Author's note: ...If I still have any readers left, I'll just make a plain and quiet apology to you. Instead of making any excuses, I'll just say that life (and lifelessness) happened, hence the terribly long gap between updates. I'm sincerely sorry.
Without further ado, let us just go straight to the grande finale. Thank you so much for (possibly) baring with me till the end, I hope you enjoyed this story despite everything! :)
No, wait! One more thing to say. You guys know the new animation The Rise of Guardians? I saw the trailer, and damn me if the Frost guy (Jack the Frost or what's his name?) isn't a shocking likeness of Gilbert! He resembles him both by looks and nature (though he has blue eyes), and I believe I've fallen in love with him. XD I seriously need to see that film.
So that's that. Now on to the story!
Prince's Hand And Half of the Kingdom
With Francis gone, life in the castle wasn't quite the same any more. Somehow the absence of the Frenchman made him even more present in the young Prince's mind, which didn't really make any sense at all and thus shouldn't be bothering Arthur.
Needless to say, it bothered him nonetheless.
Stupid comments of stupid servants made it all so much worse that Arthur thought he would snap at any second now. "When m'lord Francis is back he won't even recognise the castle any more," some simple-minded girl decorating the ballroom would say. "When m'lord Francis is back he might say his opinion about the onion pie I'm going to make for the wedding," some dough-brained cook would tell proudly. It all made Arthur sick; when my fucking lord Francis was back he would do this and see that and blah blah bloody blah. Arthur wanted to scream at them, shout from the top of his lungs that Francis wasn't coming back so would they be so kind and get over it and let him be, because the constant reminders about the stupid Frenchman were driving him crazy. It was incredibly frustrating to find that even when Francis himself was gone, his ghost kept tormenting Arthur in every corner of the castle.
His irritability didn't go unnoticed by his father, but the good King Lionheart did not comment on it. He would only glance at his son every now and then, furrow his brows and sometimes shake his head barely noticeably – but he would not utter a word. If truth be told, the King was somewhat at loss with his son's apparent misery; he could not understand – and refused to believe – that Arthur would get so upset only because his fiancé was out for a couple of days. Yet the lad idled around the castle forlornly or moped in his chambers, looking overall ready to butcher anyone who dared disturb his splendid sulking. Arthur's behaviour didn't make very much sense to Lionheart, so all there was left for the King to suspect was that Arthur and Francis had probably fought before the Frenchman's departure and the fight had been even nastier than usually.
Oh well, King Lionheart thought, as soon as Francis was back, the two lovebirds would undoubtedly make up and Arthur would be back to normal again, and the two of them would get married. And then...
And then it would be about time for the King to step aside and let the young make their own path. Arthur would soon be ready to carry the burden of the crown, whether the lad himself was aware of it or not, and now that Arthur had finally found someone trustworthy to stand by his side, King Lionheart was able to put his mind to rest. Whatever happened in the future, his son would not have to face it alone.
Of course, had Arthur known of his father's musings, he would have been eager to ruin them by telling that Francis was not coming back, not now not ever, so the King would have to trouble his mind some more. But as the Prince was oblivious to such thoughts, the King was allowed to keep his peace. The same couldn't be said about his son, and as Arthur found that he couldn't find any solace within the castle walls, he would have to try to find it elsewhere.
There were only two places that Arthur could think of where no one would remind him of a certain someone, and those were, first, the stable area where Romano ruled; the grumpy Italian had (wisely) never taken any liking in the Frenchman. On the other hand, he had apparently fallen for that same Frenchman's even more obnoxious friend, so maybe he wasn't all that wise in the end. However, the second Francis-less place was Arthur's peaceful creek outside the town walls, and that was where he now intended to ride.
"Macbeth?" Romano asked when he saw Arthur entering the stables.
Arthur watched Romano as the man started to saddle the horse for him. He had never spared a thought to Romano's private life before, but now, when they were in sort of the same situation, he couldn't help wondering how Romano would react when Gilbert was announced dead or missing. Arthur hadn't even suspected that there would be any kind of attraction between the two stablemen, but when Francis had pointed it out, he figured it made sense, in a way.
"The hell are you staring at."
The Italian's angry voice snapped Arthur out of his thoughts, and he realised he indeed had been staring at Romano. "Nothing that concerns you," he lied, took the horse and rode off.
The evening breeze sent chills running down Arthur's spine as his mare galloped through the woods towards the Englishman's secret hiding place. The creek with its surrounding quiet trees and slowly flowing water had never failed to fill him with peace, and now he needed that peace more than ever. Francis had been away one night and almost two days already, and Arthur awaited the second night with dread; if it was anything like the first night, it promised him no sleep, only torturing thoughts or restless slumber filled with messy visions. He hoped that visiting his sacred shrine of peace would soothe him enough to keep the nightmares away and maybe even grant him if not peace, then at least insensibility to end the pain in his chest.
However, it appeared that at the moment of truth, when Arthur was in the most desperate need of solace, the creek betrayed him. It was not peace he found there, but a living memory of how he had brought Francis there and, by the way, managed to make an utter fool of himself. The memory forced an unwilling, small chuckle out of the Prince, but it left a bitter taste in his mouth so he pressed his lips together and decided to stay quiet.
Arthur did remain quiet for several whole minutes, but then he lay on his stomach, leaning over the riverbank, and saw his own reflection in the water. The reflection had an unimpressed, slightly blaming expression on its face, so the Englishman started to feel an urge to explain to it. "He's been gone for two days now," he started tentatively. When the reflection's expression remained the same, Arthur continued. "Francis, I mean. He has left never to return. As we agreed. As we had wanted."
He paused. Maybe it was just water doing tricks on him, but the reflection seemed to raise its eyebrow. "We had wanted," Arthur answered to it defensively. "We had. But... I just, I don't think that I want it any more."
Oh, really? the reflection seemed to utter sarcastically, with its eyes.
"Fine, I don't want it any more!" Arthur snapped at it. Then he sighed. "I wish he would have stayed. I, I wish I could have asked him to."
Why didn't you? Asked the reflection, as if it would have been that easy.
"It's complicated," Arthur said quietly, thinking of the curse and Francis' freedom-longing heart and his own insecurity. The reflection rolled its eyes, and Arthur got angry at it. "Don't you judge me, fucking smartass!" he yelled, ripping out a handful of grass and throwing it at his face-making reflection in fury. The action lacked the desired dramatic effect as pieces of grass floated unhurriedly in the air before softly landing on the surface of water, peacefully flowing away with the stream. Arthur watched them go.
"This isn't easy," he explained wearily to his reflection. "This is new to me. To feel like this."
How exactly? the reflection wanted to know.
"What a nosy thing you are," Arthur snorted. "It's none of your business. Besides..." He hesitated. "I'm not quite sure myself. Like I said, I haven't been in love before, so I can't-"
He froze. The reflection smirked at him.
"Shut up!" Arthur exclaimed, splashing the water with his hand. A wave of hot tingling washed over him, and he didn't need to see his own reflection to know that he was blushing madly. What on earth had he just said? Love? In love? He, in love with Francis? Wasn't that slightly exaggerated a statement? But when Arthur thought about Francis and his never-return, he got a feeling that no, it wasn't exaggeration. And it wasn't a side effect, either, like he had thought (or made himself think). It truly must have been – God save him – love.
You are such a coward, said the reflection. You knew all along but were too afraid to admit it even to yourself.
"No," Arthur protested weakly, but he knew it was no use. Besides, it didn't matter what the truth was, because it was probably already established bloody well enough that Francis Bonnefoy was gone.
Not liking the stupid expression of his reflection, Arthur withdrew from the river and sat down against a tree. He didn't feel one bit better despite the peace around him, so he sulkily wrapped himself in his misery, determined to forget the stupid Frenchman... after just a little more self-pity.
How long Arthur remained at the creek he did not know, but when he finally decided it was time to head back to the castle, sun had already set and it was almost dark. The air had turned chilly, too. Wrapping his cloak better around himself and setting back to the castle, Arthur wondered how time had passed without him even noticing. Good thing that father still believes I'm marrying Francis, the Englishman thought with grim amusement. Otherwise he would have made another announcement about my hand already. The thought was actually somewhat alarming; now that Arthur had seen what stupid ideas his father could get, it was best not to be absent from the castle for too long from now on. Otherwise, who knew, one day Arthur might find himself engaged with another random passer-by. Though, probably even King Lionheart had learnt from his mistake – the King would hardly risk getting any other Frenchies in his castle.
The town was preparing for the night when Arthur returned; hardly any people could be seen on the streets. The same applied for the castle area – only the guards on duty walked their paths. Arthur hoped sincerely that Romano was already sleeping, too, because if he wasn't, he was going to give Arthur a hell of a lecture about not returning the horse earlier. It would have been adorable how deeply the Italian cared for the animals, had he not abused people instead.
Thankfully, when Arthur entered the stables (as quietly as he could, not to wake Romano up in case he was sleeping), indeed, the Italian was nowhere to be seen. Arthur lit a lantern and unsaddled Macbeth, watered her and brushed her sides, and when he was ready, made sure to put out the flame in the lantern; he didn't want to burn the stables down, Romano would skin him for that.
But Arthur didn't make it to the door of the stables. He heard some faint shuffling, but before he could react in any way, rough arms grabbed him and slammed him against a stall with so much force that the walls shook.
"What the-" Arthur started, but was cut off. A hand snaked around his throat, but that wasn't enough to silence a man like Arthur. What made him swallow his words instead was the voice that spoke.
"Quiet," that voice commanded, and at that moment Arthur forgot how to talk.
Because curse him (again) if there was any other voice with that particular French accent as Francis'.
"F-Francis?" he stammered, and the hand on his throat twitched. It was too dark to see any facial features, but Arthur was sure he could distinguish specifically Francis' form, no one other's, and recognise his scent. It was Francis, it had to be.
That, or then the evil frog was playing its tricks on him again.
"Quiet, I said," Francis – now Arthur was absolutely certain it was him – repeated his command. A sudden wave of illegally overwhelming joy washed over the Englishman, paralysing him momentarily. There was a moment of stillness in the dark stable, only two men breathing slightly louder than usually. During that moment, when neither of them did or said anything, confusion followed the joy, and so Arthur was the first to break the silence.
"Francis," he breathed, scared to speak too loudly, in fear it might make Francis disappear. "Why are you here?"
"Oh?" The Frenchman seemed to hold his breath for half a moment, but then again, it might have been Arthur's imagination. "Don't you want me to be, my dearest betrothed?"
The rush of happiness that had filled Arthur mere moments ago now died as suddenly as it had appeared. The Englishman stared at Francis in dismay – his eyes had got used to the dark so now he could actually see his frame, if not the face completely. But what the hell was that? Arthur had practically felt ice dropping off every word that had left Francis' lips. Only then did he also realise that slamming somebody against a wall and grabbing their throat wasn't too nice a way to greet a person, especially if that person happened to be their fiancé. An unwilling fiancé perhaps, but a fiancé nonetheless.
Arthur felt a sting of hurt in his chest but refused to acknowledge it, and gave way to rising anger instead. Anger was always easier that hurt. Anger was the best attack and the best defence. And anger was always better than confusion.
"What the hell, Francis?" he demanded, swatting the Frenchman's hand away from his throat.
"That is precisely my question, Arthur dear," Francis hissed back. "I don't know what you think of me, but I do not take it lightly to be treated like scum."
"Scum?" Arthur blinked. "What are you talking about?"
"You know very well what I'm talking about, Arthur. You you can't even begin to imagine how my hands are itching to strangle you right here and now, or better even, drive a sword through your heart to give you a taste of what you put me through."
What? Shocked, Arthur stared at Francis. Never before had he heard such venom in the Frenchman's voice, never such pure, raw malice, and it made him falter. "Are you mad?"
Francis uttered a bitter laughter. "Perhaps I truly am, for not seeing what a treacherous little thing you truly are."
"Then what did you come here for?" Arthur exploded in frustration, having had enough. He didn't understand. Why the hell did Francis bother returning just to tell him how much he hated him, if he could be leagues away already? The man made no sense at all.
Arthur's question, however, seemed to have hit the bull's eye; Francis visibly hesitated, as if not even himself knowing the answer. "I..." Then he got a grip on himself. "I want you to admit everything yourself, and then I'll be gone for good."
"What the bloody hell is it you want me to admit?"
Arthur's angrily yelled question did not seem to please the Frenchman. For a moment Arthur was sure that he would hit him, or crash his head against the wall, or something equally brutal, but nothing of the sort happened. Instead, Francis forced himself to calm, and when he spoke, his voice was piercingly cold. "You despicable tease," he growled. "Do you deny that the whole time I spent in the castle you were trying to worm into my heart and make me kiss you, all just in order to get rid of me?"
Well. Arthur couldn't really deny that.
"Do you deny it?" Francis repeated.
"No," Arthur said, weakly. Once again, Francis had unarmed him. But to what purpose? Was he really that angry because he had been used, in a way, to rid Arthur of his curse? Was there reason enough to return all the way to the castle, just to hear Arthur admitting it? Maybe there was, then. Pride could make men act insensibly. Arthur, of all, should know that.
"Oh." Surprisingly, the Frenchman's rage seemed to desert him at that. Silence between them turned awkward, as if neither knew what to do next, and truth be told, neither of them actually did.
Macbeth whinnied in her stall.
"Well," said Francis at last. "I don't know if I should thank you for answering honestly to my face, or despise your insolence for doing so."
"My insolence? Then how about you try to decide what you want before coming here and making demands on me, fucking frogface?"
"I guess I had hoped you wouldn't have turned out to be the scheming bastard you are after all." Francis turned away, as if to leave.
Arthur couldn't stand it any longer. It was late, he had a tiring day behind him, and his poor heart was tumbling in his chest like crazy.
"Can you really blame me for that?" he shouted in exasperation. (If Romano had truly been sleeping, it was only a matter of time before he rushed into the stables to make an end of Arthur and Francis both.) "I don't want to be with you because of some fucking curse, you sodding git, but because- because- Look, I'm bloody sorry to have used you, but I'd better have it like this than keep you here by force, so, so you should have fucking thanked me for letting you go!"
Francis halted and turned around. To hell with it, Arthur thought, filled with odd defiance. I will never see him again after this anyway, there's nothing to lose. Of course Francis might go bragging in every part of the world that he had managed to make the Prince of England fall for him, but no one would believe him anyway. "That's right," he said aloud, somehow oddly content to be the moral winner of the situation, if nothing else. "So before you make a sodding victim of yourself, think it over once or twice. I could have forced you to stay here by never letting you kiss me, so instead of licking your wounded pride, go thank the heavens I'm not a selfish bastard like yourself."
He could feel Francis' eyes on himself – thank God for the lack of light that hid his flaming cheeks! – as the Frenchman processed what had just been said. Once again, silence filled the gap the unsaid words left between the two men, and this time even the horses were quiet. It was almost like time itself had stopped.
Then Francis opened his mouth. "Arthur," he said, "Correct me if I'm wrong, but-"
"You are wrong."
"Correct me if I'm wrong," Francis repeated, this time slightly more emphatically, "but are you implying that you would actually like to have me here?"
Yes, Arthur thought, and he also said so, albeit somewhat reluctantly; his defiance was starting to leak out of him.
"Hm," Francis said, sounding almost puzzled. "Then... why?"
"What do you care? You were in such a hurry to leave not half a minute ago."
"That was before you finally said something sensible. I want to hear your answer."
"Why?" Arthur mimicked, starting to feel uncomfortable again. Now that Francis actually showed interest in his answer, he became more and more unwilling to tell the truth – who knew what the frog was up to?
"Because your answer might change mine," Francis said, and Arthur felt a new tingling of what might be hope in the pit of his stomach. Careful there, he warned himself, don't place your hopes too high. Otherwise you'll break your neck when you fall.
"Well..?" Francis urged him, so Arthur shot.
"Because I think-" He swallowed. "Because I love you." There. All said.
First nothing happened, then Francis strode over to where the Englishman stood. "Arthur," he said. "Do you mean it?"
"I don't believe this is the best time for joking."
"I see." Arthur still couldn't see Francis' exact features, but he sensed how the whole appearance of the Frenchman changed; his breath came more lightly and his body seemed to be much more relaxed. "In that case, I find this all rather convenient."
Arthur didn't say anything; first, because he hardly dared hope, and second, because he didn't know what to say, anyway.
Francis smiled. "As it happens, I love you too," he clarified.
"Oh," Arthur said and looked to the ground.
To celebrate their mutual confession, awkward silence, as a rule, stretched between them. However, thankfully this time it didn't last that long.
"Well," Francis said, tentatively reaching for Arthur's hand. "It seems we get a happy ending after all, oui?" He gave a small squeeze to Arthur's hand, and Arthur responded to it by squeezing back. Neither of them quite comprehend yet what had happened, but Francis' touch, combined with a light-headed feeling that followed, made the Englishman act spontaneously: he leant forward and placed a small kiss on the Frenchman's lips. It was a light, almost a questioning kiss, but Francis was always quick to catch up with such matters. He placed his hand on the small of Arthur's back and pulled him in for another, longer kiss.
It was careful at first, but the longer it lasted, the more it convinced the young couple that everything was right after all and they had each other's permission to touch one another. When they broke apart, not a trace was left of the awkwardness between them. Vice versa; Arthur felt as if they had never even been apart. Because, damn it, it was Francis, and he was there with him, and they had kissed, and there was no curse, and Francis would-
"Francis?" Arthur asked, only half-joking. "Can you not die during your trip, and come back home after all?"
"Mmm," was the mischievous reply. "It all depends on your answer."
In response, the Frenchman knelt down on one knee and took Arthur's hand in his own. "I know that, technically, your hand is mine already, but I want you to grant it yourself, not by curses or orders." He smiled. "Arthur Kirkland, will you grace me with your hand and all of your kingdom?"
Arthur raised his eyebrow. "All of the kingdom, Francis?"
"It's a yes or no."
"Yes or no, Arthur."
"I- yes. Yes."
Francis laughed – laughed – and rose up to kiss Arthur again. "Good. Then I can return from my trip safely. Since I have a prince and a kingdom waiting."
"What a greedy man you are," Arthur mumbled into the Frenchman's embrace, trying not to grin too widely.
"Oh, but of course." Francis landed one of his hands firmly on Arthur's butt, earning a gratifying yelp from him. "Why settle with one hand only if you can have the whole kingdom?"
"Pervert," was all that Arthur had to say to that.
"See, it wasn't all that hard, was it?" King Lionheart said to his son in a tone that can only be used by someone who knows without any doubt himself to be right.
"What wasn't?" Arthur asked absently, twirling the wine in his cup and following Francis with his eyes. The Frenchman looked gorgeous, and it would be an understatement to say that he was in his element. He always was at balls, but now, in his own wedding celebration, he shone like a star, and his eyes sparkled like rays of sun sparkle in water.
"The short break you had from your beloved frogman when he was at his hunting. I told you as much."
Arthur rolled his eyes; his father didn't know even half of it. It was a lucky chance that Francis, on hearing about the curse from his friends, had decided to come and rage at Arthur. Otherwise King Lionheart would have had to realise that there had actually been a reason to Arthur's terrible mood in the days of Francis' absence. But the King needn't know everything.
"Goodness, boy," the King sighed exasperatedly. "Stop drooling after your prince charming."
"I'm not drooling!"
"You are. You look like a love-struck fool."
Arthur gasped. "I do not! It's just... the wine. Yes, the wine."
It was the King's turn to roll his eyes. "No more wine for you then. You keep gaping at him every time I look at you. Relax, son. He won't escape anywhere from here." Lionheart shrugged. "He had his chance on his hunting trip, poor soul, but he missed it. As expected of a frog, I suppose."
Arthur grimaced. Sometimes it felt like his father knew everything about what had been happening between Francis and him, and made his puns accordingly. But altogether, Arthur didn't take his father's remarks too seriously; the King had expressed his happiness for his son once that evening, he would not do it again.
"Which reminds me, I have to make sure all the arrangements are done." The father patted his son's shoulder, rose from his seat and left. Arthur remained on his own seat, watching people dance and drink and chatter. He spied Antonio laughing in a group of people, and even Gilbert and Romano were with them – apparently the Prussian had managed to sneak in the castle and even convince Romano to accompany him. The thought made Arthur grin; life in the castle was never going to be quite the same again, with Antonio, Gilbert and Francis all in the castle.
Speak of the devil, Arthur though when he saw the other star of the evening approaching him.
"I have been thinking," the Frenchman announced as soon as he reached the Englishman.
"You've got to be kidding me," Arthur snorted. "You, thinking? Never."
Francis elbowed him in the ribs. "That's pretty insolent, coming from you. Anyway," he continued before Arthur had a chance to come up with a retort, "It was very cruel of that frog to cast its curse. To subject any good Frenchman to such a fate is inhumane."
Arthur raised his eyebrow. "How good to hear you say that in our wedding celebration. How is it inhumane, pray pardon, to marry me?"
"Don't worry, Arthur." Francis leant to give him a peck on the cheek. "I returned here free-willingly."
"Then you must be a masochist," they heard the King say behind them. "Every rules needs to be, to some extent. Or then simply crazy. Be that as it may, however, I have made sure that all the arrangements in your bedchamber are done. Feel free to retreat there whenever you wish, and the sooner the better."
Both Francis and Arthur looked at the King, shocked by his straightforwardness. Lionheart lifted his eyebrow meaningfully. "What's with that look?" he asked. "I do hope you don't need me to explain to you what to do there and how."
Arthur blushed bright red – trust his father to embarrass him every chance he got! – but Francis recovered quickly and burst into laughter. "Oh, do not worry, my dearest beau-père. I am perfectly aware of my... responsibilities."
"That's what I thought," said the King.
And thus, despite everything, Francis and Arthur earned their happily ever after in the end. Their future together was, perhaps, not to be exactly smooth all the time, but that's already another story. Let it just be said for now that they were to be happy nonetheless, and that is what truly matters.
Stars decorated the pitch black sky like countless little diamonds. Gilbert looked up at them and smiled; he had caught a glimpse of a shooting star. Not that there was anything unusual about it – even the stars fell before his awesomeness.
Alright, maybe he could make an exception this one time and admit that if the stars truly fell to celebrate humans, it was because of the awesomeness of not only him, but of his friends, too.
And, of course, of the awesomeness of a certain Italian, who walked beside Gilbert towards the stables after the wedding celebration. (He wasn't counted in friends, because soon enough he would become something much more than that. Even if he didn't know that yet.)
The thought reminded Gilbert of something. "Hey, Romano."
"Remember when I promised to tell you all about something once something was over? That night at the stables when you caught me sneaking out?"
Romano looked at him with suspicion. "Yeah... what of it?"
Gilbert grinned. "Well, that something is over now."
"So prepare yourself for the stupidest story ever! Hey, don't make that face, trust me, you'll get the best laugh in your whole life. So, once upon a time..."