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Heavy is the Head

Chapter Text

 

Pete liked to watch the newly recruited knights from his window, high up the palace wall. Even in clunky metal suits, they wielded sword and shield with such grace and precision, dancing along on their feet like they were weightless.

 

Pete had never once felt weightless.

 

Not when he was torn away from his mother at thirteen, not when he began preparing to inherit his father’s title, and definitely not now looking down on the young men sweat-shined and muscled and knowing it was a feeling he’d never be able to tell anyone.

 

*******

 

The royal public library is located slightly to the left of the castle, and it is about as far as his day guards would let him ‘escape’ to.

 

(They would complain about it, but Win got him a set of scholar robes, and Team says nothing when he dons them that afternoon.)

 

Pete was struck by him immediately. He must have seen this knight from his window at some point, but it was only now, seeing him up close that he could see how truly handsome he was. Skin dark and sunkissed, strong solid body visible even through the coarse fabric of his training tunic, eyes impossibly soft.

 

It wasn’t that common for knights to come to the libraries, and he stood out like a sore thumb, clearly lost among endless shelves of books.

 

Forgetting to be ashamed, Pete stares at him from his nook in the corner. So lost in his reverie, that when the knight catches his eyes, he’s nearly startled out of his chair.

 

The knight looks at Pete, looks down at the mountain of books that he has begun to accrue on the table in front of him, looks back up to Pete and then takes sure strides over to him.

 

Pete is in panic, unsure of the knight’s intent, a million possibilities run through his head, each one more outlandish than the previous.

 

Maybe he caught me watching the recruits and is here for revenge

 

Maybe he’s seen through my disguise and is here to confront  me

 

Maybe he’s in disguise and is here to assassinate me.  

 

(Somewhere on the other side of a bookcase, Team has his hand on his dagger, and Win has to put a hand on his elbow to keep him from tackling the knight to the ground.)

 

What actually happens is almost stranger:

 

“I’m looking for a book.”

 

“Y-yes.”  It's a library after all. “Which book?” 

 

His eyebrows knit together.

 

“That’s as far as I’ve gotten.”

 

“Well, why do you need it?” Pete asks hesitantly.

 

“What, knights can’t read books?”

 

Pete is taken aback by his abrasiveness, and the knight immediately regrets it.

 

“Sorry,” he soothes, “academia makes me nervous.”

 

“It’s okay,” Pete says, smiling softly at the knight’s antics. “I meant more like, what subject?”

 

The knight thinks about it for a moment. 

 

“Well, I want to be a good knight- no, a great knight- I want to be the head of the king’s guard one day. I’m physically fit enough-” Pete tries not to let his eyes drift to the peek of tan biceps visible in the short-sleeve tunic. “-But I don't know anything about the kingdom, or strategy, or whatever else you need to climb the ranks.”

 

For a moment Pete is awestruck by the knight's passion. Pete can’t remember a time he’s ever wanted something that much.

 

“History,” He finally supplies. “You have to start with history.” 

 

He recalls his own lessons with the royal tutor, you can’t make informed decisions unless you know the sum of what brought you to the point of making that decision. He pulls out a book he remembers from some of his earlier lessons. A thick, dry, tome called, Kingdom of Elbisi: a Complete History, and gives it to the knight.

 

Pete watches from the corner of his eye as the knight makes it all of five minutes before returning with the text. 

 

“I don’t understand a word of this.”

 

Pete tries to hold back a smile and wonders if this is something he can want.

 

“I can teach it to you if you’d like?” He offers.

 

“Are you allowed to do that?”

 

“Well... I am at the service of the realm,” not technically a lie, and you’re going to be a knight of the realm- so it’s within my duties to tutor you.”  

 

The knight looks at him quizzically for a second, and Pete prays that the whole thing doesn’t fall apart under his intense gaze.

 

“Okay,” he says after he’s sized Pete up. “I’m Ae, I’ll be in your care.”

 

“I’m... Peach,” Pete says after a moment, “And I, in yours.”

 

************

 

Win and Team are uncharacteristically silent on the way back to Pete’s quarters. Their silent judgement slowly creeps its way into the edges of his giddyness, and he begins to feel a familiar anxiety seep in. 

 

They don’t say anything until they’re in the privacy of his chambers, but when they do it’s as if they’d planned it. For all Win and Team bicker, when they come together it’s as if they were made in a perfect set, standing side by side, leaving no gaps or weakness. Apart, each is a force to be reckoned with, as a pair they seem invincible. Radiant. 

 

Pete would be lying if he said he wasn’t jealous of their strength, their unity, and- when they thought he wouldn’t notice- their intimacy.

 

“Peach, huh?” says Team.

 

They’re standing, shoulder-to-shoulder, arms crossed, looking like they are ready to take on an army rather than scold a young prince.

 

“It was a name my mother called me as a child,” Pete says softly.

 

“What’s the plan here, Pete? You’re going to pretend to be a scholar once a week, tutor that knight and then what?” Win interrogates. “What’ll you do if that knight finds out? You’re not even supposed to be in the public library in the first place.” 

 

“He won’t,” Pete pleads. “No one has to know. Please- just for a little bit, I want to be... not me.”

 

Win and Team exchange a look in a language Pete does not speak.

 

“Your highness,” Win starts, and Pete flinches, because it’s his title. It’s what they’re supposed to call him, but they’ve been together for so long that sometimes he even considers them friends. The honorific is a cruel reminder of who he is and who he has to be, and it makes him feel so far away. “You remember what happened last time.”

 

Pete shivers at the memory.

 

“This isn’t like that. It can’t be,” Pete’s practically begging. “Ae is just someone who needs my help. I’ll be careful.” 

 

Team sighs, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”

Chapter Text

They meet up once a week and it’s like nothing Pete’s ever experienced. He’s had to be Prince Pete his whole life, everyone with whom he comes in contact has certain expectations of who he is, and he always tries his best to live up to those expectations.

 

But not with Ae.

 

With Ae he feels like a blank slate. Like he can be however he wants to, and Ae will just accept it as truth. He’s not sure if this is how normal people live, or if Ae is just special.

 

It’s slow going. Ae’s not very book smart, but he’s hard working and passionate enough to make up for that deficiency. During their sessions he’s learned a few things about Ae. He has an older brother, he’s from a small farming town in the south of the continent, and he left everything behind to come here.

 

“Of course I miss everyone at home, especially N’Yim, but I’m gonna make them proud.”

 

“N’Yim?” Pete asks, as casually as he can muster.

 

“My niece,” Ae says, smiling wide and bright. “She’s got such chubby cheeks, she’s the cutest thing ever.”

 

He gives Pete a once-over.

 

“Actually, you’re pretty cute too. Maybe I’ll pinch your cheeks instead.”

 

Pete malfunctions. He goes red and splotchy and splutters.

 

“Y-y-you ca- Who’s c- w-w-”

 

“See,” Ae says, gently squeezing the apple of Pete’s cheek, “cute.”

 

Ae looks fondly at a dumbstruck Pete- unable to say a word- like one would look at a young child.

 

Ae refocuses himself, “So how much did this guy actually conquer?”

 

“Um...” Pete shakes his head to clear his mind and reorient himself. “Well, a lot. During his reign, King Ariyasakul II conquered nearly half the continent.”

 

“Only half?” Ae intones, half-joking.

 

“Well, yeah. You see- and pay attention because this is important to modern politics-” Ae turns his body in his seat and listens raptly. “King Ariyasakul was all set to conquer the entire continent, but he hit a roadblock,” Pete looks at the map drawn in the textbook and points to a cluster of land off the coast, “The Ooma Islands.”

 

“Oh, I know those.” Ae says proudly, definitely not trying to show-off. “Whoever has control of the islands has control of all the trade and waterways from and to the west.”

 

“Exactly,” Pete praises. “So the king travels with an envoy to the islands to meet with King In. Unlike King Ariyasakul I, he wants to negotiate and make a deal, rather than starting a war.” 

 

When Pete talks about history he gets so excited that he feels lighter, and you can see him bounce slightly, as if untethered from the ground. The more excited Pete gets, the softer Ae feels.

 

“So they meet up and the negotiations start off poorly. King In is famous for being stubborn, and he has no intention of letting King Ariyasakul’s army onto his land, let alone take over the island. So he has to turn around and they spend months sending messengers and correspondences back and forth. And then-” Pete cuts himself off.

 

“And then what?” Ae is on the edge of his seat, eager to hear the conclusion.

 

“Uh... Nobody really knows. They both died before they could come to a resolution, and our country is still at odds with the islands to this day.”

 

“How did they die?” Ae asks, digging for closure in this unsatisfying ending.

 

“The islands think we did it, we think the islands did it, but there’s never been any proof. And they both died, right around the same time, it just doesn’t add up.”

 

“That’s... crazy. Do you think they could have worked it out?”

 

Pete thinks about it, turning his excitement to pensiveness.

 

“I- I think so. Ultimately it was in both countries’ interest to be allies,” Pete answers.

 

“Yeah. I wonder how different things would have been if they hadn’t died.” Pete is struck by how simply he asks a question, that to him, seems so big. “I think if I’m learning anything from history, it’s that kings don’t live very long.”

 

All the wind’s taken out of his sails and all Pete’s left with is the harsh confrontation of his reality.

 

“No, I suppose they don’t.”

 

Ae looks at him confused, he can tell Pete’s words are loaded with meaning, but whatever it is, is out of his reach. Never before has he wanted to figure another person out so much. But before he can ask what’s caused his tutor to deflate, the sound of bells rings out from the clock tower. Once. Twice. Two in the afternoon, the sign for the start of afternoon training. If he doesn’t hurry he’ll be late. 

 

“I’ve got to head out Peach, same time next week?”

 

Pete looks up with sparkly eyes and a gentle smile, “Of course.”

 

Ae walks out of the library wondering how a man can be so pretty.

 

Pete watches him leave and wonders how much longer he’ll have with him.

 

--------------------

 

Pete spends the next week scouring archives for anything related to King Ariyasakul. Anything to give Ae a better resolution than what they left off with in the textbook. Ae deserves a happy ending.

 

He knows there must be records of his correspondences with King In somewhere, but it comes to the day of their weekly meeting and Pete’s found nothing.

 

He’s called into the throne room that morning.

 

He hates it. Hates that his father only talks to him as the king. Hates that they hardly ever talk outside of affairs of the state. Hates that no matter how cruel his father is he can’t bring himself to hate him.

 

He steps into the large echoing chamber. Pete wonders if the guards can hear the sound of his heart beats in between his footsteps as loud as he can. He approaches his father, sitting on an imposing and ornate throne on a platform at the far end of the room.

 

His father is not a large man, he isn’t particularly beastly or monstrous looking. But he never allows himself to be dwarfed by a space, always taking up as much room as possible, always painting himself into a dominating figure. 

 

Pete greets his father with a bow.

 

Not one to waste time on pleasantries, his father gets straight to it.

 

“In one week’s time I will be hosting a dinner for foreign dignitaries. You will be there.”

 

It’s not what Pete’s expecting. Generally when he is called to this room it is to be lectured or reprimanded.

 

“There will be very important people there and it is imperative that both you and I make an excellent impression on them.” 

 

“Yes, Father.”

 

“You’ll be provided with the guest list and you are to memorize their names and details.”

 

“Yes, Father.”

 

The king lowers his voice so as not to be overheard by the chamber’s guards. 

 

“You will not embarrass me with your usual fairy behavior,” he looks down at the flowery pattern of Pete’s dress shirt. “You’re nearly of age now, start acting like a man, and the future king. If you can’t manage it on your own, I’ll arrange it so you have no other choice, do I make myself clear?”

 

Pete can barely breathe, “Yes, Father.”

 

“It was surely a mistake to allow your mother to raise you for so long,” his father levels him with a repulsed sneer. “Her... libertine style, allowing you to mingle with commoners and the like, has left you a stupid, useless man. As much as I have tried to correct it since your return, you still stand here cowering before me like a scared woman, unable to do anything but parrot ‘Yes, Father. Yes, Father.’

 

His voice is harsh and grating to Pete’s ears. His father has said things like this many times before, but for some reason, this time it’s more urgent, more real.

 

“Your twentieth birthday is quickly approaching and you will have to officially take on the duties of your station. So get it together Pete, we won’t be having this conversation again. And if we do, it will sound very different for you”

 

-------

 

When Pete finally breaks free of the heavy wood doors from the throne room, he’s breathing hard as if he just ran a marathon. Win and Team, who were waiting right outside the chambers for his return, have to help him to stay upright.

 

“Woah, Pete,” Win says as he catches him by the shoulders.

 

Team digs around in his pocket and pulls out a handkerchief.

 

“What happened?” He asks, worried.

 

Win silently takes the handkerchief and dabs lightly at the sweat beading on Pete’s forehead. Pete tries to catch his breath, but it eludes him and he shakes slightly. 

 

“Alright,” Win says gently, “why don’t we go back to your private chambers, and then we can talk about it.”

 

Unable to speak, Pete just shakes his head. He can’t go back now, he has somewhere to be.

 

Team realizes his intentions. 

 

“You’re not really thinking of going to see him right now?”

 

Pete looks at them pleadingly. Win heaves a sigh and turns toward Team.

 

“Really?” he asks Win. “Fine, but we have to go back to your chambers to change anyway. And when we do, you’re gonna talk.”

Chapter Text

Pete gives a summary of what happened as cold and detached as he can. He’d rather not relive it. Win and Team listen silently with growing concern.

“Pete, I know you probably don’t want to hear this, but after the conversation you just had, what are you gonna do if the king finds out you’ve been sneaking around to see that knight?” Win says as gently as he can muster.

“I know,” Pete protests. “I know, okay.”

“And you know that as soon as you hit twenty, all eyes are going to be on you. And that means everyone around you too.”

“I really do know, Team.” And he does. He’s been thinking about it non-stop. Especially since his father reminded him of the last time he got close to a commoner.

Trump was the son of one of the gardeners who worked in the queen's palace and when word made it to his father that he was often seen in the company of such a peasant, Pete was removed from the queen’s custody immediately and brought to the capital to be remolded under his father’s supervision.

And Pete meant it when he said it was different this time. With Trump, it was Pete who had to face the consequences of being removed from his childhood home. But now, there’s nowhere else for him to go. If they got caught, Ae would have to deal with the fallout.

But even so, Pete wants to believe that it is okay. That they won't get caught, that Ae is strong enough to hold his ground, that he would be strong enough to protect Ae if it really came down to it.

“In two months I’ll be 20, and I’ll have to give everything up. So can’t I just have this one last thing?”

-----

Pete knows what he’s like. Knows his skin is pale and his hands uncalloused. It’s a byproduct of growing up in a castle. But even Dean- the son of his father’s most trusted advisor, who’d grown up in much the same way he had- had broad shoulders and muscular calves.

(It wasn’t like that between them. They became friends at too awkward an age, and- as both were expected to take over the weighty roles of their respective fathers’- each carried too much of a burden to share the other’s.)

So Pete knows he’s not the most masculine of men, and for the most part, that’s how he likes it. But today his father’s harsh words eat away at the back of his skull like a burning parasite. Usually he just takes whatever his father has to throw at him, but there’s something small brewing inside him. Something that wants him to stand up against his father. He can’t help thinking that if he were a bit manlier, he’d be able to do it.

The cacophony of thought running through his head must show on his face, because Ae asks about it not a moment after he arrives at their regular table.

“Ae, do you think I’m too feminine?”

“Too feminine?” Ae asks, like he can’t even comprehend the question.

Pete takes in Ae’s masculine features. The square of his jaw, the bulk of his shoulders, his hands- big and callused from hard work.

“I think it might be better if I was more manly like you.”

“Do you think I’m too short?” Ae asks, seeming to redirect the conversation.

“Of course not.”

“Neither do I.” Ae say, casual and confident. “But a lot of other people do. And they tell me so all the time. But being a man is not about being tall, or looking a certain way. It’s about being able to... help yourself, stand your own ground.”

As powerful as he is, Pete’s never actually been able to help himself. One may think that the higher up you are, the more freedom you have, but in Pete’s experience, responsibility can be oppressive.

“I may be shorter than others, but I’m strong. And I know if it ever came down to it, I can defeat anyone who comes my way.”

“But what if I can’t?” Asks Pete, suddenly remembering that he could barely carry the stack of textbooks they used for studying. He had been getting them one at a time until Ae stepped in and started carrying them for him.

“Then I’ll teach you.”

“You’ll teach me?”

“Yeah,” Ae says, thinking it through out loud. “You’ve been helping me with all this studying, so in return, I’ll teach you some self defense.”

“Oh, you don’t have to do that.”

“I know, but I want to. There’s a training room in the basement of my dorm that’s never locked. If you come by in the evenings we can practice there.”

Pete feels a little thrill go through him at the thought of sneaking out to meet Ae at night. He feels the danger knowing he’s not allowed out of his chambers at night in the first place, and his father would be furious if he knew why Pete was out. He feels a bit of fear, for what could happen to his night guards, and to Ae, if he is caught.

But mostly he feels like in a few short months he’ll become an eligible candidate for the crown. He’ll have to start shadowing his father and participating in government affairs. The security and scrutiny on him will increase exponentially, so not only is this his last chance to live somewhat freely, it is likely the only time he’ll have to spend with Ae. When he turns 20, and their weekly sessions come to a close, what chance do they have of meeting again?

And so, knowing he’ll have to give it all up soon anyway, Pete agrees.

_________

It’s not the first time Pete has snuck past his night guards. He could never get anything by Win and Team, but the pair on duty at night are dumb as rocks, and just as oblivious. Of late, Pete had been struggling to sleep, so he’d slip by and take a walk in the gardens until he was too tired to keep his eyes open.

He slips past his guards and meanders his way to the training grounds wearing a pared down version of his scholar's robes. Even the most casual of his clothes are custom made, with rich, expensive fabrics. Fabrics that a real scholar couldn’t even dream of having.

The basement of the knights’ dorm is cold and damp. By the time Pete makes it to the heavy door at the end of the hallway, it’s well past the stroke of midnight.

He pushes open the door and tries to take in the space and the equipment, but his eyes are almost instantly caught on Ae’s form. Pete’s never seen him out of his training uniform, but today he’s in a sleeveless tunic and breeches, Ae’s night clothes, he suspects. He’s on the floor, doing some sort of stretching, his back to the entrance of the room, and Pete takes advantage of that to gaze at the hard lines of his biceps, the breadth of his shoulders, his sun-kissed skin.

After what seems like an eternity of staring, but is not nearly long enough, Ae realizes he’s come in and calls him over.

“Peach, come over here and stretch with me.”

Pete approaches him warily.

“Come on, I won’t bite.”

Pete thinks he might not mind if he did, and scampers quickly to the floor across from Ae to banish the thought.

He sits cross-legged with his back straight and awaits further instruction.

Ae smiles and chuckles gently through his nose.

“We’re just going to start with some light stretches, so relax.”

Pete is surprised to find that he can. He takes a breath and when he lets it out he lets his shoulders drop, his spine curve, and his jaw unclench. He always feels pulled taut, to just before the point of snapping, even though he’s nervous to be completely alone with Ae for the first, he remembers that with Ae he can feel something else. Like someone else.

And then they start and Ae’s hands are all over him. Pushing him, pulling him, guiding him.

The cold room makes the heat that radiates from Ae’s skin feel even warmer when he feels it at his back where Ae is sat behind him- pushing him just enough to feel it as he tries to fold himself between his spread legs. He feels Ae’s rough hand on his neck, and his chest on his shoulder blades.

“Try not to strain yourself.”

Ae gently guides him up by the corner of his jaw to straighten out his neck.

His voice feels so close Pete can nearly imagine his lips brushing the shell of his ear. Ae pushes him a little deeper.

“Good boy.”

Pete lets out a small sound involuntarily and a shudder runs through his body. Ae flinches back immediately.

“Did I hurt you?”

Pete can barely breathe, let alone give a coherent response. Ae’s concern grows with Pete’s silence. He takes a hold of Pete's face and moves it to face where he’s ended up at Pete’s side.

“Are you okay, you’re really red.”

Pete worries that Ae will take one look at him- skin flushed, pupils blown, chest heaving- and think he’s either crazy or disgusting. But when he musters up the courage to meet his eye, what he finds is even more surprising.

Because Ae is feeling it too.

Chapter Text

 

For the next while, all Pete can think about is that look. 

 

Ae’s eyes, dark and hungry, piercing his own. His skin marooning with a flush. His breath heavy in his ear.

 

After that the energy in the room was not the same. He could feel the static electricity in the air buzzing at his fingertips. Buzzing in every place Ae touched him.

 

He can feel the memory of that touch even now. He finds himself drifting to follow it. Chasing down a path that doesn’t exist, where he hadn’t flinched away in that moment. Where he had leaned in.

 

“Pete!” A gruff voice whispers from behind him, snatching his daydream out in front of him where he can watch it slowly fade to dust.

 

It’s Dean, reminding him to focus on greeting the arriving guests, all filtering into the great hall for the dinner party. He’s standing next to his own father, doing the same. 

 

He feels the weight of his father’s hand on his back, in a poor imitation of fatherly affection, but Pete feels like he’s being held down, trapped.

 

Approaching the door are an old man and his wife, with a young woman trailing closely behind them. He feels his father’s grip tighten on the back of his neck, the pads of his fingers digging in painfully.

 

“Lord Elbisi, so glad that you’ve made it with your family.” His father greets the man.

 

“The pleasure is all mine, your majesty.” 

 

The man, who’s probably in his fifties, has a bit of a slimy air about him. The kind that seems to surround every person involved in his father’s politics. The kind of artificial propriety and performance that one must put on in order to engage in political dealings. 

 

“I don’t believe you’ve met my daughter, Deli.” He steps aside to let the girl step forward. She’s a kind of unassuming, normal girl except for her dress.

 

It’s a formal affair at the palace, so of course everyone is dressed quite nicely, but Deli stands out with the amount of gold and jewels she’s donning, glimmering on her skirt and bodice, on her fingers and around her throat. Pete might go so far as to say, it’s borderline gaudy. And she doesn’t seem all that comfortable in it. Like she’s a doll that someone else dressed.

 

“I believe she’s the same age as your Pete.”

 

“Yes, I do believe I remember your wife giving birth around the time prince Pete was born.” His father catches and corrects lord Elbisi.

 

If you didn’t know any better, you would think this a perfectly nice conversation. But Pete does know better, and he can hear the power play under their words. 

 

Uncomfortable with the tension and his father’s vice grip, he takes a step forward and offers a hand to Deli. She gives him her hand, a bit shaky either from nerves, or perhaps from the tremendous weight of the diamond ring on her finger.

 

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”  He kisses her hand in a customary greeting.

 

“No, it’s a pleasure to meet you, your highness,” she blushes.

 

It looks good on her. She’s a pretty girl, with her cheeks all rosy and her eyes sparkling. For a moment Pete tries to imagine what his life would be like if he could fall in love with a girl like her.

 

The thought only lasts a second, because before it can take root the Elbisis are shuttled away by the next oncoming guests, cloying for a greeting from the king.

 

________________

 

By the time dessert is served, people’s faces are starting to blur together. Pete has made small talk with so many foreign dignitaries, lords and officials that words are starting to become meaningless. So it’s a welcome relief when the open seat next to him is taken, not by another stranger, but by Dean. He catches sight of the pastries decorating the table and a secret smile appears on his face, gone before Pete can even think to question it.

 

“How are you holding up?” He asks for Pete’s ears only.

 

“I’m exhausted. I spent days trying to memorize all of the guests' faces, but I still don’t recognize half of them.”

 

They sit for a moment in silence, neither of them particularly inclined to make conversation. But Pete can tell that Dean has something on his mind. 

 

“You’ve been speaking to a lot of young ladies.” He says after a bit, unreadable.

 

Pete’s eyes swivel to his face. Dean is perhaps the person in the world to whom he relates the most, but he’s never been able to see through his stoic expressions. 

 

And the thing is, he thinks Dean knows. And he thinks Dean might know because he’s the same way. Which makes it all the more confusing to him why Dean is bringing this up in the first place.

 

“Have I?”

 

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen this many unmarried women at one of your father’s events before.”

 

“Dean?”

 

Dean’s posture changes, which means that they are being watched. Pete adjusts his to match. Dean stands to excuse himself, but before he leaves he leans down by Pete’s ear.

 

“Just make sure you’re paying attention,” he warns lowly before giving a polite nod to whomever has approached and dismissing himself.

 

Pete is jarred by Dean’s words, but quickly composes himself to greet his guest. It’s the young woman from earlier, Deli.

 

He tries to focus on what she is saying, but Dean’s warning keeps ringing in his head. He is surprised to learn that her mother is a duchess from the Ooma islands, as relationships between their two countries are rare, but if you asked him to recall anything else she said, he would draw a blank.

 

He stumbles through the rest of the party much like that, appropriately responding and reacting to various conversation partners without really listening to them.

 

He finally is able to put Dean’s words out of his head once he’s back in his chambers, in desperate need of sleep. 

 

Maybe he shouldn’t have.

 

___________________

 

He thinks something is off when his father arrives at breakfast the next morning. They have not eaten together outside of official palace functions in years.

 

“Father, what brings you here this morning?”

 

He knows something is off when his father responds, “What, is it so unusual that I would want to have a meal with my son.”

 

Instantly, Pete recalls Dean’s whispers from the night before and wonders if this is what he was warning him of.

 

Though nothing could prepare him for what his father was going to spring on him.

 

Usually straight to the point, his father continues the conversation uncharacteristically.

 

“How did you find the festivities last night?”

 

“Everything was perfectly lovely,” Pete answers carefully.

 

“I saw that many of our guests came to speak with you.”

 

“Yes, I met many new people.”

 

“And how did you like them? Did any of them stand out to you?”

 

“There were very many honorable guests-”

 

“What about Deli?”

 

“Deli?” Pete asks, thrown by his father’s sudden pivot.

 

His father waits.

 

Pete knows that the sooner he gives his father the answers he’s looking for, the sooner he can get out of there, but he’s never known what his father wants from him.

 

“She seems like a... nice girl.”

 

“You will marry her.” 

 

Pete feels like he’s been slapped.

 

“What?” he breathes.

 

“And soon. I’ve already spoken with her father, and he approves. As I’m sure you know, that family has connections with the Islands. It’s an advantageous match for the empire and for you.”

 

“I won’t,” he says under his breath.

 

“Excuse me?”

 

“I won’t,” he says, firmly this time. A fervor he doesn’t recognize coming over him. “You may have spoken to her father, but you didn’t speak to me. I won’t marry someone I don't even know.”

 

His father’s voice has been cold and even to this point, but he starts to get heated. 

 

“There will be plenty of time to get to know her after the wedding. I did not choose this lightly. Deli has excellent qualifications and connections and marrying her will quell the rumors about your- character.”

 

Pete doesn’t have to ask what kind of “rumors” his father is talking about. Doesn’t acknowledge how close they may be to the truth. He doesn’t need to.

 

He stands up out of his seat, trying to maintain his composure on the brink of both rage and tears.

 

“You will not make this choice for me.”

 

Feeling more brave and more afraid than he ever has before, without waiting to be dismissed, he storms out of the dining room and his father’s presence.

 

Distantly, he hears his father call after him, “This conversation is not over!”

 

____________________________________________

 

Ae finds him in a secluded area in the gardens, cloaked by long, draping Weeping Willows. It’s a place Pete found when he was young and returns to whenever he wants to be alone.

 

“Peach? Is that you?”

 

Ae is simultaneously the last, and only, person he wanted to find him here.

 

He takes Pete in, his red eyes, the crumpled plainclothe jacket he threw over his own clothes, his curled fists in his lap trembling with force. He crouches down in front of Pete and puts a gentle hand on his tear stained cheek.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

Pete shuts his eyes tight, and shakes his head. Like if he can’t see, it'll all go away. Like he can shake it away into a distant memory.

 

Because he can’t. Can’t deal with the prospect of an arranged marriage. Can’t stand to lie about yet another thing to Ae.

 

He feels Ae’s hand leave his face and thinks for a second that maybe he’s decided to give him some space. But in the next he feels Ae warming the spot next to him, taking one of his tightly fisted hands from his lap and bringing it to his own.

 

Impossibly soft, Ae uses his calloused hands to pry Pete’s fingers loose one by one. For a moment Pete tries to resist him, but Ae keeps hold of his hand and rubs his thumb over Pete’s palm where he’d left fingernail indents from clenching too hard. 

 

“You don't have to say anything, just let me stay by your side.”

 

Pete lets his mind go blank, fills the empty spaces with thoughts of Ae. His smell, his heat, his strength. And when he feels that Ae’s hold is tight enough to keep all his pieces together, Pete lets himself drift off in the safety of his arms.