He thought of a time ages ago. He was nine, perhaps ten, and he had challenged a man more than twice his age to a similar duel. He wasn’t sure now why he had done. It may have been something the man had said, perhaps an insult to his mother or the Lady Marianne. He had been so fearless. He never once thought that he might die in facing against someone who was quite possible more skilled.
Alfred found himself smiling and missing the brave boy who was determined to right a wrong. He pressed a shaking hand over his chest, the hand becoming steady as he took deep breaths. Perhaps, he just needed to trust that he can still find the boy within him.
Alfred raised his head and smiled in joy as he caught sight of Ivan by the entrance. “Ivan,” he said, relief seeping into the tone of his voice. “You’re here.”
The mage nodded and approached the prince. “Are you certain of this, Alfred?”
“I need to do this,” Alfred replied, leaning into Ivan’s hand as the other carded his fingers through Alfred’s hair. Alfred grinned at him, somehow looking more confident than he felt. He was used to acting more carefree than he actually was. The trick, he’s found out in the past, was to make people believe you knew exactly who you were. It didn’t matter if that self was the useless, careless, irresponsible heir to the throne, or if it was the brave, possibly stupid boy who thought he could win, or the Alfred that knew exactly what he had to do to be king. If people thought you were certain of yourself, they were bound to believe in that self.
And being without worry? Being so sure of your actions? Alfred knew that made people want to follow you, made them willing to throw their lot with yours. That was the self that he needed to be--the prince Alfred who knew what he was doing.
“Alfred,” Ivan whispered, catching his lips in a kiss. Alfred blinked in surprise before returning the kiss eagerly, clinging to Ivan’s coat tightly. “Come back to me. Your thoughts are so far away.”
Alfred chuckled. “Sorry, dude,” he said. “Lots to think about.”
“Fighting isn’t about thinking, da?” Ivan said with a nod and that same small smile. Alfred wondered with an amused smile if he could unnerve his opponent by having Ivan smile as such again. He managed that in negotiations with the nobles, didn’t he? It might work again. “Something funny?”
“No,” Alfred giggled. “I was just thinking.”
“Your highness,” Ivan said, frowning even as Alfred continued giggling.
“I know, I know, man, move don’t think. Gilbert taught me how to fight too, you know.” Alfred waved his hand, biting his lower lip to keep from laughing again. “But I’m not fighting yet and I was just thinking that you can distract them by smiling at them. I don’t why but they’re so threatened and scared of that. It might actually work!”
“I see,” Ivan said, calmly, his face expressionless.
“Oh, come on, Ivan,” Alfred gave him a friendly pat on the cheek. “Don’t you remember? It was funny. We made a good team.”
“So, we did,” Ivan said with a sigh. “Forgive me, your highness. I find myself distracted with worry.”
“Don’t do that.”
“What? Worry about you?”
“No, not that,” Alfred rolled his shoulders and turned around. His armor was laid out on the central table in the tent and he ran his fingers over the finely made attire. “You close yourself off to me sometimes. You call me your highness instead of Alfred.” He looked back at Ivan and let his own worry show on his expression. “It’s frustrating.”
“You must understand, your--Alfred,” Ivan said, catching himself and correcting his words at the last moment. “I don’t--I’m not sure how to care like this. It is easier, always has been, to shut everything off. Don’t think, just move, da?”
“You’re not always fighting,” Alfred pointed out. He leaned back on the table, hands gripping the edge of it.
“Survival is fighting, my prince.”
“I’ve survived,” Alfred said, raising his head high. “Assassins and enemies. I’ve got the scars to prove it. But I’m not about to live my life just waiting for the next threat. I’m not going to live my life constantly fighting everyone.”
“And that is why I’ve agreed to follow you,” Ivan said, approaching. “You are different, better.”
“I’m not better than anyone.”
“No,” Alfred shook his head with a laugh.
“Perhaps, you are to me,” Ivan chuckled. He cupped Alfred’s face in his hands and pressed a soft kiss to his forehead. “You must come back to me.”
“I will,” Alfred said, leaning forwards to press his head to Ivan’s chest. Ivan’s arms went around him and Alfred relished in their closeness, in the company of someone so dear. “So you must wait for me.”
Ivan’s hold tightened around him and Alfred hid a smile, clinging to his lover with all his strength. Somehow, they stayed like that, just for a few moments, as if the world outside had never existed, as if there had never been anything but what they could find with each other.
You paid whatever price you had to for victory. That was the rule of war and survival. It was rule Ivan had learned by heart.
On their side stood the regent to negotiate the terms, Gilbert as representative of the duchies and the military, Alfred as the crown prince and champion, and Ivan. Ivan wasn’t entirely certain about what he was doing there.
But, there was a moment when they were heading there that Alfred had taken his hand and squeezed it tight that Ivan had believed he belonged nowhere else but at his prince’s side. Alfred was going to return to him and he was going to return triumphant. Ivan was certain of this.
He didn’t know what he would do if it turned out he was wrong.
“The victor claims the right to make any demand of their opponent,” Arthur explained as he returned closer to them. “This is a true duel, Alfred. It is a fight to the death. Are you certain you want to fight?”
Gilbert nodded. “I could always stand in as your champion.”
Alfred shook his head and held his head up high. “A king fights for his people and a hero never gives up. Neither will I.”
Arthur nodded but the regent looked pale. He looked even more worried than Alfred was when they had spoken in the tent. Ivan couldn’t imagine how it would be. The regent, Alfred had always said, was something akin to a father to both princes. He has been since the king’s death years ago. Ivan watched as the regent brought Alfred into a hug. Alfred froze in surprise for a moment before returning the embrace. Gilbert looked away but Ivan would not avert his eyes. Arthur may be thinking that he may have to give up his son but Ivan wasn’t about to let that happen.
He was never going to abandon or to give up on Alfred.
Gilbert grinned and gave Alfred a pat on the shoulder. “Make me proud, your highness,” he said. “Show them you can be as awesome as me.”
Alfred laughed. “Can’t have you beating the hero at that.”
“Remember, Al,” Gilbert said. “Iron and blood.”
Alfred nodded. He looked at Arthur and Gilbert before glancing at Ivan’s direction. He smirked and playfully blew a kiss at the mage. When Ivan’s expression remained blank, Alfred crowed with laughter. “Wish me luck,” he told them and stepped towards his opponent.
“You didn’t talk to him,” Gilbert said as he stepped to a place by Ivan’s side. “Braginsky, you know he--”
“He will win,” Ivan stated, folding his hands behind his back. “Alfred will return to me.”
Gilbert’s gaze flicked uncertainly towards him. The albino pressed his lips together and looked like he was trying to keep himself from saying something. Ivan didn’t have any time for his former teacher. The soldier could worry about all he wanted. Ivan just wanted to see his golden prince take the glory that he was due.
The usurpers will learn their lesson, Ivan decided. They will regret ever standing against one so bright and beautiful.
Alfred kept his guard up as his opponent charged. Ivan never really had a chance to watch Alfred in combat from the sidelines. The few times that Alfred had fought with Ivan present, Ivan was either acting as his practice opponent or fighting at his side. From their first meeting, he had thought of Alfred as something beautiful but he had rarely thought of the prince as something deadly or dangerous.
That was a mistake, Ivan now thought with a frown. The prince may have required his protection when Alfred was distracted by his other duties but it did not make the young man any less practiced in the art of war.
“Whatever Alfred did when he was gone seems to have helped him improve,” Gilbert noted to no one in particular. Alfred moved cautiously, staying guarded against his opponent. He hasn’t moved to attack yet. It was different from his how he had fought against Ivan during their practice matches. He used to be more reckless and impatient.
Now, Alfred held himself with the grace of someone who’s experienced being in an actual battle. But, the rules you followed fighting beasts and bandits in the provinces weren’t the same as the rules that you abided in when it comes to a royal duel.
Arthur crossed his arms over his chest. “You were the one to teach him. Do you believe he’ll win?”
“I don’t think it’s that simple,” Gilbert said. Ivan felt the officer’s gaze on him for a moment and he looked to give Gilbert a small smile. Gilbert froze with his mouth open as if he had forgotten what he was going to say. He sighed and shook his head before turning to the regent beside him. “Alfred reminds me of Liz. He’s a natural and he’s definitely determined to win.”
“But?” Gilbert scoffed. They watched as Alfred’s strike was parried by his opponent. Alfred’s face was unreadable as he dodged and blocked some of the strikes sent his way as well. He seemed tense as he kept away, keeping himself in the defensive position. “There’s always a but, isn’t there? I don’t know, Kirkland.”
“Gilbert,” Arthur said through gritted teeth. “Bloody hell, just spit it out.”
Gilbert rolled his eyes, shifting his stance. “That,” he pointed as Alfred dove out of the way when a fireball was sent his way. His opponent grinned and sent another wave of fire that Alfred barely avoided. “Magic is a thing in a royal duel. You know that better than anyone, ja?”
Alfred was on the run now, twisting and turning to get out of the way of the flames. In a way, it was a parallel to the way he moved and danced during that night they revelled with the rest a city that did not know the prince they were celebrating was in their midst. He moved fluidly and Ivan smiled as he spied the grin that was starting to bloom on Alfred’s face.
“Is that all you’ve got!?” Alfred shouted. He was laughing, his stance seemingly careless to anyone that didn’t know him. He was taunting them and Ivan wanted to laugh at the prince’s daring attitude. Alfred spread his arms wide and grinned, looking almost manic. He seemed like some vengeful god descended to wreak havoc on mortal that dared to rise up against him. Ivan couldn’t help but love it, couldn’t help but love him.
Frustrated, Alfred’s opponent charged at him, flames covering his sword. Alfred ducked past him and blocked the next attack. The fire cast his face in strange shadows, turning that lovely grin into something wicked. Ivan watched him say something but couldn’t hear or read the words from his lips to tell. His opponent’s answering snarl seemed to say a lot about Alfred’s words. He was playing a dangerous game, Ivan thought, but somehow found that he was still not as worried as he should be, as worried as his current companions thought he should be.
Alfred was more clever than anyone has ever given him credit for and Ivan trusted in that spark of ingenuity and strength in his golden prince.
Alfred was drawing closer to his opponent with every burst of flame. When he was closer, Ivan watched Alfred rip something from around his neck. He thought of the limiter the younger man had always worn and watched it clatter to the ground. Alfred crouched before striking from below, catching his opponent off-guard with the powerful slash.
Ivan’s magic was singing underneath his skin, calling out to the magic that the prince was releasing now. Alfred seemed brighter than usual and Ivan’s earlier thoughts of a vengeful god had never seemed more apt.
There were old stories, beliefs that the rare wild magic that appeared in people were fragments of divinity. At the moment, Ivan was more than willing to believe in those old stories.
Arthur stepped forward in surprise. It seemed to take a lot for him to stop himself from rushing into the fight. “That foolish boy,” Arthur cursed under his breath. “He’s taking a big risk.”
“It’s a time for taking risk, Kirkland,” Gilbert smirked. “Let Alfred be awesome.”
For once, Ivan agreed with Gilbert Beilschmidt.
On Alfred’s next strike, his opponent was pushed back several meters, stumbling and almost falling back. The prince moved in with the kind of speed Ivan would expect from someone using an enhancement spell. Beside him, Ivan saw Gilbert frown and cross his arms over his chest.
“Alfred doesn’t know combat magic,” the white-haired officer said. “Does he?”
“Alfred’s magic has always been unpredictable,” Arthur replied. “It could be anything.”
Alfred didn’t let his opponent recover easily. His enhanced speed made it easier to give a strike from above. There was a loud crack and they all watched with gaping mouths as Alfred’s strike actually managed to break his opponent’s sword. Alfred own sword seemed to have fared little better, a piece chipping off and following the sword dropped in surprise by his opponent to the ground. The prince knocked his opponent to the ground, pinning him with the threat of the broken blade over his throat.
“You have a choice,” Alfred said, loud and clear. “Surrender or die.”
The fallen noble sneered and spat at the prince. “No one will ever follow a useless prince who cares for nothing but himself.”
Ivan stepped forward, finding it too easy to summon his staff to his hand. He will grant the man a painful death with it if that was what he asked for. It seemed likely with the way he was still glaring at Ivan’s golden prince.
Alfred glanced at him with a knowing smile even as he wiped the spit from his face. “Ivan, don’t,” he ordered, blue eyes looking brighter than usual. The roar of Ivan’s magic seemed to calm at the prince’s order. It seemed impossible but he could almost feel it settling at the sound of the prince’s voice.
Alfred turned his gaze back on the loser of the battle. “It’s a shame you feel that way,” he said and pulled the blade over the man’s throat.
Someone shrieked from the other side, and both Gilbert and Ivan moved to intercept the charge. But, Alfred was already standing up, hands and face still covered in flecks of red, as he turned cold blue eyes on the people charging at him.
“The fight is over,” Alfred said. “Stand down.”
They didn’t seem to care about Alfred’s words and Alfred sighed. Ivan has had enough. He summoned his ice, letting it run over the ground to cover and stop their opponents. Gilbert kept moving past Alfred and into whatever group the other side still had to attack them. Ivan was sure that the other would make sure to subdue them so he allowed himself to stop by the prince’s side.
Alfred looked up at him and the blood on his face made him look even more inhuman when paired with the heavy feel of magic in the air. Alfred seemed the same as he had been in that party on the street, drunk on mirth and power yet still so alone.
“Are you alright?”
Alfred nodded, his gaze straying from Ivan to the ice. “They’re not giving up,” he murmured.
“They will,” Ivan said, placing his hands on Alfred’s shoulders. He gave the prince an encouraging smile and pulled him close. “I knew you would win.”
“Did you?” Alfred said, voice barely a whisper. Ivan could see the regent picking up the pendant from the ground and approaching them but Alfred’s gaze remained on Ivan. “You saved me again.”
“I don’t think you needed it,” Ivan replied.
Alfred hummed. “I don’t know about that,” he said, voice slurring before he swayed and slumped towards Ivan. Ivan caught him and saw that Alfred’s eyes were closed, his breathing even and calm. He had passed out.
“His magic exhausts him,” Arthur explained as he came closer. He looked at Ivan then at the ice and Gilbert fighting what remained of their enemies behind it. “Go. Take him somewhere safe. Stay with him until he wakes up.”
Ivan nodded, picking up the prince in his arms. He didn’t need the regent to tell him that. He swiped a thumb over one of the marks the blood had left on Alfred’s cheek. He intended to make sure that no one would dare harm or insult Alfred ever again.
Alfred placed his drink down and caught the rushing girl in his arms. “Hello, princess,” he greeted with a smile. Alaska returned the grin as he set her down. “How was the trip here?”
“It was fine, and I’m not a princess,” she replied.
“Well, you certainly look like one tonight,” Alfred said, ruffling her perfectly coiffed hair. She pouted at him and stepped away. Someone had put Alaska in a proper blue and white formal dress. Alfred suspected Artie or someone he ordered. Ivan certainly would not have minded if Alaska had shown up at the ball in just her everyday clothes. He certainly had done it before giving the excuse that he was simply there as Alfred’s guard.
“I saw someone who looked so much like you,” Alaska told him.
“That must be Mattie,” Alfred said. “He’s my brother.”
“He looks really like you,” Alaska nodded. “But, he has pretty eyes like Ivan.”
Alfred gave her a look of mock outrage. “You don’t think I have pretty eyes?”
She giggled. “They’re pretty enough,” she said, bouncing on her toes. “But, they’re not purple.”
She raised her chin up and grinned at him. “And purple’s my favorite color.”
“And the truth is revealed,” Alfred said, chuckling. He saw Artie beckoning him over from the other side of the room and gave Alaska another gentle pat on the head. “Duty calls. I’ll talk to you again later, okay?”
She scrunched up her nose and frowned. “What? You need to do some princey stuff.”
“I do need to do some princey stuff,” he said, winking at her. “Told you being a prince wasn’t that fun.”
“But you help people, Alfred,” Alaska grinned at him. “That’s fun, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” he said and gently nudged her. “I think Ivan’s here. Say hi to him for me?”
Alaska looked over her shoulder and her face lit up at the sight of Ivan. Alfred watched the other arrive in the ballroom. He was in formal military attire, something Alfred would expect from Gilbert instead of Ivan. Then again, they’ve finally made Ivan’s position as Alfred’s personal knight days ago, and the mage had also been given some medals and honors for his service to the crown. The others would argue it was only proper that Ivan showed it off.
Alaska pulled on his sleeve and Alfred leaned forward to hear what she had to say over the increasing volume of the crowd present in the party. “I’ll tell him you think he looks really pretty.”
Alfred flushed and was speechless for several moments. Alaska giggled and gave him a peck on the cheek before skipping over to get to Ivan. Alfred gaped, his mouth opening and closing, debating with himself on whether to call her back or not. He shook his head. Arthur was still looking at him expectantly from across the room. He could deal with whatever Alaska tells Ivan later.
“What’s up, Artie?” Alfred greeted with a raised hand as he approached the other.
Arthur sighed and Alfred almost froze in surprise as he’s pulled into a side room. It was an empty lounge where people would retire for quiet relaxation later on. He heard the click of the lock and looked at Artie with a frown. “Is there something wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, lad,” Arthur said as he went to a sideboard to pour them both a glass of wine. “Nothing life threatening anyway.”
“So there is something wrong?” Alfred looked at Arthur expectantly as he took the drink in his hand. It had been a long day. A long week, actually. Since the duel, they’ve had to do their best to round up the perpetrators and then they needed to work on negotiations. Alfred had always found that dealing with nobility was one of the most difficult part of his job. The week had just proven that it was always going to be difficult to get people to get along and compromise.
“They want you to get married,” Arthur said and Alfred choked. He coughed, thumping his chest as he placed the glass of wine back down.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“Some of the major houses believe it would be easier to quell any future rebellion if you had an heir to present,” Arthur said, leaning into the counter and tapping his fingers on the worn wood. “A marriage of convenience will work just fine. It might help if it was with one of the rebelling families.”
“No,” Alfred said, vehemently. There was a bitter taste in his mouth and he was sure it had nothing to do with the wine. “I’m not going to do that.”
“It was just a suggestion, lad,” Arthur closed his eyes and rubbed at his temples. “I told the bloody council that it was still your own decision to make.”
“Damn right it is!” Alfred exclaimed. He tried to rein in the anger he was feeling. He was slowly learning but his magic could still be as volatile as ever and he didn’t want to do anything to harm Arthur or break the room. He didn’t want to call attention to what might be seen as nothing more than a glorified temper tantrum. “They can’t just ask me to do something like that and that proposal, whoever’s going to get married to me from the rebelling houses would be nothing more than a hostage, wouldn’t they?”
“It’s politics,” Arthur waved his hand. “You know this is a natural thing, Alfred.”
“Like my mother marrying my father for the prestige and power, you mean?” Alfred scoffed. “I don’t want a life like that, Artie. I want to change things. We need to change things, to make things better for everyone. I’m not going to force myself or anyone into a marriage.”
“I know,” Arthur nodded. He came closer and squeezed Alfred’s arm in comfort. “You won’t have to.”
Alfred gulped and took deep breaths. His hands were still shaking and he curled them to stop it. He raised his eyes to meet Arthur’s. “They won’t force me to?” He asked and even he thought that his voice sounded so small and unsure.
“I’ll make sure of it,” Arthur promised. He rubbed comforting circles in Alfred’s back and Alfred felt himself relaxing. “But, know that they won’t stop trying to convince you so easily. That’s why I told you, Alfred. Not to convince you that marriage is the answer but for you to be ready for their offers or persuasions.”
Alfred nodded. He was already thinking of ways to circumvent any proposals or veiled offer. He hesitated for a moment before throwing his arms around Arthur in an embrace that obviously surprised the older man. “Thank you, dad.” Alfred whispered.
Arthur was looking at him in surprise as Alfred stepped away. “Of course,” he replied with a soft, fond smile. “I know how much you value your freedom.”
That startled a laugh out of Alfred as he thought of all their disagreements about Alfred’s independence and Arthur’s constant worry. “You should think about it too,” Alfred said in a teasing tone.
Arthur frowned in confusion, head tilted at an angle. “Think about what?”
“Marriage,” Alfred grinned. “I’m sure Francis would appreciate it.”
“Alfred!” Arthur exclaimed, his face easily turning red. “That’s not--What are you implying?”
Alfred snorted. “Come on, Artie! Mattie and I have an ongoing bet. You need to help me win.”
“Oops,” Alfred shrugged with a cackle. He stepped away and dodged Arthur’s indignant swat. “I’ve said too much. Look at the time. They’re gonna set off the fireworks soon. Gotta go, dad!” He leapt out of the way and out of the room, still snickering under his breath. He could still see the look of surprise in Arthur’s face at the way he’s addressed him. He should tell Mattie about it. He thought that his brother might find it as something wonderful.
Alfred knew that it was past time they made a new life for themselves. They’ve made a new family long ago. It was time they acknowledged. Things were changing. Alfred intended to change it for the better.
He was young enough. He still had so much time to make a better life for him, for everyone he cared about, for everyone that trusted in him to be the best king he could be.
Alfred smiled at Ivan’s presence in the balcony he had led him to a year ago. “What did I say? Great place to see it, huh?” He paused and leaned forward, watching the colorful lights bloom in the night sky. “You remembered.”
“Da,” Ivan nodded and came to his side. They watched without speaking for a moment, the lights so bright and the sounds booming as the explosions went up one by one. “Should I be worried?”
“You’re unusually silent, your highness,” Ivan pointed out.
Alfred chuckled and shook his head. “Just thinking.”
“A dangerous pastime, my sunflower,” Ivan said in a deadpan.
Alfred turned to him with an affronted look before bursting into uncontrollable laughter. He shook his head and boosted himself over the balcony railing, tilting his face up to watch the next few brilliant explosion of lights. He gripped the edge of the stone beneath him, thinking about the night’s earlier conversation with his guardian, about the decisions he’s had to make and a decision he’s probably already made.
“I spoke with Arthur earlier,” Alfred said.
“Oh?” Ivan cocked his head and waited expectantly for Alfred to continue speaking. “I assume it was not just to congratulate you on your special day and your recent victory.”
Alfred laughed and shook his head. “He did that this morning,” he said. “No, this is about the negotiations.”
“Have they been giving you trouble?”
“Oh yeah,” Alfred groaned, thinking about it. “The ones who didn’t surrender after the duel face either exile or execution. Of course, their families and allies aren’t very happy about that. Some people thought we should just remove their titles or confiscate any estate or territory they own. It’s a mess. But, that’s not what Arthur wanted to talk about.”
“What was it then?”
“Marriage,” Alfred said with a grimace. “People think I should get married. Probably with someone from the rebel houses to pacify them. Also, to give the kingdom an heir, to convince people of the future.”
“Who is the lucky one then?” Ivan asked, looking away from Alfred.
Alfred blew out a breath and stared at the way Ivan’s hair moved as the wind blew over them, at the way the fireworks painted his face in different colors and shadows. “Ivan, look at me,” he ordered and waited until their eyes met. “There is no one. I’m not getting married, not yet.”
“I’m too young,” Alfred chuckled. “It’s not a decision I want to make in a snap. Even then, I’m not getting married to anyone I barely know, to someone who’s just going to be another piece in politics.”
“And what of their wishes?”
Alfred shrugged. “Hey, man, you always said I was great at getting my way. I’ll do something about it.”
“But, why choose not to?” Ivan frowned. “You can always choose to marry for love later. Just as your father did.”
Alfred scoffed. “Well, I’m not my old man,” he said. He jumped from his perch and turned to face Ivan. He smirked and leaned forward until they were so close, he could feel the other’s warmth, could feel the magic singing under their skin. He licked his lips. “And there’s already someone else I want to marry.”
“Who?” Ivan asked but Alfred could already see the small smile flitting over his lips.
Alfred leaned forward and captured Ivan’s lips in a kiss. He closed his eyes and leaned into the other man’s touch, feeling the way Ivan’s arms encircled his waist and pressed him ever closer. He had missed it, had missed this. They haven’t had much time for themselves since the duel. Alfred had been too busy with work, too busy trying to stabilize everything. They parted and Alfred chuckled. “I don’t think you ever had to ask.”
Ivan pressed his thumb over Alfred’s smiling lips. He had a teasing smile on his face. “Da,” he said, “but I wanted to be sure.”
The last of the fireworks lit up the sky as Alfred leaned forward for another, longer, and deeper kiss. The party can wait for a few minutes. His guests could wait for a while. For now, he wanted to treasure the moment that they had, alone and together.
“But what if they don’t like me?”
“Then we shall deal with it,” Ivan rested his chin over Alfred’s head. “I had to deal with your family threatening me if I hurt you, you would have to as well.”
Alfred pouted. “I asked them not to, you know.”
“Are you sure this is fine, Ivan?”
“Of course,” Ivan said, kissing the top of his head. “Katyusha will adore you.”
“You said you had two sisters.”
“That was just one name,” Alfred pointed out.
Ivan let out a chuckle that left Alfred suspicious. “You will see.”
“That doesn’t make me feel any better you know,” Alfred sighed and gave up with trying to fix his appearance. It wasn’t something that he was ever going to succeed in. He let his arms drop by his side and turned to face his knight, pulling him for a quick kiss. “Dude, you suck at this comforting thing.”
“It is good thing, yes, that it is not my job,” Ivan joked.
“You suck at the joking thing too,” Alfred pouted and rolled his eyes. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes before looking up at Ivan with a cheeky grin. “Come on then, let’s meet your family.”
The garden looked wonderful. But, then again, Alfred knew that Arthur always made sure that it did. There was a table already set up with Arthur and Francis hosting the two women. Alfred watched them both as he approached.
One of them had shorter hair decorated with hair clips and a white band. She wore a plain blue and white dress adorned with a blue ribbon around her neck. She had a sweet smile on her face as she conversed with Arthur and Alfred assumed that this was Ivan’s older sister. The other girl had long silver-blonde hair that seemed almost lighter than Ivan’s. She wore a dress with the same color scheme as her sister’s and even had a white ribbon on her hair that seemed a match for the white band that adorned her sister’s hair. But, unlike her sister’s smile, she had a cold look as she gazed around the gardens.
“Katyusha, Natalya,” Ivan greeted, taking Alfred’s hand in his as they came into sight of the ones seated around the table. Alfred tried for a friendly smile even as the two girls came to their feet.
“Vanya,” The woman with the short hair smiled fondly at Ivan before pulling him in an embrace. “We missed you.”
Ivan nodded, releasing Alfred’s hand to return his sister’s hug. “I have missed you as well, Katyusha.”
They released each other and stepped back, looking like they were inspecting each other for any harm or injury. “Natasha,” Katyusha said, nudging the younger sister. “I know you’ve missed Ivan as well.”
Alfred found that the girl could only scowl at them both. Her gaze even looked terrifying as Ivan took Alfred’s hand in his once again. “Let her be.” Ivan told his sister. He pulled Ivan to his side. “This is Prince Alfred, sister. I’ve written to you about him.”
Katyusha took his hands in her own and smiled. “I am very thankful for the love you’ve shown our brother,” she said. “I’m very happy to finally meet you, your highness.”
“Please,” Alfred said, uncertainly. “Alfred’s just fine.”
Alfred’s gaze went to Ivan in surprise and uncertainty. He’d written about him? Natalya, or was it Natasha, Alfred wasn’t sure, was still scowling at them both. He wondered if it was something about him. This was what he was afraid of. What if Ivan’s family refused? What if they didn’t think Alfred, despite being a prince, could ever be enough for their talented brother?
“You have broken your promise,” Natalya said, stepping forward to glare at Ivan then at Alfred.
“I do not know what you speak of, sister.”
“We were going to get married!” Natalya exclaimed. Alfred gaped at her in shock. It couldn’t be true, could it? It was a strange thought and he could see the looks of confusion, shock, and uneasiness in Arthur and Francis at the table.
“That was nothing more than children’s games, Natasha,” Ivan said. He seemed tense, shifting and looking at Alfred in apology. “We are siblings. It would be a mistake.”
Alfred took a step forward to try and placate her but she only looked at him and scoffed. “Don’t,” she said. “Can you even protect our brother? Should I show you how weak you are?”
Katyusha gasped and covered her mouth with her hand. “Natalya,” she scolded. She turned to Alfred with an apologetic smile, mirroring Ivan’s own just moments ago. Alfred could see the slight resemblance in them, the echoes in expression that often marked one’s family. “I am so sorry, Alfred. She is upset. She does not mean it.”
Alfred waved her off. “It’s fine, dude, don’t worry about it.” He grinned at Natalya. “You don’t think I can match Ivan? Should I prove it to you?”
“And how will you do that?”
Alfred shrugged. “That’s something you should decide, isn’t it?”
“You’re letting me decide a challenge.”
“That’s always how a duel goes, isn’t it? Challenger picks the game.” Alfred smirked. “Have to warn you though. The last man who challenged me to a duel ended up six feet under.”
“Oh?” Natalya looked at Alfred like he had amused her. “And if I should make it so you end up the same way?”
Alfred shrugged, unconcerned. “Then I guess you were right.”
“You’re not scared?”
Natalya scoffed and shook her head. She looked from Alfred to Ivan then back again. “Are you stupid?”
Katyusha still looked aghast at her sister but Alfred ignored her for now. It was Natalya who he had to win over. Even Ivan seemed unnerved by her and Ivan had gone through many quests, had taken on jobs as adventurer and mage that Alfred could never match. But, Alfred had other skills. He’d already won over some of the dukes and duchesses of their kingdom.
“Maybe,” he grinned at her, sure and carefree. “A hero doesn’t back down. So, care to bet?”
Natalya herself seemed startled by the laugh that burst out of her. She looked at Alfred in an assessing manner. She smirked. “You’re an interesting find, aren’t you? I can see why Ivan is enamored. Perhaps, I’ll take up that challenge of yours later, your highness.”
“I’d like that,” Alfred said. He offered her his hand to shake and smiled. “So, pleasure to meet you, Lady Natalya.”
She hesitated for a moment before shaking it. “It’s a deal, Prince Alfred.”
They shook on it and they followed the sisters towards the table set in the center of the garden. The roses were blooming and Alfred could see an entire vase full of it as a centerpiece before Ivan pulled him to a short stop behind a hedge, leaning forward for a short kiss. “You are quite something, Alfred,” he said in an awed whisper. “I’d never met anyone who’d impress or amuse Natalya quite so quickly.”
“I guess there’s a reason why we’re together.”
Ivan laughed, and stroked Alfred’s cheek. “Da,” he said. “All the reason in the world to make you mine.”
“I’m going back after all,” Alfred joked only to be pulled back by Ivan. “Come on, dude, gotta plan a lot of stuff for the wedding. Gotta figure out my magic and all too.”
“It can wait,” Ivan said. He set down the hamper they had taken for their picnic on the ground. Ivan retrieved the sheet to set down on the ground and Alfred helped him arrange it all as they waited for Alaska to rejoin them. “We agreed you need a break.”
“Did we?” Alfred laughed. “I don’t remember doing any agreeing. You’ve started colluding with Mattie and it’s terrifying.”
“So is the hunting trip you took with Natalya, da?”
Alfred laughed and laid down on the grass in a spread eagle. “Hey, Ivan?” He said, nudging Ivan with a foot. “What do you think our wedding would be like?”
“Hopefully, nothing ridiculous,” Ivan said, poking Alfred’s exposed belly. Alfred pushed him away with a pout and turned away, trying to move from the poking fingers. “But, since you are prince, it can’t be helped.”
“Jeez, it won’t be that bad.”
“So you say,” Ivan said, inclining his head. Alaska was rushing towards them and she laid down right next to Alfred.
“Hey, kiddo,” Alfred said. “How was the lake?”
“Awesome!” She grinned up at him and cackled. “Let’s go swim!”
“You have spent too much time with Gilbert Beilschimidt,” Ivan said with a sigh. He took out the sandwiches they’d prepared for the picnic and laid it out in a grand spread on the sheet. “And you need to eat.”
“But, Ivan,” Alaska said, sitting up fast. “Gilbert is awesome.”
There was a pained look on Ivan’s face when Alfred sat up as well and the prince ended up laughing at it. He took the offered sandwiches and took a big bite out of it. “Cheer up, Ivan,” he said through a mouthful of it. “You’re still her favorite.”
“Yeah!” Alaska said, following Alfred’s example of speaking while eating.
“That is not proper behavior, you two.”
“But, we’re not in the palace, Ivan, that’s the point,” Alfred whined.
“There’s a lot of people in the palace,” Alaska said, frowning at her food. She looked like she was trying to puzzle something out with her face scrunched up like that. The older two waited until she spoke again. “I don’t like it,” she declared.
“Why not, princess?” Alfred asked.
“I don’t know them,” she said.
Alfred shrugged and swallowed another bite of his sandwich. “Then, make some new friends.”
“Why are they all there?”
“Well, there’s the wedding,” Alfred waved the hand still holding the sandwich and found Alaska so close to his face in excitement. He leaned back and laugh. “Woah, what’s with that?”
“You’re getting married?!” Alaska asked, looking from one to the other.
Alfred’s face turned red and Ivan raised his scarf over his mouth to cover his amused smile. “What? No! Well, not that I don’t want to but not yet. There’s still some things--” Alfred cleared his throat. “Anyway, what I’m saying is it’s not yet our wedding. It’s Arthur’s. He and Francis finally decided to do it.”
“Oh,” Alaska seemed disappointed, pouting as she sat cross-legged on the sheet once again. “But you are getting married in the future right?”
“Da,” Ivan chuckled. “It was decided.”
Alfred and Ivan looked at each other, exchanging some silent conversation. Alfred placed his sandwich down and leaned back, his hands on the grass beneath them. “Hey princess?” He asked nudging Alaska’s foot with his. “What do you think about becoming an actual princess?”
She frowned at him. “I’m not a princess.”
“But you could be, hm?” Ivan pointed out.
“Well, when I become king and get married to Ivan, I would need an heir.” Alfred said, chuckling. “I’m not interested in marrying anyone else so we thought it could be you. We’ll teach you everything you need to know. What do you think?”
“That would be--” Alaska looked down. “You’re going to be my dads.”
“If you want us to be,” Ivan said. “Only then.”
“Oh, I’m not sure I want that yet.” She fidgeted and sighed. Alfred ruffled her hair and gave her a thumbs up and a wink to say it didn’t matter. Her expression changed, brightened like she had thought of something brilliant. Ivan looked at her and Alfred both with a fond smile. She giggled, grabbing at Alfred’s sleeve and Ivan’s hand. “Can I be the flower girl at the wedding then?”
“Oh, princess,” Alfred said grinning, offering his fist for a fist bump with her. “You didn’t have to ask.”
She returned his fist bump before clapping her hands. “I’m going to wear a flower crown,” she declared and Alfred remembered his own time wearing a flower crown. When he met Ivan’s eyes, there was a knowing look there that seemed to say he was remembering the same presented prize.
“Is that a yes on being a princess then?”
“Yes!” She exclaimed, throwing her hands up. “We’ll be a family, won’t we?”
A family, Alfred thought, was perfect. They didn’t have to be a replacement for her father if she was not ready for that yet. Alfred knew the feeling, knew that Artie was very much a part of his own family since his parents’ death even when he wasn’t Alfred’s dad. It would be the same with them. Alfred would be king and they’d be there to help him, to make his life better and to change the way he looked at the crown--not as the shackles that would bind him in his prison but the bonds that kept him quite alive.