Oh boy. This is for yaoishadow66613, who was one of the two winners of my charity auction at help_japan. She wanted a fic centering on the ArteStella cardverse. The auction was just for a oneshot of 1k or more, but it ended up being... much larger. This is part one of two, and the second part should be posted this week.

Royalty in Spades

Part One

By Everything is Magic

You have to find your queen.

They'd been telling this to me for years, ever since I'd taken the throne at the ripe old age of thirteen. Yeah, I was pretty young, and I was only nineteen now. If I were still living at home, I'd probably be getting married about now, maybe moving out and starting my own business, or perhaps taking over my father's. I was born in a small fishing village on the east coast of the Kingdom of Spades. My twin brother Matthew and I grew up helping our parents out at both home and out in the fishing boats, and I was okay with that. Well, sort of. I really wanted to see more of the world, of all four kingdoms, but unfortunately that wasn't going to happen, at least until I was an adult. So I had to settle for books; adventure journals, novels, atlases, you name it.

That is, until a few months after my thirteenth birthday.

The Kingdom of Spades is the largest of our continent's four kingdoms. There's a pretty cool legend about how they were all formed. Maybe I'll tell it later. Clubs has the strongest military, Hearts is most populous, Diamonds is a center of art and culture, but the Kingdom of the Spades is both the biggest and the wealthiest. It wasn't always this way though. Before half a century ago, we were by far the poorest of the lot. But when the forty-ninth King of Spades took the throne, he sought to change that. And he did, and by the time he died fifty-one years later, he'd made our kingdom into something… pretty damn awesome.

So when he died the entire kingdom mourned, me included.

And actually that's where I come into the picture. I've heard that in lands across the sea, there are nations where rulers are chosen by bloodline or heredity. But in our lands, they're chosen by God. Or at least that's what we're told. Then again how else do you explain the weird mark that appears out of nowhere on the next chosen ruler after the previous one has died?

I mean it really was out of nowhere. I'd just come in from helping my father out with the day's catch, and I was feeling kind of gross and… fishy, so I went up to my bedroom for a change of clothes.

And well, that mark definitely hadn't been there in the morning. On the left side of my chest, right over my heart, was a black spade and beneath it, a small letter 'K.' I can't think of anything to compare it to. It isn't like a tattoo. I mean, when you see a tattoo, you can tell that it hasn't always been there. But this? It looked as much a part of me as the rest of my skin, or like a freckle or a birthmark maybe.

I still remember that day so well. I didn't smell fishy by the end of it. In fact I probably smelled like flowers and pine trees or something like that. Because within hours I'd been whisked away to a small castle an hour or so away from my little fishing village. It had been the home of the previous queen of hearts, who had ruled alongside the recently deceased king.

I took a bath in a silver and porcelain tub, and I was dressed in clothes made of fabrics that I'd never even seen before, let alone touched or worn. Everything was in blues, the colors of our kingdom, and… it was simultaneously the strangest and most exhilarating night of my life. I remember them trying to get my cowlick to stay down and failing. They still can't get it to stay put to this day.

Anyway, one week later the new King of Spades, Alfred Foster Jones, was crowned. That's me of course. Within a month, the man chosen by God to be the Jack of Spades, my supreme advisor, came forward. His name is Wang Yao, and he's honestly a pretty cool guy. Plus, he is really wise, despite his young age (he's only ten years older than me).

So like I said, I'd been ruling for six years now. Unfortunately for me, that means that the honeymoon period is over. The citizens will no longer excuse any mistakes that come out of Pique City (that's our capital and where my castle is) on the basis of me being really young. They're a lot harder on me now. And I'm trying. I'm a hero, and I always have been. Back when I sat in my parents' house and read books about traveling, I imagined helping people along the way, doing some good in the world. Now I had almost unlimited opportunities to do that, but I didn't know much about politics or anything of the sort. I'm getting a lot better, but it upset me a lot when I found out how damn complicated all of this stuff was. I had maintained peace in the kingdom though, and we weren't currently having any large conflicts with any of the other kingdoms. I didn't like the Kingdom of Clubs much. Their current ruler gave me the heebie jeebies. However, they hadn't actually done anything, so it was… fine. The Queen of Hearts had actually become my best friend over the years. Kiku and I bonded quickly, and ours were neighboring kingdoms so we could see each other and write letters on a frequent basis. The King of Diamonds, Francis, and his court, were the furthest away, but we had a strong trade relationship.

But often it felt like none of that mattered. I couldn't even do something as simple as find my queen after all, so I must not have been good at my job. But I had tried so hard, and I'd been searching up and down the kingdom for years. Granted it wasn't easy. We had no idea what we were looking for. Despite the titles' names, queens, kings, and jacks could be either gender. There had been just as many female kings as male kings, just as many male queens as female queens. Marriage occurred between a king and a queen from time to time, but even more commonly they'd end up marrying someone outside the court, or in a few cases, even their jack. Really, king and queen were just titles. They had no bearing on romance or gender.

I thought that we'd probably gone through every person in the kingdom five times before we finally found our queen. I was almost twenty years old when we did, when the spitfire of a queen was dragged kicking and screaming to Pique City. Everyone thought he was a pain in the ass, and he… sort of was. But for me, I thought he was okay, and I even got where he was coming from in trying to avoid taking his place on the throne. I guess it's because I didn't have any kind of allegiance to myself like everyone else involved, so I was… able to see his point. I definitely was not happy that him slipping out of his job had made me look bad for the past few years, but I couldn't be too furious with Arthur Kirkland.

I wouldn't want my life to be dictated by someone else's the way his would now be either.

I didn't have anything against Alfred Jones. He came across as a decent enough man, passionate about the role that had been thrust upon him and… kind, despite his bravado. Granted I'd never actually met him, but I consider myself a good judge of character. And to be terribly honest, he wasn't bad looking either.

But despite all of this, I still wanted more than anything to avoid my 'destiny' or whatever rot as the Queen of Spades. And that's because I wanted a life of my own. He might have been a good man, but that didn't mean I wanted my life irrevocably tied to his.

There's more to being marked as the queen or jack of a kingdom than having a role forced upon you for the rest of your life. There's a connection made between you and the king, and it's-

As if you are entwined, as if your souls are one and your hearts beat simultaneously. Both the jack and the queen are subjects of the king, in blood and body. When he hurts, we feel a pang alerting us of his injury. That's not so awful. It's useful even. When he's in distress, we feel it too. Again, I suppose that could be of benefit.

But when he dies, we die as well. It doesn't matter if the king lives twenty-five years or one hundred years, we all three pass away in the same moment.

And the cycle starts anew; a fresh court is marked and crowned.

Well I wanted no part of that. My life is my own, and if those tossers, or hell, 'God' or whatnot thought they could dictate it, they were wrong.

So I hid. I managed to avoid detection for six years, but it figures that I couldn't do so forever. The king's soldiers were right efficient, and I was snatched and checked for the mark while I was picking berries in the bloody middle of the woods one afternoon.

Oh I tried to fight them off. I kicked and I punched and I think I even bit a soldier at one point. But it really was… futile. There was simply no way that I could resist a troupe of fully armed soldiers.

And when I got to the castle and began to settle in, surly and irritated and not in the least bit cooperative, I discovered quickly that there was one other thing that I found almost impossible to resist.

Alfred Jones, the King of Spades himself.

Arthur was more subdued than I'd expected when I first met him, but I think that was just because he was so damn tired. According to one of my guards, he'd been yelling and being uncooperative since they first found him. But hey, considering that he'd avoided his duty for six years, I guess that was to be expected.

He was scowling when I saw him. He had his arms crossed, and his lips were turned down and- from time to time he'd move one hand and press it down his new blue coat, as if trying to make sure it remained unwrinkled. I thought it was funny that, despite being so opposed to everything related to being the queen, he still had to make sure the clothes we'd bestowed on him looked nice. But he was pretty much a total neat freak, I later discovered.

As for his appearance, it was… nice. His hair was sort of unruly, despite obvious attempts to tame it, and his eyebrows were big, really big. He was kind of small in stature, but he didn't look weak. And… the new clothes suited him well.

"How old are you?" It was an odd first question, but… I honestly didn't know what to say, if only because I had so much I wanted to say.

"I just turned twenty-three," he answered curtly, and his accent made it clear that he was born and raised of the upper class (unlike me. I sound like the fisherman's son that I am).

"Cool! I'll be twenty soon." I smiled and held out my hand. "I'm Alfred, by the way."

He glared at my hand, as if it were something dirty. "I'm well aware of your name, of course. Your age as well."

I laughed nervously, scratching the back of my head as I did so. "Oh yeah, of course you are."

We were in the queen's bedroom, Arthur's new bedroom. He was sitting on the lavish four poster bed (sometimes it still shocked me how nice all of this stuff was), and I was… standing in front of him, probably looking more awkward than awesome.

"If you don't mind, I'd just like to slee-"

"Look, Arthur," I interrupted, and I'd grabbed his hands in mine, clutching them, "I'm not mad at you okay? All right, maybe a little frustrated, but… I'll get over it. One of the first things they taught me when I took the throne was that holding grudges was bad. Grudges have been the downfall of a lot of rulers and kingdoms, you know? You have to learn to let things- Okay, I'm rambling. I guess, more than anything, I just want to know… why?" I bit my lip. "Am I that bad a king that you'd want to avoid being my queen so much?"

And then, Arthur did something weird. He started… chuckling. It was light and sort of sardonic, but it was there. "You're so daft. It's got nothing to do with you. I think you're… fine enough." He sighed. "But that doesn't mean I want my life tied with yours."

"You mean-"

"I am my own man. If I had to share my heart or my soul with someone, if I had to have a connection with someone that literally meant living and dying alongside them, I'd… at least like it to be someone of my own choosing," he explained.

I nodded.

I got it. I might be the king, but having all of this thrust upon me had been pretty scary. I had to leave my family behind, and even though I made sure to have them visit, and I made sure that they were more than wealthy for the rest of their lives, it still hurt. And I was really just a country boy, wasn't I? Yeah, I'm a hero and all, and I'm pretty awesome. But I'd never even left the coast, let alone been to a huge place like Pique City. Everything I knew about life outside our village, I knew from books and… secondhand stories.

I didn't know anything about Arthur, where he came from, how he'd grown up, anything. But I was sure that even if he had been a member of the upper class, unlike me, he still was in no way ready or prepared for something like that. Could anyone really be, unless you grew up knowing you were going to be given the role? And to add to that…

Arthur had no choice. When I died, he'd die. When I hurt, he'd feel it. When I was in trouble, he'd know it.

I'd never thought much about it. Yao hadn't brought it up, and he was the only person who shared that connection with me. But here was Arthur, running from his fate because of it and I felt- really, really bad. None of it was my fault, I knew that. This had all been in place for centuries upon centuries. But still…

"Hey uh- don't worry, I plan on living for like a hundred more years!" I grinned, and judging by Arthur's expression, that was a dumb thing to say. I let out a puff of air. "L-look, I'm sorry, but even if we'd never found you, the connection still would have existed. It was created when that mark appeared on you. And uh… if it makes you feel any better, it goes both ways in some respects."

"What do you mean?" He glared up at me.

"I mean not the… death thing. You die when I die, simple as that. Not before, not after. But, if you're in trouble or in pain, I feel it. If Yao is in trouble, you feel it… all of that. It's not exclusive to… what happens to me."

"Well there's that at least." Arthur sighed, toying with his fingers in his lap. His eyes were downcast, and his lips were pressed into a frown. I thought that maybe his eyes were a bit wet at the corners, but it could have just been the light. "I figured as much… that not accepting my role wouldn't change the connection. Sometimes I would just get these feelings. I know you haven't really been injured in battle, but I'm sure you've been distressed or… hurt yourself."

"Well I did stub my toe pretty badly last week," Alfred replied, wrinkling his nose. "Lost like half of my big toenail."

"Idiot," Arthur said with a roll of his eyes. "But I thought that perhaps I was imagining things, and even if I weren't, it might be enough of a protest to the whole… connection, if I just never claimed my title."

I frowned and raked a hand through my hair. "My guards told me you were kicking and screaming the whole way here. You don't seem to be doing that now…"

Arthur shrugged. "What's the point? Besides, I'm bloody exhausted. I'm not sure I've got it in me to do it any longer."

"Hmmm…" I tapped my chin, and, hesitating for a moment, I sat next him on the bed. "So you'll hit my guards but not me?"

He huffed, and I swore that his cheeks turned a little bit pink. "You're not the one forcing me to do anything like they were. Plus, like I said, I'm tired."

I shrugged and turned to face him on the bed. "I'm a hero, you know," I said with a smile, gesturing to myself. Arthur rolled his eyes. "I am! I just want you to know that I'm not an idiot or whatever you want to call me. I'm not stupid, and I am serious about my… job, okay?"

Arthur turned to me, attentive. He raised his eyebrows.

"I-I know I'm young, and I know that a lot of people don't have confidence in me because of that," I paused, pressing my lips into a thin line, "but you know what? They're wrong. I'm going to be a great king, and…"

I placed a hand on Arthur's shoulder, leveling him a stare.

"One thing that would really, really help me out with that, is if I had a great queen."

Arthur's eyes went wide, and the pink of his cheeks darkened to a light red. "Y-you…"

"Even heroes need help sometimes," I let out a short laugh. "Look, I don't like… admitting stuff like this to people. I hate looking weak! But I've been waiting six years for you, and I just want this to work. You're obviously smart… tactical too, I guess, if you've been able to avoid my soldiers for that long. So I think we'll be awesome together…" I lifted my eyes to his once more and gave him a small smile. "If you're up to it."

Arthur was silent for several moments, and he glanced down, staring at his lap. Finally, he let out a puff of air and looked up at me, bright green eyes resigned and… I hoped that there was something else there as well, something more positive. "What choice do I have?" He shook his head. "I shouldn't punish you for this. I'll do my best, your maj—"

"Just Alfred," I cut him off.

And Arthur's lips quirked up in the tiniest of smiles. "Good, because I didn't fancy calling you by your title."

"Yeah, I don't like it either. It's totally weird!" I wrinkled my nose.

He chuckled, just a bit. "Well then, I'll do my best, Alfred."

I wrapped my arm around his shoulder, squeezing him in a one-armed hug, a huge, beaming smile on my face. I tried to put into the gesture how relieved I was, how happy I was that I finally had a queen, even if he was reluctant and didn't like being here that much. I wanted him to know that… I was excited to work with him, even if he was grumpy and really irritable. I wanted him to know that he was welcomed, really.

"The coronation is this Saturday, five days from now," I said. "It's going to be a big party, so be ready!"

I had never been much of a fan of big parties. Oh certainly I'd been to many of them. I grew up in a wealthy home, the House of Kirkland being one of the largest industrial families in all of the Kingdom of Spades. I never wanted for anything, except for perhaps, more tolerable siblings. I have three brothers and one sister, and they are all older than me and all a right pain in the arse. Other than that, I grew up in a posh, desirable setting. If there was something I wished for, my parents generally procured it for me without question. I never had to do chores, all of them being done by our maids and servants. I lived the life that most people would dream of living. And it was all right, although I have a feeling that others in my position would have been happier with it.

One thing I did hate was the dances. Once I reached thirteen years of age, I had to go to every single one. We hosted balls often, and when we weren't hosting, we were going to celebrations put on by other prominent families. I couldn't escape a month without going to at least one of these extravagant events.

My parents were trying to marry me off, and they'd started young. I was the youngest of the Kirkland family, so I had little share in the future ownership of our companies. That was almost all to go to my older brothers. As such, they had it in mind to marry me to a wealthy girl, and our combined fortunes would help bolster the family name. Or some bollocks like that. I never paid attention.

Why would I? I didn't like girls. At least, not in a romantic manner.

When I was sixteen years old, I found the mark of spades on my chest and I ran away. I took some of my most valuable possessions- gold cuff links, a sapphire brooch, ridiculous jeweled shoes I'd worn as a child, and other such items, and I sold them for money to live on.

It was bad enough that my own family wanted to dictate my destiny. I was hardly going to allow someone else to do it as well.

At first, living on my own was difficult. I had to remain hidden most of the time, in remote villages that weren't often visited. I didn't know what I was doing. I was a child raised with everything given to me on a silver platter, and here I had to cook and clean and sometimes sleep outside. I had no problem sewing and fixing my clothing, because I'd always fancied sewing, though.

Over time my hands became callused, and my skin lost its porcelain appearance and took on an, although still quite pale, slightly darker hue. Or perhaps it was just the smattering of freckles that now dotted my face and arms, and the fact that the sun had lightened my hair, that gave that impression. I've always been slight of frame, but what had once been soft, pliable flesh turned into taut sinewy muscle, and I might have been small but I was strong now.

From time to time I thought back on my family. I felt pangs of regret, because honestly I did love them, but… no pangs were strong enough to make me want to go back to them. I would be discovered for certain if I did. And besides I wondered if my family would even recognize me. I was twenty-three years old now, and I was taller and… quite a bit rougher for the wear.

Anyway, as the years went on, I grew to enjoy the life I led. Every once in a while I'd still come across something that bewildered me, but on the whole I was more than competent at living the life of a rural peasant. To be honest, it was freeing. I was perfectly content to live the rest of my days like that.

But that was not to be, of course. And I was about to go to another 'party,' another event that determined my fate against my will. And while I was at it, I was quite sure my family would be making an appearance at the coronation. There was no way that they hadn't made the connection between their missing son and the new queen, one Arthur Kirkland.

If it hadn't been for Alfred, I would have bolted. Stupid, bumbling idiot of a king he was. Well perhaps that wasn't entirely fair. He was clearly bright, after all. He was also genuine, and well-meaning and charming in his own unique way.

He was kind to me, and… he seemed more relieved with me than angry with me. Being upset with me would have been completely understandable, but Alfred tended to give off the opposite impression. Instead of berating me, I felt as if he wanted to cling onto me and go on and on exclaiming that I'm 'finally here!'

I'm not so much of a codger that it didn't cause me to soften a bit (despite Alfred's continued accusations that I acted like an old man).

I spent a load of time with him during the week leading up to the coronation. He babbled almost non-stop, as if he were suffering from permanent hyperactivity, and he laughed and boasted and smiled and- I honestly wondered how he could be so damn happy all the time considering all the pressure he had on him. He told me all about his childhood and his family, as well as about his rule up to this point. He went into detail regarding the courts in all the other kingdoms, because I was going to have to meet them soon, no doubt. He was excited and exuberant, and he ate all three meals with me every day. I had yet to meet Yao, as he was out on a diplomatic mission and wouldn't be returning until the morning of my coronation, but Alfred told me everything he knew about him.

In return, I talked of my childhood and my family, and of the years I spent away from home hiding. His expression turned rueful when I talked about those, and I imagine it's because some of the fondness I held for that rural lifestyle slipped into my words.

"I'm a fisherman's son," he'd said, a smile on his face. "I totally know how to rough it. We'll go on vacation sometime. We'll sleep in the forest or in a little cabin, and we'll go sailing and fishing on the ocean, I promise."

I blushed at this, in spite of myself. "That's… not necessary."

"Nah, it is! I do take vacations sometimes, you know," he paused. "Yao does as well. Even kings need a break."

Smiling, just a bit, I nodded. "Very well then."

"When I was a kid, the thing I wanted to do most was… see the world," he continued.

"You've mentioned that."

Alfred grinned. "And this would just be another chance for me to do that!"

He really had no reason to be considerate. I suppose he could have just wanted things to be pleasant between us, considering that we were to be connected for the rest of our lives. But… offering to take me on vacation was above and beyond that. Perhaps it was just because he wanted to go on a vacation, but adding in all of his other actions; eating with me at every meal, going out of his way to show me around the castle, the grounds, and spending hours just talking to me, it often came across that…

Well, that he rather liked me.

And whenever I thought about that, I felt warmth rise to my cheeks. It was silly of me to consider that though.

Alfred was just a friendly person.

I shook my head, staring into the mirror one last time. The castle's servants had been in a tizzy over me for the last two hours. They'd given up on taming my hair, and I'd stopped them when they'd tried to pluck my eyebrows. I'd never liked the damn things, but I hardly wanted someone to just rip them out. I was wearing clothing finer than anything I'd worn even at the nicest of my family's balls. The blue coat almost hit my feet, and it was a rich, deep velvet. My cufflinks were sapphire and diamond, and I had a vest of embroidered brocade and a silk shirt with a cravat. A set of chains was placed around my neck; silver and white gold and diamond. I… frowned, knowing that soon a crown atop my head would be joining this extravagant ensemble.

Yao came into the room to lead me to the throne room where the coronation was being held. It was the first time I'd met him, and he introduced himself, his long robes shifting as he bowed.

As I stepped into the throne room, the very royal guard that had captured me in the first place following behind, I tried to manage a smile. The pomp and circumstance was beyond anything I'd ever seen. The guards were in their fanciest of uniforms, and they held silk banners emblazoned in Alfred's crest. The room was full of people all dressed in their finest, packed to the brim on both sides, leaving the center, a royal blue carpet for me to walk down, open.

But Alfred was at the end of the carpet, at least. It was the first time I'd ever seen him in his royal regalia. He dressed richly every day, but he didn't wear his crown or his cape unless there was an important event. The crown was large, all sapphire and diamond and platinum, much like my jewels. And it looked a bit out of place on his head. I hadn't known this until I arrived, because he didn't have them in any of the official royal portraits, but Alfred wore spectacles. I actually thought that he looked rather good in them, but the crown contrasted oddly with them, and… there was something about the way he held himself that made it obvious that he wasn't born of this world. He was smiling, and he looked genuinely happy, but the rich blue cloak and the crown atop his head were just too much. Perhaps I was the only one to notice it, but the extravagant accessories just made him look more like the country boy that he was, as opposed to concealing it.

I felt a warmth blossom in my stomach at this, and I smiled, both my feet and my heart feeling lighter. In an odd way, Alfred and I were kindred. Our upbringings couldn't have been more different, but he, like me, was thrown into this situation against his will.

I spotted my family out of the corner of my eye. I… hadn't seen them in so many years, but I wasn't able to spare them more than a glance and a nod as I continued down the carpet, almost to the throne by now. I did notice that Rory, my oldest brother, had a wife now, and he was holding a toddler girl in his arms. Erin, my only sister, was there with her husband and a little boy. They were engaged soon before I ran away from home. So now I had nieces and nephews, it appeared. I shouldn't have been surprised, but… I'd tried not to think of my family too much over the years, so the idea that there may have been new members wasn't something I'd mulled on much.

I stepped up to the thrones, and Alfred took my hand, his glove in mine. He was smiling, wide and encouraging and just… nice.

"You look good," he whispered, and I knew that my face exploded in a blush.

From there the ceremony was a whirlwind; lots of formality and reading things that were put in front of me and Alfred shooting me small smiles from time to time. And at the end I sat on my throne, bejeweled and tall as it was, and accepted my crown. It was only marginally less elaborate than Alfred's, and it felt heavy and imposing on my head.

A cloak was rested on my shoulders, and a few last words were spoken. I could hardly hear them over the thrum of my heartbeat in my ears. But I did notice when everyone bowed to me. My eyes grew wide, and Alfred gave my shoulder an encouraging squeeze.

"Long live the queen!" the crowd roared, and I… tried to stop the tears prickling at the corners of my eyes, but I only just succeeded in doing so.

The excuse we gave for Arthur's long absence was that he had been lost at sea. It was… kind of lame, but people bought it. I mean it wasn't impossible or anything. People got shipwrecked all the time. As for me, I was just so happy that Arthur was finally there, that I didn't really care what we decided to tell the public.

I enjoyed spending time with Arthur. He was grumpy and he was irritable, but he was… kind in his own way, and he was always fun to talk to. I'm the King of Spades, and because of that, I rarely have a chance to talk on the same level as people. My family members are the only people that treat me like a normal person.

Arthur didn't care for pretenses. He treated me like anyone else. He would insult me, disagree with me, say no to me, and challenge me. He told me when I had food on my face at dinner, and he would tell me when he wanted to do something, as opposed to assuming that he just had to do whatever I wanted to do for the entire day. There was no 'yes your majesty' or 'as you wish, sire' or anything like that. There was just 'Alfred' and 'you git' and 'get your arse over here, would you?'

It was kind of awesome.

Yao once told me that I'm not very good at reading people, and I don't know, maybe he's right. But maybe it was because I was once in the same situation, but I could tell how nervous Arthur was at the coronation. I tried my best to reassure him, give him a few heroic smiles and squeeze his shoulder. I think it might have worked! But he still looked kind of awkward at the celebratory ball that night. He had to dance with a lot of girls. Elizaveta, the Queen of Clubs and wife of the Jack of Clubs, Roderich, was the first to ask him. Lea, the very young Queen of Diamonds shyly took his arm next, and I could see her brother glaring at Arthur from the sidelines.

It was all pretty meaningless. Dancing with Arthur was just a way for these women to establish themselves, to make it known who they were. He already knew. I'd been briefing him on this information for the past week. I let out a puff of air and continued to follow Arthur's movements, despite the fact that I had a dance partner myself.

I was sharing a waltz with Mei, one of Yao's younger sisters. After that, I'd told Veronique, a nice girl from the Kingdom of Diamonds, that I'd dance with her.

But I had other ideas.

Once the music had ended I bowed to Mei and thanked her for the dance, and then crossed the room toward Arthur. He started when I tapped him on the shoulder, and my cheeks warmed as he turned around to face me.

"How are you doing, Arthur?" I asked.

Arthur let out a puff of air and shook his head. "As well as I can be, I suppose. I never really liked these parties even as a boy…"

I let out a laugh. "Yeah, you mentioned that. Hey umm…" I scratched the back of my head, nearly knocking off my crown in the process. "I was wondering…"


My cheeks darkened. "Doyouwannadancewithme?"

I shot him a dashing smile.

Well, it was supposed to be dashing and totally heroic, but… I think it came across more dopey and awkward.

Arthur's eyes widened, and his face went red. "Y-you… is that a custom… for the king and queen to share… a dance, that is?"

I shrugged. "Not that I know of." I tried that smile again, but I wasn't much more successful. "I just wanted to ask you… you said that you didn't like girls and so… I wanted to ask you for a dance, a-as Alfred, not as the king."

Arthur's cheeks went from red to deep scarlet, and I swore that he was blushing to the tips of his ears. Huh. It was sort of… cute.

"I-is that proper?"

"Well, firstly, I wouldn't be the only king to be dancing with another man." I gestured toward the King of Hearts, Ludwig, and his partner, the Jack of Hearts, Feliciano, across the ballroom. "Secondly, I… wouldn't really care if it wasn't proper."

He let out the briefest of chuckles at this, and I went forward. I gave a small bow and held out my hand in his direction. "Dance with me, Arthur?"

And hesitantly he took my hand, right as the orchestra began another piece.

My dance with Alfred was about as far as one could get from the romantic first dance in a fairy-tale. We spent the first half of the song stepping all over each other's feet, as both of us were trying to dance the man's part of the waltz. It was only halfway through that I took a deep breath and attempted the woman's part, or what I remembered of it. It wasn't perfect, but at least we weren't smushing each other's toes any longer.

Despite the imperfection though… it was nice; the nicest dance of my evening, no doubt. I tried not to think too much about why Alfred had wanted to dance with me, but I've always been the contemplative type, so I really couldn't stop musing on it.

After the ball, something most unusual happened. Alfred removed all of his garments except for his dress shirt, slacks, and boots, and he ran over to speak to the orchestra, instructing them to stay just a little bit longer. They nodded, as if this were something they already knew they were going to have to do.

I noticed that his family was still in the ballroom. I'd met them earlier. Alfred had enthusiastically introduced me, and they seemed like a nice enough lot. His mother was a petite woman, with a long dark plait down her back and the bright blue eyes that Alfred had inherited. His father was a tall, strong looking blonde with a pair of intense brown eyes and a warm smile. And his twin brother… looked exactly like Alfred, save slightly softer features and hair that he kept a bit longer. He was as timid and quiet as Alfred was outgoing and loud, if possible.

"Did you get to dance with any cute girls?" I overhead Alfred asking his brother, Matthew.

Matthew gave him a weak smile and blushed. "Y-yeah, a couple, but I think they were sort of out of my league, eh."

Alfred slapped his hand on Matthew's shoulder and shook his head. "Matthew, c'mon, no one is out of your league." I expected him to follow it up with 'after all, you're the brother of the king,' or something of the sort, but he didn't. "You're a Jones! Best family in all the four kingdoms. Nah, the world!

I felt a smile tug at the corner of my lips at this. My own family was staying in the city for a few days, I'd found out. I wasn't going to be able to avoid them, I was sure of it…

After a few more minutes of chatting with his family, Alfred motioned the orchestra and they began playing a rollicking number.

And they danced; wild and joyful and full of life. They danced in circles and they twirled, the women's skirts flying, and they clapped and they never stopped smiling. The group started small, just Alfred's family of four. But soon he'd coaxed servants in, a few of his guards, essentially everyone in the room outside me and the orchestra.

I'd seen dancing like this before. Certainly not while I was growing up. Oh no, I never saw anything this raucous and lively and… fun as this when I was growing up. Group dancing consisted of two neat lines or a perfect circle, and switching partners almost mechanically throughout the music. This was the kind of dancing that I saw after I ran away, when I traveled from agricultural villages to seaside villages to mining villages.

Alfred spun his mother out and let go of her, handing her over to Matthew, before turning to me.

"C'mon Arthur!" he shouted, his eyes bright and sparkling behind his spectacles.

"What are you doing?" I asked, crossing my arms.

"Dancin'!" Alfred answered with a laugh. "What does it look like we're doing?"

"Well…" I pursed my lips, "dancing, of course. I just mean that this is a bit unusual."

He laughed louder. "But this is so much more fun than that stuffy dancing at the ball! We do it whenever my family is here. We always did it in our village…"

"You're really something Alfred," I replied, without insult.

Alfred's cheeks pinked, and he scratched the back of his head. "Y'know it's a weird thing to say, and no offense to you, but sometimes I think that those of us who were raised less well-off are better at having fun…"

I just nodded, because… perhaps he was right. In the years I'd spent amongst them, I'd noticed the same thing. It was one of the reasons I so loved rural living. They treasured life, because they understood its worth.

"I never wanna forget that," Alfred continued. "I have all the money and riches in the entire kingdom at my fingertips, but I don't ever want to forget how to have fun."

I chuckled. "Somehow, I don't think that you're in any danger of ever forgetting that."

Alfred beamed. "I know this is the second time I've asked you tonight, but come dance with us?"

"I'm not… very good at this type of dancing," I responded, glancing behind him to the cluster of dancing family and servants. Alfred pouted, and I thought that he rather resembled a kicked puppy. It was damn near impossible to resist. "B-but… I suppose, if you insist."

There was that smile again. That ridiculously charming smile.

I enjoyed the dancing more this time. Alfred would catch my hand often, certainly… more often than he grabbed anyone else's hand, and we danced until we were soaked with sweat and smiling and laughing and just so bloody tired. I wasn't very good at it, as predicted. I was much more used to formal dancing, and although I'd watched many village dances, I hadn't participated in them.

I had never seen Alfred look so happy, which was impressive, considering how happy he usually looked. He really was still that country boy, and there was no escaping it for him. But… perhaps it was a good thing. If he truly never allowed it to change him, he'd be able to bring a new perspective to the monarchy, a new way of looking at things. Maybe that 'God' or whoever marked us or chose us for these rules wasn't so foolish in choosing Alfred F. Jones.

Alfred's family had already been escorted to their guestrooms for the night, so it was just Alfred, me, and a few servants.

He snatched my hand, and I turned to him. He had his removed royal attire over his shoulder, and his crown thrown lopsidedly atop his head. "C'mon Arthur. We should probably go to bed. I just saw you yawn!"

"Idiot, you're yawning too."

"Yeah, well I'm a hero. I'm used to staying up all night doing… things," he retorted.

My cheeks flushed at this.

"I-I mean not like that!" Alfred gestured wildly, his blue eyes wide. "I mean, like… king stuff and all of that."

"O-of course." I cleared my throat.

"A-anyway…" He raked a hand through his hair. "I'm going to bed as well. I just wanted to escort you upstairs. Y'know… it was a big day for you and-"

"I'm perfectly capable of walking up to my room, Alfred."

"I know you are…"

I slid my eyes closed for a moment and exhaled. "I-if you insist…"

"I do." He shot me a goofy looking smile, although I have a feeling he was going for dashing, and offered me his arm. With a bright blush, I linked my arm in his.

We walked up to my room in near silence, Alfred only punctuating it to tell me that a servant would be sent in at eight a.m. the next morning to wake me up and help me get ready. "There will be a big feast for breakfast at ten a.m. Do you want me to invite your family?"

I hesitated a moment before nodding. "Y-yes, I suppose that would be for the best. I'm going to have to speak to them at some point…"

"It'll be fine, Arthur. I'm sure it will!" He smiled.

I sighed. "I hope you're right…"

"Of course I am!"

When we got to my door, elaborate and carved and covered in silver filigree, Alfred unlinked his arm. I pushed open the massive door, but Alfred snatched my hand.

He had that look on his face again, and he was rubbing the back of his head once more. "Hey… you know, I know you don't want to do it, b-but… I really think you're going to make an awesome queen, Arthur."

"T-thank you," I replied, my cheeks stained pink.

"And um… today was," he cleared his throat, "today was great. It's the best time I've had at one of these things for a long time." He let out a short, nervous laugh. "It was sort of standard at first, but after I d-danced with you… well I think it might have been because you were there."

Alfred's face was flushed as well. God he was so… so bloody cute.

"I feel the same," I said, and my voice sounded a bit hoarse. The hallway was completely empty, despite its vastness. It was just me and Alfred and… he was awfully close, his hand in mine and me leaning against the door.

"Great! Amazing, even," Alfred said, shooting me a weak, shy smile. "A-anyway, g'night. You know if you need anything, my room is right next door and-"

Alfred had asked me to dance twice in one night, he'd escorted me up to his room arm in arm, and I… might have been overthinking it, but he did keep engaging in small gestures like grabbing my hand and squeezing my shoulder. He was a tad sloppy about it, but he'd been a right gentleman toward me the entire day.

Perhaps it was nothing. Perhaps Alfred was just trying to make me feel comfortable, considering the whole… situation with me not desiring this position. I had no idea. Although, that being said, squeezing my shoulder to comfort me was one thing, but I didn't really understand how dancing and escorting me up to my room with his arm linked in mine fit with that idea.

It almost appeared as if he was courting me, and maybe, just perhaps, he was waiting for me to do something in return.

"Wait," I interrupted against my better judgment.

And I squeezed his hand, leaned up, and pressed a brief, chaste kiss to his cheek.

Alfred's blue eyes grew huge, and his face went from pink to crimson. "A-Arthur?"

"Y-you sleep well," I said, clearing my throat and willing the warmth in my face to dissipate. "And no staying up late reading adventure journals like you did the other night. Y-you're a king and you have a job to do. You can't be yawning at this breakfast and-"

My words were cut off (although I was just babbling anyway) by Alfred wrapping me in a warm embrace, his face resting on my shoulder and one of his hands drawing circles on my back. "Yeah, yeah. Night Arthur," he whispered into my ear, and I felt a shiver, a good shiver run down my spine.

He pulled apart, gently ran a hand down my flushed cheek, and smiled, before turning to walk away.

I went into my bedroom and closed the door once I'd ascertained that he'd made it to his room, and despite being utterly exhausted, it took me an hour to fall asleep. My mind wouldn't cease swimming in thought and contemplation, and it was high on something that I might have called hope.