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burning glances, turning heads

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The eighteenth birthday of the crown prince was something to be celebrated. A grand majority of the kingdom admittedly hadn’t expected him to make it so far. His reputation preceded him, but regardless of his attitude everyone would be celebrating.

People throughout the kingdom were preparing themselves for said celebration. Blue flower wreaths were hung on doors, flags were washed and hung with care, women bought dresses and men found ties.

The air buzzed with an underlying excitement. Tonight the castle was open to all who wished to attend. For one night they could dance with the nobles, and— if they were lucky enough— the prince himself.

The prince, who needed to find someone to wed so he could take the throne.

Men and women alike dressed their best, anything they hoped would catch his eye. Their clothing was extravagant, but even more so were their masks. The masks helped to strengthen the illusion of mystery and anonymity during the masquerade. Social standings appeared more even when each person’s face was covered.

The masks did nothing to aid the illusion. Each mask made it clear exactly how much money each attendee had. The wealthy wore intricate golden masks, covered in jewels and whatever other precious materials they wanted. Other less fortunate people scrounged up scraps of the nicest material they could to tie around their eyes. Others still spent weeks of savings on something they would wear one night.

Unfortunately the excitement from the kingdom had not reached the crown prince yet. Ronan Lynch stood in front of a floor length gilded mirror, scowling. He tugged angrily at his clothes, the delicate embroidery rough against his skin. He felt like a doll, dressed up perfectly to be presented to the people.

“You’re ruining your clothes,” a voice said from behind him. Ronan turned, sighing.

Richard Campbell Gansey III, the perfect image of a prince, the son everyone dreamed of having, was sprawled across Ronan’s bed, gazing at him with judgement in his clear hazel eyes. His hair was a tousled mess, and he hadn’t even bothered to put a shirt on.

Ronan grabbed one of his pillows to smack Gansey with. “Leave me alone,” he said, sounding like a whiny child. “I didn’t ask for this.” He turned back to the mirror, fussing with his clothes more. “Why didn’t Declan have to do this?” He said, half to himself.

Gansey gave him a very pointed look in the mirror. “You know why Declan didn’t.”

Ronan turned for the sole purpose of making a face at him, then went back to fixing his cuffs.

Everyone knew why Declan never had a ball in his honor. He’d abdicated the throne at just fifteen. Last Ronan had heard of him, he’d been living in some chapel at the edge of the kingdom. Deep down Ronan knew his brother had only left because he’d hated his father, but it still hurt.

Sometimes Ronan was still furious at him for leaving the weight of the crown heavy on his head. Right now though, he was furious at the stupid suit.

“I don’t want to wear this,” Ronan complained. He threw himself back onto the bed next to Gansey, just barely missing him. Gansey reached blindly for his face, half heartedly patting on his cheek.

“You’re going to meet someone perfect and be happy by the end of the night.” Gansey said, repeating the same lie everyone had been telling Ronan for months. “Just pretend to be happy now.”

Ronan groaned. “Easy for you to say, this isn’t the night you have to find love.” Ronan rolled so he was facing Gansey. “In a room full of people in masks. Not knowing anything about their personality, or dreams, or-”

“Alright, alright. I get it.” Gansey said, interrupting Ronan with a smile playing on his lips. He glanced at Ronan. “We have to finish getting ready.”

Gansey was right. Regardless Ronan allowed himself one moment to look at Gansey. Some part of Ronan still wanted Gansey to be the person he wed. He shook the thought away quickly and focused back on the matter at hand. They were two of the most important people in attendance tonight, and they were laying around complaining like children.

Ronan waited till Gansey stood and held his hand up so Gansey hauled him upright. He brushed at his shirt, smoothing the wrinkles. Gansey reached over to fix his shirt collar. Ronan brushed his hand away.

“You don’t even have a shirt on,” he pointed out.

Gansey backed away, his hands up. “No one is here for me. There is no requirement for me wearing clothing.” he grumbled, mostly to himself. He turned away from Ronan to find his clothes.

Ronan resumed staring at himself in the mirror. If he squinted, he could pretend he was looking at his father. A brave man and a powerful king. But when he opened his eyes again it was just, him.

“Here, don’t forget this.” Gansey said, meeting Ronan’s eyes in the mirror once more. He was holding Ronan’s mask.

Ronan turned and took it from him carefully. It wasn’t fragile, but he didn’t still didn’t trust himself to not break it.

Intricate black metal curled around itself, forming feathers that sharpened into a beak over his nose. It was sharp, enough that Ronan had already stabbed his hand with it twice. He loved and hated it. He fit it over his face and looked at himself one final time. The edges of the mask blended into his dark hair, the piercing blue of his eyes bright now.

“Are you ready yet?” Gansey asked him, carefully putting is own mask on. It was beautiful, a half mask of gold that was molded perfectly to his face. So much for anonymity.

Ronan smoothed his clothing down one more time. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”

Gansey reached up to smooth Ronan’s hair down behind his mask. “Just relax, okay? This is going to be fine, I promise.” Gansey gave Ronan a gentle smile.

“I can’t fucking do this,” Ronan said instead.

Gansey ran his thumb over his lip, something he only did when he was thinking. “I was going to save this for later, but I think maybe you need it now.”

Gansey reached into his brilliantly green waistcoat, removing an obscenely elegant flask. “Have a sip.”

“Bastard,” Ronan said affectionately. He took the flask from Gansey, quickly downing some. His throat burned, making him grin. “You’re the best.”

Gansey beamed. “I’ll be there with you the whole night.” He tucked the flask back into his pocket. “Let’s get down there before your father sends someone after us.”

Ronan shuddered at the thought and followed Gansey out of his room.

By the end of the night he would have a fiancée.

 

 

Unfortunately for Ronan, the party was not the kind that he liked to attend. There were no dark corners to lurk in, drinking glass after glass until he finally began to enjoy himself.

No. Ronan was expected to stand near his father’s throne most of the night. Eventually he would be freed to go pursue a partner, but that would only mean being bombarded by half the kingdom for dances. He couldn’t even flag down a servant to bring him a glass of champagne that was so readily flowing through the crowds.

“Little bit crowded, no?” Gansey joked, appearing next to Ronan. He handed him a glass, clinking them together as he smiled at Ronan.

“This is why you’re my best friend.” Ronan said. It was difficult to drink around the bottom of his mask, but Ronan would sooner rip it off before he gave up drinking.

“How was it out there?” He asked Gansey. His palms sweat just thinking about it.

“Lively,” Gansey said with a shrug. “Only a few people asked about you, though.”

“Why’s that? Surely they recognized you.”

Gansey glanced at him. “Maybe they wanted me, not you.”

Ronan laughed, bumping Gansey with his shoulder. “Try again next time.”

“Ronan,” a stern voice cut in.

Ronan froze as his father stepped between them. “Yes, father?” He said quickly.

“Act like a prince,” Niall said with a pointed look at Gansey.

Gansey avoided his gaze, looking small behind his mask.

“I won’t disappoint you,” Ronan said, the smallest edge to his voice.

His father looked him up and down with piercing eyes. “If you say so.”

Ronan didn’t respond, just watched his father stalk off somewhere with his guards.

“You okay?” Gansey asked like it meant anything.

“Of course I am,” Ronan lied. “He’s only my father.”

His stomach felt like it was in knots, the leftover fear from his father’s gaze. Sometimes Ronan understood why Declan had left. His father was not a man that one desired more time with.

Gansey started to say something but stopped as a girl stepped up to speak with him. She had on a semi-transparent veil that mostly obscured her eyes. Gansey’s cheeks went pink as he saw her.

“Hello,” he said, his voice nearly breathless as he looked at her.

She smiled at him, leaning in to whisper something in his ear, her lips just grazing his ear from under the veil. She kissed his cheek and left.

 

"Who was that?" Ronan asked, one eyebrow lifted.

"Blue."

"The witch's daughter?"

 

"She's not a witch,” Gansey corrected. “She's a physic"

 

“My bad,” Ronan said, watching as Gansey fussed over his clothes nervously. “What did she say to you?”

Gansey smirked. “Just a promise for later. Don’t worry,” he said as he caught Ronan’s look. “I won’t be leaving you till you’re free to mingle.”

“Thanks,” Ronan mumbled, his mood a little soured.

“Gossiping without me?” Someone said to Ronan’s left.

Ronan turned, breaking into a grin as he saw who it was. “Noah,” he said, clasping his hand in greeting. “You look creepy.”

His mask was skull shaped, the hollows around the eyes rendering Noah's eyes dark and shadowed. The edges curved along his cheekbones, the smudge on his face ugly underneath it.

 

His grin ruined the effect. He looked overjoyed to see Ronan, as if they hadn’t both gotten completely wasted in his room last night.

“It’s a riot down there,” Noah said, shaking glitter out of his hair. “I’ve never seen such amazing people.”

“Save someone for me, will you?” Ronan joked.

Noah shrugged one shoulder. “Maybe, maybe not.” He reached around Ronan to poke Gansey. “I saw you getting cozy with the witch’s daughter,” he teased.

“She isn’t a witch, she’s a psychic.” Gansey said, greeting Noah with an elaborate handshake. “Anyone catch your eye?”

“Like I said, everyone,” Noah was practically vibrating with energy. “This party is awesome.”

“It isn’t a party,” Ronan reminded him, his mood dropping. “It’s me meeting my fiancée.”

“Who knows,” Noah said, already moving back towards the crowd. “Maybe the right one is out there.”

Gansey looked to Ronan to see his response, a grin playing on his lips, but Ronan wasn’t paying attention. His eyes scanned the room carefully, brilliantly blue eyes shadowed as he surveyed everyone. This was hopeless.

“Ronan,” Gansey said, and his tone made it clear this wasn’t the first time he’d said his name. “It’s time.”

Ronan breathed a few words to himself that would’ve earned him a scolding from his father. “You’re kidding.”

“I’m not,” Gansey said, tilting his head towards the line of people that were forming. “You have to greet them now.”

Ronan clasped Gansey’s hand once, letting him go with a promise to see him again at the end of the night.

With Gansey gone Ronan had one thing left to do. Say hello. The line in front of him were clearly the children of lords and ladies of the court. Their proximity to him, as well as their extravagant clothing was a dead giveaway. Half of them were hardly wearing masks at all, clearly hoping Ronan would recognize them.

He stepped down into the crowd and greeted them politely. He kissed hands and cheeks and exchanged well wishes, all without sharing names. It was customary, but it was fucking annoying.

He drifted through the crowd, being pulled into groups to mingle before moving on to the next. Sometimes people crowded around him, other times they were solitary. Often they were in short lines, waiting for a brief moment with him.

He thanked a girl in a massive dress for coming, trying not to act dismissive. She’d been kind, but he would never be interested, and there was another line forming.

Ronan looked up at the next person who stepped up to speak with him. For a moment he couldn’t find words.

The boy had a mask that was finely made, but not expensive. It looked as though he had glued actual leaves to his face. The delicate leaves traced down his elegant cheekbones, the very tip skimming his perfect jaw. His eyes were shockingly blue beneath the green on the leaves.

The boy bowed low to Ronan, his eyes fixed up at him. Ronan held his gaze for what felt like a lifetime.

Finally he straightened, and moved to walk away, probably assuming Ronan had no prolonged interest. In a quick moment of impulsiveness Ronan grabbed his hand.

Ronan stared into his breathtaking eyes, lifting the boy's hand to his mouth to kiss the back of it. He was struck for a moment by his actions, and the sheer beauty of the boy's hand. His fine bones, with smooth tan skin stretched over them. Each finger was long and elegant, as beautiful as many of the court musicians’. For a moment Ronan thought he might be one of them, but he was sure he would have noticed him sooner.

His lips lingered longer than necessary but he couldn’t help it. He dropped the boy’s hand reluctantly. The boy gave him a soft smile and stepped away, back into the crowd.

Ronan's brain was short circuiting. Growing up, he had been taught how to handle himself in any situation. He knew how to work through the strangest of situations, but nothing prepared him for meeting this boy.

 

He was pushing his way through the crowd in an instant, his eyes locked on the boy as he weaved his way through the crowd. He clearly hadn’t expected to hold Ronan’s attention, already on his way out.

“Wait,” Ronan tried, but the word stuck in his throat. He was too distracted to do anything but go after him.

The boy finally paused, just for a moment, and Ronan was there by his side.

“Sir,” he said, because he didn’t know his name and he didn’t remember proper formalities. “Don’t leave yet.”

The boy’s eyes were wide beneath his mask, shocked that Ronan was there. “You’re missing your party,” he said, his words like a melody.

“I can’t miss you,” Ronan said, his heart laid bare.

A smile tugged at the boy’s lips as he considered what Ronan had said. “You don’t even know my name.”

“I don’t need to,” Ronan said, though he wanted to know desperately. “Just give me something to call you for tonight.”

The boy considered for a moment, weighing his options. “You can call me Aspen,” he said.

Ronan could see the glint in his eyes behind the green of the mask. “But that’s a tree.”

“Something to call me,” the boy, Aspen, said.

Ronan nodded. “Come with me, Aspen.”

He offered a gloved hand and the boy took it, his beautiful hand even more wonderful to hold. Ronan lead them beyond the halls of the palace, familiar with the layout in a way none of the guests were. They reached the set of grand doors quickly, and Ronan didn’t hesitate in throwing them open.

The warm air of the night spilled into the hall, and he heard Aspen gasp as he looked out beyond the doors.

“It’s beautiful,” he said quietly. He stepped outside, his hand dropping from Ronan’s as he wandered out further. He touched his hand to one of the moonflowers in full bloom, looking back to Ronan and smiling. “This is wonderful.”

“I knew you’d like it,” Ronan said, joining him. He looked around the garden, trying to imagine he was seeing it for the first time. It was imposing, like many things around the grounds. Tall hedges and strong statues that used to frighten him as a child marched their way down the center. The moon cast them in a glowing haze, softening the night around them. The flowers lined the curving paths as they branched off into the maze-like grounds that Ronan’s father so enjoyed. Pinks and blues and greens flooded his vision. The flowers never seemed to be out of bloom, and Ronan was overly grateful as Aspen looked at them all in wonder.

“What is this,” he asked, touching a bunch of blue flowers that seemed to reach out of the ground towards him.

“I have no idea,” Ronan admitted. “I don’t know what most of these are.”

He didn’t mention that his father had planted most of it, and that he never knew where he got anything.

“It’s so beautiful,” Aspen said, nearly breathless already.

Ronan took his hand again, pulling him gently away from the flowers. “Come on, there’s so much to see.”

Aspen let Ronan lead him away, further into the maze of hedges. His wide eyes peered through the mask, taking everything in like he would never see it again. In a way, he wouldn’t. Most of the people in the palace tonight would never see the gardens in their life, let alone a second time.

The mask on Ronan’s face felt like it was suffocating him at the thought. There were no promises he was going to see Aspen after tonight, and the realization made him reach for the flask he’d tucked into his pocket before.

“Want some?” he asked Aspen, offering it to him.

Aspen took a drink and grimaced, clearly displeased with the flavor. “You know, I thought royalty drank better tasting things.”

Ronan shrugged. “You’re thinking of my father,” he joked. He lifted the flask to his mouth, carefully navigating it around his mask, and took a deep drink. The familiar burn in his throat was welcome, and he drank again and again, passing it off to Aspen as they walked.

“Close your eyes,” Ronan told him.

The perfect blue of Aspen’s eyes vanished from within the green of his mask. “Why?”

Ronan lead him further into the garden carefully, his body thrumming with the effects of the alcohol. “This should be a surprise.”

He stopped, carefully turning Aspen to face what he wanted him to see. “Open them.”

He could tell Aspen’s eyes were open when he gasped, turning to Ronan in an instant. “It’s amazing,” he said in awe. “Look at this.”

He went forward, closer to the magnificent fountains that laid deep within the garden. It felt like a completely new place, so far away from the rest of the world when it was really just beyond the palace. Aspen laid his hand on the side of one, trailing his other hand through the water as he looked at water pouring out of it.

Ronan adored this fountain in particular. In the middle of the basin, water spouted out and around the three statues around it. Three boys, all holding hands as they seemed to run around the water, their stone faces carved into expressions of joy. Ronan often thought of his brothers when he looked at it, and he remembered when he and Declan were younger and would jump into it.

“This one’s my favorite,” Ronan told Aspen.

“I can see why,” Aspen said, gesturing to one of the boys. “That one looks like you.”

Ronan thought it looked more like his father, but he smiled at Aspen anyways. They moved away from that fountain into one of the grottos near it. This fountain was simpler, just a woman’s figure pouring water from her outstretched hands.

“These are incredible,” Aspen said, turning to Ronan. “Thank you.”

“You don’t need to thank me,” Ronan said briskly, unused to people expressing any kind of griditute towards him, “I just thought you’d like it.”

His face was hot from the alcohol, and he reached up to remove his mask before it drove him mad. Aspen looked away as he did so, watching the water as Ronan laid the mask on the edge of the fountain.

“I thought this was a masquerade,” Aspen said softly, his eyes still trained on the water.

“Everyone already knows who I am, there’s no reason for me to hide.” Ronan said, suddenly desperate for Aspen to look at him.

Aspen didn’t, stepping away from the fountain again. “Are there more fountains around here?” he asked Ronan.

Ronan nodded, leaving his mask as he went out of the grove. “There’s the reflecting pool,” he said, assuming Aspen would follow him as he continued down the path. It felt like it was pressing in on him, and he thought maybe he shouldn’t have had so much alcohol so quickly. The path opened up before he truly regretted it.

The moon shone brightly onto the pool in front of him. It was quite small, just a rectangle in the ground that mirrored the night sky in its still waters. Ronan, because he was bored or because he was drunk, found himself stepping into the water, his shoes still on.

“Ronan,” Aspen said, right behind him. “What are you doing?”

“Having a little fun,” he said, turning to splash Aspen with an open palm.

Aspen jumped away from the water, clearly not up for Ronan’s antics.

His loss then. Ronan shrugged out of his fancy jacket, tossing it out of the pool before he let himself fall forwards into the water, floating in the blissful silence for a moment before coming back up.

“Your clothes,” Aspen said with dismay.

“They’ll dry,” Ronan told him. “How often do you get to swim unsupervised on the palace grounds.”

Aspen opened his mouth and closed it, clearly at a loss for words.

“Exactly.” Ronan turned to Aspen, his face warm from the night air and the copious amounts of alcohol streaming through his body. “Come on.”

“I’m blaming this on the alcohol,” Aspen told Ronan, stepping deeper into the water. He stood knee deep for a moment before falling forward like Ronan had, catching himself just before his face went under. The mask was still solidly on his face, hiding all but his pretty mouth from Ronan.

Ronan whopped, pleased with the turn of events. He sank into the water with Aspen, enjoying the cool water against his heated skin. His father had strictly banned him from swimming in the reflecting pool, which meant Ronan did it whenever he could. He spread his arms wide, letting the water hold him up.

“You come out here to float?” Aspen asked, crouched low in the water to peer at Ronan.

“No,” Ronan said, standing. “I do this too.”

He splashed Aspen again, and this time Aspen splashed back, laughing.

“I’m your king!” Ronan protested, shocked that Aspen was indulging him.

“Not yet,” Aspen said, and tackled Ronan into the water. Ronan struggled against him, laughing as he resurfaced, Aspen’s arms still tightly around him.

“Let me go,” he said through his laughter.

Aspen did, his mask slightly askew. “Got carried away,” he shrugged.

Ronan touched his fingers to the edge of Aspen’s mask, his skin warm beneath it. “Your mask,” he muttered, almost entirely to himself.

Aspen fixed his mask quickly, securing it to his face despite the fact that a few of the leaves were starting to peel off. “I didn’t realize,” he said hastily, stepping away from Ronan. “I’m sorry.”

“No,” Ronan said, too harshly. “No, I wish I could see you.”

Aspen’s mouth was firm. “You can’t,” he said tightly. “It’s a masquerade.”

“Then I have one request,” Ronan said, so softly he could hardly hear himself.

“Yes?” Aspen asked, his tone matching Ronan’s.

“Just one kiss.”

Aspen’s face was unreadable beneath the mask. “You want to kiss a stranger?”

“Not just any stranger,” Ronan said tightly. “I would like to kiss you.”

Aspen nodded. “Okay.”

“Okay?” Ronan repeated.

“Kiss me.” Aspen told him.

Ronan did, surging from the water to kiss Aspen. He felt like he was on fire, caught in Aspen’s embrace as he kissed him. His shirt stuck to his skin with the water, and Aspen’s hands roamed over his body, tracing the outlines his shirt clung to. It was over before Ronan could process what he was feeling, Aspen drawing back with a gasp.

“Wait,” Ronan said immediately, scared Aspen was leaving. “Don’t go.”

“I’m not,” Aspen assured him, his face red under his mask. “I just don’t think I should do that.”

“Kiss me?”

Aspen didn’t answer.

“Because I’m a boy?” Ronan asked, already backing away from Aspen. He couldn’t bring himself to deal with this again.

“No, because you’re the prince. And this is a ball to find you a wife.”

“Don’t remind me,” Ronan grumbled. “I’m out of alcohol.”

“Is it really such a bad thing?” Aspen asked gently.

“Being out of alcohol?” Ronan trudged from the water to sprawl out on the grass. “Or the whole marrying some random woman so I can take the throne.”

“You could learn to love her,” Aspen suggested, carefully squeezing water from his sleeves as he regarded Ronan, still knee deep in the water.

“One would assume,” Ronan muttered to himself. Maybe he would’ve grown to love whatever wife he chose, but it was exceptionally difficult to love a woman when one had no interest in them in the first place.

Aspen finished his attempt at lessening the amount of water weighing his shirt down and sat next to Ronan, his face turned away. “I’m sorry.”

“What do you have to be sorry for?” Ronan looked at Aspen, frail and lonely in his soaked clothes and delicate mask. “You’ve given me something tonight.”

“A break?” Aspen joked, glancing once at Ronan.

“Something like that,” Ronan said, because admitting that Aspen had given him some hope for his future was embarrassing to say aloud, especially only an hour or so after they’d met.

“I think I’d like to kiss you again,” Aspen suggested.

Ronan obliged, catching his lips in a slow and warm kiss. The rest of the night seemed to fall away, his world narrowing to this feeling, Aspen’s mouth warm on his and the smallest flutter of joy in his heart. He wanted to stay forever, or at least for the rest of the night, but he could never have his way.

On cue, a voice rang out over the grounds, far away but coming closer. “Ronan!” Gansey’s voice yelled. “Where did you go, you bastard?”

Ronan groaned, hardly aware of Aspen’s panicked face. “Of course he’s here.”

“Ronan!” Gansey called again, much closer. “I know you’re out here, I found your mask.”

“Come on,” Ronan said, holding a hand out to Aspen as he stood. “Might as well head back inside.”

“I can go there myself.” Aspen didn’t take Ronan’s hand. “I think it would be better if you returned alone.”

Ronan didn’t say anything. Aspen was right, clearly, but Ronan wasn’t thinking. He nodded instead, turning away from Aspen.

“Enjoy the rest of your night,” he said over his shoulder because he couldn’t bring himself to look back. He left him sitting there in the grass, alone.

“Ronan,” Gansey called once more, and Ronan stepped in front of him before he could yell again. “Christ, Ronan.” Gansey said, looking relieved to see him. “What the hell were you doing?”

Ronan shrugged. “Getting some air.”

“Your pants are soaked.”

“I was hot, too.”

Gansey took his arm, guiding him back towards the massive doors. “Your father is going to kill me, I can’t believe you just wandered off like this. What were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t,” Ronan admitted.

“I’m aware,” Gansey nearly snapped. “You need to take this seriously.”

Ronan bit back a retort. He knew he was in the wrong, but his mind was still fuzzy and his tongue was still sharp. He missed Aspen.

“Can’t we just get this over with?”

“It’s almost finished.” Gansey said, gentler now. “At least put the mask back on.”

Ronan did, relishing for a moment the cool metal against his flushed skin. “Let’s go.”

He followed Gansey back inside and all the way back to the ball. No one seemed to have actually noticed he was gone, but they noticed him now in his damp clothes and tousled hair.

The next few minutes, or maybe hours, were a whirlwind, being passed along the crowd and greeting people on autopilot. He apologized to anyone that he’d missed earlier, fielding off questions about where he’d been. He didn’t stop to dance with any of them or even to talk longer, his eyes frantically searching for Aspen, if he was even still here.

Every flash of green sent his heart into a frenzy. His head was reeling as endless streams of people moved around him. He couldn’t even pause to find Gansey who’d vanished once Ronan was back, probably to do damage control.

The heat of all the bodies pressed against him, already nearly drying his clothes. He felt like he was suffocating in all of it all over again.

“Ronan,” someone said, and in front of him was the psychic’s daughter, an anchor in the storm. Her sheer veil hid all but her mouth, leaving her a nearly faceless figure in the crowd.

Ronan didn’t even correct her for not using his title, he was far past that tonight and grateful she was here. “Blue,” he said, focusing on her instead of the crowd.

“Do you want to dance with him?” She asked, like she knew exactly what Ronan needed.

She was right. Ronan managed to nod, still unsure of what to do.

“Come on, he was about to leave.”

She took Ronan’s hand, leading him quickly through the dance floor and back to the entrance to the hall. Ronan didn’t even bother asking her how she knew anything about what was going on. If she was a witch afterall, she was a damn good one.

“Don’t mess this up,” she said, squeezing his hand before letting go and vanishing back into the crowd, hopefully to find Gansey.

“Wait-“ Ronan said, but she was already gone.

“Prince Ronan,” a voice said near his side.

Ronan whirled, suddenly face to face with Aspen again. He felt frozen in his gaze, bright under the mask.

“Dance with me,” he said hurriedly, his words tripping over each other in a haste to get them out.

“Are you sure? I’m not exactly good company,” Aspen said in his beautiful voice, his words clipped like he was suppressing an accent.

Ronan knew Aspen was trying to act like they hadn’t already spent a considerable part of the night together. He also knew Aspen was probably hinting at the fact that he wasn’t of a high-blooded family, but Ronan found it was impossible to care after everything. “Please. It would truly make my night if you would dance with me.”

“If that’s what you would like, then of course.” Aspen said, a twinkle in his eye.

Ronan lead them both back to the dance floor, pausing in the middle. He carefully took one of Aspen’s hands in his own. They locked eyes, and for a second Ronan couldn’t remember how to speak, let alone dance.

Aspen, as elegant as he was even after traipsing around the gardens with Ronan, lead him carefully. His steps weren’t perfect, but they were practiced and steady enough that Ronan didn’t have to worry about tripping over his feet. Ronan hoped beyond anything that his hands weren’t sweaty.

“Have you met anyone of interest tonight?” Aspen asked.

Ronan’s tongue darted nervously over his lips before he answered, catching Aspen’s eyes past their masks. “Just one.”

“Oh,” Aspen said in a smaller voice, his steps faltering just as the song ended.

“I didn’t see you come back in,” Ronan said softly.

“I know, that was the point,” Aspen said, his words stinging but his tone kind. “I should be getting back home,” he started.

Ronan gripped tighter to his hand. He was staring, mildly. His hands were beautiful, fine and delicate.

Ronan was overwhelmed with the need to be alone with him.

He grabbed tighter to his hand, pulling Aspen away from the crowd. He made a soft, startled noise and let himself be dragged away.

 

Ronan stopped when he found a private enough spot where they wouldn’t be disturbed.

"Can I kiss you?" He asked, surprising himself.

Aspen nodded quickly. If Ronan squinted he thought he could see a red flush behind his mask. He chose not to make a comment, instead cupping the back of the boy's neck, leaning in closer. He paused when their lips were almost touching, giving Aspen a chance to pull away.

He didn't. Instead he surged forward, his lips soft against Ronan's. Ronan let out a small whine, his fingers grazing the ends of Aspen’s hair.

 

The angle was mildly uncomfortable to prevent their masks from catching, but his soft mouth and skilled tongue made up for the discomfort, better now that they were on solid ground.

Ronan felt hands grip his waist, long fingers just brushing underneath his jacket. Just the feeling of those hands on him had Ronan dizzy.

He kissed Aspen harder, coaxing his mouth open gently with his tongue. Ronan let himself give in for a moment, exploring Aspen’s mouth like he’d never see him again. It was likely he wouldn’t.

He dropped a hand to rest over the hand on his hip. Aspen tangled their fingers together, his hand warm against Ronan's. Ronan felt his pulse pounding against his wrist.

 

Ronan forced himself to pull away, still holding onto Aspen's hand.

 

"I have to go back out there. It's my night." Ronan said, breathless. “I missed enough.”

Aspen dropped his hand, his face flushed under the mask. Ronan was sure his looked the same.

Ronan moved towards the ballroom, his mouth still tingling from the kiss, his heart inexplicably heavy.

Aspen didn't let him get far. His hand gripped Ronan's tie suddenly, pulling him back. Ronan's pulse skipped, the danger of this encounter finally settling in.

 

He was dead if he they were caught, but he couldn’t care less.

He let himself be dragged back, gasping into Aspen’s mouth when their lips met again. He felt teeth sharp against his bottom lip, the feeling causing him to arch his back.

Ronan had the single clear thought of how if Aspen could get him this worked up over kissing then Ronan would never survive going further.

Aspen took both of Ronan’s hands in his, leading him back against the wall. Ronan couldn't touch him now. The wall was cold against his back, but the heat of the body pressed against him was enough.

The kiss took all of his breath away, his entire world narrowing into the feeling of hands pressed against his and lips slowly taking him apart.

Ronan gasped aloud as Aspen moved his lips down, mouthing at Ronan’s neck as Ronan whined. He’d never known his neck could be so sensitive, even with the mask pressing against his jaw.

Aspen let go of Ronan’s hands, and right away Ronan moved so that he was pinning him back against the wall. He was smiling at Ronan, breathing as hard as he was like he was just as worked up.

Ronan laid his hands against his cheeks, his fingertips just grazing the edge of the mask. It would be so easy to take off so he could see how beautiful the boy underneath was.

"Leave it on," Aspen murmured, leaning in to capture Ronan’s lips again.

Ronan obliged, his hands moving to tangle in his soft hair. Their lips met, harsh and hot, their masks clashing together, their lips moving hard.

 

Ronan gasped and pulled back, catching his breath and his thoughts.

Aspen lifted a hand to touch the edge of Ronan's mask. Ronan's eyes fluttered shut for a moment till he forced them back open. The hands lingered on his face, and Ronan was seized with the sudden desire to kiss each fingertip. He didn't, instead grazing his lips across his index finger, his eyes burning as he stared at Aspen.

“I have to go,” Aspen said finally.

“Will I see you again?” Ronan asked, suddenly a little frantic.

“I don’t know,” he answered honestly. “Enjoy the rest of your night, my prince.”

And with that Aspen was gone, vanishing back into the crowd and out into the night.

Ronan stood there, staring at where he’d gone. He was frozen, waiting for him to come back.

“Ronan,” Gansey called from within the throng of people.

It was enough to snap Ronan out of it. He went back into the hall, quickly finding Gansey in the crowd.

“Where were you?” Gansey asked, his hands fixing up Ronan’s clothes quickly. “Having fun? Again?”

“Did you see him?” Ronan asked, a little breathless.

Gansey raised an eyebrow. “Him? There’s an awful lot of men here tonight, Ronan. Why, think he’s the one?”

Ronan barely managed to nod. “He was beautiful, Gansey.”

“Okay, lovesick,” Gansey said. “You’ve got to at least dance with a few more people before the night ends though.”

Ronan nodded. “Yeah.”

“What was his name?” Gansey asked, finally satisfied with Ronan’s clothes. “Maybe I know him.”

“I don’t know,” Ronan admitted. “He just said Aspen.”

Gansey made a face. “You don’t know? How do you expect to find him?”

Ronan frowned, his heart suddenly feeling very small inside his chest. “I don’t know,” he said again. “but we’re going to.”

Gansey gave him a sure nod. “This is almost done,” he assured Ronan. “Just a few more dances.”

Ronan grimaced. “After you,” he said, ready to use Gansey as a social shield.

Gansey, as it turned out, was an excellent deterrent for nobles. He gracefully joined conversations in Ronan’s place, engaging and polite as he bantered on about whatever caught their interest. Ronan had to merely stand by his side and greet those who sought him out.

“Have you met anyone that caught your eye tonight, Your Highness?” A woman asked Ronan while Gansey charmed the men around her.

Ronan barely noticed she was speaking to him. Her eyes were trained on him, hidden behind her mask, and he found himself unable to help himself. “Yes,” he confirmed.

“Oh,” she said, her hand brushing his arm. “I suppose many people here will be heartbroken to hear that.”

Ronan bit back a retort. As if he could please every person here. He was going to be their king, but he wasn’t going to be happy. Not if he married whoever his father chose.

“I would hope to alleviate that pain eventually,” Ronan said as gently as he could.

She inclined her chin at that and drifted back into the crowd. It was thinning rapidly as the ball came to a close. It only took minutes for the room to clear, leaving Gansey with Ronan as servants seemed to appear from the shadows to clean.

“You’re up past your bedtime,” Gansey told him.

Ronan scoffed. “You’re one to talk.”

They were already making their way on the trek to Ronan’s rooms. Gansey preferred to stay up with him most nights, and tonight was a night that needed companionship.

“Did you meet anyone?” Gansey asked him softly as he pushed Ronan’s door open.

Ronan swallowed hard, waiting until the door was shut again to answer. “I did.”

“Was it Aspen?” His voice was carefully neutral.

“Yeah, it was.” Ronan pulled his jacket off, tossing it onto the floor as he worked to unbutton his shirt. “You must’ve seen him.”

Gansey shrugged. “I can’t say I did. What will you do?”

“I’ll find him,” Ronan vowed. “Even if it takes years, I will.”

Gansey bumped his shoulder against Ronan’s. “It won’t that long.”

Ronan sighed. “I hope you’re right.”

They both readied for bed, even though the sun would be up in just a few hours. Gansey sat up with him the rest of the night, keeping him company because he knew neither of them would be sleeping anyways.

It was nearly midday when Ronan was finally summoned to see his father. He’d hoped his father would forget, or that he’d send someone else to deal with Ronan, but he had no such luck. He dragged his feet the entire way there. Gansey wasn’t even allowed to go with him, which only made the whole thing worse.

Of course his father couldn’t even meet him in one of his rooms, or the dining hall, or even the damn throne room. Instead Ronan had to hike up the endless stairs to his father’s personal library. The things inside unnerved Ronan, with the ancient books and strange artifacts stacked among them. It didn’t help that he wasn’t allowed to touch any of it.

He shouldered the door open when he got there, breathless from the endless amounts of stairs.

“Father, you wanted to see me,” he said as greeting. He was in no mood to be formal, and Niall Lynch was never a formal king.

“Ronan,” his father responded, gazing at him with the same stare Ronan so often turned on people. “Have a seat.”

Ronan felt like a child about to be chastised. He sat.

“Did you enjoy your party?”

“Yes,” Ronan said tensely. “Thank you.”

“Did you meet someone?” Niall asked, never one to dance around questions.

Ronan hesitated. He had no idea how his father would feel if he told him that he had met someone, but that it wasn’t who everyone expected it to be. “I think so.”

His father’s expression didn’t change. Ronan focused all of his energy on not fidgeting under his gaze. “Good,” he said simply. “Are you going to invite them here?”

“I’m afraid I didn’t catch a name,” Ronan said meekly.

His father shrugged one shoulder. “You’ll figure something out. You have until the end of this month to be married in order to be next in line for the crown.”

Ronan was keenly aware of the fact that his deadline was rapidly approaching. Declan hadn’t married at eighteen, and he was gone. Ronan did not want to follow him down such a path. He didn’t know what to say to his father.

“I met your mother the day after my eighteenth birthday.” Niall said before Ronan could think of anything to say. “She was selling scarves in the market, and one happened to blow away while I was passing with my guards. I reached up and caught it, and she caught my heart the moment I laid eyes on her.” His face was distant as he recalled the memory. “I’m sure someone will catch your heart just the same.”

Ronan didn’t know how to say someone already had. His mother had told him about that first meeting before, but her airy voice always made it seem like another fairy tale. It was all that Ronan could really remember about her anymore.

“I’m sure it will work itself out,” Ronan said tensely.

“There’s someone out there for you, Ronan. Don’t give up yet.”

Niall’s words were the best dismissal he was going to get. Ronan inclined his head to his father, nearly running to the door to leave. He was halfway down the stairs before he stopped to breathe at all, the stone cool against his hands as he pressed them against the walls. He was never going to find Aspen. He knew nothing but his pseudonym. Logic told him Aspen wasn’t a member of the court, but that meant he could be anywhere else in the kingdom.

He was never going to find him.

The knowledge hung heavy over him for the next few days. Gansey followed him around the castle as he paced endlessly, trying to take his mind off of the search.

“Maybe he’ll send a letter,” Gansey suggested.

Ronan huffed at that. “As if he knows I’m even looking for him. I can’t just send messengers out in the kingdom. What would they say? ‘The prince is in love with a man, if you happen to be him please send a message.’ sounds great.”

Gansey frowned at him. “You don’t have to be so angry.”

“If I don’t marry someone I’ll lose the crown. You think Matthew would make a good king?”

Gansey didn’t answer. They both knew he was too gentle to be anything but a golden boy. Ronan never wanted him to see the things that a ruler had to see.

“I don’t know what to do.” Ronan admitted.

“Let’s go into town,” Gansey suggested. “We’ll bring Noah, and whoever else you want. We can just enjoy the people, and if someone catches your eye we can go from there.”

Ronan considered. “You’d better invite Henry then, to wrangle you back when you get distracted somewhere.”

“I’m sure I can find him and Noah quickly. Why don’t you go find some nicer clothes and we can leave?”

Ronan glanced down at the same shirt he had been wearing for three days. He really did need to change, especially if people were going to see him. He couldn’t look like he’d been sleepless the past days, that his thoughts were glued on Aspen and the fact that he couldn’t find him.

Gansey went off to find Noah and Henry, and Ronan went to his bedroom to change. He shrugged on a smooth green jacket, nearly the same color that Aspen’s mask had been. Maybe if he saw it in town he would know.

He was back down where he’d been talking to Gansey in minutes, a cloak hanging over his arm. Gansey was waiting for him with the two boys, both of them equally dressed for travel.

“Ronan,” Noah greeted, his smile bright. “How was your party?”

“Crowded,” Ronan grimaced.

“Did you meet anyone?” Henry asked him, acutely curious.

“He did,” Gansey interrupted before Ronan could reply. “So we’re going into town to look for him.”

If either of the boys were shocked at the ‘him’ they didn’t show it. They just nodded, looking determined.

“What did he look like?” Noah asked as they went out onto the grounds. Gansey had already arranged a carriage to take them into town.

“He was tall,” Ronan said, considering what he could remember. “Brown hair, freckles.”

“Probably hard to see under the mask,” Henry pointed out.

“Yes,” Ronan agreed. “But I know I’ll recognize him when I see him.”

Noah clapped his shoulder. “You will.”

They clamored into the carriage, their long limbs crashing into each other as they all settled down. It was a short ride in, and Henry kept them all entertained by recalling his night at the masquerade. He had apparently kept Blue company while Gansey had been chasing after Ronan.

“Will we be seeing her?” Noah asked, excited.

“Am I the only one who doesn’t know her?” Ronan asked.

“You’ve been too busy with princely duties,” Gansey pointed out. “We will be in town, we could always stop by her mother’s shop.”

“Good idea,” Ronan said, because he knew Gansey wanted to see her. “We can get out here,” he said as he watched the marketplace passby next to the carriage.

Gansey rapped the roof of the carriage with his fist and it rumbled to a stop. They all fell out of it with the same amount of grace that they had gotten into it. The carriage continued on without them, the driver already notified to be back in a few hours.

“Where to?” Henry asked, looking slightly uncomfortable in the loud marketplace.

“First we find Blue, then we find Ronan’s true love.”

Ronan bit back a remark. He wasn’t sure if true love was the right word, but he thought eventually it might have been. “Lead the way,” he said to Gansey instead.

Gansey did, clearly familiar with the area. Ronan wondered for a moment how often Gansey went out to see Blue. Was it possible he had really been so hung up on his own problems he hadn’t noticed that his closest friend had been seeing someone? He shook the thought out of his head, just followed a step behind Gansey until they reached the shop.

Gasney knocked lightly on the door and Blue opened it.

“Gansey,” she said, surprised to see him.

“We’re on a mission,” Gansey told her. “We need to find the man who stole Ronan’s heart.”

Ronan wasn’t sure why his friends were out to humiliate him.

“I see,” Blue said thoughtfully.

Ronan watched her slip out the door, mildly shocked by how short she was. “You’ll help?”

Blue regarded him with steady eyes. “I’ll help. Lead the way, my liege.” She somehow managed to sound both respectful and mocking. Ronan liked her.

Ronan had no idea where they were going, though. “Do we just walk around?” he asked them.

“Enjoy the town,” Blue suggested, already taking the lead. “These are the people you’re going to lead you know.”

Ronan knew. He visited as often as he could, but usually just to goof off with Gansey, or on official business with his father and a handful of royal guards. He knew at least one person would be following them around today, but he was mostly free to do what he wanted.

Blue walked in step with Ronan, both following him and leading him. Ronan felt a growing respect for her in every moment he spent with her. She was bold and brave, and Gansey was hopelessly gone for her.

“Who are we looking for?” Noah asked. “Do you have a name?”

“No,” Ronan looked at the faces of every person they passed, his heart tripping in an uneven rhythm. “He just called himself Aspen.”

“Most of the time people choose pseudonyms with the same letter as their actual name,” Henry pointed out.

“So his name might start with an A,” Noah confirmed.

“Or anything else,” Gansey interjected. “Not everyone does the first letter thing.”

They all regarded each other for a moment, no one sure what to say.

“This is hopeless,” Ronan said finally. He wanted to lay down in one of the roads and let a carriage run him down.

“Well, don’t say that,” Blue said firmly. “This is your firture, which means it’s also the future of the kingdom. We’re going to find him.”

The rest of his friends made sounds of agreement. Ronan stood in the middle of them, and his heart settled. He had friends. He had a chance.

They spread out into the town, staying close to each other as they let themselves get caught up in the bustle of town. Ronan strolled by market stalls, peering at wares that caught his eye. People greeted him warmly, recognizing their prince. Gansey stepped in when they wanted to talk, and Ronan continued on unbothered.

He found himself at a jewelry stall, Noah next to him.

“This is pretty,” Noah said, pointing at a ring.

Ronan picked it up gently to look at it closer. It was a ring crafted of threads of silver, twining together into leaves that would wrap around one’s finger.

“Noah, how did you know?” Ronan asked him, unable to put the ring down.

“What?” Noah asked, clearly unaware of what he’d done.

“His mask, it looked just like this,” Ronan said. “How much?” he asked the frail woman selling the jewelry.

She blinked at him. “Nothing for you,” she said like she was shocked he wanted to pay.

“Please, how much?” Ronan asked.

She shook her head. “It’s yours.”

Ronan hated being given things, but he couldn’t argue with her. “Thank you,” he said, clasping her hand once before slipping the ring into his pocket. It was exactly what he needed.

He moved away from the stall, catching Blue’s attention when he saw her with Gansey.

“Blue,” he called her over. “Could you give this to that woman in the booth over there?” He asked, dropping coins into Blue’s hands.

Blue went smoothly towards the woman, chatting to her for a moment before she pressed the coins into the woman’s hands. Ronan had no idea what she said, but the woman accepted them.

“Thank you,” Ronan said, nearly breathless.

“What did she give you?” Blue asked, curious.

“Something perfect,” Ronan said, pulling the ring out to show Blue.

She took it gently from him, turning it over in her fingers. “This is just like his mask,” she said.

“I know,” Ronan took the ring from her outstretched hand. “How did you know he was who I was looking for? Are you really psychic?”

“My mother is a psychic,” Blue said proudly. “I just wasn’t blind.”

Ronan laughed, surprised. “It was that obvious?”

“To me, yes.” Blue looked at him for a long moment. “What will you do if you don’t find him?” she asked gently.

Ronan focused on the ground beneath his feet. “Do you know anyone who could help with that?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” Blue said like she knew exactly what he meant.

“Someone who can take love away,” he said, barely loud enough to be audible.

Blue bit her lip, her hands fidgeting as she thought of what to say. “I know a store, one of my mother’s friends. But Ronan, I don’t know if it’s the best idea.”

“Please, Blue,” Ronan said, although he never begged. “I can’t stop thinking about him. I don’t sleep because he’s all that’s on my mind, I’ve barely eaten. I don’t know what will happen to me if I can’t just… forget him.”

“If that’s what you want.”

“It is,” Ronan said softly. “I don’t think I want to keep moving on if it isn’t with him.”

Blue blew out a breath. “Don’t be that dramatic,” she said in an attempt to lighten the mood. “I can show you the shop, just walk around with us a bit first.”

Ronan did. He followed his lively group of friends through the town, stopping for food whenever something caught his eye, laughing at the Noah and Henry as they tried on hats and scarves.

He felt their energy and their happiness surround him like a bubble, but the weight in his chest was getting harder and harder to ignore. Every man they passed wasn’t Aspen, and everytime Ronan realized it wasn’t the weight got heavier. He felt like a stone of sorrow was crushing him, and even the joy of his friends couldn’t lift it off of him completely.

“Blue,” he said while the boys were distracted with each other. “I want to see this store now.”

Blue nodded. “I should warn you, it isn’t really medicine.” She said something to Gansey before she took Ronan’s arm.

“Potions then?” He asked as she tugged him down an alley and out again.

“Well, those aren’t exactly real,” she sighed. “I don’t know if they can help you or not, Ronan. I just know who they are.”

“Just show me,” Ronan said, forcing down the lump in his throat.

“Up here,” Blue said, and dropped Ronan’s arm. They were standing in front of an drab shop. The sign seemed to have been knocked down years ago, leaving it unmarked. The wood of the roof was swallowing itself, and the stones that made up the walls barely held the building up.

“This place?” Ronan wasn’t even sure it was still a functioning building.

“Take it or leave it,” Blue said, her voice low.

Ronan looked at her sideways. “You aren’t coming in?”

Blue shook her head. “This isn’t for me.”

Ronan bobbed his head in agreement. He took a long breath, letting it out slowly as he approached the shop. The door swung open silently when he pushed against it, and he stepped into the dark interior. Shelves covered most of the floor and walls, piled high with jars and other objects, strange enough that it reminded him of his father’s odd library.

“Can I help you?” A light voice asked Ronan from somewhere within the shelves. A small woman with a cloud of white blonde hair regarded him, her eyes wide and not unlike an owl’s.

“You’re the shop owner?” Ronan asked, trying not to be intimidated by the hair and eyes.

“I am,” she trailed a hand lazily over some of the shelves, kicking up dust in the wake of her fingertips. “What can I help you with, my prince?”

Ronan wished she hadn’t known who he was, but it was too late for that. “Do you have anything for love?”

“To create it or destroy it?”

“Destroy,” Ronan said, even though the world felt like it was ripped from his mouth.

“One moment,” she said, drifting down the rows of shelves, a cloud released.

Ronan could hear her rummaging, but he was frozen in place. Someone moved near the front of the store, and he realized a boy around his age was at what was most likely the front counter. There was so little light within the store he couldn’t make out his face from so far away.

“I have this,” the woman said, practically appearing in front of Ronan. He nearly jumped out of his skin. She was brandishing a small bottle at him, filled with something that looked more like smoke than anything else. She pressed it into Ronan’s hand and he took it on reflex.

“How much?” he asked, ready to pay anything.

“He can tell you,” she said, gesturing to the boy he’d noticed.

Ronan carefully picked his way through the maze of shelves, finally reaching the front. He placed the bottle on the counter without saying anything. The boy had his head down low, the curls of his hair casting shadows across the rest of his face.

He told Ronan the price, his voice clipped, and Ronan dug out the coins. He reached to drop them into the boy’s outstretched hand and paused. His hands were delicate, thin and elegant. They were not hands Ronan would forget easily. He stopped breathing.

“Sir?” the boy asked, and Ronan heard it in his voice that time, the familiarity. He looked up at Ronan finally, and the blue of his eyes was as brilliant as Ronan remembered.

“Aspen,” he said, his words lost.

The boy blinked at him, his face carefully neutral. “You remember me then,” he said softly, his hand pressed flat against the counter.

“I do.” Ronan could hardly think. “I thought I would never see you again,” he admitted in a rush.

Aspen averted his eyes. “I’m sure it wouldn’t have hurt you too badly.”

“No,” Ronan said, desperately trying to think of how to say it. “No, I needed to see you again, I had to.” He was speaking quickly, spitting words out the moment he thought of them. “I needed to see you, I-” he stopped, struggling.

“You?” Aspen asked, imploring. His eyes were hopeful, and that was all Ronan needed.

“I want you,” Ronan blurted, completely wrong. “No, I mean,” he paused to exhale, hard, wanting to punch himself in the face. “I want to marry you. If you want to.”

Aspen glanced at him once, unsure. “You don’t know my name,” he said softly.

“Tell me,” Ronan implored. “Please.”

“My name is Adam,” he said, standing taller now. He looked proud, and beautiful without the mask.

“Adam,” Ronan breathed. “You have a hold on my heart, and if you would like it, I’d like to marry you. If you don’t, I’ll just be taking this and leaving.” He was still holding the strange bottle.

“Don’t,” Adam said, laying a hand over Ronan’s. “You don’t need that. I’d very much like to marry you.”

Ronan was beaming. He’d found him, found Adam, and now he was going to know everything about him. “Come on,” he said, pulling Adam towards the front of the shop.

“I can’t just leave,” Adam started, but the woman was shooing him out already, letting Ronan and Adam spill out onto the bright street.

“Ronan!” Blue started, moving towards him.

“Blue!” Ronan yelped, tugging Adam over by his hand. “It’s him.”

Adam looked awkwardly at Blue, smiling a little. “Your mother comes in all the time.”

Blue nodded, looking a little lost. “She does, she’s friends with the owner. Who are you?”

“I work with her,” Adam answered.

“He’s Aspen,” Ronan said as well.

Blue’s eyes went wide. “You are?” she asked Adam.

He nodded, looking a little scared of her. Blue took his arm and Ronan’s, dragging them back to where they’d left the group.

“Ronan,” Gansey started the moment they reached them.

Blue interrupted him. “We found him,” she said, dropping Adam into the circle of friends.

They all froze. Gansey was looking at Ronan, hopeful. Noah and Henry were scrutinizing Adam like hawks, evaluating him like they did in court.

“Hello, I’m Adam,” Adam said awkwardly.

Noah threw his arms around him. “This is amazing,” he cheered.

Henry joined him, both of them excited now. “Nice to meet you, man.”

Gansey practically pulled them off Adam. “Hello, Adam. I’m Gansey, that’s Henry and Noah. You’ve met Blue.”

Adam, flushed and nervous looking, shook hands with each of them in turn. Ronan caught his hand when he was finished, holding it in his own.

“Come meet my father,” he said, barely a question.

Adam nodded. “I will.”

They walked hand in hand back to where the carriage was waiting, all six of them squeezing in, beaming at each other.

“Oh,” Ronan said once the carriage rattled on. “I forgot.” He dug the ring from his pocket, turning to Adam. “This is for you.”

Adam looked down at it, his face full of wonder. He let Ronan slide it onto his hand. “It’s beautiful,” he managed, his voice thick with emotion.

Ronan squeezed his hand. They would arrive back at the castle and Ronan would introduce him to his father. No matter what he said, Ronan knew Adam was the one. His heart was safe in his hands, and together they would rule for years to come.