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A World of Good Men and Monsters

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The Witches severed head lands with a wet thunk on the Mayor’s pristine desk. A few official looking papers cushion it. Hansel wipes his hands on his pants, damp with whatever the head has been leaking since they chopped it off a few hours before.

It’s beginning to smell.

“One dead witch.” Gretel gestures at the head with the barest hint of a smile. Chopping that things head off had made their shitty week. “Just as promised Mayor.”

Mayor Webber seems momentarily at a loss for words. He’d pulled back from the desk when they’d dropped the head and has now pulled out a pristine handkerchief as though it will sop up the mess. He has to admit, with the run around the man gave them all week, Hansel definitely aimed when he dropped it.

“Surely,” The Mayor regains his senses faster than expected. “There must be more to it.”

Gretel exchanges a glance with him. She’s thinking the same thing he is.

He should have dropped the head in his lap.

“The body is waiting outside in our cart, Mayor.” Gretel continues to be the most diplomatic of the pair. They should have brought Edward inside, townsfolk were always more charming with him around. But it wasn’t the friendliest of towns and he wasn’t leaving Ben wandering by himself, not after last time. “Waiting for you to burn it.”

“Perfect.” The Sheriff grins, showing off a set of yellow teeth, and grabs the head by the hair, lifting it up to inspect it.

The Mayor hesitates, and Hansel casually flips his coat back, resting his hand on his hand gun. It has the desired effect. His eyes focus on Hansel’s hand, and his throat works as he swallows heavily.

“Yes,” the Mayor bursts into movement, handkerchief tossed to the side and into the mess on his desk, as he scrambles for their money. “Good job, as always.”

The comment is odd but he shrugs it off as Gretel tucks the money away and the Sheriff follows them outside. Ben and Edward are where they left them, by the steps with the cart. They’ve attracted a few of the town’s children, staring up at Edward in awe as he lifts them gently, one after another. Their peals of laughter are probably the only thing keeping the deputy hovering nearby from barging over and putting a stop to it all—that and maybe Ben’s gun slung across his back.

The Sheriff goes to inspect the body.

“Any trouble?” Gretel asks, watching Edward and the children with a fond look.

Ben shakes his head but his gaze is full of mischief when he looks at them. His brown eyes sparkle, lips curled up at the corner, spelling nothing but trouble.

Gretel elbows him—hard.

Hansel manages to stop staring. He ducks away to help the Sheriff unload the body. He loses track of the others as he helps the townsfolk put together a decent pyre. This witch is dead but he’d rather not take any chances.

They’ve got one more night in town before they outstay their welcome; once the flames lick up the decaying body he wanders away from the fire and to the closest tavern. It’s a decent sized town, bigger than most of the others they’ve worked in, triple the size of the town they found Ben in, but that just means more prying eyes, more awestruck kids, and more mistrustful gazes.

He’s gotten better at having Gretel out of his sight; they both have, with Ben and Edward with them. They both follow Gretel around like puppies, but it means she’s not alone and Hansel can breathe easier. At least with small towns he knows where everyone is; they may be full of hillbillies but he can’t lose track of them for hours like this.

Gretel spots him the second he pushes through the doors into the warmth of the tavern and something that has been clenched tight in his chest all day loosens at the sight. Ben looks up a moment later, face lighting up in a way that has his breath catching and he’s tempted to turn and head back to the room because he just knows he’s going to say something stupid and he’ll have to watch that look fade.

“You’ll never believe what Ben found.” Gretel hands him a tankard as he slides onto the free stool between them.

“Do I want to know?” He grumbles into his drink. Gretel kicks him under the table. It’s not very subtle. “Where’s Edward?”

“He went back to the room.”

“Without you?”

“Ben promised to keep me company.” Gretel grins at the scowl that creeps across his face. He’s not used to this jealous, possessive feeling. “He didn’t leave long ago but chasing that witch took more out of him than we thought so I told him to get some rest.”

“The kid’s going to protect you from a bunch of town folk?” Hansel casts a glance at Ben, who predictably rises to the bait.

“Hey! I’m a good shot.”

Gretel rolls her eyes and signals for another round for herself and Ben. There aren’t many people indoors, everyone out at the burning but they’ve had enough of witch hunting for the time being. They did the hard work; let the Mayor and the Sheriff soak up the adoration.

“Tell him what you found Ben.”

Ben scrambles for his bag whipping out a book—of course it’s a book. It’s always a book. The kid soaks up new books in each town they go to, spends hours reading in their rooms at a time, and then pouts for days after when they tell him he can’t bring the books with them. He’s got a few he carries with him, but the amount of books he goes through is obscene and not something that they can support when they’re constantly on the move.

Sometimes he thinks about what it would be like to have a home base of some sort, a cottage they could call their own and come home to at the end of a hunt. A place where Ben could keep his collection of books and Edward could grow a garden and Gretel could have a home. But it’s too dangerous to keep any of them in one location for too long, there’s an unspoken bounty on their heads and all manner of magic is out to get them.

This book is small, with a crude drawing on the front of what looks like a little boy and a little girl and Hansel catches a glimpse of the title, choking on his drink as he goes to take a sip.

“You’re fucking kidding me.” His voice is hoarse, throat burning as Ben hands over the little book. The Adventures of Hansel and Gretel is written in German with the authors names underneath. He flips it open, scanning the first page and grimaces at what he finds.

“A kid showed it to me while you guys were in with the Mayor earlier.” Ben supplies. He slides his stool closer to Hansel and turns a few pages to a drawing of a cottage made presumably of candy. Hansel’s stomach twists unpleasantly. “I talked him into selling it to me.”

“Why?” Hansel flips to the end of the story. The children return home to their father, discovering their step mother has died in the meantime. They live happily ever after.

“I’ve never seen anything like it.” Ben shrugs. He’s a line of heat against Hansel’s side, comforting. It helps settle his stomach but he can feel the beginning of rage boiling at the bottom of his spine at having their story perverted and sold like this.

“I mean, why would anyone write about us?”

“You guys are famous!” Ben bumps their shoulders together, still very much the fanboy they picked up a year ago.

He glances at Gretel.

“These brothers had better hope we never cross paths.”

He flips back to the cover. The Brothers Grimm is written elegantly underneath the title.

“Oh I hope we run into them.” She flicks her knife out, stabs it into the thick wood of the table top. “I think we need to talk.”

By the time they reach Wolf County three weeks later, they’ve come across another book by the brothers. The Frog Princess is a tale about a princess indebted to a frog, who with her kiss becomes a handsome prince.

Hansel calls bullshit.

The few other towns they’ve stopped in all have wondrous tales to tell of the Brothers Grimm, about how they’ve fought evil witches and the stories they tell. It drives him crazy that Ben soaks up all the information he can get on these men.

They’ve come directly from a neighboring town at the Sheriff’s request. Something has been lurking in the woods, and they want it killed.

Edward and Ben wait outside with the cart, the Mayor’s office is a small, one story building, and it’s not worth trying to fit the four of them inside. It’s a bright and sunny day, and the inside of the office is muggy with stale air.

Hansel’s already in a mood when they’re ushered in to the cramped room to find the Mayor with two men dressed in expensive clothes. The men are perhaps a little older than them, one with fair hair and the other with glasses and dark hair. The one with glasses doesn’t meet their eye but the fair haired man stands, hand outstretched and a wide, fake smile on his face as his gaze sweeps slowly over first Gretel, then Hansel. Hansel’s mood sours further.

“Wilhelm Grimm at your service.” The smile widens. “And may I just say that for such a lovely lady as you, it is an honor.”

Gretel swings and Wilhelm Grimm hits the floor.

It devolves from there.

The Sheriff and Mayor wisely take a huge step back when the other Grimm brother steps forwards and Hansel’s hand goes to his handgun. The man sputters, nervous, and hurries to help his brother back to his feet.

Wilhelm’s nose isn’t bleeding but it definitely looks like it hurts.

You.” Gretel jabs a finger at them but only the timid brother is smart enough to cower under her wrath. “You wrote that book.”

“You must be the lovely Gretel!” Wilhelm says in a nasally voice, fingers pinching the bridge of his nose. He winces. “You were nicer in the book.”

“Why the hell did you write a book about us?” Hansel jumps in before Gretel takes another swing, no matter how enjoyable it would be.

“Because you’re fascinating.” The quiet one chimes in. He stammers and pushes his glasses up from where they’re slipping. “I mean, you escaped that witch as children, despite being held captive for so long. People need to know.”

“And that bit about our parents?”

“It added drama?” He squeaks.

Gretel lunges. Wilhelm pops up between her and his brother, gets shoved out of the way and succeeds in knocking over a glass vase. It shatters as the other brother lets out a cry of alarm and tries to get away.

The ground shakes.

Edwards busts through the door a moment later.

The Mayor pulls out a knife, startled by Edwards’s appearance, and tries to join in. Hansel respects that but he’s not letting him get near Edward with the knife. He’s in the process of disarming the Mayor when a gunshot goes off. Hansel and Gretel have their own guns out even as the remainder of the room freezes.

“What the hell are you guys doing?” Ben asks, staring at the group like they’ve lost their minds. Dust floats down from the hole he’s created in the ceiling.

“This monster was attacking us.” The Mayor splutters, gesturing at Edward.

“He’s with us.” Hansel tucks his gun away, heart racing.

“And who is this?” Wilhelm recovers fast enough, carefully edging around Gretel to Ben.

“Uh, Ben Wosser.” Ben casts a glance at Hansel. Hansel glares at Wilhelm.

“Wilhelm Grimm at your service.” He extends a hand for Ben to shake, pearly white teeth on display.

“Wait,” Ben glances between the two men, eyes growing wide. “You’re the Brothers Grimm?”

“We are.” Wilhelm beams. “This is my brother Jacob. I see you’ve heard of us?”

“I’ve read your books! And the villages we’ve stopped in have told us some of your stories. They’re amazing.”

Hansel clears his throat, stomach twisting with anger, and despite himself, jealousy.

“Is there a reason we’re all here?”

“Sheriff Muller and I heard you were all in the area,” The Mayor begins, settling himself, warily at his desk. He eyes Edward. “And we’ve been having so much trouble these past few weeks, we thought, who better than Hansel and Gretel and the Brothers Grimm?”

“We work alone.” Gretel says firmly.

“As do we.” Wilhelm casts a glance her way. “Although I’m sure we could be persuaded…”

“What seems to be the problem?” Jacob cuts in before his brother can get knocked to the floor for a second time.

“Our young men and women have been disappearing from the village.” The Sheriff explains eager to move on. He wrings his hands. “Five in the past two weeks. After the first two were taken the towns people stayed away from the forest but it didn’t make a difference. The other three were taken from the streets, from their own beds even!”

“And what do you think is taking them?” Ben chimes in.

“We don’t know,” The Mayor glances at the Sheriff. “But a man has been spotted in the woods nearby. The old woman who saw him said there was something odd about him.”

“Odd?” Jacob whips out a small leather bound book and writing utensil. “Odd how?”

“She said his eyes burned with fire.” The Mayor shudders.

“Not a witch.” Hansel murmurs. Gretel catches his eye. Ben steps forwards, reaches out and snags the sleeve of his jacket, eyes wide and mouth set.

“We can’t just leave them.”

“We’re in the witch business.” Hansel reminds him, gruff. The Brothers are watching; it puts him on edge.

“We’re in the helping business.” Ben stresses. “Remember the golem?”

The look Edward gives them is stubborn, he’s already decided.

A scream pierces the air.

More and more follow, spreading like wild fire.

Hansel sprints from the building, the group from the office on his tail. Across the square the Mayor’s office is in a crowd has gathered. Panic grips them, faces ashen, screams filling the air. The horses tied nearby are foaming at the mouth, eyes rolling in panic.

For a moment he doesn’t know what is causing the panic; he pulls his gun, scanning the crowd, the ground, and the nearby houses.

A shadow covers half the square.

He looks up, sun in his eyes as a dark shadow swoops by. It comes in low and people scatter, throwing themselves to the ground, into doorways, under carts. The wind from its massive wings threatens to knock them all from their feet.

“What the fuck is that?” Gretel asks even as she takes aim.

“A dragon.” Jacob breathes, reverent.

Hansel doesn’t care what it is. It circles, comes around and heads straight for them. He sees the sharp talons extended the scaly hide. He fires, empties all of his bullets but it doesn’t even flinch.

“Get down!” The Sheriff hollers.

 Ben’s got his own gun out but it’s just as useless. Hansel wraps an arm around his waist and throws them behind their cart as the wind whips around them and the monster flies over.

He lands hard on his shoulder, feels his arm go momentarily numb. Ben lands half on him as his gun slides a few feet away.

“Gretel!” He calls out.

“Fine!” She yells back. “With Edward!”

The shadow comes back around again and he reaches up, groping blindly underneath the hay in their cart. He comes away with another gun.

“I don’t think those are having much effect.” Ben props himself up on Hansel’s chest and squints up at the sky.

“It’s making me feel better.” Hansel lies and fires as it flies over them.

It’s even lower this time but there still isn’t even a speck of blood.

The screams grow even worse, hysteria flooding them. A name is shouted, over and over. Ben rolls off of him and they climb quickly to their feet in time to see the monster fly off, a body clutched in its grip.

“Quickly!” Wilhelm and Jacob ride by on the panicking horses. They’ve donned silver chest plates, odd weapons on their saddle bags. They clatter through the square, around the panicked crowd and towards the forest.

“They’re going to get themselves killed.”

“There’s never been an attack during the day.” The Mayor is shaking as he picks himself up off the cobble stone. “And never by such a monster.”

Hansel eyes the remaining horses.

“What are they going to do if they catch up to it?” Ben asks, pale as he watches the monster fly further and further away.

“Watch the town.” Gretel grabs her crossbow. Hansel unties the horses, handing her the reins. They swing up into the saddles.

“Be careful!” Ben calls after them as they hurry after the brothers.

They hit the edge of town, adrenaline pumping, as they push their horses faster. The brothers are a bright, shining buffet as they barrel towards the forest. If the monster looks back, if it circles around, they’re lunch.

The edge of the forest is looming up before them. The trees are thick and close together, sunlight barely making a dent even feet past the border.

Ahead the brothers’ horses stop abruptly, like they’ve hit a wall. The horses prance, threatening to throw their riders. Hansel and Gretel slow theirs to a trot and cross the distance easily. The monster disappears over the expanse of the forest.

Wilhelm curses.

“Are you insane?” Hansel demands. He’s already decided they are.

“We could have saved that man!”

“You’re a moving target.” Gretel glares at Wilhelm. “Your armor can be seen from miles away.”

“At least we’re doing something.” He defends. “Hansel and Gretel, great witch hunters, yet you were cowering from the dragon while another citizen was taken!”

Gretel looks a second away from jumping from her horse and dragging him down.

“We should go back to town.” Jacob speaks up, seemingly desperate to keep the peace. “It will be dark soon.”

Hansel glances up at the sun slowly sinking lower in the sky. They still have a few hours of light left but nothing he’d want to risk on a person that was most likely long gone. Wilhelm sends his brother a betrayed look. Jacob seems to shrink further under it.

“We shouldn’t leave the villagers unprotected.”

“They’re not.” Gretel says shortly. She lets her horse have its lead and together they turn back towards the town. The brothers follow quickly. “You said you know what that thing was?”

“A dragon.” Jacob agrees. He leans forwards in his saddle, eager. “I’ve written a story about them. They’re terrible, magnificent beasts that can breathe fire. Their hides are impenetrable.”

“Still want to stick around?” Hansel mutters, low enough for only Gretel. They won’t be leaving after this, Ben wants to stay, and Edward will follow Gretel anywhere. Louder he says, “How do you kill it?”

“Kill it?” Jacob gapes, eyes wide behind his glasses.

“That monster just made off with a villager.” Hansel shares a glance with Gretel.

“Who is probably dinner.”

Jacob blanches at the thought.

“And if it’s gotten a taste of man, it will definitely be back.”

Wilhelm blissfully remains silent for the ride back, sulking if Hansel were to guess, but once they reach the edge of town he breaks ahead, forcing his brother to hurry to keep up. He’s not surprised to ride into the square to find the fairer brother regaling the town’s folk with tales of their heroic deeds and their plans to rescue the young man who was taken.

Ben grabs the reins as Hansel swings down from his horse, quickly tying them up near the water trough.

“It was another young man,” he says as they head for their cart. Their shoulders brush as they walk. “The son of the tax collector. He’s 23.”

Close to Ben’s age.

“Don’t worry kid,” Hansel casts a glance at him, watching as he bites at his lower lip in an entirely too distracting way. “We’ll protect you.”

Ben predictably rolls his eyes.

Wilhelm is already holding court in the tavern when they get there later that evening. They’d spent the past few hours talking to the Sheriff, pulling from him what information they could, before calling it a night. Wilhelm is seated by the fire, a young woman in danger of spilling out of her dress on his lap as he regales a small group of locals with tales of his heroics.

Hansel considers just turning around and going to bed. Ben looks in danger of falling into the group surrounding him so Hansel hooks a hand in his collar and tows him across the room where the light didn’t quite reach and Gretel was getting them a table.

“Ben!” Wilhelm calls out, cheerfully. His cheeks are ruddy and he’s clearly had more than enough to drink.

Hansel doesn’t let up on his grip so Ben waves as he’s steered to their table.

“You worry too much.” Ben doesn’t fight his grip. He lets himself be settled on one stool while Hansel takes the next. “He’s not going to corrupt me or whatever you think he wants.”

Oh, Hansel has a feeling he knows exactly what Wilhelm Grimm wants.

“He’s good at worrying.” Gretel smirks. The barkeep brings them over a tankard each.

His gaze wanders, ignoring the pair as they gang up on him. He plans on getting nice and drunk and forgetting the entire day. But his gaze lands on Jacob Grimm, sitting apart from his brother. He’s closer to the bar, almost out of sight from where his brother holds court, a notebook open before him as he scribbles furiously at the pages. He wonders what he’s writing about; he frowns at the thought it might be about them.

“I’m gonna see if he wants some company.” Ben’s hand on his shoulder catches his attention. Brown eyes meet his, hold his gaze, and then he wanders off.

Right towards the enemy.

“If you keep grinding your teeth the whole place will hear it.” Gretel says as Ben sits down across from Jacob Grimm and starts up a conversation.

Hansel very carefully relaxes his jaw. It doesn’t help the tension that’s got him strung as tight as a bow.

“You’d probably be less paranoid if you just told him.” She continues, thoughtfully. He kicks her shin. She kicks him back, harder. He’s going to have a bruise.

He’s saved from answering by the winding down of his timer. Gretel watches him carefully as he pulls out the needle, shifting away from the table for space, and shoving it hard into the muscle of his thigh. It works immediately, chasing away the cloying, heavy feeling of his illness with a surge of energy.

“Hansel.” Gretel murmurs and he looks up, catches Ben watching, worried, and as luck would have it, Jacob, curiosity written across his face.

He shoves the needle out of sight. He’ll do it in front of people, but not if he doesn’t have to. He hates their stares.

“I’m gonna get some sleep.” He stands abruptly, trusting Gretel to take care of their bill. He strides through the tavern; Wilhelm has momentarily lost the young woman that had been perched on his lap, his followers laughing and sharing stories of their own as the fairer brother watches Ben and Jacob with a frown.

Hansel gets out of there before he starts a brawl.

Gretel and Ben make it back to the room a few hours later. There are two small beds and a small coal stove for the cooler months. Hansel’s got the window thrown open in deference of the warm weather, his blankets arranged on the floor in a nest. Edwards sleeping close to the door, as he always does, ready to be the first thing between them and anything that comes for them. Gretel steps on his hand as she stumbles towards her bed, crawling in fully dressed. In the dim light coming from the moon Hansel watches as Ben hovers between him and the remaining bed.

Hansel rolls over, facing Gretel’s bed.

“Just get in, kid.” His voice is rough with sleep.

There’s a pause and then the whisper of sheets as Ben slips into the bed.

“Thanks Hansel.” Ben says quietly.

Edward lets out a loud snore.

Hansel pretends he’s already fallen back asleep.

They meet in the Sheriff’s office the next morning as the sun is coming up. He’s more than a little surprised when the brothers arrive shortly after them, a heavy bag slung over Wilhelm’s shoulder.

“We’ll start with the forest.” Gretel spreads a map out across the Sheriff’s desk. “If this is where the man was spotted we can start there, and then follow the path the dragon took.”

“We’ll be here.” Wilhelm grins, pearly teeth on display. “Doing research.”

They split up, happily in Hansel and Gretel’s case. The four head for the edge of the forest, keeping an eye to the sky as they go, just in case. Until they can find a way to kill a dragon, they’re vastly under prepared. It takes longer on foot, horses aren’t always fond of Edward so they’ve gotten used to walking. A quarter of an hour later they reach the boundaries, stepping between the thick trees and feeling the temperature drop now that they’re out of the sun.

It’s too quiet, he realizes quickly. The usual bird cries are silent, even the insects are muted. The sound of his breathing is loud in the silence. They spread out as they go, within sight of each other but covering more ground. The trees are close enough together that it’s safe to assume something as large as a dragon would have trouble making its way through here.

Somehow he loses sight of Edward as he crosses into a clearing. He pauses, waiting to hear the familiar sound of Edwards weight crashing through the underbrush, despite months of teaching him to step lighter.

It doesn’t come.

“Hello.”

He whips around, gun up and at the ready.

The man sitting on the stump nearby just raises on dark eyebrow at him; there’s a pipe hanging from the corner of his mouth that he’s puffing away at. Hansel knows, with absolute certainty that he wasn’t there a moment ago.

“What brings you to these parts of the woods?” The man’s voice is rough, deep like a chasm in the earth one could fall into, lost forever. His eyes aren’t burning, not that Hansel can see but that doesn’t mean anything. His most prominent feature is a shockingly blue beard.

“Looking for some young men and women.” He says carefully. He doesn’t lower his weapon.

“Oh son,” the man laughs and it seems to echo throughout the forest. “There aren’t any whore houses in these parts.”

 He eyes Hansel over his pipe, interest clear in his gaze. Hansel shifts, feeling uncomfortably bare under the look in his eyes.

“How about we cut with the bullshit and you tell me where the kids are?” Hansel uses his anger to regain his footing but the man just laughs again.

Hansel blinks and the man is next to him, steel grip wrapped around his wrist. His bones grind together and he cries out, tries to move his gun but it’s knocked from his grasp. He reaches for his pistol with his free hand as the man squeezes tighter.

An arrow flies close to his face and Edward comes crashing into the clearing. And then he’s flying through the air, weightless before he comes crashing down again. Hansel hits the dirt hard, rolls, and only stops when he hits the stump the man had been perched on before. His ribs take the brunt of it, and it knocks the breath from him.

For a moment the world continues to spin before him as he tries to suck air in.

“Hansel!” Hands roll him gently onto his back. Ben stares down at him, eyes wide with fear. Hansel focuses on his brown eyes, and takes a steadying breath, then another, and another. Gun shots retort through the clearing. Ben glances away and then back again. “Are you alright?”

“I’ll live.” He could happily lie here all day. He pushes himself up, grateful for Ben’s hands on him, steadying him. His right wrist throbs but he knows it’s not broken. He glances around but they’re the only ones left in the clearing; Edward and Gretel watching the perimeter carefully. Edwards got a cut on his face, Gretel’s looking ruffled. They got their asses handed to them.

He keeps his arm pressed close to his body, lets Ben haul him to his feet. The kid doesn’t back away, stays glued to his side as they join the others.

“Shit,” Gretel grabs him and hugs him tight. “You disappeared.”

“I wandered right into his trap.” Hansel scowls. She pulls back, takes in his disheveled appearance, his wrist held protectively close.

“At least we have a better idea of who we’re dealing with.” She holds up one of her arrows. The tip is stained with blood. “And he can be hurt.”

They make it back to town midafternoon. He’s used to how time flows differently in forests. Ben still looks a little wild eyed, stays close to Hansel as they catch the Sheriff and the Mayor up on what they’ve found. It’s not much, but it’s more than they had before.

They catch a late lunch at the tavern; it’s unusually full but the source has to be the two brothers holding court by the low fire. To Hansel’s great pleasure Ben barely glances in their direction as they make a beeline to one of the few free tables. It’s always a treat watching Edward fold his great bulk and perch on a spindly stool. A few people make to come their way but the sight of Edward is enough to give them their privacy.

Ben whips out his pack as the bowls of warm stew are placed before them, a roll of bandages brandished like a weapon. He grasps Hansel’s hand before he can take a bite of his stew. He’s shed his jacket now that they’re indoors and it’s too hot to keep it on, so Ben just has to undo one of his bracers to get at his sore wrist. There are angry red marks where they dug into his swollen wrist on the way back to town. Ben’s touch is gentle as he slowly begins wrapping the bandage. His thumb runs along the length of his palm, traces the sensitive skin of his wrist and Hansel sucks in a sharp breath.

“Sorry,” Ben murmurs, taking it as pain. Hansel ducks his head to hide the way his cheeks have warmed.

“Don’t worry about it.”

He can feel Edward and Gretel studiously ignoring them.

It feels like forever and no time at all before Ben is releasing his hand, wrist firmly wrapped. He slips the bracer into his pack, probably so Hansel won’t try and ditch the bandages at the first opportunity.

Edward stiffening across from him is his first warning that he’s not going to like what’s headed their way. Gretel idly toying with her knife is the second.

“I see things went well for you then!” Wilhelm drags a stool over and sits himself dramatically at the end of the table between Ben and Gretel with a brash grin. His brother follows a moment later, looking a mixture of fascinated and worried as he sits between Hansel and Edward.

Hansel pushes his bowl away, appetite suddenly gone.

“A few bumps and bruises but no one’s dead.” Wilhelm continues, spotting his wrist. Hansel pulls his hands back, dropping his wrist from view with a glare.

“Was there something you wanted?” He asks.

“I thought we could share information.” Wilhelm smiles sweetly. “Since we are meant to be working together after all.”

“You boys sat around all day and now you want to know what we found.” Gretel surmises. The brothers watch as she picks at the dirt under his fingernails with the tip of her knife.

“We weren’t sitting around.” Jacob protests. He seems to have trouble pulling his gaze from the image before him. “We were doing research.”

Ben perks up a little at this. Hansel is ready to leave.

“What did you find?”

“Ah, ah, ah.” Wilhelm leans forwards, enticing. “What did you find?”

“A man,” Ben glances at Gretel. She shrugs; they’re going to find out anyways once they talk to the Mayor. “With a blue beard. He controls magic and he’s strong.”

He thankfully leaves out how Hansel walked right into his trap.

“That would be Blue Beard.” Jacob pushes his glasses up, eyes alight. Any fear he may have of Edward is gone in the face the knowledge he has to share. It reminds him of Ben in a way, when he gets caught up in lore and folk tales.

“Kind of on the nose isn’t it?” Gretel arches an eyebrow. “Considering.”

“It’s what all of the old tales call him.” Jacob insists. “We’ve been collecting the folk tales of the town all morning and he fits the description you gave.”

Somehow Hansel isn’t convinced that they did it merely to help the search.

“What else do they say about him?” Ben asks eager.

Jacob and Ben lean closer, effectively trapping Hansel between them. He tries not to lean into Ben’s side or the heat coming off of him.

“Apparently he kidnaps his wives and treats them to riches beyond their imagination.”

“Aside from the kidnapping that doesn’t sound too ominous.”

“But when he leaves he entrusts them with a key to the one room they’re not allowed to enter. Each of them does anyways, discovering the previous wives inside, dead. And he always knows when he’s been disobeyed, killing his current wife and setting out for another.”

“That doesn’t bode well for the villagers.” Gretel comments.

Jacob frowns, like he hadn’t quite considered the implications of the tale.

“I’m sure they’re all fine.” Wilhelm assures them.

“If he wants wives why is he taking the men?” Ben asks.

“Some men enjoy the company of both men and women.” Wilhelm winks as Ben flushes.

 “That’s not what I meant,” he protests. “And why is he taking them so frequently? Two of the men were taken within a day of one another; did he kill them that quickly?”

“Do you have a way to kill him?” Hansel asks stomach twisting, ready to be done with the conversation.

“Not really,” Jacob scratches at his chin, hesitant. “Sounds like swords and such could work. Something pointy.”

“You just have to get close enough.” Gretel glances his way; they both know magic won’t hurt them, but his speed is going to be a problem. Their specialty is witches, not men with oddly coloured facial hair.

“Looks like we will be working together.” Hansel scowls as Wilhelm claps Ben on the shoulder. His touch lingers. There’s a bitter taste in his mouth. He looks away, but Jacob is frowning at the pair as well.

Hansel wishes he could just leave the villagers to Blue Beard, and to these two charlatans.

He gets up under the guise of grabbing another drink, bumping his hip into Wilhelm Grimm as he goes. There’s a fierce sense of satisfaction when the man nearly topples to the floor. He can feel Gretel’s smirk and Ben’s disapproving stare on his back as he approaches the bar.

It’s pretty obvious that they won’t be able to just wander back into the forest tomorrow the way they did today. They need a solid location to look for lest they end up wandering the forest uselessly until they’re found.

He’d love to meet Blue Beard on his own terms but he has a feeling their usual traps aren’t going to work.

The barkeep wanders over, refilling his mug.

“You’re them witch hunters right?”

Hansel grunts in response, taking a deep drink.

“Any luck finding the people taken?”

He puts his drink back down, taking in the barkeep properly. He’s an older man, with thick grey eyebrows and a large red nose. Wrinkles are set deep in his face, laugh lines belaying a life well lived, but it’s his eyes that draw Hansel’s attention. Hazel stained with worry and desperation.

He sighs. “Your child?”

“Nephew.” The barkeep shrugs, wiping clean a mug to keep his hands busy. “Two weeks ago.”

“I’m sorry.” Hansel offers. Especially with the way things are looking.

“He’s a good kid.” The barkeep tells him, staring him down like he expects Hansel to argue the point. “Stayed away from the woods after it started, even when the younger kids wanted to keep going out there. Was taken from right in town”

“Any particular reason they kept going out there?”

“The best apple trees grow in the woods,” he explains. “By some old ruins. They always sell well at the market; biggest reddest apples you’ve ever seen.”

Hansel perks up at the information. “Ruins?”

“Yeah, just some old castle time forgot.” The barkeep offers to top up his drink. “But most of the kids wouldn’t be going there, they know better.”

“Think you can tell me where to find these ruins?”

“It’s easy to get lost in the forest.” The barkeep frowns. “You’re better off with a guide.”

He glances around the busy tavern; spotting who he’s looking for he points to an elderly man sitting by the fire. A few people are talking by the man but it looks like he’s just happy to be left alone.

“That’s old man Gotz, he still takes the path out to the apple trees sometimes. He can probably help you.”

“Thanks.” Hansel takes his drink and a second one, and heads over to the old man. He doesn’t glance up as Hansel sets the tankard before him, settling down on an old creaking stool next to him. The man’s face is lined with deep wrinkles and his skin looks paper thin and he’s stooped with age. Hansel isn’t sure how this guy is going to be of any help.

“It’s rude to stare.” Gotz rumbles, voice thick and full of phlegm.

“I hear you’re the man to talk to if I need a guide.”

Gotz glances over briefly.

“And where is it you need a guide to?”

“Some old ruins.” Hansel slides the second mug closer. “We’d be going tomorrow morning. Think you can help?”

“I don’t go out that way anymore.”

“Funny, I was told otherwise.” Hansel takes a drink. Gretel’s watching him carefully, ignoring Wilhelm as he talks her ear off.

“I know who told you that. He was wrong.”

“We’ll find someone else.” Hansel pushes to his feet. “Someone who will take our money. Enjoy the drink.”

He claps the old man on the back and leaves.

He barely makes it a few steps before he’s called back over. Gretel smirks over at him. He schools his face, dropping back down onto the stool.

“Got a name of a good guide?” Hansel asks, tone light.

“I know someone.” Gotz hedges. “Who would be willing to meet you tomorrow morning. The pay is good of course?”

“Double the pay if we get led there and back.”

Gotz nods, picking up his mug, apparently dismissing Hansel again.

He climbs to his feet for a second time; this time he’s not stopped as he rejoins the others. He doesn’t bump Wilhelm this time, mainly because he’s keeping his hands to himself now.

“What was that?” Ben doesn’t shift over as Hansel retakes his seat and he’s hyper aware where they’re pressed against one another.

“Got us a guide to some ruins in the forest tomorrow.” He glances and Jacob. “Seemed like a good place to start searching.”

“Wonderful.” Wilhelm claps his hands together. “Then in the meantime we should celebrate!”

“Celebrate?” Ben repeats.

“Of course, we have new information; Blue Beard is within our grasp.” He winks at Ben. Jacob scowls.

“I think I’ll leave you boys to it.” Gretel stands, Edward a moment later.

Hansel glances at Ben, wanting to go with his sister but reluctant to leave Ben with the brothers. Blue Beard isn’t afraid to come within the boundaries of the town that much is evident. The brothers are too flashy, seem too fake to consider trusting Ben with either of them. An equally large part of him dislikes the idea of Wilhelm getting a chance to sink his claws into Ben, draw him closer with their grand stories and exploits. His chest feels tight, stomach sick at the thought.

“It’s a little early for me.” Ben’s looking back at him. “Maybe later.”

And just like that the tight feeling eases and he can breathe again.

“What about you Hansel?” Jacob peers at him over his glasses.

“Got work to do.” He stands with Ben, following Gretel’s lead.

“Looks like it’s just you and me Jake.” Wilhelm signals for another round for the pair. Hansel watches a moment longer, notes the relief on Jacob’s face and the sudden ease to Wilhelm. He leaves before they catch him staring.

They check over their weapons, make sure they can move quickly and quietly enough with the fire power they think they need. It passes the time and quickly the sun sets and the streets become deserted, villagers tightly locked up just in case.

From what he’s seen, a locked door won’t make much of a difference.

Gretel and Edward wander back down to talk to the Mayor, and then to the tavern, but Hansel is fine from their late lunch and isn’t looking for more company so he begs off. Oddly enough Ben elects to stay behind too, and soon it’s just them in the tiny room lit by a few candles.

The kids curled up on his bed, his Hansel and Gretel book open and balanced on his knees. Hansel sets to work dismantling his side arm, cleaning each individual piece methodically as he goes. It helps soothe him, quiet his mind. They fall into an easy silence interrupted only by the odd page being turned and the sound of cloth on metal.

He quickly loses track of time in a way he rarely does. It’s unpleasant, when he’s snapped back to the present by the cloying sweetness of earlier. His timer winds down, interrupting their silence and he fumbles the firing pin in his hands. Ben has crossed the room before he has a chance to see him move, his needle held out to him.

Hansel stabs it into the meat of his thigh, depresses the plunger and waits for the feeling to retreat.

“Thanks,” he huffs when he’s finally feeling like himself. He’s getting sloppy, that’s the second time he’s lost track, cut it close to the edge. Gretel’s going to kick his ass if he keeps it up.

Ben doesn’t immediately return to his side of the room, settling instead on the thin mattress next to Hansel.

“What does it feel like?”

“Stings like a bitch.” Hansel tosses the needle safely to the side.

“I meant before you inject yourself.” Ben reaches out and for a moment Hansel swears he’s going to rest his hand on his thigh, where the needle went in. He holds still waiting for the contact, unsure of what to do with it. But Ben jerks and returns his hands to his lap. “And after.”

“It’s like after you have too many sweets.” Hansel shrugs, missing a touch he never had. “Feels heavy on the back of my tongue, and sluggish in my blood. I feel weak, the drug stops it.”

“Weak?” Ben repeats, glancing at Hansel. They’d cut his hair a month ago, the blond strands sticky with a witches potion, and while it is growing out, Ben keeps ducking his head as though his fringe will be long enough again to cover his gaze. It’s a habit he doesn’t seem able to break. “You’re not weak.”

“We’re all weak at some time kid.” He mutters, uncomfortable.

Ben ducks his head again but this time it’s to catch Hansel’s gaze. He holds it as though searching for something. His hand brushes Hansel’s. It’s shocking; electricity seers through him from that one point of contact, igniting his veins and catching his breath in his chest.

“Why don’t you like Wilhelm?” Ben watches him steadily; nerves only betrayed by the way he can see his pulse hammering against the long column of his neck. His fingers hesitantly skim along the back of Hansel’s hand, along his fingers and back again repeating the movement. Hansel’s own heart is thundering in his ears. He wonders if the kid can hear it.

“He’s an asshole.” His voice comes out rough. He clears his throat and tries again. “He’s a fake.”

“They found out about Blue Beard.” Ben points out; his touch is light on the bandage wrapped around Hansel’s wrist.

“So give them a parade.” He jerks back from the touch; his skin feels too tight and he feels out of his depth, frustrated with it. He doesn’t know what Ben wants.

A smile spreads across Ben’s face though, despite Hansel’s tone. He doesn’t know what the kid sees but it must be what he was looking for. Hansel feels torn open, flayed under the gaze.

And then Ben leans in and the world narrows down to just the two of them. He can feel Ben’s chest against his arm, the slender muscles as he shifts, the warmth of his body, and the hammering of his heart. He can feel Ben’s hands, one supporting him on the bed, against Hansel’s hip, and the other brushing feather light against the line of his jaw. And most importantly he can feel Ben’s lips, dry but soft and insistent against his own. He wonders how he never sees these things coming.

He hesitantly reaches out, one arm trapped awkwardly between them, the other reaching up to copy Ben, to slide up the pale column of his throat, to the barely there stubble rough skin of his jaw. He doesn’t try to deepen the kiss, just lets himself enjoy it, this new beginning, this terrifying end of the status quo, as Ben sighs into it.

He doesn’t know how long they sit there, soaking up the rasping of their evening stubble, immersed in the tenderness of this first kiss. They finally pull back what feels like hours later but also no time at all, foreheads pressed together. Hansel feels giddy with it, feels like he’s about to burst out of his skin with the feeling. He presses another chaste kiss to Ben’s lips, to his cheeks, his nose, and his eyes.

Heavy footsteps echo down the hall outside their door and they reluctantly part but there’s no wiping the crazed, enamored grins off their faces.

Gretel and Edward take one look at them and roll their eyes.

“Separate beds boys.” Gretel instructs, drunk on alcohol and good humor. “At least until you can get past the honey moon phase. Edward and I don’t need to get an earful.”

Edward grunts.

“Or an eyeful.” She adds with a wink.

Ben ducks his head and Hansel tosses his boot at his sister but he can’t hold it against her, he’s too happy. Ben shoots him a shy glance as he crawls into bed and Hansel holds the memory of their kiss close to him for the night.

The next morning there’s a light drizzle falling from the sky.

He wakes up with a kink in his neck and his wrist sore from the previous day.

Gretel is still curled up in bed, awake but unwilling to move just yet; Edwards still snoring away nearby. He can hear Ben moving around.

“Help me up kid.” Hansel sticks his hand up and a moment later Ben appears in his line of sight, grasping his good wrist and tugging him to his feet. The blanket pools around his ankles and he pretends to stumble, just to feel how Ben automatically steadies him, free hand on his waist.

Hansel grins, ducks closer until he’s nose to nose with him.

“Hey.” He murmurs. Ben’s smile is breath taking. He presses forwards to feel it against his own, to taste it, to commit it to memory.

“It’s too early for this.” Gretel mumbles from her pile of blankets.

Ben pulls away, embarrassed but looking pleased.

“We’ve got to get moving.” She sighs as she rolls out of bed. As always Ben averts his eyes.

Hansel nudges Edward, waking him, and then strips off the shirt he slept in. There’s a wash bin in the corner filled with cold water and he scrubs his face quickly, shaking off the remnants of sleep. He stretches, shaking off any lingering stiffness from sleeping on the floor—his body is mostly used to it after years of giving up the bed to Gretel when they didn’t just share, huddling together, but he still gets stiff.

He catches Ben’s gaze as he goes to his pack for a fresh shirt. The kid blushes but doesn’t immediately look away and the hunger in his gaze as it rakes over Hansel makes heat bloom in his chest, spreading through his veins. His brown eyes are molten. Hansel swallows, grabbing his shirt lest he reach out and drag Ben closer instead.

“Come on lover boys.” Gretel links her arm with Ben’s and leads him to the door, fully dressed. “We’ve got some work to do.”

Hansel flushes, dragging his shirt on quickly and throwing his vest on over top. He throws on his belt and scoops up what he needs for the trip.

Edward’s been waiting for him patiently but he huffs out his amusement as Hansel trips in his haste to get ready.

“Not a word.” He mutters, cheeks darkening further. Edward grabs his pack from his hands so he can finish doing up his boots as he hastily shoves his feet into them.

He ignores Edwards’s laughter as they head out to join the others outside the tiny inn.

His good mood takes a hit when he spots the brothers decked out in their shining armor waiting in the town square. They’ve drawn a bit of a crowd, early risers coming out to see what the great heroes are going to do next. A few people cast startled, nervous glances their way as they approach.

The brothers light up when they spot them though, cutting through the crowd to meet them.

“Good morning!” Wilhelm greets, loud and on display for his public.

“You boys certainly stand out.” Gretel ignores Wilhelm’s outstretched hand and goes to Jacob instead, tapping on the metal. “But it seems pretty solid.”

“We had a witch bless them a few years ago.” Jacob twists to let her inspect the armor.

“The only good witch is a dead witch.” She replies, automatically.

“This was a good witch.”

Gretel casts a look at Hansel. His mood sours further at the reminder of Mina and he can’t help himself from glancing over at Ben, checking that he’s still in one piece despite the fact that they haven’t left yet. It’s a bad omen at the beginning of their hunt. One that leaves him twisted and cold with fear he isn’t used to.

Ben doesn’t notice his worry, double checking their supplies.

“We should head out.” Gretel changes the subject. “If you can pull your brother away from his adoring public.”

Wilhelm has returned to the growing crowd, regaling them with tales of magic poisoned apples. Hansel wonders just how much of this the brothers have made up. Their armor is a flashy monstrosity, but up close it appears sturdy enough. Jacob scowls at his brother and hurries over to get him.

Old man Gotz greets them at the edge of town, walking stick in hand.

“Thank you for taking us,” Gretel says. Gotz just stares for a moment, taking in the group before him, like he can’t quite believe what he’s seeing before turning and leading them across the clearing.

They walk to the edge of the forest again, the brothers aren’t pleased but surprisingly don’t complain. The walk feels faster than it had the previous day and soon enough they’re in the cool shade of the forest. They stick together this time, on a path that only Gotz can see as he leads them deeper. Hansel keeps Gretel in front of him and Ben at his side. He can hear Edward’s heavy footsteps as he takes up the rear.

“This reminds me of the time we were searching for the missing girls, Jake.” Wilhelm fills the silence that has descended upon the group.

“I’d rather not think of that right now.” Jacob murmurs, casting nervous glances at the trees as though they will jump out at him at any moment.

“What about the time with the piper?”

“That was to a river.”

Hansel tunes them out easily. Stealth isn’t necessary, as shown the previous day there’s a good chance that Blue Beard already knows where they are.

The question then, is why is he letting them come so close?

Apple trees spring up before them in a wild orchard. The trees are dotted with beautiful red apples that look mouthwatering. Its mid-morning and they haven’t eaten since breakfast. Gretel, thinking along the same lines reaches up and picks one, tossing it to Hansel before grabbing one for herself. He turns to offer one to Gotz when Edward lets out a roar and rips the apple from Gretel’s grip. She stumbles back, startled, but her trust in Edward is absolute. Hansel quickly tosses his own apple. They hit the ground and burst, the beautiful red skin falling away to reveal a skin as black as night.

“What the devil…” Jacob stoops to investigate. He prods at them with a stick, surprise flashing across his features, followed by recognition.

“You know what’s wrong with the apples, don’t you.” Hansel eyes the brothers, just waiting for whatever lie they come up with to spill from their lips.

Wilhelm peers over his brother’s shoulder, paling at the sight of the apples.

“I wouldn’t eat the apples.” He says with a frown. “They’re poisonous.”

“No shit.” Hansel scowls. The trees aren’t showing any sign of decay, they look perfectly healthy. It’s strong magic. Spells may not work on them but he doesn’t want to know if the apples would; the witch’s candy all those years ago certainly did. And that leaves Ben and Edward vulnerable to the poisoned fruit. “Weren’t you just telling the towns folk about poisoned apples this morning?”

“Yes,” Wilhelm glances from him to Gretel, offended. “But you can’t think I had anything to do with this.”

“It is suspicious timing.” Gretel adjusts the grip on her crossbow.

“The poisoned apples we came across was over a year ago!” Wilhelm shouts. “Nowhere near here. And they were from a witch, not growing on a tree.”

He might not like the guy but he’s inclined to believe him at least. So if anyone did know about the apples that would leave one person.

Gotz doesn’t say anything when he turns to him, regards him steadily with dark eyes. There’s something off about him, now that Hansel actually stops and looks. There’s a feeling he’s giving off, different from the nervous man yesterday. He doesn’t blink, staring Hansel down.

Jacob is quick to rush to his brother’s defense but Hansel ignores them and reaches swiftly for his gun.

Gotz lets out a horrible sound, laughter that doesn’t quite sound like its coming from a human. It’s a terrible, grating sound that makes his skin crawl and itch. And then the old man’s skin peels back, piece by piece as he grows larger. It’s like the skin of a rotten fruit as the soft insides spill out from between the cracks and the skin lands wetly on the ground.

Wilhelm, the closest to the old man, stumbles as Jacob pulls him further away. A stench fills the air of death and decay.

And then the body collapses in on itself, a bubbling wet mess.

Nausea twists his stomach from the disgusting display but it’s the smell that really gets him. Ben gags next to him, his hand pressed over his nose to try and keep the smell out. He’s impressed despite himself when the brothers manage to keep it together.

“Golems,” says a vaguely familiar voice. “They never do stay together long.”

Chaos reigns around them as Blue Beard appears among them. Gretel is fastest, as always, bringing her cross bow up and letting loose a string of bolts as the man moves faster than should be possible. Hansel hates magic.

Hansel gets him in his sights and nearly shoots Jacob when he gets in the way. He curses, moves but Blue Beard has already moved again. Edward lets out a tooth rattling roar and charges him. He’s swatted away like a fly, crashing through the thick trees lining the orchard. He shoots, thinks he manages to at least wing Blue Beard but then the man is before him. His gun goes flying so he grabs his knife, swings with his free hand. Ben and Wilhelm rush them but barely get close enough before they’re knocked back, and then for the second time in two days Hansel is air born. He hits the ground, breath knocked out of him for a moment as he tries to breathe.

Gunfire fills the air but it’s getting harder, Blue Beard stays close enough to them that they risk shooting one another. Gretel switches to knives easily but the brothers fumble theirs like they’re not used to them. Blue Beard grabs Ben, gets a hand around his neck and lifts, choking him.

Hansel grits his teeth and pushes to his feet.

His pistol is still strapped to his leg and he grabs it. Shoot now; apologize later if he hits someone else.

His bullet hits the solid muscle of Blue Beards thigh; blessed bullets that work well on witches apparently also work on him. Enough so that he loosens his grip on Ben enough that he can get free. Hansel keeps his gun drawn and hurries to Ben’s side, one hand on his arm as he tries to keep his eyes on both of them at once.

“Where are you keeping the men and women you take?” Gretel demands.

Blue Beard laughs, a cold mocking sound. Gretel grits her teeth and goes in swinging. In a blink of an eye he’s gone though and her fist connects with nothing.

Silence falls over the forest.

“What the hell.” Ben breathes eyes wide. Hansel holsters his pistol and rounds on him, hands coming up to check the bruising of his neck. He keeps his touch gentle, tilting Ben’s head to get a better look, to make sure he’s actually okay. Some of the panic he’s feeling must telegraph through his movements. Ben grasps his hands carefully, but firmly, stilling him.

“Jake?” Wilhelm says, panic clear in his voice. “Has anyone seen Jacob?”

They split up, but don’t go far. There’s no sign of Blue Beard or Jacob anywhere.

They leave the wild orchard and find a clearing nearby where they can settle for the moment and plan. Wilhelm tries to refuse, to argue they should be searching for Jacob but they’re running around blind.

“Gotz was leading us to the ruins.” Gretel reminds him. “We should keep going that way. It’s our best bet of finding them.”

“That monster?” Wilhelm demands. “We’re going to keep following the advice of that disgusting creature?”

“That wasn’t Gotz.” Hansel says. “The real Gotz is probably dead somewhere back in the village.”

“You hired him,” Wilhelm rounds on Hansel, stalks close and gets in his face. “You should have known something was wrong!”

“Enough!” Gretel shoves Wilhelm back. He doesn’t take a swing at her, probably the smartest idea he’s had. “Help us plan or find your way back to the village.”

She doesn’t leave room to argue so Wilhelm grudgingly accepts, and together they come up with a semblance of a plan. Midafternoon they continue in what they hope is the right direction. The ruins were supposed to be close to the orchard so they circle out from there, sweeping patterns to cover the area.

It doesn’t take too long. Dusk falls faster in the forest and it’s already growing dark when they find the ruins. It’s not what they’re expecting—the castle looks in disrepair but there are warm lights coming from the windows. Trees and vines grow along the stone walls from the years of abandonment and pieces of stone have crumbled down to the forest floor. It looks old but lived in. He can’t help but wonder how long Blue Beard has been here.

Gretel and Edward leave them and disappear into the falling gloom. Hansel grudgingly leads Wilhelm and Ben towards the front door.

“Should we knock?” Ben wonders, breaking the oppressive silence.

Hansel already knows that the door is going to be unlocked. The old wood has a crawling vine creeping up it, a gnarly looking thing that looks like it could move at any moment and strangle them where they stand.

It opens easily under his touch but a sharp pain blooms from his finger tip. He pulls his hand back, noticing for the first time the wicked looking thorns on the vine. Blood wells up from the pinprick and he sucks it into his mouth to ease the sting.

“Are you alright?” Ben asks, tugging on his arm until he shows him the pin prick. He smirks. “I think you’ll live.”

“Thanks kid,” Hansel drawls and leads the way into the castle.

It’s a startling change from outdoors. Rich rugs and tapestries decorate the entrance hall. Gold and silver fixtures gleam in the light of the torches and grand chandelier. The place looks brand new; nothing like the outside would lead you to believe.

“This looks like a lot of magic.” Wilhelm murmurs.

“Not if it’s just an illusion.” Hansel say but he can feel the rich carpet under his feet, and the feel of the smooth marble table as he puts a hand out to steady himself at a bout of light headedness. If it were an illusion it wouldn’t have this kind of effect on him.

“Hansel?”

He turns to look over at Ben but the world tilts worryingly and he loses his balance. Strong arms catch him and slow his descent to the floor. He clenches his eyes shut at the nausea from the spinning and a wave of exhaustion washes over him.

“What’s wrong with him?”

“I don’t know,”

He groans, ready to tell them off for talking about him like he’s not right there. But it’s getting harder to open his eyes.

“He pricked his finger, could it be that?”

“It could be magic.”

Hansel forces his eyes open with a frown. “Magic doesn’t affect me.”

Ben is crouched over him, Wilhelm near his head. Worry is written across his features.

“The candy house did,” he reminds him. He reaches out a hand, brushes Hansel’s cheek. “How do you feel?”

“Tired.” He admits, leaning into the touch. “Exhausted.”

“Could be poison.” Wilhelm glances between the pair with dawning understanding. “I suggest you stay awake and we stay away from that vine.”

He stands and Ben’s expression becomes even more pinched.

“I’m fine.” Hansel pushes himself up. The world spins but it doesn’t catch him off guard as much this time. “Help me up.”

Ben doesn’t look impressed but he ducks in and presses a quick kiss to Hansel’s lips, despite their audience. He wishes he could deepen it, that he had the time or energy. But he reluctantly lets Ben pull back and heft him to his feet. It’s harder than he expected legs loose and uncooperative. But he manages, blinking away the vertigo as Ben hovers by his side.

“There’s nothing down here.” Wilhelm wanders back over to them. Hansel is a little disturbed he didn’t notice him go. “We should head upstairs, Jake might be there.”

He starts up the grand staircase without waiting for a reply. Hansel eyes the steps with trepidation; it looks like a mountain at the moment. But Ben sidles over, wraps an arm around his waist and together they start the climb. He can tell Ben wants to suggest he sit this out, that he stays safe and sound down stairs. Hansel ignores the worried looks, determined not to be any more of a burden than he’s already becoming.

Wilhelm is no longer in sight when they reach the top of the stairs but they can hear him. They follow the raised voice quickly and quietly. He pulls away from Ben as they reach the doorway, reluctantly, and holds his gun ready. The double doors are cracked open, warm light spilling out from inside. Hansel takes a quick glimpse of the room, taking in what he can. He has to steady himself against the wall.

“What did you see?” Ben’s lips brush his ear and he shivers, the lust momentarily clearing his head.

“Blue Beard, Wilhelm, and Jacob.” Now they just have to kill Blue Beard or stall him long enough for Gretel and Edward to find the missing people.

He glances at Ben, who nods to show he’s ready. He can’t help himself, presses a quick chaste kiss to his lips, and then pulls back. Together they ease through the doors, guns drawn. Blue Beard doesn’t look over at them, seated in a large arm chair, amusement colouring his features. At his feet Jacob kneels, looking pale and nervous. Jacob looks over at the pair as they enter the room. Wilhelm keeps his gaze firmly on Blue Beard, his own gun pointed at the man.

“Fancy running into you here.” Blue Beards image tilts a little so Hansel plants his feet to keep from tilting with it. Already his arms are screaming at him, exhausted from holding his gun aloft.

“You are going to release Jacob and the townsfolk you’ve taken.” Wilhelm takes a step closer.

Blue Beard laughs. He reaches out and runs his hand down the back of Jacobs head, grips the back of his neck as though he were a domesticated animal.

“I think I would rather add you to my collection.” He rumbles. Wilhelm snarls and makes to move again but Blue Beard tightens his grip and Jacob flinches, cries out. “No closer please.”

“There’s nothing stopping us from shooting you right now.” Hansel bluffs. Blue Beard’s gaze flickers over him briefly.

“I’m impressed you’re still standing.”

“What do you mean?” Ben asks, worry colouring his tone.

“You are feeling exhausted aren’t you? It’s a fight to even hold your gun aloft.” Blue Beard smirks. “You won’t be able to fight the feeling forever, and when you succumb you will be placed on display for the remainder of your eternal sleep.”

Son of a bitch.” Hansel swears, rage clearing his mind for the moment.

“How do we stop it?” Ben demands. His knuckles are white where he’s clutching his gun.

“It’s all tied to my magic.” Blue Beard grins. “And my magic is infinite.”

“Well that’s a fucking lie.” Ben says and then shoots him.

Unhampered by any magic spell or poison, and easily one of the best marksmen they’ve come across, Ben’s bullet should be enough to kill him. Blue Beard moves too quickly, but it still hits, burying itself in the soft meat of his shoulder.

“You could have hit Jake!” Wilhelm shouts even as he lunges for his kneeling brother. He yanks him to his feet and away as Blue Beard grabs an intricate knife and swings. He misses the brothers by inches. Ben shoots again, and this time with no one else in the way, Hansel can join in. His aim is shit, he’s not sure if any of his bullets hit, but it keeps the man busy.

“I will enjoy adding you to my collection. A warning for any other who may come this way.”

Somehow they manage to get the knife away from him but hand to hand Hansel’s not at his best and a solid hit leaves his ears ringing and the world spinning dangerously. He hits the carpet, no one there to slow his fall this time. His stomach twists and spots dance across his vision. It feels like his body is sinking into the thick carpet, each limb growing heavier and heavier. He blinks furiously, trying to clear his vision but his eye lids grow heavy.

He can hear shouting but it sounds far away, muted and dull. He knows he needs to get up and rejoin the fight but the knowledge seems further and further away, unreachable. He’s been fighting for so long, been constantly on the road, don’t they deserve a break?

“Hansel,” long slender hands cup his face. He tries to focus on the feeling. “Hansel!”

It’s accompanied by a sharp slap that sends a shock of adrenaline through him. It’s enough to force his eyes open. Panic is written across Ben’s face.

Blue Beard he remembers abruptly; doesn’t understand how he could have forgotten. He tries to say so but his tongue feels heavy; lips numb, and can’t work up the energy.

“It’s fine,” Ben soothes, picking up on it right away. “Blue Beard is dead. Wilhelm killed him. Now I need you to stay awake for me.”

His chest feels heavy; his heart beat seems loud and slow in his ears. His eyes slide shut and he can’t seem to open them again. He thinks he hears Ben shout for the brothers as though they hold all the answers. He doesn’t feel panicked though, doesn’t feel jealous that Ben is shouting for them. He feels very little and there’s a part of him, a small inconsequential part that tells him something is wrong, but he can’t focus on it.

And then there’s the sound of a clock winding down, the familiar grinding of his timer. He barely feels the sharp prick of the needle.

He feels the flood of energy as it surges through him though.

He gasps, eyes flying open as his heart pounds. The world swims, refocuses and he sucks in deep lungful’s of air. He feels jittery, wide awake, like he should be up and moving, running, anything to work off the sudden power running through his veins.

“I can’t believe that worked.”

He comes back to himself, sitting up with Ben pressed against his side and the brothers crouching by his feet. The needle lays discarded off to the side.

“What the fuck.” He breathes.

“We upped the dosage.” Jacob tells him with a grin. “The adrenaline in the medicine you take should counteract the poison in your veins.”

Ben takes the opportunity to grip his chin and tug him in for a deep, probing kiss. He gets lost in it easily, reaches out and lets some of the energy thrumming through his veins out through the kiss. He’s halfway to pulling Ben into his lap to really work out some of the energy when someone clears their throat pointedly and they’re reminded of their audience.

“Not that I didn’t enjoy the show,” Wilhelm says with a leer and a wink. “But perhaps we should deal with the body and find the lovely Gretel.”

Jacob looks a little pink in the cheeks and he looks away quickly when he spots them watching him. With a sigh Hansel lets Ben help him to his feet, though he feels steadier than ever, and they decide what to do with the body. Blue Beard, lying in a pool of blood, has a neat little bullet hole through his forehead. It’s a better shot than he expected from Wilhelm and he grudgingly compliments him on it. He does the dirty work, removes the head from the body, and carries it by the hair as they head downstairs.

The magic of the place is unraveling around them, the fixtures tarnished by age, the lights going out. The stairs rot under their feet, chunks of stone fall away. It makes for a treacherous journey but they make it unscathed.

There’s shouting from outside, but it lacks panic, so they head out, careful of the doors though the plants closest to the castle appear to have withered and died. Gretel and Edward greet them, surrounded by a large group of young men and women.

“That was easier than I thought it would be.” Gretel grins, laughs at the scowls on their faces. “He had the villagers locked up together.”

“Dragon.” Edward says and Hansel casts an incredulous look her way. Gretel shrugs.

“There was a dragon guarding them. Dragons apparently aren’t that hard to kill.” She claps Edward on the arm. “Right big guy?”

“We took care of the main problem.” Hansel holds up Blue Beards head. A few of the people closest to them pale at the sight.

It’s an easy walk back, despite the darkness. They pass by the apple orchard, and curious, Jacob peels one of the fresh apples but there is no black skin underneath. Whatever magic Blue Beard had over the forest seems to have been lifted. Wilhelm is quick to regale the rescued villagers about their dramatic fight with Blue Beard, pulling Jacob close with an arm around his shoulders and making him sound like a damsel he rescued. Jacob grumbles but he doesn’t protest too loudly and doesn’t shove off his brother’s arm.

It’s been a trying time for all of them, Hansel understands.

Ben hovers close to his side. Hansel lets the villagers go first, Gretel and the brothers leading the way, and takes up the rear with Ben. He lets their fingers brush together as they walk the warm, secret touch sending thrills down his spine.

Despite the late hour, word spreads that the taken men and women are back and people rush out to meet their loved ones. Hansel spots the barkeep with a young man, with an older woman. The Mayor and the Sheriff greet them, the tavern opened and drinks passed around.

Hansel slips out while the Brothers are retelling their fight with Blue Beard for the fourth time; a moment later Ben follows.

Gretel and Edward will still be there awhile longer so they duck back into the room, not bothering with the candles. Hansel presses Ben down into his bed, strips him quickly, kissing each bit of pale skin revealed. The moon is bright in the sky and bathes them in pale light, and Ben looks angelic in the light. He tells him so and Ben laughs, a soft sound, and pulls him in for a sweet kiss. Despite the limited amount of time they have, Hansel works his way down Ben’s body slowly, savoring each moan and sigh he elicits from the other man. When they’re both bare he presses Ben into the mattress again, wraps a hand around both of them and strokes them together.

Ben grips his shoulders, and then runs his hands up and down his back, restless. His legs come up, wrapped around Hansel’s waist and pull him closer as they shift, hips rolling, sweat building between them.

Hansel comes first, spilling over his fist. He shudders through it, at the way his body seems to sing with pleasure. He wraps his fist around Ben’s cock and jerks him off steady and slow, propped up to watch the way he falls apart under his hands. Ben moans as he comes, a broken, needy sound that Hansel captures with his lips, tastes against his tongue.

They clean up quickly afterwards on unsteady legs, huffs of laughter escaping them when they catch the others gaze. They dress, more for Gretel and Edward than anything else, and slide back into the small bed. They tangle their legs together, Hansel wrapping an arm around Ben’s waist and holding him tight, resting his head in the crook of his neck. Ben holds him close, sliding his fingers through Hansel’s short hair slowly, caressing. It’s guaranteed to put him to sleep soon but he finds his mind drifting, troubling him.

“What is it?” Ben asks, sensing his mood.

Hansel shakes his head. “I just, I wish I could give you everything you deserve.”

Ben huffs out a soft laugh, fingers stilling. “Like what?”

“A home. A place to keep all of the books you want but can’t keep. A place to go so we’re not constantly on the road.”

Ben hums and tilts his head pressing a quick kiss to Hansel’s temple.

“The books are great,” he says softly. “But I have everything I need.”

He tightens his grip on Hansel pointedly. Hansel grins and ducks his head, pleased.

Two days later they’ve got the wagon loaded up and ready to go. The brothers are heading in the opposite direction thankfully; Hansel may not hate them, but he’ll be glad to see them go.

“You’ll have to keep an eye out for our next book.” Wilhelm is saying to Ben. The sight of them together doesn’t grate on his nerves as much as it did, not with Ben sleeping next to him at night, but he still doesn’t love it.

“It’s going to be about a sleeping beauty.” Jacob joins in eagerly. “Who can only be woken by true loves kiss.”

“Woken from what?”

“Her eternal sleep!”

“Wait, what?” Hansel catches on quickly. “You did not call me a sleeping beauty.”

Wilhelm waves him off. “We’re changing that part. A princess sells better than a brutish witch hunter.”

“He called me brutish.” Hansel repeats, glancing at Gretel for permission to kill Wilhelm.

“I think it’s time to get going.” She says and starts off with Edward and the cart. “Been a pleasure boys, but I hope we don’t run into each other anytime soon.”

“You wound me!” Wilhelm calls after her. Jacob rolls his eyes and holds out his hand for them to shake.

“If you ever write about us again,” Hansel says cheerfully. “I will hunt you down myself.”

Wilhelm laughs. “We shall see.”

Ben gets him out of there before he can kill Wilhelm Grimm.

They spend the next day slowly making their way through lush fields towards another town nearby that might have work for them. He’s relaxed in a way he hasn’t been in ages, content to verbally spar with Gretel and walk alongside Ben with their arms brushing.

The sun is high in the sky when they spot the dark figure a ways off. They can’t quite make out what it is, the land so flat that they see it coming from far away. So they set up a small camp, weapons at the ready when it becomes clear that the hulking shape is headed straight for them.

He tenses when he spots the giant wolf lumbering their way. A flare of red stands out; it resolves itself into the shape of a rider sitting astride the monstrous wolf. Gretel stands to greet them when they come close enough. It’s a young woman with dark hair and pale skin dressed in a red cloak and she climbs down off of the wolf when they reach them.

“Hansel and Gretel?” She calls out.

Hansel comes to stand alongside Gretel.

“Who’s asking?” Gretel calls back.

“Red and my wolf.” The woman pats the things giant head. Its tongue is hanging out of its mouth like a giant dog. Edward could easily ride the thing without worrying about crushing it. “I’ve been looking for you.”

Hansel glances at Gretel. “What for?”

“I’ve got news of an evil queen. I’m here to hire you to help me kill her.”

Gretel eyes the young woman, interest in her expression—at the situation, at the absurdity, or in the young woman herself, Hansel isn’t quite sure yet. Could be all three. He glances at Ben and Edward, they shrug.

He calls back, “We’re listening.”