"You've truly outdone yourself this time, little brother," Liam grumbled, a soft curse under his breath before throwing a sideways glare. "Above and bloody beyond."
A roll of his tired eyes before lowering his sunglasses was the only response Killian could muster at an early hour like this on a Saturday. Aside from the harsh sunlight battling the tinted windows of the black SUV, the hazy state of his brain had certainly left him in no mood for a lecture or an honor inspired chat - especially one that was clearly about to be riddled with rather specific vocabulary and those well known accusations he truly couldn't care less about.
Well, at least that's how he was planning on stubbornly playing this.
"Been fighting cameras and reporters all morning," Liam continued, silencing his cellphone as the vehicle rounded the corner of a palace surface road. "It's an absolute royal mess, Killian."
There it was - irony intended or not. It was that single word he'd been smacked with a thousand times over.
Royal. Royal, royal, royal.
The term had labeled him - well, them - for as far back as his recollection stretched, but even after a few decades of being wrapped up in that title, Killian still found himself a little uncertain on how such a word was defined. It wasn't easy to fend off his amusement at his brother's unnoticed pun, but Killian leaned back against the leather seat and considered the approaching speech he'd heard so many times over the course of his privileged life. Talk about a king complex, he thought as he watched Liam type out some sort of message with very obvious irritation.
He'd decided some time ago that perhaps the word itself was subjective and flexible - more a way to categorize what he was rather than who he had to be. Lord knows between bar fights, a few questionable dalliances, and a slight scandal or two, he'd spent his fair share of time being much less than regal. It had been explained to him once or twice in his youth and a few more disciplinary times since then, but he always went back to what his mother had once told him.
Everyone looks to us to be the example - the family who will set the path for others. You and your brother will be heroes to the people one day, Killian.
Killian exhaled hard at the memory, the thought calling forth old demons he never and still did not want to confront. He had decided long ago that heroics were another one of those things he didn't have plans to explore. The one term he did have a very good understanding of in all of this was 'brother' - especially since his own had slammed the car door behind him the instant the ignition shut off and was currently storming angrily into one of the concealed doors at the palace's back entrance.
Oh, bloody hell. This was definitely not going to be as fun as the previous night was.
It was only once he started plodding up the cobblestone steps in pursuit of his irate older sibling that Killian realized he wasn't exactly sure how entertaining his evening truly had been. It had started easy enough - ducking out of the palace around eight when the watchful eye of his brother was finally occupied with a lofty stack of foreign documents and catching a cab to the corner pub under the cover of a red baseball cap with a well worn leather jacket. He'd met up with a few longtime comrades - his struggling author friend August and a libatious rugby teammate named Will Scarlet - but between the several raucous games of pool, the numerous shots of rum, and some drunken argument with god knows who ending in broken glass, the night had fallen into a bit of a blur.
It was one he was still trying to sort out when a slightly disguised Liam arrived to pick him up from the private holding station and one he'd still yet to fully remember as he stumbled into the grand palace hallway, doing his damndest to follow close on his brother's heels.
Well, at least that much hadn't changed.
"This is truly unbelievable," Liam grumbled, swinging the door open and not bothering to watch as Killian caught it just in time. "I can't believe you would be so….I just….dammit, Killian - I didn't even know you went out last night!"
Of course he hadn't noticed. Liam had been predictably consumed in tasks he'd one day be obligated to the moment dinner was cleared from the dining hall - studying every ordinance existing in England, scheduling a few upcoming event appearances, and conferencing with a few higher ups from the naval base near Portsmouth. It was all part of that fated job description that came with a prestigious reign and Killian had given up on involving himself it that sort of work long ago. It wasn't about him though - the job or the prestige. It would always be Liam - he, thankfully, wouldn't ever be that forcefully committed to their bloodline.
"Oh please, Liam," Killian scoffed, flopping down onto the couch in the room that was once his father's study. "It was one rough night - just a little mishap. It's not like I burned down Buckingham."
"Killian, you were nearly arrested," Liam argued, crossing his arms in annoyance after throwing his dark jacket onto the ornate armchair at his side. "Drunk and disorderly conduct isn't exactly something I can spin to our advantage. You're damn lucky there aren't any formal charges being filed. I thought we were past this, brother. You promised me you wouldn't let this happen after the last time and now-"
Killian cringed as Liam appeared to draw a rather impulsive conclusion about the tavern scuffle that led to their current argument. He didn't bother telling him just how wrong he was - how this time was nothing like the dozen of other times he'd had a few years earlier. He'd spent many nights in his early adulthood naivety, testing the bounds of his alcohol tolerance as well as the flexibility of the law. He'd learned quickly that his anger tended to spiral when he drank, often leading to bar fights much like the one he'd recently participated in. The difference was that those tended to be trivial - an argument over an Arsenal loss or bickering over a billiards game that escalated for no reason other than a loss of sobriety. Killian knew the night before wasn't like that. Sure, he'd been relatively tipsy, but he hadn't been belligerent.
He'd been defensive. He'd been standing up for his country. Though he'd done so in a more physical fashion than was preferred, he'd still been the supporter of the crown that Liam was constantly prodding him to be, but none of that was applicable by the time his exasperated brother walked into the station. It didn't matter - so Killian didn't say anything in refute. Instead, he did what he usually did in such circumstances.
He put on his best sarcastically arrogant act and pretended he didn't care. He'd gotten extraordinarily good at that over the years they'd been doing this.
"Ah, ah - I said I'd try," Killian cut in with an unnecessarily nonchalant smirk, fighting back with blatant cynicism. "Don't put words in my mouth, your highness."
"Oh, don't start with that," Liam said through gritted teeth, perhaps aware of the game they'd started playing. "You are just as royal as I am, Killian."
He wasn't wrong. They'd been groomed as inheritors of the throne since they were young boys bounding through the halls of the palace with plastic swords, trying like mad to avoid the wrath of whatever groundskeepers were manning the courtyard on any given day. They'd been the perfect picture of brotherhood, a couple of adventurous kids who'd eventually grow up to wear their titles with honor and every ounce of good form a representative of their esteemed family should possess.
Yes, they were royalty and this glorified place was home whether he liked it or not. They were meant to rule and even if he was his father's second son, Killian knew that his expected place was next to his older brother - the right hand man of the future king and the spare to the always adored heir.
It hadn't taken long for a devastating tragedy, those few misguided mistakes in his twenties, and years of running from the aftermath to change how willing he was to conform to that. He let his aching head lean back against the cushions of the lavish couch while he longed for some aspirin and silently thanked some higher power that the memories at hand were far behind - at least in terms of time anyway. He sighed lightly as a sense of exhaustion overcame him, throwing his arm up over his eyes to block out the unwanted daylight now covering the royal grounds - the homestead of a different sort of superiority. Killian resigned quickly that the brief flash of humanity and gratitude he did have lingering in his bones wasn't toward any regality or his older brother who was currently in line to acquire a more esteemed title.
No, the day he'd show his utmost appreciation for the crown was the day he'd be released from its presence - and if the always incessant paparazzi he'd seen outside the gates that morning was any indication, a day resembling the one he was pining for was sure as hell not on any foreseeable royal agenda.
"You can't keep acting this way, Killian," Liam finally said, rubbing his eyes in frustration. "Not with the reporters so interested in the happenings around here and what with the memorial gala coming up-"
"Bloody hell, brother," he groaned with a quick glare. "You do know that scolding me like a schoolboy doesn't fall within your jurisdiction just yet, right?"
"You're right," Liam snapped. "Maybe I should leave the reprimanding to the queen-"
"Actually, Granny - as you so lovingly did not put it - won't be returning from Canada for another three days," Killian reminded him. "We both know without my willful assistance in navigating the Internet, she's probably not going to catch wind of any of this until she's back and it'll be old news by then. No harm, no foul."
"I'd hardly categorize two broken windows at that bar and your currently split open lip in such a way, but hey - that's just me," Liam retorted stubbornly. "Seems morals are up for debate this morning."
"Well, now that you mention it-"
"Alright, enough - just shut up and listen to me," Liam growled, tossing a copy of some tabloid onto the coffee table - one Killian was thankfully not on the cover of. "You're lucky we've been able to keep it somewhat quiet this time. I've had Leroy playing damage control all morning with the press and with the meeting we are supposed to have today, I've yet to even dare bring it up with Dad or-"
"I'm sure she's got plenty keeping her charitably occupied, brother," Killian returned, knowing quickly that their exasperating stepmother was now the topic of conversation. "Doesn't she have some benefit coming up this week? Saving the homeless or the elephants or maybe just the world in general? I'm sure it's one of those. Plus, I'll remind you once again that she is not our mother, Liam."
Watching his brother's body tense at the underhanded retort, Killian felt his blood start the slow process of boiling. They'd had plenty of talks and even more yelling matches about their father's new wife since that wedding day and while Liam maintained that consistent respect was the expectation, Killian had decided long ago that he didn't owe that woman a damn thing.
She would never be his mother. He'd lost the privilege of such a figure in his life long ago.
"Don't get cheeky, you git," Liam snipped, trying to maintain a calm demeanor. "You know damn well father's going to want to know what's going on-"
"With being married to that woman, I'm sure - if he were feeling well - he'd prefer to be out drinking and having a little fun all night too," Killian glared, holding up two crossed fingers. "Though hopefully he'd avoid the unfortunate run in with authorities. For the sake of the crown and all that."
He'd heard his name muttered and mumbled in that particular tone of warning far too often over the years, more recently by Liam than anyone else. It was that deep, authoritative type of voice that sought to remind him of his place in line and in life - the one that constantly laid out a royal boundary he was reminded to follow. Expectations, however, had ceased to be his area of expertise as time went on - mostly by choice and a realization that he'd never truly reach the set bar. It wasn't like he cared about that anyway.
Well, at least not anymore.
There was truly no point in changing now. His ways were his own - and the public was welcome to interpret them however the bloody hell they wanted to. He supposed it was the advantage of being the 'other' prince. His shortcomings and questionable behavior over the past several years made for great stories that only made his brother look better. It wasn't wrong on all accounts - it was almost like fulfilling his own sort of 'royal duty'.
"I don't get why you have it in your head that I've got to act all high moral and mighty, just because the world is watching," Killian groaned. "I'm not you, Liam."
"But you are a prince, brother - and I know you don't care, but the rest of the world does," Liam exhaled, turning toward the door. "So go take a shower and please start acting like it. I need you to be en route by ten and you can't be showing up for brunch looking like you do right now."
"You're sure about that? It might make for entertaining small talk, much better than us discussing dad's dwindling health or-"
Using the stress of their father's illness was a low road to take and he realized it immediately, but it wasn't like they hadn't been here before - two brothers locked in a stubborn fight that could last long enough to make them miss brunch altogether. Pain flashed across Liam's face and Killian tried to shove the aching guilt he now felt over his anxiously chosen cheap shot at the man who'd been the only parent they had for nearing two decades.
"Killian," Liam finally said, his abrupt tone signaling the end of Killian's prodding banter for now. "Please."
Standing in the doorway, Killian watched his brother's regal stance slump slightly as he let the defeat of the morning overcome him for a moment. He looked tired and quite irritated, but even more than that, he seemed….disappointed. Killian felt a mix of shame and spite shift in his bones as he realized just how much he'd screwed up.
Like hell if he'd admit it though. No, Liam didn't get to win this one - that wasn't on the daily itinerary.
"Look, little brother, just-"
"Call for a car, Liam. I'll be ready by nine-" he snapped as he rose to his feet. "-and it's 'younger' brother, your highness."
The daylight was still annoyingly blinding by the time Killian summoned the energy to walk across the large gravel pathway to his less than humble abode. The small apartment style cottage was a short distance from the main palace but still part of the original royal structure. It had once been a temporary home to Liam, but once an imminent future of ruling the people started inching closer, he'd opted to take up residence in more central quarters. His older brother's choice to move had occurred just in time for Killian to secure the place as his own upon returning home from his second tour of serving the country rather than just the crown.
He'd spent almost ten years in uniform, working on training missions and enduring warfare far away from the watchful eye of the royals. Spending a deployment and a half in the desert of Afghanistan had been an honor he had never anticipated he would feel so proud of, but he had right up until the day he'd been pulled off the front lines when the media decided to reveal his whereabouts. He couldn't blame the military for their nervous decision - they were under orders to protect him probably even more so than themselves. He'd still felt slighted when he'd been reassigned to a naval base in Canada, trading his Captain status for a safer staff officer role where he'd spent a few years training Apache helicopter pilots like he'd once been. The decision to end that endeavor was one made without his full consent, but he'd abided by it and returned home with what he hoped was a stronger sense of understanding - even though he was still trying to comprehend why he'd been removed from the one career he knew would bring him success. A few dark months followed and in an attempt to move on, he'd helped field a charity centered around healing injured and disabled veterans through various sporting events and more friendly competition. It was something - definitely not enough, but still something.
To say he'd been happy to call a quiet corner of the palace grounds his new home after memories of sleeping on a very sandy cot and enduring the sounds of distant battle was a blatant understatement.
The little cottage itself wasn't much - two large bedrooms with a single smaller one, a remodeled kitchen, and a small walled off garden patio that provided more privacy than most places within the royal bounds. The majority of the structure was original and seeped in history from the weathered cobblestone path to the hardwood flooring. It didn't hold ground against the few pied-a-terres he had gained right to by way of lineage and it didn't come close to the regal housing his father had moved into a year or so after he'd become a widower, but for now, he could label it as a tentative home.
Hopefully quite tentative with any luck.
There'd been a few adjustments made over the years by past palace inhabitants - though there was still some rather awful carpeting in one room as well as a leaky faucet in the bathroom - but the several improvements were things Killian couldn't find himself at odds with when he noticed how the fresh paint and simplistic landscaping Liam lobbied for made the place feel comfortable. His brother truly had a way with that - that smooth, charming, genuine way of conversing that could convince almost anyone of nearly anything.
He'd surely gotten that from their mother, along with many other qualities that would guide him well as a leader of their country one day.
Shoving open the front door then slamming it lazily, Killian found himself pleasantly immersed in the silence of the house. He sighed softly as he tossed his jacket onto one of the plush armchairs before heading toward the bathroom with a slight stumble. Lifting a lifeless hand to scratch behind his ear, he made a distracted turn up the short hallway toward what would have to be a very quick and very cold shower as he started dreading the upcoming day.
As if a monster hangover and some simmering embarrassment weren't enough.
Shifting the shower nozzle to the right, Killian took a deep breath as steam filled the room and his senses. Turning his tired eyes toward the mirror, he decided it best to venture a look before the small room fogged up - though avoiding the reflection that should appear contrite would have likely been wiser.
He could hear the pitter patter of warm water on the tile floor just behind the glass door, but it was the mirror staring back at him that earned his attention. God, he looked terrible. Tilting his head to the side, he examined the dark circles beneath his deep cobalt eyes before allowing his vision to focus on the cut marring his lower lip. He'd taken a pretty square hit there from some drunk sod that Will had surely been goading, but Killian allowed himself an ounce of pride knowing he'd given as good as he got. If Liam wasn't currently so angry with him, he might have been proud to see that he'd held his own ground and perhaps even that of the royal family - though remembering exactly how the tavern drunk had been insulting the crown wasn't something he was capable of at the moment.
Pressing his fingertips to the scruff coming in thick on his face, he considered giving it a trim. With the Queen on tour across the pond, he'd be able to avoid her lovable scolding regarding his beard and the recollection of how she'd rolled her eyes at his claim that shaving wasn't his strong suite made Killian smile briefly. The idea of navigating a razor in his current frame of mind quickly put a halt to his pondering and he tilted his head to the opposite side to reminisce the scar that was proof of the damage a sharp object in unskilled hands could cause.
Damn Liam and his fencing skills - beginner's luck was definitely not something his regal older sibling had inherited.
Despite his exhausted and slightly broken appearance, Killian admitted silently just how much he didn't look like the man they were about to pay a visit to - well, at least not as much as his older brother did. Aside from the dark hair, Killian was more aligned with his mother's side of the family. His features were noticeably distinguished from his brother's on a few levels and the differences had been the source of a nasty fidelity rumor or two over the course of his life. He supposed such opinions probably still flew from time to time, especially since the scruff on his face grew in now with a few flecks of that rather random Irish red. Liam, however, was their father's son right down to his square jaw and wavy hair - though they'd both taken on the one physical quality from their mother that people had always admired.
My two blue eyed boys - the most handsome princes in the land.
It was during these all too quiet and conflicted moments that he found himself recalling that day he'd lost so much - the day his family and life as he knew it was severed into a thousand little pieces. He'd been standing in a position similar to the one he held now, but at the much younger age of roughly thirteen with his brother knocking loudly on the closed door. They'd been battling the space of these exact quarters all morning, each of them trying to look like the young royals their mother often saw them as. She'd be returning from a service visit to Africa - one she'd agreed to venture out on alone when her husband had come down with pneumonia - in a matter of a couple hours and despite the rain pounding the soaked ground outside, such an anticipated reunion would be a bright event for all of them. The busy morning had been a rushed effort for Killian, the act of smoothing down khaki pants while struggling with a striped tie becoming quite frustrating when the tragic call came in - the one that haunted him in a way unmatched by anything else.
He remembered trying his best - or perhaps worst - to tame the wild mess of almost black hair his mother loved to ruffle with her caring hand while staring into this same mirror. The fragile glass was chipped in the top corner from the time Liam had fidgeted with his first set of cufflinks and one had flipped upward a little too hard at the reflective surface. Killian recalled the way his mouth as well as Liam's had hung open in panic for the few moments leading up to their mother's amused and very genuine laugh. They'd feared she might be mad, but as she examined the tiny accident, she reassured them of that unconditional love she possessed - even when 'careful' wasn't a way to describe her eldest son's action.
It's okay, Liam. If anything, it will sure make for an interesting story one day.
It was the painful breaking news paired with an urgent phone call that made for a story Killian had never dreamed of hearing.
She was gone - the adored Princess Katherine of Wales killed tragically in a car accident just several streets from the palace gates.
Shaking his head quickly, Killian tried not to let the remembered news announcements from that day ring too loudly in his ears. He needed his head clear before they left for the palace and pondering the loving woman he'd probably always miss wasn't the way to achieve such a task. He tugged off his rumpled shirt one shoulder at a time after fumbling over the buttons, the black and gray flannel wrinkled beneath his touch as he tossed it to the floor. Flipping open the button on his jeans, the cellphone he'd tossed on the counter next to the sink sounded with a soft ding - an incessant noise that could only be caused by one person.
Liam: The car will be there for you in half an hour. I'll send Marco with a cup of coffee. Dress palace appropriate please, even if you don't feel like it. You know it's going to be expected.
Rolling his tired eyes, he tossed the device quickly to the surface he'd retrieved it from before dropping his well worn denim and boxer briefs to the tile below. His brother was truly an arrogant arse sometimes. Royal indeed, he thought as he stepped into the shower with a quick swing of the glass door.