A/N: You know that thing about how I'm so wonderful at keeping to projected deadlines? Yeah, that. (Trust me, I've done a lot worse...though that's not an excuse.) This chapter ended up like 3x longer than intended. Still not 100% sure I'm happy with it. GAH. I tried. I really did. Please forgive me.
A few weeks later Lord Reyn was lounging in his study, staring blankly out of the window, when Hamei entered.
Reyn looked up at him, blinking out of his daze and giving Hamei his attention. "What is it?"
"We've been invited to a ball. Hosted by Lord Hene."
Reyn sat up sharply. "Impossible." Lord Hene hadn't spoken a word to him since Reyn had married Hamei, although they had used to be friends. He had deemed it shameful to contact someone who had made such an economically bad decision for themselves, if Reyn recalled correctly. A frown creased his forehead.
"Here." Hamei wandered over to him and waved the neat letter of invitation. Reyn looked at it. It appeared to be genuine.
"But…he said…this can't be… He must just be inviting us to mock or –"
"He isn't." Hamei gave him a beautiful smile and put a hand on his shoulder. Reyn frowned up at him.
"What else would be the reason for this? You know what he thinks of our marriage."
At this Hamei's smile widened further. And then he told Reyn how ever since Prince Hall had married Wilke society had started to become more accepting of marriages that transgressed class boundaries. Because everyone who had seen Wilke and his kindness and beauty found it nearly impossible to dislike him, and the prince has always been a role model for the upper classes, as Reyn had said himself. Nobody wanted to risk the prince's disapproval and rejection now just because they didn't appear to be supporting his marriage. So many still disapproved and were only treading carefully, selfishly protecting themselves, piranhas waiting for prey, but in the meanwhile the invitation Hamei had just received was hopefully the first good sign of many that some opinions, at least, might be slowly changing.
Having finished his triumphant little speech he searched Reyn's face for approval, but Reyn stood up and pushed him to one side, looking pale and…guilty.
Hamei recognised Reyn's expression too well. "Reyn, what have you done?"
Reyn paced a little. "Hamei, is this really true? Society is going to start accepting us?"
"Yes. Because of Prince Hall's marriage, isn't it wonderful? I am so glad, and so grateful to Prince Hall and Wilke for this, aren't you?"
Reyn paced a little more, back and forth across the room. Hamei watched him with concern, starting to think that this wasn't just a display of agitated joy, a fear of getting overexcited at the thought of all his hopes coming true. This was something else.
"Reyn, what is it?"
"But what if they were to split?" Reyn burst out with suddenly. "What if…what if Wilke realises he is just a trophy husband, say?"
Hamei's face fell a little. "I'm sure those rumours spreading about them falling out are not true. People always gossip. As for the trophy husband element…maybe that's not the case as everyone believes…? And either way they still have their own reasons to stay together as it is, love or not, which is good for us."
"No, no, people will only support the marriage if they're obviously happy together…"
"Well they've been supporting it so far –"
"Just because of Wilke's beauty and Prince Hall's rank –"
"Reyn!" Hamei scolded. "What do you have against them? Has it ever occurred to you that half their supporters might be supporting them because they secretly want cross-class marriages supported as well? People like us! It would beneficial of us to support them, not try and find reasons to break them apart! Whether it is true love or not it is in our interest to support them and hope for the best, because everyone that deliberately points out the weaknesses in their marriage gives ground to those who want marriages to stay within classes as they have always been." Hamei rolled his eyes. "Honestly, Reyn, sometimes you strike me as so naïve. Their marriage has been supported well because of people like us, not in spite of us!"
Reyn turned from his pacing to look into the blazing eyes of his husband and felt something twist painfully in his chest. "Oh god," he said.
Hamei crossed the room and cupped Reyn's face gently with his hands, looking at him sternly. "Reyn, have you done something? What have you done?"
And Reyn told him.
And Hamei listened with both sympathy and disapproval for the man he loved; the silly, short-tempered Lord that he called husband. And he forgave him. But that didn't mean he wasn't angry.
"I shall…I must…go to the palace," Reyn rushed. "Oh Hamei, I've been an idiot. You've opened my eyes. I'm an idiot. I…oh…I love you." He grabbed Hamei by his arms and kissed his forehead affectionately. Hamei clicked his tongue and pushed Reyn back.
"I know, you fool. Honestly, if you were going to interfere you would have done much better to try and make Prince Hall love Wilke back rather than make Wilke realise he didn't!" Hamei crossed his arms and rolled his eyes, willing the remaining anger out of his voice.
"I will try and fix this!" Reyn called out as he grabbed his coat and headed for the front door.
"You'd better," Hamei muttered.
And so Lord Reyn set out that day on his horse at a full gallop under the midday sun, desperate to somehow save the couple before they split completely.
And not knowing that now the problem was not quite what he thought it was.
His horse's hooves clacked against the cobbled paving of the streets as he raced onwards towards the palace. He grew more and more nervous as he drew closer to it, grand and beautiful amongst its surroundings. The home of such vital yet such domestic issues. At the gates he dismounted, and a stable hand took his horse away. He braced himself for a long moment, and then entered. In the hallway he addressed one of the palace attendants, asking for Wilke, and was told to wait. He fidgeted nervously, not knowing if the Wilke was even in the palace at that moment. But after a minute or so Prince Hall appeared at the top of the grand staircase and walked slowly down the steps to meet him. Where was Wilke? Watching him, Reyn began to doubt why he had come. What could he hope to do now?
"Lord Reyn, what brings you here?"
"Your Royal Highness," Reyn greeted with a slight bow, feeling more awkward with each passing moment. Where was Wilke? "I am waiting on an audience with Sir Wilke."
"He is currently unavailable." There was something a bit off about his tone. The prince hesitated, as if he might leave it there, but then he indicated for Reyn to follow him as he turned left at the bottom of the stairs. They walked in silence through the palace until the prince directed him into what looked like a small library – undoubtedly neither the only nor the largest in the palace. The prince closed the door behind them and then turned to Reyn with a look of controlled weariness on his face.
"What is it you wished to talk to Sir Wilke about?"
Reyn hesitated. Where did things stand between them? Where was Wilke?
"I…Sir, if I may, could I ask when I might be able to speak to Sir Wilke in person? What I wish to speak to him of is not urgent, but I would rather talk to him directly."
The prince's expression hardened, although there was also something pleading in his accusation: "What would you say to him that you could not say to me?"
Reyn was terrified, and torn. If he confessed his actions to the prince the prince would be furious, yet it seemed impossible to discuss what he wished to without it. He swallowed dryly.
"I cannot say, sir." The impossibility of his task struck him fully for the first time. How could he comfort Wilke and persuade him to stay with Prince Hall if he could not speak to him? And how could he persuade Prince Hall to love his husband without implying that the prince currently didn't? It might be true but to confront the prince with it directly would be the height of rudeness – the prince would no doubt throw him out sooner than continue that conversation. Because of course it would be in the prince's best interests to deny an accusation like that.
The prince looked both livid and intensely distressed by his reply – far too expressive for the proper demeanour of a prince. The self-control he was exerting to keep his expression as neutral as possible was obvious. His next question sounded barely contained.
"Sir Wilke has bound you to confidentiality?"
A way out. "Yes." Reyn's whole body was tense. It was apparent to him that the prince desperately wanted to push the point, but he could not do so without being improper, and revealing to Reyn that he and Wilke had fallen out and the rumours were true.
There was a long, agonising stretch of silence.
Then, "You may go."
Reyn turned slowly and walked to the door. It seemed his best chance would be to try and come back another day and hope that he would be able to speak to Wilke then. But as he rested his hand on the doorknob the prince spoke again.
"I admire you, Lord Reyn. I want you to know that. You are the first lord in three generations to marry below his status in this kingdom. Your courage is commendable and inspiring. It helped give me strength when I made my own choice," he said in a low voice.
Reyn felt sick. When he looked back the prince had his back to him with a straight posture, hands clasped behind his back. Well I didn't just marry for beauty and because I had the influence to get away with it, he thought, but the sick feeling remained.
"If there is anything I can do to help support you, tell me and I will do my best," Prince Hall offered finally, his voice quiet. The guilt gnawed its way further into Reyn's gut like some foul vermin. There was an awkward jerk of the prince's head as he took a deep breath and raised his chin, and Reyn took that as his cue to leave.
"Thank you, sir," he said, and each word was like a punch to his own gut.
He exited the room and closed the door behind him. For several moments he just stood there, breathing. The hallway ceiling arched up high above him and made him feel small. At one end of the hallway two guards stood waiting, presumably ready to escort him back out of the palace. He braced himself to move.
And then he heard a single low sound come muffled through the thick door behind him, like a muted wail of pain.
He froze. Something twisted in his stomach. He might have just misheard. And what was he intending to do anyway, if he'd interpreted right? Oh god. Should he just leave? He scrunched his eyes shut. This wasn't his place, but… What should he do? What would Hamei do?
In a split second decision he opened the door and stepped back in, closing the door softly behind him.
The prince still had his back to the door, but now he was tightly gripping the top of the chair in front of him, his arm and shoulders shaking. Reyn could hear each tear-choked breath split the heavy silence of the room. The prince was crying.
Reyn stayed rooted to the spot, looking from the prince to the door and then back again. What should he do? He took a deep breath and then drew closer as quietly as he could. The idea of comforting the prince seemed to require a degree of informality Reyn wasn't sure he was at a liberty to take. As he moved tentatively around the left side of the prince he could see the tears rolling down the man's face and how his lips trembled, even though the prince was shielding his eyes with his left hand, the fingertips pressing hard into his forehead. Then through the suppressed sobs the prince broke into another low moan of pain, and the sound sliced into Reyn's core like a hunting knife. It was the sound of a man splitting down the very seams of his soul. The prince looked how Reyn had felt the day after Hamei had told him that he would never marry him.
The comparison snapped Reyn into action and he pulled up another chair, wrapping a firm arm around the prince's waist with a quiet 'Sir', and guiding him down into it, pulling another chair nearer for himself. He sat down beside the prince and took one of his hands firmly in his own. He was nearly shaking himself with nervousness – making such an informal gesture to the prince was unheard of and could be regarded as an extreme social offense. He could only hope that in this context the prince would forgive him.
For a long minute the prince continued to sob, although he was obviously trying to stop himself. He didn't move the hand that covered his eyes, nor make any gesture towards Reyn. And despite knowing that he had already overstepped a boundary Reyn felt that he wasn't doing enough – it hurt to watch. And so, adding another occasion to his list of instances where he'd recklessly acted on emotional motives, he pulled the prince into his arms, tucking the royal's head down into his shoulder.
Prince Hall tensed at the transition, but after a second or two he relaxed a little with weariness and allowed Reyn to rub his back gently. Around half a minute later he whispered hoarsely, "Tell no one of this."
"It never occurred to me to, and I swear it never will."
The prince pulled away to sit upright in his chair, taking a moment to compose himself and brusquely wipe his tears away before meeting Reyn's eyes. The distress there was so raw Reyn had to look away.
"I had thought of…confiding in you before," the prince confessed. Reyn waited for him to continue. Prince Hall took a deep breath, but several seconds ticked by and he didn't say a word further, even though his lips parted more than once as if to form words. Reyn hesitated, and then asked the last question in the world he felt he wanted to hear the answer to:
The prince moved his hands nervously in his lap, settling on clasping them together tightly. "I…I haven't spoken to W– Sir Wilke in over a month. He has left the palace and…I…I don't know where he has gone."
Reyn swallowed and forced himself to meet the prince's gaze. What had he done? The prince looked away.
"He said he…he thinks he's…" Prince Hall broke off and took another deep breath, but Reyn knew how that sentence would have ended. Then the prince looked at him in desperation and, with the sudden conviction of decision, asked, "How do I convince him that I love him?"
A horrible thought tried to realise itself in Reyn's mind at that moment. He didn't want to let it.
"Because I love him, I love him so much," the prince whispered brokenly, "but now he's out there somewhere and not talking to me because he stopped believing that."
Reyn felt like all the air had gone from the room. His chest constricted. Because, of course, no man would cry like that over his husband if he didn't…love him.
Prince Hall leaned forward with a plea in his eyes. "What do I do?"
Reyn looked up at him with hot eyes and a lump in his throat and a feeling of shame so thick he could drown in it. He had to fix this. He thought of Hamei and the day he had proposed to him.
"Find him," he said at last, "and hold him. Tell him about all the times you've thought of him in his absence and tell him everything you've felt since you last spoke. Tell him you can only see your future with him in it. Tell him you love him and keep telling him and don't stop or let him go until he hears it."
The next day, to his father's dismay, the prince rode out on his horse into the city, leaving his duties to his younger brother and sister whilst he searched for his husband. He aimed to search through the surrounding areas systematically starting with those closest to the palace, and hopefully he would hear rumours or find people who could direct him to Wilke. Only stopping at inns to snatch rest when he had to, he searched for days.
Meanwhile, Lord Reyn returned in shame and guilt to his mansion. Hamei greeted him at the door with nothing more than a long look, to which Reyn had simply said, "Prince Hall loves him. And Sir Wilke has vanished." Hamei's eyes had widened. And then Hamei had slapped him. Hard. And shut the door in his face.
Prince Hall continued to struggle to find his husband. Some people said they had seen him when they hadn't, or else they hadn't seen him for a length of time which meant he could be in any number of places. Whilst in company Hall took the opportunity to get general opinions on aspects of the kingdom from the people he talked to and befriended them as much as he could – he hadn't forgotten his princely duties entirely. But always, wherever he went, he kept looking for that familiar figure in the crowd, in the market, on the streets.
Two weeks and three days since he had left the palace he found himself walking down a lane in the dull mid-morning light. There were a fair few people about at that time, but those that noticed him let him go by without saying anything. He didn't look like he wanted to talk. He did want to talk…but only to Wilke. The loneliness had intensified with the beginning of each new day, and made each step heavier.
For a moment Hall stopped where he was with a sigh, almost as though the cumulative weight of his thoughts were too heavy for him to carry any further. He wanted to go home. But home had left him, not he it.
And then, like a fleeting vision, something slipped into his tired mind. Someone passing…sandals, flowing trousers…a headscarf…just another person walking past… Hall blinked, tensing for no real reason, glancing around. Who…? Who had he just seen walk past?
Suddenly the rattle of two passing carts was all too loud, the movement of people all too fast, the colours too bright. Someone's gait…their hands…hunched over a little…had they been faster to pass him than all the others walking by? His heart rate rising he twisted around, straightening up and walking forwards tentatively and then faster, searching for that familiarity. Just a glimpse… Like the same tune played on a different instrument, he knew…
He felt blind even though he could see – his vision felt blank, ungrounded, unfocused and frantic… Where…where…
Before he was aware of it he was walking faster, nearly stumbling but he was sure he'd glimpsed a hesitation, a head half turning back towards him. Him. Was it…? So close… And despite the headscarf covering the rest of the man's face, he was sure he had seen…grey eyes.
He grabbed the man's arm and they both stopped.
He didn't know what to say. There was so much to say that nothing would come out. Wilke was facing away, side on to the prince. He had only stopped moving because Hall was holding his arm. That he had not turned to face Hall only confirmed the prince's thought – it would be rudeness from anyone else. Hall swallowed.
"Have you seen Sir Wilke?" he tried, not sure if he wanted Wilke to know he recognised him, or if Wilke would be willing to talk to him on those terms.
"No, Your Highness." A low voice, so quiet, nearly impossible to tell… But Hall knew. He would know Wilke anywhere. But if Wilke didn't want to speak to him then what could he do? He took a deep breath. He couldn't just say nothing.
"If you see him, will you tell him something for me?" he asked. There was a tense pause and a barely visible nod. Hall continued, "Tell him I love him. Tell him I've always loved him and I always will. Please…tell him there's not a day that's passed that I haven't missed him." He struggled to think of more to say – this wasn't his strength at all, but somehow he had to let Wilke know… He despaired of words. "You know…the outfit he picked out for me once is too large for me now because I've lost my appetite. I can't sleep as before and when I do he's in my dreams," he stated desperately. "Tell him I regret every moment I did something that would make him doubt my love and I never want him to doubt again. I cannot bear it. I'll love him even when we're both too old to remember the beauty of his youth. Tell him I'll keep waiting for him until we meet again. Tell him that whether he…whether he believes me or not I still love him and I can't not love him even if it hurts… I…I love him so much…" He trailed off hoarsely, never letting go of Wilke's arm. "I can never return to who I was without him. I can't see how my future will go if he is not there. Tell him I love him. Promise me you'll tell him." His voice was strained. He wished he had more words – something, anything to be assured that Wilke would never leave him again. He prayed his manner and voice would show Wilke even more than his words could. Some people nearby who had witness part or all of the exchange had clustered to one side, whispering. Beginning rumours. But Hall only had eyes for Wilke.
"Promise me," he whispered, his throat too tight to speak. Wilke still didn't look at him, but in a shaky voice as soft as the breeze Hall heard him say,
Hall had to force himself to release his grip.
After that the prince reluctantly returned to the palace and resumed his duties. Hope was the only thing that could begin to fill the hollowness he felt. He counted the hours, telling himself that each hour brought him closer to the day that Wilke would return, and everything could be all right again.
And then one long week later a bedraggled, tired, beautifully familiar man stepped inside the palace front door. The prince ran down the stairs to meet him.
"You could have told me yourself," Wilke said, his lips trembling with the most fragile of smiles.
Hall tenderly returned Wilke's smile with a fractured one of his own. "I did."
Wilke gave the slightest of nods and then Hall rushed towards him until they were embracing at last, and they kissed until they felt whole again.
In the following days and weeks those rumours that had begun on the day Prince Hall had re-confessed his love to Wilke in disguise spread, passing on through circles of friends until more and more were sharing and smiling about their misunderstood love. Their issues had not been resolved that day, but Wilke's return to the palace had initiated the much needed touching reconciliation, one that promised to only strengthen, and never go back. Prince Hall appeared only the slightest amount more demonstrative of affection towards Wilke in public but observant people noticed the difference in them both. (Unknown to them, Hall had become a lot more demonstrative of his love in private.) And when the new rumours reached Hamei he let Reyn back into their mansion.
Everyone knew that Wilke was 'just a trophy husband'. It was the kingdom's favourite in-joke.
A/N: And they lived happily ever after.