Between the Lines

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Chapter 16

It was sometime past midnight and I was still awake. To be honest, though, I wasn’t surprised that I couldn’t seem to fall asleep, considering how tense things had been around the palace the past couple days. I was still giving Tristan his space and since my fight with Alisha, I’d convinced one of the queen’s ladies to take my place in the princess’s inner circle.

So my free time was spent either hiding out in my room or riding around aimlessly on my motorcycle when I wasn’t working or finding excuses to be at university. I hated the tension and loneliness and more than anything I wished I was brave enough to just talk to Alisha again, so that maybe I could start rebuilding one of the bridges I’d managed to burn.

But I was too embarrassed. Because Alisha had been nothing but nice to me and I’d gone and accused her of using me to break her engagement with Tristan and now that I thought about it, that didn’t make any sense. It was much to elaborate and devious of a plan to have been put into play by someone as sweet and selfless as Alisha.

Which meant I hadn’t sleeping. And now it was one in the morning on a Monday and I had to be up for class in a few hours, so I was resorting to squeezing my eyes closed and counting sheep in hopes that my body would eventually catch up with the tiredness of my mind.

That didn’t last very long, though, because light tapping at my window sent my eyes shooting open and I sat up straight in bed, squinting towards the window in confusion at the sight of Tristan standing outside. I was absolutely sure I was dreaming, but just to be safe, I pushed back the covers on my bed and padded towards the window, pushing it open and speaking in a loud whisper when I realized it actually was Tristan, hands shoved into the pockets of the zip up hoodie he was wearing over his bare chest, looking much more awake then I felt. “What are you doing here?”

“We need to talk,” he replied vaguely, completely unperturbed by my state of confusion.

“Tris,” I blinked, refraining from rolling my eyes, “it’s one in the morning.”

“I know,” he continued to whisper, despite the fact that he knew my father’s room was too far away for him to actually hear anything, “but this is like, the only time I’m ever really alone. I waited until the night guard was snoring and then slipped out the window.”

That was actually pretty impressive, so despite my exhaustion and the ridiculous hour, I ended up laughing as I replied. “How stealthy of you.”

“I’m pretty proud of myself,” he grinned widely, letting out what sounded like a sigh of relief. “Come on, grab a sweater and let’s go for a walk.”

I didn’t argue, mostly because this wasn’t the first time this had ever happened. Actually, Tristan was kind of in the habit of showing up at my window at all hours of the night, especially when something important was going on. He’d come to my window the night before he was officially given the title of Crown Prince and the night his brothers were born and the night he had his first kiss. So the fact that he was at my window now meant that whatever he wanted to talk about was important.

Not questioning further, I grabbed the closest hoodie and pair of shoes and zipped it up over my chest once I successfully climbed through the window and covered my feet and we began our journey. I didn’t bother asking where we were going because I knew he didn’t have a plan, so I just stayed in step with him as we trekked across the palace’s back lawn.

“So…,” I said once we’d been walking in silence for a few minutes, “you psyched for your trip to Pressia?”

I had rationalized the diplomatic visit as the reason we hadn’t talked in a week, but despite Tristan needing his space, I knew this trip was extremely important for him and the kingdom. Pressia was a crucial ally, because not being landlocked like Astoria meant they provided access to trade routes overseas as well as the majority of our seafood supply. In return, we gave them our biggest exports, grain and lumber, facts I’d learned from waiting outside the king’s office for Tristan on multiple occasions. Apparently my propensity to eavesdrop on conversations that didn’t concern me came in handy from time to time.

“More nervous, honestly,” he admitted with a shrug.

“You’ve been there before, haven’t you?” I remembered how much I hated him being gone. It was the first time we’d been apart since I moved into the palace and it was weird to not see my best friend every day.

“Yeah, when I was nine and had no responsibilities,” he sighed. “Now I’m the crown prince of Astoria. There’s a lot more pressure on me this time.”

That made sense. “Because you need to show them you have what it takes to be king.”

“Exactly,” he nodded. “I’ve been thinking about it a lot, you know; the kind of king I want to be.”

He said that as though he was on the verge of bursting into a dramatic speech, so I kept my response simple because there was definitely something else he wanted to say. “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” he replied quietly, surprising me by changing the subject completely, “Alisha says you guys had some sort of falling out.”

“She told you that?” Maybe that shouldn’t have caught me off guard. After all, Alisha wasn’t really the secretive type. And considering the way we’d left things, maybe she thought the best way to get to me was through Tristan. Because lord knows that she’s aware he’s my Achilles heel.

He lifted his shoulders in a shrug. “Yeah, well, she cares about you and she doesn’t want to lose your friendship.”

“She hardly knows me.” I said that as though I had no attachment to her whatsoever, when in reality, I was heartbroken that things had turned out the way they did. Alisha and I could have ended up being such good friends and now…well, I wasn’t sure how to get back.

“Since when does time have anything to do with it?” he replied, “You and I were best friends about ten minutes after we met.”

Which was truly amazing, if you really thought about it. Because Tristan and I came from entirely different worlds and the fact that two children who had absolutely nothing in common could begin a friendship that would span decades over the course of just a few minutes seemed impossible. Because here we were, years later, and we still meant the world to each other. Or at least, I hoped we did. “Are we still best friends?”

“Of course,” he said without skipping a beat.

I should have felt as though a weight had been lifted from my shoulders, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. “Are you sure? Cause we haven’t spoken since…”

“I know,” he waited a few seconds until after I’d trailed off to respond, “I’ve just…had a lot to think about.”

That was probably fair. I’d be freaked out too if our positions were reversed.

So I stayed silent as I followed him along a moonlit trail which ended at the creek where I’d taught him to skip rocks when he was ten. I remembered it so vividly because it was the first time I’d ever taught Tristan something. Usually he was the one gently instructing me on proper etiquette or horseback riding or Astorian history, but in that moment, I truly felt like his equal.

He sat down on a flat boulder at the edge of the creek bed and I followed suit, breaking the silence with absolutely no context, knowing that he’d piece it together immediately. “It’s okay. I mean, maybe Alisha was right.”

“Right about what?” he asked quietly, resting his forearms on his bent knees and turning his head to face me.

I managed to maintain eye contact, because for some reason, it wasn’t weird to talk about my epic revelation with Tristan. And maybe that was one of the many reasons I was in love with him: because he never made me feel as though my thoughts and questions and emotions were irrelevant. “About me telling you how I felt, regardless of the consequences.”

“What consequences?” he whispered.

Of course he wouldn’t see any downside to me saying what was on my mind. “That our friendship would be ruined.”

“That would never happen.” And of course I should have known that would be his response. “I would never just cut you out of my life.”

“I know that,” I assured him, because the way his eyebrows were furrowed indicated that he was genuinely concerned that I thought that lowly of him. “But that doesn’t mean things will ever be the same.”

“I guess not.”

I didn’t expect him to admit that, but I also couldn’t be upset, because how could everything go back to normal after the confession I’d made? Tristan couldn’t just forget that I told him I was in love with him and neither could I. But I could at least try to move on, hopefully with Tristan still supporting me every step of the way. “So where do we go from here?”

He cleared his throat before answered, his words coming out so soft that I almost didn’t hear them. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Ok,” I nod, watching the way his long fingers slowly intertwine and part in the gap between his knees. “I’m ready.”

I could tell he was staring at me while he spoke, trying to gauge my reaction, despite me doing my hardest not to have one. “I’ve spent the whole week thinking about what you said and how it makes me feel and I’m confused.”

That was a better response than ‘I’m absolutely disgusted’ so I let out a small sigh of relief. “I guess that makes sense.”

“We’ve been friends for so long…”

He trailed off, so I decided to put him out of his misery and say what he was apparently struggling to say because he thought it would hurt my feelings. “It’s okay. You don’t have to explain to me why you don’t have feelings for me.”

Maybe it would have made my heart ache just a little to know that he didn’t see me that way, but I couldn’t really expect him to automatically reciprocate. The heart didn’t work that way. So I prepared myself for the worst and ended up frozen when I heard his reply. “But that’s just it. I do.”

Cautiously and slowly and while not breathing at all, I lifted my gaze to meet his, wondering how I got a word out when I was pretty sure that I was actually dead. “What?”

“I do have feelings for you,” he said easily and with so much conviction, which was unsurprising, as I was pretty sure Tristan had never said anything without passion.

“You do?” I managed to breathe out. “Why didn’t you say that a week ago?”

“I was just trying to make sense of it all,” he admitted. “I think the feelings have always been there, but I never really tried to understand what they meant. Until you told me how you felt and I realized it was about time I figured it out.”

“And what did you figure out?” Maybe I was being selfish, but I wanted him to say it. I wanted him to say those three words that I’d dreamed about hearing for years.

What I got instead wasn’t at all what I expected. “That I’ve spent my entire life doing exactly what everyone wants me to do.”

“Well,” I was scrambling to form a coherent sentence because this entire exchanged felt like a hallucination, “you haven’t really had a choice, have you?”

I wanted him to elaborate more on his admission that he had feelings for me, but I also didn’t want to force it out of him. So if he wanted to go off on a tangent, I’d let him come out with it on his own terms.

“I didn’t think so,” he shrugged, seeming alarmingly calm, considering what he’d just said, “When you’re a kid, you always think that what your parents want for you is actually what’s best for you, but the older I got, the more I started to question if that was true. And then it just hit me, you know? By this time next year, I’m gonna be king.”

“Yeah, that’s huge.” Not my most eloquent response, but I could tell he was gaining momentum and I was determined to see where this all led.

“I know.” The volume of his voice raised with his level of determination. “And once I realized that it won’t be too long until that happened, I started doing some thinking about the kind of king I want to be and I want to be the kind of king who makes decisions for himself and who makes those decisions because he truly thinks they’re right, not because his father tells him to.”

“Well, it sounds like you’ve had a bit of a breakthrough.” To be honest, it was rather beautiful to watch Tristan come to terms with his identity and know who he wanted to be. So much so that I almost forgot what led us to this point in the conversation in the first place. Almost. I wondered if he knew how much I was hanging on to every word he said, hoping that eventually he’d say the ones I wanted to hear the most.

Flashing me a smile, he took a deep breath and continued. “You know, I spent my entire life thinking that my duty to my heart and my duty to my kingdom were entirely separate and that at the end of the day, Astoria would always come first, no matter how I personally felt. And to some extent, I do think that’s true, because I can’t be selfish enough to not consider how my decisions will affect the people of this kingdom. But I also think if I don’t protect my heart, I’ll end up miserable and Astoria will suffer for it.”

“What exactly are you saying?” That was certainly the question of the hour. Because as much as I could listen to Tristan speak for the rest of time, he had been dancing around the topic that I really wanted to talk about: how our relationship would progress now that he had admitted he had feelings for me.

His lips stretched into a slow smile as he spoke. “That as soon as my father wakes up, I’m going to tell him I want to break off my engagement to Alisha.”

It took me an entire minute to realize those words were spoken in reality and not a part of some dream sequence, but even then, I still wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly. “How come?”

“Come on, JJ,” he said quietly, his gaze still so steady and I wondered how he could possibly be this calm. “You know why.”

I blinked, convinced I was gonna wake up at any moment. “I don’t know what to say…”

Pursing his lips, he drew his eyebrows down in a worried furrow. “I thought you’d be happy.”

I thought I would be too. And I should have been. But apparently I was developing a self-sabotaging streak and all I could think about was how ending his engagement to Alisha could screw up the rest of his life. “I just…I don’t want you to end up resenting me.”

Reaching out, he placed his hand over mine and squeezed gently. “I won’t. I think you telling me that you have feelings for me made me realize that this is what I need to do, but I’m not doing it for you. I’m doing it for myself. This is me taking a step towards becoming the king I want to be by standing up to my father and making my own decisions, starting with making it very clear to him that I will decide who I marry.”

That made me feel a little bit better. “And Alisha?”

“Yeah,” he sighed, scrunching up his nose in a wince and retracting his hand, leaving me wondering if the air temperature had suddenly dropped by a few degrees. “I thought a lot about her and how this would affect her and in the end I realized that she’s better off this way. Because if I went through with it and I married her, I’d never be able to love her the way she deserves to be loved.”

“That makes sense.” It was similar to the response Alisha had given me when I’d asked her what she would do if it turned out Tristan returned my feelings. Maybe, by some miracle, everyone would come out of this mess better off.

Tristan still looked worried, rubbing his fingers along the stubble on his jaw nervously as he spoke. “Do you think she’ll understand?”

“I’m sure she’ll appreciate your honesty.” I was positive that was true. Besides, Alisha wanted out of the engagement anyway. Surely this was all turning out exactly like she hoped it would. Tristan breathed a sigh of relief at my response, his posture immediately relaxing and I took the fact that Alisha was no longer a factor to worry about as an opportunity to ask the question I’d been dying to ask. “What about us?”

“You mean, you and me?” He lifted his eyebrows upwards, a hint of a smile playing at his lips and I was starting to wonder if he was enjoying seeing me antsy.

“Yes,” I replied with a firm nod, this time keeping my gaze direct, because there was no way in hell I was parting ways without knowing how this would all play out. “I mean, where does all of this leave us?”

To his credit, he didn’t dance around the subject anymore. “It leaves us with a chance to start over. If that’s alright with you.”

“Start over?” I still wasn’t sure what that meant.

“Yeah. Not that I wanna forget that we’re friends,” he clarified quickly, knowing me well enough to assume that’s where my thought process went, “it’s just, I spent all these years putting you in the ‘just friends’ category in my mind because…well, part of me didn’t want to lose my best friend and the other part of me just thought that you just would never want to go there.”

Was it possible that this entire time that I’d thought that Tristan had never given me a hint that he wanted to be more than friends, he thought I was doing the same thing to him? Because it seemed like everyone in the entire universe expect for Tristan knew how I felt about him, so it was practically a miracle he never figured it out. “Why would you think that?”

“Because it’s not like you’ve ever envied my life.” His eyes flooded with sadness. “If anything, you know better than anyone the consequences of being with someone like me. We’d never have a normal relationship and I know that all you want is normalcy.”

Now I was just lost, because even if I didn’t envy his life, I couldn’t remember a time when I’d ever said that I craved a normal relationship. I’d spent most of my life being in love with a prince, so normal never seemed like an option. “What are you talking about?”

He blinked at me in confusion, as though this were some memory that I was definitely supposed to have, but when I didn’t show signs of an epiphany, he explained. “When we first met, after you told me your name, I asked you what your title was and you said, ‘I don’t have one, I’m just Jules’. And I remember thinking how I wished my life could be that simple, that I could be just Tristan in someone’s eyes, and incredibly enough, that’s exactly what happened. To you, I’ve never been the future king of Astoria. I’ve always been just me and I guess I’m afraid that once you realize how insane my life is, you’re gonna think it’s not worth it.”

My initial reaction was to protest immediately, but I paused when I realized he’d just answered a question I’d had since we met. “Just Jules. That’s why you call me JJ?”

Any sadness in his eyes disappeared and he smiled softly and nodded, his cheeks tinting just slightly darker, and I decided that any fantasy I’d had about what JJ could possibly mean didn’t compare to the reality. Letting out a soft laugh, I shifted so that I was facing him with my legs crossed and reached out to grab his hands and interlace our fingers, thinking that it felt like the most natural act in the world. “Tris, all I want is you. I can deal with everything that comes with it.”

“Are you sure?” he asked, squeezing my hands, his voice still lilting with concern.

To be honest, I hadn’t put much thought into what being in a relationship with a prince would actually be like. Getting the point where we were in a relationship at all was so difficult that the rest of it just seemed in consequential. “Positive.”

A smile stretched his lips and his eyes lightened and his expression slowly flooded with an emotion that made my heart stop beating and I was proud of myself for being able to speak. “What are you thinking?”

Rubbing his thumbs up and down the side of my wrists, he leaned towards me and lowered the volume of his voice, despite the fact that we were entirely alone, making me shiver as he spoke. “I’m thinking that I really want to kiss you.”

My mind went blank. Here we were, on the verge of this pivotal moment, where one kiss could be the factor that decided our futures and changed both our lives forever and I had somehow lost all capacity to move. So I prayed that it would be Tristan to who leaned in and pressed his lips to mine so that the last of my dreams could finally come true, but I was left wanting when he said, “But I can’t. Not until I officially end things with Alisha.”

“Of course,” I breathed out. It made perfect sense that he would want Alisha to suffer as little as possible, because no matter what happened between us, Tristan was still the most considerate person to ever walk the face of the earth.

Grinning, he leaned forward to kiss my cheek as a compromise, squeezing my hands in thanks as he pulled away. “As always, you’re the best.”

“I should get back to bed,” I said, my heart racing as I wondered if I would have been able to handle a kiss on the lips anyway. Releasing his hands from mine, I pushed myself to my feet and stuck my fingers back into the pockets of my hoodie. “I have class in the morning.”

He nodded and stood as well and we began the trek back to the palace, staying silent the whole time because all I could think about was that this was such a strange situation to be in. Because on one hand, every fantasy I’d had about telling Tristan how I felt was now a reality: he felt the same way about me and he wanted to give having a real relationship a shot. On the other hand, because we hadn’t kissed, it didn’t seem official. Not that I blamed him for not going there. I understood his reasoning completely. But not making it official meant that tomorrow, he could decide that he’d made a huge mistake and ask if it was okay if everything just went back to normal.

And that was my biggest fear: getting so close to what I wanted, only to have everything fall apart at the last minute.

“Hey, JJ?” he said once I’d climbed through the window I’d left partially cracked so that I could get back in and turned to face him to say goodnight.

“Mhmm.” I couldn’t help but smile a little now that I knew what those initials meant.

He placed his palms flat on either side of the window as though to keep himself from leaning forward and doing something stupid and spoke slowly and deliberately so that I knew he meant every word. “Tomorrow, I’m gonna talk to my dad and then to Alisha and then when you get back from class, I’m gonna kiss you. Okay?”

I couldn’t remember a single word that I’d ever learned, so I settled for nodding and watching as he pushed himself off the window with a smirk kinking his lips and took a step backwards, not breathing until he disappeared into the darkness, at which point I closed the window and collapsed onto my bed, knowing full well that I wasn’t getting a wink of sleep tonight.

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