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Prince Cole heard the noise in the hall, the loud voices and cries of surprise. He didn’t bother to look up from his book until the door burst open to reveal Captain Lucas Hayes of the Royal Guard in his black uniform, with a dagger at his hip. He looked harried and worried and slightly pissed off. Cole pointed to the table in front of him. “I had them make that soup you like.”

Lucas’s mouth twitched upward in a bit of a smile before he got it back under control. He turned to address the people in the hall for a moment, and then came in alone, shutting the door behind him. “I figured you’d be expecting me, Your Highness. How much detail did your third eye give you?”

“I don’t have three eyes,” Cole reminded him wearily. “I just see fetches. And if you say Did I look fetching this time I will scream.”

“I always look fetching,” Lucas informed him.

He had, of course. Cole had seen Lucas’s stupidly good-looking astral projection right after breakfast, tall, blond, and armed, walking around looking worried, a few hours before he’d done it for real. Fetches were doubles, doppelgangers, apparitions of a living person, pantomiming their future actions. Cole had seen them nearly all his life, silent previews of something that would soon take place.

At first the fetches had scared Cole, but he’d quickly come to realize that predictions of the future could be quite useful. He’d also quickly come to realize that talking about the fetches was not a good idea. No one else ever saw them, and it was a bit of a problem to have a royal child doing something bizarre like claiming to see the future, so Prince Cole had needed to disavow them as childhood imagination. Lucas was the only one who knew the truth. He was the son of a noble who lived at court, and was only a few years older than Cole, so they’d grown up together in the palace. 

“So what’s happened to make you leave home and join me all the way out here in the realm of King Edward?” Cole asked.

“There’s been a threat on your life.”

Cole put his book down, keeping a well-practiced composure. “I’m not surprised. I’m brokering a peace between two kingdoms that have been at war for decades. Obviously, not everyone is on board.” He sighed. “Look, you can go home, Luc. There are plenty of guards here. Your old friend George, for one, right down the hall.”

That smile twitched on Lucas’s face again. “The queen seems to be of the opinion that I’m the only guard you’ll actually listen to.”

Cole snorted a laugh. “How on earth did my mother get that idea?”

“No clue.” Lucas sat down at the table, picking up a spoon. “Thanks for the soup. I’m staying, Cole. You don’t get a choice.”

Even while eating soup, Lucas was scanning Cole’s quarters as if he expected an assassin to pop up from behind a sofa. Cole rolled his eyes and stood up to make a sweep of the room. He had dressed in a man’s shirt and pants today, and a necklace strung with tiny silver beads that clinked together over his collarbone as he made a show of looking into every darkened corner. “See?” he asked. “No foreign armies to be found.”

Lucas didn’t answer, just watching Cole in that way he had— part protective, part friendly, part a formal distance that Cole despised. Things had been so different once, so much easier. They’d been inseparable growing up, two little boys getting into trouble together, putting the blame on each other, making up later, and then getting into more trouble. 

By the age of ten Prince Cole had it all planned out: he was not expected to make a match of alliance, so there was nothing to keep him from choosing his friend Lucas as a suitor, and he was determined to do exactly that. And there had been one moment— one perfect afternoon where it had seemed that maybe Lucas had been thinking the same way. They’d been teenagers, and in the middle of a snowball fight Lucas had tugged Cole against him and kissed him. It was a nice kiss, soft first and warm later, and when it was over, Lucas had this kind of goofy smile on his face.

But only a few days after that Lucas had been tapped to start intensive Guard training. The world began to pull them in different directions, and then suddenly they’d been adults in largely separate roles. Cole was a prince and a well-respected mediator in times of conflict. Lucas was Captain of the Royal Guard, a position that he loved, one he’d fought hard for. One that he would have to give up if he became a royal spouse. They still spent time together, but the world had rounded off their edges enough that their lives really didn’t touch the way they’d used to.

So now, even though Lucas continued to look at Cole with the same bright blue eyes, even though he’d grown even more infuriatingly handsome as he aged, with broad shoulders and large, capable hands, even though Cole could remember exactly how it felt to be in his arms with their mouths pressed together— they were still just friends. Cole had no idea if they could ever be more, and a practiced negotiator knew not to ask a question to which he did not know the answer.

“We don't have concrete information about who's behind the threat,” Lucas said. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen anything?”

“Oh, yes,” Cole assured him, leaning against the wall and folding his arms over his chest. “I’ve seen hundreds of fetches of assassins accosting me. I’ll be lucky to leave here alive.”

Lucas did not look amused. “And you didn’t—” He didn’t have to finish the sentence. Cole knew what he meant.

The fetches that Cole saw were usually a mixed bag—  boring or funny, sometimes bizarre. They weren’t frightening, once Cole had gotten used to them. Except once.

Cole had been fourteen. He’d walked into a room to find a man there, staring at him. The man was clearly an apparition, but he didn’t act like a fetch normally did, didn’t walk about pantomiming some action he would take the next day— laughing, eating, silently arguing with an unseen person. He just stood there, staring right at Cole, his head and eyes still, but his arms jerking around like a marionette. And then he’d vanished.

Cole had mentioned it to Lucas that evening, as they ate dinner on the balcony of Cole’s room. It had unsettled Cole, and Lucas had tried to reassure him. They hadn’t realized what it meant until they heard a cry in the courtyard below and saw a horse startle and kick out with its hooves. A man fell to the ground, his neck bent strangely, and Cole could see his face clearly. It was the man who’d appeared to him that morning. That horrible apparition hadn't really been a fetch. It had been a warning.

“No,” Cole told Lucas now. “I’ve still only seen the one death omen. And I never see myself anyway, you know that.” When Lucas still looked irritated, Cole scowled at him. “Why are you so worried? For heaven’s sake, you’re a royal guard, you do this for a living.”

“I don’t act as your personal bodyguard for a living,” Lucas said quietly. “It’s different.”

Cole tried to fight the flush that wanted to come onto his cheeks. He kept his tone carefully casual. “Well, you have your work cut out for you. I have to go to a state dinner tonight, and it might turn out to be a terribly dangerous affair, what with everyone being issued three forks.”

Lucas groaned, tossing his spoon into the empty soup bowl and rubbing a hand over his eyes. “I know about the dinner. I’m supposed to go with you. Can’t let you out of my sight until this is over, your mother’s orders.”

Cole had to look away, trying not to imagine how it would be, Lucas as his companion all evening. “You’ll be bored out of your mind,” he protested.

Lucas waved a hand dismissively. “Please just tell me your third eye has shown you something entertaining for tonight.”

Cole sighed. He could recognize when further negotiation would be pointless. “You’ll want to watch Lady Gisbourne.”

oOo

Lady Gisbourne, as it turned out, had been rude to the servants since she arrived, and in the middle of the dinner, as Cole had foreseen, the fussy lady spilled wine all over herself. Lucas had to admit that it was rather fun to watch. But he was having a little trouble concentrating on that, because he was seated at the table next to Cole, watching him make polite conversation with heads of state as if it were normal— which for him, of course, it was.

They didn’t do this. Lucas was not royalty, so he never acted as Cole’s escort, never accompanied him into this sphere. They spent time together, sure, they had lunches and went for runs and spent free afternoons in the palace library, but that was just Cole and Lucas, lifelong friends. That was with Cole wearing casual clothes, his hair gathered in a loose braid, talking with his mouth full, and throwing various convenient light-weight objects at Lucas when he got annoyed. This was His Royal Highness Prince Cole in a formal blue gown that wrapped tightly around his slender waist and bared his shoulders, with a circlet of diamonds woven into his dark hair.

This, Lucas had to admit to himself, was maybe more than he could handle.

Cole was glorious like this. He was intelligent and witty, able to say the right things at the right time, to gracefully steer conversations where he wanted them to go. He had been trained in royal diplomacy, of course, but he clearly had a natural talent for it, a mind that could take a problem and turn it around to consider it from every angle, even while the opposite sides screamed about their grievances. Cole was unflappable, reassuring, and kind to all parties while not appearing vulnerable to any one particular side. It was no wonder that he had quickly become the most sought-after diplomatic mediator in all the surrounding kingdoms.

Of course, Cole also had another extremely useful gift, one that only Lucas knew about. Lucas had expected to see it in action during the dinner, to watch Cole magically anticipate what other heads of state were going to say and have a well-reasoned response ready. But to Lucas’s great irritation, he had to watch Cole use it for a less palatable reason.

An older man— some court hanger on, here only for the spectacle— leaned over the table and looked at Lucas, sneering a little. Lucas was not in uniform now, they’d provided him with attire suitable for the occasion. But it was clear that everyone knew Lucas didn’t really belong at this dinner, that he wouldn’t be here at Cole’s side unless it was absolutely necessary. 

The man said nothing to Lucas, but then his eyes passed to Cole and he looked him up and down with even more distaste, focusing on the gown he wore. Lucas bristled, but Cole was serene as the man spit out, “You know, I was under the impression that Queen Charlotte had a son.”

Cole’s dark eyes opened wide in mock surprise. “My goodness, really?” he asked. “I was under the impression that you, the Count of Wilson, had manners! I must apologize to you, sir, because it seems that while you are quite correct, I appear to have been dreadfully mistaken.”

There was laughter at this, and the man flushed red and turned away from them. Cole took a sip of water— he was never careless enough to drink at an official function. He gave Lucas a smile and said quietly, “Saw it a couple of hours ago, so I had time to think of a retort.”

“So you had to hear it twice?”

Cole looked a little surprised. “Well, technically, I read his lips the first time. Fetches are silent. But it’s nothing I haven’t heard before. And certainly nothing I need a bodyguard for.”

Lucas made some sort of little growling noise. “I would do that one free-lance.”

Cole laughed and a beautiful flush crept over his cheeks. Lucas had to take a drink of his own water. 

After dinner, there was a reception, because of course there was. Lucas felt sure enough of Cole to stand a little distance away as the prince sat in an elegant armchair and chatted with King Edward and Queen Bernice, who were the parties involved in the negotiations. 

Lucas had imagined it, of course, since they’d been boys. What it would be like to marry Cole, to be Prince Consort, to accompany Cole to affairs of state like this. But it was a ridiculous idea. Cole was so sure-spoken, but Lucas would never know what to say. He’d embarrass himself, embarrass them both.

And even if they could somehow overcome that, Lucas didn’t know what Cole felt for him. Lucas had kissed Cole once, in the snow, and it had been the most amazing thing he’d ever felt. Cole in his arms, all those gangly limbs of his held close and quieted, that brilliant mouth focused just on Lucas, just on what could be made of the two of them, together.

But it had only happened once. They had never talked about the kiss, and Cole had never initiated anything. At this point, with Cole moving in the highest circles of society, affecting the futures of nations— anything that would become of their relationship would have to come from him. Lucas no longer had the option of stealing a kiss.

As Lucas watched Cole, he was joined by an old friend, George, who was now one of King Edward’s guards. George was a little older and stockier than Lucas, with dark hair and a severe look. He’d spent years by Lucas’s side in Queen Charlotte’s Guard.

“I’m glad they sent you,” George remarked. “You’re the best they have.”

“Only since you left.”

George snorted a laugh. “Ah, they tapped you over me for the Captaincy, remember. They knew what they were doing.”

Lucas laughed. “They just thought Cole would listen to me. I still have no idea where people get that idea. Anyway, you’ve made Captain here, and it suits you.”

George nodded. “It’s a difficult job, as you know. It will be easier when Prince Cole gets everyone to sign the peace treaty. Then the armies will largely disband and what’s left will come under my command here in the kingdom.”

“You are definitely moving up in the world. Any update on the threat?”

“We’re working a couple of angles here,” George said, “but we think it’s most likely someone from this kingdom who opposes the peace. We’re looking into Queen Bernice’s people as well, of course, mostly her own Guard from home, since they have more freedom of movement than the diplomats. But still, people who live here have more access to Cole.”

“I was thinking the same thing,” Lucas said. “But I’m very glad you’re handling it so that I can focus on Cole. I don’t know how seriously he’s even taking this, nothing flusters him—” Lucas broke off as Cole made a tell-tale motion, tilting his head a little and focusing on something beyond the people he was talking to. He was watching a fetch, Lucas knew. But for some reason, whatever Cole was seeing made him suddenly flush bright red.

It was definitely not Lucas’s place to drag Prince Cole out of a conversation with other royalty, but Lucas’s worry superseded his manners. He strode to Cole’s side and offered a bow to everyone, then held out his hand to Cole. “Your Highness, please forgive the intrusion, but there is an urgent security matter.”

Lucas regretted his action a little bit when Cole just blushed harder looking at Lucas’s offered hand. But he took it, offering his apologies to the King and Queen. Lucas wanted to put his arm around Cole and fast-walk him back to his quarters, but he settled for grasping him gently by the arm and guiding him somewhat-gracefully out of the room to the hallway beyond. 

As soon as they were alone, Lucas demanded, “What did you see? What’s going to happen?”

Cole scowled at him. “Is that why you interrupted me? For a fetch?”

Lucas tightened his grip on Cole’s arm. “What’s coming? You have to tell me—” 

Cole tugged his arm free and smoothed down his gown. His blush was fading now, his usual serene manner returning, to Lucas’s irritation. “It’s nothing, I promise. Unrelated to my safety.”

“Bull. Whatever you saw freaked you out.”

“But it wasn’t related to my safety,” Cole repeated calmly. “So it’s none of your business.”

Lucas stared at him. “None of my—”

“Am I,” Cole asked gently, “now required to tell you all the contents of my own mind?”

Lucas threw up his hands in frustration. “Fine. You know what? I’m just going to let them murder you.”

Cole smirked. “If I see your fetch running from danger, I’ll definitely let you know.”

Lucas growled at him. “Why on earth do people think you listen to me?”

“I came out into the hallway with you, didn’t I?” Cole asked. “If it’s related to security, Luc, I do listen.”

In a perfect world, Lucas would have kissed him then. He would have crowded Cole up against the wall, slid one hand into his dark hair and the other around the waist of that blue gown and spent at least an hour tasting his mouth. Lucas would never win a debate with Cole, few people ever could, but in that perfect world, Lucas would have another option, a wordless gesture that could say all that Cole needed to understand: I’m worried about you, I need you to be safe. I love you.

Lucas didn’t reach for Cole, of course. He just snapped out something about taking Cole back to his quarters for security’s sake. Fortunately, even without Lucas attempting to man-handle him this time, Cole followed.

oOo

Cole lost his hard-fought composure as soon as he was alone in his bed chamber. He leaned up against the wall with a hand over his eyes, cutting off all sight. Not that he would ever be able to block out the fetch he’d just seen at the reception. 

Not that he would ever want to.

It wasn’t that Cole hadn’t understood that as his bodyguard, Lucas would have to sleep somewhere nearby, probably in the sitting room outside Cole’s bed chamber. That was fine. What Cole had failed to consider about the situation was that people did not tend to sleep in their uncomfortable day clothes.

Lucas was apparently planning to sleep in very few clothes at all.

Cole hadn’t seen Lucas undressed, even just with his shirt off, in years, not since they’d been much younger. Even when they exercised together, they weren’t in the habit of stripping down very far. It wasn’t seemly for men of their position to be seen so informally. 

Cole had imagined it, of course. He’d pictured Lucas in very few (and also no) clothes, but only in the privacy of his own mind. So when he’d seen Lucas’s fetch stroll past, without a stitch on except for a tight pair of breeches, Cole had just about lost it right in front of King Edward and Queen Bernice.

Lucas had always been good-looking and athletic. It wasn’t a surprise to Cole that he looked as glorious as he did when wearing only a pair of breeches. It was just a bit distracting.

What Cole needed to focus on were the questions that the fetch raised. It was clear that Cole was going to see Lucas at some point after they’d gone to bed. What Cole didn’t know was exactly when, and more importantly, why.  

Lucas’s fetch had been wearing a dagger at his hip, but that was common for him, and it was certainly not strange for a bodyguard to be armed. The fetch hadn’t said anything, and hadn’t drawn his weapon. He’d just looked around sharply and frowned. So Cole wasn’t sure what to expect. Was someone going to come into Cole’s rooms during the night? Would that person be friend or foe? Or were Cole and Lucas going to hear a noise and join up to investigate it? Was Lucas going to wake Cole to tell him about something?

That last one was not as likely. If Lucas had to talk to Cole, he probably would have put a shirt on first. Lucas being half-naked suggested that his sleep had been interrupted. Honestly, Cole really should have told Lucas about the fetch. Both of them being up during the night suggested that something surprising was going to happen. But, technically, Cole hadn’t seen anything directly related to his safety. If Lucas was going to have to draw his dagger or go for his sword, Cole had no forewarning of it. 

And besides, if Cole had tried to explain this vision to Lucas, he’d be nothing but a blushing mess, which was not something that was going to help matters any.

In any case, all of that left Cole with one final question that needed to be answered: what was he going to wear to bed? Knowing that Lucas was going to see him in night clothes was flustering him terribly. It wasn’t like Cole could stay fully dressed. When Lucas saw him, he would demand why and the truth about the fetch would come out.

Cole normally slept in a night gown or long shirt, and nothing else. Tonight, he finally decided, he would add a pair of breeches himself. 

Cole carefully pulled the pins from his hair and brushed it out. His hair fell in a thick dark curtain down his back, reaching his waist, curling slightly into waves after being twisted about all night. When he was changed, there was nothing to do but lie down in his bed and wait.

Cole had tried, as a kid, to change the future shown by fetches. He and Lucas had experimented with them at length. All the fetches involved Cole: they were something he would personally see within the next few hours. So if Cole saw his mother putting on her cloak to leave for the day, could Cole change the future by hiding as she was going? No, in that case, his mother would forget her cloak and end up walking right to where Cole had hidden and find it there. If Cole saw his tutor with a math book, could he hide the book? No, the tutor turned out to have two copies. 

Once when they were teenagers, Cole had foreseen Lucas walking somewhere, stopping, and then appearing to have lost something, patting his pockets for it and frowning. That day Lucas had been assigned to guard the armory, and they’d both carefully watched Lucas put the armory key in his pocket. On the way there, they’d been distracted by talking about something or other and hadn’t noticed that the key had torn a hole in Lucas’s pocket and fallen out on the way.

Fetches couldn’t be changed. So however and whenever Cole was going to see Lucas half-dressed, it was the way it was meant to happen. If they both heard a noise, fine. If they didn’t and Cole just wandered out there with some excuse because he really didn’t want to wait any longer and how was he supposed to sleep anyway knowing that Lucas was shirtless in the next room— 

After about an hour, Cole gave up. 

When Cole pushed open the bed chamber door, Lucas was up in an instant. The light was dim, but with his eyes adjusted, Cole could see Lucas clearly. 

It was better in person than it had been in the fetch. Fetches could be a little bland and fuzzy, but here, even in the semi-dark, Lucas was in crisply defined colors: pale skin and black breeches, the gold of his hair. His shoulders were broad and his waist narrow, smooth muscles visible in his chest and arms. And the breeches were really tight. Cole heard himself catch his breath.

And then they heard a noise. It was so quiet Cole thought he might have imagined it, but with them both awake like this, they couldn’t miss it. Cole really hoped that it wasn’t going to be some assassin, because it if was, Lucas was probably going to put his clothes back on. 

Lucas immediately moved in front of Cole, now holding a sword he must have stashed by Cole’s door, and all of a sudden he was fighting with someone who was dressed all in black, even wearing a mask over his face. The man was hard to see in the shadows, and moved silently except for the clanging of the two swords.

Cole darted into the bed chamber for his sword and when he came back out, Lucas growled at him. “Stay back, Cole!”

Cole had no idea why Lucas ever attempted to give him orders. Cole joined the fight, and they forced the intruder back toward the door, which flew open as King Edward’s Guard rushed in. 

And then suddenly it was over. The intruder lay on the floor with a sword in his back. Lamps were lit and George, Captain of King Edward’s Guard, knelt down, pulling his own sword from the body. He tipped the assassin onto his side and pulled off his mask. No one seemed to recognize him.

Meanwhile, Lucas turned to Cole with anger in his eyes, no doubt ready to lecture him about putting himself in danger, but his mouth just stayed open without any words coming out. His eyes traveled Cole’s semi-clad figure from top to bottom and back again, and Cole was startled to see a look on Lucas’s face that Cole had only ever dreamed of. Heat and need

And Cole knew he had to be no better, because the lamps were on and now Lucas was standing there half-naked with a sword in his hand—

The moment was interrupted by George. “No identification on him,” he muttered. 

Lucas almost jumped, as if startled, and turned back to the body. “Can’t ask a dead man questions,” he said sharply.

“A dead assassin is better than a dead prince,” George replied.

Lucas made an irritated growling noise and grabbed a shirt from the couch, thus putting an end to Cole’s distraction. Cole stepped back into his room and pulled on a jacket, braiding his hair back out of his face.

When he came back out, Lucas was watching Edward’s guards remove the body from his room. He scowled at Cole, but with less heat now. “Are you all right?” he asked.

Cole sighed, working a tie into the end of his braid. “Now, that’s the kind of thing that it would have been useful to foresee,” he grumbled quietly.

George was the last to leave. “I’m glad they sent you, Lucas,” he said. “I knew they would if it was Cole in danger.”

Cole offered Lucas a smile. “I’m glad too.”

oOo

The negotiations wrapped up the next afternoon, on schedule, and there was a celebration planned, because again, of course there was, which meant that Lucas couldn’t take Cole home immediately like he wanted to.

No one had been able to identify the would-be assassin, although King Edward’s Guards were investigating. Cole had smoothed things over with the negotiations, as serene and calm as ever, insisting everything go on just as planned. After all, he’d explained, with negotiations completed, there was no longer a reason for anyone to harm him. 

So now Lucas was standing in the castle’s ballroom, spending a second evening watching Cole talking with powerful people. But it was worse tonight than last night, far worse, because it wasn’t just an empty threat anymore. Now there had been an actual attempt on Cole’s life. 

No weapons had been allowed into the castle tonight except for the Guard and Lucas himself, but Lucas still couldn’t relax. He kept his eyes carefully on Cole, who was wearing a white suit this evening, fitted breeches and a short jacket. His hair had been braided with golden beads throughout and then woven around his head, and he wore matching beaded earrings.

Lucas’s hands itched to touch him. He and Cole did touch, of course, especially while playing sports. But that wasn’t what Lucas wanted now, just a brushing of hands or shoulders. Lucas wanted to pull Cole into his arms and just hold him. To reassure himself that Cole was safe. 

And then maybe— no. Definitely. Lucas definitely wanted more. Something along the lines of what Lucas had seen in Cole’s eyes last night. Lucas had been woefully underdressed, but the moment Cole had fixed his eyes on him in the dim light, Lucas had felt woefully over dressed. There had been such pure desire in Cole’s eyes that Lucas felt weak with it.

Nothing had come of it after the attack. Lucas had ensured that Cole went into his bed chamber and stayed there until he’d had enough sleep to tackle the last of the negotiations today. Lucas hadn’t slept much, worried about a second assassination attempt, worried about how much he could not stop thinking about Cole in just breeches and a loose shirt, and his hair— Lucas hadn’t seen Cole’s hair left down like that for years. He hadn’t realized how long it had gotten, how enticingly heavy it was compared to Cole’s slender form.

What Lucas wanted to do right this moment was to ask Cole to dance, to use that as an excuse to have him in his arms. But that was something that Lucas absolutely should not do. It was not his place as a Guard to dance with a prince. Things were perhaps a little hazier if the Guard and the prince were close friends, but Lucas wasn’t even dressed for the Ball. He was wearing his uniform, hoping the sight of it might scare off other assassins.

He shouldn’t. He shouldn’t.  

And then he was. Lucas was striding across the floor to Cole, bowing and then offering a hand as the orchestra started a new waltz. Lucas tried to say something. He tried to offer some excuse, but he couldn’t think of one. But it didn’t matter, because Cole folded their hands together without hesitation, and smiled up at Lucas, a beautiful, happy smile. He stepped closer, and Lucas’s hand slipped around his waist, and then they were dancing.

Cole led, of course. He was more used to waltzing, for one thing, and he guided them around the dance floor with practiced steps, managing somehow to look quite proper even doing something that was getting them stares and the occasional gasp across the floor. 

Cole acted as if he didn’t notice, as if the only other person in the room was Lucas. “Maybe this will get some of your nervous energy out,” he said. “I thought you were going to explode standing over there and glowering at everyone.”

“It’s my job to glower at everyone,” Lucas reminded him. 

“Especially me?”

“Especially you.”

Cole leaned a little closer. “You’re not doing a very good job at it. You might even be smiling at me.”

“A trick of the light,” Lucas assured him.

Cole nodded. “Ah. Of course. Well, we’ll be home soon. You won’t have to be my bodyguard anymore.” But at that, his normal composure slipped for a second, and his breath hitched. 

Lucas took both of Cole’s hands in his. They had been dancing past a small balcony, and Lucas pulled Cole with him out into the night air. Lucas made himself let go of Cole, but he couldn’t keep any kind of distance between them as Cole stepped back against the wall, out of sight of the ballroom.

Cole for once seemed at a loss for words.

Lucas knew what he had to say, though. “I don’t belong here.”

Cole shook his head and he placed a careful hand on Lucas’s chest. “You could,” he said.

“I— I don’t know how to do any of this.”

“I could teach you,” Cole breathed. His hand on Lucas’s chest slipped up toward his shoulder. “You could learn. For me, Luc?”

Lucas closed his eyes for a second and opened them to find Cole still looking up at him with desire and desperation. “I’d do anything for you,” Lucas confessed.

Cole gave a little cry and his hand slipped behind Lucas’s neck to pull him down until their mouths met. 

It was perfect. It felt right, so right, when Lucas had so often convinced himself that it would be wrong. Lucas wrapped his arms around Cole, finally holding him as close as he wanted to. Cole’s mouth was warm beneath his, and welcoming, and Lucas could feel, as surely as he’d ever felt anything, that Cole loved him. 

The kiss ended softly but Cole didn’t let go of Lucas, just looking up at him with the most beautiful smile Lucas had ever seen. “I didn’t see this coming,” Cole whispered. “I hoped, but—”

There was a sudden clatter and George rushed out onto the balcony. “Lucas,” he said urgently. “We need you. We caught someone sneaking in and we’ve got him talking.”

Lucas had the most precious thing in the universe in his arms and it was nearly impossible for him to pull away, to leave Cole behind. “You stay in the ballroom with all the guard,” Lucas ordered. “For once, Cole, for the love of God—”

Cole nodded. “I promise. I’ll stay safe.”

Lucas squeezed his hand, and then left his side.

oOo

Cole wasn’t sure there was a proper protocol for rejoining a Ball when you’d just been passionately kissing a member of your Royal Guard on the balcony. Even if there were, Cole probably wouldn’t be able to manage it. Standing out there in the darkness, Cole knew he was grinning, but it was impossible to stop.

Lucas loved him. That was clear. Lucas loved him and he knew that Cole loved him back, and they were going to work things out, somehow. Cole’s mind had begun to turn the situation over, looking at all the angles. It made no sense for Lucas to have to give up his role with the Guard completely. Surely he could work as an instructor, and as a commander when royal duties allowed (and Cole would make sure they allowed). And as for learning the role of Prince Consort, Lucas was a quick study, and of course, Cole would always be able to tell him some of the things that were coming in advance.

When Lucas stepped back onto the balcony only a moment after he’d left, Cole looked up, already starting to chatter about his thoughts. But then he stiffened with fear and took a staggering step back against the balcony railing.

It wasn’t Lucas, not really. And it wasn’t a fetch, either, not exactly. It was something Cole had seen only once before. The apparition had Lucas’s face, and it stared at Cole as the rest of its body made jerking movements, just like a marionette that was being pulled by its strings. 

Cole reached out a hand toward the apparition, but it vanished, leaving Cole alone in his terror. He’d just seen another death omen. Lucas was going to die.

Cole put his hands on the balcony railing, and it was cold to the touch. He forced himself to try to breathe calmly, but in his mind’s eye all he saw was the key to the armory lying on the ground where it had fallen out of Lucas’s pocket all those years ago. The future could not be changed. Fetches always played out exactly as Cole had foreseen.

But this hadn’t been a fetch, not really, right? It was different. It didn’t give Cole any idea of where Lucas had gone or what he was doing. It didn’t mimic a future action. It just warned. Cole had to believe that this, of all the things he’d ever seen, might not come to pass. He had to believe the warning was given for a reason.

Cole closed his eyes and tried to quiet his mind. What were the sides to this problem? What were the questions?

It most likely had something to do with the threat on Cole’s life. That was a reasonable assumption to start with, and Cole decided to follow it. So: thinking from the assassin’s point of view, the reason he would attack now was— 

But there wasn’t one. There wasn’t a reason. The negotiations were over, the peace treaty signed. The time to threaten Cole had been three weeks ago on his arrival to King Edward’s kingdom.

But it hadn’t gone that way, had it? Nothing had happened until yesterday, when negotiations were all but completed, and Cole’s bodyguard had shown up— 

Cole felt an icy shiver run through him. Oh. Oh, no.

Cole re-entered the Ball at a run, weaving past shocked people, all pretense at composure abandoned. He skidded to a stop by one of Edward’s guards and demanded his sword. Fortunately, the man was shocked enough to hand it to him, and Cole was out through the doors as quickly as he could go. 

There were a couple of places Lucas could have gone. Cole guessed that the most likely would be the Guard House near the outer wall with its prisoner’s cell, and he prayed that he was right. Cole tore down passageways, dodging confused workers and guests, and burst out onto the courtyard. He reached the Guard House and flung open the door.

Lucas gave Cole a surprised look as Cole rushed past him to press the point of his sword right at George’s throat. 

George dropped his own sword, which had been raised at Lucas from behind.

“I don’t know what you were thinking,” Cole panted, watching George look at him with as much hate as Cole had ever seen at the negotiating table, “but I’ll make a guess. You were passed over for the Captaincy by Lucas, even though you had seniority. Maybe you’ve been holding that grudge all this time. But you didn’t want to derail the peace treaty, because the peacetime army falls under your control and you want all that power. So you had to wait until negotiations were almost done. But you knew my visit here was your one chance to get to Lucas. You said it yourself last night. You knew they’d send Lucas if I was threatened.”

Lucas had come to stand by Cole now, his hand on the hilt of his own sword, watching George gravely. 

“He sent an assassin last night,” Cole told him, “but it didn’t work, because we were awake already and we heard him. George was afraid he’d talk, so he killed him, stabbed him in the back with his sword. So tonight was his last chance. There’s no prisoner behind that cell door. He lied to get you to come with him. He was going to kill you, Luc, and then probably wound himself, and blame it on this prisoner who had managed to escape his clutches. There would be no way for him to kill me, but that was never his intention.”

Cole moved his sword slightly. “Into the cell, George,” he ordered.

George had no choice but to comply, and as soon as he did, Cole dropped his sword and leaned back against the wall. He looked at Lucas standing there, calm and strong as ever, no apparition. The real thing.

“I saw your— your death omen,” Cole whispered, and he watched as realization came onto Lucas’s face. Lucas pulled him into his arms, and Cole clung to him desperately.

“You’d make a good bodyguard,” Lucas said.

Cole reached up to kiss him. “You’ll make a good prince.”