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how to avoid living happily ever after

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh,” he says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam is basically desperate to know his name.

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

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

“Uh,” he says. “I... don’t know.”

Adam nods agreeably.

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

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

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

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

“Nice,” he says. “You okay?”

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

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

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

The wolf is more pressing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So,” Adam pants. “Wolf, huh?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brandon’s mouth drops open.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam shrugs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The silence freezes over.

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

-/-

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

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

Brandon watches him do it with amusement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Prick,” he says hurtfully.

-/-

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

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

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

It’s kinda charming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The guy raises both eyebrows at them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam snickers to himself. Ridifficult.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nolan eyes them both.

“Why are you here?” he asks at last.

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

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

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

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

-/-

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks,” Nolan mumbles. “S’okay.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not really,” he says.

“Oh,” Adam says. “Okay.”

He doesn’t get it but, like, okay.

-/-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Holy fuck,” he chokes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-/-

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

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

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

Nolan snorts. Adam gets a second bowl sulkily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Herbert ran off with it,” Adam says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Especially you,” he says.

-/-

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

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

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

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

“Can you shoot?” he asks idly.

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

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

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

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

“So let’s see you shoot,” he says.

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

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

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

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

He’s really better at boxing, he swears.

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

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

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

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

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

Brandon blinks at him.

“Really?” he asks.

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

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

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

-/-

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

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

-/-

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

“Hey, Brandon,” Adam says. “Frog.”

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

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

“Sorry,” he says to the frog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-/-

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brandon rounds on him, scowling.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brandon pushes him into a bush.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-/-

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

Like… a dress.

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

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

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

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

“Hi,” Adam croaks.

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

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

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

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

He also sounds very long-suffering.

“We, um,” Adam says. “Come in peace?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam looks at the dress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitch grins at him beatifically. His mouth is huge.

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

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

Not that he, like, would. But hypothetically.

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

Mitch grins even wider at him, somehow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

-/-

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

Adam’s mystified.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-/-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He's not coming,” Mitch says.

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

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

“Mitch,” Marty says gently.

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

Marty is quiet for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-/-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam shivers.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s probably fine, anyway.