Adeline woke slowly, foggily wondering why her head felt three times heavier than normal. She peeked one eyelid open, and instantly regretted it – she'd been lying facing the windows in her room, the windows that offered a spectacular view of the sunrise every morning. One of the brilliant golden rays had hit her square in the face, and now she could feel her pulse throbbing in her temples.
Groaning, she rolled over on her back, and willed the room to stop spinning. Once, when she and Gwen were just girls, they had gotten hold of some wine and drunk themselves into a stupor. Understandably, Fitz and Izzy hadn't been pleased, but the following morning had been punishment enough for the princess and her protector. Now, Adeline remembered how miserable her hangover had been, and it certainly compared to how she felt now, but the headache and nausea weren't caused by her own drinking.
Underneath the physical discomfort, she registered a stab of pain in her chest when she thought of her father. He'd never been what one would call loving or supportive, by any means, but usually the rift between them ended with the verbal sparring. It was rare, especially as she'd gotten older and stronger, for him to raise his hand against her. Her pride stung at the memory, almost as much as her face did. Gingerly she touched her cheek and winced; even the lightest touch was almost unbearable.
Old fool, she thought bitterly, trying to talk herself out of crying. When that didn't work she rolled to the edge of the mattress and sat up as quickly as she dared. The room still tilted a bit, but she was sure it would wear off as the day progressed.
It took twice as long as it usually did, but she finally got herself looking somewhat presentable for the day. She didn't see any sparring sessions in her future, so she donned a light, flowing gown of bright red. Perhaps she would still manage to look fierce, as Peter had called her, even with half of her face deformed by a bruise.
She managed to pull the front of her hair back from her face, letting the rest to hang freely down her back, and after that she really couldn't be bothered with anything else. She shrugged at her reflection, and made for the door. Hopefully, she would feel better once she had a spot of breakfast.
Upon exiting her room, however, all thoughts of food left her. Edmund stood across from her, leaning back against the opposite wall casually. Immediately she realized he was waiting for her to make an appearance, because the moment he saw her, he stood up straight and even took a hesitant step forward.
At first he said nothing; his eyes roved her face, and hardened when he noticed the bruise on her cheek. His look softened when he made eye-contact, and when he at last spoke, the gentleness she heard in his voice made Adeline want to cry, for reasons she could not explain.
"Did you want breakfast?"
She tried nodding, but it felt as though her head would fall off her shoulders, so she cleared her throat. "Yes."
The stairs, unfortunately, were not the ally of a person with a recent head-injury. Adeline had to pause often just to regain her sense of balance, grateful for Edmund's hand holding hers firmly. It felt like years later she walked into the dining room, oblivious to the way the other four monarchs turned to watch her entrance.
What Adeline didn't know was how she looked to them, small and frail, and truth be told it frightened them immensely. One entire side of her face was like an exotic fruit, all purple and green and yellow, and the upper portion of her jaw was swollen as well. Edmund found himself having to take several deep breaths whenever he just looked at her, and judging from the way Peter's fork was trembling in his hand as the High King fought to control his temper, Edmund was not alone.
In an effort to distract himself from his anger, Edmund busied himself with pouring Adeline a cup of tea. He added liberal amounts of cream and sugar, and proceeded to fix her a plate with toast and poached eggs, even adding a few berries. He set it in front of her, but she made no move to touch any of her meal. Eyebrows raised in question, he simply looked at her.
"You're not supposed to serve me, Eddy."
Her voice, much like her appearance, was frightfully unlike her that Edmund struggled to keep his own voice normal.
"There are no stations here, Addie. We take care of those we care about. You know that."
To his relief a ghost of a smile crossed her features as she reached for her teacup.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound ungrateful."
"You didn't," he assured her.
At this point he looked up to find four identical expressions of I saw that looking at him all around the table. He rolled his eyes, and gestured to the girl beside him.
Lucy took the hint, though the smug gleam didn't quite leave her eye.
"Did you fare well during the night, Addie?" the queen asked gently.
A shrug. "Could have been worse, I suppose. Waking up was the hardest bit."
"Do you want some of my cordial?"
There was no hesitation.
Peter cut in. "Adeline, you perhaps should consider – "
Adeline was already shaking her head, but it must have hurt to do so because she winced and stopped.
"Peter, I've had more than my fair share of that cordial. War is upon us, and there are soldiers who will need it more than I. A simple bruise is not fatal."
Much as he hated to admit, Edmund knew she was right. It was only fair of her to stick this one out. He was about to ask her if she wanted more tea when a knock sounded at the door. It was Reepicheep.
"Your Majesties, m'lady." He bowed. "Lord Xaviar requests an audience with Lady Adeline. He is waiting in the main salon."
For a moment they all sat, stunned. Then Adeline pushed her chair back. "Thank you, Reep. Please inform I'll be there momentarily."
The Mouse had scarcely shut the door behind him when she stood up. None of them missed the way she gripped the back of Edmund's chair for support, and in the space of a few heartbeats, the five kings and queens had a silent communication. Edmund came to his feet.
"I'm right behind you."
Adeline blinked in confusion. "I thought Susan –"
"In light of recent events, we've changed our minds. I'll be standing just outside the door. Xaviar won't know I'm there, but you will. Out of sight, but still available should you need me."
Either he pulled off the nonchalance with perfection, or her head hurt too much to argue, because she simply shrugged and led the way towards the main salon, situated just up the staircase from the entrance hall. Once again Adeline took her time on the steps, and when she finally reached the top she drew a deep breath before glancing over her shoulder at him.
Edmund nodded, even reaching to squeeze her hand encouragingly, before taking up his post just beside the exterior doorframe. Adeline entered, leaving the door partially open for his benefit, and he leaned his head back against the wall as he settled in to wait.
Adeline would have been lying she had denied feeling nervous. She wasn't sure if part of it was her head, or if she really was that uneasy around this madman. Either way, she didn't like it, and her chin rose defiantly as she observed Xaviar's broad back. He stood examining the bookshelves on the far wall, looking so at ease and calm that it irritated her.
"You wished to see me?" Her voice came out colder than she'd planned but she wasn't sorry.
Xaviar whirled to face her, and his greeting died on his lips when he caught sight of her face. To her shock his features twisted with anger.
"Who did this to you?" he demanded, striding forward and reaching for her. Instinctively she stepped away, annoyed further at his concern.
"A drunk. I antagonized him, fool that I am, and this is the price."
The look of chagrin did not leave Xaviar's face, and she rolled her eyes.
"Xaviar, you do not have the right to worry about me. It's not as though you've proven that you actually care whether I live or die."
To her savage pleasure, he flinched at the words, but he wasn't giving up just yet.
"For a moment I thought King Edmund had struck you."
That, above all else, was the very last thing she'd expected. Her eyes widened and she suddenly found herself wishing she'd closed the door all the way.
"What on earth would King Edmund hurt me for?"
"It is in man's nature, to bring pain upon the woman he loves."
"Perhaps in an ordinary man's nature, but Edmund is anything but ordinary. He does not find pleasure in inflicting pain upon others."
"You think he does not love you?" Xaviar's mouth was wrung in a sly grin, one that she itched to slap right off his face.
"I know he doesn't" she replied impatiently, but Xaviar surprised her once again by laughing maniacally.
"Oh, Adeline, how can you not see it? Are you blind to the look in his eyes?"
"Don't you think that if Edmund felt this way for me, he would tell me?" she demanded.
"Ah, now see that I can only guess. Perhaps he fears hurting you."
"And that's a bad thing?" she asked, wondering why in heaven's name she was discussing this with Xaviar, of all people.
"Don't you know, Adeline, that the man who fears hurting the woman he loves, is often the one who causes her the most pain?"
A chill rode down Adeline's spine at the thought, but there was no way she would ever let him win this one.
"There you are wrong, Xaviar. You claim to love me, yet I cannot think how anyone could ever cause me more heartbreak than you have." She took a moment to let the words sink in. "Now. I didn't leave my breakfast early to discuss romantic notions with you. What is it you want?"
"My request has not changed." He stated quietly, and Adeline thought it really was a good thing that her head still hurt too much to move, because if it hadn't there would have been a very large blood stain on the carpet right where he was standing.
She settled for the most disgusted look she could muster.
"I will not marry you, Xaviar. Nothing you say will change that."
Xaviar's eyes filled with a cold fury she'd not seen there before. He clenched his fists and hissed, "You've chosen him, haven't you? King Edmund, the Just, the redeemed traitor, the reclusive –"
"Stop." Adeline didn't know why she was suddenly so angry, but she didn't pause to think. "Who I have chosen, is frankly none of your business. My only dealings with you, from now on, will be on the battlefield. There will be no more audiences, no more kidnappings, no more discussions. The next time we meet, I will be looking to kill. Do you understand?"
He regarded her icily. "So be it."
She nodded curtly, and made to leave but paused.
"One more thing," she started, waiting to make sure she had his full attention. "If King Edmund's affections for me are as you claim, then know this: he has a far better chance of winning my heart than you ever did. He is ten times the man you are, and ten thousand times the king you could ever hope to be."
She didn't wait to see the impact of her speech; she swept from the room and clapped the door shut behind her, leaning back against it and closing her eyes.
"Are you alright?" Came Edmund's soft voice from beside her. She managed a nod, and eventually turned and looked at him, seeing in his eyes what she already knew: he had heard every word.
The rest of the day passed in haphazard fashion; last minute details were being ironed out, armor was being refitted again and again, strategies discussed, and at some point Adeline finally relented and allowed Lucy to give her one more drop of the precious cordial. She couldn't shake the feeling of guilt, though she knew it was for the best. She had too many responsibilities to be distracted by a headache.
Eventually she wandered down to the garden Edmund had shown her when she'd first arrived. It was tranquil, and soothed her as she walked amongst the greenery. So many decisions, so many "what ifs", so many lives they were risking. But they had no choice but to fight. She sighed, wishing it would all just be over.
"May I join you?" Edmund's voice startled her a bit, though she smiled and nodded. He came to stand next to her, in the shade of a young apple tree laden with ripening fruit. Comfortable silence settled over them, but after a while Adeline could feel Edmund's furtive glances in her direction. She lifted one eyebrow in question, and he seemed to find courage.
"I…I just wanted to tell you that, er…y-you handled Xaviar rather magnificently this morning."
She laughed slightly. "Thank you. It wasn't hard, with him spouting off all that rubbish about you loving me and-"
"Rubbish?" Edmund broke in quietly, so quietly that she could have pretended not to hear him, but his eyes locked on hers and she couldn't look away.
"I ought to have told you…ages ago. I pray you'll forgive me for being so stupid, so blind to keep it to myself instead of telling you, but, Addie…the truth is, I've loved you for a while now. And short of the world ending, I don't think I'm ever going to stop."
She wanted to ask, when, why, how, so many different questions sprang to her mind, but before she had a chance to voice any of them Edmund had pulled her to himself and captured her lips with his own.
Adeline had never been kissed before, but the sensation, though foreign, was not unpleasant. She felt the heat crackle in her belly, heard the blood roar in her ears, and one of her hands, flat on Edmund's chest, could feel his heart thumping wildly. She knew hers matched it, and her knees threatened to give away beneath her as she lost herself completely. Edmund kissed her as though there absolutely nothing else in the world that mattered, except for her; his hands cradled her head carefully, his fingers woven into her hair, and though the passion in the kiss made her head spin, it was also indescribably tender.
Edmund's own senses were reeling. His sisters used to drag him and Peter along to the cinema to watch those ridiculous romances; he and Peter had spent the majority of every such film mocking the men for being complete saps. Now, however, he understood why those men sported such strange facial expressions whenever they kissed their women. He could have sworn he was floating. Somewhere in the middle of it all Adeline had started to kiss him back, tentatively. He dimly registered the feel of her small hands fisted in his shirt over his ribs, and he tilted her head back more to deepen the kiss. She made a small, gasping sound and he thought he might pass out but he just kept kissing her, unable to get enough, and he was just about to wrap his arms around her waist to pull her closer when-
"Edmund! Ed-oh. Oh. Er, sorry….hullo, Addie…erm, you're both needed upstairs..."
Peter trailed off awkwardly, pointedly looking anywhere but the flushed, breathless pair who had sprung apart. Edmund found his voice first.
"Thanks, Pete. We'll be right along."
His brother nodded, looking equal parts shocked and pleased, and headed off the way he'd come.
For several long moments, the two of them stood uncertainly. Edmund tried very hard not to admire the blush on Adeline's cheeks, not wanting to embarrass her further, but she looked so distraught that he knew he had to say something.
"Addie….I can't lie and say that I'm sorry. I've never regretted anything less in my life. But if you don't want that to happen again then you need to tell me. Otherwise I'll kiss you every chance I get."
With those words, he turned and left her in the garden, hoping he hadn't just ruined the best thing he'd ever had.