[AN] On the Sly
The room was dark.
The far exit, a massive archway onto the green field, was letting in plenty of natural sunlight. There were fluorescent lights buried into the ceiling, all flicked on and buzzing softly. But the room was still dark, as if there were spots eating away at his vision, obscuring all the brightness and happiness of the moment.
Caerulea scrubbed at his eyelids, grunting something under his breath. His head was still buzzing. Post-Competition jitters, usually. He never stuck around for the Feast, and today was certainly shaping up to be an early retreat. The Isle was so much hotter than High North, humid and wet, sea air clinging to his clothes and fur. He supposed he could dress down for once, but the idea of looking informal next to the other eight leaders was absurd.
With a sigh, he ran his fingers through his hair. He'd go back to his hotel room and relax in the air conditioning, pack up a few of his belongings and teleport those home. He'd stay, just in case they needed him for anything - but really, he doubted his team won - and head home the next morning.
Uuugh. He knew he shouldn't be so hard on his competing team. They were depending on him to be their moral support. He thought he'd given a good speech to the Judges, but Verum's eye had twitched during the description of the mortals' artwork and he'd definitely fucked that up. But it wasn't like that would cost his team the entire Competition, right?
Wow. He really was having post-Competition jitters. Maybe a decade solid of no wins would do that to a guy. Goddamn Chloranthales, always sealing the deal.
Caerulea huffed, letting his hand drag down his face. Stupid, stressing over literally nothing. They'd win eventually and he'd wonder why he was so worried. Maybe he should make a small guest appearance at the Feast tomorrow, congratulate them and be a little more supportive. On top of everything else he had to deal with.
He stood straight up, peeling himself off the wall he'd leaned against. Moping against a wall inside of the stadium's inner bellows would do him no good. Honestly, it was the most unproductive thing he could do at the moment. He was a master of swallowing exhausted discomfort. Yes, he should go see his team during the Feast, and then make a swift exit afterwards. It'd cheer them up for the inevitable loss.
With a smile, he took a step towards the exit.
No. His sanctity of peace, broken. His plans, disrupted.
Caerulea turned towards the giant archway that led onto the field, raising an eyebrow as he rotated. Before him stood a small dragon, brown in color, tiny wings twitching slightly in what appeared to be nervous excitement. They were familiar, of course.
"Good evening, Spelta," Caerulea said evenly, folding his hands behind his back in parade rest. "How are you this evening?"
"Oh!" Spelta smiled warmly. It was rather comforting. "I'm doing very well, thank you. You?"
"Just fine. Did you need something?"
Spelta's smile grew an inch. "I was told I could find you here."
Caerulea raised an eyebrow. "So you do need something."
"Sure - an answer to my question. What are you doing lingering here?"
"I'm about to head back to my hotel room. Why do you ask?"
Spelta tilted his head, wings twitching again, "What?"
"You know they basically start the Feast right after the Competition, right?"
Caerulea narrowed his eyes. "No? The official starting time is seven am tomorrow."
"The pavilion remains open all week, including at night." Spelta stepped forwards, holding out his hand. "People get together, haul in kegs of alcohol, the chefs bring in the failed dishes they didn't present and everyone kinda has an after-Judging feast. I suppose it's a bit of a wind-down time. You've never been?"
Caerulea stared at the offered hand. Was Spelta really offering for Caerulea to come with him? To a drunken fest of debauched gluttony? His hotel room beckoned, cooled and quiet, tucked on the eleventh floor of the VIP bed and breakfast. There were hot croissants and breads waiting for him.
"I did not take you for a man who enjoyed parties, Spelta Triticum," Caerulea said, after a second. He neglected to move his hand.
Spelta still smiled at him, arm still outstretched. "I don't enjoy them."
Caerulea raised an eyebrow.
"But I would enjoy your presence." his hand darted forward to take Caerulea's elbow, "Come on."
He spluttered, but Spelta disrupted his stance with a yank. Caerulea blinked rapidly. The other lesser god had more strength in his grip than he rightly remembered. Then again, had Spelta ever taken his hand before?
He let the other's grip slide down to Caerulea's wrist, which was much more comfortable. Spelta's palm cupped his fur, gently pulling at the jutted-out bone of his wrist pressing into the other's fingers. It was a kind motion, but a firm one, a resolute one. One that was hard to ignore. Caerulea drew himself to his full height - a foot under Spelta - and quickened pace. They stepped through the exit doors as one.
"Have you already been drinking?" Caerulea pressed. "You seem animated."
"No. But Urartu is pleased about our performance. He says he feels we'll win. Hard to not be excited about that, hm?"
Caerulea frowned at the back of Spelta's head. Objectively, yes. Winning the Competition was always a delight, a pleasant surprise. He had to place the plaques and trophies in the grand hall, had to take down a few paintings he was fond of. It'd worked out in the end - they'd been moved to his private wing - but the monotony had long since eaten away most of the joy. The Monocots didn't win all that often, did they? He couldn't recall, and that was a bad sign.
He supposed it was better to be of a middling tier than at the bottommost rung. Better to revel in mediocrity than suffer either extreme. Easier to take the middle road.
Stars, no wonder Thermalis insisted he was boring.
Caerulea tilted his head up. The night had just reached its peak, the moon glittering in the middle of the sky, the stars slowly turning in orbits around it. The light pollution blocked most of them, but enough were bright enough to shine through the leaves of the massive, teal trees dominating the street. Faint music and plenty of chatter echoed over from the pavilion park, just across the sidewalk.
The air was fresh, at least, and much cooler than inside the stadium.
Spelta pulled him to the park's fence. The gates along its face were all strung open, soft fairy lights hung around its top and casting the night in pale yellows. Several tents and canopies were scattered within the park, and the smell of grilled meat reached his nose. It was loud, but calm all the same, a strange blend of relaxation and energy that was rare for Caerulea.
"I don't drink," he reminded Spelta as they stepped through the gate.
"That's absolutely alright. Do you see an open seat anywhere?"
Caerulea lifted a hand over his eyes, pressed against his forehead, as if to blot out the stars above. Picnic tables and plastic chairs had been smattered across the lawn, most - if not all - full of people, talking and chatting, stuffing their faces with food. How late would they stay up? Surely they'd arrive at seven to get the best seats, the first bites of food in the Feast, hear the winner's announcement at eleven? Such confidence in these people, that they would make the deadline. Confidence, or nonchalance? Both tasted foreign.
He lowered his hand. "I don't see any."
Spelta shrugged, and pulled Caerulea in deeper.
"Where are you spiriting me away to?"
Spelta threw him a smile. Caerulea averted his eyes immediately.
Was this friendship? Were they friends? The last time he'd spent time with Spelta was... forever ago. Before Aestivum. And how many thousands of years had passed since Aestivum's conquest alone? They'd talked, at Competitions, sometimes through a call, a text here and there. They'd drifted apart, it'd felt. He didn't have time to maintain a friendship, although he had mourned its loss. He'd regretted its fade.
But had it faded at all?
He could feel warmth in his face. He was blushing. The cold air was lit by fireflies, darting between abandoned cups full of drink, pausing to alight on forgotten plates. Caerulea breathed in, deeply, the air clinging to his lungs. This was not how he was supposed to spend his night.
Spelta let go of his hand, and Caerulea tried to stop himself from grabbing at the other's wrist in panic. He tensed, froze, as Spelta turned around, the same warm smile over his muzzle. It was still comforting, just like it'd been all those years ago, back when Spelta had just taken ruling helm and had contacted him immediately.
Did Spelta think about those times? He must, he must, if he was so determined to bring Caerulea out here. Was there anything more between them? Could they foster a friendship, in this time of peace, an era of kindness? His head hurt, but it wasn't a headache. It lacked the dull pain.
Spelta lifted both arms, and he beckoned. Caerulea stepped closer, tentatively, tip-toeing, back raised slightly. Spelta's arms twisted to take Caerulea's hands, gently, thumbing over his palms in quiet kindness, a special kind of warmth that he couldn't quite find back at home. Where did that warmth come from? Did it travel up from the earth, from the deserts, from the warmth and wetness of the coast Spelta had rose from? Did it slide in with the tides, a reminder of the wet summer of the seaside? How could such warmth nest inside of a person, enough warmth to melt even the most cautious and paranoid among them?
His eyes watched in rapt attention as Spelta moved a leg, stepping forwards, hips twisting. There was a beat, a deep beat, rattling in his chest. He could feel it in every inch of his bone marrow, down into the tiny pores of himself, into the smallest fractal of his magic. Spelta moved again, bringing that leg back, and as his foot fell, the beat sounded again, as his hips twisted, the music swelled, and Caerulea understood.
Fingers tightened as Caerulea closed his hands around Spelta's, and he took a step forwards, feeling the beat vibrate up his leg as it touched the dew-laden grass. He inhaled sharply, through his mouth, the air wet enough that it could not dry it out.
And they moved again, the both of them, their bodies twisting slightly. It was slow, slow in tune with the movement of the moon, the stars, the grass swaying under their feet, the notes mournfully humming from a stereo a few feet away. Caerulea's heartbeat with it, every aching second an aching moment where his breath was lost in the veins between his heart and lungs before their feet moved again and he could gasp for air for a split second, the split second that the beat allowed.
Spelta pulled him closer. Caerulea moved gracefully, sliding across the grass, the other's hand dropping to cup the curve of his upper back and squeeze. They turned, gently, as Spelta lifted Caerulea's other arm, holding it clasped near their heads. Their feet still moved, together, as one, pulling them to the very perimeter of the area, their own dance floor, their own union. He breathed in and he took Spelta's shoulder, feeling the other's arm beneath the thin shirt he wore, the simple short sleeves meaningless against the grace they carried.
He'd danced before, yes, once or twice, but it was in the back of his memory, in the recesses he couldn't bear to pull free. He opened his mouth, to speak, to protest. He couldn't do this. Not in front of all of these people, at some drunken party, some forgettable second that would be locked away by the morning.
Spelta silenced him with a peck on the lips.
And before Caerulea could blink, they spun.
Spelta's footsteps were light, airy, as if it was nothing, as if the weight that they both carried had dissipated. He smiled when Caerulea's eyes met him, the background behind the other's face a midblur, a splash of colors as they turned, the wind catching at the fringes of Caerulea's suit and in his bangs, pulling and stroking over the strands. Spelta's hands were firm, gentle, fingers closed to hold, but not to grip, only to cling.
And they spun, over and over, and Caerulea could catch the way Spelta's fur had discolored pink, soft pink, adoring pink. He'd seen such a look before, but not reserved for him, never once. He'd dated before, but he couldn't recall even a glimpse of such an expression cast his way - nor could he picture himself making such back.
And they spun, in circles and circles, and Caerulea could feel the way his cheeks felt so warm, the way his chest couldn't get enough air. Perhaps he was wrong. Perhaps there was a time when he made such a face back, caught up in a gentle waltz, in another's loving embrace.
And they spun, around and around the grass, and Caerulea could feel the way his heart squeezed. Was this love? Did Spelta love him? They barely knew each other, they barely understood one another. They'd tried to be friends, long ago, and he'd thought they'd left that in the dust.
And they spun, steps so light, the field wet under their feet, coating their soles in the dew, and Caerulea could close his eyes and feel the way his head felt so light. But that had been so long ago, that failed friendship. And Spelta had tried so hard. Was it out of pity, out of arrogance? Caerulea had assumed such at the time.
And they spun, their hands still clasped, and Caerulea could feel the warmth of Spelta's palm and chest against his own. But this was a new time, a new place, a new world. It had changed so much, from when they were idiotic young adults, stumbling through leadership the best they could struggle to manage. Things had changed. So had they, no?
And they spun, the music twirling in the air, and Caerulea could feel it gently petting at him, enticing him to pull Spelta closer, and he did. Perhaps he was overthinking it all. Maybe it didn't matter how long ago it was, how many years had passed. Perhaps it could be well and forgotten, like the rest of those wretched wartimes, and they could start anew.
The thought was warm, and Caerulea held it close.
They slowed, and finally stopped, standing in front of the stereo. The song had faded out, replaced by something with a faster tempo, but it couldn't match Caerulea's heart rate. He opened his eyes, meeting Spelta's soft blue. They had always reminded him of the ice, of the cold, of the land he'd called home. There was always something familiar in Spelta's gaze, and that had calmed Caerulea's restless mind.
"Come," the other spoke, his voice so quiet that only Caerulea could hear, "I see an open bench."
He breathed, and let Spelta lead him, their hands still held, an arm strung around his back still. Would it be a crime to say he wanted to remain here forever, in this worldly comfort he'd long forgotten? Was it evil to want this? What would the others think, he wondered? The first romance between factions, between nations, between leaders.
It would be nice to be part of the first of something, he surmised. It would be nice to carve his own path, and not fret for doing it wrong. It could be all their own.
Spelta set them on a picnic bench that had long been abandoned, no vestiges of food or drink left on its table. He kept an arm around Caerulea's waist.
Still, he could not fully shake the fears that had long since set in. "Won't someone see?"
"The light's too low," came the simple reply, "nobody will recognize us."
"If they do?"
Spelta paused, eyes flicking to the table before back to Caerulea. "What would you want them to do?"
He blinked, then furrowed his brow, "Hum?"
"What do you think? Would they write weird stories, do you think? Sensual fiction of us? Would they tell Urartu, maybe Unicorne?" Spelta's voice rose in crescendo.
"I-" Caerulea blinked. "I don't know."
"What would you want them to do?"
He paused as the words sunk in, invited themselves into his mind. Caerulea squeezed his eyes shut, breathing in slowly. The air was still crisp, the wood was worn under him, the grass was wet. It was all moving together, and he could still feel the fringes of the beat in his chest in the rise-and-fall of the conversations wafting around him. They were meaningless drivel, but they filled a space and he was grateful for such a simple thing.
"...I don't want anyone to notice," he said, finally.
Spelta's hand moved to rub at his back, before hesitating. It glided lower until it could untuck his shirt and then slip up it, pressing into the warm of his fur and skin. Caerulea shuddered.
"Not because I'm embarrassed," he clarified, then ducked his head. "Er. I am, I assure you. But because... I don't know. What is this?"
"It can be whatever you want it to be."
Caerulea's eyes flicked to Spelta's hand before sliding up to the other's face. Spelta wasn't meeting his gaze, eyes averted towards the table, a hand covering his mouth and failing to obscure his pink face. He was... flustered, too. He was just as nervous, wasn't he?
How silly. Two ancient gods, two leaders of their nations, brought to shy teenaged glances and peeks at one another. But... it was silly in a warm, refreshing way.
"I... I like it," Caerulea offered. "How long did you- plan - think about something like this?"
"It was more of a recent thought," Spelta admitted, voice muffled. "I kept thinking about... how hard I tried to befriend you. I thought I came on too strong back then and - well, I seem to have come on just as strong. But it landed better, I thi- I hope?"
Caerulea opened his mouth, and then closed it to smile. "I... yes, I think it did."
Spelta finally looked to him, the smile peeking around his fingers. "I'm g-glad."
It was okay. Spelta didn't quite know what he was doing either. They were carving this path all alone, but all together too. They were warm and united in something greater than the sum of their parts. They were something more, together.
"What do you want to do after this? All of this," Caerulea gestured to the pavilion, "after the Feast, after this year's Competition. Do you want to... make plans to see each other more?"
Spelta's hand slid to cover his eyes. "I... I'd like that. Would you?"
Caerulea reached forwards to close a hand around Spelta's, and bring it down gently from the other's face. He'd never thought of Spelta as one to fluster, but... it was nice to think about. There was something tangible between them, a connection he couldn't quite place easily. It was good to think about.
He didn't have many of those connections, and certainly not ones where he would dance to solidify it.
"Did you like the dance?" Caerulea asked.
Spelta nodded. "Did you?" his voice was barely more than a whisper.
"I did." he felt his face warm further.
Spelta's fingers tapped against the table before he bit the inside of his cheek and finally met Caerulea's eyes. "Do - do you want to come to one of my dance lessons with me?"
"You..." Caerulea breathed in slowly. "You take dancing lessons? What type?"
"All t-types," Spelta squeaked, moving a hand as if to hide his face. He didn't, pausing halfway through the motion to smother his hand. "We're doing waltzes, though, and I've just been partnered with my tutor or the other classmates, I don't have a... partner to dance with... but if you...."
"Spelta, that sounds perfect," Caerulea said, then wiped at his face.
This was not the night he expected, but it was better. It was resonating inside of him, deep inside of his head and his heart and skull, that comforting feeling that expanded from the way his heart swelled in his ribs.
"You should get some rest," Spelta blurted out, still barely holding the other's stare, "you're going to be exhausted tomorrow if you don't. It's two am already."
"Oh!" Caerulea quickly stood. "Yes, that's - yes. But thank you for tonight, Spelta. I... thank you for reaching out to me once more. It means more than I can articulate."
Spelta reached hastily, taking Caerulea's hand in his own. He could feel something cold and small being pressed into his palm as the taller lesser god stood and pressed a quick, shy kiss to his cheek. It was almost funny. He had such confidence during dance, during those spins and steps and twirls, but here the shyness had finally emerged. Perhaps he hadn't expected to get as far as he did, to worm in so quickly.
What could Caerulea say? He was lonely.
"I'll see you tomorrow, at the Feast," Spelta said, with a smile.
Caerulea nodded, firmly, and Spelta's hand slipped away. He stepped from the table, clutching the small cold thing, heading for the nearest gate. Honestly, he knew he needed to do something else - wave goodbye, or say something thoughtful, but it was taking all his willpower not to let his knees buckle. He'd save the sappy goodbyes for another time.
Stars, it had been so long since he'd ever kissed anyone, ever held anyone else in his arms. Thousands of years, even, since the last time he'd been truly hugged by someone who cared for him. And here he was, lightheaded over a dance with an old rekindled friend! Who could have predicted such a night?
Caerulea glanced down at his palm as he stepped over the threshold. A small chain hung out of his hand, connected to a small, round ruby, glistening in the starlight. It caught the hues of blue and yellow so perfectly, dulling into a warm, deep fire, fed and stroked for hours. A gift - an expensive one. Gemstones of high caliber were difficult to come across... especially in such size. Had Spelta intended to give it to him all night? Was it a spur-of-the-moment present?
Perhaps he could ask tomorrow, he surmised as he took the chain in both hands. The clasp was simple in function, but ornate in decoration, beautiful swirls that accented the platinum perfectly. He lifted it to his neck, feeling the cool metal press against his still-warm fur.
The ruby fell sweetly against his chest, not too long to be an annoyance, not too short to choke. It was perfect. How premeditated was this gift? How long had Spelta been awaiting an excuse to sweep him up? He'd said it was recently, but... was that true? Or was it the fib of a shy romantic?
Ah, well. Answers in the morning. Caerulea allowed himself to smile.