THIRTY-THREE

HRM

Sophia watched her older brother fuss over himself in the mirror. Ryan straightened his ceremonial garter, though really, doing so was futile, as his entire outfit was to be hidden underneath his ceremony robe.

"Alright," he said, clearing his throat. He turned to face his sister. "How do I look?"

"Princely!" Sophia replied, beaming.

"But I don't want to be princely!" Ryan laughed.

Sophia rolled her eyes. "Kingly then!"

Ryan walked over to her just as she stood from the Cleopatra sofa. "Give me a hug, squirt."

A further roll of the eyes, then Sophia said, "I don't want to muss your—!" before being enveloped in a hug by Ryan.

Jasper walked in just as Sophia let go. He walked briskly to Ryan, then cleared his throat. "It's almost time."

Ryan nodded.

"Are you ready?" Jasper asked, a hint of pride in his voice.

"I suppose so," Ryan replied with a small smile.

Jasper punched his brother in arm.

"Watch the suit!" Jasmine said from the doorway. She leant on the frame for support, fixing the vamp on her glossy black heels. With a small wink, she added, "Don't you look princely, little brother?"

"Not princely," Sophia corrected with a vigorous shake of her head. Her curls, particularly bouncy on this auspicious occasion, whipped around.

"Oh, my apologies," Jasmine said with laugh. "Kingly, then."

"That's what I said!" Sophia exclaimed. Jasmine gave another guffaw before walking into the room and hi-fiving her.

Ryan turned back to the mirror, his nerves translating into the insatiable need to fix the garter and the badges on his breastpocket. "It feels wrong," he complained, undoing it for the tenth time and beginning realign the garter all over again.

Jasmine walked up to him. "Jasper, mother wants to see your downstairs. Sophia, Catherine needs your helps with her shoes. We leave in twenty."

"I think she should stick with the nude coloured pumps," Sophia announced, turning on the heel of her shiny, red-soled Mary Janes. "That way, when she looks for her black ones, she won't notice them missing!"

Jasper walked with his little sister. "Why wouldn't you want her to notice them missing?" he inquired, ruffling Sophia's hair. All he got in reply to that was a soft punch in the torso.

"Not the hair!" Sophia cried. She shook her head softly, letting the few misplaced curls find their way. "Well, I borrowed her shoes last week and, uh, forgot to return them…" Her voice trailed as both her and Jasper walked to the places they were each required.

Jasmine took the helm with Ryan, upturning the collar of his crisp white shirt, and spoke as she began to re-do his tie.

"Big day today champ," she said.

"No kidding."

"Don't trip up the aisle or anything."

"Wasn't planning on it."

"Good then."

"Okay then."

Ryan looked at Jasmine suspiciously. "What is it, why are you here?"

Jasmine looked at him squarely. "It's the 30th of September, that's all."

He hesitated. "As good a date for my future anniversary of ascending to the throne, don't you think?"

"You know what I mean."

"Do I?"

"Yes," Jasmine hissed, "you do."

Ryan paused, waiting for his tie to be perfect. Just as Jasmine was about to fix a small pin on his lapel, he remarked, "I know what day it is."

"Good," Jasmine snapped briskly. Her eyes, however, were poaching for more.

"And yes, in case you were wondering, I did it again this year."

Jasmine smiled. "I was wondering. Thanks." With one last twist of the golden rope, and one last pull of his lapels, she beamed. "There. All done. All perfect."

Ryan looked at the mirror. Finally. "Thank you, Jas."

"You're welcome." She began to walk out the door, but paused when she got to the doorway. "One last thing. When did you send it to her?" she inquired.

"Last week. One week before her birthday, as always."

Jasmine nodded, almost knowingly. "Right." She smiled. "See you at the church."

"Yeah," Ryan replied. "See you."

The Armed Guards Academy

Bentley, Australia

"Come in."

Hattie walked in just as Lee looked up.

"Hey," she said with a smile. "How was practice?"

"Boring. As per usual. I have mail."

"Great," Lee said, reaching forward for a stack of envelopes.

"This one's a bill," Hattie began, handing each letter over individually. "And this one's a magazine, and this one's a card from Captain Harris, and this one's a letter from the bank, and this—" She stopped short, recognising the post-mark below the air-mail stamp. "Well, this one's—"

Lee snatched it from Harriet's hand. "Thanks Hattie." She took the letter, placed it on her desk, and stared at it with hesitance.

"You should really open this one this time."

"Maybe," Lee said, still staring. "If I'm ready."

"You are."

"Maybe," Lee mumbled again.

Hattie sighed. "You need to open this one this time."

This time, Lee didn't reply. Instead, with a decisive shake of her head, she took the key to the filing cabinet sitting adjacent to her desk, opened it, and shoved the letter in the bottom drawer.

Hattie sighed again. "You don't even know what he's said. In any of the letters. Or cards."

"I know what he said to me, Hattie. I don't exactly want to see it in print this time."

"You don't even know—!"

Lee held up a hand to stop her friend from continuing. "I know I'm not ready. I don't think I'll ever be."

"Lee," Hattie began, walking towards the oak desk, "he's been sending you letters and cards on your birthday and Christmas for the past couple of years. That's so much you could have missed. So many emotions, so many confessions. Are you just willing to risk, I dunno, closure or whatever, because you can't face him? And it's not even him, it's his words!"

"His words were what destroyed me last time," Lee whispered, unable to look Hattie in the eye. Instead, she stared at the bottom drawer, still open, the familiar handwriting on the envelope begging her to open them.

Hattie sighed for a final time. "He's ascending to throne next week. Just see what he says."

Lee closed her eyes, listening to Hattie's footsteps fade as she walked away. Without opening them, she violently kicked the drawer closed.

"Sam, it's 7.30! Turn the channel, it'll be playing soon!"

Lee walked into the common room, stirring her cup of coffee. A few new cadets were sitting around the flat-screen TV. Some of the older ones abandoned their own games of pool and air-hockey to watch the segment on 60 Minutes that had been heavily publicised, and serendipitously aired a mere few days so close to the Prince's ascension to the throne.

The familiar ticking noise signalling the commencement of the show became louder as one of the cadets turned the volume up. The presenter began to speak soon after; and for the first time, in so many years, she saw his face on the segment's title screen.

For so long, she had avoided everything about him. Every mention, every picture from a magazine, every story on the television. Those around her came to accept her refusal to be around that name, let alone the person or the idea behind it. She would have been more receptive to everything had it not been for the brief conversation only she knew they had shared, a mere week after she had arrived safely back in Australia, two weeks (against doctor's orders) after she was shot on duty.

"Hello?"

At first, she couldn't speak. Her tongue was numb, and her brain refused to provide her heart with the words she needed him to hear. Weeks of silence, of avoidance of anyone, had given her so much to contemplate, until finally, her thoughts couldn't take it any longer. The emptiness was unbearable.

"Hello?" he repeated. Then a third time, this time more exasperated.

Finally, "Ryan?" her small voice said. Her legs were so shaky, she couldn't stand. Instead, she sat on her bed. In her old house, without her brother and sister, she had never felt so alone.

Then, a long, deafening pause.

"Lee." He said her name like a statement. There was no familiarity in his voice.

"Um. I know you're not exactly going to be receptive to me. And I heard what you said when you spoke to me when I was in hospital. But I just… I couldn't not let you know."

More silence.

Lee took this as a sign to continue.

"I know you said to give you time… but you never said how much time I should give you."

She heard him sigh. "Lee, I don't, I mean I can't—"

Lee interrupted him, afraid of what he was going to say next. "I never told you, Ryan. I should have. But I never did. The thing is, I can't give you much longer because I…" Lee stifled the tears welling in her eyes and forced the croak back down her throat. "I love you. So much. Oh god." The tears that were brimming finally poured forth onto her cheeks, drop by agonising drop.

She could no longer continue calmly. It was just too much for her composure. So she continued with a whisper, "My fists haven't unclenched from when I left you. It—it hurts so much to breathe without you." The last syllable came out as a sob, and her aim to make her confession calm disintegrated. The sob became one of many, piercing his silence.

Finally, he said, "Elliott, please. I can't do this."

Lee couldn't suppress her whimper. "Not now… or…?"

"Lee," the Prince said softly, "I love you too. More than you can ever imagine. But we can't do this."

"I don't understand… Do you need more time?"

"I… I just, I'm not ready."

"When will you be ready? Are you going to make me wait forever?"

"Lee," he said, his voice suddenly tender, "you'll know when I'm ready. Trust me."

"But… you're not ready now?"

He sighed, his voice resigned. "No. I'm not."

Lee thought she recognised the voice. It was the voice of refusal, of defeat – of an unchanging mind.

"Oh God," she whispered, wiping the tears from her cheek. She put down the phone on her bed briefly and buried her face into her hands. Then, she picked up the phone and put it to her ear once again.

"Are you still there?" Ryan asked hesitantly.

Lee swallowed. "Yes."

"Lee," he began, "I'm so sorry."

"Okay."

"Maybe one day."

In her experience, 'maybe' usually meant 'never'. "Maybe."

"Goodbye, Lee."

She cleared her throat. "Goodbye, Your Highness." She sniffed, and Lee scowled at herself for her inability to keep composure. "Your Highness, I—"

"Lee, can I call you again when I am?"

Lee shook her head. No. "I… I think it's best you don't."

But the Prince's reply was adamant. "Then I'll find a way to get to you. Goodbye, Lee."

Their lines now disconnected, Lee still held the phone to her ear. Seconds passed, then—

She threw the phone on the bed again, buried her face into her hands once more, and wept.

"Can you state for the camera your full name, your profession, and your age?" the interviewer on TV asked.

His face looked older, somehow wiser, but his beautiful blue eyes were the same. Their corners still crinkled when he laughed and his dimples still showed when he smiled. Lee steeled herself, downing her fresh cup of coffee in five gulps, before realising she still couldn't look at him. She walked to the kitchen to return her cup, walked back to the common room, and sat outside it, listening.

"So you loved her." The interviewer seemed amused.

"I…"—the Prince paused, as if thinking of the proper reply—"yes. Very much so. She made me into a better person."

Years later, and still playing the game, Lee thought bitterly.

"Do you still love her?"

This time, however, he replied quickly, without any hesitation: "I will never stop."

Lee, whose eyes were closed as she listened, flung them open and ran to her study. Her heart beating wildly in her chest, she flicked open the lamp on her desk, and searched her drawer for the filing cabinet keys. Her pupils dilating, her heart pounding, her head spinning, she shoved the key into the hole, pulled open the bottom drawer… and stared at the pile of unopened letters. There was a second's pause, then she snatched the letters, sat on the floor, and ripped open the one dated the earliest – the first one he had sent, two and a half years ago.

It was a birthday card, and inside was the generic message. On the other side, however, was his familiar scrawl, loopy and messy.

I love you. Come back to me.

Lee cast that one aside and dove for the next one in order. A Christmas card.

I love you. Come back to me.

"Oh god," she whispered, ripping open all the others, each one with the same message in the same loopy handwriting, except the most recent one.

I love you. I want to be with you, if you'd let me, for the rest of my life.

Lee sat on the floor for a long time, chastising herself harshly on her idiocy, wondering what to do next.

Then, without thinking, she stood up quickly and ran to the common room, just in time to hear the last parts of the interview on television.

"…And I'd just like to say, I'm sorry for my past indiscretions. But I want to say to the people of Montagé, to you, in particular, that… I'm ready." The Ryan on the screen looked squarely at the camera. "I want to be with you, if you'd let me, for the rest of my life."

Her heart skipped beat. Lee ran to her room to pack.