The sounds of a party raged around her: the chorus of giggles protruding from a gaggle of wealthy ladies nearby; the pitiful whine of Kile, Marlee's 13-month-old son, crying for some food to fill his tiny tummy; the roaring laughter of the men who stood in the corner, smoking, drinking a beer, and slapping each other on the back; the clatter of a million dessert dishes being brought out by the kitchen staff and placed on the 20-foot long table, which, if the history textbook she had recently read was correct, was nearly the same length as the height of a tyrannosaurus rex. The music that was currently playing- some remix of some pop song that had tinkling piano keys (which is the only reason she remembered it and liked it)- was so loud that it swelled in her ears, making every noise in the ballroom loud and overwhelming. She couldn't even hear the gentle click of her 5-inch heels on the marble palace floor.
Although she had never been a huge party person- she was more of the type for a small, intimate get-together with a few friends and family-, she did enjoy a big gathering every so once and awhile.
But this?! This was just ridiculous. It often amused her how the female role in a marriage was often portrayed as the dramatic one, but if there was a dramatic spouse between America and her husband, it was definitely Maxon. He tended to have a bit of a flare for the dramatic- big, flashy lights, bright cameras, extravagant dishes, exotic guests- although he would never admit that.
Speaking of her flamboyant husband, where was he, anyway? America had been making circles around the ballroom for the past twenty minutes, enough laps to go around this huge room about 4 times. She searched desperately throughout the crowd, standing on her tiptoes and peeking over the tops of people's heads, trying to spot a shock of honey-blond hair that stood out amongst the other heads since Maxon was fairly tall.
While looking for him, she was cognizant that she probably looked quite peculiar, her short frame suddenly peeking up and out of the throng of bodies, like a meerkat, or a prairie dog, or whatever those little creatures were called. And she felt equally rude as she did silly when one of the party guests would approach her, say hello, try to strike up a conversation, and in return, she would just nod a quick hello and turn her back while resuming her search. Once she was even dimly aware of herself dismissing the person with a wave of her hand. Again, she was 100% percent aware of everything she was doing- that was part of being a queen, after all: always being completely cognizant of what you say, what you do, and how you look- but at this moment, none of it mattered.
She had to find Maxon. There was something that she desperately needed to tell him. And she knew, deep in her heart, that if she didn't tell him now, she likely wouldn't ever have the words to say it, and he would be forced to find out for himself. In fact, America rarely had the right words to say something, or at least that was what she thought. She always felt like a bumbling idiot when she spoke, and the only thing she spewed when she opened her mouth was a batch of nonsense, right along with a spoonful of disaster and a cup of stupidity.
But tonight was different.
America could feel it inside of her. She knew that tonight was the night to tell him. Somehow, she knew. She could just somehow tell that tonight, no matter what she said, it would change everything about their marriage, but it would be for the better. Oh, it would make everything so much better.
Maybe they would even fight less than they did nowadays.
As much as she pondered over the recent problems in their relationship, the most she could figure was that they were both suffering from a lot of stress. Lately, the rebels- both in the North and the South- had become much more vicious and ruthless, which only made Maxon's job harder. Why, even yesterday, there had been another attack on the palace somewhere near the Women's Parlor where she had been at the time of the attack, and she suspected that her being there, being in such immediate danger, was part of why Maxon had looked especially tense this morning.
And maybe it was her imagination getting away with her and she was just exaggerating the reality of the situation, muddling her fears with reality, but America wore that she had even seen a few grey hairs on the blonde's head. When she truly thought about it, that didn't make much sense, because Maxon's father, Clarkson, who had been the previous king, had still had a full head of fine hair when he had... well, taken away. And he'd only been in his early forties! Still, the idea had been weighing on America's mind a lot.
In fact, that's why she'd suggested to Maxon that they throw an anniversary party in the first place; although, she suspected that he'd already wanted, maybe even planning, to do the same thing, but might've waited for her approval since he knew how she felt about parties.
Airing on the side of caution and still wanting the best for her husband, America had decided on telling Maxon tonight, just in case the wedding anniversary didn't succeed in lifting his spirits. And if this didn't lift his spirits permanently- or at least for several months- she honestly didn't know what on this Earth would.
Suddenly, amid her muddled thoughts and the overwhelming sounds of royal couple's wedding anniversary, America's ears pricked up at a certain voice. It was a voice that she knew better than the back of her hand, that she was more comfortable with than herself, that always knew the right thing to say to calm her down when she was on a tirade. The sound pierced her muddy mind, a jaunty laugh that lightened her soul, and called to her silently.
"Has your first year been hard? Lots of people say it is, but you two seemed to do so well," someone other than her husband was saying. Aspen.
America spied Maxon and her friend-since-childhood deeply immersed in conversation over by the kitchen doors. Although they were both clearly putting on a facade of adult men, America knew that both of them were secretly waiting for the kitchen staff to wheel out the ten-layer, multi-flavor cake.
Men could be such boys sometimes.
She could tell that they had both been drinking a little, because their eyes sparkled with merriment, their movements slow and blurred, and she could hear them both clearly, all the way from over here, by this bay window. So she knew each was probably unaware of how loud he was talking.
Maxon sighed. "Hard to say. I don't think it was the marriage part that was so hard as much as the duties. It was a lot to ask her to step into the role of a queen when she'd barely gotten used to the idea of being a princess."
"Did you fight?" Aspen wondered, his eyebrows lowering in concern, and Maxon laughed.
"Are you kidding? That's what we're best at!" He said it with a chuckle, and that was enough for America to know that even though it was true, it was still a little amusing. He went on.
"It's scary to be a husband. It feels like there's more to lose. I worry about that title more than being called king, easily."
Really, America thought, confirming Aspen's question for her and Maxon both.
"Listen," said her husband, as he continued, patting his friend on the back. "I don't trust many people the way I trust you. You've done a lot for me and for America. Just go look. See if there's nothing out there that you an Lucy really love, and if there is, consider it a gift from us."
"It's your anniversary," Aspen protested, though he knew as well as America that going against Maxon on something like this was futile. "You're supposed to be the one getting the gifts."
"I have everything I want," insisted Maxon, and America worried that that was true; what if he really didn't want the gift she was about to offer him? "A country on the upswing,"- That's a lie, she thought; "a happy marriage,"- Only some of the time; "and good friends,"- But not as many as you would expect a king to have, she reasoned, then began to walk towards them.
Cheers, America agreed as she reached them, tapping Maxon on the shoulder. He turned and broke into a sunrise of a smile.
"There you are, my dear." America had long ago accepted that he would never get rid of calling her "his dear," and that, by now, she really was, in fact, "his dear."
"Thank you. This is really the best party I've ever had." She was about to protest that he had done all the planning and arranging, but there was a twinkle in his eye, a hidden wink.
"You did good, Mer," Aspen added, and she realized that Maxon had given her credit for all of this. All the more reason to love him, she thought. She decided to roll with it.
"Thank you both very much." She turned to Maxon. "I need to steal you away for a bit."
"Of course. We'll talk more later," Maxon promised Aspen, and followed his wife from the room, looking forlornly one last time over his shoulder at the kitchen doors. They had just swung open, and the kitchen staff was wheeling out a magnificent dessert that seemed taller than even Maxon. He tugged at America's dress, playfully acting like a little kid and whining.
"Can't this wait?" he asked. "They were just about to bring out the cake."
"No," she teased. "This way," she instructed, pulling his arm.
"Perfect!" he said as they walked into the garden. "A break from the madness!"
America giggled- she couldn't help herself- and put her head on his shoulder.. She put Without instruction, he led them to their bench, and they sat, him facing the forest and her facing the palace.
"Champagne?" he offered, bringing over his glass. She wished she'd thought to set it down while they were inside; she wasn't sure how he would react to this news. He took a sip of the beverage before tilting it towards her, suddenly remembering his manners. Even with her.
All was quiet.
America breathed in a deep whiff of air; it was the wonderful kind, the kind that's fresh and clean and cool and smells a bit like pine leaves and summer rain and vanilla all mixed together. She couldn't even till where the scent on the light breeze, or the light breeze itself, was coming from- all she knew was that everything was perfect. The moonlight overhead was uninterrupted by a single cloud in the sky, so it was fully capable of illuminating the site of the Shreaves' first unofficial meeting and/or date. That first night had been so much like this one: a gentle transition from the burning summers of Angeles into the slight reprieve of autumn. There was a whisper of cooler nights to come, a warning that the breezes would turn stiff, and an harbinger that the exotic birds of the region would be migrating further south soon.
She whispered his name, so quietly and suddenly, that it was if someone had breathed a puff of air dense enough to cut through the stillness. He looked up and smiled at her in adoration.
"Yes, my dear?"
She swallowed, suddenly struggling to find the words. She tripped over her own voice, and it was slightly humiliating, even if the person she was speaking to was her husband.
And also the king.
"I have something to tell you," she began.
Maxon, who had been right in the middle of tilting his head back to take a sip of champagne, frowned and set down his glass on the bench beside him, turning to face her. Her tone must have sounded very serious. She would try to remember to lighten up her voice.
"I-" she began, but was interrupted by her husband.
"Is this about all the fighting?" She looked at him blankly, so he continued. "I know we've been fighting a lot recently, and I just..." He trailed off, not quite meeting her eyes.
"Maxon, what are you-" she tried to ask him, but suddenly she was cut off again by another outcry on his part. He rolled off of the bench, kneeling in the grass in front of her feet, and clasped her hands desperately in his. Her hands were warm and sweaty from anxiety. His were icy and stiff from fear.
"I just don't want to lose you, America," he whispered. He stared her in the eyes and his question seemed to bore directly into her soul. "Are you finished with me?"
Her stunned silence was from confusion, but he must have taken her quietness to mean a "yes", because he suddenly broke down into tears, and placed his head in her lap. His shoulders shook, and she could barely make out his desperate pleas in between the staggered sobs and broken, labored intakes of air.
"Maxon, honey... what are you talking about?"
He looked up at her, his tear-filled chocolate eyes meeting her icy orbs, and the confusion must have been evident on her face, because he furrowed his eyebrows and took on an expression that mirrored hers.
"Aren't you... ending things...between us?"
"NO!" she cried. She had no idea where he'd get such an idea. True, they'd been fighting a lot more the past few months, but she mainly attributed that to stress. "Sweetheart, look at me, please." He looked up at her and met her even gaze. "No matter how much we fight, no matter how many quarrels we get into or pointless arguments we start, I will never end things with you. We were meant for each other, and I wouldn't feel complete without you. You are part of me now. I love you, Maxon." She swallowed, becoming more emotional than she'd meant to. "I love you so much. I have never loved anyone as much as I love you, and I don't think I ever will. I will always love you, and we will always be together. You and me. Forever. Forever."
He nodded, although she hadn't asked a question. "You and me, huh? Forever?" He smiled, the last few traces of tears disappearing down the sides of his face.
She began to nod, but then thought better of it. She took his frigid hands, still in an iron-tight grip around hers, and rubbed them soothingly so that they relaxed; she casually guided his hands, up from her lap, and let one hand rest on her stomach.
"Well," she said with a smile that blossomed uncontrollably. "Maybe not just you and me."
He looked at her in confusion, then looked down at his hand and her stomach. Then he looked back up at her. Then back down. Then back up. This time, realization began to dawn on his face. And the moment where the memo finally kicked in was extraordinary: all the color left Maxon Shreave's face completely. Truth be told, America had expected him to leap up and down in excitement, to laugh, to jump for joy, or at least to crack one of those award-winning smiles.
But instead, all she received was a stone-cold statue whose features were frozen in an eternal facade with the epitome of shock written across it. Maxon had not moved once since his wife told him the news, and it was beginning to frighten her, quite frankly.
"Maxon?" She reached out and touched his leg. "Maxon, are you alright?"
It was if her voice and her touch had a magic effect on the man. Suddenly, that statue that America had been observing over the past few minutes began to leak. The statue leaked. At least, small water droplets began to squeeze out of the cracks in the corners of his eyes, and they slid down his cool face in a silent trickle, and America found herself uncontrollably doing the very same thing. The statue nodded, and then it spoke.
"Isn't that remarkable? I suddenly love you a hundred times more," he said, quietly and in awe. "And I didn't think it was possible to find love for a person I don't know at all." He looked up.
"Are we really going to have a baby?"
"Is it a boy or a girl?"
"It's too soon to tell."
"I'm assuming this is our secret?"
"All the same," Maxon said, his crying almost past its peak, "now I definitely feel like celebrating."
Together, the king and queen of Illea stood up from their sacred bench in their sacred garden under their sacred moon on their sacred night. They walked towards the palace and in an unspoken unison they joined hands, forming a physical bond that was almost nothing compared to the bond that would appear in eight or nine months. They looked at each other with such love and adoration, that one can only imagine how much love a child born by two such compassionate people would receive.
For the king, queen, and new child of Illea, the best was yet to come.
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