There's no ominous castle or evil queen; no pricked fingers or straw spun into gold. Their house isn't made from gingerbread and there is no wicked witch feeding them poisoned apples or lying in wait to trap gullible children to roast in her oven. Once upon a time there were pirates, Ernst will readily admit, but they were dispatched with an old cannon, a tiger pit, a simple knowledge of levers, fulcrums and counterweights, and the terrible damage that burning oil can do to a man.
But it's a fairy tale, nevertheless. Two brothers living on a deserted island, princes of all they survey. A shipwreck their crisis; carving out a niche for themselves and discovering how to live so far removed from civilisation their ongoing story, full to the brim of hardships and triumphs, both mundane and life-altering. It's then that Ernst perhaps thinks he finally becomes a man, even in the eyes of his older brother, his eternal petty tormentor, his constant protector against the wilds of the world.
It's the appearance of a princess in their midst that provides their conflict, though Ernst thinks perhaps he's the only one who feels it. It begins with the excitement of discovering debris from another shipwreck, washed ashore after a nasty storm, bringing with it two new arrivals to their little island home, only one of whom survives. It continues with the simple clarity of love that lights Fritz up from the inside, making him try to remember his rusty manners, giving Roberta a shoulder to cry on and a strong arm to lean on at the funeral for her grandfather in the little clearing overlooking the ocean, offering a hand to guide her up the steps to their treetop home, giving up his room for her without question and bunking in with Ernst, making noises about expanding their house as soon as they have enough wood and supplies collected. He falls asleep with his forehead resting against Ernst's shoulder. Ernst lies awake for hours, just watching his brother's profile in the dim light from the stars outside their window.
Watching Fritz has always been something of a pastime for Ernst. He watches Fritz try too hard, doggedly striving to be a gentleman at every turn, even though Roberta's hands are rough from months spent at sea, her chin raised and steady as she is shown around her new home, her shot true when she appropriates Fritz' precious rifle to hunt them a wild pig for supper. It seems foolish somehow to Ernst, behaving like they're dandied up in waistcoats and finery, taking tea with her in some well appointed drawing room instead of sitting around a table fashioned from driftwood, all three of them barefoot and tattered, bronzed by the sun, their bellies full of fresh fish and mangoes.
Fritz remembers not to swear loudly as he tries and fails to untangle his fishing line as they sit around the fire in the evening, happily passing the task off to Ernst and suggesting that perhaps Roberta might like to read aloud from one of the books in Ernst's dilapidated little library. She chooses Robinson Crusoe and Ernst casts glances in Fritz' direction while he works out knots one by one. Fritz closes his eyes and leans back on his elbows, letting Roberta's voice drift over him as he warms his toes by the fire, their world still and content.
Roberta generally keeps to herself when she's not busying herself with chores around their little house, taking over the cooking like she was born to it, not suffering excuses of unmade beds and trails of sand being walked into the house, mending long-neglected clothes and somehow finding material enough to put together curtains to shade them from the bright early sun that had made Ernst wake sweaty and overheated most mornings but neither he nor Fritz had seen fit to bother doing anything about.
She doesn't shy away from Fritz' attentions, but neither does she actively encourage them. She turns more to Ernst for conversation, always happy to answer his hungry questions about the changes in the outside world in the past three years, always quick with a smile and gentle with a hand on his arm.
Ernst knows he's in love with her too, knows it like an arrow to the chest, but he's known most of his life that his love is a warped creature, not to be trusted and never to be acted upon, so he smiles and he watches both of them and he never says a word.
It's the night that Fritz returns to their little room so late the sun is thinking about putting in an appearance that supplies the twist in their tale. Ernst is expecting besotted smiles and contented sighs. He expects Fritz to be floating several feet above the floor, full to the brim of happy secrets he won't betray with words while his demeanour will tell Ernst every damning detail.
What Ernst gets instead is agitated pacing and Fritz thinking so loudly it gives Ernst a headache. He pretends to be asleep for as long as he can, but gives up when Fritz stubs his toe against the foot of their bed in the dark and hops around ungracefully before losing his footing and landing heavily on top of Ernst. Feigning sleep seems a little foolish after that.
Ernst sighs heavily and props himself up on their meagre supply of pillows. "What happened? Did you finally tell her how you feel? Did she refuse you?"
There's a momentary flash of surprise on Fritz' face that he has been so obvious, as though he forgets that Ernst knows him better than he knows himself, then Fritz is shaking his head, his eyes screwed shut. He looks truly pained, Ernst realises for the first time. Not embarrassed, not heartbroken, not wounded, but young and lost and even panicked.
"Fritz, what is it? Is she well? Is she hurt?"
"No, not hurt." He opened his eyes. "I can't say it, Ernst." He laughs without humour. "I can barely think it."
Ernst frowns. "Did she refuse you? Fritz? Fritz, what did you do?"
Fritz shakes his head rapidly. "No, nothing. I did nothing." He glances up, and it's that look that tells Ernst his brother isn't giving him the whole truth.
"Fritz," Ernst begins, unconsciously moving forward, warning in his tone. "You didn't try to... Not against her will, did you?"
Fritz holds up his hands. "No, no, I swear it. I would never. This is... something else."
Ernst leans back once more against his pillows, uneasy, his curiosity piqued. "What could be worse?"
"I don't know if it's worse. It's just... I've never encountered such a thing. I didn't know it was possible."
"You're scaring me."
"I don't mean to."
"Spit it out. Tell me what's got you so turned around."
Fritz swallows heavily. "Roberta," he says, his eyes shining bright, and it must be a trick of the early dawn light because to Ernst it looks like there are tears ready to fall. "Ernst, she's... Oh, Ernst, she's a boy."
It's midmorning by the time Fritz finally falls into restless sleep, his hand curled around Ernst's wrist like he's looking for an anchor to all things safe and familiar.
Ernst goes to her, a moth to a flame, swallowing the excited tremor in his throat, the burning curiosity about why she would hide in this fashion, the desire to see her consuming him, to re-evaluate every tiny detail he knows about her.
She's not in her bed, not busy in the area near to the fire and rudimentary water system they've rigged up, loosely termed "the kitchen". She's not by her grandfather's grave, nor any of a dozen of her usual haunts. He finds her instead on the beach, near to the spot where she washed to shore all those months ago, ankle-deep in the water, staring out at the waves. She sees with a look that he knows, that her most precious secret is hers alone no longer. Ernst is at a loss for all the things he wants to say, the words a heavy weight in his throat. She lifts her chin, proud tears shining in her eyes, and he can't bear for her to think that he would be swayed by such a thing, that she believes there is a part of her that he couldn't love, no matter what.
She makes a soft sound of surprise when he gathers her close and kisses her, keeping it gentle enough that she could break away if she desired. His heart swells when she reaches up into their kiss, her arms going around his neck, holding him tightly, kissing him deeply, open and sweet, their meeting of lips a conversation that lays him bare and speaks of fierce love and acceptance without measure.
It's like this that Fritz catches them, watching from the tree line. Ernst honestly has no idea how long he's been standing there, still tousled from sleep, surprise in his eyes, yes, but no fury, no disgust. Curiosity, Ernst thinks, perhaps coupled with wonder, and there's heat, heat like he has never before seen in his brother's eyes, heat enough to catch light and set his entire world burning bright, swallowing all three of them in the flames.
Ernst has no need of castles, brave knights or dragons to slay. He is content in a world without goblins, trolls, ogres or dwarves. He has no need of fairy godmothers, enchanted mirrors, or genies trapped in bottles. He doesn't believe in the simplicity of happy endings, but he thinks perhaps there's a chance. Their story has an island kingdom, two princes and a princess, shipwrecked and at the mercy of nature and their own complex desires.
Ernst thinks perhaps that's story enough. He believes could live with that kind of happily ever after.