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First five minutes passed, then ten, then fifteen. Caspian frowned at the black screen of his phone. Iris had never been late to call him before. Every time the device blinked on, his heart jumped, and he hoped it was finally the call he’d been waiting for, only to be disappointed when he saw another text back from Jay or Miles. Sitting cross-legged on his bed, he could feel his nerves setting in the longer he went without hearing the coveted chirp of an incoming call. She had to have been mad at him. There was nothing else he could think of to explain it. She was stuck at the resort with nowhere else to go while the military was looking for her, so it wasn’t like she was busy. Of course, he supposed she could have fallen asleep on him this time, but it seemed unlikely too.

Letting his breath out in a tense sigh, he drummed his fingers against his leg. He wanted to apologize to her for taking their conversations for granted recently, but if she was giving him the cold shoulder, there was nothing he could do to reach her… Aside from see her in person to have the conversation, that was. He wondered if it was even possible. Now that he was king, it felt like the royal guards were monitoring him even closer than they had been when he was just the heir to the throne. His father had never left the building without multiple escorts either, so he wasn’t sure if he could get away with a trip to the Sunset Veil alone.

At this point, it seemed to be worth a shot though. He didn’t want to leave things sour between himself and Iris, so, getting up from the bed, he changed into a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, threw on a pair of shoes and headed out his bedroom door.

At first, it seemed like he would be able to get away with the impromptu trip. The guards he passed in the hallway only bowed their heads politely as he passed by. No one bothered to ask what he was doing—until he neared the door to the garage.

“Your Majesty, where are you going?”

Cas cringed at the sound of Jacob’s voice behind him. His hand hovered over the door knob, and he turned to see the head of security standing with his arms folded over his chest like a skeptical parent. “I wanted to go for a drive,” he bluffed, shifting his weight uncomfortably. He’d never been a very good liar, especially when someone else was putting him on the spot. Still, he did his best as he offered up a fake explanation: “I need some time to myself after… you know, all the meetings and stuff I’ve had to go to over the last two weeks… Driving helps me clear my head.”

Jacob studied him silently. It was common knowledge that Aspiria’s newest monarch did enjoy driving to destress, but he was observant enough to tell that something was off with the younger man’s behavior. “Why now?” he asked. “It’s late, sire, and we’re still inspecting the city’s borders for weaknesses beyond the forest. Right now, the royal line is vulnerable, so I feel it would be better for you to stay here for the night.”

Cas chewed the inside of his lip. He could tell by Jacob’s tone that the guard wasn’t going to budge about letting him take off alone while it was dark out. Still, he didn’t want to give up when he may have lost his only form of communication with Iris. He couldn’t handle the thought of making her more miserable in the capital than she already was. “What about tomorrow?” he posed, letting his hand drop from the knob. “I really need a break from everything. Can I cancel a morning appointment to go for a drive during the day?”

Jacob pursed his lips. “Are you sure that’s the best idea? You have a meeting scheduled with the warden to sentence some of our war criminals. It will be an important opportunity for you to establish yourself as a strong leader.”

“Push it back to the afternoon. I’ll skip lunch,” Cas suggested.

Jacob hesitated. He wanted to press the young king further about the matter, sensing that something wasn’t right, but he didn’t have the authority to disobey a direct order. So instead, he merely bowed his head, “I’ll speak with your PR agent about it.”

“Thanks, Jacob,” Cas felt his shoulders relax.

Jacob nodded and turned to leave, then paused to add one more thing: “And Your Majesty… I hope you know that if there’s anything weighing on your mind, you can talk to me about it. As a friend.”

Cas blinked, caught off guard by the offer. For half a second, he was almost tempted to spill the fact that he was still seeing Iris and tell the guard that he was having a hard time fixing all the problems that were preventing them from being together. He wanted someone to talk to. However, a voice in the back of his head warned him that it might not be a good idea, so he just nodded back, “Thanks… I’ll keep that in mind.”

With that, the two parted ways, and the fledgling king headed back to his bedroom. He was still worried about Iris, but at least he had a plan in place to see her the next morning. It was better than nothing, so he changed back into his nightclothes and settled down in bed, hoping to get some sleep before he would make the drive to the resort the following day.
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Tears welled in her eyes as she began to digest everything that had just happened in that phone call. How had it come to this? Everything she loved threatened to disappear in the space of one call. Masie, her best friend. Someone she had grown up with, the one person who had gone through all the bad and disgusting parts of her life would get hurt if she didn’t do something about it. The same friend who had helped her get Caspian back to the city no questions asked and no hesitation with what repercussions could happen to her if caught. Curling her hand into a fist as she felt herself tremble, unable to stop herself from crying as she was at a loss of what to do.

Then there was Caspian, someone she truly loved, and she didn’t want to see any harm come to him. Ethan was now threatening him once more and all she had to do was return home to him to get him to stop? There was also doubt at the idea of Ethan knowing where to kill him, was that a lie? Would he follow through? Ethan had said exactly where she was staying, perhaps he could break into the security like that. Lifting her head up from her lap to the tossed aside phone her heart felt heavy as she hefted a sigh before running fingers through her hair. Everything felt like it was crashing down on her, drowning her as she struggled to breath wading through all the rubbish that was happening right now and she felt completely alone. There was no one here to reassure her and tell her that everything would be okay.

What does it matter, I doubt Cas would care if I go. With all our chats lately, maybe he has lost interest. It’s not like we could publicly be together. I’m more work than he needs right now. As the initial thoughts and doubts started to seep in, she could feel the negative aura surround her starting the spiral of worries that she had tried to keep locked away.

For him, for his people and everything I’ve done. I have to go. Slowly she started to push herself from the floor, tears still falling as she focused her gaze to the sofa her usual place of comfort. How could she put herself in front of those she cared deeply for, if anything happened to Caspian or Masie because she didn’t go home, she would never forgive herself and that made her no better than the rebels. It was something she had been considering anyway, slipping back to the districts as it would be better for Cas if she wasn’t a part of his life. This only cemented the decision on going home, the only problem she now faced was a time limit. Three days to get back, to show Ethan she would keep her word and he would keep his in not causing any harm to Cas or Maisie.

It was high time she faced her fate; Iris knew she was on borrowed time and she would cherish the time spent here and with Cas. It would be favoured memories of hers and help see her through the disarray of the districts so at least there was that positive. Throwing herself onto the couch she settled on her side as she stared at the blank TV not even bothering to put something on to cover the silence. Lost in her own trance she found herself stuck in her thoughts of what the right thing to do would be. No matter the scenarios or the words she could only come up with one conclusion. To leave. For him.

Time didn’t feel real at all for her, the hours passed without her notice as she continued to stare at the blank TV screen. There was no sleep for her that night, not with all thee thoughts she was trying to process. Even as the sun through the window she didn’t move from her place on the couch just staring blankly in front of her. Trays of untouched food stacked behind neatly in the kitchen, the bed upstairs neatly made looking like she barely slept in there. All she could think of this was day one out of three to find a way home. Dark circles where evident in her tired eyes signalling just how little she had slept, but she cared little for her appearance, even if she did look like a zombie from one of those ridiculous movies she had watched. By now the tears had stopped, but the emotions hadn’t and nor had her resolve to go home.
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The next morning, Cas shoveled down a quick breakfast and wasted no time heading to the garage, determined to get to Iris as quickly as he could to resolve the conflict between them. A few guards tried to offer their protection along the way, insisting that it was safer for him to travel with at least one other person who would be keeping an eye out for danger, but he turned them down. Jacob had already given him permission to leave alone, and he told the security team that he trusted the capital’s military to keep the city secure, so there was no need for any bodyguards. The men were clearly reluctant to let him go, but they couldn’t argue with their king, so they didn’t push him to change his mind.

He managed to make it to his car with little resistance and took off before the head of security could change his mind, heading down the long, private road away from the palace. Right from the start, the wheels of his mind were already turning as he raced to think of a way to make up for the fact that he hadn’t been taking their conversations seriously. He hoped she would understand the hoops he was already jumping through in order to meet with her in person, but he didn’t expect that that would be enough of an apology on its own.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t make any stops to buy anything without getting recognized, so he would just have to be the best doting boyfriend he could be while he was visiting her. With that plan in mind, he pulled into the Sunset Veil’s underground parking lot and headed up the elevator to the top floor, his heart fluttering anxiously as he got closer to Iris’s suite. It was a necessary fight, but that didn’t make it any easier to have, and he didn’t look forward to it as he stepped up to her door and knocked.

--

Meanwhile, back at the palace, Jacob sit at his office desk with his chin in his hand and the tracking for the young king’s car pulled up on the screen of his computer. Ever since their conversation the night before, he’d felt like something was wrong, and now he knew his intuition had been right. Watching the blinking dot stop at a hotel on the edge of the city, he narrowed his eyes. Caspian wasn’t just going for a drive after all.

“What are you doing, Your Highness?” he murmured under his breath, digging for a pen in his drawer to take down the address. The monarch had lied for some reason, and he was determined to find out what it was.
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Sighing softly to herself Iris shifted on the sofa forcing herself out of the trance she had been in most of the night, blinking a few times feeling how dry her eyes felt from the hours that had passed. Rubbing them with the back of her hand she pushed up into a seated position feeling the stiffness in her limbs as she stretched out her legs glancing back towards the TV. By now the silence was too much, white noise was needed so she reached out grabbing the remote from the coffee table and switching it on letting the sound fill the room. Not caring for what was even on she walked away from the sofa deciding that she needed a shower to wake herself up and feel more human again.

Leaving the show playing in the background she hopped into the shower her mind still reeling from last night’s phone call and what Ethan had said. The threats had played over and over in her mind throughout the night, and she knew she had to leave, the problem she now faced was how could she do that? As she washed her hair, she remembered how Cas had said this hotel was near the border, far out enough if they needed to make a quick exit and if she was able to slip out of this hotel unnoticed, she could very well make a break for it. Contemplating on if she could get away with it as she slipped out of the shower feeling clean and more awake, using one of the towels to dry out her hair.

It could be an option. It may be the only option I have. Feeling the warmth of the clothing wrap around her as she got ready for the day, motivated to find a way out of this prison. There was no need to call it anything else, sure it was better than most cells and she had clean water at her disposal and food not that she ate it, but deep down past it all this was a prison for her. Isolated, secluded from everything and she was trapped not being allowed to go out due to the bounty on her head that his father had placed.

Trailing back into the living room area she was deep in thought at how to enact her plan until she heard the knock on the door. Jumping she hesitated having not ordered anything she didn’t expect there to be anyone that would be around at this time. Unless Cas? I didn’t call him last night… maybe he ordered me breakfast? Carefully she edged to the door glancing out of the peep hole only to step back in shock her eyes wide at seeing Cas on the other end of the door. A rush of emotions bombarded her all at once, the first and foremost being delighted to see him, happy that he was here physically to then worry at why he was here and lastly fear because Ethan had named this hotel. What if he was watching now? What if he could hurt Cas right now?

It took a few moments for her to compose herself before she opened the door slightly, not wide enough for anyone to see inside just in case and she chewed the inside of her lip fidgeting uncomfortably as the nerves began to settle in her. “H-How?... I. What are you doing here?” Fumbling out her words avoiding his gaze because she didn’t want to see disappointment in his eyes for the state that she had let herself become.
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Any flicker of hope inside of Cas that Iris wasn’t upset with him died when she opened the door. The shock on her face wasn’t what he’d wanted to see, and his heart sank a little as he felt like her expression just confirmed that she hadn’t wanted to see him at all. Still, it was a good thing he’d shown up at the hotel. If they were in a fight, he would have rather hashed it out with her in person than continue to stew in long distance silence. He wanted to go back to what they had before—or at least, what was left of it.

“Hey, Iris,” he managed a half-smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes, shifting his weight uncomfortably in the hall. Even though he’d had a long car ride to think through all the things he wanted to say to her, the planned out words evaporated from his mind now that they were actually face-to-face. Half of him wanted to push the door open and sweep her into his arms, apologize for being an idiot and tell her that he loved her more than anything while the other half of him was glued to the floor, afraid to cross the barrier she had erected between them. At that moment, the latter felt safer, so he didn’t move to force his way into the suite.

Instead, he cleared his throat and slipped his hands into his pockets to stop himself from fidgeting. “I managed to move some things around so I could come here and see you,” he explained. “I know you’re upset with me, and I didn’t want to leave things bitter between us, so… can we please talk about it?” He held his breath, hoping she wouldn’t turn him away. He’d pulled quite a few strings just to make a short visit to the hotel that morning, and he doubted he could get away with it again anytime soon. The royal guard wouldn’t let him go out at night, and his days were always fully booked with work and meetings. This was the one shot he had to make things right.

“I’ve only got an hour. Maybe less… Can I come in?” he asked her tentatively and glanced over his shoulder. “I’d rather not do this in the hall where someone could see us.” The executive suite was somewhat removed from the other rooms on the top floor of the Sunset Veil, but that didn’t mean there was no one else around to eavesdrop on them. Other wealthy guests could have still been in their rooms that morning, so if someone raised their voice, they could be overheard. Hotel staff could have been cleaning nearby too. The last thing he needed was to get recognized and find himself in the middle of another scandal right after he’d been crowned king. He couldn’t do that to all the people who were looking to him to set a good reputation for Aspiria.
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“Why would I be upset with you?... oh… Iris found herself frowning as her voice trailed off just realising why he may have thought she was upset with him. It was all because she hadn’t called him last night, but she wasn’t upset with him. Well, no that wasn’t the entire truth either and she couldn’t lie to herself because she had been slightly upset with how their calls had one lately. It was hard to see the point in them when he’d fall asleep or didn’t seem as interested anymore, but she knew deep down she couldn’t blame him for that because he was currently adjusting to his new schedule now as King.

“Ah… sorry of course come in.” Even as Iris spoke, she found herself inwardly cringing because it would reveal home truths, she hadn’t expected to come face to face with and she especially hadn’t planned for Cas to see it either. Opening the door wide enough for him to enter she turned and headed to the sofa in the living room with the dishevelled blanket and cushions scattered around it giving away that she had clearly used that to sleep on rather than the bed upstairs. Grabbing the cushions, she quickly put them back in place before grabbing the blanket and folding it up neatly finding herself fidget knowing he was here. Hoping that her movement would catch his attention rather than what was going on in the kitchen.

“Cas I… I’m so sorry I didn’t call last night.” Trying not to meet his gaze just yet because she didn’t want to see his disappointment in her, “I don’t know what happened last night if I’m honest… and by the time I had remembered I thought it was too late… I.” Sighing to herself she wasn’t sure what to say, but she could feel herself getting upset and she knew she had to keep composure. There was no way she could tell him about Ethans call last night and that was the reason she hadn’t called him, if she told him then he’d worry and right now he had other things to focus on. She could deal with Ethan.

Feeling her shoulders hunch slightly she wasn’t sure what to do in this situation, should she be honest with him? Tell him how she’d been feeling with the calls lately? It was amazing he was here after all, and he had moved things around just to come see her to make sure she wasn’t upset with him and if she had been to talk it out. “I’m so sorry.” Fidgeting with the hems of her sleeves because she couldn’t sit still not when she felt uncomfortable, but that wasn’t because of Cas.

“I do really appreciate that you’ve moved everything around just to come see me, I know you have a lot going on and everything’s been a bit crazy and now. Well, I’m rambling.” Iris grimaced slightly as she finally sat down on the sofa and looked towards him as the nerves bubbled away because she didn’t know what he was going to say next to her.
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The confusion in Iris’s voice brought a frown to Cas’s features. Suddenly, he wasn’t sure what was going on between them. When she hadn’t called him the night before, he’d felt certain that she was giving him the cold shoulder, but now, it sounded like she wasn’t mad at him at all. In the time he’d known her, she’d never come across as a smooth liar, so he doubted she was just putting on a front to keep him from knowing that she was upset. But if it wasn’t that, then he had no idea why she would have avoided him yesterday. Nothing was adding up anymore.

When she told him to come in, he wasted no time heading through the open doorway, eager to settle the rising bewilderment inside of him. “Thanks…” he murmured to her on his way inside, only to falter when he laid eyes on the state of the suite. The sofa was disheveled like an unmade bed, and at least a dozen untouched dishes littered the kitchen. He stopped and stared, even more thoroughly confused by the sight. Over the phone, Iris had told him that she was doing well (or well enough) and that she’d been eating, but she had clearly been neglecting to take care of herself for two whole weeks. Maybe she was a better liar than he’d thought.

For a moment, he labored to catch up while she went on to apologize to him for not calling the night before. Tearing his gaze away from the mess, he forced himself to watch her as she made a weak attempt to clean up the sofa. He didn’t know what he’d been expecting when he’d made an unannounced trip to see her, but it certainly hadn’t been this. His heart twisted inside his chest, and he stayed quiet as he walked slowly across the room to join her near the couch—her makeshift sleeping space.

At first, he didn’t know what to say. So much of what he’d expected hadn’t been true that he was at a loss with how to approach the real situation. Iris was doing far worse than he’d thought, and he couldn’t help but blame himself for veritably locking her up inside of her glorified prison. Pained by the knowledge, he dropped his gaze to the floor with a wince. Something had to change. He knew that much, but he didn’t know where to start.

“You’re not the one who should be apologizing,” he said softly after a long silence. Taking a seat beside her on the sofa, he swept her into a tight embrace and buried his face against her neck. Another pause followed while he held her, until he finally said in a strained voice, “Iris, I’m so sorry. I never meant for any of this to happen… I was so busy, I didn’t even think about what it’s been like for you to be stuck in this room all by yourself. Please forgive me.” The request was punctuated with a short choke as he started to lose control of his composure. He’d always been emotional, and seeing the woman he loved in suffering was too much for him to handle. The sense of guilt was crushing.

Trying his best not to turn into a blubbering mess, Cas took a shuddering breath and pulled back just enough to meet her gaze. “I promise I’m going to do something to fix this,” he vowed, rubbing one eye with the heel of his palm. “I have a meeting with the warden this afternoon to discuss war criminals. I’ll see if there’s anything he can do to revoke my dad’s warrant for your arrest… If he can help, we can move you from this place into the palace. I’ll still be busy, but at least we can be together a couple times a day… I don’t want to see you starve yourself like this.”
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Iris knew he had seen the state of the suite and as much as she wished he had focused on her movements she knew it was naïve to think like that. How could you not see the stacked plates in the kitchen because it was so in your face, and she had regretted not having the motivation to clean it up. If she had known he would be stopping by then of course she would have made sure there was nothing like that laying around, but it couldn’t be helped and now she would have to face that music with Cas.

“C-Cas?” Questioning him when he said that she shouldn’t be apologising, but then she felt his tight embrace and immediately a wave of emotions hit her because she had craved this touch, she had forgotten what it was like to be so close to someone she truly loved and it took all her strength to not just cry then and there. It took her a few moments before she finally wrapped her arms around him returning the hug but hearing his strained voice and the raw emotion that he felt towards her situation started to crush her because she didn’t want him to feel guilty or have to worry about her. It felt like a double-edged sword because as much as she had missed him and being able to hold him like this, she was also conflicted with the idea of her going home and that was something she could never tell him. Home would never be the Capitol for her, home would always be the districts because that was all she was good enough for in her eyes.

Feeling him pull back Iris averted her gaze out of instinct because she didn’t want to see the disappointment in his eyes, or the hurt that she had caused by breaking the promises on the phone to look after herself. The fact he was getting this upset for her made her feel just as bad and it was like a knife twisting into her heart because she had hurt him. Trouble was now she didn’t know what to say anymore, it wasn’t like he was over the phone, and she could say she was okay because he knew the truth now that she really wasn’t. Even his promise to fix this fell on death ears because she truly believed the only way to fix this was to not be in the picture, not when Ethan threatened to destroy everything she loved.

“I’m not starving myself Cas, I’m just not hungry.” Iris sighed as she shook her head not really sure how to explain it to him, if she felt the need to eat, she would. If she felt hungry, she would certainly dig into some dishes and on some occasions, she had done just that, it was just most days she barely felt the need too and maybe that was her own fault letting herself fall into this downward spiral. “I just…” Hesitating as she felt her voice waver the emotions bubbling away on the surface, she blinked back the tears not wanting to cry. Words like what’s the point, why even bother and how she didn’t even deserve his kindness swirled around her mind all wanting to be blurted out at him, but she didn’t dare release that.

“I take it saying I’m fine won’t make this go away?” Finally, Iris met his gaze as she spoke wanting nothing more than to avoid this subject with him even if it was far too late for that.

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Caspian frowned when Iris told him that she just wasn’t hungry. “For two whole weeks?” he asked rhetorically. Even if it was true, it wasn’t a good enough excuse for him. When they’d parted, he’d asked her to take care of herself and when they’d talked on the phone, she’d sworn to him that she had been. He was torn between the hurt of discovering that she’d been lying to him the entire time and the guilt that wrenched his heart, knowing he was the one who had caused this in the first place. Everything about the situation made him wish he could have done something to fix it all sooner.

He could hear the emotion in Iris’s voice too, and he dropped his gaze to his lap. She didn’t even sound enthusiastic about his promise to talk to the warden about removing her bounty. He couldn’t help but wonder if she just didn’t think he could change anything or if her lack of comment on it meant she didn’t want to come with him at all. Just thinking about the latter possibility twisted his stomach into anxious knots. He didn’t want this to be what broke their relationship. It wasn’t fair. They’d gotten through so much else before this point that he wanted to believe they were solid enough to survive one more set back.

However, he also couldn’t pretend like the two weeks apart had been anything less than brutal—and he’d arguably gotten the better end of the deal. He couldn’t blame Iris for questioning things when he probably would have done the same thing if he’d felt neglected and forgotten, trapped in a room with no one else around for company. In a way, he felt like he’d caged her against her will, and he hadn’t been considerate of the fact that she needed other people besides just him. If he’d been more thoughtful, he could have arranged for Jay and Miles to stop by occasionally to spend time with her. Maybe she wouldn’t have felt so alone then.

Unfortunately, hindsight couldn’t fix the past, so the best he could do now was be with her until he had to go back to the palace. He looked up again to meet her eyes and shook his head. “I wish you would’ve told me the truth earlier,” he sighed, deciding that if he wanted honesty from her, then it was only fair that he be honest too. It stung to be deceived by someone he cared so much about. “And I know it might be too late to ask this, but… will you please give me a second chance to make this right? I don’t want to leave things like this between us. Even if you don’t fully believe me, at least let me try to fix the mess we’re in. I’ll do my best to get rid of your criminal status, so you can be with me in the palace. That has to be better than staying here… right?”

As he raised the question, he found it difficult to hold her gaze, afraid of her answer. For all he knew, she could have decided that she preferred to keep the distance between them. She’d never said she wasn’t upset with him, after all. The most he could do was plead and try to convince her to work things out. If she turned him down, he had no idea what he could even do from here. Returning to the palace with a dying relationship would tear him apart, and he wasn’t sure if he could handle that on top of everything else he was dealing with. Iris was one of the few consistent things he had left in his life, and the thought of losing her terrified him.
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When she heard his backfire of two whole weeks Iris found herself frowning, she hadn’t really thought it was that long, but the concept of time had been lost on her when she had just been left with her thoughts and the TV each day. She could have counted the stacked plates, but they weren’t all there and some things she had tried to eat but mostly she didn’t find the motivation with it. “Honestly Cas, I didn’t realise it had been two weeks.” Shaking her head, she was finding it hard to be honest with him on how she felt, to her it felt like she was letting him down and had let him down for not even keeping those promises to him.

“I didn’t want to tell you the truth.” Sighing softly Iris knew she hadn’t wanted to tell him and a part of her wished he hadn’t found out, “You’re going through so much how could I be selfish just because I was not okay? Cas, you’re a King now. You have a whole country relying on you that I just… I didn’t want to add to your problems because I’m not okay.” Hearing her own voice waiver when she admitted the truth out loud that she was not okay, she could feel her hands tremble because she was trying to keep composure but that was another battle she was losing.

Taking a small sharp intake of breath to stop herself from crying, “A-Anything is better than being here… alone.” Her voice cracked as a sob left her lips that she had been trying so hard to hold back. Perhaps it was time to be a little honest with him and how she had been feeling, but she knew it wouldn’t just hurt her but him too to know the truth. With her voice sounding dejected she placed her head in her hands working up the courage to give him a little truth, “I’m exhausted… I barely sleep, barely eat and my motivation each day is getting worse.”

It took all of her effort to meet his gaze again, it was hard to look him in the eyes when she was speaking honestly like this. “The calls… they were okay at first and gave me hope that we could be normal, but then… I don’t know what happened to them. I just felt like what was the point anymore, you didn’t seem to enjoy them, and we’d barely talk by the end of it that I just gave up on myself. I know it’s no excuse when I promised you…” If she was to go back with him to the palace it wouldn’t be a bad thing, she’d get to spend more time with him, and she knew she would feel less isolated but with Ethans call yesterday she couldn’t put him in danger like that.

There was still time, she may be on a deadline to return to the sadistic ex-boyfriend of hers to save his life, but Cas still had to remove her warrant first which gave her an opportunity to fix the situation she was threatened with.
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“That doesn’t mean your problems aren’t important to me anymore,” Caspian insisted with a frown. Crown prince or king, he’d always carried the burden of other people’s expectations on his shoulders. Just because he was busier than before didn’t make her less significant in his life, and he didn’t want her to think that he was going to forget about her just because he had more on his plate. It was hard to convey that, though, when he’d already fallen asleep for two of their recent phone calls. Even though it was the distance that was grating on him, not Iris herself, he wasn’t stupid. He knew how she would have interpreted his difficulty in even holding a one hour conversation with her over the phone.

The way she answered his question didn’t give him much hope either, and he felt his heart sink a little when she basically said that coming with him would be better than nothing. For the second time, he noticed that she didn’t show any excitement about being with him specifically. She just wanted to get out of the situation he’d put her in when he’d left her suddenly to take over as Aspiria’s next king. Somehow, the distance between them felt even more tangible than it had when they’d been apart for two weeks.

Worried that she was having second thoughts, he rested a hand on her leg in a feeble attempt to reach out while she went on to tell him about how miserable she’d been since he’d gone back to the palace. “I do enjoy them,” he assured her softly. “I enjoy talking to you, Iris. Some days, it’s the only thing I look forward to… I’m really sorry I didn’t answer the last time you called too. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to talk to you. I fell asleep because I was exhausted, and that’s why I’m here now. I don’t want us to drift apart.”

He fell quiet again, unsure what else to say. He could apologize until he was blue in the face, but it wouldn’t change the fact that he’d hurt her by being so unavailable recently. If the warden approved his request to pardon her for the crimes his father had held against her, then maybe things would get better. He had to hope so. After all, it was going to be easier to rekindle their closeness when they weren’t miles apart. He was king now too, so there was no one else in the palace who could stop him from letting her share his bedroom. Atlas never would have permitted it, but the guards were under his authority now. If he wanted her to stay with him, they couldn’t say no.

“Anyway, I’m here now,” he sighed, trailing his fingers across her thigh. “Even if you’re not hungry… will you please eat something for me? There has to be something in the kitchen that hasn’t spoiled yet. I’ll share it with you, since I’m skipping lunch to fit this visit into my schedule.” Getting up from the sofa, he offered her a hand. “Come on. Let’s look and see what you’ve got.”
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Iris felt his hand on her thigh, and it reminded her just how close they had been, how excited they had once been when they had both pushed down all the trauma they had faced and focused on them and their relationship. For a brief moment she missed that, missed the way they would enjoy one another’s company and be so in love that all their problems seemed like nothing. Not like now when she was barely keeping it together and she was certain that Cas was struggling whether he admitted it to her or not and she certainly wasn’t helping the matter currently.

“I’m just worried that we are both from two very different worlds Cas, I don’t want us drifting apart either.” Biting her lip as she placed her hand over his that rested on her thigh, she didn’t want things to end badly between them as she cared deeply for him. “But… what if I’m not good enough for you?” It was easy for her to say that he was a King, and she was just some girl from the districts who nearly caused a bigger war with her actions.

“I’m sorry, I can’t have been much fun to talk too lately.” Sighing to herself as she shook her head just knowing that her mood had changed from when they had first met. Iris wasn’t the same funny girl who’d crack jokes or giggle at his attempts of being funny. Everything just felt different lately, there wasn’t much she could be happy about apart from the fact she had her life. Maybe staying at the palace with him would be better, she’d certainly have more things to do to keep her occupied and knowing that she’d get to see Cas every night would also be a relief.

Hesitating on the idea of eating she hadn’t really thought about it, she could see how hard he was trying, and she knew she couldn’t say no to him. Not when she knew she had let him down already, at least she could put a smile back on his face by trying for him. Plus, it wouldn’t be so bad, she had company to eat with and it wasn’t like she’d be alone so there was more point to it. “Eh… are you sure you want to rummage through all of that? Some of it is probably nasty.” Reaching out she took his hand as she stood up to follow, there may be a few okay choices, but she wasn’t hopeful.

“It probably doesn’t beat the food you have back at home.” Trying to smile at her little joke, trying to ease the waters from all the misery she had opened up to him about. Maybe they could just brush that one under the carpet and enjoy each other’s company before he had to go back to his Kingly duties and then the cycle would repeat again. It was bad of her to think negatively of it, but she could just feel it that they’d have a few good calls and things would start to slip back to how it had been, forgetting to call one another or falling asleep. “I’ll try to eat something.”

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“That doesn’t matter,” Cas shook his head. “It’s not like that’s new or anything, and it’s never stopped us before.” He didn’t like the way Iris was talking. The fact that she was bringing up more cons to their relationship made him nervous that she was weighing whether or not to continue being together at all. So, when she laid out her fear that she wasn’t good enough for him, he didn’t waste a second as he replied, “You know I don’t care about the fact that you’re not a highborn, Iris. I love you for who you are, and I still want to be with you no matter what anyone else thinks. As soon as I take care of the warrant, we can put all the other stuff behind us.”

At least, he hoped so. Realistically, he knew they would still have a few hurdles to jump even after they were able to get away from the long distance thing. Plenty of highborns wouldn’t be happy with his decision to be with someone from outside the capital—and who had been part of the Scourge—so he would have some cleaning up to do when word got out that he had a girlfriend. Still, he wasn’t too concerned about it. He’d been doing a lot of work to establish his reputation since he’d been crowned king, so hopefully the people of Aspiria were happy enough with him so far that they wouldn’t lose faith in him over something so trivial.

Deciding not to dwell on it when he didn’t have much more time left with Iris, he pushed the thoughts from his mind. “Talking to you is always the highlight of my day,” he assured her with a soft smile. “Things have been hard lately, but no one can control that. You don’t have to be upbeat all the time for me to enjoy spending time with you.” He didn’t want her to feel like she had to make him smile every time they had a phone call. That was too heavy of a burden for anyone to carry.

Taking her by the hand, he led the way into the kitchen and shrugged when she asked if he was sure he wanted to go through the old food. “No reason to let it go to waste if there’s something to be salvaged,” he said, glancing over the plates that lined the counters. Some of the food was obviously old and very stale or spoiled, while other plates were a little harder to estimate. All of it was something he never would have been served by any chef who wanted to stay out of jail for giving a royal food poisoning. However, he’d had a few tough meals in the distracts, so he wasn’t as unnerved by the thought of playing roulette with the food that looked okay to eat.

“Do you remember which dishes you ordered most recently?” he asked, hoping Iris could at least give some sort of clue as to what they could have for lunch that wouldn’t give them stomach cramps. With another day packed to the brim with meetings, he wanted to give himself the best odds to avoid running in and out of the bathroom all day.
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Iris bit back her response in how it did matter, but she knew she was fighting a losing battle here and the more she kept being so down about it all the more he would worry. Then his worrying would throw a spanner in the plans because she couldn’t act happy and enjoy the good parts of their relationship. Like now for instance, he was physically here in person, and she had forgotten how many times she had wished that to happen. To see his face and to hold him once more, even if it would be for one last time before she made her escape to protect him and the ones she cared about.

“I… eh. Hope you can remove the warrant; it would be nice to walk outside again and feel the fresh air.” Forcing a smile as she watched him ponder over all the trays of food on which would be best for them to eat without making them sick. “I just thought you’d prefer to have a nice conversation and not one that’s depressing after a long day.” Iris knew she’d prefer that, but again not everyone was the same in that regard and she was happy to know she didn’t need to fake it with him on the phone. Although she knew she would still try to keep it happy for him, a bad habit of not wanting him to worry about her.

Grimacing at the trays of food she never really thought it was this bad, now seeing the number of meals she had to have skipped made her cringe and knowing that it was just a waste made it even worse. This wasn’t even her own money she was spending, and she was wasting his money on food she wasn’t even eating, now that was disgraceful in her eyes. Food wasn’t all too easy in the districts and to know she was wasting all this resource felt like a gut punch to the stomach. “I’ll pay you back… for all the wasted food.” Feeling the urge to claim something to help towards this waste, she had no clue how she would pay him back, but she would find a way too even if it took a little longer.

“We could have this one…” Gesturing to the food tray on the side near the phone, it had been something she ordered last night right before she had attempted to call Maisie. “I ordered it last night… it’s just a plain pizza though nothing special.” Mumbling slightly because she remembered the fancy pizzas, they had a few weeks ago and now he was facing just a simple plain cheese one. “Or… there is a carbonara I ordered the day before just next to it.” It was nothing too adventurous again, but they would probably be the safest amongst the lot, especially against the meat dishes that had been left a little too long on the side. Maybe now was also a good time to get rid of the mess, she hadn’t noticed the smell before but now it had been pointed out to her it was probably best to fix it.
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“You can pay me back by eating better when you move into the palace with me,” Caspian shook his head. He didn’t care about money. He had more of it than he knew what to do with ever since his financial advisor had walked him through his inheritance. Before his father had died, he’d been well off, but now he realized just how much the royal family had been carrying from monarch to monarch. Now, he could have purchased his own personal getaway island with cash along with a private jet to take him to and from. Two weeks’ worth of spoiled food was nothing, so he didn’t want her to worry about it, especially when he knew she had nothing after coming from the districts.

Looking over the dishes on the counters, he managed not to wrinkle his nose at the smell of the oldest plates. The entire suite was a little musty, but standing in the kitchen made the worst of it more prominent. Luckily, Iris seemed to remember which meals she had ordered recently enough to risk eating, and he nodded when she pointed out the pizza and carbonara. “Those sound good to me,” he said, picking up the tray in one hand and bowl in the other to bring back to the couch—away from the kitchen. While he could tolerate the old food smell for a little while, he knew he wouldn’t be able to stomach anything if the odor was messing with his sense of taste.

With a tilt of his head, he gestured for her to come with him and carried their slightly sketchy lunch over to the coffee table. “Sit,” he told her as he set the dishes down. “There should be plates and stuff in the cabinets. I’ll go check.” If Iris had been eating while he’d been gone, she would have burned through the limited supply, but he doubted she had even touched any of it. So, leaving her in the living room for a moment, he strode back into the kitchen and opened up a few cupboards until he found a pair of plates and some utensils to use with the pasta. A few napkins that had come with the other food was enough to get started on lunch, so he stepped back over to join her in front of the TV.

“Have you been watching anything good lately?” he asked, trying to lighten the mood as he filled a plate with a couple slices of pizza and a small helping of the carbonara. They’d talked about the hard things already—although not quite as much as he would have liked—so he wanted to end the visit on a happy note before he had to get back to the palace. “Football season is starting up again soon, so I’ve been watching the drafts when I have the chance. There’s also a new spy movie coming out in theaters that Jay told me about. It sounds really good, so we should see it together after you move in.”
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Iris went to argue on that fact but knew better than to dispute the money thing with Cas and she just hoped he didn’t think she was taking him for granted with it all. It seemed silly, but perhaps there was a little pride involved for her too in the back of her mind knowing that she had always had to work so hard for it. “Well, I suppose the chef did make some great food back at the palace, I can’t really say no.” Smiling to herself as she tried to perk up a bit knowing she probably didn’t have much time with Cas and his impromptu visit.

It was easy to follow his instructions and it seemed that Cas was keen to get the food sorted and for them both to eat, a part of her wondered if he just wanted to see with his own eyes that she would eat something. It didn’t seem like a hard task and should be natural for her everyday to want to eat, but the motivation had been the problem. Relaxing in the seat she found herself glad he had come round, even if at first it hadn’t been a great interaction, she was glad to now be talking to him and voice some of her concerns even if it wouldn’t be for long.

Switching the channel to something easy to watch in the background whilst she waited for Cas with the plates of food, nerves in her stomach now the silence had settled whilst waiting. Once he had returned with food in hand the idle chit chat was on a lighter note which was great to her as she didn’t want to revisit the upsetting thoughts. It took a little while, but Iris finally started to eat, although it was slower, she still managed to eat most of the meal he had sourced for her. Thankfully it didn’t taste awful considering it had been left and she wondered what to do with the old food that was piled up in the kitchen. It seemed like a problem for another day though.

It was clear whilst eating that Iris was excited at the idea on going to the cinema in person together, being out in the public like it was normal was something that seemed impossible. Now he was voicing it as if he’d already removed her warrant, it was hard to stop her eyes lighting up at the possibility, even if she’d not be here to see it through. For once it was nice to picture it, enjoy the time with him.

Time started to fly by now Iris was enjoying herself and it wasn’t long until her plate was clear, and her stomach was full of the food. It was bittersweet in a way because she knew she’d be sneaking off away without telling him, but at the time she couldn’t deny the visit had been somewhat enjoyable even with the ideas of future plans to see movies together. Maybe Ethan would change his mind about the threat?
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The rest of the hour passed more relaxingly than the start of it. For a little while, Caspian could almost pretend like there was nothing wrong between him and Iris, and he clutched at the feeling possessively as they ate and talked together in front of the TV. He’d missed spending time with Iris so much that actually being with her again was like relief from withdrawal, and it renewed his determination to make sure she could come to the palace with him as soon as possible. He just hoped the warden would help him figure out how to legally undo the decrees his father had made before he’d died.

By the time he had to leave the hotel suite, knowing that they had to part again stung. He walked with her to the door and wrapped her in a tight embrace, savoring the few minutes he had left before he would make the drive back to the palace. The only thing that made it easier was knowing that there was a chance he wouldn’t have to wait weeks to see her again the next time.

“Take care of yourself until I come back, okay?” he said, his voice slightly muffled by her long hair while he buried his face against the crook of her neck. After a few more seconds, he pulled away just enough to press a kiss to her lips and then stepped back to put a little distance between them. “I love you, and I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he managed a halfhearted smile. “Call me, please? I’ll let you know how the talk with the warden goes today… Cross your fingers he’s able to help me figure things out.”

--

Tailing his king to the edge of the city was by far the riskiest thing Jacob had done in all of his career. He knew it was within the realm of Caspian’s authority to have him fired for going behind his back, but his instinct told him he was doing the right thing. The fledgling monarch was hiding something from him and the rest of the security team, and that was simply too dangerous to be ignored. He needed to be able to make sure that the country’s leader wasn’t putting himself in danger with any reckless activities.

So, he drove all the way out to the Sunset Veil and parked in the lot. Caspian’s car was nowhere to be seen, but Jacob knew about the underground parking garage beneath the resort, so he didn’t bother looking for the vehicle in front of the building. Instead, he headed inside and approached the front desk, flashing his ID and requesting to speak privately with the highest ranking manager on site that day. He was going to get answers whether the king wanted him to or not.
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When it was time for Cas to leave Iris felt the pang in her chest, she knew she had enjoyed their time together and she knew how much she would have loved to have lived with him in the palace and actually spending time with someone she had truly bonded with. It was also the reason why she knew she had to do it, she had to protect him from Ethan because Cas was a person she never wanted to lose. If it meant she had to put up with never seeing him again, him hating her for leaving then she would do that because she’d be happy in knowing that he was safe. It couldn’t be all bad, at least she would have Maisie, the other person she was fighting desperately to protect.

“I… I will.” Iris smiled knowing she meant her words; she would try for him in these last few days. Savour each moment she got to talk with him on the phone. Returning his kiss before he stepped back ready to leave. “I love you too Cas, I’ll call you and you can tell me how the rest of your day went, maybe you’ll even have good news.” It was hard not to feel sad at watching him leave, although it hadn’t been the most pleasant conversation that day, she had still enjoyed spending time with him. Shutting the door behind Cas she glanced at the mess in the kitchen wondering if she should try to clear it up a little, organise it so it was less disgusting and it could even help with the smell maybe.

Shaking her head against that idea, she could do that tomorrow. It was something for her to be motivated to get out of bed or the sofa depending on where she ended up crashing that night. At least it was some sort of plan for her to hold onto and then she could think about how to slip through the hotel without being seen to leave. Instead, Iris opted to plop herself on the sofa once more and resume watching the daytime TV that had become mind numbing the past few weeks, it was easy to watch and then she could call Cas later.

Getting herself comfortable she grabbed the remote and began to flick through the channels looking for something easy to watch, or maybe even something interesting. There was a few good reality shows she had managed to get addicted too, but then there was nothing else for her to do right now so it was either watch TV or sit in silence.

It was interesting to think that she had all the time in the world now whereas Cas had to plan everything, the impromptu visit must have been hard if he had all these meetings about the country. Iris knew she shouldn’t have let herself get upset over the phone calls, she knew he was just tired and not losing interest in her but then it was hard to fight with your own thoughts when it was the only thing you could do whilst locked up in the hotel room.
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Leaving the suite behind, Cas made his way to the elevator that would take him back down to the parking garage, careful to make sure there were no other hotel guests around to see him. Already, he wished he could stay with Iris or that she could come with him to the palace, but he had to be patient for just a little while longer. He was finally going to be meeting with the best person to help them with their situation, so the next time he saw her, he would be helping her pack up the few belongings she had to move out of the resort. He promised himself he would make that happen.

Resolved in his decision, he headed back to his car and drove it back to the highway, turning the music up on the stereo now that he was in a better mood than he had been when he’d left that morning. He’d stayed a few minutes too long at the Sunset Veil, but none of the police on the roads would pull him over for speeding, so he knew he could make up the time he’d lost on the way home. Hopefully when he returned, he and the warden would come up with a solid plan to rewrite his late father’s decrees, and the worst would be behind them.

--

“I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t tell you that.”

Jacob pursed his lips as the resort’s CEO repeated the same answer to him again. Each time he tried to gain information on the king’s activities at the Sunset Veil, he was met with a dead end. Perhaps if Caspian had still been a prince, the workers there would have been more willing to give him what he was looking for, but because the royal was now the highest ranking man in Aspiria, there was nothing he could do to override his orders to keep the records private. He didn’t know what the monarch was doing, how long he had been coming to this place, nor what times he typically stopped by to visit.

If it had been anyone else, Jacob would have assumed he was there to meet a call girl, but he knew Caspian too well to jump to that conclusion. Atlas’s son wasn’t irresponsible enough to risk ruining his family’s reputation for a short tryst with a prostitute. There had to be another reason why he had arranged to be at the resort that morning, and he wasn’t going to be leaving until he figured out what it was.

“Is there anything you can tell me?” he asked, resting his chin on his fist as he held the CEO’s eyes across the office desk.

“No, sir,” the other man replied stoically. “I cannot confirm or deny anything other than that my orders come from someone above your station.”

Which means they came from Caspian, the security guard exhaled. The king was the only person who could bar him from what he wanted. He also knew that he was wasting his time by trying to pry anything more out of the CEO. The man obviously wasn’t going to betray the monarch, so he was going to have to find another way to approach the situation. Standing up from the desk, he frowned, “Well, I won’t take up any more of your time then. I need a smoke anyway… Have a good afternoon, sir.”

“You as well,” the CEO seemed to relax slightly, as if relieved the questioning was over.

Jacob exited his office and strode out to the front patio, fishing his carton of cigarettes from his pocket. The nearby fountains washed the area with a cooling mist, and he enjoyed the light spray for a minute as he watched other guests walk in and out of the building. There had to be something else that would help him. Maybe the young king had stopped by because of something about the resort itself?

With no better leads to follow, he pulled out his cell phone and looked up the resort’s website. For another few minutes, he puffed on his cigarette while he looked through the amenities and the unique qualities that the Sunset Veil boasted of—one of which was that they often hosted celebrities and other important patrons privately. Go figure. However, he paused when he came across a page that caught his eye. It was an advertisement for the hotel’s most luxurious room: the executive suite.

Caspian had always had a weakness for nice things, so if there was any room he would have booked at the resort, it had to be that one. Following his hunch, he put out the remains of his cigarette and stepped back into the lobby to approach the receptionist. The younger man noticed him and looked up from his computer, “How can I help you this time, sir?”

“I was wondering if I could book a room for the weekend,” Jacob lied, turning the screen of his phone toward him. “I just saw this ad while I was outside. It’s my girlfriend’s birthday on Friday, and I want to do something special. Is the executive suite available?”

“Let me check on that for you,” the receptionist turned back to his computer. After a moment, he frowned and looked up again, “I’m sorry, sir, but it looks like someone else is staying there right now.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” Jacob feigned a disappointed expression. “Any idea when it’ll be available again? Maybe I could book it the weekend after next.”

“I really am sorry, but the person staying there now doesn’t have a check out date assigned yet, so I can’t make any promises.”

“Well, it was worth a shot, I guess,” the security guard shook his head. “Thanks anyway.”

And that was all he needed to know. Now he felt certain Caspian had something to do with the mysteriously booked suite. All that was left was to find out why he was paying to have it reserved indefinitely. To do that, he exited the lobby once more and circled around to one of the side doors of the hotel, waiting until one of the guests walked up to swipe an access card to get inside. He tailgated a family into a corridor of rooms, located the closest elevator, and with his own expertise with technology, overrode the lift’s programming that prevented regular guests from accessing the top floor of the building.

Just in case the hotel’s security noticed him, he flashed his ID badge at the camera in the corner of the elevator to deter questions and rode it up to the last stop before the roof. From there, he followed the plaques on the walls until he found the executive suite.

For a moment, he toyed with the idea of picking the lock to get inside the room. Based on the current time, it was likely that Caspian was no longer there. But he did wonder: What if there was more than one person sharing the suite? Just in case the king really had been using the room to meet with another person, he decided to try knocking first, so he lifted a fist, rapped three times on the solid hickory panel, and took one step back to wait for an answer from the other side.
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Settling into her usual position casually strewn across the couch Iris found herself watching the daytime TV shows as there wasn’t much else to choose from, her mind wandered to the idea of Cas being able to free her from this hotel prison. Guilt rising in the pit of her stomach because she hadn’t planned on staying around long enough to see if he could do it, plus if by some miracle he fixed it all today which was highly unlikely she knew just leaving the palace would be harder to do than this hotel room.

Fiddling about with the remote-control sighing as she thought about leaving Cas, worrying on if he would be okay because the young royal had gone through a lot in the space of a few weeks. Was it fair of her to add to his worries? To not be there and support him when he’d just lost his father and gained a whole country to worry about? Was she being selfish?

No. I can’t think like that. Me going is protecting him, it ensures that Ethan won’t harm him anymore and leave him in peace. This is a good thing, and I can be the bad guy so Cas will move on and forget about me.

As if confirming her own thoughts Iris nodded to herself trying to be assertive with it, this was going to be for the best and it wouldn’t be all bad. Maisie would be there to help her, and they’d get to spend more time together, so it wasn’t all doom and gloom. Even if it meant she’d have to also worry about Ethan once more. There has to be some paper and a pen lying around here. Thinking to herself as she pushed off the sofa again her eyes darting to the kitchen knowing it was probably by the phone as she had seen the pad there plenty of times.

Wandering over back into the kitchen she ignored the stack of uneaten food piled into the corner and smiled seeing the pad of paper where she thought it was. Rummaging around for a pen in the draws near the phone she pulled the pad closer to her as she considered what she was going to write. Iris wanted to leave Cas a letter of some kind, even if it was just to apologise for what she was about to do without going into anything specific. The problem she now faced was just how she wanted to write it. Tapping the pen against her chin she wasn’t going to write him an essay, there was no need to do that and if she told him about her feelings, he could then find it difficult to move on and want to find her and she didn’t want that. Iris wanted him as far away from Ethan has possible.

Cas,

I’m sorry…


Grimacing at the fact she didn’t know what else to say on this piece of paper as she looked at the three words inked onto it, perhaps that was just enough? She doubted he would accept the apology, but it was something. Deciding she had nothing else better to write on it without making things worse she signed her name at the bottom before ripping it away from the pad and folding it neatly in half only to jump out of her skin when she heard three knocks at the door.

Panicked Iris shoved the note into her pocket hastily as she looked towards the door, she hadn’t ordered any sort of food and she doubted Cas would have done that for her as he was probably still driving back to the palace. Unless… maybe he has forgotten something? It hadn’t been too long ago since he had left so it seemed plausible, either that or he had decided to spend the rest of the day with her. Smiling at the thought she knew it had to be him, it made sense so without even thinking she headed over not even looking through the peep whole as she opened the door.

“Oh Cas, what did you forget?” Amused as she finally took a look at who was standing in the door and when her eyes met Jacob the colour drained from her face as the smile dropped and out of sheer panic and instinct her hand went to slam the door in his face.
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