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The Huntsman's Vow

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“King James, our wish is that you resolve the ongoing clash between our kingdoms and, for once and for all, bring peace to our families,” the man before him smoothly announced.

James did not answer the king, whose low and alluring voice both appealed to and troubled him.

The man straightened his spine, adding to his already impressive height. “You are a great king, Your Majesty, your name synonymous with fairness and justice throughout the land. There is no one else with your depth of compassion. Our island, hundreds of miles away from your kingdom, holds you in the highest regard. We have agreed to submit to your ruling, not our own wishes, to end this conflict for the sake of our people without bloodshed.”

James fought to keep his expression neutral. Not because of the decision they desired him to make, but because of something entirely unrelated. King Cedric's voice sounded so much like he remembered Leonard’s voice having been that tears pricked the backs of his eyes. He could not help but compare it, this enticing huskiness, to that of his Huntsman.

The voice he had not heard for a year.

He could not believe Bones had gone this long without speaking, communicating with him—with Geoffrey during his apprenticeship—with everyone—with only the assistance of a pen and ink and endless sheets of paper until his now-surgeon’s hands were constantly stained with ink.

Bones had made his decision, and kept it. He was doing everything he could to uphold his vow, striving to become as good a healer as Geoffrey. He spent most of his hours reading the medical books in his library or working with the sick or silently counseling those who wished for better lives with their families, aiding them any way that he could. Helping the very people that he’d forcibly brought to his kingdom, changing their lives forever.

Bones had, indeed, stayed the course to which he’d committed. He would not consider any of the advice that James or Demetrius or Maurin gave him. Nor that of Spock. Nor that of Geoffrey. He simply wouldn't listen.

James inwardly sighed. Leonard’s skull seemed to have gotten thicker than ever since he’d become “Bones.” He’d changed in other ways, too, except for in matters in their bedroom.

He hid a smile. Aye, that was when his ‘King Leonard’ returned with abandon, as if Bones himself did not know what he was doing. Hot breaths along his cheek were Bones’s whispers of love. Touches along his body were tender commands. Kisses pressed upon every bare and vulnerable part of him were promises of being together for years to come.

He was grateful for the hidden passages more than ever, the staircases and doors Leonard had had his huntsmen construct when he had been king. They provided private access to the most important hidden truth that had carried over from their past lives. Their marriage. Meeting in their bedchamber, in secret, they could see each other uninhibited by rules and etiquette.

James, as king, could not marry before a full year of mourning had occurred without meeting disapproval from his subjects. But, then again, James had never been one to follow all the rules. He’d tried, several times, to ignore expectations and convince Bones to agree to a public marriage as king and healer, but he’d refused every time. But now, even that restriction was no longer valid.

James and Bones’s closest confidants had resigned themselves to the fact that their former king needed time to reconstruct his identity. Taking a vow of silence, which James now understood was an act of submission to James’s new role as king as much as a way to reinvent himself, was a crucial part of that decision. This public time apart, while he learned and studied, was also a part of the process, as much as James disliked it.

He would not do anything to hinder Bones’s healing, and the journey he was taking to become the man he wanted to be.

“It is bad enough that you began this riff, which has wrenched our peaceful relations apart,” King Cedric continued, interrupting James’s reverie of self-pity. The king held his head high in what appeared to be an attempt to avoid looking at the man standing next to him at all costs. “He must be held responsible for all that has happened, violating the treaty and crushing the hearts of my sons!”

The other king, a handsome man about his own height, reddened. He turned his head and glared at King Cedric. “The clash that you began? Which threatens the bloodline of my own family?”

“That we began?” King Cedric laughed harshly. He looked at James. “I cannot understand why King Jerald insists on placing blame on us, the ones who were wronged. They are untrustworthy, as I said!”

King Jerald’s eyes flickered with hurt. “Untrustworthy?”

“Aye!” King Cedric snapped. “You always break your promises, Jerald, even to me!”

King Jerald stepped towards him threateningly. “Why you—”

“Huntsmen, restrain him!” James ordered.

Maurin and another huntsman grabbed the man, holding him back.

“Let me go,” Jerald growled, still trying to pull away.

Cedric spat on the floor at Jerald’s feet. “Allow me to depart for my kingdom first, so I am not forced to spend one more second in this man’s presence.”

“I was a fool to think we were still friends,” Jerald retorted, his expression wounded.

James observed their childish actions with a critical eye. His patience was quickly dwindling. “My men will not let either you leave. You will both be silent,” he commanded. “I have listened to your explanations and I will make my decision once I have spoken to my advisors. That is, if you are done behaving like children.”

The men quieted and stared at him, their expectant faces holding a shadow of apprehension.

“Good.” James looked between the two of them, rulers who had, according to his advisors, been at odds in recent years, since the passing of both of their spouses. “Now, unless you have anything of the utmost importance to add to what you’ve already addressed, you will wait in the adjoining room.”

Their treaty baffled him. He’d never heard of such an archaic agreement, though Leonard’s actions had been similarly barbaric. The treaty specifically noted that those in the southern kingdom of their island must provide wives and husbands for the royal line in the northern kingdom. The northern kingdom had already provided a variety of resources and goods in return, as the treaty stipulated.

He could understand why there was tension between them, if stipulations were unfulfilled.

“Together,” he added firmly.

Jerald and Cedric blinked at him.

James quirked a brow. “With my guards, of course.”

“Aye, Your Majesty,” Cedric said after another pause.

Jerald glared at Cedric, but remained quiet.

James inwardly sighed. He firmed his jaw and steeled his resolve. They would not like any decision he made. “Huntsmen, escort them out of the throne room while I consider this matter.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Maurin said, bowing his head.

“I do not trust them, King James,” Demetrius murmured once the kings were taken away.

Spock finally stepped forward from behind James. “I concur. I sense they are not speaking truthfully.”

James nodded. “I agree. Something was not right between them.”

“I remember them when they were young men, barely considered adults. I’m certain Bones does, as well.” Demetrius glanced up at the door. “They were never prone to violence or dissension. Egads, they could not even look at each other without smiling. They were always eager to see one another and be in each other’s presence.”

James’s eyes widened. “That’s it.” He jumped from his throne and started pacing. “They traveled here as an excuse.”

“I do not understand, Your Majesty,” Demetrius said.

Spock’s brow knitted together. “I, too, am perplexed.”

James gave him a smile. “It was easy to see, now that I think about it.”

Aye, the angry, yet heated looks they’d given to one another were the first clues, as were the words laced with frustration. In addition, they’d traveled for days, just to impose upon him this decision? Only desperate men would do that. “They are not concerned about the treaty. They are merely using it as an excuse to be in each other’s presence. Nor do they realize that they both feel the same.”

Demetrius frowned. “Your Majesty, what is your reasoning behind this conclusion?”

“You said they used to laugh as boys?” He clasped his hands behind him. “Enjoy each other's company?”

“Aye.”

“Now, as men, they cannot look at each other without undisguised dislike—or is it unrequited passion?”

Demetrius’s mouth fell open. “God's bones!”

Spock’s brows shot upward, looking just as surprised. “You are suggesting…”

His voice diminished into nothing as James smiled. “That’s exactly what I am suggesting. Their fathers’ treaty does not matter to them. Jerald could easily provide wives for Cedric’s sons, as has been done for generations. No, what matters to them is the time they can spend with each other without letting the other realize how they feel.” He clapped his hands twice. “‘Tis simple. They are both widowers now and, from what I learned about them this morning, prefer the outdoors over their comfortable homes. All we have to do is to get them to see it for themselves. Trick them into a having...an outing...a picnic...before matters are settled between their offspring.”

“A picnic?” Spock repeated, blinking once.

Demetrius looked at James doubtfully.

He did not notice. “A picnic is just the beginning. They will need additional time together, to put this conflict behind them and see the truth. But that will mean my presence, as well, to play mediator and enforcer.” He nodded. His plan felt right. “I will tell Bones of my decision,” he murmured, as if to himself.

Demetrius exchanged a glance with Spock. “Forgive me, Your Majesty, but I am nearly afraid to ask. What decision?”

“I will have to travel with them back to their island kingdoms,” he said, rubbing his chin in concentration. “Slowly. So that we may sort this situation out peacefully.”

“They will gladly welcome you to their kingdoms,” Spock began slowly, “However, it may not be wise to leave your people at this time.” He gave James a discerning look.

James felt a flicker of irritation. Not at Spock, but at Spock’s implied message regarding Bones. He was afraid that Bones would not be bothered by his long absence, at least not enough to audibly express his dissatisfaction. As a healer, he was fairly busy. “Nero is gone, the threat of war is no longer. It has also been one year since I became king,” he countered in an even, quiet tone. “My father would visit surrounding kingdoms, four to five times a year.”

“It has been over one year, Your Majesty. Fifty-eight weeks to be exact,” Spock corrected him.

“Aye, well over the period of mourning, too,” James muttered, his frustration unintentionally coloring his speech.

“He will come around,” Demetrius said quietly, speaking of Bones. “He cannot continue his lessons in surgical matters unless he ceases to be silent. Geoffrey has already made that clear. It will be necessary to speak if he does not wish to risk harming their patients’ lives.”

James looked at him in surprise. “When did he charge Bones with this?”

“Three days ago, Your Majesty.”

A wave of discouragement washed over him. He had not known of Geoffrey's demand. Bones had not bothered to tell him. “Well, then,” he said, turning his back to his advisors. He went to the closest window and closed his eyes, disheartened. “Perhaps upon my return he will greet me as I dream that he will.”

After a moment of heavy silence, Demetrius spoke. “I will speak to him.”

James’s shoulders dropped. “Nay, do not speak of my...selfishness. Let him continue his path without guilt.” He pressed his forehead against the glass. “I will not get in the way of his...transformation.”

“At the risk of your own happiness?”

James turned his head to stare at them. “I am happy,” he said honestly. “He is alive, thanks to Geoffrey and Hikaru, although I suffered his death as King and briefly grieved his loss before he came to. It was not difficult for me to show true grief to my subjects when I feared each minute that he would still die of his wounds—or from his deep melancholy. I was burdened, for he had wished for death.” He stopped, heart catching in his throat.

Demetrius stepped towards him. “Your Majesty—”

“Nay, I will finish,” he said softly. “I feared he would feel the same again. The days before he regained consciousness for a second time, when it became clear he would live, were the longest and darkest of my life.” James squared his shoulders, taking up the burden of Leonard’s silence again. “He is the reason I am standing here today. Without him, I would be trapped in a vicious cycle of madness, my people suffering more than ever before. Or, worse, they would be no more. I am happy, happier than I can ever remember.”

“Yet you would sacrifice your comfort and safety to travel for days, for the sake of these men who are mere strangers to you?”

“For their sake, and the sake of their children and future generations,” James added persuasively.

“The journey will be long.” Spock clasped his hands behind his back, indicating that he was deep in thought and, as James knew from the past, about to challenge him. “Not only by horse, but by boat.”

James nodded. “Aye.

“But Bones, Your Majesty.” Demetrius hesitated. “He gets seasick.”

James grimaced. He was correct. Bones would be curled up in distress from the moment the boat rocked gently in the sea. “He shall remain here, and comfort the Duke of Marmalade in my absence.”

“Are you certain, Your Majesty?” Demetrius asked again after a measured pause.

“Aye,” he replied, his lips twitching at the corners. “I’ve always wanted to visit an island. Besides, by the time we reach their island, we will be strangers no more, I am sure.”

“You are truly remarkable, King James,” Demetrius said, taking a knee before him.

James did not believe he deserved the honor that this Huntsman showed him, nor the honor that Spock bestowed upon him when he did the same.

He looked down at them, at the top of their bowed heads. “You must not hold me in such high regard,” he whispered. “I am but a man.”

Longing for what he could not have.

Bones’s voice.

 

oOo

 

Geoffrey collapsed into the chair next to the unconscious man on the bed and rubbed his hands over his face. “Forsooth, Bones,” he whispered. “That was close. One more minute of losing blood, or if you weren’t proficient enough in your skills to ably assist me, and Jonathan Archer would be no more. He will be weak as he recovers. His son must find someone to tend to him once he leaves our care.”

Leonard nodded mutely. He glanced down at his hands.

They were shaking.

“You did well, Bones.”

There was something in Geoffrey’s voice that unsettled him. He glanced up at his longtime friend.

He was right.

Geoffrey’s expression was serious, bordering on challenging.

Guessing what was on his friend’s mind, he glanced over at the table, where his pen and paper were.

He’d used them at some point during the surgery, after Geoffrey had told him not to.

He reached for them now.

Geoffrey’s firm voice stopped him. “I was a fool to allow your silence to go on this long during your training, but I will not allow your silence at the operating table anymore. It is too big a risk. My warning stands. I've told you before, and I’ll say it again. If you wish to continue your apprenticeship, you must end your vow. If you do not, I have taught you all that I safely can and my mentorship will end.”

His heart thudded wildly in his ears, shocked by the firm finality in Geoffrey’s voice. Geoffrey had actually meant what he’d told him several times before.

If he wished to become a doctor, a healer as skilled as Geoffrey, his silence had to end.

He stood and turned away, his stomach knotting in turmoil. He wasn’t ready to speak to James, or to anyone. He felt it in every fiber of his being. The timing wasn’t right, but he had no idea why. He could not explain it. Rather, it was a gut instinct that had prolonged his silence, despite his own desire to end it.

“Do right by James and begin your lives anew, Leonard,” Geoffrey said curtly.

Leonard spun around, his jaw locked in anger. He took the pen in his hands and wrote a single word. He held it up for Geoffrey to see.

Bones.

Geoffrey read it with a blank expression. “This is your answer? You are concerned about your name and not your husband’s well-being? The husband who has been waiting for over a year, putting up a brave front to his people, despite his own loneliness and unfulfilled desires?”

He averted his face, and winced. Geoffrey had every right to be angry with him.

As did James.

But he could not change this. Not yet.

He nodded, resigned. ‘Twas his answer.

Geoffrey sighed, sorrow in his eyes. “And a public marriage?” he questioned. “Rather than your continued secrecy? Will you, at least, agree to that?”

He wrote a second time.

I will agree. Soon.

“Soon.” Geoffrey snorted. “No doubt you mean weeks or months from now.”

Leonard bowed his head. ‘Twas true. Soon was...relative.

Geoffrey rose from his chair and faced him. “You know naught of the heartache you bring James, denying him of your love as Bones in front of the people he now rules.”

He dipped his pen again. I owe him the world, yet I give him nothing.

Geoffrey nodded. “At least you are honest about it.” He paused. “But you do not give yourself enough credit. You relinquished your kingdom to him when it was clear your people needed him. He has ruled magnificently, I must say. And then there is this.” He waved his hand, indicating the surgical room. “You helped save Jonathon’s life, and he was not the first. You have tended to far more of your people as a doctor than you ever did as a king.”

Leonard moistened his lips, writing once more. I think some of them know.

Geoffrey’s brow furrowed. “Of your identity? I am sure a few have noticed a familiarity, but without hearing your voice…”

Someone knocked at the door.

“Enter,” Geoffrey called out.

Spock stepped forward, searching the room until his gaze fell on Leonard. “King James requests your presence in the library.”

Leonard glanced sideways at Geoffrey, quirking his brow in question.

Geoffrey nodded. “We are finished here. You are free to go.”

Leonard grabbed his paper and pen and ink, exiting the room quickly. He cared naught for more of Geoffrey’s interrogation.

Spock did not follow him to the west wing, but departed immediately. He was relieved to walk the halls alone. It wasn’t unusual for James to request his presence, but meeting in the library was.

He knocked on the closed door of the library, his heart racing before he even heard James’s voice.

“Enter,” James commanded from behind the door.

Leonard entered but did not see James right away.

“Up here.”

He tilted his head back and scanned the shelves until he saw him, about thirty feet in the air.

James was climbing the ladder, his feet bare and hair disheveled.

The Duke of Marmalade was another twenty feet higher, his small meows consistent and frightened as he shivered on a stack of books.

He scowled. James was paying no attention to him—or to the ladder that was wobbling unnaturally as if it were broken. He picked up a stack of five books on the desk and dropped them on the floor.

They landed with an astounding thud.

James startled and glanced over his shoulder. “You could have just asked if you wanted to speak with me,” he said cheekily.

His scowl deepened. He pointed to James and then to the floor, every movement aggressive.

James shook his head. “I have to get Marmalade.”

He shook his head adamantly and pointed to the floor again.

“It was my fault, anyway,” James said. “I was searching for a book and not paying attention to what he was do—”

James gasped as the ladder swayed to the right.

Leonard startled and stepped forward, unused to the look of panic on his husband’s face.

James squeezed his eyes closed and gripped the ladder until his knuckles were white—but did not move. ”I'm fine,” he whispered, a whimper following. “Just f-fine.”

The ladder swayed to the left.

“Oh no,” James breathed shakily.

Leonard dropped another book.

“F-fine,” James whispered tightly, without looking back down at him. “I’ll come d-down. I-I never knew I hated h-heights so m-much.”

Still, James did not move, though the ladder creaked.

James wheezed, his face turning deathly white.

Leonard sighed heavily. Egads, James. A surge of protectiveness coursed through him, as it usually did when James, a more than able man and king, found himself in a mess.

He would have to retrieve him himself. He pulled off his own boots and began climbing the shelves.

Free-handedly.

Like he used to do when he was a boy.

When his father was alive.

And he was not a monster.

“What are y-you doing?” James looked down at him, his eyes filled with horror before he squeezed them shut with a groan. “You cannot…”

He reached for another makeshift handhold, now halfway up to him.

He saw the bend in the rung James was standing on deepen.

“You...no...Bones!” James sputtered.

He increased his speed and reached James just as the rung gave way. He let go with one hand and slipped his arm around James’s waist.

The ladder clattered to the floor.

James clung to his neck.

Marmalade’s mew was filled with fright.

He could not imagine a more precarious position to be in than this. He was not as strong as he had been before he’d ‘died’ but he could still manage another man’s weight, especially James’s. His husband had yet to regain all of the weight he’d lost months ago.

“Marmalade,” James groaned, and burrowed his head against his neck.

Was that all he cared about? The cat? When his life was at stake?

He gritted his teeth at the added weight, a precious weight, and carefully made his way back down, inch by inch, sweating by the end.

James breathed heavily and warmly against his neck, but he did not speak again until their feet touched the ground. He gently unwrapped his husband's arms from around his neck. He stepped back, giving James time to regain his composure.

But James did not seem like himself. He appeared rather shocked, his eyes unfocused and chest heaving.

He second-guessed his decision to give him space and pulled him back into an embrace. He slowly stroked James’s head. Minutes passed, and Marmalade could be heard roaming the shelves above. Yet, he did not budge. He sensed that James needed his strength, in this rare moment of privacy.

“Th-thank you,” James finally stammered

He squeezed him tightly.

“I’m alright now.” James lifted his head and fixed his gaze on Marmalade. “Will you get our cat?”

Our cat? He rolled his shoulders back and searched for the creature. It had climbed even higher.

He smacked his head with the palm of his hand in frustration. Even as a cat the creature could not resist finding trouble!

This was not the first time they'd had to rescue the little scamp, who, fully grown, had remained small.

“Please?”

His gaze narrowed on James. His beautiful eyes brimmed with urgency.

He suppressed a sigh. James knew he could not deny him with a look like that.

“I know that he can be a nuisance, but he’s scared.” James stared up anxiously at him. “I know he is. That’s why he keeps climbing up.”

He scratched his chin. Climbing higher? That made no sense.

Marmalade mewed.

James made a distressed noise in his throat. “See? I must retrieve him.”

He only saw that this was a losing battle. He could not let James attempt another rescue. He would have to do it himself.

He pressed his hand against James’s chest, stopping him from approaching the shelves.

While James waited, he wrote another note.

You, my James, are scared of heights.

James flushed. “Aye.”

Shaking his head, he wrote another full line.

James narrowed his eyes on it. “‘You, my James, are also brave,’” he murmured aloud. “‘But allow me to rescue him.’” He smiled weakly at him. “Brave is a strong word. I’m sorry I’m so much trouble.”

James thought he was trouble? It was the other way around. He huffed and took off his coat, then rolled up the sleeves of his blouse.

James looked at him in relief. “On behalf of the Duke, may I express our deepest gratitude. You are our hero.”

He rolled his eyes and began his ascent. He did not need to think as he climbed, even as James’s anxious eyes bored holes in his back.

Marmalade hissed at him once he reached him.

He hesitated, not wanting to anger him more.

“Oh, he’s just scared, Bones,” James called out. “He likes you, don’t worry.”

When he reached for him again, Marmalade swiped a clawed paw at him.

The resulting scratch on his hand stung.

Leonard pulled his hand away and glared down at James.

“He really does like you.” James’s grin widened. “It’s adorable when he sleeps on your side of the bed. In particular, on your head.”

Leonard gritted his teeth to keep himself from blurting out a sharp response he would regret and starting an argument. The Duke did not like him. The cat was simply a pest!

He reached for the cat a third time. Despite its hiss of protest, he snatched him off of the shelf and placed him on his shoulder, praying the creature would stay put. He could not climb down with him otherwise.

The cat’s claws dug into his skin, but the look of relief on James’s face once Marmalade was in his arms was worth his efforts.

“You’re safe now,” James soothed Marmalade. “You’re safe, Marmalade. I hope you learned your lesson. Never do that again,” he scolded. “I do not understand you, why you go up, Duke of Marmalade, when you are scared of heights like I am.”

Leonard bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing.

“Bones will not be able to rescue us every time you get into trouble and I try to save you,” James said with a sigh.

Leonard stifled another laugh. He was relieved when James paid him no attention, but remained fully focused on his pet.

He watched James with the cat, content to remain only an observer. The moment was too sweet to interrupt. The creature’s head bowed under James touch, allowing him to tuck the cat close to his chest and under his chin as he continued to stroke him.

It was almost too sweet. It was a scene that reminded him of what he was missing. He worried his bottom lip between his teeth, contemplating the first words he would say, if he did decide to end his vow.

James broke the silence. “I wanted to tell you that I’m leaving on a diplomatic visit, Bones.” James did not look up. “Tomorrow.”

Leaving? James was insinuating that he was leaving without him. He held his breath as he waited for an explanation that hopefully proved him wrong.

“I'm going back with King Cedric and King Jerald to visit their island.”

His spine went rigid. He could not imagine it. Their lands were too far away, the journey too dangerous.

He grabbed a sheet of paper from the desk and hastily scrawled his protest.

No. Not without me.

James looked up at him, his lips thinly compressed. “Part of the trip is by boat, Bones.”

He swallowed, recalling the times he'd had to take sail upon the sea over the years.

They were not hard to remember. He'd been constantly nauseated and sick, and stuck in a bed on every voyage, weak as a kitten through no fault of his own.

I will manage, he scrawled. You will need me there to help you.

James sighed, stroking the cat now curled peacefully on his lap. “That's why Spock is going. Other than you and Geoffrey, he knows more than anyone else about my strict eating regimen. I will be fine.”

He shook his head while quickly writing, then held up his reply. You should not be without your physician for such a long journey. No king should.

James’s eyes hardened, indicating he was asserting his royal authority. “I’ve made my decision.”

He hastily scrawled another note, determined to approach him in a different way. As your husband, James, I insist that I accompany you.

“But you’re not my husband, yet, are you, Bones?” James asked quietly, each word a blow to his heart. “How would we even manage sneaking about like we do now? We would be kept apart by protocols and etiquette.”

He stared at him. James was right. They could not risk sneaking about, or a tender caress, or a long look.

They would mostly be apart.

I’m sorry, he mouthed.

“I cannot be mad at you,” James whispered, “because I see a change in you for the better, a change that has made you happy. But I miss—”

A powerful knock stopped James mid-sentence. “King James!” Maurin’s voice boomed.

James threw a look of exasperation at the door. “Enter.”

Maurin stepped into the room, stopping abruptly when he saw the expression on James’s annoyed face and Leonard's bleak one. “Please forgive me, Your Majesty, for interrupting.”

“No apologies are needed. What is it, Maurin?” James asked.

Leonard stepped back, allowing his cousin to approach their king.

Maurin bowed his head. “King Cedric and King Jerald are gone, Your Majesty.”

James frowned. “They were not to leave until tomorrow.”

“Aye,” Maurin agreed dryly. “But they resolved things on their own.”

James looked at him, startled. “On their own?”

Maurin’s lips twitched. “Very much so.”

“They have realized their feelings?’

“Aye. You did force them to wait in the same room.”

James laughed. “So I did.”

“They thank you for your assistance and wish to delay their invitation to a more suitable time,” Maurin continued. “They have much to speak about with their children.”

“With their children?” James repeated, his face suddenly falling. “Aye.”

Leonard exchanged a look with Maurin. He did not understand this disappointed reaction.

“Your Majesty, did I say something to upset you?” Maurin asked.

“Nay.” James looked down at Marmalade. “I am...unwell. I believe I will retire for the day.”

Leonard’s brow twitched. James’s behavior was...unusual.

Maurin watched him carefully, as well, doubt rising in his eyes. “I will inform your advisors.”

James nodded, and silently took his leave.

Leonard followed him without making a sound, but had no doubt James knew he was but several strides behind him for he left their bedroom door open.

Leonard looked down the hall in both directions, making sure it was clear, before stepping inside. James had curled up on the bed, misery in every line of his graceful body, Marmalade hidden under his crossed arms.

Leonard shut and locked the door, then sat on the edge of the bed. He brushed James’s cheek with the back of his hand.

His husband’s eyes were watery. “I wanted to go,” he whispered. “So badly.”

Leonard’s gaze flickered from James to their desk. He frowned upon realizing he’d run out of ink and had forgotten to get more. He sighed, and nodded his answer, instead.

There were times that James’s feelings ran so deep that he could only touch them by offering support. He suspected that there were many reasons James had reacted so emotionally to the change of plans, but he would not force them from him.

He grasped his hand, squeezing it.

“I know it’s...it’s petty…” James wiped his eyes. “It’s more than petty. Why am I sad when they have found happiness?”

Leonard frowned, suddenly struck by the question and the intriguing answer it demanded. Why, indeed?

“You should have heard his voice,” James breathed.

Leonard deepened his frown. He knew both Cedric and Jerald, had played with them when they were boys on occasion and met with them as adults, concerning their kingdoms. ‘Twasn’t anything remarkable about their voices.

“Cedric’s,” James explained, his gaze softening on him. “He sounded like you.”

He froze, the picture clearing.

“I’d forgotten what you sounded like,” James whispered, his gaze drifting to an unknown spot beyond his shoulder. “It was beautiful. His voice, Bones, was beautiful, like yours.”

He leaned back into the pillows, behind James, where he could not see the contemplation on his face.

“I would have heard it for days,” James continued sleepily.

Aye, he knew what was bothering James.

Him.

He stood and took James by the hand, urging him to follow.

James didn’t. He looked at him, expression reluctant. “Bones, I think I'll stay here.”

Leonard sighed and took matters in his own hands. Or, rather, James in his hands. He scooped him up with a soft exhalation.

James’s eyes widened. “What are you doing?”

He kissed James’s forehead, silencing him, and carried him across the room to the hearth, where he set him down. He rearranged the coals in the fireplace, then took a piece of kindling and wrote with it in the ashes.

Go.

James’s face scrunched in confusion. “Go?”

Leonard pointed to himself.

“With you? Where? I don’t understand.”

He huffed, frantically erasing the word.

James touched his arm, stopping him. “You do not have to hurry for my sake, Bones. I have all day to spend with you.”

The words were a gift he did not deserve. He swallowed and pointed to the lump of coals he’d made, then to the wavy line he’d made away from it.

James looked twice at the wavy line and bit his lip. “You want to go, from here, towards the river?”

He stared at James and smiled.

James smiled back. “To the river. That is one of my favorite places.”

Leonard was well-aware that it was, as was the thick forest they’d have to travel through to get there.

But there was more.

He smoothed the ashes and scrawled three more words. When he was done, he set down the stick and looked at them proudly.

Like the kings.

“Like the kings?” James scratched his head. “What kings?”

He stared at James in disbelief. As if he did not know. He'd just spent an entire minute regaling him about King Cedric’s voice.

James's lips quirked. “I see that my confusion has upset you.”

Leonard scowled and nodded. He pointed to his throat and opened his mouth, at the same time, moving his hand away from his mouth—

James burst into a delightful, endearing laugh.

—like he was singing.

James could not stop.

Leonard could not remember the last time he'd been so amused. He ceased his movements and drew his knees close to his chest, watching him.

James leaned into his side, so caught up in his fit of laughter that he could not sit up.

“If...y-you could...j-just see y-yourself,” James sputtered.

Leonard shook his head.

James clung to his arm, wheezing. “I n-never saw you look so f-funny.”

He rolled his eyes to the sky. At this rate he would never communicate what he wanted to get across to James.

James coughed. “I am sorry, Bones. I realize now that you mean Cedric and Jeral—” He blinked. “Egads,” he whispered, staring up at him. “You want to go to the river with me, like Cedric and Jerald are going back to their island?”

His chest tightened as James finally caught on. His lips parted, but still he could not speak. He closed his mouth and swallowed.

The safer option.

“Do you know what that means?” James whispered. His eyes glistened like jewels. “Bones—”

He shushed him by pressing two fingers to his lips.

Aye, he knew.

He grasped James’s hand and placed it on his chest, at his heart.

James stared at their hands. “You want...to court me?” he asked slowly. He looked up at him, his expression a mixture of worry and anticipation. “You wish to court...me?”

He wished to comfort him with all he had.

He nodded.

“Do you know what this means?” James asked again.

He bowed his head.

Aye, he knew very well what it meant.

“They'll be watching you.”

He raised his head to meet James’s gaze.

James’s eyes shone with a brilliant hope. “We will have to be careful we don't overdo our courtship and make anyone suspicious we've been much more, already.”

He smirked. He could not make such a promise.

He laced his fingers in James’s and brought his hand up to his lips. He closed his eyes as he kissed it, relishing this moment, when he had James all to himself.

“Are you certain?” James’s question was voiced in a lie whisper.

Concerned, he opened his eyes. But he'd worried for naught. James’s eyes were clear.

Aye, he mouthed.

He could not have James yearning for the sound of Cedric’s voice any longer.

James hesitated. “Something troubles you.”

He blinked.

He knew? How?

James offered him a small but genuine smile. “I see that I am right. It's Cedric, isn't it?”

How had he known? He paused, wondering if he should deny it.

He reluctantly gave an abbreviated nod. James would catch him in this lie if he did not admit the truth.

He'd learned, quickly, that his husband was most perceptive.

James averted his gaze. “I shouldn't have said anything about him to you,” he muttered. “I did not mean to offend you. I was...I don't know what I was.”

He lifted James’s chin and poured all that he was and hoped to be into their shared gaze.

James was always the first to blame himself.

He shook his head.

“I did not offend you?”

Nay, he mouthed.

“I miss you,” James admitted in a small voice.

Too meek for a king, but James always laid his vulnerabilities bare to him, trusting him to take care of him.

And he would. Always.

“I really miss you.”

He sighed and bowed his head. He missed him, too.

Were it naught for his own stubbornness, his silence would be no more.

“When do we leave?”

He lifted his head. He could not think about leaving. Not yet.

His gaze flickered over the bed.

A soft, satisfied smile rose on James’s face. “A logical plan, Your Majesty.”

James shocked him. The name shocked him. He had not heard it for what seemed like an eternity. He had decreed, just like the king he denied he was, for it never to be directed towards him again.

“You may have refused the crown, but you are a king’s firstborn son. Royal blood runs through your veins. You will never rid yourself of it, as much as you try.” James locked gazes with him and said steadily. “And I don't want you to.”

He rocked back, the wall at his back stopping his retreat.

But he could not escape the truth of James’s words.

“The man I fell in love with will always be with you.” James’s gaze softened. “Maybe one day, you will see him as I see him, and accept that he will always be an integral part of you and you need naught try so hard to rid yourself of him.”

Throat right, he realized James was ensnaring him with his simple words of love and acceptance.

Nay, he did not deserve this boundless gift. There must be more he needed to do to pay for his mistakes.

James leaned forward and gently kissed him.

‘Twasn’t long enough. He grew cold once the sweet, warm kiss faded from his lips.

He pressed James against him, satisfaction filling him when his husband curled into him and relaxed in his embrace.

They fit. Always. Like this.

“Huntsman and King—and now Bones,” James whispered.

He buried his face in James’s hair and locked his arms around him, as if he were in danger of being wrenched from his hold, whether by an intruder lurking in the shadows or a matter beyond his control.

He hoped that James did not think his muteness was a threat, preventing their love.

“You need naught be afraid of who they are. I love them all,” James murmured.

The fire that he felt for James, that ran feral through his veins, threatened to consume him unless he unleashed it.

There was only one thing he could do.

He gathered James in his arms and turned towards the bed.

 

oOo

 

Spock carefully dismounted near the front doors of the stable, his muscles weary from a long, fast ride deep into King James’s kingdom. As the stable hand stood by to collect the horse, he gripped the saddle, unwilling to part with the one thing helping him to stand.

He hung his head in rare defeat.

A simple ride into the King’s less-traveled lands had proved to be far more informative than he’d expected. Even without asking them, he knew his companions felt the same way.

A second rider dismounted beside him. “You’ll tell him?”

He inhaled slowly, delaying his reply to Maurin.

How could he even put tongue to the news that the men he’d seen riding across the plains had been the ones he had banished a year ago, when they had seen their faces naught, only their disguising hoods? Surely Kevin had traveled far, far away from these lands. His life was in danger, after all.

He’d planned to tell James about Kevin’s betrayal months ago, or encourage Leonard to, but Leonard had kept his vow of silence far longer than he’d anticipated. He’d decided it was in James’s best interest for them to keep the secret until Leonard ended his silence and he was more prepared to respond to James’s likely emotional reaction. Leonard had whole-heartedly agreed to wait, based on his continued vow, but not without a flicker of guilt in his eyes.

Nay, it could not be Kevin. It could not.

This was not the first time Spock’s imagination had gotten the best of him, rather than logic. It was not uncommon for strangers to cut through King James’s lands, seeking a better route while exploring.

Maurin quickly gave up his horse to the stable hand. He leaned against the nearby fence and folded his arms.

Spock squared his shoulders and offered the reins to the other stable hand. He waited until he and the other huntsmen had dispersed from the area before answering. “Aye, I will tell him about the strangers.”

“I imagine both will still insist on going on their trip alone, no matter what you say,” Maurin muttered, slapping his thigh in frustration. “Or me, for that matter.”

“I will speak to King James, and strongly commend that he allow guards to follow them tomorrow morning, at least until they reached the woods. After all, his subjects will be watching. They must follow proper etiquette, especially at the start of their courtship.”

Maurin gave him a small smile. “King James does listen to reason, but he’s not the one I’m most concerned about.”

He did not elaborate, but he need naught explain what Spock already knew. Leonard, at times, was even more formidable now that he’d settled into the role of James’s protector rather than his king. And, now, as a commoner who would court the king in an attempt to win his hand, he would likely become even more assertive in his mannerisms.

Spock opened his mouth, ready to speak, then closed it. He opened it again, and all he could reply was a simple, “Indeed.”

Maurin straightened and began to walk towards the hunting lodge, his swift stride belying the fatigue he’d seen reflected in his eyes earlier. As the ‘deceased’ king’s cousin, Maurin lived up to his name as one of the greatest huntsmen. He rode harder and persevered longer than any man he knew, but his valor and honor were even more impressive. Perhaps, at the very least, he could accompany James and Leonard.

“At least when we saw them, the riders were far from King James’s beloved woods,” Maurin mumbled, vigorously rubbing the back of his neck. “The riders will never make it there by morning, even if they had fresh horses. The shroud of night is too thick.”

Spock silently agreed as he caught up to him.

Indeed, it was the only measure of comfort in this vexing situation.

 

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