She reminds him of the old queen, sometimes. The old queen had a brightness to her eyes and an air about her that seemed to suggest that she knew your secrets, every one – and a tilt to her smile that turned it conspiratorial, familiar.

The new queen mirrors her mother in this aspect. She looks at everyone as though she knows exactly what they are hiding, and with so much to hide, he can't afford to let anything slip.

He keeps his mouth shut.

But sometimes, he finds himself approaching her, awash in guilt and wanting to tell her – anything, everything, feeling as though he must this instant apologize for acting as he did, living as he did in apparent – sin, he supposes, though that she never did accuse him of this in these exact words – but that's exactly what it is, isn't it?

It must be, for the way his mother had looked at him when she found out, sympathy warring a losing battle with disgust. Anger flares, and he wants to demand an apology from her, seething at the way she seems to have a penchant for dredging up old memories, making him recall what he's kept buried and forgotten, and then he doesn't know what he wants.

He invariable ends up dismissing anything he might have said. To this she only nods and gives him that thin-edged, tired smile, and that only makes it worse.

She holds her hand out to him whenever they are to appear before a crowd.

It's a subtle gesture for those below or before, and anyone looking closely enough would only see the young queen turn over her hand, fingers splayed and open.

It puzzles him. If the queen wishes to show her subjects that she is united with her king, would not a more obvious tactic be effective?

Without fail, the offer is presented, every time.

He does not take her hand.

She'd struck a chord with him from the instant they met.

"She acted for the love of her sibling. Surely you can understand that?"

Asking him if he understood the lengths to which one would go to protect their family. The terrible humor to be found in the situation was lost on him in the moment.

Of course, keeping something big bottled up forever is an unattainable goal, and from the size of his secret, it's a surprise he hadn't burst sooner.

He tells her everything.

An edge of pride and anger still lingers. Let her hear it, and just let her try to pin the blame on him!

…But she doesn't.

Instead she sets aside the details of the treaty and listens, asking him quiet, leading questions. He answers all, nearly babbling out everything that happened with his step-father, the events leading up to it, the events after, his sister, how he couldn't even speak to his own mother afterwards – all of it comes rushing out, and when he is finished answering them, she remains.

She reaches for his hand, then, like she has done for the past year, but it's too much to take. Relief and guilt mix in a gut-wrenching combination and he jerks away, standing abruptly and retreating from the possibility of her judgment. He stumbles off feeling oddly weightless.

(Was he ever that well put-together when he was her age?)

The next morning they are to appear in court, presiding over the concerns of the common people. Sitting tall with eyes never wavering from the long line of people, still she lays her hand at her side, palm up: an offering.

Though he feels a twinge of relief at this sign that things have not changed so drastically, he does not take it.

He sits stiff and speaks little.

It takes months more.

Months to talk openly about it, to gain a level of trust that slowly lessens his need to be defensive.

Guilt and anger fade alike.

She is kind and she is patient and she is encouraging, and he finds himself wondering what would have changed if he had spoken sooner.

(And though it takes time to realize, he learns that perhaps he can read her, too. The face she wears for the nobles – impassive and imperious and utterly queenly – may be the true mask; and her eyes have always seemed more lively when she is able to speak plainly.)

It takes time.

But it happens.

And one day, indistinguishable otherwise from any other – he sets his hand atop hers with no small degree of hesitance. From the corner of his eye, he sees her start, and he nearly pulls away then and there. But her face breaks out in a radiant grin, and she laces her fingers with his.

("Public acceptance," she'll explain to him years later, "I thought you might need that little extra push.")

It works; in that moment, he feels better than he has in a long while.

He is content.