Categories
Fiction Genre Short stories

Sweet Confessions

Side by side, we sat on the old park bench. The late spring air hung heavy around us like a priest’s confessional. Unspoken words buzzed and danced about our heads with all the welcome of a mosquito swarm. I think we both hoped if we ignored the words long enough, they would disappear.

I sat back, the pitted wood a familiar comfort through my shirt. This was our bench. On the last board to the left, our crudely carved initials were still distinguishable against the green flecked and greying wood. The lingering and silent testimony of countless childhood dares and vows to always be there for each other. We grew up on this bench, sharing the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between.

Words used to flow freely. Now, they lodged in the throat, refusing to come. When had life become so dang complicated? I couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment when we crossed the threshold between childhood and lost innocence.

Joey glanced at me and smiled. Not his normal, mischievous smile. Nope. Hadn’t seen that since he started dating Rita, the cheerleading queen. His happy smile had become as elusive as some endangered jungle cat, leaving an empty shell.

“I don’t get it, Em,” he said, “Not one bit. I can’t make her happy no matter what I do.” The toe of his shoe drew a line in the dirt. Joey sighed, rubbing his neck. “I don’t text, and she says I don’t think about her or love her. I do text, and now I’m some near stalker who won’t give her space. Makes no sense to me.”

“She’s a prep and a bitch.” I swallowed hard, rubbing my hands on my worn jeans. I shouldn’t have said it. Joey didn’t want to hear it. But God, I hated her.

Joey’s head turned towards me, and he frowned.

I dared a glance at his hazel eyes to gauge his reaction. While many people used ridiculous rings to decipher someone’s mood, all I needed to do was check the predominant color of his eyes. They shone green. So I’d surprised him. Yeah. Him and me both.

His eyebrows rose. “Say again?”

With a shrug, I looked away. Me and my big mouth had already said more than enough.

“What?”

“Forget it.”

“No.” He sounded set and entrenched. I hated that tone.

I shook my head. My tongue and brain were not on same the page at the moment, not even the same book. I didn’t trust what would pop out of my mouth if I let my jaw wag.

“Emily.”

My lips pressed together, and I gazed at the sky. Maybe the clouds would form a word, or two, or ten and give me a script to follow. Nada. One did resemble a boat; a boat I was about to go down in. “I’m sorry.”

Joey didn’t miss a beat. “No. You’re not.”

Scratch what I said earlier about hating his tone. I hated it more when he was right. I wasn’t sorry in the least.

“Why did you call her that?” He laced his hands in his lap and leaned towards me. He didn’t sound upset, per say, but he wasn’t happy either. Still, he opened the topic of his love life. Again. Did he think I wouldn’t say something eventually?

“What do you want me to say, Joey?” Rita couldn’t have herself a better boyfriend if she programmed a robot. Joey was the best boyfriend material out there, kind and loyal. He knew just how to make a person laugh, not caring if he appeared a fool. The kind of guy who spent his last twenty to throw his shoulder out to get the stupid oversized bear at the fair if you wanted it. I saw him do it. Still had the stupid bear, too.

“Well, you could start with why you called my girlfriend a bitch.”

“Don’t like her.”

“Clearly.”

Our eyes met. Silently, I begged him not to press me any further. The horrible truth expanded within my chest, deep in the air pockets of my lungs, and threatened to jump into the world. If those words escaped, there was no telling what would happen.

“Talk.”

“Joey, trust me. You don’t want this.” The truth inched its way up my throat where it choked and jumbled together like a pile of rocks. “I said sorry.”

He shook his head. “Naw. Not buying today, Em. You started this.” His eyes shifted from surprised green to determined blue. Normally, I loved the way his eyes changed color. Not so much today.

I started to point out, no, technically he started by complaining about Rita. Though, to be fair, I did set off the bomb. He merely presented said bomb. “I don’t like how she makes you sad,” I said.

Joey leaned back against the bench, letting out a long breath. Slowly, his head nodded, accepting. His eyes dropped. “Yeah. We do seem to fight a lot.”

I bit the tip of my tongue. A lot was an understatement, and he knew it. We both did.

“Is that why you don’t like her?”

Yeah, he asked the question, but it didn’t mean he wanted the answer. He wanted to stay with her. The longing was written all over his face, like a puppy in search of praise. He wanted someone to hold his hand and tell him everything would all be okay. One day, they’d go to prom together and live happily ever after. He wanted a lie. I wouldn’t lie to him.

My palms itched, and I rubbed them on my legs, pressing down as hard as possible.

“Okay. Fine.” He hit his thighs with open palms. “Why don’t you like her? Real talk. “

The words fell heavy and final in the space between us as he invoked our long-standing promise to be honest with each other. With two words, he blocked off any and all hopes of escape. I sat, frozen. How was I expected to start? I couldn’t think of a single way that didn’t involve destroying our friendship.

“Are you sure?” Maybe, if I gave him a chance to take it back, he would.

“Real talk, Em. Hell, I’ll start. You wanna know why I’m with her, right? Okay. I’ve liked Rita since, like what? Forever? And now I’m dating her. Me and not someone like Tom Gibson. Should be heaven, right? She’s the perfect girlfriend. Drop dead gorgeous, always smiling. Popular. Everything a guy wants, am I right? But when I’m with her lately,” he shrugged, “all we do is fight. She’s upset. She’s angry. And the more I try, the worse I do. Yeah, maybe I should break up with her, but I keep hoping, something’s gotta give. Then it’ll be easy. Like a…a good friendship.”

I frowned and blinked. “What are you talking about?”

“What?” He frowned. His mouth opened, then closed, then opened again. His hand shot up to rub at his neck. “A good friendship, Em. Relationships should be smooth like a good friendship. Right? That’s what I thought I heard Mom say once…on the phone…with…someone. Aren’t you girls supposed to know this stuff?”

“Whoa! Whoa!” My hands jumped up to stop him. “Have you met me? Not exactly the rom com queen here.”

A smile, an honest to goodness, genuine smile graced his face. “Yeah. Ya do kinda have a point.”

“Well, duh,” I said, fighting back the urge to hug him. Here was the Joey I knew and missed. “So you knowing all that. Why talk to me about this stuff?”

“You’re a girl.”

“Seriously? Is that what you’ve been doing? Is that why –?” I leaned against the bench letting my head fall back. “Sorry to disappoint you here, but I don’t know any more about relationships than you do.”

“Yeah. You can say that again.”

Was that what he’d been wanting from me all this time? Love advice? I let out a snort, feeling the tension start to disappear. Maybe now things could start to go back to normal, and he’d stop jabbering on about Rita. I hit him on the shoulder with back of my hand. “That’s what you get for being so stupid, Stupid. I’m your friend, not Oprah.”

“Yeah…You are my friend aren’t you?”

“Sure as sure.”

“And we’ve got a good friendship…Don’t we?”

My stomach did a flip-flop. There was something in his tone, in those last words. And I didn’t understand it.

Hoping for some clue, I turned towards him. No such luck. We had known each other our whole lives. I knew him inside and out, better than his parents, his siblings, anyone. But now, there was something completely alien on his face.

And it shot a thrill right up my spine, like I touched a live outlet. Every nerve screaming in agonized pleasure. I swallowed to try and wet a mouth filled with sand.

“Em?”

Unbidden, the words blurted out. “Rita doesn’t deserve you. And you know it. There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s her. All her.”

Joey sighed.

My stomach clenched tight and hard. Even without being a relationship expert, something told me that was probably not the right thing to say. Here we had just gotten back to normal, and I went and blew it again. Today was not my day. Why had I said those things? True? Yes, beyond a doubt. But I knew better than to say it out loud. Mouth, meet foot. Had I gone and ruined our friendship?

The silence taunted and whispered prophecies of doom as it dragged out between us.

“I know,” he said, voice soft and low. I think my heart stopped. Did he say what I thought he said? I wanted to look at him. I wanted to say something. But everything was locked up frozen. It took more effort than I had ever known speaking to take, but somehow, I managed to ask, “Are you going to break up with her, then?”

“I think I should.”

Our eyes managed to find each other, and we sat there, just looking. My mind felt like it was running frantically but not getting anywhere, like a hamster on a wheel. If there was something I was supposed to say, I didn’t have the foggiest idea what. I wasn’t even going to try.

He leaned forward.

Warm lips pressed against mine. Everyone always talks about how lips are supposed to be all soft and sweet. His were, but I could also feel the chapped ridges and the remains of soda.

Like magnets, we bent in once, twice, three times. I was scared to push for more, but no single touch was enough to quench the hot thirst welling up inside. This was Joey, my friend, my best friend. And we were kissing. What did it mean for us? I didn’t know. We’d figure it out later, somehow.

Right then, all I wanted to was to drown in the taste of his sweetness.

Categories
Fantasy

Sage’s Choice

Sebastian leaned back in the chair and threw his legs upon the corner the solid oak desk. Gray eyes watched his friend pace and fidget, worrying the hem of his jacket and the collar of his shirt. “And this is why I’m glad I’m not you.”

“How kind.” The answering voice was dry and devoid of any and all humor.

A faint smile pulled the corners of his lips up. “I know.”

His friend, best friend, the Crowned Prince Gilleon Marlus Harthian of the Emerald Highlands, paused before the full length mirror in the room, feet spread apart. He leaned forward, fingers fumbling with the mound of fabric and the emerald stick pin at his neck. “Damn collar. I can’t get it to sit right.”

“Relax. It’s not like anything important is going to be happening in the next hour.”

As the old saying went, if looks could kill, Sebastian was certain that he would be beyond the realm of the dead right now.

“If you wanted someone to whisper sweet platitudes and fret with you, you should have asked someone else like Harry to be here.”

The roles reversed as Gilleon smirked at him in the mirror’s reflection. “I know. It was highly encouraged in fact.”

“Of that, I have little doubt. I can hear your mother now. Why don’t you pick Harry to be your Oath Keeper? He’s a good, stable boy.”

“Would she have been wrong?”

Sebastian flashed a lupine smile, eyes glinting. “Of course not. If there is one thing your gentle mother is, it is that she’s always right.” He steepled his fingers before his face, “Honestly though, I am glad I’m not you.”

Gilleon gave up on his collar, pulling instead on the bottom his jacket. “With privilege comes responsibility.” The words sounded old, route, long since drilled by countless mentors, headmasters, and tutors. At what point did words lose their meaning? When did they become nothing more than pointless touchstones, used not for their message or wisdom, but to steel the nerve as chants did a warrior before battle?

“And apparently the lack of ability to chose one’s own wife.”

“The Tests will ensure a proper match is made. I have been Tested and I have no doubt that Freesia Tested all the others thoroughly as well.”

Sebastian noted fingers dance along the jacket, smoothing non-existent wrinkles. “Are you saying that convince me or yourself?”

Gilleon’s answer came as a raised eyebrow and frown.

He had overstepped his bounds. If the reprimand bothered him, it never crossed the lines of his face. He sat up and pushed himself smoothly to his feet.

“Remember, you are the one who asked me to be here this day.” Sebastian made short work of the distance between him and a small serving table with wine and refreshments. He poured a glass and handed it to Gilleon. “I am but a minor noble in your father’s court.”

“Hardly minor. Your family stewards nearly a fifth of the land.” Gilleon took a long drink, nearly draining the cup, before handing it back.

“As exciting as that sounds,” Sebastian conceded, taking the glass to refill it again, “I’m still dismissed by practically everyone in court.” He poured a second glass for himself.

“That might change if you followed the rules every once in awhile.”

“But where’s the fun in that?”

“Where indeed?”

The two friends smiled at each other over the rims of their drinks.

“What if I don’t like her?” Gilleon blurted.

“That afraid you’ll end up with the fair lady Tylinda?” Sebastian teased, “But everyone has been Tested, correct? And Testing is supposed to ensure a most noble, worthy, and blessed matching. Besides, it’s a beautiful day. Surely that in itself must be a good omen. Or do you not trust our wise King’s Sage?”

Gilleon’s face drained to a blank mask. He let the silence speak the words he could not.

Sebastian nodded in sympathetic understanding. To be so trapped by one’s station and at the mercy of other’s choices was nigh intolerable. A gilded cage, no matter how comfortable, was still a cage.

He gripped his friend’s shoulder, gray eyes serious, “For all his faults, the Sage knows people. He also knows that his life and position depends upon our nation’s prosperity and your future happiness. I may have no faith in his Tests and riddles and rhythms, but I do have faith in his self-interest to keep his comfy life. I think it’s safe to say you’ll be safe from the, how should we say, tender cares of Tylinda.”

A rare true smile graced Gilleon’s face, lighting his features. “And this is why you are here and not Harry.” He gripped Sebastian’s forearms tightly, almost to the point of bruising. He clung like a man desperate not to drown.

Perhaps he was.

Sebastian barked out a short laugh. He may indeed be nothing more than a minor lord in the court, and one of disrepute, but he and he alone held the keys to Gilleon’s friendship and trust. Would they have allowed him to be the whipping boy all those years ago if they had known the bond of friendship that would emerge?

Sebastian doubted it. The fourth son in his family, he had been meant to be a throwaway child; one son to inherent, one to war, one to scholar. That was all that was needed in a lord’s home. So what was left to a lad of birth too noble for less but too low to be more?

Whipping boy to the prince was the suitable answer.

“It will be okay, Gilleon.”

Gilleon’s eyebrows furrowed. “What did you do?”

Sebastian brought a finger to his lips.

“Sebastian.”

He was saved from having to answer by the steward’s arrival. The Ceremony of Handfasting was about to start. It was time for Gilleon to meet his future queen.

The ceremony was long and vapid just like every ceremony that had ever been before it and every one that would ever come after it. Freesia, the King’s Sage, droned on and on about the wisdom of the gods, purposes of the Tests, and how glorious was the prepared match for the kingdom and the Crowned Prince. Dull, dull, dull.

The most interesting part of the whole thing was watching Gilleon as he tried, as unobtrusively as possible, to determine Sebastian’s secret. Every time, he merely redirected his prince back to the event, giving him nothing more than a smile. That at least was amusing.

Hours later, the pinnacle of the Ceremony had come. It was time to announce the Crowned Princess to be. All the Ladies that been Tested began to preen, clasp hands, smooth gowns, and let forth sighs enough to be audible in the large hall. Every one certain that she would be the one selected. They eyed Gilleon like a rancher eyed his cattle. It disgusted Sebastian.

Freesia picked up an ornate scroll and held it aloft. Upon that scroll was the name of the chosen lady. All attention was dutifully focused upon it. A mouse scurrying at the far end of the hall would have been heard it was that quiet. No one wanted to miss the next words spoken. The future and fate of the kingdom rested upon those words.

Sebastian reached forward and discreetly grasped Gilleon’s elbow. Tenison was so high, his arm nearly trembled with it.

“The gods have guided and the Tests have confirmed,” Freesia intoned, “she who will be Crowned Prince Gilleon’s wife and our next Crowned Princess is known as…Lady -” This close Sebastian had a front row seat to the confusion that swept across the King’s Sage’s face and the falter in his voice. “Lady Analyn.”

To a one, the whole hall erupted in confused mummers. The Princess’ least Handmaiden raised her head in shock upon hearing her name. Gilleon’s eyes locked with hers.

She had never been Tested.

Sebastian leaned forward. “I told you not the worry.”

Slowly, Gilleon turned to look at him.

He grinned at his best friend. “Sometimes you just don’t need some stuffy Test to know a good and proper match. I have no faith in the King’s Sage to realize that. But the Prince’s Sage…Now that’s someone I’d trust.”

“Sebastian,” Gilleon hissed.

“You’re welcome. Now go and meet your bride. She’s waiting.” With a gentle push, Sebastian encouraged Gilleon onward towards the only woman he’d ever taken a fancy and a liking to.

Gilleon would no doubt chew him out later for messing with the Tests, the Ceremony, and practically the whole future of the kingdom. But that was fine by him. As long as his prince was happy and his needs were met, that was all that mattered. Seeing the pure joy on Gilleon’s face as he clasped hands with his lady made everything he had risked to change that damned scroll worth it.

Anything for his prince. Anything at all.