“No. Absolutely not. I won’t do it.”
“Cloud, be reasonable.”
“Over my dead body.”
“If you don’t, it might be over all our dead bodies.”
He would be lying if he said he wasn’t tempted to throw something,
“You have other children! Send one of them!”
“They were very specific in their demands. It has to be you.”
“You mean your court was specific with how they would meet the demands.”
“… It was the best solution.”
His mother came up behind him and rested her hands on his shoulders. She leaned forward and met his eyes in the mirror in front of him.
“Cloud, you are my son. I have many, but you are the son I chose. If I could send a different son, I would, but the rest of the court won’t have it. I may be queen, but I can’t spit in their faces when we’re already on the brink of war.”
“I’m a changeling, I’m not expendable.”
His mother sighed. She spun his chair around and crouched down in front of him. She took his hands in hers.
“You know that I agree. But the Seelie care about few things more than bloodline. I wonder often if it wouldn’t have been better for me to leave you in that cradle by the river. It is no kindness to force you to be a second-class citizen in your own home, I know that. But I don’t regret my decision, and I plan to do everything I can to keep you. Even if that means marrying you to an Unseelie prince.”
Cloud bowed his head and looked at their hands for so long that she eventually reached out and smoothed the hair from his face.
“Please, Cloud,” she said, in a voice that was as kind as it was hurt, as quiet as it was sweet.
It was another long moment before he nodded.
She smiled softly and stood. She cupped his face in her hands and pressed a kiss to his forehead.
“Thank you, my son.”
She left and, more so than usual, it felt like she brought all the light and warmth of the room out the door with her. In her absence, he was left cold and bereft.
Forced to marry a man he didn’t know, from a clan he didn’t like, for the sake of people who didn’t like him.
Sometimes he wondered if he wouldn’t have been better off left in that cradle by the river.
“That’s absurd. No. I refuse.”
“Sephiroth, be reasonable.”
“Under no circumstances. I don’t want a Seelie prince, much less their cast-off reject. This is a slight, you understand. They’re not giving up anything they value or care about. None of their court would shed a tear if I killed him on our wedding night.”
“Queen Claudia would. He’s her favorite son, both courts know that. They won’t bother to protect him, but she will.”
His brow twitched in irritation.
“He’s human, Mother.”
“He’s as Seelie as he is human.”
“Culturally, maybe, but every bone in his body and hair on his head is human.”
“We aren’t the Seelie, Sephiroth; we’ve never cared much for bloodline.”
He scowled. A cheap argument.
“To a point. There are court members who are of mixed blood, and court associates who aren’t fae at all, but there has never been a changeling royal.”
“Perhaps it’s time for a new tradition, then.”
She climbed from her throne and came to him, her stride slow and steady. When she came to a stop, she reached up and placed her hands on his shoulders before sliding them down, holding him by the forearms.
“Sephiroth, we need this. We can’t afford war, but it’s fast approaching. And I have full faith that you can handle one simple human.”
There was a long moment before he sighed, conceding the point, his ego finally soothed. He nodded.
“I’m sure you’ll have him wrapped around your finger before he can blink.”
He snorted, and she laughed, and the matter was settled.
She reached out and cupped his face, pulling him down to kiss his forehead. Then, she turned and went back to her throne. He understood it to be the quiet dismissal it was and left.
As he walked out of the throne room, he felt a warmth curl in his stomach. Oh, this would be tedious and dreadful. It was an obligation. But, if he did this correctly, he could turn the entire endeavor in his favor.
He could use a new pet anyway.
Cloud had been very nervous as a child, and could still be nervous about some things, but had largely grown out of it. After all these years at court, he long since stopped blinking twice at meeting new people. There were new dignitaries and ambassadors and visitors all the time, and those of older bloodlines loved to see him. He was an oddity to them, some fascinating bauble, and he had learned to accept that condescension with a polite smile. He understood that a human royal was an intriguing little curiosity to them and not much more. Moreover, he understood the way they clung to bloodlines, and that he would never be more than his birth parents, regardless of the fact that the best thing they ever did for him was abandon him.
So while he was very accustomed to meeting new royals whom he expected to look down on him, meeting such a noble whom he was going to marry was very different.
Cloud knew very little of Unseelie marriage customs, but marriage within his own court was a very permanent thing. There were, generally, two types of marriages: love and political. Love marriages were rare; it took fae many years to find someone they could settle down with for the rest of their long, long lives. Political marriages, however, were common as copper. Tying two families was an easy way to shift political lines and grab for more power, and there were few things fae cared more for than politics. When life is centuries and centuries long, there is little that is new except what the fae themselves make. The squabbling and maneuvering and clever tricks kept them entertained, and the risk involved had most fae truly hooked. Marriages, similarly, had to have high stakes to be worthwhile, so there was no way out of a Seelie union.
It was never something Cloud had thought much about before, but a marriage he couldn’t escape was becoming more and more daunting. He had never truly expected to marry at all; he couldn’t stomach a partner who looked down on him the way most Seelie did. But it looked like he would have to.
The intimidating permanence was lingering in his mind the entire morning as he made himself presentable. Storm-sky blue taffeta that matched his eyes and silver that contrasted with his hair. Carefully cut garments that extended the lines of his limbs and accented the narrowness of his waist and hips, in Seelie fashion. His usual glitter-dusting, made for him by the pixie maids, that made him glimmer in a way that echoed fae glamor enough that matte nature of his skin didn’t make him stick out like a sore thumb.
He spent hours painstakingly carving out his appearance, determined to do what he could to help this go smoothly, and a good first impression would go a long way. He tried on and discarded enough outfits that there was a small mountain on his bed by the end of it, but eventually he was satisfied with his work. And it was a near thing at that; he had to scramble for his finishing touches before his mother arrived to take him for the introduction.
“Cloud? Are you—oh, Cloud.”
His head shot up to look at her, brow pinched in concern.
“What? It’s awful, isn’t it. I did too much again. Do you think I have time to start over?” he said, already jumping from his boudoir and going for his closet when his mother stopped him with a touch. She turned him toward her, hands on his shoulders, and she smiled.
“No, Cloud. You look wonderful. As handsome as a mother could ask for,” she said, sweet and warm like honey.
He gave a slow, small smile, but that too betrayed how nervous he was. She seemed to take that anxiety as her cue.
“It’s time,” she said, stepping away. When Cloud swallowed hard and nodded, she led the way from the room.
They wound their way through the halls to the throne room, where Claudia sat on her throne, Cloud standing just off her right shoulder. Claudia knew her son well enough to understand that, if she let them sit there and wait in silence, he would only wind himself in tighter and tighter knots. Instead, she roped him into easy conversation, keeping him distracted until a page came to announce Queen Jenova and her son. She gave Cloud’s hand a squeeze and one last smile before allowing the Unseelie royalty to enter.
It wasn’t what he was expecting. Or maybe it was, on some level.
He was very used to being out-classed physically. Fae, particularly the Seelie with their strict rules about bloodlines, were beautiful to a fault. When they chose to actively use their glamor, they were otherworldly. He, in comparison, would always be plain, no matter what he did. But he had hoped that might not be the case with the Unseelie prince. Unseelie bloodlines were muddier, with more mixed race people. He had hoped that maybe Sephiroth’s bloodline wasn’t so pure, or maybe that the Unseelie were naturally not as beautiful as the Seelie, which was something many Seelie liked to claim.
That couldn’t be more wrong.
Sephiroth was beautiful.
He arrived dressed in nothing but pitch-deep black, in leather armor and a velvet cape. He wore no jewelry, and if it weren’t for the silver embellishments on his armor, he would almost seem to be dressed plainly. But it wasn’t his clothing that was alluring.
His face was breath-taking. His hair fell around him like moonlight. His eyes shone.
And for a second, Cloud was awe-struck.
And then he remembered the tenets of the Unseelie Code.
Glamor is free.
Fae couldn’t turn their glamor off entirely, but active, senseless use of glamor was frowned upon. Seelie were never wasteful with their glamor, and use of it in trickery was severely frowned upon.
It had never occurred to Cloud that Sephiroth might arrive wrapped in glamour.
All that initial awe was immediately soured.
There was wanting to make a good first impression, and then there was manipulation. This was decidedly the latter.
Still, when Jenova and her son reached the throne, he succeeded in keeping his face perfectly polite.
“Queen Jenova, it is an honor to have you in my home,” Claudia said, and Jenova smiled.
“It’s an honor to be here.”
Claudia stood and ushered Cloud forward.
“Jenova, this is my son, Cloud.”
He bowed politely, and when he looked up, she was giving him that Condescending Fae Smile. Like he was a dog who had done a trick. It was a little more difficult to fake his smile.
“A pleasure to meet you, Cloud.”
“Likewise, my lady.”
Jenova then gestured to her son, who had yet to actually look at Cloud, his eyes instead trained on Claudia.
“My son, Sephiroth.”
He offered his own pristine bow, and Claudia gave him her warm smile. Cloud found himself feeling that Sephiroth didn’t deserve it.
“It’s lovely to finally meet you, Sephiroth. I’ve heard so much.”
“All good things, I hope.”
Claudia laughed brightly and said, “All good things.” She then turned to Jenova and said, “We have some things to discuss. Would you like to come with me? We’ll leave the boys to get acquainted.”
“Absolutely,” Jenova confirmed. When Claudia passed and lead them from the throne room, she called over her shoulder, “Behave.”
Claudia laughed again and Jenova echoed her quietly before the door closed behind them.
For the first time, Sephiroth looked to Cloud, who had a very difficult time remembering that he now had reason to dislike the Unseelie.
“Cloud, is it?” he said, and his voice was deep and silken in a way that made Cloud want to shiver. He wondered if that, too, had glamour, and that thought only irritated him more.
Instead of acting on that irritation, he offered his best court smile. He knew it was charming and sweet. He had decided, many years ago, that it was best to give the court what they wanted. If they wanted to infantilize him, then they would get a pure ray of sunshine. Appeasing them sat poorly with him, sat very poorly, but he had his mother’s reputation to uphold, and making waves would ruin it.
“Yes. Sephiroth, right?” he said, in a voice that was as warm as his smile. He watched Sephiroth pause and tilt his head curiously.
“I’d like to skip the rest of the pleasantries, if we can,” he said, and a muted version of Cloud’s sunny smile returned.
“If you’d like.”
“I’d also like to drop the court-manners. They’re exhausting and not something we’ll be able to keep up if we’re wedded.”
Cloud hesitated. He could feel his smile go stiff as his mind scrambled, weighing good impression against his request against appeasement. Eventually, he sighed, but he let the act drop.
“You have a point.”
“Thank you, now—”
This was, in a way, its own form of appeasement.
And when he appeased, he committed.
“If we’re trying to me authentic, I’d appreciate you dropping your glamour.”
Sephiroth paused and blinked in surprise.
When would the fae stop underestimating him?
Cloud raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms.
“I’m human, Sephiroth, not stupid.”
The Unseelie coughed lightly and shifted.
He obliged, and that’s when Cloud realized he was truly fucked.
He was as handsome without the glamor as he was with it. That ethereal, unnaturally alluring quality was gone now, and he looked a little less perfect, but he was still beautiful. Among the Seelie, he’d seen many, many beautiful people, and Sephiroth might have been the most beautiful to date.
It took Cloud a beat longer than he was proud of to snap himself out of it, but he managed.
“Come on, I’ll take you somewhere where we can at least sit while we talk,” Cloud said before leading his way to a door on the side of the room. He reminded himself pointedly that he couldn’t let Sephiroth off the hook entirely for his glamour trick, though he did still need to find a way to make this work.
“Thank you,” Sephiroth answered.
This conversation was going flat quickly.
They walked in silence until they reached a lounge chamber, with a scattering of plush chairs in the typical style that modeled tree branches, flowers that glowed softly lining the room, and a large window to let the sun in. When Sephiroth entered and sat, Cloud shut the door. He hoped that Sephiroth would think of something to say, but he seemed determined to be unhelpful.
So, equally unhelpfully, Cloud turned around and said, “Honestly, I don’t have a clue what to talk about.”
Sephiroth snorted in amusement, the faintest curl on his lips. Cloud cursed his heart for stuttering. The Unseelie propped an elbow on the armrest and rested his cheek on his knuckles.
“Not much experience outside of dealing with courtiers, then?”
“Never much of an opportunity.”
The boredom remained in his pose but faded in his sharpening eyes. Cloud knew what he was going to say before it was out of his mouth.
“Because you’re a prince or because you’re a changeling?”
Cloud mirrored him, propping his chin in his palm.
“I don’t know, Sephiroth; you’re a prince. Have you had dealt with people other than courtiers?”
He blinked in surprise, apparently not expecting an attitude from a human Seelie. He’d have to learn quickly.
But then that small smile snaked back onto his lips.
“Point taken,” he conceded. “I guess I’ll have to teach you the art of ordinary conversation, then. What are your interests?”
They devolved into aimless conversation. It was a dance of sorts, each feeling the other out. Sephiroth tested him, poked and prodded, to see if he was clever, if he was submissive, what he knew, what he would tolerate. Cloud was largely left playing defense, aiming to prove himself, but he had stopped seeking Sephiroth’s approval. Instead, it came down to sheer hard-headedness and need to be contrary. He was being underestimated, and while that wasn’t something Cloud wasn’t used to, it was something he wouldn’t tolerate in a husband. If this was to work, Sephiroth would have to learn that he was more than expected.
But eventually their dance came to a close, as their mothers summoned them back to the throne room. When they were there, they were informed that they would be given the opportunity to further get to know each other during the Wild Hunts. Both were quick approaching, and in the old traditions, the Seelie Hunt would be on the new moon, the Unseelie on the full; both Cloud and Sephiroth would attend each.
Claudia and Cloud bid Jenova and Sephiroth farewell with all the polite formality required, the casual time spent in the sunlit room set aside.
When they were alone, Claudia turned to Cloud and said, “What do you think?”
He couldn’t say, “He’s gorgeous and a challenge and I hate this situation a little less now,” primarily out of pride.
Instead, he shrugged and said, “He’s interesting.”
However, Claudia knew her son, and knew he was omitting some factors.
She smiled with a mischievous air and said, “Oh?”
Cloud, damn him and his pale skin, blushed.
“Yes, Mother, interesting, that’s what I said.”
“Hmm, I thought maybe there were some other words you might have forgotten. Is ‘handsome’ one of them?”
“I apparently have a Hunt to prepare for, excuse me.”
Claudia laughed and called to his back as he fled the room, “The Hunt isn’t for another week!”
“Well, what do you think?”
Jenova and Sephiroth sat in their carriage as it flew through the sky, quickly approaching home.
He thought many things about the changeling. That he was a pretty little thing, whose lack of glamor didn’t make him any less attractive, and there was something charming about the way he was dressed up like a fine porcelain doll just to meet him—though the Seelie did have a bad habit of bedecking themselves at the slightest cause.
And certainly, that this would be less boring than he expected. He thought he was going to meet a meek, weak little rosebud, pretty but delicate, something he could cultivate with care to become exactly what he wanted. That wasn’t entirely untrue, but his rosebud had thorns. Cloud was a challenge he wasn’t expecting. He had a quick wit and a sharp tongue. He was knowledgeable. He refused to yield easily, which was distinctly against the reputation he had. He was said to be the model of court manners and compliant to a fault. Either that version was a front, or the one he met today was, and he was betting it was the prior. There was something distinctly appealing in the idea that Cloud let his real self be seen, but only to him.
Jenova arched an eyebrow.
“‘Interesting’ is high praise, from you.”
“He’s earned it. He’s a human and a Seelie, but he acts like neither. He’s a conundrum.”
“Good. At least he’ll be able to keep you entertained for a while.”
Sephiroth smiled in return.
“For a while, yes.”
“Do you know much about the Seelie Wild Hunt?”
“Only that it’s… different.”
Cloud stepped aside to let Sephiroth through the portal before following him to the mortal world.
“What happens on the Unseelie Hunt?”
Sephiroth glanced over his shoulder, a smirk on his lips.
“I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.”
Cloud wasn’t sure what to make of that.
“Well, I guess we’ll figure it out. Everyone starts as part of the host and then breaks off, we can go from there.”
Sephiroth seemed faintly surprised, but conceded. As they watched the host lift from the ground as one unit and quickly followed suit. Sephiroth’s wings were feathered (an unusual trait in a fae) and jet black as his clothes. Cloud simply lifted from the ground where his bare feet had been buried in the grass.
“How are you doing that?” Sephiroth said, watching him closely.
Cloud grinned and said, “Who knew an Unseelie prince would be so surprised by a little magic?”
He flew off, leaving Sephiroth to give chase. They remained toward the back of the host as they flew over the countryside. There were horns and drums being played, laughter and yelling, a general lack of decorum. There were bottles of wine being tossed from person to person, fae tumbling and looping in their flight.
The Seelie Wild Hunt was, in the end, a celebration. They did as they would, breaking off from the host and sometimes returning to it before the group made it back to the Faewild. This was a night of trickery and theft. Everything was up for grabs, but the prize targets were the strangely potent human liquor and the human children who would become changelings. Spoils were brought back to the host for bragging rights, but others stayed longer on the ground. Boasting wasn’t limited to what was stolen, however. The true test was how many humans one could trick into entering the Faewild. The stories of the luring would be told until the next year, when more stories would be made.
Cloud explained this to Sephiroth as they flew, as different Seelie broke off for their own adventures.
“What are your own trophies of the Hunt, then?” Sephiroth asked, watching as Cloud shrugged.
“I don’t usually go.”
He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly.
“A few reasons.”
“Is it because you don’t like targeting humans?”
Cloud looked at him like he had six heads and then laughed.
“I don’t care what harm comes to them any more than you do.”
“I doubt that.”
“Doubt all you want. It has little to do with being a changeling.”
“But it does have something to do with being a changeling.”
Cloud cursed his slip.
He had been facing Sephiroth, arms wrapped around his knees as he flew backwards. He shifted so they were shoulder to shoulder, and the movement was not lost on the Unseelie.
“I don’t usually have anyone to go with. Mother doesn’t attend; she’s too busy.”
Sephiroth hummed, and Cloud’s eyes cut to him, watching him closely for a look of pity. When Sephiroth noticed, he turned to the Seelie and raised an eyebrow. Cloud blinked in surprise, but turned to face forward again.
“Do you attend your Hunt?” Cloud asked, determined to change the subject before they could circle back around and actually end up in pity.
“Every year,” he confirmed, glancing to Cloud.
“You like it?”
“It’s interesting,” he said, as if that explained everything.
Cloud found it cryptic, but left it alone.
“Do you have something you want to hunt?” Cloud asked.
“This is your Hunt,” he answered, in that same self-explanatory tone.
This time, Cloud sighed. He wasn’t sure if it was because he was exasperated or irritated.
“The other reason I don’t usually attend is that I’m a bad hunter,” he said, looking pointedly forward and hoping his ears weren’t burning.
Though they clearly were.
“Why is that?” Sephiroth asked, and it was enough that Cloud turned to look at him in confusion.
“Isn’t it obvious? No glamour, only borrowed magic. When I hunt, it’s just with simple tricks and relying on a childish face to get them to trust me. If you want a fun Hunt, you’ll have to lead it.”
“In due time, when it’s my Hunt. This is yours. Lead.”
Cloud was ready to insist, but he just had to make it a challenge.
He heaved another sigh and said, “Alright, but it’s going to be boring.”
“You’ve yet to be boring. I’m not sure you know how.”
Cloud’s eyes shot toward him for a second before he turned his back and began descending. Sephiroth wouldn’t have been sure he heard him at all, if it wasn’t for the bright blush on his cheeks.
They landed behind an expensive manor, touching down on a set of stairs that led into a basement, landing quick enough that Cloud almost stumbled. Sephiroth landed easily next to him.
“How will you get them to let you in? No one’s here,” Sephiroth asked, glancing back up the stairs. They had seen no one outside the home.
“Being human has its perks,” Cloud said, pulling a set of metal items from his belt, which he held up for Sephiroth to see, though it was clear the Unseelie didn’t recognize what they were. Cloud knelt in front of the door and inserted them to start picking the lock. “I’m not bound to your rules. I don’t have to tell the truth, for example. I also don’t have to be let in anywhere.”
“Very wrong, by our standards, I know. Most people don’t like being around me when I do things like this; it makes them uncomfortable. They don’t like it when I can do something they can’t.” Cloud paused and glanced up at Sephiroth. “I hope you’re not going to start spouting moral codes at me.”
Sephiroth had a strange look on his face. If Cloud didn’t know better, he’d say he looked charmed.
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he said lightly.
Cloud nodded and returned to his work, only to have Sephiroth crouch down next to him to watch a second later. It was highly distracting, as he was pushing into Cloud’s personal space, and the fact that Cloud didn’t mind was even more distracting.
“How does this work?” Sephiroth asked.
“Human locks are mechanical, not magical. There are pins inside that are pressed into place by the shape of the key. I’m just pressing them in without the key.”
“You make it sound simple.”
“It’s not particularly complicated, just delicate. Luckily, I’m pretty good with my hands.”
Cloud meant it to refer to crafting, to woodworking and carving and sculpting and drawing. He meant that he was dexterous. He didn’t mean to lead Sephiroth’s mind off in a completely different direction, and was so focused on his task, that he missed any double-meanings.
Before Sephiroth could decide whether or not to call him on it, just to see that blush again, there was a click, and the door swung open. A proud smile flickered across Cloud’s face as he stood and pulled the door wider, gesturing for Sephiroth to enter: an invitation from a human to a fae. When he stepped inside, Cloud followed.
Cloud went to a lantern hanging on the wall. He dipped his hand into another pouch on his belt and, when his fingers were lightly coated in a strange powder, he put his hand in the lantern and snapped his fingers. The motion produced a spark that quickly caught, lighting the lantern, which Cloud took from the wall. He blew the remaining powder from his fingertips and went to search the cellar.
“Do you want to stay here or go back to the others once we have what we want? The wine’s here, by the way.”
Sephiroth crossed to the shelf Cloud pointed to and took a bottle off the shelf.
“I’d like to stay here, if you don’t mind. The Hunt is fun, but I’d rather talk to you.”
Cloud glanced over his shoulder at Sephiroth, who was busy uncorking his bottle.
“I’m surprised you aren’t bored after I talked your ear off last time.”
“Didn’t I tell you? I don’t find you boring,” he said casually.
Cloud would have looked back to him again, but he could hear Sephiroth approach and look over his shoulder, leaning into his space.
“What are you doing?” Sephiroth asked.
“I prefer whiskey over wine,” he said, taking a bottle from the shelf. He looked up just in time to see Sephiroth wrinkle his nose.
“It isn’t sweet enough,” he said, and Cloud laughed; it was good to know Unseelie also had the typical weakness to sweets.
“I’m not a huge fan of sweet things,” Cloud said, turning around. He expected Sephiroth to back up, for them to go find somewhere to sit and drink. He didn’t expect the way Sephiroth chased him, taking a tiny step forward, taking just a little more of the space between them.
“Fae like sweets more than humans do, if the amount of honey on everything is anything to go by.”
“That isn’t what I meant.”
“… What did you mean?”
“It’s a strange sentiment, coming from one so sweet.”
There was a long pause before Cloud burst into helpless laughter. He laughed longer and harder than he meant to, and even once he stopped, he had to hide the lingering smile behind a hand. He almost lost it again at the perplexed look on Sephiroth’s face.
“I wasn’t sure if you were flirting before, but I’m pretty sure now. That was a terrible line, Sephiroth.”
Sephiroth cleared his throat.
“I wouldn’t have been so heavy-handed if you had picked up on it sooner.”
“I’d have gotten there if you gave me a chance to.”
“I’m not particularly patient.”
“I’m starting to realize.”
“You haven’t answered.”
“You haven’t asked me a question.”
“Out of curiosity, how does that sort of line usually work out for you?”
“Really, does that work with the Unseelie? Or do you just not have to try very hard when you’re that handsome?”
It was Sephiroth’s turn to blink.
After a pause, Cloud smiled sweetly and said, “Is that answer enough for you?”
“You don’t sound very sure.”
“I am. I just didn’t expect it to be this easy.”
Cloud leaned back against the shelf, whiskey bottle dangling from one hand.
“I want this to work, Sephiroth.”
“For the sake of your people?”
“I’m marrying you for their sake. I want this to work so we aren’t both miserable.”
“This could be a formality. We wouldn’t even need to share a home.”
“Are you trying to talk me out of this?”
“No. I’m just not interested in taking this any further if you’re agreeing out of a sense of obligation.”
“Listen to me, Sephiroth,” he said, with a small rising in the previously missing seriousness. “I owe my mother quite a bit, but I owe the Seelie nothing. I feel no obligation toward them.”
Sephiroth’s brow creased.
“Then why agree at all?”
“The Seelie mean little to me, but a lot to my mother. I agreed for her sake, not theirs. Are you doing this out of obligation?”
“I agreed because I owe it to my people to keep the peace.”
“Let me rephrase. Are you pursuing me for the sake of the Unseelie?”
It was carefully worded. Fae couldn’t lie.
“I’m pursuing you because you interest me.”
Technically the truth.
Cloud paused, looking over Sephiroth’s face very carefully before coming to a decision.
He stood up on his toes, and, with one hand placed on Sephiroth’s arm for balance, kissed him.
When he pulled back, he watched Sephiroth carefully reach over his shoulder to put his bottle down on the shelf. He then plucked the whiskey from Cloud’s fingers and set it next to his own wine while Cloud watched his movements in silence.
Sephiroth reached down and cupped his face like he was a fragile thing, tilting his face up gently to kiss him in return. It wasn’t what he expected. It was soft, it was sweet, it was very contrary to his existing understanding of the Unseelie.
Instead, it was Cloud who deepened the kiss. Who wrapped his arms around Sephiroth’s neck and pulled him down, moving with a fervor that surprised Sephiroth at first, but was quickly reciprocated.
The bottles rattled when Cloud was pushed against the shelf, Sephiroth’s hands running down his torso to hold him by the hips. They weren’t quite pressed together, but it was a near thing. The soft, sweet kiss turned into something heated and heavy with an alarming quickness that neither had anticipated.
They would never know just how far out of hand things would have gotten if the door to the cellar hadn’t banged open.
A man came in, grumbling to himself about greedy dinner guests, and only just barely glanced up in time to see the two in each other’s arms. Right before Sephiroth grabbed his wine and Cloud’s whiskey and, wrapping one arm around Cloud’s neck so they were in contact, transported them back to the Faewild.
When they reappeared, it was in the small lounge with the large window that they had spoken in when they first met. The quickness of the movement over-balanced them, knocking knees into the couch, where they both fell in a graceless heap, Sephiroth only just managing to keep the bottles out of harm’s way.
Cloud barely registered the way he was artlessly half-in Sephiroth’s lap, propped on one elbow against the couch, his legs twined with Sephiroth’s. He was quick to pull away, that damnable blush returning.
Sephiroth watched as he righted himself with a look of amusement, but kept his remarks to himself. Instead, he uncorked Cloud’s bottle and handed it to him before repeating the motion with his own. He held it out toward Cloud in a toast.
“To a successful Hunt.”
Cloud laughed brightly before knocking his bottle against Sephiroth’s.
“To a successful Hunt.”
Cloud wasn’t quite sure what to make of the recommendation that he “dress sensibly” for the Unseelie Hunt. It was a passing comment made by Sephiroth when he left that his mother later echoed. It wasn’t like he dressed impractically for the Seelie Hunt, but when he left he saw the distinct look of relief on his mother’s face when she checked his (relatively) simple hunting clothes.
He was even less sure of what to make of Sephiroth’s words immediately before they left.
Before the Unseelie let them pass through the portal, he pulled Cloud off to the side.
“I want to warn you. The Unseelie Hunt is little like the Seelie version. It’s dangerous, and it will be particularly dangerous for you. If only until we return, I’d like you to stay near me, in arm’s reach if you can. And remember, we can leave the Host at any point, you just have to say the word.”
He refused to acknowledge the flutter in his stomach at the thought of Sephiroth being protective.
“You know I can take care of myself, don’t you? Humans couldn’t intimidate me less.”
Sephiroth took his hand and turned to lead him through the portal, muttering something that he could have mistaken, but thought was, “It’s not the humans I’m worried about.”
That is, he wasn’t very sure of what to make of Sephiroth’s words at first.
They were barely a minute from the portal when an Unseelie swooped up toward Sephiroth and, leering at Cloud, said, “You sure started early.”
Cloud was certainly uncomfortable with the look he was given and not sure what that meant either, but the way Sephiroth stared the fae down was very clear.
“He’s off limits.”
The Unseelie looked at him in confusion.
“Off. Limits. Make sure the rest of the Host knows, and if anyone approaches me about it again, I’ll be holding you responsible.”
Cloud watched the exchange, even more confused than the newcomer was. The newcomer who, at the threat, frowned, but flew off and began speaking to others who in turn spoke to others around them, passing word to everyone they could of the prince’s strange decree.
“You understand that that was ominous, right?” Cloud said, finally looking at Sephiroth after watching the spider web of information spread.
“It was necessary,” he said in a tone that was very final and brooked no argument. He seemed to have forgotten that Cloud wasn’t a member of his Court, and was very hard-headed besides.
“It was cryptic. What happens on this Hunt?”
“You’ll see soon enough, I’m sure.”
Cloud was stopped in his tracks when he heard a bloodcurdling scream.
That was immediately followed by cheers and whoops and laughter.
His eyes cut to Sephiroth, but the Unseelie wouldn’t look at him.
He glanced at him, and then turned to face him.
“Cloud, our mothers agreed to have us go on each other’s Hunts for a reason. They seem to be a crash course in what it means to be Seelie and Unseelie. It wasn’t difficult for me to accept yours, but I don’t think you’ll have the same ease.”
“If we marry,” Sephiroth continued, “you’ll be a prince of the Unseelie as much as you are of the Seelie. You aren’t in line for the throne, but I am. I will be King and you will be my husband and I need to know that you can stomach this. We won’t work otherwise. I expect this will be a lot for you to handle, but if you can’t manage this, you can’t manage my Court. A lot is riding on how well you take tonight.”
Cloud looked over him very carefully for a long moment. Eventually, he nodded.
“I told you, I’m committed to making this work. I’ll stomach what I have to.”
Sephiroth looked relieved, but not quite convinced. He shifted from where he had been between Cloud and the host to fly by Cloud’s shoulder.
“It will only get worse from here, but if you need to leave, we’ll leave. We don’t have to stay here the whole night, just long enough for us both to know that you’ll be able to tolerate it.”
Cloud glanced at Sephiroth, determinedly not mentioning again how it was an ominous thing to say, but then, he didn’t really need to. After that initial, introductory scream, things took off.
Cloud watched mutely as the fae swept low to the ground and snatched unsuspecting humans from the ground and dragged them into the air. Some were brought immediately back to the Faewild, which was the most palatable thing Cloud saw. Some were dropped from the height just so they could watch them fall. Some were tossed from fae to fae, who seemed to delight in their terror. Some were bruised, some were beaten, some just outright ripped to shreds.
More than once, someone approached Sephiroth, attempting to draw him into the fun, though he politely declined. He stayed adamantly by Cloud’s side, though he didn’t say a word. He didn’t try to excuse what was happening. He didn’t try to apologize for the clear fact that Cloud’s presence was the only reason he wasn’t also participating. He didn’t try to offer explanations or platitudes. This was a hard truth, a bitter pill, but it was Cloud’s test to pass or fail; he would neither help nor harm his chances.
Cloud, similarly, didn’t say a word. He was much too conflicted to talk. Part of him was horrified at the blatant disrespect for life, but he was even more horrified that his disgust ended there. He always expected, deep down, that there was still some human part of him that clung to his genetics. That, in the end, he would always be defined by his birth parents, much as the Seelie Court had always told him. He knew that, should a human watch this spectacle, they would be repulsed. Mortified. Terrified. At the carnage and the casual cruelty, at the delight in the suffering of people whose position they could have so easily been in.
But that relatability was absent. Those weren’t his people. Just as any fae would tell you, they were lesser. His folk were just plainly better. He didn’t condone wanton brutality against anything: human, dog, or insect. But he found that the three weren’t that dissimilar in his mind. This was something to wrinkle the nose at, not gasp and flinch from.
He wasn’t sure if he should be proud or horrified at that truth.
He watched the majority of the night, only twitching away from the violence when the gore threatened his own clothes; more a concern for his garments than the victims.
Sephiroth, meanwhile, watched Cloud watch the Hunt. Going into this, he hadn’t been quite sure what to expect from the changeling. He never acted very human, but that meant nothing. Neither a human nor a Seelie would like watching the Hunt very much, it was just a question of the level of distaste. He didn’t need Cloud to like it, just to tolerate it.
As he watched, he cursed himself quietly. Cloud wasn’t quite indifferent to the scene, but he was indifferent to the suffering, and Sephiroth found himself charmed. He saw Cloud snort in amusement more than once at less gruesome antics, saw him yawn a few times, saw him relax more and more as the night progressed. His little human, acting so fae.
He cursed himself for being charmed, but more so for the curl of possessiveness that warmed his stomach.
Eventually, two Unseelie backed far away from each other before flying quickly at one another, ramming two human’s heads together so they burst like melons. It was, unfortunately, close enough that Cloud got hit with the backsplash. He clicked his tongue and wrinkled his nose, and Sephiroth tried to quash the flare-up of possessiveness at the sight.
“Alright, I think I’ve seen enough,” Cloud said, and Sephiroth couldn’t help but smile.
A fair place to draw the line.
“Come, then; we’ll get you cleaned up,” Sephiroth said, holding out a hand. Cloud took it and, in a blink, they were back in Sephiroth’s palace in the Faewild.
They were in a large bathroom, covered in marble and red jasper, with most of the furniture and items being at least partially silver. Sephiroth gestured to the edge of a large pool, with a small waterfall at one end and steam rising from the water. Cloud sat on the edge of it, plucking at his garments to see the damage, while Sephiroth fetched a towel from a cabinet. He approached and sat next to Cloud, their knees brushing. He dipped the towel in the water and then glanced up at Cloud in askance, who nodded and shifted nearer. Sephiroth spoke quietly as he dabbed the gore away.
“I’m surprised that went as well as it did.”
“Honestly, I am too.”
Sephiroth looked up at Cloud, who smiled and shrugged.
“I always doubted if I was quite as Seelie as I thought I was,” Cloud said. “It’s both nice and concerning to find out this way that I was right.”
“Well, it’s a good thing that came from tonight.”
“More than one good thing came from tonight.”
“Oh?” Sephiroth said, glancing up at Cloud again.
“That was our last big concern, right? About this working, I mean. We can tolerate each other and each other’s cultures. The rest will fall in line from there.”
Cloud hesitated when Sephiroth frowned and paused, staring at his hands.
“This isn’t working.” Cloud’s heart stopped as Sephiroth looked back up. “The whole thing will have to be washed. Would you like me to get you something else?”
Sephiroth looked at him strangely.
“Your shirt. The blood isn’t coming out. Do you want something else to change into? You’re now both bloody and wet.”
Cloud blinked at him before laughing.
“You scared me—you should have led with the fact that you were talking about the shirt.”
Sephiroth’s smile was a soft echo of Cloud’s.
“Apologies. You haven’t answered the question, though.”
Cloud paused for a long moment, appraising Sephiroth, before nodding with mischief in his eyes.
“How about,” he said, yanking the shirt over his head and dropping it to the floor, “I take this off and you don’t get me anything else quite yet?”
It was Sephiroth’s turn to laugh.
“You really weren’t bothered by tonight, were you?”
“I’m very bothered that you aren’t kissing me right now.”
“Demanding little thing.”
Sephiroth reached out and took a gentle hold of Cloud’s chin, holding him still so he could press a soft kiss to his lips.
When he began to pull away, Cloud made a noise of frustration and reached out, grabbing Sephiroth by the front of his shirt to pull him in closer and kiss him properly.
Unfortunately, the move also made them overbalance and fall directly into the pool.
The two came up spluttering and blinking the water from their eyes.
They blinked a few more times in surprise before Cloud devolved into helpless laughter.
“I’m sorry!” he said between laughs. “I didn’t mean to.”
“Oh no,” Sephiroth said in a painfully deadpan voice. “I guess you’ll have to make it up to me.”
He stripped his own sodden shirt off and tossed it out of the pool, flicking his long hair from his face as he did so.
The water was deeper than it looked, Cloud standing upright but in up to his shoulders. He grinned as Sephiroth approached.
“You don’t have to keep using bad lines on me, you know,” he said, voice dipping down into a whisper as Sephiroth moved in close, settling his hands on Cloud’s hips. He pushed lightly, making Cloud move further and further back.
“Humor me,” he said, as Cloud’s back finally hit the wall.
“However you’d like,” Cloud promised, still smiling when Sephiroth leaned down to kiss him.
As before, Sephiroth was gentle, as if afraid to break Cloud. As before, Cloud demanded more, this time fisting his hands in Sephiroth’s hair and pulling him closer until they were flush against one another.
Time both stopped and sped up. They seemed trapped in some endless moment, just a long, long slide of lips and tongues, wet hands sliding through hair and over hips. The only thing that broke them out of it was Sephiroth slipping his knee between Cloud’s thighs and pressing just enough that he was able to breathe in Cloud’s moan.
Sephiroth’s hands reached around, cupping Cloud’s ass and pulling him closer, but the additional pressure made Cloud drop his head back against the wall with a groan. His hands dropped from Sephiroth’s hair to his shoulders, his fingers digging in as his hips stuttered forward automatically.
“Fuck,” Cloud breathed, eyes shutting as Sephiroth began to kiss down his neck.
“Fuck,” Cloud repeated, as Sephiroth slipped his hand around to cup him through his pants.
Sephiroth smiled against Cloud’s neck before returning to his work, determined to mark Cloud as his.
There were many things Cloud wanted to do in this moment. There were many things Cloud had thought of doing in moments like these, ever since that first kiss. Unfortunately, he could think of none of them; Sephiroth was determined to stop him from keeping a coherent thought in his head, and he was succeeding.
Sephiroth’s fingers were deft as he undid the laces at the front of Cloud’s pants to free him, and equally deft about repeating the motion with himself. Cloud was only too happy to comply when Sephiroth urged him to hitch one leg up and around the Unseelie’s hips. Neither needed prompting once Sephiroth’s hands lined them up and surrounded them with heat.
Cloud was clinging to Sephiroth, his nails digging into his back, his leg pulling him closer as they moved together. He was panting and overwhelmed and Sephiroth refused to give him a moment to catch his breath.
Time stretched and stopped again into another long instant of wet and heat and pleasure. It could have been a moment or a millennia before Sephiroth yanked him down over the edge, keening. When he came back to himself, both of them were panting, Sephiroth’s forehead now pressed to his shoulder. Eventually, Cloud turned and kissed his temple, and it was enough prompting to get them moving again. They untangled themselves slowly, with many lingering touches and slow, soft kisses. It was a slow process that brought them to the edge of the pool, but they got there eventually (if reluctantly). They moved in silence, not quite daring to say anything, as they climbed out. As careful as he was quiet, Sephiroth dressed Cloud in his own simple black tunic and, with a simple touch, removed the water from both shirt and pants.
He gently took hold of Cloud’s hips once more and stepped close.
“I don’t know when I’ll see you again,” Sephiroth said in a whisper. “Hopefully before the wedding, but everything seems to be so rushed that I don’t know. But, hopefully, soon.”
Cloud stood on his toes and pressed a kiss to his lips.
“Whether or not it’s the wedding, I look forward to seeing you again.”
Sephiroth returned the kiss, though this one was slower. The two drew it out, knowing they were at the end of their time.
“I should send you home,” Sephiroth said reluctantly.
“You should,” Cloud said with equal reluctance.
Sephiroth touched his cheek and kissed him one last time, whispered goodbye, and then suddenly, Cloud was looking at his own throne room.
Claudia looked up, surprised but not startled, until she realized that it was her son, when she became both concerned and relieved.
“Cloud, you’re home. Are you okay? I was—… I was needlessly worried, apparently.”
Cloud looked at her in confusion as she melted into a grin. She propped her elbow on the armrest of her throne and rested her cheek on her knuckles.
“I take it you had a good night,” she said, pointedly flicking her eyes down.
He glanced down and, plucking at the shirt he forgot was Sephiroth’s, turned bright red.
“It’s not what you think,” he said. “The Unseelie were reckless and I got blood-splattered, he just gave me a change of clothes.”
“Mother, come on, it’s true!”
“Then why is your neck bruised?”
Cloud’s eyes shot wide. He slapped his hand over his neck. If he wasn’t blushing before, he sure was now.
Claudia laughed, loud and bright, and waved him away.
He took the opportunity and bolted.