This is what Carter remembers, after:
—waking up, sure he'd heard a sound;
—movement, black on black but there;
—a shrill scream from down the hall;
—noise, noise, noise;
—movement, much closer, then pain;
He wakes up suddenly, gasping for air and shooting bolt upright. He's moving, he registers, glancing wildly around himself; he's in a carriage of some sort, and—
"Easy, boy," someone murmurs, and Carter is relaxing before he's able to turn all the way around.
"Parker," he says, and he can hear how relieved he sounds. "What happened? What's going on?"
Parker sighs and scrubs at his face with one weathered hand. "There was an ambush," he says. "The attack was… it wasn't good, boy."
Carter's stomach twists. "An ambush," he repeats. "From where? Who was it?"
"Washington," Parker says, scowling. If they were outside right now, Carter knows, he'd spit on the ground after saying it. "I know Fletcher got Sarah out, and I got you out."
Carter waits, but Parker goes quiet. "My parents?" he asks hesitantly.
"I don't know," Parker says simply, and Carter closes his eyes and lets his head drop to his chest for a moment. He nods once, then lifts his head back up. Parker's looking at him with sympathy, but there's a calm clarity in his eyes, too. It's why Carter trusts him, has kept Parker on as his most senior counsel even though there are other men who would gladly take the position of Advisor to the Crown Prince. Parker is trustworthy and dependable, and Carter knows he'll always be honest, even if honesty isn't what he wants to hear.
"So what now?" Carter asks. "Are we heading to look for them?"
Parker shakes his head and glances away. "Fletcher is taking Sarah to New York," he says. "The truce we've got with Lundqvist and his people will keep her safe."
"Okay," Carter says slowly. "And us?"
Parker sighs and looks back at Carter. "Two things," he says, holding up two fingers like he had when Carter was much younger, when he'd been the one to get Carter out of his shell, teaching him how to relate to people, not just how to lead them. "First, you're not going to like what I have to say, and second, it's not up for debate."
Carter frowns deeply. "Parker—"
"Your Majesty," Parker cuts in, and the words land hard on Carter's shoulders. He's shaking his head before he knows what he's doing, because that's his father's title, and—
"Your Majesty," Parker says again, a little gentler this time. "Until we find out what happened to your parents, Carter, you're the king."
Carter's breath feels ragged in his chest, and he blinks hard a few times so he doesn't lose his composure completely. "You're right," he says, shaking his head and looking up at Parker. "I didn't like that at all, but it really and truly isn't up for debate."
Parker sighs. "That's not what I was referring to, actually."
"What, then?" Carter asks. He leans forward, frowning as the lines of Parker's face seem to deepen. "Parker, what is it?"
Parker's mouth opens, but before he can say anything, the carriage grinds to a halt. Parker's eyes flick to the door, and he jerks his head at Carter. "Lay down," he says, voice brooking no argument, and Carter drops gracelessly to the carriage floor. Parker throws a blanket on top of him, and then he climbs out of the carriage.
Carter strains as hard as he can, but between the blanket over him and the carriage walls, all he can make out is the sound of Parker's voice as he talks with someone. It goes on for a few moments, and then the carriage door opens again, and Carter listens as Parker climbs back in. The rustling goes on for longer than it should, so Carter's already preparing himself for company when Parker clears his throat. "Come on out, boy."
Carter takes a deep breath and throws the blanket back, pushing himself up until he's sitting upright. It's on the tip of his tongue to ask what in the world is going on, but his words go to ash in his mouth as he registers who, exactly, is sitting beside Parker.
"Your Majesty," says Kris Letang, eyes dark and sombre. "Welcome to Pittsburgh."
"Pittsburgh," Carter whispers furiously. "Parker, why are we in Pittsburgh?"
Parker gives him a look, and if this was five years ago, even two, Carter would've shrunk back at it. Now, though, now he's walking around the capital district of one of his fiercest rivals mere hours after his own home had been invaded, and he's still not sure why.
"Your Majesty," Letang says from a few feet ahead of them, pulling up short in front of a door that looks heavily fortified. "The accommodations are a bit sparse, but you'll be safe here."
Carter does his best not to scowl, but given the way Letang's mouth twitches as if he's fighting a smile, he's not sure he succeeds. "Forgive me if this is a little forward," he says, "but how can I trust you?"
To his credit, Letang doesn't laugh, nor does he look to Parker. He just slips a ring from his finger, offering it to Carter. "You have my word, and I offer you my seal."
Carter pulls on every ounce of training he's ever had as he reaches his hand out, not flinching as Letang drops the ring into it. He pulls it back and inspects it; one side has the crest of Pittsburgh, and the other has what Carter assumes is Letang's family crest on it. He doesn't let himself inspect it for long, though, before looking up at Letang and nodding. "Very well," he says. "This is… I trust that this means as much to you as it would to one of my own guards."
Letang nods in response, then turns to open the door. "I'll send someone when we've made arrangements," he says, and this time the words are directed at Parker. "It shouldn't be long."
"You have our thanks," Parker says, ushering Carter inside.
Neither of them says anything until the door falls shut behind them, but then Carter whirls around. "Pittsburgh!"
"And the seal of a Captain of the Guard," Parker says, tone even. "We need help, Carter, and—"
"We could have gone to New York with Sarah and Fletcher," Carter says. "Or to Newark! Or Raleigh!"
"Boy," Parker says, and his tone is sharp like it never, ever is, not anymore. It makes Carter shut his mouth, even if it doesn't do much for the churning feeling in his stomach. "If Sarah was heading to New York, then you couldn't go that way, not with her and not to Newark. God forbid that anything should go wrong, but one of you needs to survive this, and there's a better chance of that if you're not both in the same place while there's a faction out to ambush you."
"I suppose," Carter says. "But—"
"And if you think I was going to risk travelling past Washington right now, then you've learned nothing at all in the years since we've met," Parker says, and there's a note of finality in his voice. "I had to choose between bringing you here and bringing you to Columbus, and I thought that we'd find better help here."
Carter sets his mouth mutinously. Parker's right and they both know it; Parker had also been right earlier, in the carriage, when he'd said that Carter wasn't going to like it. They're here now, though, and clearly Parker had told Letang something of what's going on. Hopefully they can find help and get out of here before too long; Carter feels like his skin is starting to itch already, and they haven't been here an hour yet.
"Think of it this way," Parker says after a quiet moment. "There's no love lost between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia—"
"—but if there's one thing you can agree on, it's your mutual hatred of Washington," Parker goes on as if Carter hadn't made a sound. "Letang is going to secure an audience with the king. We'll have a conversation, and if all goes well, we can ride out in the morning with whatever they're willing to give us."
Carter sighs. "And if they decide they'd rather take the opportunity to wipe out the kingdom of Philadelphia once and for all?"
Parker shrugs, and there's a small, weary smile on his face. "That's why we sent Sarah to New York."
Carter closes his eyes and shakes his head, trying not to let his smile turn too bitter. "Well," he says. He slips Letang's seal onto his finger, and it feels heavy there, heavier than it should by far. "Let's hope the crown doesn't fall to her."
"Let's," Parker agrees with a sigh. "And let's also prepare what you're going to say."
Carter draws a deep breath as they approach the throne room. He's met a king of Pittsburgh before, but not recently; there's been some change here, he knows, the sharp-eyed man who had told a young Carter to call him King Flower dethroned by a commoner named Murray, and there's been upheaval since. Carter hasn't met Murray, has only heard tales of him around court, and he's honestly not even sure what to brace himself for.
The doors open and Carter pulls himself together, striding into the room towards the man standing beside the throne at the other end. It's a bit odd that he's not sitting in the throne, Carter thinks, but he can make out the circlet on the man's head, so the king he must be.
He stops when he's a few meters away, nodding his head slightly. "Your Majesty," he says.
The man turns and smiles at Carter, expression full of a warmth that Carter wasn't expecting at all. "Your Majesty," he returns, smile widening.
"His Majesty King Carter of Philadelphia," someone says, and Carter doesn't turn but he recognises the voice all the same, and it's all he can do not to sneer at Crosby's nasal tone. "Presenting King Tristan of Pittsburgh."
Carter hears Parker shift on his feet; it's not a signal, not as such, but it's enough to let Carter know that it's not what Parker was expecting, either. It's not actually comforting to know that he's not the only one who doesn't know who King Tristan is.
"Welcome," King Tristan says, smile still firmly in place. "I've been brought up to speed. I'm sorry to hear about what happened."
Carter nods. "Thank you," he says, putting aside his confusion so he can speak his piece. "I know that we've had our troubles in the past, but I've come to ask for your aid. Washington ignored all rules of engagement and attacked not only the rulers of Philadelphia, but also those who work in the capital. It's an unprecedented act of aggression, and I sincerely hope that you find it striking enough to overlook our past differences and lend aid."
King Tristan nods. "I've talked with Sid," he says, and Carter glances over at Crosby, who's looking blandly back at Carter as if he hadn't been responsible for the Great Defeat of 2018. Carter still hasn't forgiven him, and he's got no plans to.
"I respect your need for time, if you choose to take it," Carter says. "But please know that the fate of my parents isn't known at this time—"
"Actually," Crosby cuts in, and Carter's teeth grate before he can stop himself, but then he processes the word.
Carter turns to him quickly. "You have word?"
Crosby glances at King Tristan, who inclines his head slightly. "We have word," he confirms. "From Washington. Your parents are alive, and Washington plans to attempt to ransom them back to you."
Carter bows his head as the words register, then takes a breath. "They're alive," he says, feeling his shoulders drop slightly as some of the tension leaves his frame.
"They are," King Tristan agrees. "However…"
Carter's shoulders tense again. "What?"
King Tristan looks at Crosby, who sighs heavily but goes on. "The message was… well. We're of the belief that they don't plan to honour their end of the bargain, or that it would come with a caveat of some sort."
"A caveat," Carter echoes, mind racing. "A stipulation on the ransom? And if I should refuse…"
"Sid," King Tristan says. "Tell him the whole of it, so help me."
Crosby's scowl flashes across his face, and Carter can't help but feel a momentary flash of fondness for King Tristan, both for his willingness to fully share with Carter and for the fact that he's getting beneath Crosby's skin. "The reigning theory is that they want you," Crosby finally says, and—
Parker steps up until he's just behind Carter's shoulder. "I'd like to hear your reasoning," he says, and Carter doesn't have to look to know he's probably scowling at Crosby as hard as Crosby's scowling at him. He's immensely grateful for it, both because he wants Parker's insight and because he has no idea how he's meant to respond to that on his own.
"They have no heir in Washington," King Tristan says quietly. "Holtby is nearing the end of his reign, and your family has two heirs. They're willing to trade the King and Queen back to Philadelphia in exchange for the hand of the Crown Prince, and they'll marry you to the king and name you heir apparent."
"They couldn't just send a written proposal?" Carter asks, just barely resisting the urge to rub at his face.
"They needed something you couldn't turn down," Crosby points out. "A proposal could be rebuffed. If the lives of your parents hung in the balance, though…"
"Then I'd have no choice but to accept their terms," Carter says. "My hand would be forced."
"We have reason to believe that they'd ask for you," Crosby says, "but it's possible that they'd accept your sister if—"
"No," Carter barks out, stomach roiling at the thought. "You've a sister as well, Crosby. Would you send her to Washington in your stead?"
Crosby's mouth clicks shut, but Carter's too tightly wound to actually enjoy it.
"We're prepared to offer aid," King Tristan says after a moment. "You're right; this is an act of aggression that shouldn't be ignored."
"Thank you," Carter says, turning back to King Tristan. "What are your terms?"
"I'd like to work with you and your advisor to develop a plan," King Tristan says. "Those of your troops who aren't scattered are occupied with defending and rebuilding, but we've men we can send with you to Washington, once I'm confident that you've got more of a plan than 'go there and hope for the best.'"
"That's fair," Carter concedes.
"And," King Tristan says, and for the first time, he hesitates.
"Your Majesty," Crosby says, and his tone is half warning, half resignation.
"And I have an offer for you, King Carter," King Tristan says, ignoring Crosby and lifting his chin slightly. "Washington cannot demand your hand in ransom if you've given it to another."
Carter blinks, feeling his lips part slightly as the words settle over him. "You mean…"
King Tristan's smile plays across his face again, smaller this time. "I can send a written proposal. You did mention one before."
"Your Majesty," Parker says, and Carter locks his knees so he doesn't turn and cower behind him. He's not sixteen anymore, much as he feels like he's too young to be dealing with any of this. "That's quite an offer."
"Please know that our offer of military aid isn't contingent upon you accepting my proposal," King Tristan says. "And also know that I'm not asking you for an answer in this moment. I simply wanted to offer you another option, much to the dismay of Captain Crosby."
There's part of Carter that wants to accept just because it'll annoy Crosby, but he resists. "Thank you," he says instead. "I'll... I'll consider your offer."
"We appreciate your willingness to come to Philadelphia's aid," Parker says, tone indicating that he's wrapping things up, and Carter gladly lets him. "This will not be forgotten."
King Tristan nods. "I appreciate that our kingdoms have had their difficulties in the past," he says. "But the two realms of Pennsylvania should be able to put aside their differences to face a common foe. Perhaps in doing so, we can begin to mend the fences between us."
"Perhaps," Carter says. "You've given us a lot to think about. I feel the time has come to beg our leave, so that we can discuss your offers and formulate a plan to share with you and your advisors as to how we want to handle things in Washington."
King Tristan nods. "Send word with Letang when you've come up with a plan you're comfortable with," he says. "And, if you're so inclined, dine with me tonight."
Carter once again feels his jaw drop slightly. "Pardon?"
"Your Majesty," Crosby says again, and this time he sounds strained.
"Sid, I don't expect him or anyone else to make a decision about a marriage proposal after having known a body for all of half an hour," King Tristan says, and Carter can hear the way he wants to roll his eyes even if he doesn't do it. "For all he knows, he'd be better off trading himself to Washington. It's simply an offer."
"That's one that I'll accept," Carter says. He can feel Parker stiffen ever so slightly at his back, but he doesn't turn around, doesn't back away from his answer.
King Tristan's smile returns in force. "Then I'll send for you later," he promises. "And, if it suits you, I'm happy to have your advisor along as well, Mr.…"
Parker hesitates for a fraction of a second, which lets Carter know that he's just as thrown by this whole thing as Carter himself is. "Parker Fowlds, Your Majesty," he replies. "I'm pleased to make your acquaintance."
"And I yours, Mr. Fowlds," King Tristan says. "I assume you'll want to discuss amongst yourselves before giving me an answer. There will be guards stationed with you when you return to the quarters we've set you in; send one of them with your answer and we'll make our preparations based on that."
"We will," Carter promises, nodding slightly. "If we may take our leave now?"
King Tristan nods, just slightly too quickly for decorum, and Carter's more than a little relieved to see some small sign that King Tristan is somewhat off balance here as well. "Letang will see you back."
"Thank you," Carter says, and he's shocked to hear how much sincerity he finds in his voice.
This is not how Carter expected his first meeting with the new King of Pittsburgh to go, but he isn't upset by it, not at all.
"I don't know that I trust him," Parker says as soon as Letang leaves them in their rooms.
Carter drops to a chair and sighs. "You brought me here," he reminds Parker.
"For help," Parker stresses. "Not to accept a marriage proposal!"
"I haven't accepted anything past a meal with the man," Carter points out. "I haven't even had the chance to think about it."
"But you're considering it," Parker says, not quite an accusation but not quite unlike one, either.
"Of course I'm considering it," Carter says, letting his shoulders hunch. "You heard what they had to say, Parker."
"I don't know how far I'd trust any of them," Parker begins.
Carter spreads his hands in front of himself. "I need to trust them or to not," he says. "I have the seal of a captain of the guard, I have the word of the king, I have what Crosby said, however unwillingly. I have you telling me this is our best chance for help. Tell me, Parker, am I to take them at their word, or am I to question everything that they say?"
His voice had started calm, but by the end of his outburst it's loud, shaky. Carter squeezes his eyes shut and lets his hands fall to his lap, trying to rein in his emotions. He's normally good at it, able to stay calm in any situation, but today has truly pushed him past the limits of his endurance.
"Ah, boy," Parker sighs out, and a moment later Carter feels a hand rest on his shoulder. "I'm sorry."
Carter doesn't let his shoulders shake. "Am I to question everything?" he asks again, and he can't keep the tremor out of his voice.
"No," Parker says quietly, and Carter opens his eyes. Parker has a rueful smile on his face. "Question some things and let others be. As with everything."
Carter tries to laugh, but it comes out strangled. "So I should trust my instincts," he says. "Which I'm trying to do, Parker, I am. I don't want to marry the king of Pittsburgh without giving it serious consideration. I do actually know that rescuing my parents is secondary to the good of Philadelphia overall."
It leaves a bitter taste in his mouth, but it makes Parker nod, face solemn now. "I can help you weigh your options," he offers. "I'm meant to advise you, not make you tear your hair out."
Carter laughs briefly. "I'm going to dine with him tonight," he says. "If you're in attendance, he'll have Crosby there. I'll respect your decision if you tell me you want to come, but I'd prefer to talk with the king without…"
"Crosby," Parker finishes, nose wrinkling. "I'd imagine he'd spoil anyone's appetite."
It's enough to get Carter to laugh again, and it feels a little more real this time. "He would," he agrees. "Do you plan to subject me to that?"
"I suppose not," Parker says reluctantly. "You can make your own decisions, Carter. I didn't mean to imply that I don't trust you to know what the best course of action is. I was… I was a bit thrown by everything in the throne room, to be perfectly honest with you."
"I think everyone there was," Carter says, shaking his head. "Did you know there was a new king in Pittsburgh?"
Parker shakes his head. "I'd heard that Murray was having his troubles, but I didn't know they'd crowned someone else. It seems…"
"Quick," Carter supplies, thinking again of King Flower, the way he'd made his father bristle but had only ever shown kindness to Carter. People, Carter knows, are ever and always contradictory.
"Quick," Parker agrees. "You might ask about that while you're having your meal."
"We should let the guards know that you won't be joining us," Carter says. "And then we can talk everything through."
"Already thinking of everything," Parker says, face creasing into a smile as he walks for the door.
It's meant as a fond compliment and Carter knows it, but the thought that settles miserably around his shoulders as a guard he knows only as Sheary pokes his head in is that he's got to remember everything. For now, at least, he's the king.
Carter doesn't exactly have the clothing on hand that he'd normally wear to a state dinner, but he washes himself as well as he can and makes sure his hair is neat. It's the most he can do for his appearance, and he knows that King Tristan knows it, so he does his best to not feel self-conscious as he follows Sheary down the hallway.
"In here, Your Majesty," Sheary says, stopping in front of a door. "Enjoy your food, and if he serves puff pastries, do yourself a favour and have two. They're good."
Carter laughs before he can help himself; it's odd, how easy it is to get along with people he knows his own guards have battled against. Sheary is small and has a quick smile, though, and Carter can't help but like him.
"I will," he promises. "Thank you for the escort."
Sheary nods, and his smile remains on his face as Carter walks past him into the room. It's not the throne room, which isn't surprising; it's drastically different from the throne room, though, which is. There are rich tapestries hanging everywhere, and the fire in the hearth casts the room in a warm glow. The effect is half comforting and half stifling, and Carter honestly isn't sure what his overall feeling on the space is.
King Tristan is sitting at the end of the table, though, and he stands and smiles as Carter approaches him. "Hello," he says, then laughs. "This is… I know this is strange. I'm not sure if it would make you feel better to know that I don't really know what I'm doing here, but it's true."
"It does help a bit," Carter admits, trying not to smile too widely. "I feel less like I'm the only one out of my depth, at least."
"That's absolutely true for both of us," King Tristan says. His eyes crinkle when he smiles, Carter notes. "And Sid's full of consternation as well, if that helps."
Carter nods as diplomatically as he can manage. "I did notice that."
"He's not subtle," King Tristan says, shaking his head and laughing. He gestures at the table. "Shall we?"
"Thank you," Carter says. He steps towards the seat King Tristan had pointed him to, then stands by it and waits. This he knows; King Tristan would wait for him to sit first if they were in Philadelphia, and so Carter waits by his seat, hand on the back.
King Tristan frowns slightly as he sits. "You're not waiting for me, are you?"
Carter gestures at nothing as he sits. "The rules," he says, hoping he isn't accidentally remembering things wrong.
"Oh," King Tristan says, frowning harder. "That's not… hm. I'll have to talk to Patric; that's not one I know."
"Oh," Carter says, feeling awkward. "I meant no offense, Your Majesty."
King Tristan winces. "Please," he says, shaking his head. "I don't… unless it would be too awkward for you, please just call me Tristan."
Carter's mouth drops open for a moment before he remembers himself and shuts it again. "Oh," he says after a moment. "I… ah. I can do that, I think."
Tristan laughs quietly and shakes his head, looking at his plate. "I'm new to all of this," he says, gesturing at the table and, presumably, his role as king. "Marc-Andre was here for so long, and then we thought for sure that Matthew would have a long reign, but now…"
"What happened?" Carter asks, reaching for his wine glass. "We were, ah… rather surprised at the introduction earlier."
Tristan laughs again and looks up. "There were some who felt I'd be a better ruler," he says simply. "And so here I am."
"And the former kings?" Carter asks, trying not to sound like he's prying.
"Marc-Andre headed west," Tristan says. "Matthew is… he's here, still. There are no hard feelings between us, not truly. He's a close friend."
Carter feels his eyebrows rise. "A friend," he echoes. "You have your predecessor around? You're not concerned about him trying to unseat you and reclaim his throne?"
Tristan shrugs. "I'm no historian," he says placidly, "but I'm given to understand that a king of Philadelphia would understand something about the transfer of power."
Carter flinches. "Well put," he says, sitting back in his seat.
"And now I have to apologise," Tristan says. "That was out of line. I'm sorry."
"You're not wrong," Carter says, staring into his wine glass. "I'm fairly familiar with the transfer of power myself, given that I woke up this morning as the Crown Prince and now I'm being called Your Majesty everywhere I turn."
"I'm sorry," Tristan says again, and his voice is soft. He sighs. "This has all gone… so differently than I'd hoped. I made you an offer, and here I am setting your teeth on edge instead of us getting to know each other any better."
Carter lifts his head and tries for a smile. "Well," he says. "Let's start over, then."
"Start over?" Tristan asks, eyebrows raised.
Carter nods, then stands. he waits for Tristan to do the same, a small, bemused smile on his face, and then he holds out his hand. "I'm Carter Hart, king of Philadelphia. Please call me Carter."
Tristan laughs and reaches out. "Tristan Jarry," he says, clasping Carter's hand in his own. His fingers are long and thick, Carter notices, and his palm is broad and warm against Carter's. "King of Pittsburgh. Please continue to call me Tristan."
"I can do that, Tristan," Carter says, and this time when he smiles, there's nothing reserved about it.
"So," Parker says once Carter's returned to the room. It's late, much later than Carter thought he'd be returning when he'd left earlier, but he's not actually surprised to find Parker waiting up for him.
"So," Carter returns.
Parker sighs. "You're marrying him." It's not a question, not at all.
Carter's eyebrows rise on his face. "You seem sure about that."
"This might be the first time you've walked into this set of rooms without storm clouds hanging over your head," Parker says. "So your meal went well, and your conversation better."
"Maybe I just had the puff pastry that Sheary told me to look out for," Carter says. Tristan had laughed when Carter took a second, and he'd laughed more when Carter explained why.
"And you're stalling," Parker says mildly. "Out with it, boy."
Carter sighs. "I'm marrying him," he says, collapsing into the chair beside the fire. "He's a good conversationalist. He didn't give me all the answers I was looking for, but he was clear enough about it when he didn't want to reveal something. I trust him as much as I could trust anyone in this situation, Parker, and I think it's a good move going forward."
Parker nods slowly. "Well, if you've made your choice, then you've made your choice."
Carter blinks. "You're not going to try to talk me out of it?"
"I don't like wasting my time arguing with brick walls," Parker says, smiling briefly. "And also, Carter, you've got a good head on your shoulders. I've been reflecting on it while you were out, and I don't think they would have had enough time to make this some sort of trap, not unless they were conspiring with Washington the whole time."
"I don't think they were," Carter says, wrinkling his nose. "As much as Crosby dislikes us, he hates Ovechkin and his ilk far more."
"I agree with you," Parker says with a nod. "And, as you said, Crosby may hate us, but he does love the rules of engagement. It wouldn't be like him to work with someone to plot an ambush."
"So you don't see a reason for me to not go through with it," Carter says. His heartbeat has picked up a bit, and he can feel it hammering away in his chest. "I haven't given him an answer yet. I told him I wanted to think on it for the night, and that I'd tell him in the morning before we met with him and Crosby to talk logistics."
"If you feel that it's the best move in this situation, Carter, then I support you," Parker says firmly. "Who knows? Maybe it's truly time for Pittsburgh and Philadelphia to put the past to rest. This could be the start of a new era."
"I don't think I'm going to make friends with Crosby," Carter mutters, and Parker leans back in his chair, his whole face crinkling up as he laughs.
Carter wants to spend time by the fire, thinking things through from every possible angle, but Parker raises both eyebrows and says he'll keep Carter company, so Carter scowls and heads to sleep. He won't be responsible for keeping a septuagenarian up all night. and the fact that he knows Parker knows that doesn't keep him from curling up in the bed. He sort of expects that he won't be able to sleep, but he closes his eyes and the next thing he knows, it's morning.
"There are eggs," Parker says by way of greeting when Carter stumbles into the sitting room. He gestures, and Carter sits in the chair across from him, grabbing the plate from the table and removing the cover. The eggs are scrambled, and it looks like there are vegetables mixed in. They smell delicious, so Carter grabs a fork and starts eating them quickly.
There's a knock at the door, and Carter swallows hastily. He rises from his chair, but Parker scowls at him, and—right, Carter remembers as he falls back to his seat. He's the king, and part of Parker's obligation is to make sure he's safe.
Parker puts his foot and shoulder behind the door and undoes the lock, peering out. His face is wary, but he drops it quickly in favour of a smile. "A friendly face," he says, and then he steps back.
Carter wants to ask, but as it turns out, he doesn't have to; Parker pulls the door open, and Phil ducks his head so he doesn't hit his head on the doorjamb as he walks in.
"Phil," Carter says, standing quickly. He can feel the smile reaching across his face; even if it's only been a day since everything began, it still makes something settle in his chest to see one of his oldest friends and newest knights here in front of him.
"Your Majesty," Phil says, and there's a brief twitch to his lips. It's refreshing to see someone else think it's odd, this hopefully temporary title of Carter's.
"Please don't," Carter says quickly, because if Phil's going to stand on ceremony for the first time in his life just because they're not in Philadelphia—
"Carter," Phil says, reaching out and pulling Carter in, and Carter sighs heavily and sinks into the embrace for a moment. Phil's voice goes low. "I'm glad you're safe."
"I'm glad you're safe," Carter says honestly, forcing himself to pull away. "What about everyone else?"
"I have Bunnaman, Frost, and Farabee with me," Phil says, and Carter takes a deep, heavy breath and nods as some of the tension drains from his shoulders. "Fletcher took Voracek, Raffl, and Hayes with him to New York. I had news late last night that they made it safely, and we set out right away."
"Thank god," Parker says, joining them in the sitting area. "I assume Giroux has the rest of the guard helping the people?"
Phil nods. "The town around the capital district is…"
Carter's stomach clenches. "How many were… harmed?"
"Surprisingly few," Phil assures him. "A few broken bones, mostly from those who tried to stand in the ambush party's way. Nobody lost their life, Carter."
"Not a one?" Carter asks. "Really?"
"Not a one," Phil assures him, smiling as Carter drops to a chair. "There's a lot of property lost, but that's all."
"Hm," Parker says, and when Carter looks at him, he's got a slight frown on his face. "I feel like that supports everything we learned here yesterday, to be honest."
Carter nods slowly. "If they'd truly hurt anyone in Philadelphia, then I'd be less likely to agree with their plans," he says. "This way…"
"Hold on," Phil says, frowning slightly. "What plans? What have you learned?"
"Well," Parker says, and then he outlines the basics: the ambush, the communication that Pittsburgh got from Washington, the assumptions that they're working under. Phil takes it all in, the frown on his face etching deeper and deeper into his face, but he doesn't say anything until Parker finishes his summary.
"You can't," are the first words out of his mouth as he turns to Carter.
"I have no plans to marry anyone in Washington," Carter says. It's an overly specific statement, probably, but it's the truth.
Phil, though, knows him too well; this is the problem with counting his closest knights among his friends, Carter thinks wryly. "What's your plan, then? I know you have a plan."
Carter sighs and glances away. "Well…"
"Washington can't even ask for his hand if he's married to another," Parker says, tone even.
"If," Phil says, but he doesn't finish his thought. When Carter glances back at him, Phil's blinking at him owlishly. "So you're just going to… marry someone? Who, even? I'm betrothed, Carter, and I think Frost and Farabee are too entangled with each other to make a convincing play of it. Bunnaman might—"
"The king here," Carter blurts out, because the thought of marrying any of his knights is outrageous, and the last thing he needs is for Phil to work his way through all of them and try to make a case for Hayes or something. "I'm… he proposed, both the idea and the marriage, and I'm set to accept it when we meet later this morning."
Phil's mouth drops open a bit, and then he sits heavily on the chair across from Carter. "You're going to marry the king of Pittsburgh," he says, as if he's not sure the words are real. "You. The crown prince of Philadelphia."
"King, for the moment," Parker says.
"That doesn't change the facts here, Parker," Phil says, waving in Carter's general direction. "How would that even work? They hate us! We hate them!"
"I'm not unaware," Carter mutters, thinking back to Crosby's face, both yesterday and in general. "But I think it's the best way forward."
Phil sighs, loud and exasperated. "There has to be—"
There's another knock at the door; this time it's one Carter recognises, a quick tapped pattern, and he's halfway across the room as Parker pulls the door open, enough alarm present on his face that Carter slows.
"Giroux," he says, peering out the door. "What are you doing here? You're meant to be helping the people—"
"We have word," Carter hears, and that's what makes him stumble forward the last few feet to tug the door open. Claude is standing outside the door, hair a mess, clothes not much better. His eyes snap to Carter, and he gives a nod before turning back to Parker. "From Washington."
"So," Tristan says, glancing around the room.
"It's nothing we weren't expecting, sir," Parker says. "Washington has the king and queen. They want to ransom them back."
"The only thing missing is that they didn't send a formal request for your hand," Crosby says, frowning. "Are you sure—"
"I'm sure," Claude snaps, and Carter has to struggle not to laugh. He doesn't like Crosby and he's fairly sure that's obvious, but Claude hates him, and he does nothing to try to hide it. It makes Crosby scowl in turn, and Carter's caught Tristan's lips twitching a time or two as well.
"Why not?" Crosby mutters, frowning more deeply. "We were sure they would."
"They requested an audience," Phil says. Carter hadn't anticipated having Phil here, but once Claude had appeared everything had started to move far more urgently, and Phil had been folded into the group ushered from Carter's quarters to the strategy room where they're all now seated. "I assume that they're going to spring it then and say that the decision must be made immediately so there aren't dire consequences. Less time to think, less time to prepare."
Tristan nods slowly before turning to one of his other advisors, a man so wrinkled that he makes Parker look like a man in his prime. "Jim, that sounds plausible to me. What do you think?"
"That Washington is full of cheats and liars, and I wouldn't put it past them," Jim says bluntly.
Carter… kind of likes Jim, he decides.
"So," Tristan says, tone patient.
Jim sighs. "So I'm contradicting Sid's dearest wishes and telling you that the marriage could be the only way to ensure that they can't entrap you," he says, turning so he's speaking to Carter. "I know it probably wasn't your first choice. sir—"
"I'll do it," Carter cuts in. He's looking at Jim as he says it, but he glances over, meeting Tristan's eyes. "I'll do it. I think… it'll help me now, to be sure, but I think it can help Pennsylvania as a whole, in the long run."
"Well said," Tristan says, and his smile is… a lot to handle, Carter thinks, bright and buoyant. "I think so, too."
Someone claps their hands, and Carter turns away to see Crosby looking at them, clearly trying to hide the sour look on his face. "We'll make the arrangements," he says. He glances across the table, and Carter hears Claude sigh. "We can move ahead with this in a few hours' time, and then we can all set out in the morning."
"With our contingent in the lead," Claude adds. His tone brooks no argument, but Carter's known him long enough to hear the satisfaction in his voice, knowing that Crosby will be reporting to him for a time.
"With your contingent in the lead," Crosby echoes, sounding sullen. He looks back to Tristan. "Anything else, sir?"
"I think that's probably enough for one day," Tristan says. "Unless you have anything to add?"
Carter's glad that he's already turned to look at Tristan, or he wouldn't know that the last part is addressed to him. "No, that's quite enough," he says, shaking his head. "We can adjourn. There are things to plan."
"There certainly are," Parker mutters, and Carter doesn't grin at that, even though it's a struggle.
The wedding is a simple affair, when it comes down to it; there's a priest, a quick ceremony in a sunlit church, an exchange of promises and rings. Tristan smiles at him the whole time, and Carter can't help the way he smiles back.
"I know we didn't discuss… much," Tristan says as Claude and Crosby argue about something in the paperwork that they're both signing as witnesses to the ceremony. "But, ah…"
"What?" Carter asks, curious.
Tristan's cheeks go a rather nice shade of pink as they step out of the church. "It doesn't seem a wedding without a kiss," he says. "You don't have to, of course, it's only that—"
Carter laughs. He's feeling a little reckless; this is his wedding day, though, and this is his husband standing in front of him, so he leans forward and brushes their lips together in a brief, soft kiss.
Tristan's face is a much brighter shade of pink when Carter pulls back. "Oh," he says, voice quiet, and he ducks his head but it doesn't hide the pleased smile on his face. "Well."
"Well," Carter says, only teasing slightly. "Is it a proper wedding now?"
"Well," Tristan says again, and Carter's smiling when he tilts his head back up and leans in, and this time—
Oh, Carter thinks faintly. This isn't a light kiss nor a brief one; Tristan kisses him firmly, lips moving against Carter's, and his hand comes up to frame Carter's jaw. Carter reaches out without planning to, his hand coming to rest on Tristan's hip, and he feels dizzy with it, weightless, almost lost in the feeling of kissing his husband in a courtyard beside the church they were just married in.
There's a politely fake cough from somewhere behind Carter, and they break apart but don't step away from each other at all. "What?" Tristan asks, and it's the first time Carter's heard him sound annoyed. He tries not to find it charming, he really does, but it doesn't work at all.
"We have plans to make, sirs," Crosby says, voice sounding truly pained. "I wouldn't dream of ordering the kings around, but if I could suggest waiting to consummate your marriage until you're behind closed doors tonight—"
"Sid," Tristan says, and his face is bright red. That's charming too, much to Carter's dismay. "Please."
Carter's grinning as he leans in to brush his lips against the heat of Tristan's cheek. "We can wait," he says, voice low, and he doesn't miss the small, strangled sound that Tristan makes as he steps back.
Crosby's face is a dull shade of red as well, Carter notes, and he quickly bites his lip so he doesn't laugh. "So," he says. "You said something about making plans?"
"Yes," Crosby says, nodding. "I've done some talking with Giroux, and we have something more or less planned out. We need to review it with you both, though, and we'd like to do that sooner rather than later,so we can make sure that we have all the details in place before we speak with the men we'll be bringing along."
"Well then," Tristan says from Carter's side. "Let's find a room so we can review."
"How worried are you?" Parker asks. They're at supper, a fine meal spread out for everyone in attendance. Carter's entire retinue is there, as are what seems like half of Tristan's guard and advisory council.
Carter sighs and picks further at his plate. "Some," he admits. "Less than I thought I'd be, but more than I'm comfortable with."
"Welcome to the kingship, Your Majesty," Parker says dryly, and Carter laughs. "It's as solid a plan as we could come up with in the time allotted, boy. It'll go well enough, and then hopefully we can get back to Philadelphia and start setting things to rights."
Carter nods. "About that," he says, lowering his voice even though nobody around them seems to be listening. "What do you think will happen? After, I mean, now that I'm married?"
Parker's quiet for a moment. "I haven't a clue," he finally says, shrugging his shoulders. "We'll work it out, Carter. Don't worry about the after when you've got the now to worry about instead, okay?"
"One worry at a time," Carter agrees. "I can handle that."
"See that you do," Parker says, weathered face breaking into a smile. "It appears that you're about to have help distracting yourself, as well."
"What," Carter starts, but then there's a gentle touch to his shoulder, and Carter turns to see Tristan smiling down at him.
"Would you care to take a walk through the gardens with me?" he asks, voice heistant like Carter hasn't heard yet. Like he's afraid Carter will say no, Carter realises, which is a thought so absurd that he nearly laughs.
"I'd love to," Carter says, smiling as he stands. Decorum would have him offer his arm, but decorum would also have had him not kiss Tristan outside the church earlier, and would certainly be shocked at the haste of the wedding. Decorum, Carter decides as he reaches out and twines his fingers with Tristan's, can be left in the dust, by this point.
Tristan's smile spreads slowly across his face, and Carter's not shocked to find that it's quickly become one of his favourite sights. "Well then," he says, squeezing briefly at Carter's hand before starting to walk for the door. "It wouldn't do to keep my husband waiting."
Carter catches a glimpse of Farabee's face as they pass him, red with wine and the effort of holding back whatever comment he clearly wants to make. He manages to hold his tongue, a wonder that Carter feels is worth noting, if only in his mind.
"So," Tristan says when they're well away from the dining hall. "I just wanted to let you know that I have no… ah, expectations? I know Sid made a pointed comment earlier, but if we hadn't discussed a kiss we certainly hadn't discussed anything further. I felt I should make that clear, because I wouldn't want you to think that you had to do… well, anything that you didn't want to do."
Carter's smile spreads wider and wider across his face as Tristan rambles. He's already decided that Tristan's a good person, but it's nice to find that he's sweet like this as well. It makes him feel bold, bolder even than he had in the courtyard earlier. "And if I perhaps had some… expectations? Would those be welcomed?"
Tristan's face goes bright pink instantly. "I certainly wouldn't turn you away."
"Hmm," Carter says, aiming for thoughtfulness but knowing it probably just comes across as ridiculous, given how he can't stop smiling. "Well, I'd expect that my husband might drag me out to the gardens to kiss me where there weren't prying eyes, and then I'd expect to see if things continued naturally from there."
"Well, I'd hate to disappoint you on day one of our marriage," Tristan asys, drawing to a stop. He tugs gently at Carter's hand, and Carter lets himself be pulled until he's face-to-face with Tristan.
"Well, then, what are you waiting for?" Carter asks when Tristan doesn't move further.
Tristan laughs and shakes his head. leaning in to brush their mouths together, an echo of how Carter had kissed him earlier. It's only fair, then, that Carter's the one to take the initiative this time, moving forward when Tristan pulls back, one hand going to Tristan's waist and the other gently disentangling their fingers so he can put a hand on the back of Tristan's neck. It's a deep kiss, one that Carter feels to the tips of his toes, and he knows as he pulls back that his face is just as red as Tristan's is, if not even redder.
"So," Tristan says, clearing his throat. "When you said you expected to see if things progressed from here…"
"I'd expect my husband to have bedchambers," Carter says, mouth close enough to Tristan's that it's hard not to lean in and kiss him again. "And I'd expect an invitation to see them, if he was willing to have me there."
"Well," Tristan says. He moves ever so slightly closer, and Carter feels the words against his kiss-bruised lips as much as he hears them. "It seems that an invitation is in order."
Carter blinks his eyes open, and—
"Good morning," Tristan murmurs after a moment. He's already awake, and he's laying on the pillow next to Carter's, a small smile on his face as he watches Carter come to. "Did you sleep well?"
"I did," Carter says. "And you?"
Tristan laughs and turns onto his back. "I did as well," he says. "This is… not at all how I pictured this morning going, I have to say."
"It hasn't gone much of anywhere yet," Carter points out. "How has it already gotten so far off track?"
"I didn't assume you'd be here," Tristan says, blunt and honest. "Not that I thought you'd leave after we, ah."
His face is pink again, and Carter needs to be careful before he gets too fond of that look. "But you didn't expect me to be here," he says after a moment. He knows very well what Tristan's not saying, and his utter lack of clothing would be a reminder if he didn't. "What were you expecting?"
"To maybe kiss you goodnight after a walk through the gardens," Tristan says. "I figured there would be a bit more… wooing, before we got here."
"Consider me wooed," Carter says, smiling when Tristan laughs. "What, were you going to woo me while we rode to Washington?"
"Needs must," Tristan says simply, turning back to Carter. "Speaking of which. We should dress and head down to the courtyard before Letang gets a bee in his bonnet and decides to come wake us."
Carter makes a face. "I want to say we can't let him meet Bunnaman, but I fear that's probably already happened," he says after a moment. "We may have troublemakers on our hands, Tristan."
"I'm confident in our ability to handle them," Tristan says, smiling at him. "But first we should dress. It'll be somewhat less effective if we go down there as we are now."
Carter laughs and pushes himself up, leaning over so he can kiss Tristan. It's light, but he does it again, then again, and he wonders for a moment if they can get away with some small dalliance before pushing the thought away and sitting back. "We should get up," he says. "We've a long day ahead of us."
"We do," Tristan agrees. He's still looking at Carter, but he sighs after a moment, pushing himself up and out of the bed. "Give me just a moment, and then I'll escort you back to your chambers. I assume you'll want fresh clothing."
Carter looks at what he'd been wearing the day before, which is strewn all over the floor, and feels his face heat. "I don't think I should wear this again," he says. "Except to go back to my chambers, and honestly, I'm not much looking forward to putting it on even for that length of time."
Tristan laughs as he pulls on a set of underthings. "We're of a size," he offers, "if you'd prefer to borrow something of mine instead."
Carter doesn't think, doesn't stop to consider his words before he opens his mouth and speaks. "What, you want to put me in your things now so you can pull me out of them later?"
Tristan stumbles as he turns to face Carter. "That's not—I didn't mean—"
Carter laughs and presses a hand to his face. "I'm sorry," he says. "I shouldn't have said that."
"I mean," Triastan says, clearly trying to gather himself. "I meant what I said last night. I wouldn't turn you away."
"Obviously," Carter says, spreading his hands and gesturing to the clothing on the floor. "I'd appreciate you lending me something to wear, Tristan, and I promise to keep my lewd tongue in check from here on out."
"Well," Tristan says, turning back to his chest of drawers, "maybe just in front of others. I'll grow to like it, I think, once I know to expect it."
Carter laughs again, and it's not to make the small, pleased smile appear on Tristan's face, but that certainly doesn't hurt.
It doesn't take them long to dress and walk to Carter's rooms once they focus on their task. Carter hesitates by the door, wondering if he should invite Tristan inside or if that'll just delay them further, but Tristan lifts Carter's hand to his mouth and presses a kiss to his fingers. "I'll meet you in the courtyard," he says.
Sheary is openly staring from a few feet away, but he doesn't say anything as Carter smiles and nods. "Shortly," he agrees, managing to keep his mouth from running as Tristan turns and walks away.
Parker hadn't said anything, which Carter thinks is almost as embarrassing as if he had; it's not like he thought his oldest advisor and one of his closest friends would judge him, but instead Parker's got his most serene "everything is normal and I don't know why you'd say otherwise" expression on, which he only pulls out when he's trying very hard not to laugh at something.
At least there's no discussion to delay them getting to the courtyard, Carter figures as they walk outside. Everyone else is already there: the knights who had ridden from Philadelphia the day before, the knights from Pittsburgh who have been chosen for this mission, Tristan. He turns and smiles at Carter as he walks in with Parker, and Carter smiles back, then smiles wider when he sees Crosby fighting back his urge to make a face.
"So," Claude says briskly, clapping his hands. "It's a day's ride from here to Philadelphia, and then a half day farther to Washington. We'll ride to Philadelphia today, bunk down there for the night, and then ride at dawn for Washington. Any questions?"
Crosby shifts on his feet, but Letang reaches out and claps an arm over his shoulders, and Carter can see the moment Claude decides to let it go. "Okay," he says. "Everyone mount your horses and let's ride. Your Majesties, you're in the middle, and if you bitch about it I'll make you ride in the carriage."
Tristan coughs, but Carter just rolls his eyes. "Don't mind Claude," he says, ostensibly to Tristan but loudly enough for everyone to hear. "He's old enough to have known me since I was a child, and as such, he's lost all manner of respect. It's the way with elders sometimes."
"Not all of us," Jim says from Tristan's side, but when Carter glances over, he's grinning. "Must just be the hair."
It breaks the tension as most of the group starts laughing, and Carter turns to Parker as everyone starts getting ready to leave. "Is Jim coming with us?" he asks, trying to ask without being overheard.
Parker shakes his head. "He'll stay here and help Murray while King Tristan is away," he says. He pauses a moment, then sighs. "Carter, I won't be going with you, either."
Carter blinks. "What? You won't?"
Parker chuckles. "I'm almost a decade older than Jim is," he says, nodding over at where Tristan and Jim are having a conversation that looks every bit as private as Carter's own. "I'll stay back, send for Sarah. Now that we know what the plan is, we don't have to fear another attack."
Put plainly like that, Carter isn't sure why he thought that Parker would ride to Washington with them. He's strong for his age, but he's not as young as he was in Carter's early memories, either. "Okay," he says, trying not to let his voice sound small. "I—okay. I understand."
Parker claps him on the arm. "Oh, and I'm taking the carriage," he says, nodding at where Frost is loading Parker's small trunk into the storage compartment. "These old bones don't much fancy a day's hard ride across the realm, not so soon after our first one."
Carter laughs and tries to ignore the twisting emotion in his chest. "So you'll be well behind us," he says. "And I won't have your counsel on the ride back."
"You don't need it," Parker says, honest as he always is. "You're the king, and what's more, you're the same Carter I've known for twenty-one years. You've got a good head on your shoulders, boy, and from all I've learned these past few days, so does that husband of yours. You'll be fine."
Carter wipes at his eyes. "Thank you," he manages, and then, since he's already thrown decorum out the window, he pulls Parker into a tight embrace. "Thank you, Parker. For—for so much, honestly."
Parker chuckles, but he's gripping Carter just as tightly. "Go find your parents," he says as he pulls back. "I'll take care of the kingdom for you in your absence."
"There's nobody better," Carter says, loyalty and truth both bleeding into his voice. He has to force himself to take a step back, then another. He nods at Parker. "Be well."
"Be well," Parker says, and Carter wants to wait until he turns, until he climbs into the carriage, but—he's the king, he realises, which means that Parker can't be the first to turn away. He nods again, then turns and strides towards the horse that Guentzel is holding ready for him.
"She's a fine mount," Guentzel offers. "Fast and reliable, Your Majesty. She'll serve you well."
Carter nods and swings himself up into the saddle. "My thanks," he says. "What's her name?"
"Vero," Guentzel says, his lips twitching slightly. "She's, ah. She's named after King Flower's wife."
"Ah," Carter says. He's not sure what to do with that information, so he just tucks it away. "Well, um. Thanks again."
Guentzel bows his head, and Carter takes the opportunity to look around. Parker is settled into the carriage, and the footman is finishing the regular checks of horse and cargo; Phil's cluster of knights are mounted on their horses, mingling with the Pittsburgh knights; Claude is speaking with Crosby, but neither of them looks ready to commit a murder, so Carter decides to let it be. Carter turns a little farther in his saddle, looking for Tristan, and nearly tumbles to the ground when someone coughs from his other side.
"Sorry," Tristan says, smiling at him with a hint of a laugh in his voice. "I didn't know the best way to get your attention without startling you."
"There probably wasn't a way," Carter admits, shaking his head. "Are we ready to ride out?"
"I think so," Tristan replies, nodding to where Claude and Crosby are mounting their own horses. "Carter?"
Carter looks back at him. "Yes?"
"We're going to get your parents back," Tristan says, firm and sincere. A promise, Carter realises. Or a vow.
"Thank you," he says, reaching out to rest his fingers on Tristan's hand for a moment. "We are."
The ride to Philadelphia is long; the sun is setting when the familiar sight of the Fargo district comes into view, and Carter can't help but breathe a sigh of relief. They'd only stopped once, about midway through, for a brief meal; he aches everywhere from too long in the saddle, and he's already dreading the thought of climbing back into it in the morning. Still, though, there will be a warm meal and his own bed here, and even though the town is still mostly in shambles, the people they see all cheer when they catch sight of Carter riding up the street.
"The people here love you," Tristan says quietly, and Carter looks over. They hadn't had much of a chance to talk through the day; keeping the horses at pace meant that words would most likely be lost, and Carter wishes they'd had the time to join Parker in the carriage for more reasons than just the counsel they could've received.
Carter shrugs and looks around, smiling as the baker's youngest daughter waves rapidly from the windowsill. He waves back, then lets his hand fall. "You know there's been... unrest," he says, voice quiet. "A lot of tumult in the kingship here. They may like me, or they may just like the stability that I represent. I'll take the latter if I can use it to build the former."
"I think you've already got a good deal of both," Tristan says, and when Carter looks back at him, there's a small smile on his face. "The people of Pittsburgh respect me, but there's no love there. I fear we may be headed towards some of the tumult that you mentioned, now that Marc-Andre has gone west."
"What prompted that?" Carter asks. "If that's something you're willing to share, of course."
Tristan smiles ruefully. "He said it was his time," he replies. "And who were any of us to argue with the beloved King Flower?"
Carter's eyes slide towards Crosby, and Tristan laughs. "Well, there's always an exception."
"I hope you don't think poorly of me if I believe that Crosby might be the exception to most rules about goodwill," Carter says, grinning when it makes Tristan laugh again.
"He's a good sort, but you aren't wrong," Tristan says. "Pittsburgh is his life, and he'll do everything he can and then some for her. It can lead to him being viewed… unfavourably, I suppose."
"He's here now," Carter says as they make the turn onto the cobbled street that leads to the castle. "I can overlook quite a bit for that, as it turns out."
There's a brief touch to the back of his hand, and Carter glances over as Tristan pulls his hand back. "We're going to do this," he says, tone quiet, but no less firm than it had been this morning when he'd sworn the same thing. "We're going to ride to Washington, and we're going to retrieve your parents, and we're going to show Washington that the realms of Pennsylvania are united. In all things, now, but especially against them."
"And we won't ransack it and burn it to the ground," Carter says. "Though that may take some work. They took out Claude's favourite shop in town."
Tristan starts laughing, and Carter joins him a moment later. Laughter, as it turns out, is contagious.
There is indeed a hot meal waiting for them. The palace grounds have been fixed up, and there's almost no trace of the ambush; Carter's glad for it as he leads Tristan to his chambers, as he's not sure he'd be able to get a good night's rest if reminders of his scattered memories of the night were in every single corner.
"I can arrange for other rooms for you, if you'd like," Carter says, hesitating outside the door to his chambers.
Tristan frowns at him. "Why?"
Carter shrugs his shoulders. "I left here as the crown prince, not the king," he says. "It's not very… grand."
"Carter," Tristan says, shaking his head with a smile. "I promise it's fine. Show me in?"
Carter nods and pushes the door open, walking inside. He's immediately calmer; there's something about being in his own space that helps Carter centre himself, keeps him focused and clear. His rooms aren't lavish but they are clean, and that's quite honestly enough for him.
"Here we are," he says, gesturing around the bedchamber. The linens on the bed are fresh and turned down, and there's a fire burning in the fireplace; he wants to offer Tristan more again, but when he finally turns to face his husband, he's already slipping out of his travelling cloak and bending to unlace his boots.
Tristan must feel Carter staring, because he glances up. There's a small smile on his face. "I promise you that this is more than enough," he says, fingers working deftly to loosen his boots. He laughs and shakes his head again. "I'm reminded, once again, how little we truly know of each other. I'm a merchant's son, Carter. I have no need for finery in all I do."
"Oh," Carter says, letting his hand drop. He feels his cheeks warm and hopes his face isn't too bright. "I… I had no idea."
"Regretting marrying a commoner turned king?" Tristan asks, looking at his boots again. His tone is light, but Carter can hear something hesitant beneath it.
"No," he says firmly. He walks the length of the room quickly, reaching out to lay his hand on Tristan's shoulder and waiting for Tristan to look up at him before he goes on. "You… we all come from somewhere, Tristan. What I know of you is that you're compassionate, willing to put aside prejudices when asked for help, smart, and kind. Now I also know that you're a merchant's son. Why should that change anything else?"
Tristan's smile is wide, and Carter wants to lean in and press his lips against it. There's nothing stopping him, he supposes, so he leans down and brushes a feather-light kiss against the edge of Tristan's mouth. He means to pull back, but Tristan turns his head slightly and kisses him again, and Carter doesn't really want to resist.
So he doesn't.
The day dawns clear, which is a blessing Carter wasn't sure he'd get. He and Tristan rise quickly with none of the early morning chatter they'd shared the day before, and Carter's not quite sure how he can manage to miss a thing he's only had once, but miss it he does.
Claude nods at him as he and Tristan walk into the stables. "Your Majesty," he says crisply. "We're nearly set. We're just waiting on—"
"Sorry we're late, shit," Carter hears, and he's grinning before he even turns his head. TK stumbles into the courtyard a second later, still tugging his tunic into place, and he glances around. "Ah, fuck. I mean, shit. I mean—"
"You mean you should stop talking," Nolan says, following him with his permanent near-scowl firmly in place. He bows slightly in Carter and Tristan's general direction. "My apologies for… him."
"I can apologise for myself," TK hisses, then turns to Carter and Tritan. "I am sorry, to be clear. And us being late is entirely my fault. We were—"
"No," Claude cuts in, hiding the alarm in his voice fairly well, all told. "We'll all let it go if you get on your horses and stop talking about it."
"What on earth," Tristan mutters, but when Carter glances over, he's biting back a smile.
"They're some of the best knights we've got," Carter says, shaking his head. "I don't think there's a single manner between them, but they're people you want on your side in a fight."
Tristan laughs. "Then I'm glad they're here," he says. "And I very much look forward to talking with them more. They seem… interesting."
"They very much are," Carter says. He doesn't mean to sound as fond as he does, but he likes TK and Nolan both. "Hopefully we'll have time for you to get to know them."
Tristan's laugh is quiet. "We're married," he reminds Carter. "Even if we don't talk today, there will be time."
"Right," Carter says, laughing slightly. "Parts of me are already used to it, while others keep stumbling across it. I'll remember it eventually, I should think."
"We both will," Tristan says. "We've got the time."
Carter smiles again, leading Tristan over to where their horses are and climbing onto his own. There's a fondness in him for Tristan, he's finding, not wholly unlike his feelings for TK or Bunnaman or, at times, Claude. It's not wholly like those feelings, either, which Carter supposes is a good thing. No part of him wants Claude in his chambers after dark.
"Okay," Claude says. The chatter that had been filling the courtyard silences instantly; Claude's a good leader, and Carter's grateful for it. "We're treating this as if it's a diplomatic mission until we have reason to do otherwise. That means that, no matter how much you may want to, you're to hold your weapons unless you detect a threat."
"It goes without saying that your first priority is to protect the kings," Crosby adds, and to Carter's eternal surprise, Claude nods rather than trying to jump in. "The Philadelphia contingent will lead the way, while the Pittsburgh contingent will act as rearguard. Giroux and I will ride just ahead the kings, and we'll have Simmonds and Letang riding just behind. Any questions?"
"Wayne?" Carter asks, looking around before he can help himself. It causes a ripple of murmuring through those gathered, but there's a laugh Carter hasn't heard in far too long from the crowd of knights, and Wayne lifts his hand.
"I'd spent long enough scouting the region as of last week," Wayne says. "Looks like I got back in just in time."
Carter laughs, and it's not as if every worry he has about this mission suddenly evaporates, but he's more at ease than he had been a moment before. "You did indeed."
Wayne nods, then pointedly shifts his gaze back to Claude and Crosby, who have eerily similar amused expressions on their face for a moment before Claude nods. "Any other questions?"
"How much can we get away with if we're actually attacked?" TK asks. "Like, I'm not going to pick a fight—"
"—but if we're in a position to draw weapons, are we looking to deter, or…" TK trails off.
"If the kings are in danger, then you do what you have to do and we'll sort it out later," Claude says. "Crosby? Any objections?"
"Give 'em hell," Crosby says, flashing a grin at TK. "I damn well know you can."
TK laughs and adjusts himself in his saddle. He won't start a needless fight, Carter knows, not in such a tense situation, and it's not as if Carter's hoping they're ambushed, but it might do TK some good if he gets the chance to grapple with someone he doesn't have to worry about injuring.
"Well, if that's it, then let's head out," Claude says, looking around. "Formation!"
Carter stays where he is; they're more or less in the centre anyway, and since the formation depends on him and Tristan being in the middle, it'll be easier to just let them all do their thing. Wayne smiles at him again as he passes Carter, and Tristan laughs at whatever Letang says as he passes on the other side, and—
It's still not comfortable, Carter reasons as Claude gives the word to move out, but it'll do.
The mood as they leave Philadelphia is fairly light, but it quickly gets tense as they ride south. For all that this had seemed like a good idea back in Pittsburgh, there's every chance that it's going to come to a fight; Carter would rather avoid that, if it's possible, but he's aware that it might not be.
Or, he considers, he'd prefer to avoid a fight until his parents are secured. Then he's honestly fine with letting TK loose in the direction of the nearest Washington guard and seeing what kind of damage he can really do.
It's too much time to think, Carter decides. They'd stopped for a brief break, but now they're back in the saddle, and Claude has said that they were approaching Washington but hadn't given much of a time estimate. Carter doesn't have anything else to occupy himself, which is always dangerous, because it means that his mind is free to wander from one worst-case scenario to the next without the chance of—
"Look out," Claude shouts, and Carter jerks his gaze up to see him throw his body at Crosby. They both tumble to the ground, and then an arrow slices through the air, perfectly placed to pierce through Crosby's chest armour, had Claude not knocked him away in time.
"Down," Wayne yells, and Carter pulls his horse to a stop and dismounts, sliding to the centre as well as he can. Tristan does the same, and they huddle together between their horses, pressed side to side.
"Are you hurt?" Carter asks, turning to face Tristan. "I didn't see anything, but—"
"Shaken," Tristan says as the sounds of a skirmish rise around them. "You?"
"Fine," Carter says, shaking his head. "That arrow…"
Tristan nods, shoulders tense. "I owe your man Giroux a great deal," he says quietly. "I know there's no love lost between him and Sid, but he didn't hesitate."
"Claude's a good captain and a better man," Carter replies. "Crosby's on his side, at least for now, so Claude will protect him just like he would any other person out there."
"Well, that's good to hear," Tristan says. The noise from outside their horse barricade is dropping off, which Carter hopes is a good sign. "And I'm hopeful that we can work together to draw up some new treaties once this is all over. We probably won't have the two of them on the same detail all of the time, but it would be nice to know that our kingdoms can work together when needed."
Carter smiles. "Peace," he says. "I like the sound of that."
"I do, too," Tristan says, smiling back. "I think if we—"
"Your Majesty," someone shouts. Carter can't tell who it is, but Tristan turns to look the other way.
"We're okay," he yells back. "Is it safe to come out?"
"It is," the voice confirms. Tristan taps at his horse's flank, and a moment later, one of the Pittsburgh guards appears. Carter thinks his name might be Tanev, but he wouldn't swear to it. "You're both unharmed?"
"We're fine," Carter says. "What happened?"
"I'll give you three guesses," Wayne says. Carter can't see him yet, but he sounds pissed off. "My bet is that you only need one."
Carter can't help the face he makes. He turns to Tristan. "How familiar are you with the guards of Washington?"
"I know the more famous ones, but I'm afraid that might be it," Tristan says. "Ovechkin and Backstrom, that's all."
"Prepare to meet another one," Carter says. He's still scowling and he doesn't think he's going to stop any time soon, especially once he steps out of their little enclosure and sees that he is, in fact, correct.
"Can I punch him?" TK asks, looking directly at Carter. "I really want to punch him."
Carter looks down at Wilson, who's struggling to get away even though Wayne and Letang have him fairly well held. "No," he says. "We're not going to punch a captive. We can be civilised about this."
"He shot at me," Crosby points out. "He shot at an incoming delegation that his leaders asked to be sent. If his aim had been a little off, he would've shot directly at one of Your Majesties."
"Yeah," TK says, seizing onto that. "So—"
"You can't punch him, TK," Carter repeats.
TK shrugs. "Can Crosby punch him? I'd be fine with it if Crosby can punch him."
"I'm all for letting Sid punch him," Tristan says. "I mean, all of that was true."
"Do I get a say in this?" Wilson asks, sneering at them. "Because I—"
"You don't," Wayne cuts in. "Here's your choice: keep your mouth closed, or we'll gag you so we don't have to listen to it."
"No punching," Carter says. There's a headache building in the bridge of his nose, and he shakes his head before surveying the scene around them. "Wilson. Answer me honestly, or so help me, I will let Crosby and Konecny both punch you. Who else is here?"
Wilson narrows his eyes. "At this point? Nobody. They'll have headed back to the city to warn everyone there about the approaching ambush party."
"Ambush party," Carter repeats. "You realise that your king sent for me, right? You're aware of that?"
Wilson shrugs. "He didn't ask for you to bring half of Pittsburgh with you. What was I meant to think?"
"Asking him to think might be more than he can handle," someone from the guard says, just loud enough to carry.
"Look," Tristan cuts in. "We're all here now, and we all need to make our way to the city so we can clear everything up. Let's cuff the captive so he can't hurt anyone else, and we'll bring him with us as we make our way there. Any objections?"
"Who's this?" Wilson asks, turning to raise his eyebrows at Claude. "Your king disappears and you just start taking orders from some—"
"You might want to show a little respect to the king of Pittsburgh," Claude says, his tone absolutely inflectionless. "Your call, though. I'm not gonna stop anyone from punching you."
"The," Wilson says, gaze jerking back to Tristan. "Wait. You're not Murray."
"His powers of observation are really sharp," Tristan says conversationally to Carter. "He picked up on that right away."
"Solid head on his shoulders," Carter agrees. "I'd think we might have misjudged him, but he did try to shoot Sid off his horse."
It's odd, using Crosby's given name, but it's worth it for the wide-eyed look of shock on Wilson's face. "You," he sputters. "What? Since when are you so chummy with each other?"
"You know what," Carter says, looking at Crosby. "Go ahead and punch him. Let's just get on with this."
"As the king commands," Crosby says cheerily, and Carter turns back towards his horse and mounts up.
After some discussion, Claude sends Farabee and Sheary ahead to scout the way. They're both small, and on the fastest mounts in the riding party, it doesn't take long for Farabee to report back that the way ahead is safe. "For a certain distance," he says. "Ride ahead. Sheary and I will trade off riding back."
Claude nods. "Be safe."
Farabee nods back, then turns his horse back down the pathway and spurs her on. He's a younger knight, Carter knows, affable and headstrong, but he looks to be all business as he rides out of sight.
"Okay, we're going to move out," Claude says. "We have to assume that we're heading into a fight. Everyone on your guard, and if you see anything that looks out of place, raise an alarm. I'd rather be safe than sorry."
"Or shot through with an arrow," Crosby says placidly. "Since that's apparently an option."
"It wasn't even me," Wilson mutters from where his hands are tied to Wayne's saddlehorn. "Oshie shot the arrow. I'm the brawler; he's the marksman."
"Well, you're certainly not the marksman," Claude says. "Anyway, let's start moving, but keep your eyes open."
The assemblage starts to move; Carter and Tristan are still in the centre, but it's less of a procession and more of a cluster now, with more bodies between them and a potential line of fire. Carter tries to keep his heart from beating out of his chest, but he has no way to handle an enemy he can't even be sure is there; all he can do is look around, do his best to keep his eyes open for danger, and hope for the best as they keep riding.
"We'll be there soon," Tristan says, and Carter jerks and turns to look at him. Tristan's smile is small, but it's there, and he looks like he'd be reaching for Carter's hand if they weren't both on horseback. "Take a deep breath. It won't do anyone any good if you make yourself sick with nerves."
Carter shakes his head but he smiles, and the few deep breaths he manages do make him feel better. "Thanks," he says quietly.
Tristan nods. "Look," he says, nodding ahead of them, and Carter turns to look. His stomach swoops when he realises what he's seeing: Washington in the distance, and nothing but a wide, grassy field between the edge of the forest pathway they're approaching and the gates of the city.
"Well," Carter says. "If they hadn't already known we were coming, they sure will by the time we get there."
"They know you're coming," Wilson says. "I already told you—"
"My god," Tristan mutters. "I already knew the politics of why we're constantly at odds with Washington, but he's enough to make me want to start a war all on his own."
Carter laughs, and it's loud in the relative quiet around them. He claps a hand to his face as the sound echoes a little, feeling his cheeks heat, but Tristan just smiles at him as if that's the reaction he'd been going for all along.
They wait at the treeline for at least a quarter hour; Carter isn't sure what for, but finally he sees a horse racing back towards them. It resolves into Sheary a moment later, and Claude rides out to meet him. They talk for a moment, Sheary sketching something out with his hands, and Claude nods when Sheary's hands fall to his lap before they both ride back to the group.
"We've secured an audience with the king of Washington," Claude says crisply. "We'll all be allowed into the city, but Their Majesties will have to choose two escorts each from among the group, and we've been guaranteed safe harbour for the rest."
"How?" one of the Pittsburgh guards asks.
Sheary makes an aggrieved noise. "Farabee," he says. "He traded himself for safe passage before I could talk him out of it."
"He what," Frost says loudly, and Carter has to agree.
"He agreed to be put in a jail cell as proof that the rest of us would behave," Sheary says. "If any of us act out of line, his life is forfeit."
There's a moment of quiet, and then Frost snorts loudly. "When he gets out of there, his life is forfeit anyway," he mutters. "I'm going to shake him until his brain rattles out of his fool head."
"I'll step right into line behind you," Sheary says darkly. "I asked for a moment for us to consider our options, but no, he just offered that up as a solution."
"That's Farabee," Claude says, sighing the way only a world-weary father can. "Taking the brunt of the assault to let the larger plan carry on."
"Well," Carter says. "We should ride into the city, then."
"And if any one of you sees fit to do anything that might endanger Farabee," Tristan adds, voice solemn, "I believe I speak for both of us when I say that we'll let Frost and Sheary at you."
"We won't," one of the Pittsburgh rank-and-file says quickly. "We'll be on our best behaviour."
Wilson snorts. "I'm sure that's—"
"Oh, for the love of god," Wayne says, clapping a glove over Wilson's face. "I'd say we should try to trade this one back to Washington to get Farabee back, but that wouldn't be a fair trade. Hell, they may make us keeping him a condition of releasing Farabee back to us."
"I don't love him that much," Frost says instantly.
It makes a ripple of laughter go through the group, and Carter smiles as he adjusts his seat in the saddle.
"Well," Crosby says, looking at the gathered crowd. "Shall we?"
Carter tries his best not to let his nerves show as they follow a man whom Wilson had greeted as Carlson down a hallway. The group is as he'd suspected it would be; he'd chosen Claude and Wayne to accompany him, and Tristan had selected Crosby and Letang. None of the others had objected, and they'd left with a promise that the rest of the men would be unharmed. Carter really doesn't have a choice but to trust them, hate it though he may.
They draw to a stop before a set of ostentatiously large doors. "His Majesty Braden Holtby, the king of Washington," Carlson intones as the doors slowly draw open.
Carter takes a deep breath and walks into the room, keeping his steps even and measured as he and Tristan approach the raised dais where the king's throne is. King Braden is sitting there, and his eyes narrow as they approach.
"What's this, then?" he asks.
"Well, Your Majesty, this is yours," Letang says, shoving Wilson forward. His hands are still bound, but he keeps his balance as he stumbles towards the dais.
King Braden sighs. "Tom…"
Wilson laughs. "I was just doing my job," he says, sounding altogether too cheerful for someone with a cheekbone as purple as his currently is.
"I'm sure," King Braden mutters. "John, free his hands, please. Tom, wait in the meeting room for me, and call TJ to wait with you. I'm sure both of you had a hand in all this."
Wilson just laughs again as Carlson makes quick work of the cloth holding his hands together, and then he turns and bows slightly to the king. "We'll wait in the meeting room," he promises, and then he turns and stalks out of the hall.
King Braden watches him leave, then turns back to look at Carter. "Well," he says. "I know a missive was sent to Philadelphia for you, but I'm afraid I'm not entirely certain why the newest king of Pittsburgh was your choice for a travelling companion."
Carter takes a moment to steel himself. He's never had to face off with an opponent quite like this before; usually this is something left to the battlefield, where Claude can cross swords with Backstrom and settle it that way.
He turns to Tristan first; it's rude, probably, but he's only going to get through this if he reminds himself that he has allies in the whole mess. "Tristan," he says, "meet His Majesty, King Braden of Washington. And, Your Majesty," he adds, turning to face the king, whose eyebrows have climbed into his hairline, "King Tristan of Pittsburgh."
King Braden's chin dips. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance."
"My husband," Carter adds.
"Your," someone—it might be Carlson, but Carter doesn't turn to check—chokes out. Carter holds King Braden's gaze, and as tempted as he is to reach for Tristan's hand, he refrains.
"Well played," King Braden finally says, and a smile breaks across his face. "Oh, well played indeed."
Carter nods. "Thank you, sir. I'd like to ask after my parents."
"They're well," King Braden assures him. "And your father's been muttering at anyone who'll listen that you'd find your own way. He'll be pleased, I think."
"I should hope so," Carter says, smiling slightly. "I'd also like to negotiate for their release."
King Braden nods once. "I'd like to confer with my advisory council on the matter," he says. "Our original plans have been… rather effectively sidestepped, I should say."
Carter lets his smile grow. "I won't apologise for that."
"I figured that might be the case," King Braden says. "Give me the afternoon, and—"
The door to the throne room bursts open; everyone turns, and the guards in attendance from all three kingdoms tense as if readying to grab their weapons. The Washington guards relax almost immediately when a man comes into view, though Carter notices that his and Tristan's guards seem to tense further.
"We should just let them go," the man says. His voice is calm, but there's something in his eyes that makes Carter think he's had a harrowing experience of late. "We give the royal family their freedom, and we make them take the lovesick idiots in the jail with them."
"The..." Letang says.
Claude sighs. "Backstrom," he calls, and Carter straightens as he realises who this is. Backstrom isn't the leader of the guard in Washington—that's a man called Ovechkin, if Carter's memory serves him well—but this is his second-in-command, and from all Carter has heard, a warrior of legend in the realm.
Backstrom turns to him. "They're yours," he says. "One of your guards turned himself over as collateral—"
"Oh my god," Carter whispers, the pieces clicking together for him. When he shoots a look at Tristan from the corner of his eye, he's clearly biting at his lips so he doesn't laugh.
"—and somehow his lover has made his way down into the cells, and they're pining loudly for all to hear," Backstrom continues. "Sanja thinks it's great fun. He stayed to watch, but I couldn't stand the earnest declarations any longer."
"You could keep them," Claude suggests. "They work very well together."
Backstrom glares. "Or we could give them back," he stresses, switching his gaze to the king. "Your Majesty, I beg of you. We can call it a diplomatic error and they can all be back on their way to Pennsylvania before the hour's up. Just get the lovebirds out of my jail."
"We want a written oath that you won't try this again when Sarah's of age," Tristan says, and Carter turns to him in surprise. Tristan's staring at King Braden, though, jaw set, and after a moment, Carter turns to face him as well.
"We have no designs on the princess," King Braden says. "And I'm happy to sign an oath to that effect."
"Good," Tristan says firmly. "Then shall we write out the terms and sign everything so we can be on our way?"
"Please," Backstrom says fervently, and this time, Carter lets himself laugh.
"The thought only occurred to me as we stood there," Tristan says quietly. They're waiting in an antechamber off the throne room; the paperwork is in hand, signed by all three kings and witnessed by their guardsmen, and now they're just waiting for Carter's parents to be shown to them. "I should've discussed it with you before suggesting the idea, but they were presenting terms, and I didn't want to lose the chance to ensure Sarah's safety."
Carter smiles at him, and he can feel how soft it is on his face. "You haven't even met her yet, and you still thought of her."
"She's your sister," Tristan says. "I may only know of her from court documents so far, but…"
"But you didn't want to ride back here in a year's time because they'd tried again," Carter says, laughing.
Tristan laughs, too. "I'd spare anyone the trauma of being stuck anywhere near Wilson for a length of time, if I had the power to do so."
"You're a good man, Tristan," Carter says, and Tristan smiles widely. Carter can't help but lean in and kiss the apple of his cheek, grinning when he feels Tristan's smile widen even more.
"What," Carter hears, and he turns quickly, locking eyes with his father across the room.
"Carter," his mother says a second later, and then he's embracing his parents, breathing a heavy sigh of relief as the tension slips from his shoulders.
"Mother, Father," Carter says, drawing back once his mother has managed to dab her eyes mostly dry. "I don't know what you've been told, but—"
"That you negotiated for our freedom, and we're allowed to leave, and that you managed to wrangle protection for Sarah," Father says. "And you did it all without anyone here forcing your hand into staying behind."
"Well," Carter says. He glances at Tristan. "They… ah. They couldn't force my hand. I couldn't marry and stay in Washington's court, not if I already had a husband."
Mother inhales sharply, but neither of Carter's parents say a word.
"Your Majesties," Tristan says, nodding his head. "We've not had the chance to meet yet, what with the upheaval in Pennsylvania of late. I'm King Tristan of Pittsburgh."
"He's the one who thought of the provision for Sarah," Carter blurts. "And he suggested the plan to prevent Washington from forcing me to stay. And—"
"And it's lovely to meet you," Mother interrupts gently. She shoots a look at Father, then elbows him in the side when he doesn't say anything.
"Yes, lovely," Father says, though he doesn't sound altogether thrilled at the words. "It sounds like we all have… quite a bit to discuss."
"We do," Carter says firmly. "We'll have plenty of time once we arrive back in Philadelphia."
"And we should truly be on our way," Tristan adds. "Backstrom seemed fit to murder Frost and Farabee if they were here a moment longer than was absolutely necessary."
That, at least, gets Father to chuckle. "Oh, I'll bet they're turning his hair to gray."
"It seems likely," Carter says, smiling. He turns to the door, and when Tristan's hand bumps his, he doesn't hesitate to take it. "Shall we?"
"Yes, let's," Mother says, and Carter sighs in relief as they head out the door.
"So," Carter says. Claude and Crosby are back to bickering with each other about the final details before they set off for Philadelphia, and Mother and Father have climbed into the carriage that King Braden had offered to loan them for the trip back. It means that, for now, Carter's alone with Tristan, or at least as alone as they can be in the midst of a sea of people.
"So," Tristan echoes, smiling at him. "Your parents are saved, and we're all on our way out of Washington."
Carter nods. "So," he repeats. "What comes next?"
"We go back to Philadelphia and have what will probably prove to be a truly exhausting conversation with your parents," Tristan says with a laugh. "Hopefully I have the chance to meet Sarah."
Carter hesitates. "And then?"
"I don't know yet," Tristan says, honest and true. "Tradition would dictate that you move to Pittsburgh."
Carter resists making a face, but only just. "If that's what you would have me do—"
Tristan laughs gently. "You may have guessed this, Carter, but I'm not one for sticking to tradition where it's not needed. We'll figure something out, I swear it. I don't want you to be miserable in Pittsburgh any more than you wanted to be miserable in Washington."
"But," Carter starts.
"Do you trust me?" Tristan asks.
Carter blinks. "Yes."
"Then trust that we'll figure something out," Tristan says again. "Together."
Carter doesn't bother hiding a smile as he hears Wayne call for everyone to saddle up. He swings himself onto his horse, looking at Tristan, then the road ahead of them, then back to Tristan.
"Together," he agrees, and they set off.