Seth fidgeted, fully aware that he was little more than a fraud in his fancy clothes and tidied hair. Bracken's hand found his and held it tight. Seth offered a small smile in return, though it was short-lived at Kendra's bemused expression from across the table. He stuck his tongue out at her, but didn't pull his hand out of Bracken's grip. Finally, Queen Fayetta entered the room, taking a seat next to Bracken. Navarog broke the spell of silence.
"It is my hope that we can mend the rift between our kingdoms," he addressed Bracken, even though the queen of Fae Kingdom was present, which Seth found odd.
"It is a hope which we share," Bracken replied, a little coolly, Seth thought. "The first step to remedy the wrongs done would be to free my mother from her imprisonment."
"The gesture would be appreciated," the firebug said with a good-natured smile Seth recognized from past interactions.
"Yes, of course," Navarog said with a heavy sigh, "I was wrong to keep you bound to my gardens for so long." It took a great effort for him to say, and Seth couldn't help but notice it with a frown.
"Why did you?" All eyes shot to him, and Seth suspected he'd just demonstrated what he'd known from the start; he had no place at this table among queens and kings and princes. But he'd never been good at keeping his questions to himself. It had gotten him in trouble with Belinda more times than he could count.
"I suspect," said the fairy queen softly, "that he did so because he was hurt. Hurt and likely angry as well. Am I wrong, Navarog?" No one said a word. So Fayetta continued. "When I cast the curse, make no mistake, I intended to hurt. But not you, child. In my haste and condemnation of the man who had ripped me from my family, used black magic to keep me from them and chained in his new kingdom of hate and fear, I thought little of the consequences my spell might have on any who came after him. Had I, I might have reconsidered the nature of it. But then, it is just as possible that I would have thought any born from that hateful man to be just as terrible as he. For that, I apologize. For that, I would have apologized many years ago had you only given me the chance. But, as per the black contract, I was not allowed to speak to you in any way. And you let no one, not even your wife, visit my gardens.
"For years my only source of freedom came in the form of wish-granting. I was not strictly forbidden to answer wishes in my own kingdom, though I had to be careful about which ones I addressed personally and which I delegated to my fairies."
"So when you found Seth," Kendra said, "you knew he could convince me to go into the garden, if we could piece together our stories."
"Yes, just so," Fayetta smiled at Kendra, then turned that smile on Bracken and Seth. "But my husband made things rather more difficult than I'd initially planned."
"If he'd gotten me to agree to his terms, I would have been taken in by the Kingdom of Zzyxz," Seth realized. "Becoming a citizen, and the brother of the queen, no less. Which would make it impossible for us to get word through to Fae without risking a war, even if we had figured it all out."
"Indeed." Fayetta turned again to face Navarog. "So, King Navarog, will you forgive me the pain I caused you and set the wrongs your father did right?"
"Yes," a weight seemed to have been lifted from the king's shoulders. He took a deep breath, and then said in a voice strong and deep: "Queen Fayetta, I, King Navarog of Zzyzx, release you from your chains." Nothing changed. And yet, everything had changed.
"I don't want you to leave," Kendra said, holding Seth tight against her.
"Don't be gross," Seth tried to get out of her hug, but they both knew his efforts, as well as his words, were empty. He didn't think he'd ever get tired of her hugs. But still, it wouldn't do to admit it to her, even if she knew anyway. "And you know I can't stay. Fae is my home."
She pulled away from him and looked out over the grassy field they stood on. Over at Bracken. "You really do love him, don't you?"
"I do not," Seth sputtered reflexively, though his red face gave him away. Kendra just laughed.
"I can't believe it. I missed my little brother falling in love. I bet it would have been hilarious to watch. You always hated princes and nights in shining armor and other boringly good characters, I think you called them."
"Shut up," Seth scowled. Bracken's wholehearted goodness was one of the things Seth loved most about him. Unlike Navarog, he'd never fought with any evil inside himself, nor had he ever done any terrible things which haunted him still. Years ago, if Seth had been asked to predict which prince Kendra would marry and which one he would…he would have been entirely mistaken. "Any anyway, I missed my own sister's wedding. That's got to be worse."
"It figures, doesn't it? That not only will we live in separate kingdoms for the rest of our lives, but that we'll also rule over those separate kingdoms."
"I—I don't know about that," Seth regretted mentioning marriage now.
"What?" Kendra laughed again. "That's the plan, isn't it? To marry Bracken? You said so yourself."
"Yeah, but…what if the king won't let me?"
"I don't think you need to worry about that. Bracken really loves you, too," Seth flushed again. "He won't be easy to deter. And Queen Fayetta will convince Oberon, even if Bracken can't. But it won't come to that. Oberon will be so happy when you bring his wife back to him that he may well officiate your marriage on the spot. But you can't let him, if he tries. I'm not missing your wedding."
"Sure," Seth agreed weakly. Then he asked her the question that he'd only ever be able to admit to his sister. "But what if I mess it up?"
"And if I do?"
"Then you'll fix it." She gave him another hug and, amazingly, he felt better.
The ride back to Fae Kingdom was excruciating. Seth jumped every time Bracken took his hand, wrapped an arm around his shoulders, or tugged him towards his tent at night. His eyes always darted guiltily, self-consciously, to the firebug, who only smiled fondly when she saw her son's affection for Seth. But it still made Seth flustered and nervous, to be traveling with his betrothed and his soon to be mother in law. When at last they arrived in Fae, Seth was sure he couldn't have lasted another minute.
Seth rode atop Viola and alongside Bracken, mounted on his own steed. Queen Fayetta sat happily in a fine carriage given to them by Navarog and Kendra, pulled by two of their best horses. The villagers whispered and pointed at the small procession as they rode through town. Seth couldn't blame them. Their little band of three must look pretty strange considering who it consisted of. He was glad the queen had thought to close her curtains.
The same stable boy that had helped Seth saddle up a horse weeks ago was on duty when he, Bracken, and Fayetta arrived. The boy didn't comment on them, though his eyes went wide when the queen stepped from the carriage. She winked at him and then walked into her castle with equal parts whimsy and grace.
Word of their arrival must have reached the king, because Seth could hear his voice booming even before he saw the man.
"And what did you think you were doing, Bracken, chasing after a peasant boy? If I ever have to see that boy's face again, I will have him thrown so deep in the dungeons that you will never find him again!"
Bracken pulled Seth into him, circling his arms protectively around him. Seth didn't protest. When King Oberon rounded the corner, his face was already red with fury and turned even darker when they landed on Seth, held so carefully and lovingly in Bracken's arms. But then his eyes slid from the couple and Seth could pinpoint the exact moment he saw his wife.
"It's been too long, my love," he heard her say as her dress swish-swished across the ground.
"I thought you dead," the king whispered, much as Bracken had. "I thought he killed you."
"No. I am entirely alive," she replied, voice so full of emotion that Seth couldn't register them all. At these words, the king unfroze and rushed to his lost love. Seth watched as the two embraced, then tugged at Bracken's arms.
"We should go," he said quietly. And so they did, Bracken leading him through halls that Seth was beginning to believe might become as familiar to him as the house on his land was.
"I have neglected my duties for too long," Bracken sighed as they came to a grand chamber. "I hate to leave you, but—,"
"I know," Seth laughed. "Duty calls. I'll be fine."
"Thank you," Bracken leaned down to brush a kiss against Seth's lips that left him aching for more. It had been too long since Bracken had properly kissed him. Actually, it had been on the day he'd first proposed. In a field of flowers. Seth longed for another kiss like that one. But he let Bracken go without complaint. Responsibility had to come first, even if it was terribly boring.
"Oh, Bracken, wait," Seth called, and Bracken spun around in alarm. Seth went red. "I, uh, I don't know how to get back to my room."
"You don't need to," Bracken grinned, almost devilishly. "You won't ever need to visit those rooms again. Wait for me here, instead." He nodded at the door he'd left Seth by. Seth watched Bracken walk away, looking a little too pleased. Wearily, he pushed open the doors. It was obvious to him at once what Bracken's smirk had been about. These were no generic chambers for guests. Bracken's chambers felt just like the man himself, and his presence everywhere in the rooms that Seth wandered through him blush madly for reasons he couldn't quite describe.
A knock at the door startled Seth awake from his nap. He shot up, embarrassed to have dozed off after his shower. He was halfway to the door before realizing again where he was. Bracken's bedchamber. He couldn't open the door. If it were Bracken, he'd have come in already. And anyone else knocking on Bracken's doors would be expecting Bracken to answer. He had just turned, resolving to wait the person out, when a familiar voice bled through the heavy door.
"Seth Sorenson," King Oberon's booming voice was muffled to a whisper through the wood. "I know you're in there." Seth jumped, guiltily slinking back into the shadows of the room. "Would you let me in?" He asked it nicely enough. Seth was fairly confident that he wasn't angry anymore, at least. He wasn't eager to have this conversation, no matter what it was about. But he slunk to the door anyway and opened it for the king.
"I didn't mean to come here," he tried to explain as Oberon walked in and closed the door behind him. "I mean, not herehere, anyway. In this room. I obviously do mean to be here, as in here in the castle. But Bracken told me to wait here for him and I don't know the castle well enough to wander off."
"I'm not surprised he deposited you here. I would not be surprised if he tried to lock you in here forever. He was most upset when you ran off," the king said conversationally. Seth flushed anew, ducking his head.
"I—," but what was there to say?
"I'm sorry, Seth, for the way I've treated you." It was the king's voice, but Seth didn't believe it had come out of him until he looked up and saw the kindness in the man's eyes. A kindness inherent in Bracken's own face. "I only wanted what was best for Bracken, and for Fae."
"I know," Seth muttered, fidgeting uncomfortably.
"I was a fool not to see that you are what's best for both my son and my kingdom."
"I'm not, really," Seth protested immediately, then backtracked. "I—I mean, thank you. I'll try. I really want to be." But Seth knew the king's seeming acceptance of him was only a result of his part in liberating the man's wife. "Did Queen Fayetta tell you everything?" He asked. "You won't attack Zzyzx, will you?"
"Yes, she did. And no, I won't." The king voice was still soft, as though talking to a wounded animal. "Thank you, for helping her. For bringing her back to me and my family. I owe you a great debt for that."
"I didn't do any of it because I wanted anything from you," Seth snapped, then bit his lip, waiting for an explosion of rage to match his own from Oberon. But none came.
"I know. And I am sorry again for assuming you to be the sort of man who does anything with personal gain in mind. I misjudged you and I wronged you. I hope you will forgive me in time."
"You're just saying that because Queen Fayetta's making you," Seth finally met the king's eyes, tired of beating around the bush. "All your points against me are still valid. I'm not a maiden and I never was. It'll be an embarrassment to the royal family to explain that to the kingdom. Not to mention I've got no means by which to carry children, so I can't ever provide Bracken with a proper heir," despite his burning cheeks, Seth was on a roll now. "And that seems even more important now, considering how he's got magic to pass down. We both know that I'm not the ideal wife for Bracken, so don't pretend that you've changed your mind just because you've lost and I'm not going anywhere."
"You may not believe me, but I have not lied to you. I had concerns for the logistics of your union with Bracken, I will admit to that, but even before Fayetta smoothed out the wrinkles, I had accepted that you were a worthy young man who deserved my apology and my respect." And again, his eyes, though a deep brown, reminded Seth of Bracken. It was beyond their shared slant and shape. Seth knew the sincerity shown in those eyes was genuine. He nodded.
Oberon smiled and clapped Seth on the back in a fatherly way that made Seth wonder where this man had been several hours ago when he was being threatened with a dungeon so deep Bracken wouldn't be able to find him. He supposed that this man hadn't been out to see the light of day since he'd thought his wife killed.
"So," Seth couldn't resist. "How does the queen think she can smooth out all the wrinkles I'll cause?"
"She seems to think your meeting with Bracken will be seen as romantic," Seth snorted and the king gave a small chuckle, too. But then, both Anita and Kendra had seemed to think it pretty romantic, so what did Seth know? "And fairies, she tells me, are not born in the same manner humans are. So perhaps there is hope for a biological heir. And if not, then I suppose I will have to accept it."
Seth considered this, then shrugged. "Alright. Cool."
"Bracken will be finished with his obligations shortly," Oberon said as he turned to leave.
"Right. Thanks." Seth rubbed the back of his neck, still nervous in the king's looming presence. "I mean, thanks for coming." Oberon nodded once and then was gone.
Seth only had to wait an hour before Bracken pushed open his doors and strode inside. Seth couldn't help the flutter his heart gave, but he didn't appreciate it. He stood up from his perch in a comfortable armchair by the fireplace and put down the book he'd been trying to read. Not that he'd had much success. He'd been too busy anticipating Bracken's return.
"So," Seth said casually, only a few paces from Bracken now, "your dad came by. He gave us his blessing."
"I knew he would, in the end," but Bracken smiled brilliantly at the news.
"You're really going to marry me?" Seth asked.
"After all the trouble I went through to get you here, willing and able to marry me, I would sure hope so."
"Yeah, me too," Seth laughed, nerves receding slightly. "How was your boring prince business?"
"It went well. We are opening borders between Fae and Zzyzx again, and are drafting trading agreements currently. There is a lot of bad blood between my father and the crown of Zzyzx, despite King Navarog's efforts to repair what his father broke. But it will not hold us back for long," Bracken's eyes danced with a secret waiting to spill free.
"Oh?" Seth prompted.
"I will ascend the throne on our wedding day." This news surprised Seth, and again Bracken laughed. "It was my father's intention to pass the crown to me once I married. It is why he pushed so hard for me to find someone. He's grown old and weary and sees that a new king is needed to lead our people further than he can bring them."
"So when is our wedding day, then?" Seth asked, trying to take it all in. "I'll need to send Kendra and Anita invitations."
"I didn't dare set the date without you," Bracken took up Seth's hand and kissed it. Seth's entire body burned for more, but Bracken seemed too distracted with his princely matters to notice. "And speaking of Anita, I had her mother and sister moved far enough out of your way that you shouldn't naturally run into them again. They will live well, but they won't be getting anything more out of you."
"She selected to stay on your plot of land, and I assumed you wouldn't begrudge her that, so I allowed it. Of course, further arrangements can be made—,"
"No, she's welcome to stay," Seth grinned. "I never thought she'd want to."
"From what I hear, she's helped in tending to the gardens and animals while we were away. The morning I woke to find you missing, I went to your land first, but my father sent a guard after me. After I talked with Anita, who told me all she knew, I stationed the guard at the house so as to get him off my back. Father was unspecific in his orders—he'd merely told Taran to follow me. He heard news of our return today and rode back to report to me on his time with your step-family."
"I bet he had a great time," Seth laughed.
"Strangely, I got the impression that he did." Something sparked in Seth's memory.
"I don't suppose Taran was at your ball?"
"Yes," Bracken eyed Seth suspiciously, which prompted him to roll his eyes.
"I'm asking for Anita, not me. She said she fell in love with a guard she danced with at the ball. I only wondered if it were him. And anyway, you can't seriously think I have eyes for anyone but you, can you?"
"I won't stop worrying you'll run away again until I have a ring on your finger," Bracken told him seriously, and Seth smiled slyly.
"Then you'd better make that happen as soon as possible."
"Oh," Bracken grinned, finally collecting Seth into his arms, "I intend to."
Seth tilted his head up, and this time Bracken seemed to read him just fine. He easily leaned down and kissed Seth, gentle and soft.
"It's late," Bracken whispered, pulling away. "We'd be wise to go to bed."
Seth wanted to protest, but allowed himself to be ushered towards the huge mattress anyway. Already washed and dressed in a nightshirt he'd raided from Bracken's closet shortly after his meeting with the king, Seth was, by all means, ready for bed. But he sulked anyway, as he listened to the running water of Bracken's shower from underneath his layers of plush blankets.
Then, slowly, as the minutes went on, his sulking turned to flustered panic as he realized exactly where he was.
"Can't sleep?" Bracken asked softly, an eternity later when he slid under the covers. Seth shook his head.
"I can't stop thinking," he whispered, despite the empty room, which was almost soundproofed, besides. But the moon was up and the lights were off, making Seth feel the tug of calm and quiet.
"I'm here to listen," Bracken offered, pulling Seth towards him gently. Seth yelped, then clasped a hand to his mouth, cursing himself for that stupid sound. Bracken laughed. "What was that for?"
Seth refused to answer. Bracken just pulled him in closer and brushed his lips against the back of Seth's neck. Again, Seth couldn't help the small sound of alarm that escaped him.
"What's wrong?" Bracken asked, though he sounded more amused than worried. Seth squirmed away, scowling. "I can see your blush even in the darkness," Bracken commented, fully delighted now.
"Shut up," Seth snapped.
"Is that what you're thinking of?"
"I'm not—I mean—it's just—I've never done this before."
"Shared a bed with me?" Bracken sounded about ready to laugh again. "But we've shared sleeping quarters nightly," he pointed out.
"How?" Bracken asked, again pulling Seth towards himself.
"Because! It was a goodbye, the first time it happened. I wasn't thinking about anything else then. And then it was just camping, wasn't it? And on the way home, we had your mom with us, didn't we? But this feels—more like—like we're properly together. It's making me nervous," he finished, voice small and unhappy with the admission. Bracken just held him tighter, placing another kiss on his neck.
"There's no need to worry," Bracken assured him, "I am a proper gentleman, I promise." Seth wiggled around to face him, glaring full on.
"I'm not worried. I said I was nervous. There's a difference."
"Of course." Bracken smiled at him. "But even so, there is no reason to be nervous. It would be entirely uncouth for me to make an advancement at this time."
Seth blushed furiously red and buried his face deep into Bracken's chest, which smelled of juniper and birchwood and Bracken. "What if I want you to make an advancement?" The words came out muffled, as he'd made no effort to make the question particularly audible and had, therefor, spoken it into Bracken's shirt. Bracken's body seemed to stiffen at his words, proving to Seth that he'd been heard anyway.
"Seth…" it sounded like a warning.
"You say you want to marry me," Seth adjusted his head so that he could breathe properly again, though he didn't loosen his grip around Bracken's back. As if the sturdy shoulder blades under his palms could save him from humiliation. "But you haven't kissed me since the day I left home. Not really."
"Patience is a virtue becoming in a prince. I got carried away in the past; it is traditional to wait until marriage for such intimacy." The words came out tight and stilted, like they had been prepared ahead of time but not practiced quite enough.
"I don't care," Seth felt pathetic and he hated it. "It's been weeks since you kissed me properly and I've waited every day, hoping you'd do it again. I thought you must be upset at me on our trip to Zzyzx, and when we were there we were never really alone. And coming back with your mom made it impossible to—but now we're here and you keep ignoring me and it feels like you don't want me as much as I want you." He'd only been nervous with anticipation, with nerves and jitters and the promise of a good and proper kiss. But all he'd gotten was assurances that Bracken wouldn't touch him.
Suddenly, the mattress shifted drastically. In one swift movement, Seth was on his back and Bracken was above him, looking down, hands planted on either side of his head. The look in Bracken's eyes almost did make Seth worry. But not quite. This was still Bracken, after all. Still, his heart pounded and his stomach flipped.
"You," Bracken growled, "have no idea the amount of restraint I've exercised to this point. Walking in tonight to see you wearing my shirt was almost enough to break me, Seth."
"Oh," Seth squeaked.
"Like hell I don't want you as much as you want me. I've never wanted anything as badly as I want you, Seth Sorenson. I just didn't want to scare you," he sighed, some of the intensity seeming to drain from him. "And look what you've made me do, despite all my best efforts."
"But I'm not scared," Seth told him, bringing a hand up to Bracken's face. "And I really want you to kiss me."
And Bracken did. He leaned down and took Seth's lips with such fervor that Seth gasped. Seth's hand moved to tangle into Bracken's hair. God but he loved Bracken's hair. Loved the way its long silky strands wrapped around his fingers and brushed against his cheeks. Loved the way it looked—no matter if it were up or down or tidy or a mess. He'd have to tell Bracken that sometime, he thought idly, but it didn't hold long in his mind. Nothing much did; thinking when Bracken kissed you, Seth was finding, was completely impossible. So Seth didn't think. He felt. He felt Bracken's teeth against his bottom lip, felt Bracken's tongue against his teeth, his tongue, against every surface inside his mouth. He felt Bracken's hand intertwine with his own free one. Felt Bracken's bodyweight slowly increase on top of him. Felt, more than anything, Bracken's affection for him, desire for him, need for him.
It was another eternity before Bracken rolled off of him, leaving them both gasping for air. He tugged Seth snug against his chest one more time and Seth felt Bracken's heavy breaths and pounding heart resonate through his entire body through that contact.
"I suppose," Bracken said after a moment, "that I am only a semi proper gentlemen, in the end." Seth laughed, pulled Bracken's arms tighter around himself and then fell into a happier sleep than he'd ever known before.
Seth smoothed down his forest green suit and noticed, much to his irritation, that his hands were shaking. He glanced in the mirror and was stunned once again by how good he looked. It was a lot like catching a glimpse of the beautiful girl in the mirror had been when he'd been on his way to the ball. It must be the firebug's magic this time, too. She'd conjured the suit, which was a perfect match to his gown, still hung with care in a corner of Bracken's closet—of their closet. It was no mistake that he looked so much like the Maiden in Green, and still he looked so much like himself.
"You look perfect," Kendra told him, having noticed his continued glances towards the mirror.
"Thanks," he managed a nervous smile and went back to fretting. Anita caught his hand as it reached up to worry at his hair.
"Don't touch it," she said, giving him a wink. It had been a pet peeve of Seth's when she and Carmen would touch their hair after he'd worked it into a style.
"Fayetta will just magic it back into place if I mess it up before the big walk," but even so, he let the hand drop.
"Seriously, Seth, you look amazing. At least as good as you did at the ball," Anita told him. "Stop worrying so much."
"Easy for you to say," Seth shot. "You're not the one getting married. Not today, anyway," he grinned at this, having been able to make her blush.
"Taran hasn't proposed," Anita told him, though they all knew it was only a matter of time.
"Ironic, don't you think?" Seth mused, mind finally settling down. "I'm marrying a prince—a king, as soon as this is over, and you're living on the family ranch planning to marry a simple man."
"Mother thinks we've switched lives, you and me."
"I bet," Seth snorted. "She must be peeved."
"She is," Anita laughed. "But the joke's on her. I think we're both much happier this way, don't you?"
"It's almost time," Kendra said, taking Seth's arm as a palace hand ushered them to their places.
"I'd better go find Taran," Anita said, "we're up first." She gave Seth a peck on the cheek before hurrying away. She looked happier than Seth had seen her. Having Carmen and Belinda hours away was doing them both a lot of good.
"I like her," Kendra said and Seth nodded, but his mind had slipped back into anxiety.
Seth had requested a wedding in the garden, and had been surprised at how easily he'd gotten it. There had been debate about whether having a huge public event would have been better, but the garden was what Seth wanted. And, as the so-called bride, he'd found that he got his way more often than not. Sure, a lot of politically suave invitations had been sent, and a raffle had been arranged to allow a percentage of the public in, but it was much more personal—much more his—than he could've hoped a royal wedding would be.
Seth watched Anita and Taran walk down the aisle, followed by Bracken's sisters and their dates, and then by the current king and queen of Fae themselves. Then it was his turn. The music swelled and Kendra walked him down the aisle, holding to his arm as though she were the one being given away. When they turned down the path into the center of the garden, Seth's breath literally caught and he fumbled the slightest bit in his walk. Bracken stood at the end of the aisle looking so beautiful it was physically painful. He was dressed all in white with accents of silver, contrasting Seth's own color scheme of green and gold. And the smile Bracken gave him when their eyes met, still many feet apart, was heart-stopping.
It took all the time in the world and no time at all to reach Bracken. Kendra took his hand and gently placed it in Bracken's. Seth couldn't believe this was real. After all of it, he was here and everything was beyond perfect. The vows and formalities proceeded. Rings were exchanged. Seth's was a gold ring with emeralds inlaid in a mesmerizing pattern. Bracken's matched his perfectly, only with diamonds instead of emeralds. Then they were crowned, Bracken bestowed with a handsome crown, and Seth presented with a golden band of woven leaves. It was heavier than Seth had expected. But he had the rest of his life to get used to it.
"You may now kiss the groom."
Seth looked into his husband's eyes and saw their future together in their beautiful blue depths. His happy ending. Smiling, he leaned into Bracken and kissed him.