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Don't Lose Your Head

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Ooh, I wanna dance and sing.
Politics? Not my thing.
Ooh, but then I met the king,
and soon my daddy said:
you should try and get ahead.

-Don't Lose Ur Head, Six the Musical

---

Roman del Rey prided himself on three things—his voice, his looks, and his ability to play nice.

The first two were natural gifts, sprinkled in with a dash of mischief and a sweep of ginger hair. The third was carefully honed over the years. He had fought for it, clawed for it, and bullied it into submission. But it was worth it, because Roman del Rey wouldn’t get anywhere if he couldn’t sit still and look pretty.

That wasn’t a problem when he was younger, full of mischief and boasting an unruly shock of red hair. He didn’t blend in, but he was a child, so people forgave him. He spent most of his time adventuring in the woods nearby, filling the spaces between trunks with destinies and swordfights and dragon witches. Life was simple. There were good things and bad things, and the good beat the bad in the end, and Roman could go home and eat supper with his mother and father and endless stacks of siblings and be content. He didn’t need to play nice. He just played.

His first gift, his voice, had been there since the beginning. He was a wonderful singer. He would sing songs he heard the bards sing in the courtyard, and sometimes he’d make up his own lyrics, making the songs about him instead. Roman was sure he’d be a hero. But if he wasn’t a hero, or if being a hero didn’t pay that well, he’d settle for a storyteller. He could sing epics, arias, anything at all. And people would look up at him and applaud.

Roman del Rey loved attention.

This would change with time. As would his dreams. As would everything else.

His second gift came when he turned fifteen.

At nine or ten, he was a child. At eleven or twelve, he still passed for a child. At thirteen or fourteen, he was growing up and sideways and around-ways and backwards, with his feet and legs and arms all seeming to be following different blueprints. For a bit, he couldn’t sing at all as his voice stretched languidly and settled into position.

But at fifteen, the last bits fell into place. Roman del Rey was beautiful.

The wild ginger hair he stole from his mother turned from kinks and curls to gentle waves. His freckles faded, splashing over his cheekbones. His nose arched gently and tucked itself behind his soft pink mouth. His eyebrows quirked down, his eyelashes quirked up, and the corner of his smile quirked sideways. His eyes, always a vivid snapping green, sparkled cheerfully when he said hello.

The first week after he turned fifteen, a girl from town gave him flowers and asked him whether he wanted to go dancing sometime. Flattered, he turned her down.

He turned down the next girl too, and the next. Politely, courteously, he waved them goodbye. It wasn’t playing nice at this point, it was being nice. Roman del Rey was genuinely nice. Some might say, too nice for his own good.

Eventually everyone caught on. Then he got boys at his door instead.

Roman grew older and only more beautiful. But around him, life began to lose its luster, as if Roman has stolen its sparkle.

At eighteen, he got his first proposal from a wealthy young man nearby. Roman thought about it, but he was only eighteen, and he was needed around the farm. Besides, he barely knew the guy. Politely, he turned the man down with a smile.

He got another proposal the next year, and two the following. Each time, he turned them down. His smile grew a little faker.

Roman grew more beautiful. And everything around him began to decay.

The leaves fell off the trees, and at age twenty, Roman del Rey lost his father.

Illness stole him in the night. Roman attended the funeral, and the next day, he left. The farm seemed too empty without his father and too poor without his father’s wages. He needed to earn money for his siblings or they would all crumble into the ground.

So he set sail and went straight to the city.

(Well, he went gayly to the city. Roman had never done a straight thing in his life.)

The city life was different. It was a patchwork of a place, people crammed into alleys and teetering in tall buildings, bartering and bantering and always looking to make a buck. Above it all loomed the castle of His Majesty the Royal King, Keeper of the People, etc, etc, etc. It was the perfect place for opportunity. It was the perfect place to start a new life and make some money for yourself. Maybe even make a name.

It was also the perfect place to get robbed blind and left for dead. Or to get conned out of your wages. Or to simply be pushed aside until you joined the old woman peddling for coins at the corner of Main Street.

The farm was tough, in its own way, but at least it was honest. The soil told you what it needed and what was happening. The plants never tried to be someone else.

The city was duplicitous, scheming, folding in on itself and striking when you let your guard down.

So Roman grew a tough skin and a tougher glare. He made his way into a three-room hut with five other people and pulled enough strings to get a spot. He slept on boards in the night and looked for work in the day.

Roman loved to dance and sing. He wanted to be a hero, or a painter, or a storyteller. But heroes didn’t exist anymore, and painters didn’t get famous, and storytellers didn’t get paid.

Eventually he looked himself in the mirror, at his ginger hair and green eyes, and asked himself who he was kidding. The only way he’d get anywhere was if he flaunted what he had.

There were two things someone could do with good looks. They could take up a more…unsavory profession and make good coin. Or they could find a rich partner and get hurled up in the world. Neither of the options were wonderful, but Roman del Rey was a man of honor, so he decided to choose the latter.

Getting wed seemed an awful chore, of course. And odds were he might get matched with a girl, or someone he didn’t care for, or someone who didn’t care for him. But he needed the money to send for his family. And it was the only way to be something more than a farmer’s son sleeping on cold floorboards.

When he was younger, he’d dreamed of getting married for love.

But he’d sacrificed so many dreams. What was one more?

After three years of avoiding it, Roman was going to get married.

A few whispers in the right ears, and soon everyone heard the news. Roman del Rey was officially on the market.

---

Who?

Came from out of town. Somewhere up near Bower’s Creek.

He asked me for a job one time. I turned him down.

Jobless? Who would marry someone unemployed?

Who would marry someone so uneducated?

Who does he think he is?

Ma’am, have you seen him? He’s gorgeous. And he knows it.

People don’t just marry for looks.

And what world have you been living in?

---

Then for the first time, life gave Roman a break. A blessing. Just a bit of hope.

It also gave him a death sentence, but we’ll get to that.

Roman wasn’t very informed about the kingdom. Politics, he’d be the first to say, was not his thing. But even he knew about the King and his husbands.

His Majesty the King, Lord of all the Lands, etc, etc, etc, was an absolute prick.

He was pushing forty—or, more likely, he’d forced a servant to push it for him. He resembled a turtle with its head stuck out of its shell, with his neck and wobbly chin balanced upon a rotund figure swathed in silks. His mouth was small and sharp and looked not unlike the Nutcrackers Roman remembered from Yuletide. His eyes were beady, watery, and full of malice.

It was quite a shame that King wasn’t an elected position, because if so, the King would have been voted out. Or, more likely, he wouldn’t have signed up for the post. He didn’t seem to like people very much at all, unless he could boss them around or chop their heads off. His foreign policy was negligible. Most kingdoms simply steered clear of his beet-red face and famous temper.

One might be quite surprised that there had been no pitchforks and torches at his castle door. But the King had his claws deep within the town. Too fragmented to muster up a real rebellion, citizens contented themselves with muttering ominously and hoping for his inevitable heart attack to come a little sooner. The man was a coronary disaster—and a disaster in every other sense of the word, said the people as quietly as possible. The King didn’t take kindly to nasty comments like that, and the wrong remark could land you on the chopping block in front of the whole town.

Roman never attended executions. He found them despicable.

And why does it matter that the kingdom had a rather evil king and a rather apathetic populace? Because of the King’s husbands. The Queens.

The first he’d married for almost ten years. Then, in a tragic accident, the Queen died. He’d been beloved by much of the kingdom and even the King himself. They said the King was never the same afterwards.

After a year, he remarried. This marriage lasted about six months before the new husband wrangled the King into a divorce. They parted on bad terms and the second Queen went to live in another kingdom.

The third Queen, he married after only three months. This one died too, but not by any sort of accident. High treason was the accusation. ‘He pissed the King off’ was what every citizen heard. Whatever really happened, the third Queen lost his head and once again, the King ruled alone.

It wasn’t proper for a King to be without a Queen. The King knew people would judge him if he ruled alone alongside an empty throne. (Why that was his biggest concern at the moment was beyond comprehension.) So he searched for a Queen. And Roman searched for a husband.

And to make a long, bureaucratic story short? The next year found Roman del Rey, age twenty-one, married to His Majesty the King, Savior of the Broken. Etc, etc, etc.

There were no illusions of it being a marriage of anything but convenience. Roman loathed the King and the King couldn’t care a whit about him. Roman needed money for his family. The King needed someone to serve tea at luncheons, look pretty in portraits, and maintain some illusion of a competent government.

Roman was good at maintaining illusions. He was good at looking pretty. He didn’t know how to serve tea, but he could learn.

Most of all, he could play nice. He could smile and wave to the people, smile and bow to the lords, and smile and nod as the King talked. He could smile until he felt everything within him dry up.

Those first few months were hard. Roman wasn’t used to being waited on. He wasn’t used to the perpetual attention. He wasn’t used to the King himself, a volatile man who would blow up at the first sign of treachery or sass. Roman soon learned that surviving the town may have been tough, but surviving the castle was another ordeal altogether.

One wrong word, one too-hasty smile, and Roman would end up on the chopping block.

So he sat still. He looked pretty. He played nice. He didn’t get involved, spoke only when spoken to, and served tea until he could do it with his eyes closed. He talked to the King about once a week. They slept in separate rooms. When out of public, they barely gave each other a glance. They were married in paperwork only, and Roman was a queen only in name.

Roman del Rey was twenty-one, married, and miserable.

And he would have stayed that way if it wasn’t for a guard, a kitchen worker, and a librarian’s assistant.

Virgil Storm was one of his personal guards. He’d hated the guy at first, sure he was spying on him and reporting to the King. Then Virgil had caught him crying after a particularly awful day. And instead of making fun of him, telling him to stop, or even leaving him be—Virgil sat down next to him, put an arm around his shoulders, and let him cry.

After that, they didn’t really have a choice but to be friends.

Virgil was snarky and sarcastic and loads of fun. He was also super protective of Roman, partly because of his job as a guard, partly because of his nature. Virgil acted like a human shield, viciously defending anyone who came near Roman.

Of course, he couldn’t protect Roman from everything. He had a job, after all. And Roman understood that—he was married for money and fear as well. So some nights still left Roman in tears. As he adjusted to life in the castle, those nights were fewer and farther between. Still, sometimes it was too much. And Virgil would be there, listening to Roman sob, promising things would be okay.

“Chin up, Ro,” he’d say in his gravelly voice, a sympathetic smirk on his face. “It won’t be like this forever. Soon the guy’ll kick the bucket and you’ll have the run of the place. And then you can promote me to guard captain.”

“You wish,” Roman would fire back, wiping his eyes.

“You know you love me.”

And Roman did. Virgil was the best friend he’d ever had. Roman didn’t see what he’d done to deserve him.

Through Virgil, Roman met Patton Heath, and then he met Logan Abbott, and things began to change even more.

Patton worked in the kitchens. He’d always wanted to be a baker, but things hadn’t worked out how he’d planned. Nobody would catch Patton complaining about it, though. He bore his fortune with a huge smile and goodwill towards everyone he met. Him and Roman got along right away, even though Roman felt his fake happiness paled in comparison with Patton’s true joy. Virgil had introduced the two—Virgil and Patton were childhood friends and closer than the feathers on a chicken’s back. Soon their friend group was the three of them, Virgil and Roman amicably sniping at each other and Patton playing mediator. Neither seemed to care that Roman was the Queen. And Roman found himself lowering his guard around them, just a bit.

Then came Logan Abbott.

Roman del Rey absolutely hated Logan Abbott.

Logan was everything Roman was not. Calm. Orderly. Logical. Rational. A firm believer in philosophical debate and the avoidance of ‘frivolous’ pursuits. He’d been the librarian’s assistant as long as anyone could remember—some theorized he’d sprung, fully formed, out of a dictionary and taken up residence among the shelves. Although a slender young man, he didn’t need physical strength to establish himself as a force to be reckoned with. His sharp tongue and quick wit could cut deeper than any rapier. Some servants shuddered when they spotted him, blue eyes gleaming behind black-rimmed glasses, boasting close-cropped dark hair and coffee-colored skin, his nose always three inches from a book.

Logan was also friends with Patton. This wasn’t a special distinction—everyone was friends with Patton. But somehow, the closed-off nerd and the buoyant baker hit it off. And Patton dragged Logan into the friend group, kicking and screaming.

Virgil and Logan got along right away. They were both quiet, nerdy, and too sarcastic for their own good.

Roman met Logan and immediately knew—this would be his nemesis for life.

They fought over everything. Trivial things: Favorite books. Favorite songs. Favorite seasons. Ideas: pros and cons of the monarchy. Whether trickle-down economics was sustainable. The perils of the aristocracy. Beliefs: optimism and pessimism, dreams and reality, stories and nonfiction.

Every day, they would find something to fight about. Even if they both agreed on a subject, they would discuss it until they found a point they disagreed on, and then double down on that point until they were yelling and Patton was saying “Why don’t we calm down, kiddos?” and Virgil was sighing in exasperation.

Roman loved to make Logan angry. He considered it a source of personal pride that he could break Logan’s stern, no-nonsense façade and get the guy to show some emotion.

And between you and me, Logan felt much the same. Roman had a façade of his own—a perfect, glittering smile. Getting him passionate was the closest Logan ever got to seeing the real Roman. The Roman who cried into Virgil’s shoulder at night. The Roman who smashed half the teacups in the castle when the King wasn’t looking. The Roman who wasn’t Queen Roman del Rey but was just…Roman, a farmer’s son.

The two were more alike than they realized, which only made their arguments more intense. They were too different to be friends and too alike to be friends. They might have made a good team, but arguing was too much fun to stop.

So that was how it was. Roman, Virgil, Patton, Logan. They’d meet up every afternoon in the wine cellar or the kitchen cupboard or Roman’s dressing room. After many complaints from Virgil and Patton, Roman kept the arguing to a minimum. Instead, Logan would come over to Roman’s private room every night, and they would argue until the stars lightened in the sky. Nobody could hear them, nobody could stop them, and they were free to hate each other to their heart’s content.

Roman del Rey was twenty-two, with two friends, an enemy, and a husband he barely knew. Life wasn’t perfect, but it was sustainable. And he almost began to hope—if things stayed this way, for just a few more years, the King might pass away. It could all be over if he just kept his head down, played nice, and waited.

But one night, Roman made a mistake, and it would cost him everything.

The night began, as most nights do, after the sun went down.

---

Stars lit up the sky, hanging in dewy constellations over the velvety hills. Three miles away, a woman tossed a pail of water onto a fire. Twelve miles away, a cow broke free of its pen and headed for the woods. Twenty-seven miles away, a large family of redheads pored over the latest letter from their brother, scrawled on fine parchment and mailed by a stonefaced royal officer. The ruby-red seal on the letter was already broken. There were only so many things he was allowed to say.

And almost a hundred miles away, an ex-Queen sat on his throne.

But Roman was unaware of all this. He only knew the stars, and the candles lighting up his bedchamber, and Logan Abbott, sprawled on the floor next to him, reading a book.

Roman was supposed to be reading, too. In absence of a good subject to argue about, Logan had given him assigned reading (assigned reading! The nerve! Roman would absolutely have started an argument about that, but the book did look good, and it wasn’t as if he had anything else to do) but he had quickly become bored and restless. He glanced over at Logan, whose face was screwed up in concentration. There was the cutest little wrinkle just above his nose.

But he could not appreciate it! For he was bound to this tome, forced into reading this monster of a novel, chained and shackled to the pages.

Roman sighed loudly and dramatically.

Logan turned a page.

Roman sighed even louder.

Logan’s eyes narrowed slightly. “What.”

“I’m bored.”

“Do you not have a book to read? I seem to recall--”

“It’s a boring book, Specs.” Roman rolled over on the carpet, staring at the vaulted ceiling. “It’s full of words.

“Yes, books generally have those.”

Roman whined. “I don’t wanna read it!”

Logan raised an eyebrow, still reading. “Was I mistaken in believing that you did, in fact, agree to this activity when I suggested it?”

“Well, yeah, but…” Roman rolled back over, pressing his face to the carpet and filling his eyes with misery. “I like the arguing-with-you part. Not the reading part.”

Logan made a noncommittal noise in his throat, but Roman could see his determination wavering. The pouty-face. It never failed.

“Please?” Roman asked, batting his eyelashes. “Can we stop reading and talk? I only get night with you and I don’t want to waste it reading when we could be yelling at each other.”

Logan held out for a few seconds longer. Finally, he sighed even louder than Roman. “If you must.”

Roman cheered as Logan closed his book, setting it aside delicately and steepling his fingers. They were long and thin, artists’ fingers, Roman noticed. He wondered if Logan had ever played the harpsichord.
“Well?” Logan prompted, and Roman realized he’d been staring. He couldn’t help it! Logan’s skin glowed in the candlelight like molten gold, and his glasses sat crookedly on his nose. He swept back a bit of hair and Roman wished he could tame the small cowlick he spotted above Logan’s ear.

Logan was absolutely infuriating sometimes. Someone so evil and cruel should look the part. Why did he have to look…nice?

There was truly no justice in the world.

“Well what?” Roman asked, quickly avoiding Logan’s gaze. His eyes fell to Logan’s lips. Nope, not safe either. He tried a few more spots before settling on Logan’s left shoulder. There wasn’t anything particularly special or annoying about Logan’s shoulder, was there?

“Well, what shall we talk about?” A hint of amusement colored Logan’s voice, something only those closest to him could distinguish. “Roman, don’t tell me you didn’t think this through.”

“I did!” Roman pushed himself up on his elbows, glaring at Logan. “We can talk about…um…”

Logan huffed, his infinitesimal smile growing wider. “Just what I expected.”

“Shut up.” Roman shoved Logan lightly. “If you’re so smart, you find a conversation topic.”

“Fine.” Logan stared at the window over Roman’s bed. Roman hated his bed. It was too soft and comfortable for sleeping, and the canopy above it made him feel trapped. For a while, he’d tossed the blankets on the floor and slept on those instead. After a few snippy comments from the King, who’d found out from one of the many servants, Roman forced himself to sleep in the bed. It never felt right, but he covered up his dark circles with makeup and played nice.

Roman shook himself. Now wasn’t the time for that. Not with Logan here.

“I’m waiting,” Roman teased, scooting closer to Logan and jostling his shoulder. Logan sent him an exasperated look, taking off his glasses and rubbing his eyes. The nerd looked tired, and Roman felt a flash of pain. Had he been overworked? Had something happened?

“Are you alright?” Roman asked before he could stop himself.

Logan almost dropped his glasses. “What?”

“I dunno.” Roman shifted, looking away. “Just…you seem tired, is all.”

“Hmm.” Logan shrugged. “It was a long day. Lots of shelving books.” He extended his hand, which was covered with red marks. “So many paper cuts.”

“Oh, the humanity!” Roman threw a fist in the air. “Those dastardly books shall not get away with these villainous deeds! They will answer to my wrath!”

Logan watched him, an amused smile playing around his lips. Yes. Good. Make him laugh.

“You know,” Logan said, “you’ll just get a bunch of paper-cuts as well if you try to slice them with your sword.”

“Who said I would attack them with my sword?”

“Please.” Logan motioned to Roman’s sword, tossed on the carpet near his hand. “It’s the only form of combat you’re good at.”

Roman smirked. “I fancy myself rather good at verbal sparring. If I was less adept with my speech, you’d have won every argument we have.”

“I still do.”

“Heresy!”

Logan tilted his head slightly, as if thinking something through. “Roman?”

“Yes?”

“…How was your day?”

Roman stared at Logan. “Seriously?”

“You asked me first,” Logan pointed out, looking awkward. “It seemed only fair to reciprocate the question.”

“Huh.” Roman couldn’t stop a small, genuine smile. “Thanks, Specs.”

“It…it was no problem.”

“Thanks,” Roman repeated. “My day was horrible, but thanks.”

“Oh.” Logan’s eyebrows wrinkled with concern. “Do you…want to talk about it?”

Roman rolled over, spread-eagled on the carpet, staring once again at the ceiling. He was wearing the simplest pajamas he’d been offered, but they were still worth more than his family’s yearly wages. The light silk whisked over his skin.

“Not much to talk about,” Roman said. “Some days are like that.”

Logan carefully lay down next to Roman. “What makes them so terrible? From what I can see, your life is…adequate.”

Roman snorted. “Yeah, in some ways, I lucked out.”

“In others?”

Roman sighed, tugging his fingers through his hair. “I wish I’d sucked it up and stayed a farmer.”

Logan raised an eyebrow. “You grew up on a farm?”

“Yeah.”

“I thought…well, I thought you were of high status before this. I didn’t expect the King to marry a commoner.”

“Me neither,” Roman admitted. “He tries to cover it up as much as possible. I think he’s ashamed of it.”

“Then why did he marry you?” Logan asked. “If you’re comfortable with saying.”

“’Cause I’m pretty.” Roman almost spat the words. “And ‘cause I shut up and do what I’m told.”

“You don’t like him.” It wasn’t a question.

“I despise him,” Roman said coldly. “And I’m sure he knows, and I’m sure he feels the same way towards me. But he hasn’t found a good excuse to divorce me or kill me yet, so there’s that.”

Logan didn’t respond. Maybe he couldn’t think of what to say. They usually argued over books and philosophy, not complained about marriage. Had Roman made Logan uncomfortable? He totally made him uncomfortable! Logan just wanted a quick-and-easy answer and Roman pulled out all the stops! Why did he have to be so dramatic and stupid?

Roman pushed himself off the carpet, slapping a smile on his face. “But I get it! I agreed to this, and you reap what you sow. Besides,” he added, his smile souring, “I haven’t got much else going for me, y’know? This is the best I’ll get.”

“Hey.” Logan’s voice was soft and firm. “Roman, look at me.”

Roman did. Logan was seated across from him, legs curled criss-cross-applesauce. He was wearing his usual tie and dark overshirt, but his jacket had been cast aside early on. His usual glasses were lying next to him as well. He probably couldn’t see a thing, but his eyes looked their usual sharp selves. Blue and icy, glittering in the candlelight. His whole face looked different without those glasses. Roman could pick out his sharp cheekbones, the slight depression around his eyes, the crook of his chin and a little wrinkle on his forehead between his dark eyebrows. His mouth was slightly open, his eyes widened, an expression of such concern and compassion that Roman almost melted. What had he done to make Logan look like that?

Beautiful, he thought, before he could stop himself.

No—no, not supposed to think that. He was married, if only in name. And Logan was off-limits. Way out of his league. Not status-wise, Roman could care less about that. But he was too smart, too controlled, too beautiful. Roman couldn’t compare to Logan Abbott.

Roman shook himself. Usually he was better at avoiding this train of thought. But he was exhausted, and the candlelight flickered over Logan’s face, and his teeth chewed on his lip as he debated what to say next, and Roman had always been weak.

“Roman,” Logan repeated. “You’re—I mean, you’re—”

“I’m what?” Roman teased, scooting closer and trying to hide the butterflies hatching in his stomach. “Finish your sentences, Teach.”

Logan rolled his eyes. “I’m trying to complement you and you’re being irritating.”

“Complement me?” Roman batted his eyes. “Oh, do you think I’m the finest man who ever walked the earth? That I make angels sing when I speak? That my voice is like Orpheus’, commanding the rocks to cry?”

Logan snickered. “You’re definitely the most egotistical man who ever walked the earth.”

“I thought you said you were trying to complement me!”

“Be quiet,” Logan ordered. “I’m gathering my thoughts.”

Roman obediently zipped his lips. At this point, if Logan asked him to jump, he’d say ‘how high?’

“You’re…you’re the only person who’s never found me irritating,” Logan finally said.

“What are you talking about? We’ve hated each other for months.”

Logan waved his hand. “Yes, but…you kept talking to me. You never just shunned me altogether. You never said I was bad at feelings or stupid or a robot or anything like that, which many other people have. And I believe we’re friends now. Unless I’ve entirely misread the situation, we’re friends. Besides Virgil and Patton, I’ve…I haven’t really had a friend before.”

Roman made a little pained noise. Logan rolled his eyes. “Don’t look at me like that. Patton and Virgil are wonderful. Three friends is more than enough for me.”

“You’re not a robot,” Roman said.

“I know.” Logan smiled, just a bit. “And you’re not just pretty. You’re smart, and funny, and so kind, and…and wonderful. You make me…better.”

Roman’s eyes burned. He felt something growing inside of him, joy and fear and pride and love. So much love. For this nerd who he fought with daily, who he’d always believed saw Roman as an annoyance, but who thought he was wonderful.

Roman could sing.

And Logan must have seen his thoughts in his face, because he flushed slightly and glanced away, fidgeting with his tie.

“Thank you,” Roman said. It felt inadequate to what he’d been given.

“You’re welcome,” Logan said quietly. “It was no trouble. And, Roman?”

“Yes?”

Logan looked back up at him. “If the King hurts you…he will get the worst of paper cuts. And I will hide all of his favorite books in the wrong section of the library so he can’t find them. And then I will kill him.”

Roman laughed softly. “Glad you’re on my side, Specs.”

Logan looked pleased with himself. “Thank you.”

“No, seriously.” Roman was inches from Logan now. “You’re really…cool. And I’m lucky to have you.”

Logan had to be blushing. He opened his mouth slightly, making a little noise of confusion and—not just confusion, there was something else there, there was only a small space between them and Roman could feel his heart exploding in his chest—

For one whole year he’d played nice and faked a smile and ignored what he wanted so his family could be supported and the kingdom could be happy. For one whole year he’d fought with Logan and convinced himself they could never be more than comfortable enemies. For one whole year he’d pushed down the anger and the sadness and the love and everything he wasn’t supposed to have.

And Logan was right here, gleaming in the candlelight, finally at a loss for words.

Roman del Rey knew exactly what he wanted.

He was already less than an inch from Logan’s face. Without realizing it, he’d leaned closer. He could see every fleck in Logan’s eyes, the curve of his nose and the dip above his lips. Logan wasn’t pulling away, his mouth still hanging open.

Roman caught it with his own.

The kiss was about a few seconds long, simultaneously too long and far too short. Roman felt heat swim under his skin and knew another moment of connection would burn him up. Logan was so soft, though, and though it was a peck with Logan barely kissing back, Roman knew there was so much more under the surface. It was simple, sweet, affectionate—but with longing coiled deep within.

Roman pulled away, opening his eyes slightly (when had he closed them? He didn’t remember) to look at Logan’s face. Logan was still frozen, mouth still open, cheeks flushed brilliantly. A moment passed and Logan still didn’t speak.

“Was that okay?” Roman asked quietly. “I’m so sorry, I thought—I don’t know, I’m sorry, I—”

Logan licked his lips. “It’s fine, I—”

“I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, did I ruin everything, oh god I ruined everything—”

“Roman.”

Roman stopped talking.

Because Logan’s voice was low and breathless and did absolutely sinful things to Roman. Because he was still only an inch away and Roman could feel his breath and his hand was curling into Roman’s oh my gosh-peck yes--

“Roman,” Logan repeated. It was almost a groan, saying everything Logan couldn’t. Asking.

And after that, what could Roman do but kiss him?

This time, Logan kissed back. He tangled his fingers in Roman’s hair and they kissed like their life depended on it. They kissed like they fought—giving and taking and darting around each other, intense and passionate and never surrendering. Roman scraped his teeth along Logan’s bottom lip and Logan arched his back, grabbing at Roman’s shirt. Logan tugged at Roman’s hair and Roman whined automatically. Logan’s hands slipped under Roman’s shirt, pressing at Roman’s shoulder bones, tracing his ribs, scratching his sides. One of them would take control, pressing the other down, and then it flipped, Roman getting the upper hand or Logan sucking at Roman’s neck and making him almost collapse. They ended up on the ground, Logan under Roman, pressing every inch of their bodies together. As if they could fuse, become one, catch fire like a match struck against the wall.

What had Roman been doing all his life? Why had he kissed anyone else, talked to anyone else, when this was here waiting for him?

Logan Abbott. Logan Abbott, Logan Abbott, holy hell, Logan Abbott.

Then something shifted. It could have been Logan accidentally banging his elbow on the ground, or Roman’s pajamas slipping from his shoulder, or simply something in the air that changed. And Roman remembered where he was and who he was and all the reasons he shouldn’t be doing this.

Logan seemed to remember too, if the way his eyes flew open was any indication. Roman quickly rolled off Logan, who sat up, reaching for his glasses.

“I’m so sorry,” Roman said again. Except he wasn’t, not really.

“It’s fine,” Logan said, adjusting his tie.

“Yeah.”

“Uh-huh.”

Things were suddenly very awkward. Roman pointedly stared at his feet as Logan tugged his shirt into position, afraid that if he looked at Logan again he’d lose the semblance of self-control he’d found.

“I…” Logan looked around. “I should go.”

“Yeah.”

Logan glanced at Roman, and looked away. “I’m…I’m sorry, too. This was a mistake, and it was irrational, and I apologize.”

Roman clenched his fist, trying not to cry. This was a mistake.

It was. Of course it was. But Logan didn’t have to say it so callously. Like it didn’t matter at all. Like he hadn’t kissed back.

“I’m sorry I dragged you into this,” Roman said. “It wasn’t fair to you.”

“It’s okay.” Logan walked toward the door. “I’ll…I’ll be going now.”

Roman watched Logan pull open the door. “Don’t—don’t tell anyone,” he blurted out. “Please. If anyone found out, I—we—”

“I know.” Logan paused, sighing. “I know.”

“I’m so sorry,” Roman said again, his voice breaking.

Logan smiled, just barely. “I forgive you.”

The door closed behind him, and Roman was alone in his room. A room he never wanted, filled with luxuries he didn’t deserve, in the castle of the man he hated. The man who gave him everything and gave him nothing at the same time.

Quietly, so not to wake the guards, Roman del Rey cried.

Downstairs, surrounded by books, a librarian’s assistant did the same.

Chapter Text

There's no way.
You must agree that baby in all the time I been by your side,
I've never lost control no matter how many times I knew you lied.
Have my golden rule,
Gotta keep my cool, yeah, baby.

-No Way, Six the Musical

---

Roman del Rey was awakened at the crack of dawn by the songs of birds outside his window.

This sounds, in theory, like a pleasant way to wake up. However, the emphasis must be placed on the crack of dawn. Roman had been up late the previous night, like usual, and he was always exhausted in the morning. This morning, for whatever reason, he felt even more tired than normal. Every inch of his body seemed to ache, and his eyes were red and itchy.

The birds outside his window squawked louder. Roman put a pillow over his head, one of the many that littered his bed. It barely muffled the sound.

“Be quiet!” he ordered them sleepily.

The birds did not seem perturbed by this order. Ignoring their obligation to obey royalty at all times, like a good citizen, the birds just squawked louder.

“I…I know I’m the Queen. This is what birds do to Queens. But you can’t—you can’t squawk right now.”

One bird hit a particularly high note, as if to say, ‘Sucks for you, pal. Get your butt out of bed.’

Roman groaned into his pillow and reluctantly tossed himself out of bed. He landed in a heap on the floor, rubbing his eyes and yawning. He longed for the sweet warmth of his bed already, but it was too late—he was awake. And life when he was awake wasn’t sweet or warm.

At least nobody was calling on him yet. Roman got up and stretched, working out the kinks in his back. Good posture was integral to being a Queen. He felt a few bubbles pop in his neck and sighed, running his fingers through his hair. It was an absolute mess of curls at the moment, but in an hour or so the servants would arrive and work it into a part. Roman wondered idly what he’d end up wearing today—there was a luncheon with a prominent member of the House of Something-or-other. Was that it? He hoped that was it. Luncheons were dreary, even more so when you weren’t permitted to speak.

A luncheon, then. That meant a simpler dress, which Roman was glad of. He liked dresses well enough, but for parties or portraits he was often forced into the most ridiculously lavish things. If there were more than three layers of bustles, frills, or slips, then it was too much dress for any human to be physically capable of wearing.

Roman scrubbed at a spot under his nose. An hour until the servants came. He couldn’t leave his room, of course, but he could still do almost whatever he wanted. Maybe read a book or two? Logan was always saying he should read more—

Logan.

The events of the previous night came rushing back. Roman grabbed a nearby cabinet to keep from falling over. Had he really—it had to have been a dream. It had to be a dream. Roman looked at himself in the mirror, eyes baggy and face drooping with exhaustion. Not exactly a pretty sight, but he wasn’t about to chastise himself.

He was looking for—

There.

Roman rubbed his finger over a red mark on his collarbone. Exactly where he remembered it.

So it really had happened.

He’d kissed Logan Abbott.

No, not kissed. He’d passionately made out with Logan Abbott, a librarian’s assistant and someone he wasn’t married to. Someone he’d hated for a year—but if he’d kissed Logan, it probably hadn’t been hatred all this time, had it?

And Logan had kissed back, too. At least, until he didn’t.

Roman bit his lip, trying not to remember Logan’s face as he shut the door.

He understood why Logan did it. He understood they couldn’t, in any possible universe, be together. He understood that, he did.

 

So why did he feel like absolute dirt?

Roman rubbed his face. Enough thinking about it. He’d done his crying last night. Now he had to cover up that mark—and the others, he saw as he looked closer—and move on with his life.

So Roman sighed, opening his drawer and getting started. After the successful covering of every mark, he scrubbed at his face, brushed his hair, and changed out of his pajamas. A futile act, because in about half an hour, he’d get a slew of servants knocking at his door and doing the exact same things. But he liked to look presentable for the servants…and for another guest who usually arrived, hmm, right about—

Three knocks on the door, hesitant but sharp.

Roman’s mouth lifted in a smile. “Come on in.”

The door creaked open, and Roman’s smile met another smirk, smaller but no less friendly. “Hey, Ro.”

“Hey, Virge.”

Virgil Storm gave Roman a two-fingered salute, his armor clanking as he dropped to the floor, leaning against Roman’s bed. He sighed happily. “Yes. Sitting down. Good.”

Roman looked Virgil over. His hair was mussed and the perpetual bags under his eyes seemed even more pronounced. “Long night, Dark and Stormy?”

“You wouldn’t believe.” Virgil rubbed his eyes, unlatching some of his armor and tossing it on the floor. “I’ve been standing in front of your door all night, Princey.”

Roman kind of hated that nickname. It used to be a jab at his prince-like demeanor, said with a curled lip and an eyeroll. Then again, the way Virgil said it now, it was a friendly nickname of the sort Roman didn’t usually have. Logan had pointed out that the correct nickname, based off Roman’s status, would be “Queeney.” Virgil laughed for almost a whole minute, and only Patton’s intervention stopped Virgil from changing the nickname then and there. Logan had actually called him “Queeney” the next day during an argument, and even Roman couldn’t hold it together after that.

Something stabbed into Roman’s stomach. Nope. No thinking about Logan. No thinking about all the time he’d spent dreaming up nicknames to tease him with, all the little smiles he tried to hide behind his hand, all the tangents and rants Logan went on because he knew everything and wanted the world to hear it—

And that counted as thinking about Logan. Roman shook himself, sitting next to Virgil and trying to focus on his best friend instead of his best enemy.

“You didn’t have a break?” Roman asked. “Don’t you usually switch shifts around ten?”

Virgil pushed his hair out of his eyes. “Valerie’s sick. And the King wants two guards at your door at all times, plus another one down the hallway, so here I am. I heard he tried to make it three guards at your door and one inside your room--”

“Okay, if he tries to pull that, I’m out—”

“—but we don’t have the men, so you’re safe.” Virgil gave Roman a lopsided smile. “For now. You still might get an extra guard at your door in the near future.”

Roman stuck his hands behind his head. “Isn’t that overkill? What does he think I’ll do, escape through the window? Stab him during his afternoon nap? If I wanted to cause trouble, I’d have done it by now.”

“He’s not worried for himself,” Virgil explained. “He’s—”

Roman waited. Virgil was biting his lip and staring at the carpet. He didn’t finish the sentence.

“Yeah?” Roman asked.

Virgil gave a heavy sigh. “I’m not supposed to tell you that, Roman.”

“All the more reason why you should.” Roman batted his eyes, smiling. “C’mon. I’m irresistible. You know you want to let me know.” Roman leaned closer to Virgil, throwing an arm around him. “What are friends for?”

Virgil smacked Roman’s arm off his shoulders. “You’re not just my friend, idiot. You’re also my boss’s husband and the second-most-powerful person in the kingdom.”

Roman snorted at that. “I’ve seen rats with more governmental authority than me.”

Virgil smirked. “Well, rats have interesting things to say.”

“You take that back!”

Virgil snickered, scooting away from Roman and holding up a hand. “Don’t threaten me, Princey. I’m trained to fight with seven different weapons and on ten different terrains.”

“Just tell me,” Roman insisted, hoping to catch Virgil off guard with the sudden conversation switch. “Why does the His Majesty the King, Royal Buttface, etc etc, want me guarded?”

Virgil fidgeted with his armor. On his shoulder was the royal crest, shining against the dark surface. Two swords and a lion, outlined in red and gold. “Don’t tell anyone, okay?”

Don’t—don’t tell anyone. Please. If anyone found out, I—we—

Roman swallowed down the bile in his throat. “Cross my heart and hope to be brutally assassinated.”

“Jeez, Princey.” Virgil’s quick smile faded as soon as it formed. “I guess it’s simple. The King…whether reasonably or not, I dunno…thinks there’s a spy. In the castle.”

“A spy?” Roman repeated. “For who?”

“Who knows. We weren’t told anything else, just that there was ‘reason to believe’ someone might be trying to ‘undermine his authority’ or whatever. And that we had to turn anyone in who was plotting treason, blah blah blah. I mean, he gets paranoid about assassination plots every Tuesday, so this is nothing new. But usually he calms down after a couple hours. He’s been ranting about this for days.”

“Huh.” Roman ran his fingers over his sleeve. “But if there was an assassination…”

Virgil raised an eyebrow. “Don’t tell me you’re thinking about murder, now. What would your mother think, Princey?”

Roman laughed. “Of course I’m not going to murder anyone.”

“I know,” Virgil teased. “You’re too much of a softy.”

“I—” Roman spluttered. “I am not a softy!”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night.” Virgil stood up. “I’ve got to get back on the job now. Terrance covers for me, but I should still at least appear to be doing my job.”

Roman grinned, tossing his arm over the bed. “What, my company isn’t good enough?”

“My job is a bit more compelling.”

“Rude.”

Virgil walked to the door, clanking slightly. How he was expected to be sneaky and lithe in that armor, Roman couldn’t understand. Then he paused. “Hey, Ro?”

“Yeah?”

“Um…well…” Virgil rubbed at his arm, avoiding eye contact. “I noticed…um…Logan left last night, and…”

Roman swore he could feel every vein and capillary in his body turn to ice.

“He looked…upset. He didn’t really talk to me when I said hello. Did…did you guys fight?”

Internally, Roman breathed a sigh of relief. Externally, he plastered on a smile. “Nothing you need to worry about, Stormcloud! We just had a little disagreement. You know how these things are. I’m sure we’ll be right as rain by tonight.”

Virgil gave Roman a skeptical look. “If you need, I can get Patton to play mediator—”

“Not necessary,” Roman said, smiling wider. "We’ve always made it through on our own. It wasn’t a big deal.”

“What was it about?” Virgil’s suspicion seemed to be fading, replaced by curiosity. “Your argument.”

Roman waved a hand. “Oh, this and that. I’ll never understand some of the things he likes.” He cast around for something mean to say about Logan. “Snotty frustrating know-it-all. Thinks he’s better than everyone else because he’s read more giant books.”

Yikes. Sorry, Logan.

Virgil snorted. “All right then. I’ll see you later.”

“See you soon!” Roman smiled. “Usual place? Four or so?”

“I’ll be there.”

The door neatly clicked behind Virgil. Roman ran his hands through his hair, standing up.

How did Virgil make him feel better and worse at the same time?

---

Roman’s littlest sister loved dolls. She’d make them out of cornhusks and potato sacks, tying their bodices and cutting their coats. Their father built her a dollhouse out of old planks, and she’d spend every afternoon playing dress-up and house and witch attack (the last was her favorite, involving a witch who cursed the family and usually a couple dragons, too.) For her birthday, Roman and his siblings had saved up and bought her a china doll with a long lacy dress. The dress was pink and fluffy with little nips and tucks around the waste. It carried a parasol, dark hair tied in a perfect braided knot, and the face painted with blue eyes and ruby-red lips. It was beautiful, but his sister soon found out that it would chip when played with. So it simply sat on the windowsill, a luxury everyone was afraid to touch, a china beauty with a frozen red smile.

That’s how Roman felt right now. Frozen, silent, beautiful, and one wrong move away from shattering to pieces.

He was stationed between the second-eldest son of a nobleman and the young wife of a different nobleman and across from a less-important nobleman. He didn’t remember any of their names, but addressing them as ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ would do well enough. At the other end of the long table, heaped with glazed hams and plump fruits and delicious loaves of bread, the King spoke with several very-important-indeed noblemen. Roman was thankful he didn’t have to sit up there, but it also stung to be deposited in the middle like a lost package.

The young wife of the different nobleman was talking his ear off about her new garden. Roman actually knew a bit about gardening, but on the farm, he’d only grown vegetables and fruits. The woman—what was her name? Something long and complicated, probably, like Anastasia or Etheldredda—was listing off fancy artisanal flowers. Thankfully, she didn’t seem to require his participation in the conversation. Her occasional “isn’t that right, hmm?” could be answered by a quick nod and a smile.

“…and I said, you can do that if you’d like, but I really think the zinnias would clash with the peonies! You want the textures to work together or it just looks like a hodgepodge. My good friend Katerina—you know her, Katerina Woodlawn, married to Janice Livingston, son of Mr. Livingston the mortician? Fine fellow, pity about the radishes…anyway, Katerina swears by honeysuckle, but I say, I say, I like to have a bit more in my yard than honeysuckle, it’s such a creeping vine, absolutely strangled my forsythia last year! And if one has some lilies and pea plants you can really get the same climbing effect without compromising anything else, isn’t that right, hmm?”

Roman blinked in surprise. “Oh, yeah, of course,” he hastily agreed.

“Right! That’s what I said. So anyway, we’re worried about the tulips…”

Roman held in a very audible sigh, carefully lifting his teacup and taking a sip. Patton always put a little extra sugar at the bottom of Roman’s cup so the tea was sweeter when poured. Roman smiled a bit as the sugar hit his tongue. Patton was the greatest.

“…and I think we shouldn’t be making charitable donations to the homeless if they’re just going to squander them! I am a self-made young woman and I got here through good honest hard work! They’ll just have to try harder, isn’t that right, hmm?”

Roman nearly choked on his tea. How had they gotten to this conversation? He’d only tuned out for a few seconds—did discussions of hyacinths naturally lead to discussions of the lower class?

The woman waited patiently as Roman swallowed a sip of tea, then another and another. Finally he could put it off no longer. Placing his cup on his saucer, he nodded and said, “It’s a complicated issue.”

Which was code for I don’t agree with you in the slightest, but if I make a scene my head will absolutely roll, so say what you want.

“Well, of course, I’m not saying it isn’t!” Thankfully, the woman didn’t seem too offended. “I’m just saying that…”

And Roman tuned her out again. He sliced off a bit of beef, but found he wasn’t very hungry. The richness of the food still filled him up easily. He was used to much smaller meals at home. Their dining room was half the length of this table, and the room stretched on beyond that, tapestries covering the walls and chandeliers bedazzling the ceiling. Roman adjusted the sleeve of his dress, which he’d carefully arranged over the velvet chairs, and glanced down the table at the rows of noblemen, noblewomen, and noblepersons. A few met his eyes and inclined their heads. He raised the rim of his cup at them in response.

The grandfather clock in the corner, next to a blue-clad servant, proclaimed an hour left of this tedious luncheon. Roman resisted the urge to groan loudly and slam his head onto the table.

“Excuse me, sirs, ma’ams, and others? I’m so sorry to bother you, but I fear the next course may be a little burnt. Could I request one of you to come and check to see if it’s suitable? We wouldn’t like to disappoint.”

Roman’s head shot up. At the head of the table, standing behind the King, was Patton Heath. He gave Patton a small smile, and got a beam in return.

“Of course,” said the His Majesty the King, Consumer of Food, etc etc etc. “Shall I fetch—”

“I beg your pardon.” Roman kept his voice soft, right between mouse-tiptoeing-through-the-kitchen and wind-on-a-summer’s-day. “I can take my leave and investigate. I wouldn’t want to deprive any of these lovely guests time at the banquet. It shall be just a minute.”

The King stared Roman down, eyes narrowed. Roman held his head high and gave his best Who, me? I’m an innocent lamb look. But he sprinkled in a hint of steel, just a touch of you know we can’t make a scene. Not in front of guests.

“Very well,” the King grunted, waving a hand. “Go check.”

“I am most grateful,” Roman said, already standing up without waiting for a servant to pull his chair out for him. The King shoveled on more mashed potatoes and resumed conversation, not giving Roman another glance.

Patton escorted Roman down the table and through a side door. As soon as Roman was out of sight, he hoisted up his skirts.

“Heavy?” Patton murmured sympathetically.

“I almost tripped three times. Why does there have to be so much fabric in these dresses?”

Patton smiled softly and opened another door, and Roman del Rey found himself in the kitchen.

Steam filled the ceiling, billowing in warm white clouds around Roman’s head. Clanking, clanging, thumping, and hissing, the room was alive with sound and movement. White-clad chefs wearing the same simple tunic and hairnet as Patton bustled around, opening lids and chopping food and boiling water. The pure energy in the room always made Roman smile.

“Come on!” Patton said, grabbing Roman’s hand. “You’ve got what, five, ten minutes? Let’s make the most of it!”

Roman smiled back and let Patton pull him into the whirlwind.

Ten minutes later he emerged with slightly soggy skirts, a stomach full of scraps, and an even bigger smile. Patton led him along the passageway again, walking slower to give Roman the maximum amount of time.

“Thanks,” Roman said quietly. “I appreciate.”

“No problem, kiddo!” Patton clapped his hands and gave Roman a big hug. “Seemed like you needed a little pick-me-up. And what’s a better way to have a good ol’ day than with your good ol’ dad?”

Roman laughed. “You’re three years older than me. That’s it.”

“Shh.” Patton patted—oh, that was a good pun, he’d have to tell it to Patton later—Roman on the head. “Now, be nice out there, okay? And you can always tell me if there’s anything wrong.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Roman said, brushing off his dress and letting the skirt fall back to the floor. “Being nice is my specialty.”

Patton gave Roman a concerned little cluck, like a mother hen. “I’m here for you, kiddo.”

“Of course, Padre.” Roman reached under Patton’s hairnet and ruffled his sandy curls. Patton giggled, and Roman smiled back. Patton’s laugh rivaled the sun on a warm spring morning. It made him feel warm and cozy and safe.

“Bye,” Patton said, adjusting his apron. “Hope you enjoy the food!”

“How could I not, with such a wonderful person cooking it?”

Patton giggled once more and Roman gave him a luxurious queenly wave. He swept around the corner to the luncheon, hearing the clatter of cutlery and the hubbub of busy voices, the volume growing and threatening to pull him under. His stomach flipped and clenched, the wonderful food from the kitchen turning sour in his mouth.

One more hour. And thanks to Patton’s kindly subterfuge, he was rejuvenated and reinvigorated. He’d survive.

Glancing back, Roman saw Patton’s face was pinched and wrinkled. The corners of his mouth were drooping inward and his lips protruded in almost a pout. It was the face Patton Heath made when he was concerned. Upset. It was the face Patton wore when Virgil was particularly self-deprecating or when Logan spent a long night reading instead of sleeping. Patton was looking at Roman—and the luncheon—like that, like Roman was going off into a battle zone.

Roman gave Patton one more glittering smile, but the pain in Patton’s expression barely eased.

Well. No time to worry about that now. Roman glided into the dining hall, giving nods and smiles.

“And how is the food?” called one of the King’s advisors.

Roman inclined his head. “I detect no fault with it. The cooks are too concerned—they fear every morsel must be fit for kings.”

“Well, it must, mustn’t it?” the advisor teased. “Or it couldn’t be fed to His Majesty.”

Even though it wasn’t funny, everyone laughed.

In the clamor, nobody watched Roman del Rey sit down. That meant nobody saw him as he rustled his skirts, smoothing them out, and placed his napkin over top. Then he stopped dead.

Written on the satin napkin was a sentence in small, dark ink.

5:00 tonight. Portrait room. Come alone. I know what you did.

Roman covered his mouth to stop his gasp. How did—

He looked around. Nobody was looking his way. The woman next to him smiled, asking if he was alright.

“Of course,” he said. Hands shaking, he reached for his teacup. Carefully, he fumbled with the handle and knocked it over. The few drops of tea left spattered on the table.

Before anyone could intervene, Roman quickly wiped up the tea with his napkin. The message blurred from the water until it was just a dark smudge. He righted his teacup and gave an apologetic smile to the people near him, who smiled back.

5:00 tonight.

Three hours from now.

Portrait room.

The portrait room? Not the hardest place to get into, but it was in the far wing of the palace, and there was no way the King would let Roman waltz down there without supervision. Maybe he could pull strings and get only Virgil to come along.

Come alone.

Right. There went that plan.

Maybe he could just bring Virgil anyway? Or Patton, perhaps. Having someone by his side would make him feel a little safer. He should at least tell Virgil where he was going, so he’d have some insurance of his safety—and was he seriously considering this? This was a death trap! It had to be some kind of assassination attempt or prank or something that would get Roman dead in about five different ways. No. He should forget he ever saw the note and move on with his life.

I know what you did.

They couldn’t.

I know what you did.

It wasn’t referring to last night.

I know what you--

They were bluffing.

I know.

It was a joke.

I know, I know, I know, I know--

But if they were serious. If, somehow, they saw or figured out or guessed what happened. If they were serious, Roman had no power. He was doomed and they knew it. He had no choice but to come at 5:00 and see what they wanted.

Roman clenched his fist around his spoon. Of course it was his luck—the one time he did something slightly treasonous, that was the night some sneaky someone checked on him. The universe couldn’t cut him some slack and allow one slip-up?

They couldn’t know. They were bluffing. How could they—

But if they did know, they’d know who Roman kissed. And if Roman didn’t cooperate, they might try for the other person involved.

This wasn’t just about Roman. This was about Logan, too.

Roman del Rey would do anything for Logan Abbott. He would pour a million cups of tea and burn the whole castle to the ground. He would suffer a million paper cuts and a million sword wounds. He would face death, face life, and face the whole damn kingdom.

Dramatic, maybe. But true. Roman would fight to the death for any of his friends. And Logan was even more than a friend.

Yes, Roman had to risk his life and meet a blackmailer in the portrait room to make sure Logan would be safe.

Would he do it anyway?

Without hesitation.

“…Excuse me?” asked the woman next to Roman, and he snapped back to reality. He was gripping his spoon so tightly that his knuckles were white. “Er…you were a little spaced out there, is everything well?”

Roman smiled with no happiness. “I’m fantastic.”

---

The portrait room used to be one of the castle’s highlights. Paintings dating from generations past hung on the walls, rich and beautiful monarchs captured with the finest paints by the most talented artists. But as ladies, lords, and nonbinary royalty grew more powerful and more confident, they ordered more and more paintings. Now portraits hung from almost every available surface in the castle. Tapestries, stained-glass windows, and statues filled all the spaces in between. The portrait room, no longer home to the most luxurious or most paintings, was left in disrepair.

That was probably why the mysterious napkin-writer wanted to meet there.

That was also probably why the door was locked.

Luckily, Roman had a very skilled lockpicker by his side. Virgil took some (read: a lot) of convincing, but he eventually agreed to stand guard outside and not alert anyone. Roman promised to fill him and the others in, but for now, he should listen for a code word or a scream before entering. Roman also reminded him not to panic and to do some breathing exercises if he got worked up.

Virgil gave Roman the middle finger and told him if he wanted Virgil not to panic, he shouldn’t be meeting with mysterious letter-writers in locked rooms.

Roman simply smiled, shutting the door behind him.

At first glance, the portrait room seemed to be empty. Dust and cobwebs covered the surfaces, and the candles were long burned out. Only one lantern was lit in the center, illuminating the shadowy, scratched, and stained faces of faded monarchs. Their eyes glittered in the dark, staring Roman down.

Roman’s eyes adjusted to the light, and he saw a figure leaning on the railing, looking at a large painting of a rather ugly woman. He was nothing but a shadow in the dark.

“Hello?” Roman asked. “Who are you?”

The figure turned, and Roman realized it wasn’t just the low light—they were dressed from head to toe in black, a capelet obscuring their figure.

“Oh, there you are!” they called. “Come on in, your Majesty.”

And Roman decided he hated them.

Their voice was all…wrong. It was sleazy and sneaky and snakelike and crept down Roman’s back like a skein of oil glittering above water. There was the faintest hiss around their ‘s’ and a smooth purr around the vowels. Roman was already a hundred-percent-distrustful of his mysterious blackmailer, but this dialed the number up to a hundred-and-ten.

They motioned for Roman to join them. Roman reluctantly walked over to the banister, rubbing his hand against the wood. His other hand drifted around the handle of his sword.

“Lovely to meet you,” they said. “It’s truly an honor, your Majesty.”

“My name’s Roman,” Roman snapped back. He wasn’t about to play nice with someone threatening Logan.

“I know, your point?”

“Call me Roman. Not…your Majesty.”

The person tilted their head. “Interesting. You’re not very polite, are you? I expected more.”

“I’ve had a long day.” Roman gritted his teeth. “Please don’t make it longer. I need to be in my room by 5:30 or the King will blow a fuse, so please, cut the crap and let’s get this over with.”

They sighed. “Wow. Never meet your heroes, I suppose.”

Roman glared. “Who. Are. You.”

“D.”

“Dee?”

“D. The letter D.”

“You’re serious?” Roman asked. “What kind of name is D?”

“It’s not my name.”

“But—”

“You really think I’d tell you my name?” D chuckled. “That’s a laugh and a half. I’m your blackmailer, Roman del Rey. I’m not going to give you my life story on a silver platter.”

Roman threw out a hand in a triumphant ah-ha! gesture. “So you admit you’re blackmailing me!”

“I never denied it, did I?” D purred. “Yes, Roman. I’m blackmailing you.”

“How dare you! Fiend!”

“Indeed. It’s not the most morally righteous action, but the ends justify the means.”

Roman bit back his surprise. He’d expected D to deny their evil ways. D seemed to sense his confusion, if the way their eyes glittered was any indication.

“Unlike you, Roman del Rey,” D said, savoring every syllable of Roman’s name, “I’m not in man with habit of lying to myself.”

Roman opened his mouth, found no retort sufficiently conveyed his growing hatred, and closed it again.

D’s gloved hand tapped against the banister thoughtfully. “I suppose you have questions?”

“Mmmduh.”

“Well, ask away.” His smile glimmered in the lanternlight, sharp incisors resembling fangs. “I don’t bite.”

“How did you get in here?” Roman blurted out. “The door’s locked.”

“Not the question I expected, but sure.” D wiggled his gloved fingers. “I have a knack for getting into places I’m not supposed to.”

“Couldn’t you have left the door unlocked for me?”

“You figured it out, didn’t you? You’ve got some brains behind that pretty face of yours.”

The compliment stung, a phrase Roman never thought he’d think. “I’m smart,” he said lamely.

“Anyway,” D said, ignoring Roman’s comeback. “Do you have more questions or shall I get straight to the point?”

“Why a napkin?” Roman asked. “Come to think of it, how a napkin? Were you around? Did you just wait for me to stand up? Do you have an accomplice? Are you--”

“Seriously, Roman?” D’s voice dripped with sarcasm. “I’m sure the napkin is the most important thing right now, but don’t you have any questions that will actually help me out here?

“I’m curious!”
“And we all know what killed the cat.”

Roman frowned. “Fine. I’ll stop asking about the napkin.”

“Wonderful.”

“What do you want?”

D paused, fingers curling in the air. “I beg your pardon?”

“What. Do you want.” Roman’s voice lowered. “I’m here, I’m mostly unarmed, just tell me what you want before I call the guards.”

“Please. The room’s soundproof.” D leaned forward. “This is a favorite spot for servant couples looking to…have some alone time.”

“Ew.”

“At least it’s private,” Dee said. “Not like, say…your bedroom, which has a heating vent leading straight to the third laundry room that captures every word.

Roman stared at him. “You were spying on me?”

D waved a hand. “Don’t act so surprised, it’s what I do.”

“Wait.” Roman locked onto the one part of D’s statement that didn’t cause panic to surge through him. “You were just hunkered in the laundry room eavesdropping on me? Do you do this regularly? You’re a creep!”

“Yes, I do apologize about that.” D had the grace to at least feign shame. “It’s only been a few days, that should comfort you. I wanted you to say or do something blackmail-worthy, but you’re annoyingly placid, you know that? Finally I was considering just fabricating an allegation. Then you made things easy. And for that, I thank you.”

Roman was frozen. Every patch of his body, from his heart to his eyes to his hair follicles, was coated in ice. He felt one touch would shatter him into chunks of white-blue.

“You know,” he said.

“That’s what I was saying. I know.”

“You know I—”

“Kissed Logan Abbott.” D raised a finger. “Librarian’s assistant. Black hair, blue eyes. I’ll give you some credit—he’s not bad looking, and you certainly need a smart boyfriend to balance out your complete idiocy.”

Roman felt a cold fury replace the cold panic in his veins. “You villain. You are a villain and a fiend and I hope you die in a fire.”

“Kind.” D placed his hand on his heart. “I’m pleased you think so much of me.”

“What do you want,” Roman growled. “We both know you could turn me in and have me killed. But you’re using this as leverage. What do you want me to do?”

“Simple.” D smiled. “I want to kill the King.”

In retrospect, Roman shouldn’t have been surprised. Even in the moment, part of him thought that makes sense. Why else would someone blackmail the Queen? Assassinations and coups happened all the time.

Still, it took a second for him to wrap his head around the idea. Hearing about assassination attempts in nearby kingdoms was one thing. Being plunged headfirst into one was quite another. And Roman was drowning in this one, wasn’t he? There was no way out.

“How?” Roman whispered, immediately regretting the question. Thankfully, D didn’t give a gruesome answer, just pointing to Roman’s chest.

“Me?” Roman asked.

“To use your polished phrasing, mmmduh.”

“What will I—”

“Shh!” D placed a gloved hand over Roman’s mouth, cupping his cheek and squeezing. “No more questions. We’re running out of time. I’ll contact you soon. For now?”

He leaned in until Roman could see every fleck of yellow in his brown eyes, shimmering in the firelight.

“Don’t breathe a word about this, or I’ll make sure you and your boyfriend lose your heads before dawn.”

Roman nodded, and D released him. “Good.”

Roman felt like a weight was pressed on his chest, making it hard to breathe. “He’ll catch you,” Roman said hoarsely. “You can’t just…evade everyone forever.”

“Oh, haven’t we met?” D laughed. “Evasion’s my middle name. Seriously. It’s on my birth certificate.”

“I thought you said you had to go?”

“Of course. My apologies.” D adjusted his cape and pulled down his gloves. “I do love a good conversation, though, and I love a good trap even more. I suppose it’s…human nature.”

He snapped his fingers together, and his other hand knocked the lantern from the table. It shattered on the floor, flame winking out. The room was plunged into darkness.

“Virgil!” Roman called. And D must have been lying about the soundproof walls, because Virgil busted through the door, holding a torch. Lighting a nearby sconce, he ran over to Roman.

“Are you hurt?” Virgil asked, frantically looking Roman over. “Did they hurt you? Are you alright? What—where’d they—”

Roman was staring at a small window hidden behind a portrait of two small princes and a princess. The lock was kicked open and the glass pane was carefully lifted out. Almost automatically, he walked over and placed the glass back in. Under the window was only trees and dull sky. No sign of D.

Virgil stepped on a piece of glass, which crinkled under his foot. “Roman…what happened?”

Roman pressed his lips together. “Can you get the others? We need to talk.”

Chapter Text

Ignore the fear and you’ll be fine
We'll turn this vier into a nine
So just say 'ja' and don’t say 'nein'…
‘Cause now you’re in the house,
In the Haus of Holbein!

-Haus of Holbein, Six the Musical

---

There wasn’t an official rule preventing them from meeting. Patton had asked around, Virgil had checked his guard handbook, and Logan—ever the overachiever—had paged through every section of the gargantuan Castle Rules. All of them concluded the same thing--technically, it wasn’t illegal. Since Virgil, a member of the castle guard, came to every meeting, they were technically being supervised by authority. (When Roman found out he didn’t count as authority, despite being the Queen he almost stabbed something.) Of course they weren’t allowed to talk politics or “share treasonous ideas, beliefs, or facts,” but that never stopped Roman before.

Still, even though they were armored with technicalities, Roman knew the King could easily arrest them. He might cite that Virgil was off-duty, or Roman wasn’t supposed to be anywhere without at least three guards, or that most of their conversations were filled with “treasonous ideas, beliefs, or facts.”

But Roman would risk it. Any rebellion against the King’s authority, even so small, filled him with pride. And this was a chance to see his friends, to speak his mind, to kick his legs up over the chair, poke at people with his sword, and flip off Logan Abbott. The meetings—sometimes daily, sometimes weekly, but never cancelled—were his lifeblood. He didn’t know how he would survive without them.

(‘The meetings’ sounded official, but they weren’t, really. They were just the four of them talking in the back of the library. Logan had suggested calling them something else, like meetups or get-togethers, so it didn’t sound like they were plotting or conspiring. Roman had argued that plotting and conspiring was exactly what they were doing, and Logan fired back that they’d spent the last ten minutes debating the merits of curtain patterns, and Roman said that if he didn’t like it he could just leave, Mr. Snooty-Pants, and Logan said that Mr. Snooty-Pants was a terrible name and Roman should be more creative, and in the ensuing argument the question of ‘meetings’ was forgotten.)

He’d only missed two. One, when he was sick with the flu. He’d tried to go anyway, but Virgil had shoved him back into bed and threatened to eviscerate him seven different ways if he didn’t go to sleep, you needy self-sacrificing idiot.

The second was a meeting three months ago, after a bitter argument with Logan. Roman had soundly lost that argument and managed to piss Logan off in the process by calling his organization skills “stupid and pointless.” Apparently that wasn’t the thing to say to a librarian. Roman skipped the next meeting, not wanting to face Logan. After the meeting, Virgil and Patton dragged Logan up to Roman’s room and forced the pair to apologize. It took about half an hour of convincing and an actual puppet bit from Patton, but they did. Sort of. Well, Roman did, and Logan just nodded smugly.

By mutual agreement, however, they put the incident behind them. Roman never skipped a meeting again, and though they wouldn’t admit it, neither of them put quite the same fierceness into their arguments. Although some feelings were hurt, they usually stuck to impersonal things instead of insulting each other.

(It was a small change, but a mark of things to come. A small snowball at the top of a hill that rolled down and down until it smashed to the ground. Until Roman del Rey kissed Logan Abbott and everything fell apart.)

Before the note, Roman was sincerely considering not going to the meeting. He could use Patton’s smile and Virgil’s snark, but he didn’t want to face Logan again. They’d have to act like everything was normal, picking fights and rolling their eyes, avoiding eye contact and awkward memories. And Roman wasn’t that kind of actor.

He could tell Patton and Virgil what happened. But he wouldn’t. For three simple reasons.

One. It was a secret. The more people knew, the more odds of someone finding out. Someone had already found out and they’d heard through the pipes or something. And Roman definitely didn’t want to tell without Logan’s permission, which he knew he’d never get.

Two. They’d be disappointed. He had, technically, cheated on his husband. He’d also jeopardized his own safety—and Logan’s. An unforgivable offense. Patton would probably play nice, saying ‘Are you sure you should have done that?’ Virgil wouldn’t be so kind. He’d probably berate Roman for not ‘keeping it in his pants.’

Three. Roman wanted to pretend it never happened.

He may have been an expert liar to all and sundry, but he was terrible at lying to himself. Still. Practice made perfect. He could pretend on the outside.

In conclusion, Roman had decided to maybe-possibly avoid the meeting and all further meetings in the future, essentially becoming a hermit before he wasted away of grief and consumption.

Then he got the note, was blackmailed, and decided there were (gasp) bigger concerns than his thwarted love life. So he, in Virgil’s words, ‘sucked it up’ and went to the meeting.

The meetings were in the back of the library, in one of the private study nooks. The library was nearly always empty, which Logan attributed to ‘the failing aristocracy and lack of faith in facts and knowledge.’ Roman had said it was just because nobody cared about books. Surprisingly, this didn’t lead to an argument, because Patton gave a loud, well-timed cough and distracted them. By the time they’d confirmed that Patton was not, in fact, dying of some little-known and insidious disease, Roman’s jab had faded from memory.

Whoever was correct, there were only three people in the library. The librarian, of course, with a shock of blonde hair and gold-rimmed glasses balanced on her beaklike nose. The others were two nobles sitting in a corner, seeming more interested in each other than the books. Roman was wearing a dark shawl over his dress, to try and stand out a little less than usual, but they still gave him curious glances. A glare from Virgil, walking at Roman’s side, made them look away.

Roman’s shoes clicked on the wood floor. He ducked between shelves and Virgil followed, heading for the encyclopedia section. Just before the encyclopedias turned to dictionaries, he took a sharp left and squeezed between two books on earthworms. Virgil’s armor clanged against the shelf, and he swore.

“Virgil!” said a voice behind the shelf. “I won’t have you saying that kind of language!”

Virgil grinned as him and Roman entered the nook. “Sorry, Dad.

Patton didn’t seem to register the sarcasm, and perhaps there wasn’t that much to begin with. He jumped forward and gave Roman and Virgil big hugs and even bigger smiles. Virgil awkwardly hugged back. Roman swept Patton off his feet, twirling him in the air. Patton giggled with delight.

Setting him down, Roman threw himself on the nearest armchair. Tapestries dangled behind them, dampening most of their sound. Patton plopped, cross-legged, on the floor, and Virgil leaned on the shelves. The only other chair was a straight-backed uncomfortable monstrosity, and that was Logan’s spot.

“Great to see you kiddos!” Patton squealed, clapping his hands together. “It’s been too long!”

“I saw you four hours ago,” Roman teased.

“Far too long.” Patton pouted. Then his face lit up. “Virgil! How’s Valerie doing? I heard she was sick—should I bring her some muffins?”

“Nah, Pat, she’s doing better.” Virgil scratched at the back of his neck. “Thanks for asking.”

“No problemo! I wouldn’t want to give her an ill feeling if she’s sick of muffins! I’ll just bake a point to say hello!”

Roman groaned gently at the pun cavalcade. Virgil lowered his face, but a small smile lifted the corners of his mouth.

Then there was a silence. Without realizing it, they’d all stopped for Logan’s reaction—usually something along the lines of “That’s it, I’m leaving, goodbye, if you hear muffled screaming behind the bookshelves it would be me.” But nothing happened, because Logan wasn’t there.

Patton looked around, a frown on his face. “Is—”

“He’s not coming,” Roman cut in. “I think he has a cold. If it gets better he might show up, but for now he’s resting.”

Virgil gave Roman a sharp look, which Roman ignored.

“Aww,” Patton complained, but his face looked less sad. “Well, that’s a real shame! I’ll ask him if he wants any muffins later. Maybe the ones with jam on them—they’re his favorite.”

“I’m sure he’d love that,” Roman agreed. “Your muffins are heavenly. Angelic choirs sing of their glory.”

Patton giggled. “Thanks, kiddo! You all seem to like them, at yeast.

“They’re…” Virgil muttered. “Um. They’re nice.”

That got a large squeal from Patton. Roman and Virgil both shushed him, so he pressed his hands to his mouth and squealed more softly.

When Patton’s excited squee finally petered out, Virgil turned to Roman. “Um. Princey?”

“What is it, oh dark and dreary one?”

Virgil’s face worked. Finally he burst out “What the hell is going on?

“Language!” Patton said.

Virgil ignored him. “First the King says there’s a traitor in the castle, then you and Logan had some kind of argument you won’t tell me about, then you make me break into the portrait room and stand guard but forbid me to listen to your conversation and don’t tell me who you’re meeting, then you just tell me we ‘need to talk,’ like yeah, of course we do! And now Logan’s sick with some mysterious cold you somehow know about, which is the reason he’s mysteriously absent from our meeting, and I just want to know what’s happening and if it’s my fault, because I don’t know if I did something wrong and you don’t trust me or you don’t want to be friends or I messed up somehow—I don’t know!”

Roman stared. Virgil looked embarrassed by his outburst. He tugged on his armor and curled into himself.

“Kiddo?” Patton asked softly. “You okay?”

Virgil shrugged. “I’m just. Confused. Yeah. Um—” He bit his lip. “Sorry. I know you don’t—sorry.”

“No reason to apologize,” Roman assured him. “I should have told you sooner, and that was my mistake. Rest assured it is not a personal slight against you and that I highly value your companionship, cynical and dreary as it sometimes is.”

Virgil smirked. “Watch it, Princey.”

Roman gave him a teasing smile back, but his jovial mood was beginning to stretch thin. Clusters of thoughts nagged and pulled at him like vines, thorns slicing through his smile. All the what ifs. Then whats. But thens. Should haves. And want tos. So many wants, so many needs, so many regrets, and Logan, LoganLoganLoganLogan.

Virgil’s face darkened with concern. “Princey. You all right in there?”

“Hmm?” Roman pulled his smile wider. “Of course, Sir Stormcloud! Why do you ask?”

Virgil’s suspicion didn’t seem to waver. “You’re—you spaced out. For a sec. And you looked, I dunno.” He shrugged. “Sad?”

Sad.

Fair enough.

Patton was looking at him worriedly now, round face pulled into a pout. Roman felt the eyes on him, searching through his heart, and couldn’t stop nerves from piling into his stomach. Maybe Virgil picked up on that, or maybe he grew tired of the eye contact, because he turned away and stared at his hands instead. Only one person looking, and that person being Patton Heath with his big blue eyes and rosy cheeks, made it easier to breathe.

“I…” Roman began. How did one begin such a tale as his? Best to just get out with it. It was like a bandage—you just had to rip it off. He closed his eyes and braced himself.

“I’m being blackmailed to assist with a coup!”

Dead silence.

Roman opened one eye hesitantly. Patton looked frozen, hands stilled around his shoulders. Virgil looked about to stab someone.

Carefully, Virgil opened his mouth. Slowly, with a growling voice, he spat out “What?

Roman ran his hand through his hair—a very Logan action, one traitorous part of his brain told him—and tugged lightly at the back. “Someone is threatening to tell the King that I cheated on him unless I help him with an assassination attempt.”

Patton blinked once.

Virgil flipping snarled. “And when were you planning to tell us?”

“I just met with him this afternoon! And I’m not supposed to be telling you anyway, so you’re gonna have to keep this to yourselves, okay?”

Patton’s mouth closed. Then it opened again. Then it closed. Then it opened.

Finally, he squeaked out, “Oh, kiddo…”

“It’s not a big deal,” Roman whined. “Please don’t…”

“What do you mean, it’s not a big deal?” Virgil’s hand was tense around his sword. “You’re being blackmailed!”

“Blackmailed,” Patton repeated quietly. “Roman…kiddo, I’m so sorry…”

“It’s not your fault, Padre.” Roman sunk deeper into his armchair. “It’s not anyone’s fault.”

Except Roman’s, but that was neither here nor there.

“What do you have to do?” Virgil asked, almost fearfully.

“I don’t know yet. I’m waiting for instructions.” The last word tasted sour in Roman’s mouth, and he couldn’t help his face from twisting in disgust. “But he’s planning to kill the King, definitely. I can only assume I’m meant to assist. With my closeness to the King…” Roman raised his hands and let them fall.

He didn’t need to finish the sentence. They understood.

“You can’t kill the King,” Patton said. “You can’t. It’s wrong.”

“The King’s killed people,” Virgil pointed out.

“Well, you shouldn’t stoop to his level!” Patton crossed his arms. “Lying is already bad enough. Murdering someone is out of the question!”

“I don’t want to kill him,” Roman said. It sounded weak even to his own ears. “I never have. I just…wouldn’t mind if he died by natural causes?”

Patton squeaked. “You want him to die?

“We’ve been over this, Pat.” Virgil’s chiding tone had a hint of fondness. “Everyone in the kingdom wants the King to stop ruling. Roman’s not special.”

“How dare you!”

“And besides. There’s a difference between idly hoping someone will get a convenient heart-attack and conspiring to assassinate them.”

Roman glared at Virgil and mouthed ‘Not helping.’ Virgil gave a what do you want from me look.

“But…” Patton frowned. “But Roman’s doing that too—”

“Not of my own free will,” Roman quickly interrupted. “Believe me, I’m not stupid enough to get involved with a coup.”

“That’s debatable,” Virgil muttered.

“Can it, General Gloom.” Roman sighed, smoothing out wrinkles on his red-and-white dress. “But I don’t have a choice. If I don’t, D will tell the King that I cheated on him. That counts as an act of high treason.”

“Did you?” Patton asked. “Cheat on him?”

“Of course not,” Roman said. He was proud of the fact that his voice didn’t waver.

“The King won’t care,” Virgil said. “You know how he is. He’s paranoid. If he thinks there’s the slightest chance you did it…”

Patton whimpered.

Roman folded his arms. “You are really not helping, you know that?”

Virgil gave a two-fingered salute. “It’s what I do.”

“He’s right,” Roman admitted, turning to Patton. “It doesn’t matter if I cheated or not—” (It did, it mattered so much.) “He’ll still be able to arrest me. And you remember what happened to the last Queen who committed treason.”

The second Queen. Queen Nicholas. (Queen was merely a job title, not a gendered role.) Roman hadn’t been around to see his execution, but it was the most famous in the kingdom. There was still a statue of him in the courtyard, head sliding off his shoulders. It was gruesome and a very effective warning.

Patton shuddered. “I was there. It was awful.”

“You were there?” Roman repeated.

Patton nodded. The look on his face was a mixture of fear, disgust, and grief.

“How old were you?” Virgil asked.

“I don’t remember. I try not to think about it.” Patton wiggled his fingers. “Maybe fifteen?”

“Fifteen…” Roman left his chair and sat next to Patton. Virgil sunk to the ground as well, eyebrows high with concern. Patton just stared at the carpet, drawing circles with his finger on the floor.

“He was nice,” Patton finally said. Roman couldn’t tell if he was speaking to them or not—his voice was quiet and airy and emotionless. “Nick. I’d make cookies for him sometimes. I was pretty bad at them, but he always ate them anyway. He’d wave hello in the hallway even when he was with the King. He called me Little Cook.” Patton rubbed at his eyes, and Roman realized he was crying. “I—I liked him. A lot.”

Virgil looked like someone had broken his favorite toy, peed on his door, and called his mom names. “Pat…I barely knew him. Why didn’t you tell me—”

“I dunno. Just didn’t want to worry you, I guess?” Patton attempted a chuckle. It came out watery and weak. “It was a long time ago. I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine,” Roman pointed out. Virgil gave him a shut up, I’m handling this look. Roman marveled at the number of different glares he was capable of giving.

“Patton,” Virgil said, reaching out and placing a hand on his back. “However you’re reacting for however long is completely normal. Not bad, not strange, not stupid. And you should always talk to me—talk to us—if you’re upset. We want to help.”

“Precisely,” Roman chimed in before Virgil could stop him. “You’ve been so accepting of us and our…issues…you’ll be darn-tootin sure that we’d do the same for you!”

Patton smiled, wiping away the last of his tears. “Thanks, kiddos. I appreciate it.”

Roman looked over at Virgil, who was occupied with rubbing Patton’s shoulder. “Hey, Doctor Dreary?”

Virgil raised an eyebrow in response.

Roman took that as an invitation to move forward. “Did you…I mean…well…Did you know…”

Shoot.

Virgil huffed a laugh. “Use your words, Princey.”

“I’m not good with this stuff! I’m not a feelingsy, kind-wordsy person!” Roman tossed his hands in the air and sighed. “…Did you know him? Too?”

Virgil paused, and Roman waited for the snappy comeback or fiery retort. He’d messed up, hadn’t he? Maybe Virgil already told him and he forgot, or Virgil didn’t want to talk about it, or he didn’t want to talk about it with Roman because Roman wasn’t good with this stuff or any stuff and—

“Not really,” Virgil said. “I was still training back then. I mostly knew his successor. Queen Edward? He was a total—”

“Virgil!” Patton yelped.

Virgil gave an evil grin. “I’m right.”

“That’s still a rude thing to say.”

Roman was beginning to realize how much more the others knew. He was a relative newcomer to the castle. They’d been here for years. He suddenly felt very small and very much like a young fourth Queen who didn’t know how things worked.

But curiosity overrode his embarrassment.

“What about the first Queen?” Roman asked.

“Never met him,” Virgil said. “Before my time.”

 

“I think I might have seen him? Right as I was starting out?” Patton frowned. “I got hired because the King fired every servant in the castle who openly liked the Queen. He was really petty about it—they must have had a nasty divorce. The Queen took all those servants with him and I think he went to his home kingdom? I don’t remember—I was really little. But I saw him once, I think.” Patton grinned. “He had a nice smile.”

“Truly the greatest qualification for leadership,” Roman mumbled.

“Be nice,” Virgil fired back.

“Sorry.”

Patton folded his arms around himself. “I think I get it now.”

“Get what?” Roman asked, squeezing Patton’s hand.

“Why people want to kill the King.” Patton sunk a little. “I don’t agree. But I get it.”

And the three fell into silence. Somewhere outside, a clock tower rang. Seven o’clock. Soon, Roman would have to go for dinner in the King’s chamber, and Virgil would have to go back on shift, and Patton would have to go down to the kitchens, and Logan would have to go back to shelving books—right. Logan wasn’t here.

Logan should be here, Roman thought. He should be here to help calm Patton down and provide more information. He’d been here since he was little—maybe he remembered the first Queen, or the second Queen, or the third. He should be here. But he wasn’t, and Roman couldn’t blame him.

Logan didn’t want to see Roman.

And Roman understood.

In fact, maybe it was better that Logan wasn’t here. That way he wouldn’t get concerned about the blackmail or the coup. Roman knew that not telling someone important stuff could lead to disaster, but he’d prefer that kind of miscommunication-inspired disaster to a Logan-gets-killed-because-he-kissed-me disaster. The less Logan knew about the situation, the more innocent he would be, and the less likely that he’d be in danger.

Did that make sense? Roman wasn’t sure if it did, but there wasn’t time to think about it, because it was past seven o’clock and Virgil was standing up and saying, “What now?”

“What do you mean, what now?” Roman asked.

“I mean, is there anything we can do?”

Roman shrugged. “Unless you can catch whoever’s blackmailing me in the next three days, I doubt it.”

“Do you know anything about him, kiddo?” Patton piped up.

“He has brown eyes,” Roman said. “Calls himself D. Like, the letter D. It was dark and he was wearing a hat and capelet, I don’t know anything else.”

“Helpful.” Virgil rubbed his eyes. “Ahh, finding this guy will be a nightmare.”

“Wait, you’re actually going to look for him?” Roman sprung to his feet. “I was being sarcastic!”

“I’m a castle guard,” Virgil said. “It’s literally my job. And we’re already supposed to comb the castle for spies. I’ll just check if they have brown eyes or not.”

“And even if they don’t, ask them if they know D. He probably has accomplices. D will have given them different names, most likely, but it’s worth a shot.”

Virgil looked somewhat impressed. “Good point. The interviews already started, but I can see if I can add that question to the list.”

“They already started?” Patton bit his lip. “Who are they interviewing?”

“You,” Virgil said. “And me.”

“What?” Roman looked between them. “Why?”

What?” Patton yelled. “What am I supposed to say? I can’t lie! I’m a terrible liar!”

“You’re innocent. You’re fine.” Virgil’s voice was reassuring. “Ignore the fear and just tell the truth.”

Patton bit his lip. “But what about…” He waved his hands around. “All this?”

Virgil winced. “Okay, you might have to lie a little bit.”

Patton seemed about to hyperventilate. “I don’t lie!”

“Then don’t,” Roman suggested. “All you have to do is act. And acting’s not lying, right? There’s nothing wrong with bending the truth a little bit if it gets you where you need to go.”

Virgil raised an eyebrow. “That’s an…interesting way of thinking about it.”

Roman ruffled Patton’s hair. “Just smile. Have good posture. If you need to think, say ‘Well, I don’t quite remember,’ or something similar. If they ask about politics, whether you support the King, say something like ‘I think both sides have good points’ or ‘I don’t really get involved with those sorts of things.’ If you’re smiling and polite and look innocent enough, you’ll be fine. Just…don’t look afraid, all right? Don’t be scared. Like Virgil said—ignore the fear, and you’ll be fine.”

Virgil leaned over to Roman. “Nice advice, I think.”

“Thank you!”

“Is that what you do?”

(Yes.)

Roman carefully smoothed over his expression. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Why us?” Patton asked. “Why me? Do they—do they know anything?”

“Nah, you’re good.” Virgil counted off on his fingers. “We’re supposed to interview anyone that A) has suspicious behavior, B) has been reported or named by someone else, C) was here before Roman started ruling, or D) has connections, familial or otherwise, to any ‘traitors, connivers, or fugitives of the law.’”

Roman blinked. “Isn’t that…like, everyone in the castle?”

“About eighty-four percent, so pretty much.” Virgil sighed. “We’ve got our work cut out for us. Thankfully I’m not on interview duty, but since some guards are, I gotta cover for them. I’ll be working overtime for the next week or so. Whoever D is…” Virgil curled his hand into a fist. “…I’m gonna make him pay. For threatening Roman and for giving me extra work.”

Patton winced in sympathy. “We’ll check up on you, okay? Tell us if you need anything.”

“Yeah.” Virgil almost smiled. “I will. Thanks, Pat.”

“And you too, okay?” Patton turned to Roman. “If you need to talk, we’ll be here.”

Virgil nodded, giving Roman a loaded look.

“Of course, Padre!” Roman smiled and gave Patton a bow, his skirts flowing around him. “I’m always up for quality time with my favorite fellows in the castle!”

“Not what he said, but okay.” Virgil adjusted his armor, easing to his feet. “I gotta go. They’ll be expecting me.”

“Sorry, kiddos, but me too.” Patton sprung to his feet and gave them each a quick hug. “Keep your chins up! Have a great day!”

“Good luck,” Roman said to Patton, but looking at Virgil.

“Thanks,” they both said.

“You too,” Virgil added.

“Oh, I don’t need luck.” Roman smiled widely. “I’ve got good looks and high status on my side. Luck isn’t part of the equation.”

“Sure, Princey.”

“Don’t doubt me.”

Virgil shrugged and saluted before squeezing around the bookshelf and disappearing.

Patton gave Roman another hug. “Don’t worry, okay? That little shadowy son of mine will catch D and this will all be over.”

“I hope so,” Roman said.

“I know so.” Patton booped Roman’s nose. “We’ve got your back, kiddo.”

“And I yours.” Roman booped Patton in return. “You’re the softest puffball we’ve got.”

Patton giggled and waved goodbye, hopping around the corner. Roman was left alone, in red-and-white skirts that pooled on the floor, surrounded by dusty old tapestries and two empty chairs and a sense that things weren’t going to work out like Patton said. In fact, he had a feeling life in the castle was about to get a whole lot worse.

“Take your own advice, idiot,” Roman muttered to himself. “Ignore the fear and you’ll be fine.”

You’ll be fine.

Everything would be fine.

Roman sighed and pulled his shoulders straighter (haha), adjusting the hem of his dress. He slipped his sword into its sheath and tucked it between the folds, making sure it was hidden.

He was late for dinner.

---

 

The King’s chamber was technically his bedroom, but since it incorporated three-and-a-half other rooms besides the bedroom, that name was hardly applicable. Instead everyone just referred to it as the chamber. If they weren’t feeling charitable, it was the manor, the cave, or the dungeon. Roman was partial to the last one. Although there was fine china, fine drapery, and fine gilding everywhere he looked, he never felt fine in the King’s chamber.

Two guards opened the doors for Roman, spears bristly at the tips. One gave Roman a nod and a look of sympathy. Roman nodded back.

He entered the antechamber. It was stuffy and dark, the last vestiges of sunset choked by the heavy screens over the windows. Several cushiony, overstuffed chairs littered the space, dinky marble tables popping up between them like birch trees. Candles flickered on every available surface, from sconces to ledges to candle crowns. Candle crowns always creeped Roman out—the twisted wrought-iron circles reminded him of his own circlet, snug over his ginger hair. When in a particularly poetic mood, he’d say he didn’t know which crown was more dangerous to wear.

The King was perched on a red-gold chair like a fat velvet beetle. A small plate of cookies was next to him—Roman recognized them as Patton’s recipe, some of the best cookies in the castle. The King was stuffing them into his small turtle mouth and Roman wanted to slap the cookies off the table.

Instead, he bowed, skirts scraping the floor. He didn’t wait for the King to permit his rise, standing up again and gliding to a nearby chair.

“You’re late,” the King said around a cookie.

Roman tossed himself onto the chair, making a point to ruin his posture. “I am.”

The King watched him for a second, wondering if he was going to elaborate. Finally, he said, “Sit up. You look ridiculous.”

Roman kicked his legs over the side of the chair and ignored him.

“I said, sit up.”

Roman tossed an arm behind his head.

“Sit up.” The King’s eyes flashed dangerously. “Now.”

Okay, he’d pushed too far. Roman dug his hands into the cushion and pulled himself upright. “Apologies, Your Majesty.

“Apology accepted, del Rey.”

Names. Names were the first way Roman held some semblance of dignity. He’d never used the King’s real name, especially not his first name. And the King only addressed him as del Rey. It was demeaning, but there was no way Roman would let anyone but his friends address him as ‘Roman.’

The King, apparently satisfied, returned to eating his cookies. A small table next to Roman held a few slices of bread, assorted grapes, and a cookie or two. Roman ate the cookie first, savoring Patton’s cooking. Unfortunately, the sweetness ruined the grapes, and he had to choke them down. Finally he ate the bread. Throughout it all, he refused eye contact with the King. He felt eyes boring into him—the King’s, of course, and the servants at the walls, and the two guards by the bedroom door, because one could never be truly alone in the castle.

“Tea,” called the King. One of the servants peeled off the wall and set two cups and a teapot on the table next to him. Roman watched, digging his nails into the chair.

“Come here.”

“What?” Roman blurted out before he could stop himself.

“Come here,” the King repeated. He motioned to the chair next to him with a pinky finger, holding his final cookie in his hand.

Roman looked around, but nobody said a word. Slowly, he walked over to the King and sat on the chair indicated. It was slippery and covered with some kind of horsehair. He dug his heels into the ground to avoid falling off.

“Pour the tea.”

Roman gestured at the half-dozen servants surrounding them.

“Pour the tea, del Rey.”

Roman poured the tea.

The King reached for his cup and their elbows bumped. Roman quickly jerked away, almost spilling the tea on his lap. The King gave him a look but made no comment.

They didn’t touch each other. That was another rule. They kept a foot of distance between them. They’d held hands at the wedding, but at Roman’s insistence, they hadn’t kissed. The King, who’d married Roman for duty and politics, didn’t push the issue.

Roman took one cup in his hand, blowing on it to cool the liquid. The china handle was so thin he felt it would snap in his fingers. The King sipped tea without waiting for the heat to dissipate.

Roman felt he was supposed to say something—he wasn’t usually, but the King never invited him over for tea, either.

Then the King solved the problem. As if commenting on the weather, he stated, “There’s a spy in the castle.”

Roman opened his mouth to say he knew, then remembered Virgil wasn’t supposed to have told him. He settled for a surprised “Oh?”

“I have my guards looking for them,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll catch the scoundrel.”

Setting his cup on his saucer, Roman endeavored to keep his face unreadable. “Why do you think—how do you know there is a traitor?”

“That’s classified information.” The King glanced around. “Anyone could be listening.”

Well, six servants and two guards certainly were, so Roman saw his point. The King took a final sip of tea and leaned back, letting out a sigh of contentment.

“Your Majesty?” Roman asked.

The King looked irritated, but not dangerously so. Good. “What is it?”

“Are you planning to add more guards to my room?”

Tilting his head, the King asked “Who told you that?”

“I’m merely curious,” Roman said. “If there is such a danger, I’m wondering how you would keep me safe.”

The King huffed. “I’m not wasting guards on you.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Del Rey.” The King folded his hands, staring into Roman’s eyes. The candles cast craggy shadows on his face and his eyes glittered deep in his skull. “I’m assigning more guards in my room, in the kitchen, and at the gates. I don’t have guards to spare for your room.”

“I see.” Roman tried not to smile. Yes! He was safe for now. “That is very wise.”

“Don’t kiss up to me, it’s just frugal.” Still, the King’s face split in something approximating a smug smile. “The smart section of this plan is that anyone attempting an assassination will go for you, not me.”

The warm tea turned cold in Roman’s stomach. “What do you mean?”

“You are expendable,” the King said bluntly. “If you die, I don’t care. But if I die, well, that would be less than ideal, don’t you think? So I’ll let you continue on your merry way, and if someone tries to kill you, we’ll be able to catch them.”

Roman squeezed his hands into fists, his nails digging into his palms. He tried to keep his voice steady as he said, “You’re using me as bait.”

“The castle is crawling with guards. You’re hardly ever alone.”

Don’t I know it, Roman thought.

“If there’s an incident,” the King continued, “they’ll most likely be able to reach you, save your life, and apprehend the assassin. That way, we’ll be one step closer to catching the traitor.”

Roman swallowed. “And if you’re too slow? And I die?”

“We don’t need you around to catch the traitor, del Rey.” The King’s voice was laced with something dark. “You are a strategic sacrifice and the castle will run just fine without you.”

Something snapped inside Roman. “So this is how you’ll get rid of me?” he fired back. “By throwing me in the line of fire like your personal meat shield?”

“I am the King!” The King slammed his hand on his chair. “I am the ruler of this kingdom, and you should be glad to aid me! I brought you into this castle due to the good of my heart and it is your duty to serve me in your time of need! You are easily replaceable and your life is worth nothing!

Roman flinched. Something seemed stuck in his throat and he forced down the burning in his eyes. He couldn’t cry. He couldn’t show weakness. Not here. Not now. Not ever.

“Do you understand me?” the King asked, staring him down.

Roman gave a quick nod.

“Do you understand?”

“…Yes.”

“Good.” The King turned away. “I think it’s time for you to leave.”

Two servants walked over and cleared away the tea tray. Another led Roman to the door. He followed and walked outside, down the hall, to his room. He felt weightless, disconnected, disjointed and numb and scoured away from the inside out.

At his door, Virgil gave him a quick “You okay?”

Roman mustered up a smile. “Of course.”

“You sure?”

“Yes.”

Virgil didn’t seem to believe him, but he let Roman go inside, lock the door, and walk over to the mirror.

He looked himself up and down. He was wearing an evening dress with dark red accents and a gold sash. His makeup was a little worn, but the eyeliner wings and lipstick still shone against his skin. His hair was combed to the right, a wavy waterfall sliding past his forehead. His green eyes glittered.

Beautiful, of course.

Except that wasn’t enough, was it? It was enough to get him places but not enough to keep him there. It was enough to get attention but not enough to get affection. It was enough to exist but not enough to be worth something—worth anything other than a pretty face.

And for a second, Roman was angry.

He didn’t know who he was angry at. The King. Logan. D. Himself. None, all, himself, himself, himself.

The mirror easily came away from the wall. Without pausing, he slammed it to the ground. With a loud crash, the mirror broke, shards spilling from the wooden frame and scattering on the carpet.

Roman dropped the rest of the frame and panted, his arms stinging from exertion. The anger was gone as fast as it came, broken to pieces on his floor.

He remembered one of his mom’s many sayings. Break a mirror, and you’ll get seven years of bad luck.

Well, he already had enough bad luck to last a lifetime, what was a little more?

The door creaked open, and Virgil was staring at Roman, sword out. “What happened?”

Roman quickly pulled himself upright and gave a dashing smile. “Sorry to disturb you! My mirror fell.”

Virgil looked at the mirror, which was two feet from its original spot, and back to Roman. “Are…are you sure you’re good, Roman? Do you need me to—”

“It’s fine!” Roman waved a hand. “Actually, I’m really tired right now, so I think I’ll head to bed! Thanks for asking!”

Virgil gave Roman a look. “If you’re upset—”

“I’m not! I promise!”

“Well, you can always talk to me, all right?” Virgil stuck a thumb over his shoulder. “I’m right outside. Don’t worry about bothering me—I’ve got nothing else to do.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Moody B Moans!” Roman laughed at his own joke, crinkling his eyes so it looked just realistic enough to pass muster.

“Okay then,” Virgil said hesitantly, backing out of the room. As he closed the door, he gave Roman another concerned look. Roman only smiled back.

As soon as the door closed, the smile fell from his face.

And for the second night in a row, Roman del Rey cried himself to sleep.

Chapter Text

It’s true I’ll never be over you
‘Cause I have built a future in my mind with you
And now the hope is gone,
There’s nothing left for me to do.
You know it isn’t true,
But I must say to you
that I don’t need your love.

-Don’t Need Your Love, Six the Musical

---

Roman didn’t want to see Logan again.

It was clear Logan felt the same. For the first night in months, he didn’t appear at Roman’s door. Roman gave the same he’s-sick excuse to a concerned Virgil. He was fine, Logan was fine, everything was fine, Virgil didn’t need to worry about them. The lies he’d spewed to his best friend made Roman’s stomach turn. But he couldn’t stop now, could he? He was in too deep.

Roman didn’t want to see Logan, or he might break.

But he had to clear things up. He had to make sure they were on the same page, that Logan could pretend he had caught a cold, that they would never speak of it again and move on with their lives.

That’s what he wanted, of course. Totally.

And that was the only reason he camped out in the library for half the afternoon, paging through a book on the rise of industrial production. It was boring without Logan to complain to. It was confusing without Logan to explain the intricacies of the story in his clear, gentle way. It was useless because Roman couldn’t focus on the words if his life depended on it. He kept glancing up from his chair and across the room, where Logan was shelving a pile of books.

Roman couldn’t help it. He hadn’t seen Logan in days, and the sun was streaming through the windows just right, so Logan seemed outlined in a golden halo. He slid a few dusty tomes onto the shelf, paused, pushed his glasses up, and kept working. When he looked for a book’s spot, he ran his thin fingers along the spines of the books, catching on old leather and velvet and worn-down papers. Logan looked so at home here, his librarian’s uniform spotless, an imperceptible smile on his face.

Roman realized his quick glance had turned into a minute-long stare-fest. Honestly, why did Logan have to be so beautiful?

He shook himself, cheeks burning, and stared at a page about textile mills. The words slipped through his mind like water. Biting his lip, Roman sounded out each syllable, trying to get himself invested in the story instead of ruminating on Logan’s perfect hair and adorable smile and kissable lips and—

Nope! Not today, Satan. Roman was going to learn about the balance between agricultural and industrial exports if it killed him.

Maybe he could find another book.

Roman walked over to a nearby shelf. Unfortunately, he seemed to be in the foreign language section. There was a lot of Cantolian and Kirxi and a few Llaoae books as well. Roman spoke a bit of Cantolian, but since all the kingdoms in their area spoke Arial, he’d never needed to use it and was really out of practice. He’d expected to learn some languages as part of diplomacy when he became Queen, but since he wasn’t allowed to speak during, or even attend, most official meetings? He hadn’t learned a single word.

Maybe he should get better at Cantolian. If the King died, he might be Queen on his own, and then he’d need to know this stuff. Roman reached for a nearby book and pulled it off the shelf, squinting at the cover. Something about toadstools?

“Roman, what are you doing here?”

Roman almost dropped the Cantolian toadstool book. Logan was standing behind him, a pile of foreign language books in his arms. If looks could kill, Logan would be arrested for regicide.

“Oh!” Roman said, trying to clandestinely straighten his hair and brush the dust off his dress. “Hi…Logan.”

Logan regarded him impassively for a second. “Hello.”

Roman gave him what he hoped was a winning smile.

Logan’s glare deepened. “Move.”

“What?”

“Move aside.” Logan stepped forward. “You’re blocking the shelf.”

Roman dutifully moved aside. He leaned against the stone wall, ignoring the way the stone dug into his back. Logan placed his pile of books on the ground and lifted the first one, checking its spine and slotting it into place. He did so with another, and another. It was like Roman wasn’t even there.

Rude.

A bit of dust tickled Roman’s nose, and he sneezed loudly, covering his face with one sleeve. Logan didn’t even look up.

Rude!

Roman fake-coughed as loudly as he could. Logan didn’t respond.

Roman fake-sneezed, which sounded even worse than his fake cough. Logan shelved another book and ignored him.

Roman sighed and pointedly reached over to a nearby end table. On it sat a group of half-wilted purple flowers in a porcelain vase. Carefully, he nudged the vase off the table and let it crash to the floor. Shards sprayed everywhere.

Logan flinched, just a little bit. But he only said “You’re cleaning that up” and didn’t turn around.

Roman stamped his foot. He probably looked and sounded like a whiny brat, but at this point, he didn’t care. “I just broke a vase, can you please pay attention to me?”

“I have never heard a single sentence,” Logan mused, “that summed you up so succinctly as that.

“Well, it worked,” Roman said. “You’re talking to me.”

“Indeed,” Logan said. “It was a mistake on my part to engage you and I shall not continue to do so. Have a good day.”

Logan made to walk away briskly. Then he looked down at the stack of books he still needed to shelve. To Roman’s satisfaction, he just began shelving again, the space between his shoulders looking uncomfortably tight.

“Relax,” Roman blurted out. “I’m not going to hurt you, fight with you, or make out with you.”

Logan made a strangled sound that landed between a laugh and a scream. “Oh really?”

“Yes, really.” Roman chanced a few steps closer, and Logan didn’t move away, though his hand did tighten on a book’s spine. “I just want to talk.”

“We already talked, didn’t we? The night when…it happened. I don’t see what else there is to discuss.”

Roman snorted. “You’re kidding, right? We just apologized to each other and left. We didn’t actually agree on any sort of plan.”

“Subtext,” Logan said, sliding a book into place with more force than necessary. “If you read between the lines, you’ll find that a very clean plan emerges.”

“Oh yeah, Specs?” Roman couldn’t resist teasing. “And what’s that?”

“You avoid me.” Logan pointed at Roman’s chest, still staring at the shelf. “I avoid you. We move on with our lives as if it never happened.”

“Seriously?” Roman asked. “We can’t treat each other like we’ve got the plague and simultaneously act like it never happened!”

“Those two things are not synonymous,” Logan agreed. “I should have clarified. We avoid all…unnecessary contact with each other. But we aren’t forbidden from speaking to each other entirely.”

“Unnecessary contact?” Roman asked. He was teasing again, almost flirting, and he hated himself for it. But he couldn’t help it. If he ignored the whiteness of Logan’s fingers on the books, the clench of his jaw, and the way he studiously avoided eye contact, it was almost a normal argument between them. Roman teasing and overblown, Logan cold and logical. Poking each other’s buttons and having fun with the fallout.

But this wasn’t normal. There was no mutual agreement not to cut too deep, no battle lines drawn, no Virgil and Patton to mediate if it got out of hand. This wasn’t a joke or a sign of friendship or a piece of something more. This was new territory, and Roman was floundering.

“Unnecessary contact,” Logan repeated. “We only interact in situations where our well-being, health, or ability to perform tasks hinges on the other’s company. Other than that, simply acknowledging each other to maintain an appearance of normality is acceptable. Said acknowledgement should be five words or less, and—”

“Write up a contract, why don’t you?” Roman paused. “Actually, though, if you’re serious about this, write it down. I won’t remember it otherwise. Or—hey, do you know about mnemonics? Could you make a little rhyme about this? ‘Don’t hang out or say hi, unless you’re gonna die.’”

Logan huffed out a breath that could be considered a laugh. Roman counted that as a victory.

“What about meetings?” Roman asked. “Patton and Virgil will be confused.”

“Patton and Virgil are inconsequential,” Logan said.

“You say that,” Roman agreed. “But if they get the faintest hint that something’s wrong between us, they’ll go all out. We’ll have them knocking at our doors at midnight, hugging us until we collapse, bribing us with cookies, and threatening to rearrange our tendons if we don’t tell them what happened.”

Logan made another little maybe-laugh. It was an adorable sound. Roman immediately decided his life’s mission was to make Logan laugh like that.

“I don’t know,” Logan finally said. “I want to continue going to the meetings—I do care about Patton and Virgil and enjoy their company—but I don’t know.”

“I like the meetings too,” Roman added. “But if—"

“I will not force you to stop attending them, Roman.” Logan weighed a book in his hand, running his fingers over the embossed gold lettering. “That would only hurt you, and the entire premise of my plan is to avoid either of us being hurt.”

Roman bit his lip. “I dunno, Specs.” He sighed. “Not sure if that’ll work out. It’s--” He felt his throat choke up.

It’s too late for that, Logan. I’m already hurt. And isn’t it cruel of me that I wish you were hurt, too?

“It’s not a great plan,” Roman said.

“It’s in progress.” Logan picked up another book. “Oh, this is from the fiction section. Why can’t Toby categorize these properly?”

Roman reached out a hand, and seemingly without thinking, Logan gave him the book. It was a fairytale book, with a golden-haired princess on the cover, looking longingly outside her window. He’d loved fairytales when he was a kid. He always wanted to be the prince, rescuing maidens fair. Soon he’d realized he was much more interested in rescuing noblemen fair, but that worked too.

Little did he know he’d become the damsel in distress. A fair maiden locked in a tower room, waiting for rescue.

Rescue that would, most likely, never come.

“What will we do in the meantime?” Roman asked. “While you work on your in-progress plan. If you skip any more meetings, Patton and Virgil will get worried.” He turned the fairytale book over in his hands. “I covered for you, said you were sick, but I’ll run out of excuses soon.”

“I’m not skipping meetings because of this. I had somewhere else to be. I couldn’t let you know in time.” Logan bent down and fitted a small book into place. “I won’t skip meetings until I’ve figured out the plan. That would attract too much attention, as you said.”

“You didn’t skip?” Roman repeated. “I thought…I thought you weren’t there because you didn’t want to see me.”

Logan straightened, and for the first time, looked Roman in the eyes. “Not everything is about you, Roman.”

Roman tried to maintain a calm appearance, but the jab caught him off guard. “Everything should be,” he mumbled. The cocky phrase stumbled out of his lips and landed flat, lifeless, unconvincing. Logan ignored it entirely, and for that, Roman was thankful.

“Where were you?” Roman asked when he’d shaken Logan’s biting tone from his head. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to ask that question, but it was worth a shot. “What happened?”

Logan tilted his head, brushing a bit of dust from the shelf. Finally, he said, “Interview.”

It was uncharacteristically monosyllabic of him. And his voice, though usually level, had a flat and toneless quality that made Roman shiver in his triple-layer red dress.

“Interview?” Roman repeated.

“That’s what I said.”

Then it hit Roman. “Wait—the guards interviewed you? To see if you—”

“—am a traitor to the good name of The King His Majesty, Royal Tart and Terrible Person, et cetera et cetera?” The venom in Logan’s voice was surprising and a bit terrifying. He was practically slamming books into their spots now, making loud thumps as they connected with the back of the shelf. “Yes.”

“What did you say?” Roman asked.

“What do you think I said?” Logan responded. Thump. “That I regularly engage in what could be considered treasonous behavior? That I’m friends with people that also regularly engage in said behavior? That I think the King is uneducated and boorish and that his Queen would do a far better job of ruling?” Thump. “I’m still alive, aren’t I? Obviously I told them what they wanted to hear.”

Roman tried to wrap his head around Logan’s angry speech. The only thought he could string together was “You think I’d do a better job than the King?”

Logan’s fingers froze on the shelf. But he soon recovered himself. “It’s not exactly a high bar. So…yes.”

“Huh.” Roman knew it was a backwards compliment at best. Roman knew it reflected more on the King’s inability to rule than Roman’s ability to do the same. Still, it made Roman’s chest warm and his face involuntarily stretch into a smile.

“Patton had his interview this morning,” Logan continued. Thump. “He told me it went well.”

Roman frowned at the emphasis on ‘told.’ “Do you think it went well?”

“Patton?” Logan sighed. “Everyone in the castle loves him. I believe he will be fine.”

“Do you think…your interview went well?”

“As I said.” Thump. “I’m still alive.”

The look on Logan’s face made Roman want to simultaneously hide, comfort him, and fight whoever angered his dearest love—friend. His nice, good, platonic friend.

Logan was angry. He was hurt. And Roman could see, in the slight quiver of his mouth, that he was scared.

Roman wasn’t the only one trapped in this castle, was he?

“I’m sorry,” Roman said.

Logan raised an eyebrow. “What for? It’s not your fault.”

“I—” Roman couldn’t explain the mixture of protective love and pain that had risen within him. “Never mind, I guess.”

Logan returned to shelving books, as if Roman hadn’t spoken at all.

“You know what this is about, right?” Roman asked. He couldn’t take the silence. “You missed our meeting, so…”

Logan was quiet. Roman was beginning to think that he’d overstepped when Logan finally responded.

“I’m aware of the basics.” Logan flipped open a book and thumbed the first page, reading the foreign language like he was born speaking it. “The King believes there might be a traitor in the castle, thus in a fit of paranoia he interviews anyone who might possibly be thinking he’s not that great. Whether there is a traitor or not remains to be seen.”

“He’s convinced there is,” Roman said. “He gets worried about this stuff all the time, but…this is different.” Roman held back a shudder at the memory of the King’s cold words and colder eyes. “He thinks there’s a real possibility an assassination attempt is on the horizon.”

And he’s right, Roman didn’t add. Because Logan had enough on his plate. Because Roman could figure this out on his own. Because he was scared, for himself and for Logan, and because he would never want Logan to get hurt.

Too late for that, Roman, his mind whispered.

Was Logan hurt? Roman couldn’t tell. Roman could never get a read on Logan, and that both intrigued and terrified him.

And now Logan was looking at him again, and something was rising in his eyes—what was it?—and Logan was asking if he was okay, and now the something was clearer. Concern. Logan was concerned.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” Roman blurted out.

“What?” Logan asked. The look faltered, but didn’t go away.

“Like you—” Like you care about me. “Like you’re worried.”

“Worried?” Logan repeated. His books stood, forgotten, at his feet.

“Yeah.”

“Well, you figuratively zoned out for a bit.” Logan shifted, rubbing his arm even though the sun was almost uncomfortably warm. “And…if there is an assassination attempt, I’m—I’m worried. I’m worried you’ll be affected.”

Roman wanted to do flips on the library floor. He wanted to light up the sky with fireworks and dance among the clouds, because he was pretty sure he’d fly if he tried. He wanted to scream and shout and yell to the moon that Logan Abbott was worried about him!

And wasn’t that pathetic? Logan showed a bit of basic human decency and Roman acted like he’d gotten a proposal and the entire Milky Way?

“Okay,” Roman said, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say. It felt far too inconsequential for the moment, but anything else would get him a raised eyebrow. He didn’t want to seem weird or desperate. Well, more than normal.

“You’ll be all right,” Logan said, returning to his books. He sounded like he was trying to convince himself. “The castle has high levels of security and every member of the guard is on high alert. Doubtless you’ll receive extra security and he’ll assign more guards to protect you—”

“No, he won’t,” Roman interrupted.

“What?”

“He’s scaling back my protection, actually.” Roman waved a hand at the library surrounding them. “It’s why I’ve been here for the past two hours with no supervision.”

“Why on earth would he—” Logan looked absolutely affronted. “If he’s the one conducting all these interviews, shouldn’t he be worried about your safety? That is horrible planning!”

Roman knew he should probably stop talking. But biting, hot words crawled up his throat, lodged there, and wouldn’t let go. The only choice was to let them out.

“He’s not going to waste guards protecting me,” Roman said, “so I can be used as bait to draw out any potential assassins. If I’m attacked, they’ll be able to catch whoever did it. It’s easier to punish actions than thoughts. He’s encouraging thoughts to become actions.” Roman chuckled to himself. “Actually, when I put it that way, it sounds kind of smart. Who knew he was such a strategist?”

“That’s a risky plan,” Logan said. The books, once again, lay forgotten. Their argument and the tension between them seemed similarly forgotten—Logan was looking at Roman the way he used to. Full of affection and friendship and gentle annoyance. “In fact, I would say that plan isn’t worth the potential ramifications. You could be killed, and I don’t think I’d--” Logan seemed to catch himself. “And that would be bad for the kingdom,” he finished lamely.

“He doesn’t care.” Roman’s anger sat, hot and heavy, like molten lead in his stomach. Poisoning him, burning him, weighing him down. “He says I’m expendable. He can always just get remarried. I’m not worth anything.”

Logan looked frozen. “He said that to you?”

Roman nodded. He tried to smile, to play it off, but his smile was taut and felt more like a grimace.

“Roman, you—” Logan swallowed and started again. His voice was soft but strong. “Those words are gross falsehoods. You are exceedingly valuable to this kingdom and to the world. Place no merit in anything he says.”

Roman wanted to believe Logan. He did. He could almost convince himself he believed Logan, that he was worth everything, that Logan actually liked him—but the dreams were tinged with pain and fluttered from his grasp when he reached for them. They were faded, straggly, fake.

Logan seemed to sense Roman’s hesitance. He reached forward—to take Roman’s hand, to touch his shoulder, his arm, to what?—but pulled back almost immediately.

“That is a form of abuse,” Logan said to the shelves, his voice almost a whisper. “Emotional or verbal abuse. Any words or actions that attempt to hurt or inhibit someone emotionally fall into this category. Some people discount it as less harmful because there is no physical or material harm to the victim, but that is faulty logic. Emotional abuse is just as harmful and wrong as any other type of abuse.”

Roman laughed. It almost sounded real. “Thanks for the definition, Human Dictionary.”

Logan didn’t laugh, still staring at the books. “One of the most harmful effects of emotional abuse is that a victim can believe that said abuse is somehow their fault.”

The laugh died on Roman’s lips.

Did—did Roman think it was his fault?

He didn’t really think the King was right, did he? He didn’t really think he was worthless, did he? He didn’t really believe he deserved this.

Did he?

Unfortunately, if Roman had to ask those questions in the first place, that probably wasn’t a good sign.

Still. Time to go for the old standby—fake it ‘til you make it.

“I don’t think it’s my fault,” Roman said, as cheerily as possible. “He’s an asshole. I get that. But—I don’t really think it’s abuse, either.” Okay, this was going into emotional territory again. Why did Logan always drag out Roman’s bitter, messed-up side? “It’s…it’s just the King being the King, you know? It’s just how things are.”

Logan looked into Roman’s eyes, conviction shining through every part of his face.

“It shouldn’t be.”

And Logan’s bright eyes, his glasses balanced on his nose, the hard set of his mouth and the curve of his nose and the sweep of his combed hair—he was glowing in the sun, and glowing with confidence, and glowing with beauty, and Roman could just kiss him, no one would know—

But the last time he kissed Logan, he lost a friend and got a blackmailer.

Logan would never forgive him if he went in for the kiss.

Roman would never forgive himself.

Hell, Logan probably hadn’t forgiven him anyway. And Roman sure hadn’t forgiven himself yet, either.

So no kiss. No emotional conversation. No telling Logan how much it really meant to hear those words from him.

“Why do you care?” Roman joked. “We’ve got a contract. You won’t be seeing me anymore.”

Logan looked like he’d been slapped. “I—Roman, despite the circumstances, I still do wish for your health and safety—”

Okay, that joke didn’t land. Roman hastily scrambled to pick up the pieces. “I’m just saying, since you don’t even want to be friends anymore—”

And he sounded too bitter. Well. Time to dig a hole and bury himself in it.

“Roman,” Logan said, “I hear you, but this is what’s best for us.”

“Is it?” Why couldn’t Roman stop talking? “Because I don’t want this. I don’t want this to end because of one stupid night.”

“I know. I don’t either.”

“Then why?”

“It’s—” Logan rubbed his forehead. “It’s complicated.”

“How is it complicated?” Roman asked. “We’re friends, kissed one time in the heat of the moment, we’ll ignore that and move on with our lives. Doesn’t sound complicated to me. Do you know how many friends have kissed each other once or twice?”

“No—yes—you’re confusing me.” Logan sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “You don’t understand, Roman.”

“Then help me to!” Roman stepped forward. “Please, Lo. I don’t—I don’t want to lose you over this.”

Logan’s eyes, for a second, swam with confusion and hurt and fear. “Roman, you—I—I’ve—”

Then a wall seemed to slam in place between them, with all the fury of Logan slamming books on the shelf. “I can’t.”

“You can’t what?”

“I just can’t.” Logan looked away. “We can be friends, all right? We can still be friends. I just need…processing time. A few days, maybe a week. At most, a month. After this is all over, if you still…want to, we’ll be friends.”

That wasn’t perfect. That wasn’t even close—perfect would be Logan swooning into his arms and doves flying around the sky as they shared a kiss and pledged their undying love. But it was something, and something was better than nothing, and Roman was thankful.

“Okay,” Roman said. “That works.”

“All right,” Logan agreed.

And suddenly things were very awkward. Roman scratched at the back of his neck. Logan looked around, adjusting his collar.

“I—” Logan finally said. “I need to shelve. My books. Books to—books to shelve.”

“Right.” Roman nodded. “I’ll—I’ll leave you to it, then.”

“Farewell?”

Roman lifted a hand. “Bye.”

He left Logan there, working through an endless stack of books, surrounded by words he understood better than Roman ever could. Glowing in the afternoon light, as ethereal as the stories surrounding him, a will o’ the wisp, a dream, a scentless paper chase.

He’d dropped the book of fairytales somewhere, Roman realized. But Logan would find it.

He didn’t know that the book of fairytales waited on his dresser, the title page bearing a black, swirling cursive scrawl. A different handwriting. The same person. The same threat.

And--Same time. Same place.

Beneath it, on the drawing of a princess yearning for more, D had sketched a sword in her right hand.

---

Once again, the portrait room was dark and quiet. Darker than before, actually. The single candle from last time was gone. Roman, glad he’d brought a candle of his own, stepped inside. The door swung shut behind him, and his candle was snuffed out.

“Hello?” he asked.

A gloved hand covered his mouth.

Panic choked Roman’s throat. He scrabbled for his sword, heart pounding in his chest. He screamed into the hand once, twice, three times—not actual words. Just screaming.

Could anyone blame him?

“Calm down,” instructed a voice near his ear. “You’ll alert the whole castle.”

D. Roman relaxed a bit before he remembered he was still in the dark, alone, with D. It wasn’t safe yet.

“Honestly,” D continued, hand still clamped over Roman’s mouth. “Saying ‘hello?’ when you can’t see anyone? It’s a miracle you’ve survived this long. What, did you expect an assassin to respond ‘Yes, here, it’s nice to meet you?’”

“Just let me go already,” Roman grumbled. Muffled by D’s hand, it came out more like “Mmph mmph mmph, mm-mmph.”

D seemed to understand nonetheless. “Will you keep your precious little mouth shut?”

Roman nodded.

Slowly, the hand came away from Roman’s mouth. Roman gasped for breath. The musty, dusty, damp air of the castle seemed as sweet as the wind over a forest.

That was something Roman missed about home. The smell. It always smelled like his mom’s cooking and his sister’s shortbread and the perfume of flowers at the table and the smell of grass and wheat from the fields. Occasionally, when Remus got up to something, mud and manure, or even more occasionally, blood from a scraped knee or sliced finger. It was alive at all hours of the day. This castle had died a long time ago, and its dank, dirty body had been pulled from the grave and given a makeover filled with candle sconces and too many paintings. Put a bowtie on a pig, Roman’s mother would say, but it’s still a pig.

“I’d love to stay and chat,” D said after a few seconds. “But I’m wanted elsewhere and time is short. So I’ll make this short and sweet. Here.”

A gloved hand took his. Roman felt the smoothness of cool glass beneath his fingers. Something swished in the bottle—was it a small bottle or a large vial? It almost slipped from Roman’s hands, and he caught it, rubbing his thumb over a wax-sealed cap.

“What is—”

“No questions. Let me talk.” Almost all the snakelike charm and sleazy smugness was gone. The directness and force in D’s voice was out of character and somewhat terrifying.

“That’s axinide. About six spoonfuls of it. If you drank that bottle right now, it would kill you two times over before I could say ‘Long live the Queen.’”

Even if Roman was permitted to talk, his mouth was dry as sandpaper and his throat was choked with nerves. He prayed this wasn’t what he thought it was, but he knew it couldn’t be anything else.

“In two days, you have another meeting with him, correct?”

Roman stayed silent before he realized he was supposed to answer. “Y-yes. How’d you—”

“I know things. I thought we had covered that.” D’s voice betrayed a hint of impatience. “In that meeting, you will place this axinine in the King’s tea. Act natural. Use some sleight-of-hand, or better yet, put it in the tea before the meeting. When he collapses, pretend to faint or swoon, anything to get suspicion off you. If all goes well, we’ll have the King off the throne, you’ll have your husband out of your hair, and you can kiss Logan Abbott as much as you please. Everybody wins.”

Roman opened his mouth and swallowed. “Question?”

“One.”

“Why me? Why can’t you slip in there and p-poison him?”

“Oh, Roman.” Roman could picture D’s coy smile. “Because I don’t want to get caught. If you get caught, he’ll already be dead, you’ll be in charge, and there’s nothing anyone will do to stop you. If I get caught, it’ll be a nightmare. My higher-ups will be implicated, my family name tarnished…I apologize for my selfishness, but I’m not risking that. With this plan, the worst-case scenario is that you’re caught beforehand and executed.”

Roman made a little choked noise.

“It needn’t come to that,” D said with a tone just to the left of reassuring. “I have men on the inside and eyes everywhere. I will do my utmost to protect you, as I was ordered.”

“Ordered?” Roman repeated. D wasn’t working on his own. He wasn’t the mastermind. Someone else was running this coup.

“Enough questions.” D patted Roman’s shoulder. “Good luck. I’ll be watching.”

Roman felt a swish of cloak beside him. “Wait!”

For a second, he thought D had already gone. Finally, he heard “What is it?”

“Um…” Roman was second-guessing himself now, but he forged ahead. “The King’s catching on. He knows there’s an assassination plot. He knows people in the castle are spies. He’ll be on his guard and…and he might catch you or your—associates.”

“You think I don’t know that?” D asked teasingly. “What sort of treasonous spy would I be if I didn’t? Rest assured, the King would never guess that you’d attack him. He doesn’t see you as an equal or a threat. He will not see this coming.”

“I know,” Roman said. “Just—be careful? I don’t…you wouldn’t want to get caught.”

“Thank you for the warning,” D said. His voice was unreadable. “I appreciate it. You know, sometimes,” he added, voice lighter once more, “you’re not half-bad, Your Majesty.”

“Roman,” Roman repeated.

“Roman.”

D laughed at a joke only he understood. There was another swish of cloaks, and Roman felt the room grow noticeably emptier. He stepped back towards the door, and after a few seconds of searching, he found the doorknob and pulled it open.

Once again, the portrait room was empty.

Roman looked down at his other hand. Nestled in his palm was a small bottle, sealed with dark blue and tied with a yellow ribbon. The liquid inside was clear. Roman might have mistaken it for water, but water was never that lucid.

The glass gleamed in the candlelight. Then Roman heard footsteps down the hall. Quickly, he closed the door and slipped the bottle into a pocket in his dress. It pressed against his leg—hidden from the naked eye, but cool and hard against his skin.

Roman leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. He couldn’t even comprehend the levels of danger he was in. He couldn’t wrap his head around the complex power struggle he’d stumbled into because he kissed the wrong person at the wrong time. This all felt like a dream or a story, something he and Remus would make up as kids, with sludge for the poison and sticks for the swords and crowns made of crumbling paper.

Roman’s own, non-paper crown sat heavy over his forehead. The bottle of poison sat heavy in his pocket. And fear, dark and trembling, sat heavy in his heart.

For perhaps the first time in his life, Roman del Rey had no idea what to do.

Chapter Text

I get him and he gets me,
And there’s nothing more to it
He just cares so much, he’s devoted
He says we have a connection…
I thought this time was different
Why did I think he’d be different?
But it’s never, ever different.

-All U Wanna Do, Six the Musical

---

Roman del Rey was pacing. The shards of his broken mirror crunched and clinked under his shoes. Once in a while a piece cut his ankle or made it through the sole to his feet. Roman winced every time, but he didn’t stop pacing. If he stopped moving, the dread lurking in his stomach would catch up to him. If he kept moving, he could fool himself into thinking he was doing something about the situation. If he kept moving, he could remind himself he was still alive.

Not for much longer, maybe.

There were two choices. It was simple, when he looked at it like that. Kill the King or don’t. A fork in the road. But every choice came with its own pros and cons and baggage and rewards. Roman could hardly keep track of them all. He thought about writing them down, but he’d have to stop for a quill and some paper, and stopping meant giving up his momentum.

So he mapped it out in his head.

It was still simple, at first. Kill the King, or refuse to kill him and get killed instead.

Roman didn’t want to die. But he didn’t want to kill anyone, either. He needed to let go of his morals or die.

Hard. But simple.

Except there was Logan. Except Logan would die too, and Logan could never die. Roman would do anything to stop that.

Did ‘anything’ include killing a man?

Less simple now. Still hard. Still complicated.

What if he did kill the King? Then he’d be stuck on a throne he never wanted, ruling a kingdom shattered by the assassination of its leader. Roman didn’t know anything about ruling! Nobody had taught him a thing. They’d all assumed he’d die before the King did. How on earth would he manage to be in charge? Did he deserve that? He hadn’t been trained from birth for this, wasn’t even part of a noble line. He was just pretty.

Maybe the kingdom wouldn’t like him. Maybe they wouldn’t trust him, because he’d killed the previous monarch. Maybe they’d sense his weakness and send more assassins, fighting until Roman was dead. Since Roman had no successor, maybe the kingdom would plunge into civil war, or maybe a tyrant would simply seize the throne, leaving them even worse off.

And that all assumed Roman would actually succeed. If he messed up during the assassination attempt, he’d be executed for treason.

At least Logan would be fine.

Well, actually, the King would probably execute all Roman’s friends, too. So Logan probably wouldn’t be fine. Neither would Virgil. Or Patton.

Attempt to kill the King, risking the execution of everyone Roman cared about. Or deny D’s request, ensuring his own death and the death of Logan.

Not at all simple anymore. So, so hard.

And yet it still boiled down to: Kill the King or don’t.

If it was just that, no strings attached?

Roman still wouldn’t know.

He’d waited for the King to die, sure. But killing someone was a different matter entirely. The King was flesh and blood and bone. He had family and friends—well, none of the former and a very small amount of the latter, but still—Roman didn’t want to kill anyone. Even someone who deserved it, maybe. Did anyone deserve to die for their crimes?

Was Roman willing to die so the King didn’t have to?

The King would say that he should be. Roman should be dutiful and willing to sacrifice himself for his husband, his ruler, and the good of the kingdom.

That last one, Roman was fine with. The first two were still a problem.

The King would kill Roman if he got the chance.

Did that excuse Roman killing him? Was self-defense still self-defense if it was preemptive?

And there were other ways for Roman to defend himself. He could run away—hey, he could run away! He could escape this castle and find a new life and—

Guards. There was no way he’d escape the guards. And if he did make it out, the King would surely send men after him. He’d never have a moment of rest until he was eventually caught and (surprise, surprise!) executed.

Roman was really going to die whatever he did, wasn’t he?

What if he did nothing? What if he stopped walking and sat down and waited for someone else to decide? He wouldn’t tell D no, but he wouldn’t poison the King either. He would just let someone else take action and stay in his room.

But Roman couldn’t stop pacing, stop moving. His legs were beginning to shake. He didn’t think he could make them stop without falling to the ground and slashing his arms on the glass pieces glittering below.

He needed to clean those up. The sharp edges were dangerous. He had no idea where he’d put the glass, but it would be nice to sit on the floor without dying.

Painfully, carefully, Roman slowed down. He didn’t stop pacing, but he made slower, more drifting circles around his room. Bending over as he walked, he picked a piece up. It caught the light of the candles which lit the space. It had to be past midnight. Roman should get to sleep, but he’d have to stop moving to go to bed, and every space he could stand in was filled with sharp slivers of glass. Glass everywhere—buried in the carpet, scratching the floors, reflecting the candles and the cold night outside and Roman’s face. He looked weary, wild, and several kingdoms from pretty.

Roman turned over the piece of glass. It was about the size of his palm, with a sharp jagged edge along one side and a point at the top. That’s dangerous, a cautionary voice said to him. It used to sound like Patton and Virgil, but these days, it sounded more and more like Logan. Put it down. You could hurt yourself.

Roman hummed to himself. He held the glass up to his face and pushed his hair flat. It didn’t quite stay positioned, but it was better than nothing.

Nobody could see him. So it didn’t matter. None of it really mattered.

Roman’s fingers curled around the glass, almost of their own accord. It was sharp enough to be a knife. A sword.

If he was going to die anyway, maybe he should just—

What?

Roman chucked the piece of glass away from him, eyes widening. Had he actually just thought that? It was late, but…that was dark even for midnight thoughts. He’d call it intrusive, say he would never think that on a normal night—except that wasn’t really true, was it.

It was a tempting idea. A scarily tempting idea. To end the game before it begun.

No. Absolutely not. “No!”

Something about speaking seemed to ground Roman. The room spun a bit less. The candles fell into place. The fog in his head cleared, just a little bit.

“No,” he said out loud, closing his eyes. “If I die, I’m going to die accomplishing something. I’m going to die trying to make things right. I promise.”

He didn’t fully believe what he was saying, but it was a start. It was enough to make him stop moving, enough to make him know that he would fall asleep and wake up and things would be better in the morning.

Then Roman realized what he had just promised.

He was going to make things right.

He was going to kill the King.

In approximately a day and a half.

---

Roman decided to take a page out of D’s book and write some letters.

He didn’t need to write one for Virgil, who checked on him that morning. Roman told him they were meeting today, yes he knew Virgil had a shift, could he please find an excuse, this was really important, but Virgil shouldn’t worry because everything was under control (a complete lie). After dodging more questions about his health and well-being, Roman suggested Virgil go do some guard things. Reluctantly, Virgil agreed.

He wrote a quick one for Patton: “Hi!! Meeting today at normal time? Be there or be square! Hugs from your favorite kiddo : )” He knew Patton would recognize his handwriting. Hopefully, any snoopers wouldn’t. Roman left that note with a friendly servant who promised to deliver it.

After agonizing over Logan’s note for close to an hour—an hour he was supposed to spend practicing the pianoforte, but who was counting—Roman settled on short and simple. “Meeting today, Specs. Important.”

He paused, then scribbled another word down.

“Sorry.”

For what, he didn’t know. For making Logan come to the meeting. For kissing him. For all the jabs and arguments and time they wasted when they could have been something more than enemies.

For lying to him, maybe. Roman would have to tell Logan about this now. He’d have to own what he’d hidden from his best friend and dearest love—

Best. Friend.

Logan would probably be mad. But Logan was smart. Logan had ideas and plans and all sorts of tricky smart-guy things. He’d know what to do, even if Roman didn’t.

Roman knew what he was going to do, though. He didn’t need his friends’ advice. He’d already decided.

Maybe he just wanted someone to reassure him, tell him he was right, tell him this wasn’t the end of the world. He wanted to feel like he’d made a good choice.

Pathetic, yes. Desperate, yes. Needy, also yes. But Roman was waist-deep in a coup—he could afford to be a less-than-stellar human being for now.

Roman left the note in the library next to a mis-shelved book. Logan would find it. He had an instinct for finding mis-shelved and disorderly things. It was rather intimidating at times.

Thankfully, Roman didn’t have any meals or banquets or meetings that day. So he spent the rest of his morning pacing around in circles, humming old lullabies to himself, probably looking like a madman but it didn’t matter because nobody could see him. He didn’t have to keep up appearances. He could just let things go.

So he hummed lullabies, walked in circles, screamed into his palms, collapsed dramatically onto his bed, cleaned up most of the broken mirror, did his hair and messed it up so he could do it again, painted a tree on his wall with makeup, made a pillow fort and a pillow tower and a pile of pillows that he threw at the wall and punched until the feathers flew out, and picked up the dead feathers and tossed them around like confetti.

He did everything he possibly could in order to drown himself out.

---

Roman was the first at the meeting spot. He slipped between the shelves half an hour early, with no makeup on his face and a simple white dress with a red sash. It was one of his favorite dresses, which was probably why the King never let him wear it. Roman had also tried to advocate for pants. Hey, gender stereotypes could step in cow manure, screw the binary, Roman could wear dresses if he wanted, but he also sort of missed pants.

It was a mistake asking for pants. Just to spite Roman, the King wouldn’t let him wear any remotely masculine outfit. Roman didn’t mind as much as others might, but it was another reminder that he was essentially powerless. He couldn’t even choose his own clothes.

Okay, that was too much thinking again. Roman forcibly wrenched his train of thought from the tracks and started reciting every name he could think of that started with K. He’d gotten Katherine, Kayla, Kyle, Katheryn, Kate, and Katie when Patton showed up.

“Hi, kiddo!” Patton’s usual smile was less bright than usual. “How are you doing?”

Roman gave him an even duller smile in return. “Just fine and dandy, Padre.”

“Then why—”

“Sit down.” Roman winced at the harshness in his own voice. “Please, Patton. Sit down, we’ll wait for the others, and then we’ll talk.”

“O-okay?” Patton sat down hesitantly. “Is everything alright? Is this about--?”

“What do you think?” Roman grumbled. There came the bitterness again, right on schedule. Dammit.

“Can I hug you?” Patton asked.

Roman didn’t really want a hug from Patton, but he figured it would be too out-of-character to refuse it. So he nodded. Patton jumped up and pulled Roman from the chair, giving him a huge hug.

Maybe it was the dark, sticky thoughts clawing at the edge of Roman’s mind. Maybe it was the way his skin felt too tight and too wrong, like an ill-fitting dress he was forced to wear. Maybe it was just the wrong time for a hug. But Roman didn’t feel safe in Patton’s arms like he usually did. Instead, he felt trapped, held in place and unable to move. His arms burned where they touched Patton’s, his eyes burned, he was going to yell or cry or something and he was supposed to be hugging Patton back but all he wanted was to run—

“Hey,” said Virgil.

Roman almost fell on his knees and thanked Virgil, because Patton immediately let go and ran over to Virgil instead. Roman gave Virgil his best dazzling smile. “General Grievous! Glad you came!”

“Yeah, I had to pull in two favors and pretend I’ve come down with a violent cough.” Virgil lifted an arm and hugged Patton back. “This better be worth it, Princey.”

The sarcastic, off-beat tone of his words didn’t match the look of worry in his eyes.

“Sit down.” Roman sat back on his own chair, running his hand over the red sash. “Okay?”

“Okay,” Virgil agreed, sitting next to Patton. The concern was leaking into his voice now.

“Is Logan coming?” Patton asked. Roman opened his mouth to respond. Then he realized he had no idea whether Logan would attend or not. He might need some more time away from Roman, or maybe something came up, or maybe he just decided to skip the meeting because he didn’t know how important it was because Roman hadn’t told him about the blackmail.

“I don’t know,” Roman finally said.

“Oh.”

Virgil was sitting cross-legged on the carpet, drawing circles in the plush with one hand, his other hand resting—out of habit—on his sword. Patton leaned on his hands and stared at Roman, head tilted, messy curls falling in his face. Roman shifted on his overstuffed flowery chair, feeling the fabric of his dress catch against his skin. It was the loosest, simplest, best dress he owned. So why was it so hard to breathe?

“Am I late?”

Roman almost jumped out of his skin. Virgil whirled and even Patton seemed to flinch. Logan held up his hand in a placating gesture. Virgil breathed a sigh of relief, muttering “Don’t scare me like that, L.” Patton jumped up and gave Logan a hug, which he barely reciprocated. Roman didn’t relax a single inch. He caught Logan’s eyes over Patton’s shoulder. Something passed between them, but Roman didn’t know what it was. He could never get a good read on Logan.

Logan sat on the other chair, back straight and hands folded, looking like that rickety old thing was his throne. A teasing jab grew on Roman’s tongue, then he remembered things were different now. He swallowed his words and looked away.

“So.” Virgil drummed his fingers on his sheath. “Why are we here?”

Roman licked his lips. “Ah—I suppose I had better explain, hadn’t I?”

Patton gave him a comforting look. Virgil already looked ready to pummel someone. Logan—Roman tried not to look at Logan. Maybe if he didn’t, he could pretend Logan wasn’t even here, and he wouldn’t have to explain what had happened and what D threatened and why Roman kept Logan out of the loop.

First things first, catch Patton and Virgil up to speed.

“Well.” Roman sat on his hands and stared at a spot of carpet between his feet. “I. Well. I…got another visit from our old friend.”

Virgil straightened like he’d been shocked.

“He…gave me some instructions.” Roman reached between two sections of his dress. That was another reason why he liked this dress—it had places to hide things. Like swords, for instance. And small bottles of clear liquid like the one he pulled out and held up to the light.

“That’s not—” Virgil shook his head. “Tell me that’s not what I think it is.”

Roman bit his lip. “What do you think it is?”

“Well, it’s either poison or very dramatic water.”

“Correct,” Roman mumbled, placing the bottle on a small end table nearby. “You’re exactly correct.”

Patton frowned. “So it is dramatic water?”

“No. I—should have clarified. It’s not dramatic water.” Roman glanced warily at the bottle. “It is definitely poison. Some very, very poisonous poison.”

Virgil raised an eyebrow. “That was suspiciously specific, so now I’m doubting you and starting to believe it is actually water and you’re just messing with us.”

“I wish,” Roman said. “That would make things a lot easier.”

Patton eyed the bottle like it was a venomous spider. “W-well, kiddo, what’re you supposed to do with the poison?”

“Use it in a ritual to summon duck skeletons,” Roman snapped. “It’s poison, Patton. There’s only one thing you do with it.”

Virgil raised his other eyebrow. “You alright there, Princey?”

Roman flushed. “I—sorry, Patton. I didn’t mean to—I’m sorry. That was rude.”

“It’s no biggie, kiddo. You’ve got a lot on your mind.” Patton gave him a small smile. “And we’ll help, okay?”

“Yeah.” Virgil nodded. “We’ve got your back.”

Roman smiled for the first time that day, and it actually felt real. Something warm was growing in his chest. Maybe his friends could help, they could save the day, they could—

“Could I interrupt for a second?”

Oh. Right.

Logan is still sitting in the other chair. Confused and concerned and just a tad annoyed. And Roman knows that annoyance will soon turn to anger. Hatred. Betrayal. He knows, he knows, he knows, but knowing doesn’t make his chest hurt any less.

“Could you please explain?” Logan’s voice is light, but there’s an undertone that Roman can’t quite parse out. “Why is there poison sitting on that end table?”

Virgil and Patton exchanged a glance.

“Kiddo…” Patton murmured, staring at Roman. “Didn’t you…”

Roman shifted under his gaze. “I—well—it didn’t come up, and I—"

“What happened?” Virgil snapped.

“What?”

“Something clearly happened!” Virgil pointed at Logan, who looked taken aback. “You guys have been acting really weird lately, especially around each other! Roman, I’ve seen you moping about like your dog died, and Logan, you haven’t given me more than three words since last week! And you!” Virgil gestured wildly at Roman. “Didn’t tell him!” Logan almost flinched as Virgil pointed at him again. “That you’re being blackmailed! I don’t know what happened between you two, but can you please explain it and fix it because we’ve all got bigger concerns and I’m tired of yelling at you to make you do something!”

Silence hung in the air, sharp and heavy, a sword dangling by a thread and ready to fall.

Roman felt Logan’s eyes on him. He briefly glanced up and into them, seeing the flecks and the gradients and it was really the wrong time to be thinking about Logan’s eyes but come on.

Roman looked away as soon as he could force himself to. He stared at the wall behind Logan, counting the chips in the stone.

“Blackmailed,” Logan said. It wasn’t a question, or a plead, or a threat. It was just a word.

Roman bit his lip. “Yes.”

“Blackmailed,” Logan repeated.

“Correct.”

Blackmailed.

Roman tried to pull off a winning smile. “You gonna keep repeating yourself, Specs?”

Abruptly, Logan stood up. The chair scraped against the carpet as he shoved it aside. His hands were balled into fists.

“And why.” Clipped. Cold. Dangerous. The anger just beneath the frozen surface. Bless Logan, he was trying to rein it in, but it glowed red-hot under his words. “Didn’t you. Tell me.”

Roman crossed his arms. “Because I’m being blackmailed to assassinate the King or some dude named D will tell the King that I ‘cheated on him.’”

He made finger quotes around those words for Patton and Virgil’s benefits. Logan would know better. And from his expression, he did.

“You should have told me,” he said. Less anger now. More concern. Pity—oh no, Logan was pitying Roman. Roman hated being pitied.

“When?” Roman snapped, trying to look as tough and intimidating as possible. “It happened only a few days ago. You missed our last meeting. Was I supposed to walk up to you and say ‘Hey, I know things are weird between us, but you should know that I’m being blackmailed?’”

“Yes!” Logan burst out. Frustration wasn’t fun, anger wasn’t fun, but at least that cloying pity wasn’t in his voice. “We talked about this! I am your friend—” Logan’s voice wavered on the word. “I am your friend and I do care about your wellbeing, no matter the circumstances!”
“I didn’t want you to get involved!” Roman stood up. “You understand that, right? How dangerous this is? I didn’t—” He realized with a start that his voice was breaking and he was maybe half a minute from bursting into tears. Carefully, slowly, he pressed down the lump in his throat until he could speak steadily again. “I didn’t want anyone to get hurt.”

I didn’t want you to get hurt was his real reason. Logan understood anyway. Of course he did. Logan always saw right through him.

Stupid, smart, wonderful nerd.

“You should have told me,” Logan muttered, but there was no punch behind the words.

“Well, too late for that, isn’t it?” Roman flopped back on his chair and rubbed his eyes. “Let’s stop with the ‘shoulds.’ I’m going to kill the King. What do I do?”

“You already said what you were going to do,” Virgil pointed out.

“I still think you shouldn’t kill anyone,” Patton said.

“I don’t have a choice,” Roman said.

“You always have a choice.”

“Well, all the options are bad right now.”

Virgil frowned. “Talk them through with us. Maybe we can help.”

“Maybe Logan can help!” Patton clapped his hands. “You’re good with these things, right, Lo?”

Logan looked taken aback. He was still standing. “I—I suppose, but—”

“Pat’s right,” Virgil admitted. “You’re the mastermind here. How do we solve this?”

Logan looked between them almost frantically. “I—I really don’t think—”

“Please?” Roman whispered.

Logan wavered, pressed his lips together, took a deep breath.

And sank into his chair, folding his hands on his lap.

“You shouldn’t ask me.”

“What—why not?” Roman asked incredulously. The quietness and softness of Logan’s voice was the opposite of comforting. It set off all of Roman’s alarm bells. Logan wasn’t supposed to be like this, sitting curled up like he was trying to disappear.

“I—” Logan stared at his hands. “I cannot be a solution to a problem I have caused.”

“You’re blaming yourself now?” Roman almost laughed. “Specs, none of this is your fault, are you insane?” He paused when Logan didn’t reply. Didn’t even look up. “Lo…it’s not your fault.”

Logan gave a minute shake of his head. “You don’t understand.”

“Then help me to.”

Logan looked up. Just once. His head was still lowered, so his eyes peered through his hair. His eyebrows were tilted in a question. Roman didn’t know what he was asking, but he tried to nod. Tried to say ‘It’s okay. I want to listen.’

Logan returned his gaze to his hands, and Roman thought he’d failed. Then Logan straightened his back, took a deep breath, and when he spoke, his voice was strong.

“Roman, do you play chess?”

Roman glanced at Patton and Virgil to see if they’d heard the same statement. They looked similarly confused.

“No,” Roman finally said. “Why?”

Logan didn’t seem to register his question. “I play chess sometimes,” he said. This was his lecturing tone, full and confident and insightful. But something—the slide of the vowels, the harsh crack of the consonants, the pause between words—made Roman’s stomach drop with nerves.

“In chess,” Logan continued, still watching his hands, “the king is the most important piece on the board. The checkmate, or capture, of the king ends the game. However, the king is also the weakest piece. It can only move one space at a time. Throughout the game, it relies on other pieces to protect it.” Logan glanced upwards toward Roman. “Do you know what the strongest piece is?”

Roman’s mouth was dry. Mutely, he shook his head.

Logan didn’t look away. “The queen.”

Patton and Virgil were silent. They seemed to sense, like Roman, the storm in the air. The lightning about to strike.

“The queen is the most powerful piece in the game,” Logan continued. The only sign of any emotion was the fidgeting of his hands. “Much of the game is focused around getting your opponent’s queen. If you can capture the queen, often, the king is as good as dead.”

The floor was falling away from Roman’s feet. His heartbeat grew louder and louder, thunderous in his ears. Yet he could hear everything. The gentle clink of Virgil’s armor. The drumming of Logan’s fingers on his chair. The crack in his voice was he asked, “What are you saying?”

“People think it’s hard to capture the queen because she’s so powerful. They think you need another queen to do it. But…really, a simple pawn can take the queen down.” A small smile, bitter and guilty, crossed Logan’s face. “It’s all about making the right moves.”

And then everything fell into place.

It was a painful realization. The kind that made Roman’s chest ache and his mouth go dry and the world shift sideways like he was in a dollhouse and someone had turned it on its head. The kind that made everything around him blur, made him forget Patton and Virgil still sitting on the carpet, made him only see Logan. Logan Abbott, his nemesis, his best friend, the boy he kissed at night and argued with the next day.

“No.” Maybe it Roman said it enough, Logan would laugh and say he was just joking. Or Roman misunderstood him. Or maybe Roman would wake up in his own bed, glad to be rid of this nightmare. “Logan, no.”

“I’m sorry,” Logan whispered. “I’m so sorry.”

It was unlike Logan to apologize, part of Roman noted, the part that wasn’t about to collapse. But then again, did he really know Logan at all?

“You told him,” Roman said. He needed it in words, he needed Logan to say exactly what he did, because some traitorous part of him still hoped it was all a misunderstanding. “How could you tell him?”

“I didn’t have to.” Logan pressed his lips together and met Roman’s eyes. “The entire thing was my idea.”

The entire thing was his idea—

Was it all a lie? Was Logan just using him to get at the King? Did Logan even like him? Did Logan even want to be friends? Did Logan just pretend to tolerate him, pretend to grow closer, pretend to enjoy the nights they spent reading books and talking ethics?

“Roman,” Logan said, and his voice was breaking, and Roman’s heart was breaking, and no, this wasn’t how things were supposed to go—

“Roman,” Logan repeated.

Roman was going to cry. He was going to start sobbing but he couldn’t let Logan see that, couldn’t let Logan see how much he was hurting, couldn’t let Logan win. He had to latch onto something other than defeat, other than pain.

Anger.

There was anger. Roman’s lifeline. Anger that coursed through his bloodstream and felt about to burn him up like a piece of kindling.

He could be angry. Angry was okay. Angry was safe. And the more he thought about it, Roman realized that he wanted to be angry. He wanted to hurt Logan just as much as Logan hurt him. He was a wildfire, blazing out of control.

For once, Roman didn’t even try to stop himself.

“Don’t Roman me,” he snapped. “I’ve been petrified I was going to get my head chopped off because of one mistake. I’ve been walking on thin ice wondering when the King would find out. I’ve been lying to you because I didn’t want to get you involved.” Roman laughed. It was more of a growl. “Isn’t that funny? I tried to keep you safe, but it turns out it was all your fault from the start.”

“I truly am sorry,” Logan whispered.

Shut your fucking mouth!

Logan reeled back. Roman heard twin gasps from the floor, and oh right, Patton and Virgil were still there, looking like they’d just seen a carriage crash.

“K-kiddo?” Patton asked meekly. “Could you calm down a bit?”

“Yeah,” Virgil agreed. His face darkened. “And could you please tell us what the hell is going on because I’m getting the feeling I’m missing something.”

Logan glanced at Roman. “It’s…complicated.”

“Explanation.” Virgil folded his arms. “Now.”

“Okay.” Roman took a deep breath and tried to settle the nerves in his stomach, tried to avoid looking at Logan, tried to tamp down the anger and the fear and the hurt-hurt-hurt that stabbed like knives into his skin. Like pieces of broken glass covering the floor. Impossible to know where to tread.

“Um.” He waved his hands wildly. “Well. I might have a confession to make?”

Roman surreptitiously glanced at Logan, but Logan made no move to stop him. Roman took that as a go-ahead signal.

“You know how I said D’s blackmailing me because he’ll tell the King I cheated on him, even though I didn’t?”

“Yeah,” Virgil said, drawing out the syllable.

Why was this so hard? “Well. Um.” Roman folded his hands behind his back and tried to smile sheepishly. “I may have. Actually. Just a little bit. Cheated. On the King.”

Virgil’s mouth fell open. He glanced to Roman, who felt like he was going to puke, and Logan still gripping his chair like it was his last lifeline to the world.

“You didn’t.

Roman flushed. “It wasn’t…my proudest moment.”

“I’m still confused.” Patton pressed his hands together, frowning. “What did you do? What happened?”

Logan sighed. “What Roman is trying to say is that he put his mouth on my mouth.”

Roman glared at him. “That is not what I’m trying to say!”

“That is literally what happened.”

“Ew!” Roman rolled his eyes and looked back at Patton. “In answer to your question, Padre…Logan and I made out in my bedroom.”

“Ew,” Logan muttered.

“That is literally what happened!”

Logan heaved another sigh. And the glass shards around Roman’s heart pierced deeper. Maybe if he ignored what had happened, if he made jokes and smiled and moved past it, the pain would disappear. Roman could just play make-believe. Act like Logan never did…that. And maybe life would grant him a pardon, and it would turn out Logan never betrayed him at all, and things would be alright.

“So you…” Patton looked at Logan. The expression on his face was heartbreaking. “Logan, you told D about the kiss?”

“D, as you call him, told me to do it.” Logan’s knuckles were white on the arm of his chair. “We made the plan several months before. I’ve been working with him for a couple years.”

“Why?” Roman blurted out.

“That’s a complicated question,” Logan asked. “Figuratively complicated, of course—the question itself only contains three letters.” He let out a puff of air. “I suppose the simplest answer is to tell you ‘D’s real name. It’s Janus.” He paused. “Janus Abbott.”

Patton made a little round “Oh.” And one more piece of Roman’s world fell apart.

“Your brother?” Virgil asked.

“Older. We’re not the closest, but…” Logan waved a hand. “Like I said, it’s a complicated question.”

Patton watched Logan and slowly, shook his head. It was the first time Roman had ever seen him express true disapproval. Roman simultaneously felt vindicated—Logan messed up, Logan was in the wrong, Roman wasn’t crazy for feeling hurt by this—and torn apart. Logan and Patton were best friends. Patton was the one that introduced Logan to the others. It seemed wrong to see the tension, the distrust, the disappointment in Patton’s eyes. It felt terrible to see Logan sink like he’d been punched in the stomach, falling back into his chair.

Logan’s eyes found Virgil, like he was looking for an ally.

“Look.” Virgil fiddled with his armor, avoiding Logan’s gaze. “Logan, you’re great, and I’m sure there’s a side of this story I’m not hearing. But…that was a really terrible thing you did, you hurt Roman, you hurt Patton and me…so I kind of hate you right now, shut your dirty mouth.”

Logan frowned. “I didn’t say anything.”

“Shut it,” Roman agreed.

Logan frowned deeper. “How am I supposed to defend myself if I cannot speak?”

“You’re not supposed to defend yourself!” The anger was back again, sparking in Roman’s lungs, smoke making his throat burn. “You’re supposed to shut up and accept that I will never forgive you for this!”

Logan’s expression hardened and softened at the same time. Darkness and pain was clogging Roman’s throat, tugging at his heart, obscuring his vision. He felt he would throw up if he opened his mouth, would spew all sorts of thoughts he usually kept locked up, would poison everyone around him with his loathing and sadness and hurt-hurt-hurt.

But he was done holding back.

Logan deserved to know exactly how much damage he did.

Roman stood up, clenched his fists, and spoke.

“Logan Abbott, I have been in love with you for months.”

He couldn’t quite pull off the brisk, businesslike tone of Logan, but he still spoke with hard, sharp words. Each one a piece of broken glass, beautiful and deadly.

“I have hated you for about a year and loved you for maybe half of that. That probably doesn’t make sense, but hating you never stopped me from loving you. I didn’t really realize for a while, but when I did, it all made sense.” Roman couldn’t stop, now. All the feelings he’d kept pent up inside were clamoring for release, clawing at his bones. “I knew you’d never feel that way about me. I knew I was unlovable and messed-up and a twenty-two-year-old gay disaster with no future and a husband who wouldn’t look my way. I knew you barely saw me as a friend.” He swallowed. He was talking to no one now, staring at Logan but not really seeing him, all the colors around him bleeding and coming undone.

“Then we kissed. And it was a mess and a mistake, but…” Roman ran his hands through his hair and laughed. It sounded like he was crying instead of laughing. Maybe he was. “At least someone wanted to kiss me, you know? At least you wanted to kiss me. At least you cared about me a fraction of how much I cared about you. No matter how bad things got, I could always hold onto that. No matter how much you tried to push me away, I could hold onto you. And even though you said things would never be the same, you promised we could still be friends, you promised—and I couldn’t help hoping, I couldn’t--” Roman harshly wiped at his eyes with the inside of his wrist. “I thought you were different. I thought this time was different.” His hand dropped. “But it’s never different, is it?”

Logan looked shattered. He looked like Roman had just stabbed him in the chest. He looked like—well, Roman couldn’t find a good comparison. Logan always kept his emotions under wraps. But now? Now he looked like he’d broken.

One part of Roman recoiled at the sight. Begged himself to stop hurting Logan. To stop talking. To stop.

The rest of him was just glad Logan felt a fraction of what Roman did.

“How much of that was fake?” Roman asked, walking around the room, running his hands along the books. “How much of us was fake? Did you only turn on me later, when you thought of the plan? Or did you decide to manipulate me the moment I walked in the door?”

Logan opened his mouth, but nothing came out.

“It doesn’t matter.” Roman leaned on the bookshelf, staring at the ceiling. “It doesn’t matter anyway, I guess. What’s done is done. All I’ve got left to do is kill a King and end the chess game.” He looked over and gave Logan a watery smile. “Nicely done, Specs. Well played. You were always the smart one.”

“I—” Logan started, but fell silent. Neither Virgil or Patton spoke a word. They seemed to understand that it wasn’t their part to interrupt. They could do damage control, they could clean up the mess afterwards, but this was a two-person battle. Roman was the one fighting.

Roman was tired of fighting.

He was tired. He’d given up every broken, bitter piece of himself and scraped himself dry. He was empty, hollow, without the secrets filling him up. Without his lies, without his façade and his smile, Roman was nothing.

Silently, he walked over to the end table and picked up the poison, slipping it into his dress. Without a nod or a wave, he slipped between the shelves. Patton looked about to stop him, but Virgil placed a hand on his arm.

“A quarter,” Logan said.

Roman half-turned. “What?”

Logan stared at a scuffed bit of carpet. “If you give the King a quarter of that poison, he’ll survive. He’ll be bedridden and his crown will probably be taken from him, so the coup will succeed. But he’ll survive.”

Roman opened his mouth to thank him, then closed it. There was really nothing left to say.

He walked down the library aisles, past books he couldn’t read and people he didn’t know. His favorite dress pressed into his stomach and squeezed his arms. His sword was heavy at his hip. Somehow, the small bottle of poison was heavier.

Roman was a pile of glass pieces stitched together into a human. Every step hurt his feet. Every movement hurt his hands. Every thought hurt his heart. He tried not to think about Logan, about Patton or Virgil or Janus, but he had nothing else to fill his mind with. He wanted to cry, but all his tears had dried up, leaving a cold glazed numbness.

He’d risked everything for Logan. And he’d lost everything. He had nowhere to go, nothing left to try, no tricks or decisions or actions left. The world had abruptly ended, all possibilities sinking into the quagmire, all paths spiraling into a scribbly line and then disappearing. There was nothing Roman could do.

Well…

Roman fingered the bottle in his pocket.

There was nothing to do but poison the King. Maybe he would succeed, and the King would step down because of health problems, and Roman would rule. Maybe he’d miscalculate the dose and the King would die anyway, a sobering prospect, but better than failing.

He could fail, of course. He could fail and get caught and die.

But Roman found that he didn’t really care.

Chapter Text

All you ever hear and read about
Is our ex and the way it ended.
But a pair doesn’t beat a royal flush,
You’re gonna find out why we got unfriended.
I’m done, ‘cause all this time,
I’ve been just one word in a stupid rhyme.
So I picked up a pen and a microphone—
History’s about to get overthrown.

-Ex-Wives, Six the Musical

---

Roman del Rey was dressed to slay.

Well, he was always dressed to slay. This time, however, it was literal.

The King had chosen a dress for their sip-tea-and-exchange-passive-aggressive-snipes meeting. He always chose what Roman wore. But after a horde of servants wrestled Roman into a three-layer monstrosity, more iced than a wedding cake and with a permeating smell of mothballs, Roman immediately shrugged out of the dress. It fell to the ground in a heap and Roman kicked it once for good measure. Then he changed into his own dress. His favorite—or least favorite, it was fast becoming his least favorite, what with the betrayal and the assassination and all—with the red sash and white fabric. With a few nice pockets.

Roman laced up his sandals, brushed his hair one more time, dabbed on a little lipstick, and slipped his freshly-sharpened sword into its sheath. It fit snugly at his hip, the dress betraying no sign of a weapon. Carefully, he opened a slit in the side and placed the small blue bottle in his pocket.

It only had a quarter of the potion left. The other three-quarters had been tossed out the window into some convenient bushes. Roman hoped the bushes didn’t die because of that. He didn’t want the poisoning of innocent bushes on his conscience as well as the possible poisoning of a non-innocent human.

He was going to poison the King.

That thought probably should have scared him more. And two days ago, it would have. Now? Roman barely felt a twinge of conscience.

Maybe it was the knowledge that the King wouldn’t actually die. Maybe it was the hole inside Roman, raw and painful, sucking at his lungs. Like he, not just the poison bottle, had been emptied.

Maybe he knew it was too late to turn back.

“You decent?” Virgil asked, opening the door.

Roman jumped. “Creamed corn, don’t do that!”

“Sneaking around’s kinda my job.” Virgil pressed his lips together. “Are you ready?”

Roman nodded, smoothing down his hair. “You coming too?”

Virgil paused and shook his head. “We’re under orders to keep you unguarded. Sorry, Princey.”

Something sharp and hot flared in Roman’s chest, and he was almost grateful for it. At least it was something other than the emptiness. “Well. Makes it easier to plot murder, doesn’t it?”

“I…” Virgil frowned. “I thought you said you weren’t going to—”

“I’m not going to.” Roman fingered his pocket. “It just sounds cooler than plot ‘make the King bedridden for the rest of his life.’”

“Now that I think about it, that still sounds pretty bad.”

“Worse than the alternative?”

“No,” Virgil agreed. “But I still don’t like it.”

“Whatever.” Roman swept past him. “It doesn’t matter whether anyone likes it, it’s happening.”

“Roman?” Virgil called as Roman strode down the hallway, walking as confidently as possible to hide the very non-confident feelings in his stomach. “Be safe, okay?”

“Sure,” Roman promised without turning around.

---

“Are we actually doing this?” Patton asked for the third time.

Roman peeled off the seal from the bottle and carefully poured the blue liquid into the teacup. Patton swirled it around a few times, watching as it faded and disappeared into the tea. The other blue-and-white teacup had a small chink on the lid, marking it as safe.

“Are you ready?” Roman asked, adjusting his dress and staring at the door opposite them.

Patton stared at the teacup like it had personally killed his favorite puppy. “I don’t know, kiddo…I don’t like this. Can’t we wait until—”

“I had specific instructions.” Roman tried not to snap at Patton, but the tension in his shoulders and the boiling nerves in his stomach had other ideas. “This meeting. We have to do it now.”

Patton swallowed, teatray clutched in his hands. Roman leaned down and picked up Patton’s cookie plate, handing it to him. Patton glanced around and quickly ate one of the cookies.

Roman chuckled. “Nice one, Padre!”

“Don’t tell anyone!” Patton pleaded, eyes wide. “They’d be so mad if they found out I was stealing cookies!”

“Cookies that you baked?” Roman rolled his eyes. “I think we have bigger concerns right now.”

Patton still looked guilty. He placed a cookie in the open spot, mumbling an apology to no one in particular. Roman debated for a second before stealing that cookie and popping it in his mouth. It tasted delicious. Patton looked scandalized.

“What?” Roman asked, licking sugar off his fingers. “Your cookies are the best!”

“You’re stealing!”

“I’m the Queen,” Roman pointed out. “Allegedly, half those cookies are for me.”

Patton pouted at him, placing a third cookie in the open spot. Roman took that cookie too, broke it in half, and bit into his half while handing the other to Patton.

“I can’t eat that,” Patton whispered. “No second cookies.”

“Didn’t your parents tell you to never commit treason on an empty stomach?”

“Keep your voice down!” Patton hissed.

Roman glanced around at the empty hallways. “Everyone’s already inside, Patton.”

“Are we late?”

“No.” Roman tried not to sound too bitter. “I’m only needed at the second half. He has most of his dinner alone.”

“Huh.” Patton stared at the door. “So…we just walk in whenever?”

“In like two minutes, I think.”

Patton nodded. “What do I say?”

“Nothing,” Roman said. “You’re a servant. You don’t talk. Not that I agree with that,” he added hastily, “but that’s how it is. You’ll serve the tea and cookies at some point. When he asks. He probably will—he loves your cookies. Everyone does.”

“But what if he asks why I’m there?” Patton bit his lip. “I’ve never done this before, I don’t know how to act, I don’t—”

Roman placed a hand on Patton’s shoulder. “Just smile and nod. You’ll be alright. You have permission to be here, and I think it’s impossible for any human being not to like you, no matter how you act.”

Patton’s expression was unreadable. “I don’t think I want the King to like me.”

“He’s not a human being,” Roman pointed out. “And he doesn’t like anyone, so you’re safe.”

“What is he, then?”

Roman pondered the question. “A frog.”

Patton giggled. “But frogs are nice! I like frogs!”

“Fine, then. Not a frog.” Roman screwed up his face and tapped on his chin, looking as cartoonishly contemplative as possible. “A turtle! ‘Cause he’s all wrinkled and slow!”

Patton giggled harder. For once, he didn’t reprimand Roman for making fun of someone. Maybe he knew it was the King, and the King was different. Maybe he just let the moment of levity hang there, a bright bit of friendship before they risked everything.

“We should go in,” Roman reluctantly admitted.

“Yeah,” Patton agreed, looking just as reluctant.

Roman felt he should say something else. Maybe thank Patton for being such a great friend, or for always looking out for him—but he hadn’t said anything of the sort to Virgil, so it wouldn’t be fair. He should have said something to Virgil, shouldn’t he? No, he didn’t want to say anything to anyone. He didn’t want to make this a huge deal. He didn’t want to act like this was the end.

It wasn’t. It could be. It wasn’t. It might be.

It would be the end of something no matter what happened.

Roman walked over to the door, his heartbeat pounding in his ears like cracks of thunder. Carefully, he raised a hand and knocked.

“I’ll be right behind you,” Patton murmured.

All he needed to do was act normal.

The door swung open and Roman fixed his best smile on his face.

Except it felt stretchy and wrong and fake and they were going to figure it out immediately, he was a terrible liar and he started to walk forward with solid normal strides but he stumbled because he couldn’t remember how much he normally moved his hips. His arms felt leaden at his sides so he waved one hand to the servants around them—why did he do that? He never waved to servants, they would see right through him, why was acting normal so hard--and swept into his armchair with a flourish. Patton, after a tilt of the head from Roman, scurried over to the side with the servants. One of the attendants seemed to recognize him and gave him a reassuring smile. Patton smiled back, but even Roman could see the nervousness in his eyes.

Roman crossed his legs on the chair, uncrossed them, and realized ‘acting normal’ probably meant ‘trying to undermine the King’s authority through small, passive-aggressive behaviors.’ Not exactly the best way to convince the King he could never poison him, never, no sirree. But it was better for the King to be complacent and convinced of Roman’s hatred than confused when Roman suddenly acted like they’d been happily married for years.

So Roman swung his feet over the side of his armchair, leaned back, and tossed a hand over the back. Immediately his hand started to itch, but he couldn’t scratch it and jeopardize his position. He felt sweaty, uncomfortable, and positive that his fear was showing on his face and the King immediately realized what he was planning and he was dead.

But the King barely glanced at him. “Pass the grapes, will you?”

Roman tried not to breathe an audible sigh of relief.

A servant hurried forward and gave the King a plate of grapes. Chewing on one and spitting the seeds into a small silver cup—Roman would never get used to the way nobles just threw money around—the King gave Roman another, more comprehensive look. Roman tried his best to appear innocent and docile and incapable of plotting a coup.

“Why are you wearing that?” the King asked bluntly.

“Wh—” Roman glanced down. “Clothes?”

Behind him, a servant snorted. The King frowned. “No! That dress. I told you what to wear.”

Roman pressed his lips together. “I…it has a stain.”

“A stain?”

“Yeah.”

“What did you spill on it?” the King asked.

Roman bristled at the assumption that it was his fault. “Lipstick.”

“I’ll send for a cleaner, then.” The King popped another grape in his mouth, giving Roman a beleaguered glare. “I give you nice things and you treat them so poorly. Now you can’t wear that dress and it’s your fault.”

“Not that I wanted to wear the dress anyway,” Roman muttered.

“What was that?”

“I—” Roman took a deep breath. “I apologize for spilling lipstick on the dress you wanted me to wear.”

“Good.” The King turned back to the grapes. “And sit properly, del Rey. I’m tired of correcting you.”

Roman swung his legs around and sat up as straight as he could while being gay. He scanned the shadows, seeing a few servants in the corners and the glinting swords of guards. If things went wrong, he was outnumbered. Even if some of the servants and guards did give him pitying looks when he glanced at them, pity didn’t overrule fear.

Patton was standing by a small table, knuckles white on the tea and cookie trays. His eyes were wide and he was chewing on his lip. Roman tried to signal with his eyebrows for Patton to try and look calmer, but his message failed.

“Are you enjoying your new freedom?” the King asked, pushing aside the plate of grapes. “You’ve had free reign around the castle, it must be invigorating.”

Roman stifled a thousand angry retorts. “Not exactly, no.”

“And why is that?”

“It’s hardly a change in my schedule,” Roman said, keeping his voice light. “The only difference is there are no guards when I attend luncheons.”

The King raised one bushy eyebrow. “You’re not getting up to anything else?”

“What would I get up to?” Roman pointed out. “I don’t have any friends in the castle. Everyone despises me.”

Patton made a small wounded noise. Roman tried to mentally order him to shut up. He’d explain later, maybe.

“Are you sure?” asked the King, and Roman’s blood ran cold. “I’ve heard you’re close with that guard of yours. What’s his name?”

Virgil. Not Virgil. Roman didn’t want to think about what the King might do. Maybe he’d send Virgil on different assignments and keep them apart. Maybe he’d fire Virgil. Maybe he’d use Virgil as leverage. Roman really didn’t want to be blackmailed.

Well, again.

“I don’t know who you’re referring to,” Roman said, trying to stop his voice from shaking. “I’m not particularly close with any of my guards.”

“You were in the library together a few days ago.”

Roman couldn’t stop his mouth from falling open. “What?”

“I have eyes everywhere.” The King folded his hands in his lap, looking like a fat spider surrounded by webs of velvet and gilding. “You would do well not to lie to me.”

“I wasn’t lying,” Roman protested. No, he sounded too offended, too emotional. Taking a deep breath and slamming a wall over his face, he continued. “That guard and I are not very close. I know him better than some of the others, but I would not count him as a friend. In fact, I find him quite irritating.”

“And he would say the same of you?” the King prodded. “If I asked?”

“I’m sure he would. He thinks I’m an arrogant prick.” Roman gave the King a wry smile. “Do you honestly believe anyone would want to be friends with me?

And the King laughed, just a bit. “I see your point. I don’t like your company very much, either.”

Then why do you drag me out here twice a week and dress me up like a doll? Roman didn’t fire back. He just squeezed his hands into fists until his nails made crescents in his palms.

The King fidgeted with his ring, staring into the candles surrounding them. Roman glanced at Patton. That was a mistake. Patton’s eyes were wide and filled with tears, and he looked about to run up and hug Roman senseless.

‘I’m fine,’ Roman mouthed in a vain effort to make Patton stop looking so concerned. It didn’t work. And the King caught him looking.

Fortunately, he only nodded. “Tea! Bring the tea over.”

Patton swallowed and nodded. To his credit, the tray only shook a little bit. He carefully set the plate of cookies, a teacup, and the teapot on the small table next to the King. Then Patton took the other teacup and walked over to Roman.

That was a mistake.

“You,” the King instructed, staring at Patton. Patton squeaked slightly and turned around, trying to smile. “What are you doing?”

“G-giving him some tea?”

“I didn’t instruct you to give him anything.” The King pointed at the space next to his cookies. “Put it here. He can come and get it himself.”

Patton valiantly kept smiling. “Um, but I’m right over here—”

“Put it there.” The King’s eyes darkened. “Now.”

Roman tried to send Patton a mind message. Just listen to him, put the tea where he says to, please—

And Patton, thank the stars, walked back over and placed the other teacup on the table.

“Right.” The King nodded at Roman. “Come get your tea.”

This was a power play. Roman knew it was. Just a fun little charade to make the King feel better about himself. And if this was a normal night, Roman would push back. Maybe spill that tea all over the King’s shoes. Maybe refuse to get up at all. But he couldn’t jeopardize the mission, do anything that might stop the King from drinking the tea currently in his hands.

Still, if he just walked over and got the tea, the King might be suspicious. And he was pausing too long, the King would expect an answer—

“Seriously?” Roman finally said, putting just enough irritation into his voice. Not too much, or the King would get angry. Too little, and it would sound weak. Just enough for a challenge but not enough for a threat.

“Yes, seriously. Come get it.” The King huffed, running his finger along the edge of his teacup. “I’m not going to ask you again, del Rey.”

“You didn’t ask me,” Roman pointed out.

“Yes, I did.”

Roman held out for a second longer, but he slid from his chair and carefully picked up his teacup. Was it the right one? Had Patton switched the cups by accident? No—there was the chink in the rim, clear as day. Roman mentally apologized for ever doubting Patton as he took his seat again, running his hands along the china surface.

The King was fidgeting with the cup, but he wasn’t drinking. Roman tried not to stare at the tea, with smoke curling from its surface and axinide lurking in its depths.

“Do you think the fire is too cool?” the King asked.

“Uh…” Roman probably wouldn’t have noticed if the curtains had burst into flames. He was still watching the teacup. “I don’t think so?”

“I think it is. I’m feeling a draft around my legs.” The King shifted. “Someone feed the fire!”

A servant darted forward and tossed a few more logs onto the fire. Sparks sputtered into the air. In the sudden light, the King’s eyes gleamed. He looked like a vengeful god.

Drink your tea, Roman begged him. Drink it. Please. He took a sip of his own tea. It tasted bitter and sour on his tongue.

Wait. Was this the unpoisoned cup? Did this cup have a different chink? Did they both have chinks? Was the chinked cup actually the poisoned one? Of course it was, of course Roman would die from his own assassination attempt. Well, not die, just be bedridden for life.

He had to agree with Virgil. It did actually sound pretty bad when you put it like that.

The sour taste in Roman’s mouth seemed to strengthen. Would he feel it? Was the room already spinning? Or was he just being paranoid? The King still hadn’t taken a sip of his tea.

His hands were shaking. Was that a characteristic of poison? What were the symptoms? No, he couldn’t freak out, he sounded like Virgil and he was sure the King could hear his heartbeat. Couldn’t the King just drink his tea, fall over, and stop staring at him?

Roman lowered his eyes to his teacup. He should take another sip to look less suspicious, but if the cup was actually the poisoned one, he’d just poison himself more. Should he fake a sip? Everyone was staring at him, he could feel them staring at him, he needed to do something, anything—

The King was asking him something but Roman couldn’t hear, waves were pounding in his ears, why did he think this would work, why did he think this would ever work—

“Look at me when I’m talking to you!” the King yelled, and Roman flinched violently.

The cup of tea slipped from his fingers and smashed on the floor.

Roman stared at the brown stain growing on the carpet. Staining his dress was one thing, but staining the carpet in the king’s room?

He was absolutely dead.

“Pick that up.”

The King’s voice was quiet. Roman slipped off the chair and started gathering the pieces in his hand. Fortunately none of them were very small, though they were sharp and the wet surface skidded on Roman’s fingers. He cut himself twice and winced, sticking the offending finger in his mouth. Finally the carpet was clear of pieces.

“Put them in the fire,” the King ordered, still deadly quiet.

 

Roman walked over and dropped the pieces into the fire. They gleamed in the orange light. Heat seared his chest, arms, and face. Quickly, he turned around—it wasn’t wise to have your back to the King.

The King, who looked thunderous.

“I’m so sorry,” Roman blurted out.

“Did I say you could talk?”

Roman clamped his lips together.

The King squeezed his cup of tea, still undrunk, in one hand. “Del Rey.”

“Yes?”

“Don’t. Talk.”

Roman quieted and tried to look apologetic. It wasn’t hard. He’d do anything to get the King to calm down and drink his tea and keel over. He didn’t even mind if he acted unnaturally at this point, if the King grew suspicious—as long as he drank the tea, it didn’t matter. Just three sips. The King always drank his tea all at once.

“That was rude,” the King finally said, voice still quiet. “Disruptive. Clumsy. What do you have to say for yourself?”

Roman waited for the King to continue, but he didn’t. “Am I allowed to answer that?” Roman asked.

“Yes! Are you an idiot?”

Roman swallowed. “Do I answer that too?”

The King’s knuckles whitened on the teacup.

“Right. Um.” Roman cast around for a perfect apology. “I’m sorry.” Good start. “I didn’t mean to.” Good. “I promise it won’t happen again.” A flawless trifecta. He knew the drill by now. The King would glare at him a few more seconds, just to keep him on his toes, before sending Roman back to his seat or out of the room entirely.

But that didn’t happen. The King didn’t stop glaring. He didn’t stop clutching the teacup like he wanted to throw it.

“I’m sorry?” Roman tried again. His voice cracked, and he flushed.

“I have had a very long day,” the King growled, eyes dark. “A very long week, in fact. Someone in this castle is plotting my murder. The kingdom is on the verge of rebellion. My authority has been compromised in more ways than I can count.”

“Well, um, none of that is my fault—"

“And now you waltz in here to mock me and ruin a perfectly fine evening with your insubordination.” The King spat the word ruthlessly, and Roman almost flinched. “This disrespect will not be tolerated while I am your King, do you understand! I cannot stand for this behavior!”

Roman tried to stop himself from talking, but the nerves in his stomach made him incapable of thinking clearly. “Good thing you’re sitting, then.”

A few servants, and even one of the guards, chuckled at that.

“Quiet!” the King ordered. His face was flushing deep red, hands clenched around the teacup and eyes murderous. “I could have you all arrested for treason! I could have you hanged, del Rey!”

Through great force of will, Roman didn’t respond.

“Or maybe I could focus on some of your friends. The ones you insist you don’t have.” The King leaned forward. “I know all about your treasonous little library meetings. You and the guard and that maid—”

Maid? Apparently the King didn’t actually know very much about his ‘treasonous library meetings.’ Roman suppressed a smile. The King was bluffing, and Roman knew it.

“And that librarian friend of yours, too.” The King gave Roman a cold smile. “Do you know what he gets up to? His family history? We’ve dug up some very interesting tidbits about him. No wonder he’s close to you—he’s using you to get to the throne. I’d wager he’s playing you like a violin and you don’t even realize—"

Roman’s face burned. “Shut up!”

The King almost flinched at Roman’s yell. The shock in his eyes was quickly replaced with rage. “Don’t you dare give me orders!”

Roman stepped forward, glaring. “Well, maybe you shouldn’t threaten my friends!

The King’s arm moved, there was a blur of motion, Roman felt like he should move or duck but he was frozen in place, angry words dying on his lips—

The teacup shattered behind him, inside the fireplace. It had flown inches from his face. The King’s arm was still outstretched, his chest heaving.

Roman was shaking, he realized, his hands trembling. He couldn’t seem to move. He ought to move, to react, to duck if anything else came flying his way—but he was stock-still and frozen. His heartbeat filled his ears and his breathing strangled itself in his chest.

Then, behind him, the air grew hotter. Someone yelled. Instinctively—where were those instincts when that cup was thrown at him—Roman launched himself forward and fell on his hands and knees, carpet burning his skin. Behind him, he saw the fire had roared towards the ceiling, flickering around the edges of the giant fireplace, the flames reddish and angry.

“Put it out!” the King yelled at no one in particular. Roman didn’t move. He had nothing to quench the flames. They burned his eyes as he lay on the ground, trying to catch his breath.

A servant rushed forward with a water pitcher and splashed some water on it. Part of the fire died, but another part only grew hungrily, skidding over the water stains and lapping them up.

Oh. Roman almost laughed. Axinide was flammable. Who knew.

Probably Logan. Logan would have known that. But Logan wouldn’t have warned them about it, because who expected fire to play a role in an assassination attempt—

Another servant darted forward with a bucket of sand and threw it on the fire. This time, the fire sputtered and hissed before going out. The room was plunged into darkness, save for a few candles. People were moving around, talking, yelling—Roman caught someone saying ‘poison’ and ‘tampered with’ and he knew he was caught, they were all caught, it was over—

Someone grabbed his arm and he flinched violently. The grip didn’t lessen. A guard was pulling him to his feet.

“Who—” Roman found he couldn’t string words together. “What—”

“Let’s go. It’s not safe to stay here.” The guard tugged him along, pulling the door open. Roman stumbled after him, trying to remember how to walk. The guard was stonefaced and stern, nothing like Patton.

Patton—

Roman whirled around, trying to spot Patton in the smoky darkness. There he was, eyes wide in the candlelight. He was saying something, what was it, Roman couldn’t hear and the room was spinning and two guards were stepping forward and pinning Patton in place—

The guard holding Roman gave him a not-too-gentle tug and he was yanked down the hall. It seemed only seconds before he was at his own door. Virgil and Terrence stood there, both looking shocked as Roman was tossed towards the closed door.

“He’s not to leave his room,” the guard instructed. “It’s not safe. Further instructions will be provided. Don’t let anyone go in or out, no matter what happens.”

“What—” Virgil swallowed. “Of course. Could I know the circumstances?”

The guard glanced at Roman and his expression softened imperceptibly. “He’s had a bit of a scare, I’ll bet.”

Roman almost laughed. Understatement of a lifetime.

Virgil glanced at Roman searchingly. Roman didn’t even bother trying to appear calm and collected. Terrence opened the door and Roman slipped through. He stumbled to his bed, collapsing on the covers and shaking. He couldn’t stop shaking. He couldn’t breathe right. Everything was too sharp and too strange and his heart was surely going to burst from all the beating—

“Princey?” The door creaked open.

Roman didn’t have the energy to reply.

“You in there?” Virgil asked. Roman felt him sit on the edge of the bed. “Wanna talk?”

“You’re—” Roman’s voice was raspy. He cleared his throat and tried again. “You’re not supposed to be here.”

“When has that ever stopped me?” Virgil asked. “I wanted to check up on you.”

“Okay.” Roman buried his face in his pillow. “You’ve checked. You can go now.”

Virgil’s voice was full of pity. “I’m guessing it didn’t go well?”

Roman laughed bitterly. “Think of the worst way it could possibly go. Then multiply that by a bajillion.”

“Is that a number?”

“It should be.” Roman clenched his hands around the pillow. “Just leave me alone, Virge. It’s no good losing your job over me.”

“I’m not gonna lose my job,” Virgil assured him. “I’ve done this a million times. And besides, you’re worth it.”

“No, I’m not.”

Virgil didn’t respond. Roman curled tighter around the pillow. Then a heavy weight fell on his shoulder—someone was touching him, not safe, not-safe-not—

Despite himself, Roman gave a muffled shriek and jerked away from the contact.

Great. Now he was shaking again.

“Ro?” Virgil asked, voice unbearably soft. “I’m sorry, I—I didn’t mean to surprise you.”

“It’s alright,” Roman muttered. “Not your fault.”

Virgil’s hand hovered over Roman’s shoulder. “Can I touch you now?”

Roman imagined Virgil’s hand on his shoulder, side pressed against his, cuddling and feeling safe in his arms. Virgil had such a protective way of holding Roman, letting Roman curl up against his chest and hide from the world. Warm and soft and loving, the opposite of how he always acted.

But tonight, Roman didn’t imagine warm and safe and loving. He imagined searing heat and being trapped with no escape and something he could never deserve.

“No,” Roman said. “Don’t touch me. Please.”

“Okay.” Virgil sounded surprised but not hurt. “Do you want to talk, then?”

“No.”

“Maybe you should—”

“No.” Roman rolled over, giving Virgil a pleading glance. “I’ll tell you all later, I promise. Just—not now? Okay?”

“Okay.” Virgil bit his lip, looking over Roman one more time. “Is there anything I can do?”

Keep me safe. Keep me alive. Hug me but don’t, touch me but don’t, love me but don’t. Roman couldn’t parse through his emotions. Everything was stifling and wrong and he couldn’t stop shaking.

“No,” Roman said, turning away. “Go back outside. You shouldn’t lose your job over me.”

Virgil sighed. “I’ll be right outside if you want company.”

“Okay.”

“Get some sleep, Ro.” Virgil gave him a half-smile and stood up. “I love you.”

Something sick and twisted curled in Roman’s stomach.

He should have said ‘I love you too.’ Or ‘thank you.’ Or something nice and kind and fluffy and something Virgil deserved.

“Right,” Roman said, not turning around.

He didn’t look back at Virgil until the door closed and Roman was alone.

He’d wanted this. This is what he asked for. He wanted Virgil to go away, and he did.

But Roman felt achingly, bitterly alone.

He curled himself up in his bed, tucking his knees to his chest, and tried to calm the rapid beating of his heart.

You’re safe, he told himself. You’re safe. You’re safe. Patton is safe. Virgil is safe. Logan is safe.

He may have been good at lying to everyone else, but Roman was terrible at convincing himself.

He wasn’t safe. He certainly didn’t feel safe.

And he might not feel safe ever again.

Chapter Text

You can build me up, you can tear me down
You can try but I'm unbreakable
You can do your best, but I'll stand the test
You'll find that I'm unshakeable
When the fire's burnt
When the wind has blown
When the water's dried, you'll still find stone

-Heart of Stone, Six the Musical

---

Roman del Rey didn’t want to wake up.

He knew it was about time to wake up, probably. The usual annoying birds were gone, because it was raining outside. He was somewhat glad about that. A sunny day would have been unbearable. But he did wish it was a loud dramatic thunderstorm instead of a clammy grey drizzle. At least the first was powerful. The second was just pathetic.

Oh. There were the birds, tweeting right on schedule. Were they seriously getting themselves soaked just to annoy him? Roman groaned loudly into his pillow and pressed his face deeper into the covers. He wouldn’t open his eyes. He would just stay in bed forever and the world would cease to spin and it would keep raining until the whole land was flooded and he could make his bed into a boat and float away.

There was a knock on his door. Roman didn’t answer. The knock came again, and he felt he should probably respond, but his mouth was sticky and disgusting. When the knock sounded a third time, he grumbled something approximating a swear word and covered his head with the quilt.

“Princey?” That was Virgil, right? “Yo. You in there?”

Roman stuck a hand out from his sheets and flipped Virgil off.

“Jeez, harsh.” Virgil chuckled. “You gotta get up, though.”

“Do I?” Roman muttered.

“What was that? I can’t hear you through the nest of blankets you’ve built.”

“I don’t have to leave,” Roman said. “Ergo, I don’t have to get dressed. Ergo, I don’t have to get up. Ergo, leave me alone.”

“Um, no.” Virgil’s voice was louder. Too loud. Couldn’t he keep it down? Roman just wanted to sleep. “You’re not staying in here all day, Princey. We’ve got things to do.”

“So go…do the things.” Roman squeezed his eyes shut. “I’ll be over here.”

There was a rustle, then a blast of cold air hit Roman’s legs. He yelled and rolled over, prying his eyes open to glare at the offending disturbance. Virgil glared back, holding half of Roman’s bedsheets. Roman was very glad he was wearing pajamas.

“Get up,” Virgil said.

Roman grabbed the undisturbed half of the blankets, wrapped them loosely around himself, and flopped back onto his pillow.

“No.” Virgil tugged Roman’s pillow out from under him. “I’m not letting you wallow. Come on.”

Roman rubbed at his eyes and gave Virgil another middle finger. “This—this is treason. Disrespect. Of your Queen. Give me back the blankets.”

“Get up,” Virgil repeated.

“I’m cold now,” Roman complained, trying his best to look pitiful. It was hard, considering he was still only about three-fifths awake. “I’m cold and sleepy and you’ve disturbed me from my rest. How dare you, Virgil. I—I thought we were friends.”

Virgil did not look remorseful. “We are friends. And friends don’t let friends sulk in bed all day.”

“I have good reason.”

“I’m sure you do,” Virgil agreed. “Some serious shit went down last night, from what I heard. But ignoring the problem and hoping it goes away isn’t going to help anyone.”

“That does sound fun though,” Roman muttered. “May I try it?”

“Get your butt out of bed now.” Virgil grabbed Roman’s hand and tugged him off the bed. It only worked because Roman was so sleepy, and not because Virgil was actually extremely strong and Roman had a hard time escaping his grasp.

Deciding to go for pity points again, Roman crumpled to the floor.

“I’m tired,” he groaned. “You’ve robbed me of my rest. My sleep cycle is broken.”

“It’s nine in the morning, Princey, don’t give me that.” Virgil yanked him to his feet. “Anyway, I’ve been up all night, so you don’t get to complain about being tired.”

Roman tried to think of a witty retort, but instead he yawned widely and tried to pat his hair into place. “What do you want?”

“You to wake up, for starters.” Virgil smiled evilly. “Maybe a slap would help? Or a bucket of water? I’m sure I have one somewhere—”

“No!” Roman tried his best to look very awake. “No need for such harsh actions. You’d ruin my pajamas.”

“Your pajamas are ruined on their own,” Virgil teased. “Did you draw little crowns on the pants?”

Roman glanced at his pajamas. “Maybe.”

“Classic.” Virgil’s mocking expression softened. “Get dressed, Princey. You’ve got a long day ahead of you and you’ll want to look your best.”

Roman thought about putting on a dress from the closet, a dress that the King chose. He could almost feel the fabric choking him. Binding him into place. Quickly, he shook his head.

“No?” Virgil cocked his head. “You alright there?”

“No dresses?” Roman squeaked. “Please?”

Virgil gave Roman a questioning look, and after seeing that Roman wouldn’t elaborate, he shrugged. “Sure. Don’t blame you, those things look like a nightmare to move in. I’m sure we can find you something that’s not a dress.”

He walked over to the closet and threw it open. “Dress. Dress. Other dress. Is that—nope. Dress. Dress. Strange eldritch monstrosity. Dress. Skirt. Hey, here we go!”

Roman looked at the shirt and pants in Virgil’s arms. “Those are underclothes.”

“These are underclothes? But they’re…like, clothes.” Virgil’s face twisted in confusion. “I will never understand high society.”

Roman laughed, just a little bit. “I’ll wear them, Virgil. It’s not like I’m going anywhere.”

“Well, you might get visitors. It depends.” Virgil worried the corner of his armor. “And…well, you don’t have to and it’s okay if you think it’s too risky and I can do it on my own but—”

“Virgil?” Roman asked. He wanted to think of a pithy nickname, but he didn’t have the energy. “What’re you talking about?”

“I…” Virgil sighed and hopped onto the dresser, kicking out his legs. “How much do you know?”

Roman eyed him warily. “About what?”

“Last night.” Virgil raised a hand. “I know you were there and all, but…you slept through a lot, Ro. Things have gotten interesting in the past twelve hours.”

Something in Roman’s stomach turned to ice. “Patton!”

“What?”

“Patton.” Roman tossed aside the clothes and walked over to Virgil, grabbing his hand. “What’s happened to him? Is he okay? Is he hurt? Is he--” Roman didn’t want to think it, much less say it. “Is he, like…good?”

Virgil squeezed Roman’s hand. “He’s…he’s okay, Roman.”

The waver in Virgil’s voice proved otherwise.

“What happened?” Roman asked hesitantly, not sure if he wanted to know.

“Well.” Virgil tried for a smile. “He sort of got arrested?”

What?

“He’s being held in the dungeons, I think? Not like the actual dungeons but just a holding cell or something…I haven’t been able to see him, I haven’t—” Virgil paused. “Ro, you’re shaking.”

“Am I?” Roman asked faintly. “Huh.”

“Roman?” Virgil’s voice was concerned. “Look at me, okay? Take a deep breath.”

Roman tried, he really could. But a rope had wound around his chest, crushing his airways. Every breath was dizzying and painful and he felt about to explode. Patton. Patton, Patton, Patton, Patton was arrested and going to die and this was all his fault--

“Roman, breathe!” Virgil sounded almost frantic, Roman wanted to calm him down but he didn’t know how to speak, Virgil’s hand was squeezing his and it used to be nice but now it was too warm, too hot, there was fire all around him and he was kneeling on the ground and—

Roman whipped his hand out of Virgil’s and hugged his chest, wrapped his arms all the way around, tried to give himself a shield.

“Roman, whoa.” Virgil’s face was blurry, but his voice was crystal clear. “In and out, okay? Breathe. I know it’s hard, I know, but you have to breathe. Just try, Ro. Please.”

Roman tried to breathe. Each breath was fire in his lungs but he kept breathing, kept breathing, because Virgil told him to and Virgil was wonderful and Virgil wouldn’t hurt him no matter what his mind told him—

“I’m here,” Virgil whispered. His hand hovered over Roman’s shoulder. “It’s okay, I’ve got you, I’m here.”

Virgil was here. He was safe, he was safe, why couldn’t he feel safe with his best friend, there was something wrong with him, breathing wasn’t getting any easier, he wanted to curl up into Virgil’s arms but he needed to stay strong stay alive stay put stay—

“Breathe,” Virgil told him again. Roman breathed.

“Close your eyes, if you want to.”

If you want to. Roman had a choice. Roman was in control here, and Virgil knew that, and Virgil respected him because Virgil was his friend and he was safe, he knew that, Virgil wouldn’t hurt him—

Roman closed his eyes and sunk to the floor, pulling his knees up to his chest, hearing Virgil sit next to him. Virgil kept a bit of space between them and Roman was thankful, Virgil wouldn’t do anything without asking, Virgil was safe—

“You’re doing great,” Virgil said. “Keep breathing. Do you want me—I could get—no, I can’t get Patton or Logan, damn it, I’m no good with this stuff—"

“You—” Roman tried to speak, tell Virgil how well he was doing, make him stop doubting himself, but his words choked him.

“Shh. Don’t talk.” Virgil paused. “Can I touch you, Ro?”

Roman told himself firmly that this was Virgil, he was safe, and nodded.

“Okay. Okay.” And Virgil was rubbing his back, soft and reassuring, and Roman uncurled just a bit. It wasn’t on fire. It wasn’t hurting. It was just Virgil.

Roman was crying. When had he started crying? Virgil was wiping his face and the tears were stopping. He could breathe. Not well. Not perfect. But he could breathe and the world didn’t feel about to fall apart.

“Virgil,” Roman said softly.

“Yeah?”

“I—” Roman took a deep breath and felt his heartbeat steady. “I love you.”

Virgil chuckled softly. “I know. I love you too, Princey.”

Roman opened his eyes.

The world swam for a second before falling into place. The discarded shirt and pants on the ground. The knocked-over makeup bottles from Virgil’s seat on the dresser. The blankets and pillows oozing onto the floor. The rain pattering dully at the window. Virgil, eyes soft.

Five things he could see. Roman remembered that. Logan always used that technique when Virgil needed calming down. What were the other ones? Oh, yeah. Four things he could touch—his crown pajamas, the wooden floor, his rats-nest hair, Virgil’s hand on his back. Three things he could hear. The rain, those damn birds, and the occasional clink of Virgil’s armor. Two things he could smell. Perfume and dust. One thing he could taste. Tears.

“How are you?” Virgil asked.

Roman smiled a little bit. “I…I’ve been better, I’ll admit.”

“I bet.” Virgil pushed Roman’s bangs out of his eyes. “So…a panic attack, huh?”

Roman immediately and instinctively hunched his shoulders and broke eye contact. “I dunno. I don’t think it was a—”

“Don’t bullshit me,” Virgil said softly. “I know what they look like, Ro. And that was a pretty nasty one.”

“Eh.” Roman shrugged and stood up, wiping off his face. “I’m alright now, though.”

“That’s not exactly how a panic attack works—”

“So. Patton.” Roman stared Virgil down, who stared at him right back. “What are we doing about Patton?”

“You can’t change the subject, Princey.” Virgil stood up, folding his arms. “I’ve heard rumors about what happened last night, but I’d like the full story, especially because you seem really upset about it.”

Roman scoffed and waved a hand. “I’m not upset—”

“Panic. Attack.”

“Unrelated to last night.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Look,” Roman said, trying to smile. “I think we have bigger concerns right now.”

“As your best friend, your mental and emotional health is a very big concern for me—”

“Uh-buh-buh-buh-Patton.” Roman held up a finger. “How do we get to Patton?”

Virgil held out for a second longer. Finally he sighed and said, “We’re not allowed to see him. That’s—that’s what I was asking earlier. If you wanted to come with me and defy my boss/your husband/the reigning ruler and talk to Patton.”

“You know high treason is my favorite pastime.” Roman smiled and headed to the door. “Let’s go.”

Virgil watched him. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”

“Hmm?”

“Seriously, Princey?” Virgil huffed and tossed the shirt and trousers at Roman. “You’re still in your pajamas, idiot. Get dressed.”

“Turn around, then.” Roman struck a pose. “I know my beauty is irresistible, but I must maintain my queenly modesty—”

“Oh, go stuff yourself.” Virgil spun on his heel and stared pointedly at the window. “Change, Princey. Now.”

“You’d better not look.”

“I won’t! Jeez, and I’m the paranoid one!”

Roman struggled out of his pajamas and tossed on the clothes. They were light and airy around him. He’d almost forgotten what it was like to wear only one layer. And he could move his legs! Yes, he wore pajamas all the time, but that wasn’t the same! Roman tried to execute a roundhouse kick to show off his new mobility, stumbled, and fell on his butt.

Virgil laughed.

“I told you not to look!” Roman spluttered, getting to his feet.

“I didn’t need to. I heard you.” Virgil turned around and marched to the door. “Come on, Princey.”

“One second!” Roman muttered, shoving on his shoes. “So impatient.”

“Well, my best friend is currently arrested, so yeah, I’m a little impatient.”

Roman winced at the snap in Virgil’s voice. Virgil immediately sighed. “Sorry, Ro.”

“It’s alright. I get it.” Roman joined him at the door. “Let’s go.”

“Alright.” Virgil cupped his hands around his mouth. “Yo! We’re coming out!”

“What—” Roman began, but Virgil was already opening the door and pulling Roman through.

There was no one in the hallway. Except for the other guard. Roman didn’t remember his name—maybe Camden? He was standing, facing the wall, with his hands covering his eyes.

“Hi, Camden,” Virgil said.

“Hello, Virgil.”

“What…” Roman said again.

“He’s on our side,” Virgil explained. “This way, he can tell anyone that he didn’t see us leave, and he won’t be lying.”

“Ah.” Roman nodded. “Smart.”

Virgil smiled. “It was my idea.”

“Oh, did I say smart?” Roman grinned and elbowed Virgil. “I meant to say overly elaborate and very angsty—”

“Shut up!” Virgil said, elbowing Roman back. “Come on, Princey. Hurry that royal butt of yours so nobody spots us.”

Roman obligingly hurried his royal butt. As they walked down the hallway, he heard Camden say, “Your Majesty?”

“Uh…” Roman looked back. “It’s Roman, if you don’t mind.”

“Roman,” Camden corrected. “I just…good luck. A lot of people in this castle are rooting for you.”

Something warm and fragile grew inside Roman’s chest. Buttery and soft and dangerous. He could easily crush it, knew that he probably should to avoid getting himself hurt, but he couldn’t bear to lose the first bit of real hope that he’d had for a long time.

A long time meaning about a week. It was only a week since Roman kissed Logan, a week since everything changed.

It felt like a lifetime.

“Th-thank you,” Roman stammered out as Virgil tugged him around the corner. “I—thanks!”

“Aww, are you blushing?” Virgil asked, smirking. “Logan’s got competition!”

Roman gasped dramatically. “We do not say his name in this land!”

“Oh, okay, your ex is off-limits?” Virgil pulled Roman down a side passage. “Gotcha.”

“He’s not my ex. He can’t be my ex if we were never, you know, on.

“On,” Virgil repeated. “Seriously?”

“I don’t know.” Roman rolled his eyes. “What’s your word for it?”

“You had a one-night stand.”

“We were lying down, and also, that’s not what that means.”

“Nice pun. Patton would be proud.” Virgil pressed Roman up against the wall as a few guards walked by. “You kissed once, right? One-night stand.”

“I’m pretty sure one-night stand only includes—”

“Language.”

“I didn’t even—” Roman huffed. “Are you taking over Patton’s job or something? You’ll be the new father figure after he’s, y’know, indisposed?”

Virgil winced. “Nobody’s taking over anyone’s spot. And, Ro? I’m gonna ask for an ix-nay on the my best friend might possibly lose his head jokes, okay?”

“Right.” Roman stared at his shoes. “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize. I shouldn’t have brought up—well, I shouldn’t have.” Virgil rounded another corner, and Roman struggled to keep up. “I’m really sorry about what happened with you guys, Ro. It sounds terrible.”

“You just said you wouldn’t bring it up,” Roman teased, trying to ignore the stinging in his eyes.

“I know. I just--” Virgil paused. “I want you to know that I’ll always listen to you, okay, Ro? You ever need to talk, I’ll be here. I’ve been here before and I’m not leaving.”

“I know that,” Roman said.

“Do you?” Virgil’s eyebrows were pulled together in concern. “Because through all this, you’ve been shutting me out. And I’m worried that—”

Roman quickly slapped his hand over Virgil’s mouth. Virgil yelped and swatted at Roman’s hand. After a few seconds, Roman let him go.

“What the hell, Princey?” Virgil wiped vigorously at his mouth.

“I thought I heard some guards.” Roman tapped his ear. “Best to be on the safe side. Couldn’t have you talking and giving yourself away!”

“Uh-huh.” Virgil didn’t look convinced. “Well, I don’t hear any guards, so maybe we could—”

“Nope!” Roman grinned and held a finger to his mouth. “No talking! We need to be silent and sneaky, Officer Only-Wears-Black.”

“This is literally my mandated uniform—”

“Uh-uh-uh! No talking!” Roman waved a hand at Virgil’s mouth.

“But you’re talking—”

Roman grinned wider and mouthed ‘Shut your little dirty face.’ Virgil flipped him off, probably payback for earlier, and kept walking. They filed down a few servant’s staircases and Roman was very glad of his pants. Almost all his dresses would easily get lodged in the narrow space.

Finally they were in a basement level with small windows and locked doors. Roman had never visited here before. The ground was rough and the stones around them were clammy. Nobody else was around. Roman tried to peek through a keyhole, but Virgil grabbed him and hauled him away.

“Let’s see. Cell 17, right?” Virgil started counting, running his fingers along each door. “Here we go.”

Roman stared at it. It didn’t have a number or any distinguishing feature, aside from a small dark stain near the handle that he really hoped was juice. “You sure?”

“Trust me, Princey. My intel is sound.” Virgil rattled the doorknob, but it didn’t budge. “Damn, it’s locked.”

“Imagine that,” Roman said, “a cell door being locked.”

Virgil shot him a withering glare. “Well, I guess I’m using you as a battering ram, then.”

Roman leaned on the wall next to the door. “I’d get scratches on my pretty face.”

“Such a tragedy.” Virgil frowned at the keyhole. “I could pick the lock, but I don’t have a pin on me—”

“Give me your sword,” Roman said.

“What?”

He waved his hand in front of Virgil. Slowly, Virgil unclipped a sword from his belt and handed it over.

“What the—” Roman frowned. “This is my sword! You stole my sword!”

You left it on the floor,” Virgil fired back. “I was just cleaning up after you. Figured you’d want it.”

Roman rolled his eyes and flipped his sword upside down until the hilt stuck out from his hand. “Stand back.”

“What are you—”

Roman raised the pommel of his sword and smashed it into the keyhole. Wood splintered, and with a loud crash, the entire lock fell to the floor.

Virgil stared at him, unimpressed. “Great job. You’ve broken our one way in.”

Roman smiled, grabbed the doorknob, and after a few tugs it twisted all the way around.

“See?” Roman said, waggling his eyebrows. “Pretty impressive.”

“Don’t get a big head, Princey.” Virgil grabbed the lock. “We’ll have to put this back when we’re done.”

“That’s a later problem,” Roman said, pulling the doorknob. Virgil’s hand snatched his and yanked him back a few inches.

“Ow!” Roman hissed, jerking his arm away. “What the—”

Virgil gave him a warning glance and nodded at the door.

Now that he was quiet, Roman could hear it too. Someone was talking in the cell. Was that Patton’s voice?

“How do skeletons sleep? Like the dead!”

Roman glanced at Virgil, who shrugged. Patton telling himself jokes was, in all honesty, not too far out of character. Slowly, Virgil pushed the door open.

Patton wasn’t telling jokes to himself.

Logan was sitting on the floor next to Patton, chuckling quietly. Patton was smiling too, despite being in a five-foot by five-foot cell with only one window. His clothes were dirty and there were bags under his eyes. But he looked…normal. Happy.

“Hey, Pat. Lo.” Virgil waved. “How you doing?”

Patton looked up and beamed. “Virgil! Roman!”

In an instant he was standing, running over and giving Virgil a huge hug. He tried to hug Roman as well, who sidestepped him and awkwardly patted him on the shoulder instead. Patton didn’t press the issue, giving Roman a sympathetic look that he hated.

“Hello,” Logan said, standing up as well.

Right. Logan was here. Wearing his usual glasses and librarian’s uniform, looking extremely out-of-place in a prison cell.

“How did you get in here?” Virgil blurted out.

Logan showed them a small pin. “I picked the lock.”

Virgil looked almost impressed. “You know how to pick locks?”

Logan gave Virgil his classic ‘are you an idiot’ look. “Janus is my brother, Virgil. Of course I know how to pick locks.” He slid the pin into his pocket and looked between them. “How did you get in here?”

Roman grinned sheepishly. “We, um, broke the door open?”

“Why am I not surprised.”

“You broke it?” Patton looked upset. “Someone will have to fix that!”

“We’ll fix it when we leave,” Virgil said. “Speaking of which, we should close the door.”

Logan nodded, walking towards them. “I’ll close it on my way out.”

Patton frowned. “Kiddo, where are you going?”

“Oh, I—” Logan paused, staring at a point behind Patton’s head. “I assume…that my presence would make things…tense. So…perhaps I should go.”

“Yeah,” Roman agreed. “Perhaps you should.”

Patton looked between them and his face hardened. “You know what? No. Logan, Roman, you’re going to sit down and be civil. I have been arrested and my life is on the line, and I get that you have some things to work out but I want all my kiddos here at once so Logan, Roman, sit down.

Logan glanced warily at Roman. “I—”

“Sit. Down.”

Roman raised his hands in surrender and sat cross-legged on a small crate in the corner. Virgil closed the door and leaned against it. Logan claimed the spot under the window, and Patton remained on a small wooden stool. It, a small bed, and the crates were the only furniture in the room.

“So,” Patton said, when they were all situated. “I imagine you have some questions, right?”

“Understatement of the century, Pat.” Virgil raised a hand like they were back in school. “How have they been treating you? Is everything okay? If I need to I can probably pull strings and get you a better experience—”

“Aw, you don’t need to bother with that, kiddo!” Patton shrugged. “The food’s not great, but other than that things are fine. This room is smaller than my usual quarters but I don’t have to share, so that’s nice!”

Virgil didn’t look convinced. “Has it really been fine or are you just pretending it is so we don’t worry?”

“You know me too well,” Patton teased. “But I promise, kiddo, I’m doing alright. All the guards are nice and they let me go outside twice a day.” He frowned. “It’s for ‘relieving myself,’ but it’s still nice.”

“Ew,” Roman muttered.

“Alright then,” Virgil said. “If you say so.”

“I appreciate the concern!” Patton added, giving him a smile. “You’re looking out for me and that’s great of you, Virgil.”

Virgil smiled a little bit, though he tried to hide it under his hand.

“What next?” Roman found himself asking. “I mean…are you just going to stay here for a while, or…are they gonna, you know…” He curled tighter on top of the crate. “Do. Stuff.”

Patton gave him another sickeningly sympathetic look. “I’ll be fine, kiddo.”

“That’s not what I was asking.”

Patton sighed. “Fact is, Roman, I don’t know. I made it through the interrogation all right, and a bunch of people vouched for me, but I was still the person who poured the tea which makes me the prime suspect. People have been executed for less. I want to say I’ll be fine, but…I really don’t know, kiddo.”

Roman stared at his knees. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“It’s not your fault.”

“Uh, Pat?” Roman laughed. “It kind of is?”

“No, it isn’t,” Patton insisted. “I made my choice and I don’t regret it. You were in a tough position and I helped a friend, and I will never ever blame you for needing help.”

Roman nodded, wrapping his arms around his knees and trying to keep himself from crying.

“Hey, want to hear something funny?” Patton asked, voice cheerful. “One of the guards told me that I’m only still alive because the King likes my baking. My cookies are keeping me from being executed! Isn’t that weird?”

Virgil gave Patton a guilty look. “That’s less funny and more terrifying, especially when you say it in that tone.”

“Right. Okay.” Patton rubbed at his neck. “I was—I was just trying to lighten the mood, I’m sorry. I don’t really know what to say.”

“Well, good for you,” Roman said, unable to stop himself. “You’re more useful to the King than I am, and I’m his husband.”

Patton’s face immediately fell even further. Roman felt like a terrible person.

“It’s fine, Padre,” Roman muttered. “Sorry. I don’t know—I’m sorry—would you please stop looking at me like that?”

Patton’s eyes didn’t lose their wide, sad look. “Like what?”

Roman gave a half-hearted chuckle. “Like I’m a puppy who’s dying in front of you.”

And Patton looked hurt again, and concerned again, and god, couldn’t Roman do anything right? Why was he being mean to one of the only people who tolerated his existence? Couldn’t he shut his stupid mouth and leave Patton alone?

“I’m sorry,” Roman blurted out again. “I’m sorry, Patton, I’m sorry—I don’t know what I’m doing and I messed everything up and now you’re in trouble and I’m sorry—”

“It’s not your fault,” Patton repeated.

“Yes, it is!”

Patton flinched like he’d been slapped, and the knife in Roman’s chest stabbed a little deeper.

“I got us into this mess, and I forced you to help me, and I—” Roman swallowed. “Even though you chose this, it was still my fault everything went south! I mean, I’m the reason he never drank that tea, so—”

Patton jumped to his feet, hands balled up. “If you dare blame yourself for that I will physically fight you.

“Whoa!” Roman held up his hands in surrender. “Calm down, there, Padre!”

“I will not calm down.” Patton pointed a shaking finger at Roman. “Because you just said that his treatment of you is your fault!”

Roman stared at him, uncomprehending. “But…it is?”

“No!” Patton cried. “No, kiddo, no! I love you, but you’re completely and utterly wrong!” He whirled and pointed at Logan. “Logan, tell Roman he’s wrong!”

“What?” Logan blinked. “I—I’m afraid I have no idea what you’re talking about, Patton.”

“Oh. Right.” Patton deflated a little bit. “Um…well…Roman, do you want to tell the story of how the assassination attempt failed?”

“Please?” Virgil added. “’Cause I’ve heard rumors and it sounds like stuff went downhill fast.”

Roman looked at Virgil. “Do I have to?”

“No,” Patton said, “but you probably should.”

Roman didn’t want to. But denying would just make Virgil more suspicious. And this was about Patton, not him—the others needed to have all the information about the situation. He’d be selfish if he kept them in the dark just because he was scared.

“Well. Okay.” Roman unfolded his hand and stared at it instead of his friends. “Well. Um.”

“Take your time, kiddo,” Patton said, and it was too sweet and sympathetic and cloying and everything Roman didn’t deserve. He bristled, and Patton must have understood, because he backed off.

“Fine.” Roman took a deep breath. “The King never actually drank from his teacup. The tea fell in the fireplace instead, and since apparently axinide is flammable…”

“The fire increased,” Logan finished. Roman jumped—he’d almost forgotten Logan was there, since he’d been uncharacteristically quiet. “Didn’t it?”

“Yeah. It went all…” Roman spread his fingers and made a whoosh noise. “Pretty clear that something was up with the tea. After that the guards grabbed Patton and took me back to my room.”

Virgil frowned. “Hold on. Why did the teacup even fall in the fireplace? I don’t usually cook my tea medium-rare.”

Roman grinned and nodded. He’d hoped they wouldn’t ask about that part. “Ah! Right. Good question. A very good question.”

“Roman,” Patton said softly.

“Well.” Roman clenched his jaw. “Um…the king never drank the tea. Because. He threw the teacup.” Roman braced himself. “At my head.”

Dead silence.

Roman peeked at Logan and Virgil. Logan looked thunderstruck and Virgil just looked thunderous.

Logan swallowed a few times. “Do you see now,” he said in a shaky voice, “why some people might want him off the throne?”

Virgil nodded. His voice was deceptively calm as he asked “Hey, Roman, did you keep the rest of that poison?’

Roman frowned. “It’s in a bush.”

“Well, I guess the old-fashioned way will have to do.” Virgil stood up and grabbed his sword. “I’m going to commit regicide and none of you can stop me.”

“No!” Roman yelled. Surprisingly, neither Patton or Logan joined in.

“I’m doing it,” Virgil growled. “Screw my job. Screw my life. I am going to kill him.”

Logan sighed. “Much as I sympathize with you, Virgil, please sit down. There will be more clandestine and effective ways to murder him in the future.”

Virgil grinned, sitting down again. “Wonderful.”

“No one is killing anyone!” Roman sighed. “Look, it’s…” He waved a hand and tried to collect his thoughts. “It’s…it’s really not that bad, that’s never happened before, it’s not a big deal—”

“Roman.” Patton’s smile was deadly. “I love you, but shut up.”

“I—”

“Shut up,” Patton repeated, eyes gleaming. “Because you cannot make any excuses for what he did.”

“He hurt you,” Virgil whispered, still staring at Roman with wide eyes. “He hurt you, and that’s unacceptable.”

Roman shrugged, uncomfortable with the scrutiny. “Well…I mean, it’s doesn’t really matter—”

“Falsehood.”

Logan’s gaze was confident and full of passion. It seared Roman to the bone. As soon as he saw it, he looked away—he couldn’t stand to see Logan look like that. Like Roman was worth fighting for. Like Roman was worth anything.

Like nothing had changed between them.

Roman took a deep breath and smiled. “It’s fine! It’s in the past, okay? It doesn’t matter now. We should focus on helping Padre here.”

That got him several glares. Roman winced and tried very hard to disappear into the earth.

“I guess we should,” Virgil said, still glaring at Roman, “but rest assured we will later be having a long discussion about this.”

Roman fidgeted. “I still don’t see why—"

Virgil groaned with exasperation. “Do I have to keep bringing up the fact that you had a panic attack this morning? Obviously you are not fine!

“It was unrelated!”

“Like hell it was!”

Roman tried very hard not to flinch. Virgil swallowed, looking away. The anger drained out of his stance.

“Roman,” Virgil said softly. “We care about you.”

Roman nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

“We can talk about Patton now.” Virgil sent him a loaded look. “But this isn’t over, Princey. The conversation is on pause, not ended. Once we get back, we’re talking.”

“Fine.” Roman rolled his eyes. “Whatever you say.”

“Good.” Virgil turned to Patton. “Now. Patton. Are any of us in danger? Have they figured out our connection?”

“From what I heard, no.” Patton fidgeted with his hands. “Virgil, Logan, you’re alright, I think.”

“What about me?” Roman asked, afraid of the answer. “Has anyone made the connection? I was acting suspicious all meeting, I bet—”

“No,” Patton said, looking uncharacteristically hesitant, “no one’s convicting you…”

“Why not?” That didn’t sound right. Wouldn’t the King jump at a chance to accuse Roman of treason?

“Um…” Patton looked around nervously. “I…I don’t want to repeat it.”

“It’s alright,” Virgil said. “I locked the door.”

“It’s not that.” Patton pulled at his sleeve. “I’m just…kind of…scared to?”

“Oh come on, now I’m curious!” Roman leaned back on the crates. “Blurt it out, if it’ll be easier! Like ripping the sword from the stone!”

Logan frowned. “That was canonically not easy.”

“Well.” It was apparently Patton’s turn to curl up and stare at the floor. “I. The King. Said. That. You couldn’t have. Done it. Because. You’re not. Smart. Enough?” He winced at his own words. “Sorry, kiddo?”

Roman pressed his lips together and tried to press down the boiling hurt inside him. “Oh. Well, he’s half right.” Roman shrugged. “I didn’t actually come up with the plan, so—"

Virgil shook his head. “It’s still a terrible thing to say!”
“And honestly, it’s a stupid plan anyway.” Roman chuckled. “So many ways it could have gone wrong? For such a smart guy, Janus certainly needs to work on his planning.”

Logan coughed delicately and Roman glanced at him. “I believe he expected it to fail. Maybe even planned for that to be the outcome. Even if you did get caught, he would be untethered to the crime and it would leave the King more complacent, since he’d believe that the culprit had been killed. This would allow a more in-depth and foolproof assassination later on.”

Roman nodded, smiling. “Wow. I really, really hate him.”

“Frankly,” Logan said, “I don’t blame you.”

They fell into silence. Patton was fidgeting with his tunic, Virgil tracing patterns in the dirt, Logan drumming his fingers on his thigh. For a brief moment he looked up and met Roman’s gaze. Once again, Roman looked away.

Logan still had beautiful eyes.

“I could turn myself in,” Virgil said abruptly, swiping through his drawings. “I could turn myself in and get Patton off the hook, then break out before I got killed—I could run away somewhere—”

“No!” Patton gasped. “Kiddo, you’re not going to do that!”

“And why not?” Virgil’s glare was steady. “I’m more well-trained than you, I can pick locks and fight and everything. And you’ve got friends here, a life—”

“You’re going to be guard captain!” Patton pleaded. “You can’t just throw your life away for me—”

“I can and I will.”

“Where would you run away to?” Roman asked, staring Virgil down. “Do you have a home to go to, or are you just planning to maraud on the road and hope the King’s forces don’t track you down?”

Virgil shifted. “I’d go…places.”

“I thought so.” Roman nodded. “Now, me on the other hand—”

“No!” Patton yelled again. “I am not having you all sacrifice yourself for me!”

“And you sacrifice yourself for us?” Roman fired back. “How is that fair?”

“It’s fine, kiddo!” Patton smiled half-heartedly. “I’ll be fine. Besides, I…I don’t really mind so much—”

Virgil lifted an eyebrow. “You’re saying you don’t mind being assassinated.”

“Okay, I might mind a little bit,” Patton admitted. “But I’m, you know, looking out for you guys! I’m okay with getting arrested so you guys can be fine! I’m taking one for the team!” His smile faded as he looked around. “No?”

Virgil gave Patton a horrified look. “So incredibly no.”

“Agreed,” Roman said, eyes wide. “Just because you’re three years older than me and call yourself my dad does not mean you have to get executed so we’ll be fine.”

“Then what am I supposed to do?” Patton burst out. “Let one of you die? Have my best friend get arrested or watch another Queen go on the chopping block? I don’t know!” He swiped at his eyes furiously. “I don’t know what I’m doing, and if one of you has a better idea, I’d love to hear it.”

Roman felt like the wind had been knocked out of him. Patton started to cry softly, pressing his hand to his eyes. Virgil walked over to Patton and sat by his feet, squeezing his hand. Roman watched, afraid to go closer, afraid to make a sound.

“I have an idea,” Logan said quietly, watching Patton.

Patton sniffed, wiping his eyes. “W-what is it, kiddo?”

Logan adjusted his glasses. “Well, this entire predicament is my fault, is it not?”

Virgil watched Logan warily. “I don’t like where you’re going with this.”

“So…” Logan held out a hand. “It only makes sense that I should be the solution to a problem that I caused.”

“Well, now we’re back to the self-sacrificing!” Roman threw up his hands. “Honestly, doesn’t anyone here have some sense of self-preservation?”

“I’m serious,” Logan said.

“And so am I, we—”

“Roman, please, for once will you let me defend myself and actually listen to what I have to say?”

Logan’s voice cracked in the middle of the sentence. Virgil shot him a concerned look.

“Okay,” Roman said slowly, deciding not to parse through the myriad of emotions swirling inside of him. “Defend yourself, Specs.”

“Okay.” Logan folded his hands and assumed lecture-mode, though once again, his voice shook. “I propose a plan. I turn myself in as the mastermind behind this scheme, absolving Patton from any guilt. Then, I use the extensive network my brother has created, and perhaps my brother himself, to help me escape. I have a place to go, a home, and it’s outside of this kingdom. I’m already on thin ice—soon they’ll find out about my…family connections and I’ll be arrested.” Logan didn’t look away from Roman’s face, even as he asked, “Patton, does that make sense?”

Patton frowned. “I see what you mean, kiddo, but I still don’t agree—"

“You don’t have to,” Logan said, standing up. “All you have to do is help me, or at the very least? Don’t get in my way.”

“Wait, what?” Virgil leapt to his feet as well. “Are we actually doing this? Like, now?”

“We’re going to see Janus,” Logan explained. “After that? Probably.”

Virgil’s eyebrows were knit together. Patton still looked distraught. And Roman?

He didn’t want Patton in danger. He didn’t want Logan in danger. He wanted Logan to have consequences for his actions but he didn’t want Logan hurt, he didn’t want this—

Roman closed his eyes and opened them again, taking a deep breath. Things were okay. It was okay. Logan would be fine—Logan was smart, Logan was clever, Logan would figure things out. They would have a plan and everyone would be safe.

But if Logan succeeded, he would leave the castle. Roman would never see him again.

Maybe that was for the best. Logan was an enigma, a constant pain in Roman’s lungs, twisting the world around him until he was all Roman could think of. The heartbreak still nestled in Roman’s chest where his heart used to be. He could pretend—he could pretend so well, that’s all he was good at, his only talent, pretending until his face grew numb—but it didn’t hide the hurt from himself.

Logan was terrible at pretending. Every glance lingered, every word shook, his hands clasped tightly and he kept looking at Roman with unreadable eyes.

A mystery wrapped up in a beautiful man, and of course Roman’s traitorous heart hoped those glances meant something more than vague guilt and apprehension. Because despite himself, he’d always been an optimist. Foolish, naïve, bound to be broken.

“Are you coming?” Logan asked, and Roman realized they’d all headed to the door. Roman paused, his mouth dry, trying to think of what to do.

For now. For now he would follow Logan, see where this path led. If it grew too dark, he could always take Logan’s place, step in front of the sword, be his shield. He could always, in Patton’s words, take one for the team.

Roman hated Logan Abbott more than he had hated anyone in his life.

Roman loved Logan Abbott more than he had loved anyone.

A paradox, maybe. But love and hate had never been opposites for Roman. Logan was infuriating and annoying and beautiful and intelligent all at once.

And if things went badly, Roman would always—always—put Logan first.

“Yes,” Roman said. “I’m coming.”

Logan nodded, and Roman stood up, brushing off his clothes. Logan followed the motion with his eyes. They were alone in the room, Roman noticed suddenly. Logan’s mouth worked like he was fighting back words.

Finally he said, “Nice clothes.”

“They’re underclothes,” Roman responded shortly. “Good to be out of a dress.”

“I can imagine.” Logan kept the door open with one hand, watching Roman carefully. “Look, I—”

“Don’t.” Roman shook his head. “Not right now, I can’t—just don’t.”

Logan nodded, looking away.

Roman walked forward and past Logan, trying to keep his head high. Then a question swam to mind, and like always, he blurted it out.

“Why are you doing this?”

Logan frowned slightly. “For Patton. Of course.”

“I know, but…” Roman shifted, running his hand through his hair. “Specs…Logan, if you’re doing this so I’ll forgive you—”

“I’m not,” Logan interrupted. It would have sounded defensive from anyone else, but the clipped certainty set Roman at ease. “No actions of mine would facilitate that, and I understand that.”

Roman nodded slowly. “Then why?”

Logan huffed slightly. “Not everything is about you, Roman.”

“But this is,” Roman insisted. “At least, a little bit.”

“Fine, then. This is a little bit about you.” Logan closed the door carefully, keeping his back to Roman. “But like I said, I’m not after forgiveness.”

Logan turned on his heel and stared Roman dead in the eyes. Did Logan know how that made Roman’s heart skip a beat? His lungs decide that breathing was overrated? His hope flare just a little higher?

“I’m going to save Patton because it’s the right thing to do,” Logan said. “And because I want to help one of the people I care about, since I--” He quickly glanced away, but Roman noticed the sudden glassiness of his eyes. “Since I couldn’t do that for you.”

And Logan walked down the hallway, to where Virgil and Patton were waiting, apparently having decided to give them some space. Roman stared after him for a second, trying to wrap his head around everything. But there was no time. No time to sort through Logan’s words. No time to chase him down and have a real conversation. No time to even acknowledge the maelstrom of feelings in Roman’s gut, scraping at his skin and filling his eyes with tears.

The people I care about.

Logan glanced back, his face clear of any tears, giving Roman an annoyed ‘hurry up’ gesture. Back to normal, like it had never happened.

Maybe Logan was better at pretending than Roman thought.

“Come on.” Virgil waved a hand. “We don’t have all day, Princey.”

Roman nodded, and resigned himself to following Logan Abbott down the hallway.

He might hate-love-not understand Logan. They might be friends-enemies-something more-something less. But he still trusted Logan. And try as he might to ignore it, he still knew this—he would follow Logan anywhere.

No matter how much it cost him.

Chapter Text

You, you said that I tricked ya
‘Cause I, I didn’t look like my profile picture
Too, too bad I don’t agree
So I’m gonna hang it up for everyone to see
And you can’t stop me, ‘cause
I’m the queen of the castle,
Get down, you dirty rascal.

-Get Down, Six the Musical

---

Roman del Rey, despite living in the castle, didn’t know that much about it. He spent most of his time in his room, the dining hall, the King’s quarters, and the library. So he vaguely expected Janus’ lair to be in some sort of secret passageway or behind a trick door. Not in the kitchen.

Patton frowned as they walked down the hallway. Already, the sounds of sizzling and clanging filled the air. “Are you sure this is the right way?”

“Of course,” Logan said. “You didn’t think he just snuck through the castle willy-nilly, did you? He has a job here.”

“In the kitchen?” Patton asked. “I’d have seen him, right?”

“He probably gave you a fake name,” Logan said, waving a hand. “All his pseudonyms start with D? Don’t ask me why, I don’t understand it either. Is there anyone—”

Patton’s mouth fell open. “Wait, Dante? Dante Ekans?”

“Does he have a birthmark on the side of his face?”

“Yeah.”

“Then that’s him.” Logan rolled his eyes. “Dante. I can’t believe him.”

“Why the kitchen?” Roman asked. “It’s not exactly the center of political power, if you know what I mean.”

“Don’t ask me why,” Logan said again, adjusting his glasses. “I don’t understand half the things he does.”

“Well,” Patton said, fidgeting with his hands, “it is pretty gossipy in there. All that sort of hearsay goes through the kitchen staff. I never participate,” he added hastily, “but I hear stuff.”

“Huh.” Virgil was tapping on the hilt of his dagger. “Roman, do you want your sword back?”

“You think I’ll need it?”

“Well, I’m gonna want a sword when I meet him,” Virgil said, eyes narrowed, “and you might, too.”

“We’re here on peaceful terms,” Logan reminded Virgil. “We’re going to have a discussion. No maiming.”

“Yeah, and what if he maims us?” Virgil asked. “Or what if I really, really want to maim him?”

“He is unlikely to attack you while I’m here,” Logan said. “Or at all, for that matter. His strength lies in subterfuge, not hand-to-hand combat.”

“Great.” The corner of Virgil’s mouth turned upwards. “Easier for me.”

“We are not attacking him!” Logan sighed loudly. “We need his help, and if you wish for Patton to be pardoned—” Patton sheepishly stared at his feet. “—then you need to be diplomatic.”

“Fine. Whatever.” Virgil didn’t take his hand off his knife. “Lead the way, then.”

Logan led them around the corner into the kitchen.

Steam clogged the whole area. People in hairnets and gloves bustled back and forth. Flashes of white cotton, dirty tiles, sparkling china, and silver metal were all that Roman could make out. Nobody even turned to look at Roman and his friends, standing in the doorway looking conspicuously not-hairnetted.

“Give me a sec,” Patton said, diving between two cooks and weaving around tabletops. Someone waved hello, but nobody else paid him much attention. Logan was watching Patton. Virgil leaned over to Roman and whispered, “Here’s your sword.”

Roman grasped the hilt and slid the scabbard through his belt. Logan would notice, of course, but Logan couldn’t do anything about it. And Virgil was right. He did feel better with his sword by his hip.

“Here you go!” Patton appeared in front of them, curls mussed and his face already red. He handed each of them a pair of gloves and a hairnet.

Virgil looked at the hairnet with distaste. “Seriously?”

“It’s for safety!” Patton snapped the hairnet on over his own hair and pulled on the gloves.

“It would be best if we put them on,” Logan agreed, tugging the gloves on over his fingers. “They will help us blend in.”

“Nobody’s looking,” Roman pointed out. He didn’t mind the gloves, but a hairnet? No thank you.

Patton gave him a disapproving dad stare and Logan gave him a disapproving smart-guy stare. Between the two assaults, Roman was powerless.

“Fine,” he said, giving a loud dramatic sigh. The gloves fit alright, but the hairnet was a little small for him and tufts of hair stuck out beneath it. He felt like an anthropomorphic cloud.

“This is ridiculous,” Virgil said, sliding on the gloves over his already gloved hands. “I’m not doing the hairnet. No way.”

Patton grabbed the hairnet from his hands and forcefully jammed it over Virgil’s head. Virgil yelled, swatting at Patton’s fingers and missing wildly.

“There.” Patton smiled and booped Virgil’s nose. “You look very professional.”

“Yeah,” Roman muttered, trying not to laugh as Virgil’s stubborn bangs tumbled free from the hairnet. “A professional clown.”

Virgil gave Patton a wounded look. “Why did you make me do this?”

“For subterfuge,” Logan reminded them. Somehow, he managed to make the hairnet look not terrible. Not great, but not ridiculous, either. It wasn’t fair.

“Whatever,” Roman said, trying not to reach up and adjust his hairnet. “Let’s go already so the steam hides this atrocity of an outfit.”

Patton frowned at him and led them into the kitchen.

It was a minefield, even more than usual. Roman stepped on about five toes and got two jabs in the ribs from counter corners. And it was so warm, too! Roman’s face was already flushing and he could almost feel his hair curling up from the humidity. Virgil clanked pitifully behind him, looking miserable in his dark armor. Logan’s glasses were fogged up entirely. Only Patton looked in his element, dodging pots and pans expertly, squeezing between gaps easily.

“Where are we headed?” Roman yelled over the clamor of boiling water and clanking metal. “Do you know where you’re going?”

“Dante’s the washing-up boy,” Patton called back. “He should be with the dishes in the back.”

Roman tried to picture Janus washing dishes in the kitchen with a hairnet on. He couldn’t. Wouldn’t his black capelet get all dirty from the water? He already wore gloves—would he wear gloves over his gloves like Virgil? Roman chuckled to himself and Virgil gave him a weird look.

“Here we are!” Patton swung himself around a corner and they emerged from the steam. A few people were gathered around a large trough of water, dunking dishes in the water and setting them on a large rack to dry. One of them looked up, giving Patton a confused look, and started to say something.

“Marie,” someone said, “why don’t you help chop vegetables? And the rest of you, go collect some more dishes. I can handle these myself.”

Roman froze. He knew that voice. It was less commanding, less serpentine, and more bored. But it was still the same voice.

D, Dante, Janus, whatever his name was—he was standing in front of the water, hands dipped beneath the surface and scrubbing at a plate. Carefully, he wiped the plate down and set it aside, before looking up and meeting Roman’s eyes.

And Roman saw him clearly for the first time. The family resemblance was slim, but noticeable in the firmness of his nose and the tilt of his chin. His eyes were a yellowish-brown, he had almost blond hair, and a large birthmark covered the side of his face.

Also, he was wearing bright yellow gloves and a hairnet.

Bright. Yellow. Gloves.

Roman couldn’t stop himself from laughing. Why was he ever scared of this guy? Janus was just a skinny guy with a hairnet and yellow gloves.

Virgil gave Roman a ‘what the heck’ look, which only made Roman laugh harder. “Oh my god,” he wheezed, “you look ridiculous.”

D’s mouth tightened. “You don’t exactly look stellar yourself, Roman.”

“Nope! Nope! That’s not intimidating!” Roman shook his head, doubling over with laughter. “You’re like the exact opposite of scary right now!”

The rest of the kitchen staff filed past, giving them curious looks. Roman barely bothered to try and hide himself—he was still cracking up.

D watched him impassively. “Are you just here to mock my occupation or does this visit have a purpose?”

“We’re here for a reason,” Virgil said, stepping forward.

“And what is it?”

Virgil punched Janus in the shoulder. Hard.

“Ouch,” Janus said lazily, rubbing at the spot.

That’s for blackmailing my best friend!” Virgil yelled. “And for getting my other best friend kidnapped and for making my third best friend betray us and making me lose even more sleep than I do regularly!

“Wow,” Janus said, glancing at Logan. “You’ve got charming friends, little brother.”

Logan cast his eyes to the ceiling. “Virgil, I said no maiming.”

“Yeah, and I improvised.” Virgil glared at Janus “You’d better watch it or I’ll be putting a sword through your slimy deceiving chest, you—”

The expletives that followed were colorful, imaginative, and dirty enough to make Patton cover his ears. Roman wished he could take notes on some of them. Logan sighed deeply, rubbing at his eyes and looking like he was regretting every part of his existence.

Finally, Virgil stepped back, folding his arms and still giving Janus a murderous glare. Logan immediately stepped between them and held up his hands.

“We’re just here to talk,” he said, giving Virgil a warning stare. “This is Roman—”

“I know.”

“Virgil.”

“I know.”

“Patton.”

“I know—wait.” Janus frowned. “Aren’t you supposed to be arrested?”

Patton shrugged guiltily. “Yeah? I kind of broke out?”

“That’s why we’re here,” Logan explained.

Something passed between Logan and Janus Janus sighed loudly, pulling off his hairnet and gloves, and led them to a door in the wall. It was made entirely of metal and he had to unchain a bolt to open it.

“The meat closet?” Patton asked, shivering.

“It’s not so bad,” Janus said with a smirk. “Just…make sure not to bump into anything.”

The door swung open and Janus led them into the meat closet.

It was cold. Roman immediately regretted not wearing a multilayered dress today. He rubbed at his arms, feeling goosebumps erupt on his skin.

The closet was just big enough for all of them. There was a small hallway down the center. On either side were slabs of meat, dangling from hooks. Some of them were just big lumps. Others were more recognizable.

Patton made a little whimpering sound. “Can we please go somewhere else?”

“You’re a cook,” Logan pointed out. “Shouldn’t you be used to this?”

“I make pastries!” Patton protested. “I don’t use, you know…dead things!”

“Grow up,” Janus said, closing the door with a slam. “This is the only place we’ll get any real privacy.”

Virgil gave Patton a supportive look and squeezed his hand. Patton looked only a little comforted.

“So no one can see us here?” Roman pumped his fist, immediately yanking off his hairnet. “Freedom!”

Virgil followed suit. Even Logan breathed a sigh of relief as he wrestled his off his head. Patton kept his on.

“Right,” Roman said. “So.”

“So what?” Janus raised an eyebrow. “You haven’t told me anything yet.”

“Well, how much do you know?” Roman folded his arms. “Knowing you, you probably know the whole story.”

“Well, let’s see.” Janus counted on his fingers. “Logan was working with me the whole time, I blackmailed you into a coup, your husband is an abusive and manipulate piece of scum who I can’t wait to see lose his head, Patton got arrested in your place, and Logan spent two hours crying yesterday because apparently you’re in love with him or something.”

Roman blinked. “What?”

Logan flushed deep red and covered his face with his hands, mumbling a string of curse words. Janus smirked.

“Okay, moving past that,” Virgil said, “which of those do you think we have an issue with?”

D tilted his head. “I would hope all of them. Except the last one, since Logan’s—”

“We’re here about Patton,” Logan said loudly. “Patton. Not me.”

“Patton. I see.” Janus looked Patton over. “Yes, I’m very sorry about the whole arrest business, it must be very trying, but I don’t think there’s really anything I can do—”

“Yes, there is,” Logan said. He stood tall, despite the traces of blush still on his cheeks. “I’m going to turn myself in.”

D stared at him. “What.”

“Turn myself in,” Logan repeated. “And you’re going to help me.”

What.

“I said, I’m—”

“I heard what you said!” Janus snapped.

“Good.” Logan nodded. “Are you with me?”

“I—” Janus snarled. “Have you gone completely insane? This operation took months for me to set up and I can’t compromise the integrity of my position—”

“I know, I know.” Logan was unimpressed. “But your ‘operation’ is also putting people in danger.”

“I’m here under orders from—”

“You know as well as I do that Thomas would be horrified at the repercussions of your actions.”

‘Thomas?’ Roman mouthed at Virgil, who shrugged.

“Look.” Janus spread his hands in a placating gesture. “I get it. You’re upset about Patton’s arrest. And I’m truly sorry about that! But I’m in no position to help him, and you turning yourself in could potentially splash back on the entire kingdom! Do you want me to lose my job, my reputation, and my life?”

“You gave them a fake name!” Logan fired back. “The only person who would be implicated is me, and I’m already under suspicion for being related to Mom!”

“How am I supposed to get you out of this castle without being spotted?”

“Figure it out! You’re the subterfuge specialist around here.”

“You’re going to compromise this entire coup—”

“I don’t care about this entire coup!”

“Well, you did.” Janus’ face was stony. “You signed onto this. You agreed to help take down His Majesty, Terrible Person. If you’re so eager to get out and ruin everything we’ve built, remember that you helped build it. You knew exactly what you were getting into when you took this job and I will not have you whining because it turned out harder than you expected. Yes, your friend is taking the blame. That’s par for the course around here. Sacrifices have to be made for the greater good, and if you don’t understand that, you’re not going to last very long in the real world, Logan.”

Logan didn’t even flinch. “Do you know why I decided to help you when you broke into my quarters?”

“To dethrone the King, of course.”

“Well, do you know why I want to do that?

Janus glared at him. “Where are you going with this?”

Logan smiled slightly. “Humor me.”

“Fine,” Janus said, waving a hand. “Because he’s a corrupt and terrible ruler?”

“Well, yes, but there are a lot of those.” Logan adjusted his glasses. “Try again.”

“Just tell me what you’re getting at. I hate it when you’re vague.”

“Hypocrite much?” Roman mumbled. Virgil snickered. Patton gave them both a shushing motion.

“Fine,” Logan said, looking over at Roman. “I want the King to be dethroned because of Roman.”

The entire world ground to a halt.

What?

“What?” Janus echoed.

“Yes, I think the King is a despotic tyrant and a waste of a perfectly good crown. Yes, this kingdom is suffering economically. Yes, I was eager for any chance to reconnect with you because you’re the only family member I have left.”

Janus looked even more confused. “I—”

“It’s my turn to talk,” Logan countered. “Yes, all those reasons contributed to my decisions. But the core of it was always that I wanted to help my best friend escape from a terrible situation. I wanted to protect Roman. That’s why I let you blackmail him, that’s why I put my job on the line, that’s why I did everything. To protect him.” Logan’s voice cracked. “It was always for him, and I think on some level, you understand that.”

Roman hoped he didn’t look as absolutely gutted as he felt. Judging by Patton and Virgil’s worried looks, he probably did.

“So when I find out that this coup, which I have sacrificed everything for, only made the situation worse?” Logan shook his head. “That’s not something I want to be a part of.”

Logan Abbott. Logan Abbott. Holy hell, Logan Abbott.

What had he done to deserve this man? Even after everything, even after the fighting and the dramatic love confessions and the betrayal and the night kisses, Logan still regarded him as a best friend. A best friend he wanted to protect.

Roman could kiss him. It was only through sheer self-control that Roman did not, actually, run over and kiss Logan on the lips.

“Cool,” Janus said slowly. “Good. Very nice. So you’re upending political balances and destroying a justified revolution because your boyfriend’s sad.”

“I’m not his—

“He’s not my—”

“Spare me.”

“And don’t claim that you have no personal stakes in this.” Logan’s eyes flashed. “You just want revenge for Mom.”

Janus looked suddenly disconcerted. “So what if I do?”

“All I’m saying is, you have no moral high ground here. We’re both saturated in feelings and personal biases. Pretending that this is an entirely rational endeavor, while tempting, is a fool’s errand.”

Janus rubbed his face. “Whatever. Logan. If you really care that much about Roman, you should work to help the coup so we can actually get him out of that situation.”

“When?” Logan asked.

“What?”

“When would another coup succeed? Three months? A year?” Logan stepped forward, hands balled into fists. “Do you know what can happen in a year, Janus? Face it. We had one chance, it failed, and now we need a new plan.”

“This was all part of the plan!” Janus looked about to tear his hair from his head. “Logan, please, listen to me!”

“I’m done discussing this,” Logan said firmly. “I’m turning myself in whether you support me or not. It is the right thing to do.”

“I’m not letting you go out there and get yourself killed!

Logan flinched. His eyes widened. It was the first time in the argument that he looked unsure.

Janus seemed to regret his outburst, but he kept going. “Logan, they’re going to execute you for this. You’re going to die! You’re all I have and you can’t—I can’t let you—” Janus swallowed, standing up taller. “Thomas would be rather put out if I came back with a dead younger brother.”

“It doesn’t have to come to that,” Logan said softly. “If you help me, I’ll be okay.”

“I can’t just help you!”

“Well.” Logan nodded to himself. “I guess I will die, then. Shame, I was enjoying life.”

Janus stared at him and groaned loudly, covering his face with his hands. “I’m not sure if I feel pride in your emotional manipulation skills or blind, seething rage.”

“Is that a yes?”

Janus held out for a second longer before groaning even louder and sinking in defeat. “You had better come up with a brilliant plan, you mistake of a younger brother.”

A smile flashed across Logan’s face. “Thanks, Janus. It means a lot.”

“Don’t mention it,” Janus said. “Seriously, don’t mention it. All of you. If you ever breathe a word of this to anyone, I will actually kill you myself.”

Roman mimed zipping his lips. Patton nodded. Virgil was still glancing between Logan and Janus like he was watching a bearbaiting session.

“What’s the plan?” Roman asked, immediately unzipping his lips.

“Well, we have a guard, an escaped prisoner, and a Queen.” Logan tapped his fingers together, eyes narrowed with thought. Roman’s traitorous brain reminded him how very hot Logan looked when he was concentrating. “What can we do with these resources?”

“I have an idea,” Janus said, a smile growing on his face.

“Oh no,” Virgil said.

“Great!” Patton said.

Logan didn’t say a word. He just returned the exact same smile, and suddenly Roman couldn’t avoid seeing the family resemblance. They both had the same air of being smarter than everyone around them, very willing to let people know that, and even more willing to destroy things with the efficiency of a gunpowder bomb.

It was kind of terrifying, if Roman was being honest.

But it was exactly the kind of terrifying they would need to get out of this alive.

---

“Are we ready?”

Patton fingered the fresh cut on his cheek, which Virgil had apologized profusely for, even though Patton agreed to it. “I think so.”

“I’m ready,” Virgil said, unsheathing his dagger.

“And me as well.” Logan paused. “Actually. Could I—have a word with—”

He motioned vaguely at Roman, who immediately froze. Logan wanted to talk to him? Now? Roman had been so focused on stopping his friend’s execution that he’d almost managed to forget the tension between them. But of course, of course Logan wanted to talk to him. Yell at him, probably, or explain why it would never work—not that Roman needed that explanation. He knew this would never work. He knew Logan probably hated him. Well, no, Logan had said he cared on numerous occasions. So no, Logan didn’t hate him. Unless he’d been lying. No—

Okay, okay. Roman took a deep breath. Logan didn’t hate him. This was just a friendly discussion between friends. Nothing romantic or awkward about it. Logan wasn’t about to tell him that he was sabotaging the rescue plan to get revenge for Roman’s ruining of their perfectly good friendship.

“Go ahead,” Virgil said, a knowing expression in his eye. Roman wanted to smack him, but acknowledging the teasing would only make the teasing more noticeable.

Logan nodded and motioned to a corridor nearby. Roman followed him down it, hands drumming on the hilt of his sword. This had better not be an assassination attempt or he would be very annoyed.

“Roman,” Logan finally said, staring at his hands.

“Yes?”

“I…” Logan closed his eyes. “I know, I know you said I couldn’t defend myself, and I agree! What I did was abhorrent and you have no obligation to forgive me, but we’re about to try and pull off a very dangerous stunt so I want you to know—”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa.” Roman blanched. “You actually think we’re gonna die?

“No!” Logan cried. “Did I say that?”

“You implied it.”

“Well, there’s always the possibility, I suppose.” Logan glanced around. “It is an ill-advised and illogical endeavor with many opportunities for the plan to fail.”

“Great,” Roman said, trying not to panic. “Thanks for the vote of confidence. May I remind you, this was your plan.”

“And Janus’,” Logan added, waving a hand. “Irrelevant. I just wanted to say—”

“Whatever you’re going to say,” Roman said dully, “you don’t have to. I get it.”

Logan narrowed his eyes. “I do not think you, in fact, ‘get it.’”

“You feel really guilty and think you have to make it up to me.”

“Oh,” Logan said slowly. “Well, that is partly accurate—”

“I knew it.” Roman sighed. “Look, Specs, let’s just forget all this ever happened.”

“Because that worked so well the last time around?” Logan snapped. Immediately he stopped himself, the anger flooding out of his face. “I’m sorry. I’m just—this entire thing has put me very on edge.”

Roman nodded. “Yeah.”

“I understand how you feel,” Logan continued, studiedly staring at Roman’s shoulder. “I would like a chance to say something to you before we continue.”

“Um…” Roman really wasn’t in the mood to hear a diatribe on how he failed, or a ‘you’re cool but we should just be friends’ speech, or a ‘I feel really guilty about how I treated you so I’m going to be nice to you even though you don’t deserve it’ rant. “Can you save it for later? We’ve got to bust Pat out of the dungeons first.”

“Technically, we already did that.” Logan pressed his lips together, fidgeting. “Can I please just say six words?”

“Six words?”

“Yes, six—wait.” Logan counted on his fingers. “Scratch that. Seven words.”

Roman hoped he didn’t look as utterly lost as he felt. What seven words could Logan possibly say? I hate you, don’t talk to me? I’m really sorry about betraying you? No, that was six. I really, really, really, really love you? Yeah, right.

“Okay,” Roman said slowly. “Fire away.”

Logan took a deep breath. “I—didn’t—have—to—kiss—you—again.”

Well, that was not what Roman expected.

“What?” he said, after five full seconds of trying to understand and failing.

“I didn’t have to kiss you again,” Logan repeated. His voice was quiet and his eyes were full of some emotion Roman didn’t have the courage to name.

What did he mean? They never kissed ‘again’! They only kissed once—

No. No, they didn’t only kiss once.

Roman kissed Logan first. A brief kiss. And then they kissed again, longer.

I didn’t have to kiss you again.

He didn’t have to kiss Roman again. One kiss was good enough for blackmail material. Logan could have pulled away and let it stand as a very awkward, unreciprocated peck.

But he let Roman kiss him a second time. And returned it. Pretty—enthusiastically.

I didn’t have to kiss you.

“I didn’t have to make friends with you,” Logan said, still avoiding Roman’s eyes. “I didn’t have to kiss back, I didn’t have to let you kiss me instead of me kissing you like I was supposed to, because I knew as soon as we kissed it would be over, you’d be blackmailed, and I didn’t want it to end yet—” Logan broke off, curling into himself. “Well. I didn’t have to kiss you again, is all I’m saying.”

“But you did,” Roman said, unbelieving.

“But I did.”

Roman laughed softly at the uncomfortable look on Logan’s face. “That was way more than seven words.”

Logan flushed. “I got…carried away.”

“Story of our lives, isn’t it?”

Logan laughed slightly, but it was weak. “Roman.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m never going to see you again, am I?”

Roman swallowed, trying to ignore the lump in his throat. “Hey, someday the King will die and you can come round all you want.”

“Right,” Logan said. “But not for a while.”

“Who says?” Roman smirked. “There’s gotta be some other people around here who are willing to assassinate him, right?”

Logan didn’t even laugh a little this time, which was rude. “I’ll come back for you, Roman. I promise.”

“You don’t have to—”

“I want to.” Logan’s eyes were filled with confidence. “I made that entire speech about protecting you! Did you think I was joking?”

“No!” Roman protested. “I—I dunno, I just—”

Logan shook his head fondly. “Your self-esteem really needs work, doesn’t it?”

“Sorry?”

“Please don’t apologize.” Logan glanced down the hallway to the others. Janus was making a very obvious ‘hurry up’ gesture and Virgil was making an even more obvious ‘kiss him’ gesture. Roman fervently hoped Logan would follow neither of them.

Well, one of them might be alright. If it came to that.

“Hey,” Roman said, gathering his courage, “can I ask you a question? You don’t have to answer, I just—”

“Of course,” Logan said.

“Um…you were talking about your mom earlier? It’s not any of my business but…”

“Oh. Right.” Logan didn’t look annoyed, but something passed over his face. “Our mom worked in the castle when the first Queen was on the throne. After the King forcefully evicted everyone who sympathized with the Queen, thanks to that divorce, she lost her job. We couldn’t pay the rent, couldn’t buy food, and when she got sick, we couldn’t afford medical care. She died. I was seven, I think.”

“Oh my god.” Roman’s voice broke. “Lo, I’m sorry. That’s awful!”

“It is what it is,” Logan said, his voice tight. “That’s…you know, that’s one of the reasons Janus is so vehement about dethroning the King. Along with his proclivity for destruction, his love of a good challenge, and his common sense.”

“Right.” Roman felt like he should say something else. “I…I swear this isn’t me making this whole thing about me, but…my dad died a couple years ago. It’s—losing a parent is horrible, and I’m sorry.”

“I didn’t know that,” Logan said. “Thank you for telling me.”

“I don’t exactly go around advertising it, y’know?” Roman shrugged. “That’s why I came to the city, actually. I had to provide for my family, my little siblings. I got married so I could send them money.”

Logan blinked, his mouth slightly open. “Um. Well. That is—very admirable.”

“You alright there?”

“How do you manage to be so incredibly wonderful?” Logan burst out. “Every time I think I’ve reached the end of your intelligence, kindness, and loyalty, you always surprise me. How on earth was I lucky enough to meet you?”

Roman made a sound like he’d been punched in the gut. “Um. Well. Thanks?” He rubbed at his face, but his burning blush didn’t leave. “Um. You’re cool, too. I guess.”

“Roman del Rey.” Logan savored the name. “Can I say one more thing?”

Roman smiled. It was easy. He was filled to the brim with bubbly euphoria. “You have gone so far over seven words, I’m just saying.”

Logan nodded. “I want to say thank you.”

And once again, Roman’s brain stuttered to a screeching halt. “I—what?”

“Remember all I said that night? Before the kissing part? About you being my friend?” Logan smiled. “I stand by all of that. You’ve been a wonderful friend, taught me so much, and I’m grateful to have known you.”

Roman laughed, trying to hold back his tears. “Sap.”

Logan shrugged, a ‘what can you do’ gesture. Roman tried to clandestinely wipe his eyes. He didn’t entirely succeed, but he knew Logan wouldn’t mind.

“Yo!” Virgil yelled, apparently giving up on subtlety. “Please get to the sucking face so we can wrap this up! We don’t have all day!”

Roman flushed as him and Logan made their way back to the group. “We were not planning on sucking face, Virgil.”

“Agreed,” Logan said. “That’s a disgusting way of putting it. We would kiss, not suck face.”

“Well, we’re not planning on doing that either!” Roman’s face burned. “Anyway, I don’t want to hear that, coming from someone who uses the phrase ‘put your mouth on my mouth.’”

Logan glared at him. “It’s accurate.”

“Just because things are accurate doesn’t mean they’re the best descriptions! Like, I could refer to humans as skin-covered meatbags with stony bits and fleshy appendages, but I don’t!”

“That was a strangely specific example.”

“You’re a strangely specific example!”

Logan threw up his hands. “Can we just get to the plan, so I have an excuse to possibly die and not listen to Roman’s whining anymore?”

“I have a sword,” Roman warned him. “I have a sharp sword that does not approve of your sass—”

“You couldn’t stab a brick wall—”

“No, I couldn’t, because a wall is really hard but you’re just a big softy!

“Take that back!”

“I will not!”

“Wow,” Patton said, eyes wide.

“What?” both of them asked in unison, turning on Patton.

“Nothing!” Patton laughed. “Just…honestly, at first I thought it was strange that you kissed? But now I can’t believe I didn’t figure it out sooner.”

“Tell me about it,” Virgil said.

Roman, for what seemed like the millionth time that day, blushed. “Can we, um, get to the heisting, spying, and lying?”

“Right.” Virgil nodded. “Here, Logan, this is the dagger I’m pretending I took from you.” He wiggled a small hooked dagger with blood along the side.

“I still wish you’d used one of your own daggers,” Janus muttered.

“Can it, I bet you’ve got like seven.” Virgil lightly grabbed Patton’s arm. “Ready to act terrified?”

Patton frowned. “I’m still no good at lying, kiddo.”

“You don’t even have to say anything,” Roman reminded him. “Just shake a bit. Try to look meek.”

Logan sent Patton an encouraging look as Janus tied a gag around Logan’s mouth and bound his hands with rope. Virgil carefully held Logan’s hand.

“Be more rough with it,” Janus told him. “You look like you’re going to a tea party, not dragging him through the halls.”

Virgil frowned. “I don’t want to hurt him.”

Logan raised his voice to speak through the cloth. “Just remind yourself of how this entire debacle could be construed as my fault and I broke the trust of one of my closest friends.”

“That’d do it.” Virgil’s smile grew strained and he grabbed Logan’s sleeve with no little force. “I feel way less bad about this now.”

“Wonderful.” Janus motioned to Roman. “Shall we take our leave?”

Roman nodded and followed him to a nearby set of servants’ stairs. According to Janus, the servants’ passageways ran alongside many of the main halls and had doors in almost every room. For once, the King’s disdain for commoners and appreciation for keeping everything ‘pristine’ would come in handy.

Janus squeezed up the stairs and Roman followed, once again glad he wasn’t wearing a dress. They crept along a narrow passageway, avoiding the gaze of any servants nearby. They were both wearing approximations of commoner clothing, although Roman’s clothes had fine stitching, so they got little notice. Janus gestured to a door up ahead and Roman nonchalantly opened it, both of them squeezing into the small hallway between the door and the courtroom.

Someone was droning on about tax cuts. Roman peeked around and saw the high walls of the courtroom, several tables arranged with the wealthiest nobles in the kingdom. The King himself was nowhere to be found, of course. He wasn’t big on ‘lawmaking’ or ‘public service’ or ‘being reachable’ or doing his goddamn job. Well, that’s what they’d counted on. Things would go way smoother without the King there.

Roman was about to wonder when, exactly, the plan would start.

Then the doors burst open.

Roman had to hand it to Virgil—the guy knew how to make an entrance. He’d apparently recruited two other guards as well. From where, Roman didn’t know. Maybe they had a secret bell system. One of them held Patton gently while Patton trembled. The other had Logan pinned in place. Logan struggled against the ropes and tried to kick at him, but the guard held him still.

“I beg your pardon,” Virgil yelled, his hair mussed and eyes wild, “but there’s been an incident!”

The nobles stood up, whispering to themselves. Other guards lining the walls stepped forward.

“What is this?” asked a woman in a peach dress.

Virgil took a deep breath, and Roman saw him tapping his breathing rhythms on the bloody dagger. “I caught this man trying to murder Patton!”

Patton obligingly squeaked and hid his face in the guard’s shoulder.

“He’s been resistant to questioning,” Virgil said, giving Logan a glare, “but we believe he may have been involved in the recent assassination attempt. If so, he may have framed Patton and attempted to kill him before Patton could tell the truth.”

Patton squeaked again. The guard carrying Patton escorted him through the doors, locking them behind him. Roman hoped they were headed to the servants’ quarters or infirmary and not back to the dungeons.

“Since he could be a threat to our Majesty’s well-being,” Virgil continued, his voice strong, “I request permission to arrest and imprison him immediately.”

Roman knew what they hoped would happen next. Logan would be imprisoned, Janus would break him out that night, Patton would be acquitted, and all this could happen without the King any wiser. It wasn’t foolproof, but it was the best plan they had. And it seemed to be working. The nobles were conferring, eying Logan with suspicious eyes.

Then a voice echoed through the room and silenced everyone.

“I know you.”

Roman’s heart dropped to the floor.

“I know you,” the King repeated. “Logan Abbott, is it?”

Logan raised an eyebrow and motioned to his gag.

“Yes.” The King walked forward, leaning on the fence and staring down at Logan. Logan stared right back, eyes narrowed. “You’re the one with the…connections to our nearby kingdom, the treasonous mother, and of course a—how should I put this—an improper relationship with my husband.”

Roman shuddered.

“I hope you understand your crimes must be punished,” the King continued, ignoring the death glare he was receiving from Logan. “You put my entire government at risk and endanger your King. Treason of this magnitude naturally requires consequences of equal magnitude. Perhaps this can be a lesson to your supporters, the weak-willed commoners and peasants who have no respect for their King. And perhaps it will teach our favorite Queen to better behave himself.”

Logan bit into his gag, ripped it out of his mouth, and called the King a series of extremely rude names. Many of the nobles gasped. Roman, as well as most of the guards, was torn between terror and admiration. Janus let out a breath, eyes wide.

“Someone gag him,” the King ordered. Virgil glanced at Logan but didn’t move. “Guards!”

The guard holding Logan muscled the gag back into Logan’s mouth. Logan fixed him with an angry stare and loosened the gag again with a few twitches of his chin.

“Guards,” the King repeated.

“We’ll bring him to the dungeons, your Majesty,” Virgil said.

“No.”

Virgil blinked. “Wh—your Majesty, what do you mean?”

“I said, no.”

And even Roman didn’t know why the King said what he said next. Maybe the weeks of paranoia had taken their toll. Maybe he’d finally cracked. Maybe he just couldn’t stand being humiliated.

The King stared Virgil dead in the eyes. “Kill him.”

Half the nobles shot to their feet. The guards exchanged wide eyes. Roman lunged forward and Janus caught his wrist in one gloved hand.

“Your Majesty,” Virgil said, his voice cracking, “with all due respect, I don’t think you can do that.”

“He disrespected me in my court,” the King said, walking to a nearby chair and sitting down. “Kill him. Now.”

Not a single guard moved, not the ones on the side of the courtroom or the ones by the door or the one still holding Logan.

“I will have you hanged for treason if you do not obey my orders!”

The guard holding Logan glanced at him and slowly reached for his sword. Logan was faster. He head-butted the guard in the nose, slipping out of his bindings and snatching the dagger from Virgil’s hands. Virgil froze, clearly unsure of what to do. Logan solved that problem by dashing away towards the doors.

The doors, which were closed.

And more guards were stepping off the walls, swords out.

“I have to—” Roman grabbed the hilt of his sword. “Janus, I have to—”

Janus squeezed his wrist tighter. Roman turned around.

“Please,” Roman whispered.

Janus glanced behind Roman at Logan, who fended off the first guard but was hopelessly outnumbered.

“I—” Janus’s face changed from uncertain to determined. “I’ll get the doors.”

“Thank you,” Roman breathed. It wasn’t enough, but his gratitude must have shown in his eyes, because Janus smiled slightly before dashing through the door and into the servants’ passageway.

Roman turned back around. For a second he was frozen in the doorway, hand on his sword, watching Logan fight for his life. If he went out there, he was throwing everything away. Everything he’d fought for, everything he’d gained. Every fake smile and fake apology and fake interest. The persona he’d carefully crafted, sewn and soldered until it was perfect, would be destroyed in less than a second.

Was it worth it?

Logan barely dodged a sword in time, stumbling. He was quick, lithe, and knew how to use his enemies’ motion against them. But he was one against a dozen, holding only a dagger.

Roman had gotten them here, more or less, through mistakes and choices and more mistakes. Through things he could control and things he couldn’t. Through sheer, blind, dumb luck that never seemed to work in his favor.

Logan had made mistakes. So had Roman. Logan tried to fix those mistakes and now he was going to lose his life for trying to be better.

Roman was going to lose everything if he did this. His throne, his head, his life.

For Logan.

For Logan, Roman would sacrifice anything.

For Logan, Roman bolted through the servant’s door, ran into the center of the courtroom, and slammed his blade across a guard’s head. The guard crumpled to the ground with a thud.

And for a second, everything froze.

The guards froze, staring at this new threat. The King froze, his eyes icy. Virgil froze—but he’d already been as good as frozen, trying to look like he was helping without actually helping.

And Logan froze. His expression, a mix of relief-joy-fear-guilt. His eyes wide and his dagger loose in his hand.

“Del Rey.”

It was Roman’s turn to freeze.

The King had never looked at him like that. Cold and fiery all at once, sending ice into Roman’s veins and making his voice shrivel up. He felt small, so small, standing in a courtroom with a sword, dressed in a cotton tunic and pants, a guard crumpled at his feet.

“What on earth are you doing?

Angry. Disappointed.

But—the King’s voice wavered. And Roman saw it.

Fear.

The King was…afraid of him?

Maybe not afraid of him. But afraid. Afraid of the nobles whispering on each side, afraid of the guards who looked more and more conflicted, afraid of the way his entire life order must have been dissolving around him.

So, yes. In essence—the King was scared of Roman.

And Roman was scared of him too, still. Petrified. He still wanted to apologize and beg for mercy and crawl into a hole and disappear.

But the King was scared of him.

That meant Roman was a threat.

That meant Roman…mattered. As much as the King could say he was disposable, powerless, worthless—he wasn’t. Not if he could put fear in the King’s eyes. The King’s eyes. The leader of the entire kingdom, the most powerful man he knew.

The King had lied to him, over and over and over again.

Roman was way more powerful than he said.

Roman could make a difference.

Roman could save his best friend.

So instead of apologizing, instead of shrinking under the King’s stare, Roman just smiled. Maybe it would be smarter to cut his losses and try to regain some semblance of power. But hey! He was too far gone for that. In for a penny, in for a pound.

Roman leapt at the nearest guard, twisted his sword around theirs, and send it flying to the ground.

The world unfroze again. Guards ran at him from every angle. Logan slashed and stabbed at them, never making contact but keeping them at bay. Some guards were taking the King away from the scene, despite his protests. Others escorted the nobles through a back door. It was only Roman, Logan, and the guards now. Roman vaguely wondered when Janus would be able to open that door.

“Roman—” Logan burst out, ducking under a sword, “are you an idiot?”

“On your left,” Roman merely replied, kicking a guard in the shin.

Logan whirled and successfully avoided a strike on his left. “Any escape plans?” he asked.

“Door should be opening!” Someone punched Roman in the shoulder and he winced, steadying himself.

“Soon?” Logan asked, dodging an attack. “The guards will call backup soon!”

“Right,” Roman said, praying that Janus was a speedy lockpicker.

Virgil still stood in the middle of the fray, weakly jabbing at air and pretending to be fighting. Roman decided to take pity on him—he needed a promotion, after all, and the guards might get suspicious. He gestured at Virgil to come closer and mouthed ‘Fight me.’

Virgil’s face contorted with confusion, but he stepped forward, sword out.

‘Fight me,’ Roman mouthed again, finding an open spot and readying his sword.

Guards were starting to look in their direction.

‘I’m so sorry,’ Virgil mouthed, and Roman gave him an understanding nod.

Virgil stepped forward and slashed at Roman’s side.

It was a slow strike, so Roman parried it easily. Virgil’s next strike went wide and Roman muscled in, slamming into his chest as lightly as possible. Obligingly, Virgil stumbled. Roman mouthed another apology and swung his hand around, colliding with Virgil’s head.

Virgil crumpled, sword falling out of his hands. Roman winced. Hopefully Virgil was faking. Hopefully.

Roman went back to fighting, slashing and jabbing, trying to slowly back towards the door. Logan saw what he was doing and followed. But the guards they felled kept getting back up, reaching for their swords. They couldn’t last forever.

There was a large bang. Finally, finally, the doors flew open. Janus stood there, wild and out of breath, a scratch down his cheek. Roman grabbed Logan’s hand and tugged him towards the doors.

Then another set of doors opened.

A stream of guards poured out. There must have been fifty at least—had the King sent every guard in the castle? Roman recognized some of them, Terrence and Talyn and Camden and Valerie. Others were unfamiliar. All of them had their swords drawn, a bristling wall of black armor.

Roman understood the armor now. It wasn’t stealthy or fast, but it didn’t need to be. It was like a tortoise shell. Slow and steady and impossibly strong.

Also, some of the guards had bows and arrows, notched and ready to fire.

Well, shit.

Roman stumbled backwards, bumping into Logan. Logan pressed his back to Roman’s, holding out his dagger.

“What now?” Logan hissed.

“You think I know?”

Janus was waving frantically from the door. A large gloved hand reached for him and he stabbed at it with his dagger. Huh, he did have another one.

But there was no way they would make it in time. The guards were stepping forward hesitantly, some faces guilty and others stoic. Roman spotted all manner of blades and tried not to picture getting ripped open by them.

Logan watched the guards approach, his face stricken. Roman hoped against hope that Logan would come up with some sort of plan. But Logan just stood there, staring at the guards, quiet.

“We’re screwed,” Roman said. “Right?”

“I hate to say it.” Logan’s voice was weak and taut, a rope close to breaking. “But you may be correct.”

The guards were fanning out now, blocking each entrance. Taking their time. Why wouldn’t they? They knew Roman and Logan couldn’t get far. Janus was fighting off the ones at the door, but only barely. Their window of opportunity was closing.

Roman lowered his voice. “You should run.”

“I can’t—” Logan looked stricken. “Roman, I’m not leaving you!”

“I’ll distract them,” Roman muttered, sizing up the closest guards. “Can’t last long, but it’ll buy you time and—”

“Roman, please.” Logan’s voice broke. “Why are you even doing this? Why did you step in?”

“Hey,” Roman said, smiling weakly. “You said it yourself. Help the people I care about.”

Logan turned to Roman, eyes glassy. He opened his mouth, probably to say something either sappy or mocking, berate Roman for sacrificing himself or insist like the idiot he was that Roman should run while Logan stayed behind. Roman saw all those words in his eyes, fumbling for dominance.

But Logan sighed, closed his mouth—and kissed him.

Kissed him.

What?

Logan Abbott was kissing Roman?

Roman squeaked in surprise, his hand automatically rising to Logan’s side. Part of him knew half the castle guards were watching, and part of him knew they were wasting time with even a five-second kiss, and part of him was trying to work out what, exactly, this meant. But…he’d never kissed Logan like this before. It wasn’t hot and needy. It was simple and sweet, their lips fitting together perfectly, Roman wrapping his arm around Logan’s back and Logan tracing Roman’s jaw with his fingers. Roman closed his eyes and allowed himself to get lost for just a moment. To enjoy the comfortable weight of Logan in his arms and the softness of his lips. Warm and sweet and—salty?

Roman opened his eyes and realized Logan was crying.

Roman pulled away, frowning at Logan. Logan gave a weak sniffle but made no attempt to dry his eyes.

“Hey,” Roman asked, “you okay?”

Logan laughed wetly. Or maybe sobbed. Roman couldn’t tell. “I hate you so much,” he whispered, his eyes shining.

“Oh.” Roman tried not to look too goofily euphoric. Instead, he pressed a kiss to the bridge of Logan’s nose. “I—I hate you too.”

There was a loud slam behind them, and they jumped apart. Janus bolted towards them, grabbing Logan’s arm and tossing a dagger in the direction of the guards.

“Hello, yes, this is very heartwarming but Logan if you don’t come with me now, I will knock you out and drag you by your ankles out of this castle.”

Roman nodded, shoving Logan away and dashing at the nearest guard, sword out. Logan reached for him and Janus yanked him backwards, dodging an arrow and running to the door. Roman glanced back at them. Logan was arguing with Janus as they slid through the door, face wet with tears. Janus ignored him. He made eye contact with Roman as Roman disarmed a guard and vaulted over a table.

‘Take care of him,’ Roman mouthed.

Janus, ever so slightly, inclined his head.

And the door slammed shut.

Roman gave them a few minutes of time, charging at any guards who tried to leave and follow them. His legs ached and his sword slipped from his sweaty palms. He paused to catch his breath, tossing his hair out of his eyes, feeling blisters already forming on his fingers. The guards had circled him, now, swords out. He was slowing down. Soon they’d grab him and muscle him into a cell, or just kill him outright. He couldn’t win.

But he didn’t need to. He’d already won where it mattered—Logan had escaped. Logan was safe. Logan would be okay. That was all Roman needed.

It was over now. Logan was gone, and Roman’s part in the story was finished.

Roman del Rey dropped his sword on the ground, and raised his hands in surrender.

Chapter Text

Like what was I meant to do?
No but what was I meant to do?
Sorry not sorry ‘bout what I said,
I’m just trying to have some fun
Don’t worry, don’t worry, don’t lose your head
I didn’t mean to hurt anyone
LOL, say oh well, or go to hell!
Sorry not sorry ‘bout what I said,
Don’t lose your head!

-Don’t Lose Ur Head, Six the Musical

---

Roman del Rey was writing a letter.

Well, not exactly. He’d only been given one small pot of ink and one paper, so he couldn’t mess this up by writing something stupid or long-winded. Instead he paced around the cell, trying to find the right words.

Dear Mom and siblings? No, should he list them all by name? Dear Mom, Remus, Jana, Edward, Ainslee—too much ink. Dear family. Simple enough.

Roman paused in his pacing and walked over to the barrel on which he’d placed the paper and his only candle. Carefully, he dipped the quill in the ink and wrote with his best cursive, Dear family.

Now what?

Roman placed the quill back into the ink, getting up and pacing again. He needed to tell them what happened, but he didn’t want to worry his mom or scare the littler kids. He needed to apologize for leaving them without job opportunities, but he didn’t want to sound too down on the whole thing. He needed to be kind and caring and compassionate and show them how much he loved them, even though he had literally ruined all of their lives.

And he had to do it in one page, no redos.

Roman climbed onto the nearest crates and stared out the window. The stars were strong in the sky. It must have been midnight at least—he didn’t know, there were no clocks in the dungeons. The night air was cool and refreshing on his skin. He closed his eyes and breathed, trying to resolve the jittery mass in his stomach. The mass that told him what are you doing just standing around you’re going to die tomorrow you’re going to die you’re going to die--

Dear family, by the time you’re reading this, I will most likely be deceased.

Roman snorted, letting his chin fall on his hand. That would definitely leave an impression. And probably scar all his siblings for life.

Maybe he shouldn’t write a letter at all? But wouldn’t that be worse than a bad letter? They’d hear what happened from a town crier or a news rag. They deserved to hear it straight from him. Even though he was gay.

Roman sighed and stared into the night. He wished he could see them in person. It would be so much easier to explain in person—and he hadn’t seen them for more than a year. The King never let them visit and Roman couldn’t leave the castle. It would be nice to see them again. Just once. But they were far away and had a farm to attend to. And after all, he wasn’t in a position to make negotiations.

It seemed so simple, back in the courtroom. Save Logan or don’t.

He’d forgotten about all the other people who hung in the balance.

Virgil. He hadn’t seen Virgil. The guards had told him nothing. Maybe he was hurt—Roman had knocked him out, after all. Maybe they found out that Virgil was lying, and Virgil would be arrested too. Maybe this whole thing would just be chalked up to mistakes. But then he could get fired, or never be promoted, or get sent to guard the kitchen door or something. And—well, maybe Roman was being optimistic, but he figured Virgil would probably miss having him around. They talked every night, Roman came with him on patrols—whoever Virgil guarded next wouldn’t be so talkative. Maybe they’d be mean to him. Oh, god, what if they were mean to Virgil? Virgil didn’t have the protection of being the Queen’s personal guard anymore. Someone could be rude or pick a fight. Or he could be sent to the kingdoms and die in a brawl or—

Roman’s grip tightened on the stone windowsill. He took a deep breath and focused on the breeze playing across his face and the moon, crosshatched by tree branches.

He hadn’t seen Patton, either. Hopefully he’d been cleared, but what if they figured it out? What if Patton was arrested again? Then this whole escapade would be for nothing. Pointless and fruitless and a net loss for everyone involved. And even if Patton wasn’t arrested, he could be fired like Virgil. Patton needed this job! Where else would he go? He had so many friends in the castle and he’d be miserable without them.

Patton would have to see another Queen die tomorrow.

Roman really, really hoped Patton wouldn’t come.

But Patton probably would. He was all about supporting friends, wasn’t he? He’d see it as his duty to attend. Maybe Virgil could talk him out of it. Virgil would probably see the psychological downside to watching Roman get executed.

Roman rubbed at his eyes, fighting back tears. It didn’t matter now. It didn’t matter. He had made his choice and here he was. Mulling over regrets and wishes wouldn’t do any good. Unless he could escape—and he’d spent two hours thinking through escape plans—Roman’s fate was set in stone.

Whatever. It was fine. He’d always known it would go like this eventually. It was him or the King, and the King snapped first. Now he was going to die without reaching his twenty-second birthday. Without seeing his mom again, his siblings. Without saying goodbye to Patton, Virgil, Logan. Terrence, Camden, Valerie…all the guards he’d seen every day, the cooks in the kitchen, the librarians. Hell, even Janus, even the servants who dressed him and brought him meals, the annoying nobles—he’d never see them again, would he? He was never going to be annoyed by them or be thankful for them or feel anything for them because he wouldn’t be able to feel anything because he was going to—

Whatever.

It was fine.

Roman pushed himself away from the window. He still needed to write that letter, and his eyes were itching. He didn’t want to be sleep-deprived tomorrow. Or maybe he did—maybe delirious unreality would help fend off the inevitable mental breakdown he’d been suppressing for the past five hours.

Maybe he should just get all the screaming and crying over with. Get it out of his system. Pluck it like a weed from where it bit at his chest, sick and disgusting. He could feel it, bumping at his walls, an inch of glass away from bursting into being.

Letter. He needed to write that letter. He could decide whether or not to panic after he’d written that letter.

Roman determinedly stalked to the barrel and sat cross-legged on a crate near it, staring at the piece of paper. The delicate curls of ‘Dear family’ mocked him.

He needed to write something. He wanted to write something. Words clawed at his mouth, searching for an escape. But everything always sounded better in his head—and really, what could he say in this situation? How could he possibly make this better?

He needed to try.

What would Virgil do? Roman summoned a mini-Virgil, who scowled at him and brandished a sword. Probably tell him to either stop wussing out and write it, or that he shouldn’t bother anyway. Maybe the latter.

What would Patton do? Roman pictured a small Patton, who beamed and waved. Probably say to write from the heart and not worry about how it sounded.

What would Logan—no. Nope! No. Not going there. Even thinking about Logan was painful. Not in the way it used to be, heartbreak and anger in a glass-shards cocktail. Just…pain. Roman didn’t know how to identify it, didn’t want to even look closer at it. He quickly shoved the mind-Logan to the back of his head. Patton’s advice would have to do, then.

Write from the heart.

It would be a good idea, except Roman’s heart was very confused and didn’t really know what it was trying to say. Roman didn’t understand it or anything it did. Plus it was really his heart’s fault that he was here, so he wasn’t going to reward it for bad behavior by letting it dictate that letter.

Then again, what did he have but heart? Definitely not brains. Or brawn, despite his skill with the sword. All he had was a wishy-washy heart and a pretty face.

Write from the heart. Here went nothing.

Roman dipped his quill into ink and wrote. He tried not to scratch out any of his words, but it was hard. They were stilted and formal and not-good-enough and not what any of his family deserved. His handwriting got steadily worse as he lost concentration and sleep crept into the corners of his mind. It was a rushed, sloppy mess of a farewell letter. But it was something. Anything. And it was honest. This was Roman, no tricks or caveats or false pride. A bunch of ill-chosen words in scratchy handwriting on a stained piece of paper.

Dear family,

I apologize for the quality of this letter. It’s quite late here and I was not given the best of supplies. However, I wished to briefly inform you of some news. You may have heard by the time this letter reaches you, but I owe you an explanation in my own words.

I won’t go into details, partly because it’s extraordinarily complicated, but there has been an attempted coup. Unfortunately I was involved, thanks to some blackmail and extortion from my friend’s older brother. It’s a long story. One of my other friends was arrested during this, and in the effort to save him from execution, I myself was arrested. Since the King has long awaited an excuse to do away with me, I shall be publicly executed tomorrow afternoon. The charges are treason and adultery. I must admit both are accurate.

I want to apologize, truly and deeply. I know you were relying on me and I was foolish enough to get myself in a terrible situation. Now I have to reap the consequences of my actions. I only wish you weren’t affected by this as much as you will be. Hopefully, you can live off my past financial aid until things are better. Again, I am so, so sorry.

Jana, I have confidence that you will get a teaching job soon. I have confidence that you will. Edward, I’ve heard from a little birdy named Mom that you’re courting a girl! Congratulations and good luck. Ainslee, your last drawing was beautiful. Keep it up. Meghan, I think you should give scrambled eggs a chance. Lee, I’m glad you made a friend in your class. Jake, happy belated birthday. And Remus, I hope your chicken is still well and that you’ll consider renaming him Sir Frederick instead of Monsieur Uglybutt. You weirdo.

Mother, thank you for all you’ve done. I hope you find great happiness.

I love you all more than words can say. And I have confidence you will lead great lives. I’m sorry I won’t be able to see that.

With all my love,
Roman

---

Roman was lying on the cell floor, staring at a stain in the shape of a dog, when someone banged on the door. He jumped to his feet. It was still morning—surely it wasn’t time already?

“Visitors,” a guard said, opening the door.

Roman’s face split into a huge grin.

Patton raced forward and enveloped Roman in a hug.

Roman laughed and hugged him back. “Hey, Pat!”

Patton made an unintelligible noise and buried his face in Roman’s shoulder, squeezing like he never intended to let Roman go.

“Hey,” Virgil said, closing the door and giving Roman a two-fingered salute.

Roman smiled at him too. “Hey, Virge! Um…sorry for knocking you out?”

“It’s fine, I was faking it.” Virgil smirked. “If I was actually trying, I would have beat you in about three seconds.”

Roman gasped. “I take offence to that statement! You would not have.”

“Don’t test me, Princey.”

Roman rolled his eyes and gestured for Virgil to join the hug. Surprisingly, Virgil didn’t even hesitate. He wrapped his arms around Patton and Roman, his armor sort of uncomfortable but not uncomfortable enough to make Roman let go.

“You’re okay,” Roman breathed, staring at them.

“Yeah,” Virgil said. “Not even fired.”

He didn’t sound as excited as he should. Roman immediately lost his smile.

“Everything okay?” Roman asked. “Is Logan—”

“Logan’s fine.” Virgil shrugged. “Well, ‘fine’ as in no one has been able to track him down yet.”

“Oh.” Roman sunk in relief. “Oh, thank god.”

Patton mumbled something into Roman’s shirt. Roman looked down at him. “Um, Padre? You letting go any time soon?”

“Never,” Patton said.

“Oh, okay.” Roman glanced around. “We can sit on some crates?”

Patton pulled Roman down to the floor and curled up next to him, arms snug against Roman’s chest.

“Or—or that. Cool.”

Virgil sat down near them, placing a hand on Roman’s knee. Roman shot him a brief smile and stroked Patton’s hair, slowly maneuvering Patton’s head upwards.

“There you are,” Roman said as Patton finally emerged, hair ruffled and glasses crooked. “What’s up, Patton Cake? All well?”

Patton made a distressed wail and dove back into Roman’s arms.

“Hey, hey, hey.” Roman frantically glanced at Virgil. “Um, is he okay?”

“Of course not,” Virgil said like it should be the most obvious thing in the world.

“What? Why?” Roman turned to Patton. “Hey, Padre. What’s troubling you? Want to talk about it?”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Virgil give him an incredulous stare.

Patton was crying now. Roman’s shoulder grew steadily wetter. Roman levered Patton into his lap and wrapped his arms around him, letting Patton curl up by his chest. Running his fingers through Patton’s hair, Roman tried not to let his heart break from the sound of Patton’s soft sobs.

“It’s okay,” Roman whispered. “I’ve got you. I’m here.”

Patton yelled something incoherent and slammed his hand on Roman’s chest, glaring at him. His face crumpled and he broke down again, crying and grasping at Roman’s shirt.

Roman turned to Virgil again, eyes wide. “What do I do?”

“You’re doing great.” Virgil gave Patton a soft look. “You can understand why he’s upset, Princey.”

“Right.” Roman was getting the feeling he was missing something. “Okay, Patton, keep breathing. In and out. Great job.”

Patton took a few heaving breaths, his cries fading to soft whimpers.

“Good.” Roman pried Patton’s hands from his shirt and held them in his own, running his thumb over Patton’s knuckles. “Do you feel a little calmer?”

Patton nodded, looking up. His eyes still sparkled with tears, and his glasses were covered in little droplets. Roman maneuvered the glasses off Patton’s face and wiped them with his sleeve.

“There!” He placed the glasses back on Patton’s nose. “All clear.”

Patton giggled a little bit. Roman smiled back and booped Patton’s nose. That got a louder giggle and a boop in return.

“Dorks,” Virgil muttered, his smile betraying him.

“Careful there.” Roman grinned. “One might almost begin to suspect that you like us.”

“Shut up, Princey.”

“Love you too.” Roman leaned back, carefully untangling Patton from his arms. Patton refused to let go of his hand, though, so Roman let him sit right next to him. Virgil leaned forward and took Patton’s other hand.

Roman was suddenly overcome with the urge to tell them how much he cared about them. Yes, he said ‘I love you’ regularly. But that didn’t seem enough. He wanted to give them a passionate speech on how wonderful and amazing they were. He wanted to hug both of them for days on end. He wanted to make sure they knew that they were Roman’s best friends and he loved them so, so much.

But a giant declaration like that would only draw attention to the fact that Roman was going to be, well, indisposed after this. It would just bring the mood down, and anyway, Roman still hadn’t learned why Patton was so upset.

“So,” Roman said lightly, “Pat?”

“Y-yeah, kiddo?”

“What’s up?” Roman swiped a lingering tear from under Patton’s eye. “You’re down in the dumps. Did something happen?”

Virgil made a spluttering noise. Patton just frowned, looking confused. “What?”

“What do you mean, ‘what?’” Roman asked. “You were crying, Padre. That’s not exactly standard fare for you.”

“Yeah, I’m upset,” Patton said. Again, like it was obvious.

“I know,” Roman said slowly, “but—”

“Seriously, Roman?”

Roman looked over at Virgil. He expected to see Virgil furious or snarky, cutting him down for something he’d done wrong. He didn’t expect to see Virgil clearly struggling to hold back tears.

“Virgil—” Roman quickly ran through everything he’d said. Had he upset them somehow? Maybe they were mad at him for something? Or maybe they missed Logan, maybe that was it—he felt like he should know what they were talking about, he should know because they expected him to, but how on earth was he supposed to know why they were crying?

“Roman.” Virgil’s voice cracked. “Roman, are you an idiot? We’re upset because of you, dumbass.”

“What—” Roman froze. He had done something wrong? Of course he had. He always messed everything up. “I-I’m so sorry, I—”

“No!” Patton dived into Roman’s arms again, somehow squeezing even tighter than before. “No, no, no, kiddo, no.

Okay, Roman was now very confused.

“That’s not what I meant.” Virgil scooted closer, looking heartbroken. “Ro, we’re sad ‘cause you’re going to be executed. I thought that was obvious.

“You’re—” Roman ran through the past conversation in his head. “You’re—”

“Worried about you,” Patton finished. “’Cause we love you.”

“Oh,” Roman said faintly.

“God, Princey.” Virgil chuckled brokenly. “If you didn’t know that, we clearly have some work to do.”

“I—” Roman’s chest burned. “Thank you. I—really appreciate that.”

“No problem.” Virgil stood up. “Next step, breaking you out of here.”

“What?”

“There’s got to be some way,” Virgil argued, his brief softness replaced with determination. “I’m not just gonna sit around and let this happen. We’re busting you out.”

“You can’t.” Roman waved a hand around the cell. “I’ve tried.”

“There has to be!” Virgil paced back and forth, running his hands through his air. “Maybe through the window? No, we won’t fit. Maybe we can bribe the guards? Or fight them! There’s only like five, I could take them on—”

“This isn’t low-level security like with Patton,” Roman argued. “Even if you got me down the hallway, we’re still stuck in this castle. There’s nowhere to go, Virgil.”

“We can’t just give up!” Virgil whirled and glared at him. “We have to get you out of here!”

“Yeah, because that went so well the last time?” Roman caught himself and lowered his voice. “Sorry. I—there’s really no solution here, Virgil, as much as I hate to admit it. And I’m not having any of you risk your lives for me. That’s not happening, end of discussion.”

Virgil glared for a second longer before crumpling in defeat. He sat back down, arms around his knees.

“I hate this,” Virgil said to nobody in particular.

“How do you think I feel?” Roman joked. Virgil didn’t laugh.

“I hate it too,” Patton murmured, still pressed against Roman’s chest.

“It’s just—I feel so helpless.” Virgil threw up his hands. “I’m supposed to be the strong one, the one who protects you, and I can’t do anything! You’re just waiting in here, a lamb to the slaughter, and I want to help but I can’t and that terrifies me.” Virgil rubbed at his face. “I—I thought I had this. I thought I could do this. Yeah, your life was shit, and yeah, you weren’t letting me help you, but I thought I had things under control. That I could do right by you. And now, surprise! Everything fell apart and I couldn’t stop it.”

“Virgil.” Roman shook his head. “Virgil, this is not your fault.”

“I know.” Virgil swallowed. “I just—yeah.”

“Come here,” Roman said. Patton nodded and made grabby hands in Virgil’s direction. Virgil carefully slid closer, and Patton snatched his sleeve to keep him from leaving.

“Hey.” Roman reached out one arm and wrapped it around Virgil’s shoulders. “Look, I’m so sorry, Virge, I—”

“Stop apologizing. Please.” Virgil’s voice shook. “God, Ro, if I’m not allowed to blame myself for this, neither are you.”

Patton made an emphatic noise of agreement.

“Alright.” Roman squeezed Virgil’s shoulders and pulled him closer. Virgil obligingly leaned into Roman’s side and tucked his head on Roman’s shoulder. Patton curled up tighter, a warm mass against Roman’s chest. Virgil’s hair tickled his chin. Roman reached up and brushed through it, lingering on his bangs that covered the dark circles around his eyes. Virgil hadn’t been sleeping well. That did kind of make sense, but it still made Roman frown.

Roman opened his mouth to tease Virgil about his sleep schedule or the paleness of his face. Instead, what came out was “Thank you.”

“What?” Virgil asked, looking up.

“Oh, I—” Roman almost brushed it off and moved on. He could think of a million ways to deflect the statement, to turn it into a jab or joke. But…well. It was the last morning he’d ever have with Patton and Virgil, wasn’t it? He’d gotten everything out with Logan, cleared the air—well, kind of, that kiss ten minutes later had sort of thrown a wrench into their closed-book conversation. But they’d said goodbye. Thanked each other. Because Logan, smart as he was, knew they’d regret it if they didn’t.

So Roman said “Thank you” again.

“For what?” Patton asked, pushing away slightly and raising an eyebrow quizzically.

“For…everything.” Roman searched for the perfect words. “For being here, and for being fantastic friends, and—I don’t know, really. Just…thank you for everything. I have been the luckiest man in the world to have you by my side. I—I’ll miss you.”

His voice, already brittle, snapped on the last sentence. Would he miss them? Would he be capable of missing them? He supposed that was a lie, really. He couldn’t miss them, he was going to die, he wouldn’t remember them after he was dead—

“Ro?”

Roman tried to focus on Virgil. “What is it?”

“Your hands are shaking.”

Oh.

Yeah, that made sense. Of course his body would betray him. Of course he couldn’t have a moment of respite. Of course he’d spend his last moments with his friends freaking out and having a meltdown. That was exactly how the world worked, he shouldn’t be surprised.

“Give me a sec, Ro.” Virgil quickly pulled off his armor, revealing a purple shirt and dark pants. “Come here.”

“I didn’t know you were capable of taking that off,” Roman said, his breath hitching. His whole face burned and he probably looked like a mess.

“Come here,” Virgil repeated. Roman slid across the two inches between them and sat in front of Virgil. Virgil opened his arms, giving Roman a soft smile.

Roman fell into Virgil’s arms.

Virgil was strong. Stronger than Roman. He cupped Roman’s head and held him in place. It had been a while since Roman let Virgil hug him. Definitely not since the blackmail started. He’d forgotten how safe it felt, how warm. Nothing could hurt him right now, because Virgil was keeping him still. And Patton had crawled closer and tucked his head by Virgil’s and an arm wrapped around Roman’s shoulders and it was more, somehow not too much, a blanket of warmth and touch. It felt wonderful, Virgil’s shirt was soft and he rubbed circles in Roman’s back and let Roman curl up against his chest. Roman squeezed his eyes shut, trying to take deep breaths, because he could smell cookies and dirt, a somehow lovely smell.

On his third breath, his lungs hitched again. It hurt to breathe. He struggled to maintain a rhythm, but his breathing was ugly and snarled and the warmth was quickly turning to heat. He was shaking—was he shaking? Why? Oh, no, all the sick twisted bitter was rising to the surface now. He could feal it burning its way up. Roman felt he was going to puke. He tried frantically to push it down, to regain control, to stop the awful disgusting feeling inside of him—

“Let it out, Ro.” Virgil rubbed his head. “C’mon. I can tell you need to.”

Roman tried not to whine at the gentleness in Virgil’s voice. He took a great steadying breath but only managed to hiccup and make his eyes burn with tears. He was going to cry, wasn’t he? Oh, great, another cry session. He was surprised he hadn’t run out of tears by this point.

“Let it out,” Virgil said again, and Roman stopped trying to hug Virgil back and curled up even tighter, and Patton was there on the side and Virgil was holding him and keeping him safe—he was safe—it didn’t matter if he cried or not anyway because he was going to die so nothing mattered now—

“I don’t want to,” Roman whispered.

He was sure Virgil didn’t hear him, so it was a surprise when Virgil asked, “Don’t want to what?”

Roman swallowed. “Die.”

“Oh.” Virgil’s voice was small. “That—makes sense.”

“I don’t want to die,” Roman repeated insistently. He didn’t know why he was saying this—what could Virgil do about the situation—but he needed to. “I—I don’t want to die, Virge.”

“Yeah.” Patton sounded absolutely heartbroken. “Yeah, I know.”

“I don’t want to die!” Roman pressed his face into Virgil’s chest and clutched at his shirt. “I—I don’t—”

And he was crying, tears soaking his cheeks, shuddering and taking great whooping breaths that did nothing to calm him down. He kept his sobs as quiet as possible at first, but Virgil and Patton didn’t seem to mind him crying, and Virgil kept saying it was fine, it was okay, he needed to get this out, so Roman cried louder. He sobbed until his eyes were red. He was probably covering Virgil’s shirt with snot, but he couldn’t bring himself to move away, because the warmth around him and Virgil’s hand cradling his head were the only things giving him enough strength to keep crying. Because every sob hurt. Every tear burned. Every whimper stung. This wasn’t a weeping session into his pillow. This was a full-blown meltdown, and it felt awful. He felt worse than he ever had in his life.

But he couldn’t stop. Not now. It was all pouring out of him, completely out of his control.

And that was…okay?

Virgil said it was okay. Patton said it was okay. He couldn’t make out the exact words but that was the gist of it, the essence of what they murmured in his ear. Telling him it was okay. Telling him they were there. Telling him he could cry and they wouldn’t ever think less of him. Saying he was brave and wonderful and all sorts of things Roman usually wouldn’t believe but right here, right now, he hung onto those words for dear life.

“What did I do?” Roman asked them between gasps. “What—how did I get here? What happened?”

“You didn’t do anything,” Patton whispered. “You just had bad luck.”

“I—” Roman wiped his nose. “I-I dunno.”

“You don’t deserve this, you hear me?” Virgil glared at him, hands on Roman’s shoulders. “You have never deserved this and you never will. You deserve happiness and love and a good future and so much, and the universe didn’t give that to you because the universe is an asshole. That’s all.”

Roman allowed himself a shaky laugh. “I guess.”

“I’ll kick its ass for you,” Virgil promised, “soon as I can. Stupid world doesn’t know what it’s got.”

“Yep!” Patton beamed. “We’ll fuck it up!”

“Pat!” Virgil looked shocked.

“What? We will!”

Roman laughed again, tears still falling from his eyes. “Glad you guys have my back.”

“You always will,” Patton said. “We’re not going anywhere.”

“Actually,” someone said, and Roman looked up to see a guard standing in the doorway. “Visitation is over. You need to leave.”

“What?” Virgil’s hand went to his sword. “You can’t just kick us out, there’s still time before—”

“Rules are rules.” The guard motioned to the door. “Don’t make me ask again.”

“I-it’s fine. Go.” Roman gave Virgil a watery smile. “Wouldn’t want you getting into trouble, would we?”

Patton hugged Roman one more time. Roman hugged back and pulled Patton to his feet. Virgil took Patton’s hand and gave Roman a long look.

“I—” Virgil huffed. “You’re still an idiot, Princey.”

“You’re still a nightmare, Virgil.”

Virgil laughed. “What, finally run out of nicknames?”

Roman scrubbed the remaining tears off his face. “Hey, Virgil’s a cool name. You’re lucky to have it.”

“If you say so.” Virgil glanced to the door and his expression soured. “I—yeah. Um, good luck?”

“Thanks,” Roman said.

“Yeah.” Virgil looked back at Roman, and for a second, his face crumpled. “I hate this, Ro, I fucking hate this.”

“I know.”

The guard tapped the door, looking impatient. Virgil reluctantly gave Roman one last, weak smirk and walked slowly out the door. Patton followed, staring back at Roman, his eyes shining.

“Love you!” Patton called.

Roman waved. “Love you too.”

The door slammed shut and he was alone.

---

About half an hour before the execution, Roman was delivered a dress. About twenty-five minutes before the execution, he finished ripping the dress to shreds and dumping it out the window. Did he want to look fabulous for the occasion? Yes. Did he realize he was still wearing dirty underclothes? Also yes. Did he want to wear something the King chose for an execution ordered by said King. Hell no. What could the King do—sentence him to death? Roman had absolutely nothing left to lose.

About twenty minutes before the execution, he was taken from the cell. He debated trying to make a run for it, but the guards were tall and burly and had all sorts of nasty sharp things in their hands.

About fifteen minutes before the execution, Roman decided ‘Screw it’ and made a run for it anyway. The guards dragged him, kicking and biting, into a carriage and locked the door. The carriage ride was bumpy. They hadn’t given him a seat. Roman tucked his knees to his chest and waited.

About eight minutes before the execution, the carriage bumped to a stop. Every part of Roman felt bruised. He could hear the crowds outside. It was a sunny day. The air smelled like bread, dirt, and anticipation.

About five minutes before the execution, a tall woman came in and tied his wrists together with a piece of rope. It chafed on his skin and would probably leave marks, but that didn’t really matter now.

About three minutes before the execution, two guards hauled him to his feet. He kicked one of them in the groin and smacked the other in the face. A third guard twisted his arm behind his back until he yelled with pain. They dragged him outside.

About two minutes before the execution, Roman stopped fighting. There wasn’t really a point. And he wasn’t going to be seen dragged to his death. He would face this with dignity, honor, and grace.

Oh look, that Queen training was finally coming in handy.

So Roman drew up his head, squared his shoulders, and walked as straight as he could—which wasn’t very, because he was gay, and why couldn’t his brain stop making fun of this situation he was going to die.

About one minute to the execution, he was escorted past the statue of the previous Queen. Roman gave the statue a sympathetic nod. Maybe they’d give him a statue too. That would be kind of cool, right? Just hanging out until moss grew over his feet and his face crumbled away.

About thirty seconds to the execution, Roman climbed the stone steps to the top of the small dais. Hundreds of people faced him, whispering to themselves, eyes wide. Roman ignored them almost automatically. It was hard to focus on what people were saying when he was above them, staring at the pristine grey chunk of granite two feet away. He’d been worried there would be blood and guts on it or something, but it was clean. Somehow, that made it worse. Someone would have to clean up Roman’s—

One of the guards shoved Roman forward.

“You know I can walk, right?” Roman snapped.

The executioner stood at the other end of the dais, holding a large silver sword.

Roman took one tiny step forward.

Okay, maybe he couldn’t walk after all.

“Roman del Rey,” said the King. Roman glanced up and saw him seated on a balcony across the way. His voice echoed through the silent courtyard. Of course he’d put himself up higher than everyone else, so he could look down on Roman like Roman was a little worthless ant.

“Roman del Rey,” the King repeated slowly.

Roman rolled his eyes. “Are you going to just keep saying my name,” he called, “or can we get to the point?” He waved his bound hands. “My wrists hurt and I’d like to get this over with.”

He couldn’t see the King from here. The guy was probably mad. So what? He couldn’t hurt Roman anymore.

“Do you have anything to say for yourself?” the King asked.

Roman knew he wanted Roman to beg. He wanted Roman to grovel, to plead, to bargain. He wanted to make Roman a mess before he killed him.

And if that would keep Roman alive…was it worth it?

Roman didn’t even have to think about it.

“Only one thing,” he said, making sure everyone could hear him. “I have absolutely no regrets. Sorry not sorry.” He raised his middle fingers and flipped the King off. “Go to hell!”

The people around him whispered louder. A couple laughed. Someone yelled “Nice one!”

“Thank you, I will!” Roman smiled at the random ally. “Hope you have a nice day! Actually, I hope you all have great lives that are, in the future, free of tyrannical kings! Except for you, ‘Husband.’ I hate you, screw you, go to hell.

One of the guards grabbed Roman and tossed him towards the chopping block. Alright then. They didn’t appreciate his sass. Very fair.

Roman regained his balance and slowly sunk to one knee. He didn’t really know how you were supposed to do this—he always avoided watching executions, they were abhorrent. There was a little divot where he assumed his head was supposed to go. Did he tilt his head to the side? Or did he just smash his nose into the stone? He hoped it wasn’t the latter, that would be a pretty undignified way to go.

The executioner stepped forward. Roman lay down and placed his head on the stone. The granite was rough on his cheek. He looked out over the crowd, scanning the faces, wondering if he’d recognize anyone. Oh, there was a noble from a luncheon, there was a member of the cooking staff, there was Dominic the guard—no Patton, no Virgil, and he was glad of that but still selfish enough to wish he could see them one more time.

He heard the swish of a sword.

He closed his eyes.

He clenched his fists.

He braced himself.

He—

“Hey, sorry to interrupt.”

Roman’s eyes flew open. He threw his head off the rock and stumbled backwards. No—that couldn’t be who he thought it was. There was no way—

“I know, I know, I’m ruining the moment.” Janus clapped his hands. “Really great performance, by the way, top notch. However, I’m afraid I have business with him that can’t wait.”

“How did you get up here?” one guard demanded, stepping forward.

“I have my ways.” Janus shrugged. “Could you step away from him, please?”

One guard rushed at Janus. Janus dodged and kicked him off the dais, sending him tumbling to the cobblestones below.

“Oh dear,” Janus said, elbowing another guard in the face. “That looks like it hurt.”

Roman watched, eyes wide, as he snatched the executioner’s sword and slammed it across her abdomen. She crumpled to the ground, writhing in pain.

“There we go.” Janus stuck the sword in his belt, walked over to Roman, and reached out a hand. “Let’s go.”

“Go where?” Roman tried to wrap his head around what just happened. “Go—what? How? Why?”

“You’ve got a very persistent boyfriend,” Janus complained, “who said if I didn’t help you he’d ‘never speak to me again’ or something. I’m really starting to regret teaching him debate skills, but that’s irrelevant because guards are coming up here now and we need to go.”

Roman smiled, grabbing Janus’ hand and pulling himself up. “Thank you.”

“I’m not doing this because I care about you,” Janus reminded him, pulling Roman across the dais and jumping off the edge. They fell onto a horse nearby. Roman grabbed Janus’ shirt and Janus yanked on the reins. People jumped out of the way to avoid them as they tore across the courtyard, through several back alleyways, and down the road, leaving the King and a hundred very confused people behind them.

“Thank you,” Roman breathed again.

Janus rolled his eyes. “You’re welcome. Now let’s hurry, we need to be at the border by nightfall.”

Roman nodded and Janus spurred the horse on, headed for the horizon. It was a beautiful day. The sun was warm on Roman’s cheek and the sky was a bright blue.

Roman turned around and watched the town recede in the distance. The castle loomed above it, towers stabbing the clouds, windows glinting. He hadn’t seen it from the outside in a year. It looked…less impressive outside. Less confining. Just a big building with a bunch of gargoyles and stained-glass windows.

“Hey, Janus?” Roman wiggled his hands. “Cut me loose?”

Janus nodded, grabbing a knife and slicing through the ropes. Roman rubbed his wrists as they came free.

The horse turned off the road and they headed down a dirt path. Roman saw farms in the distance, fields of corn and soygum and wheat. Beyond them was open air. Behind them was a small town with a smaller castle.

“I’m out,” Roman whispered. “I’m actually out.

Janus chuckled. “Feels good, doesn’t it?”

Roman del Rey smiled, tossing one hand up and feeling the breeze ruffle his hair.

“It feels fantastic.

Chapter Text

We’re one of a kind, no category
Too many years lost in history,
We’re free to take our crowning glory
For five more minutes
We’re six.

---

Roman del Rey was tired.

They’d ridden on horseback for a few hours. Roman hadn’t ridden a horse in years, so his bottom got very quickly sore. He didn’t feel he really had a right to complain, since he’d take butt pain over death any day, but it was still irritating.

Janus swapped their horse for another horse in the next town they came across. Then he swapped that horse for a different horse, apparently to throw the guards off their trail. This was also the motivation, apparently, for random changes of direction that almost tossed Roman off the horse entirely. Roman felt no shame about complaining whenever that happened. But after Janus told him, in no uncertain terms, to suck it up, Roman clamped his mouth shut and suffered in silence.

As the sun lowered in the sky, Janus tugged Roman off the horse and found an oxcart driver who was willing to let them stow away for some large amount of money. Janus nodded and agreed. They hunkered between sacks of hay, the bumps and rattles of the cart shaking loose several of Roman’s bones. As they approached the border, Janus stuffed Roman into a sack and pulled it tight. Roman curled into a ball and tried very hard to look like a convincing sack of hay. He heard people talking, heard the driver promising there was no contraband or illegal items on the cart, heard the rustle of papers. He clamped his hand over his mouth to stifle his breathing, but there was no way to quell his racing heartbeat.

Finally the oxcart jerked, sending Roman tumbling, and began to move again. Roman almost wept with relief, clawing his way out of the sack and gasping for air.

“You look like a mess,” Janus noted. “Also, you have straw in your hair.”

“Never again,” Roman gasped. “Never, ever again.”

Janus smirked. “No need to worry about that. We’re across the border.”

Roman looked around at the trees surrounding them. “It does not look any different.”

“Did you expect embroidered signs?” Janus asked. “This is a small kingdom. We’ll be there soon.”

“Where is ‘there?’” Roman asked.

“Where Logan is.”

“Cool, I trust ‘there’ more now, but still where are we actually going?”

Janus laughed. “How much do you know about your predecessors, Roman?”

“My what?” Roman screwed up his face. “Why are you changing the subject?”

“Humor me.”

“My predecessors,” Roman repeated, running through every possible option. Ugh, was he taking too long? Did Janus think he was stupid? No, Janus already thought he was stupid. “You mean the past Queens?”

“No, I meant the extended lineage of turnip farmers.” Janus ran his hands along the oxcart. “You remember the rhyme, right?”

“First Queen was a kind one who died in bed, second one divorced soon after they wed, third one broke the rules and lost his head,” Roman recited. “Heh, wonder what they’ll do for me.”

“Fourth Queen singlehandedly destroyed the sanity and power dynamic of the ruling class.”

“Doesn’t rhyme.”

Janus huffed. “This is what I get for trying to compliment you.”

“That was a compliment?” Roman asked. “I thought you were just acknowledging my ability to mess things up dramatically.”

“That too,” Janus admitted. “So, the first Queen died and the third Queen was beheaded. How much do you know about the second Queen?”

“The one who divorced.” Roman bit his lip. “He left, right? And the King kicked out all the servants who liked him. That’s what happened to your Mom.”

Something froze in Janus’ eyes. “Logan told you that, did he?”

“Yeah.” Roman stared at his shoes and prayed Janus wouldn’t murder him on the spot. “I-I’m sorry that happened, it sounds terrible.”

“I suppose open communications in relationships is important. I understand why he told you.” Janus hummed to himself. “Bygones will be bygones, though. It’s in the past now, and hopefully we can all do our best to move forward. It’s a painful process, but a necessary one.”

Roman nodded and wondered if Janus was talking about more than his mom’s death.

“Anyway.” Janus’ voice resumed its usual confidence. “That does actually bring me to my point. You see, the second Queen left for his home kingdom and ended up gaining the throne there. He’s now King of his own kingdom, the kingdom that we are currently in.”

“Hold on.” Roman jerked his head up and stared at Janus. “You’re not saying you’re working for—”

“His Majesty Thomas Sanders.” Janus did a little bow. “Captain of Royal Espionage, at your service.”

“So we’re going…” Roman tried to wrap his head around this. “To the King’s castle?”

“House,” Janus corrected. “Villa, maybe. Not castle.”

“Huh.” Roman tucked his arms around his knees and tried to keep an open mind. Maybe this would be fine! Maybe King Thomas would be nice! Maybe he wouldn’t die! Anyway, why would King Thomas want to kill him? Unless this was a trap and Janus was secretly out to murder him. No. Maybe? Roman didn’t know why King Thomas would kill Roman, but it was a possibility and it was driving him insane.

“Stop overthinking,” Janus said, probably seeing the way Roman’s grip tightened on his legs. “It will be fine. He’s been looking forward to meeting you.”

“Reassuring,” Roman said, trying very hard not to panic.

“I’m serious.” Janus looked Roman over. “He has a lot of…sympathy, for the position you’re in. He’s a good person and he’ll help.”

“Are you sure?” Roman whispered.

“Would I lie to you?”

Roman huffed, smiling in spite of himself. “You’re really not so bad, are you?”

“Silence.”

Roman obediently zipped his lips, still grinning, and watched the trees pass them on either side. The road was widening. More wagons and horses passed them, some people waving hello. Roman waved back.

“Drop us off here,” Janus called to the driver, who muttered something and slowed the cart down. Janus slid neatly over the side and landed on the road, brushing off his legs. Roman plummeted to the ground after him, stumbling to a stop and grabbing onto the cart for support.

“Pay up,” the driver said, staring down at them.

“Of course, sir,” Janus said, grabbing Roman’s arm. “Let me just—”

He yanked Roman with him as he began to run. Roman followed, fumbling for purchase on the road. The driver yelled some rude names at them as they skidded around the corner and down a driveway. Janus pulled Roman behind a tree as the driver passed, still spitting out intermittent curse words.

“That was mean!” Roman complained, but he couldn’t help but laugh.

“I didn’t have any money!” Janus protested, his own mouth twitching.

“You work for a King and you don’t—”

“I’ll have Thomas pay him, I suppose. Maybe. If I get around to asking.”

Roman shoved Janus’ shoulder.

“Don’t test me,” Janus warned. “I’m several years older than you and hold several inches over that puny head of yours.”

Roman shoved Janus again. Janus shoved back. “Stop,” he hissed, holding back laughter. “We have business to attend to.”

“You mean we’re—” Roman stepped out from behind the tree and saw a long pebbled walkway, lined by perfectly spaced trees. At the end was a large white house with pink shutters and a pointed roof. “We’re here?”

“Not what you expected?” Janus asked smugly.

“It’s so small.”

“This is where Thomas, his friends, and his favorite and most important officials live. He does all the governmental work in the Hall downtown.”

“This is where you live?” Roman asked. Now that he looked closer, he could see the wealth in the neatness of the walk, the even spacing of the trees, and the cleanliness of the walls.

“It’s where we used to live,” Janus corrected him, walking towards the house. Roman followed. It was a wide walk, meant for carriages, and the doors seemed very far away. “I’ve been living in servant quarters, of course, ever since I started to go undercover. But when Logan and I were quite young, we did live here.”

“King Thomas just…let you?” Roman asked.

“He reached out to many of the servants who lost their jobs during the wonderful divorce shenanigans,” Janus explained. “He took a liking to Logan and I, so on top of the financial support he offered to most of the families, he ended up taking us in. He has a tendency to adopt any child he sees.” Janus laughed. “It’s rather endearing. Be warned, he’ll probably adopt you within ten seconds—you’re exactly the type he gets soft over.”

“Me?” Roman asked. “I’m twenty-one.”

“Doesn’t make a difference.”

Roman was about to continue interrogating Janus about the frankly odd government they seemed to have. Then he noticed a figure sitting on the steps in front of the door.

“Is that—” Roman ran forward. “Logan?”

The person looked up. And it was Logan. He was in nicer clothes than usual, but he had the same glasses and the same flashing eyes and the same beautiful hair.

His mouth dropped open as he saw Roman race towards him.

And he ran forward as well.

They met in the middle. Roman barely bothered to slow himself down, snatching Logan up in his arms and twirling him around. Logan flung his arms around Roman’s shoulders and didn’t even protest as Roman lifted Logan higher, scouring every inch of his face. He was okay. He was alive. He was here.

“Roman,” Logan said, his voice cracking, a huge smile on his face. “Roman. You’re—you’re alright.”

“Thanks to you.” Roman set Logan carefully on the ground, cupping his cheek. “Your persuasive abilities continue to astound me.”

Logan flushed, still smiling. “I work better under pressure, and in this situation, I was extremely well-motivated.”

“You were indeed.”

Logan’s smile faltered. “I—I thought I lost you, Roman. I was—I was so scared, I—”

“Hey. Easy, Specs.” Roman slipped his hand into Logan’s and gave him a reassuring smile. “I know. Believe me, I know. But I’m here now. We’re here now. It’s—we’re all going to be okay.”

“I’m sorry,” Logan whispered. “For…this is all my fault and I—”

Roman’s smile faltered. “Don’t say that.”

“It is!” Logan was sounding progressively more upset, and Roman was getting progressively more worried. “Roman, I hurt you, I could have gotten you killed, I don’t know how you’ve forgiven me for that, I don’t deserve it—”

Okay, so clearly Logan’s wonderful intelligent brain was working against him. Well, that simply wouldn’t do! Roman needed a way to shut down Logan’s brain so Logan would stop being self-deprecating.

Fortunately, he knew the perfect solution.

Roman leaned forward and kissed Logan gently on the lips.

For a second Logan stood there, unmoving.

Then he kissed back hard.

It was desperate. It was grateful. It was a kiss that truly told Roman how much Logan was worried, how much Logan was terrified, how Logan was so happy to see him again. It was impossible to doubt Logan’s affections when Logan was clinging to his shirt like he was afraid to let him go, his other hand tangled in Roman’s hair.

And Roman kissed back, pouring all the love and reassurance he had into it, holding Logan steady and trying to convey that he was here. He was okay. He wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. He would stay with Logan forever on this path and just keep kissing until the end of eternity and that would be perfectly alright.

“Excuse me?”

Roman didn’t recognize that voice.

But Logan clearly did, because he squeaked and immediately rocketed out of Roman’s arms, blushing furiously.

An older man stood on the steps, the door open behind him. He had fading brown hair and rich purple clothes. He surveyed them with curiosity but not contempt, his eyes twinkling. A thin golden crown sat on top of his head.

Oh.

“I hate to interrupt,” said King Thomas with a smile, “but you’re making out in my driveway.”

---

The inside of King Thomas’ house was just as basic as the outside. Yes, every piece of furniture was expertly carved, ever carpet was beautifully woven, and every room they passed was spotless. But compared to the lavish decorations at the castle, it was ridiculously simple. And it felt…lived-in, in a way that the King’s castle never did.

“We were just having after-dinner tea,” King Thomas explained, leading them through a side door and into a small room patterned with pink roses. “There’s extra tea so you can join us, if you want.”

“I have…” Janus stopped at the door, waving vaguely at the hallway. “Things. To do.”

“You’re welcome here,” King Thomas said softly. “I know it’s been a while, and I know you’ve done some things that we will need to talk about, but you’re still welcome here.”

Janus flashed him a quick smile that seemed realer than any expression Roman had ever seen on his face. And as they walked into the room, Janus followed.

There was a guard at the door, but he was playing chess with another guard and barely playing attention. Two men sat at the table, one of them sipping tea and the other talking excitedly about something. The man had a bored expression and a dark jacket, while the other had round glasses and a pink dress.

“Remy! Emile!” King Thomas said, waving. Both turned in Thomas’ direction. Emile smiled and Remy raised his teacup in greeting.

Roman swallowed, hiding behind King Thomas as much as possible. Logan squeezed his hand, and he squeezed back.

“We’ve got visitors,” King Thomas said, sitting in a chair and pouring some tea. “Come on, guys, sit down! Make yourself at home!”

“Visitors—” Remy glanced over Logan before staring at Roman. “Who are you?”

“Remy, be nice!” Emile said with a frown.

“I—” Roman swallowed and tried to remember how to speak. “I’m…Roman?”

“Roman,” Remy repeated with no recognition.

“You know,” King Thomas said, giving Remy a pointed stare, “the one person we’ve been talking about for probably a year at this point because he’s a Queen?”

“You mean—” Remy looked Roman up and down. “No way. Hon, no way.”

“Yes way,” Roman complained, his fear giving way to indignation.

“But you’re so young.” Remy sipped his tea. “You’re, like, a child.

“I see your point,” King Thomas admitted. “How old are you, Roman—oh, are you okay with me calling you that?”

“It’s fine,” Roman said. “Actually, better than fine! Please—please don’t call me by my title. Or last name. Please.”

“Got it.” King Thomas nodded. “So, Roman, how old are you?”

“I-I’ll be twenty-two in a few weeks.”

“Wow.” Something crossed over King Thomas’ face. “I’m so sorry.”

“What?” Roman frowned. “You didn’t do anything.”

“Agreed,” Emile said, his voice sharp. “You didn’t do anything. You got yourself out of a bad situation and that is admirable. Now sit down and have some tea.”

Roman was even more confused. Logan tugged Roman to the table and sat him down, still holding Roman’s hand. Roman was irrationally glad about that. It felt like a lifeline in this strange new world.

Janus handed Roman a teacup, giving him a bracing look. Roman nodded and mouthed ‘thank you.’ Janus rolled his eyes.

“Ignore Thomas,” Remy confided across the table, refilling his teacup. “He feels supes guilty over the whole thing, even though tbh? I’m really glad he divorced that bitch, and he is, too.”

“I know, I know.” King Thomas rolled his eyes fondly. “It was a good decision. I just wish it didn’t affect, you know, twenty-one-year-olds.”

“I’m old enough to drink,” Roman pointed out. He probably sounded petulant. But Thomas only laughed and nodded. “And I’m glad you divorced him, too. You seem nice.”

King Thomas gasped. “Guys! I’m nice! Did you hear that? He thinks I’m nice!”

“We heard,” Emile said, smiling fondly. “Cookies?”

“Definitely!”

King Thomas took a few cookies from the plate and passed it down. Roman paused, not sure if he was allowed any. He didn’t want to mess up. He should probably ignore them, just to be on the safe side, even though he hadn’t eaten anything for almost a day.

Logan took a cookie from the plate and firmly shoved it into Roman’s hands.

“What—”

“Eat it,” Logan ordered. “You want it, so eat it. I promise it is fine.”

Roman snickered. “How dare you order me around, I am your monarch.”

“Is that so?” Logan’s expression was carefully neutral. “Well, in that case, these cookies are too low-quality for such a high-ranking official as yourself. I’m afraid I must confiscate your cookie and get you a better one, more befitting of your glory.”

“Oh, no no no.” Roman shoved half the cookie into his mouth. “You gave it to me, no take-backs.”

“I will not allow its unworthy crumbs to soil your pure and royal skin.”

“These unworthy crumbs are hella delicious and you can pry them from my cold, dead hands.”

“Give me the cookie.”

“Never.”

Logan stared at him, unblinking. “But Roman, I love you.”

Janus burst out laughing, covering his face with a napkin. Roman used the distraction to polish off the cookie, licking his fingers clean.

“There,” Logan said, his expression softening. “You ate the cookie. Good job.”

Roman looked down and realized he had, in fact, eaten the cookie. “You bitch.”

“I’ll take it.” Logan reached for the plate. “Here’s another cookie. Eat it.”

“Shouldn’t you be advocating for me to eat, like, brussels sprouts and carrots? You’re all about greens, greens, nothing but greens.”

Logan rolled his eyes. “I don’t see any carrots available. Still, drink some tea. You’re probably dehydrated.”

Roman stared at his tea. An ugly crawling feeling grew in his stomach and he could already feel his hands start to shake. “Um, I’ll pass, thanks.”

“Oh.” Understanding flashed over Logan’s face. “Thomas? Do we have anything that’s not tea?”

Remy stared at him uncomprehendingly. “But…tea.”

Logan glared back.

“We have some wine in the pantry,” Remy said, caving. “And some ale in the cellar.”

“Remy!” Emile scolded. “We’re not giving them alcohol!”

“What? He said he’s twenty-one.”

King Thomas sighed loudly and dumped his tea into Remy’s teacup. Then he filled his teacup with milk and pushed it over to Roman.

Roman stared at it. “Um, what?”

“Milk,” King Thomas said, as if it was obvious. “Does that work for you?”

“But…that’s your cup.” Roman frowned. “Don’t you want it?”

“You need it more than I do at the moment, right?”

Roman looked at the cup and back to Thomas, wondering where the catch was. He wanted something, didn’t he? He wanted something and this was a way to make Roman let his guard down.

“Drink it,” Logan whispered.

Roman shot him a glare.

“Drink it,” Logan repeated. “You are likely dehydrated and need fluids. If you do not drink that, Roman, I will murder you with my bare hands.”

“Betrayal!” Roman declared. “Heresy! Treason from my one true love!”

“Your one true love is saying you need to hydrate yourself.”

“No!” Roman shook his head. “You’ve been deprived of that title. I shall go now and seek one of the many others who desire my hand in courtship.”

“I’ll be sure to wish you and your sword good tidings, then.”

Roman jumped up, glaring at Logan. “You take that back! I will fight you!”

Logan smiled back. “We know who would win.”

“I hate you!” Roman swatted at Logan, who neatly ducked out of the way. “I’m going to dump tea all over your head!”

“I’m wearing a nice ascot,” Logan complained.

“Too bad, so sad!” Roman geared up for a long ranting speech about why Logan was forsaking him and why their love had been compromised by these wounding words.

Then he remembered there were other people still sitting at the table. Other people that included an actual king.

Shit.

“I—” Roman immediately sat back down. “I am so sorry. I didn’t—I’m sorry if I interrupted—”

“It’s fine!” King Thomas said, waving a hand. “I’m glad you’re having fun. You two are really close and it’s funny to watch. You’re both very adorable and small and you’re children and I just want to protect and cherish you forever.”

“Oh no,” Logan muttered. “It’s happening already.”

“I told you,” Janus said. “Actually, I thought he’d break sooner.”

“Break?” Roman asked. “What’s happening?”

“They’re just so cute, Emile!” King Thomas had an expression on his face that reminded Roman of Patton. “Don’t you think they’re cute?”

“Yes, they’re very cute.” Emile had a fondly exasperated look on his face.

“Remy? Aren’t they cute?”

“I dunno,” Remy said, draining yet another cup of tea. “They’re fine, I guess.”

Fine?” King Thomas asked incredulously. “Just look at them! They’re in love, Remy!”

“Good for them!”

“I can’t even deal with you.” King Thomas crossed his arms and pouted. “I don’t know why I keep you around.”

“I’m entertaining.”

“You can say that again.”

Roman looked between them. “Um, so Remy and Emile, you’re the King’s…brothers, or something?”

“Hmm?” Emile laughed. “Oh, no. We’re his official advisors.”

“What?” Roman blurted out. “How does your kingdom function?

He immediately regretted it. He was already planning a three-step apology when King Thomas, Emile, and even Remy burst into laughter.

“He’s onto you,” Remy snorted, wiping at his eyes. “Watch out.”

“That’s a very good question, Roman,” King Thomas said, chuckling. “Honestly, I’m not sure.”

“You do a great job,” Emile managed between gasps of laughter. “And Logan’s back, so he can provide you with extra braincells.”

“Oh, believe me, distance did not stop him.” Logan snapped a cookie in half. “I recall receiving a letter that said, and I quote, ‘There is a kingdom-wide tournament coming up, and I will have to compete. Is it possible for me to eat my way to victory?’”

Remy howled, slapping the table. King Thomas looked sheepish.

“You shouldn’t have sent him letters,” Janus said, not looking too annoyed about it. “They were probably intercepted.”

“I used a pseudonym!”

“What was it?”

“…Thomas Standers.”

“I can’t,” Remy said, head slamming onto the table. “I can’t even.”

Logan watched the proceedings with a small smile on his face. “To be frank, I’m pretty sure it was only the content of the letters that kept you above suspicion. No one there would believe that King Thomas would write ‘I petted a cat today, despite my allergies. I am now struggling to breathe, but it was a cute cat, so I accept death.’”

Emile wiped his eyes. “That’s really not a good strategy.”

“You don’t understand, Emile.” King Thomas shook his head. “It was fluffy.”

“Yes, and that’s the problem!”

As King Thomas began detailing an argument on why, exactly, cats were worth the world and it was an adorable way to suffer, Roman leaned over to Logan and whispered “Is it always like this here?”

“Yes, pretty much.” Logan carefully took Roman’s hand. “Is it…adequate? I mean, if you’d like, I’m sure Thomas would love to let you stay here. And…I would like that, too.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really.”

Roman bit his lip to contain his huge grin. “Um, if it’s okay, sure! Yeah! I’d—I’d love that.”

Logan smiled back. “I’m glad.”

Roman watched Remy down an entire teapot and start arguing for the merits of horses, while Janus interjected with “Snakes. Snakes. I’m not going to explain my reasoning because I don’t need to.”

Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.

---

Roman was given a room on the top floor. He fought against this in the politest way he could, insisting that he didn’t really need to stay here and he didn’t want to be any trouble. Sure, he didn’t really have anywhere else to go, but he could figure something out, right? He didn’t need to be intruding in King Thomas’ house.

Eventually, Logan successfully silenced him by kissing him hard and telling him to shut up.

So Roman moved in upstairs. It was a small room with a little balcony and mahogany furniture. The first afternoon, Logan took Roman into town and they bought some new clothes. They got sidetracked five or six separate times, and most of those were Roman’s fault. He couldn’t help it! He hadn’t been in town for more than a year. Everything was so vibrant and explosive, there was something new to look at in every direction, and all the people with different voices and faces were smiling and bartering and looked at Roman and Logan with affection. The two of them were just another young couple going shopping.

When Roman thought that, he immediately blushed bright red. Were they a couple? He assumed so, since they’d kissed a few times, but maybe they weren’t. He overthought that for five minutes until Logan asked him what was wrong and he blurted out, “Are we dating?”

Logan stared at him for a long second before replying, “I would hope so, given that I’m currently holding your hand.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

So Logan became his boyfriend. It was all the arguing and late nights and banter of being friends, but with little bonuses, like surprise kisses during breakfast or holding hands under the table or curling up next to each other in the evening. Roman didn’t have to hide his glances at Logan, didn’t have to ignore Logan’s beautiful eyes or incredible face structure or—well, Logan was amazing, to make a long list short. Logan was so smart and passionate and irritating in just the right way. Their frequent arguments over silly, stupid things usually ended with one of them pinning the other against the wall. There was never a dull moment with Logan around. They’d broken up three or four times. King Thomas fell for it every time, but Remy and Emile had learned to nod and wait ten minutes.

King Thomas thought they were adorable. He always let them do things together, especially things that Roman was uncomfortable with. They became an inseparable duo, always joined at the hip, watching each other’s backs. Roman didn’t really have a job or responsibility anymore, and he didn’t know what to do with that, so King Thomas invited him to different occasions. Roman got to see a javelin contest, visit a festival, meet the daughter of a nearby kingdom who was a little shy but extremely kind—and he got to do simple things, too. He sat with Remy and Emile and King Thomas and drank tea. He played croquet with them, where Logan demolished the competition and Remy tried to knock King Thomas out to win second place. Usually croquet games ended up with Roman tackling Logan during the final strokes and sending them both crashing to the grass.

They went to a dance, one night, after Roman spent weeks deliberating over the invitation. It was to be guarded, and the King had made no real moves to get him back, but he still felt nervous about being in the public eye. But it helped that King Thomas assured him he could leave at any time, it helped that he’d chosen a suit for himself with a red jacket and gold trim, and it helped that Logan was right there, promising to keep him safe.

The dance was amazing. Roman spent half the time eating off the long tables of food by the windows. He didn’t have to talk to anyone if he didn’t want to, and if someone came up to him, Logan gladly fielded the questions. And after a while, the energy of the dance and the bounce of the music pulled him a bit out of his shell. He talked to some fascinating people, and without the pressure of being impartial and respectable, he was able to actually talk to them.

And he got to dance with Logan. Logan didn’t really know how to dance, so Roman got to teach him, and the way he stumbled through the steps with his eyes narrowed in concentration was the cutest thing Roman had ever seen. Eventually Roman relaxed and just let them sway about in time to the music, not worrying about looking proper. He was only staring at Logan, who practically glowed in the candlelight.

“I’m sorry,” Logan said that night, after they’d retired to Roman’s room. They were standing on the balcony together, hand in hand. The wind was cold and ruffled Logan’s hair adorably.

“For what?” Roman asked, drawing patterns on Logan’s palm.

“For…” Logan waved a hand, his voice tight. “You know what for.”

Roman did know what for. Logan apologized approximately once a week. Every time, Roman insisted that it was alright, that he forgave him, but the guilt never seemed to go away.

“I forgive you,” Roman said for the hundredth time, hoping that Logan would believe him. “It’s okay, Logan. I mean, it wasn’t okay then, but it is now. I know you’ve learned from that mistake. You fixed things.”

“I didn’t,” Logan argued. “What about Patton? Virgil?”

Roman felt a pang in his stomach. “I…no, then, you didn’t fix everything. But you—you saved me, Logan. How am I supposed to hate you?”

Logan turned away, staring down from the balcony to the dark trees below. “I don’t understand why you don’t.”

“Logan. Hey. Look at me.” Roman gently turned Logan’s chin around to face him. “I love you, okay? And I’m happy with where we are now. I made mistakes, you made mistakes, but we’ve grown from that. The past is in the past and we have to move forward.”

“I—” Logan’s mouth fell open. “Um, you love me?”

“Yes?” Roman rewound the conversation. “Oh, goodness, did I say that?”

“Yes,” Logan squeaked, looking very red.

“I—I meant it,” Roman explained, scratching at the back of his neck. “I was planning on confessing at some more opportune time, but I think it just slipped out. Is it, um, okay?”

“I-it’s fine,” Logan stammered. “Better than fine! I-um, I love you t-too?”

“You’re so red,” Roman exclaimed, running his hand over Logan’s cheek. “Have I finally figured out a way to fluster you?”

“No!” Logan protested.

“Oh really?” Roman smirked. “Then you shall not mind when I profess my undying love for you, Logan Abbott. You shall not react when I speak of how I love your eyes which shine like stars, and love your face when alight with passion, and—”

“Stop,” Logan pleaded, burying his face in his hands. Roman could see the blush through his fingers.

“Oh, come now,” Roman said, taking Logan’s hands in his own. “I wasn’t finished!”

“I get the idea,” Logan said, half-giggling. The sight of Logan blushing and stammering was enough to make Roman’s stomach swoop.

“Do you?” Roman leaned forward and kissed Logan on the forehead, on his nose, on his cheeks. “Because a little bird told me that you’re still doubting yourself.”

Logan laughed a little bit. “You’re ridiculous, Roman.”

“I’m your ridiculous!”

“That makes absolutely no sense.” Logan sighed. “But fine. You’re my ridiculous.”

Roman had been planning to go to bed. It was late and the moon hung high in the sky. But after that, well—sleep could wait.

---

Roman del Rey was twenty-two years old. He lived in a large house with a King, two advisors, his boyfriend, and his boyfriend’s older brother. He used to be a Queen. Now he had the whole world before him. He started painting again. Logan taught him how to play the harpsichord. He sang for the first time in years, under his breath, making his way through songs he remembered from when he was a kid. It was just him and Logan and King Thomas and Remy and Emile and Janus. He sent regular letters to his family. He sent nothing to Patton and Virgil and prayed they were alright. He relearned all the things he used to know. How to talk to people. How to clean his room. How to spend money. How to cook. There were maids and cooks in the house, but more often than not, King Thomas did the work himself. He had almost two dozen servants on his payroll and perhaps five of them would show up on any given day. King Thomas never minded. They were good people and they deserved the money.

Roman got to know Emile. Emile reminded him of Patton sometimes, with his endless energy and constant jokes. But Emile was calmer and wiser and firmer. He was the rock on which the whole kingdom sat, always keeping King Thomas in check. His smile was contagious. He hummed to himself while he worked. He always had the best advice for any situation, unless it revolved around fashion. According to Remy, Emile had seven copies of the same outfit and cycled through them every week.

Remy was maybe Emile’s polar opposite. He was a real bitch sometimes. He was practically an insomniac, and Roman wondered if he could possibly be a vampire. He lived off tea. He swore like a sailor despite King Thomas’ frequent protests of “Not in front of the kids.” Remy had a way of looking down at anyone, even people taller than him, making everyone feel like he viewed them as an irritating piece of dirt. King Thomas assured Roman that Remy was actually very nice and a softie inside, he just had an intimidating exterior. Roman didn’t believe him until he caught Remy feeding some ducks leftover bread. Remy had forced him to never speak of the incident again.

Then there was King Thomas himself. It was hard to believe he was in charge of a whole kingdom. It was hard to believe his divorce with the King had ruptured the entire political system. He was goofy and silly and ate like a maniac and cooed over dogs and several times referred to Logan and Roman as “babies.” He was the only person more excitable than Emile and the only person who could get Remy to be nice. He had charisma, that was the only word for it—he had an infectious kindness that everyone couldn’t help but feel.

Roman liked King Thomas. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to, and for a long time he was more apprehensive than anything, but he finally decided that he liked him. He was kind and sunny and sang a lot and ate a lot and could make Roman laugh. And he was always kind to Roman, always making sure Roman was alright, never asking anything in return. In some ways, Roman was reminded of his dad.

Of course there was one more person in the house. Janus. Although he didn’t spend as much time with them as Remy and Emile, he still popped in once a day, usually to take some food and get out as soon as possible. Roman was never sure how to act around Janus. Yes, Janus had saved him, but Janus had also blackmailed him, and the memory of Janus’ hand over his mouth was an unpleasant one. Janus, for his part, seemed determined to avoid Roman until the end of time. It took some cajoling from Logan, who apparently didn’t like having his boyfriend and brother giving each other the Silent Treatment, but Roman finally confronted Janus about it.

It was a difficult conversation. There were a lot of emotions to parse through. Janus, Roman figured out, wasn’t very good at apologies. He wanted to give one, of course—Roman could tell by the softness in his eyes and the way he fidgeted with his gloves. But Janus didn’t seem very good at emotional vulnerability.

Roman, however, had enough emotional issues for both of them. So he laid out all his playing cards, talked through the quagmire of complicated feelings, and Janus listened. In turn, Janus admitted in his own roundabout way that he did feel bad about what had happened, that he had viewed Roman as a means to an end but didn’t fully consider the human cost of his actions, and that he liked Roman—if only because Logan liked him, and it was clear that Janus would do anything for Logan. Things were not perfect between Janus and Roman, not even in the weeks to come when Roman invited Janus for croquet and found out that Janus was even better at it than Logan, somehow. But things were better, and the past was in the past.

The past was in the past.

Roman told Janus that whenever Janus seemed especially awkward around him. He told Logan that whenever Logan felt guilty over betraying Roman. He told King Thomas that when he asked Roman, gently, how he was doing. He told himself that every night, and he did his best to wipe his mind of the year he’d spent as a Queen.

It was not that easy.

It took Roman a week to stop hesitating before he ate. It took Roman a month to feel comfortable using King Thomas’ money. It took almost three months for him to work up the nerve to ask for something he wanted. He still called King Thomas that, despite King Thomas insisting that it was perfectly alright to just call him Thomas. He never called Remy and Emile that either, instead addressing them as ‘sir.’ He still froze when confronted with someone he didn’t know. He still immediately apologized whenever he assumed he had done something wrong. He still jumped if someone touched him.

Logan could tell, of course. Roman spotted Logan’s worried look whenever Roman apologized for speaking too loudly or interrupting someone. But Roman brushed off Logan’s questions and concerns. It was fine! Everything was fine. He’d stop feeling so scared eventually.

Whether that was true or not, he was still scared now. Despite knowing that this was a safe place, despite knowing that King Thomas would never do anything to hurt him, despite knowing that it was okay for him to be here, Roman was still scared. He still felt like he was tiptoeing on thin ice, only one mistake from being kicked out and forced to live on his own. He still felt suffocated every time he wore a dress—which was a shame, because he used to like dresses. He looked amazing in them. But they always felt too tight now.

It came to a head one afternoon, when Roman accidentally dropped a plate on the floor. It shattered into five white pieces. Without thinking, Roman immediately began to apologize, promising it wouldn’t happen again, and worked himself into a panic attack before Logan stepped in and helped him breathe. He spent the rest of that afternoon curled into Logan’s side in his bed, enjoying the feeling of warmth surrounding him, Logan running his fingers through his hair and telling him that everything was alright.

But everything couldn’t be alright. Not when Roman’s mind still told him that everything was all wrong.

Roman cried that afternoon, hiding his face in Logan’s chest so he didn’t have to face Logan’s disappointment, knowing that he was weak and paranoid and a crybaby. Feeling just as ugly and wrung-out as he used to back at the castle, feeling like he hadn’t even left at all. Like if he opened his eyes he’d find himself alone again, if he let go of Logan then Logan would disappear.

“Am I broken?” Roman asked that night, barely a whisper.

“No,” Logan said, pressing his forehead to Roman’s. “You need help, and that’s okay.”

“I—” Roman wiped at his face. “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“Neither do I. We’ll figure it out together.” Logan cupped Roman’s cheek. “I’ll talk to Thomas, if that’s okay?”

“Will he hate me?”

“He’ll want to help,” Logan said. “Just like I do.”

---

Logan talked to me today.

What about?

Roman.

Thought so.

He’s terrified, Remy. It’s been months and he still flinches when I talk to him.

You haven’t done anything wrong. He’s been through a lot.

Don’t I know it.

…He should talk to Emile. That’s what you did, right?

Yeah. If he wants to. But I’m glad he’s talking to Logan, at least. Logan’s a good kid, he’ll keep Roman afloat.

Logan’s a bitch.

I’m trying to have a serious conversation!

Logan’s a bitch and I respect that. But you’re right. Logan’s good for him. Roman has Logan, he has Emile, and he has you. Even Janus kind of likes him, and Janus doesn’t like anyone. He’ll be alright.

…He breaks my heart, Remy.

Yeah. I know what you mean.

---

Logan was right about King Thomas. Of course Logan was right, Roman thought with a smile, Logan was the smartest man he knew. But it was still a welcome surprise that King Thomas didn’t throw him out of the house. Instead, he offered that Roman could talk to Emile regularly. Emile had studied psychology and had some ideas he thought might help.

So Roman began a biweekly tradition of sitting in a small room with Emile, eating cookies, and talking about feelings. It was difficult at first. He tended to talk about Logan instead—he could rant for hours about the precise shade of Logan’s eyes, the irritating twitch of his mouth, the little bit of smugness that always lurked under his polite tone. But Emile was kind and supportive and saw right through Roman’s bullshit, and eventually, Roman managed to open up. It was slow. It was painful. It was systematically tearing down every one of Roman’s barriers, and the voice in his head told him that is how you get hurt, and half the time he refused to talk about it at all, and he struggled through panic attacks in that room, and Emile was always there with a smile and a promise that things would be better.

Slowly, slowly, things were better.

Roman finally told Emile one afternoon that he wasn’t sure he’d really forgiven Logan.

“I want to,” he said, staring at his feet. “I swear. But—I’m so scared it’ll happen again, even though I know it won’t. He’s been so nice to me. He’s so guilty about it. I have no reason to doubt him—I just—I don’t know. Does that…does that make me a bad person?”

“No.” Emile’s notebook was closed and he was giving Roman his full attention. Nervousness crawled up Roman’s spine, but he didn’t feel suffocated or trapped by the attention, and that was a start. “You’ve been through a lot. Most people have shut you out and used you for their own gain, and when you thought you’d found someone you could trust, they turned out to be taking advantage of you. It makes sense for you to have some trust issues because of that situation.”

“But I shouldn’t!” Roman exclaimed. “He’s wonderful! He’s amazing and supportive and saved my life and has made up for his mistakes ten times over! I shouldn’t—I shouldn’t be feeling like this.”

“There is no ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ when it comes to emotions. They’re complicated things and everyone experiences them differently. Whatever emotions you have are valid.” Emile tilted his head. “I was thinking. Maybe you should talk to Logan about this?”

“He’d just take it the wrong way.” Roman hugged himself, avoiding Emile’s gaze. “He still feels guilty about what he did. This would just make him feel ten times worse.”

“If it’s bothering you, I’m sure he’d like to know.”

“Yeah, so he can break up with me for being a—”

Emile’s eyes narrowed. Roman felt the sentence die in his throat. It had come up automatically, but it was almost…like he wasn’t the one speaking. Like the words were some foreign poison or toxin in his body. He believed it, and at the same time, the words made him feel sick to his stomach. Logan wouldn’t break up with him. Why would he even think that?

It wasn’t his own thought. Not really. It was everything he’d been told, everything he’d sat through without breaking, every nasty word that crept into his mind when he tried to sleep. It was the King’s voice. Not his own.

It was the King’s voice that told him not to trust anyone. It was the King’s voice that told him Logan couldn’t love him. It was the King’s voice that told him to apologize, bite his tongue, be as unobtrusive as possible and maybe he wouldn’t be killed.

“It’s not me, though,” Roman said to himself. “I didn’t say that. It’s not me.”

Emile nodded, looking like he understood. “And what do you say, Roman?”

“I think…” Roman dug deep inside himself, past the tangled thicket of lies and slander, to his own heart. “I love Logan. I trust him. And we—and we will be okay.”

Emile smiled.

Roman smiled back, shaky but strong.

---

Thanks to Emile, Roman was steadily getting better at asking for what he needed. Still, he hadn’t even thought to ask this. He’d just been mentioning casually that he missed his family, not expecting anything to come of it, and King Thomas had suggested that Roman’s family move into the house.

Roman asked if he was joking. King Thomas said he was not. He said it sounded like they needed a place to stay, and they could be in danger from the King in the future, so it was safest for them to journey to this kingdom.

Roman asked if he wouldn’t mind. King Thomas said it was a big house anyway, and he loved children. Besides, any relations of Roman had to be good people. Roman didn’t mention Remus, who he was pretty sure was chaos incarnate.

Roman asked if Remy and Emile wouldn’t mind. Remy shrugged and kept sipping his tea. Emile smiled and said he liked children too.

Roman asked if they’d be safe along the way. Remy promised that he’d escort them personally to protect them. King Thomas promised to write a letter immediately and get them out within the week.

Roman asked if he was sure. King Thomas said that it was the right thing to do. If Roman wanted it, Thomas would do it.

Roman said he wanted it. And he hugged Thomas and Remy and Emile, thanking them over and over.

“Are you crying?” Thomas whispered to Remy when Roman finally pulled away.

“No,” Remy whimpered. “…Maybe.”

So Thomas’ house gained one older woman and seven red-headed children. If there had been no dull moments with Logan around, there were now no quiet moments. Ainslee painted a mural on the kitchen floor without Thomas’ permission. Remus started putting ash in everyone’s meals, prompting a daily check-over of every dish before serving them. Lee learned how to slide down the banisters, and when an irate Logan begged Roman to stop them, Roman simply joined. Now he spent half his time sliding down the stairs. Thomas didn’t interfere, but he did complain that he was too old to do that and it looked really fun.

Logan got along with Roman’s mother, which Roman definitely wasn’t worried about, thank you. Mother pronounced Logan a “treasure” and a “keeper” and “a worthy future son,” the last of which never failed to make Roman blush and hide his face in his hands. Logan confessed in bed later that he’d been petrified she would condemn him and run him out of the house. Roman admitted that did sound like something his mother would do. But the entire family liked Logan. Even Remus liked Logan, and Remus barely liked anyone. Admittedly, Remus’ methods of liking Logan were pranking him and locking him in closets with Roman, but Logan didn’t seem to mind, and Roman wasn’t against some alone time in a closet once in a while.

It was three weeks after Jana’s birthday when the papers arrived at the door.

Remy brought them into the room and slapped them in between the teacups. It was only Thomas, Emile, and Logan at the table. Janus was off on some sort of mission and Roman’s siblings were upstairs, making a giant blanket fort.

“Get a load of this bullshit,” Remy said by way of introduction, dropping into a chair. “Ugh, I need some tea.”

Emile slid him the teapot. “What’s this, Remy?”

“Sent from His Majesty Pooper Scooper himself,” Remy explained. “Addressed to Roman. I read it already. It’s some grade-A bullshit.”

Thomas took the papers and scanned them. His face darkened. “Bullshit!” he declared.

“Exactly,” Remy agreed.

“What is it?” Roman reached for the papers.

“I don’t think you should—” Thomas began.

Logan snatched the papers up and began reading them through himself. “I’m going to kill him,” he remarked mildly. “I’m going to fucking kill him.”

“What is happening?” Roman asked. “What is that?”

Logan’s murderous expression softened. “It’s, um, a message. Well, more of an ultimatum.”

“From?” Roman asked, hoping it wasn’t who he thought it was.

Logan nodded slowly, mouth pressed together and eyes sympathetic.

“Shit,” Roman said weakly. “Okay? What does it say?”

“Apparently,” Logan said, slipping one hand under the table and grasping Roman’s, “since he was intending to simply execute you, he never officially divorced you. Legally, you’re both still married.”

Roman took a deep breath to try and keep from panicking. “Can I read it?”

“No,” Logan said. “I would prefer it if you didn’t. He is very passive-aggressive and in some cases aggressive-aggressive towards you. I don’t think you’d want to read that.”

Roman nodded. “Okay. That—yeah.”

Logan ran his thumb over Roman’s knuckles. Roman practiced a few of Emile’s breathing exercises and focused on the things around him. Table. Remy. Emile. Thomas. Logan. Logan’s hand. His shirt. His chair. The floor. Remy pouring yet another cup of tea, a bird singing outside the window, the slight crumple of the papers in Logan’s hand. Bread baking in the kitchen and Remy’s third cup of tea. The sweetness of the cookies Roman had been eating before Remy entered.

Roman took another cookie. He figured it would make him feel better. It did.

“Is it okay if I keep talking?” Logan looked at Roman for permission. Roman nodded. “He wants you to sign the divorce papers, which have been included here. He has also, um, made a variety of threats if you do not. Most of them are not capable of being enforced, but—”

“Says he’s gonna invade,” Remy said. “Attack this kingdom or something.”

Roman froze in horror.

“Bunch of bullshit,” Remy continued, shrugging. “Like, he does know that every kingdom around here hates him, right? Like, they’d all take our side, right? Like, they’re all looking for a reason to kick his ass, right?”

“Apparently he is not aware,” Logan said, a small smile on his face. “I’m sure if worst comes to worst, we could rectify that situation.”

“But it won’t come to that.” Thomas raised his chin. “Roman, if it’s alright with you, I see no reason not to give him what he wants.”

“Spite?” Remy offered. “Spite is a good reason.”

“I want to divorce him,” Roman agreed. “Like, I really want to. But—”

“But what?” Emile asked.

Roman only had the inkling of an idea in his head. Only the little twitch of a plan. And it would involve refusing the King, which could mean actual literal war, which could make everyone hate him and he should really just follow their lead—but. But Logan was looking at him with encouraging eyes, and Thomas and Remy and Emile were watching him, and he knew—he knew—that they’d listen.

“It’s just an idea,” Roman said. “But…maybe I shouldn’t divorce him.”

Remy choked on his tea. “Are you nuts?”

“Roman,” Emile said slowly.

“Wait.” Thomas held up a hand. “Hear him out.”

“Okay.” Roman swallowed and summoned up his courage. “Look. We’re only married in name, right? I don’t have to talk to him or see him. I’m sure he doesn’t consider us married, either. And—and he’s going to die soon, right? Either of natural causes or Janus’ newest assassination attempt he pretends he isn’t planning.”

“Fair,” Thomas admitted.

“So.” Roman had a death grip on Logan’s hand. “If we’re still married. He can’t remarry. And when he dies, then…then I’ll be the one on the throne.”

Emile’s eyes widened. “Oh my gosh.”

Remy waved his teacup at Roman. “You’re definitely nuts.”

“Never mind, then,” Roman mumbled. “Um. Yeah. It was stupid.”

“No, hey!” Remy shook his head. “Good kind of nuts!”

“I see your point,” Thomas said. “I think…I think you would be a great King if given the opportunity. You’re passionate, you’re intelligent, you’re empathetic…you could make real change.”

“Oh,” Roman said faintly. He hadn’t really expected that. “Thank you?”

“You’re very welcome.” Thomas smiled. “If this is what you want, I will support you.”

Roman nodded, turning to Logan, who’d been strangely silent. “Um, Specs? What do you think?”

“Hmm?” Logan shook himself. “I—you would do a wonderful job as a leader, Roman.”

“Yeah, but…” Roman shrugged. “I dunno. I’d—I’d still be officially married to someone else.”

“You’ve been officially married to someone else this whole time,” Logan pointed out. “That has stopped us from doing nothing.”

“Yeah.” Roman rubbed at the back of his neck. “But we couldn’t get married or anything.”

Logan snickered. “Were you planning on it?”

“Not now!” Roman bit his lip and smiled sheepishly. “But, um, I think I’d do a much better job of ruling if I had someone else by my side? Who’s very smart and persuasive? And understands the intricacies of politics better than I ever will? And has always supported me? And who…I trust? And I think would make a really great Queen?” Roman smiled wider. “And maybe they wear glasses? I’m just spitballing here, do you have any suggestions?”

Logan blinked at him for a solid three seconds. Finally he seemed to regain the power of speech. “Are you proposing to me?”

“I’m proposing that I could propose to you.” Roman squeezed Logan’s hand. “In the future. If—if that’s okay.”

“Yes,” Logan declared, his entire face bright red. “Yes. Okay. Good. Acceptable.”

Roman laughed. “You alright there, Specs?”

“I am fine. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Logan glared at Roman as Roman laughed harder. “Shut your stupid pretty charming face.”

“Are you saying yes?” Roman teased. “Or have I finally broken that smart brain of yours?”

“No break.” Logan nodded rapidly. “Marriage. Uh-huh. Yes. Good.”

“You need a minute?” Roman asked.

“Yes,” Logan said pitifully, staring at the table and failing to stop a giant grin from taking over his blushing face.

“Sorry to interrupt,” Thomas said, watching them with a smile, “but we’ll want to send the King a message in return. You’ve decided?”

“Yes,” Roman said, drawing himself upright. “Tell him he can go to hell.”

Thomas smiled wider. “Gladly.”

---

Virgil Storm had gotten lost three times. The first was when him and Patton snuck out of the castle through the wrong door and found themselves walking in the opposite direction they were supposed to. The second was when Patton took a quick detour to pet a horse and they found themselves in a small nameless town with no idea how they got there or how to get back. The third was when they tried to sneak past the border through a patch of woods and gotten so turned around that they’d spent almost a week in the woods. Fortunately, Patton had packed a large number of cookies. Virgil would probably regret eating all those cookies sometime in the future. But they made their way out eventually, and they found themselves a map, and it only took most of Virgil’s entire savings to get them to where everyone said Roman was.

So now, after almost half a year, Virgil could see Roman again. He just had to knock on the door of this very fancy house and ask for Roman.

“Patton?” Virgil asked after a solid minute of staring at the door and hoping it would open by itself. “Some help?”

“Huh?” Patton stood up from where he’d been admiring the flowers along the driveway. “Of course, kiddo!”

Patton hopped up the steps and knocked twice on the door.

Nobody answered for at least ten seconds, ten seconds that Virgil spent regretting all his life choices and coming to terms with the fact that he’d probably die for trespassing or get kicked out or find that this wasn’t Roman at all but some dude who looked like Roman and had the same name but was actually evil—

“Hey,” Patton whispered. “It’ll be fine.”

Virgil nodded, nerves jumping around in his stomach.

The door creaked open.

Virgil had been preparing himself for a lot of things—armed guards, Roman himself, an eldritch monster of incalculable power. He was not expecting some dude with tinted glasses and a teacup in one hand, looking Virgil up and down but not seeming that bothered about two random people showing up at royalty’s doorstep.

“Sup,” the guy said after Virgil tried and failed to find words. “I’m Remy.”

“Hi!” Patton said, waving.

Remy raised an eyebrow. “Are you gonna tell me why you’re here or are we just gonna stand in silence? ‘Cause tbh, I have better things to do.”

“Oh!” Patton nodded. “Right! Sorry! Virgil can tell you—”

Virgil glared at Patton.

I can tell you!” Patton corrected himself. “We’re here to see Roman!”

“Roman,” Remy repeated, taking another sip of tea.

Had they gone to the wrong house? Had they messed up? Was Roman actually in trouble somehow?

“Wait, I know you two!” Remy pointed at them. “You’re his friends, right? The ones he won’t shut up about? Peyton and Virgin?”

“No,” Virgil protested. “Patton and Virgil!”

Remy looked at him, unimpressed. “That’s what I said.”

“You know Roman?” Patton asked. “That’s great! Can we see him?”

“Hmm. I dunno.” Remy took another long sip of tea. “Why do you wanna see him?”

“We—” Virgil tried very hard not to panic and/or cry. “We wanted to make sure he’s okay. And we—we miss him.”

“You’ve got jobs at the castle, right?” Remy asked.

“Guard,” Virgil said. “Pat’s a baker.”

“Then—”

Virgil shrugged sheepishly. “Well, should have said I was a guard. Don’t think they’ll be employing us anymore.”

“It was no fun without Roman around,” Patton said, “and without him, there was no point in working for a tyrant, so we decided to—” Patton waved his hands vaguely. “Pursue new career opportunities?”

“And we definitely can’t go back now,” Virgil added, hoping he sounded pitiful enough to get them inside. “We’ll probably be killed or something.”

“Yeah,” Patton admitted, pressing his hands together. “Probably. But we’re not thinking about that.”

“We’re not.” Virgil nodded. “So can we see Roman?”

Remy had been glancing between them like they were sparring with swords. He let out a long sigh, closed his eyes, and said “Whatever. Come in. Roman’ll throw a hissy fit if I turn you away, and so will Thomas, and probably Logan, too—”

“Logan?” Virgil couldn’t stop a giant smile from taking over his face. It had seemed possible, but he’d hardly dared to hope. “Logan’s here?”

“Logan!” Patton exclaimed. “He’s okay!”

Something in Remy’s expression softened. “Yeah. Yeah, he’s alright, babes.”

“Babes?” Virgil asked.

“I call everyone worthy of my attention ‘babes’ and you’ve upgraded yourselves to Worthy of My Attention.” Remy stepped aside and waved at the doorway. “You coming in or what?”

Virgil nodded and quickly entered the house, afraid that Remy would change his mind. It was a large hallway with tiled floors and a staircase leading to a second floor. A few doors were closed. Behind one were the noises and smells of a kitchen, behind another the sound of people. Virgil’s hackles instinctively raised—this would be a good ambush spot. They could easily get surrounded. And with the sound of talking, he wouldn’t be able to hear anyone coming.

“Wow,” Patton said, standing just behind Virgil. “It’s a lovely place.”

“The freaking King lives here, of course it is.” Virgil shook off his paranoia. “I’m surprised it isn’t fancier.”

“Thomas isn’t one for spectacle,” Remy explained, closing the doors behind them with a thump. Virgil flinched slightly. He wished Remy had kept the doors open—it had been their only escape route. Now he would have to either struggle with the doors or find a window to open, and both would cost valuable time.

Virgil shook himself again. He wasn’t a guard anymore. He wasn’t in constant danger anymore. Nobody here was going to attack him.

Still, he jumped a mile in the air and grabbed for his sword when Remy yelled “Roman! Get your ass down here!”

There was a loud thud upstairs and the sound of footsteps. Virgil’s heart hammered in his chest.

And Roman appeared at the top of the stairs. “Remy,” he complained, “what do you need now? I was busy—”

Remy pointed at Virgil and Patton.

Roman froze. His eyes widened.

Virgil opened his mouth to say something but he found no words at all.

Roman’s face split into a huge smile. He ran forward, jumped on the bannister, and slid down the staircase, throwing out an arm to balance himself. He let the momentum carry him off and barely stumbled when he hit the floor, running over and sweeping Virgil up in a giant hug.

Virgil squeaked as he found himself lifted in the air. “Roman!” he complained without any bite.

“You’re here!” Roman exclaimed, twirling Virgil around. “You’re here, you’re here, you’re here!”

“Great to see you too, Princey. Now put me down.”

“Sorry!” Roman dropped Virgil and ran over to Patton, tossing Patton in the air instead. “Padre! How you doing?”

“Amazing!” Patton said, giggling uncontrollably. “Awesome! Super duper!”

“Glad to hear it!” Roman swung Patton around in a circle and carefully deposited him on the tile floor. “You’re both here!

“Yeah,” Virgil said, laughing a little bit as well. Roman’s excitement was contagious.

“Hold on, I need to get Logan!” Roman cupped his hands around his mouth. “Logan! Get your ass down here!”

Remy snickered from his perch by the door.

“I’m busy,” someone called back from upstairs. “Either come back and help me, or bother someone else, Roman.”

Logan. It was Logan. He sounded exactly the same.

“Come on, this is important!” Roman huffed. “Okay. Be right back, guys!”

Roman ran up the staircase, taking the stairs two at a time. Somewhere above them, a door slammed. There was a yell. And Roman appeared at the top of the stairs again, holding Logan bridal-style in his arms.

“Put me down!” Logan was saying, face bright red as he weakly slapped at Roman’s shoulder. “This is not professional!”

“You were being boring and I needed you!” Roman trotted down the steps, Logan secure in his arms. “Come on, look who’s here!”

Logan rolled his eyes and looked over at the door. Patton waved and Virgil gave him a little salute.

Logan stumbled his way out of Roman’s arms, flew down the rest of the stairs, and tackled Virgil in a giant hug of his own.

“Hey,” Virgil said, staggering under a sudden armful of nerd. “Good to see you too.”

“You’re okay,” Logan whispered into Virgil’s shoulder. “You’re okay.”

“Yeah?” Virgil laughed. “Yeah, L. I’m fine.”

“I’m glad.” Logan let go of Virgil as quickly as he’d tackled him and hugged Patton, too. “I’m very glad.”

Roman watched Logan with a fond smile. “Told you it was important, poindexter.”

Logan gave Roman an irritated look. “You could have just told me that Virgil and Patton were here instead of carrying me.”

“Where’s the fun in that?”

Logan pinched his nose and muttered something about “ridiculous antics.”

“I’m glad you’re okay, too!” Patton’s eyes were shining. “I was so worried—this place is amazing!”

“Yeah,” Roman agreed. “The people are even more amazing. Hey—I should introduce you to my mom!” He cupped his hands around his mouth again. “Mother!”

A door swung open and a large quantity of steam was released. An older woman with hair tied in a bun and laugh lines around her mouth stood there, ladle in hand.

“What is it?” she asked.

Roman pointed at Virgil and Patton. “Friends! My friends are here!”

“Oh, you’re Virgil and Patton!” She walked forward and looked them over. “Yes, definitely. You match the descriptions.”

“Descriptions?” Virgil asked.

“Skinny and angry, round and happy.”

Virgil shrugged. “Yep, pretty much.”

“It’s so nice to meet you!” Patton gushed, shaking her hand. “Roman’s told us a lot about you!”

“Has he now?” Roman’s mother asked, glancing at Roman.

“All good things,” Roman said defensively.

“Hmm.” She turned back to Patton and Virgil. “Skinny angry Virgil, you look like you could use some food. Do you like risotto?”

“Huh?” Virgil didn’t even know what that was. Usually he just got rations. “Um, yeah?”

“Wonderful.” She clapped her hands together and headed for the kitchen. “Dinner is in three hours.”

Virgil stared after her in confusion.

“Don’t mind her,” Roman said with a smile. “She likes you. Food is her way of showing affection!”

Patton gasped. “Food is my way of showing affection!”

“Yeah, you’ll get along great!” Roman turned around. “Hear that, Mother? Patton likes to cook, too!”

“Good for you!” she said, turning around and pointing the ladle at Patton. “Good child. You’re good for my son. Roman, you should date a boy like Patton who can cook.”

Roman laughed. “I thought you liked Logan!”

“I do,” his mother agreed, “but he can’t cook.”

“I can cook,” Logan muttered.

“You practically burned the house down last time you tried,” Roman said.

“In my defense, I think Remus kicked over the pot when I wasn’t looking.”

Roman opened his mouth to respond and was interrupted by a shrill voice. “Yeah?”

“What the heck?” Virgil yelled, jumping away from the kid who had appeared between Roman and Logan, grinning.

“How do you do that?” Logan asked, more bemused than terrified. Virgil was definitely terrified.

“I heard my name,” the kid said.

Roman sighed. “Okay. Remus, these are Virgil and Patton. Virgil and Patton, this is my disappointment of a younger brother, Remus.”

Remus waved. He looked like Roman, except he had several bandages, scrapes, and smears of dirt all over his face. One of his front teeth was missing. His hair flew everywhere like a red tangled cloud.

“Nice to meet you,” Patton said politely.

“It isn’t, believe me,” Roman said. “Where are the others, Remus?”

“Jana took us for a walk. They’re by the park.”

Logan frowned. “Then how did you get here?”

Remus grinned and waved his hands. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Roman sighed again, louder. “Remus, please go bother someone else. I have things to do.”

“Yeah, like Logan.”

Virgil stared at the kid, who was only up to Roman’s shoulder and must have been like fourteen. He winked back at Virgil. Roman’s mouth opened and shut, his face turning bright red.

“Thank you, Remus,” Logan said shortly, shoving Remus away.

“Logan and Roman, sitting in a tree!” Remus sang, darting out of reach. “F-U-C-K-I-N-“

“That’s it!” Roman yelled, diving for Remus. Remus slid away and ran for the staircase. Roman was faster, though, and grabbed him around the waist, lifting him in the air.

“Hey!” Remus yelled between giggles. “That’s mean! I’m being repressed!”

“Shut your stupid mouth,” Roman complained, laughing as well. “Shut it!”

“I can’t, it’s the truth!” Remus stuck a hand in the air and kicked out his legs. “You wanna suck his—”

“Leave!” Roman yelled, tossing Remus bodily to the ground. Remus scrambled to his feet, still laughing. “Go! Shoo! Away with you, villain!”

“Please leave for now,” Logan said mildly, suppressing a smile. “We’ll talk later, Remus!”

“Okay, Lo!” Remus waved and ran through a door on the side of the hallway, leaving it swinging wildly behind him.

“Why does he always listen to you?” Roman complained.

“Well, I’m not his brother.”

Roman walked back over, smiling sheepishly as Virgil continued to laugh, as he had been doing for the past three minutes. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s fine,” Patton said, pressing his hand to his mouth to stop from laughing.

“Now that we’re done with that,” Logan said, “perhaps—”

“Why are you being so loud?” snapped a new voice as another door opened. The bubble of conversation grew louder. Someone was standing in the doorway, glaring. “We’re having a meeting and you’re—”

Then Janus saw Virgil and Patton.

“Oh,” he said slowly.

Virgil hissed, reaching for his sword.

“Hey, whoa, whoa, whoa!” Roman darted in front of Virgil and held up his hands. “We’re all friends here! Well, maybe not friends, but at least not enemies! Let’s cool it with the sword, okay, Emo Nightmare?”

Virgil reluctantly let his sword be, but he still glared at Janus, tensed and ready to fight.

“I should go,” Janus said, turning toward the room. “Keep it quiet.”

“Hey, no, wait!” Roman ran forward and grabbed Janus’ arm, tugging him backwards. “Talk time!”

“I really don’t think this is necessary—”

“Let’s go!” Roman hauled Janus toward them, Janus protesting and swatting at Roman’s hand. Finally Roman let go and Janus brushed off his clothes, staring warily at Patton and Virgil.

“Hi,” Patton said, his voice brittle.

“Hello,” Janus said back.

“Oh, come on!” Roman complained. “Janus, just say it already!”

Janus looked away. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Say you’re sorry!”

Janus raised an eyebrow. Roman folded his arms. “I’m waiting.”

Janus sighed and stared up at the ceiling. “I’m sorry,” he said tonelessly.

“Bzz! Bad. Try again.” Roman’s voice softened slightly. “C’mon, Jan.”

“I—” Janus bit his lip and met Virgil’s eyes. “I’m sorry. I hurt you both and that is unacceptable. I hope I can make it up to you.”

“You saved Roman’s life,” Logan said. “I think you’re doing alright so far.”

“I didn’t save his life,” Janus protested, his brief sincerity vanishing. “You forced me to! Through blackmail and other conniving methods!”

“Blackmail and conniving,” Roman said, nodding. “Wonder where he got that from.”

Janus rolled his eyes, but a smile poked at the edge of his mouth. “Scintillating as this conversation is, I am in the middle of a meeting—”

“Is Thomas in it?” Roman asked.

“Yes, of course.”

Roman nodded and ran towards the door. “Let’s say hi!”

“No, wait!” Janus reached forward. “Roman, you cannot just interrupt a meeting!”

“Can and will!” Roman spun around, grinning. “You’re always saying I need to assert myself! I’m asserting myself and getting Thomas!”

Janus opened his mouth to argue and seemed to give up. He walked over to Remy, who was still leaning by the door, and stood against the wall next to him. Remy gave him a brief nod and Janus rubbed his eyes, staring up at the ceiling.

“Now come on!” Roman called. “Haven’t got all day!”

Virgil glanced at Patton, who shrugged. Logan was the first to walk towards Roman, rolling his eyes and beckoning them to follow.

Roman tossed the door open and shoved them into a small room.

It was a dining room, although there was no food on the table. A dozen people were packed around the table, talking with each other, surrounded by paintings and illuminated by two picture windows and a candelabra hanging above them. Some bits of parchment and fat velvety books covered the table. Everyone looked very serious and intent.

“Hey!” Roman yelled. “Thomas!”

An older man at the head of the table looked up. “What?”

“Friends!” Roman exclaimed, pushing Patton and Virgil forward. Patton smiled and waved at everyone. Virgil tried to smile as well, his stomach curdling at all the attention.

“What the—” Thomas glanced at Logan, who shrugged. “Roman, I’m in the middle of a meeting!”

“But friends!” Roman protested.

“This is important!”

“Friends!”

Thomas sighed. “…Fine. The meeting is adjourned. Sorry, everyone. Friends. There’s nothing I can do.”

Virgil was surprised at the lack of annoyed murmurs or irritated whispers. Everyone just smiled and packed up, leaving through the door behind Virgil. Did this kind of thing happen a lot?

When it was only Thomas and one other man in the room, Thomas smiled and patted the table. “Sit down, guys!”

Virgil carefully sat down. Patton sat next to him, giving him an encouraging smile. Logan and Roman sat across from him.

“Where are Remy and Janus?” the other man asked.

“Outside, Emile,” Logan said. “I believe they’re taking their daily ‘away from Roman’ time.”

“Hey!” Roman complained.

“Don’t judge,” Logan said, “I also spend time away from you.”

Roman gasped. “But you love me!”

“I can love you and also wish for alone time.”

Roman leaned his head on Logan’s shoulder. “But you looove me!”

 

Logan made eye contact with Virgil. “This is what I have to deal with. On a daily basis.”

“I’m so sorry,” Virgil said, snickering.

“So you’re Patton and Virgil?” Thomas asked. “Yep, you match the descriptions.”

“Roman,” Virgil muttered, “I swear—”

“It’s great to see you,” said Emile. “How’d you manage to visit?”

“Long story,” Virgil said. “Involving lots of sneaky illegal behavior.”

“Wait.” Roman’s smile fell off his face. “You—how did you get here without—did you lose your jobs?”

“Yes?” Virgil shrugged. “It was a choice, Princey—”

“You need to hire them!” Roman stared at Thomas intently. “Now!”

“What?” Thomas laughed. “Roman, I can’t just hire people on a whim!”

“Falsehood,” Logan said. “You do that approximately once a month.”

Thomas sighed. “So I might have done it once or twice or fifteen times. But I’ve barely said hello to these kids! I don’t even know them!”

“Hello!” Patton said. “I’m Patton! I like to bake and I like puppies! This is Virgil, he acts very intimidating but he’s really very nice! He doesn’t get enough sleep!”

Virgil huffed. “Somehow I hate that even more than ‘skinny angry.’”

“Now you know us!” Patton continued. “And of course you don’t have to give us a job, far from it, but I thought it would be common courtesy!”

“Okay,” Thomas said, smiling. “Nice to meet you both. I’m King Thomas—”

“What?” Virgil blurted out. “You’re the king? Why the hell did nobody tell me this? I didn’t even bow or anything!”

Roman snickered and Virgil shot him a glare.

“It’s fine!” Thomas raised his hands. “It’s great. I don’t mind. Please, just call me Thomas. And no bowing.”

“Okay,” Virgil said slowly. “This is weird. This is really weird.”

“You’ll get used to it,” Roman said. “Things are—really different here, but it’s a good different!”

Virgil shuddered. “Don’t like different. Don’t like change.”

“Then why did you come?” Logan asked.

Virgil stared at his hands. “I missed you guys.”

Roman made a little noise. Virgil glanced at him and saw his eyes were wide. He looked about to jump on Virgil and hug him again.

“Things are definitely different here,” Thomas agreed. “For one, we try not to be terrible people. We also have health care.”

“Cool!” Patton said. “Do you have dogs?”

“Of course we have dogs!” Thomas waved a hand. “Plenty of dogs!”

Patton’s eyes were wide. “Do you have cats?”

“Yes, but I’m allergic.”

Patton clapped his hands together. “Me too! Allergy buddies!”

“Allergy buddies!” Thomas agreed.

Virgil smiled to himself. Best friends already. Pat really was amazing at meeting new people. But it made sense—no one could ever hate Patton.

“See, you’re allergy buddies!” Roman exclaimed. “You gotta give him a job!”

Emile chuckled. “Didn’t know that was the only qualification.”

“He’s awesome!” Roman continued, waving his hands wildly. “They’re both fantastic and wonderful and kind and amazing and special and you gotta hire them!”

“Settle down!” Thomas said, but the proud smile on his face negated the command entirely. “Look, if they’d like to work here, they can. But I think you should ask first, Roman.”

“Oh!” Roman nodded. “Right! Guys, are you okay with this?”

“It’s very sweet of you to offer, kiddo. And very kind of you, your Maje—Thomas.” Patton fiddled with his napkin. “But…I think I’ve had my full of royalty for now. Not to be mean.”

“That’s understandable,” Thomas said. “What would you like to do?”

Patton was fidgeting now. Virgil slipped a hand under the table and squeezed Patton’s leg.

“I—I would like to run a bakery,” Patton said haltingly, looking at his hands. “Maybe. Please.”

“A bakery?” Thomas asked.

Patton nodded rapidly.

“Well, you can get set up in town, then! I’m sure you’d fit right in!” Thomas turned to Emile. “Do we have the budget to buy him a store and some basic supplies?”

Emile pushed up his glasses and flipped through a notebook. “I think so. Yes.”

“Great!” Thomas exclaimed. “Patton, does that work for you?”

“Oh,” Patton said, looking pretty shocked. “Um, you don’t have to do that! I wouldn’t want to just take your money.”

“Then think of it as a business loan.” Thomas looked over at Roman. “If Roman’s been telling the truth about the quality of your cookies, I have a feeling you’ll pay it back soon enough.”

“What?” Roman said. “I like your cookies!”

Patton smiled. “Thanks, kiddo!”

“What about you, Virgil?” Logan asked, his voice soft. “What would you like?”

Virgil could barely wrap his head around the question. Since he was young, all he’d been was a guard. He’d climbed his way up the ranks because it was the thing to do. He’d never second-guessed what he was doing. He’d never had someone ask what he wanted. He didn’t know what he wanted. He liked combat, liked guarding—but it stressed him out, and maybe it was just years of conditioning and his own terror of change that convinced him he actually liked it. He hated the long hours. Hated the sleepless nights. Hated that stupid armor.

But looking at Roman, he was reminded of why he’d kept going.

He liked protecting people he cared about.

That was what being a guard was. Not being a bully. Not serving some king. It was taking care of Roman, protecting him from more than just external threats, being a shoulder to cry on and a voice of support and someone who always had his back.

“Do you have a guard opening?” Virgil asked. “I’d like to be one.”

Patton smiled and bumped Virgil’s shoulder. Virgil smiled back a little bit.

“We don’t have an opening,” Roman said, “because I didn’t think I needed any guards. If it’s you, though?” Roman nodded. “Definitely.”

“Really?” Virgil asked.

“Of course.” Roman smiled. “You’re the reason I’m still alive, Moaning Myrtle. I can’t think of anyone else I’d want to have protecting me.”

Virgil glanced at Thomas, almost expecting a reprimand. But Thomas’ eyes were shining and he nodded.

“Okay,” Virgil said slowly. “That sounds…amazing. Actually.”
“It does,” Roman agreed.

“Definitely,” Patton said.

Logan nodded and slipped his hand into Roman’s.

“Oh, don’t tell me.” Remy had appeared at the door, empty teacup in hand. “You’ve adopted them too, haven’t you? This house is getting way too crowded.”

Thomas looked sheepish. “But Remy, they’re adorable!”

“’But Remy!’” Remy rolled his eyes. “Whatever. Can’t stop you. Just let them know my tea is off-limits.”

“Yeah, seriously, follow that rule,” Roman warned. “Remus put salt in it once? We didn’t find him for a week.”

Virgil nodded and scooted his chair as far away from Remy as possible.

“What do we do now?” Logan asked.

“Well, I just canceled my meeting,” Thomas said. “I’m free.”

“Dinner is in a few hours,” Roman said. “So…croquet?”

“Croquet,” Logan agreed, already standing up. “Prepare to be defeated once again.”

“Hey, hold on now!” Roman folded his arms. “Patton and Virgil could be really good! You don’t know!”

“Somehow I doubt that I’m good at croquet,” Virgil said. “Who knows, though.”

“It sounds like fun!” Patton said, following Logan to the door. “Let’s go!”

One by one, they filed out of the room. Thomas opened the door and walked down, followed by Remy, Emile, Logan, Patton, a reluctant Janus, and a Remus who, once again, seemed to pop out of the floor to join in.

Virgil paused on the steps and looked over the driveway, with the trees bearing their autumn colors. The town was nearby, poking up through the treetops. Logan and Janus were already bickering. Patton and Emile were swapping puns. Thomas led them down the driveway towards the grass.

There was a soft sigh and Virgil realized Roman was standing next to him, looking out over the yard with a smile on his face.

“Hey,” Virgil said.

Roman blinked. “Oh! Hey!”

“You zoned out?”

“A bit,” Roman admitted. “Just…enjoying the view.”

“It’s certainly something,” Virgil agreed, turning back to look at the driveway. “Nice place you got here.”

“Thomas is a good person,” Roman said. “I’m…things are better now.”

“You seem happy here,” Virgil said. “Are you?”

Roman was quiet for a while. “Yes. I think so.”

“I’m glad,” Virgil said.

“Me too.” Roman looked up at the sun. “I’ve missed it.”

“Hurry up,” Logan called to them. “Roman, I need to absolutely destroy you at croquet and prove my superiority.”

“Coming!” Roman turned to Virgil. “Okay, we need to outsmart him together, got it? I may be marrying him but he’s also my greatest rival and must be defeated at all costs.”

Virgil chuckled. “Who says I’m on your side?”

“Well, you’ve always been on my side!” Roman’s smile softened. “And I’m…I’m really grateful for that.”

“No problem, Princey.” Virgil smirked. “But I’m still gonna help Logan in croquet.”

“You bastard!” Roman yelled, but Virgil was already running down the walk, turning around and gesturing for Roman to follow.

Roman stood in the open door, laughing and occasionally shouting rude names, wind whipping his hair. It flamed in the wind, brighter than the trees around him. He would always be beautiful. He always had been. But right now, wearing just a tunic and pants, laughing and finally following Virgil down the steps, grabbing Logan’s hand and nestling into his side? He was radiant.

It was not a perfect future. It was not a happily-ever-after. There would be trials and tribulations ahead. The sunny afternoon would not last forever.

It was not a perfect future. But it was a future. A future with Virgil and Patton and Janus, with Thomas and Remy and Emile. With Logan. With promises of bakeries and late-night chats and stolen kisses and held hands. A future full of hope and joy and freedom.

And for Roman del Rey, that meant everything.

---

But we wanna say before we drop the curtain,
Nothing is for sure, nothing is for certain.
All that we know is that we used to be six wives.
And now we’re
One of a kind, no category
Too many years lost in history
We’re free to take our crowning glory
For five more minutes.