It always came back to blood between them, Niles thought wryly. There was blood at every important moment they had shared so it made an odd, poetic sort of sense that there should be some here now, at this, arguably the biggest moment of their lives since they had met. He should have expected it, really.
The night that they met, he had been bruised and bloodied by the guards by the time Leo had intervened. He already had a commanding presence at 15, a look of knowing that was impossible to explain. That steady look made him seem even older; his age had come as a surprise to Niles when he found out. Leo always made him feel younger, clumsier.
Leo – despite everything, Niles only ever thought of him as Leo although he never referred to him as just Leo in public – had examined him like a curiosity found in some museum, an oddity to be understood and classified before being put into its proper place. That Leo had thought that that place was as his subordinate had been both bizarre and natural. It was surprisingly easy to follow where Leo led, to obey without hesitation and only the occasional question, voiced most respectfully and always in private. The young prince had ignored the blood as easily as he had ignored Niles' demands to be killed – Leo insisted it had been a demand, not pleading – as if they were minor inconveniences, not to be acknowledged.
A touch here and there to check the severity of injuries before the offer was made and Niles was sent to be bathed and healed. There was no question of walking away from that offer and Niles never regretted accepting. He did regret sullying Leo's hands with his blood and sheltered his lord from the rougher side of his tongue; he had never wanted to taint Leo.
Less than three months later his blood was on Leo's hands again.
The inhabitants of castle Krakenburg had adjusted to Niles' constant presence at Leo's side. He was a bodyguard so far as they were concerned. An ill mannered, ill trained, nearly illiterate – although Leo's lessons were progressing well – lout that was to be tolerated because a prince said so. They were waiting for him to trip up or fail to meet Leo's exacting standards or to outright betray his lord. He was to be tolerated until that point, when his betters could see him to a well deserved end. He guarded Leo from threats as much as from the appearance of weakness, the appearance of insecurity. In the castle, that could kill as easily as poison.
Truth be told, the political dance wasn't too different from the gang politics and feuds in the slums. More subtle to be sure, but not much different. Trust no one further than you had to, question everything you heard, and look confident even when you're least sure. Especially then.
Those that didn't dismiss him out of hand just for being lower class thought that he was Leo's pet. It amused them that Leo had taken to a stray; Leo who was notably too busy for entanglements and avoided social occasions had a toy to play with now. He was pretty, they allowed, with his pale hair and dark skin and deep blue eyes, a rarity in Nohr where most colouring was pastel pale. But surely a bodyguard was a convenient cover, if not convincing to them.
The truth didn't matter to Leo. So Niles endured without arguing, ignoring the raised eyebrows and snickers that sometimes followed him down the hall. As they did that morning, when Leo had been summoned to the great hall by his father. Niles would have protected Leo from even petty gossip if he could, but since his lord affected not to notice, he focused on watching the columned balconies that lined the grand hall as they entered.
The barest flicker of movement was all of the warning he had. He moved in front of Leo and managed to release one arrow into one of the balconies above before the shaft slammed into his shoulder and sent the bow from his fingers.
He didn't remember how it happened, but suddenly Leo's hand was on the shaft protruding from his shoulder, while someone else held Niles still. Leo murmured something before pulling the arrow free. Blood spurted, coating his armour as a healer came running.
Before blacking out, all Niles could remember was someone saying, “I'd say he's proven his loyalty.”
Leo's blood on his hands was still one of the most painful memories Niles had. His lord fallen from his horse, his leg sliced open, the armour rent at odd angles. They had been at war for months by that point, following Leo's adopted sister. And Leo had been hurt, on Niles' watch no less. Odd how that had hurt him more to see than any physical pain he had ever endured. And he had endured a lot over the years.
“I'm fine Niles, really,” he said as Niles cleaned the wound carefully. He looked impatient, as if he could rejoin the battle with his armour in that state. As if he didn't need rest; he had declined Niles' offer of finding a healer. Leo had few scars but this would add to them. A pity, since he was so beautiful without them. But then again, no one but Niles ever did see that much of Leo's skin. Yet it would always remind him that he hadn't been close enough, hadn't been there in time. He should have been more careful.
Niles forced himself to nod and reached for a vulnerary. Leo's face wrinkled in disgust before he could control his features.
“If you won't see a healer then the least you can do is drink this,” Niles said as firmly as he dared. Their intimacy was rather new although taking care of Leo's needs was not. It was an odd balance to maintain, worse in private in a way. Sometimes Leo needed his retainer and other times he needed his lover and Niles was still learning which was which. And which was wanted when.
“It tastes terrible,” Leo muttered. If it was anyone else, Niles would have said they looked sulky. Since it was Leo, it was just cute.
“It's that or I call for Elise. Or you rest. No battles until that's healed.”
Leo's expression switched from indignant to determined to considerate so quickly that Niles had to suppress a smile.
“I swear you just want to watch me suffer,” Leo said as he reached reluctantly for the bottle in Niles' hand.
“Never,” Niles replied, kneeling so that he could look Leo in the eye as he spoke. “I would gladly make anyone else suffer if it pleased you my lord, but I never want to watch you suffer, love.” He froze as soon as the word left his mouth. Despite bedding down together (and making enough noise to start more than a few rumours) neither of them had said that word before. He hadn't asked why Leo had taken an interest in him and Leo hadn't asked why Niles responded; he had just made it clear that this was not to be considered a part of Niles' job. Sex was hardly work but he knew enough that it wasn't always love either.
Leo's hand caressed his idly for a moment. “Tough love, I suppose,” Leo said as he leaned in for a kiss. Niles had let that kiss linger and he really couldn't recall whether Leo had taken his medicine or not.
All of that and more went through Niles' mind in a flash. They all led here, today, at this altar beside Leo. Where he had never quite expected to end up. Nor had he expected Xander – King Xander, now – to be the one to marry them. Or to even agree to let his younger brother permanently join himself to someone like Niles. Perhaps Niles should have guessed that it wouldn't be so simple when Xander had agreed, a small smile on his lips that had never been directed at Niles before or since. He was all kingly-serious now.
Niles tried to steady his nerves. Some brandy would have helped with that, if he was being honest, but Leo would have had his head if he showed up to the altar the least bit intoxicated. There really was no precedent for this in the upper class. And there would be backlash. All of the reasons that this was a bad idea, that this was bad for Leo sprang to the surface and Niles forced himself to look at his lord – his betrothed – and to force them away.
Leo had spoken his vows clearly and confidently, exactly as they had been written and rehearsed. He was steadfast, something Niles had always admired. Niles had spoken his own vows a little more slowly, a little more carefully, trying not to smile at the parts that had been re-written to fit a man marrying another man. Or at the parts that reminded Leo exactly what he was getting into. He wished he could have enjoyed the raised eyebrows in the audience but he didn't dare look away from his lord for a second. He had stood stone still while Leo murmured the spell to make the vows binding; they would be as able to break them as easily as they would be able to capture the moon or the stars.
He had expected their vows to be followed by some version of “with the Dusk Dragon as witness, you are now joined in blood and bone and spirit. You may seal your vows.” But Xander had had that little smile and he had moved away from the altar and returned with a simple pewter goblet.
“The royal family is the blood of the Dusk Dragon and none shall marry into it who are not of that blood,” Xander intoned formally. “If you so wish to be joined with Prince Leo, the blood is yours to take. If you cannot or will not become of our blood, then you may still leave joined together but you will leave into exile. The choice is yours.”
He looked a quick question at Leo whose face remained utterly impassive before turning to Xander. It always came back to blood between them, Niles thought wryly. There was blood at every important moment they had shared, so it made an odd, poetic sort of sense that there should be some here now. He should have expected it, really. With a bow that was almost mocking, Niles took the goblet and tried not glance inside. Tried and failed; it was filled with a thick red liquid that smelt more metallic than any human blood he had ever seen. This was going to be gross, even by his standards. He was half tempted to leave some of the blood in his mouth for when he kissed Leo, just to get back at him. The first taste erased the temptation; he swallowed all of it as quickly as possible, silently thankful that he didn't have much of a gag reflex.
Xander merely nodded as if this was exactly as he expected before intoning the ritual pronouncement of their union. Niles kissed Leo eagerly, the first time in front of so many eyes and only stopped because Leo pulled away with a small laugh. Leo took his hand and began the walk back down the aisle and for once Niles wasn't scanning the audience for threats, he was just walking with Leo, looking at him – his husband! – and enjoying the moment.
When he was sure that they wouldn't be heard over the cheers and congratulations, Niles leaned in to speak in Leo's ear.
“I have had a lot of things in my mouth over the years but that was by far the worst,” he said with a smirk.
“You are incorrigible,” Leo replied, failing to hide a smile.