It started as a quiet morning. The Phoenix Squad had purchased some hot buns from one of the carts in the courtyard, and were moments away from heading to school, when the trumpets sounded and the King stepped out.
Arc turned to Ciara. “What’s he announcing?”
Ciara frowned and crossed her arms. “Nothing good.”
Arc raised an eyebrow, but he knew better than to push. Instead he turned to Warwick. “Maybe we’ll get a quest.”
Warwick nodded. “Or maybe he’s throwing a party to help Ciara make friends again.”
Prudy rolled her eyes. “I hope not.”
“Can we please not talk about that?” Ciara snapped, arms still crossed.
It was a stronger response than necessary so, against his better judgement, Arc decided to push. “Hey, are you okay?”
Ciara opened her mouth to respond, but before she had the chance, the King began his announcement. “As you all know, the Princess recently turned 18. This means, according to Astorian tradition, that she must choose a suitor.”
Warwick coughed in an attempt to cover his laugh.
Something in Arc’s gut burned, but he couldn’t explain why.
Prudy glanced at Ciara with quiet sympathy.
Ciara looked like she was going to be sick.
The King continued. “All eligible young men should report to the courtyard tomorrow afternoon, this includes all sons of nobles, and all knights or knights in training.”
Arc turned to Ciara. “So, this is why you’re so unhappy.”
“Yeah,” she nodded, “I really can’t wait to date a guy based on one meeting tomorrow.”
“Well, hey,” Prudy tried, “Maybe a guy you know will be there. Your father said that knights-in-training are eligible, after all.”
“That’s…” Ciara blinked, seemingly coming to some sort of realization. “That’s true.” She shot Arc a look he couldn’t decipher, and then smiled. “C’mon, let’s get to class.”
Arc didn’t find out what that look was about until almost an hour later. He and Ciara were sparring with swords when she brought it up.
“I need you to do me a favor.”
“What’s the favor?” Arc barely broke focus from their practice duel.
“This whole...Suitor thing,” Ciara bit her lip. “You know my dad set it up. I have no interest in dating some random guy.”
“Yeah, I know,” Arc raised an eyebrow, “But how am I supposed to help you with that?”
“I want you to show up tomorrow, as one of the suitors.” Ciara said it plainly, as if it made perfect sense. “You are technically eligible.”
Arc froze, letting Ciara easily disarm him and send his sword clattering to the ground. “You want me to what ?!”
“Oh, calm down,” she rolled her eyes. “It’s just to make my dad happy. I’ll pick you, we pretend to be courting, and I don’t have to meet another annoying suitor ever again.”
Arc’s stomach twisted as he bent down to pick up his sword. “Do I have to?”
“You don’t want to help me?” Ciara frowned.
“You know I’ll always help you,” he sighed, and returned to his dueling stance. “It’s just...why me? Why can’t you ask Warwick to do it? In case you haven’t noticed, he knows your secret, too. And he’s actually nobility.”
She shrugged, and met his sword with her own. “You’re a better liar.”
“Right.” He knew it was true, but something about the statement stung a bit.
“Also, I trust you more,” she admitted, letting out a soft exhale.
Oh. He hadn’t expected that. “Alright, fine. I’ll do it. But you so owe me.”
“Thank you! Thank you!” Ciara beamed, dropped her sword, and lunged forward to throw her arms around him.
Arc ignored the warmth that flooded his chest at her touch, and responded plainly. “Like I said, I’ll always help you.”
The next afternoon the Princess was to make her choice between her suitors. Arc and a few other boys from Knight School slipped out of class and headed for the courtyard for the event. He tried his best to ignore the looks he knew Warwick and Prudy were giving him as he left class. He and Ciara would deal with them later.
Arc smoothed out his clothes as he stepped out into the courtyard. He had attempted to dress up a bit, but the truth was he didn’t own much in the way of nice clothes. The best he could do was his leather vest and a pair of trousers that weren’t torn. The other boys were well dressed and seemed much more the part than he did. He ran a hand through his hair, suddenly self conscious, though he couldn’t imagine why. He let out a heavy breath and tried to focus on the king, who was droning on about the history of Royal Courting in Astoria.
“And now,” the King concluded, “The Princess will choose a suitor to court her.”
The Princess stepped out, and Arc couldn’t help but stare. Ciara always looked beautiful, no matter if she was a knight or a princess, but there was something about the way she carried herself as the Princess that he would never get used to. Regal was really the only word for it, and he imagined that she must’ve had a lot of training on things like posture and manners to achieve it. Once again, he felt out of place.
Arc wasn’t sure what he expected the process of choosing a suitor to be like, but he had thought that the Princess would get to at least talk to the guys who showed up before she made her choice, to get to know them a bit. But instead he watched as one of the guards listed them all off: name, job, rank. He suddenly understood why Ciara wouldn’t be too keen on this. Many of the young men were clearly picked by her father as good political matches. Sons of lords and kings of other kingdoms, who dripped with privilege. Arc shifted anxiously on his feet.
“Who is your choice, Princess?” The King asked, finally, after every suitor was announced.
She smiled, and Arc’s anxiety skyrocketed. “I choose Arc.”
The crowd around them cheered, but the other suitors looked at Arc with disdain. Or at least, that’s how it seemed to him. He knew there was no way they knew just how much he didn’t belong, but he couldn’t help but feel like they saw right through him. He ambled slowly up the steps to where the Princess and the King were standing.
He caught Ciara’s eyes, and immediately felt calmer. Her eyes were always the same, always warm and dark, no matter what.
“Your Majesty,” Arc bowed to the King, before turning to the Princess.
She held out her hand, and he took it. Her skin was calloused and rough from knight training. It reminded him all at once that she was still Ciara, and his heart began to race.
He bent down to press a kiss to the top of her hand. “Your highness.”
“My daughter has chosen you,” The King began, “And according to our tradition, that means you will Court her. But just know if you hurt her, I will have you thrown in the dungeon to rot for the rest of your life.”
Arc gulped. “Yes, Sir.”
The Princess smiled her too wide, obviously fake smile. “I look forward to getting to know you more.” The words were formal and polite, but all wrong coming out of her mouth. All Arc could do was smile back at her.
“And I you, Princess.” He bowed to her, and again, it was all wrong.
“Well, I’m sure you need to get back to your training,” she said awkwardly.
“Uh, yes,” Arc agreed. “I will see you tomorrow?”
He bowed again, to both of them, and left.
Arc returned to the squad room, his stomach in knots. He let out a deep exhale, attempting to shake off the unprecedented stress of the situation. It didn’t totally work, so he reached for his sword, intending to head to the training yard. He had to make up for the afternoon he lost, anyways. But no sooner did he head to the door, than Warwick and Prudy walked in, arms crossed and brows furrowed.
“Why didn’t you tell me you and Ciara were a thing?” Warwick demanded.
“Why didn’t Ciara tell me ?” Prudy glared at him.
“Uh….” Arc swallowed. “We’re not--”
“Official yet,” Ciara cut him off, stepping out from the secret passageway, and rushing forward to grab his hand. “At least, we weren’t.”
Arc blinked twice, but didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah, exactly. We didn’t want people prying before we were ready to go public.”
“I guess,” Prudy shrugged. “So when did this happen?”
“Last week,” Ciara answered.
“And why are you publicly dating the Princess, instead of Ciara?”
Arc shrugged. “I didn’t want to watch her with some other guy.”
There was a silence, for a moment, before Prudy and Warwick broke into smiles. “Finally!”
“ What ?”
“Oh, c’mon, it’s clear you two have a connection,” Prudy said, like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
Warwick pulled a few coins out of his pocket and handed them to Prudy. “But y’all couldn’t have waited a month?”
Ciara’s eyes widened, and her grip on Arc’s hand tightened. “You were betting on us?!”
Prudy nodded. “And I won.”
“You guys are the worst,” Arc chuckled, ignoring the discomfort that now sat below his ribcage. “Now, I would like to go train, since I missed class this afternoon.”
“Sure, sure,” Warwick nodded. “I’m sure Ciara needs to make up for missed time as well.”
Ciara rolled her eyes, “Subtle.” But she let Arc pull her out of the squad room and towards the training yard anyway. They made their way quickly, not stopping until they got to their destination. “Um,” she cleared her throat when Arc stopped. “You can let go of my hand now.”
Arc looked down at their still clasped hands. “Right. Sorry.” He dropped her hand and picked up a sword. “So, why did we lie to Warwick and Prudy?”
Ciara followed his lead, and grabbed a sword of her own. “I just...I feel awkward about it. I didn’t want them to think that I might actually need my dad to pick a boyfriend for me.”
Arc raised an eyebrow. “Seriously?”
“You realize that, like, half the guys in school have crushes on you, right?”
“Everyone knows you could have your pick of boyfriends. You certainly don’t need a suitor you dad picked out.” He shook his head, disbelieving.
Ciara blushed. “Oh.” There was a pause, for a moment, as their eyes met, and Arc felt his stomach drop into his feet. The moment didn’t last long, though, before Ciara cleared her throat. “Uh, so, we should probably talk about what this all means moving forward.”
“Right, yeah,” Arc swallowed. “We’ll have to go on some dates, I guess.”
She laughed. “Oh, it’s really not that simple.”
“What do you mean?”
“We’re officially courting, Arc,” she rolled her eyes. “There’s appearances and things we’ll need to do together.”
“A-Appearances?” He choked out. “Like... royal appearances?”
“Oh boy.” There was no way he was going to survive this.
Ciara smiled sympathetically. “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine. All you have to do is stand next to me and look pretty, okay?”
“Aw, you think I’m pretty?” Arc couldn’t help the cocky grin her shot at her.
“Oh, shut up.” She gave him a light shove. “You know what I meant.”
“I do,” He agreed, still smiling. “So, tomorrow night?”
“Tomorrow night will be our first official appearance. There’s going to be a banquet.”
“You should’ve led with that, I’d do anything for free food.”
Ciara huffed. “You aren’t taking this seriously.”
Arc’s smile faded. “I know, I’m sorry. It’s just that this is all so outside of my comfort zone. It’s not like I went to a lot of royal banquets in Seagate.”
“Okay, I get that,” she conceded. “But just remember, I’ll be right by your side the whole time.”
“That’s true.” The thought comforted Arc more than he cared to admit. “So, what else do I need to know?”
“Just one more thing. Do you know about Love Day?”
Arc shook his head. “Let me guess, another weird Astorian holiday?” Admittedly, it was vaguely familiar, and he thought maybe he’d experienced the holiday without realizing it the year before.
“It’s not weird!” Ciara snapped. “It’s romantic. It’s a day where couples exchange small gifts as an expression of their love.”
“Ah. And it’s soon?”
“Not for another six months, but it can’t hurt to be prepared.”
His eyes widened. “You think we’ll still be…” He paused, unsure of his next words. “..Doing this in six months?”
“I don’t see why not.”
Arc’s stomach churned. “Right. Well. Is that all?”
“Should be, yeah.”
“Then let’s train.”
The next night was the banquet, and Arc was unbelievably nervous. He’d gone through his entire (admittedly small) wardrobe, looking for something appropriate. Of course, he didn’t have anything. And he couldn’t afford to buy new, fancy clothes, and he wasn’t about to steal some. So, he just put on his cleanest vest and least tattered trousers, and hoped nobody would notice.
As the sun was setting, a guard appeared outside the squad room to take him to the banquet hall. It was odd, being escorted somewhere, as though he was important. He wanted to enjoy the royal treatment, but he couldn’t get over how undeserved it felt. He wasn’t even Astorian, let alone Astorian royalty. He swallowed down a wave of nausea, and followed the guard in silence. When they arrived, the Princess was already waiting for them.
She took Arc’s arm. “You ready for this?”
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
They stepped into the hall together, arm in arm, as another servant announced their presence. Arc let the Princess lead him through the hall to their seats next to the King. Each place setting included about fifty different pieces of silverware, and Arc thought he might have a heart attack.
“Just watch me,” Ciara whispered in his ear. She picked up a small, wide spoon, and so he did as well. Apparently this was a soup spoon, as a steaming bowl was suddenly in front of him. It was good, but he couldn’t for the life of him tell you what kind of soup it was. After the soup, the rest of the courses went by slower than syrup on a cold day. With every new dish placed in front him, Arc cast a subtle glance at the Princess to see which utensil she was holding. He felt like everyone could see right through him, like they all knew he didn’t belong, like there was a neon sign over his head that said THIEF and LIAR, and it was only a matter of time before they threw him out. When the meal was finally, blessedly, over, he was sweating through his tunic.
And then the music started playing. And then people started standing up to dance.
“Ask me to dance.”
Arc whipped his head around to look at the Princess so hard he almost gave himself whiplash. “ What ?!”
“It’s customary,” she said, as if it was nothing.
“You didn’t tell me there would be dancing,” he didn’t even try to hide the panic in his voice. “I don’t know how to dance!”
She sighed, grabbed his hand, and dragged him out onto the dance floor. “It’s just a simple waltz, okay?” She kept one hand intertwined with his, and put her other hand on his shoulder. “Put your other hand on my waist.”
He did as he was told, swallowing hard.
“Relax, Arc,” Ciara said quietly. “Just let me lead.” She guided him through the steps, which were surprisingly simple. But somehow, even that didn’t calm him down. He knew that he was too stiff, that it was probably obvious to everyone that he’d never danced like this before. And then there was the Princess. Her hand in his, the warmth of her skin. The delicate silk of her dress, cool under his touch, and the sweet fragrance of her perfume, so different from the usual scent of leather and metal that came with training. Arc knew this was just another side of Ciara, that this was the same girl he saw everyday, but somehow that information didn’t stop the tightening in his chest.
Prudy’s words from the day before rang in his head: It’s obvious you two have a connection. Arc had dismissed it at the time, but standing there, holding Ciara so close in his arms, he had to admit that maybe Prudy was right. Maybe there was...Something. He took a deep breath, trying to focus on the music, but finding he couldn’t silence his thoughts. Prudy was wrong, he told himself, he was just nervous, that was all. It had nothing to do with Ciara, and everything to do with all the pomp and circumstance.
Ciara stopped dancing abruptly.
“Why’d we stop?”
“The dance is over, Arc.”
He looked around and saw the other couples leaving the dance floor, and realized the music had stopped. “Oh. Right.”
A week later, Arc found himself asking Sir Gareth to let him leave training early.
“I’m supposed to take the Princess on a picnic, Sir,” he explained, ignoring the interested glances from the rest of the class.
Sir Gareth didn’t look impressed. “I can’t have you slacking off on your training just because you’re dating the Princess.”
“I promise that I’ll put in extra time later tonight after the picnic,” Arc pleaded.
Sage snorted. “This is pathetic.”
“Sage.” Sir Gareth said sternly, before turning back to Arc. “I’ll let you go this once, but don’t make a habit of it, alright?”
“Thank you, Sir,” Arc responded, before hastily adding, “And, of course I won’t make a habit out of it.”
Sir Gareth just nodded and waved him off. Arc sped down the stairs away from the training yard as quickly as could, before Sir Gareth changed his mind. He made his way down to the squad room where he had a wicker basket waiting. He changed into fresh clothes, grabbed the basket, and headed to the courtyard where he perused the carts. It wasn’t particularly fair that he was the one who had to leave class early to prepare the picnic, but apparently it would be too suspicious if he didn’t. He sighed as he glanced at the prices; at least Ciara had agreed to pay him back. He bought some sandwiches and a couple apples, figuring that Ciara wouldn’t mind keeping things simple.
He continued to peruse the carts, picking up items here and there, until his eyes fell on a jewelry cart. There was a time when he would’ve thought of nothing except how best to steal from them, but now he wondered how a gold necklace would look around Ciara’s neck. He examined the pendants more closely, remembering what she’d said about Love Day. None of them particularly stuck out to him, until he rounded the far side of the cart. The necklace that caught his eye was a simple gold chain with a sword pendant. The sword was familiar, with a curved, jeweled hilt. It would’ve been perfect, if he could’ve afforded it.
He sighed and turned away just in time to see the Princess approaching him. He flashed a smile and held up the basket, which was now full of goodies.
“You ready to go?”
She nodded, returning his easy smile. “Definitely. I know a great place where people won’t bother us.”
“Isn’t the point to be seen?” Arc asked, his brow furrowed.
“Sometimes,” she agreed. “But sometimes all you need is the implication.”
“So, as long as people think we’re on a date, the rest doesn’t matter?”
“So,” he glanced at the picnic basket. “Why did I just spend so much money on lunch?”
Ciara rolled her eyes, but kept smiling. “Uh, because picnics are great?”
Arc laughed. “Okay, fair enough.”
“Now, let’s go.” She grabbed him by the arm and dragged him out into the forest. He wasn’t exactly sure where they were going, but he didn’t mind following. Eventually, after several turns through the woods, they ended up in a small clearing, near a stream. There was a fallen log near one edge of the clearing, with a flat, smoothed out top, likely from lots of people sitting on it. There were wildflowers growing all around, and sunlight peeking in through the canopy of trees. It was absolutely perfect, like something out of a movie.
“I know, right?” Ciara’s voice was deservedly smug.
They settled down on the fallen log, and Arc began pulling out the food he’d bought and setting everything out between them. Ciara immediately dug into her sandwich, with a surprising lack of manners, despite the dress and tiara she was wearing.
“Why don’t you use your ring? It’s just us here.”
Ciara looked up in surprise. “Huh, I guess you’re right.” She tapped the ring and instantly all signs of royalty disappeared.
Arc continued to pull items out of the basket, until he finally pulled out the dessert he’d procured for them, which he already regretted.
“Are those chocolate covered strawberries?” Ciara raised an eyebrow. “You do know this isn’t actually a date, right?”
He felt himself blushing. “I-I know, but I thought someone might see us. I didn’t know we were going to be so secluded.”
“Also, I happen to know how much you love them,” Arc added so quietly it was almost a mumble.
“That’s surprisingly thoughtful” Ciara seemed almost taken aback.
“Contrary to popular belief, I am not completely self-absorbed.” He nudged her gently with his elbow, hoping to elicit another smile.
Instead she responded simply: “I don’t think you’re self-absorbed.”
“No,” she shook her head. “I mean, maybe a little? But not deep down, not when it counts.”
“Oh, well,” he hesitated. “I’m glad.”
He smiled, and she smiled back, and for a moment, everything felt right.
Time went by quickly after that. It didn’t take long for Arc and Ciara to find a rhythm to their new routine. Of course, Arc still had to deal with formal events, and they both had to deal with the obsessive gossip, but it got easier as they went along. People got used to the idea of Arc dating the Princess, and Arc got used to the formal events.
It was awkward, sometimes, having to pretend around Warwick and Prudy. At least their friends were happy for them, it was comforting to know, somehow, that they would be supported, if it had been real and not a lie. But it also made Arc feel incredibly guilty, because he knew at some point the truth would come out, and his friends would be hurt. The worst of it was trying to balance ‘acting enough like a couple so Prudy and Warwick wouldn’t get suspicious’ with not acting too much like a couple, so everyone else wouldn’t get suspicious. The last thing they needed was for people to think Arc was cheating on the Princess.
The strangest part of the whole thing was the conversations Arc had with the King. The King was surprisingly amicable, and it almost made Arc sad that this would eventually end. And if the King found out he was a thief? That he wasn’t Dragon Blood? That he had been helping the Princess lie to him and secretly train as a knight? And now he was adding, pretending to date the Princess so she didn’t get stuck with some obnoxious noble to that list.
Which is why he was so grateful when Sir Gareth announced their mid-term quests. Finally, a break from everything.
“This year, your quests will be partner projects, instead of group work,” Sir Gareth announced. Arc glanced at Warwick, and saw Sage grab Buttercup’s hand. But then Sir Gareth finished. “I will be picking the partners. You will still be working within your squads.”
A collective groan spread throughout the students, as Sir Gareth projected the list. Sage and Kraipan. Buttercup and Lucky. Selwyn and Talin. Sherry and Taryn. Warwick and Prudy. Arc and Ciara.
“We are not going to do well,” Prudy sighed and shook her head.
Warwick elbowed Arc between his ribs. “I bet you’re gonna have fun, huh?”
Arc blushed. “Shut up.” He turned to Ciara. “We got this, right?”
“Now,” Sir Gareth continued. “All of the quests should take about a week to complete. During this time there will obviously be no classes.” The projection changed to a list of all the possible quests.
Ciara grimaced, and Arc blew out a long exhale. “Will you be able to get away that long?”
“Maybe,” Ciara bit her lip. “I have to try. This is a huge part of both our grades.”
Sir Gareth dismissed the class, and Arc and Ciara headed to the Tasty Trunk to pick a quest and plan. They sat at a table in the back corner, and ordered some food, before Arc pulled out a print out of the quest list.
“So, which quest should we pick?” He asked. “Maybe the Cursed Trident? I might have some skills that would help with that, if you catch my drift.”
“You mean because you’re a Fish Freak?”
Arc scoffed. “Words hurt, Ciara.” He paused, and then deflated. “But, yeah, because of that.”
“Then I think that’s a great idea,” Ciara agreed. “But don’t you only have those abilities once a year?”
“I only grow a tail and a blowhole once a year,” Arc explained. “But I can breathe underwater all the time.”
Ciara stared at him in disbelief. “For real?”
“Do you have gills somewhere?” She asked, brows furrowed.
“Not until I’m in the water.”
“I thought I was joking when I said Fish Freak, but wow.” Ciara laughed. “You really are a freak.”
“You’re so rude,” Arc rolled his eyes. “You should be grateful. This quest is going to be a piece of cake because of me.”
“Alright, alright, fair enough,” she conceded. “I really am excited about this. I’ve never seen the ocean before.”
Arc blinked incredulously. “Seriously? How is that even possible?”
“Our Kingdom was surrounded by a forcefield for my entire life until we defeated Ryker. You think my father ever left the castle?” Ciara shook her head. “There’s a lot I haven’t seen.”
Arc’s face fell. “I...I didn’t think of that. I’m sorry.”
“Just make up for it by showing me a good time at the beach, huh?” She nudged him playfully, a hint of a smile playing on her lips.
He couldn’t help returning her smile. “You know it.” His gaze lingered for a moment, before he forced himself to tear his gaze away from her eyes, and looked back at their assignment. “So.”
“So, you go tell Sir Gareth we want to do the Trident Quest, and I’ll go try to convince my dad to let me go on a trip. Somehow.” Ciara stood up from the table, and moved to leave the restaurant.
“Oh,” Arc called after her, “Probably don’t tell him you’re going with your boyfriend.”
Ciara snorted. “Good call.”
Two days later they started on their quest. They had a map and provisions for a week, though Arc felt confident that they could make it in 5 days, rather than 7. The first couple of days would be long and grueling days of travel, but that was nothing new to Arc. He had traveled for weeks to get from Seagate to Astoria. And he did that on foot. They had horses this time.
“So,” Arc started, “How did you get your dad to let you go on a trip?”
“Uh, well, the thing is--”
“You didn’t tell him, did you?” Arc shook his head. “Ciara!”
“What? It’s not like he would’ve let me go,” she defended herself. “I just told him that I was very sick and fake sneezed on him.”
“That is a classic, I’ll give you that,” Arc acquiesced. “But I’m not taking the blame if your dad finds out and gets mad.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.”
Arc rolled his eyes. “Oh, my hero. ”
“Can we just talk about the quest?” Ciara grumbled.
“What’s there to talk about? The Trident is in a sea cave, and we know where the sea cave is. When we get there, I’ll go in and get the Trident because I can breathe underwater. And then we go home.”
“And you’re totally confident there won’t be any weird surprises?” Ciara shot him a sideways glance, and for a moment it seemed like she was worried about him.
“Pretty sure the whole ‘it’s underwater’ thing is supposed to be the weird surprise.”
They fell silent for a while, but it was a comfortable silence. There was no awkwardness or pressure to find something to say. That was the nice thing about being around Ciara instead of the Princess: it was easy. Especially these days, being around the Princess felt more and more like a tightrope act of etiquette and lies.
It was Ciara who broke the silence. “Wanna play I Spy?”
Arc laughed and nodded. “Yeah, sure.”
They set up camp at twilight after what seemed like hours of I Spy. Arc built a fire and Ciara pitched the tents, and they both worked together to cook some of the food they’d brought. It was a far cry from a royal banquet, but it was plenty palatable. They ate in relative silence, both much too hungry to stop eating to talk. When they finally finished, the sun had gone all the way down, and they were illuminated in the orange light of the fire alone.
“You tired?” Arc asked.
“I’m exhausted,” Ciara groaned. “I can’t believe this was only the first day”
“Imagine if you’d traveled all day on foot, and all you had to eat was some jerky you’d stolen, and then imagine doing that every day for six weeks.”
Her eyes widened. “I had no idea it was so hard travelling from Seagate to Astoria.”
Arc shrugged. “It wasn’t that bad, but it certainly wasn’t great.”
“I feel bad complaining now.”
He sighed. “I wasn’t trying to guilt you. I just...wanted you to know. I didn’t just come here to become a knight on a whim.”
“I knew that already,” she scoffed. “You’ve proven that.”
Arc knew that Ciara trusted him, that she believed that he belonged in Astoria, and that he was meant to be a knight, but it helped to quell some of his insecurities to hear it out loud every once in a while. “Thanks.”
She didn’t respond, instead she turned her gaze to the fire, which sent a lock of her hair cascading in front of her face. Without even thinking about it, Arc reached out and gently pushed her hair back behind her ear.
Ciara immediately tensed under his touch. “You know you don’t have to act like my boyfriend anymore.”
He gulped, awareness of what he had done slamming into him like a pile of bricks. “Oh, oh yeah, sorry. I just--I didn’t think about it. Used to it I guess.”
“It’s fine, I just wasn’t expecting it.”
Arc tried to ignore the way Ciara’s eyes glinted in the fire light. “It won’t happen again.”
She chuckled awkwardly. “One benefit of the quest, right? No more pretending.”
“No more pretending,” Arc echoed. “Yeah, definitely.”
“We can just be ourselves.”
They broke camp the next day at dawn, and continued on their way. If they kept pace, they’d arrive at the seaside that evening, and would be able to find their way to the sea caves the next morning. They were quiet during most of the morning--Ciara wasn’t a morning person, and Arc had too much on his mind. He’d had a hard time falling asleep the night before, his mind replaying and replaying the moment by the fire.
Why had it been so natural for him to reach out like that? Was he just used to it? Why was some part of him disappointed when Ciara reminded him that they didn’t have to pretend on the trip?
Arc had never been particularly good at parsing out his own thoughts and feelings. Things always got so jumbled in his head, his mind was always racing. He took a deep breath, inhaling the sweet and spicy scent of pine needles and coastal redwoods, and attempted to clear his mind, to focus on guiding his horse and following the map. But it was no use. His mind kept going back to the campfire the night before.
Okay , he thought to himself, let’s look at the facts.
So, he had felt the urge to brush Ciara’s hair out of her face. It didn’t mean anything, he told himself, it was a reflex. As good of a liar as Arc was, he couldn’t lie to himself, and he knew that it had to mean something. And if it did, in fact, mean something, then the reason he was upset when Ciara said they could stop pretending…
Oh. Oh .
He didn’t want to stop pretending. No, that’s not right. He didn’t want to pretend at all. He wanted it to be real. He almost fell off his horse with the force of his realization.
“Woah,” Ciara’s voice was gentle with concern. “You okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, I just got distracted.” He forced a smile.
“Getting tired?” She still looked concerned. “We could stop for lunch.”
“Oh, uh,” Arc shrugged. “Sure, I guess.”
“Looks like there’s a clearing up ahead,” Ciara gestured down the path. “I’ll race ya there!” And then she took off at a full gallop. He barely registered what she said, he was so distracted by her smile, and her laugh, and oh God.
He was so screwed.
They made it to the seaside in the late afternoon, which was faster than anticipated, and Arc could tell that Ciara wanted to make use of the time.
“Want to head down to the beach after we finish making camp?” He asked, already knowing the answer would be yes.
“Yes, so much, yes. Please?”
Arc laughed. “Definitely.”
They set up camp rather quickly (probably due to how excited Ciara was to see the ocean), and then headed down the cliffs to the beach. The sand was white and soft, and the water almost glowed in the light of the sunset.
“Wow,” Ciara breathed. “It’s so beautiful.”
He nodded. “It is.”
And then she took off down the beach to the water. She stopped just short of waves, letting the cool water come up and tickle her toes. “It’s cold!”
Arc rolled his eyes, and headed down the beach to stand next to her. The water was, in fact, very cold. “Wow, it is.”
“Is the water in Seagate cold?” She asked.
He shook his head. “No, it’s actually pretty warm.”
“That sounds nice,” she hummed.
“I’ll have to take you there someday,” he blurted, before he could stop himself, and almost immediately regretted it.
But she just nodded. “I think I’d like that. I bet it’s amazing.”
Arc’s heart pounded his chest. Despite his best efforts to shove his feelings down, he just couldn’t do it. Not when they were alone on this trip together. Not when she was standing in front of him bathed in the golden light of the sunset. Not when she was agreeing to travel to Seagate with him in the future.
“Yeah,” was all he could manage in response. “It’s nice.”
They woke early the next morning, when it was still dark out, for the trek over the cliffs. It was hard to tell how long it would take to get to the right cave, so they wanted to give themselves as much time as possible. They moved as carefully as they could over slimy rocks and through patches of wet sand. Ciara shivered in the damp sea air.
“I didn’t know the beach could be so frigid.”
Arc snorted. “It’s just the marine layer.” He felt the cold as well, but he knew soon after the sun came up it would warm up some, and the dampness would evaporate. They continued along for hours, Ciara holding the map and leading, and Arc following. The sun came up and warmed the rocks, just like Arc knew it would, and eventually it was high in the sky, and they were sweating.
“I think we’re almost there,” Ciara said, stopping to examine the map. “I think we just climb down these rocks, and the cave opening will be there.”
“Awesome,” Arc grinned. “You can just wait up here while I retrieve the Trident.” It was still low tide, but he had a feeling by the time he came back, the cave would be at least partially submerged.
Ciara leaned over the edge of the rocky cliffs. “Do you really think this is a good idea?”
“I mean, it’s absolutely dangerous, even for someone who can breath underwater and has webbed toes--”
“You have webbed toes?”
“ So not the point right now,” Arc shook his head. “Anyways, it’s definitely going to be dangerous, but that sorta comes with the territory.”
“Fair.” Ciara still didn’t look convinced.
“Plus, it’s half our grade.”
“You know what, you’re right.” Ciara nodded. “You better get down there.”
“That’s more like it,” Arc smirked. “For a second there I thought you might actually be worried about me or something.”
She scoffed, but didn’t respond. Arc set to tying a rope around his waist in order to lower himself down the rock face and enter the cave. He double knotted it to make sure it was steady, and then stepped towards the cliff edge. “All you have to do is hold the rope and watch the tide. I’m sure I’ll be back in no time.”
Arc rolled his eyes, but he was glad Ciara was teasing him. It meant she was at ease again, no longer worried about the danger present in what he was about to do. He took a deep breath and descended down the rock face until he was level with the cave. It took a bit of finagling to get himself in the cave, instead of dangling outside the cave, and he may have landed on his face, but the important thing was that he did it. The ground was damp, and he could hear the sound of water dripping in the distance. He stood up, with one hand against the slimy cave wall, and walked forward into the darkness.
He wasn’t sure how long he walked for, as the darkness obscured time and left him alone with his thoughts and the sound of the waves. It could’ve been minutes or hours, really. All he knew was that his hand was chafing on the rocks, and he was starting to feel something dripping on his head. The especially vain part of him bemoaned his hair, but most of him just wanted to get to the Trident. And then he started to notice it. The once simply damp ground was now fully wet, like one big puddle. The tide was rising.
The longer he walked, the deeper the water got, and the more his fear grew. He wasn’t expecting the tide to rise so high, so quickly. He imagined it was already about halfway up the cave entrance, and he didn’t get to the Trident soon, he was going to have to swim out.
Predictably, he had no idea how much further he had to walk.
Soon, the water was up to his waist, and he was sure the cave was completely submerged at that point. The only thing keeping him above water was the constant recession of the waves, but he knew he didn’t have long before even that wouldn’t matter. And sure, he had multiple advantages that made him a better than average swimmer, but none of that would matter if a wave pushed him into the rocks and he hurt himself. What if he hit his head and lost consciousness? Would he wash up on the beach somewhere? Would Ciara be able to find him? And forget about their grade--he would surely lose the trident along with his consciousness.
Luckily, he could just barely see a faint light in the distance. He was close to the end of the cave, to the Chamber where the Trident would be. As he got closer and closer, the light got brighter and brighter. Eventually, he stood in a wide chamber, staring at the Trident, which as it turned out, was the source of the glow.
“Yes!” He called out to himself, and his voice echoed throughout the cave. The Trident was floating over a pedestal, and up some steps, but other than that it seemed completely up for grabs. Arc ran up to it and grabbed it, without even thinking about it. And nothing happened. But when he scrambled back down the steps, he found the water was now up to his chest. Once again, the tide had risen much faster than was strictly normal.
Arc sighed, untied his boots, tossed them to the side, and dove in. He would have to swim out after all, and boots would make it much harder. He felt familiar tingles as his body transformed in its new environment. The swim felt longer than the walk, probably because with the Trident, the cave was lit. Arc’s arms and legs burned with the effort, and trying to swim while holding a large trident was a bit awkward and difficult, but he kept going. He had to make it out, even if it seemed like he was swimming against the entire ocean.
Finally, finally , he made it to the mouth of the cave. It was completely submerged now, the crests of the waves hitting the rocks several feet above it. Arc surfaced with a gasp, as his body readapted to breathing air. He waved the Trident over his head, hoping that Ciara would see it, and toss him the rope. The water level was above the cave, but it was not high enough for him to swim up to the top of the cliff.
“Arc!” Ciara called out, and a moment later the rope came toward him. He grabbed it tight with his free hand. He struggled at first, attempting to tie it around his waist with one hand, but he managed to get it. He pulled himself up as much as he could, and he could feel Ciara pulling too, until they managed to pull him to solid ground again. He immediately collapsed from exhaustion.
“Are you okay?” Ciara asked, sitting down next to him. “What happened?”
“Just tired.” He mumbled back.
“You--You were gone for hours, and the tide…” Her voice was soft and full of concern. “I--I thought…”
Arc pushed himself up into a sitting position. “I’m okay, Ciara. I made it out.”
She nodded, and then, seemingly out of nowhere, she threw her arms around him. It was slightly awkward, as they were still sitting, but her embrace was firm and warm, and a gentle, calm feeling welled up inside him. It took him a minute to recognize it, as it wasn’t a common feeling for him, but when he did he let out a shuddering breath.
He felt safe.
The next day they started their journey home, both of them weary, but excited to show off the spoils of the quest. Arc’s feet were sore and blistered from walking back across the cliffs barefoot, and he’d had to squeeze them into Ciara’s extra boots, since he only had the one pair with him. Ciara’s boots were about a size too small for him, but it was better than being barefoot. Still.
“You owe me a new pair of boots.” He complained.
“I do not! It was your idea to do the Trident quest.”
“Yeah,” Arc agreed, “But you didn’t say no.”
“All I’m saying is you’re supposed to talk me out of doing stupid things,” he explained.
She scoffed. “It’s not my job to be the voice of reason.”
“Oh no. We don’t have a voice of reason, do we?” He tried his best to keep a straight face, but within a matter of seconds he was dissolving into laughter.
“You’re such an idiot.” But she was laughing, too.
“Maybe Sir Gareth will reimburse me for the boots.”
Ciara raised an eyebrow, and they both fell into hysterics.
They arrived back at the Knight School the next afternoon, tired but happy. They wasted no time in presenting the Trident to Sir Gareth.
“Wow, back early and you somehow managed to retrieve the Trident from the undersea cave,” Sir Gareth beamed, holding the Trident up to the light to examine it. “Great job, kids.”
“Awesome!” Arc grinned and held up a hand for a high five, which Ciara eagerly reciprocated.
“We’re totally gonna get the top score.”
Sir Gareth rolled his eyes. “You can leave now.”
They did as they were told, heading to the squad room, where Arc dropped his bags, and Ciara headed toward the secret passageway.
She turned back to meet his eye. “Yeah?”
“Is there any possible way the Princess would let me use her big, luxurious royal bath?”
He pouted. “C’mon, pretty please? For the sake of my poor feet?”
She bit her lip, considering it.
“It’s not like you’ll use it! I know you prefer to shower after a quest, anyway!” Arc continued to argue.
Ciara sighed. “Alright, fine. Let’s go.”
He grinned, and jumped to follow her. “Yes! Thank you!”
They made their way up the passageway and into the Princess’s quarters, stopping in their tracks when they found the room occupied.
“What are you two doing here?”
“Oh, hi guys!” Prudy hopped up from her position on the Princess’s bed. “Warwick and I have been taking care of the Princess, since she’s been so sick.”
Warwick nodded from his seat at the Princess’s vanity. “We worked it out with Sir Gareth to do this instead of a quest.”
“That is actually extremely clever,” Arc admitted.
Ciara nodded. “And it helps my cover, too.”
Prudy beamed. “It was my idea.”
“The real question is why is Arc here? Haven’t you two had enough of each other at this point?” Warwick asked. “I mean five days alone with each other? I get you’re in love and all, but isn’t this a bit much?”
“Love?” Arc choked on his own spit, panic suddenly rising in his chest. “Who said anything about love?”
Ciara elbowed him between the ribs. “Arc’s just here to use my bath. He’s got some bad blisters on his feet.”
Prudy and Warwick both glanced down at Arc’s feet and then looked back up to meet his eye, but it was Prudy who spoke. “Are you wearing Ciara’s boots?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Well,” Warwick cleared his throat. “I guess we should get out of here and tell everyone that the Princess has made a full recovery from her cold.”
Ciara shook her head at her friends, as they left the room, and then turned back to Arc. “What the hell was that?”
“Oh, uh, I just,” He stumbled over his words. “I didn’t think our fake relationship was, y’know, at that level yet?”
She let out a short but exasperated puff of air. “Whatever, just go take your stupid bath.”
The next few weeks, things seemed to be normal. Arc spent most of his free time standing next to the Princess and looking pretty, which wasn't nearly as difficult as getting the Trident had been. He kept his feelings for Ciara in check as well as he could, but it was eating away at him.
He found himself staring during their usual sparring matches, and inevitably losing due to his lack of proper focus. He felt his heart pound and his face flush whenever he had to act romantic around her. It didn’t matter if she was the Princess or Ciara, he was a fool for her either way, and it was a problem. He was bound to give himself away sooner or later, and then what would he do? Lose his best friend?
No, Ciara wouldn’t do that to him. She would be understanding if she didn’t feel the same way. And who’s to say she wouldn’t reciprocate his feelings? It wasn’t impossible. He thought back to how worried she was when he came out of the cave. Was it the worry of someone in love, or the worry of a close friend?
There was only one way to find out. He was going to have to be honest with her about his feelings. His stomach twisted, but he didn’t talk himself out of the decision. He walked up the secret passageway to her room with purpose, steadfastly ignoring the panic building in his chest.
When he pushed open the door, she looked surprised but relieved to see him.
“I was just going to send you a message on my Magic Mirror,” she said. She was wearing a gown, but her face was bare and she wasn’t wearing a tiara.
“ We need to talk,” they said in union.
“Oh, you go first.”
She gave him a gentle smile. “Thanks.” She took a deep breath before speaking again. “We need to break up,” she said, matter of factly.
“We do? Why?”
“We’ve been officially courting for four months, which means according to Astorian tradition, we’re basically engaged to be engaged.”
Arc stared blankly. “Um, what?”
“I didn’t know this until this morning, but if we stay together we’ll be on track to be betrothed soon.”
Arc hesitated, her words finally starting to sink in. “Like...As in marriage? After four months of dating?”
“Courting isn’t like regular dating,” Ciara shrugged. “It’s more for appearances than anything else. If it goes well, there’s usually no reason not to become betrothed as soon as possible.”
“I guess that makes sense.” It absolutely did not.
“My father is going to announce our official betrothal on Saturday,” Ciara said. “Unless we break up before then.”
Arc’s eyebrows flew up in shock. “Are you kidding me? Today’s Monday!”
“We have to stage the entire downfall of our perfect fake relationship in less than a week?” Arc started to pace, feeling his anxiety (and heart rate) skyrocket.
“Nobody's gonna believe it.”
Arc stopped pacing. “How are you so calm about this?”
“Because I have a brilliant plan for our breakup” Ciara grinned confidently.
“Yes,” Ciara nodded, stepped over to her mahogany jewelry box and pulled out a glittering, gorgeous diamond tennis bracelet. “I call it Operation Break Up.”
“And it requires a diamond bracelet?” Arc furrowed his brow, watching the diamonds catch and refract the light as Ciara moved.
“You’re going to steal it from me.” She explained.
Arc froze and his stomach dropped. “I’m going to what ?”
“You’re going to steal it from me,” she said again, as if it was the simplest thing in the world, as if it didn’t shatter his heart on impact. All this time, everything they’d been through together, and she still saw him as nothing more than a thief.
“I’ll go to prison,” was all he could manage to say through the giant lump forming in the back of his throat. “Your dad literally threatened to have me rot in the dungeons if I hurt you.”
“Don’t worry, there won’t be any concrete evidence,” She put what was meant to be a comforting hand on his arm. “It’ll be hearsay, really. Just enough for people not to question me dumping you, but not enough to justify arresting you. And after a few weeks, I’ll miraculously find the bracelet and clear your name.”
“But we won’t get back together because of the lack of trust exposed by the whole incident.” Arc finished. It made sense, unfortunately.
“Now,” he swallowed the ache he felt, and forced a light tone. “How come you get to be the dumper and I have to be the one getting dumped?”
She looked at him like he was crazy. “Because I’m a princess? Who dumps a princess? Also you’re the one stealing from me.”
“But,” Arc pointed out, “I’m not actually. Maybe I dump you because I’m so hurt and angry that you don’t trust me.” His voice must betray more of what he’s actually feeling than he intends, because he can see a change in her face.
“You know I trust you right?”
He rolled his eyes, attempting to appear casual. “Of course.”
“Good.” She smiled, and it was warm and soft and for a moment he wanted to believe that she could feel the same way about him, but deep down he knew it was impossible. She was beautiful and kind and intelligent and strong—not just a future queen, but a warrior and a protector, too. She was everything, the sky and the stars and the moon, and he was just a thief from the smallest village in Seagate.
Two days later they staged the breakup. They did it in the middle of the courtyard, where everyone could see, and hear, the disturbance.
“Hey, Sweetie,” Arc greeted her, smiling brightly.
She glared at him, arms crossed, her body language entirely defiant. “Don’t ‘Hey Sweetie’ me, Arc.”
He blinked twice, playing dumb. “Are you mad at me?”
The Princess scoffed. “Are you kidding me? I’m furious with you! You stole from me!”
“Stole from you?” He said it louder than strictly necessary, hoping to get people’s attention. “What are you talking about?”
“My tennis bracelet is gone!” She shouted. “And everyone knows you used to be a thief before you became a knight!”
“I’m your boyfriend!” Arc shouted, already feeling himself getting defensive, despite knowing that this was fake. “I can’t believe you don’t trust me!”
“Trust?” She snorted. “You want to talk to me about trust? That’s rich coming from a no-good, dirty thief.”
Arc felt sick. As much as he tried to remind himself that it wasn’t real, that Ciara didn’t see him that way anymore, there was a part of his brain that just couldn’t believe it. Why wouldn’t she see him this way? It was the truth, wasn’t it?
“I swear I didn’t steal your bracelet,” Arc managed, feeling defeated.
“How can I believe you? Was any of it real?” The Princess demanded; her acting was surprisingly good.
“Of course it was,” He responded, not bothering or even needing to act. “Every second of it was real and true. I love you with everything I have, and that’s the truth.”
She looked taken aback for a moment, and Arc saw the mask of the Princess slip for a millisecond. He saw Ciara in her eyes. Maybe he should’ve acted like he was less in love with her, though it seemed like an impossible task. Being in love with Ciara was as natural, painfu,l and uncontrollable as bleeding out.
“I don’t believe you,” The Princess snapped. “How can I? Boys like you must be good at what they do. But I don’t care how charming you are. You’re a liar and a thief.”
“Fine,” he shrugged, knowing his nonchalance wasn’t fooling anyone. “Don’t believe me.”
“Fine!” She yelled back. “We’re over.”
We already were , he thought. “Goodbye, Princess.”
The next few weeks went by in a blur. Arc was listless and depressed. Warwick started beating him when they sparred. No one questioned it. Who wouldn’t be depressed after getting publicly dumped by a Princess? Most people looked at him with pity, especially after the Princess found her bracelet, and it turned out he wasn’t a thief after all. Some people looked at him with surprise and wonder, as if they couldn’t believe he would show his face after what happened.
Ciara told Prudy and Warwick that she never actually thought Arc stole from her, but that she didn’t want random people prying into their breakup, so she convinced him to stage a fake public one to give people a story. In reality, she told them, the breakup was much calmer and mutual. Arc just nodded along.
“We just realized that we’re better as friends,” Ciara said with a smile, and Arc hummed in agreement, even as the back of his mind was full of daydreams about kissing her.
“Well, that’s disappointing,” Prudy sighed. “But I’m glad things won’t be awkward between you two.”
“You guys are weird,” Warwick deadpanned. “But I’m glad you’re still friends.”
Arc forced a smile. “Yup. Still friends.”
Things went back to the way they were before, for the most part, after the first three weeks. Everyone knew Arc wasn’t a thief, and everyone moved on. And just like that Arc dating the Princess was ancient history. Of course, for Arc himself it was a different story. He couldn’t forget his feelings, no matter how hard he tried. Every day when he looked at Ciara, he found himself wishing to touch her, to hold her hand and brush the wispy hair out of her face, to kiss her softly and run his thumb across her cheek.
He couldn’t, of course, so instead he drew back. He still joked and smiled and sparred like everything was normal, like she was his best friend and he wasn’t in love with her. But he avoided spending time alone with her, he made up excuses and lies and hoped she couldn’t see through them.
He ended up spending a lot more time with Warwick than he had been when he and Ciara were pretending to date. It was nice, actually. There was less pressure hanging out with Warwick. He wasn’t constantly confronted by feelings he wanted to hide. Instead, he watched Warwick play with his magic and laughed at stupid jokes and ate junk food. It felt normal.
Unfortunately, nothing good could last forever. It took six weeks of avoidance and unintentional awkwardness before Warwick said something. Arc had almost started to think that he was getting away with it, that no one had noticed how weird he was being with Ciara.
And then Warwick opened his mouth. “Are you ever going to tell Ciara that you’re still in love with her, or are you just gonna pine after her for the rest of your life?”
Arc stumbled, and spilled the soda he was holding. “Wh-What do you mean?”
“I’m not stupid. Everyone can see the way you look at her.” Warwick rolled his eyes.
“The way I look at her?” Arc echoed. “How do I look at her?”
“Like she’s the only other person in the universe, man,” Warwick chuckled. “Or at least, that’s how Prudy describes it. I just think you look stupid.”
“I know you’ve been hanging out with me more to avoid spending time with her.” Warwick let his words hang in the air.
Arc was quiet for a moment before speaking. “Do you think she knows?” He knew he was admitting that Warwick was right, but he couldn’t be bothered to care.
“I’m not sure,” Warwick shrugged. “Is it a problem if she knows you’re in love with her? I mean, you were together for four months. It can’t be surprising that it would take you some time to get over it.”
Arc sighed. “That’s fair.”
Warwick narrowed his eyes. “There’s something you’re not telling me.”
“You’re lying, I know you are.” He insisted.
“Warwick…” For a moment Arc considered confessing everything to his friend. Telling him that the relationship was fake, but that his feelings for her were real, of finally getting the whole truth out there, even if he couldn’t tell Ciara. He managed to hold his tongue, imagining how upset Ciara might be if he betrayed her confidence. “It doesn’t matter how I feel about her. She’s a princess.”
“I never had a real chance. I don’t belong in her world.” Arc frowned at how true it was. “I’m an ex-thief from Seagate.”
Warwick seemed to accept it. “I guess, but I really don’t think she cares about any of that.”
Arc wished he could believe that. “You know what’s really pathetic?”
“I’d already bought her something for Love Day when we broke up,” Arc laughed humorlessly at himself. “Now what do I do with it?”
Warwick looked at him with the same look of pity he’d seen from almost everyone in Astoria since the Princess had broken up with him. “You should give it to her.”
He nodded. “It still means something, doesn’t it?”
Three nights later, Arc found himself at the training field alone, punching the daylights out of a dummy. It was late, probably later than anyone should be out alone, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t spend another night lying awake and thinking of Ciara. He’d hoped working out his frustrations would help, but if anything he was more worked up than when he started. He wished more than anything for his feelings to just go away. He knew he couldn’t avoid Ciara forever, couldn’t keep being an unreliable friend, but just thinking about telling her the truth made him queasy with fear. What if it freaked her out? What if she didn’t want to be his friend anymore because it made things weird and uncomfortable? What if she laughed at him for being so pathetic?
Okay, that one wouldn’t happen. Ciara wasn’t cruel. He knew that. But it didn’t stop the flood of thoughts and anxiety that overwhelmed him, and were the reason he was in the training yard at 2 AM. As his thoughts piled up, the punches lost their effectiveness as an outlet, and his mind started shouting louder than ever. So, he lowered his fists and delivered a roundhouse kick to the dummy’s torso, sending it flying across the training yard.
“Woah there,” came a voice from the darkness.
Arc froze. “Ciara? What are you doing here?”
Ciara stepped out of the darkness and into the dim light he’d set up. “I could ask you the same thing.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” he shrugged. “I was trying to clear my head.” He doesn’t add ...of thoughts of you.
“I couldn’t sleep either.” She reached for the training dummy and righted it. “Wanna practice on a more challenging opponent?”
He nodded and fell into his fight stance. “Hand-to-Hand. You’re on.”
Ciara mirrored his stance, and their sparring session began. “So…,” she started awkwardly, weaving and dodging his jabs. “What’s keeping you up?”
“Oh,” he cleared his throat. “Uh, nothing important. Just a lot of little things. My mind’s running, y’know?”
“Right.” She almost sounded disappointed.
“Uh, what about you,” he asked.
“You, actually.” She swung a low punch and got him just under his rib cage.
He winced and stuttered. “M-me?”
She used his surprise to catch him off guard and sweep his legs, pulling him to the ground and rolling on top of him. “You’ve been avoiding me.”
He pushed back, and rolled her over, so he was the one holding her down. “No, I haven’t.”
She pushed him off, and jumped to her feet. “I’m not stupid Arc. Don’t lie to me.”
He followed her up and threw another punch, which she blocked easily. “Alright, maybe I have. I’m sorry. It’s nothing to do with you, though.”
She landed another punch on him. “Somehow I don’t believe you.”
He frowned, and hit her harder in the stomach than he should’ve. She staggered backwards and curled in on herself.
“What the hell?”
“Shit, I’m so sorry.” He ran towards her, reaching out but stopping just short of touching her. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah,” she took a slow breath, and slowly straightened her posture. “You just knocked the wind out of me.”
“Maybe we’re done for the night.”
“We can be done sparring,” she agreed. “But we’re not done talking about this. Tell me what’s going on with you.”
“I—“ He almost confessed, looking at her shining in the moonlight. But the words caught in his throat. “I’m just, I’m trying to keep up appearances. We’re exes, right? We should act like it.”
“The Princess is your ex, not Ciara. Not me .”
He sighed, running a hand through his hair, messy and tousled from trying to sleep. “I mean, you are the princess. And Warwick and Prudy think we’re exes, so there’s that.”
Ciara rolled her eyes, and not in a fond way. “I know you’re lying to me. I just wish I understood why.”
He chewed his lip nervously. Of course she could tell he was lying. It was so easy to trick everyone else, but Ciara always saw through him. Even before he knew how he felt about her, she always saw the truth of him.
“I’m sorry.” He looked anywhere but into her eyes. She looked hurt, and Arc hated that he was the reason for her pain. He was sure if he met her eye he’d crack. “I’m dealing with some stuff, but I promise that I’m not mad at you or anything.”
She looked relieved at that, but her guard was still up. “You know I’m here for you, right?”
“We’re best friends, Arc.” She gave him a weak smile. “You can tell me anything.”
“I can’t,” he shook his head. “Not this. I have to deal with it alone. I’m sorry.”
Just like that her face hardened again. “You know what? Fine. Whatever. Keep being a crappy friend. See if I care.” And then she was gone, storming off into the darkness.
Arc let out a deep exhale and closed his eyes. He should’ve known she’d notice him avoiding her. But what was he supposed to do? Tell her the truth? And then what? Lose his best friend, the one person in the world who knew him better than anyone? It didn’t matter if Ciara wouldn’t ever reciprocate his feelings, her friendship was the more important than anything. He couldn’t ruin that by confessing his feelings. He scoffed at his own thoughts. As if he hadn’t already ruined it by avoiding her and then lying about it.
He grabbed his bag and left the training field. He still wasn’t going to get any sleep, but he couldn’t stay out there all night. As he walked, he let his mind wander. Maybe the best thing to do was to come clean and tell her how he felt. Sure, it would be awkward for awhile, but their friendship was strong enough to get through it. Wasn’t it?
He allowed himself to fantasize about the world where she loved him back, where she kisses him until they can’t breathe, where he gets to hold her close. He imagined the feel of her skin, soft and warm, and the sweet scent of her pink grapefruit shampoo. It was a lovely dream, even if it was just that: a dream.
The next week was hell on earth, and it was all Arc’s fault. Ciara was pissed, and rightfully so, but more than that, he could tell she was hurt. And that was almost worse than her anger. She stopped talking to him beyond what was required for training, and the ache he felt in the absence of her voice was startling. He wanted nothing more than to reach out to her, but every time he tried, something got in the way. Or he just plain chickened out.
“Dude,” Warwick said, after several days of Ciara giving Arc the silent treatment. “What is going on between you two?”
“She asked me why I was avoiding her,” Arc answered honestly. “I lied, and she could tell.”
Warwick furrowed his brow in confusion. “She can’t understand that you need some space to move on? That’s pretty cold.”
“No, it’s not.” Arc admitted. “Ciara has no idea how I feel about her.”
Warwick laughed. “I mean, she must have some idea. You dated!”
“No, we didn’t.” Arc confessed. “It was fake. So she wouldn’t be set up with some random suitor.”
Warwick just stared at Arc in disbelief. “It was fake ?!”
The implications caught up with Warwick all at once. “But you’re in love with her for real.”
“Oh, bro.” He shook his head. “You are so deeply screwed.”
“I’m aware.” Painfully aware.
“So, you’re just gonna let her be mad at you?” Warwick asked. “Let her think you’re hiding something, that you don’t trust her?”
“I mean,” Arc threw his arms up, “What choice do I have? So, I tell her I’m in love with her, then what? She rejects me and things are weird and awkward for awhile until we eventually drift apart and never speak again? Either way I lose my best friend.”
“I thought I was your best friend!”
“Warwick!” Arc frowned and crossed his arms.
“Sorry, sorry,” Warwick put his hands up in surrender. “I know what you meant.”
Arc didn’t say anything. Warwick lowered his hands.
“Look, I know you’re worried about telling her the truth, but I think your friendship can survive it. You two always have each other’s backs, and you always will. No matter what.”
Arc’s mouth twitched up in a smile. “You might be right.”
“Of course I am.”
Arc clicked his teeth as the familiar tendrils of fear curled in his gut. “Counterpoint, it’s Love Day in two days. I could just give her the gift I bought, and apologize for being weird, and everything will go back to normal.”
Warwick sighed. “Well, I tried.”
That was how, two days later Arc found himself hovering in the secret passageway outside Ciara’s room, holding a small black box wrapped in a blue satin ribbon in one hand. He raised his hand to knock, and then stopped. Would she even answer the door for him? Maybe this was a bad idea. He’d already screwed things up too much. He started to turn back towards the Squad room, when the door opened.
“Arc?” Ciara asked, arms crossed defensively. “What are you doing in my secret passageway?” She was dressed for training, and his heart skipped a beat. She was so beautiful.
“Oh, shit.” He blurted, before his brain caught up to his mouth. “Sorry, I just wanted to talk to you, and uh, apologize? For being so weird.”
She considered him for a moment, looking him up and down, and then let her arms fall. “Fine, come in. But this better be a damn good apology for how obnoxiously you’ve been acting.”
“I know, I know,” He started, following her into her room. “I’ve been a terrible friend. I’ve been avoiding you and lying to you, and you didn’t deserve that. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me, Ciara.”
She blushed at his earnest words. “I am?”
“Yeah, I mean, without you, I would’ve been kicked out of knight school a hundred times over by now. Before I met you, I was just a thief, without a place to call home.”
She sat down on her bed, and motioned for him to follow. “And now Astoria is your home?”
He couldn’t bring himself to tell her the complete truth, that she was his home. “Something like that.”
She hummed in understanding, waiting for him to keep going.
“I never should’ve avoided you.” He meant that fully. “It was stupid and didn’t solve anything.”
“It sure was stupid,” she immediately agreed.
“Look, I’m still not ready to share what I’m dealing with right now,” Arc said calmly. “But I don’t want to lose our friendship over it. I promise that it’s a personal, emotional thing, and when I’m ready to share, I will.” It wasn’t untrue.
Ciara processed this for a moment before speaking. “Alright, I guess that’s all I can really ask for. I can’t force you to share something you’d rather keep to yourself.”
Arc breathed sigh of relief. “Oh, thank God.”
“Not a god, just a princess.” Ciara smirked.
“Does that mean you forgive me?”
She nodded. “But if you pull this again, I will kick you so hard—“
“Don’t worry,” Arc smiled softly. “I’ve learned my lesson. Nothing is worth losing our friendship over.”
There was a comfortable silence as their gaze met, and Arc couldn’t help getting lost in her big, dark eyes. They reminded him of a gemstone he’d seen once on his travels: Tiger’s eye.
He was pulled from his thoughts by her voice. “So, are you gonna tell me what’s in that box?” She pointed towards the small black box with the blue satin ribbon that he was still holding.
“Oh! Right!” He held out to her, motioning for her to take it. “This was sort of my backup plan, in case the apology alone wasn’t enough. I bought it for you when we were still pretending to court. It was going to be my Love Day gift to you.”
Ciara’s eyes widened, but she still didn’t reach for it. “Oh.”
He pushed the box into her hands impatiently. “Take it.”
She took the box, but didn’t make any move to open it. “I hope this wasn’t expensive, Arc. You could still take it back, I bet.”
“Absolutely not,” Arc shook his head defiantly. “I bought it for you, it’s yours. And I only went a little over budget for it. It’s not gold or anything.”
She shook her head. “You’re absolutely ridiculous.” But he couldn’t have been that ridiculous, because she untied the ribbon and pulled it away from the box.
Anxiety bubbled in Arc’s chest, as he suddenly worried if she would even like it.
And then she pulled off the lid, and stopped, letting out a soft gasp as her eyes fell on the necklace inside. It was a silver chain, with one pendant. A sword, with a rounded and jeweled hilt.
“Arc…” Ciara pulled it gently out of the box, and held it up to the light. “It’s beautiful.”
“It’s Excalibur,” He said gently, unsure if she recognized it or not.
“King Arthur’s sword,” she smiled so brightly she rivaled the sun. “The one he pulled from the stone.”
“The one that proved that he was the one true ruler of Albion,” Arc continued, hoping she would understand. “He was a ruler and a knight, just like you. And that sword proved that he would be a great king one day, even though he was still a teenager when he wielded it.”
Ciara set the necklace back in the box, placed the box on the nightstand near her bed, and then turned to meet his eyes. “You think I’m going to be a great queen some day?”
“Of course I do,” he couldn’t believe it was a question. “You’re amazing, Ciara.”
And then she was kissing him. He wasn’t sure when or how her hand had found its way to the back of his neck, pulling him closer and closer, but he didn’t waste the moment. He kissed her back with equal intensity. He wrapped his arms around her without even thinking about it; it was as natural as anything. Kissing Ciara was warm and bright and more than he ever thought it would be. It was coming home and a new adventure all at once, and his heart was exploding in his chest.
All too soon she pulled away, face flushed. “Sorry, I...I don’t know what was.” She stood up off the bed, attempting to put distance between them.
“Don’t apologize for that,” Arc pleaded, not getting up. “That was amazing.”
She smiled, in spite of herself. “It kind of was.”
“Do you, I mean…” He hesitated, not sure he wanted to hear the answer. “Was that just gratitude?”
She shook her head. “No, no, that was way more than gratitude.”
“Oh.” Arc’s head was spinning, trying to keep up with what was happening. Could she possibly feel the same about him? Was he dreaming?
“Look, I don’t know how you feel. But I’m tired of holding this in.” She stepped towards him, taking his hands in her, and looking him right in the eye. “I’m in love with you.”
Arc’s mind went blank. Ciara loved him. Ciara was in love with him. Ciara wanted to be with him as much as he wanted to be with her. It was unreal. It’s amazing. It was everything.
And then he realized she was waiting for him to talk.
“Ciara, I am so ridiculously in love with you that it’s actually stupid.” He broke out into a grin as the words left his mouth. “You are the most incredible, smart, strong, beautiful person I’ve ever met.”
She beamed at him, eyes glistening with tears as she sat back down next to him, still grasping his hands. “Say it again.”
“I love you. I love you. I love you. I love—“
She put a hand up to stop him, leaving one still clasped around his, and then rested it on his chest. “I love you, too.”
They sat there for a few moments, just drinking in the feeling of being in love. Of being happy. Of being together. Until Arc remembered the start of their conversation.
“This is why I was avoiding you,” He confessed. “And why I lied about it.”
Ciara looked at him with confusion. “What?”
“I didn’t think you would ever feel the same, I thought you still saw me as a thief and a liar, and you’re an actual princess, so forgive me for not thinking I had a chance.” He blew out a long exhale. “Anyways, it made me sort of upset to be around you, and I didn’t trust myself not to act weird. So I just stopped hanging out with you.”
Ciara giggled. “So you were avoiding me because you were pining so bad?”
“Well, when you put it like that it sounds dumb.”
She rolled her eyes, and this time it was as fond as anything. “You’re an idiot.”
“Maybe so,” Arc smirked. “But I’m your idiot now.”
And then she kissed him again. And again. And again. And he decided he would do anything if she just kept kissing him like that.