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Sir Charming

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The wizard is dead and his dragon takes flight toward the mountains, screeching in pain and defeat. Bob's dragon rises up on her hind legs, her enormous, slow-beating wings supporting her stance at the expense of knocking down a burning turret as she roars triumphantly.

Bob ducks beneath her belly to avoid the flaming stone crashing down in the courtyard all around them.

"Yes, we know, you're badass," he yells. "But maybe strut your stuff later, after we're out of this hellhole, okay?"

His voice isn't nearly loud enough to carry over the combined thunder of dragon and raging fire, but speech is just a habit, not a necessity. Thaxter hears his intentions and worry; she stops roaring, puffing smoke and making the gruff humming sounds she always makes when she's all wound up from battle as she comes down. Her forefeet alight with a solid thud on the cobblestones and she tucks her wings in and dips a shoulder so he can climb on.

He's just about to heave himself up when he hears a shout.

Unsheathing his sword and readying his shield, Bob turns, expecting another onslaught. Instead he sees a boy dressed in a page's livery, running toward them from the base of the castle's tallest tower.

"Wait," the boy shouts. "Wait, don't go!"

He dodges falling rock and spits of fire with fantastic ease, seeming to go right through them.

(A little part of Bob's mind believes the boy really is going through them; but the rest of his mind points out the fact that he is bleeding freely from several gashes and got knocked on the head a couple of times during the fight, and is not exactly seeing straight at the moment).

As the boy approaches and sees that he's got Bob's attention (as well as that of Bob's dragon, but that doesn't seem to faze the boy at all, which is also strange), he stops and points back to the tall tower.

"There's someone up there," he calls out. "He's locked in, you have to help him!"

Bob looks up the tower, where the wizard fire that keeps the castle walls burning despite the fact that there's nothing left but inflammable rock creeps inexorably toward the tower. Bob wavers -- he's not a saint, okay, he's just a knight, and he's been under siege in that damned abandoned castle for a couple of days. He's tired and he hurts and he's really had enough of heroics for a while.

"Ah hell," he mutters. To Thaxter he says, with words and mind, "Meet me at that topmost window."

He points and Thaxter follows his gesture and the image in his mind's eye and peers at the tower; she rumbles an affirmative. Bob takes off after the page, who is already headed back to the tower. As soon as Bob has hobble-run far enough away, Thaxter spreads her wings and leaps into the air.

The wizard had sent invisible blades and snakes of fire against Bob, and he'd taken a few hits. One gleaming flick of magically sharpened air had opened a wound on his thigh. Between that, a few ribs that felt slightly broken, the bright pain of several burns and his throbbing head, pounding up a dozen floors worth of winding stairs just about does Bob in.

Finally they reach the top of the stairs. Bob stops and sags against the wall, wheezing heavily. The page doesn't seem to notice.

"Through this door," the page says.

For the quick moment while Bob catches his breath, he gives the page a look-over. On the short side, dark hair, big eyes, not nearly as young as Bob had first thought. He seems to blur around the edges, but again Bob thinks that's just his own sight failing him as his exhaustion and wounds catch up with him. Still, everything about the page, skin, clothes, boots, even hair, are strangely pale. Everything but his eyes, which are dark and eerily intense.

Shoving off the wall, Bob says, "All right." Then he pauses, squinting at the door. "Hang on. I don't see a lock."

The page shakes his head, and Bob gets an impression of dark hue in the tumble of his hair over his forehead. "It's not the door. It's -- you'll see. You have to go in, though."

Bob hesitates again, this time because he suddenly wonders if this could be a trap. Perhaps some kind of spell left by the wizard, to play out in the event of his death.

But the page's expression, which so far has been determinedly calm, as if holding in his fear, breaks, and he looks momentarily desperate.

"Please," he says, so quietly his voice nearly doesn't carry over the crackle of fire on the stairs below. "We've watched over him all these years, waiting for someone to free him. We can't watch him die like this."

Hoisting his shield to his chest with a stifled groan, Bob makes a resigned face.

"Get out of the way," he says.

He stalks forward, lays his hand on the heavy door handle, twists; bracing himself, he shoves the door open.

Nothing happens, other than a puff of still, stale air brushing his face like a sigh.

Beyond the door, the room is mostly dark. Several windows surround the open space; Bob can see night sky and the occasional flicker of firelight. And there, passing from window to window, a dark shape that blocks out the stars. The scales on Thaxter's midnight black hide catch light from the fire and glint like diamonds.

In the center of the room is a bed. Once there must have been a canopy over it, and perhaps curtains around it to protect the occupant from drafts. But like everything else in the room -- like the castle itself -- the bed has fallen into disrepair. Rags hang from the couple of canopy bars still intact. There's an air of dust and abandonment.

For a moment Bob is absolutely sure this is a wizard's trap. He's been lured to a room of death, and something is going to draw him unwillingly to that bed, pull him in, soothe him to helpless sleep until the tower falls and takes him down with it.

A light beside him makes him flinch.

"Sorry," the page says. "I thought you could use the light."

He holds up a candle holder. The candle burns mostly yellow, though Bob thinks there may be sparks of green and blue at the flame's heart. Wizard colors.

The tower shudders suddenly, the walls below them weakening from the fire. The page's expression turns terrified. He pushes the candle at Bob.

"Here, take it. Take it and go get him."

Bob snatches at the candle holder, because the page is shoving it right in his face. The brass holder and stub of wax had appeared as ephemeral as the page, and Bob is a little shocked to find it solid and real. And to find that it does nothing to him at all when he touches it. Doesn't turn him to stone or immolate him on the spot.

"That's encouraging, I guess," he says to himself.

Crossing to the bed, quickly but keeping an eye on his surroundings, he finds the bed occupied. He'd expected to; but he'd expected to find a corpse.

The body in the bed is not deceased, though. It's a young man, perhaps a little younger than the page. This boy's dark hair is truly dark, heavy and curling slightly on his forehead and over his ears. His mouth is full, and his dark eyelashes lay against cheeks flush with life.

"Oh." For a moment Bob can only stand there. "This...isn't what I was expecting."

The boy is fast asleep, and doesn't even twitch at Bob's words. Outside the tower, Thaxter bellows anxiously; not even that makes the boy stir. Flickers of blue and green play about him, like faint threads of lightning. Bob knows instinctively that no amount of shaking or shouting will wake this boy up.

Bob sets the candle on the floor, well away from the ancient bedclothes, and shifts his shield to hang on his back. Then he leans over and presses his palm against the boy's chest. And he sighs.

Under a spelled sleep the boy may be, but he is also definitely alive. Bob can't leave him in the tower to die.

But when he bends to slip his arms beneath the boy, the page says, "No, you can't do that."

Bob pauses and looks at him. "Well, what the hell do you want me to do, then? If you want me to save him, I have to get him to my dragon."

But the page is shaking his head.

"If you take him from that bed asleep, he'll die. You have to wake him up."

A trickle of foreboding runs down Bob's spine. "Wake him up how?"

For a moment, the page looks uncomfortable.

"Er," the page says. "Well. You'll have to...kiss him?"

Bob stares at the page.

The page shifts from foot to foot. "Just a little kiss will probably do it..."

Bob stares at the page a moment longer, until a rumble sounds below and the tower sways dangerously.

"Are you fucking serious?" Bob says. "This is one of those things? With the magical kissing?"

The page raises his hands apologetically and nods. "Sorry."

"Great," Bob mutters to himself, and then says to the page. "So what happens if the kiss doesn't work?"

"I'm trying not to think about that," the page mutters back.

Dragging a hand tiredly down his face, Bob stifles a groan. "Okay. What happens if it does work? Like, to me? Do I --" he waves a hand. "Turn into a frog or something?"

The page raises an eyebrow, his worry tempered with amusement. "No, that's a different magical kiss situation. Also, you'd have to be a frog first, and the kiss would --"

"Okay, fine, right, no frogs." Bob plants his hands on his hips and looks down at the boy. For someone who has been magically comatose for god knew how many years, the boy is...lovely. Bob can't really think of another word for it. Not conventionally handsome; not pretty the way women and some men can be. But...lovely.

The tower shudders and sways again, and Thaxter's calls get more desperate. Bob can see the tower in her mind's eye, nearly engulfed in flames.

"Ah, hell with it," Bob says.

He bends down and plants a kiss on the sleeping boy's mouth.

The mouth is warm, thankfully, and it doesn't take long for the kiss to get a reaction. The lips part beneath Bob's, letting out a soft gasp. When Bob draws back, he sees the boy's eyes flutter open. Dark eyes -- lovely dark eyes, and yes, maybe Bob's vocabulary is a bit lacking, but the word just happens to fit.

He hears the page take a deep, relieved breath. "Thank god."

The boy flounders weakly on the bed, looking around and trying to sit up. His limbs won't cooperate though. Bob catches him around the shoulders, murmuring, "Careful, I've got you," and helps him stand. Mostly stand. Well, sort of stand, but mostly lean on Bob.

The boy looks up at him blearily, curiously, and tries to say something. His words come out slurred and incomprehensible, and the disconcerted expression that crosses the boy's face almost makes Bob laugh. The boy continues to try to speak as they stagger gracelessly to a window, trying out sounds and mumbling nonsensical sentences and -- weirdly -- humming through a couple of scales.

Bob ignores him. They get to the window just as the tower lurches. The floor tilts, and they crash against the wall beside the window. Bob groans as his entire body protests the abuse, and prepares to hoist them both onto the window ledge. He shouts over his shoulder to the page, "Come on. Thaxter can carry us all."

But when he glances at the page, what he sees startles him enough that he is momentarily frozen in place.

The page is glowing. He's becoming more and more indistinct, too, and all around him other figures melt out of the walls and move to stand beside him -- men and women, girls and boys. One tall boy slings an arm around the page's shoulders; another slender boy crosses his arms across his chest, all nonchalance except for the smile he can't entirely hide.

"Don't worry about us," the page says. "We'll be fine. We're free now too -- thanks for that, by the way."

As the whole crowd fades to nearly nothing Bob hears the page's voice one last time, whispery and thin.

"His name is Brendon. Bring him back to see us when he remembers. We'll be here."

*

Bob is not the kind of guy to ditch a homeless, amnesiac kid.

Well, he sort of is, but only if he could find someone he trusted to look after Brendon. But his mom is busy running the family forge, Brian is knee deep in baby dragons that need training, and Worm just laughs in Bob's face.

Bert and his guys are more than happy to take Brendon in, but Bob knows for a fact that when he made it back to the village to check up on Brendon in a few months, the kid would have a million tattoos, would have forgotten how to bathe, and would have learned more about sex than any normal, Bob-like person could learn in a lifetime.

Bob knows this because Jepha tells him. Bob believes him, too.

So Bob is stuck with Brendon for a while.

*

It works out okay. Brendon was apparently a prince in his previous life, but his memories of the time before Bob woke him in the tower are sketchy. And Brendon is friendly and eager to please, and in the end makes a decent sidekick.

Thaxter completely falls in love with him. Bob does not.

Absolutely not. In no way whatsoever does Bob fall in love with him.

Not on purpose, anyway.

*

Things click into place in Brendon's Swiss cheese memory almost a year after the kiss in the tower, and he asks to go home. Against Bob's better judgment -- the castle will be in ruins, and all of the people Brendon remembers have been dead since before the wizard wars; Bob saw their ghosts, saw them fade away -- Bob takes him.

"Huh," Bob says.

"That doesn't really look the way you said it would look," Brendon says, tilting his head and squinting as if that might make the landscape look different.

"Yeah," Bob says. He scratches his chin and taps his fingertips on the pommel of his sword. "I...have no idea."

Thaxter picks up on Bob's confusion and offers a mental shrug. She has no clue either.

The three of them stand on the hilltop in silence for a few more moments, watching the activity in the valley below. Behind them, the castle is a tumbled-down skeleton of its former glory as expected.

Before them, though, where there used to be an empty ghost town, barren and bleak thanks to some kind of ancient curse, is a bustling village, full of life and activity. Fresh-turned earth in fields all around show hints of Spring green; the little homes and workshops are newly thatched and painted bright, cheerful colors.

Someone has planted a flower garden in such a way that from their vantage point it looks like a big, lush rose. Someone else has built a winding path through half the village of colorful stone, made to look like a serpent.

Bob shakes his head, and tries to think of something to say. People have already moved into Brendon's village, taken over his past before he had a chance to mourn it. He can't even imagine what that must feel like.

But when he looks at Brendon, Brendon's face is lit up with a bright smile. Bob's breath catches the way it always does when Brendon smiles -- because smiles do amazing things to Brendon's face.

Not that it means anything, the way things like that make Bob short of breath. He gets short of breath other times, too, like when he's tired or been fighting for a long time. It's because he smokes too much...

He makes a face at himself, because who the hell is he kidding. He knows there's something wrong with himself and honestly, Brendon isn't the only one who hopes to get some answers here.

"So..." Bob says.

Brendon turns his smile on Bob; Bob pretends not to notice the warm, shivery feeling he gets in his stomach.

"This is how I remember it," Brendon says. "Well, not exactly. Things do look different. The village looks smaller. Not as many fields put in." His smile fades. "They probably had to start from scratch after the curse was lifted."

Before Bob can say anything, Brendon glances at him, and this time his smile is wry, if still a little sad. "I know, I know, we've been over this a million times. Not my fault."

"Yeah," Bob says. He's maybe a little gruff when he says it, but it's either be gruff or give in to his ridiculous and completely out-of-character urge to give Brendon a hug. "Now try believing it."

Brendon just sighs, and shakes his head, looking back down at the village. Suddenly his eyes light up.

"Bob, Bob --" He grab's Bob's arm and gives it an excited shake, and points down the hill. "It's them. It's them."

Bob squints, trying to make out the figures coming up the path toward the castle. He'd figured it was just a matter of time until someone showed interest in himself and Thaxter and Brendon, since he'd deliberately had Thaxter circle over the village a couple of times to announce their presence.

The three individuals who've come to meet them look indistinct and interchangeable to Bob, but there's clearly something about them that Brendon sees, that tells him who they are.

"You should probably go say hi," Bob says.

For a moment, Brendon hesitates, still gripping Bob's arm. He's got his lower lip caught between his teeth and he's worrying at it.

"Do you think they'd really want to see me?" he says. "I mean. Considering what happened to them because of --"

Bob lays a hand over Brendon's on his arm, and squeezes lightly. "Because of the evil wizard who cursed your whole village, castle and all. And yes. They told me to bring you back when you remembered. They wouldn't have done that if they didn't want to see you. So." He gently loosens Brendon's grip from his arm, and gives him a thump on the shoulder. "Go."

Brendon looks at Bob then, and his eyes go warm and his expression softens. It's an expression Bob has seen a lot lately, directed at himself pretty exclusively, and he wonders, not for the first time, if Brendon had always looked at him like that and he just hadn't noticed.

Or possibly there's some kind of magical whammy turning me into a fucking sap, Bob thinks miserably.

Feeling pink begin to creep up his cheeks, Bob makes a face at Brendon, and rolls his eyes. "For god's sake, you smarmy motherfucker. Go."

Brendon makes a face back, but tempers it with a huge, excited grin just before he starts down the hill.

*

Bob sticks to the hilltop with Thaxter while Brendon and his friends have their reunion. With no traffic to and from the castle for so many years, the hilltop is thick with grass and wildflowers. Between the cushiony flora and the bright, mid-summer sun, Thaxter barely lasts a quarter of an hour before yawning hugely and settling down for a nap.

Bob sits beside her, leaning against her neck and turning random blades of grass into confetti. He has no idea how to ask the question he wants to ask, or who in the village he should even ask. Preferably someone who won't laugh in his face. He'd hate to have to strangle one of Brendon's friends, after all.

Eventually he hears his name called, so he stands up. He expects Brendon to come up and say that he's staying there with his friends. Bob's been preparing himself for the day when that happened, ever since Brendon's memories started filtering back. He's a little pissed off about how hard it's been to convince himself that he'll be glad to be rid of Mr. Sunny Cheerful Sings and Talks All Fucking Day Even When It's Ass Cold and Snowing.

Anyway. Just so long as Bob can find a village elder or someone like that to talk to before he leaves. Without Brendon.

But Brendon waves at him, motions for him to come down the hill. It's not what Bob expects, so he just stands there stupidly for a moment.

One of Brendon's friends says something to the others, and then starts walking up the hill toward Bob. As he gets closer, Bob recognizes him -- it's the ghostly page, except that he's not so ghostly anymore. Now the page is entirely corporeal, with actual dark hair and clearly defined edges. He's also barefoot -- by choice, since he's got a pair of boots tied at the laces and slung over his shoulder.

"Hey," the page says as he comes within speaking range.

"You," Bob says. He doesn't mean to sound as ominous as he does, but this is much better than some random village elder. This is the asshole who got Bob magically whammied in the first place.

The page hears the warning note in Bob's voice, and just smiles. "Me," he agrees.

Bob waits until he gets closer, because this is something he doesn't want anyone else to hear.

"You said," he whispers loudly. "That nothing would happen to me if I kissed him."

The page blinks at him. "Yeah, I suppose I did. Um. Did something happen to you?"

Bob glares. "Yes, something fucking happened to me."

He peers over the page's shoulder to make sure Brendon is still far enough away that he can't hear. Then he gets a handful of the front of the page's shirt and yanks him close.

"It was a true love curse, wasn't it," Bob growls. "And now I'm cursed to -- to --" Bob scowls. He hates saying this shit out loud. "--to be in love with him."

Surprise flashes across the page's face, and then he smiles, all big and sappy.

"You're in love with Brendon?" He slaps Bob companionably on the arm. "Dude, that's awesome! Because Brendon is awesome, and he totally deserves to be happy, especially after --"

Bob clamps a hand over the page's mouth to shut him up.

"It. Is. A. Curse." Bob says. "It's not real. And if you can't tell me how to break the curse, you can kiss your front teeth goodbye."

It's an empty threat, since Bob is not the kind of jackass knight who goes around clobbering random people just because he's got the big sword and the dragon. Even if the random person in question totally suckered him into getting cursed.

And the page apparently sees right through him because he doesn't look the least bit fazed. He tugs Bob's hand down, still smiling.

"Nah, dude, sorry." He shakes his head. "It was a one-way curse. Some worthy person makes it through the wizard's defenses and kisses Brendon, and the wizard's curse gets broken. He gets his life back, all of his disembodied subjects get their lives back, and that's it. Nothing in the fine print about the kisser getting any kind of whammy put on him in return."

He pats Bob's arm again, this time sympathetically.

"Which means that if you're in love, you're just...in love."

Bob glares speechlessly at him. The kid is lying. He has to be. Because Bob is absolutely not actually in love with Brendon.

"But I'm not," he says. Then he repeats it more firmly. "I'm not in love with him."

The page hm's thoughtfully as he pries Bob's fingers from his shirt.

"Well. You mind telling me why you're so sure about that?"

Bob lets go of the page and waves his hands aimlessly. "Because. Because. Because -- he's not my type. He's cheerful all the fucking time. He never shuts up. Whenever we camp anywhere near a field of flowers he braids them into my hair during his watch, while I'm sleeping. Shut up --"

Bob shoves the page, who is snickering at him.

"I'm serious," Bob snaps. "He drives me crazy. He's completely unlike anybody I've ever met, and half the time I have no idea what to even do with him. He's -- he's all --" Bob waves his hands around helplessly, hoping that gets the point across. "You know? The only way I could have fallen in love with him is if I was cursed, dammit."

But the page isn't moved by Bob's impassioned speech, because he just gives Bob a half-apologetic, half-amused smile and says, "Yeah, sorry, but the only magic happening here is --"

Bob draws himself up to his full height and gets into the page's face. "If you say 'the kind that happens when two people fall in love' I will kill you so dead."

The page laughs. "Dude, you're hilarious."

One of Brendon's other friends shouts for them (for the page, anyway, and Bob finally gets a name for little bastard); the page -- Jon -- turns and acknowledges the shout with a tilt of his head.

"Hey," he says to Bob. "I actually came up here to invite you down to the village. There's going to be a huge party to welcome Brendon back, and everybody will want to meet you seeing as you're the guy who saved us all from another boring hundred years as phantoms." He leans sideways just enough to smile at Thaxter. "Your dragon is welcome too. I bet we can rustle up some cows for her if she's hungry."

At the word 'cows' Thaxter raises her head. Smoke puffs from her nostrils when she makes a questioning sound that echoes hopefully in Bob's head.

Bob groans. "Great. Now I have to stay. She's not going to let me leave until she's got a belly full of beef."

"Awesome!"

Jon thumps Bob on the arm again; Bob refrains from breaking his hand. Bob is not a touchy-feely guy. He has gotten used to Brendon's penchant for hugs and habit of snuggling up to him in his sleep, but other people need to stay out of his fucking personal space.

Grudgingly, Bob follows as Jon starts down the hill. He starts plotting again to find the village elder -- who hopefully won't lie his ass off like Jon clearly did -- but a few steps down the hill, it hits him:

He's gotten used to Brendon's hugging and snuggling.

He stops, staring at the toes of his boots, and tries to remember the last time he pried Brendon off of him instead of patiently hugging him back, or the last time he woke up mad because even though he'd made Brendon sleep on the other side of the damned fire Brendon still managed to end up spooned against Bob's back on Bob's sleep pallet.

He can't really remember. It's been a while.

A familiar feeling wells up -- that mix of frustration and anger at being manipulated by magic, and that little twist in his gut because deep down he wishes it were real.

Bob looks up and watches Jon continuing away from him. Brendon has noticed Bob isn't following. Bob can see the way his eyebrows draw together in concern; one of Brendon's friends is saying something, and Brendon holds up a hand, and then touches his friend's shoulder in apology before moving away, back up the hill toward Bob.

The twist in Bob's stomach turns into a little shiver, a tiny, selfish thrill that Brendon is concerned enough to leave his friends for a moment on his behalf. Bob feels a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, but he holds it back.

There's a pause when Brendon passes Jon -- a quick word between them, and whatever Jon says makes Brendon's concern turn to confusion. Then he continues up to Bob.

He waits until he's close enough to be heard when he says quietly, "Bob? Is everything okay?" He hesitates, then adds, "You're coming to the village, right? Jon told you that you're invited, didn't he?"

"He did," Bob says, and then pauses.

His pause obviously makes Brendon uncomfortable, so instead of giving himself a chance to consider his words, Bob just says outright, "How good a liar is your friend Jon?"

Brendon just blinks at him for a moment. He glances over his shoulder at Jon, and then back at Bob.

"You...think Jon lied to you about something?"

Bob shrugs. "I don't know. Is he a good liar?"

Brendon looks miserably uncomfortable now. "No. I mean, if he looked and sounded like he was lying...um, yeah. He probably was." Wincing, like he doesn't really want to know, he asks, "What did he lie about?"

"Nothing," Bob says. He smiles when Brendon looks dubious. "Really. As far as I could tell he was telling the absolute truth."

Brendon lets his breath out in a relieved whoosh and says, "Oh thank god. You would definitely have been able to tell if he was lying, so, yes, that's good." He hesitates again. "Um. That is good, right?"

Bob's smile fades.

The thing is, he's not cursed, which in principle is certainly good.

But now he doesn't have to try to fool himself that he won't miss Brendon when he has to leave Brendon here with his friends. He knows he will, and he knows it's because somehow, somewhere along the line, he fell in love with the little spaz. He fell in love with Brendon's cheeriness and smile, with his ridiculous songs, with his non-stop chatter, with his easy affection. He fell in love with the fact that even though he pretends to be gruff and annoyed and rolls his eyes at the goofy things Brendon does, Brendon makes him want to smile and laugh.

He feels Brendon's hand slip into his. It's warm, and it's rough -- calloused from work that Brendon never once complained about having to do. Bob remembers sitting with Brendon that first day, keeping him calm and trying to explain as best he could what had happened. He remembers taking in Brendon's fine clothes and smooth, perfectly groomed hands, and wondering what the hell he was going to do with a pampered, amnesiac prince who had slept through a hundred years of war and change.

Brendon had surprised him, though. In all kinds of ways.

"You're kind of freaking me out," Brendon says softly. He tries to say it with a laugh, but his eyes are worried when Bob meets them.

"Sorry," Bob says. He gives Brendon's hand a squeeze, and then pulls his hand away. "I was just thinking. Thinking that..."

He flounders a moment, not sure what to say -- he can't say what he's really thinking, that he's just realized he's in love and it's breaking his heart. On one hand that would be unfair to Brendon, because Brendon is exactly the kind of big-hearted kid who would feel terrible to be the reason someone is sad, and possibly even feel guilty for not returning Bob's feelings.

On the other hand, Bob is absolutely sure he could not even force himself to form those words. He'd feel like an idiot, saying sappy stuff like that.

A sudden rush of wind makes them both stagger, and they look up to see Thaxter fly not two feet above them on her way toward the village. She rumbles and snaps her tail cheekily at them as she goes by.

"I was just thinking," Bob says. "That Thaxter is going to miss you when we leave." He makes himself smile. "I think she's gotten used to the way you still fall for it when she snakes her tail out and trips you during her baths. Even though she's done it a million times."

Brendon doesn't smile back.

"When you leave," Brendon repeats. He crosses his arms over his chest. "Without me. Right. Yeah, I'll miss her too."

Clearing his throat, and refusing to meet Bob's eyes, Brendon turns away to start back down the hill.

"We should probably get down there," he says. "They're waiting for us."

"Brendon --" Not even thinking, Bob reaches out and catches Brendon's arm to stop him. "Hey."

The way his heart was breaking just a second ago at the thought of having to leave Brendon behind is nothing to the way it crumbles into a hundred pieces at the smile Brendon can't quite manage.

"Yeah, I know," Brendon said. "She'll miss me, and...and we should go --"

He tries to pull away but Bob doesn't let him.

"Brendon," he says again, except it sounds ridiculous, confused and pleading. Bob drops his hand from Brendon's arm and rests it on the pommel of his sword. The cool, solid metal against his palm is a small comfort. "I just thought. You are staying here, aren't you? I thought that's why we came, to bring you home. Because this is your home."

Bob looks around them. Yes, the castle is in ruins, but all of Brendon's people -- his friends -- are alive and well in the village below. With the wizard's curse lifted it's a lovely country, too, full of sunshine and blue skies and hillsides covered with flowers.

Brendon fits here, Bob thinks. He belongs here, not out living in the woods and filthy inns, scrubbing my dragon and patching me up after battles.

Brendon is looking around too.

"It is my home," he says. "I guess. I mean, of course it is. The memories feel so far away still, but." He half shrugs, running a hand uncertainly through his hair. "I do remember it. I remember growing up here. It's my home." He hesitates, then says more softly. "But I guess I felt like my home was with you too."

And then the silence draws out again, because again Bob has no idea what to say.

Brendon deflates a little at Bob's lack of response, and pastes on the weak smile again.

"But you're right," he says. He tries to make it sound cheerful, but Bob knows very well what real cheerful-Brendon sounds like. This is a very pale impression. "Of course I'm going to stay. I really will miss Thaxter, and I do appreciate you both helping me out and lugging me around with you, I know it wasn't exactly easy doing your knight-and-dragon thing with me slowing you down, talking your ear off, getting in the w--"

Bob doesn't think this time either. He reaches for Brendon again, steps forward to close the distance between them, and pulls Brendon to him.

Maybe Bob can't explain in words everything running around in his head, but he can put it all into a kiss -- at least he hopes so -- he tries, anyway.

It's so different from that first kiss. The first one happened with the world falling down around them in flames and Brendon held suspended by the cruel curse. This one starts the same -- with Brendon frozen in place, mouth warm but unresponsive until suddenly he moves -- but instead of the kiss ending, it goes on.

Brendon moves, but not to push Bob away like Bob is afraid he might. Instead, Brendon struggles just enough to get his arms out from where they're trapped between their chests. Then he flings them around Bob's neck and clings, and he responds to the kiss with even more insistence and desperation than Bob had started it with.

Eventually they have to break, because they're both breathless and Bob, at least, is starting to get a little dizzy. Brendon starts talking as soon as he sucks in enough air, of course.

"Oh wow, I've been wanting to do that but I didn't think you -- I thought, I thought you would get mad or think I was being creepy and whoa, wow, that was really good, by the way, but -- oh no, were you just doing that because you felt sorry for me or because I wouldn't shut up again, or --"

Bob snorts a laugh and claps a hand over Brendon's mouth and -- amazingly -- Brendon stops talking.

For a moment they just look at each other. Bob knows he's smiling like a big sap, but this time he doesn't try to hide it. He's been fighting the thought of being in love for so long, and it's a relief to just let it be.

Brendon does reach up to move Bob's hand, though. He tugs gently, sliding Bob's hand down away from his mouth, and he's got that soft expression on his face again. Bob feels his face grow warm, and he knows it means he's turning red because Brendon breaks into a grin and laughs at him.

Scrubbing a hand down his face -- like that would actually turn the heat down in his face -- Bob grumbles, "Shut up."

"Sorry," Brendon says, not sounding the least bit apologetic.

And then they stand there staring at each other again, which is ridiculous so Bob shakes his head and says, "So, we should probably go down and see your friends."

Brendon nods, still smiling. "You're right. We should."

Flicking a glance over Brendon's shoulder, Bob says, "Because they're all standing down there watching us."

Brendon's eyebrows go up. "Are they really?"

Bob sighs and nods. "Whole damn village, as far as I can tell."

Brendon turns around, and laughs and waves at everybody. They all wave back. Bob thinks he hears a few catcalls and "way to go, Brendon"s, and he wonders if it's too late to call Thaxter back and escape to a pub far, far away where people will not give him shit all night long about this.

When Brendon turns back to him, his smile is a little more subdued, but still warm. "So. No leaving without me, right?"

In the deep, pragmatic -- maybe pessimistic -- part of his heart, Bob knows it's not as easy as that. The pull of home, of friends and familiarity, can be pretty strong. He knows that ultimately Brendon might decide to stay, and Bob wouldn't be able to stay with him.

But he says, "No leaving without you," because for now, at least, he has no intention of going anywhere.

*