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The sun is barely a sliver on the horizon by the time Jared is making his way home. He's exhausted. With the harvest at peak, it's been sixteen days now of this constant strain, and his muscles are all aching.

He doubts he'll make it to the river for a rinse before he falls asleep, but he hopes there's at least something warm ready to eat when he gets home. One more day on an empty stomach, and he might actually collapse.

It's not that Jared isn't grateful for the work. Lord Jeffrey is not an unjust employer; he pays fair wages for fair labor. He treats his hands like people, unlike most lords from what Jared can tell, and was enough of an improvement on his late father's rule that Jared's older brother was named in the young lord's honor.

On market days, if there are things left unsold that will expire before the next chance to sell them, Lord Jeffrey allows the hands to divvy it up, free of charge, and take the food home to their families. There are even times, if there's not as much to do on the farm, when Lord Jeffrey invites Jared up to his manor, and they do a different kind of work.

Jared likes those days—Lord Jeffrey is an attractive man, and it's not like he can risk acting out his desires with just anyone. The Lord of Morgan has a lot more to lose than Jared does, however, and his motivation to ensure no one catches them allows Jared some measure of safety.

No, he won't complain about the work. But the noble does expect his money's worth, and Jared can't afford to go even a day without wages to rest his weary body.

It was easier before his father's injury, before his brother's wife fell ill—ill and with child, and he can't ask Jeff to come work in the fields when Sandy might slip away while he's gone. Now Jared is the only one who can support a household that is becoming increasingly full.

Unless you count Megan, but she's never going to bring in coin with her needlework. To say that his rough-and-tumble little sister would earn more if the lord allowed women in the fields rather than expecting her to mend clothes for a living is an understatement. She and Jared used to trade chores when they were still young enough, with Megan chopping wood and hunting game and Jared staying at the cabin to mend or embroider the clothes wealthier women from the village brought by.

But once Jared was old enough to work in the fields, that's where he was expected, and Megan had to take up the sewing their mother couldn't do while struggling to keep the house in order and food on the table. Even Sandy hasn't been able to help any, not since the fever started.

Still, there's good news tonight, a slight spring in his step. Lord Jeffrey had agreed to pay his wages for the week two days early, and with some tight living, they will be able to buy some adder's tongue from the local apothecary. The last ingredient for the potion that will save his sister-in-law's life, if anything will.

He approaches his family's cabin and immediately notices that everything is dark inside. It's not anything to worry about on its own. Candles cost money, and there's still just enough light for his mother to see what she's stirring over the fire. It's not like Megan's needlework can really get much worse in the dark than it is when done under broad daylight.

What unsettles him is the door, left ajar, even though the house is empty when he sticks his head in and inspects the one crowded room his family shares. No mother standing by the fireplace, but the large pot overturned, perfectly good food spilled onto the floor. No father sitting at the table, chopping vegetables as well as he can with his shaking hands. Sandy isn't in her bed with Jeff sitting up next to her, attending to her fever.

The entire hut is abandoned, except for signs of struggle and white feathers scattered all throughout the room.

"You won't be finding them inside."

Jared jumps, surprised to hear anyone at all, and then an icy sensation slips down his spine. That heavy accent is one he's all too familiar with, even if he hasn't heard it very many times in person. Jeff and his friends used to tell stories about Ruth, the witch who lives in the woods, to scare Jared and Megan, and they always imitated her voice just before she ate whatever unhappy child had stumbled into her path.

He turns and, sure enough, she's standing there, leaning in the doorway as if this was her home instead of his. Her long black dress touches the dirt floor but remains clean, and Jared knows better than to take her slight figure for granted. Ruth has been the same small, red-headed woman for as long as Jared can remember, years and years passing without her having appeared to age a single day. There are rumors as to how she stays like that. Jared has always believed them to be true.

She smiles, looking weirdly sweet, as she steps into Jared's house. "You seem worried, child. I thought I'd save you the trouble of looking."

"What did you do to them?" Jared asks. "Where's my family?"

The witch shrugs as she crosses her arms over her chest. "Where? I couldn't tell you. Not troubling me anymore, that's all my concern."

"What did you do to them?" Jared repeats, each word its own sentence.

"The question is, really, what was done to me? I'm not the sort to go looking for trouble. Good way to end up on a pyre, that. But I don't abide insults."

"My family never insulted you," Jared assures her. "We're not important enough to be worth hurting."

"That's true, but your brother seems to think you are." Her sweet expression turns biting. "You see, I have this lovely garden. It's the most dear thing I have. Oh, you should see it in the spring, how the flowers bloom. I just adore it."

He feels his stomach sink, a sudden, nasty conviction that he already knows what happened. Jeff had mentioned something about the wicked witch's garden. He'd said it like that. Like a joke. Thrown in with all the other millions of crazy ideas he'd thought up to try and save Sandy's life. Jared had assumed he wasn't taking any of them seriously.

"He was desperate," Jared says. "His wife—"

"And unborn child, dying, I know, terrible story." Ruth waves her hand dismissively. "I'm not a heartless woman, I would have happily given him the herb had he knocked on my door and told me why he needed it."

Jared sighs, knowing his brother well enough to know that never would have even occurred to him. "He can be impulsive," Jared says. "But he meant no insult."

"I don't care much what he meant when he crushed my azaleas," she replies. "He thought his baby was so important that he killed mine."

By some miracle, Jared manages not to say the words bubbling up on his lips. That flowers aren't exactly on the same level as children. Instead he just swallows hard and looks down at the mess of feathers on the floor.

"Did you—did you kill his, too? Sandy and the baby?"

She startles him with a laugh. "No, no, I'm not a monster. I let him think he got away with it long enough to bring the herb home and heal her."

"But they aren't here anymore. You let him save her just to punish them all?"

"I only came for him, honestly. But your little sister had such a feisty tongue on her. Didn't know when to leave well enough alone."

Jared doesn't say anything, just waits to hear the rest of the story.

Ruth smiles after a long pause. "Oh, but you do. Smart boy, I like you."

"Please," he says. "Please, tell me what happened to my family."

"Oh, lighten up. Your family's just fine. In fact, you may be the unlucky one, out all day, missed the excitement." She smirks. "I didn't hurt them. Just gave them a chance to stretch their wings a bit."

"Meaning?"

"If you plan to hunt birds, I'd aim for the ducks and pheasants, and be careful not to shoot any swans."

Jared's eyebrows draw together, and he looks around the room again, sees the feathers littering the ground and the randomly knocked-over objects, as if something was flying all over the house.

"You turned my brother and sister into swans?" Jared asks incredulously.

The witch bites her bottom lip to keep her laugh in. "All six of them. Your mother and father, Sandy, the baby girl. Oh, by the way. She had the baby. Perfectly healthy little hatchling. A girl. You're an uncle, isn't that something?"

Jared just shakes his head, blinking too fast and trying to process the fact that his niece was apparently born as a bird. His whole family are currently birds. All he wanted was a bowl of soup and to fall asleep on the floor.

"I have money," he says, stupidly reaching into his pockets for the coins he'd begged Lord Jeffrey to pay him. "It's not much, but it's yours. Just change them back. I'm sure he's learned his lesson. We'll never go near your garden again."

The witch curls her hand around Jared's, pushing the money back toward him. "If I wanted money, I would grow money. Funny how magic can do that." She tsks and shakes her head. "I wouldn't live in a little hut if I wanted money. What I want is a nice garden and to be left alone."

"I can help you fix whatever he did to the garden," Jared offers. "I'm good with plants. And then you can change them back."

"I don't want you stomping around anymore than I wanted your brother! I want you well out of my way, just like the rest of your flock. Why, I should change you into a bird as well, complete the set."

"Then why don't you?"

"Because you don't annoy me as much as the rest of your family did," she says, patting Jared's cheek condescendingly. "Didn't say the thing you were thinking about my flowers not mattering as much as the baby. I like a boy who knows when to shut up."

"I don't want to play games. Can I have my family back or not?" he asks.

"They flew off of their own volition." Ruth shoots a look over her shoulder and then lifts an eyebrow. "You sure they want to come back and live in this filth? I gave them the sky."

"They're all I have," Jared answers. He doesn't try to hide anything from her. He's just hardly not begging on his knees. "Please, tell me how to fix this."

"Alright, alright, because I'm such a kind and gentle woman. I'll make a deal with you."

"Anything," Jared promises. "I'll do anything."

"Deep in the forest, there are bright orange nettle bushes."

Jared nods. He's seen them before, passing through the woods to reach the river when there hasn't been rain and the well has dried up.

Ruth smiles. "Good, you know them. They're very bad plants. I don't usually speak this way about plants, but they are. They don't mean well, and they upset all the trees and bushes around them. I don't like to see my forest being bullied."

"You want me to pull them? I can pull them."

"It's not that simple, you see." Ruth rolls her eyes. "They grow right back if you pull them. I've tried. Or, rather, I've sent others to try. They're quite poisonous little bushes."

"Burn them, then?" Jared offers.

The witch's eyes widen. "And risk settling the whole forest on fire? Don't be rash like your brother, boy. It wouldn't work anyway. They're protected. Earth magic. Hard to get around."

Of course it's not going to be easy. "What can I do, then?"

"The only way to get rid of one of the bushes and keep it away is if you put it to some kind of practical use once you've taken it out of the ground. They only die if they have a good reason. I suppose I can sympathize with that."

The witch points to Jared. "I believe there are six bushes exactly. If you plucked them and turned the leaves into fabric and knitted a shirt out of one, that would be good enough to keep it from growing back. I'll see to it that there's magic in each shirt. If you can turn all six bushes into shirts in—what do you say? Three years should be plenty of time?—three years, six shirts, and get them onto your flighty family members once you're done with all of them, they'll turn back into humans."

Jared could knit six shirts in a fraction of that time, but he hesitates before agreeing. "Those plants are toxic. I've seen people get sick from brushing against them. There's no way I can handle them long enough to turn them into yarn."

"I did tell you they were prickly little bastards," she says indifferently.

"I'll die," Jared says. "I'll be dead before I can even begin. This isn't a real offer, it's murder."

The witch's eyes flash with anger, and Jared realizes he did exactly what he told himself he wouldn't. He forgot how dangerous she is, just because she spoke sweetly.

"I liked you better when you knew how to hold your tongue. Let's do something about that. If you accept my offer and you want to see your family as anything other than a white dot in the sky, you can't speak a word, can't make a sound, until the spell is broken. Can't even write anything down. Not that I expect you would know how."

Jared opens his mouth to respond to that, but instead he just lets his shoulders drop. The terms aren't fair. If the poison doesn't kill him, it'll leave him too weak, his hands too blistered, for him to dream of earning enough to keep himself fed. But what choice does he have? He can't abandon his family without even trying.

"Fine," Jared says. "I accept."

Ruth grins and rises to the tips of her toes, pressing a brief kiss against Jared's mouth. He feels a sharp sensation and sees a bright pink spark explode between them when she pulls away.

"That means the spell is in place," she explains. She turns to leave, but pauses in the doorway, throwing a look back at Jared. "And one more thing: don't even think of getting anyone to help. This is your family's mess to clean, and you'll be the one to do it. The nettles will cut your hands when you work with them, and if it isn't your blood sewn into the shirts, all you'll have is a swan in an ugly outfit."

Jared watches her leave with narrowed eyes. He has no one to ask for help, even if he could speak. Everyone who cares for him is currently somewhere out in the sky, far away from Jared. He feels a strange envy. At least they're together. At least they can fly. When he dies trying to save them and they get stuck as swans, maybe they really will be better off.

But Jared will die alone. He'll never see them again. He'll never know the little girl his brother cursed them all to save.

_______________________________________________________________

He decides to take his task one shirt at a time, hoping that he manages to survive the first batch and that by the time he's turned the nettles into yarn and woven them into something wearable, he'll have healed enough to do it over again.

The plants are much worse than he anticipated. Touching them burns, and they sway away from his hands if he tries wearing gloves to protect his skin. They spit and hiss, their poison all the more potent when untempered by the leaves, and Jared's already thin gloves are eaten through by noon.

It takes a full day to remove the first bush from the ground and lay the leaves out in the sun to dry.

His brain is buzzing with the fever the poison has caused, and he wonders if this is what happened to Sandy when she got so sick. If she stepped on one of the bushes during a walk through the woods, that might have been enough. Whatever was in her was killing her slowly, but it was certainly killing her.

When the sun begins to set, he goes into the village, seeking some kind of charity. Not help with his task; he knows that would be cheating. But any mercy at all—herbs to sooth the burning or a meal.

He finds no help at all. Friends and fellow laborers, past employers, people his family have done favors for, an entire town full of people he has known his whole life—they all take one look and close the door on him, explaining that they're sorry, they like Jared and wish they could help, but they know a curse when they see it, and they won't risk bringing the wrath of whatever is after him on themselves.

Explaining why he's ill and that it's not a curse or a plague is out of the question without being able to yell through the door. Jared knows that this at least is his own fault. If he'd just kept his mouth shut, accepted the witch's terms without insulting her, he would at least have a chance of getting through to someone.

He spends the money he had on bread from the only baker who is desperate enough to accept it, his hands bleeding and blistered and oozing pus, and Jared knows he'll be starving again by this time tomorrow with no coin and no hope at working in any field, not when he can hardly move his fingers.

The next day is even worse. He's already half out of his mind when he awakens, his whole body shaking and his blood feeling like it's boiling. Whatever poison didn't go into his hands while plucking the bush yesterday, he takes it into his feet, stomping on the dried leaves until they’re flax. He just hardly manages to finish before he stumbles from the pain, his busted hands the only thing to catch him.

That's the state he's in when he feels the earth shaking, and he thinks it's the fever causing him to hallucinate until he hears the stomping, realizes that it's the sound of horses. Horses in the middle of this forest are a rare sight, and Jared knows he's lost his mind when the approaching party stops next to him. Five men on gallant steads, one holding a coat of arms. All of them dressed in clothes so fine Jared has never seen their like.

He has limited experience with nobility, and even Lord Jeffrey must far below the ranks of these riders. Jared doesn't know much, but he would know enough to bow before them were he not already on the ground, his hands the only thing keeping him from lying face down in the soil.

"Hello," says one of the riders. He hears a clanking of metal as the speaker dismounts. "This is horribly embarrassing, but my guard and I seem to have lost the path. We, uh. Well. We don't ride through this forest…ever, really, and I thought I'd found a short cut. That was hours ago. I've fully accepted that I was wrong. I'm not proud, but there it is."

Jared tries to stand, but all he manages is to lift his head.

The man standing in front of him is tall, too tall for Jared to see much of him from where he is. Sprawled on all fours, practically lying in a puddle of his own blood and sweat.

"You can rise," the stranger says. "Really, there's no need to kneel. You’re the first person we’ve seen who may know the way out, and if you do, I'll be the one to bow to you. That's a promise!"

"Your grace," says one of the others. "That is not appropriate to your station."

His 'grace' lifts a hand, making the order for silence implicit with just that gesture.

Jared raises himself so that he's on his knees, and the man gasps, falling to one knee to grasp Jared's shoulder and hold him up before he can fall again. "You're hurt," he says. He looks down, taking Jared's hands in his own leather-clad fingers, sucking a breath between his teeth. "You're horribly hurt. What happened? Were you attacked?"

Jared shakes his head. That's the best he can do. He looks at the man in front of him and wonders if this isn't the poison playing tricks on his mind, as well. Whoever he is, he's not just rich and powerful and oddly concerned about the state of Jared's palms. He's beautiful beyond Jared's comprehension.

The eyes gazing into his are greener than anything in this forest, sharp and intense and framed by long, fanning lashes. His cheeks are bridged by a light smattering of freckles, the same golden color as the sunlight catching in his light brown hair. And his mouth. His mouth is something else entirely.

"Are you okay?" he asks, even though Jared is clearly not, and the man must know it. He's just trying to engage Jared, keep him from collapsing.

The man has a bearing about him that's effortlessly regal. Not like any of the affected mannerisms he's observed in the minor lords and ladies he's worked for. This is somebody important.

Jared should really make himself useful.

Shakily, and almost entirely by holding onto the stranger, Jared manages to stand up. His feet slip under him, and the man immediately puts one of Jared's arms around his shoulder, carrying him a foot or so back so he can lean against the nearest tree.

Jared points left. That's all he can really do: point. Pathetic.

"Your majesty," says the same rider who had been silenced before. "You should not be touching him so. He's filthy. Probably diseased. And clearly a peasant. There's no hope he'll be able to help us."

"He's a subject," the man replies, as if that's that.

"You're the prince."

The prince turns to face his party. "He's one of our subjects. One of my subjects, and he's practically dying. There are more important things at stake than decorum."

Jared sees the man open his mouth to reply, but his master preempts him. "And if you have another word to say on this matter that isn't a suggestion of how we can help him, Lord Beaver, you'll be finding your way out of here on foot, and he'll be riding to the castle on your steed."

Apparently, that's enough to keep the rider quiet.

"I'm Jensen," says the man holding Jared up. "Can you tell me your name?"

Jared shakes his head. He hears someone snicker from above them, but Jensen cuts a glare that quickly shuts them up.

"That's okay," he tells Jared, pressing a hand to Jared's chest. It holds him up, true, but the weight also helps center him. Jared focuses on that touch instead of the aching of his limbs, and once his mind is clear enough, he points again.

Jensen looks in the way Jared is indicating, and then turns back to him.

"The boy is clearly an idiot." This time, it's a different rider, and the tone isn't as snide as the first had been. Whoever this person is at least sounds like they feel sorry for Jared.

"Dismount," Jensen says.

"What? But I—"

Jensen sighs and imitates Jared's gesture. "I'm not taking your horse away, Chris. Just go down that way and see if you can find a path."

Chris hops off of his steed, handing the reins to one of the others before doing as instructed.

"Will you tell me what happened?" Jensen asks, his voice soft, like he's trying to make sure only Jared can hear him. "We have good healers. They can take care of you if they know what's wrong."

Jared shakes Jensen's hold away enough to bend down and pick up some of the crushed nettles he'd been trying to turn into flax.

"Don't touch that, your highness!" says a woman, the first time Jared realizes there's a woman in the party. "The poison is deadly, even in small doses."

"He's been handling it," Jensen says, his eyebrows drawing together as he looks at Jared. "Is that it?"

Jared nods.

"Why?"

The last rider, the only one who has yet to speak, lets out a nasty laugh. "I think Chris was right, your grace. He's clearly an idiot."

Just then, Chris returns. "Actually, I take it back." He looks to Jensen. "There is a path up ahead, my liege. Not far at all."

Jensen's grin overwhelms Jared. "You know the way out, don't you?"

Again, all Jared can do is nod. Jensen picks up on it, grazing Jared's throat lightly. "You can’t speak?"

Jared reaches up, his fingers squeezing Jensen's in confirmation before he realizes he's touching a royal hand with his broken skin.

"Do you know how to ride a horse?"

He shakes his head. Horses are a luxury his family could never have dreamed of. Even on the farm, they had been reserved for work that was far above Jared's station. He can clean a stable and feed a horse just fine, but riding one is too fine a privilege.

Jensen nods. "Okay, that's okay. You lead the way. I'll walk with you."

Jared is too stunned by what's happening to argue. So he gathers the nettles he'd spread out on the ground and puts them into his sack, and then begins to stagger forward, his weight supported by someone who should by rights have sooner spat on him than helped.

_______________________________________________________________

By the time they reach the village, there are stars swimming in front of Jared's eyes. He's only really able to find the way by instinct, the familiar feel of this twist in the path and that tree root in the ground. He's been wandering this forest his whole life.

There's a carriage waiting for them, one of the riders in their party (he doesn't know which; Jared is much too far gone to make observations about anyone except the prince pressing up against his side, whispering reassuring promises after every step Jared manages) having already ridden ahead to arrange it.

Jensen and Steve, the last of the horsemen, help lift Jared into the seat, and then the door closes, leaving him and Jensen alone inside. Jensen takes his hand, again undeterred by the foul state it's in. "You can rest now," he says. "I'll make sure you're taken care of as soon as we reach the palace. I promise."

His voice is kind and, although none of this makes much sense, Jared doesn't have the presence of mind to question it. He lets himself slip away.

_______________________________________________________________

When Jared next awakens, he thinks he's died, and he feels like he's resting on a cloud. The pain is gone. His hands are still sore, the skin still broken, and when he tries to move his feet, he finds that they're just the same. But the fever is gone. His only wounds are superficial.

"Very potent type of poison," he hears someone saying. "But easy to grow an immunity to. If you can get it medicated in time and neutralize it, it can't hurt you again. Most people die before then, but your guide got lucky. You found him just in time. It's not slow-working poison when there's as much in the system as he had."

Jared shifts, realizing that this is a bed, not a cloud, and that the stranger is explaining that he's alive, not dying at all. If all those things are true, he must not have imagined the horses or the beautiful prince that saved him. He's in a palace.

"Thank you, Aldis." The voice is rich and deep and already familiar. Jared is rousing slowly, so it takes him some effort to turn his face toward Jensen and open his eyes. "Thank you for saving him. I was so sure he was going to…"

"Of course, my liege. That's what healers are for." There's a pause and then what sounds like someone slapping a hand down on someone else's shoulder. "Don't forget to drink your potion as well."

"Yeah, yeah," Jensen replies.

"It looks like he's waking up."

Jared's vision finds its focus just in time to see Jensen make a sour face as he swallows something and sets the vial aside. Then he smiles at Jared. "Good morning, Sammy."

He shakes his head, trying to make it clear that that's not his name. Whoever Jensen thinks he is, he's mistaken, and Jared will be thrown back out when he realizes it.

"Hey, relax. Relax, it's okay. You're still weak, you can't freak out like that." Jensen laughs softly, pressing him back down into the bed. "I know that's not your name. Had to call you something, though, didn't I?"

Jared allows himself to be soothed out of sheer confusion. He wants to ask the prince if he really doesn't have anything better to do than attend to Jared, but of course he can't say that. Or anything. Which is probably for the best, actually. Apparently saying idiotic things to people with far more power and not stopping to think about it until after it backfires is some kind of family trait.

"Maybe you could write your name down for me," Jensen says, tucking another pillow behind Jared's head so that he can sit up. "I can have some parchment and a quill brought down."

Jared can feel how red his cheeks are burning as he averts his eyes, staring down at the bandages on his hands instead of at Jensen. Even if the witch's spell hadn't ruled writing out, Jared wouldn't know how to spell even his own name. It's the kind of thing Jensen takes for granted, and when Jared looks at a written word, all he sees are lines and dots, entirely void of meaning.

And the worst part is, Jensen knows it. It only takes a second before the prince says, "Of course you don't know how to write, how stupid of me."

Jared looks up at that. Not sure why it stings, but it stings.

"No, I mean. I didn't mean it like that. I wasn't trying to assume you could, that's all. I—" Jensen scrubs a hand over his face. "I'm sorry, I've never spoken to a…" He searches a few moments for a word that isn't peasant, and when it's clear that he can’t find one, he leaves the thought unfinished. "I hope you know that I am fully aware of how terrible everything coming out of my mouth right now sounds."

Jensen looks genuinely worried that Jared will be upset, and that surprises a soundless laugh out of him. He's charmed by the inexplicable concern the prince has for him, by the fact that the second most powerful man in Padacktopia is tongue-tied and flustered over what Jared thinks.

Upon seeing Jared's smile, Jensen relaxes some. "I could teach you," he offers. "To read, I mean. And write. If you want. Or, not me. One of the bards might be better at it."

Jared's smile dims some at the knowledge that he won't be able to learn how to write. But reading…that's something he never would have dared to dream of, and he can't help that he's nodding excitedly before he lets himself consider that he won't be here long enough for all that. Whatever it is that has the prince at his bedside—gratitude for helping him out of the forest or pity or just plain curiosity, it won't take long to wear off.

"Maybe I'll just go through the alphabet until I reach your name," Jensen says, ducking his head so that no one in the world can see his smile except for Jared. Jared's never owned anything so precious before in his life. "Aaron?"

Jared huffs and shakes his head, and Jensen shrugs. "We'll get there, Adam? Adrian? Nah, you don't look like an Adrian. Alan? My father's name was Alan. Good, sturdy name."

Alright, so he'll probably be back on his ass by this time tomorrow. Jared decides to enjoy Jensen's attention while he has it.

_______________________________________________________________

It takes several days for Jared's wounds to heal enough for him to walk comfortably. He spends four days and nights in the infirmary. Although a part of him is anxious, his mind always on the shirts he should be knitting to save his family, there's no denying that these are the best days of his life.

Not only is the bed softer than any Jared has ever slept in, the clothes he's given are woven from silk that would cost a year of his wages. He's fed regularly: fresh, warm soups and juice squeezed from plump fruits. Nothing left over or half-spoilt, no one else he's expected to share with.

The healer, Aldis, tends to his wounds daily. He explains that his magic removed the poison from Jared's system, but aside from some ointments to sooth the cuts and scrapes on his hands and feet, the rest of the healing is up to Jared's body.

Aldis wears a grey tunic over his dark skin, a yellow sash across one shoulder signifying both his rank and that his magic is focused in medicine. He's no village apothecary or superstitious faith healer. Aldis is a sage, the kind Jared only ever heard of in the stories his brother used to tell.

He's as real as Jared is, just a regular person who mocks Jared good-naturedly for cutting himself up on a bush and complains about the weather. No one could tell he's a full-blown wizard until he's resting his hands over the other patients in the infirmary, life-threatening injuries reduced to healed scars in moments.

When Aldis is busy looking after others, there are several attendants who see to Jared's needs. But the most important part of Jared's recovery is the prince who sits by his bedside, talking to him about nothing in particular, fussing over whether his bandages are too tight or if he's growing restless from being trapped inside.

Jensen visits every day. Sometimes for hours, some days only in short bursts, half an hour grabbed before and after meals. But he comes without fail, the brightest thing in Jared's universe after only a few days of knowing him.

On the fifth day, Jared awakes to fingers running gently through his hair, a soft humming in his ears. He pretends to be asleep for a few minutes before stretching, feeling his body crack in several places.

"You awake, Sammy?"

Jared just gives Jensen a small smile and half of a nod. Jensen is still convinced he'll guess Jared's name eventually if he goes alphabetically, but that strange nickname is one he always comes back to.

"Aldis says you should be able to go today," Jensen tells him. His hand stops in Jared's hair and he frowns just enough for Jared to see it. "I guess that's good news, right?"

Jared shrugs, moves so that he's sitting up against the head of the bed and his arms are resting on top of the blanket. A part of him aches to reach out, take Jensen's hand between his own. But that would be madness.

"Your family must be very worried about you. If you want us to send them a message…I'm sure we can figure out some way to find them." Jensen smirks. "Though I suppose it'll be hard to tell them we found you without your name."

Jared shakes his head and waves his hand dismissively, trying to explain that there's no family waiting for him. No one.

"Where did we leave off?" Jensen asks. "Was it Cedric? Oh, no. Your name's not Chad, right?"

Jared thinks of Chad, the butcher's boy, his first friend. Last he heard, Chad had spent half a month of his father's earning at a tavern to impress a maiden who, it turned out once he sobered up, was in fact a goat in a dress.

He shudders, and Jensen laughs. "There's something off about guys named Chad."

Jared smiles and to his surprise, the prince takes his hand. He looks up to find those green eyes watching him, all the mirth dropped and an uncharacteristically earnest expression on his face.

"I'm sure you have somewhere to be. And people who care about you. But you don't have to go if not. You can stay. I can talk to Josh—to the king, I mean. I'm sure he'll let you stay." Jensen swallows hard and looks down at their hands. "You don't have to go back to—the way I found you. I can't stand the thought of that."

Jared bites his bottom lip and shrugs. Jensen found him in a definite rock bottom, but the life he's so afraid Jared will return to is the only one he's ever known. This—the palace and servants looking after him, three full meals a day and nothing to do except rest—this is not real to him. He can't imagine how anything this good could ever be real.

But, Jensen did offer. Now that he's immune to the poison in the nettles he has to work with, he actually has a chance at saving his family. If his hands will be bleeding every time he touches them, he still won't be able to earn any money while he does it. Staying here could make all the difference.

It's dangerous, Jared knows that. The way Jensen looks at him feels like a death sentence, like Jared will wither away if he loses him and will perish just as surely if he stays. He knows himself well enough to know that what is an easy infatuation today will be all-consuming affection in just a few months. If he slips someday, if he touches Jensen or kisses him, Jared will be thrown to literal wolves. He's nobody and Jensen is a prince, and yet he won't be able to keep his hands to himself forever.

Maybe just long enough to knit six shirts. He'll stay and he'll behave until his family is free, and then who knows? There's a strong chance Jensen will change his mind soon, throw Jared out with an apology and a yawn. But for now, he wants Jared here, and Jared can deny him nothing.

He reaches out, pressing his bound hand against Jensen's chest, just over his heart. The way Jensen had touched him the first time they met. That hold that centered Jared, helped bring him back when the fever had nearly swallowed him. It had been like home, and Jared hopes with everything he has in him that Jensen will understand that's what he's trying to say. This is his home now. As long as Jensen will let it be.

The prince looks down at Jared's hand before covering it with his own, and then he lets out a heavy breath. Relief shows on his face as clear as anything. "We'll speak to the king today."

Jared shakes his head, gesturing to himself wildly. He can't speak to a king. He shouldn't even be looking at a king. He's a farmhand, for crying out loud.

"Yeah, I guess you have a point," Jensen says. "We'd better clean you up before we present you to anyone. Chandler?"

Jared gives him a flat look.

"Lucky save. Charles? Charles is much better than Chandler."

Jared shakes his head, and Jensen pats him on the back as he helps Jared out of bed. "We'll get there eventually."

_______________________________________________________________

It's not until they step into the long, narrow hallway outside the infirmary that Jared realizes he hasn't seen anything of the castle he's called home for nearly a week. The floors are made of black and white marble and there are suits of armor on either side. Jensen takes his hand and pulls him along excitedly, occasionally stopping to reprimand himself for making Jared walk too quickly on his sore feet.

As is often the case with them, Jensen overcompensates for Jared's silence, and Jared follows behind him, utterly enchanted by his chatty prince and happy to listen to anything as he drinks in the history and random facts about all the strange objects and adornments they pass by.

"This is going to be your room for now," Jensen says as he finally stops in the hall, letting Jared's hand drop so he can reach for the door handle. "It's one of the smaller bedchambers, I know, but it's close to mine. I thought that might help if you find yourself lost and then, once you're more comfortable with the castle, you can pick any room you want."

Jared's mouth drops when the door opens to reveal a room that his family's cottage could fit inside four times. The bed in the center alone seems larger than all the living space they had. It's all his. And Jensen thinks he needs something bigger?

He shakes his head and takes a step back, farther into the hallway, but Jensen turns to look at him, reaching for his hand. "What's wrong, Sammy? You don't like it?"

That name…Jared folds every time. He doesn't know what it means or why Jensen insists on using it, but the softness in his tone when he does pulls Jared in like a spell.

So he follows Jensen into the room, looks around at all the gold and silver, the velvet-lined furniture and wide canopy on the bed that is, apparently, supposed to be his. Jared is careful not to touch anything, terrified he'll break it. That if his skin makes contact with the wrong thing, this whole fairytale will melt away and Jensen won't be standing in front of him, rambling on about the long-dead family members in the paintings.

"Come now, your bath is this way."

The bath is connected to his room—for his private use, Jensen assures him. There are pools in the floor with steam rising from them, a wall along the side lined with scented soaps and assorted ointments.

"Use anything you want," Jensen is saying. "The water is supplied and heated by magic, so all you need to do is think about it if you want the temperature to change."

It's been over a week since Jared had a proper bath, and that was a dip in the river, the water too cold and his body too tired from working in the fields to do much more than rinse off the dirt and sweat and return home. He's been bedridden since he arrived here, the nurses all cleaning him up and Jared hardly able to support himself long enough to make it to the chamberpot on his own.

So, a warm bath in a magically heated pool sounds better than just about anything, and Jared doesn't hesitate before pulling his loose sleep shirt off over his head, his hands about to push his pants down when Jensen turns and lets out a sound of surprise.

Jared stops himself, giving Jensen a confused look, but the prince isn't looking at his expression.

"Oh. You. Uh. Right, you must be very eager to, um. Take a bath." His voice seems to shrink with every word, and his eyes are fixed on Jared's chest.

His whole life, Jared has bathed in the same river that all the families in his village shared. It would have been silly to expect any measure of privacy, and Jared has never once stopped to worry who was around before disrobing.

Now, he's just started stripping in front of a prince, and Jensen is clearly scandalized, his eyes still wide, his cheeks red and becoming redder by the second. Jared feels foolish; for the first time in his life and despite the fact that half of him is still covered, he feels exposed.

He tries to cover his chest with his arms, and that helps Jensen shake off his discomfort at Jared's rough manners. He clears his throat and tries to school his face as if this is all perfectly normal to him.

"I should…" Jensen licks his lips, lifts one hand as if he's going to touch Jared with it, but then he yanks it away and takes a step back. "I've just realized that you'll want assistance. From someone who isn't me. I'm intruding. I'll call some servants for you. I should. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to…to…I'll go."

Jared watches him flee as if there are lions on his tail and wonders if he hasn't just ruined everything.

_______________________________________________________________

When Jared finishes his bath, there's a knock outside his bathroom door. He at least has the sense to wrap one of the towels from the nearest shelf around his hips before a middle-aged woman in a simple lavender dress enters.

"Well, damn, today's my lucky day, huh?" The woman gives Jared an unapologetic look over before even pretending to do anything else. Then she smiles up at him. "I'm Kim. The prince sent me to bring you some clothes. Hopefully they'll fit alright. He told me you were big, but honey, those shoulders I was just not prepared for."

Jared laughs silently and follows her back out into his room. There are clothes laid out on the bed as promised, and Kim turns to pick something up to put on Jared. He takes it from her with an appreciative nod and drops the towel so he can pull the first layer of fabric on.

Kim mutters "definitely my lucky day" under her breath, but she doesn't register any of the shock or disgust Jensen had. Jared figures a chambermaid probably grew up in conditions much closer to Jared's than Jensen's, and he's surprisingly relieved to have her here, even if it feels downright ridiculous to have someone dress him at his age. There are pieces of the ensemble that Jared would not know what to do with were she not here, however, so he appreciates the assistance, even if he can't say 'thank you.'

They're just about finished when there's a knock on the door, and Jensen sticks his head in. "Is everybody decent in here?"

Kim snorts. "I'm not, but we're both wearing clothing." She pauses for a long beat and then adds a teasing, "My lord."

Jensen rolls his eyes. "Very convincing," he says. "I'm sure our guest is really impressed with how respectful you are of my position."

Kim stops on her way out the door, reaches up, and ruffles the prince's hair. Jensen lets her, swatting her away and acting annoyed, but unable to contain his laughter. Jared just watches the whole display in awe. He's never seen a noble allow a servant to treat them in such a matter. But then, he's never known anyone to be anything at all like Jensen.

He waits until Kim is gone before he steps into the room, closer to Jared. Jensen's eyes track down for a long time before he looks up, into Jared's face, and he smiles brightly. "The clothes are a little small for you. But you look…they suit you. We'll have some tailored for you once Josh has given permission for you to stay."

Jared boggles a bit at Jensen's casual use of the king's name, especially in the presence of someone as low as he is, and the prince laughs immediately, as if he's reading Jared's mind. "What, do you not have a brother?"

Jared nods to say he does, and Jensen's grin turns wicked. "And you mean to tell me there's any circumstance at all under which you would be able to refer to him as anything other than a royal pain in the ass with a straight face?"

That almost shocks a full out laugh out of Jared, but he tries to imagine it. If Jeff had been a king and Jared a prince…Jensen has a point. There's no crown hallowed enough to make Jeff more or less than the big jerk who used to embarrass Jared in front of the entire town whenever possible.

Jensen takes his hand and squeezes it between his own. "Don't be nervous, okay? This is just a formality."

If Jared could speak, he might mention that he doesn't know anything about formalities, let alone ones that involve actual royalty, but things being as they are, he follows Jensen quietly and lets events play out as they will.

They walk through the castle for what seems like an unrealistically long time to still be in the same building, until finally they cross a great hall and reach a door flanked on both sides by armed guards. It makes Jared nervous, but Jensen simply breezes by, nodding at the guards as they open the door for him.

Inside, the first thing Jared sees is a large throne, ornate beyond Jared's wildest imaginings, directly in the middle of the room and situated at the top of two small steps so as to ensure every eye is drawn up to the person sitting upon it.

The king is there, dressed in robes so elaborate he makes Jensen look like a pauper, and Jared thought he was overdressed, but now he has that naked feeling again. He's a handsome man, though nothing compared to his brother, looking not much older but decidedly more worn.

On his left, there's a slightly smaller throne with an astonishingly beautiful woman sitting on it. She's blonde and looks as if she would be tall standing, and her bright blue eyes are focused on the velvet-swaddled infant in her arms.

She must be the queen, Jared thinks.

There's a similarly toned-down throne on the king's right, which Jared realizes must be for Jensen. Jensen doesn't take his seat, however. He stands on the floor with the rest of the petitioners, and gestures Jared over to stand by his side.

The king is hearing someone argue his case for a fence to be built between his and someone else's property. Something about cows not staying on their side of the property line. He looks astoundingly bored, but is clearly making an effort not to.

Standing just behind his throne, Jared recognizes the old man who had tried to convince Jensen to leave him in the woods, Lord Beaver, and his stomach drops. He doubts his chances are as good as Jensen believes them to be if that's the adviser whispering in the king's ear.

After the lord is finished speaking, the king agrees to have some men sent out to the noble's estate to build a new fence. The man thanks the king for a full two minutes, until finally Lord Beaver gestures to one of the guards to escort him out.

"That's all for now," the king announces.

A large crowd huddled off to the side all begin to argue, and Lord Beaver steps forward. "The king will hear more cases after he has met with his council and broken his fast. All of your problems will be addressed in due course. Please file out in the direction the guards indicate until such a time as you are allowed back into the chamber."

Jared watches the grumbling mass of people walk out through the door he and Jensen just entered from, and he turns to follow them. Jensen catches his arm and shakes his head.

After the room has been emptied of everyone except for the king, queen, Jensen, four guards, Lord Beaver, and Jared and the doors are closed behind them, the king's expression drops.

"We hate open petition days," he says.

At his side, the queen doesn't even look up from her child before admonishing, "They're your subjects. The least you can do is hear them out once a week."

"They're some of our subjects," the king responds, and Jared sees the family resemblance right then and there. Jensen has the same pout when he's feeling grumpy, which isn't entirely rare. Jared finds it incredibly endearing, but Jared is beyond biased. "The ones who can afford to have their names added to the list."

"We've spoken about this, your grace, it would be impossible to get through even a fraction of the people who have grievances to air if we let just anyone in."

"So we hear out the ones with the pettiest complaints instead of those who are actually suffering?" He sighs. "That man spoke for half an hour of our life about the patch of grass his neighbor's cow ate and how it would affect profits. As if it's him and not his farmhands that will be covering his losses."

"My lord, these are the people with armies at their disposal. These are the ones who you need on your side to help you rule. Not the commoners. This is just how politics work."

"Yes, Jim, so we have been told every day since we took the throne." He rubs his temple for a few seconds and then shifts in his seat. "We're just not in a great mood. It'll pass."

"You're never in a good mood," Jensen says. "And it never really passes."

The king grins when he hears his brother's voice, and Jensen steps forward so he can be seen. "Ah, great. Just what we needed today. Our bratty little brother."

"Drop the royal we thing, Josh. You have no idea how stupid you sound," Jensen replies. "We're all family here."

The king looks at Jared pointedly, and Jensen turns to gesture him forward.

"He's mute. I promise he won't tell anyone you deigned to stop being pretentious in front of him."

The king laughs. "Fuck it, you know I hate it as much as you do, but there—"

"There are rules," Lord Beaver says. Interrupting the king, and Jared almost fears for him, but no one bats an eye. "That peasant is not permitted in this room. He should never be in the king's presence. It's an insult to—"

"I think I'll determine what insults me," the king says, lifting a hand. He looks down at Jensen. "Explain?"

"He saved our lives, me and my men, Jim included. We were lost in the forest and—"

"He didn't save our lives," Jim cuts in. "We weren't going to die out there. He made an unpleasant day end slightly earlier than it might have otherwise. And by introducing new unpleasantness, at that. In fact, we saved his life."

"I didn't see you helping him," Jensen replies, and then he blanches. "I'm sorry, Jim. That was out of line."

Jim waves it off.

"The mute forest guide, yes. I think I heard something about this." The king looks over at Jared and smiles. "I didn't realize you were still in the castle, or I would have come to thank you for assisting my brother."

Jared isn't sure what to do. He tries to bow but he doesn't really know how to do it right, and he knows he screwed up when he lifts his head again, sees the king's smile is clearly trying to hold back laughter. It doesn't look unkind, though, so Jared just ducks his head in embarrassment.

"He was poisoned," Jensen explains. "Aldis saved him but…I actually came with a petition of my own. I want to have him stay here in the castle, if that's alright with you. Indefinitely."

Jim scoffs. "Your highness, he's a peasant. The fact that he was brought here at all is thanks enough. Letting him stay would be a humiliation."

"You said you wanted to help people who really needed help," Jensen tells the king. "Sammy doesn't have anywhere else to go."

"Sammy?" the king repeats, a look on his face as if he's never had so much fun in his life. "I see how it is."

Jared really wishes he knew what that damn word means. He feels like there's an entire conversation going on without him. Whatever it means, Jensen is instantly flustered by his brother picking it out.

"No, I just." Jared can see the tips of the prince's ears turning bright pink. "Well, I…I had to call him something."

"Of course, of course," the king replies, still looking like he might fall off his throne laughing any moment. He waits until he has himself under control, and then he speaks, putting a strong emphasis on the nickname. "And Sammy just so happens to be what you picked out."

"Yes!" Jensen answers defensively.

"Glad we settled that," the queen says, and Jensen looks oddly grateful to her for interrupting. "Josh, your brother asked for a favor."

"I don't have a problem with it," the king responds, his lips twisting with mirth again. "Sammy can stay as long as he wants."

"But your grace, he's—"

"Queen Adrianne, do you have a problem with a commoner in your home?"

The queen looks up for the first time and smirks at Jared. "Not if they look like that."

The king crosses his arms over his chest. "Wife!"

Unlike her husband, she doesn't bother trying to cover her laugh. "Does he watch babies? I could use a night to myself."

"My lady, you would leave the heir to the throne in the hands of a stranger? And a commoner, at that?"

"Mostly, Jim," she says, and the way she stresses Lord Beaver's name makes Jared think she's about as fond of him as Jared is, "I was joking. But honestly, if it'll get me a few good hours of sleep, I'll leave the heir to the throne with the rampaging cow if it promises to behave."

"Alright, that's enough of that," the king says, shaking his head but with no real edge to his words. "Jensen, your friend is granted permission to roam the palace as he wishes and to stay as long as you want him to be here."

Jared can see Lord Beaver wanting to step in again, but to his great relief, the man stays quiet, giving Jared a sulky look.

"Thank you, brother," Jensen says. "Thank you."

"Yeah, yeah," the king says, waving off Jensen's gratitude. "Now get out of my face. I'm starving."

Jensen steers him out into the hallway with a grin lighting up his features. He must see that there's still some hesitation in Jared's expression, because he leans in close. "Don't worry about Jim, okay? He can be…prejudiced. But he means well. He practically raised my brother and I after our parents passed away. Taught Josh everything he knows about ruling. He's a good guy. You'll win him over."

Jared gives him a thin lipped smile, unsure if that was supposed to make him feel better, because it did just the opposite. The king's closest adviser, and Jensen's surrogate father, wants him thrown back into the woods, and Jared is already certain he won't be winning the lord over as easily as Jensen believes.

_______________________________________________________________

Now that he can go wherever he wants in the palace, Jared begins to learn the passages for himself. Jensen never complains about Jared taking up too much of his time, but he knows that, as a prince, Jensen has much more important things to do than show him around.

It takes him two weeks of exploring to fully familiarize himself with the layout of the expansive castle. Every time he thinks he has it down, he finds a new twisting hall attached to another wing. For Jared, it seems like magic, like there's an entire world stuffed inside the stones of this palace, and it grows with Jared's imagination, limitless.

Finally, he gets tired of wandering the halls and decides to see the grounds. It's late winter now, almost warming, the temperature a perfect mix of cool and refreshing. It was only beginning to get cold the last time Jared spent any significant amount of time outside, but there is also the fact that he now has layer upon layer of fine, thick clothing to keep him comfortable as opposed to the thin muslin he had before Jensen found him.

This change in circumstances makes Jared's work much more pleasant than it would otherwise be, and if it weren't for the burning in his hands as he handles his yarn, he would be quite content.

All told, he's pretty content even taking the pain into account.

Today is his fourth day out. The grass is wet from the previous night's rain, but the sun is shining, and Jared has found a quiet spot next to a small pond with flat rocks that serve as a bench for him as he works. He's been steady and persistent in his task, and he's confident he'll be able to finish the first shirt by suppertime today.

It's only been a few months since he made the deal with the witch, and if he stays at this pace, he'll be done with the shirts in less than two years. Jared dreams of it when he's feeling wistful, of saving his family, of course, but even more so, he yearns for the day he can speak to Jensen. Say his prince's name out loud, laugh at his bad jokes, and tell him his own name so he can hear it on Jensen's beautiful lips.

His mind is wandering down that path when a loud cooing shocks him out of his reverie. He looks around and sees a medium-sized swan, mostly white, but with dark brown plumes adorning its head.

It pecks at his shirt, and then looks up at him with its head cocked to one side. A bold bird indeed, and Jared would know his little sister anywhere, even, apparently, when she's been turned into a swan.

He smiles and pats her on the brown patch, which makes her squack in a way that doesn't honestly sound very different from how she would respond to Jared touching her hair as a human. He almost says something, asks how she is or what the baby is like. He desperately wants to tell her to let Jeff know that he's not upset, that he can come and see Jared, too. He knows his brother will be mortified by the mess he's caused, too proud to visit Jared without being expressly invited.

Of course, he can't say any of this out loud, and it's hard to tell if his sister is understanding his wild gestures and pleading expressions on account of her being a bird.

"Are you hoping the swan is going to dance with you?"

Jared turns to see Jensen standing behind him, one eyebrow raised and an incredibly amused expression on his face. Jared wishes the lake would extend just a few more feet, swallow him up so he doesn't have to face the reality that his perfect prince just caught him trying to communicate with an animal.

"I've been looking for you, David," he says.

Jared shakes his head, and Jensen snaps his fingers. "Oh well. Dawson, maybe? Or Dean? Dennis? Am I even close?"

He lets his expression answer for him, and Jensen laughs, waving Megan away before sitting on the rock next to Jared. "The guards said they saw you come out and I was about to have lunch so I thought I would—"

Jensen sucks in a breath then, and Jared sits up straighter, instantly on edge and looking around for whatever has made Jensen suddenly look so concerned.

But Jensen just reaches out for his hands, holds them up for inspection. Jared's palms have been bleeding for so many days that he'd honestly forgotten. It only hurts when he thinks about it, and with Jensen this close, there isn't room to think of anything else.

"You've hurt yourself again, Sammy," Jensen says. "Why?"

He looks up and Jared nods his head at the almost-complete shirt he's been working on.

Jensen shakes his head. "We have other yarns if you enjoy knitting. Spinning wheels so you don't have to handle the flax. You shouldn't keep touching this; it's poison."

He reaches out, but Jared stops his hand. The thistles are still poisonous to anyone who hasn't built an immunity to them yet, and they will be until the shirt is fully complete and the evil plant he weaved it from well and truly dead.

"You won't let me take it from you?" Jensen asks. "Is there some reason you have to use this flax in particular? It's not attractive or easy to work with, it won't make for finer clothes than I can give you."

Jared shrugs, trying to say 'that's just the way it is,' and Jensen seems to understand.

"Fine, at least let me find servants who can help you. Or me, I'll help. I'll take the antidote as soon as the poison starts in on me, it won't get as bad as it did for you. Let me help you."

The idea of letting Jensen endure that for a moment would be preposterous even if he could accept help, so Jared makes a cutting motion with both his hands, signaling that he doesn't want to consider the options Jensen is offering.

Jensen sighs and looks out at the castle. "I wish you could tell me why you do this to yourself."

Jared gives him a small smile, appreciative of Jensen's care even if he can't do much with it. The prince looks over at him with a warm but sad smile. "At least come have some food, then."

That's something he can give Jensen, so he stands immediately, gathering his things together.

"I'm throwing the Ds out entirely," Jensen tells him as he watches Jared prepare to follow him inside. "Earl? Edgar? Edmund? Edwin?"

Jared huffs a laugh and slaps Jensen on the back as they begin walking, Jensen continuing to list names all the while.

_______________________________________________________________

On rainy days, Jared works inside. Jensen has an office of his own, and he spends most of the time he isn't with Jared hunched over papers—land deeds and correspondences and other duties the king has passed on to him. He likes to hum while he works, sometimes even gets carried away and sings. Jensen's voice is as beautiful as the rest of him, rich and rumbling. It soothes Jared like a balm, making it even easier to ignore the sting of his hands.

Jensen has a large desk on one side of the room, and Jared sits in the chair by the window, knitting and looking out and listening to the idle observations of his prince, or the way he mutters unhappily at the people whose letters he's replying to.

They spend so much time there, together, focused and supporting each other, that they begin to build a language. Jared can tell Jensen entire ideas with a few turns of his wrist, and sometimes Jensen returns it in kind. There have been days where they go through hours of conversation together, and even Jensen doesn't have to say a word. It's silent but not quiet; Jared doesn't even realize until he looks back on the day that they'd both been mute.

But then there are days like this. Jensen must have slept poorly, because he's in a mood from the moment Jared walks in that morning. He's slumped over what looks like an elaborate budget, his hands carding nervously through his hair.

Jared goes straight to him before setting up his own materials, looks over Jensen's shoulder at what's troubling him.

"We're having a feast," Jensen explains when Jared points and shrugs to ask. "I'm in charge of the budget, but the numbers are off. I don’t know where. I've been looking at this for hours and I still can't see it. My eyes are swimming."

Jared leans in, and almost right away, he notices that the amount set aside for transportation of guests is not correctly distributed between the number of people being accommodated and the servants who will need to be paid along the way.

He puts his finger first over the category, then the amount, and then underlines the broken down expenses to draw Jensen's attention to the problem. Jensen rubs his hands over his eyes and blinks at the paper for a long minute before he looks up at Jared.

"You found it," he says excitedly. "Just like that? You did all of that math that quickly?"

Jared shrugs. He waves a hand at the paper dismissively. You did all the rest of it, but Jensen doesn't accept his dismissal.

He looks back at Jared and then stands, turning to lean on his desk so he can face Jared directly. "You're something else," he says.

I don't like to brag, Jared signs at him, and Jensen smiles.

"You're brilliant, you know," he tells Jared. Jared rolls his eyes, but Jensen puts one hand on Jared's cheek, turning him until he's looking directly into Jensen's face. "You are. They all—Beaver and the guards and…I know you hear what they say about you. They think you're slow because you can't speak."

Jared looks away, but he feels Jensen's hand slide down until it's wrapped lightly around his throat. The touch should startle him, should make him feel threatened or vulnerable, but it doesn't. It feels right to have Jensen's hands on him, anyway he can get them, and he looks at Jensen again so that he can see that in Jared's expression.

Jensen gives him a sad smile and his fingers rub Jared's neck lightly. "There's nothing wrong with you just because you're different," he says. "There's nothing wrong with you. My Sammy. You're perfect. I'll tear down anyone who tries to make you think otherwise."

_______________________________________________________________

"Put down the knitting needles and saddle up, Jared. We're going for a ride."

Jared's head snaps up the instant he hears it, his heart suddenly beating faster. They'd stopped at J the day before, and Jared had thought if he skips right to Jason from James, I'm going to kill him. So, intellectually, there was a good chance Jensen would get it today. But still, somehow the sound of his name in Jensen's voice thrills him like a shock of magic flowing through him.

His face must be saying a lot, because Jensen pauses, stares at him for a long time, and then his eyes widen. "Jared," he says again. "Your name is Jared."

Before he even has a chance to confirm, Jensen is wrapping him up in his arms. "Jared!" he exclaims. "I thought I was never going to get it. I thought you would end up being Zachary." He pulls away enough for Jared to see his smile, and then, as if he can't help himself, he says "Jared!" again.

Jared presses his hand to Jensen's chest, just over his heart. The way Jensen had done to him, a gesture Jared now uses as a stand in for Jensen's name, as dear to him as the nickname Sammy seems to be to Jensen, and if the prince doesn't understand that's what he's saying, well, it serves him right.

After a few moments, Jensen laughs and pulls away. "Come on, I wasn't joking. I'm gonna teach you how to ride a horse. It'll be fun. It's a gorgeous day, and you can come back to bleed into your needlework tomorrow."

Jared figures he's right—he has plenty of time to finish his shirts and one day off won't hurt anybody.

So he lets Jensen lead him through hallways he's never been down, paths that take them through the kitchen and servants' quarters until finally they step outside into an open area with stables and fenced fields off to the side.

"You didn't think all those eggs you eat every morning and the milk you drink by the gallon came from nowhere, did you?"

Jared realizes he's gaping and he closes his mouth, giving Jensen a brief shake of his head. He just didn't really think about it. Of course they have their own farmland, their own animals, and what seems like a small army of workers milling about tending to the daily chores.

He points to himself, then at the servants passing by, giving Jensen an imploring look. He can work. He knows how and he's good at it, and he feels awful now, realizing that he hasn't been earning his keep.

Jensen shakes his head, taking Jared's hand in his own for just a moment, long enough to calm him, and then dropping it with a crease between his eyebrows. "Jared, no, that's not why I brought you out here. Everyone here works fair hours and is fed and housed comfortably."

But I don't do anything, Jared tells him with their silent language.

Again, Jensen catches his hands, holding them steady so Jared can't say anything, can't do anything but listen to him.

"That's not true. I hope you know how true that isn't. How much you do for me just by—" The prince clears his throat and looks away, letting go of Jared's hands abruptly. "You're still injured. Your hands will never heal enough for labor if you keep knitting with that flax and…I don't know why you do that. I hate that you do it. But I know it's important to you. I won't ask you to stop. You don't have to do anything else while you're here. You're doing enough."

For a long second, Jensen keeps his face turned toward the ground, and Jared thinks he really upset him. Then Jensen looks up at him with a bright smile.

"Come on, Jared. You're going to love this."

He grabs Jared's hand for the third time in as many minutes, but this time he doesn't seem to be concerned about whatever made him drop it before. He pulls Jared around to the other side of the stable and calls out to a small man standing near the door.

"Osric!"

Osric turns at the sound of his voice, smiling and wiping his filthy hands on his even filthier pants. "My liege," he says, with a half-assed bow. "What can I do for you on this fine day?"

Jensen puts a hand low on Jared's back and urges him a few steps forward. "Jared, this is Osric. He's our main horse handler."

Osric gives him a salute and a nod. "I'd shake your hand, but you look kind of clean."

He's hardly more than a boy, his long black hair in his bright eyes. He looks too young to be in charge of the horses for the royal palace, but his smile is wide and Jared likes him immediately.

"Osric works for Mark Sheppard, who oversees all our livestock. He grew up in the palace, just a few years younger than Josh and I."

Osric gives Jared a sly smile. "The old man likes to pretend we’re the same age just because he rode his horse as well as I did when I was 8 and he was 16."

"This is why I never stopped Josh from tripping you into the lake. This exact kind of behavior is why."

They both laugh, and Jensen gives Osric a slap on the back. "Would you mind doing me a favor?"

"It's my job to do you favors, but I guess I won't mind too much personally, either."

"Jared's never ridden before. I wanted to teach him. I think I'll be alright giving him the basics, but since you know the horses better than I do, I thought you could recommend a good fit?"

"Well, we shouldn't put him on a small horse, should we?" Osric gives Jared a smug grin. "See, you might be taller than I am, but I can race on anything in that stable and your heavy ass couldn’t dream of it."

"Picking fights with people twice his size has been Osric's defining character trait since he was about five," Jensen tells Jared, as if he's explaining something very serious.

"Yeah, and winning them!" Osric responds, not letting Jensen spoil his chipper mood. "Harley's our biggest but he's a little temperamental for a beginner. I think Sadie would be a good fit?"

"She's the brown one, right?" Jensen asks. "With the floppy ears?"

Osric nods. "Yeah, the goofy one. Thinks she's a dog instead of a horse."

Jensen's grin is immediate. "That's the horse for Jared."

"And you'll ride Icarus?" Osric asks.

"Sure will," Jensen replies. "Could you get them all saddled up?"

"Of course, my lord."

Jared watches Osric head back toward the stable, amused by the way he seems to trot more than walk, and then turns to Jensen. He's about to say something contrary just for the sake of it, like asking just what Jensen is trying to imply by giving him a goofy horse.

Then Osric reappears leading the fluffy white horse Jensen had been riding the first time they'd met, and he's closely followed by a blonde girl leading the brown horse that must be Jared's. And Jared's heart melts more with every step they take, until the girl stops in front of him.

"I'm Alona," the girl says, leading the horse forward a little and handing Jared the reins she's holding. "And this lovely girl is Sadie."

Sadie's immediate response to being introduced is to stick her nose in Jared's face and huff, and that does it as far as Jared is concerned. Suddenly he loves horses, especially goofy ones.

Alona gives Jared a few hurried instructions on how to mount Sadie, how to steer, how to go faster, and how to avoid hurting anyone. He listens carefully, eager to be liked by the horse, and then it's time for him to climb up.

He wishes the trainers were just a bit larger so they could help him instead of just holding Sadie's head as he works on putting his foot in the stirrup and lifting himself up. Then Jensen is behind him, his hands holding Jared steady and helping to lift him, and Jared can feel himself flushing bright red all over just from the prince's touch.

"You feel okay up there?" Jensen asks, patting Sadie's side gently once Jared is finally in place.

Jared is too terrified to let the reins go enough to say anything, so he just gives Jensen a nervous nod and watches as his friend climbs easily onto Icarus' back, as easy as if he was hopping up a stair.

Once he's astride his own horse, Jensen looks over to Jared and smiles. "You look like you've got it," he says. "Do you remember how to ask her to start and stop?"

Jared nods.

"Show me."

Jared squeezes his lower legs as he was instructed, and just as easy as anything, Sadie starts walking. He only lets her go a few seconds before pulling back on the reins, signaling her to stop. He doesn't want to lose Jensen, but Jensen just laughs, says something encouraging, and then he's walking forward himself.

They go at a steady pace for half an hour or so, and then they reach a large, empty field. Jensen encourages Jared to try going faster, and before long, he's galloping alongside Jensen and Icarus, Sadie neighing cheerfully and the wind passing through his hair.

He's never done anything so fun or freeing, and Jared can't think of anything else he's ever been this good at this quickly.

They continue to ride for what feels like a long time, Jared losing track of the day, until finally Jensen gives him a wicked grin.

"You're so good I'd almost challenge you to a race. Of course, I've been doing this my whole life, and I wouldn't want to embarrass you."

Smug is not a good look on Jensen, Jared decides. He takes both of the reins in his left hand and signs race to where? with his right.

Jensen grins. "That line of trees over there, you see it? We won't go far into that forest, but I do want to show you something."

Jared nods. Then he lets his face fall, a look of sheer horror coming over it. Jensen's response is immediate. His expression goes from bright to worried in seconds, and then he's turning his face so he can see what’s behind him, looking in the direction Jared is pointing.

And Jared is off, galloping as quickly as he trusts himself to go. He hears Jensen's laugh a few seconds behind him and then the sound of another horse's hooves and a "you cheated!" yelled after him.

Sadie must have her own competitive streak, because she picks up speed when she hears Icarus gaining on her, and Jared wins the race easy. He stops his horse in the shade of the trees and waits for Jensen there, a shit-eating grin on his face.

Jensen catches up to him, still winded from laughing and looks him in the face. "You know, you're kind of a dick. You do know that, right?"

Jared just smiles his victory smile in response, which Jensen decides to read as a sign Jared does, in fact, know that he is a little bit of a dick.

"Fine!" Jensen says as he hops down off of Icarus. "I was going to help you dismount, but you can figure it out yourself."

Jared lets Sadie get a little closer, trusting the horse to sweet talk Jensen enough for the both of them. She rubs her nose against him and he pats her sweetly, pulling a sugar cube out of his pocket for her and then another for Icarus.

He looks up and sees Jared's pout and laughs. "Fine, fine," he says before stepping up to Sadie's side, coaching Jared through how to get down and helping to catch him as he does so.

They lead the horses a little ways into the forest, enough to find a lake where they can drink, and Jensen ties them to a tree by the water, giving them enough space to graze and drink freely. Jensen must know these woods much better than he knew the ones by Jared's house, because he seems to have a specific spot in mind, and he knows it as soon as they reach it.

"I brought food," he says, taking a satchel down from Icarus's side. "I thought we could…"

He blushes bright red as he pulls out a blanket and lies it down on the grass. If Jared didn't know better, he would think this was a date. He follows Jensen's lead, sitting cross-legged on the blanket and helping to lay out the fine cheeses and breads and sweetmeats Jensen brought for them to share.

As he's unloading their food, Jared sees Jensen pull out a vial of a bubbly pink liquid. He's seen the prince drink it with meals or in the morning, and now he watches as Jensen unscrews the bottle and pours it into the grass next to them.

"We'll have wine to drink," he says, tossing the empty bottle of potion back into his bag with a smile as if he and Jared are sharing a secret, and Jared wishes he knew what it was, but he has no right to ask.

They eat their fill and then Jared lies back on the blanket, lets his eyes relax as he listens to Jensen talk about the forest they're in and how he and Josh used to play in it before his brother became king.

"There's magic here, too." Jensen laughs. "I mean, there's magic everywhere, I know. We don't have very much in my family, we signed over the majority of it centuries ago. Not safe, is it? To let people who are politically powerful have strong magic, too."

Jared shrugs. His family certainly couldn't afford to pay to bring any magic that may have been latent in their blood to the surface, so he wouldn't know if he had magic in him or not.

"I have one kind of cool thing I can do. I mean. It sucks as a party trick, but it's pretty useful." He smiles. "I can predict the weather. Can't influence it or anything, but I knew today would be sunny and tomorrow is going to be overcast, and the three days after that there'll be rain."

Good for planning picnics, Jared signs, pointing to the spread of mostly eaten food between them. Jensen nods.

"But there's better magic than that in this forest," he says. He reaches into his bag and pulls out a rose petal and then gestures for Jared to follow him. When he stops, he kneels in front of a tree stump that looks like a regular tree stump until he gets down next to Jensen and sees that the rings on it are all different colors.

Jensen places the rose petal on the stump, and it sinks in as if it's drowning in water. Jared's eyebrows crease together and he turns to ask Jensen, but Jensen shakes his head.

"Just watch," he says quietly.

Within a few seconds, the tree is shifting, and Jared gasps as he watches first a few small sprouts, but they grow larger and larger by the second until Jared is looking at a whole rose bush growing out of the tree stump.

"The sad thing is that it doesn't last long. The bush will be dead and disappeared in a few hours." Jensen smiles at him and reaches out, snapping the best flower off the bush and handing it to Jared. "But whatever you take off it will last. I mean, the flower will die after a few days, just like a normal rose, but you'll still have the dead flower."

Jared watches as Jensen picks a few more, piling them in Jared's hands like a bouquet. "Be careful of the thorns," he says as he places the last one, and then he laughs at himself. "Though, I guess after that flax you handle, I must sound silly warning you against simple rose thorns."

Jared sets the flowers aside and touches Jensen's cheek, ashamed of how calloused his hands are. From the fact that they weren't really different before the witch's spell, when it was his work in the fields that roughened them. Jensen places his hand over Jared's and smiles, and his skin is soft and well cared for. Nothing like Jared's. Jared will never be anything like Jensen, and he can't understand any of this, but he can't shake the sensation that this is real nonetheless. That Jensen wants him just as much as he wants Jensen.

He wants to lean forward and kiss the prince so much it physically hurts him, but he can't be the one to do it. It has to be Jensen. So he stares into his friend's eyes, silently pleading.

Jensen chooses not to hold the gaze. "There are things about me I think you would hate if you knew," Jensen says. "I want to tell you, but I—I can't."

I'll listen when you're ready, Jared tells him.

The prince smiles, but it looks sad this time. "I know you will. You always listen to me, Sammy."

Jared points to himself, then makes a questioning motion, and Jensen licks his lips.

"Sammy," he repeats. "You want to know what it means?"

Jared nods.

"It's nothing," he says, and Jared can tell he's lying. "Just a word from a dead language. Acklonian, it was the royal tongue of my family. Used to be how nobles spoke when they were doing political business, but it fell out of favor a few centuries ago. Apparently no one thought it was worth learning a whole language just for the sake of secrecy."

Jared shows that he's still paying attention by waving his hand. Go on.

"Now only about five people speak it. Me, my brother, and the bards who taught it to us, of course. It's the bards' problem to keep track of things like that when the rest of us get lazy. I'm not that good at it. I mean, I'm not fluent. My brother is even worse. We really only needed to learn enough to say we could speak it."

Jared sighs. He didn't want to know the history of the language, and he knows Jensen knows that, because the prince is stalling. Jensen looks up when he hears Jared's huff of frustration and shakes his head.

"It's nothing, it's stupid. Just a word. I'll call you Jared now that I know your name."

Jared wants to pursue it, but Jensen jumps to his feet. "It's going to get late on us if we don't head back soon."

He gathers his roses and tucks the bouquet as safely as he thinks he can into one of the satchels attached to his saddle, and Jensen cleans up the rest of their mess. They ride back much more leisurely than they had been that morning with Jared eager to learn and test out his new skill, and when they arrive back at the stable, Osric is already waiting.

"No incidents?" he asks, taking Icarus's reins from Jensen and watching Jared climb down.

"He's quite the gifted horseman, actually," Jensen says, sounding weirdly proud. "A natural."

Jared's face is breaking into a smile at the praise before his brain has any say in the matter. He'd had every intention of staying annoyed at Jensen's evasion for a little longer, but oh well.

"Of course, he didn't beat me. I am, as you know, unbeatable on a horse."

"Oh, yeah, sure." Osric shakes his head 'no' even as he agrees with the prince.

Jared lets his head fall back on a soundless laugh, and Jensen is pouting at him when he focuses again.

"You shut up!" he says, pointing at Jared.

You're the one talking, Jared signs at him, before taking an exaggeratedly elaborate bow. Which is supposed to be a mocking "your majesty" and he knows Jensen got that from the way he huffs.

"Are you seeing this?" Jensen asks Osric. Osric shrugs, clearly not understanding any of what's going on "He's the only person I've ever known who manages to make 'your majesty' sound like an insult. And he doesn't even have to open his mouth. Incredible!"

Jared just grins and wears Jensen's annoyance as a badge of honor.

_______________________________________________________________

"I find this frustrating."

Jared looks up over the edge of his book and sees Genevieve glaring at him from across the desk.

"I have absolutely no way to know if you're actually reading or if you're just moving your eyes across the page at what you've decided is the right speed and then turning it over."

He shrugs and smiles at her, gesturing at the papers laid between them as if to say well what do you want me to do about it?

Her pout only intensifies. "I don't know! I just wanted you to know you bring me problems."

It took three weeks of absolutely no progress for Jensen to decide he was giving up on teaching Jared to read himself. He introduced Jared to Genevieve, one of three of the palace bards, and they’ve been working steadily for several months now.

Jared likes her, likes her better than just about anyone other than Jensen, and he's made incredible progress since they've started. He can read entire books on his own, with only a few instances of having to ask her to help him by sounding out a word. Sure, they're not the most complicated books in the world just yet, mostly short stories written for children, but it's thousands of words more than he knew how to read just a few weeks ago.

But then her foot brushes Jared's under the table, and he looks up to see her ducking her head and smiling, and he feels the same uncomfortable tightening in his gut that he feels every time they're alone. He knows she's been flirting with him for almost as long as he's been coming to her for help, and he has no way to explain that he can never feel that way about her.

Even if he could speak or take her up on her offer of writing lessons, it's not like he could admit that he's in love with the prince. He has no right to be.

He taps his finger on the desk to get her attention, and when she looks up at him, he presses his hand over his heart, hoping she won't misread it.

Genevieve is a smart girl, though, and she's picked up on what passes for language with Jared with ease. Hand over heart always means Jensen.

Her smile dulls. "Where's Jensen?" she asks for him.

Jared nods. He usually comes by to see them by now. Jared hasn't seen him all day, not even at breakfast.

"I don't know," she says dismissively. "Last I heard he was locked up in his room. You know how he gets."

Jared doesn't know what she means by that, but she looks concerned while also looking like she's trying to mask her concern, and that throws up red flags for Jared.

He closes his book and places it in front of her, their established way of Jared telling her that he's done for the day.

"You only just got here," she says. "Don't you at least want to finish the story you're on?"

Jared shakes his head and is up and out of the room before she can say anything else. He hurries to Jensen's room, unsure of what is causing the urgency, and finds the door closed.

He knocks, and after a long moment, he hears a gentle, "Come in."

As soon as the door opens, Jared is struck by how dark Jensen's room is. It's midday, but the heavy curtains are still drawn over the windows, only the barest rays of light peeking out on the sides. There are no candles lit, and Jensen is still in bed.

"Jared?" he says. His voice sounds odd and strained, and Jared rushes to his side to check if he's been wounded.

Jensen laughs once he realizes what Jared is doing and catches Jared's hands to stop them, shaking his head. "I'm not hurt."

Then why? Jared asks, shaking off Jensen's hold and gesturing around the room.

Jensen frowns and looks down at his hands. "I thought you would be busy with your reading lesson today," he says. "I didn't want you to see me like this."

Jared cups his cheek in one hand and Jensen turns his face into it.

"I'm not hurt," he says again. "I'm okay, really. I'm just…sick. I'm a little sick."

Jared shakes his head 'no' but Jensen nods.

"It's in my head. It's not…not real. You shouldn't worry about it."

That Jared doesn't even bother considering. He lets his hand slip down to Jensen's chest and holds it there over his heart. Of course he's going to worry. It's his Jensen.

"They don't know what's wrong with me," Jensen explains. "Or. Well. They do. There's nothing wrong with me. I'm just ungrateful."

What's that supposed to mean? Jared signs.

Jensen licks his lips and turns toward the window, and Jared gets up to push the curtains aside for him, to let some light in, and to allow Jensen to say whatever comes next without Jared staring at him.

"I get…sad sometimes. It's. All the time, and then it'll go away, and then it'll come back. I feel so empty. It's not even—sad isn't the right word for it, Jared. It's like nothing matters. I don't know why. I don't know what’s wrong with me. I'm a prince. I have it so much better than most people, and everyone tries to tell me that, but it doesn't help. It doesn't make it go away. I don't know why I can't just be happy."

You feel that way now? Jared asks once there's enough light for Jensen to see him across the room.

"You must think I'm disgusting," Jensen says. "With everything you've been through. And here I am sitting in my castle feeling sorry for myself."

Jared sits at the edge of his bed and tucks the covers around Jensen.

"I try," Jensen insists. "No one believes that I try. I try so hard to be happy. Sometimes I just…can't."

He mimes drinking something to ask if this is why Jensen takes the pink potion, and Jensen nods.

Then he takes Jared's hands with urgency and looks up into his face. "But I stopped. I know I wasn't supposed to stop taking it, I knew this would happen if I did."

Jared doesn't want to take his hands away from Jensen, so he tries to mouth why did you stop?

"Because of you," Jensen admits, and Jared feels his face fall before Jensen adds, "The potion, it only helps by numbing me. It makes it so things don't feel as bad. But when I'm okay, when I feel happy, it's not all the way. And you…I wanted to feel it all the way."

Jared nods to show he understands, and Jensen continues, "It's worth it. Even though…even though I'm like this today. I don't feel like eating or getting out of bed or seeing anyone, and I know what everyone in the palace will be saying about me by suppertime. But it's worth it."

He squeezes Jared's hands between his own. "Don't tell them I stopped drinking it. Please don't tell. They'll be so mad at me and they'll make me. I know I'm messed up, but I just want to try taking care of it on my own."

Shaking his hands so that Jensen lets them go, Jared moves slowly, deliberately, so he can be sure Jensen is tracking his every movement. He presses his hands to Jensen's neck, the same way Jensen had the first time he told Jared there's nothing wrong with you just because you're different.

Jensen clutches Jared's shirt tight in his hands, lets out a broken sound. He whispers, "Sammy" and hides his face against Jared's chest, and Jared holds him there as long as Jensen lets him.

_______________________________________________________________

Over the next few weeks, Jared learns Jensen's moods pretty well. He learns when Jensen needs to be pushed, what he can do to help, and that sometimes, the best he can do is just let Jensen know he's there for support if he's needed.

He also learns the difference between Jensen being in a bad place and Jensen just being in a bad mood. Today is a bad mood, and Jared fully intends to have fun at his grouchy prince's expense.

"I hate feasts," Jensen tells him for the millionth time. "I hate arranging feasts, I hate throwing feasts, and I hate paying for feasts. I hate sitting through feasts. More than anything, let the record reflect that I fucking hate sitting through feasts."

Jared rolls his eyes and pretends to hit his head against the wall.

"Yeah, yeah, I get it," Jensen says. "I'm complaining. A lot. But did I mention—"

Jared grabs him by the shoulders and when he has Jensen's silence, he signs if I hear the word feast in the next sentence out of your mouth, I am going to cry.

Jensen, mature and august member of the Padacktopia monarchy that he is, sticks his tongue out at Jared.

Jared gestures at the bed, and at the beautiful clothes laid out on it. At least you get a nice new outfit.

Jensen scratches the back of his neck and looks suddenly very nervous. "Actually, uh. That's. Um. Well, I asked the tailor to make you something special for the feast."

Jared steps closer, and now that he can see the fine jacket and pants up close, they do seem to be cut for him rather than Jensen. There's just one tiny problem. Jared would be executed if he wore this in public.

He picks up the jerkin and holds it out to Jensen, his fingers tracing the dark purple swirls on the gold background. Colors of the royal house. Which only members of the royal family can wear, and Jared is just a commoner they picked up in a forest.

The tips of Jensen's ears go pink, but he takes it from Jared. "I'll help you dress."

There's only one circumstance under which someone who wasn't born to Jensen's family can wear these colors, and Jared's pretty sure, whatever his own feelings on the subject, that he and Jensen have not been married at any point, nor is it likely they ever will be.

"We'll do the undershirt first," Jensen says. "You have to take off the one you're wearing, it's not the right shade of white."

Jared obeys him only out of sheer confusion. He takes off his shirt and Jensen turns around, holding the new one out to Jared the best he can when he's closing his eyes and looking away.

Jared huffs a laugh at him and pulls the new shirt on, not missing that Jensen is looking at him with a glazed expression by the time it's on over his head. There are times—times like this—that Jared is so sure Jensen wants him. It even seems worth taking the risk, at least it would be better to die for kissing Jensen than for wearing the wrong colors.

Then Jensen says, all in a rush, "The feast is to announce my engagement."

Jared is so blindsided by what Jensen just said that he can't bother to hide any of the shock in his expression. Surely he would have known by now if Jensen was betrothed. He's seen the man at least once every day for months.

"That's why…" he says, and then he turns back toward the bed, distracting himself by picking up the next piece of Jared's ensemble. "That's why I've been in the mood I've been in, and I'm sorry you've had to put up with me. It's just been stressful."

He waits until Jensen is looking at him again before he signs who?

"She's arriving in just a few hours," Jensen tells him. "She's a princess from one of the nearby kingdoms, and her name is Danneel."

Jared knows he has no right to ask the next question, but he doesn't care. They can send him to the dungeons for all he cares. Do you love her?

Jensen's expression gets pinched, but he nods. "Very much."

He approaches Jared with pants and hands them over before turning his back. "We chose each other. She and I have been good friends since I was only a child, and we both knew we would have to marry someone of our station, so we decided it might as well be each other."

Jensen clears his throat, looking over his shoulder to see if Jared is ready for the next item. "I was very lucky, you know. She wasn't the wealthiest princess I could have had, but my brother let me choose. It's better than most princes can hope for. It's better than he got, though I know he loves Adrianne very much. He didn't choose her. He let me choose. I'm very lucky."

Jared nods when Jensen looks to him for approval, doing everything he can to hold himself together long enough to get through this. He should be happy for Jensen. Jensen has done so much for him, and he's about to marry someone he loves. So what if Jared thought maybe Jensen felt something for him? It's not Jensen's fault Jared was crazy enough to believe a prince could want him. He should accept that and be happy for Jensen.

But he can't. He can't even manage a fake smile, just a nod. The thought of sitting through this, seeing Jensen and some princess he loves as they tell the entire kingdom—Jared has never been to a feast in his life, but he's suddenly very sure he hates them just as much as Jensen does.

By now, Jared has put on every part of his elaborate outfit, including the boots and even a sword ("just for decoration," Jensen teases as he hands it over delicately).

The only thing left is a long coat, fur trimmed and leather and finer than anything Jared's seen, even on the king. "For when we ride out to meet the party," Jensen explains.

He holds his arms out to the side, and Jensen slips it onto him while saying, "It's just that…I don't know that I want to get married. But I bet all grooms feel that way at first."

Jared gives him a short smile when the coat is on him, and Jensen soothes his hands along the side, testing the fit. His smile for Jared is much more genuine when he looks up.

"You look very handsome in our colors," he says. Then his voice drops almost to a whisper, "They're my colors and I'll give them to whoever I want."

_______________________________________________________________

They meet the king and the queen in the great hall, the same room Jared was taken to the first time he met Josh. Both of them are already dressed, the queen looking like a creature from a fairytale in a dress that seems to take up half the floor. The king's outfit, while smaller, is no less elaborate, and they greet Jared and Jensen with smiles.

"Well, don't you two clean up nicely?" the queen asks.

Jared looks down at himself, unsure of whether they’ve noticed yet that he's wearing something he has no right to be wearing.

Just then, Jim Beaver enters the room, and of course, his first response is to look at Jared, disgust written all over his features. "Oh, you have got to be kidding me."

The king raises an eyebrow. "I'm not sure anyone made a joke just then, but I am often so witty I don't even realize I'm doing it."

"Of course you are, dear," the queen agrees, giving Josh a pat on the arm.

"You cannot actually intend to meet the princess with him dressed like that," he says, pointing to Jared. "Hasn't this gone far enough? The fact that he'll be there at all is—"

Queen Adrianne doesn't even pretend to disguise her eye roll. "Jim is worried Jared might look so good in those pants that Princess Danneel will forget all about Jensen. I, personally, think he has a point."

"The Princess will not stomach this insult," Jim argues, as if the queen never spoke.

"Oh, come on, Jim," the king replies. "Danni and Jensen used to have parchment eating contests when they were five. We're not really standing on ceremony here."

"I can explain about the parchment later," Jensen whispers to him, and Jared smiles despite how tense he feels.

"Maybe not, but what about the advisers who come with her? The people who will be reporting back to the king. This is a slight of the highest degree. This will turn an ally into an enemy!"

"They'll report back what the princess tells them to," Jensen assures his brother. "And besides, there's no slight in—"

"Oh, please," Lord Beaver replies, gesturing at Jared's clothing. "As if anyone in Padacktopia or any kingdom is going to miss what that means. And where is he going to sit at the fest?"

"At my side," Jensen answers. "Danneel on my left, Jared on my right. What's wrong with that?"

"Everything!" Jim yells. "There is protocol in matters of state and we can't blow them to the wind just because the prince is a—"

"What?" the king asks, turning on Jim with a tone and expression so fierce Jared suddenly sees how dangerous a thing a king is. "What were you going to accuse our little brother of being?"

Jim steps back and visibly humbles himself. "Nothing, your majesty. I was just saying that people will talk, and it will not be things you or the prince want them saying."

He has a point, Jared signs at Jensen. I do think he has a point.

"Oh, what's the street rat saying about me now?" Jim asks.

Jensen takes a step forward. "Look at the colors the street rat is wearing and look at the colors you're wearing. He outranks you."

"I'm the sole heir of the house of—"

"I know your pedigree," Jensen replies, his tone no less icy. "You're outranked."

Jim looks from Jensen to the king in confusion, and Jared gets an uneasy feeling in his gut that what Jensen just did was a slight too large for Lord Beaver's pride to swallow.

The king sighs, rubbing his temple with one hand. "This is all very productive," he says. "I want everyone out."

They turn to leave, Jared trying to make a break faster than anyone, but then the king lifts his head. "Jared, you stay."

Jared points to himself to check if the king actually meant he wanted Jared to stay, and Jensen stops next to him. "I can stay, too. To translate what he's saying for you."

The king shakes his head. "I don't anticipate that being an issue."

Reluctantly, Jensen passes Jared by, his finger brushing Jared's arm as he goes. Once the door is closed, the king clears his throat.

"So, uh, hi," he says.

Jared gives him an awkward wave.

"I'm sorry I haven’t gotten to know you better, I've just been—uh, look. I know. About my brother. Everyone knows. We've always known. When my parents were still alive, they didn't want to acknowledge it, so we never really talk about it. But I know."

Jared nods, pretending he's following anything the king is saying, because that seems to be the thing to do when he can't really ask him to clarify.

"It doesn’t bother me. He knows that. I mean, I tried to talk him out of this whole marriage thing. Good for business, sure, but I didn't want him to feel like he had to, but he insisted. Fine. Whatever. I don't like it."

Again, Jared nods. This time, he at least is consenting to something he knows he agrees with. Which is that Jensen getting married sucks.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is: I've noticed how he's changed since he met you. I don't know what you do for him." He stops himself, holding his hands up. "I don't need details, especially not if you need to act them out."

Jared shakes his head. No details. He wouldn't know what to act out even if he wanted to.

"He's happy now," the king says, his voice oddly soft. "In his whole life, I've never seen my little brother happy, not really. Not like this." He shrugs. "I don't care about gossip or where you sit at a banquet or what you wear. Please, keep making him happy."

_______________________________________________________________

When Jared heard stories about feasts, it always sounded like a good time. There was a lot of food, and that was mostly all he heard about it. Food. Jared likes food, therefore, he was pretty much expecting to enjoy himself at this feast, as much as one can enjoy a celebration that the person they are hopelessly in love with is about to marry a princess.

He didn't realize there would be so much waiting around beforehand. The princess arrived from her journey about an hour ago, and is not expected to be ready to join the festivities for some time yet. Obviously, the food can't be served until both of the guests of honor are present, but all this waiting around is going to kill him.

Jensen has resorted to playing the 'teach Jared the name of every noble in the kingdom' game, and Jared is never more regretful of his imposed silence than when it stops him from telling Jensen to shut the hell up.

"That's Count George Clooney," Jensen says, pointing to an older man at the end of the third table on their left. There are still two more tables after that, and then Jensen will start on the right. Jared sighs at his empty plate, but it takes no pity on him. "He wasn't invited. We never invite him to anything, but somehow he shows up anyway. Lovely wife, though!"

He pauses and turns to Jared. "I'm boring you to death, aren't I?"

Jared nods enthusiastically and Jensen laughs. "Excellent! Moving on we have—"

"Prince Jensen Ackles, soon to be a married man. And all the bachelors of Padacktopia weep."

Jared perks up at the sound of a familiar voice, and sure enough…

"Jeffrey Dean Morgan, you get older every time I see you!"

"Funny how that goes both ways," Lord Jeffrey replies, waiting for Jensen to stand and lean over the table before patting him on the back in greeting. He turns his attention toward Jared. "And who's your handsome friend here—Jared?"

"You know him?" Jensen asks excitedly, he turns to look at Jared. "You know him?"

Jared nods and Jeffrey smiles. "Damn, I was wondering what happened to you. We were real worried about you and your folks, you know that? Looks like you've moved onto bigger and better, though." Lord Jeffrey gives him and Jensen both a sly look. "Oh, to be a fly on the wall."

Jensen interrupts him. "You know his family? Where are they? Can I help them?"

"He hasn’t told you?" Jeffrey asks.

"He talked to you?" Jensen replies, looking for all the world like his jaw might hit the floor.

Lord Jeffrey gives Jensen a confused look. "Kid wouldn't shut up half the time. No offense, Jared."

Jared waves him off, and Jensen is the only one with any sense of focus. "Tell me about his family. Tell me everything you know."

"Honestly, I don't know much. He used to work on my farm. His daddy and brother, too. Good people, but, you know. Different circles." Jeffrey frowns. "Him and his whole household up and vanished out of nowhere about a year ago. Right in the middle of the harvest, no less, and you still owe me those 70 seals I paid you in advance."

"I'll get you your money," Jensen promises. "What else?"

"I'm sorry, I don't know much else. He can probably tell you. We all…we all thought you were dead." He smiles at Jared. "For what it's worth, I'm very glad to see you're not."

Lord Jeffrey resumes his seat not long after, and Jensen folds his hands in front of him. "That was interesting."

Jared nods.

"Genevieve offered to have you sit at her table during the feast," Jensen tells him, seemingly out of nowhere.

Jared lifts his head, hurt but not surprised that Jensen is changing his mind about having Jared at his side when the princess arrives.

"She's great. Very beautiful. Good family. She would be a good match." Jensen looks away. "You could have a feast like this with her someday. I can't ever…anyway. I wanted to tell you. If you want to be with her instead of me, I understand. I'm horrible company right now, anyway. I'm wound so tight I can't do anything but recite names and—"

Jared puts his hand on Jensen's thigh under the table and squeezes it, and that surprises Jensen into looking up at him.

He presses his hand against his heart, so Jensen can see who he's choosing, and Jensen smiles at him like there's no one else in this banquet hall full of nobility.

And then, just when he's starting to think he likes feasts after all, the princess arrives, even more beautiful now in her exquisite gown than she had been when she got off her horse. Her hair is laced with an extravagant gold headdress and she smiles at Jensen across the room. When Jared looks at his prince, he sees all his worst fears confirmed. He'd been telling himself, maybe Jensen's gloomy behavior was because he was lying. Maybe he didn't love her at all. But now he knows better.

Danneel takes her place at the table, and she's as funny as she is gorgeous. She goes out of her way to include Jared in conversations, even though she knows he won't respond, and makes Jensen turn as red as her hair by telling Jared stories about the nonsense they got up to as children.

He watches them laugh in unison, all through the night, finishing each other's sentences—freely, out loud. Jared can't even offer that. A simple conversation. It's a torture he can't escape sitting next to them, and it might damn well be the rest of his life.

Jared feels more foolish than he's ever felt. He had actually been beginning to allow himself to believe that Jensen loved him. But Jensen is a prince, and princes marry people like Danneel. She's kind, and she's gorgeous, and worst of all, Jensen loves her dearly. Jared could never compete.

_______________________________________________________________

Jared is not feeling sorry for himself.

He's staying busy. He's doing important work. He doesn't have time to feel sorry for himself, he has a whole family to save.

For the first time since he arrived at the palace, he has a way to get back to the forest so he can harvest more flax for the second of the six shirts. It's been over three months since he finished the first, and now that he can ride his own horse, it’s only a simple matter of ignoring the blisters.

Jared leaves and is back in the span of a day, and no one even notices he's gone. Jensen, whisked from one end of the castle to the next, taking his princess out on long rides like he used to do with Jared—Jensen certainly doesn't notice. And that's good. That's really for the best.

Jensen would worry if he knew Jared went back to those poisonous plants, and he has more than enough on his shoulders right now without throwing Jared's problems in. The princess is staying a fortnight, with the engagement to be formally announced the night before she leaves, and then he'll have a royal wedding to plan. And after the wedding, Jensen will start a family, he won't have time to spare another thought to where Jared is or what he's doing.

See? Jared is staying focused and not feeling even the slightest bit sorry for himself.

"If you're just going to sit there and feel sorry for yourself, you should go find him."

Jared looks up from his knitting and makes a sour face at Genevieve. He holds up the shirt he's started so she can see that he's working.

She laughs. "Oh, please. If you were sulking any harder, they would hear you in the dungeon. I don't know how you manage to be distracting when you're mute, but your self-pity is deafening."

He shakes his head to say I'm not sulking, and her amusement only grows.

"Look at your little lip sticking out," she teases. "It's not fair that even your pouting is cute."

Jared puts his knitting down and presses a hand against his chest. Her smile drops a little, and she nods. "I know, Jared. You miss him."

He holds up three fingers. Three days, that's how long it's been since he spent any significant amount of time with Jensen. The most contact they've had in the past 24 hours was Jensen pausing as they crossed paths in the hallway, taking his hands and looking at the new wounds for only a few seconds before Jim Beaver was at his side, reminding him he had to make an appearance at some meeting or another. He'd opened his mouth to say something, then allowed himself to be led away, with only a look back in Jared's direction and a pinched expression on his face.

"But Danneel has invited you along every day she's been here," Genevieve points out. "She wants to get to know you. You're the one choosing not to spend any time with them."

He'd thought about it, when the first invitation came. He'd bathed and was halfway through dressing before he realized what it would be like. Danneel thinks he's Jensen's friend, so she wants to be his friend, too. And she's not wrong, either, because that is all he ever was or will be.

But he wants more and, for a while there, he thought he had more. He won't be able to hide it, won't know how to act differently toward Jensen now that he's learned his place. No one wants that when they're newly in love. He's had Jensen all to himself for months, and he doesn’t know how to share. She's the one with a claim.

Jared signs I don't belong and Genevieve tilts her head. "I'm sorry, Jared, I don't understand."

He laughs, because, isn't that just it? The first thought through his head is Jensen would have.

Leaning toward the desk, Jared gestures at the books she has open, making the change of subject clear. Genevieve sighs but doesn't comment on Jared's evasion, just turns her attention back to her own work.

"I was thinking of moving you up to some harder material, so I was sorting through a few possibilities." She pauses for a moment, then gives Jared a sly look, like she already knows how he'll respond to what she's about to say. "That pile on the right corner? Those are Jensen's favorite stories."

He already has a stack of parchment clutched in each hand before he realizes how predictable he is. Genevieve is laughing, and Jared just ducks his head, figuring it's too damn late to play it cool.

"Those are stories, mostly. Epic tales. Mythology. Jensen was always into the grand journeys and quests. Me? I prefer the histories, but they always bored him."

Jared flips through a few sheets, until he finds one that catches his attention. There's an imprint of a man in a forest speaking to a beautiful maiden, and when Jared scans the page to see if he thinks he'll be able to read it, one word he's never seen in writing jumps out at him.

Two-thirds down the page and tucked off to the right-hand side, there it is in black and white: Sammy. It's spelled just the way it sounds when Jensen says it.

Genevieve gives him a confused look in response to his excitement, so he holds the page out to her, pointing to the word. Her eyebrows draw together and finally she looks up at him. "What's all the gesticulating about?"

He stops to take a deep breath and steady himself, and then he points to the page again.

"Sammy?" she finally asks, looking up at him to confirm that's the word he wants her to explain.

Jared nods and nods, and Genevieve seems surprised. "Those were Jensen's favorite types of stories."

Yes, Jared tries to tell her with a frustrated wave of his hands. But what does it mean?

"It's really hard to translate into English," she says, pursing her lips. "At least, not in a way that doesn't sound silly. That's why most translators just left it in the text even though the majority of readers wouldn't know what it meant. After enough times, it starts to make sense in context."

He rolls his eyes. Instead of a definition, Jensen gave him a lesson on the language, and now Genevieve is doing the same. He makes circles with his hands to lead her on, and she nods.

"Okay, literally it's something like 'precious gift.' In old Acklonian, Sam means gift, the suffix -my is added to words to denote that they have great value. In the stories, the Sammy was something a hero was sent, by gods or mystical forces or fate, whatever, changed based on the story."

Jared nods to show he's still paying attention, and Genevieve reaches out, looking through a few pages and then setting down images. "Do you know the story of the king and the sword in the stone? Or the Holy Grail?"

He read about those in some of the books she'd given him months ago, so he nods again.

"Good. That's the Sammy in each of those stories. The king gets the sword, the sword makes him king. The knight finds the grail and that gains him entrance into paradise. The Sammy is what makes it possible."

Jared turns back to the first page he'd found and points to the woman in the forest, asking if it can be a person instead of a thing.

Genevieve smiles. "Yeah, of course. Think of the story of the knight who fell in love with the queen. He was supposed to go after the grail first, but he wasn't pure after he'd committed adultery, right?"

The connection here is failing Jared, but he trusts Genevieve has a point she's coming around to.

"He chose the queen's love over the grail, over paradise. She chose him over the king's power, over a kingdom. She was his Sammy, and he was hers."

Jared sits back, tries to think about that and what it means that Jensen uses that word to refer to him when he is about to marry someone else.

"It's not a prize," Genevieve tells him. "When we were studying this, that's how our teacher taught it to us, but Jensen didn't read it that way, and he convinced me. That's the part that made it so powerful to him. You don't get your Sammy at the end of the story as a reward for completing your quest. The Sammy is what gives you the strength to keep going. The only reason the hero ever makes it to the end."

She waits until Jared looks up at her, and then she gives him a small smile. "He calls you that, doesn't he? That's why you wanted to know what it means."

And Jared suddenly realizes that Jensen never called him Sammy once when they were near Genevieve, or anyone who was likely to understand it. Not after Josh had teased him for it.

He nods, and Genevieve turns back to her own work. "Gosh, I wonder what that could possibly mean," she mutters.

Jared tucks a few of the stories into his waistcoat pockets and excuses himself from the library, heading back to his room with every intention of thinking over everything he just learned.

The only trouble is that Jared's room is down the same hall as Jensen's, and there's no way to reach it without passing by the prince. The door is wide open, and Jared can hear Danneel laughing at something Jensen's just said. He can't go by unnoticed.

He hesitates before stepping into the light, trying to decide if he should try walking extremely fast, or if he should walk slower so as to look like he's perfectly casual. Chances are, they'll both be too wrapped up in each other to even notice him, but still, Jared stands there obsessing over it.

Then he hears Danneel say, "So what's up with Jared?"

"I don't know," Jensen replies. "He's usually so friendly. I thought you two would get along great. Do you think he's mad at me?"

Danneel laughs. "No, I don't. I'm pretty sure I know why he's avoiding you, and it's not that. Anyway, that's not what I meant. You've done nothing but stress about him for two days, but you haven't told me anything about him. What's the story there? Where'd he come from? There wasn't any Jared last time I was here."

Jared doesn't even pretend he can walk by without listening for Jensen's response. He draws as close to the door as he can, puts his hand against the stone wall, and holds his breath.

"There's not much to tell," he hears Jensen say, sounding like he's bored with the conversation already.

It's exactly what Jared deserves for eavesdropping, but he still nearly lets out a cry of anguish. He feels his legs shaking under him. How could Jensen have saved him, have acted like he cared for months, only to brush Jared off like that?

"Oh, please," Danneel replies. "I really hope you're not about to try and tell me you're not in love with him."

Jared frowns, confused by how the princess could be jealous of him after what Jensen just said.

And then Jensen changes everything.

"Of course I'm in love with him," he answers with a scoff. "That's what I meant. What do I have left to tell you, Danni? You know me better than anyone and I…I'm not exactly very good at hiding it, am I?"

"Babe, you never were."

He hears a scuffle inside, and Danneel starts laughing hysterically as she cries out, "You can't! Tickle me! Anymore! I am! A grown ass woman!"

After a few minutes, the commotion dies down, and finally Jensen picks up the conversation, his voice much softer than it was before. "It's not like the other men," he says. "The way I feel about him. I tried to stop. Every time I wanted someone, it was a humiliation to my family. I've tried not to be this way, but it's impossible with him."

"I know," Danneel replies just as quietly. "I knew the first moment I saw you, when you got off your horse to welcome me. When you introduced us. You looked so happy. You looked like you were handing me a jewel when you told me his name. I've told you a thousand times you shouldn't be ashamed of who you are, but that was the first time you truly weren't."

"I'm not ashamed of loving him," Jensen says. "He treats me…my whole life, people have either acted like I'm above them because of my station or like I'm some fragile thing that has to be shielded. Even my brother. There's never been any middle ground, except with you."

There's a pause, and Jared wishes he could see Jensen now, what he looks like, how he stands when he says these things. But he can't, because they're not supposed to be for him to hear.

"Jared treats me like a person. Like an equal. Has since the first time we met." Jensen chuckles. "We found him in the dirt, did you know that? Literally. Covered in dirt, and bleeding, and I'm so fucking hopeless, Danni. Even then, do you know what the first thing I thought was?"

"My, what big shoulders you have?" she guesses. Jensen doesn't respond, but Jared can imagine the arched eyebrow he's aiming at her. "Just me, then. Boy does have some shoulders on him though, someone oughta give him credit."

"I thought he looked like a king," Jensen tells her. "I thought he looked like a king I would gladly follow."

"That's treason," she says with a laugh.

"I know," he replies. "I know, and my brother is the king. And yet."

"And yet," she repeats. "So what now?"

"What do you mean 'what now?'" Jensen asks. "Nothing has changed. You and I will get married and—"

"And what about Jared?"

"I made a promise to you," Jensen says. "I wouldn't break it. I'm going to be a good husband, and your father's kingdom will go right back to you when I inherit it."

Danneel makes a 'hmm' noise. "I want to call it off."

"Because of Jared," says Jensen. "Danni, you always knew I—what I—"

"No, I did. I do. I know." She takes a deep breath. "Jensen, I thought it was a great idea. We would have a lot of fun. I thought I wouldn't mind having a husband who didn't love me that way. But when I see the way you look at Jared…all I can think is that I want a husband who looks at me like that."

"And your father's decree?"

"Eh, fuck it," Danneel replies. "Maybe I'll find someone who meets his expectations. If not, he can go ahead and spite me by making my awful cousin his heir. Dad hates him more than I do. It's a bullshit rule, not passing your crown down to an unmarried woman."

"I agree." Jensen sighs. "You've trained your whole life to be queen. You'd be good at it."

"Would you give Jared up for your brother's kingdom?"

"You know the last thing I want is power," Jensen replies.

"That's not what I meant."

He hears a sad laugh from Jensen. "If I had him, I wouldn't give him up for anything. But I won't ever have him. I might as well help you get your crown. I can't ever tell him how I feel."

"Why not?" she asks.

"I'm a prince," says Jensen. "He's…you know, not."

"You can't actually care about something like that?" Danneel asks, sounding as angry as Jared is hurt.

"No, I don't. Of course I don't. I just worry. If I told him, if he doesn't feel how I feel, I'm terrified he wouldn't tell me. That he'd give me what I want and pretend to want it too, because you're not supposed to say no to a prince. How can I ever know he actually wants me?"

"Well, first of all, there's the whole 'neither of you has any subtlety' thing," Danneel jokes. "You said it yourself, he treats you like an equal. He's been honest with you before, hasn't he?"

"Yes, but never about something like this. I've seen nobles punish their servants for refusing them. I've seen it right here in Padacktopia. We try to stop it, but it happens. He's probably seen more of it. I can't stomach the thought of touching him against his will."

"That's an excuse," Danneel says. "I'm sorry, but you're being a coward. You can trust him to be honest with you, but you're right that you have all the power here. That's exactly the reason you have to be the one to tell him. He can't do it. You're worried he won't want it? If he risked kissing you without knowing you wanted it, he would be risking his life. It's not an equal gamble at all, Jensen. You have to be the one to make the move."

"I can't," Jensen says again. "Danni, I can't. He might think it's disgusting. Most people do—I know what they call me in court. If he hated me, I would…I've sunken so low. There have been times I thought I didn't want to keep going. If I lose him, I think it would be the last thing I could bear."

"That's not true," Danneel says, her tone gentler than Jared's ever heard it. "You're stronger than you give yourself credit for." Jared hears her cross the room, hears her give Jensen a kiss. "Jared knows that. And he loves you. But he won't tell you. Don't let yourself lose him because you're afraid to lose him, okay?"

Jared doesn't hear anything else for several minutes, and then suddenly the princess is standing in front of him, hand on the knob as she shuts the door behind her, and a wicked look on her face when she meets Jared's eyes.

"Oh, silly me," she says. "Did I leave this open that whole time?"

Jared's jaw drops, and she laughs quietly, then gives him a wink as she begins to walk toward her own quarters, tossing one last remark over her shoulder. "Well, he was never going to tell you."

_______________________________________________________________

He doesn't see Jensen again until the next night, when he's in his room knitting by the fire. The princess and her party left earlier that morning, unannounced to anyone but Jensen and the king. Jared had watched Jensen see them off from the window of his room, but he had stayed at his post, working on his shirt.

Now there's a banquet in full swing in the great hall, and instead of wearing the fine clothes Jensen had made for him, he's hiding out, his stomach grumbling because he hasn't left his room since breakfast.

There was an announcement set to be made at this banquet, one the entire kingdom was already anticipating, and, because of Jared, there's a permeating air of embarrassment tinting the festivities instead. The princess fled without warning, no wedding to be held, and Jim Beaver made sure to announce at breakfast that everyone would know why the prince let her go. He glared at Jared across the table when he said it, and Jared tried his best to sink into the floor.

A knock at his door makes Jared jump up from his seat. He turns to face the threshold just as Jensen sticks his head in.

"I'm sorry to bother you," he says. "But I noticed you weren't out enjoying the celebration, and I wanted to be sure you—listen, Jared, do you have a few minutes? There's something I'd like to speak to you about."

Jared nods only once, setting his knitting down on the chair and walking over to the bed where Jensen is sitting.

Jensen waits until Jared is right beside him, and then he takes Jared hands between his own, his fingers tracing over Jared's sore palms.

"I have to tell you something," he says, his words all directed down at their hands instead of at Jared. "What I'm about to say may be…unusual? I don't know if it's common outside of court, or if it happens at all. It's not—it's rare for nobles, but it happens. Some circles are more accepting than others and." He takes a deep breath. "It's okay if you don't feel the way I do. Just. Please don't hate me."

Jared curls a finger under Jensen's chin, forcing him to look up into Jared's eyes, and Jared sees how terrified the prince is.

"Jared, I—"

Before he can finish, or even really begin, Jared surges forward, brings his lips to Jensen's for a kiss so powerful it feels like magic, even if there isn't any. Jensen's response is immediate, his hands both coming up to grip Jared by the neck, his lips parting to make way for Jared's tongue, and then Jared can feel the corners of Jensen's lips turning up against his own.

When he breaks the kiss, it's with his forehead resting on Jared's, the smile on his face overwhelming, and Jared just wants to dive back in again.

"You're sure?" Jensen asks. "You really want this?"

Jared considers grabbing him by the shoulders and shaking him, but instead, he takes Jensen's hand and presses the palm of it flat against his chest, so Jensen can feel the way his heart is beating. Then, he reaches out, resting his own hand over Jensen's heart.

I love you he's saying, and Jensen's face breaks as he whispers, "I love you, too. Jared, I love you, too."

They don't waste time before they're kissing again, and Jared couldn't be happier that he stayed in simple clothes. Jensen immediately begins to tear at the fabric, undressing Jared with a savage kind of desperation. All Jared can do is shove material out of the way. Jensen is wearing thick layer upon layer, but he fights his way to the skin underneath until his hands are groping every inch of bare flesh he can reach.

Jensen lets him go, taking a step back from the bed, and Jared's entire world stops as he holds his breath, waiting to see if Jensen is having second thoughts. If he's about to turn away, or flee.

Instead, he starts to fiddle with the clasps on his vest, mumbling something about how much he hates the damn thing as his fingers fumble.

Jared stands and approaches him, lowering Jensen's hands and replacing them with his own. He thinks of how many times Jensen helped him dress when these clothes were still new to him and he couldn't have done it on his own. Jensen never mocked him for that. He'd dressed Jared like every step was an honor, his hands lingering and correcting anything that was out of place.

Now, Jared is going to return the favor. He starts to undo the fastening of Jensen's vest, but he's slow and deliberate about it, taking his time. It's been almost a year and Jared has dreamt of this every day since they met, but the whole thing has taught him patience. He's going to do this right. He's going to give Jensen all the attention he deserves.

Layer by layer, he strips away the prince, lays his Jensen bare beneath all the fine fabric and ornaments. Jensen watches him throughout, his expression heavy and so piercing Jared feels heat running under his skin.

Finally, Jensen's belt falls from Jared's fingers and he's standing in front of Jared with nothing more than a simple black pair of pants on.

"Jared," he says, and he reaches out to shove the thin white shirt Jared has just hardly hanging off his shoulders away. Jared closes his eyes as Jensen's fingers reach out, shaking with desire and hesitation, and begin to trace their way across Jared's chest.

"You can't imagine how hard it's been not to touch you," Jensen tells him, a fascinated look in his eyes as the tips of his fingers map each of Jared's abs. He smiles, laughing at something far away. "The first time I brought you to this room, when I took you to the bath. Do you remember how you stripped? And I couldn't even blink, I…I thought you knew right then and there how much I wanted you."

Jared puts his hands in front of Jensen's eyes and signs, you didn't know either.

"No," Jensen agrees. "I didn't. I didn't think you could want someone like me."

I'm beneath you.

Jensen looks up at him. At first his expression is angry, but after a second, it changes into something playful that Jared's never seen before. "You could be, if you want."

He laughs, then asks what if I want to be on top?

Jensen sheds his pants and hops onto Jared's bed, grinning at him once he's turned to face Jared again. "You can have it any way you want. I've been dreaming of you since the first time I saw you. There isn't a thing in the world you can do to me that I haven't already longed for."

Jared's hands are busy shucking his own pants, so he mouths "I want everything" as clearly as he can, and Jensen groans when Jared is standing in front of him, naked as can be.

He leans across the bed, his hands circling each of Jared's hips, and looks at Jared's cock with obvious hunger. Then he ducks down, pressing a kiss to the base, licking his way to the head, and kissing that too.

Jared would have to be a much stronger man not to harden under that kind of attention. Jensen doesn't rush, he takes Jared between his lips and sucks him slowly, just long enough to get Jared's dick stiff as marble, and then he pulls off, saliva still connecting them in an obscene line.

He tugs Jared forward, onto the bed, and when he has Jared flat on his back, Jensen climbs on top of him, straddling his hips. "Mmm, you may be getting better than me on your horse, but I still can teach you a thing or two about riding."

Jared shakes his head, huffing a laugh at how cheesy Jensen is, and then Jensen distracts him by leaning down for a kiss. "I'll get some oil from the bath."

Before he can climb down, Jared stops him, pointing instead to the drawer by his bed. Jensen raises an eyebrow and Jared smirks, signing I think about you a lot.

Jensen bites his bottom lip as he smiles and reaches over Jared, until he's fished a small, dark blue bottle of oil out of the drawer.

He drizzles some onto his own fingers before giving it to Jared, and Jared slicks his cock up with as much restraint as he can manage while watching Jensen's thighs flex on top of him as he slips a finger into himself.

Over the months since Jared's family was cursed, he's gotten pretty good at resisting the urge to make a sound. Still, it takes effort not to moan at the way Jensen keeps his eyes on Jared, how he doesn't wait before shoving another finger in and then another, as if his body is starving for the contact.

It's only a few minutes before Jensen's hand is gripping the headboard for leverage as he lowers himself onto Jared's cock. His breathing ratchets up with the pleasure, how hot and tight Jensen is around him, how much he's wanted this and how long it's been since he felt anything that could compare to even the first thrust of his dick into Jensen.

Then Jensen starts to move with him, his hips circling with well-practiced ease, his eyes drifting shut as he lets out a long 'oh' sound, and Jared is struck by how beautiful he is with his long eyelashes fanning against his cheeks, his mouth parted in pleasure.

He steadies his hands on Jensen's hips and starts to fuck up into him in earnest, his need for Jensen taking control of him. Jensen is making enough noise for the both of them, and he brings his hands down, places them over Jared's abs so he can grip Jared's skin to hold him in place and drive himself even harder onto Jared's cock.

"So big," Jensen mutters as he takes Jared better than anyone's ever taken him. Jared can see that his breath is becoming short, that his whole body is straining from the effort, sweat coating him everywhere Jared touches, but Jensen doesn't slow down. "So big, so good. Oh, fuck, I knew you’d be so good."

By now, there are tears running off Jared's cheeks just from the effort of keeping himself silent. It takes too much of him, Jensen is too giving, and Jared can't hold on as long as he wants to.

He reaches out to stroke Jensen's dick so that they can finish together, knowing he won't make it much longer, and with no other way to signal that to Jensen. But Jensen takes Jared's hand, lets their fingers tangle, and leans down, his whole body now pressed as close to Jared as possible.

"I love you," he tells Jared, his mouth pressing against Jared's neck and sucking hard on the skin. "Let me feel you come. Give it to me. Please, give it to me."

Jared does, only stopping himself from crying out by pressing his mouth to Jensen's shoulder, letting it rest there as he turns his face, pushing himself into Jensen because he doesn't want this over so soon, doesn’t want to go back to just being Jared after learning what it feels like to be Jensen, too.

Jensen stays on top of him, milking every last drop of Jared's orgasm, until Jared is fully soft, and there's nothing left for him to ride. Then he falls down next to Jared, cupping Jared's face gently as he kisses him.

His own erection presses into Jared's thigh, and Jared submits to Jensen's affections until Jensen is obviously too turned on to focus, until he's grinding against Jared's leg. Jared pulls back, gesturing to his mouth, offering it to Jensen, but Jensen seems to have plans of his own.

"Turn over," he tells Jared.

Jared obeys him easily, pulling a pillow under his head. He's about to grab for the oil so Jensen can ready him, but he stops halfway, so shocked that he only stops himself from making a sound by slapping his hand over his mouth.

Jensen spreads his cheeks and does something Jared has never even imagined before. He buries his tongue deep inside Jared, the cool sensation opening him up better than oil and fingers have ever done. Jared can't help responding like a child with a new toy, arching his back, pushing his ass up into Jensen's face for more.

He laughs as he pulls away, spitting into Jared's hole. "You like that, huh?"

All Jared can do is nod enthusiastically into his pillow, but that's enough. The prince kisses the soft skin around Jared's hole, then slips his tongue in again, a kiss with darker intent.

Jared's still too drained from his orgasm to get hard, but Jensen takes good care of him, until he's sure Jared is open and ready, and then he puts his hand over Jared's mouth.

"Spit," he says. Jared would do anything Jensen asks of him right now.

He hears Jensen jerking himself once he has Jared's slick on his hands, and then Jensen's spreading him again, lining his cock up.

"You ready?" he asks, his lips grazing Jared's shoulder. Jensen is now pressing his entire body against Jared's back, and the weight of him is better than salvation could ever be. He waits for Jared's nod, and then his cock is easing in, much slower, much more patient than Jensen had been taking Jared.

Under different circumstances, Jared might get pushy, might fuck up onto Jensen's dick if Jensen wasn't going to use him right. But now he's exhausted, the pleasure a thrum through him that Jared is content to feel forever.

And that's just what Jensen does. His control is impeccable, slow, steady thrusts that make it last so long that Jared does get hard again. He doesn't know how Jensen hasn't come, is eager to think up ways to put this stamina to good use in the future. For now, he lies under Jensen, with nothing but the sound of his own panting filling the room, until finally they come together.

Jensen rolls off of him quickly, presses two fingers into Jared's raw hole, and then brings his own come up to suck on. Jared opens his mouth, tongue tracing his bottom lip in a way Jensen couldn't misread. He gives Jared a half-smile and rubs his thumb along the well-fucked skin, then feeds it to Jared, who sucks on the digit like Jensen found him in a brothel instead of a forest.

"That's my dirty boy," Jensen says, his voice rough from being the only one between them able to let out all their cries. He watches Jared for a few seconds longer, then cups Jared's face.

Jensen kisses Jared, his thumb still between them, until Jared lets it go so he can accept Jensen's tongue instead. They make out for a long time, until finally Jensen pulls away, and Jared realizes how tired he is.

"It was…" Jensen's cheeks turn pink, and he settles his hand on the bed between them. "It was good for you, right? I mean. I think it was, but. No one's ever been quiet with me before."

Jared gives him the only answer he can think of that will calm Jensen's worries. He reaches out, hand over Jensen's heart, and Jensen looks up at him, a relieved smile on his face.

"Sammy," he says sweetly, tucking a hair behind Jared's ear and then playing with the curl at the end of it. "My Sammy."

_______________________________________________________________

One thing Jared has learned is that when you spend enough time pining after someone, you get pretty impatient once you finally get to have them. Sometimes, you just don't feel like waiting for them to wake up before getting their dick in your mouth.

Most days, it's an understatement to say Jensen is not a morning person. But Jared knows a foolproof way to wake him up in a good mood, and that's just the kind of person he is. A giver.

He knows Jensen's awake by the way his hips shift, cock pushing just a little farther down Jared's throat. That's followed by a needy moan, and soon after, Jensen's hand resting in his hair, carding through it as Jared works.

It doesn't take long to make Jensen come on mornings like this. He lets out a low grunt and Jared knows to expect the rush that fills his mouth seconds later.

When he reemerges from beneath the covers, Jensen gives him a sleepy smile. "You don't talk much, but you sure know how to do something with that mouth."

Jared kisses Jensen, and Jensen licks his own taste out of Jared, rolling over so that he's on top of Jared as they make out. "Make that two things," he says when the kiss breaks.

As soon as Jared smiles down at him, Jensen lifts his head, presses a kiss into one of Jared's dimples. "And the smile makes three."

I can do them all again, Jared signs, licking his lips as he waggles his eyebrows playfully.

The prince huffs a laugh. "You're insatiable."

Jared grins and nods.

Jensen reaches down, squeezing Jared's ass with both of his hands. "Just last night, I gave you all the dick in the world, and you can't even wait for me to wake before starting up again."

Weren't you young once?

"You little smartass," Jensen replies, before kissing him again.

They makeout a while longer, and then Jensen wraps his arms around Jared, an innocent cuddle at first. But his hand wanders, wrapping around Jared's cock and working him just the way Jared likes.

After they've both been taken care of, when Jared is starting to weigh the virtues of staying in bed with Jensen against the virtues of getting up to look for some food, he feels Jensen's fingers tracing over something on his back.

"Do you know you have a birthmark on this shoulder that looks like a swan?" Jensen asks as he nuzzles his face into Jared's neck and kisses it.

Jared nods. The swans had been a running joke in their family, one that turned sour after the witch had used it to punish them. Jared would rather forget the stupid thing is on him altogether.

Jensen pulls him down by the shoulder so he's lying on his back and then crawls up onto his chest so that his face is just a few inches above Jared's.

"I've been thinking about it the last few days," he says. "Not that I do a whole lot of thinking when I have you like this. But. Did anyone else in your family have a swan-shaped birthmark?"

Jared shrugs. Yeah, why?

He sits up enough to point to the five-pointed star on his chest, circled in flames. "Josh has a birthmark just like this. Our father had one, too. It's the sigil of our house."

It's on every banner in the palace, embroidered into Jensen's clothes and Jared's as well. Even if it weren't, Jared may have been a peasant, but he still grew up in Padacktopia. He knows the royal sigil just as surely as he knew the snake of Lord Morgan's house long before he ever saw it marked on the lord's ankle.

"Jared, these marks are hereditary. They flow through the blood of noble houses." Jensen's eyebrows draw together. "How could your family have a mark like this unless—?"

Jared rolls his eyes and raises his hands to say, You can't possibly think my family was nobility just because of a birthmark.

"But I do," Jensen replies. He bites his bottom lip. "I know every sigil in this kingdom, and in the nearest ten kingdoms. I've never heard of a family represented by swans."

That's because there isn't one.

"Hmm." Jensen rolls onto his back and stares up at the canopy of the bed for a long time, quiet in his thoughts. Finally he says, "I'm gonna talk to Genevieve about it."

Jared shakes him to get his attention, then mimes feeding himself.

Jensen snorts. "You're hungry. What a surprise."

_______________________________________________________________

Jared finishes the third of the shirts halfway through his second year. Six months since Danneel visited, which was when he started the second one. He's not going as quickly as he thought he would, but he wasn't banking on Jensen, on a palace to explore, a whole library full of books to read. He has half of the shirts done in half the time the witch gave him, and he decides he'll call that good enough.

What he's not as happy about is what he has to do to get the flax now that he and Jensen share a bed. Last time he ran out, Jensen had been on a diplomatic trip to one of the far eastern kingdoms, leaving Jared alone and bored, with plenty of time to knit, and no need to be secretive about leaving the palace.

He tried waiting for another good opportunity like that, but the months have ticked away on him, and Jared gets anxious about the thought of losing sight of his task, failing to complete all six in time.

That's why, just a few hours after midnight, Jared kisses Jensen on his back and carefully disentangles his body from the prince spooned in his arms. Jensen doesn't wake easily, and Jared is relieved that he's able to tiptoe out of the room and shut the door behind him undetected. It's his hope that he can be back in just a few hours, and the prince will mark his tiredness and new hand wounds up to working too hard on his knitting.

The room that was his before still holds most of his clothes and belongings, one of the rare ways they keep up appearances, as if everyone in the castle isn't aware that he and Jensen share a bed. It's a lucky break for now. Jared is able to light candles, dress himself, and slip out to the stables without making noise anyone will hear.

Sadie quiets once she recognizes Jared, even more so when he shares a cube of sugar with her, and he saddles her up as she chews contentedly, her tail swishing in the cool night air. Then they're off, back to the forest Jared grew up in and the bushes that nearly took his life.

The land around the bushes has already started to flourish in the absence of the first three, and Jared proudly pulls at the fourth, finding the improvement worth the extra pain it brings him. It takes longer than it had before, as if the plants are starting to realize what he's up to and are fighting back with thicker roots and more potent leaves.

It's a poison that can't hurt him anymore, though, so Jared soldiers through. The day has gotten much later than he hoped, and even with Jensen's hatred of mornings, he knows it's unlikely the prince will not be awake by the time he returns. He just has to hope Jensen won't be too stern about the new injuries.

When he returns to the palace, however, he finds Jensen's most trusted guards, Chris and Steve, watching the gate. They stop Jared and seem to visibly relax when they recognize him.

Jared waves hello to them and points to Sadie, trying to explain that he was out for an early morning ride. The guards exchange glances and then Chris looks at Jared.

"I'm glad you're back, man," he says. "You better go on up and see Jensen."

He tries to ask them if something is wrong, but neither of them recognizes Jared's signs, and he gets frustrated, spurring Sadie back toward the stable after a few minutes of repeating himself.

"I told you he'd be back," he hears Chris say to Steve, as if they'd been taking bets or something.

When he arrives, he dismounts right away, handing Osric the reins without stopping to hear the young man's greetings and jokes. If Jensen is in trouble and Jared wasn't there to help him, he'll never forgive himself for taking his time.

He finds the door to Jensen's room open when he reaches it, and inside are Aldis, the king, and Jim Beaver.

"It's for the best, really," he hears Beaver say, in what is probably supposed to be a comforting tone. "If he had been a noble, or even a peasant woman, we could have put a good spin on it, but things being what they were, he made a joke of you in court. You’re much better off this way."

"Now isn't really the time to talk politics," he hears the king say. "Jensen, why don't you listen to Aldis? This potion is stronger than the old one. It'll make you feel much better."

"I don't want to take it," Jensen is saying when Jared rounds the corner and appears at the door. "I was happy. I was happy. I don't want to take it. I just want—"

Jared watches Jensen's expression change when his eyes settle on Jared in the doorway, and he seizes forward in bed.

"You're back," he says, staring at Jared in awe. He turns to look at the others in the room. "He's back. He came back."

The king lifts his head and looks incredibly relieved to see Jared. Aldis smiles, too, but Lord Beaver sneers. "The guards let you in just like that, huh? Even after stealing a royal horse? I recommended they detain you after the trouble you caused."

"It's not stealing," Josh says. "We gave him free reign of our castle, including the livestock. I presume you returned Sadie to the stables, Jared?"

Jared nods, looking around in confusion at all the commotion his borrowing one horse for a few hours caused.

"That settles that." The king stands, patting Aldis and Jim on the back and herding them toward the door. "Let's go, fellas. Our business here is done. I think my brothers need to talk."

He gives Jared a friendly wink as he passes, as soon as he sees Jared gasp in response to a king referring to him as kin.

When he turns his attention back to Jensen, the prince is sitting on the bed with his head hung, staring at his hands in his lap like a chastised child. "I thought you left," he admits. "I thought you left me."

Jared crosses to him in just a few strides, taking Jensen's hands in his own and forcing the prince to look up at him.

Why would you think that?

"I woke up and you were gone. You didn't even say goodbye." Jensen's voice cracks and he looks away. "You have every right to leave, of course. You're not a prisoner. I just thought. I thought I'd driven you away." He turns toward Jared and pulls him in, burying his face in Jared's chest and embracing him. "Don't leave me like that. Please. Don't go without saying goodbye."

Jared kisses the crown of Jensen's head, and when Jensen looks up at him, he mouths, "Why did you think I wasn't coming back?"

"Jim," Jensen says. "Jim said the guards who saw you leaving tried to stop you, to ask why you were taking the horse. He said you knocked them down and took off before anyone could catch you. I didn't believe him, and Josh didn't either. But Jim has been so loyal to us, and the horse was gone, and they kept saying it. He said you never loved me, that you'd always been planning to leave. I knew better, Jared, I swear I did. It's just that…sometimes I think like that. Because…because of the way I am."

Jared feels his hands curl into fists. Jim Beaver hating him is one thing. Calling him names, most of which are technically true, is one thing. But manipulating Jensen, using his sickness against him. He could kill the man.

But right now, what Jensen needs is reassurances, not anger. So Jared takes a deep breath and sits next to him. He signs, I will never leave you and presses his hand against Jensen's chest.

Jensen wipes at his eyes and shakes his head. "I shouldn't have doubted you. I'll never doubt you again."

It wasn't your fault, he tells Jensen, but Jensen shakes his head.

"It was," he says. "I believed them. I almost…"

Jared follows Jensen's eyes to the nightstand by his bed and sees a dark blue potion, bubblier than the pink one he used to take when Jared first came to the castle. The prince has been so much more animated since he stopped drinking that potion—not only happier, because it's true that he still has bad days, and when he does, they're worse than they were before. He's been more awake, more aware, less accepting when others are unkind or wicked to him.

It may be paranoia, but Jared can't help suspecting that the reason Lord Beaver is so invested in keeping Jensen on that potion is because it makes him easier to control. There have to be potions that can help Jensen without doing that to him.

Do you want to take it? Jared asks. Will it make you feel better?

Jensen shakes his head. "They said it was stronger. I won't feel anything. And you're back. What else could I need?"

Then dump it, Jared tells him.

Jensen nods, then sighs. "Your hands are bleeding. You went to get more flax, didn't you?"

Caught, Jared opens his pouch so Jensen can see the leaves stuffed into it. The prince turns his palms over sadly. "I wish you wouldn't hurt yourself," he says, making a tsking sound. "Come on, I'll wrap them for you, Sammy."

Jared lets him, and as he watches the worry on Jensen's face, he decides to let it rest for a while. He'll finish the fourth shirt and then give it a few months. Just enough time for his hands to fully heal, for Jensen to have some peace of mind. Then he'll get back to the last two.

_______________________________________________________________

Months and months pass, happy and worry free. Jared's hands heal. The seasons cycle through. Jared all but forgets that his family is waiting on him.

At first, he works slowly on the fourth shirt. He tells himself it's okay to pace himself, that his family wouldn't want him speeding through this. It takes him months to finish where the first three all got done in much faster spurts, but slow and steady still gets the job done.

When he finishes, he decides to wait a week until he goes back to the forest for more flax. The next week, Jensen invites him to go to Danneel's kingdom for a visit, so Jared promises to do it the following month when he returns.

The excuses pile up, until one day he's out with Jensen, reading by the lake while the prince writes a letter, a fine lunch spread out between them. It's a gorgeous mid-summer day, the last clear one for the week according to Jensen, and they're enjoying it.

A large white bird flies down and lands on the rock next to Jared's face, startling him. Jensen looks up from his letter, laughing when he sees what spooked Jared. "You ever realize how many swans gather around when you go outside?"

Jared frowns and looks up at the sky, where five swans are circling overhead. He never did notice. If they've been trying to get his attention, Jared has been happily blind to it. The swan in front of him makes a honking noise, and when Jared meets its eyes, he sees his mother's disappointed expression in the face of the bird.

It strikes him all the way to his heart. He realizes how much time he's wasted—it was supposed to be a week, or a month, it's been well over a year. But life with Jensen has been so easy, so wonderful, he didn't want to think about anything else. He let himself be that selfish, and now he only has weeks to make two more shirts, or he won't get to save everyone.

Immediately, Jared scrambles to stand up, starts shoving their things back into the bags they brought them in.

Jensen makes a confused face. "Hey, calm down, it probably just wants some bread. You're not scared of a swan, are you?"

Jared shakes his head, gestures to Jensen that they have to go, and Jensen stands slowly to help him pack up.

"Maybe it's because of the birthmark," Jensen teases, though he's so much closer to the truth than he'll ever know. "Maybe they can sense your common bond."

As soon as they're ready to head back to the castle, Jared hands the bags to Jensen and points toward the gate.

"You want me to go back to the castle, but you're going…" Jared holds his hands out, and he knows Jensen understands his intent from the way his face falls. "I thought you were done with that."

He shrugs an apology, and Jensen just sighs. "At least let me come with you. We can take the carriage, so you don't have to ride back with sore hands. I can wrap up your cuts. If you're going to do this, you may as well be smart about it."

You're fussy, Jared tells him.

"You bet your sweet ass I am," Jensen agrees.

_______________________________________________________________

The fifth shirt is almost complete when things start to go wrong. He works day and night at it, much to Jensen's distress, but he knows it's for the best. Once he's done, he'll be able to explain. Everything will be better once he's done.

He returns to the study from lunch and finds the shirt he'd been working on entirely unraveled. Jared runs to it, days and days of work wasted, and tries to imagine who would have done such a thing, or why.

How anyone could even have done it, when touching the material before the shirt was finished should have been toxic.

Then he hears a soft laugh from the doorway, and he looks up to see Jim Beaver watching him.

"Turns out, you're not the only one in the kingdom with an immunity to that stuff," he says, raising his hands and winking when Jared sees the redness of his palms. "I bet you won't tell on me though, will ya?"

He knocks on the doorframe and walks off, whistling all the way down the hall, and Jared wonders just what the hell the point of that was. It was like he wanted Jared to know, and Jared gathers his yarn back into a ball, trying not to think that was only the start of something.

_______________________________________________________________

A week later, the queen falls ill.

It happens slowly, so slowly that it takes an embarrassingly long time for Jared to recognize the signs. Everything she's going through, he went through much faster. Everything she's going through, Sandy went through just like this.

Jared sits by her bedside, knitting most of the day. Her husband is a king, incapable of neglecting his work to care for her the way Jeff had. And of course, there are nurses to look after her and powerful sages like Aldis, she's not dependent on her husband the way Sandy had been. But still, the fact that he can't be with her upsets Jared, so he stays to keep her whatever sorry excuse for company he can.

He likes the queen. For the simple reason that she has always been kind to him. She's never treated him like he's less than anyone else, even though the servants who clean their toilets are of higher birth than he is. She allows him to play with her child, to hold the prince who will one day rule the kingdom. Jared, with his permanently scarred peasants' hands, holding the heir to the throne.

Jensen reports to the great hall much more often now to help his brother rule. He tells Jared that his brother's mind wanders throughout the day and that he tries to make rash and harsh decisions on topics that he is usually just about. Jensen says he and Jim spend most of the day talking him down, and Jared is no bard, but he's smart enough to figure it out.

Queen Adrianne has never taken pains to hide her distaste for Lord Beaver. With her in the infirmary and the king's mind distracted, his grip on the throne is even stronger than usual. If she dies, there will be no one to check his influence in the great hall; the king will obey him blindly.

Lord Beaver has a daughter only a few years older than the prince, and Jared knows the queen would never bless the union. So it's clear why he wants her out of the way.

Even clearer when he first accuses Jared.

The day Jared puts it together that the queen is suffering from the poison he and Sandy had nearly fallen to, he gestures Aldis over, pointing first to the flax he's using to repair the damage Jim had done to the fifth shirt, then to the queen. Aldis seems to understand him right away. He sends a messenger to fetch the king and thanks Jared before hurrying to begin the potion.

The king and Jensen arrive shortly thereafter, with Lord Beaver in tow, and Jared knows he's made a mistake as soon as he sees the smirk on Beaver's face.

"Jared figured it out," Aldis tells the king, his smile bright. "She was poisoned by the same bush he was. The potion is cooking now, your highness. The queen's fever should break in just a few hours. She'll recover in a matter of days."

Jensen's eyes light up with pride, and the king's shine with unshed tears. He turns to Jared—the king!—and wraps him in an embrace as if they truly were brothers. "You saved her. You saved her."

"I wouldn't be so sure," Lord Beaver says, his tone grave.

The king lets go of Jared, turning to Jim, and Jared can see a false look of sadness on Beaver's smug face.

"Maybe he didn't figure out what was wrong so much as he caused it."

Jensen scoffs. "What are you trying to suggest? That Jared poisoned the queen?"

"That's exactly what I think happened," he says. "Think about it. Those bushes only grow in one place in this kingdom, and your friend Jared has collected most of them. The queen wouldn't have been in that forest to brush against one, but Jared has some right there in his hands. No one else could have touched it without showing symptoms."

"Why would he tell Aldis how to save her if he was trying to kill her?" Jensen shoots back.

"Why would it take him this long to tell Aldis when he's seen all these symptoms before?" the king asks, his own voice sounding shaky.

"Precisely my question, your highness," Jim answers. "Maybe he realized someone would figure it out if he didn't make himself look like the hero."

"That's stupid," Jensen replies. "Jared has no reason to want to see the queen dead. You've always hated him just because—"

"Stop," the king yells, silencing the room. "We…obviously we'll have to consider all possibilities. The queen was poisoned, that much is clear, and we will find out who's responsible and crush them." He looks back to the queen on the bed, and his voice quiets to almost a whisper. "Tomorrow. Today, I want to see my wife healthy again, and that's it. Everyone out. I just want to be with my wife."

_______________________________________________________________

Sure enough, the king sends for him the next morning. Jensen walks with him to the great hall, their hands clasped together, and he makes promises all the way that he’ll talk sense into his brother.

"Good morning, your highness," Jim says when Jensen enters the hall.

Jensen gives him a foul look and nods up at his brother. "You sent for us."

"I sent for Jared," Josh clarifies.

"Well, you got us," Jensen replies. "You can’t seriously be planning to investigate Jim's slander as if—"

"Jim has been a loyal adviser since our father was only a boy, Jensen." Josh gives Jared a sorry look. "I don't think your friend is guilty, but I confess that the more we've talked this over, the worse things look."

Jensen rolls his eyes. "And just what is the motivation for Jared to risk his life by poisoning the queen after years of being a trusted member of our household?"

"We think Adrianne was only the first target, with his highness and the young heir to be the next," Jim says, stepping in for the king. Josh's lips thin at the way Jim uses 'we,' but he doesn't correct him. "We think the plot was to see you crowned king."

"I don't want to be king," Jensen answers. "Josh, you know I want nothing in the world less than that."

"I do," he agrees.

"But a king under the control of a powerful wizard could be a very—"

Jensen starts laughing hysterically. "Jared? You think Jared's a powerful wizard? Josh, you're taking this seriously?"

"You would not be able to see it if you were under a spell," Jim says. "You would think him innocent of any crime, as you do now. You would go to mad lengths to defend him, as you're doing now."

"Or maybe I'm just no more eager to see someone I love killed than you were, brother."

The room falls silent for a moment after that. His and Jensen's relationship has always been tacitly understood, but no one has ever spoken it as boldly as Jensen just did. Jared would consider it romantic, were his entire body not coiling with dread.

"You must confess, you felt very strongly for him almost immediately. Even without him saying a word to charm you, you would have died for him within days." Josh shakes his head. "We know you haven't taken your potion for most of the time he's been here. I thought—I hoped it was because he was helping you more than it was, but Jim thinks your condition has made you more susceptible to his spell."

"A spell," Jensen repeats, shaking his head at the absurdity. "Just how did a peasant become such a powerful wizard? Did he buy his magic with poisoned bushes, is that what you'll tell me next?"

"Jensen, we don't really know that he was a peasant. He may have come from another kingdom, one where he was rich and powerful, tried similar scheming and was exiled. You don't know anything about him."

"You're making things up," Jensen says. He looks up at his brother, pointing to Lord Beaver in disbelief. "He's inventing a backstory and you’re giving it more credence than the fact that you've known Jared and seen what kind of man he is for years."

"I'm just saying, there's no knowing—"

"Lord Morgan," Jensen says suddenly, like he's only just remembered something. "Send for Jeffrey Dean Morgan. He knew Jared. Jared worked on his farm, his whole life. He knew Jared's family. They were simple people! Accuse me of loving a commoner and I'll gladly say I do, but he's no villain."

"Jensen, calm down," Josh says.

"You can be calm now, your wife is alive because of Jared, and you want to kill him for saving her," Jensen shouts, and the words echo for a long minute.

Jim Beaver clears his throat. "You shouldn't speak to the king like that, your grace."

"You shouldn't speak to me at all," Jensen responds, rounding on Lord Beaver.

The king gestures to the guards, and they step forward, placing their hands on Jensen's arms.

"You were like a father to me," Jensen says, still looking at Jim. "I trusted you my whole life. Why are you doing this?"

"You're not yourself right now, son," Beaver replies in a forgiving tone, patting Jensen on the shoulder. "I won't hold any of this against you when the spell is broken."

"I'll kill you," Jensen promises. "If anyone hurts him. I'll kill you myself."

"I don’t fully believe you're guilty just yet," Josh says, looking directly down at Jared and ignoring the scene his brother is creating. "I want you to be innocent. But I need to hear your side of the story."

Jared raises his hands and signs, Jim Beaver did this to your wife. He's immune to the poison, test him.

Jensen gasps. "He says Jim is immune to the poison as well. He says Jim poisoned Adrianne. Test him."

Josh shakes his head. "The only way to test him is by poisoning him. I'm not doing that on your word. I'm giving Jared a chance to defend himself, but I need him to do it. I can't trust anything you say for him, Jensen, you must understand that."

"He doesn’t speak," Jensen says. "You can't read his signs. Maybe you should have taken more time to learn his language."

"Yes, well. I'm going to give you one last chance. Jared. Tell me, out loud, your side of the story. Or I will call Aldis in, and if his magic detects that you can speak and are choosing not to…" The king sighs. "There are many powerful spells that can be broken by the caster's voice. You understand?"

Jared nods.

"Jim believes this is the kind of spell you have Jensen under. If you can speak, speak. Tell me your side. If not…If your voice is intact and you are choosing not to defend yourself, I'm afraid you'll be sentenced to death by burning tomorrow, for attempting to kill the queen, mind control, and conspiring to steal the throne of Padacktopia."

"No!" Jensen yells, trying to surge forward, but the guards pull him back. "Josh, no. Please, no."

"Brother, please be quiet. I'm trying to be as fair as I can."

Jared stands in the middle of the room, wishing Jensen's hand were still in his own. He looks to the prince, and Jensen's face is so distressed Jared can hardly stand to see it. He turns his eyes away, shaking, with fear and anger, and temptation.

He finished the fifth shirt last night. The last day of his three years is tomorrow. If he spends tonight in jail, he won't finish in time. If he speaks to save himself, he'll live the rest of his life knowing he failed his family.

He could save five of them. Leave only the sixth cursed, and he could save himself if only for Jensen's sake. He steps forward, opens his mouth, and he sees Jim Beaver's eyes widen with fear.

But then a voice in the back of Jared's head starts asking questions:

How do you choose which of the people you love will stay cursed forever? How do you explain to your brother that his wife just didn't make the cut? Is Jared supposed to leave the niece he never knew as a bird so she can never know a human life, so she can go on alone without her parents? Or should he sacrifice one of his parents because they've lived longer than the rest, even though they spent most of their lives sacrificing what little they had to keep him happy and fed? Or his little sister who, big mouth or not, was his best friend?

Jared feels a hot tear fall down his cheek, but he turns to Jensen and signs, I'm sorry. I can't. I just can't.

Jensen lets out a dull sob, and the king must understand what Jared said just by Jensen's response.

"Send for Aldis," he says unhappily.

Of course, when Aldis does the spell to check, he finds nothing wrong with Jared's voice. The spell confirms that he knows how to speak and is choosing not to.

"And a powerful love spell like the one Jim describes, it could be possible? Such spells exist, dependent on silence?"

"Technically, yes," Aldis says, giving Jared an apologetic look. "I don't think Jared is guilty. But I can't disprove that theory."

Josh nods. "That settles it, then. Guards, take him to the dungeon. See to it that my brother is watched. We don't know what the spell will make him try."

_______________________________________________________________

"Come on, man." Jared hears the words echoing down the dungeon hallway and stands, approaching the bars out of sheer boredom. He's been in here all day, and it's been hours since it became the moon instead of the sun that Jared could just hardly see from his cell window. "You know I can't let you go in there. Don't make me the bad guy."

"Chris." It's Jensen's voice. Jared would know it anywhere. "You've always been a good friend to me. You must know this is lunacy."

"Man, they don't tell us anything. All I know is he stays in there, and you're not allowed to see him."

"They're going to kill him tomorrow," Jensen says, sounding too tired to truly fight. "Chris, I'll never see him whole again if you don’t let me see him now."

Jared hears the guard sigh, then the sound of metal shifting as he steps aside. "I am gonna be in so much trouble for this tomorrow."

"No one will know," Jensen promises.

Jared is already pressed up to the bars, trying his best to see the moment his prince arrives around the corner. Jensen's brisk pace becomes a run as soon as he spots Jared.

He stops at the bars, running his hands over the metal, his face deep in shadow, but a gift to Jared's eyes nonetheless.

"Sammy," he says. "Look what they've done to you."

This room is bigger and cleaner than the one I lived in before, and I don't have to share it, Jared jokes.

Jensen shakes his head. "I'm not laughing."

He nods, because he knows. Jared's not feeling all that funny himself.

"I brought you something," Jensen says, reaching down. "Hide it well."

Jared nearly cries out when he sees the satchel he's used to carry his knitting in these last three years, and wouldn't that be a foolish way for this to end? Still, his excitement is impossible to contain within his narrow cell.

"All five of the finished shirts are in there, and all the flax you stomped out for the sixth." Jensen hands it across the bars, biting his bottom lip. "I don’t know why, and I don't like it, but I know this is important to you. I couldn't think of anything else to do to make this—" He chokes on his words. "To make this easier for you."

Jared wipes his thumbs under Jensen's eyes, taking away the tears, and Jensen cups Jared's palms in his own. He kisses them, then turns his face and rubs it against Jared's skin. His cheeks are rough from days of inattention, much bigger matters than shaving on his mind in the wake of the queen's illness, but even so, there's such devotion in the gesture that all of the pain from Jared's wounds retreats like a broken army.

Jensen pulls away to meet his eyes. "They say you have a voice."

He nods, no sense in lying about it.

"I bet you have a beautiful voice," his prince says softly.

Jared shakes his head, letting Jensen keep his fingers wrapped around his wrist as he signs, you wouldn't if you heard me sing.

Jensen laughs, but his laugh dies on a sob. "Jared, please won't you say something? Tell them something, anything. I know—I'm sure you have a good reason to be silent, but. They're going to kill you. What could be so important it's worth dying for? Over something this stupid. Please, Jared. My Jared. Just speak this once. I'll send for the king, and you can explain, and you'll never have to speak again."

He mouths "I'm sorry" and Jensen nods, looking away.

"I've tried talking sense into him. He wouldn't listen. I've never felt so powerless in my life." Jensen runs his hands through his hair and paces away from Jared's cell. "He has Jim whispering in his ear. I should have known what kind of man he was the first time he looked down on you."

You loved him.

Jensen nods. "I thought he loved my family. I thought he was loyal to us. But he's never been loyal to anyone but himself, has he?"

Jared shrugs, because he can't say for sure. Odds aren’t in Jim Beaver's favor.

"I'm supposed to be the one to set the fire tomorrow," Jensen tells him. That gets Jared's attention, and Jensen lets out a bitter laugh. "That's right. Law of the land states that the victim is supposed to be the one to carry out punishment. Of course, Adrianne is still too sick, and since they believe I'm enchanted, I was the next victim."

Jensen wraps his fingers around the bars of Jared's cell and kicks them, making the metal reverberate as it lets out a clanky sound. "I told them I'd just as soon burn down the square, take myself and everyone else out with me. They've decided to hire an executioner and let that tradition slide."

Jared huffs as genuine a laugh as he can manage. Then he licks his lips and gathers his strength. He doesn't want to say this next thing, but he can't die, can't leave Jensen alone, knowing what could happen.

Promise me, Jared signs.

Jensen's eyebrows draw together, but he nods. "Anything," he says. "Revenge?"

Jared shakes his head. Promise me you won't hurt yourself.

The prince's eyes widen, and he shakes his head. "I can't live without you. I don't want to."

"You may feel differently tomorrow."

Ice runs through Jared's veins when he hears the king's voice, but he sees Jensen steel his expression and knows right then that he was expecting to be caught. He moves a few inches to the side, hiding Jared from the king's view long enough for Jared to shove the satchel Jensen brought into the pile of hay that is to be his bed.

"I thought I instructed the guards not to let you out of your room."

"Steve," Jensen explains.

"Or into this dungeon."

"Chris."

"I'll have to see about—"

"You'll see about nothing. I'm the prince. I threatened them, they had no choice but to stand down. If you want to punish someone, I'm right here. You can throw me on Jared's pyre, kill two innocent souls with one fire."

Jared knows that's all a lie. He heard how easy it had been for Jensen to convince Chris to let him by, and he doubts Steve had been any more of a challenge. Still, hearing Jensen lie to protect his friends only makes Jared's love blaze that much brighter.

"I don't mind your anger, Jensen," the king says calmly. "I expect it. I won't tell you not to feel it."

"No, I meant it," Jensen says, and Jared rushes to his bars, reaching out to try to stop Jensen. "If you need to kill someone for this, kill me."

"I'm not killing you for his crime," Josh says. "Jensen, this is becoming—"

"You're worried someone wants to take your throne? You think that's what this is about? Well, Jared can't use me to seize the throne if I'm dead. Kill me and your stupid crown is safe, just don't hurt him."

"It's not that simple," Josh says. "You're my brother, and I know you wouldn't conspire against me. I know that. I won't hurt you anymore than you would hurt me."

Jensen grabs his brother by his fine clothes, his fingers clenched so tight in the material that Jared almost expects it to tear.

"He's the only part of me worth saving," Jensen says. He sinks to his knees, hugging his brother's legs, pathetic and desperate and openly crying. "Please, brother, please. Kill me instead. Not him. Your majesty." He looks up, completely humbled, begging for mercy. "Your majesty, please. Spare him. Spare him, I'll do anything. I'll die at your feet, don't hurt Jared."

"You've never bowed to me," Josh says, his own voice shaky. "Jensen, don't do this."

"Please," Jensen whispers, but his voice is hardly more than a cry now. "Please, I'll do anything."

Josh gestures to Chris. "Get him out of here, would you? And the next time you disobey my order, I'll have you exiled before you can say goodbye to your mother, do you understand me?"

"Yes, your majesty," Chris says as he forces Jensen to his feet. "Of course, your majesty."

Jensen tries to run to Jared's cell, but Chris drags him back. "Jared. I love you. Sammy. Josh, if you let them hurt him. I swear on our father's grave, if you hurt him I'll never forgive you."

The king keeps his back turned to his brother, so only Jared sees him close his eyes against a wave of pain. When he opens them again, he looks directly at Jared, profound anger and disappointment clear in his expression.

"I really thought you were here to save him," he says. "Whatever you've done to my brother, you're going to pay for it."

He turns on his heels and walks out, and Jared watches him go. He doesn't have time to process every direction his heart is being torn in. He reaches into the hay and takes out the last ball of yarn, and he begins to work. He's gotten pretty fast, but he only has until sunrise to see that he leaves his family human before he's gone forever.

_______________________________________________________________

If Jensen had had the peace of mind to focus on such things, he could have told Jared that the morning of his execution was going to be a beautiful one, with the sun bright but not yet too hot and not a cloud in sight.

He looks up at it in a haze of sleeplessness and relief, because the swans should be able to find the fire easily, if they know to look. All he has to do is toss the shirts to them a second before they tie him to the pyre and this won't all have been a complete loss.

He's still knitting, the shirt in his hands a sloppy, simplified version of the rest, but it’s almost done. His eyes are swimming, but his fingers work through the stitches as muscle memory. He only has half a sleeve to go.

The guards that guided him out to the cart had seemed confused by Jared's project—where it came from and whether he was allowed to have it and how he was so nonchalantly focusing when he was about to die. But Jared just gave them a tight smile and a nod as he loaded himself onto the cart, and the men had shrugged, apparently satisfied that if he hadn't been allowed to knit, he wouldn't have the materials in hand.

It's a bumpy ride to the town square where his pyre has been erected, and the crowd has gathered so thick to gawk at the queen's attempted murderer that it adds nearly an hour to their travel just clearing a path. Jared appreciates the time and stays focused, even as the crowd flings insults and rotten fruit. Most of them miss, anyway.

They arrive to no trumpeting or ceremony, nothing like the welcome Jared has gotten used to after three years riding with the royal family. Jared is pulled out of the cart by a large man all in black and dragged onto a raised platform for all the kingdom to see. Another man begins to read out the crimes he stands accused of, but it's mostly a buzz in Jared's ears.

He can see the king sitting high above the crowd, a sick expression on his face. Jim Beaver stands behind him as usual, a wild look of anticipation lighting his eyes that makes Jared's stomach turn. He glances around, but he doesn't see Jensen anywhere on the king's platform, and that makes him let out a relieved breath. At least his Jensen won't have to see this.

"And for these crimes, you have been sentenced to death by fire," the man finishes. "Bring forth the prisoner."

Suddenly, chaos breaks out in the crowd. A man clad all in black charges toward the stage, yelling "stop!" and Jared doesn't have time to wish his prince had learned just a little more subtlety. Jensen has created a distraction that buys Jared enough time to reach into his bag and pull out the first shirt, and out of the sky swoops a large white mass of feathers.

The swan passes through the fabric, landing on two human feet on the stage next to Jared. He doesn't have time to check who it is before there's another coming and he has to scramble to have the shirt in place on time.

The crowd goes quiet with awe and confusion, and everyone watches as a third, fourth, fifth swan all tumble from the sky and through a shirt, transforming into humans as they do so.

The last to fly down is the smallest, a little girl Jared has never seen before, but who he catches in his arms. She has his brother's eyes and Sandy's smile, and she tilts her head in confusion, flapping one arm and one wing. Apparently, not finishing the sleeve had its repercussions, but Jared did the best he could.

"Witchcraft!" Jim Beaver yells out, the only sound to break the stunned silence around him. "Look at how he casts illusions to distract us from justice! Burn him!"

Jensen climbs up onto the stage, looking from Jared's relatives to Jared. "What the—Jared, are you okay?"

Jared feels a smile nearly crack him in half, and he doesn't care now what happens. If Jim's yelling stirs up more anger, it won't matter. He has this moment, right here. The spell is broken. He can speak, and he knows just what to say.

The one word in the world he holds most dear, but which he's never been able to speak out loud. "Jensen."

Jensen's smile is instantaneous, his lips shaking as if he's a moment away from crying. "Jared," he says. "My Jared."

"My Jensen," Jared replies, taking him in his arms. "My prince."

"What just happened?" he asks. "Who are those people?"

"What just happened is a pretty long story," Jared tells him. "And I may or may not only have a few more minutes left to live. So. What do you say you come meet my family?"

Jensen shakes his head, looking down at his clothes. For the first time, Jared realizes just how plain they are. There's not a spot of color, not even his family's sigil. The statement is clear; Jensen dressed not only to show he was in mourning, but to disavow his family altogether. He was going to turn his back on his brother, on a kingdom, just for Jared.

"I can't meet your parents dressed like this," Jensen says anxiously. "They'll think I'm being disrespectful!"

"They've spent the last three years as glorified ducks, and before that, we lived in a hut. Come on."

_______________________________________________________________

By the time Jared has led Jensen all the way through his family, the king has called off the execution and ordered that everyone on the stage be immediately brought to the palace. Jared's family follow in confusion as Jared tries to explain how he can be so casual about being taken to a castle. Jensen is equally confused when Jared tells him the story of how his family was cursed and why he'd been forced into silence and knitting for the last three years.

On the whole, Jared seems to be the only one who knows what's going on, which is actually a very entertaining feeling.

They're escorted to the great hall as soon as they arrive, and the king is already there on his throne. Jared's family fall over themselves trying to bow, and Jared wonders if he'd looked as ridiculous the first time he tried.

"Worse," Jensen whispers, because apparently he still has enough practice to read Jared's every thought off his face.

Jensen and Jared both remain standing, defiant, and the king doesn't even challenge it. He seems to be the most confused of all.

Jim Beaver is flanked on both sides by guards, and Genevieve and Aldis are each gesticulating wildly as they try to explain twelve different things at once.

"Okay, everyone shut up." Josh says. He points. "You. Jared. You go first."

"Your majesty, I'm not an evil sorcerer. I could not speak because a witch, who had turned my family into swans, told me that the only way to save them was to knit one shirt for each of them out of poisoned flax, which is why I was carrying it around, and that I needed to remain mute for it to work. Also, your brother doesn't love me because he's under an enchantment, I just happen to be extremely good with my—"

"Alright, that's—that's fine, Jared, thank you. We'll talk about my punishment another time."

Jared smirks and bows his head. "Yes, my lord."

"And you people, you're all his family. You've been swans?"

"For three years, yes," Jared's mother says.

The little girl makes a half-squacking, half-crying sound. They'll need to work on teaching her to speak. And walk. And a name, a name would be good. And maybe Aldis can fix the wing arm; that could make her life awkward down the line.

"I would call bullshit, but I saw it happen with my own eyes, so. Moving along." Josh sighs. "Jensen."

"Yeah."

"I'm sorry."

"Not cutting it."

"Didn't think so." The king turns his head to Genevieve. "You, talk."

"Your highness, what I'm about to say might sound a little bit treasonous."

The king snorts. "I have people turning into birds and birds turning into people, if there was ever going to be a day for treason to be the least thrilling news, this is it."

"Jared and his family aren't peasants. Well, they were, I guess. Their blood is noble."

"Told you so!" Jensen says, turning to tease Jared.

Jared is too surprised to even acknowledge him. "What?"

"I'm not done," Genevieve says. "Their blood is royal."

"Shut up," Jim Beaver snaps at her.

She ignores him, bringing a sheet of parchment forward and handing it to the king. "This is the sigil of the Padalecki family."

"A swan," the king mutters. "Of fucking course."

"It's quite fascinating, actually," she says, and Jared can see that look in her eyes. The look she has before she launches into full-on geek mode. "In all my years as a historian of this kingdom, I've only ever seen the barest of evidence to support the Two Monarchy Theory. I wrote about it when I was being certified as a bard."

"We've all had a long day," the king says. "Explain in as few of the smallest words possible."

"Basically, the historical record, if you go back to the oldest surviving documents, seems to suggest that the kingdom was founded by two royal families, bound by partnership rather than marriage alliances. The Ackles, of course, but the second family was completely stricken from all written documents, their sigil erased, their name a crime if spoken out loud, and the family sent to work as servants on the land of a minor house and eventually lost to time."

"Wow, your ancestors were dicks," Jared tells Jensen.

Jensen smiles and lifts an eyebrows. "Your ancestors probably had it coming for being bigger dicks."

"I do have a bigger dick," Jared agrees.

"We can test that theory out later," Jensen promises.

When they tune back in, Genevieve is still geeking out. "It's been my life's dream to recover this information, but I never knew where to begin to look. Then Jensen mentioned that Jared had a swan sigil on his back. I'd never heard of such a sigil. It took me months to figure out why."

She points to the paper she just handed to the king. "That's from the oldest complete and unaltered history of your kingdom. Half of it is theirs," she says, pointing to Jared's very confused family members.

"Furthermore," Genevieve says, and Jared can tell he's going to like this part from the way Jim Beaver starts to struggle against his guards' grip. "I believe your trusted adviser, Jim Beaver, and his ancestors, were the motivating force in the erasure of the Padalecki family's claim to the throne. For generations they kept the family down, finally even they lost track. Until I maybe accidentally tipped him off to the fact that Jared was a member of this family when Jensen first asked me to look around and see if anyone knew a swan sigil."

She makes an 'oops' face and turns to Jared. "My bad, I didn't know he was evil."

Jared laughs.

"That would explain the timing," Jensen says. "Why he waited almost three years to try to get rid of Jared."

"My presence was only annoying to Lord Beaver when he thought I was a peasant. But once I was a part of this family that his forefathers deposed to have greater access to the throne, I became a threat."

"True," the king says. "Still, he's served us loyally for so long."

"Yeah," Aldis says, cutting in. "That's where my news comes in. And, uh. I'm sorry I didn't bring it to you sooner. If Jared had died today, it would have been largely on my shoulders."

"No hard feelings," Jared says. "Except to you," he adds, pointing to Beaver.

"I had a memory I wasn't sure I could trust, so I went to my birthland to speak with my father after the ruling yesterday to confirm it was true. I only just arrived back in town as the execution was supposed to begin."

"What was the memory?" the king asks.

"When I was a very young boy, a man came to my father for help. He'd come into contact with a poisonous plant while visiting our kingdom, and my father was the best known potion maker in our town. It was a great honor to us to serve him, because this man was adviser to the visiting king and queen of Padacktopia."

Josh's eye suddenly flash with hurt. "The man was Lord Beaver," he guesses.

"Yes, your grace. That was the night I learned how to make the potion I used to save Jared and the queen." Aldis frowns. "To thank my father for saving him, Lord Beaver sent for me and had me groomed to be the most powerful sage in this kingdom. But not until years later. Not until—"

"The king and queen," Josh says hotly. "Not until the king and queen had fallen to what he said was a plague." He turns to look at Jim Beaver, who has stopped struggling and is now sagging dejectedly in the hold of the guards.

"Your majesty, if you'll let me explain," he says. "I did it for you! To make you king!"

"You did it because the king would be easier to influence if he was a child you raised," the king accuses. "You killed our parents. You tried to kill our wife." He turns to Aldis. "The potion you used to give Jensen?"

"A poor cure for his condition, my lord. I tried to find an alternate, but Lord Beaver insisted and…I'm sorry. I felt indebted to him for the favors he did me and my father. I thought he was a good man, and that he meant well."

"I think we all fell for that," the king says, pardoning Aldis's guilt. "Everyone except for the queen," he looks at Jared with a faint smile, "and you."

The king clears his throat, then looks at Jared's parents. "Your majesties."

"Gerry is fine," Jared's father says with a jovial wave. "I still have no idea what's going on."

The king smiles, shaking his head. "I hope you'll accept my apologies for the terrible injustices my family has perpetrated against yours. Lord Beaver's castle is the second largest in the kingdom. I would like to offer it to you until we have determined a more permanent way to divide up our kingdom. One day, if they both wish it, I hope my son and your daughter may reunite the crown of this kingdom in love."

"I thought being a swan was weird," Megan mutters. "We should probably do something about her arm if she's gonna be queen someday."

"That one's all me," Aldis says, walking across the room and taking the little swan princess into his arms. "I'm sure I've got a spell for this somewhere."

"Jared," the king says.

Jared raises his head. "Yes, brother."

Josh smiles brightly. "I hope you'll stay here. There's going to be a lot of change in how we run things, and I think you could be very helpful. My brother also seems to find your company not entirely terrible."

"You couldn't get rid of me if you tried."

"Good." He stands and looks around the room. "Take Jim to the dungeon until I've decided on a more fitting punishment for him. I'm going to go tell my wife I'm an idiot who almost ruined everyone's life so she can tear me a new one."

He exits the room, and Jared turns to Jensen, finding it hard to contain his grin. "I'm a prince, you know. A charming prince. Do I charm you?"

"I've been a prince this whole time," Jensen tells him, taking his hand. "You're not special."

"Oh, but now neither are you."

Jensen smiles and leans into him as they walk out. "You know it doesn't change a thing for me, right? You being a prince."

"I know," Jared tells him seriously. "That's why I love you."

The smile on Jensen's face only widens, his eyes folding up in the corners. "See, I knew you'd have a beautiful voice."

Jared starts to sing right there in the entrance to the great hall, and Jensen seizes forward, covering his mouth. "I was wrong!" he admits.

It's too late now, though. Jared continues his tone deaf serenading, until all the servants have stopped to glare at the disturbance.

"And then, Lord Morgan did say something about not being able to shut you up, didn't he?"

"Yeah," Jared says, pausing mid-song. "He wasn't lying."

"I should hope not." Jensen squeezes his hand. "But I can get pretty creative to keep your big mouth full."

Jared stops in the middle of the hallway, takes Jensen's face between his hands, and shuts them both up with a kiss. Then he rests his hand over Jensen's heart, says, "And they lived happily ever after."

The End