Actions

Work Header

All was Golden in the Sky

Chapter Text

-----

Alfred sighed as he placed the pen beside the stack of papers. He had finished most of his work for the day but he was sure Artie would still be against any sort of fun. He wanted to go outside, to go and see the bustle of the capital’s downtown market. There was always a chance of something amazing happening in it and the food never fails to impress Alfred.

He thought that he would also prefer to personally supervise the construction of the new school whose permit he had just signed for. It was his own personal project and as prince, he wanted to know what the people thought of it, what improvements he could make.

But, Artie believed it was still too dangerous. It was stupid. Alfred could take care of himself. He’s had the best mentors when it comes to combat. He doesn’t need some stupid guard or knight following him around and restricting his movements when he could do so much more alone, without having to discuss every little action with someone else.

Alfred groaned and allowed his head to fall over his folded arms on the table. He buried his face in his arms with a sigh. It was definitely so frustrating.

With a sigh, Alfred stretched his arms up and stood from his seat behind the desk. He might as well deliver the papers and proposals he’s finished to some of the masters of the Royal Academy by himself. He was sure Artie wouldn’t be so against that. At least, he hoped so.

Alfred avoided the crowded hallways where servants or nobles may stop him anytime for pleasantries. He’d appreciate it some other day but with the idea of the stifling sentence he’s had since the last attempt on his life, he didn’t think he wanted to bother with smiling and acting polite with anyone and everyone.

Alfred jumped over the low railing in the hallways surrounding the courtyard, tucking the documents he was bringing under his arm. He raised his arms and waved with a grin when the knights and soldiers training on the courtyard caught sight of him. He glanced around and tried to see if there was anyone he could bother for some fun but there was no such luck.

He sighed and shrugged, continuing on his way to the Royal Academy, crossing the courtyard with long quick steps. He was about to hoist himself over the low wall that separated the palace courtyard from the Academy’s grounds when he heard someone clearing their throat.

The prince turned and found the source of the voice to be another young man in the Academy’s dark uniform, leaning over the wall by Alfred’s left. He seemed to be taller than Alfred with blond hair lighter than his. He had a long tan scarf wrapped around his neck over the Academy’s uniform. The stranger approached with a chuckle. Alfred noticed that the other’s eyes were violet, reminding him somehow of his brother. He remembered Artie saying that there were old stories of people gifted with great talent in magic having that eye color. He wondered if that was true. Matthew and this stranger, after all, were both students of the academy.

“What?” Alfred crossed his arms over his chest and gave the other a challenging look. “Do you have a problem?”

“The gate is just a few meters away in that direction,” the stranger said, nodding at the direction from which he had just come from.

Alfred glanced at the same direction then looked back at the stranger with a grin. “But, this is more fun, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”

“Here,” Alfred thrust the documents he was carrying at the stranger before turning around and walking a few feet away from the low wall. The startled stranger couldn’t do anything but do as asked and hold on to the documents as the prince crouched, readying himself for a run. Alfred took every bit of the momentum provided by the distance and the running start to leap over the wall, landing on a smooth roll.

“Impressive?” The Academy student spoke, uncertain as he approached Alfred.

Alfred laughed. “It’s stupid but give me a break,” he said. “I gotta amuse myself somehow.”

“By jumpin where you should not?” The student chuckled. “I have never heard of such an amusement.”

Alfred cocked his head and grinned. “Well, we’ve never met before, have we?” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Alfred.”

The student looked at his hand and with a small smile placed the documents he’d handed him before on it before answering. “Alfred? Like the prince?”

Alfred pouted before tucking the documents back under his arm. He shifted on his feet and looked over the palace with a frown and a shrug. “Exactly like the prince. Is that a problem?”

The stranger shook his head. “Not at all. My name is Ivan,” he said. He shook Alfred’s hand this time, bowing to almost place a kiss above it. It was as if they were meeting at a formal court function instead of Alfred’s clothes and skin being dirtied by his wall jump, looking more like a commoner than a prince. It made Alfred realize that Ivan was likely the scion of some noble house, most Royal Academy students were. Ivan looked at him with an innocent smile. “It is a pleasure to meet you, your highness. I hope we can be good friends, yes?”

Alfred laughed nervously, suddenly feeling embarrassed of his behavior after Ivan’s more formal display. “That’s fine, dude. We’re not like at court or anything, you don’t have to do that. Hey, if you’re not busy, maybe you can help me out with this administration stuff? I need to go see the Dean of the academy.”

“Of course,” Ivan waved his hand in the direction of the Academy building. “Shall I escort you?”

-----

“But, I’m not wrong, am I?”

“I don’t know, Al. You did almost die the last time you went out without a guard. I think Arthur’s just worried,” Matthew said, gently nudging him with an elbow.

“Worried?” Alfred scoffed and leaned back on his chair until it was balanced on its two back legs. He laughed and let it drop down again. “Artie is just being an ass.”

“He’s regent,” Matthew said, turning the pages of his book and making some notes on a piece of paper. Alfred idly ran his fingers over the spines of the books strewn about their tables, books on magic and military history. Alfred has abandoned his work on a research assignment for one of his tutors out of boredom but his brother seems to be soldiering on for his own work, diligent as ever. “He’s supposed to do his best to protect the kingdom.”

“I’m not the kingdom,” Alfred replied with a pout.

Matthew shrugged, peering from his work to his brother beside him. “But, you are the heir, Alfred. That counts.”

“He’s not as strict with you!” The sudden outburst from Alfred earned them a scolding stare from one of the librarians wandering around nearby. Alfred answered with a sheepish and apologetic smile before turning back to Matthew. “Mattie, he let you go to that school trip, didn’t he?”

“School trip?” Matthew frowned in confusion. He adjusted his glasses and pushed his hair back behind his ear as he thought before smiling as he remembered. “Oh, you mean the lesson on crystal magic, eh?”

“I’m not sure,” Alfred scowled. “Was that the one last month?”

Matthew laughed. “Yes, and I didn’t go alone. There were other students there and the masters of the Academy. That’s why Arthur agreed. You know he would agree if you’d let some knights follow you around too.”

“But, that’s boring,” Alfred said. “I’d have to keep checking if I’m allowed to go places instead of just going there. It’s a waste of time and effort and I could get a lot more work done if I don’t have to constantly check in with a babysitter.”

“They’re not a babysitter. That’s just rude, Al!” Matthew insisted, giving his brother a disappointed look. “I know you don’t like restrictions but they are good. Most knights even have some mastery of magic from the Royal Academy, you know. They’ll protect you.”

Alfred sighed, covering his books with his arms and head. “It’s just so suffocating.”

“You’ll get used to it. Just give them a chance, Al, really,” Matthew said.

“Yeah, whatever,” Alfred grimaced. He straightened in his seat and began stacking up his books. He glanced over his brother’s shoulder after a while, watching the neat lines of runes on parchment. The dark ink that stained Mattie’s fingers reminded him of something else, someone else. “Hey, Mattie?”

“Hm?”

“Do you know anyone named Ivan from the Academy?”

“Ivan?” Matthew’s handwriting faltered, a smudge ruining the elegant lines of the document. Matthew clicked his tongue before wiping the ink from the nib and placing it back down beside the documents. “You don’t mean Ivan Braginsky, do you, Alfred?”

Alfred drummed his fingers on the dark leather covers of the book, watching his brother’s strange reaction. “I don’t know. I met him by chance. Maybe, maybe not. Heck, maybe I won’t see him again. I don’t why I’m asking.”

Matthew pressed his lips into a line, staring thoughtfully at the stack of books in front of Alfred. “I’m just not sure if you should be spending time with him.”

“Why not?” Alfred scowled and set his jaw stubbornly. “You’re not being like Artie, are you?”

Before Matthew can give his reply, a courier stepped around one of the shelves and stopped by their table. The courier bowed and looked at both the princes. “Your highnesses, good day,” he said. “I am sorry to interrupt your work but the regent asked to speak with Prince Alfred. I was told to fetch you as soon as I found you, your highness.”

Alfred rolled his eyes and smirked at Matthew. “What did I say? See, Artie’s nagging again. Time to see what he wants.”

“Stop fighting him, Alfred,” Matthew chided. “Seriously.”

Alfred took his jacket from where he had hung it on the back of his chair, shrugging it on as he stood. He straightened it out and adjusted his glasses before looking over his shoulder at his brother. “No promises,” he said. He nodded to the courier to lead the way. He raised his hand to wave goodbye to his brother. “Talk to you later, Mattie.”

-----

The bells that hung over the doors of the solarium rang as Alfred entered, filling him with a sense of comfort and relief. He glanced at it and smiled, remembering watching Arthur carve the runes into the metal of the small bells when he was a child. Alfred looked around the green plants and the clear rushing water of the stream that went around the room. He took a deep breath as he moved further into the room, fingers brushing over the brilliant green leaves and his eyes roving over the colored glass ornaments that painted the room with different hues when the sun managed to hit it just right.

He smiled. The palace solarium had never failed to impress him, never failed to take his breath away and make him think of magic and its beauty. Alfred broke off a flower from a shrub as he passed it, sucking the sweet nectar from its stem before tucking it away in his jacket.

The bells were already silent as he brushed a curtain of vines away to step into the solarium’s central area. Arthur was seated reviewing some documents. A cup of tea beside his papers had a spoon slowly stirring without anyone to hold it. Alfred had to wonder if it was one of Artie’s familiars that he couldn’t see or some levitating spell that the regent was using that allowed it to happen.

“Take a seat, Alfred,” Arthur said, barely looking up from his papers. He signed one and placed it aside just as Alfred pulled out a chair and slouched in it.

“So,” Alfred drew out the syllable as he said it, peering at the colored glass ornaments around the room. “What’s this about then?”

“I found someone to replace your guard that quit,” Arthur said as he took his tea to drink.

Alfred gaped at him. “You’re kidding,” he said, staring at Arthur with a look of disbelief.

Arthur sighed and placed his cup of tea on back on the table. “This is for your own good. We’ve talked about this, Alfred. Do not be difficult.”

“I’m not being difficult! You’re just not listening. None of you or the guards you’ve given me ever listen,” Alfred slammed his hands on the table and stood. He started pacing around the area, a captive animal in a cage. He ran his fingers through his hair in frustration and turned back to Arthur. “I’m not gonna let you do this.”

“I am your guardian,” Arthur set his mouth into a thin line, his words laced with his displeasure. Alfred answered it all with a sneer before turning to leave. “Alfred!”

“Shut up, Artie!” Alfred shouted. “If you’re not going to listen to me then I’m not going to listen to you either.”

He turned away and ran towards the exit, ignoring Arthur’s indignant shouts. He runs through the palace, barely acknowledging anyone, still in thrumming with anger, frustration, and disbelief at Arthur. Alfred chafed. He needed to get out, needed to be free. To hell with Arthur, to hell with the rules.

Alfred was going to do what he wanted. He was going to see the very people he’s supposed to know and rule.

-----

The capital of the kingdom of Atlas was a bustling city and its market place wasn’t any different. Alfred weaved through the crowd, keeping the hood of his cloak up as he looked through the items on display for each stall. Merchants hawked their wares and Alfred would smile and start a conversation, asking about their trade and what they thought of things.

It felt freeing to be outside, unknown by anyone and surrounded by a crowd. It felt good to be nobody for just a few moments.

Still, Alfred couldn’t help but tense every time he encountered one of the city guards on patrol. He wondered how long it would be until Arthur sent guards after him. He sighed as he paid for his purchase of a burger. He bit into it, chewing slowly, letting the grease stain his lips as he tried to craft an apology for his guardian in his head. He knew Matthew was right. Arthur was simply trying to protect them but Alfred still couldn’t help the feelings of frustration from the restraining idea of the orders.

“Maybe we can compromise,” Alfred muttered to himself. He was so deep in thought he hadn’t realized that someone had stopped in front of him and ran into someone. Alfred stepped back with a frown. “Oh, dude, I didn’t see you there.”

The prince looked up and blinked in surprise at the familiar figure in front of him. Ivan smiled at him and Alfred found himself flushing in mortification. “I’m sorry. That may have been my fault, your highness. I noticed you a while ago and decided to greet you but you seemed to have been distracted.”

Alfred laughed nervously. “Yeah, that’s embarrassing, huh? I’m just thinking of something. Sorry, my bad, Ivan,” He grinned at the other, his expression brightening. “It’s good to see you though. What’cha doin’?”

Ivan chuckled and raised the paper bag in his hand. “I was buying some supplies for myself. Some parchment and ink, ingredients for a spell, and other odds and ends. And what of you, your highness?”

“Alfred’s fine,” Alfred said. He bit his lips and shrugged. “Especially since I’m really not supposed to be here.”

“Ah,” Ivan nodded. “Am I to assume this is another one of those amusing things?”

“Yeah!” Alfred laughed. “You wanna come with?”

Ivan inclined his head and smiled. “I’ll be glad to, your high--Alfred.”

Alfred pumped his fist in the air. He grabbed Ivan’s hand and started pulling him to another line of stalls in the market, steering them away from a couple of city guards he’d seen. The guards had looked frantic and was asking around the throng of people. Alfred figured Arthur had finally realized Alfred had actually left the palace itself and had finally mobilized the city watch to look for the wayward prince.

“Come on,” Alfred said. “I want to look at something.”

They spent the next few minutes wandering from stall to stall. Alfred bought more snacks for both of them, indulging himself with anything good or interesting that he could get his hands on. They stopped by a stall selling various plants and herbs with Ivan pointing out interesting tidbits about them before purchasing a bunch of sunflowers.

“Sunflowers, huh?” Alfred glanced at the golden yellow blooms on the other’s hand. “What’s it for?”

“Oh, nothing,” Ivan said. “I simply enjoy how they look, da?”

“Dude, they look awesome,” Alfred grinned, giving the other a thumbs up gesture. “We have lots of them in one of the palace garden. I’ll show you next time, yeah?”

“Would that be allowed?”

Alfred shrugged. “Why not?” He stopped at a townhouse just outside of the traffic of people coming from the market on the main street. He removed the cloak he wore and adjusted his jacket. “Okay, here we go.” He draped the cloak over his arm and took a deep breath.

“Where is here exactly?” Ivan asked, cocking his head curiously.

“Oh, dude, it’s awesome. I have this project with one of the families that manage the academy, yeah? Francis is helping me with it. We want to make another school that’ll be more accessible to everyone in the kingdom. If not, the plan is to develop a program to allow more commoners into the Royal Academy. The problem is my guard quit ages ago because, uh well, I guess that was my fault but it was totally called for, you know.” Alfred said, rambling with big hand gestures and expression. Ivan watched with a small amused smile even as the prince took a short pause for breath. “Anyway, I haven’t been to see Francis in a while to talk about it and he hasn’t visited the palace. I think he’s fighting with Arthur or something. So, I had the brilliant plan of coming here on my own. What do you think?”

“It certainly seems ambitious, da?”

Alfred paused and sighed. He placed a hand over the knocker, tracing the unfamiliar runes on it. A part of him wondered if it was Arthur’s handiwork. He flicked it with a finger and turned a brilliant grin to Ivan, the moment of melancholy disappearing like a mirage. “Well, a king’s got to be a hero too, you know?”

“I’m sure you’ll make a great king, your highness,” Ivan said.

“Yeah? I mean, of course, right? I’m a hero,” Alfred nodded, suddenly determined and confident. “Gonna do my job right. Show Artie he’s wrong.” He raised the knocker and knocked thrice. “Hey Ivan,” he said as they waited for the door to open. He stared resolutely at the dark wood of the door. “Stay with me?”

“Of course,” Ivan nodded. “We are friends, yes?”

“Oh, man, definitely,” Alfred grinned. “Today was great, Ivan. Thank you.”

Ivan stared at him with a frown and Alfred almost faltered in his smile, thinking he’s done something wrong, said something offensive without thinking. He was replaying the last few seconds of their conversation when Ivan tucked one of the sunflowers he’d bought into Alfred’s chest pocket. The frown had disappeared from the mage’s face and was replaced by a fond, contented smile. “No,” Ivan said. “I thank you, your highness.”

Alfred was about to reply but by then, the door had opened and they were ushered in by Francis’ valet. Alfred touched the sunflower gently, as he organized the thoughts in his head. He can feel a strange energy buzzing underneath his skin, almost like the surge of magic whenever Arthur performed a powerful spell around him. He placed his hand over his chest, over the flower and the pendant that hid underneath his shirt, and his heart, steady and strong, and perhaps just a bit too fast.

A part of him felt like he could have done anything and everything. He grinned. A friend, he thought, yes, a friend would be nice.

-----

Alfred watched the flickering magelights of the carriage disappear behind the closing palace gates. Francis had brought him and Ivan to where they each needed to be after the meeting in the Bonnefoy’s city estate. A servant waited to escort Alfred into the palace at the top of the entrance stairs but Alfred still stood at the bottom until the gates finally closed, shutting him back in the palace from the outside. He sighed and turned away from it, momentarily brushing his fingers over the bright yellow flower still adorning his chest.

“Has the regent retired for the night?” Alfred asked the servant waiting for him.

“I believe Lord Arthur is still working in his offices. A message will be sent to inform him of your arrival, your highness.”

“That’s not necessary, I’m going to see him,” Alfred said, already climbing the grand staircase in the entrance hall two steps at a time. He called out to the servant that had stopped following. “You can retire for the night.”

Once he reached the doors of Arthur’s office, Alfred only had to knock once before he’s hearing Arthur calling out for him to come in. Alfred opened the door and caught a glimpse of Arthur pacing by the windows before the man stopped by the desk and turned. Arthur’s eyes were full of fury and Alfred gulped, wondering if it was too late to turn back.

Alfred shook his head and steeled himself. He can still feel the earlier energy of the city thrumming in him and he’s already resolved to compromise with Arthur if necessary. They both just needed to calm down, he thought. He almost laughed. That was easier said than done.

“Well?” Arthur asked, crossing his arms over his chest and looking at Alfred with that look of disappointment that always had Alfred confessing all his misdeeds as a child. “I assume you’ve come here with a good explanation your actions?”

“I didn’t do anything wrong, Arthur,” Alfred said. “I’m sorry for being angry a while ago but I’m not going to apologize for actually trying to do my best as prince of this kingdom.”

“It was irresponsible, Alfred!” Arthur exclaimed. “It was irresponsible, reckless, and thoughtless. Your actions was a distraction for the city watch and it was an unnecessary risk. You’re no longer a child! You should be thinking of the consequences of your actions. You should be more aware of the fact that you’ll eventually be the king of this kingdom. I know you want to be free to do what you want, Alfred, but that is no excuse--”

“I’m not making any excuses!” Alfred cut him off, his own voice rising over Arthur’s scolding tone. “I did think about it and I’m no longer a child. I can take of myself and my kingdom, Arthur. I’ll be king soon and I won’t be a king that hides from his people. If I have to risk myself for the kingdom then I’ll do it. Can’t you try to understand that?”

“Stop it,” Arthur said, gritting his teeth. “You’re still not listening. You were selfish and have caused unnecessary trouble today, Alfred. That itself shows that you’re not ready. Bloody hell, Alfred, do you know how worried we were!? I swear, you were taught better than this.”

“I was doing my job! I was doing the right thing,” Alfred stepped forward and stopped, flinging his hands in frustration. “Stop treating like I don’t know what I’m doing!”

“You could have died! Do you know how many people want you dead? Do you want a repeat of what happened before? I’m trying to stop you from these stupid, thoughtless, selfish thing you’ve convinced yourself, you needed to do,” Arthur closed the gap between them. He pointed a finger at Alfred’s chest and Alfred can feel the his heart racing with anger, feel the suppressed surge of energy under his skin. “You’re the heir to the throne, Alfred. You can’t just sacrifice your life like a hero. You need to stop acting on impulse and start thinking.”

“Shut up!” Alfred pushed Arthur, pushed away the suffocating feeling that gripped his chest, and Arthur didn’t just stumble back. The force of Alfred’s hands sent Arthur flying across the room, colliding with the closed windows with a clatter and a hiss of pain. Many other items in the room were torn from their positions by the energy that radiated from Alfred and Alfred covered his mouth from horror, taking a sharp intake of breath.

“Alfred,” Arthur murmured, stumbling to his feet and holding his hand out. “It’s alright. Everything’s going to be alright.”

Alfred choked and swallowed back his fear as he rushed to his guardian’s side. “Are you hurt? The-the infirmary, I need to bring you to the infirmary, Artie.” His hands fluttered all over the regent, shaking and uncertain. “What do you need? What can I do? I’m so sorry, Arthur. I didn’t mean to.”

“It’s going to be fine, love,” Arthur said, taking Alfred’s shaking hands and squeezing them for comfort. He smiled at the worried prince reassuringly and clapped a hand over Alfred’s shoulder. “I’ll be fine. You’re safe. We’re safe. It’ll be alright, Alfred. You didn’t hurt me. You didn’t hurt yourself either, did you? It’s just your magic. It wasn’t your fault. It’s going to be fine.”

“I’m sorry, I couldn’t control it. I thought, I mean, I could have hurt you.”

“But you didn’t,” Arthur sighed and he squeezed Alfred’s shoulder comfortingly. “We both need to calm down. I’m just glad you’re safe. You should get some rest. We’ll talk in the morning.”

“But--”

“It wasn’t your fault, I promise,” Arthur smiled, gently pushing Alfred to the door. “Get some rest. Calm down. Good night, Alfred.”

“And you’re sure? You’re not hurt?”

“I promise,” Arthur said.

Alfred nodded, distracted, his head hung in shame. “Alright,” he mumbled. “Good night, Arthur.”

-----

“Alfred,” Matthew stopped his brother with a gentle hand on his elbow. “Where did you go yesterday? Arthur was really worried.”

“The city,” Alfred said. The two continued walking on their way to the dining room. “I needed to get out.”

Matthew smiled. “Nothing wrong with that now and then, eh?”

“I don’t know, dude. Artie and I fought again last night.”

“And?” Matthew asked, his brow creased in worry.

“And I don’t know. He said we’ll talk about it today,” Alfred said with a shrug. He yawned, still feeling the mess that was yesterday and in his sleep following him to the waking world. He blew out a breath and grimaced. “I messed up, dude. I’ll probably just agree to the whole guard thing.”

“It’s not so bad,” Matthew reassured him. “Tim isn’t just my guard. He’s also my friend. You’ll be fine, Al.”

Alfred hummed instead of answering. He was still lost in thought when they entered the dining room that he didn’t notice their guest until Matthew exclaimed, “Francis.”

“Ah, Mathieu,” Francis greeted. “Good morning. Alfred, you too.”

Alfred blinked at the other in surprise, looking from Francis to Arthur who sat at the head of the table, calmly sipping his morning tea. “Francis? Why are you here?”

“Arthur asked me to come,” Francis said. “After all, we still have business to discuss, no?”

Alfred took his seat, loading his plate up with ham and eggs. “What? Did you come here just for that?”

“I asked him to,” Arthur scowled at Francis.

Francis chuckled. “Ah, yes, a royal decree.”

Alfred snickered and Matthew hid a smile behind his cup of coffee. “Are you staying the whole day then?”

“He should be,” Arthur said, rubbing his fingers over his temples with a frown. “Before you go about your business though, Alfred, there is something we must discuss.”

“Right,” Alfred said. He took a gulp of his drink and placed his utensils beside his plate. “I guess I’ll, well, I’ll be fine with a guard, okay?”

Arthur looked surprise, mouth gaping like he meant to continue talking. He cleared his throat and raised a questioning brow at Alfred. “You’re agreeing to having a guard follow you around?”

Alfred sighed and he rubbed the back of his neck. “You’ll do it anyway,” Alfred said. “And as long as they’re not too annoying, okay? You said you had a suggestion, right? Can I meet them first before I decide? If I don’t like them, can you let me choose one on my own?”

Arthur smiled. “Yes, of course,” he replied. “I invited them today to meet you, actually. I wanted to ask you to give them a chance before refusing outright, Alfred. If you truly think that they would not be a great fit for your needs, we can find you someone else.”

Alfred grinned. “Great, thanks!”

Alfred shoveled some of his food into his mouth. He can still feel Arthur’s questioning gaze on him and thoughts of last night were still very much present in his mind. He wondered if Arthur really was okay and if he should ask about it. He blinked and cocked his head as he realized that Arthur was trying to get his attention. “Huh?”

“I asked if you wanted to him right now,” Arthur repeated, a tone of fond exasperation in his voice.

“Right now?”

Arthur nodded and folded his hands over the table. “I told you, I invited him to meet you today for this very purpose.”

Alfred shrugged. “I guess that’s fine?”

Arthur signalled to a courier waiting on him and Alfred watched the courier disappear around the door. They returned a few moments later followed by a young man in a familiar dark uniform, a long tan scarf wrapped around their neck. Alfred thought of the sunflower still on the bedside table in his room, thought of a crowded market and a hand in laced with his.

“This is Ivan Braginsky, Alfred,” Arthur was saying. “He’s one of the top students of magic in the Royal Academy and he has also completed his knight training. He’s heir to the Braginsky Barony. Alfred?”

Alfred stood, staring dumbfounded at Ivan’s innocent smile. His heart beat wildly in his chest and he pressed his hand over his chest, over the pendant meant to keep his magic in check under his shirt, thinking of the night before and the feeling of invincibility. “He’s my knight?”

“He’s not a knight yet,” Arthur said. “He will be knighted soon but for now, he’s your guard. Is this acceptable, Alfred.”

Alfred stepped around the table until he stood in front of Ivan. He looked the student up and down before smirking. “You knew,” Alfred said, more a fact than accusation.

“I did,” Ivan said with a nod. “It was not a certain thing yet, your highness.”

“Alfred?” Arthur prompted.

Alfred waved his hand in the air. “It’s fine, Artie,” he said, laughing. He stared at Ivan’s strange purple eyes again and grinned. “He’ll do.”

Like an echo of their first meeting, Ivan bowed and kissed the signet ring on Alfred’s finger. “I am grateful for your approval, your highness.”

-----

Chapter Text

-----

“This is a nightmare, Ivan,” Alfred whined, burying his face in his arms on his desk covered in papers. Ivan hummed and calmly flipped to the next page of his book. Alfred peered from his arms and pouted. “Are you not going to help me?”

“Unfortunately, your highness, I will have to decline.”

“But, why?”

Ivan chuckled, glancing at the prince still scowling at his own work. Alfred did look tired, his glasses askew on his face and his fingers all covered in ink. There were stray marks of ink on his cheek and Ivan stood up from his seat in front of the desk, leaning over to wipe away at the marks. “We’re having our practicals soon at the Academy. I would need to review for it.”

Alfred’s cheeks appeared faintly red even as he furiously rubbed at where Ivan had touched his cheek. Alfred cursed and turned back to his own writing and for a few moments, they both knew of peace. “Can you at least get me some water and snacks?” Alfred asked.

Ivan looked up from his reading and closed the book, laying it down on one of Alfred’s many chaise. “I believe you have servants you can ask for such a task.”

“I believe they’re not here right now, Ivan, so please,” Alfred smiled, guileless and sweet. Ivan narrowed his eyes in suspicion, sighing as he took up his scarf and wound it around his neck. Alfred cheered when he saw that he had convinced him. “Thanks, dude, you’re the best.”

Ivan frowned as he closed the room to the prince’s quarters. Alfred has been strangely distant since they’ve been formally introduced by the regent to one another. Ivan thought that it might have something to do with the fact that he had kept the possibility of his assignment from Alfred during their interactions. Alfred’s behavior that day had been almost too friendly to be suspicious.

Ivan decided a slight detour would not hurt his intended errand. He turned around and headed for the garden right outside the prince’s windows. Ivan stopped at the edge of the garden, watching Alfred climb down from his window in a practiced maneuver. He leaps the last few feet down and Ivan can easily imagine what would prompt the resignation of all the prince’s previous guards.

Alfred stood from his roll, brushing the bits of dirt and grass clinging to his trousers. He pulled out a satchel from a loose stone in one of the statues of former kings and heroes that adorned the garden. Ivan sighed and stepped away from the shadow of the doorway.

“I see this is a normal occurrence,” he said as he approached the prince.

Alfred yelped and jumped, turning to look at Ivan in disbelief. “Holy crap, dude, you scared the shit out of me.” He frowned. “Aren’t you supposed to be getting my snacks?”

“And you’re supposed to be working, your highness,” Ivan pointed out.

“Plans change,” Alfred shrugged, unrepentant.

Ivan smiled, not even bothered by the nonchalant attitude. He’s dealt with all the privileged students of the Royal Academy. Once, Ivan was one as well. He knew the feeling of wanting to do whatever you want without once thinking about the consequences or the stupid cages societal norms forced them into.

“So have mine it seems,” Ivan told the prince. “Shall we retreat somewhere else, Alfred?”

Alfred groaned and rolled his eyes. “You suck,” he said, trudging along.

“I thought there was a very important job to finish.”

“We all need a break sometimes,” Alfred muttered. “Especially when it comes to figuring out the logic of politicians. You should know. You’re a noble too, aren’t you?”

Ivan’s steps faltered but he managed to correct himself before the prince noticed anything amiss. He clasped his wrist behind his back as he followed the prince down the hallways, tracing their way back to his rooms. “Everything in the world is meant to be difficult.”

Alfred snorted. “Not for me,” he laughed. “A hero always makes it look easy.”

“But, a king needs his advisors,” Ivan pointed out.

“A king is vulnerable,” Alfred scoffed. “My father was king and look what that got him and my mother. One day, when I’m king, I won’t just be a king. I’ll be a hero. A hero always wins.” Alfred glanced over his shoulder with a brilliant smile and Ivan felt his heart stutter. He could see it, he thought, this young, thoughtless boy taking the world by surprise. Alfred was ambitious and charming and beautiful. A golden age brought in by a golden king with eyes like the sky he’s reaching for.

Ivan smiled. It was a beautiful dream. Perhaps, he thought, Alfred might just prove to be more than just a friend, more than a reckless and careless boy-king, and more the hero-king of legend. Ivan would like to follow him to that future, he thought. He shook his head. It wasn’t a time for daydreaming. After all, his golden prince had shown that he was willing to use distractions to his advantage.

Still, for a moment, he thought he could see Alfred’s regal form, marching on ahead, crowned in gold and glory. It was a breathtaking sight.

-----

Alfred stirred the coffee and alcohol in his cup, tapping the teaspoon on the rim of the cup when he was finished. The delicate teaspoon was placed on the saucer as Alfred took a long sip of the drink. He licked his lips as he placed the cup back on the saucer. Ivan watched with a smile as Alfred smacked his lips, not at all behavior one would expect from a royal.

“Did the drink meet your expectations, your highness?” Ivan teased.

“Could be stronger,” Alfred replied with a laugh.

“While you’re working?”

“I’m meeting with some nobles,” Alfred sneered. “That’s always the kind of business you mix with pleasure. Especially alcohol. Dude, you should know. It’s the only way you’ll last through it.”

“I do not understand why you keep expecting me to know the odd intricacies of your court, Alfred.” Ivan said. A knock interrupted Alfred before he could answer and Ivan stood up in order to answer it but he was stopped by Alfred’s hand on his arm.

“Wait,” Alfred said. He seemed thoughtful for a moment, looking over Ivan like he was assessing his capabilities. “You know some of the servants are terrified of you?”

“You have mentioned it before,” Ivan said. He frowned. He wasn’t sure where the conversation was going but Alfred had a pleased smile on his face. Ivan thought he should probably prepare for some mischief from the prince.

“Can you do it on purpose?” Alfred asked. “Some of the nobles are annoying and frustrating, and they still treat me like a kid. I need them unsettled.”

“We’ll see,” Ivan said and headed towards the door where knocking could be heard once again. The idea that Ivan’s intimidating behavior that have only ever been creepy or threatening to others being amusing and useful for Alfred was a strange one. Ivan wasn’t sure if the prince was simply clueless about danger or too brave for his own good.

Ivan opened the door to let the nobles attending Alfred’s first meeting of the day in. Alfred had settled into his seat, smiling amiably at the guests. He welcomed them with handshakes and questions about their recent activities. Ivan stood a step behind Alfred’s chair with his hands behind his back, watching the attending nobles and their escorts for any dangerous intent.

“Oh, it seems you’ve replaced your old guard, your highness,” one of them pointed out, glancing at Ivan with eyes narrowed in suspicion.

“Oh, yeah!” Ivan watched Alfred laughed without concern. “The last one resigned. This is Ivan Braginsky. Ivan, say hi.”

Ivan smiled at Alfred’s guest. He could tell from their expression exactly what Alfred and the others meant about seeing his smile as threatening instead of the innocent, friendly smile that it was. “It is a pleasure to serve the prince,” Ivan said.

“Braginsky? Like the failed Barony?” One of them muttered.

Ivan turned to face the one who spoke with another smile. “Yes,” he answered. “Is there a problem?”

The noble froze, his expression turning from fearful to anxious to angry in a span of a few seconds. Ivan glanced at the prince, seeing Alfred watch with a guileless expression. It was enough to make Ivan want to laugh.

“Your highness,” the noble blustered through. “The guard of yours better watch his tone.”

Alfred tilted his head and scrunched up his face. “His tone? Come on, dude, Ivan’s just being friendly. I don’t know what you’re talking about. But, enough about pleasantries. You’re all here to report on the state of order in your estates. Now, let me see, sorry, it was too boring so let me just skim over.” Alfred blew out a breath as he shifted through the papers on his hands. The expression on his face would have almost made Ivan believe the whole inexperienced and airheaded front that the prince insisted on except he had been there the whole day yesterday when Alfred had made a point to read and review each of the reports that the regent had asked him to take care of.

“Oh, bandits, really!? That seems exciting!” Alfred exclaimed, dropping the papers on the table and fumbling with his pen as he made some doodle on the margins of the page. “So, tell me about it?”

“Ah, it’s really nothing, your highness. Certainly, it’s not important enough for you to have to worry yourself about it. After all, your birthday and inheritance ceremony is coming soon, is it not?”

Alfred pouted. “But, I wanna hear about the bandits. It seems really interesting. Like the stories of the adventures of heroes, right, Ivan?”

Ivan glanced at Alfred who looked at him expectantly. Ivan almost expected to see stars in his eyes with the look of excitement on his face. Ivan turned towards the nobles. “I’m sure his highness would like to hear the story that he demands.”

“Yeah!” Alfred hummed. “Maybe, I’m just clueless about this stuff but why can’t we just hire adventurers to take care of the bandits. That would just be awesome! Wouldn’t it?”

The entire meeting went about in the same way. Alfred would make a point to urge them to talk about the problem because of his lack of expertise and would try to get them to be succinct by telling them he didn’t want the boring stuff. Whenever someone chose to flatter him or dodge a subject, Alfred would act all disappointed or would let the conversation go in circles before reintroducing the topic. Sometimes, Alfred would make a point of getting Ivan into the conversation and that was usually a sign that Alfred wasn’t getting anything from them. It was an interesting experience to see nobles squirming in their seat from the gaze and smile that Ivan would send their way, making them hurry with their explanations as if they couldn’t wait to get the meeting over with.

When the meeting ended, Ivan escorted the nobles and their entourage outside. Many of them were still eyeing him with distaste, suspicion, or frustration. Ivan just smiled and waved at them as they went out. “Thank you for your attendance. I’m sure Prince Alfred is pleased.”

Alfred laughed as Ivan returned. He stretched his arms over his head with a relieved sigh before grinning at Ivan. “Did you see that? Holy crap, they were so terrified of you. That’s so stupid, I can’t believe that worked,” Alfred said, snickering still as he pulled a blank piece of paper and started making notes on it from the discussion that had just happened. Ivan watched him wipe a tear from laughing to hard from under his glasses as he wrote. “Oh man, that was fantastic. Best meeting ever. They actually got to their point faster than they would have normally.”

Ivan sighed and shook his head. He took Alfred’s cup and refilled it with coffee from the sideboard before placing it back by Alfred’s work. “I feel as if I should be offended with your use of me, Alfred.”

Alfred smiled at him gratefully before taking a sip out of the coffee. He grimaced and started blowing on the liquid. “You have my thanks. You’re a great help, Ivan. I think we make a good team.”

Ivan looked at him dubiously. “Does that mean you’ll stop trying to avoid me?”

“Ha! Nope,” Alfred laughed once again and Ivan could tell he was still thinking of the meeting. But, then, the prince turned to him with blue eyes bright with adrenaline, a wide excited grin, and a challenging expression. “It’s more fun that way, isn’t it?”

“If you say so, your highness.”

Alfred winked at him. “Hey, I’ll take it easy on you. But, friends mess with each other, don’t they?” Alfred said, already back to working on his notes about the meeting.

Ivan was startled, looking at the prince in surprise at that. “I--yes, friends do.”

They both looked up at a knock on the door. Alfred grinned at Ivan again and it felt like being a little too close to the sun to see that bright expression directed at you. “Well, time for the next one. Are you ready?”

-----

Ivan waited for Alfred in the practice yards used by the royals for combat. While he waited, he prepared for their practice match.

He folded his scarf and laid it one a bench, smiling fondly as he pat the soft fabric of the thing. He’d receive his salary for this position by the end of the week. He should send a letter to his sisters with the money. Perhaps, he could even ask them to visit for the festival to celebrate the princes’ birthday. He took up his practice sword and took a few practice swings. That should do. He didn’t plan to spend the whole time teaching the prince about sword fighting which he, no doubt, already had knowledge of.

“Hey, Ivan,” Alfred greeted as he entered the practice yard. He was dressed in a loose tunic and pants with some leather boots. Instead of having the sword belt buckled around his waist, the prince was still carrying it and the sheathed sword in his hand. “Why are we here?”

Alfred stopped by the bench and removed his glasses, placing them above Ivan’s folded scarf. He unsheathed his sword dropped the sheath and belt beside it. Ivan nodded and led the prince to the center of the courtyard with hands on his shoulders. “I believe you needed help with your magic, yes? I can help you, hm?”

Alfred paled and turned panicked eyes towards Ivan, throwing off Ivan’s hands from his shoulders. It almost looked like the touch had physically pained him. “What?” He croaked out, eyes widening in disbelief. “No, we’re not doing that!”

“It will be easier for you to learn the basics in controlling your magic.”

“I can’t,” Alfred scowled. “I’m stupid with magic.”

“In the same way everyone thinks you’re stupid with most things?”

Alfred gave a bark of laughter. He hunched down and scowled at his boots. “I wish,” he muttered. “But, no, I’m actually not good with it.”

Ivan frowned. He placed a hand over Alfred’s chest, over his heart and the prince froze, staring at his mage-guard with wide eyes. “It is because you let your heart rule your mind, Alfred,” Ivan whispered, brushing a thumb over Alfred’s forehead. “You need to learn to control your emotions.”

“I do that all the time,” Alfred said. “You saw it. I’m a good actor.”

“Hiding it from everyone is not the same as controlling it,” Ivan said, chuckling in amusement. He gestured at a training dummy, making a gesture with his hand to shoot an ice arrow at it. The spell hit, freezing the dummy from where the arrow hit its head down its body. “Spells are outlets to divert your magic, makes it more controllable.”

“If you think I’ve never tried to learn magic, then you’re an idiot,” Alfred said. “My brother and Artie have both tried to teach me.”

“And the results?”

“I’ve only ever accidentally hurt people,” Alfred said, fingers going to the pendant he usually wore around his neck. “This is a limiter, it absorbs the excess magic from me. Even then, it’s not a guarantee. See, we can’t do this, dude. I’ll just end up hurting you or something.”

“That is a risk we’ll have to take.”

Alfred looked at Ivan dubiously. Ivan watched him shift on his feet, unnaturally nervous for the usually self-assured prince. “Well,” Alfred said, taking a stance. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
He raised the sword overhead, shifting his grip on the hilt, and struck at the hard packed dirt. It seemed almost impossible to see the deep gouge that the sword had made on the ground and how it was buried halfway in.

The air was thrumming with magical energy. Ivan didn’t think it was that bad but Alfred was already pulling him to the ground even before the prince had entirely released the sword from his hand.

“This seems really stupid, doesn’t it?” Ivan said, smiling at the prince. He wasn’t sure why they had both dropped to the ground like somebody’s just attacked them but it felt unnecessary and had nothing but scrape their palms and ruin their clothes, and Ivan cannot afford to have things like that happen.

“Don’t patronize me,” Alfred said. “I’m being careful.”

“Careful of what?”

The prince wasn’t able to reply. There was a loud crack and Ivan watched the ground around the sword splintering. Everything was shaking and if they had still been standing they would be stumbling around for sure. Ivan pressed his hands to the packed dirt of the practice yard to steady himself, looking over to make sure the prince was safe.

Alfred was watching the spreading destruction with wide horrified eyes. Ivan didn’t think there was anything terrifying about the destruction and the earth still trembling beneath them. It was fascinating and every bit the unpredictable force of nature that the prince himself was.

Magic was a part of the person. It was an extension of one’s self. Ivan could see it. Alfred just didn’t understand it yet.

Alfred reached out at him with trembling hands. The cracks were spreading on the benches and pillars that surrounded the yard. “Stop it. Ivan, you have to stop it.”

Ivan summoned his own magic, stumbling towards the sword still shaking on its position, buried underneath the earth. He placed a hand over the sword’s pommel, pouring every bit of his magical energy in it until a thin layer of ice has spread over the cracks filling it out in a brand new guise.

“Do you see now?” Alfred said, getting to his feet. He wrapped his arms around himself. “Magic’s not my thing.”

“I do see, Alfred,” Ivan said, stepping closer. The ice cracked underneath his boots, something familiar that made him miss home. He cupped the prince’s face in his hands, forcing Alfred to meet his eyes. “You are quite something, your highness. Look around you. This is beautiful.”

“You did that, not me,” Alfred said, his lips twisted in a grimace. “You fixed it.”

“Alfred,” Ivan tried again but the prince just shook his head and stepped back. Ivan watched Alfred retrieve his sword ang glasses, wearing the latter once again.

“We make a good team, Ivan,” Alfred said, grinning, and suddenly the golden prince was back. Somehow, Ivan hated it. He wanted to rip the mask that Alfred still chose to wear around him. “But, magic’s not my thing. That’s why I have you, don’t I?”

“So you say,” Ivan demurred.

“Nevermind that,” Alfred looked around the yard with a look of distaste. “You can come with me to the city instead. I need to get away from the palace for a while. Follow me?”

“Anywhere, your highness.”

-----

“What exactly are we doing, your highness?” Ivan asked as he followed Alfred down a street, going away from the thick crowd in the market to less populated areas that made him frown in suspicion.

“Celebrating my birthday with less pomp and grace,” Alfred chuckled.

“Your birthday isn’t until a few weeks more.”

“Yes,” Alfred agreed. He jumped over a puddle on the street and kicked at a pebble, letting it clatter down the street. “But, there’s no way I’d be allowed to actually let loose and have fun then.”

“And you expect that to happen now?”

“Yep,” Alfred said popping the end of the word as they turned down an alley. This one was lit by the lights coming from the various taverns and gambling dens that lit the streets. The city’s elite and the common people mingled on the streets without a care for the usual hierarchy that made up the rules elsewhere.

Ivan felt as if he should refuse this request, that it would be too much danger for the crown prince of Atlas to go where any drunkard might choose out of some misplaced offense, but there was such a look of childish delight and reckless abandon on Alfred’s expression that it was difficult to say no. Ivan glanced around the festive display. There was music playing somewhere, everywhere, and the dancers on the street would pull nearby bystanders to join their performance with a laugh. It was a wild ceremony to the gods of excess and delirium, a tribute to joy and great fortune. It was a place where the golden prince would not be amiss.

Alfred was already dancing to the music, the swaying of his hips interspersed with claps and the shouts of “Hey!” Ivan smiled fondly right up until one of the dancers caught the prince by the wrist. Ivan stepped forward ready to push them off and defend as necessary but Alfred had already caught him by the sleeve, bringing him with him into the circle of dancers.

They stumbled into each other as the beat changed, growing faster and louder. Ivan steadied his charge with hands on his shoulder and asked, “Is this wise?”

“It’s not a night for wise decisions,” Alfred said, cheering with the rest as they danced and clapped around each other. Alfred caught a serving boy by the shoulder, taking and paying for their drinks, handing Ivan a great mug and drinking from his own. “We’re celebrating!”

Ivan passed his own drink to someone else without ever touching the alcohol inside. “I have a job to do.”

Alfred pouted at him and shook his head. He had to shout over the music to be heard by Ivan but even now, the exertion from the dance they’re a part of already had his hair ruffled and his glasses askew. “Don’t be boring, Ivan!”

“I will not drink,” Ivan repeated. He pulled the prince and spun him around before dipping him and raising him back up. “But, I will dance with you.”

Alfred grinned. “That’s it, dude!” He yelled, crowing with laughter. His drink slipped from his fingers, falling into a puddle on the cobblestone streets. But, the golden prince had forgotten about it, singing with the rest of them, turning, swaying and clapping with abundant energy. Ivan felt as if he should be worried for the prince’s uncontrollable magic with his energy so high and indeed, he could already feel the thrumming of it, like another beat layered over the beating of the drums and his own heart. There was a spark, some kind of energy that lay between them and around them.

But, it was something that was everywhere already. A different kind of magic, the golden prince spinning the energy into abundant delight for everyone. Positive emotions really did have a better effect on magic, Ivan thought as he pulled the prince from the path of a swaying drunk. Alfred just laughed and grabbed on to Ivan’s scarf. Ivan resisted the flash of irritation that usually came from someone touching his scarf without permission and instead, gently pried the prince’s fingers from his scarf to hold in his hand.

“You need to be careful, Alfred,” Ivan admonished.

Alfred’s cheeks were flushed from alcohol. He’d gotten a hold of more wine and other such drinks as they’ve made a round of the alley, dancing and singing from one tavern to the next.

“This is nothing,” Alfred said. “You should see them on the actual celebrations for my birthday. Gilbert says it’s a whole different thing. He said everyone stops to watch the fireworks like a spell has been cast to stop time everywhere but the color and the music and the music, they’re all still there just waiting for the last flower to bloom in the sky.”

“Perhaps, there is magic in the air for these celebrations.”

Alfred giggled, the alcohol obviously getting to him and Ivan had to stop him from reaching for more. Alfred waggled his forefinger at Ivan. “No more talk of magic, Ivan,” he said.

“We should go back,” Ivan said, pulling them to a quieter place, away from the dancing and the music. “It’s late.”

Alfred blinked and sighed. “Fine,” he relented. “But, this was nice. See, you’re not so bad when you’re not lying or hiding things from me. It was fun.”

“I never lied to you,” Ivan frowned.

“You made me use my magic,” Alfred pointed out. He placed his hands in his coat pocket and leaned back to look at Ivan, his eyes suddenly clearer though his cheeks were still flushed.

“I’m sorry,” Ivan inclined his head as he said it. “And yes, this was fun, Alfred.”

Alfred leaned and pressed a kiss on Ivan’s lips. It was a fleeting thing, the momentary touch of warmth and the taste of sweet wine. “A goodnight kiss,” Alfred murmured, fingers light on Ivan’s shoulders. “That’s how these celebrations end, right?”

“You’re drunk,” Ivan pointed out. He hesitated before pulling Alfred’s hand away from himself. “I should get you home.”

Alfred nodded and pulled back. He turned and led the way back to the streets, away from the festivities. Ivan followed at a close distance, fingers reaching out to touch his lips, where he’d tasted summer wine on his lips. Alfred was humming the tunes from the music of the party, and without meaning to, Ivan found himself humming along.

-----

“What do you think, Ivan?” Alfred asked from where he stood at the center of the room, surrounded by servants and courtiers that were fussing over the prince. “Would the blue or white regalia suit me better?”

Ivan glanced at the said pieces. Both formal outfits of the prince were gilded with gold and looked quite expensive. Ivan wondered how much money either one would fetch in the market before shaking his head. “It’s your birthday, your highness. You should wear what you like best.”

“But I asked you,” Alfred pointed out with a glare in his direction. “I don’t want you to give me flattering answers.”

Ivan sighed, glancing at the two outfits once again. “The white should suit you,” he said, uncertain.

“Then white it is,” Alfred nodded and grinned at the people surrounding him. “What did Artie say about opening the palace to the commoners?”

“The regent think it would be wise to limit their access to the palace. Perhaps, just the gardens, your highness?” One of the servants answered with hesitance. Ivan could see the way the servant stilled, looking like he was waiting for the prince’s negative reaction.

Alfred made a face and sighed. “Ah well fine, At least Artie’s actually agreed to do it.” Alfred fixed the glasses on his face and dismissed the servants as he took the suit with him.

Ivan watched the servants file out of the room, one after the other. Ivan wasn’t certain of what he was supposed to do. He supposed he should help Alfred with some more additional preparations for the coming celebration. The formal event for the prince’s birthday and inheritance ceremony would last for almost a week and the opening ceremonies that night would sure to take a toll on the young prince.

Alfred waited until the door shut before turning to him with a grin. “Busy day, isn’t it?”

“It is a special day, da?”

“Special, huh?” Alfred chuckled, fingers caressing the soft material of the white suit he was to wear that evening. “Everyone gets birthdays. It’s nothing special.”

“But, this is significant,” Ivan replied. “You are not only turning a year older, you are also inheriting a kingdom.”

Alfred grimaced. “It’s gonna be a lot of socializing with the nobles and foreign dignitaries before that happens,” he said. “I think I preferred our own celebration some nights ago. Don’t you?”

Ivan froze in his seat. The prince had not spoken of what had occured on their night out of festivities. Ivan had foolishly believed that Alfred had forgotten most of the things that happened that night due to the abundance of alcohol. “It was certainly something else, your highness.”

“It could be better,” Alfred grinned and suddenly he was the god of excess and abundance again in Ivan’s eyes like he was that night of the party. Alfred was prince and he will be king yet Ivan believed that even then he wouldn’t be satisfied of anything at all.

“Perhaps, you should be content with things as they are, Alfred.”

“But, that’s boring,” Alfred complained. “So will the party later.”

“It is not the first time you’ve had to deal with nobles such as them.”

Alfred’s eyes lit up and he turned to Ivan, crossing the room and grabbing the guard’s shoulder. Ivan jerked and pulled the prince’s hand away from his but Alfred remained undeterred. “Ivan!” He exclaimed, hands fluttering in excitement. It reminded Ivan of one of the other classmates he had in the academy, Vargas, he thought may have been the name he was looking for.

“Did I say something wrong?”

“No, dude,” Alfred slapped his arm playfully. “You just gave me a really good idea. I think we can do as we have in some of my meetings, yes?”

“No,” Ivan said, frowning as he stood up. He was taller than the prince and he tried to make it as threatening a gesture as possible. Alfred was the time to run over anyone weak enough and unable to say no to him. Ivan wanted to make sure the younger man knew that Ivan would not let himself be used again just like that.

“No? Why not?”

“I will not be used by you,” Ivan pressed his lips to a displeased line. He grabbed the prince’s wrist and led him back to where his suit was placed on the bed. “You need to prepare.”

“You said you’d follow me,” Alfred said, somehow turning the words into a blend of disappointment and accusation.

“Anywhere,” Ivan whispered, remembering a strange almost promise. “This is not the same.”

“Isn’t it?” Alfred stepped into his space and met his eyes. The fact that Ivan was taller or larger than he was didn’t faze him at all. Ivan thought of all the people who’ve been scared of a simple smile from him, of all the threats he doesn’t have to say yet all those were nothing in the face of the golden prince in front of him. Alfred pressed a hand over his chest and leaned to whisper into Ivan’s ear. “You belong to me.”

Ivan chuckled as he grabbed the prince’s wrist, deftly maneuvering the young man to sit on the edge of the bed. “No, your highness, you’ve got it wrong,” he murmured, running his fingers through Alfred’s soft flaxen hair, feeling the prince shiver underneath his touch. The prince still did not pull away, staring at him with bright expectant eyes behind clear lenses. “You are mine to protect.”

Ivan swallowed past the lump in his throat at the stunned look on Alfred’s expression. He dropped the prince’s wrist and took a step back, clearing his throat. “You should prepare.”

Ivan went to sit back down and picked up a book. He still had requirements to finish for his Academy Mastery. He would need to get perfect grades if he was to continue receiving the kingdom’s gifts for him to study, after all. He needed to focus on that instead of Alfred’s too open stare. “Yeah,” Alfred said, and Ivan saw him rise from the bed at the corner of his eye. “I should change.”

-----

“Ivan Braginsky,” Ivan tensed and turned to look at the approaching noble. Gilbert Beilschmidt, one of the youngest graduate and instructor of the Royal Academy and a master of combat magic. Gilbert was also already a knight of the realm unlike Ivan and a proven military commander from a long line of military officers. The Beilschmidt Duchy has always provided Atlas with the needed military support. Ivan now wondered why the white-haired man was approaching him.

“Master Beilschmidt,” Ivan greeted.

“Wine?” Gilbert asked, raising the glass that he held in his hand. When Ivan shook his head, Gilbert simply smirked and sipped his own drink. “I heard the Regent gave you the honor of guarding Alfred.”

Ivan thought of Alfred, showing off his white suit to Ivan in his room. Alfred had gone to see the regent and was supposed to be introduced to the celebrations by the regent himself and accompanied by the rest of his family. Ivan frowned, looking over at the interested military commander, looking at him expectantly. Alfred had mentioned Gilbert once before. Ivan couldn’t help but wonder what the two meant for each other. Ivan swallowed and nodded. “That is correct.”

Gilbert’s look turned fond, softening the usual smug arrogant look Ivan has come to expect from the other. “How’s Alfred? Still as stubborn as ever?”

“And why do you need to know?”

“Why does it matter?” Gilbert grinned at him.

“I guard the prince’s secrets,” Ivan said. He thought of what he had told Alfred hours ago and had to bite his tongue before he could make some declaration that would be frowned upon by anyone. Alfred was his to protect. He didn’t think anyone would appreciate him claiming the prince for anything but the urge to was itching at him.

Gilbert snorted. “Secrets, right,” he snickered. “I know a thing or two of the prince’s secrets. You should be careful to, Braginsky. You’re talented and you’ve got powerful magic but the prince is something else.”

Ivan froze, eyes turning cold though he still smiled amiably at the other. “Are you insulting the prince?”

Gilbert froze for a moment, looking stunned at the other’s reaction before he recovered. He finished his glass of wine, placing it on a passing servant’s tray. “I’d never do that,” Gilbert pursed his lips. “Alfred’s one of my students, you know. I’m just warning you to be careful, both of you.”

“Gilbert! Ivan!” Alfred rushed towards them, ignoring the amused looks from his other guest. He touched both of the men on the arm. “Here you are. You made me look everywhere.”

“I’m too awesome to just join the rest of the riff raff,” Gilbert said, ruffling Alfred’s hair with his hand. Alfred simply laughed even as Gilbert slung an arm around him. “So, you’re finally of age, huh? You ever think of my offer.”

“Dude, please, I don’t want to think about marriage or anything yet,” Alfred shot back.

Gilbert snickered, patting Alfred’s back before getting them both drinks from another server. “A toast then,” Gilbert said as Alfred accepted the drink from him. “For your bright future and that of the kingdom’s. Long the live the king, hm?”

“I’m not king yet,” Alfred said, giving the military commander a small sheepish smile. “But, I’ll toast to that.”

The glasses clinked and Ivan fought the urge to snatch it out of Alfred’s hands, to pull Alfred away from the knight and somewhere else. “Congratulations again, Alfred,” Gilbert said as he finished his drink. He clapped Alfred’s shoulder, more like a mentor than the seemingly close friendship from before. “But, I can see Elizabeta and Roderich so I’m going to go bother them. I’ll give you your gift later and maybe you can give me your token for the tournament this week.”

Alfred shook his head and stuck out his tongue at Beilschmidt. “Keep on dreaming, dude.”

“Of course,” Gilbert said, inclining his head. “Until next time, your highness.” He turned to Ivan. “You too, Braginsky.”

As the other noble left, Ivan took Alfred’s hand and pulled him close. Alfred looked at him in confusion but he smiled when he saw the small crowd of people lingering behind him, waiting for their chance to talk and schmooze with the prince. They were being held back by Ivan’s threateningly innocent smile and the hand he placed on the small of Alfred’s hand, almost too intimate and possessive enough for it to be considered a breach of propriety.

But, Alfred simply looked amused and ready to laugh just as he did whenever Ivan chased off a particularly stubborn and pushy noble. The prince had a teasing smile and Ivan sighed, knowing he was giving in to the prince’s demands despite vowing not to.

It wasn’t his fault really. Alfred looked quite dashing in his white suit and the circlet upon his head was inlaid with sapphires that matched his eyes. Yet, despite that, there was still that stubborn cowlick stuck up on his head. It gave Alfred a much more playful look. He was beautiful and it was no surprise that many wished to come and speak with the prince, to give him their congratulations and blessings or offers of marriage. Ivan thought of Gilbert’s own teasing and wondered if it rung with just that bit of truth. A baron’s son would not be much compared to a duke’s heir. “I did not know that you and Gilbert knew each other,” Ivan said, glancing at the crowd and rubbing circles on the prince’s back. Alfred leaned into his touch and Ivan smiled.

Alfred shrugged. “Yeah? Gil’s my teacher. With the sword and such,” Alfred answered, taking small sips of his wine. He licked his lips and Ivan couldn’t help but remember another night of celebrations. Ivan shook his head and paid attention to what Alfred was saying. “Francis convinced Artie that I should know how to defend myself without a guard.”

“Isn’t it inappropriate for him to make such comments then?” Ivan asked.

“Such comments?”

“Marriage,” Ivan said. “Courting.”

A wicked grin spread over Alfred’s face. “Oh? Are you jealous, Ivan?”

“I am not,” Ivan said. “But, it is something that concerns your safety, does it not?”

“Does it?” Alfred teased. He rolled his eyes and exchanged his glass with one of the small slices of pastry from another tray. He broke it into two and held one out at Ivan who instinctively leaned over to take it into his mouth. Alfred smiled. “Nah, it’s just Gilbert you know. He likes messing with people.”

“Is that so?”

“Mhmm,” Alfred said, his mouth full of pastry. He chewed and swallowed, elbowing Ivan with another playful grin on his face. “There’ll be some fireworks later. There always is at the beginning and end of celebrations. I know a good place. Want to come with me?”

“And leave your own party, your highness?”

“So Artie can have a fit? Nah, we’ll come back but it’ll be great. The fireworks always are. They’re pretty and awesome, and definitely a great way to celebrate a hero’s birthday, huh?” Alfred slung his own arm around Ivan and Ivan found himself smiling, energized by the prince’s own enthusiasm. “Come with me?”

And Ivan nodded at the obvious teasing from earlier statements. It was so like Alfred to remember and hold things against you, stubborn and determined to the very end. The boy king. The golden prince who would not allow anyone to order him or tell him otherwise. “Always, your highness,” Ivan said, tone already teasing. It was good, he thought, to have someone who you can be friendly with, who would argue and not back down against him, who would treat him like an equal. “I’ll follow you anywhere. Someone has to protect you from yourself, after all.”

-----

Chapter Text

-----

Alfred shrugged his jacket on and ran a hand over his hair, trying to keep the stubborn cowlick down. He scowled at his reflection as it refused to do so, sighing as he placed his glasses over his eyes. Ivan was waiting patiently by the door with his eyes roving over a book. Alfred turned and spread his arms wide. “What do you think?”

Ivan glanced upwards, his lips quirking into a smile. “It is quite the effort, your highness,” he said. “It is just a tournament, after all.”

“Just a tournament!?” Alfred cried, exasperated. He approached the other and stuck his finger right in Ivan’s face. The other look unamused, staring Alfred down. “Look here. The tournament is a great tradition. All the heroes in the story win in tournaments. If I can compete, I would but everyone says it’s too dangerous for me.”

“It is nothing but an excuse for people to fight for gold and glory,” Ivan said, rolling his eyes.

“It’s not!” Alfred insisted.

Ivan gave him a dubious look. “Shall I win it for you then, my prince?”

Alfred froze before letting a grin split his face. He laughed. “Dude, that’s what I’m talking about,” he crowed in delight. He glanced around the room. He knew he had it somewhere. “Wait here.”

Ivan didn’t move from his position, simply going back to his reading. Alfred would be offended if he didn’t know that Ivan was still busy with all his requirements for the Academy. The leave of absences he may have gotten for his guard duty was worth a lot but it was not enough. Alfred looked it up and even asked Matthew about it. Ivan had a scholarship he had to maintain. Alfred wasn’t sure exactly why it was needed. He was the heir to a barony after all. But, Ivan was nothing but diligent in his duties.

Alfred rummaged through his closets, throwing out some clothes and various knickknacks. He laughed in delight as he finally found what he was looking for. It was an old handkerchief of his, dark blue and embroidered by the thirteen stars that used to form his old crest. He rushed back to Ivan and held it up proudly.

“Your old crest?”

Alfred nodded. He reached for the other’s arm which Ivan allowed him to do. The handkerchief was knotted once, Alfred curling the edge of it around his forefinger for a moment before letting go. “To let everyone know that you are my champion.”

Ivan touched the handkerchief and nodded. “A token from the prince,” he said, smiling. “Perhaps, I should feel guilty that I had originally intended to join for the gold and glory.”

Alfred punched Ivan playfully on the arm. “No takebacks!” He said, grinning at the royal guard. “You’re my champion now. You’ll fight for my cause.”

Ivan shook his head. Alfred couldn’t help but stare at the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled, at the amused glint in his purple eyes and how strange those eyes were. They were different from Matthew’s, Alfred thought, darker somehow and much more enticing. It was no wonder that many found Ivan terrifying. But, that wasn’t quite right, Alfred mused. Ivan wasn’t just terrifying. He was something else, something breathtaking. His declarations and promise of following Alfred gave Alfred a boost like nothing else did.

“Of course,” Ivan said as if he was echoing Alfred’s own thoughts. “But, it is unnecessary. I have always fought for your cause since I’ve begun to serve you. Perhaps, since I watched you jump the wall.”

Alfred chuckled, suddenly sheepish as he was reminded of his behavior during their first meeting. “Aren’t you going to prepare?” He asked, changing the subject.

Ivan chose not to mention it, hiding the book he was reading in one of the pockets of his coat. The scarf was wound round his neck and he took Alfred’s token from his wrist, keeping it in his hand. “I still have enough time, da?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Perhaps, I wanted to spend time with a friend for now.”

Alfred grinned at Ivan. “We’ll spend time later,” he said, knowing it for the unspoken promise that it was. “But, you have to win for me, Ivan. So, you have to go.”

“So do you,” Ivan pointed out. “The regent would be waiting.”

“Good luck?” Alfred offered as they both left the room, curling his hand around Ivan’s for a moment, squeezing before he let go. Ivan gave him a stunned look like he did once during their kiss in the celebrations on the streets of Atlas. Alfred somehow wanted to kiss the look away once again, chase away the shock with something better and sweeter.

“I will not fail you,” Ivan promised. “Not when you’ve already entrusted me with your blessing.” Ivan had a small secretive smile on his face, like he was sharing a secret with the world. Alfred had to fight the urge to ask him about it or to follow him as he left for the barracks where the other competitors would be.

-----

The stands were already filling with people when Alfred arrived at the arena. Alfred headed to where Matthew and Arthur were already seated. As he got closer, he realized that Francis was also with them. The noble was already teasing and laughing with the irritated regent. Alfred smiled fondly and approached his family.

“Alfred,” Matthew smiled at him as he approached. “You’re late. Where were you?”

“Just had to get ready,” Alfred replied, taking his own seat in between Matthew and Arthur. “Did I miss anything?”

“There was an exhibition done by some light mages,” Matthew said. “It was interesting. I don’t think I could have done something like that.”

“Of course you can,” Alfred gave his brother a thumbs up and grinned. “You just have to believe, Mattie.”

“It doesn’t really work that way, eh” Mattie said, ducking his head but a small smile graced his lips. Alfred gave him several pats on the back before leaning back and making himself comfortable. Mattie would be able to accomplish things as long as he found his confidence, Alfred knew. Maybe he should ask Gilbert to teach Mattie as well.

“Did you give anyone a token?”

“Who would I even give it to, Al?”

Alfred shrugged. “I gave Ivan mine,” he said. “I thought you would give Tim yours.”

“Eh?” Matthew looked stunned, turning to face his brother with a flush on his face. “He doesn’t need that from me.”

“Do you have something you want to say before the tournament begins, Alfred?” Arthur asked his ward, keeping Francis away with an outstretched hand as he turned to the crown prince. Alfred hadn’t realized that the competitors have already gathered in front of them. He scanned the lines for Ivan and smiled when he saw the other standing at the back. The dark blue of Alfred’s token was pinned over his scarf with something that glinted in the sunlight.

Alfred looked from Arthur to the competitors, suddenly finding no words, no speeches or encouragement or anything. He wondered if it would be acceptable to play the fool now. He looked over the lined-up competitors again, at friends or vaguely familiar faces and decided it might be rude to not say anything at all.

The whole things was for him after all. How could he pretend not to care.

Alfred nodded and stood up, gripping the edge of the division between their platform and the rest of the stand. He may have come up with random words of thanks and blessings of good luck, making sure to smile at all the competitors. When he sat back down, he found that he couldn’t quite come up with any concrete idea of what he said.

“That was good, Alfred,” Arthur said. He signalled to someone to start the games and Alfred sighed in relief. At least Arthur didn’t think there was anything wrong with whatever it was he said.

“Thanks,” Alfred replied, sinking into his seat.

The first event was a free-for-all melee and Alfred watched the chaos with wide eyes. He couldn’t even properly identify the competitors in the shifting mass of bodies on the platform. Several had already been eliminated and Alfred winced as several people were thrown off from the platform by a gust of wind that rapidly corkscrewed into a twister.

“That’s awesome!” Alfred cheered and gave his brother several enthusiastic pats on the arm. “Can you do that, Mattie?”

“That much?” Matthew frowned. “Probably not. I’m better at spirit magic.”

“But you do ice magic too,” Alfred pointed out.

“Yes, but someone else is better at that, eh.”

As if he could hear them, the floor of the platform was suddenly covered in a thin sheen of ice, making many competitors trip over themselves or fall off the edge. At the Center of the chaos, Alfred spied Ivan’s tall form, hand curled around a small metal rod.

“Braginsky,” Matthew whispered and Alfred jerked in surprise wondering if he had shown some kind of obvious expression on his face.

“What?”

Matthew wasn’t staring at him but at the melee still happening. It wouldn’t be long now, Alfred thought. The melee would end when there was a last man standing and that would conclude the morning’s activities. He glanced at his brother again and so the spark of interest. For a moment, he felt a twinge of ache in his chest and wondered at it. Matthew wasn’t just usually interested in something so violent. Why the change?

“Braginsky is the one who’s considered the best in elemental magic among the trainees in the Academy,” Matthew explained. “Especially in ice magic. I wouldn’t be surprised if he won.”

Alfred would not be surprised either. He wanted Ivan to win, wanted him to be like the hero in the stories. That would be a wonderful thing, he thought, one of the most wonderful things he could imagine.

“Yeah,” Alfred grinned and leaned forward to see better. There were only a few more competitors left and Ivan was making quick work of those closest to him. Of course, the current competition was made up of trainees for now. Alfred imagined it would be a far more difficult thing to accomplish when Ivan takes part of later competitions where accomplished knights and soldiers would take part. Despite that, for some reason, Alfred believed he could do it. He wanted to believe in that.

Ivan managed to knock the last competitor out of the platform and he raised one hand in triumph. Alfred found that he couldn’t stop grinning even as Arthur stood and acknowledged the winner. Someone came up to Ivan to present him with his price of gold and a crown of flowers. Ivan looked solemn as he took his win and bowed to the audience.

Alfred was clapping and cheering like the rest of the audience. He did expect Ivan to win this match and it was an exhilarating feeling.

But, he didn’t expect Ivan to approach the royal stands or for him to present the crown of flowers to Alfred. The prince stared and hesitated for a moment, wide eyed in disbelief.

“Alfred,” Arthur said, nudging him slightly.

Alfred jerked and stood up to approach the champion, his champion. He ducked his head and allowed Ivan to place the blue crown of blossoms on his head, smiling at the other.

“A gift for my golden prince,” Ivan whispered before he stood back. Alfred flushed, gingerly touching the delicate petals of the flowers in the crown. He was sure no one else heard those words but Ivan’s next words were meant for everyone else. “I present and dedicate my victory to you, your highness. May your reign be remembered for its greatness.”

With a great sweeping bow, the other took his leave. Alfred stared at the other’s retreating back, remembering the vows of loyalty that knights would give their lord. Somehow, Ivan’s presentation of triumph felt much different, much more personal and sincere.

He took his seat back and Matthew smiled at him. “Seems like you’re getting along well with your new guard, eh?”

Alfred turned to his brother, turning his thoughtful expression to a pleased one. “Well Ivan’s different.”

Matthew gave him a knowing nod and smile. “I see.”

-----

After they finished with the day’s lunch, there was to be an intermission by a travelling troupe. Alfred always enjoyed shows like that and appreciated the different kind of magic that a troupe could present. They also had quite the interesting stories whenever Alfred managed to talk to one of them. He was really looking forward to it.

He took his seat next to his brother once again and Matthew glanced at him with amusement plainly writ on his face.

“What?” Alfred asked indignantly. “Do I have something on my face?”

“No,” Matthew said. “But, you’re still wearing the flower crown.”

Alfred laughed. “Oh,” he said. “That. I’m just very happy about it. Technically, Ivan’s my champion.”

“Of course he is,” Matthew said. “You even gave him your token. I never expected that.”

Alfred rolled his shoulders to a shrug. “Didn’t expect it either, really. It just happened?”

Trumpets suddenly blared announcing the arrival of the troupe. Their leader and ringmaster took center stage and bowed to the royal stand with utmost flair. Alfred grinned and bounced in his seat in excitement. Matthew chuckled beside him and Alfred mock pouted at him.

Then, they were watching the first of the shows. It seemed just as chaotic as the melee of the day’s first competition but it definitely had some semblance of order to it. The light shows accented the graceful dance of the acrobats and contortionist as they went from one routine to another.

Alfred gasped with the rest as the troupe faked a fall, turning it into a graceful recovery that somehow made the whole thing more exciting. Beside him, Matthew winced and Alfred grinned at him.

“Aren’t you at least a bit scared, Al?”

“The hero never gets scared!” Alfred said while laughing.

Arthur glanced at his two wards and laughed. “Are we ignoring the fact that you once screamed about ghosts when you saw me practicing spirit magic?”

“I was young and stupid, Artie,” Alfred stuck his tongue out at the regent. “Shut up.”

“Young and stupid?” Arthur frowned. “That was a month ago.”

“Don’t ruin the show,” Alfred said. “Look, the fire breathers and jugglers are going to come up soon.”

The fire breathers were amazing. Alfred watched, dazzled at the way the scaled part of their bodies glinted in the red and gold firelight. After the jugglers’ performance, Alfred grinned as he caught sight of Ivan finding his own place below the royal stands. Alfred waved at the other and got a smile and a small wave in return.

The next performance were those of the sword dancers and knife throwers. Alfred watched in rapt attention as the blades weapons levitated with the troupers’ wild magic, turning in circles and allowing the dancers to turn and flip through them, their movement becoming faster and faster, becoming more dangerous.

The prince was quite distracted by the show that he wasn’t able to react when several of the swords changed direction and flew directly to the royal stands, directly to him and his family.

Alfred’s breath hitched as the blades were stopped by a sudden ice wall that grew between them and the troupe. Somewhere in the stands, people were screaming and running elsewhere. Arthur had stood up, muttering some spell that summoned small glowing balls of light that Alfred recognised as some of the regent’s fairy familiars.

Alfred swallowed and stared at the ice wall. His breath fogged as he breathed out and his hands shook. He could see Ivan heading to the other side of the wall, gripping the same metal rod in his hand.

“Alfred,” Arthur said, hand hesitating over the prince’s shoulder, not quite touching but close enough that Alfred could feel it. “You need to calm down.”

Alfred blinked and glanced worriedly at Matthew who was gripping his familiar, the white ice bear in his arms. His breath fogged just as Alfred’s did and there was fear and worry in his eyes.

“Alfred,” Matthew said, his voice soft and unsure. “You’re leaking magic. It’s affecting people.”

Alfred frowned and looked around. Several people around them had frozen, looking around in confusion. He placed his hand on the railing that separated the Royal Box from the rest of the stands and could feel the slight tremor running through it.

He took a deep breath, once, twice. It took another breath before he could keep his emotions under control and could feel the tremors calming down, the same way the people he’d affected with whatever mind stuff starting to come back to themselves.

“Your majesties,” Alfred turned and watched Gilbert approach them with caution. The military officer saluted and bowed. “We’ve arrested all the members of the troupe and the rest of my men are working on calming down the crowd. I think it would be best if you retreated somewhere safe for now.”

Alfred nodded numbly, still feeling his hands shake as he followed Arthur and Francis with his brother back into the safety of the palace.

He wondered what it said about the future of his rule when people were already trying to kill him as crown prince. He shook his head to clear it of thoughts. When he did, he felt the weight of Ivan’s prize, the flower crown on his head, what felt like a claim by the other.

You are mine to protect. Alfred remembered the words with a smile. That’s right. Arthur and even his parents long ago had said that there could be no rule without opposition. It was impossible to make everyone happy.

Alfred took the crown from his head and stared at it with a smile. It was impossible to be perfect but he knew of at least one person who would follow him wherever he went, whatever he chose.

And that was, he thought, the best he could hope for. He brushed a thumb over the soft blue petals, remembering the glittering blue of the ice, cold and steady just like its caster.

He took a deep breath, replaced the crown on his head and walked with his head held up high. He’ll be fine. He didn’t plan to disappoint those who already believed in him.

-----

Alfred heard the opening of his balcony’s glass doors and he curled his fingers around the warm mug of his coffee, sipping the drinking leisurely as he watched the myriad of sparkling stars overhead. There should have been a celebratory dinner for today’s winners and a small fireworks display but the sky was as empty as the ballroom would now be.

He wondered if Artie planned on cancelling the rest of the week’s events. He should talk to the regent. It might not be the best solution for them to be too careful and show their enemies their weakness. But, he didn’t want anyone being in harm’s way either. He blew over the top of his drink and bit his lip.

There was too much to think about and his mind would not be quiet. Alfred glanced at the approach of his friend and guard. “Ivan,” he greeted as the other’s head popped over the edge of the roof. “Good to see you, man!”

“Is there a good reason why you’ve placed yourself in unnecessary danger yet again, your highness?” Ivan said and if Alfred didn’t know him, he would have thought that Ivan sounded irritated. He might still have been but Alfred was sure of the teasing glint in the other’s eyes.

“The stars look lovely from up here,” Alfred replied with a grin. He tapped the space beside him with his knuckles. “Join me?”

Ivan sat beside him, their hands brushing against each other where it rested between them. Alfred watched from the corner of his eyes to see the other with his head tilted up, watching the stars above them all. “You were right,” Ivan said and he looked at Alfred, their eyes meeting with a smile. “The stars are lovely up here.”

“Of course I am,” Alfred chuckled. “This is one of my favorite hiding places in the palace.”

“And there I thought my golden prince wasn’t one to hide,” Ivan teased, bumping their shoulders together.

“A hero doesn’t hide,” Alfred agreed. “But, sometimes a strategic retreat is necessary. Especially after I became the heir.”

“After you became?” Ivan frowned. “It was not always so?”

“Matthew’s older,” Alfred answered. He flicked a finger on the rim of his mug. The night was cold and he might have chosen not to wear too many layers despite everything. It kept him awake and aware enough to appreciate the beauty of the skies. “He should be crown prince. He was crown prince. Before.”

“Something happened?”

“My mother happened,” Alfred shook his head and picked at a loose thread on his trousers. “She convinced my father that I would be a better king and so I became the heir. Lady Marianne, that’s Matthew’s mother, doesn’t have the same political influence that my mother did. It’s all so complicated.”

“Politics usually is,” Ivan agreed with a nod. Alfred noticed that the other seemed distracted now as well, pulling at the edges of his old scarf.

“My mother was wrong,” Alfred sighed. He placed the mug down his other side and pulled his knees to his chest. “Matthew would make a far better king.”

“You give yourself too little credit,” Ivan said. Their hands brushed again and Alfred’s heart skipped a beat, his breath catching in his throat. Ivan’s hand was warm as it covered his own in a way that he did not expect from someone who’s ability consisted mostly of ice and snow. “I think you would make a good king.”

“I’m cheeky and irresponsible,” Alfred said. “Selfish and self-centered. I never expected to be king and it shows.”

“Circumstances change,” Ivan said, looking determined. He laced their fingers together and Alfred glanced momentarily at their linked hands before meeting the other’s eyes. “Once, I would not have put too much effort in the work that I do. I would not have needed to. I was a noble who had everything provided for him.”

“You’re still a noble,” Alfred pointed out.

“An impoverished one,” Ivan pursed his lips. “My father placed our family in debt and my sister is still struggling to return our estates to what it once was. A king that we can depend upon, that can inspire people, I think that’s important. You present that spark of possibility, Alfred. I believe in you.”

“Not everyone does,” Alfred said, unlinking their hands and rubbing his own over his lap. The stare that Ivan had levelled out at him felt a little too trusting and intimate. He wasn’t sure if he was really the golden prince that Ivan seemed to see him as, seemed to believe he could be. “I don’t blame them. I’m only faking it.”

“Alfred,” Ivan said. He reached out and Alfred’s eyes widened as he felt the other’s calloused fingers over his cheeks, cupping his face. “You are one of the most fascinating, one of the most beautiful, and one of the most talented person that I know. You will be something great and I count myself lucky to have ever met you.”

Alfred laughed nervously. He remembered a different night and an alley, pretending to be drunk to place a kiss on his guard. He wondered if Ivan remembered that, if the other ever thought about it. “That’s a little too dramatic, dude.”

“Perhaps,” Ivan said with a small smile. “But, the situation called for it.”

“Did it?” Alfred bit his lip and decided to push his luck. “Does it call for anything else? A kiss, maybe?”

That startled a laugh out of the other. Ivan’s lips quirked into a smile before he leaned in close and Alfred had a momentary panic before their lips were pressed together. He closed his eyes and leaned into the other’s touch, melting into it even as they parted.

“I didn’t expect you’d actually do it,” Alfred said, a little breathless.

“Then you should not have issued such a challenge,” Ivan said, chuckling. He moved to leave the roof and Alfred reached out to stop him with a hand on his wrist.

“Wait,” Alfred said. He pressed his lips to a line and sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. He wondered what he was supposed to say to that, to everything that happened that day. Thank you? It didn’t seem enough. “Stay with me? Tonight, I mean. I don’t want to be alone.”

“You won’t be,” Ivan promised, covering Alfred’s hand with his own. “But, I will be waiting for you inside. You should come in as well, your highness. It will not be good for you to catch a cold.”

“Idiots can’t catch a cold,” Alfred joked.

Ivan cocked his head and his lips quirked to an amuse smile. “Then it is a shame that you are quite clever, your highness. I shall see you in a minute.” He took Alfred’s empty mug before descending down towards the balcony.

Alfred waited until the other disappeared from view before burying his face in his hands. His hands were shaking and he was quite sure it had nothing to do with the cold. He felt quite warm actually and wondered if his face would appear flushed to anyone. He touched his lips with hesitant fingers, still remembering the warmth of the kiss, soft and gentle.

He laid his head over his knees and closed his eyes. “Damn it, Ivan. You just can’t say something like that.”

-----

Alfred pushed the glass doors open into his room as quietly as he could. Ivan was reading by magelight in an armchair by the bed. Alfred paused for a moment, hand still curled around the brass handle, watching the flickering magelight cast shadows over the other’s pale face. Ivan mouthed words as he read, his finger tracing the ink on paper.

Alfred approached slowly until he was close enough to cast his own shadow over the pages. Ivan glanced up with a smile, the same unnerving one that seemed to scare everyone else. Alfred didn’t feel scared but he did feel a strange nervous energy inside of him. He pressed his hand over his heart and the pendant he usually wore to control his magic, willing it to calm itself.

“You’re still here,” Alfred whispered.

“I am,” Ivan replied. He frowned in confusion. “Did you change your mind? Do you want me to leave?”

Alfred shook his head quickly. He blinked in surprise at his own vehemence and smiled sheepishly. “I’d rather not be alone tonight.”

Ivan nodded and placed his book on the bedside table. Alfred glanced at it momentarily before turning his gaze on its owner who was still staring at him with those purple eyes. Alfred wrung his hands together and blew out a breath. He took a step forward, hesitated and stepped back, letting himself fall, seated on the bed. He stared at the sheets and tried to form sentences but there were too many words in his head and too little sense.

“What do you want, Alfred?” Ivan asked.

Alfred glanced up. Ivan was leaning forward, his elbows resting on his thighs as he watched Alfred. It was no wonder, the prince thought, that people felt scared and nervous when faced with Ivan. Ivan had that intense look to him and the prince swallowed his fear. “I don’t know,” he admitted.

Ivan reached out and brushed a thumb over Alfred’s cheekbone. “A kiss?” He asked in a teasing tone but Alfred felt a shudder go through him.

“Maybe?” Alfred smiled. “Maybe more?”

“Maybe?”

Alfred decided to throw all caution to the wind. He pulled Ivan close by the wrist and only hesitated for a second before pressing their lips together. Like on the roof earlier or the alley days ago, their lips crashed together warm and soft, everything and nothing like Alfred expected.

“Maybe, just maybe,” he whispered as he took a breath before he was kissing Ivan again, couldn’t seem to get enough of it. He ran his fingers through the older man’s hair before settling his hands on Ivan’s shoulders, fingers digging into the heavy coat that the other wore. He brushed a thumb over where the scarf laid over it and smiled even as they kissed once more. “Maybe, I don’t know.”

Alfred let Ivan move them both until he was lying down on the bed and staring up at those purple eyes. “I know,” Ivan said and kissed the corner of his mouth, his cheek, and the tip of his nose. The mage removed his scarf and laid it beside them both before removing Alfred’s glasses as well. The glasses went beside the book on the bedside table and Alfred closed his eyes, feeling the soft kisses on his forehead and the bridge of his nose with a smile.

“Know what you want?” Alfred chuckled, drawing the other down to a deeper kiss. Their legs tangled together and Alfred yearned to touch more, to be close to someone and remind himself that he wasn’t alone. “What is it?”

“You,” Ivan said. “It’s always been you.” Ivan took Alfred’s hand and placed it over his own chest. Alfred could feel the steady beating of his heart, and the warm rush of magic underneath his fingertips. It felt like Ivan’s own magic was reaching out to his own, calming it down in a way that it never had been. It made Alfred feel safe. “Can’t you feel it?” Ivan asked.

Alfred nodded, at a lost for words. They were so close but he wanted to be nearer. The night was still young and it was theirs to spend as they wished. He cupped Ivan’s face in his hands and gave him a quick chaste kiss. “Stay with me tonight,” he said, a repetition of earlier’s request, a wish turned into an order.

Ivan smiled and turned Alfred’s hand to kiss his wrist. “Always, your highness.”

Alfred smiled and sat up, shrugging off his own jacket and pulling the other close. “Let’s make this a night to remember.”

Ivan laughed. “As you wish,” he said, placing a kiss on Alfred’s shoulder. “I want to make you happy, Alfred.”

“You have,” Alfred held on to Ivan and grinned. “You will.”

-----

“Ivan,” Alfred said, hiding his face on the other’s shoulder. “I think I’m going to leave.”

Ivan jerked from his embrace and turned an indignant, disbelieving expression towards him. “Leave? What are you talking about?”

“I need to figure out a lot of things,” Alfred said. He tugged Ivan back down to lie beside him. He laced their hands together and blew out a breath. “Like what kind of king I want to be or if I want to try with my magic again like you said or just knowing the people of Atlas. There are things I have to do if I’m to be the king you think I could be.”

“And what would your family think of it?”

Alfred chuckled and closed his eyes, leaning his forehead on Ivan’s shoulder. “I don’t know,” he said. “Arthur may think it’s selfish. I still need to learn things here too. Matthew is too nice. He’d probably be okay about it. I think? Maybe not. I am leaving stuff to them. Francis would be disappointed but he’d make sure the others are okay. I’m sure of it.”

“You’ve thought about this a lot.”

“Been thinking about it since last night, Ivan,” Alfred whispered. “What do you think I was doing on that roof?”

“I was hoping that you were simply watching the stars,” Ivan said with a grimace. His hand squeezed Alfred’s in comfort. “Do you want me to come with you?”

Alfred thought about it. It was something that he thought about the entirety of their night together. He knew Ivan would come if he’d ask. Ivan would follow him if Alfred asked it of him but he didn’t think it was right. He shook his head. “I don’t think so,” Alfred said. “You still have to finish your mastery in the academy and this is, well, this is something I have to do by myself for myself.”

“Your hero’s quest, huh?”

Alfred sat up and grinned down at Ivan. “Dude!” He laughed out loud and pushed his hair back from his face. “That’s a great way of looking at it.”

“I will be waiting for you,” Ivan said. “I will come find you if you take too long.”

Alfred leaned in close and kissed him. “You better,” he said. “I’ll expect nothing less.”

Ivan brushed a hand over Alfred’s golden hair with a smile. He brushed his thumb in circles on Alfred’s nape and pressed kisses over his mouth. “It’s a promise.”

-----

Chapter Text

-----

The adventurer’s guild was crowded when Ivan came in. It usually was during that time of the day. The adventurers took time to meet with people in the guild, to exchange information or take up assignments from the board. Ivan himself crossed the room to look through the various postings on the bulletin board, trying to find an assignment that would bring him closer to his goal.

Closer to his prince, he thought with a smile.

One of the job postings was an escort job that would bring him to one of the far provinces, one of the ones he hasn’t visited before. But, there were many of those in the country. Atlas was a large nation and it was impossible to see everything in so little time. It was all he could do to make sure to visit as many places as possible to search for his missing prince.

It all felt like quite the game of hide and seek.

Alfred wasn’t making it easy for anyone to find him though and Ivan took it as a challenge. He made a promise to find and follow his golden prince and he intended to fulfill that promise, to surprise Alfred if necessary.

He took the escort job posting and went towards the receptionist’s desk to take the assignment for himself. It should be easy enough to guard a merchant caravan. He’s had enough experience guarding people, guarding one of the most important people in Atlas, actually. He smiled at the thought and felt a wave of nostalgia at the nervous look in the receptionist’s face. Alfred had enjoyed the feelings that had been inspired by Ivan’s notorious smile. He might have found some amusement in this too.

Once his new assignment has been recorded, Ivan was free to spend his morning how he wished before he was meant to meet up with his client at noon. He went around the city markets, gathering supplies for his coming journey. He remembered wandering the same streets, looking at the same stalls, and conversing with the same people with Alfred several times for what felt like ages ago.

It felt like forever since he’s seen the other. It has barely been a year but Ivan still couldn’t help the restless feeling, the need to make sure that the younger man was okay.

Ivan purchased some food from a nearby stall, picking out some bread and jerky. He wrapped the pieces of jerky and placed it in his pack with the bread. He could buy more but he did enjoy the thrill of the hunt whenever he went on adventures. It should be fine to have this much.

“Ivan?”

Ivan turned to see the grinning look on one of his former mentor’s face. Gilbert approached him with a happy smile and gave a very enthusiastic pat on Ivan’s arm.

“Lord Beilschmidt,” Ivan greeted, inclining his head.

“None of that,” Gilbert snorted and shook his head. “I’m no proper lord. I haven’t seen you in a while. How have you been since graduation? Not as awesome as me, of course, but you’re good, Braginsky, you should have more than enough opportunities.”

Ivan nodded, shouldering his pack over his shoulder. He pulled at the straps of it until he was satisfied in its position before turning to look towards the white-haired mage. “I’ve taken up a job as an adventurer.”

Gilbert looked surprise at the news. “Adventurer? Not going to try and be an official Royal Mage? Most graduates of the Academy would.”

“I am not like most people.”

Gilbert nodded like he’d decided on something certain. “Oh, I see,” he said with a smirk. “A position in the royal court won’t guarantee you’d get to look for his highness, huh?”

Ivan froze, unknowingly stopping in the middle of the street. Gilbert took a few steps forward before he’d realized that the other had stopped, turning to look over his shoulder with a questioning expression. “Why would you say that?”

Gilbert shrugged. “Isn’t that the truth?” He asked, throwing his head back and laughing. “Little Alfred left the capital and so you’re looking for him. Ever loyal, huh, Braginsky?”

“I’m not doing it because of that,” Ivan said.

“No?”

“No,” he repeated. “Being an adventurer pays better than becoming a Royal Mage.”

“That’s it, then?” Gilbert shook his head. He didn’t look like he believed a word that Ivan had said. Ivan wasn’t sure if he meant for it to be believable anyway. “That’s not awesome at all then?”

“What do you know about it?”

Gilbert rolled his shoulders to a shrug. His hand came to grip the hilt of his sword, thumb running over the red jewel of the pommel. Ivan could feel the magic from it, held within the confines of the blood red stone. “I know enough about giving up,” Gilbert muttered. “You haven’t yet. It’s good.”

“Is it?”

“Eh, I don’t know,” Gilbert grinned. “It’s stupid. Nevermind. Gold, Glory, or Prince Alfred. Whatever it is you’re after, Braginsky, I hope you find it.”

“Why?” Ivan asked with a frown. “You never really liked me. I don’t think that ever changed.”

Gilbert paused and cocked his head. He looked at Ivan, contemplating, and shrugged. “It hasn’t, I think,” Gilbert said. “But, I like Alfred. He’s a good kid. He can do better than you but sometimes, that’s not the way the world works.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That’s fine,” Gilbert said. “Even though I’m awesome, sometimes I don’t either. Good luck on your quest, Braginsky.” With that, Gilbert left him standing in confusion on the street. Ivan watched the other leave, a hand raised in a wave as he walked down the street. Gilbert was strange. He always had been. It was what had made him a favorite among the students of the academy and a source of frustration for Ivan.

-----

“Alfred!”

The enthusiastic shout had Alfred looking up from his work of mending the fences around the cottage. He dropped the hammer he was using on the ground and stood up, brushing the dirt from his trousers as he did so. He wondered if he should fetch his sword, if this was one of the times that the village would need his protection from monsters or bandits.

But, the approaching boy, Peter, didn’t look alarmed or anything. He looked, if anything, as if he was excited about something.

“Hey, dude, what’s up?” Alfred asked once the boy had reached the gate of his property. Alfred unlatched it to allow the boy inside and Peter rushed towards him with a grin. The boy really reminded Alfred sometimes of his mother or Arthur.

He was in Kirkland territory, Alfred thought. A compromise with Arthur so he could be allowed to go without a guard. Maybe the boy was a product of some affair between one of the Kirkland nobles and a commoner. It wasn’t unheard of. It certainly wouldn’t have surprised Alfred if it was the case.

“Did you hear?” Peter asked, bouncing on the balls of his feet.

“Hear what?”

“Everyone’s saying a traveling troupe is coming to town,” Peter announced with a great flourish of his hands. He seemed really excited and normally, Alfred would be as well but he now froze, thinking of the last time he’d seen a traveling troupe. It had been a disaster. He hoped this one would not be the same.

“And this is cause for great excitement?” Alfred teased, nudging the boy in the shoulders. Peter yelped and tried to return the favor but Alfred ducked, crouching to take his hammer back from the ground to put away.

“Of course it is!” Peter exclaimed, crossing his arms over his chest. “Don’t be stupid, Alfred.”

Alfred chuckled. With those eyebrows and those words, Peter was really reminding him of Arthur and home. He wondered how everyone was doing.

“Maybe I just think the troupe’s just for kids,” Alfred joked.

“It’s not,” Peter insisted, following Alfred as he went inside the cottage that has been his home for several months now. It’s almost been a year, he thought with a pang. He didn’t think he’d be able to stay away for so long. Peter tugged at his shirt as Alfred placed the hammer on a table. “I’m going to prove it to you.”

“Prove what to me?”

“That the troupe isn’t just for kids, dummy!”

Alfred chuckled as he washed his hands. He saw Peter boost himself on a counter, kicking his feet and creating a rhythm with every beat his feet made slamming on the wooden cabinets below. “Did you come here just to tell me all that?”

“Oh,” Peter said, his feet stilling and sitting up straighter on the counter. He gave Alfred a sheepish smile before speaking. “I may have forgotten to say that Amelia was looking for you?”

Alfred cursed and slammed the cabinet door he had opened close. Peter ducked his head in apology and Alfred blew out a long sigh, shaking his head. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and placed a hand on his hips. “Did she say why?”

The boy shrugged. “I don’t know?”

“Want to come with?” Alfred asked the boy who was still looking down at his shoes.

Peter perked up and looked at Alfred. “Are you going to learn magic?”

Alfred shrugged. “Who knows? Apparently, you don’t.”

“Alfred!”

“Probably will,” Alfred said, chuckling. He shrugged on his jacket that hung behind the kitchen door and looked towards the boy who had jumped from the counter to the ground. “It could be a disaster again.”

“But, it’s fun!” Peter grinned. “I know! You can be a part of a troupe, Alfred.”

Alfred adjusted his glasses and glanced at Peter before opening the door for both of them. “I’m not so sure about that.”

-----

Amelia was waiting for him at the edge of the village. There was a clearing right before the woods and Alfred could see the wagons parked there and the tents that were being set up. Amelia watched it all with an impassive eye, her arms crossed as she leaned over the village’s lone watchtower.

She barely glanced at Alfred and Peter as they approached. “Hey!” Alfred greeted. “You don’t have to look so pissed. I don’t think the troupe would like that.”

Amelia scoffed as she glanced at Alfred. “You’re late,” she said. “And I’m supposed to listen to you?”

“Hey!” Alfred rubbed the back of his neck and gave an apologetic smile. “I’m not that late. What are we doing anyway? Hunting monsters?”

“After the last time? Ha! You wish, Alfred.” Amelia scowled at the distance and shook her head. She stretched her arms over her head and placed her hands on her hips as she turned to assess Alfred. “You need to learn better control of your magic.”

“Or I could just not use it.”

“You didn’t use it last time and still fucked up,” Amelia said, pointing a finger at his chest. “So, I’m going to have you talk to someone about it.”

“Someone?”

She glanced at the work happening on the clearing once again. Alfred wasn’t sure if she was just feeling territorial as the village chieftain’s daughter but Amelia did always look determined that the village she was responsible for was protected from any harm from any source. “Someone from the troupe,” she answered, inclining her head towards the clearing. Her eyes glanced over the work in the clearing once again. This time, Alfred wondered if she was scanning to look for someone. “Travelling troupes like these usually deal with Wild Magic, one of the most uncontrollable magic there is. Perhaps, magic that you have.”

“And they can help?”

“Hopefully,” she pursed her lips, looking from the troupe to Alfred then back again. “I’m this close to giving you up for hopeless.”

“Rude!” Alfred shot back, nudging her with an elbow. “I’m not that bad.”

“Sure, Alfred,” Amelia said, tossing her hair back. She blew out a breath and pulled it back from her face, pushing a headband to keep the strands away from her face. “Whatever you say.”

Alfred laughed with her, the two of them mirroring each other with matching grins. Like this, Alfred could see why the two of them were normally seen as siblings by the merchants and caravans that visited the village. Amelia could have been his older sister.

“You’re both being stupid again,” Peter pointed out, sticking his tongue out at them. Amelia grinned before chasing Peter down to mess his hair up, driving her fist down on his head. Peter pushed her away with a splutter, backing away and bumping into their first visitors from the troupe.

“Woah there, are you alright?” The dark haired man asked, steadying Peter with a hand on his shoulder.

“Ah, Alice, Antonio,” Amelia greeted with a grin. “Sorry about that.”

The woman, Alice, glanced at Peter with a small smile. The boy flushed and ran back, hiding behind Amelia. Antonio laughed and raised a hand in a wave as a greeting. “Hello,” he said. “You said you had someone you wanted us to meet, Amelia?”

Amelia nodded. She pulled Alfred forward by the wrist and the prince stumbled before adjusting himself. Amelia’s strength has never failed to surprise him and always somehow catches him off-guard. “This is Alfred,” she said, waving a hand towards his direction. “His magic is...weird.”

“It’s not that weird.”

“It is,” Amelia said, glaring him down. “You’re old enough to have proper control and you’re from the capital. You would have access to all those mages going through the Royal Academy. It’s weird that you’re all messed up.”

“That’s just a mean thing to say now,” Alfred pouted.

Alfred jerked when the woman from the troupe, Alice, reached for his hand. Her hands were calloused and rough. She wasn’t looking at him at all but at his hands. Her long blond hair was pulled back in two tails and her green eyes as she pressed her thumb over his pulse seemed to glow a brighter green. Alfred was reminded of Arthur whenever he used his magic to summon the spirits and talk to them. He can feel the power radiating off of her in warm waves. It felt like being underneath the warm waters of a lake, the waves of her magic washing over him slowly.

“You are far from home, aren’t you?” She murmured as she stepped away. “Far from the people you’re supposed to be with.”

Alfred froze, his hand halfway to the wrist she had just held. He dropped his hands to his side and frowned at her. “Well, yeah, I’m trying to figure some stuff out.”

“And how has that worked out for you?” She asked cocking his head.

“This is a good place,” Alfred answered.

“So it is,” Alice said, a smile quirking on her lips. “But, it is not yours. There are people still searching for your presence, golden child. The answers you seek can be found with them.”

“So you’re saying I should just go home?” Alfred frowned. “What are you? Some sort of seer?”

“Wild magic manifests in many ways,” Alice answered. “You’ve always been surrounded by magic, haven’t you? By people blessed by it. Perhaps, there is your answer to the question you’ve been asking.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

Antonio laughed. “Alice rarely does.”

Alice glared at him and he raised his hands as if in surrender. He took her hand in his and laced them together, thumb brushing comfortingly on the back of her hand before he kissed it. “I mean no harm by it, mi corazón.”

Alice gave him a fond smile and Alfred felt a pang of longing on his chest. As if she could sense it, Alice gave him a knowing look and nodded. “You need to find him. You need to give your heart to him. Perhaps, you already have,” she said, frowning. “No, but you will. He needs you just as much as you need him. Sometimes, there are people in our lives who are meant to complete it.” She looked towards Antonio with a smile before turning her attention back to Alfred. “You are lucky to have found your destined one. It is a rare gift.”

“Can you help him?” Amelia asked frowning in confusion. “I don’t understand.”

“Amelia,” Alice said. “Alfred is meant for great things. What he needs right now cannot be found here.”

Amelia pursed her lips and sighed. “Well, that’s a problem, isn’t it?”

Alice laughed and shook her head. She took Amelia’s hand and brushed her thumb over her pulse point the same way she had with Alfred. “It would only be a problem for so long,” she said. “Now, tell me, Amelia, how has Nikolai been treating you?”

-----

“Vanya!”

Ivan jerked awake at the sudden weight on his chest only to see the smiling face of a girl looking down on him. The dark-haired girl, Alaska, was the daughter of one of the merchants he was escorting and it seems that she had latched on to him after seeing his magic when he had to subjugate a monster on the roads.

“Good morning, little one,” Ivan greeted. “Is there any problem?”

“No,” she replied, smiling with her cheeks dimpling. “But, papa says that we’re almost there and to wake you up.”

“Ah, I see,” Ivan sat up and rubbed at his eyes. He fixed the way his scarf draped around his neck and pressed his hands over his coat, straightening any crease.

“Can I see the magic again?” Alaska blurted out, leaning forward. She jumped as the wagon they were riding on hit a bump and Ivan reached a hand out to steady her. She smiled in thanks before looking at him expectantly. It reminded Ivan of his sister and her clinginess to him when they were growing up. Like family, he thought with a smile. Maybe it was time to come home for a while, to put his search for his golden prince on hold.

“Very well,” Ivan said. He cupped his hands together and allowed a small flurry of snow to form over them, the wind and cold swirling until there was a small snowman on his palms. He transferred the snowman to Alaska’s smaller hands and let her look on in wonder.

“Can you make him bigger?”

“It is not time for snow and ice yet, da?” Ivan told her, patting her gently on the head. He smiled and somehow, just like Alfred, she didn’t seem too bothered by it. “When it comes, I shall show you something better.”

“Promise?” She asked, giggling as she placed a hand on his knee when she leaned forward.

“I promise,” Ivan said with a nod.

She opened her mouth to say something else but the wagon they were in jerked to a rough stop. The snowman fell to a clump of snow from her hands. Ivan could hear the sounds of shouting from outside and felt a cold dread inside him. He was suddenly aware that they could be in very grave danger.

“Stay here and hide,” Ivan told the girl, pressing her to a sitting position between two bushels of fruits. He jumped outside and saw that they have been stopped by an ambush. A group of bandits have toppled a large tree in the middle of the road and there were several of them hidden in the trees by the path, with arrows trained on the merchant’s caravan.

Ivan frowned. He didn’t think he’d be able to take on this many. They hadn’t expected great trouble like this.

He summoned his staff to his hands, the metal rod being a comforting weight in his hands. Alaska’s father had his hands raised in surrender, trying to negotiate with the bandits. His wife was a step behind him, her brows creased in worry. The few other members of their caravan seemed uncertain about what to do.

“I’m telling you,” the leader of the bandits said with a mocking laugh. “I want everything you have.”

“Please,” the merchant said with placating hands. “You can have it. Just let us go.”

The bandit inclined his head to have the others inspect the wagons. Ivan heard Alaska yelp as they took her from the wagon. She stumbled to the ground, scraping her knees and ran towards Ivan, clinging to his coat. Her mother was looking at them in worry and the bandits looked at Ivan’s staff in distaste. “Leave your weapons,” one of them ordered. Ivan hesitated for a moment but threw the weapon down upon seeing the terrified looks among the members of the caravan.

The bandits led their horses and wagons off the path, laughing and joking among themselves as they did so. The leader watched it all with a satisfied smile before raising one arm in the air. “Kill them all,” he said and the arrows flew.

Ivan reacted on instinct, raising the ice around him and Alaska. Someone screamed and he sent several of his ice as blades towards the bandits closest to them.

“Mama! Papa!”Alaska screamed. Ivan glanced and saw the arrows that have hit the merchant and his wife. The woman mouthed for Ivan to run with Alaska and he grabbed her by the waist, pulling on his magic to trip and stab one of the bandits leading off one of the horses before grabbing the reins. He pulled the two of them over the animal and kicked off, raising an ice wall behind him as he galloped away from the massacre.

Alaska was still screaming and Ivan held her tighter, hand rubbing comforting circles on her back. It was too late for anyone else but he hurried the horse, driving them to a faster pace. They should be near the village they were going to for trade, nearer to other people and help. He may be leading the bandits to more victims, he thought with a fear and wondered if he should turn back. Bring Alaska to safety then face the bandits.

But, he could warn them, Ivan thought. He thought of his prince, negotiating with nobles about sending more soldiers to far off villages like this one. He thought of Alfred being determined that the nobles not be allowed to play off issues like this as nothing. There should be help in the village. Ivan hoped so. He hoped Alfred’s work has paid off. He hoped that there would be people who can help them.

Alaska needed it. Ivan wanted to believe in it.

-----

The alarm bells were ringing.

Alfred stopped sparring with Peter, the practice sword almost forgotten in his hand as he looked off in the distance. He glanced at the boy with a frown. “Monsters?” Alfred murmured in confusion.

It shouldn’t be the case. Amelia said she and the others have scouted the woods nearby and saw no sign of the creatures that usually terrorized the villagers. There shouldn’t be any problem with monsters spawning for a while after the hunt Amelia and the others had taken. Alfred had even joined them for one of it.

“Alfred!” Amelia stopped in front of them. “Peter, go hide with the others in the village hall.” After the boy had ran off, Amelia turned back towards Alfred. “There was a rider. They said they were attacked by bandits. We’re going after the bastards. You going?”

Alfred nodded, his grip on the hilt of his sword tightening. Bandits were still a real threat, he thought through gritted teeth. He already warned the nobles that it was their responsibility to make sure the roads were safe.

They never listened to him. Sometimes, he wondered if it was going to be the case when he was king. He wasn’t like Amelia. He couldn’t make others do as he wished. He wasted too much time when he was younger thinking that he wouldn’t be left with the responsibility of running a kingdom. It was times like this that he wondered what his mother could have been thinking by convincing his father to make him the crown prince.

“Alfred!” Amelia shook him. “I don’t know what you’re thinking about but you need a better weapon if you’re going with us.”

He nodded. “I’ll meet you at the watchtower,” he said before going off to run at the direction of his own cottage. His own sword should be there and it won’t take long for him to get it. He found the sword where he had hidden it underneath his bed and he ran back towards the watchtower at the entrance to the village.

It didn’t seem like they had to spend any more time looking for the bandits because they were already waiting for them there. Amelia stood, glaring at them, holding on to a bat that she supported on her shoulder. Antonio and Nikolai stood beside her and Alfred glanced momentarily at the camp the traveling troupe had made outside the village to see it strangely quiet and empty. He wondered if the troupe had hidden with those who cannot fight in the village hall.

“You are not welcome here,” Amelia said, pointing her bat at them. Alfred almost expected a burst of magic from the young woman. He remembered her talking about studying at the Royal Academy for a year of combat magic and wondered if there was much to be feared about her magic. She had helped Alfred with controlling his but had never shown much of her own gift. “Leave if you do not want to die.”

Still, she was terrifying though and Alfred had sparred enough times with Gilbert to know that combat magic may not be as showy as other kinds of magic but can be just as deadly. If not, more so.

“Are you going to make us, darling?” The bandit spat back and the rest of their group laughed mockingly. Alfred wondered what they saw when they looked at Amelia. A small fearless woman who wasn’t planning on backing down when faced with her enemies. Did they think she’d be so easily defeated?

They were fools, then, Alfred thought. Just like all the villains in the story. But, Alfred didn’t think he was the hero of this story. It was no time to be thinking of such things.

“You should give up now,” the bandit sneered. “I’m not fighting some farmers who don’t know any better.”

“Too bad,” Amelia glared at them all. “You’ve already picked this fight.”

“Get them,” the man ordered his group.

Alfred braced himself, hand gripping his sword tightly as the bandits rushed towards them. There were several arrows but all were buffeted away by Nikolai’s wind magic. The blond raised his hands and blew several of the bandits back. Antonio managed to take down two of the bandits with a curved blade he was holding while Amelia was effectively taking on the leader and three others.

Alfred dove into the fight. He parried an attacking bandit’s sword and stabbed another as he kicked away at one that charged him. He winced as the kick sent the man several feet more than what would be usual. His magic was acting up again and he sighed as he ducked from another attack and blocked off another.

Alfred punched another in the face, relishing the crunch of bone underneath his fist. “Alfred!” Amelia shouted and Alfred saw another one of the bandits charging at him from behind. He wouldn’t be able to turn around fast enough, he thought with a pounding heart. He stumbled clumsily, trying to dodge only for him to hear the familiar crack of ice beneath his feet. The bandit was suddenly frozen in front of him, blade stopped a few inches from his face.

Alfred felt his breathing turn sharp and shallow even as he looked behind him. It wasn’t Nikolai who was holding his hand out to call on the ice but someone else. Someone very familiar.

Alfred licked his lips as he met familiar purple eyes. “Ivan?”

-----

They sat around a bonfire with the rest of the villagers and the members of Antonio’s travelling troupe. Alfred held the bowl of stew in his hand but he wasn’t eating. He couldn’t help but keep on glancing at Ivan with the same disbelief as earlier.

He still couldn’t believe the other was there. He remembered Alice’s knowing look when they had returned from battle and wondered if the seer had known this would happen.

A girl was curled up with her head on Ivan’s lap and Alfred looked at her with sad eyes. He heard about what had happened from Ivan and she was so young. He sighed, taking a bite out of the meat of his stew. The bandits had all either ran or were killed.

They should be happy but Alfred was reminded that they weren’t able to save everyone.

“You are thinking of bad things again, Alfred, da?” Ivan said, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Is it not a time for celebrations?”

Alfred glanced at the girl on Ivan’s lap. She had exhausted herself from crying too much and had fallen asleep not too long ago. Alfred wanted to pull her close and hug her to comfort her, to offer her somewhere safe. He thought of his own parents who were killed, of what it was like to be an orphan. “Not for her,” he said. “I could have done better. I should have forced the nobles to act sooner and better. Just better. I failed, Ivan.”

“You didn’t fail,” Ivan said in a determined tone. “You have saved this village, da?”

“You mean Amelia did,” Alfred said with a small smile. “She’s amazing.”

“So are you,” Ivan said. “You cannot do everything by yourself, Alfred.”

“A king can’t rely on everyone else all the time,” Alfred murmured.

“Not all the time, no,” Ivan covered Alfred’s hand with his own. “But we are here for when you need us. People have been waiting for you back home just as you seem to have formed your own relationships in this village.”

“Alice says I could figure it out,” Alfred said. He turned his hand over so he could lace their fingers together. He smiled at Ivan. “My magic. She says that I need to figure it out with you and the other people that were, are and have always been precious to me.”

Ivan nodded, leaning forward, careful to not jostle the sleeping Alaska as he pressed a kiss on Alfred’s forehead. “I have found you, my prince.”

“Like you promised,” Alfred said, closing his eyes and feeling the kiss on his forehead like a blessing. He blew out a small breath and opened his eyes to look directly at Ivan. “You’ll follow me again, won’t you?”

Ivan nodded. “As long as you want me to.”

Alfred grinned and returned Ivan’s kiss, pressing their lips together. They fit together as if they have never been apart. Alfred missed it, the kisses and warmth. Alfred missed him. His guard, his friend, his lover. “Always,” he said. “I always want you to.”

“Then we shall figure it out, da?” Ivan smiled. “Together.”

Alfred nodded, squeezing Ivan’s hand in his own. He thought of Alice’s words, of giving his heart and finding each other. He wondered if it was true. “Yeah,” he agreed. “Together.”

-----

Chapter Text

-----

“Here,” Alfred laid the plates full of eggs, bacon, and fried fish in front of Ivan and Alaska. He smiled and ruffled the little girl’s hair as he did so and she managed to return a small wan smile at him.

“Thank you,” she murmured. She took up the fork and pushed the food around her plate. Alfred sighed and started returning his utensils back to its proper place. For a while, he could hear the soft murmurs from the two seated around his dining table, a private whispered conversation he was not privy to.

“Alfred,” Ivan called out.

“Hm?” Alfred looked over his shoulder. Ivan had pulled out another chair and tilted his head to indicate that Alfred should take it. “Join us. Your food is very good. You should eat as well.”

Alfred smiled and took the offer. Ivan gestured towards the plate of food and Alfred chuckled as he took a bite of the meal he prepared. He hummed and licked his lips, making Alaska giggle at him. “What?” He asked her through a mouthful of food.

“You don’t act like a prince,” she said.

Alfred gave an exaggerated gasp. “Who told you that?” He said in a conspiratorial tone. He leaned in close and poked her in the cheek with a finger. “That’s a secret. You’re not supposed to know about it.”

“Ivan told me,” she whispered with a dimpled grin.

Alfred turned his mock outrage towards the adventurer. “Ivan, how could you?” He asked, pressing a hand over his chest. Ivan raised his brows at him and shook his head. He poured some coffee into a mug before placing it beside Alfred’s hand. Alfred gave him a grateful look before taking a sip of his drink.

“I’m sure Alaska can keep a secret, da?”

“Da!” Alaska answered with an enthusiastic nod. Alfred was glad that the girl seemed to be feeling better after the tragedy that struck her family. It had been a few days and Alfred suspected that it was an experience that would always stay with her but it was a relief that she’s found it in her to start smiling again. It gave Alfred hope.

“Alright, alright,” Alfred grinned at her. “I’ll trust you.”

“I’ll be good,” Alaska said.

Alfred reached out and gave her shoulder a comforting squeeze. “Thank you, Alaska.”

Ivan picked up their plates after they finished eating. He turned towards Alaska, crouching until they were level. “Why don’t you see if the troupe’s practicing? You can go watch if you want.”

“Really?”

Ivan nodded. “Just be careful.”

Alaska grinned and threw her arms around Ivan before rushing towards the door. She paused by the threshold of Alfred’s back door before running back and throwing her arms around Alfred’s waist as well. “Thank you for the breakfast,” she said before immediately running out of the door.

Alfred watched the door swing close before standing up to bring the rest of the dirty dishes where Ivan was starting to wash them. “You’re good with her,” Alfred said, placing his mug down. He took the plates that Ivan finished washing and wiped them before putting them away.

Ivan glanced out the window with a fond smile. “I wish it was not necessary,” he said. “That it did not have to happen.”

“You being there for her?”

“Alaska needing me in the first place,” Ivan answered with a sigh. He stopped with his task, his hands gripping the edge of the basin in front of him. “It was supposed to be a routine job. Nothing new.”

“Yeah,” Alfred rolled his shoulders and took over for Ivan. The water was cool as he sunk the plates underneath it. The bubbles from the soap rose to the surface and Alfred smiled at an idea. He cupped his hand underneath it, bringing it up to his mouth to blow across towards Ivan. Ivan spluttered in surprise and gave him a disgruntled look. Alfred grinned at him. “I didn’t expect you to be an adventurer.”

“And why not?”

“Seems being a royal mage or continuing to be knight would get you what you want better, wouldn’t it?”

“And what do you know of what I want, your highness?”

“You told me you wanted to rebuild your family name and fortune, to regain what your father has lost,” Alfred pointed out. He finished the last of the dishes and wiped his hands before turning towards Ivan. He raised a brow in a questioning manner, leaning his hip on the counter. “Has that changed?”

“That has not changed, no,” Ivan said. He stepped closer, brushing Alfred’s stubborn cowlick down on his head. “But, my goals have also changed. I made a promise to a golden prince, after all.”

Alfred snorted. “You think too much of me,” he said. “Bad idea, Ivan.”

“And what have you been doing, Alfred?”

“Me? Been learning some stuff,” he said, gesturing around the cottage. He looked around the place with a satisfied smile. He’d really made the place a home he could be proud of after so long. It was just as familiar and dear to him as the palace in the capital itself. “It’s been an interesting year.”

“It has been a while,” Ivan agreed.

“How is everyone, Ivan? Back home, I mean,” Alfred boosted himself and sat on the counter. He laced his hands together between his knees.

“They miss you,” Ivan said. He stepped forward, standing between Alfred’s legs. “They want you to come home. I want you to come back with me.”

“But, I have a life here now,” Alfred murmured. “I’ve been thinking about it, you know. I want to come home but I also don’t want to? It’s weird, right? I still don’t know what I want. It feels like I wasted my time then trying to figure it out.”

“But that’s what everyone does,” Ivan chuckled. He took Alfred’s hands in his and Alfred pursed his lips at the coldness from being just in the water. “We figure things out, yes?”

“Yeah,” Alfred shrugged. “I guess.”

“You’re afraid, aren’t you?”

Alfred raised his head and stared at Ivan. Ivan seemed so sure and Alfred felt strangely vulnerable. He wondered if he was that obvious or if Ivan has just gotten used to seeing through him. Maybe he’s shown too much of himself without meaning to.

“I still don’t know if I should be king,” Alfred said. “I don’t want to be responsible for so many people. It doesn’t seem right.”

“You are young yet,” Ivan pointed out. He pressed a hand on the side of Alfred’s face and Alfred leaned into the touch out of instinct. “You will be something great, Alfred. We will be there to help you achieve that.”

Alfred leaned his head forward and let their foreheads touch. He smiled. “Sometimes, I want to have that same belief you have in me. It must be nice.”

“Perhaps you can believe in me as I believe in you?”

Alfred chuckled. “Don’t be ridiculous, Ivan,” he murmured. He kissed Ivan deeply, closing his eyes as he laced his hands together behind the other’s nape. “I always have.”

-----

Ivan and Alaska were both helping Alfred with his garden when it happened. Ivan suddenly stopped, the basket of tools falling out of his hands as he stared into nothing. Alfred had been splashing water and playing with Alaska when he heard the clatter. His gaze snapped immediately to the mage in sudden stasis in the middle of the vegetable field.

“Ivan?” Alfred approached cautiously. He clutched at the pail of water in his hands. Ivan’s eyes were glowing eerily, lit up by some kind of magic. Alfred raised his hand and waved it in front of the other man’s eyes but it brought no reaction from the other.

Alaska approached them both and she clung to Alfred’s sleeve. “What’s wrong with him?” She asked in worry.

Alfred frowned. “I don’t know,” he said. He splashed the water at Ivan like they were planning on doing moments ago, to bring the other into their games. It didn’t bring out any reaction either and Ivan still stared into space. Alfred has seen it before. A communication spell, he thought grimly. A very familiar thing that never failed to look creepy.

“Is he going to be alright?” Alaska asked.

Alfred nodded. He took her hand and crouched to her level. He tried to smile comfortingly at her because even he was starting to worry. Long-distance communication was a tiring spell, if he remembered correctly from Arthur’s lessons. It wouldn’t be something anyone would use lightly. He squeezed Alaska’s hands comfortingly in his. “We will just have to wait it out. Ivan is somewhere else at the moment.”

“Somewhere else?”

“It’s magic,” Alfred explained. He began to pick up the tools that Ivan had dropped, placing each one back in the basket. Alaska crouched beside him and started picking up the mess as well. He reached out and brushed a stray strand of her hair away from her face. “You don’t have to worry. He will be fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Don’t you trust me?”

“I trust you,” Alaska said with an innocent smile. Alfred guided her and they sat down on the ground, cross-legged with their heads bowed close. Alfred brushed the dirt from her hands and smiled.

“Do you want to hear a story?” He asked her. At her nod, he began a tale of his playfulness and the pranks he’d played as a child in the palace. He had been a menace, he remembered, and he had often gotten into trouble with his mother for his behavior. He told her of summers spent in the Kirkland estate with the rest of his cousins or a trip he took with his father and Mattie, down the river from the capital, visiting villages just like he was in right now. He told her about the troupes that used to come to the city all the time or the theatre that he had visited with Arthur. It was an idyllic childhood that he’d had and it wasn’t long before they were both laughing.

“And then what happened? Did you actually duel the Viscount?” Alaska asked with wide eyes, hands pressing over her mouth in surprise.

Alfred smiled at the memory. “Oh no, my mother was too worried about it and the duke wasn’t about to contradict one of the queens, oh no, especially not my mother. The Lady Olivia Victoria Kirkland wasn’t someone you offended just like that.”

“But, you gave the challenge,” Alaska pointed out.

“Oh, little Alfred did,” Ivan’s voice came suddenly and both Alfred and Alaska startled, looking towards the older man who took the same position with them. Their knees knocked into each other and Alfred smiled at him. “I remember that party. I believe Gilbert suggested a contest instead of a duel.”

Alfred nodded. “Yeah, a sharpshooting contest,” he said. “I don’t think anyone expected I’d win.”

“It was quite the scandal,” Ivan said.

“That’s amazing!” Alaska clapped her hands. She stopped and turned to Ivan, her eyes looking worried. “Are you alright now?”

“Yes, little one,” Ivan answered. He smiled at her but Alfred could see the same worry in her eyes reflected in his. Alfred frowned, reaching out to hesitantly touch Ivan’s wrist. Ivan gave him a reassuring smile, mouthing the words later while his eyes flicked towards the young girl. It made Alfred more worried, seeing as something that Ivan heard that Alaska could not was probably not something good.

“Why don’t you wash your hands, Alaska?” Alfred said, nudging her gently. “Then, we can start preparing some dinner, hm?”

She wrinkled her nose and narrowed her eyes at them. “Are you going to talk about grown up stuff?”

“Something like that,” Ivan replied. “Please, little one.”

She pouted but stood up, brushing the dirt from her lap. “Okay,” she said. “But, be fast, alright?”

They watched her disappear into the cottage before Alfred turned to look at Ivan expectantly. Ivan sighed and adjusted the scarf around his neck, a nervous habit that Alfred had noticed from him. Even under the heat of the sun, Ivan didn’t remove that scarf and it seemed to be a source of comfort and courage at times.

It was something that was even becoming a comforting sight for the prince. “Well?” He asked. “That was a call, wasn’t it? What was it about?”

Ivan pressed his lips in a displeased line and he looked at Alfred warily. Alfred felt something grow cold inside him at the thought of what could cause such a thing. “There was trouble in the capital,” Ivan explained, taking Alfred’s hand in his. “An uprising by some minor lords. That was one of the Royal Mages, speaking for the regent.”

“An uprising?” Alfred swallowed and clutched at Ivan’s hands tighter.

“A coup,” Ivan said with a nod. He cupped Alfred’s cheek and placed a steady hand on the nape of his neck even as Alfred’s breaths started coming faster and shallower. He pressed their foreheads together. “Alfred,” he whispered. “They’re alive and safe. They said that the prince was attacked but that he’s recovering in the Bonnefoy estate. The Regent is in hiding. No one knows where he is at the moment.”

“Mattie,” Alfred gaped at Ivan. “My brother was attacked?”

“He’s recovering,” Ivan said.

“I need to be there.” Alfred stumbled as he stood up and Ivan reached out a steadying hand. “Ivan, I need to, I shouldn’t have been gone.”

Ivan caught him by the wrist before he could run past him and into the stables. At the moment, Alfred felt the need for action, to do something before anyone could hurt the people who were important to him again. He needed to start back towards the capital or the Bonnefoy estate, perhaps somewhere else. Where could Arthur be hiding? Would he go back to the Kirkland estate? Alfred needed to see them.

“Alfred,” Ivan said. “You cannot leave right now.”

“Why not!?” The prince exclaimed, tearing his hand away from Ivan. “It is my duty to do this.”

“It’s not safe and it’s late, Alfred. You cannot just uproot everything once again,” Ivan said. He strode over to Alfred and held him by the shoulders. He looked like he wanted to shake some sense to Alfred but he didn’t do anything but close his eyes and shake his head. “We will go together. I promise. We can leave tomorrow. But, you need to rest, pack, and plan, Alfred. It is unwise to charge without a plan.”

“But--” Alfred protested. “But, what if I’m too late.”

“I told you,” Ivan said, pressing a kiss on Alfred’s forehead. “They are safe, Alfred. They have people to guard them. It is not the end. Now, come, Alaska’s waiting for us.”

“Right, Alaska,” Alfred muttered. “Do we bring her with us? Is it too dangerous?”

“I promised to protect her,” Ivan said. “I would.”

“So will I,” Alfred held on to Ivan’s hand as the other led him back to the path towards the cottage back door.

“So we will,” Ivan said. “We shall make our plans tonight, Alfred. Everything will be fine.” They stopped at the threshold of the house and Ivan raised their joined hands, kissing the back of Alfred’s hand. “I swear to you. I will bring you back to your family safely.”

-----

“Is she asleep?” Alfred asked as Ivan came into his bedroom. The door shut softly and Ivan leaned into it. He nodded at the prince who was seated on the bed, papers scattered over the rumpled sheets. Alfred looked tired, too weary for one so young. The duty and responsibility of royalty was truly nothing to scoff at.

“Have you made up your mind?”

“I was always going to leave this place,” Alfred said. There was a sad smile on his face as he glanced around the room. Ivan realized that there was more to this than just the danger they would face for Alfred. There was reluctance, of course there was, for leaving a home that he had made for several months. It had almost been a year, Ivan thought with a grimace. It meant that it was going to be Alfred’s birthday again soon and for so horrible a thing to happen so close to it. Ivan wanted to embrace the young man for comfort.

“You can always visit,” Ivan pointed out. He crossed the room and stood before the foot of the bed. His eyes scanned the papers Alfred had scattered around. The names of the territories and lords that have taken up arms against the capital, maps, and scribbled plans all laid up for both of them to see.

“That goes without saying,” Alfred said, tracing his finger over a map of the territory they were in. His hand stopped over the place where the village would be with a fond smile. “This is my home just like the palace. I’ll always miss it.”

“If we leave early tomorrow, we should reach the main Kirkland estate by nightfall,” Ivan said as he picked up one of Alfred’s scribbled notes about possible allies. The late queen’s family was on top and, no doubt, Alfred expected to find his uncle, the regent, in there. The Kirkland estate, Ivan thought, should be another home to Alfred if his earlier stories of childhood summers were to be believed.

“Is it wrong that I don’t want to leave this place?” Alfred buried his face in his hands and gave a deep sigh. He removed his glasses and placed them on his bedside table as he started stacking the papers together to be put away. “It was easier here. I felt like I was more...free. Strange, isn’t it? I could have done anything in the capital and no one would care or mind because I was the prince, because I would be king but I have never felt like I could do anything and everything until I’ve started calling this home.”

Ivan chuckled. “Home is often a prison we agree to go into.”

Alfred shook his head. “That’s a depressing thought.”

“It seems to be a theme for the night.”

Alfred smiled. “I’ve been awful tonight, huh?”

“It is understandable,” Ivan smiled at him, stroking his hair with his hand. “I would feel the same in your position.”

Alfred smiled and threaded his fingers through Ivan’s hair. They were so close he could feel the other’s breath on his lips. He licked his lips, hesitating before pressing a soft kiss on his lips. He closed his eyes and brushed his thumb over Ivan’s cheek as he deepened their kiss. His tongue traced the seam of Ivan’s lips before delving into it. When they parted, Alfred was out of breath, staring at Ivan with eyes full of need. “Will you stay with me tonight? Make me forget everything that’s wrong out there.”

“Is that an order?”

“Does it have to be?”

“No,” Ivan said. His lips traced what felt like a line of fire from Alfred’s lips down his throat. He bit his lip and clung to Ivan, hands gripping the other’s shoulder tightly as he arched his back, baring his throat at the older man. “I would do anything you want, Alfred. I would follow you anywhere, remember?”

Alfred chuckled. “Feels like a lifetime ago since I’ve been prince.”

“And it would be another lifetime for you.”

“For both of us,” Alfred pulled Ivan back to a kiss, hand wounding the scarf around it. He pushed the coat from Ivan’s shoulders and dropped it on the floor. “But tonight we have this, tonight we have us.”

“It feels like another lifetime since we’ve had this,” Ivan chuckled, a hand pressing over his prince’s chest. He can feel the rapid pace of Alfred’s heartbeat underneath his touch, could feel the warmth that spread from his open palm. He unbuttoned Alfred’s shirt and leaned down to press a kiss over that heartbeat. “And another lifetime waiting for us.”

“You gotta be careful, Ivan,” Alfred said, sounding breathless. “I might actually take that as a proposal.”

Ivan placed his hand on Alfred’s hips, pinning him down. He had thought of that, had never thought of the possibility. He had not much to offer the prince, not at the moment. But, when their eyes met, he could see all the possibilities, everything they could possibly achieve together. He could see the hope that made him accept the job of guarding the troublesome prince in the first place, a chance for the future. “Why can’t it be?”

Alfred looked stunned, his eyes widening and his breath catching in his throat. He stopped Ivan with a hand on his chest. “Do you mean it?”

Ivan drew him for a kiss and placed a chaste kiss on his cheek. “Always, my prince.”

Alfred rolled them over and straddled Ivan’s hips. His eyes were alight with energy and Ivan could imagine laying his golden prince down for worship but all he did then was hold on to Alfred’s waist. Alfred dropped his shirt on the ground and unbuttoned Ivan’s own garments. “Yes,” he said, splaying a hand over Ivan’s stomach and placing a kiss on his throat, on his collarbone, his chest. It was as if Alfred was mirroring Ivan’s own actions, a challenge or another one of the prince’s antics, Ivan wasn’t sure he could tell.

“Yes,” Alfred said, laughing as he caught sight of Ivan’s purple eyes staring at him. He pressed their lips together again and Ivan could feel the smile on the younger man’s lips. “Thank you, Ivan.” Alfred whispered.

Ivan rolled them over and Alfred yelped, mouth pursing but he could not keep it from turning into a smile. Ivan’s shirt and scarf were placed gently on the bed before he cupped Alfred’s cheeks and pressed their foreheads to each other. “Shall we?”

Alfred grinned at him, all the challenging, fun, fearless, and confident prince that he remembered. “Yes,” he said and Ivan already knew that it was a word that was going to echo in his mind, in his heart, in the very magic that thrummed to his veins. Yes, yes, yes.

-----

The morning found Alfred cooking their breakfast in the kitchen, humming a happy melody under his breath. He felt Ivan’s presence before the other had wrapped his arms around him, resting his chin over Alfred’s shoulder.

“Morning,” Alfred greeted as he flipped the pancake from the pan to a plate. He poured the rest of the batter into it and turned his head to the side only to be caught in a kiss by Ivan.

“Good morning, Alfred,” Ivan whispered as they parted.

There was a giggle and they both turned to see a sleep-mussed Alaska smiling at them both. “Good morning!” She piped up, already climbing on a chair.

“Good morning, little one,” Ivan said as he brought the plates of pancakes over to the table. Alfred took out some of the berries and cream he’d been saving and placed it on the dining table. He ruffled Alaska’s hair, smiling at the puffed up cheeks of the little girl as she pouted at him. “Did you sleep well?”

Alaska hummed. She looked from Ivan to Alfred then back again. “Is everyone fine now?”

“What do you mean?” Alfred asked frowning.

Alaska kicked her feet underneath the table, staring resolutely at her stack of pancakes. “You were sad last night,” she said as she reached for the berries by Alfred. “Are you not anymore?”

“No,” Alfred answered her. “Did you worry? I’m sorry. I suck as a hero and prince, don’t I?”

“That’s not true,” Alaska said. “I like you.”

“Is that so?” Alfred chuckled. “Would you like to go with us then?”

“Go where?”

“Remember my story? The Kirkland estate?” At Alaska’s nod, Alfred grinned. “Well, we’ll be going there. Won’t that be fun?”

“Really? Like a palace?”

“It’s not a palace, little one.” Ivan told her. He poured some juice for all of them and Alaska eagerly took a si from hers. “It’s an old house.”

“Ancestral home,” Alfred agreed. “But, it’s certainly as big as a castle.”

“Really?”

“Really,” Alfred nodded. “We have to go soon, right after breakfast, hm? Is that alright?”

“Yeah!” She leaned forward. “I wanna see!”

“Alright, we’ll go,” Alfred glanced up and met Ivan’s eyes. He smiled at him. “All of us. Together. It’ll be fun.”

-----

Alfred allowed the groom to take his horse’s reins as he jumped from it. Ivan was helping Alaska down from his own horse before the grooms came to take it to the stables. Alfred stopped and stared at the sprawling grounds and the beautifully constructed structure of his mother’s childhood home.

The grand double doors that served as the Kirkland’s estate’s front doors were open and the current head of the Kirkland family stood, waiting for his nephew. “Uncle Alistair,” Alfred greeted as he climbed the front steps. The red-haired man brought him into and embrace and Alfred froze for a moment, stunned, before returning it. “Are they alright?”

Alistair wrapped an arm around Alfred’s shoulders and led him inside. “Arthur’s been worried sick about you,” he said. “We all have been.”

“He’s here?”

Alistair nodded. “Came here yesterday,” he answered. “It’s either luck or one of his spirits knowing you were coming.”

“And Mattie?”

“From what I heard, your brother’s still with the Bonnefoy family.” Alistair shrugged. “Still, Francis might bring the boy here, ye hear me? Arthur seems sure of it.”

They climbed the stairs and Alfred glanced back at Ivan and Alaska standing uncertainly in the entrance hall. “My companions,” Alfred said and Alistair glanced back as well. “I should--”

Alistair gave Alfred a pat on the shoulder. “I’ll take care of it, eh? Be a proper host,” he said, chuckling. “You know your way around. Go see Arthur. He’s in his study.”

“Thank you, uncle,” Alfred said.

Alistair smiled at him. “I’m just glad you’re alright, lad. Had us all worried. Go, someone’s more worried than I am.”

With a nod, Alfred went down the familiar hall. When he reached the door to Arthur’s study, he hesitated. The last time he had spoken with Artie, they had argued about Alfred leaving the capital. Arthur thought it was too dangerous and irresponsible. Alfred was so sure it was something he had to do. He raised his hand with a deep breath and knocked. Arthur’s muffled voice came from the inside and Alfred composed himself before pushing the door open.

“Arthur?”

Suddenly, Alfred was engulfed in a hug by the closest thing he’s had to a father since his parents’ death. He held on to Arthur for a moment longer before stepping back. “Oh, Alfred,” Arthur said, cupping Alfred’s face in his hands. “I’m so glad you’re alright.”

“I’m not that helpless, Artie,” Alfred said, chuckling. “You don’t have to worry so much.”

Arthur sighed and shook his head before he stepped away from the young prince. “I can’t help it,” he said. “You and Matthew may have both grown up now but you are still the same boys I helped raise. I will always worry.”

“Careful, old man,” Alfred teased. “That can’t be good for your health.”

Arthur crossed his arms over his chest and levelled a displeased stare at Alfred who simply smirked. “Good to see you you’re still the same, Alfred.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” Alfred said, running his fingers through his hair. The pendant around his neck felt heavy or perhaps, he was just thinking of when Arthur had given it to him as a gift, a helping hand to controlling Alfred’s stubborn magic. “A lot has happened.”

“Yes,” Arthur said, leaning back on his desk and pressing fingers on his temple. He looked tired and Alfred couldn’t help but think about what Arthur had said. Arthur had basically raised him and Matthew after their parents were killed. He’d always been there and Alfred had long ago stopped thinking of him as his mother’s cousin. Arthur was so much more and Alfred may have looked over that fact so many times before.

“What happened?” Alfred asked. “Why would they do this?”

“Why does anyone do anything?” Arthur blew out a breath, reaching out a hand to the empty air beside him. Alfred wondered if he was conversing with his spirits, what they had told Arthur and what Arthur thought about all the trouble that was happening. Arthur turned to Alfred with a weary smile. “A lot of the nobles don’t like the fact that you disappeared. They thought it showed a weakness in the royal family, that it left Matthew as the sole heir that they could simply and easily eliminate.”

“So it’s my fault.”

Arthur jerked and froze. He scowled at the wooden surface of his desk, clenching his hand into a fist over it. “It’s not your fault,” Arthur said. “There’s always unrest with Atlas’ nobility especially the minor houses. Power, Wealth, Territories. They’d fight over anything.”

“But they wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t leave,” Alfred pointed out.

Arthur shook his head. “They would have done it with any opportunity presented to them,” Arthur gripped the edge of his desk and stared at the prince. “The minor nobles have been in a disarray ever since the overhaul we’d had to do among the eight duchies.”

“The overhaul?”

“Ah, that’s right, you were too young,” Arthur straightened up and started rifling through the papers on his desk. When he couldn’t seem to find what he was looking for, he went through the bookcases behind the desk, hands touching the spines of the old books he kept there. He stopped and took one before bringing it over to Alfred. Arthur flipped over the pages before stopping and turning it to face Alfred. “The former territories.”

There was a map spread wide on the open pages, an old map of the territories of the Seven Major Noble Houses. It didn’t look the same as the map Alfred grew up knowing and learning. His forefinger stopped at a name that was at once familiar but did not belong in what Alfred had always known. “Braginsky.”

Arthur nodded. “The Braginsky family was once one of the strongest family. They kept the Northeastern territories in order.”

“But, Ivan’s family leads a barony not a duchy,” Alfred said. “I don’t understand.”

“They don’t usually talk about it in the courts but things changed and their power waned,” Arthur sighed. “Your father had to take their title from them because of Viktor Braginsky’s recklessness.”

“Ivan’s father?” Alfred asked, remembering an old story Ivan had told him.

“That’s right,” Arthur nodded.

“What does this have to do with anything?”

“The Braginsky Demotion showed that the none of the Ducal Families were infallible. The Kirkland vassals are mostly loyal and our territories are stable but the same cannot be said for the other Duchies. The Northeastern one, for example, has a lot of unrest. So do others.” Arthur shut the book and placed a hand over the cover. “This problem has long been expected.”

“You never told me about it,” Alfred said, leaning forward.

“I’m sorry, Alfred,” Arthur grimaced. “I thought I could resolve these things before I passed on the throne to you.”

Alfred nodded, biting his lip as he thought about things as they stood. “The ones who attacked us,” Alfred asked, clenching his knees with his hands. “Are they from the former Braginsky territory then?”

“Not all of them,” Arthur sighed. “We have allies, of course, but many of them had been uncertain about pledging their loyalty when we were uncertain about your whereabouts. They need a leader, Alfred. I know you value your freedom and I would not want you to give it up when you’re still so young but this kingdom needs a king. A hero, right?”

Alfred found himself smiling at that. “I’m not a hero,” he said with a sigh. Arthur was frowning but Alfred gave him a wide grin. “But I will fight for this country.”

“Perhaps, you have changed, lad.”

“For the better?”

“I hope so,” Arthur said with a nod. “Matthew is safe with Francis. The other Ducal families have been silent but they will march for you, Alfred. I am certain of it.”

“I hope you’re right,” Alfred said.

“Of course,” Arthur glanced at the door and smiled. “You got Ivan Braginsky to follow you.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I always thought he only accepted his job of protecting you for the money and to restore his family’s power,” Arthur said with a frown. He leaned back and shook his head. “He was my last choice but you’ve chased away everyone else. Still, he would not have turned down a position as a Royal Mage if he was only after prestige or money. He would not have gone after you. I assume that’s why you’re together?”

“It was mostly an accident that we ran into each other, really.”

Arthur cocked his head like he was listening to something or someone. Alfred imagined that he was listening to one of his spirits. “You underestimate the ties that bind people, Alfred,” he said. “It sometimes goes beyond accidents or coincidences.”

Alfred snorted. “Like fate?”

“You never know,” Arthur smirked as he stood up. He took up the book and placed it back in the shelf. “You should rest then we’ll have dinner together. Your guests are invited.”

“You didn’t cook, did you?”

“Please, Alfred,” Arthur paused by the doorway, looking over his shoulder at Alfred. “You’ve always finished what I cooked for you.”

Alfred shrugged. “Maybe I just thought it was rude not to.”

Arthur shook his head but there was a fond smile on his lips when they left the room.

-----

They left Alaska in the Kirkland estate with the promise that they’ll return. Alfred thought that she might cry before they left but she simply held their hands in hers, looking determined as she linked their pinkies together, securing the promise of their return. She didn’t cry but somehow, Alfred thought that it wasn’t a good thing to learn not to cry.

The journey to Atlas’ capital took them two days. Arthur often contacted their allies whenever they took a break, his eyes going blank even as Ivan and Alfred discussed plans and possible compromises with the traitors back home.

There was too much to think about and too little to do. Alfred knew he shouldn’t hope for a battle, that it was never a good thing to spill blood but a part of him was angry and terrified, and it was that part of him that wanted to rip apart the enemies who would dare to do this to his family.

He thought of the bandits and Alaska’s family. He thought of the fight and the warm, sticky blood on his hands when it was over. He thought of his first kill, a long time ago, an assassin sent after him and how he had puked afterwards.

He took a deep breath and thought of the heroes instead, of the king that he wanted to be. No, he decided, he was going to be that king no matter what.

They pulled up the reins on their horses at a hill overlooking the capital city. It was a veritable fortress and Alfred had always thought that if war ever happened, he would have to defend it. It was a strange feeling to think about ways to invade his own kingdom. The clearing that lay before them was filled with an encampment. Their allies, Alfred thought with a smile as he watched the fluttering banners erected in the encampment.

They led their horses towards the tents and Alfred felt the gazes that watch them as they go by. It made him want to hide, to turn around and leave. It made him want to be someone else. Then, he shook his head and straightened in his seat. He had already decided. He was going to be the king he wanted to be, the hero that people could trust.

He couldn’t just hide or run away.

They stopped by the largest tent in the encampment and Alfred grinned as Gilbert emerged from the command tent. The albino commander was decked out in light armor that was the color of snow with a dark cloak pinned over it. The contrast was striking especially when Alfred considered the other. No wonder a lot of people feared or respected Gilbert despite his young age. Alfred could imagine how vivid the red would look on Gilbert’s usually pristine white attire.

They dismounted and Alfred was engulfed in a hug by the duke’s son. Gilbert gave him a pat on the back and laid his arm around him. “You’re finally here,” Gilbert said, crowing with laughter and ruffling the prince’s blond hair. “It’s time to seize this country’s vital region and make it ours.”

Arthur scoffed. “It’s already rightfully Alfred’s.”

Gilbert stepped away from Alfred and regarded Arthur with quite the look. His red eyes made his gaze seem more threatening that it probably was and Alfred shivered as the military commander approached his guardian. “Oh, your highness, if only it was that easy,” he said, clicking his teeth with his tongue and shaking his head. “But, this is something that we need to win with iron, and blood, and faith.”

“Is it?”

Gilbert shrugged. “Our magic would be awesome against them too.”

“And where are your better halves?” Arthur asked the other with a twist of the mouth. “I imagine Lady Hedervary would be more than willing to lead her own troops.”

Gilbert grinned. “Oh, she is,” he said. “And she will be. This isn’t the city’s only gate. We don’t need to have all our best fighters concentrated in one area.”

“And what of negotiations?”

“What of it?”

Arthur sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose like he was warding off a headache. “Have you sent word to our enemies?”

“To talk? No,” Gilbert cackled. “I asked them to surrender.”

“That’s not what I asked you to do!” Arthur groaned and glanced at Alfred. “What do you think?”

Alfred blinked in surprise. “What? You’re asking me?”

“You’ll be king one day,” Arthur pointed out. “This is a decision you’ll always have to make.”

Alfred froze. He looked around the cluster of tents with uncertainty. He wasn’t yet experienced in war no matter how much he’s had to learn with Gilbert as his teacher. It wasn’t the same as what the older men knew of fighting. Even Ivan had some experience in his time as an adventurer. Alfred felt a bit limited but as he met Ivan’s eyes, he could see the encouragement in them. Iron, Blood, and Faith. Alfred smiled. That was what Gilbert had said and it looked like Ivan agreed.

But, Alfred didn’t want a fight that didn’t benefit anybody. He wanted to settle things in a decisive manner. He smiled as he thought of a story he’d told Alaska days ago.

“A duel,” Alfred muttered.

“What?”

“Why don’t we send them an invitation for a duel to settle this?” Alfred found himself smiling. Somehow, he could feel the energy thrumming inside of him. He wondered if it was his magic, struggling to break free of the limiter he wore or struggling to become something else. Alice seemed to think that there was more to Alfred’s magic than he thought. Still, it didn’t matter at the moment.

At the moment, Alfred was fixated on an idea and he has always, always been stubborn. “The path of least bloodshed without compromising anything to them,” he looked to Arthur who was staring at him dubiously.

“And who do you propose would fight this duel?”

For a moment, Alfred thought of Ivan. The mage adventurer was indeed already stepping forward and it would be so easy to appoint him as the crown prince’s champion. But, Alfred shook his head and stopped Ivan with a hand on his chest. “Me,” Alfred declared. He nodded assuredly and looked at Gilbert who seemed stunned at the sudden commanding tone in Alfred’s stance and voice. “Send them a message. Tell them the prince would face them in the battlefield and that he wasn’t going to show mercy.”

-----

Chapter Text

-----

Alfred paced the tent with his whole body tense about the upcoming duel. His hands shook and he took a deep breath before shoving them in his pockets to hide the trembling. It wouldn’t be good to appear. Heroes were never afraid even in the face of possible death. Alfred wasn’t about to be either.

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?”

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.”

“Aren’t you?”

“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.

-----

They were all gathered in outside the gates of the city. Four on their side and four from the other side. Ivan watched the nobles who had risen up against the royal family with suspicious eyes. He didn’t trust them not to try anything that would ensure their victory and survival. He certainly would have done so in their place.

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?”

“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!”

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.”

“And?”

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.”

“A bet!?”

“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.

-----

“It has been a year since we last watched the fireworks on your birthday, hasn’t it?”

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?”

“Huh?”

“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.”

“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.

-----

“Stop fretting, Alfred,” Ivan said as he hugged the prince from behind. Alfred was fussing with his hair in front of his mirror, trying to flatten that stubborn piece of hair. “It will not be as bad as you think.”

“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.”

“I 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.”

“I did.”

“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?”

“Nope.”

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.”

-----

Alaska whooped as she ran and tumbled towards the lake. Ivan chuckled and took Alfred’s hand in his as they walked. “She reminds me of a certain troublesome prince I had to babysit.”

“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.

“How?”

“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.

-----