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In Pursuit of Happiness

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Michelle has left and Jack’s heart is well and truly dead.

Which, in its own way, is funny! He loves his sister, sure, in that we’re in our twenties and still living at home with our parents isn’t that funny especially because we both hate them oh is that just me well you know don’t worry about it don’t look at me like that come on I totally love them yes and I love you too way, but he doesn’t particularly like her as a person. He really likes the girl who looks over her morning glass of juice at him, raises her eyebrows, and starts arguing with her father early every morning about the bullshit du jour, but the affection ends there. His sister has always been quiet, bookish, kind, and openly humble about her quest to living sainthood.

Once, she was on some tirade to their father about unicorns for orphans or whatever and Jack could not stop rolling his eyes until he thought he had actually gone cross-eyed.

That didn't stop him from rolling his eyes, of course, but it was a thoughtful lesson in how he should learn to control his facial expressions when people were talking absolute shit in his presence.

He has a lot of time, now. Maybe that should be his self-improvement project.

Michelle has left. Michelle and her “heart of the kingdom” crap have left the house, left his life, and he feels this deep in his chest: his heart has given up. If she’s not there to remind him of what sugary sweet piety looks like so he can scratch and claw his way up onto the plateau of basic human decency, then what’s the point? What is the God. Damned. Point. 

Michelle has left just as she became interesting. For such a long time, she honestly was just a megaphone for the poor and sad and pathetic. Suddenly, Michelle became a person with thoughts, desires, feelings, things to scream about—and then she left.

Michelle has left Jack behind. It’s only exile, but it’s all Jack ever wanted. Michelle has walked out the door to live a life Jack never will, without even a look over her shoulder to invite Jack along. He walked out that door countless times, but he always tried to catch her eye. The invitation was always implicit: come on, live a little

Michelle has left and Jack… hasn't.

*

He’s summoned to breakfast for the first time in a year. 

It’s just him and Silas. He’s sure that he’s about to die.

“You were a sniper, weren’t you? In the Army?” Silas asks as he makes breakfast. 

Jack sits in his usual seat and looks to MIchelle’s empty seat. He can almost hear her voice, straining to get a message to him, but he’ll be damned if he knows what her breakfast spectre has to say to him.

“I was pretty good at it,” Jack says. “But I was more of a—”

“I don’t care, Jack. I’m just making sure someone held your limp wrist straight enough once or twice so you could fire a gun,” Silas says. “It’s been a year and I still don’t have an heir.”

And what the hell can he say to that

“You and Andrew are going on a hunting retreat this weekend. There will be a tragic accident, made even more tragic in the wake of his father’s recent death.”

Right, his uncle’s plane never reaching its destination after the attempted coup. The wreckage surfaced a few weeks ago. 

Well, shit. Better Andrew than him.

Silas serves eggs for himself and none for Jack, who finally notices that there’s no plate in front of him. For fuck’s sake.

“Sure,” Jack says.

“I’m glad we understand each other,” Silas says. “Now get out.”

*

His father failed to mention that the reason for the hunting trip was because Andrew was planning on killing him first. Jack realizes it when they arrive at the cabin and step out of the car. Andrew drops his bag on the porch, unzips it, and pulls out a gun that he levels at Jack.

Jack’s faster, though. 

Frankly, he would have done it in the car and spared himself the tedious conversation as they drove out of the city, but it had been so long since he was out of Shiloh that even a trip into the boonies to murder his weirdo cousin was preferable to killing him on the turnpike and returning 20 minutes later to incinerate the body.

It honestly doesn’t occur to Jack that he could have let Andrew kill him. He’s astonished that that’s the line: he would rather continue to live under house arrest than let his scrawny, creepy cousin get the jump on him, marry Jack’s unloved wife, and populate their house with his pale, greasy-haired, mouth-breathing children.

For a job well-done, the guards give him a whole hour at the cabin and in the outdoors. He walks around, stretches, yawns loudly, breathes deeply, avoids ticks, and smiles despite himself.

Before he gets back in the car, he sees one monarch butterfly in the air. It doesn’t come near him, but he sees its coloring as it flutters. It doesn’t land anywhere: just flits around for a moment and then flies back in the direction it came from.

North.

Gath.

Strange.

He keeps that to himself.

*

Twins run in their family. Symbolism, nightmares, a couple of rare blood disorders, arrogance, privilege run in their family, and twins, too. 

Lucinda, his already long-suffering wife of only two years, gives birth to twins, a girl and a boy.

The girl is always older.

He cradles them both in his lap, their little wrinkly bodies swaddled in thick blankets (the girl in gold, the boy in red). He wants to howl until his throat bleeds and chokes him to death, if that’s even possible. Michelle has left again. Joseph has died again. Lucinda has looked again through her white veil into his eyes with all the trust and love she will ever have in her life as he tells her I do. His father has looked at him with disgust and loathing again. His mother has sided with his father again. Jack’s done what was asked of him—he’s brought more life into this cursed house, a girl and a boy who could have been happy if they had the fortune of being born anywhere else.

There will be a naming ceremony next week, a presentation to the kingdom, but the names have been chosen for weeks: Rachel and Eli. Old, traditional names for their failing dynasty.

Jack swallows so hard, thinks he can’t breathe as Eli wriggles when he feels he’s been still too long on his lap and Rachel kicks, swats at him. He thinks they’ll survive, if they can stay fighters.

His mother and Thomasina take them away a moment later. They’ll be fostered in a place where neither their enemies nor their family can reach them since there’s too much overlap in those two groups. 

Lucinda is sent to recover at a luxurious resort. He wonders if that’s a cover, but then he remembers that she’s provided the crown with two seemingly healthy heirs. She’ll be fine.

Probably.

*

In Shiloh, it’s house arrest for Jack! As part of his living death, he remains the last interesting young royal in the city. It’s his job to keep the public entertained and stand as a symbol of redemption, while also acting as the inspiration Michelle was, the doting young father (what a wizard their people are with photo manipulation—it’s kind of amazing, all these great times he’s not having with his children), and a bunch of other bullshit that he can’t track anymore.

He haunts the palace and thinks. He writes cloying letters to Lucinda. He wonders whether Michelle will ever come back (he sure fucking wouldn’t). He watches his mother for signs that she might still love him (probably, but he sees now she’s a Cross, not a Benjamin, and will tell him she loves him when it’s convenient for her). He considers whether his father will execute or exile him when the time comes. 

He stops in his tracks one morning on his way down to the library. He’s been under house arrest for so long, scared of being murdered in the night by guards who carried him in from a town car because he was too drunk to walk and kindly ignored whatever he might or might not have been crying about (more often than he’d like to admit, for all that he wore his debauchery as a badge of honor). It’s been three years since he’s seen anything from the outside world that wasn’t passed through the palace filters and firewalls, and it’s only this divine strike to the side of the head that dislodges the memory of a name: David Shepherd.

wow.

He hates admitting this, but even the name David Shepherd has powers he can’t explain or deny. 

He feels the name inside himself more than he sees it or hears it, and the name isn’t letters or a face, but a blinding brightness he sees in his dreams. He dozes off in the library, reading a book from the one bookcase that hasn’t been locked against him, and he dreams of that cabin in the boonies, that one monarch butterfly, fluttering softly before it leaves and everything is drowned in blinding yellow-white light that startles him awake with a burn behind his eyes.

David Shepherd, pronounced dead six months after Michelle’s exile. Stepped on a landmine or something, Jack barely remembers the story, and neither should anyone in Shiloh. That was the point. This extraordinary young man, pulled through extraordinary things, dying in such an ordinary way like the common little shit he was. 

In one dream, he hears Thomasina’s condemnation: Your father wants for you a living death. You went against the family.

His treacherous mind that did, indeed, go against the family, suggests: Did you have a choice? Didn’t they betray you? Haven’t you lived this “living death” long before Thomasina brought Lucinda to you? Haven’t you denied yourself the only thing you ever wanted in the name of your family? And when you thought you could give no more, you gave them your children, too?

He wakes up sobbing. He sobs into his pillow, pulling it tight against his face, muffling a scream, choking for air. It’s all the kind of shit his uncle used to feed him, sweet honey words to turn him against Silas, as if William could have turned out any less of a tyrant than Silas. 

Family is a word Jack had heard so many times in his life that it no longer holds any meaning. Family values, family ties, family loyalty—did ordinary people live like this? Is this what did they did to themselves for their families? Of course not; he was in the Royal Family, and that meant something different.

You gave up your children.

Admittedly, he had only held his children for two minutes, tops, but—and he didn’t even want—

You gave up your sister

Yeah, but they didn’t even like each other—

You gave up Joseph and every lover you would ever have.

You gave up your talent, your skills, your potential, your freedom. What do you have left?

This voice, the one that tells him things he could never admit to himself, doesn’t leave. It stays inside him and beats in his chest like a new heart, a stronger heart, one that knows what it’s doing and what it wants. 

He used to think execution and exile were about the same, but exile starts to sound much more appealing. He’ll never be a royal again, not really, but a new life in exile? He could do that.

It’s hard, though. The path to exile is there in front of him, a long road that’s both illuminated and obscured by light, and that light is David Shepherd.

*

Jack starts to read the news.

NOT the official news channels that he was sort of in charge of for a hot second back there and not in an obsessive way like creepy Andrew when he returned from his exile, but. Like. Internet news.

Frankly, he has to start paying attention to the news once Gilboa admits they kind of invented that minor thing about David dying. David has become hot shit in Gath and he won't go away, no matter how many apocalyptic thunderstorms Silas brings down around his own head.

Jack can’t search DAVID SHEPHERD REBELLION OVERTHROW GILBOAor anything even remotely close to that on any level, but he can click around. He can read. The Internet is this pretty amazing place where lots of things are blocked, but lots of things aren’t. Lots of information is written between the lines. The comments section of articles? Yes, completely terrible and degrading to human intelligence, but through all that vitriol and madness, sometime there’s information to be had. 

He thinks he’s staying under the radar. He still spends several hours a day moping, standing in the secured courtyard for air, watching his mother flit around the palace on her way to whatever she does. He avoids his father as dutifully as he can, and Silas does the same. 

He tries to spend the rest of the time reading. He reads the party-approved messages coming out of his father’s office and the ones coming out of Gath’s official government. There’s comments across a couple of websites (just a couple across all those websites, all those news articles, all those comments) that suggest he’s missing something big, something that the filters are blocking.

Sure enough, someone posts a statement from Gath as an image, the filename two dozen random characters uploaded to an image hosting site that deals in this kind of ‘drop it and run’ file sharing. 

There’s David Shepherd, shaking hands with the Premier of Gath, at the handover of an entire city for David to rule. 

Not just any city: Port Prosperity. That definitely didn’t make the news here. 

It takes a full day of careful clicking and reading before Jack pieces together the story: the handover happened, as Jack already knew, and news in Gilboa stopped reporting on Port Prosperity because it was no longer relevant to Gilboan life. (Right...) The Gilboan mayor was replaced by an interim leader from Gath’s government. That drove out the rest of the residents so they could resettle in the surrounding area that was still considered part of Gilboa.

Six months on, David replaces the interim leader and Port Prosperity sees its population boom. The people of Gilboa who lived in Port Prosperity and called David a traitor, saw him as Silas’s pawn—thousands of them lined up for hours, even days, to apply for permits to return to Port Prosperity and live under David’s rule rather than spend another day under Silas’s.

So David has ruled this forever problematic port city, united and (relatively) peaceful for the first time in decades. 

While Gath’s culture is intensely militaristic, Jack genuinely wonders who will be the first to start the war again. Will Gath attack, seeking more land to give to willing Gilboan rebels, or will Silas lead his troops against Gath to take back Port Prosperity because David had the gall to not piss off God and His fucking butterflies?

More importantly: how the fuck will Jack get over there to help?

*

The palace’s IT professionals must actually believes Jack spends all his computer time jerking off, so they don’t bother blocking browser extensions that let him bypass his proxy settings or how-to pages instructing him on setting up his own.

For once, the general underestimation of his intellect feels pretty great.

(The stupid crime show where he heard the phrase “proxy server” got most of it wrong, but the basic idea was enough to spark something in Jack’s brain.)

His plan? Ultimately? He’ll follow the light. He’ll go to David in Port Prosperity and offer himself. A fight is coming, for Gilboa and maybe more; he can’t offer information, so he’ll offer the only thing he has left.

*

He’ll leave tonight. He’s not nervous. 

He remembers this feeling from war, that resignation before a push: it could either go well (we survived!), or it wouldn’t (we’re dead!). If only for that, he’s glad this is almost over.

Once he knows his parents will have retired for the night, he leaves his room and does a last, seemingly bored sweep of the palace. The corridor with the hidden exit is still unguarded and when he peeks out a window to the side alley where it opens, he sees it’s also unpatroled. He heads into the kitchen for a final snack, something to keep him going tonight before he dips into the provisions he’s quietly stockpiled in a pack in the hidden passage.

His mother is waiting, sitting in the dark at the kitchen island in her robe, tired and not surprised to see him. He’s not surprised to see her either, if he thinks about it. At a few points along the way in planning his escape, it felt too easy. He would delay for days at a time to see if someone would stop him, maybe move him to the facility where they held Abaddon so he could wait for his inevitable death without the comforts and luxuries of home.

“Can’t sleep?” Jack asks.

“No, suppose not,” she replies. “And you?”

“Mom, it’s like 10:30,” he laughs. “And, you know, I don’t have anywhere to be in the morning.”

“True,” she says. His mother doesn’t laugh unless she’s faking it. He can tell she’s not faking with him because she has this half smile on, like a grimace on a normal person. That’s his mom’s smile. That’s when she’s really herself and not The Queen.

He’s lingering too long, looking too much at her face in case it’s the last time he ever sees her. He heads to the fridge and grabs a couple of things he could eat here and a few more he could wrap up to carry out when he left in a few hours. Even if it is the last time he ever sees her, it can’t seem that way. She’s too damn shrewd.

“Do you think of your children, Jack?” 

He doesn’t flinch, but he does say, “Sometimes.” He arranges his sandwich ingredients as he stands where Silas usually does when he’s making breakfast. He doesn’t look at her. He doesn’t have to look.

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m thinking of—I miss your sister.”

He nods.

“Do you miss her, too?”

“Sometimes.”

“You’re... not helping, Jack.”

He looks up and knows he can be much colder. He isn’t, though, because this feels like the final hurdle before he leaves and his life begins. That force that pulled David Shepherd out of a thousand tight spots, saved him for something great, exiled his sister rather than executing her, imprisoned him here where he could escape rather than executing him—the test of his worth isn’t out in the wilderness, but here in this kitchen with his mother.

(Look, it sounds stupid, but this force also crowns its future leaders with living butterflies so Jack’s not in the position to protest on the saccharine nature of the moment.)

“I’m sorry, Mom,” he says as he looks back down. “I think about her, too. And the kids. I’d think about Lucinda more, but she sends me enough letters that it feels like she’s here.”

“True enough,” she laughs. 

“Do you want me to make you something?” he asks, motioning to the sandwich. She shakes her head. He slices it in half and takes the stool next to her at the island. 

Like always, she takes a demure bite from the half closest to her and puts it down again, then waves her hand like she’s not going to have any more (of course she is).

“I think about your children so often, Jack,” she says. “If I could have brought them here, if—if we could have raised them here, I promise you. I promise that’s what we would have done. If that one thing was in my power.”

“Mom—”

She’s almost crying, averting her face so Jack doesn’t see. He leans over and puts an arm around her shoulders. “I know,” he says. “I know you would have. It’s all right.”

She stands up and hugs Jack from behind, gripping his arms and resting her cheek on one of his shoulders. 

She whispers, “Be safe,” and he almost pisses himself in terror. As his mother leaves, he takes her hand and squeezes. He can’t say anything, not when there might be a setup within a setup, but he squeezes her hand tight.

“Good night, Mom,” he says.

“Good night, Jack,” she says. She pats his hand before she leaves.

Well, shit. 

*

Another funny thing about being under house arrest for a couple of years: your father, a deeply paranoid king holding on to the last vestiges of his rule, might begin planting landmines along the once-peaceful secluded forest that leads to Port Prosperity.

The word “funny” might have lost all meaning, actually, along with “family”—it’s probably for the best Jack might die soon, as he might have to learn an entirely new language to keep up with this fucked up shit. 

Even funnier is when Reverend Samuels walks out from behind a tree to lead Jack through.

“This is bad,” Jack says under his breath. “This is bad, bad, bad because you are dead, dead, dead.”

“I’ll ignore that,” Reverend Samuels says. “I see into your heart, Jack, deeper, I think, than you would even allow yourself to see. I know what you want, Jack, and for once our designs are in alignment. Follow me and I will protect you.”

“Is it always this easy?” he asks as he steps without thinking, just trusting, just letting his feet go where they will.

“Has any of this been easy for you, Jack?” Reverend Samuels asks. 

He can’t think about it. He steps, he glances up at where he’s going, he steps, he looks at his surroundings for any movement, he steps, he makes it. If he had stopped to think, he wouldn’t have made it. 

You have done cruel and terrible things, but you are not cruel or terrible. You are mine as all are mine: the crushed, the weak, the downtrodden, the conflicted, the struggling. If you reach David, he will know that you are my servant as he is mine.

*

Luck or divine camouflage—whatever it is disappears once Jack reaches the door of the house (grand, he supposes, by non-palatial standards) whose size indicates a great man like the leader of Port Prosperity might call it home. 

The guards shout and he holds up his hands, claps them on the back of his head. At their request, he kneels and bows his head. He stays there, breathing in and out, until a guard yanks him up by the elbow and leads him inside. 

They give him a room, water, food, his own bathroom, but not David. He takes it, for now.

*

He wakes up early the next morning with the first sounds of the day below his window. The guards are changing, there’s traffic outside on the streets, and he should get dressed and wait for David.

He showers again and when he emerges from the bathroom, David waits for him at the foot of the bed. 

“This won’t come as a surprise to you,” David begins. “But you weren’t the first Benjamin I wanted to see.”

“You’re right, that’s not the least bit surprising,” Jack replies.

David smiles and looks at Jack with enough earnest longing to choke. “What have you heard from Michelle?”

Jack shrugs.

“Nothing?”

“You should take comfort in that,” he replies says. “She’s still a princess, officially or not. If she was hurt, kidnapped, assassinated, whoever did it would want the world to know.”

“Thanks for that,” David sighs. 

“That’s what exile means,” he adds. “Cut off from everyone and everything she loves until she repents.”

“Repents?” David asks. “She did nothing wrong!”

Jack stares. Lord—seriously, LORD—but this boy is a stupid sheep among admittedly stupid wolves.

“And that’s stopped my family so many times before,” he says.

David looks at the floor so he can take in this information. Jack still has only a towel around his waist, but now he feels his bare skin turning into goosebumps, a chill working its way across his shoulders, down his back. There’s this sensation where his body doesn’t feel like his own. His mind, his tongue, his nerves—none of them feel like his own. It’s like something has crawled under his skin and has started running the show, and every dry joke, every wry and easy smile has fled in its presence.

“David,” he says, his voice cracking. He kneels in front of him and sits back, rests his hands on his thighs, palms down. If he thinks of the last man he kneeled in front of—if he thinks of Silas—it’s not with bitterness towards him, or shame that he’s in this position again. He kneels and he’s made new. He kneels and this is the most humble he’s ever been; this is the most he’s given of himself in a long, long time.

“Jack—” David begins.

“I have nothing,” Jack says. The words hurt as they escape his throat. His mind feels confused and fogged because he’s not running everything through a dozen filters before it hits the air. “I have nothing to give you,” he stammers. It’s dragged from his throat against his will, like his steps were tugged through the grass around the landmines—like he was led to Joseph the night of the blackout. Like the hurt dragged out of him as he held his children and didn’t think of them when they were taken away. “But I’m offering myself for your cause. Use me, David, however you will.” Something in his chest stabs at him, like heartburn but sharper, as he says, “If my life is worth anything anymore, it—it’s in your hands.”

He really thinks David will laugh. He thinks David will turn into Silas and demand Jack kiss the ground beneath his feet. He thinks David is a man and, given absolute power over the life and death of another man, will abuse it and throw Jack to the wolves when he’s finished with him.

Given the chance? It’s what Jack would have done.

David isn’t quite a man, though. Jack’s known him for years now, and David has always had an air of naivete around him, and an otherworldly look around his squinty little eyes. He’s beautiful like a statue come to life (still is, even now), living in the world and confused as to why nothing fits perfect statue-logic anymore.

Just as Jack thinks that David isn’t a man like the rest of them, David slides off the edge of the bed and kneels in front of Jack. His hand rests on Jack’s shoulder before it slides up to cradle the back of Jack’s head. In another moment, they’re kneeling chest to chest. Jack wants to break the tension with a joke (If I’d known the rumors about Gath men were true, I’d have defected sooner), but David’s eyes are closed. He inhales deeply before he wraps his arms around Jack and holding him close enough to break. 

David buries his face against Jack’s neck and mutters something, then moves his mouth so Jack can hear him say, as clear as the day breaking outside, “You’re such a bastard. A complete bastard.”

“I’m not delicate,” Jack mutters. His mouth is near David’s ear, so close to his earlobe, close enough pull into his mouth and lick and suck while his hands run along David’s body and attempt to make this statue blush. “Kill me, David. No need to preface it with some sweet nothings.”

“No more killing,” David says. His mouth sucks at the base of Jack’s neck, he thinks so Jack has a chance to let that sink in. Jack sighs and incredibly enough, it’s for the sentiment before the sensual: people only announce there will be no more killing before a rush of killing, since if killing will stop soon, it’s best to finish it all up as quickly as possible.

It’s a quick thought that David sucks out of Jack’s mind in another moment. Jack moans and leans into it, bares his neck for David like the best and most willing of sacrifices.

“I trust you,” David says as Jack goes for the earlobe that taunted him. Jack’s skin fires up as Jack remembers the hard planes of another man’s chest, the narrow hips, the solidity that he can try to break himself on like waves as they crash. 

Jack would be content to nod and ignore speaking in favor of David’s body and the way he gives underneath him. David pulls Jack down on top of him, shows how much he trusts Jack, the soldier-traitor-liar, and Jack would be content to take and think about proving himself trustworthy later, maybe in some spying or well-elocuted speech.

That force, though, the one that crawled under his skin, into his body, and led him here to this—to straddling one of David’s legs and grinding against him, holding one of his arms down while undoing David’s belt, his fly, pushing down his shorts just enough to get at his dick, watching David writhe as Jack wrecks punishing kisses along his neck and down his chest—

That force dragged the promise out of Jack’s throat, too:

“I trust you,” Jack swore. He breathed it into David’s skin over and over again, saying it with different volumes and inflections, learning its every curve and depth: I trust you, David, to have me and not let me go.

*

David, in a throwaway comment during his monthly televised address to Gath on the state of Port Prosperity, presents to his city and the nation Jack Benjamin, who sits behind David among several advisers. These addresses are broadcast to every corner of Gath and Gilboa since Silas is too stupid to realize that Port Prosperity hasn’t buckled after he withdrew Shiloh and Gilboa’s support from the city (slight as that support was).

Silas sparks the final battle between the two fronts when he makes an address condemning the defection of Gilboa’s Crowned Prince to Gath at a time when his nation needed him most.

Silas loses the war, though, when he puts a price on his own son’s head. The tide turns against him (even more than it already had) because David Shepherd is too heroid and good, he and his family too wronged by every policy passed in Shiloh on the outlying rural areas of the country. Port Prosperity has done too well under his guidance, all while so young and with Silas hunting him. Even now, he's lost so much—a father and brothers to the war, and Princess Michelle has been missing nearly four years now—to make his success seem worth the pain.

And Jack? How could Gilboa turn against Prince Jack? Jack, who had made his first public appearance when he and Michelle were ten days old? Jack, who had his photo plastered in every evening newspaper after his daily after school visit to Michelle’s hospital bedside when they were children? Jack, drunk spoiled anguished Jack, who had tried only to wrest control from his own father when Silas went after David Shepherd, Hero? 

“So these magazine profiles that I’m not reading in the spare time I don’t have,” David says one night when Jack has joined him in bed. “They make you sound like less of a jerk than you are.”

Jack rests his head on David’s stomach and one hand on David’s sharply defined hip that's barely contained by the waistband of his briefs. He should feel beyond strange lying here with David—he should feel worse because it should be Michelle, not him, talking about The Royal Childhood in Shiloh. 

In his more paranoid moments, Jack imagines David, beneath the golden boy veneer, will settle for whatever royal he can get: if not Silas, then Michelle and if not Michelle, then Jack. 

Trust him, he feels, and Jack closes his eyes.

“That’s my mother’s good work,” Jack says. He keeps his eyes closed and inhales David's scent, feels David's skin against his cheek, and trusts with every mote and fiber of his being. He speaks and opens himself up for David, keeps his breathing steady, wonders if he can stop baring his soul already. “I know that now: a whole life of behaving in front of the cameras, going to charity fundraisers, having photographers assault me outside clubs on vulnerable nights instead of brawl nights—I think my mother knew we might need this goodwill one day.”

No one should know him this well; no one except Michelle, his sister, his twin, the wound at his side that hasn't stopped gasping for closure all these years she and her saintliness have been gone.

“It’s not hurting us,” David says.

Jack doesn’t flinch. This is what makes David so young: he went from thinking of his family to thinking of his fellow soldiers to thinking of Shiloh and Gilboa. David? Michelle? They never learned selfishness—rather, even their selfishness is turned within to each other, thinking of what’s best for them, for their future and their life together. People grow up when they think of themselves and realize their own desires. 

It’s late. He closes his eyes again and tries not to think about what this will mean when the dust has cleared.

If he’s alive to see it clear.

*

Jack wakes up one morning with Thomasina’s name on his lips. He startles David awake; David opens his eyes slightly and sees that his head was resting on Jack’s shoulder, so he edges away a little, back to his side of the bed, in case Jack feels trapped.

“What, stop,” Jack says as he pulls David back and wrestles David’s head back on his shoulder. “Thomasina.”

“Yeah? What about her?”

“He won’t die until she does.”

David yawns hugely, asks, “Another one of your family prophecies?”

“Ha, cute, no: that’s a literal fact. She’s the one person who’s absolutely loyal to him.”

“More than your mother?”

Jack thinks about it, nods. “Yeah. My mother—she—she bends the rules for me and Michelle. For her brother, her nephew—for family. Thomasina, though, is all Silas’s. She follows his leads and loyalties. If he’s the bark, she’s the bite.”

Jack looks down to see if David has fallen asleep or if he’s actually listening. He’s doing both, somehow. From somewhere else, David’s voice says, “We know. We’ve been trying to get a clear shot at her for a while.”

His heart races, his body tenses, his skin flushes, all in perfect clarity. David feels the tension and looks up, still bleary with sleep. “No,” he says. “No, you don’t have—that’s not—it’s not why we—”

“I know,” Jack says, relaxing and pulling David’s head down again. “I know it’s not what you want.”

“Gath has an excellent military,” David says, falling asleep again. “They’ll find her, Jack.”

Jack knows they won’t.

*

It happens that Silas makes a giant to-do about peace talks again, not that the citizens of either country would know they were at war if it wasn’t for the nonstop news coverage. There isn’t much to cover, though: this isn’t a full-scale war like the last one (the one that never really ended). This is black-ops and secrecy, nighttime raids on important sites in Gilboa.

Jack has been gone a year when they arrange a sit-down with some leaders from Gath and Shiloh.

Thomasina comes with the people from Shiloh and she heads straight for Jack. She’s all smiles. His gun somehow feels heavier in his suit jacket than it did in the corridor outside. She looks so much older than he remembers. He thinks it’s because she’s started wearing glasses and the lenses magnify the lines and dark circles under her eyes.

“I’m so pleased to see you,” Thomasina says before either side can speak. “I hope Gath treats you well.”

“Better than ever,” he replies.

“I have news from Michelle,” she says. The room stops: no one has heard anything about the exiled princess for five years. “She’s come home, Jack, and you should, too.”

One of the generals with him actually starts to speak, like helpfully pointing out that of course she’s bluffing, so Jack raises his hand for silence.

“That so?” Jack asks.

Jack has always worn his heart on his sleeve. He’s quick to feel, quick to hurt, and quick to show it in his face. Usually it works against him: tearing up when Silas offered him encouragement with that day’s hot new homophobic slur, gnawing on his lips when he was nervous. All of it shows exactly what he’s thinking and one would think he would have learned control by now, but that’s Jack. Self-control is laughably out of his reach.

And here, self-control, schooling his face, is doubly difficult for all the wrong reasons: he knows Thomasina is bluffing, but he would get more out of her if he could show that he believed her. If he could show some worry or fretting or something hearing his sister was now a hostage in his place in their home. He tries, but his voice gives all his incredulity away.

“And how is she?” Jack asks. He tries to look fretful, worry at something in his jacket or pocket to show Thomasina he’s interested. 

“She’s fine,” she replies. “And so is her son.”

Mission accomplished: the room explodes in yelling and chatter, the word heir thrown about a couple of dozen times in a few seconds, but Jack raises his hand again, just high enough so it’s next to his face, and smiles at Thomasina.

“Mazel tov to my big sister,” Jack laughs, cold. “And what’s my nephew’s name?”

“Reuben,” Thomasina says smugly.

Oh, Michelle. 

“Her pleading, as always, has turned the King’s heart,” Thomasina continues. “That is the King’s offer: return to your family and we will have a ceasefire. We were at peace with Gath before your...” She raises her eyebrows. “Coercion to the side of the enemy? Abduction? Not to put too fine a point on things.”

Thomasina wouldn’t know this since she was never their nurse or nanny; she’s been Silas’s assistant Jack’s entire life, and she knows Jack and Michelle, but she doesn’t know them the way a nanny would or the way their mother does. Until everything went to hell, she was their guardian and their last line of defense as much as she is Silas’s. 

The point is that there’s no way Thomasina would remember the week or two when Michelle and Jack were eight and invented an imaginary friend named Reuben, who they used as their private whipping boy when they were mad at each other. Jack didn’t copy Michelle’s math homework, he copied off Reuben who yes may have copied off Michelle, but Reuben is an idiot, she couldn't be mad at him. And Michelle would never break Jack’s model tank that he had painstakingly constructed with Silas—that was Reuben, who was always such a klutz.

“Yeah, you might have stolen my sister back from wherever she was hiding. It’s bad enough that you’re a liar and psychotic, Thomasina,” Jack spits at her. “But you’re also an idiot. We’re done—”

Thomasina nods and slides off her glasses. As Jack is mid-sentence and turning his head to speak to one of the aides accompanying him, she leans in and stabs one of the legs of her glasses deep into the base of his neck. The leg digs into him and blood rushes out of him as a gunshot echoes around the meeting chamber. It's all so sudden and so brutal, so old-world and not at all the clean killing they've come to expect as civilized people who want to see each other dead.

Jack falls to the ground and feels one of the aides put pressure on his neck, pushing the glasses leg in further because that’ll stop the bleeding, idiot, and the pain—it’s killing him. He’s going to die here, cradled on a stranger’s lap, and he’s not even sure if Thomasina was bullshitting him about Michelle having a kid. Maybe he should have been more curious about his sister’s reversed radiation sterility and her miracle baby. Seems like a lot of effort now. Maybe he’ll have a miracle, too. Maybe this isn’t how it ends.

Whatever, Jack thinks, and he says, “Reuben—”

“Sir, don’t speak, the medics are coming,” urges the nice aide he’s bleeding on. He’s cute, too. Damn.

“Reuben’s such a fucking stupid name,” he mutters. "Tell David. Tell him… tell him Reuben's the worst."

*

There’s an island that appears on only one map. The island is about ten miles around and only appears when the right keys are punched in the right machine and the right words are spoken.

It’s warm usually, but the inhabitants feel freezing gusts on nights a few months out of the year. The sand isn’t pristine and white, but it sticks to skin and gets in everywhere. The island has a mansion hidden inside the forest, all hardwood floors and fireplaces, bedrooms and playrooms and a schoolroom for the two children that live there. 

The staff of eight serve the children and their nanny. They wonder if the children are lonely with only each other to play with, but then again, are they lonely, only the eight of them? (The guards around the compound don’t count, as no one guard serves for longer than three months. Ever.)

They have books, school, some television, many movies, and their nanny to keep them company. The children aren’t lonely. They want for nothing. Most importantly, they’re safe, and free from the nuisance and excitement of visitors. What could be better than that?

That’s what Nanny tells them whenever they ask questions: what could be better than this? She motions around whatever room they’re in as it to show how grand they have it, and it’s enough.

It’s enough until the visitors come.

Rachel and Eli hear them before they see them: whispers in the corridor outside their schoolroom. Nanny tenses in the middle of explaining something, and then the door opens. Rachel grabs Eli’s hand and stands up so she can be closer to him. Eli squeezes back, hard, but she doesn’t look at him.

All right, she looks at him and nods, even though she’s not sure if everything will be all right.

“What are you doing here?” Nanny asks as she stands up, too.

The visitors are a woman, a man, and a boy their age. He might be a little older since he doesn’t duck behind the man’s legs, but does grab the man's hand and look up at him. The woman steps forward and Rachel thinks she looks like she’s on television. She doesn’t look like anyone in the house; she looks like she should be on television.

“We’d like to speak to the children,” the woman says to Nanny. “Please leave us for a moment.”

“Silas has fallen?” Nanny whispers. Rachel looks at Eli again, but he shrugs. One of Nanny’s feet slides behind the other and she bows, and the woman smiles before she says, “Please, leave us for a moment.”

Nanny looks at them, but smiles before she leaves them. They turn their attention to the visitors. Rachel thinks if they stay there and if the visitors come in any further, she and Eli can make it out the door before they can. Maybe they can slowly switch places. Maybe—

“I’m your Aunt Michelle,” the woman says. “This is David, my husband, and our son Simon.” The man looks at his wife and then rests his hand in his son’s hair. 

Simon looks scared of them. Rachel says, “Hi. Are you going to hurt us?”

“No,” Simon says quickly, then looks at his mother. 

Aunt Michelle says quickly, “No, no, Rachel—”

She again puts herself in front of Eli, who nudges Rachel out of the way and stands next to her. Simon stares at both of them and then looks to his mother again.

Aunt Michelle stays quiet for a moment, then steps closer to them. Rachel tries to step back, but Eli doesn’t let her.

“I’m your father’s sister,” she tells them. “We were twins, too, just like you and Eli. I'm older by a few minutes.” She thinks and says, “He and your mother loved you very, very much, but there was trouble where we live. You were born and we had to send you away. Your father wanted us to take care of you.” She asks, “Would you like to come live with us?”

“We don’t have a mother and father anymore, do we?” Eli asks. Rachel nudges Eli and he asks, “What?”

“We can explain more later,” Aunt Michelle says, “But your father and mother aren’t with us anymore. We’d like to take you home with us. All of us,” she says, standing up straighter and motioning to David and Simon. She clears her throat and smiles at Rachel and Eli again. “We would all love to have you live with us, so we can be together. So we can be a family.”

It’s—a lot. A lot to think about. Suddenly they have no family and even more suddenly they have a whole family, a mother and aunt, a father and uncle, and a brother (another brother, Rachel thinks).

“I can tell you stories,” Aunt Michelle says. “About when your father and I were your age and all the trouble we got into.”

“She’s told me!” Simon says loudly. He looks embarrassed, then looks at his father. “Having a brother sounds like fun,” Simon says as he looks at Eli. “And a sister would be cool, I guess.”

“I’m the best sister, okay,” Rachel says defensively.

Aunt Michelle offers her hands to them, but only Eli takes one. Aunt Michelle leads them out of the schoolroom and Rachel walks next to her. She keeps her hands in the pockets of her dress. 

“Where do you live?” Rachel asks. In the corridor, Rachel watches everyone in the house work at packing all their things, moving quicker than she’s ever seen them move. “Where are we going?”

“We live in a city called Shiloh,” Aunt Michelle tells her. “Shiloh is the capital of a country called Gilboa.” She looks at her husband and adds, “Soon, it’ll be the United Kingdom of Gilboa and Gath.” Rachel thinks Aunt Michelle looks happy about that.

“It sounds nice," Rachel says, even though she's not sure what any of those places are or what they mean.

Aunt Michelle looks happier, though, when Rachel says that. She touches Rachel's shoulder and pulls her close, and she smiles more when Rachel lets her cling for a moment. "We're working on it," she tells Rachel, and then she says it louder so David can hear. "We're working on it."