He was exactly where I should have expected he would be: in the treehouse. I texted Tristan once I got back to the palace, asking where he was, but not telling him why I was looking for him in the first place in an effort to both build the suspense and figure out what the hell I was going to say. He responded quickly enough, simply typing out ‘treehouse’, and two minutes later, I was making the hike across the palace’s back lawn towards the tree which had always been my and Tristan’s special place.
Unlike the last time we’d had a heart to heart here, the night I’d found out about his engagement to Alisha, he wasn’t sitting on the outer deck, so once I climbed the ladder, I stepped towards the actual house portion, knocking on the frame of the open doorway and smiling at the sight of Tristan nestled into a large black bean bag in the corner, a seat which had always been his favorite, evidenced by the fact that it was perpetually shaped like him. “Got space for one more up here?”
“Uh, hey, yeah, come on in,” he said, shifting into a more straightened seated position and nodding towards the red bean bag beside him to indicate I should sit. I did just that, pulling it a bit closer to him and crossing my legs beneath me as I plopped down on the floor, his voice ringing out softly as I settled myself into a comfortable position in the seat I used to pretend was the cockpit of a fighter jet. “I gotta be honest, I’m a little surprised that you wanted to see me.”
“How come?” I asked, leaning forward against my thighs and wondering if avoiding him after the last conversation we’d had wasn’t my finest idea. I’d thought that being near him would put me at risk for blurting out my feelings, but apparently staying away from him had made him think that I was holding a grudge.
“I thought you were mad at me,” he admitted quietly, his eyes searching my expression for any sign that his suspicions weren’t true.
“Why would I be mad at you?” I laughed to alleviate the tension a bit. I had never made a declaration of love before, so I wasn’t sure as to the ideal conditions, but I figured it was probably better if the mood was light to begin.
“Because of what I said yesterday about being jealous,” he continued, his brow furrowing in worry, “I mean, I wasn’t imagining it, right? Things were definitely tense between us at the festival?”
“Yeah, they were,” I sighed, scrunching my nose apologetically, “I’m sorry about that.”
“It’s okay,” he shrugged. “I understand.”
My eyebrows lifted in surprise, because I didn’t understand. “You do?”
“Yeah, I get it,” he said, “We’re friends and I made it weird.”
“You didn’t make it weird,” I assured him, reaching out to squeeze his hand.
The tension in his shoulders lessened as he sighed in relief. “So you’re really not mad?”
I brought my hand back to my lap, glad that we were on the verge of being back to normal. “Not at all.”
“Good,” he grinned momentarily before his expression became serious once more, “Cause you’re the last person I want to be angry with me. Anyone else, I can deal with it. But not you.”
“Why is that?” I whispered, wondering if perhaps this was exactly the segue I needed. In a perfect world, this would be the moment where he told me that he didn’t care about any one’s opinion but mine and that the reason he never wanted me to be mad at him was because he couldn’t imagine his life without me.
“Because you’re my best friend,” he said, causing my heart to crack just slightly, probably because of the fantasy I had built up in my mind, “I love you, JJ.”
I knew he didn’t mean those words the way I wanted him to, but they still made me feel as though my heart was pumping sunshine and I could hardly breathe as I spoke the words I’d been screaming in my mind since I was a child. “I love you, too.”
“That’s lucky, huh?” he laughed, his eyes crinkling as he smiled widely, uncrossing his legs to stretch them out and doing the same with his arms above his head, “It would have sucked to find out that after all these years, you just sort of tolerated me.”
“Nah, I’m completely in love with you.”
It took me a moment to realize that I’d actually said those words out loud, that they weren’t just a part of my usual inner monologue and my heart rate increased as I lifted my gaze to meet Tristan’s and found him staring at me, completely expressionless as he lowered his arms back to his side, his voicing coming out barely above a whisper. “What?”
For a good thirty seconds, I considered lying, because this wasn’t how I’d wanted it to come out. But then I realized that it was out there and I might as well embrace the moment and do what I’d come here to do in the first place. So I threw back my shoulders and looked him straight in the eyes and spoke with as much conviction as I could muster. “I’m in love with you.”
My confession was met with stunned silence. He stared at me, wide eyed and frozen, the only sounds to be heard my heart thumping in my chest and the soft breeze outside, until he finally regained his ability to speak. Clearing his throat, his words came out soft and scattered, as though he was grabbing bits and pieces of the flashes of sentences running through his mind.
“I, uh, I heard you the first time, I just thought maybe I misheard you, but that actually is what you said. That you’re in love with me.”
It was weird to hear him say it out loud, but I felt a bit relieved. “Yes.”
“Since when?” he breathed out, bending his knees and pulling his legs towards his chest with his arms.
“Since forever,” I shrugged, “For as long as I can remember, really. We spent so much time together that it just kinda…happened.” I paused, wishing like hell that this would play out the way it had in my head, “If you could say something, that would be great, cause I’m kinda freaking out here.”
“I’m sorry,” he shot me an apologetic glance, reaching up to pull off his beanie and using his other hand to tug his fingers through his curls, “it’s just a lot to process.”
“I know. It’s okay if you want me to give you space or something.” It would be completely understandable if he wanted me to leave him alone for a bit. After all, me proclaiming that I’d been in love with him this entire time probably meant that he was looking at every interaction we’d ever had through an entirely new lens.
“It’s not that…,” he assured me, as always, trying to be diplomatic, “I just…how come you never told me before?”
I supposed that was a fair question. We were supposed to be best friends and this was the kind of information best friends should share. “Honestly, I just never thought it would matter.”
“Why wouldn’t how you feel matter to me?”
“Well, I just never thought you felt that way about me.” That wasn’t entirely the truth. As much as I hadn’t ever gotten the vibe that Tristan had romantic feelings for me, I also never thought that I’d be the kind of girl his parents would approve of. I was sure a ripped skinny jean wearing, motorcycle riding, tattoo having bartender wasn’t exactly who King Robert pictured as being the future queen of Astoria. And I knew that the fact that I wasn’t groomed to be royal didn’t matter to Tristan, but it sure as hell mattered to the king.
“But then yesterday,” I continued before he could confirm or deny my assumptions, “when you said you felt jealous, I started to think that maybe, there was hope.”
The reminder of the conversation we’d had yesterday afternoon sparked an emotion in his eyes that I couldn’t quite place.
“I was a little…,” he struggled for the right word, pulling his beanie over his hair again, “disoriented, I guess. I mean, we grew up together and I’d never really thought of you romantically, and then I saw that picture of you and Dalton and I just…I remember thinking that I’d never felt like that before.”
“You seem to be forgetting about Garrett Phelen,” I pointed out, pulling one of my rings on and off my finger nervously.
When Tristan was sixteen, he became smitten with a Lord’s daughter that he met at a charity tennis tournament and everything was rosy until he realized he just couldn’t seem to shake the girl’s ex-boyfriend, a musician named Garrett. I’d never seen Tristan so irritated with another human being as he had been with Garret Phelen. I think it was mostly because, as a fellow musician, Tristan wanted to respect the guy, but just couldn’t end up getting past the fact that the Lord’s daughter still seemed to harbor some feelings for her ex, a tension which eventually led to their breakup.
“That’s not really the same, though,” Tristan shook his head, resting his forearms on top of his bent knees, “I hated that guy because he was a dick, it wasn’t a jealousy thing. And I wasn’t at all heartbroken when Lucy went back to him.”
“But you were heartbroken over me?” It was an exhilarating thought, that there was ever a moment where I could have had an effect on Tristan’s heart.
“I don’t know…,” he admitted quietly, his expression a bit sad, “I don’t know what it was. I guess it was just weird for me to see you with a guy because you’ve never really had boyfriends. Or if you have, you never told me about them.”
I had dated other people, but none of those relationships ever turned into anything serious, mostly because I didn’t think I’d ever be able to give those guys everything I had. It was difficult to pour your entire heart into someone when part of it already belonged to someone else. “If I never told you about them, it’s because there wasn’t much to tell.”
“So you’ve never been in love…”
“With anyone else?” I finished the sentence for him, shaking my head. “No.”
I still couldn’t tell what he was thinking, but he wasn’t sending me fiery glares, so that was a plus. “Is it weird that we’re having, like, a normal conversation about this?”
Surely most confession scenarios had some sort of dramatic climax, whether it be romantic or upsetting.
“Maybe a little,” he cracked a smile, “but I’m glad. You’re my best friend, JJ. I don’t want you to ever feel like you can’t tell me anything you want to tell me.”
“Okay,” I tilted my head to the side. Despite him saying that he was glad we were having this conversation, I couldn’t help but feel as though he was holding back. “Why do you seem upset?”
“I’m not upset,” he insisted, “Just confused and shocked and a combination of about ten other emotions I’m having trouble processing right now.”
“I guess that’s fair,” I muttered.
“You know what’s not fair?” he countered quietly, “You telling me that you’re in love with me while I’m engaged to be married.”
He had a point, seeing as I’d had plenty of time to tell him the truth while he wasn’t otherwise committed, but I never would have put myself in this position in the first place had he not opened that door with the whole ‘I felt jealous’ thing. So I stood my ground, narrowing my gaze and keeping it steady. “Kinda like it’s not fair that you told me you were jealous of me and Dalton while you’re engaged to be married?”
He held my glare for about thirty seconds before letting out a shaky sigh and shaking his head. “You’re right, I’m being hypocritical. I just can’t stop thinking about Alisha.”
“Oh,” I whispered, feeling as though someone had punched me in the gut, “You really like her, huh?”
“Yeah, but that’s not why she’s on my mind,” he quickly explained, “I think that, ultimately, she’s the one who’s not getting the fair deal.”
“Maybe,” I nodded, immediately feeling guilty for being glad that he wasn’t on his way to being in love with Alisha, “But she’s the one who told me to tell you.”
“She is?” he lifted his eyebrows in surprise, “You told her?”
“No, she guessed.”
“Oh,” he said, pursing his lips and tapping his thumb against his inner knee, his next words coming out slowly, “JJ, what does it say about me that I’ve known you for nearly fifteen years and I had no idea, but Alisha has known you for about fifteen days and she figured it out.”
“You weren’t looking for me to feel this way,” I shrugged, “She was.”
“What do you mean?” he furrowed his brow in confusion.
“I mean…,” I sighed, a bit frustrated that we’d changed topics because he still hadn’t really told me how he felt about my confession, “she’s committed to marrying a guy she barely knows, so she wants to make sure her heart is protected, which means figuring out if there’s a possibility that your heart already belongs to someone else.”
“I see,” he nodded.
“Does your heart belong to someone else?”
I spit out the words before I could talk myself out of it and his eyes were clear and wide when he responded. “You mean you?”
“Yeah,” I whispered, my heart rate increasing because this was the moment I’d been waiting for; the one that was going to change our relationship forever. “I mean me.”
“Well, of course,” he replied simply, and my heart skipped a beat, until he continued, “You’re my best friend. A part of my heart will always be yours.”
“But you’re not in love with me,” I stated, wanting everything to be as clear as possible, even if my heart was currently in the process of shattering into a million pieces.
“I don’t know,” he sighed, “I just…I never let myself think about you that way because…”
His voice trailed off and at first, I wasn’t sure what he was trying to say, but then a hint of guilt flashed in his eyes and I put all the pieces together. “Because you knew I could never be queen. So much for class not mattering.”
It was a bit ironic that I spat those words out with so much bitterness, seeing as that had been exactly my reasoning for never telling him how I felt before. But the truth was, that despite my believing that my non royal status would be the reason that nothing would ever happen between me and Tristan, I never for a second believed that he felt that way as well. Tristan was supposed to be better than that.
But maybe it was unfair of me to put him on that kind of pedestal. After all, having a queen who was actually raised to be a queen would make his life a hell of a lot of easier once he was king.
“No, that’s not what I meant,” he cried out, reaching out to touch my arm only momentarily, before pulling his hand back to his knee, flexing it a bit as though I was made of fire and he’d burned himself, but keeping his gaze direct, “You’re amazing…you know I think you’re amazing and you can be whatever you want to be…it’s just…shit, JJ, you can’t just tell me you’re in love with me and that you’ve been in love with me your entire life and expect me to have the perfect response ready.”
“You’re right, I’m sorry,” I nodded, realizing I shouldn’t have expected that this conversation would resemble a romance novel. This was still real life, still the world where I was a commoner and Tristan was a prince and there wasn’t a realistic way for this to work, “I just dumped a lot of information on you.”
Still, despite the tension and confusion and multitude of mixed emotions, he was still my best friend and even if he didn’t feel the same way about me, I didn’t want to lose our friendship. So I took a deep breath and continued to speak, praying there was still a chance for us to salvage the bond we had. “Where do we go from here?”
“I think that maybe, some space would be a good idea,” he said quietly, his eyes begging me not to be upset at the suggestion.
And I wasn’t, because it made perfect sense. I’d had years to figure out how I felt about Tristan, so I couldn’t expect him to do the same for me in just a few minutes; it wouldn’t be fair. Nodding, I planted my palms on the floor and prepared to push myself to my feet. “Alright. I’m gonna go.”
He nodded once, but didn’t say anything, his expression still flooded with a swirl of emotions I couldn’t quite place. Taking that as my cue to leave, I stood up and headed towards the door, pausing before I stepped outside to speak to him over my shoulder. “When you wanna talk, you know where to find me.”
He nodded again, so I took my exit, letting out a shaky breath as I climbed down the ladder and dropped to the ground, shooting one last longing gaze up to the treehouse which had now become the site of yet another life changing experience, praying as I headed back across the lawn, that Tristan wouldn’t take too long to knock on my door.