Alfred woke to the sight of Arthur's sleeping form a foot away from him, lips slightly ajar, eyebrows unfurrowed. Even after six days of it, he felt disorientated for a moment, before grinning to himself. Because how awesome was it that he got to wake up, every single morning, to Arthur?
Pretty damn awesome, he decided, reaching out to pull Arthur close, burrowing his face into the crook of Arthur's shoulder, receiving only a mumble in response, and a hand coming to rest at his waist.
At Arthur's insistence, they hadn't told anyone yet, much to Alfred's displeasure. It was an amazing development, wasn't it? He wanted to tell everyone the second they got back to the castle. Mattie, Yao, the girl who came in to fix his sheets every morning, everyone. Arthur disagreed. He had gone pink for a moment, after Alfred had very loudly told him who he would like to tell exactly, about their new relationship, before recovering himself.
Too many things going on at once, he had insisted, the light blush on his cheeks counterpoint to the matter-of-fact tone of his voice. "The kingdom's already had enough surprises this month," Arthur had muttered, idly toying with the thickly embroidered curtains facing the castle gardens, and the distrcts beyond.
Alfred's proclamations of how pretty much everyone already thought they were together anyway didn't seem to hold much weight, as Arthur had coloured up even more, pushing away from the window ledge to huff his way to the other side of the room. They had come to a strange kind of stalemated-concession with Arthur falling asleep on Alfred's bed, head against his shoulder, where he slept till the morning.
Half-waking up to, or getting woken up by Arthur before he left the room for six mornings in the row was a pretty awesome concession, Alfred had thought. And the sleepy kiss Arthur would give him (disregarding the morning breath) wasn't too bad too. They tried to act as normally as possible at all other times during the day, trying not to draw too much attention to their new relationship. While Arthur kept this up fairly well, Alfred frankly, couldn't see the point in it. They were going to find out some time, right? Unless...
Unless Arthur doesn't want people to know that we're together?
The thought unsettled him, kept him staring at Arthur's sleeping face for a few extra moments every morning, wondering if Arthur was ashamed of him, somehow? That him not wanting to tell the people that they were formally a couple went beyond Queenly concern for the state of the country? Alfred worried at his lower lip, considering. It was possible, as much as he would like to think otherwise. Didn't Arthur always call him childish, if not a child? Granted, he hadn't said that for a while now, but still...
"Something wrong?" Arthur mumbled, sleepily opening his eyes to frown at Alfred. His thumb came up to smooth at Alfred's temple, rubbing gently. "You look... Worried."
Alfred stared at him for a moment longer, studying how Arthur squinted at the early morning sun, eyebrows bunching together, the way his own temples were creased ever so slightly, while he tried to smooth Alfred's out.
The occasional kiss and hug and sleeping together were all very well, but Alfred was never that great at keeping his worries to himself.
"Arthur, I need to ask you something." He finally said, steeling himself for what was to come. Arthur seemed to notice, as sleep-rumpled and soft as he looked, as his frown set itself deeper. "It's really important, and you shouldn't... Hide anything, alright? Because I really need to know, right now. Because if we carry on like this and you tell me like, a lot later, I don't know if I'll be able to-"
"Out with it, Alfred," Arthur cut in, impatient and focused, his eyes trained on Alfred's face the whole time, and it was exactly that kind of concentration and attention Arthur paid him which really made Alfred antsy about the answer.
"Are you embarrassed of us, Artie?" Alfred blurted.
"What-? Why would you-"
"No wait, listen to me, okay?" Alfred interrupted, covering Arthur's mouth with his hands to make his point. "I-I mean, you always say that I'm... Childish and immature and stuff so I could... Kinda understand why you'd be embarrassed but... I mean, at the same time, I really don't want you to be. I mean. I'm really really really happy that we're together Artie, and I wouldn't give that up for anything. Ever. And I want everyone to know that yeah?" He felt his brows furrow in concentration, Arthur's lips moving behind his hand, his voice coming out muffled.
"And," he carried on, "if you really think its a problem then... You have to tell me okay? I can um, try to change or something. I mean, it's kinda hard and stuff but I really want to be a good king and... I want to be someone that you can be proud of being with, Artie," he finished, biting his lower lip nervously. He hadn't actually fully thought out what he wanted to say, but Arthur waking up and just looking at him like that had startled him into talking.
Arthur stared at him for a moment, mouth unmoving, seemingly digesting his words as Alfred continued to watch on, nervous. Finally, Arthur's hand came up, gently removing Alfred's own from his mouth.
"Alfred," he said, very seriously, brows furrowing gently again, "I'm not ashamed of you, and I'm- I'm not just saying that. I..." He paused, eyes averted, considering his words. "I wouldn't want change anything about you, Alfred," he admitted. "And I probably couldn't anyway because..." Arthur rolled his eyes, "Well. That's besides the point."
Alfred continued to watch as Arthur sat up, carding his fingers through his hair frustratedly. "I..." He seemed to battle with his words, fighting for the right ones to the death. "I... Like who you are, even your faults because..." Arthur shrugged, and from Alfred's position, he could see his ears pinking.
"Because it's a part of who you are. And I like that. So..." Arthur sighed, leaning back against the solid wooden headboard, looking back down at Alfred again, the pink in his cheeks rising. "So no. I'm not ashamed of you." Staring down at Alfred like that, a moment passed, and his brows came together in confusion again. "Why the sudden question though? Did I do anything that um, made you think that I was embarrassed about us being..." His hand waved vaguely in the space between the two of them, "together?"
"You didn't want to tell anyone about us," Alfred mumbled, on the verge of self-consciousness, because he had not been expecting Arthur to say that. Stoic, dry, humorless Arthur so explicitly admitting that he liked Alfred, liked him for his faults and all, and almost wiping Alfred's mind clear of any doubt.
"You said it was because there was too much happening in the kingdom already, and that anything else would just add to it but..." Alfred frowned, pushing himself up as well, to sit cross-legged, facing Arthur. "I dunno," he confessed. "I was worried that you just... Didn't want people to know that we were a couple."
He watched carefully, as Arthur's eyes widened, before he looked down again, hand coming up to rub at his eyes. "Ohhh. Alfred- No- I just-" A sigh, and Arthur kept his head down.
"I was worried," he muttered, so soft that Alfred barely caught it. "About... Us."
"What?" Alfred asked, puzzled. "Why?"
Arthur paused again before speaking. "Worried that this... Relationship between us wouldn't last. That you'd... Get sick of me quickly because, I am, well. I am who I am and- you're young and so full of life and I'm... Not." Arthur finished, a silence hanging between them as Alfred processed his words.
Alfred flew forward, hands on Arthur's shoulders, shaking him to look him in the eye before he could really think about it.
"Don't be stupid!" Alfred shouted, irritated and upset. "Why would I- No! I wouldn't have said everything that day if I didn't know that I wanted you for good!" He bit out, staring at Arthur straight in his slightly-widened eyes.
"And I do! I do want you. Forever!" He repeated, because well. Important things bear repeating. And Alfred wanted it to be known, wanted Arthur to have it drilled into that probably-bordering-on-senile mind of his, because how else could he not have known?
He knew that forever was a strong word, and an idle remark from the baker down at Blake Street came to mind. Something about only the gods being able to talk in terms of forevers, and how forever was not a word to be trifled with, for Man would just be tempting fate, but Alfred couldn't help his words right now anymore than he could help breathing.
"Words are easy, Alfred," Arthur said, voice measured and false-steady, not quite meeting Alfred's eyes, which he hated. He didn't want this kind of evasion, he thought that they were already past that, past the narrow misses which gaped chasms of space and concealed intent.
"Well then," Alfred frowned, serious. "you're gonna have to just trust me."
Arthur looked at him then, straight in the eyes, his head cocked slightly, considering. He studied Alfred for another long moment, before finally cracking a small smile.
"I suppose so then," he breathed, the smile hooking at the corners of his lips, causing Alfred to smile back at him in response.
"Good," Alfred grinned, leaning in to press Arthur against the headboard in a kiss. He could feel Arthur's smile, twin to his, behind the soft press of his lips. Aside from waking up to a face full of tawny blond hair sometimes, and those smiles Arthur seemed to only have for him, he was pretty sure that this was the awesomest thing ever too. Alfred couldn't imagine himself getting sick of kissing Arthur. The idea was ridiculous! He-
Alfred found himself being very physically shoved away, landing on the opposite end of the bed with a solid thump, blinking disorientatedly at an upside-down Yao and Sandy, one of the maids who brought in his breakfast every Sunday and-
"A-Aha," laughed Alfred nervously. "Hi?"
"W-We weren't-" Arthur spluttered at the same time, and Alfred couldn't see him right then, but he was pretty sure his face was going red again.
"Relax, aru," Yao said, rolling his eyes. "You look like you've been caught doing something illegal."
"As if the whole castle didn't already think you two were..." He looked at their positions, "... Bedding together. Do you know how loud you two are when you talk?" Yao demanded, shooing the maid forth to place the tray onto the table. He nodded towards her, shooting the two of them a look. "Everyone in the wing could hear aru, and as much as you are allowed to do whatever pleases you, your highnesses," he said, with absolute dryness.
"The maid was fretting in the corridor as she wasn't sure if she should knock or not so," he made a derisive noise, eying them both. "If you could, your highnesses, please keep it to a lower volume. Sandy, please bring my breakfast into the Jack's study." And with that, he left the room, leaving a tray with two plates (two plates? So the maid knew...?) of pancakes, butter melted and dripping, with a jug of maple syrup.
There was an awkward silence in the room, broken only by the growling of Alfred's stomach. Arthur shot him a look, as Alfred shrugged helplessly. "I'm hungry," he explained, tugging himself up to a sitting position.
"Also, told you that everyone knew about it already- Ow!" He cried, rubbing the spot on his shoulder where Arthur had whacked him, as Arthur stood up to retrieve the breakfast tray.
"Some maple syrup, your highness?" He offered, mock sweetly, and Alfred found himself laughing, reaching for the syrup jar himself.
"The lists you requested for, your highnesses."
Arthur looked up from the pile of papers atop his desk, and Alfred had startled, nearly dropping the papers he was reading whilst casually sprawled out on the couch in Arthur's study.
Isaac raised an eyebrow, regarding Alfred with a slightly amused look in his eyes as he tried to straighten his coat, a little too rigid and straight and flustered to help in his attempt to regain what little kingly composure he was supposed to have.
"You don't really have to call us that in private, Isaac." Arthur coughed, shooting Alfred a look (that he returned with an indignant pout) as he stood up to walk over to where the elder Time Mage was standing. "It's awkward enough in court."
"Ah, but it is only right for us to express our gratitude to the King, for allowing us the honour of being immediately raised to advisors of the Court despite our absence for the past fifteen years."
Alfred spluttered a bit. "N-no! I mean, of course it's a pleasure to have you guys back and all that, but it's not really the honour, and well, you guys know the situation with the rest of the Time Mages better than I do, and so it's only right for me to ask you guys about how to deal with uhm, you guys, and all that..." He trailed off, looking increasingly sheepish as he he continued. "... That probably wasn't supposed to sound like that."
Arthur sighed, and Isaac chuckled, shaking his head slightly.
The decisions that had to be made regarding the Time Mages were a lot more confusing than Alfred had initially thought they would be. Relocation was definitely an issue; new homes had to be built and new jobs introduced. That was all he had considered though, and he had panicked when Arthur had asked him if it would be better to relocate all the Time Mages in one area, or if it would be better to spread them out amongst the other citizens of the Kingdom.
Both ways, Arthur had told him rather grimly whilst rubbing at his temples, would give way to problems. Would the Time Mages be worried that they were being rounded up in an enclosure if they were all relocated to the same area? Or would they detest being spread so thin, as if the Court still saw them as a threat and was trying to keep them from banding together?
Alfred had faltered then. And that wasn't even the start of all the other things they had to consider.
They had turned to Isaac then, out of Alfred's insistence on not making a decision without the input of the Time Mages themselves. The Time Mage had agreed to take the issue to the rest of the Time Mages, and that had somehow transgressed into Alfred deciding that they might as well open up positions in the Court for Isaac and two other elder Time Mages. The rest of the Court had been slightly sullen, but if anything, they said nothing and accepted the increase of three new seats around the table.
A month had past since then, and the entire castle found themselves a little too busy with everything else to stop and think about that.
"The names of all the Time Mages and their choice of neighbourhood, signed and personally approved by each individual." Isaac passed the scroll in his hands over to Arthur, who unrolled it and threw a worried glance at him. "Don't give me that look. I'm a Time Mage, I can't read their minds and tell you if they are truly fine with the arrangement. But they all understand the situation, and this is the decision we have come to. Together."
Alfred watched as Arthur dropped his gaze slowly and nodded. Their relations with the rest of the Time Mages, at its best, had been awkward. Isaac seemed to be comparitively amiable though, taking the time to sit through meetings and providing solid communication channels between the Court and the Time Mages. It couldn't be helped, Arthur had told him one night - a little distant and distracted from the thoughts in his head - too many things had happened, and it would be asking for too much if they expected the rest of the Time Mages to come to terms with the new situation that easily. It was good that they had chosen to return, and that Isaac had conceded to his argument, and if that meant that both sides had to tiptoe around each other for the next few years or so then, well, there was that.
To Alfred, it was troubling. He wanted to be there, directly involved in the lives of his people. All his people. Even if they were a new group of less than a hundred, gone for fifteen years, forced to bear upon them the sufferings caused by his own father. He wanted to be there to watch them move into their new houses, ask them what they felt, if the new jobs were okay, if they liked their new neighbours, if they liked their new kingdom...
If they liked their new King.
But Arthur had insisted that they left communication with the Time Mages to Isaac for now. That perhaps the rest of the Time Mages wouldn't want to have to deal with them for now. The son of the man who killed the rest of their kin, and the friend of said man who didn't stop the rest of the tragedy when he could.
Arthur had stopped talking about the massacre as if it was his fault, but Alfred wasn't too sure if he had truly come to terms with the past. He wasn't sure if he himself had truly come to terms with the past. Sometimes he would wonder out loud at Matthew, who would smile a small, pained smile at him, and then the two of them would sit there in silence for several minutes, just thinking about it all.
The blood of the past and the madness of their father and the pain that sat in the depths of the hearts of everyone else involved.
And then it was back to business.
"Checked with the rest of them during the meeting this morning," Alfred kicked himself off the couch, "The new districts we're building in the east are more or less ready, so we can move the group out of the temporary shelters over there pretty soon?" He could feel Arthur jump slightly when he placed a hand over his shoulder, and he threw him a grin at that. "That means that another ten Time Mages have new homes yea? Of course, we'll need to inform the other residents that we're relocating from the Lower Towns about that too."
"Job-wise?" Arthur turned to Isaac. The terseness in his shoulders had given way though, and Alfred took that as a sign that this was alright for now.
"No complaints as of yet. The women seem to be getting along with their new employers." Isaac paused for a moment, before turning to Alfred. "They send you their thanks."
Alfred pinked slightly, mouth cracking into an involuntary grin. "It's nothing really. Gotta thank everyone else for being so willing to help too yea?"
Several job openings were negotiated and created by "Alex" who went around talking to friends and owners of various businesses to see if they could do with an extra helping hand. Of course, the Court had its share in creating new jobs and businesses, but as both Arthur and Isaac pointed out, it was probably not too wise to suddenly create too many businesses purely run by Time Mages. Integration back into the greater community was rather high on their priority list, and Alfred agreed that working together with the rest of the citizens would probably make the Time Mages feel more welcomed and 'back at home'. Several openings in the factories were opened for the men, a few empty slots in the army filled by the more battle-ready Time Mages, and the women found their places in bakeries and clothing shops.
Everything was going good, if Alfred had to say anything about the current situation, but at the same time he wasn't entirely sure about it all. He was naive, Arthur had stated that several times, and for some reason Alfred had a hunch that Yao and Isaac shared the same sentiments. Was it naive that he thought that everything was okay then?
"As your highness says." Isaac took a bow before looking over to Arthur. "If that's all, Arthur, I'll take my leave."
Arthur nodded, eyes still trained on the list in his hands. He only raised his gaze for a moment. "Thank you." Isaac shrugged, a half-smile on his face.
And then he was gone.
Alfred deflated, resting his chin on Arthur's shoulder, staring at the list that Arthur refused to roll up. "What's wrong?" He asked.
"What's wrong?" Arthur echoed, wrinkling up his nose slightly as he shifted to look at Alfred. "Nothing?"
"But you've been staring at this same thing for ages!" Alfred gestured at the list of names, "Gotta be something wrong, unless you're trying to memorize all their names."
Arthur snorted. "No, it's not that. I was just..." He paused for a moment. "Thinking."
Alfred resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Out with it Artie." One month, and Arthur was still in his bad habit of shrugging off things with a vague answer. It was Arthur of course, and this was what Arthur did, but surely now that they were partners, that Arthur had accepted the fact that Alfred was his equal-
"... I'm just..." Arthur exhaled, walking away from Alfred to place the scroll of paper on his desk, staring pointedly out of the window. "... I'm not sure if this is alright the way it is."
Alfred blinked. "What- Of course it's alright! I mean, the Kingdom's in a much better state than what it used to be, trade relations are good, the Time Mages are back home-"
"That's the problem." came the slightly choked out reply.
"T-the fact that it's alright?" Because surely that was ridiculous, Alfred argued with himself, Arthur was just being a worrywart because that was how he was, because there was no way he could not worry even if the situation was perfectly worry-free. But yet there was something at the base of his stomach, cold and chilly and so ready to become fully existent-
"... Sometimes not everyone is ready to let things like this drop." Arthur muttered, eyes trained on the skyline of the lower towns. "Sometimes people need closure, and we're not giving it to them."
"We are, Arthur. We're... I don't know, we're making things better and they have homes and jobs now." Alfred tried, he really did. He wanted to deny the feeling in his gut that he knew exactly what Arthur was talking about. That this was not closure at all. (Because it wasn't for him either. Not for him. Not for Matthew. Not for Arthur.)
Arthur threw him a sideways glance over his shoulder, his mouth quirking up slightly. It felt more like a grimace than a smile. "I suppose you're right."
Alfred had a feeling that they both knew he wasn't.
The first sign of a disturbance had come at night, wedged in-between sleep and consciousness.
Next to him Alfred was still asleep, snoring lightly and drooling on his pillow. The night was still dark. And there was a strange tension in the air. Time Magic, he could tell, but not the kind he had experienced before - it was a strange twisting in the atmosphere that contorted the insides of his stomach.
Something was wrong.
Alfred stirred slightly when he shifted out of bed and grabbed for his coat, but showed no other signs of waking up.
It could be a displeased Time Mage, Arthur thought to himself, reaching for his sword. Though at the same time he doubted that, because the scent of magic was too weak. Just a few people. And it wasn't as if they didn't know that Alfred wasn't affected by Time Magic, and that Arthur himself was in the castle.
It would be too stupid.
But the presence of magic was there. The darkened corridors were silent. It was that time of night where even the servants were asleep. Arthur moved silently, contemplating if he should wake a few guards at least. Maybe Alfred, even. But what if that caused un-needed panic? The tensions between the castle and the Time Mages were already bad enough.
As he ascended the stairs to the roof Arthur could feel the cold in his stomach expand. He didn't know this brand of Time Magic. It was alien to his senses, like a foreign presence in the threads of time. And Arthur knew most Time Magic. The fact that this was foreign could only mean one thing, and Arthur forgot about being quiet and inconspicuous, he forgot about stealth, about caution, about making sure the increasing tensions would not get worse-
"What in the bloody hell do you think you're-"
It was really an unneeded question. By the time Arthur threw open the wooden doors leading to the main roof of the castle he had already known instinctively the nature of the magic involved.
The five Time Mages on the roof were all hooded and cloaked. The large circles they had etched into the ground resembled giant clock faces, swirling, looping and unraveling into each other and back again. Arthur cursed when he realised that they were already glowing.
He needed to cancel the spell. Not that he knew how to do it. But if his gut feeling was right, and what they were casting really was what he thought they were-
There was a flash of light, and the only thought that registered in Arthur's head before that was a simple I told you so.
We know, we know, you must've thought we were dead D: And yes it's been a ridiculously long time since we've updated, we're really sorry! But life happened, then vacation(s), but now we're back! A warning though, we're now juggling multiple projects, so updates might be a little while coming! Still, we hope that you enjoyed this chapter, and that you'll continue to follow and support us. Much love for all of the favourites and reviews, it's always a pleasant surprise to get new ones in our inbox (even for Heartstrings and our other stories omg)! Have a great week, and we'll see you again soon!