by thorn uncut

“You’re not serious,” Fay protests. He leans into the mirror, so that they’re cheek-to-cheek, and for maybe the first time in their lives, the reflection is different. “Uncle will be furious, you know that.”

“But Uncle isn’t coming tonight,” Yuui points out sweetly. He pouts at the mirror and carefully applies paint to his lips, the way he’s seen their mother do. “He’s off on another one of his little war campaigns. This is our party, and he doesn’t even have to know.” He kisses the air a few times, testing, then sets the paint-pot aside. Without looking away from the mirror, he slides his arms around his twin’s neck in a loose half-hug. “It’ll be fine. Think of it as a joke, Fay! It’ll be wonderful!”

Into the mirror, Fay makes a face. Yuui mimics it immediately, but there is red on his mouth and violet shadows lining his eyes, so it’s not the same. “You’ve such strange ideas of ‘wonderful,'” he says. He runs his fingers through Yuui’s hair, gathering it back loosely from his face. (Their face.) Yuui beams at him and slips on earrings that must have been pilfered from their mother’s jewelry-box, long enough to dangle past his chin, made of silver wire spangled with blue crystals and teardrop-shaped pearls. Next comes a choker that fits snugly around Yuui’s throat: a scrap of dark ribbon set with a a sky-blue sapphire. After he fastens it, Yuui reaches up and grasps Fay’s wrists; his smile is gentle.

“You don’t like it,” he says wryly.

Fay doesn’t bother to lie. He shakes his head. “It’s strange,” he says. “You don’t look like us any more.”

“Ah,” says Yuui. He tugs his brother’s hands down, meeting eyes in the mirror. “But I do. See?” He guides Fay’s hand to the sharp rise of his cheekbone, follows the line of his jaw, and along the arch of his neck. He repeats the process on Fay’s face, following the familiar lines, and watches the unease on his brother’s face ease. There is a moment of silence, and then Fay drapes across him, and they smile together: Valeria’s twin princes, alike as they have always been.

“… You’re smudging my makeup,” Yuui says eventually, pouting.

Fay just laughs and shoves Yuui’s head.

+++

“That one,” says Yuui. He smiles behind the veil of his lace fan — Fay knows this, without even seeing his face. “I like that one.”

Fay glances over and scans the crowd till he finds the one that’s caught his brother’s eye. A minor nobleman, he thinks — from the outlying provinces that pepper Valeria’s border. The man in question is tall and broad-shouldered, though he slouches a little where he stands against the wall. He looks uncomfortable and annoyed at the movement of people around him; his hand keeps twitching like he expects to find a sword at his hip. He is one of the very few dark-haired people in the entire room; Valeria is a kingdom of the pale. Fay leans back a little, elbow-to-elbow with his brother (who wears a dark purple dress that reflects blue and silver in the folds and leaves a wide diamond patch of skin exposed on the back, and a white rose, dethorned, tucked behind his ear) and shrugs.

“He looks rather rough,” he says. “Are you sure?”

Yuui chuckles and flutters the fan. It’s too cold, really, but he’s not the only one playing coy this way. “I like soldiers,” he says. For a moment he pauses, and Fay can feel his smile fade away into something wistful. “With destructive magic like mine, it’s better to find someone who can fight back …”

As his voice trails off, Fay takes Yuui’s hand. The long opera gloves make his fingers seem deceptively delicate, but for just a moment Yuui clutches back with a horrible desperate strength. Fay leans until their heads are touching, close enough to smell the perfume Yuui nicked from their mother’s vanity along with the jewelry, and he says, gently, “That’s why I’m here. If you destroy it, I’ll fix it. So you should find someone who makes you happy.”

For a moment, Yuui remains silent. Then he leans up to kiss Fay’s cheek and lets go of his hand.

“I’m going to go talk to him,” he says. He slips away before Fay can stop him, or even give him another warning to be careful; instead, he’s left to lean forward and watch as his brother neatly slices through the crowd. Several nod politely to him, but since no one raises an outcry, Fay can assume that Yuui is recognized as nobility, if not royalty. He watches the young man his brother has targeted and Yuui’s steady approach, then shakes his head and turns away.

+++

Oh, this one is interesting, definitely this one; Yuui knows this before he even makes it towards the other man. Dressed all in black, he stands out sharply amidst a sea of pale blues and violets and greens — winter colors are fashionable this season, as they almost always are. Everyone tries for the ethereal and the delicate, and even Yuui himself is a little guilty of it, because he has a dark dress, but his fan is white lace and the stones at his ears and throat are pale as his skin and hair. He regrets this, briefly: he would hardly stand out in a crowd to someone like that — he’d be just another pale shadow flitting past.

Still, worrying about that won’t do him any good: he has to at least try. He’s not the sort to give up against impossible odds, as his father is fond of saying (as his uncle is fond of darkly muttering). He manages to catch the stranger’s eye and breaks into his most winning smile, lowering his fan enough to show it off. It’s a wonderful smile, he knows: he’s been told many times over, and he’s seen it reflected on Fay’s face. It’s a beautiful smile.

The stranger (who wears neither silver nor gold: a minor nobleman, then, though he carries himself with a dignity missing in most petty lordlings that flock to royal parties) just looks at him and doesn’t even react. If not for the split-second of acknowledgment in those eyes, he might have believed himself passed over entirely. That in itself is unusual enough to keep Yuui’s attention; he snaps the fan partway open over his face and glides the rest of the way over.

“I’m not interested,” the man says, before he can open his mouth. “Go away.”

Yuui stops, nonplussed. He blinks. “I beg your pardon–?”

“You,” the man says. He sounds rather aggrieved. “I don’t want to dance, I don’t care about who married what or why someone killed another for love. No, I don’t want to go out onto the balcony with you and I’m here as an escort for my cousin, but I’m not interested in how eligible you are for marriage. Just no.”

“… My,” says Yuui, wide-eyed innocence. “I was merely going to ask if you were hungry. They went all out for the catering tonight.” He sweeps outward with the fan to point at the table, and he knows this is a nicely dramatic-looking gesture, with the flutter of his sleeve and the cut of air through the delicate veins of the fan. “Wouldn’t you like something to eat? We’re not charging for that.”

The man narrows his eyes. He straightens a little, his hand moving like he expects to find a weapon at his hip. “Not hungry, either.”

“Ehh, really?” Yuui flutters his fan before his mouth, coy and wide-eyed — a look he’s seen his mother’s ladies-in-waiting slant at men before. “But you haven’t eaten all evening~ you’re not even a little bit?”

The stranger looks at him askance, one brow shooting up. It surprises him a little: he has the distinct impression the man’s looking straight through him, through the layers of clothes, past his own fragile skin and fragile fast-beating heart. He feels a little like he’s been struck, and then immediately feels silly for that comparison. It’s the sort of thing that actual girls swoon over — no one knows him that well except for his brother —

“Oi,” says the stranger abruptly. He straightens up further, and Yuui realizes they’re not quite the same height — the other man is just a little taller — but their eyes are still nearly level. “You’re not — oi!” His hand snaps out, and Yuui makes a startled noise as it closes around his wrist. They freeze like that, staring at each other; the other man’s face is now so close that Yuui can see individual eyelashes, and feels breath hot and damp against his cheek. Up close, the other man smells like iron and sweat, and something in Yuui’s belly.

“You,” says the other man, his voice low. “You’re a man, aren’t you?”

Yuui sucks in a sharp breath of surprise. He freezes, clutching at his fan. In his ears, his heart is pounding. He can feel himself blushing, so hotly that the tips of his ears ache from it. “Ah–”

“What the hell do you think you’re doing,” the other man breathes. The words brush Yuui’s cheek like a kiss. He looks about as poleaxed as Yuui feels, but he doesn’t let go of Yuui’s wrist. “Why are you–”

Yuui jerks his hand back. His fingers tingle. His face still feels uncomfortably hot. “I’m sorry,” he says stiffly. “I think you must have the wrong idea.”

“Don’t give me that,” the other man says. His surprise melts into a frown. “What are you trying to hide? You’re not–”

“I am not hiding,” Yuui says. He draws himself up, stiff and shaking, and wills his knees locked to keep them from folding. Fay is making his way towards them, he knows, and if he reaches them it’ll be game over. With a deep breath, he fixes the smile onto his face — the one he uses when at dinner with his uncle, the one that always makes the old man glower at him — and deliberately ignores the way the other man’s frown deepens. “If you’ll excuse me, I mistook you for a gentleman.”

“Oi,” the man protests. “Oi, don’t–”

Yuui turns on his heel and stalks away as gracefully as he can, passing Fay on the way. To his credit, his brother doesn’t immediately turn to follow, but waits to give him distance, first; Yuui keeps walking until he’s in the relative safety of an empty alcove. With a sigh he leans back against the wall and wraps his own fingers around his wrist and tries to massage away the tingling ache that lingers.

+++

Fay finds him eventually. Without a word, he puts his arms around Yuui and draws him in close; Yuui closes his eyes and leans his face into the warm familiar-smelling crook of his brother’s neck and breathes slowly. Fay strokes his back and pulls away just before it becomes uncomfortable. He meets Yuui’s eyes solemnly and pulls something out of his pocket: a silver cufflink, in the shape of a curling dragon. The delicate piece is wonderfully detailed; when Yuui takes it and lifts it up, he can see the individual lines of the dragon’s mouth of fangs.

“Master Kurogane, second cousin of Princess Tomoyo of Piveria, sends his regards,” Fay says quietly. He takes Yuui’s hand and closes the fingers around the cufflink. There is the sadness of knowing in his eyes — in all his life, no one has ever understood Yuui as well as his brother; Fay knows things about him before even he realizes. “They’ll be here in the Summer Capital for another two weeks.”

Yuui looks down at their hands. He looks up at his brother and bites the inside of his cheek. “Brother–”

Fay kisses his forehead. “I’ll always be that,” he says. He smiles then, and Yuui’s breath catches — his brother doesn’t smile very often, not like this, not meaning it — and he chucks Yuui under the chin a little, like they’d done as children. “So you do what you do best, and don’t give up.”

“Fay,” Yuui says softly. He squeezes his fist until he feels the edges of the cufflink dig into his palm, and manages to smile as well. “I will.”

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