Valerie dropped down into one of the chair in Darren's rooms and sighed, staring up at the pink stone ceiling. "Sorry," she said, not bothering to look at him. "Isaac put me through my paces today."
Her best friend snorted from where he was leaning against the wall, arms folded over his chest. "You're the one who told me to up your training program so you'd be ready to fight."
She tilted her head back to make a face at him. "Yeah but I don't remember asking you to work me so that it hurts to move in the mornings. I'm still covered in sweat. Which reminds me, what did you want to see us about Darren?"
The prince walked over from where he'd been busying himself at one of the side tables. He put a tall glass of spice pear cider in front of her, the pale yellow of it catching the light and glowing bright in the same way the leaves outside the window did, before sitting down. "Here, drink this. Then we'll talk."
She grinned at him and downed the glass in a single gulp, making Isaac chuckle. "I'm glad those lady lessons took."
She made a single fingered gesture before leaning forward to meet Darren's eyes. "What's up? It can't be anything to do with the war or we'd have the whole council here."
He held her eyes steadily with his own, making her frown. There was nothing light or happy about his face. Not that he'd been particularly happy since they realized they were going to war but…Her frown deepened as she realized she hadn't seen him smile in three days. Reaching out a hand she cupped one of his cheeks. "Are you alright?"
He pressed her hand to his cheek and nodded, closing his eyes. "Yes," he whispered. He inhaled raggedly then let it out in a sigh. Darren pulled her hand away from his cheek and used it to pull her against him. He hugged her tightly and pressed his lips to the top of her head. "You mean the world to me."
She froze for a moment then pushed herself far enough away she could see his face. "Darren, what's wrong?"
He leaned forward and kissed her desperately. Like he was afraid she was going to disappear. Infected by his grasping kiss, she responded in kind, both of them clinging to each other. Her hands tangled themselves in his hair as she moulded her body to his as he all but devoured her mouth.
Finally, short of breath, she had to pull away. She kept her hold on his hair and met his eyes squarely though her eyes felt more than a little heavy-lidded. "Please, tell me what's wrong. I can't help if you don't tell me what's happened," she said, trying to use her voice to tell him how worried she was.
He took one hand from her waist to stroke her face, trying to smooth the lines that were creasing it. "It's nothing you need to worry about."
She yawned. "Then why call us here?"
He sighed, dropping his hand and pressing his head against her shoulder. "Because I needed to see you."
"And you couldn't wait until dinner?" she asked, fighting back another yawn.
He shook his head, not moving other than that. She frowned and began petting his head, still worried at this sudden fit of clinginess. It was comfortable sitting there, stroking his hair, which was soft enough that she decided to steal his shampoo, and just letting her body relax. His warmth seemed to spread out through her cooling body and she felt all her muscles unknot. Before she could really register what was happening, sleep had swallowed her.
Darren felt her head gently drop against the back of his and let out one last long sigh. He stayed where he was for another moment, memorizing the feeling and smell of her. Then he gently pushed up and caught her as she flopped backwards. He picked her up carefully and laid her out on his bed, arranging her so she laid flat, her hand folded over her chest. Only then did her turn around to look at Isaac who was watching him sharply.
"You going to feed some bullshit about that being natural? Cause I know Val and she doesn't conk out like that."
The prince shook his head. "No. I drugged her. She wouldn't leave willingly and it's too dangerous for her to stay. I want you to take her back to her family. She'll be safe there."
Isaac moved up beside him to stare at the sleeping woman in front of him. The sun reflected off her hair, calling to mind her nickname. "You know she's going to kill you when she wakes up, right?"
The face Darren turned towards Isaac held a twisted mockery of a smile. "If I'm still alive after all of this, she's welcome to try."
"You're an idiot," Isaac whispered, his eyes dropping to the floor as he blinked rapidly. "You should just keep her here. You're both stupid for each other."
"But you'll take her?"
He nodded, blinking harder as his eyes prickled more. "Yes. She's never going to forgive either of us."
For just a second there was a hint of a real smile on Darren's face before it died and its rotting corpse remained on his lips. "As long as she's alive to hate me."
He couldn't take it anymore. Before Darren could react, Isaac crushed him in a bear hug, his face pressed into the prince's shoulder, where wet heat spread in tiny droplets. "You sonuvabitch. You stupid, too honourable for your own good bastard."
Darren froze then nodded. "It's the only way. And…can you-can you tell her that-that I…you know that-"
Isaac pushed away and swiped at his eyes. "I know. I'll tell her. Is this really the only way?"
"I cannot lose her. And I can't think of any other way to keep her safe."
Valerie's best friend again felt his eyes prickle but he shoved the feeling back. "Then…I guess this is goodbye."
Darren bowed his head. "Yes it is. I don't regret meeting either of you. In fact, I don't think I was ever this happy before. Tell her that too. Err's outside. He'll show you how to get back."
Isaac dropped his gaze back to the bed and Valerie's quiet form. As he bent to pick her up, he hoped that one day she'd forgive him for this.
Note: Before you send me a bunch of messages asking, yes, I'm working on a third one. But since I've decided to try writing it for NaNoWriMo, it'll be about a week before the new book is posted. Yes, I know I'm evil. November first should see the first chapter of Cinderella vs. Happily Ever After posted so stay tuned.