Story note: Fairytale AU
Word count: 12,000+
Summary: John wasn’t very good at following the text.
A/N: This started out as a bastardized version of Cinderella, but Cinderella is totally boring, people, so it went wildly askew. Title is from ‘A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes,’ because I’m cheesy like that. Massive thanks to devildoll for the awesomely rigorous edits and for not minding beta’ing this time after time. Sadly, there are no dragons.
Whatever You Wish For
Once, there was a boy.
A boy with dark, messy hair and pretty hazel eyes, and a charming, lazy smile that he’d inherited from his father – although his father had died well before he was even born, and his stepfather had never appreciated the many fine attributes handed down to him through Sheppard genes.
John lived in the kingdom of Atlantis, in a modest house with his mother - and his stepfather, after she’d remarried when he was six, and his two snotty stepbrothers, too, and even though they tried their very best to make his life a living misery, they couldn’t quite succeed.
They couldn’t succeed, because his mother openly adored him, would smooth his determined cowlick with her soft, warm palm and would press fond kisses onto his forehead - and when she passed on, years later, it was the absolute worst day of John’s young life.
He didn’t let it show, of course, since he was already twelve and nearly a man and his stepfather had always taken every opportunity to exploit any perceived weaknesses. Instead, he bucked up under the weight of his grief and smiled even slower, practicing a fluid, insolent slouch, and let only his eyes say how much he loathed Acastus Kolya and his demon spawn - Ladon and Cowen, who were mean-spirited and spiteful and spoiled, and all of John’s hate was returned in spades, only they were much more vocal about it.
Their modest house was on the outskirts of the village shadowed by the royal Atlantean palace, and in the whole village, John only had one true friend.
Oh, there were other boys he played with, like Aiden and Evan and Davy and Carson, and he was certainly well-liked, but he wasn’t very good at letting people get close. Only Rodney, his best friend, had managed to bluster his way past all John’s casual walls.
Rodney had shown up nearly a month after John’s mother had been buried – in the little plot behind their house, next to his father, and John was a least grateful to Kolya for that – and he sometimes talked faster than John could follow, hands sharp with movements, energy practically humming off his pale skin. He’d seemed baffled, mainly, by John’s silent resentment, and set about turning John’s entire world upside-down.
They were of like age, and he had a mass of loose golden-brown curls and the bluest eyes John had ever seen, and he made messes everywhere. He’d trash their kitchen, intent on making sandwiches or soup or cookies, and John suffered through more than one unexplainable explosion in various parts of the long expanse of wooded yard, and it took John, embarrassingly enough, over a year of being punished for things he didn’t do – petty and demeaning punishments that never stung very much, since there was only one person left in John’s life who could actually hurt him emotionally, and Kolya was too much of a coward to dole out anything physical - to realize that no one else could actually see Rodney. He thought he was a little old to have an imaginary friend.
“Are you kidding me? I’m not imaginary,” Rodney sniped, rolling his eyes, “I’m... Canadian.”
He looked shifty, though, and John asked warily, “What does that mean?”
Rodney tilted his head up haughtily. “It means I’m not from here. I’m from, you know,” he hedged a bit, “Canada.”
“Canada,” John echoed slowly.
“Yes, right, Canada,” Rodney nodded, but John was pretty sure he was lying. He wasn’t very good at it.
But he shrugged – where the heck was Canada, anyway? – and at some point he got tired of being blamed for Rodney’s faults, and started making his own trouble.
Rodney always seemed to be on hand to bail John out of scrapes – albeit grudgingly, and with constant complaint – and he showed up whenever John needed him, and sometimes whenever John wanted desperately to be alone, and. Well, generally speaking, he was kind of a pain in the ass.
Secretly, though, John thought he’d be lost without him.
At thirteen, Rodney showed John how to set a shepherd’s pie to explode in Cowen’s face, then taught him how to pick locks and wind back all the timepieces and get the cranky old rooster to crow at three a.m.
At fourteen, Rodney taught John how to do everything better.
When John was fifteen, Cowen, bigger and meaner and older, pushed him into the river that cut a jagged swath through the middle of the valley, wide and deep and fast where it edged the village, and John gulped so much water he knew he’d drown. His vision went hazy and his lungs flooded and he tumbled under, pulled down by the current.
He didn’t drown, though.
He woke up with Rodney’s hand wrapped around his wrist, another grasping a fistful of his sopping shirt, all relieved blue eyes and wet, straggling curls and a long-winded rant that John only caught snippets of while he breathed in dry air, feeling his chest expand and contract all the way down to his toes.
He grinned, then, a choked laugh at his lips, and Rodney broke off after “—complete moron,” and swallowed and blinked and then looked away.
When John was fifteen, Rodney disappeared.
Just... turned and left.
John tried to tell himself he didn’t care, that he could have fun with Evan and Aiden and Davy and Carson, and that Rodney hadn’t even been real, anyway, not in any true sense. And he didn’t cry, and he didn’t miss him.
It took nearly three months for John to finally realize Rodney wasn’t coming back.
John never felt he was meant for greater things.
He was content, for the most part, taking the tongue lashings from Kolya in stride – the man had long since stopped trying to foist menial labor on him, given that hardly anything ruffled John’s easy demeanor, and more often than not John would make sure something went wrong. He was living virtually as a servant in his own house, yes, but he spent most of the day out in the sprawling fields of Atlantis, the castle with its spires and angles of glass and metal shining in the distance, the sun warm on his face.
One morning he heard pounding hooves approaching, and John tilted his head towards the woods, scanning the tree line. It wouldn’t be Carson or Davy, since they didn’t have horses, and Aiden and Evan were off at the castle, training for the royal guard.
Buttercup, his mare, munched contentedly on the long-stemmed sweet grass that grew in shady clumps at the base of an old oak, pretending to ignore him. She was technically Ladon’s, but the high-strung chestnut refused to let the other boy near her, and John got a thrill out of galloping her across the long length of road that ran through the village, burying his face close to her neck, urging with soft words and firm heels for her to go faster, stretch her legs out farther, until he imagined they were blurs of red dust against the trees.
A massive gray horse broke out of the woods, head high in an easy, smug trot.
The person perched on its back was small in comparison, thin, with brown trousers and a loose shirt and a brown cap, and when the animal drew closer – even Buttercup jerked her head up, nose tasting the air – John could see that the person was most definitely female. Strands of long, dark hair slipped down her neck and her cheeks were flushed and she smiled at John, breathless, as she pulled to a stop.
“Hello,” she said. Her fingers were light on the reins, nails cut short, skin pale against the leather pommel. Her lips were red, small mouth curling up, and her eyes were dark and friendly and confident.
John thought she was beautiful.
Elizabeth actually wasn’t very small.
She was young, though, body boyish in peasant linens, and she was quick to follow John, to climb trees and race over fields, and John showed her how to hide behind the low garden wall, slinging balls of mud at Cowen and Ladon, how to make a mess of the kitchens and slip salt into the wine, and, once, how to get the cranky old rooster to crow at three a.m.
At times, though, when the afternoon sun cut sharp and white across her face, John could see the distance between them, could see the natural arrogance in the tilt of her head, the highborn grace she seemed desperate to hide.
The dirt under her nails, smudging her forehead, chin, only served to highlight the fact she was a queen.
John adored Elizabeth. He respected her, trusted her, which caught him kind of by surprise, since he could count on his one hand the number of times she hadn’t lied to him.
He even loved her, in his own way, and he was fairly sure she loved him, too. In her own way.
She loved the land more than anything, though, loved Atlantis, even in her lies. The castle, fixed and distant, a surreal, untouchable backdrop to John’s childhood, drew her eyes like a beacon. Her constant. Her home.
One day, when he was eighteen and restless with something he couldn’t quite define – Buttercup could feel it, too, stamping the ground heavily, even winded from a run - Elizabeth disappeared.
Just... turned and left. Like Rodney.
John knew where he could find her, though, and that wasn’t like Rodney at all.
The spring of his eighteenth year passed into the summer of his nineteenth, and Davy grew sunflowers in the back garden. Huge sunflowers, taller than John, petals yellow-orange and centers so dark a brown they seemed black. Their heads bowed under the moonlight, and their thick stems flexed as they slowly followed the path of the sun during the day.
Just a year younger, Evan lurked around the house more for Lindsay, the cook’s daughter, than for John or Davy. His hair was shorn and his buttons were shiny, but he still smiled more than anyone John ever knew. Save Aiden, maybe.
Although Aiden had absolutely no tact and a bit of a temper, and he and Carson spent more time pissed off at each other than being friends. Which meant Carson was hiding in the sunflowers with Davy and Davy’s little cousin, Katie, when Evan and Aiden came around, bearing an invitation from the royal palace and the rumor attached.
The rumor, John had already heard, spreading fast throughout the village: a masked ball at the castle with the entire kingdom invited, and the princess would choose her consort from the masses.
John tended to think most of it was bull.
Cowen and Ladon were nearly giddy with excitement, though - Ladon had grinned his small, self-satisfied grin and Cowen had smirked and ordered John to get his best suit ready; until he realized John would likely just toss it into the kitchen hearth and laugh.
Kolya had benevolently told John he could go as well. If he could find something suitable to wear.
John wasn’t so sure he wanted to go, anyway, even if he had a decent outfit, and sort of grimaced at Aiden when the guard-in-training handed him a personalized invitation, the princess’ own seal pressed into the blue-green wax. “I doubt I’m going to make it,” he said, half-apologetically.
Aiden stared at John, opening and closing his mouth dumbly, before blurting out, “But. It’s the biggest party of the year. You,” he floundered, “you can’t not go!”
John lounged back on the warm grass, breathing in the broken, earthy scent, his skin itching, feeling too tight and too hot, and yeah. He really didn’t want to go. “It’s cool.” He forced a grin. “I don’t really like crowds.”
Evan, decked out in Atlantis blue, sword looped at his belt with silver braids, kicked at his feet. “Man, seriously?”
“The castle’s amazing, Shep,” Aiden pointed out, face eager and animated, body nearly vibrating with excitement. “And Princess Elizabeth.” He dangled the name expectantly, and Evan, standing just behind him, pulled a face and rolled his eyes in good-natured fun.
John just shrugged, though, and ran his fingers over the heavy cream envelope, turning it over in his hands. And when he broke the seal, two words were scrawled underneath the front flap: please come.
The room at the bottom of the back staircase, just off to the right, was small. Small and spare with a narrow bed and a narrower closet, and a single high window that never managed to catch morning or afternoon sun.
In the very back of the narrow closet, John kept his mother’s books and hair ribbons in an old leather trunk, and in the bottom of the trunk, under a pair of petite crystal slippers, was the fine black suit his father wore the day he married her.
Holding his breath, John carefully pulled out the jacket, fabric soft against the slide of his fingers, the spun silk shirt, the trousers and leather shoes. It wasn’t anything fancy, and he knew he’d be far less fashionable than everyone else, ridiculously underdressed, but he just couldn’t ignore a direct plea, and there was very little John wouldn’t do for the princess.
Ladon’s brown tabby, a huge furry tomcat with a flat face and three-fourths of his tail missing – hilariously named Mr. Fluffy – stared down at him from the top closet shelf, amber eyes glowing green in the half-light.
“Hey, big guy,” John said, straightening up. “Paws off, all right?” He draped the suit carefully across his bed, thumb smoothing wrinkles and wondering how he could wheedle Lindsay into ironing it for him.
Mr. Fluffy jumped down, sleek and silent for his size, and padded over, blinking solemnly. He had a throaty, short meow that almost sounded like a grunt, and John sighed, hands on his hips.
“Yeah, not great,” he agreed, “but it’ll have to do.”
On the appointed afternoon, John leaned a tall, tarnished mirror against his open closet door and donned his father’s suit, watching piece by piece, the fine cloth a subtle armor.
“Where do you think you’re going in that, Sheppard?”
John caught Cowen’s glare in the mirror. He had on ridiculously tight pants. Ladon was just behind him, hair teased high and curling over his ears like a helmet.
“The ball,” John answered blandly, lips twitching, trying very hard not to laugh. Laughing would be bad.
Cowen narrowed his eyes. “Father only said you could go if you found something proper to wear.”
“They were all out of pastels,” John deadpanned, because, seriously, lilac was not Cowen’s color. And was Ladon wearing rouge?
John tugged on his sleeves, eyes wandering over his reflection. It was a little too old-fashioned, coattails down past his thighs, shirt collar high and stiff, but it wasn’t bad. Or embarrassing. He flashed a glance at his stepbrothers, still hovering in the doorway, looking constipated.
And then Cowen got a glint in his eye. The glint that usually meant John was getting thrown in the river.
“Ladon, get Lindsay’s scissors,” he tossed over his shoulder, then grinned sharply at John. “It just needs a few alterations, Sheppard, and it’ll be perfect.”
John Sheppard’s story, his happily-ever-after, had been written well before he was born. It was filled with love and rebellion and drama and greatness. It was filled with anger and passion and glory and, yes, more love.
Rodney found, though, that John wasn’t very good at following the text.
“I thought I taught you how to open a simple lock and chain,” Rodney groused, arms crossed, glaring down at John who was slumped pitifully in the corner of the cellar, and Rodney had no time to buoy the boy’s spirits.
John’s head snapped up. “Rodney? How...?” His gaze roved Rodney’s face, body, eyes flashing confusion and delight, something desperate before leaching dull again and dropping to the side. He scrubbed his mouth with the flat of his hand, then asked thickly, “Why are you here?”
“I.” Rodney paused, because what he wanted to say - that he’d never left, that he’d never leave him, not really – wasn’t part of the rules, and wouldn’t help anyway. “I’m here to get you to the ball,” he said instead, his words gruff and pinched.
“Well, that’s great,” John drawled sardonically. “I don’t want to go.”
John snorted, shifted so his arms were dangling over his upraised knees. “Yeah.”
“No,” Rodney clarified, “too bad for you.” He stepped forward, curling his hand around John’s arm, urging him to his feet. “Get up, get up, are you sitting in dirt? Were you raised in a barn? Your mother—”
“Don’t,” John bit out, twisting his arm away. “Just... don’t.”
Rodney let out a deep breath, ignoring the hollow ache in his chest. “You’re going.”
“Am not,” John countered petulantly, and Rodney did a little dance inside, because John being petulant was one step away from John giving in. And then he turned sad, sad, so very sad hazel eyes on Rodney and asked again, “Why are you here?” and then, softer, “Why did you leave?”
Flailing a hand, Rodney said, “I told you, I’m getting you to the ball, and why I left doesn’t matter, it’s never mattered,” and there was a rule about lying – highly frowned upon - but there wasn’t one that said he had to tell the truth.
John shifted on his feet awkwardly.
Neither of them were very good with expressing their feelings. Rodney, because he’d never really had to before, and John because he’d pretty much been born emotionally stunted. Rodney stared at him, into his eyes, willing John to understand and to let it go and to trust him.
“Three years,” John said, so low Rodney almost missed it.
He bit his lip. “I’m sorry,” he offered, because he really was, even though he hadn’t had much of a choice at the time.
And then John tore his gaze away and cleared his throat and when he looked back at Rodney, his smile almost reached his eyes.
It was enough. And probably all Rodney deserved. “Okay,” Rodney said, then louder, “Okay,” and rocked back on his heels.
John was in tattered black, a bruise cresting his cheek, and Rodney had to force himself not to palm it, not to ease the hurt with a flick of his thumb, because he knew some things just couldn’t be fixed with magic.
It wasn’t forgiveness. But then, John didn’t really understand. Probably wouldn’t forgive him, even if he did. Although that wasn’t being very fair to John, Rodney conceded to himself, and if he could do this, could set things right, maybe everything would work out the way they were supposed to.
“So. The ball,” John started, staring down at his shoes, then stopped and cocked his head. He gazed up at Rodney under lowered lashes - didn’t he know how that looked? - and asked, “How did you know I was locked in the cellar, anyway?”
Rodney flushed and ducked and rubbed the back of his neck and muttered, “Actually, I’m uh. Well, you see, I get this tickle in the back of my, um, throat when you’re, you know, or I sneeze and. I’m your fairy godfather.”
John froze. “You’re joking.”
“No,” he said. “No, I’m not, I’m your fairy godfather and I don’t want to talk about it. Now, are you ready?”
“No,” John bit out, jaw tight, and Rodney thought, great. Great, he was using his disappointingly hurt eyes, dark and accusatory.
“Yes,” he countered, and he could force him if he needed to. He could stuff him into a carriage and lock it and make him go.
“I don’t want to go.”
“Of course you don’t,” Rodney groused, slamming a hand against the cellar door, dust wafting up like fine glitter. It swung open with barely a protesting creak. “Of course you can’t see the potential of this. Of course you don’t care, and would let,” he waved an impatient hand, “Ladon or, god forbid, Cowen get all the prestige, hell, the freaking pleasure of Princess Elizabeth, and seriously? Seriously, you don’t even want to try? On the off possibility that you could rule an entire kingdom—”
“Consorts don’t really rule, do they?”
“Are you mentally imbalanced? Did your mother drop you on your head—”
“Hey!” John sputtered, indignant, and Rodney immediately capitulated with a contrite, “Right, low blow, sorry, but still. This is what’s called a defining moment, John—”
“Jesus, fine.” He shoved a hand through his hair, blatantly exasperated. “I’ll go, all right?”
“All right,” Rodney huffed, and they stood there not looking at each other and shuffling their feet and, not for the first time, Rodney wondered why the hell the Guild hadn’t pulled him off John’s case years ago.
“Now what?” John asked finally.
Rodney sighed. “Well, you can’t go looking like that,” he said, and with a practiced flick, he palmed his magic wand.
“Is that. Is that sparkly?” John blurted out, and all of a sudden it was like old times. It was Rodney surprising John, and John acting half-impressed and half damn amused at his expense.
Rodney tipped his nose up, sniffed. “It’s regulation.”
John hmmm’d and eyed Rodney speculatively, craning his neck to see his back. “Do you have wings?”
“Maybe,” Rodney hedged. And maybe he’d never let John see them, because they were gossamer and shimmery and embarrassing as hell.
John’s stomach growled. He covered his teeth with his lips and pressed them together briefly, then quirked his eyebrows and asked, “Can you conjure me a sandwich?”
Rodney rolled his eyes. “I could, but why don’t we stick with solving the problem at hand, eh?”
“But I haven’t had dinner,” John pouted, and Christ.
Rodney couldn’t decide if he was stuck in the middle of a nightmare or a dream.
There were approximately two-hundred and fifty-seven rules Rodney was supposed to follow, according to the Guild, and most of them were stupid.
Rule number one hundred and seventy-five - make sure your appearance is always neat and fit, and that your wings shine at maximum potential! – was an asinine waste of valuable time, for instance.
Rule number four, on the other hand – never fall in love with your charge – was just good common sense.
There had been a large part of John that’d been relieved at being unequivocally banned from attending the ball, at being locked in the cellar after throwing a monumental fit – his father’s clothes were ruined and that hurt – because he seriously hadn’t been looking forward to the crowds of fawning subjects and the dancing and the inane chatter.
Then Rodney had suddenly appeared, standing above him with his arms crossed over his chest, chin tilted up, lopsided mouth pulled into a scowl, and John thought briefly that he was going completely insane. But while all the facts pointed to Rodney being a product of his hideously pathetic childhood - something he’d created out of thin air and the power of his mind; born of loneliness and wishful thinking – he’d looked so very real. He’d evolved from a slightly pudgy teenager to a spare, lanky young man, hair curling over his eyes, hands wide, breadth of his shoulders hinting at something solid.
He’d even felt real. His hand had been warm around John’s arm, pulling him to his feet. And he smelled like apple pie and cinnamon and something inside of John cracked open, burned under his skin. It was like anger and pain, but it wasn’t. Not really.
In the kitchen, Rodney grumbled to himself, expression tight and thoughtful, and he stared intently at Mr. Fluffy while John ate a turkey sandwich.
Mr. Fluffy stared back.
It was a little weird, actually.
Then Rodney snapped, “Oh, fine,” and drew out his wand again.
“Are you talking to Mr. Fluffy?” John asked, head cocked.
“I’m going to pretend you didn’t just call him Mr. Fluffy,” Rodney said scathingly. He circled his wand in the air, little sparkles chasing the tip.
“Hey, I didn’t name him,” John protested, and Rodney waved a dismissive hand, said, “Well, either way, he seems to like you,” and then tapped his wand on Mr. Fluffy’s head.
John was a little fuzzy on the details of what happened next, but when the shimmering smoke cleared, there was a large, very tall, well-muscled man standing where Mr. Fluffy used to be. He had dreadlocks and was wearing an awful lot of leather and he grunted, sort of in the back of his throat, a cut off Mr. Fluffy meow.
John’s eyes went wide. “Whoa.”
Mr. Fluffy was just the beginning, it seemed, and in the backyard, the face of a bent sunflower, petals elongating and curving inward and growing to the size of a phaeton, solidified into a carriage, Rodney’s magic whirling in chaotic glittering stars.
Buttercup, long nose hanging over the stable’s half-door, watching curiously as Rodney raised his arms like a symphonic conductor, got hit between the eyes with a passing flutter, and suddenly she was much, much smaller and finer and human.
And then two fat, innocent toads spun into sleek, matched black stallions, strapped to the front of the sunflower carriage, and Buttercup approached with her same smooth gait, greeting Mr. Fluffy fondly with a touch of her forehead to his, and everyone turned to look at John.
“What?” he asked, fighting the urge to back warily away.
Rodney just hefted his wand and smiled.
The collar was too tight and his feet felt pinched and his face itched under the half-mask and he grumbled as much to Rodney.
Rodney pushed him into the carriage with Mr. Fluffy – John really had to think of another name for him, like Kyle or George or Norman – and said, sounding slightly affronted and mostly harassed, “It’s perfect. I don’t make mistakes.”
“But I can’t dance,” John complained, hands curling over the edges of the door.
“Just stand there and bob your head and smile, for god’s sake, and they’ll fall all over you,” Rodney snapped, pressing John back with the flat of his hand against his chest.
John just held on tighter, leaning forward and growling in Rodney’s face, “Why’s this so damn important, anyway?”
Rodney stared up at him, blue eyes clouding and then blinking clear. “Because.”
“Because why?” John persisted mulishly.
Tight-lipped and flushed and blatantly unhappy, Rodney replied, “Because this is the way it’s written.”
In human years, Rodney was three-hundred and fifty-four.
Fairies counted by lifetimes, though – five, including the little girl who’d died at twelve - and John’s was the only one that ever truly mattered.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Rodney told the woman on the bench beside him, her nimble fingers lightly clutching the reins. John had called her Buttercup, which was as much of a misnomer as Mr. Fluffy, really. She was petite and dark-eyed and elegant, and she arched a telling brow towards him, a half-smile on her lips.
“Do you?” she queried.
“Yes, and you’re completely wrong,” he insisted, jabbing a finger at her. “More wrong than anyone in the entire history of being wrong.”
Inclining her head, she said, “Perhaps,” amusement light in her tone.
Rodney slumped back, body jostling loosely with the motion of the carriage over the path to the castle. “I’m not in love with him,” he grumbled, staring down at his pale hands. It was mostly the truth.
The only things Rodney disliked more than old people were babies.
Old people talked about their teeth and hips and bowels and moved slower than spreading glue, and being in their company was pure torture. Babies wailed and stank and couldn’t talk - which was a double-edged sword, really, since one of Rodney’s favorite pastimes was talking, conversing, but everyone in general was much, much stupider than Rodney himself, and their attempts at keeping up with him were often painful and always annoying.
He was okay with kids, since normally they were off exploring, causing trouble, and he mainly just collared them, kept an eye and ear out from far, far away.
John, though. Rodney had been an avid John-watcher from the moment he’d been born.
He’d been an exuberant baby, with a perpetual smile that might’ve been happiness, but could’ve just as easily been gas. Completely bald ‘til he was two, pointy ears sticking out oddly, John knew exactly how to use his ready grin and pretty eyes to his advantage. For years, John wielded the sort of edge-of-flirtatious behavior that normally disgusted him, but Rodney couldn’t help but be charmed beyond all possible reason.
And then his mother had died, and John had lost the light in his eyes that’d made him John, and that wasn’t how it was supposed to go. He was supposed to rebel, fight back, stand out. The utter complacency made Rodney physically ache. So he meddled.
For John’s own good, of course, but he wasn’t going to lie and say he hadn’t enjoyed the explosions and the messes and the general childish mayhem.
He’d enjoyed it a little too much, in fact. So much that he’d started to lose himself, forget his roots, and on the day he’d actually jumped into the icy river, disregarding his own well-being, struggling with John’s limp body towards the embankment, he knew he’d gone too far. Magic. He was magic, and he was five lifetimes old, and he had to stop pretending he was normal, and that John could stay with him forever.
Rodney wasn’t in love with him, no, but it was probably a near thing.
The forest between the village and the palace was dark, even though the sun hadn’t fully set. The lush summer canopy blocked the sky, trees arching over the well-worn path, and Rodney was as silent as Buttercup when the leaves broke ahead of them, the subtle purples and blues and brighter pinks reflecting off towering glass spires.
John had never traveled through the forest before, and the castle was much bigger than he ever could have imagined, dwarfing the massive oaks, stars mingling with the sharp towers as the sky steadily darkened. It was impressive, imposing, as he jumped down from the carriage. The steps lit up under his feet, though, a cold blue, and that was pretty cool.
Just outside the massive doors, Rodney caught his arm. He was flanked by Buttercup and Mr. Fluffy, and he looked exactly how he had when he’d disappeared, expression tight and serious, eyes wary.
John’s heart tripped and he twisted his wrist to grip Rodney’s, palm to the back of his hand. “You’re not leaving, are you?” he demanded in a rush.
“No,” Rodney shook his head, “no, I. I’ll be here. Watching. Just.” He breathed out heavily, and then there was a crooked smile on his face, almost wry. “You’ve got until midnight, all right? Everything will be perfect ‘til midnight.”
John didn’t remember letting him go, but Rodney was gone between one blink and the next, leaving Mr. Fluffy looming protectively beside him and Buttercup standing serenely by the sunflower carriage, one hand resting on one of the blacks’ flanks.
“Come on, Sheppard,” Mr. Fluffy said gruffly, pushing the door in and ushering him through, warm hand on the center of his back.
More steps led up to the main ballroom. The railing, weirdly ornate shapes carved into its metal skin, glowed brighter as he brushed against it, then brighter still when his fingers curled around it, and he stopped mid-step, fascinated.
At a twittering laugh, he glanced up, catching the eyes of girl who looked suspiciously like Davy’s cousin Katie, a pink mask held up over her face. She wiggled her fingers in an approximation of a wave, and he guessed his costume hid his identity about as well as Katie’s hid hers. He nodded at her, noting a young man at her elbow, and then ambled along the edge of the throng, conscious of Mr. Fluffy’s hulking form following close behind.
It wasn’t really John’s scene. The music was light and frothy, formal four-step, and he settled against the wall halfway into the room, hands stuffed in his pockets.
He spotted Carson, an uncomfortable grimace on his mouth, stiffly clasping an enthusiastic blonde as she waltzed him around the dance floor. Davy was standing by the buffet, fingers clutching a full goblet, mixed company seemingly hanging onto his every word. Which was a little strange, given that Davy mainly talked about his gardens, and John thought plants and flowers were kind of dull.
Elizabeth was up on a dais, seated beside her parents, her entire face frozen in polite boredom. She looked pretty; he’d never seen her in a dress before. And hair ribbons. And jeweled barrettes, bands of gold roped around her throat, fingers heavy with gems.
As if sensing his scrutiny, she jerked her head up, scanning the crowd. When she found him, a smile spread across her mouth, eyes lighting up.
He moved closer, because it was Elizabeth, and she’d asked him to come. He had to at least say hi, right?
She rose to her feet, skirts drawn over one arm as she hurried down the steps towards him. “You came,” she said.
“You asked,” he replied, shrugging. Hundreds of pairs of eyes were on them, and he belated realized he should’ve greeted her properly, bowing over her hand, but she waved off formalities and wrapped her arms around him in a hug.
Gasps and murmurs spread through the crowd, and he held himself tense against her, slightly bewildered by the overt affection. They hadn’t done that before. John really wasn’t big on touching, either. Awkwardly, he patted her shoulders and pulled away.
She was still grinning, though, and held out her hand. “Would you care to dance?”
It was tradition, Elizabeth said, to have the ruling heir choose her husband among the kingdom when there were other siblings – in her case, younger twin sisters – to make foreign alliances. So. That rumor had apparently been true.
“Good luck with that,” John drawled, and Elizabeth cocked her head, a funny gleam in her eyes, and suddenly everything clicked. “Oh. Me?”
“We like each other, John,” she offered reasonably, then teased, “And we’ve already made a public spectacle.”
“But.” It sounded slightly wrong, even though it made a certain amount of sense. What else was he going to do with his life? “Okay, yeah,” he said, and shrugged. Whatever.
When the clock first struck midnight, John jerked away from Elizabeth with a soft curse.
“John?” Elizabeth asked, grasping his sleeve.
“I’ve gotta go.” He flashed her a grin. “This was fun,” he added, and he really meant it. The whole night felt off, but it’d been good to see her, talk to her. Then he squeezed her hand as it dropped away and started for the door, pushing his way through the crowd along the edge of the dance floor.
“John, wait,” she called after him.
Time was winding down, though, and he barely made it past the door before he was back in his father’s old clothes, ripped and frayed. Ahead of him, Buttercup was stamping impatiently, the sunflower flattened under her hooves. The fat toads had already hopped away.
Well. At least he wouldn’t have to walk.