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"The Manifestation of Romance in a Bottle" by Constance Bougie
The witches had said, “You just haven’t met the right person yet.”
Nico hated them for it. It’d been her last hope, going to them for a cure, and they hadn’t even tried to help. They’d laughed her out of their tiny store with all those damned succulents in the windows, and she moped here, now, where she’d sat down an hour ago, on a public bench around the corner. It’d been her last hope, getting ahold of a love potion, and, sitting here with empty pockets, Nico struggled to resist the urge to cry.
It was frustrating. The witches in town had helped her on numerous occasions, proved themselves fairy godparents, really, more than once. It was with their potions that Nico had transitioned from stable boy into lady in waiting for the princex hirself, and with their assistance that she had maintained that position despite deep hesitation on the part of the princex’s parents. The witches hadn’t understood this time, though.
The princex had said told her this morning, “You’d have the kingdom, and me.”
The occasion, Nico decided, called for angry tears. Or maybe it wasn’t a decision, after all. They bled without sound down her cheeks.
She’d forgotten about Pascal, Nico realized later, watching the boy make his clumsy way out of the witch’s store with a half dozen packages wrapped in brown paper and twine hugged precariously to his chest. When she tapped him on the arm to get his attention, he jumped, and all but one of the packages tumbled to the cobblestone street.
Dressed in the roomy shirt and pants that witches’ apprentices normally wore, Pascal’s short figure was drowned in fabric despite efforts on his part to sew the hems higher. The pointed hat atop his head accounted for nearly a quarter of his height. The pointed expression on his face made up for the rest of it.
Picking up a number of the packages, slightly the worse for wear, Nico wasted no time in getting to her point.
“The witches won’t make me a potion,” she told her old friend, and noticed with chagrin that her hands were shaking at the memory. After stuffing them in her pockets. “You can do love potions, right?” she asked. She schooled her features into a forced kind of relaxation.
Pascal gave her a wary look as she passed over the slightly muddied packages. “I can, yes,” he said with an upturned nose—more so that his glasses didn’t fall, than anything—and didn’t offer anything else up for conversation. When Nico didn’t answer after a minute of the two of them walking through town, though, he gave her a sideways glance from behind his circular frames.
She was spooked; he could tell.
“Lady Nico,” he said, and sighed, knowing he was already planning on becoming involved in whatever was troubling the princex’s lady in waiting. “Why do you need a love potion?”
She wasn’t looking him in the eyes. “The princex wants to marry me,” she mumbled. The words fell out of her in wild contrast with the blank look in her eyes, the trudge to the step of her boots. Pascal frowned, not understanding.
“You don’t want to say yes to em?”
Nico’s heart beat hard, the pressure of her internal struggle weighing heavy on her. “Ey’s my best friend,” she said; “I love em. I love em,” she repeated, as if the first time hadn’t been good enough. She had to take in a deep breath before admitting the rest. “But I don’t think I could ever fall in love with anyone. I was trying to fix it.”
She was looking so closely at the ground, she didn’t realize Pascal was on his toes to kiss her cheek until she felt his lips on her skin, soft as the petals of his beloved flowers.
In the end, he helped her, but on the condition that he would be with her the entire time, making sure she was okay. Nico rolled her eyes, muttering that she didn’t need his help. With a quirk of his lips, he pointed out that she needed him to brew the potion, at the very least. She rolled her eyes again, with a little more life in them this time.
They talked while gathering the necessary ingredients from the forest closest to town. “Have you always felt like you couldn’t fall in love?” Pascal asked, curious, as the two of them made their way between the greenery.
Nico was slow to finally meet his eyes. She said, “I never thought about it, until the princex started talking about all the people ey was into. I thought I just hadn’t met the right person yet. But it’s been years, and…I don’t want to, I think. I don’t care about romance.” There was a devastation in her eyes that made Pascal think of the aftermath of forest fires. It hurt, almost, just to imagine her pain.
“I think I must be—evil, or something,” said Nico. “Maybe the witches’ potions for my transition did it; maybe they stole my heart, or something—” She was on the edge of crying, again, and hated herself for it.
There was so much love in her.
“I don’t think they stole your heart,” said Pascal, quietly. “For one,” he said, “I would probably know.”
She smiled, slightly, through her grimace.
“Two,” he went on, “you just said that you loved the princex. And you haven’t tried to take over the kingdom, like that one sorcerer did last month.”
Pascal always could make her laugh, Nico recalled, glancing up again from her boots to catch his soft expression.
“And you’re happy not being in love, aren’t you?”
She was so damned nervous, for a reason she couldn’t entirely comprehend. She’d never told anyone before, although she loved the princex, and loved Pascal, too. The witches had only furthered her desire to keep her missing piece a secret. It felt like a shameful thing, sitting as it was in her chest, the hole.
He was right, though. “I am,” she agreed, but she hesitated to say it.
She was content with things the way they were, she thought, when she tried to be objective about it all. But she was afraid of declining the princex’s offer, so lovingly given. And she felt, in spite of all her contentedness, like she needed that missing piece of her heart in order to properly return the princex’s affections.
So they went on, gathering roots and leaves and flowers for the potion that would fix it.
“Have you ever been in love?” the princex had asked her, once.
Nico had needed a minute to think about it.
“I’ve wanted to kiss people,” she said. “Does that count?”
The princex had laughed, jolly as ever, and Nico wondered now if she hadn’t said something wrong.
The princex had looked on her so kindly, though.
“I’m afraid it won’t work,” said Nico, holding onto the glass bottle with shaky fingers. Inside, the potion sloshed around, pink as roses. Little green bits of leaves swirled on the surface of the mixture. It was pretty, and it was slowly scaring her to death.
She said again, sitting there in the grass on the edge of the forest, “I’m afraid.” And then: “It feels wrong. It feels wrong to have this missing part inside, but it feels worse, like a different kind of wrong, when I imagine replacing it.” She groaned, hands reaching up her face, searching for something that wasn’t there and frustrated from the effort. “I don’t know,” she said. And then: “Gods, I’m sorry, I just had us gather all these damned ingredients—”
“And this is just like it used to be, me sitting here in a field crying, and too much of a mess to be of service to you in return—”
“I’m a mess,” she said again, now glaring at her hands, as if there were the culprits of it all.
“It happens,” said Pascal.
They lay there in the grass for a while, trying to feel a little better.
In the end, they sold the love potion to a boy in town, and used his coins to buy a length of silky green ribbon.
She wrapped it around the bouquet of flowers she had gathered on their return to town from the forest. And she wrote the princex a note, explaining how she felt.
She left it on the princex’s dresser.
Your Majesty, she had written on the scrap of paper, I thank you for your generous offer.
I cannot, I’m afraid, accept it as it was so prettily given. But it was sweet of you, to say such things. It would have been a brilliantly rebellious story—the two of us eloping despite your parents’ wishes for your marrying them to another kingdom—exchanging rings at an inn, in disguise, with Pascal saying the traditional words over us—coming back to rule the kingdom with a gentle hand, together, or something. It would’ve been brilliantly rebellious, and brilliantly queer.
But I’d like to be friends, instead. Should your proposition of marriage function just as well in spite of a lack of romantic affection on my part, I would gladly accept. If not, I’d like to request things remain as they are. I love you. If you would agree to any situation in which we stayed friends—to death, even, in the melodramatic words you so often like to use—then I would be, immensely and forever, content.
Sincerely, your lady in waiting.
The princex, that infinitely jovial creature standing now by eir dresser and holding the flowers, was crying. And ey were nodding.
It occurred to Nico that, in a rather twisted way, the witches had been right. She’d just needed someone to nod, just as the princex was now, and embrace her tight, mumbling into her ear, “Damn romance to hell.”
“The only thing I need,” said the princex, “is you.”
And it occurred to her, then, that the missing piece hadn’t been romance, but the love she had denied herself. Nico loved the princex. The princex was beautiful, infinitely so.
So, though, was she.
Constance Bougie is an undergraduate, third-year English major at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. They are minoring in creative writing, women’s and gender studies, and LGBTQ studies. Constance spends most of their time doing research, ranting about the lack of ace representation in media, and forgetting to relax and take breaks. They have previously self-published a short story, epicene, and are currently working on a collection of poems about religion and queerness. Their favorite song at the moment is “Rosy Path” by Elysian Fields, and their favorite color is gray.