This shouldn't have been this hard. She knew it shouldn't have been this hard. It wouldn't work. They both knew it. There was no way to bridge the gap between them. Not with her life as a princess, not with him being…whatever he'd be.
He'd been fighting this secret war for so long he didn't have a profession. It was his life now. He was good at being a leader, but he'd never be the right material to be a prince. Even if she had the ability to change the rule that only nobility could marry into the royal family.
She knew this wasn't going to work. Not when they annoyed each other more than they got along. Not when he hated her for her role in the royal court, even if she'd been nothing more than decoration most of the time. Especially as she'd been nothing more than decoration. It didn't matter that it hadn't been her fault. That she hadn't known any better. In his mind, there was no excuse for her not knowing the truth about what was going on in the world.
And he was absolutely right. But she'd learned so much in the last few months! Fighting against him, with him. Discovering what was happening, learning the truth. Learning to fight…sort of. Learning to see the world with clear eyes, not the veil she'd been raised with.
He'd changed her so much. But was it enough? Could it ever be enough?
He wasn't leaving. He stood there, across the throne room, his eyes on the window. The place was a mess…fallen brick and mortar everywhere. The great golden throne sat half melted on the dais from his sister's gift with fire. The girl was off already, searching for the wounded and rounding up helpers to treat them.
He still didn't leave. They could hear the chaos in the city finally calming down. There were no more explosions, though the cracking of flames was everywhere. Smoke filled the air, heavy with dust and leftover fear. But triumph too. It was finally over…they'd done it.
She watched his back, waiting for the telltale shift of his muscles signaling he'd turn and leave. But there was nothing. He stood so still that she could see the pulse in his throat, the blood coating the area making his skin shine red.
"Are you alright?" she finally asked, unable to stand the silence. It was different now that it was just the two of them. With others in the room the silence had been filled with a strange peace. That the war was done. But everyone else had left, and now the silence stretched on.
The pattern of words actually made her smile. How many times had they had that exact conversation? And seeing the twitch of his own mouth made her small smile widen a bit. She moved forward, hitching her once lovely dress away from her feet, uncaring that her boots and bare legs would show. He didn't care. He'd never cared about silly rules like that. It was one of the first things she'd come to like about him, even as she'd hated it. His own lack of manners still drove her up the wall sometimes, but…she wouldn't change it for the world.
"What happens now?"
"Clean up." He said with a tired sigh. He was so tired. So ready to be done. The war was over, yes. No more fighting, but now they had the aftermath to deal with. No one ever thought about that part. The injured people trying to get better, messes to clean, houses to rebuild. Blood would stain the cobblestones of this city for years to come. The memory of what they'd done, the things they'd lost, wouldn't fade for generations. He didn't want to think about it, but he also knew he wasn't done. He had to go out there, be a leader. Be confident and proud.
But while he was all of those things, he was weary to the bone, and his heart ached…in no small part because of the woman coming up behind him.
"What?" he asked when she didn't speak, turning to glower at her. She responded in kind, and he couldn't ignore the almost proud feeling at the look. When she'd first stumbled into his camp all those months ago, she'd believed that hiding behind a smile make everything better. The fact that she was so open now? He enjoyed it. And he was pretty sure she did too.
"You should get that looked at."
He looked down at the gash on his arm, only just now realizing it was even there. In the adrenaline of the fight, he'd hardly felt it. Now the pain slammed into him full force and he realized that he was dizzy from blood loss.
He cursed as his knees buckled. She caught him by his good arm, helping him over to the half melted throne. The cushion there was still nicer than the bedroll he'd been sleeping in for the last few years. He could fall asleep right here and almost did before a small hand patted his cheek.
"Don't pass out on me now, it's not that bad." She scolded him. He blinked open tired eyes and watched her inspect the wound. It was another thing she'd gotten better at. Blood had made her faint once. After helping his sister in the infirmary though…she'd gotten used to it. "It won't even need sitches." She was saying, and he realized she'd been talking this whole time. He didn't really listen. She always talked while she worked on things. It didn't bother him the way it had used to. If anything, her near constant words helped him relax. The world was right if she was chattering his ears off.
He watched impatiently brush a golden curl from her eyes, a streak of blood trailing from her temple to her ear from the action. Without thinking he reached out with his good hand and wiped the blood away with a thumb. Even covered in dirt, sweat, grime and blood, she was beautiful. And as her light blue eyes looked up at him, he found his heart hammering.
"You're Queen now." He said, ignoring the strange desires in his heart. They weren't worth entertaining, it wouldn't happen. It couldn't work.
She made a delightfully disgusted face. "Queen? Ugh, no thank you." She said with such feeling he believed her. He frowned at her and lifted an eyebrow.
"You're his only daughter. His only child. The one and only heir. Now that he's dead, you're next in line for the throne."
"But I don't want to be." She whispered. It didn't sound like she'd even thought of the words before they slipped out, and he saw her cheeks go a bit pink. "I…I don't. Not anymore."
"And how do you plan on getting out of that?"
"I'll run away."
"Again? Isn't that how you got into this mess in the first place?"
"Yes. And that triggered everything!" she said softly as she wrapped his arm. "If I hadn't run away, then we wouldn't have won. Running away once led to good things, maybe running away again will lead to more good things."
"So…what? You're just going to play dead?"
"Why not?" she looked up at him, her eyes almost begging for an answer. "I can't be Queen, you know I'd be awful at it. I'm not ready for it, I was never trained for it. You'd do better than I ever could. If I'm dead…then someone better can take charge. Someone who can do the right things for the people. I can barely manage a flock of sheep, how would I ever pull off being Queen?"
He had to laugh as the memory came to mind. Those poor sheep… "What will you do?" he asked instead. "Where will you go? You can do this…believe it or not, I really think you can."
She looked at him in such disbelief he had to chuckle again. Was he really that sarcastic that she didn't believe him?
"I think you should take over. You'd be brilliant at it." She said instead. Now the tables had turned, he couldn't tell if she was kidding or not.
"No way. I don't want to be a king or whatever."
"Yet you want me to be Queen? How is that fair?" She looked up at him and he felt his heart skip a beat once more. A crazy idea popped into his mind and he forced it away with a hammer. No no no, now he must be suffering from bloodloss. He couldn't be crazy enough to believe THAT could ever happen.
"We seem to be at a stalemate, your ladyship."
"We do indeed, sir."
"Maybe we'll have to share the job."
She blinked and lifted her eyebrows, though he didn't miss the hint of a smug grin dancing about the corner of her mouth. "What exactly are you suggesting?"
He realized how his words could be taken and felt his face warm. "No, no I didn't mean-"
She giggled softly at his fumbling and rested a finger over his lips. "Shut up." She told him, chuckling as she went back to working on his arm. "It's not like it would ever work between us."
"Why not?" he found himself asking.
She froze. Only for a moment, as she was in the middle of wrapping his arm, but her mind had gone numb with the words. She looked up at him, torn between feeling exasperated and a little bit hopeful. "Us? Really? We fight about everything-"
"Only at first." He smirked down at her. Was he closer? She couldn't tell if he was leaning down or just slouching. "We fight but then we work through it. It's not so bad."
"Yes it is. I've heard the ballads. People fall in love at a glance, and their lives fall together. Couples don't fight and bicker and tease. It's supposed to be simple, it's supposed to be easy."
"Only because if ballads were made about those other couples, they'd likely kill the bard." He teased and she bit back a grin.
"It won't work."
"Why not?" he asked. His voice was lower and he was definitely closer now.
"Because…we don't even like each other."
"Says me." She didn't have a better argument. He was only centimeters away; she could feel his breath on her skin. She couldn't see both of his eyes in the same glance, and the very thought of it made her insides quiver.
"I kind of like you."
She pulled back to make a face. "Kind of liking isn't enough, it-"
He didn't let her finish, snaking his good hand behind her neck and pulling her lips to his. She gasped, but not from the action. No…it was the sudden rush of warmth that seem to melt over her skin. The world disappeared in a whirl of color and sound, and he was the only solid thing left for a moment.
He pulled away much too soon and before she took the time to think about it, she grabbed his shirt collar and pulled him right back into the kiss. She felt him chuckle, the sound rumbling through his chest, his lips curling into a smile against her own. She had to smile herself honestly. They'd been dancing around this for so long…not even falling for each other, but liking each other! His arms slipped around her waist and hers went around his shoulders, holding each other close.
"I should have gotten injured sooner." He whispered when he pulled away. She smacked his arm even as she stuck out her tongue at him.
"It wouldn't have made me like you any sooner."
"Oh, so you do like me!"
Whoops. "Maybe a little."
"Maybe a little works for me." He whispered, cupping her cheeks and pulling her into a gentle, kiss. Gentle, but filled with so much care she started trembling from it.
"Maybe a little more than a little." She breathed weakly when he freed her. He chuckled again, brushing his thumb over her cheek.
"I guess we'll have to work on that, won't we?"
"I guess we will." She whispered, her eyes finding his, shining with exhaustion, wariness, but something more. Something she didn't dare put a name to. She spotted the same thing in his eyes, and decided that she liked what she saw.
The sparks, the faint embers, of what could grow into love. If they managed not to kill each other, she thought they had a decent chance of feeling it.
It would be an interesting path to explore.