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a bit of happiness

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Ben was the head of their new PR department. Ben was also the only person working in their new PR department. Hansel insisted that they didn’t need a PR department, but Ben just reminded him of the reception they’d received at his village. Sure, the mayor had hired them to find the missing children, but the Sheriff had been outright hostile, and the townsfolk almost as frightened of them as of the witch (witches, as it turned out) that had stolen their children.

Gretel refused to get involved in their ‘lover’s spat’ and Hansel was forced to concede the point when the townsfolk of the next village they entered pelted them with rotten tomatoes before they could even introduce themselves. And then pelted them with more rotten produce after they had.

Ben didn’t gloat. At least, not after Hansel had ‘accidentally’ tripped him into a nettle bush. Ben got poked by little stickers hidden in his clothes for days.

When they’d first invited him along, Gretel had hoped to turn over the food preparation to Ben, but he was even worse at burning water than either of them. (Edward turned out to have a knack for it, though.) Ben did take over haggling for food at the markets because he insisted that carrying the largest weapon they owned and baring his teeth in a smile wasn’t a form of negotiation that would endear them to the townsfolk.

As part of his duties as head of their new PR department, Ben gave interviews to the local newspapers. His scrapbook of all things Hansel and Gretel came in handy for those. He also drew up posters featuring likenesses of Hansel and Gretel and posted them in the villages they passed through, whether they had work there or not.

Ben always seemed to have a pad in his hand, fingers smudged grey from the pencil as he drew one or the other of them. Sometimes Ben looked a little too long, and Hansel would flex his muscles, or take his time pulling his shirt back on after a wash, until Ben got flustered and looked away.

Ben also watched him closely after a battle, but Hansel didn’t think too much of it because Ben sometimes looked at Gretel the same way. It was merely hero worship, he thought. Ben might’ve been perfectly willing – especially when he had a little adrenaline running through his veins, as well – but it wouldn’t have been right to use Ben like that, not when he was part of their team now and couldn’t be left behind when Hansel and Gretel moved on to the next village, the next hunt.

That didn’t stop Hansel from imagining it, though – shutting up Ben’s constant prattle about one thing or another with his cock, the wet heat of his mouth, the wide eyes when Hansel nudged the head of his cock into Ben’s throat, the surprised whimpers when Hansel touched him in places he’d bet a year’s pay that Ben had never been touched before, the way he’d cry out Hansel’s name when he came.

Hansel would lie there for a moment, come drying on his hand and belly, waiting for the sound of Ben’s voice to fade from his imagination before he got up to wash off in the creek. It was ironic – getting off had never felt this unsatisfying before.

The tables were turned when Ben got hurt during a hunt. Not a twisted ankle, or a scratch, which happened often enough when he was just walking the dirt road with the rest of them, but a bone crunching toss by a witch (whose intestines Hansel intended to pull out of her gut and feed to her) into a tree where he’d been impaled on a branch. When Hansel had first seen Ben hanging there, limp and bleeding, he’d thought that he was dead.

Hansel’s ears rang and his vision narrowed. The only thing in his mind was to kill the witch who had just killed Ben. With extreme prejudice. It felt like everything slowed down around him as Hansel reached out and caught the gun Gretel threw to him. He brought the gun around and aimed it at the witch attempting to escape on her broom.

Hansel fired, and a grenade filled with a (proprietary, Ben insisted) mixture of basil, chamomile, marjoram and coriander shot out. It exploded just in front of the witch and spilled herbs like rain from a thundercloud. She flew through the concoction and the magic powering the broom she rode on immediately abated. The broom stuttered and sank towards the ground.

The effect was only temporary, though, so Hansel dropped the grenade gun and reached for his crossbow. He pulled out an arrow, the tip of which had been dipped in a paste made of the same herbs. Hansel fitted the arrow to the crossbow and aimed, his movements sure and deliberate.

The witch – Hansel had heard a now-dead fellow witch call her Herta, not that he cared – looked annoyed when the broom bucked beneath her and lost altitude, then the slightest bit put out when she was unable to cast a spell – probably the same fireball spell that had singed Hansel earlier. Hansel didn’t know what she saw in his eyes to put an expression of actual fear on her face.

Hansel fired. The witch somehow managed to jerk the broom and the first arrow flew harmlessly past, but Hansel was ready with the second. Before she could change course again he fired. The arrow struck her in the thigh. It wasn’t a mortal wound, but it would slow her down long enough for Hansel to inflict one. Or two.

The witch pulled the arrow from her thigh with a smug expression and threw it back at Hansel. Without her witchy powers, the arrow landed far short. The witch finally realized that she was in trouble and tried to leap off when the broom nose-dived into the ground. Hansel stalked over to where she’d landed in a heap beside the far-flung wooden splinters and straw – all that remained of the broom. She looked up at him with her grotesque features, unable to hold the mask of beauty that lured children and young men to their doom now that her magic had been disrupted.

“Hansel, he’s alive! Ben’s alive!” Gretel called out. “Edward! Edward, help me get him down!”

Hansel froze for a moment as relief (and disbelief in equal measure) filled him. He squatted beside the witch. “You’re lucky,” he told her conversationally.

The witch looked hopeful until Hansel continued. “I don’t have time to draw this out.”

The witch scrambled to her hands and knees and tried to crawl away. Hansel shook his head as he rose to follow her. He caught up with her easily and slammed his foot into her back, pinning her to the ground. She cringed and whimpered and tried to convince Hansel that he had the wrong person, but even if he could ignore the skeletons of children decorating her hovel, she’d done something dark enough to twist her features and cause rot to set in. Even worse in Hansel’s book, she’d hurt Ben.

“I’m sure you’re just misunderstood, right?”

The witch’s eyes brightened. “Yes!”

The light went out of her eyes when Hansel drew the blade from the sheath on his back and brought it down on her neck in one smooth swing. He wiped the blade on the grass while the head wobbled, as if uncertain whether it was still attached or not, then rolled a half turn away and stared sightlessly off into the distance.

Hansel returned the blade to its sheathe, and then grabbed the head by the hair to move it away from the body, which he sprinkled with a small amount of gun powder. He took a few steps back and tossed a lit match on top of it. They only needed the head to verify their kill and collect their pay, and Hansel wasn’t taking any chances with this one. The snap-crack when the powder lit, and flames engulfed the body, was very satisfying.

Hansel waited until he was sure the flames wouldn’t go out, then turned back to the others. Gretel was waiting with the bag, also dusted with the herbs – it never hurt to be too cautious. Hansel dropped the head into the bag, and only then let himself look at the tree where Ben had been tossed like a rag doll. His body – he – no longer hung there, pinned to the tree.

“Where’s Ben?”

“Edward took him back to camp. We need to get him stabilized and back to town as soon as we can. He’s going to need a healer.”

Over the years Hansel and Gretel had become proficient at whipping up a poultice or disgusting tasting tea, staunching a wound or stitching a shallow cut, but Ben’s injury would require more than their meager skills. They poured some of their limited stash of whiskey into the wound, then stuffed it with a poultice to stave off infection and wrapped the shoulder. His fingers were clumsy, but Hansel refused to let Gretel take over.

Ben swam up towards consciousness when they were loading him into the padded wheelbarrow. Hansel brushed Ben’s hair out of his face at the first soft moan and was leaning over him when he blinked open eyes hazy with pain.

“Wha– ha’n’?” Ben said.

“You pissed off Gretel,” Hansel said.

Ben tried to laugh at that, but it was cut off with a groan.

“Don’t do that,” Hansel said.

Ben made a pained sound of agreement. “Wi’ch?”

“We got her,” Hansel said. “Thanks for slowing her down.”

Ben groaned again.

“You should go back to sleep,” Gretel said over Hansel’s shoulder.

Ben’s eyes tracked slowly from Hansel’s to Gretel’s face. “Why?”

“Because we’re getting ready to move you into town.”

Gretel carried the bag with the head and Hansel pushed the wheelbarrow. Edward stayed behind to pack up the camp and guard their belongings because he tended to start a panic when the townspeople saw him.

They stopped at the healer’s first. Hansel and Gretel stood over the woman’s shoulder while she tended to the wound, unfazed by their presence. “Now he just needs to sleep and let his body heal,” she told them when she was done.

Hansel stayed with Ben while Gretel went to turn over the head and collect their pay. “Any trouble?” he asked when she returned.

“What do you think?”

Hansel smiled. People tended to underestimate Gretel because all they saw was a pretty woman. His favorite thing besides killing witches was watching Gretel disabuse people (mainly men) of the notion that she was helpless. They rarely needed to be taught that lesson twice.

Gretel returned to camp, promising to return in the morning to relieve Hansel. The healer brought broth for Ben and stew for Hansel. Ben woke just long enough for Hansel to get some of the broth down him before he fell unconscious again, all of his body’s resources going to healing. Hansel tried to sleep, but neither the chair nor floor were as comfortable as a pallet on the ground, and the few times he did manage to drift off he woke with a start, the image of Ben pinned to the tree burned into his mind.

Gretel looked refreshed when she spelled Hansel at Ben’s bedside. Hansel grudgingly agreed to head back to their camp, which Edward had moved as a precaution (when there was a witch to kill they were welcomed with (mostly) open arms, but afterwards they were a bad reminder; especially when children had been lost to the witch), to get some rest. He didn’t let himself think too hard on why he was loathe to leave Ben’s side.

~*~

Three days later they left the village behind them. And none too soon. They were all getting ansty to be on their way, even Ben, who had slept most of the first two days. They were also starting to receive hostile looks from the villagers. Even the mayor, who’d hired them, looked uneasy when he saw them.

“This is why you need a PR department,” Ben said.

Because Ben looked so pitiful with a thick bandage on his shoulder and his arm in a sling, Hansel took the flier Ben handed him (GOT WITCHES? was printed above a pencil rendering of Hansel and Gretel in their leathers, weapons at the ready, with their names and credentials below) and tacked it up at the local tavern.

Ben refused to get into the wheelbarrow when they left the healer. Neither Hansel nor Gretel argued with him. He made it to the edge of the village before changing his mind. “Not a word,” he grated as he lowered himself into the wheelbarrow. Hansel and Gretel took turns pushing it out to where Edward waited for them at the edge of the woods, their entire camp packed up and ready to move.

Edward took the wheelbarrow from Gretel and they moved deeper into the woods, further away from the village. Once they reached a clearing near a stream, they settled Ben on a pallet and set up camp around him. Gretel set up protection wards around the camp and Hansel set up an early warning system perimeter that would give them enough time to grab a weapon before whoever (or whatever) had set it off was upon them.

Edward started a fire and carried some water from the creek to heat. Hansel and Gretel set some traps for supper, hoping for fresh meat instead of hardtack and jerky and moldy cheese.

“You didn’t stop at the market before we left?” Ben grumbled.

“You told us we were never allowed to again,” Hansel reminded him.

Because Gretel’s snare yielded supper, Hansel was left with the task of preparing it. Once the meat was cooking over the fire, he laid back on his own pallet, set up beside Ben’s. Hansel breathed a few times, and felt the tension ease out of his muscles.

Trust didn’t come easy to Hansel. He’d always hated crowded villages because there were too many variables and he couldn’t watch Gretel’s back as effectively. But here, when it was just the two of them (and now Ben and Edward added to the few number of people he trusted), he could relax.

On the other hand, now that he wasn’t keyed up with the need to protect, his mind relaxed its hold on the compartment where Hansel shoved all the shit he couldn’t think about right at that moment. He tried to ignore it a while longer, but the thought he’d put off this time became insistent. Why, his brain asked, did you react the way you did when Ben got hurt. If he was honest – and if he couldn’t be honest with himself, who could he be honest with? – when he’d thought that witch had killed Ben.

Hansel liked sex. He’d only ever let Gretel get close to him, but he’d never been too fussy about who he bedded. And then they met Ben and Edward. Hansel hadn’t stopped having sex, not at first, but now that he thought about it, it had been a while since he’d sought out that kind of relief. Nadja, he thought, from the village where Hansel had been forever banned from purchasing vegetables. Or had it been Berrin?

Hansel shook his head. No matter. He’d been busy was all. Hunting witches, and in between hunts hiding Ben’s pencils, watching the way he bit his bottom lip when he concentrated on a drawing, teaching him how to fight, teasing him about his scrapbook. And it wasn’t as if Hansel never got off – he’d had plenty of years to perfect his left hand. Plus he had a good imagination. Which didn’t explain why he thought about Ben so often lately when he was pleasuring himself. And why Hansel kept noticing Ben noticing him.

After supper Hansel re-bandaged Ben’s shoulder. Gretel and Edward found a spot to the side of their camp to spar. Gretel used Edward’s large hand or leg as a sort of punching bag, and once in a while Edward flicked her with a finger and sent her sprawling. The sound of his laughter was like two rocks grinding together, but it had become familiar.

Hansel gently rubbed the poultice into the wound while Ben distracted himself watching Gretel and Edward. “I’m glad you didn’t get hurt,” Hansel said, surprising himself when the words popped out of his mouth.

“I did get hurt!” Ben squawked.

“Hurt worse,” Hansel clarified. “Killed,” he murmured.

“Me, too,” Ben said, wincing when Hansel tied the clean bandage. “But I’m not an invalid, I can still help out.”

“You’re still healing,” Hansel said.

Ben opened his mouth to argue, but Hansel beat him to it. “Talk to me when I can slap you on the shoulder without you passing out from the pain.”

Hansel got out the map and Ben’s notes, and spread the map over Ben’s legs. “Where should we head next?”

They didn’t plan on leaving, not until Ben could travel more easily, but it would keep him busy. Hansel flopped down next to Ben and watched the concentration on his face as he studied the map, and poured over his notes, and muttered about rumored sightings. Ten minutes later Hansel was watching Ben sleep, thinking that the way he snored softly was adorable.

“Wanna spar?” Gretel said.

Hansel rolled over onto his back. He really should, if only to work out some of the kinks he’d gotten from sitting at Ben’s bedside for days, but he said, “Not tonight.”

Gretel glanced at Ben, then nodded. Hansel rolled his eyes, then sat up and took the map and the notes from Ben’s slack fingers. Hansel folded the map and carefully placed everything into the satchel with Ben’s scrapbook.

The next morning the pointed toe of Gretel’s boot jabbed Hansel between the ribs. “Let’s go, brother. Loser has to lug water.”

Hansel stretched. He reached out to grab Gretel’s ankle, but it was a move he’d tried many times before and she was ready for it, easily skipping out of reach. Hansel tried to jump to his feet but got tangled in his bedroll.

Gretel laughed. “You’re not off to a very good start,” she said.

“I’ll show you,” Hansel said as he stripped off his overshirt, leaving him in his leather pants and sleeveless undershirt. Hansel didn’t turn his head when he heard Ben’s soft gasp behind him, but he did flex his muscles and toss his shirt with a little more force than necessary so it landed in Ben’s lap instead of on his own bedroll. Gretel gave him a knowing, exasperated look, but Hansel just grinned and charged her.

Hansel lost. Not that he was surprised. He sat down on his bedroll to pull on his boots, but looked at the bottom of his foot first. “I think I stepped on a thorn,” he said, prodding the area. “It hurts.”

“A thorn,” Ben said dryly.

“Yes, a thorn.”

“Did you happen to see the size of the branch that impaled my shoulder?” Ben said.

“Hey, it’s not always about size,” Hansel said. Then he smirked at Ben and winked.

Ben’s eyes went wide when he realized what Hansel was getting at, and then the tips of his hear went red. Hansel couldn’t normally see Ben’s ears because he refused to let Gretel get near him with a blade after the first time she’d given him a ‘trim’, but his hair was all mussed from being bed-bound for the past four days and his ears were exposed.

Ben noticed that Hansel was staring at him and his cheeks pinked up. Hansel wondered if he could make Ben flush all over.

“Quit flirting,” Gretel said, smacking their water skins into Hansel’s chest.

“Are we leaving?” Ben said.

“No,” Gretel said with finality. “We’re staying put until you can be moved without it jouncing your shoulder. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use a bath. I’d embarrass you by offering to do it myself, but you look too pathetic, so I’ll just let Hansel have the honor.”

Hansel felt his cheeks go as hot as Ben’s. Gretel’s smile was wicked.

“Edward and I’ll just go hunt for supper and leave you two to it.”

Hansel realized he’d been standing there for a while looking after Gretel and Edward when Ben cleared his throat. Hansel jumped. “I’ll just . . .” He gestured towards the creek, and then took off before Ben could respond.

Hansel knelt on the edge of the creek and dunked his head into the water to clear his brain. He sat up and tossed his head back, then swiped a hand through his hair, sluicing out the excess water. Rivulets of cool water ran down his neck and beneath his shirt, cooling off the heat of exertion from his workout with Gretel, and dampening his libido.

Hansel had himself back under control by the time he finished filling the skins and the bucket. Ben was pretending to be asleep when Hansel returned to the camp. Because he was a coward, Hansel let him pretend. He set the skins near their supplies, then emptied the bucket into the pot and stoked up the coals so it would heat.

Hansel made one more trip down to the creek to refill the bucket. When he returned, Ben’s breaths had deepened and Hansel thought he might actually be asleep now. Hansel lowered himself onto his pallet to rest while he waited for the water to get warm enough to bathe Ben. He could’ve done some of the forms that Gretel had once taught him for balance and strength, but he felt pretty ridiculous doing some of them, especially when he was the only one.

Hansel glanced over at Ben as he lowered himself and caught Ben watching him from under his lashes. He felt a little pinch of something beneath his ribs, which he ignored as best he could. He laid down and put his hands behind his head and stared up at the sky.

“You know you are getting a bath, right?” Gretel had made it sound like a tease, a suggestion. Hansel knew from experience that it wasn’t.

Ben didn’t answer right away, and Hansel wondered if he was going back to the fiction of being asleep.

“I don’t need a bath,” Ben finally said in a petulant tone.

“Self-cleaning, are you?”

“I haven’t done anything to get dirty.”

Hansel didn’t tell Ben that he could smell the scent of days old blood and sick-sweat on him, merely said, “You’ll feel better after.”

“I can do it myself.”

Hansel snorted. “Yeah, no.”

They fell silent for a few minutes, and Hansel wondered if Ben was thinking about the bath Hansel was about to give him, as Hansel was. But when Ben spoke, he said, “Tell me what happened with the witch. After . . .”

Hansel couldn’t admit that her evil-witchiness aside, he’d wanted to kill her for killing Ben. Instead he said, “I used one of them grenades on her. Worked like a charm.”

Ben snorted at the pun, then said softly, “I knew it would.”

“I know you did,” Hansel said, and then spent the next few minutes answering all of Ben’s questions about how the broom had responded to the herbs in excruciating detail, because Ben liked to tinker with his formulas, and then how the witch had been unable to cast another spell or keep the broom up in the air.

By the time Hansel stopped speaking, Ben was snoring lightly. He took the opportunity of being unobserved to study Ben while he slept. He was pale, but his skin no longer had a gray pallor, as it had for the first few days after he’d been hurt, and the tight lines of pain around his eyes had lessened.

Hansel got up to check the water temperature before he did something foolish, like reach out to touch Ben’s face. He took a blanket off his own pallet so he didn’t get Ben’s bedding wet, and laid it out closer to the fire so Ben didn’t get chilled during his bath. Then Hansel paced. He did some stretches as if he was getting ready to go into battle. He glared at the pot heating over the flame.

Finally Hansel could put it off no longer; he woke Ben. And he did not think that the way Ben’s lashes fluttered against his cheek looked adorable. Hansel let Ben get to his feet on his own, even though he had to quash the urge to just pick him up and carry him over to the fire.

After Ben had carefully lowered himself onto the blanket, Hansel helped him out of his shirt. He took off the bandage to let the wound air. Hansel gently wiped Ben down with a wet cloth, trying very hard not to think about whose skin he was running the cloth over. Trying being the operative word, since Ben babbled when he was nervous and Hansel couldn’t tune him out.

Hansel couldn’t ignore his sense of relief when he’d wrung the last of the pink-tinged water out of the cloth. He helped Ben out of his bottoms and washed his legs and feet. Then they both stared at each other.

“Um,” Hansel said.

“I can do this part,” Ben said quickly, snatching the cloth out of Hansel’s hand.

“Yes, right, of course.”

Hansel hesitated, frozen, then spun around so his back was to Ben. He imagined Ben’s hand moving between his legs, then forcibly reminded himself that Ben was hurt, and bathing for the first time since the witch had flung him into the tree. That took care of Hansel’s arousal, but now he thought he might throw up.

“I’m done,” Ben said in a small voice.

Hansel turned, eyes carefully averted. “Don’t sit like that,” he said softly when he saw that Ben was all hunched over. “You’ll pull on your wound.”

Hansel picked up the clean pair of trousers he’d brought over and set by the fire. “Here, you’ll be warmer with trousers on.”

Ben huffed a little laugh. “I’ll also be less naked with trousers on,” he said.

“Shut up,” Hansel said gently. “I’m trying not to think about it.”

“About how pale and scrawny I am?”

“I wish,” Hansel said with feeling, then felt Ben’s scrutiny.

Hansel ignored Ben, and his own hot cheeks, and slipped the trousers over Ben’s legs and helped him get them over his hips. He ignored the glimpse he got of parts of Ben that he would’ve thought nothing of seeing in the past – close quarters and shared baths didn’t leave much room for privacy.

Hansel escaped to roll up his pallet and bring it over to Ben. “Do you think you can lie back on this without hurting your shoulder?”

Hansel set the roll on the ground behind Ben, who eyed it speculatively before lowering himself. “What’s it for?”

“So I can wash your hair without you getting soaked,” Hansel said.

“You don’t have to.”

“You gonna be the one to explain to Gretel that I only gave you half a bath?” Hansel said lightly.

Ben fake shuddered, then gave an actual shiver when Hansel combed his fingers through his hair. Hansel picked at a dried bit of blood that had somehow managed to get into Ben’s hair, then put it out of his mind. Ben was fine, and right here, waiting for Hansel to wash his hair.

“I’ll be gentle, I promise,” Hansel said.

And look at that, Ben’s flush went from the tips of his ears to his collarbone. Hansel tried to ignore his own reaction to that new-found knowledge as he poured cups of water over Ben’s hair to wet it, then worked soap into it. Ben let out a soft sigh as Hansel worked his scalp, and Hansel responded to that, as well. Since Ben’s eyes were closed, he didn’t attempt to hid his reaction.

Hansel washed Ben’s hair for as long as he could without it getting weird. He rinsed out the soap, then squeezed out as much of the water as he could with his hands, soaking up the rest with a cloth.

“Hey,” Hansel said when he was done. “Your neck’s gonna kill you if you stay like this.”

Ben moaned a soft protest, but he let Hansel help him sit up. Hansel checked the wound, then went to empty the pot and rinse it out. He set more water to heat, then got out the ingredients to make up another poultice. Ben eventually rose to his feet and wandered around the camp. He needed to get up and move about, but Hansel kept one eye on him anyway.

“Thank you,” Ben said. He had his back to Hansel, his head bent. “For the bath. And my hair.” He made an aborted gesture towards his head. “I do feel better. But don’t tell Gretel.”

Hansel grinned. “You’re welcome. And I won’t.”

After having his shoulder re-bandaged and a cup of foul tasting tea, Ben was once again sleeping when Gretel and Edward returned late in the afternoon, arms full of berries and nuts and roots and game. Gretel glanced towards Ben with an approving look.

“Where did you get all that?” Hansel said, excited, but trying to keep his voice low in deference to Ben. They rarely ate this well unless they had the coin to purchase food from a village market.

“Edward has a knack for finding these things,” Gretel said.

Hansel snatched a berry from the kerchief Gretel had wrapped them in. He grimaced because it was still a bit tart, and yet still wonderful. He took the game from Edward to prepare, since he and Gretel had done the foraging and trapping.

Hansel pointed to the pot on the fire. “There’s hot water if you want to wash up”

“Thanks,” Gretel said.

Edward carried the pot behind some shrubbery so Gretel had privacy. Ben had woken and his fingers were purple with berry juice by the time Gretel returned.

“Your turn,” she told Hansel.

Hansel turned to Ben. “Turn about’s fair play; wanna help me?”

Ben’s cheeks pinked and Hansel felt his own face heat. He gave Ben his best seductive look. “Maybe when you’re feeling better.” Hansel pushed to his feet and sauntered towards where Gretel had left the pot of water.

“That was evil,” Gretel said approvingly as he passed her.

~*~

Three days later they move camp again. Ben walked for short periods of time before being stowed in the wheelbarrow again. He picked berries one-handed when they found a bush (and hid some in his sling, don’t think Hansel didn’t see that). Edward filled a cloth with dirt and told Ben to squeeze it to help regain strength in his arm. Gretel made Ben join them when they did those ridiculous forms.

Ben got rid of the sling and the bandage came off. The wound healed, leaving a scar the size of a large coin. Hansel wanted to punch a tree whenever he caught sight of it, he wanted to kiss it, as if that would make it better. Ben started drawing again, and setting snares, and the next village they came to he insisted on going to the market.

Things were getting back to normal, but nothing felt normal. Hansel felt tingly, as if his body was preparing for a fight. Or as if he’d put too much ginger in his tea. He caught himself looking at Ben more often, and frequently felt Ben’s gaze on him, even though he managed to avert his eyes before Hansel looked over.

Hansel felt the tension building, and normally he’d know what to do, but this was Ben, not some nameless guy he’d never see again. And so Hansel did nothing.

One day, some weeks after their encounter with the witch they camped near a stream that had been partially dammed up, creating a shallow pool. Hansel whooped when he saw it, and called first bath. Gretel rolled her eyes at his exuberance, but didn’t say anything. Hansel hurriedly set up camp, and then left Gretel and Edward to set snares as he raced back to the stream.

Hansel shucked his clothes and stood on the bank. He closed his eyes in anticipation of the feel of cool water against his skin, and almost toppled into the stream when he heard Ben’s soft gasp behind him. Hansel glanced over his shoulder at Ben, who’d stopped just outside the tree line. He’d forgotten in his rush that they normally bathed together.

Hansel’s first instinct was to jump into the pool and make light of the moment. Instead he found himself turning towards Ben, giving him an eyeful if he wanted it. Ben’s eyes widened, and then he lowered his lashes, but not before Hansel saw his gaze move lower.

“Your turn,” Hansel said, and Ben’s head snapped up. Hansel spread his arms wide. “Fair’s fair.”

Ben blushed. His fingers moved to the neck of his shirt, but stalled there.

“Need help?” Hansel said suggestively, taking a step towards Ben.

The closer Hansel got to him, the more Ben’s eyes looked like they were going to pop right out of his head. Hansel pretended that his hands weren’t shaking when he reached out to untie Ben’s shirt. Ben lowered his own hand and swallowed hard, and Hansel’s breath caught in his throat.

Ben sucked in a harsh breath when Hansel’s fingers went to the hem of his shirt, and Hansel felt his stomach muscles clench when he deliberately brushed them with his knuckles as he dragged the shirt up.

Hansel pulled the shirt over Ben’s head and dropped it on the ground. He brushed the tips of his fingers over Ben’s scar, then walked around Ben and did the same to the larger scar on his back. Hansel stepped up to Ben until his chest touched Ben’s back. He reached around him and tugged on the laces of his trousers.

“I can . . .” Ben sounded like he was choking. “. . . do that myself.”

“Didn’t seem like you could,” Hansel said. He slid his hands down Ben’s hips and pushed the material down. “Boots.”

Ben toed off his boots, then kicked off his trousers. Hansel brushed his nose along Ben’s neck, his lips across Ben’s shoulder. Ben shuddered against him, and Hansel felt himself thicken. He pressed his lips to Ben’s ear. “Last one in the water is a rotten egg,” he whispered.

Hansel raced to the bank and jumped into the stream. As thankful as he was for the shock of cold on his overheated skin, Hansel let out a yell when he hit the water. When Hansel came up and shook the water out of his eyes, he saw that Ben was easing his way into the water a toe at a time and giving Hansel a baleful glare.

Hansel splashed water at Ben, then grabbed his ankle and toppled him in. Ben squawked and splashed ineffectively at Hansel. When he recovered from the surprise attack, Ben raced after Hansel, both men wrestling and trying to dunk the other. Probably not the best idea if Hansel was trying to forget the way Ben had felt pressed against him.

Breathless, they floated on top of the water. Hansel didn’t even attempt to hide his body’s reaction to their play wrestling, and he felt Ben’s eyes on him. Hansel tried not to feel disappointed when Ben headed for the shore, but felt a surge of relief when he returned with the cloth and bar of soap.

Ben nodded to Hansel, who righted himself so Ben could do his back. They’d done this for each other before, but it felt different this time, Ben’s touch less perfunctory. When Ben had reached Hansel’s lower back and spent more time there than Hansel felt comfortable with if this wasn’t going to go any further, he turned to take the cloth out of Ben’s hand and return the favor.

Instead of handing over the cloth, Ben dragged it over Hansel’s shoulder and down his chest. Hansel’s nipple hardened under the drag of rough material and a soft moan escaped his lips. Ben did it again.

“Ben,” Hansel said. “Do you know what you’re doing?”

In answer, Ben raised his eyes to look directly into Hansel’s as he dragged the cloth across his chest to his other nipple.

“I’m going to take that as a yes,” Hansel growled. He slid his hands around Ben and dragged him closer until their hips met.

Ben’s eyelids drooped and the cloth fell out of his fingers when their matching hardnesses came into contact. Ben moaned and clutched at Hansel’s arms. Hansel couldn’t resist ducking his head to taste Ben’s mouth. He swallowed every sound Ben made as their hips moved together, hands sliding over wet skin.

“I wondered what was taking you two so long,” Gretel said, her voice like a shock of even colder water.

Hansel and Ben froze, and Hansel glanced over to where Gretel stood on the bank, a stern expression on her face, hands braced on her hips.

“I’m happy for you both, really, but you do realize that the rest of us still need to bathe in that water.”

Ben let out a screech and threw himself back so violently that he slipped out of Hansel’s grasp. Ben ducked until the water reached his chin, but not before the angle of his escape exposed him in all his naked, hard glory.

Hansel laughed so hard he slipped and came up spitting out water. Gretel was gone, but the moment had been ruined. No, not ruined, merely postponed. He watched Ben hurriedly soap up and rinse off.

Ben gave Hansel a look, then threw the cloth into his amused face. “It’s not funny,” he hissed.

“Oh, it’s a little bit funny,” Hansel said as he watched Ben scramble for the bank and his clothes. “You can run,” he sing-songed, “but you can’t hide.”

Ben’s already pink-tinged skin went an even deeper shade of red.

Hansel waited until Ben had pulled his clothes on over wet skin and disappeared into the trees before soaping up the cloth and washing himself.

Ben’s cheeks were still pink when Hansel returned to camp. “Best bath I’ve ever had,” he announced loudly, and caught the turnip Ben threw at him.

“Would’ve been better if you hadn’t interrupted us,” Hansel told Gretel.

Ben made an aggrieved sound.

“I wanted to bathe in relatively clean water,” Gretel returned.

“We’ll bathe last next time,” Hansel offered magnanimously.

Ben sounded like he was choking.

Gretel laughed and slapped Hansel’s shoulder. “My turn to bathe. Help Ben with supper.”

Hansel handed over the cloth-wrapped bar of soap and watched Gretel walk off with Edward at her side to stand watch while she bathed. He walked over to where Ben knelt, chopping vegetables for the stew. Hansel knelt beside him and added the turnip he’d caught to the pile. “You lost one.”

Ben ignored Hansel, and he took the opportunity to study Ben. There was no doubt in his mind that they were going to finish what they’d started at the stream. He was going to get Ben bare and touch him everywhere, see what turned him on.

“I bet you’ll be loud,” Hansel said out loud.

Ben’s hand jerked and a carrot flew into the pot uncut. Hansel quickly fished it out of the hot pot, then sucked on the tips of his fingers.

“You can’t just say things like that,” Ben said.

Hansel settled on his butt and brought his knees up, wrapped his arms around them. “I won’t have to, because after tonight I’ll know.”

Ben gave him an exasperated look. Hansel wanted to kiss it off his face.

“You know that exasperated look you’re giving me?”

Ben gave him that look again.

“Yes, that one. It makes me want to kiss you.”

Ben sighed heavily. He set knife and carrot down, then turned and pushed Hansel onto his back. Hansel grinned when Ben crawled on top of him.

“You’re not going to shut up about this, are you?”

Hansel pretended to think about it. “Probably not.”

“What are you going to do once you know how loud I am?” Ben said.

Hansel could tell that Ben was asking more with those words. “I’m going to learn every sound you make,” he said, “and get you to make them all as often as possible.”

Ben studied Hansel’s face, and just when Hansel was wondering if he’d said the wrong thing, Ben swooped down and kissed him.

“Is this going to happen every time I leave you two alone now?” Gretel said.

Ben raised his head long enough to say, “Yes,” then kissed Hansel again.

Hansel laughed and rolled them so that Ben was pinned beneath him.

Gretel sighed, but her voice held a smile. “Could you at least finish the stew first?”

“Sure,” Hansel said. “We’ll finish the stew, then go find some wood.”

Ben choked.

“For the fire,” Hansel clarified.

“Right,” Ben said. “Wood. For the fire.”

“Of course,” Gretel said, then muttered, “I can’t watch this.”

“I’m throwing enough wood right now,” Ben said sotto voice, and it was Hansel’s turn to choke.

“I don’t even want to know,” Gretel said.

Hansel and Ben grinned stupidly at each other as they returned to the chore of chopping up the rest of the vegetables for the stew. It took Hansel a few moments to realize that the feeling building behind his ribs was happiness. He loved Gretel more than anyone – they’d only had each other for so long, and he’d found great satisfaction in their life’s work. He’d been content, but not, he now realized, happy.

“What are you thinking about?” Ben said. “Your face just got all serious.”

“I can be serious,” Hansel said as he glanced over to where Gretel and Edward were sparring once more, then brought his gaze back to Ben. It didn’t appear that either of them were paying the two of them any mind, but Hansel didn’t know if he wanted to tell Ben about the revelation he’d just had over the cook pot. “I’ll tell you later,” he said.

Preferably when they were both naked and Ben was still stunned by Hansel’s sexual prowess.

A bark of laughter burst out of Ben.

“What?”

“You said that ‘prowess’ bit out loud.”

Hansel’s cheeks went warm, but he blustered, “Are you saying you won’t be stunned by my prowess?”

“I’m sure I’ll be stunned by something,” Ben said dryly.

Hansel clutched his chest. “You wound me.”

Ben grinned, then studied Gretel and Edward. “Are you sure this is what you want? I mean, I’m not like . . .”

Hansel didn’t know if Ben was going to finish with ‘Gretel’ or ‘your other conquests’, but he knew he didn’t want Ben to doubt that he wanted this, wanted him. “I’m happy,” Hansel blurted out.

Hansel ducked his head. “Gretel is my world, and hunting witches has been my life, but this . . . it feels different.”

When Hansel raised his eyes, Ben was staring at him, cheeks pink, a small smile on his face.. “I’m happy, too,” he said.

Hansel grinned, feeling like one of those lovesick boys he used to mock. Ben grinned back.

Gretel heaved a loud sigh. “We are never going to eat tonight, are we?”

“Yes we are,” Ben said determinedly, turning his full attention back to the stew. “Because when we’re done here, Hansel is going to stun me with his sexual prowess.”

“He’s going to stun you with something,” Gretel said wryly.

“That’s what I said!” Ben said.

Gretel and Ben high-fived over the cook pot.

“I hate you both,” Hansel grumbled.

Ben’s response to that was a soft smile directed at the potato in his hand. The pressure against Hansel’s ribs expanded, and he wondered if it was possible to be too happy.

“Why don’t we do some forms while you’re waiting for Ben to finish the stew,” Gretel suggested. (As always, her suggestion wasn’t really a suggestion.)

Ben’s eyes went a little wild.

“Good idea,” Hansel said, stretching as he stood, making sure that Ben got an eyeful.

Ben’s cheeks pinked up and the potato slipped from his hand. Hansel and Gretel both laughed at Ben’s reaction. Hansel ruffled Ben’s hair and Ben pretended to stab at him with the knife. Hansel glanced over his shoulder as he and Gretel moved over to the area she’d designated for sparring. Ben was watching after him, but ducked his head quickly when Hansel caught him.

Hansel smiled to himself. Given the crap life had thrown at them from the day they’d lost their parents, Hansel thought he deserved a bit of happiness. Maybe even more than a bit.

The End