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Unification

by Domashita Romero (地下ロメロ)
illustrated by engine

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/351057.html)

Year 346 AL

Bretagh closed the door behind him, shut his eyes, took in a breath of four counts, and let it out just the same. He rubbed his thumbs to his temples; he’d had a headache building for hours, but now that he was somewhere private he hoped he might stave it off from the type that would last all of tomorrow. He could still hear the festivities outside, both from other parts of the palace and on the streets below. He was tired and his every nerve was run raw, but he would never dare begrudge the people their celebration.

He opened his eyes and felt the fog in his head clearing just a little. He took in a few more measured breaths, and that’s when he caught the smell of mint and licorice. The source was easy to find; a pot of tea was on the table beside his favorite chair, kept warm by a small candle beneath its setting. Bretagh smiled and went to settle down against the cushions, groaning faintly as his bones creaked. He’d go for a swim tomorrow morning, he decided, when it would still be foggy and the water coldest.

He poured a cup of tea and brought it just to his mouth without drinking, inhaling the scent. He’d make sure to give thanks to whichever of the palace staff had left this for him. King Bretagh the humble, King Bretagh the monk, the court and the kitchens liked to talk and tease. Tyrant-Slayer Bretagh of the Nine Isles, the grandest man to ever sit on the throne, and he’d probably die of thirst before asking for a glass of water after nightfall. Bretagh sipped his tea and let out a long breath to no count at all. It was better than the alternative.

A few sips more and the some of the snagged and tangled wires in his brain were beginning to uncoil, and then he heard the creak of the door and an exasperated sigh. “Ah, hell,” said the voice in the doorway. “Don’t know how you can be as big as you are and still sneaky like a cat.”

He looked to where Torin stood, hand on his hip and a smile curling one side of his mouth. “I’d wanted to surprise you, you lummox.” He stepped in and closed the door behind him, coming to sit at the other chair at angles from his. “And you slipped on in when only part of it was ready.”

“Ah,” Bretagh said, and smiled a little. “Sorry?” He took another drink of tea. Of course it’d been Torin, how stupid was he to not realize, Torin who’d been the one to insist he stop drinking black tea before bed and start drinking this instead, who’d demanded he keep drinking it until he developed a proper taste for it. “Thank you, much needed today.”

Torin set down a bowl on the table, full of grapes and berries. Bretagh let out a little sigh of gratitude; despite all the Unification Day feasting, so much of it had been so heavy and extravagant that he’d not stuffed himself and could absolutely use a bite of something clean and sweet and fresh. “And there’s another part of it.” Torin sounded annoyed, but his eyes were bright and twinkling. “You were supposed to take another ten minutes talking to Senator Cauligh, and then I’d have this all done up proper.”

Bretagh smiled. “Unfortunately our good senator had had a bit too much to drink for a proper long conversation.”

Torin snapped his fingers in disappointment. “Damn. I reckoned he’d be just drunk enough to have your ear for ages.”

Bretagh laughed. “It’s still very kind of you.” He popped a few blueberries into his mouth. “I really needed this.”

Torin nodded seriously. “How’s your head?”

“Bit of an ache, but I think a good sleep and a swim tomorrow will fix me up right,” Bretagh said.

“You know what I think it is?” Torin said. “Your head’s too big for the crown. Whenever you have to wear it that thick noggin of yours is just bending the metal…”

“Ah, hush, you,” Bretagh said and Torin laughed. He threw a grape at him and Torin caught it easily, popping it into his mouth. “Did you enjoy yourself today?”

“Of course,” Torin said. “Always one of my favorite days of the year.”

Bretagh took another drink of tea and smiled. “Mine too, even if it’s tiring.” He looked out at the window, the lights of the city still bright, as they would be throughout the night. “Everyone deserves to have some time to celebrate now and then.”

“Ah, he says it, but does he take to heart?” Torin said, smiling at him. “Does his majesty every celebrate himself?”

“This is much more my sort of celebration, I’ll admit,” Bretagh said, and Torin dipped his eyes for a moment, his smile softening. “The quieter type, I mean.”

“Well, you still deserve it.” Torin took in a soft breath and reached into his pocket. “Right, then, now I’ve got the last of your surprises.” He had a small box in his hand, and he held it out to Bretagh.

“What’s this, then?” Bretagh said, setting down his tea to take it. Unification Day was the type of holiday that had a lot of eating and drinking and grasping your friend’s biceps while telling him how much you appreciated him, not one for gift-giving.

“Well, open it up and you’ll get that answer!” Torin said. His cheeks, which always tended towards ruddiness, looked flushed in the warm light as he scowled lightly at Bretagh.

“Right, right, then…” Bretagh said, and took the lid off of the box. Inside there was a ring, solid, broad, and thick. At first glance it appeared to be silver with a center ring of black stone, but as Bretagh moved it closer to the lamp that black glinted a dark red. “Hell, Torin, is that southstone?”

“It is,” he said, sounding proud. “Took my hover down beneath the isle myself to get it, even.”

Bretagh looked up at him with a frown. “That’s dangerous.”

Torin just tilted his head. His eyes had their own glint to them, bright and blue. “Trust me, your highness, I took every precaution and harvested the stone safely and according to regulations.” Bretagh sighed. Of course he did; Torin adored doing things according to regulations. “Now, can’t say I made the ring myself, but it should fit you just fine…”

Bretagh took the ring out of the box and slipped it onto his right ring finger. It fit perfectly, and he had to admit he liked the look of it — humble and simple at a first glance, not flashy at all, but quite beautiful when you looked closely. “Well, look at that,” he said, and admired it for a few moments before smiling at Torin. “Have to say I quite like this, Torin. What’s the occasion?”

For a second, just a brief second, Torin’s face fell, but he was back to smiling quick enough that Bretagh had to think he imagined it. “Ah, well, it is our anniversary, is all. Fifth, as a matter of fact.”

“Ah,” Bretagh said, and looked again at the ring. It was a fine compliment to the gold one that he wore on his other hand, which itself complimented the similar one on Torin’s own left hand, that he’d worn since he was barely more than a child. “Yes, of course, it is.” He let out a soft breath and smiled gently at Torin. “Just don’t often think of it that way.”

“Reason for the holiday, after all,” Torin said softly. He looked at the new ring and smiled. “Glad you like it. It suits you.”

“Put me in a spot, though, haven’t you?” Bretagh said. “Didn’t get you anything in return.”

Torin let out a small laugh and shook his head. “Ah, the look on your big thick face when you opened it was a gift enough.” He stood up from his chair and nodded seriously. “Right. Get some good sleep on you, your highness. If you’ve got a headache tomorrow everyone will accuse you of a hangover.” He gave him a pat on the shoulder as he headed for the door. “Good night.”

“Good night, chief,” Bretagh said. He held his hand out before him, turning it so the ring shifted from black to red and back again. When he took another sip of his tea, it’d gone cold.

Year 341 AL

The first time Torin saw him Bretagh was the biggest man he’d ever seen. That fact hadn’t changed as he’d gotten older, but the size of him had been particularly striking when Torin was six years old. Torin’s own father wasn’t a large man himself (at least not vertically — his belly extended a little more every year), and Bretagh stood more than a head taller than him. Torin had looked up, and up, and up, at this strange man with dark hair and dark eyes who’d come into their camp, who everyone seemed to be glaring at, and said what was the most clear and obvious thing to say: “You’ve got a big head.”

There had been a few moments of silence, as Bretagh blinked and the assembled group of men rallied around Torin’s father realized that their leader’s wee boy had crept in somewhere he shouldn’t, yet again. Just a moment, as Torin’s father looked down to him with a small smile that let Torin know he wasn’t in trouble, before he tossed his head back in a laugh, and the rest of the rebellion joined with him, a warm and hearty roar spreading through them. The big man himself had kept blinking for a while longer, and then his cheeks dappled pink and he started to smile.

“Well,” he’d said, as he leaned down to Torin’s level. That close Torin had been able to see his eyes weren’t just through-dark, they caught the light and were warm as honey. “Clearly come to talk to the wrong man, haven’t I?” He nodded his head to Torin’s father, who was grinning and looked proud. “I see the real chief is right here.”

Bretagh had not gotten any smaller since, but Torin had managed to sprout up enough in the eight years after that day that he could see that warmth in his eyes by just tilting his head up a little. His cheeks were dotted pink once more, but only as much as Torin could see it, standing just next to him. He looked nervous, for certain, and Torin could hardly blame him; his own heart had been racing all day, and he could feel his cheeks gone hot red under all the attention.

“Your highness,” Torin said, putting solid breath behind it to keep his voice steady. He lifted up his chin and gave him a smile.

“Chief,” Bretagh said, with that little smile again. And that was all the conversation that they could really manage, with an assembled crowd that stretched all the way back through the city square, back and down far enough away from the dais where they stood to just become pinpricks. Torin’s father was near, at least. He could feel that proud grin again, like a warm hand on his back, even if he wasn’t looking.

The bishop approached the two of them, holding in his hands a cup made of hardwood but lined with gold, just as the carved wooden crown on Torin’s head, just as the solid golden one on Bretagh’s. The wine in the cup was dark, darker than the wood, and the bishop held it out in his hands between them.

The bishop spoke about unity, how each of the Nine Isles were separate and treasured, but all part of a greater whole. Torin knew he should be listening, but all he could manage was to look up into Bretagh’s warm and nervous eyes and remember what his father had told him.

“Just a political thing, is all,” he’d said, when he told Torin the news. “I’d do it myself if I weren’t an old fat oaf who just wants to have this done with and get back to my garden, ha!” He’d put a hand on Torin’s shoulder. “You can say no, if you wish, of course, my boy. The world will continue to move on without a big to-do and some symbolic nonsense. You could still go live in the capitol, if you liked, even. It’s up to you.”

But Torin had been thrilling with the word yes since his father had said it: You’re to marry Bretagh, and be a proper prince. Being a prince didn’t matter; all that mattered was that the war was over, peace had settled on the isles, and he’d never have to say goodbye to Bretagh.

The bishop put the cup into Torin’s hands first. He took a breath to still the little tremble in them, and reached up to press the cup to Bretagh’s lips so he could take a sip of the wine. The bishop took the cup from him and passed it to Bretagh. His hands were so much larger than Torin’s, making the cup look small. For all that he was true royalty, they still looked rough; the war had not been long finished. He pressed the cup to Torin’s lips and tilted it just enough to give him a small drink of wine. Torin swallowed it and felt hot all through his body, through his cheeks and down his throat and underneath every layer of clothing they’d dressed him in for this day.

The bishop took the cup from Bretagh and took hold of one of each of their hands, drawing them together so Bretagh’s closed over his, big and warm and just a bit sweaty. Torin broke into a smile at that, and Bretagh did too. The bishop made a proclamation that their union was complete, and the crowd erupted into cheers.

Torin couldn’t quite hear it, though. All he could hear was the racing of his own heart, the rush of blood in his ears, as he put his other hand atop Bretagh’s. Atop his husband’s.

Year 346 AL

On the bright side, at least he had an appetite. The main celebrations of Unification Day were finished, with all of the major feasting completed and the average citizen of the Nine Isles returning to their regular lives (though perhaps with a little later start than usual, with a bit of a headache.) The wheels in court kept on turning, though; now that the domestic entertainments had been dealt with, it was time for the international crowd to be appeased. Which meant long meetings, and luncheons, and dinners. Bretagh had had his swim at dawn, cold water and foggy air keeping his head sharp all day, and putting a hunger in him that drove him through it all.

He plucked a toast topped with a swirl of smoked fish and a dollop of creamy cheese on it off of a nearby platter and popped it into his mouth. It was a day of endless conversations and endless nibbling. Some conversations seemed nibbles themselves — on his nerves.

“It really is such a pleasure to finally get to experience the Nine Isles,” said the ambassador from Yorisa, Grenez, who was horse-mouthed and loud but had a charm to him nonetheless. “Had just about enough of looking up at your bottoms all these years!”

“Quite nice bottoms, though,” murmured Ambassador Herret of Safelle, low enough that Bretagh was sure he hadn’t been supposed to hear it, but not low enough that everyone hadn’t heard it. Herret had spent more time than most foreigners in the Nine Isles, some years in residence after the revolution when Safelle seemed eager to find a treaty that still held so they could send him up. They seemed to be trying to get rid of the young man more than anything, and Bretagh couldn’t blame them. He was something of a pest.

“Oh?” said Grenez, and he laughed, a bray that matched his face. “Ah, yes, all the twinkling red lights of your underneaths do make quite a nice sight in the evening. Like near-up stars, a bit. It’s been actually quite a bit of a point of tourism in Yorisa…”

Grenez continued on in a speech that went between flattery and bragging to make the case for allowing easy travel between the citizens of their two countries. Bretagh nodded as he spoke; he made good points that he and the senate would all certainly agree too, but Bretagh knew well enough not to cut off someone making a sales pitch when you were interested in buying. He simply sampled some more toasts and kept Herret in the corner of his eye.

Herret was still chuckling at his joke, and so was Torin, next to him, though he’d elbowed him in the ribs at it. He was smiling — it was good to see Torin smiling like that. It was good, in general, for Torin to spend time with people near his age. Herret was absurdly young for an ambassador, sent up to them at eighteen and still lingering two years later. But Torin liked him, and Bretagh supposed that was reason enough.

Torin was a grown man now, after all. It was only appropriate that he find some companionship of the sort he had with Herret, where the ambassador would sprawl (he always sprawled — didn’t they teach proper posture in Safelle?) back in his chair and give Torin that lazy, hungry smile. Surely there’d been others, too, that Bretagh hadn’t noticed when he’d been growing, boys and girls around court to keep a young man entertained. Herret was just the one who had been keeping him entertained the longest.

Bretagh just wished the young ambassador would stop doing that thing with his eyebrows.

He turned his attention back to Grenez. “Now, we won’t just want to see your people, of course,” he said, and picked up one of the little fish-topped toasts. “Not much in the way of fishing up here, you’d imagine. We’ll be needing far more of these.”

“Ah? Ah, yes, your highness,” Grenez said, and laughed in a way that seemed real. “Oh, well, that there is just the start of the bounty our waters can provide…”

Bretagh continued on in conversation with Grenez about opening trade lines, the two of them tossing out proposals to be set down in ink later. As he spoke, his eyes drifted to Torin for a moment. He was no longer occupied by Herret, but instead was just watching him, looking warm and almost proud.

“Before you take them all,” Torin mouthed at Bretagh as he leaned over to snatch up one of the last of the toasts, popping it in his mouth with a cheeky grin. Bretagh bit the inside of his cheek to keep his own face reasonably serious as he spoke with Ambassador Grenez.

Bretagh spoke to many more ambassadors that afternoon, hearing promises and making a few of his own. As the sun started to creep below the edge of the isle, though, the last of them was seen out to enjoy the evening in the capitol in whatever way they pleased. Which left Bretagh with a room full of less foreign and less friendly faces — a scattering of the more senior members of the senate.

Finally, that’s done with,” said Senator Cauligh. “You’d think none of them have enough air landside, with the way they all took it up talking.”

“Jealous they were taking it from you?” said Senator Eoin, and Cauligh snorted.

“Like either of them can talk,” Torin leaned in to Bretagh to say softly. Once the parade of ambassadors who’d taken a seat nearest the king had cleared out, Torin had taken the space for himself.

“That’s the problem,” Bretagh said, leaning in himself. “They can.”

“Could make a law against it,” Torin said, and his smile was audible in the warmth of his voice.

“Hmm,” Bretagh said, and rubbed his chin thoughtfully, as though considering it. Torin couldn’t quite hold back his laugh, and that drew the attention of the bickering senators.

“I’m glad his majesty is enjoying himself,” said Eoin, glaring between the two of them, unclear to which of them he referred.

“Why should I not be, Senator?” Bretagh said. “It’s a time of celebration and much good promise for the future.”

“Time of excess,” said Cauligh. “Each year it gets more and more ornate. First a day, then three, and soon it will be a week. Why, within a few years I fear we’ll be spending a full month wasting away our citizens’ taxes on all this pageantry and frippery.”

“I can see it, yes, indeed, Senator,” said Eoin mostly into a glass of wine, though clearly loud enough for Bretagh to hear. “Begins to remind one of the waste and disregard of the old king.”

Bretagh could feel the blood draining from his face at that comment, and every morsel he’d devoured over the afternoon turn hard in his stomach. The Tyrant-King had spent his reign draining the national coffers for his own pleasures, leaving the Nine Isles to fall into destitution. Every day he feasted like they had the past two, while his staff — servants, under him they were servants, could Bretagh truly say they weren’t the same for him? — starved and suffered. He swallowed hard and took in a slow breath to try to calm the sudden racing of his heart and the way the room darkened in the corners of his vision.

“That is bullshit, Eoin, and everyone here knows it,” Torin said, and his voice pulled Bretagh up out of his spiral. He was sitting up straight in his chair, hands gripping the arms of it. “A few days of celebration isn’t excess, it’s something the people deserve precisely because of how they suffered under the old king. If you asked any person in our streets if they opposed their taxes going to a national holiday — well, of course not, you wouldn’t ever ask such a thing, because I don’t imagine you’ve spoken to one of our citizenry in the streets since well before the Unification.”

Torin cast his sharp blue eyes around the room, at the other elder senators who had grown silent. “I don’t imagine many of you know much about what the citizenry think at all, to be quite honest. And you don’t know a damned thing about His Majesty if you think you can ever compare him to his– to the old king.” Torin let out a small snort. “And really, fat lot of talk you can do about excess, the two of you, when I can see every crumb on your shirts from here.”

The senators’ faces had both gone red, though clearly from shame rather than anger that one so much younger than them had spoken to them in such a way. Bretagh’s heart was still racing, but no longer from a rising panic. Eoin failed to be subtle as he brushed a few crumbs off of where they’d settled on the rise of his stomach.

“Well,” Bretagh said, and found his voice steady. “Our prince has spoken all that needs to be said on the matter. If the senators wish to make any formal complaints, I will be happy to read their new tax allocation propositions.” He picked up his own nearly empty glass of wine and drank a large swallow. “But not until next week, because, as our prince has so accurately noted, it is a holiday.” He raised his glass. “Good evening, senators.”

That was the obvious cue for the remaining senators to take their leave, which they did without further disruption. When the last had left the dining room, Torin let out a sigh that shook a bit.

“Was that too much?” he said, looking up at Bretagh.

“It was anything but,” Bretagh said. Torin smiled at that, “Quite a good little speech, really, chief.”

“Well,” Torin said, ducking his head at the praise, clearly pleased. “Spent enough time around you to learn a thing or two.” He held up a hand in front of his mouth as though to amplify a yell, though he spoke in his regular volume. “Not quite the same without a bullhorn in front of a navy, but I do what I can.”

“You do just fine enough without one,” Bretagh said, and reached out to give Torin’s hair a fond ruffle. “Though if those two keep it up, feel free to get as loud as you want with them. Maybe directly in their ears.”

“With pleasure,” Torin said. “I do have some ideas about some ways to transition some younger talent into the senate, which would best suit the–”

“Ah!” Bretagh said, and put his hand over Torin’s mouth. Torin’s eyes went wide and he drew it back as quick as possible. He laughed a little to cover for the transgression. “It’s a holiday, remember? No business until next week.”

“Look at this cruel monarch,” Torin said, his cheeks pink and his voice teasing and fond. “Suppose I have no choice, then.”

“Suppose,” Bretagh said, and stood up from his chair. “Some fresh air before we have to eat some more?”

Torin stood as well. “Sounds good,” he said. “We’ll have a proper waddling race.”

Bretagh laughed and rested his hand on Torin’s shoulder for just a second before letting him lead the way out of the dining hall, to watch the sun set in a peaceful silence together as they walked the outer balconies of the palace.

Year 343 AL

Even though Torin knew there was absolutely no one who was going to get him in trouble for it, he still defaulted to sneaking around when it came to getting late night snacks. No one would yell at him, for certain, but he’d absolutely end up getting teased. He’d been growing like a weed the past few months, and endlessly hungry because of it. If he got caught sneaking another sandwich by the head cook, she’d just have him up against the wall to mark off how many more inches he’d grown. And he was far too old for that sort of thing now.

So, he kept his shoes off as he crept through the hallways, plate full of sandwich and cheese and fruit balanced in his hands as his feet made soft sounds on the carpeting. He’d return the dishes when he was done — and possibly have a little more just lingering in the kitchen. All of it, the perfect crime for a young prince.

He stopped before he turned the corner to his quarters when he noticed light coming down the hall. Bretagh’s private office door was open just a bit, with soft lamplight coming out from beneath it. It was well past midnight.

“That old fool…” Torin muttered to himself, and turned down the hall to press open the door lightly.

Bretagh didn’t notice his entrance. He was bent over his desk, shoulders hunched as he stared at some books and papers in front of him. Torin let his toes curl in the rug for a moment, considering if he should turn and go. If he did, he would probably find Bretagh here in the morning before he went to breakfast.

Torin cleared his throat once, softly, and then again, louder, and that made Bretagh sit up and turn to see him. “Oh!” he said, and blinked rapidly, clearly coming out of some sort of haze. “Torin, hello.” He looked at the plate in Torin’s hands and frowned. “Oh, hell, don’t tell me I missed dinner.”

“No, your majesty,” Torin said, and laughed faintly. Bretagh had dined with him, though he’d been distracted and had not lingered long. “This is for me.” He came in further into the office, closing the door behind him. He sat at the chair next to his desk and put the plate down between them. “But it’s been quite some time since dinner, so I’d be happy to share.”

Bretagh rubbed his hand over his eyes and looked at the clock. “Oh, god help me,” he said. “I’ve gone completely unmoored.”

“Spinning off into the air, you are,” Torin said, and took the knife he’d had balanced on the plate to neatly cut in two the pear and the sandwich, and then gestured at the two halves. “Go on, then, your highness, you’ll just end up with an aching head otherwise.”

Bretagh sighed and leaned back in his chair, rolling his shoulders some. Torin swallowed a little as he thought of coming behind him, sinking his thumbs into the back of his neck, and relieving some of his tension that way. Though it would all be easier if Bretagh took off his shirt… Torin looked away towards the lamp on Bretagh’s desk before that line of thought got too much of a different sort of tension going in Torin.

“You shouldn’t have to do this, you know,” Bretagh said, as he picked up the pear first, having a bite.

“Well, I wasn’t planning on it, as I said,” Torin said, and smiled as he took the other half for a nibble himself. “This was meant to be all for me, but then here I’ve gone and found my good king up past his bedtime and scowling himself to wrinkles.”

Bretagh frowned at that, then rubbed the resulting tension line between his eyebrows with his thumb. “Wrinkles?”

“Very dignified ones, of course,” Torin said, and took another bite and chewed before saying, more softly. “Very handsome ones.”

“Dignified, of course. And then come the grey hairs, and then I’ve got a dignified bend in my back…” He stretched back again, his bones cracking as he brought his arms over his head. Torin found himself frozen for a moment, pear at his lips but not quite bitten into, as he watched the muscles in Bretagh’s chest and arms stretch and flex. He was so broad and strong; Torin was getting bigger every day, filling out across the shoulders, but he knew he’d never be like that. He took a large bite of the pear, juice tart in his mouth. But he didn’t want to look like that.

Bretagh groaned and relaxed again, and Torin looked away, at the papers scattered across his desk. “What’s got you up so late, then?” he asked.

Bretagh picked up a sandwich half and took a bite, sighing as he chewed. “Still working on the best way to open up the borders.”

Torin nodded. “Senate’s being very stubborn on that matter, aren’t they? I swear they must draw lots to decide who’s going to be obstinate in which direction.”

Bretagh blinked at him a few times. “Were you at the last session?”

Torin cocked his head a little. “Of course I was,” he said. “I’m always there.”

Bretagh looked at Torin for a few moments as he took another bite. “Always? For how long?”

“Past year, at least,” Torin said. “As soon as things were up and running proper again. Don’t suppose you would’ve noticed, no, I’ve been aiming to keep out of the way.” It was logical, when he said it, that Bretagh wouldn’t have seen him tucked in the back of the senate chamber, but Torin did feel a twinge of disappointment.

“Isn’t it…” Bretagh laughed a little. “Don’t you find it boring? You’re a young man, you could be out doing something much better than listening to old folks bicker about policy. I know you enjoy sport…”

Torin grinned and took a large bite of pear. “I’m a young man, so I’ve got the energy to listen to old folks bicker about policy and enjoy sport.” He leaned in a little. He wanted to touch Bretagh, put a reassuring hand on top of his, to do anything at all to create a connection between them, but they just… didn’t do that sort of thing. He could count on two hands the number of times Bretagh had touched him at all, and had done so, in fact, in his diary.

“Ah, if you say so,” Bretagh said. “Think I’m just turning you odd, you growing up around all of this.”

“If I wanted it any other way, I’d have it that way,” he said, smiling, though his look in Bretagh’s eyes was firm. He looked down at the papers again, scanning over the different proposals. “Want my opinion on it all?” he asked, expecting a warm chuckle from Bretagh, and at best, a hand ruffling through his hair.

“If you’ve got one, yes, I would,” Bretagh said, his voice soft. “I think maybe I should spend more time listening to you.”

Torin hoped the low light of the lamp hid how his cheeks flushed at that; as he grew older, his face had become far less prone to turning bright as cherries at the slightest flutter of his emotions, but it wasn’t all gone, yet. “Well, maybe you should,” he said, steadying himself, and looked over the desk some more. He could feel Bretagh’s eyes on him, watching, and it made him feel like the electricity of the light on Bretagh’s desk was a flame, heating him up.

“I’m listening, chief,” Bretagh said, and his voice was starting to get that kind turn to it, the one that had Bretagh sounding more like a friendly uncle than Torin’s husband. Torin simply was not going to have that, not tonight.

“First off, obviously Senator Padrain’s proposal is right out, but I don’t think I need to tell you that,” Torin said, and found that paper on the desk. “Tightening control of our borders won’t, hell, what was it he said? Let the world see how much we don’t need them? Utter shit, if you don’t mind me saying.”

“I don’t, not at all,” Bretagh said. He took the proposal out of Torin’s hand and did what was his version of crumpling it up and tossing it in the garbage, which was to fold it in half and set it on a far side of the desk.

“Padrain’s just a coward, hoping he can ride out a lack of change until he’s old enough to retire and can sneak off to one of the south isles to live out lazily on his pension,” Torin said, and Bretagh laughed softly, a note of surprise in it. Torin couldn’t quite look up at him; he was trying to focus and just feeling his gaze so intense on him was making sweat pool under his collar.

“Now, Senator Nilagh, she’s got a proper head on her, but it’s all too much at once, isn’t it?” Torin said, looking at the sharp pen marks of her proposal. “Even if we impose trade regulations, going entirely open all at once will cause chaos.” He risked one little glance up at Bretagh. “Not telling you anything you don’t already know, of course, I’m sure.”

“Keep going,” Bretagh said, and Torin felt like his heart was flipping places with his stomach, nerves and excitement all tangling together just at those words.

“My thought is, right away we open the doors out,” Torin said. “All of the citizenry of the Nine Isles are free to come and go as they please, to take and bring goods out or in as they see fit — and within a reasonable set of regulations for safety and health, and with appropriate amounts of taxation. But for people and organizations coming in, we set quotas, but!” He looked up to Bretagh then, and held up his hand, one finger pointed up as he got caught up in his proposal. Bretagh looked startled but his eyes were bright. “Not fixed ones, like in Senator Eoin’s proposal. We’d increase the quotas year over year, perhaps exponentially, not quite sure on that, haven’t really done the figures on it yet, but… starting small but within a few years allowing a healthy influx of immigration and trade.” He took in a quick breath and carried on. “Which, ideally would culminate on, say… the fifth Unification Day? Bit precious, perhaps, but I think it’d sit well with the people.” Torin let out a slower breath, shaking a little, and looked up at Bretagh. “How was that? Was that stupid?”

Bretagh let out a surprised laugh. “Stupid? God, Torin, no, that’s…” He shook his head a little and Torin saw a smile he’d never seen before, one that made his heart get all the way to his throat. “You’re just remarkable. This old fool of a king on his throne unsure of which way to go, and you’ve been sorting it out all on your own. Really should be you in charge, not me.”

“Ah, no,” Torin said, looking away as he felt his face go so red. “The people want you as king. It means a lot to them, knowing that a good son… that a good man is on the throne.”

“Wouldn’t be nearly as good without you, that’s for damned certain.” Bretagh kept smiling at him, so soft and so real, some secret thing just for Torin, he had to believe. He picked a pen up off the table and tapped it on the back of Torin’s knuckles. “Let’s both get some sleep, then. You can write all that up for me tomorrow, a proper proposal.”

“Could put your name on it,” Torin said, his laugh hiccuping in his chest. “I wouldn’t mind.”

“Never,” Bretagh said. “Everyone deserves to know how brilliant you are.” His voice was so low and gentle, and he just kept looking at Torin. Was he leaning in closer?

“Well,” Torin said, and rubbed a little at his cheeks. “I hope no one ever knows it as well as you do.”

Bretagh let out a soft sigh. “We’ll see,” he said. He tapped the pen on Torin’s plate, two halves of the sandwich still uneaten. The noise of it made Torin sit up straight. He’d been leaning in, not Bretagh. “Finish that up, and to bed with you. You need a good night’s sleep to keep that head of yours so sharp.”

Torin laughed a little and brushed his hand full over his burning face. “Ah, same to you. You’ve got a bigger head, so it needs all the more.”

When they parted ways in the hallway, going to their separate bedrooms, Bretagh put a hand between Torin’s shoulder blades, just for a moment.

Year 346 AL

The Unification Day festivities had well and truly drawn to a close, and life returned to its state of regular joy and tedium. Bretagh found that none of the senate had anything to say about the allocation of taxes or spending on excess once the true workweek had begun again, and felt no surprise about it. Men like Eoin and Cauligh would always find things to complain about. They’d perhaps find better things to complain about in another line of work.

Bretagh took in a heave of clean air after a long session speaking with Senator Nilagh. She was absolutely brilliant, one of the youngest in the senate — at only a year younger than he was — but she had a passion for civics that gave her the fire to tell her king at length what she thought of the current national policies.

Bretagh didn’t like to admit how often he wished he’d been able to dissolve the monarchy, as had been his strongest desire after the war. The Tyrant was slain, so why continue on with that line? But the people, as he’d been convinced by Robard and by his dear son Torin, loved him, for some reason. He was proof, Robard had told him, that blood didn’t necessarily mean all. A kind and good man could rise from a dark line.

That was what good King Bobby, the Chief of the Southern Isles, had told him before he gave him his son in a ceremonial marriage. He’d taken up his tribal title, long forgotten in times when the the corruption of the four royal isles hadn’t made its way to the more rural sectors of the nation, a relic of the past before the predecessors to the Tyrant had united the isles and then lost them again. But the Tyrant was the Tyrant, and he’d had to do what he had to do.

And now the southern isles were just other isles, part of a nation that thrived together, under Bretagh’s reign. Bobby had returned to his gardens in the southmost isle, his son slept in the palace in the capitol, and a new golden age of peace and reason had settled over each of the isles as they floated in the sky.

The people were happy, the senators were irritable but placable, and trade was truly flourishing under Torin’s border proposal. Bretagh just wished any of it had the power to settle his mind. When he was not occupied by official duties he paced the halls of the palace, loops around the many spires of it that wound up to the highest point on all the isles, where the air grew thin enough to make a man gasp. Men had died building that spire, generations before the Tyrant, and Bretagh took his time working his way up there to honor their sacrifice.

Bretagh had just finished a long climb up and down the spire and was passing through the more private rooms of the palace when he found himself caught still in his tracks by a sight he should have expected, should have been entirely commonplace, but stuck him dead to the floor as though he’d been nailed there.

He was passing through a well-windowed alcove, with a grand view of the skies and the earth far below, filled with lush seating that anyone in the palace could take advantage of to enjoy. He’d seen maids there gossiping with each other at times, and had bowed his head to them, to their great delight and pleasure. It was a place where a cook and a senator alike could take a moment to enjoy the beauty of all that the Nine Isles surveyed.

But now, just now as Bretagh passed near through them, it was not cook, or maid, or senator, or anyone else who occupied this alcove, but instead it was Torin.

He’d dozed off on one of the plusher couches, half-reclined with his head tilted back against the cushions. One leg was curled up on seat, while the other stretched out to brush the floor. He had a book resting open against his chest — he’d clearly intended to just close his eyes for a moment while reading and fallen asleep instead. Bretagh took a step closer to see the title — not a novel, of course, but yet another tome on historical trade relations that he’d imported up from a surface nation. Bretagh laughed to himself; he’d have fallen asleep two pages in, himself, but the boy had a passion for statecraft that had given him until halfway through to drift off.

But he wasn’t a boy anymore, was he? He’d be twenty this year, Bretagh remembered, as old as Bretagh himself was when they’d first met. It seemed to hit Bretagh all at once, as he looked at Torin, peacefully asleep, just how much time had passed.

He’d been thinking of Torin as blond for ages, remembering the little boy with nearly white hair, but it had been darkening for years, nearly as dark as Bretagh’s now, save for how some of it caught bright in the sunlight. The streak of sun that came through the windows painted Torin gold in general, warming his skin and showing the shadow of stubble on his sharp jaw. He’d been so soft once, a ruddy-cheeked child still round in parts from baby fat, but now his legs were long and his shoulders so broad. He was no boy at all, not anymore; this was a man before him.

God, he’s beautiful, Bretagh thought, and gazed at him for just a few moments longer before turning to climb right back up the spire and down again, twice.

Year 344 AL

Torin didn’t like to put too much trust in anything being a sure thing. He knew there were too many variables, too many logical reasons why things might not turn out the way he expected. He’d seen enough plans go awry to stay realistic in his expectations. All of that was well entrenched in his mind, absolutely, but that didn’t keep his gut from telling him that this was the year.

He was turning eighteen. An adult in the eyes of the state — though he’d certainly felt adult for years already, since he’d stopped taking a seat in the back of the senate and his voice had become one that people decades older than him listened to. But it still felt good, to have it be official. If he still lived home with his father in the southern isles, they’d be celebrating his entry into the world of grown men with bottles of whiskey, bawdy songs, and all manner of dance partners looking for a spin around the bonfire.

But Torin lived in the capitol, and he was the prince, so the festivities were taking a slightly different form. Bretagh had been plotting it for weeks, clearly, shooing Torin away from his office some nights, with a warm smile and a brush of his hand between his shoulders and once — god, once, a wink. Bretagh could have made the day a national holiday and held parades in his name, but that curl of his lips and that wink were all that mattered to Torin this year.

It might not have been a holiday for the rest of the nation, but Torin was a popular figure among the citizenry. Some shops sold photos and pamphlets of his life history with varying levels of accuracy. He was the prince of the people, which had been the entire point of his union to Bretagh. No one was taking off work to celebrate Prince Torin’s birthday, but he knew some glasses would be raised in his honor that night. And if he did happen to espy one of the booklets of his photographs on Bretagh’s desk, well, that was just a nice benefit of being well-appreciated by the populace.

Bretagh had cleared his schedule entirely for the occasion; he’d find ways to work and worry on any other important day of celebration, but for this… his only worry seemed to be making sure Torin felt important and treasured. And he tried to be so blessedly casual about it all, just asking every now and then to be reminded of Torin’s favorite foods, his favorite performers, what sporting stars he might be interested to meet. And Torin answered just as casually, while both their eyes sparked with the knowledge that Bretagh was fooling no one.

What really clinched it, what really made him sure that this year was different, that this year would be the year, was the tailor. Bretagh had sent his own personal tailor to make him a new suit specifically for the occasion.

“In fashion, these days, to have the trousers very tight,” the tailor had said as he measured Torin’s legs. “You care for these to be?”

“It is the fashion, isn’t it?” Torin had said, and laughed. “Think his majesty would appreciate that? Being in fashion.”

“Hm,” the tailor had said, ticking down measurements on his pad. “I do think he would.” He’d stood up to measure Torin’s torso next. “He did say he wanted you in blue.”

“He did?” Torin had said, and the measuring tape stretched a little as he took in a breath.

“Said it suits you,” the tailor had said.

“Well, then,” Torin had said, “blue it is.” He’d then had to think in excruciating detail about safety regulations in southstone mining procedures in order to keep his current trousers from suddenly becoming much too tight.

And so he was wearing the clothes that Bretagh wanted him in, in a blue that brought out his eyes, as they ate, and drank, and laughed together with all of Torin’s favorite folk in the palace. Ambassador Herret was spending the evening wildly flirting with him; it seemed like another button on his shirt had come undone every time Torin took a glance at him, but those weren’t the attentions he cared about. While Torin told stories and made his surrounding friends laugh, Bretagh was watching him, just watching with a glowing, golden look in his eyes. It was enough to make his face turn pinker than it had in a while.

When the night was over, the plates and glasses cleared away, and everyone heading back to their rooms and homes (some of them in pairs), Torin and Bretagh stood in the hallway together, standing so close. Torin’s head was swimming a little with wine, but he felt suddenly like he’d taken a breath of cold, fresh air as Bretagh’s hands settled on his biceps.

“Did you have a good night, chief?” Bretagh said, his voice low and sweet. Honey, like his eyes.

“I did, at that,” Torin said, and leaned in a little closer, pressing into that touch. “You know how to make a man feel appreciated.”

“I try,” Bretagh said, and brushed his hands over Torin’s shoulders, gripping them a little. His hands were so big and so powerful, and Torin wanted to have them everywhere, wanted them around him and in him. “You deserve it.”

“I try,” Torin said, and he couldn’t quite keep a little tremble out of his voice. Had they ever stood this close before? Had Bretagh ever spent so long touching him? Torin couldn’t stop staring at that smile, that smile that he knew was only his, as it curved up Bretagh’s lips.

“You do well,” Bretagh said. “I’m proud of you, Torin. You’ve become such a good man.” And then his hands were off his shoulders and one was ruffling through Torin’s hair before Bretagh took a step back. “You go off, then. Night’s still young for one young as you. Don’t let this old man keep you from having any more fun.”

“Ah?” Torin said as he tried to adjust to the feeling of having ice water poured over his head. Bretagh was putting more space between them, hands in his pockets now, that fond smile on his face. “Yes. Yes, I… I won’t. I mean, I will. I’ll…”

Bretagh gave him a small bow and turned to walk down the hall, casting one more look behind him. “Happy birthday, chief.”

Torin closed his eyes and took in five slow breaths as every part of him tried to make sense of what had just happened. He shut his eyes tighter as he felt them start to burn. There was no such thing as a sure thing. How had he been so foolish, again?

He turned on his heel and paced through the palace halls until he found Ambassador Herret’s door. Three knocks and he opened the door.

“Still awake?” Torin said. His shirt was simply fully open now, and his mouth turned to a slow, lazy grin as he looked at Torin. He held a wine glass; his hands were big, too, but with long, spidery fingers, not powerful like Bretagh’s. It didn’t matter. “Mind if I come in?”

“I thought you’d never ask,” said Herret, and stepped back for Torin to come inside.

Year 346 AL

“Fuck!” Bretagh said as he came up from the frigid water, then took in a heavy lungful of air and pushed himself right back under. The lakewater was as clear as it was cold, and Bretagh could see nearly down to the bottom as he swam deeper, deep as he could until he felt his lungs start to ache. He let out the breath in a cloud of bubbles and came up again, with another swear.

He’s a man now, he kept thinking, no matter how many times he went beneath the water. He likely needed to make another jump.

Bretagh swam to the shoreline and pulled himself up out of the water. None of the bodies of water on the Nine Isles were ever anything but cold, often colder than the air around them. Bretagh shivered as he walked along the lakeside through the mist, up to a precipice over the water.

“Come on then, you rotten old thing,” he said to himself, and dove back into the water. When he came up for air, his first thought was. He’s your husband, after all. It’d just be taking what’s your right.

This obviously wasn’t of any use. He’d have to try something else. Bretagh removed himself from the lake and dried himself off. He was shivering a little by the time he was dressed properly again. He’d warm up by having a run back to the palace. Bretagh bounced a little on his feet a few times and started off, feet pounding on stone and grass.

For a little while his head cleared, caught in the rhythm of his his body, the pace of his heart in his ears, the sound of his feet striking the path. But before long he was remembering another time not long ago he’d heard that sort of beat, when he’d passed by Torin’s room one evening and heard the unmistakable sound of a bed rocking in its frame. He’d lingered, then, he remembered with shameful clarity. He had nothing he could think of to excuse the behavior; he’d stood a moment by Torin’s door and listened until he heard Ambassador Herret’s laugh.

I should throw him off the edge of the isle, Bretagh thought, and made himself run faster.

He was hot enough to be sweating by the time he made it back to the palace, almost as wet again as he’d been just coming out of the lake. He avoided the concerns of any palace staff as he returned to his rooms — what must he look like to them, red and brooding and panting? Like some kind of monster, like a raging bull. He hated to think how familiar it must have seemed to the older staff.

Bretagh closed himself in his rooms and began to run the bath, spinning the hot tap all the way. Torin was such a good man. He was the best person Bretagh had ever known, and had been that way since he was a child. Bretagh had been exiled and lost, looking to ally himself with men and women who had been his enemies the month before. And there had been that smile, there had been that eager honesty, that heart always lain bare to him. Torin was the first person to ever be kind to him without expectation and question, and how had he repaid him? By taking his childhood from him.

He should have tossed the crown off the edge when the old king was dead and followed it down.

“Come on then, come on,” he said to himself, and his voice sounded a little like Torin’s in his ears. Torin, who saw him in his dark moods, who listened to him when he was brooding and troubled in ways he couldn’t explain. Torin, who knew sometimes that there was nothing to talk about, nothing to be said about what was going on in his fool old king’s head, but knew just as well that it did him well to just stay with him.

Bretagh turned the cold tap as well, making the bathwater less steaming, less punishingly hot. He undressed again and sank into the water, groaning as the heat seeped into muscles tight from the cold and the exertion. How many times had Torin told him to get into the bath to soak out his worries? Too many to count, and he’d been right every time. He was so brilliant, and stuck taking care of a brute who didn’t deserve it.

Bretagh took a handful of water from the bath and let it fall over his face, and then did it again, rinsing away the beginnings of a headache. He didn’t deserve Torin, and Torin deserved better than to be tied to him. They were bound to each other for the good of the nation. Bretagh only wished he knew a way to be as good for Torin as he’d been for him.

I could be so good to him, he thought, and groaned in frustration before sinking down entirely until his head disappeared into the heat of the bathwater.

Year 346 AL

Torin, he had to say, was feeling really quite pleased with himself. He’d dined well, drank the exact perfect number of glasses of wine, and had been charming enough around the banquet table to make even Cauligh laugh. He’d also gotten fucked quite well by Herret the night before and then not had to spend any of today with him, which always made him happy. For all that the ambassador was a delight between the sheets, he was somewhat tedious to spend a long while socializing with. He never stopped doing that thing with his eyebrows, for one.

He’d sat by Bretagh’s side all night and felt like he was sparkling, like a bubble fizzing to the top of a glass of sparkling wine. Every time he looked away from whomever he was speaking to, he found that Bretagh was watching him, with that smile. Here, in a room full of people, and he was wearing that smile that Torin always thought of as his own. Like he didn’t care that anyone else could see.

When the night was over Torin was returning to his room and heard footfalls on the carpet behind him, an unmistakable stride. He stopped and looked over his shoulder, smiling at Bretagh. “Your highness,” he said.

“Chief,” Bretagh said, and they both kept walking. Perhaps he had something to attend to further down this way? Torin didn’t care; it felt good to have his husband walk beside him. “You were really quite something tonight, you know?”

“Was I, then?” Torin said. “Something good, I hope.”

“Of course,” said Bretagh. “You’re always good.”

“Ah, not always,” Torin said, and stopped a moment to turn and grin up at Bretagh. “Sometimes I’m better.”

This startled a laugh out of Bretagh, something soft and wondered. He gave Torin that smile again and suddenly lifted his hand to cup Torin’s cheek.

“Sometimes you are, at that,” he said. His hand was so large and so warm, fingers rubbing against the stubble of Torin’s jaw. Now? was all he could think, followed by a Finally?

“Sometimes,” Torin said, and he swallowed hard as it became harder to speak, with the way Bretagh was looking at him, not warm but heated. “Sometimes, actually, I’m the best.”

“You are,” Bretagh said, and his thumb brushed a little over Torin’s cheekbone. “It stuns me every day, Torin, how good you are. Better than most men even twice your age.” He laughed a little, low and husky. “Better than your husband, for certain.”

Torin couldn’t keep from gasping in a little breath. Bretagh had never, not ever in Torin’s very sharp memory, called himself that before. For all that it was truth, for all that they wore rings every day that showed the fact of it to the world, he didn’t ever say it. Torin gulped in a breath. “I have a very good husband, though.”

“Maybe you do,” Bretagh said, and he was looking at Torin’s mouth, there was no mistaking it. “He could likely be a better husband, though.”

Torin lifted his hand to rest against Bretagh’s arm, holding him nearer, not wanting to lose that touch like he had the last time they’d been even close to something like this. “He could be, I suppose.” He looked up to Bretagh’s eyes. “Would you like to be a better husband to me, Bretagh?”

Bretagh drew in a heavy breath, and when he spoke, it sounded like the admission of a long-held secret. “Yes.”

“Will you, then?” Torin said, and couldn’t keep his breath steady, couldn’t keep the quiver out of his voice. He pressed his hand atop of Bretagh’s, holding it to his cheek, and leaned his head up, asking but not truly believing he’d get what he wanted. Now? Finally?

“Yes,” Bretagh breathed again, and took his face in both hands as he leaned down to press his lips to Torin’s.

Torin was stunned still for just a few seconds, lost in how it was actually, finally happening and there was no way for him to remember every single moment of this in perfectly clarity forever. He let out a shaking breath, then, a small whimper, and kissed Bretagh back, soft and gentle and just as he’d always imagined.

And then Bretagh drew back. For a moment Torin thought it was perhaps to murmur some sweet words, perhaps to kiss some other part of his face, but then he was stepping back entirely, shaking his head faintly. “I’m sorry,” he said, voice heavy and dark. “Please, Torin, forgive me.”

“Forgive… what?” Torin said, and he was a whirlwind inside, desperately aroused and dizzy with love, but confused and afraid that he’d somehow ruined it. “What is there — don’t go!”

Bretagh had already started backing away down the hall again, back in the direction of his rooms, but he stopped at Torin’s words. He faced him, head downturned, hands balled tightly. “You can always refuse me, Torin. Please don’t ever think that you can’t. I’m sorry. I misinterpreted your behavior tonight. I hope you can forgive me.”

Torin stared at him, mouth agape, for just a few moments more until Bretagh started to turn to go again. He shook the fog from his head and said what was really the only thing he could possibly say, “You idiot.

Bretagh stopped and blinked at him. “What did you say?”

Torin put a hand to his brow for a moment and shook his head some more. “You heard me.” He stepped towards the door to his room and opened it. “Go in, we need to talk and we’re not doing it in the damned hallway.”

Bretagh looked at him a few moments longer, looking tense as though he might reject this insistent invitation, but then he bowed his head and stepped into Torin’s room. Torin came in behind him, closed the door, and said again, “You idiot!”

“I beg your pardon,” Bretagh said, but Torin didn’t want to hear it. The whirlwind in him was taking a shape, finding a direction, and it was anger.

“I can’t believe this,” Torin said, hand returning to his brow. “Are you just soft in that big head of yours? Has that been the problem all this time? You finally kiss me, finally…” Torin took a moment to scrape his teeth across his lower lip, remembering through his upset how perfect Bretagh’s lips had felt on his. “And you really think I don’t want it? Honestly?”

“You were so scared of me you were shaking, chief,” Bretagh said, his voice quiet and ashamed.

Torin groaned and covered his face entirely. He could feel his cheeks going as red as they’d ever been, and didn’t feel like letting Bretagh see that at this very moment. “I was shaking because I was excited, Bretagh! Because you were finally giving me what I’ve wanted… basically my entire life.”

Bretagh frowned and shook his head. “You’ve known me since you were six. You’ve seen me as a brother, maybe a daft uncle…” He said it like he was trying to convince the both of them. “You know this union never had the expectation of anything like this. You have never, were never going to be under any obligation to…”

Torin looked up to the ceiling at let out a frustrated groan. “I am in love with you, you old fool!” He shut his eyes tight; he never imagined it would hurt when he finally said it. “I’ve been in love with you for ages and ages and I can’t believe you actually haven’t noticed. I thought…”

“What?” Bretagh said, but it was less a request for Torin to finish, and more toward the entire situation. “What?”

“I thought you were just waiting,” Torin said, and he kept his eyes closed tight, tried to keep his voice from going tight. “God, I’m the one who’s the fool, if you didn’t even realize. You didn’t even know? You really didn’t?” He sounded pathetic and young, and he hated every word that passed his lips, but he had to know.

“You…” Bretagh started hesitantly, paused, then cleared his throat. “I know you had a bit of a, a hero worship sort of thing towards me when you were younger. Just a boy’s crush.” He swallowed then, and his voice was a bit darker when he spoke once more. “You’re with Herret, after all.”

“I’m not with Herret,” Torin said, anger rising up past his shame to give him confidence that he could open his eyes without them spilling wet. “Herret is convenient, and I’m, I’m only human. I don’t love him, or anyone else. I just love you.”

Bretagh looked lost and helpless; it made Torin’s heart ache to see him look like that. “You’re so special, Torin. You’re such a shining thing, and I treasure you more than anyone else in the world,” he said, and Torin started blinking hard, because these were beautiful things to hear, but he could tell what the rest of the notes in this melody would be. “But you were traded to me as a child, and that’s never been fair to you. It’s never sat right with me, that you had no choice but to be chained to the son of the Tyrant your whole life.”

“If I’d wanted it any other way, I’d have it that way,” Torin said. He could tell from the way Bretagh took in a breath that he remembered the times he’d said the words before. “And you’re just… are you even listening to yourself? Chained? Do you think I’ve been lying to you, every time I’ve smiled at you? Laughed with you? Wanted to be by your side?”

“No,” Bretagh said, and stepped a little closer to Torin again. He put his hand back to Torin’s cheek, but it was all too damnably fond again. “I believe you. But it still doesn’t mean it was right.”

Torin let out a frustrated sigh and turned his cheek into the tough. “I’d always choose you, no matter the circumstances. If you’d wed my father instead, I’d still have fallen in love with you. If you’d lost the war, if your father still reigned and we were defeated and cowering in the southern isles… I’d still love you, Bretagh.” He opened his eyes. If they were damp, so be it. “I’m shining because I’ve been with you. Because I’ve always wanted to be the brightest for you. And if you don’t think I mean that with my whole heart, I know you still think I’m a child.”

Bretagh put his other hand around the back of his neck and drew Torin in close to embrace him, holding him to his chest like Torin had wanted for so long. It was too tender, though, still, not quite right. “You’re right,” he said, softly, and Torin could feel his words vibrating in his chest. “I have been, and that isn’t fair. It isn’t right. You’re a man grown, now, and I do you an injustice if I don’t listen to you like one.” Torin turned his head so he could hear Bretagh’s heart beat, steady and quick. “You’ve saved me, chief, you know that? Time and time again. I can’t imagine how lost I’d be without you. You’re the joy of my heart.”

Torin let out a soft laugh. “I know that, of course, you old fool.” Bretagh’s hand moved from his cheek into his hair, but not for another teasing bit of ruffling this time. His fingers were stroking through it, soft and careful. “But maybe there’s another way you might say all that. Bit simpler. Done it a few times myself tonight, actually.”

He felt Bretagh’s laugh against his cheek, and then he was drawing Torin back from his chest to brush his thumb along his jaw. “I love you,” he said, and Torin had to close his eyes a moment from the feel of it. “Of course I love you.” He let out a soft breath as he brushed those thick fingers under Torin’s chin. “I’m your husband, after all.”

Torin let out a small whimper again at the touch, his eyes fluttering. “My husband with his head so big and thick he thinks it’s the right idea to try to run off after finally kissing me.”

“Like I said,” Bretagh said. “I’m lost without you telling me what to do.” His fingers traced the knot in Torin’s throat. “Might do me well to show me you mean what you say by taking a bit of initiative.”

Torin laughed and swatted Bretagh on the chest. “Damn it, you big oaf, you make me do everything myself!” Bretagh was still laughing when Torin looped both hands behind his neck to bring him down as he stood up on his toes to kiss him.

It was soft again for the first few moments, just as the first time, but now that Torin wasn’t dumb with the shock of it, he could savor it, sip from Bretagh’s lips, feel his pulse start to race underneath his fingers. He wavered a little on his toes as he strained upward to take more from the kiss, hungry for Bretagh’s mouth now that he could finally have it.

And then he suddenly wasn’t on his toes at all, he was off them, as Bretagh put arms beneath his ass to lift him up so their mouths could meet on the same level. Torin curled his legs around Bretagh’s waist and leaned his head back for a moment to groan. “God, I love how big you are.”

“Thought I was an oaf,” Bretagh said, nuzzling against Torin’s throat where he’d left it exposed. The scrape of stubble against his throat made Torin paw at Bretagh’s shoulders, made him rub his already aching erection against Bretagh’s stomach.

“You are,” Torin said, voice airy and giddy. “I just like it.” Bretagh laughed and kissed his mouth again, one of his hands squeezing hard at Torin’s ass. He groaned into the kiss and put his hands into Bretagh’s short hair. “Take me to bed,” he said against Bretagh’s mouth. “Take me to bed, take me, just… take. Please.”

“Shh, shh,” Bretagh said, and he was walking towards Torin’s bed, carrying him as easy as if he were made of feathers. Torin had grown into a man fairly tall and broad, but it was nothing compared to Bretagh’s bulk, and every feel of that strength around him and against him was perfectly maddening. “No begging,” he murmured against Torin’s ear before nipping at it. “You never need to beg.”

He put Torin down on the bed and Torin looked up at him. His king, his husband, his Bretagh, looking down at him with his smile, and now with his eyes liquid hot and his cock bulging in his trousers. He felt like he was going to burst from it all. “Not begging,” he said, and arranged himself back on the bed, spreading himself out, enjoying the way Bretagh’s eyes wandered down his body. “Just being polite.”

“No need for that, either,” Bretagh said, and kneeled on the bed beside him. “Just tell me, chief, and it’s yours.”

“Fuck me,” Torin said without hesitation, fast enough that it clearly startled Bretagh. Torin laughed a little as Bretagh blinked. “You’ll do that, yes?” He started to undo the buttons of his shirt.

“You want me to?” Bretagh said, his tone uncertain even as his eyes didn’t raise for a moment from where Torin was revealing skin, inch by inch.

“I’ve wanted you to for years,” Torin said, as he got out of his shirt entirely and tossed it off the bed. “Spent nights giving my hands cramps just thinking about it.” He leaned back on the bed and thrilled in Bretagh looking at him, the way his mouth parted as he looked over the dark hair that sprinkled his chest and down his belly, the way his nipples tightened and peaked when exposed. “Every anniversary, every birthday, just thinking… maybe tonight’s the night I finally have him.”

“Every… hell, chief,” Bretagh leaned down and kissed him, and the way his weight pressed him down into the mattress made Torin’s cock twitch and leak in his trousers. “I’ll make it up to you.”

“You’d better,” Torin said, but his voice was too rough to hold much of a tease. He pulled Bretagh down to kiss him more, urging him more on top of him, guiding him to loom over him, to pin him in. “Think I’d like some help undressing the rest of the way, your highness.”

“My pleasure,” Bretagh said, but after a just a few seconds of his hand settling near the waist of his trousers, his thick palm just close enough for Torin to rut against, he huffed out a breath and scooted down the bed instead, settling between Torin’s thighs to bow his head.

“Oh, god,” Torin managed before he felt Bretagh’s mouth move over his cock, still hot and damp through layers of fabric. He looked downward, down his half-undressed body to where his king and his husband’s big, stupid, beautiful head was bent down to serve him, and he had to close his eyes before it was all too much.

“You’re gorgeous,” Bretagh murmured as his mouth moved over the shape of Torin’s cock, sucking at where the fabric had already started to dampen. “Been driving myself mad wanting you.” He kissed just beneath Torin’s navel, nipping the skin a little. “Thought I could never have it.”

“Idiot,” Torin said, a groan more than anything, and he squirmed and arched on the bed as Bretagh’s teasing continued, until it was building something in him. “Wait, wait, stop…” he said, and then laughed at how quickly Bretagh sprung away from him as though burned. “Not forever, just… god, if you keep that up it’ll be over before it starts.” He opened his eyes and smiled at Bretagh, who seemed to be relaxing. He gave him a nudge with his foot. “You haven’t even undressed me like I asked. Terrible husband.”

“Forgive me,” Bretagh said, and those words sounded better when he was smiling. “I’m still learning.” He properly undid Torin’s trousers, then, peeling their fashionable tightness off his legs and taking off the rest of his clothing to leave him bare. He straightened up, kneeling near the foot of the bed, and just looked at Torin. His forehead was already sheened with sweat, and he was breathing hard.

Torin took in a slow breath and ran a hand down his stomach, over the spot where Bretagh’s teeth had touched, over his hip alongside where his cock bobbed and dripped against his belly. “All yours,” Torin said, and looked up at him. “This is yours. I’m yours.”

Bretagh took in a few heavy breaths and then started to tear at the buttons of his shirt. “Not Herret’s.”

Torin leaned his head back and laughed. “Never Herret’s. He was just practice.” Torin groaned as he Bretagh tossed his shirt aside. All these years, and he’d never seen his own husband with his chest bare. So many times he tried to wake early enough for his morning swims to see something, but his majesty beat him every time. Bretagh was somehow even broader and thicker when bare, his chest thick with dark hair and skin light with sweat. “God. Look at you.”

“Look at you,” Bretagh said. He settled himself between Torin’s legs and put a hand on his chest, pressing him into the bed as he stroked downward. “Look at you, looking at me.”

“I like it,” Torin said. He was flushed now, but different than usual, in a way that reddened not just his cheeks but all the way down his chest.

“I do, too,” Bretagh said with a small laugh, and bent down to kiss him again. He wound a hand into Torin’s hair to hold him as he did, and Torin wrapped arms around his shoulders. He smelled so good, like a man, like his king, and Torin groaned as he pulled him down more against him, raising his hips to rub his cock against stomach, trailing slick through his hair and over his muscles.

“God, Bretagh,” he panted against his cheek. “I need you to fuck me. I need it.”

“You sure?” Bretagh said, but in a way that was a true question of confirmation, not one of doubting Torin’s desire. “I’m… I’m big.”

Torin leaned his head back and laugh. “Damn well you’d better be.” He curled a leg around the small of Bretagh’s back, drawing him down so he could feel just how big he was, rubbing into his thigh. “I love how big you are, if you didn’t hear me before.”

Bretagh let out a rumbling groan, rutting against his hip and weighting Torin into the bed in a way that made him feel electric. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said, in between sucking little marks onto his neck.

“I’ve been buggering myself with toys your size since I was sixteen, you fool, so just….” Torin leaned his head back and laugh. “You told me not to beg. Just fuck me, your highness.”

Bretagh pressed his face into Torin’s neck and let out a long, shaking breath. “God, we have so much to talk about.” He sat up again and began to undo his trousers. Torin couldn’t help but moan when his cock came free of the fabric. It was big and thick as the rest of him, everything that Torin had always hoped and imagined. His mouth watered to look at it and his cock jerked so hard at the sight that he had to grip and squeeze himself around the base, suddenly worried he might come just from the sight of it, after so long.

“Bretagh….” he said, and spread himself out, knees spread and hips raised. He turned to reach for the table at his bedside, finding the oil that he’d used with Herret just the night before. Bretagh growled a little when he took it from him, seeing how it was half-empty.

“You’re mine now, Torin,” he said, as he poured it into his hand, his big, perfect hand. “Never anyone else’s, ever again.”

“Always was, your highness,” Torin said, with a dazed smile on his face. “Always have been.”

“Good,” Bretagh said, and his voice was low and gruff in a way that Torin had never heard before, in a way that thrilled him to his core. This was what his king and his husband was like when he wanted something. He spent his whole life denying himself things, putting aside his own needs for others, and this was what he was holding back. It was gorgeous.

He stroked him only once with his slicked hand; the way Torin gasped and yelped made it clear enough that it wouldn’t take much more of that to make him come. Bretagh put one hand on Torin’s thigh, spreading him out, as the other moved between his cheeks. “Look at you,” he said, low and reverent. “So perfect, Torin. You’re so perfect.”

Torin wanted to whimper out a please as Bretagh’s finger just teased around the edge of his hole, but he bit it back. “Go on, go on,” he said instead, tilting his hips up into the touch.

“My Torin,” Bretagh murmured as he slid a finger inside him, slow and perfect. Torin sucked in breath and let it out slow as he fucked him just with one. His fingers were so thick and broad, strong things that had once been a soldier’s hands, and each movement of them made Torin gasp and moan. “My chief.”

“Yours,” was all he could manage, groaning for a long while before he could work out, “More.”

Bretagh put a hand on Torin’s stomach and held him down into the bed as he twisted a second finger into him. Torin jolted when he twisted just right, but the stretch of his palm held him in place. “You look so beautiful,” he breathed. “I’ll make it up to you, make it all up to you…”

“Oh, god, yes,” Torin said, and laughed. “Just… do what you’re doing. Do that forever. Do that until neither of us can anymore.” He moaned and couldn’t help smiling, he felt so good. It was better than he’d ever hoped or dreamed, to have Bretagh’s eyes on him, to have Bretagh in him — a third finger now, stretching him out and filling him up, to be able to smell his sweat and how badly he wanted him. “Tonight, forever, all of it.” His toes curled into the bedspread and his hips bucked. “God, Bretagh, fuck me already, I’m going to die.”

“Shh, shh,” Bretagh said as he pulled his fingers out and slicked up his cock. “Don’t die, you won’t die.” He leaned over and put his other hand into Torin’s hair again, soft and easy. “I’ll take care of you, my love. I’ll always take care of you.”

Torin put his hand on Bretagh’s face and kissed him sweetly. “And I’ll take care of you,” he said, then grinned, nipping at Bretagh’s lip. “But fuck me now. Don’t make me beg.”

“I won’t, I won’t,” Bretagh said, and guided the head of his cock to just nudge over Torin’s rim, teasing a little, making him ache for it so badly. And then he was pressing inside, filling Torin up slowly but inescapably. He was in him, Bretagh was inside of him, his husband was fucking him, and Torin leaned his head back and moaned with the triumph and relief of it.

“It’s good, it’s good,” Torin kept saying every time Bretagh seemed to slow or hesitate. “Better than I ever… just better… fuck,” he groaned as Bretagh bottomed out, flat of his hips pressed to the curve of Torin’s ass. “Fuck, Bretagh.” Torin tightened his legs around his hips as much as he could. “I love you.”

“I love you,” Bretagh said against his mouth as he leaned down into him. He was on him, over him, overwhelming him inside and out, and Torin had wanted nothing more his entire life. “My Torin, my prince,” he murmured, and his hips started to move.

Fuck,” Torin said, and groaned even more when Bretagh didn’t hesitate, didn’t stop to check if he was well. He trusted him, trusted that he knew his own body, what he wanted. And god, his body had never been in a better state, sweaty and already aching and stretched to the limit as Bretagh fucked him steady and deep.

Bretagh’s face was pressed into his throat, where he breathed hard and licked at the sweat that pooled there. “I’m going to make you come,” he said, and it sounded less like a promise and more like an awe-filled realization. “Torin, I’m going to make you come.”

“Yes, yes yes, you are,” Torin said, and every nudge of his cock against Bretagh’s stomach brought him closer to that truth. “God, it’s going to be fast, too, sorry, sorry…” He laughed, and Bretagh laughed too, and that felt amazing when they were locked together like this.

“Just the first time,” Bretagh said as he started to fuck him a little harder, the bed thumping against the wall. When Bretagh heard the sound he paused for a moment, then started thrusting more vigorously, making a solid rhythm against the wall. How the palace would all talk, when they realized the king and his young husband were actually sleeping together! Torin leaned his head back and let out a happy moan.

“First of so many, oh god, Bretagh, don’t stop,” Torin said, and could feel the heat starting to build in the base of him, tension balling up inside him and begging to be set free. “Touch me, make me come,” he gasped out.

“Yes, chief,” Bretagh said, and put one hand on Torin’s shoulder to pin him down to the bed, holding him in place while he fucked him hard and steady, hips slapping into his thighs. He just wrapped his fingers, his big, perfect fingers, around Torin’s cock, letting the rest of his movement do the work, and it was everything. It was everything Torin had ever wanted, and he came shaking and shuddering, wetness pricking at his eyes as Bretagh surrounded and filled every part of him.

“Don’t stop, now, don’t stop,” he murmured as he came off the crest of it, boneless and easy from it all, but he managed to tighten his legs around Bretagh’s hips. “Need my husband to come in me,” he said, and put his shaking hand up to brush sweaty hair off of Bretagh’s brow.

Fuck,” Bretagh groaned and Torin was truly pinned then, Bretagh’s hands on top of his and pressing them into the bed as he thrust ragged and fast into him, shaking and gasping until he let out one long growling groan and came buried to the hilt inside of Torin.

Torin’s hands and feet were tingling, his hips and his thighs were aching, he’d be sore from tip to toe tomorrow, and he’d never felt happier in his entire life. Bretagh slowly, gently, carefully pulled out of him, and he took a moment to look him over, make sure he’d done no harm. It made Torin blush a little, though in a way that felt warm down to his heart.

Bretagh collapsed on the bed beside him, and drew Torin up to his chest. Torin settled in, finding the perfect place to fit that he always knew he had, head resting on Bretagh’s chest, hearing his heart slow from racing to resting.

“Can’t believe you didn’t realize,” he said, eventually, mostly into Bretagh’s shoulder. “Thick big head of yours, didn’t realize.”

“Ah, enough, little brat,” Bretagh said, and Torin laughed loud, since he’d never called him that before. He kissed Bretagh sweetly. There were so many new things they’d get to do together, now.

Year 347 AL

After all these years, Bretagh still could not believe how late Torin was willing to sleep. Even on Unification Day, when there were parades to attend and speeches to give, he remained lingering in bed until the last possible second.

Bretagh tore the covers off of him and Torin groaned. “No, no, enough of that, it’s time to get up.”

“Cruel man,” Torin mumbled into his pillow. He had a little bite mark on the back of his neck, and Bretagh would feel ashamed if it didn’t look so beautiful on him. “Vicious monarch. Worst of the era.”

“Ah, hush,” Bretagh said, and gave him a little thump on the behind. “Get up at least a bit, I have something for you.”

Torin pushed himself up and yawned, rubbing sleep out of his eyes. “Is it breakfast?”

“Breakfast is later. I have a gift,” Bretagh said, finding the box from where he’d hidden it the night before.

“Hm?” Torin said. “What’s the occasion?” He was still barely awake. It was charming, and no wonder. They’d been busy the night before.

“Our anniversary, of course,” Bretagh said, as he placed the box in Torin’s hand.

That woke him up, clearly. Torin opened the box and his eyes went wide at the sight of the ring inside. It was small and dark, but it was not stone — it was hearthwood, the kind found only on the southern isles, the kind that made up Torin’s crown, the kind that made the base of their union cup.

“Bretagh, it’s beautiful…” he said, and held out his hand for Bretagh to slip the ring on. Now they both had one on each finger, gold and gold and southstone and hearthwood.

“And many more to come,” Bretagh said as he leaned in to kiss Torin gently.

“I’ll run out of fingers,” Torin said against his mouth, grinning. “Ah, we’ll figure something out.”

“You will,” Bretagh said, and slid his fingers back through Torin’s hair. “You always do.”

For and because of Abby

Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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