Chapter 20- All else be damned
“Strength isn’t about how much you can handle before you break, it’s about how much you can handle after you break.”
The dinner I so desperately was looking forward to with Tobias didn’t happen. Instead, I spent the evening with my parents and Kealie. They still needed me. Their time away shook their confidence and underlying strength that I had been so used to seeing. They seemed like completely different people to me and I didn’t know how to come to terms with it.
My mother walked me to the door of their chambers, while Kealie ran around the tea room being chased by my father, his sea-green eyes gleaming with joy as they’d once used to. It gave me hope to see him so close to his usual self, instead of the stranger he’d become.
My mother took hold of my hands in hers, her gray eyes dim. “We are doing fine, Penny. We are adjusting but we will be alright. I can see how much we worry you in the set of your shoulders or in the space just above the bridge of your nose,” she said, smoothing my furrowed brows. “We came back alive, sweetheart. That is all that matters.”
I held back the tears that fought to pool at the corners of my eyes. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to you sooner.”
“Enough,” she chided. “We’ve talked about this many times before. Let’s put it behind us, shall we? Not only will it benefit you but your father and I as well. We are ready to leave those months behind us. Can you do that for us, Penny?”
I swallowed roughly, the ache in my chest slowly pulled apart, dissipating. “I’ll try, mama.”
“That’s my girl,” she smiled.
A shrill bell began to ring through the palace and my heart stopped. I gripped my mother’s hands roughly. “Papa! Kealie! Let’s go,” I shouted.
My father held Kealie in his arms, a wild look in his eyes.
“We need to get to the panic rooms,” I yelled, dragging my mother with me, knowing my father would follow with Kealie.
The scene in the halls was structured chaos. Everyone knew what they were doing and where they were going. Unlike my last experience when someone broke into the palace, these halls weren’t deserted. We had implemented a warning system and had run drills to make sure everyone was safe.
Guardians rushed towards me, Opal at the head. “Get the Queen to safety,” she ordered.
“My parents and Kealie,” I urged.
“Leave them to me, your highness. They will be safe,” she reassured me, tucking her hair behind an ear, her pixie cut bob sharp and as lethal as the knives at her waist.
“Penelope, go. We just discussed this. Your father and I are not broken. They did not break us. We will keep Kealie safe. Go,” she urged, leaving me no room to argue. She turned to Opal and nodded. “Let’s go.” Kealie and papa followed quickly behind them.
My heart tightened. Kealie looked over papa’s shoulder and gave a small wave. She yelled back, “I will keep grandma and grandpa safe, Penny.”
I nodded, wiping away the tears as they fell. Just as they reached the end of the hall she yelled out, “I love you.”
It was the first time she’d ever said those words to me. My heart swelled with love and tore itself to pieces in fear for them all.
“We need to go, your highness,” Diamond urged.
“Yes, of course.”
We ran through the already near empty palace and made it to the throne room. This would be a different panic room than the one I’d shared with Tobias all those months ago. A door behind the two marble thrones led to the panic room for the king and queen.
Diamond pushed a few numbers into the electronic pin pad and rushed me in. Till this day I had yet to hear her say a word. I’d once asked Opal about it but she wouldn’t go into details about it. All she offered was that Diamond hadn’t spoken in fifteen years and not to force her into it if possible. Before I could say thank you, she shut the door. The locks clicked into place and I did my part from my side of the door, locking this side of the door.
“You should really check the room before you bolt yourself in here,” a voice whispered from the dark.
I went deathly still.
I hadn’t had a chance to turn the light on and I was mentally kicking myself for not doing just as the voice had said. I should have checked the room. Rather, Diamond should have. I scrambled to find the light switch when I felt a hand already there.
Just as the intruder spoke again, I had already taken hold of his hand in a maneuver Trixie had shown me and turned it behind his back, yanking it to the brink of breaking it. “Who are you and why are you here?” I breathed.
“Penelope,” the voice groaned.
I immediately released my grip on him and turned the lights on.
He looked at me with bemused eyes. “I should’ve known better and just announced my name before speaking,” He said, massaging his shoulder.
No doubt the same memory ran through his mind as it did mine. The last time we’d been locked in a panic room together I’d attacked him with a flashlight.
I grinned and repeated the same words I’d said then. “Whoops.”
“Not that I’m not happy to see you but how are you here?” I asked.
“Viktorya and Thomas tossed me in here before running off somewhere together. She said I was as good as the next King Consort of Iron Forge so she wanted me safe and with you.”
I smiled at her foresight and at the face that she and Thomas had been together.
Tobias walked around the room, taking in his environment. A small bed was nestled against the far wall, a desk sat nearest to the door, and supplies lined the walls of the rest of the room.
“I missed you at dinner tonight,” he said, still not looking at me.
“I missed you too. Thank you for being so understanding. My parents seem to be in better condition than I'd given them credit for. I’d made them out to be weak but they’re as strong as ever. I wasn’t wrong in thinking that their experience changed them but instead of breaking them as I originally thought, it made them stronger and more resilient.”
He turned towards me, eyes burning brightly. His gaze never failed to pull me in. “We are all stronger. We’ve had a hell of a year.”
“I shall forever be grateful to the Great Mother for giving us this second chance,” I said, meaning every word.
“Me too, Penelope. Me too,” he said reaching around his neck, unclipping a thin gold necklace with a gold band hanging from it. “I wanted to give this to you at dinner but now is a good a time as any. I know you can’t wear it now but I’d like you to have it still,” he said, placing the chain and ring in my palm.
“Of course I’ll wear it,” I said, quickly placing it around my neck. We both knew I couldn’t place it on my finger until everything became official, but between us, I was his and he was mine. I looked at the matching band he wore on his right hand.
It was then that I noticed the swirl of different colors. The band held hues of rose gold, white gold, and yellow gold. It was beautiful.
He moved closer, taking the ring that hung around my neck into his hand, gazing at the intricate swirls. “It’s said that rose gold represents love, white gold represents friendship, and yellow gold means fidelity. With this ring, I promise to fulfill all three. I will love you fiercely, I will be true to you, and I will always be your confidant, Penelope Tate.”
I couldn’t have been any happier. Things were chaotic around us and we didn’t know the state of our friends or what was going on outside this room but I did know how I felt about the man in front of me and I loved him with everything that made me who I was.
His azure gaze sent a shiver down my spine. The finger he ran along my chin and thumb that grazed my bottom lip ignited the constant glowing embers between us and we were lost.
All else be damned.