Roden lay awake, staring at the canopy above his bed. He was tired. Yes, the war was over, and yes, Carthya had come out on top of their adversaries, but that had not stopped the endless nights spent awake worrying, worrying, worrying. Kept awake with visions of things he had seen on the Gelynian border, kept awake with visions of his men screaming and crying and dying. And, more recently, kept awake with thoughts of Jaron.
No matter how often Roden tried to tell himself that his feelings toward the king of his country were purely platonic, and that the deep connection felt towards him was natural after their murderous farce at Farthenwood (never mind the fact that his feelings towards Tobias were nowhere half as strong as his lov-- er, admiration, no, wait, appreciation for Jaron), he knew he had to face the fact that was staring him down in the face.
He had possibly, or, may have, or, perhaps there was a slight chance that he had… developed closer than platonic feelings for Jaron, the Ascendant King of Carthya. Maybe.
Every time Roden came close to thinking this, lying in his bed, he quickly shut his eyes and tried to chase the thought out of his mind. He had yet to be comfortable with any romantic feelings, whether it be towards men or women, and this case was no different.
And yet, when Roden closed his eyes, all he could think of was the first moment he had seen Jaron, when Jaron had just been Sage; and then he remembered the look on Sage -- no, Jaron ’s face when he had challenged him in the sewers below the castle kitchens; and then he remembered running to the pirates, and the look on Jaron’s face when Roden had thrown down his sword in surrender during their final battle as enemies, with Jaron’s broken leg that he had given him ; but the last image that would run through his brain was watching Jaron and Imogen kiss in the prison beneath Farthenwood and his heart subsequently breaking.
It seemed as though his heart had betrayed him once again, and it had started slow. First, he had oft smiled to himself at Jaron’s tricks, fooling himself into thinking that it was simply fun to watch Conner struggle (not that it wasn’t, because, quite frankly, it was), and then he would often find himself trying to find Jaron’s eyes from across the table at meals (and it gave his heart quite a jolt when he did), and then, whenever Jaron touched him (even if it was just a brushing of arms or a flyaway hand on his shoulder), his skin would pulse for hours afterward and his face would be red and his mind would be bewildered and he would feel a pit in his stomach that he tried to pass off as jealousy.
But it had been when Jaron had sent him to the Gelynian border that Roden finally came to begin to realize that his feelings for Jaron ran deeper than your average friendship. There was something about seeing the boy king save him, first from the Gelynian soldiers, and then from his own men, that made Roden’s heart swell up. He had caught Jaron’s eye after drenching his men’s fire and seen a look of approval, and a little bit of wonder, and he had allowed himself to think that maybe Jaron felt at least just a fraction of Roden’s feelings in return.
But, of course, there was Imogen. And Imogen loved Jaron. And Jaron loved Imogen. Roden supposed he couldn’t blame Jaron, as Imogen, with her dark skin, dark hair, and hazel eyes, was one of the most beautiful women Roden had ever lain eyes on. Jaron was very lucky, and, Roden often mused, so was Imogen. But he could not help those dark thoughts in the back of his mind that wished that the prison in Farthenwood hadn’t held Imogen all those weeks, and that he could have had Jaron all to himself. Sometimes at night he would lay there and imagine himself in Imogen’s shoes in that dungeon, where Jaron was happiest to see him , and Jaron breaking past the guards to kiss him , and Jaron sneakily passing the key to him …..
And when Roden would finally, blissfully, fall asleep, he would dream of Jaron and his memories of Jaron and thoughts of Jaron and his future with Jaron, Jaron, Jaron.
It was on one of these fitful nights that Roden decided to get up and try to walk off his thoughts. He often tried to do this, and it rarely worked, and, yet, he persisted. He found his way into one of the castle’s many libraries, and was in the process of meandering up and down the shelves when something out of the corner of his eye made him freeze.
His Majesty was seated at one of the spacious tables situated in the many alcoves of the library, poring over a large stack of books and bathed in the light of a single candle. Perhaps it’s fate , Roden wondered, as this particular library was nowhere near the king’s quarters. But, he realized, it couldn’t be, because the fates had never particularly worked in his favor. Jaron’s hair was tied back in loose ponytail, with his hair frizzing slightly on both sides. He still wore the shirt he had been wearing in the daylight hours, though his vest was gone and his sleeves were rolled up. The thick scarring of the brand of the pirates shone on his left forearm.
It was as though Jaron could tell that eyes were on him (though, Roden remembered, he did always have uncanny interpersonal abilities), and he turned around. Roden tried to back up out of sight, but froze when Jaron saw him.
“Sorry,” Roden mumbled. “I didn’t mean to bother you, I just-”
“Oh no, it’s fine, Roden, come sit. Join me.” Jaron pushed back his chair and stood, beckoning him over. Roden, as much as he would have liked to retreat back to his room and safety, felt his feet move forward by their own accord (though, whenever Jaron called, he couldn’t help but follow). He dropped into a chair opposite Jaron.
“Sorry,” he attempted again, “couldn’t sleep. Er, sorry. Your Majesty”
“Now what have I told you about calling me Your Majesty?” Jaron asked, eyes light. “You’ve seen me at my worst, and seen me at my best, and I can’t have my closest friends prancing around calling me by my formal title, it makes me look like a twit.”
Roden blushed. “Sorry, Your- or, I mean, Jaron.” He paused for a moment, then blurted, “And I don’t think anyone sees you as a twit.”
Jaron raised his eyebrows. “Now you’re starting to sound like your father.”
This was not how Roden had wanted his first conversation alone, with Jaron, after hours, in the dark, to go.
Jaron held eye contact with Roden for a moment, and then laughed. “You’ve got to loosen up old friend,” he said, reaching across the table to cuff Roden on the shoulder. “I’m messing with you.”
“Now I’m starting to think you’re a twit,” Roden mumbled, and Jaron laughed louder. “You should probably keep it down,” Roden added.
“I’m the king,” Jaron replied haughtily, leaning his chair back with his hands behind his head. “I don’t have to keep it down.”
“Yes, you’re definitely a twit.” Roden rolled his eyes and subconsciously shook out the arm that Jaron had touched.
“Yeah, I know,” Jaron smiled at Roden, raising his eyebrows.
Roden felt hyper-aware of his surroundings with Jaron’s eyes on him. “So, uh, what are you doing? In this library, I mean.” He shifted his feet uncomfortably.
Jaron looked away, setting his chair upright again and gesturing to the stack of books on the end of the table. “Research. I’ve been reading up on diplomatic relations.”
“Aww,” Roden joked, “You’re growing up. I can’t believe you're reading about foreign affairs of all things. If Conner could see you now, studying your ass off in the hours of the night, I’m sure he’d have a heart attack and die again.”
“Most likely he’s laughing at me,” Jaron replied. “And it’s not really my choice. Imogen insisted that I widen my studies to include even the aspects of kingship that I do not enjoy.” Roden stiffened at the mention of Imogen’s name.Ever since she and Jaron had begun courting, it seemed as though Jaron could not hold a conversation longer than thirty seconds without mentioning her. They were in love. Jaron, oblivious to Roden’s change in posture, continued, “It seems that being annoying and charismatic can’t get me everywhere in life.”
“I believe that’s debatable,” Roden said.
Jaron laughed again. “You’re a good man, Roden.” And there he went again, with the eye contact. Jaron was not someone who was afraid of prolonged eye contact, and Roden was, and oftentimes Roden find himself glancing away and glancing back at his king and discovering that Jaron was still looking. Still watching. And it was moments like those when Roden began to hope, to maybe dream in a hidden place in his heart that maybe, some day, he and Jaron could…..
But no. It could never happen. Jaron would never love him. And he could not love Jaron. He just couldn’t. He needed to stop now before it was too late (though, he supposed he knew at the bottom of his heart that it wa s already too late and o ne of these day s he was just going to expl ode because g od he just loved him so much and his heart. hurt.).
His heart hurt. And his head hurt an awful lot too.
“I mean, being annoying and charismatic has got you this far in life, and it got you the crown, and it’s got you an awful lot in life so you probably shouldn’t stop now. But I should stop now. Talking. Yes.” And he promptly shut his mouth. He stared down at his hands, berating himself in his head.
“You’re a good friend, Roden,” and Jaron sounded so sincere, so unlike him, that Roden couldn’t help but look back up at Jaron and his brown eyes and his brown/blonde hair and his nice face and-
“Thanks,” Roden said. He could hear the blood rushing through his ears. “You’re a good one too. Friend, I mean. You’re good.”
Jaron laughed suddenly. “What has gotten into you lately?” Jaron asked, abruptly changing the subject, though the question was made less mean by his ever-present smile. He raised an eyebrow. “I don’t think a lack of sleep suits you, Roden. You’re beginning to speak how you write.”
“Har har,” Roden rolled his eyes. His illiteracy had never been a particularly proud trait of his, though he found that he didn’t mind people poking fun at him for it when people meant Jaron.
“I’m serious, though,” Jaron continued in an entirely non-serious voice, “I know that speaking eloquently has never been your strong suit, but lately it has been on a whole other level.”
Roden rolled his eyes again (a thing he found doing often whenever Jaron spoke) but he couldn’t help the voice in his mind that was telling him that Jaron had noticed the changes in how he acted around him. Did he know? Did he know? His mind kept repeating the question. Did he know? (If Jaron knew…) Did he know? Jaron was looking at him expectantly. Roden was confused for a moment, but then quickly realized that he hadn’t been listening, and must have missed a question posed by the other boy. “What?” Roden asked, then winced. “Sorry. I wasn’t paying attention.”
Jaron ignored his apology and repeated, “So, why are you awake?” He leaned forward on his elbows. “If I can remember from our days of sharing a room at Farthenwood, you have never been one prone to insomnia. Tobias, on the other hand, is one who could give me a run for my gold.”
“Just… thinking,” Roden said carefully. “Yes. Thinking. About things.”
Jaron’s eyes softened. “It’s been hard since the war ended for everyone. Understandably.”
“Yes,” Roden agreed, not meeting Jaron’s eyes and rubbing the back of his neck with one hand. “I’ve been thinking about the war, among other... things.” Though his head was telling him, Stop, turn back, he could not deny the thrill of hinting so close to what his heart was trying to say.
“Oh,” Jaron responded playfully, catching Roden’s drift, “Has one of the castle ladies caught your eye?”
Roden’s face burned. Now was his chance to turn back. He could agree, name a random servant girl, back off, go back to bed, never sleep again, and live a life not knowing what could have been. It might not be ideal, but it was almost better than putting himself out there.
But. He supposed that if he didn’t tell Jaron now, he never would. Jaron and Imogen were sure to be married sooner rather than later, and so Roden considered the two options in his head: what would hurt more, telling Jaron now and facing rejection, or staying silent? Forever? Because after Jaron was married, he would never tell him the truth. Never tell him his true feelings, because that wouldn’t be fair to Jaron, and it wouldn’t be fair to Imogen.
He made his decision.
Roden forced himself to laugh. “Uh, not a girl exactly. No. Not that. Actually,” he swallowed. “A boy, in fact, if you can believe it.” He was sure that his face was so red that he must look quite a bit like he had just stuck it over a boiling pot of water. He stared at his hands, which were wringing in his lap.
Jaron sat back in his chair. “Really?” he asked, seemingly nonplussed. “Well, I never would have pegged that. Who is it?”
“I don’t really want to talk about it,” Roden said, all his previous courage gone. He changed his mind. This was too difficult. This was too much. He pushed back his chair and started to stand up to leave. “I feel like, I don’t know, I can’t tell you, because you know him really well and it will just make things weird and I don’t know. I don’t. I don’t know.”
“Tobias?” Jaron guessed, unfazed by Roden’s reluctance. The thought was so alien to Roden that he let out a laugh (No, Tobias was much too tall and much too thin. Jaron was the perfect height for Roden, in fact, Roden reckoned if Jaron stood on his toes and he bent down a little, their lips would be perfectly aligned. Not that Roden ever thought about that, or thought about kissing Jaron, or thought about Jaron much at all (or, at least, that is what he told himself.)).
“Okay, so not Tobias,” Jaron said, a playful smile at his lips.
Roden thought that for sure Jaron would now know that it was he who Roden loved, but, then again, romance had never been one of Jaron’s strong suits. A deep silence pervaded the library, the kind of silence that could only occur in the darkest hours of the night, when all sensible people were asleep. Jaron sat, thinking to himself while Roden was frozen, still half-out of his chair.
“I simply can’t think of anyone else our age in the castle,” Jaron finally concluded. He glanced at Roden and finally seemed to notice that something was not quite right with him, which did not make sense unles- (Oh.)
Roden took a deep breath. This was the end of it. He knew that Jaron knew, and frightfully glanced into his friend(his best friend, his closest friend)’s eyes. It was now or never. “It’s...It’s you.”
The silence came back, but it was charged now, and if one listened closely, they could hear a clock ticking, and Roden’s increasingly panicked breaths as Jaron failed to react.
Jaron slumped back in his chair. “Ah.” Roden could not read the expression on his face.
“Er, sorry, I’ll, um, I’m going to go now,” Roden pushed himself all the way to his feet and turned around. “And, and, listen, I think I need to move away and just. Move somewhere else because I don’t know. I can’t just, I can’t be here anymore and I know that you love her and I’m sorry. I didn’t. I think I need to leave. I’m sorry.”
He began to walk, forcing himself to go slow and retain some sense of dignity. He wouldn’t heighten his embarrassment by running full speed out of the room, the castle, and his life (though that was what he wanted to do).
“Wait.” Jaron stood, and the sound of the scraping of his heavy chair against the brick floor was loud enough to force Roden to stop and stand there, frozen, his back to Jaron.
He felt a hand on his arm.
“Wait,” Jaron repeated, quieter this time. Roden was careful not to move. Not to open his eyes. He felt numb, and he could feel his heart beating from where Jaron’s hand lingered. He was sure that if he moved, opened his eyes, even took a breath, that the spell would be broken and he would go back to a life of misery.
“You mean a lot to me, Roden. I need you to know that. You’re braver than I could ever be, and you’re loyal, and you’re loving, and I care a lot about you.” Roden was listening, and the words seemed to echo in his mind as he replayed them over and over. Icareaboutyou Icareaboutyou Icareabout you .
“I would never ask you to leave the castle. For any reason. And listen…, I’m working on being more honest with my feelings,” Jaron continued, and Roden let out an internal laugh. Imogen really had done a number on him. First diplomatic relations, now this. He had to admit (as much as it pained him to say) that they complemented each other well. She brought out the best in him.
“You. You mean so much to me. And you are a great friend to me.”
It was coming. The moment that Roden knew had to happen (though, he wished, that perhaps it wouldn’t, perhaps this train wreck of a night could have ended differently, with the path righting itself before disaster had to occur).
“I just, I wish I could say I felt the same towards you.”
And there it was. Roden knew it had to come, but that did not make it hurt any less. His head drooped to his chest.
“And I think, maybe, if things had been different, and our experiences not so difficult, and our goals not so similar, I think, over time, something may have been able to be there, but it just isn’t.”
The silence came back. Jaron suddenly noticed that his hand was still placed on Roden’s arm and he hurriedly drew it back.
Roden was overcome with heartache, but, at the same time, a small part of him felt strangely lighter. This was the small part that told him that, yes, it wasn’t the answer he had been hoping for, but at least he had the answer now, and there would be no more nights lying awake wondering what if , what if , what if (though he didn’t know it now, now there would be many nights spent, instead, wondering about what could have been ). Though his sadness was threatening to take over, the small, free part of him made him turn to face Jaron. Jaron was standing closer to him than Roden thought he would be, and Roden had to resist taking a back step (he had never been comfortable with intimacy, and, he supposed, this is one thing he and Jaron had in common. Perhaps they had had too much in common from the very start, and that is what had ruined their chances with each other; however, Roden supposed, if they had been entirely unalike, then Conner never would have chosen Roden in the first place, and he and Jaron never would have met, meaning this moment never could have occurred, and that, Roden supposed, was one of the great paradoxes of his life).
Roden looked up, not quite making eye contact with Jaron, instead, he fixed his eyes on a bookshelf to Jaron’s right. He couldn’t force himself to look into Jaron’s eyes, afraid of what he would see there.
“If things were different…” Jaron continued, but trailed off, his thought unfinished, his words unsaid.
“Well,” Roden mumbled. “I wish that things were different, then.”
It was quiet again for a moment, the air equally charged as before, though, perhaps, it was a quieter sense of anticipation now. Roden waited for Jaron’s reply, but none came. He finally glanced, quickly, into his eyes and looked away again, as he saw his own sadness reflected there.
That reply never did come. Instead, Jaron was the one to take a step back, and he retreated back to his table, picked up the candle, closed his open book, and left the stack there. He walked back, and, at first, Roden believed that Jaron would walk straight past him, all the way back to the king’s quarters, but he startled when Jaron leaned in, pressed his hand to the far side of Roden’s face, and quickly kissed his cheek. Roden breathed in, his heart beating so fast he worried he might be dying, but before he could think to react, Jaron was gone, walking away. Roden subconsciously reached his fingers up to brush the place where Jaron had kissed him, his feet melted to the floor as he listened to Jaron leave.
He stood in the now-dark library for what felt like hours, replaying their conversation over and over in his head. Finally, when he was sure that Jaron would be in bed (or, at least, not on the path back to Roden’s bedroom), he left, walking through the corridors of the castle in a daze.