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how to avoid living happily ever after

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The woods are particularly lovely, Adam thinks sourly. The sun is glowing down through the leaves, a brilliant spatter of emerald and spring and forest. The air smells of flowers and summary other pastoral bullshit. There’s probably a delightful little squirrel or maybe a raccoon somewhere if Adam bothered to look. A light breeze wends its way through the trees.

A poet would probably call it a zephyr. Adam is not a poet, and he mostly thinks it’s obnoxious.

He didn’t sign up for this. Or, like, he probably could have protested it or whatever, but it’s not like he’s ever heard of anyone going toe-to-toe with Roslovic and coming out on top. Roslovic went for the jugular at all times and in all ways. He’s not sure if it’s a princess thing or just, like, Roslovic.

But whatever. It’s such a beautiful afternoon it’s borderline offensive to taste. Adam might be a glorified mailman at the moment, but if what Roslovic wants is for him to deliver the latest in a snippy exchange with the neighboring court then that’s what he’ll do.

He’s pretty sure it’s just crude dick drawings in the carefully and intricately sealed envelope tucked into his saddlebags, but that’s like, whatever. It’s none of his business. More time to daydream and let Herbert guide them both in the vague direction of home with no direction from Adam at all and imagine which of the clouds look like dogs. Really fluffy white dogs.

“Motherfucker!” someone shouts at him from under his horse’s nose. “Can you see where you’re going?”

Adam jerks and nearly falls out of his saddle, yanking stupidly at the reins to get Herbert to pull to a stop. Herbert snorts at him reproachfully. Or, like, just in protest of his dumbass human yanking on his mouth. Adam likes to pretend to himself his horse likes him instead of just being a horse.

“Uh,” he says.

A kid in an oversized red cloak, carrying an extremely kitschy basket looped around an elbow, shoves Herbert’s nose aside with remarkable courage and glares at him.

“Watch where you’re fucking going,” the kid snaps at him. He’s got his hands on his hips and he’s glaring up the full ten feet at Adam like Adam isn’t riding an impressive and highly manly warhorse with a sword strapped to his hip and everything. The kid doesn’t seem to be impressed.

“Uh,” Adam repeats. The kid - not a kid, he’s seeing as he looks, the guy must be about his age even if he is wearing his hood up like some shady loser - glares even harder. He’s kind of pretty. “Y’know, sorry. Wasn’t looking.”

“It’s a fucking public thoroughfare, asshole,” the guy says. His mouth is like, okay- yeah. Yeah, this guy is pretty. Even if there is an extremely quaint wicker basket hanging from the crook of his elbow and he’s wearing an honest-to-God red cloak with the hood pulled up. He has really nice eyes for glaring and also in general. “You need to be looking. You and your fuckoff horse.”

“Be nice about Herbert,” Adam says, wounded. “He’s a good horse.”

“You named your fucking warhorse Herbert,” the guy snipes.

Adam is basically desperate to know his name.

“Well, yeah,” he says. “What else was I gonna call him?”

The guy opens his mouth and then closes it. He blinks. He shifts in place a little. He looks kind of taken aback.

“Uh,” he says. “I... don’t know.”

Adam nods agreeably.

Probably, he shouldn’t be dawdling like this. He’s finished up being a glorified mailman and it’s probably about time he hustled his fine ass back to court, since there doesn’t seem to be anything more pressing to do. Unless he can invent a really good reason to hang out in the middle of the woods, Roslovic is gonna let him hear it.

Adam finds it incredibly difficult to give a shit. The sun is shining and the forest is lovely and there’s a painfully pretty man glaring at him suspiciously. Adam deserves to take some time to savor the little things.

“So, Herbert,” he says. “Listen, what’s your-,”

Herbert whinnies and rears and due to not paying any attention at all Adam falls right over and off his rump, ass over teakettle like some kind of squire. He hits the dirt and Herbert bolts. It takes Adam a moment to sit up, and then Brandon is dropping into a squat at his side. He looks concerned but there’s laughter in his eyes and it’s like, a really nice face.

“Nice,” he says. “You okay?”

“Oh yeah,” Adam wheezes breathily. “Totally… totally fine.”

Which is when the massive fucking wolf steps out onto the road twenty feet away.

Adam makes the realization he probably should have made pretty much right off the bat. Like, the instant he saw the fucking cloak and the fucking basket, which he didn’t because he’s an idiot. The incredibly obvious realization that, like, duh. This is a fucking fairy tale and whoever this guy is, he’s hip-deep in it.

The wolf is more pressing.

“Oh,” Adam says dazedly, “fuck.” And then he’s diving to his feet with a hand tangled in the shoulder of the dude’s cloak, dragging him around after him.

He sees the wolf too, a brief choked-off noise of breathless fear, and then Adam’s yanking him down off the road and into the thicker undergrowth of the forest.

His body aches and the dude takes a second to follow his lead, but wolves have four legs to sort out and Adam only has two. Plus, he’s always operated well under conditions of abject terror, and the dude seems perfectly willing to follow his desperate sprint between the trees.

They run for a long time. Adam gets a stitch in his side and pushes through it and distracts himself from the burn in his lungs by cursing at Herbert in his head. So much for fucking loyalty.

He trips on a root eventually and goes tumbling headlong into some bushes. The cute dude unfortunately pulls up in time and doesn’t go tumbling in on top of him, because there is no justice in all the land. It’s left up to Adam to yank himself out of the prickly bushes and collapse on top of the very tree root that had betrayed him.

The dude collapses beside him, panting violently, flushed and sweaty and wild-eyed. He’s still got his fucking basket. The hood’s fallen off in their flight and Adam can see now how endearingly terrible his hair is.

There doesn’t seem to be anything following them. Especially not a fucking huge fairy tale wolf. When Adam holds his breath and listens all he hears is this guy wheezing away, not a sound of pursuit or anything like a wolf crashing through the undergrowth after them.

“So,” Adam pants. “Wolf, huh?”

The guy falls back to starfish on the ground and laughs breathlessly, a choked sound.

“Fuck,” he wheezes at last. “Yeah, a fucking wolf.”

“Interesting fairy tale you got there,” Adam says and the man snorts and hauls himself up slowly so he’s propped on his elbows. The curl to his admittedly pretty lips is distinctly sardonic, when he turns it on Adam.

“S’one way of putting it,” he says. “You just fucked it up, anyway. So, like.”

Adam digests that for a second. He… he really had. He’d grabbed someone right out of their fairy tale and just taken off running with him without a second thought. Hadn’t even thought about it. Hadn’t considered how bad the consequences would be.

He glances nervously at the trees around them. It’s still a sunny day, warm and floral and beautiful. No sign of the wolf. He shivers anyway.

“Huh,” he says at last. “Guess I did.”

“Mmm,” the man says and rocks a little to get an arm free to extend a hand. “Name’s Brandon.”

“Adam,” Adam says and takes Brandon’s hand and shakes it once.

It’s almost comical, both of them soaked in sweat and still panting. Brandon’s palm is rough and there are calluses on his fingers that speak to hard work. It’s warm, though. Adam convinces himself to let go.

“So,” he says conversationally. “I don’t wanna be, like, rude? But I did totally heroically save your life, so if there’s any food in your fairy tale basket you should share.”

Brandon’s mouth drops open.

“Please,” Adam tacks on because he can basically hear his courtly manners professor ripping her hair out from here. He’s not being particularly courtly, but he’s sitting in some slightly damp mud and a pretty boy in a cloak is staring at him like he’d started speaking a different language. It’s pretty far from court.

“Sure,” Brandon says at last and shoves the basket in his direction. “Fine. Whatever. Make us dinner, then.”

Brandon’s basket has cured sausage, fresh bread, some kind of pastry item that might have once been edible but is now largely crumbs, and cheese. It explains precisely nothing of what Brandon was doing wandering around the road, and it occurs to Adam to wonder about what Brandon’s fairy tale is. Had been? He’s not incredibly clear on the grammar conventions here.

Dinner and Adam’s growling stomach supersedes that pretty handily. The question of Brandon’s fairy tale will remain, but if Adam doesn’t get fed then he might just expire.

He gets a fire going with some difficulty and a few curses at his survivalism professor. Brandon watches him at it, idly massaging a calf and totally ignoring it when Adam throws meaningful glances his way. He really does have pretty eyes, sleepy and dark with heavy eyelashes. Adam gets a little distracted, and then considers asking if Brandon has a map because he’d just gotten lost in his eyes.

Brandon raises a disdainful eyebrow and Adam sighs mournfully and turns back to assembling mildly sucky sandwiches. His sword doesn’t make the best slices when it comes to cheese. Or bread. The sausage doesn’t cut too well, either.

He possibly, maybe, potentially had forgotten to get it sharpened. He hadn’t been expecting this much trouble on a mail delivery trip bringing Morrissey’s dick drawings to Roslovic. At least the bread toasts pretty well. It’s hard to mess up toasting bread.

He hands over a lumpy, misshapen sandwich eventually though. Even if it looks like total and complete ass, it’ll taste like a sandwich. If Brandon had wanted better food, he should have brought better ingredients.

“Not bad,” Brandon proclaims after a bite and a moment to chew contemplatively. He sounds insultingly surprised, but Adam shamefully lights up anyway. He is, in fact, very easy for pretty boys who are mean. It’s one of his few flaws.

“I’m a master goddamn chef,” he says, preening. Not that toasting cheese on bread and then slapping sausage on it really qualifies as cooking, but. “Recognize.”

Brandon rolls his eyes but takes another bite. They finish in a silence that is at least slightly more comfortable than it is awkward, even if only slightly. Adam’s trying not to think about all the nice food that had been in Herbert’s saddlebags. Marathon sprinting burns calories like a motherfucker.

He finishes before Brandon and spends the time it takes Brandon to finish looking at him through his eyelashes. Brandon doesn’t appear to give a shit and it’s a nice view, even if he’s put his dumbass hood back on. Actually, it hides how stupid his hair looks, which might improve things.

“So,” Brandon says when he’s finished, and finally looks at Adam. Adam doesn’t bother pretending he hadn’t been looking. It seems like a lot of work to do. “What now?”

Adam shrugs.

“The road is back thataway,” he says, and jabs a thumb over his shoulder in the direction they’d come from. “But I would deeply not advise going back there until tomorrow. Y’know, just in case. We could camp here, if you have nowhere else to go.”

Brandon pauses for a long, long moment and then he’s shrugging.

“Whatever,” he says. Adam’s pretty sure it means he’s sticking around, which is confirmed when he just goes to tuck the remains of the food in his basket and sets it aside.

They end up staring at each other across the fire awkwardly. It’s getting dark pretty rapidly; at least between the offensively nice summer day and the fire it’s warm enough.

“What,” Brandon says when apparently Adam’s staring has finally gotten to him.

“You don’t seem that upset about breaking your fairy tale,” Adam says leadingly.

Brandon just looks at him for a long moment. There’s something there, behind his eyes. A flicker of emotion Adam doesn’t have even the remotest idea how to interpret. It’s gone a moment later anyway, tucked away in the wry quirk of his mouth and how he shrugs.

“Well,” he says, mockingly philosophical and gets to his feet with mildly obnoxious pomp, brushing off his knees in a way that Adam does not miss breaks their eye contact. “Nothing I can do about it, so.”

“We could try to get you home?” Adam suggests. He isn’t surprised when Brandon just shrugs.

“They won’t be stoked on the whole, like, thing,” he says easily, like he isn’t talking about something so weighty. “Maybe, someday, but. Whatever.”

“Well,” Adam says, because he honestly has exactly zero idea how to respond to that. He rallies quick because he thinks well on his feet and he’s cool under pressure. “You could, um, tag along with me if you want? I’ve been meaning to go looking for a fairy tale. My fairy tale. I guess.”

Which, Brandon doesn’t need to know that he’s more or less pulling the idea out of his ass. It’s not like he hasn’t been thinking about doing exactly that, anyway. There’s only so many dick drawings a man can ferry around before he starts thinking about finding something more fulfilling to do.

Brandon inspects him. He doesn’t look quite as short from this angle.

“Sure,” he says. “Nothin’ better to do, I guess. Can we go the fuck to sleep, mister Personal Questions?”

Adam snorts a little laugh despite himself and starts forcing himself creakily to his feet too. He hasn’t done a real marathon sprint in a while and he’s feeling it. He’s gonna be so fucking sore tomorrow and he decides regretfully he’ll probably get punched if he tries to convince Brandon to give him a massage or something.

Which might be worth it just for the look on Brandon’s face, depending on how sore he wakes up. He shelves the thought for later.

It’s a warm summer night, warm enough that it doesn’t even bother Adam too much that Herbert had kinda fucked right off with all his attendant saddlebags and the food and bedroll. At least, it doesn’t bother him yet. He’s gonna be bitching about it tomorrow at length.

Plus, just one bedroll between the two of them? Choice.

As it is, they just curl as close as they can around the little fire and stare at each other for a long, awkward moment. Adam’s tired as fuck, sore and worn-out from running for what really had to have been like, a whole entire hour. Just as bad is the adrenaline though. He’s jittery.

“Your family,” he says, and Brandon’s sleepy eyes glitter in the shivering firelight.

“What about ‘em?” he asks at last. It’s not the most inviting tone.

“Won’t they be worried about you?” Adam asks.

The silence freezes over.

“No,” Brandon says, and rolls over, and that’s that.

-/-

The next day dawns just as stiflingly charming and picturesque as the day before, and Adam eyes the sky sourly as they follow their tracks back towards the road. The clouds are offensively fluffy.

They get back to the road eventually, and Adam spends a long time scouting around it as furtively as he can considering he’s like, really tall and not all that good at stealth when he's honest with himself. There doesn’t seem to be a wolf though.

Brandon watches him do it with amusement.

“Couldn’t you just fight the wolf?” he asks when Adam’s finally deemed it safe to get back on the road, and gestures at the sword strapped to Adam’s hip. Adam shrugs.

“I’m not like, all that great with a sword,” he admits easily. “Better at boxing, to be honest.”

“Ah,” Brandon says, looking abruptly a little bit less sure of his surroundings.

“Yeah,” Adam says. “Like, what am I gonna do? Box the wolf to death? Don’t think so. Just keep quiet and we’re probably fine.”

Brandon makes a sour face but appears to take Adam’s words to heart, just shifting his mostly empty basket from one elbow to the other. He’s still wearing his lovely scarlet cloak. It’s very suited to his complexion and Adam spends a while admiring it out of the corner of his eye.

“This blows,” he says at last. “Wolf’s not gonna show up, I’m not being quiet.”

“Wondered how long that’d take you,” Adam says cheerfully and then has to haul himself out of the bush Brandon pushes him into. At least Brandon pulls a leaf out of his hair which is sufficiently distracting to keep Adam from getting too upset.

It’s still an obnoxiously good day. If Adam ignores how he’s walking now and that his companion is a distractingly pretty man instead of a massive warhorse with a predilection for dumping him on his ass at the worst possible moment, not much has changed from yesterday. There are even some more fluffy white dog-shaped clouds.

“You think your horse is okay?” Brandon asks eventually. Adam shrugs.

“Probably in his stall eating bran mash and completely not caring about me at all,” he says easily. “He’s a fuckin’ horse, y’know?”

“Not everyone’s fucking rich enough to own a horse, Adam,” Brandon says but he’s smiling, just a little bit, just with the corner of his mouth. He’s so hot. Adam’s kind of upset about it. “What the hell is bran mash?”

“Mash made of bran,” Adam says. Brandon may be pretty but he can be kind of dumb. “Obviously. Damn, I’m hungry.”

“So find us some food,” Brandon says smartly. “I’ve been the provider so far, start pulling your own fuckin’ weight.”

“I liked it better when you were quiet,” Adam says thoughtfully. Brandon punches him in the shoulder.

“Prick,” he says hurtfully.

-/-

They walk for several hours. Several long, interminable hours of sun, cheerful fluffy clouds, and absolutely no foot traffic whatsoever. The woods are utterly barren of anyone with food available.

Adam is just starting to question if maybe starvation actually is something they should start to worry about when they round the bend and spot the tower.

It’s something of a bargain-bin tower as far as fairy tale towers go, squat and a little dour and offset weirdly from the road so it looks like it’s listing to the side even though Adam judges it fairly structurally sound. It’s very obviously a fairy tale tower, what with not having any visible doors, but it’s slightly shitty. Like the kind of apple a vendor throws in for free because it’s got a big bruise on the side. This tower is the pity-fruit of the tower species.

It’s kinda charming.

“Cute!” Adam proclaims. Brandon looks at him for a second and then sighs through his nose and heads for it.

“Maybe they have food,” he tosses over his shoulder and Adam follows him because he is pretty hungry.

Walking a broad perimeter around the tower proves that there is not, in fact, a secret door tucked away where it can’t be seen from the road. Or, if there is it’s hidden cleverly enough to defeat Adam while Brandon looks on judgmentally. He does one last circuit and pulls to a final stop looking up at the biggest of the windows.

There’s warm firelight flickering against the glass. It’s definitely an occupied fairy tale tower.

“What are you,” Brandon begins and then stops as Adam dips to scoop a pebble up from the road. Adam grins at him and hefts it in his hand.

“Bet you dinner I won’t break the window,” he says, and lofts the pebble gently to clatter against the window glass while Brandon’s still opening and closing his mouth like he can’t quite believe what Adam’s doing.

“You're fucking awful,” Brandon says, sounding awed, as the window overhead creaks open.

A greasy-looking boy with hair that falls around his shoulders sticks his head out. He's staring with a certain dead-inside kind of dislike.

“What do you want?” asks the princess, because all appearances aside, this is definitely a princess. His drawl is like, impressively deep and mumbly. It’s almost incomprehensible.

“I like your tower,” Adam tells him, because the last thing his manners professor had tried to teach him before she'd given up in despair had been diplomacy. “It's very short.”

“‘Scuse me?” the princess says. He's staring at them.

“It is pretty short,” Brandon agrees, sounding reluctant.

The guy raises both eyebrows at them.

“I like it,” Adam assures him. “It's cute.”

“Who are you people,” the princess asks flatly.

“That’s, like, two stories tall,” Brandon says, ignoring the question. They don’t even need to raise their voices very much for the guy to hear them. “If that. You could totally jump down.”

“Yeah, and twist my ankle?” the guy snorts at them. He's staring at them like they're zoo exhibits, which is a rich attitude to come from a dude in a tower with no doors. “Don’t think so, asshole.”

He tosses his head haughtily. It’s kind of unfairly impressive, what with how his hair is so long that, even though it's knotted untidily on top of his head, it hangs back out of sight over his shoulder.

“Brandon,” Adam stage-whispers. “This princess is a dick.”

“Princesses are dicks,” Brandon says, not even bothering to try to pretend to whisper. He’s got his hands on his hips again and he’s matching the guy in the tower eyeball-for-eyeball. “It’s like, a universal trait.”

“I’m not a princess,” the guy says. They both ignore his words entirely.

“Well,” Adam says, mildly disgruntled. “Not all of them. I’ve met some-,”

He cuts himself off before he can say nice. Roslovic hadn’t been nice so much as absolutely hilarious once the mead got broken out, in a way that was very much at the other courtiers’ expense. Which was not, maybe, very nice.

He waves a hand vaguely. Brandon shrugs right back in a way that implies that if he weren’t still locked in a staring contest he’d be rolling his eyes.

“Well, whatever,” Adam says and turns to look up at the guy again. “I’m Adam, and this is Brandon. What’s your name, princess?”

“I’m not a fucking princess,” the guy says. He’s scowling. Adam sighs. It seems like everyone is intent on being ridiculous today. And difficult. Ridifficult.

Adam snickers to himself. Ridifficult.

“That’s kind of a mouthful of a name,” Brandon observes, ignoring him once again. “Do you have, like, a shorter version? Legal name, maybe?”

“Nolan,” the guy says grudgingly. “Seriously, fuck you guys. I’m not a princess. Do I look like a fucking princess?”

“No way you’re not a princess,” Adam says. “You’re in a tower, you definitely have a fairy tale. Ergo, princess.”

“Do you see a fucking crown?” Nolan demands and gestures at his head. His incredibly, magically long hair is definitely impressive and all, but true to his word there’s no crown in evidence.

“Princesses don’t wear crowns all the time,” Adam says wisely. He's seen Roslovic in various states of falling-down drunk, which tends to involve losing the crown or forgoing it entirely. He knows a thing or two about princesses. At least, princesses named Roslovic.

“Haven’t been rescued,” Nolan in the tower counters. “So I’m not a princess. Fuck off.”

“Shut up, Adam,” Brandon says, hurtfully siding with Nolan. Nolan’s dour scowl lightens somewhat and Adam scowls harder. “Sorry about him,” he directs up at Nolan. “He was raised by a horse.”

“His name is Herbert,” Adam says, because his horse might be a horse, but Adam does love him.

Nolan eyes them both.

“Why are you here?” he asks at last.

“Well, we kinda don’t have any food,” Adam says pointedly.

Nolan eyes them a little longer. Hair is starting to escape its careful knot and Adam is starting to realize that he has kind of a lot more of it than Adam thought he had. A loop of it is dangling out the window a little and is still long enough to fall back into the tower room and out of sight.

“Fine,” Nolan sighs at last. It’s a rumbly sigh. “You can come up if you want some dinner, but you’re not going to like how you’re gonna have to do it.”

Adam does not, it turns out, like how they have to get into the tower.

-/-

Dinner is a really nice stew which Adam kind of questions on account of there not being a way out of the tower that isn’t the window. The providence of the meat and sundry vegetables is somewhat dubious. It’s pretty delicious though, and Nolan doesn’t seem to care when Adam goes back for seconds, so he goes back for thirds.

He’s too busy tying back his hair. His long, long hair. His long hair that he does not appear to bother doing anything with except bundling it into a garbage excuse for a braid and then winding it up to sit in the hood of a raggedy cloak.

“I like your tower’s insides too,” he says to make conversation.

It’s a surprisingly homey little tower, actually. A little cluttered with decor that shades to the ‘deer skulls and alarmingly well-tanned animal hide’ side of things, which is a little much for Adam’s taste, but clean and well-lit and with every sign of being a habitable living space.

Lack of doors to the outside world aside, at least.

“Thanks,” Nolan mumbles. “S’okay.”

“I like the deer heads,” Adam continues. “How did you, uh, get them?”

“Gifts,” Nolan says and eyes the closest deer head with evil familiarity. “I keep telling Teeks to stop bringing them but he’s relentless.”

Teeks, Brandon mouths to himself. Adam shrugs at him. Nolan misses all of that, as he’s still maintaining eye contact with the glassy-eyed deer head.

“He brings the food at least,” Nolan says and finally looks away from the deer. He’s smiling, inasmuch as Adam suspects he ever does. His mouth is quirked strangely and the general air of gloomy nihilism has abated somewhat. “So, y’know, good for something.”

“Is he your knight?” Brandon asks and Adam gapes at him.

“Brandon,” he squawks, and he isn’t proud that he sounds kind of like his old manners professor. Abruptly he has a little sympathy for her. “You can’t just ask like that, it’s rude!”

“Oh, now you care about being rude?” Brandon asks and rolls his eyes.

“You guys suck,” Nolan says. He doesn’t actually sound that bothered.

“You have a knight though, right?” Adam asks, because that much at least he’s sure of. “Has he not shown up yet, or like-,”

“No, yeah, it’s Teeks,” Nolan interrupts. “He’s out hunting for a day or two.”

Adam frowns. There’s something about this whole thing that just isn’t scanning. Nolan’s a princess, no matter what weird anti-princess sentiments he’s harboring. If that’s true, and he has his knight already, then… what’s he doing still in his tower?

“That doesn’t make any fuckin’ sense,” he says at last. “You’re a princess.”

This time Nolan doesn’t yell at him. Which is nice. Instead, he hunches his shoulders and drums his fingers on the ground and generally looks like a shifty loser. Which is less nice.

“I don’t wanna be a princess,” he mumbles at last. He’s not looking at either of them; he’s staring into the fire. “Don’t think Teeks wants to be a knight either. Think he mostly just wants to shoot animals and fish and shit.”

He sounds fond and the way his mouth quirks says… a lot.

“That’s, um,” Adam says diplomatically. “You know, he has ambitions.”

Nolan nods, apparently taking Adam’s words at face value.

“He’s a provider,” he says. It sounds, while still absolutely and incomprehensibly mumbled, distinctly fond. “Just not very into knighting.”

“It’s a hard life,” Adam says. “Horses and swords and things. Manners lessons.”

Brandon makes a face that Adam makes right back. Knighting is totally hard. Horses, for example. Horses are evil, full of cunning and dumbassery in equal measure, and demand total concentration. Even Herbert.

He thinks about how Herbert had dumped him on his ass in front of a pretty boy and revises his opinion lower. And then he thinks about how there had also been a massive fuckoff fairy tale wolf involved, and revises his opinion even lower. Horses may not know loyalty but like, Herbert could have stuck around like he’d been trained to do. But what does Adam know.

“Yeah,” Nolan says vaguely in a way that heavily implies he isn’t listening and had, in fact, tuned Adam out before he’d even started talking. “He’ll be around. Eventually.”

“But he hasn’t rescued you yet,” Adam clarifies carefully. Nothing about this is adding up at all. Which, it’s not like Adam’s not used to that, but he’s always thought fairy tales were pretty straightforward.

“Nope,” Nolan says, popping the P and still sounding kind of like he’s barely listening to Adam. “We’re, y’know, waiting.”

“Don’t you want a happily ever after?” Adam asks, kind of puzzled, because like- who doesn’t want a happily ever after.

Nolan just looks at him for a second. It’s a pretty disconcerting look. ‘I know something you don’t know,’ says that look, which Adam really isn’t used to from people with that kind of hair.

“Not really,” he says.

“Oh,” Adam says. “Okay.”

He doesn’t get it but, like, okay.

-/-

Adam jolts awake in the middle of the night, late enough to be early. Brandon’s still asleep across the fire, curled up tight in the bedrolls Nolan had grudgingly dug out of a dusty closet. His perpetual frown has softened from the crease between his eyebrows. In the firelight he looks… soft. A little lost. Adam looks at him muzzily for a little while. He doesn’t know what had woken him up.

There’s a rustle by the window and Adam rolls over.

Nolan’s at the window, peering out. He glances over when Adam sits up and beckons for him.

It takes Adam a little work to get to his feet, on account of he’s still kinda sore for running basically a marathon and then walking for hours and hours. He gets there eventually and heads over to peer out the window over Nolan’s shoulder.

It’s dark, with the moon setting. He can barely make out the trees, the pale sliver of the road. There’s absolutely nothing of interest at all going on.

“What-,” he asks sleepily and Nolan points at the trees.

“Wolf,” he says simply, and that’s when Adam sees it.

It’s the wolf. The wolf, the wolf from the road, and he doesn’t know how he knows but he knows. A giant, hulking shape of muscle and sleek fur, absolutely still and barely visible in the trees. It’s only the eyes that give it away - they gleam in the weak witching hour light. Staring right back at him. Cool and yellow and inhuman.

Suddenly Adam is very, very grateful to be in Nolan’s tower.

“Holy fuck,” he chokes.

“S’been there all night,” Nolan murmurs. He sounds concerned. “Just… sitting there.”

“Jesus,” Adam mumbles. “It can’t get up here?”

“Oh, nah,” Nolan says. He at least sounds reassuringly sure of himself.

They spend a long, long time making eye contact with the wolf. Somehow it doesn’t get any less- big and terrifying. Adam wishes he had been joking a little more when he’d said he sucks with swords. First of all, he’s only just now realized what he was implying about his dick, and second of all?

He doesn’t like the look of that fucking wolf.

“You good, man?” he asks Nolan, because he wants a distraction and Nolan really doesn’t look good. Nolan shrugs. He’s got his elbows on the windowsill and his hair is escaping where it’s up haphazardly in the hood of the cloak Adam’s getting the distinct feeling might just be his everyday wear.

“I just, like… I hope Teeks is camping somewhere else for the night,” he says at last.

His voice is thin, quiet and even more incomprehensible than usual. It takes Adam a moment to parse out what he’s saying, and then he has to swallow because, like, dude.

“Yeah,” he says belatedly, weakly. Nolan glances at him and snorts.

“Go back to bed, dude,” he says. “No worries.”

Adam goes back to bed. He’s like, pretty tired and if a wolf eats him then a wolf fuckin’ eats him.

-/-

Breakfast is more stew, reheated and just as delicious. Adam contemplates asking for his seasoning mix. Brandon eats it without appearing to open his eyes. Adam watches him at it and wonders if he’s even awake.

“Hey,” he says and pokes Brandon in the side. Brandon opens one eye and looks at him. “You awake?”

“Fuck off,” Brandon says and closes his eyes again.

Nolan snorts. Adam gets a second bowl sulkily.

Something rattles against the window and Adam jumps. For just a moment, before he sees how Nolan lights up and makes for the window immediately, he has the horrible image of a wolf trying to climb the side of the tower.

Nolan throws open the window and Adam banishes the image with difficulty. Like, Jesus.

“Hey!” someone shouts from the ground below. “Hey, Nols! Let me up!”

Nolan rolls his eyes but starts the horrible and yet admittedly fascinating process of gathering his hair into something that can be grasped well enough to climb. Adam watches in fascination. It’s like, uniquely gross and inconvenient as far as tower-ascension methods go. If he didn’t already know it was a fairy tale and therefore about as communicative as a brick wall, he’d really have some questions about the logic of the whole thing.

The guy that climbs up is charmingly short. He is also dirty, kind of sweaty, and spattered with no little amount of mud and assorted filth. There’s a brace of rabbits over his shoulder and he’s got a bow strapped to his back but no sword in evidence. There’s a knife at his hip but it looks distinctly utilitarian.

Adam still knows a fellow knight when he sees one. This, he decides, must be… Teeks.

“TK,” Nolan says, muddying the waters name-wise pretty much instantly. “You’re getting mud on the fuckin’ floor.”

“All you do is fuckin’ complain,” Teeks-or-TK says. He’s grinning, although there’s something watchful about the way he eyes Adam and Brandon. “Like, no hello? No how are you? No thank you? You’re the fuckin’ worst, you know that? So, who’s this.”

His words come so rapid-fire. Adam blinks at him and then sticks out a hand. This kid is like, obnoxious. Adam admires it.

“Adam,” he says. “The grumpy one is Brandon.”

“Hey!” Brandon snaps. The dubiously named guy grins at them.

“Travis,” he says, and shakes Adam’s hand. “Wow, I’m like, really hungry. Have you guys eaten yet? I could really eat. What’s for breakfast?”

Adam watches in fascination. Travis-Teeks-TK talks even faster than Troubs.

“Stew,” Nolan answers. He doesn’t even blink under the deluge of Travis’s words. He is, apparently, used to it. It occurs to Adam to wonder just how long Nolan’s been in this tower. “We ate.”

“Assholes,” Travis says cheerfully, and goes to deposit his neatly skinned and prepared rabbits- somewhere. Adam decides thinking about this is difficult and he further kind of just doesn’t want to do it.

“Dickhead,” Nolan volleys back. “Didja run into anything out in the woods last night?”

Travis sticks his head around the door frame. He’s apparently made an effort to clean his face, kind of; the patches of mud and grime have moved around a little bit at least. His hair is standing on end and the rabbits are nowhere in evidence.

“Nah,” he says and frowns. “Clear as fuck out there, nothing but deer and rabbits. Not even the deer, actually, which was weird but whatever. Totally clear. Why?”

“Wolf out there last night,” Nolan says and Adam carefully avoids sitting up or making it obvious he’s suddenly on high alert. Travis frowns. He looks puzzled.

“That's weird,” he says eventually. “Wolves don't come this far north in the summer, usually. Didn't see any sign of one though.”

Brandon gives Adam a very significant and speaking look. Don't say a fucking word, says the look.

Adam makes a frantic jerking-off motion in Brandon's general direction. Do you think I'm a fucking idiot, he means by it. Travis spots him at it and, despite a vaguely puzzled air, makes a jerk-off motion right back. Brandon wrinkles his nose and Adam grins at both of them. He likes a man willing to participate in fucking around with no idea what he’s doing or why.

“Huh,” Nolan says, not looking at any of them and therefore missing the entire thing. “S’whatever, then.”

“Maybe,” Travis says. He’s kind of frowning again, and looking at Adam and Brandon carefully. “You two were planning on leaving?”

“I mean, yeah,” Adam says. “Your tower is nice but, uh.”

“But I want you to go away,” Nolan fills in. Travis rolls his eyes and finally comes around the door. Somehow he’d changed all of his clothes in under a minute. He’s still mildly filthy but he’s no longer dripping mud on the floor.

“You’ll take one of my bows,” he directs to Adam and Brandon, hands on his hips. He looks kind of intimidatingly capable for someone under six feet tall. “No way you can take a wolf with just a sword. And I’ll give you some food and shit, what the hell were you even doing out in the woods without supplies? Dumbassery.”

“Herbert ran off with it,” Adam says.

Nolan barks a laugh that sounds like he wasn’t expecting to make it. Travis moves to him and ruffles his hair in a move that looks absent and fond in a way that is disturbing and gross. Adam doesn’t gag out loud because he’s polite as fuck, but he wants to

“Can you please shut up about your horse,” Brandon says, sounding aggrieved and amused in equal parts.

“You're being really riddifficult right now,” Adam replies patronizingly.

“Where the fuck do you come up with this shit,” Brandon demands. The aggravation is increasing.

Travis reaches across him to extend a hand, which Adam slaps five with gleefully.

“Ridiculous and difficult,” Travis says. “Fuckin’ nice.”

“Y’all are about stupid as shit,” Nolan mumbles.

“Don’t be riddifficult, Nolan,” Travis says smartly. Adam reaches across again and they high five, again. Brandon throws an elbow that Adam dodges neatly. He’s learning.

“Get out of my fucking tower,” Nolan grumbles.

“Even me?” Travis asks innocently. Nolan flips him off. He’s very much a terrible princess.

“Especially you,” he says.

-/-

Travis is leaning half-out the window to wave madly at them as they make their way back to the road, held back from toppling out headfirst and cracking every single one of his vertebrae only by the grip Nolan has on the back of his shirt. Nolan waves, once, when Adam waves madly back. He grins and shifts his new pack higher on his shoulders.

“I like them,” he confides to Brandon when the tower’s around the bend and out of sight. Brandon rolls his eyes.

“You would,” he said. He sounds tolerantly fond and Adam’s pretty sure what he means by that is that he likes them too.

They walk for a while. Adam gets bored pretty quick. The woods just keep getting more and more picturesque and he’s not seeing any sign of the wolf, and besides, he’s really not much better with the bow than the sword. Or any better at all.

“Can you shoot?” he asks idly.

Brandon looks down his nose at him. He’s so lucky he’s hot and fun and compliments Adam’s cooking, or he’d find his ass dumped on the side of the road, honestly.

“I can shoot,” he says condescendingly. “Better than you can use your sword, at least.”

“I am some hot garbage with the sword,” Adam says agreeably. He’s not in the business of lying about these things. Inevitably he’s going to accidentally chop off a toe or something if he tries to pretend like he doesn’t only barely have a grasp on which end of the sword he’s supposed to hold.

“Better than hot garbage,” Brandon says. He’s doing the guilty little smile Adam’s privately already claimed, like he thinks he shouldn’t find Adam as funny as he does. Which is ridiculous, because Adam is hilarious.

“So let’s see you shoot,” he says.

It takes a while to pick out the right target and Brandon spends the whole time complaining that they’re wasting time and that Adam’s being too picky.

“Wasting time we should be doing what?” Adam asks pointedly and Brandon scowls at him and has no response. He keeps scowling as Adam hacks a rough approximation of something into the right tree that looks like a target when he squints.

He’s about as good with the bow as he is with the sword, by which he means he knows which bits to hold on to and how to avoid spearing himself in the foot for the most part. However, anything narrower than the wider side of a house might be a bit of an iffy proposition, in terms of hitting it with an arrow on the first two or three tries.

He manages to get the first arrow into the tree and calls it good. It’s inside the crude target circle too, even if only barely. He’s had much worse showings.

He’s really better at boxing, he swears.

“Your turn,” he says cheerfully and tosses the bow to Brandon, who fumbles to snag it out of the air before it falls on the ground. It wipes the superior smirk off his face, at least. Adam settles in leaning against another tree while Brandon spends a moment or two testing the give of the bow before he steps up and into the proper posture.

Watching Brandon draw and shoot, measured and steady and utterly confident, is a lot. Adam has a boner. He will freely admit to the whole world and God and everybody that Brandon is hot and he has a boner. Just a little bit of one, because he is a gentleman, but still.

When he finally tears his eyes away from Brandon’s shooting form there’s three arrows clustered right around the crudely cut little center target, significantly closer than Adam’s desultory and frankly kind of terrible attempt.

“There,” Brandon says, victorious, whipping around with the bow in one hand and an arrow in the other. He’s breathing a little heavily and his eyes are bright and he’s a little flushed. Adam tells his dick to calm down. “So fucking there.”

“Fuckin’ amazing,” Adam says immediately and watches Brandon open his mouth to defend himself against a chirp that isn’t there, and then snap it closed when he realizes he doesn’t have anything to defend himself against. It’s about the funniest thing ever. Heckling and complimenting Brandon at the same time, Adam is honestly a genius. “You’re obviously better, you should carry the bow.”

Brandon blinks at him.

“Really?” he asks.

“Dude,” Adam says and makes a grand gesture. “‘Course. Less shit for me to carry.”

Brandon rolls his eyes but he looks pleased and when they’ve dug the arrows out of the tree and he’s shouldered the bow with an obviously practiced care, he stands with even more confidence. Adam kind of wonders why he hadn’t had a bow before, since he so obviously felt comfortable with one.

“Hey!” he realizes. “You can catch us dinner now!”

-/-

Brandon catches them a nice rabbit for dinner and goes kind of pink when Adam tells him that he’s Adam’s hero. Which, in Adam’s opinion anyone that feeds him is a hero, but if it makes Brandon go that particular shade then he needs to tell him all the time.

Brandon also scowls and throws some nasty entrails in his direction, but he doesn’t even hit Adam with them so Adam’s pretty sure he’s not actually mad.

-/-

The frog hops into their camp that night with remarkable lack of fear, which is what first catches Adam’s attention. It just hops into the ring of the firelight and just sits there, little amphibian eyes glinting back at him. They stare at each other for a while as Brandon fusses around with the rabbit and the spit he’s constructed out of some branches.

“Hey, Brandon,” Adam says. “Frog.”

“Gross,” Brandon says without looking up. The crossbar branch keeps catching fire and it’s really puzzling him. Adam’s considered telling him to move it off to the side instead of directly over the fire but like, if he just tells Brandon then he’ll miss out on the valuable critical thinking experience.

The frog looks offended. Adam frowns. He’s never seen an offended frog before.

“Sorry,” he says to the frog.

“Stop talking to the frog,” Brandon says, and then curses as the branch catches fire again.

The frog hops away from Brandon, around the little circle of their clearing towards Adam. it stops a few feet away and looks up at him.

“I think it’s trying to, like, communicate,” Adam says, leaning in closer. The frog is blinking in a distinct pattern. It is also holding weirdly still for a frog being loomed over by a human, especially a human Adam’s size. It’s a weird fucking frog. “I think it’s trying to talk to me.”

“If you touch that frog, I am walking away right the fuck now,” Brandon threatens, still not looking up.

Adam blinks at him and then at the frog. The frog blinks back. Adam shrugs to it.

“Sorry,” he says again, apologetically. The frog shrugs back and hops away.

-/-

“We’re gonna starve to death,” Brandon says.

“We’re not gonna starve to death,” Adam says. “You can shoot us a deer or something. We’ll be fine.”

“I’m gonna run out of arrows and then we’ll starve to death,” Brandon amends. Adam rolls his eyes. “And I’ll have told you so.”

“We aren’t gonna starve to death!” Adam says. “We’ll run into a town or something before then and someone will probably feel bad enough for your crying and whining to give us some food or like, a job. We’ll be fine.”

“Fuck you, crying and whining,” Brandon says and kicks a rock at Adam. “You don’t know that for sure. Maybe there isn’t a town for days and I break my leg. We could really starve to death.”

“I’d carry you piggyback,” Adam says. “Seriously, dude, we’re not gonna starve to death.”

Brandon rounds on him, scowling.

“And how do you know that?” he demands.

“Well,” Adam says, and points. “There’s a castle over there, and I bet they have food.”

It’s got a moat, although it’s a more charming moat than Adam would expect from a castle up to its eaves in a fairy tale. There are lily pads, and a duck eyeing them suspiciously from under the bridge. The shingles of the roof are a little mossy but in good repair and the whole thing looks entirely more cheerful and less cursed than he would honestly have expected.

“This is a weird castle,” he proclaims. Brandon looks at him in bemusement.

“What,” he asks. “Is it too small? Walls the wrong color?”

“It’s a fairy tale castle,” Adam says and gestures vaguely at it. “But it looks all… nice.”

“How do you know it’s a fairy tale castle?” Brandon asks, pedantically. “It could be a regular castle. It’s not like anyone’s hung a sign.”

“A regular-ass castle? In the middle of the woods with no city around it? Off the road and everything?” Adam asks. “With a moat and all but no wall? Don’t be stupid, it’s not cute.”

Brandon pushes him into a bush.

“Whatever,” he says with great dignity, loud over the sound of Adam cursing at him and struggling his way free of the spiky branches. He’s getting kind of sick of getting pushed into foliage. “We’re almost out of food anyway, we need to stop and see if they’ll feed us. Plus, I wanna sleep in a bed.”

“You’re such a baby,” Adam complains and then dodges getting pushed back into the bush. “Fine, let’s go then.”

“You’re knocking,” Brandon says as they edge their way through the undergrowth to the weirdly neat little border of lawn around the moat.

“Like hell I am!” Adam says, wounded. “Why me? You’re the one who wants to eat or whatever.”

“You’re the knight,” Brandon points out triumphantly.

“Fuck,” Adam says sulkily, and steps onto the bridge.

-/-

The princess that opens the door when Adam finally nuts up enough to knock is wearing a dress.

Like… a dress.

The dress looks like it hadn’t been sewn so much as, like, built. It’s got buttresses and pediments and he’s pretty sure, though Adam is no expert in dresses, what might be a bustle. There looks to have been nails involved in a few places. He suspects that whoever had drawn up the patterns might have been more of an architect or possibly an armorer by training than a dress designer.

“Can you move in that thing?” he asks, fascinated.

“I can move well enough to kick your ass,” the guy says immediately. He is definitely a princess.

“Mitch,” sighs the dragon that Adam had somehow managed to miss in lieu of the truly spectacular dress. Adam jumps. Brandon takes a step back and nearly falls in the moat. Mitch the princess crosses his arms, which at least proves he does have kind of a range of motion. Somehow.

“Hi,” Adam croaks.

The dragon has to be about ten feet tall and shines a lovely, sleek dark blue. It has a crest that is currently flared, very big teeth, and even bigger claws. It is also trying to hid behind Mitch, as far as Adam can tell. Due to the dress, it works better than it should.

The dress is pink with panels of pale blue dotted across the skirt at what looks to be random. Like, it's a dress.

“I will totally kick your ass,” Mitch says.

“Mitchell, please,” the dragon says and its head comes up a little further over Mitch’s shoulder. Its eyes are an orange that reminds Adam unpleasantly that dragons usually breathe fire.

He also sounds very long-suffering.

“We, um,” Adam says. “Come in peace?”

Brandon’s foot connects with the back of his leg a moment later, hard. Adam kicks out blindly behind him and is gratified by an impact and then Brandon swearing under his breath. Mitch and the dragon watch this happen and don’t comment.

“Well,” Mitch says when Adam’s come out victorious, though with some future bruises around the shins he’s going to remember later. “You’d better come in.”

They file inside. It looks like a nice little castle, as far as captive princess castles Adam’s seen go, being as it’s the first one. The halls are tall enough for the dragon, and it’s pretty clean. It doesn’t really look like it should be the scene of some kind of climactic sword fight or whatever. It just of just looks like an entryway.

“So,” Mitch says. “Who the fuck are you?”

“Mitch, please,” the dragon says, sounding utterly despairing. Adam is really starting to suspect he has absolutely zero grasp on this situation. On the other hand, for once he has a better grasp on the courtly manners of a situation than the person across from him, and he’s never been one to pass up an advantage.

“Knight Adam,” he says and bows what is probably the correct degree for a princess. “This is Brandon. And you, princess?”

Mitch is eyeing him strangely when he surfaces from the bow he actually suspects, now that he’s thinking about it, might have been the correct bow for a visiting dignitary. He’d never been all that great at the distinctions in bows. His courtly manners professor had hated his guts.

“I’m not, you know, technically a princess,” Mitch says.

Adam looks at the dress.

“You know, yet,” Mitch says. He’s still got his arms crossed, which is kind of impressive considering how much taffeta and lace and generally frilly bullshit there is all over his person. “I’m not a princess, yet. Technically.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being a princess,” Adam says, mystified. There’s a lot of anti-princess sentiment going on. He feels like he missed some kind of memo.

“Well, yeah, no. But I had dreams and shit,” Mitch says. “Goals. Fucking artistic passions, even.”

“You’ve never done an artistic thing in your life,” the dragon snorts. Mitch makes a wounded noise and punches the dragon as high as he can reach on the shoulder, which is not very high. He doesn’t seem to be able to lift his arms as high as he wants to.

“I am so artistic,” he says and pats his skirt proudly. It makes a slightly hollow noise and doesn’t shift at all.

“Did you, uh,” Brandon hazards after a moment. “Did you design that yourself?”

Mitch grins at him beatifically. His mouth is huge.

“I did!” he says proudly. “Dresses are hard as fuck.”

Adam looks at the construction of the dress and then the corded strength of Mitch’s forearms where they’re poking out of a tufted cloud of stiff lace. Definitely some kind of armorer’s training, he revises his opinion. He’s kind of curious if he’d be able to get his sword through the dress to the Mitch beneath even with a solid few whacks.

Not that he, like, would. But hypothetically.

“It looks great,” he says. “Really inspired.”

Mitch grins even wider at him, somehow.

“It’s fireproof,” he says. “In case Marty sneezes. Or decides to eat me, you know.”

“Mitchell,” says the dragon, who is apparently named Marty. It sounds a little uncomfortably fond. Adam is abruptly very glad he hadn’t tried to stab it. “Please. We have company.”

Mitch rolls his eyes and rustles his way back over to Adam and Brandon. He moves astonishingly well in his dress, considering it’s got a radius of at least two feet in every direction.

“You’re welcome to stay the night,” he says, drawing himself up in what Adam thinks might be the world’s sloppiest attempt at courtly good manners. It’s kind of adorable. “Provided you don’t stab Marty.”

Marty,” Brandon says weakly, and Adam elbows him, hard.

“We’d love to,” he says and grins winningly.

-/-

The rest of the castle is a little dusty and in places a little charred but, overall, looks far better than what Adam would expect a tiny princess named Mitch with a penchant for eldritch dresses and a dragon named Marty to be able to pull off. Nothing is obviously broken and there’s no sign of neglect worse than dusting.

Adam’s mystified.

“You can sleep in any of the guest rooms,” Mitch says, gesturing vaguely at a whole hallway. There’s a fine layer of dust over everything. Mitch squints at it apologetically; they’d left Marty in the front hall to, allegedly, cook them dinner. Adam is dubious. “Um, sorry about the dust. We don’t get visitors.”

Adam bites back a question. He’s tired and hungry and kind of just wants to lay on a mattress and maybe nap.

“It looks great,” Brandon says and Adam tosses him a grateful glance. Mitch beams at them.

“Dinner should be ready in like, half an hour?” he says. “Dude, it’s gonna be sick having dinner guests. Wow.”

“Fuck yes,” Adam says with feeling and his stomach growls right on cue. Brandon snorts at him like he hadn’t been complaining about being hungry the whole walk up to the castle. Mitch claps his hands, the sleeves of his dress clanging against the bodice. Adam suspects he can make out weld-marks along the boning.

“Yeah, just head back around then, there’ll be plenty of food,” he says. “Marty forgets people don’t eat as much as dragons. I hope you like steak!”

“We love steak,” Adam assures him and Mitch wanders away, edging his skirt through the door with adroit skill. Adam watches him go, absolutely astounded. He would have bet hard money that Mitch would be completely hampered but he’s starting to suspect Mitch really could kick his ass in that dress.

“Princess, huh?” Brandon says, and his tone is… odd. Adam blinks and frowns at him.

“He’s got some opinions about that,” Adam says and shrugs. “Weird little fairy tale they have here.”

“Hmm,” Brandon says and looks away. “What room do you want? We should have ones next to each other, probably.”

“Literally don’t give a shit,” Adam says truthfully and opens a door at random. It’s got a bed with an actual mattress and enough floor to throw his backpack on and when he throws himself onto the bed the frame doesn’t collapse. He closes his eyes and luxuriates in the feeling of laying down, listening to Brandon opening the door of the next room over and moving around for a few minutes.

He’s gonna get up and eat his bodyweight in steak in a minute, but it’s kind of nice to sit down. He’ll never tell Brandon that, though.

-/-

The next morning Mitch is wearing pants when Adam finally lets the horrendous noises of a dragon trying to walk around quietly drive him out of bed and in the direction of the kitchens. Having an actual bed is novel, even if the sheets are a little dusty. His back doesn’t even hurt, but on the other hand he is hungry.

Mitch is sitting tucked cozily in the bend of Marty’s forelimb like it’s a comfy recliner and he’s sipping a mug of coffee, and he is also wearing pants.

Brandon’s already up, sipping a cup of coffee and poking at yet another hearty venison steak. There’s a little side of undersized potatoes and basically nothing else.

“So you wear pants,” Adam says, because he hasn’t had any coffee yet and no one’s ever accused him of being tactful even when that isn’t true. Mitch doesn’t seem all offended, anyway. He just sips more coffee.

“Dresses are for special occasions,” he says, which raises a few more questions immediately, and then points around Marty’s shoulder to the laundry line strung from two tines of Marty’s spinal ridge. There’s a much less constructed dress hanging from it, as well as sundry other linens and a pair of ratty boxers. “Plus, laundry day.”

Adam considers this, shrugs, and goes for the weird copper contraption with the plunger the delicious coffee smell is coming from. It looks significantly cooler than the frankly kind of nasty cheesecloth and jug situation he’s used to. When he takes a sip, it tastes better too.

“I love you,” he says to the coffee making contraption, and settles down next to Brandon at the table. Brandon shoves the steak over and Adam cuts himself a bite. A little unorthodox as far as breakfasts go, but he’s not going to complain about some tasty protein.

They eat in silence for a little while. Marty seems to be asleep and Mitch looks halfway there himself; it seems like a pretty comfy gig; Adam can feel the gentle heat Marty’s radiating from here.

Eventually Adam and Brandon tag-team the steak and Mitch shakes himself awake, hauling himself up with a hand on Marty’s snout to pull down his laundry. It’s adorably domestic, sipping coffee and watching Mitch fold his dry clothes on the baseboard. It looks like a practiced routine.

“You have a really nice castle,” Adam compliments. Mitch smiles at him over his shoulder, flicking the towel in his hands to get the wrinkles out in a way that’s more enthusiasm than skill. The smile crinkles his eyes up. Adam privately has to wonder if Mitch ever has an emotion that he doesn’t feel with his whole body because the kid is seriously sincere. Like, painfully.

“Thanks!” he says. “I’m pretty proud of it. Me ‘n Marty work hard on it!” Marty makes a chuffing sound of agreement that sounds proud. His eyes are glittering orange slits.

“It’ll be a shame to leave,” Adam says because he isn’t thinking about what he’s saying at all.

There’s silence. A long, long stretch of silence.

Mitch puts the folded towel down and reaches for the dress.

“Why would I have to leave?” he asks. His tone is very hard to read and he’s looking down at the dress and Adam can’t see his face.

“Um,” Adam says. He looks at Brandon. Brandon is looking back and forth between Mitch and Adam and the expression on his face isn’t promising but it’s just as confused. “When your, um, knight comes to rescue you?”

“I don't think my knight is coming,” Mitch says conversationally.

He's folding the dress with quick, mechanically practiced flicks of his hands. He still won’t look at Adam. He’s looking out the window instead, up at the blue, blue sky.

“Of course he is,” Adam says, because there’s no way there’s not a knight coming for the princess. That’s like, fairy tale basics. Knights come for princesses. Or sometimes rogues or tinkers or whoever the fuck, but some kind of hero. And with a dress like Mitch’s, he’s gonna bet on the knight.

“He's not coming,” Mitch says.

There's the rustling crinkle of fabric in his fists. Adam looks down. Mitch’s carefully folded dress is a wrinkled nest now. His hands are twisted into the ruffled material and his knuckles are white. He’s holding on so tight the fabric is trembling.

“He isn't. Maybe the fairy tale forgot to give me one.”

“Mitch,” Marty says gently.

“He isn't,” Mitch says. He's still looking out the window.

Marty is quiet for a moment.

“He isn't,” he agrees at last. Adam jumps when his head swings towards him. It's become bizarrely easy to forget that Marty is, in fact, a massive fire-breathing reptilian creature with a wingspan that makes Adam kind of jealous, obscurely. When Adam hadn't been looking directly at him, he could almost imagine the man he would be. If, y'know, he weren't a dragon. “The fairy tale made a mistake.”

“Oh, yeah,” Adam lies immediately. He really wishes Brandon would say something but he can kind of relate to the way it seems like Brandon's trying to blend into the wallpaper and pretend he isn't there. “Totally. Fairy tales make mistakes.”

Mitch smiles at him. He really has about the nicest smile, so big it'd probably be ugly if it weren't so agonizingly sincere.

“It’s not bad staying here,” he says. He’s smoothing the dress out again. “All the venison you can eat, y’know?”

“Which I catch for you,” Marty says, sounding jokingly aggrieved, and he’s right back to being Marty-who-is-incidentally-a-dragon. It’s like magic. “You should eat more vegetables.”

“I garden,” Mitch defends himself happily. “I’m trying, you know, whatever. Fuck off, Marty, you’re a dragon. You don’t know shit about nutrition.”

Marty makes some fussy noises. Mitch imitates them right back, high and mocking and affectionate. It’s kind of adorable. Adam breathes a quiet sigh of relief.

Mitch starts making kissy faces at Marty. Marty is, insofar as something that’s nominally reptilian can, rolling his eyes.

“S’kinda cute,” Brandon murmurs to him, and Adam shrugs, because it kinda is.

-/-

Mitch stuffs their pack full of as much smoked venison as they can reasonably be expected to carry and then spends about twenty minutes apologetically pointing out where vegetables will be in his admittedly pretty well-tended garden. Adam assures him there’s no way he’d eat most of them anyway. Brandon makes judgmental faces at him.

They get shuffled out the front door again eventually, anyway. Adam makes a very careful mental note to mock Brandon for thinking they could possibly starve to death. Between them, they must be carrying an entire deer’s worth of meat.

“A moment,” Marty says and he sounds like he’s picking his words careful. It’s possible Adam will never truly be over knowing a dragon that’s socially awkward.

He shrugs and lets Marty lead him out onto the bridge. He has to pick his way carefully, his bulk just a little too widely-set for the slender and possibly poorly-designed bridge. The engineers truly hadn’t had dragon accessibility in mind in drafting its plans, and it shows.

Mitch is still in the entryway, gesturing broadly and saying something rapid and excited to Brandon who’s looking on in bemusement. Adam tears his eyes away.

Marty is looking at him. His eyes are still a coppery, burnished orange. Inhuman and deep and hypnotizing, almost the size of Adam’s palm. It’s hard to breathe with that gaze on him.

Adam is very, very grateful that he hadn’t needed to try to fight Marty.

“Yo, yeah,” Adam says, and has to cough because his voice is really hoarse for some dumb reason. “What’s up?”

“Be careful in the woods,” Marty says at last. His voice rumbles quietly between them. “I don’t like what was out and about in them last night.”

Adam shivers.

Like, way to be unfairly vague and ominous. And completely unhelpful also, God forbid Marty give them any idea what the hell he’s talking about. He’s starting to think being cryptic and unhelpful might be one of the defining features of a fairy tale. No wonder princesses are like that.

“We’ll be careful,” he promises anyway because, um, duh. He does appreciate it, in the end.

Marty nods his massive head once, solemnly, and starts picking his waddling way back across the bridge to Mitch.

“Brandon,” Adam raises his voice to reach back to the castle. “Hurry your ass up.”

“Christ!” Brandon calls back, sounding annoyed, and it’s comfortingly normal. “I’ll be there in a second, calm down!”

It’s probably fine, anyway.

Chapter Text

There’s nothing out and about in the woods other than themselves and the very occasional farmer-type with a cart full of vegetables who eyes them suspiciously and hurry on. Adam stays up half the night when they camp, a few miles out from Mitch and Marty’s castle, and all he sees is a blandly lovely moonset and a few bats.

There’s certainly nothing all that scary; if anything, the scariest thing is how they’ve been walking for a moderate eternity and the summer days just keep getting more and more offensively cute.

Adam tries smiling at the farmers that pass winningly and does his best not to look too much like he’s elbow-deep in fairy tale. He’s not sure if he’s not really succeeding or if it’s the perpetually perturbed expression on Brandon’s face that’s making everyone distrust them.

“You could try looking friendly and approachable,” he suggests to Brandon when the third farmer in two days eyes them and hurries his cart past. Brandon wrinkles his nose at him.

“Why?” he asks, and Adam doesn’t have a great answer ready for that so he just shrugs.

“People might like you more,” he decides on, maybe twenty minutes later. It’s a testament to how they’re spending all of their time together and also how interminably boring the woods are that Brandon doesn’t even need to ask him to clarify what he’s talking about.

“You like me fine,” he says absently. Adam has to grin at that like a total moron and skips ahead to go poke around in the undergrowth so Brandon doesn’t see. He does like Brandon even when he’s mean. Maybe especially then.

“Dunno,” he says when Brandon can’t see his face to call him a liar. “You’re like, okay. Maybe.”

“Well, you’re the worst,” Brandon says blithely. “Maybe they’re rushing ‘cause they can smell your bad breath. Think about that, eh?”

Adam spins to stare at him, wounded. He almost falls over a tree root in doing it but, like, whatever.

“My breath doesn’t smell!” he protests and then, when Brandon just laughs at him, “It doesn’t!”

-/-

“Aight, I’m gonna ask you something that’s like, maybe a little mean,” Brandon says.

Adam hums contemplatively, linking his fingers together and stretching as far over his head as he can. They’ve been walking for hours in pretty much total silence and it’s the fourth day out from Mitch and Marty now. He’s bored as hell.

“Go on,” he says when he’s had a really good, luxurious stretch. Brandon’s studiously not looking at him when Adam tilts his head to glance at him.

“Adam,” he begins, and then doesn’t continue for long enough for Adam to swing around to walk backwards and frown at him. High likelihood he’s gonna trip and fall and break his ass on some cobbles, but on the other hand staring at Brandon until he flushes is a sport Adam loves.

“Yes, bro?” he asks when Brandon just scowls at him.

“I’m trying to think of how to phrase this nicely,” Brandon says sourly. Adam snorts at him and turns on his heel to walk the right way around. He’s really tempting fate.

“You never minded being an asshole before,” he points out. Brandon elbows him but it lacks resolve. Adam doesn’t even wince.

“You don’t seem to know fuck shit about princesses,” Brandon says at last.

Adam sighs and kicks at a rock.

“Being honest,” he says, “I only ever knew one. And he was, like…”

He thinks about trying to explain Roslovic and waves a hand vaguely. It’s very hard to explain Roslovic. Kind of like trying to explain the finer points of courtly bowing to Herbert.

“He was Roslovic,” he says at last.

Brandon makes a face. Then he makes another, different face. Adam watches, highly amused, as Brandon cycles through a facial voyage of a whole spectrum of emotions before settling on vaguely concerned with a hint of nausea.

“He doesn’t sound like, uh… the nicest guy,” he says at last. This is probably, Adam realizes, what passes for diplomacy from Brandon.

He shrugs.

“I don’t know, man,” he says. “He’s a princess.”

“He’s still a person,” Brandon points out and Adam rolls his eyes.

“I know that,” he says and kicks out idly in Brandon’s direction, more to punctuate his point than to really hit him. Brandon slaps in his direction. Neither of them connect. “He was just also a big asshole. I think he probably woulda been one anyway.”

-/-

In the course of their normal need to actually feed themselves, and in an effort to conserve the smoked meat Mitch had given them because it would keep longer, Brandon tries to shoot a deer and ends up having to chase the thing about half a mile, Adam hot on his heels. In the course of that, Brandon falls in a creek. Adam manages to avoid following him in.

“Oh my god,” he says gleefully. Brandon glares at him, trying to wring out his shirt. Lucky for both of them it’s a shallow creek and Brandon had gone into it on his front, so his backpack is dry. His entire front is not so lucky.

“What the fuck ever,” Brandon says sourly, and pulls his shirt over his head. Adam’s mouth goes kind of dry but he keeps grinning anyway. If Brandon’s gonna put on a show for him and he gets to make fun of Brandon for falling in a creek for the rest of his natural life, Adam’s not gonna argue with it.

“Were you looking where you were going at all?” he asks. His voice comes out a little pitchy but, like, whatever. “You’re so fuckin’ lucky you didn’t break anything. Like your leg, or the bow.”

“I’m not gonna break my fucking leg falling in a creek,” Brandon snaps and kicks off his pants too.

Adam makes a stupid noise. It is, objectively, a stupid noise. He’ll freely admit that.

“What?” Brandon says, scowls even harder. He’s dipping to rummage in the backpack after something. Adam stares at his thighs, utterly transfixed. They’re lean and muscular and like, fuck, holy fuck. He’s gonna choke on his own tongue.

“Nothing,” he says stupidly, and rallies with some effort. He can’t drag his eyes away from Brandon’s hip bones now, but he’s working on it. “You know, just, uh, laughing at you for being stupid.”

“Kay, genius,” Brandon says and yanks his blanket free to drape over his shoulders. Adam manages to stop staring at his pecs just in time. “We gotta wait for my clothes to dry out, let’s stop for lunch.”

“Yeah, alright,” Adam says hoarsely.

Lunch is more smoked venison and longing thoughts of the bread and cheese from Brandon’s cute little basket, forever and ever ago. Also, longing looks at Brandon’s belly button peeking out between the folds of his blanket. Adam’s never wanted to lick someone so bad in his whole entire life.

Brandon’s clothes are, judging by the face he makes when he pulls them on, still kinda damp. Adam tries not to be too obvious about scoping out the dimples at the base of his spine, more out of politeness than any real shame. His mouth is so dry.

“Well, now we gotta find the fuckin’ road again,” Brandon says sourly.

“Oh, yeah,” Adam says. His voice comes out rusty. He sounds incredibly, terribly intelligent. He clears his throat to try again. “The road was, uh, that way I think?”

“If you say so,” Brandon says dubiously but starts in the direction Adam was pointing anyway.

Adam’s at least reasonably sure he picked the right side of the creek to orient himself, but not, like… totally sure. He’s having a hard time feeling concerned about it, as Brandon’s forging ahead in pants that are just damp enough to cling to thighs Adam can now imagine so well. He’d always been gifted at visualization.

“I don’t think this is the way we’re supposed to be going,” Brandon says a few minutes later, pulling to an abrupt stop. Adam pulls up before he can run into Brandon’s back, but only barely. He’s starting to really worry that seeing Brandon’s dickprint might have truly scooped his brain right out of his skull.

“Huh?” he says.

“I don’t remember passing a fairy tale castle on the way here, at least,” Brandon says, and points up ahead, and when Adam finally does look at something that isn’t Brandon’s legs it is to find that there is, indeed, a fairy tale castle up ahead.

This fairy tale castle is by no means as cute and homey as Mitch and Marty’s. It’s nowhere near as well-kept, and there’s something about it that makes Adam shiver when he looks at it. An aura of damp, mossy accursedness. Something about the broken windows and the crumbling walls and the sagging roof that just screams ‘absolutely nothing good is going to happen here’ at the top of its lungs.

“Cozy,” Adam proclaims. Brandon shoots him a poisonous look.

“If we go in there, we’re gonna get murdered,” he says. “Or, like, contract tetanus. Look at those windows.”

“Smoking coming out of that chimney, though,” Adam says, and points. There is indeed a thin line of pale smoke emerging from one of the forest of chimneys. It’s the only real sign of life in the whole sprawling, ruined castle.

“Could be a witch,” Brandon says. Adam wrinkles his nose and suppresses a shiver.

“God, I fucking hope not,” he says. “Jesus, no need to be so dark. I don’t know if they can really light fires anyway.”

“I’ve heard of some,” Brandon says, which is like, way to be cryptic and ominous as hell, what the fuck.

“You’re being creepy,” Adam tells him and Brandon doesn’t even try to tackle him into a bush or anything, which is how he knows Brandon’s genuinely worried about the highly accursed castle. “Like, if you really don’t wanna go in there we don’t have to, but I don’t think it’s a huge deal. We probably won’t die.”

Probably,” Brandon scoffs.

“Almost definitely,” Adam amends and pokes him gently. “C’mon, I’m curious. We’ll be okay. I’ll protect you.”

Brandon scowls at him but finally lets Adam start pulling him in the direction of the castle.

“I am not a princess,” he tells Adam.

-/-

The castle doors are hanging by a single hinge. It’s ridiculously easy to kick them open.

“Hello?” Adam shouts into the interior. His voice echoes back at him. Brandon gives him an evil look. “What! If a dragon comes at us, I’d rather be by the front door.”

Brandon scowls at him but can’t really argue Adam’s superior logic. Instead he goes to kick at the rotting furniture piled in the corner of the entry hall as Adam wanders deeper in. There’s enough light to see coming through the windows and open front door, but the gloom grows the farther in he peers.

There’s what looks like an absolute warren of hallways twisting around each other, deeper into the castle. Adam does not want to explore them, thanks so very much.

“Hello!” he calls, cupping his hands around his mouth and aiming down the straightest of the hallways leading off the entryway. His voice bounces back to him eventually, distorted and tinny. He tilts his head and tries to listen over the sound of Brandon muttering unhappily to himself, still by the door.

There’s a noise, echoing back to him. A buzzing hum, rising and falling irregularly in volume. Adam frowns and tilts his head back and forth, trying to triangulate which direction it’s coming from. It’s the weirdest noise.

“Can I help you?”

Adam screams and jumps approximately fifty feet in the air. He goes for his sword, trips as he comes down, and nearly goes sprawling across the flagstone. Brandon’s yelping as well, dancing back into the doorway.

There’s a man standing in the doorway to the hallway that’d been behind Adam when he’d starting calling. Or, not a man.

Adam realizes there is no possible way this kid is older than twenty. Maybe not even that.

“Holy fuck,” he wheezes and clutches at his chest. His sword is loose in its sheath, he’s heaving for breath, and his heart is pounding at his ribs like it’s trying to make a break for it. “Holy shit, fucking hell, I’m gonna die.”

“If you must, do it outside,” the kid says. He’s got an accent, rounded and cool in his mouth. He’s also got a stare like a corpse. “I would not want to move your body.”

“Who the fuck are you?” Brandon demands. He’s made his way back inside, still looking a little bit like he’s about to bolt any second. His bow is in his hand. The kid’s gaze swings to him and he flinches visibly.

“I could ask you the same,” the kid says coolly. He’s, like, insultingly self-possessed. He’s also wearing a sword and Adam has the horrible sinking sensation that he probably knows way more about how to use it than Adam.

“I’m not telling,” Brandon says, and Adam knuckles at one of his eyes because like, he gets it? But also, Jesus fucking Christ.

This is a knight. He’s pretty sure of that. The sword, the castle, the deeply martyred self-assurance? Totally a knight. Even if he is about twelve years old, he’s got the gimlet-eyed thousand-yard-stare of a grizzled war veteran and the evil temperament to match. It’s kind of discouraging to Adam, personally.

“You’re a knight,” he tries and tries to put on a smile in face of the stare the knight swings back on him. It’s difficult.

“Well spotted,” the knight says acerbically. The laconicism is a lot. Adam really has to wonder how a kid his age ends up with an attitude like this. “I am Elias,” he continues and doesn’t offer his hand or anything. “And you are?”

“Adam, this is Brandon,” Adam lists off. He’s really getting tired of introducing himself, honestly. They need to start wearing name tags or something. This must be why the royalty have heralds or whatever the title to Troubs’ job had been. Mostly he’d just shouted Roslovic’s introductions at parties big enough to warrant shouting. “Are you good with that sword?”

“Better than you,” Elias says promptly.

“Ha!” Brandon hoots. “He’s got you there, Lowsy.”

“Fuck off,” Adam says and rolls his eyes. He knows he’s useless, thanks.

The weird wet buzzing noise comes again, a rolling swell of noise that makes itself far too known before it’s sinking back down to barely noticeable.

“Seriously,” Adam says, horribly fascinated. Elias eyes him. “What the hell is that noise?”

Elias sighs. It’s a sound heavy with suffering.

“Would you like to meet the princess?” he asks, and his voice is sopping with sarcastic foreboding.

-/-

He leads them through a maze of crumbling hallways, kicking moodily at the mouldering carpets and ignoring the dark little rooms that open off the halls. Adam follows pretty close behind and eyes the dark doorways dubiously. This weird knight might trust his surroundings, but Adam isn’t so sure.

“There’s no dragons,” Elias says. Adam jumps.

“Cool,” he squeaks. The baby knight is looking at him over his shoulder and in the weird shadows of the hallway it’s like, not super flattering. Adam is not a fan.

“No witches either,” the knight says and keeps walking. Adam follows and tries not to sulk too obviously.

The sound that had puzzled Adam earlier is getting louder. It’s a sawing, buzzing wet sound that rises and falls with organic irregularity. It’s so viscerally unpleasant, starting to echo off the walls as they apparently approach the source of it.

Elias takes a final turn into another set of rotting rooms. This one has at least vague signs that someone’s tried to make it habitable; the ruined furniture has been kicked to the corners of the room and there’s a little fire crackling in the fireplace. There’s a neatly organized stack of armor and clothing on top of the least destroyed set of shelves and a pile of only slightly moldy-looking blankets that Adam realizes with horror might be where Elias is sleeping.

There’s a closed door in the far wall. The horrible, awful sound is emerging from it.

“This is my princess,” Elias says, sounding both sarcastic and ready to lay down and die, and swings open the door.

The princess is sacked the fuck out.

He’s built like a wall; Adam can tell even in the untidy nest of blankets. His shoulders have to be as wide as Adam’s if not wider, and he has a classically handsome face Adam would probably characterize as charming. He also has flowing blonde hair that somehow, despite the rumples in the sheets that suggests tossing and turning, looks absolutely luscious and impeccable.

Adam maybe feels a little inadequate.

“That’s a princess, alright,” he says, kind of sourly. At least he isn’t a knight. Adam’s not sure how he could compete.

“His name’s Brock,” Elias says, looking kind of bored and kind of miserable. “At least that’s what’s on his papers. Who knows.”

Adam squints at him.

“You went through his things?” he asks. Elias shrugs. The air of bad-tempered sarcasm he seems to carry with him like a bad smell acquires a faint tinge of defensiveness.

“Tell me, how do you suggest I entertain myself?” he asks. “He’s far too loud to let me read.”

“Some knight,” Brandon mutters. Elias stares at him. It’s, like, a hell of a stare. There’s something dead-eyed and evil about it that’s awe-inspiring in the way watching a pack of wolves work together to bring down a deer is awe-inspiring. Adam’s glad he’s not locked into the crossfire. He’s a little off to the side and he’s still feeling crispy.

“So why haven’t you kissed him yet?” he asks, and then snaps his mouth shut as the knight’s awful stare swings over to him. He is, he’s always known, a massive idiot.

It’s like, really obviously one of the true love’s kiss fairy tales, and Adam’s not gonna judge the fairy tale’s choice even if he wouldn’t have personally picked out this particular knight. He’s not the one in this fairy tale and anyway he’s got a lot more to judge what with it being very evident that Elias hasn’t followed through with the extremely obvious course of action to fix his problem.

“I am not kissing,” Elias says and extends a gracefully limp gesture in the snoring man’s direction, “that.”

They all pause for a moment to look at the sleeping Brock. He’s so very obviously a princess - he’s definitely got the hair for it, lush and soft and blonde - but he’s snoring like nothing Adam’s ever heard before in his whole life and his mouth is wide open so Adam can see his tonsils. There might be a puddle of drool under his cheek.

Seriously just, like, the most horrendous snoring.

“I get it,” Brandon says. The knight raises an eyebrow that somehow manages to be both disdainful and gratified.

Brock rolls over with an extended wet snorting noise. For a moment the snoring stops. The silence is kind of blessed.

And then with another wet snort it starts back up again.

“I hate…” Elias mumbles, and then doesn’t really go on. Adam can kind of relate. Signs seem to point to the idea that he’d been here a few days at least. A long time to be listening to this incessantly.

“I’m kinda starting to hate, too,” Brandon admits and Elias steals a look over at him that Adam doesn’t miss.

“We can go into the other room,” he allows.

With a closed door between them and Brock, the snoring is somewhat lessened. Not gone entirely, there are still horrifically muffled wet noises coming from the bedroom, but at least Adam can ignore them. Kind of. Most of the time. The dark circles under Elias’s eyes are starting to look less like evidence of his deep inherent evil and more like a reasonable result of the situation.

Regrettably, it’s looking more and more like he’s just a human being and not the literal child of a demon.

“Look, if you kiss him he’ll stop snoring,” he says. Elias looks down his nose at him.

“I am not going to kiss him,” he says contemptuously. “He’s sleeping. That is still wrong where you come from, right?”

“Hey,” Adam says, stung. “Yeah, it’s still shitty, but he’s like… in a coma, dude.”

“And this makes it okay to kiss him while he’s sleeping, hmm?” Elias asks sharply. Adam is about to really reconsider his positions regarding punching children and punching someone he isn’t sure is a fight he’s gonna win - which, he’s not super pleased there’s any overlap in that particular Venn Diagram.

“Would he rather just sleep for the rest of forever?” Brandon asks and, when Elias looks away, reaches over to punch Adam hard in the thigh. Adam bites back the yelp of shock and also the desire to kick Brandon right in the head. Fuck absolutely everyone, honestly.

There’s another stutter in the horrible noises Brock is making a room over as, presumably, he turns over again. Elias sighs and looks back at them.

“It wouldn’t be right,” he says, and he sounds so genteelly and disdainfully miserable. Adam almost feels bad for him. Mostly he feels infuriated. He has the sudden distinct urge to rub his temples like he’s his old courtly manners professor. Unpleasantly, he has a certain amount of sympathy for her lately.

“Like, okay,” Adam says, diplomatically, because he’s tired and kind of hungry and Brock’s snoring is starting to give him a headache. He knows when winning a fight will require finesse and perhaps underhand tactics. “Whatever you wanna do, weirdo.”

Elias gives him a look but he, foolishly, seems to take Adam at his word that Adam doesn’t intend to try to badger him into understanding his point of view. Just at a later date than now.

“What are you doing here, anyway?” he asks, turning to Brandon, obviously and rightly deciding Brandon is the more reasonable of the two. “It is not the most… friendly castle.”

Adam answers anyway.

“We were curious,” he says blithely. Elias spends a moment looking like he’s considering this.

“Adam was curious,” Brandon clarifies. He’s looking reluctantly amused by the whole situation. “I mostly just wanted to like, go somewhere else. He was persuasive.”

“Ah, I see,” Elias says, with the air of a man making a self-evident discovery. “You’re both crazy.”

“He’s crazy,” Brandon says and points at Adam. “I’m just standing next to him most of the time.”

“You’re such a prick!” Adam tells him, and he’s trying to be offended but he’s mostly just delighted. Brandon’s unfairly good at roasting him for someone that’s only known him, like, a week.

There is a noise Adam truly doesn’t recognize and he blinks at Elias for a solid minute before he realizes Elias is laughing.

He’s got a hand over his mouth and it’s hard to tell, what with the fact he looks kind of like an alien, but that’s definitely what he’s doing. It crinkles the corners of his eyes and puts a little color in his cheeks and he just looks- human.

“You’re adorable,” Adam says, and Brandon slaps him on the shoulder, and Elias rolls his eyes over his hand. He looks like he’s still grinning, though. It’s unreasonably cute. Adam kind of wants to ruffle his hair like a puppy.

“You are intolerable,” he’s informed, which is like, man has he heard that one before. He knows the sound of someone trying not to like him despite themselves when he hears it. Elias is smiling still when he lowers his hand. He still looks like some kind of elf or possible a demon, but like… a nice one. Nice-ish. “Would you like dinner?”

“Yes, please, fuck,” Adam says with feeling and Brandon nods quickly.

Dinner is preceded by being handed a fishing pole by Elias, who looks less pleased about being able to press-gang them into working than Adam would have expected.

“You’re joking,” Brandon says, looking down at the pole in his hands like he’s not really sure which end he’s supposed to hold. Adam kind of relates.

Elias waves his own pole. He looks marginally more practiced about it, if just as miserable.

“I know,” he sighs. He sounds defeated. “I also don't like fishing, but it is what I have if I’d like to eat.”

“Make sense,” Adam says and shrugs a little. He’s eyeing the fishing poles. They look well-made and expensive. Certainly not something a man who claims to hate fishing would just have for no reason. “Where’d you get the sweet gear?”

Sweet gear, Elias mouths to himself and then shrugs right back at Adam.

“They are Brock’s, I think,” he says. “I will be here a while. I doubted he’d mind.”

“Yeah,” Adam agrees quickly. “I doubt it.”

“Well,” Elias says and claps his hands together. “Dinner? If we can… fish.”

“Sounds great,” Brandon says immediately, and Adam agrees. Anything that isn’t smoked venison sounds kind of great right now. Maybe if they find some, and Adam is not saying this lightly, he’ll even eat a vegetable. If it’s not one of the weird ones.

-/-

Brandon is a fishing magician. Adam is fucking upset.

“I hate you,” Adam says in wonder as Brandon drags up a massive fucking- trout? Adam has no fucking idea. It’s got weird little tentacles around its big gasping mouth. He’s not an expert in fish. It looks slimy and gross but it’ll probably taste great when it’s cooked up along with Brandon’s three other fish.

Adam has not caught one. Elias has caught one, but it isn’t very big. Adam’s a little bit upset.

“Don’t hate me ‘cause you ain’t me,” Brandon says, breathless because it is kind of a big fish and it’s not going down without a fight. Adam scowls and doesn’t go to help because Brandon doesn’t deserve it.

“Fuck you,” he says. The fish slaps Brandon right in the chest and he drops it onto the little pier they’re fishing from, and then drops on top of it with a curse to keep it from flopping its way back into the water.

“A little help, here?” he snaps over his shoulder, jerked around by the frantic thrashing of the fish under him.

“Hmm,” Adam says and casts his line out again. He kinda wants to catch, like, at least one fish. Just one. “Nah.”

-/-

Adam does not catch a fish but that’s fine on account of that he and Elias band together to insist Brandon’s got to clean and cook his own catch. Brandon grumbles as he goes to gut and clean the fish out behind the castle where the smell won’t bother anyone, but he goes nonetheless.

Elias, it turns out, is awkward.

He stares at Adam. Adam stares back. Brock snores. Adam thinks maybe it’s a little quieter than it had been before, maybe. Maybe he’s getting used to it.

Brock makes another wet snorting sound. Adam winces. No, he’s not getting used to it.

He’s really got some questions about the mechanics of the whole thing, now that he’s faced with it as a reality instead of a hypothetical. Like, he knows Brock’s not going to starve to death like this, somehow. Brock’s probably as safe as he can be, considering. He’s just also like, in a coma. It’s weird.

“Maybe you should consider,” Adam says, “that Brock probably doesn’t wanna sleep forever. And maybe he wouldn’t mind, y’know, kissing you.”

Elias looks at him strangely. Adam considers his words.

"I don't wanna kiss you," he clarifies, just in case. "Like, god no."

Elias keeps staring at him.

"But maybe Brock wouldn't mind kissing you," Adam finishes weakly.

"You know that you do not have to talk, yes?" Elias inquires. He’s being hurtful.

“I’m trying to help!” Adam protests.

“I think if you want to talk of kissing, you follow your own advice,” Elias says back, quick as a rattlesnake. Adam gapes. Elias is a demon. He really, really is.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he says when he’s gathered himself. Elias rolls his eyes. Adam considers reconsidering whether he wants to think about punching Elias. He’s still pretty sure it’s a fight he’d lose, and he doesn’t really mean it anyway, but holy shit.

“Oh, yes,” he says. There’s sarcasm dripping from every rounded vowel and hissed sibilant. “You do not want to kiss Brandon, of course. And he does not want to kiss you either.”

“Shut up,” Adam says, stung. “I’m not scared to punch a kid, okay?”

“You are welcome to try,” Elias says, which is when Brandon finally get back from wherever he’d found that had looked like a good dumping ground for smelly fish guts. Adam, deciding he’s happy he didn’t catch any fish, does not care enough to ask.

He looks back and forth between the sulky face Adam knows he’s making and the laser-like evil of Elias’s stare.

“Did I miss something?” he asks slowly.

“No,” Adam says sulkily.

-/-

They’ve potentially contracted some kind of lung conditions or possibly tetanus by the time they wake up the next morning, due to how much mold there seems to be floating around the place. At least nothing attacked them in the night and when they’re sleeping just off the entry hall, on the other side of the castle from Brock, they can barely hear him.

Elias apparently does sleep in the next room. When Adam had given him a look about it, Elias had gone a little bit pink and refused to meet his eyes.

“I am a knight, and that is my princess,” he’d said with dignity, which is like, really cute. Adam wants to ruffle his hair and maybe noogie him.

He does come to get them up for breakfast pretty early, though. Adam thinks he’s maybe a little crazed by sleep deprivation. The dark circles under his eyes have not abated with the night whatsoever.

“You could probably sleep out here too,” Adam says. “His snoring would scare away any dragons.”

Elias gives him a look. Adam probably deserves it.

Breakfast is more smoked ambiguous fish, and something Elias vaguely describes as ‘breakfast food’ with a handwave. It’s kind of white and has crumbly bits of what he thinks might be crackers in it and it tastes like yogurt. It doesn’t look like it has any vegetables in it though, and it’s not yet another smoked meat product, so Adam eats it.

“No, really,” Brandon insists, staring at his own bowl. “What’s in this?”

“Fil med knäckebröd,” Elias says, completely straight-faced, and Adam truly couldn’t say if he’s joking or not. Brandon looks back at him blankly and then looks down at the bowl and shrugs and tucks in gingerly.

“S’okay,” he mumbles into the bowl after a minute. Elias smiles, a mysterious little half-quirk, and doesn’t answer.

Packing up takes almost no time at all and Elias lets them have all the fish with a shrug and a vague gesture towards the fishing poles.

“There will always be fish,” he says glumly, and it would sound incredibly deep if it weren’t for the way he looks so unhappy about it. Instead Adam claps him on the shoulder as Brandon heads off into the castle interiors in search of- God, Adam doesn’t even know. Something stupid, probably. His socks or whatever.

“You will be careful in the woods,” Elias says, more like he’s trying to speak it into existence than like he has any real faith in Adam and Brandon.

“I can take care of myself,” Adam says, affronted.

“Mmm,” Elias says. He doesn’t sound convinced. Adam really is impressed how he manages to force Adam to like him only to turn around and tempt him into almost tossing mitts within, like, a five-minute period. It’s magic.

“Alright,” he says, and barely refrains from following it up with you little asshole. “Listen.”

“If this will be about Brock,” Elias begins, interrupting. Adam keeps talking at a higher volume, talking right over him.

All I’m saying is consider what I said,” he stresses, loudly. Elias narrows his eyes.

“And consider what I said, also,” he counters. Adam scowls. He likes Elias, he’s almost sure. He’s pretty sure. He’s kind of sure. He likes him, but he needs to shut up.

Brandon steps out through the broken front doors into the light of day, squinting at the difference between the interior and full sun. Adam doesn’t want to look at him directly in case he can read what Adam’s been thinking about right on his face.

“Hmm,” he says brightly to Elias and gets a hand in Brandon’s sleeve. “Nah! Okay, bye.”

Elias is laughing as Adam yanks a protesting Brandon away and in the direction they’d been somewhat reliably informed is the road. It’s kind of an adorable laugh and Adam might be feeling at least a modicum of affection, but Elias doesn’t deserve it.

“What was that about?” Brandon asks in an undertone, when they’ve rounded the bend and Adam’s pretty sure Elias can’t hear them anymore.

“You don’t wanna know,” he says sourly and, thank god, Brandon drops the subject.

-/-

They make camp that night and Adam’s not gonna say he’s obsessing but he’s like, not really able to keep himself from thinking about all of it. About what Elias said, and first of all what does a twelve-year-old know about kissing anyway, but second of all…

Brandon spots him staring as he’s rummaging after their dinner through their backpacks and narrows his eyes.

Why do you keep staring?” he demands waspishly. “Seriously, cut that shit out.”

“You got something on your face,” Adam says blithely and starts jabbing at Brandon’s eyes until Brandon slaps his hand away with a reluctantly amused grumble and goes back to rummaging after sustenance. He’s a little pink.

Adam still can’t look away.

He wants to touch. He wants to cup Brandon’s cheek because he thinks his hand might be big enough to cradle Brandon’s face perfectly and he’s pretty sure Brandon’s terrible, terrible facial hair would be soft against his palm. He wants to press a thumb against Brandon’s lip to see if it’s as full as it looks. He wants to hold Brandon’s hand.

God, but he wants to hold Brandon’s hand.

“Hey,” Adam says softly. The fire is warm and it paints Brandon’s cheekbones in stark relief, glints off his sleepy eyes and throws the shadows of his eyelashes. He cocks his head questioningly and something in the pit of Adam’s stomach clenches tight. He’s all shivery and overheated and stupid with it.

Brandon makes a quiet little noise when Adam kisses him.

His mouth is soft and it opens for Adam so easily and shit, Adam wants him so bad. He wants to kiss him and kiss him for hours, until his mouth is sore and he can’t even breathe.

Brandon’s hand finds his shoulder and slides up to rest for a moment on the back of his neck, blunt nails scratching through his hair. Adam shivers, fights not to topple forward onto Brandon like he really wants to, and then Brandon’s hands are on his chest and he’s being pushed gently backwards.

It takes him a moment to blink his eyes open. When he does, Brandon is staring at him.

His eyes are dark. Adam’s mouth tingles.

“We can’t,” Brandon says softly.

The breath leaves Adam’s chest all at once.

“What?” he asks. The word comes out short, a little choked.

“You’re looking for your fairy tale,” Brandon says.

Adam swallows. Brandon’s tone doesn’t sound good. It sounds- not angry. Something else. Bitter, maybe.

“I mean, yeah,” he says. His voice comes out weak and hoarse.

Brandon looks away. His mouth is a tight little downward curve. Adam still can’t stop looking at it. His mouth tingles where he’d touched Brandon, he can still feel how soft Brandon’s lips had been.

“You have a princess,” Brandon says.

“What?” he asks, because he doesn’t understand, because he doesn’t want to understand.

“You have a princess,” Brandon says and he’s just staring out into the empty void of the darkness between the tree trunks. “Knights have princesses. And you want your happy ending.”

“Brandon-,” Adam tries. His tongue is clumsy in his mouth.

“It’s not fair,” Brandon says and he still won't look at Adam.

“Maybe I don’t have a princess,” Adam tries. “Maybe, maybe it won’t be that kind of fairy tale-”

“Stop,” Brandon says, and Adam stops. It leaves his mouth hanging open.

Brandon finally looks at him. His eyes are tight and expressionless.

“I’m saying no,” he says. “Okay? I’m saying no.”

“Oh,” Adam says, but his voice doesn’t come out and he has to cough to clear his throat. For some dumb reason his ribs are refusing to expand and it feels like his lungs can’t drag in enough air. “Okay.”

Brandon looks down at his hands. They’re clenched around each other in his lap.

“Okay,” he says softly.

The fire spits. Overhead, some kind of owl or something is hooting softly. Adam forces his gaze away from Brandon, down at his own hands. He’s still having trouble breathing. He’s having trouble thinking, too. Everything’s a rush of white noise.

“Hey,” he says at last. The silence is pressing down on him like a hand and if he doesn’t break it, he’s basically gonna go bugfuck crazy and possibly strip naked and run into the road to get laughed at by a passing farmer or possibly get hit by a cart and killed. Which he doesn’t want to do. So.

Brandon looks at him at last. His face is set and tight but there’s something there, vulnerable and nervous.

“We okay?” Adam asks.

Brandon laughs. It’s not the happiest laugh, but it’s real.

“Yeah, we’re okay,” he says.

“Okay,” Adam says, and looks back down at his hands. His eyes are dry and burn when he blinks, and he really wants to just lie down and maybe sleep for a week.

So he does lie down. It’s nighttime, anyway, and they’re up again in the morning for another interminable day of walking.

“G’night,” Brandon says softly. Adam squeezes his eyes shut.

“Night,” he echoes.

-/-

Things are kind of bullshit and awkward when Adam wakes up.

He expected it but it still sucks. They can barely look at each other as they break down camp, tamp out the fire and pack up their bag and bitch unconvincingly about wanting horses. Brandon won’t meet his eyes and when he hands something across for Brandon to stick in his pack, Brandon flinches when their fingers brush. Adam keeps his eyes down.

Maybe, if it weren’t for the fairy tales…

Adam cuts the thought off viciously. He’s not going to be that kind of person. Brandon had made himself pretty fucking clear. Even if it sucks.

He summons a smile when Brandon finally looks at him, as they’re shrugging on their backpacks. It isn’t totally fake, even if a little more enthusiastic than Adam’s really feeling. Brandon smiles back, a wan little quirk to his lips.

“Onward?” he asks and Adam nods.

They’ll be okay. Probably. Hopefully.

-/-

“Don’t eat that,” Brandon says.

“I’m pretty sure I can eat this,” Adam argues, waving the root vegetable item he’s just dug out of the ground.

“I’m dead fucking serious,” Brandon says, but he’s laughing a little and has to dance back out of the way of the shower of damp earth Adam sprays everywhere. “Don’t eat that! You’re gonna get poisoned!”

“It’s not poisonous,” Adam says confidently.

He waves the thing some more. It’s a long green shoot with a pasty little bulb on the end. It’s maybe, like, a leek or something. Adam’s pretty sure a leek is a vegetable.

“Do you know what it is?” Brandon counters, making a wild grab for it as Adam swings it by his face.

“No,” Adam says and slaps the dirt off it with his palm and eats half of it in one bite.

Brandon squawks at him. Adam spends a few seconds chewing determinedly and then the flavor hits his tongue and the back of his throat like he’s deepthroating the dick of God. His eyes start watering instantly. His nose might be running.

He coughs.

“Oh,” he says hoarsely. “Oh that’s, like, definitely an onion.”

Brandon punches him right in the chest and makes him throw away the rest of the onion, but when he laughs meanly at Adam there’s not even any awkwardness there at all and that’s probably worth how Adam can’t talk without coughing for the next few hours and Brandon keeps telling him he can smell Adam’s breath.

-/-

The forest is getting increasingly… flower-y.

Adam’s not sure he isn’t making it up, at first. It’s always been boundlessly, perpetually gorgeous. Tulips and daffodils and flowers Adam has never once in his life known the name of tended to feature heavily.

Just maybe, like, not this heavily.

“Like,” Adam says at last, slowing to a stop as he notices the first decorative border of pretty colored stones. The color-coordination should maybe have clued him in right away. “Okay, is this… a garden?”

“You noticed too?” Brandon asks, sounding relieved. “It’s the-”

“The decorative rocks, yeah,” Adam says, and edges a little closer to Brandon. It’s not that there’s a creepy vibe about the place, exactly. It’s honestly pretty cheerful. It’s just that there’s suddenly a prickling feeling on the back of his neck like they’re being watched.

They’re both quiet for a long moment.

“Bonjour!” comes a voice from, apparently, nowhere.

Adam jumps about ten feet in the air and Brandon twitches so hard it looks like he nearly twists his ankle. Looking around wildly shows nothing but beds of gorgeous flowers and even more picturesque woods.

“Hello?” Adam hazards after a moment.

“Qui êtes-vous?” the voice from nowhere continues. Adam spins in the direction and sees- nothing but more flowers.

“Uh,” Adam says after a moment.

A man unfolds from the flower beds and Adam jumps. He hadn’t seen him at all before, although now that he’s looking the guy has to be almost as tall as Adam himself even if he’s built like a skinny fence rail.

He’s got big dark eyes and a beaky nose and a mouthful of weird, horsey teeth pulled into an impish smile. Not one of those things on their own should read as half as pretty as the whole picture ends up being. Because the man is, like, unfairly pretty. Adam’s kind of starting to suspect he has a type and that type is brunets with a smile that suggests that they’re about to be mean to him.

This has to be a princess.

“Salut,” the man says cheerfully. “Ça va?”

“Huh?” Adam says.

The man raises his eyebrows at him. His eyes are still sparkling with laughter in a way that implies it’s at Adam’s expense.

“Ah,” he says and steps out of the flower bed. There’s dirt on his knees and under his nails even after he dusts his hands off on his pants to offer a hand to shake. There’s a marigold tucked behind on of his ears. “Er, hello!”

“Uh,” Brandon says and hesitantly takes his hand. “Hi?”

The man shakes his hand once decisively and bustles over to Adam to shake his as well. Adam lets his hand be taken and is not at all surprised by the wiry strength in his grip. He’s built like a whip but Adam is not fooled; this man could probably pick him up and carry him.

“Bonjour, hello,” he says, grinning. “What has you here? It is far from most things.”

“Hi,” Adam says. He’s having a hard time keeping up. It’s partially the man’s accent, which is unfairly lyrical, and partially that he’s looking up into Adam’s eyes in a way that is making it hard to think in a straight line. “Uh, we’re just, uh. Traveling?”

The princess is just opening his mouth to, presumably, say something else incomprehensible and give Adam another opportunity to make an even bigger fool of himself.

“Fleur!” comes echoing out of the woods, interrupting whatever the princess had been about to say. The shouter, whoever it is, is loud. “Bâtard, où es-tu?”

“Ici, mon tresor,” the princess shouts back. He’s grinning. It’s untrustworthy.

The man that stomps out of the forest a moment later is short and angry-looking. Very short, and very angry-looking. Another man hurries after him, and he’s grinning, but Adam is instantly taken by this tiny, angry man.

“Who the fuck,” the tiny man says flatly, pulling up short and glaring at Adam and Brandon. He’s got an accent even heavier than the princess’s.

“I’m Brandon. This is Adam. And who the fuck are you?” Brandon retorts.

The tiny man’s gaze narrows in him, dangerous and bright. The princess steps neatly between them. The tiny man leans around him to continue glaring.

“This is Grumpy,” the princess says cheerfully. His accent is heavy and lilting and kind of obnoxiously lovely. “And that is Giggly.”

“Je m'appelle,” the shortest one says, sounding incredibly put-upon and very grumpy, “Jonathan.”

“I’m Nate,” the other one says. He’s not giggling, but he is smiling affably. He also doesn’t have an accent. “Don’t mind Giggly, though.”

“And I am Fleur Blanc, but you will call me Flower,” says the man who’s apparently named… Flower. He twitches an incredibly slack attempt at a curtsey.

“Flower?” Brandon asks.

“Because I am the fairest,” Flower says, and winks at Brandon. Adam decides he doesn’t like Flower very much. “These are my dwarves. I have more here somewhere.”

“I am not so fuckin’ short,” Jonathan-cum-Grumpy snaps.

“I don’t know,” Brandon says, and Jonathan starts at him. Nate grabs him and hauls him back before Adam has to step in, which… he’s kinda grateful for. He’s a little scared of the guy actually.

“I will tell Ryan you called him a dwarf,” Jonathan says and spins on his heel and stalks away into the trees. He’s even shorter than Brandon. Flower looks after him with the fondest and most evil of looks, hand over his heart.

“Un petit homme de colère,” he sighs, which Adam does not understand a fucking word of, and then starts down the path after him. He looks back over his shoulder after a moment. “You are welcome to follow!”

He looks at Brandon, who shrugs and starts after Flower. Adam scowls and follows. He doesn’t like Flower.

The woods grow ever-more charming, as they follow Flower in catching up to Jonathan. Flower bounds past him, ruffling his hair as he goes and earning himself a poorly-aimed kick that doesn’t connect. He keeps going, cackling at the top of his lungs. Adam keeps pace with Jonathan instead of trying to catch up.

“Hi,” he says conversationally, because he likes making friends. Jonathan eyes him.

“Salut,” Jonathan says, which Adam is going to assume means ‘hi’ as well. “You are… Adam?”

“S’my name,” Adam agrees. “And you’re Jonathan!”

Jonathan looks vaguely gratified. Or, moderately less affronted to be spoken to at all.

“Oui,” he says. “C’est mon nom.”

Which like… Adam can infer what he’s saying, but seriously. He doesn’t speak whatever the fuck language Jonathan’s saying at him.

“Interesting accent,” Adam tries gamely. Jonathan looks down his nose at him, which is pretty impressive because Adam wouldn’t be surprised if someone were to tell him he has a full foot or more on the guy. He’s fuckin’ short.

“I am from Quebec,” Jonathan says condescendingly.

“Never heard of it,” Adam says. Jonathan sighs through his nose. There’s a definite patronizing air about it.

“You would not have,” he says, and walks faster up the path. Adam lets him go, grinning. He’s pretty sure someone’s going to end up getting punched at some point tonight, and he thinks Jonathan is probably going to be the one to do the punching.

-/-

The cottage Flower leads them to is pretty big for a cottage, and it’s also almost painfully picturesque. There are flowering vines growing on it, and the window trim matches the paint on the door, and there’s an utterly adorable little fence and gate that Flower hops in one desultory motion that implies an extreme disinterest in his surroundings.

Jonathan pushes the gate open with a grumble and Adam files politely after, not saying a word about how maybe Jonathan is too short to hop the fence. He’s getting the feeling Jonathan might actually attack him for it.

The inside of the cottage is just as quaint, all cleanly-painted walls and golden cedar wood. There’s a spiral staircase and a big paved fireplace. Adam scowls at all of it. It’s gross and stupidly pretty, just like Flower.

“You have a lovely home,” Brandon says. Adam turns his scowl in Brandon’s direction. Wherever Brandon had dug this weird sudden sense of manners out of, Adam would like him to put it back, please.

“Thank you,” Flower says cheerfully. “I have nothing to do with it. It is all Ryan, I’m very useless.”

Adam restrains himself from saying something very mean. He wonders about this Ryan guy; if Flower respects him, he must be even worse than Flower.

“Salut!” a new crazy man with a nasally, lilting accent says, bustling over from where he’d been doing something involving a spinning wheel Adam truly doesn’t understand. There’s another man behind him, skulking along with much less enthusiasm.

“This is Pear,” Flower says and smiles serenely and with no indication whatsoever that he’s aware that all of his - roommates? Bodyguards? Who the hell are these people? - are nearly as insane as he is. “One of my dwarves.”

“Cher, just because you are tallest,” the one Flower called Pear says, and elbows him aside to extend a hand to Adam. He has a broad smile and big, doe-like eyes. Adam likes him better than Flower already. “I am David, you may call me Pear if you like.”

“And this is Toothless,” Flower continues, and points at the one behind David. He has a gingery beard Adam respects and relates to.

“Flower,” the one Flower had pointed to says, sounding aggrieved. He doesn’t have an accent at all. “What the fuck?

He has all of his teeth. Adam blinks.

“You could call him Neal,” David suggests solemnly. “It is his name.”

Neal makes a disgruntled noise and spins to stalk away.

“What did I say?” Flower asks innocently.

“You know what you did,” David says mildly, and trots away after Neal.

“One little joke,” Flower says sadly to, apparently, no one in particular. He’s grinning and looks entirely untrustworthy.

“How many of you are there?” Brandon asks. He sounds fascinated. Adam scowls.

“Oh, a few,” Flower says and waves a carefree hand. “Make yourself at home, I have to stop Jonathan from telling Ryan what I said. He always leaves out the context.”

He lopes away, all long legs and gorgeous hair. Adam scowls after him.

“I don’t like him,” he announces. Brandon frowns at him.

“He seems nice,” he says. Adam scowls harder. “He’s, like, a princess, but he’s funny.”

“He seems like an asshole,” Adam mutters. He’s, like, well aware that he’s being unreasonable and probably really rude, but he doesn’t care. He wants Flower to stop being pretty and winking at people.

“Yeah?” Brandon retorts. “And you aren’t?”

“So are you!” Adam says snippily and possibly without making too much sense. Brandon’s narrowing his eyes at Adam. Somewhere, and Adam suspects he knows where and doesn’t like it at all, Brandon had acquired a marigold behind his ear.

He looks-

Adam sniffs and turns away.

“They better have dinner,” he says over his shoulder and follows where he’d seen David and Neal go. They’d seemed at least relatively sane.

-/-

Dinner is a spread so large it’s kind of intimidating, which makes sense when all of Flower’s dwarves show up. None of them are very short; most of them are taller than Brandon, actually, which delights Adam even though he’s trying not to pick on him too much where Flower can see it.

There’s a whole hoard of them and they all seem to adore Flower with a certain loving disrespect that Adam’s trying not to let sway him towards liking the bastard. He doesn’t trust anyone with a soul patch.

They also apparently call each other some absolutely batshit nicknames. Nate keeps calling Jon ’Marshy’ which definitely isn’t what Flower had introduced him as, but David seems to answer to ‘Pear’. Combined with the fact that they keep chattering away in that nasally, rolling language with only occasional courteous forays into English, Adam just tucks into his plate and resigns himself to never understanding anything any of them say ever.

It’s cheerful, at least. Like a family, everyone talking over everyone else, laughing and elbowing each other. Flower grins at everyone beatifically from the head of the table like a proud father or possibly some kind of evil trickster spirit.

Adam catches himself smiling back and schools his face back into a mild scowl. He doesn’t like Flower. He doesn’t.

It gets, somehow, even louder when the big one with the droopy eyelashes and the missing tooth everyone keeps calling ‘Shay’ brings out an armload of dusty bottles. Brandon eyes them suspiciously but Adam accepts the cup when it’s handed to him because, y’know, it probably won’t kill him. It turns out to be wine about as delicious as it is poisonously alcoholic, which reminds him nostalgically of Roslovic.

He tells Brandon that. Brandon rolls his eyes and takes the next glass that’s offered to him. Adam prevents himself from leaning on Brandon’s shoulder but only barely.

Eventually, in a swirl of action Adam doesn’t fully follow, the table starts clearing. People disappear back into the depths of the house, dishes cleared and drinks dispersed. There’s a massive fire roaring in the fireplace and Adam makes his careful way over to it to take a nice, quiet seat until he sobers up.

Flower sits down next to him. Full of good food and great wine, warm and sleepy, Adam just can’t bring himself to be hateful anymore. He smiles at Flower, who smiles back. He is, like, really pretty.

“You’re really pretty, you know,” he tells Flower, because he’s been reliably informed that one only lives once. His heart may belong forever and ever to Brandon’s ass, but like… he can appreciate.

He’s maybe a little tipsy.

“Thank you! I am,” Flower agrees and his smile cranks up another couple of shades. “I do, I am afraid, have a Prince. She is very beautiful also.”

“Oh, well,” Adam sighs. He is definitely a little tipsy.

Across the room, an extremely irate Jonathan starts shouting something in- Adam decides he will eventually need to at least ask the name of the language they’re speaking. Now that he’s done being a dick about Flower, he’s realizing he’s probably coming across like a total ignorant asshole. Even if Jonathan is also an asshole.

When he glances over he sees that the one Jonathan is picking a fight with is, unsurprisingly, Brandon.

“I think perhaps it is not a fair competition anyway,” Flower says shrewdly and Adam rolls his eyes even though it makes him kind of dizzy. He’s already sitting down on the floor so, like, what’s the worst that can happen? He falls over? Big risk.

He’s sick of people knowing he wants to kiss Brandon. He doesn’t want to talk about kissing Brandon, either.

“Mmm,” he says noncommittally.

“He’s running from a fairy tale,” Flower says quietly and it doesn’t sound like a question.

There’s something in his gaze as he looks at Brandon and the argument he’s having with Jonathan. Adam doesn’t know how to read it. Whatever it is, it’s dark, and heavy, and so jarringly unlike the sharp mischief of a moment ago. It ages his face and leaves him looking starved and tired in the warm firelight.

“Yeah,” Adam says, belated. “You can tell?”

Flower shrugs.

“There is a look,” he says cryptically. “Do you know his fairy tale?”

“He won’t tell me about it,” Adam says and looks back at Brandon. He’s pointing at the ceiling for some reason in sharp jabs, and scowling with all of his might, and Adam can tell he’s having the time of his life. He’s pretty sure Jonathan’s enjoying himself too, even though he’s also scowling in about the most thunderous way.

“Hmmm,” Flower says and when Adam glances at him he’s looking back at the fire, poker in hand. It flares when he pokes it. His cheekbones stand out too starkly, his cheeks sunken and hollow.

There’s a beat of the crackle of the fire and Jonathan shouting something about load-bearing support beams that Adam is so completely disinterested in.

“I will have to kill someone, for my fairy tale,” Flower says, apropos of absolutely nothing, and Adam coughs.

“-oh?” he says. Because, like.

Oh.

Flower doesn’t look up from the fire.

“Yes,” he says. The poker is still in his hand. His hair’s fallen into his eyes and it’s difficult to tell what his expression is. “Someday. I’ll have to kill them or they will kill me. Because that’s how my fairy tale goes.”

“I’m sorry,” Adam says when it becomes evident Flower doesn’t intend to say anything else. Flower finally looks at him, and he really is very beautiful. Even hollowed by the fire and everything he’s said, he’s beautiful. Adam’s chest kind of hurts.

“Maybe you should ask Brandon about his fairy tale,” he says and smiles. It’s not a very convincing smile. “Some are not so good.”

Adam glances back at Brandon again. He’s looking back, though Jonathan seems to be mid-rant, arms waving in the air. He raises a questioning eyebrow and Adam shrugs.

“Yeah,” he says, and then they don’t say anything else for a little while.

-/-

Brandon doesn’t really question it when Adam suggests they leave pretty early the next morning. He does kind of look at Flower and then around the cottage wistfully, and that makes something achy clinch in Adam’s chest he refuses to think about, but he doesn’t say anything and he follows Adam out to the edge of the forest without any protest.

“It was nice to meet you,” he says to Flower, about as politely as Adam’s ever heard him say anything, and in answer Flower hugs him for what Adam deems a completely unnecessary length of time. He’s scowling when he’s subjected to his own hug.

Jonathan scowls back, apparently under the impression Adam was scowling at him instead of in the general direction of the air over his head. Adam doesn’t bother to disabuse him of the notion.

“Be safe on the way,” Flower says, as cheerful as ever. There’s nothing left of the Flower of the night before on his face. When he grins at the both of them it’s as cheeky and untrustworthy and lovely as ever.

“We will,” Adam says, only a little bit sulky that everyone they meet seems to have decided independently that they need to be reminded like children not to shoot themselves in the foot.

“Bye,” Brandon says and smiles nicely, and only stumbles a little when Adam yanks at him.

“Au revoir, à plus,” Flower says cheerfully, waving madly as Adam drags Brandon’s squawking, protesting ass down the path. Adam assumes he’s saying goodbye and waves back over his shoulder. “Pars-y, va, va!”

Anyone that says Adam’s eyes are a little damp as they round the bend and Flower’s voice fades away is a fucking liar. Brandon’s too busy sulking and refusing to speak to him to notice anyway.

-/-

Brandon shoots them a rabbit for dinner and they bicker as they set up camp and for all that Adam’s feeling weird and off-balance, it’s normal. Brandon doesn’t seem to have noticed how distracted Adam is and Adam doesn’t really know how to talk about it. If he even wants to talk about it. He doesn’t think he does.

He can’t stop thinking about how Flower had said I will have to kill someone, so casual and matter-of-fact.

Adam looks at Brandon, rummaging through his backpack across the fire. He’s still pretty, still so hot it’s like a kick in the teeth. He still makes Adam’s brain take a vacation every time he smiles.

He thinks about what Flower said about fairy tales. About how some of them weren’t so good.

“What,” Brandon demands, glancing up and catching Adam looking. “What the fuck are you looking at?”

“Someone stupid,” Adam says and Brandon scoffs and throws a branch at him across the fire. It’s quiet for a long, long moment. Not quite comfortable; not quite ugly, either.

“So, um,” Adam says and Brandon frowns at him. “Did you- I don’t know anything about your fairy tale.”

If he hadn’t spent the past two weeks getting seriously acquainted with Brandon’s face, he might have missed how it’s abruptly absolutely still. He’s still moving, still cleaning the rabbit in preparation to cook, but his face is shuttered and blank and Adam can’t read it at all.

“If you, y’know, did know anything,” he continues weakly when Brandon makes it very clear he’s not going to say anything without prompting.

Brandon finally looks at him. His expression is still viciously neutral.

“It’s a common one, where I’m from,” he says. “I was kind of surprised you didn’t know about it.”

“I didn’t get out much,” Adam says, rueful and honest. “And, y’know, I’m a knight. I only learned about the ones with knights.”

Brandon snorts, breathy and soft.

“Makes sense,” he says. He’s looking away again, back at the fire. “When I got chosen by the fairy tale it was…”

He trails off. The fire crackles. Adam wants to reach out, to touch. To just put his arm around Brandon and hug him, simple comfort, because Brandon looks tired. He doesn’t.

“I don’t wanna talk about this,” Brandon says, and Adam lets it go.

Chapter Text

Edmonton is a dismal-looking town.

“We don’t have to stop here,” Adam says mostly for the record, looking up at the ugly, shoddy gates. They don’t look like they could stop a determined door-to-door salesman, much less any kind of real invader. The houses beyond look like the architectural expression of clinical depression.

“Beds,” Brandon reminds him and starts through the open, unguarded gates. “With actual mattresses.”

Adam swears and follows him.

They wander for what feels like hours but is probably only twenty minutes. The locals don’t look very approachable and they can’t find any kind of market where they could inquire after lodgings. The streets are a maze.

Adam pulls to a stop at a street corner at last, tired and annoyed.

“We’re never gonna find anything,” he whines. “My feet hurt.”

Brandon turns to him, eyes narrowed like he’s perfectly willing to pick up the fight Adam’s trying to throw down. Adam perks up a little. It possibly doesn’t say the nicest thing about him but he’s kind of excited to get in a really nice shouting match with Brandon.

“‘Scuse me,” he’s interrupted before he can even get his mouth open to fire the first shot. He deflates, somewhat pathetically, and looks around for the speaker.

“Are you lost?” the guy continues. He’s very dour-looking, dark circles under his eyes and heavy brows that Adam suspects do even more to make him look miserable. He’s wearing a cheerful jacket and some kind of… shorts and suspenders getup that Adam tries valiantly not to stare at. He’s not gonna judge.

“Uh, kinda,” Adam says gamely. “We’re new in town and we have, like, no money.”

The man inspects them.

“Leon,” he says at last and extends a hand to be shaken. “I sell sauerkraut. You want some sauerkraut?”

“No, thanks,” Brandon says helplessly and shakes his hand. “I’m Brandon, this is Adam. You know anywhere we could do some work or something for room and board?”

Leon looks at them some more. There’s a certain blank incuriosity even to his curious inspection. Adam is starting to not like the vibe of this city very much.

“You mind a fairy tale?” Leon asks at last, apropos of nothing Adam can fathom.

“Um,” Adam says and exchanges a look with Brandon. “Nah. Not really.”

“Huh. Yeah, house at the end of the next street. Tall and dark, you can’t miss it. Try there. Tell them Leon sent you and they’ll let you stay, s’long as you don’t cause any trouble,” Leon says, and pauses. “You sure you don’t want any sauerkraut?”

“Seriously, we have, like, no money,” Adam says. He feels kind of bad. The morose expression on Leon’s face and the dark circles under his eyes in conjunction with his cheerful wheelie cart full of jars is like, a lot. He just also doesn’t want to admit that he doesn’t know what sauerkraut is and doesn’t have any interest in learning, either.

“Well,” Leon sighs. “Just go easy on the kid. Connor’s got it hard enough.”

“Okay?” Brandon says, sounding as mystified as Adam feels. Leon nods and starts pushing his cart away. The jars rattle musically, a direct counterpoint to his dour face.

“He’ll take care of ya, though,” he throws back over his shoulder. “Best place to stay in town on the cheap, honestly.”

“We seriously don’t have any money!” Adam calls after him, but Leon just waves vaguely back at them without looking. Adam hopes it’s because it’s going to be okay they don’t have any money, and not Leon deciding he’s offended they wouldn’t buy any sauerkraut and leaving.

-/-

The house Leon directed them to is tall, spindly, and up to its eaves in another fairy tale.

Adam doesn’t like the look of it.

“I don’t like this house,” he says nervously. Its exterior is clean in an austere, miserable sort of way. The garden is… Adam will charitably extend the label ‘minimalist’ to it and try to ignore how all of the trees look like they’d passed on to the next life some time ago. There are lights in the windows but it’s somehow not as reassuring as he’d hope.

“We don’t exactly have any money,” Brandon says, though he looks about as sure of himself as Adam. “We need a place to stay. It’d be pretty fuckin’ dope not to sleep on the ground for a night.”

“You’re such a whiner,” Adam says, but Brandon can probably tell he’s only getting snippy because he’s feeling nervous, because he just rolls his eyes and slaps Adam on the shoulder gently. It doesn’t even hurt.

Plus, his back kinda aches for like an hour in the morning after he gets up, and he’s pretty stoked on the idea of that not being so much a thing for once.

“You knock,” he says.

You knock,” Brandon counters. “You’re still the motherfucking knight!”

“This ain’t that kinda fairy tale, chief,” Adam returns. “And that ain’t a castle. It’s your turn to knock!”

Brandon considers this and does have to concede after a moment that the house is not, in fact, a castle.

“Rock-paper-scissors you for it,” he offers. Adam nods and spends a couple seconds doing limbering up exercises for his wrist and fingers while Brandon looks on in annoyed amazement. Adam ignores him; he’d grown up and trained with a bunch of obnoxiously competitive fellow knights, and rock-paper-scissors was in no way an exception to the competition rule.

He loses, but it’s not because his wrists aren’t limber at least. He stamps his way up the front steps, doing his best to ignore the triumphant expression on Brandon’s face which is not cute, and gingerly knocks.

There’s silence for a long, long moment before he hears footsteps on the other side of the door. They’re slow and measured and the person pauses for a long time again before the door unlatches with a click.

The woman who opens the door is-

Her face is all wrong.

“Um,” Adam says hoarsely.

A man edges around the woman carefully. Adam notes how he’s making every effort not to touch the woman, how he doesn’t seem to care too much about how he’s standing in the way of her seeing anything. She doesn’t seem to notice either. Adam doesn’t want to crane around the man to check, but she doesn’t seem to have moved after opening the door.

“What,” the man says flatly.

“Uh,” Adam says, and Brandon pushes him gently aside.

“Leon suggested we ask to stay the night here,” he says quietly. His shoulders are high and tight but his voice is steady.

Adam’s abruptly viscerally grateful for him.

The man eyes them for a moment.

“Yeah,” he says at last. He doesn’t sound pleased. He doesn’t sound upset, either. He sounds kind of tired, mostly. “Sure, s’long as you don’t mind a fairy tale. We have a few beds free.”

“We don’t mind,” Brandon says.

The woman who’d opened the door turns and walks away, a retreating figure it’s hard to make out around the bulk of the man in the doorway. She hadn’t said a word. Adam swallows.

He’s starting to think she’s not a person at all.

“Watch out for the stepmother,” the man says, gesturing them in past him. “Don’t talk to her and don’t get in her way and you’ll be fine.”

“Noted,” Adam says with a shiver and looks around the interior carefully.

The whole house has the distinct aura of tall, spindly discontent. The walls are wallpapered in dark, claustrophobic pinstripes and the ceilings feel like they might be a foot taller than they should be. It’s all almost clinically clean. The air feels sterile and dense.

“Nice house,” he says weakly. The man snorts.

“Don’t bother,” he says and stuffs his hands in his pockets. “I’m Hallsy. You’ll meet Ebbs and Nuge, and… and Connor.”

“Adam, Brandon,” Adam reels off. “Uh… Connor?”

Hallsy looks at him for a long time and then shrugs.

“You’ll meet him,” is all he says, and then ambles away back into the rest of the house. At a loss for anything better to do, Adam follows.

The house really is, like, sterile. Adam suspects he could eat off the floor. Nothing smells like bleach, he’s pretty sure, but the phantom smell of bleach hangs over everything anyway. Even Hallsy’s shoes are clean. Not clean like they’re new, but clean like someone had gone at them with a toothbrush and a sense of righteous hatred for dirt.

Adam feels grimy, but in the kind of way where he’s more scared that someone’s going to jump out of a dark corner with a washcloth and some vinegar than actually ashamed.

It really is an incredibly claustrophobic house.

They turn into the living room, and there’s a lot of dark, fussy furniture crowded into it, which is how Adam doesn’t see the kid on his hands and knees scrubbing the floor until he pops his head up over the back of the couch. Adam screams a little bit and jumps, also only a little bit.

It’d just been kind of upsetting, seeing a pale disembodied face materialize out of the gloom.

“Connor,” Hallsy says, blessedly not commenting on Adam’s little slip. “We got some guests tonight. Just tonight?”

“Yeah,” Brandon confirms, thankfully. Adam’s still trying to calm his heart down. Connor’s pale and almost unconscionably scruffy, and otherwise nearly painfully nondescript. A pale beige canvas of boy, utterly devoid of distinguishing features.

He also looks haunted and immeasurably sad.

“Just for tonight,” Hallsy repeats. “S’when you’re finished with the floor, guest rooms and that. Y’know.”

“Yeah,” Connor says softly and ducks back down. Now that Adam knows where to look, he can see Connor’s feet poking out from the end of the couch, and the bucket he must be dipping the scrubber in.

He truly just doesn’t have any idea what’s going on.

“Let’s introduce you to Nuge and Ebbs,” Hallsy says, and leads them out of the room, and Adam follows because he doesn’t know what the hell his other options would be, but when he looks back Connor’s peering at them over the edge of the couch.

He hurries to catch up with Hallsy.

-/-

Ebbs turns out to be a silent, gap-toothed dude with a piercing stare. Nuge is, as far as Adam can tell, the closest a human has ever gotten to being a mouse. He also has a piercing stare. He’s starting to suspect that everyone in this house has issues.

“Hey,” he says and stuffs his hands in his pockets and bobs a nod because he’s really regretting taking Leon’s suggestion.

“Hi,” Nuge says, lifelessly.

Ebbs says nothing.

“We gotta dip out for a few hours, if that’s chill,” Hallsy says. He’s inspecting his nails and there’s the distinct sense that the ‘if that’s chill’ part of the sentence had been purely decorative. “Connor’s gonna be here, you’ll be taken care of.”

Which is ominous.

“Is the, um,” Brandon says and gestures incomprehensibly. It’s only when he makes another, more emphatic gesture towards the front hall that Adam understands that he’s trying to ask about the stepmother.

“Yeah, she’ll be with us,” Halls says. His mouth twists with it. He doesn’t look so happy about it, but he’s leaning over to shout down the hall a moment later. “Yo, Connor.”

There’s a clatter and then a patter of footsteps and Connor skids into the room.

Close on his heels follows the stepmother.

She’s a little easier to see like this. A little, and Adam kind of wishes she weren’t. She doesn’t say anything, anyway, just stands in the doorway and stares at them with the blankness of a painting.

“Stop fuckin’ around, we wanna get going for the market,” Hallsy says, giving no indication he’s even noticed the stepmother at all. He jabs a thumb at Adam and Brandon. “Keep ‘em entertained, all that.”

“Yeah, ‘course,” Connor says. He’s edging slowly away from the doorway and the stepmother, not that Adam can blame him.

Nuge steps forward. He’s tall, ish, but he’s built like a large collection of coat hangers in a laundry bag and Adam is not overly concerned.

“Listen,” he says.

“Nuge, let’s fuckin’ go,” Hallsy says. He’s starting to look antsy. He’s also not looking at the stepmother with a very intentional level of care.

“Shut up, Hallsy,” Nuge says and doesn’t break eye contact with Adam. He’s skinny as fuck and kind of looks like a mouse, but Adam kind of can’t help starting to feel just a little intimidated anyway. He doesn’t blink enough.

“I’ll do it,” Connor says quietly. Nuge looks at him for a moment and there’s something in his expression, a flicker of something complicated, and then he’s shrugging.

“Sure, whatever,” he says, and turns away. “Don’t fuck it up.”

The stepmother watches from the end of the hall. She hasn’t really said a word so far and Adam’s starting to suspect she won’t. That maybe she’s not supposed to. It’s starting to feel like that kind of fairy tale.

She reaches out a mechanical hand to pat the back of Hallsy’s neck as he approaches. He has to have at least forty pounds on her, looks at least six inches taller, a bulk of muscle and physical presence that looks kind of comical next to her bony frame. He flinches anyway.

Adam looks away. It’s pretty obvious that this fairy tale isn’t about Hallsy. Whatever it is, it won’t hurt him. No more than he’s already been hurt, anyway.

“We’re leaving,” Nuge announces, and then they’re out the door and gone in a whirl of movement, the stepmother the eye of the storm none of them are willing to touch.

There’s silence for a beat.

“So, this is kind of a fucked up little house,” Adam says conversationally and Connor sputters, his shoulders dropping from around his ears a little. Brandon slaps Adam on the shoulder pretty hard but it’s worth it.

“Adam!” Brandon chastises. Adam sticks his tongue out at him.

“It is,” he insists when he’s got his tongue back in his mouth. He turns to Connor, who blinks at him, apprehensive. “Isn’t it?”

“Well, um,” Connor says after a beat, when it gets obvious Adam’s going to actually make him talk. “They, y’know, have to. Treat me like that. It’s the fairy tale.”

The novelty of getting more than two words at a time out of Connor is kind of ruined by what, exactly, he’d said. It even ruins Adam’s ability to say I told you so to Brandon. Adam just feels shitty.

“Jesus,” Brandon says.

“It’s, um. it’s the way it’s gotta be,” Connor continues says after a lengthy pause and shrugs. “I don’t mind so much. People say this fairy tale can go worse, I think Nuge and Ebbs like me. So I’m lucky, I guess.”

Adam exchanges glances with Brandon. Because, like, holy shit. Edmonton is a shithole.

“Like, that’s bullshit, but okay,” he says, diplomatically. “That’s some serious bullshit, but whatever.”

“Adam,” Brandon says warningly.

“What!” Adam exclaims. There’s something jittery and spiky and bitter in his chest he doesn’t want to think about and doesn’t want to let out, but seems to be spilling out anyway. “It is! What’s-his-face with the weird name doesn’t even wanna be mean to Connor, and they’re doing it because- because of a fucking fairy tale.”

“It’s a fairy tale,” Brandon snaps. His hands are fists at his side. His shoulders are high and tight and Adam hates it.

“So, what, that makes it okay?” he demands anyway. “The fairy tale makes it okay?”

For a moment there’s no answer.

“You’re scaring Connor,” Brandon says eventually. “Stop.”

Connor’s staring at both of them and his hands are white-knuckled around each other. He looks about two seconds from passing out or like, bursting into tears.

“Fine,” Adam says after a second. “Fine. Sorry, Connor.”

“It’s cool,” he says softly. “It’s, y’know, cool.”

It pretty evidently isn’t cool. Adam feels like shit.

“Still,” he says, because if there’s anything he’s sure of in this entire fucked up little house it’s that he doesn’t want to be throwing anything on top of the pile of garbage that’s been heaped on Connor’s shoulders. He also suspects that maybe… people don’t apologize to Connor much. “M’sorry.”

Connor smiles. It’s watery but probably more optimistic than Adam would expect from the situation.

“It’s okay,” he says. “If you’re hungry, I’m pretty good at chicken and veggies these days.”

“Yeah, bud,” Brandon says softly. “Sounds good. Lemme help you.”

Connor looks, just- heartbreakingly surprised, having help offered to him. Adam is not going to think about it. He’s not gonna think about it, because he has the distinct feeling if he punches a hole in the wall like he really wants to it’ll just make things worse for Connor. So he’s not gonna think about it at all.

“We’ll make some kickass dinner,” Adam says, and puts his arm carefully around Connor’s shoulders. The kid hunches for a second like he’s not sure how to react, and then leans into Adam’s side hesitantly. “I’m so good at baking, you’ll love it. I make dope-ass cookies.”

Connor’s smile is much less watery and much more sincere, when Adam glances down at him. It’s pretty gratifying.

-/-

He throws together some dope cookies. He knows oatmeal raisin isn’t the most popular cookie out there but he’s never heard any complaints is all he’s saying.

The trick is lots of butter and cinnamon. He knows his baking shit.

“These are great,” Brandon says, sounding insultingly surprised. He’s nibbling the edge of one with a concentration Adam would mock if it weren’t like, really cute and therefore off-limits. He looks down at his own cookie and stuffs it in his mouth so he can hopefully choke to death on it or whatever instead of thinking about Brandon’s mouth.

It doesn’t work, unfortunately. Whatever.

“They’re really good,” Connor assures him. His mouth is absolutely stuffed with cookie. He has to have crammed at least two in already and he’s steadily forcing in a third. It’s kind of endearing and when he smiles around the mouthful of mashed cookie it’s absolutely disgusting but also does a lot to lighten the bleak misery that’s his standard sort of… aura.

“Of course they’re fuckin’ good,” Adam says grandly. “I’m the golden god of baking, motherfuckers.”

Brandon rolls his eyes but reaches for another cookie.

The kitchen is the nicest, most homey part of the whole house Adam’s seen so far. Warm from the stove, walls painted a cheerful yellow. It smells like cookies and chicken and some kind of veggie stir-fry that’s heavy enough on the garlic even Adam wants to try it.

Adam’s full and warm and the assurance that no fucked-up stepmother is going to leap out at him from around a corner when he’s not looking has him bouncing around cheerfully. Connor keeps smiling too, and he has a sweet smile. A little bit doofy, maybe, but at least a hint of personality that isn’t stolid misery.

“We should play cards or something,” he announces, bouncing from one foot to the other. He’s feeling kind of great. Brandon rolls his eyes some more, nibbling judgmentally on another cookie. “Connor, you have cards, right?”

“Oh, um,” Connor says, muffled by the cookie in his mouth, and tries to swallow. It takes some time. “Um, maybe, in the sitting room? We can look?”

He looks hopeful and it’s very sweet. Adam gives into temptation and ruffles his hair.

“Let’s go look, champ,” he says grandly and ignores Brandon mouthing champ to himself with a gleefully judgmental expression. Connor looks at him with something that might be approaching adoration and like, Adam is not immune.

The sitting room is still claustrophobic and dark, still too-full of furniture that looks like it wants to bite. It’s somehow not as bad now, though, with Connor poking around in the drawers and cabinets, Brandon doing his best to find a comfortable way to sit on a thinly cushioned armchair. Adam’s struggling in a similar fashion with the couch. It’s all pleasantly domestic.

Something outside clangs, metal on metal. Adam almost doesn’t notice it, except for the way that Connor is abruptly standing rigidly. He flinches, looking back over his shoulder, when Adam sits up.

“They’re, uh, back,” Connor says. His words come out choppy and one hand is white-knuckled in the hem of his shirt. Adam hates this. He fucking hates it.

Brandon stands up, his chair scraping loudly against the floor with the force of it. He’s pale and his face is tight.

“I can’t deal with this,” he says abruptly. “I can’t- I’m not doing this.”

He’s on his feet and at the door to the stairs a moment later, pausing with a hand on the doorframe to look back. The dim evening light makes his face pointed and alien. He’s staring at Adam, and Connor next to him, and his mouth is a thin flat line of tension.

“Don’t let them hurt him,” he says, and then he’s gone.

Connor makes for the door to the entry hall. Adam scrambles to his feet and follows after, stops awkwardly a few feet from where Connor’s standing and staring at the front door. He’s pale. His face is very still and looks so very tired.

“I’ll be okay,” he says after a beat. There’s the sound of a carriage drawing up in the courtyard and the way Connor glances over his shoulder in its direction speaks otherwise. “They don’t, like… hurt me. They just aren’t, you know, nice.”

“Bud,” Adam begins, but the door opens and cuts him off and he doesn’t know what he was going to say anyway.

Hallsy and Ebbs spill into the entryway, elbowing each other the whole way, Nuge close on their heels. They pull up when they see Adam and Connor, and then hustle forward into the room and out of the way of the stepmother.

She slows to a stop in the doorway. Adam is sure he’s projecting the way the room suddenly seems darker, but still.

“Connor,” Hallsy says. His voice is tight and- nervous?

“Hallsy,” Connor answers. He’s already edging back towards the kitchens.

"Go… clean something," Hallsy says. It doesn't come out sounding nearly as mean as Adam would expect it to. It sounds nearly pleading. Connor nods anyway and trots out of the room. His expression as he goes is distinctly relieved.

The stepmother stays in the doorway. With the dim light of the room and the sun setting behind her it’s difficult to make out her face and Adam can’t tell for sure, doesn’t really want to, but he thinks maybe it’s less human than it had been before. All he can make out are the holes of her eyes and the broad red slash of her mouth. She looks like a person only in the broadest of strokes and Adam abruptly doesn’t want to look at her directly because he’s kind of scared it would make her face start to make sense.

“How was he?” Hallsy asks, and his tone is strange. He’s not looking at Adam and he definitely isn’t looking in the direction Connor had gone. He’s staring past both of them at the far wall.

“He was great,” Adam says quickly, and he’s really not imagining the relief that flickers across the face of… God, he really doesn’t wanna call the kid Nuge. He’s gotta figure out if it’s a nickname; it really sounds like one. “Best service ever. No complaints at all.”

“Good,” Hallsy says brusquely.

“Good,” Nuge echoes quietly.

The stepmother turns in the doorway and walks silently away. Something heavy and dark passes out of the room. It leaves the space feeling hollow, and echoey, and a little cold. Adam shivers. Hallsy deflates with a sigh that does more to punctuate how horrible the silence is than break it.

“Connor was great,” Adam says softly, just to be absolutely sure. No one answers. Ebbs just nods shortly and walks away with an arm around Hallsy’s shoulders. It leaves him and Nuge staring at each other in the dim evening light through the window, and the mousy angles of Nuge’s face are strange and miserable.

“Hey,” Adam begins, not sure what he means to say at all. Nuge shoves his hands in his pockets.

“Thanks,” he says abruptly. “For that. I wish-”

He cuts himself off. Adam can kind of fill in the blanks.

“I’m sorry,” he says uselessly. There’s a tight feeling at the base of his throat. It sucks. Nuge just shrugs anyway, a sharp little movement.

“It’s whatever,” he says, and then he’s spinning on his heel and walking away.

-/-

He wakes up in the middle of the night.

Or, he wakes up for the millionth time that night, because for some reason he just can’t stay asleep. But this time his bladder is saying hello, and so he drags his way out of bed and narrowly avoids breaking his nose by tripping on his sheets and shuffles his way to the lavatory.

He’s on his way back when he sees the figure at the window and nearly jumps out of his skin. He’s pretty sure he squeaks or make some other kind of dumbass noise, but the figure doesn’t turn and when Adam approaches carefully it resolves into Brandon.

He’s standing at the window, staring fixedly down into the garden.

Adam blinks at him for a second blearily and then shuffles even closer because Brandon’s looking at something and he wants to know what it is. Brandon’s expression is too blank and Adam’s too sleepy to interpret it.

For a second he peers down into the darkened garden and doesn’t see a single fucking thing. Just trees and a dimly lit street on the other side of a tall garden wall, a little path gleaming clean-swept in the moonlight.

And then something moves under the trees.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” Adam spits, punched-out and shocky. Suddenly he is very, very awake. “What the hell is that?”

“That’s the wolf,” Brandon says. His voice is very quiet. His mouth is slack, when Adam looks at him quickly.

The thing in the garden reaches the end of what looks like a long, prowling circle and pauses to look up at them.

Its edges are indistinct in the playful shadows of the branches. The moon reflects off sleek fur in odd places, places it shouldn’t, and it towers even over the garden wall. It has to be seven feet tall at least, and- There are teeth. There are a lot of teeth.

Its eyes burn a cool, feral yellow.

“It doesn’t look like a wolf,” Adam says weakly.

“It’s the wolf,” Brandon says. He’s even more quiet than before, even more absolute. Adam looks away from the wolf-thing in the garden. Brandon’s expression is distant. Absent. If he had to guess, Adam thinks he’s probably meeting the wolf’s gaze.

He wants to reach out, get a hand on Brandon’s shoulder, to drag him around and away from that poisonous gaze. Before he can, Brandon’s spinning heavily in place. He doesn’t look at Adam once.

“I’m going to bed,” he says. “You should sleep.”

And then he walks away.

-/-

Leaving Edmonton is a breath of relief. They don’t see Leon or his little sauerkraut cart, which Adam’s almost grateful for. He doesn’t know what he’d say, and anyway getting out of this shithole town is the highest priority.

Brandon breathes a sigh of relief as soon as they’re back through the city gates, back in the offensively cheerful woods. They don’t seem so bad, after Edmonton.

“That sucked so much ass,” Adam says decisively.

“We’re never going back there,” Brandon agrees, and that’s that.

They make camp that night just off the main road and he’s sitting on a thin bedroll on hard ground and Adam is loving it. The likelihood that a fairy tale thing will show up is next to nothing. Just how Adam’s discovering he likes it.

He’s feeling so good it makes him daring.

“Where’d you learn to shoot?” he asks and mimes nocking an arrow and drawing when Brandon looks at him blankly. He’s halfway expecting an awkward brush-off but Brandon just snorts and shrugs.

“I used to hunt a lot,” he says idly. He’s stoking the fire up to heat their standard boring smoked venison, but the way he doesn’t look at Adam doesn’t even feel like he’s trying to avoid Adam’s eyes. “M’family was pretty poor, y’know? Needed to eat somehow.”

“Huh,” Adam says, digesting that. It’s kind of nice, getting little tidbits of Brandon’s life like this. “Your family won’t still need you?”

Brandon shrugs again. His shoulders are a little tighter but nowhere near bad yet.

“I have brothers, they can step up,” he says and then sighs, sets aside his branch. “We knew for a while before I actually had to go out for my fairy tale. We had time for goodbyes and shit. They’ll be okay.”

Adam frowns.

“You could go see ‘em again,” he tries, but Brandon’s shoulders just lift higher around his ears and it is starting to feel deliberate now, how he isn’t looking at Adam. He cuts himself off.

“Not in the cards,” Brandon says shortly. His hands are in his lap and Adam can’t see them but he’d lay all the money he doesn’t have on their knuckles being white right now.

“Alright, fair enough,” Adam says and Brandon relaxes a little. He picks up the stick to poke the fire some more, at least. “No reason not to just keep wandering around, y’know.”

“Wonder what the next fairy tale we’re gonna run into will be like,” Brandon says, sounding almost cheerful about it.

“You think we will soon?” Adam asks. He’s not like, all that stoked on the idea. None of them have been all that fun so far and if he thinks about Connor for longer than two seconds he starts getting sad. If they just wandered around the woods for a few weeks, shooting deer and having campfires, he’s about one rendition of Kumbaya short of his best life.

“We can’t go twenty fucking feet without running into a fairy tale,” Brandon says and shrugs. “How does anyone get anything fucking done around here.”

Adam considers this.

“I mean, you’re right,” he says slowly. “We’ve run into, like, so many fairy tales. I never ran into a single one before I met you.”

Brandon frowns.

“Maybe we have some kinda… fairy tale magnet,” Adam continues slowly, letting himself tip back to lay flat out on the ground, staring up into the leaves above them. He’s deliciously sleepy and his feet are only a little sore and it’s kind of really nice, just hanging out in the woods with Brandon. Saying stupid shit just to hear Brandon’s voice when he responds. “Pulling fairy tales from all over.”

He’s aware he’s that far gone. He’s flying on the wings of denial, at this point. Whatever.

“That’s the stupidest shit I’ve ever heard in my life,” Brandon says. He’s probably smiling. He sounds like he is. Adam closes his eyes and smiles up at the canopy.

-/-

“We’re not lost,” Brandon stresses.

“We’re lost,” Adam says dismally.

They’re not technically speaking lost. Adam’s pretty sure he could get them back to the road if he tried, and he’s reasonably sure he knows which direction they’d need to head in to get back to Edmonton- if they wanted to, which is, uh, no. But he doesn’t actually like… really know where they are.

“We’re not lost,” Brandon repeats. “We just don’t know where we are. There’s a difference.”

Adam snorts at him, kicking a branch out of his way. He might kind of agree with Brandon but he’s not going to admit it. One little comment from Brandon about maybe hearing a stream and both their dumb asses had decided to go looking for a lunch spot. Two hours later there’s no creek and Adam is pretty sure they’re gonna die out here.

“We’re gonna die out here,” he says. “They’re gonna find our skeletons in like a million years and be like, wow, why’d these dumbasses leave the road? And we’ll be dead, so I won’t even get to snitch on you about what a dumbass you are.”

Brandon doesn’t answer. Adam kicks the branch again.

“Which is like, the worst part,” he continues. “The world needs to know what a fuckin’ dumbass you were.”

He’s expecting Brandon to point out that Adam had fully and willingly gone along with it, which he had, because he is also a dumbass. But Brandon doesn’t say anything.

“Dude,” he says, and finally looks up. “What-”

There’s a cottage in front of them and Brandon’s frozen about five feet back, staring at it.

It’s a horrible little cottage. Grimy, roof sagging in the middle, the walls looking halfway-melted, cheerful artificial colors all saccharine and unnatural popping up in the middle of the woods. Adam stares at it, trying to make sense of it, trying to understand what exactly it is he’s seeing.

The reek of cocoa and sugar gone off hangs in the air. This is a fairy tale.

“I don’t like this,” Brandon says, and for once he doesn’t sound sarcastic or full of bravado or even angry. He sounds… “I don’t like this at all.”

“Me either,” Adam agrees quietly. The woods are silent around them, and the sun is shining down offensively brightly. There’s no breeze. Nothing moves. It’s just the two of them, all alone.

The two of them and a house made out of fucking candy.

“This is bad,” Brandon says softly.

“It doesn’t seem like anyone’s home?” Adam says weakly, which is when there’s a sharp thump and a pale little face appears in the window.

Adam screams and jumps. Brandon also screams and jumps, and then stumbles and falls over, so neither of them really have grounds to mock the other. Adam’s too busy panting for breath anyway, clutching at his chest. He’s really not cut out for all this knighting bullshit, he’s not.

The pale little face blinks at them and then a small hand waves at them. It’s a human face, Adam ascertains after blinking rapidly a few times. A very young human face, spotty with acne and extremely teenaged.

There are bars on the windows.

“Oh,” Brandon says glumly, echoing Adam’s thoughts perfectly. “Fuck.”

-/-

The door to the cottage is made of graham cracker. Actual fucking cracker. It gives easily when Adam kicks at it. The doorknob appears to be a solid piece of black licorice, and extremely sticky. Adam hadn’t wanted to touch it.

Inside, the cottage is small and dim and close. The smell of spoiled sugar and artificial fruit flavor hangs cloying at the back of Adam’s throat, and he has to pick his way carefully around the furniture. Nearly everything seems to be made out of some sort of candy. It’s all, just, so sticky.

“I feel like I’m getting cavities just breathing in here,” Brandon says in an undertone. He’s sticking close to Adam’s side, peering nervously around. It’s quiet in the cottage. Adam doesn’t trust it.

The room with the barred windows is tucked into the far corner, of course. It’s got a little barred window set into it and a big, shiny padlock on the door. They’re the only metal things Adam’s seen in the whole cottage so far.

The kid is watching them through the window, placid and silent.

“Uh, hey,” Adam says weakly, edging past a moldy chocolate table to get to the door. Brandon’s split off a little, poking around in the corners with his bow in his hand like he thinks he’ll have room to get a shot off if something pops up. Adam suspects it’s more of a comfort thing than anything but he isn’t gonna judge.

The kid blinks at him. Another pale face pops up over his shoulder. Adam closes his eyes for a moment and prays for, like, some kind of break. A reprieve from the horrible absurdity of a candy house and two acne-riddled teenagers.

There’s two of them.

“Brandon, there’s two of ‘em,” he calls back over his shoulder without looking.

“Oh, fuck,” Brandon says and there’s a muted crashing noise, like he’d kicked over a licorice chair or something in trying to head over. Adam’s too busy scoping around for a key or some way to get the door open to check.

“Привет,” says the bigger, slightly older-looking kid. “Пожалуйста, помоги нам.”

Adam blinks at him.

“Yeah, no,” he says eventually. “Sorry, I don’t, uh. I don’t speak that.”

He needs to pick up another fucking language, honestly. He’s starting to feel like a real tool and dumbass, not even having enough of a second language to try to stumble around in. It’s not a great look.

The teenager bobs his head back and forth for a second, squinting.

“Hello,” he manages at last and Adam breathes a little sigh of relief. At least they can talk a little bit. “Hello, help?”

“Yeah,” Brandon says softly. “Yeah, we’ll help.”

Adam looks at his face and then swallows and looks away, kicking at the debris on the floor in case there’s a key in there. He’s already barely keeping his breathing under control. The look on Brandon’s face is going to put him over the edge.

“Names?” he asks instead, trying on a smile at the kids.

“Евгений,” the older one says, and points at the kid peeking solemnly over his shoulder. They’re both filthy, crusted and sticky-looking like they’re been rolling around on the sugary floor. They’re pale too, pale and bony like they’ve maybe been here for a very long time. “Андрей.

“Ev… geny?” Adam tries, giving up on the debris, and winces when the older one actually cracks a grin. It makes him look significantly less wraithlike and traumatized.

“Geno,” he says instead, pointing at himself, and then points at his brother. “Andrei. You let us out?”

“Jesus,” Adam says, and then jolts towards the cage door. “Yeah, yeah, of course. What the hell are you doing in here?”

“Jesus,” Geno says and points at Adam. Brandon bursts out laughing, and Adam gets it because it’s fucking absurd. Horrifying, but so absurd too, this candy house with fucking caged children who think his name is Jesus. Adam’s not sure if he wants to laugh hysterically or start looking for something to stab.

“No, uh,” he says and gives up on yanking on the lock and starts looking around for something to knock it off the door with. The walls are made of some kind of hardened butterscotch, and he, like… doesn’t really want to touch them. “I’m Adam. This is Brandon.”

“Ah,” Geno nods solemnly. “Jesus Adam.”

Adam gives up and laughs. Puts his hands on his knees and just laughs because holy shit.

“Holy shit,” he wheezes, and gets himself back upright. “You explain this,” he directs to Brandon and starts for the door. “I’m gonna grab a rock.”

It’s ridiculously easy to find a rock the perfect size to knock the lock off the door and Adam’s nearly whistling as he makes his way back into the cottage. It’s ridiculously easy to knock the lock off the door to the cage; the padlock is shiny and new, but the latch to the door is old and brittle and rusted.

The cage is small. The roof is low, lower than the ceiling of the cottage itself, so low Geno can’t even stand up all the way without having to tilt his head to the side. Its walls are grimy and the floor is bare and filthy and the only thing in it with them is a bucket Adam doesn’t look at too closely.

“Why were you guys even in there?” he asks, standing aside to let them out and wincing in sympathy as Geno steps out and stretches to his full height with the crack of several vertebrae realigning. Andrei is already bouncing around the room, poking at furniture and making faces when whatever he’s poking is sticky, which is every time.

Geno looks at him and shrugs.

“For to eat,” he says, like it’s nothing.

“Oh,” Adam says faintly. “Oh, well, that’s… That’s fucked up.”

Geno shrugs at him and ambles for the door. Andrei trots after him, and Brandon’s heading out too. Adam throws his rock into the cramped little cage and turns to follow.

There’s a clatter in the far corner.

Adam looks back with a sense of evil foreboding.

There’s a woman there. There hadn’t been a woman before, but there is now, a tall skeletal woman in something too ragged and filthy to call a dress. She’s hunched over, long stringy hair hanging around her face and shoulders and making it hard to see her face clearly.

“Hungry,” the woman says, and Adam’s never seen a witch before, but-

But.

“Hungry,” the witch repeats blankly.

“Witch,” he says, and his voice is quiet like it is in nightmares. He can’t haul in a breath for heart-stopping moments.

It’s not a woman. It’s a children’s drawing of a woman put together all wrong, like someone read about a woman in a book and then drew one without even looking in a mirror to check if it corresponded with the human form. It’s not a woman; it’s something that barely looks like a person, a witch, and it’s lurching for him with its nails outstretched and he’s toppling backwards onto the floor.

“Witch!” he shouts, dragging in painful air through impacted lungs, finally getting some volume. “Witch!

It’s on its hands and knees and coming after him a second later. It moves fucking fast like that and he barely has the chance to twist out of the way of a grab and up to his feet. One of the boys is shouting, everyone’s scrambling for the door. That’s all Adam can make out because he’s too busy dodging how the witch is diving for his knees again. He throws himself desperately across the moldy chocolate table, toppling it between them.

The witch screams, shrill, buzzing sound, not quite inhuman enough to not be horrifying.

Get out of there,” Brandon screams from outside and Adam swears back at him, dancing back in the direction of the door.

The witch slams into the table mindlessly. White hands and ragged nails scrape through chocolate, and then it’s vaulting the fucking thing like an athlete.

Adam turns and runs.

He blows through the door at a sprint. Digs into a turn because the door slammed open right behind him. The witch lands where he’d been a second ago, shrieking. Adam screams back, pushes for the corner of the cottage and rounds it just as the witch blows past him again.

It can move faster than him. The only thing he has going for him are tight turns and he’s already winded. He spins around another corner. Sprints along the back of the cottage. Swears and jukes away from the wall just in time for a clawed hand to slam into the wall.

“Run!” he screams and hears Geno and Andrei shouting from the front of the house.

There’s a frozen moment, as he spins around another corner, where he can see the witch. It’s screaming and snarling and its broad, red mouth is flecked with spittle. It’s stretching after him with broken nails, arms long and lean, reach absolutely terrifying.

They can get away, the thought comes to him. Brandon and Andrei and Geno can get away. Not all of them, not Adam, but they can.

“Run!” he screams again and then the witch lands on his back. Adam trips and skids forward on his chest.

Ragged nails scrabble at his throat as he rolls desperately, knocks the witch off, tries to get to his feet. It’s too fast, catching him by the shirt and dragging him back into its grasp. It screams against his cheek, breath cool and scentless. Adam closes his eyes.

The witch jolts and drops him. Suddenly he’s on the ground, choking in the taste of dirt, no claws or teeth in his throat like he’d been so sure of a moment before. He scrambles back and out of the way but the witch is whirling anyway, in the direction of-

Brandon is standing just feet away like a heroic, beautiful moron, face pale, bow in hand and shooting stance perfect.

That’s all Adam has time to see before the witch is pouncing. It backhands Brandon down and there’s the crack of something, something, and Brandon screams. Adam throws himself to his feet and the witch leaps on Brandon.

Brandon makes a noise, a wordless little call of fear and pain, and Adam sees red so fast he can’t breathe.

He’s still wearing his sword.

Over here, motherfucker,” he hisses hoarsely and the witch turns in slow motion, looks back at him over a shoulder, over Brandon’s arrow, lodged deep and so close to where a heart would be.

Adam puts his hips into the swing.

There’s no fucking finesse about it, a windup and follow-through like Adam’s playing baseball in the castle courtyard again and it’s purely luck that he catches the witch with the edge of the blade and not the flat. It’s pure luck that the blade hits its neck and not a shoulder, but-

It does.

Dirty nails scrape over his shoulder and then the body hits the ground, the head a moment later.

Brandon hitches out a little noise, rolling over. A whimpering, gritted sound, slipping out between his teeth. Adam flinches, scrambles over to him, trips and keeps going on his hands and knees because getting to his feet would be a waste of time.

There’s a scrape on Brandon’s cheek, fresh and beaded with blood that’s already drying. Otherwise, he doesn’t seem to be bleeding, doesn’t seem too obviously badly hurt. Adam still doesn’t relax until Brandon’s hand catches his wrist, stopping his useless fluttering cold.

Brandon opens his eyes and his pupils are massive, blown with pain, but he focuses on Adam well enough. He looks… he looks like he might, maybe, be okay.

“Think I broke my fucking foot,” Brandon grits out.

“That sucks,” Adam says, not a single thought in his head. He absolutely deserves how Brandon’s fist catches his chest a moment later.

“Prick,” he wheezes. The hand on Adam’s chest is tangled in his shirt now, clenched tight with pain. “Is it… is it dead?”

Adam looks back at the corpse.

“They don’t bleed,” he says, breathless, utterly thoughtless. He can’t stop staring at it, the head slowly rolling away across the ground and the ragdoll-like form of the body. It doesn’t look like a person even now. It just looks like a life-size doll missing half its stuffing, deflated and abandoned.

That could have been a person, he thinks and then forces himself not to think. It wasn’t a person, Adam’s almost sure. It’d been just a thing, something like the wolf. Something made from fairy tales.

Brandon slaps his shoulder hard and Adam jerks out of his thoughts. Brandon’s pale with pain, the corners of his mouth turned down and his hair matted with sweat. His pupils are massive and dark.

“Come on, get me inside,” he grits out. “Wanna get a look at my leg.”

“Fuck, yes, of course,” Adam says and jolts to help. He has to resist the urge to pick Brandon up and just carry him in. First of all, he’s not totally confident in his ability not to drop Brandon right on the floor like a sack of flour. Second of all, he’s very confident that Brandon would punch him if he tried.

Andrei and Geno are watching from the doorway as Adam helps Brandon hobble to the little bench next to the door. It’s made of wood, thank fuck, and Adam settles Brandon into it as gently as he can.

Brandon’s face is bloodlessly pale and every time he moves his leg his mouth tightens a little more. Adam hates it. He kneels next to Brandon’s foot and very much doesn’t know what to do.

Andrei sighs, points at Brandon’s ankle and says something to Geno in that rounded, consonant-heavy language Adam doesn’t have the faintest clue how to begin to understand. Geno scowls and crosses his arms, and then rolls his eyes when Andrei says something else and comes over.

“I help,” he says and elbows Adam aside. Brandon meets his eyes over Adam’s head, both eyebrows raised despite the patina of pain over his expression, and then winces as Geno starts easing off his boot.

Geno spends about two seconds gently poking at Brandon’s ankle, Adam restraining himself from shoving the kid away every time Brandon’s face twitches in pain, before he sits up again.

“Is maybe broke,” Geno says and shrugs. “I wrap.”

“Kay,” Adam says dubiously and goes to rummage around in the cottage until he finds enough worryingly clean rags to rip into strips. Geno’s kind of disturbingly good at makeshift bandages for someone Adam would put at maybe sixteen. He has questions and he’s pretty damn sure he’s not going to like any of the answers.

“You go now,” Geno says when Adam’s gotten in his way for the third time in the process of trying to help. He shoos gently in Adam’s direction, looking as understanding as Adam suspects a sixteen-year-old can.

“Yeah, fuck off,” Brandon says. His voice is still strained with pain but he’s looking a little less pallid. “Go make us some dinner or something.”

“Oh!” Andrei pipes up on Geno’s other side, head popping up so Adam gets a full view of his hopeful grin. “Yes, dinner! Eat!”

Adam grumbles and goes, trying not to look too much like he’s relieved. It’s hard to look at Brandon, sweating in pain, twitching with every sure motion of Geno’s hand. It’s even harder to look at it and feel powerless, and at least if he’s making food he’s feeling useful.

The kitchen is a little off from the main room, tucked into a little walled-off alcove. There’s less candy here, the counters made of gleaming lacquered wood and a massive oven in the corner, a hulking thing of iron and rivets. Adam gazes at it for a long moment and decides he doesn’t really want to look at it at all ever again, and goes to poke through the cabinets instead.

There are all kinds of spices in the cupboards, little packets of waxed paper with labels in crabbed handwriting. They’re savory, and there’s a little jar of salt too. Flour and not a lot else. Nothing sweet whatsoever.

“Wow,” he says without thinking, “Wish I had some kinda-,”

He cuts himself off. Andrei is blinking at him from the end of the counter.

Roast, he does not say, and does not look at the massive roasting oven in the corner.

“Pan,” he says instead. “Wish I could find a pan.”

Andrei points in front of him. Adam looks up. There’s a big frying pan hanging from a hook at eye-level. It’s very clean and looks utterly unused. Adam grimaces at it.

“Like, cool,” he says sourly. Andrei giggles at him.

He suspects the kids would rather die than eat another bite of sugar. He’s kind of feeling the same way and he hasn’t even eaten any of it. Just being in this horrifying candy house, breathing the saccharine air and trying not to touch anything too sticky, is kind of putting him off candy forever.

He keeps rummaging. He could probably make some kind of crepe-thing, like a pancake but savory. They still have venison in their packs, and the only one likely to complain about more venison is Brandon. And he has bigger things to complain about now, anyway.

“Think I can rig something up with a fire outside,” he muses out loud, pulling out the flour. “No stovetop.”

“Oven hasn’t been used,” Brandon says.

Adam jumps and drops the flour and whirls. Brandon’s standing by the oven, one hand on the shiny metal to steady himself, balanced on one foot to keep his injured foot up. It’s wrapped up neatly in the rags. Geno watches from the doorway and when Adam cuts his eyes over he just shrugs speakingly.

“Should you really be on your feet?” Adam complains anyway. Brandon rolls his eyes.

“Whatever,” he says dismissively, like he’s not still pallid and kinda sweaty at the temples. “I looked, oven hasn’t been used at all before. If you wanted to use that for whatever.”

Adam stares at him.

“You checked?” he demands, aghast. Brandon shrugs, swaying a little on his wrapped ankle. Abruptly he looks defensive.

“Like, yeah?” he says. “What, you were just gonna ignore it? It’s not like it’s gonna go away if you don’t look at it, what are you, twelve?”

“It might,” Adam says darkly. He still doesn’t like the look of the oven in the corner.

“Hungry,” Andrei puts in conversationally. He’s tucked under Geno’s arm and his big childish eyes are like, tugging on Adam’s heart strings. It’s gross. Adam hates children.

He doesn’t hate children, he’s just feeling mushy.

“Alright, fine,” he says abruptly and throws his hands in the air. “Whatever, I’ll use the stupid oven. Brandon, you sit the fuck down. Who wants savory pancakes?”

“Pancakes,” Andrei echoes solemnly.

-/-

They eat some realistically pretty shitty crepes, though Geno and Andrei tear into them and the strips of venison with a ravenous hunger that has Adam silently handing across more until even a pair of teenagers can’t eat any more. Brandon nods quietly when Adam glances at him and picks at his own portion.

Adam doesn’t really eat a lot either. He can’t stop thinking about the witch. He’d dragged its limp ragdoll corpse out into the woods, trying to ignore how cool and bloodless it is, and he’s trying to put it from his mind.

He eats another bite and watches Andrei bicker with Geno incomprehensibly and it’s easier, like this.

“Come with me inside,” Brandon says when they’re all finished and Geno and Andrei have settled in to lay around and digest their first good meal in ages - Adam slides past the thought of just how long the kids have been here - and throw grass at each other. Adam nods and doesn’t mention it when Brandon has to lean on him to hobble inside.

“So, what are we doing with the kids,” Brandon asks in an undertone, when there’s what remains of the battered door between them and the kids. It’s about half of a graham cracker. Andrei’s staring at them through it.

“We can't keep them,” Adam says, pretty reasonably, he thinks. “We're not ready to be parents. I don't even have a job!”

Brandon wrinkles his nose.

“You're a knight,” he points out.

“It's not like that pays well,” Adam says. He's feeling kind of hysterical. “I don't get, like, benefits. I can't do child support!”

“Well, we can't just leave them,” Brandon hisses.

Andrei’s still watching them. Adam pulls a face at him, crossing his eyes and sticking out his tongue. Andrei makes it right back, putting his hands up by his temples to be fake ears as well. It makes Adam laugh.

“We won’t leave ‘em,” he says and looks back at Brandon. “We can’t take care of them though. We have to take them somewhere.”

Brandon raises a stupid, judgmental eyebrow at him.

“Where, exactly?” he asks. Adam scowls at him.

“Wherever!” he says and throws his hands up in the air. “We can’t just, like ditch them here!”

“Okay, obviously,” Brandon agrees. “But we need some reasonable adults. We’re not taking them to fucking Edmonton.”

“Fuck Edmonton,” Adam says automatically. He’s thinking desperately. They’re so far from Roslovic and his kingdom, and most of the people they’d met along the way Adam trusts with childcare about as far as he could throw a house.

“Well, I don’t fuckin’-,” Brandon’s saying.

“What about Flower?” Adam interrupts. Brandon blinks at him. His mouth is open a little.

“I thought you didn’t like him,” is what he ends up finally saying. Adam rolls his eyes. Like, okay, so he kind of had been a dick for the entire visit, but honestly Flower had known exactly what he was doing when he had the fucking nerve to be so pretty and wink at Brandon. He’d been asking for it.

“He’s like the only responsible-ish adult we know,” he says. “And I feel like, uh, Pear? If he can wrangle Flower and Jonathan then he can handle two kids.”

Brandon considers that.

“I mean, I don’t have any better ideas,” he says reluctantly. Adam nods, brightening up considerably now that he has a plan. A plan that doesn’t involve carting around two children indefinitely. Admittedly pretty dope children, but Adam is so very not ready to be a father.

“Alright, so,” he says and claps his hands. “How the fuck are we gonna get there?”

“I can walk,” Brandon says stubbornly. Adam pats him on the shoulder patronizingly.

“No ya can’t, bud,” he says, and Brandon’s got murder in his eyes and is very likely about to try to go at him despite his handicap when Geno calls from outside.

“Jesus Adam?” he calls, sounding delighted, and then, “Это лошадь!”

Adam blinks and heads for the door.

Geno’s stood next to the door, Andrei looking over his shoulder, and they are staring at a horse.

Herbert is standing in the scraggly little yard of the cottage, grazing idly at the meager grass and ignoring them in the very specifically alert way of horses which means he’s ready to bite if anyone gets too close and he doesn’t approve of it. Adam stares at him. It is, very definitely, Herbert.

Herbert?” Adam demands when he’s finally worked out how to make his mouth move. His voice might break like he’s spun back around for a second go at puberty, but what the fuck. He thinks it’s justified in this case.

Herbert swishes his tail and doesn’t look up from his studious grazing at all. Adam knows what his horse looks like. The air of complete lack of interest in him or in anything to do with anything that isn’t food directly in front of him is comfortingly familiar.

“Herbert?” Brandon echoes, sounding just as shocked.

“What… the fuck,” Adam says softly.

Geno is already carefully approaching Herbert, from a little to the side with a hand out, head down like he knows what he’s doing. Andrei hovers behind him, peeking over his shoulder with big eyes. Adam really wonders where the hell these children had come from.

“Where the hell did Herbert come from?” Brandon hisses at Adam hysterically. “What the fuck?”

“I have no idea!” Adam hisses back. Herbert’s just, like, chilling there. Looking reasonably well-groomed and well-fed, wearing a harness Adam does not recognize at all, and only marginally annoyed to be approached by a mortal soul. Just a big, fuckoff war horse in the middle of some fairy tale woods, a million miles from where Adam would reasonably expect him to be.

“Is this- Did a fairy tale do this?” Brandon asks.

Adam flinches and looks around quickly, and then promptly feels like a total idiot. Like, what was he expecting, honestly? A witch to jump out of the trees or something? A fairy godparent? At least Brandon hadn’t seen him making a total fool of himself.

“I dunno,” he says. Geno’s made friends with Herbert, insofar as anyone can make friends with a horse. Herbert’s letting him pat his nose without biting, at least. Andrei is still hiding behind Geno. “At least I won’t hafta carry your ass all the way back to Flower’s.”

Brandon rolls his eyes.

“You’d drop me,” he says. “Okay, so I’m riding him? He doesn’t have a saddle.”

“Oh dude,” Adam says, appalled. “Dude, no way. Oh, that would hurt so fuckin’ bad? Your foot just hanging off like that? Jesus, no.”

Brandon blinks at him.

“Think I saw a cart when the, uh, witch was chasing me around everywhere,” Adam continues. “We’re loading your ass in there.”

Brandon makes the most offended face Adam’s possibly ever seen.

-/-

“I hate this,” he says sourly, when they’ve gotten the cart rigged up to Herbert and Geno’s commandeered the seat next to Adam up front and Andrei’s been relegated to the back to throw hay at Geno when he’s not looking.

Brandon’s got his arms crossed over his chest and one leg stuck out at an awkward angle to keep his ankle elevated. There’s straw in his hair and he’s scowling darkly and Adam’s heart rolls over a little in his chest. He smiles anyway. Brandon’s adorable when he’s pissed off about having to look stupid.

“You look totally cool,” he encourages, mostly just to be a shit. Brandon stares at him murderously.

“If I could walk, I would end you,” he hisses. Adam smiles at him helplessly. He’s like, really hot.

“But ya can’t,” he taunts anyway, and walks around to bargain with Herbert while Brandon’s still sputtering in rage.

Herbert eyes him as he approaches. Adam doesn’t try to read anything into it. The emotions of horses are, outside of the occasional bout of panic and bloodthirst, completely inscrutable.

“Listen, I know you’re not a cart horse or whatever,” Adam says.

Herbert doesn’t say anything.

“Yeah, I get it. It’s not dignified,” Adam continues. Geno is watching him from the front seat, elbows on his knees and an expression of fascination on his face. Adam ignores him. “But you’re tied onto this thing and we’re gonna get to Flower’s whether you like it or not. So suck it up.”

Herbert bends to lip at a tuft of grass.

“Can you please stop talking to your fucking horse?” Brandon shouts from the back of the cart. Geno snorts. Adam rolls his eyes. Honestly, children.

“I mean it,” he says, and gestures vaguely at Herbert in a way that he hopes indicates that he’ll try to get Herbert an apple or something at the end of the trip. Not that Herbert can understand him, but whatever.

-/-

Getting Herbert to drag the entire cart and load back to Flower’s takes a few days and Herbert spends every second of it looking at Adam reproachfully, which he ignores. They pass Edmonton on the third day, and he guides the cart past it without even considering going in. Fuck Edmonton.

Brandon’s trying to teach the kids a little more English. Adam’s trying to teach them some English swears, and also to get Geno to stop calling him Jesus Adam. He’s only really succeeding at one of those, but he’s feeling pretty good when he starts to notice that the woods are getting increasingly flowery around them.

Finding the track that leads to Flower’s cottage takes a little time but eventually they’re bumping along in that direction, Brandon complaining the whole time about how it’s jostling his ankle. Adam ignores him cheerfully and concentrates on not steering Herbert off the track.

Flower’s cottage is… busy.

He recognizes all of Flower’s dwarves and they see him pull the cart up, but for a long while no one breaks off to speak to him. They’re weirdly quiet too, barely a single raised voice. Adam climbs down from the seat, waves at Geno and Andrei to stay with the cart, and helps Brandon down off the cart.

The dwarves are loading something big and ornate that gleams in the overcast sun like glass into a squat, ugly wagon.

Adam squints at it but can’t quite make out what it is other than heavy-looking. No one’s talking, and when Jonathan breaks from the crowd and makes his way over his expression is nowhere near as murderous as Adam was expecting. David follows on Jonathan’s heels.

“Hey, short-stuff,” Adam says because he’s off-balance and increasingly nervous and Brandon’s utterly silent beside him, and he’s not very inventive in these situations.

Jonathan scowls at them. He looks awful, drawn and blank and pale. His stare is cavernous. His eyes are red-rimmed.

“If you wanted to speak to Flower,” he snaps. He’s hoarse and the lilting turn of his accent is more strident than anything. “It is too late for that. Go away, now.”

“Mon chéri,” David says softly, and puts his arm around Jonathan's shoulders. He looks back apologetically at them as Jonathan lets himself be pushed gently away. “I will send Vero. You want to speak with her.”

“Kay,” Adam says weakly. Brandon just nods silently. He’s already looking kind of pale, worn-out at the edges with pain. Adam wonders if this Vero will have a doctor somewhere. He hates the look on Brandon’s face. “We have, um, kids.”

David blinks at them, for a moment shaken out of whatever that expression had been.

“Ah,” he says slowly. “Well, she will definitely want to see you then.”

“Okay,” Adam says stupidly. David’s already gone, at least, walking away into the swarm of weirdly silent dwarves. Jon’s long-gone. They loiter at the edge of the clearing for a little while.

He recognizes that the woman who approaches at last must be Vero right away. He also notices that she’s probably the most thoroughly obvious member of the nobility he’s ever seen.

Vero is slim and gorgeous like a knife and she carries her sword at her hip like it's something she knows what to do with. She moves like it, too. Like a weapon. Like she's dangerous. She doesn’t wear a crown but she doesn’t need to; authority inherent in the set of her shoulders and the way she stands like the earth owes her the right.

Her face is tight and pale and lined with misery.

“Je m'appelle Vero,” she says softly. “I am, ahhh… Prince?”

Adam swallows. A prince. An honest to god, real-life prince. It’s kind of intimidating. Vero looks every inch a prince. Adam suspects she could kick his ass before he could even unsheathe his sword.

“Um,” he stutters, and then jerks into a bow that’s probably way deeper than appropriate, but if his manners professor could see him now he thinks she’d agree with his assessment. “Um, well-met, Prince Vero-,”

“Oh,” she interrupts and waves a hand vaguely. It’s unbearably graceful. “Non, non, c’est, comment dites-vous… ah, bullshit.”

Adam chokes on his own spit.

“Right,” he coughs out hoarsely. Brandon snorts at him. “Um. Right. I’m Knight Adam, and this is, um, Brandon.”

“Brandon Tanev,” Brandon supplies, letting go of Adam’s arm for a moment to extend a tentative hand to be shaken.

You have a last name? Adam almost asks, stupidly. He also almost slaps Brandon’s hand out of the air, because what the fuck, Brandon? Adam’s a shoddy student of courtly manners at absolute best and even then he knows trying to shaking the hand of royalty is kind of beyond the pale.

He’s glad the two stupid impulses meet in his brain and somehow cancel each other out, because he doesn’t end up saying anything stupid and Vero takes Brandon’s hand for a firm shake so that must be alright.

Behind her, Nate slips a little in loading the weird glass… box-thing into the cart and swears loudly.

“Ahh, Flower spoke of you,” she says. She doesn't follow Adam’s gaze to look behind her. “You are, mmm… the tall one and the pretty one?”

Pretty one?” Adam demands unthinkingly and Vero laughs. It's a very sweet sound.

“Flower,” she says. “Always the pet names. He worried for you.”

“He did?” Adam asks, frowning. There’s something strange about that sentence. Something about it that rings weirdly in the false silence of the clearing, something about the faces of Flower’s strange collection of friends and the dark windows of his nauseatingly quaint little house.

“Adam,” Brandon says, and his tone is warning.

“He did,” Vero says. She meets his eyes and doesn’t blink. She's gorgeous and so achingly sad it's hard to look at her directly.

“Oh,” Adam says, and looks at the cargo of the ugly little wagon and how the glass gleams in the watery afternoon sun. The shape of it, about as tall as a tall man, and-

And.

Oh.

The tight hand around his arm lets go and then warm fingers brush the back of his hand and he looks down. Brandon’s not looking at him, swaying a little in place without Adam to lean on to steady him, but his hand hovers next to Adam’s. Adam takes it and looks down at Brandon’s fingers wrapped around his until the pressure behind his eyes abates a little.

The glass of the coffin winks so beautifully in the sunlight.

“Oh,” Adam says, and it turns out all the pressure that’d been behind his eyes is caught in his throat now, the word coming out all croaky and stupid.

“Oui,” Vero says. She still doesn’t look. She just smiles, and it’s very sincere for all that it’s also the saddest expression Adam’s maybe ever seen. “But, I hear you have children?”

“Oh, fuck,” Adam says, and gulps back the weight of how he’s trying not to cry because it isn’t the time. “Yeah, um, they’re back with the cart. We, um, killed their witch.”

“We don’t know if they have, y’know, a family,” Brandon continues. He sounds a little strained, but his hand is steady in Adam’s. “And we’re not really qualified to take care of kids.”

Vero snickers. Adam rolls his eyes.

“Yes, I think-,” she begins, and then Jon is pushing past Adam with David hot on his heels, handing out vaguely insincere apologetic glances in his wake. Jon’s ignoring them with a ferocity that Adam can’t really take personally.

“On peut y aller maintenant,” Jon says, sketching a shallow bow. Adam still doesn’t understand a single word he’s saying but it sounds rude. The ghost of his courtly manners professor inside his head dies a little bit more.

“He says we are almost ready to go,” David translates softly, quirking a tiny smile to Adam and Brandon. Jon doesn’t comment. He’s looking back over his shoulder, at the cart and the glass coffin. Adam tries not to follow his gaze. It’s impossible to see into it, with how the cheerful sun reflects off the glass, but still.

“Soon,” Vero says and shoos at Jon gently. “Un cheval, s'il te plaît. Pour les enfants.”

Jon goes, grumbling only a little and Adam suspects mostly for show. David stays standing at Vero’s shoulder, less like a bodyguard and more like something to lean against.

Adam swallows. There’s still that pressure at the back of his eyes. He doesn’t want to know about this. Not really. He doesn’t want to know anything about this, what had been done to Flower, but not-knowing hasn’t done him a single fucking bit of good so far in this entire fucked up journey, so.

“What happened?” he asks, and forces his back straight when Vero’s gaze snaps to him with something only a shade less than an audible crack. “If… if you don’t mind me asking.”

Vero considers him.

“C'était un marionnette,” she says at last and then makes a face, the same face Adam imagines he’s also making. The language barrier face. “An, um… doll? With, tu sais… the string?”

“Puppet?” Brandon supplies, a tone of fascinated horror that Adam very much feels. Like, he’s pretty sure he knows what she’s talking about and he can’t stop thinking about the witch. The bloodless, limp flop of its corpse.

“Oui,” she says, nodding. “A… puppet. The Queen.”

“A Queen?” Brandon asks softly and Vero shrugs.

“Flower was good,” she says softly. “He said maybe, he could kill her. But he was a good man.”

Adam kind of wants to tell her to stop. He can’t make his mouth move, though, and she stops anyway. There’s a moment, a twitch of movement like maybe she wants to look over her shoulder but she doesn’t. She stands strong.

“I’m sorry,” Brandon says softly. Vero smiles. She isn’t looking at any of them.

“I thought, maybe,” she says. She's looking blindly at the ground and if she's seeing something it's definitely nothing there. “Maybe, if I am fast enough? Strong enough?”

“Veronique,” Jonathan calls from the head of the wagon. “C'est prêt, allons-y!”

“Oui, un moment,” Vero calls back. She doesn't look behind her. Her back is to the cargo. When she looks at Adam and Brandon her lips are a thin, bloodless line. “You cannot outrun a fairy tale.”

“Vero,” David says softly, and Vero lets him put a hand on her arm. She’s still standing tall. Impossibly straight and impossibly lovely and, even with David standing right next to her, impossibly alone.

“Be careful,” she says, “Flower worried for you.”

She pauses, considering, and the turn to her lips goes rueful and soft and wistful.

“Well,” she says. “He worried for the pretty one.”

“Hey,” Adam objects, and then feels awful about it for about half a second, and then Vero is laughing full and bright and he can’t feel bad at all after that. He can see why Flower loved her so much. When she smiles, even so tired and sad, he’s pretty sure he can hear angels sing.

“We will take the boys,” she says. “They will be cared for. Dieu voulant, we find their family. You may have the cottage. I don’t want it.”

“Thanks,” Adam says softly, and then Vero is gone and the cart is rumbling away with its horrible glass coffin and Adam doesn’t want to look at it, but he forces himself to wave madly at Andrei and Geno when they wave at him. They don’t need to see him being a messy fuck about this.

He realizes with a dull lack of surprise that he has somehow managed to acquire dadly feelings about the kids. Fuck.

The cart goes around the bend, out in the direction of the main road. It leaves them in the lovely, deserted garden all alone. Just him and Brandon, and Brandon’s hand in his.

“Get me inside,” Brandon grunts at last. He sounds hoarse. His eyes are bright and suspiciously damp, which Adam does not comment on. “My ankle hurts like fuck.”

-/-

The cottage feels like it’s already been abandoned, though its old inhabitants can’t have been gone for more than a few hours. All the furniture is still there, most of the decorations, but it just makes the holes where things obviously should be and aren’t anymore more obvious. Adam get Brandon settled by the fireplace and stokes a fire and makes them a perfunctory little dinner.

He’s missing the kids, not that he’s going to admit that out loud. He hates this cottage too, hates how all he can really think about is Flower and his words to Adam that night only a little over a week ago.

He hates fairy tales, he realizes with exactly zero fanfare.

“Brandon,” he says.

Brandon looks at him. It’s dark in the room except for the fire, it’s late into the evening. He looks fucking rough, pale and sad and lined with pain. Adam wants to smooth away the crease between his brows, push at the downward turn to his lips until Brandon laughs at him for trying and it makes all of that sadness go away.

He wants so much, and none of it has to do with whatever fairy tale is waiting to snatch him up at all.

“What?” Brandon asks at last. He’s a little hoarse, a lot tired.

“I,” Adam says and swallows and rubs at his mouth with the back of his hand for a moment. “I want to kiss you,” he admits at last.

Brandon draws in a quick, harsh breath.

“But your fairytale,” he begins after a beat. His voice is teetering and weak. He’s not meeting Adam’s eyes. He’s looking over Adam’s shoulder and abruptly Adam is so, so sick of this. Sick to the back of his teeth with what fairy tales have made him do, have made him see people do, sick of pretending he still wants one and wanting Brandon like this. Wanting him and not having him, because someday he’ll be dragged into a fairy tale.

“I don't want a fucking fairy tale,” he snaps. “I don't want this, I don’t want anything like this.”

Brandon's mouth snaps shut. His eyes are big, and dark, and stingingly vulnerable.

“I don’t want a happy ending.” Adam finishes lamely. “I want you. Stupid.”

Brandon doesn’t say anything.

It’s amazing how empty a house can feel even with two people in it, Adam thinks stupidly. It’s amazing how the echo of all the empty rooms around them is just pressing into his ears. It’s amazing how he can’t seem to draw a breath.

“So if you don’t want me anymore that’s, y’know, that’s something,” he fills in at last. Brandon closes his eyes and Adam can’t stop. He just keeps barfing words like he can’t stop. “Or if you never did and I was wrong, I don’t know, but I want you.”

“It’s not that,” Brandon says at last. It’s quiet. He doesn’t open his eyes. His eyelashes are so dark against his cheeks. “It’s not that I don’t want you. It’s not fucking that.”

“You gotta talk to me,” Adam answers immediately, desperately. “You need to tell me, I need to understand.”

Brandon’s eyes open.

“When the fairy tale took me,” he says, slowly, and Adam can’t breathe. Brandon stops again for another long moment, mouth working. Adam stares at him. He can’t make himself look away; Brandon’s still so gorgeous, the edges of his face gilded knife-sharp by firelight, the way his gaze flickers to Adam and then away, softened by the dark hemming them in together.

“It was… it was bad.”

“You don’t-,” Adam tries, stupidly, and Brandon shakes his head once, cutting him off.

“I knew I was gonna die,” he says, soft, eyes wild and dark. “It was the fairy tale, that I get eaten by the wolf. Everyone knew I was gonna die. But then I didn’t and you were there and you didn’t… you didn’t know I was gonna die and I thought maybe I could outrun it, and you’d never…”

Adam reaches out and touches the back of his hand where he’s bracing himself on the ground to keep himself upright. Brandon shivers visibly, eyes closing.

“You wouldn’t look at me like I was already dead, you know?” he finishes. “You just… you just talked to me.”

Adam hauls in a sharp, hurting breath. There’s nothing to say, for a long moment. He doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t know if there’s anything he could say.

He still hasn’t moved his hand.

“I won’t let you die,” he says, and he’s never meant anything more in his life than he means this.

Brandon laughs. It’s ragged, and ugly, and Adam wants to wash the sound out of Brandon’s mouth.

“The wolf’s gonna come,” he says. “You saw it.”

“I don’t care,” Adam says.

“I won’t let you die for me,” Brandon says, his voice thin and thready. “I won’t fucking let you die for me, I won’t let anyone die for me.”

“Shut up,” Adam says. His chest feels raw. He’s not sure how he’s even talking coherently, he can’t feel his tongue in his mouth. “Shut up, just get over here, shut up about dying.”

Brandon goes. His pupils are huge and the sun's gone down behind the trees, and lit up by the fire he looks luminous and other. His eyelashes are heavy on his cheeks when he blinks and he’s looking back at Adam like maybe he feels the same, like maybe there’s something there that’s making it just as hard to breathe.

He breathes in sharply when Adam reaches out and cups a palm against his cheek.

“Tell me to stop and I won’t ever try again,” Adam swears. He can’t get any volume out of himself but it doesn’t really matter; they’re so close he can hear the scuff of Brandon’s hands going to fists against his thighs. “Tell me and I’ll stop. Pinky swear.”

Brandon laughs. It’s surprised and rough and graceless.

“You’re so fuckin’ awful,” he mumbles. His eyes flutter closed and he turns his head to press his lips to Adam’s palm.

Adam’s probably gonna die of boner. He holds himself absolutely still anyway.

“You have to tell me,” he says.

Brandon laughs. It’s a ragged, sweet noise.

“I can’t,” he says. “You know I can’t,” and he slips a hand into Adam’s hair and kisses him.

For a moment it’s angry, a hint of teeth and Brandon’s nails in his hair, hot and wet and like lightning through Adam. it softens quickly. It’s everything and nothing like he remembers from the brief, rushed kiss in the woods, Brandon’s soft mouth and his sure hands holding Adam where he wants him. Adam sinks into it, a hand at Brandon’s shoulder, another on his hip as gentle as he can.

Brandon lets him go at last. He’s panting. His mouth is pink and wet and Adam can’t help himself, can’t stop himself from leaning in for another kiss.

“We can kill the wolf,” he says against Brandon’s mouth and Brandon shivers, his nails pressing sharp against Adam’s hair for a moment. “We killed the witch, we can kill the wolf.”

“You’re fucking crazy,” Brandon says, half-laughing, and his eyes are dark and shiningly-damp and he kisses Adam with desperation.

-/-

He doesn’t know what wakes him up.

It’s morning, almost, kind of. There’s dim, watery light spilling over the windowsill, it’s not even quite dawn, the sun not quite peeking over the horizon yet. He spends a few moments blinking at it blearily, trying to figure out why unease is gathering in his chest. There’s something wrong.

After a moment’s indistinct thought he turns over and hugs the pillow to his chest and squeezes his eyes shut. He’ll figure it out in the proper morning, when the sun’s come up. He’s tired and in a nice bed for once and he’s gonna sleep the fuck in.

He sits bolt upright and throws himself out of bed and lunges for his clothes, where they’d been thrown carelessly the night before.

His empty bed.

The house is echoing and cold and empty and he’s totally alone in it, hopping down the stairs on one foot trying to work the other through a constricting pant leg. Brandon’s things are still there, the backpack and his jacket and the food from the night before. Nothing’s missing but the bow and arrows. Those, and Brandon himself.

Adam’s pulse is pounding in the base of his throat, roaring in his ears. He can’t breathe, he can’t think, the only thing in him is the screaming need to find Brandon.

He grabs the sword as he blows past, kicks the door open and charges out into the clearing.

Even in the dim pre-dawn light the woods are glorious. Flower’s garden of flowers are a riot of rainbow color, the grass of the clearing lush and emerald, the green of the trees rich and oversaturated. Unbearably magnificent, it nearly overshadows the shabby, slight shape of Brandon and the wolf in front of him.

It looks nothing like a wolf anymore. It looks-

It’s very hard to look at directly.

There’s a wolf in there, or the idea of a wolf. Adam can make out teeth. Teeth, and cold yellow eyes, and a hint of fur. It’s moving, though it’s hard to say how, prowling back and forth in front of Brandon.

“Brandon!” he shouts, and Brandon twitches but doesn’t turn. He’s standing in his perfect shooting stance, bow drawn and steady and absolutely insignificant in the face of the wolf.

“Why didn’t you stay the fuck in bed?” Brandon demands, voice low and carrying too well in the silent space between them. Adam hauls in a breath to shout something at him, probably something with a lot of swearing in it-

The wolf howls. Adam can feel it vibrating in his bones, bubbling in his ear drums, and he takes off at a flat sprint towards Brandon as the wolf surges forward.

Adam dives, sends both of them sprawling out of the way just in time. The wolf swipes at where Brandon had been a moment ago. Adam rolls to his feet. Brandon’s struggling on his broken ankle, up on his knees, bow useless in his hand.

Adam dives to the side and slashes clumsily at the wolf, trying to keep its attention. It snarls again, wet bubbling noise. It’s too big, size working against it in the trees as it tries to turn to track him. The footing is shit in the mud and the flowers.

“Go away!” Brandon screams, and the wolf whirls in his direction. Adam swears and stabs blindly in its direction until it snarls and spins back towards him.

It’s so hard to see. He throws himself back as a paw slams into the tree trunk next to him.

“Fuck you!” he screams back, diving behind the tree and out of reach for the moment. “You left me!”

The wolf spins away again, back towards Brandon. There’s an arrow in its back.

“You’re not gonna die for me!” Brandon shouts back, yells wordlessly. The wolf dives at him and Adam can barely see him dodging into the trees. The bow isn’t in his hand.

Adam darts behind the wolf again, strikes out at where the spine might be, maybe, if he could see it, if it even has a spine. It shrieks again and spins so fast.

The sword is ripped out of his hand and he staggers back, clumsy in the mud, dodges desperately for another tree and doesn’t make it.

A paw catches him in the chest, quick strike throwing him flat on his back. All air leaves in a rush. He can’t breathe. Lights spark at the corners of his vision. Brandon’s screaming somewhere above him and the wolf turns again.

He coughs in air and forces himself to his feet.

The bow is a foot away, arrows scattered next to it. Adam throws himself to them, scooping up an arrow, nocking and drawing clumsily with shaking hands. He sights from his knees in the direction of the wolf and prays desperately.

“Wolf!” he shouts and the nightmare turns to look at him. “Fuck you!”

He looses the arrow and it sprouts in the wolf’s eye. It screams like a human.

It rears up, huge, a shifting nightmare thing that’s all Adam can see. Nothing like a wolf at all anymore, a monster bigger than the world. He looks up at the claws reaching for him and then all he can see is the back of Brandon’s shirt.

Brandon drives Adam’s abandoned sword up under the wolf’s jaw, up through the roof of its mouth. A wet, organic crunch and no blood, the wolf thrashing and knocking Brandon to the ground, and then it’s staggering and toppling into the mud. It’s dead. The wolf is dead.

Adam pants for air. The woods are silent around them.

The flowers are a mess, now. A sea of churned-up mud and ruined petals and torn-up grass poking up around them, and the corpse of the wolf a few feet away.

It looks small, now. It looks like a doll of a wolf, barely the size of a large dog.

Adam rolls over and stares up at the sky for a moment. The sun is coming up and the sky is offensively blue, fluffy white clouds making their slow, meandering way from one horizon to the other. The smell of the flowers is nearly overpowering around them, heavy and earthy and sweet. He hauls a greedy, wheezing breath into abused lungs and it’s beautiful.

“We did it,” he wheezes. “We killed the wolf.”

Brandon starts to laugh. It’s hysterical, joyful, absolutely gorgeous and suddenly Adam can’t stand not to be kissing him, so he turns over and crawls painfully through the mud to him and collapses right on top of him.

They’re both filthy. When Adam smears a messy kiss across Brandon’s mouth, that’s definitely mud, and it’s probably the best thing he’s ever tasted.

Brandon’s still laughing when Adam pulls back to breathe.

“You worried about getting stuck in a happily ever after with me?” he asks challengingly. There’s something fragile in the way he holds his shoulders. Adam kind of wishes he hadn’t gotten kicked quite that hard in the chest earlier; he’s still breathless and it’s making it hard to mock Brandon properly. “Saved my life a coupla times. Kinda knightly of you.”

“You?” Adam says hoarsely, nudging his nose against Brandon’s. “A princess? Fuckin’ joke.”

Brandon punches him in the shoulder. As far as happily-ever-afters go, Adam’s pretty happy and he’s gonna work on the rest of it. No fairy tale needed, thanks.