L-chan's notes: This is my first story for this series and pairing. All feedback is appreciated. Thank you very much for reading.
Title: No One Crosses In Between
He held the book in front of his face the entire ride home. It was a good plan, he thought, except for one thing—he'd never been this engrossed in a history textbook before, and Amber knew it.
"What on earth is so fascinating that you'd rather read than converse with your charming sisters?" she asked.
"Just studying for the big test," he answered, despite how weak that sounded. Studying wasn't exactly his preferred method of preparing for a test. He was more the goof-off-then-pray-really-hard kind. "Besides, you know what they say about those who forget history."
"No, James, what do they say?" He could practically hear Amber rolling her eyes.
"Well… I don't remember. That's why I need to study."
With a long-suffering sigh, Amber returned her attention to Sofia and chatting about whatever girly princess things they liked chatting about and didn't interest him anyway, even if was pretending not to care, which he wasn't, since he didn't. He continued staring intently at the same page of his book, not reading the words, then realized he should turn a page now and then to keep up his extremely thin ruse. Neither Amber nor Sofia addressed him further, so it must have worked.
The carriage landed in front of the castle, and with his good eye, he peeked around the edge of his book to see Amber alight. She glanced at him, eyes narrowed suspiciously, and he ducked behind his cover again. Now was not the time for her twintuition to kick in.
Amber went inside, but his other sister remained in the carriage.
"Go ahead, Sofia, I'm really into this chapter and want to finish first." He hoped she wouldn't ask what it was about. He had no idea.
"That's okay, I'll keep you company," she answered with her usual cheer, and she began humming something to herself as she waited. Quietly, not enough to disturb him if he were really reading, which he wasn't.
She wasn't going to leave him, so it seemed he didn't have much choice. She'd find out sooner or later, and he could use an ally. "Hey, Sof," he said after a moment's hesitation, "if I tell you something, do you promise not to tell Mom and Dad?"
She hesitated herself. Of course she would tell. She hated keeping things from their parents, and normally he'd agree. Secrets turned out to create bigger problems in the end, a lesson he'd learned too many times. But he couldn't always go running to mommy and daddy like a pathetic little kid. He was sixteen, old enough to solve his own problems. And, dammit, he was the crown prince of Enchancia. One day he'd be in charge of everything. Why shouldn't he handle this on his own?
The irony of asking for his little sister's help in handling this on his own didn't escape him, but it wasn't the first time, and it certainly would not be the last.
"I don't know…." she said.
"I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important," he replied, his breath hitting the page before him. "You trust me, right?"
"Of course I do."
Slowly, he lowered his book-shield, and she gasped, bringing her hands to her mouth.
"Oh, James, what happened?"
"I fell. During polo practice." His left eye ached as if she'd physically touched him. It had been throbbing the whole way home, and he wondered if it looked as bad as it felt, all raw and purple. Could something feel purple? Yeah, it definitely felt purple.
"You fell, and you don't want Mom and Dad to know?" Where Amber's voice would have been laced with skepticism, Sofia's was more confused. It wasn't in her to be skeptical of him, but she was no dummy, and he knew his excuse was flimsy.
"I can't get suspended from the team," he answered. A fall wouldn't result in suspension, but a fight would. He just couldn't bring himself to admit that to her. "Not now, with the championship match next week. Please, Sofia."
She looked back at him, contemplative and sympathetic both. He shouldn't ask her to lie for him, but this was important.
"Okay," she finally said. The gears had finished turning in her mind, and whatever she'd decided to believe about his story, she was always on his side. She stepped down from the carriage and held her hand out to him. "Come with me. I'll get you upstairs."
"No one can see me. Mom and Dad—"
"I know. Do you trust me?"
She grinned at him. "Keep your book up. I'll lead you upstairs."
Her right hand took his left, and she gave it a little squeeze of camaraderie. He hopped down, his right hand holding the book in front of his face again, and he stared at the map of Something-or-other-land as she guided him up the steps.
Automatically he counted each stair in his head. He'd run up and down the staircase a billion times since he was little, always to the sound of his father warning him not to run in the castle, and the sound of his mother replying that he'd go to sleep without a struggle if he tired himself out first.
At the unbidden thought of his mother, he stumbled. Sofia stopped and held on tightly until he said he'd regained his balance. He didn't tell her why he tripped.
They made it up the grand staircase and passed Baileywick in the hall. "Good afternoon, Your Highnesses," he said.
"Hi, Baileywick!" Sofia was friendly as usual but kept moving. "We're going to study in my room."
"I see. Tea?"
In Sofia's room, James barely had time to let out a sigh of relief before Baileywick arrived with the tea tray. There was such a thing as being too efficient. Would it kill him to be slow now and then? Get distracted by another task? Didn't Amber need something? She usually did.
James kept his history book in its new permanent location, eyes focused with uncharacteristic determination on the words blurring from the pain and proximity. If he wasn't careful, he was actually going to learn something.
"Good book, James?" Baileywick drawled. The subtle sound of tea pouring into porcelain cups was loud to his ears. James hoped it wasn't peppermint. He hated peppermint.
"Hmm." Baileywick and Amber must have taken the same class in sardonic skepticism. But he said nothing further except for a warm "You're welcome" to Sofia's gushing thanks.
When they were alone, James tossed the book to the floor. He hadn't even read it yet and he was already sick of it. Across the table, Sofia was stirring sugar into her tea and looking at him like she was hatching a plan. It made him nervous.
"I can't hide in here all night," he said when she remained silent.
"I know. I think I have an idea. I'm not sure you'll like it, though."
"I'm kinda desperate," he answered.
She took a sip of her tea—he left his alone, because, yep, it was peppermint—and continued studying him with her big blue eyes. "Okay," she said, nodding, "I think it will work."
She pushed her chair back and smoothed her skirts as she stood. "You said you trust me. You can't take it back now." It occurred to him to say he had his fingers crossed or something, but that wouldn't change the fact that he was more than kinda desperate. So he watched her walk over to her dressing table with its large oval mirror, and she patted the pink cushion of the vanity's matching stool. "Sit here."
"Why?" A half-hearted, rhetorical question, because he was already crossing the room to do as she commanded.
Her back was to him as she opened the table's drawer to retrieve a black lacquered box. "Today, James, I shall introduce you to the magical world of make-up!"
He started to rise from the stool, but her hand on his shoulder pushed him back down.
"I think this will work," she repeated. "If it doesn't, we can wash it off and try something else." Inside the box was an artist's palette of cosmetics, little compartments with creams in shades of pink, peach, beige, and tan. Flesh tones to be blended until a perfect match was found, a match that would hide the purple blotch surrounding his eye.
She was right; make-up could be washed off. He'd worn it for costume parties, gruesome color combinations in greens and grays to give him the appearance of a monster or ghost of some kind, so he guessed it wasn't particularly… girly to try it now. What else could he do but hide in his room all night, pretending to be sick? And if he feigned illness, he'd get stupid clear broth for dinner instead of whatever sumptuous extravaganza the kitchen had planned. And no dessert.
Make-up was the answer, then.
He settled onto the cushion and gave his injured eye one last look before she stepped in front of him and blocked his view of the mirror. With a sponge, she dabbed some of each color onto the side of her hand and smeared them together, looking for a blend that would be close to his normal complexion. Once she was satisfied with her mixing, she began applying it to his eye with a clean sponge.
"Ow." He winced at the first touch. The skin was still throbby and sensitive.
"I'm sorry," she replied, and she sounded like she meant it, unlike Amber, who would have made it hurt on purpose. "I'll try to be gentle, so sit still for me." She cooed like she was coaxing a shy deer to come forward; she had a way with animals, and, well, with him, too.
It still hurt, but he closed his eyes and took it like a man. Like a man getting make-up put on his face.
"So, you fell, huh?" she asked. She wouldn't call him out, but she didn't believe him, either. If he was going to enlist her help, she should know the truth.
"No," he admitted. "It was… a fight, I guess."
"I see." Her free hand was on his knee for balance, and he could feel the warmth through his breeches. "It's not like you to fight. It must have been something you felt quite strongly about."
"I guess," he said again. His arms hung loosely at his sides like those of a rag doll, and his hand twitched. "Huge Ego was shooting his mouth off." That part was true. "It doesn't concern you."
That part was not.
After polo practice, he and Zandar had been changing out of their uniforms when they heard the conversation among the other boys on the team. Hugo's voice carried, either because he thought what he was saying was just that important, or he was too stupid to realize he should keep it down. This seemed to be an instance of the first case, as he was practically holding court.
"Hildegard is just too high maintenance, and who wants to deal with that?" Hugo was saying. "But she's nothing compared to Amber. Could you imagine listening to that yapping for more than five seconds?"
That was about four seconds longer than Amber could stand Hugo. She'd been the one to dub him "Huge Ego", and it had become a popular joke between the twins. One of the things they actually agreed on.
Sofia thought it was mean, but she didn't argue about its accuracy.
"So you'd prefer a girl like Princess Sofia," said one of Hugo's minions, an unfortunate chap named Bendix, who then tried to shrink into the wall when his eyes fell on James.
"Nah, she's nothing but an opportunist like her mother," Hugo had answered. James was behind him, so he didn't know the reason for the sudden quiet among his fellows.
James's hands balled into fists. "Don't," Zandar said in a low voice. "It's not worth it. Sir Gilliam will kick you off the team."
"But you know," Hugo continued as if the sound of his nonsense was providing oxygen to the rest of them, "Sofia's such a pleaser that she'd probably be an easy lay."
A shove in Hugo's back meant that James's presence behind him wasn't a secret anymore. "Shut up about my family, Ego."
"Oh, come on, Saint James," Hugo had replied, shrugging, "don't act like you've never thought about it. After all, she's not your real sister."
That was when James threw his best punch, and blood trickled from Hugo's patrician nose. Hugo got one back, a lucky shot, before the boys dispersed at the sound of Sir Gilliam coming into the room.
"I suppose Hugo's not known for tact, is he?" Sofia was saying now.
"Understatement," James replied, but the word was choked out. He winced with great exaggeration to mask the reason for his discomfort. It had nothing to do with his shiner.
"Well, it's not a very good reason for fighting, but we all make mistakes," she said. "I know you won't let it happen again."
With his eyes closed, his other senses filled in the blanks around him. The soft sound of her breath and the warmth of it on his ear and cheek and hair as she worked. His own breathing, shallow, and his heart beating. Her hand still on his knee, the gentle pressure of it, and her skirts brushing against his legs whenever she moved. Her amulet swinging between them, bumping his shoulder before returning to its place against her almost-cleavage. Her scent, like powder and peppermint….
He didn't hate peppermint tea. He was avoiding it. He was avoiding the scent of peppermint because it reminded him of her and how comforting it was to be enveloped in her pepperminty hugs and her overwhelming sweetness.
She wasn't his real sister. He'd always known that, of course, but he'd believed blood didn't make them family. It was the way they cared for each other, helped each other, laughed and played together that made them a family.
Amber was his twin, and they would always have a special, unbreakable bond, even if they annoyed the crap out of each other a great deal of the time. But Sofia was his buddy, his partner in adventures, the one who would get up extra early on weekends to go riding with him, go swimming or exploring. He'd taught her to ride and to juggle and to fence like any big brother should.
But he wasn't her big brother. Not really.
He was pissed as hell at Ego for pointing it out. He couldn't ignore it now, not when she was so close to him and unaware of what torture it was for his teenage body in a way it hadn't been when they were kids.
Feeling like this, like she was a girl, was wrong, and he couldn't bear it.
"All right, see what you think!" She sounded pleased, completely oblivious. He didn't want to have to open his eyes and look at her, because then she would know.
Except she was Sofia. She wouldn't know. It would never occur to her to see him as anything but her brother.
The entire world had changed while his eyes were closed, and she would never know. She couldn't know.
His reflection in the mirror gave no hint of his inner turmoil. He was blank-faced, not happy-go-lucky James, not anything.
She'd done a good job. Someone would have to look really closely to see the faint purple beneath the blend of beige creams.
"Well?" she asked.
"Yeah." His voice was hoarse. "Yeah, I think it's okay."
It wasn't okay. Why was this happening? If stupid Ego had just kept his big fat mouth shut, James could have kept living in denial.
"Me too," she answered, and she smiled at him. It lit up her face like a sunrise. He could practically feel the heat of it.
Dammit, but he'd been deep, deep in denial.
"Okay, now for some lip gloss!" she continued, and she brandished the tube in her hand like it was a wand during magic lessons. She brushed the sticky, shiny gloss over her lips and flicked her tongue out for a taste. "Mmm, you'll like it, it's strawberry!"
He just stared at her glossy pink mouth.
And she misread his silence. "I'm kidding," she explained.
"Hey, Sof?" His voice was barely a whisper. Like it had a mind of its own, his hand reached out for her. She linked her fingers through his, what used to be a simple brother-sister gesture of affection. It still was, as far as she was concerned, and that was why he had to pull his hand back. "Will you help me prepare for the history test? For real, this time."
"Of course," she said. She kept smiling, even if it didn't match the brief confusion passing through her blue eyes. Her enormous, shimmering blue eyes.
"And go get Amber. She's good at dates and stuff." And at being a general distraction.
"She is. Good idea." Her head tilted to the side as she continued studying him, like she knew something was up but couldn't put a finger on it. After what looked like a mental shrug, she said, "I'll be right back."
Maybe it would pass. A temporary moment of insanity. That's what he deserved for letting someone as obnoxious as Ego get into his head. She'd come back with Amber, and it would be the three of them like always, siblings teasing and bickering, and he'd see that everything was normal, as it should be.
But he took the tube of gloss from her dressing table and rolled it between his fingers. He removed the cap and dabbed the tiniest bit of gloss on his lower lip, then licked it away like she had.
It did taste like strawberry.
He lowered his head and groaned.