From where he lay, he could just see an upturned chair, a sliver of moonlight on the floor, and someone's boots.
A fire alarm was screaming. He turned towards the window, gaping dark and broken, and low silhouettes of buildings against the night sky. None of this was familiar to him.
In the distance, there was a growing rumble of heavy motors. He didn't know why, couldn't remember, but he knew he had to leave this place, now. Almost like this had been the only thing on his mind for months, making him pace this cage of a room.
He jumped up on his feet and swayed, overcome by a wave of nausea.
That was it, he had to have hurt his head in the explosion. This was the reason he couldn't remember anything, anything about anything, not even himself. These things happened—in the war.
Questions like name, rank, service number sliced through the fog of his mind like bright tracer bullets. He had to be a soldier because he had a feeling that he had known soldiers and he liked them. Except that his clothes were decidedly civilian—and he felt at ease in this fine cotton.
Don't waste time, move, he thought and made his way over the furniture and bodies, down the nearest staircase, out into the warm night. A butterfly landed on his sleeve—it was the height of summer and this surprised him.
Because it was winter, before.
Out here, the cars were parked all over and people were stumbling around in the shadows and smoke. Suddenly, he had a vivid flashback of having heard a scuffle of many feet outside, shouts, and sometimes, gunshots. And how the adrenaline had been pumping through him, in sharp shivers of hope.
He chose an all-wheel drive with a uniformed driver lying next to its open door and efficiently patted the man down for the keys, glancing up with a grim focus.
There was a lot of heavy traffic headed here from the city, and they were coming for him. He had no idea where to go.
As he was softly rolling the car through the yard, no headlights, one of the figures staggered into his path and he had to hit the brakes. "Thank god, you're here," exclaimed a well-armed young woman and heavily climbed into the passenger seat. "I was afraid you died in the rescue. Doing okay? You drive, I got shot."
Suddenly, the ominous engine roar was much closer, unseen but threatening to engulf them both. The woman twisted in her seat to peer anxiously into the rear window and her dark eyes widened. "Jack. Jack! C'mon, we gotta go!"
And so his name was Jack.
Jack who could not remember was taking a dirt track out into the countryside.
His passenger seemed to know the area like the back of her hand, so it seemed like a good plan to stick together. For now. Because Jack knew fuck-all except one half of his name—and apparently how to drive fast in the pitch dark on what could be any road in Gilboa.
He should go east to Austeria instead, he thought, and delighted at himself remembering those names—also, Gath, Shiloh, Port Prosperity—even if they seem strangely unpopulated of familiar faces in his scrambled mind. Austeria had good woods for hiding—abandoned hunting lodges and sleepy villages in the mountains. Jack could lay low, eat stolen apples, and wait for his memory to come back.
The woman was talking and the faraway buzz of words was washing over him.
Jack's head pounded so alarmingly that he almost missed that their way was being blocked by a large truck, sitting across both lanes, such as they were. Their car had to swerve to a halt, skidding dangerously on the gravel and dirt.
Two burly men climbed out, rifles at the ready. "Get out of the car!" one of them shouted, madly waving a flashlight. "Hands where I can see them!"
Friend or foe? How could he tell?! Jack was swearing as he was stepping out into the inky summer night again—he hadn't picked up any weapons from the upturned beehive of the yard that they'd left behind.
"Wow, I've never seen one of the Benjamins in person before." The first man was gaping at Jack in awe that didn't seem to go well the hard fact that he was pointing a semi-automatic— and Jack just stood there with his hands behind his head like a fool and eagerly tried to process his whole name.
"Do we really need him?" The second, beefier man spat on the ground. "I say let's send a message. Have him hung for his father's crimes. There's a nice oak half a mile that-a way."
Jack figured he could outrun the guy. But not his night vision scope.
"Hey," said his earlier girl pal rather indifferently, limping into the truck. "Y'all can get autographs later. Jack, get in the back. He is waiting for you."
There was a choice between running into the corn fields and getting shot in the back—and taking chances with Jack's absentee memory and him, whoever he was.
Jack was feeling lucky, so he climbed in.
In what seemed like years, they arrived at a shabby roadhouse on the outskirts of somewhere. Jack looked out and thought this would be a particularly charmless place to die. Good thing he was planning not to.
Inside, the place looked like a nest of doomsday preppers—it was alive with a few dozen men and women busy with some military preparations: packing ammo, checking their weapons, distributing supplies.
In the eye of the storm, a tall, built guy in khaki was hunched over a map spread on a rough-hewn table. A cheap metal lamp swung lightly over his blond head with the commotion, giving him a funny sort of a halo. He was the unmistakable center of attention, the ringleader, the commander of this unit, who possibly wanted to recruit Jack Benjamin for reasons unknown.
Broad shoulders moving under the thin cotton and a leather holster tight around his thigh, he looked—
This was a wrong moment to realize that Jack was attracted to men. With kind eyes and beautiful hands. Damn, Jack really wished he could start remembering things more pertinent to his immediate survival. Like if this guy also wanted to Jack's head in the noose.
"David!" called out Jack's girl companion. "Operation was a success, but we almost lost him. I told you, this was going to be too much explosive."
David turned, their eyes met and—
For a moment, Jack almost had it.
The memories started coming back in a warm rush of lights and colors: David half-carrying him through the front lines—those blue eyes without guile—sounds of a piano—lights of a club and the dancing bodies between them—Jack slamming his fist into David's face—Jack shouting in some court of law—David turning his back on him because—
The wave of recollection receded before it could wash over Jack's entire mind and he was back in the dark, again, grasping for straws.
Everybody in the room was either staring or trying not to stare, and he didn't know if he could afford this close scrutiny.
Lucky for him, David was evidently having a moment of his own. Yes, those blue eyes could be kind, and forgiving, and filled with brotherly love—and he knew this how?—but that wasn't how David felt about Jack. Not anymore. Probably not in a very long time.
"Jack," finally said David. "It's been awhile."
Wow, this wasn't giving Jack much to go on.
"What took you so long." He sat on one of the wooden tables, swinging his leg and buying time. "I've been waiting and waiting, like a girl at the altar."
David looked at him so aghast that Jack began to sweat that he'd made a fatally wrong assumption here. That he hadn't been imprisoned for months while David here hadn't been running free with his crew, presumably from the common enemy.
"You haven't changed," said David slowly. "It's good. I was hoping that a long house arrest didn't break your fighting spirit."
"Well, you know me." Which was more than Jack could say about himself.
David's long stare said it all. "I had dreams. Visions, and signs in the sky." He seemed oddly defensive about this. "You know that this isn't my wish, but I have been chosen to rule. God spoke to me through thunder and rain and a— burning bush."
This sounded embarrassing. Jack's temples were throbbing and he didn't know why he should care about David being so special. However, he was in a bar full of unfriendly armed men and a few cards short of a deck, so.
"Praise be," Jack answered politely. He'd take a cold glass of water and many, many painkillers over being the chosen one.
David blinked, seemingly at a loss at the unexpected lack of interest in his close relationship with the almighty.
And suddenly, he held his arms out, to Jack.
David's palms were open and he had rough hands of someone who knew hard work. Self-consciously, Jack looked down at his own hands—idle, well-groomed, but he thought he'd remembered his knuckles banged up and dirty with gun oil.
"Will you join us?" David asked him simply, sounding like he'd just scrapped a well-prepared speech and decided to wing it. "People are suffering. There's been plague, locusts, riots, more land given up to Gath, rumors of a new war brewing with Ammon. While Silas is holed up in the Altar Mansion and speaking in riddles."
He drew another earnest breath. "The military will follow you over him, Jack. It never sat well with them that the King locked you up. They still love you. I only have thirty good men and women, right here. We can get another thirty, from among those who served with you. Many of your men are part of of the King's guard now and they could let us into the palace. Can't do this without you."
Jack stifled an urge to laugh hysterically. So, David was never about to execute him on the spot. On the contrary, Jack was the last resort, an ace in the hole. For a just cause, sure, but then, King Silas sounded like an unpleasant and a well-armed man who wouldn't take insurgents lightly.
It seemed like a crazy reason to side with someone only because they were the only good thing you remembered. And because you liked their hands. But somebody had to do something about the plague and all the locusts.
Jack briefly debated confessing that he had a slight problem with a near total memory loss and that might not be an advantage in the whole coup d'état plan, but David looked like he'd be crushed by anything but an absolute yes. Well, maybe Jack could help just by showing up to the party.
"I don't see what we lose by trying." This was the absolute truth, after all.
To his surprise, David smiled with a wide, wonderful, sincere relief. It was like the sun came out and shone on Jack's secret underworld of panic and confusion. And then, he amazed Jack further—with a hug, tight and grateful. "Thank you, brother."
Jack hugged back. In his defense, the room had been swaying and he'd been needing to hold onto something nice and solid for the past half hour.
Even without his memories, Jack had a feeling that for him, all this heartfelt hugging business was very much out of character.
They took him into a side room and gave him a messy pile of a black-green military wear. For the first time today, Jack reveled in knowing exactly what to do with it—finally, a robust pair of combat pants, a t-shirt in thick cotton, the good socks and a pair of substantial shit-kicking boots in his size.
These were proper clothes for making a break for it. If things didn't pan out for David the good-looking revolutionary, maybe Jack could leave him to his inevitable ends and take the thirty loyal men of his own across the border to Austeria.
The effort of dressing was almost killing him, so Jack slumped on the floor—he'd have traded a kingdom and a half for a few hours of sleep.
"Where is your fiancee?" asked David, stiffly leaning against the open door. He was fiddling with a bottle of water and it was blatant that he was nosing rather than digging for any strategic and mission-relevant information. "Lucinda."
Wait, what. Jack felt sweaty, tired, confused in what universe he could have been engaged to a woman, confused about whether he was holding a left boot or a right one.
"With her family." He fucking hoped for Lucinda's sake that this was the truth—he hadn't seen a dress in the rubble of the room. "They took her away, to the countryside. A long time ago. She broke it off with me."
David visibly unbraced in relief. For the fair Lucinda, safe from the clutches of the likes of him, Jack assumed.
"Michelle? Rose?" was David's next question.
A faint memory of children chasing each other in the park, an elegant woman throwing Jack up in the air. "I know as much as you do."
David handed him the blissfully cold bottle and Jack drank up. Damn, he was scary good at all the lying.
Even after more water and power bars, Jack was still slow on his feet. By the time he climbed into the back of a convoy truck, there were only a couple of spots left on the benches. One—next to the beefcake who'd wanted to string Jack up and another—between his earlier pal, whose name was Abigail and... David.
Jack chose to risk awkward conversations about his elusive past over getting furtively knifed on the way to the capital.
Everybody squeezed to the side to give him more space and for a while, he rode in silence. The blackness of the truck was being punctuated by pulses of lightning, courtesy of a bump on the back of his throbbing head. David, our fearless leader, seemed to be content discussing this year's crops with his other neighbor. What a snooze. Jack was positive he had cared nothing about agriculture even with all his marbles present and accounted for.
A sudden, sharp turn of the road sent David's weight to crush warmly against his side, to press them together from shoulder to thigh—David seemed like all muscle. A need, hot and sharp, pierced Jack and he thanked the near total obscurity. He noticed the glint of David's eyes, his silent attention. Could he see Jack's flushed cheeks? With some X-ray vision of a chosen one?
Jack was losing count of things he was hiding.
"So," he turned to David, taking the conversation by the horns. "A burning bush? Seriously?"
David gave a startled laugh. "Okay, that one was kind of weird." It was almost too dark to read his face, but he sounded eager to talk. "Maybe He thought I needed some persuading. I wasn't exactly keen."
"Don't you want to be king?" asked Jack in genuine surprise. Because really, he was busting his already cracked nut to get David crowned, so David could fix whatever the current king broke. "I would have loved to sit on the throne for a day. Just to know what it feels like."
It sounded like David choked a little.
"But then," said Jack honestly, quite unable to shut up now for reasons unknown except that it was good to talk about something, anything that didn't feel like dodging the memory landmines. "I wasn't chosen and thank fuck for that. Being a king sounds like all work and no play. There's a thousand things I'd rather do."
David's voice sounded strange over the rumble of the tires. "And what would that be?"
His arms loose over his aching head, Jack allowed himself to relax against the shaking side of the truck. "Live off the land. Hunt and gather." He was still thinking of his earlier plan to ditch Gilboa. "Stomp grapes with my feet and make wine. Walk on the beach in a storm. Or stay in the city. Get up at noon. Play ball all day. Only go to the parties I want. Only fuck whoever I want. If you're a king, you have to give up this life, any life."
They fell silent, but in a minute, David said hopefully, "I don't see why a king can't fuck around all day once in a while."
"Let's hope you find out," grinned Jack and got a grin in return.
They were busted at the first checkpoint.
Suddenly, there was yelling, barked orders and the scrambling of many boots, revving of the engines, and even the inside of the truck was washed white with floodlights.
Half-blind and reeling, Jack staggered out along with everyone else, hands in the air, mostly following David's broad shoulders. Someone pushed him roughly down on his knees and he stared into a barrel of a gun, for the second time tonight. They were surrounded by at least an entire company of army men. If this night had been a bad dream all along, it would have been time to wake up.
A gunshot cracked to their side, into the air.
"It's the Prince," suddenly shouted David. He was pointing at Jack in alarm. "This is Jack Benjamin! Don't shoot! Don't shoot."
There was a massive, collective gasp of many people, sucking in all air in the vicinity.
Get the fuck out. Jack stared at David, open-mouthed in shock. Was he the goddamn crown prince of Gilboa? Why hadn't this come up in their casual conversation? Too many questions raced through his head, filling it uncomfortably. Did David want Jack to go against his birthright? Against his own father? Who had apparently had Jack locked up for months if not years?
"Your Royal Highness." An older guy with a captain's insignia on his sleeve ran over, and he sounded even more confused than Jack. "I apologize, I should have recognized you sooner. I thought you were under house arrest. We've served in the Gath war, I was with squad one-two-eight. You were with the one-two-seven."
"Thank you for your service," said Jack sincerely, getting up and brushing the dust off his pants with what he hoped was a regal grace. "I'm sure your men saved our asses once or twice." It was true, fingers crossed.
"What's going on here, Sir?" asked the captain with concern. David and his crew were still held down in the dirt by the soldiers with orange butterflies sewn into their uniforms.
This would have been a perfect opportunity for Jack to ditch David Shepherd and his crazy rebellion. And go reassert his claim on the crown; side with his father.
His father, who was plunging the country into one war after another, who was letting the plague ravage his people, who had held his own son prisoner. Who was a question mark and of whom Jack's phantom limb of a memory supplied nothing, not even a face.
Jack wavered in place, met David's eyes. David, who wasn't pleading with the captain, who wasn't looking to the heavens and asking for help from upstairs. Instead, David was looking up at Jack like he was trusting him with his life right now. Was Jack Benjamin a different person from this Jack who couldn't remember? Would Jack Benjamin want to make wine and play ball all day?
He'd better. This was the first true certainty of the night.
"Captain, he's with me." Jack pointed at David. "They are all with me. And I'm with them." He rubbed his numb face with both hands and decided to go with what he knew.
When Jack raised his voice, it was with a practiced ease that secretly surprised and thrilled him, and he somehow knew how to involve every single person within an earshot, "I hear things have been really crappy lately. We are soldiers, you and I, but I know I don't want another war. It's time to make some changes. David is the man for it, and I stand for what he stands. Let's go save Gilboa. And then we can all go home."
As speeches go, this one probably wasn't to go down in history.
And yet somehow, incomprehensibly, the soldiers lowered their guns even before the captain began to wave them off.
Jack got weird goosebumps from how David was staring at him from his knees. They were both caught up in each other's eyes and this was kind of intense. This was a moment that Jack wanted to last, but he needed to make a grand gesture to back up his speech here—so he offered David a hand and pulled him up. This time, their hug was met with applause.
Briefly, David, Jack and the captain whose name was Eli discussed their plan of action.
"We can take everyone through the city checkpoints but you two," said Eli apologetically. "Captain Shepherd and you are too recognizable and now there's probably an alert issued for both. There's a shortcut though, and I'll draw you a route on the map. We'll pick you up on the other side."
Apparently, Jack and David were going to take the scenic route.
Two hours later, they fell out of thorny bushes on the bank of a river, its water running black and silver in the moonlight. Then there was an unharvested field, and a sliver of a busy road to the right, and a silhouette of a sprawling palace against the orange haze of a big city—they almost made it.
"The stream didn't seem as wide on the map. Gotta swim." David looked apprehensive. "No other way through. Captain Eli said it shouldn't be deep."
Jack shrugged out of his jacket, tugged his t-shirt over his head. Boots, pants, socks, even Jack Benjamin's silk boxers, all in the bag—and the rifle held high up in the free hand.
Free at last. The breeze felt so good on his skin, like he hadn't been in the fresh air like this for ages. A small animal chirped in the bushes and Jack grinned towards it, baring his teeth. He could hunt it and he could hunt the entire world tonight. He was made for this, he could feel it in the thrum of his blood. He didn't mind being ass-naked in the middle of the woods where things were simple—claws sharp and teeth for flesh, and nobody was asking questions about what you had for breakfast yesterday. Or what was that fresh bump on your head.
He stepped knee-deep into the cool water, and the moon shone bright on his skin.
In the corner of his eye, he could see David not moving. Jack turned towards him and mouthed, "What?" Maybe there was a hostile threat or something that Jack had missed while he was dropping them drawers.
Even in this light, all he could see was heat in David's blue eyes. A longing, pent up and held back, and not of the spur of the moment.
The heady feeling of being wanted went through Jack like a lightning—the bottom of his stomach dropping out with the sweet, painful rush of blood and desire.
Jerkily, David shook his head, resetting his expression to carefully neutral, but Jack wasn't fooled.
His mind was racing and he just stood there, fully hard and unashamedly exposed, and the river's current fighting him. They hadn't been together, he was certain. Jack hadn't known that fit body, that soft mouth. Or if he had and he'd forgotten it, amnesia was a harsh and cruel mistress.
He realized that he hadn't even got a chance to look at himself in a mirror. Was Jack Benjamin even hot? Princes were supposed to be handsome. Jack glanced down to catch his reflection in the rushing water, but it was as elusive as his memories, and he stumbled and almost fell in, headfirst.
"Don't drown on me, princess charming," threw David as he was passing Jack and plunging into the stream, holding up his gear above his head like it was nothing.
Jack followed him and not because he had no choice. He wanted to.
The palace was enormous up close, looming like an ominous sum of all things Jack couldn't remember.
Contradicting David's genius plan, the first guard didn't know Jack from Adam—and this ended in people on both sides getting knocked out, but the second line of guards saluted before Jack could even open his mouth and put his amnesiac foot in it. In the next half hour, all they did were going around the perimeter of the place and either talking sense into the guards on duty or getting shot at—thankfully, with the poorest aim imaginable.
The heart of the palace, the main hall was dark and deserted. Four marble staircases were leading to all points of the compass, and there was a million of closed mahogany doors.
"Where are the King's chambers?" asked someone. Everybody turned to Jack, expecting competence.
Jack's head had been hurting something horrible, so he couldn't even come up with a smooth misdirect anymore. "I don't know," he said in a sudden panic. Hadn't anyone thought to pick up a tourist brochure?
"That way, to the left." David came to his rescue. On the way, he kept barking further directions in exasperation because Jack kept taking the wrong fucking turns, every time. His eyes were lingering on Jack, assessing and uncomprehending at once.
By the time they arrived to the royal family quarters, the King seemed to be literally just gone. David decided to split up in twos, taking Jack along in a schoolyard pick and keeping him close, and they began searching all rooms for Silas, one by one.
After having wandered the place for what seemed like days, Jack couldn't believe he had been calling it home. Despite its grand luxury, it was not meant to be welcoming; the deliberate cool was not just in temperature. And portraits, portraits of the same face everywhere.
They were passing through a yet another empty room, with a wall of windows and an enormous piano with a burning candle on top, and David's face lit up with a smile.
"This is where we've first met, remember?" David ran his hand softly over the keys. "Not counting the front lines because you had a bandage wrapped all over your head—I thought you looked like a fresh mummy. All I could remember was your mouth."
And it was either the mood set by the candlelight, or David had a fit of insanity. Because he raised his hand and reached out to touch Jack's lips, and then looked terrified at what he'd done.
Jack couldn't stand it anymore. He grabbed David by the back of his neck and he kissed him. David's mouth was exactly as soft and as startled as Jack had been imagining it for the past few hours. When they broke off, David was looking so stunned that Jack panicked—until David muttered, "I'm going crazy." And kissed Jack, deeply and roughly, and until the ground began to sway under their feet, making Jack lean into the heat of David's body.
"Tonight, shh, tonight," whispered David, trying to hold Jack up but instead ending up running his hands over Jack's combat shirt, looking for skin. His voice was coming out low and growly. "You have no idea how long I've wanted this." Their foreheads were leaning against each other and they were both breathing ragged. "I thought you hated me. How long, Jack?"
Tonight? How about here and now. Jack's body was telling him that he'd wanted David fucking Shepherd since the beginning of times. All six foot of hero muscle, the goodie two shoes of him. His knee was pushing between David's strong thighs at last, and there was no hiding a long outline of cock under those fatigues—and Jack wanted his mouth filled with its hot, thick flesh—a messy act of worship. Jack wanted to fucking possess every inch of David's skin, to own with every inch of his own. To hell with the crown. They could find Silas and Jack's runaway memory later.
What came out of Jack's mouth was entirely different.
"David," said Jack, hands blindly gripping the soft t-shirt and the strong chest underneath. "I don't remember. The truth is, I don't remember anything. Not you. Not even me. I got hit on the head during the rescue."
David staggered a half-step back, all kinds of emotion flashing over his face. Was truth the wrong thing to say?
"But I want you," quickly swore Jack, holding tight. "I know I do. I want everything. I want to take you to bed. I want to stand by your side. I've known you for less than twenty-four hours, but I feel like my fucking soul is knit to you."
"Oh god," said David to no-one in particular. "Oh God," he repeated, shaking his fist towards the sky. "I almost... You need a medic."
That probably meant that they were not going to bang right here in the room where they'd first met. Not right now, anyway.
His legs suddenly leaden, Jack backed into the window sill and sat on it. His head was swimming and it was a relief to stop putting up a perky, competent front. David came up and put his hands on Jack's shoulders, "I'm going to get Abigail to look at you. Stay." He touched Jack's feverish forehead with his lips and then ran away into the maze of palace rooms.
"You twisted little maggot," said a calm voice from behind the heavy velvet curtains and Jack felt the cold of a knife scrape against his throat. "You've even managed to corrupt Shepherd. Thank you for that."
Jack was wild-eyed, trying to see who was holding him hostage, and yes, that was the man on the hundred and one portraits in the mansion. His father.
"Let's wait for David, shall we?" Silas moved the blade a little, turned Jack around to face the doors. "See what you puppies are made of."
"Let him go," came a low voice and, soft-footed, David stepped out of the shadows. He had to have heard something and come back. For Jack.
"And our strapping young hero returns." Jack could feel Silas's wolfish smile against his skin.
"You have been pretending all along, haven't you, son?" His father had such a pleasant, rich, bigger-than-life voice. "You remember everything. You wanted to backstab our chosen one, to bring him here to me, and to twist the knife? Just like we planned. I raised you well, my little tin soldier."
Jack was so fucking outraged, he groaned. That's the kind of person he was? Please, be lying. David's troubled eyes were flickering between them two.
"I don't believe you," finally said David with what Jack could see was more hope than confidence. "Jack is not your puppet."
"He's mine to do with as I wish. I brought him into this world." A twinge of annoyance in Silas's hand had the knife scraping painfully against the line of Jack's throat. "Abandon your claim, David. Leave with your rebels, or I will make Jack bleed. Won't be an auspicious start to your rule. You think I won't kill my own son? God has already turned his back on me."
"No!" David stepped up, his hands raised in a plea for peace. For the first time, Jack saw him this nervous. "You don't want this sin on your soul."
Keep him talking, thought Jack, moving his shoulders discreetly. He had to have been trained for this, he thought. By the army, by his father. Brave little soldier, fighting dirty.
Heavily, David kneeled in front of them. "Kill me instead." His golden head bowed beautifully.
Silas's hand trembled, just a twitch of victory, but enough for Jack to twist out and kick the knife out of his father's suddenly weakened fingers. He pushed Silas down, into the luxurious dictatorial carpet, his elbow expertly and roughly wedged against a familiar throat.
"No." This Jack felt with his very core, with all the shards of memories he'd have left.
Silas's eyebrows raised in holy anger. "You're going against our own blood?"
"You know, I wish I could remember him. I don't. But I have a lifetime to get to know David," said Jack, now with feeling. "I don't ever want to remember you."
By dawn, King Silas abdicated as a result of a bloodless coup. The faithful Thomasina drove him away to the countryside, for a mysterious pilgrimage of an undetermined duration.
David Shepherd was crowned soon after, out on the green lawn in front of the Altar Mansion, without much pomp and pageantry. Jack Benjamin, the former prince, bowed the knee and pledged his allegiance to the new king by awarding him with an ancient sword of Judgment that he had picked off his father's trophy wall. King David delighted and embraced him as a brother. Upon this, a crown of orange monarchs descended unto the head of David of Gilboa, and the dancing butterflies were a sight to behold. Or that was how it was reported in the world press, and written down by your faithful servant Perry in the Book of David.
Unnoticed by the scribes, one of the butterflies fluttered away from the flock, in the rogue gust of wind, and landed on Jack's outstretched palm. And just like that, the veil lifted—there they were, all of his memories, waiting for him to string them back together. Both halves of him molded without a seam and Jack knew—he could be ambitious, arrogant, entitled, reckless, ruthless, and self-indulgent, but he had not conspired with his father to entrap David.
David kept glancing at Jack over the heads of an excited press corp, a thoughtful crease between his eyebrows, as if he could read it all on Jack's face. That instead of basking in being a hero of the day and managing the public expectations by answering more questions. Jack really had to work on polishing this crowned diamond in the rough.
Finally, David put a decisive hand up and almost ran through the throng of cameras and press vultures, his whole face saying enough. His timing wasn't bad, and Jack approved—a king always needs to leave them hungry for more.
David huffed a sigh of relief when he caught up with Jack. "Walk faster," he whispered. "I can't answer any more questions. They asked me about my favorite restaurant in Shiloh! Next time, you do the conference for me. You'll love it."
"What about Michelle?" asked Jack the burning question of his own, as they were easily falling in step with each other.
"The bush," simply said David. "It said, you can love two of a kind. I hoped you'd agree."
"Good enough for me." The rivalry—it felt right to Jack, and he missed his sister with all his newly mended heart.
Up on the palace terrace that stretched for miles in each direction into the brilliant sky, Jack finally caught his own reflection in a glass door; the final piece of the puzzle. "Crap, I'm kind of hot," he said delightedly and pretended to swoon. "I'm a dashing prince. You never told me."
"That's because your head's too big as it is, and I'd like to keep it small enough to fit through my bedroom door tonight," said David in exasperation, but stared at Jack like he wanted to look at him forever. "Can we go? We have a country to run. And I still want to throw a ball around with you and the guys before dinner."
Jack smiled and pushed him inside. He wasn't planning to wait until tonight or for David's bed. Because, priorities.
Behind their backs, the wind was raising and the royal flags were rippling, foreboding, unchanged—blood and butterflies.