"The shock is too great; our minds protect us by only allowing the reality to seep in slowly, over time, as much loss as we can manage in that moment."
I'm not sure how long Will and I stood in the embrace. We would've stayed that way for much longer had a knock not broken us apart. I offered to go see who it was, but Will shook his head and wiped the tears off his face. Clearing his throat, he said in a surprisingly steady voice, "Come in!"
Queen Lillian swept inside, shutting the door behind her. In the dim light provided by the fireplace, I could see her bloodshot eyes, the only evidence to suggest she'd been crying for hours over her husband's death.
Curtsying to her, I said, "I'm so sorry for your loss, Your Majesty. I'll leave you two be. Will, I'll be at the bay window when you're ready for me to come back."
"Thank you for taking care of Will," Queen Lillian said, pulling me into a brief, tight hug. "Thank you so, so much."
"I'm glad I was here to do so."
We broke apart, and I left the room to give them some much-needed privacy. I meandered to the end of the hallway, taking residence in the bay window. It was one of many scattered around Windsor Palace, but I learned quickly it was the comfiest. I stared out the window at the stormy sky, fitting weather for the horror we'd all witnessed.
Although I didn't tell Will this, I agreed with him when he said his dad was saying goodbye earlier. It was the only explanation for the sudden change in heart towards everyone. King George was most likely trying to make amends before he died. But my question was, why? Why did he kill himself? He had the best possible care and a family who still needed him. Did the Alzheimer's get to him?
"Anna?" Mia's voice broke me out of my thoughts. She approached me with James, an overnight bag in tow and another, smaller, unfamiliar package. I got up and hugged her tightly, even more so than usual. Mia returned it, sensing the gravity of the situation.
"James told me what happened," Mia said softly. "I can't believe it."
"Me neither," I replied, pulling away. "It was awful…"
"No one knows why?"
"Not so far. I don't know how they're going to tell the public, though. They're probably going to say it had something to do with his Alzheimer's…" I nodded at the small package James held. "What's that?"
"Apple pie from Donaldson's. It was Mia's idea," James said.
Mia blushed. "I remember you saying Will loved their apple pie, so I stopped and got one from Donaldson's on our way here. I didn't tell them why I was getting it, but I told them it was for a friend who lost someone dear to them."
"He'll love it," I promised. "That was really sweet of you."
"Tell him it's from all of us. I don't know how he copes with stuff, but I thought I'd at least try to give him something that helped me."
"Do you want to give it to Will yourself?"
"Oh, no, I don't want to-"
"What's going on?" Will queried, shuffling over to his. He had his hands in his pockets again, and his eyes were red and puffy. The reality had finally settled in with Will over what happened, and while he wasn't crying at the moment, I knew another wave would come soon, one of many.
"Oh, uh, here," Mia said, handing the pie to Will. "I picked it up on my way here from Donaldson's. I remember Annalise saying how much you liked it, and food was always my comfort after our parents died, so I thought you might like to have some when you're up to it."
Although small, Will's smile was genuine. "Thank you, Mia. I really appreciate this."
Mia hesitated before throwing her arms around his neck. "I'm so, so sorry, Will!"
He gripped my sister tightly, and I could see tears welling in his eyes. He pulled away and sniffled. "Why do you have an overnight bag?"
"I thought I might be staying the night…" I confessed, the words sounding horribly stupid as they came out of my mouth. What if Will didn't want me to stay? What if he wanted to be left the hell alone? "But if you don't want me to, I understand."
"I- no, I do. I just don't want to burden you with anything."
"Then, yes, please." Will cleared his throat and turned to Mia and James. "Are you two staying as well?"
"No," Mia said. "I have a group I'm meeting for a project early in the morning, and James has work at six."
Will glanced at the time. "It's already midnight. Both of you get home."
"You going to be okay?" James asked.
"Call us if you need anything. Both of you."
Will and I nodded, shared some more hugs, which seemed to be the norm for the night, and then headed off to his room. I set my overnight bag down in a corner and dug through it, searching for some pajamas and my toothbrush. Mia somehow managed to pack a ton of things in here, a feat considering how small the bag itself was. Then I remembered how many packing videos she used to watch in the hospital, preparing herself for the day she'd be allowed to travel again to visit all the places she wanted to.
I slipped into Will's bathroom, switched into my pajamas, and brushed my teeth before returning to his room. Will remained in the same spot I left him in, holding the apple pie, but my appearance seemed to jar him back to his senses.
"You're welcome to use my shower," Will offered, setting the pie down on his desk. "Or if you're not comfortable doing that, I can arrange to have a room-"
"Will," I interrupted, "what are you doing?"
He frowned. "I'm… being the host I should be?"
"It's what I'm supposed to do. I'm a royal, I can't neglect my duties when someone-"
"It's just me. You don't need to act like anyone other than yourself. You don't need to follow royal protocol when it comes to me. I don't care about being comfortable or having a room. All I care about is making sure you're okay."
Will clenched his jaw, lightly, almost imperceptibly, bouncing his fist on his thigh. For a few moments, he didn't speak. I wasn't sure if he was thinking, or if he simply had nothing to say.
"Dad wrote a letter," Will said hoarsely. "Dad said he wanted to die while he still remembered who he was."
I cautiously walked up to him, sensing hidden anger.
"I don't understand what made him decide this," he said, huffing. "I don't understand why he thought he could leave mom and me when we still need him. For God's sake, I've only just now gotten a basic handle on ruling as a King would, but I still went to him for so many questions. I'm not ready to lead without his guidance! I'm not ready to be King of Verona yet! It's not fair! He shouldn't have left us!"
Will sank onto his bed and buried his hands in his hair, elbows braced on his knees. I sat next to him, wrapping my arms around his shoulders as he fell into his second wave of tears.
"Did he not love mom and me enough to stay? Did he think we'd be okay without him?" Will croaked out, staring ahead at the flickering flames in his fireplace.
"I don't know. I wish I did for your sake, though." I kept my voice as soft and soothing as possible. I had my own ideas based on the King's note but understood that no matter how much anyone analyzed it or guessed the other reasons behind it, it wouldn't bring King George back.
Will took my hand in his and gripped it like I was the only thing tethering him to reality. He didn't say anything else, his mind wandering to what I feared were dark places. Will leaned back against his pillows, never letting go of my hand. I scooted back next to him, turning on my side so I could face him.
"Tell me stories about him," I said. "Tell me some of your favorite memories."
Will glanced down at me, a ghost of a smile on his lips. Sinking down next to me, he began, "When I was five, he taught me how to ride a horse for the first time. I'd been begging him for years, but horses always kind of scared my dad after he was nearly paralyzed in a riding accident. It was my persistence and constant nagging that finally convinced him to get on one again. Starting that day, we'd go to the stables every weekend and ride as much as we could."
"What was your horse's name?"
"Gia. A full-blooded Thoroughbred. She could run like the wind, but she had the sweetest temperament. Dad had Gabriel. He was a rescued barrel-racing Quarterhorse. Dad was the only one who Gabriel let ride him. He bit or kicked anyone else who tried."
I chuckled. "Sounds like a character. What other memories do you have?"
"When I was eight, the German ambassador came to visit. They were vegan, and as a sign of respect here in Verona, it's common courtesy for the Royal Family to eat whatever the guest does. It doesn't have to be the same dish, but it has to be made on the same principles. You know all this, so you can also figure out that we all had to eat a vegan dish too. It wasn't bad by any means. The chef prepared a wonderful menu, but at midnight, I found myself craving something that was absolutely against vegan rules."
"What was it?"
"A big, fat, juicy burger. So, I decided to creep down to the kitchen. Unfortunately, I only made it halfway there before my dad discovered me. I thought I was going to get my ass taken straight back to bed, but instead, he joined me. We went downstairs, had the chef prepare three burgers- two for us and one for him. The three of us pigged out on that and on ice cream afterward. With a full stomach, I nearly fell asleep at the table. Dad carried me back to bed, and we never spoke a word about that night to anyone. It was our little secret." The corner of Will's lip quirked upward. "Well, until now."
"Your secret is safe with me. He sounds like he was a good dad when you were younger," I said.
"He was. When it was just the two of us, when we weren't in public or with guests, he was more… relaxed, I guess. He acted more like a dad instead of a King. It was closer to when I discovered his diagnosis when it all went to shit." Will's thumb glided against the back of my hand as he thought about things I could only guess at. "Did you know he used to compete in the Olympics as a teenager? In horse-riding events?"
"Vaguely. Tell me more about it, though."
And Will did.
For the next two hours, he reminisced about his dad's past, the good times, the funny times, and the meaningful times. Will talked himself to sleep. I was soon to follow, lulled into a sense of peace and calm by his voice and the dancing firelight.