“How long has this been happening?” Jake asked. He’d managed to get Dirk to his room, where the king promptly pushed away from his helper to heave in a bin. His lips were tinted red as his fingertips when he was done, and he looked just as ashen as he had in the hall. Dirk’s steps were shaky as he wiped his mouth and hands before walking to his bedside table for a glass of water to slowly sip.
“Some months now. It’s not daily, thankfully, but every few days.. Something will set the coughing off, or my stomach will roil. Blood above and below.”
“What does your physician say of it?” pressed Jake, looking sincerely worried now. Here he’d been wanting to question the fellow and have a chat, and now all he wanted to do was stuff him into a set of pajamas and force him into bed.
“That I need rest. Less stress. Gentle diet, more time in bed, more sleep. The usual,” he said once he’d finished his glass of water. Dirk took a seat on his bed then and carefully pulled off his shoes, arranging them precisely in position to where they’d been that morning. “A lot of things I won’t be doing.”
Jake lifted a brow and crossed his arms awkwardly, uncertain of what to do with himself, where to sit. Eventually he went to a spare seat and tugged it closer to the bed to continue speaking with the king.
“And why not?”
“Because I’ve more important things to be doing. If you’ve not noticed, I’ve been rather busy with this whole running a country thing, and if I ease up everything will fall apart like a stack of cards.”
“You’ve siblings. And advisors.”
Jake frowned. This.. didn’t make any sense. Was this how the country was being run this whole time? By a single man running himself into the dirt to juggle everything at once? It wasn’t at all how his family had been taught to spread out the rule. There were no advisors weighing in to take some of the thought and effort out? Nobody to bounce ideas off of? Not even his siblings to weigh in or take responsibilities of lesser important tasks? No wonder there was so much time for the sisters to spend writing, there was little else for them to really do in the castle by way of giving orders or fulfilling duties.
“If I may..?”
“You may not,” Dirk said promptly, “but no doubt you will anyway, so spit it out.”
Clearing his throat for a moment, Jake soon leaned forward on his elbows with a concerned expression. “I see that you’re wanting to handle everything on your own for whatever reason, but what’s your plan for when that inevitably fails?”
“Oh. Quite simple. It won’t fail,” Dirk said. “This was an unforeseen circumstance, but it’s being taken in stride and adjusted for.”
“And your siblings, do they know?”
“Roxy and Rose do. Dave would have known as well, had he been around to see it. They do me the favor of not bringing it up, and if they make the mistake of bringing it up it gets dropped plenty quick,” Dirk said. He rose to his feet, pace slow and easy as he crossed the room to rummage in his wardrobe for a change of clothes. “Do me the favor of not trying to kill me for a few moments. I’d hate to have a near death experience in my underclothes.”
“Wh- I’d never!” sputtered Jake, taken aback enough he recoiled physically in his seat as Dirk looked pointedly at him before excusing himself through a door which he left cracked to continue the conversation as he changed. The soft rustle of clothing moving and hitting the floor followed Dirk’s words.
“Is this all you plan on doing, then? Question my motives and methods, offer ham handed advice as an outsider, appeal to emotions and concerns, and then wander off feeling better about yourself?”
“I-. No, I just-”
“Or are you going to pose my family as the be all end all reason for doing things instead of my entire kingdom and everyone inside of it who rely on me.”
“N-no, just. I was.. I was just..”
“You were just what, then. Not here to guilt me, not here to offer advice supposedly despite already trying to do that here and there, not here to try killing me.” Dirk reappeared in a long night shirt, bare calves on display as he went to dump the clothing into a hamper before returning to sit on his bed properly, ankles crossing. “Consider me curious.”
Jake stared for a moment before looking hurriedly to the ground, trying to refocus and get his words together. It had happened again. The same reaction as before, robbing his words and making his mind shrink back as if he were being chewed out by his father. The exact same way.. Licking his lips, Jake finally lifted his chin.
“Teach me to do what you’re doing. What you just did.”
“...If you don’t know how to change into night clothes on your own, are you intending on sleeping in the nude, or..?”
“Not that!” he cried. “Just. The forcefulness you have is different to my own! I know how to sound official, I know how to sound powerful, but the effect is very different. When you speak it commands attention, when I speak it’s more requesting it. When you snip and snap your words they’re sharp as blades, when I do it it’s. ...It’s very not,” finished Jake lamely.
Dirk stared at him, sized him up, and seemed to be weighing his options.
“You, a prince who has apparently abdicated all positions of power as it is, are asking me, the reigning king of the land that’s currently allowing you to stay within it with certain restrictions due to the being at war with your country of origin, how to.. be a better royal leader.”
“Or leader in general. A bit more callous,” Jake admitted. “I was meant to be next in line for the crown before we left. I could have done it, if pressed, but not well. Not really, not with my heart entirely in it. But hearing you speak? It’s like hearing my father’s words cut the air! How do you do that?!”
“Are you out of your fucking mind or just stupid.”
“You see! Like that!” Jake said, pointing Dirk’s direction, face lighting up. “Just like that, how do you do that so easily!”
Again Dirk stared at his earlier helper, trying to decide if he really was crazy or pulling his leg, before he finally cracked a lopsided grin. Okay. He’d bite.
“...Fine. You’re a strange one, but I’ll consider this your one direct request allotment while staying here. First lesson: stop acting like an overly eager puppy in conversation, it sets you up for failure.”
“Like a-? Oh. Yes, of course,” Jake chuckled. “My apologies, I’m not normally like this when important things are happening, when I’m focused. I’m just a bit excited is all.”
Dirk looked away as he slipped up into his soft bedding, slender legs disappearing beneath the sheets and blanket before shuffling to remain propped up during conversation. He’d be back up soon as this Prospitian left his damned room, but for now he may as well humor his concerns and give the appearance of resting or at least a supposed intention to rest.
“Oh, of course,” he said, though his tone belied his belief. “You’re only like this because of me, surely.”
“Because of being somewhere so new with someone who has the talents I’d like to acquire, yes!” Jake said, apparently none the wiser to Dirk’s inner thoughts. He beamed in place, a perky sun in the presence of an exhausted moon.
“Lesson two: cease being an open book. What people can read from you should be merely the specific script you’ve laid out for them and nothing more,” Dirk said, leaning back into his cushions and crossing his arms over his stomach. Okay, this was more comfortable than sitting upright, especially after the coughing fit. A little longer wouldn’t hurt anyone. “I know you can’t be this hopeless. Show me your face you wear when you’re conducting official business.”
Jake was like a different man. It took a moment but he straightened his back, tamed his smile and pulled up the charm instead. He was appealing and looked approachable, and when he finally spoke it was with soft enunciation that bespoke confidence. All in all, when he was trying, Jake looked a bit like a different person.
“You seem to have a firm enough grasp on everything already, why are you asking for advice and acting like an imbecile the rest of the time if you’re capable enough at first glance.”
Jake sighed and slumped somewhat.
“Because it’s all an act. You don’t seem to be acting much at all, you just have this air about you naturally. How can I do that?” asked Jake, frowning. “I’d like to be able to just have it be like a lit candle, happening while I wanted it to without needing to focus the entire time on it, then be able to snuff it out when the work is done without it being so drastic.”
“You’re asking the impossible,” Dirk decided with a shake of his head. “The most I can offer is some advice, but you’re asking the impossible and I can make no promises as to that.” It was getting harder to will himself away from the cushions, and he could feel fatigue creeping up his body from his toes like spreading frostbite, but the trap was already set. Damn it all, it looked like rest would be coming his way whether he wanted it or not, at least for a time. “Everyone wears masks, you just need to be more strategic in how you are while removing it or placing it on so it’s less shocking, it seems like.”
Jake continued to frown, but he looked like he was parsing Dirk’s words closely as he could, trying to weigh the options out.
“I don’t think everyone’s always wearing masks, that would be no way to live,” he said. “But you’re right in the donning part of the equation I suppose. Perhaps I should mind myself closer whilst the mask is off, it’ll feel more natural to put it on then?”
Made as good of sense as anything else Jake had thought of.
When Dirk didn’t reply with the same speed as before, Jake glanced up from the middle distance he’d been staring at in thought, surprised. The king, still gray in the face, was settled in repose with his chin gently turned at an angle, head drooping down towards his chest. Slow, even breaths made his chest rise and fall beneath the blankets, and every so often he’d imperceptibly twitch a muscle here or there as if trying and failing to rouse himself. Sleep had claimed him, whether he wanted to be claimed or not, and Jake couldn’t help but grin a bit. Unconscious Dirk didn’t seem nearly as imposing a figure. If anything he looked younger than he was when the crease between his brows was gone, making him look more similar to Dave than before. Perhaps it was this similarity that made Jake’s hand reach out to smooth the bangs away from Dirk’s brow before he froze and yanked his hand back as if stung and rose to his feet. Easy now, mind your manners, mind your hands. Don’t do weird things in a place that’s potentially going to kill you on a whim.
“Perhaps we’ll continue speaking later,” Jake said quietly once he calmed himself down. He bowed, a sign of respect he felt he owed Dirk even if the other wasn’t awake, before he quietly turned and left the room, sliding the door shut with a gentle click behind himself.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
“Jake?” Dave asked, surprised when the elder prince entered his chambers. John was reclined on the foot of his bed comfortably as if he were back in his own room, head cradled on the palm of his hand, and Dave was propped up with his back against his lover’s stomach and hips so they could share a book together. Another book was open in front of John, acting as a translation key they could both access. “I was wondering where you went, you were gone for so long.”
“Dirk and I shared a few words and time got away from us,” Jake chuckled after a moment.
“Really? I didn’t think that he’d have shared his time with you, based on how he was acting before,” Dave admitted, marking his place in the book before closing it and setting it down at his side.
Jake came closer before sitting on the bed as well, humming as he settled near John’s feet and leaned back with his weight on his palms. He lifted his chin a bit and clucked softly, pursing his lips as he thought over his words. “Mm. Perhaps it’s the elder brother in both of us, but I think we hit it off fairly well enough. Was allowed into his chambers and we discussed a few things, I believe he’ll be more interested in talking tomorrow though. He seemed quite sleepy when I left.”
“Dirk? Sleepy? Hah, I haven’t seen him sleepy since I was little,” Dave admitted. “It’s like he never sleeps. He’s always into something, up to something, making things, doing things.. Any time I used to try going to his room, he was always already awake.”
“Well. Maybe he was just feeling a bit tired from all the sudden changes the day has brought and the stress such things bring with it,” Jake said, shrugging his broad shoulders. He could still see the red drips between those pale fingers, the seething look in those golden eyes. A proud, pained, haughty man doing his god damned best to pretend everything was perfectly fine with more effort than even his body could keep up with... There was an unspoken honor Jake felt on keeping what he’d seen secretive, and that unspoken promise would be honored to the best of his ability. It wasn’t his secret to divulge, and what little trust he’d managed to scrape up between them so far would be thrown out the window in a hurry if he opened his trap now. “Aside from that though, how did you two finish your meal? Well I hope?”
“Oh, yes. We just started tucking back into that book again and.. Jake, it’s kind of amazing,” Dave admitted. “I think we have a real treasure on our hands.”
“Or a real sack of lies, depending on how you look at it,” John said quietly, gaining a huff from Dave. He reached for the closed book and wiggled it a bit for emphasis. “If we’re reading this correctly, this accounts for the missing prince and princess of Prospit and Derse proper, back before the war.”
Jake quirked a brow. “How so?”
“They apparently wanted to be wed without the political mess hanging over their heads. They wanted to marry for love.. So they fled,” Dave said. “Dropped responsibilities, made it look like a massacre and fled to Skaia.”
“What’s the purpose of that though? Wouldn’t they know that the fighting would just break out?” Jake said with a frown. “If that’s the truth, they should have just come back and explained things when everything started to grow worse.”
“Maybe they did,” Dave said. “We haven’t gotten too far in it, and there’s more of the book to go. I can’t imagine why anyone would turn their back on their country in such a way though.”
John cleared his throat. “Oh, I don’t know, it doesn’t seem that far fetched considering I abandoned Prospit to bring you to Derse. Is your memory acting up again, Dave? Headache coming on?”
Dave rolled his eyes. “This is very different. We were already deep in war for this long, it would have continued even if I came alone. I don’t know what can be done to stop something like this for certain.. But in the past, before there was this much history of bloodshed, what purpose would such a stunt serve? It makes no sense to me.”
Jake reached over for the book and flipped through it for a moment till he realized it was in Skaian, then handed it back. “Pity, I feel such a book would do well with some illustrations.”
“Don’t you have things with your prince in them? Books with illustrations I mean,” Dave asked curiously.
“Oh, yes, here and there. To not forget him,” he said. “...It does seem odd that they’d not include her as well, but then again perhaps it’s for the best. Avoided making her look like some horrid crone out of anger.”
“She was lovely, and I’ve no doubt the prince was handsome,” Dave said. “But I agree, I’d like to see them together at least once. If this is true and they loved each other enough to run away from everything, they must have been very devoted to each other already.”
“For an arranged political marriage that’s rare,” John said. “I already know some of the people my father had eyes on for marriage prospects and honestly I can’t imagine a romance like that happening from such a quick meeting...”
“What, you didn’t want to kiss me after I wound up beneath your bed like a beast when I was first in your chambers?” Dave asked with a smirk, reaching back to ruffle John’s messy hair. He wound up squeezed around the middle for his troubles, dragged backwards when John rolled with him in his bearlike grasp till he was shuffled for dear life and squeezed bodily with his legs and arms at the same time between laughs. “I yield! I yield!”
Jake smiled softly at their antics. This was the entire reason they’d left, at the core of it all. To protect this.
“Even if it wasn’t immediate, it was still surprising you two wound up hitting it off as well as you did. If you’d just wound up blending in like any other servant I don’t know how our lives would have turned out differently.”
“I’d rather not think of the alternatives,” John admitted. “It’s been enough of a ride to just get here, and even with the bumps I’m happy. Satisfied.”
“Satisfied wearing a collar in my brother’s court?”
“Eh. We’re not being forced into actual servitude, I can bear wearing some heavy jewelry for a while,” he chuckled, releasing Dave finally and finding himself even more pleased when the Dersite didn’t flee his side, instead tucking himself nice and close in a more comfortable position. “Besides, it’s all a formality. Nobody’s treating us any different.”
“We’re getting stared at plenty,” Jake corrected.
“Can you blame them for gawking? A set of Prospitians suddenly in the heart of the castle, wandering around with the missing prince? You stand out a good deal.”
“Yeah, we’re twice your size.”
“You’re also terribly handsome,” Dave smirked, clearing his throat when he could all but hear Jake roll his eyes playfully. “Anyway. ...I’m glad you and my brother apparently get on, Jake. Things could be a lot worse if you didn’t get along with him. My influence or not.”
“Speaking of your influence,” Jake said, “what are your plans for things? If you remain and the marriage takes place.”
“I plan on doing what I can, but I don’t plan on pushing myself,” Dave admitted. “I’ve been away and out of the loop for so long I’m concerned I’ll be seen as a novelty more than as a prince anymore, at least for a time. People will be wanting to see me just to see me, not to hear what I’ve got to say.”
“See you and your pet Prospitian,” John joked, taking up Dave’s hand to kiss his fingers. The slim digits wiggled briefly in front of his lips before going still once more, letting him do as he pleased.
“What about you, Jake? If things are well and we remain, are you going to stay too? Or go adventuring?”
“Mm. I’m not certain… It doesn’t feel quite right to just leave, anymore,” Jake admitted. Not since his talk with Dirk, at least. “I believe there are things in Derse I could learn, for instance. And if there’s any hope of Jade or Jane achieving power-”
“We’re still hoping Prospit doesn’t unleash a hellish attack on us for my taking you two here,” Dave interrupted, worrying his lip for a moment. John squeezed his hand and he ceased his nervous nibbling a moment later.
“I have faith in Jade and Jane,” John said. “They’re capable and intelligent, I doubt they’re going to just keep following orders forever.”
“...Are you suggesting they stage a coup?” Jake asked.
“I’m suggesting they stage a coup,” John said with a grin. “Jade has the military at her command, and she’s the best they’ve got. If she took power from father… then she and Jane would be the ones in command.”
“And they’d be willing to listen,” Dave said. “Or, at least, to talk with my brother about all of this.”
“Well. I doubt it will just end the war overnight. Even if a peaceful solution is found, or something of importance is done, there will be infighting for ages,” John said. “This much bad blood doesn’t just disappear. But it would stop Skaia from being in such a militarized zone, and we’d stop waging constant skirmishes back and forth for territory. Instead we’d be able to join forces to settle outbreaks of violence as they occur and try to integrate people along the lines more than what they are now.”
“You know, for someone who claims to not have much of an interest in politics, you’re quite adept at them,” Jake said with a grin. “I suppose we’d best start finding ways to send word to the girls we’ve arrived safely, strike up some form of communication in case they need assistance.”
“Hey, I must have picked SOMETHING up from all those lessons I had to sit and listen to over the years. Also… what assistance can we really give?” John said with a shrug. “We’re three. Any assistance from Derse would be frowned upon, I believe.”
“It would look like we were taking over, instead of putting someone level headed on the throne,” Dave agreed. “I think right now, the ball is in your sisters’ court.”
“I think right now it’s too late to be talking politics when we’ve barely been here and in one piece for any length of time,” John said with a yawn. “What time do we sleep ?”
Dave stretched a bit, popping a spot in his upper back. “Any time I suppose. It’s not as if we have an audience to attend to in the morning. Just breakfast with my family.”
Breakfast with the family sounded so casual, it was almost easy to forget how things stood now, how they were being kept. How tense things truly were behind the civility, now that the added threat of danger was looming on the horizon. No, Jake decided. Dave was home and celebrated, and things were going to be positive, at least for a little while. He would deal with Dirk in his own way while learning from him, perhaps. Grease the wheels for their younger siblings and their romance.
After all, what better could come out of a war between two parties than star crossed love like this? He glanced over towards Dave and John, who were caught in a fit of murmuring quietly to each other as they adjusted things around them, sorting out where to set the books they’d been looking over so they’d not get damaged before Rose could see them, trying to decide if John wanted underneath the blankets or not as Dave himself casually tucked himself into place.
The world was gone for them, and all that existed was a sweet, slightly somber bedtime routine that had taken place so many nights in reverse that he’d honestly lost count. They exchanged a chaste kiss before Dave nestled into the crook of John’s shoulder and chest, both glancing down to the foot of the bed at Jake with a grin.
“Feels odd to have beds again, doesn’t it?” John asked. “Even if we weren’t outdoors for that long, not being in a sleeping pack is strange.”
“Same with not all huddling together,” Dave admitted.
“Well, you two seem to be huddling plenty,” Jake said with a grin of amusement.
“...There’s room for one more,” Dave said, patting the other side of the mattress. “If you’d like company in a new place for the first night, I mean, rather than making do in the cot.”
“Rethinking my offer of taking turns servicing you, eh?” Jake joked, already moving to take the invitation. He slipped up with a jingle behind Dave, giving him room but being more than content to snatch one of the many cushions for himself to use with his head and a folded arm.
“Perhaps. You’ll make a fine source of warmth,” Dave chuckled. “Though, I’d recommend you both get under the blanket. The fires are warm now, but they’ll die out by morning, and I don’t want you two getting sick so soon, after finally making it here.”
Without a word, the brothers rose up and slipped beneath the offered covers, soon curling closer together, Dave in the center like a pearl hidden between the shells of an oyster. He smiled softly, content and comfortable, and feeling safer than he had before. Even in his own home, learned habits of safety died hard, and it wasn’t till his friend was near as his lover that Dave could settle down and sleep.
John followed not long after, exhausted after the long day, but Jake remained awake a time longer, green eyes alert and lingering in the dark. Wondering as to what the other royals were doing, and if a certain golden eyed king was still asleep or if he was awake once more burning the midnight oil running a kingdom on his own ruined spine. When sleep claimed him, it was dreamless and dark as ink, but miraculously… restful.