Summary: Alice attends a tea ceremony with the Cordonian court and supports Hana during a big moment.
Notes: I used some of the original PB dialogue and bedazzled it a bit.
CW: References to sexual assault and violence, LGBTQ+ coming out
New to the series? Catch up here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8,Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, Part 15, Part 16, Part 17, Part 18, Part 19, Part 20, Part 21, Part 22, Part 23, Part 24, Part 25, Part 26, Part 27, Part 28, Part 29, Part 30, Part 31, Part 32, Part 33, Part 34, Part 35
“I am so jealous you got to play with baby pandas!” Frankie exclaimed over FaceTime the next morning. “Was it as amazing as I think it was?”
“Probably better,” Alice said, grinning as she sat on the bed, still wearing Bastien’s t-shirt.
“What?” Frankie asked, looking away from the camera briefly before turning her attention back to Alice. “Sorry, I’m here.”
“Do you need to go?”
“No, I’m good for a few more minutes,” Frankie said. “That was just Seth’s coach, Teja, letting me know that the fight is going to start soon. Anyway, what are you doing in Shanghai today?”
“We’re going to a tea ceremony,” Alice said, glancing up at Batien who was getting dressed on the other side of the room. It was always disappointing to see him put on clothes rather than take them off.
“Of course you are,” Frankie said, then paused. “You’re going to brush out your sex hair before you go, right?”
Alice flipped off her phone while Bastien laughed from the other side of the room. “Oh no, I think they’re calling you…” she said.
“Alright, alright, I’m sorry,” Frankie said with a laugh. “I should probably go though. Text me later.”
“Will do,” Alice said. She hung up and set her phone down on the nightstand. “Dorian, are you sure you have to leave now? The ceremony isn’t for a couple of hours.”
“Unfortunately, yes,” Bastien said as he finished tying his tie and sat on the edge of the bed beside her. “I have to oversee a few last minute details for today’s security.”
“Aren’t you supposed to stay with me at all times?” Alice teased. “King’s orders.”
“I’m still the head of the royal guard, Gray,” he said as he leaned in to kiss her. “And anyway, I’ve already arranged for temporary security for you until you get to the ceremony.”
“Fine, be responsible,” Alice said with mock resignation.
“Believe me, I’d rather stay here and be very, very irresponsible with you,” he said in a low voice as he kissed her neck, his fingertips grazing the inside of her thigh. Alice tilted his face towards hers and kissed him, mouths and tongues melting into one another. She felt his hand inch higher and she felt her heart rate begin to accelerate with anticipation when suddenly there was a familiar rapidfire burst of knocking on the door. Bastien sighed and pulled his hand away.
“To be continued later?” he asked.
“Yes, please,” she said, giving him one more kiss before letting go of him so he could stand up.
“Oh, one more thing,” Bastien said as he shrugged on his suit jacket. “Ignore Frankie. I like your sex hair.”
Alice threw a pillow at him and he caught it, laughing, before he tossed it back onto the foot of the bed.
“Good morning!” Maxwell exclaimed, garment bag slung over his arm, when Bastien opened the door. Bastien nodded hello before he stepped around him and left. “Hey, Alice, did you know there are two security guards outside your door?”
“Hi, Maxwell, and yes, I figured as much,” Alice said from where she sat on the bed. “Have you come to make sure I’m dressed appropriately for today?”
“It’s like we’ve met before,” Maxwell said with a grin. “And yes, but today your outfit hasn’t been mandated by Bertrand.”
“Thank god,” Alice said. “I still haven’t fully forgiven him for that peasant costume.”
“You looked so cute in that!” Maxwell protested. “And anyway, today’s dress is actually from Hana.”
“Again?” Alice asked in disbelief. “She bought me the dress I wore yesterday, too! She is way too generous.”
“Actually, she didn’t buy this dress,” Maxwell said as he hung up the garment bag on the closet door and unzipped it to reveal an intricately embroidered red dress. “She made it.”
“She what?” Alice exclaimed as she stepped forward to examine it. “I mean, I know I shouldn’t be surprised because she’s Hana and she’s phenomenal at everything, but…holy shit.”
“I know, right?” Maxwell said excitedly. “Go try it on, I’m dying to see what it looks like.” He hesitated, studying her. “I don’t mean this in a mean way, but…what’s up with your hair?”
“Hey! I just woke up!” Alice protested.
“Bastien was fully dressed when I got here,” Maxwell pointed out.
“Well, he’s obviously the one in this relationship with his shit together,” Alice said as she picked up the dress.
She disappeared into the bathroom and emerged a few minutes later in the dress with her hair considerably tamer than before.
“You look amazing!” Maxwell said. “Seriously, I knew Hana was talented, but this is ridiculous.”
Alice had to agree; the dress fit her better than anything else ever had in her life. The details on the dress were exquisite and must have taken Hana ages to finish. Alice had watched enough Project Runway to know all the things that could go sideways when creating a dress and she was in complete awe that Hana had created something so perfect.
“I…wow,” Alice finally said. “I don’t think I have any other words for it.”
“Hey, Alice? Can I ask you something?”
Alice turned to see Maxwell nervously tugging on the cuff of his shirt sleeve. “Of course.”
“Have you…um…heard from Bertrand since we’ve been here?” he asked.
“Just a couple of texts,” Alice said. “One arrived this morning reminding me to please not smack Justin because he doesn’t want Justin to raise his rates just because I’m being ‘difficult.’ Why?”
“Um…well, I haven’t heard from him at all,” Maxwell said. “I sent him a photo of the panda cubs but he didn’t say anything back.”
“Hey,” Alice said, crossing the room and taking his hands in hers. “He’s been upset, but he’s also trying to process a lot. Savannah just let him meet Bartie for the first time and I’m sure they have a lot to talk about.”
“I know, I just…” Maxwell swallowed hard. “I don’t want my brother to hate me.”
“Look at me,” Alice said. He looked. “Bertrand does not hate you. He was upset and he’s dealing with a lot, but you guys will move past it. In the meantime, I’m happy to act as a buffer.”
“Thanks, Alice,” Maxwell said as he gave her a hug. “You and Bertrand are the only family I have left. Well, and Bartie,” he added. “I can’t lose him.”
“You won’t,” Alice assured him. “I think you’ll feel better once you guys are able to talk in person.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Maxwell said. “Hey, would you mind if I stayed here and hung out until it’s time to go? I don’t really want to be alone right now.”
“I’d love that,” Alice said. “And, hey, Bastien and I haven’t raided the minibar yet, so have at it.”
“Sweet!” Maxwell said, his face brightening. He immediately started to dig for snacks as Alice chuckled and headed into the bathroom to begin applying her makeup.
When their car pulled to a stop, Alice was surprised to see they’d arrived at a garden. She hadn’t expected to see an open-air tea house in the midst of all of the carefully tended trees and flowers, but the effect was breathtaking.
“Wow, this place is incredible,” Alice said as she accepted Maxwell’s proffered arm.
“It’s like a paradise!” Maxwell said.
“Hi, guys!” Hana exclaimed as she came over to greet them. “Oh, yay! You’re wearing it!”
“Hana, this dress is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Alice said, letting go of Maxwell to hug her. “Seriously, this is too much. I can’t believe you made this for me!”
“Oh, it’s nothing,” she said modestly. “I had help. I’m just relieved you like it.”
“Like I could ever not love a dress you created for me,” Alice said.
“Did you design yours, too?” Maxwell asked.
“Yeah, I made it ages ago,” Hana said, glancing down at it. “I wasn’t sure it’d still be in style, but I guess it’s a good thing that fashion comes and goes in cycles.”
“That dress is seriously amazing,” Alice said.
“Thank you,” Hana said.
“Would you two excuse me?” Maxwell asked as he glanced towards the crowd. “I need to ask Liam something.”
Alice nodded and he squeezed her arm before he left. Finally alone, Hana’s smile faltered slightly.
“Alice, can I talk to you for a second?” she asked.
“Of course, is everything okay?” Alice asked as she led Hana off to the side so they wouldn’t be overheard.
“I’m worried about today,” Hana said. “About my father.”
“I thought things went pretty well yesterday,” Alice said.
“They did, but that’s sort of the problem,” Hana said. “After I got home last night, he spent the whole night talking about how well I must be doing at court to have connections like you.”
“Really?” Alice asked, surprised. Hana nodded.
“And then he started talking about suitors.”
“Yeah,” Hana said. “He told me that he’d heard rumors that Neville had expressed an interest in me and he really wants me to pursue a match with him.”
“Did you tell him about Rashida?” Alice asked. Hana shook her head.
“No. I…I don’t know how to do this,” Hana said. “My dad is really traditional in a lot of ways…what if he disowns me? I can’t imagine being cut off from my family.”
“Hana, I can’t make this kind of decision for you,” Alice said gently. “If you’re not ready to come out to your dad, then don’t do it. But I will say that if you do decide to tell him and things turn out to be worst case scenario, you always have me. However…I mean, you never know how people will react, but that story your dad told yesterday about the pandas…it’s clear that he loves you more than anything.”
“You’re right,” Hana said, nodding. “I know you’re right, but I’m still scared.”
“You don’t have to do this today if you don’t want to,” Alice reminded her.
“I know,” Hana said. “I probably won’t, but the conversation we had last night kind of got me riled up and thinking about all this.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?” Alice asked. Hana shook her head and smiled.
“No. Talking to you has helped a lot,” Hana said.
“Is Rashida here yet?” Alice asked.
“Yes,” Hana said, a genuine smile pulling at her lips. “We–”
“Lady Hana!” Neville said as he approached them with Xinghai in tow.
“Hana, we’ve been looking for you,” Xinghai said before turning to Alice. “Lady Alice, a pleasure to see you again.”
“You as well, thank you for having me,” Alice said. “This garden is beautiful.”
“We used to come here as a special treat whenever I finished a major courtly lesson,” Hana said. “It’s one of my favorite spots.”
“I can see why,” Alice said.
“Lady Alice, would you excuse us for a moment?” Xinghai asked politely.
“Of course,” Alice said. “I think I’ve left Maxwell unattended for too long around the food anyway.”
Alice headed towards the tea house where she saw Rashida talking to a few other nobles. Rashida noticed her and excused herself from the nobles to join her.
“Hey, Alice,” Rashida said with a smile. “How are you?”
“Good, thanks, and you?”
“Good, but currently missing Hana,” Rashida said. “Have you seen her?”
“Yeah, she’s over there with her dad and Neville,” Alice said, trying to subtly tilt her head towards them. Rashida’s gaze followed and she winced.
“God, Neville is insufferable,” Rashida muttered. “Think she needs a rescue?”
“Absolutely,” Alice said.
“How much do you think that’ll bug her dad? I want him to like me,” she said.
“He likes people with impeccable manners and good business sense, so I think you’re set,” Alice assured her. “But…he doesn’t know that Hana…”
“I know, don’t worry,” Rashida said.
“I figured you did, but it never hurts to cover all the bases.”
Rashida took a deep breath and straightened her shoulders, standing up a little straighter. “Okay, I’m going in. Wish me luck.”
Alice watched Rashida make her way towards Hana and was surprised to hear a small, annoyed cough behind her.
“Lady Alice, you’re blocking the entrance to the tea house,” Madeleine said.
“I believe what Madeleine meant was, it’s a pleasure to see you, Lady Alice,” Liam said, smiling warmly at her.
“I’m sure that was her intention,” Alice said.
“Your dress is exquisite,” Liam asked.
“Thank you, Hana made it,” Alice said proudly. Liam’s jaw dropped.
“Really?” he asked. “That’s amazing! I had no idea she could make clothes, although I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”
“If you want, I could see if she designs menswear too and put a good word in for you,” Alice said with a grin.
“Absolutely,” he said.
Madeleine gave Alice a thin smile and placed her hand on Liam’s arm. “Sweetheart, we should really go inside and make the rounds with the guests.”
“Of course, pardon me,” Alice said, stepping aside. “I’m sure you have places to be. After all, hell isn’t going to rule itself.”
Madeleine raised her eyebrow at Alice as Liam bit back a smile. “I’m not sure what’s more embarrassing,” she said. “The pettiness of that insult or how cliche it is.”
“Oh, I don’t know, sometimes the classic insults are the ones that really stick,” Adelaide said as she joined them. “But as much as I’d love to see where this sparring match goes, Maddie, I was promised drinks.”
“The several you’ve already had today aren’t enough?” Madeleine asked, lowering her voice.
“Madeleine, you’re right, we should make the rounds,” Liam said quickly, trying to diffuse the situation before it escalated. “Alice, I’ll come find you later,” he said with a nod before he escorted Madeleine and Adelaide inside. Alice gave them a brief headstart before she headed in as well, quickly spotting a table with Drake, Maxwell, and Olivia.
“Another red dress?” Olivia asked, eyebrow raised. “I feel like I should hate it on principle, but it looks decent on you.”
“Thank you, Hana made it.”
“Really?” Olivia asked, impressed. “Has anyone checked to see if she’s a robot? Because no one should be that good at everything.”
“Hana is,” Maxwell said as he stood up to pull out Alice’s chair for her.
“It’d be annoying if she wasn’t so goddamn nice,” Drake said.
“It’s still annoying,” Olivia said.
“Liv, your bracelet is beautiful,” Alice said, gesturing to the delicate pearl bracelet on her wrist.
“Thank you,” she said, forgetting herself for a moment as she smiled, but she quickly caught and composed herself. “It was a gift.”
“I see,” Alice said with a smirk.
“Stop looking at me like that.”
“Okay, weirdo,” Alice said as the tea house’s staff began to carry trays of tea cups and pots to each table.
“These teapots are so pretty!” Penelope said, her voice carrying from the next table. “The color reminds me of one of my favorite outfits.”
“You should’ve worn it today,” Kiara said.
“Oh, not one of my outfits. One I made for my poodle, Merlin,” Penelope explained.
“I definitely picked the right table,” Drake muttered as Alice felt her phone buzz in her clutch.
Alice looked around until she found him standing up towards the front of the room with a couple other guards and grinned. No well-timed literary quote?
The sight of you in that dress could make me forget how to read.
Alice blushed and tried to focus on the staff member as he carefully added tea leaves to the pot and filled it with hot water. However, after a moment, she realized Olivia was watching her with an amused smile on her face.
“Stop looking at me like that.”
“Okay, Jon Snow,” Olivia said.
The server drained the first infusion into a pitcher and, after filling the teapot again, he poured the pitcher’s contents over its closed lid.
“No! Not my tea!” Maxwell said in anguish.
“I’m pretty sure it’s part of the service,” Alice reassured him as she put a hand on his arm.
“Thank goodness. I thought my tea privileges were being revoked,” Maxwell said.
“Not unless you’ve committed tea crimes you haven’t told us about,” Alice said with a grin.
“I wouldn’t hurt a leaf!” Maxwell declared. “Except by drinking it, of course.”
“You really shouldn’t encourage him,” Drake said tiredly. Alice nudged Maxwell with her elbow.
“Someone has to,” she said. Maxwell smiled at her.
“Enjoying the tea service?”
Alice looked up to see Bastien standing behind her chair and she smiled widely as he put his hands on her shoulders.
“Even more so now,” Alice said. “Can you join us?”
“You can have my seat,” Maxwell offered as he moved to stand, but Bastien stopped him.
“I wish I could, but I’m working. I just wanted to stop by and say hello,” he said as his thumb brushed the nape of Alice’s neck. Her skin tingled where he touched her and it hit her that this was the most publicly affectionate they’d ever been able to be.
“Hello,” Alice said as she put her hand on his and squeezed his fingers.
“Hello,” he said, smiling down at her. “I’ll come find you later.”
He left and as Maxwell turned to talk to Drake, Olivia watched as the server finished readying the second infusion of tea and poured each of them a cup.
“Good god, I hope this is good for nausea because I feel like I’m going to vomit after watching that,” Olivia said when the server left the table.
“Oh, come on, we weren’t that bad,” Alice said.
“Debatable,” Olivia said. Then she lowered her voice, glancing over to make sure the guys weren’t listening. “What’s it like to be able to be open with him now?”
“He’s not going to stay with her,” Alice said, easily following the shift in subject.
“I know,” Olivia said. “That doesn’t make it any easier to have to sit here and watch them together in public.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I think she saw Bastien just now and I’m pretty sure that vein in her forehead is about to burst,” Alice said, nodding towards the head table. Madeleine’s face was dark with anger until she noticed Alice and Olivia looking at her. Then she restored her usual, placid expression and turned to say something to Liam. Olivia smirked.
“That does help a little,” she said, then sighed. “I’ve waited this long for him, what’s a little longer?”
“Shall we?” Drake asked as he picked up his cup. Everyone followed suit, taking a sip of tea.
“Wow,” Maxwell said. “I thought top-shelf wine had layers, but this tea’s undertones have undertones.”
“It’s…strong,” Drake said.
“Is that a compliment?” Alice asked.
“You’ve got to respect a drink that doesn’t pull its flavor punches,” he said.
“It’s certainly full-bodied,” Alice said.
“I’m surprised you like anything that didn’t come out of a little mesh bag,” Olivia said sardonically.
“I once worked at a cafe with an extensive tea collection,” Alice said. “We even had the ones that bloom into flowers when they steep.”
“That’s so cool!” Maxwell said.
“They weren’t my favorite in terms of flavor, but they were really pretty to look at, especially in a clear glass teapot,” Alice said.
“We should serve that at the next Beaumont party,” Maxwell said.
“If it tastes half as good as this, I won’t complain,” Olivia said. Alice raised an eyebrow at her. “Much.”
Across the tea house, Alice noticed Neville get up from Hana’s table.
“Excuse me, I’m going to go check on Hana,” Alice said.
“I’ll make sure they behave while you’re gone,” Olivia said.
“Who died and left you in charge?” Drake asked, narrowing his eyes in annoyance.
“Do you really want to know the answer?” Olivia asked.
“Nope,” Maxwell said quickly.
“Liv, please don’t spill any blood while I’m gone,” Alice said. “I’d prefer they stay in one piece.”
“You’re no fun.”
Alice laughed as stood up and began to make her way between the tables. She noticed Liam off to the side, talking with a few other nobles, and Adelaide was unmistakable at the head table.
“All I’m asking for is a bottle of good champagne. Surely you can rustle some up, can’t you?” Adelaide asked a nervous-look server. The server shook her head and Adelaide heaved a heavy, world-weary sigh and turned back to her tea.
“Really, mother, can’t you contain yourself? First I catch you flirting with some lesser duke–”
“So? I am a duchess,” Adelaide pointed out.
“–and now you’re pestering the wait staff like some commoner?” Madeleine continued. “I expected better behavior from you in public.”
“And I expected you to temporarily remove the stick from your ass,” Adelaide said. “But I guess we’re all disappointed today.”
Madeleine rose from her seat and left to join Liam, anger constricting her movements.
“Lady Alice!” Adelaide called, waving Alice over. Alice hesitated but, realizing she didn’t have a choice, she walked over to the head table.
“Adelaide, how are you liking the tea ceremony?” Alice asked.
“Oh, I’m having a wonderful time. Couldn’t you tell from your eavesdropping?” Adelaide asked sweetly.
“I don’t think it counts as eavesdropping if the entire room can hear you,” Alice said. Adelaide laughed.
“Fair enough,” she said as she took a sip of her tea and grimaced. “Not my first choice of drink, and if Madeleine had her say, I doubt I’d be her first choice of mother.”
Alice sighed internally and tried not to roll her eyes. Despite the venue not serving alcohol, Adelaide was clearly loaded and Alice’s years behind the bar had given her thousands of Adelaides who drank themselves into dark moods. She’d hoped she was done with these sorts of conversations, but evidently the entire world was a bar and she was the perpetual babysitter for the drunkenly sad who just needed to talk.
“Have things always been like this between you two?” Alice asked.
“Yes and no,” Adelaide said as she examined her teacup. “Let’s just say we have different feelings about what Madeleine’s new station means. To her, it’s all meetings and policy. I say what’s the point of being engaged to a king if you can’t drink wine from all four corners of the world?” She barked a laugh, just slightly too loud, and Alice wondered if she’d had any water to drink. Adelaide sighed wearily. “I appreciate your concern, Alice, but I think I’d like to be alone right now.”
“Of course,” Alice said, relieved. “Enjoy the rest of your tea.”
Adelaide swirled the tea around in her cup, seemingly unconvinced. “Thank you.”
Alice turned to see Maxwell whispering and waving her over from a nearby table.
“Everything okay? Olivia didn’t pull out her dagger, did she?” Alice asked.
“I decided to jump ship when Olivia declared the table Nevrakis territory. Drake might still be trying to start a coup…”
“You left them unattended?” Alice asked. “Was that a good idea?”
Maxwell shrugged. “I guess we’ll find out. Anyway, I thought I’d help you check on Hana,” he said. He glanced over her shoulder and winced. Alice turned to follow his gaze to see Hana and Xinghai engaged in a quiet but obviously heated argument. “She looks like she could use some backup.”
“I’m on it,” Alice said. She started to approach their table, catching snatches of their conversation as she drew closer.
“Why would you let him walk away? You should be with Lord Neville right now!” Xinghai hissed.
“He said he wanted to talk to Liam,” Hana said, struggling to keep her cool. “It was only polite to let him go.”
“I never said it was rude, I said it was a wasted opportunity,” Xinghai argued. “Lord Neville asked for formal permission to court you! Hana, this is the first step toward a proposal. If you hurry, you can still join their conversation!”
“Hi, Mr. Lee. Hi, Hana,” Alice said. “I hope I’m not interrupting.”
Hana smiled at her gratefully.
“As a matter of fact–” Xinghai started to say, but Hana interrupted him.
“Alice! Please join us,” Hana said, gesturing to the open chair beside her. Alice caught the brief, disapproving look on Xinghai’s face as she sat down.
“Thank you both for inviting everyone to tea,” Alice said. “It’s so beautiful here”
“Of course!” Hana said, smiling warmly at her. “I told my father we couldn’t let everyone leave Shanghai without visiting this place.”
“The ceremony was lovely,” Alice said.
“It always is, but it would be better if you made us of it, Hana,” Xinghai said, turning to his daughter. “All those lessons in small talk over tea service were for a reason.”
“Father, I’ve been talking to Neville for the past ten minutes!” Hana protested.
“And why stop there? You have a proper suitor!” Xinghai said. “This is everything we’ve been working for!”
“Honestly, Neville’s kind of pretentious,” Alice said. “After ten minutes of hearing about Neville’s estate, I’d need a break, too. Hana can do a lot better.”
“We’ve trained you to endure for duller conversations, Hana,” Xinghai said.
“I remember,” Hana said, sounding defeated. “The Art of Appearing Attentive.”
“Seriously?” Alice asked as she raised an eyebrow at her friend.
“Seriously,” Hana said.
“Your mother and I gave you all the tools we could to help you find a good marriage with a noble man. But you must use them, Hana,” Xinghai said.
“Father, I…” Hana started to say, then faltered. She glanced over at Alice for support, biting her lower lip. Alice gave her a small nod and reached over and squeezed her hand. Hana took a deep breath and turned back to her father. “Even if I tried to court Neville, even if he proposed to me…I would never want to marry him.”
Seconds passed as Xinghai stared at Hana, stunned into silence.
“What are you saying?” Xinghai asked. “Why on earth would you turn him down?”
Alice felt Hana tighten her grip on her hand. “Because…because I’m not interested in him.”
“Romance is all well and good to dream of, but this is your future we’re talking about,” Xinghai said, anger clouding his face. “You can’t throw everything away over sentimentality!”
“I’m not being sentimental, I’m trying to tell you I’m not interested in men,” Hana said, squeezing Alice’s hand so hard that Alice thought her fingers might break.
“You…what?” Xingha asked. Hana took a deep breath.
“I’m gay,” she said quietly.
Xinghai stared at her, then noticed his daughter holding Alice’s hand.
“You?” he asked, narrowing his eyes at Alice. “You’re the one ruining her future? After yesterday, I expected better from you. I thought you understood the value of your position here at court, and of Hana’s. But it seems I was wrong.”
“What? No!” Hana exclaimed. “Alice and I are just friends. And, for the record, Alice has been incredibly supportive of me and who I am.”
Xinghai ignored his daughter. “Alice, you’ve clearly been a negative influence. Someone with such misguided priorities doesn’t belong at this court–or in my daughter’s life.”
“Luckily for me, that’s not your call,” Alice said coolly. “The king has requested my presence here and Hana is more than capable of making her own decisions.”
“Clearly, she’s not,” Xinghai said.
“Dad, that’s enough!” Hana exclaimed as she let go of Alice’s hand and stood up. “I just came out to you and your first reaction is to yell at my best friend? Are you even listening to me?” She clasped her hands tightly in front of her to try to quell their shaking. However, when she spoke again, her voice was strong and determined. “This is who I am. If you can’t accept that, then…then I don’t have anything else to say to you right now.”
“Hana…” Xinghai said, his voice softening, but Hana cut him off.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Alice, it’s that sometimes you have to find your own way in life, no matter how hard or scary it can be. But if you’re lucky, you’ll have people there to support you. Alice supports me, our friends support me, and my girlfriend supports me. I’m sorry you’re not counted in that group,” Hana said, her voice breaking a little. “I expected more of you.”
With that, Hana turned and left the table. Alice stood up slowly and followed her friend, glancing over her shoulder to see a stunned Xinghai still sitting in silence as she walked away.
“Hey,” Alice said, jogging a little to catch up to Hana’s quick stride. “Are you okay?”
Hana nodded, trying to keep her composure. “Yeah, I just…I need a minute.”
“You know where to find me if you need me,” Alice said. “And, Hana–that was really brave.”
“Thank you,” Hana said, smiling weakly. “And thanks for being there.”
Hana turned and left, walking past a group of nobles before heading out into the garden, quickly vanishing among the foliage.
“Is she okay?” Bastien asked as he arrived at Alice’s side.
“I hope so,” Alice said. “She just came out to her dad.”
Bastien exhaled slowly through his nose. “How did that go?”
“Eh,” Alice said, teetering her hand back and forth in front of her. “Could have been better, could have gone worse.”
“Still,” Bastien said. “Good for her. I know that couldn’t have been easy.”
Alice glanced around the room before she spotted Rashida. She slid her hand into Bastien’s and led him through the crowd. When Rashida saw her approaching, she excused herself from the nobles she was talking to and met Alice partway.
“Is everything okay?” Rashida asked. “I saw Hana talking to her dad…”
“She went that way,” Alice said, pointing in the direction Hana had disappeared.
“Thanks,” Rashida said before she turned and headed after Hana, her feet setting a quick, brisk pace.
Alice squeezed Bastien’s hand and was about to say something to him when they were interrupted by a tight, clipped voice.
“You’re rather brazen today, Lady Alice,” Madeleine said, her eyes flicking down to Bastien and Alice’s intertwined hands.
“Oh, fuck off, Madeleine,” Alice said, rolling her eyes. “Don’t you have anything better to do right now?”
“I just wanted to let you know that the scene your little friend, Hana, caused today is…quite inappropriate,” Madeleine said, a thin, cruel smile tugging at her lips. “If I were you, I’d advise her to keep her emotions in check when she’s representing me at a function.”
“And if I were you, I’d go fuck myself,” Alice said. “I also suggest you go find your mother before she hurts herself or vomits on someone’s shoes.”
With that, Alice turned and left a fuming Madeleine in the middle of the tea house, Bastien’s hand tightly in hers.
“Wow, good for Hana,” Frankie said over FaceTime after Alice and Bastien returned to their hotel room. “Is she doing okay?”
“I don’t know,” Alice said truthfully. “I think so. I haven’t heard from her since the tea ceremony, but Rashida went after her to talk to her, so I hope she’s okay. I’m just trying to give her space if she needs it.”
“Give her tonight and then check in on her tomorrow,” Frankie advised.
Bastien’s phone buzzed and he checked the screen. “Gray, I need to take this, but I’ll go in the hallway.”
She nodded and turned her attention back to Frankie. “I will,” Alice said. “Hey, on a lighter note, how was Seth’s fight last night?”
“Pretty good,” Frankie said. “He won, but he also ended up with a black eye. But, that’s kind of par for the course.”
“I’ll never understand voluntarily signing up to have people hit you.”
“Me either, but it makes sense to him,” Frankie said, shrugging her shoulders. “How much longer are you in Shanghai?”
“We leave tomorrow,” Alice said. “But I have no idea where we’re going. Maxwell’s a little spacey and never remembers to tell me and I keep forgetting to ask Bastien.”
The door to the hotel room opened and Bastien came back in phone in his hand.
“I have to tell you something,” he said as he sat down beside her.
“I can go if you guys need to talk…” Frankie said, but Bastien shook his head.
“No, it’s fine,” he said before he turned back to Alice. “I just got a message; my guys found some intel on Tariq.”
Alice felt like the air had been sucked out of her and she was grateful to already be sitting down.
“Do you know where that little fucker is?” Frankie asked.
“Yes and no,” Bastien said. “It appears he spent some time traveling at first. Germany, Morocco, the Bahamas…” he said as he scrolled through the message. “But as far as we can determine, the last flight he booked was a one-way trip to Los Angeles.”
“Too bad he’s not here,” Frankie said. “I know a guy who’s good at punching.”
“That’s good that we’ve narrowed him down to one city–assuming he’s still there–but LA is a huge city. It won’t be easy to find him,” Alice said. “Does he have any friends or family in California who might know where he is?”
“I doubt he has friends,” Frankie said.
“And as far as I know, he doesn’t have any family there,” Bastien said as he glanced back down at the message. “And it says here that it’s confirmed he hasn’t had any contact with his family in Cordonia.”
“So what’s he doing in LA?” Alice asked.
“No idea,” Bastien said. “But we’re getting closer.”
“Good,” Frankie said. “I’ll be glad when you get that little shit in custody.” She paused, studying her friend. “Alice? You okay?”
“Yeah,” Alice said with a nod. “I think so. I mean, I don’t want to see him ever again, but the longer he’s out there, the bigger the chance he could attack someone else.”
“We’ll get him,” Bastien promised. “I’ll get him.”
“This is good news,” Frankie said. “I have to go, but keep me posted, okay?”
Alice promised she would and they hung up before Alice set her phone next to her on the bed. Bastien gently brushed the hair back from her face, tucking it behind her ear.
“Seriously, are you okay?” he asked. She nodded.
“I’m glad I have you,” she said. He leaned closer to her, pressing a soft kiss to her forehead.
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you, too,” Alice said before she glanced over at her open suitcase and sighed. “I hate to ruin the moment, but we should probably start packing. Hey, do you know where we’re going tomorrow?”
Bastien grinned. “Maxwell didn’t tell you?”
“Of course not.”
His smile grew wider. “You know, I’m kind of tempted to keep it a surprise…”
“Oh, come on, that’s not fair!” she protested with a laugh, pinching his side and making him squirm away from her.
“Okay, okay,” he conceded, laughing as he caught her hands and brought them to his lips so he could kiss her fingers. “We are going to…” He paused dramatically.
Alice stared at him, wide-eyed. “Are you serious?”
Bastien nodded. “There’s a party at the UN.”
“Oh my god!” Alice exclaimed as she jumped to her feet. Bastien grinned and stood up with her, wrapping his arms around her waist.
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