When the weight of the past grew too heavy for him, the Prince would lie in bed and stare at the stars through the window.
The Swan would then lie alongside him, enfolding him with his arms, keeping him safe, and he would murmur their secret. “Once upon a time...”
The Prince would close his eyes and remember.
Once upon a time, there was a swan, white-feathered and proud, who lived on the lake of a city park and who reigned, alone, over his flock. He was stronger, faster and sometimes crueler than the other birds.
The Swan had not always been a bird. Many years ago, he had defied his father, fought against his ambitions, and been punished for it. His voice had been taken from him and his body shaped into that of a swan.
In a way, he had found his freedom. He was free from his father's machinations, from complex human emotions, and society's constraints.
And if he sometimes felt alone, with a human mind trapped in the body of a swan, he could fly away and forget about it for a little while.
When the Prince threw himself in the lake, the Swan felt the ripples of water under his body, and it shook something inside of him.
The moon was full and he could transform partly into his old shape, not completely a man, but no longer a swan either. He dove after the Prince. The water felt colder against his bare skin and the Swan had to remember how to use his arms and legs to swim.
He soon had a grip on the Prince and he pulled him up and dragged him to the shore. The Prince didn't fight him and let himself be dropped on the ground.
The Swan stared at the Prince. He had seen him before, but his human memories were often as tangible as the mist, and he couldn't remember when or where. Only the present was clear, the stillness of the night, the faint light of the moon, the smells and sounds of the park and that this man, kneeling and shivering before the Swan, was the Prince.
The Swan could feel the water dripping down his naked torso, his feathered thighs. He could also feel the pull of the curse to change back. He moved closer to the lake, and let the change come. He drew himself as tall as he could, his wings outstretched.
The Prince stared at the Swan. He raised his hand as if he wanted to reach out and touch. The Swan flapped his wings and snapped with his beak in warning. The Prince's face was a mixture of fear and desire. It rang something in the Swan's breast.
He flew away.
Sometimes, the Swan's father would come by to feed the swans and talk to his son. He always wore a tailor-made suit with all the emblems that proved his importance in the royal court.
The sight was enough for the Swan to want simultaneously to fly away and to peck at him until there was nothing left but shreds of fabric. Unfortunately, he could never hurt or ignore his father, who possessed the Swan's voice and the control that came with it.
And so the Swan would paddle closer to hear, but not to listen to, his father's plans to increase his power and his promises that the Swan could be human again, if only he would bend his will and obey. Didn't his son see all the power to be gained, the wealth to be acquired?
Where his father saw power and wealth, the Swan saw mirages and shackles. The only way to answer was by paddling as far away as the magical bond would allow, until all the Swan could feel was the pain radiating to the tips of his feathers.
Eventually, his father would leave, angry. He always did.
The Prince came back the following night. The Swan, hidden in the reeds, looked on as some of the other swans drew closer to the bank. The Prince looked at each in turn; he didn't come closer and only stood back when one of the swans advanced menacingly, long wings beating fast and long neck forward.
The Swan bristled at this. He flew in between the other swans and the Prince, and he pecked at any that refused to leave. The Prince knelt on the edge of the river and smiled. “I thought I'd dreamed you,” he said.
The Swan cautiously approached. The moon was still full and the Swan could still transform. He pulled himself onto the bank. He felt heavy and clumsy in this form, but he was still as powerful physically. Some members of his flock came closer, still radiating aggressiveness, but they contented themselves with observing.
The Prince kept still and said, “Who... what are you?”
The Swan understood, but couldn't answer the question. He drew closer, his gait still that of a bird, but he stopped when the Prince raised his hand. It hovered for a breath or two between them. The Swan was inexplicably fascinated by the Prince, but he wasn't ready to be touched, to trust a perfect stranger.
He met the man's eyes; he didn't move, backward or forward. He waited for the Prince to understand.
When the Prince lowered his hand, he also drew into himself, arms and legs closer to his body, and he lost his smile.
The Swan walked around the Prince, every circle drawing him closer. When he was ready, he pressed his upper body to the man's back. The Swan tucked his head on the man's shoulder and took a deep breath. The Prince smelled human and felt warm, even through layers of clothing.
The Prince was rigid against the Swan and didn't move. The Swan pressed harder until the tension disappeared and the Prince leaned back, his head resting on the Swan's and his breathing ragged.
The smells brought back memories. The Swan remembered what to do with his arms. He swept his hands down the Prince's arms; he curled his arms around the Prince and pulled him closer. The Prince cradled in his embrace, the Swan felt protective and powerful. He dug his fingers in the man's flesh and thought, mine.
Days turned into weeks; leaves changed colour and fell.
The Prince kept visiting at night. As often as I can, he would whisper into the Swan's feathers.
During his visits, the Prince would speak of his loneliness, of the weight of his crown, of his desire for freedom and love. They were whispers, murmured only for the Swan's ears. The Swan could not share his own loneliness and feelings, but he would seek comfort by embracing, with his arms or his wings, his Prince.
When the full moon came again, the Swan changed into his other form and waited on the bank for the Prince. He also kept an eye on the restless flock.
When the Prince arrived, he smiled at the Swan and said, unnecessarily, “I missed you.” Of course the Prince had missed him, just as the Swan had, an absence felt deep into his bones, filling up what was hollow in him.
He grabbed the Prince's hand and led him to a secluded area, as far away from the lake as the curse allowed him. He pulled him to the ground. The Swan had grown unused to human clothing after all this time and fumbled with the buttons on the Prince's clothes.
The Prince sat, pliant and obedient as always. He laughed and tried to help only when the Swan grew frustrated and pulled this way and that to remove all the layers the Prince wore on his upper body. Once the last barrier was removed, the Swan gathered the Prince close. He revelled on the sensation of skin against skin and skin against feather. The Prince felt so fragile against the Swan's body and under his will.
And yet, he had so much power over the Swan. When days passed without the Prince visiting, the Swan would grow angry and violent. And when he visited, his sad words were often enough to shatter the Swan's fragile happiness.
That night, the Prince clung to the Swan as tightly as he was hugged and whispered, “There is to be a ball tomorrow night. Mother has invited all the princes and princesses of Europe. I think I am to be married.” His voice was distant, as it always was when the Queen was mentioned.
The Swan couldn't cry his anger or stop the violence of his jealousy. He kissed the Prince for the first time and drew back only when he tasted blood.
This time, he expected and looked forward to his father's visit.
This time, after the usual arguments, the Swan didn't swim or fly away. He gave the answer his father wanted. He bowed his head.
As his body became completely human again, as his own cries of pain and his father's laughter rang in his ears, the Swan clung to the idea that he would find a way out, for himself and the Prince.
Music floated through the open doors and windows. The Swan stood on the parapet, stone in front of him, only emptiness behind him. Briefly, through a window, he would catch glimpses of the Prince dancing, talking or ignoring the people around him as he daydreamed.
Was the Prince thinking of the Swan as the Swan longed for him?
When the trumpets sounded, his father's signal, he entered the room. People moved out of his way, as the swans of his flock would do for him. He looked to the right, to the Prince, but his father was watching. He drew away and looked to the left where the Queen was.
He did as his father had planned. He pretended to want the Queen. He seduced the women in the room; he danced with all of them. He could feel the Prince's betrayed and hurt eyes digging into him; it fueled the anger and the passion in him to play his father's game.
As he danced and seduced, his skin felt tight against his bones, his human body heavy and too warm.
He danced and looked away as much as he could from the Prince. The night was still young; the Swan needed time to win his father's game.
As the night grew older, more and more guests lost their shoes, items of clothing, and inhibitions.
When the Queen came back to the dance hall, the Swan was supposed to pull her onto the dance floor, but his emotions could only be controlled for so long. The blonde woman who had been circling the Prince since the beginning approached him for a dance, and the Swan had to separate them.
That small loss of control led to others: he danced without paying attention to his partners; he couldn't take his eyes from the Prince, who looked sad and lost; he lost the rhythm of the dances; his passion turned to violence.
By the time the band started playing a Viennese waltz, the Swan had placed the whole dance floor and the dancers between his father and himself. He looked for the Prince, who had once again been found by the pretty, blonde dancer.
The Swan thought, enough. Enough of this game, of the lies, of his father's strings. He stalked toward the Prince; he wished he had his wings once again, so he could scare away the woman, put his impressive white body between her and the Prince.
The Swan's angry gaze was enough to make her stay put as he pulled the Prince away, to the balcony. His grip was too tight, he knew, but they had only a few moments before his father noticed his absence. He could feel the Prince's reluctance to follow him, something which had never happened before. It angered the Swan.
The balcony was empty, the air cold on the Swan's fevered face and the stars bright against the dark sky. The Prince said, “How...”
The Swan had his voice now; he could speak, but it would take too much time to explain about his father, about his past. And they'd never needed words between them to understand what was important.
He climbed the parapet and held out his hand. The Prince took it and followed him. The Swan took the time to hold him close and kiss him, gentler than he'd ever been before; he could feel the Prince go soft against him. The Swan wanted to wipe away the hurt along with the sweat on the Prince's brow; he thought that maybe he would have the time to do it now.
The Swan drew back and stood, his back to the castle and its confining stones. He held out his hand. The Prince took it and adopted the same position.
They looked down, and together, they flew.