, both hands gripping the armrests of his throne. “You’re not what?”
Tristan is silent, averting his gaze.
Another coughing fit, the worst one yet. Blood and petals splatter over both his hands as he tries to keep it back in a futile attempt, dripping and falling down, and Tristan is by his side in a second.
He has one hand on Constantin’s shoulder while the other brushes his hair back and out of his face as Constantin tries to catch his breath, moving forward to lean his head against Tristan’s stomach. Tristan’s arms encircle him while Constantin clings to his coat, and waits to die.
But then, a whisper.
“Because I’m not the one you love.”
Constantin stills as his eyes go wide, his heavy breaths filling the silence.
He must’ve misheard. He must have, because otherwise…
Constantin pulls out of Tristan’s arms to look up at him, finding him looking down with sorrow in his gaze. With heartbreak.
“What did you say?” Constantin asks tremulously. “You- you’re not the one I… love?”
“I… I realized it out on the deck that night, when I found out about your illness.” Tristan looks away from him, as if bracing himself while all Constantin can do is stare up at him in mute astonishment. “How I loved you… how deeply I love you when I shouldn’t. Not in the way that I do. But it doesn’t matter, because you love someone else, and it’s—”
Constantin gets up on his feet, heavy breaths speeding up, and it almost feels like the pain lessens as he gazes at Tristan in disbelief and wonder, daring to hope.
“You love me?” he asks weakly, unable to believe what he’s hearing, thinking this must be a dream, some delusion imagined by his dying mind. “As a man? Not as my cousin?”
But Tristan is real, he’s here, holding him, looking at him with a yearning that Constantin recognizes only because he has felt it before. Felt it the very same way.
“Yes,” Tristan confesses mournfully. “I love you, Constantin. So much more than I should. I hope you can forgive—”
Tristan stares at Constantin, lips parting in shock. “What?”
“If you love me as you say you do,” Constantin speaks urgently, “then prove it. Kiss me.”
“Constantin, I…” Tristan’s eyes flit down to Constantin's lips, cheeks coloring with heat that gathers visibly beneath his skin, and almost hesitantly, he lifts his hand.
Constantin holds his breath as the tip of Tristan’s finger gently traces his bottom lip, a mesmerized look in his eyes and Constantin doesn’t feel the petals anymore. His heart beats impossibly loud in his chest, fluttering when Tristan pulls his hand away, taking Constantin’s chin between a finger and a thumb, and then leans in.
Their lips meet and it is the softest touch Constantin has ever felt. The longing inside him reawakens like a burst of flame setting his body on fire as he kisses Tristan with a need rooting inside of him instead, a small noise falling from his throat when Tristan kisses him back in earnest.
When Constantin’s lungs ache this time, it’s because he cannot stop kissing Tristan, cannot stop chasing another taste for him, for the first time realizing how starved he was when he finally has Tristan, finally feels him. They clutch at each other, hands scrambling to touch, bodies pressed together as they kiss while standing among red-dyed rose petals, gasping for breaths in between, not stopping until their lips bruise and they’re dizzied from their frenzy.
Constantin doesn’t even notice he’s been crying through it until he breaks away from Tristan to breathe, feels the wetness on his lashes and his cheeks, shining on Tristan’s cheeks as well from where the tears pressed against his skin.
“It’s you,” Constantin says, taking in great gulps of precious air flowing through his lungs, easier and easier while Tristan’s hands are the only thing keeping him steady. “You’re the one I love. It has- always- been you. Always.”
Tristan breaks out into a smile—of wonder, of relief, of adoration, of pure happiness—but then something dims on his face.
“I’m so sorry, Constantin,” he says with true regret in his voice, furrowing in his brow. “I should’ve said something sooner. If I had… I could’ve spared you all this needless suffering.”
“You were afraid,” Constantin wipes a wet trail on Tristan's cheek away with a gentle swipe of his thumb. “Like I was afraid. But what matters is that you saved me, Tristan. You kept your promise.”
Tristan wraps his arms around him, not so desperate anymore, holding him only with love as Constantin breathes in deep, lungs filled with nothing but air.
He breathes it out in the words that were once stuck in his throat, now finally free.
red rose; I love you.