The ball is going terribly.
Well, it’s actually going rather well. The Duchess of Cornwall, the Queen’s sister whose birthday the ball is for, is having a marvellous time, and the large family dinner beforehand yielded nothing scandalous that caused any dramatic outbursts as has occurred in the years previous. The guests, at the moment, are remarkably well behaved, and only the one bottle of champagne has been smashed by a drunk Earl. Even the Queen, usually so taciturn and cool towards her daughter, has kissed her on the cheek and told her to have fun.
It’s going splendidly except it’s going terribly for the two people who would usually have enjoyed it. Unable to sit together at dinner, but granted free reign at the ballroom, usually Jemma and Fitz would be laughing over which nobleman’s toupe is the worst, and cringing at her Aunt Marie’s speech. They’d be dancing until they were dizzy, and eating chocolate-covered strawberries until they were sick. They’d simply enjoy being in the same room as each other, which they aren’t apt to be as much these days, and try not to think about the moment they’d have to leave and go home.
That would be usually, and has been at every other event they’ve been able to attend with each other. Today, however, it appears that they’ve decided to forgo tradition and forget about all of the activities they partake in together, forget they’re even best-friends at all. From the moment they first encountered each other in the moments before dinner, they’ve been at nothing but odds. Their smiles were tight-lipped, their greetings perfectly polite but perfectly cold, and they haven’t, which is a first, made a move to dance with each other.
She knows the reason for it, of course. It has to do with the newspapers and magazines, in particular the tabloids, and certain pictures they’d snapped of her and the Earl of Gloucester with a telephoto lens. The photographs, combined with the story they’ve deigned to sell alongside them, tell of a tale that is an utter fabrication, stolen from the minds of overworked and underpaid journalists. It is, however, surprisingly compellingly told. If she were someone different, if the name and the face weren’t hers, she might be inclined to believe it.
In a way, she can understand Fitz being unhappy with it. They are best friends after all. He is the person who clapped the loudest as she walked across the stage to receive her First in International Relations. He is who buys her gifts she actually likes for her birthday, subscriptions to Zoology magazines and hot air balloon trips across the Highlands. He is who she calls when the pressure is too much, when the ghostly weight of a crown is too heavy upon her head. Whether she is impossibly ecstatic or downright maudlin, whether the world is all for her or all against her, it never truly matters as long as she has Fitz.
Jemma will admit that when she was with her last boyfriend, the Duke of Essex, she neglected Fitz somewhat. It was an entirely unintentional neglect, though matters certainly weren’t helped by the fact that they absolutely hated each other. Fitz, to his credit, never said a word against him while he and Jemma were dating, but unfortunately the Duke had no such qualms. For the five months they dated he and Fitz were in the same room around twice, and each time the silence would be punctuated by little digs that felt like pinpricks to Jemma, and she could only imagine that they felt like nails in a coffin to Fitz.
So she understands why he may not be ecstatic that there are rumours floating around about her supposed love life, especially when it increases the scrutiny placed upon her everytime she leaves the grounds, but she doesn’t understand this downright coldness. Fitz is one to show not share, but even then she would have thought he’d come and talk to her about it, rather than being another person who believes everything he reads.
It also doesn’t help matters that the Earl is here tonight, nor does it help that he is who was seated next to Jemma at dinner. The rumours are false, but they aren’t entirely baseless. The Earl of Gloucester, also known as Henry, is a decent man, and Jemma genuinely enjoys spending time with him. He is kind and patient, intelligent but doesn’t quite know how much. He makes her laugh. In a world full of snobbery and snide, with someone willing to stab you in the back around every corner, someone who can concoct laughter is rare, and should never be dismissed so easily.
Not that she wants anything more with him, of course, but she has to admit that it could be a possibility. It’s not as though the person she actually wants anything more with is showing any sign of reciprocating; in fact, he’s doing exactly the opposite if tonight is any indication. It would be madness, anyway, to think that he would. It’s why she tries not to indulge herself with thoughts of it. He loves her, she knows he does, but not in that way. What with all her entanglements, who could?
Fuck him, she decides at some point later in the evening, sitting at her table with her aching feet propped up on someone else’s chair. Henry has danced a few with her but he’s gone to dance with others now, as he is so perfectly entitled to do. Everyone else is knocking back the champagne as though it’s water and dipping weird and wonderful things in the chocolate fountain. It makes her heart ache - that’s what she usually does with Fitz, that’s what they always do together, but instead others are having the fun while Jemma’s resting her feet and Fitz is…
She looks around for him and sees him on the dancefloor with Lady Sophie MacGowan, daughter of the Marquis of Newtonmore. Sophie’s charming, really, laughs lightly and almost dances through life, feet never quite touching the floor. Fitz has been with her all night. They were sat next to each other at dinner – Fitz had turned away from Jemma’s stare to laugh at something she’d said – and have been dancing together since the dancing commenced. In fact, now Jemma thinks about it, she can’t remember Fitz dancing with anybody else.
Fitz hates dancing usually. He complains incessantly but when they dance together it’s like magic. He never got taught when he was younger, not like Jemma did, but he has magnificent form and when he holds her, he holds her just right. She is enveloped but free. There’s nobody but the two of them in the world. She wonders if it feels like that with Sophie; if, when he’s dancing with her, she ceases to exist.
Fuck him she thinks again. It’s a petty way to behave. All of this because she dares to dance with someone else, laugh with someone else. She’s a free agent. She will not be held hostage by Fitz, who by all accounts looks to be doing just fine on his own. He is her best friend, she might say one of her only true friends, but dammit, when he wounds her, he wounds her deeper than anything else ever could.
She stands, wincing as her poor feet hit the floor. She’s still to learn the art of dancing in heels without developing blisters. Eyeing her shoes for a moment, wondering if her toes can stand it, she decides against it, hobbling barefooted instead to the French doors at the back of the ballroom. Christopher stands there with Tom, as he always does, and frowns, moving to help her, arm already half out. Tom shakes his head, and when Christopher steps back he gives her a knowing look. She feels foolish enough as it is; they both know that this would be the last straw.
The walled garden Jemma hobbles across the grass to has been decorated with an abundance of golden twinkly lights, snaking up every trellis and around every archway. It’s close enough to the ballroom that the music and laughter can still be heard, but it’s more of a faint melody on the breeze rather than an invasion into her skull, and that, along with the blessedly cool air of the night and the blanket of the darkness, give the impression that she has stepped into a dream. She presses a hand to the brick wall and breathes deeply, feeling the roughness under her fingers, enjoying the sensation of being alone.
Of course she’s not entirely alone, she never is. There’s a tell-tale prickling on the back of her neck but when she turns around, poised to snap at either Christopher or Tom, she finds it’s not them at all. Instead it’s only Fitz.
She forgets, then remembers a second in time, that she doesn’t want to see him. That right now he is the very last person she could want to see. She goes to say it, but can’t. The words get stuck.
Fitz goes to come in properly but halts just in the archway. “I saw you leave,” he starts, looking at his feet. “Come out here. Just wondered if you were alright?”
He phrases it like a question but he already knows the answer. It sounds like Fitz, like proper, ordinary, her best-friend Fitz, but she can’t be sure. “I’m fine.” And at his doubting look. “Really, I’m fine. You can go back in.”
He doesn’t, though. He stays looking at her, disbelieving, and she’s had enough.
“Go back in, Fitz. Just leave me alone.”
He scoffs, shakes his head. Mutters as he goes to leave, “I’ll go find the Earl of Gloucester, then. Maybe you’ll be more forthcoming with him.”
Fitz is wanting a fight; she can tell from the way he vibrates ever so slightly and his eyes flash bright blue even in the dark. Luckily, the mood she’s in, she’s more than happy to give him one.
“I knew that’s why you were acting like this! But instead of just talking to me about it like a reasonable person, you go off in a huff all evening.”
He stops and turns around, eyes narrowed. “Where do you get off, Jemma? Where do you actually get off? Where would I have had a moment to speak to you tonight, exactly? What with you hanging off that idiot’s arm and word every second?”
Her blood begins to boil and it takes away from the aching in her feet. “Even if I was – which I wasn’t – don’t pretend that’s some sort of excuse. You could’ve spoken to me if you really wanted to.”
“What, like the last time you had a boyfriend? You were really available back then.”
“That was over two years ago now.”
“Like it matters. They’re all the same.”
“Henry’s not, though. He’s-”
“Funny,” he bites, face squinting. “Think I’ve heard that one before.”
“I know he turned out to be-”
“He didn’t turn out to be anything, Jemma. He was always like that and you just never saw it because he was perfectly lovely to you and a right wanker to everyone else. Should we see if your new boyfriend has his own list of insults about me, or does he need to acquire one? Because we both know who’d give him a few for free.”
There’s that pain again in her heart, that one that happened every time she saw Fitz’s face back then. “I must have apologised a thousand times for the things Hugh said!”
“I didn’t want you to apologise for Hugh!” He throws his hands up in the air, a familiar sign of his frustration. “I don’t want you to apologise for anyone. I just don’t want to be lied to.”
Lied to? She never would. “What are you on about? I’ve never lied to you.”
“No?” He gestures back towards the palace. “So tonight is what, a misunderstanding?”
“Yes it is actually. And even if it wasn’t, even if what the papers were printing were true, that would be alright because I’m not involved with anyone.” And to compensate for the way she comes down at the end of her sentence, she says, “Besides, I’m surprised you noticed. You seemed to be quite happy without me.”
He looks almost-disgusted. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
It would be sensible to stop now, before something nasty comes leaking out from something better left buried, but she’s twenty-two years old and she’s drank quite a bit of champagne. It’s not a recipe for being sensible.
“You and Lady Sophie,” she says, trying for nonchalance. “You seemed to be doing quite well together.”
“Yeah,” he nods. “She’s nice.”
“Oh, well it seemed like you thought her a bit more than ‘nice’, Fitz?”
She can feel more than see his temper climb back up towards the danger zone. “You’re bloody unbelievable, so you are. Is that it, then? I’m not allowed to have anyone else but you in this bizarre world. It’s fine when you don’t want to speak to me, but I’m not allowed to speak to anyone else?”
“I never said that. I just meant-”
It’s like he hasn’t heard. “Our mothers grew up together, if you must know. I saw her a lot up there when I was younger. Not that it matters. If you’re allowed to have other friends then so am I!”
In the course of their fight Fitz has come closer and closer and he’s now almost right in front of her. Almost. Something hot and electric crackles in the air between them.
“The issue isn’t about friends, though, is it? That’s not your problem!”
“No,” he shouts, and later she’ll ponder over the admittance. “It’s not!”
“I won’t apologise for it! Just because someone actually takes an interest in me and wants to spend time with me and not some – some idea they have in their heads. Just because you don’t want-”
And then the rest of her sentence is lost, never to be heard, because suddenly, so suddenly that she doesn’t know what has happened until it is already over, Fitz has crossed that remaining dangerous distance and has pulled her to him, roughly crushing his lips against hers. His arm is around her waist, his touch burns all the way through the material of her dress as he holds her tightly, but she feels anything but trapped. In fact, for the first time in such a long time, she feels free.
And just as her mind catches up to what her body had known instinctively, Fitz steps back from her, hands falling away as if she is the one that now burns. His hands fly to his face, fingertips grazing his lips as if his brain is only just now understanding, too. The look of utter shame spreading over his face is all too appallingly familiar. They are best-friends after all.
“I’m so sorry, your highness, I mean, Jemma,” he stammers breathlessly, and she does her best to pretend the use of her title, so rarely used by him, does not sting. “I shouldn’t’ve – I – I’ll just go-”
But before he can spin around and run away from her, before she allows him to try and pretend they haven’t crossed an event horizon, she reaches for him and kisses him, too.
It’s not how she imagined her first (or technically second) kiss with Fitz to be, when she allowed herself to even imagine it at all. It’s not strange, not even the smallest bit. There’s no awareness of the fact that they’re friends, best-friends, and however essential they are to each other, there is a line that they have never even been close to crossing. Until now. With his mouth on hers, his hands on her back and hers on his face, she thinks maybe they crossed it long ago. Maybe they’ve always been on this side of the line, right from the moment they met.
It’s Fitz that breaks away first; she knew it was coming because she could taste the question in his mouth. She decides to get there before him. With their foreheads pressed together, noses almost touching, she breathes, “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to do that.”
Fitz’s eyelashes flutter in disbelief. “What?”
She just looks at him in response and he laughs, bringing his hands to cradle the sides of her face. “You really are unbelievable, aren’t you?”
It feels different when he says it now, though she knows he believes it just the same. “Why would you say that?”
“I’ve been wanting to do that for ages,” he admits. “And you beat me to it.”
He’s been wanting to do it for ages? Could it really be possible? Yes, he’s just kissed her and yes, she’s just kissed him, but such things are never guarantees. “How long is that exactly?”
“Too long,” he tells her, dropping his eyes from hers to the ground. “I’ve been in love with you for too long but I could never…” He looks up again. “I’ve tried so many times, but, um, I couldn’t find the courage to do it so I kind of just decided to show you.”
She cannot help but laugh softly. “Decided, did you?”
“Well, you know,” he grins, “was pushed into it, really.”
How very true, and she matches his smile but then she thinks about what he’s actually told her. “I knew that you loved me,” she whispers, “or I know that you do, but I always thought that you did as only a friend.”
“No, no more than that.”
“How long, Fitz?”
His gaze slides away from hers again. “Remember when I’d just gone to Oxford and you were on that tour? I was in the-”
“Yes,” she interrupts. “I remember. We were eighteen, barely that… that long?”
He nods underneath her hands and she feels her heart swell. “You’ve loved me for so long,” she breathes in awe. “I mean you – you must have wondered?”
“Jemma, I didn’t dare to-”
“I did, I did,” she says fervently, nodding against his hands to make himself understood. “I mean, I do.”
His smile is such a small, precious thing. She wishes to keep it tucked between her two hands forever. “Yeah?”
She has never been surer of anything. “Yeah.”
“We’ll figure it all out” he promises her, and she has a feeling he’d promise her the moon if she asked him for it in this moment. “We’ll go slow.”
“It’s been four years,” she laughs. “I feel like we can’t waste any more time.”
His right thumb makes gentle arches over her cheek and his voice… all she thinks of is home. “ What do you mean? We’ve got all the time in the world.”
And as much as she wants to kiss him again, and never stop kissing him, she also just wants to hold him, be held by him, feel the world put to rights again. This evening, which barely an hour ago was something she wanted nothing more than to forget, is now something she shall always treasure. With her head resting on his shoulder and his arms tightly around her, with them having each other in a way they never have before in this garden of dreams, nothing can touch her now. She is sure that this is what invincibility feels like.
Over Fitz’s shoulder, she spies Henry coming down the steps, almost bouncing down them with the brilliance of the ballroom. He’s at the archway before he sees her and Fitz, holding each other in the middle of all the lights. She watches as he starts, staring at them both for a moment, before catching her eye and smiling, nodding as though he’s conceding to a better opponent, as though there was a contest to begin with. She’s glad, ever so glad, that finally someone in this world full of snobbery and snide, has the good sense to know when they are beat.
Henry turns back around, sauntering a little as he crosses the grass. Although he’s a good man, and sure to be a good partner someday, Jemma can’t pretend that she is sorry to see him go. Some things are just not meant to be. He bounces up the steps and vanishes back inside to dance and drink, leaving the two of them alone, but entirely together, at long last.
The way you feel when you kiss him for the first time
Like fire within your bones
Like your soul has returned to the water
Like every part of you that came from a dead star is alive again.